“Have you heard about this walking thing?” Mum called, knocking on the door. Brian Sloan looked up from between my legs with alarm.
“Shit,” I said. He shot up like a piston, sheets flying as he scrambled for his clothes. My hoodie was crammed up around my armpits, so I yanked it down and pulled my trackies up real quick. Brian looked at me helplessly, dressed only in a t-shirt and a sock. I pushed him down on the bed, chucked the blanket over him, straightened my hair and opened the door.
“Don’t ‘what’ me. Manners, Nita.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s better. This walking thing, have you heard of it?”
I shook my head.
“I’ve seen a few cases of it at the hospital tonight…” Her voice trailed as she walked off down the hallway towards the kitchen. I wondered why she always did that, started talking and then walked away, expecting me to follow her. Maybe because I always did. I poked my head back into my room. Brian peered out from under the covers.
“Wait there,” I hissed, and he nodded dumbly. I closed the door and went down the hallway after Mum, cursing her under my breath.
It had taken me ages to get Brian back here and a fair amount of effort on my part to get him to return that particular favour, not to mention a good chunk of the weed I’d been pinching from the lady whose kids I babysat a few days a week. I mean, Brian didn’t have too much to do with me at school, even if he sometimes gave me lifts home.
“Are you going to make your poor mother a cup of tea?” Mum asked, easing herself into a chair pulled up to the kitchen bench. “Go on, I’ve only got a forty-five minute break tonight.”
I sighed, slouched over to the kettle and set the things up for tea, making sure to bang all the cups around.
“Stop all that clattering, I’ve got a headache,” she said.
“So what’s this whole walking thing?” I asked, slopping boiling water all over the kitchen counter.
“No one knows what it’s all about.” she said. “But we had four of them in the ER and another came in as I was leaving. They can’t stop walking. We had to take them to the cafeteria so they could do laps around it.”
“What do you mean, they can’t stop walking? Who can’t stop walking?”
I put a mug in front of her and sat down with my own cup. I wanted desperately to be the kind of surly teen who chugged coffee, black, but I couldn’t stand the shit. English Breakfast tea with lots of milk and sugar from a chipped cup with parrots painted on it just didn’t have the same rebellious vibe. I made sure to balance my rebel points by doing other things – smoking ciggies out my window, punching bongs with the year twelve kids behind the school, fucking hipster jerks in my bedroom while Mum worked the six-til-six.
“Oh, Mr Jenkins from the post office, and Samantha, you know, Ned Parry’s missus? A few others. They just started walking and couldn’t stop. Most of them walked themselves right up to the ER and went in circles ’round the waiting room ’til we could get to them.” She rubbed her feet. “I took three medical histories while circling triage!”
She went to the sink and filled a basin with warm water, threw in a handful of Epsom salts as I slumped further into my chair and pulled my hood down over my forehead. She slipped the tub under her chair and sank her feet into the cloudy water with a sigh.
“Sam told me she was at the sink, peeling potatoes for dinner when she just up and took off. She had to circle back and grab her toddler on the way in. She still had a spud in her hand. A spud in one hand and a two-year-old in another. Wasn’t long before the bub started at it too.” Her face went slack and she closed her eyes. “That was just sad.”
She took my hand in her palm, pulled it to her lips and kissed it like she’d done since I was a kid. I let her, but pulled it away after a few seconds. She was always trying to do that, always trying to touch me. Well, when she wasn’t yelling at me for something. It was weird.
“Oh, that boy from your grade, what’s his name? Brian Stoat? With the ridiculous haircut? His brother came in around midnight.”
“Sloan.” I said, sitting right up. I sighed, “Brian Sloan.”
Mum rolled her eyes at me. “Yep, that’s the one. Nice young fellow, him.” I reckon she had an inkling that I was into him. In a small town, where everyone knew each other, it was really bloody hard to get away with anything without someone blabbing about it.
