THE SOUND OF buzzing filled the dodgy motel room, bouncing off the dirty tiles and dancing beneath the flickering florescent light. Large chunks of brown hair fell by his bare feet. Sol paused as a siren passed in the dark outside. He turned and spied through the bedroom doorframe as it faded into the distance, then resumed sliding the vibrating razor across his scalp like a car humming through a cornfield.
Finished, he ran a hand across the weird bristles of his head and eyed himself in the stained mirror – tilting his head from side to side and gazing down the long green alleyways of his eyes, which seemed to peel off into forests forever.
He yanked the black cable from the wall and tossed it absently into the grey tin by the sink. Deftly, he reached into his shopping bag and pulled out a box of cheap hair dye, squeezing its soft purple liquid generously into his open palm, then massaging it into the dark carpet of hair remaining on his head.
He did look strange, plonking onto the bed wearing nothing but a cheap hairnet and flicking through the few available channels on the beaten and ancient television. He was far from entertained, but soon he was walking out of the door freshly showered and blond. Feeling handsome and unrecognisable in black jeans and a plain white T.
His faithful red ’95 Corolla carved the road between the tall pines towards the small town nearby. Headlights curving round the S-bends like a snake of light gliding towards some undefined prey. He blew smoke out the window, humming to himself, and the moon shone full in the belly of the night.
The town was a small square of light cut into folds of darkness. Just like all the others.
He pulled up at one of the two pubs it had to offer. These environments, there was always a too powerful Southern Cross energy in the air. A mix of colonial and convict hostility that summoned eyes to scrape across his strangeness. Too white to be black and too black to be white, and certainly not from around here. Still, he revelled in it like a strange breed of birdwatching.
As he entered, his premonitions were instantly validated. Weathered locals stared at him from their seats at the sticky brown bar. A tribe of flannel shirts, footy shorts and powerful quads sent a wave of disapproval his way. It took him a moment to remember that he now had blond hair on top of things. No bother.
The long bar bench was empty but for the five stereotypes bunched together on their regular stools that no doubt knew the mould of their arse cheeks. He walked right up to them and leaned on the bar, unnecessarily close.
He looked along the taps speculatively, and eenie-meenie-minie-moed until he landed, intentionally, on the most pretty-pink camp beer he could find.
The bartender eyed him for a moment while pouring his drink from the tap. Summing him up. She tilted her head and smiled at him a little. She was young, sandy haired and pretty.
‘Nine dollars, sweetheart.’
Sol gave her $10 in cash and said nothing, but smiled with a touch of cheek.
Right on cue the Australian flags of the locals’ eyebrows were raised and he heard them muttering and scoffing to each other. Taking a large gulp of the fruity gold, Sol released a large and unnerving sigh of pleasure that sent ripples through the men. He turned on his elbow, crept a smile like Felicia from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, pursed his lips, winked, then walked off to a booth.
He sat with his back to them at the other end of the room and looked out through the window.
‘Fuck ’em,’ he thought, chuckling to himself. Sipping his delicious ‘gay’ beer, enjoying kicks they would never permit themselves. Outside on the street stood the tall neon sign for the bar: The Roundabout Inn. There was a faint drizzle of rain, and neon soaked into the wet asphalt and small pools in the gutter.
‘Fuck me, turn it up, would ya, Suzie?’ came a voice.
The beat-up box above the bar grew louder.
A group homicide has taken place at a motel in the Greater Taree Shire. Police arrived on the scene early this morning to find what appears to be a gang-related bloodbath. The bodies of twelve known bikie members were found in one of the overnight rooms. We spoke to an eyewitness earlier today:
‘I’ve been running this motel for thirty years and we get our fair share of junkies and violence and riff-raff blow through here but this is really something else. It was like walking into the aftermath of a fucking animal frenzy. I mean these guys – they’ve literally been ripped from limb to limb. There’s seriously more red on the walls than there is white. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t understand how it could have been one fella who done it. But my eyes don’t lie. I know what I seen.’
