The March of the Dead

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13

I saw it there ... standing in the paddocks ... the largest set of testicles I had ever seen on a kangaroo.

Damian’s arm came out to stop me.

‘That is not natural,’ he said.

It’s eyes blazed a hellish red, then it stomped towards us.

‘Run.’

*

That weekend, the weather was nice.

Mum, Dad and I went on another hike.

In the trees beside us as we walked along the bush track sat a rainbow lorikeet, squawking and nibbling at the nectar in the flowers of the bottle brush. Mum had stopped, gazing at it with her brown eyes. Her thin dark hand came and touched Dad’s lighter, more freckled hand. ‘Look. Isn’t it sweet?’ she said.

Having trekked along the track, we soon arrived in the picnic area. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The trees were a rich green on the outskirts of the reserve. The barbeque before us shone a bright red. Our bags sat around the picnic table ten metres or so from the barbeque.

Now Dad threw me the Frisbee, and I ran, smiling, hoping to catch it.

It slid right through my fingers, and I frowned as I jogged after it.

Soon after, morning sunlight beaming onto my black shirt, I poised to throw the Frisbee, yelling, ‘Here, Dad ... run ... run ....’ I threw it. That orange disk floated through the air as the man with the pudgy body ran across the clearing to catch it.

‘I got it ... I got it,’ he called, beer in hand. ‘I—’ But the disk floated all the way over towards the bushes. Dad’s shoulders slumped as he stood staring where it had gone, before raising his beer to his lips and taking a sip. He looked back at me. ‘I don’t got it,’ Dad said, gazing back at the wedged frisbee.

Now I had the footy on that grass. It was me versus my parents. I smiled as I tried stepping by Mum. I turned inwards from her, stepped back, performed a little shimmy, and ran down the sidelines. Dad giggled as he tried catching me, reaching for me with both hands now he’d finished his beer.

I peered back to see his balding scalp gleaming in that light, the thin brown hair around it dark and rich. I placed in a little chip. But Mum was there, storming towards the ball. She laughed out loud, her white dress fluttering about in the breeze.

... and there I stood outside the house, some fifty days or so after the end.

Were my parents in there?

Had they survived ...?

Or were they dead ... like every single other person in town.

I gazed at my front door, fear washing throughout me ....

Mum’s dark skin shone a rich brown in the early-morning sunlight, her dark hair curling down around her neck as it lay over her shoulder. She kicked the ball away, looking back to me. I saw her glasses, her brown eyes smiling. The slender frame of her body, even skin tone.

Thin arms.

Her sandals were a bright white, contrasting her darker skin tone. Her white dress glimmered in the sunlight as it rippled in the breeze. In this brightness, I noticed how gaunt her cheeks had become, that softness which used to be there before Beau had passed, replaced now by something firmer and more rigid, the glint in her eyes having faded.

Her shoulders were thinner than normal too, hair appearing like it had lost some of its shine.

Mum stepped back towards me, chest rising and falling. Dad giggled as he walked towards the ball resting over near the trees. Dad’s body was thicker, more pudgy than Mum’s. I detected that small bulge pressing against his Penrith Panther’s Jersey.

Dark freckles dotted arms and legs, that hair rich round the sides, thin in the middle. His thick arms, used for pulling, turning and fixing things sweated as he walked. I noticed how thick those forearms were, and recalled the times I’d shaken his hand, and how it’d felt like I’d put my hand right into the jaws of a shark.

Beside Mum, he was shorter, body rounded where hers was lean.

Dad grasped the ball, stepping back.

Staring at them as they gathered on the other side of the field, I felt a pang of pride for them, having come from rich Indigenous backgrounds and done so well. I hopped too that I would amount to something and make them proud.

And beneath this I wondered just how different ... how different would my life have been if my parents had had white skin and not black. How many taxis would have pulled away from me ...? How many guards would have followed me around the shops?

But my mind told me to stop it, that it was a blessing to be a First Nation’s boy, and a proud one at that.

I looked at my clothing. Nike. Adidas.

Where were my Korri symbols?

Where was my Koala totem necklace?

Dad thew the ball at me.

‘Jay-Jay, your kick-off.’

So I kicked off.

Dad ran at me with smooth, fluid movements. I stepped inside him, my stride long, fast.

‘You’re good,’ Mum said, puffing.

Midday sun now stretching over the looming trees surrounding us, Mum sat at the picnic table across from me. Birds sung in the trees.

Fresh roles sat on paper plates, fizzy drinks bubbling away in plastic cups. Sausages sat cooked and drizzling with oil on a tray, burnt in parts, brown and glistening in others. Dad snatched up a sausage in a set of tongs, laying it on white bread. Mum scoped some mixed salad up, laying it on my plastic plate, her gaunt hands bony and delicate beneath the sunshine. The tomatoes on the table reflected the sunlight.

