A folk-horror short story….
Blackened tree stumps lined the country road like charred sentries.
‘Hardys Gap – the rural phoenix from the ashes.’ Gemma crafted the headline aloud and tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. ‘Ten years later – how a small town revived from tragedy. How hope healed scars left by the Gap Fires. Blurgh. Too cheesy.’
New growth sprouted around the charcoaled trunks and fresh grass, and shrubs and teenaged trees carpeted the surrounding hills. Slim grey-green eucalypts slow-danced in the breeze and a magpie landed on a sign with a caw – ‘Welcome to Hardys Gap. Never Forget the 103.’
Then the statues began.
People, young and old, fat and thin, cast in bronze. Equidistant apart, they stood and stared, trance-like at the side of the road. Each face was intricately crafted, death masks cast in metal, and the silent crowd of bronzed zombies watched Gemma drive into town. She shuddered and put her foot down, holding her breath until the parade of dead was over.
The monuments and broken cremated trees faded away, replaced by leafy bushland. Then a service station, a church, a park, a small supermarket and fish ’n’ chip shop all clad with the same pale grey corrugated iron. A model Lego town all built from the same bricks.
On the road since dawn to beat the traffic, Gemma’s caffeine tank was running low. Five hours later, and only getting directed down random dirt roads twice by the GPS, she’d arrived at her destination.
Up ahead a red roadside ‘coffee’ flag fluttered in the wind. Her inner city snob cringed but her craving won out and she pulled up outside the grey building. She checked her phone with its cracked screen. One bar. Surely after the Gap Fires, the government or Telstra would have fixed the reception. Didn’t they use satellites these days anyway?
Not that it mattered, only scammers called her these days. Friends came and went, most people didn’t understand ambition, but when was the last time she’d heard from Mum? Was it the Mothers Day lunch when her Mum stormed out?
The bell tinkled as she pushed open the coffee shop door. Aside from a grey-haired couple sipping coffee in sullen silence, the place was empty. Behind a glass cabinet lined with sticky pastries and pre-made salad rolls, she spied a chrome coffee machine. Bingo. And over on the wall, a notice board. Always a good starting point to get the low-down on any community.
‘A large latte,’ Gemma said to the woman with sunken suspicious eyes behind the counter. Macchiato was her preferred poison but she didn’t want to out herself as a hipster wanker. She added a broad smile. ‘Please.’
‘Any sugars?’ the woman grunted and Gemma shook her head. ‘You from Melbourne?’
‘Just drove in,’ Gemma said as brightly as someone who got up at 5 am could. ‘Actually I’m here from The Argus.’
The woman’s lip curled. ‘Journalist?’
Gemma ploughed on. They were always dubious at first. ‘That’s right. Doing a story on the regeneration of the town.’
‘But the anniversary was last year.’ The woman snorted.
‘You know. Lockdowns.’
‘We don’t need your pity. We’re doing alright on our own.’
‘So it seems. The town looks great…’
‘Then maybe you should stick your nose…’
‘Diane!’ A plump woman in late middle age interrupted. She smiled generously at Gemma with burgundy-lined lips.
With a grunt, Diane turned away and started making coffee violently.
‘Sorry about her,’ the woman whispered over the bangs and crashes. She had a bright scarf patterned with indigenous dot paintings draped across her shoulders. ‘Diane’s very protective of the town.’
‘No harm done.’ Gemma shrugged. ‘I’m Gemma Giovanni from The Argus by the way.’
This wasn’t strictly true, Gemma hoped to sell her Hardys Gap story to the paper. Rohan from Features seemed interested when she pitched it to him at a book launch last week, but he had been hoeing into the free Shiraz at the time. Who wouldn’t love this story? A community burned to the ground in 2011, now flourishing. All the soft-hearts would weep over their morning toast and repost on Instagram. Motivational porn, it couldn’t lose.
‘Welcome to Hardys Gap, Gemma. I’m Leigh. I run the Artists Collective over the road.’
‘You’re responsible for the statues? Amazing.’
‘Not me personally but I had a hand —’
‘That’ll be six dollars.’ Diane plonked a tall takeaway coffee cup down with a complimentary scowl.
Gemma paid, then switched back to Leigh. ‘Can I buy you a coffee? I’d love to hear all about the statues.’
