Well, I didn’t win the competition. Unfortunately, I find that I am a chronic optimist, especially when I’m working a first draft. Every novel is the best thing I’ve ever done, every short story brilliant. Only in the cold light of the first edit does that change, and the more I edit the worse it gets. Never mind, the one I’m working on right now is amazing, just wait…
There are few things more terrifying than isolation. Human beings are and always have been pack animals. A caveman without a mate to pick the lice from his hair became ridden with sores and disease. The more separate from humanity a man is, the further out of his element, and the more he feels it too, for while human beings may be an unstoppable force in their numbers, the modern man is rendered utterly helpless when alone, his soft body and specialised knowledge unhelpful in an indifferent wilderness.
And there were few wildernesses like the Australian Outback.
Such were Jerry’s thoughts as he wound his way along the trail, the only sounds those of cicadas and the wind in the low brush. He shivered, though he’d been hiking for two hours. It was near dusk, sure, but wasn’t this country supposed to be hot?
The flies didn’t seem to mind, and he was covered in them despite the uncharacteristic weather. Never mind – he could see the final rise ahead. After that, the trail curled around and it was a short twenty minute walk to the carpark. There’d been a motorbike there, too, and Jerry had kept his eye out for this kindred spirit, a fellow dedicated hiker, but he’d long given up hope by the time he started up the final steep hill and saw him standing at the top.
The guy was in a cheap leather jacket and jeans, standing right up there and looking out at the view of the Blue Mountains. Jerry picked up the pace, the flies and cold forgotten for a moment, a smile already touching his lips.
‘Hey!’ The stranger called out to him without turning around. ‘Hey, is there someone there?’
Jerry had come to a stop at the top of the hill, about ten meters or so away. He watched the guy for a minute before he answered, noticing something odd about the way he was standing, how he swayed on his feet and stood hunched over, staring into the wind so intently.
‘Yeah, I’m here. Sure is a nice view, huh?’
‘Yeah, it sure is mate, it sure is. Come stand over here, will ya? It’s great from here.’
Jerry was still getting used to the Australian inflections and intonation, so it was possible he’d heard something wrong there, but he could have sworn the guy was terrified. You could hear fear in a voice, a little shaking, some urgency – but it was mostly just intuition, and even in those few words Jerry’s needle flicked all the way round to red.
He came over, his eyes no longer on the view but the man, and kept his distance, so that he came to stand a few meters to the stranger’s right and a little in front of him. The guy had greasy black hair and a weathered face. He looked rough, too, like he’d been sleeping hard and drinking harder. He had a ragged beard, and his eyes were fixed in a tight squint, crow’s feet making trenches through his face. Jerry stared openly at him, but he didn’t return the look.
‘Are you alright, buddy?’
‘Yeah, yeah mate. Just uh, just really tired, you know, but I swear I can see something out there. I dunno what it is, I was just waiting for someone to come along for a younger set of eyes, you know. Could you come have a look with me? Just come over and check it out?’
Thick arms, and Jerry could see tattoos creeping up onto his neck from his chest. A real biker. And there was another strange thing: this kind of guy didn’t talk this way. So many words stumbling over each other like a nervous teenager asking a girl on a date. Scared. Jerry could see it on his face.
It was human nature, in the end: Jerry wanted to know, on an instinctive level, what the guy was scared of.
So he looked.
At first he didn’t see anything, so he stepped a bit closer to the guy. ‘I’m not getting it.’ The guy pointed with a hand that was visibly shaking. Jerry squinted and stepped forward, as though one meter closer to mountains kilometres distant would make a difference. But he saw it, then, at the foot of the nearest mountain, just where the bush gave way to rock. This far, it was little more than a speck, but it had a humanoid shape.
‘I see him,’ Jerry said. ‘It’s a hiker or someone, standing there at the foot of the mountain.
‘You see him? You definitely see him?’ The guy sounded curiously relieved. He must have thought he was going insane, seeing things on the mountain. But it was no vision or trick of the light, Jerry was sure of it.
‘Hey mate, do me a favour, yeah? Keep looking at it for a sec.’
‘Uh, okay.’ Jerry continued to stare at the distant figure, but he watched the biker out of the corner of his eye. The guy was breathing hard, his head bent and his hands massaging his eyes, rubbing them hard. He looked up a couple of times and muttered things that Jerry couldn’t quite hear. Maybe the guy was insane.
