A gusting westerly tossed and bustled the willows as they struggled to form a guard of honour along a two hundred metre stretch of Raymond Terrace Rd. The sun scorched the earth in anger, melting the bitumen road and causing recently filled potholes to become sticky black puddles. Heat waves danced above the road distorting as they obscured, while the needle rocketed into the red zone taking his temper along for the ride.
‘Damn it. Fuck!’
If you are not inside an air-conditioned room, then I suggest you hurry up and get yourself there. Thirty nine degrees and rising, folks and its only ten thirty. The Bureau forecasting storms for this evening but that’s a long way off so stay cool and stay tuned. You’re on ninety nine seven RhemaFM, Newcastle and the Central Coast. Good morning.
The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest. Blake Steele and a clapped out nineteen eighty five Falcon on the verge of a fiery death. The first week in March; a very bad week and it was getting worse for Blake. Lost his job, lost his girl, and losing hope. All he could think to say was, ‘Damn it’ and ‘Fuck!’
As there was nowhere for him to stop and cool off, Blake chose to keep going. The air-conditioning roared in frustration as it blew hot air hard into the cabin so Blake switched it off, thinking to himself bitterly that he wished he could switch his life off.
What a disaster it was. What a total shambles. He liked his job but his boss was a complete tool, and Blake could not tolerate the biting sarcasm which that self promoter used to cover his own stupidity and dump on his employees. Blake seemed to be a particularly fond target of his. Maybe it was because Blake refused to kowtow to such an asshole. Maybe it was because he was sick of being the butt of his boss’ stinging barbs. Humour he called it, and those who slobbered at his feet laughed along like mindless hyenas. Whatever the reason, his sacking was inevitable. You don’t humiliate a man like that by decking him in front of his employees, without suffering some pretty direct and severe consequences. Good-bye job.
Sam was the sweetest girl he had ever known, good natured and devoted, naturally beautiful and intelligent. How the hell he ever snagged her as his girlfriend he would probably never know, but there she was; patient, kind and even tempered. Blake had a tempestuous nature and a short fuse and without Sam to mollify his rage, he often ripped headlong into trouble. So many transgressions, followed by so many sincere apologies followed by more sins. She seemed like a god to him sometimes but finally proved she was not by leaving him. Her final words? ‘Why don’t you grow up and be a man! You’re killing yourself Blake.’
Blake had thought at the time and still did that her words were a bit over the top, unless she wasn’t talking about physical death. That was a favourite topic of hers; spiritual life and death. Blake didn’t know what she meant, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he felt terribly sorry and he missed her, and he knew he was a better person when she was around. Who would control him now?
Bang! Ssssshhhhh! A long harsh hiss.
‘Damn it! Fuck!’
The Falcon angrily breathed its last and rolled to a stop, as Blake steered it off the road and onto the shoulder. In the stillness of Millers Forest, the sound of steam rushing from underneath the bonnet was like a hurricane. Blake sat there and stared through the torrent of steam down the long straight road and pondered his immediate future. Rage, although volcanic at the moment, seemed futile, but he was powerless to stop it. He flung the door open and almost fell out in the rush, then began frenetically kicking the side of the car with the underside of his heel. Soon he was exhausted so he lumped his body behind the steering wheel and waited for the last of the storm to subside.
Drenched in sweat and disturbed by the smell of himself, Blake climbed out of the car again and began to walk towards a house which sat quietly on the left three or four hundred metres down the road. It was the only island in a sea of flat grassy meadows and it should have had a huge banner flying over it, proclaiming ‘Last Hope’. His car was stuffed, it was hotter than hell and he didn’t have any water. At the very least he desperately needed a drink, so he dragged his feet through the almost liquid bitumen and dreamed of salvation in Millers Forest.
As he approached the house Blake noted the windows were all shut but there was no sign of an air conditioning unit outside. There were two cars in the driveway; a dirty 78 Toyota Landcruiser, and a little red Hyundai. There was also a motorbike and although Blake was not a huge fan of motorbikes, courtesy of the shocking injuries a friend of his had suffered after crashing one into a fence, he could see beauty in their styling and appreciated the passionate feelings they aroused in some. It was all white, even the leather seat and had no badges to identify the make or model. He had never seen one like it.
Gravel crunched under his heavy feet as he walked down the driveway, past the vehicles towards the front door. He waved his hand over the bonnet of both cars but could not tell if the engines had been running recently or not. It was too damn hot.
