The sun’s heat warmed Cara’s cheeks, diluted but still strong as it peeked through thick clouds. With one arm leaning against the brick wall next to the driveway, Cara pulled her ankle back behind her body, muscles stretching through her thigh. She silently counted down in her head and peered directly up at the sun, seeing how long she could stare it down before having to turn away. When it came out from behind a cloud she was forced to screw her eyes shut, pain shooting into the back of her head. Even behind the darkness of her eyelids she could still see the sun as a blinking blue hole burnt into her retinas. She let go of her ankle and pushed off of the brick wall, kicking out her legs before jogging down the driveway and onto the sidewalk away from the house. She had her headphones in her ears but nothing was playing through them. Cara preferred to instead focus on the steady beating of her feet against pavement, a deliberate staccato that she slowly synced with the rhythm of the world around her. She listened intently, searching for the sound of the suburbs. Birds squawking above. Someone speaking loudly in their backyard. A lawnmower from the next block over, and even further away, the hum of trucks and cars rumbling across the main road. There was less noise these days, but Cara still found it.
When she reached the end of the street she stopped, jogging up and down on the spot for a moment. Usually she would turn left, as dictated by her government mandated running app. Turning left would guarantee she would run the appropriate distance within the allocated time, and meet all the exercise goals of the day. She moved up and down, breathing in and out on the street corner. Shutting her eyes she saw the shape of the sun, no longer blue but orange with yellow and red streaks. Cara, opened her eyes, turned right and started running again.
Soon a familiar burning sensation lit in her chest. A fire born of lactic acid and sweat curled through her body, rubbing against her throat and filling her nostrils. Cara breathed in the outside air, letting it mix with the smoke in her lungs and cool her for a moment, before spitting it out into the sky. She had reached her rhythm, each step she took synchronous with the environment. She became a part of the streets, another sound amongst many that added to the cacophony of the suburbs. She separated herself from her body and emptied her mind as she joined the bigger world around her. She thought about nothing but cement and which side of the road had the most shade.
She continued down this new path, letting her impulses carry her forward. A tap on her wrist from her watch brought up a notification from the activity app, letting her know she was going the wrong way. She dismissed it.
Up ahead of her in the distance was a dark blur, kneeling on the pavement. Surrounding it were orange cones and a scattering of smaller objects. Cara moved closer and recognised the small objects as tools, and the larger blur as Jack.
As she approached Jack looked up from what he was doing, a hand held over his face to block it from the sun. He grinned then held his arms out wide.
Cara slowed her breathing in time with her slowing steps, sweat dripping from her brow. She took out her headphones and rested her arms on her hips, stretching back her shoulders to open up her lungs.
“It’s too hot for running.”
“It’s never too hot for running.”
Jack scoffed and turned forward, ducking his head over a small ditch dug out in front of him. Cara lifted her arms and twisted her back from side to side as he scratched at the edge of the hole with a trowel. The ditch stretched across the front of his driveway, drawing a rough line from the corner of Jack’s block to the front fence. Lying on the lawn under the orange tree were the two halves of the gate that had stood where the ditch was, dismantled and carefully placed to one side. Jack sat up, still on his knees, and clapped the dirt on his hands against the thigh of his pants.
“What are you doing out here in the sun anyway?”
“Building an electric gate.” Said Jack with a grin.
Cara frowned. “Are you sure you should be doing that?”
“I have to. I might not look it but I’m getting old and it’s getting too hard for these weary hands to open and close that gate every time I want to head out.”
“So to save on the effort you’re going to build a whole new gate?”
Jack waved the trowel at her. “Electric gate.”
“Isn’t that, counterproductive?”
The old man tilted his head to the side as if Cara had said something incredibly stupid, then turned back to the ditch. From beside him he pulled a length of metal, plastic teeth riddled through its middle. He placed it in the centre of the ditch where it fit perfectly.
“How so beautiful girl?”
“Well surely it’s more work.”
Jack chuckled, “This will actually be easier. All I’ll need to do is press a button and boom, open sesame.”
“No I get that. But the installation. On your knees. And the sun. In the outdoors.”
“Believe me, this is better. And I’m fine. This sort of work is second nature to me, like breathing, or sleeping. I’m a tinkerer and honestly I wouldn’t have been happy if I left the gate the way it was.”
