Offered for consideration for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2021, category of Short Story.
If you think this work is worth a nomination, please take a couple of minutes to fill in this form at the SFFANZ page, before 31st March 2021. Thank you so much, and I hope you enjoy it.
Long Drop by Tabatha Wood © 2020
(First published in OUTBACK HORRORS DOWN UNDER: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ANTIPODEAN TERRORS, Things In The Well Press, 2020.)
Many hours have passed since we first set out, yet we have a long journey still ahead of us. The sun has shrunk and slipped down past our backs, letting twilight take over as our guide. We have travelled a labyrinth of unknown roads. Blue lines on the map like swollen veins as Aotearoa pulls us closer to its heart. I’ve been driving too long, overdue for a break. I pull over by the edge of the highway.
Away from the car, I breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of the earth. The air sings softly in a rolling sigh, high notes of the summer’s end. Here, Mother Nature swaddles the countryside in a blanket of her own making. Her patchwork pieces are bound and sewn, pulled tight with living threads. Every tree and leaf is a fevered stitch, embroidered on the tapestry of the land.
I am at peace here. I belong. I—
“Mummy! I need a wee!”
I am snatched from my moment of blissful calm and plunged back into reality. My stomach lurches and sinks to my groin. I feel tired, as I have for so long now. A tired that resides in the marrow of my bones and cannot be relieved by sleep. A painful, ever constant knot of anxiety grips my stomach with a million tiny claws. Like a demon desperate to be freed.
I look back to the car. I can see her wriggling in frustration, enraged by the restraints of her seat. She grumbles and moans as she plucks at the straps. Her mouth is ringed with melted chocolate – a pink slash in a thick, brown smear. It was a mistake for me to leave her unattended.
She pushes the fingers of one chubby hand through the open gap in the window and starts tugging on the edge of the glass. She is small but determined, and her anger makes her stronger. I take a final drag on my cigarette before stamping it out in the dirt. I give the view one last wistful, loving glance, trying to hold it like a snapshot in my mind, and trudge back to the car.
Be grateful for the little things. Remember these moments. Don’t take anything for granted.
My grandmama’s words. A storyteller, just like I used to be. Always seeking out a fairy tale, hearing whispers on the wind.
I press the button on the key fob to unlock the car doors. I join her on the back seat and start cleaning her face with a wet wipe.
“Hi, sweetie,” I begin, trying to keep my tone soft, as mellow as I can. “You know, we’re out in the middle of nowhere here. You’ll have to go in the bushes, I’m afraid.”
She begins to whine, just as I feared she would.
“No, Mummy! I can’t! You know I can’t do it outside!”
“I’m sorry, my love, but there’s not much choice. Not unless
you can hold on and I can drive a bit further? Maybe we can find a toilet somewhere?”
She glares, swallows a giant gulp of air and holds it defiantly. Her cheeks puff out and her face begins to turn bright red. I hate it when she does this. Her way of protesting when I do something she doesn’t like. Of holding me to ransom until I surrender to her demands. I need to intervene, and quickly. I bring up the maps app on my phone, use my thumb to scroll around the local area.
“Look, honey, there’s a look-out point a little further along this road. Overlooking a waterfall. There might be something you can use there. How does that sound?”
Her eyeballs bulge and her nostrils flare, I know she is only moments from a full meltdown.
Keep calm. Keep calm. Breathe…
“Come on, sweetie,” I plead. “You’re a big girl now. You can hold on a little while longer can’t you?”
She locks eyes with me and narrows the lids. It is a competition now, to see who can be the most stubborn. She knows that if she digs her heels in, I will have little choice but to acquiesce. Alternatively, if she agrees to my suggestion, she will lose this battle, but will not have to suffer the gross indignity of urinating outside. I am grateful that she seems to have grown out of deliberately wetting herself to punish me. Even for her that was a step too far.
I watch her. Thinking. Eventually, she exhales and breathes normally again. Her cheeks return to their usual colour.
“Okay, Mummy. Fine,” she huffs. “But you need to drive quick. Really, really quick!”
