2:2: “Rotten Times”, by Robert Hood

2:2: “Rotten Times”, by Robert Hood

The evening of the third of January

The knife she was using to slice potatoes, slimy with juice, slipped from Louise Delovski’s fingers and fell to the benchtop. It tumbled, skidded off the edge. The Staysharp blade dug into her kitchen’s floor covering, gouging out a divot of red vinyl.

The blade hadn’t touched her hand. Hadn’t even come near it. But as she stared at the deep cut the knife had made in the floor, Louise felt her palm aching. The fleshy pad at the base of her thumb was lacerated, bleeding a red stream that snaked down her wrist.

Louise was sure the blade hadn’t touched her. She blinked, as her vision crumbled. She felt light-headed. Her kitchen appeared to be breaking apart, fracturing into a thousand shattered pieces.

Her heart thumped violently. Heart attack? she wondered in a rising panic. Oh God! I don’t want to die. I’m too young. She lowered herself to the floor, rubbing at the cut.

And stopped. Glanced around, fear driving into her gut like ice pellets.

Paint along the side of the bench was cracked and peeling. Scabs of dry-rot flaked off as she watched. That didn’t make sense — she’d only painted it, all of it, a little over two months ago. What she was seeing now was the decay of old age.

It was on the floor too. There, at the edges where she hadn’t noticed it before, the vinyl squares were warping, cracking away. Underneath she could see what looked like the accumulated grease of years of spilled food. Yet the squares had been laid a week or so after the paint job. Six weeks ago!

She tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t let her. Louise glanced again at her hand — the bleeding one. Her skin was dry and peeling. There was a nasty, weeping growth across her wrist, like a sore that had been festering for days. And her leg too. No wonder she hadn’t been able to stand. She seemed to have hurt her ankle. It looked bruised and swollen, and the foot was at a strange angle, as though its bones had warped.

She began to cry, remembering the old man, the farm, her terror — and any denial she might have made became an empty hope.

Three days before

“Jerk!”

Eddie Marks grinned as the slam of the side door of his car provided a dramatic end to the woman’s cry. She took refuge behind the protective insulation of the chassis. That was fine with him: she’d made it quite clear what he could do with himself, and he certainly wasn’t the one who needed a lift back to town.

He turned on the ignition and the engine roared like a frustrated animal. “You getting in?” he yelled, giving her a chance to change her mind. His mother didn’t raise her boy to be unforgiving.

“I’ll walk!” Venomous. Eddie frowned. He couldn’t figure this one out at all. Maybe she was frigid. It wasn’t the rejection; it was the extreme reaction to what was, after all, a pretty ordinary request. He’d driven her out here and she’d come willingly enough. He’d parked the car, held her hand, stroked her thigh, felt her pulse starting to race. Then he’d asked if she’d rather go back to his place to do it. She’d said she didn’t know that she intended to do it anywhere, not when they’d only just met. He’d said, “Come on, there’s no use wasting time, is there? Not getting any younger, you know.”

That was when she’d thrown a wobbly, slapped at him, scrambled out of the car screaming as though he’d tried to poleaxe her.

Fuck her.

“Walk then!” he snarled, and drove off, deliberately skidding the back wheels and filling the night with dirt. As he went he glanced into the rear-view mirror. The lonely figure of the woman was disintegrating into darkness and dust.

———•———

It wasn’t until the rear lights were snuffed out by distance that Louise Delovski suddenly calmed down. She wondered what the hell she’d done.

“Wait on!” she yelled; but she knew he’d never hear her now. He was too far gone. She ground the toe of her right shoe into the dirt.

Around her the world was dark. There was a sickly moon up there in the sky somewhere, lost in the clouds, but its reflected glow wasn’t much help. The air was chilled — weird weather for that time of year, mid-summer, New Year’s eve and all that — and it got to her easily; she was wearing a flimsy, shoulder-baring top and a light-weight skirt, that’s all. Trance-dance clubs were hot places — they didn’t encourage sensible dress. She’d brought a coat, more as a fashion accessory than because she thought she might need it, but had left it in the bastard’s car … what was his name? Oh, yes, Eddie. “Eddie Murphy,” he’d said when she asked him at the bar. “Eddie Murphy is a negro,” she’d commented wryly. “Daylight saving made me fade,” he’d replied. Louise had thought the remark funny at the time. Now it seemed juvenile and sinister.

