I find my father’s body in the wood shed round the back of the house. He’s been strung up in the rafters just long enough for the pressure to have built behind his eyes, making them bulge out unnaturally, the irises as dull and lifeless as the rest of his limpid body.
Cutting him down is the easy part. All I have to do is get the set of shears hanging on the back of the door and hack my way through the rope. His body falls into a heap with a loud thump, his legs and arms twisting out awkwardly, stiffly. I think about moving him, or at the very least positioning his body in a way that’s less grotesque. Instead I just leave him in there and make my way to Todd’s room, clicking the shed door shut behind me.
Todd is sitting on the end of his bed when I get there, his hands pressed hard on either side of his face, eyes glued to the TV screen in the corner of the room. “It’s all over Julia.” He says. “Everything.”
He’s got the sound on mute, but the footage alone speaks for itself. Fleeting footage of riots already breaking out in city centres plays over and over again, juxtaposed with images of people jumping out of forty-storey buildings and cars being set on fire. I can hardly handle it, so I take the remote and switch it off. Todd doesn’t even seem to notice.
“Dad’s dead.” I blurt out. My voice is monotone. “I found him in the woodshed. He must have…must have done it last night.”
Todd shrugs. “Fucking coward.”
“You shouldn’t swear.”
“It’s not like he can ground me for it anymore.”
“That’s not the point, Todd.”
“I know, I know.” He sighs. “God. Does Tess know yet?”
I shake my head. “She’s still asleep.”
“Good. Let’s not wake her just yet.” Standing up, he walks towards his bookshelf, curling his fingers around his old teddy bear. He hasn’t touched the tatty thing for nearly three years now. “So what do we do, Jules? Should I call an ambulance or do we call the funeral home? What do we do?”
“I was thinking we’d just bury him ourselves, out by the lemon tree.”
“You don’t think that’s a little bit illegal?”
“All things considered I don’t think anyone will mind. We’ve not even got a day left now. I think the law might have flown the coop.”
He nods his head and smiles back at me weakly, a reassurance with not a single ounce of happiness hidden behind it. This is not a moment, or a day even when happiness will be allowed. Both of us know that much.
As we make our way down to the wood shed Todd starts to cry. It’s not the loud raucous sobs our sister would produce, but a mostly silent kind that catches in the back of his throat and makes his nose whistle. I consider reaching out and twining his hand together with my own, but I know he wouldn’t appreciate it. At thirteen years old he’s already more of a man than our father ever was; he would only find the action patronizing.
Despite his tears he does what I had neglected to do before and straightens our father’s body out, wrapping it up in one of the blue tarps we use to protect the wood from mould. I help him out, carefully twisting it in place so it will hold fast, so that dad’s face or arm won’t spring free when we carry him outside. When it’s all done and our father is all wrapped up like a Christmas package, Todd wipes the tears off his cheeks and looks at me, his face wretched. “Do we tell Tess?”
I look at him incredulously. “I think she’ll notice he’s gone pretty quickly, Todd.”
He shakes his head and scowls, leaning over to where a shovel rests beside the wall. “Not about that. Of course we’ll tell her about that. I mean about the other thing. I mean about the end Jules, about how we’re all going to die.”
I shudder, thinking about our tiny little sister all wrapped up in her blankets, completely oblivious to all the horror we’ve already seen today and the hard truths even I’m struggling to wrap my head around. “No. Let her deal with dad first”
He opens the door, shovel in hand and sighs. “You know we’ll have to tell her eventually.”
The conversation ends there. We both grab hold of one of our father’s feet, both of which are still poking out of the plastic, shoes and all. Its awkward work for Todd, as he’s also carrying the shovel, but somehow he manages. Somehow we both manage it, despite how heavy death has left our father. We drag the corpse the whole fifty metres down the drive way to the lemon tree, only stopping once to catch our breath and get a better hold on him. Then we let him go, and Todd starts to dig.
I’d help him if I could, but we only have the one shovel, save perhaps for a few of the small, bright plastic ones we used to take down to the beach with us when mum was alive. Todd and I would dig enormous holes in the sand while Tess sat up above us, peering down with her baby doll brown eyes. She’d giggle and laugh as the tide came in, turning our hole into a make shift pool and that covered us in sand turned to mud. This is a different kind of hole. This is a grave. There is no place for innocent laughter here.
When Todd reaches the half-way point I can see he’s starting to tire. I get up and drop down into the grave. “Have a rest, I’ll finish it off.”
