Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

No Other Men in Mitchell

If I’m gonna tell this story, I’m gonna have to start with the men.

In Queensland—right in the middle of it, bum-fuck-nowhere is the word—there’s a town called Mitchell. It has two pubs and a mechanic who services the road trains that pass through, and its only claim to fame is birthing Australia’s shortest-serving Prime Minister ever.

I got to know Mitchell’s mechanic while I was driving road trains over the Warrego Highway between South Australia and Queensland. If you don’t know what road trains are, just imagine a B-double truck and whack an extra trailer or two on the end. There are only a couple of roads in Australia you can legally drive them, far away from the cities. They call these roads highways but they’re really just long, narrow strips of cracking tar surrounded by red dust that stretches into forever. Once you get up to a hundred clicks an hour it takes half a kilometre to stop a truck that weighs over a hundred tons, especially if your bastard of a supervisor overweights you. If you apply the brakes too hard, you jackknife the trailers and you’re fucked. If there’s a cow on the road, it’s fucked. If you fall asleep, you’re fucked.

I hit a cow once. The sun is so dry along the Birdsville Track it almost splits open your skin like drought-struck earth, but I had my arm hanging out the window anyway. The truck sailed over a crest and the black and white lump was right there in front of me, probably lowing but I can’t remember. I twisted the wheel to the left in reflex, which is a dangerous thing to do at the best of times, and the cow hit the side of the cab and burst open like a watermelon. Red innards and grey brains came sailing in through the window and plastered the inside of the cab. I never thought of myself as a redneck before then, but I sure was after that. I had red all over me. Ever driven for ten hours with brains stuck in your hair?

But I was talking about the mechanic. Barry. About a month after I quit driving trucks, Barry left his wife. I think I inspired him to leave. When I told Barry I was quitting, he had all these questions. What are you gonna do? Why are you leaving? As if he couldn’t imagine anything better than living in Mitchell. But Barry couldn’t find another woman to take him in. No surprise, ’cause he was an ugly son of a bitch with a nose like a cauliflower. He came back to Mitchell after three or four months and his wife took him back. There were no other single men in Mitchell, so it was either him or spending all her nights alone. A month later she slipped rat poison into his Four X and killed him, so maybe those nights alone were better after all.

So there was him. Then there was Cam, who I’d worked with on the Beverley uranium mine a couple years before. Cam had a shaved head except for one long, winding rat’s tail that hung halfway down his back. He came into my dorm room without warning one night and caught me with a Primo Levi book in my hand. My instinct was to hide it, but we got talking and eventually he asked to borrow The Wrench and never gave it back.

Good book, was all he said.

Cam hung himself with his jeans from a tree branch one morning before work. I imagine him swinging softly in the breeze, neck crooked, eyes staring. His brother did it too, six months later on Cam’s birthday. From a tree and everything. I don’t think he used his jeans, though. I think he used a rope.

Then there was Cam’s best friend, Thommo. He had no teeth from taking too much speed. Great bloke. He got me the job driving road trains, sat in as my driving instructor, laughing hysterically as I bunny-hopped the trailers down the road. Bloody near killed us both.

You’ve passed, mate, he said, and ticked all the boxes on the clipboard, still laughing and blowing smoke. Buy me a pack of Winnies.

Thommo fell in with some bikers, major ice producers. In central Australia there are these huge drug farms that the cops only find by sending out helicopters to scan the ground for plants and sheds. The blokes who run the places never get done for it, ’cause the police only ever charge the employees. The drug farm is still going, but Thommo dropped off the face of the earth. Just disappeared.

As for me, I quit driving road trains after I fell asleep on the road for the second time and the truck flipped sideways into a ditch and scared me shitless. I went back to my hometown in the Southeast. Mum cooked me roast beef that was dry and tough and talked about the mines in Western Australia, and how I could make a killing up there being a rigger. She had a mate could get me work.

Hundred and twenty grand a year, she said. Put some aside for your old mum.

I pictured myself up in the crow’s nest, climbing ropes with a dodgy harness and shouting orders to the fat blokes below, and I just got tired.

I’ll think about it, I told her. Just need some time off.

She shrugged, but I could tell she was annoyed. Me mate will have to fill the job soon, she said. Can’t take too long to think about it.

