The late night Ipswich line stank of sugar and booze. After a ten and a half hour shift at KFC Booval, I thought I’d be asleep in the four seater, but a couple of methed-up skinheads were swearing it up at the other end of the carriage, and anxiety had me buzzing. I tried closing my eyes and putting my feet up, but images of carved up chicken carcasses filled my vision.
I’d been having this recurring dream where a bunch of terrorists force fed me human body parts in an abandoned warehouse. It left me feeling like I had the ghost of a stomach bug niggling at me all the time. I hadn’t eaten in 27 hours.
My phone died early on the long ride, so I stared at suburban lights flashing by my pallid reflection in the double panel window. The skinheads started talking about me, about how they could fuck up a weedy teenager like me. One said they should roll me. I glanced over. They laughed. The train announcer called Corinda. I counted stops like precious grains of sand in the hourglass of my life. I stank of fryer oil.
When the train finally eased in to Taringa, I made for the doors as quickly as I could. One of the skinheads lunged from his seat and I flinched, sending them both cackling.
‘Pussy,’ they called after me as the doors hissed closed.
I walked home through dark backstreets as street lamps sputtered above me. The humming of the lamps grew and dulled as I walked between them. The distant roar of Moggill Road punctuated the gaps.
I crested a steep hill and jumped to the side as a hatchback ploughed over the rise. A horn honked and a coarse voice cried out the window. ‘Pussy.’
I stumbled down the other side of the hill on aching legs and reached my apartment block. Mine was a small concrete box on the third floor, overlooking a decaying lawn and rusty hills hoist with a crowd of stained white underwear and my work uniforms. I climbed the creaking steps, almost to the point of crawling. I reached my door, unlocked the deadbolt, and fumbled my key in the jammy door lock. Finally, it opened.
I switched the fluorescent light on and it buzzed. In the pale light, I saw a flash of orange disappear behind the ancient plasma tv on the lounge room floor. I blinked hard and rubbed my eyes.
I heaped my Kmart backpack next to the doorframe and beelined for the shower. The light reflecting off the peeling white paint of the walls was slightly green; I could never figure out why. I stripped my greasy uniform, added it to the damp pile in the corner, turned the hot tap to full, and sat down to take a shit while the hot water kicked in.
I went to look at my phone; the battery was still dead. Instead, I stared blankly at the bathroom door and tried to keep my eyes from closing.
There was a flicker of movement in the crack under the door. I saw a flash of orange, a spiny leg. My eyes closed and I slapped my face. I wiped my arse and stood.
I turned off the water and heard scratching at the door. I stepped up to it, turned the handle and opened it a crack. I saw a flash of orange disappear back into the lounge room. I went back to the shower and washed sweat, grease and shit from my pale, skinny frame.
I didn’t bother dressing after the shower, it was still a couple of days before I had a free afternoon to head to the laundromat. I wrapped my mouldy grey towel around my waist and collapsed in front of the tv. I picked up my Xbox controller and booted up Halo.
My brain went into autopilot, aching muscles melting into the couch. Flashing lights and gunfire drowned out the noise of frying flesh still haunting my ears. Some alien shot me and I felt a pain in my foot, like putting my heel on a running sawblade.
‘FUCK,’ I swore.
I pulled my heel up. I could see spiny orange legs and carapace disappearing into my bulging skin. Instinctively, I grabbed the legs and pulled. They tugged for a second, then whatever it was was ripped from my foot. I flung it across the room and it landed with a slap on the wall, blood spattered around it.
It was a bug, but nothing I’d seen before, even growing up in the country. Somewhere between a water scorpion and a cockroach, bright orange and as long as the tip of my middle finger to my wrist. It folded its legs out and scuttled a few inches up the wall.
‘FUCK,’ it swore back at me.
I stood and panted. My towel had fallen off and my heel smeared blood onto the cold tiles. I looked down to my greasy work boot, halfway between me and the bug. There was a buzzing noise, but I couldn’t tell if it was the bug or the fluorescent light. I stepped slowly towards my boot, heel slipping and screaming in pain. I bent down and picked up the heavy, stinking shoe and looked up.
The bug was gone.
My eyes darted from side to side as I spun, trying to find it. I stepped gingerly to the tv and looked behind. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t under the couch with the chocolate wrappers and nose pickings either. I stood at the centre of the room, feeling like a spring ready to snap. I heard footsteps on the metal walkway outside my window. I ducked down to grab my towel as one of the many neighbours I’d never spoken to bobbed past the window above the sink filled with unwashed dishes.
I lifted the towel and saw a flash of orange crawling up my arm to my face. Sharp claws scrambled across my cheek towards my ear.
