Sand, coarse and grainy, floated between the Prime Minister’s toes. Internally, he squirmed and fought the urge to head back to shore. Externally, he grinned and opened his arms to the circle of blinking red lights and microphones.
“Look at this place,” he said. “This is what this country is about. The beach, the water, the sun, and most importantly, the reef.”
Cameras tilted down to the Prime Minister’s ankles, his pale skin stark against the rich blue of the water. Curling coral and drifting seaweed warped underneath the shallow waves.
“Prime Minister,” a reporter piped up from the back, “UNESCO has stated that the latest bleaching event is irreversible and potentially the final death knell for this eco-system. Shouldn’t we encourage the reef’s protection status rather than reject it?”
The Prime Minister gritted his teeth but kept his mouth stretched in a grin.
“The so-called experts at UNESCO claim the reef is in danger. Well I invite them to join me out here in the sunshine, so they can see just how well this place is thriving. I mean look at that colour!” The Prime Minister pointed behind him in the shallows. Pinks and greens blurred against each other in a twisted mess. With hands on hips, the Prime Minister sighed, “She’s beautiful.”
Another reporter’s hand went up. “Prime Minister, can you tell us what—”
A voice cut from behind the media pack. The interrupted reporter frowned at a woman in a dark wetsuit, her arms folded across her chest and her hair slicked back. The Prime Minister’s aide, Ashley, leapt from his dry spot on the shore and into the water, his clipboard held out in front of him like a shield.
“This is a closed media event,” he started as the woman pushed between the reporters, her eyes locked on the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister returned her stare with practiced contempt. But while he was used to these sorts of confrontations, when he looked into her eyes something felt off. Something twitched in the blacks of her pupils, and an unfamiliar squirming feeling rose in the Prime Minister’s stomach.
“She’s dying,” she repeated. “You can’t save her.”
The Prime Minister adjusted his smile. “There’s nothing to save. The reef is a jewel in the crown of our country, and it’s doing just fine.”
The woman stopped in front of the camera, her legs apart and her hands loose on either side of her. The press scrum centred on her, lenses glinting as they refocused.
“When a living thing approaches its end, it’ll do anything to survive.”
Even in the cool of the ocean, the Prime Minister felt a prickling of sweat on the back of his neck. Ashley waded through the water, muttering into the mouthpiece attached to his lapel. The sounds of his aide and the reporters faded away as the Prime Minister lost himself in the quicksand blacks of the woman’s eyes. Unseen, a shadow crawled through the water behind him.
“Everything is fine,” the Prime Minister mumbled, his mouth dry. He took another step back and the shadow lunged.
The Prime Minister watched the colour drain from Ashley’s face. The cameras reacted, training on the water at the Prime Minister’s feet. Plumes of red bubbled from below him and the woman in the wetsuit smiled a thin smile. How strange, he thought.
And then he felt the pain.
“You told me the area had been swept,” the Prime Minster growled.
On the other end of the line, Ashley stammered, “It was. Well it should have been. Brian was meant to—”
“Brian? Who the fuck is Brian?”
“The intern. He’s your cousin’s son.”
“Jesus. Where is he, I want to speak to him.”
Ashley swallowed before he said, “No one has seen him since this morning.”
The Prime Minster dragged on his cigarette, the orange tip glowing in the darkness of the verandah. As nicotine soothed his nerves, he scrolled through a tablet on the table in front of him. A headline screamed,
‘The Reef Bites Back!’
The video underneath showed him hopping out of the water, pointing and screaming as blood poured from his foot. A bright, hateful stick of orange coral stuck out from the top of it. Behind him the woman in the wetsuit walked calmly back to shore, ignoring the flocking crowd of security.
The Prime Minister slapped the tablet face down and took another drag.
“This is a disaster.”
“They’ll forget sir, they always do.”
“Not this close to the election.”
“I’ll book us in for a charity event tomorrow. Something new—”
The Prime Minster hung up and dropped his phone beside the tablet. He reached down to his ankle, itching the skin underneath the bandage. With a throb, dull pain crept up his side.
A disaster, he thought.
He limped over to the edge of the verandah, leaning against the railing. Waves rose and fell, crashing against the beachfront in front of his villa. Black curls followed by white foam, over and over again. Another election. Another set-back.
The smell reminded him of going swimming with his dad. Diving into surf that turned your fingers blue. Riding waves back to shore, and getting dumped if you didn’t hit them right. The risk was always worth it, because when you did catch a wave, it was pure joy. You and the world, totally in sync.
The Prime Minister had seen and ignored the reports. He knew this might be one of the last times he’d see the reef in this condition. If anything, UNESCO had underestimated the damage this newest disaster had wrought. Hopelessness, bright and sharp, pierced his throat. There wasn’t any coming back from it this time. Nothing was in sync anymore.
The Prime Minister flicked the cigarette into the sand. The orange glow went dark and the last of the grey smoke floated into the sky.
Moonlight cut sharply across the darkened hallway, silhouetting the Prime Minister as he limped towards the bedroom. When he got close, there was a soft splash and cold pushed through the bandage around his foot. He looked down to see he was standing in a puddle of murky water, silt washing over the top of his toes. A stinging edge added to his aches as salt poked at his wound, and he flinched backward. Light reflecting off the water revealed a trail leading to an open window at the end of the hall. The Prime Minister’s head felt heavy and cloudy, disturbed layers of silt swirling through his skull as he shuffled up to the window. He shut it with a smack.
“Fucking reporters,” he muttered to the empty house.
He reached for his phone and swore when he realised he left it outside. He limped back down the hall, pressing himself against the wall to avoid the puddle. As he slid past the open door of his bedroom a creak came from inside. The Prime Minister peered in and saw a figure with their back to him. Hunched over, their body was hidden in the darkness.
“Oi,” the Prime Minister said. The figure didn’t react.
“I’ve called security mate,” he lied. “Why don’t you take a seat before the federal police take you somewhere underground and concrete.”
Nothing. The figure was still. Dreadfully still. The normal movements of a human body were absent, like the rise and fall of shoulders measuring an inhale and exhale. The twist of muscles that anticipate a turn. This figure, this thing, was without life. As the Prime Minister’s eyes adjusted to the blackness of the room, the figure only became stranger. Its misshapen form was full of ridges and jutting spikes. For a moment, the Prime Minister though he could see a hole that worked right through its stomach.
The Prime Minister’s hands began to tremble.
“You have to leave,” he tried to shout, but his voice was quiet. Far away and dull as if he was speaking underwater. Terror flooded his chest as there was another creak, then the sound of stone rubbing against stone as the figure in the bedroom turned. Crooked. Broken. Moonlight revealed a colourful body hewn according to some hideous design. The Prime Minister felt the threat of a wave looming over his shoulder, beginning to break and swallow him whole when—
He looked down. Sticking from his chest was a shock of pink and green, colours wrapped around rock webbing and jagged pipes. A burst of red and bone sprayed over the monstrous figure now standing directly in front of him. He opened and closed his mouth, bubbles of blood dripping from his lips.
A gurgle came from the centre of the creature, followed by a rush of sea air. As the breeze blew down the hall, it carried the echo of a bubbling voice.
How strange, the Prime Minister thought.
And then he felt the pain.