By Chef MCDexX
I have to confess to someone.
For fifteen years, I kept the truth to myself, because I knew nobody would ever believe me. If I told everyone what really happened that night, I’d have spent my teenage years in a psych ward and Kevin would still have been reported missing, his body never found.
But Kevin is dead, and I know what killed him. Well, no… I suppose I don’t. I mean, I saw it, I heard it, and I stood their frozen and watched what it did to my best friend, but I still have no idea what the hell it was. I don’t know if there are any answers for me.
The best I can do is to stop lying to the world, to tell the truth as best as I can. I’ve poured myself a large bourbon, and I’m hoping it’ll stop my hands shaking enough to type all of this.
My childhood was straight out of Crocodile Dundee. I lived on an outback cattle station with my dad and my mum, and then, after the divorce, with just my dad. Our property was in a part of north-western Australia called The Kimberleys, all red dust, weathered rocks, twisted eucalypts, and dry grasses. To anyone not accustomed to the area, it probably seems like an alien planet, but to me it was just home.
The Kimberleys look really arid in photos, but it’s actually full of meteorological extremes. We got regular rain every year, but usually only during the wet season. The rest of the year was bone dry, so we’d have a few months of torrential downpours – sometimes flash flooding or even major, lasting floods if the cyclone season was severe enough – and then dry heat for months on end.
For the most part, it was like clockwork, but fifteen years ago we had a drought. We didn’t know if the rains were just delayed or if they weren’t coming at all, but what was supposed to be the wet season arrived, and the arid heat continued unabated.
If you’ve ever spent any part of your childhood on a farm, you’ll know that work and play blur into each other. Quite often, you can turn the many jobs you have to do into a game, and I definitely had fun riding quad bikes, or riding horses occasionally when the cattle needed to be flushed out of the more rugged parts of the property. I even got the exciting treat of riding in a helicopter occasionally.
You have to understand, Australian outback cattle stations are enormous. Some of the biggest are larger than some European countries or US states. Ours was only medium-sized, but it was still thousands of square kilometres. Just maintaining the hundreds of kilometres of fencing was a massive task, but dad and his paid staff usually handled that. At the age of twelve, I was mostly tasked with boundary riding, checking the water levels, keeping an eye out for feral animals (mostly pigs – cats, dogs, and foxes are too small to bother cattle), and helping calves who’ve gotten tangled in fences or stuck in mudpits.
I was pretty good at entertaining myself, but as often as I could I would have friends over. I only had a handful of friends, and even they lived hours and hours away. Kevin’s family owned a bigger property than hours, and they hired more staff. As a result, Kevin had less to do, so he had more free time than I did, so he would often come to our property and help with the many jobs I had to do around the place.
It was a friendship of convenience, of course. Our total pool of possible childhood friends was maybe half a dozen kids within six hours’ drive, so even though we were very different, we made the best of it. Kevin was a daredevil and a joker, and even at thirteen he was already flogging beers from the fridge and cigarettes from his dad’s bedside drawer. I liked him, and he was probably my best friend, but I was more the quiet, introspective sort. I’d want to stop on the top of a hill and admire the view, while Kev would be scrambling to the tops of crumbling boulders and betting me whether he’d jump off or not.
He was an idiot, and I loved him. I still miss that silly bastard.
Okay, I’ve poured another bourbon and I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be to tell the rest of this story.
So yeah, we had a drought. A bad one. Kev’s parents were worried about their cattle getting enough to eat and drink out on the property, so they’d gathered their entire stock in a massive holding yard to be fed hay from trucks and watered from troughs. It was a very expensive temporary measure, meant to last just until the rains arrived, but it left Kev with nothing to do. As a result, he practically lived with us like an adopted brother for weeks and weeks.
Our property was a little more drought resistant (lucky for us – dad told me he’d go broke if he had to do what Kev’s family had done) so we still had water holes, low and muddy though they were, and the cattle were all up in the high country, eating the hardy plants that grew among the rocks.
This is the kind of situation where feral pigs become a major problem; they like to stay cool and keep the bugs off by covering themselves in mud, and to get it they would trample our precious waterholes into muddy quagmires that the cattle had no hope of drinking from.
So, Kev and I were out shooting pigs. It’s not a pretty job, but it’s necessary. We were on quad bikes, and since a full lap of all of our waterholes took three or four days, we had taken food and swags. (For the non-Australians, a swag is like a sleeping bag, but with a built-in mini-tent covering the top part of your body, and a thin mattress underneath; it’s basically a tiny single-person tent with the sleeping bag built into it.) We also had a .22 rifle each, and we’d been taught gun safety and target shooting since before we could even read. (Oddly, even though Kev was the more reckless one, I was the better shot – I think it was because I was more analytical, more patient.)
