He sauntered under the marri trees, feeling her absence. Ashley usually accompanied him on these mindless sojourns, but she couldn’t come out today. Her dad said she needed to help out at the bakery. He told his mum about this and she baulked. She said a child shouldn’t be expected to work. It was a form of slavery.
The wetlands hummed either side of him until he came to a wall of seared jarrahs. A monster fire had raced through here three months ago, and still the smoke issued from the roots of toppled trees, where the flames continued to trickle underground.
He watched the blackened jarrahs and thought again about Ashley. She often claimed she could see figures moving between the trees.
‘Like people, but not people,’ she would say. ‘Maybe like ghosts.’
Nick stopped now and watched the spaces between the trees. He watched for any flitting movement. A racing shadow. But there was just the undergrowth rustling. He felt a nip of envy. He wished he could see the world the way Ashley saw it.
He’d wandered only a little further along the four-wheel-drive track when he found the car. A Range Rover crumpled against a huge bullich.
He approached the wreck cautiously, pebbles of broken glass crunched under his joggers. There was a dead man in the front seat, slumped over the steering wheel. The air-bag hadn’t gone off. The blood from his broken skull had dried down his chin.
Nick knew who the man was, despite the way his jaw sat askew on his face.
He opened the driver’s door, stepping away from more glass, tinkling from the shattered windscreen. There were two empty VB cans on the floor at the dead man’s feet. He noticed the man was bloated; there was yellowish fluid running out of his nostrils. Nick reached into the man’s pocket and found nothing. He leaned over the body and rifled the other pocket. He stood back with the man’s wallet and looked inside. There were two fifty dollar notes in there.
Nick stared at the dead man. ‘Sorry, Luke.’
He shut the door, pushing the wallet into the pocket of his jeans. Once he’d reached the track again he stopped and peered back. He listened to the sibilant wind in the bullich. It seemed right, he thought, for Luke to have ended up in this place.
He made his way back towards town, fingering the shape of the wallet in his jeans and wondering what he could spend Luke’s hundred dollars on.
He showed up at the bakery for the next couple of days after that, asking about Ashley. Her dad said she couldn’t come out, she had to work, so he’d take off on his own again, wandering along abandoned tracks or into the national park. He couldn’t understand why Ashley’s family wanted her to work all the time. They only had two weeks off for the April school holidays. Nick thought it a waste.
Finally she was allowed a day off, and the two of them maundered along the edge of the inlet. But Ashley appeared distracted about something, even a little sullen.
‘It’s Luke,’ she finally admitted. ‘We haven’t seen him in over a week now. Dad reckons he’s just taken off somewhere for a bit. To cool his head. They got into a really bad argument the night before he left.’
She stopped to watch her reflection in the pellucid water.
‘I dunno. I think he would’ve at least called us by now. To let us know he’s okay.’ She breathed. ‘Something doesn’t feel right.’
Nick thought it was only appropriate he spend Luke’s hundred dollars at the bakery. Nearly every day for that first week of the school holidays he ordered a beef burger and a Coke. Jake or Gary, Ashley’s other two brothers, would bring the meal out to him with big smiles on their faces.
‘Got an appetite lately, don’t ya Nick?’ they said. ‘Where you getting all this money from? You got a job too, mate?’
For that first week, he decided to stay clear of Luke’s body in the wrecked car. But it rarely left his thoughts. On a number of occasions he came close to telling Ashley. But something felt wrong about betraying the location of her dead brother. Betraying the serenity of that place.
By the middle of the holidays he couldn’t keep away any longer and returned to the four-wheel-drive track. He realised now the Range Rover was in the centre of a small clearing. The floor wasn’t dirt, it was bald granite. The bullichs surrounding it seemed to be in equidistant places. It all looked kind of ceremonial.
As he approached the car Nick noticed a cohort of black cockatoos hanging in the top of a burnt jarrah. They shrieked and barked and sang as he opened the passenger side door. The stink that hit him was almost overpowering. Still, he brushed away the shattered glass and lowered himself into the seat.
The buckled cab encased him. The steel had folded around the tree like cardboard. Luke’s body had paled considerably since the last time Nick had visited and there were lines of beetles trailing down his neck. Maggots wriggled beneath his flesh.
Through the front windshield he could see a quokka watching him from the edge of the wetland. Nick sat there and breathed, becoming sleepy now. When he peered over he saw Luke’s mouth slowly opening. A black cockatoo fought its way clear of his throat, struggling from the dead man’s insides. Once free, it perched on Luke’s sideways chin and looked at Nick. In the corner of its enlarged pupil he saw a shard of Luke’s soul, flickering.
