July 30, 2021

“BugSplat,” A Short Story by Karen Lethlean

“BugSplat,” A Short Story by Karen Lethlean

So boring. No one her age. Already run out of books. Less to do than being at home. Sandra felt her feet get heavy in loose beach sand as she tried to dispel inertia by taking a walk.

“Get out and find something you enjoy. Nature is therapeutic you know.”

Why the hell did her mum think therapy was required?

Strange how once upon a time she and her father wandered along these same beaches, christened these walks Morning Explorations and set the task of finding The Most Terrible Thing washed up overnight.

Now Sandra stared out at water, twisting her hair or shooting an imaginary gun at squawking gulls.

Couldn’t even get much of a signal on her phone.

Limited people about. Not even any good waves to attract surfers. Cute blonde boys she might spend time checking out.

So far away from the theme parks school buddies talked about, or even trendy little coffee shops and cafés. Only one bakery stocked up with gross-out pies, and iced finger buns. You’d think mum would ban pies and cakes.

Each year they persist in hiring this same holiday house. Despite first needing to fumigate the place with surface spray, sweep dead blowflies off windowsills.

Chattering excitedly about ferry crossings, tiny settlements, limited yet interesting locals, fishing and scraggly bush. Why can’t there be a bit of holiday variety? She’d like nothing more than a couple of weeks near a rain forest park. Wouldn’t even care if it rained. After a few days, tell-tale sand fly bites would swell into a festering itch. Shores dotted here and there with blue bottle jellyfish, stranded too far up, mixed in with dirty seaweed. Attracting ants and beetles. Their streamer-like stingers rendered harmless, swollen by heat after waves receded. Step on them, makes a spectacular pop.

Coming here okay as a ten-year-old; a bushwalk, a twilight swim, topped off, if lucky, by perfect lemony crunch of salty, battered fish and chips. Too tired to notice mosquito twines, more intense as they neared an exposed ear. These days Mum more likely to be on a wholesome food, organic binge. Set up a citronella candle instead of use chemical laced (more effective) sprays. Regardless of an occasional entrenched worm, quick browning and or maggots breeding near stalks in no time, she makes sure they’d stopped to pick up fresh produce.

Of course, there’s nothing as modern as a bridge.

What used to be welcoming arrival sights, pale sand and lightly ruffled waves stretching uninterrupted from a long, narrow balcony now settles behind Sandra’s eyes like an advertisement poster passed too often. Viewed from bus windows or rushing past daubed on a crowded commuter train. Curling up edges, tags daubed, or even names scratched across.

Same old holiday shack, compact, small and lonely. Outside yellowed timer is laced with overgrown grapevines and shaded by a stand of enormous scraggly gums. Shaded areas a magnetic attraction to lizards. Making a panicky escape which scared the be-Jesus out of Sandra, no matter how she anticipated reptiles fleeing her arrival. There is a tiny garden, edged by a low wire fence which makes a brave but hopeless attempt to separate one neat green square of drying lawn from scrubby bush all right down to sand edges, and tinkling tiny waves beyond.

Who wandered about pulling larger weeds, and occasionally pruning garden shrubs? Some deadbeat shuffling through a garden she’d never consider as theirs. Flicking away flies drawn by their sweat, colliding with spider webs on every second plant.

They’d slapped together a lunch of cheese, feta, “because it’s higher in calcium,” and tomatoes, home preserved olives, not even shop brought ones, on dreadful doughy gluten free bread. Before Sandra got annoyed with her parent’s euphoria about this place’s familiarity, harping on about, how nice . . . just as special as always . . . and heard instructions to take herself away.

Mum and dad wanted to move down here. She’d heard them talking. Don’t they realise Sandra’s life is secure elsewhere, deep in tree-lined suburbs, her friends, her soccer team. A chance to get into university. She kicked away a dimpled stone.

Lagoon edges circle away from beachfront to disappear between gently sloping eucalyptus-crowded hills. Rocks abut headlands, their shoulders covered with shrub that reminds her of stubbly body hair.

Tracks winding down through wattles, banksia trees, melaleuca or straight ahead to a car park. Hopeful someone had already walked here and cleared orb spider’s webs, dangling dishevelled carcasses of previous insect victims.

Her dad said once, “council wanted to allow developers to locate a fishery here. Real big outcry. At least a camping area got levelled.”

An old man called Alex worked as a kind of caretaker. Has a small shop, sells basics, bread, milk, cans of beans and of course fresh-caught mullet. Half falling down fire trap, more like. Not even a proper shop on the whole island.

