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Yuki: Evening, all! We’ve got a hell of a story for you tonight. All the way from a remote mountain town in Australia.
Assistant: We’ve got an awful lot of activity coming from that area lately.
Yuki: Yes we have. And we’ve been cataloging it with all the other locations?
Assistant: Mhmm. The computer’s working with all the information to figure out what it means.
Yuki: Awesome! In the meantime ladies and gents, let’s get this excursion underway. A winter storm is fast approaching the small mountain town of Jacobs Crossing. The townsfolk will be snowed in and unable to move as something stirs in the outskirts.
The wind howled down the main street of Jacobs Basin. Ian Murphy zipped his jacket and pulled up the collar, keeping the invisible icy tendrils from creeping down his spine. Another La Nina winter, he thought, wonderful. As bitter as he was in the moment being out in the cold, Ian knew that, ultimately, it was better than the alternative: a bloody scorching summer burning into all the other seasons.
He’d rather have a layer of thermals under his street clothes and a hot water bottle than try to keep himself cool. His house had no air conditioning—the most the fans could do was blow around the muggy air. The pools and lakes were overcrowded; and in the case of the latter, did not actually get him out of the sun. Even worse during the El Nino years: having a ready-to-leave kit together and being prepared to leave at a moment’s notice due to the bushfires.
BOM had predicted a rocky winter ahead. The coming weekend was set to be particularly rough with an expected eighteen centimetres of snow over Friday into Saturday. It might very well be nothing, and the expected flurries were still forty-eight hours away, but he wasn’t taking any chances. So he used his one day off during the week to get all the important shit done. He tucked his newly-acquired weather band radio and twelve pack of double-As in the boot of his Pulsar and brought out a couple canvas bags. Next stop: QBD for some reading material while the snow comes down (the TV aerial reception was awful on stormy days), followed by Safeway for a week’s worth of food, and the Cellar Door so he could have himself some nice mulled cider for the impending long weekend (he had no intention of travelling to work on Saturday with the expected weather conditions). Another icy breeze kicked up and caused Ian to shudder. He thought heavily about wrangling a chili and ginger hot chocolate as a bribe to himself for enduring the frosty Wednesday morning.
There wasn’t any hesitation when Ian decided to enter the Chocolate Den on the way to his little hatchback. The supermarket had been jam-packed with people trying to get their meals sorted. With the kids on their winter holidays, it was more crowded (and louder) than usual. It was a good thing he managed to get into the city so early; if he’d had a shift today the milk and bread surely would have been gone by the time he got out. Annoyed, he had glanced at all the baskets and trolleys with litre upon litre of milk and several bags of sliced bread stacked up. How were they possibly going to go through all of that before they went off? Did they really think they’d be snowed in for a week or more? Ian brushed the thought aside and enjoyed the first supercharged sip the second he let the shopping bags fall on to the back seat.
That’s the stuff!
Ian buckled in and grabbed the quilted blanket from the passenger seat and draped it over his legs. He really needed to get the heating fixed on the Datsun, but that was a problem that could be sorted next autumn. The casual position at Alpine Hi-Fi offered enough hours per week to get by and have a little stowed into his savings.
He contemplated making an appointment for the car to be serviced, but once the blanket over his lap warmed his legs that thought was exiled to the recesses of his mind.
On the way out of town, Ian regarded the cloud coverage—not a hard thing to do considering all that lay before him was the two lane road with wide-open fields on both sides—and was convinced that the storm wasn’t going to wait until Friday to start. The clouds blowing in were getting darker, so much so that he had to pop on his headlamps. It wasn’t quite cold enough for snow, but they could easily have a day or two of rain beforehand. All the farmers in the area had that idea before him; none of the animals were out and about in the paddocks from what he could see.
The first droplets pattered over the windscreen as he was turning off Kosciuszko Road on to Sandserson Creek Way. Not perfect timing, but hey, he didn’t have to do any of his shopping in the frigid rainfall. And he was this close to being done with all his errands for the day.
Ian yawned and turned onto his driveway. Instead of going up the slope of the gravel path, he parked the Pulsar on a generous wide and level spot to the left of his letterbox. He got his bags from the back and retrieved the few letters from the box and hoisted everything up the hundred metre-long slope. On rainy days, getting the car down the gravel drive was a bitch; on snowy days, the car was impossible to move.
