Edition 14: The Darkness in Clara by Alan Baxter
When Michelle loses the love of her life, she struggles to understand what could have brought her to that dark place. As she starts to dig back into Clara’s past, Michelle discovers that there were secrets of her tormented adolescence that Clara kept from her. SY
Michelle saw Clara’s feet first, absurdly suspended a metre above the ground, toes pointing to the carpet, ghostly pale and twisting in a lazy spiral. The rest of the scene burst into her mind in one electric shock a fraction of a second later; Clara’s wiry nakedness, limp arms, head tilted chaotically to one side. Her tattoos seemed faded against ashen skin. Her so familiar face grotesque and wrong, tongue swelling from her mouth like an escaping slug. And her bulging eyes, staring glassy and cold as Michelle began to scream. Light from the bedside lamp cast Clara’s shadow across the wall like a puppet play, glinted off the metal legs of the upturned chair beneath.
I bought her that belt, Michelle thought, as she stared at the worn black leather biting deep into the blue-tinged flesh of Clara’s neck, and she drew breath to scream again.
The funeral was typical, a sombre affair overlain with the gentle patina of judgement that always accompanies suicide. Michelle put on her brave face, smiled at all the platitudes. Knowing she would never be able to make it through a eulogy, she stood stoically beside Paul as he gave the most beautiful speech. When he opened with, “People always ask what it was like growing up with two mums…” she almost lost it. He gripped her hand behind the lectern and kept talking, voice strong, daring anyone to contradict his tale of twice the love.
At the wake he stayed by her side, remained calm in the face of false sympathy offered with barely concealed disdain. So difficult without a father. So tough, such an unconventional upbringing. “My uncle Gary was a better father than most of my friends’ dads,” was his go-to line, and he always reminded people that two mums was way better than single parent families and those kids turned out great.
“At her fucking wake, still the snide remarks,” Michelle said as they stood on the back lawn after the house had emptied.
Paul put a strong arm around her shoulders. “People are idiots, you know that.”
She laughed and quickly devolved into tears, the dam finally breaking through the shell of bravado she’d worn all day. Paul turned her to his chest and they sobbed together for what seemed like hours.
She rose early, the house so quiet, made strong coffee, scrambled eggs, toast. Paul stirred in bed as she entered his old room. She stood with the tray, smiling sadly, so pleased he’d stayed after the funeral. “Still yours,” she said.
He dragged himself to a sitting position, rubbed his eyes. “You really should pull down these posters. Redecorate like a proper guest room.”
“But it’s your…”
“It’s not, Mum. It’s really not any more.” He smiled warmly.
She put the tray on his lap, sat on the bed beside him. “No. Honestly, we just never got around to it.”
She stroked his leg through the covers while he forked up eggs, nodded appreciatively. Her little boy, now such a big, strong man. She could still see the child in there, but he was buried deep under layers of experience and life. A tear breached her lashes as she remembered the birth, holding Clara’s hand and telling her to breathe and push, Clara, you’re doing so well. Bringing the baby home, the two of them staring into the bassinet in stunned silence and absolute, total love.
“Why did Mama do it?” Paul asked in a whisper.
Michelle shivered at the memory of those gently spiralling toes, ran a hand over Paul’s thick, black hair. “I don’t know, love. I really don’t.” The tears came faster.
Paul sat and stared at his fork resting inert on toast. “She had problems, we know that. Her funks. But was she ever really so depressed?”
“She must have been.”
“She never talked to you about it?”
Paul shrugged, his eyes haunted with lack of understanding. “About being so down, anything like…”
Michelle stroked his hair again, luxuriating in the feel of it as much as soothing him. “We talked about everything. How she struggled with her mum dying young, about the abuse she got when she came out, all that stuff. She had tough times, like everyone. Some of her times were tougher than most. But I never once thought she was suicidal.”
“Did she leave a note?”
Michelle drew a ragged breath, tried to stem the tears. She knew this had been coming. “Yes.”
“Can I see it?”
“Paul, I would never hide anything from you, but…It doesn’t make sense.”
Michelle nodded, went to her bedroom, their room, to retrieve the scrawled scrap. Paul was eating again when she returned, fork rising and falling robotically, purely because his young body needed the fuel. At twenty-two, his appetite was voracious. She held out the note, sat beside him again. She read over his shoulder as his eyes roved the lines.
The darkness never stops and it’s eating its way through. How long until I draw it all the way to me and it takes us all? I can feel it coming. The connection is my blood. There’s one way I can stop this. You can only run from your past for so long. I’m so sorry. I love you M & P xxx
Paul looked up, eyes red. “You weren’t going to show me this?”
“I was. But I waited until you asked. I knew you would. When you were ready.”
He nodded, read it again. “What does she mean?”
Michelle shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“What past is she running from?”
Michelle took the slip of paper back, folded it reverently. “No idea. I’m going to try to find out.”
“How much past does she have?” Paul asked. “Before you, I mean?”
Michelle smiled softly. “Some. We met in uni, when we were twenty. I thought I knew everything about her life up until then, thought we’d talked about it all. She certainly knew all about me.”
“But something haunted her. Something she never told you.”
Michelle pressed the note gently to her lips, nodded. “Yeah.”
Driving through the old hometown brought a kind of dislocated nostalgia. It was Clara’s birth place, after all, not hers. But all country towns shared that out of time personality. A sense they were always playing catch-up and always stuck in the past, yet actually happy to be left alone. She passed a service station with two lollipop-shaped petrol pumps, rusted and dinged, still used every day. A ute pulled up to one as she went by, the driver grizzled and dirty, the ute bed full of hay bales.
The road sloped slightly up towards the intersection that marked the town centre. Big sandstone buildings that used to be the post office and bank stood on two corners. A pub on the third, its balcony a federation skirt around three sides. The fourth corner was a memorial park, a cenotaph to those fallen shining bright white in the midday sun. She turned left, pulled into the pub car park. What the hell was she doing here? Were there really answers to be found?
