Harman Burgess studies psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. In his spare time he slush-reads for After Dinner Conversation and enjoys hanging out with friends. He was nominated for Spillwords Press’ best November short story, and his short fiction has previously appeared in a number of online journals and anthologies. He likes having an excuse to write a bio about himself, as it is the only way to refer to yourself in the third person without sounding pompous or insane.

by Harman Burgess

It is strawberry season in Fenton, a bright spring burning away the remains of winter, little red bulbs dripping from green stems across the town, and I am there to exploit it. A graffiti-coated train spits me out onto a run-down station, and I have until evening to either find work or brave the streets—a return train not due till tomorrow. Naturally, like every prospective employee, I start searching for the bar.

The heat of the afternoon sun envelops me as I step out of the station. The town’s dirt-gravel streets are hot coals, the town itself consists of a series of awkwardly placed timber shacks and corrugated iron roofing; people bustling between buildings with their heads down, sticking to the shadows as much as possible.

The strap of my leather overnight bag digs into my shoulder, and I regret wearing a white shirt as rings of sweat form on my back. An old Sergio Leone-style saloon comes into view, with yellow walls and a double door. A chipped sign hanging above the entrance reads: The Oasis.

The heat follows me inside, and I make my way to the bar, pushing past the kind of drunks you can find in any dive-bar across Australia.

A jean-clad, clean-shaven, twenty something watches me find a seat from behind the bar with obvious boredom.

“Just a beer, thanks,” I say.


I fish my University card out of my walled and show it to him.

“I need a driver’s license. Your library card does nothing,” he says, handing it back to me.

“It works in student bars.”

“This look like a student bar?” he asks, obviously enjoying himself.

I concede the point. “You don’t want me here? That’s fine. Just tell me what farms are looking for work and I’ll beat it.”

He snorts as if the thought of me working on a farm is somehow hilarious. “So you’re a farmhand and a student? That’s a lot of responsibility.”

“Mid-semester break.”

“Ah. All the ‘student’ bars closed, are they?” says the bartender, the other drinkers across the bar start to snigger.

“They are,” I reply evenly. “Look, are you going to help me out here or not?”

“I’ll help you out, Mr. Student,” he says, leaning back and crossing his arms, “for twenty dollars.”

“Fuck you,” I get up to leave.

“Wait,” he says. “I’m just messing with ya. The Adams Estate is always looking for bodies this time of year.”

“Where’s that?”

“A couple kilometres north of here. Big white building. Can’t miss it,” then he grins evilly. “And Uni-boy? Watch out for snakes.”

I give a mock salute and walk out of the bar without looking back. The sun is a red orb of malice in the cloudless sky, and I regret not pressing him for a drink. I think about turning back, but the longer I wait, the less time I’ll have to find a backup if Adams falls through. Pushing down my frustration, I walk on.


The Adams Estate is a largish plantation house that rests on a green hill, surrounded by rolling waves of strawberries. I can see about a dozen hunched over bodies spread out across the grounds, and a fattish gentleman in a plaid shirt watching them work from the shade of the house’s veranda, as I make my way up the driveway. I head towards the veranda, the man’s beady brown eyes peering out at me from the shadow of his face as I approach.

“Can I help you?” he asks in a slow, accented bass.

“I’m looking for work, if you’ve got any.”

He looks me up and down like a gambler would a debut racehorse. “You ain’t look homeless.”

“I study law over at Queensland University and I want to make some cash over the semester break.”

“You know how to pick?”

“I did some harvesting last season in Marsh County,” I lie. “But that was corn, not strawberries.”

He sighs, stands up, and stretches. “Right, grab a tray and follow me. You’re lucky I need the bodies.”

I pick up a rectangular cardboard box from a pile near the veranda and follow him down to the field. I watch as he crouches down and shows how to pick, making a mechanical twisting motion with his hand and dropping a red berry into my tray.

“Got that?” he asks, and I nod. “You get one token for each lot of ten trays that you fill. That token is worth a tenner at the end of the shift. Questions?”

“Is there a dorm or something where I can put my stuff? And maybe stay for a bit?”

“See that building over there?” he gestures to a wood hut hidden behind the house that I hadn’t been able to see as I approached. “There’re beds in there. And some bottled water by the trays. Anything else you need, Mr.?”

“Dave,” I say. “And I think I’m good.”

“Nice to meet you Dave, I’m Charles,” he dusts his hands on his trousers and wanders back to the shade.

