Annamarie Willett

Don’t Take Lifts from Strangers

Annamarie Willett

An Adult Fairy Tale

Norma Gains was a monster. Most of the children that lived in her town suspected as much but as they grew-up they decided she was just creepy old lady. This suited Norma perfectly; she loved the way the children looked at her. Their fear was delicious.

Norma had lived in Guildfern for as long as anyone could remember. Its inland location was ideal for Norma as the seaside did not agree with her. The town was set in a leafy green valley surrounded by numerous orchards and vineyards. And this meant plenty of seasonal fruit pickers. Most of them were young backpackers travelling the world on a meagre budget. Some were just drifters looking for a way of making ends meet. Either way there was plenty of opportunities for Norma’s kind.

There was always plenty to keep Norma busy in Guildfern; she attended the local Catholic Church and was involved in the yearly fete and the church’s monthly bingo games. She also ran a little second hand shop on the main street. Nothing fancy just some clothes, books and knick-knacks but enough to get by.

It was Thursday afternoon and Norma was stacking some mismatched plates on the crockery shelves. She felt tired, her joints were stiff. It had been a long winter and as always, the cold months spent going without, took their toll on Norma’s body. She had always looked old but today she felt old.

Moving slowly, she made her way to the front of the shop and stood in the front window. She pretended to be adjusting the window dressing but what she was really doing was watching the street. Across the road was the police station a place she liked to keep an eye on. As she watched, a police car pulled slowly up to the station. The car door swung open and Sergeant Gibson climbed out.
The police officer was about forty, tall and athletic looking. Norma’s nose twitched, she didn’t care for the town’s newest Sergeant. He was sharp, too sharp. Norma wasn’t completely sure that her harmless old lady routine would work on him. She decided that she would need to be very careful this year.

Adjusting the dress on the mannequin, Norma’s dark eyes scanned the street. A smile spread over her chubby old face as something interesting caught her eye. Further up the street was the town’s only pub and in front of it was a small open truck. A group of about twelve young people, mostly men, were climbing out of the back of the vehicle. The truck belonged to Ed Hurst the owner of a large orchard. The young people were obviously fruit pickers.

Norma licked her lips and watched the group chatting happily as they crowded around front of the building. As the youngsters entered the pub one figure stood out. He was beautiful in a rough sort of way. The young man was short, tanned and a little thin probably about twenty years old with longish brown hair.
“Very nice”. Norma said appreciatively.
The bell over the door tinkled and two young women entered the shop.
The girls were both locals and Norma recognised them from church. The older of the girls name was Mandy and she worked at the little supermarket. The other girl, a pretty little blonde named Cilla, worked at her parent’s vineyard.
“Hello, girls”. She made her voice cheerful and welcoming.
“Hi Mrs. Gains”. The girls were still young enough to be a little bit afraid of the old woman. This made Norma chuckle.

The girls headed for the books and magazines where they whispered to each other about how creepy the shopkeeper looked. Norma ignored the girls and continued to watch the street. She looked over at the pub but no one went in or came out.
Turning her attention back to the shop, Norma went and sat behind the counter. There was a pile of clothes to price and some little statues to polish. As she worked on her stock, she made meticulous plans in her head. Everything had to be perfect this time. Sergeant Gibson’s suspicions could not be aroused so careful planning was needed.

The older girl, Mandy, approached the counter with a stack of magazines while her friend hung back and fiddled with her phone.
“That will be $3.50 please, Mandy”.
As the girl pulled out her purse, Norma asked. “How’s your mother dear?”
“Oh she’s fine. Dad’s taking her into Freeport for a weekend away and she’s very excited about it”
“I bet you’re planning a party while they’re gone aren’t you?” Norma asked with a wink.
“Well I hadn’t really planned anything” The girl seemed genuinely innocent on the matter.
“That’s a great idea Mandy. We have to have a party”. Cilla gushed excited at the prospect.
“Now girls you two be careful of those fruit pickers. I’ve heard those boys are a wild bunch and I would hate to see you get mixed up in anything naughty”. Norma warned using her most grandmotherly tone.
Both girls giggled and Cilla nudged Mandy.
“When did you say they were going away, dear?” she asked casually.
“This Friday. I mean tomorrow, Mrs. Gains”.

