All the Eyes That See

by Alan Baxter

From CHM #42 December 2023

Sitting on the neatly upholstered chair in the tiny office I try not to let my frustration show. “Really, nothing at all?”

“Not in town.” The real estate agent’s face is apologetic. “With the flower festival on it’s our busiest time of year.”

“There must be something.”

“It’s our own fault, Jim,” Mary says, putting a hand on my knee as she smiles at the agent. “We just don’t have distances like this in England. We under-estimated how far apart things are.”

Sydney to Melbourne is nearly as far as London to Glasgow, but it’s such a speck on the greater map of Australia. This continent is inconceivably huge. That realisation doesn’t help us now, late afternoon in the middle of nowhere. Our decision to take the scenic route has come to bite us. “Is this really such a small town?” I ask.

The man leans back in his chair, still smiling. “We’ve a little over five hundred residents, nearly half of that out on farms all around. In town there’s one hotel and one motel, both packed to the gills. Lots of people travel in.”

“For the flower festival.”

“What about the Carroll place?”

The agent’s eyes narrow as he looks at his receptionist. I’d forgotten she was there, a mousey presence with a nimbus of grey hair, almost entirely concealed by her desk at the door.

“That’s not on our books.”

She shrugs. “But they have their cabin. Might be available. It’s a bit far from town for the festival.”

Something passes between them and I can’t quite figure out what it is. An unspoken moment of tension.

“We’ll gladly check anything,” my wife says.

“I’ll draw you a map, you’ll have to drive out there. They’re not the sort of folk to have a phone.”

“That’s pretty old-fashioned,” I say.

He nods. “That’s as good a description of the Carrolls as anything. If they’re no help, you’d better head back onto the highway and make for a bigger town.”

“How far’s that?”

“Couple of hours.”

“Oh, Jim, I don’t want to drive any more today.” Mary’s fatigue is evident in her voice.

I take the map from the agent. “Thanks. Hopefully these folk can help.”

The map is easy enough to follow, but the Carrolls really are out of town. It’s nearly twenty-five minutes later when we pull into a long, red dirt driveway, past a battered and rusty mailbox made from a milk can on a rotten post at the gate.

“Are those bullet holes?” Mary asks.

“Using their mailbox for target practice. I suppose a postman wouldn’t come all the way out here anyway.”

“Look at this country though.” Mary is smiling softly, leaning forward to take in the low rolling hills, greenbrown with early autumn dryness, rich ochre soil at the roadside. Tall, pale gum trees painted gold on one side from the slowly lowering sun. It warms me to see her smile. Perhaps the healing has started.

A man steps out onto the veranda as we near the house. His home is single-storey, low and wide, weatherboard walls and an A-frame corrugated metal roof, paint peeling from it all. The windows are shaded under wide eaves, dark eyes reflecting late sun. A little girl rocks gently on a single seat swing set on the meagre grass at the bottom of the veranda steps. She wears a loose cotton dress, white with almost invisible pale blue flowers, no shoes on her grubby feet.

I wave as I park the car and kill the engine. The man nods, eyes hooded. He’s polishing something with a grimy cloth as he walks down to meet us.

“Afternoon!” I call out. “Sorry to bother you, the real estate agent in town said you have a cabin you rent out. We’re in a bit of a bind and need a bed for the night.”

“Maybe two nights,” Mary says, stepping up beside me with a smile. “I mean, look at this place.”

“Maybe two,” I repeat. Anything that will help Mary’s happiness find its way back.

“I won’t shake,” the man says, his accent broad and slow. He holds out a hand in explanation. “Oil.”

“Fixing something there?” I sound like a fool.

“Busted tractor.”

“Right.”

There’s silence for a moment but for the repetitive squeak of the little girl’s swing. She’s pale, thin as a rake, hair dead straight and white blonde, framing a narrow face with dark eyes. She doesn’t look entirely well, certainly not well-fed. I offer a smile but she stares like she doesn’t see me. Her lips are moving subtly as though she’s singing softly to herself.

I return my attention to the man. He’s thin too, but wiry, forearms like braided steel cables. Also narrow-faced, high cheekbones, powerful, glittering eyes. His stubble is tending to red under a mop of sandy hair. He’s wearing dark grey overalls, riddled with holes, stained with oil and dirt. Slip-on brown leather boots hang desperately to his feet, almost worn out in every possible way, misshapen and crooked.

