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The stone gate, p.1
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       The Stone Gate, p.1

           Mark Mann
 
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The Stone Gate


  The Stone Gate

  by

  Mark Mann

  First published 2014

  Copyright Mark Mann 2014

  Cover Art & Interior Design by Indie Designz

  Stebbing Lane Press

  6 Stebbing Lane

  Woy Woy, NSW 2256

  Australia

  Phone: (61)2 4342 6589

  https://www.thestonegate.net

  All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

  All characters in this book are fictional; any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Similarly, the “Aboriginal” culture in this book is fictional. While it draws on generally available descriptions of Australian Aboriginal life prior to 1788, as well as practices found in hunter-gatherer societies elsewhere and generic wilderness survival techniques, it does not depict any specific tribe or culture past or present. The “Aboriginal” mythology and stories in this book are also fictional.

  Contents

  Baytown

  Part 1 Alone

  Part 2 Dunjini

  Part 3 Noah & Sara

  Part 4 Beth

  Part 5 The Stone Gate

  Afterword: Imaginaries

  Baytown

  Baytown could be any small seaside town. Not too big, not too small. Just the usual: neat suburban streets, parks, sports fields, two schools, a shopping mall. The only thing that’s special is its setting, which is beautiful. The town lies on a strip of flat land behind the golden sands of Bay Beach, facing east toward the ocean. Behind the town, to the west, the Escarpment rises like a giant green wall (in fact it’s a more of a slope) of crumbling sandstone cliffs, giant tumbled-down boulders and dense forest.

  Halfway up this slope, at the top of Hillview Street, is Castle Heights, Baytown’s most expensive suburb. From here a rough track leads into the woods then climbs a steep gully called the Stony Stairway to the High Plateau, a vast tableland of wild forest that stretches inland to the distant horizon.

  KAYA

  The path emerges from the dark woods into a moonlit clearing. I love this place. I’ve been coming up here—to the High Plateau above the cliffs, to the forest—for years. At first with my parents. Then on my own, ever since I was old enough. But never at night. Until tonight.

  In the middle of the clearing is the Stone Gate. Of course it’s not a real gate. Just a large boulder that’s been worn into a natural arch. There are a lot of strange rock formations like this up here on the High Plateau, because the rocks are sandstone and crumble easily. People have given them names: the Castle, the Pyramid, the Stone Gate, and so on.

  The thing is, right now something weird is happening to the Stone Gate.

  Something very weird.

  The moon—it’s a full moon tonight—is still low in the sky. From where we stand it’s behind the Stone Gate, and as we watch it fills its arch with a white light so bright you can’t even see through it. Yet—and this is the really strange bit—the whiteness is only inside the Stone Gate. All around, the sky is clear and black. Not a cloud in sight.

  The four of us stop and stare.

  ***

  I suppose I should explain what we’re doing up here in the first place. I mean, our parents would freak if they knew we were up here on the High Plateau, in the forest, at night, on our own. But they don’t, because they went out to dinner and left me and Jack at home. (That’s Jack, my twin brother, by the way.) Then Jayden James phones. “Hi Kaya, want to come up to the Castle and watch the full moon with me?” he asks. I try to sound all casual, as if super-hot, super-cool boys like Jayden phone me all the time asking me to go on moonlit walks in the woods, but instead I let out a little squeal that sounds more like Popcorn, my guinea pig.

  “Okay, sh ... sh ... sure,” I squeak.

  But then I panic and wonder if it’s a good idea. I mean, going to the forest at night with an older boy I hardly know? I can see the headlines now: “Body of girl, sixteen, found in woods.” So to my horror I hear myself ask “Can Jack come too?” Jayden just laughs and says “Sure, I’ll bring Debbie”. Which is good, as otherwise I don’t know how I’m going to get Jack away from his computer anyway. But when he hears Debbie James is coming, Jack lets out a little squeak too (because Debbie James is as hot as her brother; they’re a genetically gifted family) and rushes off to raid Dad’s aftershave cabinet.

