I was running.
I wasn’t sure where or why – I just was.
And it was one of those blind panic runs.
Something snapped to my left and I looked, but I couldn’t see shit.
I was still running, but from what I had no idea.
I just knew that it wasn’t good and I had to outrun it.
”Turn your alarm off for fuck’s sake”
I’d forgotten pretty much every night that first month that I didn’t have a full time job anymore.
I’d also forgotten that I didn’t have to wake up at stupid o’clock to shower & go into the misery factory for 7.30am.
So my Monday-Friday 6.30am alarm had stayed on.
”Sorry – my bad”.
What was I running from?
They’d leveled off over the past few years from the night terrors I’d had as a child, but they were still there.
I’m not sure what the root cause was, or even if it was a normal frequency of bad dreams I had.
Either way they’d usually float off into space once I’d surfaced and had my morning caffeine.
Just then Charlie started crying.
”Shit – seriously, sorry”.
“Uggghhh … I don’t want to fucking get up. She had me up six times last night with that fucking head cold. Her cough was literally a bark – it sounded like we’d another dog in the house. I tried to wake you but you were whimpering in your sleep so I dealt with it. Nightmares again?”
I was already in motion and chose to ignore the question in the hope that my mind would stop searching for what I’d been running from.
I’d always sense it – but I never saw it.
”Don’t worry – I’ll get her – you try and go back to sleep”
“I’m up now – you give her a bottle and I’ll grab a shower”, came from Heather as she threw herself out from under the covers and walked towards the bathroom.
I walked down the hall, turned the corner and as I entered the nursery Charlie stopped moaning and burst into a broad smile that spread from ear to ear.
The benefits of kids.
Nightmare now forgotten.
In the month after resigning from my shitty 8-5, my anxiety levels had dropped back down to normal (or what I’d consider normal), and I was sleeping well(ish).
The nightmares had levelled off (sort of) and I’d even lost a little bit of weight.
As I stood taking a piss, I remembered the conversation with Danie about bringing enough food for two full days because the hut wouldn’t be close to any shops.
I was heading to Cromwell later that morning with Aaron to go hiking in the Nevis Valley and stay overnight in a couple of huts.
I didn’t know too much about the plan – I just knew there would be a lot of walking and to bring plenty of food/warm sleeping gear as the elevation was somewhere around 1300m above sea level.
So we went through the morning routine, getting Sophie ready for school, Charlie ready for preschool, dogs fed/watered and dishwasher packed/turned on, etc. etc. etc.
Then Heather disappeared with the girls and I was left thinking about my packing list.
I flicked on some music – the National’s ‘Day I Die’ came on and it immediately brightened my mood.
It was a nice sunny 18 degrees at 9am.
Aaron pulled up the driveway at around 11am.
I said bye to the dogs, gave them each a treat and jumped into the Subaru.
We stopped in Dunsandel to grab a pie and a coffee and just chatted shit the whole five/six hours to Cromwell.
As we pulled into Pinot Gris Drive we saw that Danie was still on bar duties at his little tasting room.
Danie had given up the daily grind a year or so back and was now trying to break into the craft beer market in NZ.
I got out, stretched and walked into the room feeling more than a bit squashed and very much in need of a shower.
Then I thought: “there won’t be any showers for another couple of days”.
Aaron & I just chilled out listening to Danie do his car salesman bullshit for the next hour or so until he handed the reigns over to his not so social wife Tayla.
We’d already moved our shit from the Subaru into the back of Danie’s battered old black & white Ford Ranger, so after a quick round of good-bye’s to his regular customers who were still hanging out – off we went.
It was a single cab truck and I didn’t fancy sitting on Aaron’s lap (or vice versa), so I had a lie down in the very uncomfortably tray.
At least it was covered with a canopy.
The drive up the ranges took about thirty-minutes and ol mate Danie either forgot I was lying in the back of this shit box or didn’t care, so I ended up feeling every fucking bump along that cunt of a gravel track.
We parked at the top of the hill and locked the Ranger (God knows why? Who the fuck would want to steal that piece of shit?) and set off.
Danie had decided to bring about 30-35Kgs of his home-brewed beer and apparently we were on rounds of carrying the cooler.
The walk to the hut took a little over two hours of back-breaking work carrying that fucking cooler.
I didn’t even drink beer.
I had weed.
Also less chance of doing anything retarded in the middle of fucking nowhere after smoking.
