'L90': [5] - Ridley Haig; October 11

 

It wasn’t until seven in the morning that we actually touched the cold, hard sand of Palm Beach. At once, my Father began spouting genocidal orders and, since our landing, we’ve been exterminating the surrounding undead population. Genocidal… It’s strange, I wouldn’t have thought of that word before today. It’s like they’re no longer fighting back, it’s so one-sided.
    When the infection first began gnawing chunks off the population ticker, we were under constant stress. Now, I guess fresh meat is difficult to find so their energy is dwindling. As I approached, their tactics seemed to involve ignoring my presence and hoping that I would follow suit. It wouldn’t be right to just leave them though, despite what I might be seeing. They are wild animals, they should be treated with the utmost caution. You wouldn’t pet a tiger just because it’s not actively seeking out your meat, right?
    Once the numbers fell, we tossed the remaining bodies into the water beneath the battered boardwalk, hoping to drown the scent of fetid flesh. That smell of loose tissue is sort of like fresh ground coffee to them; a warm, embracing perfume which wraps around and enthrals the undead population, drawing them to the wounded.
    Lana, Cameron, and Lisa pile themselves back into the boat to collect the supplies whilst my Father and I take up searching the wharf for valuables, or death traps. A burrow of sand makes the perfect disguise, so I scope out the rest of the beach with an eye out for useful bits and bobs that might help Lisa fix up the boat.

    The landscape of Palm Beach remains unchanged from what I remember as a kid; it’s just the wharf which ruins the picturesque vision I have of the place. It’s like, I stare off across the beach and see my happy, wasted arvos, I look at the corner shop and see myself, begging for an ice-cream, and I look at the wharf and just see this crumbling mass of waterlogged wood, sunken and swollen.
    Only three planks remain attached to the structure, the rest of it sits beneath like damp kindling piled in an anthill. Soon, it’s safe for the others to join and I let them know how the afternoon ahead should play out. This trek to Avalon is just the beginning of the nine hour walk we’re about to start, “the first leg is about an hour and a tad.”
    “How’s it looking?” asks Lisa, “I don’t hear any more groaning.”
    “I don’t wanna jinx anything but it’s not going to be safe. We’ll be passing a shit ton of resident areas where the Zeds will have gathered to hunt in packs.” I motion lips zipping as Cameron looks up at me, there’s a question on his tongue and he’s desperate to spit it out. “You can talk now, Cam…”
    “Did you ever live in Avalon?” I shake my head from side-to-side, “how do you know the way then?”
    His curiosity makes me happy, “I’m pretty good at guessing.” There’s such a natural curiosity behind those big round eyes. A childish glare accompanies each question, a tell-tale sign that Cameron hasn’t become dark, or sour. There’s no doubt that a world like this isn’t suitable for a child’s head, it must really take a toll on him, and he won’t even know it.

It also means he doesn’t understand the situation we’re all in, at least not entirely.

“The L90 route is the quickest, most direct way into Sydney from here, and it’s likely the easiest as long as we follow the road.” I take a quick second to explain that the L90 was once a bus route across the Northern Beaches to Cameron; from Palm Beach to the centre of Sydney, passing through Pittwater, to Waringah, and Mossman. “It was so long that bus drivers often had to switch halfway through it.”
    “That’s not exactly promising news, Ridley…”
    “Oh, I know that route!” Lisa explains, “it’s basically a straight line, we’re not going to get lost.”
    “Yeah, same here.” Lana adds, “but we’re sure our glorious leader will find the way.” Her eyes are dead set on my own, searing past the lies like they’re glad-wrapped to me. All I want to do is tell them that I don’t actually remember all of the route, because I don’t. Come on, I don’t know anybody who didn’t fall asleep on that bus ride.
    “What’s after Avalon?”
    “Newport, Cam.” I tell him, “but we’re not heading there right away.”
    “Why’s that? Is Avalon safe?” He asks, “I didn’t think anywhere was safe.”
    “It’s no-“ I stop myself, “it’s not-not safe. There’s just something we have to do whilst we’re there. Important stuff, okay?”
    “Important?”
    “Cameron.” I snap a little bit, but apologise right away. There’s a just a point where curiosity kills the cute. Patience, like most things out here, gets old and brittle, then it snaps. I try to explain in the warmest of tongues that my father and I have to ‘pay our respects’ but refuse to tell him the truth: we lost half of our family in Avalon.

