“Tintookie” by Thoraiya Dyer

Alarms went off.

The car stopped. Mum made a cranky, huffy sort of sound. It was the same sound she’d made when we got to Wiluna and Dad said he couldn’t see us because he was working a twelve-hour shift at the mine, and why was she always turning up on weekends?

She said it was because we had school during the week, but I didn’t mind missing school. I missed Dad. I wrapped his enormous shirt with the reflective orange stripes around me like a tent. I felt safe inside of it.

“Continue straight,” the GPS said in its schoolteacher voice. “Nine hundred kilometers. Canning Stock Route.”

But the car wouldn’t go forwards. Lights flashed on the dashboard and I could hear crackling coming from a black box in the corner of the windscreen that I’d never noticed before. Mum put the car in reverse and we zoomed backwards until the crackling stopped.

Mum let out a big, long breath and then pulled the GPS out of its holder so she could look at the map.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Mum mumbled a long, funny word. When she looked into the back seat and saw me still staring, she smiled.

“In the people’s language, it means Town.”

“Whose language?” I asked, sitting up and looking out the window to see Town. There was nothing there.

Just red sand dunes that went on forever, with shadow-stripes like red tigers melting in the sun.

Mum answered with another funny word, and then added,

“That means People.”

“That’s stupid,” Tara said, kicking the back of Mum’s chair as hard as she could. “If you’re just people, how can you tell yourself apart from other people?”

“You don’t have to,” Mum said, “when there are no other people.”

“Are there any people here now?” I asked, peering at the dunes. Anyone could be hiding right behind the crests. There were no trees, just dead grass and dead sticks poking out of the sand.

“No.”

“Everything’s dead.”

“Because of radiation, stupid,” Tara shouted.

“Tara, don’t call your sister stupid,” Mum said.

“I’m right, though. Aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

“What’s radiation?” I asked.

“It’s like death x-rays,” Tara said. “It gets in your bones. It kills you. That’s why the car won’t go forward. There’s radiation in the sand from the leaking waste dumps and the wind blows it around. Now it’s on the road in front of us. We can’t go that way.”

I remembered the dead trees behind the school and the dead bird I found there once.

“Is there any near my school?” I asked.

“No, stupid!”

“Tara,” Mum said sharply. “Please be quiet for a minute while I try to find us a way out.”

“Maybe there is no way out,” Tara said. “Maybe the sand is blowing across the road behind us, right now.”

I was scared.

“The sand is not blowing across the road behind us,” Mum said. “Stop trying to scare your sister.”

People thought that Tara was older than me because she was so smart. But I was ten and she was only eight. I went to school but Tara stayed home and got lessons from three teachers in different countries on her special computer that I wasn’t allowed to touch.

Mum stayed up very late every night making projects for Tara to do. She had lots of meetings with Tara’s teachers. She was supposed to have a meeting with my teacher, but she forgot.

Dad taught Tara the names of all the big machines he was in charge of at the mine. Tara was very interested in the mine. She said she might be an engineer one day. Dad said it would be his dream come true for her to follow in his footsteps.

I just liked to play with the clay that got stuck on the bottom of my shoes. I could make it into a monkey or an elephant. Only, when I made elephants their trunks fell off when the clay dried. Dad said he would show me a thing called cross-hatching that would fix it, but he forgot.

Tara pulled my sketchpad out of my hands. She flicked scornfully through my drawings. The last one was of a hopping kangaroo. Tara grabbed a pen and started scribbling all over it.

“Stop. You’re ruining it!”

“Bang,” Tara said, concentrating on the picture. She drew herself as a robot soldier with a human head, two pitchforks for arms and tank wheels instead of legs. It was how she usually wrecked my toys, pretending to roll over them with her tank wheels until they were crushed, or stabbing my dolls with dinner forks. “Smash!”

She penned a few fork tine holes and spurting blood in my kangaroo.

I folded my arms tightly.

“I don’t care,” I said. “I don’t care about anything you do.”

“Right,” Mum murmured, tapping the GPS screen a few times, resetting it. She pushed it back into place and waited.

Then, they came.

Specks of sand came in through the cracks in the car. A whistling wind spun them around. Strange shadows fell over everything. Tara screamed.

I watched the moving sand specks with horror. Death x-rays, Tara said. Now the sand was in the car with us, making shapes that jerked like puppets. More sand came in. It wasn’t supposed to get in.

I opened the car door and jumped out.

“Ally!” Mum shrieked. “Tara!”

