Laying on his side Oscar watched the sunlight peek weakly through the slats of the venetian blinds. Beside him, facing the wall, Cara watched the waving lines of light from the same window wriggle against the bedroom cupboards. They both thought that the other one was asleep and both tried to stay quiet to keep from waking the other up. They breathed shallow breaths, but not too shallow. Deep enough to sound like they were still asleep. The light through the blinds stretched across the room, becoming stronger minute by minute while the inhabitants inside unknowingly lied to each other.
In the morning of half sleep, the noises around them became louder and more noticeable. Cara could hear the creak of the hills hoist outside as it spun in a breeze. She could hear a dog barking from a block away, and from a house a few doors down there was the sound of a car pulling out of a driveway. Cara wondered what noises others could hear from where they lay. Other people in other houses, what could they hear and pick up from the quiet of the suburbs? Could they hear them? Rolling on their mattress with the springs that still creaked. Were they listening every time she breathed or sighed or spoke? Could they hear her from next door, from two doors down, from a block away? The walls of their house began to fall away, made transparent and useless in this half morning where the senses ruled over everything. The security of shelter melted into the ground and Cara shivered under the warmth of the blanket.
The echo of a familiar sound rolled down their street; the beeping and groaning of the garbage truck. Oscar and Cara heard it as if it was reversing right up to their bedroom window. In a moment of synchronicity the same awful image came unwanted into their minds. Their bins on the edge of the gutter, and hidden inside, a dreadful manifestation tucked and broken in a canvas bag.
Cara’s alarm went off on the bedside table. She reached out and grabbed her phone, switching it off then putting it back down again. The sound of the ringing pulled the walls back up, and the sounds from outside disappeared.
“Are you awake?”
Oscar shut his eyes. He did not move and kept his eyes shut as he felt Cara get out of bed, the mattress tilting towards her then back to him as she stood up. He kept his eyes shut as she moved around the room, picking up her work uniform. He kept his eyes shut while she got changed and left the room. He kept his eyes shut for so long that even when he heard the car pull out of the driveway and leave down their street he didn’t want to open them. Oscar’s alarm rung half an hour later and he ignored it. It rung again. And again. And Oscar fell back asleep.
Cara had been making her way out of the suburb when she found herself stopping at the front of Jack’s house. Still in the car she wound down the passenger window and looked out across his front yard. Everything was the same as the other day. Abandoned gate on the grass. Driveway empty. Front door closed. Cara spotted on the porch the plastic bag with the forgotten banana bread inside. Still there and waiting. She pulled up the handbrake and jumped out the car, stepping over Jack’s ditch and half running half walking up to the front door. Mould had sprung up in little petal shaped explosions along the cake, fuzzy clouds clinging to the underside of the Tupperware. Cara turned the container over and the banana bread remained stuck to its base. She chucked it in the bag then turned to go back to the car when the yellow silicone around the door caught her eye. A careless blob oozed out the side just above the door knob. Cara frowned at it and leaned down, reaching out and picking at it with her fingers. The glue was hard but with persistence gave way under Cara’s nails. She lifted an edge and taking advantage of the gap, gripped the side of the blob and tore it off the door. Triumphant, she flicked it from her finger and it dropped to the tiles at her feet. Cara glared at it. Unassuming, deformed blob. Its shiny surface made it look cartoony, and ridiculous.
“You are disgusting.”
Cara shook her head, then looked around the edges of the door, running her fingers along it until catching another blob at the top of the door. Standing on the tips of her toes, Cara gripped the blob and tore it down, throwing it to the floor. Stepping back, Cara felt a tingling in her arm, a numb prickling sensation coming from her finger. She lifted up her hand and saw that the burn from the day before had turned into a blister, and she had just popped it. Clear liquid ran from broken dead skin. Cara checked the time and rubbed her finger against the edge of her shirt. She looked back to the door. Unassuming, deformed blob.
Cara threw the mouldy banana bread into the backseat of the car, and while walking to Jack’s shed she texted her boss and told her she wasn’t coming in today. The door to the shed was unlocked, and Cara ducked behind Jack’s ‘big project’ to get inside.
Skylights in the roof illuminated the concrete and steel space. Lining the two walls on either side were long wooden workbenches, tools scattered across them and hanging off the wall. Dangling from the ceiling against the back wall were thick metal chains, connected to a winch system at the end of one of the benches. The floor was spotted with oil and scorch marks. Cara moved to the closest bench, and after scanning the instruments at her disposal, picked up a flathead screwdriver and a mallet. Her phone buzzed and she ignored it.
