“If you break a pinky promise, you’ll die within a year.”
That’s what my neighbour, Geoffrey Collins used to say when we were kids.
I’m looking at his old bedroom window from the base of the gum where his tyre swing used to be; where I’d call 'cooee!' to get him to come out and join me.
There’s only the frayed top of the rope tied to the branch now. There was a persistent rumour it’s where Mr Collins hanged himself, but that’s bullshit. It was just Geoffrey’s swing.
It was the shed where Geoffrey found his dad dangling.
No one’s lived here for 15 years. The asbestos removal was going to cost more than the house is worth. I’m just here with a shovel to fulfil one of the few secrets I've actually managed to keep.
Geoffrey used the pinky promise only for the most solemn vows of secrecy. He said if you pinky promise on everything it loses its power.
That made sense to me. Like a swear word. I remember clear as day the first time I heard my mother cuss.
“Get the hell away from me!”
It had hit me in the guts like when that stupid sheep kicked me. But the more she screamed at Dad, the more I got used to it. Soon she was calling Dad all kinds of names I’d never heard. Cussing like she’d been taking lessons from the shearers. It didn't take long for ‘hell’ to become ‘bloody’. ‘Bloody’ gave way to ‘shit’. So on and so forth until her most vile insults barely registered as swearing anymore.
She didn’t refer to Dad as Daddy this and Daddy that anymore, she only ever said ‘Your Father’. Like she’d passed him off to me.
When Dad left, me and Geoffrey hung out even more. Exploring the bush, hunting birds with sticks and stones, looking for aboriginal paintings on the rocks. When we were 12, Geoffrey reckoned he found one, but when he showed me, it was a blue dog—the only animal Geoffrey could draw half decent. And in the exact colour blue his dad had just used to paint their letterbox.
Geoffrey’s dad was even more of a bastard than mine, so I pretended to believe him.
It’s ok to lie if it makes someone feel better.
When we went so far into the bush we made it to the creek, I had an instant feeling of being way too far from home. Like swimming in the ocean, looking back to the beach and realising you’re way further out than you thought.
I didn’t want to seem chicken, so I told Geoffrey we should follow the creek north.
“You mean back towards home?” he’d said with a smile.
I never could anything passed him.
The creek meandered in the general direction of our homes and I relaxed enough to enjoy the walk. We skimmed stones, tried to spear a fish, pretended to push each other into the deep water.
We came to a bend where the creek brushed up against a sheer rock wall a hundred metres tall. I say that, but I was only a kid then, so it may have been a lot less. We’d walked for what seemed like an hour when we saw the car at its base, half-submerged in the creek. It looked so out of place in the bush, I wasn’t sure we hadn’t discovered a UFO. Uncle Dave swears he saw one in ‘68 and to this day I still keep an eye out for them.
Geoffrey loved cars and said it was a 1974 Ford Falcon, which meant that’s exactly what it was. Because it was white, at first we thought it might be a police car.
It was smashed up pretty bad. The front was all crushed in toward the windscreen which was, along with all the other windows, missing.
We must have walked miles through rocky bushland so I asked how the hell it got here. Even Dad’s Landcruiser wouldn’t have got this far in.
Geoffrey just pointed to the top of the cliff. Then he whistled, tracing his finger down to the car and making an explosion sound.
“That’s a big drop,” he said, eyes bright with adventure. “I bet the driver’s inside.”
He waded toward the car and I called out for him to wait. He flashed a look so incredulous, that I was such a chicken, that I had no choice but to say, “Wait. For me, I mean.”
Geoffrey stuck his head through the driver’s window and I saw his shoulders slump with disappointment.
“I dunno how, but they must have walked away.”
He tried to open the door, but the chassis was too warped. I noticed the boot wasn’t shut properly and suggested we check it out.
There was a steep dropoff underwater, so Geoffrey took the long way around the front of the car. He almost lost his footing and told me to watch where I stood. There was a branch under the water just there.
