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The Cassowaries

Short fiction by Mike McClelland

Six of the seven cassowaries poked about in the brush, shaking the bushy water gum and silky weeping lilly pilly leaves, causing a variety of lizards and furry critters to hightail it out of there. Davey tried to keep the six of them in sight, and wondered where Hester, the largest of the birds, was hiding. Davey held a long pole in his right hand, a large, heavy feed bucket hanging at the end. The heft of the bucket made his veins pop and his eyes occasionally darted down to admire the tan and definition of his forearm. In his left hand was one of those claws old folks use to get groceries off of the top shelf. With it, he grabbed long, fleshy strips of wet papaya, cantaloupe, and mango from the bucket and fed them to the birds.

Some long-ago employee had apparently lost her hand when the cassowaries went for the bucket, so Davey and the others now kept it at least three feet away at all times. He dragged his feet through the fallen leaves as he walked, making sure not to sneak up on the cassowaries or any of the snakes or lizards his boss, Crombie Kooyong, kept around. He shoved the claw into the bucket, gripped some fruit, and hoisted it at Margaret, the closest cassowary. She cocked her head, her long blue neck winding like a snake as she fixed her right eye on the clawed fruit. Her flamingo-pink waddle jiggled as she nervously considered the fruit. Her horn, soaring stiffly from her head like an over-gelled bouffant, made Davey nervous, and he took a step to the right, remembering what Crombie had told him about never having his “soft bits” (though Davey couldn’t imagine thinking of any inch of his exhaustively gymmed body “soft”) face a cassowary horn head on.

At six feet, Hester was nearly as tall as Davey, and the bird shot a look straight at him as he spoke, eyeing him as a potential snack.

Davey heard a whoosh to his right and Margaret snorted in offense as Hester’s massive head shot out of the rhododendron to his left and stole the fruit right off of the claw. Davey screeched and dropped the claw, jumping back, while Margaret reared up and brayed at Hester, sounding like an agitated cane toad.

Hester pecked at the fallen claw and got a piece of cantaloupe stuck on her sharp beak, causing her to shake her head around in a rage. Davey grabbed the claw and deftly held it towards the bucking bird.

“Chill out, mate,” Davey told the bird gently.

At six feet, Hester was nearly as tall as Davey, and the bird shot a look straight at him as he spoke, eyeing him as a potential snack.

Davey plucked the cantaloupe off of Hester’s beak and then grabbed some more fruit out of his bucket for the bird, who opened her beak wide and swallowed three clawfuls before winding her neck back into the rhododendron. Neither Hester, nor any of the other birds, had anything like affection for Davey or any of the other employees of Kookaburra Krossing, even Crombie, who had been around the birds for most of their lives. They were the wildest creatures Davey had ever encountered, and even though they barely even acknowledged him as a source of food, instead alternating between finding him a threat and an annoyance, he had a soft spot for the giant, awkward beasts. They seemed entirely impractical, a nonsensical combination of soft feathers and vibrant colors mixed with razor-sharp talons, a deadly beak, and those fucking horns.

Davey’s summer job was taking care of Hester, Margaret, and the other five cassowaries. All of his “ladies”—Crombie didn’t want any of their younger guests to accidentally witness cassowary mating, so the park only brought in female birds—depended on him for basic needs. This meant feeding them, hosing their shit off of any surface a guest might see, and keeping them from getting over the fence along the Kassowary Kanal, a lazy-river type attraction where guests inner-tubed through the park’s rainforest and observed the cassowaries peck about on the shore. Davey sprayed mango juice along the cassowary side of the fence that girded the canal before any guests (or “kampers” as Crombie insisted they be called) floated down the river, ensuring that the cassowaries would come into view for at least part of the guests’ float.

Davey had taken the job at Kookaburra Krossing on the recommendation of his ex, Garth, who had worked the job the summer before and who’d said there’d be plenty of tourist ass to be had over the summer. Davey felt like he was in desperate need of sexual experience before going to university up in Townsville, considering Garth had been the only guy he’d ever fooled around with. In the month that he’d been at the Krossing, however, his only hook-up had been a drunken dalliance with the koala keeper, Four-Finger Freddy, who had lived up to his nickname and now made Davey blush uncontrollably whenever he was within fifty meters of him.

Davey considered himself attractive, but he knew it was a fleeting thing. He was like a new pair of work boots: well-made, perfectly tanned, full of potential. But if he lived as he was meant to, working himself hard in the hot Australian sun, he’d be wrinkled and worn out before too long. If he was anything like his dad, he’d look sixty and act seventy-five by the time he was forty. But he was eighteen now, and he wanted to take advantage.

Trouble was, there was no one to fool around with. Four-Finger Freddy and Bill the Bruce, the fortyish, self-proclaimed bogan who drove the bus between the Krossing and the Townsville airport, were the only long-term staff members, and the rest of the seasonal staff were either ladies or so straight he couldn’t even drink them queer. The kampers had been almost entirely ancient in the time Davey had been there. That left Crombie, who was hot in a kind of older Ken doll sort of way, but he was so aloof with the staff that Davey doubted he’d ever get the opportunity to bed him.