The silicone tucked in the door frame was thicker, but came out with persistence. Cara found a white chair made of curling metal down the other side of the house, and balanced on it as she chipped away at the glue using the screwdriver as a makeshift chisel. The sound of the mallet against the plastic handle of the flathead was soothing. A methodical tapping that was made all the more satisfying by the curling of the silicone and the chunks of yellow falling to the floor. Cara’s phone buzzed again and she took it out of her pocket, then without looking at it threw it to the front lawn where it landed at the foot of the orange tree.
Maybe an hour had passed before she reached the base, kneeling down on the cool front porch tiles, and tap tapping away at the wretched glue. She was sure to be careful, keeping one eye shut to maintain her aim and avoid knocking into the wood on each side of the silicone. When she was done Cara sat back and looked up at her handiwork. The glue was all but gone, a slight yellow ring around the door barely the ghost of what was once there. Cara let herself smile.
“You are disgusting.”
The condemnation from the joggers rang through Cara’s mind and she grimaced. Her forearms complained as she stood back up then moved down the driveway to return the tools. Cara closed the door of the shed behind her then looked down the side of Jack’s house to her car.
“You are disgusting.”
A wave of anxiety followed by nausea crashed into Cara’s chest. She leaned forward and pressed her head into her palms, letting her eyes push against them. After a moment Cara dropped her hands, resting them against her knees. Stretched in front of her along the ground, was a trail of ants, tiny black bodies, snaking across the cement at her feet and waltzing deeper into Jack’s backyard. Cara followed their trail with her eyes, through the grass and to the base of the fruit trees, where a mound of rotten fruit stood. Cara frowned then ducked back inside the shed, coming back out armed with a dustpan and shovel.
As Cara was shaking the last of the sticky fruit into the compost she heard the same roar and screech of the garbage truck from around the corner. She dropped the dustpan to the ground and rubbed her hands against her knees before ducking around the side of the house. Nestled in a neat row were several wheelie bins. Cara grabbed the one with the blue lid and ran it across the front yard, weaving between the halves of the gate and pulling out of the driveway just as the truck rolled up to the house before Jack’s. Hands on her hips Cara waved to the driver as the metal arm of the truck reached out, gripped the bin and dumped its contents into its belly. Satisfied Cara took the bin back around the side of the house, then took a seat on the front porch.
Sweating she took off her jumper and put it beside her, then leaned back on her hands to look up through the branches of the orange tree. Big round fruit gleamed from the tree, yellow sunshine bouncing off their bright skin. Cara thought about picking up the gate, packing it away into the shed.
But no, she said to herself, Jack will be home soon.
It wasn’t a fact and she had no way of confirming it. It was just a feeling she had, a sort of sign she thought she could see. And when he came back, his house was ready and waiting for him. Cara folded her jumper in two and put it behind her head, laying back on the cool tiles of the porch. When she shut her eyes she could still see the oranges creaking on the ends of the branches, waving in a wind that carried their sweet scent down to her on the ground.
Blades of grass were spat out the side of the mower as Oscar pushed it along the last length of lawn. Oscar grunted under the heat of the sun. Off in the distance he could see the threat of dark rainclouds, but they were too far away to be helpful now. Their backyard wasn’t big and it usually wouldn’t take Oscar this long to mow the lawn. As he walked, puffing behind the mower, he had to do so with a limp, dragging his leg awkwardly behind him. By the time he had cut off the last corner he was exhausted.
Oscar fell back onto the nearby retaining wall, his leg sticking out straight in front of him. His left arm for a moment was frozen at the same angle that he had been holding the mower. He gripped it with his free hand and twisted it towards him where after a moment of resistance it loosened up and fell by his side. Oscar’s fingers were stained green and when he rubbed them against his pants the green did not come off.
In the bathroom Oscar struggled to strip down, sitting on the edge of the bath so he could lift his leg high enough to be able to pull his jeans off. From the lip of the sink he grabbed the steel wool, and without hesitation scraped it against the fungus on his leg. On his stomach. On his chest. His arms. His back. Tired with eyes red, he scratched and scraped. Nothing happened. The fungus, clear and slick, did not budge even as he scraped harder and harder. The muscles in Oscar’s shoulder screamed as he pushed down with as much force as he could muster, running the steel wool up and down his thigh. The fungus glistened, undisturbed.
