Afflicted 06: Chapter 5

The rest of the week passed uneventfully, and by Saturday each of those who were in trouble were granted grace enough to get out of the house and go fishing again. Apparently the desire for fresh fish sometimes outweighed punishment, particularly in Jack’s mum’s case. She was having a dinner party and wanted to make something extra-special, so fish it was to be. She’d shown Jack her menu for the party and he was staggered to see just how much fish it was going to require. Far more than he’d caught for the past month.

‘No pressure, Jack,’ she said to him on Friday morning, looking closely and seriously at him, seriously. ‘But if you don’t catch enough fish, we’ll serve you up instead.’

It was her way of telling her son that if he didn’t catch enough to assuage her, he could forget about his freedom for a considerable period of time. The news had a weird effect on Jack, though. Instead of freaking out as he usually did, he just tried to ignore the idea of his impending death, and found he could be much more personable. On the way down to the river, he considered that he might just have to invoke the old rule of sharing fish. He was, after all, completely in the shit. With this in mind, he copied out the menu that his mother had put together, and wrote down how many people would be in attendance. Evidently his brothers would be, and they eat so much between them that the food they consume could easily sustain an African village for a couple of months.

Rick had managed to convince Jack throughout the week that the new spot would be the best place to go to next, and they’d all agreed that they’d try to ride further along the track so that they wouldn’t have to do so much walking on their way in. Bevan was already down at the agreed-upon spot, and when he saw Jack, he prepared himself for a blast of unpleasantness. But he was surprised by Jack’s mellowness. They managed to hang out together with nary a word of angst between them.

They waited for about half an hour before they saw Rick. Rick pelted his way through the long grass on his bike. The contraption rattled and shook as he raced through the hills and down towards the river over the ridge and away from the town. Way down near the base of a huge old fig next to the river, he could see Jack and Bevan waiting for him. Gaining speed, he pumped the pedals as hard as he could, nearly splintering himself as he crashed over rocks and through broken branches. As soon as he was near enough to his mates, he gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and ditched the bike down the embankment as he jumped off, smashed to the ground, and rolled expertly in the other direction. The other two winced as Rick ditched, and watched his bike continue on its way down the embankment.

‘Jesus,’ muttered Bevan.

‘That fucken bike,’ agreed Jack.

Rick lay on his back, panting, and nursing an elbow that was already turning a healthy shade of puce. ‘I wonder what having brakes is like,’ he grinned up at the others, who shook their heads and helped him to his feed. ‘You know, ones that don’t burn out on the first go?’

Rick had had to ditch his bike so often that he’d got it down to a fine art. Everything he took with him was packed so well into the bag on his back that he rarely felt the impact, or broke anything within it. Which was quite a feat when you were carrying water, food, a telescopic fishing rod and bait, amongst other stuff. He grabbed his bag, patted it and didn’t feel anything broken, so he heaved it back onto his back and joined the other two, who were already heading down the track.

Unlike Rick’s last effort along this track, when he’d walked at a cracking pace, it took much longer. The others weren’t unco, but they weren’t used to just bashing their way through the bush and it took about an hour to get to the spot that Bevan had identified earlier that week. Along the way, Jack informed them about his mother’s plan for dinner and asked if they could finally invoke their rule about sharing fish if one of them is going to get into the shit. Rick and Bevan were taken aback by the polite way in which Jack went about his query, so both of them readily agreed. However, they did add a proviso that if, between them, they happened to catch a huge amount each and, if Jack had enough to appease the Death God that is his mother, then they’d make sure that they had the same amount each. Bevan’s argument was that Rick had hardly caught anything for the past month either, so if they were going to share their fish, then they should share their fish. Nobody disagreed with this proposition, Rick least of all. He’d had an idea for a particularly delicious dish for longer than he’d been catching fuck-all fish, and was sick of eating the crap that his parents had been craving.

