Perhaps the most dangerous thing about patterns is that once a pattern is established, in the human mind, it takes precious little for that pattern to start to reach backwards. It doesn’t have to have been a pattern always, but the hints of the pattern, the beginning of the pattern, or even unrelated things that coincide with parts of the pattern, will be seen as part of the pattern. This, not surprisingly, is how many people saw miracles to happen; they pray, and it rains, and they forget the times they prayed and it did not rain, or the times it rained without their prayer. The pattern was in their mind, and that pattern remains, it grows, and it expands. The weather. The traffic. The colour of a piece of cloth.
Something written in a newspaper.
Head against the glass, eyes closed, Holland twitched awake. Not uncommon – sometimes it was hard to sleep at night. Naps throughout the day made up the difference, somewhat. Still, natural paranoia – that lurking guilt that spoke of being discovered doing something, anything, or maybe just the strange fear of being caught for being – had been a constant companion, and it was that hand that reached into Holland’s mind and punched through the soft fog of rest. A faint ping echoed on the edge of hearing – and the teenager turned to look at the driver.
“Um,” Holland began, “Um, what was that?”
“What was what, mate?” asked the driver. He’d done this before. Usually, it was truancy that the kids were interested in. The story was inevitably nonsense, but he didn’t mind – he’d wagged plenty of school in his time, and it hadn’t hurt him. “You’ll have to speak up!” And a huge, work-callused hand, still covered in busted filth from the farm, thumped the dashboard. “Hard to hear you over this!”
“No, I mean, that little sound?”
“Can’t hear much in the way of little sounds in here,” he said, laughing, and leaning forwards. It was true – the truck was one of the older models, a rattling workbox that had been once a shiny and pristine ute, gloriously orange in the tasteless eighties when it had been built – probably in Japan – and was now a general, faded brown. “You okay? We’ll be in town in a few minutes.”
“No, I mean,” and the sound rang out again, louder this time. “What is that?”
The truck rattled on the rough road and Holland sat up straighter, leaning to the side, looking at the window. The winch for the window had been broken off years ago – now just a bare screw, with a pair of pliers sitting on the dash that almost seemed to ask ‘Well?’ – and so, even as another pinging noise, this time louder echoed in both the passenger’s ears. Then another, and this time it wasn’t a ping, it was a chime, and it was loud.
“What the fu?” asked the driver, and in that one moment, Holland realised that he had no name. Oh, he’d given a name, he’d had some sort of rambling introduction, but he’d spoken knowing that Holland didn’t much care. Holland had no reason to care, after all – as far as he was concerned, speaking to Holland was just a way to fill the noise in the cab, and he was just ferrying some nice, well-intentioned and scared-seeming kid away from the school. A little irresponsible, perhaps, but what did it tell you about a man who was willing to do that sort of thing, so easily, and so trustingly?
These were the thoughts that Holland had as the truck was lifted up, up, up. It was like one single moment of weightlessness was blessed with an hour’s introspection. Hand to the window, Holland reflected, looking up at the sky that, at least the eye’s not back, before the tumbling profile of the arcing truck spun to face the ground, to show what it was that had been.
There was a bull in the road. Holland knew it was a bull, because Holland’s school had been surrounded by farmland, and bulls had been all over the place. Those bulls were different, though; they did not straddle both bitumen lanes, they did not hulk forwards like that, with huge shoulders and hands that turned into hooves when they hit the ground, hooves that looked like frosted glass. Also, bulls as Holland understood them had two eyes, small and round and black on the sides of an enormous nose – they did not have empty sockets there, rimmed around with an iron plate, which bridged across their enormous muzzle, through which a series of black, scorched holes had been punched as if by the hand of an enormous nail. Behind the scattered array of holes, an asymmetrical fistful of eyes stared, each one of them as large as Holland’s fist. And then the whirling cabin showed sky because gravity and momentum were fickle mistresses, both of whom were cleaned up after by their unpleasant chamber-maid impact.