Oscar sighed, and abandoned the steel wool. After a moment of thinking he stood up, and still nude, moved out to the kitchen. From the cupboard under the sick he pulled out a short cheese grater. Gritting his teeth he propped his leg up on a chair at the dining table, and after exhaling, ran the grater along his thigh. Tentatively at first, and then when he couldn’t feel anything he grabbed an end of the grater in each hand and shoved it harder back and forth. The grater scratched and tugged at his skin but when he pulled it away there was no change to the fungus. Oscar’s heart started to run and his jaw clicked as he ground the back of his teeth. Throwing the grater into the sink where it landed with a bang, Oscar tore open one of the kitchen drawers. Dozens of knives clattered against each other, dull in the wooden drawer. Breathing through closed teeth, Oscar pulled out a bread knife. Gripping his thigh in one hand, as if it was an animal trying to escape, Oscar ran the serrated edge of the knife down the side of his leg. The knife shook in his hand, vibrating as it scraped along the fungus. Tears welled in Oscar’s throat as the fungus gleamed at him. No change.
The knife fell from Oscar’s hand to the floor and he pulled out another one. And another. Sharp tips and silver edges glinted in the lights of the kitchen and bounced off his leg before gouging the linoleum at his feet as Oscar discarded them one by one. Defeated Oscar fell with them, collapsing on his knees amongst the knives. He held his hands out beside him. They were clawed and stiff and wouldn’t move. Sobs wracked his body and tears fell hot and heavy from his eyes. His back and shoulders shook as he tried desperately just to close his hands. Bend his fingers and make a fist. Failing, Oscar rolled onto his side, and alone on the floor in the kitchen he cried.
Later, back in the bathroom, Oscar pulled his jeans around his ankles and up to his waist. He exhaled, his body groaning from the exertion, then sat down and looked at himself in the mirror. Face red, stretched and puffy, but still his. He still looked like him. This was the face he had looked at his entire life. So why did he feel so different? Why had it become so hard?
A screech of tyres and an almighty crash of steel and glass rent the quiet of the bathroom in two. Oscar leapt to his feet, his heart and lungs racing. The sound came from the next street over, behind the house. Urgency ran through him and Oscar rushed out of the room, pulling on the first t-shirt he found and slipping on his sneakers, before ducking out the front door.
Jogging he took a hard turn into the park next door and towards the road a block over. He slowed down as he reached the edge of the park and saw that other people in the surrounding houses had also stepped out to see what was happening. Anxiety gripped Oscar. This was the most people he had seen in one place in a long time. He crossed his arms and wished he had brought a jumper or something with long sleeves. The thought disappeared when he saw the crash.
The garbage truck lay on its side, wheels still spinning. In a twisted mess in the gutter sat the windshield, a line of broken glass leading to the front of the truck which had been completely caved in. The back of the truck had been torn open and rubbish lay scattered across the road. The truck must have hit something pretty solid to make it not only stop dead but flip over as well, though there was nothing nearby to suggest what it could have been. No parked cars or stobie poles. The houses lining the side of the road barely even had fences. Oscar hung near the back of the gathered crowd, which had begun whispering amongst themselves. Those who lived together stuck close to each other, keeping their voices low as if worried their neighbours would hear what they were talking about. A person close to Oscar was on the phone to the police and Oscar shivered, turning around to head home when the driver’s door of the truck opened up, falling off its hinges and clattering to the bitumen below.
There was a loud coughing noise and the driver hauled themselves out, face covered in blood and blue overalls stained with black. A few people stepped forward as if to help, then stood back when their companions told them off. The driver struggled out of the cabin, groaning as he rolled over the edge of the door and lowered himself to the ground. His legs buckled as soon as they hit the road and he fell against the tyre of the truck. He stayed there, breathing heavily and facing the ground.
A woman stepped forward, and when her partner tried to pull her back she shrugged her off and moved up to the driver.
“Are you okay?”
The driver rolled over and the woman screamed. When he rolled over, his bottom half remained still, his spine turning a hundred and eighty degrees at his hips. The driver gasped and a hush fell over the area. Oscar’s throat went dry as he realised the blood on the driver’s face was not blood at all, but the drivers skin. It was sagging, drooping from his bones. From here Oscar could see the white of the driver’s eyes, wild and jutting above his swaying eyelid that had stretched and melted down to his chin.
The driver lifted himself up with his hands, then grunted as his legs twisted around, flopping forward to where they should be. Breathing heavily he sat up then pushed against the ground and stood upright. As he did, his right hand stayed planted on the road, his arm extending from his shoulder to the ground like someone had stretched out a lump of clay. The driver grabbed his drooping elbow and hauled his offending hand up to his hip. He swallowed and turned to the crowd around him, who were staring at him shocked.
He opened his mouth to speak, but could only gargle, half his bottom and top lip swinging grotesquely from his chin.