One hundred percent fuck trying to shovel that kind of length of path down a steep drive, he often told himself (usually just before the inevitable call-in to work). On days like these, the Datsun would live at the base of his property until the weather cleared.
Ian was mildly winded by the time he reached the front door. Despite the cold, prickly beads of sweat broke out across his back. It really was too early in the morning for that shit. He unpacked the Pioneer weather band radio, put in the batteries and set it on top of the refrigerator. While he put away the groceries, he put on the kettle and fixed a quick plate of eggs and bacon. Even with a pause for breakfast to rest up, he’d still be finished with his chores before midday. Not a bad deal at all. As soon as he finished his meal he’d wash the dish and pan, vacuum the house, and chop up some firewood. After all that, the most difficult thing he’d have to do was figure out how to piss away the rest of the day.
His own breathing mimicked his mug of tea, sending up a fine vapour as he scrambled the eggs. It would have been uncomfortable had he not layered up, but a bonus for having a frosty kitchen: he didn’t have to wait long at all for his tea to reach a hospitable temperature. He took a sip and added the rashers of bacon to the pan.
I could go through the tapes and do a horror movie marathon, but I do wanna save that for when I’m stuck in the house. Ian sighed. But if the power goes out—as it usually does—then I won’t be able to. Books, video games…something.
He mulled over the possibilities as he ate and nursed his tea.
Okay, some Mr Do! And Donkey Kong to start off the afternoon and Friday the 13th and Halloween to end the night. I can make up shit in between if I need to.
Vacuuming only took ten minutes of his day. Once there was a pause in the rain, he spent about the same amount of time chopping firewood. The logs were stacked up alongside the wall of the free-standing garage to the right of his home. He brought out the wheelbarrow from the garage and tossed all the small pieces into it. The second he felt a droplet of rain on his arm he decided to call it and quickly pulled the tarp back over the remaining logs. He quickly ran the barrow up to the patio to keep the wood dry. He circled back to the log pile, picked up the axe and took it back in to the garage. It went back into its normal spot on the rear wall next to his workbench.
Fuck yeah, time for some R and R!
Ian stretched his arms high over his head and let out another yawn. His lower back and shoulders popped for brief satisfaction and he let himself back into the house.
Chores done and no further need to go outside until work beckoned the next morning, Ian disrobed on his way through the lounge room and put on the shower. He pulled a VB out of the refrigerator and took two healthy swigs while the water heated up properly. He set the beer on the edge of the sink and stepped over the rim of the tub and pulled the curtain shut.
Midway through his wash he decided on a whim to extend his time in his humid cocoon. What the hell, right? Usually after a good, long soak he was nice and toasty for awhile afterwards; it’d curb his temptation to put on the fire early.
One beer and one MAD magazine later, Ian was feeling fine and warm, even as the bath water dipped below his preferred temperature. He drained the tub and put on his thermals, made himself a second cup of tea, and switched on the Atari. During the remaining sunlit hours he upped his high scores and cursed under his breath each time he made a boneheaded mistake or lost a life. There was one pause in play to allow him a moment to switch on the oven and throw in a Scott’s TV dinner. After the egg timer went off, that was his cue to switch of the games. He let the disposable tray cool down and leaned against the counter.
This was the kind of day he needed. Even with the chores thrown into the bulk of his morning, he was totally mellowed out. He pulled another beer from the fridge. Another minute or two passed and he tore off the aluminium foil and bounded back into the lounge room. He let the food cool off further and took the time to start the fire. When it was off and roaring he scarfed down the serving of chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans.
Halloween started up, as did the stovetop popcorn (extra butter and extra salt). Hot bowl in his lap, comfortably alone, Ian chowed down on his snack and smiling all the while.
The comfort of the crackling fire and a nice heavy blanket was soon too much for him. He fell asleep just as Mrs Voorhees arrived at Camp Crystal Lake and met up with Alice. Soon after, the television filled with snow as the VCR rewound the tape and the last of the glowing orange embers dimmed.
