I stopped for petrol at the service station, which was nestled beneath the highway overpass. It was midnight, and the station’s exterior was only illuminated by the orange lights of overhead streetlamps, and the occasional white-hot flash of a car rudely rounding the bend with its high-beams on.
I’d been listening to Cream on the radio as they crooned about someone named Ulysses. I killed the engine, ending Eric Clapton’s psychedelic guitar.
The stranger who caught my eye was leaning against the brickwork of the service station while she smoked an unfiltered cigarette. She waited beneath the cashier’s window, right under his nose. Her feet were hoisted up on her gym bag.
As I went past to pay, she was humming Clapton’s guitar riff, and when I stepped outside again she’d started another cigarette. The smoke from her breath was a blue-grey acid in the cold evening air. Her hair was the colour of traffic cones and construction tape.
“You like Clapton?” I asked, taking a chance as the station’s glass doors met behind me. “I’ve been hooked on far too much prog-rock recently. I was about to call you Aphrodite.”
She smiled, and she carefully examined my legs.
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.
“The only person I need is right here,” she stood and stretched. “Which way are you heading?”
As she stretched, her cigarette hand rose like the fist of Lady Liberty. The service station worker tapped the frosted class with a knuckle, and waved an index finger at the cigarette. Aphrodite waved a different finger back in reply.
“I’m going home to Gympie,” I said.
“What a coincidence.” She leant down slowly, and collected her gym bag. Its contents clicked and clacked. The last thing she collected was a large canister of petrol. “I’m going that same direction.”
The air was frigid, but my heater was far too effective. My old Corolla coughed along the Bruce Highway as I stomped the clutch and slapped the long gear stick back to third. Then I switched the heater off.
The stranger slept peacefully through the rises and dips of the road, curled up with her back to me. Her gym bag sat in the back.
I hadn’t seen another car for half an hour, and the highway was beginning to look unfamiliar. It became thickly forested on either side, which I didn’t recall from my last trip home. I thought about stopping for the night, but I hadn’t seen an exit for ages. Besides, I’d promised to take her as far as Gympie.
I checked my wristwatch; it was one o’clock. The painted lines of the highway had vanished, and now my single-working headlight was the only light winking for kilometres. I waited until my teeth began to chatter, and then blasted the heater until it became unbearable again.
The girl slept on.
Her long, orange hair fell from her head in perfectly straight sheets, like a veil. She was an athlete, perhaps. Her calves and thighs were firm and shapely, and stretched the fabric of her torn jeans. She’d taken off her canvas shoes the second she’d climbed into the passenger seat: kicked them off before she’d even adjusted her seatbelt.
I smiled despite myself. She seemed cute, and I’d enjoyed our brief conversation before she’d politely retired to sleep. Apparently, she was on her way home, and she hadn’t mentioned anyone special.
There was a small part of me that inevitably began to imagine some sort of future with her. Perhaps I’d invite her to a bar. She might give me her number. I’d done her the courtesy of driving her all the way to Gympie, so it’d be the least she could do. Maybe she’d wake up and tell me to stop driving for the night. We could take some sleeping bags I keep in the back, and go sleep in the forest under the stars.
I held the steering wheel with my knees and rubbed my hands together for warmth. I flicked the heater from non-existent, back to volcanic. A large beam of light swept across the road.
I grabbed the wheel.
The strange light silhouetted the tree canopy, and then blinded me through my side mirror. Ahead, I could see other white-hot beams of light scouring the road and surrounding land: helicopters, most likely. I nudged the girl awake, and she groaned into existence.
“Bugger,” was all she could manage, rubbing her face. “I was afraid of this.”
I chanced a look at her then, averting my gaze from the road. Her veil of hair had parted. She leaned close to the glass to stare up at the lights in the sky. Her eyes were impossibly large: blue irises glistening, even in the pale illumination of the headlight. She was a vision, pieced together from the list called: my ideal girl.
“They found us.”
“Someone’s looking for you?” I asked. The lights were coming closer.
“Yes and no,” she said, and pulled her hair across one shoulder. “They’re looking for you...I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
I applied the brakes, and pulled over.
“Yeah, good idea,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
I turned off the engine, and my working headlight. One of the spotlights approached from a few kilometres away, glancing along valleys and around hills.
“They’re after me? I doubt it.”
“Well, more specifically, they don’t want you to be with me,” the girl said. “They can’t really touch me yet. I don’t leave much evidence, you see, but they can try and snatch anyone who’s with me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t follow what’s happening here. Is it the police? The army?”
I looked back at the approaching light, but as it drew closer, I began to doubt that it was even a helicopter after all. It was too close to the ground, too stable in the sky. Too certain and dexterous as it moved above the trees.
She watched me with a raised eyebrow, while I scanned the sky.
“It’s not the cops,” she said. “It looks like you can see into the spirit world.”
I laughed at that. I couldn’t help it. The light above disappeared for a moment, and then swept along the length of road we had just pulled off. In the rear-view, I saw the beam sweep a hundred metres in a second. The source was nearly above us.
“Well, whether you believe it or not doesn’t particularly bother me,” she said, in almost a deadpan. Reaching down, she began to pull her shoes on.
A white beam of light hit the bonnet of my car. There was something primal in me that flinched from its starkness. It was the same instinct that makes animals freeze on the road: a sudden confrontation of light, which causes innocent men to run.
“Well,” she said, talking through a yawn. “You’ll believe in spirits pretty soon, regardless.”
