Where does a story start? Where amongst all the tiny quirks of fate is the beginning of those events? Did it start with a dead bird and a dying dog? Or did it start on a Saturday morning with a moment of lust, a moment of lust in the bright sunshine? It was a small thing on which to pivot so many lives, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had not felt it. I look at the people about me, and wonder if they would still be alive, if I would still be alive. I picture the town silent, peopled by skeletons with only the wind-blown dust stirring, and my mind goes back unbidden to that moment.
It had been raining, and I can remember the thick smell of wet earth and damp, dead grass as I lay on the mound of the rifle range, squinting along the sights against the morning sun. It was far too early to be able to practice with any hope of success, but then I wasn't really there to practice. I was there because I was bored and depressed. Jeff, my best friend, my only real friend, had left suddenly for Melbourne the weekend before, and here I was at a complete loss.
I had finished the paper run, grabbed a bit of breakfast and got out of the house before Mum had a chance to recite the list of jobs that I had so often promised to get done. I had brought the 22 to have a few shots to keep my eye in, though the next club shoot was nearly six weeks away. With Jeff gone, I didn't even know if I wanted to keep on with the competition. Jeff had been the keen marksman. I had tagged along rather than be left out.
I straightened the groundsheet, squirmed about until I was comfortable, and squeezed off an experimental shot. The glasses showed it to be too high and off to the right. I shot another, allowing for the slight breeze that blew across the range, then shot off five in quick succession to see if I could group them.
I was looking through the glasses when a shadow fell across me, and I became aware of Trixie barking. I rolled onto my side, and looked up to find Jenny Graeme standing beside me. "Did you kill it?" she asked in that kind of sarcastic tone she used with us boys.
I just looked at her. I didn't like Jenny Graeme much. She was in a couple of my classes at school. She was smart and good-looking, but she knew it, and expected everyone to pay homage. Her Old Man was the local magistrate, and that didn't help. The kids reckoned she was stuck-up, and she certainly didn't make much effort to disabuse them. There had been a time when Jeff and she had had a thing going, and I think she resented his friendship with me, then. Anyway, it didn't last long--her Old Man saw to that. Jeff, like me, didn't come from the right society. My Old Man drove graders for the council, and Jeff's dad, when he lived with them, was a truckie. Anyway, she had made it pretty obvious that her friendship with Jeff did not extend to me, so I wondered what she was doing there, with her half-smart remarks and superior airs.
I was sort of realizing that she wouldn't be alone, when I sensed or heard movement on the other side. I dropped back onto my stomach and turned my head the other way. I was looking at a pair of sneakers only a dozen or so centimeters from my nose. There were white socks with some grass seeds embedded. Then there were legs, tanned legs, smooth with fine, pale hair hardly discernible, but muscles sharply outlined--athlete's legs. They went up and up, past the knees and the long thighs, to white shorts, very short with wide legs, showing the panties, pale pink with dark shadows beneath. I dragged my eyes further up with a mighty effort, past the belt, past an expanse of bare midriff, as tanned as the legs, to breasts just covered by a thin blue blouse with a couple of straining buttons, and a face that looked down with pointedly raised eyebrows.
My neck cricked and stabbed me with pain. I gasped and grabbed it, and tried to roll over all at once. I could feel my face burning and my body going out of control.
After a while I managed to sit up, and rub the pain out of the back of my neck. I knew her only slightly. She had been up at the school a week or two, but she wasn't in any of my classes. I knew she was some sort of relative of Jenny's. Jenny had introduced her around, and they had been together during breaks. I had thought of her as good-looking with her dark hair and eyes, and her smooth clear skin that had escaped the almost-universal curse of teenage acne. I hadn't thought her as pretty as Jenny, but then she had been in school uniform, which was a very different proposition from this outfit.
"Hello," she said, "You're Dave Dougan, aren't you?" It sounded more like an accusation than a greeting.