The Clara-shaped hole in her pulsed with hurt again and she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened. Answers or not, she had to look. She had two weeks compassionate leave to fill. The seeking more than the finding would be the salve her heart needed. She hoped.
The interior of the pub was like that of every other country town in Australia. Paraphernalia adorned the walls, tin signs advertising Reschs and Tooheys, jokes clipped from magazines and photos of locals baring their arses at the camera. Several lunchtime drinkers sat around, all stopping to pay attention to Michelle as she walked in. She smiled crookedly, half-intimidated, half-impressed that her fifty-two year old body could still garner those kind of looks. She kept in shape, dyed her hair to hide the grey, but none of it was for the benefit of men like these. Not for any men. She remembered Clara’s stories, rural bigotry. All the abuse, verbal, emotional, even physical. How many of these bastards, leering at her, were responsible for the hell of Clara’s teenage years?
Clara’s fuck-you attitude had powered her well through tertiary education. It’s what had made Michelle idolise her, fall in love with her. When Clara had fallen too, Michelle had thought it a dream. They shared stories of their so similar small town upbringing, but Clara had had it much worse.
Michelle walked to the bar and the overweight man behind it. His head was shiny bald, nose swollen with liquor, eyes red and mean. “I’ve booked a room actually.”
“Ah, you’re Michelle Braid? Welcome to town!”
She berated herself for her own prejudice, the man’s eyes were only nervous. “Yes, that’s right.”
He handed her a key on a battered wooden key ring, a 6 burned into it. “End of the row, furthest from the cars. You’ve got the place to yourself. Not many people stay here.” He grinned apologetically.
“Thanks. I could use a shower. Will you still be serving lunch in half an hour?”
“Kitchen’s open til two, then again at five. You’ve got plenty of time to settle in.” He paused, smile nervously hanging on his lips. “You, er…on holiday or something?”
Michelle looked around the dingy pub, a couple of local eyes still watching sidelong. “Yeah. Something like that.”
“I remember her well. She turned me down when we were about fourteen. I was really pleased to learn she was a dyke!”
Michelle bit her tongue, reminded herself to look past the words to the man’s genuine smile. “Made you feel it wasn’t personal, eh Bob?”
Bob laughed, stared into his beer. “Yeah. Can’t believe she’s dead. Were you and her…?”
“Yes. Together more than thirty years.”
Bob nodded without looking up. “Sounds like true love.”
Michelle smiled. “It really was.”
They were quiet for a moment before Bob looked into her eyes. “How did she die?”
“Took her own life.”
“Ah, fuck that. I’m sorry.”
“You know why?”
“Not really. That’s why I’m here. Looking for answers, I suppose.”
Bob looked around the bar, a dozen or so locals in small groups or drinking alone. “We get a lot of that around here.”
“A lot of what?”
Bob mimed a rope tugging his neck crooked, unaware of the pulse of grief it caused in Michelle’s gut. “Blokes struggle to keep a farm going, struggle to pay bills. Bloody hard to be a farmer these days. And their wives leave ’em, kids grow up and fuck off to the city rather than stay and work the land. Lot of blokes reach the end of their tether, like.”
Michelle watched the distance open in Bob’s eyes, wondered how many friends he’d lost that way. “You stayed,” she said. “You help your dad on his farm?”
“Nah, we own the country store. Dad’s retired now and I run it. Still hard to make a living, but not as hard as farming.”
“You never thought of going to the city?”
Bob downed the rest of his beer. “Nah. Not interested. I like it here. Another? I should be getting back, but one more won’t hurt.”
Michelle held out her beer glass. “Sure.” She’d had two already and was enjoying the buzz.
Bob went to the bar and she scanned the pub again. The first two people she had spoken to hadn’t remembered Clara, and then she’d seen Bob drinking alone on his lunch break. They were of an age, so she thought it likely he might know. She wondered if he had ever really got over the rejection he joked about. She caught the eye of a woman in the corner, overweight and scowling. Michelle raised an eyebrow and the woman continued to stare, hard and disdainful.
Bob returned, put the beers down. “Here, get this into you.”
Michelle laughed, without much humour. “Thanks.” She sipped the frosty brew, glanced sidelong to see the fat woman still staring. “Who’s that, by the pokie machine?”
Bob looked up, laughed. “Wicked Wendy? Staring at you like she means murder?”
Michelle shivered. “That’s the one.”
Bob shrugged. “Wendy Matthews, twice divorced, runs the newsagents. Always closes for lunch and comes here, like I do, but she really makes the most of her lunch hour. Everyone knows to go in the afternoon when she’s so pissed she usually gives too much change.”
“Why’s she giving me that look? Doesn’t like out-of-towners?”
“Don’t think Wendy likes anyone.”
They drank in silence for a moment. Wendy pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and went to stand out the front of the pub and smoke. Michelle excused herself, strolled outside.
“Wendy Matthews, is it?”
Wendy stiffened, eyes widening. “Yeah.”
Michelle had learned her boldness from Clara and it never failed. Matthews was happy to scowl and act tough until she was called on it. “Seems like you have an issue with me,” Michelle said. “Doesn’t seem fair. You don’t know me.”
“Doesn’t seem fair that my dad died when I was fifteen,” Wendy said, venom dripping off her words.
Michelle frowned. “That’s terrible, true. Why take it out on me?”
“I heard you asking about that fucking lesbian.”
Michelle swallowed anger, took a breath before speaking. “What does Clara have to do with it?”
“Fucking bitch, this town’s well rid of her. I’m glad she’s dead.”
Trembling began in Michelle’s knees, tremored through her stomach. She clenched her fists in an effort not to collapse. Or punch Wendy Matthews in her foul mouth. “You piece of shit,” she hissed. “Have some respect for the dead.”
