Crack. A twist of sinew. I can feel. Down. My whole. Arm. My shoulder bends and slides backwards behind me. My fingers twitch but I can’t see them. I only know this because I can see them. My neck bends and slides backwards behind me. Someone is crying and I can’t see them. Someone is screaming and I can see them. Noises coming from the wires above my head. The pavement is hot on my chest. A line of limbs and swollen black bodies crawl across my ribs. Ants that grow as they move closer to my head. They become gigantic and heavy on my spine. I can see their jaws. The noise from above disappears and someone says,
“This is the right thing.”
Oscar slammed the car door behind him and wrinkled his nose, greeted by the salty tang of ocean air. Lingering underneath was the mouldering stink of a nearby garbage dump. Cries of hungry seagulls rang from its direction.
Oscar opened the boot of the car then moved over to the front porch of his dad’s house. Sitting, waiting for him, was a lawnmower. His dad’s car wasn’t in the carport and while the big wooden door to the house was open, the fly screen was shut. Oscar assumed he was alone so when his dad yelled out a greeting from inside the house he jumped.
Oscar exhaled, his hand on his chest. “Hey dad.”
“How you doing?”
“You scared me.”
“Gotta keep you on your toes.”
Oscar’s dad appeared as a dark silhouette, made blurry by the haze of the fly screen. He stayed inside, a shape with a head, shoulders and bizarre limbs that floated down his side. An uneasy tingling rolled up Oscar’s side and he gritted his teeth, crossing his arms and gripping his elbows to stop himself from itching.
His dad’s voice was loud, shouting at Oscar even though he was only metres away.
“Just been speaking to your Nanna.”
“How is she?”
“She’s your Nanna. Still tried to go to church today.”
“Of course she did.”
“I keep telling her she needs to be taking care of herself and just get out of people’s way. Be a bit selfish for once you know?”
“Yeah I know.”
“You should call her.”
Oscar twitched and shoved his hands into his pockets, digging his nails into his palms. The featureless shadow in the doorway lifted and dropped his waving arms.
“Good. The same.”
“That’s good, good to hear.”
“Shit is crazy at the moment.”
The sound of the sea crashing against the shore floated down the drive from a few blocks away. Silence stretched and Oscar’s collar tightened. Suddenly his cheeks flushed as a spasm rocked his body. An itch. From his throat he felt a thick red wave overwhelm his body, hot and heavy and filled with chunks, it pushed against his skin and raised hairs from his neck downward. Oscar pushed his nails harder into his palm, breaking through skin. His muscles twitched and heaved as he shuffled over to the mower and started pushing it towards the car.
Trying to hide how hard it was to breathe, Oscar grimaced and turned back to his dad.
He forced out, “Nah no shifts at the moment.”
“Yeah of course.”
Oscar tried to distract himself from the roaring urge within his body, focusing on the cool metal of the mower handle held in his grip. Cool and blue. Cool and blue and far away. The sound of the ocean. The salt in the air. He would be okay. He would be okay.
“Hey are you okay?”
“Well it’s just, your shoulder.”
Oscar looked down and saw an alien hand scratching madly at his arm. It took a moment for him to realise it was his own, and horrified he shoved it back into his pocket. Sweat dripped from his temples.
“Alright dad I’ve got to-”
“Yeah it’s a crazy world,” His dad said, ignoring him. “Even work is running out of supplies. And it’s not like they don’t have the money, there’s just nothing available. I mean they’ve even got us bringing our own toilet paper from home. Can’t even take a shit without paying for it yourself these days.”
“Yeah that sucks. Anyway I have to-”
“And soap. Like we need that. That’s essential. I’m driving crowds of people back and forth from the mines, dozens of strangers everyday. That’s hundreds of contact points a week and we don’t even have soap. At the moment all the drivers are sharing one pair of gloves, but bullshit if that’s stopping anything. Hand sanitiser, that’s all we need. Otherwise you just don’t feel safe.”
The relentless itch was for a moment forgotten as a smouldering hole burned its way into Oscar’s mind, the same shameful size and shape as the two unopened bottles of hand sanitiser he had hidden at the back of the glovebox only metres away. Oscar bit his lip and tasted blood. He really had to go.
“Okay dad I really have to go.”
“Yeah of course of course. Drop everything back when you can, we don’t need it anytime soon.”
Oscar lifted the mower into the car and pushed it over the lowered backseats, shutting the boot as soon as it was inside and running over to the driver’s seat. Just as he was about to sit down his dad’s voice shouted.
“You know it was good to see you”
Oscar, delirious, forced out a smile before shutting his door and edging out of the driveway. As he turned out onto the road he could just make out the dark shape of his dad, wobbling behind the criss cross of the fly screen.