Well, he was a jerk-off, that Eddie, whatever his real name was. What did he have to go and say that for, calling her old? She wasn’t that old. It was downright rude, the kind of insensitivity that really pissed her off.

She’d sort of liked him too. In a desperate sort of way.

Louise began walking along the gravel. On the way there she’d noticed what looked like a farmhouse, silhouetted on a hilltop off the road. Maybe she could get a lift, or at least the farm people might have a phone. Real isolated, it was. Eddie and she hadn’t driven that far out of town, but there were hardly any houses. None at all when you came down to it. Just the farmhouse. Where’d that dirtbag been taking her? And how dare he leave her out here, alone. Anything could happen to her out here.

She glanced over her shoulder. Darkness became a huge, shapeless creature, so she looked straight ahead and walked faster.

She found the turn-off easily enough: dirt furrows, a dried-up wooden gate, rusty wire, an old sign she couldn’t read in the dark. There was a chain on the gate, with a lock. Both were encrusted with dark flakes of rust. Louise rattled the gate, but it wouldn’t give. In the end she climbed over and began a long, anxious walk up the track toward the distant farmhouse. Everything was overgrown, even the track, which probably would have been lost under the weeds long ago, if the ground hadn’t been so compacted and unyielding.

Doesn’t look good, she thought. Nothing’s been going on here for years.

The “farmhouse’ on the hill turned out to be a derelict shed, that was all. There was machinery in it so old it had completely fallen to pieces. Looked like a pile of junk. Louise peered in through a rotting hole in the shed door, but it smelt so bad, she didn’t attempt to get in. Even the cold would be better than whatever was making that stink.

She turned away, cursing her luck, when she saw what had to be the actual farmhouse, huddled like a stain on the barren pasture land below her. The road she’d followed apparently went over the hill and down again to the farm. Who’d put a farm in a hollow like that? Wind plucked at her skin and she shivered. She didn’t care so long as she could get a lift back to town.

Long before she reached the house she could see it was a wreck too: old and neglected, blackened by years of fallout from windstorms, boards split with age, windows cracked and broken. Tools and farm implements were scattered here and there. She bent to touch a hoe and it was lumpy with rust. The yard in front was overgrown and pot-holed. Now that she was closer she could see the carcass of an ancient pickup truck. The tyres were deflated, its chassis worn and pitted, and it looked as though the far-side door hung open on a broken hinge.

Louise climbed the steps leading to a verandah. The boards creaked and gave uneasily. Dirt shifted under her shoes as she went toward the front door. She had to be careful to avoid holes, and her nose began to pick up the scent of decay and neglect: dampness leaking from gaps in the floor, rot in the boards, dust, the dry tang of age. No way she was going to get a lift here.

Nevertheless she knocked on the door. A wind was rising and it was bitterly cold; she didn’t want to wander in the open all night. If no one was living here, at least the place could provide her with shelter. She knocked harder. The sound reverberated hollowly. No dogs barked, no animals stirred, she heard no indication of living inhabitants at all. Another louder knock and she began calling — but that too brought no response. A gust of wind whipped coldness and dirt around her thighs. Okay then — she’d hang out inside the place for the night, safe from the chill. Then in the morning she’d walk someplace more civilised and get a ride into town.

She turned the handle and pushed. The hinges squealed. Darkness oozed out around her, thick with staleness. She hesitated, afraid she might catch something because the air tasted so diseased.

Then something moved in the shadows.

———•———

Even the fact he couldn’t remember her name annoyed him.

Eddie found that the parking spot he’d vacated near the club hadn’t been taken, and slid his car into the space, angry and tense. So far the night was a fizzer. Her fault, no question. She’d mucked him around and deserved whatever happened to her.

Louise, he recalled suddenly.

