Ideomancer Featured Author Robert Hood answers ten quick questions from fellow writer Deborah Biancotti.
Deborah : Why on earth did you want to be a writer?
Robert : It’s almost a cliché, but really, I never felt like I had much of a choice. Sometime during primary school I started to love writing stories. I’d write stupidly inventive little compositions based on dumb puns and the like. Then when my reading kicked in — during high school — (and I was consuming everything from literary classics to pulp, in particular loving the SF magazines of the 1960s and 1970s), I began writing longer, more complex stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing and they were generally awful, but from that point on that’s what I’d say I wanted to do with my life: be a writer. It had nothing to do with a perception of realistic career paths, nothing to do with earning money. I simply loved writing.
Ever since then I haven’t been able to stop even when it becomes unbearably frustrating and stressful and my output diminishes to nothing through creeping lethargy. Eventually I get edgy and dissatisfied when I’m not writing and am driven back to it.
I used to rationalise my writing in terms of vast metaphysical concepts: fulfilling the urge of divine creativity that lies at the centre of my humanity, the will to ‘create times and spaces’ (to quote William Blake), to internally re-form the external world into something other than it is. To express myself. I’m not sure that’s the whole story now. But I am certain that storytelling is important personally and socially, and somewhere along the line the act of writing became an integral part of the way I defined myself. To stop writing would be to stop being me, at least in my own eyes. It’s been said before, but the answer to the question: “Who should become a writer?” is always, “Those who can’t help themselves!”
I also used to think — imagine — that one day I’d be able ‘to be a writer for a living’, but though I sometimes make decent amounts of extra income from it, it’s never enough to live off, and the prospects have never been positive enough to allow me to abandon caution altogether and to become a ‘full-time writer’. Perhaps that’s a failing. I do admire those who, against the odds, take the bit between the teeth and simply plunge themselves into poverty and insecurity in the cause of making themselves a career in writing. For myself, I’m beginning to think I never will be a full-time career writer. Maybe that’s a good thing. There’s less pressure to simply follow the market, less pressure to find paying jobs even if the pursuit of such jobs means doing something I’m not interested in.
Deborah : You began your writing career as an author of crime fiction. Have you left that all behind you now?
Robert : Crime fiction didn’t come first. My first serious writings were SF and fantasy. My first sales were SF and fantasy. Writing crime was a chance thing: I’d just finished writing a story (“Dead End”) that didn’t have a supernatural element (apart from a dream sequence), when I saw an advertisement for a competition (the first Australian Golden Dagger competition for short crime fiction), probably in a writer’s newsletter. The story had a body in it, though I’d never thought of it as a crime story, so I entered it for want of another market. By chance, it won, was published in a mass-market book, and has subsequently been re-printed many times.
As a result of the win, I was asked to submit to various crime anthologies, so I wrote more ‘crime’ stories. People liked them and I enjoyed writing them. They gave me scope to get as dark as I liked and some even had a suggestion of the supernatural about them.
I haven’t stopped writing such stories. Horror fiction and crime fiction, as separate genres, cross over very strongly in places. My stories often exist in that particular borderland. Like most short story markets, however, the market for short crime fiction is at the moment a lot smaller than it was in the heyday of my involvement in it.
Deborah : So have you always enjoyed speculative fiction?
Robert : Speculative fiction has pretty well always been my major love. The first books I remember reading from personal choice were the Simon Black In Space books, Patrick Moore’s Mars books and Capt. W.E. John’s juvenile SF. Then I read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and the lifelong love affair really kicked in. I used to love watching the late-night creature feature stuff on telly, when I was allowed to stay up. One of the major epiphanies of my youth was when my mother presented me, out of the blue, copies of both Frankenstein and Dracula. I’m not sure she realised what she was starting.
Deborah : And I understand you don’t even like the label ‘speculative fiction’. Why is that?
Robert : Well, I’ve probably sprouted off about it at some point because it strikes me as artificial and forced as an ‘all-inclusive’ category. But I really don’t mind it. We seem to need the categories — or at least publishers and book marketeers do — and everyone knows what it means, so who cares? It is useful in blurring the boundaries, and my stories often cross over between horror, fantasy and science fiction, as is quite common these days.
Deborah : You’re now known particularly as a horror writer. Is that a label you enjoy?