‘Sorry. I have to run.’ Her eyes were as warm as the coffee in Gemma’s hand. ‘I’m teaching watercolours to a group of pensioners in a few minutes. But I’ll be free by three?’
Leigh collected her own coffee from the sour-faced Diane and swanned out the door with a wave.
With a cocky grin at Diane, Gemma turned for the community notice board. She took her first sip of her latte on the way, and stopped short, blinking. For a grumpy bitch, Diane made a damn fine coffee.
The board was thick with flyers, piled up like a collage. The usual culprits – second hand cars, goat yoga classes, ways to make phenomenal money from home, trauma counselling, gardening services, baby sitters, blah blah blah. Despite its tragic past, Hardys Gap seemed just like any other Australian town. One flyer in particular caught her eye. Hardys Gap Protection Society Gala Dinner – a meeting of the ways, old and new, to protect our town from repeating the past. The date for the Dinner was last week but the flyer was decorated with the same pattern as on Leigh’s scarf. Indigenous dot paintings of a cone-shaped native flower, the banksia. If Gemma’s life had been a Loony Tunes cartoon, dollar signs would have sprung into her eyes. She smirked and took another sip. Inner-city green leftie Argus readers loved an indigenous angle on anything.
The dour couple were gone, and now Gemma was the only customer. After wiping down their table, Diane bustled towards her, dirty cups and saucers rattling in her hand. ‘If I were you, journo,’ she sneered. ‘I’d get back in my car and drive home to Melbourne.’
Gemma blinked. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Just giving you a little friendly advice,’ Diane said over her shoulder as she trudged away.
She disappeared through the swinging ‘Staff Only’ door without a word.
‘Weirdo,’ Gemma mumbled and returned to the notice board. This time she delved deeper, flicking through the under-layers of yellowed paper. It was more of the same small town classifieds until she stopped at a blurry photograph of a man’s face. Have you seen Greg Tremble? Last seen on 14 May 2020.
The name was familiar, but where from? Gemma quickly checked for Diane but the coffee shop was empty. She ripped the flyer off the wall and shoved it in her bag.
Outside, Gemma strolled back to her hatchback. Weak rays of sunlight trickled over the hill and the air was as pure as neat vodka. Hardys Gap, true to its name, sat in a valley. One road in, one road out. A death trap in hindsight. The images from ten years ago, the same hills bald and blackened, swept over her. The footage of the koala with singed fur and scalded feet hobbling over the ashes, which went viral. What ever happened to that koala? Could it be still alive? Finding that very same koala, happy and healthy, would be the icing on the cake for her article. She lurched for her phone, then sighed. Damn this town and its crappy internet.
She needed someone official to interview, and on the short drive over to the council chambers, of course built with the same grey iron cladding, she noticed banksia bumper stickers on three cars.
Inside the bland council chamber foyer, a sign on the unattended reception desk stated office hours were 2pm – 5pm. Gemma strode right past the sign and the desk, deeper inside the building.
She could have done her research and set up appointments before she left Melbourne, but Gemma preferred spontaneity. It wasn’t that she was disorganised, taking people unawares always got better results.
Following the beige hallway, the first room was an open plan office space. A South Asian woman with a headset sat closest to the door in front of a monitor. ‘Yes Mr Langhari, I’ll pass your feedback on to Rubbish Collection,’ she said patiently.
Gemma ducked away, and further down the carpeted corridor, she spotted a meeting room with frosted glass walls. Blurry silhouettes and murmurs wafted out through the glass. She knocked and marched in.
‘Morning,’ she said breezily at the table full of people in suits. ‘I’m looking for …’
‘Excuse me,’ a white bearded man at the head of the table snapped. ‘We’re in the middle of a meeting here.’
The room went awkwardly quiet. All the others blinked or sneered at her. Except for one young guy in a grey suit who looked her up and down with curiosity. Gemma was dark-haired and pretty, in a ‘girl-next-door’ way which women didn’t find threatening but men seem to like. She was well aware of its benefits.
‘I’ll only be a second.’ Gemma waved dismissively at the man. ‘Who’s in charge of fire services?’
‘Young lady. You can’t just barge in here,’ White-beard said, his face flushed. ‘You can call our call centre…’
‘I’ve only got one question, and I’m here now. Who’s in charge of fire?’
‘That’d be me,’ a gruff voice said. ‘Trevor Howie.’