I followed him and, sure enough, felt the slippery surface of the submerged branch under my sneaker. Using the bonnet to steady myself and, all trepidation banished now I wasn’t going to have to see a dead body, brought my other foot up to stand on the branch. It was bending under my weight and springing back. It must have been pretty green. Probably came down with the car.
I bounced on it a few times before it gave with a muffled crack and felt my foot snagged beneath the water. I tried to pull it free, but it was snarled as if tangled in spindly twigs and leaves. I reached below the surface to free my foot and was alarmed to feel not slimy leaves and twigs, but thick fabric.
I pulled it clear of the murky stream to reveal, between my fingers, the blue and black flannel of a shirt.
All at once the realisation hit me and I was violently ill. I pulled my foot away, hysterical, and the body rolled onto its side, a shoulder now jutting from the water. I thrashed clear only to stumble and fall face-first into the water, landing on the second body.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Geoffrey had said before clasping his mouth.
While I tried to catch my breath on the creek’s bank, Geoffrey grabbed the second body by the shirt and dragged it out of the water. I will never, to my dying breath, forget the look on the man’s face. His grey, mottled skin like dull marble.
Yabbies and fish had eaten away his lips and he was grinning at me like a madman.
I threw up again.
I begged Geoffrey to put him back in the water, which he did.
“You all right?” he asked me. He never asked me if I was all right. He always accused me of being chicken. He must have been spooked, too, which made me feel better.
That’s when I took charge and suggested we check the boot. Anything to get away from the blue and black flannel iceberg in the creek.
A navy sports bag full of cash. It was like something out of our favourite cop TV show. It was fake. Had to be.
But, just like in the tv shows, Geoffrey held a note up to the sun and saw the special print marks they used to prevent counterfeiting.
“Bank robbers?” I suggested.
“Nah, it would be all bundled up in those white band things, remember?”
He had a point. These notes were just stuffed in there. Some rolled up in rubber bands, some in envelopes, some just floating free.
Geoffrey passed the bag to me and I recoiled.
“What are you doing, mate?” I said. “We can’t take this.”
“Bullshit. Finders keepers.”
“This is a lot of money. Someone must be looking for it.”
We sat on the bank of the creek awhile before we finally came to an agreement. We’d hide the bags and wait to hear if anything came up in the news.
But where to stash it?
We didn’t want to risk burying it in the bush and never finding it again, so we elected Geoffrey’s tyre swing to be the marker. His folks were out as usual and we buried the bags without interruption.
Days, weeks, months went by and there was no news of a robbery or two missing men.
Then Geoffrey found his dad in the shed. Four years of drought had cost him the farm and he checked out.
Our families spent a fair bit of time together over those couple of weeks after the funeral. I asked Geoffrey if he felt bad.
“Bad? Why would I feel bad? I hated the old man.”
“Because you've got all that money," I said before the venom in his eyes reminded me we weren't supposed to talk about it.
On the day Geoffrey left with his mum he made me pinky promise that we wouldn’t dig it up without the other.
“What if I can’t find you?”
“What’s your lucky number?” he said.
“It’s the opposite of 13,” I’d said, which was as good a reason as any I could think of.
“All right, well, if we can’t find each other, we have to wait 31 years from today to come back.”
“31 years? That’s a lifetime!”
“That’s a pinky promise and you can’t break a pinky promise or—”
“–Or you’ll die within a year,” I said. “I know, I know.”
He stuck out his little finger and I hooked mine around it. We shared a smile and he reminded me he’d meet me back here for my birthday in May, anyway, so we'd be rich then.
He died that December from pneumonia.
Now, 31 years later and five minutes of digging, my shovel meets spongy resistance. I clear the loosened earth by hand and see the zipper of the sports bag. Finding the handle, I yank it clear of the soil, nearly toppling over backwards after over-estimating its weight.
The bag’s empty.
I rip open the decaying bag and find nothing but a soiled piece of paper. I brushed the dirt from it and can just make out Geoffrey's messy scrawl.