The way that our bodies respond to the uncanny is interesting, to say the least. I’ve experienced it often.
It can be when we see something familiar that doesn’t quite match our memory. I see myself in the mirror every day when I brush my teeth and comb my hair. I notice my reflection in shop windows. I take a selfie and I get accustomed to my features. I know where each freckle sits, until someone takes a photo of me and I’m faced with that awful reality check: this is what I actually look like?
It can be that eerie emptiness of a place that is usually full of people. I feel it when I go to Fortitude Valley during the day. The daylight illuminates how deserted the streets are, and the emptiness crawls under the surface of my skin and makes me feel like I shouldn’t be there. Without the crowded masses blocking the way, the streets seem to stretch on and on. I don’t have to weave through drunk clubgoers, and yet I’ve never felt more unsafe.
That feeling like when you have no idea what is chasing after you, but you know that it’s not human.
People dismiss that last one, however.
I spend every New Year’s Eve with my friend Gee. The night always starts the same: we’ll intend it to be a chill sleepover or dinner at a restaurant, and then end up in an unmoving queue outside of a bar as we anxiously wait for midnight to hit.
We celebrated the end of my gap year at someone’s house on a property in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. The neighbouring house was a twinkle of light in the distance. There was a swimming pool in the backyard where everyone was packed in like fish in a barrel. I couldn’t stand being crammed in the water with strangers for long, so I explored the surrounding area of the house. The rest of the property was empty as I wandered around the dark, alone, sipping my full bottle of bubbly, buzzed enough that I was startled at every little jump of the toads hidden in the long grass.
By the time everyone had gathered around to count down the remaining seconds to midnight, hands were water-wrinkled and plastic party cups had been drained dry. I grinned at Gee as she wrapped her towel tighter around her shoulders and kissed my cheek. The brief communal joy ended abruptly once people started dive-bombing into the water.
Gee called her mum, asking through giggles and bad wi-fi connection for a ride home. Her mum was irritated and didn’t recognise the name of the suburb, but we begged. She agreed on the condition that we met her at the main road.
My feet were damp and sockless; they felt disgusting in my sneakers. All I could concentrate on was the squelching sound with each step I took, giving half-hearted responses to Gee’s chatter as we walked. The road began sloping as we marched together, swinging our arms and slapping our feet against the bitumen.
The shoulder of the hill eclipsed the lights of the house behind us and shrouded us in darkness. I fumbled trying to turn my phone’s torch on. Gee’s chatter puttered out and she moved closer to follow the path of bouncing white light.
There was fenced property stretching for kilometres at one side of us, and dense shrubbery looming over the other side. Branches reached high over our heads. I could see them in my periphery, like bony hands swiping at my head, and I felt my shoulders rise to my ears. Their leaves didn’t make a sound, the air too still to rustle them. The only noise on the road was the overlapping echoes of our feet.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Our footsteps were joined by another. I listened hard, my ears straining. There was someone else. In the bushes, the crunch of another pair of feet on the leaves.
I started walking faster, Gee matching my stride. The footsteps kept up. Wordlessly, we broke into a run.
The footsteps leisurely followed behind us, then gave chase.
I shrieked and I pushed myself to run faster, my torchlight whirling wildly. Gee was right there beside me, laughing hysterically.
Something unnatural, I knew, loped through the bush to keep pace beside us. It matched our speed, like a teasing game. ‘Come on’, it egged, ‘go faster.’
I was sure that it was a bunyip chasing us. I breathlessly shouted its name as we ran.
When we dove into the car waiting at the bottom of the hill, I scrambled to drag the door closed behind me only to turn and see an empty road. I realised that I hadn’t noticed when the footsteps had stopped. Gee’s raving to her confused mum faded into background noise as I looked out the window. The thick bushland gave way to more property at the top of the hill, but I could see nothing in the open field.
I had the same feeling that I get when I go to Fortitude Valley during the day.
Author: Kyrah Honner is a Wiri Luritja writer based in Meanjin. She likes to write disturbing fiction. You can find more of her previous works on ScratchThat.
Artist: Cyndra Galea (she/they) is in the third year of her Bachelor of Fine Art’s in Creative Writing with a minor in Professional Communications. When not found with her head in a book or three, Cyndra can be found radioactive antique hunting, fixing classic cars with her dad, drawing on her iPad, or writing and editing her manuscript. Cyndra aims to work as a structural editor when she finishes her Masters of Editing and Publishing, but also dreams of releasing novels of their own.
Editors: Bea Warren and Breeh Botsford