Robert : I don’t mind at all. I play on it at times. Sometimes it’s more useful to use the term ‘horror-fantasy’ or ‘dark fantasy’, of course, because ‘horror’ carries a lot of baggage and can prejudice readers — making them avoid stories they would find enjoyable if they weren’t put off before they started. But ‘horror’ stories belong to a wide-ranging and venerable tradition. I enjoy them, so I’ll accept the label.
Ironically perhaps (‘ironic’ because of the attitudes toward horror stories as such that people have), I was originally attracted to writing horror stories because it seemed to me that the genre allowed for a broader approach, a more literarily variable approach to its subject matter. People think of ‘horror’ as being the most formulaic of the genres and the least respectable. But that’s not my view. To me, ‘horror’ veers from subtle to extreme, from simple to complex, from shallow to profound, from playful to deadly serious, depending on the author and the motivation. It’s a wonderful genre and continues to produce great works of literature (as well as formulaic throw-aways).
Not long ago, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves was published, and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. I’m proud to be associated with a genre that can lay claim to that particular work — a more complex, learned, innovative, compelling, touching and profoundly chilling novel would be hard to find, anywhere. It left me breathless.
Deborah : I was at the launch of your short story collection, Immaterial, in 2002. Jack Dann was the MC that day, and he described you as one of the most important writers of horror in Australia today. Were you surprised by that?
Robert : Modesty forbids me answering that one truthfully! But, yes, I was surprised, and delighted. Jack has been extraordinarily supportive, and it’s great that someone of his significance thinks so highly of my work. It’s hard to remain positive at times; even the ‘most important writers’ have runs of rejection or don’t make it into particular markets that they feel it important to have cracked.
Despite your essential arrogance (a fundamental part of being a writer, I suspect), you sometimes begin to wonder if there’s any worth at all in what you do. That’s the writer’s lot. You get over it. Such judgements are relative anyway. But to be praised occasionally, and by prestigious commentators, is good, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
Deborah : You’ve successfully crossed genres. You’ve also written for different audiences, selling stories for children, young adults and of course, adults. How important are these boundaries, really? Does it make a big difference to how you write?
Robert : There’s certainly a difference between writing for adults and writing for younger kids, especially in the horror field, where humour becomes very important. But young adult? Apart from some extreme language complexities perhaps, and conceptualisation that takes place at a formative level, it doesn’t seem to make much practical difference once the writing is under way.
You try to be immediate, you try to write in an exciting and emotionally clear manner — but that’s something you try to do for adults, too. Most of the time. Writing for adults probably leaves you freer to become abstract in your approach — but having said that, it’s all relative. YA books are often conceptually complex, full of abstract notions translated into immediate forms.
What are YA readers anyway? The category barely existed when I was a young adult. I mainly read adult books. So do young adult readers today, I suspect. What the category does allow for these days is the publication of shorter novels, something that appears to have been banished from adult consideration. SF novels of the 1960s and 1970s were often 100-120 pages long. It’s a terrific length for SF — and for horror. The category also allows for teenage protagonists — something that doesn’t happen much in avowed ‘adult’ writing. When you look at YA novels, they are often adult in all but publisher’s category. Are Garth Nix’s excellent books Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen any less suitable for adults because they are marketed as YA?
When I think about this question, I think about my own YA novel Backstreets. The fact that it is considered YA is a matter of chance — a YA publisher contracted me to write it. But the subject matter came from the deepest part of my psyche and out of profound emotional reflection; it would have taken the form it took (more or less) no matter for whom I wrote it.
Deborah : You’ve written and sold over a hundred short stories and a few dozen books. Not to mention all the plays and articles you’ve done. You’ve also earned a number of awards and nominations. Are you bored with it yet?
Robert : No, never. I guess there are writers who manage to write a startling, unique book that expresses everything they wanted to express and achieves all that is in them to achieve and I guess this means they don’t write anything else, nothing worthwhile anyway.
But the rest of us — fallible and obsessed human beings living in a state of continual temporal change and emotional chaos — never finish. Certainly my personal views morph and grow. I see new things; I understand less. Weird stuff happens. The world continually surprises me, thrills me, disappoints me, and I respond by writing another story. Each story is a different entity. Finding its ‘true’ form is exciting, even when the process is utterly frustrating.