The hike up to the hut was broken with random chat’s involving subjects such as midget & amputee porn (not combined – that would just be fucked-up), bitcoin and other random as fuck subjects.
It was pretty entertaining, and I’d not even had a smoke yet.
We got to the hut around 8.20pm just as the last of the day light was starting to dwindle.
I didn’t care what kind of services were there – I just wanted that fucking walk to end.
At least we wouldn’t have to carry that bitch of a cooler back out full.
The hut was pretty much what I’d expected – old, sparse & not amenity packed.
It was pretty though.
In a rustic sort of way.
Just as we were in the door (thirty seconds max) we heard a 4WD pull up outside – an old Toyota Hilux Surf with plenty of hunting lights on her.
Spots up high & one of those LED high beam strips along the front grille.
Soon after the engine stopped two stock standard looking country boys, stubbies and gum boots with Swanndri bush shirts on (one blue/black and one red/black), walked in mid-conversation and were chuckling about something.
Their smiles dropped when they saw there was people in occupancy.
“Hey boys, didn’t expect to see anyone up here this time of year. Did y’all walk in?”, came from the taller of the two with the slightest of smirk’s.
Danie: “Yeah mate, we parked at the top of the pass – my 2WD Ranger wouldn’t make it up those rutted tracks”.
“And you carried all of that in with you?”, came from the shorter but stockier one, referring to our city boy Macpac and Kathmandu bags.
None of us felt like we needed to actually answer that one, so it was left hanging in the uncomfortable silence that was starting to fill the cabin.
“So are you boys up night-hunting?”
Danie decided to break the silence.
“Nope” Came from the first.
“What are you boys doing up here anyways?” came next.
Danie, being the eternal clown, came back with: “Getting fucked up – that’s what”.
Both Swanndri’s turned, gave each other a barely noticeable look, spun on their heels pretty much in unison and walked back out to their truck.
I’m not sure if it was Danie’s comment about getting fucked-up, or if we unintentionally disrupted their planned Brokeback Mountain escapades, but either way – they walked back to their truck, got in and drove away.
But after the previous two hours of walking all us of were too tired to really give a fuck.
“Righto – let’s have a fucking beer and a smoke boys”, came from Aaron.
So as the sun set in the night sky and a blanket of darkness swallowed the land, we sat on the front deck, drank piss and got absolutely baked listening to Danie’s theories on the universe, dark matter and why we’re all living in a computer simulation.
All seemed to make perfect sense at the time.
We’d managed to get the fire lit earlier in the hut, so when the temperature dropped below five degrees we moved inside and continued the evening’s indulgences.
I can’t remember going to sleep that night.
And no dreams.
I woke to the sound of some sort of animal roaring.
I’m not an expert on wild animals, but it sounded like it was either trying to impress a prospective partner or telling a challenger (for either food, territory or pussy) to fuck right off.
Either way it was loud.
As I fucked about making coffee, repacking my sleeping gear back into my bag and getting my camera ready for the day’s hike Danie talked through the route plan.
He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
I doubted it.
I left the boys arguing over whether to do a loop or a straight in/out and went down to the stream to brush my teeth.
I walked down barefoot and accidently stepped on a very small spike from a very large bush of Aciphylla Horrida (or Horrid Spaniard).
I’d seen plenty of this shit as we walked into the hut the previous evening, but I didn’t think it was fucking razor sharp.
Luckily it just entered the sole of my foot and I felt it go in and was able to pull back and not get the cunt fully impaled.
But man that shit hurt!
So I finished my teeth cleaning, took a piss, washed my face in the freezing stream water and very carefully made my way bare-footed back to the hut.
Luckily the boys had agreed on a route and after sticking a plaster on my sole, we headed off up the ridge – straight through more of that cunting Horrid Spaniard.
Just as we were about two thirds of the way up the hill we heard a loud gun shot that sounded like it came from our right.
Aaron: “Shit that fucking gave me a fright”
Me: “Yup, I wasn’t expecting people to be hunting so close to the hut”
Danie: “People hunt up here all year round boys – there’s nothing to be worried about”
Me: “Yeah, I just don’t like the fact that none of us three genius’ thought to wear anything reflective or bright. We’re not exactly standing out from this landscape with our neutral colored clothing now are we?”
Danie: “Don’t worry man – it’s fucking perfect visibility today – there’s not one cloud in the sky. Look at that shit”
He was right – it was a stunning day.
