These Uncertain Times: Part 1 of 6

It was as if the suburb in which they lived had a special forcefield around it, a bubble of energy that emanated from a central point. Layers of invisible barriers grew outward from the centre, gradually growing weaker as they drifted further away from the source. Cara drove inward, body exhausted by work. Tiredness rolled under her skin, like cotton balls that soaked her up and made her body feel heavy. She stretched her cramped fingers against the top of the steering wheel, chipped fingernail polish glinting in the afternoon sun. Consciously she marked each kilometre that brought her closer to home, nodding at each familiar corner and landmark as if by sight she was notching each off a list. As she sputtered forward, legs and arms leaden as they forced the car through traffic, she passed through each layer of the forcefield surrounding home. Gliding through each invisible and pristine bubble she felt a burst of energy, a lightness that tugged at her skin, loosened and dried out the wet cotton, and let it float away piece by piece. Closer to home, to rest, to Oscar, to the couch and the rest of the bottle of red from the night before. Cara took less and less notice of her surroundings, houses and other cars becoming blurs on either side of her, as she went through the motions. Indicating, braking, turning, stopping, starting. As she pulled deeper into the suburbs she was paying so little attention to what was around her, she almost ran down the man standing in the middle of the road, waving his walking stick at her.
Cara slammed on the brakes, the wheels of the car locking up underneath her and screeching across the bitumen before coming to a stop. Her eyes went wide and her heart gasped, thumping. The man in front of her grinned, teeth poking from between thick cracked lips. Wrinkles in his cheek reached up to his forehead and radiated in waves across his scalp and down the back of his head. He tapped his walking stick against Cara’s bonnet and shouted through the windshield,
“Can you give us a lift?”
Cara blinked and shook her head.
“I’m trying to get to Coles. My son was supposed to pick me up but I don’t know where he is.”
Cara took back control of her breathing, leaned forward for a moment and looked at the car floor beneath her feet. Her knees were shaking, not from fear but adrenalin. She looked back up to the man, who was still grinning. She bit her lip then put down her window. Cool air rolled across her face.
“Have you got any sanitiser?”
“Don’t need any.”
The man lifted up his hands and waggled his fingers underneath plastic blue gloves. Cara rolled her eyes then rolled her window back up. The man kept his hands outstretched, as if in mid-performance. Sweat dripped from his forehead, and Cara could see his chest was rising quicker than it should. She sighed, reached across the seat beside her, and opened the passenger door. The old man winked and limped over, leaning heavily on his walking stick. He reached first for the seat, then balancing on his wrists lowered himself down with a grunt before shutting the door behind him. Cara took note of everything he touched then put the car in drive, pulling forward.
“Thank you kindly ma’am. You’re the third person I’ve flagged over but you’re the first to let me in and I appreciate that. I don’t know where my son thinks he is, but he’s late. I was expecting him by two.”
Cara looked at the dashboard clock. It was two fifteen.
“My name’s Jack.”
Jack held out a hand, his arm stiff at the elbow like it was difficult to bend. Cara gave him a small wave and he smiled before dropping his hand back into his lap.
“Cara.”
“Pardon?”
“Cara.”
“Carla?”
“No Cara. No L.”
“Can you lower that thing, I can’t understand you properly.”
Cara hesitated before pulling down her face mask, quickly repeating herself before tugging it back up.
“Ah. Beautiful. A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”
Jack propped his elbow up on the windowsill, shutting his eyes for a moment as he slowly breathed in and out. He sat crooked in the chair, his spine curved at an angle that pushed him forward in his seat. Cara assumed he used to be tall, taller than her at least, but now he would come to just above her shoulder.
Soon they passed Cara’s street, and then further from her home. As they did her body become heavy again as the healing properties of the bubble faded away. She rubbed her eyes using the back of her hand. One of the hosts on the radio laughed loudly and then fell silent, replaced by static. Cara turned down the volume, and in the quiet of the car she could hear the soft tapping of Jack as he typed out a message on his mobile phone. He used a single gnarled knuckle to tap each letter into the keyboard methodically, muttering under his breath as he read back what he had written. Cara shifted in her chair. An anxious fluttering bloomed in her chest, and she kept an eye out for an IC stations that might be nearby, brain wired for lazy blue and red lights and repercussions.
The carpark at the Coles shopping centre was half empty and Cara managed to find a park just outside the entrance. Jack opened the passenger door, took a deep breath, and heaved himself out of the seat. He steadied himself against the door jamb and turned back to Cara.
“Won’t be long.”