I don’t want to be waiting around here, there’s no reason to not get moving but the eradication operation took much too long. At half eight, we decide to sit down and eat something. There’s no way for us to start a fire but the sun will be up soon, and then it’ll be too hot. The group sits atop the beach, staring out at the sun rise. Meanwhile, I have been handed the shopping duty.
    In the aforementioned corner shop, everything is branded by a single cola company but the name has been marker-penned out, even on the chairs. Nothing edible remains. The walls have been torn up, there’s nowhere to walk for all the scattered furniture. The place was ransacked way before we departed for The Basin but I still take a closer look, climbing over the counter.
    There’s no money in the drawers, no weapons beneath the till. In the backroom, the kitchen has been ravaged too. The knife block is empty, the pots and pans are gone, even the fridge has been moved from its original place. The last remaining object of interest is a spatula, which I pick up from the floor and move to a rack attached to the left-hand side of the fridge where it belongs.
    It swings left to right, hypnotising. I watch it for a second in a trance, as the utensil bops like a illusionist’s watch. The only thing to break me out of the spell is the unfamiliar sound of moving chairs, “there’s nothing in here, we might as well get a move on.” I tell the voiceless noise-maker. A mistake, I realise… My first thought was Lisa, an occasional prankster who might’ve entered the shop in silence to freak me out but there’s a time and a place and a pattern to all of her tricks.
    The breath I feel on my neck is cold and the grumbling sound of an empty stomach is funnelled into my ears. I am weaponless but I bide my time, readying myself for a counterattack. In an awful rush,  I grab the spatula and swing. The hard steel passes through the air as my assailant falls to the floor: in laughter.
    “Jesus Christ, Lisa,” I sigh. My heart beats a mile a minute and sweat trickles down the nape of my neck, “I could’ve killed you.”
    “With a spatula?” she asks, “I don’t doubt it.”

With a hand to my heart, I follow the trickster back to the group with my hands empty and somewhat ashamed. “What’s the matter with you two?” asks Lana.
    “Zombie attack!” Lisa replies, an enormous grin stretches from cheek to cheek. This smile encompasses her face and she becomes pug-featured and adorable, “a beautiful, youthful zombie.”
    “She spooked me.”
    “You should try keep your wits about you,” says Lana with a straight face masking a grin we all know is there. “Was there really nothing in the shop?” I nod, “did you really look though?”
    “Yes,” I say, “I looked everywhere.”
    “You didn’t look like you were looking too hard where I saw you,” Lisa adds. It’s unnecessary, I know I looked hard and if that’s not enough, she can go look herself.
    “I bet you just glazed right over,” she states before leaving us, heading straight for the shop to prove me wrong.
    I wait a moment, “she’s going to find something, isn’t she?”
    “Absolutely.”
    This same thing happened to me last time we were here; that very shop is where we picked up the flare. I took a look around and there was nothing of use but give Lana five minutes in an empty warehouse and she’ll find you a forklift. Within five minutes, she skips back to us with similarly empty hands. I’ve never breathed such a heavy sigh of relief, “nothing at all?” I ask with Lisa’s smile on my face.
    “Oh, nothing at all.”
    Ah shit, I know what’s coming, I should’ve seen it a mile off. “Just this book, among other things,” she draws it from the back-pocket holster and tosses it at me. It’s a book on Australian weed foraging, stamped by a local library. “Did you even open the door to the office this time?”
    “Of course I did.”
    “No chance. If you did you would’ve seen that people were living in there until recently.”
    “Really!?” Lisa’s interest is piqued, “anything interesting?”
    “No, there’s a couple of other books but I found this key for you, Lisa. Don’t sniff that book, I found it in the hands of a dead guy.”
    “I guess that must be why they left.”
    “No doubt.”