Tara had gotten out, too, on the other side of the car.

The road wasn’t a real road. Just a line of red sand. Everywhere, it erupted into little dirt fountains. The sand made shapes with hard little elbows and knobby little knees.

They had long, thin noses that poked downward and long, thin ears that poked upward.

Their sandpaper fingers grabbed Tara and me.

“Get away from me,” Tara shouted. “What are you, anyway?”

“Tintookie,” one of the things holding her said. Its eyes were just holes, but they moved around like two invisible fingers poked in a beach and trawled through collapsing sand.

“Tintookie,” the others echoed, their voices like the sounds of a storm. An angry storm. “Tintookie. Tintookie.”

I stayed very quiet and still, like the lizards that my cat sometimes caught. It was no use trying to run when you were in a cat’s mouth. More tintookies were coming out of the sand dunes, showing their curving teeth, curling the claws on their crooked toes.

There were hundreds of them. Mum stood with one foot on the road, one still in the car, her fists squeezed against her cheeks and her eyes bigger than I’d ever seen them. They took her arms and legs, dragging her away from the car.

“Choose,” one of them said to Mum. “Choose one, or we will take them both.”

“Blood,” the others said. “Blood on the sand to clean the sand. Blood on the sand to fight the demon you buried under the sand. Young blood is needed. Choose one, or we will take both.”

Her wide eyes went between Tara and me.

“Choose now,” the tintookies chanted.

I knew that Mum loved Tara more. I was going with the tintookies and they were going to hurt me. I’d always known that one day I’d be hurt. A lot. My first memory was of Mum screaming non-stop for two days while she had Tara. I knew that having a baby was going to be really, really painful.

But I thought I would be grown up, first. I thought there was still lots of time. I’d be braver, when I was grown up.

“Tara,” Mum croaked. “Take Tara.”

The tintookies let go of me and swarmed around my sister.

“Mum!” Tara screamed. She struggled to get away from the tintookies. She reached her hands out towards Mum.

But Mum was crawling towards me through the sand. Her arms folded around me and they were so soft. She smelled like heaven. I burrowed into her chest. All the sand blew away, and the wind stopped.

Shaking, crying, I lifted my head.

Tara was gone.

* * *

I sat on the front step, holding the letter.

The day was still. A passing jet left a line in the sky. I stared at the line until my eyes watered. It seemed like the line dividing the successful applicants from the losers. The line that I was always on the wrong side of.

I got up slowly and went through the house, into the back garden.

Mum rocked in her rocking chair, listening to Vivaldi, lines on her skin and sand in her eyes.

“Mum,” I said. “My results came.”

Her eyes focused. She smiled.

“Tell me.”

“I didn’t get in. I can’t be an engineer. Can you ring Dad and tell him? I don’t want to.”

“Oh, Ally. Come here.”

She held out her arms and I sat in her lap and felt comforted, like I had that day on the Canning Stock Route when I realized for the first time how much she loved me.

“Tara would have made it,” I said. “Tara would have gotten in. You should have picked her, Mum. You should have kept her.”

“No,” she said for the thousandth time.

I knew that it hurt her, every time I reminded her that she’d picked me, but I couldn’t help it. It was sick, how much I needed to be reminded.

And nobody else would have believed what happened. The recording from the car’s black box didn’t show any sand. It didn’t show any wind. Definitely no tintookies. It just showed us all getting out of the car. It showed me and Mum getting back in, crying. They found Tara’s body in the radioactive dunes, desiccated, not a mark on her.

Dad said that Mum made the right choice by not following crazy Tara into the danger zone.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What happens now?”

“I guess I’ll go to TAFE. If I can’t be a mining engineer, maybe I can be a technician.”

Maybe technicians didn’t have to be so great at physics and maths.

“You love drawing,” Mum said. “Art was your best subject. You don’t have to get a job in mining just to make your father happy.”

* * *

Even in four-wheel drive, the ute struggled.

The driver’s seat bucked. I bounced along. My head brushed the roof with each bump. A haul truck crawled along the road ahead of me; when I judged I was fifty meters from it, I hailed it on the two-way radio.

“Haul truck one-eight-one, do you copy?”

On my left, the walls of the open cut, terraced by haul roads, rose into the sky; on my right, gravel and grit fell a hundred meters into the pit. It was early afternoon and I’d just completed a training exercise for mine rescue.

Last month I’d failed Instrumentation Certificate III at TAFE. I’d wanted so badly to be a technician, but it seemed there was nothing I could do in a mine that didn’t involve maths. The next day, Mount Zeus mine rescue put out a call for new recruits with first aid certificates and abseiling experience. I had both of those.

