I glance over at my mother. She’s concentrating on the road. Not because she needs to. We’ve been cruising for hours and there hasn’t been a sharp turn since we hit the highway. She is just avoiding talking to me, she doesn’t want to say a word. She doesn’t want to risk another argument.
For the last four months, Mom has wanted us to move out of our city apartment. And for the last four months, I have not. I tried to stop her, but she had already made up her mind. This led to screaming matches that spiralled out of control. Pointless swearing and arguments.
I never wanted to leave that apartment. We used to live there with Dad. I grew up there. It’s full of memories. As it turns out, that’s exactly why Mum wanted to leave.
Now we’re on the road to our new home, out in the bush, away from people and the city and civilization. We’re headed to a town called Hollow Falls. My new home, and I already hate it. We’re so far away from everywhere else out here. I miss my friends. I miss city life and living in an apartment, it feels so much more alive in the city than out here in the bush.
I look out to the horizon and see a patch of dark green over the hills to the left. It looks almost black under the late afternoon sky. It’s a forest. A large, dense forest.
The car’s headlights shine upon a white sign by the side of the road, painted with black letters:
WELCOME TO HOLLOW FALLS
“We’re here,” says mum with a sigh, “I hope the movers are already at the house.”
“I don’t like it,” I mumble, looking at a nearby farmhouse, which is covered with peeling paint.
“Give it a try, Caity, you’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it . . .” I murmur under my breath. I want to argue, but I don’t want to upset Mum again. “Look, train tracks.”
We approach a railroad crossing. As we get closer, the lights flash and the bells ring. I shift in my seat as Mum slowly applies the brakes and the boom gate lowers in front of us. I stare at the boom gate.
There’s no sound but the warning bells, which drowns out the gentle purr of the car engine.
I look left and right along the train tracks. The track circles the forest to the left, separated from the trees by a short fence. And to the right it stretches off to the dark horizon, on a raised mound of broken rock. But I can’t see a train.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Don’t know. Must be an old signal,” says Mum. I stare at the flashing lights and hear nothing but the sound of the warning bells for a good minute or so before the boom gate finally rises up.
We bump roughly over the railroad crossing as we drive into the town proper. To the left is a wall of trees, and to the right are some scattered buildings and side streets.
“Keep an eye out for Torrance Street,” says Mum, driving slowly down the road. We turn down one of the streets and into suburbia. It feels weird that we were passing farm houses just moments before. We turn another corner and I stare at the houses around. They look well-kept and very clean, but it feels weird around here. It feels empty. It’s late afternoon, why aren’t any lights on inside?
“There, look,” I say, spotting a sign,
“Ah: Torrance Street,” says Mum, reading the sign. We’re nearly there. We turn down the street and mum sighs,
“I can’t see the moving van. I guess they’re not here yet.”
“Which one is ours?”
“Number 31. It’s just past the cul-de-sac.”
“The No Through Road, there,” Mum says, pointing at a sign to the right. The sign reads: Dead End Street and there’s a small bus stop on the corner. I guess that’s where I’ll be catching the bus to school. Mum drives two houses past it then turns into the driveway of number 31, a little, two-storey brick house. “Well, we’re here,” Mum says, cutting power to the engine and undoing her seatbelt.
“When will the movers get here?” I ask.
“It’s a long way. They could be half an hour off. Come on, let’s check out the house.”
I follow Mum out of the car and we go to the front door. Mum takes the new key out of her pocket and tries it in the lock. It takes her a few tries before she realizes it’s upside-down. “I guess it’ll take a while to get used to the new house . . .” Mum says, unlocking the door. We head inside the front room.
“Woah!” I trip over the threshold and onto the tile floor.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I tripped,” I grunt, pulling myself to my feet. My hands throb from smacking into the cold tiles. Mum just sighs,
“You should be more careful, Caitlyn.”