“Had no respect for her living, got none now. My dad’d still be alive but for that cunt.”
“What the hell do you mean?”
Wendy dropped her cigarette, ground it out with a booted heel. “You know nothing. Fuck off back wherever you came from.”
She stormed off up the street, left Michelle paralysed with shock in her wake.
Michelle jumped, turned to see Bob in the doorway. “Yeah, fine.”
“I told you, Wendy doesn’t like anyone. She’s toxic, that one.”
Michelle looked up the street at the retreating back of the woman with so much bile inside. “You’re not wrong.”
Rather than stay in the pub all day, Michelle spent the afternoon wandering the small selection of shops in town, sitting on a sun-drenched bench at the cenotaph, lightheaded with beer. She tried to imagine Clara growing up here, bored and desperate for something interesting. Desperate to get away from closed-minded judgements, to a place where she was free to be herself. She imagined it like her own youth, only with a particular Clara-flavoured dose of angry angst added in. Michelle had kept quiet growing up, bookish and patient. Clara’s tales told a very different story.
Her phone beeped. She pulled it out, saw the reception flickering between one bar and none, a text message notification across the screen. Paul.
Hey Mum. You okay? How’s the country?
She smiled, tapped out a reply.
Backwards. 😉 You doing okay, love?
The reply pinged back almost immediately.
I’m cool. Been having terrible nightmares. Really dark, cold dreams.
Michelle winced, desperate to gather him into her arms, smooth away his fears. Of course he was having bad dreams. She shifted for better reception, but there was none to be found. I can try to call you, love. Signal patchy.
Nah, don’t worry, Mum. I’m okay. Love you.
She nodded softly to herself. Her big, strong, grown-up boy. Love you too, darling. xx
As evening drew near, she walked in the pleasant warmth across town to find herself some dinner. Every small town had a lawn bowls club with a bistro or restaurant of some kind and this place was no different. As Australian as the backyard BBQ, the bowling club’s cheap bar and average food was inevitable. Bob had told her the way.
There was only the one pub, a handful of shops and one club before the town gave way to farms in every direction. Houses clustered around the town intersection like frightened children at their mother’s skirts, and then spread apart the further from town they were. The bowling club sat at the end of one street, the country store the last building before the smooth greens and garish lights of the clubhouse. Michelle stopped and looked into the window of Bob’s shop, rolls of wire and racks of tools, animal feed and chemicals for killing things or making them grow. She imagined Bob behind the counter. He would be back in the bar again, following the afternoon trade. Pub for lunch, pub all evening. How many places still had stores that closed for lunch? I like it here. Did he really? Or did he just not know anything else? Perhaps he was too scared to venture beyond the tiny town. Or maybe she was being judgemental again and he was a genuinely happy man. Happiness came in many shapes and guises. No one had it easy, but some had it far easier than others.
The day was turning to night as she entered the club and immediately felt like she’d made a mistake. Here were the elderly residents of town, too old to bother with the raucous roughness of the pub, with a handful of all other ages scattered among them. Thirty locals turned as one and stared unashamedly as she entered. The bistro, as advertised out the front, $10 Steaks every night, was on the far side from the bar. She saw plastic chairs and white tables through there, a scattering of people among them.
Ranks of televisions took up one wall to her left, the only patrons not looking at her were those with eyes glued to the dog races and traps, betting slips in hand. She took a breath, smiled as she strolled over to the bar. The few beers she had enjoyed with Bob at lunchtime had given her a buzz that had mostly faded, but entering the artificial light and low-level noise of the club reminded her she was still a bit drunk. Her rebellious nature rose and Clara’s fuck ’em all attitude urged her on. Grief seemed to be making her careless and she didn’t mind.
“Schooner of New, please,” she said and the young girl behind the bar nodded, not cracking a smile. The girl was eighteen at most, heavily made up with dark kohl eyes and a tattoo on her forearm of a curling rose. The artwork was beautiful and Michelle told her so when she came back with the beer.
The girl looked at her arm in surprise. “Garth Newhaven in the city. He’s a master.”
Michelle decided there and then she was getting a tattoo, something for Clara. Clara’s had always been gorgeous, and she had been able to wear them with a solid pride Michelle had never been able to muster. Now she would. Every day now she would carry Clara’s pride with her. She got the girl to write down the name and address of the tattooist, ignored the kid’s crooked smile as she did so.
She sipped her beer and walked through to the bistro. She ordered the ten dollar steak, took her number and turned to pick a table. Wendy Matthews stared at her with icy daggers from the far corner, surrounded by three other similarly built women, with matching hate in their gaze. Michelle steeled herself, held Matthews’ eye for a moment, before turning away. She chose a table on the other side of the room. She sat with her back to the wall so she could keep watch on the area, but didn’t look towards the group of eating women even though she felt their disdain heavy upon her.
This was a fucking mistake.
She thought of Clara again, living through this, all the time. As a child, a teenager. The thought made her angry all over again and she snapped her eyes to Matthews’. The big woman jumped and Michelle stared hard until Wendy looked away.
That’s right, bitch. Do not fuck with me.
She didn’t know if it was the beer or the ghost of Clara making her so audacious, but she liked it. Clara would be proud. She ate her steak, drank her beer and the whole time stewed on what Matthews had said outside the pub.
My dad’d still be alive but for that cunt.
What did that mean? How could Clara be responsible for a man’s death? Michelle pushed her plate away and stood, braced herself. She walked up to Matthews’ table and said, “We don’t have to like each other, but I really want to know what you meant about Clara and your dad.”
Wide eyes and gasps of shock rippled among Matthews and her friends. One of them started to speak and Michelle pinned her with a hard stare. “Shut the fuck up, I’m talking to her.”
She turned back to Wendy, knew she was making enemies by the second and just how dangerous that was in a small town. “Please,” she said more softly, pleading. “I’m trying to understand.”