It wasn’t proper impact, though – thank god for something stopping the mere ground from getting involved in the whole equation. The back of the truck’s tray hung in the air, gripped in one massive, monstrous hand of glassy fingers that jutted incongruously from under dark, red, furred feathers. Holland, pressed against the windshield drew ragged gasps, reaching out to grab the driver, who slumped, unconscious. No blood around the cabin, which was good, but Holland knew enough about medicine and unconsciousness to know that didn’t mean anything. A concussion could lead to a sub-dermal hematoma, and if he was unconscious throughout it, he’d die without ever knowing it. On the other hand, he was easily double Holland’s weight, and lifting large objects had never been in Holland’s purview.
Nobody was around. Nobody had been around last time, either. Nobody would judge Holland for what happened, either – after all, Holland was just a child, and what was going to go on the newspapers? “Teenager found guilty for abandoning man to multi-eyed bull-beast?” That meant the only person making this decision was the person Holland was. The blender. The quiet one. The meek one who never ever, ever stood out or got the laugh, the one who just wanted everyone to look at someone else.
The beast moved the hoof of one foot forward. As its hoof lifted up, off the ground, the glassy substance transformed, Disney-like, into a set of fingers, long and muscled, with an extra set of joints – and prodded at the back of the truck’s flat bed. Leaning forwards, it turned one of those mad, empty sockets to the side, and Holland saw clean through its head, and out the other eyesocket.
Holland resolved. Holland acted. The truck had been thrown, it wasn’t all in the mind of one young student, deranged and staggering from some suppressed action. A lifetime of fears and intrusive thoughts and how much Holland had ever felt other and wrong were suddenly brought to a fine point. Nothing had ever felt so real, nothing had ever felt so intense, and not once before had a decision been so easy to make.
It was the right thing.
The pliers tore the plug on the door to unlock it – Holland had bumped it while sleeping, locking it – and the door itself kicked open. As the truck shook, under the fondling hand of the bull, Holland swung both legs forwards… and jumped out of the cabin. Turning around sharply, Holland grabbed the legs of the driver, pulling back on them and hauling as hard as possible, falling backwards onto the bitumen of the road to pull him up and over – his whole form folding over and flopping onto Holland’s shoulder suddenly. Gagging with the effort, and slightly dazed, Holland couldn’t help the cry that escaped.
The truck stopped shaking. The beast turned… and lowered its head. All of those eyes on the front of the beast’s head looked directly at Holland and the driver. But those eyes blinked, blinked once and twice and three times, and some of them blinked sideways, and one of them, whenever it blinked, changed colours. Then the whole beast turned its head, lowering forwards to point that … channel through its head at Holland like that was scrutiny proper.
Disconcertingly, the inside of the creature’s head seemed to close down in on itself, just once, then re-open the channel, a moist sound accompanying it like a moist plasticine replica in stop motion. It looked at Holland. It looked at the driver. Its eyes narrowed as it peered at the driver, but they blinked and whirled confusedly as it looked at Holland. Driver. Holland. Driver. Holland…
Behind Holland, one of the cows in the paddocks that flanked the road gave a loud, seemingly helpful moo. Somewhere inside Holland, an instinct to fit in spoke up, reached out, and forced an action.
“Moo.” Holland said – and it was a amazing moo. Oh, you sit around in a school out in the middle of paddocks, kids fake mooing all the time, talking to or about the cows on the other side of the fences. Those moos sounded like the word was read. A person saying the word ‘Moo.’ What had just escaped Holland was an actual moo, and for a moment, Holland felt a strangely sonorous connectivity to all the cows in the fields…
And the bull leant down, looked at Holland as if it was looking at a very pretty lady cow, snorted a puff of hot air that completely enveloped Holland from head to toe, moist and sloppy, and whirled, running back down the road again.
And then, Holland finally exhaled, turning to the important task of dropping to one knee and trying to administer the most basic forms of first aid.