I nod and smile and strap myself in. I avoid looking at her in the rear-view mirror for fear my fake smile might betray me. That I might show the frustration and despair I feel. I don’t tell her the public convenience is most likely to be a long drop all the way out here. A pit toilet. Nothing more than a deep hole dug in the ground connected to a U-shaped seat. I know she won’t like it any more than doing her business amongst nature. I hope I can distract her. I pray I can keep her calm.
I start to drive. I can hear her, humming to herself, the same tune over and over again. Some nonsensical ditty about a baby shark. I recognise it as a song from a TV show, watched on repeat until I felt like screaming. Felt like it, but never did. I would swear she knew, I would see it in her eyes, watching my reactions and the changes in my face. Jonah had always told me to ignore such behaviour. He made me feel like I should be grateful. At least those insipid videos kept her from flying into a rage. Her frequent, violent outbursts. Not that he ever experienced them like I did. No, for him she’d been a Golden Child. A perfect Daddy’s girl. She’d always been so very well behaved when he was around. It makes me sad that he isn’t any more.
I wonder if he’d believed me when I told him about the things she did.
“I fell in love with you for your imagination,” he said, not long before he left. “But you have to embellish everything. You can’t ever just let things be.”
It was easier for him to call me a liar. So much harder to face the truth.
My eyes mist over with emotion. This road is twisty and unfamiliar to me, and I blink and try to focus up ahead. I spy the brown sign as I guide the car around another corner:
Scenic lookout 400m on left.
I slow down and indicate. There’s nothing behind me. Not a single vehicle has passed us in over thirty minutes, but ten years of city driving have ensured the habit is ingrained.
“Not much longer now, baby. Are you okay?”
She ignores me completely and carries on humming, perhaps a little louder. I glance into the rear view; her eyes are closed, her head tilted back. She appears oblivious to everything around her, unawares even of me.
I take the slip road and head for the rough gravel carpark. It’s empty like the highway. The car skids a little on the loose stones as the tyres lose their grip. I see a wooden shack at the end of the path. A blue sign mounted on the side confirms it as a toilet, and I park as close to it as I can. She is surprisingly heavy for her small size. I won’t be able to carry her far.
I kill the engine, get out, and open the rear side door. She pulls at the seatbelt and jiggles impatiently as I unclip her and lean inside. I slip one arm underneath her legs, the other around her shoulders. I breathe heavily as I struggle to lift her to my chest. She could help me, make this farce a little easier, but she never does. Instead, she lets herself become dead weight, her face so blank it might as well be wooden.
There is nothing physically wrong with her. She could walk quite well if she chose to. She has simply chosen not to.
Every doctor Jonah and I approached declared her fit and healthy. No underlying cause or problems with her legs. She had merely decided one grey, wind-swept morning, at the age of three and a half, that she would no longer walk. Not just that, she would not crawl, roll, or otherwise move herself anywhere. Instead, she screamed and raged and thrashed around until someone picked her up and carried her to wherever she wanted to be. Someone being me.
That was almost three years ago. I’ve been carrying her ever since.
Jonah bought her a wheelchair, perhaps in the hope that it might spark some surge of independence, but she refused to use it unless he was there too, and it was not possible for him to be there all the time.
Things changed. The myriad of life’s pressures ground our relationship to dust. He fell in and then out of love. We are not his only family now.
I grunt with exertion as I slide her across the seat and towards the open door. She is still humming, but at least her eyes are open now. She fixes me with a dead-eyed stare, and does nothing to help me at all. Her arms flop, fish-like against her sides and I have to pull them around my shoulders, as if manhandling an oversize rag doll. I feel my muscles scream as my back is jarred, and my neck is twisted to one side.
Give me strength, I mutter. Please, God. Give me strength.
At last, I manage to get her out of the car, and she holds on to me, albeit half-heartedly. I dropped her once by accident, and it surprised us both. She was unhurt, although the fury she unleashed might have suggested otherwise. Ever since, she loops both arms around my neck and locks the fingers of both hands together, just like the long-limbed plush monkey she has, with Velcro patches on its paws. She tries to make it seem like she is indifferent, but I know that’s not true. She doesn’t trust me not to let her fall again. I understand. Sometimes I’m not so sure I trust myself.