“Nah, he’s a jerk,” I said, but on the inside I said his name over and over.
Mum pointed to her cheek and I gave her a quick kiss, hoping she didn’t smell the sex on me, because, ew, gross. Then I went back up the hall to my room but when I opened the door Brian was already gone out the window.
A day later they closed the school and sent us all home. By this time half the town was plodding up and down the main street and no one knew why. Ken Nguyễn said he tried to put his Mum on their treadmill so she could do it at home where they could keep an eye on her, but she lasted two minutes before she started wailing and went right back out the door.
Dragging my heavy school-shoes over the hot asphalt, I fell into step with Mr Murza from four doors up.
“Oh, Anita, you have it too? Such a shame, you are so young,” he said shaking his head, his stubbled cheeks flapping. I didn’t like Mr Murza. He always called me Anita when my name is just plain Nita and his accent was weird. He limped as he walked. Usually he had a cane and I wondered where it was.
“No, Mr Murza, I don’t have it. I’m just walking home.”
“That is good then. My feet! I must move, Anita, I must. My wife tried tying me to the sofa, but I felt like I might tear myself apart! Can you bring me water?”
“I’ve got to get home…” I said, shifting my heavy bag from one shoulder to the other.
“Please Anita, I’m so parched.”
I huffed, jostled through my bag for my drink bottle and filled it from the eternally dripping tap by the Logan’s front gate.
“Bless you, Anita,” he said, spilling it down the front of his shirt as he drank. When he was done I filled it again and ran after him, thrust it into his hands. He smiled, sadly, and didn’t stop.
Our gate was open. The door too. I called for Mum through the hallway and got no answer. In the kitchen the kettle still steamed and all the things were set up for tea. I ran back up the driveway and out onto the street.
“Mum? Mum!” I peered up the road, then down. Was that her, up by Mrs Petersen’s place? Or was she the one quick-stepping past the corner store?
“Mum!?” I bellowed, then I felt a hand sweep across my shoulder.
“I can’t stop, Neets,” she said, stepping by me. I let out a sick little cry and burst out in a jog to catch her up. “I just can’t stop.”
The telly went out on the third day.
I waited for someone to come on and explain it, a scientist or the Prime Minister or even just that newsreader bird with the icy-blonde hair that Mum couldn’t stand, but no one did. No one said anything. That pissed me off.
The reception dropped out with a sudden jump to black. I went through all the channels, but the ‘no signal’ icon just flickered around the screen. I screamed at the television and threw the remote at the wall, where it came apart in a bunch of pieces. I stared at it until the lights went out and then I stared at it through the dark until I heard Mum outside, calling my name.
After that there was nothing to watch but the walkers walking.
Ms Evans died first. I think she had a heart thing or diabetes or something. The families clustered in little groups, or people walked with their friends, but Ms Evans was an old, mean spinster and she walked by herself. She worked up at the primary school and was a real steel-haired bitch. She’d give me the death-stare whenever I’d bring absentee notes into school, like she didn’t trust the signature even though I was just a kid back then and wouldn’t have even thought to forge Mum’s handwriting. Yeah, she was a nasty old toad, but I didn’t want to have to watch her die.
This was the third day and by this time everyone started beating the same path around town. Up the main road, down Bisley Street, once around the oval, up through the reserve near the river and then along the creek path ’til they came back to the main street again.
I was following Mum down Bisley Street when Ms Evans started acting funny. We were right behind her. First, she groaned, loud. She started to gasp, clutching at her jaw. Her Hush-Puppied feet stumbled, but she didn’t stop.
“Oh, oh,” she moaned. I came up beside her. “Help me, Nita,” she said, gripping the neck of my shirt and dragging me along. My feet tangled in hers. I tried to pull her hands off me, but they held fast, like claws, like vices.
“What do I do, Ms Evans? I don’t know what to do.”
