From the author: A horror story. Originally published in the Dead Red Heart anthology (ed. Russell B Farr, Ticonderoga Publications) in April 2011. This story subsequently garnered an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year #4 (Night Shade Books, 2012) and was on the Recommended Reading List in the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror, 2011 (ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene, Ticonderoga Publications). It was subsequently reprinted in my award-winning collection, Crow Shine.
Originally published in the Dead Red Heart anthology (ed. Russell B Farr, Ticonderoga Publications) in April 2011. This story subsequently garnered an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year #4 (Night Shade Books, 2012) and was on the Recommended Reading List in the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror, 2011 (ed. Liz Grzyb & Talie Helene, Ticonderoga Publications). It was subsequently reprinted in my award-winning collection, Crow Shine.
Punishment Of The Sun
by Alan Baxter
Annie sat at her window, staring across the darkness. No moon and high, thin clouds made the world beyond stygian and dead. Like her life.
She knew the tack shed sat not far away. Beyond that stretched dry, dusty paddocks with dry, dusty horses, ribs like xylophone keys through thin, scabby hides. The orange desolation dragged on as far as hope would last in every direction. Too young to leave this desiccated hole, she grudgingly endured.
A strike of light in the distance and Annie’s heart skipped a beat. Her slumped pose in the window became rigid attention as she stared through the dark. Impossible to tell how far away it had been, she grew desperate to see it again.
Then another. Annie gasped, throat thickening with fear. A man, hands cupped around a lighter, his face briefly lit in orange glow and contrasting shadow. She could see two pinpricks of ruddy brightness, glowing and fading, well beyond the yard.
She forced her sight to penetrate the dark. Every time a man drew a lungful of smoke, the cigarette acted like a weak torch, easing back the night. She saw other movement, more than two of them. They carried something, wrapped and heavy, moving easily, unencumbered by the darkness or weight. Across the distance she heard a metallic rattle. They were at the feed shed across the south paddock. She couldn’t see it, but every inch of this station lay burned across her mind like a scar. They were putting something in the feed shed.
Annie rose soon after the sun. As hot, early light crept across her bed she dragged on shorts and t-shirt and trotted through the house.
Her parents sat at the kitchen table, poring over paperwork. They drank acrid coffee while toast burned under the grill and her father moaned about taxes and levies. Annie headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” her father asked.
“Going to see Pebble!”
“Get back here!”
Annie stopped, set her jaw. She turned back, huffing a deep sigh. She stood in the doorway, framed by sunlight.
“Well?” her father said.
“You know very well what! No play till your chores are done.”
“I’ll do them later.”
Her father scowled. “You’ll do as you’re told!”
Annie gritted her teeth, desperate to investigate the shed. “What difference does it make?”
Her father scraped his chair back, half rising. “The difference is I told you to do them now!”
Annie looked to her mother, eyes pleading. Her mother just shook her head. “Neither of you care about me!” Annie yelled. “You only had children to do all your work for you! I hate you!”
Her father growled, stepping around the table. Annie bolted before he could say or do more, heading into the utility room and the tools for her chores.
An hour later she finally got time to herself. Everything seemed to be about cleaning and fixing and tidying. A few more years and she’d be gone.
She skirted the tack shed and climbed the gate of the south paddock. Sunbaked red earth puffed fine ochre dust with every slapping footstep as she ran. She approached the feed shed and slowed. Her heart danced in her throat and a chill leaked down her back. So fascinated by what she’d seen, her only thought had been to find out what those men were up to. Now came a second wave of thought, heavily tainted with trepidation.
She glanced back towards the house, squat and peeling in the already ferocious sun. Perhaps she should tell her dad what she’d seen. But what did he care? Always telling her what to do.
Swallowing her nerves, taking a steeling breath, she opened the shed door. Sunlight flooded into the musty darkness within, dust swirling in the shaft of day. She walked carefully into the gloom, looking all around the huge space. Plastic buckets and battered shovels lined the walls, bales and giant plastic feed bags made haphazard mountains all around. Everything sat as dull as her life. Except for a heavy looking canvas, dumped into a corner.
