The night was muggy; hot, with the tantalizing idea of rain in the air. The quiet of the forest was punctuated by frog calls and the faint trickle of a nearby creek. The air smelled of musty earth and the surrounding eucalypts whose spindly branches rustled occasionally in the slight breeze. By dawn the clearing would be abuzz with activity and birdsong as the local wildlife ventured out for their early morning sabbaticals. Magpies would warble, cockatoos would fuzz and wrens would titter and carry out elaborate dances, but for now the space was still, apart from the occasional wombat or possum casually going about their evening.
Suddenly the tranquillity was broken by the rustling undergrowth and snapping of twigs that signified human footsteps fast approaching the clearing.
Twigs caught in his bootlaces as he ran. Branches dragged across his ankles and legs, scratching and drawing blood. He felt nothing. Terror and survival pushed him onwards. Looking over his shoulder every few steps, nearly stumbling as he did so. The moon barely shone, smothered by clouds. The sky was almost totally obscured by the slight outline of the trees. The forest seemed to stretch on forever without relief.
He could hear his own breathing, raspy and panicked. He swallowed trying to calm himself. His heartbeat pulsed in his ears. He continued to run as fast as his legs would carry him, they felt limp and useless as he dragged himself along. His chest was on fire. He couldn’t run anymore.
He came to a clearing and stopped, whirling around, shining his ineffective torch into the scrub. He stopped spinning and tried to breathe more slowly, but his body wouldn’t let him. He bent over, his free hand resting on his knee, letting his guard down for a moment, when a crunching sound came from just outside the clearing.
He fumbled, dropping his torch, it smacked against a rock and went out. He dropped to the ground, scrambling at the dusty earth until he found it. Carefully touching the familiar barrel and running his finger along the plastic thread he tried to work out if it was fixable. Relief washed over him, it had just come apart. Vainly looking around the blackness of his surroundings he managed to screw it back together. The light flickered back on and he frantically moved torchlight along the tree line. He backed towards a sturdy looking tree, staring intently at the direction from which he had come. Slumping against the thick trunk he took another gulp of air. His mind raced as he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do next. As he scanned the horizon his breathing began to slow and his heart rate began to gradually return to normal. Time passed, it seemed like hours. He couldn’t tell if it was getting closer to dawn or if his eyesight was just adjusting to the dark, but he could see the trees outside of the torch light. There was no sign of his pursuer. His eyelids drooped and he finally allowed his eyes to close.
He awoke to the bright noon sunlight blasting down upon him, the surrounding trees had shaded him from the early rays of the sun and it was just starting to heat up to the point of being uncomfortable. The torch had rolled out of his hand, the battery long since dead. He squinted into the light, and tested his limbs, assessing the damage. His legs hurt, they felt like they had been cut to ribbons and they were caked in blood and dirt. His arms ached He felt the back of his head for the wound, it was bloody and more swollen than he had anticipated, the realisation of the severity of the injury made his stomach lurch. He felt faint and had a slight flash of recollection of the night before. His stomach lurched and changed his train of thought. He scratched at one of the many insect bites that dotted his body. Mosquito bite maybe, hopefully not a spider, possibly ants. There were a few small ants determinedly making their way over the leaves beside his left foot, completely uninterested in this huge interloper, they carried on their day as planned. In fact for the most part the forest seemed completely underwhelmed by the presence of this obvious outsider. A magpie examined him for a few minutes before summarily dismissing is presence as a less than interesting anomaly and hopping away.
He struggled to his feet and tried to gauge how far he was from the nearest road. How far had he run? It felt like forever, but the forest was a finite space, less than 50kms in diameter, so surely a road had to be less than 25kms in one direction or another. He had spent some time here as a kid but he never went in this far. Hopefully he would stumble across something familiar, a rocky outcrop he’d traversed as a kid or a bike trail. He used to blaze along the bumpy tracks in his old dirt bike. He and Ryan would cut school, stock up on supplies and race through the trees until school was over then head back looking suspiciously scruffy for kids who had been at school all day. Ryan? Shit he hadn’t thought about him in years, he was probably his first real crush, and most gentle and ultimately crushing rejection. He smiled sadly as he recalled afternoon spent poking bull ant nests and nearly running over hikers. One particularly disgruntled hiker who was nearly flattened by the boy’s bikes while following a shared trail made signs warning “Bike Riders GIVE WAY TO HIKERS” out of ply wood nailed to trees. Signs that the boys spent a gloriously sunny afternoon defacing with thick permanent marker.
What he wouldn’t give to see one of those signs right now.
He shielded his face and squinted in the direction of the sun, he wished he’d paid more attention to the basic stuff, the stuff that would have aided his survival. He knew that the placid magpies near the entrance to the forest wouldn’t swoop because they had been fed by regular visitors and that the point where the two creeks met was the best place for finding frogs but he couldn’t even remember which direction the sun set in relation to the forest. He patted his pockets vainly, he wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but the content were still disappointing; all he found was a receipt, a phone card a substantial quantity of pocket lint. Useless. At least he could call someone if he reached a payphone.
