OUT HERE WE ARE ALONE, BUT WE ARE NOT SCARED by Kylie Saunders
November 19, 2013 Short stories Tags: Australia
Out here, he thought, a man can be himself. To the west the sun was beginning to fold in on itself, an origami illusion whereby its roundness divided into thirds, refracted light from the cold earth compressing it as it fell, flattening, deforming. Still, there was an hour of daylight, and no one to see his hands shake or ask why it was he kept looking nervously down the hill toward the house and beyond to the town whose roofs were burnished copper in the late of the evening. He thought of gold and precious things and his thumb subconsciously curled under the two tall fingers of his left hand and pressured downward on the warm band that had ringed this finger for so long it had worried an indentation below the first knuckle.
He thought of the other indents she had had left behind. Yet it was better not to think and it was part of why he was up on the hill and not below. It seemed important and to be working. To act. He should, he suppose, have been with the boy. With her, if she had not boarded the train. Don’t think, he reminded himself. At least not about her and the gaps she had left behind. Here is important. Now. Your muscles, the heft of the axe. With each downward action he felt he should give up, leave the growing pile be, but still the axe fell, splitting the seasoned gum and leaving neat wedges. It would burn well, last them the winter, should they live. Should they live. In that way, his labour was the best thing a man could do. Should they not last, the woodpile would sit uselessly here, a pyre unburnt, a testament to one man’s labour for any that ventured from the road to the hill in search of bodies or a refuge, who knows, and it would not matter to him if he were not here to see them find it and wonder.
The first day was two weeks ago. The reports had come in via Radio National. It was not his way to scan the internet, and at first there was a War of the Worlds crackle to it, as if being read by an announcer playing a role. A ‘we bring to you today news that is, as we speak, threatening to tear to pieces the world as we know it’ narrative. He listened, but only because his youth still shining in him, despite the hands which, though young enough still, were mottled with sun spots from fencing and all the other jobs a man used to do. The radio still held its thrall; as a young boy he listened to science fiction on the radio, time machines and triffids and giant apes, and though already his life was mapped out for him in the country roads that circled the childhood farm (the one that he now looked down about, worrying about the boy), was transported to other realms and places. The lights of his father’s car returning late from the pub, therefore, became the beams of spaceships, the growl of the blue heeler the guttural non speech of a visitor from outer space. Although men grow up, the child in them still is caught, at times, in these stories, and it is this that finds them purchasing a comic book of zombies or aliens and places it gruffly on a son’s bed, giving them the longed for escape, until they too would be twisting wire and oiling engines and cutting wood on cold hillsides to do what they could to protect them from other monsters, the monsters that men had created with poisons and GMO foods and deforestation and all the bad things that came with the modern world and seemed worse, much worse, than aliens. So he listened.
Where had she died? For he presumed she had. It was worse to imagine that she knew they were coming, and had not run back to them, tied tightly by the cord that bound her to the boy, at least, if not him. By nightfall he was calling her mobile, over and over. But she had already gone. Where had she heard the news? Was it on the train, on a twitter feed? Or had she become part of the news, quickly, as the horde decimated the cities? There had not been a train since the second day. Someone had said the return train from Melbourne had derailed not far from the station. Even if she had walked, she would have been here by now. He thumbed the gold of his wedding band again, realised he was doing it, spat in the dust and picked up the axe. There was no use in this. He was alone, and he had been alone before, and he would be alone again. He was not scared of this. The mosquitoes would still bite. The moon would still rise. The stars held their position in the sky. He would not be scared; these things would always be, despite his coming and going. His function was to exist, and to die. He was no more of consequence than the termites that burrowed into the shed beams (he had nailed corrugated iron to the top to stop the rain, but the rain seeped in anyway, and the water had done the job that the insects had not yet managed), the magpies hit by cars, the rabbits plucked by kites. She had said he was wrong, that he was important, part of a divine plan, but what kind of divine plan involved her useless death? She was fodder for the unrelenting earth as much as he was, only she hadn’t seen it, and when her blood had spilled on the tracks as she ran from the train, her head connecting with the dirt, her eyes rolling into her head in pain and fear, wetness seeping into her leggings and cowboy boots that he loved (oh, how he’d loved), she would have been surprised.
Yet this was only one of the deaths he had imagined for her. There were many more. Oh, he had a whole inventory of them. Sometimes it wasn’t the horde, it was a car as she was running away, hitting her suddenly, and minutes later she rose again and ran in another direction, after those that were this time running from her. Once, he awoke with her scream in his head and only whilst eating eggs later did he remember the details of her passing and pushed the meal away in disgust, the jellied whites too close to the flesh he had seen ripped apart by tooth and bloodied hands. Was it a revenge play, in his head? Or just guilt, that he hadn’t gone looking for her?
He had called and called. The lines were still working. Twice daily he would get a call from his mate in Brisbane. It would last a minute.
You there, mate?
Yep. Still kicking.
You alone still?
The boy with you? She back yet?
