Overview: Strange things happen in The Gulp. The residents have grown used to it.

The isolated Australian harbour town of Gulpepper is not like other places. Some maps don't even show it. And only outsiders use the full name. Everyone who lives there calls it The Gulp. The place has a habit of swallowing people.

A truck driver thinks the stories about The Gulp are made up to scare him. Until he gets there.
Teenage siblings try to cover up the death of their mother, but their plans go drastically awry.
A rock band invite four backpackers to a party at their house, where things get dangerously out of hand.
A young man loses a drug shipment and his boss gives him 48 hours to make good on his mistake.
Under the blinking eye of the old lighthouse, a rock fisher makes the strangest catch of his life.

Five novellas. Five descents into darkness. Welcome to The Gulp, where nothing is as it seems.

 

The Gulp by Alan Baxter Book Chapter One

 

“We need to air this place out,” Maddy said, face scrunched in disgust under her strawberry blonde hair.
Zack turned from the bed to look back at her. “You gonna finally come in?”
“Nah.”
“She’s dead now. You can come in.”
“Fucking stinks, Zack.”
Her brother shrugged. “That’s death for you.”
“Just open the window at least.”
Zack sighed and moved around the bed, pulled open the curtains and unlatched the window, swung it wide. As daylight flooded in, the cadaver that was their mother took on super-real details.
“Doesn’t even look like her any more,” Maddy said. She leaned a little into the room, wincing against the stench. It was sickly and thick, sweet and harsh at the same time, laced with shit and antiseptic. She’d only been dead a few hours. It would get worse quickly.
“You’re a year older than me,” Zack said. “You’re supposed to be the responsible one.”
“Am I really?”
“You’re eighteen soon!”
“Another six months. Zack, I’m no more an adult than you are. Don’t try to pull that shit. I’m the one said we should shut the bedroom door and leave her to it. You insisted on caring for her. Just cos she died now, doesn’t make it suddenly my problem.”
“She cared for us–”
Maddy shot one hand up, palm out. “When did she ever fucking care for us? She kept us alive when we were babies, that’s it. I been taking care of myself and you since I was five. You looked after yourself enough too. Daddy helped until he disappeared, and I was only nine then. We been on our own our whole lives, Zack. Fuck her. I’m glad she’s finally dead.”
“You think he really left us?” Zack asked. “You always say disappeared and vanished and shit. Never left.”
“I’m not having this conversation again. Who knows? This town, anything is possible.”
Zack looked down at the skeletal woman in the foul, stained bed. Maddy couldn’t help looking too. Their mother’s skin was patched ochre and pale browns where it had once been creamy, her lips cracked, eyes and cheekbones bulging from a sallow face that was mostly skull. Her mouth hung slightly open, tips of yellowed teeth showing. Zack sniffed, wincing against the smell, then nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
“What?”
“I’m glad she’s dead.”
“Yeah.”
“But we owe her something.”
“Do we?”
Zack looked up, eyes flashing anger. “What do we do with her?”
“Harbour?”
Zack pursed his lips, shook his head. “I’m worried she’ll float or something. Be found.”
“We can’t risk the house, Zack.” Maddy looked around, glanced back over her shoulder. “I mean, shitty as it is, it’s finally ours. We get to relax and enjoy it at last.”
“I know. That’s all okay. I have the login details for Centrelink, all the benefits and pensions and shit. We’re well-prepared. We just need to make sure no one knows she’s dead. But every time I bring up what to do with her, you change the subject. Well, time’s up. Now we have to decide. So what do we do with her?”
“Dump her in the bush?”
“What if someone finds her? Or an animal drags her back or some shit?”
“Bury her in the bush?”
Zack stared at his mother, lips pursed. “Would take a bit of effort, and we’d have to park up somewhere on the road out of town, then carry her in. Might get seen at any point. We have to be absolutely safe, Maddy. No one can know.”
“Whatever we do with her is going to be risky.” Maddy took a step back. “I can’t stand this stench any more, Zack. Leave the window open but shut the door. Let’s talk about this somewhere else.”
They sat in the lounge room, Zack on the threadbare couch, Maddy in one of the armchairs. The other armchair, their mother’s spot, hadn’t been sat in since she’d gone to bed about three months prior and stayed put. She’d lay there, making demands of Zack, getting sicker and sicker, wasting away, wallowing in her own filth. How Zack stood to go in Maddy would never know. They should have let her die weeks ago, but Zack kept her going until last night.
For months before that, she’d shuffled around the house, getting sicker and sicker, refusing to accept help. She knew she was dying and welcomed it, was Maddy’s opinion. Happy to waste away right in front of her kids. On a good day, when Maddy was feeling charitable, she wondered if perhaps their mother recognised the benefit of her dying in secrecy so Zack and Maddy would have the best chance on their own. No interference from DoCS, or the Department of Communities and Justice, as the fuckers called themselves now. Busybodies is what they were. But with the welfare still coming in, Zack and Maddy had a chance at a peaceful life. It was their grandfather’s house, after all, bought and paid for, the only thing of any value the family had ever owned, now in their mother’s name. Of course, it was in The Gulp, so what was it really worth? But it was a home.
Most days, though, Maddy wasn’t charitable at all and knew their mother was too damned selfish to even consider the possibility. She made constant demands, probably too stupid to realise there might be consequences for anyone else. Maybe she was so selfish she imagined the whole world ending when she did, so no one else mattered. No one else ever mattered with her.
“How’s your mum?” friends and neighbours would ask.