He decided to set out in the opposite direction to the sun, so that he could at least see where he was going, flawed logic, he knew that, but he was grasping at any semblance of strategy he could think of. Tightening and retying the laces on his boots he briefly examined the wounds on his legs, they weren’t too bad, he could still walk at a reasonable pace, but he would definitely need to go to a hospital or see a doctor. A doctor? Oh no, a sudden wave of recollection and regret washed over him. He was supposed to meet Henry last night. He would be worried or worse angry. Henry would believe him, he would have to, he could show him the scrapes and scratches. Maybe even get him to have a look at his head. If he could convince the young doctor to meet him again, which might be easier said than done, especially if Henry thought this was just another lame excuse.
At least work would be fine, he could file a police report and that documentation would be enough. He tried to arrange the events of the night before into a comprehendible storyline. He knew he drove home from work, or at least he started to. So how did he end up here and where the fuck was his car? He had pulled over, he remembered that much, something happened. He had hit something, or something hit him. The rest was a dizzying blur. He wasn’t sure who, or what had attacked him, a man, he thought. There was the vague memory of a white four wheel drive and a gravelly voice on the edge of his consciousness but he wasn’t sure what was real and what was his traumatized memory filling in the blanks. He had run for ages but surely he couldn’t be that far away from the rest area he had stopped in, if he could just find a road or trail he was sure he could find his way out, hopefully before nightfall.
He vainly tried to wipe some of the grime off his forehead and began to trudge between the close growing gum trees towards to gradually growing sound of trickling water, if he found the creek he could follow it, and maybe splash some water on his face. He was pretty sure it would lead to a road in either direction, though it could be quite a trek. As he walked past a thick gum tree laden with deep red oozing sap he was too distracted to notice the figure leaning against it.
From behind him a familiar gravelly voice boomed “Sleep well?”
He spun around just in time to see the dark metal of the shovel come down on his head.
Kit homes and hard plastic playgrounds had popped up like mushrooms along the peaks and ridges of the valley. A battered and contorted creek ran into a manufactured lake, with cheaply constructed viewing platforms that had little view to offer. Fat contented ducks paddled listlessly through the reeds awaiting the next unsuspecting picnic or enthusiastic toddler with an old loaf of bread. A deliberately rustic path, lined with strips of metal lest the dirt mingle with the lawn, wound through the park. The compacted trail was impossible for scooters and bikes during the muddy winters but luckily for the local kids the summer heat had solidified the path into a smooth , albeit inconsistent surface on which determined children could achieve a satisfyingly terrifying amount of speed.
Stevie and Kate flew past benches awaiting graffiti on scooters that were well worn and well loved, they rattled and squeaked as they bumped over rocks and crevices. Stevie’s scooter was new at Christmas and it was already covered in scratches and stickers. The hastily assembled plastic had gone through it’s share of punishment, but Stevie was unrelenting, testing the very limits of the safety warnings. As they approached Kate’s house their scuffed shoes dragged along the steep curb almost in unison, coming to an abrupt halt just beyond the brick pillar mailbox of the toy strewn yard.
“See you tomorrow” Kate yelled over her shoulder as she walked her scooter up the driveway. Stevie waved and nodded, walking her own scooter past the scaffolding that signalled the impending urbanization of the forest that remained past the estate. Her house was on the very edge of the forest, in fact it had still been forest when her mum and dad bought it. Stevie and her much older brother had collected stick insects and climbed the trees on the block before the foundation had been laid. He was the one who had taught her how to carve worlds into logs and where to find the most interesting bugs. He was her rock, her hero. But now her brother had left her for uni, left her to deal with the full focus of her parents on her own and only a few lonely trees remained. She stopped and walked her scooter across her rocky, dusty backyard. Earlier that week the excavator had dragged away the grassy top soil to flatten out the backyard and the dirt was in piles waiting to be dragged away.
Stevie kicked through the rubble, her mum would flip if she knew she was out here messing around near the tiles and building supplies. She grinned a gap tooth grin, she’d been busting to check out the debris and climb the dirt mounds. As she traversed the lumpy dunes and slid down the steep inclines, coating her school shorts in thick red dirt, a flash of colour caught her eye. She attempted to dust off her hands on the front of her shirt and stooped to pick up the faded plastic artefact. Stevie examined the flaky red plastic, smoothed down through years of weathering, she ran her finger across the slight ripple of where the thread used to be. A tube maybe? Like a container or something, She shook it a corroded battery slid slowly out.
Unbeknownst to the grubby school kid with skun knees her mother had caught sight of her from the laundry window and was not pleased with what she saw. Little did she know how unimpressed she was soon to be when, a few hours from now the local police and forensic services would descend on their already torn apart yard She waited for a moment, intently watching Stevie fumble with whatever gross scavenged item she had found this time. The mother sighed deeply, It was great that the girl was curious and fearless but a slight sense of self preservation would be nice. She reluctantly open the screen door and bellowed in her best mum voice “Stevie put that down and get in here NOW!”