He’d intended to go back into the dance area and find someone more amenable — after all, this was the fuckin’ end of the millennium and he was young and horny. But for the moment he just sat, staring at the street and the neon-smeared night, remembering her name. The whole thing felt wrong. She probably had friends who’d want to know where the hell she was. That was okay, so long as nothing happened to her. But it was quite a way to the spot he’d taken her. What if some sicko pervert came across her walking about in the dark and carved her up? He, Eddie, would be first in line to take the rap, that’s what. Last seen with Eddie the stud, who took her off into the night with his lustful plans neon-flashing all over his face. What a set-up!

And there were plenty of weirdos around these days — evidence of the End of the World, Eddie’s mum reckoned. “A woman can’t stick her head out the door without some looney wantin’ to do it to her,” she used to say. “There’s no order any more. This was prophesied, Eddie.” Exaggerated perhaps. At least he hoped it was — certainly no one in their right mind would want to “do it” to his mum — but the possibility was there. Anyway, End of the World or not Eddie didn’t want to become the scapegoat for any random vendettas launched against Twentieth Century corruption. He glanced at his watch. Just over half an hour and it’d be Twenty-first Century corruption. Even worse.

He cursed, slamming his fist on the dashboard. He was gonna miss all the action, wasn’t he? The fireworks. All those women wanting to welcome in the End of the World in proper style. Hand throbbing, Eddie started up his car and backed out of the parking space, watching his headlights flaring on the startled shop window in front of him. There was a screech of brakes. Another car skidded into view in his side mirror. It scraped along his bumper-bar as he jammed a tardy foot on the pedal.

The owner of the other car — a new sports sedan of some kind (not a BMW or something, please!) — was leaping toward him even before his engine had died.

———•———

Louise nearly fell over with the shock. She staggered back a few steps to compensate, but found herself unable to run. A man, or parts of a man, appeared in the lighter darkness fractured across the doorway. Louise could see legs and an arm. They looked old and crippled.

“What do you want?” a voice said. During the first instant she heard the words she was unable to tell whether it was the figure talking or just sound made by her feet as they scraped on grit.

“I’m, um, lost,” she said. “Can I use your phone?”

Wheezing breath, then: “Don’t have one.”

“I need a lift back to town.”

“Truck don’t work — like every bloody thing around here.”

Louise tried to think. She felt so awkward, standing there on a derelict porch talking to half a man. She wished she could see his face, but the shadow that covered it was too thick. She shivered as wind clawed up her legs and hugged her shoulders.

“You cold?” the voice said.

“Yes.”

“Not wearing much, are you?” it said, but in a fatherly manner, without any lascivious overtones — not that Louise could detect anyway. “And you’re very young.”

Louise smiled. “Am I?”

“Sure. Curse ain’t got to you yet.”

That puzzled her. She wondered if this old man were perhaps a bit senile. “Curse?”

“You want to come in?” The figure stepped back, disappearing into darkness. “Well, do you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Too dark for you in here, eh? I like the dark. Stops me from seein’ too much. I’ll put a light on — have to be an oil lamp. Electricity’s out. Wiring’s shot.” Louise heard him move deeper into the room. “I’d better warn you though, I’m not a pretty sight. Bit of a wreck. Like the bloody house.”

That made Louise feel sad. The poor lonely bastard, living here in the dark, unable to look after himself properly, feeling ugly and rejected. Age was a difficult enough thing to have to cope with. “I don’t mind. Really.”

“You will, believe me. You will,” he said.

Glass and metal clattered together as he fumbled with the oil lamp. He grunted, lit a match. A dim flicker spluttered into life, sending blurred shadows jerking about the room. Louise moved across the threshold, determined to show no revulsion, no matter what he looked like. But she couldn’t help it. When he turned to her, she saw how decayed he was and she gasped. The smell only made it worse.

“Told you,” he said, grinning over gums with no teeth in a face that was crumpled up like an old newspaper. His skin was thin and desiccated, blotched by stains and cancerous sores. He was so cracked and wrinkled, Louise could hardly make out his features. “It’s the Curse.” The old man gestured with his only functional hand. His other arm had shrivelled to half its original size and hung limply, as though it had long ago broken down and had never been seen to. Both his legs were twisted.

