The first time I found myself at that house, I was eleven and a half. that was back in the last days of 1979. My mother took me out there for New Years to see my father who she had divorced three years prior. She had won full custody and since then we hadn’t heard a thing from him. The letter asking us to make the trip out to visit had been the first thing either of us had heard from him in a long while. To be specific, this would, in fact, be the first time I would see him face to face in two years.
I still remember how hot it was that day, even with the A/C turned as far as it would go the car was uncomfortably warm. Twice we had to stop and let it cool for a moment under the shade of the odd tree or rock. When we stopped I would lean forward over the middle console and look out the windshield at the horizon, which was wavering in the heat radiating up from the ground. If I closed my eyes and listened closely, I could hear the noise of the insects as they buzzed under the car, hiding from that burning sun.
We took the highway out of Sydney the morning before and spent the night at a town called Nyngan. From there we traced lonely dirt roads which wound and etched their way across the desert in unending succession. after a few hours everything, even our clothes, were stained with that muddy red that seems to be the defining characteristic of that portion of the outback.
The sun had just disappeared from the sky when the house finally came into view, it’s unnatural angles and slopes silhouetted against the red and purple sky. My first thought, as we approached was that it was old, so very old and worn. It had a single circular tower rising up from a ranch style skeleton. Little circular dormer windows jutted out of the roof and the entire place was the faded gray of old wood. Wraparound decks, one on each floor were once decorated in lovely banisters which had since fallen into disrepair. If you looked closely I remember you could see some of the old paint still clinging to the wood. On the ground floor, there was a single light on, flickering dimly in one of the windows. In all its eclectic characteristics I remember most of all a feeling that it didn’t belong, that it wasn’t right, somehow.
My mother pulled up into what I could only imagine was the driveway. My dad’s old red truck sat on the right-hand side of the house, it’s tires all flat, and next to that was a windmill that I could hear creaking in the still air.
I remember being so confused as my mother parked the car, thinking that my father couldn’t live in a place like this. I didn’t get to read the letter but my mother told me that he lived in a beautiful house by a lake. This was none of that, and as I listened to the car engine slowly go silent, I began to feel scared. My mother must have too because she had a hard time getting out of the car at first. When she finally did, she said to wait in it while she went up to the house.
My parents would not tell me why they divorced at the time, but now I know their split stemmed from my father’s mental state. He blamed it on the war and was extremely prone to anxiety attacks and periodic depression. It was not uncommon for him to wake up in the middle of the night screaming and punching at the air. He saw a therapist but neither drugs nor therapy gave him any aid, and he continued to spiral downward. He was never dangerous or violent, but as the years drew on he became highly reclusive and paranoid, shutting himself in the office for days and then weeks at a time, eating canned food, murmuring. My mother tried to have him committed at a point, but when he found out, he tried to kill himself. After that, he came to her in one of his lucid moments and said it would be better if they just parted ways.
Personally, I have a hard time remembering his lucid moments, they were so few and far between, and it was so long ago, but my mother told me he was a good man before he slipped.
I watched my mother hesitate before knocking, her silhouette outlined on the last dying embers of sunlight looked like it was shaking. We would have to stay here in all eventualities, we were many hours from the nearest town and with the dirt roads as poorly marked as they were we would risk getting desperately lost if we drove through the night. I remember seeing her take a deep breath, smooth out her pants, and knock twice. There was a pause, but then I heard a creak as my father answered the door.
He was dressed well, in his button up shirt and khakis he seemed quite out of place in the middle of nowhere. His hair was combed back neatly, and when he saw my mother he smiled and seemed so glad to see her. After a short conversation, my mother waved me out of the car and up the walkway to see my father. He squatted down and hugged me, saying how good it was to see me. When I looked again he was crying.
He helped us with the luggage and carried me inside, all the while talking about what he had made for dinner and how excited he was to have us all together again. He urged us to stomp our feet on the deck to get rid of some of the dust on our shoes, and then we went in. I was stunned by how well kept the interior of the house was compared to the outside. The floral wallpaper, though very old, was in good condition and all the light fixtures looked clean and bright. The hardwood floors had recently been swept, and the bookshelves looked clean and dusted.
