There’s something you should know about me. I’m an obsessive walker. I always walk at night. I don’t do it to stay fit. I don’t walk to unravel the secrets of suburbia. I do it to escape myself. I walk to shed my skin.
I can’t say I’m well, far from it. My content marketing business has tanked and the mortgage on our house is overdue. I’m at war with my partner and our son is caught in the middle. I’m blackdogged morning to night.
When circumstances conspire and I can’t walk, I grow morose, quick to temper. My son needs attention. A client sets a tight deadline. My partner serves a family dinner. The source of the problem is irrelevant. People become obstacles and the path must be cleared.
If only I had a machete to hack my way through.
We live in a suburb called Serrated Tussock. It has a reputation. Well, parts of it. It’s huge, the size of a country town. Three suburbs for the price of one. Serrated Tussock is in the top ten crime hotspots for the state, but all the drama happens in the northern wastes. Not where we live.
Our area has been colonised by inner-city exiles looking for cheap housing. We’re part of the new wave. We bought an old house and knocked it down. We replaced it with a big box. Clean lines, black panels, timber highlights. Minimalist urban chic.
Nearby is a time warp, a pocket of the suburb settled by Greek and Italian immigrants after the war. No plants grow there, no life is glimpsed. The monolithic houses are beige brick with heavy mechanical blinds on the windows. Stone gargoyles and marble lions guard the driveways. There are no lawns, just concrete slabs. The blinds are drawn all day, rejecting the new dawn.
To the north lies the crepuscular arm of the suburban trilogy, the wasteland where slums and housing estates bleed into the godless hum of heavy industry. Oil and ash penetrate the substrate, and mutant wildlife grows in the cracks, shaped by the supernumerary environment.
From our house, I can feel the malevolent power oozing over the rise like tar. Sometimes there is backwash and we stare with repulsed fascination, like smug retirees discovering a severed head on a secluded beach.
Once, we watched a junky vomit in our driveway. He was a long way from the estates, and I thought he did well to stray that far. His legs were jelly, bending comically with every step.
The fringe is where I find myself most nights. It’s an impulse that I’m unable to explain. My partner says it’s a death wish, but I’m unconvinced. Rebirth if anything.
I don’t think about the danger. Invisibility is a state of mind. I keep my eyes lowered, posing no threat. I wear black from head to toe, melting into the dark. I erase myself from public view. There are no clients to track me down out there. No family, no friends. No pressure.
Tonight, my son wants me to play. I stare at his imploring face. Everyone says that he looks like me, but all I see is a replica of some other human being. He’s objectively beautiful, a creature born in the clouds. His skin is soft and pure, lips perfect, eyes blue and bright. His face is ringed by golden curls, which he flicks from his eyes with an easy charm.
I’m old, scabby and grey. I’ve run to fat and I’m cursed with severe eczema. The mess comes and goes at random intervals. Right now, it’s all over my body, and my left hand is marred by a particularly foul patch. The doctor said that eczema can’t be cured, only contained. No one knows what causes it. It could be anxiety, he said, so perhaps I should relax. Fat chance.
After my son was born, I suffered a recurring nightmare that lasted for months. I followed him through grassy dunes that ran alongside a strange ocean. Monstrous waves rose high yet never broke. At the apex, the waves would freeze, overlapped by the next in the sequence, accumulating in the air like layers of pasta.
My son stopped on the dunes, staring over his shoulder. My skin condition was out of control. I looked like gooey pizza, oozing pus and blood. He grimaced, then darted into high grass. I searched for hours but he was gone. I tried to call my partner but I couldn’t remember her number. The sense of loss was crushing and haunted my waking life.
When I was diagnosed with depression and my walking mania kicked in, the nightmare stopped. Most days I don’t remember it.
Tonight is different.
My son senses that I’m about to leave and asks me to stay. I hesitate, unable to conceal my ambivalence, telling him I have things to do. He glowers and runs to his room.
I enter. He’s lying on the bed, his face buried in pillows. As I ruffle his hair, he bats my hand away. It’s the one with the disease. He hates the abject texture of my beleaguered skin.
He rolls over, regarding me with wary eyes. A creeping terror emerges, seasoned by mementos from the nightmare. The recall is so jarring it’s as if I’ve woken from a coma.
I draw back in fear, possessed by the sense that he was the dreamer and I was a figment of his nocturnal imagination. The horror of my weeping skin was the truth of how he saw me, a monstrous predator endangering his life. But if the eczema remains, how can the nightmare be in the past?
He hands me a plastic astronaut. It’s his favourite toy. I squeeze hard, half expecting my fingers to pass through it, like a lucid dreamer testing the environment.