‘FUCK.’ It swore loud enough to make my eardrum ring.
I grabbed it with my free hand and flung it to the ground with another wet, bloody slap. As quick as I could move, I slammed my boot on it, three times for good measure. I lifted the shoe and stared at the writhing blood smear underneath.
The bug had flattened out upside down, legs in jagged patterns splayed around it.
‘What the fuck,’ I said, voice breaking and breathless.
I peered closer. The legs started to move. Slowly, it peeled off the floor and then bent backwards to leverage its squished body up. With a sickening pop, it lifted itself and started skittering in circles.
I dropped my shoe and dashed to the under-sink cupboard. Wrenching it open, I scattered barely used cleaning products to the floor in search of bug spray. The skittering closed in behind me. I found the spray at the back, behind the dirty PVC drainpipe. It jammed as I pulled it out before another searing pain, this time in my calf.
I fell to the floor, grabbed my leg. Orange spikes stuck into my flesh, out of sight. I screeched; Patchy leg hair and red spots undulated. A bulge moved from the back of my leg to the shin. I grabbed it, digging dirty fingernails into my skin. I felt the bug writhe in my grasp and squeezed it back towards the hole in my calf, sobbing.
‘Please, please, please,’ I gasped.
I dug my fingers deep into the hole, wet flesh on my fingertips. I found a leg and ripped, bloody chunks splattering on the floor. I threw it as hard as I could across the room.
It landed in the corner, flipped itself over, and skittered towards me again.
I reached behind me and grabbed the spray. As the bug scuttled closer, I pressed the nozzle and didn’t let go. Poisonous fumes filled my nostrils and a fine mist hung in the air, catching the fluorescent lights above. The bug writhed on the ground, hissing.
It sat in place, vibrating as the hiss grew deafening. Its carapace bubbled and popped. The shell on its back opened and stiff, pale orange wings spread.
I dropped the bug spray. I felt like curling into a ball, like I was slowly imploding. I’d started crying at some point and hadn’t noticed.
‘Please just fucking die,’ I begged it.
It turned in a circle and flipped itself over.
‘FUCK,’ it swore.
It took to the air. It circled the room at face height, then came right at me. I felt liquid spray my face as its wings battered my eyebrows. It dug its claws into my forehead, and I felt it tear a tuft of hair out of my scalp with its jaws. I batted it off and it took to the air again.
I scrambled for the front door, my bloody heel slipping and smearing the tiles. I grabbed the door handle and felt it stick its sharp claws onto my naked back. I danced, trying to reach it behind me.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’ My voice was breaking again.
‘FUCK,’ it echoed back.
I grabbed hold of it, felt its jaws around the top of my index finger. I shook my hand violently until it detached, then scrambled out the door and slammed it behind me. My finger stung; I looked at it in the dim light from the kitchen window. The finger was severed at the top knuckle, blood welling out of it like an overfilled bucket.
I put pressure on the bloody stump. Wind picked up and I felt my balls freeze up into my body, penis shrivelled up like a maggot. I looked in the window, saw a flash of orange disappear under the couch, saw my dead phone lying face down on the kitchen counter. The time on the oven read midnight, four hours before I had to be up for my next shift.
I turned, looked up at the starless sky and sat down on the stairs, testicles resting on freezing concrete.
I didn’t know what to do next. I was so used to having my hours marked and accounted for. So used to someone telling me what my next task was, so used to consequences if I didn’t follow the schedule to the letter. This was out of my wheelhouse.
I couldn’t face my neighbours naked and bloody, had no phone to call my parents or even, God help me, an ambulance. I considered making a mad dash for my phone and charger on the kitchen counter. Tried the door handle and realised I’d locked myself out. I sat back on the stairs and sighed, feeling faint. I looked down at the courtyard and saw one of my uniforms I’d left on the hills hoist. The thought of work felt comforting, the thought of rigid scaffolding and pissed off twenty-something year old managers to handle the shit show.
I walked down, dressed myself, and counted the hours till sunrise.
Author: Samuel Maguire is a bipolar himbo and Brisbane author currently studying at QUT. His first novel, No Point in Stopping, was published in 2018 and he is the editor of a collection of Queensland inspired speculative fiction stories called Far-Flung to be released later this year. He currently works as a commissioning editor at Tiny Owl Workshop and you can find his work in ScratchThat and Scum Magazine.
Artist: Zoe Hawker is a multi-disciplinary student artist working with sculpture, installation, and painting. Her self-reflexive practice aims to decode the absurdities of our current culture.
Editors: Bea Warren and Rory Hawkins