I found an unpublished manuscript my great-great-plus-grandmother wrote. It’s about a town called Milladurra, and the more you read it, the more it makes sense, yet the harder it is to believe.
Table of Contents
To give some backstory: my great-great-great-(probably another great or two in here)-grandmother was an author. She wrote some romance stories, and a couple of Australia’s first science fiction novels. They didn’t sell too well, but she was recognised in her field. He name was Lena Robertshaw, née Ellis, and, by the only records we’ve found of her on genealogy sites, she lived in North Sydney from 1876 to her death in 1928.
Our family doesn’t own that house anymore, but we do have “Grandma Lena’s box”. This is an ancient steamer trunk with some of her old books in it, a pair of very faded epaulettes that are too fragile to touch (they’re in a sealed sandwich bag), and a funny little wiggly metal thing.
I’m a sceptic. I’ll put this out here right now. I delved into that box because I’m interested in history, and my own great-great-plus-grandmother was a fun place to start looking into it. When it comes to the “weird”, I see good reasons for why it’s not supernatural. Faked or coincidence is my view.
But this one was different. Maybe Grandma Lena was a bit nuts. She had six kids, I wouldn’t blame her. But I found one story, just a manuscript bound by twine, in the bottom of the box below all the leather-bound books. It was choked with dust, brittle, and had black mould dotting the pages. From what I’ve been able to tell, this story was never published.
On the front page, written, not in old-fashioned cursive, but printed carefully by hand, was the title “The Wanderers of Milladurra”, below that the date 1880, and below that my great-great-plus-grandmother’s name and signature. On the next page was this:
“I write a lot of shit. Air balloons and ghosts and travels to the bottom of the sea – stuff I’d call derivative twaddle. People lap it up, because now it’s new.
But this story is actually new. It’s new, it’s fucking bonkers, and it’s true. Believe it or not, I don’t care. But I wrote it out, and it’s the only real shit I’ve written.
This story’s dedicated to Jeanne. I don’t know where you are, or how to find you, but I love you too.”
That intro got my attention. So, being careful with the delicate pieces of paper, I started reading. And… well, look. I don’t know what to make of it, other than to think that maybe I’m not so much of a sceptic anymore.
I’ll let anyone who’s interested figure it out. What I’ve done is transcribe the story onto my computer. I haven’t changed it, though I’ve taken a few guesses about words where the black mould obliterated them.
So here it is for you to decide.
The Wanderers of Milladurra
By Lena Ellis
Chapter 1: Don’t Go Out. Don’t Look Out.
Whatever country I was in, I’ve always lived in cities. Or, at least, in greater city areas.
I realised this in the middle of fucking nowhere. In my dinky sedan, a jerry can of extra petrol behind the passenger seat, all on my own, nearly a thousand kilometres from my home in Sydney. Realised this when I was pretty damn worried about breaking down far from help or having taken a wrong turn at the last fork (some four hours ago) and being nowhere near where I wanted to be.
Out here was out far. I’d made it into in that massive orange bit in the middle of Australia, where small towns and villages are dotted sparsely in a great, flat plane of diminishing scrub on that red dirt. Where there were no longer cows, so that just left kangaroos and stray camels as potential driving hazards.
I’ve got to say, though, having rattled out teeth on unsealed roads elsewhere, Australia was in fine form with its rural highways. The asphalt was new, little reflective posts whizzed by on either side of my car, and, a reassuring sight for me, there were emergency telephones popping up, at regular intervals, even in a land of no telephone poles.
Milladurra is a “small town” of five hundred and twenty eight people. If you’re wondering what qualifies as a “town” out here, it’s that. But it has a regional hospital, and it has an ambulance station.
It was to the latter I was headed. Milladurra wouldn’t be my first choice for a station posting, but you can’t leave anyone in the state without ambulance care, even in parts where the population density is so low you might be the nearest available ambulance to someone five hours away.
The small town was reached about an hour later, the trusty, one-lane-each-way highway taking me straight into Milladurra. It had been twelve hours of drive time, the summer sun starting to set, and it was an exhausted me that pulled up, my knee stiff from being cramped behind the accelerator, at the boarding house on the edge of town.
It was an old sandstone home, with rusting corrugated metal for a roof and the house’s overhanging eaves that sheltered the windows from the cooking daytime heat. Piping up beyond the red dust driveway was a carefully-tended garden of native plants: bottlebrush, daisies, and succulents.
True rustic charm, I thought of it, yanking my bags out of the boot. It’d be a long drive back to see the few friends I had in the city, but things weren’t looking so bad.
I didn’t need to knock on the door. It flung open as I heaved five bags with me, glad the heat of the day was starting to dip.
‘No shit you’re tired!’ the mid-60s scarecrow of a woman who owned the place placated me. She’d introduced herself as Jeanne. ‘From Sydney – in one day?’ Her voice roughened by years of cigarettes, she made a sympathetic noise that sounded like polishing a tuba with sandpaper. ‘Leave Micky to ‘em,’ she shooed me with a gesture, as a similarly older man went to pick up some of my bags. ‘You rest,’ she commanded me, setting off at a spry stride in knock-kneed leggings and a flowery blouse, to lead me to my bedroom. ‘I’ll show you – then you’ll get some supper.’
Supper, I’ve learned, means an after-dinner snack in this part of the world. With tired apathy, I watched the portly Micky attempt to collect three of my bags, wondering whether to intervene with a word about how my day job involved hauling people down stairs. I decided against it, following after Jeanne, leaving old-fashioned values about assisting guests to make me feel welcome.
‘We’re packed just now,’ Jeanne told me, showing me into my room. ‘Sorry for no windows – we’ve got only the three rooms for guests, and another of your ambos will get the last one. No windows there either.’ She shrugged. ‘Old one-storey house,’ she explained. ‘Some rooms’ve just got no windows.’
It wasn’t a big deal for me. I’d largely be crashing here around twelve-plus hour shifts and when on-call overnight. I also fully planned to leave the moment a metro posting opened up for me closer to the city. Windows or no windows, it wouldn’t be for long.
‘And one thing I gotta tell you,’ Jeanne went on, standing in my doorway as Micky dumped my bags on the worn rug, ‘don’t go out after midnight.’ Her pale-eyed stare, previously clever and efficient, had grown sharper. ‘Midnight to one in the morning, especially,’ she went on, eyeing me closely. ‘You’re a city girl. You got funnel webs and whatsits there, but here you got crocs and snakes. We’re on the river. There’s no one to hear you scream if the crocs get ya at midnight.’
She left me at that, shutting the door, and she left me unconvinced. I was pretty sure snakes and crocodiles, as reptiles, didn’t go sunning themselves in the open at midnight. And I may not be an Aussie born and bred, but I do know that the river this far inland, often badly impacted by drought, didn’t have crocodiles. Frankly, I was more scared of funnel web spiders. I’d previously found one inside my jacket sleeve – after I’d put my arm into it.
And what was I going to do? Ignore an emergency call at midnight? Just tell a dying person to hang on for an hour? For a woman who’d provided a home away from home to numerous paramedics, Jeanne seemed pretty out of touch with what “on-call overnight” meant.
‘Emergencies happen at all times, unfortunately,’ I said, diplomatically, when Jeanne reminded me of her warning over supper. She made a mean bacon sandwich. I was wiping grease off my face as I went on, ‘I’d love to ignore calls overnight, but I’ve had no success with that before.’
Jeanne, stood with her arms crossed by the stove, watched me with evaluating eyes. Her mouth pulled into a scrunched disapproving line of wrinkled lips.
‘People ‘round here aren’t gonna call you at midnight,’ Micky, rather than Jeanne, said. Slouched in his seat, he set down his beer on the table and turned a serious look on me. ‘They know better. No need,’ he went on, staring at me, ‘to be a tough lady out here. Keep yourself safe.’
The couple could know – and think of me – whatever they liked, I thought. It didn’t stop shit from hitting the fan at zero hundred hours. I didn’t argue it, however. Whatever the couple thought, I didn’t choose my hours. And Micky’s casual sexism just made me want to roll my eyes.
It didn’t end up mattering much anyway. The city pace of the ambulance service was like a constant blind sprint, anyone lower down the priority ranking an afterthought as we rushed to handle all the bigger things on no breaks and overtime hours. The country pace, however…
I’ve never slept more since I joined the service, even on-call overnight. There are far fewer country people that will call because of a sprained ankle. There is a certain subsect of them who won’t call even after farm machinery lops their arm off. Instead, they’ll pick up their arm, pop it on the passenger seat, and drive themselves to hospital one-armed and bleeding. It’s not my recommendation, but after a year of sleep deprivation, I wasn’t complaining.
It took me only four shifts to settle into a rural laze. I even started bringing my laptop to the ambulance station to play games on it during my shifts. Here and there, my work partner and I would bolt out to handle something big, and that could take ages if the patient was far away, but the rest of the time I luxuriated in amazing free time – and sleep. It was like a complete lulling of my brain into dustbowl-hot comfort and staid languor.
After a month, I’d yet to see a croc, or a snake. But that wasn’t to say Aussie wildlife wasn’t bamboozling.
‘The fuck is that?’
My partner, a grouch in his forties, was washing the ambulance out the front of the station. I’d done the stock check, so I was sitting in the shade on a less-dusty patch of grass, munching on one of Jeanne’s sandwiches, as I observed a muddy bundle of sticks on the ground next to me.
My partner, Rob, didn’t look over.
‘What?’ he asked.
I pulled a face at the thing on the ground. I could swear the muddy stick bundle was moving. Sticking my sandwich back in its bag, I leant down and looked closer.
Yeah. There was a clump of mud and sticks on the ground next to me. And it was wriggling.
‘That,’ I said, pointing.
Rob did come over to see, a miracle considering the sour man appeared to have no interest in anything at all. His greying hair close-cropped and one stud earring in, he leant down to see what I was pointing at.
‘A bag worm,’ he told me, and stomped off.
Right, I thought, going back to my sandwich. I had no better understanding of a “bag worm” than I’d had of the quacking ground-dwelling bee I’d found a week before. Neither of the two ambos I’d so far worked with here would be a good person to talk about it with, though. I’d developed the opinion that the paramedics of Milladurra Station were grumpy, humourless, uncaringly efficient sacks of drear. That was one con of working here: there seemed a great dearth of light-heartedness.
It was that night that we got our first on-call job of the month. Snoring away in my single iron-framed bed, I woke with a start to the sound of my phone jangling its cheery tune.
‘Lena,’ the dispatcher on the other end said, ‘you’ve got a suspected stroke at…’ Without densely-packed suburbs, dispatchers tended to lack a good way to finish that sentence. ‘Cobb Campsite,’ the dispatcher finished, somewhat lamely. And I had no idea where that was.
I thanked the dispatcher and scrambled out of bed in my uniform. I was stuffing my feet into my boots when my phone rang again. It was Rob.
‘Ya?’ I answered.
‘Give it a moment.’
The phone pinned by my shoulder to my ear, I yanked up my boot zipper.
‘Use the toilet, have a bite to eat,’ Rob said impatiently. ‘We’ll go in five.’
I frowned, my fingers on my second boot’s zipper. Rob would have gotten the same call I had. I expected him to be ready for me to pick him up. Stroke in Cobb Campsite. Lights and sirens. That wasn’t a “go in five” and “have a piss first” job.
‘It might be a bullshit job, Rob,’ I said, not yet ready to believe him a lazy – in addition to grumpy – sack of drear, ‘but I don’t know that until I get there.’
There was silence on the other end of the line. Astounded, I sat on the side of the bed, staring at the wall by the light of the bedside lamp.
‘I can go alone if you don’t want to,’ I offered, though it was a testy suggestion. Frankly, if you’re that sick of the job, get out. Don’t hang on and leave people to suffer.
‘Give it five, Lena,’ Rob shot back. ‘Get rugged up, it’s chilly overnight. Go to the loo. Don’t look out the windows.’
And then he hung up. I stared at my phone, pulled away from my ear. It blinked the time at me.
