It was February, the third week of term, and we were going on camp for four nights. At assembly, Mr. Thorn said we would go bushwalking and rock climbing and learn coastal survival skills. We took home a note for our parents to sign. By signing here, the note said, your daughter understands the behaviour that is expected from her. Dad folded the note in half.
‘They don’t need to worry about my girl,’ he said.
Eva wasn’t coming to camp because she broke her ankle at gymnastics the week before. She was practicing her tumbling routine and lost her balance on her final landing. Eva was on crutches and she still wanted to come, but Eva’s mum didn’t trust her to be careful. She said Eva always looked for trouble.
During the summer before camp, I told Eva I was hoping to get my first period soon. Eva started hers the year before and I was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Eva didn’t understand why I was looking forward to my period. She said that once it started there were all sorts of things you had to worry about.
I knew that when my period started I could become friends with other girls, like Tanya Meyer and Tegan Lynch, by talking about my cycle. They would ask me all sorts of questions: Do you get stomach cramps? Have you used tampons yet? Tanya and Tegan were the tallest girls in our grade. Tanya had long hair that was streaked blonde and her legs were tanned. She always wore bracelets and hair ties around her wrists and she was the loudest girl in class. Tanya called out to Miss Daily during the middle of class and rocked back on her chair.
On camp day, I almost missed the bus because I’d been up late talking to Eva on the phone and Mum slept in. Eva made me promise I would tell her all about camp when I got back. I sat by myself during the four-hour bus trip, sucking on Minties and tearing up the wrappers. The clouds hung over the sky all morning and the bus wound slowly down the single-lane road to the coast. I listened to Tanya and Tegan up the back, laughing and arguing over the headphones of Tegan’s Walkman. I kept looking out the window, hoping I wouldn’t get carsick and vomit all down my front.
When we arrived at Coast Life, Miss Daily and Mr. Thorn placed us in cabin groups. Tegan, Tanya, Ruth, and me.
‘Are we seriously going bush walking for four-fucking-hours?’ Tanya said. She shoved her red Sportsgirl bag onto a top bunk and leaned against the ladder.
‘This place looks shit,’ Tegan said. She stood in front of the mirror and rubbed black mascara from her eyes. On the phone the night before, Eva told me she was getting mascara and eye shadow for her birthday next month. She’d bring it to school so we could share.
Tanya moved over to the window. I could hear other girls running between the cabins and in the distance there were birds calling to each other. Ruth was sitting on the bottom bunk across from me, changing the canister of her asthma puffer. She was wearing a faded pink t-shirt that said Urban Angel in black letters.
‘Let’s skip the bushwalk,’ I said.
I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to say something. I’d never skipped anything before.
The girls looked at me.
‘I’m going out later anyway,’ Tanya said. She started unpacking her bag. She saw me staring. ‘What?’ she snapped. ‘They’re called boobs.’
That afternoon, we met our Coast Life leaders, Gary and Tina. They wore matching green shirts and broad-brimmed hats and they talked to us about sun safety and staying hydrated. They said we needed to drink water all the time, even if we weren’t thirsty. I knew it was important to take necessary precautions. I also knew it was better to take small sips of water rather than skull because it’s possible to die if you drink too much. You can drown your body from the inside.
‘The bush is a dangerous place,’ Gary said. ‘It’s your responsibility to look out for each other.’
We set out on the bushwalk around the headland. I heard the waves crashing on the shore in the distance. The sun seemed brighter than it was back home. The track was only wide enough for us to walk in pairs. I got stuck with Ruth.
‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said.
The ground was dusty and rocky. In certain places bushes and trees were beginning to grow over the track.
‘If you see a snake,’ Tina called, ‘then stand still and give it a chance to escape. If you scream it might think you want to fight.’
‘Have you ever kissed a boy?’ I asked Ruth.
‘No,’ she snapped.
The ocean appeared on the horizon.
‘Seeing as we’re sharing a cabin,’ I said, ‘I’m just wondering, is it that time of the month for you?’
Ruth raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re a freak,’ she said.
‘I mean have you got your period?’ I said.
‘Stop talking to me,’ she said.
For the first time that day, I really wished Eva were there. I imagined her sitting on her couch at home. She’d be eating salt and vinegar chips and practicing her tumbling routine in her head. If she were here we’d be planning an escape. Eva always had big ideas.
When we reached the highest point of the headland, Gary and Tina stopped and sipped on their water bottles. We gathered around a wooden fence that separated us from a steeper section of the cliff. The rocks formed a ledge over the ocean. Tina smiled and stretched out her arm towards the waves.
‘In April, we’ll be able to see whales from up here,’ she said.
A breeze picked up.
‘Every year, the whales migrate to warmer waters in the north. That’s where they give birth.’
Tegan was picking the chocolate out of her trail mix. I heard her mumble to Tanya, ‘Okay bush lady, no one gives a shit.’ But Tanya was staring out at the ocean, as if she could see the whales already.
‘If you come back in a few months,’ Tina said, ‘you’ll see them jumping out of the water.’ She said whales are still a mystery to scientists. Marine biologists don’t know how many whales live in the ocean, and they can’t understand how they talk underwater.
After dinner we went back to our cabin and then I followed Tanya to the shower block. We each had our towels and our pajamas bundled under our arms and I saw she had a small blue tampon box.