The only friend he’d made at Kookaburra Krossing was Sango, who was supposed to be tour guide but had proven to be, in Crombie’s words, “too exotic” for some of the guests, who had mostly been domestic Australian travelers this season. So she was the lifeguard, despite not being trained to do so. Four-Finger Freddy had shown her some CPR moves and she was a lifelong swimmer, so she’d been okay with that. Sango’s father’s roots were 100 percent Aboriginal Australian and her mother was Japanese-Fijian, and Crombie had promised to let her give tours of the park when they got more “cosmopolitan” visitors.

Davey took his bucket, pole, and claw back to the “Kassowary Kave,” a manmade cave where he kept his supplies and he herded the birds in bad weather. He also brought Blueberry, the smallest of the cassowaries, to the Kave once a day so that tourists could see a cassowary up close through a plexiglass window out of the main lodge, which made up the back wall of the Kave. Crombie called the main lodge “Kastle Kooyong,” of course.

Davey washed the bucket out and then let himself through the gate, walking around the path that encircled Kastle Kooyong. As he looped around to the front of the building, he saw Bill the Bruce hurtling up the driveway in the Kookaburra Krossing Karavan, which was actually a former school bus painted in the blue, white, and red of the Australian flag The bus had the flag’s Commonwealth Star painted across the hood, making it look like a hungry star-nosed mole as it rolled up. This image persisted when viewing the bus from the side, as the Southern Crosses painted on each side looked like little mole paws if you took the time to connect the stars in your head.

Davey knew that they were expecting an American tour group, and he crossed his fingers and toes, hoping for at least one decent-looking male guest. The bus’s closer door opened, its stars shooting in reverse, and Crombie emerged from Kastle Kooyong’s revolving front door. He was wearing a khaki jumpsuit, a matching pith helmet, and a fucking monocle, his uniform for greeting international guests. He had his mustache all slicked up and curled and Davey was sure that his hair was pomaded to oblivion under the helmet. Crombie had once told Davey that in the early years, Kookaburra Krossing guests had mostly come from other Australian locales, particularly coastal Aussies looking for a taste of the outback. Over the last decade, however, their clientele had become more and more international, and as such Aussies only made up about a quarter of their visitors. This hadn’t been Davey’s experience thus far, but he was hoping things would change.

This, in Crombie’s view, meant that everything at Kookaburra Krossing had to be very, very Australian. The menu was full of shrimp on the barbie, roasted jumbuck, vegemite or avo on toast, and desserts of fairy floss, Tim Tams, and pavlova. The maids frequently piped out nonsensical slang while cleaning the rooms, chirping “There’s a bilby in your doona!” while shaking out the bedspread or singsonging “I’ll bring you a chokkie this arvo!” while walking out the door.

A weary-looking family of five collapsed out of the bus first. A middle-aged man and woman and two strapping sons, both in their late teens or early twenties. One of them had his arm linked with an attractive young woman with heaps of braids, while the other son looked like a loner. Bingo!

Davey knew that they were expecting an American tour group, and he crossed his fingers and toes, hoping for at least one decent-looking male guest.

This first family was African American, and they were followed by what looked and sounded like a Japanese-American family and a very pale white family, who were sure to burn to a crisp during their stay. Every member of the African American family had zinc sunscreen spread across their faces like Victorian makeup and the middle family were all dressed in long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats. Davey winced when he saw the exposed arms, thighs, and noses of the final, palest family. The middle family was made up of two mothers and three daughters, all effervescently cheery, still joking and laughing with one another after a five-hour drive and what must have been a long flight before that. The final family consisted of a solidly built man and woman and their five pre-teen children, three girls and and two boys, all gingers and all dressed in tank tops and shorts. Their skin grew pinker in the short walk from the bus to Crombie. Davey could practically hear them sizzling.

He returned his attention to the first family. The single son was lanky but graceful, while the other son and his apparent girlfriend moved in such familiar tandem that they seemed to have merged into one solitary organism.

The seventeen guests met Crombie at the front door of Kastle Kooyong. Davey watched his boss with a confusing combination of respect and embarrassment.

“Welcome to Kookaburra Krossing,” Crombie said in full Richard Attenborough. He allowed a dramatic pause and then continued: “I’m Abercrombie Kooyong, Proprietor of Kookaburra Krossing. Please call me Crombie.”

Crombie always seemed to expect some sort of response at this point in his intro, yet Davey had never seen him get one. After an excruciating full minute of silence, Crombie said, “We hope you will enjoy your stay here. Let me introduce you to my jackaroos and jillaroos, who will show you to your quarters.”

He waved Davey over, then waved in the opposite direction summoning Sango and Char, an athletic, towheaded teenager from an avocado farm up near Cairns.

“This is David,” Crombie told the first family. “David, show them to their Kampsite and rustle up some refreshments.”

 “I was just about to throw some snags on the barbie and turn on the footy,” Davey told them with his biggest Aussie smile. “You can leave your bags here and Four-Finge . . . er . . . well, Freddy’ll bring ‘em down while we get settled in. Let’s go grab a few coldies and check out your digs,” he added in his heaviest Aussie accent.

