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‘It’s a bit of a mess,’ the woman said. ‘I’ve not had time to fix it yet.’

The builders followed her through the house and into her lounge. The taller of the two men, Mik, forced back a gasp—a large hole had been blown through the room’s end, opening into a kitchen that issued a cinnamon smell of coffee grounds and roasted nuts. He could tell the woman was embarrassed, running her hands through her frizzy gold hair. She explained that she had stumbled and, trying to catch herself on a bookshelf, had instead shoved it right through the wall. She laughed forcefully as she talked, trying to make it a funny story. The men nodded. They couldn’t see any bookshelf.

‘It’s a bit of a mess,’ she repeated.

Mik widened his eyes to his partner, Joseph, who gave a subtle nod. Mik plucked a reasonable figure from the air and said they would be able to fix it in a month. This had the desired effect: the woman protested. It was just a little hole and Easter was only three weeks away. She needed the place straightened out before then. She offered to pay a little more, and when Mik didn’t reply, a lot more.

‘My sister is very sick,’ she said. ‘She doesn’t have much time. I need this.’

Mik looked at his feet, bit his lip. He thought she was acting desperate.

‘It’s just… She doesn’t have much time left,’ she continued. ‘I want things to be nice.’

Joseph cleared his throat and looked to Mik for approval. Mik gave a shrug, and so Joseph now offered a compromised price. They were willing to take the bribe, but not rob her outright. The woman was delighted and shook both their hands enthusiastically.

Mik watched a noisy miner bird through the kitchen window. It sat on a branch, screaming. They’d work the weekend, he said, from about seven onwards. The woman said this was fine.

‘Do you go to church?’ she asked.

Mik glanced around the room, counting crucifixes. There were four.

‘We do,’ he said.


The road back to town was a thin, rocky strip, with high bush on either side. The builders drove in silence, unable to talk over the roar of the van rattling beneath them. Both were going on thirty, but didn’t look it. They weren’t really builders, or rather they weren’t certified to build. Mik grew up helping his father with odd ends and had undertaken an apprenticeship only to give up three months from completion. He didn’t want to work for a big company, living under another man’s thumb. He considered himself a communist, although, truthfully, he did not entirely understand what this meant.

On their way home, they stopped to buy a bottle of medium-priced gin to celebrate the job. Mik and Joseph hadn’t lived there long and so the bedroom was sparse—cream walls flaked paint, a mattress on the floor and a space heater. Piles of books doubled as coasters for empty mugs. They talked into the early morning about the woman at the house. There had been a creepy vibe about her, they agreed. Her hands had jittered the whole time they were there, and the bookshelf story was definitely a lie—to break through a wall that sturdy would have required deliberate force. She had also asked them to take their shoes off when they came through the door, and then their socks, and it had been awkward when she remembered the floor was coated with shattered glass and sent them back to put their shoes on. She had worn clogs the whole time.

Drunk and horny, they fell into bed. When Mik felt Joseph hard up against him, he perked his arse, as if to say, ‘I’m ready.’ In the heat of their fucking, Joseph whispered the Lord’s name, causing Mik to laugh. He felt a misplaced guilt for lying to the woman—he did not believe in God. He thought the woman would disapprove of their lifestyle.


The woman’s friends used to call her Di, but they were gone—estranged, ungodly, or dead. These days she just went by Denise. Now forty-five, still slender, with high cheekbones that gave her an air of authority, Denise felt that God was ushering her into a new phase of her life. The children for whom she had sacrificed her career had all left home, and her marriage had fallen apart long ago. With the little income that came from her settlement each month, she had been able to lead a comfortable life. Denise had felt that her troubles were behind her—that she had been tested with God’s burdens and met them.

Then, one night, Denise had come home from confession to find her sister in the living room, half-dressed and bleeding from a gash that ran vivid down her right arm.


It was the first word they had spoken to each other for five years, but it had released something in her sister. She had collapsed on the stoop and had lain wasting in the spare room ever since.