‘When did you start getting your period?’ I asked.
‘About two years ago.’
‘What happened?’ I said.
Tanya raised her eyebrows at me and laughed. She knew I had no idea.
‘Mine was pretty messed up,’ she said. ‘I thought I had food poisoning. My dad took me to Pizza Hut and when we got home I couldn’t stop throwing up. The next day I missed school and Dad drove me to the doctor to get a medical certificate. Anyway, on the way there I felt like I was going to spew so I told Dad we had to stop. We pulled into a petrol station and I went into the toilet and as soon as I sat down, I saw the blood.’
‘Wow,’ I said.
‘I burst into tears,’ she said, ‘and then some weirdo lady knocked on the toilet door to check if I was okay or whatever. She ended up giving me a tampon and I was freaking out because I didn’t think I could get it up there.’
‘That sounds bad,’ I said.
The bathroom was filled with steam. Other girls were drying their hair and brushing their teeth over the basins. It smelt like damp towels and shampoo. Tanya and I placed our stuff on the bench and got undressed in shower cubicles next to each other. I turned on the tap and waited for the water to warm up. I could see Tanya’s feet and her green toenail polish from the bottom of the cubicle. Mum forgot to pack any soap for me, so I had to rub my arms and legs with my hands.
When we got back to the cabin Tegan was braiding her hair. Ruth’s toiletries were spread out on her mattress and she was sorting them into a ziplock bag. At eight o’clock, Gary and Tina served us hot chocolate in the dining hall. I told the girls I wasn’t going because I still had a stomachache from the ice cream at dinner.
‘I’ve had too much sugar,’ I said. ‘I’m almost a type two diabetic.’
When the girls left I tried to tuck the sheets into my mattress properly. I was thinking about what Tina said about the whales, how the whole family swam to the other end of the country so their babies could be born in the right temperature.
I climbed onto Tanya’s bunk and looked inside her bag, trying not to move anything around. I saw a bottle of moisturizer, an open packet of sour snakes, and last month’s copy of Dolly. She’d left her towel at the end of her bed and it was making a wet spot on her sheets. Her box of tampons was beside the towel. I picked it up, climbed back down, and put the tampons under my pillow.
When the girls came back, Tanya told us she was sneaking out later that night.
‘I’m going to hang out in the kayak shed,’ she said.
‘Why?’ Tegan asked.
‘Why not? I hate following Gary and Tina and their stupid activity timetable.’
‘I’m coming too,’ Tegan said.
‘Whatever. Just don’t freak out.’
Miss Daily knocked on our door.
‘Lights out in ten minutes,’ she called.
Tanya fiddled with the buttons on her watch.
‘My alarm’s set for midnight,’ she said.
When Tanya’s alarm went off, we got out of bed and grabbed our torches. Tanya didn’t ask Ruth or me to come, but we were both curious.
In the dark, we made it past the group of cabins and into the bush. We formed a circle and flicked our torches on one by one. A possum ran up the tree.
‘What are we doing?’ I said.
‘Learning coastal survival skills,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’
‘I thought we were going to the kayak shed.’
Tanya laughed. ‘I’ve got a better plan.’
We followed Tanya through the grass. The light from the dining hall disappeared in the distance. My mum’s only rule was to make good choices. I’d never been in trouble.
We walked between the tall trees. The leaves caught the light from our torches and shimmered yellow and orange. Tanya led us back to the walking track that we’d followed that afternoon. We were heading in the other direction. Ruth was walking closely beside me.
When we arrived at the lookout, I leant against the fence post and felt a splinter push into my palm.
‘Alright,’ said Tanya. ‘We’re here.’
The ocean was black and the tide was in, snapping at the cliff below.
‘See the ledge out there?’ she said. ‘Whoever can walk out there the furthest is the winner.’
The ledge was at least thirty meters above the water and the drop went almost straight down.
‘Get fucking real,’ Tegan said.
‘Hey, calm down. It’s not that far. It’s just a dare,’ Tanya said.
Ruth was staring at the ground.
‘So who’s going first?’ Tanya said.
She waved her torch in front of our faces.
‘Me,’ I said. ‘I can do it.’
‘Ha!’ Tanya laughed. ‘As if.’
I ducked under the fence and headed towards a gumtree branch that was hanging over the ledge. I stretched my hand out towards the branch and kept my knees bent. I took small steps, one foot at a time. Tanya, Tegan, and Ruth shone their torches on me. They all laughed and then they were silent. The gravel on the rock rolled out from underneath my shoes. I snatched at the leaves of the tree.
‘Oh fuck,’ Tegan said.
My legs were shaking.
‘I’m okay,’ I said.
I could smell the salt of the ocean.
‘No,’ Tanya said. ‘I think you’re bleeding.’
I didn’t understand.
‘Look,’ she said.
I let go of the leaves and touched the back of my tracksuit pants and felt a damp patch. I held my hand up to the torchlight. My fingertips were red. The waves crashed again and again.
‘I want to go back,’ I said.
Grace Finlayson’s short fiction has been published in Voiceworks, Kill Your Darlings, The Other Stories and elsewhere. She is a fiction editor for Voiceworks and was recently shortlisted for The Anne Edgeworth Young Writers Fellowship.