Author’s Note: This entry is a bit of a long one. Because it’s the end of the book! I hit 50,000 words and realised that the story wasn’t quite done, so this is quite a lengthy excerpt, a bit over 4000 words.

This is easily the most nervous I’ve been about posting an excerpt all month. I really hope you enjoy it, as much as you can enjoy reading the first draft of something.

Tobias gestured at the men holding Carter.

“Follow us.”

He grabbed his son Joseph by the wrist and began pulling him forward. He walked right through the group, which parted before him, no one wanting to get in his way, or stand too close to him. He walked briskly, and the men holding Carter hoisted him up, throwing his arms over their shoulders so they could carry him with ease. Carter didn’t even ty to struggle – he was surrounded by scared-looking people holding knives and other weapons. Carter knew that causing a panic now by trying to escape would only have one outcome.

Tobias led them onwards, dragging an unresisting Joseph behind him, and although Carte couldn’t see where they were going through the mob of people in front of him, he could hear the gurgling and splashing sound of fast-moving water. It was growing louder.

Finally, the group parted, and Carter was brought forward. Through one eye, he saw Tobias standing on the ridge of the small valley, arm around Joseph’s shoulders. The knife dangled limply by Joseph’s side. The sounds of the creek were deafening now, and when Carter was finally brought up to the ridge, he could see why. In the small valley below, the creek water was rushing and raging. The black water was replaced by white foam as it churned and boiled, splashing over rocks. Tobias let go of Joseph and stepped forward. Carter was released, and Tobias slipped behind him. Carter felt the barrel of the rifle against the back of his head. Tobias hissed at him, and poked him with it.

“Go. Down the hill. To the water.”

Carter stepped forward, over the ridge and past Joseph. He stuck out his hands to balance himself as he slid down the soft dirt of the hill towards the water. It was wide here, and although the surface was a mess of white foam, gauging from the slope of the valley, he could tell that it was deep as well. He stepped forward, stopping a metre from the edge of the water. He was very aware of dozens of eyes behind him, staring at him. He turned around just as Tobias slid down the hill, gun raised. He was still dragging Joseph.

“The line must continue, Carter. I don’t expect you to understand.”

Tobias walked up to him, and pushed him to his knees. Then he grabbed Joseph’s hand – still holding the knife – and guided it, until the point of the knife was at Carter’s throat.

“Joseph, I need you to be strong. You’re a big boy now. A man. And a man has duties, Joseph. This is yours.”

Carter looked at Joseph. The child’s face was blank, but tears were streaming down his cheeks. Carter spoke carefully, keeping his eyes on Joseph.

“You still need me to agree to be killed, Tobias. I know the rules. What’s to stop me from just standing up and walking away now?”

Tobias didn’t say a word. He lifted his rifle and aimed down the sights – directly at the back of Joseph’s head. Carter’s stomach twisted into a painful knot, and his heart began pounding. He could hear it in his ears.

He could hear something else, too. A voice, just on the edge of hearing. Joseph and Tobias didn’t react to it, but he heard it clearly.

KILL HIM

A red mist began to descend. He realised Tobias was speaking, and he shook himself. The important thing right now was to keep him talking.

“If my boy Joseph doesn’t complete this harvest – if you got up and walked away – then the line of Fisher Men would be at an end. I cannot allow this.”

Tobias shifted slightly. Carter could see tears welling up in his eyes.

FUCK HIM BASTARD SHOVE THAT GUN DOWN HIS THROAT AND PULL THE TRIGGER PUMP IT DRY

“Don’t make me do this, Carter. Because I will. I have to. I have duties. You hear me, sinner? I HAVE DUTIES!”

Tobias was screaming, and Joseph began to sob. Carter looked up at the ridge of the valley. It seemed like there were fewer people there than before. As he watched, people were turning and leaving. Even they couldn’t bear to watch this – but they weren’t trying to stop it, either.

BURN THEIR WHOLE FUCKING TOWN DOWN

He breathed in through his nose, for a count of three. One, two three. Then out through the mouth, lips pursed, like he was making a ‘p’ sound. He repeated this, then looked at Joseph again, making sure he looked the boy in the eye.

“Joseph, you don’t have to do this-“

“DON’T YOU SPEAK TO HIM!” Tobias roared, veins throbbing on his temple and neck. Carter ignored him, kept talking.

