Freebie and announcement

If you are wondering what the Icefire Trilogy is all about, you can read the story that inspired it for free, at Smashwords. It will go up on other sites, just give me a week or two until Smashwords approves the premium status.

Download it here

Also, I’d been thinking of a self-published book site away from this blog or my website, so I started a book blog Have Kindle, Will Read which will feature self-published books I’ve enjoyed and I can recommend. Yes, you see that correctly, I have a “suggest a book” form. ZOMG! I shall be drowing in the great unwashed torrent of teh awful self-publisherz! Sure.

Did I ever tell anyone that I am the Queen of Ignoring Email?

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Losing his marbles

Here is a story I wrote a long time ago. I’ve never submitted this anywhere, and I won’t – it’s too genteel and too derivative, and it has a few POV glitches, but it still brings a smile to my face.

Losing his marbles

Patty Jansen

Oh, the treasures of yesteryear.

A beam of sunlight lit a path from the tiny window in the roof to the attic floor. Two veined, trembling hands picked up an old wooden box. Spells for good luck twinkled around the lock, barely visible under a grey cover. Aldus blew. Years worth of dust swirled, dancing in the sunlight like miniature flocks of graceful swans. The lid creaked open, revealing the treasure within. Eleven glass balls about the size of a billiard ball, inlaid with spells, sparkling, twirling, reflecting the sunlight in a bed of purple velvet. Wizard marbles – real wizard marbles. Created by the magic studio of none other than the great Araphin Merrychuckle. The greatest player in all time.

Aldus reached inside the box and lifted one of the balls out. It felt good in his hand. His memories soared. Stefano Cusim, Elanor Droga, now they were players. They didn’t come like that anymore. Young players used prefabricated spells – they no longer had imagination. The game was faster yes, but in the old days–

‘What are you doing?’

Aldus slammed the lid of the box shut, away from Myra’s all-seeing eyes. She stood at the top of the attic stairs, her hands planted at her sides, flyaway hair escaping her plait, curly as it had always been, but these days completely grey. ‘I thought you were going to clean this place up.’

Aldus wiped his long white hair out of his face and gave a weary nod. ‘I am, I am.’

Myra snorted. ‘Doesn’t look like you’ve made much progress. Where is the pile I can take downstairs for the sale?’

He shrugged and heard her give a sniff behind his back.

‘Aldus, your mother is coming. If we want to turn this attic into a guest room, we’ve got to get rid of all this junk. Look at it, stuff that’s been sitting here for years. Your magic study books, you haven’t looked at them – for how long? Put them on the pile. Somebody might put them to use – if they study ancient history.’ She dragged a box to the stairs. ‘And this – all your old robes. What by Merlin’s beard do you want to keep those for?’ She dragged that box to the stairs, too.

Aldus spotted a glimpse of red fabric and sprang to his feet. ‘Hey, I like that one.’

‘Yeah – and you haven’t worn it – for how long?’ She lifted the red and gold wizards robe out of the box. Time had adorned it with moisture spots, and a few holes. ‘Didn’t think to spell it against moths, did you?’ She rolled it up and tossed it back in the box. ‘Maybe a cloth wizard will give us a few coppers for it.’ She picked up the box and lifted it to her voluminous hip.

Aldus’ gaze followed the piece of red fabric protruding from the top of the box, like a dog looking at a food bowl carried across the kitchen. He had genuinely liked the robe. It was the one he had worn when he met Myra.

She stopped at the top of the stairs, saw his sad eyes and sighed. ‘Come on, dear, it isn’t that hard.’

Aldus shook his head. It wasn’t that hard? It was a conspiracy against him by two females – his mother and his wife, who got along far too well. His mother would be staying at their house for four weeks. Four whole weeks! Wasn’t a wife meant to hate her mother-in-law? Somebody had better tell Myra. Aldus shrugged and waved a feeble hand at the all dust-coated things on the attic floor, too old to be useful, too full of memories to throw away. ‘Can’t you do a disappearing spell?’

Myra snorted. ‘Yes, but then all this stuff will turn up somewhere else and we’ll get no money for it–’

She stopped mid-sentence. Her face hardened and Aldus knew she had spotted the box of wizard marbles on the floor. She said nothing, but stared at it for at least a minute.

He cringed, waiting for the outburst.

Even after all those years, he could still hear her voice ringing in his ears, ‘…and we have a wedding to pay for, guests to entertain, a house to furnish and you spend – how much–‘

‘But Myra, think of how much fun we’ll have playing with these. See, real Merrychuckle–‘

‘For your information, Aldus, I am not interested in wizard marbles.’

He could still see her standing there, hands on much slimmer hips, curly red hair springing from her plait. Merlin’s beard, she had been one fiery witch.

But age had mellowed even Myra. She pursed her lips and turned away. She didn’t even remind him how little he had used his expensive selfish present. Well, he could hardly play by himself. Wizard marbles required a partner, or two, or three.

Not until she started down the stairs did she speak, and then she only said, ‘I’d like to get a new dinner table.’

To Aldus, the message was clear. He sighed, got up and put the box on top of the pile of old books. As always, she was right.

#

The day was sunny and full of bird song and the buzz of bees. The signs stood outside the gate, beckoning buyers into the front garden. Myra wore a yellow robe. She flitted between tables like a huge yellow butterfly, nervously arranging and re-arranging items on the tables. She conjured tomato juice and sandwiches for the buyers.

She ordered Aldus to look after the price tags – he was a number wizard, after all. He did as she asked. Ten florins, six florins, twenty coppers, zip, zip, zip. His wand danced in his hand as if he was conducting an orchestra. But it was playing angry music. His things, his life was being sold. Cleaning the attic – what for? His mother could just as easily sleep in Dora’s old room. Since she had married and had left the house, she no longer needed it.

No, all these women ever thought about was cleaning. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. What did an empty attic symbolise if not a life devoid of pleasant memories?

He stopped and stared at the table in the middle of the lawn. There, taking centre-stage, was the box of wizard marbles. Myra had stuck a clumsy handwritten price tag on the lid – as a cooking witch, she couldn’t do number tags. He read the spidery writing and nearly choked. What? Two hundred florins? Much too cheap – someone might actually buy them! A flick of his wand and the tag said four hundred. He turned to the next item with a smirk on his face.

There were the first zooms and clunks of brooms being stacked against the fence. Bargain hunters, preying on other people’s misery. While Myra led the customers around, Aldus retreated to the corner, eying the box on the table like a hawk. These customers, a bunch of young students, weren’t interested in wizard marbles. Aldus relaxed and made his way to the table in the corner to get a cup of tomato juice. Passing the table, his gaze carelessly travelled over the centre table and – shock horror – the price label had changed back to two hundred florins. He whipped his wand out of his pocket and directed a number-fudging spell, his speciality. Anyone who would now look at the price tag would think it was too expensive, no matter how much money they had.

It was only just in time. Two more clunks against the fence announced the arrival of the next buyers. Myra, at the gate with the students, carrying a pile of Aldus’ old books, welcomed them into the garden. Aldus took one look at the elderly couple, poked his wand under his arm and put a quick un-noticing spell on the box of marbles. He couldn’t do a proper invisibility spell, that was the domain of illusion wizards, but this was the next best thing. It made someone overlook the spelled object, no matter how close they were.