The last fight through the vines was tiring but worthwhile: they burst into the clearing that Rick had scouted out on Wednesday. Jack’s punishment had meant that he’d been unable to get down to the river at all for the remainder of the week, so he was more than satisfied with the place when he saw it. While Rick and Bevan were good at describing a place, the reality was far from what they’d described to him. The great open spaces were just made for tents and the trees were magnificent. It was hidden and secure. The general state of the wilderness screamed that nobody ever came down this far along the river, and that cattle don’t dirty up the place any more either. The boys headed for one of the largest gums, right in the middle of the largest open area, and threw their packs down on a large log. Once the sun had made its way up to the zenith, these items would still be in the shade. Looking up from this possie, Jack ascertained that the river itself right here isn’t visible from any of the roads that head out of town, and that there were probably too many obstacles in the water around these bends for people to scream past on their boats, so the day was probably to be gloriously interruption-free. He smiled at the thought of that. Rick saw.

‘Hey Bevan,’ Rick nudged his mate. ‘Did you see that?’

Bevan looked up from his backpack. ‘What?’

‘Jack smiled.’

‘No!’

‘Yep,’ Rick laughed. ‘Hey Jack, haven’t seen one o’ them for a bloody long time!’

Jack was disoriented. ‘Whaddayer talkin’ about?’

Rick shook his head and Bevan grinned. ‘Nothing, mate, don’ worry about it.’

Jack raised his eyebrows and went back to his appraisal of the area. The boys worked out where the best spots were likely to be, flopped down on the banks of the river, cast, and lay back in silence while the sun worked its steady way up over the hills. The going was quiet for a while, but then it picked up and one of them was pulling in a fish about every fifteen minutes. Then, around lunchtime, when the sun hit its zenith and cast its beams along the river, it got quiet again. They took a break and ate the spectacular food that Rick had catered, and lay about replete and in quietude for about half an hour afterwards. It felt like ages since either Jack or Bevan had eaten their fill at lunchtime: one reason why they both looked forward to the days when Rick catered for their outings. He always had great food, and plenty of it, mainly because he was in charge of it at home. Bevan and Jack’s mums always begrudged feeding other people’s kids, and so only let them have bugger all to take with them. Even if they bought the food with their own money, they each had to leave a family allocation. Not Rick, the lucky bugger.

After a while Jack got up, stretched himself, rubbed his eyes and, after checking and re-baiting his rod, announced he was going to check out the area a bit further round and have a piss. Rick and Bevan watched him head up the bank to the track and head through the scrub towards the next bend, whereupon he soon disappeared.

Rick packed up the lunch gear, Bevan went back to his fishing. Jack hadn’t been back after about half an hour, and Rick needed to pee too, so Bevan agreed to look after the rods while Rick nicked off in the direction that Jack had gone. He thrashed through the long grass, vines, and other weeds through and around the bend, and made his way to the base of a gum to have a piss against the tree. He couldn’t see Jack anywhere.

Moving back from the tree, he noticed where some of the branches and vines had been snapped off, and followed the mini-trail of destruction. Jack had little respect for nature, and tended to just break his way through the bush. Even following the destruction it took him ages: the bush and scrub here was far thicker than it was on the side that they’d come in from. A while later, Rick noticed that there were some really old tyre tracks that made a bit of a track up towards the plateau that he could see further along, and it wound out of the scrub and up along a relatively flat and easy-going path to the top. It obviously hadn’t been used for a while. The tracks were distinct, but becoming overgrown.

Heading through a very long bend in the river towards the next township, Rick could see where a really old willow was enjoying the volumes of water that tumbled past it all day, every day. Bloody things, thought Rick. Suck the bloody life out of a place. Obviously nobody had bothered to get rid of it because of where it was. Nobody probably knew that it was here. As he got closer, he noticed that Jack was standing near the banks of the river underneath the willow, just near some reeds. He watched him for a while, and noticed that Jack didn’t really move much.

It wasn’t unusual that when Jack was mellow he skived off by himself and just spent some time somewhere away from people. He didn’t get peace or self-time at home much, so sometimes he just disappeared when they went fishing. But, knowing his personality, neither Rick nor Bevan left him at it in an isolated place for too long. The isolation could sometimes be worse for Jack’s mental state than anything else. Rick moved towards him fairly slowly, scuffing the dirt, kicking the grass, breaking small twigs and vines and other such things as make a bit of sound, to let Jack know that he was on his way. He stopped behind him. Jack still didn’t move.

‘Jack? You alright mate?’ Rick wrinkled his nose up. ‘Jesus. Fuck, what died?’

