Bryce Stevens has been published in magazines and anthologies in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. His stories were chosen for the US anthology, Years Best Fantasy and Horror recommended reading lists for 1992 and 1995; also he was selected for 1995's Years Best Australian genre recommended reading list.
Formerly associate editor for Terror Australis Magazine, then assistant editor for Bloodsongs quarterly, he resigned to concentrate on his own work. During 1996-1997 Bryce was president of Australian Horror Writers (AHW); as well he was a judge for the 1997 Aurealis fiction awards. Currently living in Melbourne, he is marketing a Science Fiction novel and is working on his second, a sado-erotic thriller.
He works both in the building trade and as a freelance editor for LYNK manuscripts assessment services.
by Bryce Stevens
It was Thursday so Fritch had every reason to feel scared.
The heat from the concrete penetrated the cardboard that he used as soles for his taped-up shoes. His throat was scorched dry and the brutal heat from the Summer sun burned urban dog dumpings to a crisp. With a face wrinkled from too many days in the salt air and a forehead like unbeaten copper, Fritch shuffled along the street towards the Sacred Heart Mission. His erratic steps betrayed the onset of Korsakoff Syndrome and he grimaced at some secret thought, this causing his nicotine-stained beard to twitch and seem as if it slid a little across his face. Head down and back arched to the skin-shrinking heat, Fritch scuffed his way towards the Church mission for his midday meal. Even through his fear he knew that if he didn't eat he would not be able to face the night ahead.
He seemed to sense when there was someone nearby that he knew and occasionally lifted his head to nod to another street walker. At the mission several stragglers hurried their pace to wander down the side of the church to stand in a line amid the flutter and cooing of the scavenger pigeons. Here was the smell of stale tobacco, urine soaked clothes and the diseased coughings of a life of indulgence. Men of all ages and women with small children milled around and chatted with streetwalkers and assorted denizens of half-way houses. They were society's outcasts. Some were doomed to live short lives amid the squalor of rooming houses run by greedy proprietors, while others were the voluntary homeless, too tired to reach up for a better life.
Fritch moved forward to keep up with the shortening lunch line. His stomach told him that he would survive another ten minutes. Here scuffles occasionally broke out, but mostly the hungry were here to whisper their deals of drugs or to make promises of repaying a 'fiver' to their peers when pension day came. Fritch waited with a resignation borne from years on the streets. No bed for him in a doss house or a charity bed; he was of the streets and his home was the urban sprawl, wherever he happened to be when sleep dogged him. He counted his steps to when he approached the food counter.
The chatter and mumble of many dialects and bright colours from the opportunity-shop clothing bins filled the spacious mission hall. Music from a radio station that no one would voluntarily switch to was piped over the racket in an effort to make the midday meal event run smoothly. No one ate in too much of a hurry, nor did people protect their food from the person next to them. Here there was dignity away from the prying eyes of society; here none judged on the way a fork was held or on the manner which one picked up a slice of bread. Pride it seemed could not be taken from those who had nothing of the finer things. Fritch sat alone at the end of a long table, not noticing or caring the urine-sticky trousers crinkling around his testicles. He smelled no better or worse than some of those around him.
His pension day was a few days off and he had enough pavement butts to keep him in tobacco for a while. His stomach was being fed and he'd managed to sell some second-hand paperback books to supply him with a half-measure bottle of vodka. In days past these simply needs would have caused him to think he was doing alright. Now, ever since he had met those others, things were different. Today he was frightened.
Leaving the mission he wandered down past the shops to his favourite tree in the park bordering the bay. Pigeons and sparrows and sea gulls surrounded him in the hope that he would fling them a morsel. Their eyes watched from their cocked heads for any movement or sound that would betray the presence of food. Street-wise and impatient these birds soon knew nothing was forthcoming and they peeped and screeched in disgust before seeking easier pickings.
He stayed under his tree for the remainder of the afternoon and with nothing better to do he dozed fitfully until by the dipping sun he saw it was time for him to move. Stomach ulcers slicked with gastric juices and growing dread knotted his insides as he stood. He licked his parched lips and swallowed bile. His hand fluttered, trembling and strayed inside his soiled jacket. He patted the billfold that lay there, snug, full of twenty dollar bills. Looking around at the reddening Summer sun he knew that he should be making his way to the tram stop. A piece of the sticky tape he had used to keep his shoe together had curled under the sun and it made a crackling sound on the pavement as he walked. His stomach tightened as he resigned himself to what lay ahead and realised the futility of forestalling the inevitable.
The tram clattered and shuddered on its tracks, like a drunkard reeling down a darkening street. Dusk was moments away and the fierce heat from the summer drought buffeted the outside of the streetcar. Commuters inside squirmed as if trapped, rubbing against each other with no room to move, looking everywhere but at each other. The air was thick from stale breath, increasing the irritability of the passengers; metal wheels squawked on the hot rails, setting teeth on edge. The unbroken heat wave caused many to sag with exhaustion, while a few sat stiff in their sorrow.
The tram jerked, braked and stopped. Doors slid open allowing the cruel heat to penetrate the interior. The blast of dry air brought with it two lean men. Looks of hunger and urgency and scalps abristle like new-freed felons set them apart. The commuters inside the vehicle were too weary and full of thoughts of air-conditioned houses to notice restrained violence rubbing shoulders with them. Doors rattled shut. The tram jerked forward. The two men glanced from face to face, looking for something to hold their keen interest.