Time that was ticking by. If this patient needed clot retrieval, they’d have to be flown to a big hospital for it. Time was brain cells. In a stroke, you had barely several hours. The clock on my phone ticked over to 00:57.
I went to grab my ambulance keys from the side table. Instead of keys, I got a coaster. I looked over. No keys.
I could’ve sworn I’d left them right next to my phone. I yanked open my top drawer. Nothing there either.
I’d probably left them in the kitchen, then. Dumped them as I came home to the offer of dinner. Clipping my radio into place, I got up.
The corridor outside my room was dark, only my lamp trickling diminishing light into it as the door eased back to closed. The kitchen wasn’t any better. All the blinds were down, blocking any porch or sparse streetlamp light outside from illuminating the room. I fumbled around for the light switch, finally found it near the front door, and went looking for keys.
Not on the table, nor on any of the cluttered and outdated countertops. On the rack by the door, there was only one set of keys. Jeanne and Micky’s ute, I figured, as they were keys to a Holden, not an ambulance Mercedes. Increasingly frantic, I searched further, darting back to my room to make sure I hadn’t been an idiot and missed them. Then into the bathroom to see if I’d dropped them there.
I started, coming out of the bathroom to see Micky, dressed in a white undershirt and boxers, in the corridor. He was leant against the wall as though groggy from just being woken, his head tipped to rest on it just behind a photograph of a young Jeanne holding a baby beside a moustachioed man.
‘Heard you scurrying about,’ Micky said. He held out a set of keys, dangling from his fingers by the carabiner. ‘Think I grabbed these by mistake – thought they were mine.’
I stared at him a second longer. There was no way he’d have mistaken ambulance keys for his own. His keys didn’t consist of only one car key, one station key, and a carabiner. But I hadn’t time to question him. I grabbed the keys with a nod to him, and left out the kitchen door.
The job ended up taking hours and involved helicopter retrieval – because, despite the distances and dallying, the semi-lucky patient was still within a window where he’d benefit from it. I’d fanged it on pitch dark country roads, despite kangaroo hazards, just to try to make up lost time.
Rob had been ready and waiting outside his house for me when I swung by to pick him up, but that didn’t make me fume any less. I waited until we were back at station before calling him up on it.
‘You might not think five minutes matters,’ I said, very pointedly, ‘but I do. It takes ages for a stroke patient out here to get to definitive care, I get that, but every minute still matters.’
To be clear, Rob knows his shit. I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know. He wasn’t paying attention to me, though. He was restocking the cannulation drawer, his face hard and still.
‘I don’t appreciate being told to take a piss before going to a job,’ I went on, trying to keep my voice level. ‘I’m not–‘
‘I’m not arguing with you!’
Rob had looked up. He hadn’t yelled, but he was glaring at me and his tone was aggressive.
‘You’ve got fuck-all experience out here,’ he went on, staring me down. ‘You been in the job, what, a year? Sure you know the book, but you don’t know everything. Berate me all you want, but you’re the fuckwit here. Don’t leave the house before one.’
Used to being put in my place as a trainee, it made me steam but it shut me up. I told myself after it was because I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere arguing with him. If it happened again, I decided, I’d take the issue up with a manager.
Rob was one of those people who could flare up and cool down quickly. Anger-free, later, and actually seeming concerned, he checked with me that I hadn’t left before one. Still steaming, I gave him a curt answer that I’d hit the “respond” button inside the ambulance at two past one in the morning. I wasn’t happy about that.
We didn’t get another midnight job the next night, but, for once, I didn’t sleep soundly in my wrought iron bed. I lay awake, still angry about a hierarchy of experience and all the times I’d been put down as a young upstart. Angry, and contemplating the shit deal that was healthcare in the country. In the city you could be at a stroke hospital, or a major trauma centre, or a burns unit, in a half hour. Here you were playing with luck as time ran away from you.
I rolled over and glared at my ceiling. I’d never thought about it before, but I thought about it then: my room, though nice and quaint, was like a sandstone cell. Now I wanted a window.
And that brought me back to wondering about this midnight to one business. I’d nearly forgotten about Jeanne’s warning a month before. Having put it down to a quirk of Jeanne and Micky’s, I was surprised to find Rob too seemed to believe in it.
I’d thought Micky was being creepy, stealing my keys and startling me in the corridor the previous night. He hadn’t otherwise been creepy, to be fair. With a beer gut and pyjamas I mightn’t think appropriate to wear around guests of your boarding house, he could look like the leering sort, but that was me assigning him a stereotype. He and Jeanne seemed to get along with a casual sort of comradery and affection. I didn’t think they were married, but they’d obviously been together a long time, and were happy that way.
So, if Micky wasn’t being creepy… Had he purposefully nicked the keys to prevent me going out before one?
It was probable. And that just made me angrier. And, another thing, despite what Jeanne had said to me on the day I got here about the place being full, I was pretty sure I was currently their only guest. That or the other bloke never left their room, ‘cause I hadn’t seen any other person here.
I didn’t get more time to contemplate it. My ears had picked up a sound, and, disconcerted, they tuned in. It was like a hoarse “Wchaaaaaaaaaaa” sound, repeating over and over again. It was getting louder.
And it didn’t stop. Confused and listening hard, I slipped out from under the covers and sat on the side of the bed. It sounded like an animal. I can tell anyone about hearing possums in the middle of the night as a new Australian. The first time I’d heard them, me the only one awake in a silent house, my eyes had gone wide and I’d scuttled over to the window, peering out into the blackness, half expecting some huge Palaeolithic cat, somehow still extant, to be prowling down the street, growling out its death knell.
That’s what possums sound like in the dead of night: fearsome, otherworldly creatures, snarling out a warning. If you want sound effects for a supernatural horror film, look into the midnight noises of a brush-tailed possum.
But this didn’t sound like a possum. Not quite, and as it got louder, the difference became clearer. This noise sounded deeper, more menacing, as though belonging to a bigger animal. And it was loud. Considering I was in a sandstone cell and the noise seemed distant, it must be very loud.
With no window to peek out of, I got out of bed and slipped from my room, my ears pricked and goose bumps spreading up my arms. Not wanting to alert Micky to my being up, I tiptoed down the corridor, headed for the kitchen.
I stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes used to the dark, I could just see Jeanne’s skinny form sitting at the kitchen table. She got up, moving without incident in the dark, and switched on only the light in the range hood over the stove. There was a steaming cup of tea on the table where Jeanne had been sitting.
‘Want some tea?’ she asked me, quite pleasantly.
I was already on edge from the continued growling of the thing outside. It was louder in the kitchen, a constant refrain of “wchhhaaaaaaachhh…wchchchaaaaaaaaaahhh” going on outside the windows, sounding like some evil demon. Jeanne sitting in a dark kitchen, as though waiting for me, was more to be unsettled about. I thought of outsiders being fattened up to be used as sacrifices in weird small towns, miles away from any other town. Though, maybe that was mostly because I’d gained two kilos eating Jeanne’s food.
But Jeanne didn’t fit the TV horror show stereotype. Though in her sixties, she wasn’t plump and endlessly over-friendly. She swore like a sailor and smoked like a chimney, and she was standing across from me in track pants and an oversize t-shirt.
‘Erm…’ I uttered. Jeanne did know I didn’t like tea. I wasn’t sure why she was offering, then. ‘No thanks…’
Jeanne took it with a nod. She went back to her seat and her own cuppa, looking at ease. I bit the bullet.
‘Do you know what that is?’ I asked, indicating the covered window and whatever was out there in the endless outback. ‘Some kind of possum?’
Jeanne looked up at me. Her clever pale eyes were considering, and her thin lips drawn into that scrunched line. She seemed to think about it, then gave a small nod.
‘Fuck knows,’ she said, surprising me. I had thought she’d tell me it was just a possum. ‘People describe different things. But there’s different noises, and no good way to know which is making what.’
‘Is it…’ the ongoing growls really sounded demonic. ‘Is that,’ I tried again, ‘why you don’t want me going out at midnight? Because of some creature?’
Jeanne eyed me shrewdly, taking a sip of her tea.
‘Mm,’ she said noncommittally. ‘It’s why there’re no dogs in this town.’
That brought me up short. I hadn’t really paid attention, but now I thought of it, I hadn’t heard a dog bark once in Milladurra. Nor seen one, hazardous to an ambo or friendly. It was strange for any part of Australia that wasn’t a city centre, and stranger still in a small town. Dogs, I had thought, were ubiquitous out here.
‘They…’ I guessed, ‘get killed?’
‘If you forget to bring them in,’ Jeanne said. ‘And then it’s not a working dog if you let it sleep on the couch every night.’
Jeanne and I might have different ideas about dogs, but I wasn’t interested in a debate.
‘Come, love,’ Jeanne said, pulling out the chair beside her, ‘sit down.’
I hesitated, glancing over at one of the windows. Its blind, like all the rest – like every night – was pulled down to cover it entirely. I’d come to the kitchen to peek out; to search for some massive demon-beast in the darkness. Rather than moving closer to the house, now the creature’s snarls were getting quieter.
‘Nah,’ Jeanne barked, slapping the seat of the chair she’d pulled out. ‘Don’t you look out. You never look out. Sit your arse down here and take my word for it for once.’
It was her house. I still hesitated, though I no longer thought Jeanne was trying to fatten me up for ritual slaughter.
‘You said there were descriptions of it,’ I said. ‘Someone’s looked out.’
‘And they played with fire,’ Jeanne said harshly. ‘I’m not being a bitch, girl, I’m tellin’ you as it is.’
She wasn’t really. All she’d told me was that there were animals out here even weirder than the Aussie normal. She hadn’t told me why I couldn’t look out the windows. I gave in, though, and sat down in the proffered chair. Jeanne sipped her tea.
‘We’ve got one of your ambo mates arriving tomorrow,’ she went on, as though we’d always been having a light discussion. ‘New guy. Doesn’t want to rent a place here – got a girlfriend back in Sydney.’
I nodded slowly, still trying to hear the retreating sounds of the beast.
‘Good choice,’ Jeanne said, satisfied, her cup cradled between her hands. ‘You and this Michael bloke. Don’t set down roots here. This town’s a shit place to raise a family.’
I blinked. The kitchen seemed homier now I couldn’t hear the growling so well. I glanced towards the corridor wall where the picture of Jeanne with some man and a baby hung. It wasn’t there.
Surprised, I blinked and looked again. There were photos of a young boy on a bike, a toddler playing on a beach somewhere with Jeanne, but no picture of the young family. And, as I looked, no picture at all of the moustachioed man who had been, presumably, the boy’s father. Perhaps the photo I’d seen was just further along the corridor than I’d thought and I couldn’t see it from here.
‘You had a son?’ I asked Jeanne, looking back to her.
Jeanne was swallowing her latest sip. She nodded.
‘One boy,’ she said. ‘Ages ago now.’
‘…How is he?’
‘Living his life,’ Jeanne said easily. ‘He’s a good kid.’
I nodded, not about to push it. The man with the moustache wasn’t Micky. He had similar colouring to Micky, but that was about where the resemblance stopped. I had wondered when the moustachioed man had left the picture and Micky had entered it. I wasn’t going to ask, though. I got the sense Jeanne didn’t want to share her life story with a guest.
I did check the corridor’s walls, once I’d said goodnight to Jeanne, the growling disappeared from the night. The photo of the young family wasn’t there. In its place was a picture of Micky and Jeanne at Uluru, the two standing beaming at the camera with the massive red rock behind them.
Chapter 2: The Wanderers
Jeanne and Micky’s new ambo arrival was there by the next day’s sunset. Michael, a guy around my age, was likewise a city transplant. He was given another sandstone cell down a different corridor from my room, and he had pep.
The roster changed over to a new one, and, thankfully, instead of Rob or the likewise grouchy Harrison, I was partnered up with Michael.