From the entryway, the living room was on the right, bordered by two big bookshelves and a fireplace on the far wall. Scattered about were a few easy chairs, and next to the fireplace, there was a small Christmas tree all decorated and displayed. He said that he had it shipped out here from the north and decided to leave it up for when we came, Just seeing it helped me relax a bit. There was a hallway in front of us that lead back to the kitchen and the dining room was after that. The whole place smelled like books, old wood, and meat, the latter of which was coming from the steaks which were still simmering on the fully set dining room table. I forgot how long it had been since I ate last, and staring at the food I could feel my stomach growl. We took off our shoes and he told us to wait in the dining room while he took our stuff to our rooms. I was excitedly taking everything in, but my mother was studying every inch of the place, as if to find some proof of some lingering insanity. Personally, I could see none.
“Alright! let’s eat!” He said, clapping his hands as he jogged down the stairs and back to us.
Dinner was good, my father could cook quite well for himself, and he was smiling while he served both of us heaping plates of steak and mashed potatoes and peas and gravy. I didn’t speak for the first ten or so minutes, I simply sat there devouring my food with a vigor my parents seemed to find slightly amusing. After asking me to slow down, my mother started asking questions. He had been doing well out here, he said. He needed to get away from everything, take some time to clear his head. Altogether, it seemed to be working.
He had gotten work as a bush pilot, his credentials with the US Air Force carried him easily into a job, and he was working all over the outback, ferrying people and equipment to and fro. He said that his little bush plane was sitting out behind the house if we wanted to take a ride in it the next morning. I shook my head in excitement and he smiled and said it was settled then.
He and my mother talked for a long time after that, and I remember seeing her smile for the first time in ages. After I finished my steak, I politely asked for another and my father was just about to grab it when he hopped up from the table, saying that he forgot something. My mother finished serving me and by the time I had it on my plate, my father had returned from wherever it was he went and was now holding a small box with a bow on it, about the width of his palm.
“This is for you Matthew,” he said as he handed it to me. “I found it on one of my supply trips out to northern Queensland, thought you might like it.”
The box was slightly heavier than I expected, and I looked at my mother who nodded at me to open it. I gave the ribbon a tug and tore away the small bit of wrapping paper to reveal a little box of wood clasped shut. Undoing the clasp I opened the box. Inside was a watch.
“It’s mechanical, so it doesn’t take batteries, you have to wind it, but it’s one of the best timekeepers you can find.” My father said with a smile.
The watch was a coppery brass color, with tiny inlays carved all over the sides and back, the strap was made of an old leather, and on the face, you could see all the little gears and cogs as they ticked away inside. The face had hours, seconds, and minutes, as well as a two smaller dials on either side that had the month and date. On the back, my name was etched into the metal, Matthew Altero. It looked like some ancient device from a distant civilization, mechanized with a thousand tiny gears. The watch band was a little loose but I didn’t care, it was from my father so I loved it, and watching the mechanism move so precisely was absolutely mesmerizing.
I looked at my mother, expecting her to say something, but she seemed as stunned as I was by the gift. Later I would realize that this was because the watch he found me was an antique, one that if resold would fetch around ten grand, conservatively.
We all migrated into the living room after I finished, placing the dirty dishes in the empty sink as requested. He said we could count down to midnight right there, and that he brought some champagne for us to celebrate with. It was perhaps an hour past sunset and the house was already beginning to get cold so I got a blanket out from the chest next to one of the bookshelves and draped it over me. I thought at first that perhaps we would watch the fireworks on television, one of the streams from Sydney or Brisbane, but there was no television in the room. Instead, my father lit a fire in the fireplace and got a blanket for my mother who was sitting on the chair next to mine. It was his turn to ask questions now and he asked us all about life back in Sydney, how I had been doing in school, the weather, and our friends. I felt like I could just lay back and listen to his voice for hours, watching the light from the fire dance on the curtains and wallpaper. There were no electric lights in the house, and the multiple oil lamps gave the whole place a constant flicker no matter where you were.
