Misstep in the Dark
Ferne Merrylees (University of Newcastle, Australia)
1. To Lose a Baby Tooth
“Mum,” Josh said, feet swinging above the tiled white floor, “have you ever lost a tooth?” The double gap in his teeth made him lisp. Mum thought it was adorable. It was annoying. I rolled my eyes, sinking further into my ugly grey airport chair. At least my feet could touch the ground.
“Of course I have, sweetie.” Mum peeled back his clammy hands to reveal a piece of tissue, bloody and carefully wrapped around two baby teeth. “The Tooth Fairy used to visit me when I was little too.” Josh looked a bit incredulous.
“You were little?”
I snorted. “Of course she was, stupid. Mum was a kid once too, you know.”
“Don’t call me stupid!” he whined, but didn’t hit me like he normally would, occupied with cradling his precious holey cargo. They’d been wobbling for days and he’d refused to take me up on my generous offer to yank them out. Dad had promised Josh a new game for his headset if they’d fallen out by the time he flew in.
“Emma,” Mum warned as she ran a soothing hand through Josh’s dark mop.
“Whatever,” I said. I returned to watching the reflections in the floor to ceiling windows. It was too bright inside to see out across the tarmac, where sleek planes were waiting in the heavy rain with lights flashing and propellers humming.
“How much did the Tooth Fairy give you?” Josh asked.
“For my front two teeth a whole dollar,” Mum said. “That was when we still used coins.”
“Geez, you grew up in the Dark Ages, Mum.” I stood with a grunt. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Take Josh with you,” Mum called out. I groaned, but held out my hand with a shake. Josh wiggled from his chair, carefully putting his teeth inside his vest pocket. “Make sure you don’t lose him,” Mum said, as if I’d do something like that on purpose.
“I promise,” I muttered.
Josh took my hand and I grimaced, wanting to wipe off his stickiness.
“Come on runt. How does a chocolate cola sound?” I pushed through the milling crowd. I didn’t see any other kids, but it was late and by the time we caught the shuttle home it would be well after curfew. I double-checked to make sure Josh’s pass was wrapped securely around his wrist, the same neon yellow as my own.
“When’s Dad getting here?”
“Soon,” I answered automatically. His bottom lip began to wobble and I sighed. “Look, see those screens?” He nodded. We stopped in front of the display and I scanned the arriving flights. “That flight there’s Dad’s. Says it’ll be landing soon.”
I was turning to drag him to a drinks booth when the screens flickered. I stopped and Josh ran into my legs, steadying himself with a fistful of my jacket. A strange lull swept through the terminal.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Around us the crowd began to shift nervously, tension mounting, then everyone was frantic, pushing and shouting.
“We have to get back to Mum,” I said. I lifted him up onto my hip, even though he was starting to get too big. “Hang on squirt.”
I forced my way towards the lounge, Josh watching me, his blue eyes wide and his free hand clasping the pocket that held his baby teeth.
“It’ll be okay. Mum’ll know what to do,” I assured him.
Then I spotted Mum. Invincible, unstoppable Mum was standing on her chair, arms clasped around her stomach as if she was in pain. She was searching the crowd for us and, even when her bag was kicked and the contents strewn across the floor, she didn’t stop looking.
“Josh! Emma!” she cried out as she spotted us. She leapt from her perch and wrapped her arms around me, Josh squished between us.
“Mum, what’s going on?” I asked, shouting as the noise around us increased. “I saw the screens. Dad’s flight…everyone’s flight… how can they all be terminated?”
“They’ve closed the borders. The country is in quarantine.” Her voice shook. She gestured towards the news-screens where the bold proclamation ran across the bottom of the program like ribbon. There’s mention of a synchronised terrorist attacks in New London, Hong Kong, New York … the list of cities grows longer, and a bioweapon. “They say indefinitely.”
“What’s in-deaf-ant-ly?” Josh piped up. Mum’s lip began to quiver.
“It means we won’t be seeing Dad soon,” I answered.
“But what about my baby teeth? I wanted to show him I’m not a baby anymore!” he pouted.