She couldn’t tell me and there wasn’t time anyway. Her eyes rolled up into her head and her face went red, then purple. Her feet kept dragging her on until she died mid-step. Her face went grey and this sick gurgle came out of her mouth. She fell. It was the first time I’d seen someone die.
Mum came by and touched my shoulder real quick.
“You’ll have to move her off the footpath, Neets,” she called behind her. I watched her little blonde head bob away.
I sat with Ms Evans for a long time. Walking people went around us, looked down at her with dread. They knew.
Finally I dragged her off the path. It was harder than I thought; her heavy, dead weight shocked me. I found a sheet in the nearest house, I’m pretty sure it was Kylie Griggers place, and I remembered how she called me a whore that time in assembly and how it seemed much less important now. I wondered if she was okay.
The linen press was full of sheets and I took one, used it to make a shroud for Ms Evans. I wondered what her first name was. She looked small, all wrapped up. Not like the wide, terrifying woman I remembered. She was just a tiny lump wrapped in a queen-sized floral bed sheet and it took a long time before I could step away from her.
On the corner of Bisley Street and Acacia Avenue was Brian Sloan’s house. I was pretty sure his room was the window on the far left, and I stood and looked up at it for a while. I hadn’t seen him around. I was holding out hope that maybe he’d be okay and if he was maybe he would want to be my boyfriend for real now that I was, like, the only person around here who wasn’t walking themselves to pieces. I thought at least we could just go off somewhere and make out so I could get my mind off all this horror and the suffering and stuff, but when I knocked on the door no one answered. I sat down on the steps and looked over at the hump on the lawn across the road that had been Ms Evans and I cried because I wasn’t sure what else to do.
I’d heard rumours that there was a blockade on the road out of town so I rode my bike out there in the afternoon on the fourth day. I expected the army or the army reserves or at least some fat, lazy coppers eating chips and shooting the shit or something, but there was no one there, just a bunch of razor wire and a few barricades over the asphalt. There were empty soft drink bottles and ciggie butts all over the ground. I squinted off up the road, the blacktop carving a line through the dry scrub, then turned back to look into town. Same straight-line road, same dry bush, but there was a car coming towards me. Sunlight bounced off the windscreen. I didn’t move out of the way and the car, a silver Toyota Landcruiser, rolled to a stop in front of me. The window buzzed down. Cold, conditioned air poured out.
“Nita, what’re you doing out here?” Chris Yates and his brother Jack peered out of the front seats. In the back their wives, also a pair of sisters called Belinda and Melissa, sat with a bunch of kids on their laps. The kids were all crying and the boot was piled high with stuff.
“You don’t have it, Neets?” Chris asked, getting out of the four-wheel-drive. He looked shit-scared and real tired.
“Yeah, nah,” I said, watching him and Jack wrestle the barricades off the road. “Need a hand?”
“We’ve got it, darlin’,” said Jack, grunting with the weight. “You wanna come with us? Bel and Mel could probably shift some stuff around in the back to squeeze you in. I don’t know what’s going on, but everyone who’s still okay is fucking off out of here.”
I wanted to. I almost climbed in then and there. I saw myself squeeze in the back, sitting little Bailey Yates on my lap and wiping his snotty nose with the hem of his shirt. I wasn’t sure whose kid he was. I couldn’t even remember which Yates brother was married to which sister, but I thought maybe I could just leave with them and ask those kinds of questions later. I really considered it for a second and let my bike go slack in my hands, but then I thought of Mum. How could I leave her? How would she feed herself? Who’d take care of her? I couldn’t just leave and not say goodbye.
I shook my head.
“It’s okay,” I said, letting my bike roll back a bit, out the way. “My Mum, you know?”
“I get it. Good luck.” Chris put the window back up. I watched the Landy race down the road until it turned into a speck on the horizon.
