When Gwen finally left, it was almost three in the morning. Carter shut off the Wanderer’s lights and headed upstairs, practically dragging his feet with exhaustion. He tumbled into bed, and just lay there on top of the covers for a moment, eyes closed, listening to the Wanderer settling around him. Gwen was right – distracting himself with television had been a good idea. He was still worried about the two lost boys, but he had been able to put that worry aside, at least for a little while, and look at it in a new light. If Gwen was right, and Tobias’ boy did know how to look after himself in the bush, then it was entirely possible that they were still alive out there somewhere.
Carter’s eyes snapped open, and he pushed himself into an upright sitting position. Gwen had said Tobias’ son knew a little about how to look after himself in the bush. That meant he must know a thing or two about what to do when you get lost in the bush. How to make sure you get found. Carter grabbed his backpack and headed downstairs. He retrieved some torches and bottles of water from the Wanderer’s storage room. After a few seconds’ thought, he bounded back upstairs and grabbed some of the blankets from his room’s wardrobe as well, and shoved everything into his backpack. Then he ran out the door and jogged up the street. He headed towards the creek.
The air was crisp and cool, the night not quite close enough to summer proper to be warm. Carter strode down the asphalt road with purpose. When he left the glow of the street light, he retrieved one of the torches from his bag and flicked it on. Finally, he reached the church. His torchlight glinted eerily off the coating of slime on the stone bricks. He carefully pushed his way through the underbrush, and slowly made his way to the river bank. The waters of the creek seemed eerily still, only a faint trickling sound giving away its movement. Carter turned, and began to follow the creek downstream.
If Tobias’ son really did know what he was doing, then he would know that in a survival situation, following a river downstream is usually a good idea, and will often lead to civilization, or at least out of the bush. Carter was willing to bet that just like when Gwen’s friend went missing, superstition had stopped the people from Fisherman’s Creek from searching too thoroughly near the creek. He just hoped Tobias’ son was as clever as he was assuming.
He walked along the riverbank for a long time, accompanied only by the bubbling of the creek and the occasional squawk of some nighttime bird. Deep in the bush, there was no light, the trees too thick to even allow moonlight in. His torch cut a perfect circle of light ahead of him, but outside this was pitch black. He carefully swept his torch back and forth as he walked, making sure to walk slowly and give every bush and tree a thorough look.
This close to the water of the creek, the air was eerily warm, heated by the warmth of the water itself. He stepped carefully over the rocks and mud that lined the riverbank. It would be all too easy to slip and dash his head against the stones, or fall into the creek itself. Having a lead on where the boys might be was only useful so long as he was alive and conscious.
As he walked, he heard a sudden loud squawking. He spun and shone his torch into the trees. An owl sat on a branch, hooting and cawing at an unseen enemy. It was small and grey, with mottled feathers interspersed with spots of brown. It had a wide, thick beak, and big yellow eyes the colour of mustard. As he watched, it jumped back as a second owl appeared, scratching at it with its talons. This one was tall, with dark brown feathers, and a sharp, pointed beak. He watched as it jabbed at the smaller grey owl, which hooted and ducked. The smaller owl leapt at the larger owl and they both fell off the branch and out of the beam of Carter’s torch, wheeling away into the darkness, hooting madly. The sound of their battle faded, and after a few seconds, Carter continued walking.
After about an hour of walking, he was starting to have doubts. He tried to reassure himself, reminding himself the boys had an almost three day head start, but he didn’t think they would have walked too fast or too far. He strained to listen, but could only hear the creek.
He heard a loud splash beside him.
The sound startled him so much he jumped, and momentarily lost his footing on the slippery stones beneath his feet. His legs flew out from under him and he landed hard on the riverside, jarring his left arm and having the wind knocked out of him. He managed to keep hold of the torch even as he fell, and he shone it at the creek, scanning the water. He carefully backed away, pushing himself up the bank until he was a good two metres from the creek. He sat there for a while, watching the water for any sign of what might have made the noise. After five minutes of nothing, he cursed himself for being so jumpy and stood up. He made a half-hearted attempt to clean the mud off of his pants, and moved on. He was extremely tired, and had overreacted to a stick falling into the creek or something, that was all. Still, he kept his distance from the water. His heart was racing.
