Lines of fluorescents stretched from one side of the long empty ceiling to the other, weaving between crawling metal piping. On the ground marked in tape were bright red Xs, telling the crowds where to stand as they waited at the foot of a shopping aisle. Three back from the front of the queue, Oscar and Cara balanced on their designated X. Oscar pushed his elbow into Cara’s ribs and she shoved him back.
“Stop taking up all the space.”
Oscar reached around Cara’s waist and pinched her hip. She shoved him harder and he toppled onto one foot, waving his arms around his head in big mock movements as he tried to maintain his balance and stay on the X at the same time. He flopped forward and with arms held high, fell onto Cara.
Oscar went limp, letting his full weight slump against Cara’s shoulders. She slid backwards as she struggled to hold him up. Oscar, dead to the world, stayed slumped and stretched out. Cara grunted.
“I’m going to drop you.”
Oscar raised his head, eyes wide. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Cara held up her hands and took another step back, letting Oscar fall before catching himself. He jumped up, hoisting up his jeans and pointing at Cara.
Cara flipped him off and the person in front of them took a step to the next X. Oscar wrapped an arm around Cara’s shoulder, and using her as a crutch they walked together over to the next place in line. Cara bent her head forward and whacked her ponytail into Oscar’s nose. He let go of her shoulder and spun around, arms up in fists ready for a fight. An announcement came across the supermarket speaker system.
“Shoppers are reminded to keep the appropriate distance from each other. In light of the current outbreak, purchase of any of the following products is limited to two per purchase. Pasta. Rice. Frozen desserts. Female sanitary products. Novelty mugs…”
The voice continued to drone, echoing between aisles in the large open supermarket. A mother behind Oscar and Cara tried to control her three children as they spun around her, parroting back each of the products after they had been announced. They ran and dodged out of their mother’s grasp until eventually she gave up, running a hand through her hair and letting her kids run amok.
By the time the announcement finished Oscar and Cara were at the front of the line. Before them was a small bench set up behind a perspex wall that stretched from one stack of shelves to the other, blocking entry to the aisle. A round window had been cut through the middle and just beyond that, in a hi-vis vest, gloves and a mask, stood a sweaty teenager. Voice muffled behind their mask he asked Cara and Oscar what they wanted. Cara brought up their list and the boy nodded and shook his head to each item as she asked what was available. Oscar’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out.
“Hey man! Long time no see, I miss you. Hope you’re good and mum’s alright too, crazy times at the moment. We should catch up, I mean not actually, but you should call me. I want to do something like we used to, make a movie or anything really. I’m going mental haha. Anyway let me know because I think we could make something great.”
Oscar grinned and then immediately hid it away. The smile was still there, just tucked up in his brain where it hummed with joy before settling in his stomach and spreading through his body. His leg felt itchy and absentmindedly he reached down and scratched it as he composed his reply. The teen in the hi-vis came back to the bench and pushed items through the window to Cara. Oscar shot off his reply and put his phone back in his pocket. He itched his knee again. He took out his phone and held it in his hand. Cara walked up beside him with the shopping basket hanging off her arm.
“We got most of what we needed. No pasta or tinned tomatoes but I got some extra chick peas so I’m thinking curry tonight.”
Oscar nodded and checked his phone. They walked past the family as the mother dragged her kids up to the bench. She spoke quickly to the teen and then as Oscar and Cara moved to the next aisle over they could her voice as she shouted,
“But there’s four of us, we need more than that!”
The next aisle was more open, lined with chips and chocolate but mostly empty shelves. They moved lazily along it, checking what was left but not looking for anything in particular. Cara grabbed a bag of microwave popcorn, solitary and abandoned at the back of the shelf, and chucked it in the basket.
“What do you think of that?” She asked.
“Curry. With chickpeas.”
“Oh yeah. Sounds fine.” Oscar checked his phone.
“Is that what you want?”
“I mean yeah it’s fine.” Oscar checked his phone.
“Is that good?”
“It’s fine. I’m not fussed.”
“We can have something else.”
Oscar sighed and shoved his phone in his pocket. “No. Curry is fine. Let’s do curry.”