“The cabin?”

He nods once. “Yup. It’ll be dusty, no one been around for a while. But you’re welcome to it if you can pay.”

Relief washes through me. “Of course, how much?”

The man sniffs, looks off to his left for a moment. “Two nights, ya say?”

I glance at Mary and she nods, smiling. “We can walk tomorrow, see this country.”

“God’s own country and no mistake,” the man says. “You’ll never want to leave, you stay too long. Has a way of growing in to a person.”

I think there’s some truth to what he says, a magnetism about the landscape. “Well, we’re only on three week’s holiday, but I can see why you’d stay.”

“Call it fifty bucks a night, so a hunnerd up front.”

“That’s very cheap!”

“I don’t aim to rip off tourists. Nice folk deserve a bed for the night and the cabin is basic.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Mary says. “Thank you.”

I open my wallet and peel out two yellow fifty-dollar bills. I still can’t get used to the bright colours of plastic Australian money, it doesn’t seem real. The man takes it and stuffs it into his overall chest pocket.

“I’m Jim Falkirk,” I tell him. “This is my wife, Mary.”

He sniffs. “Good to know you. Mick Carroll.”

“This is your daughter?” Mary asks.

“Her name’s Silvie.”

Mary turns to the girl, still swinging and softly singing. “Hi, Silvie.”

“She don’t talk much.”

“Oh. She’s very pretty.”

“Like her mum.” He stares for a moment at his daughter, then nods softly. “Just like her mum.”

“Is your wife..?” The question peters out on my tongue when I realise it might not be appropriate.

“Nah, she’s gone.”

There’s a moment of awkwardness. Gone. Either died or left them, but whichever one doesn’t make for polite conversation. Regardless, my heart aches briefly for the child and I see the sadness pass over Mary’s eyes. A child here without a mother, while Mary is a mother without a child.

I crouch before the gently swinging girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Silvie.”

Her pale eyes pivot to me, but she continues to swing. Her voice is paper thin as she sings, quiet as a summer breeze. “Grandma, Grandma, sitting above, seeing all and swallowing love.”

“Don’t mind her,” Carroll says.

“She can’t have many friends all the way out here,” Mary says. “Although I guess at school she gets—”

“Home-schooled,” Carroll interrupts. “So the cabin is across the other side of the paddocks, that way.” He points left, where he’d looked before while thinking of a price. “You’ll take your car, back out the gate, turn left, drive about two hunnerd metres, then in the next gate. Up the hill, cabin at the top, in the trees a little. Just dig around inside, you’ll find all you need.”

As we drive, Mary lets out a giggle. “That guy is pretty weird!”

“He’s country,” I say. “The solitude makes people weird.”

“And his little girl. So sad. She can only be eight or nine wouldn’t you say?”

“Something like that. I wonder if she’s got… you know… some kind of cognitive issues.”

“Best we don’t pry.” Mary’s eyes fill slightly, glistening in the golden light. I know she’s thinking of the daughter we lost. The daughter we never really had. Our Amelia, born blue and still. Mary’s always thinking about Amelia.

“Here we are!” My voice is louder and more ebullient than I intended, but I’m trying to stave off Mary’s sadness.

“Wow!”

Wow is right. The cabin is not large, little more than a big shed really, but it sits atop a rounded hill, with a stand of gum trees to one side and views forever on the other.

Inside is a small lounge area with old but well-looked after sofa and armchairs, and a six-foot square picture window looking out over that endless vista. A simple kitchenette takes up one corner. A bedroom with just enough room for a double bed and wardrobe, and a tiny bathroom cramped with toilet, sink, and shower stall completes the place.

“Tiny, but so beautiful,” Mary breathes.

The place looks hand-made, craftsmanship evident in every beam and corner.

We unpack our bags and a few supplies, red wine and Pot Noodles for dinner. All we need for a brief sojourn in the country. I’m glad the town was too busy for accommodation, we would never have found this gem otherwise.

After dinner, we sit outside the cabin on wooden chairs weathered silver, and watch the sun go down behind the hills in the far distance. The impossibly blue sky pales to aqua, then darkens to indigo and stars begin to shine. By the time the bottle is empty, the night is dark and the sky a shroud of glittering lights, the Milky Way a thick band from horizon to horizon. I can’t see Carroll’s farmhouse, there’s not another sign of human life, just rolling silhouettes of land, spiked here and there with trees. We could be entirely alone in the world. Mick Carroll was right, I can see this easily growing into a person. Or a person growing into this.