  I just hope Debbie James likes computer games, because that’s all Jack can talk about. That or football.

  When Jayden and Debbie turn up, Jack and I giggle like idiots before Debbie says how much she likes my crystal (it’s on my necklace; everyone notices it), and Jayden drives us up Hillview Street to Castle Heights and we park the car and climb the Stony Stairway to the High Plateau, and walk into the forest.

  And we come to the Stone Gate, which is on the path to the Castle.

  ***

  The four of us stare at the rock arch and the strange, dazzling light. Jack, ever the computer geek, says, “Hey, it’s like that Xbox game, Portal.” He starts riffing on that idea. “Come with me, if you dare, into the Portal,” he says in a mock-dramatic voice. He puts his daypack down and steps forward. I know he really wants to take Debbie James’s hand but at the last minute he chickens out and grabs my hand instead (otherwise all this would be Debbie James’s story, not mine) and we step forward into the archway. Into the light.

  And that’s how it begins.

  ***

  The light is dazzling. Blinding. All I can see is whiteness. There’s no up or down, no ground or sky, no anything. There’s the roar, too. Roar isn’t even the right word. There is no word for it, because it’s like a pure rush of noise, louder than anything I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s like being inside thunder.

  As suddenly as it started, it stops. The noise and the light are gone.

  Everything is as it was.

  The Stone Gate stands in the clearing. It’s just a large rock with a hole in it. The sky is black again, except for the white orb of the moon and the twinkling stars. The only sound is some frogs croaking.

  Everything is as it was.

  Except Jayden and Debbie are gone.

  Jack and I look at one another. I can see he’s shaken too. We look around. Jack’s daypack has also vanished. It had some snacks and drinks in it. And our phones.

  We call out to Jayden and Debbie but there’s no answer. We call again. And again.

  Nothing.

  Surely they wouldn’t have run off and left us. Is this some strange prank they’re playing on us?

  I listen. I know this forest. (I come here bushwalking a lot. My friends think I’m weird.) And I’m good at hearing things, like animals moving in the bush—wallabies hopping off or lizards darting under rocks. If Jayden and Debbie are running away, or hiding nearby, I’ll hear them. They’ll snap a twig or rustle a bush when they move.

  Yet I hear nothing. Just the distant hoot of an owl. And those frogs.

  Something is wrong.

  Where are Jayden and Debbie?

  And that flash ...

  “I think we should get out of here,” Jack says nervously.

  We start walking back. Before we know it, we’re running. But the path seems different. Narrower, more overgrown. In fact it’s hardly even there at all. Bushes brush our arms and faces. By the time we get back to the lookout at the top of the cliffs, I’m gasping for breath.

  “Shit,” Jack says.

  Still sucking in air, I look down over Baytown.

  “What? I can’t see anything,” I say.

  “Exactly. That’s the problem.”

  I look again. I can see the surf br
eaking off the beach. But Baytown is in darkness.

  “There must be a power cut,” I say.

  “No, look closer. It’s not just the lights. The buildings are gone too.” Jack points. “Look, the hotel. It’s not there.”

  I do look closer. I look for the Bayview Resort. It’s Baytown’s tallest building. Normally it stands out like a sore thumb. But now it’s not there. Nor is the swimming pool, or the Plaza. The houses are gone too.

  Baytown is nothing but trees.

  I sit on a rock and try to think. There has to be a simple explanation, something staring us in the face. Was the flash a nuclear bomb? A meteorite? No, that’s not right. Either of those would have wiped out everything, including us. A meteor would have left a crater. Instead, everything looks peaceful. Normal.

  Except Baytown is gone.

  Except Jayden and Debbie are gone.

  “We can’t stay here all night,” I say. “Mum and Dad will go mental if we’re not home when they get back.”

  “You haven’t got it yet, have you? There is no Mum and Dad.”

  “But ... a whole town can’t just vanish.”

  For a moment, we stare in silence at the plain below us; wooded, empty of buildings.