‘Oi,’ I said, as the two of us worked together on this month’s drudgery of a stock check, ‘what animal’s this?’ I waited for Michael to turn around, screwed up my face, and made a throaty ‘Wchaaaaaaahh’. It wasn’t a great impression of the demon beast, but it wasn’t too far off. Expectantly, I waited for Michael’s answer.
He quirked an eyebrow at me.
‘Possum,’ he answered, hopping up into the ambulance to check the expiry dates on airway equipment.
‘I’d have said so,’ I said, ‘but it didn’t quite sound like a possum. Also it sounded like it came from something huge.’
A pile of BVMs on his lap, Michael cast me an amused look. I stood my ground outside the side door, leaning against the white, red, and yellow paint of the ambulance as I looked right back at him.
‘When I was a kid,’ he said, going back to checking expiry dates, ‘I thought there was a creature from the black lagoon outside my window. Took me ages to realise it was just a possum. They’re terrifying.’
Sounded like a description of what I’d thought the first time I’d heard one. In truth, that weird night sitting with Jeanne in the kitchen, hearing about strange dog-killing beasts, seemed in the light of day like a bizarre moment in someone else’s delusion. And the light of day, right now, was making the world absolutely bake. The crappy window air con inside the station didn’t feel like it did much when you were in there, but the moment you stepped out it felt like when you opened the oven door and got blasted with serious dry heat. Only that dry heat blasted you everywhere, and you had to keep feeling that.
I fanned myself with my uniform top. We were doing the stock check inside the station garage, the garage door rolled right up to invite a non-existent breeze. I wasn’t convinced it was cooler in here than it was on the driveway outside.
‘Fair enough,’ I said to Michael, changing the topic. ‘Movember stuck with you, did it?’
Michael looked up from his expiry dates, gave me a withering look, and stroked his 70s porn-star ‘stash. It really didn’t sit well on his face. Michael was in his early twenties, but he looked like a teenager trying to make the most of the first facial hair he could grow.
‘They’re de rigueur right now,’ he told me confidently.
I quirked a brow. They definitely were not. Not unless “now” was thirty years ago.
‘My dad’s got a great one,’ Michael went on. ‘Like Tom Sellick with extra bristle. He shaved it off at the end of November, and bet me I wouldn’t keep mine for a year.’ Michael grinned at me. ‘I’ve got a hundred bucks waiting for me.’
‘Glad there’s money in it for you,’ I commented, amused, and pushed off from the ambulance to grab a replacement D-size oxygen cylinder. We kept them in a cabinet against a wall of the garage, the smaller C-size on the top shelf, the hefty D cylinders on the bottom.
‘Nah – I’ve got it,’ Michael called from the ambulance as, in a bear hug, I hoisted up the oxygen tank.
‘I’m okay,’ I called back.
Michael had dumped his BVMs aside. He approached me with his hands held out for the cylinder.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I know. But I feel bad.’
I didn’t care enough to make a stand. It was more funny to me than anything that guys I’ll work with will grab more bags than me to carry, doing me a favour, then recognise me as equally competent while I’m holding one side of the carry chair. I didn’t see it as condescending with Michael anyway, more likely just some friendly thing he’d been programmed to do, so left him with the cylinder and moved to checking the trauma bag.
A thunk on the back of the ambulance made me look up. From the clanking and clattering at the other side door, Michael was still swapping the new cylinder for the old.
For a wild moment, I thought the wizened old man standing just behind the ambulance had swung a dead rat at the car. Then I realised he was, indeed, holding a dead rat by the tail, as he thumped the back of the ambulance again with a violent hand.
Naked from the waist up, the elderly man was only wearing a pair of dusty and threadbare trousers. His white hair was long and scraggly, and he looked pissed.
‘You al–‘ I began, but I was cut off.
‘You never fucking listen!’ the man shouted, brandishing his rat at me, stalking closer. ‘You bitch – selfish righteous bitch!’
Dementia and mental illness was the bitch, in my opinion. The man definitely seemed to think I was the problem, though. He called me a few other choice expletives as he advanced on me, hunched with kyphosis and enraged. He was skinny and in, at least, his late seventies, but I’ve learned not to underestimate the strength of ropey angry old man muscles.
‘Just have a seat, sir,’ I said, stepping towards a patio chair we had in the garage and shifting it towards the man. ‘Sit down. We’ll have a chat.’
I had hoped his dementia rage would chill with redirection, but with a cry of ‘Thoughtless cunt!’ he lunged at me, rat swung high. I dodged, thrusting the chair in front of him, and caught sight of Michael jumping into the ambulance. The old man had stumbled over the chair, its four feet skidding on the concrete as he hung onto it for balance. Far from being interested in getting smacked up by a dead rat, I backed off towards the door into the station. The station door locked itself with a keypad, and we’d shut it to keep out the heat. I realised the bad exit strategy, backing towards a door I’d have to unlock, only after I was already backing that way.
I flicked on my portable radio, clipped to my belt, gave it only a second to try to connect, and hit the distress button. Just in case Michael hadn’t done so inside the ambulance. Get the police here now.
The elderly man had regained his balance, one knee on the seat of the chair. Spitting hair out of his face, he glared up at me. He still had hold of his rat.
‘I want to hear what’s concerning you,’ I told him, standing as relaxed as I could. ‘Why don’t you take a seat and tell me?’
It was a valiant try. It didn’t work. With a scream of rage, the man launched at me, strait over the bloody chair. I had my hands up a split second before he got me and slammed me back against the brick wall by the station door. It did nothing to save me. My hair was in the old man’s vice-like grip, his dirty fingernails clawing into my neck, as I shoved at what felt like steel-banded strength. I barely registered the ongoing litany he spat at me, only stray snippets of what a useless waste of space I was reaching my ears as I smelled his fetid breath.
And then Michael was there, and instead of shoving at the man, I grabbed and hung onto his arms as Michael stuck the needle straight into the deranged man’s thigh.
Just a few more seconds, I told myself, shutting my eyes and focusing on getting enough air in past the hand the man had wrapped around my throat. A few more…
My heart was thudding in my head, my face weirdly both hot and cold; me only able to take little gasps of breath as my windpipe crushed under spitting fury. The man’s head was right next to mine, sweaty and gross, shoving at me as if his hands weren’t good enough.
The man’s grip eased. Michael must have doubled up his drugs. I’d been telling myself seconds, but that it had been only seconds before I could breathe again made me think Michael had used a sedative cocktail. Something caught and yanked at my hair as, Michael laying the man’s slumping body down on the concrete, I threw the gross clawed hands away from me.
I coughed, then gagged, turning away and sinking to the ground myself, trying to suck back into my lungs the air it had been deprived. Sirens beyond our station rent the air, and I shut my eyes, coughing and gasping for all I was worth.
The dead rat had been at my feet. And, unless we wanted to wait for a crew from a station four hours away, it was up to us to transport the sedated man to hospital. Our local hospital wasn’t approved to house mentally ill patients. So, just to add to the shit, I had to drive the dude three hours away to a hospital that was approved for that function, while Michael sat in the back with him, the next dose of sedatives ready in his breast pocket and the old man’s wrists and ankles restrained to the stretcher. It was a fan-fucking-tastic shift.
Topped off by me finding, when I cried myself into a shower that evening, a goddamn backing from an earring stuck in my hair. My own earrings were still in place. It was wonderful to know I’d acquired more from the old man than just his sweat when he was throttling me against the wall.
Struggling to sleep that night, I was glad to find Jeanne in the kitchen. This time there were no demon beast noises, and she offered me hot chocolate. I took her up on the offer.
‘Probably a wanderer,’ she said, having heard the story of the throttling old man. ‘We get ‘em sometimes. Doesn’t sound like anyone I know in town. Rob Brown’s got dementia, but his daughter keeps him well cared for, and he’s never done shit like that.’
It was the same thing the police sergeant had said: “Reckon he’s a wanderer, but I’ll check the campsites anyways. See if they’ve lost anyone.” In a town of only a bit over five hundred people, I did actually believe the sergeant, a man nearing 60, and Jeanne knew just about everyone, at least by gossip.
‘Bullshit day for you, love,’ Jeanne went on. ‘It was only one bloke, though, you hear?’ She gave me a close look, as though wanting me to recognise she was saying something meaningful. ‘I reckon you’re one of those people that likes always feeling they’ve done a good job. It’s one nutbag, that’s all. The wanderers can be a problem, but the rest of us love you.’
She’d said it with casual aplomb. I’d been ready to tell her that I know not to be too upset by any one patient, but that last line kicked it for me. It actually made the tears resurface, which surprised me as I hadn’t realised I’d been wanting someone out here to love me – someone anywhere, really. My own mother, my only family, lived on the other side of the world, and we didn’t get along.
Jeanne cracked a smile, pulled her cigarette out of her mouth, and slung an arm around my shoulders, giving me quite the motherly hug. And then she offered me supper, and, despite the extra two kilos I’d gained, I took her up on it.
Michael treated me with kid gloves the next day, checking in on how I felt and suggesting, as we hadn’t a job yet that morning, that we drive out to the river. We parked the ambulance on the dirt by the muddy trickle we called a river, and didn’t talk about it. Except for Michael telling me he’d buried the dead rat, which made me laugh.
We didn’t stay there long. Heat making the ground shimmer, we went back to the paltry air con of the station and life resumed as normal.
It was a week later, when I took it upon myself to sweep the garage floor, that I found, in the pile of dirt and crisped leaves, a Mercedes key.
I fished it out and frowned at it. The plastic badly scuffed, dirt crunched in around the buttons, the thing was just like our ambulance keys, only it looked about fifty years old. I flipped it over. There was no tag on the back that our keys would have to tell you which of our two cars it opened. But I pressed the unlock button anyway.
Nothing happened. I stuffed the key into the whatsits drawer inside the station, meaning to mention to the police sergeant when I next saw him that I’d found a key if anyone was missing one. Chances were, though, that it was an old ambulance key someone had lost a while back and had been replaced. Neither of our two cars were currently missing a key.
The next couple weeks continued with little to no incident. The application I’d put in a month back to be moved to a metro station came back denied, so I put in a new one. In the meantime, I had cheery Michael to work with, and Jeanne at the house taking care of me in her brusque, unsentimental way.
The weather changed, and, all of a sudden – and after months of dust and cooking heat – I was lying snuggled in my bed at night listening to the incredible cacophony rain made on a corrugated metal roof. It had started only about five minutes after I’d gotten into bed, but the unfamiliar damp chill had set in earlier.
This, I thought, was why most houses have roof tiles. The clattering and drumming above me was like Stomp had decided to perform on the roof in the middle of the night. I had no idea how I was supposed to get to sleep. I turned over, and was almost glad to hear my phone go off.
‘Serious laceration,’ the tired dispatcher told me over the phone. ‘Haemorrhage. Seems… they slit their bicep open trying to contain a leak.’
Since Micky had taken them, I’d begun keeping my keys stuffed in my breast pocket. It was a simple task to clip them onto my belt, pull on my boots, and grab my raincoat. I didn’t want to waste any time, particularly as we weren’t going to fang it in this deluge.
I met Michael in the kitchen, yanking on his own raincoat. We hurried out with the hoods pulled down over our faces and launched into the ambulance. According to the ambulance computer, our address was a rest stop some forty five minutes away. Windscreen wipers doing overtime, Michael pulled out and headed down the lane for the highway.
‘I’m not going to go fast,’ he warned me, leaning over the steering wheel to try to see through the sheeting rain. ‘Can’t see a bloody thing.’
‘Fair enough,’ I agreed, flicking water off the sleeve of my raincoat.
And then the rain stopped. We both watched the windscreen wipers, beating away, now without anything to wipe off. They started to squeak.
‘Huh,’ Michael said, flicking the wipers off.
I could’ve said the same. My focus had moved from the suddenly clear windscreen to the road before us.
Or lack thereof.
We hadn’t gone far. We’d barely gone down the road from the boarding house. I looked around, pulling my seatbelt loose to lean forward and get as much of a view out the windshield as I could. The side windows were still covered with runnels of water.
‘The fuck?’ I uttered.