“It’s the sort of thing I dreamed of sharing with her,” Mary says, a hitch in her voice.

“I know. Me too.”

“Maybe she’s up there somewhere, looking down at us?”

I don’t believe that for a moment, but perhaps it gives Mary some peace to think so. “She might be.”

“It’s so unfair.” Tears glisten in the soft starlight, rolling over her cheeks.

“I know. We’ll try again, yeah? When you’re ready. Whenever you’re ready.”

“We hoped for a hotel and a restaurant,” Mary says, changing the subject none too subtly. “I’m glad we ended up with this instead.”

“Me too.”

We go inside after a while, both tired and softened by the wine. “Look at this,” Mary says as she’s making the bed from linen supplies in the old wardrobe.

It’s an eye, carved into the doorframe inside the bedroom. It triggers a memory. “Here too,” I say, moving into the lounge and pointing to the frame around the large picture window, top centre. Another, a simple oval, with pointed ends and a circle in the middle. Almost a hieroglyph of an eye.

Mary stands beside me, frowning. “What are they for?”

“Decoration?” I don’t believe my own answer. They seem somehow invasive.

Mary screams and my heart stutters at the sudden shattering sound. “What is it?”

Mary points at the picture window, now a black mirror reflecting us and the furniture. “There was a face!”

“A face?”

“Someone looking in!”

“Carroll, you mean? Or his daughter?”

Mary shakes her head, eyes wide. “A woman. An old woman. Hard to see against the reflections.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t your own reflection.”

She glares at me. I didn’t mean what my question implied.

“I’ll go out and check.”

With my phone’s flashlight, I circle the small cabin twice, check back down the dirt driveway, into the edge of the stand of gum trees.

“There’s nothing there,” I report when I get back inside. “Maybe it was a trick of the light.”

Mary cocks her head to one side, listening. “You hear that?” she whispers.

I strain my hearing, but can’t catch a sound except the soft breeze through dry leaves outside. “What is it?”

“Singing?” She’s not certain.

“I can’t hear anything.”

Mary goes to the cabin door, opens it and stares out into the night. After a long minute, she shrugs. “Can’t hear it any more.”

Exhausted, we go to bed. With the lights off the cabin is pitch dark. Cave dark. The window above the bed is a slightly less abyssal shade of charcoal thanks to starlight, but nothing reaches us as we lay there, cocooned in night. There’s no moon.

Some hours later, I wake and need to piss. In the bathroom, I see an odd shimmering through the window. A wavering pale green light, high in the sky off towards Carroll’s farmhouse.

As I clamber back into bed, Mary murmurs.

“Is there Aurora Borealis in Australia?” I ask.

“Aurora Australis. But not this far north, I don’t think.” Her voice is slumber-slurred. “Why?”

“No reason.”

I try to settle back into sleep, but notice the eye carved above the door, looking down at me. It blinks and I startle. Mary grunts a complaint. Heart hammering, I stare hard at the doorframe, but can barely make out the doorway in the pitch dark, let alone the carving. I couldn’t have seen it before. I must have dreamed it.

Eventually, sleep steals back in, but I’m restless. Furtive movements in trees, unsettling observations of little girls singing about their grandmothers, strange lights in the sky. I wake again not long after dawn, the sky pink and grey like the galah parrots we’ve seen. Knowing sleep has eluded me, I rise and check the car for supplies. We have bread and ham, eggs, long life milk, instant coffee. Plenty to get us breakfasted. Back in the cabin I have the meal ready as Mary emerges, rubbing her eyes.

“Knew I married you for a reason.” She takes a mug from me, cupping it between two palms, inhales its steam. “Mmmm.”

After breakfast we walk the countryside, enjoying the heat of the Australian sun, the dry eucalyptus smell of the bush. Mary is delighted to see a wombat nosing around the edge of the trees, and kookaburras laughing at us from above.

“This is what I needed,” she says as we sit to rest on a pale boulder. “All this space. Have you ever seen so much sky?”

“It’s endless, isn’t it? I feel like we could walk for days, even weeks, and never see another soul.”