I stand up, rubbing my arms and look up to the ceiling. It is very dark and tall, an open space all the way up the two stories with a staircase by the wall. It feels so cold and empty in here. The light suddenly flickers on as Mum finds the light switch.
“There we go,” says Mum, “that’s a lot better.”
“It feels so empty,” I say, rubbing my arms to stop the cold. The silence is deafening.
“Of course it’s empty, our furniture isn’t here yet.”
“I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel right,” I say. Mum sighs,
“Come on Caity, give it a chance.”
“I’m serious. I don’t like it. It’s cold.”
“We’re further down south here, it gets a little colder. But we’ll just set the heaters up down here when the movers come, it’ll warm up.”
Mum heads deeper into the house and starts turning on the lights. But I stay in the front room. This house is creepy.
I hear something in the room to the left.
No response. I wander into the room. It’s empty, but I think it was a lounge room. It’s carpeted and it has a slight stale smell. I hear the sound again, like a scuffling sound. I walk up to the wall and give it a tap with my knuckles. There’s a panicked scuffling noise behind the wall.
“MUM! I think we have mice!”
The scuffling sound scrambles away and I fold my arms again to stop the cold. Then I hear another sound. It’s coming from deeper into the house. I walk through an archway into another empty, carpeted room and there’s a window looking out on the backyard, covered by a thin, lace curtain. But the sound I hear isn’t scuffling. It’s rumbling. A deep and heavy rumbling. Like thunder. There’s a sudden high screech and the rumbling gets louder. The sound is coming from outside. I step up to the window and look out. I hear the long, mournful horn of the engine and just over the back fence I see the train travel past. It thunders loudly as it goes past, a dark shape with squares of yellow light flicking past in a blur. I watch it go by and wonder where it is going. With a high squeal, the train disappears from view and I stand at the window until the sound of the train fades away into silence.
In the quiet, empty room I realize that I’m holding my breath, so I let it out in a long, low whistle. As I stand, staring out the window, I look at the grassy backyard and sigh. I wish we were back in the apartment. I miss my friends, I miss my Dad. Why did we have to leave it all behind?
What was that? I hear footsteps. heavy footsteps, behind me. Before I can turn around to see who it is, something large grabs my shoulder.
And I scream.
Mum comes running into the lounge room,
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
We both look at the man. He’s a big man, wearing overalls and a red cap,
“Dreadful sorry, Miss. The door was open, I didn’t mean to scare ya.” He takes his hat off his head and holds it against his chest,
“I was looking for you, Mrs Beckett.” he says nodding towards my Mum, “I drive the moving van. I saw the car out front and figured you was inside, but I seem to have given this young girl a fright.”
“Yes, I see that. Caitlyn, you had me worried there.”
“Nah, it’s my fault, don’t you be sorry” says the moving man. And he looks very apologetic. “I just need to know where you want us to put all of this,” he says, pointing toward the truck outside.
“Yes, of course. I’ll show you.”
Mum heads to the front door, and the man turns to follow her, but not before turning to me and saying,
“I am sorry, miss.”
He follows Mum outside, and I’m left standing in the empty room, my heart still thumping a mile a minute.
“Calm down, Caitlyn,” I tell myself. I head to the nearby wall and lean against it to calm myself down.
I take a few calming breaths. I wait until my heart slows down, then I slide down the wall and sit on the floor with a bump.
“Ow,” I mumble. I hear Mum talking to the movers.
“The beds go upstairs, I think we should get that out of the way first.” Then Mum comes in through the doorway.
“Caitlyn? Are you alright?”
“I guess so.”
“We’re going to set up the bedrooms, are you going to help with your stuff?”
“I don’t care. Mum, I don’t like this house.”
“What do you mean, you don’t like it? You haven’t even been here fifteen minutes.”
“But it’s so empty.”
“We’re bringing the furniture inside now.”
“No . . . not like that. It’s empty. The other house was fun. I grew up there and there was Dad . . . I miss all the memories. This place, though . . . it’s dead. And cold.”