The suspect is a tall, olive-skinned man in his late twenties with shoulder-length brown hair. The witness could not recall what car he was driving.
In other news a semi-trailer has crashed…
Suzie turned the TV back down; the bar was silent.
‘Bloody hell, what is the world coming to?’ broke in one of the locals.
‘Probably meth-related I reckon, fucking brutal.’
‘Well, fellas, you can either bandit-do or bandit-don’t.’
‘Nice one Larry, ya larrikin, have you ever considered stand-up?’
‘No, Steve, I haven’t thought of that, that could be a good idea actually. See I usually fuck your wife laying down.’
And with that charming piece of banter, the violent murder was gone from the locals’ mind; soaked between the cracks in the bar-stool wood, sucked under the vinyl of the sticky floor and gone like a ghost down the avenues of the peeling paint patterns on the walls.
SOL SAT ALONE in the smokers’ section and ran a hand across his scalp while he sucked at a cigarette. Hours had passed slowly at the pub, and his foot was tapping wildly as his head began to whirl. He tried to focus on the sharp invisible web of the stars and the internet of sound that croaked from the forest before him, but could not.
He straightened his back and inhaled deeply, trying to keep calm as his body began to shudder. He blinked hard and stared up into the night, watching as the air took on the shape and thickness of water. The sounds and voices began as neon patterns and entities formed impossibly in the places where invisible currents rolled and pressed against each other.
He shook his head sharply and inhaled more cigarette, trying to steady himself. But he could never control when it wanted to come. A single note reared in the back of his head, gathering in deafening intensity as his eyes traced a molten crack that was ripping through the night sky, breaking and branching across it like fracturing glass.
His eyes began to burn as the light grew blinding. He lifted a hand and turned – only to find he was no longer alone. Beside him in a rocking chair sat a man with a kookaburra’s head. He turned to look at Sol, and Sol saw in the black of his eyes that the two of them now sat plumb in the middle of a red desert night.
The blood-sand stretched in all directions forever, and the kookaburra man pointed into the sky, where a colossal snake could be seen winding its way through the darkness, gathering stars in its mouth and leaving them dotted behind in its wake. Sol gawked in awe. The kookaburra man mirrored him and spread his beak wide, releasing a powerful cackling call. A laughter broader than laughter. A laughter of strength, pride and immortality that broke from his chest like a blade through the night.
It pierced through Sol’s skin and deathlessness hung in the air as two burning eyes – attached to a rearing head – locked fast on the two men. The kookaburra man clapped and the snake bore down towards them at furious speed as Sol began to sprint forwards through the sand, changing with each step into another body, another soul, into ancestor after ancestor backwards through time at shutter speed. Living the entire life of each with speeding steps through the generations. Gliding through their million souls like a ray through raindrops until he was no longer running, but sliding, long and lithe, like a flame of endless ghosts. Down, down, turning, burning, down towards the cackling sound. Towards unfolding laughter. Stopping abruptly with excellent force to hover…gaze…hover…gaze…jaws open before the face of a young blond man whose eyes mirrored the snake’s as they burned.
Sol slid into the snake’s mouth and the snake slid into his.
‘NICE NIGHT THEN, huh?’
Like elastic, Sol snapped back to the present, where he was sitting in the smokers’ section of a dodgy bar in a nameless town. It took him a moment to realise that Suzie the bartender was standing beside him, looking at him inquisitively. His eyes must have been bulging out of his fucking head. He quickly gathered himself and dumped the cigarette (which was now just a long stalk of ash) into a nearby tray.
‘Uh, yes. Yes, it’s lovely.’
‘I was just wondering if I could pinch a cigarette off you?’ Suzie said, sitting beside him. ‘I’ve got a quick break and I left my pouch at home.’
‘Oh yeah. Sure, of course.’ He fumbled in his pockets, passing a pouch, filters and papers over to her.