He clutches his trusty robot. He wants to play explorers on the moon. He likes it when I do funny voices and make the astronaut float in space. Entrusting me with his beloved possession is the highest honour he can bestow. It is his attempt at reconciliation.
I shake my head and return the toy. His shoulders sag as he hides inside himself. I’m always deferring his happiness. He confuses me. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a dad. I don’t know how to do it.
He starts to cry and I almost shed a tear, but the moment passes as I think about the nightmare. I leave the house with steely resolve. Never again will I see myself with his eyes.
I walk on autopilot, listening to harsh industrial music. I’m buried in my phone, doomscrolling social media. If I’m hit from behind, it’ll be like the Mafia. I never saw it coming.
Ninety minutes pass. I check my bearings. I’m far from home, patrolling the ring road that bounds the outer limits, a reverse image of the junky in our driveway. The road is long, snaking through dips and bends, fading in and out like the consciousness of a dying brain.
One side is filled with mean, forgotten houses that reek of despair. The other is a vast territory of jagged-roof factories, modular business parks and sodium-lit car parks. In the distance, I hear muffled, percussive noises. They could be anything. Industrial accidents. Bombs. Vents of hell, opening and shutting.
Bathed in the sodium glare, I realise that I’m standing on a bridge. Beneath, the local creek flows from the north. At the limit of my vision, the waterway emerges from a low-slung ravine. I slide down the bank from road to creek, landing among a vague terrain of damaged storm drains, lizard-infested milk crates and overgrown slopes.
I walk alongside the creek until I reach a high cyclone fence topped with electrified razor wire. The creek passes through a tunnel under the fence. Behind the fence, there’s an enormous field studded with intricate, gleaming substations and a few bland admin buildings.
I know what this place is. It’s a new-gen power station. ‘Power shops’, they call them. Every suburb has one. They all have dotty female names, some marketer’s idea of a joke. Ours is ‘Regina’.
One building stands out. Its two windows are glowing. Bright-white lozenges set like eyes. The glow seems to expand like foam. There are shadows moving behind the panes, but they could be ocular defects. I’m wearing new glasses with progressive lenses, and I haven’t learned to distinguish between the near-vision and far-vision bands. At night, they wreak havoc on my depth perception.
Maybe that’s why I feel bullet proof. I’m like a stupid dog hiding in bushes, its rump in view while its head is concealed. If I can’t see the bad guys, they can’t see me. But sometimes the night bites back.
On a recent drift, I was baffled by a rooster flapping its wings in a car park. It was so strange to see the creature in that blighted place, a sterile setting razed by machines. It was hopping about near a garbage skip, and I moved in for a closer look. As I crouched low like a demented ninja, my vision adjusted and I saw that the ‘wings’ were the skittish, red-soled feet of a methylated itinerant. I nearly copped a knife in the ribs for my trouble.
Once, I found a creepypasta about Regina. In the story, government agents kidnap local junkies, imprison them at the power shop and subject them to horrible experiments.
They capture this one degenerate, strap electrodes to his head and force him to concentrate on a hologram of himself. Then they give him a few hundred volts of Regina’s finest. They do it again and again until the electro-torture produces a tulpa, a living creature born from his brainwaves.
The tulpa looks like him, but it’s independent in thought and action. It grows jealous and wants to be the original, not the copy, so it kills the degenerate, escapes and slaughters his family out of spite.
I didn’t care for the denouement. Tulpas are supposed to be benevolent. Maybe the junky suffered from an undiagnosed psychotic disorder that scrambled the output. I wish the author had explored this angle. I should write my own one day.
Something is off about Regina’s razor-fenced land. Its footprint is far larger than the substations and buildings combined. Why so much area? It seems an overcompensation, a force field surrounding the machinery, as if there is something to hide or keep out.
The creek is undefined. It starts from somewhere beyond and flows through the facility, passing right by the substations. I wonder how much mercury and selenium pollution it picks up along the way.
I return to the bridge. It’s wide, since the road is dual carriageway. I stand beneath it. The rumble of intermittent traffic soothes my jangled nerves, makes me forget for a few seconds that my skin is on fire.
My eczema is raging tonight and the itch is maddening. I scratch my chest and arms until the skin breaks. I claw my neck like an animal. I take a selfie to check the damage. I’m an appalling sight. I look like I’ve been strangled.
I stare with revulsion at the disease on my hand. Fresh pustules have formed, little volcanoes of rancid blood. Others have burst and dried into scabs. I pick at the scabs, the blood flows, the cycle renews.
When the doctor explained the connection between anxiety and eczema, I imagined something inside me trying to break free, a demon of the id forcing its way into the world. I wish I could help it on its way.
