I come here every year and it never gets easier. I turn up in my rust-bucket of a car with my bottle of cheap bourbon, and I wander down the path that gets more overgrown every year, and I try to kid myself that it wasn’t my fault. I drink that bourbon and I lie.
But when I close my eyes it doesn’t matter how much alcohol I’ve sunk or what chemical garbage I’ve got churning through my veins, I see the truth. I see Danny’s face.
We were never really close, my brother and me. I suppose five years and different fathers will do that, especially when my old man was an unemployed loser who drank too much and beat the crap out of Danny whenever he needed to let off some steam. But I looked up to my big brother with the kind of wide-eyed amazement that only a five-year-old can possess.
That day – 21 years ago, almost to the hour – my mum and my deadbeat father had another argument, and me and Danny found ourselves turfed out of the house and into the dying afternoon light while they screamed at each other. We knew that when they let us back in they’d smell of booze and cigarettes and that my mum’s lipstick would be smeared all over her face like the Joker in the Batman comics we kept under our beds. So there we were, two small boys, barefoot and wearing nothing but cheap pyjamas, with no home to go back to.
“You stay here, Jack,” my brother said, his feet crunching the dead autumn leaves that carpeted the street in front of our house. I was crying, like I always was in those days. I knew where Danny was going; into the bush at the end of our street, out by the creek. I decided to follow him.
“Go home, Jack,” shouted Danny, but somehow I knew he wanted me to come along. I might’ve been only five, but the bush can get scary after dark, and Danny wanted the company. “Alright, you can come with me, but keep up. If you fall behind, don’t start screaming because I won’t be coming back for you.”
I don’t know what we talked about during that walk out to the creek. Maybe football, or videos games. Maybe we didn’t talk about anything at all. As the shadows took over and the trees turned into pale ghosts, I stuck close to my brother. He was only 10, but to me he was the toughest guy on the planet.
Even sitting here now in jeans and a thick jacket with the hood up, I can remember how cold it was that night. Our breath hung in the air as we picked our way through the trees, our arms clutched across our chests, trying to fend off the chill that gnawed at our bones. In the distance I could hear the last of the kookaburras laughing at the dying sun, and when it fell silent it seemed as if we were the only creatures left on the planet.
The creek was gleaming in the moonlight when we finally reached it, and we sat down next to each other, two little boys alone in the world. Danny tried to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, like they do on television, and when that didn’t work he walked over to a small outcrop, reached under a rock and pulled out two small blankets he kept there for times like this. He handed one to me and I wrapped it around my shoulders, happy for the warmth but wrinkling my nose against the musty smell of it. I remember it smelled like a wet cat. I guess if we’d been older we might’ve talked about what was going on back at home, but we were only kids, so Danny decided to scare me stupid with goofy ghost stories instead.
“You know, this is right about where they found that body last month,” he whispered, as my eyes grew bigger and rounder than the moon floating above us. “Yeah, they found this kid face-down just over there. But they never did find his legs. They say they looked like they’d been bitten off.”
Danny’s eyes lit up and I tried to move in closer to him, but he just slid away. Danny didn’t do hugs.
“Don’t tell me things like that, you’re scaring me,” I complained.
“Oh don’t worry, I’m sure that whoever, or whatever, did that is long gone. And it sure wouldn’t waste its time on a skinny little runt like you.” I looked down at my sunken chest and for the first time in my life I was grateful that Mum pumped most of the grocery money through the pokies.
“What was it that got him?” I asked, looking around.
“How should I know? Maybe a zombie, or a giant snake or the Frankenstein monster. Something with big teeth and a taste for little kids. All I know is that when the wind blows just right, I can hear something growling in the darkness as I drift off to sleep.”
I closed my eyes and visions of horned beasts with huge jagged teeth chased me. Their claws, scaly and dripping with puss, reached out towards me, only to disappear the second my eyes opened. I was alone, and my brother was nowhere to be seen.
I stood, and the wind lashed at me as the blanket fell to the dirt. Something was wrong, something was very wrong. I knew the monster had my brother, but I was too scared to look for him.
“Whoooooooooooo,” the scream burst out of the darkness and raced up my spine, and I ran blindly away from the noise as quickly as my short legs could take me. I tripped, cut my knee on a rock and when I stood again I heard the laughter.
“Quit your running, you baby,” Danny chuckled, and I turned to see my big brother standing a metre behind me, his hands on his hips and a huge smile on his face. “There’s no monsters out here, you sook, I was just scaring you – and boy did it work! Now let’s get back home. Maybe they’ve made up and we can get something to eat. I’m starving.”
Before Danny could turn around to start home a hairy hand shot out from behind a tree, then pulled him backwards and out of sight. A high-pitched scream escaped Danny’s twisted maw, then was cut off. I just stood there with my mouth open, watching the bush close back in as he was dragged away. I felt a warm trickle of piss down my leg.
“Danny, Danny!” I hollered, and took tentative steps in the direction he’d been taken. I pushed some leaves aside and saw a pair of bare feet in the moonlight, then they disappeared into the scrub. I followed, but those feet just got further and further away until I couldn’t see them anymore. I only wish that was the last I saw of my brother that night. Dear God, I wish that was all I saw.
I clawed my way through the bushes, feeling sticks and branches tear at my skin, until I came to a clearing illuminated by a single torch that lay in the dirt. And what I saw in that weak, yellow light was a nightmare. The creature that took my brother didn’t have horns, claws, sharp teeth, scales, wings, a tail or any else I’d been told monsters had. It had a bald head, a woollen jumper and no pants.
The man had my brother pinned to the ground with a filthy rag in his mouth. Danny was naked, his cheap pyjamas lying somewhere in the darkness. I didn’t know what the man was doing, moving backwards and forwards while he grunted and howled. I watched for a minute or two, frozen to the spot and too scared to make a noise. In the sliver of light, I swear Danny looked over to me, his tear-filled eyes pleading for help. Then they rolled back in his head, and when the bald man pulled out a knife, I ran. I went back through the bushes just as fast as I could, past the creek where we’d dropped our blankets, and along the track towards home. Every step of the way I expected a hand to grab me, but it didn’t. I made it back home, where my parents were lying on the lounge with an empty bottle of bourbon, while my brother lay out there in the cold bush with the man.
I don’t remember much about what happened after that night. Maybe it was the shock of seeing my brother raped and murdered by a faceless old man who was more terrifying than any creature in a horror movie, maybe it was the concoction of drugs they pumped into me to make me forget, but when I finally came around I found that my deadbeat dad had run off and my mum had slashed her wrists. No-one ever really told me if either of them did what they did because of what happened to Danny, or if it was just because they were messed up. I was five years old, and I was alone. And it’s been that way for 21 years.
Sometimes when I lie down here, next to the creek that shines like silver when the moon hits it just right, I wish I’d been taken that night. Sometimes I just wish I’d stepped into the weak torchlight before my brother had been killed. Maybe I could’ve saved him. Maybe if I’d been braver, I wouldn’t need to numb myself with alcohol just to get through the day. I was only five, I tell myself, just a scared kid who ran away from a monster.
But when I close my eyes, I see the truth. I see Danny’s face, with those eyes full of fear, pleading for help.