Submission in the 2017 Hunter Writer's Centre 2000 word Short Story Competition.
Alex knew she couldn’t stay here forever.
Dawn would gently, inevitably interrupt it all.
Soon, she would have to make her way back down the hill, along the same muddy track she had somehow managed to clamber up hours before.
For now though, she would lay here in the clearing, sheltered by a shroud of looming ghostly gums.
Pulling the old mohair coat under her chin, ignoring how scratchy it was against her bare shoulders. Alex tried to block it all out so she could instead look up at the stars and take it all in.
It always took her breath away; the expanse of the sky. It made her feel so small and so big all at the same time.
Not tonight though.
Tonight, despite trying to focus on its vastness, it only made her think of her mum and her dad; her family and home.
It made her think about how, to the gentle backdrop of intoxicated adults at her parent’s backyard parties, she would lay atop the old trampoline and look up in complete awe. A little brother tucked under each arm, tufts of golden hair poking out. Bob Marley snaking its way across the lawn; it all made the humid air even thicker somehow, buttery.
Alex wanted to squeeze every last drop out of that sky, despite her trembling skin; to remember it all later when homesickness burnt holes into her organs.
Anger eventually bubbled its way to her throat though, anger at whoever was on the other side of the curtain, pulling her around. A broken puppet with no control. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach could only be distracted for so long, until her gaze fell upon the line of bushes a metre from where she lay. She tried to stop the swell of burning acid, but it was useless and she hunched over to expel whatever was left in her gut. Laying back down she surveyed the bushes again, the only part she could make out under the moon’s glow were the tops of them, the rest bled into the darkness underneath.
She was scared. She would happily admit that to anyone who would listen.
Trying her best not to let fear conjure shapes between the trees, Alex focused on a slow moving light in the inky sky; a satellite. It felt as close to saving her as anyone else on solid ground. It mirrored her almost; as if it were she and she were it, alone; orbiting, lost.
How did this even happen? Why was no one coming to save them?
Alex eventually began to feel herself drift off, fighting in vain against heavy eye lids for as long as she could. Her parents and her brothers soon arrived; dancing along the Milky Way, their laughter echoing through the tree tops as they twirled from one constellation to the next, smiling, reaching for her to join them.
Two snaps. A branch and then her eyes, forced her back to the punishing reality of the cold morning air.
It was almost time.
No more stars and darkness, only streaks of pinks and yellows as the sun began its daily climb.
He entered the clearing and stood a few metres from her. He wanted to steal this quiet moment to drink her in completely, like she had the stars hours before.
He wanted to take in every blonde hair on her head and every cell of her skin. She was still so very beautiful, despite it all. Her strong yet small body overwhelmed by his old coat cradling her as she slept. She had already lost so much weight and it worried him. It all worried him.
Alex felt Matt’s familiar shape fall down in a heap beside her, pulling her, along with the coat, to him. She had made it through the night and so had he. She could finally exhale; drowning in the comfort of his warm skin against hers. Maybe we could just lay here forever she wilfully contemplated, forgetting the world beyond the tree line.
She was too scared for answers to her questions just yet, so she closed her eyes again and drifted.
After what felt like days and not minutes, Alex awoke. She found the strength to force her way out from under heavy tired arms. Sitting up, she pushed the words from her throat.
“What happens now?’’ Still not sure she was ready for the answer.
“Hmm” was the exhausted response.
“Matt, please, come on, focus.’’ She prodded him. It struck her how only weeks ago she had prodded him to wake up too. Last time though, they were surrounded by pillows, and newspapers, toast burning and the hum of the fridge in the kitchen down the hall.
“Okay, Okay,” Matt opened his eyes and looked at Alex, really looked at her, for the first time in a long time and it hurt. Her once sun-kissed skin was now dull and covered in dirt. Her sparkling, happy eyes were now weary, burdened by black circles. He felt helpless, angry; desperate.
Matt had been dreading this conversation. He had rehearsed it over and over in his head; not only to soften the blow, but if he was honest, it was also a way to preoccupy himself from the sound of gunfire in the distance.
Distant for how long he had no idea.
‘’We have to go now Al, it’s our only chance.’’
Alex let the tears from her tired eyes, fall without a fight. Looking across desperately at the bushes again, this time, in the light, she could see them completely… and what lay beneath.
‘’I don’t know if I can’’ she whispered, more to herself than to Matt.