‘Is he coming any closer? The thing – the guy on the mountain?’
‘Nope. He’s just standing there.’
Jerry turned to look at him again, an inquisitive smile on his face. There was some story here, that was for sure: being a travel writer, he had a nose for these things. But the biker didn’t return the look. Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. ‘Alright, I’ve just got one more thing, yeah? Just do this one more thing for me and I’ll get out of your hair and you can enjoy the view, okay?’
‘Um. Sure, man.’ The biker handed him the note and clapped him on the shoulder, his expression curiously serious, his tired eyes steady and red rimmed.
‘Stay here and read that note as soon as you lose sight of me, alright?’
‘Okay. Sure. Listen, are you sure you’re okay – ’ But the biker was hustling out of there, jogging down the hill and off down the path to the carpark. Only when he was gone did Jerry notice he’d left a motorcycle helmet and a pair of binoculars lying in the grass near where he’d been standing.
‘Hey! You left your stuff!’
In the silence that answered, it occurred to Jerry how weird it was that the guy had asked him to stare at the man on the mountain when he’d had a perfectly good pair of binoculars right there. Shaking his head, he smoothed out the note in his hand and looked it over. One way or another, this was going to make a great chapter for The Big Island.
The handwriting looked like it was done by a five year old in the midst of a hurricane, scribbles and cramped lines. It was on the back of a store receipt for three bottles of cheap wine.
Listen buddy I’m really sorry to do this to you but I got no choice mate I swear.
The thing on the hill I saw, I don’t know what it is. I just saw it coming out of the mountains, and it stood there. Look up at it right now. Is it where it was before? I bet it isn’t. I bet it’s closer.
I saw it and what I noticed was, every time I looked away it came closer. It knows when you can see it. I’ve been standing here a long time when I wrote this note. I thought I was going crazy. If you’re reading this note, it means I’m not crazy, because you saw it too.. The thing is, I can tell when I look at it, its focusing on me. It’s coming for me. If I can get it on to someone else, it’ll leave me alone. It’ll get closer while you read this note but that’s okay cos it doesn’t move that fast that I could tell. You’ll be right, just wait on until someone else comes and pass it on. I don’t know what’ll happen when it gets all the way, but I don’t want to be there when it does. Just look and you’ll see what I mean.
Sorry mate, I didn’t have no choice.
Best of luck.
Jerry felt a twinge of unease, a worm squirming inside him. What the hell is this? He looked back out at the mountain.
The man wasn’t there anymore. He was closer.
Not by much, but definitely closer.
It was a hoax. Had to be – the setup was just too perfect. Scare Factor or whatever that show was. But man, if it was? That guy was a good actor.
But no one came out of the bush to laugh and clap and point out all the cameras. So the guy was paranoid, freaking out over some random hiker. Jerry bent and picked up the binoculars. Only one way to find out. He put them to his eyes and traced the mountainside until he reached the bottom, the place he’d initially seen the speck. Nothing there, so he moved a bit further down. Then further.
When he found it, it was no longer a speck, but nor was it a man. The magnified lenses showed something else entirely. The form was similar, but the head was too large in proportion to the body, tilted back and in shadow. The fingers were too long, reaching nearly to the ground. The legs were short, as though the thighs were joined directly to the shins without knees; the torso was elongated and hunched over by a backbone too long to properly support the body to which it was attached. He could not see its eyes, but he knew it was staring.
Jerry lowered the binoculars. ‘What the hell?’ His voice sounded foreign to him. It was full of fear, just like the biker’s had been, though he didn’t really feel it. This wasn’t real. It was impossible.
He closed his eyes and breathed deep for a hundred heart beats, then looked again.
The thing was closer, now at least five hundred meters from where he’d first seen it.
Jerry laughed out loud, but it was a hollow, scared sound, half torn away by the wind. He forced himself to turn away. This wasn’t happening. He would walk back to the car and drive back to the hotel and it would be a funny anecdote for the book. A practical joke. The lenses in the binoculars had been fixed.