Carrying his tomato juice in trembling hands, he sauntered into the garden, under Myra’s hawkish eye. He had no doubt she knew what was going on, but this time, the visitors were his friends. She could hardly afford to make a scene in front of them.

The lady witch of the couple had taken interest in a set of cauldrons that had become too big for just the two of them. Her hot pink robe spoke of style and quality, but then again, she probably had picked it up in a garden sale, too.

The wizard wandered between the tables, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his robes. Every part of him, from his greying ponytail to his orange cloak and his dragon leather boots, said ‘I don’t want to be here,’ something Aldus could highly sympathise with. He went to the table in the corner and picked up a cup of tomato juice. ‘Drink?’

The wizard’s bronzed face creased into a forlorn smile as he took the cup.

Aldus went to stand next to him. ‘You hate shopping as much as I do?’

‘Don’t talk to me about it. She does nothing else all day. You should see our house – full of all sorts of stuff. At least you are doing the right thing here.’

Aldus gave a wry smile. On the other side of the garden, Myra stood by while the witch was rummaging through the box containing Aldus’ old robes. ‘Oh, these are so amazing, genuine silk. You don’t see that so much these days. You know, my husband buys only cheap robes. He doesn’t have to iron them. Even with ironing spells, I tell you…’

Myra gave her a sympathetic look. ‘Yes, dear, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Take my husband. He spends money on the most ridiculous things, and then doesn’t use them at all.’

Aldus cringed and glanced at his companion from the corner of his eye. The wizard gave a snort of laughter, and then Aldus laughed too.

He held out his hand. ‘The name is Aldus. Myra is my thrifty other half.’

The wizard shook it with a strong, long-fingered hand. ‘Maddox. The wife’s Genna.’

Aldus gestured to the wizard’s empty cup.’ More juice?’

While Aldus filled the cups, more people entered the garden. He answered a few questions – how much is this chair? Does it fetch the paper? Do the enchanted teacups come with matching teapot? – before he returned to the centre table, and found to his horror, that Maddox had opened this lid of the wizard marble set.

What? He had seen through the un-noticing spell? He had defied the number-fudging spell? He could only be…

Maddox turned, his brown eyes almost apologetic. ‘I’m an illusion wizard,’ he said, confirming Aldus’ worst fears. ‘These sorts of spells are my speciality. Not very powerful, but impressive. Especially when done by a number wizard.’

Aldus didn’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted.

Maddox’ mouth twitched when he held the box up. The marbles glittered in the sunlight. ‘I guess you don’t really want to sell these.’

Aldus shrugged. ‘She wants a new dinner table,’ to which he added after a silence, ‘and in all honesty, I haven’t used them all that much. You see, Myra isn’t really into this sort of thing… are you?’

Maddox smiled. ‘Genna and I love wizard marbles. We only have an old set, you know, run-of-the-mill kind of stuff, but wow, a real Merrychuckle…’ He caressed the box in his hands.

Aldus stared at the table. How wonderful would it be to have a wife who loved to play with him. Not a high-powered violent game, but just a social game with a few clever spells. Out in the enchanted park all morning and a drink at the clubhouse afterwards. Yes, that would be a good life.

His mouth fell open. He had suddenly come up with an idea – stupid he hadn’t thought of that before!

His face split in a brilliant smile. He pushed the box into Maddox’ hands. ‘Two hundred florins.’

Maddox gaped. ‘But the tag says–‘

‘I know what the tag says. I bewitched it. Two hundred should do. I’d rather they go to a good home than that some grubby student gets his hands on them.’

Maddox didn’t give up so easily. ‘But you don’t really–‘

‘No, I’m serious. But you’ve got to promise me one thing. Invite me for a game,’ and when comprehension dawned on Maddox’ face, he added, ‘Every Sunday.’

Maddox clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I’ll gladly do that. In fact, I think I might be able to do a little more.’ Aldus didn’t see him take his wand from his pocket.

#

Genna had collected a crate full of things from the garden. While she and Myra talked, Aldus packed everything, making sure that the box of marbles found its to the bottom of the crate. Maddox and Genna couldn’t take it on their brooms, so Aldus promised to drop by a few days later with his flying carpet, and deliver the box with the marbles, so he and Maddox could go for their first game.

Two days later, a beautiful dinner table was delivered and Myra whistled all day while bewitching paintbrushes to paint the walls and ceiling in the attic, which was now empty of memories. In the corner, the sowing machine whirred making dainty curtains and matching bedcovers. Aldus sat in the garden reading the Wizard News, happy for Myra, but feeling that the house had lost some of its charm.

After lunch, he announced he was going to deliver the crate and would go to the library afterwards. Before hauling it onto the flying carpet, he checked the bottom of the crate.

The box with the marbles was not there.

What? It had been there only two days ago. Where was it? Maddox had already sent his payment!

Aldus rummaged through the crate, unpacked and re-packed it twice. He checked all corners of the attic, the hall, the garden, but to no avail. Finally, he set off with a heavy heart, a bundle of two hundred florins in his pocket to repay Maddox for his expense.

#

Maddox received him with a broad smile on his face. He helped Aldus carry the crate inside and then invited him into his workroom for a drink.

‘Genna’s gone shopping,’ he said in what Aldus should have recognised as a too-careless tone. ‘You know what it’s like with women.’

Aldus smiled, but his heart wasn’t in it. He wanted to talk about the marbles. He wanted to know if Maddox had the box or if they had been stolen, although he had no idea how that could have happened. But Maddox proceeded to show him the marvels of the realm of the illusion wizard. Or they would have been had Aldus not been so worried. It was like his new friend was glossing over something, hiding the mystery of the missing marbles under a veil of smalltalk.

He poured them another drink. The question if they weren’t meant to be out there playing burned on Aldus’ lips, but Maddox was an excellent illusion wizard. Every time Aldus came close to asking it, he would forget, or think of something else.

Late in the afternoon, two clangs sounded by the gate, followed by a squeal of laughter. Aldus sat straight up in his chair – he recognised that sound – but how long since he had last heard it? Genna stumbled into the back door, followed by Myra, both giggling if they were drunk. Maddox didn’t seem to find their behaviour strange and Aldus began to think that everyone in the world had fun except him. He pushed himself further back in the chair. Maddox wanted to pour him another drink, but he refused. ‘We should be going soon,’ he said and his mouth felt stiff.

Maddox blocked his way. ‘No you don’t. Aldus, it is time to reveal my little secret. Myra, put it on the table, please.’

And under her husband’s disbelieving stare, Myra produced the box of wizard marbles from behind her back and put it on the table.

For long moments, Aldus didn’t know what to say.

Neither did Myra. Finally, she placed a hand on his arm. ‘I’m sorry, dear. I guess I never really tried to play, to see if I did like it…’

Aldus looked up in time to see Maddox tap the pocket in which he held his wand and wink at Genna. ‘Won’t the four of us have lots of fun.’

Taking back the words

This short story was published in the December 2008 issue of TiconderogaOnline.

Taking back the words

Patty Jansen

Dust.

There was a taste of dust in Nick’s mouth.

Dust that coloured his hand orange-red and dulled the surface of the silver ring on his finger.

The ring. Kylie.

Oh God, Kylie. His groan was a deep guttural sound like it came from the earth itself, a sound that didn’t belong to him and yet it did, a sound that mingled with peaceful chirping of… zebra finches?

