Gwen thanked her, and they headed to their allocated starting area. As they walked, Gwen called back over her shoulder.
“Stay close to us, Carter, especially if it starts to get dark. There’s lots of hills and ditches in the bush around here, and you could easily hurt yourself if you’re not careful.”
Henry gave him a torch, and he flicked it on and off, testing the battery. He slipped the small torch into his pocket.
“And don’t swim in the creek if we find it, right?”
Gwen said nothing. He looked across to Henry, who was focused on testing his own torch, silently. Inwardly, he admonished himself.
Gwen said some people think the creek is holy. Maybe she and Henry do, too, they just don’t make a big deal out of it. Why are you so on edge?
Even as he asked himself the question, though, he knew the answer.
Because it doesn’t feel right. And you have a long and sordid history of getting fucked up by things that didn’t feel right.
He shook the thought from his head, and jogged a little to catch up to Henry and Gwen, who had begun to outpace him.
Around them, other groups were heading to their own starting points, each keeping more or less to themselves. He saw many faces he didn’t recognise, not even from when the Wanderer had been full to capacity last night.
“Are all these people from Fisherman’s Creek?”
Henry looked, and shook his head.
“Nah. St. Paul’s has kids from a few towns around here. Some Fisherman’s Creek kids, but also plenty from elsewhere.”
A young woman was staring at Carter. He gave her a friendly wave, and she turned her head suddenly, as if she had been caught out doing something wrong.
“Not very friendly, are they?”
Gwen was reading the map, and she spoke without looking at him.
“Most people who live nearby don’t like Fisherman’s Creek people.”
They had arrived at the edge of the, and Gwen directed them to turn left at the tree line. Ahead of them were multiple groups of people, chatting loudly, and occasionally glancing back at them, as if to make sure they maintained their distance. Carter had the distinct sense they were being treated with suspicion.
“Why don’t they like Fisherman’s Creek people?”
Gwen said nothing. After a minute of silence, Henry spoke up.
“It’s because of the disappearances.”
Carter saw the same young woman who had been staring at him earlier, walking ahead of them. She was periodically glancing back at him, and stepping quickly to stay with her group.
Gwen indicated for them to stop. They were perhaps a hundred metres away from the edge of the school fence, standing on the thick grass that grew at the edge of the bush. Ahead of them were hundreds of gnarled, twisted gums, their grey bark almost ghostly in the slowly fading afternoon light. They started walking forward, climbing over the occasional fallen branch, and Henry began to speak.
“Like we said, there’s obviously a lot of bushland around Fisherman’s Creek. With the hills and everything, it can get quite dangerous. There are lots of steep drops, ditches, and the occasional falling rock – not to mention the danger of falling into the creek, if you’re wandering around in the dark.”
He paused as they came to a fallen tree. Gwen clambered over, then reached down to help first Carter and then Henry to climb up. From atop the thick trunk, they looked out over a moderately steep drop. Gwen jumped down from the tree and began her descent, side-stepping to help maintain balance. Henry continued.
“So if you don’t know the area, and you’re wandering around out here alone, particularly at night, then it’s very easy to either get lost, or fall off of something and injure yourself. Getting lost is bad enough, but if you hurt yourself deep in this bush, and you can’t walk anymore?”
Gwen had reached the bottom of the hill and was pulling away from them now, calling out the boys’ names. Henry placed a hand on Carter’s arm to steady himself as they made their own way down the hill.
“Well if that happens, then you’re fucked, basically. And it happens. We’ll occasionally get backpackers like you come through during the farming seasons, looking for work. Of course, lots of them are nature types, so they figure they can go for a hike out here in the bush. And they disappear. Probably die of exposure or thirst. Or from falling down one of these fucking hills.”
They reached the bottom of the hill. Gwen was far ahead; Carter could barely see her through the trees. Her voice echoed off the hills, and bounced off the trees.
“Joseph! Gavin! Come out! You’re not in trouble! Where are you?”
Carter wanted to pick up the pace to stay with Gwen, but beside him, the out of shape Henry was already breathing heavily. He tried to keep an eye on Gwen through the trees.