Blue skies for miles and a very light dusting of clouds in the sky.
So on we walked until we hit the crest of the hill.
In the distance straight ahead we saw where the shot had come from.
The Surf from the previous night was parked on the opposite verge, but we couldn’t see our two strange mates.
Danie: “See, nothing to wor ………”
Danie didn’t get out his final word and Aaron and I watched in disbelief as Danie’s head split into a billion fragments and disappeared in a cloud of red mist as the noise of the gun shot reverberated in our ears.
What the fuck just happened?
WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!?
I looked at Aaron as he stood frozen staring at Danie’s headless body on the ground.
He looked like a badly face painted Spiderman with Danie’s blood covering his face from the mist.
In any other setting it would have been fucking hilarious to see him like that, but not now.
Now it most certainly wasn’t funny.
Then I realised that I had Danie’s blood all over me too.
My mind was struggling to join the dots on what the fuck just happened when another shot rang out – this time hitting Danie’s lifeless torso.
It ripped straight through and made a mini-crater sized hole in the moss covered earth.
That second one brought us both back into the reality of the situation and we both ran.
I don’t think either of us consciously thought of following the other.
It just so happened we both turned and ran back towards the safety of the hill we’d just come up.
No more shots followed.
We found cover behind an alien looking outcrop of large boulders in the otherwise barren landscape.
Aaron: “What the fuck? What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCK SAM? WHAT THE FUCK?!?”
I didn’t have an answer.
I was still trying to process what the fuck just happened.
Aaron: “Sam, we need to move. Sam … we need to fucking move”
I didn’t say that, but I most certainly fucking thought it.
My brain wasn’t back up & running yet – the shock factor had literally numbed everything and all I wanted to do was curl up behind this rocky fucking mound and hide until the world seemed normal again.
Not an option.
Aaron: “Sam, we need to get Danie’s keys. They’re in his backpack.
Sam? Fuck … SAM?!?”
Aaron was almost hysterical.
Seeing crazy shit happen like your friend getting his head blown off has a different effect on different people.
Ok – what’s next?
Work you stupid fucking brain.
Me: “how are we going to get the keys? They’ve got a vantage point with a fucking high powered rifle man”
Aaron: “I don’t know. But we can’t stay here. They’ll just drive down and then we’re dead”
Me: “Forget the keys. If we go back up over that verge we’re dead”
Aaron: “So what do we do?”
Me: “I don’t fucking know man. But the keys aren’t an option”
Aaron: “We’re fucked. We’re fucked. We’re absolutely fucked”
I didn’t disagree.
Me: “Let’s get back past the hut. We can stay low in the valley and try to use anything we can to stay out of sight”
Aaron: “I just want to get the fuck moving. We can’t stay here”
So as quickly as our jellified legs would allow, we made our way back down the track we’d just come up.
It was hard to run with the uneven surface, moss covered rocks underfoot and that spiky shit everywhere.
And with the memory of your friends head exploding onto yours replaying in your brain.
But we went as fast as we could.
I slipped about half way back down and got a spike directly through the palm of my hand.
It went right though – didn’t even make a dent in the tip of the spike.
I looked at it, I didn’t feel it.
I felt it in the conventional sense of I knew a spike had just gone through my palm.
But I didn’t feel any pain.
It simply didn’t register.
I pulled my hand free.
The whole incident lasted a mere matter of seconds, but felt like a lifetime.
Off I set again after Aaron.
He’d managed to get about fifty feet ahead of me and he was moving quickly.
We passed the hut.
I looked back up the hill but couldn’t see anything that resembled a truck or people … or anything else for that matter.
Aaron and I were alone on this expanse of land in the middle of fucking nowhere.
We moved silently and as quickly as possible trying to use any little bit of cover we could.
There wasn’t much.
I had a burning stitch in my side, my palm/brain had decided to talk to each other about that spike and now that the adrenaline was starting to wind down slightly I had to stop.
Me: “Aaron, hold up man. I need to catch my breath”
Aaron obviously wasn’t listening.
He was steaming ahead – oblivious to any words that were coming from my mouth.
I said his name a little louder and he stopped dead – looked at me with the widest eyes I’ve ever seen on a person, exacerbated by his blood red face and his look said it all.
Shut the fuck up Sam.
Me: “I need water. I just need some water”
We sat in silence behind a large bush next to the stream for what seemed like two days before Aaron spoke.
“It’s going to be dark soon. You saw the lights that they had on that thing”
He was right.
