The March of the Dead

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7

I ran through the bush.

I could hear the things behind me, nearing.

I needed to find away out of this place.

My arse still stung from where the firework had exploded into it.

Suddenly ... ahead ... glowing red eyes ... staring.

*

Around those months before the end, Kehlani and I would go walking through Andalora Park out in her suburb.

As we strolled, brown, orange and gold autumn leaves would lay on the green grass. On one of these walks, her thin white hand reached out for mine. Once more I marvelled at the contrast of our skin colour, and yet how compatible we remained as girlfriend and boyfriend.

Her skin was pale, freckled, at times transparent if the light was right and she was chilly or tired enough. I saw the sweeping dash of freckles over her small nose. Those eyes, which shone like blue beacons had so much more energy in them than the grey cold sky above. Her legs were nice and freckled in the dull afternoon light. I leant forwards, kissing her.

With set of swings resting to my right, I said, ‘I love you, babe. I always will.’

We kissed, and although no music played in the background, there was music enough in our own ears, I assure you that.

That autumn, the popular songs were ‘Take Me Now’ by Market-Day Revenge and ‘Sing It, Baby,’ by Rob Allen. In that moment, I have no doubt she, like I, played these songs in her heads. As we kissed, I detected the taste of those mints she’d been chewing on after we’d snacked on fries.

I sat at the edge of Evie’s Beach on Wednesday, the clouds thick and grey. A horrid crackle came from them. I felt weak, my hands shaking as I stood there. A hollowness resounded throughout my body, my chest stinging. My eyes felt dry as a cool breeze pushed through me, a bitterness oozing through my veins.

‘I ... Beau ...,’ I said, staring into the flow. Soon after I sat down on the pebbles. When I spoke next my voice sounded dead, like my body had just shut down and died in the last minute. ‘You left me, boy ... you left me.’ I tossed a pebble out to the river.

The pebble slapped the water, and although I presumed the pebble would skim a few beats along the surface, it simply sank, leaving no great acknowledgement for its existence at all. And even still those ripples continued flashing and flickering.

I lowered my head.

‘Did you think about Mum and Dad, kid?’

A wave of anger rushed throughout me. I stood, walking to that small gum poking from the beach. I noted its rough trunk and smell of eucalypt, and raised a single fist towards the stump. I wanted to bash that fist against the bark, just to feel something, or perhaps release something, but instead I placed my palm against the tree, closing my eyes on that gloomy afternoon.

And in my mind I stood over that bright new gravestone in the cemetery, Mum and Dad beside me. I stared at the inscription, and its remarkable glinting gold in the morning light.

May he Always be Remembered.

Hot tears formed in my eyes.

I jabbed at the tree. As my fist struck, bark snapped, pain swelling throughout my hand. I punched the trunk again, a dull thud sounding.

Voices approached from up top of the bank, but I jabbed the trunk with my left again anyway.

In the evening, just out of town, I jogged and panted, passing those long brown paddocks. I looked left to where hills rose in the distance, imagining Beau beside me, his grin wide and cheeky, hair whipping about. ‘Miss me, bro? Miss me, do you?’ he asked.

‘Yeah ... I do freakin miss you.’

In class on Thursday, Mrs Jamal’s voice interrupt my thoughts as I sat there.

‘Cole? You okay, love?’ I gazed at the teacher, having been staring out the classroom window to the nice day. I looked down to my math book, noting my half complete trigonometry. Weakness swelled throughout me, my hands too weak to even grasp the pen before me.

That afternoon, I stared out the lounge room window, seeing Mum digging away in the garden. Behind where she knelt sat another new pot, tag dangling.

I moved out.

‘Hey, Mum,’ I said. When she heard my voice, she remained facing the other way. I stepped over to her in that waning light, my dark arms enfolding her slender frame as she stood there.

She smelt of musky perfume and shampoo I pressed further into her. I saw her silver necklace, and how it reflected the afternoon light as she trembled.

Inside the Chinese restaurant two days later, Dad raised his beer glass.

A warm golden light lingered, waiters drifting across the floor with steaming dishes. One headed towards us now. ‘To a good night,’ Dad said. The waiter, his skin pale and hair dark and shirt glowing placed the tray of steaming Sichauan Pork on the table.

As I sat with Kehlani inside the diner of Burgers on Morrison Tuesday afternoon, a man stared in at me from outside, his skin sickly grey and eyes bloodshot.

Before me, Kehlani grinned as she tilted her Coke to her lips. Behind her, through the glass, the man with bloodshot eyes glared and glared at me, mouthing something horrible.

A waiter stopped, streaming tray of beef and black bean poised in his hands. The figure outside the window splayed a hand against the glass, those cold dark eyes glaring at me. As the window fogged up from his breathing, he drew a picture of a noose with his finger.

And through the forest the sounds of the girls’ giggling rose and rose, and between the tree trunks a body swayed, back and forth, back and forth.

And then my world ended.

*

The weather changed throughout Burarra early April.

The autumn breeze cooled daily, while each morning more low grey clouds neared town from the horizon. Each week more and more students donned the black cotton jumpers worn in winter at St Paschal’s, the one with that gold logo reading Peace and Joy. The girls would turn up to school in dark stockings, much to the disappointment of a few of my friends, who made this known with muttered slurs or shakes of the head.