  “It must be some sort of optical illusion,” Jack says eventually.

  I consider this. A weird trick of the light? It seems unlikely. But I can’t think of a better explanation.

  “Okay, maybe you’re right,” I say. “The only way to find out is to go back down and check it out.”

  So we climb down the Stony Stairway. But at the bottom of the gully, instead of emerging from the woods at the top of Hillview Street, the forest keeps going. There are no big flashy houses, no Hillview Street, no sign of Jayden’s car. Just more trees.

  We keep going downhill, but now there isn’t even a hint of a footpath. In fact, it’s like a full-on jungle. The moonlight barely penetrates the trees and the forest becomes a mass of dark shapes and shadows. We get tangled in curtains of hanging vines. Spiky bushes scratch our arms, making them bleed. Each step is a struggle.

  This doesn’t feel like an illusion.

  We slip and slide and fight our way down the steep slope for what seems like hours. We must be almost down on the plain by now. This should all be streets and houses.

  But it isn’t.

  Jack stops in a small clearing and sits down in the dirt. He rests his head in his hands.

  “I’m tired,” Jack says. He sounds close to tears. “I can’t go on anymore, Kaya. I just want to go home.”

  Me too, I’m exhausted. And it’s pretty clear we aren’t going to get ‘home’ tonight.

  “Let’s stop here. Try to get some sleep,” I say. “Maybe this will make more sense in the morning.”

  Jack nods weakly. We push some leaves together for a bed and lie down. It’s damp and twigs and sticks stab us in the back and I don’t even want to think about all the bugs and spiders crawling around us, but we’re both too worn out to care.

  Soon I hear Jack’s breathing slow. He’s already asleep, curled up in the damp leaves, the hood of his jumper pulled up for warmth.

  I feel myself drifting off.

  ***

  The next thing I know, it’s morning. The pale sky is streaked with pink. Birds whoop and chirp and squawk. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a loud dawn chorus. The sound makes my heart sink. I mean, I love birds, but this is not what was meant to happen. What was meant to happen was that I wake up back at home, in my own bed, to find this was all a dream.

  But if it’s a dream, I’m still dreaming.

  I go to the toilet behind some bushes (not that anyone is watching). I’d like to clean my teeth and have a shower too. Instead, I nudge Jack awake. He sits up and rubs his eyes and ruffles his hair. He groans as he realises we’re still where we were last night, sitting in a pile of damp leaves in the forest. We discuss what to do. It’s obvious we can’t stay here, so we decide to keep going into Baytown—or where Baytown should be—and see what we find.

  There’s got to be something that will tell us what’s going on.

  We battle our way through the thick bushes for maybe an hour (without our phones it’s hard to keep track of time) before the slope levels out and we come to a stream lined with tall reeds. The water is only knee-deep so we wade across. On the other side the forest is different—more open, like walking through a shady park. But there’s still no sign of any houses or people.

  We walk into a clearing and startle a mob of kangaroos. They hop away into the woods. That’s odd. There are wallabies up on the High Plateau but I’ve never seen kangaroos around Baytown before.

  “The trees are all burnt,” Jack says. “Maybe there was some sort of blast last night after all.”

  “I don’t think so. See how only the lower trunks are burnt? And they’re only scorched. The higher branches are almost untouched. This was a cool ground fire. A blast big enough to have destroyed every building in Baytown would have burned these trees to the ground.”

  I point out the fresh green shoots emerging from the blackened ground. “Anyway, these young plants are a few weeks old. This fire happened weeks ago, not last night.”

  “If you say so, Nature Girl.” Jack forces a smile. “I hope you’re enjoying the bushwalk, by the way.”

  Nature Girl. That’s what Jack calls me. So what? I admit it. I love animals. I’m fascinated by plants. My perfect day is a walk in the forest. Everyone teases me about it. (“It’s just not natural, being so into nature,” Jack likes to say, thinking he’s clever.) So you’d think I’d be loving all this. And perhaps I would be—if I knew what was going on. But I don’t, and right now I just want to go home.

