Brian Wren glanced up at the sky. Strong northerly winds were pushing the clouds at a considerable rate, and he estimated that the sun would shine through in about five minutes.
While awaiting the sun’s appearance, he rechecked the focus on his Pentax M50 SLR camera. Hiking through the forest for an hour on such a hot day had been a pain, especially while lugging the camera bag and tripod, but he wanted to photograph the small waterfall, no matter the effort required.
Brian mused that some people might consider his hobby of landscape photography antisocial, but he had never been comfortable around people. He had always been quiet, with his isolation increasing during his teen years. Having reached the age of thirty-five, his friends considered him a confirmed bachelor. A handful had made cautious enquiries as to his sexuality, but Brian had deflected their queries. He wasn’t ready to step out of the closet, and he didn’t think he ever would be.
“Fuck! What’s he doing here?” Brian muttered to himself when he spotted a lithe young man easily stepping from rock to rock at the top of the falls, carrying a small billy can.
Under normal circumstances, Brian wouldn’t have minded. The guy was wearing board shorts and runners, showing off a trim, tanned upper body. Brian admired the bushy ringlets of brown hair that hung down to just above the broad shoulders, but he had spent a lot of effort in setting up the shot and he wanted it to be perfect. The landscape photograph that Brian wanted could not include people.
The figure turned suddenly, losing his footing. As Brian watched in horror, the young man fell two body lengths down the cliff, landing heavily on the rocks at the base of the waterfall and then disappearing under the water.
When the young man didn’t immediately surface, Brian kicked off his shoes and waded into the water. His fears heightened when he spotted the body floating face down at the edge of the foaming wake.
Brian’s instincts were urging him to hurry, but not knowing the water’s depth, he couldn’t risk moving too fast. Even so, he slipped twice, slightly bruising his right thigh and his lower back, before he reached the stranger.
“Please be alive,” Brian muttered to himself as he turned the person face up. It appeared that the young man was not breathing. Knowing that he couldn’t do anything for him while in chest-deep water, Brian dragged him across to the side and felt for a pulse. A small sigh of relief escaped Brian’s lips when he found what he was seeking.
Old memories of the correct way to give mouth-to-mouth resurfaced. Brian wasn’t panicking as he was sure he had a couple of minutes to get the guy’s breathing restarted, but his heart was racing as he looked around for somewhere flat to place the young man. A suitable rock a short distance away caught Brian’s eye and he quickly dragged the body over.
“Check airways,” Brian recited, hoping he had the order right. He put a finger in the guy’s mouth and found no obstructions.
“Tilt the head back and pinch the nose.” Brian felt something sticky as he put his hand at the back of the head, but there didn’t seem to be heavy bleeding, so he ignored it and concentrated on the more important need.
He took a deep breath and then placed his lips over the young man’s. As he exhaled, he was encouraged by the rising of his patient’s chest.
The stranger soon began to splutter and cough, and a small amount of water sprayed from his mouth. Brian rocked back on his heels, a sense of satisfaction running through him as he watched the young man take a few gasping breaths. He had saved the guy’s life, and that accomplishment surprised him.
Brian’s good feelings faded quickly when he assessed the condition of the guy’s body and found that one shin was twisted at an unnatural angle.
Brian glanced at his watch and then at the sky. He didn’t think he’d be able to get the stranger out of the forest before dark, even if he immediately regained consciousness.
Brian took his phone out of its pocket on his belt. He hadn’t thought to remove it before wading into the water and, as he expected, it no longer worked. Feeling a chill, he took off his shirt and spread it on a nearby bush to dry. He would normally have enjoyed the feeling of the warm air on his skin, but his focus was elsewhere.
The ideal scenario, from Brian’s point of view, was that the guy wasn’t out in the bush alone, but had some friends who would soon be looking for him. He didn’t want to assume that that was the case, however, so he started making plans to stay out for the night. He would miss a dinner date with some married friends, and he knew they would raise the alarm when he didn’t show up, but a rescue wouldn’t likely happen until the morning.
A groan drew his attention back to the young man in front of him. He tossed up on whether trying to fix the leg would make things worse. While he contemplated the options, he checked the guy’s head. There was a large bump at the back, and some blood, but no sign it was still bleeding. He thought the wound would seal itself after a short time.
Brian rocked back on his heels and chewed his lower lip while he worked out what to do about the broken bone. He decided that a splint would hold the leg immobile and prevent any further harm.
He scouted nearby and found two fallen branches that were reasonably straight and clean. He had to break off part of one, as it was too long, but he soon had two pieces he could strap on either side of the leg.