Michael had slowed. He was frowning at the view out the windshield. The ambulance jolted over a shrub, and stopped in dirt.
There was nothing around. Middle of fucking nowhere, as I’d thought driving in. Only now the tarmac road wasn’t even there either.
‘Did I drive off the road?’ Michael asked, confused.
If he had, we couldn’t possibly have gone far off the road. I tried to see out of my side window. Even with the runnels of rain, I should be able to see the houses at the edge of town. Some winking lights.
‘There’s nothing,’ Michael said. His face was now pressed to the windscreen, him looking one way then the other.
I had to agree. There was nothing out there. Just outback dirt and shrubs. The town, as far as I could see, was gone.
I looked at the car’s GPS. There was a little whirling icon on it, buffering directions, but it was over the map I knew, with the highway and the little town there. Our location, per the screen, was right on top of the road, only a short way along from Jeanne and Micky’s house.
Michael eased off the break. With misgivings I couldn’t explain, I watched the ambulance bump over other little shrubs as he guided the car around, finding a route in the red dirt that didn’t have stubby trees ahead of it. He drove forward a bit.
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing.
I was peering at it too. It was like a little flat plane up ahead. Michael headed towards it, dodging larger shrubs and going slow in the powdery sand.
We came out, dropping down onto what looked like a dirt track. A low rocky outcrop beyond my side of the car looked to have been cut down to be level with the rest of the track. I glanced to Michael, and found him staring up the track the other way.
Leaning around him, I had a look. Out the corner of the windshield I finally spotted a building. Or, two. Two structures standing alone in the desert by the side of the track. The first one was more a timber shack than anything, a pole with a sign I couldn’t make out out the front of it. Behind that shack was a stone building I thought I recognised.
And that’s when I thought to glance at the time:
‘Fuck!’ I shouted. For all my dismissive scepticism, I slapped my hands over my eyes and urged Michael to do the same. All I knew was that I’d been warned not to go out now, and I’d been warned not to look out the windows.
‘What?’ said Michael, still stunned.
‘Just do it!’ I screeched at him, yanking my raincoat to completely cover my face. ‘Don’t look! Hide your face!’
I felt Michael pull the parking break, and when I asked him he responded with a, ‘Yeah, I’m covering my face… For how long?’
‘Until one!’ I hissed back. ‘Be quiet – turn off the engine!’
I don’t know exactly what I thought was going on. It was in my head that the demon creature might come to find us, though I wasn’t hearing its growl at all. I did hear Michael fumbling blindly to find the ignition, then the engine died and it was just silence. Complete silence.
‘Don’t even peek!’ I hissed, strapped to my seat and lost in the darkness behind my hood and hands. ‘Whatever you do, don’t look!’
There was a solid minute of silence before, in the driver’s seat beside me, Michael asked, ‘So… what’s going on?’
‘Did Jeanne tell you not to go out between midnight and one?’
‘…Oh yeah. Forgot ‘bout that. Something about snakes being more restless at this time.’
So she had. So it wasn’t only a warning for me.
‘Forget snakes – this is what happens if you do!’
‘But what is this?’
It must be an odd thing for any beastie out there, demon or not, to see: two paramedics, covering their eyes, sitting in an ambulance half-on some random outback track, having a hissed conversation. I was just glad I didn’t hear that awful growling.
‘I’ve got no idea,’ I answered. ‘But I don’t like it, and I’m hoping it just goes back to normal once one o’clock comes around.’
Michael left another beat of silence.
‘We’ve got a patient bleeding out,’ he pointed out softly.
I could’ve groaned. I knew that.
‘How’re you planning on getting there without a road?’ I whispered back. I supposed that was a fair point, as Michael didn’t respond. I did ask a couple times whether he still had his eyes covered, and he confirmed it both times. Then it was just silence. Complete silence, like the world around the darkness behind my eyes had ceased to exist.
My phone jangling made me start. A split second later, I heard the heavy pattering of rain start back up on the roof above me. Keeping my hood down to prevent me glancing out the windows, I pulled out my phone and took a peek at it.
01:00. On the dot.
And it was Jeanne calling.
‘Where are you?’ the woman on the other end of the line croaked. Numerous pings hit my phone at once. I yanked it back from my ear to see text after text come in, informing me of missed calls. Jeanne had spammed the hell out of my phone.
‘We’re…’ I answered her, and, finally, lifted my hood to look out. I pulled a face. ‘Er… in the bush,’ I told Jeanne. ‘But I think I see the road…’ The GPS had stopped buffering. It was telling us we’d driven a bit off the road.
‘Can I look yet?’ Michael, next to me, asked.
I glanced at him. He’d indeed covered his face, the neck of his rain jacket pulled up to his hairline.
‘Yeah, you’re good,’ I said.
‘You’re good?’ Jeanne asked, her voice tinny through the phone. ‘You’re fine?’
‘Well, I think so,’ I told her. ‘We’ve got to get out of what’s becoming mud, but otherwise we’re fine.’
There was a short pause on the other end of the line.
‘You’re so fucking lucky,’ Jeanne snarled at me, then added, ‘and stupid!’ And then she hung up.
It seemed a fair statement right then, the windscreen wipers starting up again as Michael got the car going. Not knowing what, exactly, we should be abashed about, we were an abashed pair all the same that jiggled the ambulance over bush and climbed it back onto the road. A road that was tarmac and running alongside the edge of a tiny town filled with houses and streetlights. A cute little town I was very relieved to see.
The radio crackled with a dispatcher checking in. We hadn’t responded to an update, according to her, and she wanted to know where we were.
Chapter 3: 1862
Having taken an hour to get to the guy, the job ended up taking hours. Thankfully, though, the emergency call taker had told him to put pressure on the wound, and that stopped his brachial artery bleeding him dry, so he wasn’t dead when we got there.
We trundled back into town by the light of early dawn, the rain having abated, heading in to restock the ambulance. Bleary-eyed from the long drive home in the early hours, I gazed out the windscreen. My gaze sharpened. Once again, the weirdness of the night seemed to fade into some other world as the light of day took over. I was doubting everything I’d seen in those minutes before one in the morning, starting to think we’d just gotten turned around in the rain and been confused.
But there, amongst the mix of 60s shab and outback pioneer glamour, was that building I’d recognised. The post office: one of the oldest buildings in town. 1862 was the date written above the door on the sandstone façade. I stared out at it as we drove past.
I could’ve sworn, just yesterday, the window frames and door of the old post office had been painted blue and black. Now they were painted white and red. Perhaps it was my stupid imagination, but I couldn’t help recognising it as two of the three colours our ambulance was painted.
One thing I’ve got to say about a deluge in a dustbowl: damn it smells good. It was its own kind of restorative to stand outside the station, stretch my legs, and take a good sniff. Even if I was speckled with another person’s blood.
We didn’t try to go back to Jeanne and Micky’s before the start of our shift. Part of it was that we could shower, change, and have a brief kip on station. The other part, for me at least, was not wanting to encounter Jeanne’s wrath just yet. I assured her again we were fine by text, then headed into the bathroom.
The day, after the excitement of the night, was boring. Near mid-morning, staring at my computer screen, I admitted to myself I had no interest in my computer game. Instead, I clicked out of it, pulled up a web browser, and punched “Milladurra” into the search.
I wasn’t the first to be interested in the tiny town’s history. There was a Wikipedia article, short but sweet, an “Exploring Australia” page, and a brief mention of the town on a few other websites about the history of the country.
Milladurra had started as a haphazard river port, being the site where goods to and from the surrounding areas could be exchanged with steamers up the river from Sydney. It then became a waypoint for travellers, and, by 1870, had become a budding town in its own right. In 1920, a train line was built to serve the town, providing a more reliable transport route, one that required neither the gruelling horse and cart ride over land, nor was dependant on the size of the river. It had ceased service in 1972.
The highway that currently ran through the town, I found, was first constructed in 1923, after the new bridge over the river was built. The old road, there before Milladurra was a town, had been built by convicts transported to the then penal colony that was Australia. That old road wasn’t in quite the same place the current highway was. And after nearly a century, there was next to nothing of it left.
The air conditioner whirring next to me, I got obsessed with working out where that old road had been. I searched and searched through local history pages, old planning documents; scouring national archives online for something that would show me the location.
And I found it, finally, after over an hour of searching. At the point the old road met Milladurra, it had been less than a hundred meters from the site of the new highway. And the old road, little more than a dirt track, had led straight to the post office.
I sat back in my chair. I still had no idea what the timber structure beside the post office had been. It wasn’t there now.
But I knew a few things. I knew the time when the area had been just a dirt road that led to a post office and little else had been between 1862, the date the post office was built, and 1870, when the area was created as a town. Eight years. Likely less than that, as Milladurra had been acquiring new settlers before it was declared a town in its own right.
It was mind-boggling to me – something remarkable to imagine: a time when, between distances so great it took days to make journeys on foot or by horse, there’d been a single waypoint in that wide, outback landscape where the sky seemed enormous. A waypoint that had been nothing more than a dirt road with a post office, and what was either a warehouse for river-borne goods, or an inn for travellers. That was it. No telephones. I’d thought I’d been out in the middle of nowhere, ages away from assistance if I needed it. Compared to the 1860s, I had no idea. What did you do if you sprained an ankle five days’ walk away from the nearest homestead?
Or maybe I did have an idea. Maybe I didn’t need to imagine it. Maybe I’d seen it, for a brief moment, from the passenger seat of an ambulance suddenly far from where we had been. That brief moment of minutes when none of our communications technology – our GPS – worked.
Icy prickles of the amazing – of the astounding – ran through my body and down my limbs. Is that what I’d done? Had I seen the past?
And if we could do that, why the fuck weren’t people flocking here to do it? I’d wanted to see history, to see how things had been, many times before when driving through the narrow streets of Sydney. And, after my imaginings had died, I’d always felt the incredible disappointment that seeing through time was impossible.
Charged by the remarkable, I shoved my roller chair back and looked over to where Michael was having a snooze on the sofa. Oh I wanted to tell him. I wanted to pick his brains and ask what the hell he thought of all I’d found online. I grimaced at his contented snores.
And then the phone rang.
‘Fuck you,’ I told it, then answered.
A job in town this time, and while the elderly person wasn’t on their deathbed, they did have kidney stones, which sucked arse, and had toppled over in their kitchen. They also had cellulitis. After dosing them up with morphine, hefting them off the floor and out of the house, and getting them onto a hospital bed, I felt pretty covered in the weeping fluid that oozed out of those red and puffy legs.
Jeanne and Micky’s boarding house looked like a refuge after that. I’d dropped Michael back at station to man the fort, and headed to my transient home for a new change of clothes. And another shower.
The kitchen wasn’t empty when I entered it. Jeanne and Micky, both silent, looked up at me as I stepped through the door. I got the sense they’d been talking about me just a second before I walked in. The profound silence filled the kitchen like an oppressive stench.
‘Hi,’ I said to them, then decided to follow that with, ‘I’ve got someone’s body fluids right down my front. Was going to shower and change.’
Jeanne was eyeing me. She blinked, then simply nodded. Feeling like their gazes were boring holes in my back, I took myself to the bathroom.
When I shut off the shower the mute duo in the kitchen were no longer silent. Curious, I leant my ear to the door, then, when that wasn’t good enough, quietly cracked the door open to have a listen.
‘You’ve gotta let her know mum,’ Micky was saying. ‘People don’t follow rules when you don’t tell ‘em why.’
Now I was more curious. “Mum”? As in, “mother”? I was half expecting a woman in her eighties to croak up, but it was only Jeanne who replied.
‘Fuck off Micky. Think I haven’t tried that? Ambos are all science and papers and rational… shit. They write you off as a future patient the moment you tell them what it’s all about.’
‘Yeah, but she’s seen now.’
‘And hopefully she has the bloody sense not to do it again!’
I didn’t really. I wanted to repeat the experience. But I was more preoccupied with that “mum” comment just now, especially after I heard Micky use it again and get cut off by Jeanne. I slipped the door shut and pulled a face purely for my own benefit.
