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Denmark by Mitch Edgeworth

August 29, 2014 Science Fiction 6 Comments
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Denmark
by Mitch Edgeworth

After Lisa died I left the city. Had to get out. Just sat in my car and drove. I was going to York where my mother and stepfather lived, almost subconsciously, but I realised just as I was clearing the outer suburbs that I’d only find more death and silence and that I didn’t really want to go to York at all. So I turned out on a side road and drove through the forest and the national park and found myself at Mundaring Weir. A caravan park, chalets and cottages scattered across a grassy slope leading down to the water where black swans waddled through the reeds. I’ve been here ever since. A roof over my head, plenty of drinking water, the Coles at Kalamunda not too far away for food. The basic needs of a human being are really very simple.

The view from the verandah is nice. The sweeping crescent of the lake, the gum trees pressing in on it from all sides, the purity and silence of the hills. There’s a swinging lawn chair on the verandah where I can sit and look out over the water. There were bodies in some of the chalets but I dragged them out and burned them in a pile. This one was empty so this is the one where I sleep.

In the first few weeks there were other people, or signs of people at least. A plane, a Lear jet, glinting in the sunlight as it banked out of the airport and flew east. A four-wheel drive on the road running past the lake. A sedan not long after. Nobody came out here.

Every single day I look at the knives in the kitchen drawer or the pills in the pharmacy next to Coles and I think about it. I would have done it by now if I was going to but I still can’t get it out of my head.

All of the cars have died as well – flat batteries, expired fuel – but I have a bicycle with a little trailer. It belonged to a Swiss couple in one of the other chalets who were cycling around Australia. I know that because I looked at their passports and flicked through her journal before putting their bodies on the pyre. They flew in to Perth from Dubai and were going to go counter-clockwise around the country. Barely even got started. I burned the journal along with their bodies. I can’t put millions of bodies to rest but I wasn’t going to let these ones sit around rotting next door to me.

I never went back for Lisa’s body. I can’t anymore obviously.

Anyway. I have the bicycle for transport and it has its stupid little trailer and I can get about a month’s worth of food from Coles at a time. I hate going down there, riding into Kalamunda, seeing the weeds sprouting through the pavement and growing in the gutters, the buffalo grass on the front lawns knee-high. After more than a year the town is visibly and viscerally dead and nature is beginning the long, slow process of reclamation. Up by the lake the landscape is the same as it’s always been, gum flowers and banksia trees and trilling magpies, but in Kalamunda there is no escaping the plain fact of the mass extinction of the human race. Once upon a time children played in these parks and adults sat at the tables outside the cafes and there was love and laughter and speech and motion and life. If the world had ended some different way, if there’d been a nuclear war or asteroid strike or mass economic collapse, I’d have no illusions, I know there would have been too many of us left alive and we’d be squabbling over food, and all that love and life and laughter would have been replaced with violence and murder and terror. But sometimes I think even that would have been better than this suffocating silence. The world doesn’t hate us but it doesn’t love us either. The world doesn’t give a fuck whether we’re here or not and it never did.

Us. I mean the human race. I mean me.

There are no bodies in the street. Never, not even one. People died in their homes or in the hospitals or, towards the end, in the emergency hospices in schools and churches and Scout halls, lying on cots and stretchers and even makeshift piles of blankets. Towards the end even all the doctors and soldiers and SES volunteers were sick as well and the halls were filled with the coughing and wailing and vomiting of the dying. Lisa died in the gymnasium at the high school in Mount Lawley, her neck coated with the blood she’d been throwing up and the camp bed stained with her diarrhea. I’d known it was coming, I’d known she wasn’t about to make a miraculous recovery, I’d known I would be leaving that room alone, and when she eventually slipped away all I felt was relief. Grief, yes, but I’d been feeling a horrible queasy background buzz of grief for days as I watched death descend on the city around me like a shroud settling on a corpse. When she drew her last breath and I saw the life go out of her delirious eyes the first thing I felt was sheer, overwhelming relief that I no longer had to maintain this miserable vigil, that I could stand up and leave, get out, get away, go anywhere but that high school gymnasium that had become a waking hell.

That leaves me wracked with a guilt I can’t put into words, but who’s going to judge me?

That was when I got in my car and drove down empty streets and eventually turned off the Great Eastern Highway and ended up here.