Nick pushed himself up. Finches twittered in straggly, leafless bushes surrounding the patch of red earth on which he sat. To his right, a clump of Spinifex lay in pieces as if cleaved by a giant axe. A skid-mark stopped on the other side and next to that was a wheel. A wheel and the ruins of a bumper and the road-blackened underside of a car.

Yes, that’s how it had happened: Kylie. Her father. The argument.

How dare you blame me for something that happened while I wasn’t even in the country, when my father wasn’t even here?

God – had he really said that?

And run out the house watched by Kylie’s grandmother and aunts and a dozen others on the porch. Jumped into car and took off down the dusty road at top speed.

And now…

He pulled a Spinifex thorn out of his arm. Remembered the massive red kangaroo that had jumped onto the road.

A nice fix he had gotten himself into now. Miles from anywhere without any food or water. And who knew when someone would be using this road. Could be hours. Days. Weeks.

Walking back to Kylie’s wasn’t an option. How many hours had he driven since leaving the community? God only knew. He’d be dead before he got there. If Kylie’s brothers didn’t find him first, and then he’d be dead anyway. They were big, they were very black, they were strong and they didn’t think much of city lawyers with fancy degrees, especially ones with long foreign-sounding names, like Papadopoulos.

How could he have been so stupid to get into an argument?

‘Excuse me.’ The voice sounded low and gravelly, as if it came from the red sand itself.

Nick turned and looked around. Bushes, smashed-up clump of Spinifex, upside-down car.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Where are you? Show yourself!’

One of the wheels on the car started turning by itself. Another wheel shook. The side panel shivered, twisted, warped…

A front wheel drew out, elongated, into a boomerang-shaped appendage, a long-nailed claw at the end.

A claw?

Another wheel turned into a claw. The car boot became longer, and longer, until it grew into a tail. The body narrowed and twisted. Legs thrashed until the creature sat right side up: a monstrous lizard. Large red and yellow spikes covered its back, stubby snout and even its legs and tail. Round pop-eyes turned.

Nick crab-walked back into one of the dry bushes. ‘What the heck are you?’

‘I’m a thorny devil.’

A thorny—what? Nick remembered thorny devils from the zoo. ‘But… you’re supposed to be only the size of my hand.’

‘Supposed to be.’

‘Am I dead?’

The devil extended its tongue to lick a protruding eyeball. ‘Do I look dead to you?’

‘No, but…’ The skid-tracks of the car still marred the sand where the devil sat. ‘I… I don’t see cars turning into lizards every day.’

‘Bet you don’t, city-boy. You have a lot to learn.’

Nick stuck his hands in his pockets. Why should everyone remind him of his ignorance? Kylie’s dad and now this creature.

‘Pfrrrt. Ignore that old grumpybeaks. I’ll give you a ride into town.’

Nick turned at the new, breathy voice.

Behind him stood a camel. Moving floppy lips into impossible positions, it nibbled tips of the bushes.

This was getting altogether too weird. ‘You… you talk.’

‘Pfrrt. ‘Course I do. What d’ya think – that I’d be stupid?’

‘Uhmmm.’

‘You gonna stand there or get on my back? ‘s a long way to town.’ The camel sank onto its front knees.

Nick did know a little bit about camel riding. At least he had ridden a camel before, even though it had been equipped with a saddle; he had been ten or so and the animal had been led around by an attendant. He pushed through the shrubbery.

But the devil shot in front of him, blocking his path. ‘Wait a moment. He’s never been to town; he doesn’t even know the way.’

The camel blew his lips. ‘Pfrrt. ‘Course I do. We camels have our desert tracks. Ride with me.’

‘Why would you go to town anyway? What’s in a town? The desert gives you everything you need. I will teach you—‘

‘‘Course he wants to go to town. That’s where the humans live, remember?’

The devil swung its tail. ‘Shut your flobbery mouth. You don’t even belong in Australia. You’re nothing but an introduced pest.’

‘Excuse me. May I remind you that I was born here? I have just as much right to be here as you do.’

‘So you say.’

‘Pffrt, why not?’

Nick pushed his way past the devil. ‘Oh, cut arguing, you two. I don’t even know if you’re real or not, but I’ll go with whoever can take me out of here. I’ve had enough local adventures to last me a lifetime.’ And that included Kylie.

He grabbed the furry curls on the camel’s hump and swung his leg over. From his position close to the ground, the devil looked even more spiky. Nick grinned. ‘I know a good opportunity when I see one. See you around, buddy.’

#

The camel ripped the tips of some branches off a bush. ‘So Kylie’s your girlfriend, right?’

Nick sighed. He had just spent the last half hour recounting what had happened. ‘Yes.’ Although after today, it would probably be more appropriate to say that Kylie was his girlfriend.

‘And she lives at the White River community?’

‘Her parents do. She got a scholarship to go to University. That’s where we met. She’s really quite an amazing girl, very smart and…’ And after having met her family, he appreciated that even more. Kylie must have had tremendous will power to have come as far as she had.

‘Pffrt. Trouble. I could have told you that. You see – these people are just like grumpybeaks over there. Introduced pests – animals or white people – are the cause of all evil. Whether we’ve been born here and lived here all our lives or just arrived. It doesn’t make a difference, as long as they have someone to blame for being miserable. And let me tell you: if you stick with that girl, that someone is going to be you.’

Nick nodded. ‘Good point. You know what my mother said when I told her about Kylie? She said, “Is no good son, is no good. You come home. We find good Greek girl for you to marry.” I think I might just do that.’ Although it felt wrong just to give up like that.

‘Right you are. Stick with your own, I’d say.’

Nick glared at the devil following behind.

#

Red sand passed under the camel’s feet. The lowering sun coloured the landscape alien orange, the kind Nick had adored when he and Kylie had walked hand in hand on the beach, and sunlight touched her brown skin and played in the deep brown curls dancing around her head.

Only this wasn’t quite so pretty. Sunset meant it was getting dark. Nick was hungry and thirsty and the town was nowhere in sight. He bent down over the camel’s hump. ‘Are you sure you’re going in the right direction?’

The camel snorted. ‘’Course we are. I’m just showing you the countryside.’

Showing me the countryside? ‘Excuse me, but I’d be more interested in getting to town.’

‘Don’t you think it’s pretty here? Look at that for example.’

The golden sunlight hit a ridge of sand dunes. White twigs of dead bushes contrasted sharply with the red sand. Yes, it was pretty. But when they crested the hill, the desert landscape stretched all the way to the horizon. Not a sign of the town.

The camel snorted. ‘Pffrt, this seems like a good place to stop for the night.’

Nick slid off the camel’s back and collapsed in the sand, his muscles were sore just from holding on.

A little way off, in a sandy hollow sat a familiar figure. Sharp spines on a long tail silhouetted against the setting sun. The devil raised a paw and continued eating.

Nick’s stomach rumbled.

#

That night, Nick slept on the hard ground. He woke up a few times to the sound of the camel browsing the tips of branches. Nick broke one off and chewed it to still the rumbling in his stomach, but the wood had a sharp tang, which only made his thirst worse.

He gave up tossing and turning when the sky turned grey at the eastern horizon and while the camel was still asleep, clambered up the sandy ridge. Nothing moved in the stillness of the morning except the devil’s tongue, licking drops of moisture from the folds in the corners of its mouth.

Nick’s voice sounded raspy from lack of water. ‘Please, would you have something to drink?’

The devil turned away.

Nick stumbled closer and repeated his question so the devil could no longer ignore his presence.