He left the binoculars next to the helmet and headed down the path for the carpark, his appetite for the view somewhat diminished. That twenty minute walk was the longest of his life, checking over his shoulder every few seconds and seeing nothing, walking fast and with purpose while his mind worked, trying to figure out what it could have been, some rational explanation.
But in the end, what your eyes see is just what your eyes see.
And he’d seen a monster.
He didn’t so much as glance in his rear view mirror on the drive back. When he pulled into the motel’s empty lot, he sat in his seat for a long time before he got out. You’re being stupid, Jerry. Just get out and take a good long look down the highway. Put your mind to rest or you’ll be tossing all night.
So he did it: he got out of the car and looked.
The highway was empty.
Jerry allowed himself a smile and a shake of the head. Such a fool. Man, it was a good joke though, so well thought out. It was almost as if…
Thinking of the Blue Mountains, he looked in that direction, though by now it was much too dark to see them at all. Across the road, the land was pretty much barren – exactly the flat red landscape he’d imagined covered the whole of Australia before he actually came here – so it wasn’t hard to pick out the one thing standing up. The sun was minutes from setting, and the figure cast a long shadow, one with a hunched stance and dangling limbs.
Jerry sat on one of the two chairs outside the front office, and tried not to blink. He felt sick. Nothing could move that fast. It would have taken a car hours to get from the foot of the mountains to where that thing now stood. It’s because you couldn’t see it. Your eyes freeze it, like Medusa’s gaze, but when you’re not looking it can go wherever it wants.
He was still sitting there when the toilet adjoining the office flushed and Bill came out onto the porch a moment later. Bill was the motel’s owner and, in the off season, the only other patron. He was a fat bearded man who spoke with such a thick accent Jerry wasn’t sure if it was natural or the result of being constantly drunk. He was sociable enough, though, and when he saw Jerry sitting out there he took two beers from the fridge and came to sit beside him.
Jerry thanked him without looking away from the figure. The sun was setting now, and darkness was falling fast. What would happen then, he wondered? Already he felt it moving closer as the dusk obscured it.
‘Howaya buddy?’ Bill said. Jerry felt his eyes on him but he didn’t look.
He tried to sound natural. ‘I’m fine Bill, thanks for the beer.’
‘Naworries mate. You look tired as, ay? Howas the hoike?’
‘It was long, I guess…’ He paused then, and gritted his teeth, wanting not to do it, knowing he would. When he spoke his next words, he felt as though he were killing that honourable part of himself, something he’d always believed about himself that he now knew was fiction: that he would put others first, and always be brave in the face of danger and protect those around him.
‘Hey, Bill, do you see anything out there?’ he said.
Bill squinted out into the twilight for a few seconds and then shook his head. ‘Sorry mate, me eyes can’t even see me toes without glasses. Why, whataya see?’
‘Ah, I dunno, probably nothing.’ His heart sinking, his stomach churning with fear. His mouth was dry, so he took another sip.
Bill didn’t notice anything, but kept up a constant stream of conversation for nine beers, bid him goodnight several times over the course of three more, and finally waddled off to bed.
It got cold at night, but Jerry didn’t get a blanket. He just sat in the chair and stared into the dark and shivered. It had come closer, like he thought, and now it was just outside the pale circle illuminated by the streetlight.
He could only see its feet. They were wide, the toes spread apart and such that they gripped the sand like hands. The nails were black, the skin white as linen. He stared at them until his eyes watered. He used the ankles as a measuring point, and he noticed that whenever he blinked, a little more leg was exposed in the light.
He waited out the night.
He shivered, he cried, tears of fear dripping down his face like they had once when he was twelve and still believed in the boogeyman, he talked to himself, he made desperate plans. He learned that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to save his own life. He learned he was capable of murder.
But he did not look away.
The sun rose by painstaking inches, and the monster had crossed the road. Soon enough, it was completely visible in all its ugliness.
Greasy black hair hung in tendrils around a mostly bald head. Its face was not a face but a mouth, and the mouth was not even that so much as it was a gaping crevice filled with teeth. The bottom jaw hung open, no tongue visible, its gums bleeding. No neck to speak of. Its arms had an extra elbow, and the fingers had no flesh on them – they were long slivers of bone protruding from stumps. He’d been wrong about the legs, too. They weren’t short, they only appeared that way because the knees bent backwards instead of forwards, making them appear short from a distance. Amidst all this, its most sickening features were its eyes. They were tiny, placed high on its forehead above the lipless mouth, but they bulged a little from the flesh, and they were blood red and had no pupils. It looked nowhere and everywhere. It saw nothing and everything, and it watched you.