He woke sometime later and looked at Luke’s bloated body, but no bird emerged from his open mouth. He got out of the car and started down the track again. The black cockies were still in the top of the Jarrah, launching themselves from the charred limbs like embers falling.
Ashley continued to harass her father until he agreed to go to the police. Luke Nguyen was declared a missing person soon after. They put up posters with his face on them out the front of the bakery. Jake and Gary still didn’t seem overly concerned with their younger brother’s disappearance. They said he had mates in Pemberton and he was probably just hanging out with them for a bit. He’d be back in a couple of weeks and all this fuss would have been for nothing.
When Nick heard them say this, he searched himself for any smidgen of guilt. But all he feared was the sanctity of that car-wreck being spoiled by police or emergency services. He just knew that the place should be protected.
On the weekend, Ashley agreed to spend the day with Nick, but he could see she was becoming increasingly agitated about her brother’s disappearance. He did his best to distract her by leading her up Delany’s Track into the Karri forest. He took her to a toppled Red Tingle and showed her the immense trunk. They sat on the leviathan-length of it and talked about reincarnation. Ashley said she’d like to come back as a movie star. Nick said he wanted to come back as a Karri Oak.
He told a story to make her feel better. It was a story many in the town already knew. He told her he had once disappeared, just like Luke. When he was nine years old. At the time his mum was hitting the grog pretty hard and one night, while she was out cold, he just wandered off. Over the next couple of days the whole town were out in the national park, trudging through the Karri Hazel, calling his name. They found him eventually, in the hollow of this fallen Tingle. He was curled up tight in only a singlet and shorts, in the winter cold. When they pulled him from the hollow they said he was as blue as the ocean.
His mother had told him all this, because he had no memory of the event.
‘You can’t remember any of it?’ Ashley asked.
He shook his head. But this was not strictly true.
He remembered coming across the fallen Red Tingle in the forest and finding a number of wounds in its side, blood running out of them like it would run out of a man. His mum had told him the story about that guy who touched Jesus’ wounds after the Resurrection. Nick remembered sliding his fingers into the stiff sap. Even back then, he felt closer to this than he had to those old stories.
Many in the town said Nick hadn’t been the same after he was found alone and shivering in the Tingle. Like he wasn’t all there anymore.
He became prone to outbursts of violence. Like the day Jed Embley approached him and Ashley at school and asked Ashley, ‘Why do you and ya brothers all have white people’s names? Why don’t you have proper gook names?’
Nick punched the younger boy so hard in the mouth a spray of teeth gusted across the swing set. Particularly disturbing was the way Nick then leaned down, gathered one of these teeth into his palm and stood there examining it.
Even he had to admit, ever since that night in the forest when he’d touched the open wounds, he’d found it difficult to relate to others. Ashley was the only exception. Because she was so often by his side. Because she too searched for answers in the top of trees, like the way she did after he finished telling her the story.
She peered to the Karris in the silver sky and asked, ‘Where the hell are you, Luke?’
He heard the townspeople beginning to whisper, the way they sometimes whispered about him. The blue boy with a few screws loose.
They started to comment on how unconcerned the Nguyens appeared over their son’s disappearance. The bank tellers gossiped behind their plastic shields. Bored pensioners went into the bakery for pies they didn’t want and expressed their condolences, watching for a reaction on the father’s face, surprised when the concern was not obvious in his flat expression.
Ashley’s mother started to spend time at the bakery that second week of the holidays. This was unusual, considering Nick had only met her twice before. She didn’t work with the others, but sat out the front under the umbrellas, smoking and reading The Women’s Weekly.
Jake and Gary would often tease him about marrying Ashley one day. According to them the plans were already underway, it was a cultural thing. Nick didn’t have the heart to admit he was already in love, not with Ashley, but with their mother.
Mrs Nguyen was not only the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but the most stylish. She wore tight coats around her figure with the first couple of buttons undone and flashy gold earrings which dangled around her chin. She wore so much make-up she looked like was she was air-brushed in real life.
Now she started showing up at the bakery, Nick liked to sit with her on those days Ashley worked behind the counter. They would never say a word to each other, because Mrs Nguyen couldn’t speak English very well. But every now and then she looked at him and smiled cheekily over the top of the lowered magazine.
After her shift one day Ashley frowned at him as they sauntered away from the bakery.
‘Why do you sit with her like that?’
‘Who? Ya mum?’
