by Paul Mannering
Please note this story is written in New Zealand English, spelling will differ from US English.
The Holden died in the middle of nowhere. Charlene moaned and twisted in the back seat, fending of some dark figure in her dreams. The engine, ticking and cooling made the only other sound.
Johno stared through the windscreen, hands resting on the steering wheel, his attention focused on the silhouette the blood spattered headlight made. It looked like a grinning skull. “Fuck,” Riley said from the passenger’s side. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Baby Lise, with all the wisdom of her seven years, piped up from her spot between them on the bench seat, “Shoulda bought a Ford Johno.”
“Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?” Riley asked. “Now, we walk,” Johno’s voice was flat and distant as if, somehow, he wasn’t part of this, but dialing in from somewhere else.
They climbed out of the car, stretching and feeling the sweat cool on their backs. Stars smeared across the summer sky like strewn diamonds, Johno stared upwards, turning in a slow circle, following the Milky Way with his eyes.
“Where are we?” Charlene had woken up and pulled herself up to the back window.
“We are fucked, that is where we are,” Riley said. “Johno?” Charlene climbed out of the car, splashing the ground with yellow light from the torch she carried.
“Mum, I wanna go home,” Lise announced. “Shut up,” Riley replied.
“Hey, you leave her alone!” Charlene put an arm around the girl and stared at Johno, who was still looking upwards as if seeing the sky for the first time.
“Johno?” Charlene repeated. “Dave’s hurt real bad, we have to get him to a hospital.”
Riley pulled the heavy bag out of the car. He set it on the hood of the car and unzipped it. The wads of banknotes inside nearly took his breath away.
“We scored Johno, the big one. The fucking jackpot.” Riley pushed his hands into the bag and lifted the neatly stacked blocks of money. Even in the starlight they appeared stained and discoloured.
“We can clean it right? We can clean this crap off it?” Riley’s voice cracked. He dropped the money back in the bag and smeared his palms across his shirt. The bright orange paint streaking on the fabric.
“Leave the money,” Johno said.
“What?” Riley turned around.
“I said, leave the money. It’s burned. We can’t spend any of it. It’s marked,” Johno spoke without tearing his gaze away from the starscape.
“Fuck,” Riley said, staring at the open bag and its ruined contents.
Charlene pulled herself away from Lise’s embrace and touched Johno on the shoulder. “We can’t stay here. Dave needs to get to hospital. What if someone comes past, sees the car, we’re fucked enough as it is eh?”
“Johno?” Lise joined the pair, tugging on Johno’s sleeve.
“Yeah kid?” Johno didn’t look down.
“Looking at the stars. There’s the Southern Cross, and that’s Orion’s Belt.”
Lise dutifully stared upwards, seeing only stars.
“Let’s go,” Charlene said and went back to the car. She retrieved a small girl’s back pack and pink puffer jacket. She knelt down and dressed Lise, helping her into the backpack and tightening the straps. “We’re gonna walk now honey, okay?” Lise nodded. Charlene took the girl’s hand, “Johno, you and Riley you have to help Dave.” She started walking in the direction of the still car’s fading headlight beams.
“Fuck,” Riley said in farewell to the car. He hefted the bag of cash onto his shoulder and opened the back door. Dave lay across half the backseat, still and pale. The rag tied around his thigh had turned black and the air around him tasted of copper and pain.
Riley dragged Dave out of the car and got the barely conscious man on his feet. With Riley holding him up, they started after the girls, leaving Johno staring up at the sky.
The farmhouse stood on the cusp of rolling hills looking out over well-tended paddocks and backing on to dense bush. It was a sullen building, constructed at least a century ago, with a squat shape and a low roof, like the eye-ridges of a primitive man. The shadowed windows added to the sense of dereliction and where the panes of some houses gave the impression of eyes in a watchful face, these were dull as those of a dead fish.
“I’m cold,” Lise reported. “It’s meant to be summer,” she added.
“We can see if they have a phone?” Charlene suggested. “And who the fuck are we going to call? The AA? Maybe the cops? I’m sure they would be come out here straight away and help us with getting a stolen car back on the road.” Riley waved his arms and walked in a slow circle around the group.
“Place looks abandoned,” Johno said. “We can hang out there, get some sleep. Start again tomorrow.”
The others nodded and started walking again, they juggled open a twisted gate and made their way up an overgrown and rutted track. They passed under an avenue of tall pine trees that whispered in the lightest breeze. Lise pressed close against Charlene’s side, the shadows in the trees taking forms she did not understand. A couple of cars rusted on slowly petrifying flat tires.
