And Then She Was One Of Us – Part Three
A serial fiction by Steph Conroy
Part 3: Finale
We stood, three unlikely figures, motionless at the bottom of the gully. My brother, dressed all in grey, nursed a soccer ball under his arm. A flash of silver and two headlights protruded into the narrow clearing above our campsite; a car. It looked foreign in the bush, despite the fact that dad’s Pathfinder was parked next to our tent and had been for days.
“Dad, it’s a-
“Shut up. Don’t move.”
“Why?” I asked, my small voice shaking with terror.
“We’re not supposed to be down here.”
I have always felt panic at the idea of doing something I’m not supposed to be doing. I have always been plagued by the fear of getting in trouble. Being caught out. Being found somewhere I shouldn’t be, doing something I’ve been told is wrong. And dad put me in that position. There was a spray of dirt and rocks as the wheels spun and the car reversed, disappearing from between the gap in the trees. Dad said he thought they left because they saw my brother, dressed all in grey and thought he was a ghost. I laughed automatically but I was unsettled.
I’ve carried that feeling with me for years. And it was with me the night I entered Laura’s tent.
“Good morning sunshine!” It was Becca.
“Fuck off,” I replied groggily, but I opened my eyes and saw my breath and heard the gentle patter of rain on the K-Mart tent and reached my hand out and touched the wet fabric. It was cold that morning. It was the last day. I wished I was home already. I remembered Laura’s words to me last night and how she’d joked about me getting it on with Cutter and how we didn’t really sort that out.
“Dude, the strangest thing happened last night,” Becca was saying as she slid bottom first into my tent, kicking off her shoes. “I was going to take a piss – middle of the fucking night – and I heard whispering. I nearly shat myself, but then I realised it was just Laura. Only it wasn’t just Laura.” She leaned in closer. “It was her and that guy from the other campsite.”
“What? I don’t know his name. Anyway they were talking real close, sort of away from the tents, and then get this; they wandered off into the bush,” she punctuated the air with her hand, leaving it there, waiting for my reaction. And when I continued to stare expectantly, she added “together!”
My stomach lurched. Together. That meant Laura had walked off into the bush two nights in a row. And Cutter was there, both times. I had seen the way he looked at her and could guess what he’d want with Laura. I imagined his reedy, stinking body pressed against hers, his alcohol breath sweet and rancid on her neck. I imagined dirt and necessity; primal fucking. The question was: what could she possibly want with him?
It rained heavily that day and we were confined to our tents for much of it. I oscillated between the campsite and the river in the sunlit moments, and reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, stowed away during the deluge. I imagined hiking the PCT like she did. Why did she take so much shit? Why couldn’t she have left some things behind so her pack wasn’t so heavy? If I did it, I’d do it right, I informed Daniel’s girlfriend who, although barely listening, told me since the success of the film, the PCT is now a Mecca for middle aged women on their own (now well-trodden) journey of self-discovery. There’s probably supply stores set up on the fucking trail these days, I thought, prodding the wet ground under my camp chair with a stick. But maybe there are less beastly hillbillies who lurk around the tents at night, coaxing young women off the trail to do God knows what with them in the middle of the bush.
“Hey everyone!” Tom called. “Dinner! We’re having roast sweet potatoes with baked beans.”
As we ate, we were swallowed by the darkening sky. I could hear the river below us, like an engine.
That night gave rise to more of a party atmosphere than the first two had. It was after 10, but the city folk were still snapping the caps off fresh bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and the conversation flowed loudly and easily. Laura sat across from me, and I saw that she threw frequent, hungry glances in the direction of Cutter’s camp. Across from us, the strangers sat around their own fire. They were in tee-shirts and faded jeans, a stark contrast to the various collections of black North Face apparel that covered the bodies of my own newfound crew.
“Truth or dare?” Asked Becca suddenly.
“Truth.” It was Laura.
“Have you and Tom had sex since you’ve been out here?” There was giggling and Daniel threw an elbow into Tom’s side.
“No,” she replied sheepishly. She leaned towards Becca and I heard her say that actually they hadn’t had sex for nearly three months. Laura never really spoke about sex, and I imagined she was an almost asexual creature. In this, I recognised that Laura was unlike me, who imagined having sex with almost every man I met. Or if they were very unattractive, I’d at least imagine what their penis looked like. I had obviously thought about Cutter’s penis. Perhaps, so had Laura.
I excused myself from the game to go and pee. As I passed Laura’s tent, I saw the zip was down and the opening agape and I was compelled to look inside. I had a desire to sift through her things. I wanted to pick them up and hold them and examine them for some sign of him. My hands passed quickly over her sleeping bag, slick with condensation. Over gnarled dog toys and shoes. They fell to rest on some bit of clothing. I felt my blood, which had been thumping around my body, freeze. Scrunched up at the foot of her sleeping bag was a white shirt; the white shirt Laura had been wearing last night. And there, splashed across the front of the shirt black like ink, was blood.
A lot of blood.
“What are you doing?” I felt my body spasm. I was sprung. But it was only Becca.
“Look.” I held out the shirt. Becca’s eyes widened for a moment before she began to giggle.
“Shh,” I urged.
“Dude, what are you doing! Get out of her tent, poor girl’s clearly got her period.”
“This is not period, fuckwit. Look.”
