“Those two are dead; you know that, don’t you?”

Kane ran to the smoking building and dropped to his knees before the closed door. He could hear the cackle of a fire and listened hard to find out what it was trying to tell him. Wisps of smoke were seeping from the building, but he couldn’t feel any heat. He tried to remember his training, how to dig into his feelings, thoughts and senses, put them all together and visualise exactly what the fire was doing, but his brain was preoccupied with interpreting what he was seeing rather than taking the time to listen to what was inside him.

He glanced over his shoulder as two others joined him, dressed, like him, in full gear. Nodding at them, he jumped to his feet, kicked open the door and peered into the darkness. The fire wasn’t in that room, just cardboard boxes and a lot of smoke. He waved through his two companions and watched as, heads down, they rushed inside.

Kane was about to follow when his heart rate trebled. It felt like a machine gun was going off in his chest. He tensed his muscles, tried by a force of will to make his heart slow, but the staccato went on and on. Darkness suddenly ballooned in his head and for a second he thought he would faint.

The feeling soon waned, but as the darkness fell away, all thoughts drained from his head. While he stood there, paralysed with fear, terrified he might be having an aneurysm or a heart attack, an explosion sounded inside the building. The door slammed shut.

He staggered back. That wasn’t supposed to happen! His mind flew into a panic. Should he attempt to rescue them? Wouldn’t that be suicide? If they were alive, they would have come out by now.

“What the hell do you call that?”

An officer wearing a dark blue suit was coming up behind him, stomping through puddles of water. His face was red and shiny with rage.

Before Kane could get out a word, the man hit his shoulder with his open palm.

“Those two are dead. You know that, don’t you?”

“I –”

“You just killed two people!”

The man’s words lit a flare of anger in his chest.

“I was looking for the fire.”

“You were looking for shit!”

“There was only smoke!”

“And what have you been taught about that?”

Kane’s mind went blank again.

“Well?”

“They – they went in too fast!”

“You waved them in!”

“Well, that doesn’t mean –”

“You waved them in!”

“It’s not my –”

“I didn’t see anyone else waving them in!”

“It’s not my fault they’re stupid!”

“Whose fault is it then?”

Kane looked dumbly at him.

“You’re responsible for their deaths!”

“They’re grown men!”

“You’re a team! You’re supposed to look out for each other!”

An image of his father flashed in his mind and his heart began racing again. Shaking with fury, he yelled, “Why doesn’t everyone shut the hell up about how responsible I’m supposed to be?”

“Because you’re a dangerous little hothead!”

That was it. Kane ripped off his helmet. He was so furious he was seeing stars. “I didn’t sign up for this shit!” he shouted in the man’s face. Shoving the helmet into his chest, he took off back to the station.

The two trainees appeared from the alley next to the building.

“Sorry, sir,” said the tall, pimply-faced one. “We really stuffed that up. Can we do it again?”

The golden-brown pickup truck rolled along the dirt road, stopped near a cliff, then reversed until the tray was facing the ocean.

The door opened and out stretched Kane’s legs. His boots hit the ground. Pushing himself away from the seat, he leaned against the truck and stared down at the ground. He had no will or energy to go any further. He was still wearing his fire pants and had stripped down to a white t-shirt, which was wet under both arms. There was another spot of wetness in the middle of his chest.

After a minute, he pushed himself off the truck and went around to the tray. Lowering the tailgate, he jumped up and sat contemplating the ocean. The waves were grey and cold under a heavy blanket of cloud. Where they hit the reef, the water was white and choppy. Beyond the reef, far out at sea, was a tanker, which from this distance appeared as a charcoal blob balanced on the horizon. Kane imagined what it would be like to stand on the bow and feel the swell of the waves as they lifted and dropped the enormous ship and everything on it. Pretty much what I feel now, was his thought.

He recalled the panic attack he’d had earlier. It was like nothing he’d ever felt before and it terrified him. Though he’d checked Google and found out it was psychological, most likely a reaction to stress, a part of him still worried it was something worse: a bubble of weakness in his heart or his head that one day, when he was exerting himself at work or in the gym or on his bike, would return to claim him. The Gates’ curse, come to take its latest victim.

Shaking his head, he turned his eyes to the land, to the long pale curve of coast. In the distance, the old cannery stood like a ruined city near the water’s edge. As the land approached his truck, the cliffs rose, then fell away to a small beach, a favourite recreation spot for his family in happier times. Where his truck was parked now was the place his father always parked – close to the narrow track that led down to the water.