We sit in contented silence for a long while, then Mary says, “We’ll need something for dinner.”

“Shall we go back to town and see if there’s a restaurant?”

“No, let’s stay here. Town is busy with their festival, and I don’t want busy. I want this.”

“Okay. We can have the rest of the bread and ham for lunch, then drive back and buy something to make here.”

Mary puts a hand on my hand where it rests on my knee. “Can you go? I know it’s selfish, but I don’t want to interrupt this… solitude. Even that tiny town would seem too much.”

The serenity on her face is enough to melt any reservations I might have. “Sure. I don’t mind.”

“Thank you! Choose something and I’ll cook, okay?”

“Deal.”

“And more wine.” She gives me a half-smile and a wink and I know that’s a promise for later. The thrill swells then settles low in my abdomen. I was shaken by my dreams, but now I’m looking forward to the night once more.

I leave later than intended after enjoying the outdoors for a long time. It’s nearly three in the afternoon as I drive back down the hill. Half an hour later I’m in town and Mary was right, even this small backwater seems too much. But it’s sleepy, no one around. I expected people for the festival they talked about. Regardless, I wish I could have stayed up on the hill too.

There’s one of those independent grocery stores, an IGA, on the main street. I get steaks and corn on the cob, and potatoes to boil. I grab a small but heinously expensive tub of Belgian chocolate ice cream, Mary will enjoy that. Only a few doors up is the pub, and I go in to ask if they sell wine.

It’s quiet inside, rough wooden floorboards and dust motes drifting in sunshine streaming through tall windows. Half a dozen dusty locals are in there, cold beers in hand that glitter golden in the sunlight. All heads turn to me as I enter and I’ve never felt more out of place.

Conversation stills as I approach the bar. A well-curved young woman, maybe twenty-five at most, smiles broadly. “G’day, love. What’ll it be.”

“Do you sell wine to take away?”

“Wine!” a gruff voice at the back barks and there’s a round of gravelly laughter.

“Ignore them bozos, love. Red or white?”

“Red, please.”

“I’ve got a merlot or a shiraz.”

I’m suddenly uncertain, so decide against deciding. “Why don’t I grab one of each?”

“Why dontcha!” She’s all smiles and warm welcome.

To be fair, the other locals are smiling and nodding too, no malice.

“Yer up at Carroll’s, ay?” one man says. He has a beard you could hide a cat in.

“That’s right. Lovely up there.”

“Nice to see you’ve made it back down ’ere.”

My brow creases in a frown as a couple of people of laugh, but others look away.

“Cut it out, Jack,” says the woman at the bar. “Here y’are, love.”

I pay for the wine and head out, returning nods and smiles from the locals as I leave. It strikes me that it’s singularly quiet for the only pub in a town with a festival on.

Driving back I enjoy the sunshine and the grass-scented wind through the open window. Maybe I can convince Mary to open the first bottle of wine this afternoon and bring that promise forward a little.

When I get back to the cabin, Mary isn’t there. I put the shopping away, leave the wine in plain sight on the tiny kitchen bench, then head outside. She’s not in the weathered chairs next to the picture window, but I notice another of those carved eyes on the outside of the frame, gazing across the rolling landscape. As I turn away, it blinks.

With a slamming extra pulse of my heart I spin back, staring hard. It’s aged and weather-marked. I reach up and run a finger around the circle of the pupil, frowning. It’s soft, aqueous, disturbing to the touch. I whip my hand away, leaning even closer, but it looks like nothing more than simple carved wood. I can’t bring myself to touch it again.

I turn my back to it and look out over the hills, then move to the side of the cabin and check the stand of gum trees. Movement through the pale trunks and a smile starts, then I realise it’s our friendly wombat again, rummaging with its wide nose.

Where is she?

Maybe she overestimated how long it would take me to get to the shop and back, and went on a longer walk than she otherwise might have. Perhaps she’s sitting on that boulder again. I imagine her, dwarfed by the epic space, tears rolling over her cheeks as she remembers our child who never was. Maybe she needs the space from me too.

Half an hour passes and I start to wonder what I should do. She could have gone in any direction, there’s nothing to stop her. Frustration borders anger in my mind as worry gnaws at my bones. If she got lost, out here, she might never be found. It’s not like England where you just keep walking and within a couple of miles you come to a road or a house.