Writing forces you to look outside your own comfortable perceptions, sometimes it shatters your view of things. Getting stuck into sorting out the mess, inventing new worlds, peopling them, or exploring some deep, barely tangible emotion: how could that ever be boring?
Deborah :What do you see as the future for genre fiction?
Robert : I’m sure it will be a fascinating and fecund one. Just when you think the genres are becoming stale and derivative, something weird and wonderful crops up, no matter how frustratingly conservative the publishers seem to become. Take House of Leaves, for example. Or the recent works of China Mieville. Or Mary Gentle’s Ash. For a while I thought I’d never again feel the sort of wonder I used to feel in response to an SF novel. Then I read Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and Sean William and Shane Dix’s Echoes of Earth. From somewhere comes something as barely categorisable as Jack Dann’s Memory Cathedral. Or a new collection of horror stories from Terry Dowling.
And there are writers out there who are taking the genres to places they’ve never been before, with a literary brilliance and inventiveness that is stunning — writers like Ted Chiang and Kelly Link. No, genre fiction seems to me to go up and down in terms of popularity, but what the genres offer is too important to be lost and the talent keeps coming.
One of these days even the masses will tire of brick-sized, formulaic, under-developed bestsellers, and will start to look elsewhere — and the other, non-fantasy genres will get a much-needed boost.
(Not that I mean to insult the currently popular high-fantasy genre as such. But I am amazed that, along with some very excellent work, there is a slew of puzzling bestsellers in the genre that are badly written and unimaginative — and given how hard it is to sell anything to a publisher these days, you do wonder why they were even considered and how they managed to sell well once they were published. Ah, the foibles of the market!)
Deborah : And what about the future for Robert Hood, what does that hold?
Robert : Who knows? Our intentions are apt to get bent and twisted in unpredictable ways. But certainly I intend to keep writing. I intend to keep writing short stories, especially in the horror-fantasy genre, though I’ve been dabbling in more science fiction as such lately. I’m currently writing a fantasy novel — an ‘otherworld’ fantasy with a fair bit of horror in it — and am still hoping that an already-written, oft-rejected fantasy novel (brick-sized) that is still doing the rounds will eventually find a home.
I’ve also nearly finished a straight-out horror novel — Dead Matter — which has one of my favourite obsessions in it, zombies. And I am intending to co-edit (with Robin Pen) a collection of giant monster stories, which will be published (all things being equal) in 2005.
Meanwhile anyone who wants to read some new stories from me should look to upcoming issues of Aurealis, Redsine, Dark Animus and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and in the anthologies Ideomancer Unbound, Agog! Terrific Tales and Consensual 2. A kid’s horror novella, Hard Rock Rodney, is also due out from Pearson’s Education.
Robert Hood has produced a large number of SF/F, horror and indeterminate-genre stories for a large number of magazines and anthologies over a large number of years. His most recent longer works were a series of four supernatural thrillers, Shades and a collection of ghost stories, Immaterial (published by MirrorDanse Books).
I must have fallen asleep.
When I sat down here on the front step of the terrace, the afternoon was still warm with spring. I felt relaxed, anticipating nothing.
Then, suddenly, evening was settling in like my Grandma on one of her visits. It hugged me so that I shivered, and asked me how I’d been.
“Just fine,” I said, “Just fine.”
It didn’t acknowledge this, but slumped low over the azaleas, and sighed.
I shivered again. There was a hint of chill in the night breeze.
I waited. I had nowhere else to go.
“Evenin’, Susie,” a shadow whispered at last. It leaned over the fence. Wispy hair rose like smog. “Doin’ anything special tonight?”
“Maybe, Barry. Maybe just sleeping.”
Barry laughed. He always laughed. The fence shivered.
“Bad night to be alone in a cold bed, Susie. The world’s unravelling.”
That made me feel bad, though I couldn’t remember why. I wrinkled up my nose. The air smelt of decay. Someone’s rotten garbage.
“Another hijacking. Yanks in Beirut.”
I yawned. “What do I care?”
A Herald flag-waved in his hand, newsprint spilling into the grey shadows.
“Reagan’s gone gung-ho. Reckon he’ll do ‘em this time.” His tongue slithered between his lips and lapped up the traces of enthusiasm from the corners of his mouth.