“It’s terrible,” Louise said. “I’m really sorry. It’s not catching, is it?”

He chuckled. The sound was almost jovial — quite incongruous, coming from a source so devastated. “I told you, it’s the Curse. Are curses catching?”

“Curse? You mean, like a family curse?”

He laughed. “Yeah. The human family’s.”

———•———

It took Eddie a good half hour to get away from the driver of the sports car — which turned out to be some overly shiny heap of crap. Nevertheless the bloke was irate and wanted to splatter Eddie’s nose right over his face — except of course, Eddie was bigger than he was. So he satisfied himself with calling Eddie everything under the sun.

“It’s a new car!” he yelled. “Now ’cause of some bloody idiot who can’t watch where the fuck he’s going, the bloody thing’s on the scrap heap —’

Eddie barely listened; he was conscious of time running out for Louise. For some reason he felt sure she was in trouble.

He hitched himself up in a threatening manner. “Look, it’s only a scratch for christ’s sake. You’re going on like I totalled the thing. Here—” He slapped a piece of lolly paper he’d been scribbling his particulars on into the bloke’s hand. “Now get lost before I have a go at mussing up your whingeing face.”

The bloke scooted off. His pretentious shit-heap roared down the road.

A moment later Eddie’s car was speeding in the opposite direction.

———•———

“Have a guess how old I am?” the man said. He’d collapsed into a wrecked one-seater lounge and was staring intently at Louise.

It was a stupid and embarrassing question. “I wouldn’t like to —”

“Sit down.” He pointed an arthritic finger at a chair, across the room from him. “Keep your distance if you’re worried.”

Louise felt unable to refuse. Anyway, where could she go?

“You won’t insult me,” the man went on. “Lost my last shred of dignity ages ago. What’s the point of it?”

“I don’t —”

“Bet you think I’m seventy or eighty or something, eh?” He looked a hundred and fifty, at least. “Am I right? You plug for eighty? Well, forget it! Thirty-five. How’s that grab you?”

Louise grimaced. “It’s impossible.”

“Thirty-five. Maybe thirty-four. I told you, this ain’t old age.”

It was obvious he was crazy. Louise knew it then for sure. Senility had withered his brain, trapped his mind in a different time and denied him age as an explanation for his decay. She wouldn’t argue with him. She’d just change the subject. “Do you live alone?”

“Who else’d live here? This is me. This is what I am. I hate it, I loathe it. But it’s me.”

“Couldn’t you move?”

“I’m part of it. How can I leave? A month ago, this place was all painted up nice, you believe that? Real nice. The truck worked. The floorboards weren’t near so rotten. The paddock out there was greener.”

For the first time Louise glanced around the room. It was shadowy and obscure and would’ve been that way even if everything were normal — the oil lamp wasn’t very effective. But this place wasn’t normal. What was probably carpet appeared to be bunched up in the corners, covered in mould. The wooden walls were flaky and dark with rot. Horrible cancerous holes gaped in the floor. What furniture there was seemed on the verge of breaking down into little piles of dust.

“I tried to look after the place,” the old man said, following her gaze. “Honest, I did. Tried to keep it whole and clean. Now…well, what’s the point? It’s got me, no sweat. I’d rather it was over, if I knew what lay at the end of it all. Meantime, I’m trapped.”

Louise didn’t understand what he was saying. It sounded like ravings, all of it. She’d stopped trying to make sense of it once she realised he was mad. But it made her feel uneasy. Even sick. “Please, is there any way I can get back to town? Any way of contacting…anyone?”

“Only by walking.”

Wind howled outside, causing nails to groan in the rotting wood of the house. The man gasped and choked. Pain crushed up his face even more than it normally was. “I hate windy nights,” he said. “Too painful. Wind’s a destroyer. So’s sun. But wind…it can tear you apart.”

“Maybe I’d better walk.”

“In the mornin’, honey. You’ll die of exposure, dressed like that. Reckon it might rain.”

He was right. Louise could feel the cold on her legs and hugged her arms across her breasts to hold in the heat.

“I’ll tell you somethin’, if you like,” the man said, dropping his head against the back of his seat. Louise thought the mould on it was spreading. She frowned. “I’ll tell you about the Curse.”