“Joseph, just put the knife down. You don’t have to do this. I don’t know what your dad told you, but it’s not true. There’s no Fisher-“

Tobias shifted his grip on the gun and stepped forward, so the barrel was almost touching the hair on the back of Joseph’s head.

“Joseph, you listen to your father! Do as I say! Be a man now, Joseph!”

Carter went silent as the knot in his stomach gave another sickening turn. Tobias was getting too agitated. He might end up firing the gun accidentally, or in anger. Tobias lowered his voice to a growl.

“I’m going to count to three, Carter. You say yes, now. If I get to three, and you haven’t agreed to be harvested, then I’ll pull this trigger. One!”

Carter leaned forward, whispered hurriedly.

“Joseph, you don’t have to do this. Please, just put it down-“

“Don’t you test me, Carter! Two!”

Carter raised his hands in the air and spoke quickly.

“Yes! Yes, I say yes! I agree!”

Tobias sniffed, and directed his attention to his son.

“Joseph, you do as I tell you, boy. Put that knife in that sinner’s throat right now!”

Joseph was still sobbing, and his sobs turned into great heaving cries. The hand with the knife in it began to tremble. Tobias saw this, and it only served to enrage him.

“Joseph I am your FATHER! DO AS I SAY-“

Joseph screamed, and lifted the knife high in the air, blade pointing down. The knot in Carter’s stomach dropped. With a primal yell, Joseph plunged the knife down. Carter shut his eyes reflexively.

There was no pain, no feeling whatsoever. He heard Joseph yelling, and Tobias screamed.

“JOSEPH!”

Carter opened his eyes. Joseph had plunged the knife into his own leg, and blood was starting to flow heavily. Tobias dropped his rifle, and stepped forward to grab Joseph.

DON’T TOUCH HIM

Carter stood, and charged forward. He grabbed Tobias by the shirt, and drew his hand back for a punch. Tobias roared and pushed forward, knocking Joseph to the ground. Tobias stepped over him and grabbed Carter, hands scrabbling for Carter’s neck. His push forward knocked both of them off-balance, and they hung in the air, right on the verge of falling, for what felt like an eternity. Then gravity took hold, and they fell over, plunging into the waters of the creek.

Everything went silent. The water was warm, and dark, and the effect of it was that he felt like he was floating in space. Carter felt Tobias’ hands trying to find purchase around his neck, and he kicked out blindly. Tobias was on top of him, pushing him down into the water. He could feel the current pulling them along, and he struggled to get loose, to get to the surface for air. He had barely got a breath in before being submerged, and his lungs burned. He was barely able to see – he could only make out a blurry figure. He struck out at it, and felt his fist connect with something. The water slowed his movement though, and the blow had no effect. Instead he pushed hard, and felt the weight of Tobias move away. Desperately, he kicked and paddled. He was totally disoriented, and had no idea which way was up. He swam blindly, lungs pleading for air. Carter knew that if he didn’t reach the surface soon, he’d likely drown. He could see something ahead, couldn’t tell if it was surface or riverbed. He stretched out a hand, feeling for it, hoping to God it wasn’t mud –

His hand breached the surface of the water, and he felt air. He gave one last set of quick kicks, and his head broke the surface. He gasped and spluttered. The water was flowing quickly, and it was all Carter could do to stay afloat as it rushed him downstream. Rocks surged out of the darkness, and he scrabbled at them ineffectually.

There was a loud splashing behind him, and he spun to see Tobias’ red face mere centimetres from his own, teeth bared in an animalistic rage. Tobias reached up and grabbed his head, trying to push his face under the water. Carter struggled, kicking his legs furiously, but Tobias pulled down with his weight, and Carter was quickly forced underwater again. He kicked and punched, but his strikes did nothing to slow Tobias down. The red-headed man grabbed him and forced him into a headlock, arm wrapping around his neck like a snake. Tobias squeezed, and Carter felt the last of his air be forced out of his lungs. He struggled, pulling at Tobias’ arm, but Tobias’ grip was strong. Blackness began to close in around the edges of Carter’s vision. He slowly began to lose consciousness as they were pushed inexorably onward by the current of the creek.

Suddenly, Carter was aware of a cold pocket by his feet. He looked down, and saw that somehow, the bottom of the creek had dropped even further away.

He saw something move in the river mud below him.