“It’s alright, I can do this.” He doesn’t look up at me, he doesn’t even stop, he keeps shovelling the dirt up and out over his shoulder, the two separate thuds of the shovel digging into the ground and the dirt hitting the pile above creating something of a rhythm.
I reach over and clutch onto the shovel, forcing him to stop. “I know you can, but you don’t have to. I’m happy to do the rest of it.”
“Happy?” he mocks, glaring up at me with bloodshot eyes. I hadn’t realized he’d still been crying. “Excellent choice of word there. Happy.”
I yank the shovel out of his hand, scowling at him. “Don’t start with all your trivial shit now, Todd. Go rest.”
“You shouldn’t swear Julie.”
I just scowl at him. He scoffs under his breath and clambers back up and out. By the time I’ve finished digging the grave I can understand why Todd had been reluctant to stop. After two or so minutes it was like I’d switched over into autopilot, all thoughts pushed faraway to the back of my mind. There is just the chink of the shovel burying into the earth and the soft thud of the dirt over my shoulder. It takes over everything, and for that I am grateful.
I dig until the hole is waist deep. If we had more time I would have tried to make it deeper, but it already seems like such a wasted effort. Briefly I think that we should have just left his body in the shed, wrapped up in the tarp. As I think about how horrible that thought is I feel my throat dry up and the walls around it beginning to close. My eyes well up, but I push the pain and the fear back down underneath my skin. I am the oldest child; I am all that Todd and Tess have left. I need to be strong for them.
Todd’s legs appears to the right of me, sending some dirt scurrying over the edge and back down into the grave. “You alright?”
“Yeah.” I mumble. I wipe the sweat from my brow and clamber out beside him.
“We should go get Tess, she should be here for the funeral.” He says.
“Yeah, of course.” I look down at the blue tarp to the left of us, at the scummy sneakers dad always refused to replace, no matter how much we all told him they stank. My throat goes tight again. I swallow. “One of us should stay here and move his body into the hole. She doesn’t need to see him…like this.”
“But you can hardly see any of him.”
I think about those shoes dragging just inches above the ground, rocking back and forth like two fabric pendulums. “Just make sure he’s in there when we get back, ok? I’ll go get her now.”
He glances away from me and back down at the body, offering only a sullen nod for a reply. I turn back towards the house, wrapping my arms tight around my chest as I walk, because it feels like my whole body is about to crumble into dust and I need to somehow keep it together. As I make the walk back our dog, Remus, comes skulking towards me through a flock of sheep in the paddock to the right. His tail is tucked tight underneath his stomach and the hackles on his back are standing up to attention. The sheep are all jittery, pacing back and forth along the fence line. There’s no denying that the animals know something bad is about to happen. They don’t need a news broadcast to tell them; they can feel it in the air.
I lean down and scratch Remus on the head. “Come on, let’s go find Tessy.” He stares up at me, his eyes clouded over with fear, but he follows my lead. As we walk back to the house I make a mental note to bring him inside tonight, as well as the cats. All three have been good, hard-working pets. It would be cruel to leave them out there to face what’s coming alone.
When we get to the house Tess is sitting on the back step, still in her pyjamas, a plastic dinosaur clasped tight in her hands. She looks over at me nervously; her eyes are wide with fear. She stands up and runs to me, arms held out high in the air, begging me to pick her up without words. As she jumps I catch her and I pull her close. Her arms wrap tight around my neck, making the spines on the dinosaurs back dig into my skin. It hurts, but I’m not going to say anything about it.
“Julie why aren’t my cartoons on?” She sobs into my shoulder. “Why is the news on Julie? Cartoons are always on Channel Six, but there were none on. There was just news.”
“The news is on because…” I stop mid-sentence, trying to think of something to say. How do I explain any of this to a child? How do I tell my sister that her cartoons aren’t on this morning because the world as we now it is about to end, that by the end of the night, or sometime in the early hours of the next day, we’re all going to die? The answer is simple; I can’t.
“The news is on because it has to be, just today.” I finally stammer.
Her grip tightens around my neck. I can feel her tears and snot soaking into my t-shirt. “The news man looked scared. They, they kept showing scary things Julie—“
“None of that matters Tessy. Do you know why?”
She pulls her head away from my shoulder and releases one arm from its iron grip to wipe the snot and tears from her face. “Why?”
“Because we’re going to go back inside and watch any movie you want. Anything. Any two movies you want even.”
