Ice Cream Man – Part 1
Winmalee, New South Wales
Cicadas shrilled in chorus, singing summer on high. The sports oval buzzed with the hum of talking and the crackle of applause. From a distance, Paul Harding swore the spectators were melting and oozing in their fold up chairs. Or maybe it was the rippling heatwaves distorting them. Ugh, he couldn’t think straight. It was the heat. Yep, the heat. Jesus Christ, he hated sport on Sundays.
On cricket Sundays, he never ventured down to the field. He stayed in the car. It was better than drinking shitty coffee from the canteen and pretending he wasn’t dying from heat stroke. In the shadeless car park, he rapped the dashboard to the beat of an old rock song (a little something from ‘The Angels’) singing in the intervals between drags on his cigarette. Slumped back in the passenger seat of the battered ute, the dry finish of sweating upholstery swelled hot in his nostrils. The cotton of his ACDC shirt clung plastered to his skin. The heat was unbearable, even with the windows reeled down. He mopped his face with his shirt, the cotton rasping on his peppered stubble. He kicked open the door, unpeeling himself from the seat. Scanning the field, he exhaled a stream of smoke.
Back in high school, he’d never pictured himself as a sport-on-Sunday dad. He’d always thought a crowd would be watching him on the field. Yeah, he once had a footy career in the distance. He could’ve stretched that extra mile and made it big time. That was until he fucked the coach’s daughter and got himself a blue-eyed baby boy.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, releasing a rattling sigh as a loud, high pitched song echoed down the road. The chiming ding of music played on a continuous loop. The ice cream truck worked its rounds. A white truck rumbled down the road, blaring its song. He eyed it with distaste, taking a long drag on his cigarette. If this place had a soundtrack, the ice cream truck would have a solo of its own. That’s why he brought his own kind of music. He stooped down over the driver’s seat, cranking up the volume of the radio. The music drowned out the garish blare.
The game on the field wrapped up. From across the field, he eyed a woman coming up the hill towards the car park. She held a five year old kid close by her side. Speak of the devil. Here they were, the coach’s daughter and blue-eyed baby boy.
Paul dropped the cigarette. He crushed it under the toe of his boot, hastily stuffing the cigarette pack in a tattered bag of tools in the ute tray. He fanned the smoke away, spraying himself and the car interior with deodorant. Smile in place, he leant back against the car, waiting.
Renee lead Tate up the hill towards the car, clamping a camping chair under her arm. She was a strong woman, both in body and mind. It didn’t show now, not with her blonde hair so tousled and her face all flushed and sweaty. But overall, she kept herself well, holding up her gymnastics body, perky arse and all. Paul was lean like her, but in a wiry kind of way. Tate had her eyes, but had inherited the dusty brown mop of hair from his father.
At the car, Tate dragged his cricket bat dead across the gravel. Another bad game. Paul passed Renee a smile. She didn’t return it. He kept his distance, watching her load the fold up chairs in the tray. When it was safe, he kissed her. She stiffened, lowering her voice to a thin hiss. She glared daggers.
‘You said you’d quit. I can smell it all over you.’
Before Paul could spurt the same shit about him trying and all, Tate noticed the ice cream truck parked at the curb. He tugged on Renee’s arm.
‘Hey Mum, can I have an ice cream?’
Renee sighed, sparing Paul one last heated look.
‘We’ll talk about this later,’ she grumbled.
She stormed off, yanking the boy in tow. Paul followed closely behind.
After a short wait, it was their turn to step up to the ice cream truck window. Well this was a first. Renee never bought ice cream for Tate. She was pissed, that’s why. Paul could read her like an open book. If she didn’t distract herself now, she’d shout. She couldn’t do that here, not with Tate around.
Renee fronted the window, rummaging through her wallet. She pulled out a ten dollar note, turning her she-beast eyes on the truck vendor.
‘One chocolate swirl,’ she snapped.
The vendor grinned a toothy smile, disappearing into the hub of van. Paul watched him closely. The man struck him as odd. He could’ve passed as a cut out from a 1950s magazine. White shirt, black pants, white soda jerk hat and a black bow tie. The guy could’ve come from another time in history all together.
Renee didn’t seem to notice. The attendant returned with a loaded cone, passing it to her through the open window. She passed it down to Tate, handing over the money. The attendant refused it with a smile.
‘Free of charge ma’am,’ he beamed in a strong American drawl, sounding something like a southern yankie. ‘Ya’ll have a nice day now.’
For a moment, the sunlight caught the truck vendor’s eyes. They glinted a dead black, the whites of his eyes swallowed whole. Paul blinked. He did a double take. The ice cream man turned his piercing blue eyes on Renee, holding them there. Huh, must have been a trick of the light.
