[E̠̙̩̩X̙̹̹͇̤̥̳T̸̫͖̥̦͕̱?̫͓͔̗̳̜̳ ̣̬̺͡ͅI͖̣̗̦N͍͍͉T̶͙̖̜̺̬?̶͔̩̰ ̨̮͎̼̰-̛̫͇̜ ̻̞S͘O̰̬̦M̫̠Ȩ̰͉̝Ẉ̻̖Ḩ̱̟̻̤̘̙͔Ẹ̙̠̮̯̬R̤̪̣̟̘͘E̝̹]̗̯
See the boy in centre stage, illuminated and ghastly, pale back arching up towards the sky. Count the knobs and curls of the spine. Count the fine hairs on his arms and legs.
[ENTER FROM STAGE REAR – T̩̬H̩̪̙E̢͍ ̛̮̥͈̞̫D̮̫̦̙́E̜̜̙̻̭̣Ṣ̟̀E̟̭̩ͅR̖̱̫͔͕T]
See a man draped in black, dripping in midnight satin, emerge. See his broad brimmed hat, his gloved hands, his hidden face. The Desert opens his mouth and lets out a stream of bright television static. It’s unintelligible, but also completely understandable.
“Who are you now? After all of this, who are you?”
See the boy. He thought, after all of it, he’d be a different person. He thought that by falling apart he would emerge as something better. He thought that by running away he could control life, that by building his ego he could conquer fear.
A rusting red car, with two tyres missing and an engine full of death, sits in one corner of the stage. In another, a group of people, friendly faces with names like “Max”, “Shelby” and “Floor”, stand watching. They whisper to each other.
On the front of the stage, his sister kneels, phone in hand, trying to find that precious lifeline that will connect them again. She is close, but oh so far.
The boy sits hunched over his own knees, a mottled, papery and fragile human lump. With each careful brush of fingertip against skin, more came off until he sits amongst small mountains of forgotten skin, the fallout from his brush with the sun.
The skin underneath is not new and clean like he had wanted at the beginning of his short adventure, but pink and violent. An eruption of pain and dryness. He went through a wasteland seeking to find himself, but has ended up as part of it.
He falls forward, letting legs come out from underneath him. Laying with chest against the cool grey floor, he admits “there are no fresh starts… I couldn’t find one out there… I want to go home.”
“Nonsense,” The Desert says, “This is your home now.”
[EXIT STAGE REAR – ͓͇̮͖̩͇Ț͙̦͎̱̟H̙͉̮̝̯̩̹E̲̩ ̙̺DESER̗̺̣̜͕T͚̥̰͎]
[EXT./INT. – BLINMAN – LATER THAT AFTERNOON]
“Yep. Couple a days ago, actually. Wanted water. Looked a bit worse for weather I might add.” The store owner picked something out of his ear. Behind his head, a fan whirred ceaselessly.
Perrie could feel it. Her brother had definitely been here. Blinman wasn’t a big place, not by far, but it was surprisingly more populated than she had imagined. The air was slightly cooler this high above sea level, but the sun still burnt if you sat under it. It heated up tin roofs until the rooms underneath became ovens.
“How long ago? What do you mean he looked worse for the weather?” Perrie almost jumped down the man’s throat.
“Woah, woah, woah, calm down, little miss. That car and… your brother, was it?” The owner looked up to Mr. Bracken for support. “He came through maybe a day or two ago. Like I said, he just got what he wanted then left. No trouble. But he didn’t look like the happiest bloke going around. You don’t get many young kids comin’ through here alone.”
“Which way did he go?”
“Don’t know. Probably up to Marree. Only other town of any size around here. I’d be worried about his wheels though. That were no dirt-track rig.”
“It’s the family car. Long story.” Dad said. “Thank you so much for your time. You’re the only other person who’s been able to give us any information.”
“No problem. Wanna buy anything?”
“No, no, sorry.” Mr. Bracken shook his hands in front of himself. Perrie slammed a packet of Maltesers down on the counter.
“Yes we do.”
Perrie was chowing down as they left the general store and headed for the 4WD. Across the road, a group of men were trying to calm a calf that was trapped in a trailer cage. It bucked and mooed as they shoved hay into its transport. The sun was already lowing.
“We should get a move on. If he’s going at the same pace he’s been going all week then we’ll be able to catch him tonight, for sure.” Dad said as they climbed into the car.
Perrie watched as Blinman disappeared behind them and a wave of orange dust appear in its place. The whole country was made of the stuff. You couldn’t escape it. Dust was in the air, in the water. Dust and sun. Luke was out there somewhere, under the very same sun.