After the girls had left the shop, Norma took up her position near the front window. She watched the girls cross the road and head towards the pub. They were having a very animated discussion with lots of nodding and laughing. As they passed the pub the doors swung open two of the young men from the fruit picking group came out. The girls stopped and spoke to the men. One of the men put his arm around Cilla and she laughed enjoying the attention.
Norma was very pleased. She did enjoy causing mischief of all kinds but in addition to her immediate pleasure, she wanted the police to be kept very busy this week.

At five o’clock Norma turned out the lights and locked the shop. She walked up the main street with her handbag over her arm. When she reached her old Ford Falcon, she unlocked the car and sat behind the wheel. She pulled the car out of its usual parking spot and turned the corner slowly driving past the pub.

“Well well well!” She spotted the young man with the longish brown hair that had caught her attention earlier. He was walking around the back of the pub heading out of town. Norma looked around and checked her rear and side view mirror to make sure no one was watching. She pulled-up alongside the young man. This was unplanned but much too good an opportunity to waste.

“Excuse me, young man”. Norman leaned over and called out of the passenger side window.
“Yeah?” He said surprised.
“I need some furniture moved and I wondered if you would like to earn some extra money?” Norma kept her voice light and tried to look as helpless as possible.
“Yeah I guess so” He answered looking in the window and seeming to decide she posed no threat.
“Oh wonderful! Hop in”.
“What now?” He seemed confused.
“Yes it won’t take long.” Norma was finding it difficult to keep the impatience out of her voice. The young man shrugged and got in the car.

Matt couldn’t believe his luck when the old lady offered him some work. He hated fruit picking and was trying to get enough money together for a bus ticket to Queensland where he had a mate that owned a bar. He was sick of this small town and he didn’t like being outside in the heat all day.
He sat back in the seat and looked around the car. It was a classic and it had to be at least forty years old. The old lady certainly kept it in good condition. He wondered how long this would take and how he would get back to the pickers quarters.

“How long do you think this will take?” He asked.
“Oh not too long. What’s your name dear?’ The old lady asked.
“My name’s Matt”. He answered. “I like your car,” he added.
“Well thank you dear. Call me Norma”.

The old lady seemed pleased and began talking about her late husband. The poor old thing was probably lonely he thought. He wished he didn’t need the money so he could offer to help her for free but right now money was very tight. Driving along with the old lady made him think about his mother and he made a mental note to ring her that night.

After driving or about fifteen minutes they pulled down a gravel road and came to a stop in front of an old weather board house with a big verandah around the front of the building. The roof was grey and the house was white. Roses and hydrangeas grew in front of the porch and along the pathway that lead to the front steps. The house looked like something you might see on a postcard.

“Your house is amazing, Norma. Who does all the work in the garden?”
“There’s not that much to do. When I’m feeling good I’m quite strong”. Norma said with a chuckle.

When Norma unlocked the front door, Matt wasn’t surprised that the house was just as quaint and perfect inside as it was outside. There was a great deal of floral furniture and doillie covered surfaces. As he walked into the house, Matt was suddenly struck by the smell. It was sort of like rotting potatoes and ash. The smell was not overpowering but it was oppressive, making Matt decide to finish whatever work Norma had for him and get out.

“Take a seat dear”. Norma motioned to the little floral sofa next to a table with a silver framed photo.
Not wanting to disappoint the old lady, Matt sat down and tried to breathe through his mouth.
“I’ll just go and fix us some tea”. Norma gave another one of her little chuckles and started heading towards the back of the house.
“No. I mean no thank you Norma. I can’t stay out too long or I’ll get locked out of the picker barracks”. This was a lie but he didn’t think Norma would know what went on at the picker’s barracks.
“Nonsense! It’s only six o’clock, you have plenty of time and I insist”. Something about the way Norma said this sounded more like an order than an invitation. Matt felt unnerved and he wanted to get up and leave the foul smelling house. Not knowing how to do this without causing a scene, he simply smiled and said.
“Okay”.

While Norma was in the kitchen, Matt looked around the room. It was spotless. There was a series of black and white photos in silver frames lining the mantle, but the one on the coffee table next to the sofa seemed to be the most recent. A grandfather clock near the front door ticked loudly. The loud tick tock together with the smell was really making Matt nervous. He was just considering bolting out the front door when Norma came bustling back into the room carrying a tea tray.

“Here we are. You are in for a treat Matt. I’ve made you my famous peach tea”.
She placed the tray on the coffee table and for a second, Matt could have sworn she was trying to sniff him.

