An unnatural stillness surrounded the farm on the hill. An ominous stillness. They could both feel it: the calm before the storm.
Lily and Pearl, high in their hiding place among the branches of the large weeping willow tree at the Duck Creek Road end of Willow Tree Rise on this Sunday morning in the rural town of Cambridge, New Zealand, felt their bodies growing tense. The fear was dripping off them in hot waves.
The 11 year olds could feel it on the sweating soles of their feet and on their clammy hands clenched so tightly around the branches, the knuckles of their fists blanched a ghostly white.
They turned to look through the leafy green fronds, into the bright blue sky and high up into the distance … up to the dusty road that wound through the lush green paddocks that were dotted with yellow buttercups glinting in the hot sun like gold glitter. Distorted heatwaves blurred the bush-clad horizon.
The events of last Friday had led Lily and Pearl to this hiding place.
On Friday, the girls had dared each other to steal a glance at Mr Porter’s heavily draped front window, where he waited for them at that same time each day as they ran past his farm on their way home from school.
There he was, standing pressed against the glass, with his usual sick smirk, the usual sick gestures. It was a particularly hot summer’s day as they fled away from that window and continued past the big old oak tree, the first landmark that blotted the window out of sight.
They fled on past the cow paddocks, their two sets of pigtails, Lily’s blonde, Pearl’s black, flying on the wind of their feet as they rounded the bend in the road, the dust rising behind them, their sweaty feet slipping and sliding in their brown open-toed school shoes, finally flinging themselves down on the long grass at the junction of Willow Tree Rise and the main highway, where ongoing traffic, the presence of other human beings close by, brought safety.
But Friday had been different. On Friday, something bad had happened to Lily. She hadn’t felt good. She had the stitch from running so hard; she had doubled over onto her knees, holding herself tight as waves of violent pain rode over her heaving stomach.
She had gulped for air as the sobs had started. Then a funny thing had happened. She had started giggling hysterically. She couldn’t help it; her whole body had been heaving as the giggles turned to sobs, then giggles again. Pearl, her strong Māori features contorted with worry, her dark eyes troubled, had reached over and pulled Lily to her, cradling her head into her chest, gently rubbing the palm of her hand over the sweat- soaked forehead, uttering gentle words and, as each spasm struck, tightening her embrace, stroking the shaking body, rocking her gently, calming, soothing, for a long, long time.
The sun had shone down on the two girls as they sat entwined in each other’s arms, both still now, both calm, because a decision had been made. The blush of their awakening sensitivities about their bodies had been offended by Mr Porter … and Mr Porter was going to pay.
Now, on this sleepy Sunday, a disturbance to their left made them turn their heads sharply. The large billowing clouds of dust and the cranking sounds of the old gears told them what they had been waiting for had arrived; the storm was about to break.
They could hear the cranky old bus at the bottom of the valley, steadily approaching the first bend in Duck Creek Road. One more bend after that and it would make the steep climb to Porter’s farm. They could see the bus now, it was almost at the next bend. Their heads were pounding. The sweat was pouring down them like a bucket of water had been poured over their heads. They could feel it forming under their armpits, their jeans and tops saturated, sticking to their skin. They heard the bus round the bend. The hysterical giggling of Lily’s laughter disappeared in their ears, drowned out by the crashing gears of the old bus as it passed them in the willow tree and began the steep climb to Porter’s farm.
Willie, a driver for the Anglican Church Rural Bus Service, stopped the bus a few feet from the farm gate and turned, casting his eyes over the packed rows of church folk until he spotted Violet Porter rising from the second row to
the back. She was a waif-like woman in her fifties. “You right, Violet?” he asked. “Yes, thank you, Willie,” she replied. She started down the steps and stepped onto the road.
“Whatever?” she gasped. There was a large crude cardboard sign taped to the gate. In large black printed letters, the child’s scrawl would forever be imprinted on Violet’s mind.
“BEWARE THE FLASHER MR PORTER AT HIS FRONT WINDOW
“TO LITTLE GIRLS ON THEIR WAY HOME
“DANGER KEEP OUT”
Violet stood still, rooted to the spot as the words hit her with the full force of a fist to the stomach. There was an explosion in her ears. The sky was falling on her, crushing the very breath from her body. Murmurings behind her became louder; she could hear words, angry words, horrible words. Her head was swimming. She lifted it toward the sky, clutching her Bible tighter. The warmth of the sun bathed her face. The sky was an intense blue, like the Pacific Ocean, far out past the headlands. It was a beautiful day, but there was an ugliness in the air.