I stayed out there for an hour, riding my bike in circles over the crackly bitumen and five more cars went past. Every one stopped and offered me a spot and every time I waved them on. I was hoping maybe Brian and his family might come past but then I kinda didn’t want them to either, because I knew if anyone could convince me to go, it would be Brain with his stupid fucking handsome face, and what would happen to Mum then?
Finally, when the sun started to go down, I pulled the barricade back across the road. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Mum was always at me to put things back the way I found them. I looked off down the highway one more time, then pedaled back into town.
After Ms Evans died I decided to set up a table in front of the bakery on the main street. I made some sandwiches and put out cups of water and muesli bars that I took from the supermarket in big armfuls. It was like a nourishment station at the world’s most fucked up and never-ending marathon. People seemed all grateful at first and everyone thanked me with mouths full of bread and jam as they went past. As the days dragged on, though, people stopped coming by. The Vegemite crackers crawled with flies and the water went warm in its clear plastic cups.
“Why won’t they take food?” I asked Mum, handing her a hydration pack filled with milky, sugary tea.
“They don’t want to do this any more.”
After that I spent more time wrapping bodies in sheets than making snacks.
My best friend Shelley’s family fled town pretty early on, but they obviously didn’t have room for her Auntie Cheryl. I was dragging her body out of the road when Doctor Rasali walked by me.
“Nita, may I have a word?” He asked in his smooth, deep Nepalese accent.
I dropped Auntie Cheryl’s big, fat leg, grateful for the excuse to not have to drag her bloated bloody corpse any further. Auntie Cheryl always hated me, and while I guess I was sad that she was dead and all, I wasn’t too sad, which kinda made me feel a bit like a bad person.
I ran to catch up to Dr Rasali. I liked him, he didn’t tell Mum when I came to get on birth control earlier in the year. Even on the trot he had an upright kinda dignity to him. At least he hadn’t stopped trying to do his business neatly, which was more than I could say for most of the poor fuckers on the march.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“Oh yeah, what about?” I tripped on the gutter alongside Sweeny’s Pharmacy and Doctor Rasali held out an arm for me. I took it, clung on and we strolled up the main street as the sun went down. When I was little I liked to pretend he was my dad (and Shelley, I’d pretend her dad was mine, or Neil Finn from Crowded House, I liked to imagine that he was married to my Mum and we’d have sing-alongs in the evenings after tea…) So, as we walked arm-in-arm like that, for a minute I got this hot, sweet feeling in my belly and he looked down at me, a kindly smile brewing under his thick, black mustache and I felt a bit like a kid for a second, like everything might actually be okay. He looked down and smiled at me, his big, black eyes sad.
“You have to burn the bodies,” he said.
I caught up to Ben Pembridge the next day, after I’d spent the night ignoring Doctor Rasali’s advice until the stink convinced me I couldn’t.
“Hey Ben, can I borrow your ute?” I asked and he just looked at me, baffled and stumbling. His face was red with burn and his filthy clothes half-disintegrated off his skinny shoulders. Ben’s truck had a tray on the back, but it was also an automatic, which I needed because I didn’t exactly know how to drive. I mean, Mum let me practice with her a few times but then she’d yelled at me for buggering up a hillstart and I got out of the car, slammed the door really hard and refused to take another lesson.
“Don’t you fucken touch that ute, Nita. We just had it resprayed.” Ben’s girlfriend Kirra still had a bunch of spark left in her. She trotted, tiny and determined, dragging Ben along behind her. Her feet bled steadily inside her Nikes and her socks were stained a reddish-brown with it, but her eyeliner was still perfect. “Besides, you aren’t on the insurance.”
I gaped at her.
“Do you even have your L’s?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she said. “Go on then. They keys are on a hook near the front door at our place. And put a tarp down. I don’t want you getting blood and shit all over the tray.”
I did put a tarp down like she said, because it was messy business. I’d wrapped up all the bodies in sheets and blankets but stuff leaked through the bottoms. The pet dogs and cats that folks had asked me to let out of their houses got into them too, ripping open my home-made shrouds like big, icky snack packs, even though I left food out for them.