"Duggan," I corrected. "What are you doing here?" It didn't sound very gracious, but then I wasn't feeling gracious. They apparently had reason to overlook my boorishness, however.
"Jenny was taking me up the mountain, but we got lost. We thought you might know the way."
"We didn't get bloody lost!" Jenny broke in, "It's just the track has been fenced off, and the grass and stuff is a mile high along the edge there. I've been up there a dozen times, but we can't get through--they've got 'no trespassing' signs, would you believe! God knows what they think people would do to their bit of mountain. It's only bloody rocks after all!"
"Yes, I know," I said. "There's another way around the edge of the gully over there, but you've got to know how to get to it through the bush."
"Could you show us?" It was the other one that asked. I couldn't think of her name.
"Eh," I said. "I'd have to take you all the way up."
"Why? Couldn't we keep to the track?"
"I doubt it. There's not much of a track, and there's some pretty nasty spots if you get off it."
She didn't say anything more, just stood looking at the side of the mountain, as though trying to trace a way up. Jenny seemed to have lost interest, and was doing something with one of her shoes. It gave me a chance to think, and to sneak another look at those shorts. She was turned away, but now the curve of her buttocks was showing, and I had a sudden urge to run my hand up along those legs as high as I could go under the shorts--I wrenched my eyes away before she had a chance to turn and catch me again, but I was in my moment of lust, lost in a haze of desire. I would have gone anywhere at that moment, just to keep those legs in view, and on the off chance that I might see more. It was stupid, really. You can see more on the beach any day of the year, but then, I wasn't on a beach. The thought of taking illicit pleasure from these two--who apparently looked on me as some lower form of life--appealed to me. Besides, the track was a tough one, and I reckoned I would show them who was superior, physically at least.
My throat was so tight; it took a couple of tries to speak. "Guess I'm not doing anything much, anyway," I said, trying to sound off-hand, but I saw the glance that flickered between the two of them, and I wondered if I had been manipulated. Still, I figured I was going to get a lot more than they thought out of the day anyway, and it was far better than moping around bored.
"You got water?" I asked, as I untied Trixie and wrapped the rifle in the groundsheet, while preparing to hide it, and my bike, in the long grass that bordered the range.
"Yes," It was Jenny who spoke, indicating the knapsack at her feet, "We've got enough lunch, too, so you won't starve."
I had no reply to that. It suddenly struck me that it would be wonderful if I could get rid of her, and take Miss Shorts by herself. I had a few visions that did much to keep my blood churning, and I had to turn away quickly and tug at my shorts to settle them more comfortably. By the time I had hidden the bike and the rifle, the girls were waiting.
"Come on!" I said. I looked at the one in the shorts, "Sorry, but I can't remember your name."
Her eyebrows shot up, and Jenny grinned, a little maliciously I thought. "She's Mary, Mary Graeme, she's my cousin from Sydney."
She didn't proffer a hand or anything, so I just nodded and said that I'd remember it this time, and we set off.
There's not a lot to tell about the climb up the mountain. After what happened later, it seems rather trivial, and I'm not very proud of it, anyway. I suppose lust is a natural enough emotion for a healthy seventeen-year-old adolescent, and I certainly could claim that my companions were not entirely innocent. I had first supposed that Jenny had had little to do with my seduction, if you could call it that. She, after all, was dressed in jeans, and what Mum would call a sensible blouse, but about half way up I had reason to revise that opinion.