I jog over to the hut. Inside are rows and rows of old-fashioned hospital beds, some claimed with belongings dumped on them, some not. I place my overnight bag on a free bed near the front door and jog back to the field. Snagging a bottle of water on the way, I sit down with the tray and get to work under Charles’ watchful eye:

Twisting red orbs off the vine, dropping them into the tray, pausing to take a drink, moving on to the next plant when one runs out, over to Charles for him to record my total, getting a small bronze token every tenth time. Then all over again as the sun pours fire onto my exposed neck and arms. Berries, tray, drink, total, berries, tray, drink, total, token! I become an automaton focused only on collecting tokens and picking berries. The heat slowly cooling as night gathers around the farm.

A sharp whistle calls me back to reality. Charles is standing near the water bottles, his fingers in his mouth. Around me, a symphony of groans and cracked joints breaks out as the workers set down their trays.

“Ok,” says Charles. “In a minute we’ll take the berries to the warehouse round back, then I’ll hand out pay. Then you fellas are free to do whatever you want. Just don’t call me to bail you out if the cops bust ya for drunk and disorderly.”

Begrudging laughter. I fall into line with the other men as we ferry the trays around to a basement storage room underneath the house. When everything is safely packed away, we line up in front of the veranda for pay. There are about eleven of us in total ranging from local boys to fellow students to wind-beaten homeless; a couple people seem to know each other, and they stick together, but it is mostly silent anticipation. When it’s my turn, I climb the steps of the veranda, and hold out a dozen or so tokens. Charles places a bundle of crisp notes in my hand and winks.

I head back to the hut with the people who are staying on the farm, about five sunburnt and dirt covered men. The others stroll off, some walking, some sharing a ride, all tired. I flop down on my bed as showers start up from the other side of the room. I am still too worn out to feel anything, but from the state of my clothes I expect to wake up very sore tomorrow.

The others come marching out of the shower block, trading jokes, and laughing. The leader, a blond who looks only a couple years older than me, pauses. “We’re headed to The Oasis,” he says. “Wanna come?”

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m about ready to die as is.”

“Suit yourself,” says the blond, and the men exit.

Now alone, I summon the energy to pick a towel out of my overnight bag and head for the showers. There are several cubicles open, and I opt for the cleanest one. Stepping inside, I twist shut the latch and start stripping.

As I turn on the water, there comes over me the most peculiar feeling. It is as if something or someone is watching me. I look around the cubicle, no hidden cameras or anything (Charles didn’t look the type anyway). I unlatch the cubicle and look out.


Yet there still seems that there is a presence observing me, measuring me up and judging me. I quickly towel off and get dressed, all the while feeling under a microscope. I can imagine whatever it is making snide comments about the weight I’d put on, about the mole on my thigh, about my budding man tits.

There is no one in the main room either. I reassure myself that this is just a bout of paranoia brought on by being in a new place and slip into bed with a book, the latest Stephen King collection. It occurs to me that horror is not the type of book to induce calm, but it is the only one I brought.

The feeling remains. Little ants of nervousness crawl up and down my back. This is stupid, I’m an adult, aren’t I? I go to University; I’m going to be a lawyer!

I stay in bed with my book. Waiting…as the crickets sing and the presence watches.

Eventually, the uneasy feeling dissipates as abruptly as it arrived. Nevertheless, I am relieved when the others return. Trusting in the safety of numbers, I close my eyes and try to sleep. 
Sleep is not forthcoming.



“Hypothetically,” declares Carmichael, pausing to take a sip of rum from an Oasis glass as we wait for him to continue. “There is no actual evidence that the reality we see and experience,” he gestures to the interior of the saloon. “Is, in fact, reality.”

It is nearing midnight and the pub ramblers are beginning to polish their sophistry. I glance round the circular table at the other workers: Tom, Thomas, Tommy, Thompson (I can never remember their names, but they do all strangely involve the letter ‘T’), and when nobody rises to Carmichael’s bait, I play along:

“I agree, this thing we call reality doesn’t exist. It is a dream in the mind of a distant God; all the objects, all the people, all the everything is only made real because He thinks it is.”

Carmichael takes another sip. “I know for a fact you’re an atheist.”

“But how do you know, you know?” I say. “Epistemology can get real wankey real fast.”

“How do you know you don’t know what you know?” counters Carmichael.

“I don’t,” I say, and everyone laughs.

The grumpy bartender who tried to fleece me when I arrived walks past holding a tray of dirty mugs and glasses. I make a face as he goes by.

“Don’t you like our Marvin?” asks one of the Toms.

“The bartender? He was a bloody prick to me the other day.”

“Tell me a story, Marvin,” says Carmichael when the bartender appears.

“Hold on,” I say. “Marvin, buddy, I’ll give you twenty dollars if you tell us a story!”

I lay a banknote on the table and Marvin eyes it appraisingly. There is even more laughter. He glares at us, reaches down, and snaps it up.

