Die Now or Live Forever

BOOK: Die Now or Live Forever
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With thanks to Kate, Hannah and Sue Frew, Mary
Hoffman and Shahrukh Husain.

It’s not what you expect to see, a corpse nailed to the ground with a tent peg. Finn saw it first.

‘What the … There’s some right nutter around here.’

He clenched his fists as he did whenever he felt a fight coming on.

Omar stumbled into him.

‘Whaaat!’ he cried out, feeling his stomach rise. Juliette was just a step behind. She said nothing, simply raised both hands to cover her mouth. Ruby was helping Alistair untangle a bramble that had caught his T-shirt.

‘What’s up?’ she called.

‘There’s a dead guy here.’

‘What?’ she pushed forward, no longer noticing the brambles snatching at her legs. Alistair trailed behind her with his head down, looking at his feet.

Omar’s first instinct was to run. But instead he heaved his backpack onto the ground, the clatter of the tent pegs in it suddenly threatening. He’d never seen a dead person before. He was afraid and disgusted, but also curious – and ashamed to feel curious.

‘Better see if he’s still alive,’ he said.

But he knew the guy wasn’t alive. He was very pale, greyish, and as soon as Omar touched the skin, its cold firmness told him that they were too late. There was blood soaking through the T-shirt around the tent peg. It didn’t look as though the tent peg should have been enough to kill someone – it was so thin, so ordinary.

‘Why on earth did he lie still for someone to nail a tent peg through his chest?’ asked Finn. It was a fair question.

‘Perhaps he was unconscious,’ Omar suggested. ‘Or drunk.’ He leant over the body and sniffed, but couldn’t smell alcohol.

‘Are you seriously sniffing a corpse?’

‘We should call the police,’ said Ruby, coming alongside them and running her hands through her spiky hair, brown prickles sticking out between her chunky rings.

‘Yeah, right. That’ll be easy. You know the Hungarian for ‘there’s a dead guy with a tent peg through his chest’, do you? Is it in your phrasebook?’

‘Well, what
should
we do? We can’t just leave him here.’ It was the first time Juliette had spoken.

‘Yes we can. That’s
exactly
what we can do. We don’t know what crazy did this. We don’t know if he’s still around. We have two bags of tent pegs, we don’t speak the language and we don’t have an alibi. We’re better off pretending we haven’t seen it. We don’t want to get the blame.’ Finn hoisted his backpack and turned back towards the path.

‘But that’s terrible! We can’t!’ Omar said.

‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s terrible,’ said Finn. ‘Haven’t you seen enough CSI episodes? Did you touch him? There’ll be some of your DNA on him. Let’s get out of here.’

But no one moved. It didn’t seem possible, somehow, just to walk back into the forest, knowing there was a dead body there. Not just a dead body – a murdered body.

Because a murdered body meant a murderer, and camping in a scary forest was one thing, but camping in a forest where you know there’s a murderer walking around – well, it’s a different thing altogether. Not even just a normal, run-
of-the
-mill murderer who might shoot you or
something
. But a complete freak, who would nail you
to the forest floor while you screamed and flailed and bled, and he just kept on hammering away at the tent peg.

‘Come on,’ said Ruby eventually. ‘Whatever we’re going to do later, we’re not hanging around near this. Let’s go.’ She turned and stalked purposefully towards the trees.

‘Shhhh!’ hissed Juliette. There was a noise. A rustling of leaves, the snap of a twig, then silence.

‘Whoever it was, they’re still here,’ she whispered.

Each of them stood still, hearts beating unbearably fast. Only their eyes moved, scanning the edges of the forest, the short metres the light reached, looking for someone or something but finding nothing.

A crash of wings broke the silence as some bird
flapped into the sky. Ruby stopped breathing. But something else did not stop breathing. Shallow, fast breaths to her left. She didn’t dare to turn her head, let
it
know she knew it was there. She signalled to Juliette with her eyes.
Please notice
, she willed her.

The bird rose high, then swooped over the distant lake. Juliette started walking towards Ruby and the others followed, but Ruby still didn’t move, expecting at any moment that some madman would leap out at her. She wanted to run, but her legs took no notice. As Juliette drew alongside her, she touched her arm.