We both washed as much of Danie’s blood off as we could and the coldness of the water on my skin brought me back into the reality of what the fuck was happening even more.
I glanced at Aaron.
He looked even more frightened with the blood removed from his face.
I wouldn’t have thought that possible five minutes earlier.
But what the fuck did I know about anything anymore?
Me: “Let’s just get to the road – fuck the truck. Let’s just get to the main road and someone will come. We passed four people coming up last night. I was counting them when I was lying in the tray”
Aaron: “That wasn’t at fucking nigh time man”
He was right.
But what the fuck other plan did we have?
So after a few long minutes, off we set again as the sun started to fall directly in front of us.
We moved silently for the next hour or so (I’m not sure if it was an hour.
It could have been more – it could have been less) and it was now dark.
Not black out dark, we could still make out shapes and objects in front and around us.
We unconsciously decided to stay by the river bed and the sound of the running water was our main guide.
Aaron asked in a voice that I hadn’t heard from him in all the time I’d known him.
It seemed to come from a faraway place within him and I could sense the panic.
Not fear … we were past that shit.
This was panic.
He was right – I heard it too.
Then we saw it off in the distance.
Headlight’s approaching from the main road coming in.
We had made it quite a ways towards the road without realising how far we’d ran.
Aaron looked at me and I knew from his look that he believed our salvation had arrived.
He stood up and started running towards the lights that were approaching.
He must have made it about fifty meters, hands waving in the air when I saw his body drop and that same sound ring in my ears.
Fuck fuck FUCK.
Just as Aaron’s body hit the earth the spotlights/LED strip previously turned off on the Surf turned on bright as the fucking sun.
FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!
I scrambled across the stream back in the direction we’d just come from and dropped on my stomach and screamed into the shitty tasting mossy fucking piece of shit earth.
I fucking hate Cromwell.
I could feel the lights – I wasn’t looking, I didn’t want to lift my head but I could feel those lights from the Surf.
They could see me – I know they could.
There was no cover.
I was by one of those Spaniard’s and I was partially covered, but they could see me.
I knew it.
I waited for the bullet.
I knew I wouldn’t hear it before I felt it.
If I even felt it.
I was sobbing into the earth now praying that I hadn’t left my girls in Christchurch and come down to this shit hole of a place.
The funny thing was I didn’t even believe in God.
After another eternal period of time, the lights turned off and I heard the motor rev then fall away slowly.
When the complete darkness had returned I lifted my head.
It was late now and the darkness covered the ground like a blanket.
It was hard to see anything.
I wanted to just lie there.
Everything in me wanted to just lie there and wait for them to come back.
I turned to lie on my back and I got another spike, this time in the left side of my neck.
Fuck that hurt!
But it brought me back into reality.
I had to do something – I couldn’t just wait here to die.
I started moving along the stream’s edge again.
I knew that if they were watching, then moving slowly or quickly wouldn’t have mattered to my chances of survival.
So I went as fast as my legs could carry me.
I left the stream, went over the crest of a small hill back towards the direction I thought Danie’s truck was.
After another five minutes of blindly making my way over this fucking miserable terrain I saw what I believed was the shape of Danie’s truck parked on the hillside in the distance being dimly lit by the moon.
I looked back in the direction of the hut and could see or hear nothing.
“Fuck it – I’m taking the road”, I said out loud in an effort to persuade myself this was the best course of action.
I ran as fast as I could and it felt as if I were dreaming again.
I was running, but I couldn’t see from what.
But the difference was this time I knew from what.
Two pieces of shit psychopathic hunter fucks.
I made it to Danie’s truck after another who fucking knows how long?
The road went straight down so I ran again, this time with a renewed sense of energy.
Just as I turned the first long left hand bend on my decent towards Cromwell I heard the hum of an engine behind me.
The road was lit only by the dimness of the moon and I knew from that spin up the previous day that there was a shear hill face on my right, sharp fall on my left.
So that was it – I was fucked.
I didn’t have a choice but to stay on the road.
As the lights crested the hill and lit me from behind I ran even faster.
I knew I didn’t stand a chance, but it was my only option.
It took the lights another sixty seconds to descend the hill and close the distance between us.
I waited for the feel (or the sound).
Instead I heard a horn blast.
I didn’t stop or turn … I just kept fucking running.
The horn blasted again and the lights pulled up closer to me.
Then I heard a voice saying: “mate are you alright?”