“Padding. What can I use for padding?” Brian asked himself. He glanced around and rejected the nearby vegetation, before his eyes fell on his camera bag. He opened it and removed the Velcro dividers. They weren’t large, but they would provide some cushioning between the leg and the splints.
The next problem would be securing the splints. Brian considered tearing up his shirt, but he wasn’t sure if he might need its warmth during the night. He checked the strap on his camera and decided he could use it for one end of the splints, but he wasn’t sure about the other.
He was about to give up when he had an idea. He took a good look at the guy’s leg and found it to be muscular, but not overly so. Brian put his arm alongside it and compared the size. Smiling, he went to his shirt and ripped off one of the sleeves. With the splints inside, it would be a snug fit just above the knee, but he would have a tight-fitting hold to keep the leg still.
With his preparations complete, Brian took a deep breath before taking the first step. He pulled the lower leg straight, evoking a cry of pain from his patient. Brian paused, not only from worry about doing something wrong, but also to check if the young man had regained consciousness. After waiting in vain for any further sign of life, he gritted his teeth and resumed straightening the leg.
When there were no signs of anyone searching for the young man by the time Brian had finished securing the splints, he accepted that the guy was probably alone. He gave a heavy sigh and settled down to wait.
For the first time, Brian really looked at his patient. His nose was a bit crooked, as if it had been broken at some point in the past, and there was a small scar below his mouth. Brian reached over to touch the mark, wondering what had made it. Telling himself that he was only checking for more injuries, he ran a hand gently from the top of the head down the light stubble on the left cheek and back to the jutting chin. Without realising it, he repeated the stroke, while wondering what the guy would look like when he smiled. He had the type of face that Brian found attractive, though it needed a sweet smile to enhance the look. His first impression of the guy’s body had been accurate. It was trim but not toned, with a waist that showed no signs of a gut. A sprinkling of hair between the tanned pectoral muscles completed the picture of a good-looking, healthy young man.
When he noticed that his hand had dropped down and was playing with the chest hair, he jerked back.
“No! This is so wrong!”
Brian jumped up and walked a short distance away. He started praying that the guy would wake up soon, because he hated the temptation he was feeling. He knew he could get away with a lot, not only because the guy was unconscious, but also because he could justify touching him by saying he was checking for injuries. He couldn’t lie to himself, though. He knew that if he did that, it would be for completely wrong reasons. Brian had spent years keeping to himself. He wasn’t prepared to be so close to another guy.
In a useless attempt to cool his emotions, Brian put on his still-wet shirt. He hoped that if his body was cold, his mind might follow.
* * *
The strong northerly winds had the trees in the forest swaying. A gum tree by the edge of a small clearing, where a previous forest giant had once stood, creaked ominously as it was strained by the force of the wind. One branch, weakened internally by termites, finally gave way and crashed to the ground. The main section landed on a small empty tent, while the crown of leaves landed on a small fire that had been made to boil a billy of water.
For a moment, it seemed as if the force of the leaves hitting the fire had put it out, but the hot coals were not so easily defeated. A few seconds later, some small twigs on the branch were alight, and flickers of flame appeared through the gum leaves. The wind that swirled through the clearing slowly pushed the flames back along the branch until it was close enough for sparks to carry to the bushes in the surrounding forest.
* * *
It was getting dark when the stranger finally regained consciousness. Brian, happy that one part of his temptation was over, knelt beside the young man.
“Easy. You’re badly hurt, so just relax.”
The young man grimaced. “How bad is it?”
“You’ve got a broken leg, and you also bumped your head when you fell off the cliff. I couldn’t find anything else wrong with you, but I’m not a doctor. How are you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been run over by a truck.” The guy glanced down at his leg and then gave a wry smile that was marred by crinkles around his eyes, indicating the pain he was feeling. “Thanks for being here. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I’d been by myself.”
Brian looked away. The smile hadn’t been one of the glistening white ones that appear in television shows, but it had set off the guy’s face the way he had hoped and feared. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have fallen.”
Brian looked back. “Do you remember what happened?”
“You were walking across the top of the falls. You slipped and fell when I called out to you.”
“Still, you were there to save me.” The grin appeared again, accompanied by an outstretched arm. “I’m Mike. Mike Hanson.”
Brian shook the proffered hand. Mike had a firm grip; one that sent subtle shivers through Brian. “Brian Wren.” He let go as soon as he could. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a friend around here?”
“Do I need one besides you?” Mike grinned. “Sorry. My sense of humour crops up at all the wrong times. No, I’m out here by myself. I arrived yesterday, and I intended to have a few days alone.” Another grimace crossed his face as he shifted. “So much for that idea.”