The front door was closed. Blake listened closely but could hear no sound at all and that bothered him, and the bother turned into concern, and the concern suddenly became anxiety. He heard whispers in the hot wind and smelled something strange, something off, a rancid stench. Dizziness almost overwhelmed him as he reached out his left fist to knock on the door.
‘Hello,’ he said, as he knocked, without knowing how loudly he spoke. ‘Hello! Is anyone home?’
Blake fell towards the door and might have heard a voice as it swung open and he crashed in on to the floor. The voice might have been asking for help but that voice might have been his own.
When he opened his eyes he saw a horizontal Christmas tree. A long tree with presents jam packed at one end and a pair of runners standing on their toes. Blake sat up slowly and the room righted itself. He looked again at the shoes; pink and small. A little girl’s shoes. Christmas tree? Presents? March?
‘Hello?’ said Blake weakly. ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’
A heavy silence filled the room and Blake was afraid to disturb it by moving but when he spotted the opening to the kitchen, he carefully rose from the floor and walked in to get some water. The kitchen was so clean it literally sparkled as fingers of sunlight poked through the Venetian blinds and stabbed the faux marble benchtops and stainless steel sink. Not a single glass, plate or utensil could be seen and there was a faint odour of lemon in the air. Blake turned the tap on and cupped his hands underneath the cool flow, before greedily shovelling the precious liquid into his mouth. Slowly life returned to his parched body.
‘Hello?’ he called again, having recovered his voice, ‘Is anyone home?’
Blake tried to leave the kitchen but jumped back in fright as a woman stood in his way with outstretched arms and no hands.
‘Help me!’ she shrieked. ‘Help me!’
Losing his footing, Blake slid against a cupboard and stared in disbelief at the horror of this woman. Handless, bleeding from the stumps and from cuts to her face and chest and arms and legs, she came no closer and spoke no further. A young woman with a lithe figure and firm breasts, her long brown hair was tangled and lank. She wore a long pink nightdress with no sleeves. Her eyes opened wide were crystal blue islands floating in bloody oceans and her mouth twisted in terror.
The smell of death was overpowering and Blake was frozen by an artic chill which ran down his spine. What could he do? What should he do?
‘Phone? I’ll call an ambulance,’ he said and with each word came more confidence. ‘Where’s your phone? He stood quickly and searched the kitchen but could not locate it.
‘It’s too late,’ she said.
He spun around to the sound of her voice but she was gone. Darting out of the kitchen, he quickly scanned the living room but found everything was as it had been when he first came in. The woman was gone. Running for the stairs, Blake was again stopped dead in his tracks but this time by a physical blow to his chest. A punch or a shove, he could not decide but it knocked the wind from his lungs and he crumpled to the floor gasping and clutching his chest. When he looked up, a man was standing at the foot of the stairs. He wore a pair of navy blue shorts and no shirt. Blood flowed from a long deep gash ripped across his hairy chest and there were smaller cuts on his arms and face; scratches like fingernail marks. He looked enormous but when Blake scrambled to his feet he realised the man was actually shorter then himself although considerably wider. He resembled a wrestler.
‘Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?’
Blake noticed that like the woman, the man did not seem able to move from the spot where he appeared. He also felt the stench invading his nostrils once more and it was cold.
‘The woman,’ said Blake, ‘she was badly hurt and asking for help. What happened here?’
The woman’s voice said, ‘It’s too late.’
Blake turned quickly but the room was empty and in the seconds it took for him to realise it, the wrestler also disappeared.
Two and three at a time, Blake bounded up the stairs and began rapidly turning handles and opening doors. Bedroom one. Nothing. Bedroom two. Nothing. Master bedroom. Nothing. All tidy and clean, beds made. Moving into the ensuite bathroom cautiously, Blake sniffed the air and was surprised to detect nothing but a slight mustiness that you would expect if the house was shut up for any length of time. The bathroom off the master bedroom was also clean although not as clean as the kitchen. Blake left that room and back on the landing he stared at the last remaining door.
As he approached a child appeared in front of it. A little girl. She looked sad but there were no obvious signs of injury until Blake noticed her feet.
The girl followed Blake’s gaze down to the stumps at the ends of her legs, and said in a shaky whisper, ‘Daddy’s very angry. I’ve been a naughty girl.’
A whirlpool in Blake’s stomach reached up his throat and pulled his tongue down making him gag. He turned away from the girl and vomited on the carpet. Dry retching mostly as he had not eaten for hours.
‘How could a man be that angry? To cut off your feet? What could you have possibly done to deserve that punishment?’ Blake was speaking to the carpet because his head felt too heavy to lift and he was afraid to look again at the child. When she failed to answer, he knew she had gone without even looking. Needing more water, Blake dragged himself up off the floor again and entered through the last remaining door. The bathroom. The wrestler was sitting on the toilet.
‘Hey, don’t you fucking knock first,’ he boomed, standing and shaking his clenched fist at Blake. ‘Where’s my fucking axe?’
Had Blake been watching a horror movie he might have laughed at someone being threatened with an axe by a naked man simply for interrupting him on the toilet, but given the circumstances he was mortified. Was that all it took to make this man blow his stack? Was a forgetting of manners enough to turn him into a mindless beast of violence?
Despite his heart trying to tear a hole of escape through his chest, Blake somehow calmed himself sufficiently to ignore the man, and casually wandered over to the sink with and washed his face and hands, before cupping some much needed water into his mouth. Glancing in the mirror, he noticed the man had disappeared. With refreshment came clarity so Blake returned downstairs to look for the telephone. On the sofa sat on man dressed in white who did not seem to notice Blake as he entered the room.
His plan was not to engage the newcomer but unfortunately the telephone was sitting on a small coffee table right beside the man in white who sat still and remained apparently uninterested in Blake’s activities.
Blake reached down for the phone but as he did his arm was grabbed in a vice like grip by the man in white.
‘What?’ cried Blake. ‘Let go!’
As hard as he shook his arm he could not break free and the pressure was excruciating.
‘Aren’t you going to say excuse me before you reach across?’
Suddenly the man released his hold of Blake’s arm at the exact time he had been pulling with all of his might to get free. This caused Blake to tumble backwards and he might have fallen on the floor yet gain had it not been for the three people standing behind him into whom he cannoned.
Sunlight caught the edge of the axe blade and momentarily blinded Blake as backed away to a neutral corner of the room. That corner was where the dusty Christmas tree stood guardian over unopened presents and a pair of runners which Blake could now see, as he stood directly over them, were not empty.
‘Okay, man in white,’ said Blake pointing at him. ‘What the hell is going on here?’
‘Anger management. Is this your future?’
‘Are you real?’ answered Blake without answering the question.
Screaming. Chaos. Frantic movement. The voices of the man, his wife and their child all mixed in a frightening cacophony of anger and fear. Blake covered his ears and closed his eyes, praying for the noise to stop but on it went. The sounds of footsteps followed by more screaming, then crying, then sobbing and all else faded away to leave just the little girl’s quiet voice, barely above a whisper, saying, ‘Sorry, Daddy, sorry.’ Then silence.
Blake was alone.
The image of the little girl haunted him. Everywhere he looked, eyes open, eyes squeezed shut, still he could see her. Sitting on the floor emotionally exhausted he began to think about Sam. The only goodness in his life and even she was past tense for him now. Marriage and children. Of course she had raised the topic, and naturally he, not wanting to have children but definitely wanting her, had rebuffed her by laughing the subject off as being premature; something they could talk about later. Blake had run out of laters. He wondered if the man with the axe had wanted children or had his once beautiful young wife pushed him into fatherhood. Was his temper a symptom of the frustration he felt at losing control of his life and having to share too much of himself, his time and energy with others? Was he a time bomb waiting for someone to press the right combination of buttons to detonate him? Was Blake such a bomb? Would he have been, or could he be, the same sort violently abusive father? These questions were painful and frightening.
The smell of death returned to the living room, sneakily like a thief trying not to disturb wake anyone, and the chill squeezed his bones like an anaconda. Blake shook his head to break free of the melancholy which smothered him like a hot blanket and searched the room for signs of the restless dead.
In the silence he heard whispers, echoes of voices, screaming and crying. Soft and faint like the pulse of one on the brink of eternity. There was pain and misery in these whispers, and it was written all over the faces of the woman and her daughter as they appeared in front of Blake seated on the couch.
Blake was wondering what to say or if he should say anything at all when the door burst open and in rushed the man in white.
‘Where is he?’
He looked at Blake, then at the other two. ‘Where is he? If you know tell me. It’s very important. Tell me,’ he said as he slowly came closer to the three of them, ‘so I can help you. You are in danger.’ He was staring at Blake.
‘I’m in danger?’ said Blake. ‘From what? Losing my mind? These ghosts can’t hurt me.’
The man noted the way in which Blake waved at the two ghosts dismissively and shook his head. ‘You do not know what you are dealing with,’ he said. ‘They can hurt you but they don’t want to. He, on the other hand, does. He’s been very patient with you but you’re still in his house. Uninvited.’
Blake stood up and demanded, ‘Who are you?’
His answer was swallowed by a crash as the door slammed shut and the wrestler swung his axe into the back of it. Splinters flew in all directions. Some hit Blake in the chest, others passed through the woman and child on the sofa who sat passively embracing one another. The girl looked frightened but what, Blake wondered, did the dead have to fear?
‘Judgement!’ bellowed the man with the axe as he swung it around his head and into the door once more. ‘Judgement!’
Blake noticed he still had not moved and was relieved to see his theory about the limited mobility of these ghosts was holding.
The man in white was the next to speak. ‘The dead are afraid of judgement,’ he said. ‘Even more than the living fear the judgement seat.’
Focused on the man who answered his unspoken question, Blake missed the first step the wrestler took towards them, and the second and third steps. He noticed the girl press in tighter to her mother’s breast and in the split second it took him to figure out why, the axe found a home in the man in white’s ribcage via a forced entry through his back. Blake could just see the tip of the axe poking through under the man’s shirt before a river of blood engulfed it, and he dropped to the floor.
Blake was confused and terrified. The killer had vanished again and so had the other two. He ran for the door but it was shattered too badly to open, so he turned and ran for the biggest window behind the Christmas tree. Knocking the tree over, he ripped the curtains apart and flung the venetian blinds up and over his head. The window was locked and the wrestler was standing outside staring in. An exploding shower of glass rained over Blake as the axe came through the window, hooked around the blinds and reefed them back out with it. For a moment Blake was caught, tangled in the blinds as they were pulled out of the house but he struggled free and scrambled backwards. Shards of glass stabbed into his hands mercilessly as he battled to regain his standing.
The man in white was no longer on the floor. Blake pushed the tree aside and desperately searched for something with which to defend himself. Kitchen. He darted for it but his arrival was greeted with the whistle of a blade through the air and into the door frame where it wedged. He froze as the madman wrestled with the axe trying to wrench it free, and the instant he succeeded, Blake fled for the broken window in the living room. As he ran for it he saw the glass had been repaired but he had no time to stop and he knew he was going to die if he could not leave this cursed house. The rush of adrenalin through his system masked the pain long enough for Blake to crash through the window and stagger to the ground and up on his feet again. Running. Running. Around to the front of the house. To the cars in the driveway. Any keys? Could he be so lucky? Not with the Hyundai but the Landcruiser’s keys were in the ignition.
Blake jumped up into the driver’s seat and looked instinctively in the rear view mirror. The woman was there.
‘Please don’t leave. Help us.’
Blake yelled at her, ‘I can’t fucking help you. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing. Do you understand? You’re already dead. You’re dead! You’re dead!’
Blake raved on like a madman until she disappeared then he turned the key but the battery was flat. He slammed his hands into the steering wheel and swore continuously as the blood from his cuts flicked all over the inside of the car. Stopping at the sound of a loud crack, he studied his hand closely and realised he had broken his finger. Physically spent, he sat there behind the wheel and stared at his finger, fascinated by the bone sticking out at a weird angle through his bloody skin.
In the midst of a fury of pain and anger and frustration, Blake tried to think, tried to latch on to some logic, some sanity. He could not drive away and he was sure as hell not going back inside the house so he decided to walk. There was a flicker of an idea to run but his strength was gone and he didn’t know where he was going anyway.
He trudged up the driveway and out onto the road. Walking very slowly down the centre of the fiery bitumen, Blake’s mind flooded with turbulent chaotic thoughts, and he lost track of time and direction. His eyes half closed only saw blurred shapes which his mind could not decipher and finally he dived to the hot hard ground unconscious.
‘He’s coming to.’
‘No, don’t move him yet. Let’s get some fluids into him.’
‘Is he talking? Did he say anything?’
At the sound of strange voices, Blake slowly opened his eyes but could not see anything. Panicking he tried to sit up while clutching for his eyes.
‘It’s okay, lay back. You’re all right, just lay back now. Take it easy. I’ll take these patches off for a second.’
Suddenly he could see and he relaxed but only until his eyes began to focus and he saw who it was that was talking to him. A man in white and he freaked out again. Jumping up off the ground, he saw a solid man with an axe and he ran, ignoring the yelling from behind him, and tried to figure out where he was. When he realised, when he saw the house, burning like a rampant inferno, it was as though a massive vacuum had sucked all the breath from his lungs and he collapsed again.
No salvation. No answers. The middle of nowhere. The end of the line. Millers Forest.
Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.