Miraculously, the muffled sound of his clock radio was enough to wake Ian. Eyes still closed, he stretched his legs out from the heap of blankets and stood upright.
‘Oh shit—not good,’ he mumbled and ended up on his ass (thankfully on the couch). A mixture of lightheadedness and nausea engulfed him. And for an additional kick to the teeth, at that very instant, he finally registered the splitting headache buried beneath his eye sockets.
‘C’mon, get it together, dude.’ became his mantra through chattering teeth that morning. He moved around gingerly, washed down two Asprin tags with a shot of orange juice. With one hand he prepped a cup of coffee and used his other hand to massage his temple. Ian let it cool a little and took a piping hot shower in the meantime. He let out a groan and rested his head on the cold wall tiles and let the water envelope everything from the base of his neck downward. When the water started to lose its sizzle he forced himself out to get dressed.
The thumping in his head started to dull. Good.
One gulp after the other, Ian downed his coffee at the kitchen sink. He stared out the window; the dark and gloomy clouds hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, they somehow looked more prevalent. Lower, too. A thin layer of frost covered every living thing that he could see.
‘Car’ll need defrosting, too,’ he said to no one in particular.
He finished off his coffee and set the mug in the sink.
Picking up his beanie and gloves from the small table next to the door, Ian ambled out into the morning. The sting of the icy air against the his exposed skin diverted attention from his headache. He cringed as he felt all the little nose hairs freeze immediately.
Two more shifts. Only two to go. C’mon long weekend. You can do this. Ian encouraged himself as he carefully made his way down the side of the gravel path. Three minutes later he had the engine warming up while he used the squeegee from the boot to scrape away the frost from the front and rear windscreens. As soon as they were cleared, the Datsun was on the road.
By the time Ian pulled into the Alpine Hi-Fi car park his headache was barely registering. Maybe it wasn’t going to be such a shit day after all
No customers were waiting at the door; nor did anyone appear to be waiting in the warmth of their cars. Not entirely surprising, considering the weather now and what was still to come. Necessities now; entertainment later.
From inside the store, Mary noticed him before he had a chance to knock. She held up her index finger briefly and counted through handful of notes and placed them in the register. She grabbed a set of keys from behind the counter and jogged to the front door and unlocked it.
‘Mornin!’ Mary said, standing aside to let him in.
‘Good morning. Looks like we’ll have a quiet morning.’
‘No shit! I didn’t see a single car parked outside any of the cafes on the way here. Not a single line for takeaway coffee.’
Mary locked the door again and they walked to the breakroom.
‘Man, you could’ve had time for once to grab one.’
‘Too cold. Besides, I didn’t want to deprive myself of the cheap instant stuff they supply us with.’ Mary turned around and looked him over. ‘You sure you don’t want a cuppa? You look like hell.’
‘Thanks. I felt twice as bad before I left.’
‘Dude, you can go home if you need to.’
Ian shook his head. ‘Nah, it’s fine. I still need to finish up going through the inventory. Probably won’t have a better day for it.’
Mary frowned, clearly irritated he hadn’t called in. ‘You have hat-hair, Blondie, comb it before we open. And the second you start to feel worse, you let me know and get your arse home!’
‘Can-do, Boss. You’re gonna get at least three hours from me.’
Mary Wilson was a godsend, Ian thought, she had been even before she’d been promoted to assistant manager. When she got hired on six years before, Ian had tenure and she shadowed him for a week before she was set out on her own tasks. The new mother proved herself time and again over the course of her first year. The customers loved her and her charming Scottish lilt. And on more than one occasion she’d saved his ass when he’d been offloaded managerial work at the last minute. Of course he’d given her the credit, she more than fucking deserved it.
As such, Ian busted his ass any time she was in charge. He gave his all for five hours…and then at 1:30 his headache came back with a vengeance. It came out of nowhere and the intensity within the first few minutes threatened to have him heave his Whopper and chips from lunch. He put a pin in his stocking duties and took refuge behind the counter next to the cash register. He leaned against the wall and kept as still as possible. What few customers that were in the store, thankfully, didn’t need help searching for products or lifting them, only checking out.
Mary walked in from her lunch break smelling of coffee and tobacco. The blustery wind had her rusty brown hair all over the place. Ian stopped breathing through his nose to keep himself from hurling his guts everywhere.