“Do you have a phone at your camp? Mine drowned when I went in to get you.”
“Drowned?” Mike appeared confused by the reference, but then the light dawned. “Oh… I’ll buy you a new one when we get back. It’s the least I can do.”
“We’ve got to get back, first. Do you have a phone?”
“Yeah, it’s in my tent.” Mike pulled a face as he looked up at the sky. “I don’t think I’m up to getting it, though, and I’m not sure I can tell you where it is. It’s maybe ten minutes away from the waterfall, upstream somewhere. When I pitched the tent, I thought the stream was closer than it really was. Okay, it was close, but the waterfall was the only place where I could easily get to it, which I didn’t realise when I set up camp”
Brian sighed as he realised he would be spending the night with Mike. He mused that at least it was going to be easier to resist temptation when he knew that Mike would be conscious.
“I’ve got friends who’ll raise the alarm, but not until later tonight. No one is likely to be out here looking for me until tomorrow.”
Mike chuckled. “A night under the stars isn’t going to hurt me. I normally find it kind of nice.” He paused and glanced down at his body. “The air’s warm now, but I hope it doesn’t cool down too much tonight. Do you have a blanket or anything like that?”
Brian shook his head. “I was only going to be out for the afternoon. My car’s a good hour away on foot. What about yours?”
“More like two hours for me. I like hiking and camping, so when I get away, I really like to get away.” Mike rolled his eyes. “I’ve got everything we need up at my campsite, but I can’t get there and there’s not enough daylight left for you to search for it. I don’t suppose you’ve got matches or a lighter so we can have a fire?”
“No, and we couldn’t, anyway. It’s a Total Fire Ban day.”
“Is it? I didn’t realise. When I get away I like to get right away. The only bit of technology I take is my phone.” Mike chuckled. “I’m beginning to think it’s a conspiracy.”
“A conspiracy?” Brian was lost as to what Mike was talking about.
Mike’s laugh was cut off by a wince. He had moved his leg too much. “Sorry, my bad sense of humour again. One of the guys at work accused me of being gay the other day. Now, I’m almost naked and spending the night with a guy, and I might have to snuggle up with him to keep warm.” A strange look crossed his face as he quickly added, “I’m not trying to say anything about you, Brian. As I said, it’s just my crazy sense of humour. It’ll probably stay warm. I’m just joking.”
“Are you gay?” Brian asked cautiously. He didn’t want to get his hopes up.
“Nah. I’m very much into the fairer sex.” Mike leered as he gazed across the stream. “It’s definitely girls for me.”
“Then why did he think you were gay?” Brian really didn’t care to know, but he didn’t want to leave his previous question as the last one, just in case the question got returned. Brian was prepared to deny it, but he was afraid his body language might give him away.
“Because, unlike the other guys, I never boast of my sexual exploits. He took that the wrong way, but he shut up when I suggested he ask my fiancée about who I like having sex with.”
“A fiancée, and you’re out here alone?”
Mike shrugged. “Sharon’s not into camping. If there’s no hot and cold running water, she’s not interested. She doesn’t mind me going from time to time, though. She just won’t come with me.” He grinned. “And she won’t touch me when I get back until I’ve had a shower. She says I stink.” He paused. “Actually, she says I stink worse than normal. Isn’t that a sign of true love?” Mike winked.
Brian didn’t think Mike stunk. Since his attention had been brought to the matter, he would’ve said that Mike had a very blokey odour that he quite liked. He didn’t want to continue the topic, though, so turned the conversation to something more practical.
“Well, I suppose you’re the expert, Mike. What are we going to do? I haven’t been camping for over ten years.”
Mike glanced around. “I’d prefer to be a bit further away from the water, but this will do.”
“We can try to move, if you like. Where would you want to go?”
“Not far. Just off this damned rock to somewhere a bit more comfortable while there’s still light. I don’t like being too close to the water in case of snakes. They tend to be more common near creeks.”
“Snakes?” Brian gazed around, looking for beady eyes peering back at him.
“Don’t worry. They’ll be going dormant at this time of day, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I’ve hated them since I was a little kid and my dog was bitten.”
“Why don’t I have a quick look around to see if there’s somewhere appropriate for us nearby? I don’t want to make you climb up the slope unless it’s worth it.”
“Cool with me. You’re a smart guy, Brian.”
Mike’s lazy smile had Brian spinning away. He needed to get away, at least for a few minutes.
* * *
The northerly winds had created a line of fire that stretched away from the creek, and wind kept the smoke and flames from approaching the gully below the waterfall. The bushfire was well established before night fell, but it was remote enough that it hadn’t been reported.