I sat on her couch for six months, and that’s when I heard about Barry. Bloody sad, that he went like that. When I came down with a fever, I thought maybe it was just the sadness, getting into my head and making me shivery. But it turned out to be meningitis. Or meningococcal. They never quite figured it out, and I couldn’t understand half of what the doctors said, probably because they never spoke to me. They spoke over me, to each other or to my mum. They thought I was a vegetable.

• • • •

I’m telling this all out of order, I know that. My brain’s still not quite right. I can’t get time to go in a straight line, as if it ever did anyway. I spend so much time alone with my thoughts now that I start thinking about things like time and whether it exists or not. And how I’ve lost so much of it, if it exists.

• • • •

I came to slowly over a few months, like a baby being born and coming into consciousness, in a pink-painted room, hooked up to a bunch of machines, with a real sore throat. From the conversations the nurses have over me I gather I’ve been shifted a few times, from emergency to some other unit. I don’t remember. Time has gone from me, like a flash in the corner of your eye that disappears when you turn your head to look at it. Not that I can turn my head anymore.

I’ve been in the pink room for two years.

Mount Gambier General is not the tidiest of hospitals, not exactly space age; and even though I’d spit on anyone who ragged on my mum, I can’t say she’s a charmer. She screeches at the doctors and nurses sometimes, tells them they’re useless dipshits. They hurry out, red and angry, and the nurses deliberately turn me less often than they should. They never test me for signs of consciousness, and they don’t bother to be gentle when they give me injections because they think I can’t feel pain. I don’t blame them for taking it out on me. Most people never get the chance to take their anger out on the right person. And everyone thinks I’m a hopeless case, a waste of a hospital bed. I hear the doctors discussing the mystery illness and whether it precludes me from being an organ donor when I finally drop off the perch. They discuss my death as a desirable, if not imminent, event.

When one of the doctors broached the organ donor thing with mum, she flipped her lid.

You wanna harvest my son like a fucking tomato plant? She said. No way. He might wake up.

The doctor tapped his chart and made a honking noise with his nose that sounded like fat bloody chance. Like I said, they’re not too stringent at Mount Gambier General. Pretty sure there are rock lizards that care more about the patients than some of the doctors do.

Yesterday mum helped a nurse turn me over, and as they lay me back down on the bed I thought I heard her sniffing away tears. She touched my face, once, brushed my hair back with warm fingers, but took her hands away too quickly and their absence left me with the fiercest longing I’ve ever known.

I wish people would touch me more often.

My mother sits by my bedside, touching the sheets, the monitor, everything except my hand, and tells me she’s going to lose the house because I’m not paying her mortgage anymore. Funny how she still complains, even though she thinks I can’t hear her. But it’s never once occurred to her to ask the fucking question: Dylan, can you hear me? Blink twice if you can hear me.

• • • •

At night I hear breathing in the bed next to mine. I can’t turn my head to look, but I know it’s a woman because I heard mum talking to the nurse about her. Sometimes there’s a whimpering when she exhales, like she’s having a bad dream, but she can’t speak and neither can I. Here’s what I can do, though: I can open my eyes. Blink, focus. That is all. A good day is when a spider runs across the ceiling: something to look at. A bad day is when a spider runs across my face.

It’s taken them this long to find me. Barry and Cam and Thommo. They turn up just as I’m slipping into sleep.

• • • •

There are a few things I’ve left out of this story. Sorry about that. Maybe you’ve been wondering, why did he begin by telling us all about his dead mates, only to rattle on all fucking day about becoming a vegetable and never once mention them? Like I said, I’m all out of order. Pretty soon you’ll see what I’ve done: lured you in by giving you the sob story about my mates and my full body paralysis so you’ll think I’m a pretty decent, if unfortunate, bloke. So now when I hit you with the crazy stuff, you’ll think, this poor bastard wouldn’t lie to me.

Remember earlier, when I said something like, that’s when I heard about Barry? Well I never heard about him. I found out he was dead because he appeared on my mum’s couch next to me, eyeing my beer. One moment I was alone in mum’s house, wanking off to the memory of one of the cleaners in Beverley and trying not to spill my Four X, the next there’s Barry lounging like a fat red troll on mum’s floral three-seater. Fucking dropped my beer. Barry looked kinda pleased, and opened his mouth into a red, wet tunnel to laugh, only no sound came out.