Fizzy drink bubbled and fizzed.

Back at home Saturday night, I tried Kehlani’s number over and over.

Later on, I sat at the dining table with Mum with Dad. Before me sat some of the leftover sausages from today. Dad grabbed his beer, lifting it to Mum and me. The furniture was a rich mahogany. Glass walls showed dim trees in the darkness out back. Koori music sounding through the speakers.

‘To Beau,’ Dad said, that beer poised. His voice broke. ‘To ...’ He couldn’t finish, chin trembling.

I placed a hand on his shoulder.

‘To Beau,’ I said.

We clicked our respective drinks, and on the wall of the dining room a smiling Beau stared down at us, the photograph of the family picnic reminding me of where we had been that very day.

*

The incidents at St Paschal’s worsened near the end of the month.

On Wednesday, students carried or walked pets through the school in the morning.

Elisa Glover leading her dog along the playground, a large banner behind her reading, ‘St Paschal’s Pet and Livestock Day’. Across the Year Seven playground sat tables selling cupcakes and slices. A stack of hay lay on the basketball court, a school cow being fed as Xavier Cook stood beside it, a rope strung round its neck, the cow stooped as it grazed.

Two ducklings waddled across the playground, Piper and Julian from Year Seven scurrying after them. A blue budgerigar sat a cage, a grin over the face of a Year Eight girl’s rounded face as she waddled over to show a teacher. A sausage dog trotted along the pavement, smelling the crumbs on the ground from the students who’d been eating the cupcakes.

The day was gloomy and dull, thick clouds wedged in the sky, the air cool and biting. Black jumpers gleamed in the greyness.

In English, two dogs lay on the ground, a budgie arched over inside a cage on the table. The lights were soft and dull as we wrote our notes. Soon the bell sounded, students flooding out the doorway.

Zoe Bright stood outside. Students gathered around her pet duck, some gushing that it was the cutest animal they’d seen, others muttering comments like, ‘How cool.’

At lunch I heard the screaming.

I was collecting change from a cupcake I’d purchased with Cantey.

We stared at the sound. My legs turned to rubber as Cantey went running towards it. I followed him but had to literally drag my legs to get moving.

Soon I stood behind the gathering of onlookers.

There stood Daniel Vella, grasping Zoe’s duck, a blade—one I imagined he had snuck from the textiles room—gleaming in the weak light.

The sun tried peaking through those flat, low clouds, and soon light blazed into the eyes if everyone who had gathered around the boy holding that blade.

I squinted as I stood behind Cantey. As my heart thumped it reminded me of the noise of the hooves the cow had made against the cement playground earlier on.

‘You want it ...? You want ya stupid duck back?’ the boy screamed at Zoe as he stood on lawn bordering the back oval. The duck’s small, webbed feet fluttered in the air as it tried fleeing the hands of the boy.

It squawked and squawked. Zoe stood ten metres or so from the boy. Tears streamed down her parched white face, hands clasped before her in some eternal gesture of pleading. Zoe was stooped forwards as she shook her head, eyes red from crying.

’Please, leave Puddles alone. She’s my duck. Leave my duck alone!’ she screamed. But Zoe, like the rest of us, dared not come closer to the boy, for that blade shone as it pressed against the feathers of the duck’s long neck.

Mrs Burrows had neared from behind the gathering, and in an authoritative voice called, ‘Daniel. Put it down. Now.’

But there was a crazed grin over Daniel’s chubby face. He turned towards the teacher, shaking his head. He made a tsk, tsk, tsk sound, then closed more fingers around the neck of the duck flapping its wings in his grasp.

Zoe burst into tears, falling to her knees.

‘Don’t get any closer,’ Daniel screamed towards the twenty of so onlookers.

In my mind I saw the ripples, feeling the numbness streaming through me.

‘You want your duck? You want Puddles back?’ said Daniel, staring at Zoe, who cried so much now she was nearly choking on her tears. Zoe managed a nod, then stood, taking a step towards the boy.

Then I heard a someone else scream, and I looked away.

With eyes closed, listening to gasps and choked cries of students around me, I recalled someone yelling, ‘He’s insane... Daniel’s lost his mind. Oh God!’

A terrible squawk sounded throughout the area, echoing down in the playground behind me.

I opened my eyes. Zoe had fallen to her knees, her face now pale. Big, bulging eyes glared at Daniel.

‘You want your Puddles ...? You want your Puddles ...?’ Danial once more screamed at the kneeling girl. He stepped towards her, in his grasp something lumpy and bloody. On the grass behind him lay a bloody knife.