“Should we run?” I asked, but I already doubted that I could manage it.
“Sure, we could try that.” She reached over to the seat behind her, and grabbed her gym bag. The light somehow grew brighter still, and then flicked away suddenly. A loud screech tore the air. It sounded like steel being twisted.
“It’s signalling the others,” she nodded towards my window. “That guardian will wait for backup.”
I craned my neck around to see.
It was outside.
The creature stood above the tree canopy easily. It was at least ten metres tall. As it approached the car, I saw its legs. They fell to the ground like a hundred spools of impossibly red string. The fibres billowed and swayed, as if in a breeze, and the head of the creature was carried along by them. There was no body to speak of, just a single orifice and rows of small beady black eyes that surrounded the maw. It had teeth like a whale: long, comb-like teeth, which bristled out from deep in its throat.
I’d always thought that in a life-or-death situation I’d have the guts to act, but I was wrong. I felt something warm, and I looked down to see that I’d wet myself. There was no sensation in my feet. Something cold and uncomfortable had been inserted into the back of my neck and the pit of my stomach.
The creature outside finished its roar with a gurgle, and then a large, illuminated proboscis extended out of its mouth, alighting the road once again.
The girl sat with her bag ready. She shook her head pitifully at the puddle in my lap.
“Well, I think I might head into the bush and give this guy the slip.” She undid her seatbelt, and I suddenly found the resolve to grab her slender arm as she kicked the door open.
“Please, take me with you,” I begged. “Don’t leave me here with it.”
She grinned. “You’re coming with. I don’t want to lose those legs of yours.”
She was strong. She leant across, undid my seatbelt, and pulled me from my chair, across the handbrake, and out into the frigid air. The creature behind us bellowed loudly again. It was answered by two other howls close by. Aphrodite slung her gym bag over her shoulder. She grabbed the canister of fuel in one hand, and then pulled me by arm with the other hand. Her long, pink nails dug in sharply.
We reached the tree line and then we were past it, weaving between the trunks as I willed my legs to work properly. Something had locked inside my right kneecap, so I couldn’t bend it properly. I looked down and saw that it had been bent slightly outward when Aphrodite had dragged me from the car. She led us deeper into the trees. The red strings tumbled along as the creature gained on us.
“What is that thing?” I managed to gasp as I half-ran, half-limped behind her.
“It’s a guardian,” she called back. “They can choose to transform into a spirit, and back again.”
She deftly dodged underneath a low-hanging tree limb. Its spiked bark caught me in the face and tore the soft skin around my left eye as I failed to duck.
“Slow down,” I moaned, but she kept running.
“There’s the forces of order and chaos,” she said, effortlessly changing direction suddenly to avoid a beam of light that swept past us a few metres on the right. I, however, was whipped about by the course correction, and my neck jerked suddenly. There was a loud click, and a sharp pain. I couldn’t turn my head.
“There are spirits that protect humans, and those that want to harm them.”
Up ahead, I could see a fallen tree in the moonlight. Its roots were splayed out like a forgotten umbrella. She ran towards it. As we approached the fallen tree, I saw that there was a small gap between the earth and the rotting wood. The girl looked around quickly, before ushering me through the gap with a shove. Her eyes were glistening with excitement in the moonlight.
I fell under the tree, and into a small hovel dug there by nature long ago. Wet loam covered the ground. It teemed with insects. The girl scurried through behind me and dropped her bag. Something like a xylophone clicked inside.
Despite being pulled along like a ragdoll, I felt a sense of exhilaration. She was on the run from something, so she’d need someone to watch her back. I’d be the guy she could depend on. We would collapse together tonight and sleep, and then hit the road again. It was a life of adventure and hijinks awaiting us: I could taste it.
“We won’t be disturbed down here,” she said, smiling. I admired her while I forced my breathing to slow. Even though she was muscular, there was a delicate grace and strength about her. We’d probably be very happy together.
“Where was I?” she asked. “Oh yes, so the guardians want to stop me from meeting men, such as yourself, and killing them.”
My mind reeled when I heard the plural: men. Did that mean tonight wasn’t special for her? Was I just another guy?
“It’s nothing personal,” she said, apologetically. “I’ve got to kill you, because I need your body to help my boyfriend.”
“What did you say?” I asked, hoping that I’d misunderstood her.
“I have a boyfriend,” she repeated with a sheepish shrug. She unzipped the gym bag, and inside I saw the skull of a human. It was covered by a red and blue spiralled pattern. The sockets of the skull’s eyes glowed a faint green.
Damn, I thought. I’d be a way better boyfriend for her.
She must have seen the disappointment on my face. “Sorry. We’ve been together since high school.”
I shrugged. “Oh no, it’s completely fine. I wasn’t trying to crack onto you or anything. I just figured you needed some help with those tall spirit things.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t just wait in the car a few moments longer,” she said, patting me on the head to reinforce our friendship. Then she dug out a long, curved blade, and skewered me through the heart with it.
“Those guardians out there would have pulled you to safety once they surrounded me. They’re so very dedicated to protecting humans. It’s a shame about the appearance really. Sorry, hold still, I need your legs.”
She pushed me down, and sat on my chest. I heard a cracking sound, and I realised she had expertly dislocated my femur. I relaxed and let the pain swell over me.
“Oh, Richard,” she said, laughing at the skull. “Stop it, you’ll make me blush.”
Before the darkness of unconsciousness enveloped me, I thought about telling her how beautiful her laugh was. If things with her boyfriend don’t work out, I might do it.