I step backwards and push the door closed with my hip. The key fob is buried deep in my pocket and I struggle to lock the car. It’s illogical, I know. We are the only ones here. But we have all our luggage stuffed in the boot and spread across the back seats. Our whole life is crammed in this shiny blue Mazda and I don’t want to take any chances. My therapist tells me I worry too much, but I don’t know how else to be.
Jonah is in Auckland, at the top of the North Island. He’s found us a brand-new house. It’s a mere three minutes away from where his new wife lives with their new-born twins. I don’t really blame him for leaving us, we could never have been what he wanted, but I couldn’t let him just walk away. She’s his daughter too.
A new house is only part of the deal. He has promised me help, and regular respite. Something he never gave me before. It is a fresh start and a brand new life. Of course, there were bound to be obstacles.
She refused to fly. There was absolutely no way I could get her on a plane without resorting to some level of sedation. As tempting as that initially seemed, I could not bring myself to do it. She would know what I’d done, and I feared the repercussions. I doubt I could have handled my own guilt. Instead, we compromised; Jonah agreed to hire a car, and I agreed to drive. Six hundred and fifty kilometres. More than eight hours on the road. I could have broken it up, stayed a night in a motel, but that wouldn’t have gone smoothly either.
We set off at eight this morning. We still have a long way to go. It is already getting dark, thanks to the clocks going back. I have no choice, I’ll have to drive through the night.
Like an awkward, unsteady Madonna with child, I stumble slightly as my feet slip on the gravel. Her humming skips a beat. Perhaps she is fearful of another imminent tumble, but I remain upright and head slowly towards the shack. The air feels heavy, just like her. I wheeze with each step as I walk. I shouldn’t smoke so much, I know. Another mess Jonah got me into.
There is a skittering and rustling coming from the bushes, an animal of some sort, I assume. A possum perhaps, or a large, native bird, back late to its nesting spot. The leaves part briefly and then snap closed. I can see nothing further in the half-light.
We reach the wooden building and I use my foot to push open the door. It creaks a little, and offers some resistance, as if it were being pushed back on from the inside. I kick it harder and it swings free. There is no light inside. It takes a moment for my eyes to get used to the gloom and confirm what I suspected – a long drop. Not a bad one, however, with a decent seat and a reasonable supply of toilet paper. It could be so much worse.
“Okay, sweetie. Here we are. I’m going to put you down now and we can get you sorted.” I bend slightly and set her feet on the floor in front of the toilet. I feel her weight shift as she lets go. She wobbles slightly but stands upright. Her legs are weak, but they are not useless. They are still able to bear her weight.
She would often sneak around our old apartment when she thought I was asleep. I would lie in bed and listen to the muted rustle of her slippered tread scuffing the laminate floor. I could have caught her out, but why bother? Far less stressful for me to let her believe she had the upper hand.
I take my phone out of my pocket, switch on its torch and balance it on the toilet paper holder. Immediately, the shack is smothered in shadows. The tiny light is far too weak to fill the space. She stands motionless, watching me for a moment, before twisting her head to look behind her. I try to catch her cheek with my fingers, to stop her before she sees the drop, but I’m too slow. She starts to whine.
“No, Mummy! No!” she begins. I make soft hushing noises and use my open palms to stroke down the length of her bare arms. A soothing technique her therapist showed me. My futile attempt to keep her calm.
“I know, honey. It’s not ideal. But it’ll be okay. There is a seat, and paper, and I can hold on to you until you’re done so you won’t fall. Just do what you need to do and we can get back on the road, huh? We can carry on with our journey to Daddy. You do want to see Daddy, don’t you?”
Her whine intensifies in both volume and pitch. I know from experience how loud she can get. How long she can go on for. I sigh. I don’t have time for this today. I squat down in front of her and take her hands in mine.
“Sweetie, it’s okay. Really it is. Look, I’ll go first and I’ll show you, okay?”
I move her to the side so I have access to the toilet seat. The toilet door rattles impatiently. I freeze. My heart thumps a scattered rhythm in my head.