The woman who had gone to help him spoke first, “He’s got it.”
Her partner reached forward and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her by her side and stepping between her and the driver. A young boy closer to Oscar pointed at the man.
“He needs help.”
The man who had called the police put a hand on the back of the boy’s head, “Help’s coming.”
The driver gargled louder. His lips and the skin on his face was beginning to reel back in to his body, like elastic bouncing back to its original form. He stepped forward and held out his working hand.
He managing to make out a muted, “Please,” before one of his legs collapsed and he fell face first to the floor.
When the man lifted his face up his forehead was bulging, his skin having slipped forward. Bits of rock and broken glass stuck to his face, and his nose was bent flat against his cheek. He looked at the horrified faces around him as once more his skin began drawing itself back in. Struggling with his one working arm and leg he again hauled himself upright.
Sirens echoed in the distance and Oscar felt panic grip him. The same panic rocketed through the driver and wide eyed he looked at each of the people around him. Making a decision he turned away and began hopping towards the end of the road. The stretched elastic leg dragged along behind him and spit trailed out of his open and wobbling mouth, dripping down the front of his overalls as he tried to run away. Besides the approaching sirens everyone was quiet, the only other noise being the man’s heavy breathing. And then there was a soft whistle as something flew through the air.
The driver’s head jerked sideways as something smacked against his ear. He turned around and the crowd turned with him, facing towards a young man on the grass in front of his house, a second rock already in his hand. The driver turned forward and continued to hop along as fast as he could. There was cry as the young man threw the second rock, narrowly missing the escapee. And then another rock came from across the road. And another. Glass and sticks and whatever else the people in the street could find started bombarding the driver. Oscar saw the woman who had initially tried to help snarl, her face twisting with anger. People cried out, jeering and yelling as projectiles thunked into the man’s head and peppered his body. The driver kept running, trying to jump from side to side and swatting away the barrage, until he slipped to the side and crashed to the ground. Cheers rose up from Oscar’s neighbours and arms were thrown into the air in celebration. The man on the ground, for the third time tried to lift himself up, when a crack rang through the street. A well placed shot smacked into the back of his neck and the man dropped his head to the road, staying still as red and blue lights pulled around the corner.
Oscar stepped back into the park. He looked at the people of his suburb, their eyes red and teeth bared. Oscar took another step back before turning around and running back to the house.
He slammed the door behind him and ducked into the lounge room, closing the blinds and twisting them shut. Oscar checked that the back door was locked then shut every curtain in the house, and closed every blind. He pulled a chair from the dining room into the laundry and stood up to reach the cupboard above the washing machine, bringing down a heavy plastic toolbox.
Oscar struggled to lock the bathroom door, his fingers cramping and stiff. Without wasting time he took a pair of scissors from the toolbox and cut straight down both sides of his jeans. Leaving the fabric in a pile he sat in the cold porcelain of the bath, the toolbox open beside him.
He laid his head back against the rim of the bath and breathed in and out in and out with his eyes closed and his hands opening and closing in fists. The ceiling above him was white, dirt and dust clinging to the edges and cobwebs twisting in a wind Oscar couldn’t feel. Catching his reflection in the mirror on the wall Oscar felt nausea rise in his belly. He swallowed and pulled out a claw hammer from the toolbox. It felt heavy in his grip, his hand wrapped tight around the rubber handle. Next on the pile beside him was a short hacksaw, glinting in the lazy afternoon sunlight that drifted through the window.
The banana bread slid out of the container then landed with a splat at the bottom of the empty green waste bin. Cara tapped the Tupperware against the inside of the bin then shut the lid. The slap of plastic against plastic was loud and she frowned at the receptacle as it was offending her personally.
Inside Cara put the empty container in the sink, splashing a healthy amount of dishwashing liquid into it before blasting it with hot water. Suds bubbled forth and Cara held her hands under the warming water until it became too hot to bear. Drying her hands she moved deeper into the dark house. All the windows were shut, blocking out what light was left in the evening, and as Cara moved down the hallway she became blind in the darkness before a crack of light guided her out. The light came from the bathroom, creeping out under the closed door in long finger-like spikes.
Cara knocked. After a long pause she got a muffled.
“Just letting you know I’m home.”
Cara stepped from the door, then stepped back. “What are you doing?”
“That’s what it sounds like. Are you having a bath?”
“I was having a shower.”
“Well what are you doing now?”
“Nice. Let me see.”
Cara stretched her arms above her, and rolled her head against her shoulder, cracking her neck. She began to walk away when the bathroom door was unlocked. Stepping back, Cara opened the door with a creak. As she did Oscar sat back down in the bathtub, wearing a t-shirt and underwear and nothing else. The door swung open and Cara stared at the mess on the floor.