“Oh, she’s okay,” Maddy would reply. “Just prefers to stay in. You know how she is. We take care of her.”
“You’re good kids.”
Yeah, Maddy thought. Real good. Agoraphobic was a word she’d learned, and it came in handy. Their mother had a lot of issues, they told everyone, including germaphobia, agoraphobia, diabetes and asthma. They’d been laying the groundwork for their reclusive mother for the last couple of years. The woman was only forty-six. Would only ever be forty-six now, but that gave them decades of living at home, ostensibly caring for the strange old lady who never went out while they collected her welfare. It was sort of perfect, really, if they could get away with this last bit. If they were caught disposing of the body, that would be a problem. A real problem.
“So what do we do?” Zack asked again.
The TV was on, but muted. Some game show where idiots grinned at each other and answered questions on their specialist subject. Maddy stared at it, thinking. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I’m scared, Zack.”
“Me too.”
They were quiet for a while. Maddy felt like a little kid, trembling and nervous. This was what they’d wanted, wasn’t it? What they whispered about while their mother wasted away in her bedroom. Now it had come about, there was a kind of finality to it that made Maddy feel hollow inside. The bitch was one of the most awful people Maddy had ever known – and in The Gulp, you met a lot of awful people – but she was their mother too. Some bullshit chemical or emotional power consistently worked on Maddy’s insides, made her care.
Only a few weeks ago she’d tried to score some of her mother’s approval. Working at Woollies full-time since she quit school at the end of year 10 some three or four months prior, had been thankless enough, but it was work and it was hers. She’d worked there part-time to supplement the welfare for a couple of years already. But scoring an Employee of the Month certificate had been one of the few things Maddy had been genuinely proud of in recent memory. She’d braved the sickly-sweet miasma of her mother’s room, squinted to blur the image of the woman emaciated and wheezing on the pile of pillows, and held up the certificate for her to see.
“What do you think of that, Mum?”
“I ’spect everyone gets one. Like a rota,” her mother had croaked, chest whispering with phlegm. “You’ll get another in a few months.”
“I fucking earned that!” Maddy had shouted, and stormed from the room. The stench had trailed with her, like a cloak lifting in the wind of her passage. She’d run to the bathroom and vomited, got puke on the certificate and screwed it up into a ball as tight as her rage. She threw it away and that was the last time she’d gone into her mother’s death chamber. The last words they’d spoken.
When Zack had called out earlier that day to say the woman’s breaths were stretching further and further apart, Maddy had said, “So what?”
“Last chance,” Zack had called from the gloomy, stinking room. “You want to say goodbye?”
“Fuck no. She’s not even conscious, hasn’t been for two days.”
“I know. I told you that. But maybe she can still hear us.”
“Then tell her to go to hell.”
Yet here she sat now, an empty ache in her gut. Her mother was dead. Her useless, selfish, mean mother was dead, and she cared. Regardless, now they were alone. Her and Zack against the world. They had the house, the welfare, she had her job, Zack would quit school at the end of the year and get a job of his own. He had an apprenticeship lined up. The future was bright, by the standards of any future in The Gulp. One last hurdle to leap, getting rid of the body.
“Bury her in the back yard?” Zack said.
Maddy jumped slightly, looked up, torn from her thoughts. “First place they’ll look if they suspect foul play.”
“I know how to lay cement. Been helping Brian out for a while now. How about I make us a new patio?”
Maddy shook her head. “They’ll smash it and pull it up. Anyway, a new cement deck is pretty fucking suspicious on its own, right?”
“I guess. So what do we do?”
Maddy looked at her phone. “It’s nearly four. I have to go out.”
“Where?”
“Just friends. Let’s think on this a bit, yeah? Another day or two won’t make any difference.”
Zack grimaced and shook his head. “I dunno. I mean, I know she’s foul in there already, but I was reading up on some of this stuff online. Dead bodies start to putrefy really quickly and... What?”
Maddy could feel how wide her eyes had gone. Ice trickled around her gut. “What the fuck have you been looking up online? What if someone searches your internet history?”
“I’ve been careful, Mads! Proxies and shit. I’m not an idiot. Besides, it’s nothing specific or incriminating.”
“Jesus, I hope not.”
“Trust me! Anyway, all I’m saying is we need to decide. We can’t leave it much longer.”
Maddy stood. She needed to be out of the house. Away from... all this. “Until morning, Zack, okay? Let’s decide in the morning.”
“We have to make a decision, Sis. We’ve been going around and around this subject for weeks now. It’s the one thing you’ll never make a choice about. Everything else is done, why is this the one thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s too big, too weird. The rest is fucking admin, you know? It’s stories and lies, and we’re good at that. This part, it’s physical. In the morning, I promise. Before you go to school we’ll decide. When you’re home from school, we’ll do whatever we decide. Yeah?”
Zack nodded. “Okay.”
“I might stay out. You okay for dinner?”
“Yeah. Probably go over to Josh’s anyway, play Xbox. Charm his mum into letting me stay for dinner.”
Maddy drew in a deep breath, then blew it out. “Okay, good. I’m working tomorrow, so I’ll wake you when I get up. We’ll decide over breakfast.”
Zack nodded, lips a flat line. His eyes were wet, red underneath. Maddy swallowed. He was just a kid. They were both just kids, no matter how grown up they’d had to become. They would take care of each other, but she resented the need. No wonder Zack hung out with Josh so much. Josh was everything Zack wished for – loved, cared for, he had a mum and dad who were around plenty, a nice clean house. She went over and leaned down, kissed the top of his head.
“Love you, Zackattack.”
