He sat, smoking, the orange-red tip of the cigarette the only light visible in the otherwise pitch black room. He took it out of his mouth, and the tip twitched and shuddered, betraying his shaking hands. He coughed, a deep, wet cough, and extinguished the cigarette in a small, empty ashtray next to the bed, plunging the room back into darkness. He lay back down, and watched the afterimage of the cigarette tip dance in his vision.
Gwen paced restlessly around her room. She alternated between staring at her laptop screen, and looking out her window at the street outside, lit by a single streetlight. Soft white light spilled out of it and poured down onto the street, forming a small puddle of light. She stared at the light where it met the asphalt of the road, looking at it but not seeing it, lost in deep thought. There was a film playing on her laptop, and the tinny voices coming out of it were the only sound to be heard in the house. The night air was warm and muggy, but she still shivered.
Lauren lay on her side, staring at her wall. Next to her, Stacey snored gently. Their old bed creaked and shifted with the rhythm of her breathing. In the dark, their room seemed small and cramped, almost claustrophobic. Lauren closed her eyes, but in the darkness there she saw images of knives, and Stacey covered in blood. She tucked her arms around herself, and pulled her knees up to her chest. There was a mosquito trapped in their room, and she listened to its high-pitched whine wane and grow as it pitched haphazardly around their room, sticking close to their ceiling, irritatingly far from swatting distance. She thought about getting up and trying to catch it or wave it out of the window, but the last thing she wanted was to wake Stacey, so she buried her head in her pillow and tried to sleep.
Tobias was sleeping in Joseph’s bed, a protective arm curled around his son. He hadn’t bothered to wash yet, and the coppery stench of blood filled Joseph’s nostrils. Joseph could hear his dog whining and barking. Every so often, a loud sawing noise indicated that the dog was scratching madly at the back door, trying to get inside the house. It was a habit he told his father he hadn’t yet managed to break – truthfully, when Tobias was out at work and he was home alone, Joseph would often let the dog inside. Joseph’s head was heavy and painful. He felt sick in his stomach, and couldn’t help picturing Marcus’ head as his father had dashed it against the stones of the church. The disturbing and unnatural dent where Marcus skull had cracked and caved, the fountain of blood, the dazed and faraway look in his eyes. Every time the dog scratched at the door, he jumped. He kept picturing Marcus, clothed drenched and filthy with creek mud, head dented and bloody, scratching with his fingernails against their door. He could even see the matted hair, and the knife still clutched in Marcus’ hand. His father had said that Marcus was trying to kill them, but Joseph didn’t think that made it right to kill someone else.
Worse than Marcus, though, was the figure that stood behind him in Joseph’s imagination. That figure was huge, squat and old. It slowly opened its massive jaws, and Joseph could see Gavin inside, his face blue-purple, his eyes bulged. Joseph backed away and tripped, and the fall jolted him out of his dream. He had somehow fallen asleep. He pushed his father’s arm off and jumped up when he realised that hot urine was spilling out of him and soaking his pants. Crying silently, he picked up a change of clothes and went into their bathroom. He showered and changed, and threw the dirty clothes into their hamper, which was overflowing. Joseph peeked into his room, and saw his father was asleep. He crept away and into the lounge room and curled up on the couch with a blanket. He slowly drifted into a fitful sleep.
In the deep waters of the largest part of the creek, the great creature known to the residents of Fisherman’s Creek as the Fisher tossed and rolled lazily through the water, stirring up silt and dirt from the creek bed as it went. Powerful muscles pushed and contracted to propel it silently forward, and its jaws snapped and stretched restlessly. It was growing hungry.
Saturday passed more or less without incident. Carter and Gwen barely spoke two words to each other the whole day. Carter was glad for the seclusion of the kitchen, and he was reassured by the fact that the door from the kitchen to the back of the Wanderer where the bins were kept had a big, heavy bolt on it. From where he did most of his cooking in the kitchen, he could keep one eye on the door to the Wanderer’s dining area. His nerves were stretched thin, almost to breaking point, and he had a huge black bag under each eye. He had to stop himself from jumping every time Henry pinned up a new order sheet and rung the bell, and he cut himself shallowly more than once due to being startled by the noise. He found himself getting worked up, breathing heavily and looking at every utensil and surface in the kitchen and assessing their utility in a fight. He was compulsively checking his heartrate with two fingers to the neck, and could feel it racing just beneath his skin. When Henry called in that lunch service was over, he took a large knife and slipped it into the waistband of his shorts before stepping outside, making sure to hide the handle under his shirt.