But out here, there was nothing but him and the boy. It had become he and him so quickly that he had not had time to think, not like today, where he had dared to come to the hill and begin to do what needed to be done to survive the rest of the winter. His father, he had supposed, would have done the same thing. Do what needed to be done. It was that which drew him out, the old man. Do what you have to do for the boy, he’d heard his father say, from beyond the grave. He laughed at the irony of this. The dead were walking the earth, and he could hear his long gone Dad’s voice in his head, disembodied, living on within his thoughts, years after he had turned to grey bones, killed alone by a tree out bush whilst bringing in the cows.
Yet it was the safety in being alone, out here, that undid him. When it came, in the twilight, as these things do (he thought, quickly, in the liquid rush of thoughts accompanying adrenalin) he was surprised, for he was far enough from nowhere to truly feel alone. But the dead were with him, even out here. Her touch surprised him; even in all the dreams of her death the flesh was warm, still pulsing with her life. But she was cold, and she did not care for him any longer. The axe swung around and sliced, easily, the skull splintering like the shards of wood at his feet.
He did not have time to bury her. She would rot, out here, behind the woodpile, flesh kissed darkly to earth, to dust. Alone. He hoped the boy would not find her.
He was not frightened as he bolted the door. It was just the way it was, one death among many. He would die eventually, he supposed. He would spend a time thumping uselessly to get out. Perhaps the boy would find him, perhaps he wouldn’t. If he was left alone out here he would starve. Become bones. Become dust. Become dirt. The earth would keep turning.
He took off his ring, pressed the gold to his lips.
It was just the way it was.
Another cold morning.
The shed was large on the crest of the hill, the sky behind it cold and grey, hung with thin ribbons of cumulus that signified the cool weather above and were reflected in the shimmering water of the dam where blades of grass hung low and wet with dew. Icicles hung like blades from the corrugated panels that barely clung to the roof; his Dad had nailed them there years ago but the nails had rusted through and the rot had set into the wood that was meant to be protected by the iron. The piercing whistle of a kite cut through the sharp air and its descent as it dropped to pluck rats from the overgrown wheat was well overdue for harvest. With everyone gone and no-one left to harvest, perhaps this year it would decay in the paddocks. For now it clung desperately to the boys calves as he struggled through the wetness, leaving traceries of cuts which shone pinkly in the pale sun.
The approach to the hill was steep, angled in such a way that the shed appeared as if it would topple down upon him, shards of decaying timber and rusting iron burying me for good. He knew what awaited him there, as despite his father being reticent about the fortnight’s events, he remembered the alert had gone out across the town, the sirens sounding, the panicked packing of cars and the screeching of tires as the people fled probably into the very centre of the spreading disease they were trying to escape. Lock your doors, sounded the advice. Don’t let them in. They are coming, they said. And when they do, either hide or aim for the head.
He had waited, his chest heaving with fear, through the cold night as the embers died weakly in the fireplace and his father still had not returned. The second day he had gone looking for him, up on the hill where he was working on cutting down the sugargums that lined the west side of the property, stacking the wood inside the shed. From inside the shed he could hear thumps, sporadic, frenetic, animal. If he’d locked himself in before the bite spread its poison through, he wouldn’t be able to get out. The boy had been told being undead made you clumsy, unable to perform simple functions like unlocking padlocks.
Zombies were fast and deadly cold. In the horror comics he’d read as a child they had flesh hanging off them like ribbons, blue white eyes like lychees rancid in the sunlight, dirty fingernails. They did not care what they bit so long as they bit it and they would tear your entrails from your gut and leave them dangling in the dirt before you could scream for your mother. They wanted what they didn’t have, the warm blood pulsing in your veins, full of iron and life. When you were bitten you would turn fast and rise again and kill anyone you loved without a moment’s thought. A shot to the brain would save them from a life that living, they would have hated. His father, who had bought him the comics, had said, laughing, and not quite understanding that one day this might happen to him, shoot me if I end up a Z.
Just thinking of his father rotting and cold but still moving made his palms sweat and before he knew it he was running down that hill back for the house. Lock the doors, lock the doors, lock the doors. The words tripped over themselves as he slid on the muddied slope, his boots tearing at the grass and his arms flying out to steady myself, the magpies screeching and cawing in fright as he flew like a mad thing in fear away from the shed. The ground rose up to meet me, hard and cold and wet, and his teeth caught on his lip, drawing blood which tasted bitter and warm and reminded me of the life he had and his father, quite possibly, didn’t.
What would his father have done? The boy thought, crying, bleeding, stained with grass and dirt and the coldness of the lonely earth. He would have stormed the castle. He would have used the chainsaw. He would have lassoed and axed and ran and fought all the zombies in the world to get to him. And then he would have very bravely look at his cold dead eyes and told me he loved me and pulled the trigger. Because that was the man his father was. He knew what needed to be done. He could be that man too, though he was just a boy, and had not ever had to face to face with his worst nightmares before, let alone know the face of his fears may also be the face of his father. He was all alone. There was only him, and his old man.
He gripped the shotgun tighter as he ascended the hill. “I’m not scared” he whispered to himself, but his lungs began to tighten and the muscles in his arms were shaking. He held the gun up to his shoulder and aimed it at the shed. “I’m not scared of anything”.