The kids were easy, and some of the ladies too, but most of the blokes I couldn’t even lift off the ground, let alone onto the back of the ute. In the end I made this kinda sled-looking thing from some old particle board, used Ben’s drill to attach some skateboard trucks and wheels to the bottom and then chained it to the tow bar. I rolled the big bastards onto that and drove real slow out to the tip. Everyone looked at me dragging the wrapped bodies behind the car like I was some kind of monster, but what else was I supposed to do? I knew it was pretty fucked up, but I actually felt kinda proud of my creation. Shit, I’d never made anything useful before. All my assignments from Wood and Metalwork at school were disasters, but this one actually worked.
The smell got all over me. It was in my hair and my clothes and it got into my dreams that night when I snatched a few hours sleep. The next morning when I drove back out to the oval to wait for Mum, I saw that Ben Pembridge had gone down in the night. Kirra still stumbled along, though, dragging him by the arm. His head bounced over the foot-flattened grass on his floppy, dead neck. Her perfect eye-liner ran all over her face. I switched off the engine and sat back into Ben’s cool leather seats, waiting ’til Kirra was ready to let him go.
People kept eying me. I couldn’t blame them, I mean, I was the only person left who wasn’t dragging my sorry ass until I croaked it and they didn’t know why, but it’s not like I did either. Heaps of other people didn’t get it, but they’d all left, hadn’t they? When Sam Simmons hissed at me about being a lucky fuck as he went past, I told him so.
“Hey, fuck you, Simmo. I could have left too.” He kept going, of course, but he looked back at me with this weird gleam in his eye and spat on the pavement between his feet, so I picked up a peanut butter and banana sandwich from the table still laden with them and I chucked it at him.
“Don’t provoke him, love,” said Mrs Butler in a raspy voice as she limped past.
“Don’t provoke him? How ’bout he doesn’t provoke me?” I asked, but Mrs Butler was already stepping off the curb.
Emily Griggers dragged herself by. “He’s dying, you know. He’s angry. Have a little sympathy, Nita.”
“I do have sympathy! I’ve got sympathy coming out of my arse! No one’s got much sympathy for me, having to watch all of this!” She didn’t even look back at me.
I sank down, perching on the edge of the gutter and stuffed half a sandwich in my mouth. The peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth and I suddenly thought about all the bundles I’d shifted out by the tip today, the little kids who’d gone all stiff already, the old lady who’d had her face eaten by cats or dogs or rats or something, the dude who’d bloated up and split apart down the sides. I spat the soggy bread out and kinda heaved a bit with my knees up around my ears.
“Sick Nita? That’s a real fucken shame.”
When I looked up, Simmo was coming right towards me. It was weird to see someone going against the flow. I didn’t realise it, but up until this point I’d forgotten that people could walk in any way apart from the weird line they’d all fallen into. So to see someone coming towards me instead of walking away, it felt wrong.
Then again, everything about the way Simmo came at me was wrong. Behind him were Guy Peters, Petey, they called him and Dan Mcguinness, or Ginno. They were a bunch of real drop-kick losers. Simmo went to school with me but Petey and Ginno were in their early twenties and the kind of guys who still hung out with highschool kids because anyone older could see what fuck-ups they were.
The two older guys ripped me up off the gutter and pulled me along with them. My feet scrabbled over the ground and I clawed at them, nails dragging against their slick-sweat skin, bending and splitting on their stubbled faces. Simmo brought up the rear. I didn’t think he’d be able to give me much of a beating while dragging his sorry ass along, but didn’t he prove me wrong? The pulled me backward past the thin line of folks trudging through the dark night.
“Help me, fucking help me!” I called, but they all just peered at me through big, sad saucer eyes, and they kept on walking. When we went past Greg and Katy Watson they turned around and my heart leaped up, but they didn’t help. Katy picked up a handful of dirt and gravel from the side of the road, came right up beside me, and ground it into my face.