As soon as he was around the next corner and out of sight, Oscar pulled over to the side of the road with a screech. The mower rolled forward and thumped into the back of his seat. Leaving the gearstick in drive Oscar ripped up his shirt and with clawed hands, attacked his chest and belly. Sharp nails raked lines across his skin, replacing the insatiable burning red with bright blue relief. Oscar gasped as deranged he tore into his body, scratching and scratching. The car rolled forward as he took his foot off the brake in order to pull down his pants, pausing his assault for only a moment before continuing down his thighs and ankles. Scratching and scratching.
Sweat dripped down his cheeks and neck, pooling under his armpits and in the small of his back. Salty air curled through the car, cut by the distant decay of garbage.
“Shit.” Cara said to the empty kitchen.
Her finger was already red. She turned on the tap in the sink and stuck it under the cold water, using her foot to shut the oven door on what she now appreciated was a very hot cake tin. The burn stung dully under the cool of the tap. Cara counted backwards from ten in her head, then dried her hands on a tea towel before crouching before the oven door and squinting at the banana bread inside. Satisfied, and now armed with an oven mitt, Cara opened the oven back up and took out the cake tin.
Warm and sweet steam wafted and curled through the air as she cut the banana bread from the tin before flipping it over and letting the bread slide out onto a waiting cooling rack. Throwing the empty tin into the sink Cara went to disinfect herself for the second time that day. In the bathroom Cara had to knock the plastic container in the corner twice with the broomstick, before the spout above her gurgled and spat out disinfectant. As it rolled down her neck and over her shoulders Cara pinched the blooming burn on her finger. The sting rolled up the side of her hand then down her wrist, slowly dissipating as it sent messages bouncing through her nervous system.
After she sat on the edge of the bed, brushing back her hair. The teeth of the brush kept catching on dry and twisted knots, worn out by the harsh disinfectant. Cara struggled through, pulling hard on the brush as each clump got stuck and wincing as it yanked on her scalp. The bristles soon became thick with abandoned hair, thin brown strands wound tightly together in the brush. Cara picked at the hair, carefully separating it from the brush in one section that she then rolled between her palms. Soon she had nestled in her hand a squat round ball, a small fuzzy creature made up of material from her own body. It was bigger than normal and when Cara pulled back her hair to tie it in a loose bun, it felt thinner.
Cara boxed up the banana bread in a Tupperware container that she sprayed down with surface cleaner before bagging it up in two separate plastic bags. Container in hand she checked the back door was locked and left the house.
The sky was heavy and grey, overwhelmed with clouds that stretched from one horizon to the other. The grey seemed to reflect on the neighbourhood below, the usual vivid greens of trees and reds of roofs dulled by the monotonous expanse above them. Cara wished she had brought a jumper but didn’t want to turn around now. A fluttering feeling spun around her chest, filling her with a nervous energy.
The cast off halves of the gate laid prone across Jack’s front yard. Short wooden stakes pointed up at Cara from the ditch dug before the driveway, the makeshift work site abandoned. She shifted her grip on the bag in her hand.
Her words were too loud in the emptiness of the front yard, obnoxious, like they weren’t supposed to be there. Self-conscious she lowered her voice.
The greeting faded down the driveway with no reply. Cara sighed and stepped over the shallow ditch, into Jack’s front yard. A breeze blew past, rustling against the blue tarp covering Jack’s ‘big project’ in front of the shed. The crinkling of plastic was the only sound Cara could hear as the rest of the suburb around her became unnaturally quiet. The dull roar of distant cars and birdsong faded away, replaced with a creeping dread.
Cara moved deeper down the driveway and past heavy metal shutters, pulled down over the windows along the side of the house. Unease grew in her belly as she moved by the front door and towards the backyard. Jack’s ‘big project’ loomed over her as she walked past it and into a small grassed space, ringed by more fruit trees. Their branches were covered by the ghostly spiderweb of plastic netting, keeping the birds away from the fruit inside. Small piles of oranges, pears and peaches huddled at the base of the trees, riddled with defiant holes and teeth marks.
Windows facing the backyard were covered by more shutters, and a glass screen door that opened onto a verandah had curtains drawn across it. Cara leaned close to the door, her breath fogging the glass as she peered inside. She was greeted by darkness.
Pain stabbed behind her eye as a headache sprung from nowhere and Cara massaged her forehead until it went away. The wind blew harder and the blue tarp was lifted high enough that Cara caught a glimpse of pistons and black machinery. Curious she stepped over to the hulking object, reaching for the edge of the tarp and ducking her head underneath it. The…thing towered above her. For a moment she was overwhelmed by its size and then she slowly recognised shapes. Was it…but that didn’t make sense. Why did Jack need a-
A shout shot down the driveway and Cara twisted around, dropping the edge of the tarp. Two joggers ran past, laughing loudly as they crossed the sidewalk in front of Jack’s house. Cara exhaled and shook her head before moving back down the driveway. The banana bread began to feel heavy, and she shifted the bag from one sweaty hand to the other. As she approached the front door her heart thumped against her ribs, and before she stepped onto the threshold she closed her eyes and swallowed, forcing herself to calm down. Her heart did not listen and raced as she stepped up to the door. The door was made of wood, with stained glass inserts. Red and black and blue. Cara raised a hand to knock then froze.
