An acrid smell hung in the air of the suburban street. Grey plumes from the nearby processing plant stained the sky. The sun blazed relentlessly.

There were a number of people around. Two teenage boys were washing a car parked in the street. An elderly man sat in the bus shelter reading his newspaper.

A little girl of five or six played with her ball in the front yard of a box-like house. A woman in her mid-thirties—the girl's mother—was hanging up her washing, talking over the fence at her next-door neighbour. The other woman half-listened while she aimed a garden hose at the dry and tattered remnants of what once might have been lawn.

There was a stranger on the street—as strange to himself as he was to others. He lurched slowly toward his destination—wherever that was—his head pounding, sweat prickling on his brow, shivering with imaginary cold or perhaps fear.

He couldn't remember who he was, where he was going, or what he was supposed to do. He didn’t know where he was, or how he had got there. All he knew was that he had to keep moving. All he felt was pain, and thirst.

Suddenly, a dog barked from behind a rusty chicken-wire fence, startling him so that he fell and hit his head on the edge of the concrete pavement. Dazed, he tried to sit up, blood beginning to trickle from a gash in his forehead.

Touching the wound he felt wetness and brought his hand away, surprised to see the red stain on his fingers. He tried to get up, but was too dizzy. He tried to call out but his throat was too raw, parched. His tongue felt swollen. His head hurt, inside and out.

Dirty, sweaty, his clothes torn, his pale face turning red in the sun—he gazed forlornly around him with glazed eyes. If there were help to be had, he couldn't imagine what form it might take.

The sound of a radio floated through the hazy air. The newsreader's voice was warm, relaxed, mellow: "...plague ravaging Eastern Europe continues, with the death toll rising into the millions. Scientists still have no answer to the mystery disease, but earlier today the head of the World Health Organisation said..."

Paying little attention to her bored-looking neighbour, the woman reached into her basket, retrieved a pair of jeans and pegged it to the line as she muttered, " I go, like, no way you gonna take my lil Sal, and he goes, yeah well fuck you, fathers got rights too, ya doozy moll… the prick! Can you believe it, so I go, bollocks to you mate, piss off why doncha! … coupla weeks later, jus’ like that!" She snapped her fingers to illustrate.

"...UN forces in Antarctica continue to suffer heavy casualties as the spring offensive moves into its second week. The use of biological warheads targeting rebel bases was condemned by..."

From her basket the woman took a dingy looking dishcloth, wiped the sweat from her brow with it, then pegged it to the line. Cigarette dangling from her lips, she continued: " worker always says he’d never stop, y’know, he'll never stop, they never do you know, once they get the taste for it. Brung it all on hisself, poor sod… "

"Mum," said the little girl hesitantly, looking up at her mother, "canna have a ice pop?" Then she quickly looked down again. The woman ignored her, and carried on talking. The little girl waited for a break in her mother’s monologue, then very softly said, “mum…”.

The woman flung her cigarette on the ground, and stamped on it angrily. "Don't go on like that, willya," she said in a loud voice, "do I look like a fuckin’ fridge?" Then turned to her neighbour and smirked, "always thirsty, jus’ like her da’!"

"...with sea levels expected to continue rising at a rate of roughly 80 centimetres per annum over the next decade, the mass evacuation of the populations of low-lying island..."

The teenage boys continued washing the car, pausing every once in a while to spit in the bucket. One said to the other, "You didn't didya? Like no fuckin’ way! Fuckin’ bitch had it comin’, for sure!" Then both hooted with laughter, provoking another burst of frantic yapping from the dog.

The heat and the brightness pressed heavily on the stranger’s head. Further down the road, the sun glittered harshly off the metal bus shelter, within which was the promise of some shade. It would be cooler there. A good place to rest. Just for a minute. And then he would go on. Must go on.

On the bench in the shelter the elderly man read his newspaper and appeared not to notice the stranger lurching erratically toward him.

"...over 3,000 bodies so far, including women and children, in the jungle compound built on land leased from the Sierra Leone Government. In Jerusalem, a spokesperson for the previously unknown cult that calls itself the Mandate of the Celestial Harbinger, said...

The elderly man pretended to keep reading, but sneaked a nervous glance at the strange shambling figure approaching. The headline on his newspaper said "Millions die in Tokyo ‘quake ".