“You’re a fucking lesbo too, aren’t you? You her fucking lover?”
“She ever talk about her life here?” one of the other women asked.
Michelle turned to her, took in the scar across one eyebrow, the missing tooth. “Yeah. Told me how hard she had it, how ostracised she was, how she couldn’t wait to leave.”
The women laughed. “I don’t reckon she told you the whole story,” another said. “We couldn’t wait to be rid of her. She made life fucking hard for lots of people.” The woman held up a hand as Michelle drew breath to protest. “And not just because she was gay. Yeah, she copped shit for that, but it was never the real problem. Her fucking activities were the problem.”
Wendy stood, slapped the table. “Sal, that’s enough!”
Sal slumped back in her chair, shook her head. “Is it? Really?”
“It’s been quiet since she left and we’ll keep it that way.” She turned to Michelle. “There are no answers here for you, bitch. Come on, all of you.”
Wendy pushed her chair in, stared at her friends, daring them to defy her. Slowly, reluctantly, they rose and followed her out.
Michelle stood trembling, staring out into the bar, ignoring the faces looking back at her.
She left the club, lost in thought, stung by the words of the local women. What activities was Sal alluding to? As she walked away from the glow of the club into the gloom of closed shops, something struck her from the shadows. Her teeth clacked together and she cried out, more in surprise than pain.
Wendy Matthews swam into view, her fist a blur as she swung another punch. Michelle tried to dodge, eyes wide in shock. She had never been in a fight in her life. She didn’t move quick enough and Wendy’s knuckles spun her equilibrium away. She hit the pavement with a jarring impact, mind reeling. My god, she’s beating me up!
Wendy’s scuffed and worn Blundstone boot swung in, right into Michelle’s stomach, ripped the air from her lungs. As Michelle gagged and gasped, Wendy leaned forward, face twisted in hate. “Don’t think the local cops will care about this. Sleep with the door locked tonight and leave in the morning.”
Michelle sucked short, desperate breaths, stunned tears blurring her vision. “Why?” she managed.
Matthews turned away, strode off into the night.
Michelle pushed herself back across the path, arms wrapped around her stomach. Her cheek sang with a bone-deep pain. She sat against a shop front, disbelieving. Movement caught her eye and she flinched, thought Matthews was coming back for more.
“You ain’t like her, are you?” Sal, the one who had talked about Clara’s “activities”.
“Like who?” Michelle asked in a weak voice.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Sal looked down the street, where Matthews had gone, back to Michelle. “Your darling lover was a fucking witch.” She stabbed a finger after Wendy. “Her dad died protecting this town, thanks to your Clara’s black fucking magic.”
Michelle tried to process the words, her mind still spinning from the attack. “Black magic?”
Sal sneered. “Go see old Jenkins. At The Pines.”
Before Michelle could ask more, Sal walked away.
Michelle got back to the pub and ordered vodka and tonic. Regardless of all the beer, she was suddenly not nearly drunk enough. Perhaps she should take Wendy’s advice and leave. Although that’s not what Clara would do. A witch? Black magic? How backwards was this hick town?
Bob was at the bar, laughing and drinking with a couple of farmhands. She caught his eye and he wandered over.
“Nice dinner at the bowlo?” he asked.
“Decent steak, yeah.”
“Told ya.” He frowned, leaned sideways to see her cheek. “What happened to you?”
“Walked into a door. Is it bad?”
“Gonna be a good bruise. A door, eh?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed her drink, eyed the bar for another. “Old Jenkins at the Pines,” she said. “Mean anything to you?”
“Sure. He’s bloody mad, everyone knows that. Complete nutter.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Bob shrugged, sipped beer thoughtfully. He ran one hand over his ample beer belly. “Ever since I was a kid he’s been a weird one. But after his brother died he really went doolally. Hey!” He looked up, surprise writ large across his face. “Talk about small town. His brother, what died, was that Wendy Matthews’ dad.”
Michelle nodded, more disturbed than ever. “Where’s the Pines, then?” she asked.
Bob told her how to get to the old farm and she ordered another drink, a double. It was an hour and several vodkas later before she went to her room. She did lock the door, but had no intention of leaving in the morning.
Drunk as she was, Michelle slept hard. She woke with a headache and a mouth like Gandhi’s sandal, but no one had come to harass her during the night. At least, not that she’d noticed. Her dreams had been twisted and dark, full of grief and spite and country people with menace in their eyes. The day was already hot as she showered. Walking out into the glaring sun was an assault on her eyes and mind. A couple of cafés competed for business on the main street and she started towards them in search of coffee and bacon.
Something on her windscreen caught her eye, a scrap of paper under the wiper. It bore a hand scrawled message in blue biro.
Go home, dyke.
Michelle shook her head, screwed it up. That the best you idiots can do? But she didn’t fancy another beating, resolved to stay alert. The first café she came to was called Poppy’s and she went inside. The smell of cooking and coffee was both nauseating and enticing. She ordered coffee and a full breakfast, ate it in silence, feeling sorry for herself. It did the trick, her hangover began a slow retreat. She ordered a second coffee, drank it down and headed back to her car.
The drive up to the Pines didn’t take long. One of the roads out of town led through wide open paddocks, across a struggling river that trickled through its bed desperately, and up a hill towards a ridge lined with the trees that gave it its name. She saw the farm gate from afar, the sign broken and peeling.
The driveway was rough and pot-holed, leading to a weatherboard house equally run down, paint flaking off like the skin of a dying man. The home looked dark, all the curtains closed. She sat in the car for a while, her head pounding softly with each heartbeat. Eventually she dragged herself out and up to the front door.
It opened before she could knock and an old man peered out at her, squinting against the light. He was stick-thin and bent over, pale skin blotched with liver marks. His eyelids hung heavy from red, rheumy eyes and his lips folded back over gums long since devoid of teeth. “Whatever yer selling, I ain’t innerested.”