I noticed too that Aisha wore those stockings, but this disappointment I kept to myself.

On April the 5th, after the bell had gone to signal the end of Science, Aisha stood over by the bench placing equipment back into the box. I stood by the far wall, putting my own utensils away. She looked over, dark hair sliding from her back and wrapping around her shoulder. ‘Didn’t get out on time either?’

I shook my head, shrugging. ‘It was my turn to pack up. Next time, Walby is doin’ it.’

Beneath that overcast day outside, Aisha and I walked towards the canteen. Around us, those dark jumpers absorbed the dull grey light. Students laughed and joked as they ate recess. People swatted hand balls or sat in small groups, others loitering around small brick walls, chatting about the weekend.

I noticed the dyed hair on some of the girls and the boys’ baseball caps glowing in the eerie light. The sun was strangled behind the low thick clouds, a cool breeze prickling my arms. The air that day was cool, but not as cool as what would come. Those old sandstone buildings sat discoloured and gloomy in the dull grey light.

We neared the canteen, a small, square building. Beside the towering Food Tech classrooms and large brown awing of the playground, the canteen looked like a pathetic little shack, some afterthought to the school. Beside me, the Year Nine playground reached off towards the entrance of the school. The playground was a giant sweeping of cement, punctured at times only by square little gardens with the odd gum or paperbark growing from them.

Behind me sat the Music rooms, where no doubt Isla Gregory and her group would be right now, slapping away at instruments.

’It gets chilly here in Burarra, doesn’t it?’ Aisha said, folding her arms. She too wore the black St Paschal’s jumper, and with her nice pale brown skin and dark hair, it looked like the jumper had been made especially to suit her subtle shades. I noticed those soft, tanned hands, and how smooth they were, and for a moment wondered what her fingers would feel like between my own.

Her eyes sparkled a bright green in the dull light.

Soon Kehlani, whose skin shone incredibly white in this grey light, stood before Aisha and I.

‘Took your time,’ Kehlani said, snatching my hand to pull me away.

Kel turned back, staring at Aisha a moment. Aisha extended her hand, her silver medallion reflecting what small light was available. ‘Hi, I’m Aisha,’ she said.

Kehlani smiled. ‘I know.’ She pulled on my arm, forcing me to follow as she walked off.

*

I wandered back to Kehlani’s house with her that evening, more of those low grey clouds sneaking closer from the west. Cars whooshing by on the road, I couldn’t hold it back any longer.

’Babe, that was so freakin rude what you did this morning,’ I said. ’Couldn’t you have freakin just said hi to her? She’s my friend from cl—’

Kehlani cut me off. Her face was almost red. ‘I don’t want you hanging around that girl, okay?’

’Why the heck not? We’re friends.’

Are you?

Kehlani still glared at me. She looked somewhat smaller than usual as she stood there. A car, with a bunch of primary school kids inside passed by, the kids staring out at us. I lowered my shoulders as I stood there, taking a deep breath.

Kel didn’t look me in the eyes, rather, she shook her head before looking away. ‘I ....’ Her gaze rose again to meet mine. Her voice now sounded weak. ‘She’s really pretty, Blinky. I don’t want you hanging around her.’

Her voice also sounded soft, almost pained. My eyes widened. A look, I hope, of sympathy and shock crossed my face as I reached forwards, touching her hand. ‘Babe? Are you serious?’

She looked away.

I did it then.

Pulled her in, tilted her face towards mine. She looked away again, but once more I tilted her face back towards me.

‘You know who the sexiest girl in the entire world is?’ I said in a soft voice, staring at her, my own eyes, I imagined, deep blue, hers a lighter blue. My skin would have looked brown and nice, least I hoped, and she would have seen the few moles on my face and my dark eyelashes. I stared at her thin pink lips, wondering if she thought mine full and rich. As I touched her shoulder, I wondered if my smooth, dark skin attracted her.

‘Do you?’ I asked.

Kehlani, her hair blonde and long and smooth, shook her head, staring down. I tilted her face back up for the third time.

I felt my hair falling in my eyes, wavy and smooth, and knew I’d need a haircut soon.

‘You are, babe,’ I said, learning forwards. Our lips touched, hers soft and gentle, mine full and rich. Beneath those approaching grey clouds we stood by the busy roadside, and cars zooming by I felt her lips rise into a grin as we kissed.

Later that evening, at hers, I brushed my hair in the mirror, while behind me the low warm light emanated from her bedside light as Kehlani sat at her study.

I once more noticed my dark skin and cold blue eyes. I saw the firmness of my jaw, and the way my curly brown hair fell over my forehead. For a moment I imagined Aisha beside me, playing with that hair, and a shudder swept throughout me.

*

I held Kehlani’s hand as we walked along Morrison the following evening. Soon we pulled into Cafe 36.

Outside, cars whooshed by. Before her, Kehlani had the Lovatts’ Crossword book, her forehead creased. Her eyes were not visible as she stared down at the two open pages.

Me, I was happy enough just to sit there, to look at the people walking past in the outside world, so far away from our little hollow there in the cafe. I listened to the radio playing old jazz songs and smelt the scent of caffeine from everyone else’s coffees, and life was okay.

But of course the dreams continued, and their laughs sounded, and now I saw it in the forest, in the distance between the trees, a figure, and an arm stretched out towards me as water dripped from it.

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