He felt Tobias’ grip around his neck loosen, then drop away completely. He swam upwards quickly, looking across at Tobias as he did so. Tobias was simply floating, heedless of the current, watching whatever it was that was crawling its way out of the mud below them. Carter tore his eyes away as he breached the surface, feeling an intense crawling sensation across his skin. He took a deep breath and ducked his head under the water again.

He opened his eyes, blinking to try and alleviate the blurring from the water. Tobias was swimming down, heading towards the river bed. Below him, Carter saw something huge. It was many times longer than a man, and from where Carter floated he saw its long body stretch away downstream. It was dark in colour, a deep grey-green. Its body was lined with ridges, and it had four large, powerful-looking limbs. Carter watched as it powered forward and upwards with a whip of its enormous tail, heading for Tobias, who swam towards it, arms outstretched. The Fisher opened a set of massive jaws and grabbed him in a snapping motion. Blood spiralled upwards as Tobias was dragged down into a cloud of mud and silt. After a few moments, a thin stream of blood floated out of the cloud and up towards the surface. Carter turned and broke the surface. Pushing hard against the current, he swam for the shore. Glancing down, he saw an enormous, dark shape glide by underneath him, and utter terror gripped him. He began hyperventilating, and he tried to slow his breathing. He was mere metres from the shore now, and he kicked hard. He turned, and saw the ridged back of the Fisher breach the creek’s surface as it glided swiftly towards him. Two metres from the shore. The Fisher opened its massive jaws and Carter kicked and grabbed at the water. Less than a metre.

Carter screamed.

In the same way that every resident of Fisherman’s Creek had somehow been in the main crossroads of town on the morning that Carter Murphy arrived, it seemed that no one had been a part of the large harvest party that followed Tobias into the bush that night. Locals theorised that the tension of the week leading up to it had caused people to overestimate the size of the group, or perhaps Tobias contracted a bunch of out-of-towners to help him out. In any case, there was not a person in Fisherman’s Creek the following morning who would admit to having been anywhere other than their own bed the night prior.

Despite this, everyone had somehow heard some version or another of the night’s events.

There were parts that no one could argue – Joseph had stabbed himself, and Carter and Tobias had tumbled into the creek and been washed away. A kind group of people had used strips of clothing to bandage Joseph’s leg and carried the boy out of the bush. He was in a state of shock when they finally got back to town, and an ambulance was promptly called, taking Joseph to hospital for both the second time in his life and the second time in a week. It came out later that according to the doctors, he had managed to avoid hitting any major arteries, which almost certainly saved his life, given the long period of time between the injury and receiving medical attention. The more devout amongst the Creek’s residents – Tobias’ group included – touted this as a miracle, and eventually held it up as one of many signs that the harvest need no longer be conducted. After all, Joseph was to have been the next Fisher Man, and even though he didn’t harvest Carter, he was spared, which surely meant the Fisher was appeased.

But they didn’t look each other in the eye when they said it.

Another search party was formed, to look for Tobias and Carter. They found no sign of either, and eventually the police called off the search, declaring them both missing persons. The official line was that either one or both had drowned in the creek, or else they had managed to crawl out and had gotten lost in the bush. Either way, the official police report stated that it was most likely that they were both deceased.

Three months on, a group of German tourists were hiking alongside the Creek, on the tail end of a long trek from the north coast of Australia to the south, through the eastern states. They noticed a disturbing smell and, looking into the valley in which the creek ran, discovered a body. It was heavily decomposed, but remarkably didn’t seem to have been eaten at all by any scavenging animals.

The body was positively identified as Tobias Kingsley. Coroners reported that after so much time, the exact nature of the death was difficult to determine, but after a thorough examination, cause of death was recorded as drowning. Unofficially, coroners noted what looked like teeth marks on Tobias’ body. They appeared to be similar to marks left by crocodile teeth, but this theory was quickly dismissed, as crocodiles are non-native to the south-eastern region of Australia, where the body was discovered.

Henry sat in a foldable deck chair in what used to be the car park of the Wanderer, watching the workers as they finally cleared the last of the wreckage away.

It had taken a long time. For a good while, Henry had been content to just let the wreckage sit, too depressed to even think about cleaning up. Then once the insurance payout had cleared, he’d considered just retiring. He figured if he lived frugally he could stretch the money out for a while, and only have to take odd jobs here and there, when he felt like it.