I had a mild drinking problem before it all happened but I guess now I’m a full-blown alcoholic.

The storeroom of the Coles in Kalamunda will keep me supplied with food for a lifetime. Or until the expiry dates start to kick in. Mean little stamped digits, 2015 and 2016 and 2017, drawing ever closer. Truth be told I lost track of the date a while ago. I know it’s winter. The days are short, and it rains sometimes, and the nights are cold. I have a fireplace and the forest is full of wood. I used to know the date but then I lost track. I guess it doesn’t matter but it still seems a shame because I know I’ll never get it back again.

I shit in the drop toilet in the caravan park. I don’t know what I’ll do when it fills up. Dig a hole I guess. Toilet paper is always one of the first things I take from Coles. Toilet paper separates us from the animals. Us. Me.

In summer the bushfires began and there was nobody to put them out. The red glow lit up the horizon before I saw any flames or smelt any smoke and all I could think was Good. Good, let’s have this out, let’s have a proper end of the world, none of this sniffling and crawling into bed, let’s have fire and chaos and inferno. I sat in the rocking chair on the verandah with a bottle of Glenfiddich and some oxycodone and stared into the coming blaze and felt a thrill of horror and excitement as I saw the first flames lick the trees at the top of the scarp. Every bit of exposed skin was tingling with radiant heat but I had the liquor and the pills so I felt okay and I sat there crying and waiting for it to bear down on me.

The wind changed and the fire swung away to the northeast. When the sun rose the next day it gazed down through the smoke haze on a random, ethereal border that split the green and grassy territory of the untouched from the charred and blackened land of the burnt. The hillside across the lake was a nail bed of dead trees. Smoke still rose from stumps and logs and flecks of ash and embers were hissing down into the lake. I only saw that the day after. I spent the first day in the bathroom throwing up and crying.

A gun would be the best way to do it. Get it over with instantly. I could walk into a police station and take whatever I wanted. I’ve never even held a gun but I can’t imagine it’s too hard. To figure out how it works, I mean.

I have felt despair before. When I was eighteen my girlfriend committed suicide, throwing herself in front of an express train at Stirling. When I was twenty-one my father died of cancer. When I was twenty-eight my nephew died of SIDS. None of those miserable, heart-wracking, sickening deaths can compare to this. There is nobody alongside me to share my grief. This is the end of all things. There is no coming back from this. No moving on. No recovery. No rebuilding.

What happened to the Lear jet and the four-wheel drive and the sedan? Did they kill themselves? Am I the last one? Is the planet patiently waiting for me to get a wriggle on so it can start evolving the next intelligent species?

I’m not alone. There must be others out there. But what does it matter if there are? Some Stone Age rebuild of “civilisation?” Everything that ever mattered is over. The Mesopotamians and Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire and Jesus Christ and the Qin Dynasty and the Bible and the Vikings and the Crusades and the Roman Catholic Church and the samurai and the printing press and the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution and World War Two and the moon landing and the Internet culminated in nothing. The long saga of human history ends with the wind whispering in the eucalyptus leaves. The world doesn’t give a fuck about us and it never did. Us. Me.

I wish there was someone else. I wish Lisa hadn’t died. I wish the virus hadn’t come at all. I wish I could walk down into Kalamunda and stroll down the main street and look at people. I don’t miss cold drinks or electricity or machine-washed clothing. I just wish I could look at people getting money out of the ATM or reading the paper at a cafe or buying envelopes from the post office, none of them appreciating what a miracle it all is, none of them realising how many millennia led up to their perfect, harmonious world. I wish, I wish, I wish.

In summer I often fall asleep half-drunk in the lawn chair on the verandah but in winter I always have to retreat inside, curled up alone under the doona and extra blankets while the rain patters down on the tin roof or the wind violently shakes the gum trees. Something particularly eerie about the noise of a gum tree thrashing in the wind. When I was younger being this drunk was fun; it had that euphoric feeling, felt like everything was awesome and anything was possible. Now it just makes me feel numb which I suppose is the point. I drink a lot. There isn’t much else to do. Sometimes I wonder why I keep myself alive if I’m only going to neutralise my thoughts by sloshing my brain around in a skull full of liquour, but sometimes I wonder why I keep myself alive full stop. All I do is eat and drink and shit and sleep. I sit on the lawn chair and stare at the lake. I tried reading a book a long time ago but got frustrated in the first two pages and threw it away. I used to read fifty books a year but I then used to do a lot of things.

