Nick’s cigarette lit up. He had to shield it from the rain twirling around us. The orange tip was spitting and sputtering from the fierce wind. He still wouldn’t let me smoke when we went camping. The cigarette illuminated his hollow cheeks, the once proud skin fading with age to resemble desert dust.
He tucked the packet away and winked, “Mumma would put our balls in a pickle jar if you had one Harlow.”
“Well can I at least shoot the gun this time?” I asked, trying to keep the whine out of my voice. I had begged last winter, and the winter before that. Each time he’d responded with the words every kid hates; “When you’re older.”
I steeled myself for another disappointment, the latest in a long line. Although, last year he had gotten me a machete. It sat beside me, so I suppose I should be grateful.
“We’ll have to cover the basics first, but,” He paused, taking another drag on the half-finished cigarette, “I suppose you can shoot it. Think of it as your 16th Birthday present from me.”
I grinned. I had always admired Nick’s old rifle, with its smooth wood finish, shaped shoulder grip, and well-polished barrel. It had belonged to Pa. But that was a long time ago.
I could hear the river which snaked through the forest heard raging and frothing from the heavy downpour. Several summers ago, we had gone swimming in this river. Those were better days. Days before Pa went missing. He’d gone camping with Nick for his 18th. A once-in-a-lifetime storm had rolled in. Only Nick had made it back.
Nick took a final heaving drag on the damp cigarette. Breathed it out. The tip smouldered. The pungent smoke clung to the tired furrows in his face, giving him the appearance of something ephemeral.
I ignored him and continued scratching the animal shit off the bottom of my boots. Nick claimed it was kangaroo, but it didn’t look like any kangaroo poop I’ve ever seen before. And kangaroo shit didn’t smell like this either. No, it smelled more like wild cat or dingo, something carnivorous. Must’ve been an impressive dingo to leave droppings of this bloody size.
We’d been hiking for about six hours through dense State Forest to reach our secret campsite. Nestled deep in the dark forests of Boddingup, we could escape from everything and everyone. But something was different this year. I hadn’t heard any birds for hours. Hadn’t seen possums, dingos, or foxes either. All I could see was the grey sky, rough soil, and sombre jarrah trees. Boddingup was usually filled with the songs of nature. But not today.
We had been lucky to make it out into the deep woods before the rain and storm hit us. The 2-person tent was protected by some large trees on one side which helped to cut down the wind. I had staked it into the ground with steel pegs. It was a safety-orange colour to make it easy to spot in case of emergency. It felt like every year I heard of some kind of accident in these forests.
I coughed, a wet heaving sound. I collapsed to my knees, wet mud soaking into my jeans. I gasped for air. Bloody phlegm dribbled from my mouth.
Nick patted my back, muttering “You’ll be right Harlow. Just a flu.”
I coughed once more, spitting out the remains of chunky phlegm, “Cheers Nick.”
He passed me a water bottle.
Once the soaked trees stopped spinning around me, I clambered back onto my seat. Nick just looked at me funny, a cross between a grimace and something sad. Like he knew something I didn’t.
Nick was all I had left after Pa disappeared. He took me everywhere: the abandoned dump yard filled with rusted trucks, cracked concrete, and collapsing sheds. During holidays we would ride out to the town dam to drink stolen beers, watch the stars, and behave like the small-town hoodlums that every teenager goes through as a phase in Boddingup.
The forest waited. It felt like something was watching us from the deep darkness between the ancient trees. I had been getting paranoid as time went on, perhaps due to the poor sleep from this damned flu. After each new coughing fit, it felt as if something was trying to worm its way out of my throat.
“Did I ever tell you about the Watson brothers?” Nick asked.
“Never heard of them,” I replied.
“I’m not surprised. It was a huge cover-up. A couple of years ago, Angus and Kevin Watson went camping near these parts. They hunted foxes, cats, that kind of stuff. I used to go to school with Angus,” He had sighed deeply at this point, shaking his head, “It wasn’t until a few years later that people stumbled across the tent, buried under years of bush growth. It was torn to pieces, giant slashes ripping it apart. They never found the bodies. Some say, they joined…The King!”
Nick stared at me. His eyes cut through me. I stared back.
A smile cracked his face, “Yeah, you’re right.”
“You’ll have to do better if you want to scare me,” I teased.
I lit a safety match, and the gas stove sizzled to life, sputtering occasionally when the rain landed on it. Soon a pot of chunky lamb soup was defrosting on the stove, and the smell of rosemary, thyme, and other flavours wafted through our little campsite.