It’s endless, isn’t it? I feel like we could walk for days, even weeks, and never see another soul.

A decision snaps into place and I walk back to the car. It only takes a couple of minutes to drive back around to Carroll’s farmhouse. Mary didn’t leave a note in the cabin, maybe she came here.

When I park up, Silvie is on her swing, creaking softly back and forth, back and forth, her lips quivering in their seemingly incessant recitation.

“Hey there,” I say as I hop out of the car. “Have you seen Mary? My wife? I was here with her yesterday, remember?”

“Ain’t seen her.”

I turn around and there’s Mick Carroll, strolling casually around the corner of his house. He’s carrying a chicken under one arm, blood pouring from where its head should be, spattering the ground and his barely held together boot. I’m fascinated momentarily by how the blood drops roll in the dirt and gather dust, turning into pale brown lozenges on the ground.

“Saw you drive by earlier. Head back to town?”

“I went to get us some dinner.”

“Didn’t leave her there did you?”

I’m incredulous, as if I’d forget my wife like I might an umbrella or hat. “She didn’t come,” I say instead. “But when I got back she was gone.”

“Out walking? Said she wanted to walk.”

“That’s what I thought, but it’s been too long.”

Carroll sucks in a long breath through his nose, looks left and right. “Lot of country out here.”

“How easy is it to get lost?” I hate the quaver in my voice. I’m embarrassed to be emotional in front of this grizzly man, but I won’t apologise for worrying about my wife’s well-being.

Carroll shrugs. “Soul could walk for days, I reckon. But she’s smart enough. You can see a long way. Come on around here.” He turns and walks back past his house.

Confused, I follow, but he’s standing at the next corner looking out over the wide, shallow valley behind. It’s almost silent, only the squeak of the child’s swing to be heard. The view is equally epic from here.

Carroll points up the hill, a crown of gums just visible. “That’s your cabin up there. You can’t see it, but you see the trees.” His arm sweeps from there all the way across the landscape. “From anywhere out there you can see that hill, and from most places you can see this house. I reckon maybe she went too far and it’s taking longer than she thought to get back. I don’t reckon she’s lost.”

His words both comfort and disturb me. It’s late, nearly five, and it’ll start to get dark in an hour or less. Autumn in Australia is like summer at home, but the evenings are not long. The child’s swing squeak, squeak, squeaks.

“Head on back to the cabin and I’ll bet she’s there waiting for ya.”

I look at the farmer and his smile is painted on, like a man wearing a mask. His eyes glitter, as though a thousand stars are swirling in them. As though galaxies are twisting. I shake myself and head back to the front. The sensation of impotence is crippling. Mary, where are you?

Silvie is still swinging when I jump back into the car. Does that child ever do anything else? Carroll wanders around the corner as I jam the keys into the ignition with a shaking hand. He nods once. I turn the key and nothing happens. I turn it again. Nothing. I double-check everything but it’s all in order, so I pull the key out, put it back in, try again. Not even a click.

The driver’s door opens, making me jump. Carroll leaning down. “Car trouble?”

“Won’t start,” I say stupidly. “It’s a hire car, brand new. Only got about twenty-thousand kilometres on the clock.”

Carroll stands, looks at the sky as if checking for rain. “Getting late,” he says, and I’m thrown by the non-sequitur. “I’m sure your wife’ll be back at the cabin by now, probably wonderin’ where you are. Only takes about ten minutes to walk around there. Go on up and leave the car here. My brother’s coming by first thing in the morning. He’s a mechanic.”

I stare at him, confused.

“You ain’t plannin’ on goin’ anywhere tonight, right?”

“I suppose not.”

He nods. “Go on up, see your wife, enjoy your evening. This’ll still be here in the mornin’.”

I leave the car and crouch by his daughter, desperation makes my hands shake. “Silvie, are you sure you didn’t see my wife pass by here? Really sure?”

She turns her head slowly to look at me, lips moving the whole time. Her weak sing-song voice rides the soft wave of her breath. “Grandma, Grandma, sitting above, seeing all and swallowing love. Grandma, Grandma, where did you go, far away or down below…”

Her face is slack, but her eyes are beseeching. I see fear in there. Deep, bone-chilling terror. One tear perches precariously on her lower lid.

