Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Mountain

When writing a recipe, you have to be linear. This, then that, then this. You can’t jump ahead of yourself; you have to follow the logical progression from ingredient, to action, to end result. Meanwhile you keep things on the boil and prepare for the next step.

I sometimes feel Temptation Tor wrote my recipe template, everything leading to this moment; an episode of my cooking show, in the place where the idea for Motorbike Munchies was born. I didn’t warn the producers they might see a ghost; I’d long since learned to keep quiet about her. About them.

“Bush Food at the top,” the producers said, so at dawn we transported stove and ingredients and camera and crew around the hairpin bends of the mountain. I rode my bike up, loving the freshness of the air, the tightness of the road. They’d have me lean on it, as they did every week.

It’s one of those quirky things reporters love to start their stories with. “TV Chef on two wheels,” that kind of thing. They’ll also describe my clothing, and my hair. They don’t do that to men. With men it’s all about how they sit, how they lean forward to make a point.

I always drive myself. Analyse that how you will. It’s simple, really. The chain of years I was driven by my father, then boyfriends, then by my husband, to places I didn’t want to go. Or driven quickly past places where I wanted to stop.

My father was an A to B man. Often, I was tempted to shout at him, or wet my pants, or pinch my elder sister till she screamed, anything to make him stop. I never did it, though. My sister had tested those waters once and been left on the side of the road for half an hour. When we picked her up again she was shaking. What did you see? I kept asking her, but she would never answer. Even then, I knew the mountain must be haunted.

As I moved into my teens, we heard horror stories of the mountain; was it haunted by all those who committed suicide from its scenic outlook? We went to test our courage, to make out, to drink, to throw bottles over the side. The time I finally saw the ghosts I’d heard about most of my life, I sat in the back with a handsome boy called Pat, his fingers working their way up my thigh. He kept up a steady patter of flirtatious nonsense with Dave, my boyfriend, who was driving. In the passenger seat was Sue, Pat’s girlfriend, who suffered from carsickness and saw some power in the front seat. That was why I was letting Pat play with me in the back. If they could fool around, why couldn’t we?

We ate the chocolate chip cookies I’d baked and drank warm beer.

It was very dark, no streetlights, just the ineffectual flash of reflectors and the broad drag of our headlights. I kept catching glimpses of things moving outside, tall, white, but they were probably gum trees.

Then someone ran out in front of the car, arms waving. Hair flapping.

“Fuck,” said Dave, braking sharply. He was a good driver, observant and quite careful. I would have married him for that, if he’d asked.

He stopped just short of the woman. She was naked.

“Fuck,” Dave said. Softly this time. She ran into the car, mouth open, screaming. Ran into the bonnet. We all instinctively recoiled. She seemed to grow bigger, whiter . . . then she disappeared. She didn’t run away or fall into a hole, though that’s what people told us must have happened. She just . . . vanished.

“Where’s she gone?” Sue asked. I caught movement, coming from the same trees the woman-thing had emerged from.

“Someone else’s coming,” I said. Pat leaned forward and tapped Dave on the shoulder.

“Let’s head off, mate,” he said calmly, and for that I would have married him if he’d asked. He didn’t marry Sue, either; none of us saw much of each other after that night.

Dave took off. I watched out the back window. A hairless, naked man stood in the middle of the road. Smiling. He shook his head, waved his index finger at us, tut tut. Pat lifted my hand to his lips and kissed my palm. Dave caught him and we screamed at each other all the way home. The break up didn’t hurt at all.

Progression. One step leads to the next. If I hadn’t broken up with Dave, I wouldn’t have gone out to the pub with friends, and Milo wouldn’t have been there as a friend of a friend, and we’d never have met.

I’d never have married him.

• • • •

As a young mother, I thought I could make our holidays better than my childhood ones had been. We holidayed and weekended down the coast often. It was a more pleasant break for me than for the children; they always said going for walks with their father was worse than school.

It was a feat of endurance. Milo would insist on all bags packed and ready the night before, with no additions apart from toiletries. One time, my daughter Judy, just six, wore her favourite pajamas (orange with dogs and bones) to bed, thinking she could take them with her.

“The bags are packed,” my husband said. He never shouted. He spoke with a clenched teeth smile. Judy cried for an hour, Milo getting angrier and angrier.

“Shut her up,” he said at last. It was a beautiful dawn, the sun rising to our left as we reached the mountain. I imagined that desperate, naked girl, running in front of us. I wondered what Milo would do, if he’d act, or if he’d drive on, as so many did.

Milo considered the day wasted if we hadn’t made a dent by daylight. It meant toast while dressing the kids, no cuppa. Children too sleepy to eat, so cold toast saved for later. I always baked muffins and cereal bars, but this time, we were all so stressed I left them behind on the kitchen bench. It was on this long, hungry trip I first came up with the idea of a motorbike food service, travelling the roads, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, simple and wholesome.

