‘Do you think we could stop over there for a bit?’ Taylor asked between gasps, pointing towards the bush where she had spotted an abandoned campsite in a small clearing just off the path. Jesse agreed and they walked towards it. Wooden benches encircled a pile of charred wood. Once they had sat down, Taylor reached for her water bottle and gulped down the liquid within. ‘It’s warm,’ she said. They unzipped their backpacks and pulled out their lunch, sweat pooling under the bands of their hats.
Despite the sweltering heat, it was peaceful. The calls of bowerbirds, whipbirds, and catbirds creating sweet but strange songs. The occasional sound of a breeze whispering through the booyongs and brush boxes. The rustling of leaves as lizards roamed about. And if Taylor concentrated hard enough, she thought she could see remnants of smoke swirling around the firepit. Perhaps it wasn’t as abandoned as she originally thought, but there wasn’t any other sign of life.
The sound of rocks crunching under boots from behind made them turn around. There was a man in a hi-vis vest and a hard hat walking towards them. ‘Didn’t expect to see anyone here today.’
‘We thought we’d get another hike in before dinner,’ Jesse replied.
‘Did not expect it to get this hot,’ Taylor added, earning a chuckle from the stranger.
‘How about you guys come inside for some shade?’ The man pointed behind him at a wooden shack on the other side of the path. ‘There’s cold water in the fridge. I also have coffee if you’d prefer.’
Taylor scrunched her eyebrows. ‘So, do you live out here, or–’
‘Oh, no,’ the stranger interrupted, ‘maintenance on the hiking trail. We set up a little mess hall in the shack because it was close by.’
‘Cold water sounds great right now.’ Jesse smiled. ‘We can keep going if you want though, Tay.’
Taylor examined the stranger. Well-kempt beard, fairly muscular build, worn steel-cap boots, thick gloves. ‘We won’t keep you long, sir.’ As the group made their way towards the shack, Taylor grabbed Jesse’s arm, eyeing the path in front of them while the stranger had his back turned. Jesse threw up a soft dismissive hand and continued walking. Taylor hesitantly followed, looking around for other people – there was no one in sight.
The shack smelt of wood and tasted like dirt in the back of the throat. Slivers of light peaked through the cracks between planks; electric lamps sat on picnic tables draped in white sheets. The stranger closed the door behind them – it creaked as it shut. ‘You can sit down anywhere,’ he said. Taylor chose the closest table to the door with a lamp lighting it.
‘Where’s everyone else?’ Taylor asked.
‘I’m the only one on break right now,’ the man replied. He brought three pristine glasses and a water jug to the table, then poured everyone a drink. Jesse and Taylor mumbled their thanks – the coolness of the water was relieving. Jesse drank it all in one swig and poured himself some more before introducing himself and Taylor, who gave a half-smile.
‘It’s nice to meet you both. What brings you here?’ The stranger inquired, maintaining eye contact with Jesse. ‘A couple’s retreat?’
Jesse shook his head. ‘Nah, friend’s trip.’ Taylor grabbed the jug and filled her bottle, then capped it off. Jesse seemed strangely comfortable. He was smiling, making conversation. Taylor wondered if she was overreacting.
‘Ah, I see. Just the two of you?’ Before Taylor could cut in, Jesse nodded.
‘Others will be joining us soon,’ Taylor added quickly. Jesse cocked his head. ‘What about you?’ Taylor leaned over the table, feigning curiosity. ‘Where are you working?’
‘A few hundred metres from here,’ the stranger responded. He had a very detailed explanation as to why he was in the rainforest – something about a bridge and chopping down a tree. He spoke so eloquently, not a single stutter, repetition, or otherwise fault in speech. Taylor felt the hairs stand up on her neck. She tried to make eye contact with Jesse, but he seemed interested in this story the man was weaving.
She observed the shack; it was oddly clean, and quite small. Only one door and no windows. There didn’t appear to be many personal belongings around; a single large backpack, some utensils, and crockery sat on the counter. She pictured dead bodies on the tables under those white sheets. The images only further cemented in her mind after the stranger told them that the shack was a slaughterhouse before the rainforest became a national park.
Taylor stood. ‘I think we should get going. It’s getting late,’ she said, motioning for Jesse to stand as well.
‘You wouldn’t like a coffee? It’s a long track,’ the man offered. He fiddled with something underneath his clothes. ‘I don’t mind the company.’ Taylor declined and moved towards the door as Jesse thanked the stranger for his hospitality.
‘Apologies, I didn’t even introduce myself. Where are my manners?’ The man moved towards Jesse. Taylor felt her heart beating in the tips of her fingers. In fluid motion, he reached in for a handshake and firmly grasped Jesse’s hand, pulling him closer before taking his other hand and stabbing Jesse several times in the stomach. Taylor’s feet froze as the man picked up her friend and carried him to a table and wrapped him up. Taylor watched as Jesse’s body twitched, a red stain spreading across the sheet.
Before Taylor could think, she was outside the slaughterhouse, sprinting against the wind along the gravel path. She glanced behind her – he was moving quickly, but not running. Unfortunately, the Swiss army knife was in Jesse’s backpack. She ducked into the rainforest, her eyes darting from the path to her backpack as she pulled out her water bottle then sprang to her feet again. She had to hide. Her sides stung as she beelined for the thick booyong just ahead of her and tried to quiet her breathing, listening for him. Taylor reached for her phone – still no phone reception.
‘It’s just you and me for miles, Taylor,’ the stranger shouted. His footsteps inched closer. She jumped out and swung the water bottle at his head. It mildly disorientated him, and she only managed to get a few feet away before he caught her and pinned her against the tree. ‘That was pathetic.’ His knife sliced her forearm and she shrieked, dropping the bottle.
His gloved hands wrapped around her neck, dangling her off the ground. The eyes of a madman stared back at Taylor. She sunk her thumbs as deep as she could into the sockets before he dropped her, yelling in pain. She gasped for air as she stumbled through the endless cluster of trees. Just as the path became visible again, she twisted her ankle on a root and fell to the ground. It did not take long before he was on top of her, his knife hurtling towards her chest. Taylor held it away from her, her arm shaking.
She fumbled for a rock, then kneed him in the crotch and hit his head hard enough that he rolled down the hill. She staggered down the mountain and straddled him. Suddenly, there was agonising pain in her stomach; his knife twisted, further splitting the skin, blood trickling down. She cried out as she struck his face with the rock over and over and over. She pinned his grasping hand to the ground as their blood mixed together on his clothes.
Thump, thump, squelch, squelch. That was the only sound Taylor could hear as time slipped away. The movement almost became muscle memory. The knife dropped from Taylor’s stomach, opening the wound. Her hands instinctively rushed to the area as she collapsed beside the corpse. Blood pooled beneath its head, and she felt bile rise in her throat.
A flock of parrots flew overhead. The sun emerged from behind the clouds. The trees whispered again.
Author: Emily Rogers is a Meanjin-based writer who is a recent graduate from QUT. They enjoy writing scripts, short stories, and editing fiction. Her work tends to talk about feminism, the complexities of human relationships, and mental health. You can find their other pieces in Issues 5 and 7 of ScratchThat.
Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.
Editors: Bea Warren and Fernanda Bustos Venegas