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Cover image: The Animals in That Country

Me and Kim pop the feed buckets in the campervan and head toward the aquarium. I bend my tea towel–wrapped face to take in hers. She blinks over the picture of the emu, nods bravely. We drive the baked roads with the windows up, battered by the smells and rumours and stories that rush in, even through our masks. At the aquarium, the generator grinds away over the gurgle of pumps and swishes. The hungry creatures in the tanks list through the dark water. Iridescent fish that shiver behind coral with sleek, silent bodies. Kim pulls her mask off, and we grin at each other through the murk. If Trench’s wife was hiding out in here, she’s not anymore. In the tanks, khaki creatures cling to watery shadows. Turtles. A freshwater crocodile with sharp, protruding teeth. Fleshy-lipped rays soar overhead in a domed aquarium — planes through tunnels of water. Kim’s grip bites into my septic hand.

We turn a dim corner. A small wooden sign says ‘Bernie the saltwater crocodile, 3.5 metres’. Kim’s favourite enclosure. The glass shows a cross-section of pond and land. Up on the dry bit, a little door connects to the outside, sun sliding in through the gaps. A walkway around the top of the pond means that the rangers can deal with Bernie without having to actually touch him: dropping chickens into the water and knocking him out with a tranquilliser gun if they need to. Bernie is alone in there now, submerged and hovering in the centre of the pond. The size and look of a fallen tree. A gnarled, woody reptile, lit by the skylight high above the water. Perched above a long jaw lined with teeth sits his yellow eye. His gaze trained above him. Still watching the surface, he sinks like he’s being lowered on a platform. Small clouds of sand rise at his massive feet where they land. Thank all my lucky stars I don’t know what he’s thinking.

A gnarled, woody reptile, lit by the skylight high above the water. Perched above a long jaw lined with teeth sits his yellow eye.

The door that leads into the enclosure from the outside rattles and Angela ducks in, face striped with tears. I let go Kimberly’s hand to rap on the glass. Angela takes a few steps forward. Kimberly touches the glass too. Ange ignores us. We pound harder. Yell. She only has eyes for the pond. Beneath the surface, Bernie is watching.

‘Hello, I’m a person,’ we hear Ange say. ‘A human. I want to talk to you.’ She says it slow and clear. We all know very well Bernie has the best hearing of anything in the Park, even underwater. Bernie heard Ange get out of bed this morning — he’s been waiting ever since. He stays perfectly still, but his body must have said something, and that something ripped through the water and popped in a bubble of meaning for Angela to hear. She sucks her breath, glances at us for the first time through the glass. Her face says, did you get that? I grab for the walkie-talkie at my hip.

‘Emergency. This is Jean in the aquarium. Ange is in the croc pit. I repeat, Ange is in the fucking croc pit.’ There’s a crackle, then nothing.

‘Why is Mum in there with Bernie?’ Kim’s voice wobbles. ‘You’re not supposed to swim with crocodiles …’ Angela steps a little closer to the water.

‘Ange. You better come out of there. Your daughter’s right here. See?’

Ange shakes her head like my voice is a blowfly. Waves me away. Kimberly starts drumming on the glass. I join her. The croc shifts his interest to us.

‘Get out of there, Ange. Angela. He’ll …’

Kimberly looks up at me. ‘Will he eat her?’

‘No. Of course not, love. ’Course not.’

I try the walkie-talkie again. No one responds. The thing is broken. Kim’s face is pressed to the glass. I should protect her — she doesn’t need to see any of this — but I can’t look away either. A horror show happening metres from our skin. Angela crouched by the water. I bash on the barrier again.

‘Angela! Jesus fucking Christ.’ She’s down on her hands and knees, her ear to the pond and she’s grinning, grinning, then she stops. Frowns. Jerks back, dripping. I see something in her eyes. Not fear. Recognition. She didn’t know something — now she knows, and it’s not good.

Bernie pushes on the sandy bed of the pond with muscular legs and launches up to break the water. Ange stumbles away from the churning pool.

‘No, I don’t,’ she says, voice quaking. ‘I don’t.’

The croc seems slow, cumbersome when he launches, but he’s faster than her. He surges forward, breaks the surface, and in a heartbeat he’s up on the bank. He latches on to Angela’s leg with yellow teeth and a guttural roar. Ange is screaming, yelling, arguing with him. ‘No. No. I said I don’t want to.’ The croc gives a sharp tug, dragging Angela half a metre toward the water. I grab Kimberly’s face and push her against my stomach. Her yells rattle my guts.

He surges forward, breaks the surface, and in a heartbeat he’s up on the bank.

‘Where the fuck are you?’ I scream into the walkie-talkie. Something taps the surface of the water. A bird dropped down on a hook from above. The blood spreads like a blush. I keep Kim pressed to me and edge closer to the glass, trying to get an eye on who’s above, but it’s designed so the tourists can’t see. Designed so chickens fall from the sky and no one ever actually has to get in the pit with Bernie. The croc is paused by the events in his enclosure. Half in and half out of the pond. He twists a little, dragging Ange to the side. The bloody chicken is behind him in the water. Ange on the small beach, one leg in his mouth. She tries to reason with him, arms waving.

‘Please. I don’t want to. Let me go. Let me go and I’ll leave. No, I didn’t say that. Do you really think —?’

‘Stay still,’ I tell her. This time she listens to me. Keeps her arms down. The only thing moving in the enclosure is that dead chicken. Bounce, bounce over the surface of the pond, bloody as anything. Bernie lets go of Angela’s leg and turns his giant self in the water. As he launches for the chicken a gunshot goes off and through him. Again, blood drifts up, smoky. Another shot. The crocodile jolts. Ange cries out. Reaches for him. But whatever was holding Bernie to life lets go, and the croc hovers below the surface, suspended.

‘He was talking,’ Ange says, still on the ground, leg all bloodied up. ‘He said he wanted to play with me. Play with me. Until …’

This is a edited extract from The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay, published by Scribe Publications.

The Animals in That Country is available now at Readings.