PETER WALKED UP THE STATION stairs, following behind an attractive young woman who had gotten off the same train as him.
It was late, sometime after eleven. She glanced around cautiously to see who Peter was; and she hurried a little – not that Peter looked menacing in anyway – but maybe just to be on the safe side.
At the top of the stairs, she was met by a young man who lovingly greeted her with a kiss and took her bag.
Going in the opposite direction, Peter came down on the quieter side of Taverners Hill, alongside the Cockatoo Hotel, where a security guard stood on the corner smoking a cigarette, trying to keep warm, by rubbing the arms of his blue bomber jacket.
Peter passed underneath the last industrial lampshade of the overbridge, before turning to walk down Terminus Street, not far from his flat.
He usually didn’t come home this late on a weeknight, but his partner Anna was away overseas at a conference, and even though he was regretting that he hadn’t gone with her, Peter was still making the most of his temporary freedom, dragging his heels coming home late from work, stopping in town to borrow a book from the library about Backpacking in Malaysia.
As strange as this might sound, Peter actually enjoyed catching trains late at night; sometimes there was an electric camaraderie between the passengers, where one would look at another, and maybe smile or grin, perhaps in response to a third person behaving eccentrically; a classically contagious good mood – and this would create a feeling of connection that Peter rarely felt during the day.
Not that anything like this would happen mid-week as the train had been mostly empty with just a few uni students going home. And Peter had kept to himself by reading the Inner West Courier that someone had left stuffed down the side of his seat. He was surprised to learn that a woman’s body had been found in Taverners Hill the night before.
This was surprising, because nothing bad like this ever seemed to happen. It was mostly a quiet suburb, though the bottleshop of the Cockatoo Hotel had been robbed a few times in the past.
BUT PERHAPS IT NOW had made Peter more sensitive to his surroundings; he was actually surprised by how dark Terminus Street was as he went along. The street was lined with a blend of native gum trees and North American sycamores; they both had the same pale white bark, and formed a canopy so high above the street, that every six months or so, arborists had to carve out a passageway for the powerlines, leaving a big diamond shaped hole though which the cables passed.
Peter stopped for a moment to tighten up his shoelaces outside the pink architect’s house. A dog in the neighbouring house starting barking and a light went on. Peter was always surprised by how easily dogs could hear low volume sounds, as he too had sensitive hearing, along with the ability to pick the origin of a sound, from only having heard it once or twice before.
Continuing down the street, Peter was passing underneath a particularly large white gum tree, when he heard something drop down beside him on the pavement.
He looked around – and then froze.
On the ground was a diamond, as big as a peanut, set in an expensive gold ring.
Ordinarily, he would have found this quite exciting; but it was not so good: The ring was attached to a severed finger.
Peter peered up apprehensively into the branches. They were as high as the orange street light, about two storeys tall. There was nothing much he could see, not much light got through.
Peter dropped down onto one knee – the right thing to be doing with a diamond ring, in ordinary circumstances, but not so much in this one.
He grabbed a fallen twig and used it to roll the finger towards him. With it more in the light, he could see that it was long and delicate, and he guessed that it was a woman’s finger.
His mind suddenly flashed to the newspapers article in the Courier: perhaps this finger belonged to the body they had found. Yet the article hadn’t mention anything about a missing finger, which was the kind of salacious detail readers liked – or even where the woman’s body had been found.
Peter looked up again and felt the skin on the back of his neck tighten: how could it have possibly come from up there?
And then another thought hit him:
What if the person who the finger belonged to wasn’t the woman, but someone who was actually still alive?
That was completely possible.
Peter immediately dug out a tupperware container from his backpack, popped the lid off and dumped half-a-leftover sandwich down on the grass beside him. He then placed the box on the pavement by his knee.
Taking his twig, he snapped it in half, and used the two halves like chopsticks, he picked up the finger by its thicker end, and carefully maneuvered it towards the box.
He almost had it completely over, when to his surprise, the diamond ring snagged on the edge of the container, and slid off. It dropped onto the pavement, spinning for a moment, before falling over sideways.
Ignoring the ring, Peter kept going, succeeding in getting the finger above his lunchbox, and placing it in. He snapped the lid shut; and with a blast of nervous energy, whispered loudly:
He stood back up, and felt dizzy for a moment, not sure if it was the shock of the finger, or if he had gotten up too quickly. He returned the tupperware container to his backpack, zipped his bag up, and glanced back up along the path towards Taverners Hill Station; it was a fluorescent island, along the dark expanse of the railway. But there was no-one around.