I addressed my idea to my children, mostly to pass the long road time and to distract Judy from thinking about her pajamas.

“What would you think about a mobile food motorbike, cruising around the roads, full of yummy food to buy?”

“Cool!” said Judy. “I’m hungry now.”

“You could have chips and chocolate,” said Donny. “You could call it ‘Mum’s Mobile Meals.’”

“And you could make your meatballs and those yummy little tarts and that roll-up thing,” said Judy. I laughed.

“And you can help, painting the bike so people will notice it,” I said.

Milo had been clearing his throat, waiting for the right comment to come as he negotiated the sharp mountain curves.

“And who’ll drive? You can barely face driving a car, let alone a motorbike.” He glanced at me, then patted my hand. “I don’t want to share your cooking with anyone.” As we reached the top of the mountain and began the descent, he held his hand to my chin, caressing it, but effectively keeping my jaw closed.

Somehow, I married a bully. I don’t know how it happened. Some evenings, as I’m crumbing cutlets because he won’t eat anything fancier, as I’m mixing a pudding same as I always do, as I’m steaming the broccoli for the ten minutes he insists on, I wonder; what if he doesn’t come home from work? How long would I wait before reporting him missing? And I think about my tears, and the great mystery, and about the meals I would create.

Traffic slowed to a crawl; an accident blocking the road that could take hours to clear. When we finally approached the site, we saw an overturned truck, its load emptied.

“It’s dog food,” said my son. He was nine; he loved to be first with information. People were scrabbling over the road, scooping up armfuls and driving away.

“Grab a couple of cans,” said my husband.

“We can’t steal dog food,” I said. “We haven’t even got a dog.”

“It’s all over the road!” said Milo, as if that was an excuse. “Go on,” he said to Donny.

Donny came back with an armful. “Shove over,” he said to his sister. He and Milo laughed as we drove away. My son showed signs of joining the chain of bullying behaviour, while my daughter retreated further and further into herself.

I didn’t see any ghosts.

That trip sparked the beginning of my true desire to cook for a living, though of course I could do nothing for many years, apart from buy every new cookbook that launched. I sometimes think of that as I prepare for another recording of my TV show. Especially when we have a celebrity in to cook, someone Milo used to sneer at me for admiring.

“You think these people are better than us?” he’d say. Than him, he meant. He was certain there were plenty of people better than me. Donny took on his tone of voice sometimes, if he didn’t like what I’d cooked for dinner, or I cut my hair. He’d been such a sweet little boy, gentle, generous to his sister, making us laugh. On our long holidays, he would keep us all responsive, making his sister sing (she still has a beautiful voice) until Milo shouted at them to shut up.

I read later that the truck driver’s entire load was stolen that night. By people like us, citizens. Each taking just a few, feeling justified because we weren’t stealing the lot. I thought then that the mountain was aptly named Temptation and I said so at a barbeque party soon afterwards. Names are so important. Talking to our friends, and reading the paper, it seemed that people couldn’t resist temptation on the mountain.

One couple confessed to pulling over and, as they put it, going carnal. Another man confessed he parked there to take drugs; his partner nodded, “He doesn’t do it anywhere else.” And there are always pockets of teenagers, some who hike there, some who drive, drinking and giving in to the usual teenage temptations. One woman said, “But has anyone seen ghosts there? I swear I did, once. It was a young boy, a kid, sitting by the side of the road. I pulled over to see what was wrong. He didn’t move when I stopped. I got out of the car, but by the time I walked around to him, he was gone.”

I shivered. Milo snorted. Others laughed. “He just disappeared into thin air?” someone asked. The woman nodded. I was tempted to tell my own ghost story; I had stopped talking about it, tired of the disbelief and the pity on people’s faces when they heard it.

I said nothing.

• • • •

It was about this time that a hiking club found a human leg bone on the side of the mountain. Searching revealed many more. The killer was never caught; I knew that was because no one ever stopped to help the victims, and the killer himself had died on that mountain. He was one of the ghosts. The police never thought that some of the remains could belong to the killer. Perhaps he slipped and went over the edge while slitting someone’s throat. Perhaps he felt fulfilled, complete, when he’d murdered enough young people, so killed himself.

After much agonising I made a call to the police.

“Do you think perhaps the killer was one of the suicides? You may not have known who he was.”

“It’s very rare for a suicide to remain unidentified,” the policeman told me. “They usually want people to know who they were.”

“But he could have been identified without knowing he was the killer. He wouldn’t have had it printed on his forehead.”

Anonymity made me rude.

“Thank you, Miss. We’ll look into it,” he said. I could hear the clenched teeth smile in his voice. I considered calling the newspapers but decided I’d done enough.

• • • •

I dabbled with plans for my mobile café. I investigated prices, and came up with a fantasy menu. Judy knew what I was doing; she’d rip recipes out of magazines, tell me the truth if she didn’t like something. Milo slapped her once, just her hand, but enough to make her run to her room. “She can’t deride you,” he said, although of course she hadn’t been. Then he and Donny ignored me to talk sport.

