They was just comin back in from the hills, the mallee standin stark and black at their backs. Heatstained sky spite the droppin sun. Sweat beadin on her lip inside the mask. Pockets fulla wire an a coupla long black rubber strips that werent cracked too bad. She went in with water an Jon put the billy over flame an went to get their mum. She int emptied her pockets fore he were back comin in the door at a run. The sun low in the west an the shadows cast long. No mistakin what he was sayin, breathless an pale, eyes standin out sharp against his skin, hair the red of dust. It were their hour, wun of their hours.

Theyre comin, theyre almost here.

Werent no need to ask who. He’d come barrelin through the skin hangin across the entrance, an Mum were on his heels. Eyes wide, the whites bigger than she’d ever seen, sumthin stuck in her head she always wished she’d forget. There was only wun big space inside, no way out, no place to go. Mum pulled aside the mat on the hard packed floor, an openin in the dust that might be big enough for wun small kid, but only wun. She picked her up, lookin her hard in the eyes. The same eyes she got told she had. Her mums lips was pressed together in a white line, the cords in her skinny neck standin out an her fingers leavin bruises that was gunna outlive her. Her ma let go of her arm for a second, held her finger over her lips and and then laid her in the shallow hole, holdin her eye all the way down. Coverin her with rags, hands movin fast then pushin her down deeper.

Wun hope, they only seen the two of us. Wun hope.

Now the light went dim, the mat pulled back over her an her mum flingin handfuls of dust over it, buryin her in the floor, tryna cover evry trace. Mums last words in her ears fadin, just the sound of her own hammerin chest. She lay like a dead thing in the dark, an she figgered she was, knees drawn up to her chin, wun balled fist in her mouth, tryin not to shake. All too fast to follow. There were no heavy footfall, if stories was true them that was comin moved on bare feet an claw, teeth like long knives. Or mayhap were it boots of skin, bark and leather, movin like shadows over the floor of the desert, silent in the arvo haze with blades drawn, nuthin needin to be spoke.

Ghostmen. Out the dark men. Blademen, badmen, bludthings. Reckoner. All them names.

Whisperin names. Why? Shut up. Teeth chatterin. Could hear her brother an ma had gone out back into the open, both shoutin from a ways off, nuthin she could unnerstand. Her ma cryin out an noises of struggle, her brother’s screamin wail that turned her blud cold. She lay still in the hole, she closed her eyes an ears.

When she woke she couldnt move a long time. She was cold with her own water that she’d let go all over herself. She dint remember doin it. Her knees was stuck an she pushed the rags aside an lifted a corner of the mat slow, dust drainin in onto her. There were no light, it were long dark. She couldnt hear anythin and pushed her way through the cloth, through the ache in her head behind her eye. She sat up painful from the shallow grave that werent wun an she could see starlight through the door. The skin were gone an the stark sand stared back at her through the empty frame. It were cold like it never were and dead quiet. She climbed out of the hole further, crawlin towards the outside, her fingers stickin to sumthin pooled on the sand. She knew not to cry out. By the stars she saw the shack was wrecked but not stripped. Them what had come barely cared for the dry snakemeat and hoarded oil an wood. The saved water was gone but the watercatcher were in wun piece and the dust were littered with bones barely cleaned. Sheaves of grass still restin in the corner like they always was. When she looked at em it were like nuthin had changed. From the door she could see the plain. There was no firelight, no camp close by. They come outta dust an went back to it. On the sand she saw more dark patches reflected in the starlight, sticky to touch. On small legs she tripped out into the dirt, feet bare, the silence louder than the noise in her head. She walked a ways into the sand an then lay down on her side facin the shack, seein the night clear through it, straight through the broken walls. Whisperin, the fear on her. Thinkin they were out there watchin, knowin they’d missed her, turnin around right now an comin back for seconds.

Mum? Jon?

She knew blud, she knew the Ghosts had come, the maras and sleep terrors had told her they would come. Mum hadnt kept the fear from her neither. The longer she lay there starin out into the dark the more she thought there was nuthin real strange about this except that she was still breathin an her ma an brother werent. Ghostet they was. Et by them things from the dark. Breath caught in her chest an she forced it back down so she dint let a howl go an give herself away. Her eyes dropped to the stuff that had been dragged out of the shack. Skins an jars thatd held bolts an screws, both empty. Scraps of steel an the rubber they’d brought back that afternoon. She looked through the shack at the frozen dunes an nuthin moved.

Year of the Orphan: A Novel