It was another hour before he finally saw the shelter.
He was about to give up and head back. The first streaks of sunrise red were beginning to hit what little patches of sky he could see above him, and he was beginning to yawn and nod off even as he walked. He was so tired he almost missed it as he swept his torch over it, mistaking it for just another fallen tree. But something about the orderliness of the detritus piled against it made him go back for a second look. There was a fallen tree, which had landed on a large rock, creating a kind of triangle with itself, the rock, and the ground, and leaving space under the tree. There were branches and leaves piled on top of it, and as Carter looked at it, he saw a shred of a school uniform shirt tied around a stick and planted in the top of the structure. Clever boys, he thought. Quickly, his elation turned sour. Jesus, please be alive. He rushed over to the structure and found the gap in the coverage that served as an entrance. He peered inside, shining his torch into the darkness within. He saw another pile of dirt and leaves, and poking out of the top of it, a patch of red hair. He reached in and shook the pile, and a small, pale face appeared, eyes red with tears. There were dark bags under those eyes, but they lit up when they saw him. The boy rushed out of his makeshift bed and wrapped his arms around Carter’s neck, weeping openly. Carter put a comforting arm around the boy, and told him repeatedly that it was going to be okay. They stayed like that for a minute, then Carter removed the boy’s arms and gave him a bottle of water from his bag, which the boy drank greedily. Carter looked around the shelter. Other than the red-haired lad, it was empty.
He grabbed the boy by the shoulders, gently so as not to frighten him
“Where’s your friend?”
At that, the boy burst into tears again, sobbing and heaving, unable to speak. Carter handed him his backpack.
He stepped out of the shelter and turned in a circle, using his torch to scan the area. There was no sign of another child.
He didn’t want to leave one child to go and search for the other. But the boy looked weak and malnourished, and needed to get out of the bush and be given medical help as soon as possible. At the same time, what if he left with one lad and the other came back to the shelter a few minutes later, to find his friend missing? He might decide to head further into the bush, or go looking for his friend and get even more lost. Carter kicked himself for not bringing a phone. He poked his head back into the shelter, and addressed the boy again.
“What’s your name?”
Nothing but sobbing from the boy. He was clearly traumatized by the experience. He tried again.
“You’re Joseph, right? I’m going to get you out of here and back home, Joseph, but before we leave, we need to find your friend. Gavin. You have to tell me where Gavin is. Please,” he added, trying to ignore the crack in his own voice.
The boy lifted an arm, and pointed. His other arm was still clutching Carter’s backpack. Carter stepped back, and followed the boy’s pointing finger. His torch alighted on the creek. Without even looking, the boy was pointing directly at it, from inside the shelter.
Shit, fuck, shit, shit!
He ran over to the creek, and used his torch to scan the mud of the river bank, looking for any sign of the second boy.
Don’t be dead.
The river bank was empty. He called out Gavin’s name. There was no response.
Don’t be dead.
He shone his torch at the creek, desperately scanning the water, looking for any sign of life. His muscles tensed. He tried to get a look at the bottom of the creek, tried to spot if there was a body in the water, but in the darkness the water reflected too much of his torch. He could barely see into it. He hesitated for a second.
Don’t be dead. Don’t swim in the creek. Don’t be dead. Don’t swim in the creek.
He spied something in the water that could have been a figure.
Fuck the superstition. Save the kid. Fuck!
He tossed the torch to one side, quickly kicked off his shoes, and strode into the creek. The water was oddly warm, and felt odd to the touch. He felt the ground beneath him quickly dropped away, and soon he was paddling, unable to touch the bottom. He reached the point where he thought he had seen a figure, and, taking a deep breath, he ducked his head beneath the water. He forced his eyes open. Everything was a dark blur. He looked down, but he could see only river mud-
A largish shape lying at the bottom of the river. He couldn’t tell what it was from here. The water was stinging his eyes. He resurfaced, caught his breath, and the duck dived into the water to get momentum. He swam to the bottom of the river, and grabbed hold of the figure. He lifted it easily, buoyed by the water, and he kicked off the bottom. His head broke the surface, and he gasped for air.