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Special Stuff

It was my turn to hold her. I wrapped her in the special stuff. Then he wrapped us both in the special stuff, leaving a corner untucked to fold himself into. He still had the windows to seal over. We waited in the deepest part of the house and hoped that the light, when it came, might not reach us. (We imagined there would be light.) She slept and I shivered, though it was not cold, was almost never cold now. Through the untucked fold I could see part of the front wall, and his shadow thrown hectic across it. Rip of tape as he worked to mask the glass. Then no more shadow.

Are you coming? I mouthed into the dark. Not wanting to wake her. I’m not sure he heard but there he was, at last, moving with the usual composure but sweating a new panic smell. He tucked himself into what was left, which we both knew was not enough. I suspected that none of it was really enough, that we were just going through the motions now. Living out the statutory rising inflection, the hopeful key change at the end of the grim newscast, the kind that makes a flimsy play for salvation but offers no clear avenue towards it. I’d laughed at enough of those old pamphlets – turtles in helmets, bears under tables. But here we were.

Special or not, I didn’t like the feel of the stuff on my skin. Neither of us did, the baby and me. They called it ‘intelligent’ and that’s almost what it felt like – sentient and clingy.

There’re worse feelings, he murmured into my hair, and we stood quiet for a while and waited to know about them.

Officials assured they’d localised the event to a 60-km radius, a seventeen-hour window. Detractors and conspiracy theorists called bunk – who knew what scale of administrative atrocities could be carried out over that range, over seventeen hours, with no witnesses? We were within the projected hot zone. Towards the outer edge of the hot zone, in the greenish-yellow. But there was a lot of room for error, and anyway no time and no means to get elsewhere. Our friends in the green zones sent us care packages, lavish hampers. The sentiments were ambiguous, but there hadn’t been this much booze in the house since we were married.

We’d fasted for the better part of the week before, so that our bodies would expect less of us. Riding out the caffeine headaches and the snarkiness, the shitty name-calling, the baby’s wails, the booze withdrawals and the too-vivid dreams that only made us want to reach again for something, anything to blur the edges.

The night before we had a sort of dress rehearsal, almost like pitching a new tent in the backyard ahead of setting out for the wilds. Similar air of excitement. Only then it became obvious that we hadn’t ordered enough of the stuff. I didn’t think of us as especially large people. Though there are countries we’ve visited where we had to sleep diagonally across the beds, so I suppose in a global sense we were. Are. Bigger than average. Anyway, the stuff was really just surface cover, skin protection; no defence against respiratory complications or anything more stealthy. Not like we could live here, swaddled up, indefinitely. Anyway, it was too late to order more, unless you wanted to trawl the black market; authorised supplies had run dry within hours.

There was the choice of standing up or lying down. He put on a sort of Dodge City gunslinger drawl: Are we gonna take it standing up or lying down? We tried it both ways. Lying down was more comfortable but once you were down you were down for the duration, down for the count. Standing up you had less chance of becoming trapped, could shuffle around a bit if needed, a choreographed lumbering like the haunted inanimate objects in cartoons, or kids in outsized foam costumes in Christmas pageants.

We chose to take it standing up. We were equipped with water, juice in little foil pouches, like astronaut provisions. Besides the pouches of water and juice, there were snacks that were nourishing but uniformly unappealing, to discourage panic eating. A small tin of xylitol ginger chews for anxious stomachs, although even these had an unpleasant aftertaste, a bitterness I figured had been added especially, as a deterrent. A tube of medicinal lip balm. Caffeine tablets for fatigue, magnesium tablets for muscle cramps, a natural antihistamine to encourage infant drowsiness. The mood stabilisers he’s been on for twenty years, since before I knew him. (You wouldn’t want to know me without them, he’s said, again and again, but that theory remains untested.) Other pills, vacuum-sealed and wrapped fifteen or twenty times around with plastic film, so that we wouldn’t mistake them. But we weren’t going to think anymore about those unless forced to. Baby things, so many baby things. Our two fully charged phones, twenty-three hours of life between them. This was comforting, somehow, their combined battery amounting to greater than the window of catastrophe. Or the theoretical window of possible catastrophe. Though nobody could say what would happen with the towers. Already the signal had become patchy, and the birds had been growing quieter, retreating with – and in spite of – each lengthening day.

We tried to tell the right stories in there, hopeful stories: everything we’ve ever won, days we would like to relive, to invite the other back to, the way other people do with family properties, lake houses and such – notches on the doorframe, trees planted to mark a birth that now bestowed shade and fruit, heirloom pluots ripening on a windowsill…We had none of that, nothing like that. He and I had grown up very differently, though it didn’t figure all that much because each of our pasts had been neatly swept up behind us. We each could have rewritten our histories from scratch and there’d be no one, not a sibling or any other soul to rat us out, to say it hadn’t happened that way or that we were leaving out some critical, humiliating detail. Of course I left things out. I’m certain he did, too. But I was – we were, I think – mostly honest.

We had agreed not to count the hours. I tried to stand in such a way that the stuff wasn’t touching any exposed skin but it was impossible.