I started to grow tired a few hours before midnight, the long day of driving and excitement had taken a toll on me and I was beginning to nod off in the chair. They both decided to call it a night about then, and while my father put the champagne away, my mother gently carried me upstairs. I didn’t want her to know that I was awake so I just cracked my eyes open enough to see the upstairs hallway, which ended in a big circular window. She carried me to the second door on the right and pulling back the sheets, put me on the bed and tucked me in. I lay there for a moment, watching the lights go out in the hall and listening to the sounds of the house settling for the night. Strangely, I suddenly found it very hard to fall back asleep in the new bed, and after a few minutes of turning over under the sheets, I sat up and tried to look around. I could see the outline of bookshelves and a night table next to the bed, the hallway door, and a few framed pictures on the wall. The room was smaller, the size of a child’s room, decorated in a rather austere manner with a bed stuck up against the end. Next to me, I could hear my new watch tick away on the nightstand. I tried to read the face but it was too dark.
Getting up out of bed I made my way to the window, the curtains were tightly closed, like they were on all the windows of the house, but I really wanted to look outside. I tugged gently on one, expecting it to give, but it stayed firm, I felt around the edges to see what could be holding it, and hidden between the folds I found a series of nails all along the side and bottom of the curtain, securing it down. I remember this striking me as odd at the time, but couldn't really think why. I had a mighty desire to look out the window, though, and after some experimenting, I found that there was just enough slack on the bottom for me to shimmy up onto the windowsill on the other side if I was quick and kept my arms above my head. Once on the other side of the curtain, the world was much brighter.
My room looked out perpendicular to the way we came in, and on the right, I could see our car parked in the driveway next to the windmill and the old truck. Out farther, the gentle slope the house was situated on, went flat and then extend that way almost as far as the horizon. The lake my father had mentioned was actually dry. A salt flat that extended for miles and miles. I stretched out my legs on the sill and accidentally kicked something that rolled up against the window. It was a tiny old spyglass. I put it to my eye and I began studying everything I could in the dark.
I don’t know how long it was before I saw it, but it had been a good few minutes at least. It was a shape at the very, very far end of the lake, where I could barely see. I squinted but it remained this formless shape on the border where my vision went out. I twisted the little eyepiece on the spyglass and watched the static come into focus. I gave it a quarter turn and then froze. There was a figure out there, large and almost formless at the very end of the dried lake. It looked like it was just standing there, unmoving as it fizzled against the sky. It had no face or eyes, but something primal in me screamed that it was looking for me. For a split second, I was paralyzed, unable to even think. I dropped the toy and the sound of it breaking on the windowsill pushed me back to consciousness. I squeezed back through the curtain in less than a second and opened the door to the hallway. In front of me, the house was blacker than night. I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face and I was afraid to step forward past the safety of my room. I stood there for a moment, gazing into the dark, before closing the door and curling up against it. Eventually, I fell asleep, falling unconscious to the sound of that watch ticking incessantly.
The next morning I woke to the smell of bacon, and the sound of idle conversation drifting up from the downstairs. I got dressed and made my way down carefully, it was still rather dark inside my room. In the kitchen, my father was cooking while my mother talked and read a book in the dining room. She smiled as she saw me come down the stairs and asked how my night was. I shrugged, embarrassed that I was still imagining the boogeyman at my age, but still decided to say something.
"I thought I saw something out the window last night but I think it was just my imaginiation."
I remember that what happened next was very odd. Both my mother and father's heads shot up to look at me. My father's inscrutible, and my mother's with what appeared to be thinly veiled terror. I asked her what was wrong and she shook her head and the emotion was gone.
"The darkness will play tricks on you out here," My father said. "It's best not to think about it too much." With that, I nodded and made myself a plate of pancakes and bacon.
After breakfast, we walked around the house and went up to the border of the lakebed. It was early but I could already feel the air starting to warm to an uncomfortable degree. As we walked around the property he told us about some of the jobs he had done in the outback and I listened intently. He told me about an old medicine man he had to ferry between settlements, an engineer that would always bring him a beer in payment for trips, and a woman who flew back and forth from Nyngan every other week who always insisted on flying with her four pet chickens.
My mother was more interested in the house, and after he ran low on stories, she started asking him how he had come upon such a peculiar and isolated structure. He said he had bought it secondhand from a man in Brisbane who made a living selling ranch properties. He had wandered for a while after the divorce and found himself in the man’s office after seeing an ad for the place in the newspaper. Logan, the real estate agent, said that the property was a real pain in the neck because it was so far out and run down that hardly anyone wanted to purchase it. The land itself was practically worthless, there were no minerals and the earth was too dry to grow more than a few sparse grasses, making it exceedingly difficult for ranching. He knocked the price way down for my father and with a handshake, he bought it. He said there was no real information on who built the house originally, only a name, Carbury.