Michelle raised one palm. “Honestly, I’m not here to sell you anything. Just wondered if I could talk to you.”
And wasn’t that the question. “The old days?” she ventured.
Old Jenkins narrowed his eyes. “The last thing I want to talk about is the old days. Off with ya.” He started to push the door closed.
“Please!” Michelle said, surprised at the desperation in her voice. “I really need some answers.”
“Answers ain’t always good to get.”
“I’ll do anything. I don’t know where else to go.”
The old man shook his head. “I don’t need nothin’.” He began to shut the door again.
Michelle stepped forward, put a hand out to stop it closing. “It’s about your brother. And Clara Jones.”
There was silence for a long moment before his resigned sigh. “Too hot and bright out here.” He left the door open and disappeared into the gloom.
Michelle followed him in, bracing for the possibilities of what might lay inside. She was pleasantly surprised and berated herself again for being judgemental. She had expected a terrible smell, filthy floors, rotten food, maybe a mangy dog. But the house was immaculately kept, clean and fresh. She got a nostalgic rush at the scent of furniture polish and marvelled at the gleam on amazing turn-of-the-century tables and dressers, buffed to a high sheen. Paintings and framed photos adorned the walls, the town when it was just two dirt streets, families and farm animals, portraits and landscapes.
Jenkins led her through to a lounge room with a cracked leather sofa and armchairs. A television muttered quietly to itself in the corner, too low to be heard. Jenkins switched it off, dropped the remote onto a coffee table. “Bloody rubbish,” he said. “I leave it on for the company.”
“You live alone?” Michelle asked with a pang of sorrow.
“Yep. Never married. ’Spose they all told you I was mad?”
Michelle opened her mouth to assure him that no, no one had said anything of the sort. Then thought better of lying to him. “Yeah, they did. But you don’t seem mad to me.”
“What does madness look like?” he asked, eyes suddenly hard. She shook her head, searching for an answer, and he turned away. “Drink? I got some lemon squash in the kitchen.”
He shuffled out and Michelle sank onto the sofa, looked around the room. There were a lot of photos, but nothing more recent than the 70s. Was it possible he had been alone all that time?
Jenkins returned with two glasses, ice cubes clinking, handed her one. “I don’t like to talk about Stan.”
She swallowed some drink, marvelled at just how good it was. “Stan was your brother?”
He looked at her with suspicious eyes. “What is it you want to know?”
“I’m trying to find some answers, that’s all. Clara recently took her own life. I’m looking for…I don’t know. A reason, I guess.”
The old man nodded, sank into his armchair. “Stan died for her, you know. And I did, nearly. They all think I’m mad, but they never saw what I saw. What Stan saw. The thing what got him.”
Nerves fluttered through Michelle’s chest and she drank again, looking for solace in the normality of lemon squash. “Will you tell me what happened?” she managed eventually. “Someone told me Clara was a witch.”
“My hateful niece, I ’spose.”
“Actually, no. One of her friends. Wendy didn’t want to tell me anything.”
Jenkins sipped his drink. “You and Clara together, was you?”
“Over thirty years.”
Jenkins stared into a corner, off into the past. “She was a good girl, really. Bit messed up, you know? She had this bolshy attitude, this hard as nails thing going on. I reckon you’d know that after thirty years with her.”
Michelle smiled, nodded.
“Told folk she was a lesbian when she probably shouldn’t have, much too young. It’s like she was daring them to have a problem with it and of course, most people did. Town like this. I don’t understand it, you’re just born that way, ain’t ya? Not like there’s anything you can do about it.”
“Right. Anyway, she made life hard for herself and I ’spose she decided if she’d already been marked out as different, she’d be as different as she could. Started wearing black and all this jewellery like five pointed stars and goat’s heads. Listened to all this godawful music.”
Clara had told Michelle all about her “goth” phase, before there was anything actually known as goth. Some teens turned to the dark regardless of the times. It never really left her, she always favoured the darkness, still liked heavy music. Did like heavy music. She always complained the scene was too late for her, there was never anything heavy enough when she really needed it as a kid. Grief flooded up again and Michelle swallowed it down with more squash. “Being a goth doesn’t make her a witch, though.”
Jenkins nodded, expression sad. “’Course not. But it didn’t help what people thought of her. And she did…other stuff, to spite people.”
“What about her parents?”
“Her dad was friends with me and Stan. We were mates from way back. But her mum was never right in the head. She died about the time Clara started her, what did you call it? Goth thing?”
“Yeah. Well, her dad was the local vet, always busy. Her mum got sick and some people say she died of sadness, but no one can say why. She wasted away and it wasn’t talked about much, but John, Clara’s dad, told me it was a horrible cancer. Ate her up in no time.”
Michelle nodded. “Clara told me her mum died young from cancer.”
“There you go. But it was more than that.” Jenkins pursed his lips, thoughtful for a moment. “Cancer might have finished her, but there was more wrong with that poor lass. How’s old John?”
“Clara’s dad? He died about eight years ago. Cancer ate him up too.” She remembered Clara’s sadness, the way they got through it together. A flash of memory came back with startling promptness as she recalled the man’s last days. Clara crying softly, holding his hand. Her dad telling her to be strong, he’d had a good innings. And then he’d said, Let it go, Clarabelle, you hear me? You let that thing go, it can’t follow you all the way out here.
Michelle had asked what he meant by that and Clara had laughed it off, said she had no idea, the ramblings of a dying man. But that had been a lie.
“He left town a long time ago,” Jenkins said wistfully.
Michelle felt sorry for the old man. Maybe Clara’s dad had been his last friend. “He moved into a flat near us when Paul was born,” she said. “Retired early.”
Jenkins nodded. “We talked on the phone for a while after he left, but eventually got out of the habit. You know how it is.”
“Sure.” She didn’t, but could imagine.
“Did all the townsfolk here think he was mad too?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“’Course they did.”
