I was still surprised that they had even gotten them to come. Lisa and Michelle were the type of girls that only dated guys well out of high school, guys with cars and tribal tattoos and names like Hunter, or Blaze.
“Don’t worry, ladies,” assured Dubba with a grin. “We’ll have this wine sorted in just a second.”
“Why don’t we just smash it open?” Goose asked, as though it was a perfectly sensible thing to say.
“Smash it open,” sneered Michelle. “We need a corkscrew. Have you guys not done this before, or what?”
Goose struck the neck of the bottle against the driveway’s rocky retaining wall. The crash and tinkle of broken glass echoed from our hiding place and out into the night.
“Goose!” I hissed, crouching even lower behind the rocks. “Are you crazy? My dad might hear.”
“Chill man, he won’t hear shit.”
Lisa giggled again.
Dubba and Goose both seemed to be so cool around the girls. I felt like all I could do was worry, like everything I said was wrong.
“Look, I opened it, didn’t I?” Goose said, showing me the bottle. Apart from the broken bit at the top of the neck the rest had remained surprisingly intact. “So, who wants some?” he asked proudly.
“Give it here,” ordered Michelle.
“Careful,” I warned as Goose passed it over, immediately realizing that no one cared for my advice.
“Don’t worry about me, Tom,” Michelle replied, flashing what was quite possibly the sexiest smile I had ever seen. “I’ve been doing this since seventh grade.” All of us watched in awe as she raised the broken bottle to her lips, carefully pouring the dark, red liquid into her mouth.
“Rad…” I heard Dubba say softly to himself.
A look of confusion spread across her face. Then nausea. Then fear. She vomited onto the grass, a quick but heavy stream of what looked like foamy pink soup with carrots. She glared directly at me, her once pretty green eyes twitching as she wiped the spittle from her mouth. “What the hell did you just give me?”
“W-w-wine,” I stuttered. “It was just wine, I promise.”
“Why’s it so damn salty?”
“I don’t know? It’s a little old, maybe? It has been in our kitchen cupboard for a while now.”
“Are you sure it’s not cooking wine?” asked Dubba, suspiciously eyeing off the bottle.
“Did you give me fucking cooking sherry?” growled Michelle, still scowling like she was out for blood.
Goose slapped me on the back. “Great work, Tom. What are we supposed to do now?”
“We might just go,” Michelle muttered between spitting on the ground. “This whole thing was lame.”
Dubba jumped into action. “Whoa, ladies, whoa, let’s just hold our horses here. Now unfortunately, tonight the wine wasn’t the best.”
“You can say that again,” Goose agreed.
“But the night is still young,” continued Dubba, “and so are we. There’s gotta be something else we can do round here.”
“Like what?” Lisa asked. The silence that followed was painful.
I could already see the girls telling their friends how bad a night it was, all because of the clueless chump that had brought them cooking wine. I shot a desperate glance to Dubba, then Goose, neither of whom looked like they had anything to suggest. Our entire evening was slipping away, with nothing any of us could do to stop it. I panicked. “Hellsinkie!” I blurted out. “What about Hellsinkie?” I regretted the words as soon as they were spoken.
“What’s Hellsinkie?” the girls asked in unison.
Goose nodded with a smile. “We’ll show you.”
“But what about Old Ward?” I pleaded, still trying to delay the inevitable as we approached the macadamia farm’s fence. “What if he catches us?”
Dubba stopped. “You didn’t hear?”
“Hear what?” I replied.
“He died, dude.”
“Uh, maybe a month or so ago?”
“Old age, I think. My brothers said he was over a hundred.”
Michelle cleared her throat. “Are we still doing this, or what?”
“Definitely,” said Goose.
“Right this way, ladies,” ushered Dubba, holding open a gap in the barbed wires of the fence.
“Well, look at you being all gentlemanly,” Michelle said as she gracefully slipped through.