Annie reached one hand towards it, taking a corner, lifted it back. It lay empty, deflated against the shed wall. She saw a piece of thick, yellowing paper on the floor. It bore a note, hand written in dark red ink.
You slew an elder and your punishment is sun.
Survive this trial and your punishment is served.
Fail to survive and your punishment is served.
That didn’t make sense. What kind of punishment was sun? Who was the note for? She sighed, looking around the musty shed. Her eyes narrowed. Did she hear a scrape then, a sound of movement? Sharp lines of incandescence marked gaps in the planks of the walls, painting bright stripes across the floor. She walked among them, looking into the shadows between the feed bags and hay bales. It would take hours to search every nook and cranny.
The distant sound of her dad cursing drifted through the air. She sighed again, and headed back to the house
Annie’s dad was furious. Her mum stood in the doorway, hands clasped. “What do you mean, all of them?” she asked.
“I mean all of them! Every fucking car, bike, quad. Even the tractor and the back-hoe. Some fucker’s been in and ripped up the engine in every vehicle we own.”
Her father spun on his heel, leaning across the yard in his anger. “How do I know why?”
Her brothers stumbled from the house, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Useless, dopey teenagers the pair of them. “Wha’s goin’ on?” Trent asked.
“Some of your friends having a lark?” Annie’s dad yelled. “Someone’s been in during the night and ruined every vehicle we’ve got.”
“Why would it be our friends?” Josh, the eldest, seemed genuinely offended. “Maybe it’s yours, pissed off that you never cough up for a round on the rare occasion you go to the pub!”
Their dad pulled back one hand, striding across the dusty yard. “Why you little ...”
“Enough!” Annie’s mum’s voice cracked across the hot day, freezing everyone in their tracks, always the ultimate authority. “What’s wrong with you? Josh, you need to learn some respect. Bill, calm down and call Jerry at the police station. See what he has to say.”
Bill pushed past his sons. “As if he’ll be any bloody help.”*Annie sat at the kitchen table while her father fumed and her mother cried. Her brothers, quietened, looked on. The ruined remains of two satellite phones sat between them.
“Do any of you know why someone might have done this to us?” her father said. They all shook their heads. “Every vehicle ruined, the phone lines cut and the radio antenna is gone.” He pointed at the smashed sat-phones. “To do this they came in the house.”
Annie thought of the distant cigarette glows in the dark. She’d seen the men there, but hadn’t heard anything else. Would they have done this? She fingered the strange note in her pocket, wondering if she should tell her father. But if she could figure this out on her own perhaps they’d all stop treating her like a kid. She bit her lower lip nervously.
“Is this some kind of warning, Bill?” her mother asked.
Her husband gave her a sharp look, said nothing.
“Can’t we fix the phone line?” Trent asked.
“No. They’ve smashed the connection on the roof.” Annie’s father drew a deep breath, standing. “We need to act. I’ll take a horse over to Bradley’s place, use his phone to call Jerry and get the police here. They can bring stuff to repair our vehicles and phone. I’ll use Bradley’s ute to get back. Josh, that puts you in charge.”
Josh nodded, looking young and terrified.
Annie’s mum looked stricken. “Bill, it’ll take you ten hours to ride to Bradley’s!”
“What else am I going to do? I can do it in eight.”
Josh grunted. “You’ll kill the horse. Our nags aren’t built or trained for that.”
“So be it.”
Without another word he headed out, Josh running to catch up.
“It’s all right, mum,” Trent said, setting his jaw. “We’ll look after you.”
“You’re a good boy, Trent. Help your father.”
Annie’s restlessness became unbearable. “I’m going to feed the ponies.”
Her mother looked up, nodded. “Don’t go any further than that.”
In the yard her brothers were arguing, trying to jury-rig an antenna. Only a year apart in age, everything became more about competition than cooperation. Annie’s stomach felt like heavy water. Anger had driven her to hold her tongue. It felt like a terrible mistake. She had to solve this.