“You have to give it a chance, Caity.”
“Please don’t call me Caity.” Mum crouches down and looks me in the eye,
“Caitlyn. You have to give it time. We’ve lived in the same house for years, but now it’s time for a fresh start. We don’t have the old times, that’s true. But now we can make new memories, here. Better memories. I know you don’t like it now, but give it a chance. Please? For me?”
“Alright. Help me up.”
“Lazy . . .” Mum gets up and takes my hand, “Oof, you’re getting heavy.”
“Well, pick yourself up next time. Now come on, let’s get this room started.”
We helped the movers to organize the furniture out of the truck. The men were good at their job and finished quicker than I expected, but night had fallen by the time we finished unloading the truck. The men stacked all the boxes by the staircase for us to unpack ourselves and after Mum had a chat with them outside they packed themselves in the truck and drove off.
“Well, that’s all that,” says Mum wandering into the front room again, “We’re home.”
“We still have to unpack everything,” I say, looking up at the pile of boxes by the stairs.
“We’ll unpack as we need to. There are bed sheets for tonight and our clothes for tomorrow. But now’s not the time to worry about that.”
Mum heads into the newly furnished lounge room and I follow her. She sits on the couch, “Now is the time to rest and enjoy a job well done.”
I look around at the bare walls, it make me feel uneasy to see the emptiness.
“We should put up some pictures in here.”
“Sit down, Caitlyn. Relax,” says Mum. I let out a heavy breath and sit down beside my mother.
“What do we do now?”
“I dunno,” Mum says with a yawn, “Dinner I guess.”
“You want to cook dinner now? Aren’t you tired?”
“A little bit. But we have to eat some time, and I don’t know any of the local home-delivery numbers.”
“Well, why don’t we drive around?” I say, standing up, “We can look around the place and stop at the best take away place we find.”
Mum nods to herself,
“Good idea.” She jumps up off the couch, “after all our hard work we deserve a treat.”
“Hard work? Those moving guys lifted everything.”
“But I had to drive all the way here. And I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
I pat a hand on my empty stomach,
“You’re right there.”
So Mum takes the car keys from her pocket and we head outside to the car.
I take care not to trip on the doorframe again and we get in the car. I sit in the front seat, excited that we can finally do something fun in this miserable little town, but as we back out of the driveway the square, window eyes of number 31 Torrance Street look down on me like an insignificant pest, sending a shiver down my back. There really is something weird about this town, but I shake off the feeling when I see Mum’s enthusiasm.
“Oh, look there,” says Mum, pointing at the bus stop a few metres down from our house. “That’s must be where you catch the bus to school.”
“I know, Mum. I saw it when we drove down. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. But you do start school tomorrow. I hope you’re ready.”
“Tomorrow?! Isn’t that a bit soon?”
“The sooner you get to know the kids at school, the sooner you can make friends. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll have fun.” She says, again smiling that optimistic smile.
Of course, she doesn’t understand how bad I am with kids my age. I’m not really into the same music as other teenagers, and I don’t watch much television. That alone wouldn’t make me a social outcast, but I’m also a terrible klutz, and most people don’t find that endearing.
But I like that Mum is happy. I don’t think she’s smiled so much in a month. I never realized how much the old house affected her. Maybe it’s because Dad died there, I don’t know. Mum says we moved out here to save money. But a cramped, one and a half bedroom apartment should be cheaper than owning a two-storey house, surely. Maybe she couldn’t stand the memories. Which sucks for me, cos that’s the reason I loved it so much.
“Well, what’ll we eat?” says Mum, turning onto the main road, and bringing me back to my senses. “Do you want Pizza? Burgers? Or would you want to go to a restaurant? After all that work, we deserve a real treat.”
“Nah, a restaurant would wreck the feel. We’re in a new house, we’re supposed to eat at the table. Without plates.” Mum chuckles at that.