It freaked me out a little, but I knew what had happened. It was worse the first time, when Cam went. He materialised in the cab of my truck next to me while I was barrelling down a long, lonely gibber plain that looked like Mars. He grinned at me and twirled his rat’s tail. I veered off the road in fright, screaming and trying not to lose control of the truck but still snapping my head sideways, back and sideways again to see if Cam was still there. When I’d ground the gears to hell getting out of the scrub and back on the road, he was still there.

He rode with me all the way to Mitchell, just staring and grinning and not talking. Spooks can’t speak, in my experience, or at least we can’t hear them. My eyes leaked and my bladder too and by the time the town was in sight and Cam was going blurry at the edges I was a sobbing wreck. But I couldn’t pull over, see? ’Cause I was on deadline.

I rang around that night, trying to get hold of him to see what the hell was going on. Eventually his brother called me back and told me how Cam had hung himself, and I cried like a baby.

I was eating a hotdog at a petrol station when Thommo went. Appeared opposite me in the stinking booth, grinning and pressing his tongue into his gums where the teeth were missing. I stopped halfway through taking a bite and leaned back into the split red vinyl. For a second I thought that it was the real Thommo, that he’d quit working for the bikies and had just strolled into the petrol station while I was staring at my hotdog, but he kept on grinning and not saying anything and I remembered Cam.

You better not be dead, mate, I told him.

We sat there for a while, then he followed me into my truck and rode with me for a while before he faded.

And I cried like a fucking baby again.

• • • •

Their voices are tinny and far away but I can hear them now, maybe because I’m somewhere in between living and dying. Barry’s telling Cam and Thommo a story about a guy he knows who stuck a fish up his arse. The fish got stuck because he’d put it in head first and when he tried to pull it out the gills winged out and ripped his arsehole, so he’d ended up going to hospital and within hours the whole town knew what he’d done. I’ve heard the story before, but Barry adds a new detail with every re-telling, and it’s still funny to see him mime the gills, his hands flapping like little wings on either side of his face and his mouth opening and closing in a puckered O like a fish’s.

Thommo jabs a thin elbow into Barry’s ribs. Bet it was you. Bet you stuck the fish up your arse, eh Bazza?

They’re gathered at the end of my bed, leaning on the metal railing like they’re about to order a beer.

Oi, mate, me arsehole’s as pure as fuckin’ Mary, says Barry.

I try to speak, but of course I can’t. They look up at me in unison anyway, as if I’ve made a sound.

You’re awake, says Barry.

Guess what? says Thommo. Barry stuck a fish up his arse.

• • • •

A couple hours later and Cam’s trying to get the lid off the water jug so he can spill it on the floor. Barry goes for the pink wallpaper, taking hold of the top corner between thumb and forefinger, and tears a pathetic flint-sized piece off. Thommo’s trying to push my bed around with a wicked grin on his toothless face, but it’s the old kind of hospital bed and it doesn’t have wheels. It makes a loud scraping sound when he does get it to shift an inch.

They’re lazy bastards, and they’re not really trying. Thommo smacks his lips and calls for a beer break, but they’re spooks, they can’t drink, so instead they just pile onto my bed and stare at me.

It’s a little bit off. The spooks look like they did when they were alive, and talk like it, but they’re childish. They forget things, like what they said five minutes ago.

Why are we here again? Cam asks in his soft, sleepy voice.

But they keep coming back over the next few days, as if they know they’ve got a job to do but they’re not really sure what it is.

You’re supposed to save me. I think it as loud as I can, but they don’t understand.

Save you from what? Cam asks.

Dying.

Mate, you’re not dying. You could live for years, says Barry.

Like this? My mind’s still here, but no one knows.

We know, they chorus.

I look at Cam desperately, and he nods. He understands what I mean.

Don’t worry, mate, we’ll do something about it.

But then he forgets, wanders off thinking he’s gotta take a piss, as if his cock will still work in the afterlife.

But I’m not in the afterlife. I’m still here.

• • • •

Why am I so attached to my piddling little life? I dunno. It’s all I’ve got. I love the feel of air going into my lungs, the light on my eyelids before I open them in the morning. I even love the itchy feeling of flies’ feet crawling over my cheek, if only because the strain of not being able to scratch it spikes my blood pressure. Not enough for anyone to notice, but enough for me to know that my body still knows me and wants me to live.