Lisa seemed hesitant too. “Sure is dark in there.” She wasn’t wrong. While most macadamia farms planted their trees in neat, straight lines, Old Ward’s crops were a tangled mess. The chaos culminated in a forest so dense that even in the day, you’d be hard pressed to see any further than a few meters into the plantation.
“Don’t worry, Lisa,” said Goose as he crossed his arms. “I’ll protect ya.”
“You better!” she teased, before dragging him through the wires behind her.
Dubba followed, leaving me to make my way through the fence alone. I took a moment to look around and check the coast was clear. There were less trees than I remembered, the first wave of a new housing development sprouting up in their place. Sliding through the fence wires, I felt my shirt catch and tear some on the barbs. I decided to ignore it. I didn’t want to get left behind, and everyone else’s silhouettes were already sinking into the shadows.
We made our way down into the depths of the plantation. Occasionally I would glance back across my shoulder, watching the moonlit fence recede until it had seeped away to nothing. The forest had begun to exude an almost ethereal quality, the kind of thing that was hard to articulate yet impossible to forget. It just felt…old. Different. No chatter came from the fruit bats nesting in the trees, no chirping from the insects burrowing below. All was silent, save for the crunching of our feet as we pawed from trunk to trunk, stumbling ever forward into an all-consuming black.
“This is…kind of creepy,” whispered Michelle.
“I’ll protect ya,” Dubba whispered back.
She scoffed. “Nice try, bozo. Do you copy all of Goose’s moves?”
“Do we even know where we’re going?” Lisa asked before Dubba could respond.
Then I saw it. A distant flicker of turquoise dancing between the trees. “You guys. Look.”
Michelle pressed up behind me. “What is that?”
My heart beat a little faster. “Hellsinkie.”
The ground sloped sharply just before we reached the clearing, only flattening back out again as the trees came to an end. In single file we skidded down the embankment, each of us struck in turn by our first glimpse of the waterhole – the mysterious pool we called Hellsinkie. I had thought it striking as a child, though had only ever seen it in the day. At night, its waters gave off a glow that was nothing short of mystical, flooding the entire clearing with a calming, cerulean hue. The broken trunk of the eucalyptus tree lay just as we had left it, all those years ago when we had first come here with Jake.
Michelle slowly started to make her way towards the water. “It’s beautiful,” she said, before looking back in our direction. “We’re swimming, right? I’ve only got my underwear, but…”
“Hell, yeah!” hollered Dubba, slapping Goose high five.
“Wait!” I cried.
“What for?” groaned Goose, looking eager to undress.
I paused. Oh God, I thought nervously to myself. I was about to ruin the fun for the second time that night.
“Underwear,” Dubba mouthed in my direction.
The allure of Michelle disrobing was almost enough to keep my mouth shut. But I couldn’t. Not if it meant she might get hurt. “No,” I insisted. “We can’t. Not after what happened to Jake.”
“Who’s Jake?” Lisa asked.
I turned to Dubba and Goose. “I know you both remember. It isn’t safe.”
Goose snorted. “That was ages ago. It’s fine.”
“Who’s Jake?” Lisa asked again.
Before Dubba had even begun to regale them with the tale, my own memories of that awful day were already flooding back.
I wasn’t always the odd one out. I wasn’t always the one that worried, or the butt of Goose’s jokes. Back when we were six, that honour went to Jake. Reed thin and a head shorter than the rest of us, Jake Wilson was a quiet kid who didn’t like much but Lego. He and his mother lived in the smallest house on our street, his father long gone and rarely mentioned.
Late into our school vacation between the first and second grade, Goose had decided that the four of us should set out on a bushwalk. We had taken several that summer, though all they had really entailed so far was climbing over our neighbours’ fences and stealing fruit from their trees. This one was to be different. This time, we were headed into Old Ward’s macadamia farm. Seldom seen by anyone, Old Ward was something of a schoolyard legend. According to the stories Dubba had heard from his brothers, the mysterious old man was two hundred years old, a serial killer, and a cannibal. From what my Dad had told me, he was simply a farmer, one of the few that had held onto his land when everyone else had partitioned theirs up and cashed out.