He leaned against the back wall of the Wanderer, and closed his eyes. He breathed in through his nose for a count of three, held it, then expelled it through pursed lips – a stress management technique he had learned in a counselling session as a child, taken to help with his anxiety while in a car. He repeated the breathing exercise until he felt his heart rate begin to slow and the tightness in his chest began to dissipate. A clicking sound next to him made him jump, and he turned his head quickly.
Henry was leaning against the wall next to him, flicking his lighter idly, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Carter nodded at him in what he hoped was an amiable manner, watching him carefully. Henry coughed, and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, forcefully expelling smoke. They stood there for a full five minutes, Carter breathing deeply and regularly, Henry smoking. Finally, Henry crushed out his cigarette on the ground with his heel, clapped Carter on the shoulder and went back inside. Carter shook his head. He was very aware of the knife in his waistband. He pushed himself off the wall and went back inside the Wanderer to have something to eat and prepare for dinner service.
The afternoon and evening passed by without incident. As the last of the patrons were clearing out, Carter was suddenly very aware that he had nowhere else to go. He worked in the Wanderer, he slept in the Wanderer, and he was fairly sure that that news had spread through town by now. Henry busied himself counting cash, while Gwen cleaned glasses. Carter swept, and stacked chairs, watching them both from the corner of his eye. Henry seemed engrossed in what he was doing, but he caught Gwen giving him an occasional glance. Finally, they finished their tasks and left with barely a word, just stilted ‘goodbyes’, and he repeated last night’s ritual of checking and double checking the Wanderer’s windows and doors. He brought the knife upstairs with him, and placed it under his pillow. He lay down, and attempted to sleep. When sleep didn’t come, he sat up and turned on the lights. He retrieved a notepad and pen from his backpack, and began making a list.
Ropes, first aid kit, clothes, towel, food.
He wrote each item slowly and carefully, in a shaky, unpractised script. The writing helped, gave him the illusion of control. It was another stress-management technique, one he had figured out on his own. He had no idea if any of the items would prove helpful – he doubted that he’d ever be able to have them on hand in an emergency situation – but the simple act of planning helped calm him down, and when he had finished slowly forming the d in food, he capped the pen, placed both the pen and notebook in his backpack, and finally managed to get to sleep.
On Sunday, the Wanderer was closed. Carter lay in bed for a long time, running over his list. It was almost nine when he finally got out of bed, dressed, and went downstairs. He stepped out through the Wanderer’s front doors without bothering to prepare breakfast, and hurried down the street to the hardware shop. He tried to gather the items from his list without looking suspicious, waving amiably at the few people wandering the small aisles. When he’d finally gathered the last of the non-food items he had listed, he brought them up to the counter, and thanked the clerk behind it for being open on a Sunday.
“Shop like this has to be open on a Sunday, round here,” the clerk replied as he scanned Carter’s purchases. “Holy day or not. We sell mainly to farmers, see, and of course they don’t get time off to come in until the weekend. We’d go broke otherwise.”
Carter nodded along, nervously tapping his fingers on the counter. He paid for his purchases in cash, and eschewed the clerk’s offer of a plastic bag, packing everything away into his backpack. He thanked the clerk again, and headed outside. Next he stopped at the supermarket, where he purchased two bottles of water, cereal, and some pre-packaged dehydrated meals. After a second’s thought, he added a box of matches. He figured he could take one of the Wanderer’s torches.
The attendant on duty was a young teenage girl with blond hair and a bright, cheery smile. She scanned Carter’s items, chatting while she did so.
“Are you going on a hike?”
He stared at her blankly.
She pointed at his items.
“Dehydrated food, water bottles. Looks like stuff you’d take hiking.”
He started to answer, then paused, scolding himself. No reason to trust her just because she’s young and happy.
“Yeah. I’ve been here a week now but haven’t really had a chance to go explore yet. Not properly, anyway. Thought I might go for a bit of a day trip.”
She finished scanning his items, and smiled a white, toothy smile.
“There’s some pretty good places out here, especially up in the hills. I’d stay away from the creek, though. Bit dangerous, this time of year. Cash or card?”
Outside in the street, he carefully packed the items away in his backpack, which was now comfortingly weighty. At least now he could leave and live comfortably out of town for a few days, if it came to that.