Jack pointed down his driveway and Cara saw just before a shed was a blue tarp covering something angular. The shed itself was enormous, taller than the house beside it, and whatever Jack has hidden under the tarp stood even taller still. Jack smiled to himself then leant down to the ditch, squinting at the metal strip he had just placed.
“One day, if you’re lucky, I’ll show you my big project.”
Cara lifted and lowered her legs, the fire in her chest starting to fizzle out. Restless she put one of her headphones back in and turned around.
“Alright Jack, you take care.”
“Wait, hold on.”
Jack wrapped one of his gnarled hands around a nearby fence post, and straining, lifted himself from the ground. Cara held up her hands, then put them away, unsure if she should be helping. Jack let out a long pent up breath then limped stiffly into his front garden, Cara standing back awkwardly with her hands tucked under her elbows. Jack reached up into the orange tree, and from a low hanging branch grabbed one of the swollen fruit. He tucked it under his armpit then grabbed two more before shuffling back to Cara. Smiling he handed them to her. Worry flew through Cara’s mind.
“I can’t Jack, it’s policy.”
“Please, take them off my hands. I’ve got so many I don’t know what to do with them.”
“We really should be distancing.”
“You’ll be doing me a favour. Stop the birds from getting them.”
Cara rubbed sweat from her forehead using her forearm, sighed, then took the oranges from Jack’s grip.
“No thank you. I’m sick of the stupid things.”
Soft citrusy aromas floated up to Cara from her hands. Fresh and sweet, they filled her lungs. She smiled at Jack, said goodbye and walked back the way she came. Before turning around a corner she stole a glance over her shoulder and watched Jack breathe softly, still leaning against the fencepost. He reached under his cap and itched at his scalp before kneeling back down in the dirt.
A dozen faces lined the screen in front of Oscar, unfocused stares looking in different directions as the tutor spoke about something Oscar wasn’t paying attention to. He had spent the last half an hour either scrolling through his phone or people-watching the other virtual students who hadn’t figured out how to turn off their video yet. They picked their noses, laughed at things that the tutor definitely wasn’t saying, and generally wandered through their home. Oscar watched one woman in the corner who had spent the entire class making beef jerky from scratch. He only knew this because she had made the point of announcing it to everybody before getting started. The tutor didn’t know how to respond, so no one stopped her.
Oscar watched the tutor stop for a moment and let out a long sigh.
“Okay, so does anyone have any questions?”
No one responded. The tutor rubbed her eyes, waited, then looked down at her notes.
“Moving on then.”
There was the sound of papers shuffling followed by a moment of silence. And then the sound of someone crying came through Oscar’s laptop. Oscar frowned and scanned the different video feeds. It wasn’t coming from the tutor, and none of the other students had moved or seemed to be paying attention at all. The sound of tears and soft sobbing was coming from somewhere else, crackling through Oscar’s speakers and filling the room.
Suddenly his phone rang. He answered it immediately.
Cara was breathing heavy and her voice was rushed.
“Could you grab a box and some towels and drive down to second?”
“I’m still in class.”
“Yeah I know I’m sorry.”
Oscar looked at his screen. The tutor was frowning, her eyes scanning the class list.
The tutor began, “Is someone-?”
Then the mysterious individual began to wail.
Oscar said, “I’ll see you in a sec.” and hung up, already reaching under his desk for his shoes.
Before he left he heard someone scream from his laptop. His tutor’s cheeks had flushed red as they tapped at something frantically on their computer. No one else was reacting. Oscar swallowed then turned down the volume on his laptop, leaving it open as the tutor decided to resume class.
Dazed he grabbed a couple of beach towels from the linen cupboard in the hall, fished a cardboard box out of the recycling, and went out to the car. The sun was too bright, and still in track pants and a hoody he was not prepared for the sudden heat. He rolled up his sleeves, threw the box and towels into the backseat, and pulled out of the driveway hoping the aircon would cool down soon.
Hot air was still blasting in his face as he turned onto Second Avenue and saw Cara waving him down on the side of the road. He sighed as he got closer. On the sidewalk in front of Cara was a sulphur crested cockatoo, body bent at an unusual angle with one of its wings outstretched across the cement. Scattered beside it were three abandoned oranges, bright and out of place as they rolled into the gutter. Oscar pulled over next to the opposite kerb, his hands sweaty as he switched off the engine and stepped out the car. He stood with his arm on the open door.
