Now sprawled on her back on a pile of her books, Jane’s hand reached behind her head, shuffling around her spines, emerging with an odd volume; its cover thicker than the content inside, it’s pages nearly disappearing behind its fraying edges.
“It’s important that you read this,” she said, handing it to me. “I know you said you’re sick of true-crime, but it would mean a lot to me if you did.”
I wiped dust off the front, making sure I was reading the title correctly.
How Chloe Jones Saved Australia
By Joan Diddley
“What is this?”
“Just read it. Out loud. Please.”
“Who the hell is Joan Diddley? This sounds like a joke.”
Jane’s face deflated. “I’m… It’s not a joke. Please, read.”
Another long day or night ahead of us, I couldn’t find a reason to not indulge her wish. I opened the book, immediately doubting its genre.
“There’s no foreword, no introduction… you sure this is true-crime?”
“It’s true. All true. It’s a history book, really.”
I flipped through it, skimmed some passages. “This is like, really ridiculous. Seems too sensational to be non-fiction.”
“For the love of God, please just fucking read it.”
It was a howling rain.
It traveled upwards from beneath the craggy ground, past the shores where no mere ocean could unbury them. Each “drop” had a face – hollow eyes over emaciated cheeks, surrounding an ever widening, screaming mouth gasping for the air of a world from where they were hundreds of years banished.
But this was not precipitation. The trail of each drop began to taking shape of vaporous form, stretching before settling into their ghastly subhuman perspective. The spirits appeared in their last moment dressings of tarnished rags over filthy leathery flesh, most still handcuffed with their ankles in chains; projected into dull subdued colors a camera might capture in 1788, when the First Fleet brought its first batch of Britain’s criminal overflow to their newly established penal colony to Australia’s Botany Bay. Now they returned to roost from beyond their long-neglected graves.
Not a storm by moisture’s measure, but a Sepia-toned blizzard of discordance in the amount of sky – then ground – it would cover in its scattershot swath of mayhem, when the mad apparitions of Australia’s forgotten criminal exports descended back upon its unsuspecting civilization.
Picking up where they left off before convicted, these bitter spirits held fast to the crimes they were found guilty of. A purgatory ever unfolding, acting out their custom atrocities on a loop. Not just haunting, but haunted by their own amoral transgressions; even if they were innocent, they were unreeling, real-time self-fulfilling prophecies of their state-appointed doom.
They decimated the countryside and metropolis alike: disrupting livestock, shattering windows, rupturing water mains and combusting gas lines, harassing the populace while “drinking” tavern’s inventories to fuel their lust for chaos; this supernatural terrorism knew no bounds.
But there was a pattern.
The real shock was noticed early; their motivation seemed to be victimizing women and children first. A worse-case scenario on top of nightmare, the most vulnerable elements of the population were, somehow, kept safe inside their homes without any real injury. Inexplicably, they would chase women and children all the way back to their homes, yet the spirits weren’t entering anyone’s dwellings. Leaving the men to defend the cities, along with the newly militarized Australian Federal Police – both were no match for this spiritual glitch, a force that could ravage but literally, could not be touched.
The insidious terror lasted three sleepless nights, and at the end of each day, the rising moon would signal their vast enveloping howl like a shrieking alarm. Hundreds of voices layered in dissonance, warning the citizens it was time to hide or fight – the latter proving more futile.
And then it was gone?
As all black clouds will eventually dissipate, it took just one woman and her two children the unorthodox instinct and sheer bravery to stand up to this onslaught, in what any other scenario would prove a suicide mission. Yet, all they had to do was stand there on the porch, the door opened to their home, inviting the swarming malevolence to pass through them.
* * *
A week later, on the steps of South Melbourne Town Hall, a massive press conference would be open to the devastated public for full transparency. Held by the Australian Federal Police and The Australian Defense Force, in conjunction with City Council, they gave their official statements, now that the dust had settled, while the city began to repair both its infrastructure and its collective psyche.
“Hello, and thank you all for coming today, on what is the first day we’ve had a chance to breathe easy after one of the biggest and most bizarre challenges our country has ever faced,” opened Police Chief Colin Robinson. “We are not going to take any questions until the very end, it’s clear we have a lot of explaining to do, a lot of which is going to take some suspension of disbelief on part of our citizens – please understand this is not any kind of whimsy. Simply put, this has been an unprecedented breach – not only in our law to enforce, but a breach of science, a breach in physics, a breach in all we’ve known in religion, and in life, and… in death. But a brilliant reveal in the history of our unique country’s history shall serve as an axis point for such an explanation.”
