It was peaceful, and he took several deep breaths of the warm night air, enjoying the feel of it as it filled his lungs. The Parker’s backyard was bereft of large trees, and the night sky was clearly visible – a rarity in Fisherman’s Creek, Carter had come to find. He leaned back in the chair, and gazed up at the stars. He spent the next few minutes distracting himself by trying to locate the Southern Cross constellation. He knew that there were two pointer stars that together created a line pointing directly at the constellation, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out which two they were. There was little light pollution out here, and the sky was alight with more stars than Carter had seen in a long time.
He felt a gentle hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he turned around. Lauren stood next to him, and he watched as she took a seat across from him. She glanced over his shoulder, looking to see if anyone was watching or approaching them. Satisfied, she turned her attention to Carter, although her eyes still nervously flicked over his shoulder every few seconds.
“I’m not sure how long we’ve got. Stacey is inside talking to some school friends. She knows they hate me, so it was easy to make an excuse to get away when I saw you come outside.”
She looked at him, her face a picture of concern.
“How are you holding up, after this morning? And after…”
Lauren pointed inside.
Carter smiled sadly at her, teetered a hand back and forth.
“Pretty well, considering. Mostly just tired.”
Lauren nodded, then glanced over his shoulder again.
“The harvest is really important to people here. They keep it pretty secret from outsiders – as I’m sure you know – but everyone in the Creek knows what it really is. Every adult, anyway. They don’t really tell kids what it is, but kids know it’s a big important adult thing, and pretty much all of them grow up wanting to help.”
Lauren suddenly looked distant, and very sad.
“They don’t usually tell outsiders about it. I’m not actually from the Creek. But I’ve been together with Stacey for long enough that what I haven’t been told, I’ve been able to figure out. It’s not really a ‘harvest’ at all, although I have heard they started calling it that when they first started doing it as an alibi. Like, ‘won’t be around today, they need help with the harvest’.”
There was the sound of a glass sliding door behind Carter, and a man he didn’t recognise stepped out, nodded at them, then took a few steps away and lit a cigarette. He stood smoking for a minutes, then nodded awkwardly again and headed back inside. Lauren waited until the door was shut, then continued.
“It has nothing to do with farming, or food, or even fishing. It’s about the Fisher. Stacey’s tried to keep it hidden from me, but I’ve followed her a few years when she went out with them. At least as far as the first part. I’d say it’s a ritual, but that would put it in the same realm as things like the Eucharist. It’s not.”
She shook her head slowly.
She met Carter’s eye, saw the disbelief there.
“Whether or not you believe what I’m about to tell you, just remember, you have to say no. If they ask you to help, say no.”
Gwen had told him that earlier. Perhaps he could trust her. But say no to what?
Lauren was still speaking.
“It apparently only works with people from out of town. Not with people from the Creek. I heard Tobias say once – when he was very drunk – that it’s been tried with Creek people a few times, when there were no outsiders around and it came too close to harvest time, but it won’t work. That’s like cannibalism, he said.”
She was looking him dead in the eye. Her face was grave, and stone cold.
“So it’ll be you, this year, I think. There’s no one else. But it has to be voluntary. That’s part of the… the ritual. You have to say yes. Yes to the Fisher’s temptation, is the way they see it.”
She rubbed her arms absently.
“But they won’t tell you that’s what you’re saying yes to. Bastards. That’s why I don’t want to call it a ritual. There’s almost no rules. They’ll just ask you if you want to help with the harvest. If you say yes, they’ll tell you you can’t say no afterwards, you better turn up, they need the help. And if you say yes again, then that’s it. Doesn’t matter if you say no after that, apparently it counts.”
She spat, suddenly, a great heaping blob of green.
“Fucking arseholes. They almost took me, my first year here, but Stacey stopped them. It was alright for them, though. A couple of European backpackers came through a few days before the harvest. Looking for work, like you. Poor kids.”
Carter grabbed he arms, locked eyes with her. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had to hear the words she didn’t seem to want to say.
“Lauren, what do they do?”
“They’ll keep asking you, too. You have to keep saying no. Out loud, verbally, no. If you slip up even once it will be enough for them.”