He smiled up at her. “Love you too, Mad As Hell.”
They grinned at each other. “We’ll be okay,” she said at last.
He nodded. “We will now.”
“If I don’t see you later, I’ll wake you tomorrow.”
She left the house, the late summer air fresh and fragrant with the salt of the ocean only a few blocks over from their place. “We’ll be okay,” she said again, to herself.
image
“Let’s go to the Vic,” Dylan said. “Get pissed.”
Maddy pursed her lips, shook her head. “Can’t afford it. What about some takeaway grog from Clooney’s drive-through and come back here?”
They sat on a bench on the footpath, looking out over Carlton Beach, The Gulp’s only easily accessible beach, just south of the harbour, all blackened volcanic sand and gravel. The dilapidated surf lifesaving club off to their right, the playground quiet, devoid of activity, behind them. They had the whole park and beach to themselves. For the moment, at least. Maddy was enjoying the fresh air, salt spray, quiet of the night, though it was barely eight o’clock. She didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to go to the pub. They knew she was underage, but didn’t care. Dylan was twenty-two and he always went to the bar, whether it was to spend his own money or hers. But she just didn’t want the people.
“Come on,” Dylan said. “Just for a couple, game of pool, see who’s there? We can get takeout beers and come back here later.”
Mum’s dead. Really dead. It kept going around and around in her mind. It filled her thoughts, pushed against her brain like it needed to get out. The massive relief. The fear of what came next. The immediate concerns of what to do with the bitch’s carcass.
“Maddy?”
He’d been talking again, she realised. “Sorry, what?”
“You’re not yourself tonight. You okay?”
She looked up at Dylan’s kind eyes. He was a funny-looking fucker, everyone said so. Gangly and tall, wide apart eyes, a pointed chin. Far from classically handsome, but he had an intriguing look as far as Maddy was concerned. But more than that, he was kind, respectful. That went a long way beyond what someone looked like.
“I’m okay,” she said. “Bit distracted, sorry.”
“Home stuff? Your mum?”
“Yeah, the usual.” She forced a smile. Maybe distraction was what she needed after all. “Let’s go the Vic.”
He grinned and took her hand. They walked the few hundred metres down Tanning Street to the Victorian Hotel. It was bustling inside, busy for a weeknight. Maddy frowned as they went in and Dylan pointed to a sign by the door.
New Wednesday Special – Trivia Night!
How smart are you?
Register a team now.
Starts 7pm
Maddy groaned. “Sounds awful.”
“Right? They must be between rounds. Let’s get a beer and head out the back before they start again.”
One end of the main bar had a stage where bands sometimes played and a drop-down screen in front of it, where they often showed boxing matches, the UFC, some of the bigger footy games. A middle-aged woman Maddy didn’t recognise had a table set up there with a laptop, the big screen showing a PUB TRIVIA logo. The woman had a microphone in hand and stood grinning out at the busy room.
“Five minutes!” she said, as Maddy and Dylan reached the bar.
He bought the drinks, she took hers and followed him out the back into the bistro and pool area. Two big rooms, one with tables and chairs and the kitchen where food could be ordered and collected, the other with two tatty pool tables, surrounded by the usual motley array of patrons. A door behind the second table led out to the courtyard and several picnic bench and table combos dotted with smokers.
Dylan looked around the pool room, spotted a couple of mates. They headed over, raising their glasses in greeting. Three burley bearded guys with denim and leather, arms full of tattoos, long beards and hard eyes, had colonised the nearest pool table and their friends looked a bit pissed off about it.
Maddy glanced over, saw Desert Ghost MC patches on their backs. Arseholes, she thought, but didn’t say aloud. They always made trouble when they came into town. Their bikes would be parked around the side, big Harleys with ape-hanger bars and fancy airbrushed paintwork of flames and skulls.
“They’ll only play for money,” Dave said, nodding at the bikers. “And they’re bloody good, so always win.”
“Hustlers,” Dylan said, as if this were some pearl of wisdom.
“Exactly.” Dave reached out and clinked glasses with Dylan, then Maddy.
They fell to chatting and drinking, ignoring the bikers and their pool table dominion, not bothering to move around to the other table where people scowled and muttered about the interlopers. The bikers loved it, of course, half the reason they stuck around was to annoy the locals. The other reason was to fleece them, and they’d probably round out the night by picking a fight.
The distraction worked partially, but Maddy still couldn’t get the image of her mother’s wasted body from her mind, finally devoid of life. Dylan’s brother worked on one of the farms out on the Gulpepper Road leading to the highway. Did they have pigs? She’d seen shows where gangsters got rid of bodies by feeding them to pigs. Maybe she and Zack could cut up their mother, take her bit by bit to the farm and drop the bits in the pig pen.
She shuddered. What the hell was she thinking? Apart from trying to conceal body parts from the farmers, as if she would be able to chop up her mother. Maybe Zack’s idea of the harbour was a good one. But she had another thought. They could rent a dinghy for the day, say they were going out fishing. If they could somehow get the body into the dinghy, wrapped up and weighed down with rocks or something, they could dump it much further out than the harbour. But how would she get it there?
Her mum’s car sat in the garage at home. Maddy had been learning to drive, was still on her Ls, but could do all that was required. If they put the body in the back of the car, then backed it up to the harbour as if they were loading supplies for a day’s fishing... It could work. Especially if they started really early before many people were about. And there were never cops in The Gulp, so no one would pull her over if she only drove around town. Hell, if you needed cops and rang triple-0 it was always at least an hour before someone came from Enden or Monkton. If they came at all.
