By Casimiro Matarazzo
Copyright © 2016 Casimiro Matarazzo
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It won’t stop raining and I haven’t slept in days. Fatigue threatens my routine as memories swell in and out of focus. I need to find shelter. Walking through the outback alone, I whisper my name to stay present but I hardly recognise it. Eventually, like all things, it reveals itself, dredging useless tangled thoughts from the fog of my mind. I begin to recall who I was before the world fell apart. I remember my father’s voice.
‘Should’ve named you Devil-ina—there’s no angel in you little lady.’ I would giggle on cue because I always let dad get away with reusing jokes. Nostalgia wraps its claws around my chest and I recall rescuing a mouse from my cat only to crush its little body in my hands. I can’t understand why the mind stubbornly retains these redundant memories even after years of living alone in the wilderness. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind it out here if my boots would dry overnight. My flooded feet are swollen and ravaged with sores that reek like the reliable staple of mouldy potatoes in our pantry growing up; another stubborn memory. I recently lucked upon a thumb of soap but I refuse to use it until my toes are genuinely rotting and the psoriasis behind my ears and every other crevice turn to wounds. This winter has been a long one.
I discover a small house shrouded by trees—so well hidden I nearly miss it. I approach cautiously but the cobwebs sealing the front door prove no one is home and I invite myself in. It’s basic, four walls, a fireplace and a shallow porch, probably only used for hunting. It’ll do until the rain clears. A lifeless family clutch each other by a scorched stove fireplace. The female is wearing a pair of jeans that look about my size. Without hesitation I drag them off her limbs and try them on.
‘Perfect,’ I say to no one.
My curious hands reveal a bottle of sleeping pills from one of the pockets and to my astonishment there are five left. I pop a couple in my mouth and save the rest for later. I remember how peaceful it used to be listening to the rain from inside the safety of a home. The view from the back porch overlooks a valley of dense trees twitching in the grey horizon, it’s undeniably pleasing even in these hellish times. I notice my knobby knees poking awkwardly through the denim of my new jeans. I think of how I used to obsess over my weight but now I’d kill to have some fat over these bones. A long time ago, at any given moment I was riddled with complications: whether my bag matched my shoes or whether there were any harmful preservatives in the brand of butter I was buying. I’d spend hour’s online comparing ingredients unaware that despite the different brands and labels, they were all owned by two or three companies anyway. No one believed it when the first few declared bankruptcy. They just seemed so impenetrable but I was never one to pay attention to the finer details—who was responsible and why it happened—the same way I never paid attention to the credits of a film. The film itself always seemed more real to me than who was behind it. It all started with some friends struggling to find work. I figured things would get better but it wasn’t long before reality kicked in. For me it was my first meal of cat food straight from the can. Every mouthful of fish guts solidified that this wasn’t just another recession. I heard rumours that all the billionaires in the world had anticipated it all. They just pooled their money and spent the last few decades building some sort of off-world retirement village.
In some ways things are easier now. I read a book a long time ago about a man who travelled across Mongolia alone on horseback. It mentioned that sometimes the man forgot that he was human because in order to survive he was forced to think like his horse. For months on end he lived each day delaying his steed’s exhaustion by examining the curves of oncoming terrain, ensuring the easiest path. Apparently he’d never been more at peace. I understand I’m not a horse, but I’m not human either, not in any romantic sense. I am here and I am alive but I am something else now.