As Davey led the family down the pathway, he heard Sango telling her group to “watch out for the wallabies, they’ll steal goodies right out of your tucker-bag!” She made every vowel fat and nasal while making her consonants sharp as knives.

“I’ve got some goon for the ladies if beer’s not your jam,” Davey said, smiling over his shoulder at the family, his eyes landing on the unattached son.

“I’m Tisha and this is my husband Tyler,” the woman said. Her platinum hair was cut very short, which made her large, watchful eyes seem even larger and more watchful. She was in a pink tracksuit, presumably for travel rather than fashion. Her husband, who appeared to be very tall and very tired, was in a complimentary tracksuit, his green.

“These are our sons Austin and Houston, and Austin’s girlfriend Priscilla. We’re from Texas,” Tisha added as Davey led them down the paved pathway towards Kampsite One.

He showed them to their cottage, which was called a Kampsite, but was really a circle of bedrooms around a firepit.

“Showers, baths, lavs, and a sauna are just down this path here,” Davey told the exhausted family as they claimed rooms and splayed themselves out on lawn chairs. “I hope you brought your budgie smugglers, boys, because the pool’s just out back of Kastle Kooyong. Just follow the path we came down back up and wind around the outside of the main building. The pool feeds into Kassowary Kanal, too, if you’re looking for some more relaxing water-based activities.”

“What’s cassowary?” Priscilla asked as she applied another round of bright white sunscreen to her face.

“Oh gosh, miss, you’ll love the cassowaries. They’re a large flightless bird, like an ostrich, but they’ve each got a bright blue head and a big old horn sticking out the top of their noggin,” Davey told her. “Which reminds me,” he added, “don’t go near any of the animals, even the cute ones, and please, please, please don’t feed them.”

“No problem,” Tisha said, pulling a set of snakeskin boots out of her suitcase. “I prefer my animals as coats, shoes, or burgers, thank you very much.”

That made Davey a bit sad, but her boots were so spectacular that he could see her point. He looked at Houston, who was sitting in a chaise lounge and staring at him hungrily. Davey caught his eyes briefly and smiled, and Houston’s eyes darted away.

“I can show one of you how the showers work and he can just pass on the information to the rest of you,” Davey said. “Houston was it? Can I show you?”

Houston jumped up like his chair had caught fire. His zinc sunscreen had made his face look like a big gray egg, but it was a handsome egg, and Davey wanted to kiss it.

He led Houston down to the small building where Kampsite One’s showers, baths, and sauna were. Davey could feel Houston’s eyes on his backside while he walked, and when Davey opened the sauna door to show Houston how to turn on the heat, the Texan pushed him into the room and shut the door behind him.

“We call this pashing,” Davey said when he came up for air a few minutes later, which made Houston smile before he went back in for another kiss.

They made out for what felt like two seconds and two years all at the same time. Houston’s hand was down the back of Davey’s pants, and Davey’s hands were down the front of Houston’s, and things escalated from there until Tisha knocked and asked Davey if the wi-fi was down.

Davey gave Houston a peck on the lips, pulled himself together, and then left the sauna, avoiding Tisha’s knowing eyes and smirk. He went through a gate marked “Krewmembers Only!” and then up the path towards Kastle Kooyong’s business offices. He fished his phone out of his pocket, intending to dial Crombie, but there was no signal of any sort, which was disconcerting as they were about a kilometer from a cellphone tower and always had great coverage.

The entirety of Kookaburra Krossing would look something like a dartboard if viewed from above. The massive, circular Kastle Kooyong was plonked in the center, a strange amalgamation of game lodge and Spanish villa, its exterior built from light Tasmanian oak and its roof red clay tile. Kastle Kooyong was ringed by the Kassowary Kanal, which included the swimming pool, King’s Kove, and the marsupial rehabilitation area, Kangaroo Kreek. Then came the ring of six Kampsites, which was bordered by a loop of lush green artificial rainforest, called Koala Kingdom. The final ring was basically made up of the actual bush from which Kookaburra Krossing arose, but it was “managed” to facilitate optimal game viewing opportunity. This final area was called the Killing Kliffs, as the entirety of Kookaburra Krossing sat atop a low plateau that still sat high enough to kill you if you fell off of it.

In Davey’s mind, Australia would be the perfect place for aliens to land and plot out their invasion of the rest of the planet.

Davey thought about the grounds as he unlocked one of the gates to a service bridge over Kassowary Kanal. If the cell phone signal and wi-fi were down because of aliens attacking, which was something he thought about pretty often, then Kookaburra Krossing would be an instant target, a bright and colorful splotch in the middle of a great expanse of dry, brown nothing. Other than a few dying mining towns a ways to the north, the closest civilization was Townsville, which was a five-hour drive to the northeast. The story was that the Queensland government had gifted the land to Crombie’s father, Abercrombie Budge, who’d become the area’s most famous person after improbably winning a Wimbledon title. But Sango had told Davey that the land had already belonged to an Aboriginal community, and not only had Lord Budge stolen the land, he’d also taken the name of their community as his own, and after settling here had gone by the name Abercrombie Kooyong and had thereafter claimed Aboriginal heritage.

