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Sweetblood by Penny Durham

Right, well, this one actually happened to me. No, seriously– I have the police report somewhere. 

This was more than 20 years ago on a camping trip, near a surf beach just down the coast from here. There were four of us: Dan and Scott, two boys I knew from the northern beaches; me; and this other girl Dan had recently collected, Nina. They shared one tent and Scottie and I had the other, though nothing was going on with us. 

It was a very mellow trip. The boys surfed all day; I had a bodyboard and a book and my Walkman; Nina didn’t swim but went on long walks on the beach and in the bush. Dan was a great cook so we had things like steamed prawns and cous cous, steaks one night, and lots of wine and weed around the fire.

Our campsite was not well known, quite hidden and very basic with no amenities block, so we had it to ourselves. It was early January, gorgeous hot lazy dreamy summer weather, cicadas blasting. I like cicadas. 

But we had a shocking time with the other wildlife. The mozzies were relentless, we were all slapping ourselves constantly, except Nina. Dan got them especially bad – “Sweet blood”, he’d say, with this cute grin. 

The bull ants were biting too and the first night Dan got one on the sole of his foot. Nasty – but it got worse. 

The second night I slept in a long-sleeved shirt for the mozzies. I woke up with one arm drenched in blood and a fat leech still suckered on just above the elbow. Messy eater. 

The morning after, Scott woke me up putting his face right in mine – bad morning breath and all – saying “Is this a tick?”

I focused my eyes and yes, there was a grey ball burrowed neck-deep into his right eyelid, of all places.

“I think so.”

“Can you get it off?”

“Um. How?”

“Don’t just rip it out, you have to twist it – clockwise or anticlockwise.”

“Well, which?!”

“I can’t remember!” 

“Fuck, OK, here goes.” He was starting to panic so I just guessed, grabbed and twisted. Still can’t remember which way is right, but I probably got it wrong because a day later his eye had swollen up to buggery. Which by that time was the least of our problems. 

This was the third day, and we’d planned to stay four. But it was becoming a joke, what a number the wildlife was doing on us.

“You’re next, Nina. What’ll it be?”

“Bee sting.”

“She steps on a wasps’ nest. Or murder hornets.”

“Don’t get them here. I think swooped by magpies, but like in Omen II.

“Wrong season. My guess: snake. I’m sure I saw a brown on the track out there.”

But Nina just smiled at all this. 

She never said much. She was one of those from-everywhere kids who’ve grown up in four countries and have an accent from all of them. Pretty, lots of dark hair, long legs. That’s all I remember. 

We’d assumed she and Dan were shagging although there’d been no evidence of it until that final night. It was loud. Scott and I jammed buds in our ears and turned the volume up to drown out the sounds from the other tent. Eventually it was over and we went to sleep. 

Next morning Scott couldn’t see out of his right eye. We fussed over that for a bit, deciding to leave right away and get him some attention. Then we noticed how quiet it was in the campground. Dan and Nina were usually up first making a fire and billy coffee, but there was no sign of them. We waited a bit, then started calling and eventually looked in their tent. 

Dan was lying in what looked at first like his sleeping bag, but wasn’t. It was white, and sticky, and there wasn’t a drop of blood left in him. 

We didn’t see Nina again.

About the author
Penny Durham (she/her) is a journalist living in Sydney with a tall man and a round cat. She is the editor of doctor magazine The Medical Republic and began writing horror stories in 2022. Penny has won two awards and has had a handful of stories published in anthologies, magazines and a podcast. She lied about being the outdoor type.