Stumbling upon the Warren River, Hoyle wonders if you can find some kind of religion in hurting yourself. Legs dangling over the side of the platform, he unscrews the lid from his water bottle. Inspects the raised, studded plastic along its rim. It’s not a blade, but it’ll have to do. He knows all the techniques for avoiding this: keep an elastic band around your wrist and snap it back on your skin, put your hand in the freezer. These’ll cause pain, but won’t leave you with any marks.
He peers up at the grey karri forest amassing like the forehead of a winter storm; it’s hard to try any of this when you’re in the bowels of the wilderness. He pushes his hand into the sickly water below. It’s cold; he goes pale up to the wrist. But it’s still not enough. He needs clarity right now. Needs the pain to reach further.
Hoyle lifts his jeans leg, the wiry hairs revealed. He twists the bottle lid into the hard calf muscle with his numb hand. The studs press deep, then rotate. Like being sucked on by a leech. The hairs dishevel. Blood seeps at first, then wets the top of his sock. Some drips into the river below. He watches it, the strand of red in the polluted green mirror. The way it loops, spirals. Crimson twine unlacing.
When he’s done, he’s clearer. Always is. Not somewhere else, or shut away in his head, but here. Bleeding into the Warren River. He’s now and himself and no one else. The five separate, circular lacerations on his skin continue to weep as he pulls his jeans leg down again. The denim soaks through with blood instantly.
He glances up, feeling a little high already despite not yet touching his satchel of junk, and sees a girl on the other platform overhanging the river. Panic like a static shock. Not because she might’ve seen him hurting himself, but because what had just transpired was precious. The blood, the river.
He snatches his pack, storms towards the car park at Maidenbush. But when he sees the girl he knows she didn’t see. She’s beaming, showing off pretty eyelashes. It’s the baby-face, he knows it. Gets them every time. She doesn’t know that just a couple of minutes ago he was making himself bleed.
He stops to catch her eye again.
‘Ya look lost.’
She chuckles shyly.
‘Yes. Maybe I am.’
Eastern European, at a guess. The accent.
‘S’alright. Easy to do around here.’
Her cheeky grin springs up. The simple exchange of energy. He stares at the sweat on her bare chest. Feels the blood running into the bottom of his shoe now, going squishy inside.
‘To get lost,’ he says.
She nods and looks along the river.
‘This is the trail?’
Hoyle nods back, lets his big smile shine, and he knows he has her.
‘Know what they call it?’
She shakes her head, but she wants to know.
‘The Heartbreak Trail.’
Steely morning light in the karris, the warm stranger in the blankets next to him. He unloosens himself from her grip, bare feet on the jarrah boards, gets dressed. The head of a rusted nail under his big toe. Looks back, ruffled blonde hair over her face. Naked shoulders. A thin scar alongside the nodules of her spine. He wonders how she got it and touches the throbbing, bottle-lid wounds through his jeans.
When he tiptoes into the hallway, he finds Sadie leaning against the doorframe of her bedroom, watching him.
‘Might have to renegotiate the conditions of you staying here,’ she says.
Hoyle closes the door softly behind him.
‘Go on, then. Negotiate away.’
‘I never said you could bring girls back to the house.’
‘Believe me. It was an unexpected development.’
Sadie sips her coffee, sears him to charcoal with her eyes.
‘Get rid of her.’
He doesn’t, not straight away. He makes himself a black coffee and goes out to the front deck. Blackbutts peppered along the river. Lazy roos on their sides in the bracken. He’s surprised to find Sadie follows him out. She presses her back up against the balustrade, scrutinising him.
‘Got much writing done?’ she asks.
‘Told ya. I’m here for research.’ He won’t look at her. ‘What about you? How’s the PhD going?’
‘Coming along quite well. When people aren’t screwing their brains out in the next room, I can almost concentrate.’ She stares at him. ‘How will you write a word if you’re out bush all the time, or bringing girls back to your room?’
‘The girl really bothered you, eh? Now why’s that, I wonder?’