‘She’s not my mother!’
Nick started visiting the scene of Luke’s death more often. Sneaking off into the bush after spending most of the day at Mrs. Nguyen’s side. Each time he found the body in a new stage of decay. It had deflated now, after the initial bloating, and appeared thin and shrivelled. The crows had pecked out his eyes. Something had eaten his lips so his teeth were perpetually bared in a clown-like smile. The maggots had nested inside him, emerging from various orifices. Fluid had spilled from his sideways mouth and pooled on the floor.
Most days Nick visited he would simply sit in the passenger seat and watch the protean sack of flesh beside him as it became something else, as the skin blackened, and was stripped away by beetles.
He shut his eyes and tried to draw on the lost memory of being found wet and shivering in that fallen Tingle. The blue boy screaming to be left inside. But the memory of it was closed to him. All that remained were glimpses of karri dark.
Each time he visited, Nick would fall asleep for a while and then wake beside the deteriorating carcass, and find he was still awkwardly solid. The conversion was incomplete. He was still flesh and blood while Luke was, grain by grain, becoming the forest floor.
On the Sunday before school was due to start again, Nick showed up at the bakery to find Mrs Nguyen no longer sitting under the umbrellas in the autumn drizzle. When he asked Ashley where her mother was she barked, ‘what do you care?’
He just shrugged.
‘She took off. Last night.’
‘Where’d she go?’
‘Who knows?’ Ashley grumbled. ‘I hope she never comes back.’
Nick stared into her febrile eyes and realised something had broken between them.
‘Do you wanna hang out?” he asked.
‘No,’ she sighed and looked around, shuffling her feet on the spot.
‘Do you have to work?’
He tried to feel betrayed, angry, upset.
‘Okay,’ he said.
‘You go,’ she told him and started into the bakery. ‘I’ll see you ‘round.’
Nick was sauntering along the track toward Luke and the car-wreck when he saw flashing lights. He slid into the cover of shrubs and slowly crept through the underbrush. Two police vehicles were parked in the clearing. A tow truck was alongside and a number of policemen were pacing around the crumpled Range Rover. One man was hunched over, gagging and wiping at his wet mouth.
Nick tried to snatch one final glimpse of Luke’s body. To see if the conversion was complete. But there were too many people. The sanctity of that place was spoiled. He looked for the black cockies in the top of the Jarrah but they were gone. He turned and wended through the shrubs like a panicked dog.
In a state of terror Nick’s thoughts became irrational. He wondered what would happen to him if the police found out he’d known about Luke’s body all this time. That he took Luke’s wallet? He thought maybe they would probably send him to prison. Or at least take him away from this place.
Once he reached his house on the edge of the inlet he lifted the loose floorboard on the front veranda where he’d stashed Luke’s wallet. He slipped it into his pocket and went out back to fetch some lawnmower fuel from the shed.
He followed Delany’s Track into the Karri forest. The autumn storms rolled in, darkening the spaces between the Red Tingles. Even now he searched for movement between them, running human shapes, like Ashley said she used to see.
He looked to the spot she usually filled alongside him. In that space, he found a karri oak. It held discarded bark in its arms, as if cradling ribbons of peeled flesh. For a moment he thought it was his own skin, finally discarded.
Nick came to the fallen tingle where the townspeople had found him so many years ago. He set the fuel can down and took Luke’s wallet in his hands. The corner of some paper was jutting out of the top of it. It was a photograph, folded and hidden behind Luke’s driver’s license. The photo showed Mrs Nguyen staring out at the viewer and giggling. Although there was nothing obviously explicit about it, Nick found himself blushing.
He remembered those empty cans at Luke’s feet in the car. He remembered that Ashley said her dad and Luke had been fighting the night before he disappeared. He remembered Ashley saying Mrs Nguyen was not her mother. Nick stared down at the image of Mrs Nguyen chuckling and began to tremble.
He soaked the wallet and the photograph in fuel before using his mum’s Zippo to light them up. The forest floor was still damp from the rain so there was no risk of the fire spreading. The jiggering flames splashed the trees with red light.
As he made his way back through the forest, he thought he glimpsed something. He stopped, hoping it was not just his imagination. Then he saw it again. A figure sprinting from karri to karri.
At one point it stopped, leaning against a red tingle, and it peered back at Nick. It was Luke Nguyen, his teeth pulled back in a grimace from where the birds had eaten his lips. He blinked out a tear in one eye and then started running again. Escaping down the hill in the forest, flashing between the trees.