She looks up at me, suspicious. “Even The Little Mermaid?”
“And Alvin and The Chipmunks?”
A beat passes. I try not to grimace. “Even that.”
She considers this for a moment. “Only if Todd watches too. Where is he?”
“He’s just down the back. Some sheep got out last night, and he’s rounding them up.” The lie swirls into a festering pool of guilt somewhere near the bottom of my ribcage. “You go take Remus inside and get the movie started. I’ll run down and let Todd know to come up when he’s done, Ok?”
“Won’t he need Remus to round the sheep up though?” She ponders as I place her back down on the ground.
“Remus wants to watch Cartoons instead. It’s his day off you know.”
Her trembling lips press themselves into a giddy smile. As though she’s afraid I’ll go back on my word she grabs hold of Remus’s collar and drags him up the steps behind her. “I can’t believe you get to come inside!” She giggles as she pulls the fly wire door back. “This is the best day ever!”
I wait until I hear the latch on the back door snap shut. I wait until I can hear her footsteps padding down the hallway, the scritch-scratch of Remus’s claws on the floorboards following closely. I wait until I hear that familiar string of notes that herald the arrival of the Disney logo on the screen. Then, and only then, do I cry.
* * *
By dusk we’ve watched at the very least, five cartoons. Todd had arrived half way through the second film, covered in dirt and grime. When I’d gone back I’d offered to bury Dad instead, to let him go and watch the movies with Tess, but he wouldn’t have any of it. As the only son, Todd felt that if one of us had to bury our father, it was going to be him; it pretty much had to be him. I didn’t argue with him about it. Even though I felt guilty, it was nice to not have all the responsibility lumped on my own shoulders.
Towards the end of what was to be our sixth cartoon for the day, Todd stands up. “We should eat something. No, scratch that, we should eat everything.”
Tess, who is always eager to shove something sugar loaded into her mouth, sits up to attention. “Everything? Even the biscuits?”
“Everything.” Todd grins.
Having been tricked by Todd many times before, Tess turns to me, her eye’s pleading. “Even the biscuits?”
I nod, and motion for her to follow our brother into the kitchen. She totters in after him, a bundle of toys she’s been half buried under for the last few hours gathered up in her arms.
I don’t follow them straight away. Instead I sit wrapped up in the warmth of Tess’s Barbie print doona, watching our two cats prowl along the window sill. There is a darkness to the night outside that I’ve never experienced before. It almost seems to bleed through the windows, threatening to engulf myself and what’s left of my family. Further away I can hear our sheep bleating, their voices laced with that deep kind of instinctual fear, that horrifically inbuilt knowing. A shiver crawls up my spine and buries itself in among the hairs on the back of my neck. Unable to sit any longer, I get up and join my siblings in the kitchen.
Our Last supper is not a fancy affair. We heap left over risotto onto plates beside roast lamb sandwiches; we snack on sugar coated biscuits in between each savoury bite. Instead of wine Tess and I drink glass after glass of cola flavoured cordial, while Todd slowly savours a single glass of chocolate milk. When we are done, when our stomachs are so full of leftovers that they feel as though they’re going to self-combust, we make our way back to Tess’s room.
“What are we going to do now?” Todd asks me. I know that there’s more to that sentence. He’s asking for a distraction, anything to keep the horror of what’s to come away from our minds.
“We could build a fort.” I offer. “But not a really shitty one with just sheets and things. We could make a proper one out of our mattresses and stuff.”
“You said shitty.” Tess giggles. Todd smirks. I ignore them both.
“Do you want to build a fort or not?” I ask.
“I think it’s a great idea.” Todd replies. “We should build it in the dining room though.”
I know why he’s suggested the dining room. It’s the only room in the whole house that doesn’t have windows, or any direct view outside. He doesn’t want to see the end when it comes for us. I feel that tight feeling beginning to take hold of my throat again, but I push it away. I’m not going to cry in front of them; not until I have to.
“Great. Tess, if you could get Remus and the cats into the dining room, Todd and I will go and get the things we need to build the fort.”
She follows my instructions immediately, wrapping one arm around each cat as she practically skips out the doorway, calling for Remus to follow her. He does follow, but his walk is much slower and cautionary. His tail is still tucked tight between his legs.