“Look, Norma I’m feeling a bit sick. I think I should go”. This wasn’t a lie. The smell; the clock and Norma’s strange behaviour was getting too much for him and he just wanted to get out of the creepy old house as quickly as possible.
“Oh you poor dear. It’s a good thing I made peach tea; it settles the stomach. Drink it down and I will drive you straight home”. Again it sounded like an order even though the she was smiling.

Matt gave a sigh and gulped down the tea. It tasted very sweet but there was an underlying chalkiness that was quite unpleasant. He put the cup down and smiled at the old lady. She was sitting opposite him on a little floral armchair watching his every move. When he put the cup down she leaned forward eagerly. Matt thought she probably wanted a compliment on her tea.
“Very nice”. He managed.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. Now just relax and let it take effect and you will be feeling wonderful in no time”. Her voice sounded very hollow and far away.

Matt looked at the old lady but his eyes felt blurry so he began blinking rapidly to clear them. He could hear Norma’s voice; she was still talking but he could only make out the odd word. He felt very strange but sort of calm. He leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes. The last thing he heard was the clock ticking as he drifted off to sleep.

There was a “Bang!” Matt’s eyes shot open. He looked around in a panic. He was tied to a metal trolley in a very brightly lit room. There were no windows just rows of shelves and stacks of boxes. In one corner there was a stove and a butcher’s block with a large meat cleaver imbedded in the wood. The ceiling was low with three lines of florescent lights along the middle and near Matt’s trolley was a set of steps leading up to a little platform and a wooden door.

Matt tried to sit up but both his feet and ankles were tied down with what looked like leather straps. He strained against the leather but this only seemed to make it tighter. He made himself stop and take three deep breaths. He remembered taking the tea from Norma and then nothing. The old woman must have put something in it but why? Why would she do this to him? The woman was obviously very old but every instinct in Matt’s body was telling him he was in terrible danger.

There was another “Bang!” Matt turned his head towards the door. The knob rattled and the door opened.
“How are you feeling dear?” Norma asked as if everything was normal.
“Untie me”. He demanded. “Are you crazy? Why are you doing this?”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to get into a stranger’s car?” She asked looking very concerned.

Norma chuckled and walked down the stairs. As she approached the trolley, she reached out and caressed Matt’s cheek. He flinched away from her touch. She looked different. She seemed to be standing up straighter and moving faster than she had before. Even her voice sounded different; sort of deeper.

Taking a step closer, Norma leaned over and sniffed Matt’s face. The smell of rotting potatoes and ash was overpowering and he started to gag.
Norma seemed pleased and started to laugh and as she did her mouth suddenly looked impossibly wide. Her pupils seemed to spread like ink until her eyes were completely black. Matt panicked and began bucking against the straps. He could see now that she wasn’t human. Whatever this creature was, it was no old lady.
“Please don’t hurt me”. He begged.
“It will only hurt for a moment”. Norma answered in a deep throaty voice.
Matt began to whimper as the old lady licked his face. He had given up struggling and now felt helpless to stop whatever was about to happen to him.

There was a sudden shrill ringing. Matt was so startled that he let out a loud shriek. Norma’s hand clamped down over his mouth and she hissed at him to shut-up.

For the first time she looked worried and Matt realised that the ringing was a door bell. He bit down on her hand so hard he tore through the skin and something foul filled his mouth. Still the hand remained in place.
With her free hand Norma pulled what looked like a filthy hanky out of her pocket and quickly shoved it in Matt’s mouth. She reached under the table and produced another leather strap which she tied around Matt’s mouth to keep the hanky in place. With Matt silenced she turned and dashed up the stairs and out of the door with the speed and agility of a twenty-year-old.

Norma cursed under her breath as she rushed up stairs. She was outraged that someone would dare interrupt her when she in the middle of something so important. As she walked through the kitchen she grabbed a tea towel and wrapped it around her injured had. The boy had done some damage but if everything went according to plan, it would soon mend itself.

When she reached the front door, she took a second to collect herself and make sure she had the appropriate friendly old lady expression on her face. She opened the door and was more than a little surprised to see Sergeant Gibson standing on her front porch.

“Oh what a surprise”. Norma tried to keep the anger out of her voice.
“Good evening Mrs Gains. I’m sorry to intrude on you but I’m here on official business. Can I come in?” The Sergeant’s tone was extremely polite but firm.
“Well I was just about to have something to eat but I’m always happy to help in any way I can. Please come in”. Norma stepped aside and allowed the man to enter the house.