He speaks in a gruff whisper. “Once a year, the devil walks through this town.”

I laugh, but the others look grim. The Toms murmur to each other and Carmichael stares at Marvin strangely, as if daring him to go on.

“This is for you,” Marvin tells me. “And only once, so listen. You’ve noticed that there aren’t many people in this place, right? For a good reason. Every year, at the end of the picking season, it comes. We don’t why it does, we don’t know where it goes when it’s not here; we don’t really know anything. Only that if you see it, you don’t come back.”

I think of the presence I felt that night in the hut and shudder.

“One other thing,” says Marvin, his eyes shining with malicious glee. “If it doesn’t get its fill of blood, bad things start happening. Babies die in their cribs, whole neighborhoods burn, the crops stop growing. Now ask yourself this, my friend,” his eyes burn into mine. “Why did you find it so easy to get a job here, when you are so clearly inexperienced?”

“That’s no story, that’s bullshit,” snaps Carmichael. “Innit lads? We’re leaving. You coming, Dave?”

I don’t want to; I want to hear more of the story, but I also don’t fancy wandering through the town alone at this time of night… even though Marvin’s story is probably a croc of shit, well, the prospect doesn’t fill me with confidence. I stand to leave with the others.

We wander out into the night, stumbling into each other and laughing. The moon is a pale scar on the starless sky. Boots crunch on gravel as we head back to the Estate.

“Do you think it’s true?” I ask and notice that my speech is slurring.

“No,” says Carmichael. “It’s just the night talking. All the best horror stories seem real if you hear ‘em at night. Even the crap ones take on a new life. Anyway, I wanted to wait, but seeing as everybody’s so strung out...” he reaches into his jacket and pulls out a plastic bag with two largish hand-rolled cigarettes in it. “Anyone got a light?”

We cluster together in a small circle, illuminated by the ghostly glow of one of the Toms’ cell phones. Carmichael lights up and passes on the joints. They go around the circle like the hands of a clock. The smoke burns a little as it goes down and I cough. My eyes water. I exhale and a giggly sensation comes over me, like I have just finished a darkly absurd French novel and now every drop of sadness in the world is somehow comic.

When the joints are done, we stomp them out and walk on. The Estate comes into view and I head towards the hut as happy as I had left it, laughing about nothing in particular.

“I gotta talk to Charles real quick,” says Carmichael.

The Toms and I laugh at him as he stumbles up the veranda’s steps and goes inside. Then we walk down to the hut. I fall into bed, fully clothed, feeling like I am made of summer. Slowly, my mind changes gear and I drift into sleep.

A pale thing, humanoid in proportion, is waiting for me in my dream; its eyes are black holes, its white hair is long and unwashed. It vibrates back and forth and it’s like looking at a person underwater. It smiles and in its smile I can see pillars of crimson flame, black clouds of writhing sulphur, and an endless undying scream. In its smile, I feel like I am standing before an oncoming, all-consuming tsunami. I run, its laughter echoing behind me. The only thought in my mind is to get away as quickly as possible. I trip and fall into darkness, and there is only the rush of air and the slow timelessness of eternity.


We are almost finished with the strawberries. The once green fields are now devoid of their color, except for sporadic patches near the edges, and soon Charles will call in some actual laborers to tear out the used-up stems and plant new ones for the next harvest.

I’ve made out pretty well. As soon as the picking is over, I’ll return to my studies a few thousand richer. Not bad for a month or so of work. I still drink with the others, work, and try not to be alone, but it is all slowing down. Marvin’s story had been spooky—for a time—but I will not be scared out of money this good!

I am onto the tenth tray of the day when Charles motions me up to the veranda. Setting the box down, I wipe away some sweat, and go up to him. He is chewing on a biro like he wishes it were a cigar and staring at a leather-bound lodge book.

“You’ve been doing some outstanding work, Kid,” he drawls.


“How’d you like to stay on when the machine boys come in for the planting?” he asks. “There’s been a scheduling conflict, and there won’t be enough of them to get it done in time. What do ya say?”

“I’d love to,” I begin. “But Uni starts up again next week. I need to prepare, find textbooks, and all that stuff. I’m sorry bu—”

Charles interrupts me. “Before you say no, think about this: it’ll only be for a week, and you’ll be paid their rates, five hundred a day. Cash. Plus, you’ll have the hut to yourself. I’m a heavy sleep so you could get up to all kinds of mischief in there.”

Five hundred a day would be enough to cover my tuition costs for the semester—along with textbooks and a nice bar tab for good measure. But something bothers me about it; childish, yes…but I’ll be alone.

“Can I think about it?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t want workers who think about things. Now or never, if you don’t want it, I’ll call Carmichael up and he can do it.”

