Stargap

A middle-grade adventure novel set in the lush Australian rainforest.

Thirteen-year-old Mitchell Case of Cairns, Australia is chief executive (and, okay, sole employee) of an underground business venture known as Homework Help Services, Inc.  When his eccentric science teacher Monty Redfern dies, leaving a vast rainforest property called Stargap to an uncertain fate, Mitchell gets his most unusual homework commission ever: to help a student apply to the so-called Stargap Competition.  Before he knows it, Mitchell—along with his younger brother and two friends—become unlikely teammates with the class bully in a competition replete with bizarre riddles, clues, and secret motives.  The objective?  To determine the optimal boundary of a nature reserve at Stargap—to choose which half of the forest to protect, and which half to turn over to a logging company.

Soon the kids are racing their opponents to find the hideouts of the rarest animals in the rainforest.  But more is at stake than Mitchell initially realizes.  An Aboriginal family is trying to regain control of Stargap, their ancestral home.  Rogue conservationists are whisking away endangered species into an indoor rainforest.  And Homework Help Services, Inc. is about to be exposed.  Mitchell’s team will have to decide: is it still victory, no matter how high the cost?

Part school story, part ecological mystery, and part wilderness adventure, Stargap immerses the reader in a wondrous and little-known corner of the world, where friendships are forged—and tested—on dangerous night-hikes as often as at the lunch table, and where the right thing to do can be just as murky as a mountain stream after the rains begin.


Read Chapters 1 and 2 below.

 

CHAPTER 1

I should probably begin with the window-tapping.

Those were the pre-Stargap days.  I hardly knew a possum from a pademelon, back then.  I had never heard of Project Ark.  And I definitely couldn’t have imagined that one day I would sit here in the room behind Mrs. Owen’s office, surrounded by field notebooks, thinking back over the craziest and most unforgettable six weeks of my life.  

No, I had no idea what I was about to get into.  But even if I had, the tapping at the window wouldn’t have seemed connected to any of it.

 

I was sitting at my desk next to a stack of eleven homework assignments when I heard it the first time.  Remmy had been having dreams about it for a week already—nightmares, really—and I was getting used to being shaken awake in the dark.  The window-elf, he would sob.  It was small, he said, but it was evil, and the sound of it tapping at the window was the sound of it getting closer and closer to breaking through the glass and reaching its spidery fingers in and whisking him off to the zoo, where he would sit behind the glass and watch people stare and draw sketches of him all day long.  Sometimes the victim was me, instead, and he said that was even scarier.

I would always turn on the light when that happened.  Then I’d tuck Remmy back in and read him animal books until he fell asleep again.  But it never crossed my mind that there was really something out there.

Until that afternoon.  It was a Thursday at the end of August, two weeks after my thirteenth birthday—the cool and breezy middle of the dry season.  If I hadn’t promised Remmy, I would never have kept our window closed.  But there I was, reading a short report on the history of slippers (that’s right: slippers), when the tapping began.  It was just a single note that first time, kind of soft.  I walked over to the window and pushed it open.

There was no one in the backyard.  I opened the window even further and stuck my head out.  No pesky house geckos clinging to the wall, no bugs smashed flat against the glass—nothing but the wind, blowing a couple of leaves from Mr. Redfern’s mango tree across his yard into ours.

I shut the window with a sigh and sat back down.  With eleven assignments still to go before tomorrow, and with one of them involving way too many slippers, I couldn’t afford to waste any time.

Eleven assignments.  Anyone would think I had the worst Year 7 teacher in Queensland, if not the entire planet.  And the truth is, Mr. Baines does have his faults (an unhealthy obsession with ancient history, for example, and this slightly annoying habit of talking the class to sleep), but only three of those eleven assignments were my own.

The slippers report was Vanessa’s, of course.  It was on this book called Walk Softly, My Child: The Secret History of Light Footwear.  Luckily, Vanessa was responsible, so she didn’t need me to actually write the report for her.  She only wanted me to check it over for commas and stuff.  I always gave her a 75% discount no matter what she gave me, because it was Vanessa after all.

There were a bunch of more routine ones, too, like Russell’s worksheet on area and volume and Allison’s fill-in map of the ancient Mediterranean world.  $2.50 each, no big deal.  Then there were a few unusual ones, big-ticket items like Justin Roberts’ report on how the Egyptians used to mummify their cats.  I was looking forward to that one.  Justin wasn’t in my class, but he was one of Liam “L-Bo” Borland’s mates.  Doing those guys’ homework was always a bit more exciting, since I liked showing them that sometimes they really did need the unpopular kids.

I had just finished Vanessa’s report and slipped it in my folder when I heard it again.