He must have had a look on his face because Mary went into mum-mode instantly.
Before she even got a word out, he spoke up. ‘I gotta tap out now.’
‘I was gonna say, you look fucking awful. Are you sure you can get home okay?’
‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll be fine.’ He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The pain lessened slightly without the fluorescent lighting washing over everything.
‘You better be,’ Mary warned; her voice was gentle yet stern. ‘And call me as soon as you get home. I wanna know you’re safe.’
‘Totally,’ he sighed. ‘You sure you’ll be okay by yourself?’
‘Seriously?’ Mary looked around the store. ‘All that’s left is putting up that box of stock and a quick sweep. I’ll be fine.’ She thought for a moment and added: ‘You can stay home tomorrow, too. Rest up and feel better, alright?’
Mary laughed. ‘It’s okay, really. You need to sleep this off. And, in all honesty, upper management will have me cut hours anyway. Tomorrow will be light as well and the odds of us being open on Saturday with the storm coming are not good.’
‘Yup. I’ll find out tomorrow morning if I’ll need to make a sign apologising for the closure.’
‘Crazy…Yeah, okay, uh, I guess I’ll see you Tuesday, then. Gimme a sec to punch out and I’ll call you when I get home.’
Ian walked to the breakroom and clocked out. He slipped on his gloves and hat after his jacket and waited a moment to warm up before heading outside. He gave a light, reassuring smile to Mary, who was in the middle of ringing an old man out, waved once and slipped out.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he crossed the threshold into the dark afternoon. He felt bad about lying to get a day off work, especially Mary, at least that was no longer an issue. The job at Alpine Hi-Fi was good to him; as a teenager he was indifferent to calling in, but as he built rapport with his coworkers and befriended them—it really started fucking with his head. Pretty much after high school any blatant lie formed a tumorous mass that he felt would eventually consume him. Mary was damn smart—she had to have known whenever he feigned illness…and she still looked him right in the eye, face full of concern and accepted his excuses. A little voice in the back of his head told Ian that she was bullshitting him too, that she knew every single fib that escaped his mouth.
Stop thinking about it you arsehole. You’re only making it worse.
Specks of water popped up on the windscreen. As he drove they soon got bigger and bigger.
Thup. Thup. Thup. Thup.
The sleet had begun.
Hell with walking uphill, Ian told himself as he drove the Datsun up the gravel path. His head was throbbing even more and the less time he spent conscious, the better. Eyes fluttering, he parked in front of the porch and leaned back against the head rest. He didn’t want to move one fucking bit, but the lap blanket would be enough to keep him warm. Not today. Ian picked up his beanie from the passenger seat (it felt too tight on his head a quarter of the drive, only making his migraine worse) and staggered into the house.
Just as he promised, he called Mary and assured her he made it back safe and sound; he also advised of the sleet and told her to be careful as well.
Ian popped two more Asprin and chugged some OJ straight from the carton. He groaned and limped to his bedroom and dropped onto his bed, not giving a damn if he was still in his work clothes and shoes
It was the howl of the wind that woke Ian. He shifted his eyes to the left and right, still feeling a dull pain. Aside from that, the headache seemed to have passed. There was a sheen of sweat that he felt around his collar and armpits. The material of his pants felt damp around his calves.
Sometime in his sleep he’d also wrapped himself into a burrito with his sheets and blankets. And it finally dawned on him why he’d felt so terrible in the first place.
The beer. The salted popcorn.
I’m fucking dehydrated.
He kicked himself inwardly and untangled himself from his covers. Step one for feeling better was downing a whole glass of water. Ian rolled over and was about to plant his feet on the ground when he noticed his bedroom window. The world beyond the pane of glass was jet black; in the lower corners a white powder was piled up.
Ian forced himself out of bed and bounded toward the front of the house. He switched on the porch light and tore open the door. A thin dusting of snow sifted to the floorboards. It must have stormed like crazy while he was out; most of the door was covered in the frosty powder. So was everything else it seemed. Snow dunes glittered under the lamplight and faded into the darkness a few metres away. None of the greenery was visible—it must have absolutely dumped down. Even the…
…car had mounds of snow on the bonnet and the roof. Of course the storm blew in early while he parked there for a few hours. The Pulsar would be stuck in that spot until the snow and ice melted. Annoying as all hell, but no biggie. All he had to do was stay put for a while. The fridge was packed, he didn’t have to worry about work or lack of entertainment.