“The joke’s on him, though” Sango had said. “Kooyong means ‘place to rest’ so he basically named himself ‘Abercrombie Outhouse.’”

In Davey’s mind, Australia would be the perfect place for aliens to land and plot out their invasion of the rest of the planet. He didn’t even know if any satellites flew over Australia. He supposed they had to, but surely less of them than those over China and America. So the aliens would sneak into the outback and while they were gliding over they’d see Kastle Kooyong as a giant red bullseye, pulsing in great relief because of its contrast with the shade of sky blue Crombie had painted the walls and floor of the Kanal in. They could just aim a laser or some shit right at Kastle Kooyong, then land and feast on their burnt bodies and their endless supply of Vegemite.

Thinking of aliens made him think of anal probes, and Davey was blushing yet again when he arrived at the business office. Sango was there, tapping her long nails on the break table. Each of the nails was adorned with a little firework made up of tiny jewels, and they sparkled as she tapped.

“Oh my God, you already hooked up with that guest, didn’t you?” Sango said, and Davey gave her a fist bump and joined her at the table, their shoulders brushing together.

“You getting a mobile signal? Or wi-fi?” Davey asked.

“Nope,” she said, still tapping away. “That’s why I’m here. My group flipped when they couldn’t use their phones. I told them to go look at the wallabies and you’d have thought I’d shat on their floor.”

Crombie burst into the office, followed by Four-Finger Freddy. Davey’s cheeks went hot as he looked at Freddy’s strong hands, one of which held a revolver.

“Frederick, there is no reason to have your gun out,” Crombie said, barely noting Davey and Sango. He was carrying an open jar of artichoke hearts and paused to pluck one out and eat it before saying, “I know I don’t need to remind you that all staff firearms must be concealed at all times unless they are needed to deal with a rogue animal. We don’t even know what’s going on, so put it away.”

“Bill,” which sounded like Beeeeeel when Four-Finger Freddy said it, as Freddy really leaned into Crombie’s ‘sound as Aussie as possible’ admonition, “said that the Sheila on the radio said we’re under attack.”

Crombie stiffened, but kept moving, heading to the business office’s desk. He grabbed a key there and turned to a door behind the desk, which he unlocked and opened, revealing a bunch of cords and boxes and things. Davey wasn’t very technological, hence his assignment feeding the cassowaries, but he did know that the modem—or at least the machine that controlled the other modems—lived there.

“Bill listens to that militia shite all the time,” Sango said. “You know that guy up north who thinks the Aborigines are enslaving white people and building a Wakanda in the outback? Bill listens to him. And not for a laugh!”

Freddy flipped Sango off, and she just shrugged. Davey nearly fainted upon seeing Freddy’s long, thick middle finger, and Sango raised an eyebrow at him as his face turned into a beet.

Crombie put down his artichoke hearts, the briny juice from the jar splashing out over the side, and pulled a dainty silver pen from his pocket, holding it gently between his thumb and index finger. He poked it into a tiny button on the modem.

“Reset!” he said to the mechanism.

Crombie gathered the machine in his arm so that his non-poking hand was free and held up his phone as he decisively stabbed at the tiny button.

“Reset! Reset! Reset!”

“We’ve got to start preparing, boss,” Freddy told Crombie.

Crombie ignored him.

“Is anyone getting a signal?” he asked Davey and Sango, an edge entering his voice. “I need to get online and pay the invoice for the linens!” he added in desperation, his normally round voice all sharp, shrill consonants spat in pace with his stabbing.

“Do you have a radio?” Sango asked Crombie.

“I’m sure it’s just a temporary thing,” Davey said to the room. “Who’s doing the kookaburra show tonight? Char and I traded, so I think it might be my turn, but I need to know so that I don’t eat before. I can’t make it through without puking.”

Whenever they had new guests at Kookaburra Krossing, they put on a show with their namesake birds at dinner time. They’d transport the birds from their enclosure over at Kangaroo Kreek to Kastle Kooyong’s dining room. There, they’d serve the birds raw steaks, which they’d eat whole. It was absolutely grotesque but mesmerizing to watch a relatively small bird open its jaw to twice the width of its body and gobble down a piece of huge meat.

“Dad had one. For talking to farmers,” Crombie said to Sango, giving up on stabbing the modem. “It’s got to be around here somewhere.”

“Shouldn’t we just wait a few minutes? Like, sometimes signals go out, and then they come back,” Davey said, and though he knew it wasn’t happening, he let himself think for a second that maybe aliens really were invading. Nostalgia poked around in his belly, holding those joyful cataclysmic feelings he’d felt as a child when faced with potential thunderstorms and cyclones and fires and yes, aliens, just out of reach. As an adult, it felt less exciting. Fantastical reasoning disappeared, and he was faced with having an adult response to the consequences of everything from the climate to terrorism, and he didn’t enjoy it one bit.