In a brown Council uniform, Trevor had a thick head of hair and meaty freckled forearms, and the skin on his left arm was rippled with scaly red scar tissue. Burns.
‘Great. Good to meet you, Trev. Got a minute? I’ve got a few questions?’
‘Who are you?’ White-beard spat.
Gemma ignored the old bloke and focused on Trevor, who was as dazed as a kangaroo in a spotlight.
‘We should be done in fifteen,’ Trevor said hesitantly.
‘Nice. Meet you in Reception.’
‘If you’re quite done!’ White-beard said.
‘Yep. All good.’ Gemma turned to leave. ‘Oh, wait. One last thing. Does anyone know anything about Greg Tremble?’
‘Enough, young lady. Do I have to call the police?’
She shrugged. ‘See you out the front, Trev.’
He gave her a reluctant nod and she closed the door behind her, then walked back down the hall with a chuckle.
Twenty minutes later, the same gruff voice interrupted Gemma reading the local newspaper. She’d been engrossed in the Letters to the Editors complaining about the town’s internet problems.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Ah, Trev. What’s this banksia symbol supposed to mean?’ Gemma pointed to a page. ‘I keep seeing it everywhere.’
‘Rebirth or something. You know. Resilient to fire and all that.’
‘Makes sense. You hungry? Can I buy you lunch, Trev?’
‘You some kind of reporter?’
‘I knew you were an intelligent man. I could tell straight away.’
‘You can buy me a sandwich but I’ve got nothing for you.’
‘Leigh sent me,’ Gemma said.
He lifted his chin. ‘And why would she do that?’
‘I’m working with her on a story. She told me you’re the guy in charge of fire management. You’re crucial to the safety of the town.’
In Gemma’s experience, men usually came in two types. Those who liked their egos flattered and those who liked their egos flattered.
Trevor grumbled under his breath but he didn’t leave.
‘The Waratah does an alright steak sandwich,’ he said.
‘I’m starving. Lead the way.’
He opened the door for her and then turned right.
‘How long have you been in Hardys Gap?’ she said as they set off on foot past more grey buildings. A hundred metres away, a revolving beer sign beckoned to them.
‘Were you part of fire management back…then?’
He nodded and looked down at his work boots, and Gemma felt a door slam. Too soon. She should have waited until he’d had a few sips of beer before asking about the Fires.
Luckily, beer was close by and as they neared the doors of the Waratah Hotel, a dark haired man passed them. Handsome with insightful dark eyes, he wore a parakeet-green polo shirt.
‘Hey Trevor,’ the man said without breaking stride.
As he walked past, Gemma noticed the banksia logo again, this time on the breast of his shirt. ‘Who’s that guy?’
‘He’s one of the indigenous consultants,’ Trevor said. ‘Name’s Craig.’
Gemma whizzed around. ‘Craig. Stop!’
He turned with an arched eyebrow and Gemma gestured to the Waratah. ‘Can I buy you lunch?’
‘She’s a journalist,’ Trevor warned.
Craig glanced her up and down. She held his gaze and jutted out a hip with a frozen smile. She hoped no one was going to order eye fillet.
‘Just a few questions.’ She placed her hand over her heart.
He chewed his lip. ‘Sounds better than a cheese roll from Diane.’
Inside the pub, they took a high table near the bar and ordered three steak sandwiches and three beers. As Gemma tapped her card to pay, she reassured herself that the cost was worth it, and she’d have ramen for dinner. A group of retiree motorcyclists occupied a long table at the back, all dressed in leathers like accountants in Mad Max cosplay.
‘Before I start, I just want to let you know I’m not going to ask about the Fires,’ Gemma lied, deliberately keeping her eyes away from Trevor’s scarred arm. ‘I’m here to write a nice puff piece about the rosy future of the town. Warm the hearts and fill the tills with day-trippers up from Melbourne.’
Trevor’s jaw tightened. ‘Why do you want to talk to me then?’
‘I heard you’re all working together. This time round, you’re learning land management from the traditional owners,’ Gemma said with a nod towards Craig. ‘New beginnings with old ways and all that.’
‘They’re finally listening,’ Craig said. Meanwhile Trevor discreetly rolled his eyes. Craig explained about his PhD in environmental management, and the system he designed which combined the best of both approaches. ‘One way that actually works together with one that ticks all the bureaucratic boxes.’