Ian closed the door and turned off the light.
In the kitchen, he stood in front of the sink and guzzled down a glass of water. He’d be right as rain after he downed some more. The second glass went down slower, he sure as hell didn’t want to get a brain freeze while trying to nurse existing pains.
When he filled his third glass, he checked his watch: 8:37. It wasn’t too late. Ian picked up the wall-mounted phone next to the refrigerator and dialed Mary.
It picked up on the fourth ring.
‘Hello?’ An exasperated Mary answered.
‘Hey, it’s me.’
‘Oh!’ Her voice perked up. ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’
‘Good, much better now,’ he paused to take a sip, ‘just woke up and saw all the snow. It looked like a lot and I don’t know when it started. Just wanted to make sure you’re okay too.’
‘Aww, that’s really sweet. But yeah, made it home fine. It started flurrying about an hour after you left. I was tempted to close early.’
‘Nah, but I didn’t stay after either. It was getting worse, so I left with the last customer. Now me and the kiddos are riding it out.’
‘Same. Got everything together and not planning on going out for a few days at least. I’ll let you go. You guys take care.’
‘Thanks, we will. If you need anything, gimme a call.’
‘For sure! Good night.’
Ian hung up the phone, reassured. Both of them were safe and staying put. No worries. Now he could focus on getting himself back to a hundred percent. Which should be by morning if he kept up with the water. The long weekend plans were back on track.
His stomach growled in complaint—correction, almost back on track.
Ian had to think about that for a minute. The latter part of his waking hours he felt like he was going to barf. At the moment, he was in the strange realm of not being able to tell if he was still feeling painfully nauseous or if he was in the midst of hunger pains.
Again, his stomach made its presence known and issued demands to be satisfied posthaste.
‘Calm down. If you shut up a sec, I’ll get you some damn food.’
‘That’s more like it.’
As a reward, Ian prepped a quick ham and cheese sandwich with a spot of mustard. He grabbed the radio on his way to the on the way into the lounge room and sat it down on the couch next to him.
Nothing but snow on every channel and out the window. A bummer, but not surprising. He switched off the TV and flipped the power on to the radio and rolled the dial to the ABC. Ian listened through the news cycle, slowly going through his meal and trying not to overdo it.
At last, information on the weather:
…Sydney, as well as the ACT, will have their fare share of rain in their respective regions with temperatures between eleven and sixteen degrees. A far cry warmer than just south in regional New South Wales. The Snowy Mountains region won’t be above zero until Sunday afternoon with on and off snow expected through Saturday night. Thredbo is expected to have about three hundred millimetres through that time. Eighty mills in Jindabyne; one hundred and forty at Mount Kosciuszko; two hundred and twenty-five millimetres in Jacobs Basin; a hundred and ten millimetres in…
Ian tuned out after getting their amount for the weekend.
Holy shit, he thought, Tuesday might be off the table, too…
Mary would definitely get a heads-up tomorrow. If he could get a lift from anyone, that would be fantastic, but he wasn’t counting on it.
He finished off his ham and cheese and sat the plate aside. The snow was coming down even harder; he went back up to the front window to have a look. Blindly, he fumbled for the switch to the porch light.
Ian blinked a couple times and stared at the snow near the Datsun. It looked like the frosty surface was riddled with pockmarks.
Those were not there before.
The divots arced around the passenger side of the car. They looked more pronounced and deeper under the door latch (which was locked). If the blemishes weren’t as small as they were, he would have sworn someone was checking to see if the car had anything worth taking (fuck you to them, there wasn’t). He couldn’t see where the tracks had come from or where they went.
Curiosity got the better of Ian, which he would soon come to regret, and he retreated back into the house to grab his torch from the laundry room. He returned to the door within seconds and shone the light to the ground near the Pulsar. From there he brought the beam to the right toward the driveway. What surprised him was that the trail did not lead toward the road, but continued on to the bush past the side yard. Ian then swept the light the opposite way. The foot(?)prints went to the front of the car and circled around the far side of the house. The more he looked at the trail the more unnerved he felt. What made it worse was that he couldn’t even tell which direction…the thing…was travelling. Logic told him they entered from the bushland off to his right and went around to the left.