Monitor lizards pacing across the rocks down by the lake. Ducks and swans honking as they edge in on each other’s turf. Possums scampering across the roof at night. Twenty-eight parrots bursting from the trees in a screeching cloud of colour. Wind, rain, sunshine, clouds. The earth is still revolving around the sun.

I never see any eagles. Cockatoos and parrots and pink and grey galahs but never any birds of prey. Never any cats either. Did the virus kill them off too? Why couldn’t it have just killed off everything? Why didn’t it kill me? Why was I left to drink myself stupid and cry at the stars?

I was sitting on the verandah yesterday morning when a motorcycle came down the trail between the trees and parked in the driveway. I’d heard the buzzing of its engine a few moments earlier but assumed it must have been thunder, not that the two things sound anything the same, but my brain subconsciously edited out any suggestion that a motor could be running nearby.

It was an ugly, bulky, bright orange trail bike with saddlebags on either side. The rider was wearing boots and jeans and a grey textile jacket. A shotgun was slung over his back.

Was this it? The Mad Max raider of the post-apocalyptic future? I’d stood up when I saw the bike approach, out of sheer shock, holding my bottle of whisky limply in my hands, and as it grew closer it didn’t even occur to me to try to run away. Now it was too late.

The rider removed his helmet. He was young – twenty, if that. He started walking up towards the verandah as I stared at him in horrified fascination. I had a sudden urge to throw the bottle at him and turn and flee, but clamped down on it.

Hi, he called up.

Hello, I said.

That moment seemed to last a while.

I saw your smoke, he said, nodding up at the chimney. Thought I’d come take a look. You by yourself out here?

I didn’t say anything.

I’m not gonna hurt you, mate.

What’s the gun for?

Dogs.

There are no dogs out here.

There are in the city. Here, look.

He slowly pulled it from his shoulder and placed it on the ground and stepped back towards his motorcycle. I made no move to approach it so instead he sidled around it and walked up towards the verandah steps with arms slightly raised. My name’s Shaun, he said.

I hesitated for a moment and I’m not sure if it’s because I’d forgotten what to do in a social situation like that or because I’d briefly forgotten my own name. Ian, I said.

What are you doing out here, Ian?

I shrugged.

Shaun scratched his stubble. I gotta say, Ian, you’re the first bloke I’ve seen in a while. Apart from the people I’m with. I didn’t know there was anyone left up here. Thought we’d found them all.

There was a nasty underlying tension that wouldn’t go away. Maybe it was him or maybe it was me. If he’d meant me harm he wouldn’t have walked up and said hi and put his gun on the ground, but the mere fact that he could harm me, should he so choose, was frightening in and of itself.

Who’s we?

There’s about twenty of us. Down south, near Denmark. We’re all from Perth but we needed to set up on a farm and the soil down there’s good. Canned stuff isn’t gonna last much longer.

He hovered at the steps at the bottom of the verandah. I stayed behind the railing.

What are you doing up here?

Going to RPH. Medicine and drugs and stuff that we can’t get in Albany.

This isn’t RPH.

Yeah, like I said, I saw your smoke.

It didn’t feel right. For so long I’d wanted to talk to someone, just talk to someone, just see another human being living and moving and breathing, but now that he was here all I wanted was for him to go away, some weird mixture of shame and anger and fear mixed up inside me. It felt as though a stranger had loudly burst into a funeral.

So how about it?

How about what?

Would you like to come down to Denmark? If you want to stand on ceremony.

I didn’t say anything.

It would probably be good for you.

A long pause. Then I said no and turned to go back inside.

He called my name and I heard him start up the stairs. I turned around in the doorway and he stopped halfway up. Leave me alone, I said.

Mate, you can’t stay here by yourself.

I said leave me alone.

I slammed the door shut behind me and went and lay down on my bed, staring at the ceiling, heart thrumming.

I heard him standing out on the verandah for a few moments, the boards creaking as he shifted his weight. Then I heard his footsteps crunching on the gravel and the motorcycle firing up and droning away into the forest again. I felt a little upset and disappointed that he’d given up so easily.

