By Tim Borella
People call me a mad old bastard.
They’re right on two counts. I’m pretty sure Ma never walked down any aisle, and I’m old all right. Oh yes. Not crazy, though. It’s just, when you’ve seen what I have — well.
Sitting here on the rotten planks I call my verandah, I see where they dug those big holes looking for me and Flea McAllister, just paddock, scrub and weeds now leading up to the gap where we found the Nothing, a hundred and twenty-seven years ago today.
I do what I can not to let them, but sooner or later those thoughts always creep in and there’s no bottle big enough to force them out again.
This house was new at the time, but even then crooked and cracked, with a dirt floor thumped hard by the butt end of a crow bar. All that’s left from those days is the bricks I resurrected into something like the old chimney. Then I built the rest of it up the best I could, rough logs and fencing wire, and now here it is rotting away a second time and doing a good job of it too. Like me.
Anyway, that day, the day, I said I was going to school and went bush instead, like I did about three days out of five. Mum knew but couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t control me, but was too soft to tell the old man because of the flogging I’d get.
So me, Spud and Robbie McAllister met up in our bushranger hideout, just a clearing in the scrubby, clumpy bushes growing like pimples on the dry hills. Robbie’s little nuisance brother Flea was there too.
“What’d you bring him for?” demanded Spud.
Robbie kicked the muddy brown curve of an old, almost-buried bottle and glowered at Flea.
“Cos he’d dob otherwise.”
Spud couldn’t believe it.
“Why didn’t you just thump him?”
But we all knew Robbie was a bit soft too.
We explored all the places we’d been to a hundred times before, sticks at the ready to whack any rabbit stupid enough to let us get close.
Spud saw the thing first.
I was a few steps behind and almost ran into his back when he stopped like he’d been hit.
“What’re ya …”
Then I saw it too, though seeing’s not the right word. It was more like a shadow — you know it’s there because something’s missing. Where part of the world, the track, bushes and spiky grass, should have been, there was a shimmery grey Nothing instead.
Robbie and Flea were calling but we just stared dumbfounded. Soon they caught up to us and we all stood around gawking.
A soft, penetrating buzz came from it, like blowflies in a meat safe. We walked around it cautiously. From the back, it just wasn’t there. You couldn’t see or hear it, and you could walk along the track from the other side happy as Larry, like nothing was wrong.
Once we’d got over our initial shock, we started going round behind it and doing just that while the others watched us appear out of clean air. It was like someone walking through a waterfall, but without the blurry view of them beforehand — a foot and a hand would come through and then the rest of the person would follow. Spud, always the joker, went round, dropped his pants and stuck just his pimply bum through. We laughed until our ribs hurt.
Chucking sticks and rocks through was just as funny. We took turns standing round the back looking through while the others threw things as hard as they could into the grey side. You’d see a big stick coming right at you and duck, but instead of reaching you, it’d just – vanish.
Spud got a stick and poked it through very slowly. I was round the back watching, and when the tip of the stick went in, it disappeared too and you could see right inside like it was chopped off. When he pulled it back out, it was as good as new.
Then Robbie found some string in his pocket, so we caught a lizard and tied it up. It didn’t want to go into the unnatural grey thing — who could blame it — but we poked it with a stick until it did, with that little darting movement they do, pushing its head and front legs through the Nothing and then jerking back. Only it didn’t come back, or not all of it. Its front half was just gone, while the rest of it thrashed around in the dirt with blood squirting out. The string, like Spud’s stick, was fine.
After that, we started catching all the lizards we could find and testing them out too, building up a gory little heap of half-lizards writhing around in the dust.
Spud tied one up and threw it right into the Nothing. I thought it’d explode or something, but no – the string just dropped to the ground.
Then it twitched and started to move by itself. We gaped at one another and Spud jerked the string back quickly. The lizard came flying back out and hit him fair in the face.
“Aaah!” he shouted, probably expecting to be covered in lizard guts, but it just bounced off him and dangled on the end of the string with its wide little eyes darting around, apparently none the worse off.
That kicked off a whole new series of experiments, with that lizard and more of his scaly mates flying in and out of the Nothing unharmed — until we got sick of that and fed them half-in again. If they went through in one smooth go, they’d be right, but any stopping and starting, blood and guts.
