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Yuki: Good evening everyone, I hope you’re all doing well. *blows nose*
Assistant: Okay, Yuki—seriously now—you need to get some rest, you’re not well.
Yuki: Bah! I’m fine, we just gotta get through this excursion and I’ll rest. I swear!
Assistant: You better. Put on your mask and I’ll start up the tea. It’ll be waiting for you when you get back.
Yuki: Alright, we’ll see you soon. Tonight, we have a couple doing much like we are: going on a trip out into the unknown. Unlike us, with proper precautions taken and months and years of planning, these two are going on a last minute drive through the mountains with little preparation.
The drive back up to Sydney was uneventful—as it always was after a brief holiday. Moreso this time around, Joey Wilson thought bitterly, with the trip cut short due to their hosts coming down with the flu. Not even sixty kilometres into the drive north and he was already feeling sluggish behind the wheel.
‘What are we pulling off for?’ Olivia Greene asked, looking up from her sketch book.
‘Feeling like a snack and a light sugar rush,’ her boyfriend replied with a half-truth (he made sure to keep both of his hands on the wheel and his eyes wide open for her benefit). ‘Want something?’
‘Mmm…banana bread if they have any.’
‘Alright,’ Joey said, parking in an open spot near the front door of the Caltex.
Inside, he picked out a couple Mountain Dews from the coolers, the requested banana bread from the wicker basket near the coffee maker, and a chocolate fudge brownie for himself. As he stood in the queue for the register, he happened to notice a collection of maps near a dozen or so pamphlets and brochures for touristy things in the area. He recalled one of the road signs a few k’s back, they hadn’t yet reached the exit for the mountains. Both he and Livia still had plenty of time off; it’d be a waste to just spend time sitting around the apartment waiting to go back to work. They could take their time getting home.
Screw it. Time for an adventure.
Joey picked up a regional NSW map.
‘What’s that you got?’ Livia asked as Joey opened the door and took his spot behind the wheel.
‘Our salvaged holiday,’ he said, smiling. He handed over the banana bread. ‘The mountains are an exit or two away and the roads’ll still take us back to the city.’
‘Why the map then?’
‘Lots of green and grey on Google Maps—probably not too much mobile service on the back roads. Whaddaya say?’
‘Do we have enough clean and warm clothes?’
‘Washed and dried last night. And we don’t have to stay in the mountains the whole time. One or two days and we keep taking the scenic route with an ocean view.’
‘Ouch, you’re twisting my arm. Okay, let’s go!’
Ten kilometres down the road, Joey reached the turnoff. He took Bowna and Wymah road, which, save for the two trucks travelling in the opposite direction, was completely empty. A few houses came and went on both sides of the street. Mainly they had several square kilometres of paddocks and lounging farm animals to keep them company.
As predicted, there was no mobile service once the sight of the Hume Highway left the rearview mirror. When they pulled up to a small town called Jingellic, Joey parked the car on the dirt shoulder and the couple consulted the map.
Joey looked down what looked to be the only street in town and took notice of the trees and buildings. ‘Looks like the storm missed.’
‘Oh, I’m just saying that so far there hasn’t been so much as a branch on the ground and the tarmac has been bone dry from about five minutes back.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. Must’ve cut north or something.’ Olivia thought about that for a second. ‘Probably a good idea we didn’t follow the Hume all the way back.’
Joey studied the map and traced his finger over a few possible paths. ‘Alright, if we go north this way to Tumbarumba and take Tooma Road out, we go up Elliott Way over here. That’s where the real scenic route should start.’
‘Ooh…that’s really windy and twisty!’
He pointed to a spot further east. ‘Right about here we dip all the way down to the Tumut river and start our climb again here and it becomes Goat Ridge Road. We start to level out again here when we switch over to ‘Link Road—’
‘We can stop at the camp just after that for lunch.’
Joey smiled. ‘We can. After that we go along the Snowy Mountains Highway; we can look for places to stay the night along the way. Otherwise, we shouldn’t have a problem finding lodging in Cooma.’
Livia nodded in agreement. ‘I don’t suppose there’s much in the way of petrol between here and here,’ she said, tapping on the map.
‘Correct. I’ll fill up in Tumbarumba.’
‘Cool. Sounds like a plan so far.’
‘We’re off then.’
Joey put on the indicator and merged back on to the street.
Half an hour (and dozens of cows) later, Joey brought the sun-beaten Camry up to the pumps of a 7-Eleven and wasted no time. Five minutes after paying, they were on their way toward the outskirts. Not even fifteen kilometres down Tooma road, the couple made their first diversion for sightseeing.