“Then he feeds the leftovers to his dog,” Dubba warned, holding open the barbed wire fence so I could make my way through. “Because his dog’s half dingo.”
“What’s the other half?” I asked, once I was on the other side.
“You don’t want to know.”
“I heard that too,” said Jake, still standing outside the fence. “The dingo thing. I hate dogs.”
“You hate everything!” mocked Goose, already peering into the depths and eager to get a move on.
“Not everything,” Jake mumbled back.
“Lego doesn’t count. It’s for babies.”
I personally still quite liked Lego myself, though decided at the time that it was probably not worth a mention.
Jake took a small step back. “I’m staying here.”
Goose shot Dubba and me a look. “Scared, Jakey?”
“No. I just don’t wanna go.”
Dubba opened the gap in the fence a little wider. “Come on. I was just joking about the dingo stuff.”
“Yeah. I was just trying to scare ya.”
“I wasn’t scared.” Jake looked at his feet, then back in the direction of his house.
“You coming or what?” barked Goose. “We ain’t got all day.”
Jake sighed. “Fine. I’ll come.” He slipped quickly through the fence.
Goose threw an arm around his shoulder and began to lead him into the trees. “Don’t worry Jakey, it’ll be fun.”
Dubba tapped me on the arm. “Hey.”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s true,” he said, an eyebrow arched and a stern expression on his face.
“Old Ward’s dog. It’s not just half dingo. It’s also half wolf. Hundred per cent meat eater.”
I gulped. “We should catch up to Goose.”
Dubba nodded. “Definitely.”
After wandering through the forest for what had felt like hours, we were ready to turn back. The macadamias seemed to be never ending, their thick foliage long since having swallowed any but the faintest hint of sun.
“Are we lost?” I asked.
“Look,” said Jake, pointing off into the trees. A few hundred metres ahead, nestled between the shadows, the murk of the trunks and leaves, was light. “It’s a clearing,” he said, pushing his way in front of Goose. “Follow me.” We were stunned. It was the first time we’d heard Jake speak with any kind of confidence. I shrugged and followed his lead. As did Dubba. And finally Goose.
One by one we staggered down the slope into the clearing, each of us rendered speechless as we realised what we had found. The waterhole was slightly larger than the average swimming pool. Its dark yet strikingly turquoise surface sparkled in the sun. We approached it together in silence, collectively thrilled with our discovery.
Dubba was the first to speak. “Sure is deep.” He was right. Though the water was clear as glass, it seemed to go down forever. The depths held a gentle glow, like moonlight moving through the clouds at night.
Goose snickered. “Half dingo, hey Dubba?”
The rest of us looked up, all spotting the mangy, tired-looking Labrador nearby. Curled up beside the trunk of a eucalyptus tree with its top cut off, the old dog stirred, stared at us a moment then yawned and went back to sleep. We broke out into laughter.
“I’m gonna pat him,” Dubba announced proudly. “Just wait until my brothers hear about this.”
While Goose and Jake returned their attention to the water, I took a moment to examine the clearing. There was no farmhouse in sight, only the dog and the eucalyptus trunk, which upon closer inspection seemed to have something bound around it.
“What’s that?” I asked, while going for a closer look.
“Looks like a chain,” answered Dubba, now contently patting the sleeping Lab.
I followed it round the trunk until it led off into the grass, the trail of metal ending in a coiled heap attached to a small brown saddle. I picked it up, its leather warm from soaking in the sun. “Oi. What do you guys think this is?”
“It’s a swing!” Goose exclaimed, rushing over and snatching it for himself.
“Nah,” said Dubba with a shake of his head. “Swings need to be on the branches, not the trunk. Won’t work otherwise.”
“What is it, then?” asked Goose, already sounding disappointed.
“God damn it.” He tossed it on the grass and went back to the water.
I picked it up again. It really did look like a saddle, with all the straps and buckles to fasten it to a horse. It was just so small. I found myself beginning to wonder if it may have been for the dog.