“I don’t —”

“Sure you do. It obsesses you, I know. I can tell. You worry a hell of a lot about getting old.” He looked at her, his eyes dull and yellow. Louise’s heart was pounding. It seemed to shake her whole body, preventing her from replying. “Sure you do. Obsesses you. It’s in your eyes, in your words, lying like old makeup in the wrinkles around your mouth. And you’re quite right to worry, too. There’s decay everywhere. Even as we speak it’s festerin’ away in your heart. ‘Cause humans are part of the world and the world’s rotten.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“The devil owns us, and his mark’s decay of flesh, decay of spirit.”

“It’s awful,” Louise whispered.

“We’ve got minds, see? We drag the world around with us, as part of us. So we’ve got the decay inside. Our minds reach out for somethin’, but there’s only decay. Maybe that’s the Fall, eh? Where our minds took over the place, kicked out the angel of the Lord, started the rot—”

“Stop it!” Louise wanted to run away from this horror. But her legs were frozen with the cold; she couldn’t make them obey her, couldn’t exert enough will-power to overcome their inertia.

“Stop the decay?” The man laughed and it was like wood rotting, stone crumbling. “I can’t stop it. I’m its victim — and its servant. Look around. This place is me. As it rots, so do I. Can’t you see that?”

She could, but it made no sense. It was a perception that skidded through her mind and failed to find a hold there.

The man became wistful. “Don’t know when it began. Decades ago. Yesterday. Time’s rotten too. I can feel it. My father brought me here twenty odd years ago — he was a broken man then, marriage, home, career — all destroyed. And he didn’t know why. But the Curse was on him. I can see its marks in every memory I have. He brought me to this place and he said, It’s all yours, boy, all of it. Keep it up if you can. Then he kissed me, passed on what he had—” He laughed hollowly. “Died a month ago — or a century. I tried to maintain the place, to keep my place goin’. Painted and mowed and fertilised and greased. Worked my fingers to the bloody bone, knowing how important it was, knowing that unless I did, unless I stopped the rot in the world around me, I was lost. I tried, I tried bloody hard. But I couldn’t do it. Machinery breaks down, crops fail, wood becomes brittle in the sun and the wind strips it away. Once the rot sets in, there’s nothing you can do about it. These are rotten times.”

“But you said a month—” Louise felt gripped by his words, despite herself. “You said it was okay then. How can it get like this in a month? This is long-term decay. You’re so old—”

He laughed scratchily. “I prayed,” he said. “I prayed to God. Stop it, I asked Him, stop this unending decline. I don’t want to rot, I said, don’t want to rot away. He wouldn’t listen. But the devil now. He’s more amenable. Near on a month ago I found something beneath the foundations of this place, something old and terrible.” His legs seemed to crack and strain as he pulled himself up on to his feet.

“What was it?”

“It was under the house. I knew it would be. Knew there had to be some reason why my father hadn’t been able to make this place work — why everything just rots away.”

“What did you find?”

“I dug in the foundations. Dug with my fingers till they were raw. Dug and dug. And there was this thing—”

“What was it?” Louise repeated, despite the fact her mind was shrinking from what he might say, shrinking from it with terror like a cancer in her chest.

“The Beast,” he whispered, turning and indicating something sitting on the mantelpiece over the cold, open fire-place. Louise squinted through flickering shadows.

It looked like a skull, though it was dark and pitted and far too big to be human. Thin humanoid jaw line. Teeth that seemed to grin at her. Large cheekbones. Empty eye-sockets that seemed, nevertheless, to be filled with a malevolence she couldn’t see, only feel in the rancid air.

But worse was the pair of chipped, cracking horns that sprouted from its crown.

“Got to be a fake,” Louise said weakly.

“Is all this fake?” The man raised his arthritic arm in a bent, awkward gesture. “When I touched that thing, time came unravelled. This is the End of the World. It starts now.”

Again Louise tried to run. She made it to her feet but only managed to stumble perhaps half a metre. Her heart was racing. “Why are you telling me this?” she screamed.