He walked faster, ahead of Cara. Cara watched him and adjusted her grip on the basket before following. They wandered up and around the aisles, mostly empty but some full. People walking past stuck to one side, pushing their backs against the shelving to maintain distance. As a habit Cara smiled at them, but no one could see or return the gesture under their masks. There was a few t-shirts cut and wrapped around faces and when a man waddled past with a snorkel Cara grabbed Oscar’s arm.
She spun him around and from below her hip pointed at the man.
The man stopped and turned and Cara tried to look as nonchalant as possible. She exhaled when he put a jar of jam in his basket before walking away. Cara with her hand still on Oscar’s arm looked up at him.
“Fuck, you did it. I concede defeat.”
“You didn’t have a chance.”
“You lucked out. It’s a battle to a war situation and I’m coming for you, just you wait.”
They continued down the aisle, Cara’s arm looped around Oscar’s elbow. Oscar pulled away when he reached into his pocket and checked his phone again. No reply. He sighed and a small hollow feeling pooled in the back of his throat. He swallowed and it tasted bitter.
“I’m going to have a look at the soap aisle.” He said.
“For kicks, why not.”
“We’ve got everything we need.”
“I’ll meet you at the checkout, see you in a sec.”
Without waiting for a reply Oscar strode away. Cara watched until he disappeared then turned around, leaning the basket against her hip to take some of the weight off her arm.
The soap aisle was skeletal, abandoned bottles of shampoo and deodorant lying scattered amongst the bones of shelves. No security or roped off areas here as there was nothing left to sell. A few people still stalked the shelves, scavenging through the remains. Oscar walked past them, checking out the items that were left. Sponges and detergent lined one shelf, and he scanned his eyes down the different products before grabbing a pack of scourers and some steel wool.
Further down large signs dominated a set of shelves, proclaiming in big letters that there was no hand sanitiser left. ‘No Stock Don’t Ask’ shouted down from either side of the aisle. Oscar waltzed up behind a shorter elderly couple that were poking behind the paper signs in vain. One muttered to the other.
Dutifully Oscar stepped to the other side of the aisle, and as he walked by he spotted something above them. A small cardboard box pushed to the back of the shelf, high enough and far enough back that the shorter two wouldn’t have a hope of finding it. Oscar stopped and his heart thumped. Glinting at him were a dozen brand new bottles of hand sanitiser. The hollow feeling in his throat swelled. One half of the couple turned to the other and rested a hand on their shoulder. They turned away together, ignoring Oscar as they shuffled down the aisle. Oscar watched them, then turned back to the hand sanitiser. They’ll be fine, he thought to himself.
They’ll be fine.
He reached up to the shelf above the aisle and pulled the box closer to himself. As was policy, he only took two bottles from the fresh dozen. His hands were sweaty. He looked back and saw the couple was gone, turning around the corner far away from him. He looked at the bottles in his hand. They looked tiny in his palm. He gripped one in each of his fists, hiding them from other shoppers as he ducked his head down and strode to the checkout.
He walked past each rubber conveyor belt twice, unable to see Cara anywhere. His jaw clicked as he ground the back of his teeth. Eventually Oscar spotted her outside the supermarket, next to the butcher that closed the week before. He moved quickly to the self-serve checkouts, looking furtively at those around him as he scanned the items through and tapped his phone against the EFTPOS machine before it had even asked him to do so. He ignored the unspooling receipt and had to stop himself from running out of the shops. Two security guards at the exit watched him, but they did not stop him. He didn’t know why he thought they would have anyway. He shoved the bottles into the pocket of his hoody and skipped up to Cara, grabbing one of the shopping bags from her hand.
“Did you find anything?”
His mouth went dry. His brain turned inside out and then, feeling as if in a dream, he showed her the scourers and steel wool. The bottles stayed nestled in his pocket.
“Nothing good. The rest was scrubbed clean.”
Cara shrugged and walked off to the escalator. Oscar’s mind screamed at him and asked what he was doing. But he couldn’t answer. He just followed Cara back to the car.
Oscar stretched out with the broom handle, squinting as he poked forward above Cara’s shoulder and knocked the green dial. It shifted but didn’t rotate all the way.