We sit on that beach for an hour without food before my Father speaks. All he’d done in that time was watch the right side of the road as if the L90 was about to shoot around the corner and take us back to the city. He was mesmerised by that path, checking it every five minutes without missing a mark. I’ve been waiting for his word, he’s the glorious leader after all and I don’t want to piss him off further by stealing the limelight.
    To our amazement, he’s not bothered. In fact, he chooses an entirely different option: deciding to spend the night in Palm Beach. The group has no arguments, maybe because they’ve enjoyed their day on the beach. I, on the other hand, am a little uncomfortable. There’s only one reason why my Father would opt against furthering our journey and that’s because grave-laden Avalon stands between us and Sydney.
    As the night draws in and dawn creeps nearer, I find myself unable to sleep on the sand. These past four years have made my spinal cord despise me and, without a pillow behind my neck, I can’t seem to shut my eyes. My anxieties keep them open, a decent night of sleep is an inaccessible day dream to me. Dad is the same; plagued by night terrors but, unlike myself, there’s no pillow in the world that can cure his ailments.
    I stand and search for my Father in the midnight glow. He’s sitting by the corner shop alone in a pool of broken glass. Every individual shard has caught a slice of lunar light, surrounding his crossed legs. I think he really does expect the bus to surprise him. The L90 will pop out from behind that forested area, a smiling driver in the front seat, ready to pick him up and deliver him to Railway Square for the price of a small coffee, where he can go to work and live a normal life.
    I wish that I could snatch up that feeling again. That dread of rolling out of bed, hoping the bus wouldn’t arrive and, when it does, catching those few extra minutes of sleep against a cold bus window. I approach him, unable to bring myself to smile. A natural instinct pressures me to comfort him but I don’t want to tell him everything will be okay. There’s nothing about this man that I can relate to anymore. The solar-powered street lamps emanate a radioactive yellow, outlining thin, wispy bristles around chapped lips. You can see the irritation on his skin from months without shaving where behind the thorns are scars in the shape of a serrated blade. A memento of a failed attempt at making do with a steak knife.
    Inching closer, it’s clear that he’s crying. Not a solitary, cliche tear down one side of his face but a full-blown stream. Understandable. We’re about to move into unreliable territory, an emotional war zone for the two of us. Avalon replaced my Father with this husk, so I tell him straight. “You know that none of us wanted to do this, I don’t want to go back their either.”
    He snaps, “shut up. I didn’t even say anything.”
    “Dad, it’s all right.”
    He wouldn’t have avoided conversation five years ago, he’d ask Byron and I the same fifteen questions during dinner everyday, no matter what we had done.
    “You can tell me that you don’t want to go back to Aval-“
    I can see, even in the thick yellow lamplight, explosions of red burst under his cracked skin. I watch veins burst at the sound of the town’s name, Avalon. The word hits his neanderthal processes and he punches the air in rage. As the strike recoils, he makes this noise: a pained murmur as though he’d sliced his hand on the moon itself. “If you want to take us up that L90 route and lead us through their fucking grave sites, be my guest.”
    “Did you already forget who brought us here?” The clouds of red pass over to my own face as I whisper-shout at my Father. “This was your order, your idea was to leave our home and for what? So you can blame your paranoia on my?” Role reversal, I feel like I’m arguing with a child who can’t remember his last actions. This mourning period should’ve been over months ago, we’re living on for them now, “so get over it” I tell him.
    The entire contents of my heart are spilled over the much more civilised ideas taking up space in my head. His underdeveloped brain just cannot process the concept, and so he defaults to the emotion he can process: rage. “You want me to just ‘get over it’? Is that what you’re asking me? We’re not living for them, you don’t just get to step into somebody else’s shoes, no matter how much you owe it to them. Believe me son, I’ve tried. I’ve spent the last four fucking years trying to do it.”

“Owe it to them? What are you talking about? We don’t owe them anything, it is not our fault. It’s not a nice thought and it sure as hell isn’t a nice way of putting it, but that’s what’s happened. You cannot spend the rest of your life pissed off because it’s not going to bring them back. If anything, that’s the last thing you would’ve wanted. Byron and Mum aren’t going to reappear from behind that corner, are they?” I don’t need to stop for a breath, bottomless lungs spill out every last waking thought I’ve had since the day we lost them. The words are just falling out, forming before I even have the chance to think them through. “You can swear all the vendettas you want, you can mope around like a thirteen year old, and you cry yourself to sleep at night, or you can get off your arse and try to live on.”