The old man laughed. “It’s time,” he said. “Must be near midnight, don’t you reckon? Midnight of the world.”

He came toward her, a scarecrow.

“What are you doing?” she said, afraid.

“Right now,” he hissed, wheezing, “you’re nowhere down that track. Nowhere. You worry about gettin’ old, but you’ve barely started. I’ll teach you about decay — the inexorable work of the Beast.”

He was a psycho, no question. Louise struggled to get away, but her will was not enough. As he neared her, she could taste the rottenness in the air, and it paralysed her more.

“Decayed in body, decayed in spirit,” he said. “I’ll be gone soon, this old place can’t last much longer. But before I go, I’d like to feel health and wholeness again, even if it’s someone else’s. Surround myself with sweetness. Your flesh is like an elixir. I’ll drink it in, become undecayed for a time. That would be so nice —”

Louise screamed as his withered hand touched her.

———•———

She wasn’t where he’d left her of course, but Eddie couldn’t find Louise along the road either. Where could she have gone? It was possible that someone had picked her up, yeah, possible; but not many people used this road. It was a dead end that finished up at the council dump. No one went there this time of night. It was closed.

Just perverts.

In the distance, beyond the hills, he saw the New Year’s fireworks searing the clouds. These were the last moments of the old millennium. Would the new one be different?

He drove slowly back toward town, looking for signs of her passing. Night was a congealing thickness that covered the world outside his car like a black fog.

The silhouette of a building struck on his awareness too forcefully, given how obscured it was. It was barely visible and his eyes should have skimmed over it. When they didn’t, he knew he had to go there. Louise might have seen it, too.

The old gate was padlocked. Eddie got out of his car and checked, shaking the rusty wire in the light-flood of his high-beams. Then he heard a scream. It was distant but shrill, full of terror, and came from beyond the rise like the call of a dying crow.

“Shit!” Eddie whispered and pulled harder on the lock. The scream came again. He twisted viciously and a rusty bar came loose, freeing the gate. Triumphant, he pushed it open, jumped back into his car and accelerated up the track.

———•———

A mere touch of the man’s rancid skin released Louise from her paralysis. She screamed, giving voice to the fear churning inside her. The man clutched at her more tightly. She kicked out at him, sure she would be too robust for him to withstand, but he was hard and sinewy under her foot and merely stumbled slightly.

“Told you, honey, I’m no geriatric.” His breath reeked of mould.

He pressed toward her. Louise pulled herself sideways, trying to escape. “Stay away from me!”

He grabbed at her breast, so that she lost her already tenuous balance, and fell against the chair she’d been sitting on. This time her weight made it break apart. The legs, rotten and dry, crumbled and collapsed, and Louise dropped awkwardly to the floor amidst the wreckage. She screamed again as he tumbled toward her.

He was harder to deal with than she’d thought. He had a dried-out strength, like compacted earth, despite his obvious fragility. She struck at him with all the force she could muster, her fist connecting with his shoulder. When it crumbled inwards, as though the bones inside the shirt and flaking skin had broken under the blow, determination almost fled from her. Only his stink kept her conscious. His face thrust at her, withered lips pressing to her cheek, finding her mouth as she struggled. Hands like bony pliers squeezed her arms; even his decayed one seemed to find the strength to act against her now. She choked, feeling bile rise in her throat, as his spittle mingled with her own.

———•———

Eddie’s car left the ground as he cleared the top of the rise, and from that moment he lost control. The car slewed and bucked as its tyres met the track again. Eddie felt the jarring impact right through to his skull. He fought with the wheel to right the car, but it was a close thing. The heavy vehicle slid at an angle, his mag tyres sending dust up in clouds. Eddie saw the farmhouse — a flickering light was in one window, giving a momentary, vague impression of struggling figures — rushing toward him.

He swore.

———•———

The old man clung to her like sticky sap and seemed as difficult to remove. Every time she hit him, or pushed at him, it seemed to her that bits of him shattered — yet he was still there, clinging.

Then he released one arm. She thrashed out, beating at him, pushing, biting. She felt his freed hand groping between her legs. She screamed.