Still, he wondered…
He shut the door, locked it, and briskly made his way to the sliding glass doors in the back. Using the torch, he brushed aside the vertical blinds and looked for any disturbances along the miniature dunes.
Right in the centre of the backyard. And off it went around the side of the house, as expected. The trail either started or ended right there in the back…but nothing was out there from what he could see.
That doesn’t make any sense…
Last time he checked nobody could just beam in or out. He sure as shit wasn’t high or drunk.
Maybe it snowed and covered the earlier tracks?
That didn’t make any sense either.
Let it go. Put away the light and go the fuck to sleep. Have a look in the morning…not now.
Ian swallowed hard and stepped back from the blinds, turning off the torch. He took it with him to bed along with another glass of water. Not surprisingly, he didn’t feel like a horror movie at the moment and wanted to focus on getting back to sleep.
Outside, the bitter winds picked up. The bare branches of the trees clawed each other ruthlessly. A lackadaisical flurry when Ian went to bed turned into another full-on shower. The old bones and joints of the house creaked and groomed during the worst of the frosty winter storm. Across the front lawn, the rusty hinges of the garage door cried out. Every gust of wind tried, in vain, to either push the doors in or pull them right off the frame.
Ian, of course, was aware of all of it.
Getting back to sleep was slow going. The fact that he’d been asleep for hours had already screwed his sleep cycle. Not to mention the business with the tracks in the snow.
He sighed and checked his watch. An hour and a half had passed.
‘Fuck it,’ he grumbled and forced himself out of his bed. The power hadn’t gone out, so he’d put on a movie until he passed out. Still, he clutched the torch like a weapon and draped a blanket over his shoulders. What the hell, right? He’d get a decent fire going, too. Perhaps the cosier and more at ease he felt, the faster he’d be off to dreamland.
But that’s not what happened at all.
Once more, curiosity got the better of Ian and he couldn’t help but check out the front. He opened the front door and pointed the torch at his car.
Ian’s heart stopped. His finger grip nearly became as useless as a claw machine’s. The circle of warm light wavered over the snow. Despite the accumulation of fresh powder, the original disruptions were as they were before…exactly.
And there were heaps more past the car, including a trail that led up to…the garage.
The beam of light darted to the double-doors.
Someone was out there. They let themselves into the garage. Ian was at a loss for what to do. Calling the cops would be next to useless—the roads had to be properly fucked. It would take hours for them to reach his address…if they even came out at all.
They’d probably tell me to stay inside and keep my doors locked. It’s probably some poor bastard trying to get out of the cold.
Ian reckoned he was going to regret it, but he decided to have a look. He ran back into his room and pulled out a cricket bat from underneath a pile of stuff in the back of the closet. Funny, one of the last times he used the thing was back in year ten, and he almost cracked a friend’s skull open then. Now here he was all these years later hyping himself up to do it again if need be.
Unlikely, he reminded himself. It’s probably someone looking for shelter. That’s gotta be it. There were a number of campsites further up the road. It wouldn’t be out of the question if the storm kicked up while someone was out camping. The wind and the snow collapsed the tent and their car was snowed in.
Ian eyed the bat. Still…not worth taking the chance.
He put on the porch light and stepped out of the safety and warmth of his home to investigate. The first step on to the grass was a perilous one. The entirety of his shoe disappeared in the snow and took a portion of his pant leg a few centimetres past the hem. A cold shock ran up his entire body.
Too late now. Not like I have boots or anything.
He stepped further out with his left leg, receiving another chill—although not to the extent of the first. Before he went to the garage, Ian decided to take a closer look at the tracks at the Datsun.
As expected, they weren’t footprints at all…not human ones at least. Each puncture through the snow to the ground was circular, all different in diametre. Ian crouched down for a closer look. He put the torch right up to the holes. The grass at the bottom was a deep and healthy green; some had dandelions or mushrooms sprouting.
That didn’t make any sense either.