I’m disturbed by a sound coming from the valley behind the cabin. I grab my knife and stalk down the steep hill, keeping my weight evenly distributed on each silent step. The dense trees block my view but I can hear someone crying. A stick snaps under my foot. The crying stops. I’ve given away my position. I check behind me and the cabin is no longer in view. I stand as still as possible and wait patiently. I hear a bird take flight—thankful for its wings. Its shadow, like a small grey ghost, disappears as soon as I see it and I wonder if it was ever there at all. I need to focus but those damn pills are kicking in. This could all be a trap. I squeeze the handle of my knife and continue to where I suspect the noise is coming from. I widen my gaze, fighting my heavy eyelids. I think of Brian. He would pretend to be asleep when I’d wake to catch him crying next to me in bed. I’d ask him about it in the morning but he’d hide behind humour and charm that same way my father would. He didn’t handle the collapse very well, no one did. Soon after the city lost power I got mugged by a wild grey haired woman. She demanded that I hand over our water ration while holding a knife at my throat. Petty crime had become familiar to me but her desperate eyes, ghostly white in contrast to the dirt on her skin, convinced me that she had every intent to follow through. It wasn’t the assault that made it linger, it was the way she apologised in tears, repeating her words like a curse as she retreated with our rations. On the journey home I recalled that she was the same woman who would wear bright purple leggings to my Wednesday morning yoga class. I decided it was time to leave the city. Brian and I stayed on the move for weeks until we set up camp by a river. We weren’t prepared at all but we managed for a few months living off anything I could trap and kill. Brian tried but after a while he just didn’t have the strength to save face. He followed the green exit signs of the mind until he disconnected from reality—retreating to the solace of insanity. He became useless and when I think back, I can’t believe we lasted as long as we did. The night before he died he pressed his crotch into my back and I recoiled. A cavity moved into my heart thinking of our fumbled first kiss back when life was only hindered by overwhelming potential.
The next morning we woke to movement outside the tent. Brian begged and begged for his life which surprised me as spit specked his brown copper beard. He only wanted to live once death was moments away. I’d soon learn everyone does. He always had trouble getting his wedding ring off his chubby finger so the impatient masked men lopped off his arm. He screamed until they unhinged his jaw and dragged him to the riverbank. Not wanting to waste a bullet they struck him on the soft part of his head where the spinal cord exits the skull. The most distinctive part of it was the lack of sound. There was no deafening fire cracking pop announcing the end of a human life, just a thud, prosaic at best. His body fell into the water and I remember the salty taste of tears and sweat leaking into my mouth. I never saw him again. Beneath the shock there was a peculiar ache because a chronic knot deep within me had been untied. I was relieved he was gone and the shame rooted in this recognition numbed the pain when they came for me.
After a while I pretended to pass out. When they were done they tossed me in the murky black river. I spent that day and night heading downstream, soaking in the darkness. Somewhere in the future, I had an elusive understanding like the invisible symptom of a facetious disease and I accepted that I would never be the same again.
I’m disturbed by the sound of movement to the left of me. Did I fall asleep? The sounds are thoughtless like the steps of a child. There’s no turning back now so I call out.
‘I heard you crying—might be able to help.’ My words as lucid as I can make them seem. A small hooded figure in a brown oversized coat that was once white steps out from behind the tree.
‘Don’t move!’ I yell, revealing the knife. The small figure raises two limp hands in the air and sobs fiercely. It’s just a boy, no more than nine or ten years old. I soften my expression knowing I’ll appear less threatening. The contortion feels alien to the muscles in my face.
‘Shhh, it’s going to be okay. I’m Lina, what’s your name?’ I ask while thinking how names have no real meaning anymore.
‘Okay Tom, don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here. I just need you to tell me something and it’s very important that you answer me honestly…is anyone looking for you?’
He shakes his head and wipes his bloodshot eyes with his knuckles.
‘Are you sure?’
‘They’re all dead,’ his tired voice cracking in pain. I know he’s not lying. I calm him down and we agree to get to shelter and figure out what to do next.
‘I thought angels had wings?’ He asks me while looking at my knife.
‘Why’s that?’ I respond tepidly.
‘Mum told me to hide until an angel comes and gets me.’
I take a while to respond because any importance to answer rationally seems vague.
‘I guess no one’s around to say otherwise.’
‘You mean like God?’
‘I’m sure he’s watching over you right now but how ‘bout we get out of the rain. Go on, I’ll be right behind you in case you fall.’ I point up the hill with a smile.
Tom looks back at me with uncertainty but eventually makes his way up the hill, his feeble pace slipping along the way. I wait until we’re almost at the cabin before I slash the back of his neck. The clean slice severs his spinal cord where it exits the skull and he falls to the floor. In some ways things are easier now.
About the Author
Casimiro Matarazzo is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Film at Edith Cowan University. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and their moody black cat. Refuge is his first published short story.
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Refuge by Casimiro Matarazzo / Science Fiction have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes