Waves crashed against sand, collapsing into white foam before retreating back into the ocean. Cara squinted at the sun, high in the sky, until Oscar’s shadow leaned across her.
“You’ll go blind.”
Cara reached up and pushed against Oscar’s forehead. Oscar kept a straight face as she gripped each of his cheeks in her hands and held them up in a mock smile before letting him go. Oscar pulled off his sunglasses and put them on Cara’s face upside down.
“There you go. Saved.”
“I do what I have to.”
Oscar leaned back on the bench, stretching his arms along its wooden back. A kid ran past on the beach in front of them, nude and laughing as his father ran desperately behind him with a towel. Light reflected off the water, a bright strip of silver wavering along the ocean. Oscar narrowed his eyes and reached back for his sunglasses. Cara swatted his hand away. Oscar hooked a finger around one of the arms of the glasses and Cara whipped around, biting the side of his palm. He yelped and yanked his hand away.
“You’re an animal.”
Cara winked at him and laid back along the bench, her legs stretched over Oscar’s knees. Oscar kept staring at the ocean, slowly adjusting to the brightness of the light. A car pulled up behind them, loud thumping bass bouncing from behind glass. A group of teenagers jumped out, laughing at each other and walking down to the beach.
“Surely they’re not old enough to drive.”
“I think you’re just getting too old.”
“We’re getting too old.”
“Speak for yourself.”
It was a busy day on the sand, and from the paved esplanade Oscar and Cara had the perfect view of all the families and friends fighting each other for the best spot. Towels were thrown down and thongs edged out, marking out boundaries that would be maintained if not by etiquette then by force. Two of the teens ran straight into the water, knocking shoulders as they raced each other across the waves. One shoved the other and laughed as their counterpart fell into the shallows.
Absentmindedly Oscar ran his fingers along a bronze plaque screwed into the centre of the bench. In heavy curved letters the plaque read ‘In memory Jim and Annie: 1904-1969, 1910-2012. Always here’. Oscar scratched at the border around the letters with a fingernail, trying to do some maths in his head, before giving up and seeing how long he could stare at the bright light bouncing off the sea.
Feeling a headache coming on, he turned away and looked down at Cara, who was holding her hands up to the sun. She opened and closed her fingers, casting shadows across her forehead and cheeks. The midday sun lit up her newly blonde hair, turning it a stunning white that was almost transparent in the light. A breeze floating past tousled the loose blonde strands, turning them with the wind. Oscar watched as they curled into each other then fell back down.
Cara dropped her hands and then frowned at Oscar.
“Why are you staring?”
“Just trying to figure something out.”
Cara lowered the sunglasses and narrowed her eyes. Oscar turned away.
“Figure out what?”
The light on the ocean wavered, rising up and down as waves swelled and broke. Oscar’s eyes had had enough time to adjust that he could stare at the reflection of the sun without it hurting any more. He turned back to Cara with a smile.
The father yelled with triumph as he wrapped the towel around his wriggling son, scooping him up into the air. The sound of the child’s giggles were drowned out by the floating conversation and laughter of the beachgoers. Behind it all was the sound of waves crashing against the sand over and over again.
Cara ducked and leapt forward onto the carpet as claws ripped through the air above her head. The neighbour snarled as she gouged thick lines into the wood of the cupboard door, exactly where Cara’s throat had been only moments before. Cara crawled forward down the hall before stumbling upward and turning around. The neighbour, from all fours, sprung from the ground and flew through the air with outstretched hands. Cara held up her arms, useless as the neighbour tackled her middle. The two fell backwards, further down the hall and through an open door into the study. All the wind was knocked out of Cara’s lungs as the neighbour’s full weight fell against her chest. Something tickled Cara’s nose and when she looked up she saw Brian’s tail had fallen against her face. Cara tried to scream but could only gasp. The cat’s eyes, locked on Cara, opened and closed independently of one another. It let out a soft miaow.
The neighbour sat up, a knee on each side of Cara’s ribs. The study was dark and the light from the hall silhouetted the neighbour, a taut and horrific shadow pinning Cara to the ground. The woman’s eyes flashed red in the gloom and she raised a hand into the air. Muscles bulged in her shoulder and light glinted from the tips of her fingers. Cara could see all her nails had been sharpened into thin needles, pointed and wicked. When a low growl vibrated through the neighbour’s stomach Cara felt it as if it was moving through her own body.
Cara thrashed under the woman’s weight, and with her free hand the neighbour grabbed Cara’s hair, pushing her head back against the floor with a crack and holding her still. A line of light from the hall fell across Cara’s neck as she whipped out her own hands, grabbing the neighbour’s wrist. With all her strength she tried to push the neighbour away. But the arm did not shift.
The neighbour exposed her teeth and opened her mouth to speak, though instead of words there came only a high pitched mewl. Cara closed her eyes, tears running down the sides of her cheeks. Silver winked from the tips of the neighbour’s claws as she raised her hand higher into the air.
Cara thought of blue skies. Clouds, warm and white, drifting lazily under bright sunshine.
Cara breathed out.
And a weight was lifted from her body.
Cara opened her eyes.
Brian, with his mouth wide, howled as Oscar hauled the neighbour off of Cara. Cara coughed, choking as she greedily sucked in air. The neighbour twisted in Oscar’s grip and he grunted, tripping and falling backwards onto the floor. He sat up quickly then pushed himself away as the neighbour turned around to face him. Sweat dripped down the side of her head, rolling down her neck and naked chest. Her entire body rose and fell as she breathed in and out, pulsing in unison with the bulging veins that riddled her arms and legs.
Oscar scrambled to his feet. Still dressed in only his underwear and t-shirt he raised up his fists. He never realised how skinny they were.
The neighbour ran forward and swiped at his hands, knocking them away, before smacking a fist into the side of his head and throwing him against the wall. Oscar slumped and fell to the ground blinking, his head aching immediately. He didn’t move as the neighbour stepped above him, and slashed her claws across his stomach with enough force that her fingers sunk into the wall beside them. Plaster spilt into the hall and Oscar screamed. Back on her feet, Cara screamed with him.
With a roar the neighbour tried to lift her hand back into the air, but it was stuck in the wall. Oscar laid still, his face pale as he held the front of his stomach. Cara ran down the hall, dropping her shoulder to shove the neighbour to one side before kneeling by Oscar’s side. She put her hands under his shoulders and lifted.
Oscar grabbed Cara’s hand and sat up, getting to his feet. The two ran out of the hall into the kitchen, Oscar holding his stomach as they sprinted out the back door and slammed it shut behind them. Letting go of Cara’s hand Oscar stumbled then stopped. Cara grabbed his shoulder.
“We have to get out of here.”
A frustrated bellow from inside pushed Cara forward, and she pulled Oscar with her. Oscar shrugged her off and she gripped his shirt just above his collarbone.
“Don’t fuck around.”
“Get out of here.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Across the front of Oscar’s t-shirt were four long tears, but underneath his belly was untouched. Nothing had happened. No blood. No wound. Instead just the fungus glinting and unchanged. Cara reached out, and ran her hand along the rips in his shirt. Oscar’s skin felt slick and rigid, bumpy under her fingers.
He looked up to Cara. “She can’t touch me.”
Cara swallowed, then gripped her hand in a fist.
“No, I’m staying here. I can hold her off while you get help.”
“Shut up. Just shut up.”
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I.”
“Jesus christ Cara there isn’t time for this. She’ll catch us if we run, you know that. Just get out of here.”
Oscar pushed Cara and she stumbled back. The blood had drained from her face and she felt like she might pass out. Oscar locked eyes with her.
The window beside them exploded outward, showering the two with glass as the neighbour jumped into the backyard with claws stretched forward. Oscar shoved Cara to the side, and held up his two fungus covered arms. The neighbour’s claws sparked as they raked along his skin, and the two fell to the floor, rolling across the slate of the back porch.
Cara turned and ran into the backyard, heading to the corner with the glass table. She heard yelling from behind her but told herself not to turn around. If she turned around she wouldn’t be able to leave. Using one of the plastic chairs she stepped up onto the table, which wobbled under her weight as she ran forward and jumped over the fence into the park next door. Hitting the ground with a grunt, Cara kept running. Tears were cool against her cheeks as she ran, fighting the fire that was burning in her throat. Upon reaching the edge of the park she came to a stop. The silence of the suburb around her was shocking as her brain raced, rolling around chaotic in her head as she tried desperately to understand what the fuck was going on.
Cara reached for her phone and her heart plummeted into the earth. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t fucking there. Cara screamed in frustration and thumped a fist into the side of her head. What was she going to do?
The sun set behind the roofs of houses nearby, orange and soft as it gave way to the night. Cara gulped.
“Fuck.” She said to no one, before running down the street, the thumping of her shoes against bitumen rocketing against her ears as she sprinted to Jack’s house.
Oscar’s body skidded along the driveway, and he gasped as his shoulder scraped along the cement. He came to a screeching halt when his head thunked against the front of the parked car, setting off the alarm. In the gloom of the evening the headlights of the car flashed, sirens wailing and echoing through the quiet of the neighbourhood. Oscar shook his head, coughing as he tried to stand up, before slipping and falling back to the ground. Out of a patch of thick shadow the neighbour stepped forward. The hair of the dead cat stitched to her head was standing on end, and it hissed, spitting out saliva and black blood between its broken teeth.
The neighbour crouched down to Oscar and he raised up his hand in defence. She knocked it to the side easily, and then lashed out, wrapping a hand around Oscar’s throat. As she stood back up she brought Oscar with her, holding him up in the air while his legs dangled underneath him. Oscar gasped, soft choking sounds coming from his mouth as he struggled in her grip. The flashing of the car headlights splashed their long spiky shadows along the driveway, elongated and twisting. The neighbour sneered at Oscar, bringing him in close to her face so they were almost touching noses. Oscar gripped her wrist, trying as hard as he could to lift himself higher or to pull away from her grip. But he was exhausted. His hands were limp and useless. His throat ached and he could feel a bright burning light starting to tear through his lungs. The neighbour grinned and lifting up her free hand, stretched out an index finger and placed the point of a claw against the soft skin underneath Oscar’s chin. The neighbour pushed upward, and a bead of red burst forth, pooling in her nail and dripping down her finger.
Taking her time, she pushed further, and Oscar’s eyes went wide, rolling back in his head. Blood rushed in his ears. Over the neighbour’s shoulder, against grey skies, he saw the black lines of electric wires waving in the wind.
Just as he began to lose consciousness the neighbour dropped him to the floor. Oscar groaned, nausea wracking his body. He gripped his throat and his hand came back red. The neighbour, now ignoring him, leaped onto the bonnet of the car and landed on all fours before skating onto the roof. She raised her haunches and Brian let out an almighty hiss. On the floor, his face laying against the cement, Oscar felt the ground shake. Heavy vibrations, running through the driveway, were loud, methodical, and coming closer. Hand held against his neck, he grabbed the front of the car and pushed himself up, stumbling woozily. He stepped backward and leaned his shoulder against the side of the house before peering down the street.
Streetlights flickered on in time with the ever approaching night, chasing a gigantic dark figure that was running towards Oscar and Cara’s house. Each step it took shook the entire neighbourhood, its monstrous form looming over the houses it ran by. Glistening black steel, gears and pistons pushed against each other, the heat of these machinations steaming in the cold night air. As it reached the driveway it turned, screeching against bitumen as it came to a stop. Oscar’s jaw hit the floor.
Standing tall, illuminated by the fluorescent lights flickering on behind it, was Jack’s ‘big project’. A colossal and sleek machine, bristling with armour.
A giant robot.
And nestled in its centre, arms and legs strapped in, was Cara.
Oscar fainted, falling back to the ground in a heap.
Cara pointed at the neighbour and the robot reacted to her command, the sound of metal grinding against metal ringing through the air as an enormous steel hand swung towards the woman crouched on the car.
Cara screamed from the suit. “Leave. Us. Alone.”
The neighbour paused, overwhelmed by the sudden growth of its enemy. Cara curled her hands into fists and moved her foot behind her, the robot turning and planting itself in an identical fighting stance. Hair clung to Cara’s forehead, sticky with sweat in the heat of the suit. She couldn’t remember if she had ever been in a fight before. The neighbour crouched down low, her spine arching into the air. She was still for a moment, her red eyes not leaving Cara’s. Cara held her breath and the neighbour hissed, leaping upward.
Cara swung a hand through the air, missing the neighbour completely as in one bound she landed on the robot’s wrist. Slivers of darkness appeared in the air, spinning around the neighbour’s body like circling birds, flocking together as she ran along the arm and moved towards Cara. Grunting, Cara swung her hand up to grab the neighbour, slapping at her elbow as if she was swatting a fly. The neighbour dodged out of the way and ran up to the robot’s shoulder. Cara’s belly rolled as the extra weight forced the robot to overbalance, tipping it backwards. Quickly she pushed a leg back to catch herself, just as the neighbour leaped forward and grabbed the edge of the cockpit, right in front of Cara. Cara grimaced as the neighbour crawled up, then with one hand gripping the robot, leaned back and lifted her arm into the air. With a triumphant cry she brought down a claw, aiming directly for Cara’s throat. Cara roared and pulled her fists inwards.
Metal fingers wrapped around the neighbour and yanked her into the air. The neighbour yelped, and then with a snarl tore at the robot’s grip. But it was too tight. As fast as she could, Cara brought down the other hand and reached for the neighbour’s head, pinching the robot’s fingers around Brian’s body and ripping it from the woman’s scalp.
The neighbour howled in pain as Cara removed the cat from her head, and then suddenly fell silent, slumping in Cara’s robotic hand. Surrounding shadows dissipated into the air. Lungs heaving, Cara stayed still for a moment, a woman in one hand and a dead cat dangling in the other. She thought she might throw up. Collapsed over the robot’s fist, the neighbour did not move. Blood trickled down the sides of her head in long lines, dripping from a gruesome crown of broken and torn skin.
Cara looked over to Oscar, leaning against the front of the house and rubbing the side of his head. She suddenly felt very tired.
In Cara’s hand the neighbour exhaled and began to shrink, her muscles and veins retreating back into her skin. Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she transformed, and when Cara opened up her fist she laid out across the robot’s palm without resistance, wrapping her arms around her shoulders and shivering. Cara, unsure of what to do, gently lowered the cat into the palm beside the defeated woman. After a moment the neighbour reached out and pulled the cat to her chest. Softly she stroked behind Brian’s ear.
When the robot turned it was with a loud whine and the sound of grinding machinery. Cara stepped into the neighbour’s front lawn and carefully she bent down and placed the woman on her front porch, her body limp as Cara lowered her to the ground. The neighbour pulled her knees up to her chest, head bleeding with the cat clutched to her body. Silent tears fell down her face.
Cara reached down with her robotic hand and placed it gently on the neighbour’s side. She leaned down and whispered.
The neighbour did not reply, instead pulling Brian closer and nuzzling her chin into the nape of his neck. Cara turned around and in two steps made it to the front lawn of their own home. She looked down at Oscar, who looked up weakly. He pointed to the robotic suit.
His hand dropped by his side. Cara pressed the buckle to the straps that crossed across her chest, and they disconnected before spooling into the sides of the cockpit. As Cara pulled straps from her wrists and legs, the robot knelt on the ground, lowering itself forward to allow Cara to step straight out onto the grass. As she disembarked the robot became still, kneeling with a hand outstretched towards the house. The sharpness of the night air ran over Cara’s arms, chilling the sweat on her skin. She looked down the street and saw people coming out of their houses, drawn out by the noise. Their car in the driveway was still whining, flashing headlights strobe like down the side of the house. Cara went inside and grabbed her keys, switching off the alarm.
She locked the front door to the house then knelt beside Oscar, hooking an arm under his shoulder and lifting him from the ground. Oscar leaned on Cara as he limped over to the car, opening the door then falling into the passenger seat. Keeping her head down, Cara moved to the driver’s side, ignoring the stares of the neighbours stepping out onto the sidewalk. A few strolled across to the front of the park, arms crossed as they stared in wonder at the metal behemoth kneeling on Oscar and Cara’s lawn.
A distorted guitar playing through the car speakers sounded distant and far away. As they rounded the corner away from their home Cara switched off the radio, and her and Oscar continued in silence. Their faces were dirty. Heavy bags hung under their eyes. The car roof had a bulge in its centre from where the neighbour had stood, and wind whistled through a crack in one of the rear passenger windows.
Eventually Oscar asked, “Where are we going?”
“Where do you think.”
