I swing the axe onto the antique dining table, cracking it in two. One of the legs has been wobbling for a while now, so I pull it. Cursing, I check my finger. A long splinter is wedged just under my skin, the end still protruding. I tug at it gently, but it breaks off, leaving the rest submerged, its slender woody stalk visible despite the shadow of the late afternoon sky.
Inside my apartment, I scrape the point of a needle against my finger repeatedly, small curls of skin flaking off as the splinter draws nearer to the surface. The needle is almost blunt and I shudder to think what will happen when I can no longer perform these minor surgeries on myself. I remove the splinter and press down on my finger. Band-aids are a thing of the past. I hope the small wound doesn’t fester.
Pouring water on my finger from the rainwater bucket, I catch my reflection in the small remaining bathroom mirror. Deep horizontal tracks across my forehead. My skin, once smooth, gathers in puckers and lines at the corners of my eyes. A bag of it hangs loose under my chin. I grimace. Dark gaps where once teeth stood. Time to end this.
But a stubborn kernel of desire prevents me from taking the final step to leave this strange half-life. So many more ways to die than there used to be in our civilised world. An expectation whispers to me I will see my husband again, one more time. I will say to him just one more time that I love him. That my life was better because he shared it with me. That is all I want to say to him. That is why I am still here.
I used to know how many nights I had spent alone in other people’s houses but after the second year, it seemed pointless to keep score. Some days I long for my old life, filled with relationships and human touch, even if it was the brush of someone’s bag across my knuckles as they rushed past. Other days I wonder what I would do should the world re-emerge from hiding.
I was a young woman that morning. I ran a hand over the face of my husband, who was still in bed, repeatedly hitting the snooze button. The heat kissed my skin, leaving damp patches, a promise of what was to come. There were people on the streets. I was positive I had seen them, women walking dogs, couples getting coffee, men in suits tapping along the pavement in smart shoes. Now, I’m not sure. I wish I’d told my husband I loved him.
I approached the ferry from across the park. I loved that park, its greenery stretching to the water’s edge, the cityscape across the water along with the bridge looming over us. We were close enough to see it, but far enough to escape from it. The park doesn’t exist now. It has been overgrown, unwalkable, for years. That morning, not a single dog barked. I remember because I wondered where were the gleeful, galloping dogs that usually tore through the leash-free areas. I rounded the corner onto the long stretch of crushed stone path leading to the bobbing enclosure of the ferry stop and saw a child’s scooter in the grass. It lay on its side, wheels pointing out and still spinning.
On the water, a ferry floated. Ignoring the scooter, I returned my attention to the podcast, mellifluous voices dancing in my ears. Desert Island Discs with Arundhati Roy as the castaway. I remember. I reached the stop, touching my pass onto the card reader. It bleeped and the light turned green. I sat on the bench, alone, looking at cars on the bridge. Later I would discover, they weren’t moving. Boats swayed, waves licking at their undersides. The ferry I’d seen from the path was headed my way.
Minutes ticked by, bringing the arrival time for the ferry closer, but not the ferry. I checked and rechecked the display. On Time. I checked the app on my phone. On Time. Ten minutes after the ferry was due, I walked up the back-shattering slope to the main street. My head down, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I reached the top, my breath coming in gasps of pain.
Cars waited behind each other at the lights, engines running. All driverless. I walked towards home, ducking into every shop and café on the way, my heart shuddering. Cups, half-eaten toast, muffins, strewn across tables like the aftermath of a crazed tea party.
The lights changed from red to green, to amber and back to red. Nothing moved. I stopped near the library, fumbling in my bag for my mobile. I pressed the green receiver under Tom’s name. The phone rang out and went to voicemail.
‘I’m on the way home,’ I panted. ‘Something’s wrong. Everyone’s disappeared.’ I ran the rest of the way, unable to think about what it meant that he didn’t answer.
The sheets were still warm from his body. The bathroom was empty, his still-wet toothbrush lying near the sink. I called his name hesitantly at first, then louder till I was screaming it. I called his phone, texted him. I called his colleagues. I rang my mum, then my best friend. I called my brother, my sister. I called the police, ambulance, and fire departments.
I turned on the TV. Some channels with pre-recorded shows were still broadcasting. The others showing news programmes were rectangles of static or just blank screens showing nothing more than my faint reflection clutching the remote control like a knife. Running out into the courtyard of our unit block, I banged on every neighbour’s door. How could everyone vanish except for me?
I went back out onto the street, looking both ways. The cars were still there. I lifted my face to the sky and saw two parrots swoop past. A pair of mynah birds landed near me and watched me with suspicious beady eyes.