Cara walked over, face shiny with sweat. “Probably a car. He hasn’t moved since I found him.”
The bird’s eyes were wide and black. As Cara opened the door to the backseat and grabbed the towels its head twitched toward her. A soft squawk came from the electrical wires above the sidewalk where four other cockatoos watched Cara cautiously as she walked back across the road. Oscar felt too hot out here, the fabric that hugged his body felt baggy and heavy, dragging on his body. He inhaled through clenched teeth while Cara, with towel held up between her outstretched arms, approached the bird on the ground. She turned back to Oscar and held up the other towel.
“You come in from behind.”
Oscar breathed out and marched over, grabbing the towel from her. They approached from each side, the bird twitching its head back and forth as it tried to watch them both at the same time. Black ants crawled across the white feathers of its body.
“It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.” Cara cooed softly.
Without warning she jumped forward, wrapping the blanket over the bird’s head and under its body, scooping it up into her arms. Oscar stumbled then threw his towel onto Cara, tucking it under the back of the bird. Elbows stiff to stop the bundle from moving, Cara walked over to the car. Really sweating now, Oscar got the door and pulled out the box, Cara lowering the bird inside as she continued to make calming cooing noises. She sat down in the backseat with the box beside her when the rest of the flock, still above in the wires, began to screech. Their cries sliced through the air, filled with anger and terror as they lost sight of the one they had been watching.
Oscar’s heart beat hard against his chest as he jumped in the driver’s seat, the cockatoos in the wires continuing to scream as he shut the car door. He started the engine and took off forward. The bird in the box upon hearing the muffled wail of those being left behind, screeched back, the cry deafening in the tiny space of the car. The towels and box did nothing to hide the sound, and Oscar gritted his teeth, knuckles white against the steering wheel as the bird shrieked. He could feel the sound in his chest, the fear roaring and cutting through his body. Rattling his bones. Cara yelled something from the back.
“Take a left!”
Oscar wrenched the steering wheel, forgetting to indicate as they took the corner. Cara gripped the box, trying to stop it from sliding and falling. The lid flopped open and the shrieking became louder still.
“It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.” Cara repeated the words over and over again, dizzy and nauseous as Oscar moved out of the suburbs and onto the main road. As they stretched down straight bitumen for a moment the bird fell silent. The quiet in the car rang with the echo of the screeching. Oscar thought he could hear someone crying and he shook his head, as if knocking away a fly. He looked back at Cara in the rear view mirror. Her forehead was creased with concern as she held her hands on top of the box. A creeping horror rose up in Oscar’s chest.
“Is it still…?”
“I think so.”
Oscar swallowed and said to himself, “It was covered in ants.”
The silence stretched for far too long. Traffic around them faded away as the only sound they could hear was each other breathing. Cara exhaled.
“Okay, next right.”
Tyres squeaked as they pulled through an intersection just as the lights went red. As they rounded the corner Oscar’s blood went cold.
Up ahead a curling row of orange cones cut off the left lane, guiding cars into a car park to one side of the road. In the car park was the bright twirling of silent red and blue klaxons. Oscar stared straight ahead and tried not to think about his leg. Cara craned her neck to look out the front window.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.”
They slowed with the rest of the traffic as they approached the Infection Control station. Uniformed cops stood in front of the entrance to the cones, glowing red batons picking from the cars rolling past and guiding them into the checkpoint.
Oscar felt Cara’s hand on his shoulder, “It’s going to be okay.”
“We shouldn’t be out here.”
“That’s fine we’re-”
Oscar shrugged off her grip. His head ached. He focused on keeping the car as far right on the road as he could as they got closer and closer to the line of police. There was a shifting in the box beside Cara and the bird began to scream again. Oscar could feel tears push behind his eyes. He fought to keep his foot from pressing the accelerator to the floor and tried to convince himself they were invisible. He was sure he was about to pass out.
Cara’s hand was on his shoulder. “We’re here.”