“Like that, would you, Barry?”
He laughed. “We’d really see something then.”
We both giggled. I couldn’t think why.
“Reckon we would. The Big Bang maybe.”
“Russians have warned Reagan off. They’re sending troops. It’s Cuba over again, I tell you, Susie.” He leapt over the fence suddenly, hanging in flight for a moment while old wood groaned. He was light, though he looked heavy.
“I didn’t invite you in.”
“Very rude of you too.”
We sat and the sun boiled behind us, spilling flame across the city. Night thickened. Centrepoint Tower stuck up sharp on the horizon like a giant stirring-spoon. Light-bubbles churned through the buildings.
“Nice this time of the arvo.”
“I can warm you up quick enough.”
I slapped his creeping hand away. Barry and me used to get on pretty well when we were kids. He took me to the movies and we groped each other in the dark. I think we had intercourse once but I can’t remember when. Not any more. He doesn’t really love me or anything. It’s just habit now.
“We can go down the pub, Susie. Good band playing.”
“Oh, come on. We get along okay, don’t we?”
I eyed him.”I haven’t decided.”
He laughed.”Come down the pub anyway. Just friends.”
What was it I saw reflected in his eye? Jagged lines darted quickly for cover behind the folds of his eyelid.
I was staring.
“Sorry. Thought I saw something.”
He laughed, but as though there was a threat, a murderer in the dark. “Don’t do that, Susie. You know how it goes.”
“Yeah. So tell me what’s up then.”
“Your lies maybe.”
He laughed again, more easily. “You’re weird, Susie, you know that?”
I smiled. Fey, Grandma said, Susie, you’re fey.
“You know what ‘weird’ means, Barry?” I tasted almonds on the breeze now. “Do you?”
“I know what I mean.”
“Means second-sighted. Not quite in this world.”
“Not all there is right.”
I got up, shivering like palsy as the night drew nearer. “I’m cold. Come round at seven. We’ll go to the pub. I guess we’ve got to.”
“But no talking about war and that stuff. If you talk about all that, you can forget it.”
I tried to remember. There was pain, my memory a blaze of fire.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s important, Susie. Those bastards’ll blow us up.”
“I know. Just don’t talk about it. There’s bad luck around tonight. I feel it.”
He stuck his lip out, half-pout, and ran his hand through his spiky hair. “Superstition’ll get us nowhere.”
“It’ll get me to the pub. What’s it matter if you don’t talk about it this time?”
He clicked his tongue, and I had to close my eyes because the terrible thing was there again, a scar across his cheek. “Then I’ll be superstitious,’ he said, laughing. “Don’t name the devil and he’ll stay home by the fire, eh?”
I turned away, edging around a bad feeling that lurched there on the step. I went inside. “Come by at seven, Barry. Seven.”
I heard him laugh behind me, but casting back over my shoulder, I saw he had become another shadow in a patch of dimming sunlight, soaking away into the footpath.
I shut the door, but the evening was there anyway.
“It’s something bad, isn’t it?” I said to Grandma.
A house-board creaked and suddenly Grandma was just a memory. I couldn’t remember what I’d asked. Or why.
I kept moving and watched while I fussed about in the kitchen. I didn’t eat much.
Barry came by at seven and we went down the pub as we always do. I was feeling really bad, as though I was being poisoned slowly. My head was going numb.
The King George was one of those old square pubs stuck between a renovated bottle-shop plastered with green specials signs and a real estate agent’s office that had fly-dirt all over the fading pictures in the window. The pub had a lot of tile everywhere, but someone had tried to update once and there were patches of wood panelling too. I remember the rock-a-billy poster on the wall above a Pac-man machine that was always out of order and a dart board that had been played so much it was coming apart. Most times the King George was full of people to about six foot above ground level and smoke the rest of the way to the ceiling.
There was always a thin guy with glasses and hair like a purple bristle-brush smoking a joint in the corner.
The moment I walked in the door with Barry I knew I should’ve stayed at home alone tonight. I tried to remember why and there was something there, but it wouldn’t become clear.
I mingle with the lost, frightened people, waiting patiently for something definite to begin. They yell to hear themselves above the band, a punk-derived R & B mutation called Lost On The Reefer. Stupid, eh? What’d I have to be here for?