Oscar clenched his jaw. His teeth clicked as he began to grind them.
Cara sighed. “We have to. We’re infected. And you’re bleeding.”
Oscar took his hand from his throat. The red smears down his neck were dry and sticky with fingerprints.
“I don’t want to go in. We don’t know what they’ll do to us.”
“You keep talking about the right thing. Well this is the right thing now. In fact it was the right thing weeks ago.”
Oscar thought of rocks flying through the air and the sound the garbage truck driver’s head made when it hit the ground. He swallowed and his throat ached.
“I can’t do it.”
Cara reached out and put her hand on his thigh, rubbing it gently. The car jolted as they moved up and over a speed bump.
“It’ll be okay, really. I’m going to be with you the whole time.”
“I don’t want to go away.”
“You have to. What you are doing right now is not okay, surely you understand that?”
Oscar turned to the window and looked down into the gutter. Cracks in the pavement rushed by in a blur and Cara pulled her hand away.
“I want to be there for you, but I can’t do that if you don’t let me.”
“Can we not talk about this right now?”
Cara gripped the steering wheel tight, turning to take the next corner. Anger ached in her belly and she felt cramps run up her side. The wind through the window whistled louder.
“We have to talk about this right now, because if we don’t talk about it we’re going to explode.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that you make me…” Cara sighed and took her foot off the accelerator. The car slowed down, gradually coming to a stop in the middle of the road. Quiet houses and trees surrounded them. Cara leant her head against the steering wheel.
“You make me feel so alone.”
Oscar stopped rubbing at his throat. He suddenly felt incredibly hollow, as if Cara had just scooped out his insides. He leaned his forehead against the glass of the window, and spotted a line of ants crawling through the gutter beside them. They moved over a dry and decaying leaf before disappearing down a storm drain.
“You make me feel so alone and it’s getting so hard,” Cara’s voice cracked. Frustrated she rattled the steering wheel in her grasp before inhaling and exhaling out of her nose.
“It is getting so hard to keep doing this. You need to take responsibility. You need to try and understand what you are doing. I want to help but I can’t do that for you.”
Cara turned to Oscar, who was still looking out the window. She shook her head then put her foot back on the accelerator. The car took off, rolling further out of the suburbs and wobbling over another speed bump. The wind in the suburbs had died down and the backseat had fallen silent. Oscar placed his hand on the window beside his head. The sensation of the cold glass was dull under his fingertips.
“We can do this. We really can.”
Oscar dropped his hand and leaned forward in his seat, looking up and out the windshield. Streetlights rolled above them, bright flashes of light followed by darkness. He exhaled and then turned to Cara. His arms stiff, Oscar placed his palm on Cara’s thigh. Cara gripped his hand in hers and squeezed it tightly. Oscar smiled a small quick smile, and pulled away.
Then he unbuckled his seatbelt.
“What are you doing?”
Oscar pulled the handle of the car door and jumped out of the moving vehicle. Cara watched stunned as he landed with a thunk before disappearing into the blurry bitumen rushing past. She slammed on the brakes and the tyres screeched, the car twisting as she fought with the steering wheel to bring it to a stop. She left it in drive as she stood up and out onto the road. Slowly the car rolled forward.
Down the darkness of the street she saw Oscar, running as fast as he could along the sidewalk. She was frozen as she watched him disappear around a corner and out of view. Cara stood alone on the road, the car coming to a final stop metres away. The streetlight from above cast deep shadows across her face. Her hands became fists and Cara wiped her face with the back of her wrist before jumping back into the car.
The tyres squeaked as she turned the car around and put her foot down. The roar of the engine ripped through her, the car flying back through the suburb and squealing around the corner to their street. Cara narrowly dodged the small crowds of people now gathered around both their house and their neighbour’s. Hitting the brakes she parked the car over the sidewalk and leapt out, running across the grass to the waiting robot.
With a grunt she pulled herself into the cockpit and strapped herself in. The machine buzzed as gears and pistons burst into life. A ring of white lights lit up Cara’s cheeks, her face grim and determined as she turned and ran back down the road, jumping from streetlight to streetlight in pursuit of Oscar.
As she disappeared the orange keyring in the car, buoyed by the sudden halt of the vehicle, twirled by itself alone. It turned one way, then the other, before going still.