Their mother had been a small woman in life, barely over five feet tall, and she was wasted away to little more than bones now. They could surely wrap her up tight in something, maybe an old doona cover, rope it all together with weights inside. She wouldn’t make too big a parcel, they could flip her straight out of the boot of the little Toyota hatchback into the dinghy. If they picked their moment, no one would see a thing. They could take her from the bedroom to the car through the kitchen, so no one would see that. She’d only be out for a second while they dumped her in the boat, then they’d take her out as far as they dared and sink the bitch. Let the snails and worms of the seabed have her. If they wrapped her up enough, tied weights to her limbs tightly enough, she’d never surface again.
“What are you smiling about?” Dylan half-smiled himself in anticipation of her answer as he held out a fresh beer.
She didn’t realise she’d made any outward indication of her thoughts. “Nothing really,” she said quickly. “Just a little drunk, I guess. You want to get out of here?”
“Take outs back to the beach?”
“What about take outs back to your place?” She gave him a sultry look. Dylan had his own place, a rented flat that was barely more than a studio, but it was private. He kept trying to convince her to move in with him, but she wasn’t taking their relationship nearly as seriously as he was. One day she would have to let him down, she had no intention of staying with him long term, but for now it was fun.
He grinned. “Better skull these then.”
“Race ya!” She upended the schooner and downed the beer, Dylan grunting in surprise and trying to catch up, but she had him beat.
They both laughed, gasping as they caught their breath. Maddy’s head swam a little from the sudden impact of alcohol. She took his hand and they left the pub.
image
“More cordial, boys?”
“Muuu-uuum! I said before we’re fine, thanks!”
Josh’s mother made a roll-eyes face at Zack as Josh concentrated on the videogame, hunched forward over the controller. Zack grinned. A mother who cared enough to keep offering was one of the reasons he loved coming over here as much as he did. She was everything his mother wasn’t – kind, caring, well-fed. Alive. She had motherly curves and full curly hair, sparkling green eyes. He knew he loved her a little bit.
“We’re fine, thank you, Mrs Brady,” he said.
“Well, you holler if you need anything else. Want a snack?”
“Mum!”
“No, I’m so full from dinner. Your lasagne is...” Zack made a chef’s kiss gesture and grinned again.
“Oh, you!”
Mrs Brady ducked out, pulling Josh’s bedroom door almost but not quite closed. Zack stared at where she’d been for a moment, then turned his attention back to the game just as Josh died again.
“Dammit!” he snapped, and held the controller out to Zack.
“Why don’t we go two-player?”
“Nah, I want to get through these levels single-player. God, my mum is so annoying.”
Zack restarted the level. “She’s kinda cool, really.”
Josh looked at him with his eyebrows almost vanishing into his hair. “Cool? My mum? Earth to Zack, what have you been smoking?”
“I know she’s a dork, but you should appreciate all she does for you. And you’ve got a dad around who gives a shit. Don’t take that stuff for granted, man.”
Josh smiled. “Yeah, I guess it’s easy for me. You should have the same.”
“I do. I have it here. That’s why I’m always coming over.”
“For my parents?”
“Well, not just your parents. Your Xbox too.”
“Fuck you!” Josh slammed a good set of knuckles into Zack’s arm and Zack cried out, laughing through the pain as he desperately kept the character moving on screen.
“Also, your sister is hot! So it’s sweet when she’s home from uni.”
“You want me to hit you again?”
Zack laughed and shook his head. “No, don’t! I can barely feel my right hand as it is!”
“You know, your sister is pretty hot too,” Josh said, turning back to look at the screen. “If she wasn’t so... I dunno, angry all the time.”
“Angry all the time?”
“Always scowling.”
“I guess she does it tough, looking after Mum and all that.”
“I thought you said you did most of it,” Josh said.
“Yeah, well, we both do. Mum has a lot of problems. And Maddy works too.”
They fell into silence for a while, except a Whoop! when Zack completed the level, comfortable in each other’s company. Zack took his turns, doing his best not to think about his mum, finally expired in the fetid bed at home. Josh’s house was so clean and bright compared to his own. It smelled so fresh. Even the air at home seemed dirty, notwithstanding the stench. Once they got rid of Mum, he planned to make sure Maddy helped him clean the place from top to bottom and back again. He wanted to scrub and polish everything, maybe even repaint. The house was finally theirs and he wanted to make it more like Josh’s. This was what a family home was supposed to be like.
Get rid of Mum. That was the tricky bit. His stomach started to go watery again at the thought. If they were caught, it would destroy everything. DoCS would come in, they’d be carted off somewhere, lose the house. He didn’t even know if they had extended family. His mum had talked about useless cousins in Bega, but what did that even mean?
He felt panic welling up again at the thought. Please, Maddy, he silently begged. Please have a plan by the morning.
“School night,” came a gruff but kind voice from the door.
They turned to see Josh’s dad, short hair, neat beard, still wearing the slacks and white shirt from his suit and tie office work combo. He was an accountant in Enden, or something like that. Advisor of something or other. He was just as kind as Mrs Brady. He smiled and nodded at Zack. “How are ya, mate?”
“Good, thanks.”
“And your mum?”
Zack made a face, shrugged. “She’s doing okay.”
“You know, if you ever need any help...”
“I know, Mr Brady, thanks.”
“Another half hour, Dad?”
“School night, Josh. It’s already getting late.”
Zack got up from the floor, grabbed his hoodie. “It is getting on,” he said. “Mum’ll be worried. I’d better go.”
