I close my eyes and listen to gravelled road and primeval trees and nearing night. Their sounds rattle and gutter by, ghost-whistling through the cocked driver seat window. Stanley’s foot is closer to the floor with every drip of daylight. He keeps himself quiet, glaring into the track. It’s not something I need to be entirely conscious for; I know Jack isn’t.
Jack stopped trying to play eye-spy and start upbeat convo with Ada in the backseat when the sun began dying at the border. He’d been trying to cut the quiet, just like the power had cut to the aircon and radio and spark thingo and something else in the old ute’s ignition innards too many hours before. Jack’s head lolls to his right, always, and he breathes slow through his mouth.
What a goof. My goof.
But Ada’s gotta be pining out her window now, chewing lip. Does that after they argue, she and Stanley. This time over when repairs would finish and how we won’t get to his uncle’s holiday place before dark, all on his end but something else on hers, not that Stanley had a chance telling. He’d been too bullhead over a pie and beer in that through-town to watch her face when she passed on eating.
But I know you, Ada.
I know why, even when you’re tight over how the two of you been.
Stanley thinks it, but this trip isn’t entirely his idea, is it? Not a week into winter.
A half-cap does wonders for thinking, believe you me. But you don’t want any more at once – short supply on the road. Took it in the servo bathrooms when I left Jack and the bickering couple for mould and rust and knew today wouldn’t be getting any better. Sunnies on just in case. When Ada asked what for I said so you can take the front seat, babes, so you have room to breathe, and she mewled like a pup and slipped her arms round me.
Ada breathed into my shoulder. ‘I’m sorry. You know what he gets like sometimes. Stan sees a problem and if he can’t fix it, he–’
I know you, Ada.
This isn’t about the car.
Jack saw me cradling her. Gave him a hand shoo and a wink to send him off, but he still wandered over. Goof must’ve missed my wink. Sunnies.
Half-cap stoned is like when you’re tryna make homemade soap; you’ve this fleshy brew on the hob, stinging more than smelling even when you followed the recipe, so you decide to churn in your next botanic eye of newt or wing of bat. Not your grandmother’s lavender or lemongrass but a bush-leaf some yuppie prick probably thought to flavour his gin with.
It doesn’t bubble so much as fizz, like a sherbet dream, not on your tongue tip but the tips of some spirit fingers tracing the synaptic folds of your brain. This cloud sings to your nose and you can’t help but hum along. It plays in tune with the glass beaded crucifix jangling from the rear-view mirror.
It sounds like that Fleetwood Mac CD I can’t play. No one feels like using their phone. So, hum.
Freddi? You good?’
Ada from the backseat.
Words drip from my mouth.
‘Just lil tired s’all.’
I wipe my mouth and eyes. Sunnies clatter to my feet.
‘We’re almost there,’ Stanley growls.
West we go; you can tell by the sky, and if my pupils weren’t wide then they should be now. All the trees are afire in sunset and flying foxes fleck like their ashes come alive. I press once, twice before the window stammers down, to hear bird colonies coming to roost. They are the fire’s roar, the wood cracking to the heat.
Now that’s a dream; it’s colder these nights. There’s gotta be somewhere to light at this holiday place, right?
A yawn; Jack coming to. ‘Miss anything?’ he says.
Stanley doesn’t repeat, so Ada does.
‘Freddi, you awake?’
Jack paws my shoulder, so I clutch at his fingers and giggle.
‘Much as can be.’
And then everything shudders in the dark. Jack falls back in his seat. Ada fumbles her breath. Stanley grinds the gear stick and brake into place. Headlights flicker and frame a whitewash Queenslander looking just as reliable. As we heave our bodies out again and Stanley drops our luggage onto the gravel drive, something still sings or stings through my head to phantom fingertips. I watch the sun as it dies till when Jack ruffles my hair and asks me to carry my bags like I know he will, because that’s what will happen.
Then Stanley calls to us.
While Ada trips and cries out.
But not as loud as later.
Yeah, I see how it’s all gonna happen. Sitting on the veranda stairs, Ada holds up her phone light up so Freddi can figure out the keys. There’s a big, old-fashioned loop of them, three times the size of Freddi’s own hoop earrings that glint as she shifts from foot to foot. And these sway with so many keys, for the main place, the ghost-white Queenslander atop the hill, its sheds, paddocks, and gates – front gate? They hadn’t opened that, had they?
Ada turns to look, puts a hand on her knee and flinches. Her palm comes away bloody from the hole in her sensible jeans, and it begins to throb harder again. Stan’s switched the engine off for power’s sake so it’s just another phone light bobbing by the old Toyota. The night carries his angry voice. The first aid should be in the tray somewhere. Poor Jack. Ada feels heat in her face, and she scrunches up her nose to stop it.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, to anyone. Freddi keeps checking keys.
‘I got my own light. Don’t worry, we’ll get it.’
Ada hasn’t noticed she’s lowered her arm.
‘Not this, Freddi, I mean–’
‘Don’t worry about it, babes.’
Then there’s a sound behind Ada like a boot brought down hard. She yelps, drops her phone but scrambles for it and then everything turns, everything’s bright and turning then dark and dirt. Her hand finds the phone. Light leaves phantom shapes in her eyes. Shapes swim in tears. Then a hand grasping for hers.
Rings. Freddi’s. ‘Ada, you okay?’
‘Wha- what the fuck was that?’
Freddi wipes something off Ada’s cheek.
The laugh comes up wet.
Freddi hoists Ada up by the arm and together they three-legged race an icy wind up the stairs to where the loop of keys hang from door, sadly eking by on its hinges. Ada squints down at the pair of Doc Martens helping her along.
