They planned for weeks, in those few moments each day when they knew they would not be overheard. They tried to prepare for all possible dangers but the boy had not been one of them. The boy was chance, unforseen. When Alex gave the signal, Simone ran and the boy followed. She didn’t know where he’d come from but in those first panicked moments she thought: I know you. There was no time to turn back.
They ran across open ground, clear targets. Ahead were close-set trees, mossy-trunked and hung with winding vines. Alex did not pause but ran into the forest, climbed over branches that had a semblance of wholeness but were rotted and gave under his weight, ducked low-hanging lianas. Simone followed, the boy a length behind her. They could hear shouting but already it was faint, muffled by vegetation. They followed no path but ran, stumbling and tripping, taking hurts they hardly felt, tunnel-visioned by fear. They aimed for the forest depths. After some time they came to a river. The water was icy. They waded downstream, waist-deep, keeping low, not talking, listening for the sounds they dreaded – footsteps, the voices of their pursuers. Alex carried the pack that he had buried weeks before, he balanced it on his head to keep it dry. It held an empty bottle, a tube of disinfectant, a kitchen knife, a rolled up sheet of plastic, some stale bread. Their bodies were host to leeches and they pulled them off each other then trailed ribbons of blood in the bright, clear water.
The boy spoke no English. He kept a dogged pace beside them, communicating to Simone his gratitude and fear and tiredness with gestures of his hands, expressions of his face and words she didn’t understand. He was young; just a teenager, dark-haired and golden-skinned, malnourished. She wondered how long he’d been captive and how long before that he’d been a soldier in this pointless war. She wondered where he was from. He couldn’t be more than fifteen, she thought.
They reached a place where the river began to flow faster and as they felt its pull they heard it roar. Alex hauled out and Simone and the boy followed, dragging themselves up the steep, muddy bank by use of the aerial roots that branched above them. Simone was exhausted. She could not get her footing in the mud, she slipped and slipped again, and the boy caught her arm and steadied her. They followed the bank as best they could until they found themselves at the edge of a high escarpment. They could go no further in that direction. The river exploded into open space: mist filled the air and a foaming mass of water poured onto rocks a hundred feet below, churning white. The forest spread out before them, a haze of green into the far distance. The boy reached across and touched Simone’s arm, softly this time, and she saw on his face a kind of awe.
‘We’ve got to keep moving,’ Alex said.
That first night they shared some of the bread Simone had been hoarding for a week.
‘Here,’ she said, and passed a chunk to the boy, who ate quickly, with fierce focus. Alex held her gaze.
‘We have enough food for two people for seven days. How long will it last us for three people?’
‘We have enough,’ she said. ‘It will last.’ But she knew it wasn’t true.
They took turns to stand watch. Alex first and then Simone. By unspoken agreement they didn’t include the boy.
It was a long night. Simone was sure that every tiny noise meant their discovery, and the forest was full of noises: alien and vast. The moon glanced unearthly light upon them. Simone watched Alex sleep. His beard had grown in the camp. He looked like an old man. Not so long ago she knew the grey in it would have been a blow to his ego that he could not have borne. He’d have cut it off if only for that reason. Even after weeks in the field Alex had always been well-groomed. It was one of the things she’d noticed about him when they’d met and first begun to work together.
They had been blessed by a lack of mirrors these past months, she thought. Their flesh was wasting, their skin carried a mess of sores that did not heal, and their hair was matted and long. But the only way they saw their own deterioration was through the other’s eyes. Not seeing was a kindness they did each other. There were few that remained to them now.
They bore east. Alex carried the scribbled map that he had drawn with charcoal on a scrap of cardboard torn from a box of tinned soup, an imperfect copy of what he had glimpsed. The further they travelled the less those dark scratches resembled any aspect of their surroundings. The map was more talisman than tool; it told them nothing but gave them hope.
On the third day they reached a clearing. In its center was a rough structure of branches and sacking: a thing of human construction. Alex signalled for silence but the boy cried out, he spoke words aloud they didn’t understand. They watched as he walked to the structure and fell on his knees beside it. He cried.
Nothing moved. It had been deserted long enough to be overgrown by vines, buried in fallen leaves and reclaimed by the forest.
