Her eyelids were heavy and disobedient, clinging to the last vestiges of sleep as she tried to pry them open. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, and she lay there, groggy and disoriented, on the cold floor, with splinters of dead wood digging into her cheek. The air reeked of dampness, and with every breath she tasted the decay in the back of her throat. She needed to move.
The floorboards creaked, threatening to give way as she pushed herself up. Her legs were like jelly and her pulse thudded in her ears. She leant against the wall to keep her balance until she was certain her legs would support her. Where am I? How did I get here?
She searched her mind, struggling to recall something, anything. But she couldn’t remember a single thing. Not even her name. The sound of a wrenching sob startled her; then she realised it was her own. Her tears came faster now, and she sank back down to the floor and wrapped her arms around her legs, rocking as she cried.
The sudden brightness caught her by surprise, restoring her to her senses. She looked round and saw there was a window behind her. She hadn’t noticed it before in the darkness, but now the clouds had passed away, she could see the bright circle of the moon—a beacon in the starless sky. The soft, yellow-white glow flooded the room and she could finally see her surroundings. Not that the sight did anything to quell her uneasiness. The room was bare, save for an overturned chair and a grimy, threadbare rug, rotting around the edges. It was what she saw through the window that made her gasp.
She was in the middle of nowhere. Before her, the Australian bush stretched as far as the eye could see, arid and desolate—a lunar landscape of potholes and dust.
How did I get here? She couldn’t have made it all the way out here on her own. She started to shake and darted her gaze around the room, expecting someone to emerge from the shadows at any moment. Yet the room remained empty and silent. Too silent. She realised she couldn’t hear anything—no animals scrounging in the dirt outside; no bats in the eaves of the house; not even the hum of insects in the night air. She had to get out.
She returned her attention to the window and took deep, slow breaths. She could see a dirt track leading away from the house. Perhaps this place wasn’t as remote as she’d first thought; maybe she could follow the road and find help. She was a city girl, born and bred, but she’d seen plenty of survival programmes on television to know venturing into the outback alone at night, without any supplies, was foolhardy. But what choice did she have? She could stay put, wait for morning, and hope there was no one coming back for her. Or she could take her chances in the bush.
She inched towards the door, pausing every time a floorboard bent under her weight. Her heart pounded, and a wave of nausea hit her when the door refused to budge. Am I locked in? Her arms shook as she grasped the latch again. Then, with tears streaming down her face, she pulled at the door with all her might, willing it to open.
The momentum when it swung inwards sent her staggering. Her heel caught on the decaying rug and she fell, crying out in pain as her back jarred. Eyes watering, she scrambled to her feet and ran out into the night. The air was cool, the moon lighting the sky above her, illuminating the dirt track, and she offered up silent thanks as she set off down the path.
She had gone several metres when she experienced a prickling at the back of her neck and the feeling of being watched came over her. She glanced left to right, seeing nothing but the expanse of the bush; then she turned back to look at the house.
She had to clamp both hands over her mouth to stifle her scream. A light was glowing within, and at the window stood a figure: a dark silhouette against the glass. Although she couldn’t see his eyes, she knew they were fixed on her.
For a moment she was unable to move; a tightness in her chest pinned her feet to the ground. Go! she screamed at herself. But her body refused to obey. The figure didn’t move either and, for what seemed an eternity, they both stood there like statues. When she finally forced her unwilling limbs into action, she turned on her heel and fled.
The muscles in her legs screamed, urging her to stop, but she kept going until they gave way beneath her and she dropped to the ground. She panted and wiped the sweat from her brow as she struggled to catch her breath. She strained her ears, desperate to catch the slightest sound of footsteps behind her. Yet all was silent—almost. As her breathing slowed and her ears stopped ringing, she realised the sounds of the bush that had been strangely missing near the house were now audible. The continuous high-pitched chirping of crickets filled the night, familiar and reassuring, making her feel less alone. Above this came the softly piped call of a butcherbird. Another soon answered it, and their melodies interwove in a playful song. She sat entranced for several seconds; then the music stuttered to a stop and the crickets fell silent.