The small sign for Paddys River Falls only gave them five-hundred metre’s notice (they were certain they missed an earlier indication); Joey brought the Toyota to a crawl and made the sharp right turn. He hugged the slope on his left, suddenly unsure of the trip down (not like he could turn around if he wanted to anyway). The Camry was narrow, but eve it seemed massive in his lane. The road was paved—so it had that going for it. His palms grew sweaty as he saw Hiluxes further down the winding path coming up.
‘Shit,’ Joey muttered under his breath. There was no way they would fit alongside one another. And surely they’d not expect him to reverse uphill. Joey eased his foot off the brake and continued down. They approached a tight left turn and, mercifully, there was a generous should for him to move aside. The Hiluxes passed, both drivers waved their hands as they continued their trek—tyres perilously close to the edge of the tarmac. An Eclipse hurried up the path so as to not go side-by-side with another vehicle on the narrower bits; that driver was too focused on the road to offer Joey any thanks.
And he did not blame her one bit.
Seconds felt like hours, but the Camry found its way on to the gravel car park. Livia and Joey got out and gathered their bearings. Toilets off to the left, picnic areas outlining the carpark, extra parking for caravans off to the right, tall trees all around them. And there was the unmistakable woosh of a waterfall
It was one hell of a sight to take in.
The land beyond the carpark sat above the lip of the falls. The powerful surge of the water rocketed from the ledge and crashed upon the boulders several metres below. Livia retrieved her camera from her bag and started clicking away. Joey took his phone from his pocket and wandered off to the right. He opened up the camera settings and line up a panoramic shot of the falls, the grotto behind the raging torrents, and the river as it wound lazily out of sight.
Joey eyed the path and and saw how it led to the rock pool and behind the cascading water. ‘Hey! We can get some shot down here!’
Livia stepped forward and glanced over the edge. ‘Ugh; stairs. No thank you.’
‘Not today, Satan. My hip’s still fucked, thank you very much. You take the pics down there and I’ll handle all the stuff up here.’
‘Okay, next time we won’t do it at all before a day out,’ Joey teased. He followed the concrete footpath and stairs and snapped a few more pictures. Out of habit, he opened up Facebook and realised there was only one bar that teetered on the ‘no service’ symbol. Later then.
It was a five minute hike down and across before he had Paddys Falls right dead in front of him. He picked up the pace only to stop a few strides in. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end; from the corner of his eye hideous faces were staring, bony arms reaching out for him. He turned on his heel toward the river and moved back into the handrails as much as he physically could. Deep hollow eyes glared. Gaping maws screamed at him or cried out in silent horror. The skeletal figures swayed in the wind.
It took a beat, but Joey made the connection that he was staring at a group of trees a couple of metres shy of the water. All of the zombie-like features were actually etched into the trunks. He sighed and kicked himself inwardly for freaking himself out over nothing.
‘You get your pics yet!?’ Livia shouted over the rushing waters.
‘Nah. Not yet!’ he yelled back while readying his camera at the unusual sight. ‘Gimme about ten minutes?’
Joey zoomed in on the trunks. Even weirder, he thought, that wasn’t graffiti carved into the bark, but rather naturally occurring hollows and distortions—probably caused by fungi or vines. Joey shuddered. His mind was unconsciously taking those patterns and constructing human faces.
Okay, time to go, he told himself, before I give myself nightmares. He snapped the closeups and moved on.
Joey met Livia at the car. ‘You get enough down there?’
‘I think so. More than enough to satisfy anyone wanting to know what we’re up to. We’ll probably have to wait ‘til Cooma for me to upload. How ‘bout you?’
‘Birds and butterflies mostly. I got some really cool rock formations on that hillside over there.’
Joey told her about the trees and showed her the images. She squinted at them and brought the phone close to her face.
‘I mean, I guess I can kinda see that. Wouldn’ta thought that if you hadn’t put the idea there.’
Joey Shrugged. ‘I guess…scared the crap outta me.’
‘Man, you gotta stop watching horror movies before bed.’
Joey rolled his eyes. ‘Not you too.’
‘Mhmm…so, you ready to go?’
He noticed a car easing its way down the path. ‘Eeeh, we’ll wait for that to make it down first.’
Joey felt much relief once he reached the main road. He actually exhaled once they had solid ground on both sides of the pavement.
Livia chuckled. ‘Oh my god, that was only a tiny side trip! Are you sure you can do a whole mountain drive?’
‘There’s no way it’ll be as bad. It’ll definitely have guard rails at the very least.’ Confidence was returning in his voice and his body was more at ease. He noticed he was leaning in to the steering wheel and allowed himself to rest his back against the seat.
It didn’t last long. That relaxed feeling started to fade a kilometre down Elliott Way. Many of the trees along the shoulders were weather-damaged in some way. Trunks were snapped or bent and a decent amount of downed branches lay scattered across both the grass and tarmac. At least the lanes were wide.