For a lot of the way, I, as guide, had to lead. The grass was long and dead, but wet enough to cling uncomfortably about my legs, wetting the bottom of my trousers so that they chafed in the humid heat. The temperature was rapidly building up; the morning breeze had completely died. The sky was intensely blue after the nights rain, and it was going to be a scorcher. Mary was last in the line, and, as my excitement faded under the uncomfortable conditions and the exertion of the climb, my disgust with myself grew, so that I cursed the stupidity that had got me into this situation. Then we reached the crest of a spur that came down off the mountain, and, for a way, the route was obvious. I had set a cracking pace in an attempt to exhaust the girls, but they were right behind me, and I was forced to pause to catch my breath. For a while we stood there, looking out over the town that was starting to spread out below. If I could have thought up a good excuse, I would have left them to find their own way from there on, but I couldn't, and then, while I was still puffing, and as though she guessed what I had been trying to do, Jenny led off, and Mary passed me with a pitying look. She was not even breathing hard, and she was carrying the knapsack. Jenny, at least, had looked hot and bothered in her jeans and thick blouse. I silently cursed them, but there I was, bringing up the rear, watching those legs, and the wonderful flashes of pink panties that always promised to show a little more, and that, after all, was why I was there.
Then the spur steepened into a rock face about five meters high. Jenny stopped and waited until we reached her. "Where to now, Captain?" she dramatized, indicating the rock with a theatrical gesture. I sat down to get some stones out of my sneakers, but also to hide the fact that I was puffing more than they were. Trixie came romping around us.
"Hey! That's a male dog," Mary exclaimed.
"So?" I said.
"So, why do you call him Trixie?"
"Why not? Lassie's a male dog, and he doesn't know the difference."
I grinned at her, and she made a rude sign. She called Trixie over, stooped down and began commiserating with him over his choice of owners, but he thrust his wet nose up the leg of her shorts. Mary sprang up, with a squeak like a startled rabbit. I laughed, and she glared, and then turned her back on me pointedly. Jenny said something I couldn't quite catch about dogs and their owners, and they both giggled.
There were two ways we could go, as I indicated when I had finished getting the stones out, and I was confident enough to stand and face them again. We could creep along the base of the rock around the head of the gully, climb the further bank, and so reach the top of the wall. We then had to come back along the rock to reach this spur, as the other was almost impassable. On the other hand, we could climb up a narrow cleft, which was just a few meters around the other way, and accomplish in a few minutes what would take about fifteen or twenty minutes of hard work the first way. Trixie had to take the long way, but then he could do it in no time, and he knew the way. I had been both ways, and I definitely favored the second. The only problem was that the sides of the cleft were quite smooth down near the bottom, and you had to jump for a handhold. Then you could get a foot on a ledge, and from then on, it was easy. There were obvious handholds and footholds on either side, all the way up, with the sides coming closer together so that it got easier as you went.
I pointed all this out to the girls, fully expecting them to pick the longer way, but I offered to go up the cleft to show them how it was done. Mary shook her head as soon as she saw the cleft, but Jenny seemed more interested.
"We can throw the pack up," she observed, looking to me for confirmation.
"Yes," I told her, "it's flat up on top. If one goes up, they could easily catch it. I'll go up, if you like." I made to jump for the first handhold, but she stopped me.
"No! If you give me a leg up, I'll be able to get up there with no trouble. So can you, can't you?" She had turned to Mary, and there was a sort of amused maliciousness in her voice and expression. Mary started to protest, and then suddenly seemed to change her mind.
"If you can, I can," she said defiantly, and stepped back.
Jenny looked at me for a moment with a sly grin, almost a smirk, and turned to the cleft. I couldn't believe my luck.
I bent down and cupped my hands to take her foot. She placed it in them, and I lifted her, turning so that she could reach her other foot across to the ledge when she had gained the handhold. She quickly found the foothold on the other side of the cleft, then paused for a moment, her legs and arms spread wide apart as she straddled the cleft, looking down at us. I couldn't help but see the look that passed between the two girls, and, as we watched her climb rapidly upwards, I realized that she had been maneuvering us to embarrass Mary as much as me. Far from being unaware of the effect Mary's outfit had had on me, Jenny had been highly amused by it.
I didn't have much time to contemplate that revelation, however, for Jenny quickly clambered out of the cleft, turned, and called for the knapsack. I swung it by the straps and threw it up. She caught it easily, dropped it behind her, and sat down on the edge, swinging her legs, and watching us sardonically.
