Author’s note: Apologies for the delay. Something came up and I was unable to complete my 1667 words yesterday. Not to worry though – I had built up a buffer of roughly a day’s worth of words for this very eventuality, so in terms of word count I am still on track to finish the book by the end of the month!
Lost my buffer though, so it’s a bit more tense from here on out!
Carter slept, and dreamed about the creek bottom. A pale-faced boy, glassy-eyed, lay on his back in the river mud. No matter how fast he swam, Carter couldn’t seem to get any closer. His lungs began to scream for air, but he ignored them. Finally, he felt himself give an involuntary gasp, and black creek water rushed into his lungs. He felt searing agony spread like fire through his chest-
Carter woke a few minutes before one in the afternoon, with a foul taste in his mouth. Shit. He didn’t need a psychic to tell him what that dream had meant. He felt something in his eyes, and wiped them absently with the back of his hand. It came away damp. He had woken up crying.
He slowly became aware of his incredibly stiff arms. He lay in bed for a few minutes, just trying to stretch some life back into them. Finally, he accepted that they were as limber and pain-free as they were going to get, and he slid out of bed. He dressed, slowly, and ventured downstairs. The main floor of the Wanderer was all but empty, save for one large group of men and women, numbering eleven or twelve by Carter’s count, sitting at what looked to be three tables pushed together. Gwen was standing behind the bar, pouring drinks. Henry was nowhere to be seen, but judging from the half-eaten plates of food spread across the large dining table in the centre of the room, Carter guessed he was in the kitchen, pulling cooking duty while he had been sleeping upstairs.
He waved at Gwen, trying to catch her eye, and she saw the movement, returned the wave. She cocked a questioning eyebrow and shot him a thumbs up – Are you okay?
He stuck his hand out flat, palm down, and rocked it in a see-sawing motion from left to right. Not bad. Could be better, could be worse. She nodded, and went back to pouring drinks. He headed to the kitchen, and stepped through the doors. It was alive with the sound of sizzling oil. There was a strong smell of onions, garlic and meat. He spotted Henry, chopping vegetables on one of the counter tops and adding them to a pot which was sitting on the stove top, gas flame burning blue underneath it. Henry looked up as he came near, and set the knife down. Carter prepared himself for a firm handshake, and was surprised when Henry embraced him in a bear hug.
“You did everything you could.”
Carter choked up at that, and felt a familiar sting at the back of his throat. He blinked heavily, and returned Henry’s hug. They stood there like that for a moment, until a sizzling sound caught their attention. Henry broke the hug and rushed over to the pot, which had boiled over. He turned down the flame.
“There’s going to be a get-together at the Parker’s. Kind of a wake for Gavin – the kid who didn’t make it. I’ll drive, if you want to go.”
Carter blinked. His mind felt dull, and there was a building pressure behind his forehead. It felt deeply unpleasant, like something alien had found its way into his skull. The child’s name had been Gavin. Gavin Parker. He wondered if he’d ever forget that name. Somehow, he doubted it.
He thought he might have to go, as the one who brought Gavin back. What would he say to the boy’s parents? Would they be thankful that he had found him, tried to save him, brought him back? Or would they blame him, for taking too long to figure out where the boys where, for an outcome that for them, at least, was possibly worse than if he had found both boys dead. The boys had been found, and one of them saved – but not their Gavin. Carter thought they might spend the rest of their lives hating themselves for hating that child for living.
Henry was talking again.
“Joseph, Tobias’ kid, is in hospital now. I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard he’s doing fine. He’s going to make a full recovery.”
Henry lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Apparently he’s completely traumatised, though. I don’t blame him. Shit, he’s only twelve or something. No one should have to watch a friend die like that, let alone a fucking kid. I hear he hasn’t spoken a word since getting to hospital.”
Carter didn’t bother asking how Henry had gotten his information. He was starting to get the feel of Fisherman’s Creek, like a sailor quickly learns to shift his weight with the keeling of the ship. He was beginning to doubt that the Creek had any surprises left for him.