Both situations changed at sunset, as the wind shifted and started blowing from the east. It was without the same force as earlier, but it was slowly driving the fire towards the waterfall.
A farmer who lived at the edge of the forest noticed the glow shortly after dusk. His call was taken by an overworked CFA worker, who then dispatched two nearby units, while hoping it was a false alarm. Three major fires and numerous small blazes were draining resources across the state, and everyone involved had been praying that the forecast change would drive the larger fires back onto themselves. That would give the workers some breathing space while they created new containment lines. A new bushfire would be unwelcome news.
* * *
Mike tentatively lay down on the cleared dirt. “Much better. Thanks, mate!”
Brian was skeptical. Mike’s shifting and twitching told him that the ground wasn’t that comfortable. He had found a place that seemed suitable, halfway up the side of the gully. He had silently vetoed the idea of carrying Mike all the way to the top.
“Are you sure? I can move more rocks and things, if it helps.”
Mike glanced up. “Could you? I don’t want to be a pain, but there’s something that keeps digging into my back.”
“Shuffle over and I’ll see what I can do.” Brian cleared away some pebbles and small twigs, but he could see that he wouldn’t be able to clear it all away without some tools. After a moment’s hesitation, he took off his shirt and placed it on the ground. “That should cushion your back.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Mike said, but his look of appreciation told Brian how much better it felt. “But what are you going to lie on?”
“I can always move around; you can’t, at least not easily.” Brian didn’t expect to get much sleep, so being uncomfortable didn’t concern him. As he prepared his own spot, a short distance from Mike, he thought that his own discomfort might even be an advantageous distraction.
“It’s night’s like this that I wish Sharon would come camping with me. That’s some sunset I can see through the trees.”
Brian glanced to the west. “What are you talking about? I can’t see anything.”
Mike laughed. “You’re looking the wrong way. The sunset’s over there.”
Brian felt confused for a moment when he looked in the direction Mike was pointing. The soft red glow was nice, but Brian was sure that it wasn’t in the west.
“But the sun was setting over there! I know, because I was keeping an eye on it while you were out cold.”
Mike looked where Brian was pointing and then back at Brian. “Are you sure? I don’t know which direction is which at the moment.”
“I’m sure. Light direction is important in photography. I needed to have the light coming from the west for my waterfall photo.”
“But if that’s the case, then what’s that over there?”
Both came to the same conclusion at the same time. “Fire!” they chorused.
“How far away do you think it is?” Brian asked as he picked up his camera bag. He looked at it and put it down. He couldn’t carry both it and Mike while running away. A camera could always be replaced.
“Quiet for a moment and let’s see if we can hear it.”
Both fell silent. The first thing they noticed was the quiet. There were still some forest noises, but they were muted. They then heard a faint crackling.
“Does that mean it’s close?” Brian asked.
“How the fuck should I know?” Mike snapped back.
“You’re the camper. Surely you know something about fires!”
“Small ones, yeah. Not bushfires.” Mike calmed down. “It can’t be close or we’d smell the smoke. It’s probably miles away.”
“Would the smoke come down here? Maybe it’s drifting across the top of the gully.”
“If you won’t take my word for it, why don’t you just fucking go and check for yourself?”
Brian winced at the abrasive way Mike made his suggestion. He wanted to say sorry and settle down again, but he was too scared. Staying out in the forest at night was bad enough. Having a possible bushfire nearby was too much. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Take your time.”
Brian felt an unspoken “arsehole” on the end of that statement. As he clambered his way up the slope, he realised that Mike was probably scared, too. The sarcasm and the way he had snapped was too much of a change from the way he had been earlier. Brian decided to apologise as soon as he got back.
Those thoughts were swept from his mind as the distinctive odour of smoke wafted towards him as he approached the top. Cautiously, he raised himself up the last section and looked towards the glow.
He saw flames. Still distant, but close enough to be distinguishable.
Brian scrambled down into the gully. He reached the creek and realised he’d passed Mike in the near darkness. He turned and called out. “Mike?”
The reply came from back up the slope. “Where are you? Was that you I heard shooting past?”
“Keep talking so I can find my way back to you.”
“Keep talking? Okay. Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I didn’t really mean it. I’m just a bit cranky because I don’t like being dependent on someone. You’re a good guy, Brian, but I like to look after myself. I took my frustrations out on you and I shouldn’t’ve. I’m sorry.”
Brian joined Mike as he finished. “I know. I sort of worked that out as I was climbing up. I’m sorry, too.” Brian told himself to stop blathering. “We’ve got to get out of here. The fire’s near the top of the gully.”
