Patrick Cullen, of Brunkerville, is a finalist in the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2023 with this entry, The Point of the Afternoon.
When I saw the photograph in the newspaper, even though it was just three boys silhouetted against a plume of water thrown by a passing car, I knew it was us. And I remembered the day.
It was the day before the earthquake and the three of us had spent the morning riding our boogie boards at Newcastle Beach. We were supposed to be home for lunch, but we didn't make it home until much later because of what happened.
What happened was that as we left the beach, we found a wallet in the sand by the steps under the lifeguard's tower. There was no licence or other identification, so it could have been anyone's. But it was stuffed full of cash - about $500 - more money than any of us had ever laid eyes on, let alone held in our hands, so it definitely wasn't ours.
But that didn't stop us.
With our boards slung over our backs, we headed straight down through the mall to Big Al's. We slid into a booth and ordered burgers and Cokes and shakes and the 'the best darn fries in the world.' We didn't know if the fries really were the best darn fries in the whole world but they were definitely the best in our small world.
The food came in red plastic baskets and the shakes were so cold and thick that you could barely suck them up a straw. We did one round, then another. We were spending someone else's money and eating with appetites that didn't seem to belong to us either.
I was the first to see the man on the footpath watching us. "Don't look now . . . ." I told Mark and Alex. But of course they looked, and in an instant they understood who the man was and why they shouldn't have looked.
The man was dressed like he too had been at the beach that morning. He gestured for us to join him outside. We shook our heads. There was no way we were going out there. So he came in.
The man stood at our booth, looking over the mess we'd got ourselves into. One of the plastic baskets was upside down now and Alex slid it away. "Looks like somebody had a lot of pocket money to spend."
The man stood at our booth, looking over the mess we'd got ourselves into.
Alex, who was sitting by himself on one side of the table, spoke up. "It's my birthday today."
"Well, happy birthday to you," the man said. He ran his fingers over the tips of our boogie boards, which were leaning against the end of the table. It was the only thing between us and him. "You kids all shark biscuits?"
"Why?" Alex asked. "You some kind of shark?" Alex's father had always said that he had more balls than a bowling alley, and that it would likely get him into trouble one day. It looked like that was going to be the day.
"Tell me, did you find anything at the beach?"
"Like anything that didn't belong to you?"
"I don't think so . . ." Alex said, turning his attention to the window beside him, making a show of thinking long and hard.
He was buying time and it paid off. He knocked on the window to get the attention of the cop walking past.
"Hey, Dad," he said. But it wasn't Alex's dad. It was the big, bearded cop we'd all seen on television with Big Dog and Super Hubert. The cop grinned and waved, which was pretty much his default setting. For a moment it looked like the cop was going to come in, but after a moment he kept going about his business.
The man at the end of the table turned to go too, but Alex wouldn't let him.
"Look!" Alex said.
He rifled through the cups and baskets on the table, pushing the upturned basket around without turning it right side up.
"We don't have whatever you think we found."
Alex stood up on the seat, pulled out the pockets of his board shorts, and turned around in a slow circle, saying, "Take a good look, why don't you."
People looked over at us. "Get down," the man said.
"Get up," Alex ordered me and Mark. We did what we were told. We got up and we pulled out our empty pockets and we turned in slow circles too.
We had everyone's attention. We kept turning in circles until we were so nauseous we flopped back into our seats and prayed for the world to stop spinning. When it did stop spinning, we found that our unspoken prayer had been answered too: the man had gone.
Alex lifted the upturned basket. The wallet was right where he'd hidden it. There was much more money to spend but we had no appetite left to spend any more of it that afternoon.
We stayed a little longer - just sitting there, sipping the dregs of our Cokes like it was degreaser, waiting for our stomachs to settle and our gall to return. We still had to get home and face whatever was waiting for us there.
We all lived in the same street in Cooks Hill. We walked slowly, passing the wallet back and forth. When we reached the end of our street, we saw the busted water main and the enormous puddle it had created.
We ran to skim our boogie boards over it, and that's probably when we lost the wallet - I don't remember which one of us had it at that point. And I don't remember seeing anyone take our photograph as we stood there with our boards submerged beneath our feet, a passing car sending a plume over us, washing away the last of the salt and grease from our lips, and absolving us of all of our sins.