Denise drove the ten kilometres into town twice a week: on Friday for confession and to shop, and on Sunday for church. If you asked Denise, she would tell you that she was a good driver, careful, considerate. She wasn’t. She had a reputation. When her sister had first fallen ill, she had gone to church more regularly to steal holy water. Then Father Paul had caught her. She’d expected him to cast her out, but instead he had taken her to the vestry and solemnly handed her three plastic bottles with gold cross labels. ‘Nobody’s been dipping their hands in this,’ he’d said.

Today, it was Friday. After her big shop, she walked the main drag, stopping by the butcher and the fruit and veg barn. She made the sign of the cross as she passed two waifish men outside the Bakers Delight. She knew they were cruising—directly opposite the store was a notorious toilet block. Spare them, she prayed.

In the bakery, Denise asked for two loaves of sourdough and a scone. While the girl ran the loaves through the slicer, Denise studied the piles of hot cross buns in their blasphemous variations—mocha, matcha, chocolate and spiceless. There was something about the flavourless bun that seemed especially ungodly. Beside her, a whisper of a woman was packing hundreds of dollars’ worth of sweet breads into a collapsible trolley. Blue veins glowed beneath her almost translucent skin. A breath caught in Denise’s throat. By the low cut of the woman’s dress was a birthmark, roughly the shape of a star.

She had detected the evil presence gathering about town lately, noticed the candlelight in the windows of neighbours when she walked late at night—a sure sign of dark movements. And here, in the bakery, she felt the same chill she remembered from childhood, an uneasy force like a cold wind blowing off the water on a warm winter’s day. This woman was a witch. Denise was sure of it.

The woman left, and Denise scooped up her order to trail behind her. Keeping a safe distance, she shuffled past women with too much cleavage and boys with pants below their hips. The witch crossed the road before coming to a stop at a powder-blue Subaru. Denise approached with caution as the woman loaded cinnamon buns, apple pies, coffee scrolls and chocolate scones into the back seat.

The icing on the pastries glimmered in the light, reminding Denise of that day long ago. She would have been eight, maybe nine. Her sister had been given four weeks to live; the doctors had started to speak of ‘easing her passage’. It was then that the healer had appeared on their doorstep with apple cakes and the promise of a miracle. Denise never found out the terms of the contract the healer made with her mother. She only knew that her sister impossibly recovered from the wasting illness and that their mother had dropped inexplicably dead on the morning of her sister’s eighteenth birthday.

The woman slammed the boot, startling Denise—‘Oh!’ she exclaimed. The woman was staring at her, and Denise swore she saw something ripple across the woman’s face. Malice maybe? The woman blinked, then turned to climb into her car.

‘Wait,’ Denise called. But the woman was already starting the car’s engine. A bumper sticker on the back windscreen read: There is no Planet B.

There was a tapping on Denise’s shoulder. She spun to find an acne-coated employee. ‘Ma’am,’ he said, pointing to the bread in her right hand. ‘You forgot to pay.’

Later that day, in the darkened room, Denise would tell her sister what she had seen in town. ‘A witch.’ Lucy wouldn’t respond—she was nearly gone now, struggling to talk, her body without much flesh on it. Denise would never admit it, but what frightened her most was Lucy’s legs, so depleted by the sudden loss of muscle that they appeared to belong to a woman at least twice her age. They reminded Denise that there was an evil in her sister’s body and that she was failing to drive it out. She had asked Father Paul to perform an exorcism, but he had refused.

There had been much about Lucy’s sudden return that confused Denise. She did not understand why the wasting illness had made its return; why it was that Lucy had come to her for help—they had never been close. But after seeing the witch, Denise sensed that something darker was in motion. She felt a strong conviction that it had something to do with the healer’s contract—that Lucy’s time was up and the witches were now coming to take her. Well, that would not happen. Denise would not allow it.

Lucy was asking for water now, her voice hoarse and barely audible. Denise sighed and rose to fill the glass. She hated the betrayal, but knew she had to do it. Denise held the cup to her sister’s lip, tipped, and massaged the throat to help her swallow. Then the screaming—a raw animal sound as her sister’s body convulsed and twitched, as if the liquid were eviscerating her insides.