‘Thank you.’ She took them and began to roll a cigarette.
They sat in silence until she had lit up.
‘So,’ she said as she exhaled. ‘You just passing through town or visiting or what?’
‘Just passing through, staying at that King Parrot Motel.’
She smiled. ‘Ah, yeah, I know that place. Where are you headed?’
‘Nowhere in particular.’
She eyed him. ‘So, travelling then?’
‘You could say that.’
‘Well, aren’t you mysterious?’ she said with a mocking smile while she ashed her cigarette. He watched her clock the tattoo on the side of his forearm – a kookaburra encircled by songline patterning.
‘What’s your name then, mystery boy?’ She looked him in the eye.
He extended his hand. ‘My name is Sol. Nice to meet you.’
She shook hands, gently. ‘Suzie. Pleasure to meet you.’
Sol began to roll another cigarette.
‘That’s a very interesting tattoo you have there, Sol.’ Suzie looked at him kindly. ‘You can tell a lot about a person by their tattoos. Who’s your mob?’
Sol looked suddenly from the ground into Suzie’s eyes, which he should have recognised as kin much earlier, but still lingered a long moment in answering the question.
Suzie filled the silence.
‘I’m Gamilaraay. Not from around here but a lot of my family live in town. Can’t always tell by looking at me.’
Sol smiled at that and took a slow drag from his cigarette. ‘You know, Suzie, I really would like to tell you. But you see, I’m from a secret mob.’
‘What do you mean, a secret mob?’ She squinted at him, laughing a little.
‘It’s plain and simple. Part of the law of the mob I’m in directly dictates that I cannot talk about the mob I belong to.’
Suzie scoffed. ‘Sounds like Fight Club to me.’
Sol laughed. ‘I can see that,’ he said. ‘You see, the thing is, my mob belongs to no particular space or time. Which means that we can walk paths that lead through all times and spaces. We seem completely alone anywhere we are encountered by people. As if we were a tribe of one. But the truth is we are camped together in a circle side by side linked across our different points in time. Our land is the impossible fire and endless sea that connects all things. We warm our hands around it. And we swim through it with ease. I’ve been here forever, a very old snake wearing the face of a man. Sleeping somewhere far away. And dreaming myself here.’
Suzie flinched as she noticed a light dart across Sol’s eyes that could have only been either spirit, or psychosis. She had seen enough of both in her time and wasn’t too keen to find out which it was.
‘Don’t worry,’ Sol added. ‘I have my means of knowing that all this is true.’
She looked at him with doubt and concern, folding her arms. ‘And how’s that?’
Sol smiled. ‘I’m sorry Suzie, but if I told you…you’d think I’m crazier than you already do.’
SOL SAT DOWN in the same seat by the window with a fresh beer, having worn the glares of the locals yet again. It was getting close to closing time and it was only Sol, Suzie and two of the locals left. Sol checked the bar in the TV’s reflection every so often. He would leave as soon as the two old fellas did so as not to make Suzie any more uncomfortable.
At that moment he heard a loud screeching paired with pulsing music. He turned his head to see a white Nissan Pulsar complete with audacious spoiler and underglow lights pull in at speed and stop with a dramatic skid across two car parks. Sol watched two rowdy young men pour themselves out of the car, the passenger out the door and the driver pulling himself out the window. They wrestled, shouted and had each other in headlocks as they staggered towards the pub’s entrance.
The driver had slicked black hair and a sleeveless leather jacket over a white shirt. He was tattooed down to his hands and in cursive over his right eyebrow. His companion – lanky, ghost-white and bald – was wearing only a singlet and knee-length shorts.
The two men burst through the door, crossed the room and slammed their hands on the counter.
‘Pour us a coupla pints would ya, love!’ howled the driver. ‘We’re celebrating!’
The two older locals looked at the young men reproachfully. Suzie took a step back from the bar and shook her head, her face reddening. The driver caught the glares of the locals.
