The March of the Dead

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9

I was sitting in Mr Provosty’s class when Aisha came up to me.

‘You heading up to watch the play at the theatre after school?’

I looked left and right, double checked Kehlani wasn’t around, or anyone that would speak to her, then looked back up at Aisha. She looked fine and tall, her dark hair curling down round her shoulders. That jumper showed her curvaceous figure, its colour contrasting to her brown paleness. Several moles sat on the soft skin of her face.

My voice nearly choked when I answered.

‘Yeah. I mean, sure. Isn’t everyone going?’

*

‘Sure babe?’ I said.

Kel had her head down, reading from the maths textbook on the table.

Throughout the Homework Centre, three or four others worked in a similar fashion, heads downcast, pens in hand. Some took notes as they read. Many students wore earplugs or a set of headphones. A single teacher stood monitoring us.

‘Sorry, babe.’ Her forehead creased in a look of sympathy, her blue eyes blazed more than the desktop background of some Hawaiian island on the screen behind her. Tables gleamed from the spray the cleaners had just used. One cleaner still knocked about some of the chairs in the room as he vacuumed.

‘I need to study for my Chem.’ A small, thin hand pressed against my firm stomach as I stood there. ‘You go. Tell me how it was.’

So after school I went up the road towards Morrison. The afternoon traffic was thick, blazing cars of all colours zooming by one way or the other. Streams of students in black jumpers and chequered dresses or grey trousers strolled up the footpath on Phariss Street. On the sides of the road, houses stood in the glowing afternoon light, painted a warm orange.

A certain aggression streamed throughout the traffic beside me, a kind of impatience. Cars honked, or sped, or slammed brakes. Motorists yelled out windows. Vehicles came within inches of others when stopping.

One man in a business suit yelling out the window in a squeaky voice, ‘Hurry the heck up. I’ve got a show to get to.’ He honked. ‘Hurry up!’ his voice popping on the ‘up’. I’d almost, almost chuckled as I’d passed the car on the footpath.

Up on Morrison, it wasn’t much better as car after car sat unmoving on the main street, people streaming across the zebra crossing outside the supermarket. Groups of students in black and grey or the blue of Burarra Public strolled along the walkway beside the shops, the St Paschal’s shirt gleaming white, hair fashioned into modern patterns.

Two students dressed in the blue of Burarra Public smoked as they strolled, the smoke billing towards the awning which blocked out the lowering sun. Hordes of shoppers ambled along, including a mother with a pram, kids dressed in nice cosy clothes for autumn, beanies covering heads while mittens were worn by others.

A man drove along on the footpath inside a brand-new orange mobility chair, nearly running over families as he drove. A lady buzzed along in a wheelchair. A kid led his dog, the dog sniffing at bins and poles and chairs as it trotted along the red tiles behind the boy. Above, the sun had slipped behind some gathering low clouds. In the distance there was a rumble, and soon the world turned a dull grey, those I walked not already wearing jumpers, fishing for them through school bags or handbags.

Older ladies started removing umbrellas. Kids now dashing across the zebra crossing.

Soon I sat with Cantey and the fellas in Burgers on Morrison.

’You actually going to go to that stupid shit?’ Cantey said, biting into the side of his Morrison Burger, chewing, so that when he next spoke his mouth was full and little bits of this or that spat down on the chequered tablecloth.

‘Those things suck balls. I’d rather have my head stuffed up the arse of a fifty-year-old man than go to that.’ Walby banged his hand against the table as he laughed, then shook his head, leaning forwards and snatching some fries. Turner reached forwards to swat at Walby’s hand.

’Bro, you’ve had all the fries so far—get out of it, ya sneak.’

Two of the other boys burst into giggles. My face felt sore from having smiled so much since entering the burger bar.

The sun lowered outside.

Now I strolled alone along the footpath. Soon a large brick building came into view up ahead. Streams of children and parents waited in line out front. I headed there, soon waiting in line with Adam from class. The line shuffled forwards, as did we.