Tentatively, they followed the boy as he lifted the flap which was its door. Inside was an enclosed space that smelled of stale earth, room enough for half a dozen to sleep in close proximity. There was a wooden crate in one corner and Alex pulled the lid off, but other than a few dark scuttling insects, it was empty. They searched the whole interior, hoping for something, but there was nothing of any use.
The boy wanted to sleep there that night but Alex forced them to continue on.
‘I don’t trust this place,’ he said.
The boy followed but dragged his feet, whispered low protests under his breath. Simone did not need to know the words to recognise the intent. Like an actual teenager, she thought, and a moment of care came on her as unexpectedly as one of those rays of sun that sometimes broke through the canopy. She put an arm around the boy’s ragged shoulders, hugged him close.
‘We’ll get out of here,’ she told him. ‘Okay?’ she said.
‘Okay,’ he said, his voice flat.
She wasn’t sure that he knew what it meant.
Each step they took was resisted. They had walked for days. Simone believed they were lost but did not speak the word. The country was a rampant mess of vines and jutting roots. The ground was raised into impossibly slippery hillsides or dropped off unexpectedly into swamp or valleys. There was no horizon, only the vertical bars of tree trunks enclosing them. All around them things were decaying, mouldering in the heat and in the rain. Spiders larger than Simone’s hand outstretched their jointed limbs on the tree trunks. Birds only called at dawn and dusk. The air was thick. They walked soaked in sweat that never dried, their clothes were rotting on their backs. They were torn by sharp-hooked vines, they brushed against leaves that brought welts up on their skin as though they had been whipped. The food was almost gone. They were constantly hungry.
‘The boy’s sick,’ Alex said.
Simone didn’t meet his eyes.
The boy had withdrawn into himself. His skin was pallid and slick with moisture. Simone could see that he struggled to keep up. When they stopped she saw he was shaking.
‘He’s slowing us down.’
‘He just needs time to rest’ she said.
They gave up keeping watch. At night they lit no fire, laying together for warmth. They burrowed into the leaf litter like animals and pulled a sheet of plastic over to stop the worst of the rain. That night the boy was fevered, shaking and moaning. Simone recited all the prayers she’d been taught as a child. The boy would die, she thought, and they would not be able to bury him even if they were strong enough to dig. Even if they had something to dig with, the ground was riddled with roots and massed deep with litter. The rain that sheeted through the canopy each afternoon would soon excavate any grave. She held the boy’s hand and he gripped back hard. Eventually she slept.
She woke afraid, with her heart racing. There were voices. She opened her eyes and saw nothing for a moment, then a figure – Alex had already risen and was crouched beside her. The voices were low and broken by the forest. She could not sense their distance or direction. Suddenly everything became sharply defined: each shape reaching out of the darkness, the incidental noises of the forest, the boy’s breathing. Be nothing, she thought. Be not here. The voices grew louder. For a long time she heard them, the words fast and unintelligible, before they eventually receded.
When she woke the next morning Alex was studying the map. Their goal was a town that was marked with a star, an outlier of iron and timber, built upon scarred ground where the forest had once stood. Eight months before, when they’d been taken, it had not yet been overrun. They hoped that it had held. They’d had no news all that time. Anything could have happened in the world outside and they wouldn’t have known.
‘We’re getting close,’ Alex said. ‘A few days; no more.’
He sounded excited. Beside them the boy stirred in his sleep. His lips moved.
‘You know you’ve done your best for him,’ he said, like he was comforting Simone for a pain that she had not yet felt.
She took his meaning and shook her head. ‘No.’
‘He’s slowing us down.’
‘Just a day. Let him rest. He’s young. He’ll recover.’
‘They were too close last night.’
‘Are you sure it was them?’
‘They won’t just let us go. We’re too valuable.’
‘They didn’t find us.’
‘We have to keep moving.’
He spoke slowly, through clenched teeth. Simone shook her head and looked away.
‘You don’t have kids Simone. You don’t have anyone to go back to. You don’t understand.’
He was desperate now, trying to reason with her. She smiled bitterly and stood, then began the morning ritual of checking and cleaning the few objects that they had, placing them carefully back into the pack they took turns carrying.
