When the generators splutter to silence and the birds have performed their final encore, the only sound left in the world is the thick simmer of heat. Like a bonfire’s red crackle, it pulsates through the earth louder than Men At Work on January twenty-six. The locals pay it no mind – genetically predisposed to tune it out. But a weathered stranger cocks his head. He crawls under the stars with shut eyes and listens with an open heart. It sounds like a ballad. It looks like a spirit. Dry weeks crumble to scorching years and still he lies in the dirt, listening to her song.
In the days long ago when velvet blazers were trending and supermarkets were still in the business of handing out plastic bags, there was a hero who listened to the Siren in his gut more than the logic of his own head. He wore the apparition of a cape in his blue button-up shirt and replaced hot red shoes with inky Magnum boots. Years of scouring the red outback had taught him the single epitome of all his principles: whether they be suspects, victims or runaways, the things you search for are never in the first place you look. He may not have been an idol to many, but he was always a hero to me. And his name? Stubbs. Randy Stubbs.
Friday morning, December 7th, 1998. This is my favourite date: the day Stubbs became my hero. Conditions were brutal that year, or so I have been told. Temperatures broke records (fifty and a half Celsius in Mardie), winds howled over skeletal eucalypt limbs and any rumours of approaching cloud cover were promptly silenced by the unrelenting sun. But my hero is no sissy and so, wedged between a luminescent service station and the barren North West Coastal Highway, he stood swathing onyx flies like a ninja flicks away pellets of gunpowder.
“What are we doing here?” a voice crooned beside a dusty Ford Falcon.
Perhaps it was a mistake to bring the cynic, Stubbs mused. It had been over twenty-four hours and his loyal band of three musketeers had done nothing but cross off their lead suspect. Wanda Robinson was little more than an eccentric lady looking for her lost niece as much of the rest of them. Hope was quickly becoming a luxury only God could afford and yet there he stood, sweating under the BP’s green rays, listening to her song.
The Siren’s voice was louder this time. For thirty years he had listened to her distant coos, guiding him up and down the Pilbara as a member of State Highway Patrol. How many times had her calls led him to nothing but mirages and empty pockets a fanged shadow had once occupied? Realistically, the eight-day-old could have been anywhere between Karratha and Karlamilyi. But there was something in her voice, something in her song that prickled his ears when the Ford Falcon scuttled past this service station.
“If you’re looking for go-go juice, I wouldn’t buy from here, mate,” said Stubbs’ partner, ignorant to the Siren. The beige outback hat that contradicted his blue uniform flapped impatiently in front of his face.
His partner was right. The BP wasn’t much to look at. Like much of the state, its thin stream of income had dried up synchronously with the rain. Ivory paint flaked like dead skin, asphalt cracked like dinosaur knuckles, and the tangy stench of decay from rusted taps and drooping walls wafted all around like unabridged body odour. He shut his eyes, twisted his head, and listened. Listened like a narwhal listens to echolocation. Listened like a copper listens to Sirens, wooing him to kidnapped bubs abandoned at servos after realising newborns are no walk in the park.
Stubbs’s eyes snapped open. There. Between the sweaty skip bin and the sporadic cool breaths radiating from the outdoor icebox (likely a watery slosh by now), a single tote container had been hurriedly discarded. The Siren purred. Stubbs, ever the obedient soldier, followed without question. Out of habit, his long fingers danced across the handle of the Glock 22 holstered to his thigh. Silly man, she sang, the danger has already passed. His breath, choppy against the backdrop of crooning cicadas and the croak of an occasional cricket, faded into an anxious silence. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The tote, almost searing to touch, cracked open with a small pop as a black insulation blanket boiled to the surface. Stubbs wondered if this hue was the dark before the dawn or a resonating fingerprint from death herself. He waited once more for her song to pierce the silence. He looked for some sort of sign an answer before the true conclusion unravelled but his vision was clogged in sticky desperation. The child was either here or gone to ethereal eternity. The hourglass had run dry. The clock had struck reckoning hour. No more second chances would be offered if he had misheard her tunes. Blinking once, gulping twice, and praying thrice, Stubbs took the plunge and unwrapped the swaddling blankets.
When all the lights flicker to black and the banshee in the attic transfigures back into a possum, a girl steers me beneath the stars. Shoulders in the dirt, eyelids relaxed. We bathe in a thick heat, as tangible as a shimmering summer road. It boils like a shanty. It tastes like nostalgia. And when I ask the Siren of it, she smiles beside me. It’s a song from my past – the same as the one my hero murmured when he found me sweat-stained but breathing, all those years ago.