Then I was seated inside the theatre. Through the harsh lights, I saw Aisha near the front, talking to her friend. Her features were smooth and golden in the light.

Soon came a hush, the lights dimming.

Taliah Hince, a nice-looking girl with a thin figure and brown wavy hair stepped out through the curtains. I would have liked to say I felt some kind of stirring for her, some inclining of desire as I sat in the gloom of the theatre, crammed in beside Adam and Gabby Waugh, but my attention drifted to the dimly lit girl sitting up front, and how even in this dull light that skin managed to shine.

I saw the softness of her face and sparkle of her nose ring, the shine of that necklace on her chest. Her jumper had all but disappeared into the darkness.

Suddenly the lights blared onto the audience. People were clapping, but me, I was staring. I couldn’t move. Her eyes shone gold and brilliant from those lights, and then I did applaud, oh yes I did, for what I saw that night was true beauty, and my mouth felt like I hadn’t tasted that fine sugary sweetness from my Coke, it was so dry. Although I was sitting, my legs were as weak as though I’d just completed an eight-hour shift at Maccas.

A stinging pain erupted in my chest. I stared away from her. Kehlani ... Kehlani, I thought.

Later, the buzzer sounded for intermission.

I needed air. I was suffocating.

There I stood outside, alone.

Other groups of students and some parents stood out in the courtyard before the large old building. I took a few steps towards the road, staring up at nice glinting stars.

Laughing from behind.

I sat down on the low brick wall which separated the courtyard from the footpath, pulling out my mobile. It was then I heard her voice.

I glanced over.

Aisha stood with her friend. They chatted and giggled. Her friend squealed, running up to one of the guys from my year who stood with another group. Aisha smiled, started turning in my direction, and as she stepped towards her friend, her gaze found mine.

She stopped, her smile expanding as her hands found her hips. ‘Whatta you think of it so far, Blinky?’ she asked.

Her green eyes penetrated through me in a way that forced me to me look away. I found my mouth even dryer now from the experience. I wondered if, from where she stood, she could hear my heart thudding.

I stood, clearing my throat, trying to find some voice, trying to find some escape rout or someone else to chat to who wouldn’t cause this panicked reactions like she did.

Then I said perhaps the stupidest thing anyone could have said in their whole lives.

‘I don’t know ... I think I could have done better myself, actually. The actors are pretty shit, tell you the truth.’

I don’t know, I just didn’t know what else to say. My face flushed with heat. Now I did want to run. Truth was, the acting had been pretty good, I was just strung for words.

Aisha laughed, lowering her head. She stepped over towards me. Something—butterflies, actual real live butterflies—fluttered through my stomach, and I was certain they would soon be fluttering out from my mouth and up there towards the bright moon in a sky now clear of clouds.

I couldn’t meet her gaze, and it appeared like I didn’t need to, because Aisha sat beside me, and even though in reality we only talked there for a few moments, I recall the exchange had felt like forever.

I looked away, thinking about Kehlani.

’Well, do you want to do acting when you leave school, Blinky? I hear there’s good money in it,’ said Aisha.

Again I blushed, looking down, before shaking my head. My mobile was still out, Kehlani staring up at me from the screen with a beaming grin.

Aisha reached over, grasping for it. ’Wow, she’s so freaking hot, Blinky. She’s your girlfriend?’

She had taken the phone. I was arching over, looking at the photo myself. I felt that thumping in my ribs, and tasted that dryness once more. My pupils felt wider than the moon, and I wondered if she had touched my hand when she’d grasped the phone, and hoped she hadn’t felt how damp my hand had been.

I nodded. ‘I’m lucky, aren’t I. That’s my Kehlani.’

She gazed up at me, eyes wide. ’How in the heck did you get her?’ She giggled, shoving me.

I lowered my gaze, chuckling, my heart feeling like it had stopped working for those few moments I took her joke to be serious.

