Among the Gumtrees

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Words || Danielle Francis

The third time Emily passed the eucalyptus trees with tops shaped like broccoli she finally admitted to herself that she was lost. Feeling completely stumped, she tousled her fingers through her short, sweat-clumped hair. She was REALLY gonna hear it from mum this time. 

Cicadas squealed and leaves crunched under her shorts as she rested against a gum tree, threadbare backpack and fundraiser Freddos plunked beside her. It was her first time going this deep into the bush by her school. She was unfamiliar with this area, unlike the parts closer to home she often frequented. She sighed, the back of her head bumping the tree’s bark. If her mind hadn’t been so full she wouldn’t have gone off-track, but what choice did she have? If she hadn’t detoured, they would’ve seen her. 

She wrinkled her nose, picking at the dirt with a stick. The bimbo squad. The last time they’d mobbed her on the way home she’d been left with twigs in her hair and toilet paper stuffed down her polo. Well, you sorta look like a girl now, they’d cackled as she coughed in a cloud of dirt. They’d stolen her library book, and the guilt still gnawed at her for pinching coins from her mum’s wallet to pay the library back. Who’d believe a pack of freckled eleven-year-olds were capable of such evil? Not Emily’s teachers, apparently. 

The eucalyptus-steeped breeze brushed Emily’s cheek and she watched a leaf flip and spin to the ground. It wasn’t being tossed around by them that hurt, really. Potential friends getting scared away wasn’t that bad either; the bimbo squad was fierce and if she was in anyone else’s position she’d stay away from herself too. She didn’t mind— she had her books to accompany her. 

No. What hurt was when they made fun of her family. When they mocked how they spoke, yelling at her with clipped speech and pulling their eyes into thin lines. It hurt when they damaged her belongings, grinding dirt into the scarf Nainai knitted her when she flew over. Nainai said something about the significance of the scarf’s red colour, but Emily’s Mandarin hadn’t been strong enough to understand.

Today, if she hadn’t escaped into the bushes in just the nick of time— if the bimbo squad had seen the chocolates—

THE CHOCOLATES

Emily felt her stomach turn as she opened the box’s lid, not caring for the papercut attained through her haste. Were they still okay? She plucked a peppermint Freddo – nobody ever got those; she always had to buy them herself – and pressed down just a bit. She let out a sigh of relief; not melted. Still sellable, most importantly. She HAD to sell the most to win the Dymocks voucher from Chinese school. At regular school, she’d asked the new librarian about the latest book in her favourite series, but it hadn’t been bought yet. The voucher was her only chance: it’d take ages asking her mum for change to save up.

Relaxing into the tree’s trunk, Emily closed her eyes, adrenaline draining and weariness settling in its place. The soil beneath her moulded to her outstretched legs. Though she’d never wandered this deep before, she always enjoyed sitting in the bush whenever she had the chance. It was quiet and loud in the most comforting way, a place where she could listen to her thoughts, or rest and listen to nothing in particular. She stretched her arms up with a yawn. It wouldn’t hurt to nap for a bit, right? Then she’d go ‘round the neighbourhood selling the rest of the chocolates. Yeah, a nap would be fine, she thought as she rested her head on her bag. 

Before drifting off, the last thing Emily heard was a faraway kookaburra, the dips and trills in its voice a lullaby, the eucalyptus-steeped breeze sweeping her cheek. 

*

“Emily?” There was a SNIP and clumps of black hair dropped to the floor. It was her routine cut: a bob and front-fringe. The style was maintainable and the easiest one for Emily’s mum to cut. Skipping the hairdresser saved money that could be spent on more important things, school fees and groceries.

“Emily. Put that down. Sit properly, I might cut your neck.”

Barely listening, Emily’s eyes widened at the coloured page before her. Possums ate vegemite sandwiches? 

“Emily…”

Her mum’s warning tone pulled her back to reality, and it made Emily puff her cheeks like a fish. Reluctantly, she placed the book on the kitchen bench. It was due back tomorrow; she’d have to stay up to finish it. 

Emily swung her feet, toes barely touching the tiles. Her mum reached past Emily’s face and the smell of the herbal ointment on her arm made Emily sneeze. Honestly, she’d much rather be under the warmth of the sun, curled up with her book beneath a tree. 

Emily heard gentle mumbling and glanced at the bench. She watched the Tiger rice cooker grumble and puff out clouds of rice-scented steam. It made her stomach rumble.

“Ma?”

“Hm?”

“Can I bring a vegemite sandwich for lunch?”

“Vegemite?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that?”

What’s that? Emily turned to look at her mum in disbelief. The sudden movement knocked the scissors to the floor. 

“Emily!”

*

“Emily. Emily? That’s your name, right?”

“Huh—?”

Emily jumped awake into the late-afternoon light. 

Shaking off her sleep, Emily realised she was still in the bush. How long had she napped for? It couldn’t be later than five p.m. judging by the remaining sun. OH, CRAP — she had to sell the rest of the chocolates before it got dark! 

Someone cleared their throat as she was preparing to stand. Emily jumped in surprise. 

“Hello?” the person said uncertainly. 

A woman with round brown eyes and black hair looked down at her from the path that meandered through the bush. Beside her was a brown bulldog with a face as wrinkled as her mum’s favourite dried plums. 

At first, Emily stared blankly. How did the lady know her name? Then, her mind flashed to beanbags and bookshelves and she blinked in recognition — the new librarian! 

“Ms. Kaur?” 

The woman smiled and reached out a hand. “Thought it was you. What’re you doing here? Lost?”

Accepting her hand, Emily brushed the dirt from her legs as she thought. 

What am I doing here? 

For a moment, Emily was tempted to tell her the truth, after all, Ms. Kaur had always greeted her at the library with warm smiles, informing her of the newest books to come in. There was something different about her from the other teachers that Emily just couldn’t pinpoint, from the way she coaxed Emily out of her shell by talking to her like a friend, to the way she looked and dressed.

Though tempted, Emily still opted to just nod sheepishly, saying, “Yeah, lost. D’you know the way out?” 

For a millisecond, Emily saw a look paint Ms. Kaur’s face — worry, perhaps— before it switched back to her familiar smile. “Mm. I walk Snoopy here every day — the school’s thataway,” she said, pointing a little way up the path. “How ‘bout I show you? It’ll be dark soon.” 

Emily gave a nod, picking up her school bag and chocolate box. They walked together down the dirt track, the sun beginning to sink lower. Cicadas hummed and magpies warbled above as the three of them drew closer to the exit. Emily cursed internally; there was no way she’d be able to sell the rest of the chocolates before evening.

As they reached the end of the path, streetlamps poking out ahead, Ms. Kaur motioned towards the box gripped in Emily’s hands. “What are those for?”

“Oh… Chinese school,” she said hesitantly. “If I sell the most I get a bookshop voucher.”

“Something I’d love to support. You got mint? Those are my favourite.” 

Ms. Kaur emptied her wallet and bought out the remaining chocolates. Before going their separate ways, she requested Emily let her know about the book the next time she’s at the library. With a growing smile, Emily agreed. The streetlamps flickered on, dotting the dim street. Ms. Kaur and Snoopy walked away, and Emily waved at the pair until they turned the corner and were out of sight.