They sat in silence. There was history here, dark history Clara had never shared. Part of Michelle resented that; she thought they had shared everything. And another part of her ached for her lost love and the story she couldn’t tell, not even with her partner of so many years. Did it hurt that much? Or was there more to it? Was Clara trying to protect her family? The confusing note that made no sense now seemed to be saying so much.
“You said she did other stuff,” Michelle said. “What stuff?”
“Well, there lies the heart of it. At about seventeen she woke something up.” Jenkins raised an eyebrow at Michelle’s scornful expression. “You think I’m mad too?”
“She killed herself for a reason.”
Michelle swallowed, nerves trickling through her again. “Please, tell me.”
“Clara started reading all kinds of occult stuff, according to John. He didn’t like it, but the more he tried to stop her, the more she hid it and did it anyway. He was smart enough to stop pushing. She used to go off to these quiet places of her own and do strange rituals. Her dad followed her one time and saw her raise up something, from a chasm in the ground.”
Jenkins stared into his glass. “Some monster. She tried to set it against the townsfolk, told it to get them, fuelled it with all her hate, which was their hate really, reflected right back at them.”
“And it…” Michelle had trouble believing a word, but the man’s face was deadly serious. “It did what she asked?”
“Yep. People started getting sick and dying. Those most mean to her. Her dad couldn’t stand it, asked me and my brother to go with him one day, see for ourselves. Prove he wasn’t crazy, you know?”
“And you did?”
“Yeah. And John had these charges with him. Explosives, like they use for quarrying. We went to the place and hid, watched Clara cut herself, drip her blood and say these things and this… this fucking creature emerged and shot off across the paddocks. Clara sat like she was meditating for an hour or more, until it came back. When it did, it kind of wrapped around her, lifted her and, I don’t know, molested her. She was in some kind of ecstasy. Then it went back into the ground.
“John looked at us and me and Stan nodded, yes we’d seen it all. We was scared fit to shit our pants, I won’t lie. It was one thing seeing it burst free and rush off, but to see it there, with Clara. It’s still burned in my mind, that unholy thing.”
Michelle tried to picture the scene, but her mind wouldn’t fill in the blanks. A seventeen-year-old Clara, doing these things. The existence of a monster like Jenkins described…But he hadn’t described it. “What was it like, the creature?” she asked.
Jenkins shuddered, a ripple of timeworn terror through his body. “Hard to explain. Like it was there and not there. Like it was black and purple and green and none of those colours, but all those colours at the same time. It was icy cold and oily, kind of sinewy and huge. And it was evil, it stank of absolute harm.” He sank into silence, staring back into the past with wide, terrified eyes.
Michelle found it hard to believe, but was in no doubt this old man meant every word he said. “What happened?”
“John burst out of the trees, Clara was shocked, started shouting and screaming. John was furious, threw her aside and told her to go home right away. She ran off, sobbing, and he handed me and Stan those charges and said we had to seal the place up with that thing inside. The three of us went about five yards into the chasm as it sloped down into the ground. We started putting the charges in, running the fuses back. It was cold in there, unnatural cold. We were nearly ready when we realised Clara was still there, she’d only run a little way. She started screaming and hollering again, telling her dad not to mess with it.
“Stan was still back in the hole, John was yelling with Clara, I was standing by the detonator. Stan was tying the last of the charges. And that thing came back up. Stan’s scream, my god, it’s something I’ll never forget. We heard a kind of hiss, felt a wave of icy air flood out and we spun around just as Stan screamed and was pulled back into the shadows. I started forward, honestly, I don’t know what I was going to do. Then, for just a second, Stan reappeared in the light. His skin was tight to his bones, like he’d lost all his weight in an instant. His eyes were yellow, so wide and staring, his mouth was open. Then blood shot up from his mouth like he was puking the stuff and he was yanked back out of sight again.”
Michelle put down her glass before her shaking caused her to drop it. “My god…”
Jenkins nodded, tears on his eyelids. “And John, he pushed past me and slammed that detonator down. By Christ, the noise of that explosion. It threw us all back, showered us in rock and earth. When our ears stopped ringing and the dust settled, that whole chasm had fallen in as though it was never there. Closed up tight, just a pile of rocks.”
They sat in silence for a long time. Tears gently followed the deep creases of the man’s face and Michelle realised she was crying with him. Eventually she asked, “What did you tell people?”
“John asked Clara if that was the end of it and she promised it was. The thing could only get in and out that way, she said, but it would eventually escape. Old John, he said no one or no thing would be able to move all that rock and she just shrugged. So we agreed to tell people Clara was up to no good in caves, we went to get her out and the caves collapsed, took Stan down. It was sort of the truth.
“Everyone knew there was more to the story, but most chose not to ask. Clara moved away soon after that, only a few months until she finished high school and went off to uni. As the years passed we tried to talk about it now and then, John and I, but people were happier telling us we were mad. And it all seemed like it was over. I’d hoped to die before I ever needed to think about it again, but I guess I didn’t quite make it.”
Michelle thought about Clara’s last words. “She could feel it coming,” she whispered. “That’s what her suicide note said.”
Jenkins nodded. “Right after we blew up that place, she kept telling her dad it wouldn’t stop. She would stop, she said, but it wouldn’t. He said it was dealt with. I guess as the months passed she started to believe him. She had enough else to deal with anyway, everyone blaming her for Stan’s death even if they didn’t know the half of it. Then she moved away.”
Michelle swallowed the new grief that came with the knowledge. The burden Clara had carried through all those years. The guilt and the shame that must have gone along with it. She was only a child, really, how had she even managed to wake something so terrible? How could anyone? Stuff like that shouldn’t be real. And a man’s death on her conscience. Not to mention she had used the thing to cause the deaths of others in town, if Jenkins was to be believed. Surely, that was unfeasible. Folklore, coincidence. “Her note said there was one way to stop it. That’s why she killed herself, I guess. Do you think she was right? Is it stopped?”