“Hang onto them tightly. You can show him next time you see him,” I said, sharing a glance with Mum over his head. I promised myself right then that I wouldn’t cry.
2. The Use of Hats
The shuttle slid past with a soft hum, blank faces peering out, not batting an eye, even when I thumped the window with a closed fist.
“Wait!” I called after it, out of breath, but it was no use. I glanced at my watch and groaned. “Dammit! Come on Josh. I’m going to be in so much trouble!” I grabbed his hand, which he promptly shook off, almost glaring down at me.
Another year and he would tower over me, which annoyed me no end. His black school cap was perched at an odd angle, the school crest clearly marked, but at least he hadn’t turned it inside out like yesterday.
“It’s not my fault we missed the shuttle,” Josh grumbled. His hat covered his eyes, but I could see his chin jutting out as he sulked. “You should take better care of your stuff.”
Thankfully he began moving, staying one step ahead of me as we weaved our way along the sidewalk. His school was only two blocks away, just past the Entertainment Quarter, and it wouldn’t take us long to reach the gated entrance. My school, however, was on the other side of Media Square and if we didn’t hurry, I’d land myself another detention.
“I know you hid my shoes you little twerp,” I snapped and resettled my own hat, black like his, so my short hair sat right.
“Yeah, whatever,” Josh grunted. He kicked an empty bottle, smirking when it scuttled across the leather shoes of an older couple. It almost tripped them. I pushed his shoulder to get him moving.
“Don’t be such a brat. You know it pisses Mum off.”
“Shut up, I’m sick of hearing you preach,” he muttered. I ignored him.
At Reminiscence Lane we crossed the bustling street and passed through the rusting gates of Memorial Park.
Josh didn’t need any encouragement to avoid the Monument, the nucleus of the expansive grounds. I caught a glimpse of it, wings outspread, and my chest ached. Somewhere carved into its base was Dad’s name amongst thousands of others. I wished we hadn’t missed that stupid shuttle.
“Selawa,” Josh swore.
I frowned, ready to tell him off when I saw three kids Josh’s age heading towards us.
“Just stay quiet, Em,” Josh hissed. The way these boys walked, slinking with their hats pulled down low, seemed familiar.
“Heya Josh,” the tallest drawled. His tongue darted out to moisten his lips and I flinched, horrified at how yellow it was. “Who’s this?”
“Lay off it Bailey, she’s my sister. What do you want?” Josh sounded nervous, his hands clenching by his sides. The other boy, eyes flickering between Josh and me, gave a shrug.
“Some Aspartamine and that other stuff, Golden Saccha,” he said. “About thirty grams each.”
“Josh!” I hissed, horrified as it finally clicked. “That’s Mum’s!” His shoulders were tight, but he didn’t look at me.
“Fine. Take them, but don’t see me outside of school, you idiots. You can’t even begin to imagine the garna we’ll be in if we’re caught,” Josh snapped, unzipping his bag and pulling out six capsules: three yellow and the others a pale blue. He counted them out into Bailey’s hand and the boy gave Josh a credit chip. I couldn’t see how much was on it.
“You’re a champ, Josh,” he said, as the boys were leaving. “See you in class!”
Josh didn’t turn when I smacked him across the back of his head, sending his cap flying.
“You moron!” I yelled. “How could you? That iso-sweetener stuff messes you up! God, Josh.” I spun in a circle. I wanted to run my hands through my hair, but settled for clenching my hands in my skirt. “You’re not even old enough to walk to school on your own! Do you have any idea what this’ll do to Mum if she found out you were stealing her meds?”
“She isn’t going to find out,” Josh snarled. “We need the money, Em. Mum needs the money. I’m being careful, alright!”
“Please tell me you’re not taking any,” I murmured, pushing back tears as I tried to see the colour of his tongue, the size of his pupils, the colour of his skin no longer hidden by the shadow of his cap. He didn’t say anything.
Slowly he picked up his cap, dusted it off and tugged it onto his head, down low so it covered his eyes.
“Come on, we’ll be late for school.”