It was an older voice.
A voice I’d never heard before.
I stopped, turned and cried.
As we made our way back down the hill into Cromwell I frantically tried to explain the events of the previous few hours to this family who were on a South Island road trip and had miscalculated the time it would take to get from Milford to Cromwell.
Thank fuck for that piece of dumb luck.
I could tell from their looks that they thought I was either drunk, drugged up or crazy.
They dropped me at Cromwell Police Station at just past 12am.
There were no ‘good bye & good luck’ – they just wanted to get away from me as fast as they could.
I didn’t blame them.
Then when I entered the Station House I got the same look from the Duty Sergeant on call that night.
“Slow down man, slow down. You’re telling me someone killed both your friends and they’re still driving around up there by the hut”
I didn’t fucking know what they were doing or where they were now.
“Yes, I don’t know. Yes”
“Can you tell me again from the start?”
So I went through it again as best as I could remember.
After a full statement had been taken, the Duty Sergeant gave me some coffee and told me we’d go up at first light.
If there were hunters actively killing people up in the ranges the DS didn’t want to simply drive in and give them more target practice.
So after a few hours of sitting in silence in the back of a country Police Station listening to the DS making calls and sounding skeptical on the details he was sharing with whoever was on the end of the line, we set off in his Police 4WD back up towards the hut.
There was now three Policemen in total with me sat silently behind the passenger seat while they discussed the practicalities of what lay ahead.
I was listening, but unable to take anything in.
As we got to the top of the hill there was no sign of Danie’s truck.
It was gone.
And there were no tyre tracks left in its absence.
The Policemen all gave each other a cursory glance as the DS asked me: “are you sure it was parked right here?”
I’d never been more sure of any fucking single thing in my entire life.
I simply nodded.
We drove on past where Danie’s truck had been parked the previous day.
Now just an empty area of brownish-yellow shitty earth.
As we made our way up the rutted truck I was trying to remember the route I’d taken on foot from where Aaron’s body had fallen the previous night.
But this fucking shithole of a place all looked the fucking same.
I didn’t even know which side the stream had been on.
I think it was to our right.
We drove on all the while looking for any signs of the Surf and Aaron.
We saw neither.
We made our way to the hut and two of the cops went in to take a look and came back out with: “all clear Sarge”
“Doesn’t look like there was anyone here last night. No sleeping gear, no food, no ash in the fire. Nothing”, said one of the cop’s as he sat back into the passenger seat.
We drove on up around the hillside where Danie’s body had been separated from his head the previous morning.
Not a sign of any body.
And there was no obvious signs of any blood anywhere on the stark green mossy earth neither.
What the fuck?
“Are you sure it was here it happened Sir?”, came from the Duty Sergeant.
“I’m fucking positive. I’m absolutely fucking positive”
I was positive.
We drove on and around for another few hours with no signs of any bodies, Toyota Hilux Surf’s or psychotic country boys in short shorts and high powered rifles and bad hunting shirts.
There was nothing to be seen except blue skies, moss and those fucking Horrid Spaniard’s.
When the last of the daylight was starting to set in the skies above us, we drove back down into Cromwell.
We passed all of the spots once more and I could see Danie’s head explode, Aaron’s body fall in the shadow of the moon and the lights of the Surf disappear back into the darkness.
But that was all we saw – nothing more than those images replaying in my head.
I spent the next two days in a haze.
The girls drove down from Christchurch to be with me while the search for Danie and Aaron continued.
But to no avail.
Nothing was found.
At the end of the third day the Police told me that they were bringing the search to a close and couldn’t give me any more information.
They told me I was free to go back home to Christchurch, but would need to be available for questioning as and when required.
I noticed how people (including the Police) were looking at me those three days.
I also noticed how Danie’s wife (even with her social inadequacies) refused to look me in the eye.
She looked almost scared of me.
I had seen myself in the mirror.
I was scared of myself.
Over the course of the next few weeks, then months, the phone calls dwindled and so did the Press’ appetite for the story.
Life moved on - slowly.
One day at a time.
I spent most of my time locked away from the world, replaying the entire thing over and over in my head.
I questioned my own story.
The two hunters were never found.
There were no more spates of killings and/or missing persons in the Cromwell Ranges.
Or anywhere else in the South Island.
Danie & Aaron officially remained classed as missing persons and I went back to having more frequent nightmares than ever before in my life.
The difference is this time is I knew exactly what I was running from.