Karen could see all the way down, but not as far as Val had gone. Her closest friend and ally this last month, Val had been the only one to take the long walk of shame back through the whispering bush. Karen knew she couldn’t follow her – too much depended on it. She’d decided early on not to watch, but she could still hear it all, and like fingerprints, every scream was unique. Some lasted all the way down, the sheer walls of the gorge distorting voices so they’d echo back up to the platform like a taunt. Gripping the rails and willing her feet to take her forward, Karen tried to focus.

‘I want you to keep those hero numbers at the forefront of your minds,’ said Casey. He towered over the waiting huddle, muscles bursting like weapons from his t-shirt.

‘Think about what you’ve achieved. And remember, the decision is completely up to you, but as I like to say, courage takes a second and regret lasts a lifetime. Who’s next?’

Danielle stepped forward and glanced over the edge, before quickly backing away. She smiled bravely, and offered up a newly svelte arm up for Casey to high five.

‘10!’ she said in a high-pitched voice.

‘Now that’s a figure you can really be proud of!’ said Casey. He began to massage her shoulders and there was a distracted round of applause.

‘Way to go Dani!’ someone called. ‘You’ve worked so hard for this’, said another.

Karen watched Casey and Danielle embrace. The sassy blonde had always been his favourite; Karen had noticed on the first day that their tans were almost the same shade.

‘Now if anyone deserves to be called a hero today it’s Danielle,’ Casey said, ‘Because as we all now know, 10 kilograms is 20 tubs of butter, or 40 Lebanese cucumbers, or 62 side servings of wholegrain couscous.’

Danielle nodded, her anxiety returning like a trembling tide. She tucked her hair behind her ears and walked forward. Then she began to mumble and hum, putting into practice one of the techniques they’d learned in a workshop. EAT YOUR GREENS, NOT YOUR STRESS, as Karen recalled. Why was it all coming back to her now? She watched Danielle get fitted up, and tried to empty her mind.

Raising her arms slowly above her head, still warbling noisily, Danielle looked out over the rocks. A guttural cry was followed by an abortive attempt. She shook out her body and tried again. Casey smiled encouragingly, but Karen could see him shifting his weight with impatience. Finally Danielle hurled herself over the edge.

Casey clapped his hands together and widened his stance.

‘Now some of you came on this journey for your children. Some of you for your husbands. And some of you, I’m told, for other people’s husbands.’ He winked at Mia, who glared at Fiona.

‘In the end, though, you’re the ones who’ll reap the benefits. Ladies, snakes shed their skin approximately 4 to 8 times a year. But you only have to do it once. I want you to think of yourselves as tiger snakes shedding your skin and leaping into your new lives. From this moment on, you will be the hero of your own story.’

Karen’s insides had turned to liquid and were sloshing around her stomach.

‘Mia, what was your story called? Remember we wrote them on the second day?’

‘It was called……’ She pulled at her T-shirt as she tried to remember.

‘Should have been called ‘Confessions of a Rich Man’s Plaything’, said Ros under her breath. Karen tried to smile but grimaced instead. Mia glared at them.

‘Don’t worry, that’s not important.’ Casey approached her slowly. ‘How did it end, Mia?’

Mia opened and closed her mouth, backing away ever so slightly.

‘Casey, I can’t recall,’ she said finally.

‘Look, the point of this is that you had a visitor in restricted hours and were sent to the Power Racks so it didn’t end. But I want you to finish it now, I want you to become the hero.’

Mia jumped as Casey advanced. The line was dwindling fast.

‘Over to you Ros!’ Casey swung his arms like a game-show host and Ros sashayed down the walkway.

‘9 bloody kilos!’

Casey rubbed her back vigorously and then abruptly broke away, placing his hands on her shoulders.

‘Ros, that day in the gym when you first broke through the pain barrier. On the treadmill, 8.5 kilometres at a five percent gradient. The lactic acid had kicked in and you said you were going to die. What did I tell you?’

Ros was still smiling, but now she looked confused and her voice became shaky. ‘You said that in all likelihood, because we had cardio tests beforehand which would rule out anyone with a dicky heart, and taking into account our decreasing BMIs, then the probability-’

‘Yeah, nah, the other thing! What did I say after that?’

Ros looked blank.

‘I told you to trust me.’

