The old stories had been told over and over. The fire had burnt down to its embers. Carlin filled the murmuring pause between tales with a hand-rolled cigarette, off to the side so the tourists wouldn’t complain. His boots squeaked in the sand, and the dune sedges silenced in response.
Above the camp, the hungry sky glittered with millions of stars, waiting for another story to add to its collection. The weight of its need pressed onto Carlin’s shoulders. He hunched away from the sparkling, gleaming teeth of night. Took a pull of his rollie. Let the breeze steal the exhaled smoke like the darkness stole his words.
Laughter broke from the circle and Carlin twitched. The English woman had a shriek like a gull at a chippy. He finished his cigarette, stubbed it out on the sand, and carried its carcass back to the tangle of paying clients, stuffed in an empty soda can.
He sat on the sand. The cigarette, and the fatigue of a long weekend, helped push his accented drawl ‘out country’. “How we all goin’?”
Low mutters and overloud affirmatives flowed in response.
“Righto.” He poked the embers. “So what’s gonna happen now is, we’ll head on back to the car park. Then it’s into the van, and I’ll take yous back to yer digs at the hotel where you can warm up with a brew and a feed. Did yous all enjoy the damper?” Nods all round. “True Aussie camp staple, that. I’ve got one more for yous to try. Vegemite.”
Grins reflected the dying glow of the fire. Carlin grinned back. He took out a handful of mini packets from his backpack—the kind you found at hotel breakfast bars—and passed them around.
“Stick yer fingers in there and tell us what you think,” he said, scooping some of the sticky black paste onto his own tongue. A few of the tourists followed suit. Some grimaced, some looked unimpressed.
The English woman declined with a wrinkled nose and a “No, thank you!”
Carlin cocked his head. “Do yous know why Vegemite is such an important substance for us Aussies?” He stood up, dousing the fire with his canteen. A few people flinched at the spattering water.
“Wasn’t it made up by the convicts with leftover beer and stuff?” one Kiwi lad suggested.
“Close, but no rub,” Carlin responded, finger pointed at the speaker. He turned to walk backwards up the slope of the beach. His group followed. “Vegemite was invented in 1922, an Aussie twist to the British Marmite. And far superior, we reckon.” A handful of chuckles breezed through the air. “But it wasn’t until Jack Bundy survived a drop bear attack while camping in the Dandenongs that we found its most important use.” He held up his yellow-and-black packet. “Deterrent.”
With a dramatic flourish, he scraped off the last of the paste onto one finger, then proceeded to rub it behind his ears. “That might be enough,” he said with a frown.
“What are you doing?” the Kiwi lad asked.
“Protecting meself from drop bears!” Carlin said. “There was an attack ’round here only last week!”
“An attack? What?!” said the English woman.
“Don’t worry, of course there’s been no such thing.” Her husband shushed her.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, mate,” Carlin said, continuing towards the car park. They entered a canopy of trees. He hadn’t switched on his flashlight. “I only know ’bout it from some mates of mine. We keep the attacks on the down-low, you know. Don’t wanna scare people.”
“What’s a drop bear?” a timid Scandinavian voice floated from the back.
“A carnivorous relative of the koala, and a lot bigger,” Carlin replied, arms wide in indication of the size. “They’re nocturnal and are known to target the unsuspecting by launching themselves from the treetops above ’em.” The group moved closer together. Some glanced into the branches overhead.
“Don’t need to worry, though,” he continued. “You’ve got your Vegemite, right? They hate it.”
The chuckles were more hesitant. A twig cracked.
A shadow dropped from the canopy onto a tourist’s head. She screamed. The rest of the group followed. The creature bounced through the crowd as people scattered. It rolled to a stop.
A phone light turned on. Aimed at the grey, furry monster.
“That’s a stuffed bear!” The Kiwi lad and his mates ventured a kick.
Carlin strode forward. Picked up the giant koala teddy. “Never expected one of these to end up here,” he said. Then he looked at the group. “Sorry ’bout that, guys. Someone’s idea of a practical joke, I reckon.” He glared at them, then led the way along the path to the car park.
Beneath his pretend frown, he smiled inside. The night had gained a story.
Whilst a bit of fun, you should be careful of the animals mentioned in the above story. For more information on drop bears, see this official Australian Museum article.
This story originally appeared on Reddit in response to a constrained writing prompt on Folk Horror.
PS. I’d like to say congratulations to the ten winners of the IWSG Annual Anthology Competition 2020. Especially Stephanie Espinoza Villamor, whose story ‘Artificial’ will be part of the anthology’s title. As some of you may know, I entered the competition with my own story on the theme of dark matter. Sadly, I was unsuccessful at placing in the anthology. However, I look forward to reading the winning stories, and perhaps you will be able to read my entry somewhere else soon! 🙂
For more information, see the announcement here.