We continued chatting into the dim hours, the campfire and hearty lamb soup doing a good job at helping me ignore the darkness swirling at the edges of the light. Nick showed me to basics of handling his rifle. The stars swirled overhead.
Even though I was knackered after hiking, setting up camp, and learning to shoot, I just couldn’t drift off. My throat kept itching. It felt like something was moving around. It wriggled and tried to dislodge itself. I tried to muffle my aching coughs with my pillow so that Nick could sleep, but I didn’t have to worry. The man could sleep through a thunderstorm. He was dead to the world.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
The tent rattled as the storm roiled overhead like an angry sea. With each crack of thunder and flash of lightning I could see glimpses of the trees swaying outside our tent. My imagination tried to tell me that there was something more out there, that something was sneaking up on us in the night.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Over there! One of the shadows pressed against the tent was moving. It had been by Nick’s side of the tent, but it had moved behind us. I know it was moving. The tent felt a lot smaller than it did before, and I was painfully aware that the only thing separating me from the outside was a thin sheet of plastic.
My hand groped along the edge of the tent interior, searching for my machete. I glanced at Nick. It would be better not to try and wake him in case it was my imagination, which I knew it most likely would be. The only large animals which lived out this way were dingoes, kangaroos, and foxes. Still, I had to make sure, otherwise I doubted sleep would ever grace me.
I finally grasped the handle to my machete. I pulled it as quietly towards me as I could. My sweat slicked the handle. I gently undid the buckles of the sheath. They released with a twang.
I slid out of my sleeping bag and crawled towards the tent door, bustling from the wind raging outside. The lightning flashed again. Something with a harsh and angular outline had its shadow illuminated against the tent wall.
“It has to be a tree, right?” I thought.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
I froze mid-crawl. It was an abnormal sound, like bones cracking together. It had somehow moved again to the far side of the campsite. I could hear the trees swaying, bending to the power of some mysterious pressure.
I needed to know what was out there, so I reached for the zipper at the bottom of the tent door, being careful not to make too much noise. The zip buzzed. Another flash of lightning. The shadow was closer now, watching me. The tent door fluttered open with a gust of wind.
I leapt out into the forest, with only my underwear, a jumper, and a machete in hand. The storm raged around me, with the rain blinding me and freezing gales slapping at my exposed skin. I shivered and shoved my free hand into a pocket to try and squeeze some warmth back into it.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Another jagged flash in the distance; something moved in the dark between the trees. Fuck. I’d left my torch back inside. I turned around to grab it when something echoed across the forest. The sound tore through the glade. A prickling sensation crawled along my spine.
Spinning back around with the machete in hand, my eyes squinted at the tree-line, torch forgotten for now as I tried to spot whatever had made that bone numbing roar.
There! Right in front of me, stood something. The lightning stopped. The glade was smothered with dim moonlight. I could still make out its vague shape. Nothing moved now. It was taller than my home, and the colour of rotten driftwood. It was hard seeing anything else with the moon’s wan reflection.
The creature raised an ash-white arm. My chest tingled. The creature raised another bone-bound arm. My chest burned. Biting down on my lips I tried my hardest to suppress the swelling cough and gunk sloshing in my throat. It was no use.
Collapsing to the ground, monstrosities streamed out of my nose and mouth. Insects. Dozens of cockroaches, worms, and millipedes. The moonlight gave them a pale sheen. Thud. Thud. Thud. The thing from the old forests drew near.
I vomited on the bugs, sucked down the clean air, and scrambled back to my feet. They writhed and wriggled in the mud. I dived back into the tent and grappled with my brother’s rifle.
Quick, there were the bullets! I fumbled and slid a bullet into the chamber. This was nowhere near as easy as a game. The lightning flashed again. I raised the rifle. Aimed down the sights. Breathed in to steady my shaking arms. I pulled the trigger. Fuck, I forgot to get the safety! Flicking the switch to ‘red’ I re-aim the gun at the lumbering tower of flesh and bone.
I pulled the trigger for a second time. Crack! A bang echoes in the glade. The creature stopped moving towards me. Its eyes watched me. It seemed…curious. The ashen thing stalked back into the woods. I breathed.
Something rustled in the tent. It slammed into the back of my head.
“Wanna head back? Or tough it out and stay here?” Nick asked me.
Part of me knew I should leave, but I couldn’t remember why. Why did I wake up outside? Why was I covered in vomit? And why did my head hurt?
“I’ll stay, it’s just a cold.”
Nick smiled. His skin was even more anaemic than yesterday, looking more like sun-bleached paper. Nick brushed back his hair with his pallid arms.
Credit: Aaron Beardsell
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