By Melanie Rees
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The four-wheel drive drew closer, clinging to Hayden's tailgate. It sidled up alongside Hayden's car.
A teenager yelled from his oversized chunk of metal. "Pull over, Grandpa. I'm in a hurry."
"Grandpa! Why you...I'm not even thirty, you pimple-popping weasel wrangler." Hayden leaned out the driver's window. "I hope you crash, mongrel," he shouted.
The youth hit the accelerator and flew past Hayden with ease.
Dust billowed in front of Hayden's windscreen. He honked and gave the youngster the finger. The youth tore off; stones tinkled against the mudguards like firecrackers, popping rhythmically as he cruised down the road.
A dull throbbing reverberated in the back of Hayden's skull. It had been there earlier today when he'd been arguing with the postman.
He clasped his head with one hand and took a deep breath.
Don't let a kid get the better of you.
Hayden's thoughts trailed off as he rounded the corner, almost careering into a four-wheel drive wrapped around an old gum tree.
He slowed down. "It can't be him."
Glass shards lay scattered on the dirt road. Hunched over the steering wheel, the youth's pale face looked towards Hayden. Dark green eyes pleaded, and then closed.
Serves him right for driving like a hoon.
Hayden's foot acted on impulse. Hitting the pedal, he accelerated down the road and almost reached the bitumen before his sense and humanity returned.
He clasped the steering wheel. Blood drained from his head and his knuckles and rushed to his feet.
What are you doing, Hayden?
"Stop. Brake!" he yelled to himself. His foot finally obeyed. With shaking hands, he called the emergency services and drove back towards the crash site.
Trees loomed inward, arching over the road with wooden arms. Wind whistled through the canopy and clasped Hayden in a melancholic timbre.
How could I keep driving?
With churning innards, he pulled up at the crash. Wrapped around the trunk, the car looked like a growth protruding from the tree. Hayden raced to what was left of the car. The driver's seat was empty except for a bloodstained steering wheel.
Could the kid really have walked away from the accident? Behind the tree, a paddock spanned for kilometres with nothing in it but rank grass and squabbling corellas. But there was no one walking, crawling or laying splayed out on the dirt.
Where is he?
Blue lights danced upon the blades of grass.
"You reported an accident?" a voice asked from behind him.
Hayden turned from the crash and looked at the policeman.
"There was a body, but it vanished."
"Body?" asked the policeman.
"Slumped over the wheel."
"The wheel in the car, you moron!" Hayden felt his head burning.
The policeman rolled his eyes. "What car?"
Hayden turned to nothing but a field of grass. "It was here. He crashed right here." Hayden pointed at the tree.
"Stop wasting my time."
"I'm not lying," Hayden yelled. "He crashed. And he was nearly dead but then he wasn't. I came back and there was just the car, but the car..."
The policeman coughed. "Have you been drinking?"
"I know what I saw." Hayden turned and kicked the tree in anger. It kicked him back, crushing Hayden's toes. "Goram furballs!" He clasped his toes. "This is your fault, copper." He faced the officer and stared into the barrel of a revolver. Behind the shining metal, the copper glared at him. A gaping hole had been ripped through his cheek. The policeman held out the gun again. "I need you to breathe into this."
"Huh?" Hayden backed away towards his car.
"Stop!" the policeman yelled. "I just need to breath-test you."
Hayden scrambled into his car. He glanced at the tree before starting the engine. There wasn't a shard of glass or a splattering of blood anywhere. But there were blue lights flashing behind him.
He stepped on the gas and the mutilated policeman followed.
Hayden drove in a haze of confusion. Trees smeared past as he travelled down the road until the police lights were just a speck of blue in his rear view mirror. And then the engine spluttered.
"No!" The fuel light twinkling orange at him. He scrambled out of the car and fled. His feet pounded against the bitumen and with each stride. In his head, the throbbing like endless drums pounded. Beating. Why did he think there was something he was forgetting?
A store stood up ahead, inviting. He flung the door open as he arrived, welcoming the tinkling of bells.