Two taps in a row this time.  My heart sped up just the tiniest bit.  I pushed the window open again.  I was starting to suspect someone like Liam or maybe Nathan Huang.  I’d had enough experience with their crowd.  I wouldn’t put it past them to throw stones or dead cockroaches at my window for no apparent reason.  But there was no one around.

A little voice was starting to speak to me.  What if, all along, this “elf” was a warning?  As though someone out there didn’t like my homework business?  Maybe they were telling me, I know you’re in there doing other people’s homework.  You keep going, and Mrs. Owen might just hear about it, and then you will be expelled…

I slammed the window shut and burned through the next few jobs—finished two maths worksheets and two English assignments in like forty-five minutes.  Fast even for me.  But that was when I heard it the third time.

A single tap again, the quietest one yet.  This one felt different, more in-your-face, like those “disapproving noises” characters in books are always making with their throats.  I couldn’t help it.  I jumped up from my chair.  In about three seconds I had hidden my papers under my bed.  Two seconds later I was out the door.

 

CHAPTER 2

 I’d barely gotten down the hall before Remmy called out, sounding worried.

“Mitchell?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I called back, trying to catch my breath before meeting him in the kitchen, on my way out to the backyard.  He was really getting antsy a lot these days.

“Mitchell, come here.  Look at my picture.”

I sighed.  Maybe now wasn’t the time to check the backyard anyway.  I didn’t need Remmy asking me any uncomfortable questions.  I tried to look calm.  Remmy could usually tell when I was upset, because he said my eyebrows moved down and made the slightest shadow over my eyes.  I didn’t believe that could even happen, but if anyone could notice something like that, it was Remmy.

He was sitting at the kitchen table on his knees, a pencil in his hand.  I loved the look of concentration on his face, the way he didn’t notice that his entire right hand and most of his forehead were covered in pencil smudge.  His thick glasses had slid halfway down his nose.

People say we look alike, Remmy and me.  Same slightly messy brown hair, narrow frame, wide blue eyes, something about the shape of our mouths.  But Remmy’s face is brighter somehow, more open.  Never hiding anything.

“Wow,” I said, looking over his shoulder at his sketchbook.  And I wasn’t just being nice.  His drawings never fail to amaze me.  This time it was yet another picture of Archibald, the stray terrier who Remmy feeds leftovers to when Mum isn’t looking.  Remmy had named it because of all the fur it had lost in a bushfire the week it turned up on our street—he thought it was the cleverest thing he’d ever come up with.  I know from some other missing features that Archibald is a girl, but I’ve never told him.

He had drawn the dog from memory, and it was practically perfect.  Remmy has some sort of photographic memory, in addition to a major artistic gift.  I mean, the eyes—they weren’t just black, they were like ten different shades, and the tail was held at just the right miserable angle.  Even the shape of the ears was so real I actually thought I saw one waving when I breathed on it.  Pretty impressive for a kid in Year 2 who would stumble trying to read the word talented.

“Can we go to the playground when I’m finished?” he asked.

“I still have homework, Remmy.”

“Why?  How come you always have so much homework?”
I paused, caught off guard.  “Year 7 is the hardest year,” I said eventually, glancing out the window again.  Still nobody.

Normally I would have thrown some pasta on the stove by now, but Mum was on the early shift at Varong’s tonight so it was her turn to make dinner.  Of course, she was already an hour overdue.

“No,” said Remmy.  “I bet next year is even worse and you’ll still have too much homework to have any time to play with me at all.”

“Hey, that’s not true!”

“Yes it is, when was the last time you took me to the playground?”

“Remmy!”

I wanted to shout in his face, if you only knew what I’m risking for you, but luckily at that moment Mum finally walked in.

“What took you so long?” I said, jumping out of her way as she staggered into the kitchen with five or six grocery bags.

“Thanks for the warm welcome, Mitchell,” she managed to say, letting the bags drop to the floor.

I started hauling vegetables and milk to the fridge.

“I’m sorry,” she said, as she gave Remmy a kiss and collapsed into the chair beside him.  “These bloody tourists.  It’s like all they ever do is eat.  Who’s in the mood for fancy Thai at 4:30 in the afternoon?”

“I would be,” I said.  Mum knows enough recipes to make Thai food every night for a month, even though she’s the team leader waitress, not one of the cooks, but she’s so sick and tired of it after work that she never makes any at all.  Instead, Vanessa and I get take-away every now and then from the Thai fast-food place in Cairns Central.

“Mum,” said Remmy.  “Look at this picture.”

“Wait.  Have you done your reading yet?”  The question was for Remmy, but she was looking at both of us.

“We did it together right after school,” I said.