I’ve been trying to catalogue my best memories. I can’t write them down; couldn’t lift a pen even if I had one. And I’ve never been much of a words-on-paper man, even though my friends would say I can tell a tale. But there’s something about this dying thing. I don’t know what comes next.

I could tell you all about Cam, the way he’d tug on his rat’s tail when he wanted to say something but someone else was still talking, and how he broke up with his girlfriend by telling her he’d moved to New Zealand, except he forgot to give his housemates the heads up, so when she came calling to return his belt and jacket they told her he would be back from Beverley the next day and she took a shit in his favourite pair of shoes as a parting gift.

I could tell you how when Thommo was talking to the foreman he used to stick his tongue into the empty part of his gums and wiggle the loose front tooth like a pendulum, then cackle at the disgusted look on the guy’s face.

Those bastards like the money I make ’em but they sure as fuck don’t like to look at me, he’d say, and puff his smoke.

And Barry, Barry with his round red face and sweaty forehead and big, stupid grin as he waved a wrench, shouting maaayte! as I pulled into his workshop.

But me, I never was like them. Thommo always ribbed me for doing a year of economics at university—think you’re an educated man, don’t ya? he’d say, and elbow me—but that wasn’t it. I liked the feel of a woman. Not just under the sheets, I mean, but the feel of her in her kitchen, or on her front porch, or just lying on the grass having a smoke, one hand on her cigarette and the other on my knee. I say her kitchen, and her porch, because I never had a home of my own. All I had was a bunch of licenses—for rigging, heavy vehicles, boats—and a pair of work boots, and that was about it. Didn’t even have my own truck, but I never wanted one because it was a shit job and I was glad to give it away. I always thought, one day I’ll meet some woman and move into her place, and we’ll have a bunch of kids and it won’t matter anymore that I’ve built nothing, made nothing, because we’ll have each other and I don’t need anything more than that.

But I never met that woman. The smart ones wouldn’t give me a chance, they’d see my work boots and hear my voice still country-rough and look away before I could impress them with the books I’d read. The dumb ones—well, how can you make a life with them? And I was gone so often, working fly-in-fly-out or truck-in-truck-out from all these places where half the time there weren’t any women, and if there were they were toothless like Thommo or dumb like Barry.

There was one woman, Alicia, who I moved in with in Mount Gambier. She was ambitious, a country lawyer from a sheep-farming family with plans to move to Melbourne and work in a big firm one day. She laughed at my jokes and made me dinner sometimes, but every now and then I’d say something embarrassingly anti-capitalist and she’d just shut down.

So I’m part of the evil system? she’d say, on the defensive. Or, don’t be so negative. The world’s not a bad place.

Our eyes would meet at a loss and then she’d look away and we’d pretend I never said it. We blew up about something stupid, eventually. I missed a family event of hers one too many times and she was gone.

• • • •

Mum comes in with shaking hands one morning and does the unthinkable: lights up a cigarette. The nurses descend upon her faster than they do even when there’s a code red, shouting at her to put it out. She arcs up, her round little body shaking with rage, flyaway greys stuck to the sides of her face with nervous sweat.

It’s just a fucking cigarette. I’m just having a smoke with my boy, she shouts.

The thin young doctor comes in after the nurses, grabs her by the elbow and starts dragging her out.

Go on, get outside, he says.

She shakes him off.

Do I have to call security? he asks. I hate doing that.

• • • •

Barry and I sit in affable silence, watching the wallpaper. The TV’s off for once and I can hear myself think. Just when I think I’ve found my favourite memory of my mother, he breaks into my thoughts.

So you want someone to figure out you’re not a vegetable, right?

Yep. Not that you useless bastards are helping.

He affects a wince and spreads his hands. Mate, he says. You gotta trust me.

After Barry leaves, Cam shows up. He looks at me sadly and switches on the television.

Cam, I was trying to think here, I say.

He shrugs and looks up at the TV. It’s the news. Michael Schumacher’s had a skiing accident and they’re saying he’s brain damaged. His lawyer or someone is talking, saying, we’ve helicoptered him out of the French Alps, he’ll have the best medical care and rehabilitation money can buy to get him functioning again. The newscasters speculate how much the future at-home care will cost. They think it will run into the tens of millions.