“I saw the flames, Mike. We’ve got to get away!”
Mike started to get up, but then cried out and collapsed. “My fucking leg!”
Brian slipped an arm around Mike’s back. “Lean on me.”
“Down to the creek.”
They started hobbling their way down the slope. Brian was tempted to move faster, but he knew that if Mike further damaged his leg he might be in too much pain to move at even a slow rate. Brian regretted splinting the leg above the knee, as that was making it more difficult for Mike to move.
“Do you think we’ll be safe on the other side?”
Brian shook his head. “The creek’s not that wide. I think the fire’ll jump the gap without a problem.”
When they reached the water, they stopped.
“Downstream? If you help me, I think I can float down,” Mike said.
“I don’t know how deep it is, but it’s an idea.”
Brian helped Mike into the water. He kept his shoes on, because he knew they would have to get out and walk eventually. They were about to head off when Mike glanced up and Brian followed his gaze. They could see flames in the treetops.
“We’ve got to go now!” Mike said and tugged at Brian as a wave of heat swept over them.
Brian didn’t move. He was frozen, partially due to fear, but partially because the heat had triggered a memory that was struggling to the surface.
“Come ON!” Mike said, panic beginning to set in.
“NO!” Brian turned them around. “Upstream, before it’s too late!”
“What the fuck? We’ve got to get away!”
“We go that way and we die. We’ve got to get to the waterfall.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Mike was unsure, but he let Brian move them towards the cascade.
“The biggest killer when you’re caught in a bushfire is the heat, not the flames. We need to get behind the waterfall to be protected from the heat!”
“Are you sure?”
“YES! I remember it from the news, a few years ago. Even if I’m wrong, we’ll be safe there until dawn.”
“Then let’s go.”
There was no more hesitating. They found a narrow space where they could perch precariously on some rocks, half out of the pool, but behind the screen of water. Mike had his splinted leg stuck across Brian’s lap, as he had found that leaving it in the churning water was painful.
To maintain their position, they each had to keep one arm around the other person. Brian had been too busy before, but he became painfully aware that he was embracing a handsome young man, skin-to-skin as both were without shirts, and that Mike was holding just as tightly onto him. Their heads were close together, and Brian could feel Mike’s every breath.
Mike put his mouth to Brian’s ear to ensure he could be heard over the noise of the waterfall. “How long do you think we’ll have to be here?”
Brian turned his head and then pulled it back as his lips almost met Mike’s. He made himself look at the rock behind Mike’s head as he spoke into Mike’s ear. “Until the fire front has passed. We should see it as it goes through. Hopefully not too long.”
Brian was desperately praying it wouldn’t be long. He kept feeling an urge to pull Mike closer and to reach out with his spare hand, even though he was using it to make sure he didn’t slide off the rocks. He looked away from Mike and peered past the water to the forest beyond. The light from the fire was already illuminating the scene, giving a deceptively warm and welcoming glow.
“Do you think we’re protected enough here?”
Brian wanted to lie, but it had been his choice to wait out the bushfire behind the cascade. He turned back to Mike. “I hope so, but I don’t know. There’s not that much water screening us, but I think it’ll be enough. If we have to, we can duck back into the pool and just keep our heads out.”
“You’ll probably have to hold my leg down if we do that. The splint kept wanting to float before.”
Brian hadn’t considered that problem. “We’ll work out something.”
Mike laughed. “We can pretend we’re gay and I’ll stick my leg between yours while we hug each other. That’ll hold it down.”
Brian gulped and looked away. He was imagining things that were very much inappropriate for that time and place. As he moved, he started to slip and had to let go of Mike to pull himself back up.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that, Brian. I was just trying to be funny. I told you I have a sick sense of humour.”
“We might have to do it if it gets too hot.” Brian left his mouth by Mike’s ear. He wanted to lean forward and kiss the neck he could see. He wanted to do what Mike had jokingly suggested. He wanted more… his imagination was giving him disturbing images.
“Look at that!” Mike’s shout had Brian’s head turning. After catching himself again from sliding, he followed Mike’s gaze past the edge of the waterfall. Three kangaroos had just leapt the creek and were bounding up the other side away from the fire. One of them appeared to have some of its fur burnt away, though the uneven light from the fire made that questionable. The photographer in Brian wished he had a camera ready, because a picture of the kangaroos fleeing the fire would have been a great action shot.
“I hope they get away.”
“Me too, mate, but I’m more concerned about us. We’re trapped here.” When Brian stiffened at the implied criticism, Mike quickly added, “But it’s the right place to be. We’d be goners if we’d tried to escape down the creek.”