They were keen to sign me up. It was difficult for them to get skilled workers to stay in the remote regions of Western Australia. The mine itself functioned on a fly-in, fly-out basis, but mine rescue needed permanent, on-site staff that knew the area backwards and I was willing to stay on-site.

“One-eight-one,” the haul truck driver drawled.

“Light vehicle approaching from behind,” I said. “Permission to pass on your right-hand side, please.”

Light vehicles gave way to everyone else in the open cut. The haul trucks were the biggest, but the water trucks weren’t far behind. Scrapers. Dozers. Graders. I had to give way to all of them, and radio contact was essential, because they could not see me from their six-meter-high cabins.

“Go ahead, ma’am,” the driver said.

He altered course a little to the left, making more room for me. It was nice of him. He might not have done it if my voice had been male. I passed him and continued up the slope, into a hairpin bend wide enough for a herd of elephants.

I looked down into the haul truck from above. It was crammed with ore, a full load of four hundred tonnes; they’d hope to get three or four grams of gold per tonne, which seemed like a big effort for not much, but when you looked at the size of the pit I supposed it ended up being a decent amount of gold.

Better than panning in a river, anyway.

I was smiling to myself when the haul road collapsed under the truck. It toppled sideways. Boulders from the back of the truck leaped over the edge, bounding into the pit.

I jammed on the brakes, my heart racing. The radio was in my hand.

“Haul truck one-eight-one, do you copy?”

There was no reply.

“Emergency, emergency, emergency,” I said. The operator responded immediately. I gave my details, location, and the number of the haul truck. “Send everything,” I gasped. “Engineering. Mine rescue. Ambulance.”

The operator read everything calmly back to me. I struggled to see out my dusty side window. The haul truck had stopped, on its side, about twenty meters down the slope. It seemed stable where it was.

I got permission to attempt to administer first aid.

Abandoning the ute, I sprinted back down the road with the kit tucked under my arm. The driver’s voice echoed in my head: Go ahead, Ma’am, he had said.

I climbed up onto the truck and my puny weight made no difference. I wasn’t afraid of tipping it, any more than a fruit fly can tip a ripe watermelon.

Blood flecked on the windscreen. A head injury. Not breathing.

The tags on his shirt, his locks, his keys and the truck’s visor said his name was Daniel Ross.

“Daniel,” I shouted, searching for a pulse. “Can you hear me?”

* * *

“So you saved his life,” Mum said calmly.

I sipped my tea, stretching my legs out on the verandah.

“Maybe. Probably.”

“But you still got fired?”

“It was the car,” I said gloomily. “Before you get out, you’re supposed to park it in a ‘fundamentally stable’ position. That means if you put it in neutral and take the parking brake off, the car doesn’t move. But I kind of left it on a hill.”

“Is that all?”

“Well. A whole bunch of heavy vehicles came in for the rescue. They kind of shook it loose.”

“Shook it loose?”

“Yeah. It kind of went into the pit. Nobody was hurt!”

“That’s good.”

I steeled myself for what had to come next.

“It’s no use, Mum.”

“What’s no use?”

“Anything. I can’t do anything right. I’m not good at anything. Why on earth did you choose me and not Tara?”

I’d never asked her straight out because I’d never wanted to hear her admit that there was no good reason.

Silence stretched out between us.

“Tara’s experience of the world wasn’t like ours,” Mum said at last. “Her brain wiring was different to most people. Sometimes it helped her solve problems, but most of the time it just made her angry.”

“And me?”

“You were mostly happy.”

I snorted with laughter. Only, it wasn’t funny.

“Now I’m mostly empty,” I said.

“It’s grief. They stole your sister from you. You loved her.”

“But you didn’t?”

“I did, Ally. I loved her very much. You were there. You remember what happened.”

“I remember,” I said soberly.

“I needed you both. I had to choose between giving up both pieces of myself or just the one. I would have walked into that desert after her and died if it hadn’t meant leaving you without a mother and leaving your father alone.”

I thought about that.

“Tara would have been furious, if it was me they took.”

“Yes.”

“She would have gone after me.”

“I would have stopped her. Nothing that spends more than a few minutes in one of those zones survives. Not one butterfly. Not one speck of life.”

When the tintookies had come, I’d been petrified. I didn’t try to go after Tara.

There was nothing stopping me now. Nothing to stop me from going back with a glassblower and torching the little bastards who took her from me.