She froze when a howl arose in the distance. Was it a dingo... or something else? Behind her? Or ahead? The call hung in the air and a cloud passed across the moon, casting an ominous shadow that pitched her back into semidarkness. Beside her, something rustled in the undergrowth and she scrambled backwards. Keep moving.
She clambered to her feet. The path was not as clear as before, but she set off at a half-run, hoping it continued straight. She maintained the pace, even though there was a constant dull ache in her legs and every breath grated. I’m dehydrated. I can’t keep this up for much longer.
Then the surface underfoot changed. Instead of the loose, sharp gravel jumping up to bite at her ankles, the ground felt smooth and hard. Bitumen. She crouched and touched it as a single tear trickled down her cheek. She had reached a road. But which way now? She glanced left and right, but the paths looked identical—both an expanse of blackness waiting to swallow her whole. Her lower lip quivered and her shoulders shook as she tried to decide which route to take. Finally, she thought she could make out a speck of light to the left. It seemed far off—too far to tell for sure what is was—but it was all she had. She had no energy left in her to run. Nevertheless, she turned left and willed her legs to move in that direction. She only hoped she could make it to the source of the light before her body shut down... or something else caught up with her.
Jimmy looked up at the discordant jangling of the rusty bell over the door. He lifted his elbows off the counter and straightened, pushing his magazine out of sight behind the chocolate stand. He hated these late nights at his father’s pathetic little roadhouse, but he needed the money. It had been a particularly boring and depressing evening, and this was the first customer in hours.
“Welcome. What can I get ya?” he asked with a smile as a young woman approached. However, his smile faltered and turned to a frown when she got nearer and he could make out her tear-stained face and dishevelled hair. “Say. You okay?” He mentally kicked himself for asking such a stupid question. Clearly she wasn’t okay or she wouldn’t be crying in his shop in the middle of the night.
“I need help. Can you call the police... or an ambulance?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, of course.” He reached for the receiver. “What’s ya name?”
“I-I don’t know. I can’t remember anything.” She burst into tears.
Jimmy dialled 000, keeping an eye on the girl as he relayed the situation to the operator. She dug around in the pocket of her grimy jeans and found a tissue. He looked away for a moment as he replaced the receiver and heard her blow her nose.
“An ambulance is coming. They said about half an hour.” He paused. “Look, why don’t ya come and sit back here with me while ya wait? I can get ya a drink and some grub, if ya want. I’m Jimmy, by the way.”
After seeing her settled onto his high stool, he went out to the shop floor to get some supplies. He grabbed a couple of bottles of mineral water before glancing at the food shelves. He’d never noticed before, but everything they sold was completely lacking in nutrition. He deliberated for a moment; then he picked up a bag of potato chips.
He was about to head back when a T-shirt stand caught his eye. He glanced over at the girl. Her top must have been a pale pink once, but only patches of colour remained visible beneath the layer of dirt and sweat. He yanked one of the T-shirts free, leaving its hanger to bang against the rail.
“I’ve got no jeans here, but there’s a dunny out back if ya wanna change ya top.” He held out the T-shirt.
A scrunched-up, empty potato chips bag lay on the counter in front of her, and she watched as it inched its way out of the ball into which she’d rolled it. She finished the last bite of a chocolate bar and tossed the wrapper with the rest of the rubbish. Usually chocolate was her favourite treat—she always enjoyed the moment when it melted on her tongue—yet today it had tasted bland.
“I don’t understand it. I’ve had two bottles of water now, but I’m still thirsty.”
“I’ll get ya a Coke. You’ve had a bloody nasty ordeal—it’s probably shock. Don’t worry, though. The ambulance will be here soon and they’ll fix ya up.”
She glanced at the clock behind the counter. It had been a little over twenty minutes since Jimmy made the call, so help shouldn’t be too far away. Her heart had leapt for joy when she’d reached the service station, and some of her fear had ebbed away as she sat with Jimmy under the bright fluorescent globes. Even so, the niggling feeling she was being watched had failed to dissipate and she kept a constant eye on the door, making sure no one was there.