Bright yellow silicone glared at her from the edges of the door. Thick glue that lined the gap between the door and the doorframe, sealing the entrance to Jack’s house shut. Involuntarily Cara’s chest seized and she dropped the banana bread to the floor.
Jack was infected.
Cara’s headache thumped and red fury coursed through her. She knew this would happen. He just couldn’t do it, wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t take care of himself. Over and over he deliberately put himself in harm’s way, breaking the rules that had been set out to protect people like him. Frustrated clouds of steam boiled in Cara’s mind and forced all other thoughts from her head. Hidden underneath it all was a sting of sorrow.
Jack was infected.
“What are you doing?”
Cara whipped around and gasped. Standing at the end of Jack’s driveway was Cara and Oscar’s neighbour. A tsunami of shock and guilt crashed through Cara’s head, rendering her speechless. She opened and closed her mouth as if her body had totally forgotten how it was supposed to behave.
In a voice quiet her neighbour asked, “Have you seen Brian?”
The neighbour’s face, usually so strict and so sour, drooped and hung in folds around her cheeks. Her eyes were soft and her skin sagged and Cara realised that she was upset.
Struggling to process what was happening Cara managed to stammer, “Who’s Brian?”
Her neighbour held up a limp sheaf of papers. Cara walked up the driveway then stopped dead. She was facing, in glorious black and white, a photograph of the neighbour’s cat. Rising above it were large accusing letters that spelt
Cara shook her head. The neighbour sagged further, her entire body bending in on itself. She began to shuffle away when Cara, before she could stop herself, said,
“I can help.”
The neighbour turned slowly back to her, narrowing her eyes.
“Let me help. I can help.”
Cara’s mind screamed at her. What was she doing? The neighbour peered at Cara, just as confused.
“Here,” Cara stepped up to the woman and held out her hands, “I’ll take half.”
The neighbour held the pages to her chest, as if reluctant to part with them. Cara kept her hands outstretched until eventually the neighbour separated some of the sheets from the stack and handed them over. Cara thought they felt heavier than they should.
“I’ve already covered most of the east side.”
Cara nodded. Wary, the neighbour squinted at Cara then grunted before turning and continuing down the sidewalk. Cara looked down at the posters in her hand and the eyes of the cat looked back up at her. Turning the stack over, she headed back down the street towards her house. The bag with the banana bread sat forgotten on Jack’s front porch.
A fireworks display of thoughts rocketed through Cara’s skull, bouncing off the walls and spitting out sparks. She felt dizzy and nauseous and could only stare at her feet, watching them as she took one step then another. There was too much happening. There was too much to understand. She needed time, just give her some time.
Crossing the road around the corner from her house, she stumbled on the edge of a gutter and almost dropped the posters. Adrenaline surged through her and white knuckled she gripped the stack of pages to her chest. This was important. This one task was her primary goal. In this moment this was all that mattered. She was helping. She was solving the problem.
Cara tried to thrust a missing poster inside the first letterbox she came across. The letterbox slot was too small and the page crumpled as she tried to push it in. Shoving the rest of the stack under her arm she used both of her hands to clumsily fold the poster in half. Her hands shook and unwanted tears quietly dripped down her cheeks, blurring her vision as she got the wrinkled poster to fit. She was helping. She was solving the-
Cara turned to find the two joggers from earlier, glaring at her from across the street.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Cara held up the stack of papers, “A cat, it-”
The first. “That is somebody’s home.”
The second. “What if you’re a carrier?”
“No I’m not I’m just-”
“You should be ashamed.”
“You are disgusting.”
Cara felt the words as if they were physical blows. She could feel pavement crack underneath her feet. The joggers shook their heads, one lifting a hand and pointing at Cara, who had started to fold forward. Their voices sounded faraway, underwater.
“…should call the police…”
Cara tried to say, “I’m helping.” but no one could hear her.
Her footing gave way as the earth opened up, darkness pooling at her feet and biting into her skin. Her mind separated from body and she watched from above as she dropped the stack of missing posters and ran and ran and ran.
Oscar grabbed the two bottles of hand sanitiser from the glovebox and put them in his pocket before stepping out of the car. The sun was low in the sky, hidden behind the house as he pulled out the mower from the boot and pushed it down the driveway. He rolled past the window to the lounge room and spotted Cara inside, laying on the couch. Oscar waved through the window and she waved back. As he tucked the mower under the verandah Cara opened the back door, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Oscar gave her a kiss and moved past her inside. From the cupboard he grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the sink while Cara shuffled back to the couch. Oscar came and sat beside her, leaning his head against the backrest.
