Cheryl stopped the Land Cruiser at the entrance to Belanglo State Forest. I hopped down to help Bruce. A hundred yards of ground stood between us and the pine forest.
“Down you come, mate,” I said. Bruce spilled from the side hatch, and I helped him sit on the floorboard. His ankles were bruised. I wondered if he even felt the wounds. A couple years back he was as normal as normal can be, then the Gehrig’s came and everything went to shit.
Cheryl banged through the boot for his braces. She was not in favor of this excursion. I’d known it was a bad idea too, but what was I going to do? Bruce was my mate. He introduced me and Cheryl when I was a useless bludger with Call of Duty in my blood. Who was I to deny him his walkabout?
He patted my arm. “Thanks heaps, Matt. Sorry to drag you fifty k’s south of Woop Woop. It has to be here.”
“No worries, mate. Whatever you need.”
Cheryl came around. I tried to give her a squeeze, but she sidestepped. I’m only looking out for my sick mate, I told her with my eyes. She gave me a cold glare, and leaned the leg braces next to Bruce.
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll do this on my own.”
“You won’t last a step without your helpers,” I said.
“I bloody will,” Bruce said, and pulled himself upright.
The strain showed on his face as he took a shuffling step. And fell. He pushed to a sitting position. “Give me a boost.” I helped him up, feeling strangely grateful for the opportunity.
“I’ll get his crutches,” Cheryl said.
“Christ, woman,” Bruce said. “Fair crack of the whip, would you?” He stood, wobbly, but erect. “Get me a walking stick. There must be something around here, yeah?”
I found a branch that looked like it might do the trick. “This is bonkers, you know,” I said as I gave it to him. “You’ve got a disease. There’s nothing to prove.”
“Can you try to understand?” he said. “My life has been a dingo’s breakfast since the diagnosis. Here’s my chance to figure it out. This forest is a disease too, yeah? It’s a scab on the aboriginal landscape.”
“That sounds like a heap of yabber,” I said.
“There’s all sorts of diseases, Matt. Physical–” he touched his chest “–emotional–” he nodded toward me, then
Cheryl “–and pine trees in Australia.” He laughed. I forced a chuckle too.
Bruce leaned close. “Fair dinkum, mate, there’s a sacredness here, ancestral bones mixed with blood from the
backpacker murders, a dead angel. Hidden meaning, like that. I don’t know the words. I don’t know what it is, just that it is.”
“It’ll still be here in the morning,” I said. “Come with us to the camp. We’ll figure it out together.”
“Nah, you two go on. No drama, yeah? She’ll be apples here, mate. This place and me deserve each other.” He winked. “Go on, curl up by a bush telly and find something to do without me.” I knew what he meant, but I also knew what we would find to do: Argue over Bruce. Still, what was I going to do? This was his journey.
Cheryl and I drove down the road a ways, and then doubled back on foot to keep an eye out from the forest. By nightfall, Bruce had covered a dozen strides. He would drag his foot, establish his balance, look around at the terrain, the sky, take a deep breath, and close his eyes as if savoring what he’d seen. Dawn revealed Bruce still standing, dew glossed over his features.
The next night we slept in a tent, Cheryl along one wall, me hugging the opposite. I wondered if Bruce might be right. Maybe the problem between Cheryl and me was a kind of disease, an atrophy of passion, brought on by my fixation on Bruce’s wellbeing.
Next morning, he was another dozen strides closer. Cheryl took him breakfast, I dropped off lunch and dinner. He would not acknowledge us, but the food was gone when we returned.
It became a routine. We never interrupted his musing, but left food and water slightly ahead of him, and returned to collect the bowls. Whether he ate it or some rodent did, we never discovered, but his strength did not flag, so maybe we were doing him some good.
It was bringing Cheryl and me closer too. We started holding hands, chatting, kissing. We began to understand that Bruce had brought us into a mystical process. On the fifth night Cheryl and I shared a sleeping roll. I remembered Bruce telling us to find something to do without him, and a smile came over me that would not quit.
The next morning Bruce reached the forest edge. His eyes blinked at the needled canopy, the lacework fragments of blue sky, and a look of wonder came over him that made me envious. I could have watched him forever in that moment.
Cheryl’s arm went around me. “Do you think he’s done? Should we help him now?”
I shook my head. “I think he’s found his peace.”
“I hope,” Cheryl said. She led me into the forest. We spent that night on a bed of pine needles, the full moon shining down.
Bruce did not move again. Day after day, he stood there dreaming, eyes fixed on some invisible world where the pixies rule. He wouldn’t eat or talk or even blink after that. We waited a week, then we drove back to Sydney to start a home, a child, a life.
Our own walkabout.
Stephen V. Ramey’s short works have appeared in many places, most recently Lucidplay’s Glass Eye Chandelier anthology, Gone Lawn, and Crack the Spine. He lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, and edits the twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at www.stephenvramey.com.