“It’s occupied,” I call to the darkness. “We won’t be long.” There comes no answer, only the echoes of the wind. I listen closely, but hear nothing more. Satisfied that we’re alone, I unbutton my jeans and fumble with the zipper. I pull the denim down across my thighs and hook my thumbs over the sides of my underwear. She doesn’t watch. Her eyes are closed, her body rigid. She wails. A sustained, high-pitched tone which makes me want to cry out too. To moan and howl like a lonely wolf, my fragile heart broken into a thousand shards.
Sometimes I wonder, how does she maintain this noise? How does she manage to breathe and scream, seemingly at the same time? I raise my voice, hoping she can hear me.
“Look, honey. Watch what I do. It’s all fine.”
I squat over the seat. My thighs groan at the movement. I used to run up mountains when I was younger. Now I feel exhausted merely walking up stairs. I relax. The urine leaves me as a dribble at first, then follows in a steaming rush.
I’m not quite finished when I feel the clammy hands reach up and grab a hold of me.
I yell and shriek and lunge myself forwards. I stumble and bang one knee on the floor, both legs entangled in my clothes. I yank my underwear back over my hips, not caring that they are soiled. I pull my jeans up after them. I don’t have time to re- fasten the zipper before I see them – green, skeletal, crêpe- skinned fingers curling like fat spiders over the edge of the seat.
She stops wailing. She stands transfixed. Her eyes are painted black by shadows, open as wide as they can go.
I hear grunting and shuffling from inside the pit. The fingers move forwards and reveal blue-veined hands. Long, scrawny arms follow, then bony shoulders, until finally, a head appears. I smell something putrid, an assault on my senses, like a mixture of methane and stale sweat. I retch in response to the stench.
I want to run, but I cannot move. Rooted and made solid by fear.
The creature hauls itself out of the hole and stands astride the seat. It is no bigger than a large house cat, but its proportions are all so wrong. Its head is smooth and perfectly round, like that of a bowling ball. It’s ears are elfin, thin and pointed, adorned with strands of brown hair. Its eyes are huge, like dinner plates. They are wet and shiny and amphibious. It has no nose that I can see, merely two nostrils covered by pale flaps of skin which rhythmically open and close. I don’t know if it is breathing or inhaling my scent. It fixes me with those huge, damp eyes and blinks once. Twice. Then tilts its head to the right hand side. It sees her behind me, and it grins.
Its smile is utterly terrifying and devoid of any humour. A whole third of its face seems to crack open and twist itself into a wide grimace. Its mouth is filled with row upon row of thin and needle-sharp teeth. They are rotten, black and decaying. It flicks its tongue in the air like a whip – snake-like and scored with a deep groove.
I move in front of her. My body is a shield between her and it. She stays silent. She doesn’t even whimper. The creature shifts its weight and moves its head, trying desperately to see past me. It chitters and makes a noise like a tūī does before it sings; a sound like it is clearing its throat.
I hear the spattering noise of urine as it dribbles onto the floor. I smell the hot scent behind me. She has wet herself. I am not in the least bit surprised.
The creature chirrups once again, its nose flaps moving faster now. It tilts its head back and inhales. It breathes in the musk of her accident. It stares at me, poised, slightly crouched as it balances on the toilet seat, and it lets out a deep, guttural roar.
The sound is deafening in such a small space. I wince in pain as it hurts my ears, but it finally spurs me to act. Free from my paralysis, I grab her arm and haul her in my wake. I wrench open the wooden door, hear it slam against the side of the hut. I pull and push her almost simultaneously, catapulting her out into the carpark. She stumbles and her legs buckle, and she almost falls to the ground, but she catches herself at the last second. I hear the creature jump from the toilet behind me, and I run towards my exit. Sharp claws catch the back of my jacket and I feel the fabric stretch and tear.
The beast is much stronger than it looks, it pulls me backwards, back into the hut. I grab the door frame, holding on to the edge as tight as I can. The creature scrabbles up the length of my legs. It clambers onto my shoulders and entwines its fingers in my hair. I slam my back against the wall, hear it shriek as it is pinned. My left ear explodes in a surge of hot pain.
It’s bitten me. The little bastard has bitten me! Two can play that game…
I reach behind me, grab one of its legs, and pull it as hard as I can. It loses its grip just slightly, but enough so that I can turn my head and sink my teeth into a scrawny limb. It screams again. I bite down harder. It tastes bitter and rotten, like sour milk, but I don’t let go. Not even when I pierce its skin and a rancid liquid seeps from the wound and makes me want to vomit. It stings my lips and makes my gums ache. I pray that it isn’t toxic.