My heart soared. The birds were still here. Perhaps a leak of some sort, a major incident down the road where they were building the new motorway? Yes, that must be it. They evacuated everyone and I missed it. Which meant staying here was dangerous. I would just keep calling my husband and family till I got through. There was an explanation. This was not real. This was the stuff of movies.
Back inside our apartment, I filled a bottle of water and started walking. My idea was to head into the city. Information would be available there. I’d got halfway when I realised the futility of the exercise. Where would I go? The streets were choked with stalled cars. On the bridge, I started turning them off. One by one, till the vehicles stood silent, the only sounds the occasional scream of a cockatoo and the clicks of cooling engines.
I returned home and tried calling people for the rest of the day. I watched channels that were still on air. I knew I was stalling. But what else could I do? Facing the truth meant something wild, unknown. Savage grief that could not be borne. I held it off for as long as I could. The first day of my new life. The first day of imprisonment.
The days passed, a trickle at first, then faster and faster, coming at me without warning and sliding into night before I could understand that hours had escaped from me. Seedlings sprouted, breaking through smooth pavements. Birds grew bolder, coming closer to me till we called each other friend. I can’t remember when the TV stopped. I grew used to the silence, the only voices in my head, or echoes around street corners.
I walked and walked, exploring neighbourhoods I’d driven past unthinkingly in my former life. I took someone’s bike and rode across the city. I lived in other people’s houses, eating their food, sleeping in their beds. When the first bike broke, I found another. I collected all the fresh food I could find and stored it at home in my fridge.
Electricity flowed sporadically. Coming on for hours or staying off for days. I grew used to the dark, finding my way by the light of the Moon if I was outside or just staying in bed if I was indoors. I became adept at eating tiny meals a few times a day. Once upon a time, some nutritionist writing for a woman’s magazine would have called them meals. A handful of nuts taken from supermarket shelves that have supplied me all these years. The occasional fruit from a newly-grown tree.
I broke up furniture to light fires and cook pigeon friends who mistook my kindness for companionship. When the electricity came on, I cooked pasta or rice as in the old days. Water still gushed out of taps, to my constant surprise. I collected litres and litres of it from the rain, from the taps that still hadn’t failed me. My buckets, tubs, bottles, and receptacles of water proliferated in every house in my neighbourhood.
By the end of the first month, I started travelling. Packing supplies of water and whatever dried food I could carry, I headed north on my bike. I reached a highway where the cars thinned out. I found several whose engines roared to life. Found petrol stations where pumps still worked. I travelled along the coast, staying in giant houses looming over the ocean. Houses I had only dreamt of living in. From each house, I took a memento.
A diamond ring from one house, a hair tie from another, strands of dark hair still clinging to the material. I found an engraved pen, a Happy 21st keychain. I was away for a whole year; by the time I went as far north as I could, bushfires and new growth had overtaken parts of the country. Packs of dingoes howled some nights and that was the only time I grew scared, huddling in a stranger’s bed, hoping the dogs couldn’t smell me.
On my return, my backpack filled with other people’s sorrows and joys, my neighbourhood had transformed. Houses had broken, unable to withstand the onslaught of returning nature. My own apartment complex was in ruins, several apartments missing walls. From singed bushland near the water, I saw I had missed a giant fire.
After that journey, I stay close to home, walking every day, inspecting new growth, cutting back saplings where I can. My world is now confined to a few kilometres. I imagine encroaching wildness, creeping in, taking over till I am hemmed in a tight circle with nothing but the sky to look up at. What will I do when nature takes back full control?
Cracks zigzag across the foundations of my apartment. The back wall has given way, giving me an uninterrupted view of bush. A framed photo of Tom and me on our wedding day lies facedown, glass shattered. I have lived so very long without him. I wake, every day, hoping he will reappear by my side. Tonight is no different. I huddle under a blanket waiting for dawn to reappear.
A strange noise reaches me, filtering down through the fog of sleep.
It assails my ears, clutches me in its grip and pulls me up fast. I wake, a scream wedged in my throat.
A room. One I have never seen before. I’m lying in a single bed. Next to me, on a bedside table, is a book and half-drunk glass of water. A red button with a sign, press for assistance, is on the wall, above the glass. I push myself into sitting and to my horror feel damp sheets clinging to my legs. I’ve wet the bed.
There are cupboards in the corner and a small sofa near the door. What is this place? It reminds me of the room my grandmother was in before she died. A place with no soul. I’m confused. I have no memory of coming here. To my shock, I hear voices. Just outside my door.
Female voices, calling to each other. I can’t make out the words. Footsteps clatter away down the hall.
‘I’m here,’ I start to call out, then stop. I don’t know anything about these people. My voice is rusty, cracked and parched from years of disuse. Is this a dream?