3. The Monsoon Season
Josh’s shoulder was warm against my own as we sat on a slung together camp bed, waiting.
I shivered and Josh tugged me closer, tucking me under his chin, but his eyes were blank as he stared at the chaos around us. My clothes were still damp. Both our shoes were in a puddle by our feet and my hair, longer than it had ever been, coiled wetly on my neck.
“It’s been nine hours,” I murmured.
“I know,” said Josh.
My gaze kept wandering to a mother sitting in an old fashioned deck chair, coloured stripes having faded to grey, clutching her baby. Its pink fists waved from within a towel and its crying came in waves: two short, quieter wails followed by one long scream. Its mother rocked it, her eyes hazy and lips pursed, humming.
“Shut up!” a man snapped. People turned to look. He was just as pale as the rest of us, his fists flexed with tension. His partner, a dumpling of a woman, flushed pink and quickly hushed him, shoving a hot cup of sia into her husband’s hands. The man seemed surprised that he’d spoken aloud and mumbled an apology into his drink.
I could still taste the cinnamon drink from earlier, thick and bitter on my tongue, but I liked its fragrance. It masked the smell of damp a little, the smell of rot, mud, and the oily, smoky smell of the generator growling from the corner like a slumbering wolf.
The double doors to the converted school hall thudded open, rust flaking from the roof’s support beams, and everyone looked. The baby’s cry became louder in the hush.
Two kids were led in, their hair plastered against foreheads and necks, monotone uniforms dark from the rain. The rescue worker looked tired, but the hands steering the children were gentle as he took them to be checked in.
“They’re from Doone Primary near the Silver Service District,” Josh murmured into my hair. “The flooding must’ve breached the eastern boundary of the CBD blockade.”
After the rest of the world finally went quiet, no radio calls or signals of any kind, there was talk that Australia was the only populated place left. Then the storms began, heavy hot rain that never stopped, and it seemed the talk was right. Nuclear reactions around the world were melting down with nobody to tend them, and the consequences had reached our island of safety.
More people were led in and I scanned each and every tired, grey face.
“What’ll we do Josh, without Mum?” I whispered as the generator spluttered and the lights dimmed.
“They’ll find her. Mum’s stubborn, just like someone else I know.” He gave me a small squeeze. “You’ll see. Soon enough she’ll walk in looking embarrassed and sorry for making us worry.”
I swung my feet, heels scuffing against the floor, and ignored how his voice shook as he lied.
4. A Miracle Cure
My stomach heaved again, my throat raw like I’d been coughing up sand. Gravel dug into my knees through the thin material of my trousers and my vision blurred. I refused to cry. No matter how much it hurt.
Josh steadied me as I groaned. I wiped my mouth against my sleeve and scrambled back from the mess I’d made, settling against a shrapnel-pitted road barricade.
“It’s getting worse,” Josh said, settling beside me, our pack tucked in between us. I stared at my boots, wiggling a toe against the thin leather, and made a mental note to reinforce it with duct tape.
“I’m fine. The headache’s not too bad and I can feel my fingers again.” My smile was brittle. “The town can’t be much further.”
We watched the clouds for a bit, heavy and brown on the horizon, and the little dust devils that swept across the empty road, picking up rubbish and making it dance. The trees lining the roadway acted like giant nets, catching old scraps of newspapers and plastic bags. It hadn’t rained in months.
“We better head out. It’ll be dark in a few hours.” Josh heaved me to my feet. His hands were rough and his nails torn. He shouldered our bag easily, water sloshing around in the milk container strapped to the side. It wouldn’t last long.
“Do you think they were telling the truth?” I asked. Some of Josh’s hair had come loose from his leather tie, framing his sunburnt face in greasy strands, and the scratch across his cheek looked inflamed. He refused to waste our precious water on cleaning it. I’d argued that between the two of us I was the one wasting water, but he’d insisted.
“What could they gain from lying?” Josh peered up at the trees and squinted. “They said we had to pass the row of maples. I think those trees are maples. Then follow the road to the fork and turn right. Come on, Em.”