Sorry, I’ve been rambling. We’re getting toward the real meat of this story, and… Well, I’m having trouble. I’ll have one more bourbon, then I’ll see if I can push through it.
We found a pig that was already dead. It was in the middle of an old dry lake bed, one that only ever filled in years with an unusual amount of rain. I think I’d only ever seen it fill up once in my whole life. We were riding across it on our quads, and we saw this dark-coloured lump off to our right. I knew it was unusual, so I signalled Kev and turned my bike towards it. I thought at first that it was a pile of cast-off clothing, but it was only as we got right up to it that I saw it had once been a big boar.
You know the phrase “skin and bones”? Well, that’s literally what it was. It looked mummified. The weird thing was that it had no injuries – it definitely hadn’t been shot, and there was no sign that it had died in a fight with another boar. As far as I could tell, it had just dropped dead.
“Looks like someone did our job for us,” Kev quipped.
I was confused, though. We had any number of animals that would eat a dead pig – eagles, foxes, dingoes, even other pigs – but this corpse looked like it had lain there undisturbed for weeks, maybe months. There was no sign of a scavenger taking even the slightest nibble at it. Usually when I found an animal carcase, it was a spilled sack of bones, with every animal in the neighbourhood having a go at it.
We kept riding, but I was unsettled. The dead pig seemed terribly strange, and it was nagging at the back of my mind as we continued to the next waterhole. We reached it late in the afternoon, and it was empty, a bone-dry depression in the dusty red landscape, with a handful of tall redgum trees beside it. Their deep roots indicated that there was still water down there, somewhere, but on the surface there was just a dustbowl.
Kev and I discussed our next move. The next waterhole was almost an hour away, and by the looks of the bloated red sun sitting low on the horizon we were probably going to run out of light before then. We used what remained of the daylight to set up our swags near the trees (but not under them – redgums are notorious branch-droppers) and drag over some firewood.
It’s funny, I just remembered: that was the first night I tasted bourbon. The subconscious is a weird beast, isn’t it? Kev had a hip flask of Jack Daniels that he’d lifted from his parents’ liquor cabinet. We cooked sausages and eggs in my cast iron pan, then passed the bourbon back and forth, looking up at the radiant southern stars. I doubt I’ll ever return to the outback – I’m a city slicker now, like it or not – but thing I miss most is those starry nights. Living in Melbourne, I’m lucky to see a dozen stars most nights, but in the outback you can see into eternity.
When I was ready to sleep, I cleaned up the camp. Kev had drunk more bourbon than me and was deeply asleep, but even though I was tipsy I knew food safety was important. I kicked dirt over the fire, buried the food scraps in a shallow hole, then scrubbed the pan in a splash of water from the tank on the back of my bike. Finally, I checked that our little food cooler was thoroughly sealed – didn’t want to attract animals – and I turned in for the night.
It was very late when I started awake. I hadn’t zipped my swag shut, so I awoke staring up at stars, not knowing why I was awake. I sat up slowly and looked around. A fat three-quarter moon has risen while I’d been sleeping, and the landscape was glowing a ghostly bluish grey. Nothing seemed out of place, and the night was near-silent: in the distance a handful of crickets chirruped, and I could hear the soft crackling of some small animal moving around in the branches of the nearest redgum.
Settling back down, I was about to drift back off to sleep when I heard the weirdest noise. I struggle to describe it, but it was kind of like… I don’t know, maybe like a person with a gag over their mouth trying to talk? I don’t know. A weird, muffled squeak. Thinking back now, I’m surprised I didn’t just assume it was some small furry animal, but instead I immediately had goosebumps covering my arms. There was something oddly alien in that noise, and my subconscious knew it.
Ever so slowly and quietly, I sat up again and looked around more intently. There was a weird hunched shape down by the edge of the dry waterhole, perhaps twenty metres away. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it looked human, and it was doing something with its hands. It let out another of those mournful, strangled hoots, and I knew that was what had woken me.
I probably should have stayed put, zipped up my swag, and just waited for it to leave. I know that. Instead, I crept out of my swag and reached for my zip-up rifle bag. Undoing the zipper seemed to take forever, as I was pulling it at a snail’s pace, desperate to make no noise. I loaded it, flicked off the safety, and started stealthily toward the dusty bank of the waterhole.
As I got closer, I saw that it was indeed a human-looking shape, but something was terribly wrong with it. It glowed an eerie grey in the moonlight, and I realised that it was naked and completely hairless. It was crouched on one knee, bent down where the edge of the water would have been if the waterhole had been full. As strange as all this was, this was when I noticed something even stranger: it was trying to drink from the dry waterhole.
It’s bizarre, I know, but that was clearly what it was doing. It was reaching down with a thin, bony hand, scooping up non-existent water, then slowly bringing the hand up to its mouth. Clearly it was unhappy with the result, because every time it tried to drink and found its hand was dry, it would let out a pathetic, mewling cry, like a kitten in a sack.
