They search for hours. There’s no sign of Mitchell. As the day lengthens, minty-lemon rises on the heat. The earth literally steams. Scully wipes her brow with the back of her hand, aware of her hair frizzing in the impossible humidity.
“It’s amazing to think that there are creatures in this forest, Scully, the likes of which you’ll never see anywhere else.”
“You claim to have seen some incredible creatures over the years, Mulder.”
He chuckles. “I’ve seen mutants, but not marsupials or monotremes, Scully. Australian fauna is particularly unique. Wallabies and koalas and emus and platypuses, all that Steve Irwin stuff.”
“And all the dangerous animals that want to kill you. Crocodiles and snakes and jellyfish and spiders and sharks.”
She sighs. “They’re …not real, Mulder.”
He stops, pulls out a water bottle and waggles his eyebrows as he swigs. “Really? So where is Tony Mitchell?”
She shakes her head and takes the bottle, following in his footsteps as the canopy closes overhead. Fat drops of rain thunk against the earth, their bodies and in a split second it goes from a light shower to a torrential downpour. The sky is mottled with purple clouds. Lightning streaks past the tree cover. They run, bolting deeper into the forest. Mulder descends the slope towards a cavern glistening with rich lime-green lichen. It would be beautiful if it weren’t so painful to be in the rainstorm. Thunder growls as they enter the dark cave. She fishes out a flashlight and breathes in the musty air. They move in further as the storm rages outside. Mulder pulls off his backpack and sits on it. She does the same.
“The tropics, huh?” he says. “Maybe Tony found shelter here too.”
She shivers, her wet hair plastered to her face. There’s a low hum, a kind of resonant grumble. “You need some trail mix.”
“That wasn’t me.”
She swings the flashlight behind them. There’s a shape ahead, a dragging sound. They stand, reaching out for each other’s hands, backing away. The smell of rotting flesh fills the cave and she brings a hand to her mouth, gagging at the stench. In the arc of light they sees a wide open jaw with jagged, bloodied teeth.
“Scully,” he whispers.
“Tell me again how you don’t believe in Bunyips…”
A few days earlier…
Their holiday house is on a headland overlooking a perfect bay: white sand, azure sea, copper rocks piled up like totems at either side. To the left, the town of Brightwater’s infrastructure is visible, a couple of larger apartment-hotels, a smattering of homes and holiday rentals dotted on the bluffs and lower into the valleys, shops following the natural slope of the land. To the right, cows graze the prickly grass to the edges of the beach. The rain forest stretches behind, infinite. She walks down to the beach and the salt-wind whips at her hair. Mulder is already building an elaborate castle with a yellow plastic bucket and spade set he found in the garage. She takes a photo and he leans into the turrets, grinning. She hasn’t seen him this relaxed in years.
The blog started as an outlet for him. Then the consultancy, set up on a whim when a follower asked for help tracking down an evil spirit that turned out to be a disgruntled employee, took off. ‘Out of the Basement’ has turned their lives around. They hear from Jackson every now and then – he sends them snow globes from wherever he is in the world. Skinner visits, though he’ll never be the same; he gets about with a walking stick and a permanent droop on the left side of his face. The baby…the baby never was and she’s come to terms with it.
“Hey, Scully, how about some fish and chips then we’ll go Bunyip hunting?”
The client, Tony Mitchell, owner of several local businesses including a pub that served the best fish and chips in town, has funded their visit. Mitchell claims a monster, the Brightwater Bunyip, is at large. The Bunyip has been terrorising the community on and off for years, but has recently ramped up its campaign, mutilating cattle, sheep, dogs and cats.
“I heard that noise again last night,” Mitchell says, pulling a pot of Carlton Dry for Mulder and offering Scully a glass of Lemon, Lime and Bitters. The taste is strange, medicinal almost and she smiles inwardly as she drinks. The medical references find her wherever she is. Just like Mulder’s ghosts and ghouls follow him.
“The scratching?” Mulder asks, sipping the amber liquid.
“More like a screeching, mate. The sound of a bunch of horny cats on the prowl.”
Scully is bemused by the visual and lets Mulder deal with him. Behind the bar, there’s a display featuring a concept plan of a grand beachside villa resort, azure water sparkling with Photoshop’s best filter. ‘Brightwater Haven’ the sign declares ‘Living The Dream.’ It’s a phrase Jackson uses when she asks him how he is. Living the dream, mom, he says, emphasising the mom. He’s a wise-ass and a punk but she loves it when he projects his life into her mind. The visions, the dreams, are a tenuous connection but they’re enough.
As she finishes her drink, she listens as Mitchell claim the old woman in the ‘dero’ house on the hill conjures the Bunyip out of spite. His grisly tale grows more gothic by the minute.
“Carlotta isn’t just a doddery old biddy. She’s a grade one bitch,” he says. “Don’t let her white hair and stooped posture fool youse. She’s inside that falling-down house looking out at the ocean and making lotions and potions. Hubble, bubble and all that. Her place makes this town untidy. It’s the first thing you see as you drive here. And she’s a nutter. Always has been. But she’s a dangerous nutter. And youse two, you know how to deal with them kinds of people, don’t you?”
Mulder asks the standard questions. “Has she made threats, Mr Mitchell? Has she assaulted anyone? Have the police questioned her?”
Mitchell pulls a pot of Tooheys for a gnarled old man before stabbing a finger to his temple and letting out a chesty laugh. “She’s too clever, isn’t she? I mean, that’s the trick. She just disappears into that house for weeks on end, and lo and behold the Bunyip rears its ugly head. Coincidence much?”
There’s a softening of Mulder’s jaw and he glances at Scully. “So, you’re suggesting that Carlotta Uccello transforms into a Bunyip using some kind of magical potion?”
The sun is melting away outside and Scully pushes her glass across the bar. “I’ll meet you outside,” she says and Mulder expertly covers his smirk.
The street is emptying. People eat early here. The late autumn days are short. Mitchell told them that tourists drive through on their way to the larger resorts further up the North Queensland coast. She walks to where the steps lead down to the beach. A whip of wind sends a flurry of silvery sand against her legs and it stings. She walks towards the ocean, foamy in the stiff breeze. The smell of her childhood builds as she approaches. A moment of silence, where the last wave shrinks away and the next is yet to form, where the evening gulls bob without calling, where no vehicles chug down the road behind. It’s perfect.
Scully turns and looks back up at the ‘dero’ house where Carlotta Uccello allegedly orchestrates her terrifying reign over the townsfolk. Perched on the bluff, it’s like a child’s version of a house – its sticklike, bent shape is outlined by a dull light in the centre of the property. It flickers, beats in a rhythm, like a heart. It’s mesmerising. Behind her, the next wave is coming, whooshing, but Scully can’t tear her eyes away from the light, pulsing, growing brighter. There’s a shrill cry, a gull or the wind. A chill lifts the hairs on her arms. Her bare feet sink into the cool sand. The light fills her eyes. Then without warning goes off. The wave hits the back of her legs and uproots her feet, sending her barrelling forward and over, face-first into the cold water. Above, there’s a riotous cackling. Dragging herself up, sodden, she expects to see birds fleeing, but she sees nothing but the shadow of a woman, hair trailing, hands gripping the verandah balcony.
“Scully?” It’s Mulder’s voice that startles her senses back to the present. She shivers instantly and he grabs her elbow, pulling her out of the lapping water. He’s still wearing his runners and she’s stupidly irritated at this.
“I’m fine,” she says by rote.
She looks up at the house and the woman is still there, but she looks so ordinary, harmless, bent over a walking stick, hobbling back into the house.