Far be it for me to judge, but calling your partner “mum” didn’t sit well with me. Doing it in the bedroom was at least a pure kink. Calling them that in the kitchen was just weird.
I got dressed, stuffed the gross clothes in the hamper, and headed back to the kitchen. The two in it were once again silent as I approached, Micky at the table, Jeanne stood by the stove, like they had been on my first evening here.
Jeanne cut me off.
‘Lena,’ she said, ‘sit.’
I looked toward the door.
‘I’ve got to get back to the station,’ I protested. ‘I’m still on shift.’
Jeanne glowered at me, her pale eyes stark and brooking no argument.
‘Sit,’ she repeated. ‘Michael can call you if he needs. You’re two minutes away.’
That… was true, though I felt it missed the point. Regardless, I sat. If I was to be told something, I did want to hear it.
‘You were a complete dumbarse last night,’ Jeanne began, quite confrontationally. Her back had stiffened. ‘I’m going to tell you it straight, and if you don’t believe me then you’re on your own.’
And then, standing stiff over me in another flowery top and grey leggings, she gave it to me:
‘You got lucky,’ she snarked at me, like I was a misbehaving youth. ‘You got back. There’s nothing to say you ever will again. You saw that Wanderer – that’s what being out of time does to you! You walk out that door at midnight,’ she shot the kitchen door a malevolent look, ‘and you can be anywhere. It’s not so fun when it’s dinosaurs and you can’t breathe ‘cause the air’s not right. It’s shithouse when you walk into a pack of convicts who haven’t seen a woman in years. Or when you just get lost out there without water in the middle of fucking nowhere!
‘It’s not fucking fun and games!’ she just about yelled at me. ‘It’s not to be taken lightly! It’s losing people. It’s being lost! It’s the end of the fucking world half the time! I thought you got it with the sounds of God knows what, but you didn’t.
‘And it turns people nuts!’ she finished vehemently, for the first time looking properly furious with me.
I stared up at her. My mouth moved, then I said it: ‘Are you seriously telling me I was in the past last night?’
Jeanne drew herself up taller. Those icy prickles of the amazing shot through me all over again, making my eyes want to water.
‘Where were you?’ she asked.
I took a deep breath.
‘The 1860s, from what I can tell.’
Jeanne covered her eyes with a hand that dug into her temples. She turned around, caught up her cigarettes from the countertop, and lit up. She was puffing smoke out the window for nearly a full minute before she turned back.
‘You don’t get back,’ she croaked at me, and it looked like her eyes were overbright; red-rimmed, though I saw no sign of a tear. ‘Hear me? You don’t get back. You think you can, but then you’re stuck, and you try again the next night – you just end up somewhere else.’
Beside me, Micky was nodding solemnly. I looked back to Jeanne. She was rubbing her fingers over her mouth. She stopped, stuck the cigarette back between her lips, and took a deep drag.
Exhaling out of her nose, she pointed the burning end of her cigarette at me.
‘Don’t go out,’ she implored me. ‘You want to, but even looking is dangerous. Do it, and you lose your shit. Don’t drag Michael along with you either. He doesn’t need fucking up.’
It was a dire warning, and it stuck with me for the next couple days, making sure, despite the temptation, I didn’t go out. I knew, over both nights, that Jeanne was sitting up in silent vigil in the kitchen, ready to stymy us if either Michael or I tried to leave the house before one. Whether she’d told Michael as well, I wasn’t sure, but he didn’t want to talk about it. Far from the confused driving companion who’d questioned what in the world was going on with me that night, he shot down any attempt I made to broach the subject. He wouldn’t talk about it.
So I left it. And for the most part, things were normal.
Until I was fetching a coffee on the main street, in the middle of yet another hot day, and heard it.
Not the demon beast, though that would have made my blood run cold and my curiosity pique. What I heard could only be described as the sounds of many men picking at a dirt road. Of grumbled and shouted conversation; bawdy jokes, barely heard, that produced laughter. A distracting soundscape that made my mind warp, sure I was hearing something other – hearing something I wasn’t seeing – and made me spin around to look up at the tall old post office looming above me from across the street. 1862.
It sent shivers down my spine. Sent me to guzzling my coffee, hoping caffeine was an out. If it was, I can’t tell you for sure, but the sounds died away like they’d never been there.
That was the only occasion. For two weeks.
We’d stopped in town to find lunch after dropping someone off at hospital. Michael had headed somewhere for fried chicken. I’d chosen the cheaper option of a grocery store sandwich. I dallied by the shop’s doors, not ready to brave the heat of outside just yet. Taking two bites of my sandwich, I got up enough courage to walk out. I didn’t go much further, staying under the overhanging shade outside the door. I could see the ambulance from here, so I could hurry back if we got a job.
There weren’t many people out in the middle of a hot day. I didn’t spot her at first, but when I did, I eyed her from where I stood.
Rather than shorts and a t-shirt, the woman was wearing full-length skirts and a puffy white blouse. She even had an apron on. And I was pretty sure she was wearing a corset.
It was weird enough to see anyone wearing that. I’d like to say I watched her because I was a little worried she’d get heat exhaustion. But I wasn’t. I was eyeing her because I was seriously starting to wonder whether I was watching someone from the 1800s.
That, and she was darting looks down the road. In between looks, she backed away, shrinking behind the side of the grocery store. As though she was scared of seeing something but watching for it anyway.
She looked real. Not like some ghost or echo. Though she didn’t seem to notice me. I saw her duck back behind the shop, then got distracted by the clopping of hooves. I looked the other way down the road, expecting someone on horseback. I watched a beaten-up ute drive past, but there was nothing else coming up the road. The hairs prickled at the back of my neck again, sure I’d heard something other again.
The sound of horse hooves had disappeared, the street empty. I looked back to where I’d seen the woman.
She wasn’t there. Walking over to where she had been, I peered down the side of the shop. There wasn’t only no woman there – in full skirts or otherwise – there was no way you could stand there. Up against the side of the grocers were shrubs, thick and tall, that continued right along the side of the shop to the front of a house.
I’d stepped out into the sun now, and the squinting it made me do had me reflecting on how the woman hadn’t been squinting at all.
I caught sight of something up the road: like a ghostly whisk of skirts around the low fence at the end of the block. Forgetting my sandwich, I hurried after it.
I was looking along the intersecting road well before I reached the corner. But for a woman pulling stiff dried washing off her line as her children ran around the front garden, there wasn’t anyone there. I looked around properly, squinting in the bright sun, yet the only thing my eyes landed on was a pile of red rocks organised as a stack in the corner of the family’s front garden.
I looked up. The woman taking down her washing unpegged the last item. She tossed the towel into the basket and gestured to the stack of rocks. She wasn’t making eye contact with me, but many Indigenous people won’t as a sign of respect. I still figured she was talking to me.
‘People take the rocks from Uluru,’ she said. ‘Come on holiday and take ‘em away. Then they read about some curse and think it’s bad luck they stole the rocks. So they send ‘em back. But people who steal rocks from Uluru aren’t people who know much. They send ‘em anywhere, in the post. So long as it’s Australia, they think they’ve fixed some curse.’
I nodded slowly. My mind was still half on the woman in the full skirts.
‘So they get sent here?’ I asked.
‘Send ‘em anywhere,’ the woman repeated, tossing the pegs she had in her hand into a bucket. ‘The post office gets the rocks. They send it to my family because we are Aboriginal. My dad was an elder, but we’re not Anangu. We are not custodians of Uluru. People don’t know the different mobs. They just think Aboriginal is Aboriginal, so any Aboriginal would like rocks from Uluru. The post office gave us those rocks.’
I was trying to work out what to say to that when I got a call from dispatch, squawking into my ear over the radio. I acknowledged the job they’d given Michael and me, then looked back to the woman.
‘Is it… right to return them to Uluru?’ I asked.
The woman shook her head, back and forth then again and again.
‘Where on Uluru were they stolen from?’ she said. ‘How do you know? People send them back without telling what part they picked them up from. You can send them to Uluru, but they won’t go back to where they came from.’
Over the rest of the day, I thought of that again and again. It overtook my fixation on the woman with the full skirts, corset, and long sleeves, and when I dreamed that night it was of Victorian dresses and red rocks.
Strange perceptions became more frequent after that. It might be the sound of hooves or construction, unrelated to anything I could see around me, or an odd glimpse in the corner of my eye. Treating an injured roofer not far from the ambulance station one morning I was sure I could hear the whistle of a steam train. Barely a minute later, I jumped so far out of my skin at the sense that a train was racing up right behind me I lost the pressure I was keeping on the man’s wound for a second.
I went over later that day, once back at the station after dropping the roofer off at hospital, to check the area around where I’d heard the train. The street had houses on both sides, but the road ended just beyond the ambulance station. I stepped off the road into outback bush, and only had to look around for a few seconds to find a bit of rusted iron train track lying on its side in the red dirt. I found a few more like it nearby, and even some rail sleepers still sunken into the ground, patchy gravel around them.
I tried to talk about it with Michael, but, once again, he just accepted the information that there had been a railroad right across the street from the station, and didn’t want to talk about me hearing the train earlier that day. He said he hadn’t heard anything, and though he wasn’t curt or unfriendly about it, he just went back to watching TV.
The roster changed, me being scheduled to work, once again, with Rob. I got the short end of the stick, the roster change meaning I had to work more days in a row without a day off. Michael got lucky, getting a few extra days off before his next shift. Unlike me, he used his days off to head back to Sydney and his girlfriend. I came home from shift one day to a house that was back to holding only me, Jeanne, and Micky.
And I continued to notice odd little things. Seeing things that weren’t there, though, got spookier after dark:
I smiled at the sight of a young girl in the window as we called up to a house for an elderly man who’d fallen and injured his leg. For a second as Rob jumped out to grab the kits, I switched on the red and blue ambulance lights, making the dark street look lit up like we’d brought a Christmas tree to it. It was a little thing we could do to give kids a thrill when they saw us, but the girl through the window didn’t react, and, feeling stupid, I switched the lights off.
‘What was that for?’ Rob asked as I joined him with the ECG monitor.
I just shrugged, feeling silly about taking the time to switch on the lights when the girl had obviously not appreciated it and her grandfather was waiting for us in pain. The little girl wasn’t in the window anymore anyway.
‘Bumped the switch,’ I answered, slinging the strap of the ECG monitor over my shoulder.
The grandfather was on his own in the living room, lying back-down on the floor with what looked like a fractured fibula.
‘I’ve got to go to hospital?’ he asked, his voice creaky, once we’d gotten him comfortable and propped up against a sofa.
Rob looked up from preparing the splint.
‘Try that foot,’ he said, nodding to the man’s sore leg. ‘Give it a wiggle.’
The elderly man frowned, confused, but did as instructed. He winced despite the morphine.
‘You’ve got to go to hospital,’ Rob said to the cardboard splint as he shaped it. He hadn’t even needed to see the man’s wince. ‘You can’t walk. How’re you going to go about living here on your own?’
It risked a fat embolism to move that ankle more than needed, but I kept my mouth shut. Rob wouldn’t appreciate me calling him up on instructing the man to wiggle his foot. And, in some fairness to Rob, I didn’t actually think the elderly man would agree to go to hospital unless we gave him a good reason why he should, and Rob’s was a succinct way to demonstrate that. That, and a foot wiggle, while I held his ankle in place, wasn’t a big movement.
‘Do you have anyone you can call to look after the kid?’ I asked the man.
The man blinked old bloodshot eyes. He looked over at me.
‘What kid?’ he said.
‘The little girl,’ I said. ‘I saw her in the window.’
The man shook his head slowly, frowning at me.
‘I don’t have a little girl,’ he said. ‘I’m an old man. My kids are grown and moved away – and good on ‘em.’
I stayed silent, but the fact that I’d seen a non-existent little girl, there in the front window of the house, sent chills down my spine.