Norma motioned for the man to sit on the sofa as she took up her spot in armchair. She felt a little nervous with Matt downstairs but she decided to see where this was going before she did anything rash.

“I need to ask you a few questions about a young French backpacker that went missing in this area last spring”. As he spoke, the Sergeant took a note book and pen out of his top pocket.
“It has been confirmed that Guildfern was the last place that the young man was seen before he disappeared”. He held Norma’s gaze as he related this last part and then he waited.
Resisting the urge to stare at his gun, Norma asked “Would you like some tea?”
“No”. He replied flatly. “The young man’s name was Marcus Rein. Did you know him Mrs Gains?”
“Why would I know the boy?” She answered with an amused chuckle.
“Do you know a girl named Mandy Sims?” He asked changing the subject.
“Yes I know her from church but I don’t see”. He cut her off
“Mandy remembers Marcus talking about earning extra money working for the woman who owns the junk shop”. His tone had changed and his use of the term “junk shop” made Norma feel very uneasy.
“I don’t really remember. There are so many transient people through this town it’s hard to keep track”. Norma replied fiddling with the tea towel on her injured hand.
“Do you often hire young men to work for you Mrs Gains?” Again his tone grated on Norma’s nerves.
“No!.. I really can’t be of any help in this Sergeant and my supper is getting cold so if you don’t mind”. She stood and waited for the policeman to get up.
From the kitchen there was a rattling and the sound of a chair being moved. Gibson stood up.

“What was that?” He asked sharply.
“That’s just my cat. No if you wouldn’t mind?” Norma tried to usher him towards the door when another noise came from the kitchen. This time it sounded like the door opening.
“Is there someone else in this house?” He demanded. As he spoke the kitchen door swung open and a terrified young man with leather straps hanging from his wrists stood there.

“Help me”. The boy begged reaching out both his hands to the policeman.
Norma didn’t waste any time. As the Sergeant reached for his gun, she grabbed him by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the floor. With surprising strength she swung him around and threw him against a cabinet decorated with porcelain chickens. The Sergeant’s large frame smashed the cabinet sending wood and porcelain everywhere.

With the police officer on the floor dazed and hurt, Norma turned to look at Matt. Her pupils had completely taken over her eyes making them two huge black orbs. Her mouth was impossibly large displaying what looked like two rows of hundreds of small sharp teeth and her nose had flattened into two long slits. The effect was horrific and Matt stumbled backwards shrieking as he turned and ran for the back door.

Norma looked from the dazed police man to the young man escaping through her back door and made her decision. She leapt onto Sergeant Gibson and straddled him. Gibson blinked his eyes and seeing Norma’s grotesque face; he began bucking and trying to push her off him.

“What the hell are you”? He screamed as Norma’s huge mouth closed over his.
Sergeant Gibson was a large man and he bucked and wreathed for a good forty seconds before his struggling gave way to twitching and then he went completely limp. Norma closed her black eyes and sucked enjoying the delicious taste. She continued to suck until the man was little more that a dry husk. Norma had devoured every liquid part of the policeman.

When she was finally satisfied, she stood-up and straightened her skirt over her surprisingly strong hairy thighs. Her face rippled and returned to normal. She felt wonderful. All the stiffness in her joints had vanished; her hair had lost most of its grey and she looked at least ten years younger. She unwrapped her hand and all trace of injury had vanished.

Norma looked down at the dry shell that had once been Sergeant Gibson. She prodded the remains with the toe of her shoe.
“You don’t look at all well. You really should have taken the tea”. She laughed.

Matt ran as fast as he could through the scrub along the side of the gravel road. He kept looking back over his shoulder expecting that awful creature to jump out of the bushes and grab him. If he could just make it to the main road, he might be able to stop a car and get help.

As he ran he couldn’t help think about the police officer. He had wanted to help him but instinct had taken over and sent Matt running like a child and now he was still running. His chest was burning with the effort but fear drove him on. When he reached the main road he fell to his knees and sobbed with relief.

It was almost completely dark now and Matt had been stumbling along the main road for what felt like hours. He was sure he had turned towards town when he left the gravel road but now he was doubting himself. His teeth were chattering and his hands were numb he couldn’t get the old woman’s monstrous face out of his mind and was afraid he never would.