On the other side of the bridge, the creek follows a concrete channel. It winds through suburbia, culminating in an artificial lake near my son’s favourite playground. The lake is always clogged with rubbish, a festering sore on the landscape. Maybe that’s where the power shop toxins end up.
The creek is bounded by tall banks, topped with the backsides of dank houses. Their rear fences teeter on the edge, some propped up by planks. In the blurred darkness, the planks make the homes look like cardboard cut-outs, tricks of the night held together by illusion.
I use the torch on my phone to examine the underside of the bridge. There’s a glint on the ridge, where the paved slope meets the road. I scramble up cobblestones, drawn to it. The glint is coming from the blade of a long, serrated knife. The blade is covered in dark-brown spots. Maybe it’s rust, but I don’t inspect too closely. Knives creep me out. Whenever I’m near a blade, I fight the urge to carve the necrotised flesh from my bones.
Further along the ridge, there’s a filthy sleeping bag. It reeks of piss and shit. Behind it, a small alcove has been dug into the dirt. Inside the alcove is a collection of ancient pots and pans. The implements are heavy, coated with grease.
The alcove contains a small library of books, including a Danielle Steel novel. I thought rough sleepers would read Stephen King, something like that, but I suppose not everyone wants to relive their nightmares.
I scan the blurb. It’s about a woman who falls for a clone of her absent lover. That’s odd. Steel, the infamous bodice ripper, also writes science fiction. I’m amused but dismissive, gatekeeping the genre in my mind.
The blurb reveals that the clone’s personality is different to the original, just like the tulpa. I wonder if the outcome is the same.
I take photos of the cooking implements, sleeping bag and book. I can’t find the knife. Must’ve knocked it over the edge. I upload the photos to Instagram with a caption: Who cloned Danielle Steel? I toss off moronic hashtags, playing to my followers: #lowcult #suburbia #thehorror.
My Instagram feed is grim by design. I always record what I find on my walks. Never any people, only colour-saturated factories and garish industry. Abandoned toys and prams. Burnt-out cars. I use lens tricks to flare street-light emissions, generating horror-film hues. I record the darkness, a fire-blanket of unrelenting gloom from the jet-black night. I am so in love with the aesthetic, I think of the detritus I photograph as islands of beauty in a vast ocean of scum.
I take hordes of selfies, too, against backdrops of ruins and waste. They fill my phone, one after the other, almost identical, with minor variations in expression. They are not for public view but they are suitable for framing. I hang them on the walls of the private slaughterhouse that exists only in my mind.
Sometimes, my partner invades my study and catches me sorting selfies into folders on the laptop. She thinks I’m narcissistic but she’s wrong. I study my face because I want it to change. I want the eczema, baggy eyes, doughy jowls and wrinkles to disappear. If I take enough selfies, maybe they will. Through the sheer power of thought, I’ll assume a new face. Someone brighter, handsomer, more in love with the world.
But I wonder if scrying my selfies has already initiated the transformation. What I have now could be the image I secretly desire.
As I clamber down the ridge, I realise how icy it is under the road. It’s much colder than the open air, and with the chill comes a sober awareness. I thought the brown spots on the knife were rust. Obviously, the ridge had been abandoned. But what if the spots are food?
Maybe the rough sleeper is out scavenging for dinner. What if they return and catch me, a southern raider, snapping their home for all the world to see? I’m sure they have enough problems. They’re living under a bridge, for starters, and now I’m trashing whatever dignity remains.
I log in to delete the photos but Instagram is down. I scramble onto the road and head home, wracked with guilt. By the time I arrive, I couldn’t care less about the homeless.
By releasing the photos into the wild, I can’t escape the dread feeling that I’ve angered some malevolent force, breaching the uneasy truce that kept me from harm’s way. I was too cocky. I couldn’t see the phantasms of the night, but they were watching me.
I check on my son. He’s asleep, still cradling the robot. My partner slumbers beside him, holding the astronaut that I rejected. For an instant, I don’t recognise their faces.
I go to bed alone, unable to rest. My tortured skin has me lusting for the blade, but eventually I fall into dreams.
We’re on a family picnic at the playground near the lake. It’s late afternoon, and I’m pushing my son on the swing. He’s tired and wants to go home. My partner offers to take him. She tells me to go for a walk, pretending to understand my angst. It will do me good, she says, but I know she just wants me out of her life. She already has one child to look after.
Relieved to be off the leash, I tell my son that I’ll be home for dinner and all the games he can stand. He beams with happiness and gives me the thumbs up. I wave goodbye and head for the lake.
I follow the creek north. The homeless bridge lingers in my mind as a place of dishonour, yet I’m drawn to it. It’s like I’m standing on a tall building, thinking about jumping, stepping off the edge before my brain catches on.
I formulate a plan. I’ll loop back just before the bridge, imbibing the ambience from a prudent distance, like a tourist on safari. No more night walks. Daylight suits me just fine.
