I must have fallen asleep.
When I sat down here on the front step of the terrace, the afternoon was still warm with spring. I felt relaxed, anticipating nothing.
Then, suddenly, evening was settling in like my Grandma on one of her visits. It hugged me so that I shivered, and asked me how I’d been.
“Just fine,” I said, “Just fine.”
It didn’t acknowledge this, but slumped low over the azaleas, and sighed.
I shivered again. There was a hint of chill in the night breeze.
I waited. I had nowhere else to go.
“Evenin’, Susie,” a shadow whispered at last. It leaned over the fence. Wispy hair rose like smog. “Doin’ anything special tonight?”
“Maybe, Barry. Maybe just sleeping.”
Barry laughed. He always laughed. The fence shivered.
“Bad night to be alone in a cold bed, Susie. The world’s unravelling.”
That made me feel bad, though I couldn’t remember why. I wrinkled up my nose. The air smelt of decay. Someone’s rotten garbage.
“Another hijacking. Yanks in Beirut.”
I yawned. “What do I care?”
A Herald flag-waved in his hand, newsprint spilling into the grey shadows.
“Reagan’s gone gung-ho. Reckon he’ll do ‘em this time.” His tongue slithered between his lips and lapped up the traces of enthusiasm from the corners of his mouth.
“Like that, would you, Barry?”
He laughed. “We’d really see something then.”
We both giggled. I couldn’t think why.
“Reckon we would. The Big Bang maybe.”
“Russians have warned Reagan off. They’re sending troops. It’s Cuba over again, I tell you, Susie.” He leapt over the fence suddenly, hanging in flight for a moment while old wood groaned. He was light, though he looked heavy.
“I didn’t invite you in.”
“Very rude of you too.”
We sat and the sun boiled behind us, spilling flame across the city. Night thickened. Centrepoint Tower stuck up sharp on the horizon like a giant stirring-spoon. Light-bubbles churned through the buildings.
“Nice this time of the arvo.”
“I can warm you up quick enough.”
I slapped his creeping hand away. Barry and me used to get on pretty well when we were kids. He took me to the movies and we groped each other in the dark. I think we had intercourse once but I can’t remember when. Not any more. He doesn’t really love me or anything. It’s just habit now.
“We can go down the pub, Susie. Good band playing.”
“Oh, come on. We get along okay, don’t we?”
I eyed him.”I haven’t decided.”
He laughed.”Come down the pub anyway. Just friends.”
What was it I saw reflected in his eye? Jagged lines darted quickly for cover behind the folds of his eyelid.
I was staring.
“Sorry. Thought I saw something.”
He laughed, but as though there was a threat, a murderer in the dark. “Don’t do that, Susie. You know how it goes.”
“Yeah. So tell me what’s up then.”
“Your lies maybe.”
He laughed again, more easily. “You’re weird, Susie, you know that?”
I smiled. Fey, Grandma said, Susie, you’re fey.
“You know what ‘weird’ means, Barry?” I tasted almonds on the breeze now. “Do you?”
“I know what I mean.”
“Means second-sighted. Not quite in this world.”
“Not all there is right.”
I got up, shivering like palsy as the night drew nearer. “I’m cold. Come round at seven. We’ll go to the pub. I guess we’ve got to.”
“But no talking about war and that stuff. If you talk about all that, you can forget it.”
I tried to remember. There was pain, my memory a blaze of fire.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s important, Susie. Those bastards’ll blow us up.”
“I know. Just don’t talk about it. There’s bad luck around tonight. I feel it.”
He stuck his lip out, half-pout, and ran his hand through his spiky hair. “Superstition’ll get us nowhere.”
“It’ll get me to the pub. What’s it matter if you don’t talk about it this time?”
He clicked his tongue, and I had to close my eyes because the terrible thing was there again, a scar across his cheek. “Then I’ll be superstitious,’ he said, laughing. “Don’t name the devil and he’ll stay home by the fire, eh?”
I turned away, edging around a bad feeling that lurched there on the step. I went inside. “Come by at seven, Barry. Seven.”
I heard him laugh behind me, but casting back over my shoulder, I saw he had become another shadow in a patch of dimming sunlight, soaking away into the footpath.
I shut the door, but the evening was there anyway.
“It’s something bad, isn’t it?” I said to Grandma.
A house-board creaked and suddenly Grandma was just a memory. I couldn’t remember what I’d asked. Or why.