But still, the devil didn’t look at him. ‘You didn’t want to listen to your girl’s father’s stories. You didn’t want to learn about the country yesterday. You didn’t want to hear that old grumpy couldn’t find the town if he stepped on it, so why should I help you now, introduced pest?’

Why indeed old grumpybeaks?

Nick jammed his hands in his pockets and turned away, thirsty, hungry and all.

The camel had woken up and sore as he was, Nick clambered on its back.

They set off again. The sun rose and very soon became hot. The camel walked and walked and walked. Nick had long since given up asking if the camel knew where to go.

#

That evening, the camel stopped at the bottom of an outcrop of large boulders. It wandered off to browse the shrubs, but Nick was by now so thirsty he was ready to try anything for a drink. He remembered vaguely how Kylie had told him that animals would know where to dig to find water under the sand. Sure he could do that, too. He walked around the boulders, chose a depression where the camel couldn’t see him and scooped sand aside with his hands.

He dug, spraying desert sand behind him.

And he dug, and dug, leaning ever further forward into the hole that yawned before him.

‘What on Earth are you doing?’

Nick jumped up.

The devil sat behind him, chewing on the remains of a fat and juicy ant. To Nick, the insect looked almost palatable. The devil licked its eyeballs. ‘Just in case you didn’t know, this is not how the old colonials went about stealing our gold.’

Nick dusted sand from his knees and met the devil’s gaze squarely. ‘No, but I’m sure it is how they did their business. Why don’t you go away and bother someone else?’

The devil snorted and ambled away.

Still panting, and his throat drier than ever, Nick gazed into the hole. The sand at the bottom was just as dry as that of the surrounding ground.

#

Still more thirsty and sore Nick scrambled onto the camel’s back the next morning. From the corner of his eye he spotted the devil and for a moment wondered if riding on it would be any more comfortable than on this aptly-named ship of the desert. But the devil didn’t pay any attention to Nick. It had dug up some roots and sat happily munching and licking its lips.

Nick’s stomach grumbled. ‘Are we getting near the town? You promised to take me back.’

‘And so I am,’ said the camel, ‘so I am.’

But all that day, it kept on walking. Nick hung onto the camel’s back with the last of his strength, but frequently looked over his shoulder, where the devil followed, grazing on ants and digging in clumps of Spinifex.

Nick turned away every time it emerged licking its lips, but he still heard the sounds of eating and by the end of the afternoon, couldn’t stand it anymore. He let go of the camel’s hump and landed in the sand before the devil. He was dismayed by how much he swayed on his feet. ‘Alright, he doesn’t know the way. Even if I’ll be walking around this stupid desert for the rest of my life, at least show me how to find food and water.’

The devil looked up, licking its eyeballs. ‘Why should I help you now, after you ignored me? Don’t you think I deserve at least an apology?’

‘An apology? What for? You were the one calling me an introduced pest.’

‘Which you are.’

Then why should I apologise?’

‘Because you need me.’

Right then, the devil was lucky to be spiky, or, dizzy or not, Nick would certainly have kicked it. ‘Why are you being such an obnoxious pest? Offering help and then pulling it back, teasing me. What is going on anyway? We’re going around in circles in this bloody desert… I’m dead, aren’t I? And I’m stuck in some place like hell.’ Nick stood there, panting. Dry desert air seared his throat; he ran his parched tongue over lips cracked and bleeding and much too sore to belong to a dead body.

In that silence, a voice sounded. ‘Pffrt. Are you coming?’

Nick whirled at the camel, which had turned back. ‘No, I am not. You don’t know the way. You’ve been lying to me.’

‘Too right, Nick,’ the devil snorted. ‘You’re finally starting to see – he can never know the country as well as I do.’

‘Oh, shut up. You’re no better. You call him grumpybeaks, but all you do is whine. Whine, whine, whine. Introduced pests, useless towns, blah, blah, blah. I’m sick of it. If it’s all so bad, why don’t you do something about it, like try to see his point. And it’s not as if either of you are going to go somewhere else in a hurry, so you might as well try to get along.’

The devil licked its eyeballs. The camel raised his head. They eyed each other for at least a minute.

Nick stood there, his head pounding. Get along. Like him and Kylie’s dad. What a joke. What was he saying? He fell to his knees in the sand, clutching his head. Patches of black danced before his eyes. Water. He had to get some water soon.

When he looked up, the devil and the camel were gone. Only the breeze carried a wheezy voice. ‘Pfrrt. Can’t help that one. Doesn’t want to be helped. Why do we waste our time with people like that?’

‘Don’t know, my friend. Can’t see why the girl still loves him.’

‘Pfrrt – me neither, but what do we do mate? Give him another chance?’

And then there was only the whisper of the wind and the soft chirping of zebra finches

Nick scrambled to his feet. Clawed his way up the sand dune, filling his shoes with dust. ‘Hey! Wait for me! Don’t leave me behind.’ But his voice was no more than a whisper.

Red sand swam before his eyes, rippled like a river.

From the depths of the sandy image emerged a face. Brown eyes, springy curls of deep copper.

Can’t see why the girl still loves him.

Kylie – after what he had done and said, she still loved him?

He crawled up the dune and slid, half-rolled down the other side. Kylie still loved him? What was it his father used to say before cancer claimed his life? Decide what you want, and then fight for it, son. Never give up.

Never give up. He wouldn’t. If he died in the attempt, he would never give up. He crawled through the sand, dragged himself along. Never give up. He crawled and crawled until he collapsed in the shadow of a boulder…

Images span around him and from their midst came a smell. Moisture. And in a rush, the memories came back to him. Kylie standing in the dry river bed next to a boulder, pointing at scratch marks made by wild animals.

Nick dug. Soon the sand felt moist under his hands and not long after his fingers hit a small puddle of water. He scooped some out with his bare hands and drank. Although it was dirty and tasted of mud, it was the best water that had ever flowed across his tongue…

‘Mate. Hey mate, wake up.’

Water splashed in his face.

Nick groaned, coughed.

A young man bent over him. Sunburnt skin, blond hair, akubra hat. ‘Mate, are you alright?’

Nick nodded, and drank from the bottle held to his mouth. He sat with his back against a boulder. Behind his rescuer stretched a red dirt road and on it, a car. Not his car. This was not the place where he had crashed. He let the soothing water run down his throat.

‘You won’t believe how lucky you are, mate. You know how I found you? I was just fixing the fence over on the other side, and this camel came up to me and pulled my shirt. A camel! Would you believe that?’

Nick shrugged. After his adventure, he was ready to believe anything. ‘Did you…’ He cleared his still-sore throat. ‘Did you see my car?’

‘A red Toyota, Victorian numberplates?’

Nick nodded.

‘Yeah. It’s sitting a bit further up the road. I had a bit of a squiz at it. Couldn’t see anyone. Couldn’t see anything wrong with it.’

#

The young man had been right. There was the car, neatly parked on the side of the road.

The windscreen was whole, as if he had never crashed. The bumper, too, was still in its pre-crash position. Nick slid from his rescuer’s car and looked in through the window. What if it was a trick? The car looked familiar enough: the scratches marked the chrome doorhandle, his road map unfolded on the passenger’s seat.

‘Everything OK?’ The young man stuck his head out the window.

‘Think so.’ Nick opened the door. The smell of hot vinyl surrounded him as he slid behind the wheel, dug his fingers in its fake fur cover. That, too, was real enough.