A claw hammer was propped up at an angle next to the bath, and beside it was what was left of a hacksaw, the blade in pieces with teeth broken away. A toolbox sat upside down under the sink, beside an array of screwdrivers, a wooden mallet with its handle split in two and scattered nails and screws. Cara sat on the edge of the tub and Oscar looked up at her with sunken eyes.
Cara picked up the scraps of Oscar’s jeans. “What happened here?”
Oscar grimaced, lifting his arms to shrug and gesture down his leg. Cara looked down his body, from his neck downwards. A thin layer, clear and distorted, swallowed his skin, covering his arms and his chest, his belly and his thighs. Cara exhaled and closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead.
Oscar’s voice was quiet. “I was trying to fix it.”
Cara looked up and frowned.
“Fix it? Why did you think this would fix it?”
“I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Don’t make this about me.”
“I wasn’t I was-”
“Are you okay?”
“I am, I really am. I’m fine.”
Cara looked at the tools on the floor. “This doesn’t look fine.”
Oscar sighed and laid his head against the side of the bath.
“At least it’s not itchy anymore.”
Cara stood up. The walls of the bathroom seemed too close and she felt like something was sitting on her chest. She put her hands on the towel rack and gripped it tightly in her fists.
“What does it…feel like?”
Oscar thought for a moment before answering.
Biting her lip Cara turned back to Oscar.
“We need to take you in. You need proper treatment.”
“No. I don’t need treatment, it’s going to get better.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“I am fine. You have to believe me.”
“I don’t, and we can’t handle this. We have to go to a doctor or something.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What does that mean?”
“I just. I just can’t do that.”
Cara folded her arms and stepped up to the bath. Oscar looked so cramped and small in the porcelain below her.
“We need to get you help. And we need to get you away from other people.”
Oscar sat up in the bath and gripped the sides of his head in his hands. He rubbed furiously at his cheeks and groaned. Cara sat down on the edge of the bath and reached out, grabbing his shoulders as Oscar began to shake. Warmth spread from her palms, pooling in Oscar’s collarbone and pushing tears into his throat. He opened and shut his mouth wordlessly, keeping his hands on his head while Cara rubbed his arm, whispering in his ear and telling him it was going to be okay.
After a while Oscar dropped his hands and leant his head against Cara’s thigh. Cara watched his chest slow.
“I mean you’ve been mostly inside anyway. Really we’re lucky that I’m the only one you’ve been in contact with-”
A horrible thought cut Cara off. Her heart fluttered.
“How long have you been infected?”
“A little while.”
“I mean didn’t you know? I wasn’t that good at hiding it.”
Cara’s mouth went dry and she stood up. The walls of the house squeezed her sides and cracked her ribs.
Cara looked down at her hands and whispered, “Jack.”
“What did you say?”
“Cara you’re not-”
“I said you’re disgusting!”
Oscar reeled back in the bath, throwing his hands up in front of his face. Cara’s cheeks flushed red with rage as she glared at Oscar, who shrunk under the fury of her immediate hatred.
There was a knock at the front door.
As Cara stared at him it was if the room was getting hotter, the air getting thicker. Panic pushed Oscar and he stood up. He opened and closed his mouth. He didn’t know what to say.
The person at the door kept knocking.
With balled fists Cara stormed out of the room. Tears streamed down Oscar’s cheeks. As they trickled down his chest he could not feel them.
Cara turned on the light in the hall while the person at the door continued to knock, rapid tinny knocks, like a drumroll against the edge of a snare.
“I’m coming.” Said Cara, rubbing tears from her eyes as she threw open the front door. She was greeted by a thick cloud of darkness.
“What the fu-”
An open palm sprung out of the cloud and knocked Cara in the chest, sending her flying backwards into the house and into the wall behind her. Skull smacked against brick and she fell onto the carpet. On her hands and knees Cara looked up as someone emerged out of the darkness.
Face carved in a deep frown. Eyes glowing red. Tall, thin and totally nude, Cara and Oscar’s neighbour stepped into their house.
She snarled at Cara and bared her teeth. Cara moaned in horror.
Stitched into the neighbour’s bald head was the body of Brian. Twisted with bones sticking out of its skin, and tied to the flesh of its owner. Cara couldn’t breathe as the cat’s head suddenly jerked upward and its mouth opened. The neighbour’s own mouth did the same, and in unison both the undead and the living hissed. Cara could see the pinks of their mouths and beyond that a horrible blackness that seemed to go forever.