“Wait no-” Cara reached out in protest but Jack was already walking away, either having not heard her or choosing not to. She sighed, yanked up the handbrake and fell back into her seat. Through the glass in front of her she watched small, tight groups walk past the front of shops, empty windows covered in home-made signs held up by sticky tape. A cafe on the corner of the shopping centre had gone as far as painting ‘Closed’ in thick red letters across their door.
When people walked past each other they took care to take several steps to the side, letting others by at a distance. No one nodded to the other, or said hello under their masks. A young girl bounced by Cara, an old Meatloaf shirt wrapped around her face. She held the hand of her father, who watched his daughter with a dutiful wariness. Cara turned the radio back up and leant her head against the car window, the glass cool on her forehead.
She jerked her head up at the sound of Jack’s walking stick tapping against the window. Wiping dribble from her chin, she leaned over and opened the car door. Jack bent forward, grimacing as he lowered a bulging shopping bag down in front of the seat. He took a moment to get his breath back before following the bag, crumpling into the seat and pulling the seatbelt across his chest. Cara started the car and pulled out of the carpark.
“No hot cross buns, can you believe it? A travesty.” Jack shook his head. “I don’t know how they expect us to survive this mess.”
“I don’t like hot cross buns.”
“Don’t like hot cross buns? What’s wrong with you?”
Cara shrugged her shoulders, “They’re just not for me.”
“You just haven’t had the right ones. Who raised you?”
“My parents?”
“They should be locked up. Doesn’t like hot cross buns.” Jack lowered his head with a forlorn look and let out an exaggerated sigh. He looked up at Cara with a deep frown and she couldn’t help but smile back. Jack waved his hand at her dismissively then rummaged through his shopping bag. Cans and bags of plastic rubbed and knocked against each other and then he pulled out, with a flourish, a jangling ball of colour on a short keychain. Rippled with alternating colours of orange, red and yellow was a stone sphere and engraved in black writing through its middle was the name ‘Carla’.
“It was a sign. Just waiting for you at the checkout.”
Jack stretched up to the rearview mirror and clipped the keychain to its middle. It dangled underneath, spinning back and forth and catching the light.
“Thanks Jack. You didn’t have to do that.”
Jack waggled his finger, “Oh no, I didn’t have a choice. You picking me up today, going to the shops and finding that keychain. It was a sign that couldn’t be ignored. This is fate realised, the path we must all follow.”
Cara slowed the car over speed bumps as they rolled back through the suburbs. The keychain bounced up and down with every rise and fall, light glinting off its shining surface. Jack guided her back to where she had dropped him off, like they hadn’t just been there half an hour before. Cara pulled over to the kerb in front of a small brick house, squatting in the shade of a thick orange tree that loomed over a sprawling but well tended front garden. Jack pulled himself out of the car first before reaching back for his shopping. His eyes squinted in the sunlight outside. To Cara he seemed more bent, more decrepit than before. He stood on the grass between the kerb and the sidewalk, his hands on his hips and Cara lowered the window beside him.
“These are uncertain times beautiful girl. I’ve seen them before and I didn’t think I would see them again. But we’ll get through this.”
Cara pulled down the front of her mask, “How do you know that?”
“We always do. We have to.” And he winked, turning from the car and lifting his walking stick high in the air in farewell. Cara watched him walk up his driveway towards the small brick house. Sun bounced off the windows, radiating light. She was about to roll up the window when she heard him shout.
“It’s the signs. Fate. They’ll guide us out as long as we keep looking for them.”
The window and Cara’s mask went back up. Indicator on, Cara turned around.

Only two blocks away, it wasn’t long until Cara turned the corner and then turned again into her driveway. The familiar bump as she mounted concrete was like a gentle, reassuring push on the small of her back. The waves of energy and light were concentrated most here, and as she switched off the engine she smiled to herself, leaning her forehead against the steering wheel. Home.
From the boot of the car she pulled out a spray bottle and a cloth. Quickly she wiped down the passenger seat, the door, handle, and the rear view mirror. Finally she wiped down the ‘Carla’ keychain, leaving streaks of white bubbles down its rounded sides. She hoisted her backpack from behind the driver’s seat and after finally locating the front door key, let herself inside.
The lounge room beside her was empty, and dark with the blinds lowered. She pulled them up, letting sun spray across the carpet. She dumped her bag in the kitchen, pulled out the empty Tupperware from lunch that day and added it to the growing pile of dishes, which agreed with her that tonight they’ll probably be getting takeaway.
