I’d been listening to Cream on the radio as they crooned about someone named Ulysses. The album had gone platinum last week. When I killed the engine, it cut off Eric Clapton’s psychedelic guitar.
The stranger leaned against the brickwork of the service station while she smoked an unfiltered cigarette. She waited beneath the cashier’s window, right under his nose, with her feet in canvas shoes that were hoisted up atop her gym bag.
As I passed by to pay she was humming Clapton’s guitar riff, and when I stepped outside again she’d started another cigarette. The smoke from her breath was a blue-grey acid in the cold evening air. Her hair was blonde and beautiful.
“I’ve been hooked on far too much prog-rock recently,” I said as the station’s glass doors met behind me. “I was about to call you Aphrodite.”
She smiled. “You wouldn’t be the first, and this is such an excellent place to say it.” She gestured to the concrete lot and petrol pumps. “The poetry is perfect. I can emerge from this Shell.”
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.
“The only person I need is right here,” she stood and stretched. “Which way are you heading?” Her cigarette hand was raised like Lady Liberty. The service station worker tapped the frosted class with a knuckle, and then waved an index finger at the cigarette. Aphrodite waved a different finger back in reply.
“I’m going home to Gympie,” I said.
“What a coincidence.” She leant down slowly, and collected her gym bag. Its contents clicked and clacked. “I’m going that same direction.”
The air was frigid, but my heater was far too effective. My old Corolla’s engine coughed along the M1 highway as I stomped the clutch and slapped the gear stick back to third. Then I switched the heater off. The car purred again, and the revs flicked back to the gold zone.
The stranger slept peacefully through the rises and dips of the road, curled up with her back to me. Her bag sat in the back. I hadn’t seen another car for half an hour, and the highway was beginning to look unfamiliar. It became thickly forested on either side, which I didn’t recall from my last holiday trip home. I thought about stopping for the night, but I hadn’t seen an exit for ages. Besides, I’d promised to take her as far as Gympie.
The painted lines of the highway had vanished, and now my single-working headlight was the only light winking for kilometres. It was 1am, according to my dashboard’s bright green digital clock. I waited until my teeth began to chatter, and then blasted the heater until the heat was unbearable again. The girl slept on.
Her long, blonde hair fell from her head in perfectly straight sheets, like a veil. She was an athlete perhaps. Her calves and thighs were firm and shapely, and stretched the fabric of her torn jeans. She’d taken off her canvas shoes the second she’d climbed into the passenger seat: kicked them off under the seat before she’d even adjusted her seatbelt.
I smiled despite myself. She seemed cute, and I’d enjoyed our brief conversation before she’d politely retired to sleep. Apparently, she was visiting family, and she hadn’t mentioned anyone special.
As a single guy, there was a small part of me that inevitably began to imagine some sort of future with her. Perhaps I’d invite her to a bar if she was staying in town? She’d probably give me her number. I’d done her the courtesy of driving her all the way to Gympie, so it’d be the least she could do. Maybe she’d wake up and tell me to stop driving for the night. We could take some sleeping bags I keep in the back, and go sleep in the forest under the stars.
I held the steering wheel with my knees and rubbed my hands together for warmth. I flicked the heater from volcanic, back to non-existent. A large beam of light swept across the road.
I grabbed the wheel.
The strange light silhouetted the tree canopy, and then blinded me through my side mirror. Ahead, I could see other white-hot beams of light scouring the road and surrounding land: helicopters, most likely. I nudged the girl awake, and she groaned into existence.
“Bugger,” was all she could manage, rubbing her face. “I was afraid of this.”
I chanced a look at her then, averting my gaze from the road. Her veil of hair had parted as she leaned close to the glass to stare up at the lights in the sky. Her eyes were impossibly large: blue irises glistening, even in the pale illumination of the headlight. She was a vision, plucked straight from a list called: my ideal girl.
“They found us.”
“They’re looking for you?” I asked. The lights were coming closer.
“Afraid not,” she said sadly, and pulled her hair across one shoulder. “They’re looking for you…sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
I applied the brakes, and pulled over.
“Yeah, good idea,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
I turned off the engine, and my working headlight. One of the beams approached from a few kilometers away, glancing along valleys and around hills.
“They’re after me? I doubt it.”
“Well, more specifically, they don’t want you to be with me,” the girl said. “They can’t really touch me yet, but they can try and snatch anyone who’s with me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t follow what is happening here. Is it the police? The army?”
I looked back at the approaching light, but as it drew closer, I began to doubt that it was even a helicopter after all. It was too close to the ground, too stable in the sky. Too certain and dexterous as it moved above the trees.
“I really didn’t want this to happen,” she said, “but it looks like you can see into the spirit world.”
I laughed at that. I couldn’t help it. The light above disappeared for a moment, and then swept along the length of road we had just pulled off. In the rear-view, I saw the beam sweep a hundred metres in a second. The source was nearly above us.
“Well, whether you believe it or not doesn’t particularly bother me,” she said. She reached down and began to pull her shoes on over her worn socks.
She spoke almost in a deadpan. A beam of white illuminated the bonnet of the vehicle. There was something primal in me that flinched from that light and its starkness. It’s the sort of instinct that makes animals freeze on the road: a sudden confrontation of light, which can make innocent men run.
“Well, you’ll believe in spirits pretty soon, regardless,” she said, stifling a yawn.
“Should we run?” I asked, but I already doubted that I could manage it.
“Sure, we could try that.” She reached over to the seat behind her, and grabbed her gym bag. The light somehow grew brighter still, and then flicked away suddenly. A loud screech tore the air. It sounded like steel being twisted.