“How was your dad?”
“Same. Asked about you.”
“What did you say?”
“The normal stuff.”
Cara laid down on her side, resting her head on the arm of the couch and putting her legs up on Oscar’s lap. Oscar placed his glass on the floor beside him and put a hand on her ankle.
“Why haven’t you got the lights on? It’s getting dark.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“You’re a bloody weirdo mate.”
Cara reached out to Oscar, rubbing her fingers down the side of his arm. The burn from earlier ached. Oscar pulled out his phone and began to scroll, the blue of his screen cutting a square of light against the wall behind them. Cara tucked her hands under her head and watched the last sunlight receding across the carpet. The shadows in the room tightened around her.
“Hey.” She said.
“I didn’t have a very good day.”
“Oh. That sucks.”
Cara breathed out slowly. Oscar put down his phone and squeezed her thigh.
“I think it’s all just getting to me. I feel…trapped.”
“I don’t know. It feels like I’m not in control of what’s happening.”
Oscar picked up his phone again. Blue shadows sprung up behind them.
“Yeah I know what you mean, all these restrictions-”
“No, not that, that’s not what I mean. It’s everything else.”
“Like the cat.”
Oscar let go of Cara’s leg and sat up, turning to her.
“I mean we agreed that was the right thing to do.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.”
“But it was.”
“But I didn’t get to decide that, you did. And I think it’s only going to be worse now.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Cara rolled onto her back and sat up against the armrest.
“I don’t know.”
“Because that’s done. It’s happened and now it’s done. You know we can’t change that.”
“We need to fix it.”
“We need to take responsibility.”
“Are you joking? We have no idea what she’ll do to us.”
“It’s not right.”
Oscar lifted Cara’s legs from his lap and stood up.
“You’re not making any sense.”
Oscar started walking out of the room and Cara sat up, swinging her legs out in front of her.
“Where are you going? You only just got here.”
“I just need some air.”
“Please. We don’t talk anymore.”
Oscar unclenched his fists. He sighed.
“I’ll be back.”
He walked out of the lounge room and through the kitchen. As the back door slammed shut Cara fell further and further from her surroundings. She turned over and faced the back of the couch, grey sunlight fading from the room.
Oscar scratched furiously at his thigh as he walked into the backyard, and towards the furthest corner of the lawn. There stood a glass table covered in dirt and rust, circled by broken plastic chairs and an old wine barrel adorned with dead plants and spiderwebs. Oscar tilted the barrel forward and carefully tucked the two bottles of hand sanitiser underneath it before dropping it back down. He rubbed his eyes, took the seat with the most legs left and looked out onto the park.
The park wound along the side of Oscar and Cara’s house, stretching from their street to the next block. From here Oscar could see to the far edge of the park, ringed by the white glow of streetlights. He tucked his hands into the warm pocket of his hoody and picked at the edge of the fungus. It would go away soon. It had to.
A shadow stepped into the park and stopped under a streetlight. With a shudder Oscar recognised their neighbour. Her head was bowed and shoulders slumped, with arms hanging loose by her side. In her hand she clutched a sheaf of paper. She seemed so small at this distance, and alone in the featureless darkness around her. Oscar felt a pang of sadness and shame and he shivered, shaking it away.
A breeze blew through the park and the neighbour let go of the pages in her hand, letting them fall through the air and be carried by the wind out into the blackness beyond the streetlight. The chill of the wind curled through the backyard and Oscar decided it was time to head back inside.
As he stood up the neighbour pulled something from the sleeve of her dress. It shone in the white streetlight, metallic and sharp. She held the object high above her head, pulling back her shoulders and straightening her back. As she did it seemed to Oscar that she grew taller, stretching upward into the night sky. The neighbour brought the object to her chest and held it between her hands as if saying a prayer. It was now Oscar realised he had frozen in place, half standing from his chair. His legs began to cramp but mesmerised he didn’t dare move.
The neighbour lifted the shining object with reverence. Glinting it moved past her throat, her cheeks, her forehead and stopped at her scalp. The wind died down. Rustling trees fell silent. Oscar held his breath.
Then bewildered he watched the neighbour cut into the front of her hair. With steady deliberate movements she sawed backwards, cutting and slicing the strands from her head. Chunks of locks fell away, giving way to the blade without resistance. Once again the wind picked up, howling through the park and buffeting Oscar. The neighbour’s hair didn’t have time to hit the ground as it was picked up and swept away by the elements.
Above the roar of the wind Oscar thought he could hear the desperate shriek of a dying cockatoo. Hair whipping around his cheeks became a line of ants, crawling along his throat and hiding in his periphery.
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.