Chapter 4: Timeline Spaghetti
‘I told you,’ Jeanne said, ‘it makes people nuts.’
We were sitting together in the kitchen after that job. Remembering the non-existent kid in the window had kept me from sleeping. I took a slow sip of my hot chocolate.
‘That’s what it is?’ I said, putting my hot chocolate down. ‘I’m seeing things because I’m developing psychosis?’
‘Oh fuck your books,’ Jeanne said, waving her cigarette-adorned hand at me. ‘You’re seeing it ‘cause it’s real. That’s what makes you crazy. You see it. You hear it. It fucks you up.’
I considered that. Then I took another big gulp of my hot chocolate. The clock on the microwave ticked over to midnight. I stared at it.
Jeanne noticed. She looked over too. She took a long drag of her cigarette.
Far in the distance, I thought I heard the demon beast again. We were silent for a long while, and I guessed Jeanne was listening as hard as I was. It took a while before I was sure I was hearing it.
‘So that’s a dinosaur?’ I whispered, eyeing Jeanne as the “Wchhhhaaaaaaaaa!” screamed out into the night, hidden away beyond the closed kitchen blinds. I would have thought attributing the sound to a dinosaur would make it less frightening. It didn’t. Land Before Time and its cute dinosaurs had let me down, then.
‘Dino,’ Jeanne said. ‘Massive prehistoric kangaroo. Ancient croc.’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’ She eyed me. ‘I want to know,’ she said pointedly, ‘but I’m not stupid enough to try to find out.’
We lapsed into silence again for another few minutes, listening to the demon beast’s cries. It was a funny moment for me, like an offer of a chance to consider whether I really believed what Jeanne had been telling me. I was listening to something I didn’t believe was a possum – didn’t think was anything that was known to exist today. But for the rest of it…
I’d seen things. I’d heard things. I had my own anecdotal… things to consider. But I recognised that one of the biggest drivers in the idea that time in Milladurra was ephemeral between midnight and one in the morning was that I wanted to believe it. And just knowing that hit all my scepticism buttons. The moment I wanted to believe something was the moment I should be sceptical.
That, though, didn’t stop me asking, ‘Is it some kind of Indigenous curse?’
Jeanne had been staring absently across the kitchen. She blinked and turned her pale eyes on me.
‘The rocks from Uluru,’ I went on, explaining. ‘There’s a pile of them…’
‘There’s no curse on stolen rocks from Uluru,’ Jeanne said. ‘It’s just disrespectful to take them. The curse is made up by foreigners.’
‘Maybe not on the rocks, then,’ I said. ‘On… something else?’
Jeanne clucked her tongue and lit another cigarette.
‘Curses…’ she said, and shrugged expansively. ‘Ya know, Australia’s not a young country. There’s all this mystique and magic,’ Jeanne waved her hand as though dismissing mystique and magic, ‘about countries with houses and castles six hundred years old and still standing. So we think this country’s young because it doesn’t have that. But this land’s had people on it for sixty thousand years or more.
‘Aboriginal curse, maybe,’ she went on, sounding unconvinced. ‘Or Welsh, English, Scottish – Irish. This place had convicts doin’ all the shitty jobs before the people in nice houses lived here. There was a lot of wrong done on the land this town sits on. Damnation, curse, or just a fluke, I can’t tell you. There’s a lot of history lost because no one knew how to write it down.’
There was a sadness in that. I’d always seen the mystery before: clues we had to the past and trying to piece them together to know where humans came from and how they lived thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago. But it was sad too.
The demon beast’s snarling died away. Nearer by, I heard a steam whistle, then a shout, barely distinct over the midnight hoots of an owl. I frowned, listening hard, as another “toot-toot” called out. The whistle sounded closer than I knew the train tracks to be.
‘Paddle steamer,’ Jeanne told me. ‘Coming up the river.’
I’d seen the river yesterday. It definitely hadn’t had enough water for a steamer. It didn’t matter, though, anyway. Paddle steamers hadn’t been coming this far up the river for decades.
As the boat got closer, I could just hear what I thought was water being churned by paddles.
‘Isn’t Michael supposed to be back by now?’ I asked Jeanne once one o’clock came and the sounds outside were just those of the night. ‘He’s on shift tomorrow.’
Jeanne was making herself a cup of tea. I watched her back as she shrugged.
‘You’d know more than me, love,’ she said.
I hadn’t heard from Michael for over a week now. It was the town getting to me, but I hoped Michael hadn’t attempted to drive back through the night. I didn’t know how far from Milladurra the midnight to one zone extended. If Michael had left Sydney late…
Jeanne just hummed when I voiced that thought to her.
Michael wasn’t back by morning, nor the morning after that. Checking in on the station on a day off, I saw Rob pulling extra shifts to cover Michael. He didn’t know where Michael was either. I put my name down to cover a few of his shifts as well, and messaged Michael. The text came back undelivered.
Jeanne wasn’t in the house when I got home. Micky was, and he, like Jeanne, just hummed when I told him about my concerns and the undelivered text. Then he suggested I report it to the police. It seemed such a strange response when the couple had always been so adamant about their midnight warnings. I expected them to have more to say on the matter.
I did report it to the police. The sergeant took my report, asked me some questions about Michael, and told me he’d look into it. It was all pretty professional, but I did get the sense the sergeant wasn’t too concerned. I reported it to the ambulance service as well, and they took it more seriously.
It was a few days before I noticed the photo of Jeanne, her infant son, and the moustachioed man was back on the wall. Only… there was one thing different about it. The moustachioed man’s thick dark moustache, namely. The moustachioed man was clean shaven.
It could be a different photo. It wasn’t hard to shave off a moustache. I leant in closer to the picture. It looked like it was from the 70s, the colours faded to sepia tones. Yet, but for the missing moustache, I was pretty sure it was the exact same man, and the same photo: Jeanne’s smile wide, very pretty in her youth, the baby about a month old, the man with his arm around Jeanne.
And one other thing about the photo… It dawned on me slowly as my eyes darted around the man’s face. Maybe I hadn’t seen it before because of that heavy moustache. He’d been young, in his early 20s, though he’d said his father could grow a moustache to rival Tom Sellick’s.
He was about fifteen years older in the photo, nearing 40 and visibly older than Jeanne’s 20-something, but I was pretty sure I recognised Michael.
Jeanne was banging pots and pans behind me, setting up to cook dinner. I looked over at her, staring. Fetching carrots out of the fridge, she noticed me looking.
Her eyes flicked from me to the photo. Her chin lifted for a second, then she gave me a sharp nod and turned back to pick a knife.
‘Michael?’ I said, barely believing it. ‘Was he… your son’s father?’
Jeanne was chopping the carrots in sharp snaps from the knife. She made a noise I thought was some kind of stoic confirmation.
‘Reckoned you should know,’ she said. ‘So you don’t keep searching for him.’
Saying nothing and putting up a photo was a strange way to do that. But that wasn’t my primary concern. It was all so crazy – this, somehow, more crazy than any of the rest of it.
There were still no other photos of the man – of Michael – on the wall with the other pictures. I scanned each of them now.
‘When…’ I shook myself, then tried again, ‘When did he die?’
Jeanne’s back stiffened under her floral blouse. She was silent for a moment, before, ‘Pick any old date.’
‘He –‘ I broke off as Jeanne dumped her knife aside, letting it clatter onto the worktop. She lit up a cigarette, cracking a kitchen window open for the smoke.
‘He tried to save our son,’ she said between vigorous puffs. ‘In 1983.’
Jeanne kept her back to me, but I saw her pinch hastily at her eyes. She sniffed, then took another long drag. At a loss, I chewed the inside of my lip. I was guessing that meant Michael had gone outside after midnight again.
Jeanne sniffled and cleared her throat.
‘You – ’ she said, looking at the kitchen window. ‘You get that transfer back to the city,’ she told me, waving a finger at me over her shoulder. ‘It’s a bloody mess living here. Like a bowl of timeline spaghetti. You can try everything to avoid it, but it’ll get you.’
My lips had pressed together. Deciding on it, I rounded the table and wrapped my arms around Jeanne’s skinny shoulders. She sniffed, stuck her cigarette between her lips, and caught my wrist, hugging it to her.
I tried to process that over the evening, but didn’t even get a chance to finish dinner. Rob and I were called out to a job a couple hours away. It was to a campsite, and as I drove there, I recognised the route, not needing the GPS. I’d been there before, months back.
But when we arrived, it didn’t look the same. Cobb Campsite – I remembered that as the name – where we were headed that night Rob had told me to go to the toilet and get a snack before going out. The sign by the turnoff from the highway didn’t say “Cobb Campsite”, though. It read “Opal Miner’s Caravan Park”, and the place was completely different as I drove into it.
Either I’d mistaken the wrong place for Cobb Campsite, or, as I was starting to suspect, some things changed if you went out between midnight and one. Rob seemed to confirm the latter for me when I remarked to him that the place didn’t look the same, him doing so with nothing more than a suspicious look at me as he grabbed himself gloves and jumped out of the car.
All through the job, Rob was anxious to get the patient loaded and go, repeatedly checking his watch and trying to hurry things up. This time I was on the same page. If we hurried, we could just get the patient to hospital and either stay inside there or get back to station before midnight. If we got caught out on the road somewhere when the day clocked over to the next one… I wondered whether covering all the windows in the ambulance and hunkering down for the hour would be sufficient. It wouldn’t help our patient’s asthma attack, but it would be better than her and us ending up in a time with no healthcare whatsoever out here.
Wheeling the patient out on the stretcher, my ears caught the sound of a crackling fire and multiple men engaged in tired-sounding conversation. I paused momentarily, looking around the campsite. But for a few neighbouring campers, come out to help our patient, there was no one else around, and no fires lit. My skin prickled, and I jumped at the sound of some heavy tool being dropped onto what sounded like a rock. That had sounded like it was right next to me.
Irritated by my hold-up, Rob pushed me aside, his single earring glinting in the caravan’s side light. His lips a firm line and his jaw clenched, he wheeled the stretcher to the ambulance for me.
I raced the roads back into town, and we made it in good time, not only to the hospital, but we managed to get back to station, park the car inside, and close the garage door with two minutes to spare before the clock read all zeros.
Rob thumped into the station to get himself a cup of tea and file some paperwork away. The long travel times out here meant we depleted more of our drugs in a single job. I set to work signing out medication after medication to replace those we’d used for the patient.
The midnight restocking occurred in a silent garage. Outside it was a quiet night, only the sounds of leaves in the breeze and the odd scurry of a possum. I was listening out for anything. The garage door, just a roller sheet of metal, felt a flimsy barrier against the outside midnight world. It put me on edge. What was it, really, that kept us safe indoors in this town?
I put on a podcast, stuffed my phone into my breast pocket, and took my time restocking. Despite going slow, I finished up at barely the half hour. Closing up the ambulance, I switched off my podcast and headed for the station door.
The crunch of footsteps outside had me stopping dead in my tracks. Like prey, I froze. I’d gotten caught up in this town’s midnight dread, despite my lingering scepticism and curiosity. Alone, my only shelter the garage, I very much felt the need to be absolutely silent. Silent, and listening hard.
It wasn’t just footsteps. It sounded like the creature, whatever it was, was dragging something over rough dirt. My mind was conjuring up visions of the demon beast hauling prey. But I didn’t hear the demon beast’s snarl.
What I heard was a sob and a groan. Both sounded very human. And then the footsteps were hurrying, and my entire body went cold as something slammed against the pedestrian door of the garage.
‘Is anyone there?’ A woman’s voice cried from behind the door. Another slam on the door, this time sounding more like the palm of a hand had collided with it. Then pounding. ‘Please – please!’ she sobbed. ‘I need assistance! For mercy’s sake – open the door!’
A cascade of shivers ran down my body, followed by a lead weight of dread landing in my gut. This was an ambulance station. And I was a paramedic. I knew that keenly – felt the horrible clash of irreconcilable duties as I looked at my watch: 00:34.