“Why you, Nita? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I didn’t have much to say to that. I didn’t think I was anybody.
“I stayed,” I said, like I was begging. “I stayed. I could have left.”
They had me by the hair now, and my scalp screamed as it took my full weight. Pain made things hazy. The asphalt scraped under my back and legs and the gravel tore up my clothes but it felt far away. I could see people looking down as they dragged me past, but they seemed far away too. Some of them looked like maybe they felt sorry for me, others looked like they thought I deserved every second. A guy kicked me as I went past. Someone else did too. I knew their faces but everything was going dark and I just couldn’t place them. I looked up at the stars and the dark spaces between them expanded and deepened. The sky tilted and the jeers and laughter went quiet. Things faded.
Am I dying? I thought. Am I going to die like this?
A great hunk of my hair tore free and they kept on without me. The stars came back. I knew I had to get away and I didn’t think I could but I found the stuff inside me somewhere, scrabbled up to my feet and ran and ran into the dark.
“Nita?” Mum said, glancing wildly from side to side. She was delirious or something. Everyone was, no one had slept in a long time. Sometimes they did this fucked-up kind of sleep-walking, and they’d veer off the path into the bushes. It would have been kinda funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“Mum? I’m right here,” I said. She ambled across the creek path, tripping over all the cracks. I tried to hug her but she smelled awful and of course, she couldn’t keep still. Her blisters were going septic and a weird shiny purple crept up her swollen legs.
“Oh, Nita, do you have it too?”
“No Mum, I don’t have it. I’m just walking with you.”
“What happened to your face, love?”
“Nothing Mum. Tripped over my own feet, you know what I’m like,” I said, but she’d already drifted off again.
“Make me a cuppa, Neets. Go on. It’s been such a long day on the ward. I hope you didn’t forget to wash up again. You always forget. It’s like you do it on purpose…”
“I didn’t forget, Mum.” I steered her back onto the path as she stumbled off the side.
I wanted her to go. I felt like some kind of monster, but with every step I thought, just die, just die. All those times I’d told her that I hated her, all those times I thought, but never said, die, just die, you fucking bitch. And now I was saying it again but it wasn’t the same.
“Can you make me up a foot-bath?” she said. “Half a cup of Epsom salts. My feet are so sore. It’s been a long, long day.”
She died then. Dropped mid-step and right into my arms. I wrapped her up in her own bedsheets – I’d had them ready for a few days. I sat with her for hours, whispered all the things I never felt like I could tell her while she was alive. Good things, bad things, even the really crazy stuff. Everything. I touched her face before I covered it. Told her that I loved her. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said it.
The competition for the last to die was a long and drawn-out battle between Doctor Rasali and Kirra. The doc held out so long because he took good care of himself and Kirra kept at it because she was an anorexic who didn’t just exist on a diet of excessive exercise and bronzer, she thrived on it.
The two of them kept up the long, painful circuit while everyone else flopped over like sacks of shit and I ran around, like a chicken with my head cut off, taking them out by the tip one by one.
“Hi, Doctor Rasali.”
“Hello Nita,” he said, trotting doggedly on. He murmured under his breath.
“Are you praying?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think prayer would do much good now. I’m talking myself through death, picturing my organs shutting down one-by-one. I’m hoping it might speed the process along.”
“How are you holding up, Nita?”
“I’m pretty shit, to be honest.”
“I think that’s an excellent summation of this situation. Pretty shit indeed.” He closed his eyes and I watched his lips turn purple.
I held his arm. “You okay, doc? You need me to do anything?”
“No, I think I might just walk over to the road near the tip.”
A strangle-sound came up out of my throat. I couldn’t help it. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“That’s very kind, but I think I’ll be better off on my own.” He slipped his hand into mine. It was cold already. “Burn the bodies soon, Nita. It’s not sanitary.”