Sometimes, if you waited a bit once they’d gone in, only the string would come back, knot intact, but no lizard.
After a while we’d done all we could think of with the thing and were standing around looking at each other, out of ideas but not ready to leave yet. Spud grabbed Flea and pushed him towards the Nothing to make him cry. Robbie let it go until he had a guilt attack and tried to do something big brotherly about it.
What happened next was quick, but I remember it vividly. Spud shoved Flea towards the Nothing with Robbie half-heartedly grabbing his brother’s sleeve to pull him back. Flea tripped and fell, half his arm in already, and stupidly, Robbie pulled harder on the loose sleeve. I could see what was about to happen, and I curse myself forever for doing what I did next.
“No!” I shouted, jumping forward and bumping Robbie aside as I tackled Flea, tumbling both of us through together and saving his life. For a full ten minutes.
We untangled ourselves. I thought we’d died.
The sky was the wrong colour, blue still, but dark, different. We were on some rocky hilltop, and it was sticky hot.
All around us were hills covered in trees, greener than I thought trees could ever be. To the left were high mountains, and to the right, what could have been an ocean in the hazy distance. There was a wind blowing, carrying an unearthly stink. Pathetic little lizard heads were strewn around our feet like we were gods of death.
Flea whimpered. He wasn’t much more than a baby, really, and I wasn’t feeling so brave either.
“We have to go back,” I whispered, as much to myself as him.
Turning around, I expected to see the grey shape of the Nothing waiting for us. Instead, there were just rocks.
My legs went weak and I slumped down on my arse, watching Flea wander around aimlessly going “Wha … wh … wha …”
I got up again and looked around. It had to be there, didn’t it? I explored a little way down the slope, where a gap in the rocks looked as if it might lead somewhere.
“Stay there, Flea,” I ordered, pointlessly — he was now sitting down, all hunched up and howling. I stumbled off towards the gap.
Then there came a noise that, if it could be recorded by priests and played in public as the scream of the Devil, would scare the churches full. I fell on my face, cowering with no thought but to save my own scrawny hide. Flea’s shrill child’s voice was cut off mid-yell, and that was even worse than the monstrous sound.
When I dared look up, it was at the receding back of a great beast, very much like those pictures you see of flying dinosaurs, with the poor limp body of my friend’s brother in its wicked beak. In that moment, I felt only sweet relief that it was him and not me.
I cowered, knowing the beast, or another one like it, would come for me at any moment.
But none did. Eventually, I came out from my hiding place and stumbled back up to where Flea had been taken. The enormity of what had happened fell upon me, and I cried long and hard.
Perhaps it should have been obvious, but in my shock the answer took a long time to come to me. Wiping my eyes and cursing myself for a fool, I went to the pile of disembodied lizard heads and walked uphill in what I judged to be the direction we must have come from. After five steps, I heard the buzz and turned to see the Nothing, which must have been there all the time, invisible and inaudible to us from the other side. I stepped through.
With that, I was back where I’d started, but no-one was there, not Spud nor Robbie nor even a dead lizard.
But was it the same place? The trees were different, some bigger, some dead, some not there at all. I turned and ran all the way down the hill to our house, past caring that my father would kill me, but there was no house. Instead, there was a ruin, rotten and collapsed, with just the crooked chimney to mark it as having been ours.
I suspect I did go partway mad then, lying in the ruins not caring if it was day or night, or if I lived or died. Eventually, thirst and hunger drove me to my feet and down the road to the township.
But the township, too, was gone, and in its place a town, with things I now recognise but then had not the slightest idea about, like spluttering buggies pushing themselves down the street and lanterns in the shops giving light without flame. There was food and drink, though, and I stole what I could and hid, unable to think or feel.
I found a newspaper, and the date was enough to convince me I really was mad — July 19th, 1946. Apparently there’d been a war. We had found the Nothing in March — March 1890.
The coppers caught me after a few days, and I spilled my guts to them and anyone else who would listen. Nobody believed a word, and who could blame them?