The engine started with a familiar rumble. Nick ran his hand over the dashboard, uncertain, still expecting the car to turn into a lizard any moment.

It did not. He gave his young rescuer the thumbs up.

The man grinned. ‘If you’re coming to town, call into the pub tonight and I’ll shout you one.’

‘Thanks, but I’m heading the other way. I’ve got some unfinished business at White River.’

‘But that is…’

‘An aboriginal community, I know.’

A dubious look crossed the man’s face. He grimaced and said, ‘Fair enough, mate.’ And drove off.

Nick pushed down hard on the accelerator; the car span onto the road in a cloud of dust.

Dry desert wind whooshed in through the open windows and whipped his hair. He could have sworn it carried the words of two inhuman voices.

‘Pfrrt – seems you made a good choice after all, mate.’

‘You reckon?’

Never on a Birthday

Never on a birthday
Patty Jansen

published originally in Byzarium, November 2008

They said in the corridors of the galaxy, if the galaxy had corridors, that no one could throw a birthday party as fine as Hermon Feyst.
Certainly no one did it as often. A thousand guests, magnificent food, outrageous ornaments, and the orchestra – such heavenly talent, especially that trumpet player who jumped on his chair in a magnifique solo at the end of ‘Happy Birthday’. One could of course argue that they got quite a lot of practice playing ‘Happy Birthday’. But then again, one could be accused of sour grapes. If you were the richest man in the universe, wouldn’t you want to celebrate your birthday every day?
On this day on Lokona, Hermon celebrated his birthday in Lokonian years, which wasn’t the same as Martian years and not at all the same as Earth years, but had he lived on Lokona, which he did not, it would have been his birthday, and that alone was worth coming here for a celebration.
And what sort of celebration!
As the planet’s three suns threw their confused shadows across the courtyard of the mock-Spanish inn, wine twinkled in glasses and guests laughed at the giant butterflies that had taken a liking to Hermon’s wife’s hat, like a living, writhing, fluttering headdress. Hermon stood in the shade of a butterfly tree, the home of those deliciously ridiculous creatures, letting his gaze roam over all his friends, laughing, talking, eating.
‘Oh, Hermon, aren’t they delightful?’ Esmeralda cocked her head, and a few butterflies tossed themselves into the air. ‘Why do you think they like me so?’
‘Because you are the loveliest woman at the party.’ Her hair might be silver, and her body might no longer be young and firm – for body modifications were so last century – but her beauty lay in her heart.
Seated on her other side Teddy laughed, waving butterflies out of his face. His twinkling grey eyes met Hermon’s. ‘Mother and I were just discussing how we can use profits from the Avrilia Mining Project to build a shelter for refugees on Europa.’ Teddy had his mother’s eyes, but unfortunately his father’s rounded belly. Now in his seventies, flecks of white dotted his ginger hair.
That’s when a knock of something hard on wood silenced the merrymaking.
Hermon looked over his shoulder at the heavy wooden doors that led into the inn’s foyer. On unsteady legs, from having drunk too much, Hermon crossed the courtyard and creaked open the door.
A gust of cold blew in, ruffling Hemon’s white hair and the sign on his chest that said ‘Birthday Boy.’
‘I have come,’ rasped a wheezy voice, no more than a whisper.
‘I can see that.’ Hermon chuckled, but the sound fell flat. The man dressed in the blackest of black. His hands hid within the folds of his cloak, his face under a heavy cowl.
‘Can I come in?’
Hermon half-closed the door. ‘Pardon me, I think you’re at the wrong address. I don’t know who you are, mister. I didn’t invite you.’
‘I know that,’ the man said and chuckled in the depth of his hood. ‘I often come uninvited.’
Another cold breath crept over Hermon’s bare arms, making him shiver. ‘No one comes uninvited to my party, scarecrow. Begone with you!’
He slammed the door shut, and under curious eyes, strode through the courtyard, past the butterfly tree, to the staff quarters. The pilots and technicians were playing with astro-stones, the coloured chips laid out on the table. The chief pilot of Hermon’s private space ship glanced up. ‘Who was that, boss?’
Hermon didn’t answer the question, but charged across the room where Jock sat snoring on a couch, his chin resting on his chest, a glass tipped over on his stomach, its contents having seeped into his shirt. ‘Jock!’
The astronomer jerked up, letting the glass clatter to the floor. ‘What?’
‘Where are we off to tomorrow?’
The astronomer fumbled for his holo-projector in his pocket. He flicked it on.
Jock scratched his head. ‘Uhm – where are we now?’
‘Lokona, you idiot. Just because we discovered the pattern repeats every 1326 days, that doesn’t mean I have no need for an astronomer – or one who is drunk when he shouldn’t be.’
‘Uhm – yes boss.’ Jock swallowed hard and blinked to focus his watery eyes on the projection. ‘Tomorrow, we will travel to Ameran, Dota system. According to this table, it will be your 113th birthday there.’
‘Ameran then it is.’ Hermon whirled back to the pilots. ‘Are the ships ready?’

Ameran it was. They travelled through the wormhole at night and arrived at the planet the very next day.
Ameran’s climate was less pretty than Lokona’s, so the locals, by now accustomed to Hermon’s turning up every year, had erected a huge tent.
Here, the guests partied and danced while rain pelted on the canvas roof. Hermon sat next to his wife for that magical moment when the orchestra played ‘Happy Birthday,’ keen for that magnificent trumpet solo.
But it never came. The orchestra finished the song, to raucous applause.
Hermon called out, ‘The trumpeter, what happened to the trumpeter?’
The conductor downed his stick, and coat tails flapping, he ran through the crowd. He kneeled, red-faced and sweating, at Hermon’s side. ‘I am so sorry. I have bad news, boss. I didn’t want to give it to you on your birthday.’
‘Every day is my birthday. Out with it.’
The man cringed. ‘Our trumpet player died last night.’
‘Died!’ Hermon roared. ‘That’s impossible!’
The conductor cringed again. ‘Yet, it is true. We left his body on Lokona to be collected by his family.’
Hermon turned to his wife. ‘Esmeralda, just come with me for a bit.’
She took his hand, and they walked to a corner of the tent. The partygoers watched him, which Hermon didn’t like; he never kept secrets from his friends.
Esmeralda spoke in a soft voice. ‘You look upset, darling.’
‘I am. Our trumpeter has died.’
‘You are angry about that?’
‘I don’t understand. I liked the man. I loved his playing.’
Esmeralda shook her head. ‘Hermon, dear, people die, whether you like them or give them permission or not. Just because the prophecy says that you won’t die on your birthday, that doesn’t mean that others won’t.’
In the moody light from the flapping candles, Esmeralda’s face looked very old.