Josh nodded, turning back to his game. “Until next time then, loser.”
“Which will be school tomorrow, friend of losers.”
Mr Brady stepped back to let Zack out of the room, then followed him down the hallway towards the front door. The well-lit hallway, with family photos on the walls. All that was on the walls in Zack’s house were flower-shaped mould stains.
“Seeya, champ!”
“Seeya, Mr Brady. Thanks!”
“Any time.”
He jogged the five hundred metres or so home, up the hill from Josh’s place near the beach to his own where the houses got smaller and closer together. He let himself in and stood in the dark hallway as the door clicked shut behind him. He could replace that blown light bulb if nothing else, that had been out for weeks. Tomorrow, he decided. He wouldn’t start until they’d done whatever they were going to do with Mum. Let it mark the beginning of a new era for him and Maddy. A free era.
He walked along and stared at the closed door of his mother’s room. The cloying stink reached his nostrils even here, creeping under the door like a mist. He’d left the window open and had a moment of panic that the neighbours might notice. Her room was at the back of the house, her window overlooking the scrappy patch of lawn and flowerbeds gone to seed. It was a half-decent size for a back yard in town, maybe twenty metres to a side, two-metre high wooden fence all around. No one could see in, all the neighbours yards backing onto each other. Someone would have to climb up onto the fence to see, and even then they wouldn’t get much of a view into the house. The curtains were drawn again even though the window was open. He shook his head. No, no one would see her. But would they smell her? Maybe when she started to really rot, that kind of stink was epic. You could smell a dead roo on the roadside even as you drove past at eighty Ks an hour. But they’d be rid of her before that happened.
Come and help me, son.
Zack jumped. He must have imagined it, but the voice of his mother had been all too real. Stress maybe. She was dead. Really dead at last. He can’t have heard her.
Unable to help himself, he drew a deep breath in, held it, then opened her door for a look. The breath escaped him in a rush, his eyes going wide. He scrabbled his hand around for the light switch, not believing what he saw in the low light coming from the kitchen behind him.
The room burst into light as he flicked the switch, and he stared. What the hell was growing all over her?
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Maddy crept in a little after 2 a.m., closing the front door and leaning against it for a moment. Physically satisfied – for a funny-looking fucker, Dylan knew what do with his gangly body – she was still mentally antsy. She was also pretty drunk.
A bead of light glowed from under the closed door to her mother’s room. She frowned. Zack must have turned it on, but she wondered why. Maybe he’d gone in again to look at her. This must be hard for him. He always kept some part of his heart open to some essential goodness he saw in their mother. Or believed in, even if he never saw it. It showed what a good person he was, but he suffered for it. Maddy had long-since locked away every part of her heart where their mother was concerned.
Well, she could lay there dead with the light on. Maddy wasn’t about to crack open that stench, even to flick the light off. She went and looked into Zack’s room and he was curled up under the doona, snoring softly.
She suppressed the urge to go in and kiss his forehead. Only thirteen months apart, it was ridiculous how much of an older sister she felt sometimes. Girls mature faster than boys and all that shit, maybe. With a sigh, she went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth and washed her face, then headed into her bedroom, stripped to her undies and pulled her current sleeping t-shirt on. It was a gift from Dylan, a Bullet For My Valentine tour shirt. She kind of loved it. Poor Dylan, he was a good person too, and she hated the thought of breaking his heart. She’d have to do it soon, it wasn’t fair on him to drag things out. She wasn’t the sort to settle down, certainly not now, and hopefully never.
She fell into bed and sleep swept over her.
The alarm woke her at seven and it didn’t feel like she’d moved a muscle since she hit the sheets. With a groan, lamenting the background pounding of her head from last night’s beer, she stumbled up and went into the bathroom to piss. On the way back she leaned into Zack’s room to call him awake, but frowned. The lump wasn’t under the doona any more.
“Zack?” Jesus, her voice sounded like a sixty-a-day smoker’s croak. Should have drunk some water in the bathroom.
She went into the kitchen, planning to drink a big old glass of water before calling for Zack again. He was already in there, dressed in his school uniform. His eyes were haunted.
“You have to look at Mum.”
Maddy swallowed, went to get water and it was nectar on her parched throat. She turned and leaned back against the sink. “What?”
“You have to look at Mum.”
“What do you mean. Are you okay?”
“Please. Just go and look at her.”
She stared at him a moment longer and his steady gaze discomforted her. With a frown, she downed the rest of the water, put the glass down and went back along the hall to their mother’s room. She stood a moment, gathering herself, took a few steadying breaths. Then she held the last breath and opened the door.
The held breath rushed out of her along with her voice. “The fuck?”
The light was on still, the thin curtain shifted in the breeze of the open window. Her mother was in the bed, propped on the pillows exactly like the day before, but she was covered in... something. Maddy leaned forward, trying to see better without going in. The bedclothes were rumpled, stained near her mother’s corpse with yellowing patches. Her mother had on a t-shirt that before had clung to her bony frame like a rag, but now stood taller, as if the woman had gained weight overnight. Her bare arms lay either side of her torso, her scrawny neck emerged from the shirt, her skull face staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, but all that exposed skin had pale lumps over it. Rounded and smooth, white as alabaster, like half-ping pong balls dotted all over her. There was barely a centimetre or two of skin between each of them. One covered her left eye, her right eye down in a hollow between two others. One pushed from the side of her nose, another forced her mouth open in a silent scream. Several made a range of rounded hills out of her neck, more on her shoulders under the shirt. Her forearms were covered in them, the back of her hands. Her fingers were splayed as the smooth white half-orbs grew between them. In some cases, the lumps seemed to encircle her fingers completely.