  However, my limited bush tucker knowledge proves useful when we come across some heath banksia trees, because I know you can suck the nectar out of their flowers. I show Jack what to do. The sweet sugary syrup is the first thing we’ve eaten since we left home last night. It’s not much of a breakfast but it will give us some energy.

  ***

  Another patch of burnt forest. Again it’s a cool fire; the tree trunks are scorched black but the higher branches have not been affected. This time there are no green shoots and the earth is bare and covered in grey ash. When Jack brushes against a tree trunk it leaves a smudge of black charcoal on his T-shirt.

  “Now this fire happened in the last couple of days,” I point out. “Nothing has had time to grow back.” I scuff the ashes with the toe of my running shoe. There’s something odd. These fires were no bigger than a football pitch. Natural wildfires would have burned a wider area. I mean, it can take firefighters days to bring a bushfire under control. But something—or someone—put these fires out, really quickly, before they even got going.

  It reminds me of something Dad told me. He says Aboriginal people burned small fires to clear the forest. The ash enriched the soil, helping fresh new plants to grow, and these juicy young plants attracted kangaroos for them to hunt.

  “Instead of going looking for animals to hunt, they brought the animals to them. Smart, eh?” Dad said.

  I’m pleased with my detective work. Forensic ecology. (Did I just make that phrase up?)

  “Just one problem,” Jack says when I explain this to him. “Aboriginal people stopped burning the forest round here two hundred years ago. Whatever happened to Baytown happened last night. Until yesterday, this was all streets, and if people were running around the streets of Baytown setting fire to things, I think we’d have noticed.”

  Jack’s right, obviously. Before last night this was all streets and houses. Now it’s nothing but trees.

  But a forest can’t just appear overnight. And houses can’t just disappear.

  ***

  We stop to drink at a small stream. Without cups or water bottles, we decide the easiest way to drink is to lie flat on our stomachs and slurp the water like wild animals. Jack is worried the water will make us sick, but we’re thirsty and we’ve got to drink. Especially a
s it’s getting hot now.

  As I lie drinking I notice something on the ground beside me. It’s the outline of a fish, scratched into the rock. It looks like an Aboriginal carving. There are hundreds of rock carvings up on the High Plateau, if you know where to look. Fish and whales and wallabies and men with spears. But this one is different. The lines are too clean, not overgrown with moss and lichen.

  I show Jack. “This must mean there are other people,” I say.

  “Or were? This carving could be thousands of years old, for all we know.”

  “I don’t think so. It’s so clear. This was done recently.”

  Jack thinks about this for a few seconds then shrugs. “So what? Recently could mean last week. Yesterday even. Before the flash, anyway. So it still doesn’t tell us if anyone apart from us has ... survived.”

  Survived.

  Jack lets the word linger.

  Survived what? We still have no idea.

  ***

  We finally stumble out of the woods onto Bay Beach. The sun is high so I’m guessing it’s around midday. The beach is so familiar. I come here every Sunday for surf lifesaving. I recognise the surf break at the far end of the bay. And yet it’s so different. There’s no surf club, no safety flags, no little kids paddling at the water’s edge, no surfers in black wetsuits out on the break.

  We flop down on the sand. I close my eyes. For a minute, I focus on my breathing and the sound of the surf rolling in. Maybe the answer to our mystery will come to me if I clear my mind.

  It’s peaceful.

  Jack’s voice, impatient, snaps me out of my mood. “Wake up, Kaya. We can’t stay here. There’s no shade and we’ll get sunburnt. And I’m thirsty.”

  I open my eyes again. The surf sparkles in the sunlight as it breaks into white foam crests in front of the beach. Water washes up the sand and sucks out again. It’s like watching the planet breathing. In and out, in and out. Out in the bay three dolphins leap out of the water and splash down. They’re so graceful. Without any people or buildings the beach feels magical, full of nature’s energy.

 
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