Bill the Bruce roared in through the back door, a rifle over his hairy shoulder. He was shirtless, his majestic tits resting atop his beer belly like eyes on a tortoise, sweat pouring over every hair-covered inch of his body. Davey found him grotesque and was horrified that all his mind could do in the face of that grotesquery was to imagine the infinite ways he could have sex with Bill the Bruce.

“Radio says Sydney and Melbourne are toast, so is the RAAF base up in Townsville. I’d reckon we’ve got a week until the radiation gets to us here, less than that if we get acid rain.”

Davey looked around to see who would laugh first. Crombie just stared, still cradling the modem thing in his arm. Four-Finger Freddy’s mouth dropped open, and Davey hadn’t noticed before that how pretty his lips were.

Sango looked at Davey and Davey looked back at her and he could see that they were both trying to figure out how seriously to take this. At worst, there was some sort of nuclear apocalypse, which seemed to Davey to be far too much to deal with. At best, they were dealing with an armed crazy person who believed they were going through a nuclear apocalypse.

“What station were you listening to?” Sango asked Bill the Bruce calmly.

Bill ignored her. Davey had never seen him acknowledge Sango’s presence.

Davey tried. “What station was this on, Bill?”

Bill kept his eyes on Crombie and Four-Finger Freddy, but said, “99.9 out of Townsville. They says the city’s collapsing because of the strike on the base. They says to get into a fallout shelter if you know of one.”

“That’s Christian radio for you,” Sango said. “Did we elect a female PM or something? Is Barack Obama visiting Melbourne? Is it Hannukah? There has to be some reason they’re crying apocalypse.”

Crombie kept his eyes on Bill and said, “Let me find the radio.”

Sure enough, any radio signal they could pick up was talking about bombs and radiation and fallout shelters. There didn’t seem to be any organization. The radio presence seemed to revolve entirely around individuals with access to radio equipment. One was a dude locked up in the 99.9 office in Townsville while the city burnt around him. Another was a fifteen-year-old girl in Ayr who’d spent most of her early tween years trying to talk to aliens and thus had a bunch of radio equipment in her attic. Another was an elderly couple who’d lost their retirement in a bad investment so they lived in the cab of their semi-truck.

All of the information was word-of-mouth, but none of it was good. Some kind of attack or cataclysm had Australia or the world reeling, with massive waves of radiation spreading by land and sea.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Crombie finally said, his voice clear and full of purpose.

“I’ll radio for help. William, Frederick, and David, I want you to gather the able adult kampers and start transporting food, water, blankets and clothing over to Kangaroo Kreek. There’s a door in the basement over there that leads to my father’s old fallout shelter.”

“Your father had a fallout shelter?”

“Of course, darling. He built Kookaburra Krossing during the Cold War. He thought the Russians would bomb the RAAF base up in Townsville, because the Americans were always using it when they were spying on the Chinese and Japanese. It’s a bit dated, but I do keep it stocked with Vegemite and XXXX.”

“So you want us to live underground and sustain ourselves on a diet of sandwich spread and beer?” Sango asked.

“Well that’s why I want our strapping men here to go gather other supplies. The shelter isn’t made for long-term habitation. Otherwise we’d have to think about leaving the kampers out of it, unfortunately. But we’ll use up all the air in a month or two either way. Maybe a little bit longer with fewer people, but if this isn’t taken care of in a month, I can’t imagine it getting done in two!”

“What should I do?” Sango asked.

Crombie smiled. “You, my dear, should find the other one and then gather the young kampers and take them over to Kassowary Kave to keep them safe.”

“Is the ‘other one’ Char? Do you mean ‘other one’ as in the ‘other woman?’ You do know that you have ten women on staff, right? There’s Jill and Sam over at Kangaroo Kreek, Dami, Trish, and Mel cleaning rooms, then . . .”

“Oh yes, dear, have them round up children, too,” Crombie said without looking up from the radio. He was turning knobs and then bending down to the listen closely. Then he seemed to have an idea. Davey froze in excitement. Did Crombie have something that could save them? A secret phone that somehow worked and somehow connected them to the president?

He pulled a bag of a balloons and two boxes of crayons out of the drawer and held them towards Sango.

“For the kiddies,” he said, still not looking at her.

Sango shot Davey and exasperated look. Davey frowned in sympathy, but then asked if Sango could feed the cassowaries for him since she’d be in the area anyways.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” she said.

Sango left, followed shortly thereafter by Four-Finger Freddy and Bill the Bruce. Davey was about to follow when Crombie looked up and asked him, “Do you think I should send out a message telling people we’re alive? If the military’s listening then they’ll know to get us, and if there are any locals without anywhere to go they can come join up.”

“That seems like a nice thing to do,” Davey said, thinking that he’d want to know if his neighbor had a fallout shelter and he was in a nuclear fallout situation. He’d been quite relieved when Crombie had brought it up.

He was worried about his family, but he had no way to actually process what was going on. Surely they were safe up in Cairns, with its tourists and heat and all that bright blue water? Nothing bad could ever happen to Cairns. Or if it did, it would happen there last.

Crombie turned to the radio and chose the channel or frequency or whatever magical, invisible ray it was that girl from Ayr had used to reach them.

