Bucket entered last. The door snapped shut behind him like a trap.
The fibro house was stifling and dim, thanks to the boarded-up windows. Ahead, Tank flung open dead-Mrs-Kelly's back door with a whoop and the others followed him like a pack of feral dogs. Bucket lagged. Bright-hot sunlight illuminated a strip of the floral-carpeted living room, then the kitchen and finally backyard. Bucket trailed after his mates, careful to avoid looking at the old woman's dusty table, the smashed china on the lino floor. He hated coming here, wished they'd leave the deserted house alone.
Bucket emerged into a white-hot world. The mannequin Tank had nicked 20 minutes earlier from the laneway behind Irene's Fashion Boutique - one-armed, female, wearing only beige pants perched low on her narrow plastic hips - stood in the centre of the overgrown yard. Bucket thought the slender dummy an odd choice for Irene, whose clientele were mostly old fatties. He joined the others as they guffawed appreciatively at their unofficial leader's handiwork.
"Ooh, she's hot, Tank," ventured JD. "She your girlfriend now?"
As the boys hooted, Bucket sweated. The strangeness of the out-of-place mannequin, the smoke haze, waist-high weeds and the smell of a bushfire a couple of hundred kilometres away gave the moment an Armageddon-like feel. The town hadn't had rain all summer. Dust covered everything. Bucket swore he could taste it on his tongue; felt it seep into his pores.
Now, the others joined in the mannequin fun. JD pushed over a rusted-out mower and placed the dummy's stiff hand on it, while Dom, Floss and Tank roamed the yard, rifling through crap left behind by them and other bored teenage trespassers. Bottles, plastic chairs, piles of filthy clothes. The odd needle. Soon the near-naked dummy sported safety googles and a jaunty scarf. But the heat sapped the game of its amusement pretty quick. Tank and Floss fell onto the lawn seats under the tree, leaving the other boys to sit in the dirt. Tank passed out the beers he'd stolen from his dad's back fridge, and they each took one with thanks, knowing Tank - despite his formidable size - would pay for it when his dad got home that night.
Beers were swigged. Tank got to have the six-pack's spare, since he'd brought them. The others grouched but Bucket suspected that, like him, none of them cared for the bitter taste of warm beer anyway.
JD and Dom argued lethargically over who'd had the most Fortnite wins. Floss pulled out a packet of fags and passed them round. Dom lit his from Floss's.
"There's a total fire ban," Bucket blurted.
"So?" Floss was belligerent. "What's your beef, Bucket-head? Worried your dad'll find out?
Bucket remembered his father's words that morning. Keep the radio on, he'd said to his wife, followed by a look-after-your-mother glance at Bucket. I'll be in touch if the worst happens, he added, but you know what to do.
Only now Bucket was here in a dead lady's backyard about to smoke a cigarette during a total fire ban. His father would kill him if he knew he'd left his mother at home alone.
Tank dragged on the cigarette Floss handed him and eyed Bucket thoughtfully.
"You always do what the captain - I mean daddy - says, Bucket?"
His father had worn his RFS uniform to talk to the kids about fire safety at the end of last term. So lame, Tank told him afterwards.
Now, the other boy smiled. Thrust his lit cigarette towards Bucket.
After a pause Bucket took it. Tank watched him take a long drag and nodded in approval. Bucket tried not to cough as Tank skolled the last of his beer and hurled the empty bottle at the house. It smashed into a thousand pieces that glinted like tiny green stars on the dirty concrete.
The movement galvanised the other boys. Floss leapt up and crash-tackled the mannequin to the ground, which brought Tank to his feet. He stumbled over towards the prone figures with a roar. Bucket was sure he'd break the smaller boy's ribs as pulled back his booted-foot for a kick. But instead Tank swung at the mannequin's head. It separated from her body, flying through the air to thud into the tin fence and fall. It rolled a few times then stopped face-up near an ant's nest, the googles gone, a grass stain marking the woman's plastic forehead like warpaint. "Good one Tank-ee!" called Dom.
Tank pulled his shirt up over his face and ran in a circle in mockery of soccer players. Soccer players were lame too, according to Tank, though Bucket agreed with him on that one.
Perhaps realising the detritus in the yard was a hazard while blinded, Tank pulled his shirt down and came to a halt. He considered Bucket for a long moment, eyes glinting with a look Bucket dreaded.
"This place sucks. I've got a plan, boys."
Bucket averted his eyes, staring at the mannequin's head instead. The woman's blank eyes returned his gaze.
Ten minutes later all five of them stood in the bush at the edge of the estate.
"So who's gonna be a hero? Get himself on the news?" Tank asked.
Floss sniggered. Dom and JD regarded each other uncertainly. The beer in Bucket's stomach churned. Tank lit a new cigarette with his Bic lighter. He smiled and held the fag out to Bucket as if giving a toy to a child. "Has to be Bucket here, doesn't it?"
The others murmured, not looking him in the eye. "Do it for your daddy, Bucket-o?"
Bucket took the cigarette, holding it as if it was a grenade. It kind of was.
He raised his eyes to Tank, pleading, but the boy just smiled. Bucket pictured his dad's face. But his dad wasn't here now. He flicked the cigarette into the dead leaves. A second. A crackle. Flames.
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