A woman so thin I thought she’d been twisted dry like a hand-washed shirt nudged me and grinned. Her breath was brimstone.
“Call this livin’, do ya?” she croaked. I felt my gut tighten. The terrible lines I’d seen on Barry’s face spread over hers in a thicker pattern. I nearly caught the message in them. Something was trying to be remembered but it was playing hide-and-seek in my mind.
“Piss off!” Barry said to the woman.
She spat and went away.
“I think she’s sick,” I said.
Barry pulled me toward the bar.”Don’t want sickies around,” he yelled.
But Barry, I scream, they’re all sick! I can see it now. Sick like they’re running on borrowed life — life that was never meant to fit right. It’ll drop out of them any minute, I think, and they’ll topple over into little piles of ash. What’ll we do then?
I looked hard at Barry.
Barry’s life was fragile too. That was what I’d seen. The lines of death — life’s threads unravelling.
“Two beers!” he said to the barman, who looked as lively as one of them zombies in The Night of the Living Dead,”Lager!”
But we never got them.
The world ended then, you see, just as arbitrary as you like. No early warning sirens sang in the twilight, no broadcast hysteria heralded the bombs. Only a thudding in my head, which was like my brain was freezing up and dying, and death-lines unravelling on the faces around me.
“Great game on Sat’dy,” a large man says.” Ref was a bloody mug though.” The side of his face peels away as unnatural fire engulfs the wall he’s leaning on, taking half of him with it. But he’s still moving and his skull-mouth laughs or cries, I can’t tell which. There’s no difference any more.
“We dance, we dance!” a charred skeleton screams, what was once flesh tightening blackly with its movements. Noise roars so loudly that ears spill blood, and the blood boils away, but the ghosts dance, for the roar is the roar of the jukebox, cranked up to infinity.
Everywhere they dance — the punks, the trendies, the young execs. They dance as waves of light and sound tear them apart, and images of the dead — flame and dismemberment and starvation and plague — dance with them in the chaos. They’re good friends now, all those visions of death that’ve haunted mankind since he first touched a bone and wondered. They gather together here in the midst of violence and shout the name of their victim to make him come away. And mankind comes and joins the dance.
But there’s no peace in death.
I’ve read the books. Ghosts haunt the scene of their unnatural passing, re-enact like an obsession the moment of death.
I imagine all ’round the world it’s the same. A rite of passage that never ends.
“Susie!” Barry yelled, turning to me as the wall fell in and a furnace opened to engulf him.
There was nothing in his eyes then. Only blackness. The lines had grown and his face was gone.
I felt it all in the second before detonation. The missile must have hung there, waiting for my sight to clear.
“Two beers,” Barry says to the barman,”Lager!”
Then the ground shakes and as I suck in my breath the world is on fire.
“Susie!” Barry yells, but I’m not there.
I am fey. Grandma said so. I can step outside the world and watch from a distance. I watch it now. Half in the world but in that moment of ending not in it at all.
There is fire, ice, pain. I watch — but I must go back.
Together the ghosts and I tread out the steps. We move through the twilight hours, enter the King George, cough and shiver and always fail to remember what’s to come.
I am alive.
I could break the cycle.
But I don’t. If I did, the ghosts might go away. And if they went away, I might be alone forever.
So I sit on my front step, knowing something will happen that has happened before.
Sometimes I sleep.
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
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Eddie squinted at her. “What’ll we do? We’ll have to tell the cops.”
“Forget it. They wouldn’t understand.”
“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.”
“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 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.
At ten to six, just before sunrise, Allan Coachman rose from a troubled sleep and crept to the front window of his flat. The window looked out over an unkempt garden to the street — and as he squinted past rustling hydrangea leaves to the spot right under the streetlight where he knew the car would be, he felt a shiver of dread. Yes, there it was. Parked by the side of the road, as always. It was black, or at least very dark. Its lines were square and old-fashioned. Something straight out of an old law-enforcement melodrama — Dragnet or The Untouchables.
“I wonder what you want,” Allan muttered.
At two minutes to six the sky to the east began to lighten, and not long afterwards the sun itself rose into a sky decorated with only a few small clouds. Sunlight washed over the car. As it did, Allan used his binoculars in an attempt to see into the driver’s seat. But the light refracted, slithered across the tinted glass. Once again, he couldn’t make out an outline. Originally he had assumed this was because the driver had left the vehicle to visit a nearby house. But as always no one returned to the car. At the appointed time, it started up and disappeared into the morning haze.
