'L90': [12] - Ridley Haig; October 14

When the morning rolls around, it’s a bit like I’ve been dreaming up the past four years. I wake and half-expect to see myself in the reflection of my bedroom mirror, my brother standing in the doorway, pulling on the corner of my Violent Soho poster. I can almost smell breakfast, hear the magpies.

    I can only see a whiteboard.

Vague stills from earlier start to defog but otherwise, all I remember is an overuse of the word ‘cunt’. Trying to deconstruct the hazy memories, I cast back to tyre tracks that led us up to the front gate where the second-in-command welcomed us as though we were in the presence of a great kingdom. The king of which resides in almost total secrecy, often locked within the old Head Teacher’s office. 
    The people in the ute, they were only four strong of twelve. A dozen troops holed up in the smoky school, connected to hundreds of others across the state. In fact, McCoy is out ‘recruiting’ at the moment. According to the second-in-command, he’s building an army of survivors, their own personal utopia. “We’re not interested in the big city’s walls,” he said, “nah, we want the opposite.”

    The Dead South: a world without boundaries.

When the colourful shapes stop clouding my vision, I’m relieved to see I share my classroom with the rest of my group. Jacob in particular, I could’ve taken bets on whether McCoy’s crew would snatch her up for breakfast. Cameron is fast asleep and Lisa, well, she’s suffering like I am. Cola-bottle vision.
    Lana lays on her side, resting on an active hand, eyes wide open, and dampened with disappointment like I should ’know better’ than to take a couple of hours for myself. It’s then, I think, that I realise I don’t like her very much. Before today, she felt a bit like family. I can’t say the same now. Is it the age difference between us?
    Do I like any of them? I certainly put up with them but it’s so hard to tell now. Are we friends, or just bound together by circumstance? I don’t smile when I think about them, I think ‘survive’. Whether it’s Lana or Lisa, Cameron gets the same reaction. Even when faced with my own reflection, I see the same words. I don’t have an opinion of myself, I just want to keep living.

    Is there a concept of friendship in the zombie nation?

I mean, without other people — other human beings with working hearts, lungs, and souls. I’ve always been told that we’d become zombies inside and out. Dead or alive, without family, we’ve lost our humanity. I look back; Lisa, with Cameron fast asleep in her lap, holds a box of cheap home-brand cereal she nicked the night before. Her head might be half-asleep but her fingers still twiddle a softish, novelty marshmallow.
     Her naked foot twitches, as always. As I make a queasy move upwards from my grave, Lana stands and exits. There’s no hair on the floor, she didn’t get a wink of sleep. I can’t follow her, not without leaving Cameron alone with Lisa, and I’m worried she’ll get the munchies for a California Cheeseburger.
    I do feel for Cameron but I think I have to feel that way. There’s something about him, I think it’s in the eyes like he wants me to make up for his loss. I can’t say that — before the accident — I gave much of a shit about my brother Byron. I suppose you only know the effect somebody brings to your life when you’ve lost them.
    I ruffle the kid’s hair and stuff my free hand into the box of cereal, pulling out a mouthful of crunch little snack sized hats, gloves, and horseshoes. Only managing to catch several of them between my lips, the rest fall to the torn denim of my jeans like some kind of clothed animal. I don’t dare pick them off to eat, I’ve not washed them for months.
    Anything that falls onto them could quite rightly turn corrosive so I brush them off and stand. My strength is welcomed by Lisa who wraps her arms around my leg, presses her cheek against my thigh, and falls right back to sleep.
    “Here,” calls Lana, standing against the doorframe with a bottle of fresh rainwater in her hands. As she leans over to me, a piece of paper falls from the breast pocket of her button-up which she snatches from the air before it can grace the Earth.
    “What’s that?” I ask, necking back the warm water which almost evaporates in my mouth, it’s much too hot for this shit.
    “Not much, just some notes,” she says as she’s stuffing the piece back into her pocket, revealing a collection of the snippets. “Drink up, there’s a bottle for each of us. It’s a good thing somebody thought of this.”
    “Yes, yes. Thank you, Lana,” I take another sip, it’s the clearest water I’ve seen for a while. The Basin didn’t have a filtering system, the water came from the lake or it came from the sky. You’d stick your canteen outside your tent and hope nobody would steal it from you in the night. “It was you, wasn’t it?” 
     From the sound of it, the vandals have vanished and the school is momentarily empty. A quick look around confirms it; barren and forgotten as though the whole ordeal was a heat-induced nightmare. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re meeting with McCoy to pick up his new recruits. Lana and I, both stumped, pile back into our classroom and wait for the hangover to wear off.
    “Did they say anything last night?
    “I can’t remember,” I say, “Lisa?”
    She doesn’t even cough in our direction, much less move from the horseshoe shape she’s taken since I pried her off my leg.
    “Well, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to wait for them to return,” says Lana. “We should leave as soon as possible, right?”