‘You OK?’

Ruby shook her head and pointed to where the breathing came from.

Juliette signalled to the others. They all moved towards the tangle of bushes, hearts pounding. A shape – small, slender – went crashing through the undergrowth as they approached, blonde hair flying out behind and catching in the branches.

‘It was a girl!’ Ruby said in surprise. ‘Did a girl murder him?’

‘More likely she thinks we did,’ said Finn. ‘No point going after her – even if we catch her, she won’t understand us.’

‘Why do you think she’s not the murderer?’ asked Omar. ‘Just because she’s a girl? Girls can kill people, too, you know.’

Juliette flinched. Omar pushed the bushes aside with his foot. A dropped tent peg glinted amongst the dead leaves.

Alistair fumbled with his phone, panic making his fingers clumsy.

‘There’s no signal. There’s no signal here! What are we going to do? How will we know where to go?’ His voice rose as though he would cry, but for once no one laughed at him. They all felt the same.

‘We’ll have to camp somewhere around here,’
Omar said. ‘It’s taken hours to get here – there’s no way we can get anywhere tonight. We have a map – we don’t need GPS.’

‘I’m not camping near a dead guy!’ Alistair was visibly trembling. Finn curled his lip in disgust.

‘Not here, goon. We can walk on for a while. We’ll go to the lake. It’s only about an hour away. Then we can pitch our tents with the water behind us and no one can creep up on us. Backs to the wall. Old trick. Tomorrow we’ll give up and get back to civilisation. We’ll be OK tonight if we stick together. We can take it in turns to stay awake.’

‘What about the mad axe-woman?’ said Juliette.

‘She hasn’t got an axe, she’s got tent pegs. There
are five of us – we’re more than a match for a skinny kid with a bunch of tent pegs,’ Ruby said.

It seemed to take years to get to the lake. Every snapped twig, every rustle in the bushes, every animal running or snuffling made their skin prickle.

At last, they pitched their two tents side by side on the shore of the lake. With the water behind them and some space before the trees, it looked safe enough. They lit a fire, cooked and tried to act as though everything was normal. But it wasn’t. Life isn’t normal if you’re in the middle of a forest with only two other people, one of them dead and the other their killer.

‘We should put out the fire – the light will make mosquitoes come,’ said Alistair.

Omar and Juliette snuggled closer to it, leaning into each other. No one wanted it to be dark.

‘I can’t help thinking about that boy,’ said Juliette. ‘To die like that, with no warning. He must have thought he had forever.’

‘Not forever,’ said Omar, ‘but maybe seventy years or so.’

‘What would you choose,’ mused Juliette, ‘if you could die now or live forever? I mean, truly forever?’

‘Live forever,’ Omar answered. ‘No brainer.’

‘Die now,’ said Ruby. ‘If you truly lived forever, you’d still be here when there were no more people, when the Earth was frazzled up by the Sun or blasted to bits by a huge meteorite.’

‘It wouldn’t work, would it?’ added Finn. ‘You couldn’t just be whizzing around in space with no air and no food. It’s a stupid question.’ Ruby took no notice, but gazed out over the lake.

‘It’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘We never see the Milky Way at home – there’s too much light from all the buildings.’

Finn started to kick dirt onto the fire, swatting at a mosquito on his arm as he did so.

‘Don’t put it out,’ pleaded Juliette. ‘I’d rather have the mosquitoes than the tent-peg killer.’

‘How many stars are there, Alistair?’ Finn grinned cruelly as he said it.

‘Shut up, Finn. Leave him alone.’ Ruby was cross: it wasn’t fair. But it was too late – Alistair
was already trying to count the stars in the Milky Way.

She put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Close your eyes. Count how many times I tap your arm instead.’ He knew the trick. It was hard to close his eyes, but he did it and Ruby tapped away – 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29. 29. It was always a prime number. He waited to see if she would go on to 31, but she didn’t.

‘29!’

‘Time for bed,’ she said, squeezing his hand, and he dipped into the tent.

‘Why did you bring that freak?’ Finn asked. ‘Does he have OCD or something?’

‘Yeah, something like that,’ she said. ‘He’s not a
freak. What does it matter if he needs to count things? It doesn’t harm you.’