"Dead police...he came at me..." Hayden panted.
The man behind the counter raised an eyebrow. "Are you okay?"
"No. Dead policemen coming. You need to lock the doors."
"Ahem. Excuse me." An elderly lady stood at the counter holding a shopping basket. "You have to wait your turn, Sonny. I shan't be long."
Blue lights shone on the shop windows. "We have to go now."
"What was that, Dear?" The old woman held her hand to her hearing aid.
"Typical," shouted Hayden. "I said that..." Hayden clenched and opened his fists as his skull throbbed.
"Oh, my. Prices just keep going up and up." The old woman emptied her purse on the counter, coins fell out and scattered across the conveyor belt. "How much was it again?"
"Oh, for goodness sake, you old witch!"
The woman turned and bared bloodstained teeth-- not so much teeth but fangs. "Yes, Sonny. Can I help you?"
Hayden closed his eyes. This isn't real.
When he opened them again, she was still there.
She extended an arm towards him. Her fingernails turned grey; fingers withered up like old branches; eye-sockets deepened til there was nothing but gaping holes. "I'm short. Got any change?"
Hayden staggered backwards.
"Are you okay, Mister?" Hayden heard voices. Distant voices. He turned. Behind him, a policeman with half a face thrust a revolver in his face.
"You okay, Sonny?" asked the old woman, as a maggot crawled out of an empty eye socket.
Hayden grabbed a can of beans on the counter. "Get back!" He raised the can. There was a thwack, a pain in his head, and then nothing but blackness.
Wailing awoke him. Hayden looked up at an ambulance officer holding an oxygen mask. A nametag dangled from his lab coat.
"Mack?" read Hayden. "Help me, Mack. I keep seeing...things. Vanishing corpses, zombies..." Hayden's voice trailed off as he realised how absurd he sounded.
"You're okay now." A female ambulance officer swiped a neural scanner over Hayden's head. "No history or genetic markers for mental...wait." She looked up at Mack and showed him the scanner. "Ahhh," Mack whispered.
"What do you mean by ahhh? Ahhh what?" screeched Hayden.
"Nothing, just a glitch," she said.
She looked at the scanner again. "It's circumvented the temporal lobe," she whispered to Mack. "Probably doesn't remember.
"Remember what?" screamed Hayden.
The female officer sat alongside him and strapped on the oxygen mask. "You must have volunteered for the program."
The officer must've noticed Hayden's vacant expression. "Did you do an anger management course?"
Hayden shrugged. "Ages ago. So?"
"Do you remember volunteering for the neural chip?"
Hayden shook his head in disbelief. "An implant? What the fracking heck would I do that for?"
"Deep brain stimulation, linking the amygdala to the occipital lobe," began Mack. "Your chip detects when you get angry and tricks your brain into seeing images from your subconscious. It's meant to be a deterrent but it's obviously malfunctioning and going into overdrive."
Hayden grabbed the scanner and waved it at the officers. "That's absurd. How can they do this?" Throbbing pulses ran down the back of his skull. "What right do the bleeding quacks have to tinker about with my head?"
"You would've volunteered," said Mack.
"No way. You're all the same." Hayden hurled the scanner to the back of the ambulance and it clanked against the doors.
"Calm down. It's fine. We'll remove it and you can visit your sensory neurophysician to try another anger management program--"
"Another! I'll give you an anger management tactic. It's called beat the shit out of the idiot telling me everything's going to be okay."
"Calm down. It is okay. We're going to take it out." Mack extracted a syringe from his equipment.
"Calm down! How can I calm down?"
"We'll just give you a local anesthetic and remove it." The female officer turned and stared at Hayden with bleeding eyes and a mouth sewn shut.
Mack approached holding a chainsaw in his hands.
"Get away from me!" Hayden ripped the mask off and raced to the doors of the ambulance.
"Calm down! There's nothing to fear." Mack pulled the ripcord and the chainsaw spluttered then roared into action. "It's just a little incision."