Jack moved sideways, back up towards the track out of the breeze from the smell and sat down. He pulled a smoke out of his pocket, lit it, his elbows resting on his knees and shook his head. He looked up at Rick; his face was pale and his brow was faintly wrinkled. Letting his head drop, he raised his right arm and pointed with his smoke down into the reeds. He didn’t say anything. Rick looked towards the reeds. A disgusting, thick, slimy mass was sitting just proud of, and mashed through the surface of the water, about a metre from the bank of the river. The water around it was covered with some kind of beige algal film, and was inhabited by about half a million or so insects, oblivious to everything but their ecstatic orgy. There was a hint of fabric that might have once been clothing, that sparkled off one side. And it really fucking stank. Whatever it was, it was really dead. Rick looked back to Jack.

‘What is it? Did yer get’ny closer?’

‘Nah,’ Jack gasped down his smoke. ‘Stink got to me.’

Rick looked around the immediate area for a large branch he could use as a poker. He couldn’t find one, so jumped up and climbed into the tree where he could see a long willow that had been broken and fell into a fork in the branches. From his vantage point he could see that whatever it was, it was bigger than it looked from the ground. Most of the parts that were still holding together were submerged, but only just. Jack watched Rick retrieve the branch, alight from the tree, move down to the edge of the river and part the reeds over the dead thing. Rick was always curious about dead things. He liked to bury dead animals and come back months later to retrieve the clean skeletons. He wasn’t morbid, just irrepressibly curious about skeletal structures. He could always identify animals from the region just from their skeletons, a skill that the others admired but found faintly odd.

‘Oh fuck,’ Rick dropped the willow, which folded the reeds back over themselves and revealed the dead thing. He could see a wet mass of what looked like curly black hair around one end, and something that looked like it may have once been a girl’s singlet, adorned with sequins was hanging just under the surface at one side; visible much more clearly from up here than the faint sparkles at the river’s edge. Rick scampered back to the track and sat next to Jack. Its appearance from down here, added to what Rick had seen from above, caused him to momentarily cease breathing.

Jack, who had been watching Rick’s reactions carefully, heaved a breath. ‘Thought so.’

The two of them sat in silence; Rick transfixed by the sight, Jack gazing at the ground, smoking and rubbing his forehead from time to time. They sat there until the sun had moved quite a way around in its arc.

They were snapped out of their reverie by the sound of a wild crashing through the brush, stamping footsteps, the sounds of an angry breath, and Jack’s phone singing out a text message.

Bevan thrust Jack’s mobile phone in front of his face. ‘Would you fucken well answer your fucken phone? The fucken thing keeps ringing and messaging and Christ knows what. It’s driving me batshit! AND the fish have picked up again and I have to keep landing them for you fuckers.’ Bevan’s face was red and his eyes started from his face.

Jack was the most taken aback he’d ever been by this display of utter irrationality. Particularly as it was coming from Bevan.

He gaped up at Bevan. ‘Why didn’t you turn it off?’

Bevan threw the phone at Jack’s head and glared. ‘Isn’t mine, is it?’

He looked around in exasperation, saw the messy corpse, and wilted to the ground on the other side of Rick. A long silence followed. Apparently he hadn’t noticed the smell.

‘Is that what I think it is?’

No answer. The place where Bevan had chosen to sit was right in the path of the breeze off the body—it was typical of him that he’d inadvertently choose that place to sit in. He’d gone as pale as Jack, and was suddenly looking sick.

Jack, in a sudden bright moment, grabbed his phone and started dialling a number. It took a moment for Rick to notice what Jack was doing. He leaned over and knocked the phone out of his mate’s hand, pushed Jack backwards, grabbed the phone and cancelled the phone, then pocketed the instrument.

Bevan stared. Jack launched himself from where he’d landed, and attacked Rick, but Rick was ready for retaliation and merely turned and pushed Jack back down to the ground. He stood over him, a foot heavily on Jack’s chest, his face stony.

‘What did you think you were doing?’

A confused Jack glared up at Rick. His paleness highlighted his eyes, which sparkled with shock. ‘Reporting the damn thing.’

‘Why?’

Jack gestured helplessly. ‘Coz it’s, like, a dead person, and that’s what you do.’