It was true, of course. She had taken the job because she had no one who depended on her. She had the kind of freedom most people only dreamed of, and she didn’t know what to do with it. Even before they were captured she was lost. For Alex it had been a different equation: his daughters’ private school education, his wife’s expensive taste, their holiday home in the Italian alps and everything else had to be paid for somehow. Of course, it had meant that he hadn’t seen his family much, but he seemed peculiarly suited to that style of life, Simone had always thought. He could disconnect his sense of home and work utterly. When they’d first become lovers, after they’d worked together for months, he’d slept with her under a cloud of mosquito netting in a bed beside a picture of his daughters, had taken his wife’s call on the satellite phone the next morning before Simone had even woken up. But whatever boundaries they’d imagined or created were gone now. They’d fallen out of the world.
The boy was awake. He looked at Simone with wide, uncertain eyes.
‘Okay?’ she said to him, a query and a greeting both.
He did not reply.
He could walk but only barely. She took his weight, which wasn’t much, and timed her steps to his. Alex paced like an animal in a cage, gaining ten, twenty metres on them only to turn back and return. Simone had never seen him like this before. His face was drawn in and skeletal but his eyes were bright, set with determination.
‘Can you go any faster?’ he said to the boy.
‘He doesn’t understand.’
‘Damn it. Can you go any faster?’
The boy didn’t even look up. He just continued with the effort of walking, each step deliberate, each step a loss.
‘I can’t do this,’ he said to Simone, the desperation rising in his voice. ‘This is crazy. We’re losing time. He wasn’t even meant to be here.’
‘None of us were meant to be here,’ she said. She already knew she had lost.
It was like a divorce. There was hurt but no hatred. They wished each other well. They divided what little they had. They shared the last handful of bread. He took the map and she kept the bottle. He took the knife and she kept the plastic. They didn’t speak. Simone’s hands shook as she zipped the bag back up and passed it to him.
‘You’re sure?’ she asked. She didn’t tell him she was scared. She wouldn’t beg.
‘Are you?’ he asked.
He didn’t say sorry. He never did. ‘East,’ he said. ‘Keep heading east. I’ll send help.’
She could hear him long after she lost sight of him.
They stopped early. There was a stream nearby so she filled the bottle and soaked the last of the bread in water. She felt strangely calm and didn’t think of what would happen tomorrow… or the next day. The boy was barely able to swallow. She held his hand. He looked up at her, his gaze not leaving her face. He ate what he could and drank a little. He slept with his head on her lap.
The forest was beautiful, she realised for the first time. As the lowering sun shone through the canopy, leaves were lit like jewels. Around her she saw stray fallen flowers, tiny fragments of colour against the dark of the floor. That night she felt cradled, she slept deeply.
The boy was a little better the next day. He stood on his own. He walked down to the stream to drink and wash. She watched him on his new-born legs, which she didn’t trust to carry him. She turned away when he undressed. She found herself trying to calculate how many days it had been since their escape. It was hard to distinguish one from the next. She wondered what it mattered.
They continued on. She looked for tracks or any signs of Alex having passed that way, so they could follow. It seemed the boy looked too because occasionally he would point to something: a broken twig or some disturbance in the forest floor. With each sign she had hope but no certainty.
She was light-headed. She had not eaten for a day. The bread was gone. She let the rhythm of walking carry her and felt she was hardly touching the ground. There was a deep rushing sound in her ears, growing louder, like the sound you hear a moment before fainting. The boy was looking at her strangely. Something was wrong. Then she understood.
The falls. The noise she could hear was not in her head but in the world. It was the echoing sound of tonnes of water pouring onto rock far below.
But it didn’t mean… it did not have to mean… There could be more than one, she thought. Her legs shook beneath her as the sound grew louder. They were approaching. The boy was shaking his head.
Then they saw the place where the river fell. It was the same, the very same. Her knees buckled and the ground was by her side. Her breath came only in ragged gasps and malformed sobs that she could hear as if from far away. The boy knelt beside her. He said low words and patted her, taking her hand and squeezing. He was like a thread that drew her back to herself. He helped her to her feet and together they walked to the edge and sat.
They heard rock strike rock beneath them. Before them the river scattered itself, misted and seemingly infinite. There was nothing but its falling. The falls roared and the roaring took all thought away.
Simone cried and the boy held her. She cried herself clean then leaned against him.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Okay.
The Australian Literature Review