She reached the shed and heard scuffling as she pushed the door open. She froze on the spot. Holding her breath, straining her ears, she stood still for close to a minute. Nothing.
She pushed the door wide, walked cautiously in. Everything seemed as it had before. What had she heard moving? It had sounded too big for rats. She stalked through the bales and bags, looking into corners and gaps. As she got deeper into the shed, away from the flood of sunlight through the open door, the shadows grew denser. Gaps in the shed walls here and there still cast bright slashes across the floor and feed, everything in between a soft, dusty twilight. Enough to see by, too dim for detail. Maybe she should open the doors at the other end, let more light in.
She pushed between two stacks of bales and something whipped past with a hiss. The sound like someone in sudden pain, sucking air in through their teeth. A smell of burning hair drifted through the gloom. Annie’s heart hammered. She turned in a circle, trembling. Low panic gripped her as she retraced her steps, trying to look everywhere at once.
Outside the hot day seemed as refreshing as a mountain stream.
Her brothers looked at her disdainfully. “Something in the feed shed?” Josh asked.
“I don’t know. It rushed past me.”
The brothers exchanged looks of derision. “Did you get scared by a big, old rat?” Trent asked.
Annie ground her teeth. “What’s wrong with you two? Don’t you care about all our stuff being ruined? Something’s going on!”
Josh barked a humourless laugh. “Yeah, of course. Dad’s pissed someone off again and they’re fucking with us. He probably owes someone money and all that stuff last night was “a message”.”
Annie frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Trent sighed. “Dad’s in big debt. This whole station is in trouble. We reckon he’s got caught up with a loan shark and they’re scaring him into paying up.”
Annie looked back over her shoulder. “But what about the thing in the shed?”
“What thing? You’re just spooked.”
“No! I saw men last night, in the dark. They were smoking cigarettes and doing something over there!”
Josh and Trent’s eyes widened in shock. “What?” Josh sounded incredulous. “Why didn’t say anything before?”
“Because dad pissed me off and I wanted to figure it out myself to prove I’m not a kid!” Annie looked at the red, dusty ground.
Josh threw his shifter down. “Fuck me, Annie. You are a little kid. You should have told dad! When he gets back, you tell him.”
She nodded. “What about that?” She pointed at the feed shed. “Someone’s in there!”
“Why would someone hide in there, Annie? You’re spooked. Go inside.”
Her brothers fought and argued over the radio and eventually gave up. Her mother coped as she always did, making too much food, baking, roasting, boiling things down to jam. Annie worried. Her dad would be furious when he got back.
Her mother ran out of things to cook as the sun began to set. She sat at the kitchen table, hands tormenting a tea towel, staring out across the yard. Annie put an arm across her mother’s shoulders. “Dad’ll be back soon. It’ll be all right.”
Her mother smiled, though it did nothing but move her lips. “Sure, honey.”
The sun dipped below the horizon, dusky twilight turning everything to deep brown shadows. “It’s not really dark yet,” Annie said.
Her mother shrugged. “Twilight or dark, same thing.”
“Dad’ll be back any minute.”
“Where are your brothers?”
Annie looked out. “Trying to fix up Josh’s bike last time I saw them.”
“Call them in for me?”
Annie headed around the house towards the big garage where the ute, bikes and quads were kept. Something whooshed past her in the gloom. With a gasp and a swell of nerves she stopped dead. She saw Trent walking towards her. “Was that you?” she called out.
“Something just brushed past me really fast.”
Trent shook his head. “Stupid kid.”
“Mum wants you two inside.”
A crash and yelp of pain sounded from the garage. Another crash, then a cry cut short. “What the fuck ... ?” Trent turned. “What are you doing in there, Josh, ya dickhead?”
Annie felt a wave of foreboding spread up her body. “Trent, don’t ...”
He frowned at her. “Don’t what?”
She felt fixed to the spot. Trent pushed open the side door of the garage. With a yell like he had been burned he staggered backwards. Annie started to cry.