I kept moving and watched while I fussed about in the kitchen. I didn’t eat much.
Barry came by at seven and we went down the pub as we always do. I was feeling really bad, as though I was being poisoned slowly. My head was going numb.
The King George was one of those old square pubs stuck between a renovated bottle-shop plastered with green specials signs and a real estate agent’s office that had fly-dirt all over the fading pictures in the window. The pub had a lot of tile everywhere, but someone had tried to update once and there were patches of wood panelling too. I remember the rock-a-billy poster on the wall above a Pac-man machine that was always out of order and a dart board that had been played so much it was coming apart. Most times the King George was full of people to about six foot above ground level and smoke the rest of the way to the ceiling.
There was always a thin guy with glasses and hair like a purple bristle-brush smoking a joint in the corner.
The moment I walked in the door with Barry I knew I should’ve stayed at home alone tonight. I tried to remember why and there was something there, but it wouldn’t become clear.
I mingle with the lost, frightened people, waiting patiently for something definite to begin. They yell to hear themselves above the band, a punk-derived R & B mutation called Lost On The Reefer. Stupid, eh? What’d I have to be here for?
A woman so thin I thought she’d been twisted dry like a hand-washed shirt nudged me and grinned. Her breath was brimstone.
“Call this livin’, do ya?” she croaked. I felt my gut tighten. The terrible lines I’d seen on Barry’s face spread over hers in a thicker pattern. I nearly caught the message in them. Something was trying to be remembered but it was playing hide-and-seek in my mind.
“Piss off!” Barry said to the woman.
She spat and went away.
“I think she’s sick,” I said.
Barry pulled me toward the bar.”Don’t want sickies around,” he yelled.
But Barry, I scream, they’re all sick! I can see it now. Sick like they’re running on borrowed life — life that was never meant to fit right. It’ll drop out of them any minute, I think, and they’ll topple over into little piles of ash. What’ll we do then?
I looked hard at Barry.
Barry’s life was fragile too. That was what I’d seen. The lines of death — life’s threads unravelling.
“Two beers!” he said to the barman, who looked as lively as one of them zombies in The Night of the Living Dead,”Lager!”
But we never got them.
The world ended then, you see, just as arbitrary as you like. No early warning sirens sang in the twilight, no broadcast hysteria heralded the bombs. Only a thudding in my head, which was like my brain was freezing up and dying, and death-lines unravelling on the faces around me.
“Great game on Sat’dy,” a large man says.” Ref was a bloody mug though.” The side of his face peels away as unnatural fire engulfs the wall he’s leaning on, taking half of him with it. But he’s still moving and his skull-mouth laughs or cries, I can’t tell which. There’s no difference any more.
“We dance, we dance!” a charred skeleton screams, what was once flesh tightening blackly with its movements. Noise roars so loudly that ears spill blood, and the blood boils away, but the ghosts dance, for the roar is the roar of the jukebox, cranked up to infinity.
Everywhere they dance — the punks, the trendies, the young execs. They dance as waves of light and sound tear them apart, and images of the dead — flame and dismemberment and starvation and plague — dance with them in the chaos. They’re good friends now, all those visions of death that’ve haunted mankind since he first touched a bone and wondered. They gather together here in the midst of violence and shout the name of their victim to make him come away. And mankind comes and joins the dance.
But there’s no peace in death.
I’ve read the books. Ghosts haunt the scene of their unnatural passing, re-enact like an obsession the moment of death.
I imagine all ’round the world it’s the same. A rite of passage that never ends.
“Susie!” Barry yelled, turning to me as the wall fell in and a furnace opened to engulf him.
There was nothing in his eyes then. Only blackness. The lines had grown and his face was gone.
I felt it all in the second before detonation. The missile must have hung there, waiting for my sight to clear.
“Two beers,” Barry says to the barman,”Lager!”
Then the ground shakes and as I suck in my breath the world is on fire.
“Susie!” Barry yells, but I’m not there.
I am fey. Grandma said so. I can step outside the world and watch from a distance. I watch it now. Half in the world but in that moment of ending not in it at all.
There is fire, ice, pain. I watch — but I must go back.
Together the ghosts and I tread out the steps. We move through the twilight hours, enter the King George, cough and shiver and always fail to remember what’s to come.
I am alive.
I could break the cycle.
But I don’t. If I did, the ghosts might go away. And if they went away, I might be alone forever.
So I sit on my front step, knowing something will happen that has happened before.
Sometimes I sleep.