Afflicted 14: Chapter 13

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For a couple of days things were almost normal again. Almost. At least, they weren’t fighting, and Jack would even look them in the eyes.

And then they went fishing. Bevan and Jack were to meet Rick down there. Rick pelted down the hill on his crappy, rattling, shit-heap of a bike and ditched it just before he hit a big boulder further down the track than he would normally ride. This time he missed the boulder by an inch and landed flat on his back, so that the wind was completely knocked out of him. He struggled to get the wind back and almost panicked about not being able to move or to breathe. For a split second he feared that maybe he’d done some irreparable damage to his back or his lungs, or even his guts, but by tiny degrees he was slowly able to gain breath again. It felt like five or six minutes before he could get a full breath, instead of a partial one, and he lay there mentally feeling himself all over, to see if he was damaged in some other, undetected, way. If he hurt himself badly his mum would probably do her block and kill him, he thought. But he realised slowly that he was okay; he picked himself up off the ground bit by bit, and looked for his bike. It was less than lucky.

He’d finally, irreparably, bent the frame and one wheel, and the machine was completely fucked. It was also resting in the river, and was coated in mud and other crap. His backpack was nowhere to be seen, so he got up and started hunting for it. A quarter of an hour later he had all his bits and pieces together and was able to head down to meet Bevan and Jack. The place they’d chosen was not too far near the Corpse Bend, as Rick had started to think of it, but was closer to town. When Rick got there, Bevan and Jack were spaced about five metres apart and were in perfect silence. Bevan was choofing down a smoke again and Jack was hunched up in his jacket like a little kid against the wind, leaning against the resident old man river red gum with his eyes closed. The whole scene was a picture of perfect tranquillity.

Rick walked quietly. He was practising walking quietly over many different surfaces, his aim being to sneak up on his mum whilst doing anything legitimate, and scare the crap out of her. He had to concede that it was a childish desire. And it wasn’t that he was malicious or anything, as he was quick to chide himself, but just because he wanted to get her back for all her incessant nagging. He also thought that one day the skill might come in handy.He got to the water’s edge making a fair bit of noise (that he didn’t think he made), feeling quite pleased with himself. He sat to check his reel and his rod. They were still functional; he baited his hook and cast in. He took the next few moments to check the rest of his stuff. His backpack was torn in a few places he hadn’t noticed when he picked it up, and the zip on one of the pockets was fucked. He sighed loudly and rubbed his back, which was still smarting.

The other two didn’t greet him or make any sound. They never acknowledged that he was there. After about an hour, Bevan, who lit a what appeared to be his last smoke, reeled in, picked up the fish he’d caught and walked off in a veritable cloud. Jack and Rick watched him go, Jack pensive and worried-looking. Rick moved up to take the place Bevan had vacated. Rick vaguely wondered whether the other two had been talking about him before he got there. His attempts at interaction tended to fall flat.

A while longer passed, the sun shone, the birds went nuts, and it was peaceful. But the feeling of wrong persisted. ‘This place has changed, man,’ Jack stated baldly.

Rick looked at Jack for a moment, and nodded.Jack stood up abruptly and started to reel in his line. ‘I can’t fucking stand to be here, to be honest.’

Rick glanced at the river and for a fleeting moment thought about the dead girl, and that even though they were further down the river about how she’d rested not that far away from where they were. A flicker image of her corpse assaulted him and he closed his eyes against it.

And all of a sudden Rick had an insane, gripping fear of being the only one down there, right near the place where the corpse had lain. Fishing in water than had been tainted by her spilled-out guts. For the second time that day, Rick nearly panicked. He reeled in his line as fast as he’d cast it out and attempted to shove everything haphazardly back into his ruined back. As he did so, he thought about how his bag represented everything that had happened since the day Jack had gone too far away to have a piss.

Jack turned his dull, sunken, grey-shadowed and faintly bloodshot eyes on his friend when Rick started to pack.

‘Leaving?’

Rick looked up from where he was attempting to repair his backpack.

‘I’m not staying here by myself. It’s too fucked. I can’t even bear to think about fishing here. It’s not like it was before.’ One he started to talk, he couldn’t stop himself and just ran off at the mouth. ‘I thought it would be different. I thought maybe it’d be normal again or something. But now the water is all like it’s full of guts and the place is tainted, and that smell seems like it’s just embedded in all of the grasses and the reeds and I can’t bear to think about what it must have been like for her…’

Jack walked over and slapped Rick in the face, hard. ‘Shut up.’ He stared at Rick. ‘You fucking think you’re suffering.’

Implicit was the fact that it was still Rick’s fault, and Rick found himself bristling with anger.

‘If you hadn’t decided to go so far just to have a piss, we wouldn’t have known anything about it. What were you doing, pulling yourself off?’

Rick’s hidden meaning about Jack wanking over the dead girl was too much for Jack. It hit him right where his dreams had been taking him.

‘What the fuck are you trying to say?’

Rick’s eyes burned with anger. ‘Maybe you killed her and put her there, and then enjoyed her.’ He licked his dry lips. ‘Maybe it excites you.’

Jack dropped his bag. If only Rick knew how he felt about that girl.

‘What?’

‘I said maybe you killed her and put her there and your unconscious desire for us to see you with her made you walk all that distance just to have a slash. Maybe you wanted her found. Maybe you couldn’t stand the fact that you killed her and you were guilty and…’

A fist flew out and struck Rick in the face, distorting his nose. Then a foot kicked his legs out from underneath him. The second he hit the ground, Jack was on top of him, pinning him, crushing him into the dirt. He pulled his scaling knife out of his back pocket. It flashed in the sun as it made its way to rest against Rick’s throat.

‘Don’t you ever fucking say anything like that again, you hopeless fuck. If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t all be fucked up now.’ He pushed the knife point into Rick’s throat until his friend started to whimper and cry. ‘You wanted us to fucking wait, and it’s your fucking fault that we’re all going mental. Don’t you dare fucking talk about the smell getting you when Bevan’s round the bend you fucking arsehole.’ He stood up and gave Rick two or three hard, well-aimed kicks to the ribs and back. ‘Or—,’ kick, ‘didn’t you—,’ kick, ‘fucking—’, kick, ‘notice?’

With each kick, Rick yelped and tried to cover himself with his hopelessly inadequate arms, impounding as the kicks did his previous, bike-related injuries.

‘You’re a cunt,’ spat Jack. He picked up his bag and left Rick bleeding and gasping for air for the second time in less than an hour and a half.

Rick lay in the same spot, with his eyes shut, for the best part of the next half hour, whimpering, fearing that when he opened his eyes Jack would be there waiting for another go. His face felt bruised, his nose felt mashed, his neck was wet, Christ only knew what from, and he could taste blood where a tooth had pierced his lip when Jack punched him.

The self-pity that was Rick’s worst enemy pounded him. It wasn’t his fault that shit had happened. He did feel haunted, but it was all so unfair. Why would anybody blame him for anything? He felt anxious and paranoid that he was being watched, and it wasn’t until he realised that his anxiety was stemming from guilt, that he attempted to pick himself up and go home. Kicked, bloodied, and sore, Rick found himself limping home, anxious, terrified. Without transport for the first time since inheriting his bike, he finally realised how far from home his beloved river really was, and what a dramatic turn his life had suddenly taken.

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