Whether it was her cry, or her knee finding his groin, or something else entirely, she didn’t know; but at that moment his face twitched with pain and he glanced up. Louise fought harder.

———•———

Eddie lost control completely as the house loomed in his headlights. Braking was useless. As he spun the wheel to avoid a piece of rusty machinery, the front tyres hit a pot-hole and tossed the car sideways. Light streamed over the decayed building. Yelling, Eddie rammed his foot hard on the brake pedal. He twisted the steering in an attempt to straighten up. But crumbling earth and his speed defeated him. His car ploughed into the porch of the farmhouse, raising dust and wood splinters. Impact shuddered through his limbs.

“My car!” Eddie groaned.

Chaos settled around him and the whisper of falling dirt took over.

———•———

Somewhere tyres crunched dirt, brakes squealed, and a deep-throated crash shook the house. Light fractured around the two struggling figures. “My house!” the man shrieked and fell away from Louise at last. She pushed hard, freeing her legs and arms from him, turning to defend herself even as she did. The man retreated from her blind punches.

Desperate, Louise crawled across the dirty, rotting floor, expecting his fingers to tighten around her ankle. But it didn’t happen. When she felt safer, she looked back. The old man was banging his head against the floor, whimpering. “What’re you doing?” she moaned. He made a gargling noise, a plea. Shaken, Louise moved closer — and felt sickness rise through her chest. The side of his head had caved in; his crumpled face was buckled, cracked, skin ripping, yellow bone crushed inward. Anemic blood dribbled onto Louise’s feet. As she watched, pieces of him broke away as though he were falling apart. For a moment she saw a hole in the side of his head that seemed to go right through to his brain cavity. Light caught on something greasily wet. Then one of his arms came away.

She screamed as a large piece of powdery plaster crashed to the floor, drawing her attention from the old man. It was then she saw what was happening to the house. Spreading outwards from the area at the front where the porch was — where the impact had come from — the walls and floor were crumbling, falling away, giving up the ghost.

It was all coming down around her.

———•———

Immediately Eddie remembered why he’d been speeding. The girl. She was in the house. Under attack. He fumbled with the car door, forcing himself not to think about the dents and scratches, the gaping wound in his hood caused by the old timber. At least the engine was still running.

Someone came through the front door of the house as he stumbled up what was left of the porch steps. Louise.

“You okay?” he said.

“Get back!” she yelled.

The porch gave under his feet, the wood not just rotten, but visibly rotting. Suddenly a large section of roof heaved inwards.

“Go!” she screamed and shoved at him.

He went. Behind him, as he stumbled down the treacherous steps, the house was emitting inhuman groans and grinding noises, a curious and sickening dissonance. Eddie made it to the driver’s side of his car and scrambled in.

Louise was slamming the passenger-side door behind her as he turned the key. He’d forgotten in his panic that the engine was still running; the starter motor shrieked.

“Get me away from here!” she shrieked.

He rammed the gears into reverse. As the car skidded slowly backwards, bits of the porch — decaying beams and splinters of wood — scraped along the duco, making it scream. Through the windscreen — which was covered in debris, but remained unbroken — Eddie saw a reddening light escaping from gaps in the walls of the farmhouse.

“It’s on fire.”

Louise coughed, clearing her throat clumsily. “There was an oil lamp,” she said. “It fell over.”

Eddie stopped the car about fifty metres along the track. Oddly he’d expected the house to crumble away entirely or burn to the ground, as they always did in the movies, but the fire seemed to be flickering out and the collapse of the walls and ceiling had reached a sort of equilibrium.

“Was someone in there?” he asked.

Louise was staring at the house, eyes wide, chest heaving with emotion. “Yes,” she said at last. She was trembling.

“What happened?”

“I was assaulted, that’s what.” She looked at him. Her features were obscured by shadow. “A man.”

“What did you do? Clobber him?”

She gripped his arm, fingers tightening fiercely. “No. But he’s dead. Just believe that. He’s dead. When you crashed into the house, it killed him. He went mad or something. I don’t know.”

“I hit him?”

“You hit his house.”