“What’s happening to her?”
Maddy startled at Zack’s voice right behind her as he looked in over her shoulder. When did he get so tall? “What is it?” she asked.
“They’re like mushrooms. They feel soft.”
“You touched her?” The horror was clear in her sharp tone.
“Not with my finger! I poked one with that straw from the water glass by her bed. It’s soft like a fresh mushroom.”
Maddy shook her head. “Is she going mouldy?”
“They were half that size when I got in last night.”
“What?”
“I looked in when I got back from Josh’s. She was covered in them like that, but they were further apart, smaller, sort of like marbles. You weren’t here, I didn’t know what to do. I shut the door and went to bed. Didn’t sleep well, couldn’t stop thinking about it. I got up about dawn, came to see again and they were bigger, like that.”
“Jesus, Zack, this isn’t normal. This isn’t what happens to dead bodies.”
“Is it because of her sickness. She said it was nothing, we knew it was cancer, but maybe it wasn’t.”
Maddy ran a hand over her head, tucked her hair behind her ears. “I don’t know any sickness that would result in... that!”
“Looks like it’s all over her body.”
“Have you checked?”
“No!”
Maddy nodded, chewed her lower lip. “We need to check.”
“Why?”
“We have to move her. We need to figure out if that’s safe. I don’t want to get that stuff on me!”
“It doesn’t smell so bad,” Zack said.
“What?”
“Sniff. It’s covering the stink.”
Maddy allowed herself a slow breath in through her nose and he was right. The sick, cloying aroma of sickness and death was still there, but vastly reduced. Unpleasant, but not appalling like it had been. “Get the big scissors from the kitchen,” she said.
Zack said nothing but she felt him move away from her. Reluctantly she went into the bedroom and took another steadying breath, then lifted the bedclothes away. The stick thin remains of her mother lay in a shallow hollow on the mattress. The sheets beneath her were dark and sticky, some foul combination of blood and shit that had leaked out of her. Zack had tried to keep her clean, but admitted he’d stopped in the last week or so before she died, unable to bear it any longer.
“She shits this black stuff that stinks so bad,” he’d said. “It just pours out of her.”
The mattress would be soaked with it. Maddy crouched, looked under the bed. Sure enough, the stains had gone right through, a patch on the floorboards where it had dripped and spattered.
“Fuck me.”
Her mother’s legs were barely more than bones, the skin browned like leather except where it was red with lesions and sores. But those things were only partially visible now under the numerous smooth white blobs growing out of her. They pushed her toes apart, grew out from the soles of her feet. Zack held out the scissors beside her. She took them.
The white stuff seemed fused with the sheets where her body lay against them, like it grew from the gross stains as well. Maddy lifted the bottom hem of the shirt and began cutting up towards the neck. She peeled the two halves apart and made a quiet noise of distress. Zack bolted from her side and vomited noisily somewhere down the hall. She heard the splatter of water and hoped that meant he’d made it to the toilet.
These... things... Maddy paused, dragged in a ragged breath. Mushrooms, she decided. For the sake of argument, let’s call them mushrooms. They were bigger on her mother’s torso, and the skin around them had split, stark red like fresh steak. One bulged from between her labia, streaked with a viscous fluid tinged with blood. The growths covered her, went around her sides to connect her to the bed where she met the mattress.
Maddy opened the scissors and pressed a point into one of the larger growths on her mother’s stomach. The surface was tough, but there was give in it. She pressed a little harder, the point of the scissor blade dimpling in. Then it punctured through and the mushroom hissed as it flattened slightly. Maddy cried out and jumped back.
The mushroom leaked a dark, red-brown fluid, that trickled over the half-deflated side and pooled at the base where it fused with her mother’s sallow skin.
“What the fuck, Mads?”
She turned, saw Zack standing in the doorway, eyes red and wet with tears. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
She went over and took him in a hug, then turned and pulled the bedroom door closed, guided him back into the kitchen.
“This is so fucked up,” Zack said quietly. “Not even just... that. Fucking everything. She was awful and now she’s dead and now this. What do we do, Mads?”
“I don’t know. I need to think. I don’t want to move her, you saw what happened when I... that stuff came out.”
“Is it eating her?”
Maddy swallowed. “I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps that’s a good thing? Like, if that fungus or whatever it is eats her up there’s nothing for us to move. Maybe it’s a good thing?”
Zack burst out a bark of genuine mirth. “What luck! Mum died and now she’s getting eaten by mushrooms!”
Maddy grinned and for a moment they both devolved into uncontrollable laughter, a relief valve blowing through the insanity. “Jesus fuck, Zack,” Maddy said as the laughs reduced to giggles. “What the hell is happening?”
“I had lasagne at Josh’s last night. It was so normal!”
“Sounds amazing.” She hugged him again, then stepped back to look at him. “Go to school, yeah? I have to go to work. I’m only on a short shift though, eight till two, so I’ll be back when you get home. There’s no need to decide anything right now. Things have changed, hey. I have to get ready or I’ll be late.”
“I’m going to Josh’s, see if he wants to walk to school together. I don’t want to be here now.”
Maddy smiled. “Don’t blame you. We’ll sort this out. Not much longer, then the house is ours and we can be normal too.”
He looked at her, a little blankly.
“Okay?” she said.
He nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”
image
The day at work crawled by even though it was a short shift. Maddy couldn’t get the image of that mushroom popping and leaking from her mind. Or the image of her mother’s body covered in the pure white growths, the ichor streaked white swelling out from between her legs. On several occasions bile would burn up into her throat and she’d brace, thinking she would need to rush for the bathroom to vomit, but managed to swallow it down each time.
She had a break at eleven and realised she had eaten nothing since before she’d started drinking the night before, and that was only a serve of hot chips shared with Dylan. She went to the bakery out the front of Woollies and bought a bread roll and a can of coke, ate the bread dry, drank the soda. It was all she could face, but she felt immeasurably better after it hit her stomach.
“You right?” Wendy Callow asked as Maddy went back into the supermarket. Wendy was just heading out, presumably on her break.
Wendy was a year older than Maddy, and a bit weird. Most people uncharitably suggested some kind of impairment, but Maddy had come to know the girl and decided Wendy was actually quite smart. She was also intentionally cruel. She made racist remarks frequently, joked about kicking her stepfather’s dog, stuff like that. People didn’t like Wendy Callow for a reason. “I’m fine,” Maddy said.
“Sure? You look like cold shit warmed up.”
“Gee, thanks. Just drank too much last night.”
“With Dylan?”
Maddy sighed. Wendy was hot for Dylan’s mate, James. Maddy wasn’t about to be a matchmaker though. “Yeah, with Dyl. I gotta get back.”
She pushed past, heard Wendy mutter “Stuck up bitch” under her breath but ignored it. Not worth the mental anguish. Strengthened by the food and sugar from the soda, she got back to work.
When she came out again just after two, Dylan was loitering against one of the columns near the entrance. He grinned stupidly when she emerged and she frowned.
“What are you doing here?”
His face fell. “Last night we arranged to meet up. You said you finished at two. We’re gonna drive to Enden and hit some shops, maybe eat there and catch up with...” He petered out, frown deepening at her expression. “You forgot? You weren’t that drunk were you?”
“Shit, Dylan, I’m really sorry. I did forget.” Maybe she’d been more drunk than she realised. She had some recollection of talking about heading to Enden, but didn’t remember planning it for this afternoon. “But something’s come up. Have to rain check?”
He nodded, eyes sad. “Sure, I guess. Everything okay?”
He was such a good guy. Some dudes would get angry, offended and offensive. Dylan was better than that, and she felt bad. “It’s just a thing with Mum. I’m sorry.”
“She’s hard work for you, huh? And Zack. Need help?”
“Thanks, but nah. We’ll be okay. We’ll do the Enden thing another time, yeah?”
“Sure. I’ll call you later?”
She stepped up and kissed him quickly. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Blind Eye Moon are playing the Vic tomorrow. Wanna go?”
“Yeah, maybe. If... you know, if things are okay with Mum. Give me a call tomorrow arvo and we’ll see, yeah?”
“Okay.”
She gave his hand a squeeze and hurried away. She didn’t dare glance back, knowing he’d be watching her go, hangdog eyes and a slight rounded curve to his shoulders. He would have to fortify and deal with it, she had more pressing concerns.
When she got home the house seemed quieter than it had ever been, still and somehow extra empty. She went around and opened all the curtains, made sure light flooded every room, opened all the windows too and let the late summer breeze blow through. She’d get the vacuum-cleaner out and go over every floor before dinner.
Then she stood outside the only door in the house still closed.
Twice she reached for the door handle but chickened out. Her fingers shook.
“Come on, Madeleine,” she told herself.
She clenched her teeth, building up her courage. She didn’t want to know, wished she could just walk away from it all. No one should have to deal with any of this. But that wasn’t an option, this was her life right now, and she had to live it. She blew out a quick breath, then swung the door open before she could stop herself.
“Fuck me!”
The fungus covering her mother had grown exponentially. None of the woman’s body was visible any more, just a rolling, undulating mass of huge rounded mushrooms in a vaguely human shape filling more than half the old double bed. It was so white, such pure, unblemished paleness.
Maddy crept forward, sniffed tentatively. The stink of sickness and death was almost non-existent, but it had been replaced with an earthy, fungal scent. Not entirely unpleasant, but also not entirely natural. Or perhaps super-natural, like an artificially created facsimile of what a mushroom should smell like. Super-real.
On the old armchair in the corner of the room, a wire coat hanger lay atop a pile of clothes her mother would never wear again. Maddy took it and used one rounded end to prod at the nearest bulge of fungus, her mother’s right foot buried somewhere deep within. That same tough but pliant exterior, the same cushioned softness under pressure. She didn’t dare push hard enough to split the skin of it again.
“What is happening?” she whispered to herself.
The whole mass shivered.
Maddy squealed and ran backwards, bumped into the wall. It shivered again, a vibration rippling through, then it settled. Maddy’s body shook with horror, imagining the whole thing splitting open like one of those puffball mushrooms she’d seen on a nature doco, a dusty cloud of spores bursting from it.
She felt behind herself for the door as she sidled along the wall, not taking her eyes from the corpulent white mass. She slipped out of the room and closed the door.
When Zack got home a little while later, she was sitting on the sofa staring at some rubbish commercial television show. She genuinely had no idea what it was, what it was even about. She’d been in some kind of fugue state, just waiting.
Zack dropped his bag in the hallway by his bedroom door then came to join her, sitting on the edge of the armchair. “Haven’t stopped thinking about it all day.”
She laughed softly. “Me either. It’s worse.”
“Worse?”
“Or better, maybe. Depending how you look at it.”
They opened the door, shoulder to shoulder to see in. The mass had pushed the bedclothes aside as it grew, a parody of a cloud sat atop the mattress. It covered two-thirds of the bed, vaguely ovoid with an undulating surface. The light above reflected off it, so bright, so white.
