Dirty water laps at the edge of the corrugated tin roof as Craig searches the sky again. The rescue chopper is nowhere to be seen against the boiling black clouds. Thunder cracks and the rain is hitting him like a thousand tiny whip cracks. The dog in his arms whines and nestles deeper into his soaking coat.
Craig doesn’t know the dog’s name. It’s Brian’s dog.
His phone’s out of charge. Lasted until about an hour ago, reluctantly carrying off his frantic text messages on a half-bar of signal. He’d heard nothing back before it flashed a red battery icon and went dead.
But he must have got through, right? The rescue crews must just be busy. This is the worst flood since ’73. That’s what Brian said. River’s up four metres and the rain’s still falling.
Ripples in the heaving brown tide mark where his Toyota cruiser’s cabin top submerged. When he forced the shack door open against the stream, it was already too late to drive out. He climbed from the truck to the roof of Brian’s home. The dog howled and thrashed in his arms, nearly pitching them both into the churning overflow.
Craig could have thrown the bloody mutt into the drink to free his arms up. But he’s not like that. Not with animals.
How much more is the water going to rise? It’s past the bottom edge of the roof on both sides. He and the dog straddle the centre peak, leaning against the stone chimney. The roof has shallow sides. The water doesn’t have a long way to climb to get to them.
The sounds from the chimney have changed. Now it’s just a gurgling sound, echoing up the old stones. Drowning out everything that came before.
“Mate, I’m sorry things haven’t worked out for you. It’s hard for all of us out here.”
“That’s why I need a leg up to get things going. I’ve got something lined up in Brisbane.”
“Mate, your Mum said not to give you any money.”
“Come on, Br- come on, Grandad. I’m just after enough to set myself up in business.”
“Craig, forget it. I’m not giving you money to buy drugs. Now that water’s going to be across the road soon. You’d better get going or you’re going to be cut off.”
“You old bastard. I know you’ve got cash stashed in here somewhere.”
Craig s opens his eyes and catches a flash of movement at the far end of the roof. Something washes out of the boiling stew of mud and tree branches, writhes and twists itself in knots, banging the metal roof.
He knows what it is. When he was a kid, there was an old guy who went around all the schools talking about snakes. He brought live snakes with him, even let a few kids handle the non-venomous ones. He pulled all sorts of snakes out of hessian bags; held them up by the tails. One snake stayed in a padlocked Perspex box. Long, with brown scales and a coffin shaped head.
Taipan. Deadliest land snake in the world.
Craig holds very still. The snake seems to pull itself together. It stops thrashing and forms a loose coil over the roof cap. It raises its head, flicks its tongue and looks about itself. Logs and debris bump an unsteady beat against the side of the shack. Each shudder makes the snake flinch.
“Craig, you have to go. I called the police when I saw your cruiser coming. They’ll be here soon.”
“You seen a weather report lately? Cops have better things to do.”
“Craig, I’m serious! If you’re still here when they come to check on me they’ll throw you in jail again.”
“Listen, shut that bloody dog up and sit your arse down. I’m not leaving without that money.”
“No! I promised your mother! I-”
The snake seems to figure out it’s surrounded on three sides by floodwater. It slithers forward, head raised, testing the air with cautious flicks.
Craig draws his legs back slowly. So slowly it’s barely happening. The snake stops a metre away. Within striking distance? Craig wouldn’t bet against it.
The snake blinks at the higher ground of the chimney. It would have to go through Craig to reach it. It flattens itself as if stretching out to ponder its options.
The dog nuzzles the leather satchel stuffed into Craig’s shirt. It must like the familiar smell, or how the bag’s comfortably padded with fifties.
It might be in shock. It went mental when they left Brian behind, screaming about the money, his knee, and the water coming in. It was a relief when the stream forced the door shut and cut the noise. The roar of nothing but the flood is like silence.
Then there’s the one noise he wants to hear, the thud-thud-thud of helicopter rotors. A searchlight wobbles inside the clouds. Search and rescue, right on time.
As he climbs to his feet, glass breaks and a feeble voice yells, “Craig! Help!”
The daft old miser has smashed a high window in the side wall. He’s pulling himself out just below Craig, holding out a hand.
His grandfather’s hopeful expression vanishes with his grip on the jagged frame. He slips; the mud tide grabs him and sucks him out into the flood.
The dog sees Brian and yaps furiously after the vanishing codger. Its claws rake Craig’s face. Swearing, he drops the halfwit terrier onto the roof, right in front of the snake.
With a scrabble of bloody claws the dog flings itself into the water after its master.
The taipan lashes out at the sudden movement. It misses the dog; it catches Craig’s ankle. It holds on.
Craig’s leg goes numb. His chest feels tight. His grip on the chimney slackens.
He hits the wet tin roof and slides straight down.
His last sight is the snake, picked out by a searchlight, safely coiled around the chimney.