She stumbled forward. Her legs felt like jelly; she could feel them wobbling beneath her as she dropped her Bible and bag to the ground and fell on the gate, ripping off the sign. Her shaking hands tried to fold it up to cover the words but the cardboard was too hard and she only succeeded in partly folding it into a bulky bundle. The tears were streaming down her face now, she could feel their salty taste in her mouth.
She pushed open the gate, retrieved the Bible and bag and stumbled up the shell path to the house. There was a knot in her stomach; it was hurting her to breathe. Nearing the old wooden porch, she tripped over the long muslin dress, falling awkwardly on her left knee as the cardboard, Bible and bag dropped to the ground.
Sobbing now, with difficulty she raised herself to a sitting position.
Her hands were hurting. Sharp little bits of crushed shell were digging into the skin and tiny specks of blood were escaping from the cuts and grazes. With shaking hands, she wiped bits of shell and blood on her dress and attempted to get up.
Her knee was aching, she could feel its wet blood, feel it oozing down her leg, staining her new cream petticoat.
She heard running footsteps and before she turned she knew it was Willie. He bent over her, his eyes troubled. Squinting upwards she could see the powerful size of his large body silhouetted against the shining sun, feel the strength of his large arms as they encircled her thin body. The sudden warmth that flooded through her was not from the sun but from the comforting safety of a man’s arms around her and as a sob escaped her throat, she realised that she couldn’t remember the last time she had felt the feel of a man’s arms.
Years, yes! Years!
Willie tried to steady her on her feet but she pulled away, retrieved the cardboard, Bible and bag and limping heavily, stumbled up the two steps to the porch, opened the door and slammed it behind her. Willie climbed the steps, staring at the
door, listening to Violet’s sobs inside. This was bad, really bad. When he had exited the bus he had heard a woman on her cellphone talking to police who may already be on their way here. He heard the angry honking of the bus horn.
Anger surged through him; someone was really annoying him with that horn.
He turned and headed down the steps, his face grim.
Lily and Pearl sought each other’s eyes and saw their mutual pain, thoughts that were carried unspoken on the humid air. They looked out through the leafy green fronds into the bright blue sky, to the dusty road and the battered old bus, still parked at the farm gate, its horn honking loudly.
They watched Willie hurry back to the bus, ascend the stairs, heard the heated exchange of words with the man who had his hand on the horn. The honking horn stopped. Willie slid back into his seat and started up the bus. They watched it drive past, speeding this time and disappear in a cloud of dust around the bend.
Silence reigned, suddenly interrupted by Lily’s high- pitched giggle, then her strangled sob as she threw herself into Pearl’s arms. “What have we done? We have hurt that poor woman.” Lily’s voice was rising hysterically. “It’s all our fault.”
Pearl tightened her embrace around the shaking body. “No, Lily, you did nothing wrong. It was I who thought up this plot to pay back that bad man.
“It was I who wrote that sign and taped it to the gate. I had to protect you, don’t you see, like I protected you from those bullies at school. That
bad man has made you a very sick girl. Your nightmares you told me you have about him stopping you sleeping, your giggles, then sobs, then giggles again. He has done this to you. It was he who hurt his wife. It was he who hurt us. It is not our fault.”
With her hand she gently brushed back the dripping wet blonde fringe and slid her fingers across Lily’s wet cheeks, wiping away the tears.
“It’s over, Lily. He can’t hurt you anymore,” said Pearl. Both girls’ heads turned as
they heard a new set of tyres approaching the steep rise, saw the billowing dust, then the police car as it approached Porter’s farm and cruised to a stop by the gate. They watched two policemen and one policewoman exit the car and head up the shell path.
Pearl felt the tears running down her cheeks; felt relief flood her bruised heart like a salve of warm honey relieving a festering wound. “Revenge is bittersweet Lily, we have both learnt that today,” said Pearl.
“But justice, now that is the icing on the cake.”
AUTHOR DIANA SHORT
Diana has loved reading novels (particularly crime thrillers ) and writing short stories since childhood. Her past career as a clerk in the criminal justice system, the Probation Service, Magistrates Court and Auckland Central Police Station gave her an interest in true crime and justice and is a natural choice as a theme for her story, Revenge of the Innocent.