I stand, my legs unsteady. Have I been in an accident? Why are my limbs shaking? Could I still be feeling the effects of smashing up that dining table? I hobble to the window, hating the chafe of half-dried underwear against my skin. I look down on a carpark, cars gleaming where the sun hits them. Two elderly men sit on a bench in a patch of grass to the side of the carpark, backs curved under the weight of their histories.
I rub my eyes, noting the new veins throbbing under the papery skin on the back of my hands. What has happened. Have I slept for years?
A knock on the door is followed by a young woman advancing into the room. ‘Ah, you’re up.’
‘Who are you? Where am I?’
The woman smiles. ‘I’m Sarah. You know me.’
I shake my head. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time for everyone to return. What is this place?’
She glances at the bed, the smile still glued to her face.
‘I’m sorry I wet the bed. It’s never happened before. I will clean it.’ I straighten my back, noting the new ache at the base of my spine.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll grab Sindhu and we’ll have it done in a few minutes. Would you like to have a shower?’
‘Do you know my husband?’
‘Yes, I know him. He’ll be here for lunch. He comes every day, remember?’
I want to smudge that idiotic smile on her face. ‘I haven’t seen him in years. I’ve been longing to see him.’ Stop talking, orders the voice in my head. I don’t know this person.
Another woman appears, older than this Sarah. She’s Indian and that makes me feel less alone, for a moment. Can I trust her? She’s wearing the same uniform as the other one.
‘I’m Sindhu,’ she says to me. ‘We’re at Silverlake Gardens. You live here.’
I frown. The name sounds familiar. Horror strikes; I know why it’s familiar. ‘How long has this been going on? Last night I went to sleep and I was alone. You’re saying that in a few hours, everything has come back? And somehow, I’ve ended up in a home? No, you’re lying. I don’t belong here. There’s been a mistake. You have to let me go.’
Sindhu puts up her palms. Once beautiful swirls of mehndi now faded to an ugly ochre cover them, snaking up to her wrist. ‘Why don’t you speak to Tom about it when he comes?’
She opens the door next to the cupboard, revealing an old person’s bathroom, non-slip tiles, handrails, hanging cord alarms, a chair in the shower recess. ‘Why don’t you have a shower while we clean the room? Would you like me to help you get out of your nightie?’
‘I do not need your help.’ I take a step towards the bathroom and falter.
‘After we change the sheets, I’ll put some clothes out for you. Would you like that?’
I open my mouth to refuse but close it. I don’t know where anything is. I nod. Closing the bathroom door, I see there is no lock. There’s nothing I can push against the door. Moving as fast as possible, I strip and turn on the water. After all the years of cold showers, my knees almost buckle with pleasure at the feel of hot water cascading onto my skin and upturned face.
A light touch, a caress on my hand brings me out of my doze.
I stare up at the man crouched over me, unbelieving. ‘Tom?’
He laughs and it is the one I know. The one that fills my heart with giddy happiness. He helps me to my feet and when we are standing face to face, I stare at him wonderingly. The years have been cruel to my husband. The once full head of hair has been reduced to wisps of white stretched over crinkly, dry skin. Flesh hangs in loose flaps under his eyes and his hands shake even as they grasp mine.
‘Tom,’ I say again and fold myself into his embrace. ‘You look terrible. What happened to you?’
This is the same. His arms feel the same. The rhythm of his heart matches mine as it always did. When I draw back and look at him, his eyes are still filled with love for me. The important things are unchanged.
‘I love you,’ I say. ‘My heart is strong because of you, my life richer because you are in it. No matter what happens, I love you and that will never stop.’
He cries now, the tears running down the pits and grooves of his old face. ‘I love you too. We’ll see each other tomorrow.’
After he has gone, I shut the door and think about what I have. How I can get out of this place. I open the cupboard and look through the hideous old lady dresses hanging silently, pressed together in sadness. I drop to my knees and scrabble around at the bottom, pulling out empty shoeboxes, handbags, and files. Right at the back, shoved into the corner is a backpack.
I drag it out. This is mine. This is the same backpack I have kept with me all these years. Here is the moment of truth. All those mementos I stole from people’s houses, reminders of my wanderings are in here. I clutch the zip with shaking fingers. A gentle coax is required; I know, I remember. The bag gapes open, objects shuffle and click together. Pens, coasters, trinkets, ring boxes tumble out.
I fall back onto the floor, gazing at the uncovered bounty. I should have done this while Tom was here. This is it, irrefutable proof of what I’ve been saying. Here, this cowbell from a house on the coast, this doll with the missing eye from a house in our own neighbourhood, a thimble from a cottage that I stumbled upon on a walk. It’s all here. I am not crazy.
Tomorrow, I think. When he comes tomorrow, I will show him. Packing everything away, I sit in the chair next to the bed, watching the sky darken as the day creeps towards night. For the first time in my life, I do not know what morning will bring.