The thought came to him suddenly. It was Friday. Tonight he was supposed to meet with Lauren and learn all about the harvest. So much for that plan. He supposed he might have to catch her at the Parker’s and reschedule. He considered heading over to the bakery and asking her outright about the nature of the harvest, but she seemed to want her partner Stacey not to know that she was talking with him. He thought it might have something to do with the mixed reception he had received from residents of the Creek since he got there. In any case, a glance through the kitchen’s service window showed him that the Wanderer was slowly filling up, so he asked Henry if he wanted him to take over in the kitchen, and Henry thanked him and headed out to start seating people and taking orders.
Once again, Carter was glad for the distraction that the kitchen work provided. He threw himself into it, only allowing himself to think about the orders and the work. He hummed tunelessly as he cooked, and the time passed quickly. Soon he was feeling right at home. He knew the layout of the Wanderer’s kitchen now, and had a good handle on the menu items. The air was filled with the smells of cooking vegetables and spices. It was hot in the kitchen – he guessed it had to be at least thirty degrees – but it was a bearable heat, the heat of hard work and good food. All the stress of the early morning evaporated into the smoke and steam clouding the air in the kitchen, whirling away into nothingness. The soup of the day was a hearty Cajun-style seafood gumbo, and it was a popular order. He took great pleasure in preparing it – peeling the shells off of prawns, dicing tomatoes and capsicum and onion and garlic, throwing it all into a boiling mixture of roux and broth with a splash. Henry had even managed to find some okra at a market a few weeks back and had been keeping it frozen for just this occasion. The okra seed pods were a beautiful vibrant green, and long and slender, a characteristic from which they derived their common name – ladyfingers. Soon the air of the kitchen was awash with heat and steam and delicious smells. Carter immersed himself in the fog of it all. He was in his own private sanctuary and for a couple of hours he forgot all about the harvest and the black waters of the creek.
But he couldn’t quite forget the blank, pale stare of a lost boy who would never make it home.
When Joseph awoke, his entire body aching and sore, his father was sitting in a chair next to his hospital bed, staring at him. Everything smelled clean and sterile, and outside his door he could hear the dull hum and beep of machinery and the ebb and flow of people at work. Joseph felt a strange sensation in his arm and he was mildly startled when he looked at it and saw a long plastic tube protruding from under a bandage affixed to the crook in his elbow. The tube was attached to a bag which hung on a metal stand next to his bed, and he watched as a strange-looking fluid flowed slowly down it and into his arm. He had never been to a hospital before, not even when he had fallen off the swings when he was six and cracked his head on the ground and very nearly passed out. He had gotten stitches from the local doctor’s office, but he hadn’t made it as far as hospital. He’d always imagined that there would be lots and lots of doctors wandering around in white coats and thick glasses, giving him all kinds of pills and potions and jabbing him full of needles. He was almost disappointed by the small, empty room he found himself in, but on the whole his first thoughts upon waking were of utter relief – he hated needles. Then the events of the past few days came back to him, and a black cloud washed over his mind. He burst into tears, giving great heaving sobs. A thin line of snot dribbled out of his nose. He cried for almost ten minutes, non-stop. His father just sat there, looking at him, his hands gripping the arms of the chair.
Finally, the sobs petered out, and he lay in his hospital bed sniffling and hiccupping. Finally, his father spoke to him.
“What did you see, Joseph?”
He almost began crying at that again. He never wanted to think about what he had seen out in the bush. He had seen his friend Gavin die, drowned in the river. He had seen strange things in the dead of night, especially once the hunger pangs had set in and he had been drinking filthy creek water for a few days. He thought they could have been dreams – he had spent most of his time in the bush in a state of dull, abject terror, barely aware if he were sleeping or awake, and hardly caring which. There was one thing he was sure was real, though. His mind skulked around the edges of the memory, and his body went into a fear response. There were wires stuck to his chest that were feeding his vital information to a machine that sat next to his bed, and if he had been able to understand it he would have seen that his heartrate was going out of control. Tears welled up in his eyes again, and he began to tremble. He shook his head fiercely, and his father repeated his question, in the same monotone as before.
“What did you see, Joseph?”