Jenkins shrugged. “I hope so. Who knows? Something like that, I wonder if it can ever be stopped.”
“Can you tell me where this place was, the chasm?”
“I can, but I wouldn’t recommend you go there.”
Jenkins sighed, hauled himself out of the armchair. He found a tatty notepad and pencil by the phone and drew her a rough map. “You can only drive this far, then you have to walk this bit.”
Michelle took the note, put it in her shorts pocket. “Thank you.”
“Now, I’ll have to ask you to leave. I don’t feel well, bringing up all this stuff, I’m too bloody old. I’m sorry for your loss, Clara was a good girl really.”
She could see he was holding back tears and felt her own grief rising once more. She hugged him, thanked him again. She let herself out, drove her car a couple of hundred yards away from his property, pulled over and collapsed in howls and sobs of grief, fear and disbelief.
Michelle parked by a worn wooden fence and looked out across paddocks turned yellow and dry by the summer sun. The day was hotter than ever, the sky huge and cobalt blue. The chasm was about a kilometre following the ridgeline, according to Jenkins’ map. With a shrug, she left the air-conditioned comfort of the car, hopped the fence and began to walk. She needed to see. Needed closure.
It was relatively easy going despite the heat, the rising gradient shallow. She wondered how Clara had found the place, how she learned the rituals Jenkins spoke of, how the fuck it all even worked. Was the man mad? Was he covering something else? Clara’s suicide and note, if anything, backed up the poor old bastard’s story. What reason would he have to make up something like that?
Sloping paddock turned to rock and she followed the map to the site of the explosion. The spot was obvious from Jenkin’s description, a scar in the landscape. Except he had described it as full of broken rock their charges had put there, but it was no longer blocked. She looked into a black, yawning gap and the trembling began again. Nervously she moved closer, crouching as she went, to look over the edge. The darkness was absolute after just a few metres where the ground sloped down into blackness. Piles of cracked stone stood either side, made the hole like some grotesque parody of a stony-lipped mouth. The sun beat hard on her back, but goosebumps rose on her flesh from the frosty draught travelling up into the hot day.
Had something escaped from here, after all these years? Was such a thing really possible? Maybe it was Jenkins spinning folklore to scare her. Regardless, even if it were all true, Clara had taken the final course of action, paid the ultimate price to end any threat that may have existed. Hadn’t she? She had felt it coming, and it was all over now. But the chill subterranean air still breathed gently from below.
Michelle leapt to her feet with a cry, ran back to her car, gasping and pouring with sweat by the time she got there. She fell into the driver’s seat, cranked the AC to maximum and drove back to town with no regard for speed limits or personal safety.
She was tired, scared and in no shape to travel far by the time she got back to the pub and her motel room behind. She stood under a cold shower for an age, crying so hard she had to fight for breath. She needed to go home.
She had come looking for answers and what she learned had left her terrified and with no idea what she could do about any of it. It was dealt with and nothing would bring Clara back. Go home and try to forget it all, move on with life and savour the memory of her brave, tortured Clara. Her love, who had taken the most drastic action. It had ever been Clara’s burden, a darkness she had released and carried inside for all those years.
An image of the open ground flashed in Michelle’s mind. The cold air coming up from beneath. Had something really spent thirty-five years digging itself out? Only to be thwarted by Clara’s suicide before it could come for her? So be it. Among everything else so hard to understand, that’s what Michelle chose to believe as she stood under the water and slowly her tears stopped. Tomorrow she would go home.
She dried herself, collapsed onto the bed and fell into a troubled sleep.
She slept through the evening and night, occasionally starting awake from nightmares only to fall back into restless slumber. At around seven in the morning, she finally dragged herself out. She noted a long, deep scratch along one side of her car and walked heavily down the street to the café. A few early risers shared the place while she broke her fast and drank coffee after coffee. She could feel their eyes on her, the weight of their suspicions and accusations, but she refused to meet a single gaze.
After breakfast she returned to the pub, paid for her room and thanked the landlord for his hospitality.
“Not much of a holiday,” he said. “You’ve only been here a couple of days.”
“I’ve had enough,” she said, shocked at the weak whisper of her voice. “Time to move on.”
“Fair enough. Safe trip.”
As she walked around to the car park, a ute slowed as it passed on the main street. “You off?” Friendly Bob from the country store.
She forced a smile for him. “Yeah, hitting the road.”
He nodded, his eyes heavy and sad. “Probably for the best, eh?”
“Yep. There’s nothing here for me.”
He gave her a lazy salute. “In truth, love, there’s not really much here for anyone. Travel safe.” Before she could reply, he pulled away.
She headed out of town and at the last minute made a direction change. She wanted to say goodbye to Jenkins. She realised she didn’t even know his first name. And after upsetting him with her questions, she wanted to apologise, wish him well, maybe see if there was anything she could do for him before she left. Try to make some amends for the things she might have stirred up in the sleepy town.
She pulled along the driveway of The Pines and parked. His front door stood half open. She looked left and right, wondering if he was out and about somewhere on the rambling property as a subtle fear wormed into her gut. She entered the house, paused in the hallway. “Mr Jenkins? You here?”
Shaking her head, she walked on wobbly legs towards the lounge. Jenkins sat in his chair, knuckles white on the arms, his skin stretched grey and tight across his thin bones. His face was rigid, wide-mouthed in a silent scream, his eyes bulging from their sockets. He was frozen motionless in terror and quite dead.
Michelle staggered from the house, her breakfast threatening to come back up. It wasn’t over, of course it wasn’t over. Whatever this thing was, it had unfinished business.
A line from Clara’s note flashed through her mind.
The connection is my blood.
The bottom fell out of her stomach and she puked, legs folding beneath her. With a cry of grief and fear combined, she drove herself to her feet and ran for the car screaming, “Paul!”
