“The police tell her not to look back…”
“Shut up Ben! Everyone knows that one, don’t you have anything new?” complained Millicent.
“What? It’s a classic,” sulked Ben.
“I’ve got a good one,” said Millicent. “And I can guarantee that none of you have ever heard it before because it happened to me and I’ve never shared it with anyone.”
“I’m going to bed. We’ve got a long hike in the morning and I don’t want to spend the night jumping in fear at every sound I hear. Good night everyone,” said Stacy getting up and going into one of the tents.
Brad got up and put a few more logs on the dying fire and everyone huddled in closer to hear Millicent’s story.
“This happened long ago when I was a kid. I was twelve and we were camping near Kalgoorlie. My Dad had just bought a metal detector so we spent our days prospecting for gold. He was convinced that he would find a gold nugget like the Welcome Stranger nugget. Mum and I were bored after the first few days. I spent most of my time in the tent reading and imagining the fun my friends were getting up to without me. The nights were fun though, we’d have a camp fire and roast marshmallows. Dad would tell us scary camp stories, like the one you just tried to tell Ben, that’s how old it is!
“Anyway, every night his stories got scarier and scarier. We were camped out in the middle of the desert and I would go to sleep each night imagining the wild dingoes circling our tent. In the desert the night sounds are amplified. It was a miracle I got any sleep at all. Each morning I’d check around our tent for animal tracks, but there were only ever kangaroo tracks, so I was worrying for nothing. Except on the last night. Everything changed that night.”
The others leaned in, the flames from the fire leaping up and casting eerie shadows on their faces. “Don’t stop there. What happened next?” asked Claire, holding on tightly to her partner Matt.
“No, I shouldn’t say any more,” said Millicent sitting back on her chair. “It’s been a secret for nearly ten years, it should stay that way. Ben, you can tell your story.”
“You can’t get half way through a story and then just stop Millicent,” pleaded Matt. “That’s like those people who write enigmatic posts on Facebook. They know people are going to ask what they are talking about. You have to finish the story now.”
“Do you all promise that you will never tell this story to anyone?” Millicent asked leaning in and looking from face to face. They all nodded. “ I need to hear you all say the words.” A chorus of “I promise” went up around the circle.
“Okay. On the last night I woke to the sound of raised voices. I could hear my father arguing with another man. As I said, we were in the desert camping on our own. We had driven into Kalgoorlie for supplies once, but other than that we hadn’t seen anyone else during our time away. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was pitch black. Looking out of the tent I could see the dying embers of the fire and the lights of a car outlining the silhouettes of my father, my mother standing just behind him and the man he was arguing with. It was too dark to make out any of the stranger’s features, but his voice was distinctive. He spoke with a slow drawl, each vowel drawn out a beat too long. I could see that he was carrying a shotgun. I sat at the entrance to the tent listening to the exchange.
‘And I told you, this is private property, you and your family have no right camping here, let alone prospecting here. This is my land, what you find on my land belongs to me,’ said the man.
‘I’m sorry, we had no idea. There weren’t any signs or we never would have camped here,’ explained my father.
‘Now I’m not asking again, you need to hand over what you’ve found during your time here,’ continued the man.
‘I already told you. I haven’t found anything of value, but you’re welcome to it,’ my father explained. I could see the man gesture to my mother with the tip of his rifle to go and collect what my father had collected. She came to the tent and was surprised to see me sitting at the entrance. She put her finger to her lips to silence me. I could see her hand was shaking. She reached into the tent and pulled out the small pouch where my father kept the few little gold nuggets he had found and took it back to the man. He looked inside and then put the pouch into his front pocket.
‘Now pack up and get off my land before I shoot your tires out,’ he instructed.
‘Please,’ begged Dad. ‘It’s the middle of the night, we’ll leave at first light. I promise.’
‘You’ll leave now,’ the man said in a voice that bore no room for an argument.”
“So you had to pack up and leave in the middle of the night, that is pretty scary,” said Matt.
“That’s not all,” said Millicent. “We quickly packed up our tent and camping equipment under the watchful eyes of the stranger with his rifle. There was no moon that night and somehow my Dad must have taken a wrong turn because instead of getting back onto the main highway we found ourselves driving around in circles. My mother was getting hysterical and my father was strangely silent. I imagined his knuckles white as he clutched the steering wheel. After an hour or so of driving around with no road in sight, my Dad pulled over and decided that it would be better to wait until daylight to see where we were. We spent the rest of the night sleeping fitfully.
“With the rising of the sun we were no clearer about where we were. We had a quarter of a tank of petrol, enough food for our last breakfast, a little bit of water and a shot of Cameron’s insulin.”
“Cameron? Who’s Cameron?” asked Claire.
“Cameron was my brother,” answered Millicent. No-one knew where to look, a shiver ran through Claire’s body. Matt pulled her closer to him and nodded to Millicent to carry on.
“We had been planning on driving back to Perth that day. We were going to eat breakfast and stop in Kalgoorlie to get petrol and stock up on water and snacks and then drive home. Worst case scenario, as long as we found our way to Kalgoorlie by nightfall we would be okay.
“If you have been to Kalgoorlie you will know that the surrounding area is flat, so there were no hills for us to get a view of where we were. We knew that where we had been led to nowhere, so there was no point following those tracks. We ate our breakfast and set off to the south. Where we had camped was only about a kilometre from the road, so my Dad reasoned that we couldn’t be that far from a road, but we drove to the south for an hour and didn’t get to a road. My mum was starting to panic, imagining us running out of petrol, so Dad stopped the car. The fuel light was on. Running out of petrol was a real possibility. It was warming up and we needed to watch our water, but Dad and I decided to keep going on foot, to see if the road was close. We walked for an hour and saw nothing except mirages and some lizards lazing of the red rocks. Following our tracks we headed back to the car.
“Our problem was that no-one would be looking for us and that when they did start looking for us they wouldn’t know where to look. We had told our friends we were going prospecting near Kalgoorlie, but that was as specific as we had been. The only person who knew where we had been camping was the stranger who was responsible for the predicament we were now in. It was unlikely he would say anything if and when a missing person’s report was made.
“We always commented on the idiocy of tourists who got themselves lost in the Australian outback and yet here we were in that same situation.
“We spent the rest of the day trying to stay cool and rationing out the water. As night fell Dad dug a small hole and set up a piece of plastic in the hopes of catching some dew in the night. Hungry, we did our best to sleep. I did doze off because when I woke my mother was crying and holding Cameron. He hadn’t had any insulin since the morning before and had slipped into insulin shock. He was shaking and sweaty, losing water that his body couldn’t afford to spare. If we didn’t get him some food soon he would slip into a coma and die.
“Dad was searching through the car looking for any food we may have missed, boiled sweets, anything, but I knew there was nothing as Cameron and I had looked through it thoroughly the day before. As Mum held him she was trying to get him to take small sips of water, but he was shaking too much. I had seen him like this once before, it was scary, his eyes rolling back in his head, the whites showing. Cameron was my twin, I never understood why he was born with diabetes and I wasn’t. It didn’t seem fair. He was a nicer person that me, a better, kinder person. If I could have taken his diabetes from him I would have in a heartbeat.
“That day we watched helplessly as Cameron slipped away from us, offering what little comfort and support we could. By nightfall, Cameron had taken his last laboured breath. We had no tears but were bereft. I spent the night lying by my twin brother’s side.
“At first light, I set off towards the east, we had not gone in that direction yet. My steps were mechanical. I felt nothing as I put one foot in front of the other, there seemed no point in finding our way out now except that Cameron could be given a proper resting place.
“I hadn’t been walking for very long when I saw a house, a shanty really. Leaning against the veranda was a rifle. I walked towards it and picked it up. I had never held a gun before and was surprised, it was lighter than I expected it to be. I turned it over in my hands inspecting it. It seemed a simple object, not many parts. The trigger was obvious, there was a catch which I assumed must be the safety. I put it up to my face and looked down the sight, imagined pulling the trigger. I was about the put it back where I had found it and knock on the door to ask for help when from behind me I heard a voice. It was a voice I recognised. It was the voice of the stranger who had made us pack our things up in the middle of the night. Adjusting the safety catch I turned towards the direction of the voice. I put the gun up to my face, saw the stranger in my sight and pulled the trigger. I was surprised at the jolt I got from the gun and had to steady myself so as not to fall backward. I was also surprised at the stranger who now lay before me, a blossom of red spreading on his chest.
“I used my T-shirt to wipe down the gun and placed it back on the veranda where I had found it. I walked back to my parents with the news that I had found the way out.”