Despite her ingrown cynicism, Gemma found herself nodding. ‘Like back-burning?’
The coal-eyed Craig shook his head. ‘Cool burning. We light smaller fires in the cooler weather and at night. But first, we walk country and read the landscape. Using the knowledge we’ve built over tens of thousands of years, we assess whether the time is right.’
‘In fact it’s starting tomorrow night,’ Craig said.
‘Can I come?’ Gemma said.
Craig jerked his thumb at Trevor.
Trevor frowned and fidgeted with his cutlery. ‘We’ll see,’ he eventually said.
In a well-worn trick, Gemma pulled out her phone and jumped up. ‘Sorry, guys. I have to take this.’ She mumbled into the handset and stepped a few metres away, keeping one ear on Craig and Trevor.
Just as she’d hoped, Trevor started on Craig. ‘Why did you have to tell her?’
As a kid, eavesdropping got Gemma into big trouble both at home and at school, but as a journalist, it was a super skill.
‘I thought you’d …’
Trevor shook his head and tutted.
‘Whatever, mate,’ Craig said. ‘Anyway, I’ve told you a million times I want nothing to do with this.’
‘You want it on your conscience?’ Trevor grumbled.
The two went quiet, Trevor stared at the tabletop and Craig took a long sip of his beer.
Gemma pretended to end her call. ‘Sorry,’ she said and innocently slipped back onto her stool. ‘Weird how you can get reception in here? That was my office on the phone, they’ve been trying to get me all day. Did I miss anything?’
‘Just footy talk,’ Trevor said flatly.
Before she could ask more, their lunch arrived, a Turkish roll with a thin cut of steak, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, and golden chips on the side. They tucked in right away.
‘You were right about the food,’ Gemma said, wiping the juices from her mouth. ’My office actually called to ask about Greg Tremble. Do you know if there’s been any developments?’
While waiting in Reception for Trevor, Gemma had managed to download one news story. Turned out Tremble was a journalist from The Argus too. Although unlike her, he was actually employed by the paper.
‘That missing guy? I’ve seen the posters,’ Craig offered.
‘We get stickybeaks up here all the time,’ Trevor said, then, with his plate clean and glass empty, he stood up. ‘Thanks for the feed. I’ll be off.’
‘Already?’ Gemma said. ‘Come on. Another beer?’
‘I shouldn’t have even had one,’ he said.
‘Better get back myself,’ Craig said.
‘Oh no, I wanted to ask you about the banksia symbol? Like on your shirt? I keep seeing it everywhere.’
Craig shrugged. ‘Just the uniform. Not really my expertise. I’m Arrernte.’
Gemma gave a pained smile and Craig sighed. ‘From Alice Springs. I’m a blow-in. Just like you.’
She felt her cheeks burn and cleared her throat. ’I’ll pop by your office tomorrow, Craig, and get the details for the cool burning.’
‘Nothing to do with me. I’m just the adviser,’ Craig said. ‘Trevor’s your man.’
‘Tomorrow then Trev?’ she said, holding out her hand. He shook her hand sharply, almost taking off her arm, and he didn’t answer her question. The men left the pub, a terse silence hanging over them. What was Trevor’s problem? Jealousy? Or good old-fashioned racism?
Gemma pulled out her phone. Unlike her pretend call, her comment about better reception in the pub was actually true.
‘Rohan. How are you? Gemma Giovanni.’
‘Oh, hi Gemma,’ he said curtly.
‘I’m in Hardys Gap doing the story like we discussed.’
‘Remember we talked about it? At Richo’s book launch?’
‘Anyway I’ll file soon. A quick question for you – what do you know about Greg Tremble?’
‘Have they found his body?’
‘Good old Greg. Fuckwit.’
‘You know him?’
‘Went to uni together. He was always an arrogant dick. Probably went off hiking alone and had a heart attack.’
Gemma squeezed her lips together. A heart attack was far too boring. Surely there was more to his disappearance. Someone must know something.
The friendly woman at the Visitor’s Centre gave Gemma directions to the caravan park, the only accommodation in town within Gemma’s price range. With the town map in her hand, she headed back to her car and found a flyer lodged under her windscreen wiper. It wasn’t an ad, it was a plain sheet of paper with GET OUT NOW! written on it.