The car had been there every night for the past three weeks, since Allan first noticed it. It was always parked just under the streetlight, whenever he chose to get up early and look — which he did every morning now. No one got out of it, no one got into it. Just after dawn it would drive away. That was it. It happened every night and Allan couldn’t help but fret, and wonder why.
His daytime work was suffering. He found it difficult to concentrate on the actuarial intricacies of delicately balanced company finances when his mind was full of worry and grim speculation. His boss regularly ticked him off for daydreaming and he’d developed an increasing tendency to mess up important calculations. Two weeks ago he’d lost his company identification card and was beginning to wonder whether they’d even bother making him a new one.
He couldn’t understand why this was happening to him, but had no one to discuss it with. His work colleagues were far too likely to make him the butt of tasteless jokes. He lived alone. And friends? He’d lost contact with his only close buddy back in 1986 when his summer vacation job at Hamburger Heaven had ended. As for family, his parents had died in a car crash when he was twelve, having left him with no siblings. It was because of this accident, perhaps, that Allan had never learnt to drive.
The next night, in an attempt to outwit his automotive stalker, Allan didn’t go home after work. Instead he booked into a hotel, taking a room with a street view. The hotel was far from his home and he’d never stayed there before, so he figured it would be difficult for his stalker to trace him. Early in the morning, he crept over to the hotel window to check, sure that the car wouldn’t be there this time. But it was parked against the gutter, under a streetlight, as always. Waiting. A cold shudder scratched over his skin.
Once his hands stopped trembling, he rang the police and told them that someone was following him. He was getting scared, he said.
“Do you have the vehicle’s registration number?” the desk sergeant asked.
Only the night before he’d used binoculars to check the plates on the car as it drove off in the early morning light. It had had none. When he told the policeman this, the man didn’t reply.
“Could you send someone around to interview the driver?” Allan asked. The policeman was reluctant to act on what he obviously interpreted as paranoia, but when Allan pressed the point said they’d check it out. At about four o’clock that morning Allan watched a patrol car glide along the empty street and turn right at the next intersection. When he looked back at the spot under the streetlight, he knew what he’d see.
“It was there,” he told the constable who rang him toward lunchtime. “It turned up after your patrol went past.”
“Are you sure you weren’t imagining it?” the man replied. “Perhaps I could refer you to a counselor.”
Allan decided not to pursue the matter.
Later that day he was fired from his job, a position he’d held, without advancement, for nearly ten years. “One of our clients complained,” he was told. “You cost them nearly ten thousand dollars, thanks to a stupid computational error. We were inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, but they’re good customers, and you hardly seem interested these days.” Actually Allan had tired of the work years ago. But he hated being dismissed and, though he had a decade of savings squirreled away, disliked being deprived of regular income.
He blamed the car and its mysterious occupant. Bleary and unhappy, he slouched by his window staring at the quiet street and the unmoving car, and wondered for the millionth time what it could want with him. Was he under some sort of official surveillance?
I can’t take it any more, he thought. I’ll find out what’s going on, whatever the consequences.
He slipped on his loafers, fetched a coat and hat and walked straight out the front door, carefully locking it behind him. The car was in its usual spot, directly outside his front gate under the streetlight. Drawing in a lungful of chilly pre-dawn air, Allan strode down the path toward the car.
His approach provoked no response. That surprised him. If the purpose of the car was to watch him incognito, he’d figured going near it would make it drive away at once.
But nothing happened. Up close the duco seemed inordinately smooth and clean: no stone chips, no scratches, no insect smears. No dust, for that matter. Whoever’s car it was, they certainly cared for it.
“Hello?” he called.
His voice echoed strangely in the empty street. There were no lights on in any of the neighbouring houses. Anything could happen to him, and no one would know.
“Is there anyone in there?” he yelled, tapping lightly on the rear curbside window.
He couldn’t see anyone in the car. Even this close the tinting of the glass blocked clear vision. All he could make out was some very broken evidence of dim light coming through from the other side and shadows that may or may not have been a driver and passengers. The car seemed empty, though it might have been packed with watchers.