I feel it relax its grip again and I slam it hard into the sharp edge of the frame. Its fingers flex, in pain or shock, and it tumbles from my back. It lands, legs akimbo, sprawled out on the ground like an upturned slater bug.
I don’t hang around to see it get back up.
I dash out of the hut and slam the door. She is standing, shakily, looking back to the car. She sees me but doesn’t say a word. I go to grab her arm again, to pull her along with me, but she flinches and stiffens before whispering, “Stop.” I follow her gaze.
The sun has almost disappeared over the edge of the horizon. The carpark is in darkness, a shroud of pale grey. I hear them before I see them. Their chittering and chirruping and scraping of sharp claws. There is movement in the trees and bushes around us. The leaves writhe and shiver as the creatures move amongst them. I see quick flashes of light in the black, as the dying sun reflects in their huge eyes.
A story comes to me unexpectedly, one Grandmama used to tell. Her tales were inspired by legends, but embellished with her own savage twists. It is ridiculous, I know this, but still…
She spoke of moon-pale goblins with huge eyes like pools of tar. They lived hidden in a land beneath deep water, and returned to the shore at night. Child-stealing gremlins that shunned the touch of the sun, for fear it would scorch their skin. They would creep out under cover of darkness, she said, and snatch babies to take back to their lairs.
“What they did with them after was anyone’s guess,” she’d cackled gleefully, as I’d cowered in my bed. “Some stories said that they ate them whole, after they’d peeled them from their skins. Others said they enchanted them, changed the infants into beings like them. Whatever they did, they took revenge against the humans who had driven them away.”
These are stories, nothing more. Tall tales to tell small children to encourage them to behave. There are no such thing as goblins. My grandmama simply knew how to spin a good yarn. Yet, I look at these creatures and I wonder: how many of her stories were pure fantasy, and how much did she know to be true?
The noises grow louder and closer. The distance between us and the car seems to stretch like eternity. There is no way we can run to it before these creatures catch us. If she will even run with me. If she chooses not to and expects me to carry her, we are surely doomed.
I reach for her hand. She takes it and I pull her close to me. I hear more rustling in the undergrowth from all sides, surrounding us completely. I stroke her hair and murmur softly. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’ll be okay.” She nuzzles into me, wraps her arms around me and squeezes me in a tight embrace. I gasp in shocked surprise. She never hugs me of her own volition. Often stiffens if I try to touch her first. She holds me for a moment before releasing her grip and starts rummaging in my jacket pockets. I am confused. I don’t know what she is doing. And then she presses something cold and hard into my palm.
Jonah gave it to me, the first Christmas after we got together. We weren’t married then, but we knew we would be one day. He’d had it engraved with a message. I run my thumbnail over the letters. I don’t need to see to read the words. I know well what they say.
Anna, you light up my life. Love always, Jonah.
How ironic then that this flame still burned, but he had left me cold. He had given all his love to another, but I couldn’t quite let go of mine. I can’t hate him, even if I wanted to. I understand why he left. He couldn’t cope. Would not adapt. He was so much weaker than I.
She pulls on my sleeve and looks up at me. It is too dark to make out her expression, but her features are imprinted in my memory. I know every millimetre of her face. Her blue eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Her skin so pale it looks almost porcelain, sprinkled with a galaxy of freckles. Rosebud lips and a delicate nose. A twisted mess of ginger curls tumbling down past her cheeks. Hers is a face I’d watched fall asleep every night by my side for six years. A child who screams and shrieks and whines. Who hates to be held and deplores being kissed. An awkward, difficult, cantankerous being. As fickle and as unpredictable as a storm. I will love her fiercely every day of my life, without compromise or any exceptions. With never a second thought.
Old friends now long gone used to ask me, “How can you stand it? How do you cope?” I am her mother. She is my daughter. She is my blood and my kin. Why even ask me such stupid questions? I would never dignify them with a response.
I lean over to kiss the top of her head. She pulls me close and whispers in my ear. “You can burn them, Mummy,” she hisses, her young voice soft yet furious. “You can kill them all.”