Towards the rear of the streetcar Fritch sat unmoving. The seats closest to him were empty and the people nearest huddled more tightly, upper bodies leaning away from the cloying stink of urine. Anger went unspoken and no-one looked at the man.
Passengers left the tram and the remainder gave silent thanks and spread out the length of the stuffy vehicle. Night closed in. Three stops from the end of the route the tram was nearly empty. Fritch pulled out a greasy billfold, opened it with a sticky sound, like a wet leather mouth smacking its lips. Two stops from the end of the route all but the tramp and the two furtive men had left the vehicle. He poked a soiled finger into the billfold and began counting the twenty dollar bills. The two bristle-scalped men stood, muscled frames moving lithely under tight shirts. One reached to pull the exit cord. Then they saw the old man and their eyes betrayed the hunger.
Fritch looked up, startled, a hunted look filming his gaze. He blinked, smiled faintly, nervously, quickly replacing his billfold into the inner pocket of his grass-stained jacket. The two lean men exchanged glances then ignored him as they moved to the exit. The tram stopped, screeching as if in protest. Heat enveloped the men as they stepped down into the night.
Glancing out the window Fritch saw that the men were not watching him. He sat staring ahead, his hands trembling. The tram rattled on. A moment later the tramp stood, his shaking fingers gripping the bell cord and he pulled down hard. Up front the driver checked his mirrors to see why the cord had been pulled for the final stop of the route. He sensed being watched and glanced forward grinning sheepishly. The tram stopped, the doors sliding on their rubber tracks. Gripping the handrail the he stepped slowly with arthritic limbs down onto the grassy verge and looked up towards the pale summer moon just rising above the darkened fence of a suburban house. There were no streetlights on at the terminus, local kids obviously seeing to their destruction.
Looking quickly back along the tracks, Fritch squinted to see if he could spy the two men somewhere back in the dark. His eyes failed to make out any movement. His shoulders moved up under his jacket as if a weight had been lifted. He did not see the two men cross the deserted road. The driver switched over the electric cables, reversed the mirrors at each end and climbed into the forward compartment to begin the long, final trip back to the city depot. Fritch glanced at the driver as if hoping to catch his eye. The driver ignored him, too tired to bother about anything. The doors slid shut and the tram pulled away, revealing to the trembling man the lean frames of the two waiting on the far side of the departing vehicle. Unprepared, the tramp's weathered face twitched, open mouth hanging slack. He backed away and tottered off towards a side street. The hungry men glared at the retreating back, their hooded eyes sparkling with a need. They walked slowly forward ignoring all butthe tramp hurrying ahead of them.
Quickening his pace to a stumbling run, he clutched at his billfold tucked snugly inside his stinking coat. He breathed heavily, each exhalation whistling through his clenched teeth. A gurgling rattled in his strong chest, long used to fight the onset of emphysema. Reaching the side street, he wheezed as he glanced back, his eyes shining wide and moist beneath an unbroken street lamp.
The young men strode swiftly on, passing the streetlight, allowing them to see their fleeing quarry turn in between two fences on the other side of the street. They began running. A little way along the alley between the two sagging fences they stopped, realising that they faced a dead-end. The stink of piss was strong and they could hear the wheezing of someone just in front of them. They stepped forward into the gloom, around old cartons and tyres. They stopped as the one they pursued came forward out of the darkness to meet them. Exchanging glances they did not notice several shadows detach themselves from the empty crates lining the fences behind them.
Fritch smiled, his teeth shining whitely. Cocking his head at the approaching steps the old man's smile widened. His pursuers became aware of movement and turned in sudden alarm. Curved talons caught the rays of the street lamp glowing dimly lighting the mouth of the alley. Gasping with the onrush of panic the two pursuers blinked with fright. They saw only the street lamp and the silhouettes of four big figures.
Gurgling and wheezing with laughter whistling from between his teeth Fritch looked over the men's shoulders. The two trapped men could not look that way from the clicking talons of the four silhouettes. The black shapes moved stealthily forward, no sound coming from underfoot. An acrid smell carved the hot night air; a smell as of open clay pits and gas leakages. In dreadful silence talons lifted fully into the light. Fritch backed further into the shadow and squatted painfully down into the dry, crackling grass. He put his hands over his ears to shut out the sounds of the ripping and splintering crunchings.
Fritch crouched when he felt silhouette rise, come lithely, leisurely toward him. The figure was silent and from it came a smell of leaking gas and wet clay. Fritch cringed and pushed himself further back against the drooping boards of the old fence at the end of the alley. Terrified, he did not know what these things were, did not wish to know. They had come to him out of the night and always slid back between the cracks of splintered darkness.
The silhouette leaned forward, wispy appendage outstretched. With a trembling hand Fritch placed his greasy billfold onto the huge spade-sized palm. He screwed his eyes shut waiting breathlessly, chest in pain. The stench overpowered him and bile rose in his throat. He whimpered, praying that the thing wouldn't touch him. He felt something fall into the grass at his feet. With eyes closed he waited.
Opening his eyes, he squinted down, his jerking hands scrabbling around in front of him. Picking up the billfold he opened the damp leather lips and felt inside-more twenties. They had rewarded him. He stood shakily and stumbled forward, not looking directly at the light opposite. Two dark shapes crumpled like stuffed bags of laundry lay at his feet. He stepped around the would-be predators and with a terrified glance behind he stepped on weakened legs out from between the sagging fences and shuffled off towards the suburban bottle shop. He'd done his duty for this week. He'd cleaned the streets... and it was payday.