But something had told him that wasn’t good enough, and so he had finally hired a crew to clear up the charred remains of the hotel.

He still wasn’t sure what he was going to put in its place. He’d briefly considered trying to rebuild the whole hotel, but a brief discussion with a contractor had told him that that was far more trouble than it was worth. There was no one around who even knew how to build in the style that the Wanderer had been built in anymore, and the insurance payout, generous as it was, simply wouldn’t cover it. He’d thought about going completely left-field and building something entirely new – a department store, or an arcade – but again, economics had crushed that idea. He knew there was a vacancy in Fisherman’s Creek for a pub, but he wasn’t sure the Creek was ready for a department store. He wasn’t even sure he knew how to run one.

He’d even, very briefly, toyed with the idea of building a backpacker’s hostel, but had decided against it. Even if he could make it economically viable, the idea of inviting backpackers to come stay in Fisherman’s Creek – as fitting a memorial to Carter as it was – made him feel uneasy.

Currently, he was envisioning a modern bar and restaurant. Nothing too trendy, or gimmicky. That wouldn’t work in Fisherman’s Creek. But he thought it was time for a place that served meals that weren’t based around crumbed chicken. And cocktails.

It would still be called the Wanderer, though. That just felt right, for reasons he couldn’t totally explain. It just seemed to him that Fisherman’s Creek needed a Wanderer. Besides, it would help get people in the door in those critical early days, while he was still trying to sway them over.

Henry rubbed absently at the nicotine patch on his arm. He’d need staff, too. He’d probably have to put out an ad for a trained chef – he was really looking to bring a touch of class to the Fisherman’s Creek dining scene. But bar staff he thought he could train himself. There were plenty of guys from Tobias’ old crew who were looking for work. Plus they’d probably work cheap if he gave them discounted drinks.

He could ask Gwen, but that wouldn’t be fair. As much as he hated to see her go, it was for the best. He’d just have to get by without her.

He lay back in his chair, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand on his brow, and listened as the last debris of the old Wanderer was scraped away.

Gwen walked along the side of the road, keeping her feet firmly on the dirt, wary of inconsiderate drivers straying off the road. She hitched up her backpack, a large hiking pack with a sleeping bag clipped to one side. She had tried to go lighter, but even after selling off everything she didn’t think she’d absolutely need, she still hadn’t been able to fit it into a bag even one size smaller. She wasn’t worried. She thought that after a few weeks she’s start to get better at travelling light, and her load would shrink.

Henry hadn’t tried to talk her out of it, mercifully. She wasn’t sure she’d have had the willpower to say no to him. But this was important to her. She honestly didn’t know if she’d ever go back to the Creek. Henry had made her promise to call, though, so she thought she might never escape it entirely.

She thought she would head to the coast, and then north for the winter. She thought she had a good shot at getting bar work, or at least farm work. In any case, she wasn’t worried. She had a bit of money in her pocket, saved up over a lifetime of working a fulltime job in a town with nothing to spend money on. She thought she could live pretty well for a while, so long as she didn’t mind sleeping rough occasionally. Gwen didn’t think she’d mind at all.

Around midday, she wandered into a small town. A pleasant-looking sign declared it to be called Barwidgee, and hoped that she would enjoy her stay. She smiled as she walked past it. Fisherman’s Creek didn’t have a sign.

She stopped at a small café, in a building that looked like it used to be a bar, complete with hitching posts for horses. She slung off her pack, stashing it under her table, and ordered a coffee. As she waited, she took in her surroundings. The café was small, and had an intentionally rustic look, with lots of corrugated iron and wagon wheels hung from the walls. The window facing the street was plastered with community notices. Gwen passed her time by reading them. There was a local amateur production of ‘Cats’ in just two weeks, and someone was looking to sell two paint horses. There was also a ‘Help Wanted’ sign, and when the server brought over her coffee, Gwen asked her about it.

“Yeah, just looking for someone to wait the tables, sweep up a bit. Doesn’t pay well, but it pays well enough, especially for backpackers – no offense. Plus you can probably work out a deal with the boss for free food, like the last guy did.”

Gwen’s stomach growled at her. Free food did sound good.

“Sounds like a great gig. Why’d the last guy leave? Anything I should know about?”

The server flipped a tea towel at her dismissively, chuckling.