“Does that even matter any more? Who’s gonna get sick? There’s no one left.”
“You’re still here.”
He walked off. Later I found him looking peaceful, finally. He was under a tree, right in amongst the other bodies. The doctor was such a kind old dude. Thoughtful. In his hand was a pack of matches.
“Soon,” I said, to no one.
“Stop fucken following me,” Kirra said. She picked up a stick mid-stride and chucked it at me. “I know you’re waiting for me to die.”
“I’m not,” I lied.
She laughed. “Liar.” Then the burn in her eyes dimmed a bit and she said, “Do ya ever wonder why it was you?”
The sound of our shoes crunching over the gravel echoed and then stopped as we stepped onto the hard-packed earth of the trail worn into the oval.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. I hadn’t really thought too deeply about it. I figured I’d have all the time in the world to go over it, afterward.
“Musta been shit, Nita. Watching everyone die.”
The stuff that kept her at it was running down. She breathed hard.
“So, I’m the last one, hey?”
“Yep. It’s just you and me.”
“Ha!” She bellowed and sparked again like a flame finding a little bit of fuel in a dying fire. “I told that fucken doctor I’d smash him. He wanted to put me in the hospital, ya know. Tried to make me see a headshrinker. Eat shit, Rasali!” Kirra veered off to the right, stepping up and out of the ditch foot-worn into the grass. “I showed him, didn’t I, Nita?”
“You sure did. Where you going?”
“I think I’ll head over to the dam at the Smiths place. See if I can keep walking on the bottom.”
“Oh. Want me to come with you?”
“Nah.” Her lank two-tone blonde-and-black hair shook with her head. Clumps of it fell out as she moved. She strode off, stick arms swinging at her side, bellowing a long ramble of victorious nonsense.
I fished her out later, batting her body in close to the edge of the dam with a leaf-catcher from the Smith’s pool. She was so light that I carried her easy, lay her on the tarp. Her wet hair fanned out in clumps around her face like a big, spiky corona. She looked really peaceful and, like, beautiful and stuff. I took her out by the tip and put her at the base of a giant redgum, atop big bundles of sticks and branches, like she was sitting on a throne. Kirra would have liked that.
My breath steamed inside the mask, hot and wet. The fuel can dripped its last drops and I pulled off my gloves and kicked them out of the way. The matches rattled in their box and I shook them in my hand for a while, focusing on the sound. I couldn’t get used to the silence.
“Bodies don’t burn easily,” Doctor Rasali had told me. “They’re full of water and other liquids and you’ll need to get a fire very hot to reduce a body to ashes.”
“Gross,” I’d said.
“Yes, quite. You will need to start a bushfire, Nita. Collect fuel, lots of it. Branches and kindling. Petrol and kerosine and methylated spirits. Gas bottles. Make bundles, put them everywhere. Start the fire a ways upwind so it has time to get hot and wild before it reaches them.”
I’d nodded. I’d seen what bushfires could do.
I took a match out and held it against the striker. Should I say something? I supposed it was a funeral, a big, awful memorial for the whole fucking town. Mum dealt with lots of dead people up at the hospital and she always said that funerals are for the living, not the dead, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say that might bring me some comfort.
Instead, I struck the match and flicked it on the ground. It caught the fuel and jumped alight, racing along the dry grass and up Kirra’s twiggy throne. The smell of burning Eucalyptus was sweet, but then the smell of something else seeped in, a really sick, rich smell. The flames twisted over Kirra’s face and for a minute it looked like she was laughing. I bet she was. She would have loved this.
The flames poured upwards and caught the leaves, spilled down and raced across the ground. There wasn’t much time. It had been a dry few years and the whole place was primed to burn. I scrambled away. I ran and ran until I got to the car and then I drove through the dark with tears and soot and snot pouring down my face.