Still this area provided useful beach access. An alternative straight route tucked away under some larger trees, only semi-visible. Where she sees them. Bashed up Kombi, pulled in close. A couple of fold up camper chairs, still out, not being used. One bearing a heavy book almost making seat cloth sag. Voices, something foreign, Sandra notes long words, plenty of unfamiliar phrasing. Then she ducks behind scrub, out of sight. Not English, rather a scratching, grating language, least ways, to her ears. More animal than human, something heard at world’s end. Probably German, Croatian, maybe Russian. Why do European visitors come here, of all places? She often sees them using pathetic hand waves in efforts to chase away persistent bush flies. The woman wears a small cloth, pillowcase sized, covering her loins, nothing else. Breasts swing and bounce. Sandra feels her face heat.

You can bet they’ve got a ticket from Alex. He heads around most nights, making tour of campers, vans and rag-tag shelters constructed to withstand sea breeze, in a trail of cigarette smoke she’s not convinced is only tobacco. He punches a hole into a cardboard ticket like those old-time tram conductors. Honour system, how many days equates to amount paid. Can’t picture Alex giving campers their marching orders if they overstayed their allocated days. Much less clean up afterwards. But she’s sure he doesn’t pay correct money in a council office. Instead pockets any profit for himself. After all what does he provide? Not even water or power connections. You needed to be self-sufficient to camp there. All your food on board, maybe supplement by picking oysters off rocks, if you can get them free. Catch a few fish if they commit suicide by taking a bated hook. Must have been so much bush-tucker way back when a local tribe, Dharawal wandered about. Although Sandra had no idea how pronounce this correctly. Surely there should be more than just a token recognition, “to elders past and present . . .” starting off school assemblies.

If you camped here, you also needed to dispose of waste later by calling into dumping points in bigger, flashier caravan parks. Unless, of course, you draped outlet hoses into bush. Yuck, she might be crouched right in someone’s grey sink water, or worse!

Why don’t her parents hire a camper, take to the road, and check out some spectacular scenery, like Great Ocean Road. Or even something like one of those resort van complexes, at least then she’d pass empty afternoons in a local movie complex. Or talk to other kids.

That guy Alex makes her skin crawl. No matter how often her mum says, ‘he’s eccentric.’

Puffer fish lay strewn about, one shiny eye reflecting clouds racing overhead. Don’t Japanese eat them, dicing with chances to get poisoned and die? How about an overseas trip? She’s sure her parents would say, “our holidays are overseas.” A smug, silly grin on their faces. As if a crossing over such a narrow channel, ferry puking diesel fumes is an ocean voyage. And she didn’t get their ridiculous pun.

She’s thinking of the saying, like a fish out of water . . . be dead, right? A few flies lift slowly as if frustrated with her disturbing their feast. Where would they land next? Puffer spines flat against skin, instead of gulping in air to confuse predators. Good luck with that when you are attached to a fisherman’s hook. She buries one of them by flicking sand with her foot. Wondering if this action is some sort of ritualised respect for end of a life. Or merely trauma residue left from when a school buddy ate her goldfish, dared by others at her seventh birthday.

She doesn’t bury cuttlefish, because they only leave behind white skeletons, as if they undress before death, gifting what is solid to land while sending their flesh to float away to wherever they came from. Making a reasonable contribution to ocean’s food chains. Perhaps they don’t die at all, but rather pick up a new skeleton from a deep ocean trench. Same way hermit crabs find new-sized containers. Remembers an Uncle Jim saying, “cuttlefish spines were best calcium supplements for me prize winning budgies.” Left her wondering how come his silly twilling birds didn’t overdose? Nibbling their way through thick skeletons. And how often does he clean their poop ridden cage floor, plus don’t those birds have fleas?

At least this time tribes of scabby kneed, snotty nosed cousins aren’t crammed into the holiday shack. Or else she’d be expected to entertain them, out, walking, getting nature therapy!

Walking on, beach becomes stranger still. Plovers fly away. Close their eyes and let her pass as if nothing more than a human-bad-dream. Making a catcall squawk to warn others. Shift away . . . shift away. Soon after, she sees an albatross lying still, caught out like sand stranded seaweed, or shells tossed up beyond high tide lines. Feathers roughed like a wet dog’s coat. Then she finds a mermaid’s purse, cylindrical container really a shark’s egg sack. Somehow this object is sacred. She wants to throw it back into waves, where it washed from, where it belongs. But knows it’s too late to hatch, will not bear a new generation of ocean’s apex predator. Only half feels its release from her hand and fall back onto sand.