Jake screamed. “Not in my clothes! Stop it!”
“What’s the matter, Jakey? You don’t fancy a little swim?” Goose had already scooped him up and was carrying him towards the water. Dubba and I both laughed out loud as he tossed him in the air, Jake’s little arms and legs a flurry as he splashed beneath the surface. He popped back up immediately, eyes and mouth agape with wonder.
“You guys! It’s like a bath in here. Come in! Come in!”
We scrambled to tear our shirts off as quickly as we could. As I pulled mine from my head, I saw Jake’s expression shift. I could tell right away that something was very wrong. He looked afraid. Suddenly his arms began to flail around in terror, fighting with all he had just to keep himself afloat. The dog had jumped up onto its feet, barking wildly, when a booming voice thundered through the trees behind us.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” It was Old Ward! We bolted, abandoning our shirts and disappearing into the scrub as he burst out into the clearing. Rather than chase after us, Old Ward made for the saddle. We stopped, hid behind some of the nearby trees and watched him from a distance. Strapping it tightly around his chest, he gave the chain a yank to check it was still braced to the trunk. Jake slipped beneath the surface. Old Ward turned and ran, diving headfirst into the depths.
A minuted passed. Maybe more. A chill flushed through my chest, the realisation first dawning on me that Jake might actually die. Suddenly the chain snapped taut, the trunk immediately beginning to keel under the strain. I could hear its roots stretching, tearing through the earth below. Finally Old Ward resurfaced, Jake’s tiny body slung limp across his shoulders. Unfortunately, the old man still seemed locked in a vicious struggle. Whatever was pulling them down there had no intention of letting go. Hand over hand he fought his way up along the chain, the trunk giving off an awful groan as it began to fold in two. With a deafening crack it splintered, Old Ward reaching out to try and catch the bank. I threw my hands over my eyes, petrified by the possibility that Jake may not have made it.
Dubba patted me on the back. “It’s all good. He’s fine. Lucky little bugger.”
I opened my eyes to see Old Ward propping Jake up against the larger half of the fallen trunk. The two spoke for quite some time, though none of us could hear what they were saying. I couldn’t stop watching Jake. There was something different about him. An acuity, a sharpness to his expression that hadn’t been there before.
Once they had finished speaking, Old Ward turned directly to where we were hiding and gestured for us to join them. Dressed in a half unbuttoned flannel and a pair of faded jeans, he wasn’t quite the tribal cannibal I’d pictured in my head. He certainly didn’t look to be two hundred years old either. While wrinkles may have creased his decidedly dark skin, his brown eyes still gleamed with the vigour of a man in his prime. A thick pepper beard almost entirely concealed his mouth, quick hints of teeth and lips only ever visible when he spoke. “You boys take Jake home now,” he ordered in a deep, coarse voice. “And I don’t want to see any of you back at Hellsinkie again.”
I’m sure that we were all thinking it, but Goose was the one that asked.
“It’s not for you,” he roared, “that’s what it fucking is!” His face twisted with rage. “Now get your arses out of here ‘fore I slap you round the head!”
He didn’t have to tell us twice. We sprinted from the clearing, up the slope and into the trees, not stopping until we were out through the fence and safely back on Goose’s driveway.
“Want to go again tomorrow?” Goose asked, grinning as he caught his breath.
“No,” said Jake. “We don’t go back. And we don’t talk about it. Ever.” He spoke with such conviction that none of us objected. We simply nodded, said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes.
Jake was different after that. It was little things at first. Answering a difficult question in class, or surprising us with a particularly awesome joke. The thing is it didn’t stop. He just kept getting better, at everything. Academics, athletics, art. By the time we finished sixth grade he was the smartest kid in school. That summer he scored a scholarship at one of the most prestigious private colleges in the state. Naturally he accepted, he and his mother packing up and moving away just a few weeks later. Aside from a Christmas card the following year, we never heard from him again.