He heard a car behind him and turned to see headlights approaching. Terrified that it was her, he hid behind a bush on the side of the road. When the car passed Matt was able to see that is was a small truck and not the Ford Falcon. He ran out into the road screaming for the truck to stop. The truck kept going and just when it looked like it wasn’t going to stop, the brake lights came on and a man and woman got out of the truck.

As the couple approached Matt started to cry. He sank to the ground and needed help to stand and walk the short distance to the truck. All the way he kept repeating the same words.
“Hurry up or she’ll get us. Hurry up or she’ll get us”.

The next afternoon three junior police officers approached Norma Gain’s house. The front door was open and the place seemed to be deserted. When they entered the first thing they noticed was the smell and the second thing was the shrivelled up corpse of their commanding officer.

The house was searched and no trace of Norma was found. In the basement the police found the trolley just as Matt had described it and twenty jars marked “French Chutney”. The jars were sent to the city for analysis. Norma’s car was still parked in front of the house but the garage around the side was open. It seemed that Norma had an escape vehicle stashed away ready for her escape.

Over the next few days officers from the city arrived to help with the investigation but it was as if Norma had vanished off the face of the earth.

Matt was questioned extensively, but whenever he got to the part where Norma’s face changed, the various police officers would give each other knowing looks. Matt knew that they thought he had snapped and gone a little crazy. Maybe he had because he couldn’t stop thinking about Norma Gains and the monster he had seen her turn into.

Matt didn’t go to Queensland. In fact, he returned home very quickly and moved back in with his mother. He didn’t go out much; he slept with a nightlight and he never ever took a lift from a stranger again.

Campfire

Annamarie Willett

Jack poked at the campfire and leaned back in his old folding chair. The chair had seen better days but hopefully this would be the last time Jack had to use it. There was a rustling inside the tent, the zip was pulled up and Evelyn emerged clutching a bag of marshmallows. She looked at the campfire and her brow wrinkled.

“I said a large campfire Jack! That fire isn’t large enough to heat or light up an ant let alone two people. Really Jack! Why must everything be so difficult?” Evelyn continued the barrage pointing out where Jack had gone wrong on everything from driving to tent pitching.

Over the last forty years Jack had learned, for the most part, to tune out Evelyn’s constant criticism. Now as Evelyn complained he let his mind wander. Things had been so different in the beginning. The first year of their marriage had been the best of Jack’s life. They had very little money but they had laughed, made plans and sometimes spent entire weekends in bed.
When their first child came along things started to change. Evelyn was consumed with motherhood and Jack was busy trying to make ends meet. Soon they moved into their first house and that’s when the criticism started. At first it was small things like his painting technique but over the years things got worse.

Evelyn criticised everything Jack did. Everything from the way he held his fork to the way he slept. Jack knew that part of it was his fault because he had allowed it to continue for so long. He knew he was a weak man and that this was what really bothered Evelyn, but for years he had felt too helpless to do anything about it.

But tonight would be the last night he would endure this torture. He would tell Evelyn he was leaving her and tomorrow his new life would start. At sixty eight Jack would finally be free. Free to go to bed when he wanted; free to watch what he wanted and most importantly, free from Evelyn!

“I’m leaving you.” The words were out and Jack could hardly believe he had said them.

“What? Don’t be ridiculous Jack!” Evelyn dismissed his words with a wave of her hand.

“I’m serious Ev. It’s over I’m moving out when we get back tomorrow. I can’t be with you anymore.” His heart was pounding and he felt powerful for the first time in forty years. “I won’t change my mind,” he said simply.

“Is that so?” Evelyn spat as she jumped up.

“Well when you change your mind, don’t think you are sleeping in this tent. You can sleep on the ground tonight. Maybe that will bring you to your senses!” Evelyn turned and stormed into the tent.

Jack was excited; tomorrow he was going to start a whole new life! As he reached for a piece of firewood he felt a sharp pain in his chest. It must be the excitement he thought. Then the next pain hit and he couldn’t breathe, his chest felt like it was being squeezed.

“Ev? Evelyn” he called in a weak voice.

“No way are you coming in here! I’m not even listening to you, Good night!” Evelyn snapped.

Jack rolled out of his chair and onto the ground. The pain in his chest was overwhelming now. He looked up at the full moon and tears trickled out of the corners of his eyes. It took about an hour for Jack to die and then finally he was free.