Hermon found a new trumpeter, not as good as the old one, but good enough. The company travelled through a wormhole every night, and every day there was a party. He was almost happy again.
That was until they came to celebrate on Morack.
Hermon didn’t like Morack, although he had often celebrated his birthday there, for it was a planet which tightly orbited a cool sun, and had a short year.
A world so ancient that all its mountains had ground to sand and sea and land had mixed until the entire surface was a marsh bog perpetually ravaged by tides under the influence of its single – and huge – purple moon.
Hermon’s pilots had trouble locating the capital, which, as it turned out, had followed the drift of the Great Sand Spit south. Someone had dragged Hermon’s floating party hall to a new location and left it stranded in a bog full of smelly seaweed, like a discarded shipping container, which in fact, it had been in a previous life.
Hermon requested a comm link and blustered at the authorities. They were very sorry, they said, but since a flood had destroyed the old capital, their priority had been to save the people sent adrift by the spring tides.
‘Fair enough,’ Hermon said, and donated a good slice of funds to the homeless of Morack
But he still didn’t like it.
He sat at his table next to Esmeralda and while she chatted to Teddy about charitable project – bless his son’s good heart – Hermon said very little.
‘You are so quiet, dear.’
Hermon sighed. ‘Something is going to happen. I know it will.’
Esmeralda took his hand. ‘Oh dear, you worry too much.’
‘I know.’ Hermon blew out long sigh. ‘I guess I’m getting old.’
She laughed, that tinkling sound he loved so much. ‘Of course you are, older than any human in the universe. But I love you, Hermon.’
‘I know. I love you too, and you as well, Teddy.’ He reached out and drew his son closer. Teddy patted him on the back. ‘I love you, Dad.’
Hermon felt a little better, but still he was hardly surprised when the thin cloaked figure showed up.
He met the stranger at the door. ‘You again. You must like birthday parties.’
‘Indeed.’ Today he wore a blue cloak. Contrary to the black one, it was the right length, and didn’t hide his hands. They were strong and tanned.
‘What’s with the new cloak?’
The visitor chuckled. ‘I thought it was time for something more friendly. Don’t you like it?’
‘I don’t care about the outfit. I don’t like you. Get out!’
As he turned around, he almost bumped into someone. One of his pilots, an expression of horror on his face. He only asked, ‘Who?’
The pilot said, ‘Jock.’

Jock had been a useless drunk, Hermon told himself over many of the following birthdays, and the wormhole-hopping from planet to planet in between. See, the pilots were now finding their own way. They didn’t need the astronomer anymore.
But Hermon had liked Jock, even though he had blustered at him so often. When they next came back to Morack for Hermon’s birthday, he stood at the door of the party container, and threw a wreath of flowers onto the marshy ground where Jock had been buried. Behind him, the guests clapped and cheered at the orchestra’s 4176th rendition of Happy Birthday. Hermon couldn’t muster more than a wry smile. The music wasn’t the same without the trumpeter and the party wasn’t the same without Jock. The new astronomer was a young fellow, who trembled each time Hermon spoke to him.
He let his gaze roam all his friends in hall, and got a shock. The stranger was in the audience. He must have wormed his way in and sat at one of the tables, tucking into the food.
Hermon charged across the hall, and grabbed the man by the back of his cobalt blue robes. ‘Did I invite you in?’
The stranger yanked his cloak coolly out of Hermon’s hands and rose from his chair. He stood taller than Hermon. In the shadow of his hood, Herman could almost make out the man’s face. His teeth blinked white when he spoke. ‘You can try to keep me away, but you are powerless.’
‘Get out, before I set the guards on you.’
The stranger chuckled. ‘You may own the universe, Hermon Feyst, but you do not own life.’ With this, he turned and made for the door.
As he sploshed away in the rain-soaked mud, a great cry went up in the hall behind him. His heart thudding, Hermon turned.
A knot of people had assembled in the middle of the hall. Hermon pushed his way between them, and they parted to let him through. Slumped on the floor, the pink hat askew on head, lay his lovely Esmeralda.

Hermon buried Esmeralda on Oberon.
As the party guests stood around the grave and the desert sand whipped around their ankles, the orchestra played solemn music, and sadly, they’d had a fair bit of practice doing that recently, too.
Hermon looked upon the gathered crowd. All those young and new faces he had chosen to replace the old ones. Bright and beautiful people, who would rule the universe if it wasn’t for being dragged along on the quest for the eternal birthday party.
Teddy put a meaty arm on his father’s shoulder. ‘We will go on, Dad.’
‘I know,’ Hermon said, and at that moment wasn’t sure if he should be happy or sad about that. ‘I will always have you, Teddy.’
‘I love you, Dad.’
Father and son held each other for a long time and only went back to the party hall when the sun was about to go down.

And so Hermon carried on. Lavish parties by day, travel by night.
He was often tired. Without Esmeralda by his side, he didn’t sleep well. He tried some other women, but they were never quite as nice, or as funny, or as caring, or… The point was, they weren’t Esmeralda. More and more, he relied on Teddy to do the talking, and to keep his vast business empire running.
And somehow, that felt natural. Business passing from father to son.

Of course it was only a matter of time before the stranger turned up again.
Hermon and his entourage had descended on the planet of Orkos, a gem which the keen new astronomer had discovered recently.
Teddy had done all the work for the party, and had hired a large barn at the edge of a sleepy farming town. Surrounded by whispering grass of the prairie, empty all the way to the horizon, Hermon felt at peace.
He sat on the veranda, staring at the waving grass, while the guests partied inside. It started to drizzle, but that didn’t drive him inside. Teddy came and sat with him for a while, and they discussed business. Occasionally, a waiter would come to fill his glass or bring him some food.
He was eating an exquisite local dish of pickled grasshoppers when the tall grass at the bottom of the stairs swished aside and a thin figure emerged.
The stranger wore a robe of rich red. As he stepped out of the rain, he flicked back his hood, something he had never done, and for the first time, Hermon saw his face.
Twinkling grey eyes, short grey hair, a neatly-cropped beard.
Hermon stammered, ‘You… I thought you would look like…’
‘Like death?’
‘Yes. All horrible, like a ghost, with pale skin and blood-stained eyes.’
‘Death has many different faces.’ The stranger stared out over the prairie and didn’t say anything for a long time.
Not that it bothered Hermon; he quite enjoyed the silence. Eventually, he spoke. ‘You took my wife.’
‘Your wife had a happy and healthy life. All lives must end, once.’
‘You had no right to take her. She… she was younger than me; she shouldn’t die. It is not natural. The man usually dies first.’
‘Should I remind you that it’s you who is not natural? True, I cannot touch you because of the prophecy, but everyone around you lives normal lives. If you wish to go on celebrating your birthday for another thousand years, that is your decision, but don’t ever moan to me about people’s deaths not being natural.’
And with that, he descended the steps and slunk into the rainsoaked prairie. It didn’t take long for the grass to swallow him.
Hermon called after him, ‘I’m sorry!’
There was no reply. He heaved himself from his chair and yelled at the waving grass, ‘Come back! Tell me who dies.’
The rain pattered, and the grass swished in the breeze.
Trembling, Hermon turned back to the partying crowd. Strangers, most of whom just stared at him. Not a familiar face in sight.
Hermon called out, his voice like the meow of an abandoned kitten, ‘Teddy?’