Mary turned to me, her face stiff and her eyes challenging, but she didn't say anything. My face was burning again, this time with anger as much as embarrassment. I bent and presented my hands for her foot. She refused to hurry. Very deliberately she reached her free foot across the cleft, and allowed me to lift her other foot to the foothold on the other side. Then, as Jenny did, she paused, and looked down. I turned away deliberately, and made a great thing of sending Trixie around the long way, all the time cursing Jenny and myself. When it came to the crunch, I didn't have the guts to take advantage of the opportunity presented, and we all knew it.
The rest of the climb was almost silent. There was a certain element of tension between the girls, and I was too disgusted with myself to want to talk. There were no more steep climbs, and for the last pinch, I had to take over the lead again to get us through the thick bush just below the summit. Then we were out on the top, and we flopped down on the surface rocks and puffed. The town was spread out below, looking like a child's model with tiny cars, like ants gliding up miniature streets. Beyond the town, the farmland swept away to the far mountains like a patchwork quilt, broken here and there by forested hills and winding creeks. A few cumulus clouds billowed overhead, their drifting shadows adding to the beauty of the scene. All tension was forgotten as we pointed out features of note to Mary, and picked out the school and other public buildings, and our own streets and houses. Mary was living with Jenny. They told me about it readily enough, but as to why she was there, they were much more reticent, and I quickly understood that it was none of my business. It was, though, a situation that roused my curiosity and gave a slight aura of mystery to Mary. For the first time, I started to think of her as a real person rather than a body.
After a while we had exhausted the subject of the view, and the conversation turned to what we should do next. It was only a little past ten-thirty. It had taken about an hour and a half to climb the mountain, and it would take about an hour to retrace our steps. As we passed the water bottle around, Jenny asked if there was a better place to have lunch. I told them that there was a creek in the rainforest about three kilometers into the hills. The mountain was not isolated. It was the highest point of a confused mass of mountains and ranges that stretched for a good thirty kilometers west of the town.
"How long would it take us to get there?" Jenny wanted to know.
"About forty-five minutes," I estimated.
"What's the track like?" It was Mary who asked from where she sat on a rock with her knees rather pointedly, I thought, held close together, and her hat pulled low over her face, hiding her eyes.
"It's easy," I told them. "You just have to go down that way for a bit, and you break out onto a State Forest firebreak that leads to one of their roads. That takes you to the creek."
"Is it a nice place?" Jenny asked.
"Well, it's a lot cooler than this, and there's plenty of cold water, and if you like rainforest, then I suppose you would say that it is a very nice place." I didn't want to sound too enthusiastic in case they didn't like it when we got there. You never can tell with girls--one leech, for example, and they'd likely reckon you had tried to murder them.
"Would we have to come back this way?" Mary wanted to know.
"Not unless you wanted to," I said, wondering what it would be like going back down that cleft.
"The road goes down there, and you can get across to the range from the bottom. It would take a bit more than a couple of hours, that's all."
Jenny looked at her watch. "We could be at this creek by half-past eleven, have an hour for lunch, and get back around three?" She looked the question at me.
"Easy, I reckon," I answered.
She looked at Mary.
"Suits me. We came for the whole day. What about you? When are you supposed to be home?"
She turned to me.
"As long as I'm home before dark," I told them.
"Is that what you want to do? Go to the creek?"
I shrugged. I liked the rainforest, and the day was shot now, anyway.
I offered to carry the knapsack as we rose to go. "I thought you'd never think of it," Jenny observed, as she handed it over, and I wondered if I had somehow been maneuvered into that, too.
On the firebreak we could walk abreast and talk more easily than on the climb up. The conversation, as I remember it, was pretty trivial, but comfortable enough. It was still humid but cooler when we reached the edge of the rainforest and the proper State Forest road. I was feeling better, and Trixie, at least, was obviously enjoying the outing. He was running everywhere, in and out of the bush, chasing anything that moved. I was hungry and looking forward to whatever lunch the knapsack could provide. It was heavy enough to have plenty in it.