[EXT.- THE LAST HIGHWAY – LATER THAT AFTERNOON]
It was through that dust and sun that Luke crawled. His knees were scratched and bleeding, his head pounding and his skin flaking from the sunburn. Most of all, he was thirsty.
Luke pulled open the back door to find the back seat in just as big of a mess as the engine. The weight of the tent had crushed his box of food, sending cereal and coffee beans all over the place. Worst of all, his ten litre jugs of water had been spilled all over the carpet. Only one still had water in it. Luke gulped it down. He looked down again at the mess and wondered if anything could be done to clean it up. Fuck it. He thought.
“You’re going to have to get to Marree somehow. But do you want to rely on others? Do you want to keep using others as a crutch? It’s not a long walk.” Said The Desert behind him.
“I can’t.” Luke replied. “I want to, but I can’t. Look at this.” Luke wiped his head and raised his red fingers to the creature.
“A little bump on the head wouldn’t stop a hero. Hell, how can you call yourself a man if you give up like this?”
Luke rummaged through the chaos of the dashboard compartments. Swearing and complaining all the way, it took him a good while to find what he needed; that lifeline to the world that had kept him safely tethered to whatever reality he had chosen to run away from.
“Don’t pick up that phone, Luke. Don’t you talk to anyone. That is a tool to gather worshippers, not beg for help.”
“Shut up.” Luke mumbled. He opened his internet browser and attempted a quick search.
He waited silently as a thin blue bar crawled across the blank screen. It struggled briefly, and then gave up.
“C’mon!” Luke lifted the phone in the air. He waved it around. He refreshed. He reopened the browser. He walked out into the middle of the road.
No Internet out among the red dirt and shrubs.
Luke fell to the ground just outside the carcass of his deceased vehicle. Somehow and suddenly, all those hundreds of notifications meant nothing. He’d amassed a following of people through his photographs and stories from the outback, but what was that number worth when he couldn’t communicate with them? None of those followers or social media disciples could come and rescue him.
The only people that could…
“No. They are part of The Cloud. They are ghosts.”
“They’re my family.”
“Heroes don’t need families! They’re stronger without them! It builds character.” The Desert vibrated. The ground seemed to shake. Small stones seemed to levitate.
Luke decided to stop listening to the 12 foot devil floating around the car. He stood up and began walking.
“Dad and Mum are stifling you, Luke. They have no idea what’s going on in your mind. They have no idea of how much potential you have.”
Luke kept walking. He held his phone up now and then to check for bars. Nothing.
“And Perrie. Oh, Perrie. The protective older sister. She still sees you as a whiney little child.”
Luke stepped over a small hole in the dirt. He jumped onto a large, round rock and swung his arm around like a divining rod.
“Your friends? They just want to absorb you. They want you to fit in. They don’t want Luke. They want another pawn in their games. They just want another digit on their friends list.”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course it’s true. That’s how people really think. And you know it, Luke, because you think the same.” The Desert grew larger still, until its lanky, too-thin frame towered over Luke. High above him, in the wide hat, sparks flashed. Words appeared and disappeared in the darkness.
“I don’t think that. Who would think that? How would you know what I think?” Luke began to stammer.
“It is definitely what you think, though you try to deny it. This world is a world of numbers and ego. Nicole left you because you weren’t good enough. You weren’t known enough. You were just another faceless name in The Cloud.”
“Oh, swear at me, Luke. But you’re only cursing yourself. Put down the phone and walk on. Be a man, not a ghost.”
Luke looked down to his phone. There was data there, an oasis of digital reality in the midst of harsh, red truth. A dozen more notifications flooded in…
“Congratulations on the trip! Looks fun :)”
“Soooo jealous omg”
“Bring me back a t-shirt xD Stay safe.”
Who are these people? Luke asked himself. They were empty words from ghosts. They may have once fuelled his ego, but in such dire circumstances, they were just annoying background noise.
So he did something that he thought he could never do. He ignored them.
AND THE DESERT S̤̀̅C͖̪̆͆ͧȐ̹͖̬ͭ́̃͂̾̾Ë́͑ͨ̾͆A͓͔̮M̹̙ͧE̟͕̻͑̊̄̅D̗̮͔̝̪̥̼͛ͬͮͧ̒̒̊.
“What are you?” Luke asked the creature as it shrunk. Lightning shot through its body, through where its face should have been.
“Don’t, Luke. You are the hero. You could escape The Cloud. But you need me.”
“I don’t. I don’t need you. Not anymore. I need my family.”
The black mass fell to its non-knees in front of Luke. It leaked steel cloud from all of its joints. The flowing black cape blew in the wind. Silence.