“Alright then. But if we’re not using plates, I say we eat burgers. With wrappers, it’ll make less mess.”
“Alright then. You’re the boss,” I say. Mum smirks,
“I’ll remember you said that next time you don’t clean your room . . .”
We drive down the road, past the dark forest and into the main part of town, but it’s mostly shut. Sunday isn’t the best time to look for an open shop, even in Hollow Falls. Some places are still open, but the street is empty, even though this road is part of the Eureka Highway that heads right down the middle of town.
“See anywhere good?” asks Mum. I look around the place. There’s some odd-job businesses; a Dental Surgery and a Local Pool but I don’t see many good take-away places.
Mum turns the corner onto Duncan Road and the lights of the business district fade away. Decrepit buildings and boarded up houses line the street. An ice-skating rink with the roof caved in; a broken down town hall; an abandoned theatre.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“This must be the dead part of town,” says Mum, “We won’t find a burger place down here.”
She turns back down the main part of town and starts looking around for a restaurant. But I turn back toward Duncan Road.
What was that? What happened there? Why was that street abandoned? What is with this town?
Near the far end of town Mum finds exactly what we need. A place called Dave’s Diner right beside the gas station.
Honestly, I was hoping to eat something more like junk food, but it’s the best thing open tonight unless we want to eat at the restaurant with the cracked window.
I was expecting a drive-thru, having lived so close to the city for so long, but the place is just a small parking lot and the restaurant itself.
We get out of the car and head up to the front door. Mum heads straight inside, but I glance through the windows and have a look at the place. It looks like a pretty nice little place, with booths in the corner and a colourful design. It looks perfectly normal to me. I mean, except that it doesn’t have a drive-thru.
I stare around the building and look at the dark forest just beyond the car park and I see something around the corner. Around the edge of the building, where the shadows fall, I see something.
At first I think that it’s just my gullible mind playing tricks on itself, but then a dark figure suddenly stumbles out of the dark. It turn to look at it, and the hooded thing turns to me. It slowly stumbles towards me holding out dirty, wrinkled hands.
“Please . . .” the man groans, “Please, Help me!”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have anything to give you.” I tell the man. He looks teary-eyed as he turns and walks out through the car park.
“Caitlyn! Come inside.” My mother calls from within the diner. I turn away and head inside, glancing back to see the man stumble towards the road. “Aren’t you old enough to know not to talk to strangers?” Mum scolds me,
“He’s just homeless,” I say defensively, “He just wanted help. I told him I couldn’t.”
Mum shakes her head,
“You should be more careful in the future. He could have been dangerous.”
“It was just an old man,” I say. But seeing the frown on Mum’s face I add, “but I will be more careful.”
“Right,” she says, “Well, what are you hungry for?”
I scan the menu up above the counter.
“Uh . . . Works Burger and chips.”
Mum nods, then heads up and pays for two works burgers with chips and soda.
“Won’t be a moment,” says the spotty teen behind the counter. As we stand and wait, I can’t help but be reminded that through the entire car ride, we never had a bathroom break.
“Uh, excuse me,” I say to the server, “Is there a bathroom around here?”
“They’re just outside, around the corner,” he says, pointing. I turn and head outside. It’s cold and quiet out here. I head around the corner and see two doors, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark so that I can tell the restroom symbols apart.
I push against the girl’s restroom door, but it doesn’t budge. I push and pull and jiggle the door handle. It’s stuck. I try the boy’s bathroom. The door swings open easily, but the lights are off and it smells terrible in there. I decide not to risk it and to hold it in until we get home.
I head back around to the door, but as I do I see the homeless man again. He’s standing at the far end of the car park, and he’s hunched over.
I watch as something in his hand sparks once. Twice. Then the lighter catches and he uses it to light a cigarette. Then I hear him coughing and spluttering as he spits something on the pavement.