The front of the house had been stained by creeping mould and the windblown dust of years of neglect. Johno mounted steps that creaked like the bones of an old man the marrow already half- gone to dust.
The front door looked like it was holding on by force of will alone. Strange tendrils of wrought iron crawled over the surface.
“Doesn’t look like anyone is home,” Riley whispered, looking around and seeing only darkness.
Johno twisted the lever door handle, it moved smoothly enough and with a firm shove the door popped open.
“I don’t like it,” Lise said in a stage-whisper.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Riley muttered.
“Come on, I think the place is empty,” Johno beckoned for the torch from Charlene. She waved the long beam of light so it cut through the darkness beyond the door.
“I can’t hear anything,” she whispered.
“I need to pee,” Lise announced.
“Yeah, me too,” Charlene said.
Johno pushed the door open wide enough for the others to step inside.
“Come on then.” Grasping the edge of the door, Johno held it open, “Riley, find a piece of wood or something that I can wedge this open with.”
Riley followed Charlene and Lise inside, Dave moaned as he bumped against the door jamb.
Moving around the door, Johno’s fingers slipped on the door’s rough edge, he jerked his hand back with a yelp. The door slammed shut with a dull boom.
“The fuck man?!” Riley cried out.
“Fucking thing is on springs,” Johno shook his injured fingers and winced at the blood welling from the tips. Flicking the torch up they could see dusty lengths of cord that went from the top of the door to a patch on the wall.
“Open it man,” Riley was whispering again.
“The torch, give it,” Johno snatched the light from Charlene and played it over the inside of the door. There was no handle, no visible latch and no way to open it. The door sat snugly in a recessed frame.
“Fuck,” Riley said, lowering Dave to the floor where he stared at the opposite wall with glassy eyes.
“I need to pee,” Lise reminded them.
“Come with me baby, we’ll find a bathroom,” Charlene took Lise’s hand and reached for the torch. Johno casually pulled it back against his chest and gave her a look that dared her to try and take it from him. Charlene sighed and started down the hallway, with Lise in tow, using the fading light of the torch behind them as a guide.
“Now what the fuck do we do?” Riley whispered.
“If anyone was here, that noise would have brought them out. We check the place out. Let the girls and Dave get some sleep. We work out what to do in the morning,” Johno waved the torch around the hall, sending shadows scampering up the walls.
Charlene and Lise moved closer together, both silently shying away from the walls. Ancient yellow paint had bubbled and peeled away from the walls in ragged strips of damp decay. The bare wooden floors had a soft bounce to them.
“Mind your step,” Charlene warned, “Floors are rotten, could give way if you’re not careful.”
The first two rooms the girls passed were empty, the doorof one hung from a single twisted hinge. The second room had no door at all. The bathroom was behind the third door. Charlene flicked the light-switch, it clicked and somewhere she heard a muffled clank, but the room remained dark.
“Mum, it’s dark,” Lise said.
“I know,” Charlene stared hard, willing her eyes to adjust and see if the floor was safe, if the room had a toilet. “Your eyes will adjust, just move carefully. I’m here with you babe.”
Lise started singing, her small voice trembling and breathless as she carefully shuffled forward into the dark bathroom. Grey shapes, like rocks emerging from mist, came into view. “The toilet’s in the corner sweetie. I can see it in front of you.”
“What if there’s no paper?” Lise’s voice quavered.
“If it’s just pee, that’s okay,” Charlene said.
“Eww, gross,” Charlene could almost see the scowl of disgust on her princess’s face. She heard the rustle of the girl’s jacket and the creak of the old toilet seat settling under her slight weight, followed a moment later by a delicate tinkle.
“There’s no paper,” Lise said with an accusing tone.
“Pants up, mum needs to go too,” Charlene felt her eyes widening, the slight reflected light from the torch moving out in the hall helped her find the way to where Lise was studiously tucking her shirt back into her jeans.
The bathroom stank like a dried up riverbed where the mud hadn’t quite withered into rock and living things still lay buried, waiting for rain in the damp muck beneath the crust. Charlene glanced into the toilet and her throat went dry.
The only water in the bowl had come from Lise, it glistened like dew in the spider webs that criss-crossed the bottom of the toilet. In the dim light Charlene couldn’t tell if there were things moving down there. Long-legged, hairy things that were even now climbing out of the pitch-black hole behind the webs, tasting the salt and life that had rained down on them.