I feel the hint of a smile play on my lips. Yes, she is my daughter for sure.
I flick the lid. I press my thumb hard on the spark-wheel. I strike the flint. A burst of flame erupts in my hands and the air reeks with the tang of naphtha.
The creatures growl and snarl in fear. They shrink back from the fire and bare their sharp teeth. I scan the carpark quickly, looking for something, anything I can use. I see a broken branch encrusted with dried leaves a few steps to my left. I sidle towards it, and snatch it from the ground. As I touch the flame to the crackling leaves, they spit sparks as the heat engulfs them. They burn quickly, and then go out.
I hear the goblins moving closer, emboldened by the death of the fire. I need to think fast. I take the key fob out of my jacket pocket and press the silver button. There is a beep and a click as the car doors unlock. I thrust it back into my jeans then wriggle out of my torn jacket, wrapping it as tightly as I can around the charred end of the branch. I summon the fire from the lighter again, and press it to the sleeve. It is a polyester-cotton mix. Cheap and cheerful from a discount store. It ignites swiftly and with gusto.
Her emerald eyes reflect in the light. Tiny flames flicker in her irises. I nod and smile, inviting her to take the lighter from me. She reaches out and takes it, enthralled by the bright colours and shapes. I pass my power on to her.
A surge of old images flare like the fire, reminders of my mother’s death. A mother who was equal parts absent and cruel. Who nursed bottles of cheap gin as if they were bairns. The glass felt more love than I.
Then Grandmama’s stories swimming in my head. And she, a white knight, come to my rescue. Yet her supposed kindness was often poisoned by spite. A victory in a war I was a pawn in. Apples and trees. Frying pans and fires. My whole life a rollercoaster of emotions, like waves across a changeable sea.
Much later, lit cigarettes and freak accidents. Apologies and crocodile tears. Decisions made by old men wearing black robes. Fresh starts. New beginnings and a glorious birth. And finally, I remember who I am.
Take the fire, my child. Receive and rejoice. This weapon is yours now to wield.
The forest is filled with the deafening roar of a scourge of furious beasts. They scratch at the trees and the soil at their feet, venting their frustration on the land. The flaming torch is hot and unwieldy, but it keeps the terror at bay. I curl my arm underneath her shoulders and nudge her gently forwards. She wobbles and shakes on unsteady legs and thrusts the lighter straight out in front of her as if wielding a flaming sword. She holds on to me with her other hand, and we move as one to the car.
She walks with me. My God, she actually walks with me! It is as if the weight of everything has lifted. All the fear and doubt and indecision which ground me down and squashed my soul has gone. Spirited away. No longer a husk scraped dry and barren, a pale reflection of myself. I reclaim all that I was and welcome new strength. I am Mother. The Protector. A Warrior.
When we reach the car I close the lighter and push her inside. Up front in the passenger seat. I can see the creatures’ reflections in the glass of the car windows. Hundreds of them spitting and chittering behind me. I hear a low growl in the distance. The hut door slams. The one from the long drop is coming.
I shut her in and dash to the driver’s side. I go to open the door, then pause. What will they do when we try to leave? Will they let us go or try to stop us? Will they lay in wait for someone else? Someone too weak to fight them?
Jonah used to say to me, in our younger and wilder days, when we both hustled pool in backwoods bars: “You don’t have to go looking for trouble, babe. But if it finds you, don’t be frightened to finish it.”
The torch tip flickers like a wagging finger. There is something I must do.
I can see the flames from the highway as we drive away into the night. Great hands of yellow and orange and red, reaching up to touch the sky. It makes my heart ache, this destruction, but I know I can’t keep looking back. The land will survive, I am sure of it. It will grow back, out of the ashes. Something new. Out of the darkness a phoenix will rise. I can feel it already rising in me.
She plays with the lighter but doesn’t ignite it, merely opens and closes the lid. Each rhythmic clink as the metal slides, tallies with the beat of my heart. I am surprised to feel so calm.
I notice that she is humming again, but much quieter this time. I don’t mind. It is strangely comforting.
“I love you, sweetie,” I tell her.
She doesn’t stop humming, but she smiles.