Turning his attention back on the ring, Peter was just about to bend over and pick it up, when he suddenly heard a noise.
Eeeeeee – SNAP!!!
A branch suddenly came plummeting down out of the tree. Though it was hard to make out, there seemed to be two black shapes riding down on the branch. It crashed at Peter’s feet, and the two shapes jumped up and ran away.
What the fuck was–?
But then he heard another one creaking directly over his head – and Peter immediately sensed that was about to happen, stupidly looking up to see the branch bending under an unseen pressure.
Peter didn’t get out the road quick enough: the thicker end smashed him hard across his shoulder, sending him falling against the tree, then sprawling onto the lawn.
He tried to push himself back up – but an unbearably sharp pain speared through his right shoulder; something was obviously broken.
Instead, he rolled onto his back and stared up at the expansive canopy above his head, a surrogate night sky, with specks of orange light, peeking through.
And then he heard a sound beside him . . . more than one sound – many sounds; but tiny.
And then Peter saw one of the strangest things he would ever see in his life: Walking along the branch towards him, all moving in a perfect sequence, was a line of creatures, seven or eight of them, each no bigger than a cat. As they got closer, he realised that they were possums; but instead of a grey coat, they were all completely black. He’d never seen black possums before – if this is what they were.
Peter tried to push himself back up again; but the pain in his shoulder was too great.
The creatures gathered around his feet; their tiny claws dug into the skin around his ankles, as they began to drag him across the lawn towards the tree.
Peter’s right shoe popped off, and his blue work shirt came loose from his pants and began to bunch up under the small of his back.
He opened his mouth to start screaming – but one of the creatures ran up along his body; it reached his chest and sat back on his haunches – and the moment Peter’s scream came out, the creature shot its paw forward and stuffed it down his throat.
This was too much for Peter; he felt as if he was about to faint; and anyone trained in first aid would know that he was on the verge of slipping into shock.
But out of the darkness came a moment of hope; Peter heard the sound of wood squeaking against wood, and he immediately knew that it was an old-fashioned window being opened from across the road.
Peter realized his opportunity; he bit down hard; the creature let out a horrible squeak, partly retracting its paw; enough that Peter could start yelling again for help, the muffled cry loud enough to carry across the street.
The split-second between him yelling, and the coming of a reply, seemed to last forever. But then he heard a voice yell back:
“Fucking shut-up you dickhead! Some of us have to work tomorrow!”
Peter instinctively knew that the man couldn’t see him; he was probably looking down from a first floor bedroom, with the gum trees blocking his view.
He yelled again:
“Please, call the police! They’re trying to kill me!”
And the man yelled back:
“I fucking will, if you don’t shut the fuck up!”
And in a sound that scraped across Peter’s heart, the window slid back down, slamming shut.
Not quite registering what had just happened, Peter tried to shake himself free of the creatures, but they had him tight; he felt his legs go up in the air, the blood rushing down to his head. The next thing he knew he was being dragged up the tree, upside-down. There was another loud crack in his shoulder, followed by a searing pain; and he knew that it must have broken further. As he went up the tree, he could hear his loose change fall out of his pocket, hitting the edge of the gutter and bouncing onto the road. His back was now bare with his shirt hanging down over his head, the prickly parts of the bark scratching red trails along his skin.
But it didn’t matter; the pain in his shoulder was so great that it overwhelmed everything else – and perhaps in this way, he was lucky.
However, the last thing that seemed to occupy his mind, was not the pain, but an image of the man who had responded so unwillingly to his cry for help. Peter could see the man there, in his mind’s eye, standing in a grubby white singlet, a middle-aged man with a beer belly poking out over his boxer shorts, cursing Peter for waking him up; even though he hadn’t actually been asleep, but staring instead at the ceiling, wondering why his life was so shit.
How do you get like that? Peter wondered.
And at the very least, Peter thought about himself: despite this terrible thing that was now happening to him, at least he was a good person; he would have helped anyone that would have asked; and even though he had not really made much of a dent in life, outside of maybe having loved someone wholeheartedly, it was not all bad – and it was important to stay positive, even in the worst of times. That was something he often told himself.
BY THE TIME THE police showed up – the security guard having called them after that final bloodcurdling scream – it was too late.
Peter was gone.
Along with his backpack and the finger in the tupperware container.
And though the police had had a quick look around, their blue and red lights flashing high up high into the canopy of leaves, they didn’t find much, other than a few silver coins in the gutter; all the while, the diamond ring sparkled quietly in the gap between the concrete pavement and the beginning of the crabgrass, full of burrs.