I check the map on my phone. A few blocks before the homeless bridge, there’s a minor road, a smaller bridge. I can leave the creek there and return through the back streets, arriving in time to please my son.
Guided by the creek’s concrete channel, I breach the immigrant zone. The banks are piled high with houses. From the street, the properties form an identikit hell but from the creek there is colour and flair. Through cracks in fences, I see well-tended vegetable patches, lush lemon trees, ornamental hedges, garden sculptures. Even some of the blinds are open, revealing religious paintings on walls, crucifixion statues on sideboards, rosary beads on lamps.
It’s a warm day, but no one is in the yards. No one’s in the houses either, from what I can gather. Each property is a saturnine sentinel guarding the integrity of the creek.
Sun showers start to fall. The light rain is refreshing, but after a few minutes it pours down and the sky darkens. It’s still the afternoon but visibility is terrible. My glasses are causing me no end of grief.
A shoe floats down the creek. I wait for the next in the pair, but I’m shocked at what comes. It looks like a femur, bright and bleached. I wipe my glasses for a better look but it’s past me, carried away by the raging water. The object submerges, depositing a spiral of luminescent dots on the surface.
The storm accelerates, perforating the air with rolling thunder. The rain intensifies, forcing the creek to jump the channel. The water sloshes around my ankles. My thin canvas shoes are ruined, socks soaked, clothes drenched.
I climb the bank in a bid for stable ground, following a path leading to someone’s back fence. Peering over, I see an overwrought McMansion complete with palm trees, operatic balconies and gold-flake arches. It’s deathly quiet, like all the others. I reckon I could creep through the yard and be on the road in no time, but I remember the dread from my previous trespass.
Reluctantly, I continue along the top of the bank, trying to avoid the overflowing channel. At last, I reach the smaller bridge, only to find a barbed-wire fence sealing the road from the bank.
I can’t keep following the creek north. The place of dishonour looms, and I must retreat from the edge.
I turn around, heading back the way I came. I call my partner to say I’ll be late, but the storm-addled connection fails.
The storm continues, turning the air black. Fifteen minutes elapse. Where’s the McMansion? I should be passing it by now. I fire up the map. The grid has malfunctioned, quadrants combined at crazy angles. The flashlight icon spins wildly, like a compass confused by magnetic rocks. When it settles, it has reproduced.
According to this screwy device, there are now two of me up on the bank.
I walk a little further. Ahead, there’s a low, dark shape. I squint, move closer. Another bridge. I didn’t see it on the way out. Have I taken a wrong turn? Impossible. The creek is a single channel. There are no forks.
I suspend my confusion to assess the exit. The bank is a kinetic mudslide. I don’t think I can make it to the road. The water is at my knees, so I scuttle beneath the bridge. The rain keeps coming.
I click on the torch, exposing the ridge.
Everything is there. The novel, pots, sleeping bag, knife. There’s no time to work out how or why. The water has reached my waist.
Beetling up the slope, I lose grip on the wet cobblestones and slide back down. At the last gasp, I grab a long pipe jutting from a storm drain. I hang from the pipe, buffeted by the tumultuous water, barely able to keep my head above the surface.
Fighting for breath, I realise that night has fallen. How so soon? The sun’s natural cycle beggars belief.
A shadowy figure darts across the ridge. A small boy, judging by the shape. Moonlight catches his face. It’s suppurated, a grotesquery amplified by the dim vision. His mouth is scarred, and the skin surrounding his eyes is so puffy I can’t see the pupils. For a moment, I imagine him to be sightless.
His hair is nothing but patchy vegetation on a glossy, stretched scalp. Strands fall into a puff of flesh where an eye should be, and he brushes them back with an oddly delicate touch.
He crouches down, picks up a loose cobblestone, holds it in his outstretched hand.
‘No,’ I splutter. ‘I don’t want your stone.’
I want you to help me. Why aren’t you helping?
He seems disappointed, as much as that awful face can convey emotion, and he stands up, hurling the stone at my head. A flash of extraordinary pain erupts from my temple. I fall into the water, carried away by the torrent.
I stop with a sickening thud, crying with agony, my spine speared on a metal grill in the drain’s cracked concrete.
The boy zigzags across the ridge. I hear his laboured breathing, animal snorts from the damaged mouth. He hops onto the drain, staring at me with those hideous holes in his face. There’s something in his hand. The serrated knife.
He swipes the weapon, and the long blade slices through my wrist, amputating the diseased hand.
In the middle distance, Regina glows. Dirty, viscous light spills from her eyes like sump oil.
The light reaches me.
As I’m pulled underwater, it restores my defective vision, revealing every part of the world.