“Yeah. She doesn’t talk about it much. Why would you? She hates the bush out here now, though. I was impressed she came out here with us, to be honest.”
Henry started walking again. The sunlight filtering through the trees had taken on a darker, orange tone. The sun was beginning to set.
“Not that I blame her for hating it out here. I mean, you’re seeing this shit.”
Henry waved a hand at the animal skeletons around them. There were fewer of them now. Whatever had killed them, they seemed to be moving out of its zone of influence.
“There’s not many people living in the towns around here, anyway. We’re pretty isolated to begin with. Then you come out here to the deep bush, near the creek, where no one comes… Doesn’t surprise me that people would come out here and do some weird shit.”
They walked in silence for the next half hour, only breaking it to call out the names of the lost boys. They seemed to be travelling steadily downhill. What little sky was visible through the tree canopy was quickly turning a sunset purple. Flies and mosquitos were thick in the air. Carter looked around as they walked. There was no one else around. They had either moved away from the other search parties, or else the others had gone home for the day. Carter was suddenly very aware that he and Henry were alone, and he had no idea where they were, or which direction town was in, or even if they were still walking in the same direction they set off in. Somewhere close, a kookaburra laughed.
Carter broke the silence.
“How did she die?”
Henry was walking a couple of steps in front of him. Somewhere ahead, Carter thought he could hear the trickle of flowing water. He peered through the trees, but couldn’t see anything.
“Gwen’s friend. Did they figure out how she died? Was it exposure or something?”
Henry pulled out his phone, checked the time.
“Probably something like that. I don’t remember exactly what they decided the cause of death was, but I know they ruled it wasn’t suspicious. I think she just got lost and couldn’t find her way back. Or maybe she wasn’t lost, but she hurt herself, and couldn’t get out.”
The sound of running water was louder now. Carter looked ahead, and saw that where he first though the ground was flat, there was actually a steep dip, forming a small valley about four metres wide. Carter could see insects buzzing around the mouth of the valley. A high pitched whine in the air identified them as mosquitos.
“And no one found her? Even though she was right by the creek?”
Carter’s mind was racing. When you got lost in the bush, a good plan if you came across a creek or river was to follow it. You would almost certainly find civilization eventually, and it stopped you from accidentally wandering around in circles. If he had been looking for a lost young girl who was an experienced hiker, following the creek would have been among the first things he tried. Even if they had been too late to find her alive, how did they not find her body until Gwen stumbled across it?
Henry stopped at the mouth of the valley.
“No. I know what you’re thinking, though. What you have to understand is, Fisherman’s Creek people rarely go down to the creek. It really is kind of a sacred place around here. Keeping a respectful distance from the creek is just so ingrained in our psyche, I doubt any of the people looking for that girl even considered she might have gone to the creek. At least, not before it was too late.”
Carter joined Henry at the valley’s mouth, and looked down. The slope of the valley ran downward maybe two metres. At the bottom, bubbling and trickling, its dark water too murky to see through in the rapidly fading evening light, was the creek.
Don’t swim in the creek.
Much farther upstream, something huge sat in the waters of the creek, idly watching the last of the dying light of day. The thing was old, incredibly old. To the mosquitos and mayflies dancing above the water, who could measure their lifespan in a matter of days, the sun seemed to set forever, the single moment before the last of its light dropped beneath the horizon stretching to infinity, or close enough that the difference didn’t matter. To the thing in the creek, the sun seemed to drop in the lazy blink of a saurian eye.
It sat impossibly still, letting the dark water of the creek wash over it. If it desired, it could disappear completely in the murky river water. However, when it sat like this, waiting, a person could look right at it and never see it for what it was. It was rarely if ever seen if it did not want to be seen.
The two little boys had walked right past it and not seen it. It had watched them pass from the water, listened to their frightened sobbing, and smelled the salt of their tears in the air. It recognized the signs of a distressed soul, perfect prey, and it knew that if the boys strayed too close to its waters it would have them. And they would. They always did. It was only a matter of time.
So for now, it was content to sit, and wait. It knew that with the merest of movements it could allow the creek water to bring it downstream, to where the boys now slept by the riverbank, huddled together under a makeshift shelter of tree bark, sticks, and leaves, piled up against the trunk of a fallen tree. It was in no hurry. The long years of its existence had given it an unmatched level of patience. It knew its prey would always come to the creek eventually. From there, the catch was a simple matter.
It had been known by many names, and indeed worshipped as a god by many civilizations, spanning thousands of years. Most recently, it found itself being worshipped by a small group of men and women who lived near the creek, and called it the Fisher. It barely registered their faith or worship. It would occasionally observe them as they gathered by the banks of its creek, watching and waiting to see if they would step too far into its domain. It did not consider them in any way different to the many other humans it had seen over its lifespan. The closest it was able to come to recognizing their praise was in knowing that occasionally, when they came close, it meant prey was near.
Except for the red haired man.
It knew the red haired man well. He would often come and step into the waters of its creek. The red haired man was the head of its church, and it was through his actions – and the actions of his predecessors – that it had grown in power.
It heard the snap of twigs, and the soft sound of a foot in mud. One of the boys was approaching its water. With a lazy flick of its appendages, it let the water carry it downstream, staying low, almost dragging in the river mud at the bottom of the creek. It came to a halt when it drew level with the boy, a small red haired lad. He had cupped his hands together and was dipping them in the creek, drawing them out, and drinking from the water he had managed to trap in his hands. The thing in the creek sat motionless, watching him. He dipped, drank, dipped, drank. Slowly, so slow that its movement was all but imperceptible, it drew closer to the boy. Ancient muscles tensed to strike, but just as it readied itself, the boy finished drinking, and walked back over to his makeshift shelter. The thing in the creek relaxed. It had missed the boy this time, but it would have him sooner or later.
The thing watched the boys for a while longer. It watched as they moved around, listened as they spoke. Finally, they lay still and silent. They were asleep. It watched them for another hour – a mere moment longer, to its perception. Satisfied that the boys weren’t going to move either away from the creek or near enough to its waters for it to grab them, it ducked beneath the water and settled itself in the mud.
It sat there for a very long time.
Henry and Carter had walked along the creek for an hour before finally giving up and turning back. Carter, heeding Gwen’s warning about the creek’s status as a miracle, kept a respectful distance from the lip of the valley, worried that in the dark he would lose his footing and possibly fall into the water.
To Carter, as they walked back, all the gnarled, ghost-grey gums looked the same in the light of his torch. Henry, however, seemed to know exactly where he was going, and it took them only a half an hour to reach the edge of the tree line, and another fifteen minutes on top of that to return to the school carpark. There were still a few groups walking around, but it seemed that the police sergeant was urging people to go home. She insisted that the police be the only people walking around the bush at night.
“Don’t want anyone else getting lost out there. Go home, folks. If you still want to help, you can come back in the morning, after a good night’s sleep.”
The mood was somber. The boys had been missing for almost eight hours now. Carter was increasingly less sure that when they found the boys, it would be a happy occasion.
Gwen was nowhere to be seen. A quick call from Henry determined that she had gotten a lift back to town with a friend. This mean Carter had the passenger seat, which helped his fear and nausea – but only slightly. Henry was no more cautious a driver in the dark, and it seemed to Carter that no one in the area bothered to use their headlights. By the time they pulled up to the Wanderer, his stomach was churning, and it was all he could do as he exited the car not to vomit all over the footpath. He walked around to the driver’s side window, and motioned for Henry to roll the window down. Henry cocked an eyebrow at him, and pointedly used a single finger to press the button that electrically lowered the car’s window. Carter tried to ignore the bubbling sensation in his stomach.