She glanced up and down the main street. A young woman hurried past with a pug dog in a pushchair, a couple of elderly ladies were playing poker on a bench and a skinny teen on a BMX leaned against a streetlight, a bunch of carnations under his arm. There was no sign of the grumpy Diane.
Throwing the note in the bin, she licked her lips and jumped back into her hatchback. She must be onto something.
The route to the caravan park went past the Dead 103. This time Gemma steeled herself and stopped for a closer look.
When she stepped out of the car, the birds screeched and the wind hissed through the trees like angry whispers. She pulled up her collar with a shudder. The nearest sculpture was a woman, a similar height to Gemma but more full figured. Her face was perfect, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips, and at her feet, a plaque and a bouquet of dried native flowers. Ingrid Fairmont aged 46, mother of two, her car trapped by fire on McPhersons Road. Gemma grimaced, reminded of the preserved bodies of Pompeii. If ghosts lived anywhere, this would be the place.
A voice murmured behind her and she flinched. Further down the road, a man in a grey suit was setting a can of beer under a statue. He was chattering away to the bronzed figure, a fleshy man in late middle-age.
He looked up from his one-sided conversation as she crunched over the gravel towards him.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she said.
‘Just having a chinwag with my Dad.’ It was the man with the bemused smile from the council meeting.
Along the avenue, bottles of whisky and wine, tins of biscuits, cigarettes and, of course, flowers, were scattered under the feet of the effigies.
‘You were the one who crashed the Management meeting today,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘Gordon was ropable. I’m Zev.’
‘Gemma. My condolences. Do you visit him often?’
‘Every few days. Keep him up on all the news.’
‘Must be a comfort.’ Gemma squinted, reading the plaque at his feet. Matthias Kocinski, 58, died defending his home. ‘Oh god, how awful.’
He smiled sadly, his eyes were a cool grey. ‘You’re here writing a story about us, I guess?’
‘Trying to. Some people aren’t as friendly as you.’
‘The media were everywhere back then. In our faces 24/7. Everyone wants to be left alone now.’
She nodded. ‘You’ve all pulled together.’
‘We’re a good group…on the whole.’
‘Trev invited me to the cool burn tomorrow,’ she said. ‘That should be really interesting.’
‘Didn’t they tell you?’ Zev frowned. ‘There’s been a change of plan.’
’Damnit.’ Gemma’s shoulders dropped. ‘I was looking forward to it.’
‘Nah, don’t worry. They moved it to tonight.’
‘Perfect.’ She brightened. She could be out of this town tomorrow. ‘Up on the hill right?’
‘Shaffer Road, yeah.’
Gemma smoothed back her hair. ‘Are you going to be there?’
‘Course,’ he said.
‘Great, I’ll look for you,’ she said, gently laying her hand on his forearm. ‘You can fill me in on everyone.’
He grinned. ‘Or we can meet before? Go together?’
Gemma licked her lips. Another fish on the hook. And if she ignored his cheap suit, Zev wasn’t bad looking at all.
‘Even better,’ she said. ‘If your Dad doesn’t mind?’
‘He’ll be alright.’
‘Maybe tomorrow, you could show me where your family home was.’
She wondered whether Zev was a crier.
The Hardys Gap Holiday Park was nothing special but her trailer was cheap and surgically clean. With an hour to waste until her appointment with Leigh, Gemma slipped off her worn sneakers and lay down on the brocade bedspread.
Suddenly she was running, a tsunami of flames fifty feet high surged behind her, ashes like black snow fluttered from skies as dark as night. The wind, a wall of deafening power, swallowed her screams as all around trees exploded like bombs. Orange sparks rained down, pin-pricks of hot coals sizzled on her skin, her hair a halo of flame. She sprinted through smoke thick as cement, choking on tears and snot, while behind her, the inferno grinned. The face of fire cackled, the hungry maw open, the eyes of red glee, closer, closer, closer.
Gemma jolted awake in the unfamiliar bed. Disoriented and out of breath, she shook off her nightmare and got up for a glass of water. She paused in the doorway and sniffed the air. Bile rushed up the back of her throat. She swore she could smell smoke.
Twenty minutes later, Gemma was back in town.
‘The statues are amazing. So life-like,’ Gemma said as Leigh handed her a mug of pungent herbal tea. After a tour of the studios and the birthplace of the statues, they sat down at a dented table covered with globs of dried paint. Gemma set her phone to record.