In the sea below, a man was bodysurfing. The figure raced a wave, caught it, disappeared into the break, then reappeared with arms flailing. Despite the despair that seemed to fill every space inside him, Kane’s mouth turned up in a smile. Years ago, his father and he would race the waves together, just like that, and end up with lungs full of water, just like that. On these occasions, his mother and two younger brothers would sit on the beach and watch them intently, not interested in their antics, but afraid the two fools would drown if they took their eyes off them. “Be careful!” his mother would cry, well aware they couldn’t hear her. “You’ll kill yourselves out there!”

Now they were both dead.

‘A frenzied knife attack by unknown assailants’ was the official verdict. Probably a gang of dope fiends, high on ice. The investigating officer said Mike and Lauren were just in the wrong place at the wrong time – their standard line when they didn’t know what the hell had happened.

Kane couldn’t accept it was simply a case of bad luck. Surely there must be more to this than bad timing? Two people with eighty-five years of life between them had been slaughtered. Obliterated from the face of the earth. In the space of a few violent seconds. For no reason. And before that, his youngest brother, Oliver: killed in a tragic fall. What had his family done to deserve all this death?

He took a deep breath, like he was trying to inhale the ocean. I came here to remember the good times, he told himself, not dwell on the unfairness of the universe. He forced himself to listen to the squawking of gulls and the whoosh of the waves, to feel the coldness of the salt air as he drew it into his body, held it in his lungs, then blew it out warm and infused with his DNA, sharing it with the world, with the beach and the water and the man below.

The man below. Kane suddenly realised that, while he’d been lost in thought, the bodysurfer had vanished. He sat upright, glanced about in alarm, then caught sight of him close to the reef, head bobbing up and down as he searched for the next wave.

Leaping from the tray, Kane locked his truck and took off down the trail. When he reached the sand, he pulled off his boots and socks, stripped down to boxer shorts, raced to the water and dove into an incoming wave. The water shocked him, went up his nostrils, made him forget everything but the ice that was burrowing into his skin and flooding into his veins.

He swam out to the bodysurfer, an athletic redhead about his own age.

“How’s it going?” he yelled, as they bobbed together in the swell.

The man nodded, then swam out to sea, kicking water in his face.

Kane followed him. “Here it comes!” he cried.

Together they raced the swell. The man caught it and rode the wave towards shore. Kane, treading water, watched him.

After a while, the man swam back, smiling with big teeth, cocky after his win. He came at Kane, leapt on him and pushed him under.

Kane flailed and swallowed a mouthful of salty water. He fought back, forcing the man to choke on his own mouthful of salty water. The two splashed and grappled and dunked each other, yelling and laughing like teenagers, until the man shouted, “A big one!” and let him go.

This time they caught the wave together. They rode it shoulder to shoulder all the way to the shore.

There the man sprang to his feet and took off up the beach, stopping to collect a towel and a pile of clothes, before racing towards the trail Kane had come down.

Kane stood at the water’s edge and watched him as he disappeared from view. He was shivering so much his teeth clattered. Now the man had gone, he felt curiously empty, as if the stranger’s disappearance was another loss: something else to mourn. He kicked at the water, kicked it away from his feet, as if he held it responsible for the man’s decision to leave. He’d hoped their game would go on for longer. It had been a welcome distraction, a slice of life in the midst of all this death and depression. Now Kane was alone, the only person on the beach.

He turned back to the ocean. The waves seemed to go on forever, a rolling canvas that would never stop, not until the sun burnt out or all water on Earth evaporated and there was nothing left but rocks and sand. In its vast solitude, in the heavy breath of the waves, there was something almost supernatural about this place. For a moment, Kane imagined he was the last person alive, the lone survivor of an apocalypse that had wiped out all humanity. What kind of disaster was it? He tried to recall. Contagion? Nuclear blast? Zombie rising? He couldn’t make himself believe in any of those. Perhaps everyone had simply vanished – just like his parents, but on a global scale.

Skulking up the beach, he got dressed, dropped to the sand and lay on his back, wet and shivering, staring at the sky. The clouds were darkening, descending, threatening to suffocate him. As the sun slipped over the rim of the Earth, the temperature began dropping fast. Kane had nowhere to go, nothing of importance to do; but when three gulls came sailing over the cliff, crying out to each other like jubilant teenagers, they reminded him that life still existed, and he was a part of it. More than that, his father had charged him with a purpose, something that, with his death, had gone from a nagging burden to a critical mission: he had to look after his brother.

Rain began to fall, the drops hitting his face like torpedoes of ice, washing the salt from his eyes and his lips. Shortly after, the first of the evening’s fishers came plodding down the beach with their rods and buckets, telling each other, in raised voices, stories of the fish they had yet to catch. Their voices brought Kane back to the now and he got up, brushed the sand off himself, turned and climbed the trail back to his truck.

Read Chapter 6: Land of the dead

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