‘What are you looking at, ya old fucks! Got a problem?’ The driver spat, leaning closer to the bar and aiming his body at them.
‘Rein it in, would ya, Ray,’ replied one with a grimace. ‘You wouldn’t want me telling your old man you’re out here carrying on like a dickhead, would ya, mate? Not so tough when he’s around, are ya?’
‘Shove it up your arse, Larry! Get back to your boyfriend and keep telling him all about how many cows’ arses your forearm’s been up this week, eh?’
Old Larry waved him off, going red in the face. The driver – Ray – slapped his own mate on the back.
‘How’s the nerve on this old cunt?! How ’bout it Suzie, my lova!’
Sol watched in the reflection as Suzie stood, arms folded, shaking her head. ‘Get the fuck out of here, Ray. You know you’re not allowed in here. You’re banned and you’re breaching your AVO. So go.’
Ray took a slighted breath, then gathered himself quickly. He threw his arm around his companion’s neck with a great grin, revealing three silver teeth dotted among his white ones.
‘Aww! Suzie, Suzie, Suzie! You’re not gonna do us like that, are ya? We’ve had a real good day and we’re just trying to celebrate, babe! Be a good girl and pour us a couple fucking drinks!’
Suzie’s lips pursed, furious. ‘I’m not serving you shit, Ray. Take your dickhead friend and get the fuck out of here before I call the cops. I don’t give a flying fuck if you’re celebrating. You think I’m going to congratulate you for scoring another ounce of meth you can pawn about the town, fucking up kids that could have a good chance if your twisted arse wasn’t around? Look at your eyes. I can tell you’re both charged! Have a look at yourself. Get the fuck out of here and count yourself lucky I don’t turn you in!’
Sol felt the room split and fill with poison. The burning oil of vitriol seeped through the air and it was his sign to get up – quickly. As he moved towards the bar Ray lunged out and grabbed Suzie by the throat. Sol heard her muffled yelp and picked up his pace, but one of the locals was first.
‘Get off her, ya mongrel!’ the older man yelled.
Ray let loose his grip on Suzie’s throat and cracked the old man a quick one to the nose, spurting blood all over his white shirt. The old man fell to the floor, chairs falling beneath him, and Ray put a few kicks into his abdomen. The other old fella rose up and was met with a glass to the head from Ray’s bald companion. He collapsed against the bar and received a right hook to the jaw from Ray, who spat on the two old men as they writhed on the ground.
Sol came closer.
‘Now how about a fucking drink, Suzie?’ Ray screamed, looking down at Suzie, curled up against the wall holding her throat and heaving.
Sol squared himself calmly behind the two men, cracked his neck, and spoke: ‘Gentlemen. I think it’s high time you pair of inbred fucks up and hit the road now.’
The two men whipped around violently and eyed Sol up and down. He could see their faces properly now. He kept his eyes on Ray. He could see into his possessed eyes. The spirit of ice scraping like glass shards against each other inside the wormhole that gaped through his dilated pupils. Inside the contours of the man’s sweating face he could see the shape of something that reminded him of a broad-fanged Shinto dragon. Leering just behind the man’s psyche like an eel at the surface of a pond. Thirsty for blood, death and violence.
‘And who the fuck is this little blond FAGGOT?’
‘Yeah! Who’s this little blond poofta! Keen to get fucked, are ya?’ echoed Baldy.
‘And so the spirit of the township speaks,’ Sol replied calmly.
‘What, cunt?’ Ray leered.
‘Leave him alone, Ray!’ Suzie yelled from the floor.
‘You shut up, you little bitch! You’ll get yours next!’
‘Ray, stop it!’ Suzie was screaming through her sobs.
‘SHUT UP!’ He smacked his fist on the bar.
‘Listen boys,’ started Sol. ‘Far be it from me to stand between you and your happy little meth bender. I’m sure you both sucked a whole lot of dick to scramble all those points together. I don’t want to rain on your parade. So why don’t you both crawl back into Mummy’s little Nissan Pulsar over there and slide back up the arsehole of whatever seedy crack den shat you out this morning, eh? Before I show you what a real monster looks like.’