    I’m already having second thoughts about last night’s conclusion.

“Yeah, you’re right. Is there anything worth taking?” 
    She shakes her head, “I gave the locked door a shake but it’s a tough one. Lisa would usually be able to pick it but…”
    “It’s not worth the risk,” I tell her. “Let’s g—.”
    Our escape plan is interrupted by heavy knocking on our classroom door; McCoy’s crew have returned in good spirit, bringing their new recruits back to their palace. When the knocking and the cheering subside, stranger sounds commence; the intense groaning that could only come from the undying. 
    Lana takes her up her pistol as the jeering burns hot next to psychopathic chanting. 
    “What’s wrong?” I ask as she saddles up to the door but unable to continue onwards. She hands me back my own weapon, confiscated last night and rightly so, and I take up position next to her.
    “Door’s barred shut. Don’t worry, just get back.”
    And I do; Lana takes a few steps back herself, foot ready, and kicks down the door. Our adventurous presence alerts them and, if we weren’t armed, I reckon they would’ve been too stunned and confused to act. Unfortunately, fight-or-flight kicked in and they took it as an act of aggressive, fist-first. 
    I fire on them, realising soon after that they don’t have guns themselves. I cap two: one in the hip, one in the knee.

    18 rounds remain.

I get a second to breathe but only a second; everybody is on the floor, dead or scrambling for a weapon. Before the air’s back in my lungs, two bowl-headed bogans strain themselves to push a large, duct-taped cage through the room calling a silent ceasefire. The stink of bullet smoke sticks to the air like a metallic fog, syphoning into my lungs and wrapping them in a blistering film. 
    The induced quiet lasts for less than half a minute as our new enemies start on the offensive again; a shotgun wielder and a man with a small air pistol, holding his skewiff toupee to his head. From behind me, another hoodlum misses his stake and drops his crowbar but he’s subdued by my partner with minimal effort. 
    With Lana’s support, I can follow the still-moving cage for maximum cover. The growling originates from behind the silver curtain, disguising my footsteps from the preoccupied pushers busy on the job trying to dodge stray gunfire. 

    I can’t imagine why they’re importing the undead but I intend on finding the answer. 