He looked back. He blinked, and it was infinitesimally closer. How close did it have to be, he wondered? If it could reach you with one of those long arms, would it? Or would it come all the way up to you, face to face, and then bite when you next closed your eyes? He saw his own death in a hundred ways, in those long claws, in every one of its hundreds of narrow yellow teeth.
The sun rose, slowly, and the monster crossed a few more centimetres of asphalt. It was soundless. Jerry wondered, if he clamped his eyes shut, how long it would take to reach him. What would Bill find? A mutilated, tortured body? Nothing at all?
What are you?
It was noon when Bill waddled back out with two beers and sat down beside Jerry. Jerry hated drinking in the morning, but he lifted that beer to his lips and took a long, cold pull. His eyes didn’t waver from those two bulging red cysts, now less than ten meters away. They had no eyelids with which to blink. The creature itself did not move in any way at all, not so much as a twitch.
‘Jesus Christ mate, you stay up all night didya?’
‘Fuuuuuuck. What’s wrong, ay? You right?’
‘Can you see it now, Bill? In the light?’
He watched the old man in his peripheral vision, squinting, leaning forward on his chair.
Please. Please. God help me.
Bill stood up, as if to see better. He stepped forward off the decking and onto the parking lot.
He dropped his beer and it shattered, but he didn’t so much as look down at it.
Thank you, God. Later Jerry would wonder if it really was God he should have thanked.
‘Do you see it?’ Jerry asked.
‘Y…’ Bill swallowed, lost for words for the first time in his life. ‘Yeah, I see it, mate.’
Jerry closed his eyes for two full seconds and then opened them again, his heart racing. The monster was no closer.
He stood up. ‘Listen to me, Bill. I know what it is, okay? I can help you.’
‘You know what it is?’ Bill’s eyes were as wide as teacups. He was in shock. He didn’t know what was happening.
Jerry said, ‘Bill, I need you to look at me. It doesn’t exist if you don’t look at it.’
And Bill, poor old Bill who wanted nothing out of life other than his motel and a few beers and a wife one day, he turned his head.
It made no sound as it crossed the parking lot. Two seconds, maybe three, and it was there, one long arm reaching out, the points of its fingers piercing Bill’s intestines and then slicing upwards in a smooth, even motion, unzipping him. Those fingers must have been sharp indeed, because his skin parted neatly as paper under a guillotine.
The last thing Jerry saw before he started running was the monster sticking two fingers into Bill’s eyes, pulling them out of his head and sucking them into its enormous mouth. After that it was just Bill’s screams that followed him, the kind that split the air and tore vocal chords.
Jerry was in the car, gunning the engine, squealing out of the car park, but those screams overrode everything and ground themselves into his brain, where they would echo for the rest of his life. The screams, and the way they ended, too, with a high pitched gurgling sound as Bill’s airway filled with blood.
A monster like that, it could have killed him with one or two quick strikes. Bill shouldn’t have had time to scream at all, but he was still going long after he shouldn’t have been able.
Jerry kept his eyes on the road, the needle kicking up to eighty, then a hundred, then one twenty. Don’t look, he told himself. Don’t look, just drive, don’t look.
The motel was there, not too far in the distance, the red tiled roof glowing hot in the sunlight. Atop it, the monster stood. It held Bill’s head out towards him like a trophy, and as Jerry watched, it took the whole thing into its mouth and began to chew, dark blood pouring down its body in a flood.
Jerry watched the road. He told himself it was nothing. He told himself it had eaten and it was satisfied. He told himself he was free.
He flew home early, the next day in fact, and spent his time off work at his beach house in Waikiki. He didn’t know how long it would take the monster to cross the ocean, but he knew it would have to come by sea. He drank during the day. Nights, he sat out on the beach with a 9mm in his bag and watched the sea, and waited.
The waves crashed, one after the other, and with each one he heard Bill’s last liquid screams. The lights of the city extended only so far as the white water on the sand, and beyond that all was blackness.
Somewhere in that blackness, he knew, it was coming.