Clearly, this was not something natural. I had no idea what I was looking at, but some part of my primitive lizard brain was screaming at me in a jabbering monkey language: “Get away! Danger! Predator! Run! Escape! Hide!”
Okay, one more bourbon. I’m nearly done, but I’ll need it for this part. Oh Christ, Kev…
I don’t know how long I stood and gaped at this weird, skeletal thing that was desperately trying to drink water that had vanished months earlier. I think it was just a minute or so, but I might have been frozen there much longer. I think some part of brain kind of short-circuited.
The spell was broken by a noise from behind me and to my right: the splashing of liquid. I spun my head around, and there was poor, silly Kevin, taking a piss against one of the redgums. The bourbon had gone straight to his bladder, I suppose, and even though he wasn’t really properly awake, he had stumbled over to the tree to relieve the pressure.
A new sound came from the edge of the waterhole, and I turned back. My blood turned to ice: the thing had stood up and was facing toward Kev. With the moon behind me, I got my first clear look at it, and I knew then just how much trouble we were in. It was dead, I knew that much. Like the pig we had seen earlier, it was skin and bones, like a sun-dried mummy, but it looked like it had once been human. It was impossibly thin, and dry dusty skin dangled from its bones like an empty sack. I felt slightly sick when I noticed two shrivelled bags of skin on its chest: it seems it had once been a woman.
I was standing in the middle of nowhere, late at night, facing what appeared to be a long-dead woman, baked into a dry husk by months of Australian sun, but somehow, impossibly, walking around. I wanted to throw up, but my fear was stronger, and I froze, barely daring to breathe.
Now it was rocking slightly from one foot to the other, and its bald head was bobbing up and down like it was sniffing out the smell of his piss. From its shrivelled mouth came a soft, rasping hiss, and, worst of all, a kind of dry, lip-smacking sound. With blinding horror, I realised that this thing was thirsty – well fuck, of course it was thirsty – and to a thirsty walking corpse, a fresh stream of piss must be irresistible.
No more bourbon for me. I just had to run to the toilet and throw up most of what I’ve drunk. I’m going to have to finish this with what little drunkenness I have left. I knew this confession was going to be difficult, but oh god…
It walked like a puppet, or like a stop motion creature from a Ray Harryhausen film: weirdly stiff and jerky, with occasional spasmodic twitches. That’s what haunts my nightmares the most: that erratic stagger. Well, that and the sound of a dry, leathery mouth smacking in hungry anticipation. It passed within six feet of me, and I saw far more detail on its ancient face than I ever wanted to. Its eyes were gone, just sunken sockets with a weird, puckered hole where the eyelids had collapsed into the cavities. I’m sure I’m only alive today because of those shrivelled eyes: had it not been blind, I would have been a sitting duck. Its nose was small and pinched, but its nostrils were a pair of gaping holes, and its lips, like its eyelids, had shrunk into a leathery pucker. I could see a hint of stark white teeth behind the shrunken lips; it was working its jaw up and down hungrily as it walked spasmodically toward my best friend.
Please believe me, I wanted to cry out, to warn him. I might have tried firing my gun at it if I believed I could do it without making any noise. I knew, though, that if it knew I was here, if I cried out, or if I fired my gun at it and failed to kill it, that it would just kill me, and then probably kill Kev too. My fear-wracked mind made terrible calculations, and the only conclusion was that I had to stay still and silent. I wish I could tell you that all these years later I am ashamed, and that I wish I could go back and change my actions, but I can’t. I would do it again. I would hate myself for it again. I would let my friend die again. I’m sorry.
The thing staggered past me, and onward up the slope towards Kevin. There was a glittering trail on the ground, snaking along the cracked soil, a stream of piss forming a tiny little tributary for the dry waterhole. I saw the dead thing stumble down onto all fours, and I couldn’t help myself: I closed my eyes. Even so, I couldn’t close my ears, and I heard the horrific, desperate slurping as it drank the only source of water it could find. It let out a soft, muffled squeal of pleasure, and I very nearly vomited. The taste of stale bourbon was very strong in the back of my throat. I devoted the next few seconds to keeping it all down.
That was when I heard the very worst sound of all. I heard Kevin’s sleep-muddled, still slightly drunk voice. “Huh?” he mumbled. “The fuck is that?” There was no fear in his voice, just puzzlement.
My eyes snapped open. The emaciated husk had paused in its horrible slurping, and its head had twisted upward towards Kevin. I did the only thing I could do without giving myself away: I shook my head frantically, waved my palm violently in a “shush” gesture, and mouthed “Shut up!” silently, hoping the moonlight was bright enough for him to read my lips.