When his fist met my lips, I knew he would never understand. The taste of salted blood leaks from bitten flesh, fragments of gravel stick like adhesive as I pull myself up from the ground. The skin was torn and that was what hit me harder than the actual knuckle-to-face impact. My lip has been busted and that can kill you out here. While the disease isn’t airborne, regular old infection is writhe where antibiotics cannot be found.
    I assume in his panic, my Father bolts into the night expecting to never see me again. Lana was the first to get suspicious and now she’s lifting my up from behind. Hand on my shoulder, the group’s mother provides much needed moral support for the moment, then she inspects the wound. I should’ve figured as much, she’s already got the bottle of hydrogen peroxide in the palm of her other hand. The labelled wrapped around the glass points out the liquid is ‘not for general use’.
    I’ve told her before that they - they, in this case, meaning scientists and people much smarter than me - have already decided that hydrogen peroxide doesn’t even help wounds. In the past, Lana has defined herself as being more dangerous that a zombie. Consistently, she’s been able to overdose wounds with the stuff, causing the individual more pain that the wound itself had caused. It’s not her fault, but her idea of a remedy to this situation is to just pour the peroxide on my wound.
    “There’s nothing clean to dab with, is there? Stop being such a baby.”
    As the concoction seeps into the new crevice formed between two pieces of my upper lip, it foams and bubbles like soap giving the impression it’s destroying bacterial growth.
    My teeth grit themselves in pain.
    Imagine shutting off some of your senses: you can’t see, smell, or taste. Touch works overtime in the moment to provide awareness but now all you feel is this burning. Your face is on fire but the flames are cold to the touch, ice cold. A chemical burning, eating away at your flesh like a thousand swarming locusts.
    The process - I’m told - is short and ends soon after. Let me reiterate, I’m told his every time it happens. The pain will last for days to come, I should assume that much is true. I turn, blurry eyed, and swear that I can see my father’s silhouette. “Are you all right there?”
    “No, I’m half left now…” I tell her, still wincing from the echoes of pain rippling through my facial muscles and the poor form of my joke. I can always expect the Mother of the group to laugh. She’s the second eldest, forty-odd years old. Lisa hit twenty-four last month and I am twenty-one. My father is I his late fifties, he’s lucky to have made it this far.
    “Funny man,” she tells me. “Cameron, honey, could you pass me the bandages?” She gestures to an unused roll laying next to Jacob. With ace accuracy, the boy tosses the bandage roll and the sewing kit over his pet and into Lana’s hand. He’s talented, but he’s not allowed a gun.
    Unravelling the roll, Lana holds the bandage to my face in an attempt to figure out what shape would work best in this situation. “What a stupid place to get hurt.”
    “It’s not my fault.”
    “I know that,” she sighs and pull away the thicker slither of cotton wrapping. “I’m sorry.”
    I try telling her to wrap it around my entire face, covering my top lip.
    “Good idea, leader.”
    Muffled, I repeat, “leader?”
    “Yeah, well, somebody has to do it.”
    “Yeah,” I say, “you do.”
    “Oh, psh.”

Psh, it’s the sound of air being pushed through the thin gap in Lana’s teeth and a trademark of her occasional sarcasm. Not only did it mean that she found something funny, but that she was kinda embarrassed. “I think you’re the best option, at least you know how to shoot a gun.”
    “That’s no qualification.”
    “You also know where you’re going,” she says, “well, you say you do.” She jabs me in the cheek with a safety pin from the sewing kit, finishing up the wrapping. I thank her, and she asks “how are you feeling?”
    “I’m all better.”
    “I mean, can you really let him go like that?”
    I think about it for a second to phrase my next comment in a way that won’t make me sound like a sociopath. “Yeah,” the word is harsh but it comes from the hearth. “He’s a grown man, there’s nothing I can do to stop him. If he wants to rejoin us, he’ll find his way back but I refuse to chase after him.”
    “You’re sure?”
    “He’s not my responsibility anymore, he hasn’t been my Father for a long time anyway.”
    From the groups silence, I deduce that we’re done talking and we all go back to bed.


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