‘When I agreed to let you stay here, you said were writing a book. About that psycho up in Bindoon. Burying those little boys under the floorboards of his farmhouse. I thought to myself, Finally, a serious writer’s coming to stay. Someone I can actually maintain an interesting conversation with.’
‘Yeah, well, the book’s changed.’
‘How can something that doesn’t exist change?’
Hoyle looks at her now. He doesn’t know her, only met her a fortnight ago, but already he’s drowning in her animosity.
‘I’m focusing on other cases,’ he tells her.
‘Can I ask why?’
Hoyle pitches his coffee out into the bracken, turns to go back into the house.
‘Coz I don’t wanna have to think about dead kids anymore.’
When he drops the girl off at her car at Maidenbush, she kisses him on the side of the mouth and says goodbye. He drives back to the house on the edge of the national park, still stewing about what Sadie said to him earlier. He packs his gear, takes off through the forest before he can run into her again, the keys on her laptop cracking behind her bedroom door on his way out.
Hoyle tramps down the roo-bashed tracks in the bracken until he finds the bank of the river, the Heartbreak Trail. He sticks to its edge, avoids the runaways and hermits in their Viscounts and swags at Drafty’s Camp. Ranks of ragged karri ascend a dun hill on the opposite side of the Warren. He tries to lose himself in the grim canopy as it closes over, thickening as light leaches around him, but the trees won’t hold. Instead, Sadie’s words continue to lodge in his chest. He hardly stops all day, leaving Heartbreak behind. Eyes accustomed to the unpeopled forest. Lichen light as cobwebs in his mind.
He finds the clearing at dusk, though the stormy sky betrays no easy telling of time. It’s only now, as dark seeps upward from the earth, that Hoyle realises he’s been stressing about Sadie all day. Ever since he left the house. He doesn’t want to think about women out here, but he inevitably does. Lately, it’s mainly been Sadie. She jumps into his head when he least expects it. Thinking about her cheap necklace of white beads. These past few days they’ve snuck around one another in the kitchen, around the gurgling kettle and the can of Blend 43, but when he first arrived she had tried to talk to him, and Hoyle ducked every opportunity, never big on conversation, and since then she regarded him with frustration, suspicion even. He drops his pack in the clearing, bitter and horny at the same time.
He knows he should eat first, but he’s too tired to cook. Instead he fishes around in his bag for the satchel, listens to the tinkle of glass inside. After quickly setting up the tent, he gets inside, flumps on his flimsy hiking mattress. Goes over the file of crime-scene photos again. He does this every time he comes back here to have the story fresh in his mind.
The victim’s name was Benjamin Weir. Twenty-seven years old. No family, no girlfriend, no real friends to speak of. An anchorless drifter who went into the Department of Parks and Wildlife straight out of uni. Went from crew guy to fauna officer in no time. Found solace in critters that live in darkness rather than in his fellow man. He had been out here doing a study on some kind of marsupial Hoyle’d never heard of. Camped in this same clearing when someone came sneaking in the middle of the night. The city detectives still weren’t sure what kind of weapon they used. A mallet or a hammer, at a guess.
He puts the folder aside and unzips the satchel. Hoyle never believed that time travel was possible until he began his love affair with PCP. His heart races like it did when he took that girl home last night. The needle tip gleams. He’s always had good veins, but he uses the tourniquet anyway, just for the ritual of it. He watches a strand of his own blood wind back into the chamber, the clear fluid knotting in on itself. Before his thumb eases on the plunger.
It doesn’t hit him straight away, though his legs get numb. It takes a while. But then the whites of his eyes shine like the gleam of a polished human skull.
Out there. Karri hazel, hairy with dead lichen. They turn towards him, curling around him like witch fingers. The hand of a benevolent giant scooping him up out of the muck.
He’s no longer himself but the loner: Benjamin Weir. In his tent in the unpeopled forest thinking about the night critters he’s chasing, always been chasing. Trying not to think about girls.
He’s nearing sleep when he hears the footsteps outside. A grave silhouette through the tent wall. The blows come in a frenzy. Hoyle takes them without resistance. He needs to know what this feels like. His skull opening like an egg, his angry mind leaking out onto the wet leaves.
