“What are you in for?”
“Corrective surgery for spina bifida. What about you?”
“Bugger, that’s a bummer. Will your hair grow back?”
“Yeah, it’ll grow back; it’s just the chemo that makes it fall out.”
“Are you going to be okay? I mean, you’re not going to die, are you?”
“Jeez, I hope not! Now, that would be a real bummer! What about you, you going to live?”
“Yeah, I’m going to live, but in a wheelchair, my stumbling days are over.”
“Sorry, man, that’s bad.”
Asha expelled weighty air from his chest. Looked at the ceiling, counted stupid pitted ceiling panels. Yeah, he thought, it’s bad. Too bad! That’s the end of my exploring days! Not that they had ever really started, but now they would end before they began.
Ever since he could remember, he wanted to be an explorer. Scott, Livingston, Cook, Amundsen, and so many more. He knew them all, memorising their stories of bravery, discovery, and glory, off by heart. His bedroom was filled chock-a-block with books, encyclopaedias, and posters. He even had an old-fashioned globe with raised relief!
And here he was, Asha Challies, aged eleven, lying in ward nine staring at a ceiling, knowing he would never walk again.
“Are you okay?” the girl in the next bed asked. She looked over, gave Asha a timid smile.
He’d been asleep when she’d been wheeled in, so he didn’t really know how long she’d been there. “Waiting for a space to come free, at the other end,” she told him after he woke. “They don’t like putting girls and boys together. How sexist is that?”
Not used to company and not feeling like talking, Asha mumbled, “I’m okay, thanks.”
He remembered looking over, noticing her bald head. He tried not to stare, but without hair, he found it difficult to gauge her age. Probably about the same age as me, he concluded, after a moment. He thought she looked pretty; he tried to focus on her face, imagine her with hair. Yes, she was pretty alright, even if her eyebrows and eyelashes had also fallen out.
“I’m sorry for staring,” Asha said.
“It’s okay, you don’t see many bald girls, and I am especially bald! I worry my teeth will fall out too.”
“They won’t, will they?” Asha questioned in alarm.
“Hehe, no of course not, silly boy, my eyes will fall out first! Anyway, my name is Alex; what’s yours?”
“Asha . . . Asha, are you okay?”
He wasn’t; tears were now pooling in the divots of his cheeks.
Alex jumped out of her bed, still hooked up to fluid in a bag. She flung her arms around him. “Don’t cry, Asha, don’t cry; not being able to walk is not the end of the world.”
“I know,” he sniffled, “but not being able to be an explorer is.”
“What do you want to do for your seventeenth, Asha?”
“I want a picnic on the beach!”
“Asha, you say that every year, and every year it’s the same answer. We can’t do that. We can’t get your chair anywhere near the sand, and your father is too old to carry you now.”
“There’s no such word as can’t, Mum!”
“I know, darling, I’m sorry, but what about going to the lake instead? Freshwater, seawater, dishwater—what’s the difference?”
“There’s a shed-load of difference; Abel Tasman didn’t discover New Zealand by puddling around in a pond or a sink!”
“Asha, I wish you would stop thinking about explorers. There’s nothing left to discover. You, me, your father, we were all born too late. Everything’s been done.”
“Bullshit Mum, I will find something, believe me! You say you wish for me to stop; well, my wish is just to start. I will have a picnic on the beach. When I was a kid, it was my favourite place, remember? I could walk then, barely. Trundle into the sea myself, feel the sand beneath my toes, the cold water, the sun and breeze on my face. Smell the salty air. Please don’t deny me my greatest pleasure. I love you, Mum, and know you love me, so can we please try and do this?”
“We’ll see what your father says.”
Asha drove to the beach in the adapted car his parents had purchased for his birthday. Once parked, he kicked off his shoes and socks, grabbed his long-forgotten crutches, then lurched toward the sand. The sand felt warm and nourishing on his bare feet. His mood was buoyed by the burst of independence and achievement.
“Excuse me, Mrs,” he called out to a passing mother with her children in tow. “Can you please throw these crutches under my car? It’s the green Toyota.”
“Yes, of course,” the woman said sympathetically. “Are you going to be okay getting over the dunes?”
“Thank you, and yes, I’ll be fine. Enjoy your swim; I’ll see you down there soon, I hope.”
The sand was hotter than Asha initially thought, and by the time he crawled to the top of the dunes, he had blisters on his knees and hands. Knackered and sweating, he took a break at the top, resting his back against some Pīkao grass. He grinned—stretched out before him was the immense Pacific Ocean. The horizon playing hide-and-seek between the blue sky and bluer sea. Made it, he thought.
He heard the girls coming before he saw them. Gossiping and giggling, that’s all girls seemed to do. They walked past. Five girls about his own age, all wearing bikinis, smothered in sunscreen and cheap sweet perfume, carrying bags and towels.
“Hi,” one of the girls called, as she walked past.
“Hi,” he replied.
“Asha, Asha, is that you?”
He looked up. Sun in his eyes, squinting, straining to see. “Yes, I’m Asha.”
“It’s me, Alex! Remember me?”
He involuntarily grinned, “Oh my God, Alex, yes, I do remember you. You have hair now! Beautiful long blond hair. Oh, my goodness.”
“I have my eyes and teeth too!”
They both laughed.
“It’s so nice to see you,” they both said at the same time.
“Do you need a hand getting down to the beach?” she asked. “My friends and I can support you if you want. Don’t be shy; I can see your hands and knees are a bit cut up. We’re happy to help.”
The girls sunbathed, swam, and shared their picnic with Asha, while Alex and Asha caught up; swapping horror stories about teachers, school, and medical adventures.
“What are you going to do after school finishes?” Alex asked.
“I’m going to study electronics at Canterbury; what about you?”
“I want to study marine biology, probably in Auckland. So, you’re a bit of a gadget man, then?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, take a look at this then,” she said smiling, reaching into her bag.
At first, he couldn’t see what it was, but quickly worked out it was a drone.
“Do you wanna fly it?”
“Shit yes, Alex, can I? Thanks so much!”
“After today, you can even keep it. I don’t ever use it; I think my father bought it for me so I would stop whining about not having a car.”
“Did it work?” Asha asked.
The rest of the afternoon, they reconnected, taking turns flying the drone. At the end of the day, they swapped instas, promising to keep in touch.
Three years later, out of the blue, Asha received a call.
“Hey drone boy, remember me? Hey, you still flying?”
“Wow, nice to hear from you Alex—yep, sure am. You gave me the bug; I’ve bought another two since. My latest is wicked, top of the range. I’ve even installed a camera and heat sensor. Why?”
“Well, my professor wants to make a field trip to Fiordland; he’s studying the decline in dolphin numbers there. During next semester’s break, he wants to do a study. A drone with an experienced operator will be invaluable for a census. I’ve told him about your disability, and he’s cool with it. We’ll stay onboard a launch, and he says he can make sure it is accessible for you. What do you think?”
“Will I have some time to myself? I mean, I’m never going to get to explore Fiordland by foot, so will I have time to fly the drone over the land as well?”
“Can’t see why not, Asha . . . so that’s a yes, then?”
“Yep, that’s a yes!”
The Christchurch Press
March 18th, 2021
C.U. Student Discovers Famed Lost Fiordland Moose Herd.
Asha Challies made an important discovery this week when he found the lost Fiordland Moose herd.
When asked what he will do next, Mr Challies said he would undertake future expeditions with his girlfriend Alex McManus to find the South Island Kokako and the probably extinct Huia. “There is a whole world of lost or undiscovered flora and fauna out there, and I intend to discover them.”