Rick’s expression didn’t move, so he tried again, this time getting angry. ‘It’s the right fucking thing to do, you wanker.’

Rick glanced up at the track that he’d noticed heading up out of the bush when he came down here to find Jack, and suddenly had a moment of realisation. He also thought of Jack sitting there, pale and scared-looking when he arrived. He didn’t mention it, just kept it.

‘And if this person died in a terrible way for a no-good reason, which is probably the case?’ Rick moved back and crossed his arms. ‘And if we’re the only ones who ever come down here, which is true. And we’ve been missing from our homes and school and have been out inexplicably late? And we’ve been fishing at odd hours, pulling good catches, and been hassled by the pigs recently coz someone was being a fucking wanker and smoking weed where they shouldn’t have been,’ he glared at Bevan, and turned back to Jack. ‘But who’s going to believe us? You’re the most anti-society person there is, and you’ve got notorious brothers.’

Jack crossed his legs, lit another smoke, threw one to Bevan, and started playing absent-mindedly with the grass.

Rick was still ranting about the corpse being crappy and bloating and starting to stink, and how convenient it would be to find it right when the identifying features are being rotted away, and how they would be the most likely targets for anybody wanting to find a guilty party, and he didn’t notice Jack muttering to himself. But Bevan did. He didn’t say anything, he just looked at Jack, and Jack wasn’t aware of his eyes.

‘So we’re far better off not saying anything to anyone,’ finished Rick.

Jack leaned back and frowned. He kept glancing towards the reeds. He squinted up at Rick, who was outlined by the afternoon sun.

‘That’s bullshit Rick, they wouldn’t dick us around. We found it, it’s true we just found it—look at the path we bashed through for chrissake! And anyway, we’re too young to be done for something like this.’ He stubbed his smoke in the dirt, poked a small hole in it up to his knuckle, and buried the butt in the hole.

Rick stood with his arms folded across his chest, a man of defiance.

‘We should wait to see if someone else finds it first, and then come forward and say we smelt something but didn’t check it out because Old Mack’s animals always die somewhere nearby and it wasn’t worth checking out.’

‘Smells a bit fucking different to a sheep, Rick,’ choked Bevan, who was bathing himself in cigarette smoke as a barrier against it.

‘Poof’s right,’ frowned Jack.

‘Well, someone will report someone missing and when they do we can decide what to do next.’ He appealed to his friends like an orator. ‘Have either of you seen anything about anybody missing?’

Bevan glanced at Jack quickly. Jack was looking in the direction they’d come from with a pained look on his face. Rick wouldn’t have been able to see it because he was leaning on a tree to the other side of him. Bevan started to wonder what Jack might know about this curious situation. But they both shook their heads.

Rick was triumphant.

‘Well, then, it’s suspicious, right? I vote we let’s wait and see what happens and then decide what to do next.’

Jack sighed and pulled the grass out by its roots.

‘Why do you want to wait, Rick? This is all very weird of you.’ All the fight seemed to have left Jack the moment he saw that body in the river. Now he was withdrawn and tired-looking. ‘Normally you’d be the first person to jump at the right thing to do.’ He looked up. ‘Right? This is fucked. Did you kill her? It?’

Rick frowned. ‘No. I just think maybe we should keep our eyes and ears open and see what we can see. A few more days isn’t going to make a great deal of difference to this corpse, given the bloody mess it’s in already. It’s also not going to go anywhere, even if we do have a shitload of rain. Wouldn’t hurt, right?’

Bevan was appraising Jack some more, wondering if during that time he could get some kind of story out of Jack as to his reaction. So, against what he considered the better option, he agreed. With a gentle voice, he said, ‘he’s right, Jack.’

Jack was startled. The most timid and tell-all of the three was agreeing with this ridiculous proposition, a proposition that came from a bloke who liked to bury corpses of things just to get their skeletons. He looked from Bevan, to Rick, and back again.

‘What?’

Bevan raised his hand to interrupt, and looked Jack right in the eye. ‘It’s the most sensible thing. Not much is going to happen to it over the next few days. Is it?’

Jack shifted uneasily, unused to Bevan’s straightforwardness. ‘No, I suppose not.’