Though I told them my name and my parent’s names, and anything else I could think of to reclaim my identity, I was designated an orphan and sent to a home for delinquent boys. Perhaps they thought they were doing some good there, but for us poor wretches it was dog eat dog and no sparing of the cane. I’d never been a particularly good lad, and would perhaps have turned to crime in any case, but it was practically a foregone conclusion after that.
Once I came of age and was shown the gate, I drifted from one labouring job to another, blind drunk whenever I could get my hands on enough grog and constantly on the wrong side of the law, in and out of jail as if on a roundabout. It was as if there was simply no possibility of going straight, with my whole life a lie.
I’m not stupid, though. I taught myself to read properly in prison, and fancy sometimes I could’ve made something of myself if things had gone differently. My verandah would be a shiny, polished one on a big house in the city, and I’d drink expensive old wine out of dusty bottles instead of this gut-rotting paint stripper. But I know better than most how little our plans and schemes matter in the face of blind chance.
I went to the library pretending to be interested in local history and dug out all the old stuff I could find from around the time Flea and I went missing. There wasn’t much, just some blurry newspaper articles in old-fashioned language (my language!) about how two kids had disappeared, suspected murdered, and how police were searching and getting people to ‘help with their enquiries’.
From what I’d heard of the coppers around our way, it was a wonder they didn’t have someone charged, convicted and hung for doing us in, but as far as I can tell the whole thing just went quiet after a while. Died a natural death, you might say.
There was one article pointing the finger at various people, including Spud, Robbie and my old man, but I suppose even in those days they needed at least some evidence. As I can faithfully attest, my bones are certainly not lying in some shallow grave, and wherever Flea’s may be, they are far beyond the reach of any policeman.
It surprises me that there was no mention of what my mates had to say about what really happened. These days magazines are full of stories about alien abductions or evil cults, but this is now and that was then. Probably, like me, they told the truth and nobody believed them.
Between spells in Her Majesty’s hotel and alcoholic aimlessness, I got it into my head to try and track those boys down. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found them, but once the desire came it wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I drank, so I traipsed around knocking on grimy old doors and chasing leads that disappeared faster than spilt water on the sunburnt clay around our old shack.
After a while I found that Robbie never moved far from home, but he’d been dead a long time, dropping off the twig at the ripe old age of forty-three. I looked for his grave, but if there’d ever been some monument to him, I couldn’t find it.
Spud was harder to pin down. As with Robbie, there was the matter of the extra time he’d lived compared to me, but he’d moved around a lot too. You can disappear pretty easily in a couple of years, and it had been many since we were last face to face. I eventually found him though, a dribbling old shuffler in a depressing nursing home for people with nowhere else to go. He would have been eighty-six. I was thirty.
I’d chased him with a gnawing hunger, but I hesitated, thinking the shock might kill him. Still, I had to do it.
I went over to where he was seated, stuck my face in front of his and looked him in the eyes. It was him, I had no doubt, even after all that time.
“G’day, Spud,” I said softly.
It was enough. He looked at me, really looked, and knew me, no question. A ripple ran through him like a dog shaking off water and he hunched down in his chair, scrunching his eyes up tight. I’d found what I needed to know, so I left him there and never went back. I don’t know what his mental state was when I saw him, but it’s a fair bet I didn’t do him any favours in that regard by turning up.
But that’s all behind me now. I grew old and tired too, and drifted back here to the old place. Nobody wants it and I suppose technically I own it, although lawyers might say different. Slowly, I built it up again out of other people’s junk, just another faceless pensioner living like a ghost amongst the ruins of my past.
Except my past isn’t like anyone else’s.
It’s stupid, I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself and I go stumbling back up into the hills looking for that Nothing, as if I’m going to make it pay for what it’s done. Each time I come back without finding it, and I don’t know whether to be disappointed or thankful.
The moon’s full tonight. Close your eyes — can you hear that blowfly buzz calling?
About the Author
Tim Borella is an Australian author, mainly of short speculative fiction published in anthologies, online and in podcasts. He’s also a songwriter, and has been fortunate enough to have spent most of his working life doing something else he loves, flying. Tim lives with his wife Georgie in beautiful Far North Queensland in an area recognised as the traditional lands of the Ngadjon-jii people. For more information, visit his Tim Borella — Author Facebook page.