“That still doesn’t answer my question, though. Why don’t people from other towns like Fisherman’s Creek people?”
Gwen was still getting further away. He was about to yell out for her to slow down, when she stopped. He breathed a sigh of relief. Beside him, Henry was talking.
“Basically, we get the blame. What with the ‘miracle’ creek and everything, Fisherman’s Creek people have always seemed a little crazy to outsiders. I think some people really believe we might be responsible for all the disappearing backpackers. I don’t know what they think we might be doing to them. Eating them, maybe?”
Carter furrowed his brow.
“How many backpackers go missing around here, exactly?”
Henry was staring at the ground in front of him. Whether it was to watch his step or avert his gaze, Carter didn’t know. They had very nearly reached Gwen.
“I would say roughly one a year. Always around this time of year.”
Henry looked at him. Carter though it was the most serious he had seen the older man since meeting him. Henry’s dark eyes were stern and cold.
“Watch yourself, Carter. Never come out here without someone you trust. Really trust.”
Gwen was staring at something on the ground in front of her, and when they reached her and saw what it was, it was all Carter could do to suppress a shout. At Gwen’s feet was the skeleton of a wallaby, its skull shattered. Carter looked around, through the trees, and saw many more skeletons – birds, wallabies, wombats. Some weren’t skeletons at all – they were bodies. All in all, spread around an area with a diameter of maybe a hundred metres, there were dozens upon dozens of animal corpses.
“What the fuck?” Henry whispered. Carter put a hand on Gwen’s shoulder, and she shrunk away. She turned to face them.
“We shouldn’t have come out here. Henry, we should not have come out here.”
Henry held up a hand.
“Gwen, there’s kids out here. Two little boys, lost and scared and alone. We have to find them.”
Gwen handed him the map, and her torch.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But I can’t. You know I can’t.”
She began to walk back in the direction they had come from. Henry called out to her.
“Gwen, you can’t go alone!”
Gwen looked at them, but she didn’t stop walking.
“I’ll be fine. I have my phone, and there are heaps of people out here. I just… I can’t be here.”
She paused, stopped walking for a brief moment. Carter could see tears in her eyes.
Then she was gone, striding off through the trees. Carter ran a hand through his hair.
“Henry, what the fuck was all that about?”
Henry started walking again, stepping around the bones of the wallaby.
“C’mon. It’s getting dark.”
Carter gingerly stepped around the skeleton and half-ran to catch up to Henry.
“Henry, seriously. Is she okay?”
Henry shook his head sadly.
“Backpackers go missing out here, almost every year. I told you that. But it’s not just backpackers that go missing. Very occasionally, someone local will get lost out here. Happened about ten years ago, just before I moved to Carlton. A local girl went for a walk, and just never came back. We were searching out here for days. Some people, weeks. You might have heard about it – they did a couple of news stories. I don’t think they ran with it for very long, though. They didn’t find her, even after weeks – didn’t even find a body.”
Henry pocketed the torch Gwen had given him, then carefully folded the map and placed it in his back pocket. He gave Carter a sorrowful look.
“Gwen took it pretty hard. They were friends, apparently. Not best friends or anything, but close. Gwen blamed herself a bit, I think. They went for walks together through the bush pretty regularly. Once a week, Gwen tells me. Anyway, the day that the girl went missing, Gwen was meant to be walking with her, but she decided not to go. Was in a bad mood or something, I think. You know teenagers. So the girl went alone. And she disappeared.”
Henry was walking quickly now, his breathing no longer heavy. Carter was having to move fast to keep up.
“Gwen never really stopped looking. Even months later, she’d come out here and walk around, calling the girl’s name, searching for her. Then, one day, she went for a walk along the creek, went around a bend, and she found her.”
Henry stopped walking, and turned to Carter. His eyes were red rimmed with tears.
“Gwen almost tripped over the girl’s body. She was laying there in the mud in the riverbank. By that point, she was mostly decomposed, but Gwen said she knew it was her because she was wearing a shirt she had always loved, from some punk band.”
Carter put his hands behind his head, linking his fingers.