As promised, Mik and Joseph started the job on Saturday. There had been a steady rain overnight, but the morning brought sunshine, which glimmered off leaves and tabletops. Denise lingered as they worked, offering coffee and the details of her life. Her daughters, she told them, were twins, good-looking girls and vets-in-training. They were doing work experience together at a stable near Werribee, although both were afraid of horses.

The men nodded and replied politely when necessary. Mik was glad she did not ask too many questions about them. He could sense the lingering proposal that he and Joseph and her girls should meet. Denise would occasionally disappear to check on her sister, who the men soon figured was confined to a dark room at the end of the house. It was as if death emanated from that space. Like an abyss, it beckoned Mik with its cold hunger. He never heard the dying woman’s voice, only Denise, who patiently explained their presence, apologising on their behalf for the racket.

Sunday was another bright day, and with the windows open a drying breeze carried the smell of eucalypt and earth through the house. Mik sensed that the work was progressing slower than Denise would have liked; she would not leave them alone and was always wringing her hands. At times, he thought that she looked on the verge of tears. This did not seem to bother Joseph, who worked in his steady but unrushed way. He would pause from the banging to consider what it was he might do next, only to resume tearing away at the ruptured plaster. Mik could not make sense of it.

It was early in the afternoon when Mik found himself alone with Denise. Joseph had slipped out for a smoke. Denise was making her sister lunch—she offered Mik a cup of tea that he refused. She cut two slices of bread, then set to work slicing up a tomato.

‘She won’t eat it,’ Denise said. ‘Doctor Meredith said that if she keeps on this way it would best to put her on a drip, but—’ Denise paused from her cutting to look out the window. The weak yellow light of the afternoon poured around her, and for a fleeting moment Mik thought she appeared sort of saint-like. ‘It wouldn’t help,’ Denise said. ‘Oh gosh.’

Confused, Mik came up behind her to see what was wrong.

‘I’ve cut myself.’ Denise held out her thumb for Mik to see; it was marked with a fine, red gash. A small drop of blood ran down her hand, then fell to the tiles between them. Mik looked from the drop on the floor to the cut and then to Denise’s slackened face. He drew a sharp breath. Something in her distant stare frightened him, although he could not say what—for a fleeting moment, he felt that he was looking at someone else. The air seemed suddenly cooler; it stung of ice as he drew it into his lungs. And then, Denise was herself.

‘Silly old me,’ she said, chuckling as she went to the sink to wash her hand. Over the splashing of water, she asked Mik to fetch a bottle from the fridge—‘The one with the gold cross on it.’

Mik did as she said, affecting calm. He wanted to ask her what had just happened. But there was nothing to ask, he reasoned. Still, he could feel his heart pounding. With great attention, he watched her unscrew the lid from the bottle and pour a shot over her wound.

‘It’s Holy Water,’ Denise said. She shook the wound dry and reached under the sink to find a bandaid. ‘Pour a thumb into a glass would you.’

Again Mik did as he was told. Denise stood and applied the bandage to her hand. ‘You’re such a dear,’ she said and then took the glass from Mik. ‘For my sister,’ she explained, holding up the glass a little. ‘I’m trying to drive the devil from her body.’

Mik allowed himself to laugh softly once she had left. She must be going mad. Well, that was only fair enough. Death makes people go funny; all that dread eats away at you. Still, he could not shake the feeling of having come into contact with something bigger than himself, something spiritual. A great scream erupted from the hall’s end, stinging like sand lashing bare legs.

‘It’s okay,’ Denise was shouting. But Mik was not so sure. There was the sound of the front door, then—opening, closing. It was Joseph. Mik scuttled down the hall to meet him.

‘Did you hear that scream?’ Mik whispered.

Joseph said he did not.

‘We have to go,’ Mik said. ‘We have to go. Now.’

‘Let’s give it twenty,’ Joseph said. ‘I’ll come up with an excuse.’

Mik could sense Denise’s frustration when Joseph reported that they’d forgotten their T-square; they’d be back tomorrow to finish the work, he promised. As they headed for the front door, she shouted after them, ‘Isn’t there something else you can do?’