He never could keep his mouth shut, the poor bastard. “What are you doing?” he asked, sounding slightly more awake, and beginning to sound afraid. The thing was down on all fours only a couple of metres down the slop from him, and its bulbous, leathery head was bobbing again. It was sniffing for him. Desperately, I drew my hand back and forth across my mouth in a “zipper” gesture. I could feel tears trickling down my cheeks, and a terrified voice in the back of head wondered if this terrible creature would be able to smell them.
Mercifully, Kevin finally got the message. He actually placed a hand over his mouth, and in the moonlight I could see the whites of his wide, terrified eyes. He was a year and a half older than me, but just then he looked like a child. I suppose we both were, really.
The thing kept sniffing the air, making a soft, dusty rasping noise. It knew Kev was there, and now it was determined to find him. Ever so slowly, it stalked forward on all fours, a spindly, pale spider in the moonlight, and drew closer to him.
Kevin ran. It was maybe the worst thing he could have done, but by that point, maybe there was no other option. It’s probable that he was fucked no matter what he did.
He ran straight for his quad bike, his feet crackling the dead leaves under the tree and kicking up puffs of dust. He barely made it five steps. The thing… It was like a grasshopper. I saw it tense, saw its hindquarters lower, and then it sprang. It was impossibly agile, must have covered three or four metres in a single leap, and it hit Kev in the upper back. Against all my training, drilling into me to never point my gun towards a person, I lifted my rifle to my shoulder. As I sighted down the barrel, I thought frantically, will this even hurt it? It’s already dead, isn’t it? Can it die again?
I thought too long. It was over shockingly quickly. The horrible, emaciated thing fastened its withered mouth near the angle of Kevin’s neck and shoulder, and I heard a sharp suckling noise. Kev screamed, high pitched and terrified, but was suddenly silent. It took only seconds, but I saw his body crumple, like one of those vacuum storage bags you put clothes into.
It drank him. It sucked him dry.
I couldn’t help myself: I sobbed, a sound of combined grief and terror. The thing’s head whipped around, and I saw with horror that it had changed. Its face was plumper, and instead of those scrunched little eyeholes, it now had eyes, still pinched and small, but with visible, milky-white eyeballs in the sockets. I don’t think it could see with them – not yet, at least – but it was clear that sucking the life from my friend had restored it in some way.
That did it. I fired. I worked the bolt to chamber another shell and fired again. As I fired, I screamed. All of the fear and rage and loss inside me escaped in a long shriek as I emptied my magazine at the thing that had killed Kevin.
At least half of my shots hit it, but instead of blood, puffs of dry dust erupted from the wounds. It raised its skinny hands to shield its face, but I don’t think it really understood what was happening; I feel like it was just protecting its freshly formed, cataract-clouded eyes from the bright muzzle flashes. Whether I was causing it pain, or whether it was perhaps just confused by the loud noises and bright flashes, it decided that one meal was enough, and it loped away on all fours.
I don’t remember how I got home. I’ve been told I turned up alone on my quad bike where dad was working on part of the fence with a few of his staff. Apparently I was severely sunburnt and delirious, and badly dehydrated. The only words they could get out of me were “Kevin’s gone”. The Flying Doctor was called, and I was airlifted to Broome, where I spent the next week in hospital.
The medical staff kept the police out of my room as long as they could, but I was eventually interviewed several times. I pressed them for details of what they had found, but they weren’t very forthcoming; clearly, they wanted answers from me. I had already decided that I couldn’t tell the truth. I told them I didn’t remember what had happened, but I knew Kevin was gone. They grilled me as hard as the nurses would allow them to, but I took advantage of the “sick traumatized kid” card to deflect most of their questions.
What good would the truth have done anyone? There is no way I would have been believed. I couldn’t even warn anyone of the danger. I mean, what the hell could I tell them? “Look out for the drought zombie?”
Kevin was listed as a missing person. I don’t know if they ever found any trace of him – remember, I was only twelve, and they shielded me from most of the investigation. I know they found his quad bike, because I remember it sitting on the back of a truck out the front of my house, with several police officers examining it. There was never any suggestion of foul play on my part, as far as I know. The prevailing theory is that, despite being familiar with our property, Kevin had somehow gotten lost. Maybe he’d slipped on a rock, gotten trapped in a crevasse. Officially, we’ll never know, but of course, I know.
As soon as I was well enough, I flew to Melbourne to live with my mum, and I’ve never been out into the dry outback again. How could I? I know it’s out there, somewhere, and every time I turn on the news and the weather presenter says anything about a drought, I get cold chills down my back like electric shocks.
I like to fantasize sometimes about tracking the thing down, getting revenge for Kevin, but I know it’s just that: a fantasy. This is a hell of a big, dry country, and even if I could somehow find that monstrous, dead thing, I couldn’t be sure I could kill it. My revenge fantasy is always shattered by the memory of that horrible sucking sound, and the sight of poor Kevin deflating like a perverse balloon.
I’m sorry Kevin. I tried.