Without any omen, or warning of any kind, we reached the side of the valley where the road led down to the bridge over the creek.
We were about a third of the way down when the bird fell out of the tree onto the road in front of us. It hit the ground with a thud, shuddered a bit, stiffened, and then went limp. I ran a few steps, and knelt down beside it. It was dead. I looked up at the girls. "Wonder what happened!" I said.
Before either could answer, there was another thud in the leaves beside the track, and a flight of parrots came screeching over our heads from behind. The girls turned to see what was in the side of the track; I watched the parrots. Down near the bridge, they went out of control, scattered, their wings at all angles. They smashed into trees, bounced back, fell and somersaulted along the ground. Suddenly Trixie was there, yelping, jerking about, and writhing. I dropped the knapsack, and ran.
I reached the bridge. Then it hit me. I can't describe it. For a split second it was like pins and needles all over my body. Then the pain! You can't describe pain, but this was agony, muscle-wrenching agony that seared the brain. I must have lost consciousness, for the next thing I can remember was being in the water, and drowning, and my back was on fire. I got my head up, and immediately it was as though fire was all through it. I sank. The pain went away, but I couldn't breath. I pushed myself up. More pain, but I must have got a breath by reflex. Down again. No pain, but no air. How long that went on, I don't know. It is all very vague, and I can remember only in patches, but then I was holding onto a stick in the water, holding myself down, fearing the pain. Then I couldn't do without air, and I flung myself up into the pain. I must have gone out to it again, because I became aware of floating with my back on fire, and water in my lungs. I was sick in agony, trying to get back into the water, only under water could I escape the pain, but I couldn't live under water.
I got my toes under the branch and held myself down. I had a moment of sanity to think. Then I had to get air. Up and pain, but sucking in air and down again. Again, time to think. But no time to wonder. In all the time that I was in the water, I don't think I once wondered what had happened. All my attention was taken up with staying alive. In the end, I lifted just my nose above water. It was like poking my nose into burning coals, but I had to have air, and one pain became a trade off against the other. Time ceased to exist. I didn't think past staying alive. When the pain left, I don't know. I just realized in a hazy sort of way that I could breathe. I thought I was breathing under water. Then I sort of came around and found that I was lying in water in the shallow. I was very cold, and I wondered why.
I staggered up, and began to remember, but nothing made sense. I clung to trees, trying to get my muscles to work, but they were like rubber. I had to crawl up to the bridge. The parrots were still there, and so was Trixie, and they were all dead. I tried to pick Trixie up, but I couldn't lift him, and I sat on the bridge, crying and holding his head. I loved that dog--the only dog I had ever had. I hadn't called him Trixie. It was a stupid name. I'd called him Tricks, because as a pup he'd been into mischief all the time, and from that it had just sort of drifted into Trixie, and now he was dead, and I didn't know why!
Then I remembered the girls, and my mind burst clear on a blast of fear. I stumbled at a half run for a few yards, and then had to walk. I just didn't seem to have any strength. They were not on the track. It seemed to take hours, but at last I got to the top of the hill. Once I fell and crawled for a little way. My face was close to the ground. There were dead ants, a dead butterfly, dead caterpillars, dead birds, a little dusting of dead wasps, a dead wallaby, but no dead girls, at least not yet.
On the flat, I could stagger along a bit better. The dead birds and insects fed my fear and kept me going. I wondered what would happen if it caught me out of the water. It would kill me, just like it killed Trixie, I had no doubt. Then there didn't seem to be any more dead things, and the road dipped down. I staggered along, only half conscious.
At the bottom of the mountain, I found the girls. They were crouched beside the bank, very frightened, but alive. I croaked a greeting. They sprang up and ran to me.
"What was it?" Mary asked. I had no answer. The three of us staggered down the road.