“It’s not about force, you have to rest it first then push.”
“I got this.”
Oscar threw the broom handle forward and again the knob shifted before the handle clattered to the floor. A trickle of disinfectant dripped from the spout above them and splashed at their feet. Cara frowned and stepped out of the tub, walking to the plastic cylinder and twisting the dial all the way. Oscar shut his eyes and as she stepped back into the bath, Cara did too.
“Don’t open your eyes.”
“You don’t open your eyes.”
Oscar squinted at Cara through the mist, her eyes still shut. Her hair flattened against her head as it became more wet, the ends curling slightly. He watched her until his eyes started to sting.
“Told you so.”
After a minute Cara stepped out and switched off the spray. She stood back up next to Oscar and they waited. Oscar lifted his elbow up to rub his eyes and Cara slapped it away.
“But it stings.”
“And how is that going to help?”
Oscar’s eyes were red, irritating bloodshot rings popping up around his pupils. As soon as the allocated time had passed he jumped into the shower and stuck his head under the water. Cara squeezed in behind him, looping her arm around his waist and turning up the heat so it could reach her too. Oscar sighed as the water washed the disinfectant out from his eyes and Cara took a bar of soap from beside her, foaming it against her skin. She looked down Oscar’s body to his leg. Stretched from his ankle to his knee was a faint discolouration. It wasn’t totally clear underneath the stream of water that ran down his leg but it looked thick, a bulge growing across his skin. As he turned around she looked away. It was a trick of the light, she told herself.
Oscar beamed down at her, his arms stretched out wide as if reaching up to an applauding audience.
“I hope you go blind.”
“Honestly looking at you, me too.”
Cara threw the bar of soap at his chest harder than she intended and he giggled, trying to grab the soap as it slipped down his front. She stepped to his side and pushed past his slippery body.
“Quit hogging the water.”
They took turns, soaping, shampooing and ducking in and out of the water as they got cold. Cara jumped out of the shower first, wrapping her towel around her shoulders before grabbing Oscar’s and holding it out to him. She waited as he held his head under the water one last time, holding onto the heat streaming down his shoulders before stepping out. He grabbed his towel and dried himself down. Cara kept an eye on his leg as he did, watching carefully until he wrapped his towel around his waist, covering his knees. Cara dried the rest of the hair as he left to get changed. She watched herself in the mirror, arm jerking up and down behind the foggy glass as she rubbed the back of her head. Before leaving she picked up the broom handle and propped it up next to the bath.
When she walked into the bedroom Oscar was already hoisting pyjama pants around his waist. She leaned against the doorframe.
“What’s on your leg?”
Cara repeated the question and Oscar turned to her, rubbing his hair with his towel. He paused, watching her for a moment, then turned back, throwing his towel onto the bed and picking a t-shirt up from the ground.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Cara kept watching him as he pulled the t-shirt over his chest, stretching it across his middle. He kept his back to her as she moved into the bedroom, opening up the cupboard and pulling out her own clothes. He knelt down next to the dresser and opened up the bottom drawer, turning back up to Cara.
“Red or white?”
On the couch later, Cara sat curled under Oscar’s arm, empty wine glasses on the ground in front of them. She couldn’t see his face and he couldn’t see hers. Faces and colours from the TV screen spun across the room, dancing with their shadows and that of the furniture. Cara looked over to the lounge room window, the blind closed shut. She pushed tighter into Oscar’s chest.
Bathed in static blue light, Oscar tapped at his keyboard. In the bed metres away Cara lay on her side, facing away from him. Through his headphones he could still hear her podcast playing from her phone. He checked the time, then kept tapping. He opened up his messages. No reply from his friend. The hollow feeling from earlier had settled in his stomach and was starting to spread through his body. He could feel as blood and bone got pushed aside by this invading anxious sensation. Pressure built in his chest. Stepped on his neck. Bulged against his skull.
Oscar checked the time and took out one of his headphones. Silence. Cara’s podcast had timed out, and if she hadn’t restarted it that meant that she was asleep. Quietly Oscar opened up the drawer beside him and pulled out the package from the other day. He opened and closed the bedroom door then moved to the kitchen, grabbing a scourer and the steel wool from under the sink. He paused in front of the bathroom, straining to hear any noise of movement from the rest of the house. Satisfied all was still, he went inside the bathroom, locking the door behind him before switching on the light.