The urge to go clenched Charlene’s abdomen, she took a shallow breath through gritted teeth, imagining, for a moment, breathing too deep and inhaling a dangling spider. She shucked her pants down and hovered over the cracked wooden seat. The need for relief burned, but everything had clammed up. All Charlene could see in her mind’s eye were large spiders delicately climbing up their silken threads until they could touch her bared skin with their long hooked legs.
Johno and Riley laid Dave out flat, his breath passing in rapid faint wisps. Untying the cloth tied around Dave’s thigh they both saw the wound blush with fresh, oozing blood.
“Is he gonna make it?” Riley asked.
“Dunno,” Johno tied the rag tight again, ignoring the quiet whimper that came from Dave. “We wait till morning, see how he is then.”
They stood up, the girls were still in the bathroom, Johno scanned the walls with the torch. No signs of anyone living here. Just dust turned to grime by trapped damp.
“Stupid place to build a house, on the southern side of a hill like that. It must get bugger all sunlight,” Johno had worked as a builders labourer; he fancied himself an architect, engineer, and master builder.
“They shoulda put those windows in the roof,” Riley said.
“Yeah, skylights. And open the place up a bit during the day. Let the air circulate.” Johno led Riley down the hall, the third door was half closed, and he could hear Charlene talking softly to Lise, who sounded like she was singing that way she did when scared.
“Wonder if there’s any food in here?” Riley pushed on a closed door, twisting the handle he shoved it a couple of times until the door popped open and he stumbled into the room. Riley screamed, he screamed like the pigs on Johno’s uncle’s farm screamed when ten year old Johno jabbed them with the electric prod.
Riley kept screaming, his arms flailing, blood began to drip and splatter across the floor. Johno stared into the room, the torchlight illuminating a forest of dangling threads, as thick as rain drops, hanging from the ceiling. At the end of each line, all at different heights was a fish hook. Riley had stumbled into the thick of it and was snagged in a dozen places. Every second he thrashed and struggled caught more of the shining barbs in his face and arms.
“The fuck…” Johno managed. “Riley! Stop moving! For Chrissakes!” Riley subsided into blubbering whimpers. Johno hissed as he crept forward, the swinging fishing line and hooks catching his skin. In the torchlight he could see that Riley was caught bad. Hooks were buried deep in his face, neck, hands and arms. One had pierced his nostril and another had his eyelid stretched out into a tiny pink tent. Blood dripped everywhere. Riley’s exposed eye darted around the room in terror. He couldn’t blink, the other eye was screwed tightly shut. Johno lowered the torch beam and reached out a hand.
“Easy mate… Some sicko’s idea of a joke eh? Just hold still.” The hooks were in past the barb. Johno had never been fishing; he eased a hook back through the reddening skin on the back of Riley’s hand. It slid out easily enough, until the barb caught and Riley shrieked through his clenched teeth.
“Hold still for fucks sake!” Johno grabbed Riley’s hand and felt the curved talons of metal slide under the flesh. The barb caught every time Johno tried to twist and slide the hook free. In frustration he squeezed Riley’s hand tighter and tugged. The skin ripped, blood welling up as the hook popped out.
“That’s one. Maybe a dozen more to go,” Johno said grimly. Riley started crying.
Something touched Charlene, she sprang up from the toilet, jerking her jeans up and dancing in a tight circle at the same time. The light from the hallway went out with a scream. The plunge into total darkness felt like dropping through sun-rotted ice on a frozen pond.
“Lise? Lisa? Where are you baby?” Charlene stumbled forward, her hands outstretched, eyes wide and blind in the dark. She could hear the girl’s soft voice singing, rising and falling on a whisper of melody. Something touched her hand, and Charlene instinctively reached, spreading her fingers. Instead of Lise’s hand curling around hers she felt the touch of hooked feet and the sudden scurrying of a nightmare running up her hand and into the cover of her sleeve.
Charlene screamed. A door closed. Lise’s song faded with a sigh.
“Hold still man!” Johno’s fingers slipped as the steadily flowing blood made it difficult to grip the small hooks. Riley kept jerking and every time he did another hook buried itself in his skin. His lip had been caught and now dragged out like he was pulling a freak-face. A single hook swung free from Riley’s scalp, a strip of dripping skin still attached.