She nodded, took a deep breath and began to jog up and down on the spot.

‘How much do you trust me Ros?’

‘100 percent!’

‘Is that all? How much do you trust me?’ Casey’s face was inches from Ros and the vein in his forehead was bulging.

‘150 percent!’ she said, louder.

‘C’mon Ros, you’re gunna have to give me something to work with here! How much do you trust me?’

‘One-’

‘How much?’

‘200 percent!’

She crossed her arms in front of her chest, let out a roar and skipped off the platform.

‘Yesssss!’ Casey was doubled over, pumping his fist.

‘Ladies, if that’s not bravery then I don’t know what is. Ros really dug deep there. She’s come to a fork in the road, as I like to say, but what she’s done is she’s realised that the fork-’ Casey stopped.

‘The stuff on the fork, won’t make her happy. It’s not going to fill the hole inside her. Only I can do that.’

He looked over the expectant faces. There were only a few of them left.

‘Karen, come on down!’

She took a ragged breath, and walked towards Casey with groaning bowels.

‘F-five kilos. But, I got to five and a half this morning….’

‘Five kilos, whatta woman, and what an effort!’ Casey’s arm thudded down onto her back.

‘Now I’m sure you’ll agree that in many ways Karen has had the longest bridge to climb,’ he said, ‘but she really stepped up to the plate. Not literally but. Hey, don’t be disappointed with 5 kilos, things can only keep improving. Whaddya reckon?’

‘5 and a half,’ she muttered. Saliva was welling up in her mouth like she was about to vomit.

‘Can you push me?’ she croaked to the man fitting her with the rope. His voice was sympathetic.

‘Sorry love, it’s against the rules.’ Karen felt like she was going to faint.

‘I don’t think I can do this,’ she said.

‘Well that’s your problem right there, start thinking you can!’ said Casey.

‘OK, we’re going to do a countdown.’ The remaining women in the holding area joined in. 5,4,3,2,1, they shouted, but she knew on 3 that she wasn’t going to go.

‘I can’t.’

And then she began to cry. The knowledge that somewhere among the trees Bailey and Riley and Cooper were watching made it so much worse.

‘I’m sorry, Casey, but it’s too much. I can’t do it,’ Karen said, and once she’d made the decision relief washed over her like rain. Casey’s jaw tightened and he looked straight through her. He reached out a reluctant hand to help her back from the edge, and then stopped.

‘Karen – before I let you go, just answer me one question.’

Snot was bubbling out of her nose, and sweat pooled in the small of her back.

‘What’s heavier, five kilos of Tim-Tams or five kilos of lettuce?’

She stared at him, uncomprehending. He was handsome, but he his eyes were too close together. She tried to think but her mind was jelly.

‘T-tim-Tams?’

‘Are you sure about that?’

She began to sob now, great shudders that shook her flesh.

‘Is that wrong? Lettuce!’

‘They’re the same, Karen, but that’s been your problem, hasn’t it? Lettuce, Tim-Tams, you made no distinctions. You give up on yourself now, walk away down those stairs and you tell me what you’re going back to?’

‘Lettuce!’

‘Tim-Tams, Karen. The only way you’re ever going to get to lettuce is by finding the strength to walk in your power. Walk in your power and jump.’

He was bent over so they were at eye level and she could see the blackheads on his nose.

‘I want you to look at me Karen-’

‘I wanna go home!’

Casey’s voice got louder. ‘Look me in the eye and make a decision.’

The safety man stepped in front of Karen and squared up to Casey.

‘Steady on mate’-

Casey swatted him away like a bothersome fly.

‘What’s it gunna be, Karen, lettuce or Tim-Tams?’

She felt hot and weak and was snivelling like a baby. They were all watching her, pitying, like the first day when she knew they were thinking at least I’m not as bad as her.

‘I know what you’re trying to do!’ she said through a blur of tears.

‘And what do you think of me right now, Karen?’

‘You’re a – a bad man!’

‘What else?’

‘You’re a fucking disgrace!’

‘That’s good, Karen, you wanna make a complaint about me? You can take the long way or the short way down!’

‘I just want to go back to my family,’ she pleaded.

‘Lettuce or Tim-Tams, Karen, it’s now or never!’

Karen groped forward, mouth wide open and eyes shut. The wind started up. Below her the green water flashed its teeth.

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