The two guys settled down again, staying silent. As they watched the flames approach, the temperature rose. Some heat was radiating through the falling water, but more was coming in from the open sides that were less than a body length either side of them. When Mike reached out with his free arm and stuck it into the cascading water, Brian followed suit. The stream that ran down his arm and onto his chest felt wonderfully cool.
Brian’s arm soon got tired and he pulled it back from the water, but Mike kept his up. Brian found himself admiring the biceps that was on display and smiled at Mike when the younger man started splashing some of the water Brian’s way.
That ended when Mike screamed and jerked his arm back. Something was wrapped around his hand.
“Get off! Get the fuck off!” Mike yelled as he first shook his hand and then slammed it against the rock beside him.
Whatever had been attached to him dropped into the pool of water and Mike stopped. He was breathing heavily and Brian could feel him trembling.
“What was it?”
“A fucking snake!” Brian could see the fear in Mike’s eyes as his companion stared back at him.
“Are you okay?”
“It bit me!” Mike held up the hand, but it was shaking too much for either guy to examine it.
“Here, let me.” Brian grabbed the hand and pulled it towards him.
He looked carefully, as the uneven fire glow made it difficult to see details, and found a bite mark. He pulled it a bit closer to have a better look. “Do you know the joke about the guy who was bitten on his bum?”
“This isn’t a time for jokes! We need to put a tourniquet on it!”
Brian ignored him. “His mate rang the doctor and the doctor said that unless someone sucked out the poison, the guy was going to die. The mate went back and the guy asked him what the doctor said. The mate said he was going to die.”
“Die? Suck it out! No, I’ll do it.” Mike put his hand to his mouth and started to suck.
Brian smiled. “It’s a good thing it didn’t bite you in the bum.”
Mike nodded, still sucking on his hand. His eyes opened wide and he tried to pull his legs out the water, only to wince in pain when he banged his splinted leg. Brian grabbed him to stop him from sliding into the water.
“The snake’s in the water!” Mike yelled, still trying to get his legs up.
“It’s an even better thing that the snake wasn’t poisonous.”
Mike’s legs were held up for another second before Brian’s last comment sank in. “Not poisonous?”
Brian was enjoying himself and felt only slightly guilty. He had thought the joke might snap Mike out of his panic, and it had had the pleasurable side effect of allowing him to wrap his arms around his younger companion. But it was at an end. He forced himself to let go with one arm and allow Mike to settle back again.
“Are you sure it wasn’t poisonous?”
Brian grinned. “Positive. The bite only has teeth marks around the outside. There aren’t any puncture wounds from fangs, which means it didn’t have any, or didn’t use them.”
Mike examined his hand to confirm what Brian had said. He then clenched and raised his free fist. Brian didn’t like the expression on Mike’s face and started to pull away, but was jerked back by the arm Mike still had around his back. Brian flinched, closed his eyes and turned his head away when the fist came diving towards him, but the blow never landed. Instead, he found himself being embraced by Mike’s strong arms and felt lips at his ear.
“Thanks, mate. Don’t do that again, but thanks.”
Brian was shocked when he felt a kiss on his cheek. His eyes burst open and he turned to look at Mike. He raised his free hand and touched his face where Mike’s lips had been. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Mike looked sheepish. “Sorry, Brian. I probably went too far. I forgot for a moment that you aren’t one of my friends.”
“You kiss your friends?” Brian’s voice was barely above a whisper, while his eyes never left Mike’s face.
“What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.”
Brian almost abandoned the question, but he wanted to know. “Did you mean you kiss other guys?”
Mike gave a chuckle. “Only a couple of them, and not often. Just my really good mates. One of them’s Italian and he doesn’t find it odd. It started as a joke between us, when he gave us a kiss hello one day, but now we do it whenever we want to really say thanks for something. We mean it, too. It’s not a joke anymore.” Mike must have seen something in Brian’s expression as he quickly added, “It’s only on the cheek. We never kiss on the lips!”
Brian wanted to explore the issue more, but was afraid to. He felt that guys kissing had to mean that at least one of them was gay. He was worried, though, that if he kept on about it, Mike might realise why he was asking.
“Do you think the fire front has passed?” Mike asked.
The heat was still uncomfortable, so Brian splashed some water on himself while he looked out either side of the waterfall. As he had predicted, the fire had jumped the creek and was burning on both sides. “I don’t think so. And I think we should get into the pool. It’s getting pretty hot.” Brian’s skin felt like it was sunburnt.