She powered to the highway and turned east, put her phone on hands free and hit speed dial for her son. It rang out, went to his voicemail. “It’s Paul, leave a message.”
“Darling, it’s Mum. Please call me, okay? This is really important. As soon as you get this message!”
Wiping tears from her eyes, she put her foot down.
The three hour journey to the city was excruciating, pushing the speed limit as much as she dared without risking a police stop. She dialled Paul again and again, every time getting his voicemail. She left several messages, eventually gave up, just redialled every ten minutes with no result.
He lived in a share house on the other side of the city from the suburban home she shared with Clara. Used to share with Clara. They had tried to convince him to stay with them, save money, reluctant to give up their little boy, but he wouldn’t have it. An adult, finding his own way in the world. But he wasn’t far away, a thirty minute drive, and he visited once a week for dinner, every week without fail. He was a good boy.
She parked in front of his house, ran up the path, hammered on the front door. A gangly young Chinese man answered, pushing long hair from his eyes. Sammy, or Sonny or something, she couldn’t remember. “Hey, hello,” he said. “You looking for Paul?”
“Is he home?”
“Nah, got lectures probably. And his girl, of course. You tried calling?”
Michelle clenched her jaw, it wasn’t this boy’s fault. “Yes, I’ve been calling for hours. He’s not answering.”
Sammy/Sonny shrugged. “You wanna wait inside?”
“When did he go out?”
“No idea, I only just got up.”
Dread ran icy through Michelle’s veins. “You didn’t see him leave today?”
The young man started to shake his head, expression doleful, as Michelle pushed past him and pounded up the stairs. She had been to the house before, knew it well. She ran to Paul’s door and put a palm against it to push it open. She wailed at the chill of the wood, as if it were frozen solid. The handle was colder as she twisted it and flung the door wide.
Paul lay on his bed, shrunken, reduced, skin ashen, his hair frosty white. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he stared wide-eyed at the thing leaning over him. A thing hard to behold, harder still to comprehend. It was as Jenkins had described, so many dark colours at once, both thickly bulked and sinewy thin, man-shaped, bear-shaped, unshaped. The room was drenched in despair and doom, a palpable hatred drifted through the air like fog. All Clara’s pain.
“Get away from him!” Michelle screamed, rushing in. She drove herself between the bed and thing leaning over it, pushed it away with hands instantly numb from an unfathomable cold.
The creature stepped unsteadily back, rose to a towering height, hissing in an echoing, distant voice that came from within it and somewhere else far, far away.
Michelle shook like she was palsied, her stomach turned to water. Her mind ran like treacle, but one over-riding thought drove her on. That was her baby on the bed, Clara’s baby. Dear Clara, how could she possibly have raised this evil thing?
Its chill snaked out towards her and she felt the malice it breathed. It was made of pain and isolation. She had to stand against it, protect her son.
“You were born of spite and hate and hurt. I don’t carry those things!” The words hurt her to say, made her feel a betrayal to Clara, but there was truth in them, kernels of fierce light against the consuming black. Poor Clara, carrying such darkness alone for so long. She gestured back to Paul, still frozen behind her. “He doesn’t hold those things. He knows love and care and kindness. And so do I. And so did Clara, if only she had allowed herself to see. She gave you power. Poor Clara gave you form, kept you digging for so long. But I don’t! He doesn’t! And Clara is gone.”
The thing seemed to waver slightly, shrink. Refusing to acknowledge the terror churning in her gut, Michelle walked towards it, one hand raised, finger pointing in sheer defiance. “How easily did you kill before? And how weak are you now? How you struggle to take his life. Because Clara is gone. I don’t hate the people who ostracise me, I pity them! I don’t fear the people who fear me, I try to make them understand!” The creature reduced further, its deep hiss faded. “I will never give in to the darkness because everywhere I look I find light. I know love, for Paul and for myself. And despite everything, I know only love for Clara. I am not afraid of you! You have had enough! You have done enough. Begone!”
The thing flickered and wavered, shrank away. It became gossamer, insubstantial, and drew back towards the shadows in the corner of the room. It merged with them and disappeared from sight. But it was still there, somewhere, deep and reduced, but not gone. Michelle stared into the gloom, knowing it would never really be gone, not entirely. She pulled open the heavy curtains, let the afternoon sun slam away every darkened corner. Despair leaked from the room. Mostly. Somewhere, some place adjacent to the plane she inhabited, it still lurked.
She turned to Paul, drawn and blinking against the light. His breath was ragged, his eyes wild. “Oh, my baby, are you okay?”
“Mum. I’ve had the most horrible dream…” He looked at his hands, thin and shaking. “I’ve lost so much weight.”
She gathered him into a hug, almost crushing the breath from him. “It’s okay, baby boy. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
Michelle and Paul stood by Clara’s grave, holding hands. Paul’s weight was slowly returning, his appetite as voracious as ever. But his hair would always be snow white. Michelle absently rubbed her forearm where fresh ink itched as it healed.
“I still don’t really understand,” he said, eyes scanning the words on the stone.
Clara Jones, forever protected now against the dark.
“Neither do I,” Michelle said. “None of it should be possible. It’s hard to believe it was real.”
Paul ran a hand back over his ivory hair. “But it was.”
“Yes, it was. Poor Clara tried to save us from it. We should have stood against it together, but she couldn’t know that. We know now.”
“There are terrible things in the world, Mum.”
“Yes, darling. There are. There really are.”
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author. He writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He is the author of the dark urban fantasy trilogy, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction (The Alex Caine Series), due out from HarperVoyager AU from July 2014 (books 2 and 3 in August and September 2014.) He is also the author of the dark urban fantasy duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance Book 1 and Book 2), and co-authored the short horror novel, Dark Rite, with David Wood. Alan has had more than 50 short stories published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror (2010 & 2012). He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.