I wake suddenly, sweat pouring off me and soaking the mattress. My eyes shoot open and see nothing but the dark of the middle of the night. I reach across the bed. The other half lies empty.
The alarm clock ticks away on the bedside table and I count the seconds as they pass. Outside the window, the wind blows hard.
The door opens slowly, hinges creaking loud in the quiet. Something stands there: a silhouette, the hallway light framing it from behind. It’s somehow familiar… It runs one hand through its long curly hair. Although I can’t see its face, I know that it’s watching me. Wide eyed I watch back as it walks towards me.
The door slams shut behind it.
I wait, and hear no footsteps on the thick carpet. The mattress shifts under me as something settles on the bed. A hand reaches out, stroking my head.
“It’s okay,” a voice says. “It’s just me.”
“B’Detta?” I ask.
She laughs and shrugs off her dressing gown. She drops it to the floor and lies down beside me. My hands find hers.
“Hey, give me some room here,” she says, somehow shoving me along and hugging herself around me at the same time.
I smile in the dark.
“Love you,” I whisper.
She hugs me tighter. Outside the window, the wind blows harder.
I wake again, at the sound of metal grinding on metal, and reach across the bed. The other half lies empty. I sit up and pull B’detta’s gown from the floor, wrap it around myself, walk to the window. I twitch the curtain aside, knuckling sleep from my eyes.
On the street below, a delivery van has backed into a parked car, crushing its bonnet. An alarm starts, echoing off the apartment buildings lining the block. I let the curtain fall back and leave the room.
I find a note on the kitchen bench.
“Hey, hope you have a good day. Sorry I had to run so early, late for work again. Love you…” it says.
I start the coffee machine and read the note a second and third time, and I drop it clumsily as the machine starts bubbling and shaking. Coffee spills over, water runs everywhere, drenching the note. I reach for it and it falls apart at my touch.
I get the machine under control and draw a cup, walk out to the balcony and sit on the concrete rail. I start to sweat straightaway. On the street below, the delivery van still sits backed into the parked car. The alarm stops, and the silence is so sudden that for a moment it deafens me. I shake my head, trying to clear it. I sip my coffee, swear when it burns my tongue, drop it over the edge as I try and set it down. I swear again. The cup lands on the roof of a truck and shatters. Coffee sprays everywhere. I watch as some of it slowly pools and runs into the gutter.
Turning back inside, I start the coffee machine again, sit at the kitchen table, stand back up, pour a glass of water, sit back down, drink the glass of water, stand back up again, fiddle with the radio. Bursts of static drown out the fleeting snatches of song, and I turn the dial a last time and give up. The coffee machine belches and steam billows. I stop it just in time, draw a fresh cup, sit at the kitchen table and drink it slowly.
The clock on the wall ticks away. I tap my feet and drum my fingers and draw another cup of coffee. I stand at the window as I drink it. The clear blue sky stretches on, the wind howls. I drain my cup and walk back to the bedroom.
I leave the curtains closed and dress quickly, simply: blue jeans and a T-shirt. Finding my mobile under the bed, I dial B’detta’s number. It rings and rings. I chew my fingernails and hang up without leaving a message.
Putting my mobile in my pocket, I walk to the window and open the curtains. I look down at the street. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car.
I try to say something and nothing comes out.
I close the curtains and take out my mobile and dial B’detta’s number again. Once more, it just rings and rings, and I can see it clearly – sitting snug in her handbag in an empty room somewhere.
I write a quick message.
“Pretty twitchy, having a shark day, going for a walk, gotta keep moving, I wanna see if I can wear it out. I’ve got my phone with me, catch you tonight?”
I look around the room. I pick up my bag and walk away.
As I step out the front door of my building, the wind stops like it’s been turned off at the switch. The sun is a blinding orb, burning high in the sky. The delivery van is still backed into the parked car; some coffee from my shattered cup stains the footpath.
The hiss of dead air grows louder as I walk toward the van. Fragments of song fight through the white noise, and then disappear just as fast. I reach in through the open window and shut the radio off.
“Hello?” I yell, looking around.
My voice rolls down the street and slowly fades away. No answer comes. I yell again.