“No fucking way! There’s snakes in that water!”
Brian slid off the rocks and into the pool. He found something solid to stand on, leaving him in water up to his armpits. “They’re probably too scared of the fire to do anything, unless we step on them. Come on. The water’s great and it’ll keep us cool.”
Mike shook his head. Being alone behind the waterfall, he was able to balance his broken leg across the rocks while dangling the other one down towards the water. “I’ll stay here where it’s safe.”
Brian frowned as he looked up. He had felt immediate relief from the blistering heat when he lowered himself into the pool, and he thought it was a bad idea for Mike to stay out. He was about to continue to argue when he noticed Mike was positioned so that the front of his board shorts faced Brian, only a short distance from his face.
Brian turned away. “Okay, but you let me know if you get too hot and I’ll help you down.”
“Sure, but between getting a little hot and risking another snake bite, I’m going to stick with getting hot.”
Brian’s mind jumped to thoughts of Mike getting hot and sweaty, but not due to a fire. He shook his head and then ducked under the water for a moment. When he resurfaced, Mike chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. More of my sick sense of humour. I was just thinking that I’d hate to survive a bushfire only to get bitten by a snake. That would really suck.”
Brian couldn’t resist. “Especially if it bit you on the bum.”
Mike laughed. “What happens if one bites you on the arse?”
Brian didn’t say anything. He wished he had the confidence to ask – jokingly, of course – if Mike would let him die if that happened. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to take the chance. He needed to change the topic.
“Tell me a bit about yourself, Mike. What do you do for a living?”
Mike talked about himself for a while, until his uninjured leg began to cramp.
“Fuck! What else can go wrong with me? Can you move a bit, mate? I need to stretch my leg to get the blood flowing again. How about you tell me about yourself while I do that?”
Brian kept his back to Mike while he talked. He found it a bit easier to push thoughts out of his mind if Mike’s almost naked body wasn’t in view. Brian spoke about his work, his photography, and the handful of friends he saw regularly.
“Brian?” Mike’s voice sounded weak.
Brian looked up. His eyes went wide as he saw Mike swaying.
“I’m not feeling too well. Did I hit my head, ‛cause I’ve got a splitting headache.”
Brian raised himself up. He put a hand on Mike’s arm and then snatched it back in surprise. Mike’s skin was hot – hot enough for Brian to be seriously concerned.
“You’re getting in the water, Mike. You’re burning up!”
“No! I’m not going near the snakes!”
“There aren’t any snakes here, Mike. You have to get in and cool down.”
“I’m not going near any snakes!”
Brian was going to argue further, but changed his mind when he saw how unsteady Mike appeared. Instead, he clambered up, put one arm under Mike’s thighs and the other around his back.
“Brian? What the fuck are you doing?”
Brian was sure that something was wrong; Mike’s skin was too hot. Brian lifted him up enough to allow both of them to slide into the water.
Mike immediately threw up over the two of them. Brian pulled them under the waterfall to wash away the vomit.
“Argh! That hurts!”
“Is it your leg?” Brian thought he could get Mike to stretch out and let the splints keep the injured leg floating just behind the waterfall. It wouldn’t be perfect, but if he held it, it should minimise the discomfort.
“Yes. No. I hurt all over!”
It was hard to tell in the light from the fire, but Brian thought that Mike’s skin was very red. He felt guilty as he realised that Mike had gotten burnt, despite their precautions. He felt he should have been more insistent that Mike join him in the water, earlier.
“Can you balance okay? Or try floating while holding onto something?”
Mike grabbed part of the cliff face and tried to yank himself out of the water, but instead slid back, ending up lying face down against the rocks.
“Mike?” Brian watched for a moment before realising that Mike’s body was slipping into the water. “Mike!”
Brian grabbed the younger man. He rolled him over and realised that he was unconscious. He leant forward and was relieved to discover that Mike was still breathing.
Brian suspected that Mike was suffering from some sort of heat illness. He didn’t know what to do, apart from trying to cool him. With a sense of irony, Brian pushed Mike’s broken leg under the water and then held it between his own, while he used his arms to hold Mike against his chest. It had been Mike’s suggestion, even if it was said as a joke.
The position did things to Brian that he didn’t want. The wooden splints were pushing Mike’s leg up into Brian’s groin, and Brian was very conscious of the bare chest against his. He was grateful that he was wearing jeans, so that if Mike regained consciousness he would be unlikely to detect Brian’s condition.