Some people said that after the loss of his son, Hermon Feyst became silent and withdrawn. He still had his parties, but would sit at the table and just stare. Often, he complained. The food never tasted as good; the music wasn’t as heavenly and all these people who travelled with him, he hardly knew them.
And so there came an evening that he called his pilots to him.
They had come to Lokana again and its three suns hung low in the orange sky.
‘Our next destination is Ameran,’ said the young and keen astronomer.
‘I know,’ Hermon said. He gave a weary smile and added, ‘I have been this way before, you know.’ Eighty-six times in fact.
The first pilot blushed. ‘Oh – I’m sorry – I forgot.’
Hermon waved his hand. ‘No, young man, you are not to blame.’
Another short silence.
‘Do you want me to prepare the ship?’ the first pilot asked.
‘No, young man, I don’t want you to prepare the ship. I am tired. I think I shall stay here tonight.’
‘But that means…’ The pilot’s eyes grew wide.
‘I know what it means.’
There was a prolonged silence.
‘But we like you, Hermon,’ the first pilot said.
‘Pah. What am I to you apart from an idiot who has far too much money and too many wrinkles?’
The pilot went red and stammered a few unintelligible words.
‘See, there you go. Go home to your families and tell them you love them.’
When at last everyone had gone, the courtyard seemed terribly empty. The pink butterflies danced in the last of the sunlight. Hermon sat at the table where Esmeralda had sat all those years ago, and waited. Roars of engines over the city meant that his ships were departing.
Finally, there was a knock on the door.
The stranger wore a white cloak, contrasting sharply with his tanned face. His gold-rimmed hood lay back on his shoulders. He smiled.
Hermon smiled back, uneasy at first, then more happy. Out of all the people in his life, he at least knew this man. He gestured at the empty courtyard. ‘Come in.’

Straight through the heart – flash fiction

Straight through the heart

Patty Jansen

This story was published in ZineWest 2007, and gained a Highly Recommended nomination in their annual competition. I also posted this on my Facebook profile a while back, but I think it will find a better home here. Enjoy.

 

One morning, Thomas prepared for work.

Mobile phone, jacket with big pockets, USB, matchbox, packet of cigarettes, balaclava.

He picked up his gun and caressed the length of the double barrel, the polished wooden handle. At a touch of his finger, the magazine opened. He slid open the matchbox and took out the bullets. Two of them, polished to perfection and gleaming in the morning light.

His phone beeped.

Damn it.

Holding the gun in one hand, he grabbed the phone and looked at the screen. SMS from  the boss. Target moving towards the station.

OK, time to roll. He tucked the gun under his jacket, slipped the phone, USB and cigarettes in his pocket and left the house.

Rain-slicked roofs glistened under a dead grey sky.

The pedestrian crossing in front of the station was a churning sea of umbrellas. Thomas waited next to the newspaper stand, the gun heavy in his pocket.

There he was – Andrew Macauley, the young accountant with the serious look permanently glued to his face. Clutching a black umbrella, he sprinted across the road as the light flashed red.

Thomas looked at his watch, sauntered to the traffic light and pressed the button. There was plenty of time. Andrew was always early; the train wouldn’t leave for another five minutes. Punctuality, grey suits, a copy of the Business Review under his arm. The man was such a bore. And such a delightful target.

Traffic roared across the intersection. A car honked and a bus splashed across a puddle. Splatters of water arced in a wide spray.

A high-pitched shriek and a female voice. ‘Oh – look at me!’ The woman had bright red hair tied in a ponytail. Spots of mud dotted her blue skirt and jacket.

Thomas grinned, stroking the barrel of the gun through his jacket. He inched through the waiting crowd, closer to the woman, who had opened her laptop bag and attempted to wipe herself with a tissue. Yes, she would do perfectly. How he loved his job.

The light turned and commuters spilled onto the road. Thomas followed. Into the station, through the turnstiles, onto the platform.

Andrew sat at a bench, his attention firmly on the magazine.

The young woman stumbled past, wiping her arm with ripped tissues.

Thomas inserted his hand under his jacket. Took out the gun. Aimed. Pulled the trigger. For a split second, the world went pink.

Andrew stretched out his legs. The red-haired woman tripped. Her bag went sailing, spilling newspapers, tissues, her phone and purse onto the concrete.

Red-faced, Andrew stumbled up. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ He scrambled to pick up her belongings.

She thanked him, wide-eyed.

His face still red, Andrew stammered, ‘Look, can I buy you a coffee?’

Thomas turned; tears pricked in his eyes. Best not to watch too long – he would start feeling lonely. He took his phone from his pocket and sent his usual message, Straight through the heart – next please.

Highway

by Patty Jansen

I wrote this story some time ago. It was published in 2005 in the Infinitas Newsletter. The story is about a real stretch of the Bruce Highway, about 200km where there is no mobile phone reception and no radio reception, 200km worth of virtually straight road through empty, grey-leafed scrub. In real life, ghost stories circulate about the road. I once left Rockhampton at dusk, and, like the main character in the story, found myself being tailgated by another car which would not overtake me. Not much fun when you’re in a tiny hatchback, alone, and female, and without mobile phone reception. Having arrived at Sarina, I pulled up at a service station. The other car came in behind me. I got all steamed up, until I saw that the driver was an elderly man, who’d probably been just as scared as I was.

Highway

Patty Jansen

 

There is a bend in the road and the last glimpse of the suburbs slides from the rear vision mirror: black hills strung with orderly pinpricks of light, like a Christmas tree.

The road ahead is empty. Three white lines – two unbroken, one dotted – meet somewhere beyond the reach of the headlights.

The milky way arcs overhead and witnesses my progress. Black shadows of bush lurk on both sides of the road. By day, grooved tree trunks guard its secrets, under a veil of grey-green leaves. Brigalow, I think it’s called, and its sapping monotony feeds the ghosts of imagination. If distances were measured in units of boredom, the stretch of highway from Rockhampton to Sarina would be the longest road in the world.

Old Bill from down the street swears that every time he drives along this road, he meets his wife. She waits for him at the spot where their car left the road and crashed into a fencepost; where he waited for more than an hour beside her mangled and bloodied body before help arrived.

Too late.

These days, he says he stops and offers her a lift. They talk about the kids and changes around town. Poor fellow.

A fuzz settles over the broadcast of the local radio station. I twiddle the dial, but I know it is no use. And I have again forgotten to bring my tapes.

Why did I tell Mum I’d be home tonight? Dad’s 50th birthday is not until Sunday. I could have left tomorrow morning.

I stare ahead, wishing I was turning into my parents’ driveway in Mackay. The clinking of beer bottles on the veranda, friends’ and neighbours’ voices, my sister’s piercing laughter drifting on the night air. Home.

A distant light appears in the rear vision mirror; it grows until it splits in two. A car coming up behind me. Yes, this Laser is not the fastest car around. When I finish Uni, I will get a proper job and I’ll buy a proper car. But then I won’t drive it on this road. Ever.

My gaze keeps wandering to the rear vision mirror – there’s nothing to watch ahead. The car approaches, its lights blinding me, but I cannot take my eyes off the mirror. Why doesn’t it overtake?  I speed up and so does the car behind. I slow down and it does the same.

Jesus, there’s no need to remind me how much I hate this road.

A deep, reverberating honk tears the silence; for a split second, time stops. A huge truck looms up before me, like a monster with shining eyes.

I hold my breath and stare past the blinding headlights, sweaty hands clamping the steering wheel, hoping the road is where I think it is.

Where did it come from? Yes, I was watching the car behind me, but this section of road slices through the scrub as if cut by a giant hand along an invisible ruler. My sister and I used to play games, guessing how long it would be before a vehicle we spotted passed us. In the night, I should have seen a truck this size ages ago.

When my pulse returns to normal the car behind me is gone.

A small white cross flashes past in the glare of the headlights of my car. A memorial erected by relatives for someone who never came home from their journey.

Dave Helms. I remember because he was the same age as me – about two years ago. A life wasted. Fell asleep at the wheel on his way to a mate’s wedding. Careened into the path of an oncoming truck. Bloody unlucky he was to meet a truck on this road. Traffic is so scarce that once when I was on a high school excursion, the bus driver stopped in the middle of the road and let us out for some star gazing. The milky way is beautiful out here.

