Experiments in Human Survival
They’re on the curve of the dune. Slate yellow against deep, dark blue. Shoes off, socks flung down the crest, warmth oozing between their toes. It’s become about the little things again. Footprints — their own and another set — approaching their position and abruptly stopping. The other set go past them, stumbling, wandering into nothingness…
He tells her that he loves her for the first time, whatever that means.
It feels like the right thing to do and he knows that it’s going to be reciprocated; something for her to say in desperation.
Just because, just in case. And if she doesn’t say it back, it doesn’t matter. What else is there to do?
They can take that small moment of anger and embarrassment to where they’re going next.
Firecracker pops still ring out, echoing over empty lands, over a chafing orange horizon that they can only look at for seconds before the pain is too much. A fire is burning somewhere; they can’t see it but can smell the melting rubber blowing in on the breeze. Smoke and human. Impossible life shoots up through the sand, thick and green.
Mike thinks that they’re facing north. He’s done the math, but he was never good at this type of thing. He never needed to be. The compass no longer works; the needle swings on its own accord now, aimlessly, like it’s lost its tension. The report, the rumours that followed it, and the report confirming the rumours said that what they were looking for would be taking off from Danggali Park. About twenty-five clicks north from where he thinks that they’re currently perched.
It’s impossible to tell. How did they do this before?
There are glistening firefly lights somewhere down below, one large spotlight, and what looks to Mike like trucks coming in and out of a makeshift gateway.
This has to be it. Has to be. Otherwise they’ve come all this way for nothing.
Julie’s parents had moved away when she wasn’t looking, catching her in a low moment and disappearing. Who could blame them? They were just doing what everyone else was.
There was panic in the streets. Panic and resignation. Half of the world seemed to be going down with the ship while the other half were grabbing lifeboats, scrambling overboard, pushing each other out of the way.
The front door had hung open, the screen banging with every hush of the wind.
Nothing valuable seemed to be missing. You couldn’t sell any of it anyway. A half drunk cup of coffee sat on the kitchen table with small lily pads of mould beginning to form on the surface. The flies were dead too. They’d left the fridge open and a noxious gas was leaking out, the machine’s ticking electronics slowly winding down and dying.
Mike had put his arms on Julie’s shoulders, squeezed her tightly, and then gone to look for more food upstairs.
“There won’t be anything up there.”
“Let me check anyway.”
“You know best.”
They had met at a bus stop. The coach was supposed to come to drag the last of them away from their homes once Adelaide had finally fallen under the same spell of fire and chaos that had taken everything else. It never showed up; nothing had come over the horizon except for waves of anxiety that they had shared together and bonded over and sustained sweaty eye contact during.
Dusk loomed and decisions rang out in the burning summer air.
“Where are we going?”
“Where are you from?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’d still like to know.”
She had rolled her eyes; he had smiled to himself. Another earthquake ripped through town. Where next?
They decided. He decided, really; she acquiesced.
There had been a note left for Julie upstairs on the dresser. Mike had picked it up, studied it, drinking in the emotion and spitting it out again. They were fleeing, abandoning her. Cowards. He’d put the note in his pocket and ignored the two bodies lying on the bed, their hands still clasped together and stiff with rigor mortis. He told her that there was nobody up there; nothing out of the ordinary, at least. He had seen this all before.
They had left town immediately after that, with no real reason to look back.
There was another bomb that night, and they just missed it.
Before all this, Mike had had a job. Well, he earned money doing something; that was all he’d admit to down at the bar back when things were bad, but not so bad, and nothing anyone said meant anything. He’d planned on concealing all of that, his previous life, from Julie. He tells her at first that he was a plumber, and stays vague. Genius, he thinks. He has the build for it, so she believes him initially, and there’s no running water anywhere. How could he possibly get caught out? It’s an obsolete profession.
But eventually it happens: some army base deserted long ago, as everyone headed north, a pump with a broken…who knows what.
But aren’t you a plumber, Mike – shouldn’t you know how to fix this?
She didn’t speak to him for a day and a half, sticking with him but not to him, like a fly. Eventually, she had come back around, knowing that without him she’d be alone and probably dead before long.
That’s a lie too. He knows exactly which way her boyfriend went, the last part of her old life. He’d watched the whole separation go down from a distance as he made his plans: two pale white hands separated as an entire suburb looted themselves dry, a teary-eyed Prime Minister on TV giving up, admitting the worst. Dangerous, hopeless words finally broadcast into public air.
That was a month ago and in between then and today, as the clock was finally running out on the planet, their hopes dwindling, they’d been through a lot. A lifetime’s worth of running from immediate danger, bag-snatches, and huge, open-mouthed mushroom clouds rising over endless horizons that shrunk like drying puddles as the sun gave up. Experiments with tap water in three separate towns, told-you-so arguments, and violent, enforced make-ups. Gentle persuasions, big steps taken lightly like lace off shoulder blade.
An alarm sounds in the valley below. They watch as though they’re standing above a zoo enclosure. A shot of steam erupts from the side of something; people scream and shout in angry, masculine voices. The alarm is silenced and they stay silent for a while, breath held in as the lights go off then come back on, as if the entire painted landscape below is rebooting.
Julie turns to him with stars in her eyes. He can see her looking, but stays staring at the swaying rocket below.
The countdown starts.
He holds her hand.
She squeezes, says, “I don’t know if I can keep holding on.”
Steam shoots out again, blowing the sand away, as it topples on nearby trees. Something demonic rises in the sand and the 4, 3, 2 and 1 is silenced by a long, tearing noise like something primal being ripped from the ground.
Nothing is audible, nothing is visible; just white light and screaming insanity under the moon which edges closer and closer, ripping oceans aside and toppling societies.
The rocket lifts slowly from the ground and Julie tears her hand away from Mike, standing up with her hands to her head.
It seems to be struggling to rise, as though gravity is winning out – tilting to the right, its aim to the heavens off. Mike remembers the rumour, spread to him by someone in a dried up pub somewhere: they had run out of almost all the fuel and were making do with what they had. Maybe this is because of that. Or maybe it’s destined to fail like the moon was destined to approach. Maybe it’s all destiny and what’s happening is meant to be, and it’s meant to be happening right now.
The rocket climbs and climbs, delayed sheets of hot air gently pushing back everything and everyone left behind.
Mike and Julie watch as the rocket careens to the right, separates, and collapses in on itself in a star-shaped cloud of white and red.
They want to rise, to disappear, to flee. The explosion reigns. They lean into it and smell the burning sulphur. Julie is no longer aware that she’s crying and as workers flee to dodge the falling debris, she finally looks up through her hands, through the clouds, through the moon, to something else, and feels the tide lap against her ankles.
Bio: Hamish Duncan was born in Melbourne and lives in Marrickville. He is currently completing a Criminology & Criminal Justice degree at UNSW. He has previously written for Acidic Fiction, The Rumpus and Toppermost.