“What was the name?” I asked Mum. “What was the name of the place?”

She told me.

* * *

I headed into the desert, towards Town.

So many of the roads were unusable, now, that even an upmarket GPS was useless. It was monsoon season and there had been plenty of rain, but in most places nothing grew.

Nothing stirred on the sandstone flats or the salt lakes. Nothing moved in the dun-colored foothills.

Mount Zeus was not the most easterly mine ever built in the Pilbara, but the others had been closed by the encroachment of contaminated sand. Some had left it until the eleventh hour. When their mine rescue departments closed down, the equipment all went to Mount Zeus, and that was why the Mount Zeus mine rescue equipment store contained military grade Demron radiation protection suits, for evacuations in gamma ray sandstorm conditions.

They’d never notice that one of the suits was missing.

The industrial grade glassblowing torch, I purchased myself. I had fuel and oxygen tanks strapped to a hand-pulled wagon.

When the Geiger counter showed higher levels than the four-wheel drive could be forced to plough into, I pulled off the road, put on my suit and started on foot towards Town.

A shielded computer mounted on the wagon monitored the radiation levels. It bleeped softly, taking a reading every ten seconds. The quiet was maddening. There was no wind. My footsteps looked like the Mars landing.

I hauled the wagon up one of the dunes and down the other side.

The sun filled a cloudless sky.

I found the skeletons of snakes. Muddy creek beds rotten with blackened fish and worms. Skeletal trees, half-buried in red sand.

No tintookies.

It couldn’t be. I had to find them. I had to find them and destroy them for what they’d done.

The computer told me I was in the right place. I crossed it, over and over. I covered the whole area back and forth as the ox ploughs, in spirals and in herringbone patterns.

Nothing.

I’d been outside for too long. The cooling system of the suit was starting to fail. My mouth was dry.

“Tara!” I screamed, but the cry was muffled, even without the wind to carry it away.

* * *

Head in my hands, I hunched over the desk.

I’d failed again.

The room was dark, the computer screen the only source of light. Mum had put a bunch of Sturt’s Desert Peas in a pickle jar near my bed, along with a box of chocolates, an A1 canvas, and a selection of acrylic paints.

The local job classifieds or perhaps a Ouija board would have been more useful. Despairing, I checked the old records, punching in the coordinates of the decades-old police search that had resulted in the discovery of Tara’s body, and referenced them against the coordinates of my search.

I was tired. I typed the numbers into the wrong fields, pushed the enter key automatically before my brain could register the error.

The resulting map came up on the screen. It showed the contours of the Great Sandy Desert at a scale of one to one million. Blots of red and orange showed radioactive hotspots. Blue lines were the safe zones. It was not an official map or satellite picture. It was the picture my computer had made as I walked across the sand.

I sat bolt upright, gripping the seat of the chair.

In the picture, a red, four-footed creature with horns and fangs battled a blue figure with pitchfork arms and wheels instead of legs.

It was Tara. She was fighting the demon buried under the sand.

* * *

In the days and weeks that followed, I trekked across the dunes countless times.

Every time, I brought back an image of Tara. She stabbed at the enemy with her pitchfork arms. She tried to crush it under her rollers. The demon tried to suffocate her, to bite her, to tear her to shreds.

Sometimes she fell, and tiny figures appeared, throwing themselves at the demon. Distracting it. Dying by the score until their mistress returned to the fray.

It was the tintookies.

I watched Tara’s battle until my suit was no longer functional, till the wheels on my trolley melted and the tanks became unstable.

I went home and buried it all in a deep, deep hole in the garden.

“I’m worried about you, Ally,” Mum said at breakfast.

“You don’t have to worry,” I replied, feeling joy rise up inside me. Everyone else, the scientists, the engineers, had long ago surrendered in the fight to cleanse the sands, but not Tara. She would never surrender.

I didn’t have to try and make up for her loss, the waste of her talent, because she wasn’t lost. Her talent wasn’t wasted.

The burden was lifted.

I took the canvas and acrylics out of their plastic wrappings. I painted red sands and cloudless skies. I painted demons and warriors.

I painted tintookies.


Thoraiya Dyer is a three-time Aurealis Award-winning, three-time Ditmar Award-winning Australian writer based in the Hunter Valley, NSW. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature and Cosmos and is forthcoming in Analog. A petite collection of four original stories, Asymmetry, is available from Twelfth Planet Press. Find her online at Goodreads or www.thoraiyadyer.com.
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