The road goes on ahead; three white lines pointing to infinity. I try to sing a song, but my voice sounds hollow.

Half an hour later, another car approaches from behind. There are spotlights on the roof, a bullbar at the front. Hunters… young men with guns. And they are in a hurry. I slow down so they can pass. I look in the mirror. That is how I see it happen.

The car behind me swerves suddenly. Headlights flash, twist. Red sparks scatter in the dark as first the roof, then the side, then the wheels and the roof again connect with the bitumen.

In a moment of panic, I slam on the brakes and my car comes to a screeching halt. With trembling hands, I open the door and look behind me… into pitch darkness.

Nothing. The car behind me is gone.

On the road verge stands another memorial. A small white cross projecting an almost endless shadow in the headlights of my car. Written on it are two names. Young men, eighteen and twenty – brothers. I remember because their parents were on the news. I was in the living room at home. My mother stopped setting out the dinner things; she just stared at the screen without speaking and when she turned away, I caught her wiping her eyes. Two young lives wiped out in a second; their parents left with an empty house full of memories.

I lean against the car and listen to my wildly beating heart. It must have happened more than five years ago…

I stumble back into the car and drive on. I claw at the mobile phone on the seat next to me, peer at the screen to will it into action.

It is no use. Out here, there is no reception. The highway is dead; it is the domain of the ghosts. They are many; I am alone.

Three white lines point on ahead, towards Heaven.

All I see before me is an image of old Bill’s face, almost a ghost himself. He had climbed on a table in the middle of the pub. Wagged a crooked finger at us as silence rippled out from where he stood. ‘What I tell is true,’ he said, but no one dared look him in the eye.

By the time the next car appears in my rear vision mirror, I have made a plan. The car is not real; if I stop, it will go away. I take my foot off the accelerator, eying the rear vision mirror while my car slows down, slower and slower until coming to a stop. The car behind stops as well. With trembling hands, I push open the door, step in the dust of the road verge, expecting the car behind me to vanish into the night, like the previous two cars.

Except it doesn’t.

The noise from the engine sounds real; the dust swirling in the beams of the headlights is real, too. My gaze drifts to the windscreen, but I can’t discern anything beyond shapes in its blackness. Shit. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, facing some strangers on the side of the road. How much more stupid could I get?

As my breathing grates in the still air, the rear passenger door creaks open and a small figure emerges. A girl of about twelve. Glossy dark curls dance over her shoulders as she skips towards me.

I can only stare at her. In the glare of the headlights of the car, her skin has a peachy quality; it looks real. I reach out to touch her, but withdraw my hand. Somehow, I don’t want to know.

‘Who are you?’ I stammer.

Real, live green eyes look at me. ‘Evie Woods.’

She walks towards the passenger side of my car. ‘Can you give me a lift?’

I frown at her and gesture at the car behind us, too stunned to string together a coherent sentence. ‘But you just… What about them?’

‘Oh, my parents.’ She shrugs. ‘They don’t like going past here.’ She flaps her hand at another white cross at the side of the road.

Her parents? Were they…. I glance sideways, but Evie isn’t paying attention. She opens the door and gets in the car.

I am too stunned to think of objecting.

But I have to know. In a few steps, I am at the cross, kneel in the dust, squint at the letters scrawled in black felt pen across the white surface. A date, fifteen years ago, and two names: Terry and Susan Woods.

But then Evie… My gaze goes to my car, where I can see her struggle with the seat belt by the glow of the interior light.

Fifteen years ago… even if she survived the accident as a baby… she doesn’t look fifteen; she’s too young.

With a crunch of gravel, the car behind me reverses, turns, and leaves the scene, red tail lights vanishing around a bend. Leaving me alone… with a ghost?

Torn by indecision, I stand at the white cross, claw at the wood in hope of some heaven-sent idea. The night is still fresh; it will be hours until sunrise. Hours spent on the roadside in bitter cold. In front of my car, the three white lines reach into darkness. I wonder where they will lead.

No, I’m being ridiculous. I stumble back into the car.

Evie’s face is soft blue by the lights on the dashboard. She sits playing with her hair and looks very normal, very real. Her smile is real, too.

I slip behind the wheel and I keep on driving, wiping my hands on my trousers, glancing at Evie. Decide that yes, she is real. And  relax.

But then she holds up my mobile phone. ‘What’s this?’

My breath catches in my throat. ‘It’s a mobile phone,’ and this is followed by a silence in which I can almost feel her frown. My heart beating wildly, I make excuses. She must be from a poor family, or live in an area where there is no coverage… or… my skin puckers into gooseflesh… died fifteen years ago. The question is on the tip of my tongue, but I don’t want to ask.

Then she says, ‘Can you show me how it works?’

‘I can’t,’ I reply and when the disappointed silence lingers, I continue, ‘there is no reception here. I can show you when we stop in Sarina.’

She smiles wryly. ‘We don’t stop in the towns. We guardians are not welcome there.’

My heart misses a beat. ‘Guardians?’

But Evie smiles. ‘Those who guard the road. Those whose souls are bound to the road by events from the past.’

I open my mouth but don’t know what to say. There is another long silence before I dare ask the question, ‘Am I dead?’

She shrugs. ‘What is death but passage from one world into another?’

I’m not in the mood for philosophy. ‘Listen, I want to know. If I’m not dead, then why am I talking to you?’

She gives a wry smile. ‘Maybe I’d like to test your suitability as a guardian.’

It takes a few seconds before I realise the implication of her words and in those few seconds the three white lines in front of me twist like spaghetti. The car hits the dirt. It bumps and jolts for what feels like an eternity and finally comes to a grinding, sliding, gravel-crunching halt.

Gasping for breath, I look aside.

Evie holds up the mobile phone. ‘It’s working now,’ she says and then she’s gone.

I stare out the window, but I am alone, the running of the engine like a roar in my ears. The headlights of my car peer through a cloud of dust. Out the front window looms a large white sign with black letters. ‘Survive this drive’.

A laugh escapes my mouth. Survive? Surely, I must be dead! I laugh and laugh until I start to cry.

And slowly, it dawns on me. What did they call it again in the tv commercial? A microsleep?

I pick up the mobile phone from the seat beside me. Evie was right. It is working again. I put it in my lap like a cherished cat and return to the road.

Around the next corner, the street lights of Sarina embrace me with their warmth. Low timber houses, lush lawns like green fur in lantern light. Silent palms breathing tropical homeliness.

I stop at the very first service station and head for the food counter.

Coffee. Percolated, espresso, instant or a day old and reheated. I don’t care, as long as it’s black and strong.

Seated on a cheerless plastic chair in front of the window, I sip from a styrofoam cup and stare out into the night, gibbering into my mobile phone.

‘Yes mum, I know I’m late. Yes mum, I’m in Sarina. I’ll be home in about an hour.’

I head back to the car and stare in the direction from which I have just come. It hits me that in three days’ time I will have to go the same way back. I will travel by day; I will make sure I’m well-rested. ‘Test my suitability as a guardian’ Have I ever had a more ridiculous daydream?

A truck hurtles past on its way south. Black curls dance in the wind behind the open passenger window. A small hand sticks out and waves to me, and Evie’s voice drifts on the wind, ‘See you soon!’