“This is Abercrombie Kooyong at Kookaburra Krossing,” he said. “You’ll find us if you turn off the A1 onto the Ayr Dalbeg Road and follow it until you’ve passed two billabongs off the Burdekin River—if you reach a third, you’ve gone too far—and then after that second billabong turn onto Lincoln Road which becomes Mulgrave Road which becomes the Ayr Ravenswood Road. Drive and drive and drive until you pass Blackmore Creek and then take your next right onto Blackmore Road towards Kookaburra Krossing. We’re up on a plateau at the end of the road, so you can’t miss us. We’ve got food, fresh water, and a fallout shelter. Come on over!”

Crombie looked up at Davey, who was confused by the directions even though he knew where Kookaburra Krossing was.

“I’m a bit frightened, David,” he said, and Davey saw his hand shaking as he set the radio’s mouthpiece thing down. In his short time at Kookaburra Krossing, Davey had seen Crombie as eccentric but unflappable, but he seemed pretty flapped at the moment.

“Don’t worry, mate,” Davey said. “We’ll all get out of here in one piece and have a laugh about it later. It’s probably all a big prank.”

“You’re right, young man,” Crombie said. “You go along and help the others. I’ll wait to see if anyone radios back.”

Davey turned to leave just as Bill the Bruce stormed back in.

“Crom, you buffoon! I just heard you on my radio telling every bloody fuck in the fucking state of Queensland that we’re sitting pretty here with food and shelter!”

“Oh good, it worked then,” Crombie said with a grin.

“You fool! They’re all going to come and kill us!”

And sure enough, six gun-toting marauders had come before midnight. Bill the Bruce had shot them from the top of the driveway. The rest of the place was fenced, had fake security cameras, and was mostly protected by the steep Killing Kliffs, so Bill had stationed himself at the top of the driveway with his rifle and went to town.

The first five had all come on foot, but this sixth of these villains came on a motor bike, his face painted bone white. Bill shot him in the leg and dragged him up to Kooyong Kastle to be interrogated.

“I’m just a scout!” the leathery-skinned, white-faced intruder screeched after Four-Finger Freddy ripped the nail of his big toe.

“Who are you scouting for?” Bill the Bruce asked, digging his pinkie into the fleshy, bloody toe flesh, which made Davey gag.

“Whole town of Dry Spring is coming down to take the place. About sixty souls in all. We’ve got knives and cricket bats and a couple of guns.”

“Why are you wearing sunscreen at night?” Davey asked, and Bill the Bruce just shook his head.

“This aint’s sunscreen, it’s radium! Big Karl told us we needed to get immune, so we all painted our faces and teeth with it,” he said and then spread his lips wide, showing his teeth, which were glowing starlight white.

“Whoa,” Davey said.

“Turns out some folk had already been doing it,” the guy said. “Got more in my tucker bag if you fancy it?”

Aside from being a villainous harbinger of their demise, Davey found the guy to be pretty agreeable.

“That’s not how radiation works!” Four-Finger Freddy hissed at the poor guy. “You can’t just put fucking poison up your arse and expect it not to kill you.”

“I didn’t put it up my arse,” the guy said, offended.

“When will your feral mates get here? Are they Aborigines?” Bill the Bruce asked.

“Aim is to get everyone down here within the week. Have to come on foot, we don’t have enough cars to fit everyone. And no, the Aborigines live up in Cold Springs. They make a good living selling digeridoos to the tourists. Not sure what they’re up to in all this mess. Us in Dry Springs used to work in the mines, but they’re all shut down. Can I go now? It’s a long-arsed drive and my headlights are busted.”

Bill the Bruce shot him in the head, and Davey jumped back, horrified.

“What’d you do that for?” Four-Finger Freddy asked Bill the Bruce.

“He just told us that his bollocking army is coming down to kill us! We can’t have him going back and giving him the lay of the land.”

“You’ve got a point,” Freddy said.

“We could have kept him as a prisoner,” Davey huffed.

They had less than a week to prepare for the arrival of this whole town of murderers. Davey had suggested that they just all get down into the shelter before anyone arrived, but Crombie told him the shelter wasn’t built to defend against people, just against radiation.

They had twenty adults and seven children to keep alive. And only three guns, a couple of hunting and kitchen knives, and a variety of sporting equipment to keep them safe. Their odds against a desperate band of sixty armed attackers seemed slim.

They spent most of the time making anywhere other than the front driveway impassible, covering the tops of fences with shards of glass and the ground outside of it with nails and animal feces. Their goal was to funnel everyone towards the driveway and then have Bill the Bruce, Four-Finger Freddy, and Crombie shoot them from the front gate.

“It’ll be like shooting clay pigeons,” Crombie had said.

When the day of the villains’ anticipated arrival came, Davey hadn’t seen Houston in twenty-four hours. He was mad because Davey had spent another night with Four-Finger Freddy, who Davey now thought of as Five-Finger Freddy and who now really made Davey blush. Davey really liked Houston but he hadn’t anticipated Freddy guilting him into his trailer with an “it’s the end of the world and I’m all alone” soliloquy.