He took a deep breath, overwhelmed by the perceived absurdity threatening to choke their public briefing. “I’d like to start by introducing Detective Tom Bailey, who was on the very front lines for last week’s… well, what we are calling and what we can really only call ‘spiritual combat.’ Detective Bailey has been on the force for close to twenty years. More importantly, he came on the force with specific education that lent itself remarkably to this scenario, a Masters degree in Australian Anthropology and Aboriginal Studies. So, without further ado… Tom?”
He left the podium. Detective Bailey took the mic. “Thank you, Chief Robinson. Ladies and gentlemen and people of the press, please bear with me today – as fantastical as this is all going to seem, you also have to tell yourself that last week, it wasn’t just our cities we saw crumble – our perceived reality has also been obliterated. So, skeptics aside, I think this is all something we can agree on, to start…”
A sprinkling of nervous snickering befell the crowd.
“First, let's state the obvious – Australia is without a doubt a haunted country. It’s very origins mirror those of America – a systematic genocide waged on its native inhabitants. In our case: The Aboriginal people. While their whole culture may have been wiped out by the savage imperialism of the British, their ways remained ingrained in our very soil. Specifically, their spiritual laws. Now, you all know our country was a criminal dumping ground – there was just too many they had rounded up in Britain. We gave it a kinder name – a penal colony,” he said with a sneer. “Back in Britain they were giving people the Death Penalty for petty crimes – the Bloody Code, it was called. Well, the criminal population exploded after they got rid of The Code, and they shipped ‘em all off to Botany Bay there in South Wales…”
“Save the faa-kin’ history lesson, ay?” someone hollered, security’s aggressive embrace clustering him from view.
A brief commotion went static through the crowd. “Listen, I’ve got to give a damn history lesson or else none of this is going to make a lick ‘o sense, ay?”
“Now, what a lot of you may not know is that a large number of these convicts perished on the First Fleet, then more on the Second, the Third, and so on. Disease, malnutrition, in other words – neglect and poor planning on the British, so the blood was on their hands.”
He continued, his volume ramping considerably. “And so what’d they do? Well, conveniently, they also happened to be in the middle of a massive genocide of the Aborigines. We’ve since given that a polite name too, right – ethnic cleansing.” The crowd squirmed, visible discomfort. “So, they just dumped these convicts in the same mass graves they were creating for the Aborigines. Disgraceful, unceremonious… obviously making our British forefathers the real savages, twice over.”
“Since these convicts were buried on Aboriginal shores – bereft of ceremony, much like the genocide of the Aborigines – their remains became metaphysically entangled into Aboriginal Spiritual Law, where its understood that without proper funeral rites for safe passage into the afterlife, the spirit will return to create mischief…”
The crowd hushed their laughter unsuccessfully, whispering amongst themselves as if Bailey couldn’t hear. “… as I was saying, Aborigines were an overall peaceful culture until the British corrupted their ways – forcing them into the Frontier Wars to defend themselves. But the convicts, by nature, were more… shall we say, bad seeds. More susceptible to nihilism, vengeance… often the result of simply being born poor. Insult to injury, they were mortally wronged – murdered, essentially. I think you all see where I’m going with this.”
“Detective Bailey, why here, why now? Why?” interrupted an overzealous reporter.
“Okay, like I said, we aren’t taking questions until the end. But I was just getting to the next phase here, which should answer your question.”
He continued. “Folks, I’d like to bring a Shane Barfred to the podium. Mr Barfred is a third-generation descendant of the Barfred Family, original settlers who came to this country as convicted criminals on The Second Fleet. Shane, will you come up to the podium?
An unkempt, frail man with a disproportionately large belly walked up to the mic.
Hello, my name is Shane Barfred,” he spoke faintly, a more audible pride when stating his last name. “Like Detective Bailey mentioned, you could call it The Barfreds a “crime family” before there was such a thing. The Barfreds were all in on an extortionist family business, before they were caught. We lost two vital members of our family to that trip on the Second Fleet, and in they went into the ground. That, well, very charged ground on the shores of Botany Bay.”