Three hundred metres before the descent, a roadworker with a sign picked himself up from a nearby stump and walked toward the dividing line.
Joey brought the car to a stop and rolled down the window.
‘How ya doing?’ the man asked.
‘Fine. And yourself?’ Joey replied.
‘Can’t complain—little chilly though. We’re giving everyone a heads up; we got some workers cleanin’ up the shoulders on the way down.’
‘Not that they’ve reported. But a bit of the way down is a single lane. Take it real slow around the bends and stop for them. They’ll let you know when to keep on going.’
Joey and Livia thanked the man and continued on the drive. The two of them soon saw that the workers were not messing around. Several utes were parked alongside the guardrail; men and woment in hi-vis vests peppered both shoulders with whipper snippers and blowers.
‘I don’t think I’ve even seen this many people on construction for the M5,’ Livia stated.
The lollipop lady help up the stop sign and spoke briefly into her radio and held it up to her ear. She flipped the to ‘slow’ and waved them through. Over the next several hundred metres, the couple saw more utes, some with flashing yellow lights, some with wood chippers, and others still with various high-powered lawn tools. Every person they saw was busy with raking up debris or cutting up branches too big to hoist in their current state. Aside from brief glances when the Camry approached, no one paid them any mind. When the car passed the lollipop man at the other end of the work zone, Joey kept at the same slow pace.
‘Not gonna speed up?’
‘Yeah, nah. Not on this road. They were going down the same direction as us. Might be a little cluttered ahead.’
‘If we get stuck, at least it won’t be for too long.’
‘That is a bonus, I guess.’
And so they crawled the last five kilometres and the road straightened out for the remaining dip. Immediately before the Tumut River crossing, there was an offshoot road that made a large loop around some park space. Unprompted, Joey turned into O’Hares campground.
‘Probably a good time to use the toilet,’ he advised. ‘We’ve maybe at least forty to fifty k’s before the next campsite…I think.’
He parked the car.
‘Not even a place to pull over?’
Joey pulled out the map and looked it over. ‘From what I see here, most likely not. I mean, this place isn’t even on the map, so there could be others…but with all the tight turns and no real straightaways, it’s doubtful.’
‘Okay, I’ll be a minute then.’
‘Cool. I’m gonna stretch my legs, too.’
Livia headed off to the toilets while Joey made his way to the water’s edge. It was so expansive that it seemed more like a lake than a river. Stranger yet, the waters were a vivid green.
Must be a hell of an algae bloom, Joey thought, bringing out his phone for a few more shots. Not even a hint of blue.
Another thing caught his attention—he raised his nose to the air. Something smelled delicious and he had no idea what it was. He swiveled in place, putting his back to the river, and eyed all the picnic tables and barbecues. No one else was there. On the far side of the gravel loop a thicket of trees and shrubs blocked the view of the rest of the grounds. There looked to be a well-trodden dirt path going further along the land.
A quick look wouldn’t hurt, Joey decided.
As he approached the bushland, a gust of wind whipped up the scent. His stomach growled. Weird, he hadn’t realised he was so hungry.
Joey stepped on to the path and stopped in his tracks.
A number of them had the same humanoid characteristics from Paddys Falls. It had to be a common species of tree, right? They were fucked up looking for sure, but this had to be a naturally occurring thing, yeah? Joey lived in the city his whole life and knew very little about the flora of regional New South Wales. He could obviously spot palms or eucalyptus or gum trees, but that was about it for him. Honestly, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Cracked had featured them in an article of the creepiest plants from around the world. He took a few more steps down the path and—
‘Hey! What’re you doing?’
Joey snapped out of his fixation and turned back to the public toilets and shook his head. ‘Having a bit of a wander.’
‘Have a wander back to the car. I just felt a raindrop.’
Joey looked skyward. The grey clouds were getting darker and moving in fast. He hurried back to the Toyota, hastily pressing the unlock button on the key fob. ‘Yeah, let’s not get stuck in the middle of a storm. Not here!’
The couple wasted no more time an were back onto Elliott Way in a matter of seconds.
The bridge across the Tumut was a single lane wide, with signage indicating that drivers needed to take turns crossing. Thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic to slow their trip out of the valley.
Even more storm damage was present on the eastern side of the river. All the tall grasses at the base of the hills were flattened by water runoff. Numerous trees were missing some of their thicker branches. Two trees had been uprooted entirely.
Weather events aside, the scenery around them was nothing short of majestic. Joey rolled down his window and pushed back against his head rest as far as he could to allow Livia to take pictures of the valley and the mountains. She lamented on the storm clouds in the background and jokingly insisted that they come back sometime when the skies were clear. To which Joey pointed out (hoping Livia would not call his bluff) that from Cooma, it wouldn’t be a terrible drive back.