Luke opened his voice messages, watching as The Desert grovelled. A robotic voice from some impossible place told him that he had one new voice message from a familiar number.
“To play the message, press one.” The voice said.
Luke pressed one.
“Luke. I trust you. I know you. I know you’ve gone through hard times recently, but that’s no excuse to run away. If that’s it, then you know what I think… If it’s something else, well, I want you to tell me. We’re worried about you. We’re out here looking for you, for crying out loud. I know you think doing this will make you feel better, as if you can only grow by growing your freaking ego and Instagram followers. But it’s just dangerous, Luke. Just… just tell us where you are, okay? Before anything happens.
“Okay. Talk to you soon, okay?”
Luke was stunned silent. In the week and a bit he’d been away he’d almost forgotten, or forced himself to forget, what his sister’s voice sounded like. He sat down carefully on the boulder and just stared at his phone for a while. He played the message again. And again.
As the sun began to dip below the horizon, painting the sky a vivid, velvet purple, Luke finally stopped replaying the message. Salty tears ran down his cheeks as he looked at his chapped and dirty hands, his ripped jeans and his bloodied t-shirt. He saw himself sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere in the centre of a completely flat and arid world. He saw himself alone, lost, stupid.
“That’s right, you child. Cry.” The Desert hummed. It floated now, nothing but a hat and a billowing cape, a few meters in front of Luke. “If you’ve given up trying to be a man, that’s all you can do.”
“No, I haven’t given up. I’ve just stopped being stupid.” Luke rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “And here I was, feeding you, thinking that somehow that’d make me me.”
“I AM you, you idiot. I’m the part of you that would have led you to the greatness you deserve.”
“I’m not listening to you anymore. This isn’t my home. This isn’t me.” Luke pulled at his shirt. “You’re not me.”
“YO̚U̾͛ͩ ͐ͦ͋̐̓̚NE̅̈́Eͣ̇̊͛D ̉ͦ̈́̊̈͑̐ME̍,́͊ͣ͑̒ ̊ͤ̾̍͑͂Lͮ̒UǨ̄Eͬͯ̇ͬ̿̒̚.̆̑́̿.” Lightning scorched the ground around the thing’s non-existant feet. There was a tremendous noise from somewhere deep inside the earth and, like a star collapsing into a black hole, The Desert began to disappear.
“WHAT ARE PEOPLE GOING TO SEE WHEN THEY LOOK AT LU͝KE ͟B̧RAC̴K̶E͟N? A STUPID BOY OR AN INTELLIGENT, CONFIDENT MAN?”
“They’ll see Luke. And that’s what I should have wanted all along.”
“HA HA HA. RIGHT. SURE.” The Desert’s hat fell from its head. Electric light blasted from the empty hole and strings of steel cloud began to flow freely. Luke could see the words contained inside it clearly now. He could see the faces of all those ghosts that he had been so afraid of and so eager to please just hours before. He wasn’t afraid of them anymore.
“I’͘LL̨ B̶E ҉H̛ERE,̀ LUKE.͢ ͏I’̶ĹL ҉BE HE͞RE̷ ̡IF̕ Y͝OU ̡E̛V̛E͠R̨ ̛NE͡ED ME̡ AGAI͞N̶.͞”́
As the last of the golden sun ducked below the horizon, the last of The Desert disappeared. The cape shredded itself to pieces in the light wind and the fragments burnt away like ash. The digital cloud that had bled from its form slowly spread, then dissipated, then evaporated entirely into the air. The constant vibrato hum that had followed Luke since his escape suddenly left.
He leaned back and stared up at the darkening sky. It was cool, but not too cold. The rock still radiated its collected sunlight. The desert was silent except for the whistle of the wind.
On that rock, Luke could finally feel again. He heard his heartbeat, listened to his breath, felt his toes and fingertips. He could sense the power of the stone beneath him, and the roots that connected him, in some way, to the very core of the planet.
He watched as the phone in his hand drained of its remaining power.
The screen vibrated and went black.
The first few stars of the night began to come out.
Luke dropped his phone in the dust.
[EXT.- THE LAST HIGHWAY – THE LAST DARK NIGHT]
[ENTER FROM STAGE RIGHT]
See the twin beams of high-power headlights cut through the dark a few kilometres down the road. They speed onwards until they pass the wreck of a rusting red Ford Laser.
See the vehicle screech to a halt. See the driver and the passenger run from the still rumbling vehicle and over to the car carcass.
“Oh my god! Luke! Luke! Where are you, Luke?” the driver and the passenger scream out into the void.
[ENTER FROM STAGE LEFT]
See the man.
Operation Electric Forever, was created during the SA Writers Centre Digital Writer in Residence program during 2016.