The lines waved as thick as grass, the hooks seemed to curl towards Riley, catching him in ever greater numbers. The blood kept coming, flowing out of a hundred piercings and pooling on the floor. Johno slipped again, pushing a hook deeper into the tight meat of Riley’s arm. His friend moaned in a high-pitched whine and jerked away. A hook dropped onto Riley’s eye and lay there. The pupil under it contracted and widened, trying to focus on the curve of gleaming steel.
“Don’t fucking move,” Johno whispered, his bloodied hands shaking he reached up and touched the line above the reclining hook. It quivered. Not daring to breathe, Johno slowly pulled the line away from Riley, the hook sliding across the pulsing eyeball. Tears welled and surged around the shaft, engulfing the slender metal. Johno raised his arm, and the hook began to rise until it stood vertical, the bottom of its curve resting on the darkest spot of Riley’s eye. Under his hand, Johno felt the line jerk, as if a fish had
taken the bait and was running with the line. Riley shrieked and tore himself away in a twisting frenzy. Blood sprayed and Johno stood mesmerized as the soft, dripping globe of Riley’s eyeball swung in front of him, neatly caught on the hook. Riley howled and twirled blindly. Hook after hook caught him, the nylon lines curling around him. It was as if a thousand giant spiders had caught him in their web and were now cocooning him for later consumption. Johno stumbled backwards out of the room, Riley came charging towards him. The torchlight glowed red with the sheen of blood now smeared across the lens and reflecting the wash that poured from Riley’s disfigured face. The door slammed shut, blocking Riley from view. Johno heard a last bubbling scream and then silence.
“Charlene!” Johno screamed. Not hearing a response, he tried the door she had disappeared through. It wouldn’t open but he could hear the scratching sound of nails or hooks clawing at the wood from the other side. The walls closed in, Johno felt the air wheeze out of his lungs, staggering down the hallway he blinked in surprise. Where Dave had lain there was now a wide swath of red, a Dave sized paintbrush, dipped in blood and dragged along the floor. The torchlight followed the trail up the wall where it ended at eye level. It looked as though the wall had swallowed Dave whole.
The money bag lay where Riley had dropped it just inside the front door. Close to panic, Johno howled and punched the nearest wall. The plaster didn’t crack or flake. Instead it felt like he punched a hard mattress. His fist sunk in slightly and when he pulled his hand back, the indentation slowly swelled out of existence.
“What the fuck is going on!” Johno yelled at the ceiling. He jabbed at the wall again, burrowing his fingers into the soft material, pulling and plucking at it until tufts of it came away with a soft ripping sound. Under the surface the wall was matted fibres; soft, white, and sticky. Tearing at it he pulled enough of the strange stuff away to shine the torch into the dark cavity behind the wall. There was little to see, another wall of what looked like rock, or bones, all draped in thick blankets of cobwebs. Normal enough for an old house, he supposed. Though what a spider found to eat in the wall space of a building like this was anyone’s guess. Johno tugged on the fibrous matting, it felt slick as silk under his hands. He had to put the torch down to get a good grip on it and try to pull it away from the wall. The stuff was denser than fibreboard, he wondered if it might be some kind of homemade plaster, with coconut matting behind it, or hessian? That shit could be a real hassle on a demo job. And what about asbestos?
Determined to get a decent piece for a closer look Johno slid his hands into the dark hole, reaching for a grip on the back of the plaster. Something pricked against the back of his hands, then came a sensation like tugging on his fingers. The biggest spider Johno had ever seen walked up out of the hole and stood on the backs of his wrists. His instinctive reaction was to jerk backwards, to shake the damn thing off. But his hands couldn’t move. The spider’s eyes glittered in the off cast torchlight. Johno strained backwards putting as much distance between his face and the thing now casually strolling up his arms as possible.
“Get the fuck off-a-me!” he yelled. The spider tilted forward, its hind legs wringing against each other, softness like cold candy-floss settled on Johno’s wrists. Within moments the tickling feeling spread as the spider moved around his arms, in its wake a trail of white webbing cinched tighter against
Now it was his turn to whimper, Johno had seen smaller dogs than this thing that was now industriously binding his arms. As the feeling faded from his hands and fingers, still trapped somewhere inside the wall, Johno heard a faint rustling. Twisting his head he leered, wide-eyed in terror as
the walls opened up and cat sized eight-legged monsters appeared through the walls, popping out from behind webbing disguised as panels and doors along the hallway. Johno started screaming as the first of the spiders reached him and started climbing his jeans.