The taste of vanilla still stuck to his gums as the old ice-cream man drove out of the loop, another punctual day of his going-out-of-business trade. The little van liked to huff and puff. Like it was getting on, too, although the old man wasn’t even that old, if he was honest.
‘I’ll buy me an ice cream sometime,’ he sang to himself, a line from a jingle the company used to let him blast from the speakers when he pulled into a cul-de-sac. There the children would be. Sometimes he thought he’d been doing this job since the 60s. Plastic houses, but children full of blood, licking milky goodness melting from the sun. Already he missed the sun, though it had only sunk to the west two or so hours before. He took a scenic route, hoping for the chance to catch a glance of a cow or four out his peripheral. Maybe he could see a kangaroo, he thought, although by then he couldn’t see much except what was ahead of him on the road. Thick rims of bush and tree wrapped round the glass-lens of the road. He drove down a straight stretch, coordinating his bumping finger to skip a song on the CD he was listening to. His headlights flooded the road.
There was something up ahead – a kangaroo, maybe. Here we go. The ice cream man slowed a little, leaning forward in his chair. The last thing he needed was a startled bush creature frozen stiff in the middle of the road, then imprinted – smeared – on the greying van. He drew closer, squinting, and no longer could pretend what he was witnessing was the innocent bound of a roo. Their bodies grunted, hands gripped to the fleshy forearms of what could never be described as a tail. Two women crossed the road, lugging a dark-haired corpse with them.
The ice cream man tensed, slowing further, almost slamming on the breaks. Suddenly the stretch of road seemed darker, narrower, but he could hardly take his eyes off the two women, let alone pull a sharp turn and get the hell out of there. The women were nearing the edge of the asphalt and he figured now would be his chance to speed off into the darkness and never mention what he saw. Keep your hands clean, Moore, he told himself, as he locked eyes with one of the women. It was such a split-second sight. He wished he was driving something so much less obvious.
He should have phoned the police, told them hello, there’s two psycho women dragging a body that definitely appears to be dead into the bushland – but he kept driving. The ice cream man wanted to be home, cushioned by that recliner he got for cheap off a young couple who didn’t seem to like each other very much anymore. He wanted, maybe, the fine-wine voice of Shirley Bassey vibrating out from the record player in the sitting room. He didn’t want flashes of those dull, hollow eyes. The women hadn’t the decency to flap down its eyelids, he’d thought to himself. Screw it. He needed to pull over right now, before he stiffened up at the wheel and drove himself into a ditch up ahead.
The ice cream van lulled at the side of the road. Moore plied his fingers off the steering wheel, slow, like he was cautioned to, as if he were hiding from slasher film villains. Those women. The seatbelt was choking him at the neck. He unbuckled it, slipping out of the seat until his knees buckled and he gave way, collapsed down in the crowded square of space between the front of the van and the rear, where freezers lined up round the walls and he felt that same chill every drive he took. He’d never been a praying man, so he felt helpless trying to hide from newfound terror that was settling in.
Ever since he was a little kid, and his mother only had enough for the cheapest tricks on the menu, he sought out an ordinary lemonade-flavoured popsicle whenever he felt blue, or red, or yellow. All the colours of the rainbow. The colours swirling round in front of his eyes, a fast-forwarded slushie machine. Moore stumbled to his feet again. There should be leftover stock from the day, he thought, there should be the lemony taste to settle whatever demented dream he was having. He fished around in one of the freezers, foolishly leaving the overhead light off. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and he liked the dark, for the most part. Not so much when he was convinced he was accomplice to a crime for not reporting it. But the chill of ice tickled at his palm, and briefly, he thought he was a full three hours earlier in the day, listening to the whisperings of kids trying to decide between a Cornetto and a Twister. Moore felt the slick, icy packaging of his choice popsicle treat, and began to draw it out of the freezer…
A split-second glance was enough for him, and he flung the severed hand over his head, banging it against the roof of the van as it fell limply off in the corner. ‘Holy ghosts,’ he muttered under his breath, eyeing off the glued-together fingers. Thank god for death, then. It unsettled him beyond reason that somehow someone had snuck in and planted the hand in there, or that there were other forces – he’d never cross off sorcery or witchcraft, those spine-tingling women hexing his van and terrorising him as he tried to amble home over bumpy terrain. He fumbled round, checking every lock. No one was getting in unless they could summon themselves inside.
Moore felt relief come over him. He kicked the severed appendage underneath the counter, he couldn’t look at it again. A little gnawing feeling told him it was just a frosted-over lemonade popsicle, exactly what he wanted, but he’d seen the curl of fingers. He was choking on his fear, waiting for someone to come knocking down the rear door.
Like a sharp kick to the ice-cream-loving stomach. He scrambled back to the driver’s seat, hoping he could see another car parked somewhere. Nothing. He figured they could be parked right behind him. He hoped. Moore didn’t budge from the driver’s seat. Harsh pounding started to shake the ice cream van. He wanted something mellow and smooth to float in the space between the dash and his ears, but he also wanted to be paper-thin, blend in with the rugged flush of bush.
‘A spider’s touch…’ he sung to himself, thinking at last the rapping had ceased. He nestled uncomfortably in the seat, staring out into darkness. Silence, for a beat. Then the fervent knocking began again – knock, knock – bodies lunging against the ice cream van. An unsettling moan, breath picking up in eerie cry, and he was just hoping they hadn’t found out his name.
Nothing more terror-charged than strangers in the dark hollowing out your name, he thought.
He shut his eyes for a second, and it was a moment too long.
A half-split fist thrust against the glass to the right of his head. Moore felt his spine snap straight when he opened his eyes, staring back at the clearly-undead. He heard their girthy-and-guttural howl –
He figured he imagined that part, but the terror still remained. He still heard sharp clobbering against his van, still pictured the severed hand and the brain-dead every time he closed his eyes. He didn’t know what time it was, but he figured witching hour made complete sense – he was cursed, he would forever be cursed.
Moore stumbled out of the seat. There would be no point trying to drive again; he felt entirely too stomach-sick, even if the panic subsided. An earthquake rattle shook the ice cream van. He saw flashes in lightning of that corpse lugging itself across the road, shattered limbs hoisting themselves with trick magic. Bent too far backwards. The two women had ice-cream cone eye sockets and they scooped up dripping out corpse blood, flavour of the month. Moore cracked open one of the freezers and buried his head inside it. Frosted air emptied into his lungs.
He hadn’t opened his eyes for a good five minutes. He swilled darkness round his tongue like soft serve. It tasted absolutely delicious.
He finally opened his eyes, albeit hesitantly. Moore screamed, his sound blending – chopped up with banana, vanilla ice cream, milk and honey – with the final high note in Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger.
His own head, made from stiff lemonade popsicles, was staring back at him. In the wide O of this replicant mouth, a bloodied finger poked out, wiggling back and forth. Back and forth…back and forth…
Author: Keeley Young is a fourth-year creative writing student with his head constantly in the clouds. He is interested in writing everything from fantasy fiction to queer literature to hopefully-engaging pieces about human emotion.
Artist: SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third year fine arts visual arts student. Her art practice uses narrative and mythology to create obscure illustrations and sculptures. Using acrylic paint and coloured pencils she creates vibrant worlds and creatures. Her current work focuses on the current climate crisis and the idea of corrupting escapism. You can find more on her Instagram @SaBelleeee.
Editors: Willow Ward and Hannah Vesey