“The kid don’t take much in,” Carroll says, and I notice a shudder run through her. She’s terrified of this man. Does he beat her? Worse?

“Go on up,” Carroll says. “I bet your wife is frettin’.”

My concerns for Mary outweigh my concerns for the child, but I won’t forget. I have to find Mary first, that’s all. It takes more like fifteen minutes to walk back up to the cabin, the track up the hill steeper than I’d realised from driving it. The sky is deepening to indigo as I arrive and I’m dismayed to see the cabin dark inside, no lights on anywhere. I push open the door and yell Mary’s name, run through and check the bedroom. I even drag the covers off the bed, imagining maybe she’s been napping all this time. Of course, she’s not there.

I turn on the light, open the wardrobe, as if she’d be inside. Above the door, the carved eye looks at me. As I stare, it blinks. Slowly and obviously. I stagger back a step or two and glimpse movement in the dark rectangle of the bedroom window. I spin to see more and it fleets away, but it was a face. An old, round face, curly grey hair, wide mouth grinning, slack with no teeth. I’m outside in seconds, and I lap the cabin twice, but no one is there.

Dark is falling quickly and the wavering green glow in the sky above the valley has started again.

Aurora Australis. But not this far north, I don’t think.

What the hell is it?

A wavery voice drifts to me from the trees, a woman singing. The tune is similar to Silvie’s, sitting terrified on her swing. I’m a few steps into the trees before I stop, heart pounding. If I go in there I’ll be lost. I know it. Is that where Mary went? But it wasn’t dark. She went out in that beautiful autumn sunlight, warm under a powder blue sky.

I have to find Mary. I have to get people up here to search. The Carrolls have no phone, and my car is broken somehow, but Carroll must have a vehicle. I saw a pick-up down there, I’m sure. I’ll take it to town, round up help.

I remember the strangely sleepy place, the almost empty pub. In a town that’s supposedly sold out for a flower festival. I don’t remember seeing any flowers.

It takes me less than ten minutes to hammer down the hill back to Carroll’s farmhouse, my legs threatening to fly out from beneath me all the way, feet slipping and sliding on stones and dirt. As I turn in through the gate, sweat running down my face, something gives me pause and I can’t figure it for a second. Silvie isn’t on her swing, but that’s not it. My car. The hire car that wouldn’t start is gone. I tear at my memory and see the key hanging in the ignition, still there when I left for the cabin. But it wouldn’t start. Unless it was sabotaged. By who? Who else is here?

I startle as I see eyes staring at me from the house. Silvie’s pale face floating at a front window like a nascent moon. Shadows shift with strange liquidity on the dirt of the driveway and I look up, see twisting ribbons of pale green high above.

“Carroll!” I yell. “Mick Carroll!”

There’s no answer. Silvie locks eyes with me, that beseeching look again. Then she whips backwards into shadow, hair flying, as though yanked violently from behind.

The front door slams inwards from the heel of my shoe and bounces against the wall. I put up a hand to stop it hitting me on its return, the impact jarring my elbow.

“Carroll! Where’s my car? Where’s my wife?”

The lounge room is gloomy, lit only with candles, ancient threadbare furniture all around, a low table of dark wood. A deer skull hangs from the wall but it’s wrong somehow, too long and thin, horns too curved. Those carved eyes are everywhere, on the table, on the doorframes and window frames, and they all blink slowly in random order, a flutter of slow movement all around me, almost circling me.

There’s one on the newel post at the foot of a wooden stairway leading up into the attic space. The house looks single-storey from outside, but there’s clearly been a loft conversion. At the top of the stairs is a door and nothing else. I push it open and run in.

It’s a single large room, low under the sloping roof, highest in the centre of the A-frame. The floor is wooden boards, scrawled with hundreds of carved symbols, eyes among them, but countless other shapes too, hieroglyphic, discomfiting. The exposed rafters are equally inscribed, all around me a thousand eyes blinking slowly in random order. At the far end of the attic is a chair, almost a throne, made of interwoven branches, their shape at once rustic and strangely biological, like a mess of veins or a map of nerves. Sitting on it is an old woman, thin and bony, wearing only a stained white shift. Her hair is a mass of grey curls, her smiling mouth toothless and wet. The only light is from dark wax candles stuck here and there, flickering.