I followed him, ignoring the pain that inched its way up my spine and spread out across my ribs in pulsing waves. The town held all the answers, the miracle cure we sought, or so said the ghostly voices that echoed on the airways. The virus let loose upon the rest of the world when we were just kids had finally, somehow, made it here.
“Look,” Josh said and I glanced up from watching my shoes kick up dust. “That must be it.”
In the long shadows of early evening the town looked empty, no light from the windows and a rusty wire fence surrounded the entire compound.
“How do we get in?” I whispered, feeling dozens of eyes watching, judging, knowing.
“Dunno,” Josh replied. “Just stay behind me.”
We didn’t get far.
“Don’t move,” a voice ordered.
We turned so quickly my head spun. I gripped Josh’s arm to keep my balance and didn’t let go.
They’d come up from behind us, a dozen or so men dressed in dark mismatching suits and uniforms. All of them were armed. Josh slowly eased himself in front of me, arms held out, palms up.
“We aren’t looking for any trouble,” Josh said clearly, his voice ringing out. “My sister, she’s sick. We need help.”
A man stepped forward, his lamp held high.
“Dad…” the word slipped from my lips before I could help it, but everyone heard.
The man staggered back as if I’d hit him.
His eyes were dark and he was old. Too old. Hair grey, skin lined deep and shoulders stooped. He squinted, trying to make out my face behind Josh’s protective stance. The lantern he held shook.
“Dad?” Josh whispered to me, unconvinced. When the older man stepped forward Josh took us a step back. “Dad died.”
“It’s him,” I said, remembering the last time I’d seen him, so many years ago as he walked backwards through the departure gate, waving goodbye.
He reminded me of Josh. He had Josh’s jaw and their eyes were set beneath the same thick eyebrows.
The man hadn’t moved any closer, his brow creased in confusion as he traced over my face with those empty eyes. I began to doubt myself. What were the chances that this man was him?
“Em,” Josh whispered to me, “I can’t remember his face. Are you sure?” My fingers twisted in his jacket anxiously, seeking comfort, and Josh let me, even when I accidentally pinched skin.
“Emma? Joshua?” The man murmured, dazed.
Josh snorted, keeping me firmly behind him. He reached beneath his shirt and pulled out a chain that had hung around his neck for years, its pendant a small metal cylinder. He twisted it open. Inside was a limp piece of tissue, which he carefully unfolded.
“If you’re really Dad then you should know what this means,” he said and shook into his palm two little ivory pebbles, stained with age and brittle. He’d kept them. His baby teeth. My eyes prickled and my throat tightened.
The man peered down at the two tiny teeth, clearly puzzled.
“I remember…” he murmured, “my baby boy. I can’t…” he shook his head, stunned. “It’s not possible.”
“Dad, it’s us.” I pushed past Josh and hugged him, sending the lamp to the ground with a thud.
After a pause Dad hesitantly wrapped his arms around me then his hands twisted in my jacket and held tight. He wasn’t tall like he used to be and his arms not as strong. He didn’t smell the same either. Yet the tears tore through my body like a freight shuttle. Josh took a step closer, but didn’t join us, an odd look of regret on his face. My heart raced unevenly and for a moment I thought it was from happiness.
Pain blossomed from behind my eyes and I couldn’t fill my lungs. Everything spun, Dad grunted and then I was on my back, looking up at the starless sky. A roaring filled my ears and Josh was there, his lips forming words, and Dad, touching my face with his gnarled fingers.
“I don’t want to go,” I tried to say. “Not now.”
Dad looked scared and disorientated, curious and horrified at the same time. Josh pressed my hand to his lips, his knuckles white, but I couldn’t feel his touch.
In my head I was shouting as the world grew cloudy, and even my own thoughts escaped me. One by one.
Ferne Merrylees is in the final stages of her creative PhD at the University of Newcastle. Her thesis consists of a young adult science fiction novel and an exegesis that explores the effects of social media and technology on relationships. She has presented papers at two international conferences, as well as multiple ones held in Australia, and was on the conference committee for NewMac2014 held at the University of Newcastle. On completion of her PhD, she plans to have her novel published and get started on a new writing adventure!