He swung his head down and saw what looked to be a group of about sixty people approaching the gate. It was a caravan of sorts, with people on foot, on bikes, and in two vans. Like a sadder Mad Max.

He’d barely seen Sango that week, either, as she and Char had been saddled with keeping the children entertained in Kassowary Kave while the men did their work. Tisha was the only woman helping with security, though Bill the Bruce, Five-Finger Freddy, and Crombie, the de facto leaders, rarely acknowledged her.

Davey was on watch and was tracing a cockatoo’s flight above the front Kookaburra Krossing sign when the cockatoo exploded in a poof! of white feather and bloody gristle.

“Ah!” he croaked as a bullet whizzed close enough for him to feel a change in the wind.

He swung his head down and saw what looked to be a group of about sixty people approaching the gate. It was a caravan of sorts, with people on foot, on bikes, and in two vans. Like a sadder Mad Max. Only a few had guns that he could see, but most had some sort of blunt instrument. All of them had glowing, radium-white faces and teeth that shone brighter than the afternoon Aussie sun.

Davey hit the ground and ran back towards Kastle Kooyong, yelling bloody murder. The women, even Tisha, went back to protect the children in Kassowary Kave, while the men grabbed their weapons and headed for the front gate.

Crombie was clutching an antique pistol in one hand and the very racket his father had used to win Wimbledon with in the other. Five-Finger Freddy had a rifle and stopped to give Davey a wet kiss on his way by. Austin and Houston, who had both played high school baseball, a fact that Davey found to be very sexy and American, sprinted to the pile of rocks they’d spent the week gathering and started throwing them down the hill.

Davey was frozen in place. His heart told him to go check on Sango. He wanted to grab his weapon, which was a knife duct-taped to the end of the pole he used to hold the cassowary feed bucket and go and protect the women and children. But he knew that the best way to protect them would be to keep anyone from getting into Kookaburra Krossing.

He turned to run to the gate when he heard Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!

With each crack, someone took a bullet. Bill the Bruce’s head splattered like a pumpkin under a lawnmower, Crombie went down with three shots to the torso, his khaki jumpsuit turning into macabre tie-dye. Austin got hit in the knee and went down, hard, and Houston scrambled over to put his shirt on the wound to keep it from bleeding too heavily.

Freddy took a bullet in the shoulder of his shooting arm and fell over. Davey watched as he lifted himself back into sitting position and tried in vain to get his floppy arm to grip his gun. Davey stripped off his shirt and ran over and put it on Freddy’s pulverized shoulder.

“We’re all toast,” Freddy said, and tweaked Davey’s nipple.

Davey leaned down further and whispered in Freddy’s ear, “If we make it through this, I’ll be calling you Freddy the Fist.” He blushed so hard he nearly popped, but the joyful look on Freddy’s face as he passed out made it worth it.

Davey peered down the drive and saw the father of the ginger children leap on top of a man with a long gun, presumably their sharp shooter. He stabbed him repeatedly before being torn off by a group of white-faced baddies, who literally pulled him apart.

Davey, shirtless and soaked with sweat from the stress of imminent death by either mob-villainy, radiation poisoning, nuclear war, or sunburn, turned and went to Houston. Their front line of defense was completely gone, and the bad guys were running up the driveway en masse.

“Houston, we have a problem,” Davey said and giggled.

Houston just stared at him in shock as he pressed the rag onto his brother’s wound.

“Austin, are you okay to hold that on your own?” Davey asked him.

“Yeah, you guys go,” he said.

“Houston, we need to go protect the women and children. We’re the last ones who can help them.”

Houston squeezed his brother’s hand and the two shirtless men ran back towards Kastle Kooyong. They’d only made it a little ways when they ran straight into Sango, Char, Tisha, Priscilla, and the rest of the women. Sango was wearing a bright orange one-piece bathing suit while all of the other women were coated in mud. Behind them, a group of seven mud-soaked children carried buckets filled with water balloons.

Houston stopped, his body glistening in the setting sun. Davey stopped as well, his body also glistening in the setting sun.

“Mama, what’s going on?” Houston asked.

Sango answered. “Davey, I haven’t fed the birds all week.”

Davey felt like he’d been punched.

“Why would you do something like that?”

She shook her head.

“These balloons are filled with mango juice. I need you and Houston to throw them at the bad guys. The kids are going to run and open all of the fences and then hide in the Kanal, and these other ladies are going to hide in the bushes and cover them.”

“You’re going to set the cassowaries free? Why?”

“Because they’re starving and all of our enemies are going to smell like fresh fruit!”

“You genius! You’re like Ripley. You know, the secret protagonist that emerges from a sexist male cast to . . .” Davey started, but Sango held up her hand.

“I know.”

Houston grabbed the remaining two buckets of balloons.

Davey paused.

“Sango, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to be bait,” she said.

Sango smashed a balloon against her chest and mango juice spilled out over her.

“You’re like a giant mango now,” Davey said, his eyes filling with tears.

“Save it for the victory party, babes,” she said, and she was off.

Davey and Houston ran back to the gate, reaching it just as the white-faced villains broke through, their radium-slicked teeth shining with malice.