I take an MP3 player and a pair of headphones from my bag. I put the headphones on and choose some music at random. I walk, and take the first left I come to and look at the empty street ahead. A building next to me forms a long grey wall. A dank laneway cuts across the footpath where the wall ends. Weatherboards fill both sides of the road, stretching as far as I can see, all the way to the horizon.
I squint and take my sunglasses from my pocket and slip them on. The sun still burns hot at me.
My shadow cuts lines hard and sharp into the concrete beneath me. My step catches up to the beat in my ears and I start walking faster. The overhanging branches don’t move, lifeless and parched in the dry air. I pull a leaf from one; it crumbles to dust in my hand.
I drop the dust to the ground and brush my palm on the seat of my pants. A breeze blows past me, cool and quick. And then the heat returns.
I come to a halt and remove my headphones. A low hum, faint and muffled, carries through the still air. I look left and then right. I scratch my head, look left again and see something shining in the distance.
A half dozen CDs hang from a lemon tree in someone’s front yard. A sickly sweet smell wafts from the rotten fruit that litters the ground around it. I drop my bag, take out a water bottle, turn away from the tree. I drink slowly.
The smell eventually makes me gag, and I spit the last of the water into the gutter.
I wipe my mouth with my sleeve and put the empty bottle away. Putting my headphones back on, I take off in a different direction. New music sets a new speed; my pace picks up.
The sun beats down. Sweat stings my eyes and blurs the road ahead. I walk until the heat becomes too much, stop at a corner, lean against a fence.
I take my headphones off and put them in my bag. I take my phone out and try B’detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I hang up, put my phone away, take the empty bottle from my bag and try to drain the last few drops.
I look at the house I’ve stopped in front of. A “Beware of the Dog” sign hangs from the fence, a garden tap pokes above the long grass, weeds cover the path to the door, dusty furniture fills the veranda. I look at the tap again and my mouth starts to water.
“Here, boy, good dog,” I say softly.
A dead car sits in the driveway, tyres sagging on their rims. Rust flakes from it, covering the cracked, dirty concrete. Reluctantly at first, the gate opens with a harsh, scraping sound. Every muscle tense, I walk through.
“Come on, boy. Come out and play.”
Nothing happens. I crouch by the tap, turn it to full bore and cup my hands under it. Water the colour of red desert earth splutters out, thick and dirty, before it runs dry. I stare at it a moment before turning it off. I turn it back on; it shudders in my hand. Nothing else comes out and nothing else happens.
No birds answer my call, no dogs bark. I look around at the shut-up houses lining the road, and try to say something. Nothing comes out.
I walk to the front door. The wood is dry and hot; paint slowly peels away and falls to the ground. I knock, hard. No one answers and I knock again. Still no one answers.
The doorknob burns my palm, too hot to hold. I back away, and notice a gate by the side of the house. It hangs half open. I walk through, entering a shadowy alleyway. I peer in the windows I pass; heavy black curtains block any view inside. The alleyway stretches on and on.
In the backyard, rubble and rubbish fill the concrete garden. Dust covers everything, and another dead car sits under a tree in the far corner, burnt metal shining bright in the sun. I look away, eyes watering.
“Anyone home?” I yell, knocking hard on the back door, knuckles red and raw.
The sound of fist on wood is all I hear, fading away around me. The doorknob comes off in my hand. I push the door, it holds fast. I knock a last time, harder again, and leave a streak of blood behind.
I swear and look around. The burnished brass of another garden tap pokes from a pile of broken bicycles. A steady drip falls from it. I start to heave the pieces of bicycle aside, digging deeper. I work on, scraping through to the wet earth. Slime and muck cover my hands.
I turn the tap greedily.
Water pours out, cold and clean. I crouch, holding my head under the stream. I shiver as it runs down the back of my neck, turn and let it flow over my face.
I stand, saturated, hair plastered flat, T-shirt sticking to my body. I shake like a wet dog and crouch again. I cup my hands and drink and drink. I take the empty bottle from my bag and fill it to overflowing.