She longed to be in that ambulance, heading back to the city, or even just a town. Anywhere she could be surrounded by people and feel safe again. She heard the liquid splashing into the cup as Jimmy worked the dispensing button on the soft drink machine. It seemed so much louder than usual—like a raging torrent—but she guessed the events of the night had heightened all her senses.
When Jimmy handed her the drink, she lifted the cup to her lips and took several gulps. She only realised her hands were shaking when she felt the cup slip from her fingers. She grabbed hold, gripping it tight, and with a soft snapping sound, the polystyrene gave way and the freezing contents emptied over her lap, spilling onto the floor.
“I’m so sorry.” She jumped to her feet and looked around for something with which to clean up the mess.
“Don’t worry, there’s a mop out back. I won’t be long.”
She made a feeble attempt to wring out her T-shirt, but the Coke had left a dark brown splodge that obliterated the yellow cartoon kangaroo print. She found a box of tissues and grabbed a fistful; then she wiped down the seat and tossed the sodden remains into the bin. She was about to get some fresh tissues to work on the other areas when Jimmy returned.
“Nah, leave that. I’ll do it.” He waved her aside as he set the mop and bucket down. The metal made a deafening clang as it connected with the tiled floor.
“I really am sorry.”
“I’ve seen much worse here than spilled Coke, believe me.”
When he sank the mop into the bucket of soapy water, a strong pine scent filled the air. She screwed up her nose in distaste as the smell permeated the room. It conjured up images of hospitals and old peoples’ homes, and for a second she felt a memory teasing at the edge of her mind. But as soon as she became aware of it, it was gone, leaving her uneasy.
Trying to distract herself, she watched Jimmy. She observed the slight ripple of muscles in his arms as he worked and, for an instant, she thought she could see the hairs on his arms standing on end in the cool draft from the air conditioner. She knew that was impossible, though, since she’d retreated to the shop floor to give him room to manoeuvre. It was then that she heard it: a faint drumming sound, beating out a regular and enticing rhythm.
“Can you hear that? There’s an odd noise coming from somewhere.”
Jimmy paused and listened. “Nope. Either yer imagining it or ya have much better hearing than me. I don’t hear anything—it’s a bloody quiet night out there.”
She nodded. Yet the beat continued. It was louder now, as if moving closer. She noticed Jimmy had come around to the front of the counter and was wiping up the last puddles of Coke near the chocolate stand. He lifted a soggy magazine and pitched it into the bin. She felt an urge to go to him and wandered over in a daze, her body vibrating in time with the siren song.
As she stood beside him the drumming became a deafening roar, taking over all her senses, echoing through her. She focused on the pulse in Jimmy’s neck. She could see the blood flowing beneath the skin. He turned, and she thought he was speaking to her, but she could no longer hear his voice over the savage, primal rhythm.
Only half-aware of what she was doing, she moved forward and grabbed him. She bit into his neck and wound her arms around him, crushing his body against hers as his blood flowed into her mouth. The metallic taste was heavenly, and the drumming led her on and on, until it slowed and ceased.
The compulsion to obey the voice inside her head was strong. She released Jimmy’s body, which fell to the ground with a dull thud, and turned to look at the man who stood in the doorway. When he smiled, revealing two sharp, gleaming fangs, everything came rushing back to her. She remembered leaving the party and someone dragging her into the alley. Teeth had pierced her neck and she had been aware of the blood leaving her body. She heard again the words her assailant had whispered in her ear as he held his blood-drenched wrist to her mouth. “A moment of pain, and then you will live forever.”
“Come, it is time for us to go.”
She took his out-stretched hand, and together they left the service station, heading into the night.
copyright Nicki J. Markus 2016 (2011)
Nicki J Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.
Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between MM and mainstream works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her works span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!
As a day job, Nicki works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, cinema, photography, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing.