Note: This is a part of a series. You can find Part 1 here.
I jerked awake, surprised to see the lights were back on and Jon was home. His hand gripped my shoulder; he was pinching me painfully. His eyes bulged dangerously, as if he’d seen a ghost. He studied me with an uncomfortable ferocity.
I shrugged him off and stood up, shaking my body out as I felt tingles running up and down my spine. Had it been a dream? I wasn’t sure. The thumping had been so close. It had been inside of me.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jon asked, moving swiftly into the kitchen and banging around in the cupboards. Something was bothering him.
I took a deep breath and glanced outside. The storm was quietening down. No longer did the branches violently twist in the wind; they were mostly still. As I looked out into the cold dead heart of bushland, I still had that same feeling – someone was staring right back at me.
I shook my head and said, almost to myself alone, “bad dream, I guess.”
The reports started coming in the next morning while I was at work. I stood at the service counter waiting for the cook to pass me a customer’s meal, when someone behind me piped up that they wanted the television to be turned up. Lily – she was older than me, we’d worked together for a while – turned up the sound behind me before standing beside me to watch.
“Breaking news this morning,” the local news anchor’s voice sounded more excited than concerned, “A university student has gone missing overnight. She was last seen…”
The bell in front of me was slapped violently, letting out a piercing ‘ding’. It occurred to me that the same bell had been going under the sound of the television. I mumbled an insincere apology before taking the plate and moving to the customer. All the while, I kept my ear trained on the newscast.
“Volunteer searchers are encouraged to assemble this afternoon at the university south campus, where they will set out into the bushland to begin a search.”
I stood out of the way for a moment, studying the oddly familiar face of the girl while a information hotline number scrolled across the screen. Her name was Maddison. She was my age.
“I think we went to school with her,” Lily said. She sounded far away from me, and I barely acknowledged what she had said. There was something in that photo that didn’t sit right with me. A familiarity I could not pinpoint, but one that made me sick to my stomach.
I arrived back at Jon’s early that afternoon. He sat on the deck above, talking softly to someone else. Grace, I assumed.
I went to walk up the steps to the front door when my foot collided with something. I paused for a moment, looking down to see a handful of stones scattered around the bottom step. They all seemed perfect to me – perfectly rounded where they needed to be, flat otherwise. I shook my head, another effort to shake off what had been that odd day.
Upstairs, Jon and Grace spoke in urgent whispers between themselves, seeming to not even know I was home. I stood in the kitchen, inanimate for a second, while I tried to collect my thoughts. I had agreed to go with Lily to the university that afternoon to help with the search. She wanted to go for the spectacle; to see tragedy in action. I was no better. I felt a compulsion to know. No – I felt as if I had to go. I was obliged.
“A girl,” I called out to Jon and Grace to try draw attention to myself, “she went missing last night. Around here. They think.”
Jon turned around and looked at me with a strange expression. Anger, I suppose, for interrupting his time with Grace.
He didn’t sound very interested.
I shrugged, “They searching for her this afternoon. I’m going. With Lily.”
Again, all I could manage was a shrug, “Something to do. I guess.”
Lily and I hung back from the main crowd, talking shit about people we worked with. I wasn’t really concentrating on what either of us had to say. Looking at Maddison’s parents, standing around looking lost with the police, I had been overcome with a feeling of guilt. We were not supposed to be there. Rubber necks, sticky beaks. No right.
But when I felt Lily’s hand pushing in the small of my back, I knew we were committed. It was time to go.
There was a very good reason, beyond the obvious dangers, that we had been told to stay out of the bush our whole lives. The further into the trees one went, the thicker the foliage became. It was impossible to discern the direction that you’d gone in, or to find a path again. Even experienced hikers had gotten lost out there, swearing they’d followed their compasses.
Maddison was only one of an extensive alumnus who had gotten lost in that dense bushland.
I stayed behind Lily, further back from the group, trying not to draw attention to myself. All the flashlights – and there were many – bounced their beams off the trees ahead, creating a surreal visual effect. The sound of leaves crackling underfoot, calls for Maddison, and general conversation rung out around me. I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing, the on edge agitation I’d come to know when I was around that bushland. We were disturbing something.
Despite the pollution of sound, I heard the whisper clear above it all – my name. It was whispering gently and so invitingly. It begged, come closer, you’re going to want to see this. My name – it knew my name. Mackenzie.
I struggled to localise the sound and tried to push ahead, and then it came louder than ever. I spun sharply to my left and started. There, peeking out from behind a tree directly in my sightline, a person. They were watching, and I got the feeling they’d been watching for a while.
But it wasn’t just any person.
It was me.