EXPOSURE - NICK BOLDOCK
I buried Gerald in the sand. Well, I say buried – really I just scooped as much of the stuff over his body as I could manage without too much exertion. Because by then, I knew that excess effort could leave me as dead as Gerald, and I had Chloe to think about.
Gerald had died in the night, while the three of us had slept fitfully in the middle of wherever the hell we were. I’d been awoken by Chloe shaking me, hands on my shoulders, whispering, “Dad... Dad... I think there’s something wrong with Uncle Gerald...”
He’d died in his sleep. I knew that burying him could kill me but I wasn’t about to leave him there to be food for the resident predators. I would at least try to give Gerald a proper burial. So I braced myself and hunkered down in the sand and scrabbled away with my bare hands until I had made a shallow depression. I wouldn’t have called it a grave as such – it was nowhere near deep enough to warrant that honour – but it would have to do. Using up even more precious energy, I dragged Gerald’s body into the crater and began to throw sand over him. I had nothing within me to keep me going but somehow my hands kept working and the sand kept piling up over Gerald, until eventually most of his body was covered by a dusting of the stuff. Not much maybe, but at least his face was no longer visible, which somehow seemed important. I clasped my hands together and prayed that this counted, that Gerald was laid to rest as best as could be under the circumstances. I recited the Lord’s Prayer – the only prayer I knew – under my breath.
After the makeshift burial I hugged Chloe close to me. I told her that everything was going to be okay. We would be rescued soon – trust Dad, Dad knows best. But Dad didn’t know best, did he? Because if he did, then we would never have landed in this bloody mess in the first place.
Not for the last time I looked over at the burial mound that held Gerald. My brother. I heard him say to me, “Are you sure about this?” then heard myself answer, “What’s to worry about? Course I’m sure. It’ll be great.”
I wasn’t sure now. Not of that, at any rate. I was sure of one thing though. We were going to die, just like Gerald, and just like untold numbers of idiots over the years who thought that strolling across the Australian desert was like going for a walk on the Yorkshire Moors.
I’d planned a straightforward hike, no more than a couple of hours long, across a small stretch of outback. It was easy, in the grand scheme of things. Nothing to worry about – absolutely nothing. I’d done walks much longer than this before so this would be a piece of cake. So easy in fact, that when Chloe said she wanted to come, I’d agreed without hesitation. I should have known better than to be so blasé of course, but at the time – well, you know what you know, and sometimes that seems enough. So off we went into the desert, on our little leisurely jaunt. It would be fun.
Then the sandstorm came. From nowhere. One minute we were strolling along, laughing and joking, and then within a matter of seconds we were in the middle of a maelstrom. Hell came to visit us and it whipped at our faces and eyes, sucking the moisture from our lips, as we linked hands to help us stay together. Even like that we couldn’t see each other, such was the ferocity of the sand. I gripped Chloe’s hand so hard that I was worried I was hurting her. I was carrying a map and compass, both of which were ripped from my fingers by the storm. Our links to the real world were taken by the wind and left us with nothing.
By the time the storm and the flying sand abated, we had absolutely no idea where we were.
We left Gerald. We had no choice. He was dead and we were alive, and we had to press on, to try and find help. Chloe wasn’t looking too good. Her lips were blue, even in the blistering heat of the day, and the skin on her face was visibly dry. Her eyelids were starting to crack.
When I looked at her it was all I could do not to descend into panic. My little girl was dangerously close to dehydration. She was going to die unless I could get us out of this. But I didn’t know where I was going and with every step things became more and more desperate. Fathers are supposed to be the superheroes in these situations. I knew that. I knew I was supposed to come up with some sort of master plan that would rescue Chloe and me, but I was stuck for inspiration, and as I looked over at Chloe again, she was struggling to even take a step forward.
The sand dragged at her ankles, as it did mine, and she stumbled to one side. She half-turned her head and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “Dad...” she said. Then she fell forward onto the sand.
I cradled Chloe in my arms. It was pointless but she knew I was there if nothing else. I imagined myself as a TV news crew, reporting on myself. I would say I had been reckless, foolish, irresponsible... I would say I had led my daughter to certain death in the desert through arrogance and over-confidence.
Her eyes were red with blood, haemorrhaging from her brain through dehydration. The skin on her face was developing welts like stretch marks. Her body was absorbing its own moisture. I had heard about this, but never seen it. I stuck the middle knuckle of my left hand between my teeth and bit down, hard. Chloe’s eyelids fluttered. She looked at me and said, “Dad... I love you.”
At that moment, I would have done anything for her. Absolutely anything. Tears pricked my own eyes and I told Chloe that I loved her too. I told her she was my baby. I told her she was special. I told her to close her eyes.
Then I raised the rock in my right hand, and brought it down on Chloe’s skull.
I did it again.
And then Chloe was dead.
I couldn’t bear to see her die of thirst. I couldn’t let her suffer like that, and so I ended it for her before things went that far. It was her face that did it – seeing that beautiful silky skin cracking and bleeding brought it home to me. I looked at her and knew – my daughter was going to die. So rather than watch her suffer like a fly in a web, I did what I had to do and I stopped the pain.
She was my world.
I think I hear helicopters. I’m lying in the sand, and I’m asleep, or I’m dead – one or the other. But there’s a dream, and there’s the noise of a helicopter. And it’s coming for me. Now, I hope it doesn’t find me. If it exists, let it leave me alone. And then, I can hug Chloe and tell her I’m sorry.