The sound of music, loud but quietened by walls and empty rooms, came to her from deeper in the house. As she went down the hall to the bedroom she unhooked her bra and stretched up her arms, relief pulling through her spine. Beside the bedroom, tucked away in the study, she could see Oscar sitting at his desk in front of his laptop, blue light casting shadows across his face. She walked up behind him, leaned down and rested her chin on his head. Long hair tickled the underside of her nose. Oscar looked upward, stretching his arms behind him and looping them around her neck to pull her in for a quick kiss. She reached down and rubbed his chest, looking at his screen.
“Still going?”
“Yeah,” Oscar yawned, “the queue was sitting at about three hours four hours ago.”
“Shit.”
Oscar reached down and lifted up the edge of his track pants, scratching at his ankle. Cara watched him closely, listening to fingernails scraping against skin.
“What’s that?”
“Nothing.” He pulled the leg of his pants back down, covering himself.
Lines of text along the screen were suddenly replaced with a glowing white square, introduced by a loud, obnoxious buzzing. Oscar leapt forward and held his eyes open in front of the laptop camera. The white square throbbed, then glowed green. The sound of a synthetic bell rung and the square disappeared, giving way again to the same rows of text. Oscar rubbed his eyes and sat back in his seat. Cara stepped back, bewildered.
“What the fuck was that?”
“They scan your retinas every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re still there, otherwise you’re pushed back to the start of the queue. Have to make sure a bunch of lazy so-and-sos aren’t trying to exploit the welfare system.”
“Jesus christ.”
“Who thought unemployment would be so much fun.”
Cara stroked a strand of hair across Oscar’s fringe and he shook his head from her reach, keeping his eyes on the screen. She stepped away, the glow of the screen giving her a headache, and walked out and into the next room, kicking off her shoes before falling onto the bed. Facing up to the ceiling she could see her reflection in the polished silver underside of the light fixture. Its curved base put her in a warped, spherical world, her body stretched and alien. She didn’t recognise herself but when she moved her arm, her reflection waved back. Oscar shouted from far away.
“Have you disinfected?”
Cara shut her eyes then opened them again, before hauling herself off the bed. The bathroom was a few degrees colder than the rest of the house and Cara shivered, opening the window. She stripped down and threw her clothes in the corner of the room beside a tall plastic cylinder. Pipes twisted from its top, reaching across the roof before spitting out a spout above the bathtub. Cara kicked the cylinder. Liquid sloshed inside but it was getting low. It would have to be refilled soon. Naked, Cara stepped into the centre of the bath, picking up an old broom handle that leant against the wall beside the sink. She stretched it towards a green dial on the side of the plastic cylinder. It took two tries but she managed to get the dial to twist. There was a gurgle, and then a fine mist sprayed from the spout above her head. Cara shut her eyes and mouth and crouched to drop the broom handle besides the bath, before standing back up. Cold disinfectant fell and dripped around her. It smelt sickly sweet and Cara tried not to think about hospitals. Her skin bristled with small droplets, hanging off the edges of fine hair. Like a bedraggled bird, her body again felt heavy. The home, the house, and the walls around her became distant and far away, unable to exist in this impersonal space. After a minute Cara moved backward from the spray, reached blindly for a hand towel waiting beside her, and wiped her face. She stepped out of the bath and over to the cylinder, shutting it off, before sitting on the edge of the bath, her arms wrapped around her shoulders. Her phone sat propped up by the sink, and shivering she watched as minutes ticked by. The porcelain beneath her was hard. She felt it bruising her skin. She avoided looking at the mirror.
Cara checked the time, then stood back up, leaping into the shower besides the bath. She twisted screeching taps, and merciful, friendly, warm water streamed across her face. It soaked between the strands of her hair, and stroked across her scalp, two large and welcoming hands of heat holding her body in an embrace, and pushing the cold away as if it never existed at all. When she gets out she turned on the heat lamps, knowing her and Oscar agreed not to, agreed to try and conserve as much as they could, agreed they couldn’t afford another big bill. But just for a little while she let the heat, from the smallest sun in her own private solar system, dry her out. When she switched them off, the warmth that lingered became not a comfort, but a reminder of what was now absent. Cara tucked her hair, wet, behind her ear and pulled her towel tight across her chest before leaving.

Later Oscar was still at his desk, waiting. Cara sat in the kitchen at the dining table with a glass of red wine, her legs crossed as she glared at the dishes. The wine tasted dusty, oxidised, already left for too long after only a day. It was bitter and stung her throat but she sipped at it anyway. She watched the sun set across the backyard, the day’s last light leaking into the kitchen and carving yellow lines across the lifting linoleum. Cara chewed on her nails and it felt like a luxury, only allowed here in the privacy of the indoors.