I could sense his own agitation, but he spoke in the measured, wilfully optimistic tones of CBT worksheets. Tell me, he said, what would you rather be feeling?

It was his lot, even in normal times, to comfort me, and if I resented this (yes) he never seemed to.

When I didn’t answer right away he pressed, Come on. Something from before you knew me.

I’m thinking, I said.

I tried to take us there. Somewhere distantly bucolic, outmoded, tactile. A river still safe for swimming, the gentle trawl of its current around shins, cool soft clay underfoot, the continual chirr of yabbies beneath the surface. Or plunging limbs down into stores of sun-warmed grain – wheat, barley, rye – which was strictly forbidden due to hygiene. And punishable by something long forgotten to me now, or perhaps threatened but never actually carried out, because I was already a burdened child and my grandparents were softhearted, and their small farm nearly bust, anyway.

Besides, who could help themselves, when small enough to be wholly submerged, to be held, secure, at all possible points of touch? Easing into the storage containers as you would a brimming bathtub, trying not to overflow, to splash the grain over the side and give yourself away.

It gave you away anyway. Grain in your clothes and hair, your underwear, in the whorl of an ear. You even wanted to plunge your head under but you didn’t. Or you did once and then never again, learning your lesson; chaff rasping at your tonsils for days after, reddening your corneas, forming grit in your tear ducts.

My throat felt parched from remembering. The wheat dust, the chaff-filled air. He held a sachet of electrolyte mix to my lips and I took a mouthful, my shoulder already aching from the baby’s sling. My arms aching from easing the weight off my shoulder. There was no room to put her down, or even to hand her over, without briefly exposing ourselves. He braced my arms with his, our breath close. Hot in there, in the shared air. We got into a familiar rhythm, sharing it. Like at the start of things: me lying flat on top of him, our lips around the same breath, passing it lungs to lungs, waiting to go faint. Somebody would tap, lightheaded, break away. Then the glorious oxygen hit, all the bright rushing in and the sex we spent it on, our inhibitions starved away.

I’d never wanted to inhale another person so deeply, absolutely. Learning that there were evolutionary, immunological causes for this only sharpened the hungering.

We had agreed: not to count the hours, not to run down the time on our phones. We went through the games we played as kids, before the internet, bored in back seats or rained-out weekenders. Through the times we thought the world would end, or at least our stakes in it, before righting ourselves: back to the hopeful and harmless stories, pressing each other for the right details – what was the dog’s name, and how tall the trees, were you always so…? Aware we were as much passing these stories down to ourselves, with each retelling, the ancestors of incident that now stood for what, exactly? What, after all, did we still mean to make known to one another?

When he was young he had premonitions, prophetic dreams, but they were so prosaic he was embarrassed to share them. He’d never told me this before.

I never told anyone, he said. I thought their boringness meant I was deficient in some way, deficient in imagination.

He said he never saw any useful shit coming.

(I did not say: Obviously, case in point – you didn’t see this. But maybe he had and just hadn’t let on, hadn’t wanted to spook me.)

I asked him, what was there, then?

Mostly it would just be the numbers and the colours of things, but no lucky numbers and no lucky colours.

My mother would have found a way, I said. Could you pick horses?

I never tried, he said. Horses never came up.

My mother would’ve had me picking horses. She had me do that anyway, kind of a way of getting me involved. Like bonding? Even though I’m not exactly mystical. At least she had someone to blame when they didn’t place.

Were you any good…at choosing horses?

No, hopeless. That’s why she packed me off to the farm. (It wasn’t why, but decades on I still needed to joke about it, to laugh it off, have been laughing it off incrementally for decades. He missed that cue, though, and went on.)

Anyway, he said – and I knew that if there had been just a bit more elbow room he would have made a little sweeping motion with his hand – Anyway, it was nothing exploitable, nothing you could commodify. More like that the milk would be bad even though the use-by was fine. Or that the second birch from the right would come down in the next storm even though there was nothing outwardly wrong with it. Beetles, it turned out. Whoomph. Down it came.

After a certain age, he said, I stopped paying attention. Or, I stopped being able to differentiate. Maybe whatever it was – the signal? – got scrambled with the internet. Or puberty. Since the late nineties there’s just been a kind of…residue.

A residue, I repeated.

Like, an aura of recognition? Around certain things.

So, like deja vu, I said disappointed.

No, he said, defensive now. Stickier than that.

We stood in a clammy silence.

You’re disappointed, he said.

Why would I be disappointed, I said, and let the silence flood back.

He reached for his phone, out of habit I suppose. Even though we had agreed.

In the screenlight his face was damp and crumpled, irradiant, like a new moth’s wing.

What are you looking for, I asked?

There’s no signal at all now, he said. He patted me down for mine, switched it on, though of course we were on the same plan, the same network. The baby, little lightning rod that she is, was beginning to rouse and fret.

Since it’s on, could you play her the song?