“Since they were so airtight with keeping books and records to cover their tracks – my family logged the names of every single prisoner that died on the Second Fleet, then the Third Fleet. Then, once my great cousin got a job in the prison yards, she found the list of all those who perished on the First Fleet. This was compiled in a sort of commemorative ledger, so these people could be remembered in some way, some day,” he said, holding up the worn but tightly bound book.
“And this is it, right here, passed down to me from generations.”
A suspicious hush washed over the crowd.
“Now, uh… I’m friendly with the neighborhood kids, you see. I seem to be the old man at the end of the street that they’re sort of scared of, but fascinated by, I suppose. For months, I’d look out my front window to this group of teens daring each other to go on my property. A couple times I caught them looking through my side window. You see, I have a lot of interesting trinkets and treasures in here they just won’t see anywhere else. Well, one day I invited them in – after making sure it was alright with their folks, of course – and gave them some wisdom of bygone times.”
“Now, maybe I put too much trust in the youth, because I made the mistake of showing them the ledger… but… I specifically told them do not say their names out loud. They were too young to understand the implications of why, so I just left it at that, foolishly assuming they would listen. But as we all know, if you want the youth to obey, you tell them the opposite of what you want to enforce…”
The crowd laughed warmly in accordance with their own experience – their own youth not withstanding. “… and so, of course, later that day, these damn kids stole the ledger. They walked in the back door when I was asleep on my couch. And by nightfall, all Hell broke loose, as you all know.”
Detective Bailey chimed in from the side, mic-less, barely audible to the crowd as Shane Barfred cupped his ear.
“And, uh, yes… Now, the reason why these names are forbidden to be called out loud, I’ll give the podium back to Detective Bailey.”
Bailey picked up the sidewinding, unsteady statement. “In the same sense that we try to uphold our own culture’s laws to the best of our ability, there’s no wiggle room in ancient Aboriginal customs. Their whole concept of reality – or as they say their ‘Dreamtime’ – depends on the accumulated gravity of these customs. Like we mentioned before, one particularly staunch practice is how they treated their dead, in order to assure safe passage of into the afterlife. Each dearly departed is given a new name for the afterlife, leaving behind the Earthly name, like a snake shedding its skin. If their Earthly names be uttered, it confuses their progress, disturbs their spirit.”
“You see, since the Convicts were never given proper burial, they remained in limbo, never given a chance for the afterlife. Once these kids stole Barfred’s ledger, they couldn’t wait to see what would happen if they called their names out loud. And so, what we saw last week – their spirits finally came up for air; enraged, seeking not only revenge, but well… a remedy for their unholy state of being.”
“A bloody remedy?” Someone called out. “By destroying our city? Going after the women and children until they fled into their homes for safety?!?”
“I’m getting to that, please…” Bailey put up his finger with authority, sighing heavy before continuing.
“Now, you mentioned an important word: Safety. A universal goal, whether it’s a human seeking it, or in this case, a goddamned ghost...”
Losing his composure, he reigned himself in; despite his convictions, Bailey couldn’t believe his own words. “Back in the days of our penal colonies, there was a plan of rehabilitation for these convicted criminals. To reintroduce them into our country’s still blossoming civilization, an emphasis on settling down – meeting a suitable wife, raising children to create a foundation of family. Women and children – the British referred them as ‘God’s Police.’ Their way of saying ‘Our work is done, now let the divinity of home, of chivalrous responsibility, sort them out…”
“A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE WORKFORCE!!!” a young lady yelled out.
“…and we can’t go back in time, you’re right.” Bailey did his best to fire back civilly with the restless, opinionated crowd failing to see the context.
“But our progress of time won’t register in this unprecedented equation. They were suspended in time, buried not just under layers of dirt, but under the weight of native spiritual law, warped by antiquated British rehabilitation now appearing out of touch.”
“In short, these criminals were woken out of their mortal slumber, searching for stability, for identity; yet, trapped in their own circuitry of chaos — as if they were livestock, unable to remove their criminal brand burnt into their skin. And right when we thought we’d tried everything to subdue their wrath, there was one woman…”
Bailey pointed to Chloe Jones, stage left.
“…who had the guts to show the real occult element in this maelstrom: Kindness. The bravest weapon there is. Now, here’s Chloe Jones, here with her son and daughter, all to whom we owe our deepest gratitude. And after she speaks, we will finally open it up to questions.”
All attention turned to the shy, grey-streaked brunette as she approached the podium, triggering a swell of applause, though the crowd was not sure yet exactly what for.