Oscar looked up. Coming up on their left was a veterinary surgery, a large painted sign above it proudly proclaiming ‘Big & Small’. The IC station was fading away in the rear view mirror. The adrenalin in Oscar’s body settled in his stomach as he slowed the car and turned into the car park. The car jerked as he ran into the concrete stopper at the front of the park with a jolt. Oscar did not move as Cara shuffled out of the backseat, box held tight to her chest and bird now softly whimpering inside. She stood up outside.
“Are you coming in?”
Oscar shook his head. Cara shifted the box in her grip and nodded.
“Okay. I won’t be long.”
She shut the door with her hip and walked quickly to the front of the surgery. Oscar scratched at his thigh, raking lines in his pants that appeared and disappeared then reappeared again.
The weight of the bird covered in towels rolled in her hands as Cara approached the front door. She felt pushed off centre, her body stiff from the interrupted run and head aching from the cockatoo’s screams. She stepped up to the door and pushed against it with her shoulder. It did not move. She pushed harder and then saw the receptionist waving at her from her desk. Cara shouted through the door.
“I’ve got an injured cocky.”
The receptionist leant forward and pressed a button on her desk. Cara stepped back when her voice crackled through an intercom beside the door.
“Is it yours?”
Cara shook her head. The receptionist frowned sympathetically.
“I’m sorry we’re not taking any wildlife at the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
The receptionist smiled at her, “Could you please repeat that?”
Cara shouted through the glass, her voice breaking, “What do you mean?”
The voice from the speaker was synthetic and alien. “I’m sorry. New rules.”
The bird squawked in Cara’s hands. She felt her lungs tighten and her mouth went dry.
“Well what are we supposed to do?”
The receptionist shrugged, then let go of the button to the intercom. She clasped her hands in front of her on the desk, her eyes wide and glazed over as she stared at Cara. The box was heavy in Cara’s hands but she didn’t want to put it down. She didn’t know what to do with it. Her fingers ached from the strain. She didn’t want to cry.
“Please.” Cara said.
The receptionist leant back down to the intercom.
“I’m sorry I really can’t hear you through the glass.”
Cara’s throat ached with defeat and she glared through the door. She tried to tell herself that it was not the receptionist’s fault but in that moment she was so easy to hate. Cara bent down and put the box on the ground. She knelt beside it and opened the lid, the bird’s dull black eyes looking up at her. The cockatoo’s crest was splayed outward, feathers ruffled. Its beak was open and she could see its thick grey tongue poking out as it panted.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered.
Cara stood back up and turned around, leaving the box on the ground. She didn’t look back as she walked to the car. When she opened the passenger door a loud voice yelled from the front of the surgery,
“You can’t just leave it here! I told you we’re not-“
Cara slammed the car door shut. She leaned her elbow against the window and rubbed her forehead. Cara reached out and put her hand on Oscar’s thigh. Muscles twisted uncomfortably under her touch and he pulled away from her. The car rumbled beneath them as they turned out and pulled away, leaving the receptionist shaking her head at the box at her feet.
They took the long way home, crossing through back streets to avoid the police checkpoint. Cara kept her eyes shut, the blur of houses and road going past making her feel sick. It was far quieter in the car, sounds from outside dulled by the windows. Cara focused on the smooth turning of the tyres against bitumen until interrupted by a clicking noise. Cara frowned.
Oscar stopping grinding his teeth. He ran a hand under his chin and up to his jaw, rubbing tenderly. The back of Cara’s head faced him. From this angle he couldn’t even tell if she was breathing. He put on his best smile and reached out, poking her under the armpit.
She knocked away his hand. “We can’t afford it.”
“Sure we can. Just tonight.”
“We said that last night.”
“I think we just need to relax. It’s been a big day already.”
“I’m really not hungry.”
Oscar smile faded. Air grew thick around them and he pushed the sleeves of his jumper up higher. When will the aircon kick in? Agitated he switched on the radio. A newsreader’s voice poured through the car.
“-as the number of infections continue to rise scientists are struggling to give any answers. Diagnosis is almost impossible as the list of peculiar side effects range dramatically between individuals, some even developing extraordinary pow-”
Cara switched it off.
“Hey I was listen-” Oscar stopped as Cara leaned her head against his shoulder.
“I just need quiet for a bit.”
“I get that it was just that-”
“Please. We’re almost home.”
