free short story collection

Pending the release of part 1 of my fantasy trilogy, I’ve decided to make my short story collection Out of Here temporarily free. You can get it here at Smashwords (or click on the image). I’ll update this page when it has filtered through to Amazon.

The anthology contains more than 50,000 words of short stories both in fantasy and SF. All stories have been published previously.

Here are a few of the story beginnings for #SampleSunday:

Little Boy Lost

Originally published in Midnight Echo issue 4 June 2010

Some people say that when you die, they put you in the ground where worms come to eat you until there is nothing left but bones, and that’s what you are: dust and bones, never to come back to life. Other people say they’ve talked to the souls of the dead. Maria can do better than that: she feeds them carrots.
She sits on her knees in the grass, damp with dew, seeping into her jeans. The bag of carrots rests in her lap, the plastic crinkling whenever she moves.
It’s well after dark, and the back yard breathes mystery. The too-long grass casts tangled shadows and the forbidding metal fence hides just out of view. Even the concrete looks different: with deep cracks like hieroglyphs.
They come out of the shadows, one by one. First the nose, wriggling. Long ears, twitching, flashing pink when they catch the beam of light slanting out the living room window. Then they hop: two furry paws in the grass. Hop. Sit up on the back legs. Another cautious wriggle of the nose. Another hop.
Maria lifts her mobile phone. The screen lights up blue: a picture of a tropical beach. She presses send message from template. Scroll down the page.
It’s safe. You can come.
Select contact, a twelve-digit number. Press send. The icon bounces over the screen.

Never on a Birthday

Originally published in Byzarium November2008

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.

The Invisible Fleas of the Galaxy

Originally published in MBrane SF

Jono Rasmussen became twice-dead on the night before the launch of the Giant Telescope. He had been working in the downtown office of Comtel Imaging and Telescopy when a mailbot ambled out of the lift to deliver a box of chocolate. Jono was very partial to chocolate. As soon as he picked it up, the box exploded in his face, and took out half the office as well.
The builder-bots fixed the office, while a medbot collected all the pieces of Jono, took them to the medbay where it put him back together again. That done, Jono applied for his second yellow stripe. Not just twice-dead, twice-murdered. Insignificant people died; important people were murdered. He’d be wearing the badge tomorrow, thanks insignificant Cygians; they hadn’t even made him late for his meeting with the president.

Advertisement

Mass Extinction

Oh boy, I wrote this a looooong time ago. Although my style has changed a lot, this little story, which was published in Antipodean SF in 2005, still brings a smile to my face.

You thought a meteorite was the cause of the extinction of the dinosuars? Think again!

Mass Extinction

by Patty Jansen

‘Commander Luczan, your report please!’

‘Greetings Councillor Fargi, may luck be with you.’

‘Cut the formalities, Commander. Have you made landfall?’

‘We have, Sir.’

‘Where are you now?’

‘We’re orbiting the planet, Sir.’

‘Orbiting… What! Why are you not down there building a settlement?’

‘It’s… it’s not that easy, Sir.’

‘What isn’t? What’s going on? Our probes show that the planet is perfect for colonisation. It has the right air quality, plenty of water, plenty of vegetation – What else do you want?’

‘Nothing, Sir. It’s just that it’s… inhabited.’

‘Inhabited? The report says nothing about intelligent beings!’

‘They’re not intelligent, Sir, just… very big.’

‘Out with it, Luczan!’

‘Well, Sir – I went with the scout craft this morning. As you said, things looked perfect for colonisation. The air was moist and warm, just as our reports foretold. Myself, Taqan and Ehi climbed a hill. That’s when we first saw them.’

‘Saw what, Luczan?’

‘Huge creatures, grazing four-leggers, with long necks. There was a whole herd of them. The ground was trembling under their feet, and you should have seen the way they just pushed over the vegetation.’
‘And? You got so scared of a herd of grazers that you decided to call it quits?’

‘I haven’t finished my story Councillor.’

‘Then get on with it. The Council is paying for this transmission!’

‘While the three of us were standing there, there was a rustle in the vegetation and this… this thing came out. It had a huge head, with rows of pointy teeth. It gave a bellow of a howl that echoed all over the valley and then came straight for us. It walked on the two rear legs and it was fast, faster than any of us could run. The front legs were very small and useless, but Sir, you should have seen the claws on them. I fired at it, but I didn’t seem to do it any harm. I ran out of power. Fortunately, Taqan managed to hit it in the belly and it went down, but he was also running low on power. Then a second one of these creatures appeared. I thought we’d had it, Sir, but it went straight for the carcass of the other one, and began to tear at it.’

‘Ugh!’

‘You said it, Sir. These creatures are vile. Anyway, we started to creep away as quietly as we could, but then a third creature came and a fourth one and we gave up trying to be quiet and just ran. On the way down, we met a different creature. It was a four-legger, a squat shape. It was covered in some kind of… armour-like skin. It looked peaceful at first, but when it saw us, it began to snort. We hid in the vegetation and after a while the creature turned around. We came out of hiding and were about to sneak past it, when, without warning, the creature started swinging its tail at us. A long, clubbed tail with spikes as long as your forearm. Taqan took a blow and he passed out. Between us, Ehi and I managed to carry him back to the scout craft. We returned to the main ship immediately.’

‘I see. What do you propose to do now?’

‘I don’t know, Sir, but going down there again would be suicide.’

‘You’re saying that the Council has invested all this time and effort in this expedition and now it turns out the planet is useless for our purposes?’

‘It seems so, Sir.’

‘Listen, Luczan, do you think you can get rid of these creatures?’

‘But Sir, that would be against…’

‘You’re deep in space, Luczan, who’s going to know?’

‘But…’

‘I’ll give you a choice, Luczan. It’s your conscience or your job – and mine. Get rid of them! By any means. Next time give me a favourable report!’

‘Any means?’

‘You heard what I said!’

‘Very well, Sir.’

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?’

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!’