Something is crumpled on the floor beside her. My heart stutters as my eyes adjust to the gloom and I see it’s Mary’s dress. And her shoes beside it. The old woman is sucking on something, baggy lips rippling. It looks like a small bone, white and knobbled.

“Came to visit the child, didn’t she,” the old woman says, her voice thick as though with mucus. “She couldn’t resist, loss eating her from the inside. They come to me, the lost and the victims of loss, the aggrieved and the grief-stricken. So sweet, their dismay, their vacuum of hope.”

My whole body is vibrating with shock and my legs feel simultaneously jellified and rock hard. I fear that if I try to move a muscle, I’ll collapse bonelessly to the floor. All the wooden eyes blink. Behind me, a low glottal laugh.

A shadow moves past and Mick Carroll steps in, his face split in a feral grin. The old woman leans her head back impossibly far and something starts to shift unnaturally in her body. Her thin shoulders thicken and rise, her mouth opens, and keeps opening, wider and wider. A wailing howl pours out of her, shredding my eardrums, high and rising and somehow bigger than natural sound. Her body fattens and the shift tears and falls away. The woman falls forward off her throne of sticks and hits the wooden floor with a fleshy thwack. She’s fattening into a white, rippling worm, growing larger, her mouth forward, widening, eyes above it sinking into doughy flesh, two glittering shards of green ice. Down her widening maw I see an endless black, and stars seem to swirl in it, impossibly far away.

Carroll’s bony hand closes over my bicep, tight and metallic in strength. It triggers me to move. Away. I have to get away from this fetid worm, now bigger than I am, covering the wooden floor in a series of rippling, telescoping movements.

Using Carroll’s own grip as a pivot point, I spin and bring my other elbow up and across into his face. He gulps in shock as his nose explodes with a crack and a burst of scarlet, his grip loosening as he staggers back. I shake free and run, stumbling down the stairs.

The old woman’s howl is enough to split the sky. It makes me stagger as my knees weaken. The front door stands open still, the dirt of the driveway beyond seems to undulate with pale green luminescence. I remember Carroll taking me around the side of his house earlier, to show me the wide valley. That’s where I saw the car, an old, half-rusted pick-up parked next to a broken-down hay shed. I pray he leaves the keys in it, being so far from everyone. From everything.

I sprint around the side of the house, ears ringing from another blistering howl, and skid to a stop as Silvie stands in front of me. She’s still barefoot, wearing her loose cotton dress with the pale blue flowers. For a second we stare at each other, then tears breach her eyes.

“Take me with you!”

Her voice is a needle across glass, weak and desperate.

“Take?” I mutter stupidly.

“He… does things to me. And Grandma isn’t Grandma any more.”

This poor child. “Come on!”

I grab her upper arm, shocked at the bony thinness of it, and pull her along. The pick-up is still there. I open the door, push her across into the passenger seat, thrilling to the sight of keys hanging in the ignition. I turn the key as I slam the door, praying the vehicle starts. It barks into life and rumbles unhealthily, stones in a metal can, but it runs.

I reverse hard, skidding sideways to turn and face the gate. Carroll stumbles out onto his veranda, face awash with blood, teeth bright through it as he snarls, and I floor the accelerator. The pick-up kicks dirt and gravel and then we’re fishtailing through the gate and I almost send the car into a roadside rain channel, but I wrestle it back and we’re flying through the night, away from the madness.

Mary! Oh, Mary.

My breath is ragged and fast, my heart slamming my ribs hard enough they feel like they’re bending. I slow a little, bring the car under control and watch the road carefully. Silvie moves close, then lays down, rests her head in my lap. I feel her trembling against my thighs.

She reaches up one tiny hand and pulls the keys from the ignition.

The car dies and coasts.

“What are you doing?” I stammer.

She sits up, mouth widening, shoulders and neck thickening, peristaltic pulses rippling up her back. Her howl shreds crystalline against my ears.

End.

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Alan Baxter is a multi-award-winning author of horror, supernatural thrillers and dark fantasy liberally mixed with crime, mystery and noir. This Is Horror podcast calls him “Australia’s master of literary darkness” and the Talking Scared podcast dubbed him “The Lord of Weird Australia.” He’s also a martial arts expert, a whisky-soaked swear monkey, and dog lover. He creates dark, weird stories among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, where he lives with his family and other animals. Find him online at www.alanbaxter.com.au 

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