They stayed that way until dawn. Mike regained consciousness from time to time, but he wasn’t coherent. Brian spoke soothingly, while keeping most of Mike’s body submerged. He tried to ignore his self-imposed emotional torture while he strove to ease Mike’s physical pain. Despite his best intentions, Brian couldn’t squelch a rising desire to hold and comfort Mike forever. He had never before held another guy, and doing so was causing things to happen to him that he didn’t know how to handle.
As daylight filtered through the smoke haze, Brian pulled Mike out from under the waterfall and across to the edge of the pool. A cursory examination in the better light had him wincing. Mike had what looked like a severe sunburn, though his skin felt cooler than it had earlier. When he looked closer, he found that Mike’s lips were cracked.
“You fucking idiot, Brian!” he said to himself. He used his hand to scoop up some water and dribble it onto Mike’s mouth. The way his tongue came out, even though he was barely conscious, showed that he was thirsty. Brian realised Mike had probably lost a lot of moisture while he was exposed to the heat, and that dehydration was the reason for his lack of consciousness.
The air was still hot, but it was more a normal summer’s-day heat than radiant heat from the fire. There were burning trees and logs nearby, but there were no large flames. Brian laid Mike at the edge of the pool, using one arm to support his head while using the other hand to splash water across his upper chest and then to lift water to his parched lips.
Brian thought about their situation and quickly decided on his course of action. He would stay where he was and wait for someone to come. He knew that it was better to stay in one place rather than risk passing any rescue parties that might be searching. He didn’t really have a choice; he couldn’t move Mike more than a short distance.
It was almost noon when Brian heard an aircraft approaching. He exchanged glances with Mike, who had regained consciousness about an hour earlier, but was still weak.
“Go up and see if you can get their attention,” Mike said. “I’ll be fine by myself.”
Brian nodded. He then worked his way cautiously up the slope. He got singed a couple of times by ash and coals that he hadn’t realised were still hot, but he reached the top without significant burns.
When he spotted the plane off to the southeast, Brian started to jump up and down while waving his arms. Though he knew it was pointless, he couldn’t stop himself from yelling.
“OVER HERE! OVER HERE!” He repeated the call a number of times.
He stopped and his shoulders slumped when the plane flew on without deviating. He doubted he had been seen. He trudged back to the waterfall while the sound of the plane faded into the distance.
He found Mike sitting in the water. The young man was watching as Brian approached. Something told him that the news wasn’t good.
“They didn’t see you?”
“I don’t think so. I think they would’ve circled if they had.”
Both guys’ heads snapped up towards the top of the gully. Mike cupped his hands at his mouth and called back. “Cooee!” It was weak and both of them realised it hadn’t carried far. Mike looked at Brian.
Brian gave his best attempt at the old bush call. “COOEE!” It was louder than Mike’s, but he didn’t think it would carry.
“Again, mate. Keep doing it until they find us.”
Brian nodded. He repeated the call a couple of times and then reached down to wet his mouth.
“Keep going, Brian. That was great.” Mike smiled encouragingly.
Before Brian could try again, there was another call. “COOEE!” It sounded louder.
Brian licked his lips and cupped his hands at his mouth to direct his return shout. He thought the call had come from the east, so he faced that direction. “COOEE!”
Minutes later, three CFA volunteers appeared at the top of the gully. One of them had a radio.
* * *
“Honey! What happened to you? Are you okay?”
The young brunette who met them in the emergency department rushed straight to Mike as he was wheeled in from the ambulance bay. If one of the paramedics hadn’t stuck out an arm to stop her, she would have grabbed him.
“Sharon! It’s so good to see you.” Mike winced before continuing. “I think I’ll be fine. Just a bit singed. Oh, yeah, and my leg’s a little sore.” His lips twisted into a wry smile. “But you can thank Brian for me being here. He saved my life.”
“That’s enough for now. We have to get him in and X-ray that leg and start treating those burns,” one of the paramedics said. She signalled to the guy at the other end of the trolley and they started rolling Mike away.
“Brian?” Sharon looked around and saw Brian being treated nearby. A light blanket was draped over his shoulders. A nurse was applying some cream to his face.
“Brian, thank you. Thank you so much.” She glanced in the direction Mike was disappearing. “I’ve got to go, but if there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.”
Brian just smiled and let her go. What he wanted was what Mike had: someone to be there for him. A deep ache formed inside him as he realised just how lonely he had allowed his life to become. The events of the night had left him shaken, and he began to reevaluate his priorities.
I saved Mike, he thought. Now it’s time for me to try to save myself.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © June 2008 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Ray, Kel and also everyone from The Mail Crew for the advice they have given me on this story.
I would also like to thank Aaron and Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.
This story first appeared in the Gay Authors 2008 Summer Anthology.