After a while I went back outside and put my hands on the railing and stared out over the lake. Somewhere in the distance a kookaburra laughed and a flock of black cockatoos went screaming over the hills. Puffy clouds were scudding across the horizon but it didn’t look like rain for now.

I went to the driveway and knelt down and touched the tyre imprints in the dirt. The forest had swallowed him up whole and the silence had returned but the imprints were still there. It was only when I returned to the verandah that I noticed more tangible proof of his visit, a rolled-up paper jammed in the brackets of the screen door. A roadmap of the South West with a spot just west of Denmark circled in red pen.

I burned the map. It was a pointless gesture, firstly because there was no observer and secondly because the knowledge is still in my head. There’s only a handful of farms west of Denmark in a jumbled little enclave scooped out of the national parks and if I was to poke around I’d find them eventually. It used to be about five or six hours by car so I suppose it would be a few days on the bicycle.

Mate, you can’t stay here by yourself. Well why not? It’s been going pretty well so far, or as well as anything can go after the mass extinction of human society. How well are things going down in Denmark on your sad little farm with twenty people putting on their brave faces? What are you kidding yourselves with? Till the land, grow the crops, back to nature, maybe this was even a good thing, no more global warming, no more war and conflict, just a peaceful little society, etc. What’s the point?

I mean it would be interesting to see what it’s like down there and, sure, nice to see other human beings again, but at the end of the day our lives are fucked and there is no point pulling together for a singalong.

It’s cold enough here in winter without going to Denmark. I went there when I was a kid and it rained non-stop. Or maybe that was Walpole. Whatever.

But he’s right I can’t stay here because he’ll probably come back and try to coax me again and I don’t want that. So I can either up sticks after all or I guess I can always cycle down to the police station in Kalamunda.

There are other lakes and other small towns. I’m not wedded to this place. Mundaring and Kalamunda are nothing to me. I’ll get on the bicycle and ride south until I find another holiday home or empty resort or some other place where I don’t have to pull a corpse out of a bed before I can sleep in it. There are still roadmaps in my car, silent and rusting by the entrance to the caravan park. I can go find some other cottage or farmstead with a creek for drinking water and a nearby supermarket with aisles full of cans. All the towns of the South West lie open to me. Pinjarra, Dwellingup, Harvey, Collie, Bridgetown, Manjimup, Pemberton.

Denmark.

I guess it’s up to me. The world doesn’t give a fuck.

* * *

Mitchell Edgeworth is an Australian writer living in Melbourne. His work has previously been published in journals including Allegory, SQ Mag and The Battered Suitcase. He blogs at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com and tweets as @mitchedgeworth.

Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. S. Iverson says:

    I don’t know why, but I love this part and can’t get over it:
    “I used to know the date but then I lost track. I guess it doesn’t matter but it still seems a shame because I know I’ll never get it back again.”

    Lovely work.

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  2. What’s stunning in this piece is the vivid landscape, painted in desolate strokes like “The hillside across the lake was a nail bed of trees.” But what’s more stunning is the freshness of this post-apocalyptic story; we have read our share here at RSF, but none have ever come close to dealing with the realistic torturous internal struggles of the protagonist. This is a portrait of a man who has gone into shock; he hasn’t accepted everything that’s happened yet and is still trying to cope—even while he considers suicide. While neither of us has lived through an apocalypse, we feel that this story paints a much more realistic picture of what a survivor might feel; it’s an awesome far cry from the more external pieces populated by mercenary characters that seem to be—at the moment—dominating this subgenre.

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  3. Glen Hunting says:

    Lest I should be misunderstood, I didn’t intend that last remark of mine as a misanthropic one, or as being aimed maliciously at the people who live alongside me in Perth, W.A. I said it because we’re a bit of a haven amidst the madness of Western metropolises. It’s a startling and tantalising idea to imagine something so awful befalling this place. And evidently the writers and directors of These Final Hours felt similarly.

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  4. Glen Hunting says:

    From one Perth WA boy to another (I presume???) – this piece of yours has a startling synchronicity with the film These Final Hours. Have you seen it? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s curious (but also rather easily explainable) that people should choose Perth as the setting for the mass extinction of humankind.

    All power to your pen, Mitchell.

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  5. This story has an interesting concept…theme…superbly done! I had to keep on reading to get to the “end”…of life?

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  6. [...] My short story Denmark was published the other day at Read Short Fiction, and you can read it online for free. [...]

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