‘The artists were incredible,’ Leigh said. ‘Mercy changed death into sleep.’
‘William Blake?’ Gemma smirked.
Leigh blinked. ’Well done. The pieces turned out exactly as we’d hoped. Renewal through fire like the Dreaming story.’
Gemma gestured to Leigh’s scarf. ‘The banksia symbol?’
Leigh nodded. ‘Seeds and new life bursting free after fire. We white folk have had to overcome our prejudices and acknowledge where we went wrong. We have to listen to the people who know this land best.’
‘I met Craig. Interesting guy.’
‘Such a clever man.’
‘The town is so resilient. I can’t imagine the grief after losing so many people. It must have been overwhelming.’
‘Believe me, it was hard. At one stage, we had one counsellor for every three townspeople. But doing something…acting…looking to the future is the true path to healing.’
Gemma’s pulse quickened. She leaned forward and poured sympathy into her voice. ‘Did you lose someone?’
‘My daughter,’ Leigh said and pursed her lips. ‘Silly girl. Always the first to volunteer. She was right there at the frontline. One of the first to die.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘She went down fighting.’ Leigh smiled through glistening eyes. ‘She’s my inspiration. And so for her, and all the others, we must go on.’
Gemma gave an understanding nod. ‘Do you have a photo?’
She hoped the daughter was pretty.
It was already twilight when Gemma left the caravan park to meet Zev, and once again she headed past the avenue of statues. Under her headlights, the shadowy faces leered and glowered at her as she passed. She cringed and put her foot down.
Following Zev’s directions, Gemma turned and crawled up a narrow road into the hills. Thick bush loomed on both sides of the unsealed road as her hatchback jolted over rocks and potholes, tossing her in her seat. She gritted her teeth, branches scratching and squealing against the paintwork, reminding herself that the story would be worth the damage. And just when she wondered whether she’d taken the wrong turn, she stumbled on the deserted car park. Zev was already there, tall and rangy, leaning against a white car. His suit swapped for jeans and a black hoodie.
‘You get lost?’ His grey eyes sparkled as she sauntered over to him.
’No,’ she snapped. ‘Your directions were crap.’
‘Sure, city girl,’ he said.
‘Are we early? Where’s everyone else?’
‘Nah, this is the back way. Better parking.’
‘OK,’ she said with a hint of cynicism and her breath was white. She rubbed her upper arms. ‘I didn’t think it would be this cold.’
‘Once the sun goes down, it gets pretty chilly up here. But I’ve got something to warm us up.’ He pulled a silver hip flask from his pocket and handed it over.
The brandy trickled a warm path down her throat. She licked the sticky sweetness from her lips. ‘Alright, then. Where’s this fire?’ she said.
The carpark stood at the entry to a walking track, Zev led them over a stile and along a dirt path into the dark forest.
‘Don’t we need a torch?’ she said, holding up her phone.
He scoffed over his shoulder and didn’t break his stride. She shrugged and slid her phone back into her pocket.
He surged ahead on long legs. What was his hurry? Was he hoping for a quick romp in the bushes before the ceremony? A smirk broke out on her lips. Who would have thought? Not only would this little town give her a great story to sell, it might break her six month drought as well. Talk about win-win.
As Zev charged on through the dark, all around her, the bush pulsed with life. She flinched as shrubs rustled and creatures grunted in the undergrowth. A bush rat scuttled in front of her toes and she yelped, but quickly clammed a hand over her mouth. There wasn’t much chance of Zev hearing her squeal, he was power-walking ahead, up a vertical track. Gemma broke into a trot to catch up.
‘I thought there’d be smoke? I can’t smell anything.’ She panted behind him.
‘It’s further along here,’ Zev called without slowing his pace. ‘Then down in the next valley.’
Her forehead was moist and her shoes felt heavier with every step. As Gemma stopped to wipe the sweat from her face, he disappeared over the crest of the hill.
‘Hey!’ she yelled.
But he didn’t reply.
‘Cheeky bastard,’ she muttered and when she finally reached the top and gazed down the other side, he was nowhere to be seen.
Light-headed, she squinted into the darkness. The rising moon was a silver dinner plate, glowing over the hills.
‘Real funny, mate. Where are you?’ she called.
Only the animals of the night replied.