I look at Cam and he meets my eyes. What I see there sends a shot of pain like razor wire through my belly. I know what he’s trying to tell me.

• • • •

Where’s Barry?

Watching telly with your mum, Thommo says.

• • • •

I’m alone. The TV’s up too loud but I can’t turn it down. My left leg is aching like a motherfucker because the nurses didn’t turn me properly and my right leg’s slightly over the left and now all the blood’s getting trapped there. The fluorescents are putting white spots in my vision but I don’t want to close my eyes because I’ve got to make the most of my time on earth, even if that just means looking at the ceiling instead of at nothing. I’ll have enough of nothing when I’m dead.

Last night the boys came to visit me one last time. They apologised.

She watched the show, but I don’t know if she put two and two together, Barry said. Sorry mate.

It’s alright, I tell them.

I don’t blame them. They tried their best, but no one knows they are there. I know what that’s like.

Now they’re just waiting for me to join them.

• • • •

In the morning, mum comes into my room with dark circles under her eyes.

I saw a TV program about a boy in South Africa, she says. He woke up after twelve years. They said he was conscious the whole time, had something called locked-in syndrome.

So Barry did his job right for once, I think.

They asked him to blink if he could hear them, she says.

She leans in and breathes ciggie smoke and apples all over me. I’m gonna ask you in a sec, she says. But I’ve got my hand on the plug, see.

The white spots start to pop in my vision again. Blood pressure goes up.

I’m gonna ask you three times, and if you don’t blink then I’m gonna pull the plug. And they’re not gonna know about it until it’s too late, ’cause I’m not letting anyone open you up and gut you, give away your organs, she says. You’re my boy.

There are so many things I want to say to her. I want to give my organs away. I want to help other people live. Imagine how many people could keep living their beautiful, stupid, precious little lives because of me? How many people could lie on the grass with their hand on someone’s thigh, listening to someone else breathe, watch the sunset with my kidney throbbing in their side, my eyes taking in the view, my heart beating in their chest? But I can’t tell her.

This is how it is. I breathe in. I breathe out again.

I think about blinking.

She asks me the question. Dylan, Dill baby, can you hear me? Blink, blink if you can hear me. But blink twice, so I know it’s on purpose.

What if I blink? What will happen then? She’s losing the house, probably already lost it. She doesn’t complain to me about it anymore, as if it’s so awful she can’t bear to talk about it, even to a silent body. She can’t afford to give me the Schumacher treatment while she’s sleeping on a mate’s couch. Where would she send me? Who would pay for the rehabilitation?

Dill, blink twice. Blink twice.

And then, would I ever move again, even if I did get the rehab? Actually I don’t even care if I can’t move: would I ever speak again? All I want now is my voice back. It’s not enough that Cam and Thommo and Barry can hear me. I need real people, real laughter.

Mum’s crying now. Her shoulders are heaving up and down, her breath comes hard and heavy. She’s making an awful noise, a ragged animal noise, and I wish she would stop.

Dylan. Baby. Can you hear me?

Mum, please touch me, I think.

As if she’s heard me, her hand creeps towards the bed, patting blindly. She finds my hand through her sobs and squeezes it. The calloused skin presses loving indentations into my hand. Then she slips the plastic peg of the heart monitor from my finger to hers in one deft movement, so the alarm won’t ring out when my heart stops. Her arm arcs up to rest her hand against my forehead. The warmth of her palm is the last thing I feel.

She pulls the plug.

• • • •

It will take a few minutes for my heart to stop, now that the sucking sound of the respirator has gone quiet. My eyes drift closed and I’m back on the gibber plain. Miles and miles of red rocks that look like Mars, the heat of the sun on my shoulders. I’m sailing over the crests of the narrow highway in the cab of my truck, all alone, nothing but red rocks and dust and blue horizon.

Rose Hartley

Rose Hartley

Rose Hartley lives in Adelaide, Australia and is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2015. A former international aid worker, she is currently editing her first novel with the help of her mentor, Hachette Australia editor Sophie Hamley. Her short fiction has appeared in f(r)iction and Poetic Justice: Contemporary Australian Voices on Equality and Human Rights. Her perfect day would be spent reading Ursula Le Guin, thinking of new places to go in her 1962 caravan and singing along badly to Americana music. You can find her on Twitter as @theRosamond.