“Okay,” I say in a rush. “I’ll do it!”

“Good,” he drawls. “You get back to picking now. I’ll fill you in on the details later.”

The rest of the day flies by as usual: picking, packing, tokens, et cetera. And all the while, I am thinking of how to spend my sudden windfall. Forget study, I’ll have enough for a car. No more trains were people cough on you and bump you while you’re trying to read. I could have transport of my own; I should’ve come out here years ago.

The dream of a car joins my collection of other castles in the sky as I walk into town with the gang, now a couple of Toms short owning to the season tapering down. Carmichael is telling a bawdy story, and we are all laughing along, when I see Marvin waiting outside the station with a bag over his shoulder. He is enjoying a cigarette, tendrils of pale smoke curling around
him like tentacles. I go over to him as the gang heads inside The Oasis.

“What’s up, Marv?” I ask. “Where’re you going?”

“Outta here, man,” he replies.


He sighs and flicks the cigarette butt to the ground. “If you haven’t worked it out by now, there’s nothing I can say to you. How long are you here for, anyway?”

“Charles asked me to stay on another week.”

Marvin laughs at that. It’s the first time I’ve heard his laugh, a high nasally sort of thing. And then, without saying goodbye, he turns and walks into the station, still laughing to himself. Pushing away his reaction, I head into The Oasis where Carmichael is flirting with the new waitress.

He looks over to me. “What happened with the world’s worst bartender?”

“He’s leaving,” I say, sitting down between the two remaining Toms. One of them hands me a beer.

“Good riddance, I say,” declares Carmichael, and he returns his attention to the waitress.


I watch with Charles as the last Tom walks down the Estate’s long driveway and into the evening. Carmichael and the other Tom have already left, but not before making me promise to call if I am ever in the mood for some extra-legal substances.

I now have the hut all to myself. The grounds of the Estate are covered in wilting strawberry vines, the last plants having been picked clean this morning.

“How long until the new guys get here?” I ask as the Tom recedes from sight.

“Not till Monday,” says Charles, sitting on the porch. He stands and cracks his back. “I’m about ready to turn in. I appreciate you staying on for the week. Be up early, though, so I can show you how to use the machinery.”

“Will do,” I say, also standing.

We say goodnight, and I make my way down to the hut, the night air crawling with bugs and little flying things. I yawn as I enter and start preparing for bed. I feel a bit drowsy. The shower is cold but refreshing, and when I am clean, I push two of the hospital beds together to make a double, before curling up with my book.

A while later, as my eyes are getting blurry, I put down the book and turn off the lights.


I lie spread-eagled across my makeshift bed with my eyes firmly shut, going over what I’ll have to do tomorrow. Probably a lot of lifting things and pretending I know what I’m doing and… and my mind starts to go, drifting off into dreams. And right as I’m on the precipice of unconsciousness, I feel it: the burning stare of unseen eyes pressing into my shoulder blades.
I roll over under the covers and try to reassure myself I’m alone, but the feeling persists.

I open my eyes and reach for the light switch. And in the moment between when my eyes adjust to the dark and my mind returns to me, I see a face growing out of the wall.

It is swelling right out of the wood like a water balloon, its features twisting in agony, its eyes black pools of infinity. It is quickly joined by a second face, feminine in structure, and also bent in pain. I stumble out of bed, mute, convinced I am in a nightmare.

The faces begin multiplying, more and more of them popping into existence like raindrops. And moaning. A long continuous groan of suffering that goes on and on, echoed by the thousand faces bursting out of every corner of the room.

Panicked, I run outside, throwing open the hut’s doors, to see more faces rising out of the ground, forming a vast spectral funnel into the sky, blue-green light pulsating inside it as screams shatter the night. Planks tear loose from the hut, whipping through the air like darts and exploding into the ground in constellations of dirt.

I run towards the house, wind pulling at me from every direction as the vortex of faces churns with malicious violence. I jump up the veranda steps and grasp onto the door. It is locked. I pull and pull on the handle to no avail.

I sprint away from the house as the faces slam onto the ground, spraying mud and dirt in every direction. I run down the driveway hoping, just hoping. The only thought in my mind a continuous loop of: run, run, run, run…and that’s when I see it. The pale thing. It is staring at me from the end of the driveway and when I look into its eyes, my consciousness shatters like so much brittle glass. It reaches for me, and I can feel my body dissolving on the wind like…like…I fall away from myself, a feeling of burning taking root in my soul. There is only the agony of… as…like…

A man continues his stroll through the night. The ground he treads on turning to dead ash beneath him. He is as indifferent to the screaming that surround him as Mt Vesuvius to Pompeii. He is enjoying himself immensely.