The song was a gentle Appalachian folk number that was almost certainly a murder ballad. But it was the baby’s clear favourite and who were we to judge. No darker than most nursery rhymes; far better than autotune. It was a song about sparrows, the singer drawing on the hymnals of his childhood, on the Gospel of Luke, that had not, in the end, restored him to much faith.

We let it play through a couple of times, then switched the phones back off.

Neither of us said the obvious; that it would be easier without the baby, that the baby was poorly timed. But the thought was large in there with the three of us. Without the baby there would be less to fear, less to fear for. We had convinced ourselves, some part of ourselves, that the world might yet become a less precarious place in the years after her birth, that she might inherit a tenable future. This, too, was probably biology at work. It vanished in the instant she took air. Her hair and baby teeth yet to emerge and already laced with plastics and pollutants, the long half-life of detonations that had occurred far away and long before her lifetime, even before mine.

It must’ve been falling dark by then. All the hours upright playing hell on my knees, my pelvic floor. I said I wished it would hurry up and hit so I could piss. We imagined there would be some sign. Fierce light. Seismic activity, at least some noise. In truth the birds had been quieting for much longer, only so gradually that it was difficult to prove, however obvious it seemed to most.

A wind was up, outside, the kind with a voice of its own, that gives forum to the trees. Then there was another voice, very human and plaintive, and a dull pounding at the door.

The pounding came harder, and the voice.

Did you see this, I whispered, hissed. Though to be fair we had both seen this: some late convert to dread, fatally unprepared, now freaked by the signal outage and the wind and whatever else.

The effects would be immediate, I was sure, near enough to painless. Or would they be? A small, alright a not insignificant part of me was curious to see how the skeptics, the non-compliers fared, so the rest of us could know whether it was worth all the trouble, the expense. But then my mind would scroll through the usual disaster archives, historical poster victims canonised by the international press, and I discovered there was still room enough, in our airless synthetic cocoon, to be ashamed.

We waited for the splintering of the lock, or the shattering of glass, for the paving stones from the front yard to crash through the front windows. To be exposed, to whatever was coming. The knocking – the person or persons – went around the house a couple of times, rattling and banging. Then at last they gave up and went away.

It might’ve been Leise, I said, after it had been quiet a while.

It wasn’t, he said, flatly.

Because she was kind of on the fence about it all. If it was Leise I feel bad, a bad neighbour.

Don’t, he said.

You know for sure?

It just didn’t sound like Leise.

Panic – it does weird things to the vocal folds, the pitch.

I’m aware of that, he said. (His own voice seemed to have dropped a register.)

We listened. Only wind.

What about after this? I asked

How do you mean?

You said you couldn’t differentiate; that doesn’t mean they don’t come, anymore. The visions, or the stickiness, whatever.

He was making it up, probably, or drawing on old stock to console me, yet again. I might’ve seen that if I’d been in a more receptive state, paying attention to how analogue it all was. Animals and trees, patterns of weather. Augural stuff. How clear the skies – alignments of planets, stars, celestial arcs suddenly made visible to the naked eye. It began with the birds coming back. With clear waterways and the proliferation of sentient plant life.

The baby wasn’t in any of it. None of us were.

While he spoke I hummed the sparrows song into the top of her head (her feathery hair) which smelled as always: divine. No hint of distress from her. Maybe she liked it in there, in the close, the dark, like a return to the womb but with larger company. (Notches on the doorjamb, benevolent creaturely faces found in the wood grain. Sitting quietly on plastic lawn chairs at dusk, waiting for the bandicoots to emerge from their burrows at the edge of the property, their stripes just visible… Did we do that, my grandparents and me, or did I invent this? The songs of birds I used to wake with, whose music she might not ever learn.)

After a while I stopped humming the melody, settling on a single, sustained note, the same I’ve used to self-soothe since I was small. I’m not really musical. I don’t know which note it is, or any science around it; only that I found it when I was young and it works, has always worked, in the way I imagine purring does. Maybe there’s a different note for everyone, a particular frequency that accords with their dimensions and DNA. Or it could just as easily be the same note, for all of us, a deep common resonance we are at the brink of forgetting, but which some part of us never fails to recognise, to harken to.

The knocking came again, depleted, but persistent.

It has to be someone good, I whispered. Someone halfway decent, or they’d have gone ahead and bricked the windows by now.

It doesn’t matter, he said, it’s not like we have anything to spare.

But he mustn’t have liked the way that sounded out loud. We’d spoken of it, many times over the years, how we just wanted to come through the worst of things without doing anything we might be ashamed of afterwards. Or not acting, when called upon to act.

The knocking went on, at longer intervals. He began filling my pockets with the contents of his own, then slipped his phone into my free hand and squeezed my fingers.

I’ll go and explain, he said. I’ll just go and explain that to them, that there’s nothing we can…Let us not – he was searching for something – Let us not lose our…

He didn’t finish. Couldn’t find the word, or couldn’t say it. Carefully he unwrapped himself and moved towards the sound, away from us.

There was the door, then the wind calling through the house, room to room. And the desire, even now, to play my fingers through it.

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