Renee stiffened, her mouth hanging open. She stood dumb for a few seconds, eyes blank, limbs locked. A second later, she swayed on her feet, eyes idling off to one side. She teetered back. Paul jolted, catching her before she fell. She shook herself, peering up at Paul, dazed.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
He set her upright. She gathered the words distantly, clutching her spinning head.
‘I dunno,’ she grumbled, ‘I feel sick.’
The blaring tune of the ice cream truck chimed to life. The window slammed shut. They jolted in shock. The attendant tipped his hat behind the plastic window, smiling as he climbed into the driver’s seat. There was something wrong about that guy. Paul had a feeling of uneasiness he couldn’t shake. The truck rumbled to life, pulling out from the curb. Paul watched it go. A chill crept up his spine. He let it run its course. When he got the chills, he knew something wasn’t quite right.
It was late. Maybe ten o’clock. The spacious lounge room still held the heat of the day, holding it in like a stale breath. In the corner of the room, a rotating fan worked overtime.
Paul lounged back on the lazyboy, sipping a can of Tooheys. Renee slept on the lounge across the room, stirring in her sleep. She mumbled all sorts of things. Paul couldn’t quite make them out.
Renee was good to him. She’d dealt with his shit. All the stuff with his smoking and drinking. He was pretty sure she still thought he was a teenager. Always fucking up, getting drunk, forgetting to pick Tate up from school. But honestly, Paul was too young for this parenting shit. He was a mid-twenties kind of guy, fresh out of an apprenticeship. But he’d made a promise to himself. He’d never duck out on her. He was enough of a man not to put her through something like that.
Ever since they’d come home, Renee had slept, for a full six hours. She’d vomited three or four times. She put it down to heatstroke. Paul wasn’t sure about that. He’d seen heatstroke on the field plenty of times. And it wasn’t like this. The symptoms didn’t match up. Her skin was pale, cold like ice. Even with two blankets she still had the tremors.
He was thinking it through when a sound outside interrupted him mid-thought. He listened as a chiming melody sounded deep in the darkness of the street. It was a song. A sudden uneasiness settled heavily in his stomach. He knew the sound. He’d heard it just today. An ice cream truck.
Paul shifted to his feet, pausing by the window. It was louder now, coming closer by the minute. He parted the linen curtains, peering out to the dark street. His skin crawled, goose pimples rippling across his arms.
On the street, a truck rumbled into view, headlights slicing through the darkness. Paul stepped an inch away from the window, keeping an eye on the truck as it pulled up at the curb. A long, painful minute dragged on. The music blared in loops. In the dead of night, the tune set him on edge. Who the hell was this guy? What did he want? And why did Paul feel so damn anxious? After meeting the yankie, he’d had a bad feeling. He wasn’t superstitious or anything, but he could feel the shadows creeping.
The engine cut out. The door squeaked, the truck leaning to one side as the ice cream man stepped down from the driver’s seat. He straightened his hat, plucking his bow tie. Giving the house one good look, he headed up the stepping stone pavers towards the porch. His glossy black shoes clacked on the concrete. Paul lingered at the curtains. What is he doing here? Did he want his money? The ice cream man turned a sidelong glance Paul’s way. The attendant’s black eyes glimmered like beetle shells.
Paul’s stomach dropped. He ducked out of sight. Whoever he was, he was giving off bad vibes. Paul lost sight of him. He waited it out. The door bell rung loud and clear. Paul jolted. He gathered a steady breath. Okay, it’s just an ice cream man. He crept to the front door, holding strong to his courage. Eyes steady on the door, he reached for a cricket bat propped there. He grasped it tight, his fingers white on the grip.
Taking in a deep breath, he opened the door by an inch, peering out. The ice cream man stood on the doormat, eyes staring, grin never ending. A sickly sweet odour wafted from his skin, a palette of chocolate, hardboiled lollies and toffee apples.
‘What do you want?’ Paul demanded.
The ice cream man stared with eyes like flint. He held his silence. Paul squirmed. The freak just stood there. Saying nothing, smiling like an idiot.
No. Paul couldn’t do this. That was it. No way. The freak was just too fuckin’ freaky. Paul moved to slam the door in his face. The ice cream man planted his hand firm on the door, stopping it.
The stranger smiled a Cheshire grin, the edges of his body blurring in and out of focus. Flickering like television static, the stranger dissolved in a haze of black smoke.
Paul stood in the doorway, dazed.
What. The. Fuck?
He shut the door, staggering back on leaden feet. He didn’t just see that. No. He was dreaming. Maybe he was asleep on the armchair and this was all a dream. Yeah, that sounded right. Paul contemplated pinching himself. He let the urge slide. A scream shattered the night.