“That one’s just signaling the others. It’ll wait until they can surround us.”
She nodded towards my window, and I craned my neck around to see.
It was outside.
The creature was much taller than our car. At least ten metres tall. It stood above the tree canopy easily. As it approached, I saw its legs. They fell to the ground like a hundred spools of impossibly red string. The fibres billowed and swayed, as if in a breeze, and the head of the creature was carried along by them. There was no body to speak of, just a single orifice and rows of small beady black eyes that surrounded the maw. It had teeth like a whale: long, comb-like teeth, which bristled out from somewhere deep in its throat.
I’d always thought that in a life-or-death situation, I’d have the guts to act. I was wrong. I felt something warm, and I looked down to see that I’d wet myself. There was no sensation in my feet. Something cold and uncomfortable had been inserted into the back of my neck and the pit of my stomach. I was sweating.
The creature outside finished its roar with a gurgle, and then a large, illuminated proboscis extended out of its mouth, alighting the road once again.
The girl sat with her bag on her lap. She looked pitifully at the puddle in my lap.
“Well, I think I might head into the bush and give this guy the slip.” She undid her seatbelt, and I suddenly found the resolve to grab her slender arm as she kicked the door open.
“Please, take me with you,” I begged.
“Are you sure you want to come with me?”
“Please.” I looked back at the creature. “Don’t leave me here with it. I’ll do anything.”
She grinned. “Well, if you insist. An invitation is all I need.”
She was strong. She leant across, undid my seatbelt, and effortlessly pulled me from my chair, across the handbrake, and out into the frigid air. My arm was held tightly by her long pink nails, which dug in sharply. The creature behind us bellowed loudly again. It was answered by two other howls close by.
We reached the tree line and then we were past it, weaving between trees as I willed my legs to work properly. Something had locked inside my right kneecap, so I couldn’t bend my leg properly. I looked down and saw that it had been bent slightly outward when the girl had dragged me from the vehicle. She led us deeper into the trees, the red strings tumbled along as they gained on us.
“What are those things?” I managed to gasp as I half-ran, half-limped behind her.
“Think of it like this: there are two sides of a coin,” she called back. She deftly dodged underneath a low-hanging tree limb. Its spiked bark caught me in the face and tore the soft skin around my left eye as I failed to duck.
“Slow down,” I moaned, but she kept running.
“Think of it as the forces of order and chaos,” she said, effortlessly changing direction suddenly to avoid a beam that swept past us a few metres on the right. I, however, was whiplashed by the course correction, and my neck jerked suddenly. There was a loud click, and a sharp pain. I couldn’t turn my head.
“There are spirits that protect humans, and those that want to harm them.” Up ahead, I could see a fallen tree in the moonlight. Its roots were splayed out like a forgotten umbrella, and she ran towards it. As we approached the fallen tree, I saw it had a space dug out underneath it. The girl looked around quickly, before ushering me under it with a shove. Her eyes were glistening with excitement in the moonlight.
I fell under the tree, and found a small hovel dug there by nature long ago. Wet loam covered the dirt floor here. It teemed with insects. The girl scurried down behind me and dropped her bag. Something like a xylophone clicked inside.
Despite being pulled along like a ragdoll, I felt a sense of exhilaration. She was on the run from something, so she’d need someone to watch her back. I’d be the guy she could depend on. We would collapse together tonight and sleep, and then hit the road again. It was a life of adventure and hijinx awaiting us: I could taste it.
“We won’t be disturbed down here,” she said, smiling. I admired her while I forced my breathing to slow. Even though she was muscular, there was a delicate grace and strength about her. We’d probably be very happy together.
“Where was I?” she asked. “Oh yes, sometimes the forces of chaos are known to take young people, such as yourself, and consume them.”
I opened my mouth to ask her why, but she simply reached into my mouth and removed some of my bottom teeth with her thumb and the knuckle of her index finger. I looked at her, aghast, as blood began to pool on my tongue and trickle out of my slack jaw. She tossed the teeth into her mouth like popcorn and chewed them. I heard a loud crunch, followed by softer chewing sounds.
“The problem is, of course, that you met me.” She took my left hand and removed my thumb like it wasn’t properly attached. I screamed as she tossed it into her mouth as well.
“What did you do that for?” I gasped, nursing my hand. I ran my tongue along the tender gums where the teeth had been pulled out.
“It’s nothing personal, really. I’ve got to eat you, so my boyfriend can use your soul.”
“What did you say?” I asked, hoping that I’d misunderstood her.
“I have a boyfriend,” she replied with a sheepish shrug. She unzipped the gym bag, and inside I saw the skull and bones of a human. The skeleton was covered by a red and blue spiralled pattern. The sockets of the skull’s eyes glowed a faint green.
Damn, I thought. I’d be a way better boyfriend for her.
She smiled at me. “Sorry. We’ve been together since high school.”
I spat out the blood from my mouth, and shrugged. “Oh no, it’s completely fine. I wasn’t trying to crack onto you or anything. I just figured you needed some help with those tall spirit things.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t just wait in the car a few moments longer,” she said, patting me on the head to reinforce our friendship. Then she dug out my tongue, and skewered it on a long, pink fingernail. “Those guardian spirits out there would have pulled you to safety once they surrounded me. They’re so very dedicated to protecting humans. It’s a shame about the appearance really.”
She chuckled as she knocked me down, and sat on my chest. I heard a cracking sound, and I realised she had expertly dislocated my femur. I relaxed and let the pain swell over me.
I thought about telling her how beautiful her laugh was. If things with her boyfriend don’t work out, I might do it.