I recalled how she had shoved me, and how the hairs on my arm had turned upwards, as though my childhood movie star crush been touched me, and those butterflies had burst into a spasmic rhythm once more at the mere thought of her skin against mine. I wanted to swallow, but my mouth was too parched, so I tried standing instead, but with those weak legs even this task came with great difficulty.

My sweaty hand reached for the mobile, but by this stage, Aisha’s friend Sarah had called Aisha back over.

Aisha shoved my phone back towards me, and because I was standing, the phone hit my chest, those butterflies fluttering into a maddened frenzy again. A tingling sensation swept through my upper body.

My legs were about to cave in.

I grasped the mobile.

And her hand.

Aisha turned around.

Shocked, I took the phone, but did so with sweaty palms.

Our eyes met.

Hers a gleaming greenish brown, those colours merging into each other in little intricate dashes, dashes designed with such care and measurement. And I believed in that moment Aisha knew all my desires, all those secrets sweeping though me. I stood back and having grasped my phone, said no goodbye. I walked back towards the large brown doors of the theatre.

Those good-looking actors, with their over-the-top make up glinting white and perfect beneath the stage lights, and eyes shining from the same glow and their coloured costumes, and dramatic gestures and loud exaggerated voices went about their business up on stage.

I sat beside Adam, watching, my own eyes still wide. And not once I forgot her gaze.

Even as I walked home from the bus station in Alvey that night, I thought of that glace. I removed my phone to stare at Kehlani, and again rode up Govan Hill, those figures, the ones from inside the caves walking along behind my bike, all lit up by the glare of the truck lights.

They were shadowed figures. I was trying to pedal in this vision, but my chain had come off the chainring.

Now, on my street, I turned around. Beneath the streetlight lay a gathering of old autumn leaves in the gutter. In that hideous orange light, they gleamed a murky brown, or sour yellow, or rich bloody red, and I stared through that darkness but no figure followed me that night.

Someone, however, did walk along beside me as I walked home that evening, or at least I imagined Beau to.

I looked to the kid.

Beau ... Beau ... What am I doing? I’m messing it all up.

As this ghost-figure strolled beside me, I imagined him speaking. That red Valcom shirt writhed about in the breeze, his brown hair sweeping over his forehead. ‘When ya gonna let the girl go, Blinky? You like her, or what?’

I glared back at him. ’Who? Kehlani? She’s my girlfriend. I’d never let her go.’

A grin stretched across his face, that slick hair sweeping down, brown eyes shining

‘We’ll you’re doing your best to mess things up, kid. Trust me ... I know what that feels like.’ He glared up ahead for a moment, a glint of sadness to his eyes. A small cigarette burnt between his fingers, and he soon took a puff.

I stopped, looking at him. Beau also stopped, breathing out the smoke to his side.

I touched his arm. There, on the street, in real life, I imagined I touched nothing at all.

‘Tell me. Whatta I do? How do I ignore her?’

Beau stared at me, his skin beginning to rot, peeling away in the soft breeze. Those flakes fell from his body, but when they did, they were merely autumn leaves twirling and twisting to the ground from the branches above. And in my mind I heard the laugh of the man in my dreams, the one I’d come to know as the Deajii. Now when I turned behind, I imagined a figure there, a shadowed one, stepping over those dead leaves. I faced ahead again and continued forwards, but always from behind came the crunch, crunch, crunch of someone stepping along.

I passed the Waynes’ house, a neighbour our family was good friends with. The Labrador stood behind the fence, but on this gloomy night it didn’t bark once. Conversely, it actually trotted back towards the house, soon whining from the shadow of the veranda where it now crouched.

I looked behind again ...

And saw him ...

A darkened figure standing on the road.

Something swaying in its grasp.

I was now shaking, heart thumping, mouth like sandpaper. I tried coughing, but everything on the inside of my body appeared to have seized.

I turned, sprinting.

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