Eddie didn’t understand that, and he decided he didn’t want to. The look on Louise’s face, even though it was in shadow and hard to see, scared him in a way he’d never known.

“Maybe he had a heart attack,” he said weakly.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

Eddie squinted at her. “What’ll we do? We’ll have to tell the cops.”

“Forget it. They wouldn’t understand.”

“But—”

“He lived there alone. I don’t think anyone even knows he exists. And there’s nothing to connect us with the place. He died of old age. So did his house. It fell down.”

“Old age?”

“Yeah. That’s what anyone who sees him will say. He just rotted away. Come on. Let’s go!”

Eddie turned the car and began up the slope in first gear. Behind the roar of his engine, the night was heavy with an oppressive silence. He stopped at the top of the hill and glanced back.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Louise said nothing, so he drove on. As they hit the main road, he saw she was rubbing desperately at her mouth, and trying to look at her hands in the darkness.

Very low, she muttered to herself, “Jesus, please. Please, Jesus, no.”

The end

The world hadn’t ended overnight as many had expected it to. The beginning of the new millennium hadn’t even been particularly traumatic. Not for the world in general.

Nor were the days that followed.

Except for Eddie.

He opened his eyes, glanced at his car’s dashboard clock, and decided he’d stay right where he was for a bit. No use rushing into anything. His head felt very heavy. It was seven o’clock in the morning and he’d fallen asleep in the car after leaving the club the night before. That was odd, because he hadn’t drunk as much as usual and had left earlier than he mostly did. Funny. Still, what did it matter? His mum would no doubt be wondering where he’d got to, but she should be used to him by now, and he didn’t have anywhere he had to go until that afternoon, when he was supposed to be visiting some relos.

Eddie was thirsty though. Idly he dropped his hand under the seat, hoping there’d be a can there with a few drops in it. No such luck. His fingers brushed against something soft. He hooked the material and pulled it out — a pair of red knickers. Must’ve belonged to that Louise. He grinned to himself, remembering. His New Year’s night out three days ago had started bad, with Louise being so unresponsive and getting all funny on him, and had got worse with Eddie hitting the Mazda and that. And the business at the farm! Weird. But his luck had got better. Whether it was the shock of killing the old bloke or what, Louise had come over hot and sexy after they got to her place. Eddie was just going to drop her off, but she’d fallen across his shoulder, crying. “It’s the new millennium,” he’d said, pointing at the digital clock on his dashboard. She’d just stared numbly at it. So Eddie had slipped off her underwear and they’d played around. Then they’d gone up to her flat, where it was more comfortable. They’d fucked like crazy. Not the best he’d ever had, but it made up for all the other shit they’d gone through. Funny how she’d cried so much though, and wouldn’t talk about why. Said it was some crazy idea she’d got off the old man, that’s all. Eddie guessed she was badly strung out. He hadn’t heard from her since.

He stretched lazily, but the sudden intake of oxygen made his head ache and pain lanced through muscles that obviously hadn’t liked sleeping on a car seat. He sat up, thinking maybe he’d drive straight home where he could have a long hot bath, and the first thing he noticed on the way up was all the cracking on the dashboard. It was a nasty jigsaw of splits and tears, like you get when the sun’s worked at vinyl over lots of years. Shit, Eddie thought, it was okay yesterday. He cleaned the inside of the car regularly and always used Armorall on the vinyl when he did. What had caused it to get so bad so suddenly?

There were splits on the doors too — and cracks, actual cracks, in the windscreen. Okay, the car had taken a bit of a battering when it’d run into that old bloke’s front porch. But Eddie had had it checked out and the car was booked in at the panelbeaters for Friday. Just had to have a few of the side panels and the bonnet fixed up, that’s all. The windscreen had been fine.

It was always the way. You look after a car real well and everything’s fine, then something happens and all at once the whole thing starts to go. Shit. It was like some sort of Law.

He twisted the ignition key to start the engine. The car coughed, spluttered, fell silent. He tried again, with the same result.

Now the engine’s playing up, Eddie thought, opening the door to go and look under the hood. What next?

The door, its hinges rusted almost to powder, fell away as he pushed, and thudded onto the roadway.

Eddie just stared.



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