Mrs Burrows screamed as she hurried towards Daniel. Cane Miller had turned around from the onlookers, throwing up.

Just before Mrs Burrows reached Daniel, the sun burst from the cloud and lit-up some maniac smile over Daniel’s face.

Have your damned Puddles.’ He threw the bloody body in his hand at the kneeling girl. It slumped against her dress. Her eyes grew wide, jaw dropping.

People talked about Zoe’s scream for week’s afterwards, and how, even in the Community Centre two blocks away, they had heard it too.

*

For the rest of the day, during class, I could only stare at the Smartboard, the teacher’s words lost to me.

Sitting in class, I’d imagined Zoe’s face and those wide staring eyes.

I recalled the boy chuckling as students had run in, grasping him, remembering how he’d tilted his head back and muttering a random name over and over.

Deajii ... Deajii ... Deajii ... here ye lie ...

On the bus ride home, those paddocks stretched off. Sunlight blared.

I received a text that night: Ur the most horible boyfriend in the entire fking world. I h8 U.

It was the first text she had given me in five days.

I waited for her at the gates of the school in the morning. I heard chatter about Daniel, how he’d been, or was about to be, expelled from school.

Kehlani didn’t look at me when she neared. So I walked up to her.

‘God. Kehlani. Let me explain. Please,’ I said. It felt like I almost begged her as we stood in front of that school that morning.

Her friend, a red-head with pretty eyes and pleasant skin tried yanking her away.

A few grey clouds in an otherwise clear sky.

‘Come on, Kel. You’re too good for him. Come on.’

But I would glance at Kehlani throughout the day, and notice something was upsetting her, making her feel miserable. It was that blank-faced stare as she sat with friends at lunch, or her slow movements when removing her calculator during maths.

She walked from class in that same sluggish manner. In English, when the teacher asked her questions, she would take some time before she responded, and when she did her voice was drained of life.

Her hair looked frazzled, skin like it hadn’t been touched by a lot of sun lately. Her freckles were faint and ghost-like.

Sun lowering towards the large gums across the road, I jogged towards her after school. A mild breeze swept through. Our uniform with the blacks and greys and whites held the gloom of the clouds. The students’ hair was the brightest parts of them.

‘Please.’ I touched her hand. ‘Let me explain, babe. Just give me a moment.’

Dark skin against white.

*

We sat in the coffee shop.

Kehlani stared out that window.

She hadn’t touched her coffee.

Afterwards, we walked outside together.

She turned to me. Stared me in the eyes.

She touched my chest.

‘If you ever ... ever again.’ She started whacking and whacking me. And I let her.

I took her out to Four Seasons and got her a three-course meal. The waiter, with the white cap, brought out tray after tray of Chinese food. Here came a dish of smoking beef in oyster sauce, while soon after a sizzling crispy-skin duck dish.

Desserts—mooncakes and mango pudding—were placed on our tables later, the entire time the chef flipping meat and diced vegetables and savories over on the hot plate in the corner. Afterwards, I took her to see ‘Weebly’s Crazy Space Day’ at Burarra Cinema, and we giggled in the parts we were meant to. At one point she grabbed my hand after Weebly the mouse had bumped into Pester the cat. I smiled, looking to her, but she released my hand.

The end of the night came. By then we were eating rainbow ice creams out front of Cold Rock on Morrison. The stars were many in the sky, and I believed they were coming back to her eyes too. ‘You look so hot babe,’ I said, and leant in to kiss her, but she pulled away. She pushed me in the chest twice, her glance one of arrogance, mistrust and humour as we sat beneath the orange glow of a streetlamp.

Across from us, a violin player, case open on the pavement before him, strummed warm gentle notes.

‘Please. You’ll have to try a little harder if you want to win me back, Blinky.’ She shook her head, looking away.

So I tried calling every night, just to say a quick hi.

One day we went up to the skatepark to hang with a few of our friends who were in connected groups. There, on one of the seats over looking the ramp, as the sun moved behind the basketball hoop at the far end, the girl with the long blonde hair and fair skin touched my hand.

She looked at me.

‘It’s going to be hard for me to trust you again.’

I leant closer, touching her other hand.

‘Babe ... I ... I ....’ I stared into her eyes, mine blue, hers a paler blue. We continued gazing as a sunset glinted off our faces, hers white, mine darker.

‘I’ll never stuff up again, babe,’ I said, moving in to kiss her. ‘I love you.’ I tilted her chin up towards me.

She slapped me twice in the chest.

‘Cheesy dick,’ she said, pulling away.

I giggled.

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