I turn to Todd, who is no longer grinning. He’s shaking. He buries his head in his hands for a moment, before pulling his fingers down harshly, leaving white finger marks on his cheeks that fade back to pink almost as soon as they appear. He sniffs; his adams apple rises almost up to his chin, before dropping back. “Julia…” He starts, but the sentence dies in his throat.
I close the space between us and bundle him up in my arms. I haven’t hugged him in an effort to comfort him since he was six years old. We’d been swimming in the creek that runs through our property line when his pants had gotten snared on a submerged branch, pulling him under the water. He was only under there for maybe fifteen seconds before his pants slipped free, but it had rattled him. He’d clung to me like his life depended on it when I got to him, and even though he wasn’t crying I could feel the fear radiating off his body. I could see it in his eyes. That time by the creek I could tell him he was going to be ok, but now, when he needs me to say it more than ever, I can’t.
“We need to get this fort built.” I finally say. He pulls away from me, his eyes streaked with violent red blood vessels.
“I’ll go get my mattress then.”
* * *
The fort is the kind of fort kids always dream of building. We turned the dining table on its side and placed each of our mattresses around it to create a rectangular sort of shape. Our doona’s went inside with the couch cushions and our pillows to create a nest of sorts. Over the top we draped the sheet from our father’s bed. Along with the cats and the dog, all three of us are now sitting inside it, shrouded in darkness save for the light of Todd’s torch.
Tess is asleep in one of the corners, her head resting on Remus’s back. The cats are both in the corner across from her, hissing and spitting. We ignore them.
Todd flicks the torch light on and off. After a few rounds of it he starts to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I ask. He flicks the torch light on and leaves it.
“Life. Death. One minute you’re here, and you’re breathing in air, your blood is pumping so fast through your veins that you can hear it singing in your ears; and you know you’re alive. And then—“ He flicks the torch light off, “And then you’re swallowed up into darkness. There’s no blood song, no air in your lungs. There’s just darkness. It’s like an ant you squish between your thumb and the pavement. One minute he’s just minding his own business, living his life, and the next he’s a pile of mush. That ant doesn’t exist anymore.” The torch snaps back on. He looks up at me and smiles a crooked almost cracked smile that makes my heart break. “This time we’re the ants.”
The torch light goes off again. When it doesn’t go back on after half a minute, maybe more, I allow myself to cry. I know Todd can hear me crying, I know that he’s crying too, but I can’t hold it in. I sob quietly, burying my mouth against a cushion so I won’t wake up Tess. From the way sound of it, Todd is doing the same.
Beneath me, just lightly, I feel a tremor. It’s followed by a sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s a deep, awful, unnatural sound that seems to be coming from miles away; I shouldn’t even be able to hear it. I briefly become away that more than anything, I’m feeling the sound, not hearing it. Every single hair on my body is standing to attention. My blood is singing its song at an unheard of tempo, blocking out the next noise and drowning me in fear. Each time the sound reaches me a tremor precedes it. Each time it sounds even closer. It’s the end, and I’m not ready for it.
Todd’s flashlight snaps back on. His eyes are a thousand times more terrified than they were that day down at the creek. Beside him in her little corner, Tess stirs and starts to cry. “What’s going on?” She asks.
The sound reappears, but this time it doesn’t go away. It stays like a low, horrid thunder, rolling towards us faster than we’d ever be able to run. The air immediately feels thick with heat. I lean over and pull Tess and Todd close to me.
“It’s ok.” I repeat over and over, even though it’s not ok. It’s just that there is nothing else I can say.
“I don’t know what’s going on.” Tess whimpers as she pushes her face up against my chest. “Julia I’m scared.”
The noise grows so loud that I’m afraid my ear drums will burst. Through the cracks in our fort a terrible yellow light creeps in. Remus starts to howl. I grip Todd and Tess as tightly as I can.
“I’m scared too.”
The sound and the tremors push through the house, shattering windows and forcing down walls. The heat intensifies; it pushes its way down my throat, through my skin, flooding into the space between flesh and bone. It feels as though I’m melting from inside to out. The awful yellow light engulfs everything. In perfect unison, all three of us start to scream.
There is pain, a kind that rips right through me, shattering my bones, twisting itself viciously around my spine. Debris from the world around us, visible only momentarily in among the blinding yellow, cuts right through me. Blood that should feel warm runs like cold water down my stomach. I can’t feel my sister anymore, or my brother, and soon enough I can’t feel anything at all.
Just as quick as Todd’s torch light shut off, a deep, all enveloping darkness marks the end of everything, just like he said there would be.