Oscar pushed against the steering wheel then let himself fall back into the seat. He stretched his arm around the back of Cara’s head and let it rest against her ribs, stroking her softly. Cara looked past Oscar and out the driver’s side window. She tried to spot Jack’s home in the houses that rushed past but it was impossible. It was getting dark earlier and earlier these days and Cara saw, above the sea of roofs flowing past, stars beginning to emerge in the now cloudless sky. Oscar shifted his arm underneath her head as he used both hands to turn down their street, for a moment blocking Cara’s view. He slowed as they got closer to home, and leaned forward to peer out the passenger side window and get a look at the front garden.
“Grass is getting pretty long-”
He was cut off as the car lurched to the side, lifted as something crunched under the front wheel closest to the kerb. Panicked Oscar froze and kept rolling forward, a second bump shaking the car as the same something was run over by the back wheels. Cara suddenly felt trapped under his arm and yanked her head out from under him. Oscar slammed on the brakes and they came to a stop. Their breathing was heavy in the sudden quiet of the car and both become very aware of the stink of stale sweat wafting off of them. Cara was the first to unbuckle her seatbelt, throwing open the car door and standing up outside. She looked back beyond the red of the brake lights and clapped a hand to her mouth.
Oscar left the key in the ignition and stepped out of the car. He gasped and gripped his hair in his hands.
Laying at the edge of a brief bloody smear, was the twisted black body of the neighbour’s cat. Its head was facing Oscar and Cara but its body had been turned backward, legs and tail splayed out on the ground. It was flat. It was too flat.
Cara hid her face in her hands and dropped to the kerb, sitting on the edge of the gutter. Oscar gripped the door of the car, breathed quickly to himself, and looked from the car to the neighbour’s house across the road. Shutters were drawn across her front windows and there were no signs of life. He inhaled and exhaled then gritted his teeth. Sticking to the side of the car he shuffled up to the boot, flung it open and leaned inside. Cara, dazed, focused on the back of his neck as he stood up and moved over to the cat.
The body. Her cat.
Oscar bent down, holding his breath to stop himself from choking. He had to stare up at the sky as he used the handle for the tyre jack to separate the cat from the ground, and from the other side awkwardly shuffle the edge of a canvas bag under its body. Its fur bunched up as its bones folded, rolling into the bag in a dreadful heap. Oscar gasped through his mouth. The tyre jack handle clattered to the ground as he scooped the bag into the air. He held it out at arm’s length and ran across the lawn. Cara pushed herself off the ground and rushed after him.
“What are you doing?”
Oscar ran around the side of the house to the row of wheelie bins there.
“Oscar, what are you doing?”
Oscar looked between the green and blue bin before opening the blue lid and lowering the canvas bag inside. Cara grabbed his arm.
“You can’t do that.”
Oscar locked eyes with Cara, his eyes wide and white.
“We have to.”
“We have to tell her. She’ll be heartbroken.”
“We can’t tell her. She hates us.”
Oscar pulled his arm from Cara’s grip and dropped the bag at the bottom of the bin where it landed with a thunk. Cara’s face had gone pale and she stepped back. Oscar looked down at the crumpled bag at the bottom of the bin and swallowed before letting the lid fall shut. He turned to Cara and grabbed her shoulders.
“You know things will escalate. She’ll call our landlord, fuck she’ll probably call the cops. We can’t deal with this, not now.”
Cara shook her head. “But, it’s the right thing.”
Oscar dropped his head to his chest, before lifting it again. He made eye contact with Cara, holding her gaze.
“This is the right thing. For us.”
He let go and Cara wrapped her arms around her body as he ran back to the car. She wandered back to the front yard, unsure if this was a dream. Wasn’t she just on a run?
Oscar reversed the car along the kerb, covering the stains in the gutter. He switched off the engine, locked the car then walked back to Cara. He stood in front of her and she stared at her shoes.
Quietly she said. “We can’t do this. We’re supposed to care.”
“This is not about not caring. What’s done is done and now we need to make sure we don’t make things worse.”
“I am not comfortable with this.”
Oscar sighed and stepped closer to Cara, his feet between hers.
“This is what makes sense. Really.”
Cara gripped her elbows tighter to her body. Oscar put an arm around her shoulder but he felt stiff and distant. He kissed the side of her head.
“It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.”
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.