I jolt upright, a scream dying on my lips. Terror is still running through me, the usual aftermath of the dream. The same dream I’ve been having almost every night for the last five years. I try to steady my breathing as I pull my boots on, listening for any signs of someone else being awake. There are none, for once. Usually I’d have woken up half the camp with my yelling and Choi would be in here to snap me out of it. Not tonight.
I unzip the tent and slip out, paranoia making me check for movement in and around the tents. I need to think, and being inside makes me feel like I’m suffocating. If a teacher were to catch me, I’d be up shit creek. Moving towards the trees, I pick my way over the guy ropes with cautious steps. It seems that every time we come out here, some idiot decides to try to sneak into town, trips over the ropes and collapse a tent. It was hilarious to watch, but I sure as hell didn’t want to be the one the Brigadier yelled at for doing it this time around. The guy was scary as shit.
Reaching the tree line, I pick up the pace. A good run would help calm me down, but not being able to see where I’m putting my feet kinda kills that idea. As I walk, I try to use the methods my shrink gave me, visualising calm places and shit, but it doesn’t seem to work. Never does, really, after the nightmares. But I try anyway, for Mum. She wastes so much money sending me there, so I need to try to get something out of it. The only thing that calms me down is Danny. He’s just so… pure. What he remembers of our father is hazy, and for that I am immeasurably thankful. Danny doesn’t need to live with the memories of beatings and violence, of psychosis and fear. He doesn’t need to remember the night I lost it, the rage I fell into. He doesn’t need to remember the look on the officers’ faces when they came to arrest me. If there is one good thing that came out of what happened, it’s that my little brother doesn’t have to grow up living in fear like I did.
I pause and look around me. Without realising it, I’ve made my way to the boundary between Jellicoe territory and us. Looking up, I can see the scout I planted in the eucalypt that marks where our territory starts. His eyes lock with mine with confusion. “Swap-over already, Griggs?” he asks, swinging down from the thick branch. “Nah, Sampson, not yet. I’ll take over, though. Can’t sleep,” I respond. This is the kid’s first year out here and, like every year, the youngest kids are the ones that get a good battering from us older guys. They’re our go-fers, get made to do all the crap jobs – like being stuck up a tree half the night – and pretty much used as slaves. This is all without the knowledge of the teachers with us, of course. It’s made worse for them too, in that most have never spent more than a few nights away from home. A lot of them struggle with not speaking to their parents, even though back at school they're desperate to try to rebel against them most of the time.
I pull myself up into the tree and settle against the trunk. Up here I feel untouchable, and yet vulnerable. The memories are bombarding me, and though I want to block them out, I can’t. My therapist says I need to allow myself to acknowledge the memories, let myself remember consciously and that it’ll help with the nightmares. So I do.
Closing my eyes, I see my father. His eyes unfocused, animalistic rage burning in them. The hateful expression on his face sends shivers down my spine. I know what comes next. He’s gonna lose it, throwing punches, plates and threats. But this time, something’s different. His rage isn’t directed at me, or Mum. It’s directed at Danny. The screaming begins, and fear runs through me. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I don’t do something fast, Danny will get hurt. He’s only two, and can’t run from him like I can. I’ve never seen him this crazy before, not even the time he walked around the house threatening to shoot us all, so we’d always be together. The wild look in his eyes tells me all that I need to know, and as he advances towards the child cowering in the corner, I don’t think. I just act. Stepping between my father and Danny, I shove at his chest, moving him backwards. He snarls at me, trying to push me away. Behind me, I hear Danny scramble to his feet and run from the room, exactly like I wanted him to.
From here, the memory turns dark and patchy. I don’t remember all the details, nor do I want to. The only thing that is clear from that night is the sound of the bat meeting his skull. I don’t know how I picked it up, or what caused me to do it, I just remember swinging and connecting, over and over and over, until Mum was screaming for me to stop. The days after are blurry, a mix of faces; family, cops, strangers. Questions, endless questions. The photos they showed me, taken in the morgue. I spent most of the time alone, in a cell, trying not to think about what happened. It took my Mum almost three months to be able to be in the same room as me without cringing away in fear. I didn’t see Danny; they kept him away, at our grandmothers. Everyone thought I was unstable, volatile, violent. Like him.
My father’s family shunned us, petitioning for me to be locked up for good. The judge, on the other hand, saw it as self-defense. He sentenced me to therapy, anger management and two years at military school. The second year there was the first time I got to come up to Jellicoe. At that point, I had given up. The shock had worn off and self-hatred had replaced it. Most days, I couldn’t even remember why I did it, how bad he was to us. All I remembered was that my father was dead because of me. That’s unnatural. They were too scared to even look me in the eye - Mum wouldn’t even look me in the eye. I always thought it was because I ripped her family apart, but she feared that she’d see hate there, that I’d hate her for not protecting me. I’d done my research and I was ready. The 3:47 to Yass, always on time. It would be so simple. Just step off the platform and it’d be over. I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. Then Taylor came up to me, looked me in the eye and spoke to me. I knew then that I couldn’t do that to her, not after the Hermit blew his brains out in front of her. I couldn’t.
I shudder, staring out at the distant shadow of the school’s dorms. One of the lights flick on, and I wonder if it’s Taylor’s. Its nights like this that I wish she hadn’t been on that platform. If I never met her, I’d be long gone by now. Mum wouldn’t have to deal with my father’s family’s constant appeals against my sentence – they still want me in jail – or the rising therapy bills. She wouldn’t have to be woken by my screams most nights. I wouldn’t have to look in the mirror and see the face of the man I killed. A lot of the time, I forget about the time he beat Danny across the face with his belt, the time we all went to the beach and he held me under until I almost passed out. All I remember is the good, and I hate myself. It’d be so easy to try again. Go grab a rappel rope from the climbing gear and tie it around the branch I’m sitting on. But one of the kids would find me. I couldn’t do that to them. I’ve ruined enough lives.
Sighing, I drop from the tree. The next watch should be here soon. I need to get more sleep, although the pink starting to cross the sky tells me I’m not going to get much.