‘You didn’t kick it in, did you?’
‘Nah, lock’s just old,’ goes Freddi. ‘Clunky.’
There’s something off about her but put it down to nightfall, the tiredness they’ve all dragged through the day to darkness.
‘Because all I need now is something else for Stan to think he has to fix. You know he’s been trying to get me out here for ages, help on this place.’
And past its threshold they go. Outside, the house seems so lonesome small against the dark, but inside that dark rattles round and up to vaulted ceilings. Bare white walls make rooms feel unfinished, half-made. The two move further in. Wind seeps in like breath between teeth. Canvas sheets hang over couches and chairs. Motes don’t hang, they circulate.
‘But we’re already far out from anything as is,’ Ada continues. ‘I can DIY, get some more chooks, but I can do that anywhere with a backyard. What is else is there?’ She waits; nothing. ‘Freddi, are you listening to me?’
Ada’s known Miss Winifred Campbell since primary, and her parents splitting before try to murder each other, and back-and-forth human renditions till you had whatever suburbancountry-punk-hippy persona Freddi seemed to be in the middle of constructing. The soap and crafts were nice, though – other oddities less so.
All the while Ada talks, Freddi’s playing with light switches (nothing works) before Doc Martens stamp round the living room, sweeping sheets off the furniture, and dropping them to the floor till they were all disrobed. Freddi pads a hand on the back of grandfather armchair.
‘You should sit,’ she says.
Ada stares, and then does.
‘Good, now I’ll help bring everything in and see about a generator.’
‘While I just sit here?’
‘Nah, Jack’ll be looking at your knee.’
And Freddi’s boyfriend was summoned to the doorway, breath shallow but certain as the box clutched to his chest.
‘How serious is it?’
Freddi holds up her phone light. Jack’s face had more rising blood than the jean hole and scrape, a little less dirt. Maybe Stan was right, the property needed some work put in – driveway first. Jack sends the house’s dust motes spinning with his long, lanky gait as he throws his eyes from wall to wall.
‘Yeah so, from what Stan was saying that his uncle’ – Jack chewed his lip – ‘I think this place could be haunted.’
Freddi licks her lips. ‘Hmm, thought so too.’
Ada rolls her eyes.
‘Something about his aunt,’ Jack goes on. ‘Or a great-great-aunt, and her cats, and this isn’t exactly the original because most of it burned down.’
He looks between the two girls and stops.
‘With them inside.’
‘Well, I’ll go ask him about that,’ says Freddi. She’s looking down at a neat little hollow in a wall: a fireplace. Something in her voice changes. ‘All about the fire.’ And she blurs through the open door like a cat herself, into the night.
Those two don’t belong out here. He puts his hands together for heat and Stanley swears he can make out his breath, like he’s trying to turn his hands to kindling. They wouldn’t be here if Ada hadn’t asked for company. But like he’d ever say no.
Stanley swats some whining night bug at his ear and runs a hand through his hair. There’s too much to do. Jack was about as much help as he thought with the tray. Tools overturned, eskis across the way, all the luggage heaped out onto the gravel. Stanley digs out a head torch and straps it on. Better than a phone. Had to tell the guy that tall tale about mad family members and cats and fires just to make him hurry properly.
Here for a holiday.
Same word but they’ve got their own meaning.
He looks down at the bags they’ve packed. You can tell the difference between them. Either Winifred/Freddi/whatever or that twiggy boyfriend of hers even packed a guitar. Don’t have to open the case to know there’s bright stickers and city-band decals all over, staining the wood. That’ll be chipped too, not that Stanley’s ever been one to play an instrument, but you gotta admire a piece of beauty that’s treated with due care.
He puts a hand on the tray and swoops off to gravel under heel.
And that house, haunting the hillside, unfinished.
Stanley doesn’t see the girl till she’s set to bound into his Toyota, like a suicidal roo looking to be hit. She looks just as spooked, too. Christ, don’t say there’s something else.
‘Everything alright? Sent your guy up. Ada should know how to do it.’ Stanley swallows. ‘Didn’t look too bad.’
‘Ada?’ Winifred steadies herself against the bonnet. ‘Yeah nah, she’s great, she’s yours.’
Girl’s got this elfy look to her, with the short hair and eyes like a–
You gotta be fucking joking.
‘Freddi.’ Stanley watches his breath take up the space between them like a rolling thundercloud. He builds it; it’s building. ‘Don’t tell me you’re on–’
‘Ada came out here,’ Winifred says. ‘To tell you she’s pregnant.’
Thundercloud rolls and rolls and splits.
That night bug comes whining back but Stanley doesn’t slap it away. He bolts to the house, where tears get to be about something good for a start.
I think we’ll figure out the generator in the morning. We curl into one another, me and Jack, Ada and Stanley, in our own two little worlds in front of the fireplace. We’ve blankets and fire, and that’s light and heat enough. When I try explaining it all to Jack again, he makes a face like he’s thinking it all back real hard.
‘Wait,’ he gawks. ‘So, are we or are we not staying in a haunted house?’
‘Really?’ I yawn.
‘What do you think, goof?’ I start to crash as we cosy round the fire, and it all slowly begins to sink in for Jack too.
Rory is an English/Irish-grown & Meanjin/Brisbane-based Creative Writing student in his second year. In his work, he loves exploring ideas of expectations, perspective, and the every-day weird. Lately, it’s been all about people trying their hardest to not figure things out, himself very much included. With short stories and sometimes poetry, Rory wants to create pieces you’ll not just reread but reinterpret every time.