Davey was no good at throwing.

“I’m more of a catcher,” he said to Houston, who slapped him on the ass and smiled despite imminent death.

So Houston threw balloons at evil-doers with silky ease as Davey stabbed at them with his makeshift spear. The lot of them, all starved, sallow-eyed unfortunates, were intent on murdering them, so he had little choice but to try and kill them in return. But he felt bad about it.

There would be enough of them through the gate soon to simply run Houston and Davey over, so Davey grabbed the unconscious Five-Finger Freddy’s rifle and swung it back and forth menacingly.

“Do you know how to shoot a gun?” he mouthed at Houston.

“No!” Houston whispered back. He lopped a few mango-balloons in the air to get the folks further back.

“You’re American! That’s your thing! You’re Texan!” Davey screeched.

A tall miner with an actual sledgehammer in his grip made it to the front of the group. When Davey poked at him with his spear, the miner grabbed at it past the knife, and wrenched it out of Davey’s hand.

“Are you Big Karl?” Davey tried to ask, but the sounds of dying and fighting were too loud for Karl to pick up on it. He swung the sledge hammer, which slammed into Davey who then slammed into Houston. Davey figured that at least half of his ribs had to be broken.

He was on top of Houston, and he’d hit their heads together hard enough that it seemed within the realm of possibility that he could just lay his head down on the other boy’s sticky chest and stay there forever. He moved to kiss Houston, who screamed in his face and pushed him.


“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” Davey screamed back, just as Big Karl’s sledge hammer hit the ground between them.

Davey leapt to the side, his shorts tearing on an errant dislodged “Kome on in, Kampers!” sign, leaving him to face doom in nothing but a Speedo, his whole body sticky and wet with mango juice. He rolled over and looked up, fixing his eyes on Big Karl, who had his hammer up and ready to strike.

“Get ready to die, drongo!” the big man roared, and then he swung.

A group of cassowaries is called a shock.

Cassowaries are shy, and are often mistakenly thought of as grumpy, or even aggressive. This is not true. The truth is that cassowaries are simple creatures. Some may say dumb, or stupid, but if you were to ask a cassowary in cassowary is she were angry or dumb, she would quite astutely tell you that she is not grumpy, not stupid, but rather that she is content. And that she finds hindrances to her contentedness—humans, bad weather, roads—very upsetting.

A group of cassowaries is called a shock.

Kookaburra Krossing’s shock of cassowaries were very upset on this particular day. They had not been fed in a days. The small humans, which they found to be the worst kind of humans, had opened the doors of their sanctuary, and when they’d ignored the little shits they’d been coaxed out into the unknown by the smell of sweet fruit. They all knew for a fact that they wanted nothing to do with anything beyond their sanctuary, because they could smell in the air that they were only a few short meters away from hot, dry bush, and they certainly, definitely wanted nothing to do with that.

Hunger took over. The smell of the delicious treats waiting just out of sight was extraordinary—wet and fresh and abundant.

The world, as the cassowaries saw it on this day, was green in their sanctuary, then gray, gray, gray as they sprinted along the pathways stretching out toward the horrible bush but also towards that glorious food. They spotted a giant mango and they ran after it. But it was a wily mango, zinging this way and that.

Then the shock of them rounded the bend, and . . . nirvana, a blast of shining yellow joy.

 There were dozens of human-sized mangos, orange as the sun at 6:35 p.m. on a slightly hazy day in November, rolling through the front gates of Kookaburra Krossing. The mango they’d been following sped away, but they didn’t care, as she’d left them in this treasure trove of slow, unsuspecting fruity joy.

Margaret bray bray brayed, and the other cassowaries heard, “Holy. Fucking. Shit.”

Hester let out a throaty, kweh, and her sisters heard, “The big one’s mine!”

Blueberry snorted in glee, and her friends heard, “’Strewth!”

Leda screeeeeeeed in delight, and the other ladies heard, “screeeeeeee!”

Then one of the mangoes moved in menacing fashion, and the shock became very upset once again. What had already been a very stressful day—a very stressful week!—had been momentarily joyous, and now that joy was at risk.

The cassowaries had had enough.

They sped through the air, their orange, pink, coral, and rose waddles soaring like worms drinking the finest champagne in first class on a Qantas flight from Melbourne to Singapore, their horns finding mango flesh again and again, their tongues delighting in the sweet exterior and salty centers of the giant mangoes.

They sensed the mangoes were trying to get them alone, so they moved as a shock, pecking and slicing, scratching and feasting in unison.

They saw the dumb human who fed them, but he, too, smelled like fruit. But then they noticed a giant mango—the biggest mango to ever mango—attacking him, and they went for that one instead. Their former caregiver loped off, he and two other dumb humans pulling the dumb koala trainer along behind them.

Somewhere along the way, they realized that they were happier than they’d ever been before. That this was what they were supposed to be doing, and that they were supposed to be doing it together. That the shock of them, with their seven horns and seven beaks, their fourteen eyes, and forty-two talons and their hundreds of feathers, were better together. That together, they could do anything. That maybe, for the very first time, they could fly.