Not wasting any time, he stripped off his pants and stepped into the bath, placing the scourer and steel wool beside him. He tore open the red and white package and pulled out a chunk of bubble wrap. He unwrapped the tape around it and revealed a plastic container, the size of a soap dispenser, filled with a yellow liquid. It had instructions written down the side and Oscar read them twice before taking a seat in the bath. The porcelain was cold against his naked lower half, separating his body in two from his chest upward. Oscar unscrewed the top of the plastic container and put it on the floor beside the bath. In a fist he then grabbed the scourer and looked down at his leg. It was definitely bigger.
Fungus. Slick and clear, a mottled layer that was growing from his ankle and had almost reached his thigh. It moved like a wave, one big sheet that spread up his body and only broke at the edges. It was light on his body and if it wasn’t for the constant itching Oscar could have almost forgotten that it was there.
Oscar took a deep breath and gritted his teeth. Fist held tight, he reached down to his leg and using the scourer, scrubbed his skin. He felt nothing but the pressure of the scourer and his flesh shifting back and forth as he scrubbed, first tentatively, and then harder when nothing seemed to change. The mottled layer moved up and down with his skin, but did not budge. He grunted and scrubbed harder still. No change. Sweating, Oscar swallowed then threw the scourer to the bathroom floor. Before he could talk himself out of it he grabbed the steel wool, the crunch of metal and static ominous in his fist, and again scrubbed against the fungus. With relief he saw white flakes and powder start to waft off him in small clouds, like puffs of sawdust coming off a bandsaw. Madly he kept scrubbing, running the thin metal teeth down from the top of his thigh all the way to his feet. He felt very little except on the edges of the fungus where he caught clean skin. Short red marks appeared around the infection, small scratches that pooled with blood. Once the entire surface had been raked with furious white lines he stopped, putting the steel wool to one side, now thick with congealed chunks of skin. He inhaled and exhaled then picked up the plastic container. He held it up to the light above him. It was far more yellow than he thought it would be. Almost gold. Oscar stood up, grimaced, then poured the liquid down the side of his leg.
As it touched skin it steamed, crackling against both the fungus and Oscar. Oscar yelped and bit down on his fist. His flesh sizzled and a sheet of mist rose and wrapped around him, excess liquid pooling around his feet and washing skin down the drain. Oscar’s hands shook as he continued to pour, but he did not stop until it was empty. As the last few drips fell down he dropped the drained bottle at his feet. He hauled himself out of the bath and sat on the edge, gripping it tightly in his fingers. If he let go he would pass out and fall back in, and into the remaining puddles of acid. He swayed for a minute, talking himself out of throwing up.
Acid and skin flew down the drain with ease, swirling and spinning yellow chunks dissolving into blackness. He ran the bath tap and splashed down the sides, making sure he got every inch, removing any trace of what was left over. Angry gouges cut in the shape of crescent moons lined his fingers where he had bitten down on his hand.
Quickly he got changed, then with the hood of his jumper lifted over his head he stole out into the night with the scourer, steel wool and empty bottle of acid, ducking down the side of their next door neighbour’s house and ditching all the items into their wheelie bin.
Before going back to the bedroom, he stood in the hall, light still coming from the open bathroom. Gingerly he rolled down his pants. His leg glared back at him, bright red. Twisting, burnt patterns curled down his thigh, reaching all the way down his ankle and across his feet. He turned his leg one way then the other. It was too soon to tell if it had worked, everything was still so raw. Exhausted, Oscar switched off the bathroom light and snuck back into the bedroom. Panic gripped him when he saw that Cara had rolled over, facing him. But her eyes were closed, her chest rising up and down steadily. Oscar opened up his computer and swallowed nausea. His head ached as he opened up his messages.
His friend had seen his reply. He had not responded.
Oscar shut the lid of his laptop. Standing in the immediate darkness his eyes didn’t have time to adjust to the sudden loss of light, and he felt as if some gigantic beast had just swallowed him whole.
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.