Excerpt from chapter 2, The Secret of the Lonely Isles
…But now, after midnight, and with no parents nearby, it was a different place altogether. Cars cruised up and down the main street, the shouts of young blokes hanging out of the windows competing with their noisy exhaust pipes. Loud music boomed and throbbed out of smoky nightclubs where large, bald-headed men in tight black T-shirts stood guard outside, big tattooed arms folded across their chests. Throngs of people roamed the footpaths, laughing and shouting, sometimes staggering and lurching. A man fell out of a doorway in front of them, and vomited noisily into the gutter.
‘Oh, gross!’ muttered Maddy, as they wheeled their bikes past him. People bumped and jostled them, and told them to get home, or to get out of the way. A stumbling drunk asked for money. Jem found it hard to believe that he ever thought this was a great place to visit.
They were riding past some all-night fast food shops, a few blocks from the city centre, when Jem spotted a group of older teenagers in a small park opposite. They were crowding around something, jeering and cat-calling, and Jem suddenly had a very bad feeling in his stomach. Maddy stopped in front of him, and they watched for a few moments from the edge of the grass. The kids were milling around – there were about seven or eight of them – and they were laughing and shoving at something or someone in the middle of the group.
‘Hey! Stop that!’
To Jem’s horror, Maddy suddenly rode her bike straight at the group, shouting at the top of her voice. The group turned to stare at her, and she stopped a few metres from them beside a small tree, jumping off her bike and dropping it to the ground.
‘Leave him alone, you big bullies!’
A small dog cowered on the ground at their feet, whimpering and shrieking from being kicked. ‘Shove off, ya stupid cow,’ said one of the kids menacingly.
Jem and Tyler left their bikes and hurried to where Maddy stood, her hands on her hips and her eyes blazing. Jem brushed past the tree, and felt something bite him. There were several large papery balls in the low spindly branches, balls of dry leaves knitted together with a silvery web. Tiny creatures swarmed out of them, disturbed by Jem’s movement. He flicked a green ant off his arm.
‘What are ya doing, kicking a little dog like that? You should be ashamed of yourselves!’ shouted Maddy. She was so angry she was shaking.
Jem’s stomach plummeted. Three against eight. Not good odds. He nervously brushed away another biting ant.
‘Ya should be ashamed of yaselves!’ mimicked another kid in a high voice, and they all laughed. ‘Well maybe we’ll just give youse punks a kickin’ instead!’ And they began to move towards Maddy, grinning malevolently. Jem glanced around in panic.
‘Tyler! Quick!’ whispered Jem, and he snatched off a branch with a large green ant nest in it, and rushed at the nearest, biggest gang member, whacking him over the head and chest with it.
‘What the – oww! Aahh! Gerroff! Aaahh!’ and the big boy began to dance around tearing at his clothes. His mates stopped moving and stared at him, confused. The boy was twisting and gyrating like he’d suddenly gone crazy.
‘Bombs away!’ shouted Tyler and tossed a football-shaped nest at the next boy, and it broke into pieces, spraying angry green ants all over the rest of the mob. Jem followed immediately with another. Within seconds they were all yelling and jumping around, and then the gang took off, running away into the darkness, leaving bits of clothing behind them as they fled. Jem and Tyler were doing their own version of the same dance, flapping their arms and swiping at the ants that crawled and stung all over them. Maddy began to laugh hysterically, fear and relief crashing over her in a big wave. Jem stopped slapping ants, and patted her anxiously on the back.
‘It’s okay Maddy, they’re gone now, they’re gone . . . C’mon, let’s have a look at the dog.’
It was a half-grown mongrel pup and it was probably the ugliest dog he’d ever seen, Jem thought. He had a short squashed nose, long floppy ears, and a low slung body with short legs. Thin patchy fur stuck out all over him. He shrank away from them at first, but when Jem spoke softly to him and let him smell his hand, he stopped whimpering, and allowed Jem to feel his flanks and legs for damage. There was blood on his nose, and a couple of teeth were broken, but otherwise the pup didn’t look too badly hurt.
‘Poor little bloke,’ muttered Jem, anger rising up in him now the danger had passed.
‘What’re we gunna do with him?’ asked Tyler, picking green ants out of his hair.
‘We’ll take him home,’ said Maddy. ‘We can’t leave him here, they might come back.’ At this thought, all three of them straightened up and looked around, and decided to make tracks immediately. Jem bent to pick up the pup, but it shrank back in fright, snarled, and snapped at his fingers before running off into the darkness.
‘Oww!’ yelled Jem, shaking his hand.
‘Ha! That’s gratitude for you,’ snorted Tyler. ‘C’mon, let’s get outta here.’
‘What about Zac?’ said Tyler as they rode away from the park.
‘I think we’re just gunna have to tell Mum,’ said Maddy. ‘She’ll freak! I dunno what else we can do. She’ll have to call the police I guess.’
When they arrived home, they were horrified to see all the lights on, and a police car parked in the driveway. They looked at each other nervously, and grimly began to climb the stairs.
Zac was sitting at the kitchen table, his mother Carol on one side of him, red-eyed and sniffing, and a young policewoman on the other. A wide-eyed Celie was perched on a chair next to her mother. Another police officer stood by the sink, his arms folded. And across the table from Carol and Zac were Karen and Steve.
Karen looked pale and had dark shadows under her eyes, but relief was plain on her face, and she sagged slightly in her seat as they filed in through the back door. Steve also looked worried, even though he frowned severely at them.
The policeman by the sink unfolded his arms, and spoke briefly into his walkie talkie: ‘Yeah – call off the alert, they’re all home safe.’ He looked at them sternly, and said, ‘It’s been a bit of a night for runaway kids, huh?’
‘We didn’t run away,’ said Tyler indignantly. ‘We were looking for Zac!’
Maddy, as relieved as anyone to see he was safely at home, rounded on Zac fiercely.
‘WHERE WERE YOU?’ she yelled. ‘We nearly got ourselves killed trying to find you, you big idiot!’
Zac blinked at her, looking miserable and mutinous at the same time. He sat at the table with his chin on his hands, bit his lip, and stared back down at the table again.
‘Perhaps the young lady can tell us what’s been going on?’ asked the policewoman.
Maddy took a deep breath. ‘Jem woke me up because Celie told him that Zac wasn’t in his room. She was scared being at home by herself –’
‘I’m going to KILL Ricky when I get my hands on him!’ said Carol fiercely.
‘– so we got on our bikes and looked around everywhere for him. Then we saw these horrible kids kicking this dog around in the park, and when I yelled at them to stop, they were gunna bash us up, but Jem and Tyler chucked green ant nests at them, and they ran away. Then we came home, because we couldn’t find Zac and we didn’t know what else to do.’
‘You chucked green ant nests at them?’ said the officer leaning against the sink.
‘Yeah,’ said Tyler. ‘It was Jem’s idea. There were eight of them an’ three of us. We wouldn’ta had a hope. But they ran a mile once the ants started chewing into ’em. It was brilliant!’