“Uhm, hello… my name is Chloe, thank you for the warm reception. Let me start by saying I don’t really feel comfortable in any kind of hero position — I didn’t really know what I was doing until it was already done.”
“If you want the truth, I was terrified, just like the rest of you. This wasn’t any display of bravery as much as it was, well, giving up. I was exhausted, sick with fear and fatigued from being afraid. I’m a single Mother with two children and I just didn’t know what to do except… I guess… the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing. The military, their weapons were causing equal destruction – all the fighting didn’t seem to be phasing their force, so I thought, maybe I should let them in the house, just see what happens since they seemed to stop following us once we got indoors.”
“So, I don’t know what came over me, but I opened my front door, my children by my side, and we just stood there, looking into the sky. It was like a time-elapsed storm gathering – the spirits seemed to magnetize into one single entity, a brownish ethereal mass, like an imperfection in development you might see in a faded old photograph. It formed a sphere, began to pulse, as if it was collecting strength, a wicked intention… I was shaking with fear but I knew I had to stay strong.”
“And then, it shot towards me and the children, like a comet. The children were crying, thinking I’m crazy for making them stand there. But then it hit us, like a warm wind, right through our bodies, filling us with… what I can only describe as the most wonderful euphoria I’ve ever felt. We all started crying but it wasn’t exactly sadness…”
Chloe paused, tearing up at the thought. Detective Bailey passed her a tissue. She continued, a humbled chuckle. “It felt, umbilical. Like I could feel all their undead life force going through me, as if I had always been connected to them. A universal yearning… timeless, boundless, lawless. And I guess by lawless, I mean it was bereft of morality yet governed by something even greater. I knew in that moment, it was a force whose communication had been stifled. Mis-delivered, then disconnected, just looking for someone with their arms open, in order to impart it correctly.”
“And what can I say? I got it. The children got it. We understood. Then the sky opened back up and the sun began to shine again, giving us the most gorgeous sunset. I feel like you all may have missed that part!” she giggled, triggering modest laughter from the crowd, before they began clapping uproariously. The overzealous press ignited, talking over each other with burning questions. Cameras flashed incessant. The crowd demanded her to elaborate but couldn’t stop talking amongst themselves, attempting to process Chloe’s revelations according to their own rigid principles.
She heard all the voices, the cacophony of media, curious public chatter.
It swirled into nonsense. She felt a dizziness overtake her – not a discomfort, but a sparkling weightlessness telling her it was time to go home, where she knew this feeling could be preserved.
“That’s all I am going to say. You can direct all questions to Detective Bailey.”
Tuning out the swelling pandemonium, Chloe gazed down and smiled at her son and daughter, relieved to see they were grinning right back. She grabbed her hands tight and motioned them off the steps, to safety. She walked past the official’s groping hands on her shoulders, as she gracefully recoiled, not ceasing her errant, determined strides out of frame.
They had only asked her to tell her story – not to save everyone’s lives again.
That part, they would have to figure out themselves.
That was the whole book, the length of a chapter, of what should’ve been a much larger account — but with no hard science to explain the phenomenon, so what could justify its printing? Even if it was a fairy tale attempting to masquerade as non-fiction, it was too ridiculous; so absurd that I actually felt unnerved by the story, especially when I looked at the Jane’s face — she was staring at me, gravely.
“So, what?” I asked.
Jane stood up, began walking around the small room, a dip to her gait, cocking her neck side to side, singing: bomp-shu-bomp-shu-bomp, bomp, bomp/ bomp-shu-bomp-shu-bomp, bomp, bomp…
“HEY, JOAN DIDDLEY!” she cackled, pointing to her chest with both thumbs, a ritual song and dance to confess her alternative persona.
“So, you wrote this shit? You’re Joan Diddley?”
“Yes and no,” she said.
“Goddamnit! What do you mean?”
Jane, or Joan, laughed. “I mean, yes, I am, but that’s not my real name…”
“What the fuck, Jane. Let me see your ID or something?”
I had forgotten: since you don’t need any proof of who you are in Bear Creek, we get our IDs taken at the border when we enter; a sort of collateral for the worst that you can make happen, so you don’t have to be responsible for anything. But Janejoan, suddenly submissive, reached into her bra, and pulled out the most valuable currency in the whole town: the one and only Bear Creek Identification Card in existence — issued to, and by, it’s birthmother, Chloe Jones.