I watched the fire from behind the tree line, sitting on the hood of Ben and Kirra’s ute with a bottle of rum and a pillow pressed up against the windshield. I watched the stars and the smoke and the red-orange glow spread across and eat the town, listening to the gunshot-rumble of the gas bottles exploding and I drank and I cried until I fell asleep.
I blinked against the light, held one hand up to block the bullshit sun. A lanky shape moved against the light.
“Brian?” My head spun. The smell of the burning trees and bodies still clung to my clothes, my hair. I felt hollow and gross. I slid off the front of the car, covered with dew and my head pounding. The empty rum bottle clattered on the ground.
“You don’t have it?” I asked. “The walking thing?”
“No. We went out to my Nan’s place when it all started. Mum and Dad and me are okay, but my brother’s going in circles round the garden.” He gestured across the road to his family car, still idling by the curb. “What the fuck happened here? What happened to your face? Your hair?” he asked.
“Ginno and Petey and Simmo dragged me round by it. But they’re dead now. Everyone’s dead. It’s just me. ”
“I tried to help but they just kept walking and then they all died.”
“What?” He asked again.
“They all died and then I lit the fire and I burned them all. Doctor Rasali told me to.”
“Shit, Nita. Shit!” He looked over at his parents’ car. Inside his Mum waved, hurrying him. “That’s heavy. How long have been alone here?”
“Not long. Kirra was the last, she went last night.”
“Kirra Chambers? That crazy bitch?” He blinked and shook his head. “I wouldn’t have thought she’d have it in her.”
“She did,” I said, staring hard. “She was so strong, you don’t even know.”
“So you, like… burned down the whole town?”
“Yeah, I had to get rid of the bodies, Brian. There were so many.”
“Is that what that smell is? Gross, Nita.” He took a step back from me.
“What about you?”
“Well, my grandparents place, it’s out on the edge of town. They’ve got a gennie, yeah? We’ve been trying to get word out but there’s just nothing, it’s so weird. Apart from that, I’ve just been hanging out, taking care of my brother. Playing X-box.”
“Yeah, I only took one game though. Borderlands 2. Finished it twice. I really should have bought more.”
“Um, wow. That must have been rough.” I took a step away from him, then another. The space between us got bigger.
“Hey, look. It has been pretty rough, yeah. My brother’s sick and stuff. And not everyone wants to be a martyr, you know…”
Brian stood there, his short-back-and-sides haircut perfectly gelled, like usual. He smelled clean, was fresh shaven. I remembered how much the smell of whatever shitty cologne he wore used to drive me so stupid crazy wild. But he smelled terrible to me then, maybe as bad as I smelled to him.
“When we saw the fire going through town, my parents just wanted to leave. We left John at Nan’s with some food and stuff. I’m glad you’re here! Come with us. We’re going to get help.”
He reached for my hand. His fingers felt like twigs. I imagined the fire catching on them, wondered what it would have been like to watch him go up in flames. A few weeks before I’d have gone to pieces for him. Even a few days. Maybe it would have been different if I didn’t have the stink of burning bodies on me, the ash from everyone I’d ever known in my hair. But I did. Brian just didn’t seem as important any more.
“My Mum will be super happy to see you, she’s always thought you were a top chick, you know, and…” He walked off as he talked, expecting me to follow. Why did people always do that? I didn’t go after him. I climbed up into Kirra and Ben’s ute, which I guessed was mine now, turned the key and gunned it for the straight-line road out of town. I didn’t even know how long he went on before he realised I wasn’t there.
Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and weirdo living in Melbourne, Australia. She grew up in a small town on the Central Coast of New South Wales and studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong. In 2014 she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, Washington. She has short stories forthcoming in the Hear Me Roar Anthology, and Mad Scientist Journal. Her debut novella, Welcome to Orphancorp, is shortlisted for Seizure Online’s Viva La Novella. She likes dreaming of the future, cats, and making an utter spectacle of herself.