She folded her arms. ‘You’ve blown your chance now, dickhead.’
Further down the hill, through the trees and bushes, lights flickered. The lights swayed and shimmied before her eyes, triplicating and then scattering. She blinked the blur away and shook her head like a wet dog.
‘Have they started the party without me?’ She grumbled and set off towards the only signs of human life.
The grip on her worn-out sneakers gave way, sending her sliding down the hill, tumbling and landing on her bum.
‘Bastard!’ She scrambled back up to her feet and dusted herself off. Then with a clenched jaw, she trudged on towards the light.
Halfway down the hill, three flaming torches sat in a clearing. Through a grove of slim eucalypts, she spied a group of people. Familiar faces stood waiting; Trevor. Leigh. White-beard. The friendly woman from the Visitor’s Centre. The grumpy couple from the cafe. And a few unfamiliar others.
Her stomach churning, Gemma reached for her phone. Her back pocket was empty. She squeezed her eyes shut and then glanced back at the hill, the ground two inches deep with leaves.
She rolled back her shoulders, smoothed her hair and strode into the circle of light.
‘Hello Gemma,’ Leigh said with a serpentine smile.
‘Evening,’ she said. Her tongue was thick in her mouth. She sounded drunk. ‘Where’s Zev?’
‘His part is done,’ Leigh said.
‘What do you …hey.’
Trevor and a man with a shaggy brown mullet lunged forward and grabbed her wrists. She wriggle out of their grip but her arms were as useless as pillows.
‘I’m so glad you didn’t listen to Diane,’ Leigh said, looming over her as the men pinned back her arms.
Gemma narrowed her eyes to slits. ‘Get this fuckwit off me!’
‘Unfortunately no. You’re a crucial part of the evening and we can’t have you backing out.’
‘Me?’ she slurred. Her pulse hammered in her ears. She needed to think but her brain was as mushy as mud.
She searched the crowd, looking for anyone friendly. But they all glowered back at her, just like the statues. Again, she tugged her arm but the mullet man’s grip was like a mantrap.
‘It’s time,’ Leigh said. ‘Bring her, Darren.’
‘No,’ Gemma whined. ‘Let me go.’
Darren dragged her down into a gully, her heels sliding through the dirt and fallen leaves. The others trailed closely behind, their soft footsteps crunching over the bush floor, without saying a word.
Darren yanked her towards a small fire, a thirty-foot strip of flame, barely an inch high. Unlike the inferno in her dream, this fire ambled through the undergrowth, nibbling delicately as it moved.
She frowned and squinted, distrusting her eyes. ‘Is that it?’
‘The fire gods need more than our cool burns,’ Leigh said, reappearing by her side.
Gemma gulped. The face in the flames. The greedy fiery maw.
The rest of the group encircled her. She glanced at their sombre faces. They were all white. Not a single indigenous person among them.
‘You’re all mental,’ Gemma drooled.
‘We need to feed it,’ Trevor said.
‘We have to protect ourselves,’ Leigh said.
‘Never again,’ the others replied in unison. ‘Never again.’ They repeated the phrase, over and over, until their singsong chant contorted into a blur of sound.
‘But the burn…’ Gemma’s mouth was numb.
‘It’s not enough.’ Leigh’s eyes shone.
‘The land has a taste for blood now,’ Trevor said stonily, his scarred forearm glistening in the fire light.
‘We have to keep it fed,’ Leigh added. ‘This is why we were saved. We’ve learned from our mistakes and created something new. And no one’ll miss another nosy journalist. Darren?’
Darren thrust her into the path of the slow creeping fire. He wrapped one arm round her waist, then grabbed her by the hair and tore back her head, exposing her throat. Trevor swept a foot-long hunting knife through the plume of smoke and turned to her. Gemma groaned, her tongue now a lump of useless flesh, her eyes wide and pleading.
‘No one will notice another statue.’ Leigh smirked. ‘They haven’t so far.’
The cold blade slashed across Gemma’s throat. The sharp steel tearing through tissue, cord and cartilage. Her blood hit the fire with a sputter. The others all roared with delight.
Leigh threw her arms into the air. ‘And I will show wonders in the heaven and in the earth, blood and fire, and pillars of smoke.’
As Gemma gurgled and the blood poured from her neck, she wondered, would anyone leave flowers for her?