Elliott Way soon became Goat Ridge Road and the Camry started its ascent. Less damage was evident, but the only constant was the bush flattened by overflow. Mud and dirt speckled the narrow shoulder closest to the crag. A couple instances over the stretch, the misplaced earth reached the divider—nothing thick enough to impede comfortable travel. Joey was certain that they’d make it out with no problem—
But that was a short-lived assumption as he pulled around a sharp left bend. His foot tapped the brake harder than intended, causing the tyres to squeal. Livia let out a sharp gasp, almost dropping her camera.
‘You gotta be shitting me,’ Joey murmured.
A gigantic gum tree lay horizontal across both lanes. The whole body was intact, roots and all. It was brought down by a landslide, the mound of dirt was piled up cliff-side and splashed around the tree in their lane. Joey put on the hazard lights and stepped out. No way in hell could the tree be moved by hand. He crossed the road. The top covered all of the available land up to the ledge; there was no going around. He checked the grass before investigating the opposite side.
Joey looked at Livia and shook his head. ‘No go. Car’ll get stuck; the ground is too soggy and there’s no way I can keep it on the road to turn it around.’
‘Well, what do we do then?’
Joey checked his phone. ‘Zero reception. I think we should wait for the road works guys to get here.’
Livia groaned. ‘That could take hours!’
‘Could take even longer if we get stuck. They might be able to wench us out. Then we’d have to be driven to the nearest town to arrange a tow.’
‘At least we have snacks. C’mon, let’s sit in the car with the heat on for a bit.’
‘Wait for me,’ Joey said walking back around the turn.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Shoulda gone to the toilet down at the campground. I’ll be right back.’
Joey jogged over to the thickets and looked for a suitably wide tree to hid behind. The odds of a someone else driving by were very slim, based on the lack of traffic since ditching the Hume. Better safe than sorry. As he undid his fly a familiar scent caught his attention. He turned to his right and sniffed. A larger grouping of trees was back some fifty metres—the same ones from Paddys and O’Hares. The smell was much more potent now. Even from the distance, Joey could see the strange faces…the warped bodies embedded in the trunks.
He couldn’t help but stare. His stomach was rabid now, demanding food. Full bladder suddenly forgotten, Joey ambled over to the curiosities. Hesitantly, he ran his palm over the bark—smooth, but not entirely firm; it was cold and flesh-like. Looking closely at the hollows that he thought of as eye sockets, he noticed sap was leaking from the lower portion. The scent was more pungent than ever. Joey extended his pinky to the substance and dabbed the tiniest amount on his tongue.
It was delicious! Unlike anything he’d ever tasted! He gathered more on his finger and hastily consumed it. Another nearby tree wept the tasty sap—and another one—and another.
Joey moved from tree to tree and collected what he could. His mind clouded over. The intense appetite was being sated. The world around him grew warm. All his extremities got a fuzzy sensation until they went completely numb.
The forest faded to black and Joey didn’t mind in the slightest.
Back at the car, Livia checked the time on her phone for the seventeenth time. Joey should have been back ages ago. She decided to go out and have a look.
She called out his name, walking in the direction he went. ‘Everything okay?’
‘Joey! Answer me! No need to be shy at a time like this!’ She approached the nearest trees that would have kept him out of sight from the street. Nothing.
She called his name out again. Concern began to worm its way into her nerves. Her voice threatened to waver.
And then she noticed the strange trees; the ones Joey had gone on about. She ran over and immediately recognised his concern. The human forms were much more pronounced than the ones from the Falls. These overtook almost every square centimetre of the damned things. One of them even looked like…
Livia ran up to the trunk that bore an uncanny similarity to her boyfriend. Unable to fully comprehend exactly what she was seeing, she ran her fingers over Joey’s forehead and down his cheek. He was still warm…and the bark was smooth and rubbery. She looked into the hollows where his eyes used to be…
…and noticed tears—no, sap, leaking from within. A sweet smell intruded her thoughts and overwhelmed her; her stomach ached. No longer in control of herself, Livia extended her index fingers and gathered a dollop of the strange amber fluid.
Intoxicating—the only word she could muster as she licked the digit clean. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head.
She had to have more!
In a matter of moments a warm and fuzzy feeling enveloped her entire being. Livia’s mind was at ease again. She smiled and sighed with content; the delicious taste was the last thing she ever knew.
Yuki: Oooh, I know it’s probably not good for me, but what I would give for some of that sap.
Assistant: Feeling worse.
Assistant: *sighs* You pushed yourself too hard again. C’mon, let’s get you a blanket and hot water bottle. I’ve got your tea waiting for you too.
Yuki: Okay. There’s still no chance of getting that sap, is there?
Assistant: No…there isn’t, but we’ve got some honey to go in the tea. Come along this way. Thanks for your time tonight, folks. See you again!