We ate lunch around noon, leftovers, and then as promised my father took me up in the plane. It was a little two-seater prop plane that had all the other seats taken out to make room for more cargo. There was a name painted in the racing stripe that came just below the side window, Caroline; my mother’s name. My mother was never fond of flying so she turned down the offer but I was nearly shaking with excitement. We loaded in the plane and my father started the prop, which sputtered to life in a series of emphatic gasps. Towing the plane over a small rise and down a bit, we reached the dry lake bed. He gave me a grin and then pushed the throttle all the way forward. The engines roared and I felt my body get pushed back against the seat as we raced across the salt.
My dad gave a yell as we took off and I yelled too, smiling so wide I thought my face would get stuck. Together we climbed up and up, the reddish haze giving way to the deep blue sky, and as the ranch disappeared into all but a speck, I felt cool air begin to filter in through the vents.
All around us was unending desert, deep red desert marked by rocks and trees and bushes which all stood out as a stark green or brown. The road that took us to the house wound far ahead of us and out of sight, and other than that, absolutely no signs of life. It was at that moment I realized just how alone we were there. Sure I had seen it in maps and my mother had told me, but being so high up, being able to see so far, and still seeing absolutely nothing. It was a heavy emotion. We wandered the sky for an hour or so, doing loops around the house and tipping the wing to my mom who was watching us from the shade of the front deck. Twice he let me take control and I made the plane go up and down as if it was caught in some massive wave.
“I think Caroline might want us back down soon,” He said, still smiling. I don’t think he had stopped the entire time we were up there.
“No, just a little longer!” I said
He looked at me and paused for a moment, his smile suddenly falling off of his face like water. His gaze became unfocused and he slumped down in his seat with his arms releasing the controls and his head settling on his shoulders so that rested awkwardly against the seat.
I screamed and tried to shake him but his body was rigid, as if cemented in place.
“Want to see who was watching you last night?”
The plane lurched as if it reached the end of some invisible leash and my father flew forward, his head impaling itself on the yolk with his eyes looking straight through me.
“Do you want to join your father?”
A cacophony of alarms sounded next, and ahead of us, a black wall of clouds climbed up and up, seeming to reach into the sky and extinguish the sun itself. The aircraft tumbled and I screamed. The last thing I remember are voices coming through the radio and then everything goes out.
Something happens after that, but I don’t know what. Trying to remember is like trying to find a window in a house of mirrors, everything seems real and made up at the same time. I remember fire and noises so tremendous that even in memory they make my heart race. I remember the sound of shattering glass and splintering wood, and the sound of my mother screaming. There are figures in the dark, but I don’t know where or why. I remember desert, darkness, and most of all fear. An emotional tether so strong that it remains unchanged even while all else has faded with time.
I was found by a few police officers from the island of Fairtree six months later. I, unconscious, was the sole passenger in a car that was now six thousand miles and an ocean away. There were no tire tracks, or footprints leading to or away from the vehicle, and neither of my parents have ever been found. The case is technically still open in ASIO, though there were never any leads to take it farther. Where I was for those six months, or how I made it that far away has never been explained, and as for the house, it has never been found. Nowadays I even find myself questioning the validity of what I experienced in the heat of that sun some 30 years ago. Every time when I try to remember, I find the memories bleeding and fading away more and more. Like a wet painting left out in a slow drizzle, the colors slowly drip down and over each other until they are a single indecipherable hue. The times, the colors, the faces have all drifted in and out leaving only the memory of fear. A fear so pure and cutting that even to this day I find myself waking up in the middle of the night to bedsheets soaked in sweat. I know it’s impossible, that I shouldn’t; no, couldn’t have survived that long in the desert, yet here I am.
My father’s watch still keeps me company on those nights. It ticks steadily on my nightstand as I try to steady my breathing. In all these years I have never had to wind it, and it serves as the single corporeal reminder of the truth, keeping perfect time but always exactly six months late.