An unhealthy creek, greasy surfaces, fringed with bubbly black, were Sandra looks at run off, steeped in pathogens and pollution, for sure. In keeping with smatterings of bottle tops, straws and plastic fragments she’s already noticed elsewhere, except liquid rather than solid. Apparently, fish are now consuming human cast-off rubbish, according to her geography teacher.

A smaller island offshore is a bird sanctuary. There were signs and warnings. Not as big as shack island. She climbs up from wading through knee deep water, to wander across a humpbacked plateau. Seabirds fill skies. Nest in ground holes and limestone nooks; they chase each other in territorial battles and shrieked from places unseen. On packed sand, scrub and limestone provide little shelter. Bird tracks pepper every soft surface. Whole place smelt birdy, combining damp feathers, mouldy poo, and fish-laden spew. Airborne birds resemble giant bugs. Weren’t birds and reptiles descended from similar pre-historic ancestors?

Off seaward surf creases across a reef, and small sunken lagoons potholes are full of still water. Looking down from a low cliff she saw fish, attempting to avoid birds diving and feeding. Underfoot, wherever Sandra stepped, broken eggshells mashed and blew. As she walked, a murmur grew, and birds fled panicked before her. One ran blindly from its hole and skidded off her shin; thousands, thousands of black birds.

By her foot she saw one small bird corpse. A sight pre-empting noticing bodies all over the island. An outcrop full of dead birds: whole, mutilated, broken. No way to bury any without building sand and rocks to whole new levels. Ground littered with eggshells and feathers. And shit. A constant layer of debris, semi-moving with insects. She wonders is this what overpopulated humanity might become, a tumbling, putrid place.

Signage inform of species, and their global migration. Seems such a waste to fly around the planet, only to shrivel up and die in this desolate place. Same place every year, until you are nothing more than bones and feathers.

She stopped walking. Stupid to walk so aimlessly. Walking made you think. She needed a swim.

Offshore are distinctive clusters of jagged-edged shells growing on rocks. Black with glinting slivers of white, exposed by late afternoon’s tide. Sandra wades into shallow water. Flops into languid water, completes a few lazy strokes. Getting out she slips, grazes her face and chin which bleeds profusely. Not helped by tears mixing with salt residue. Or flies previously invisible, grabbing a lift behind her shoulders.

A skinny man emerged from nowhere. Alex. Talking while Sandra attempted to processes his closeness, weight of his arm across her shoulders.

“You’ll be right, Kiddo.” Alex is holding a dirty towel rag to her chin. “Really should put dressing on this.” He began pulling a crunched-up Band-Aid from a little purse thing dangling from a bashed-up belt loop. Surely, he didn’t keep first aid things in the same place as camper area tickets, fishing hooks and weights and a tobacco pouch. Sandra nearly vomited at heavy cigarette fumes engulfing her very breath. Dizziness not helped by noticing a large warty thing with hairs growing out of bubbling looking skin, up near his collar line.

“Almost didn’t see you. Completely focused on those hippy wannabes.”

Felt as if he could see through her, read her mind.

“I’d prefer to walk home alone.” She wondered from where strength to utter these words emerged.

“Oh, pardon me for ruining your day by rescuing you.”

Alex fell back and maintained a gap but kept walking behind Sandra. Peskier than flies. In the end it seemed simpler to endure his company.

“I’ve got the campground dune buggy, tucked under those few bigger trees, here in the parking area.”

As she saw his thin wristed arm beckon past her shoulders, Sandra is thinking, all the better to take up a vantage point and perve on only semi-clad Europeans. As if she’d get into that doubling-as-rubbish-collection vehicle, with him or anyone for that matter. Stank worse than a spew bucket.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Back on the shack’s deck her mother’s teeth grate as she hears a local radio station announce random human body parts washed up over the last few days were female, and possibly of adolescent age. Where is her precious Sandra? What kind of mother lets her teenager wander alone around sand hills and beaches? Yet all that angst, restlessness, shaved glass, razor wire attitudes really annoyed. Reminding herself they come here every holiday and nothing bad ever happened before.

Another fat bug exploded in the window.


Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. With previous fiction in the Barbaric Yawp, Ken*Again, Pendulum Papers and has won a few awards through Australian and UK competitions. Almond Tree received a commendation from Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction competition and was published in Pretty Owl Poetry Journal. Karen is currently working on a memoir titled Army Girl. About military service 1972-76. In her other life Karen is a triathlete who has done Hawaii Ironman championships twice. 

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