She nodded gratefully at me and leaned over Remmy to look at his drawing.  I seized my chance.  Quietly I slipped out the back door.

I walked down the stairs into the backyard.  There was a big clearing there now.  The summer before, one of our two gum trees had gotten struck by lightning, and when it came down it toppled the other one too.  It was pretty awesome, actually.  But we’d never gotten around to planting anything in the backyard since, and now it was just bare soil scattered with tall grass and weeds, like someone going bald.

I knelt on the ground beneath our bedroom window.  No rocks.  No cockroaches.  The grass wasn’t even trampled anywhere.  Maybe elves wear light footwear, I thought.

I stood up, biting my lip.  But then something caught my eye.  There was a grassy alleyway between Mr. Redfern’s house and the one next to it, so you could see through to the street Mr. Redfern’s house was on.  There was a girl walking on the sidewalk of that street.

She was thin as a vine.  She had medium-brown hair curling down just below her neck, a round face, and skin the color of wet sand.  Her cargo shorts were frayed at the bottom and her faded black T-shirt, printed with the words “GRAVITY GETS ME DOWN,” hung loosely around her shoulders.  She held her head straight and her eyes were narrowed defiantly.

Tara.

Of course.  If there was anyone who might try to use mysterious tactics to scare me into closing down Homework Help Services, Inc., it was Tara Munday.  She was smart, for one thing.  Easily the smartest kid in Year 7.  She was one of the few kids in Mr. Baines’ class who had never been one of my customers.  And, most of all, she hated me.

She hated me for constantly getting our classmates better marks than they deserved, because it made her stand out less.  She hadn’t ever told me so in those exact words—she didn’t speak much at all, in fact—but it was completely obvious by the way she behaved.  And there she was, on the street just twenty meters behind my backyard, a few minutes after the latest appearance of the window-elf.

Maybe she’d been visiting Mr. Redfern, our former teacher, who’d been really sick for a long time.  If that was true, I had to hand it to her.  I’d only gone over to visit the guy once (he sort of creeped me out sometimes), and his house backed up to mine.  But it would also provide such a perfect cover-up.

“Hey, Tara!”

She spun around.  “Oh,” she said.  Friendly as usual.

I climbed over the low wooden fence and walked down the grassy alley along the side of Mr. Redfern’s house to the street.  “What brings you here?”

“Visiting Mr. Redfern, of course.”

“How is he?”

“He’s practically dead.”

I blushed for some reason.  “It’s that bad?”

She nodded.  I felt a weight press against my chest.  I didn’t want to hear anymore, but I knew what I should do.

“In that case, maybe I’ll go over and—”

“No.  The nurse won’t allow any more visitors.  He’s just fallen asleep.”

I looked down, both disappointed and relieved.  “Oh.”

After a moment she said, “I have to go.  I’ve got some of my homework to finish up.”

I could have sworn there was the slightest extra emphasis on the word my.

“Yeah, all right,” I said, trying to keep the anger out of my voice.  I’d corner her later.

I watched her walk away.

 

Late that night, I snuck into the kitchen to finish my last few assignments.  Remmy’s sketchbook was still lying open to the picture of Archibald.  He had finished it off with a very careful signature in the bottom right corner, as always.  Remmy Case.

His real name is Charles—my dad’s name—but that didn’t last long.  He was only three and a half when this fancy art exhibit from Melbourne came to the museum in Cairns.  One of Mum’s mates told us we had to go, so we did.  At some point, Remmy found this incredibly realistic painting of an old man with a wig and a mustache, and sat down on the floor and stared at it for like five minutes straight.  That was the longest we’d ever seen him sit still.  The painting was by Rembrandt, whose name was signed in big letters at the bottom.

This was long before Remmy could read.  He had never even had the patience to let Mum or Dad read a whole picture book to him, and Dr. Nash and the other psychologists had started worrying he might have “difficulties” in school.  They didn’t understand about his visual memory; they didn’t realize normal picture books upset him because the animals didn’t look like they did in real life.  I didn’t understand any of it myself until later.  But when we came home that afternoon, Remmy got out his markers and drew a surprisingly recognizable picture of Dad wearing a huge white wig and a mustache, and scribbled something at the bottom that looked like Rem-squiggle-squiggle.  Mum almost had a heart attack laughing and crying and saying he was the greatest little artist in the world.  And he’s been Remmy ever since.

That was only a few months after Dad left.  I wish Dad had held out a little longer, though, because he called a few weeks later just to “check in” and it was sad to hear him sound so confused every time we mentioned Remmy.  But I guess it serves him right, in a way.

I heard three more taps that night, but they might have been in my dreams.

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