With the cold weather that had been hovering over the town for weeks, most of his yard varied between very light greens and deep yellow-browns. Ian didn’t expect that kind of colour until a warm streak in the spring.
Ian groaned, his bones crackling, as he stood upright and focused on the garage. The light centred on the swaying garage doors.
Gotta be the wind, he tried to convince himself. His courage faltered. The wind has opened ‘em before when they weren’t latched properly. That’s all that happened…the wind took it and an animal wandered in…probably a deer.
Ian approached the ajar doors slowly. He swapped hands for his torch and bat, so that he held the weapon in his dominant hand. Quietly, he stood aside and took in a deep breath for confidence. In a swift movement he wedged his left elbow behind the door and shoved it open. He jumped inside, aiming the torch straight ahead and raised the bat, ready to strike.
But there was nothing inside.
Ian dropped his batting arm to his side and exhaled. His ego took a hit—frightened and ready to fight dead space. Of course.
Since he still had the feeling something had been in there, he used the light to scour the items collecting dust along the walls. Everything was in order…
…until he reached the workbench at the far end of the garage. The axe was no longer hanging from its spot…it lay on the cement floor, handle shattered in two.
Cold sweat dripped down Ian’s neck.
‘The hell with this!’
Ian stepped back into the night. He closed up the garage and made sure it was locked properly. He ran across the yard and into the house.
The door lock and the deadbolt were secure. Keeping the bat gripped tight, he set the torch on the small table and headed straight for the phone. He picked up the receiver—
He tapped on the numbers. Nothing.
Ian double-checked the lock on the sliding doors—still good.
No way in hell I’m gonna sleep now. I’ll put something on and keep busy.
He consulted the VHS tapes spread across the bookshelf in the lounge room and picked out The Empire Strikes Back.
This time around, Ian was out like a light before the first movie ended (only a few minutes after the Battle of Hoth). He didn’t even get a chance to put up a fight with sugar and caffeine—the Pepsi and Smarties sat unopened on the floor next to the couch.
It wasn’t a long bout of sleep; the hiss of the snow on the television and the clacking of the innards of the VCR startled Ian from his slumber.
He sat upright and slowly regained consciousness. For a second, he was willing to lean back and doze off again, but the sound from the TV and the player was too annoying and the room had gotten so cold that he could see his breath.
Ian cleared the fireplace and put more logs in, twisted up some old newspaper, and lit it. The room glowed orange and the heat spread. He was fine to crash right there on the floor.
BWANG! BWANG! BWANG!
Ian jumped in his spot and recognised the sound—something was battering on the side of the garage. A short-lived rumble and hollow clomping sound followed.
He gathered up the cricket bat and torch and burst through the screen door. Tracks were everywhere over the front yard. The doors to the garage were still secured, but someone bat the holy hell out of the tin panels on the side. They also tipped over the logs he’d gathered for the fireplace.
Ian had had it.
‘You arseholes done screwin’ around!?’ he shouted to the night. ‘I’ve already called the cops, so you best be getting the fuck outta here!’ On the emphasis of ‘fuck’ he struck the cement floor of the porch. He cringed at sounding like an old man, far beyond his twenty-eight years, yelling at the kids.
In response, the raucous banging started on the garage from the other side.
‘Goddammit,’ Ian cursed through gritted teeth. He stormed out to the source of the sound, turning off the flashlight as not to warn the trespasser. He rounded the back side of the building when the thumping came to a stop. He jumped around the other side, once more, nothing.
All that was present, besides the significant dings to the tin, were those same circular breaks in the snow. These had significant lengths of fresh and healthy foliage jutting out.
It was then Ian noticed the strange, but sweet, aroma coming from the bush.
Did I smell that earlier?
No. He’d never smelt anything like that before. It was so distinct, but he could not pinpoint the source.
Ian stalked into the bush, torchlight helping him make his way. The caveman part of his brain was looking forward to bashing some heads in—and he hated feeling that elation. And if it was they who had the mouth-watering food on them, fuck it, he’d take that, too. Light compensation for the damage to his property and the headache of drying and re-stacking all that that wood.
‘Where you at, numbnuts!? I know you’re here.’
In truth, he didn’t. At that point he was following the strange scent, walking wherever it got stronger.