Only comes to the next morning. The frosty karris breathe him into life. He steps from the tent, swaying.
In a daze, he makes porridge with his portable gas stove, stirs it sluggishly with a warped spoon. Rushes off for a piss, still not settled in himself. Pieces are missing. Time, memory. Flakes of bark hanging off the side of a karri like dead banana peel.
When he returns there’s no tent. Just the bare poles standing. Small flames eat the leaves. He kicks them out, eyes darting. He’d left his stove on inside the tent. The nylon is gone, but his sleeping bag, mattress and satchel are untouched.
‘Fuck,’ Hoyle says.
Approaching the house, he sees her move inside, through the front window. Already he’s devising a story to save himself embarrassment. He must be quiet going up the front steps. She doesn’t hear him on the timber boards, which creak and shift against their nails.
It takes him a moment to realise she’s not wearing any pants. She’s just in a loose singlet, ghosting through the house, music softly playing. He’s ready to turn away, but sees it. The soft part. He’s always thought it looks like a sea monster’s mouth. Eyes to the boards that shift restively beneath. Like a knife paring him open. He knows he’s done wrong. It gapes in him now like a snake’s fangs bared.
Thinks back to that foreign girl. How he’d feared her seeing him screw the bottle lid into his flesh. Now he thinks maybe she did see but pretended she didn’t.
He knocks on the door, waiting. It takes her a while, but then he hears her footsteps coming down the hall. When she answers, she’s wearing a pair of jeans.
‘Do you have a spare tent by any chance?’ Hoyle asks, leaning in the doorway of her bedroom.
Sadie’s on a stool in front of her laptop. All that writing. Sprawling lines of it. Feels like he’s drowning in mid-air. He hasn’t written a word about the Bindoon killings since he arrived. A couple of times he locked himself in his room and clapped away at the keys on his computer just to sound like he was getting a bit of work done.
He tries not to think about the flash of wiry hair between Sadie’s legs.
She turns back to frown at him over her shoulder.
‘What happened to yours?’
She leads him into the storeroom, snags a dusty tent bag from the corner, lobs it at him. They go out onto the deck.
‘Sucker for a long story, I am,’ Sadie says.
Hoyle rubs his pallid face.
‘Not willing to share at the moment, I’m afraid.’
She stares at him with hard eyes.
‘Have you taken something?’
‘What?’ he snaps, turning on her like a riled dog. ‘Course not.’
‘You’re really pale. You don’t look well.’ She pauses. ‘You look dead.’
He sighs into the winter chill.
‘Just tired. Didn’t sleep well last night. Cold out there.’
‘I’m worried about you.’
‘You’ve done a prize-winning job of showing it so far.’
But he’s always suspected it. Her snideness, her taunting, was masking something else in her. Should’ve guessed it was concern.
‘My ex. He used ice a few times.’
Hoyle balks. ‘Jeezus, I’m not a fucken junkie, alright?’
‘Okay, okay,’ she says. ‘But this stuff we’re writing about, it takes a toll. We’re both reading the same police reports, so I know. Trust me. I know it isn’t nice to have this stuff rattling around inside your head.’
Again he almost wheels on her. But then sees her blue eyes, the dangling white beads around her neck. Hoyle wonders for the briefest moment if this is someone he can really confide in. Because when he first started researching this case last year, he shot PCP in that Bindoon farmhouse and was shattered into so many lives. Most of the time he was the boys. Sedated, groggy, dangling in Michael Finn’s arms. But other times, he was Finn himself. He’d bring the boys into the house in the dark and then the most unforgettable things would happen. That stuff you couldn’t scrape from your mind.
Hoyle knew now he wouldn’t see the faces of the only two women he’d ever been in love with on his death bed, or even the way the scintillas of light died in the forest at dusk. He would see what he’d done in that farmhouse as Michael Finn.
Hoyle looks at Sadie, almost confesses everything, but instead recalls her half-naked in the house. How he hadn’t turned away in time, how he’d secretly wanted to see.