Renee shrieked, her cries high and hoarse. Paul raced into the lounge room. He skidded to a stop in the doorway. He gasped, staggering back.
The ice cream man held Renee down on the lounge. He raised a set of raking claws, plunging them deep in her chest. She screamed, writhing and gasping. The ice cream man smiled the same toothy grin, his eyes flashing black. He whistled, twisting his hand side to side. Slowly, but surely he inched his hand free from her body.
Paul expected blood, and lots of it. But the gush never came. Instead, a glowing orb of light squeezed free from her skin. It throbbed in crackling electric pulses. The ice cream man urged the light from her chest. The orb slipped free. Renee’s screams cut short. She slumped back, her eyes dull and glassy. The ice cream man held a hovering orb in his hand, closing his fingers around the light until he snuffed it out in his closed fist. He smiled, flashing a mouth of shark teeth. He noticed Paul at the door.
‘Wanna a vanilla swirl mister?’
Paul dropped the cricket bat. It thumped hard on the floor boards. He bolted. He raced down the hallway, breath coming hard and fast. Jesus Christ! He couldn’t think. What the hell happened?! Gasping for breath, he hit the front door at break neck speed. He slammed hard against the wood, the door shaking on its hinges. Fighting the tremors, he worked the door knob. His sweaty hands slipped on the brass.
‘What about a strawberry sundae?’
It was in his ear. The hoarse, candied voice. He jolted, heart leaping in his throat. He swivelled on his heels. He gasped.
The ice cream man towered behind him. Except now, he didn’t have a face like a face. His eyes were hollow gaping holes. His smile widened, stretching wider from cheek to cheek. Shark teeth champed. The freak’s arms and legs oozed to the floor like melting ice cream, but instead of puddling, billowed out in thick black smoke. He chuckled, the rattling gurgle sinking to a low growl.
Paul staggered back, bug-eyed, mouth gaping open. The ice cream man sauntered forward on misted feet. Paul backed up, hitting the door. In his paralysed stupor, he urged his body to move. Run dammit! RUN!
Paul twisted the knob. The door gave way. Paul knocked it back on its hinges. He staggered on to the porch, jumping the stairs two at a time. His thoughts raced like lightening: quick and fleeting, never stopping at one thing. Gasping and panting, he raced for the street. He sprinted through the uneven grass, skidding on the loose gravel of the driveway before finding solid footing on the sidewalk. He chanced a glance behind his shoulder. The nightmare creature dissolved into a haze of smoke in the doorway.
Paul raced down the dark stretch of road, feet pounding the asphalt, heart thundering in his temples. He lengthened his stride, breath wheezing and whistling in his throat.
Blinding headlights lit up the street, hitting his back, lighting up dust motes. He did a half turn. The truck belted out it’s song, engine growling and rumbling. The music pounded in his head. Behind the wheel, the ice cream man sneered, his lips oozing and melting at the sides in a twisted grimace.
Paul gasped. He urged his legs to sprint, looking over his shoulder. His foot sunk deep in a pot hole, the toe of his boot catching and snicking on the edge. He tumbled forward, coming down hard and fast. His jaw knocked solid on the asphalt, his nose bending and clicking. He gasped, a blinding pain palming his face. Tight, throbbing knots of pain pulsed from his broken nose. Sprawled loose on the road, he pulled himself up, teeth locked tight.
The truck rumbled, wheels spinning. Tyres squealed on the asphalt, leaving the stench of burning rubber. The truck locked out of gear, accelerating, tearing after him. Sucking in a hiss of breath, Paul staggered to his feet. He lunged for the sidewalk, hitting the pavement flat on his feet. The truck hurtled past, loose gravel clinking in the hubcaps. It tore down the road in a blinding flash of headlights and smoke.
Paul huddled amongst the low hanging branches of a bottle brush tree, gasping and wheezing. The ice cream truck melody faded out, the haunting tune hanging in a final echo. His head spun, his senses reeling in a mad rush. He gulped down a breath, blood trickling from his nose.
He waited for the song to fade out altogether, heart thundering. After several long minutes he could think again. The ice cream truck was gone. He couldn’t hear it anymore. Just the chirping crickets now. A dog barking next door. His nose was a throbbing mess, blood hot and slick on his lips and chin. The freak was gone. Renee was … well, he didn’t know. Dead? Unconscious? The freak did something to her. And Tate … Tate!
Paul shook off the cold shock, staggering to his feet. Did the son-of-a-bitch hurt him too? Paul shook off the images of Tate’s cold, limp body. He’s just a kid. Please God, let him be alive!
To be continued tomorrow …