The March of the Dead

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6

There I lumbered along the road, one burnt-out car after another. Smoke billowed up in the air. From far, far off the sound of another dying man, but I was used to that now.

*

We wandered back on the bush track.

I recalled the view before us, those valleys full of blackened, charcoal trees, some ocean-of-the-dead stretching towards the horizon.

Dad had stood there gazing out. ‘What the heck have they done to my country?’ He’d said.

That night the dreams returned.

I strolled through this ocean of dead trees. The scent of blackened burnt wood wafted throughout. From those hidden areas behind the charcoal stumps came the sounds of little girls laughing. I strolled through the darkness.

Upon waking, a sickness sat in my stomach.

At recess, Monday, I saw him again. The same boy who had climbed up onto the roof last time.

This time Mr Brennan climbed up the branches of the tree the boy had, I presumed, used to reach the roof. The boy, Levi, stood near the edge, eyes burning with fire, rambling those strange incoherent phrases.

No one saw Levi fall.

For at that moment, the sun reached over the buildings and blasted into our eyes. Maybe some of us saw something drop, but it would have looked like a blur. Soon the orange turned to red, however, as we stared at the shape on the ground.

That morning, throughout St Paschal’s, the conversations were quiet, the atmosphere bleak.

That very afternoon, security dressed in yellow vests arrived at our school.

*

Cantey threw his head back, chuckling.

His voice nearly squeaked as he spoke. Before him sat a coke, dew running down the side of it. Around us, waiters bustled and chefs called demands from the kitchen.

On the walls of the pizzeria hung pictures of beaches or cities in Italy. Up near the door hung a picture of those iconic small Italian streets, a little motorbike riding through them. By the menu, a beach-scape glowing in the morning sun, the abodes blazing white.

Kids, parents, teens chattered and giggled, and despite a cool bite to the air outside (being that we were heading deeper into autumn), the pizzeria was warm inside.

A waiter arrived.

‘Pepperoni Ham Deluxe,’ he said with a grin, laying down a glinting pizza with bubbling cheese and shining pineapple. The pepperoni glistened, strips of bacon running through it in parts.

Before the waiter had even strolled away, Turner reached, pulling a long slice, the cheese stretching from his slice to the rest of the pizza. Robbo reached forwards, eyes ablaze with desire

Tuesday, my friends and I played up on the park above Evie’s. Walby had the ball. I put a really, really good hit on him. The ball shot from his hands.

‘Hit, Blinky.’

We stuffed round for a bit on the grass, Cantey throwing his Allen’s Snakes Alive into our hair as we tried grasping them, tossing them back at him. Soon after, the boys changed into their shorts beneath their towels. It was at this point my confidence fled me.

In my mind I was standing beneath those clouds at the cemetery, two years back now. Uncle Ryan was there, dressed in a suit three sizes too large after attending the Jenny Craig diet. Auntie Lauren’s nice skin looked murky in the dull light. There stood little Dan, the kid’s eyes beaming as he took in the surroundings. And lower, lower went Beau’s coffin.

Something strangled the inside of my throat.

Now, as the boys shuffled on down that sandy riverbank towards the river, that ball sat thick and large in my throat again.

I stared from where I stood on the grass, the riverbank lowering towards the beach over boulders, old dead trees poking from the dirt. The beach, Evie’s, sat at the base of the riverbank, spilling over the river.

Small brown and grey pebbles dotted the sand. From a distance, the beach looked pleasant, a place mothers with children could have fun, but beyond the beach, that river flickered and flowed.

It shimmered in the afternoon light. Behind it, large gums rose to the gods, jutting from the bank on the far side like horrendous cancers breaking forth. People splashed about in the river. Here two kayakers paddled, their crafts bumping up and down. Jessica Fraser and Brittany Ellis stood near the shore in bikinis, some of the boys pointing and nodding at them as they strolled down.

Leo Crane and his girlfriend also wandered down, his toned back glinting in the afternoon light. His girlfriend’s fine and tanned body also absorbed those orange rays. Both Leo’s and Maeve’s hair looked immaculate and fresh, nothing on either of their bodies out of place.

And down, down sank that long white coffin at the cemetery, while in my throat the ball rose.

‘Beau?’ I think I managed to mutter.

I felt Mum’s cold hand touch my shoulder, her grasp so weak it seemed like she was dead too. Dad sobbed beside Mum. I gazed to see tissues in his hands, hands which shook like he had Alzheimer’s. His suit was dull and murky in the overcast day, skin awful looking.

Lower, lower those boys now stepped towards the river, and there I stood up top, that ball rising and rising.

The sun sank behind some of those hideous gums on the far side. And back at the cemetery I turned to Mum, saying, ‘What’s goin on, Mum ...? What’s goin’ on with Beau?’