‘He’s a baby.’ Finn put his thumb in his mouth.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Omar. ‘Better someone who counts things than someone –’

‘Stop it!’ snapped Ruby. ‘This is bad enough already without fighting. We didn’t choose to be together, but we are. Let’s focus on being safe and then getting out of here. Alistair’s no trouble. And I’m looking after him, not you, so you can both shut up.’

‘There are too many mozzies here,’ said Omar. A slapping sound came from inside the tent. ‘You got them in there, too, Alistair?’ he called.

Alistair opened the flap.

‘Yes. Look, I killed this one.’

‘Good lad. Kill them all.’

‘But look at it.’ Alistair held out his hand with a squashed mosquito smeared across the palm. A smudge of red showed it had already bitten one of them.

‘Nice. Well done. You can wipe it off now,’ Omar said.

‘No,’ Alistair persisted. ‘Look at it. It’s not a normal mosquito. It’s a different type.’

‘It doesn’t matter, Alistair,’ Ruby said. ‘Let’s all see how many we can kill in our tents and then go to sleep.’

Alistair smiled. ‘I’m going to keep it. I’m going to put it in my notebook.’

‘Lovely,’ muttered Finn. ‘A collection of squashed mosquitoes. And you say he’s not a freak?’ He kicked dirt over the last of the fire and they huddled into their tents.

* * * * *

Outside, the forest crackled with night noises. Wolves howled in the distance. Closer to, a bag dropped onto dry leaves with a thud. No one heard it.

Ruby was the first to wake.

‘Ugh, mosquitoes! I’m covered in bites.’ She squinted in the sunlight. ‘Why’s it so bright today? It hurts my eyes.’

‘There are always mosquitoes near water – you should know that,’ Finn called from inside the tent. ‘Man up, girl!’

Soon they were all outside, scratching at their
bites and shading their eyes. Ruby slapped her arm and scratched hard, drawing blood. Apart from Alistair, who was arranging sticks at exact right-angles, they turned to stare at her.

‘What? Stop staring, you’re creeping me out.’ She lifted her arm to her mouth and sucked the blood away.

Finn parted his lips.

‘Shall I do that for you?’

‘Are you coming onto me or something? That’s just freaky. Leave me alone.’

‘Breakfast anyone?’ she asked, trying to break the awkward silence.

‘Do we have any meat?’

As soon as Alistair asked, Ruby realised she wanted meat, too. But they didn’t have any.

‘Maybe we could catch something?’ he suggested.

She was about to say this was stupid, but why shouldn’t they catch something? After all, this was supposed to be an outdoor challenge trip. Why not catch rabbits or something for breakfast?

‘Hey, math-boy,’ yelled Finn. ‘There are ants over here – why don’t you come and count them? Or eat them.’

‘Leave him alone!’ snapped Ruby.

‘What – are you his minder?’ Finn turned on her.

‘Yes, actually. He’s my brother.’

Finn made an ‘L for loser’ sign at her. Ruby
raised her arm to hit him but stopped dead. There was a face peering out of the trees at them – the same face she’d seen near the dead camper.

The girl walked out and stood on the shore in front of them. She was skinny and grubby, with bits of leaf stuck in her hair and scratches on her bare legs.

For a long time no one spoke, but she looked at Ruby and they all looked at the rubber mallet in her hand. It was the type of mallet you use for bashing in tent pegs. Ruby spoke first.

‘Do you speak English?’

The girl nodded. ‘I’m Australian.’

Finn had his hand in his pocket, opening his penknife. Surely this skinny girl wasn’t going to
take on all five of them with a rubber mallet? He at least would put up a fight.

‘What happened back there?’ Ruby was going straight for it – Finn was impressed.

‘He was my boyfriend.’

‘Wouldn’t want you as my girlfriend, then,’ Omar said.

‘He tried to kill me.’

‘And you just happened to get him to lie down while you hammered a tent peg through his chest? That all sounds a bit
Chicago
to me – you know, ‘he ran into my knife ten times’.’

The girl gave Omar a puzzled look. Perhaps she hadn’t seen
Chicago
.

‘He told me to take my crucifix off,’ the girl said. A large, ugly crucifix hung around her neck.