“Lauren, what do they do?”
She pulled her arms away, and he let her go. She massaged twin red marks on her wrists. He felt a pang of guilt – he hadn’t realised he had been gripping her so tightly.
“I don’t know how they do it – they always go out with knives, but I think the creek has something to do with it.”
There was the sound of the sliding door behind him, and he heard Stacey’s voice.
“Are you okay, hon?”
Lauren didn’t break eye contact.
“I’m fine. Just talking. Carter’s had a rough day, thought it might help him to have someone to talk to.”
Carter heard steps, and Stacey appeared in his field of vision. She leaned down and put a hand on Lauren’s cheek, turning it so she could give her a quick kiss on the lips. Carter awkwardly looked away. Stacey caught his eye, and looked concerned.
“How are you doing?”
He tried on another sad smile, hoping to hide the emotional whirlpool going on in his mind.
“I’m fine. Like I was saying to Lauren, right now I’m just tired.”
Stacey nodded, then stood up.
“You want to head off, hon?”
Lauren nodded, and after saying their goodbyes, she and Stacey left. Carter was left alone again, Lauren’s words swirling around in his head.
Say no. It’s a ritual. They always go out with knives.
She hadn’t said exactly what the harvest entailed, but Carter now had a pretty good idea. He was no longer safe in Fisherman’s Creek.
Worst of all, he had no idea who he could trust.
Five minutes later, Henry leaned out of the doorway and told him it was time to go. They collected Gwen as they walked back through the house, and she thanked them for saving her from what was apparently a very boring conversation with her old primary school teacher. They piled into Henry’s car, Carter gripped the door handle and shut his eyes tightly, and they drove off into the night.
They pulled up outside the Wanderer, and he stepped out, taking a moment the let his stomach settle. All of a sudden he felt exhausted. Gwen stepped out as well, telling Henry she thought he should have someone stay with him, at least for a little while, and he was too tired to argue. Henry pulled away and Gwen led him inside. He watched her warily. She had told him to say no, but she hadn’t told him about the harvest. Why? She motioned for him to go in ahead of her and as he walked past her his back suddenly felt very exposed, and the skin crawled all along his spine.
Gwen followed him, closing the door, and he slumped into a chair. She went to the back room and retrieved her laptop.
“I thought maybe we could watch some more TV shows. If you want to, that is.”
To his horror he felt his mouth moving and words forming, words he had had no intention of saying. They came up forcefully, buoyed by the bubbling mistrust and exhaustion he felt inside.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the harvest?”
Gwen stopped dead, and stared at him. It felt as if the warmth had been sucked out of the room. He wanted nothing more in the world that to not have asked the question, to not have her staring at him like she was – like she had just been slapped.
But he had said it, and so he had no choice but to plunge forward.
“Someone told me. I won’t say who. Because I don’t know if I can trust you.”
She rocked back on her heels, as if he had dealt her a physical blow.
“Of course you can trust me-“
He found himself shouting, and even as he did so he wished to hell that he wasn’t, that the whole nightmare would end and he would wake up in his bed upstairs to find that the boys had both been found, alive, by some other person. Someone more competent, who had been able to revive Gavin.
“No I can’t! Because you were going to let them kill me! You’ve been letting them kill people for years – a century, probably!”
And he and Henry and Gwen would have been so relieved when they heard the news, and they would have sat down at a table in the Wanderer in the early morning sun and been speechless with happiness. He would have cooked breakfast for them all. Everything would have been fine.
He was crying.
“Please don’t, please just fucking don’t. I’m calling the police in the morning.”
Gwen went quiet.
“That won’t help.”
Internally, Carter tried desperately to gain control of the volume of his voice, but it almost felt like someone else was controlling his body now, and he was tied up somewhere, being forced to watch the whole sickening thing.
She didn’t answer, and sickly green realisation gripped him.
“Oh fuck me, the police too?”
“And even if I call non-local police, they pass it on to the local crew. If I claim they’re corrupt, that starts a whole investigation process – and everyone in town helps cover it up. God damn fucking damn God damn FUCK!”