Mum’s face contorted, shoulders shaking.

Kehlani brushed a soothing hand across my back, warm lips touching my cheek. ‘They understand, Blinky. You don’t need to go in. Just relax, just relax.’

But now the boys splashed round in the water, droplets glinting a perfect orange in the dying light, while at the cemetery came the sounds of moaning and a priest chanting, the sounds of comforting words whispered to my parents beside me.

Dad lowered his head, eyes closing. His mouth formed an awkward moan,

while Cantey, from the water, threw his head back and laughed, splashing water

over and over Walby’s face.

And the priest chanted beside the grave, ‘May God have mercy on his soul, and angels guide him into Heaven. May the Lord’s Will be with Beau as he transcends his physical shell. May he live in the arms God’s Grace, nurtured by the Angels who have gone before him.’

And sunlight pierced into my vision at the park, my heart stinging it thumped so hard.

My legs were caving in.

Turner’s voice called from the water, ‘Oi, Blinky. Get down here. It’s nice.’

But I was shaking my head.

My hands were as damp as though I’d dipped them in the water, and beside the coffin my hands shook as the white box dropped further and further.

A rumbling sounded in the sky. Black umbrellas popping up.

My mother sniffled, her own black umbrella rising, and for some reason this was too much for Dad. He turned around, arching over, a hand over his face. Uncle Ryan came towards him, those clothes nearly sliding off him as he placed an arm round Dad.

And lower, lower went that box, while now stood only one brother.

‘Where’s he goin’, Mum ...? What are you doing with Beau?’ I asked, my voice with the lightness of that of a fourteen year old.

I stared up at her, her face white, stark and beautiful. I wanted to beat my hands against her slim black dress and yell, ‘Where the heck are they taking my bro ...? Bring him back bring him back bring him back bring him back,’ but I just stared up at my mother, my face no doubt sombre and white as well.

And more giggling drifted up on the evening breeze as I stood atop the bank, the sun burning at the horizon above the hill leading up to the Bowling Club.

And at the wake Dad stood in the centre of the room, Ryan and my cousin Andrew consoling him, and when no one was talking to me I slunk through the crowd and out the doors and ran, ran through the cemetery. And there above the beach I turned around, and as I walked off Kel called, ‘Blinky, where you going? Blinky? Get back here.’

But I was running now, running in that evening light. And in my dreams, I strolled through the blackened and burnt trees, the sounds of the girls’ giggles fluttering throughout the air. I glazed right and left, seeing, in the darkness, a blur of a figure dancing from one tree to the next.

Now I stood in some dusty old tomb, and before me lay an old cement coffin. I stepped towards it.

Dust matted its surface. I swept my hand over the inscription on the lid, seeing Dad’s name. Horror swept throughout me. I stared, then noticed the other stone coffin beside it, this one reading Katie Eastern, with the date Mum had died. And I ran along the road of the cemetery, my breaths thick in my ears. I looked at the graves I ran past, a sadness so thick inside of me I thought maybe I would soon be joining them soon.

My vision was blurring now as I dashed, but in that blackened forest at night-time the trees were shady black outlines, the girls’ giggling sounding from behind one. I stopped ... turned ....

There ... waiting behind me in the forest ... a figure.

I stared.

The shadowed figure stared back at me.

‘Who are you? What are you that stalks me in the darkness, in my dreams and my mind, in the shadows? Always showing up. Was it you who took Beau? Was it? Was it?’ My last question was almost screamed, but my only response was a long sweeping breeze breathing through the pines, and that shadowed outline standing forevermore, staring.

Now it was dark. There I stood, alone, back at Evie’s.

That ball sat there as always, wedged, chocking.

Stepping towards the point the sand reached the water, a tear burnt in my eye. Above, the moon shone, large, thick, glinting.

I shook my head.

‘Damn you. Damn you,’ I rasped, staring into the flow, and in those dreams I saw the coffin in that tomb, that ugly old stone box, Jarli ‘Blinky’ Eastern inscribed into it. That horror flowed throughout me. I stared ahead of me in this darkened, soulless place, stared to those blackened corridors before me. Fear shuddered throughout me, pupils dilating as I stood there.

My heartbeat doubled as I noticed someone standing in the shadows of the stone corridor.

Beau?

That you?

The person stared back at me.

I stepped backwards, turned, and now I jogged through the woods, but it was a male’s laughter ringing throughout now, and back at the park I stumbled over a boulder, and still Kehlani’s calls came drifting towards me on the breeze. I slowed, taking in long breaths, and back in the woods, darkness gleaming, I turned, staring back through the trees.

And as always, the darkened figure watched, a long white smile on his face. I come for you, said the man shadowed by the trees, and the breeze turned all the hairs on my arms upwards.

And there, among the pines at Evie’s, I shivered.

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