Bevan moved over and helped Jack to his feet. Jack scanned the hills around them, and Rick beamed unnecessarily hugely. Jack looked uneasily at the body wallowing in the shallows, and Bevan gasped down another smoke underneath his jumper.

‘Just a few days, right?’

Rick nodded.

‘Alright.’ Jack sighed. ‘But only a few days.’

They headed back to the fishing spot, and Jack was morose for the remainder of the afternoon. Rick didn’t give him his phone back, and nobody mentioned the body in the reeds. All three of them sat further apart from each other, immersed in their own thoughts, while the fish picked up again. While Rick and Jack were away, Bevan had been kept flat-out landing and cleaning fish. Jack’s rod had picked up the most. By the time they’d spent another hour or so when they got back, he’d landed an incredible twelve fish, and the others weren’t far behind. Bevan felt smugly satisfied that he knew that this spot was the sweet one. It had so many different angles to fish from, and so much different terrain, that he felt they could probably fish at this spot for a long time.

Jack had stalked back to the spot, not looking at Rick, and he stayed pale and frowned for the rest of the day. Rick found his mate’s reaction curious. Bevan’s quietness on the topic, on the other hand, amused him.

At one point, Bevan took some gear over to Jack, and Jack raised his eyebrows at him. ‘Why didn’t you want to report it yer soft bastard?’

Bevan sighed and glanced over towards Rick. ‘I think Rick’s a wanker about it. But I also think that there’s more to it.’

He looked straight at Jack’s pale face, boring his eyes into the back of his skull. It made Jack uncomfortable, he knew that from long experience.

‘There is, isn’t there?’ He dropped the tackle box onto the ground at Jack’s knee and looked at the sun.

‘Anyway you’d better get out of here if your mum’s gunna keep you alive.’ Jack’s eyes widened. He instantly forgot his funk.

‘Oh fuck,’ he grated. ‘Oh fuck I forgot about that shit! Ugh.’ He ripped the menu out of his rear jeans pocket and scanned it roughly before thrusting it under Bevan’s eyes. ‘Reckon I’ll have enough of the buggers to cover that?’

Bevan scanned the menu, appraised Jack’s catch, and went and grabbed two of his own fish, and two of Rick’s, to add to the pile. Jack frowned when Bevan stood up again.

‘Just in case.’ Bevan handed the menu back. ‘Can’t be sure how she’ll butcher ‘em just to get you in even more shit. This way you’re certain to have enough, even if she wastes most of it to make a point. Maybe you oughta get Rick to check it. He’s the cook.’

Jack looked over at Rick and shook his head.

‘Nah, fuck it.’

Jack moodily grabbed his water bottle and had a bit swig, stuffed it into his backpack, grabbed his long-sleeved shirt and tied it around his waist, and then threw the rest of his bait, what was left of it, into the river. He walked around picking up bits and pieces that he’d cast onto the banks of the river, stuffed them unhandily into his already over-packed tackle box and grabbed his knife and scaler.

‘Anybody wanna help me clean these fuckers?’ Jack called out to nobody in particular.

Rick and Bevan dropped their lines, grabbed their knives and scalers, and went down to the river with Jack. Within a few minutes the fish had all been cleaned and packed into the box, with the fish heads kept in a separate bag just in case Jack’s mum wanted them for stock. It was unlikely that she would, she’d probably be disgusted in fact, but as Rick said, ‘it goes to show you thought of everything.’

Not long after that, Jack had shoved everything back into his pack and was jogging down the rutted cattle-track back towards his bike, glancing at his watch and at the sun on his way. Bevan and Rick watched him go.

Rick patted the pockets of his jacket, and his pants looking for a smoke, and then patted them all over again looking for a lighter. It was a pedantic habit of Rick’s that Bevan couldn’t abide. By the time Rick had found his smokes and found his lighter and managed to get one of his cancer sticks lit, Bevan had already packed up his gear and cleaned up the area. He moved his stuff back up to the track, in readiness for moving out. Rick was still looking contemplatively after Jack, enjoying his smoke, all his stuff sitting messily around his feet, every item cast about without rhyme or reason.

‘Wouldn’t it be a fucker,’ he said, smoke curling up from his breath, ‘if Jack’s mum was just taking the piss.’

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