This time Allan rapped quite vigorously on the glass then started back quickly as though something might leap out the window at him.
Sighing, and gaining some further bravado from the lack of response, he moved around the rear of the car, heading for the driver’s side door. For a moment he stood little more than arm’s length from whoever might be sitting behind the steering wheel, and waited for something to happen. When nothing did, he reached out and knocked on the glass. Tap. Tap.
“Excuse me!” he said and tapped again.
After a moment, fed up with being ignored, he reached for the door handle. He gripped it. Turned the lever. The door wasn’t locked. Should he open it, he wondered, almost simultaneously with doing it. Before he knew what he’d done — while the consequences of doing so were still taking shape in his head — he was staring into the empty driver’s seat, feeling strangely deflated.
Nobody. An empty car.
Allan huffed. Did they think they could hide from him?
Angry, he leaned into the car’s lush interior and whispered, “Where are you hiding, damn it?” Shadows seemed to shift and draw away in the back seat, but it was just a trick of the light. Had to be. There was nowhere to hide.
Disgruntled, he slipped down onto the driver’s seat. It felt very comfortable. The seat was padded, worn in ways that suited his build. The headrest and back adjustment was right for him. The wheel felt comfortable in his hands. Keys were dangling in the slot at the base of the steering column.
I could wait here, Allan thought. Wait for the driver to return. He would have to do so sooner or later. Dawn was the crucial moment and he’d come back by then.
Yes. I’ll wait.
He reached out and closed the door. Darkness wrapped around him.
It was very close, very intimate in this car. Although at first he felt considerable anxiety sitting there in the dark, the feeling of having violated someone else’s place soon passed as he breathed in the interior’s leathery warmth and watched the time on the digital display tick over. Finally, as the sky lightened, the numbers changed to 6.00. Then 6.01. 6.02. No one came. The digits climbed higher. It was dawn and time for the car to depart. But no one had come to drive it away. The owner must have seen Allan climb in and had decided to take off on foot.
Okay, thought Allan. Okay. Be like that. But I’m not licked yet.
He reached up and toggled the switch on the overhead light. The resulting illumination was dull and yellow. It would be enough. Carefully he searched through the glove box, ran his fingers over the back seats, checked along the dashboard. He accidentally switched on the radio, which blared out a rock song that seemed to be about espionage: “Are you on routine assignment?” the singer sang. Allan punched the OFF button and silenced him. Continuing his search, he found nothing to identify the owner, sank back, disheartened, about ready to give up.
Check again. A draught seemed to whisper in his ear. Check again.
That’s when he caught sight of a flat object on the floor over on the passenger’s side — square and white, half hidden under the seat. A stray beam of daylight caught on it and it glinted. Plastic. Allan reached down and picked it up.
A photo ID. Belonging to Mr Harold R. Lumbeck. Financial consultant with a stockbroking firm. The picture showed a badly lit phantom, but it was clear enough to allow for identification.
“Why have you been watching me, Lumbeck?” Allan asked it.
Naturally the photo ID gave him no answer, but the possibilities were so raucous in his own mind that Allan almost heard voices whispering their responses from the rear of the car.
“You think I’ve lost him, do you?” he whispered back.
He checked the ID for an address then put the card in his coat pocket. Calmly, thoughtlessly, he positioned the gear stick to NEUTRAL and turned on the ignition. The engine purred.
“I know where he lives,” he said. “Let’s go there.”
Allan put the gears in DRIVE, eased off the handbrake and depressed the accelerator. The car moved away from the gutter.
Easy, Allan thought. It’s like I’ve always known how to drive.
That made him smile.
Later that night he parked outside the house of Mr Harold R. Lumbeck and waited for him to appear. When dawn came, he drove away. He didn’t go home, he just parked somewhere shadowy and inconspicuous, until night fell once more. Then, determination refreshed, he returned to the place and waited. Voices whispered to him from the back seat, encouraging him. Keeping him company.
When dawn came and nobody had emerged from the house, Allan wasn’t concerned. He could be patient. Smiling grimly, he drove off into the morning light.
But he knew he would be back, no matter how long it took. Night after night the car would be parked there by the side of the road, waiting. Sooner or later Lumbeck would see it. He would creep to his window and look out at the silent vehicle.
And then it would be his turn to worry.
His turn to wonder why.