‘It’s good,’ Sadie tells him. ‘What we’re doing here. What you’re doing. Writing about this.’ He sees her throat bobble a little as she swallows. ‘But if you want to talk about it?’
‘Cheers for the tent,’ he says, and steps from the deck.
Only makes it a few metres into the karri hazel before he starts bawling. Hunches in the leaf shit to take the lid off his water bottle. Drilling it into his calf until blood lisps out, he knows he’s Hoyle—he’s himself—but suddenly he wants to be someone different. Please, God, anyone but himself.
He shoots up. Sliding the needle in, the vein turns red. Thumping back onto his mattress in Sadie’s spare tent, he’s expecting to jump into Benjamin Weir’s skin. A jaunt behind someone else’s eyes. Instead he sees the tent from the outside, emerging from the drone of she-oaks. A heavy handle in his grip, but he still can’t tell if it’s a hammer or a mallet. The tent’s dark, but he can smell the sleeping stranger inside. When he unzips the opening he can feel himself taking up more room, inflating. Swinging the object with ease. Benjamin Weir’s head breaks apart like a watermelon.
Hoyle lives for this. The exchange of power. Like fucking. Like with that girl the other night in Sadie’s spare room. It flows one way harder than the other. He’s never sure which direction it will tip; he can only pray it will spill his way each time. When it does, there’s nothing else like it. It’s like slick oil gushing into his mouth, filling him up. Until the face he’s wearing is speckled with blood.
He hears the zipper on the tent pulling down, thinks he’s either still hallucinating or dreaming. A silhouette darkens at his feet. Heart drubbing in his chest. Hoyle finds himself hoping it’s Sadie come to pay him a visit. But then the hand seizes him by the ankle. Tremendous power in that grip. His tendons scream.
He’s ripped from his sleeping bag in a flash, tasting the wet dirt outside. A shadow double his size dragging him away. Hoyle’s bellowing now. Still can’t tell who’s being dragged.
‘Thought you was a ghost at first,’ the stranger’s voice says. ‘But then I seen you hurt yaself in the trees and that’s how I knew you was real.’
‘I’m not him!’ Hoyle starts to scream. ‘Fuck’s sake, listen! I’m not him!’
‘But I gotta be sure you ain’t come back for revenge,’ the giant tells him, hauling him swiftly into the river. ‘I just gotta be sure.’
The PCP has fucked his brain up. He knows it. Ever since he’s started using, his nightmares have become more vivid. Sometimes they’re more real, more terrifying, than when he shoots the shit straight into his arm.
He’s under Michael Finn’s farmhouse. He’s one of the dead boys. When he reaches up, his skeleton hand touches the wood from beneath. He rips one of the rusty nails from the jarrah, waits to hear Michael Finn, watching on in horror. Then he punches his arm through the floorboards.
He runs straight into her, like she was waiting this whole time. The once unpeopled forest suddenly shimmering with light all around her. He can’t remember how long he’s been running, but the Warren wilderness has been with him the whole way, shuddering darkly in the edges of his vision.
At first Hoyle can’t tell if she’s real or if he’s just completely lost it this time. But her bony hands grab at him in a panic, smoothing back his wet hair.
‘Hoyle? It’s me. It’s Sadie.’
He’s making a noise like a pup scared into delirium, falling into her like he’s never known the touch of a woman.
‘Jesus Christ, you’re so cold. What happened? Have you been in the river?’
He looks around, eyes flashing here and there in the forest. Dawn burns a soft blue line through the salmon trunks. No sign of the giant with the torn voice. No idea where he’s been all night, who he’s been. Just that he’s frozen right through, lungs packed with gravel.
She holds him and sees now. The circular cuts on his leg. The soft purple bruises along his inner arms.
‘What are you doing?’ she asks. ‘What have you done to yourself?’
He sees the pack on her back, she’s fully kitted out in warm clothes. She came looking for him, to save him from himself. The white beads of her necklace aching against his cheek, his face pressed into the sweat on her chest.
‘It’s me,’ he pants. ‘It’s me.’