‘Oh mercy – oh please!’ the woman cried outside. ‘He’s dying! My father’s dying! Please – please – anybody?’ The woman choked a sob. She slammed her fist against the door. ‘Please! I c-cannot lift him! He needs a d-doctor!’
My teeth grit, my feet moved. I hurried over to the door. I’d never known anything from the past to interact with this time before – no knocking on doors or the demon beast tearing open walls. The woman must be from our time, and desperate enough to venture out.
Michael and I had been lucky that one time in the ambulance. We’d gotten back okay. I’d just keep my eyes from seeing too much, I decided.
I only remembered Jeanne had said the prehistoric demon beast ate people’s dogs when I’d already pulled the door open.
I kept my eyes down, my body half-shielded by the door. What I saw was the fall of full-length skirts and the leather uppers of boots people no longer wore.
‘Oh – thank the Lord!’ the woman cried. ‘Sir – please – ‘ I saw her hand gesture to something. Instinctively, my eyes followed it to a man in an old-fashioned suit lying on his side in the dirt, trying to prop himself up on his elbow. ‘It’s his heart!’ the woman told me as I pulled my eyes back to the floor. ‘Is there a doctor in this town?’
There was the clop of hooves somewhere just down the road, the jangling of a harness and creak of a wooden cart. The woman grabbed my arm, beseeching me. And the station door slammed open behind me.
‘Lena!’ Rob shouted behind me.
It was all too much at once. My eyes landed on the woman’s face. It was the same woman I’d seen in the corset outside the grocers – the one who’d disappeared into thin air. She was dusty, and looked younger – her eyes puffy and red – but I was sure it was her.
‘Please m-ma’am,’ she said, pleading with me and giving my arm a frantic shake. ‘If you can just help me get him into the carriage – tell me where the doctor is –‘
‘Lena!’ Rob shouted again, angry –
I could see the man – her father. I didn’t want to look – felt the danger of it – but I could see him. He was pale, shivering, and clammy. He breathed in pained pants as his elbow slipped out from under him, skidding away in the sand and stones as he grabbed at his chest; pulled at his collar.
And then it was all going. I was gaping like a fish out of water, yet feeling like I was drowning, as things started to shift and fade around me. I hadn’t put even a foot out the door – hadn’t gone out.
But I had looked out. I thought I knew what going out meant. I’d decided that was the bigger danger. I hadn’t learned what looking out would mean. Other than Jeanne telling me doing so was playing with fire.
And now I was standing in red dirt, Rob swearing furiously behind me. The woman was still there, crying as she hurried back over to her father. He looked two seconds from cardiac arrest.
There was no ambulance station. Barely able to understand what I was seeing, now I did look around. A horse and cart down the dirt road. No buildings whatsoever on either side of the street, though I could see some shack down towards the river. The ambulance station, built well after whenever the woman and her father had lived, had disappeared like it had never been there. Along with everything that had been in it, but for Rob and me.
There were no streetlights. The street was lit by a bright full moon only.
And there wasn’t even anything I could do about the sick man. My kits, my ambulance, all our medications and equipment… It wasn’t there. It didn’t exist yet.
I’ve never felt more lost. Lost and discombobulated. The young woman burying her head in her father’s chest, crying out loud to the night, Rob roaring behind me, swearing at me –
The whistle of a train, ear-splitting and barely meters away, had me startling and whirling around. My head spun and I stumbled, falling to hands and knees, as a massive steam train was suddenly right there before me. I stared, watching it slow, chugging up along its tracks, rattling, wheels screeching metal on metal. I stared all the way up until the train pulled in at a raised wooden station up the street.
My breath wisped out of my lungs. I had to suck in a huge gasp of air to replenish what felt like nothing left in my lungs. I was shivering, my hands in dirt.
The young woman and her father were gone. No horse and cart in the street. And nowhere around me was Rob. I was alone, down on hands and knees feet from an old train line, a dirt road before me leading from the train station down to the shack on the river.
I rolled over onto my backside. Behind me was the town. Or what there had been of it at this time. A smaller and sparser clustering of buildings, some of them little more than rickety slab huts.
Michael and I had been lucky, that first time. Maybe it had been the rain. It had kept us from seeing too much.
Michael hadn’t been so lucky the second time. Or the third.
But maybe, just maybe, I would be. I curled myself up into a ball, hiding my face, squeezing my eyes shut. Don’t look. Just sit, and wait for one in the morning.
Chapter 5: History, Not Written in Stone
Not being able to see made the foreign world around me a thousand times more frightening. But I kept my head against my knees, my arms crossed over my head and my eyes tight shut.
The air around me seemed to change. It felt brisker – smelled different. I started panting, keeping it as silent as I could, shaking with fear. And then I heard it: the demon beast’s snarls. It sounded a distance away. I hung onto that knowledge, that it wasn’t right next to me, for hope. With next to nothing else to listen to, the menacing “Wccchhhhaaaaaahhh!”, repeated over and over, was deafening. It commanded the landscape – it, that beast, did. Not humans. Not any of the things we would build. We were nothing here.
Terrified tears slipped from my eyes. I had no idea what I’d do if I was left, stuck in some prehistoric time. No food, no water; beasts I couldn’t even name around.
I just wanted Jeanne’s kitchen. I prayed for it – for a cup of hot chocolate, the smell of Jeanne’s cigarettes, in a comforting kitchen with a woman who was the closest I’d ever known to a real mother.
The beast was coming closer. Though still far away, it sounded louder. I squeezed myself into a tighter ball, shaking like mad. Crying silently for the end of this horrible nightmare. I’d take all the scolding from Jeanne I deserved if I could just go back.
And then the beast was gone. The air had returned to smelling as I remembered it – to feeling sunburnt and dry. I didn’t know if it was one yet. I waited another dozen or so minutes, sitting on dirt in a night that was quiet but for a low buzzing, like the sound of a hundred air cons in the distance, before I convinced myself it had been long enough. My head still down, I slipped my phone out of my breast pocket, glad to find it was still there, and hit its wake-up button. My forehead pressed against my knees, I peeked down at it.
Barely breathing, I lifted me head, and looked.
I’d been fearing cars from the 60s, or a town smaller than the one I remembered. Down the street, though, were houses on either side of the paved road, a normal 21st century Toyota parked not far from me. And in front of me, just like I remembered it, was the brick front of the ambulance station, my butt mere inches from the concrete driveway that led to the closed roller door.
Still shaky, I pushed myself off the ground and padded quietly over to the pedestrian door. The keypad unlocked it, letting me into the garage. I switched on the light.
It wasn’t quite the same as I’d left it. There’d been two ambulances in here before midnight. Now there was only one: the newer one with the push buttons instead of the hand break. In a corner of the garage, as well, was exercise equipment I’d never seen before.
I let myself into the station. All the lights were off there as well. And no one was in.
I’d been hoping to see Rob sitting in there, ready to shout at me. But he wasn’t. My stomach cramped and my eyes prickled with tears.
I was remembering the stooped old man – that first Wanderer I’d met. Who’d hated me, tried to throttle me, and left the backing of his earring in my hair.
The whatsits drawer was more full of stuff than I’d known it. But it was there, under the other junk: the Mercedes key that looked aged beyond plausibility. The key I’d found a week after my encounter with the earring-adorned Wanderer.
The new ambulance keys are just buttons on a plastic fob. No metal mechanical car key sticks out from them. But they do have the mechanical key, hidden inside the casing, there for when the battery runs out.
I slipped out the mechanical key on my way to the ambulance in the garage. The key fit in the door, and the car unlocked as though I’d hit the button on my own key still dangling from my belt hoop.
It was the car Rob and I had been driving that night. But our stuff wasn’t in it. And it had a box of surgical masks on the dashboard, P2 masks stacked on a shelf, packets of PPE stuffed behind the driver’s seat, and a sticker on the windshield advising of safe practices for something called Covid-19.
It sent another horrible chill down my spine, and cold tears into my eyes. I’d been worried about being stuck in the past. But I’d never heard of Covid-19, and the last time I’d had to wear a P2 mask had been treating a kid with suspected meningococcal disease.
My elbows resting on the passenger seat, I unlocked my phone. It took a moment, but I watched the date on it change from 2019 to 2021. The same day, in February, two years in the future.
For maybe a few hours I sat in the station, Rob’s key in my pocket and the one I’d been carrying hung up on its hook, scrolling through news on my phone. Reading up on a pandemic saved me from focusing on the entire reality. It didn’t make me any less scared or feel any less lost. But it was better than confronting the fact that, while I’d at least returned within two years of the time I’d left, I’d condemned Rob to… something else entirely.
Then I got up. There was one indication in the station that I’d once worked here: I found a t-shirt and pair of jeans I’d kept on station as spare clothes in the bottom of a lost and found bin, and changed into them. I stuffed my uniform, some food pilfered from station, and a few water bottles into a reusable shopping bag I found under the sink. I hadn’t more of a reason for doing so than the fear, felt while I’d been curled up on the dirt outside, of being lost hungry and without water in the middle of nowhere.
I couldn’t stay in the station. Or maybe I just didn’t want to. Whatever paramedics were on duty, they could come back to the station at any time, and what was I going to tell them? The guilt over Rob was eating away at my stomach.
My car would have long been towed, if it hadn’t just disappeared. On foot I headed to the home I’d known for months. At least… maybe after two years Jeanne’s anger might have cooled enough that she wouldn’t tell me off too harshly.
The sun was starting to rise as I walked down the road to Jeanne and Micky’s boarding house. Though it was early, there was a light on in the kitchen. I took a deep breath, stepped up the kitchen door, and knocked.
‘Just a minute!’ a man called out to me. Micky, I thought. I waited that minute until the door swung open.
My initial thought was that it wasn’t Micky. The man was in his early 40s, looking fit and healthy, rather than in his late 60s with a beer gut. He was, though, wearing a white undershirt over a pair of boxers.
And… And I did think it was Micky. He looked just like Micky. Only twenty-something years younger.
‘Micky?’ I whispered.
The man frowned at me.
‘Yeah?’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’
For a long moment, I just stared at him, my heart thudding and oddly aware of my lungs breathing in and out automatically. Micky frowned harder.
‘You all right?’ he asked.
‘Erm…’ I said, then swallowed. ‘Is… is Jeanne here?’
The man blinked before frowning again.
‘No…’ he said slowly. His expression lightened then, and he nodded a little, as if to himself. ‘You one of my parents’ Wanderers?’ he asked, lowering his voice to speak more quietly.
‘I –‘ A shudder went down my spine. ‘I guess I am,’ I whispered.
‘Right… Look,’ Micky said to me, glancing into the kitchen behind him. ‘I’ve got kids here. It’s not a boarding house for you guys anymore…’ He trailed off, eyeing me. I was fighting a new wave of tears, my lips pressed tightly together. Micky had left one of Jeanne’s garden ornaments beside the kitchen step. It was a little gnome with a polka dot jacket. ‘Hey,’ Micky said kindly, ‘if you need a place… We can probably put you up for a couple days until you figure something out.’
I swallowed hard, then cleared my throat.
‘What happened to her?’ I asked, looking back to Micky. ‘Jeanne?’
Micky sighed. He checked the kitchen behind him again, then leant against the doorframe.
‘They – she and my dad – went out,’ he said quietly. ‘To get my eldest after she ran outside – it was while my kids were staying here with them. She’s fine – my daughter – they got her back. But my parents, Michael and Jeanne, didn’t get to come back.’
‘When?’ I breathed.
‘About eight years ago,’ Micky said.
I breathed slowly, keeping the tears at bay; my mind catching up in leaps and bounds.
‘Because you didn’t go out,’ I said.
Micky frowned again.
‘I knew Jeanne in 2019,’ I told him. ‘She lived here with you. Your dad, Michael, had gone out after you, in 1983. He disappeared.’ I gazed back at Micky’s disconcerted stare. ‘In 2019, you were in your 60s.’
‘Uh…’ Micky gave a distracted nod. ‘Things can… change,’ he said uncertainly. ‘Look,’ he went on, ‘do you want to come in? Have some breakfast? My missus won’t mind – but I’d ask you to keep quiet about it all around my eldest. It’s not an experience she needs brought up out of the blue.’
I rubbed my eyes, and shook my head.
‘That’s kind,’ I said. ‘It’s what your mum would have offered,’ I added with a small, sad smile. ‘She had me put on about four kilos. I appreciate it… but…’ I shook my head again. ‘I won’t impose.’
And I left Micky there in the kitchen doorway as I walked off, nowhere to go now, a full shopping bag in one hand and wiping tears off my cheeks.
It had taken me a stupidly long time to work it out after hearing Micky call Jeanne “mum” in that homey kitchen. I’d finally worked it out, but there was no way now to learn the story of the Micky I’d known. The Micky I’d just met looked about the right age to have been the baby in that 70s photograph, Michael and Jeanne smiling at the camera on either side of him. The Micky I’d known must have been shifted to some other time when he went out in 1983 – lived twenty-something extra years since his birth, and found his way back to his mother at some point. I was glad, though, that in this timeline – this piece of the spaghetti – Jeanne and Michael had gotten more time together and with their son.
Jeanne had said you never get back. You go out time and time again, but you just end up somewhere else. Yet I’d gotten back, first in the same year, then, this morning, only two years later. Micky had gotten… if not back, then only twenty-ish years out of place. Focusing on those stories ignored Rob’s, Michael’s, and, on this strand of timeline spaghetti, Jeanne’s. But it did mean there was hope. And, frankly, what did I really have to lose now? I had no family. I’d barely spoken to my Sydney friends in months, them joining the long list of friends I’d left behind as I moved from country to country, then out here to this tiny town.
The closest person I’d had was Jeanne. And I felt like, whatever part of her timeline I appeared in, she’d get it, have some brusque wisdom for me, and feed me a bacon sandwich.
My bank card, unsurprisingly, didn’t work. It was expired, if my account even still existed. I had some cash on me, though, and used it to stuff more food into the shopping bag. The bag bulging with cans, a veritable tank of water in my other hand, I walked out into that endless outback and found a place to wait out the day.
Making it back was my hope, though not one I counted on ending up perfect. If that didn’t work out, I’d at least get to see history like only the people in this town could. Maybe I’d write it down, so it could be known by the people who came after. Maybe I’d figure out what was going on here.
Sleep deprivation and the constant barrage of dry heat had me finding a snooze in the meagre shade of a small tree. I woke with a pain in my side, sand up my nose, and a dent left in my cheek from the can-filled bag I’d been using as a pillow.
Groaning, I sat up, rubbing my side. It seemed I’d lain down on rock only barely cushioned by red sand. I swept the dirt off it, revealing the bugger of a rock that had near cracked my ribs. It was a lot bigger than I’d initially thought it. Sweeping more sand off the rock, I noticed lines carved into it. It made me dig, the morning turning into afternoon, until I could see the entirety of the rock carving.
It was of a beast, significantly larger than the anthropomorphic figure next to it that had its arms raised in the air. The beast had a bulky body, like a hippo, with two large protruding front fangs.
Curious, I left my bag and water under the tree, and went looking for other rocks. About a hundred metres from the highway, I found a rocky outcrop I’d seen before. It was untouched on one side, but looked cut in half by tools that left scores in the stone, the other side missing. It was the rocky outcrop that convicts had picked away to build the old road.
On the side of the rock was another drawing, weathered by time. The drawing had headlamps, a bonnet, a boxy body with windows, and a chequered pattern on the side, rather like an ambulance.
People had written history down, I thought, sitting back under the small tree to a dinner of tinned tuna and green beans. They’d carved it into rocks.
Epilogue: My Wanderings
I Wandered for about three weeks. It was the biggest adventure of my life, and you’d get a long and inconclusive answer from me now as to whether I regret it. I’ve seen country after country, lived in place after place. Now I’ve seen many different times as well.
I’ve seen prehistoric megafauna, been an oddity observed by Indigenous people before any other white person got to Australia, hidden from convicts – seen a war memorial be put up, seen the 70s in its not-so-rocking glory out in Milladurra, watched paddle steamers come up the river, and just wandered.
I saw the future one more time – my future, that is, after 2019. It was 2037, and it’s no dark cloud of doom – there’s no flying cars either, ‘cause that still hasn’t proved practical – but in 2037 Milladurra’s near a ghost town, the river bone dry, bore water has run out, and any water drank has to be trucked in by vehicles that still use fossil fuels, even if a couple people drive by in electric cars. If I can ask future readers for anything, it’s to please push Australia to do more by way of renewable energy, and do it earlier. Scotty From Marketing can shove his love affair with coal up his arse.
If you’re ever in Milladurra, and look out or go out between midnight and one in the morning, I’ve got this extra tip for you: if you end up breathing humid air that has your head spinning despite filling your lungs again and again to the brim, curl up in a ball, hide your face, and don’t look until that era passes away into another one. I haven’t seen dinosaurs, because if I’d gotten stuck then, I may well have died before I got to the next midnight. That’s the one limitation. And maybe it only happens on the new moon. Full moon and new moon, I think, are the times when the power of changing time is strongest in Milladurra.
I got less scared of the changing time after that second night out in it. Beyond trying to escape the pre-nice-oxygen-levels era, I looked, keeping an eye out for 2019 – or some other time I wanted to stay in. Or for danger. The more I lost hope in ever finding the time I’d come from again, the less scary it was to be out and look.
It doesn’t seem you can go back to a time when the Earth was morphing magma. Saved me from pain, that. Though maybe, if you try it on enough new moons, you can.
I never found Jeanne. Obviously, from the date of this manuscript, I never found my original piece of spaghetti. Just as Jeanne warned me I wouldn’t. I’ve got no idea where Jeanne and Michael ended up, or when.
But I saw the demon beast. It’s a furry thing the size of an elephant, with thick jutting fangs. I can’t look it up, because Wikipedia doesn’t exist yet – and that’s a big bummer – so I don’t know what’s the right name to call it. They seem to live in small family groups. The ones I’ve seen are two or three massive beasts, ranging together and snarling to each other. They’re frightening as hell when you come across one, but they leave you alone if you hide, stay quiet, and don’t move. Their babies are cute, though. I saw one poking out of its mother’s pouch once. Just a little head and stumpy paws. By the way, by “little” I mean the baby demon beast is the size of a sheep. The baby has a sweeter snarl. I secretly hoped, over those three weeks, I’d find one I could keep as a pet, even if I wasn’t sure whether it could eat tinned tuna.
I’ve written every one of my experiences time-hopping down in a journal. I also added to the rock carving under the small tree. Spending a day in the outback sometime presumably not too long before the post office was built, I carved a speech bubble onto the rock, making it look like the demon beast someone else had drawn was snarling out a loud “Wchhhaaaaaaaahhh!”. It’ll look like graffiti to anyone who finds it a hundred years from now, but I promise you I did it well before Milladurra existed and modern graffiti artists got started.
I’ve tried to give a good indication of why I began what turned into a three week long Wander through history. It’s a good question to ask: why didn’t I just stay in 2021, it far closer to my own time than I ever got since? Why didn’t I chicken out at 11 that night?
I can’t tell you why. Not perfectly. I remember it as a hopelessness, a desperation, and a wild curiosity that just became more cemented in my head when, on that first night of choosing to Wander, my wristwatch told me midnight was minutes away. I think part of it, as well, was that mix of wanting to believe, and feeling I needed to be sceptical because of that.
And the freedom. The unknown is terrifying. Confronting the unknown not as much so. When your phone runs out of battery, that’s a problem – until you realise you don’t need it. I didn’t need my phone. I learned I didn’t need to be perfect – not at my job, not at anything. I just needed to survive. It’s like jogging when you get good at it: you’re out there, only your own two legs to hold you, and they’re all you need. It was a powerful way to leave concerns I didn’t realise I’d had behind. To stop giving so much of a fuck and start rolling with the punches.
I can tell you why I stopped Wandering, though. I ran out of food. On nights that took me well into the past, I refilled my water tank with the freshest river water I’ve ever drank. Yet I’m a shit hunter.
I ran out of food, and I started to wonder how much I was changing the world every time I Wandered. A jump of two years had had Jeanne going from being alive with a son the same age as her and Michael dead, to Jeanne and Michael disappeared, a younger Micky raising his own kids. That worry started to win out against vanishing hope and curiosity that couldn’t last.
The Victorian era, for whatever reason, was the time I saw the most often. There came a night where I was standing by the old dirt road, looking at the sprouting of a few buildings around the post office, when I decided then and there to just stop. One o’clock had come and passed, so I walked up the dirt road in my trusty ambo boots to the shack beside the post office (I can tell you now, it’s both something of a haphazard inn and a warehouse) and traded my earrings for dinner, lodgings, and passage to Sydney.
A few days later I was on the first steamer up from Sydney. I’d come into Milladurra on a twelve hour drive. I left it on a days’ long journey by river.
There’s so much of the country you see when you’re travelling that slowly. I watched outback turn into mangroves from the river, wearing some appropriate dress I’d traded my hardy boots for, with my dead phone in one hand, a grocery store reusable shopping bag as my only luggage, wondering at this crazy land. I was just an unknown wanderer from the outback, who had to watch her language and navigate a society I didn’t understand. There I was, on a Victorian paddle steamer, a century before I was born.
And I met a man. A nice man, who, over the next decade, did slowly come to learn – and accept – my real story. Met him on that paddle steamer. He worked the steam engine back then, in the lawless world of non-high-society New South Wales, so a Wanderer from Milladurra wasn’t too bad a prospect. With some tutoring from me, he became a doctor – because damn is it easy, comparatively, to do that in this time. The doctors now are nothing more than misguided paramedics. Easy – if you’re male. I couldn’t follow my original calling. And I got pregnant.
But bitterness aside, I’ve lived a story that deserves telling, and for the sake of history, I’ve written it down. I’ve seen Sydney as the city I once tried to imagine the history of. Those narrow streets are a lot less glamourous than I remember them post-gentrification.
I won’t live to the 1970s. If I can convince them of it, maybe I’ll get one of my children to send a warning to Jeanne. 1983, and sometime around 2013: Jeanne must lock all children in her house down so they don’t make either her or Michael go out or look out.
And, I’ll write here for future generations to read what I wish to say to the people of now: the fuck you guys doing giving ipecac to children with croup? You want to make them aspirate their own vomit when they’re already struggling to breathe? Thinning mucous, if ipecac actually does that, isn’t that big of a benefit for these kids. Nebulised adrenaline, guys, and corticosteroids. Pending invention of that, try the old wives’ tale of steam, sitting upright, and close monitoring.
Dumbarses trying to kill my kid with hokey old-school medicine. Fuck off. I’ll take care of them myself.
I haven’t found my great-great-plus-grandmother Lena’s journal, though I’m looking for it. I may be a sceptic, like she once was, but I’d love to read her Wanders.
I had a good look at the epaulettes in that sandwich bag that have lived in Grandma Lena’s box for decades. If you hold them up to the light, you can just see the lighter writing on the faded fabric. It says “Paramedic”.
Where her phone went, or her watch, or anything else, I don’t know. Maybe she chose to get rid of them in a way that wouldn’t invite too much scrutiny, keeping only a couple things. Or maybe she traded them.
For the wonky metal thing, I have looked up pictures of Mercedes keys. The bit of metal in Grandma Lena’s Box does look like the mechanical key you can slip out of an electronic key fob. It’s the best preserved thing in that box, and no one in my family – no one who’s had access to the box – drives a Mercedes.
I want to provide one more thing Grandma Lena couldn’t. I do have access to Wikipedia, and I think I know what the “demon beast” was. It’s an ancient marsupial called a Diprotodon. It lived in Australia between 1.6 million years ago to about 40 thousand years ago – some 10 or 20 thousand years after humans first arrived on the continent. It had two large protruding front teeth, and was about the size of a hippopotamus.