On the drive home, Mik and Joseph shouted over the road: Should they finish the job? Call the authorities? What was in that bottle? Something fucked like methylated spirits or bleach? They didn’t want to call the police; they were working illegally, after all. Joseph reminded Mik of how desperately they needed the money.

‘Still, this is a woman’s life,’ Mik said. ‘It’s bigger than money.’ They decided to sleep on it.


The men’s absence troubled Denise. They hadn’t returned for two days and wouldn’t answer her calls. She had offered to pay them more than what she could afford because she needed the place neat. A messy home invited demons and her house was messy—the gutters full of leaves, the skirting boards coming away from the walls in the bathroom.

Also, the spirit in Lucy’s body was getting restless; without warning, she would burst into tongues. Nothing seemed to help—not the holy water, nor the incense she burned almost endlessly now. Even the rosary seemed ineffective against the demon’s workings, eliciting nothing more than a low, tempestuous groan.

Sometimes Denise wondered if Lucy had never been cured as a baby and had in fact died in her cot from the wasting illness. If the sister she had known since was nothing more than a vessel for Lucifer’s bidding. It would certainly explain her sister’s careless marriage, supernatural intelligence and her decision to work in advertising. They had never been close, and Denise’s faith had frequently proven a point of tension between them. But, no, something of Lucy must have remained in that shell. Why else would she have returned when the demon inside her was so weak?

It seemed that it would not be long now.

That Friday, after driving home from the food bank where she volunteered, Denise found two women standing in the foot of her driveway. Their hair was windswept in the still day, and as Denise approached, her breathing quickened. Again, she could feel the chill moving through her. With quivering hands, she flicked the indicator on to turn down the driveway. The two women raised their arms to Denise’s Toyota as she passed by as if they intended to embrace it. The car shook and Denise struggled to breathe. But then their ghastly poses were receding in her rear-view mirror, lost to the bushland that enclosed her large property.

Denise did not let herself panic, even after the car was parked and she had prayed to Mother Mary. She used the table-salt in her pantry to guard her doors and windows, all the while watching the tree line for any sign of the women. They did not appear.


Mik and Joseph returned the following week, having reasoned that the dying woman’s extraordinary pain was probably unexceptional for somebody at death’s door. Neither had had the guts to Google it for confirmation. They needed the money. Coming up the drive, Mik felt a great relief. He was quietly worried about Denise. Lying in bed, he had been unable to shake that moment in which she had become somebody else. He felt that she was in trouble, but could not say why. It was a gut knowledge.

There was no sign of Denise when they arrived at the house, but the front door was left unlocked, so they let themselves in. Salt was heaped against the doorframes and windows. Mik brushed it aside with a quizzical expression. ‘It keeps the demons out,’ Joseph explained. Mik felt a surge of love for Joseph in that moment; it was just like him to know such useless things.

They worked slowly, listening for the sound of Denise’s car or a stray voice, but none came. By mid-afternoon, the timber frame was up and the men stunk of sweat.

They made sandwiches and tea from Denise’s pantry and took them down to the creek that bordered Denise’s property. The water there was clear and quiet, dappled with the light that filtered through the shade of the gums. There was a husk of an old Camry on the opposite bank. Mik said that it was against their ethics, as communists, to leave a job unfinished. He worried that Joseph might question his claim, ask him whether it was curiosity, or guilt, or the lingering promise of money that drove his desire to keep up with the job. But Joseph did not question him; he accepted Mik’s words with a nod. He always followed Mik’s lead.

Come evening, with Denise still missing, the men tip-toed to the end of the hall to see if the sick woman was still in the room. She wasn’t. They found an empty bed, surrounded by burnt-out sticks of incense and a copy of the King James Bible. The curtains swelled before the open window.

For the following two days, they repeated this routine. The quiet of the place was unnerving. As they ate more from Denise’s pantry, it became clear that they were the only ones coming and going. Some of the bread was starting to turn. One afternoon, Joseph took the bottle with the strange gold cross label from the fridge. After a sniff, he dared a sip, causing Mik to shout with alarm. Joseph smiled with a curious expression. ‘Relax,’ he said. ‘It’s water.’