‘And he tried to bite me.’

‘To
bite
you? What, like a vampire?’ Finn raised his hands like claws, bared his teeth, hissed. And the girl stepped backwards.

‘Yes. Like a vampire. Don’t do that.’

‘Haaach,’ Finn threatened, leaning towards her. The girl raised her mallet.

‘Finn, don’t!’ Ruby grabbed his arm. ‘Calm down, everyone. I’m Ruby – this jerk is Finn. Stay where you are and tell us what happened.’

The girl pushed matted blonde hair away from her face, but it fell straight back.

‘I’m Ava. He was Nathan. We’re doing Europe for a year, been together for two. I thought I knew him inside out. And suddenly he acts like he wants to kill me. He acts like … No, it’s stupid.’

‘Like what?’ Finn had crouched down in front of her and was using his knife to cut blades of grass. He wanted her to see it.

‘I don’t know. Like someone completely different. Like some
thing
completely different.’

‘Like a vampire?’ Finn grinned, leaning across to drop the cut bits of grass in front of Alistair, silently inviting him to count them.

Ava looked at the ground and said nothing.

‘So –’ Finn continued, ‘he tried to bite you and you somehow held down this huge guy, despite
your being, frankly, scrawny, and he stayed still while you nailed a tent peg through his chest? Not being funny, but you don’t look the type. And I can’t see him just lying there doing nothing – like ‘Oh yeah, darling, just nail me to the floor’. Ah, was that it? Some creepy, weird game gone wrong?’

‘No! He tried to bite me, but when he got close to my neck he sort of hissed and backed away. I’ve never seen him behave like that. I thought he was messing about at first, that it was a joke. But then he grabbed my wrist and I looked into his eyes and … and it was like he wasn’t there. Not him, not the Nathan I know.’

‘And so you nailed him to the floor? Bit harsh, no?’

‘Finn, stop it! Let her speak.’ Ruby waved her hands at him in a strange, fluttery gesture.

‘He got ill. He lunged at me, I swung a fist at him. He fell back and swore at me. And he suddenly got ill again. He went pale, then threw up. He was shaking, convulsing, and all the time trying to grab at me, bite, scratch me. He was yelling that he would get me, that he would leave me just a shell, nothing. He was so strong. I couldn’t fight him off, even when sick. I grabbed the mallet and then he … he collapsed, still swearing he would get me. I was terrified.’

‘And you nailed him to the floor when he passed out?’

‘Yes.’ It was barely a whisper.

‘I was so scared. He said he’d get me. I didn’t
know what to do. Where could I run? I was just so scared. I’m still scared.’

Finn was on his feet, jumping around, waving his knife, sandy hair spiking up around his head and his wiry limbs moving like the sails of a windmill, wildly.

‘You are a total freaking nutter! You killed a guy who’d passed out? Why didn’t you just run away? Or tie him up? Or … or hurt him a bit? Are you crazy? … You are! That’s what you are! You’re
crazy
! Crazy tent-peg girl.’

Alistair looked curiously at Finn’s antics and started to smile. Ruby put a warning hand on his arm.

‘You said he got ill again,’ Omar said. ‘So he’d already been ill?’

‘Yes. I think he ate something bad. He’s a bit of a bush-tucker freak.’

‘A what?’

‘In the outback, at home, he likes to go out and catch things and cook them. Lots of the guys do it. He did it here, I think, but we don’t know what you can eat here and what you can’t. So I guess he ate something that was bad somehow.’

‘What, like magic mushrooms?’ Omar suggested.

‘I don’t know. I don’t know what he ate. Maybe. What do they do?’

‘Well, they can make you sick and they can make you act crazy, and see things that aren’t there, or think things that aren’t true. But it
would have worn off. If he weren’t dead.’

Ava began to sob and shake.

‘I killed him! I love him and I killed him. What am I going to do? What
can
I do? Oh please God, don’t let this be real. Please, don’t let him be dead.’

‘So why on earth did you nail him?’

‘Finn, stop it!’ shouted Ruby. He raised his knife at her.

‘Yeah? Why should I? She’s a nutter. Crazy, tent-peg-killer nutter.’

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