The man’s disgusting, but I can’t help feeling sorry for him. It can’t be his fault that he lives on the street. I head back inside the restaurant with my mum and wait until our burgers are ready.
Soon enough, the smell of our food drifts out from the kitchen, and the cook comes out with two burgers hidden inside square, styrofoam boxes and two red cardboard cups full of hot chips. Mum takes the food, whilst I take the two bottles of soda, we thank the guy for our food and get in the car.
“I can’t wait to eat this stuff . . .” I say as I do up my seatbelt.
“Well you’ll have to,” says Mum. “I don’t want to make a mess of the car.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Mum. Just get home quick.”
The ride home, filled with the bouquet of our hot chips and burgers, is almost intolerable, and I find myself swallowing hungrily as my mouth waters in anticipation. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a proper burger.
We drive to the house and up the driveway, and I slowly unbuckle my seatbelt, careful not to drop our drinks as I make my way to the door.
Mum unlocks and opens the door with one hand and I follow her inside, careful not to trip on the doorway again and we take our food to the table.
We put the food out on the table and get started. The burgers are fantastic. The meat and cheese have melted together beautifully, the sauce drips down my elbows and the chips are crisp. It’s the kind of rustic, old school burger I haven’t had for a long time. Mum finishes her burger way before I do.
“Don’t make a mess of the table,” Mum says, pointing to a drop of sauce as it drips down my arm. I lick it up before it gets to my elbow. “My goodness, you’re a grot, Caity.”
“Just look at you,” I say, pointing to Mum’s cheek. Mum wipes at her cheek, scraping off a smear of barbeque sauce.
“Oh,” says Mum, licking her fingers, “Well, that just means it was a good feed. But at least I’m not talking with my mouth full.”
I just grab another few chips and pop them in my mouth.
“Caity . . .” Mum sighs,
“Don’t call me, Caity,” I say, my cheeks full of burger, “I’m not a baby.”
“Then stop acting like one.”
I stick my tongue out. Mum giggles, “You look like you’re about to explode when you do that. Now eat your food and do your dishes.”
I swallow the lump of food I’d massed in my mouth and give her a look.
Mum holds up her rubbish and food wrappers,
“You can put yours in the bin.”
“What bin? We haven’t put bags in any of the bins yet.”
“The bin outside,” says Mum, heading out of the kitchen, “Honestly, Caity, use your head.”
“Don’t call me Caity,” I mumble as Mum heads outside to throw out her rubbish.
I quickly finish my burger. Happily wolfing it down now that Mum isn’t watching me, and brush my hands off on my pants.
Then I scrunch up my rubbish in a big bundle, taking the empty soda bottle in my other hand and head outside.
Mum’s left the front door open for me, so I head outside and walk into the darkness. It’s pretty creepy out here. Seriously, WHY doesn’t anyone else have their lights on? I stumble to the edge of the curb where the bins are and throw my rubbish in.
Then I look around a little bit. This place is quiet. It’s creepy and dark and you can’t hear anything. I much prefer it in the city. No matter how late it is, there’s always a car or a bus or an ambulance. It’s never . . . silent.
I look back at the house. The two upper windows stare down at me again like eyes. Maybe it’s better that no one has their lights on. I wouldn’t want the whole neighbourhood to be staring at me. I quickly head back inside and promptly trip on the doorway.
“Aagh! Damn it!” I land face-first on the tiles, actually managing to hurt my cheek and my leg.
I slowly get up and realize that I’ve hit a nerve or something in my knee, it really hurts.
“MUM!” I call, I walk towards the kitchen again, looking for Mum, but my leg hurts a lot. I limp weakly, but can’t keep my balance, I hold my arm out to grab onto the staircase banister. I grab onto something. But it isn’t the banister. It feels like cardboard, and moves as I put my weight on it. The cardboard box slips, and as I fall, I see that the whole pile of boxes that we stacked by the stairs, are now falling, right on top of me!