Denise could hear the men moving across her floorboards, the mumbling idle of their chatter. She couldn’t see them, however. She couldn’t see anything at all.


Their place was looking more homely. The men had found a bookshelf on the side of the road and spent a little of what money Denise had already paid them on buying a lamp. They used wooden pallets from the skip at the local hardware store as a base for the bed. ‘We almost look trendy,’ Mik said.

It was agreed that the sick woman must have been taken into a hospice. Joseph suggested that perhaps somebody else had called the cops on her, but Mik thought this seemed unlikely. He didn’t think she had entertained guests in some time.

Tomorrow, they would return to the house and finish the job. If Denise hadn’t returned to pay them their remaining fee, they might have to contact Mik’s father for rent, which seldom went well. He had never forgiven Mik for dropping out of that apprenticeship. Mik said he hoped Denise was okay.

‘Why wouldn’t she be?’ said Joseph.


How did she get here? All Denise could remember was sitting with her rosary in the lounge, watching for movements in the trees. She had stayed there well into the night. When she rose at midnight to make coffee, the tiles of the kitchen floor had stung with an unexpected chill. She remembered standing on her toes while she stirred in the milk. When she had gone to check on Lucy, she had found her as she had been for the last six weeks—refusing to die.

Denise dreamt she was standing on the bank of her creek, the cold water peeling over her toes. Was it a dream? She was unsure. In the creek’s centre sat the witch from the supermarket, blue veins all over and glowing so bright they initially eclipsed her nakedness. The witch wasn’t looking at Denise, her gaze instead fixed at something in the trees. Denise tried to follow her line of sight but could see nothing. There was something else that was unnatural about the woman, though Denise couldn’t place it until the witch stood and started toward her. The water moved around the witch, never touching her, the clear stream parting at her legs. And then, darkness. A tall figure moved around Denise in the dim space. She didn’t know where this was. Quiet now, a voice said. And she was quiet.


Coming up Denise’s driveway, Mik was relieved to see a car parked out front. They had finished the wall a week ago and were coming by on the off-chance Denise would be back. Joseph knocked on the door and they waited a long time before somebody answered. The woman who let them in was tall and looked a little like Denise, with the same frizzy blonde hair and protruding cheekbones. She introduced herself as Lucy and then listened carefully to their story—what Denise offered to pay them, how long the work had taken.

‘I’m sorry for the inconvenience,’ she said evenly. ‘Denise is not well.’

She led the two men into the kitchen and rifled beneath the sink, from where she produced a roll of fifties. Mik asked if Denise would be okay. He wanted to ask about the dying woman, but was no longer sure if she had even existed.

‘She gets these delusions, from time to time,’ Lucy explained. ‘It’s a matter of medication.’

Joseph nodded and shook Lucy’s hand. He said that they hoped Denise recovered quickly. There was the sound of footsteps coming down the hall.

‘Is that Denise?’ Mik asked.

Lucy shook her head. ‘It’s my fellow traveller,’ she said.

The woman who came through the door was sylphic, with paper-white skin. In the low cut of her dress was a birthmark. For a moment, Mik was sure he had met her before.

‘Donna,’ she said, with her hand extended.

On their way out, Joseph noticed a powder-blue Subaru parked by the side of the house.

Joseph drove from the property slowly, uneasy.

‘I don’t like this,’ Mik said.

Joseph nodded slowly, then bit his lower lip. But he said nothing. Mik could not help but feel as if they had avoided some terrible danger. At the foot of the drive, Joseph turned left, then Mik shouted, ‘Stop!’ When they pulled over, he leapt from the van and ran towards Denise’s letterbox. By its side was a pile of hard rubbish. It was junk, mostly: loose pieces of wood, a broken armchair, old church bulletins, a ceramic Mother Mary with her face smashed in. Mik rifled through, searching for what he’d seen and, finding it, he carried it back to the van. When Joseph asked what the fuss was about, Mik showed him the bottle with the gold cross label shining on its face.

‘What do you want that for?’

Mik shrugged. ‘I can fill it with something,’ he said.

They would not speak of Denise again.

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