Couches crowd the back of the house, cushions torn and faded, springs jutting. A cracked engine block sits on an overstuffed armchair; I start to rock it back and forth, slowly at first and then faster and faster. It falls to the ground and lands hard on the concrete, splitting in two. I lower myself into the seat, put my feet up on an empty milk crate, take my mobile from my pocket, dial B’detta’s number again.
It rings and rings. I hang up. The seat sags under me.
The familiar smell of coffee burning in its pot wakes me from my sleep. I open my eyes; the sun is falling to the horizon. Nothing moves, no wind stirs. I force myself to my feet, hoist my bag to my back, and follow my nose.
The street stretches on, the footpath empty once again. Shadows gnarled and bent reach out, the skeleton fingers of trees baking in the heat. The burnt coffee smell grows stronger, leading me down a side street. Grim, abandoned factories tower over everything. I crunch through broken glass, wiping fresh sweat from my eyes.
The smell leads me to a faded terrace house sandwiched between two empty warehouses. The gate collapses as I push on it; I wade through the overgrown grass filling the front yard, the steps to the front door sink under my weight.
I knock. No one comes. I knock again and rattle the doorknob. The door sticks in the warped jamb. I ram it with my shoulder and it opens a little. I squeeze through the tiny gap, peer into the dark hallway, see an orange flicker in the kitchen beyond. The smell of smoke replaces the smell of burnt coffee. I hear something crackling, the sound of people walking on dry wood. A fire alarm starts and I hurry outside. I sit on the step and smoke lazily drifts past me.
I wait for the sirens. Nothing happens. I stand and walk away.
I walk on, and then turn a corner and stop dead. Nothing moves. Every window is closed, curtains drawn, sealed tight. I drop my bag and pull out my water bottle. I drink it dry. The wind suddenly picks up, and I shut my eyes against it.
Dust blows into me, at first only a little, and then more and more again. Coarse and fine, it gets past my collar and into my shirt. I open my eyes and in the air I see more dust and dry sand and the dirty mist of broken brick, swept up by the wind, taken from the half-built house all the grit once called home. I squint and reach out a groping hand and find an open gate. I walk through and tread a careful path into a ruined building.
The front door and the corridor behind it have survived whatever turned the rest of the building into slag and junk. I shelter there and peer outside through a cracked glass pane. Running my hands through my hair, I fill the air with dust. I catch my reflection in the glass, all smudged and fuzzy and wrong.
Dust still clings to my hair, turning it salt and pepper grey. Turning it old man grey.
I peer out again, as the wind blows a gale down the empty street. It picks up more dust and more sand and more mist of broken brick, and as it starts to change direction it whips it into strange figures and shapes. I look harder, and see faces I know, gestures I recognize: a wave, a smile, a shrugged shoulder and a raised eyebrow. I look again, and see B’Detta in the dirty air.
I hurry outside. The wind dies away and there’s nothing but dust and sand and mist, littering the street and choking the gutter.
I keep walking. At some point I stumble on a crack in the footpath, steady myself, look around, struggling to make things out. I take off my sunglasses and realise that twilight has happened. No street lights shine down, there’s no peak hour traffic. I walk faster, start to run, take lefts and rights at random, looking for a familiar landmark. I move to the middle of road.
I keep running.
The street comes to an end and I find myself back on my block. The delivery van still sits backed into the parked car, bathed in moonlight. I take my mobile from my pocket – its screen shows me nothing, its battery dead. Fumbling to put it away, I drop it to the ground instead. I keep walking.
The front door of my building is wide open; I slam it behind me and the glass shatters in its frame. As usual, the lobby is dark – I hold tight to the stair rail, feeling my way to my floor. The front door of my apartment is wide open, no light spills out, I can’t hear anything.
I hurry inside and lock the door behind me.
I flick the light switch and the globe flares and burns out. Feeling my way into the kitchen, I open the refrigerator. The smell of mould and off milk rises from within; I shut it quickly, feel my way into the lounge room, try the light switch. The globe there flares and burns out as well, and I curse my luck.
I sit on the couch, pick up the home phone, and dial B’Detta’s number. It rings and rings, over and over. I stand up and feel my way to the bedroom. I undress and get into bed and close my eyes. Outside the window, the wind begins to blow.
(Originally published in Breath and Shadow, July 2011)