Judy read more and more romance stories. Donny played rugby very well, encouraged at the sidelines by his father, who criticized weak behaviour. I rarely drove, because Milo didn’t like me to, and somehow in the passage of time my self-esteem seeped away. I was no longer sure if I could drive, or cook, or hold a job.

Sometimes, though, when he was at work and the children at school, I drove up Temptation Tor. I parked. Sometimes I wrote poetry. Dark, nasty, shocking stuff. Sometimes I worked on cookbooks, food I knew people would want to eat.

I thought about my responsibilities to my children, my obligations to provide them with the best, most ethical life. I thought about chains of behaviour, and the courage needed to break them.

• • • •

It seems so simple when I write it down. Such a clear progression of events, one thing leading to the next like a well-written recipe.

My husband and I went away for our anniversary, planning on driving over Temptation Tor to the coast. My sister took the kids; they’d spend the weekend eating junk food and doing creative things I could never think of.

Donny said, “I don’t want to stay there. She’s an idiot.” Milo laughed and said, “Kid’s got a point.” I looked at them both missing everything that was wonderful about my sister and it brought tears to my eyes. I wondered if I’d ever have the ingredients to leave; courage, money, support. I didn’t think so.

Milo let me drive because he’d had too many beers the night before and wanted to sleep. It didn’t mean he kept quiet; he instructed me on speed, on when to turn the wheel, until he dozed. I was happy he was quiet as I drove up the mountain; it took concentration.

I felt momentarily at peace.

Then I saw her. White, naked, arms waving, mouth open, screaming. “Help me!”

Help.

I stopped the car, but it was too late.

She vanished.

I didn’t want to see her killer again. I started the car, my fingers as malleable as frozen sausages. I took off, kangaroo-hopping in my panic. He was there, coming towards me, that knowing smile. “You’ll do nothing. You won’t do a thing.” Tut tut. He jogged along beside me, smiling, waving his arms.

I beeped my horn in desperation and he shrugged, faded. I looked in my rear view mirror and he was gone.

For one terrible moment I thought, Is he real, in danger, and I left him to die? I always wondered at the woman who rescued that English traveller, who was escaping the Backpacker Killer. What made her pick him up, assume he was in danger rather than dangerous? And her with children in the back?

I was glad I hadn’t needed to make the choice.

With the stop-starts, Milo woke up. “Jesus, let me drive,” he said, wanting control back.

As we reached the peak of Temptation Tor, I felt a headache beginning.

“I need some air,” I said.

“Open the window.”

“I need to walk around.”

He drove for a while longer then sighed and pulled over.

“Five minutes,” he said. He walked to the edge, cutting himself off from my pain, not wanting to know.

From the corner of my eye I saw movement, and it was her again. Pale yet clear, she stood by Milo and mimed; Push.

She looked at me.

PUSH.

And that’s when Temptation took me.

I pushed him.

As an afterthought, I threw my hat down. I told people he’d been bravely trying to retrieve it.

• • • •

One famous children’s author often has, “Once a struggling single mother,” after her name. An American actor has, “Still recovering from the death of his Australian wife, Cassandra.” And in one magazine I saw, “. . . who once escorted Joan Collins to a nightclub.”

After my name, which, invariably, is preceded by “Successful middle-aged TV chef,” I often find, “. . . who lost her husband in a tragic accident.” I didn’t lose him at all: he’s exactly where he belongs. In Parkwood Cemetery.

• • • •

That was ten years ago. My daughter performs children’s concerts; she’s interviewed on TV and mobbed for autographs. She’s married to an accountant.

My son married early. He’s still a bully, but he married a woman who laughs at him for it. He’s happy with her. He loves his two sons.

My mobile café was a great success, hardest of work, a clear path to where I am now. Morning spot on TV, my own cookbooks, feeding the people.

I ride Temptation Tor often. It’s not that I’m fearless; it’s just a good through-way, and I don’t want to spend an extra two hours travelling in order to avoid a place which had scared me years earlier. I sometimes see shifting amongst the trees, the hint of humanity. I never saw the murdered woman again.

There is a strong pull. I can be myself there.

Real.

Sometimes you need to change the recipe. Toss out one of the ingredients. I knew that other women lived with good men. I knew my son could be a good man, that my daughter, if she chose, could live with a good man.

And I knew, in that one moment of temptation on the mountain, that there was one sure step to break that chain and I took it. I saved all three of us.

“We’re ready,” the director said, and I pulled back my shoulders and began to cook.

Kaaron Warren

Bram Stoker Award Nominee, twice-World Fantasy Award Nominee and Shirley Jackson Award winner Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest novel is The Grief Hole (IFWG Publishing Australia, coming out in August) and her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren.

You can find her at http://kaaronwarren.wordpress.com/ and she Tweets @KaaronWarren.