Trent turned and ran for the house. “Annie! Get inside now!”
Trent ran, pumping his arms, face white. “Run inside, Annie!”
A dark blur shot from the shadows beside the garage. Trent arched forward as the shadow hit him in the back, legs still running as he lifted into the air. He screamed, high-pitched like a girl. Annie cried out. Trent hit the ground and a tall, pale man knelt beside him, one hand pressed into Trent’s chest, holding him down. The man had blood over his face, dripping from his chin.
Annie screamed again as her mother came running around the house. Her mother’s scream mingled with Annie’s as the man fell upon Trent, shaking him by the throat like a dog with a rabbit.
Annie’s mother skidded in the dust, raising something dark and shiny into the night. “Get off him, you bastard!” Thunder and fire burst out.
Annie winced, closing her eyes against the sound. She opened them as her mother fired the second barrel, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Trent lay still, his throat a shiny black mess in the gloom, his eyes staring wide into the darkening night.
Annie screamed. “He was in the shed!”
Her mother dropped her gaze to stare at Annie. “What? Do you know...?” She whipped away from Annie’s side like a sheet of paper caught in a sudden gust.
Tears flooded Annie’s vision. Through the haze she saw her mother land near the chicken pens, legs twisted beneath her, mouth crooked in a snarl of pain, unseeing eyes staring at the ochre sand. The shotgun was nowhere to be seen.
Annie fell to her knees, sobbing and gasping. A sucking, slurping began to her left, where Trent lay in the dirt, but she refused to look. Her mind trembled. She wanted to curl up and sleep, never to wake again.
Another sound came distantly to her ears. A chattering rumble drifting on the hot night air. She jumped to her feet, running as fast as she could, waving her arms. “Daddy! Daddy, turn back!”
She saw her father’s face behind the wheel, leaning forward, eyes narrow in concern. The ute skidded to a halt and he almost fell from the door, dragging a .303 with him. “Annie, what’s happened?”
Annie sobbed, trying to speak. “Men last night ... someone in the shed ... Trent and mummy ... he’s coming ...”
Her father grabbed her, looking hard into her eyes. “Where is everyone?”
Annie cried so hard she couldn’t speak. Her entire body shook, her knees threatened to fold up. She felt vomit rising.
Her father picked her up, put her into the passenger seat. “Stay here. Lock the doors and don’t open them for anyone.”
He ran off into the darkness. Annie shook her head, whispering, “No, no, no.”
A howl of soul-tearing anguish echoed back to her. She heard shouts, then gun shots. As her crying hitched to a quiet trembling, everything around the station fell to silence. Complete darkness settled over the ute, impenetrable. She could only see her reflection, gossamer faint in the windows.
Movement outside made her hold her breath. A shuffling, a slight cough. She dropped into the foot well as the passenger’s door jiggled, locked shut. The scuffling retreated around the ute. She looked up, eyes widening as she saw the driver’s door closed, but not locked.
The door opened and the pale man slipped in, smiling at her. Two teeth extended long over his bottom lip, sharp and shiny white. His face was clean but his shirt front and collar stained a darker blue than the rest. “Hi Annie.”
She stayed down, curled as tightly as possible, shaking so much her teeth chattered. He leaned across and unlocked the passenger door, pushed it open.
“I’ve been watching you, trying to figure it out.” He laughed. “I’m too full for more. Even a little one. But I’ll see you again ... one day.”
Annie stared, frozen.
She uncurled her legs, sliding off the footplate and dropped to her knees in the dirt. The ute shuddered into life, big engine roaring. With a spin of tyres it drove into the night, leaving Annie kneeling in a cloud of dust. Within moments the darkness and silence had settled over her again.
This story originally appeared in Dead Red Heart.
CROW SHINE Dark fantasy and horror stories by Alan Baxter Winner of the 2017 Australian Shadows Award for Best Collected Work; Finalist for the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Collection; Finalist for the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Collected Work. This is my first volume of collected short fiction.
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