‘’Come on Al, look at me, you can do this, WE can do this. What happened to that strong willed, stubborn wife of mine, who would kick a guy where it hurts, if he dared try to put one over on her.’’
Alex couldn’t help but smile. “Are you trying to put one over on me now?” She threatened, teasingly.
Like she used to, before all of this.
Now it was Matt’s turn to softly grin, “There she is.”
“So what did you find out? Be honest with me.”
Matt sat up and moved closer to Alex, he decided to tell her only what she needed to know. He would save the rest for later, when she was safe, out of danger; away from the bushes and what lay beneath.
“Okay… well, most of the state is,… well.. It’s gone,’’ he paused to gauge her reaction before moving on cautiously.
“It sounds like most of the country has folded. They managed to ship thousands out while they could, to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, and now they are telling people to do whatever they can to stay safe and get out. Airports are closed, Sydney International was bombed through the night, there is nothing left… That’s all I know.”
Matt’s face now vexed in complete desperation ‘’Alex, I need you to listen to me. We have to go, and soon.’’
He continued before she could ask more questions, questions he didn’t want to answer.
“I spoke to a group of families who know about a boat heading out of the harbour tonight. I want us to go with them, its four thousand dollars for the two of us.’’
He didn’t mention the grim chaos he found most of the small country town in. The cafes and shopping mall were now rubble and dust. Cars crushed and abandoned by people fleeing them as the insurgents approached on foot. Matt had also discovered a young couple in a dusty sedan on the outskirts of town, bullet holes now where life used to be. He had noted the irony of the bumper stickers on what was left of their smashed back windscreen, as he carefully stepped over the tow bar connected to a trailer of their boxed up possessions. ‘’Fuck off, We’re Full” inside a map of Australia and another half peeled off, “Stop the Boats.”
Matt reached over and grabbed the blue sports bag he had carried all through the night and produced 3 bottles of water, 4 packets of biscuits and a pear that had seen better days.
“It’s the best I could do, there was not much left.”
Alex nodded. She would not cry again, there was no time to be weak she told herself, she would save that for when it was over.
They silently sat, eating some of the rations warily. Alex tried hard to swallow it all down so Matt wouldn’t worry. They then packed the few items they had with them into the bag. Only weeks ago, it was full of gym gear, Alex thought to herself in disbelief.
It was time to leave this clearing, this place, forever. Once Alex had thought of every little task she could do to delay the inevitable, including picking leaves and grass from Matt’s grey coat she now had buttoned up slowly; she made her way, almost involuntarily, towards the thick bushes and knelt down beside them.
Four bodies lay underneath and Alex could no longer stay here and orbit them.
They had each been carefully wrapped, in sections of Matt’s tent, as best they could. Matt had held his tongue when she decided to use the little protection they had against the elements; and the gunfire; and the darkness, to provide some kind of dignity to her family. It was all they could do under the circumstances, so he sat and helped her tear the pieces and held their stiff bodies, saying nothing.
Alex leaned over and kissed the top of her mother’s head, lingering to silently tell her she loved her and how sorry she was they couldn’t save them. Still not quite believing she had to leave them here, like this, skin torn from shrapnel, on top of a muddy hill.
She held her father’s hand before removing the watch she had bought him for father’s day years before, placing it in the warmth of her bra, starkly cold against her chest.
Her tears fell across her younger brothers’ cheeks and she kissed them both once more, wanting nothing more than to curl up beside them and close her eyes too.
Matt helped her to her feet and he was able to see how much her swollen belly had grown in the weeks since they had been forced from their town. It made him all the more determined to get them to the harbour by night fall.
Alex sat with her family for almost an hour. Eventually, Matt leant over her and cradled her head as she let out a guttural cry; the shock finally leaving her body. They then almost carried each other as they slowly headed off, making their way through the thick bushland, losing the clearing from view.
After a few hours of silence, Alex finally asked what had been on her mind for days.
“I heard some people talking, before we left that day, they said New Zealand were turning boats back around? Is that true? What if no one will let us in?”
Thinking about the stories he had heard from those that had made it successfully, he was not only worried about getting his wife and his unborn child safely across the Tasman, but worse, what the future held for them all if they were allowed in.
Pink and yellow watercolours dissolved into the blue sky above them, as they slashed at overgrowth and stumbled. He decided he wouldn’t answer, couldn’t answer and hoped her fears would fall to the ground as they made their way down the steep track.
A flock of cockatoos a few metres in front of them suddenly took to the sky. Something just beyond had startled them. Gunfire?
“Is there something else you need to tell me?”