When the deliciously fruity scent reached its apex, Ian found himself in a clearing untouched by the snow. Fresh tree saplings and flowers grew. Shrubs stretched out with the biggest and brightest berries he’d ever seen.
It was like he was transported to a whole different world. The air around him was warmer. A sense of calm washed over him. All the tension in his muscles eased and he lowered the cricket bat. Ian was relaxed to the point that he was ready to sit down there in the grass and mellow out.
And then he saw the goddamned tree.
Towering and slim, it glided toward him. Dozens of roots worked in tandem, jabbing into the ground, to move the behemoth—they looked like like the tentacles of an octopus or a jellyfish. The bark along the midsection of the trunk audibly cracked and an ugly face appeared. The hollows that formed the eyes were black and soulless as a doll’s. It’s gaping maw splintered open, hundreds of jagged teeth jutted in every direction.
Ian snapped out of his trance and booked it back to the house. He at least had the wherewithal to hang on to his only light source and weapon. Very briefly he thought about running down the hill and onto the road, but there was no way he’d make it; his lungs were aching and he was breathing fire through his mouth and nose.
The keys to the Datsun were still in his pocket! He quickly came up with a second plan and hoped that he had enough time to get in the car and (if it moved) get down to the road in one piece.
He fought the urge to look back. All he had to do was keep his eyes locked ahead and fish out the keys. If the tree was still following him it didn’t make a damn sound. The ground wasn’t quaking behind him or anything either. His Jell-O legs carried him back onto his property. He stashed the torch in the crook of his arm that held the bat and jammed his hand into his pocket and plucked out the key.
Ian slammed against the Pulsar, the key found its mark and he twisted. He swung the door open and jumped in. He turned the ignition.
Oh fuck, oh shit!
The headlamp cut through the night and Ian screamed. Silently, the damned tree breached the forest. Its lower branches, acting as hands, reached out for him. The roots carried it closer. Its mouth was still wide open, calling for blood.
Ian’s foot was on the floor as the car roared and redlined in place. The ass end of the car shifted and just as Ian closed his eyes and prepared for the worse, the Pulsar gained traction and jolted free!
Ian turned the wheel a sharp right and drove in the vague direction of the hidden gravel path. The tyres struggled, but kept moving him forward. He spun the wheel left and right, desperately trying to prevent the car from spinning out. The Datsun squealed and squeaked as it bounded down the hill. The undercarriage found the gravel and scraped and clunked against it. For sure, the car was fucked, but that didn’t matter so long as it took him to safety. The high beams found Sanderson Creek Way, he was almost level with it—
—and the car fishtailed.
Ian overcompensated with the steering and sent it into a spin. It skidded off to the side of the driveway facing up the hill.
Ian stomped on the accelerator—nothing.
He put the car into reverse—nada.
It was no good; he was stuck. He watched helplessly as the tree practically slid down to him.
Ian fumbled with the door and shoved himself out. He tried to make a break for it, but he felt rope-like tendrils wrapping around his legs and waist. He fell forward, cracking his chin on the ground, biting through his tongue. There was no pain. He only felt the hot liquid gushing down his chin and spilling across his torso.
He was being dragged back to his home.
Ian screamed at the top of his lungs, gurgling and choking on his blood. But there was no one passing by to hear him. How could they be?
He was lifted high into the air by his legs. Branches reached out and took hold of him from his chest to his groin. The roots that caught him loosened and retreated.
For the briefest of moments, Ian faced the predator as he was lowered into its splintered mouth and everything went dark.
The creature, having its fill, took refuge in the forest just beyond the homestead.
A flurry started up and kept going for the remainder of the night. By morning there were no visible tracks, tyre or otherwise.
It was another two days before the next car was even able to drive down Sanderson Creek Way. Passersby only made bemused comments on the off-kilter Datsun or quietly hoped the driver was okay—never going beyond their remarks.
Assistant: Yuki! The creature from this excursion matches the data from the one a few weeks ago. Decades and a couple hundred kilometres apart, but definitely the same ones.
Yuki: Very interesting indeed. It seems as if these stories aren’t finished. Compile all the data and we’ll see what we dig up.
Assistant: You got it!