As the sun disappeared the room grew darker, gradual enough that she didn’t realise until almost in complete darkness. She got up and switched on the kitchen light, then heard a rumble from further down the hall. White light throbbed in the study, turning green, before fading away. She took a long sip of her awful wine, wrapped her dressing gown a little tighter around her body, then sat on the couch in the lounge room. She placed the wine glass precariously on the carpet by her feet. Outside, through the front window, the street was dark. Streetlights were still adjusting, sputtering on one by one and carving out fluorescent islands amongst the blackness. All at once Cara felt the sensation of being very alone. She wanted to talk to someone, see someone, go out and talk to her family, friends and neighbours without this ever present and exhausting fear hanging over everything. But she couldn’t leave this couch, this island home, that floated between so many others. She was here on the couch, and she told herself, this is where she had to stay.
She thought of Jack. He’s going to get himself killed, she thought. She hoped he didn’t.
Across the street, a figure stepped into the glow of the streetlight, fading in from the darkness dressed in the same black as the shadows. It took Cara a moment to recognise the woman who lived in the duplex across the road. She was tall and thin, a scowl permanently etched into her face. Her and Oscar had argued about it many times, but couldn’t agree as to how old she must be.
Cara had only spoken to her once. They assumed she lived alone, and Cara had gone over to introduce herself and to ask if she needed a hand around the house. Cara and Oscar would be happy to help, and could make sure the lawn gets mowed, and the bins got put out each week. The woman had glared at Cara, with an anger she had not seen before. Something ancient and red glowed in her eyes and she, in so many words, told Cara to fuck off. They didn’t talk much after that.
And now across the street, the neighbour glared at Cara with that same hatred. Standing on her shoulder, claws digging into her flesh, was her cat. Boney with black fur, he followed his owner everywhere and was a total bastard. With a decisive march, the woman cut across the streetlight and disappeared again into shadow, before reappearing right in front of the house. She paused at the sidewalk, her toes at the edge of their lawn. He shoulders rose up and down and Cara could see from here she was seething. Cara took a long gulp of wine, put down the glass and walked to the front door. She took a deep breath before opening it with a smile.
“Hi, how are you-”
She was cut off as something heavy and soft smacked into her forehead. Cara reeled back, and with flailing limbs managed to catch the projectile. In her hands she found herself looking at a red and white package with Oscar’s name on it, but the wrong address. The cat on the woman’s shoulder hissed as she threw an accusing finger Cara’s way. Her voice was loud and thin, razor sharp and Cara felt it cut the air in front of her.
“Leave. Me. Alone.”
“This was not our fault.”
Finger still outstretched, the woman ignored Cara and left back the way she came, melting into the blackness. This time she did not reappear. Cara stood on the doorstep in shock. Her hands started trembling and she dropped the package to the floor. She knelt down to pick it up, but now on her knees couldn’t find the strength to stand back up. Trembling wracked her body, spreading up her arms, her shoulders and her lips. Not in control, she began to cry. Tears fell thick and fast and Cara gripped the edges of the package hard, twisting them in her hands. A shuffling of feet came across the carpet and paused for a moment before moving quickly up behind her. Hands pressed down on her shoulders.
“Hey.”
Head down, Cara stood up and turned to Oscar. She buried her head in his chest and he pulled her in close. Her arms stayed stiff by his side as he tucked her into his warm embrace. His chest was soft, and his chin and neck sat comfortably above her. She continued to cry as he pulled his arm tight around her shoulders, gently moving her back inside and closing the door behind them. Closing off the cruel outdoors, stopping it from infecting their peaceful universe. Taking her back to the couch where it was safe. Her body slowly unravelled and she lifted up her arms to wrap around his middle. This is where she wanted to be. Where it was safe.
An ugly buzzing noise screeched from down the hall, shattering their world.
“Fuck.” Oscar yelled, letting her go and leaping down the hall towards his laptop. He left an absence of a feeling. Something Cara had just lost.
She picked up the package from the floor beside her and put it on the dining table. Now distant she heard Oscar yell, “Shit, shit, shit.” followed by the sound of his fist thumping against the desk. She took her glass of wine over to the sink and poured the rest down the drain. The red spun across the steel, pocked with streaks of dried food, before disappearing. Above the sink she looked out across the backyard. She stared intently, squinting as she searched the grey shades of early night for a sign. A sign to guide her out.


Thank you for reading along. If you want to see more of Cara and Oscar check out the rest of ‘These Uncertain Times’ by following the links below or go through the homepage.

 

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