The Borderlanders were night creatures.
As the sun set, music pumped from seaside bars along the tourist strip. Souvenir shops stayed open and cocktails were sipped while tourists swayed to Fusion: a mix of traditional music, R&B and techno.
Music to live short lives by.
The clear humid sky was lit with night markets and sidewalk food stalls and expensive rooftop bars overlooking the uneven corrugated roofs of shanty housing; red dust footpaths and locals sprawled across unstable verandahs drinking Kava and swapping ancient stories.
And in between the resorts and dotted along the yellow sand beaches, a veneer of quiet sophistication on honeymoon suite balconies. Drinking Manhattens and martinis over the top of the revelry.
And all of it at night.
The locals ate early and slept early like Australians did. The tourists – all from her side – kept European hours. Restaurants had sittings till midnight. Clubs opened till dawn. You could get an omelette at 2am or a beer at breakfast before bed.
Up since 5am, Meg was ready for bed by ten but the Gecko had slept till midday and could go all night. Sometimes, she’d give up and crawl gratefully into his bed while he wasn’t there to complain about it, only to wake up to a stray shaft of moonlight illuminating his absence. He was still downstairs in the bar drinking; an empty bottle of whiskey on the table by his side.
On those nights, the growing discontent flared like a solar storm before settling into a dull hole in her gut. Without him to hold onto she felt alone in a way she was sure a girl her age wasn’t supposed to.
Smothered. That was the word she had used. Her friends too. The mother and the father and the brothers and the final years of school and standardised tests and the ever-present demand of her religion and the path set out that she was too sensible not to follow. School and then University, a career, marriage, kids and then the cycle to continue over and over as it had before.
And then gone.
She liked to walk on the beach at sunset. Depending on the tides, the sand was either soft and wet, or dry and firm with the remembered pressure of the waves. Sometimes that sun-baked sand gave way beneath her feet and she found herself panicking. What was beneath it? A friend had slid into sand like that and a shard of glass had sliced open her leg. The ground firm beneath your feet and then you’re off balance and bleeding and bleeding. Everywhere.
She found herself staying up, accepting drinks she didn’t want, enduring conversations she didn’t understand and waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Hoping he’d go to bed so it wouldn’t feel so empty. Looking at the one that was supposed to be hers and going back to his room and finding him still not there. So empty.
“This is supposed to be a party, you know.”
She started and looked to her left to the boy sitting there.
“Sorry?” She’d heard him but was still processing. Him. What he meant.
He looked familiar but she couldn’t remember his name.
“You don’t look like you’re having a good time,” he said, enunciating his words a little too much.
She smiled politely, “I’m just tired.”
She didn’t know how to answer that. Was it a line? It sounded like it.
“Just long,” she settled on.
“Well, a few of us are going to grab a bite if you want to come with? I know, it’s early for the Borderlands, but it’s past seven. I need food.”
She looked at him properly: the sandy hair, faded jeans and nondescript t-shirt. He was her age, maybe a little older. Blue eyes. Unusual for a local. Her eyes flicked to his left hand. He must be local after all.
“You’re a Cassowary?” she said. Now that she had noticed him, she saw the bright feathered tattoo running from his middle finger and continuing to the cuff of his long-sleeved shirt. She knew it ran up his forearm to his elbow. Gang colours.
He held his un-marked right hand out to her for the light handshake preferred here.
She laughed. A reflex that she instantly regretted.
To her relief, he grinned back and cocked his head wryly, “That’s the Borderlands for you.”
He laughed with her and that smile, she realised, had gone all the way to his unusually-bright eyes. Completely genuine.
“Nice to meet you, Spider. I’m Meg. So, who’s ‘us’?”
“You said ‘a few of us’ are going to dinner. Who’s ‘a few of us’?”
“Will that be OK? I mean I’m not…”
“You’re our guest, right? Besides, between you and me,” and he leaned forward as though sharing a desperate secret, his voice dropping as he took her into confidence, “your man is kind of… terrifying. Trust me, we’re not letting anything happen to you. Of course, if you tell someone I said that I’ll have to deny it. Because I’m far too manly to be scared of anything.”
It’d been nearly a month since she’d gone anywhere without the Gecko. He left the room often but she stayed watching strange Borderlands soaps and surreally-familiar versions of TV shows she recognised.
X-Files had been cancelled after three seasons because of David Duchovny’s drug overdose. Doctor Who had never been cancelled and was on Season 48. A Borderland reality show called Yolngu Bites was the highest-rated show in Australia and one of the few to make it through the strict Borderland censorship that separated the Borderland from the rest of this dimension.
Yolngu Bites. She laughed without humour. If only they knew.
The thought of going out in the Borderlands without the Gecko terrified her. But there was something about Spider that was different from the men she’d met since the world ended: something softer, more familiar. Like he was a bit of the world she had left behind.
Was that just because of his blonde hair? His blue eyes? She hated the idea she was responding to some inherent racism rather than something more intrinsic. Either way, she suddenly wanted to get out of this third-rate hotel and do something other than avoid the world and wait for him.
So she took a quick secret breath and nodded. It was time.