Almost there, two more steps. The stranger stumbled into the bus shelter, but as he turned to sit—swaying like a drunk—he fell and banged his head. The elderly man scuttled crab-like to the very end of the bench, his nostrils widening in disgust at the stench of sweat and decay. His eyes darted everywhere but at the man lying on the floor.

The stranger reached out his grimy hand in supplication, but all that came from his cracked lips was a harsh groaning sound that resembled no language known—at least not to the elderly man.

"Get out! Get out! I warn you," the elderly man screeched as hard as his emphysematic lungs would allow, threw his newspaper into the stranger’s face, then shrank as far back as he could into the shelter, trembling.

The teenage boys looked up, wondering if they could get a piece of the action. "old dude’s lookin' for trouble’," said the one to the other. "Too fuckin’ hot," was the laconic reply.

" Argentina, the fourth day of food riots saw an estimated 666 dead and hundreds more injured as the military maintains its protective cordon around the main distribution centres..."

The little girl stood up, walked slowly over to a large shrub, then sat down beneath its shade. Next to the shrub was a tap, which she tried to open, but lacked the strength. She manoeuvred herself under the tap and turned her face to catch a few drips upon her tongue.

Her mother continued unabated, "...always on me about something, y'know, as if he could do better, I mean, she ain’t no perfick lil angel,” indicating her daughter with a backward shrug of her head, "….every bleeding night, pissin' her bed, and she can sodding well lie in it too, I reckon..."

Sitting in the shade of the shrub, the little girl stared at the ground, her narrow shoulders hunched, her head bowed. Three ants scurried across her dusty feet.

"...the Climate Change Council today released its preliminary estimates for the next precipitation cycle, with the Presiding Meteorologist again voicing his opposition to self-regulation for the cloud-seeding industry..."

He crawled away from the shelter, grunting softly with new pain as the gravel bruised and scraped his knees through the thin fabric of his trousers. Blood from the gash on his forehead dripped onto the ground. He didn't know which way he was going. It didn’t really matter. But he had to keep moving. Something to do. Something important. Can't remember. Must.

The dog barked hysterically, aggressively.

The elderly man collected up the scattered sheets of his newspaper. Then he resumed his former position on the bench.

The bigger of the teenage boys nudged the other as the stranger came toward them. "Wanna drink, shithead?" Picking up the bucket, the boy flung the dirty soapy water over the crawling man. "Drink this you fuckin' wino!" The boys enjoyed the joke immensely. They hawked gobs of spit over him as he tried to get past them as quickly as his sore knees would allow.

The elderly man pretended to read but actually was watching the proceedings with some interest, if not satisfaction.

In the distance a siren wailed like a tormented beast. No clouds floated across the brilliant sky. The air seemed to throb—it was a very hot day.

…local news now, police have issued the description of a man who fell from a second story window at Quakers Hill Detention Centre in the course of routine inquiries. Details yet to be released …went missing while undergoing medical treatment …could be suffering from amnesia …concern for his safety…

Flies circled his face, which dripped with sweat and blood. One alighted on his forehead, another at the corner of his mouth. He did not wave them away. Couldn't have. He slumped against the fence, unable even to keep crawling.

The little girl watched him through the fence, her brow furrowed in concentration. He lay on the pavement like a broken doll, his pale skin red and blistered, his mouth wide open as he gasped for air.

The woman lit another cigarette, reached for another piece of washing. Her neighbour yawned, belched.

One of the boys threw the bucket into next-door’s yard, then both got into the car. They knew where they were going.

The elderly man read his newspaper. He watched everything, understood nothing.

The little girl stood up. Her dress was too short, too small. She walked to the gate, opened it, and went out onto the pavement. Approaching the dying man shyly, but without fear, she thought he might be thirsty too.

…arrested yesterday for causing a disturbance, the man refused to identify himself… Police are warning he could be dangerous… the public are advised not to approach …

He sensed her standing a short way away from him, and opened his sticky eyelids. They looked at each other for a long moment. Understanding passed between them.

“Where’s my Da'…” she asked him softly.

Before he could reply, her mother screeched from behind the fence, “Get yor butt in ‘ere Sal! Tole you once, tole you a hunerd times!” The little girl turned and ran back into the yard.

“…in heaven, child, with mine…” he whispered and then died.

The end.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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