Ray’s laughter was malicious, and Baldy followed suit.
‘Hahaaaaa! Shit, boy!’ Ray howled. ‘You’ve got a fucking death wish, don’t ya. You stay here, Jye; I can handle this.’
Sol shrugged, pursed his lips again, and blew Ray a big fat kiss. Ray’s face reddened with the blood of pure Australian hatred and he charged, grabbing Sol by the neck and shoulders and throwing him against the metre-thick cement wall by the bar’s entrance.
Sol’s head thudded against the wall, bashed by round after round of punches from Ray’s furious fists. Jaw, mouth, face, cheek, forehead, eyes, lips: Sol took them all without reaction. Each punch smacking the back of his head against the wall. When Ray stopped, Sol spat a mouthful of blood into his face and burst into laughter. A laughter broader than laughter. A laughter of strength, pride and immortality.
Enraged, Ray pulled a pocketknife, digging the blade into Sol’s stomach again and again as Sol laughed and Suzie screamed from behind the counter. She clapped her hands together in horror, and the air took on the shape and thickness of water.
Sol felt his atoms charge with fury as a molten crack broke like bones across his mind and through the room. There was an inhuman blur of hands and flesh and in a split second of blood and fangs Ray’s body lay crumpled, disfigured and twitching on the asphalt of the car park outside. Surrounded by the chunks of cement that had flown from his body’s sudden burst through the bar’s metre-thick wall. Through this hole, Jye’s body could be seen falling to the floor, head missing and pouring blood.
Suzie stared, mouth agape, petrified, as Sol’s fangs closed in a head that was slowly returning to the shape of a man’s.
‘Well, Suzie,’ muttered Sol, watching through slit yellow eyes. ‘Now you know how I know.’
SOL WATCHED THE news broadcast. Another crusty pub in another nameless town.
Another tale of gruesome murder has taken place just outside of the Greater Taree Shire. Police are considering it could be connected with the grisly bikie-related murders that we reported on only yesterday. Members of nearby communities are advised to proceed with immense caution and be wary of travelling strangers.
First it was the old locals.
That little blond fella was trying to do the right thing. He mighta gone a bit far. And I’ve no idea how he coulda done that on his own. That wall’s a metre thick of hard cement, mate. We was both knocked out and beat pretty bad. But he was the only other fella in the bar.
Sol sipped his beer, eyes locked on the screen. Running a hand through his short, newly black hair. He put down his beer as Suzie appeared on the screen. She had clearly been crying.
‘Can you tell us what happened, ma’am?’ asked the reporter. ‘The police tell us you were the sole eyewitness.’
Suzie paused for a moment, her eyes darting. Then, breathing deeply, she fixed on the camera lens with a mix of pain, fury and gratitude:
Like I told the police, those two old fellas were as drunk as anything. I was the only sober one. Plus, on top of that, they were both severely concussed. Yeah, there was a little blond guy in the corner. But he bolted as soon as things started getting violent. Probably scared shitless.
She paused and sucked on a cigarette.
Everyone in the bar around Sol was watching the screen intently.
There had been another guy sitting in the other corner all night. He’d been giving me the creeps. And it was him that did it. He came right up after Ray and Jye attacked. I didn’t see what happened ’cause I fell to the floor. But when I got up and looked it was all already over. They were both dead and through the hole in the wall I saw the guy’s car driving off outta the car park. It was a black sedan. The guy who killed them was a tall man, with olive skin and shoulder-length brown hair.
She looked into the camera. And Sol looked back. Smiling slightly, a hiss sounding in the back of his mind. She looked out of the battered and ancient television screen and spoke to the thousands of people watching from home and in bars around the country.
‘Now you know what I know.’
This new short story was commissioned by Grace Lucas-Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.