Kathryn drew in a sharp breath and clasped her daughters’ hands more tightly. She’d expected to feel relieved after six hours of trekking through the bush, hoping against hope, but all she felt was cold, sick dread. The cabin was still standing, four walls built up with hand-hewn palings, a peaked tin roof and easy veranda in the old settlers’ style, but that was as much as could be said for it. Twenty years abandoned to the elements had seen it slump into a sorry state of disrepair. Cobwebs clung thich to the eaves, stretching down toward the creeping brush that clamoured for space against the walls. Pieces of tin had ripped away in places, leaving the rain to pour through and rot the timber where it dripped and pooled. Windows were grimed up, opaque with dirt and webs, some broken, smashed in whipping winds.
The girls shifted nervously, wide-eyed, wondering, silently waiting for their mother to reassure them. Kathryn swallowed hard. It did no good to be afraid, so she put off fear, straightened her shoulders and tepped up the veranda to the door. There was no lock – there was no need to lock the door, so slim were the chances of anyone stumbling across the little hut. Great Uncle Len had built it deep in the bush, in the heart of Victoria’s north-eastern countryside. He’d lived there as a hermit for eighteen years, presumed dead, until one day he showed up back at home, such a surprise to his wife that she died right there of fright. His only explanation of why he’d left was that he ‘needed space’; of why he came back, that he’d ‘had enough space.’
Kathryn drew in a sharp breath and clasped her daughters’ hands more tightly. The cabin creaked quietly in the wind as though croaking a welcome but there was little comfort in its dilapidated appearance.
“Mummy is this where we’re going to stay?”
Brooklyn searched her mother’s face earnestly, her blue eyes round, trying to comprehend what was happening. For five years she’d known nothing but the comfort of a pleasant home in suburbia where she had own room filled with dolls and dresses and her favourite bedtime stories. Evia had three years on her sister and was resolved to be mature and not complain, but the sight of the tiny bush hut with its shabby tin roof and rotted wood walls sent a little shiver of panic through her chest. She cast a glance up to her mother, who remained transfixed on the cabin a moment longer.
A drop of rain splashed to the ground at their feet and the spell was broken. Kathryn forced a smile and brought her girls in closer, kneeling down to talk to them.
“Girls, this is where we’re staying for a little while. I know it looks a little scary, and it’ll be different to home, but at the moment home isn’t safe. This is the safest place we can stay while we wait to go back home.”
“How long do we have to wait?” Brooklyn asked, pouting slightly. The fake smile stayed rigidly in place but Kathryn knew her eyes betrayed her own fear and confusion. Evia was watching intently, her features dark, her usual easy smile replaced with pinched brow and lips set hard and thin.
“I don’t know, honey. It could be a little while.” The rain was building – a smattering of droplets turned to a light shower. She knew there were many questions brimming away in these precious young minds, as there were in her own mind; but now they needed to take shelter before they became drenched. “Let’s go inside, girls.”
Ignoring the sense of dread that sat like cold porridge in her gut, Kathryn stood up with chin set and shoulders squared and led her girls up the crumbling step to the veranda. As she reached for the door, she reminded herself that this tiny, remote shack was their best – maybe their only – chance at survival.