The cage edges to McCoy’s bedroom — now unlocked — and I lose my cover. Concentration is peak; I’m definitely too far out of range for the shotgun so I pick off Toupee as he twists his weapon to the side as seen on TV. Meanwhile, Lana picks up my slack. She takes the Shotgun out with three to the chest, as the rest of Luke’s cronies flee; “to Warriewood, dickheads!”
    No time to rest, we plummet into the depths of McCoy’s personal space. The last time I saw him, he was half my size and the runt of a six-brother litter. Now, I’m looking at this huge, tanned fucker. Half-dead. Luke McCoy is a Halfer, clutching a pill bottle and stung by an IV drip.     A clear goon bag hangs to his side, filled halfway with a pink liquid.
    Rotting away, motionless in a three-piece velvet suit that lets sporadically placed eyelash chest hairs poke out. A glass pipe in one hand and a pistol in the other; his fingers melt into them like hot iron. He’s not recently deceased, no chance. He’s been like this for two years, give or take. What’s left of the hair on his head is moulting off as several pieces of pepperoni flesh hold the thin black strands with superglue and safety pins. 
    Upon our arrival, Luke bares black gums and beech teeth. Neither Lana or I have anything to say to him, our words have been stoked into hiding but that’s okay because Luke has enough for all of us.
    “Could you rag that tape off, mate?” He speaks at a shuffle, the voice of death itself.  Following his orders, the contents of the cage are revealed to fit my expectations. Her right arm alone has begun to bulk up; becoming the primary weapon of the Strongman. She’s awake for the transformation, too. I can only imagine the pain that she’s going through right now but I don’t dare open fire. “We drug ‘em, y’know? Fill their bodies with enough chemicals and shite and the pain can’t knock ‘em out. It’s the fury, that’s what makes ‘em good fighters.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “We’re artists, Ridley Haig,” he announces, pointing the barrel of his engraved pistol toward me as another cage is rolled in. A single lackey, the one with the yellow shirt. He barely gets the cage through the door before he’s scuttling off again. Another horrendous growl seeps out from behind the silver prison and the cage shakes with anticipation: a more ferocious creature hides behind the tape this time. “As you might’ve already noticed, we run a tight shift here.  Spending our days hunting down the best physical specimens and infecting them for sale. I’d hope you would join us but I reckon that’s no longer an option.”
    “You’re damn right!” Lana’s outburst is followed by a yelp as a bullet is cast through the new cube. From the depths comes a clawed fist, struggling through the tape until the hole is large enough for a second, and third hand. Soon, the tape is reduced to shreds revealing no cage at all but rather four steel poles, hoist upwards to keep the structure in shape. 
    “Ridley, we’re sitting on a river of gold! These are my babies; designed by me, specifically for my needs. They’ll chase you down, bite you once, and they’ll drag you back to me so I can watch you squirm.” He speaks with invite, a sociopathic charisma. It’s that sort of patronising tone you’re handed until you turn fifteen. “They’re special, I’ve studied them for months and even I can’t tell what’s going on in that cocktail of DNA, but you can smell the anger on their breath, can’t you? You’ll make me a shit-ton of money, y’know? Especially that little ‘un, we’ll have you all shipped off before tomorrow morning.”

    We ran.

Lisa caught wind of the situation long before we could warn her, carrying Cameron out on her shoulder. Now, she’s ahead of us but just by a step. We didn’t have the time to stop and shoot, McCoy’s personal beasts had torn themselves free in seconds, following behind us no longer as zombies but creatures from Hell itself. 
    Familiar creatures have clawed through my nightmares and through my passed beneath layer after layer of repression. In their mutation, they’d developed that third arm in the middle of an chest bordered by the sharp ridges of a ribcage. At the end of each limb was a misshapen three-pointed hand fit with clawed finger tips which dug into the earth like every step was torture.
    The creases in their bodies, the stitched-and-restitched spaces between their fingers, thighs, and shoulders split a little further with each bounce and a thick, noxious blood slips out from the cracks like violated lips. As we pass into the heart of Avalon, ignoring the sight and sound of other Zeds, ignoring the memorial I wish I could place on the beach, we head straight for our original objective: the L90 track. I can only look back for a brief moment but it looks like the poor bastards are getting tired; they’re no longer gaining on us. In fact, their stick-figure thin carcasses grow smaller with each step. Have they given up on the chase?
    They’re quick but lean, not built for long distance. The creatures cease to exist for us when we arrive at the Bilgola Bends; a twisting serpent of road over 1.4km that any traveller in a motor vehicle would fear driving along for the first time. While the view of Newport Beach is a grand sight of sand and an ever-expanding horizon of water, we don’t take the chance to marvel at the beauty and keep our collective heads to the ground, or back behind us. 
    The defining feature of the Bends used to be the barrage of cardboard signs plastered on all of the lampposts or across the outer layer of trees. Back in the day, it would be considered distracting and accidents were prevalent but only a handful remain to this day and they all harken back to this “end of the world”.