Becca looked again and this time her brow creased.
“What is this?” She squeaked. I told her I knew the blood was connected to Laura’s midnight ambles into the bush the previous nights and she nodded stiffly.
“If they went out the last two nights, what’s the bet they go out again tonight?
When the last zipper was retracted and the blue light of phone extinguished, I met Becca behind the tree where Laura had tied Tiny.
“Where did they disappear last night?” Even in the dark I could see her strained, pale face. She pointed her hand toward the scrub.
“I’m not going. This shit is too weird for me, I’m sorry. I’m out.” She handed me her work phone and told me to call her if I needed help. Unconvincingly, she told me they can’t have gone too far.
The bush takes on a different feel at night. For some, this is a thing of beauty. Wildness. A place untouched by human traffic, teeming with animal life and pockets that hold the vestiges of warmth before the chill of deep night takes them away. For me, there is only fear, dark shapes, and amplified noises whose source I can’t trace and it rattles me.
I moved slowly, hypnotised. Curiosity floated there somewhere with love and I failed to grasp either through the terror. What had Laura done? Why the blood? I walked. And I walked.
I came upon a clearing rimmed with small ghost gums. I failed to see it at first, my eyes searching in the dark. And then there is was. Silhouetted by the light of the moon, I saw a figure. It was lying in a clearing, blood pooled around the bulk of it. What was it? There was hair. Nakedness. The cloying smell of death and rapid decay.
A terrible memory stirred in me.
And then I saw Cutter, a machete hanging from the end of his arm.
On the last night I can ever remember camping at the Eye Cave there was a wild thunderstorm that had us hiding in the Pathfinder, watching the streaks of lightning in terror and awe. Once it had cleared, my brother, my dad and I gathered around the fire, down near the Eye Cave. The wood was damp and took a while to catch, but once it was smouldering we chucked the old cast-iron jaffle makers on top. Dad put the radio on and fetched a beer from the Esky. His home brew. We danced, bits of spaghetti on our fleece jumpers and dirt under our nails, to hits from the 70s, 80s, and 90s that we knew well, because we’d heard them over and over our whole lives. Once dad had had a few more beers, he became less agile, and we were around the fire again, this time listening to his spooky stories. Most of them were about yowies and bunyips. The one I remember clearest though was about the escaped prisoner. Dad said him and his buddies were riding their motorbikes on the tracks near the cave one summer when without warning, a man in a dress darted out from the scrub a few hundred metres ahead of them. They tried to follow him, but he’d slipped away. They later found out he was an escaped prisoner, and the dress belonged to some terrified woman who’d had the thing snatched from her clothesline as it dried. The police caught him, eventually.
“And lucky they did,” dad slurred. “You wouldn’t last more than a few days lost out here.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. Every stick or branch that cracked was a yowie, moving its tall, hairy body about in the trees. Dad tossed and turned in the tent next to mine. Maybe I drifted off. Maybe I was awake. I remember the spinning colours and wind of fever dreams. The sky was still black and littered with stars when an urgent need to pee broke the spell. I couldn’t tell how far we we’d travelled into the night. Outside the tent there was quiet, except for the deafening thrum of cicadas who had burst to life in the aftermath of the storm. I stumbled, disoriented, to the plastic shelter that contained the portable plastic dunny can. I remember I wasn’t scared anymore.
Until I saw the outline of the man in the trees.
I held my breath in my chest. The plastic rim of the toilet seat dug into my thighs as I clenched them. The man was hunched over, his silhouette curved and hulking. He made guttural noises. A flood of black liquid cascaded from his mouth. Slowly he turned to face me, fat black drops spilling onto his furry body, and raised a long, thin finger, pointing it directly at me. I was paralysed with fear. The moon illuminated his face for an instant, revealing sunken, soulless eyes, and teeth like fangs. The creature moaned. I snapped my own eyes shut and when I opened them, he was gone. And like a memory of pain, the image of the man, the yowie, the monster, receded.
That morning, dad complained he’d been poisoned. Said his beer was a bad batch, but we’d all three of us felt sick that night. I asked him about the creature. Dad swore he never left his tent. He told me how brave I was, for seeing something that scared me and facing it head on.
“One of us, darlin’,” he’d said. “One of us.”
Gliding under the light of the moon into the clearing came Laura. She shook her head and moved silently toward the dead form where she dropped to her knees. She grabbed tufts of what I could now see was fur and pushed her face into the creature’s pelt. I turned from her and my jowls flinched, an automatic response; the sensation of impending vomit. My eyes had adjusted by then and I saw that the figure was a deer. Dead, possibly decaying.
“Move aside, will ya?”
Laura scrambled back. Cutter brought his machete down, hacking into the flesh. I closed my eyes against the blows. He pulled away a chuck of dripping meat. He handed it to Laura. She brought it to her lips. They weren’t fucking, but whatever was happening was sexual, as I had suspected. It was animal. Primal. It was a feast.
By the light of the moon, I watched, and I watched, until the two creatures had eaten their fill.
“I know you like him,” she’d said to me the day before, as we watched Cutter embrace his grandma and haul her up into a chair around the fire, placing a blanket across her shrunken knees. “I know you like these men, but they’re not good. They’re not like us.” She cast her eyes out to the river that surged below.
“They’re not good men.”