This story is by Scarlett Boleyn and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ Alistair’s last words echo in my head.
My big brother, seven years my senior and my self-appointed mentor, protector and mirror of my soul, Alistair, always inspired me.
‘Don’t be scared Lily. I’m right by your side, always.’
In the days following, every morning I’d wake and pretend that I’d dreamt it. Slipping into his room, I’d see his empty bed and abandoned football, and relive the loss – as raw and final as that initial moment… that moment the jaws snapped and took him, pulling him under the dark water. Our reflections had been side-by-side, ripples morphing our images, and he’d been smiling at me.
Alistair knew what the ripples meant, throwing me to safety. I looked up from where I fell into a bed of cypress needles, to the vision of pointed white teeth illuminated under the moon… teeth crimson with Alistair’s blood… his body writhing in the massive jaws before being dragged under by the monster’s massive strength.
I’d thought I’d come to peace with it… or at least reached an impasse… and I’ve driven through the night to our hometown, Owls’ Haunting, to be there for the 50th anniversary of the day the crocodile took him from me.
Only now do I discover the old Parrington place, with its history and ghosts, no longer exists. Gone are the decaying gothic walls, the enticing turrets fit for a princess, the Juliette balconies where we held court, and the crumbling white statues of naked people that made us smirk.
In its place, taking vulgar grandiosity to a new level, stands a state-of-the-art monolith of reflective glass. The new fence is a veritable fortress, the antithesis of the three bands of rusty, broken barbed wire that had surrounded it in my youth.
Back then, despite its decaying state, the old Parrington mansion had kept a sense of grace and elegance… somehow it belonged…
Bordering on a swamp, the grounds were host to a wild tangle of vines and foliage. Menacing, as well as unspeakably beautiful meant, despite parental warnings, the Parrington Place became the unspoken haunt for neighbourhood kids.
That night was my initiation – I desperately coveted the purple armband that would denote me as part of the Parrington Pack. I would be the youngest initiate if I succeeded.
So scared I couldn’t breathe, I’d faltered where we had to scramble through the fence. Minutes dragged and yet flew.
But when Alistair said those words that have been my compass in life ever since, I didn’t hesitate. I pushed through the wires, ensnaring my arm on a stray barb. In my naiveté I struggled, entangling it further. Alistair unravelled it from my arm while I sobbed and fought. Bandaging it with his armband to stem the blood, we trod the thick carpet of pine needles in silence.
I still have the scar. Now its just part of a kaleidoscope of others I’ve earned in the line of duty. I once thought about a tattoo to cover them, but a whole body tattoo costs a fortune, and there are only eight words that matter… and Alistair’s face reflected in the murky water in the pen-ultimate moment.
My little wellingtons left echoes of his as he led the way past the house to the swamp beyond, my hand clammy in his.
We reached The Log – source of my dreams and nightmares. Perched only inches above the swamp, it might as well have been a mile above from my perspective. My task was to run its length from this side of the swamp to the other, where the Parrington Pack was waiting with an armband with my name on it.
For weeks Alistair had coached me on similar logs on dry land, to the point I could pirouette across and even perform an arrogant arabesque midway… finally our practice had progressed to the log itself, but this was the first time I’d be prancing across it in the dark, with only moonlight illuminating the murky waters below.
Strange voices from the distant bank lured me… ‘Lily… Lily… Lily…’
We were crouched at the water’s edge, staring into the nothingness, the full moon casting its glow along the water I was to traverse.
Alistair whispered, ‘You’ve got this Lily… think about the adventures awaiting you… what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’
She-oak and tea-tree combined to create an evocative marsh scent… acrid and almost medicinal. I sneezed, startling a young masked owl. Its ghostly white figure emerged from the neighbouring tree, upsetting a family of bats… a cacophony of night animals sounded through the wetlands… tree frogs bringing up the last notes…
Mist settled around the swamp. A water lily floated past. The last light faded from the sky.
An owl hooted. Dusk… it was time.
Alistair smiled his special smile, the one that had always made me feel invincible all my life. I nodded.
Our eyes met in the reflection in the dark water; before they morphed with ripples… the rest is history.
Alistair threw me out of harm’s way; taking the full force of the crocodile himself… rumour has it, his screams still echo over the swamp.
After his funeral, the Parrington Pack, wearing their purple armbands, marshalled me out of sight.
‘You earned this, stay strong little sister…’ Scott, the leader, a distant Parrington by birth, awarded me my band.
After dark, we assembled in their clubhouse in a tree above the swamp for the very last time… I was shaking, gulping air, guilt-ridden… Alistair was gone … I’d brought the pack down…
Biting my white knuckles, I slumped to the splintery floor, tears blurring my vision.
Scott’s hand was gentle on my shoulder.
‘It wasn’t your fault Lily… but you carry Alistair’s baton now.’
They all laid their armbands down…
‘In honour of our brother Alistair.’
I laid ours – his, red with my blood – atop the others.
‘RIP Alistair,’ echoed through the gully. The scent of Banksia flowers wafted up…
I drank my first alcohol… a shot of whiskey that stung in my throat.
I woke the next morning with the Parrington Pack’s cherished bronze medallion around my neck; the inscription inside… Imagine what could you do if you weren’t afraid.
Suddenly I understood.
Alistair’s loss tore our family apart. Mum returned down south, taking me with her.
A week ago, I awoke to two life-changing voicemails.
One was a call from the hospital; given Mum’s age and her fragility, and being 50 years almost to the day, it was inevitable and timely.
The other was the antithesis.
‘Lily, you’re nominated for the Police Medal…’ crackled through my voicemail… Silent witness to the myriad of scars and the PTSD that is the legacy of my life, and in my mind, symbolising repayment of my debt… the award represented forgiveness.
‘… the ceremony is next Friday…’
As a child, I’d aspired to be a ballerina; but instead, I lived Alistair’s dream… I became the detective he couldn’t.
I attended Mum’s funeral yesterday, reliving her agony over losing her son and family, her courage as a single mum. I relived my survivor’s guilt.
But the award ceremony… I vacillated… it was my adult life’s ambition to win it… to walk onto that stage in front of my colleagues, my friends and my adversaries… I wanted it… but it fell on the day of Alistair’s 50-year anniversary…
I’ve stormed bombsites, jumped into gunfights, intervened in domestic violence scenarios for 30 years… but this was the hardest decision of my life. How could I be in two places at once?
I woke at midnight, dreaming about the initiation… the scent of she-oak and tea-tree… I knew if I left straight away, I’d make it… just before dusk.
At dawn I Facetimed Alice, my daughter… Alistair’s legacy… asking her to accept the award on my behalf… I could see his face superimposed over hers on the screen… proud, smiling…
Now, after 18 hours of awful coffee and the pack’s bronze medallion burning a hole over my heart… after an agonising survivor’s guilt fuelled drive, I’m here… at the Parrington Place… waiting for Alistair…
Leaning against the fence safeguarding this imposing replacement, I’m forewarned by a yellow sign that danger resides inside. It falls, landing atop a half-buried reminder – old and battered, the crocodile jaws barely discernable now.
An owl hoots. Dusk… it’s time.
The call of the siren-like voices of the past, with Alistair now leading them, lures me. I backup in preparation; at the academy, wall scaling was my forte… but the gate slides open.
In a heartbeat, I’m sprinting toward the swamp, my breath misting in the cool air. The intoxicating mix of she-oak and tea-tree engulfs me. Passing the house, I see my reflection; I’m ten again, and Alistair is by my side – just like he always promised to be.
The Log awaits… a lifetime later… it’s finally time for my initiation…