“No, nothing like that. He was a backpacker, like you, and he just decided it was time to move on, he said. Didn’t stay very long, really. Only about a week.”

Something nagged at Gwen, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Nice enough guy. Bit quiet. So, are you interested?”

Gwen sipped her coffee, thinking for a moment. Then she spoke carefully.

“This guy – blond hair, green eyes?”

The server looked at her, mouth agape.

“How did you know that?”

Gwen shrugged, trying to look calm. But she felt heat rising in her cheeks, and she couldn’t help but grin.

“Lucky guess. Sorry, I’m Gwen.”

She chatted with the server for another ten minutes. Thirty minutes after that, she had been hired. She asked the server – a short, round woman named Catherine – where she could find a place to stay, and she was directed to a hostel only about ten minutes’ walk away. It was easy enough to get a room – apparently they weren’t very busy this time of year. She unlocked the room, turned on the light, and set about unpacking her bag.

She didn’t have much, despite the size of her bag – some clothes, her phone and laptop, food and water supplies, a sleeping bag. There was really only one item she thought could be considered non-essential, but she didn’t dare get rid of it. Especially not now. She retrieved it from a pocket on the side of her bag, which she then carefully zipped up.

She lay down on the bed. She didn’t start work until tomorrow, and she supposed she should spend the rest of today getting acquainted with the town. But it didn’t look that big, and she’d been walking all day. She thought she could allow herself at least a few minutes’ rest. She lay back, and within five minutes she was asleep.

In her hand, she clutched a small piece of paper. On one side, in small, uncertain handwriting, it read Rope, first aid kit, clothes, towel, food.

On the other, in the same handwriting, was a single sentence message.

Sorry I had to leave without saying goodbye.

Joseph lay in bed. He still wasn’t used to it – he still thought of it as his Aunt Monica’s spare bed. He supposed it was his bed now, but he thought it would still be a while until he thought of it that way. She was very nice, though. It was lucky the court had been able to find her – otherwise they said he might have had to go to foster care. Joseph didn’t know much about foster care, but what little he had heard told him plenty. He didn’t want to go to foster care.

Joseph stared at the ceiling and thought about his day. It hadn’t been too bad. He’d been going to school for only a week, and already he’d made a few friends. Mostly girls, but some boys too. Joseph was especially good friends with one boy, Matthew. Matthew had been the first to say hello to him in the playground, and had let him join a game of kickball. Matthew thought that Joseph’s drawings were pretty cool, and had invited him over to his house next weekend. Apparently, Matthew had a whole bunch of painting stuff that he had got for his birthday one year that he never used, and he was going to let Joseph paint some pictures if he wanted.

Sometimes – especially late at night like this – Matthew reminded Joseph of Gavin.

Joseph’s leg itched. The doctor said it was going to heal perfectly fine, but he might not be able to run or play sports very well. Joseph was okay with that – he only really liked playing sports when his friends were playing.

The doctors also said he shouldn’t try to go for very long walks, either, and he teared up when he thought about that. He and his father used to go for long walks in the bush together, and hunt animals. Joseph was not a stupid boy. He knew his father had done some bad things, and had tried to hurt him before he fell in the creek. He heard his aunt talking about it with some people from the court, when she thought he couldn’t hear. They had used lots of complicated words he didn’t fully understand, like psychotic break and paranoid delusions. But he understood enough. His father had been sick before he… before he fell in the creek. And that made him do bad things.

Joseph understood that pretty well. He got frustrated and angry when his leg itched and hurt – he could only imagine how he’d feel if it was his brain that was itchy and hurting.

Joseph felt himself begin to cry, and he let it happen. The doctors said that it was okay to cry, so he did. He still felt a pang of guilt over it, but it felt good.

He heard footsteps in the hallway, coming closer, and he shut his eyes. He heard the door creak open, and footsteps approached him. He felt a soft kiss on his cheek, and heard his aunt’s voice as she whispered to him. He didn’t hear the words this time, but he’d heard them almost every other night since he’d been here.

“Goodnight, Joseph. You’re safe here.”

He listened to her footsteps as she left the room, closing the door behind her. He smiled as he drifted off to sleep.

Joseph lay in bed, sleeping, and dreaming about kickball, and paints, and another bed in another house, nestled at the base of a hill, and he felt warm and safe, and he thought it was just fine.

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