“It looks so...” Zack frowned, searching for a word. “Clean,” he said eventually.
“What’s happening to her in there?” Maddy said. “That’s what I can’t stop thinking about. Like, is it consuming her flesh? Will there be nothing but polished bones inside eventually? Or will it take the bones too? And then what?” The memory of her previous thoughts came back to her. The idea had been haunting her since the thing shivered so suddenly. “Will it fucking spore?”
“Fungi are eukaryotic organisms,” Zack said, monotone like a newsreader.
“What?”
“I’ve spent all afternoon in the school library, reading, memorising. Fungi are eukaryotic organisms such as yeasts, moulds, and mushrooms. Some fungi are multicellular, while others, such as yeasts, are unicellular. Most fungi are microscopic, but many produce the visible fruitbodies we call mushrooms.”
“Fruitbodies?”
Zack pointed at the bed. “That’s what it is. Growing out of her, that’s the fruitbody of the fungus. And it’s what produces the spores.” His voice dropped into the reciting tone again. “Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own food and have to feed like animals, by sourcing their own nutrients.”
“Jesus, Zack, you’re not helping.” He’d always been able to read and recite like this. It was funny sometimes. Now it was decidedly creepy. “So some microscopic fungus found her and fruited while feeding on her? I guess we kinda figured that already. So what?”
Zack shook his head. “I don’t know. I thought learning about it might help, but you’re right. So what? It’ll spore by bursting or scattering in some way, some use animals to carry the spore, most use the wind. I guess what I’m thinking is that maybe it’ll feed on Mum until there’s nothing left and then it’ll wither and die or something, and it may or may not spore in the meantime. But I think we should just leave it alone. Shut the door. Maybe block the gap at the bottom with a towel or something and leave the window open.”
“And then what?”
“Just fucking forget about it, Mads. For, like, a week or something. We can always go around the back, I suppose, peek in at the window, but I don’t know if I dare. Maybe give it a month, then check? Perhaps everything will be over then, and she’ll be gone. Or just bones and we can think of a way to bag them up and get rid of them.”
Maddy thought of her fishing boat idea again. It would be even easier if it was just the woman’s bones. Stack them in an esky and carry it to the harbour. Easy. She reached in and turned out the bedroom light, dropping the room into gloom broken only by the wan glow through the thin curtain. The fungal mass on the bed was still bright, almost luminescent it was so pale.
She looked at Zack and he nodded, so she closed the door. Zack turned to the hallway cupboard, rummaged in the bottom for one of the old towels and rolled it up into a snake that he pressed against the bottom of the door.
“So that’s it?” Maddy asked.
“I reckon. Just forget about it now. For a while.”
Maddy glanced at the closed door. “Is there anything in there we need?”
“Nah. I took it all weeks ago. Got all the paperwork, her few bits of jewellery, all that stuff is in my room. All that’s in there are her clothes. And some books.”
Maddy nodded. “Okay then. So that’s that. For now.”
“For now,” he agreed.
“I want to clean the house,” Maddy said.
Zack smiled. “I was thinking the same thing. Three bedrooms, bathroom, lounge, kitchen, hall. It’s not much.” He went to his bag, reached inside and pulled out a large blue plastic bottle, held it up. “Sugar soap. Mix it with a bucket of water to clean the walls. Cuts through grease and grime, and it’s got a mould protection in it too.”
“That seems definitely worthwhile right now.” They laughed nervously, then Maddy said, “But two bedrooms. For now. We’re leaving hers alone, remember.”
“Yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll vacuum and dust, wipe all the surfaces. There’s bleach under the sink. You do the walls.”
“Gonna do the ceilings too. With a mop.”
Maddy gave her brother a crooked smile. “Fucking look at us, eh?”
They busted their arses for hours, taking turns to crank music from their phones through Maddy’s Bluetooth JBL speaker. The focus seemed to be something they both needed, the physical labour of it taking up the nervous energy they’d been carrying. Maddy thought maybe the tensions and anxieties had been building for weeks, as their mother’s illness quickly deteriorated from ongoing sickness to terminal decline. Then the actual death and rapid-fire shocks since had left them both shaken. Working hard, taking control of something, was like medicine.
It was nearly 9 p.m. when they both collapsed onto the couch, sweaty and dishevelled, and absolutely spent. Zack ordered in pizza with their mother’s credit card, and they stared at the TV until it arrived. Starving, they devoured it in minutes, then watched more TV without talking. There was nothing to say, no need to plan or discuss. They were simply getting on with it. Maddy had some reservations, wondering if it was entirely wise to ignore the thing growing on their mother. She had occasional visions of it blooming to fill the room, bulge against the door until it burst, billowing in great rolls out the open window.
But she shook those thoughts away. It wouldn’t come to that. If it did need more attention, maybe in a week or two, they’d decide then. Not now. They’d done enough for the time being. Their mother had just died, after all. Let them enjoy that for a while first.
She noticed Zack nodding off, chin on his chest, and gave him a prod. “Let’s go to bed. School tomorrow. And I’m working eight till six.”
He nodded and dragged himself off. The house gleamed, it almost looked like they’d redecorated more than cleaned it. The mould stains and scuff marks were gone, the floor was free of lint and grit and all manner of small detritus that had gathered. It smelled fresh, slightly lemon-scented from the cleaner Maddy had used on all the benches and tables tops.
Zack hugged her and went into his room and she went into hers. It felt like a new start.