I started doing it, I guess, because Dad was always working over the school holidays, and because it seemed harmless enough to me. Of course I’d heard the stories about Ivan Milat. I wasn’t stupid. But there was this idea I had of the south coast back then, this kind of romantic illusion that made me believe things like that just couldn’t happen here.
Nine times out of ten it’d be another surfer or a friend’s mum who’d pick me up anyway. They’d see me standing there alone, with my thumb out and the sun burning new freckles onto my face, and they’d pull over and shake their heads and say, ‘For Christ’s sake, Nina. Get in.’
I didn’t care. It was only the coast road. As far as I was concerned, it was too familiar, too close to home to be anything other than safe. People could shake their heads all they wanted. Dad could lose his shit every time. As long as someone took me in the direction I was heading, to wherever I thought might have a wave. I was thirteen years old and not crazy about boys yet. Hitchhiking and surfing seemed like a fun enough pastime to me.
One afternoon towards the end of the holidays, when the hitching thing was still pretty new, I was standing by the side of the road with my board under my arm and a dirty black sky hanging over me. It was so hot and humid I could barely breathe. All around me these crazy bugs were flying into the windscreens of passing cars, warning of the coming storm. I was about twenty kays from home and all I wanted was to get back before Dad finished work. Before he and the clouds opened up and really let me have it.
Clearly there were no locals on the road that afternoon, because every car just swept by without slowing or even noticing my presence. I was so tanned at the time that anyone who knew me would’ve recognised me from a mile away. When the first drop of rain slid down my face, I closed my eyes and turned slowly on the spot, thinking: Here we go, Nina, you’re in for it now. But when I opened them again, pulling over beside me was this old shitbox, this silver Falcon all shot through with rust. By the time the driver unwound the passenger side window, the sky was already tumbling down on me in great wet drops.
‘In ya get,’ a smoky voice said, carrying across.
I swung open the backdoor without even looking at the driver and slid my board onto the seat. Then I piled in the front, desperate to get out of the rain. When I glanced across though, I almost jumped. Sitting there, staring at me from behind the wheel, was this heavy-looking guy with no hair and a cigarette between his lips. He jammed the car into gear and took off.
‘Where ya headed?’ he said from the corner of his mouth.
I looked at him and noticed the tattoos covering his neck, his fingers, his arms. ‘Uh, home.’
He coughed, or maybe laughed, before saying, ‘Yeah. And where’s that?’
‘Like, Broulee. Just down the road a bit. You know it?’
He shook his head. ‘Nope. I know one thing but, it’s sure as shit coming down out there.’
Turning away from him, I looked forward and saw the windscreen wipers flying across the glass, waving back and forth like the arms of someone desperately trying to get my attention. The downpour was wild. It seemed to block out the world beyond the car. In spite of this, the guy shot forward. I could see the speedo rising through the smoke.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I can, um, show you where it is then.’
Watching him from the corner of my eye, I guessed he was in his forties. Around my dad’s age. But with the scorpion tatt on his neck and a nose that was all misshapen and scarred, he looked nothing like my father. He looked nothing like anyone I knew, or wanted to know. Suddenly, despite the rain and the speed at which we were travelling, he peered across at me, his hard glare sweeping over my bare legs and up to my face. Our eyes met then, and almost instantly, I was struck by my own stupidity, or naivety, or whatever it was that made people shake their heads. I noticed how brazen my legs looked, how dark and exposed. All of this—the smoke, the speed, the way his eyes moved over me especially—gave me the feeling that things were beyond my control.
Without slowing, he dabbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and glanced over again, briefly this time. Then he shook his head at me, before pushing in the lighter and rustling around for another smoke. I stared out the window, noticing for the first time that summer how many tracks and narrow side roads actually existed along this stretch. It occurred to me that we could turn onto one at any moment. It occurred to me that I might never make it home.
‘How old are ya?’
The directness of his voice, combined with the pop of the lighter, shocked me so much I shuddered.
‘How old are you?’
The question felt like a hand reaching out to touch me. I could see my breath fogging up the glass. With a courage that seemed to come from nowhere, I swung around and looked him in the eyes. ‘Why?’
He took the unlit cigarette from his mouth and stared right back. ‘Because I’m asking.’
And with that, the courage was gone. I let my eyes fall south, to my dirty, sand-covered feet, and wondered where they’d led me. I could feel the man’s sharp gaze moving back and forth between me and the road.
‘Because maybe I’m sitting here thinking,’ he said, ‘What the fuck is this young girl doing hitchhiking around by herself? I mean, does she have any idea?’ He grabbed the lighter from its slot and held it to the cigarette, drawing in the heat. ‘Does she really think it works like this? That everyone who pulls over is just gunna smile and take her where she wants to go?’ He snorted. ‘Yeah, it’s a nice thought.’
Outside, the rain was still plummeting, the side roads still going past. The man kept his eyes forward and didn’t say another word. For close to five minutes we sat in a strange, tense silence, listening to the sound of our breathing and the wheels rushing over the wet tar. I tried to make my body as motionless as possible, hoping somehow he might forget me and bring me no harm. But every time he shifted in his seat I was certain he’d strike out or grab me or do something worse.
Finally, he looked across. ‘What makes ya think you’re special? That bad things can’t happen to you?’
Without meeting his eyes, I said, ‘You didn’t have to pick me up.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I didn’t. But I did. And now look at ya, sitting there shaking.’
We were close now, only a few kilometres from the turnoff to Broulee. Up ahead I could see the bloody remains of a kangaroo smeared across the road. The man drove over it as if it didn’t exist.
‘How many times you done this?’ he asked.
‘We’re nearly there,’ I said.
‘How many times?’
‘Thirty,’ he repeated. ‘But you’ve never been scared until now.’
‘We’re nearly there,’ I said again.
‘And then what happens?’
I glanced across at him, unable to speak. I could feel my pulse thrumming in my fingertips. As we came around the final bend, the rain, which had been torrential up until this point, stopped falling, and we flew down the road with a clear view ahead. It was impossible to ignore that he might just keep driving.
‘Here,’ I said, pointing to the turnoff.
The man nodded but didn’t look. His foot stayed planted on the accelerator.
‘Here,’ I said again. ‘You can drop me here.’
He kept nodding. ‘I heard ya.’
The green sign that marked the turnoff was looming up fast. I realised that whatever happened once we were beyond it was completely up to him. I felt so sick I had to close my eyes, hold my breath. Then my hands were pressing against the dashboard and I was looking across at the man gripping the steering wheel, pulling us over to the side of the road. In a few seconds we came to a sliding, graceless halt. My heart had exploded inside my chest.
The man turned to me, the cigarette still dangling from his mouth. ‘What if I just kept driving?’ he said. ‘What if I didn’t stop?’
I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I wanted to open the door and run but my legs weren’t having any of it. Without warning, he reached across and I jerked back in my seat. He stopped. Then he slowly drew his hand away and considered me, his face softening.
‘Open the glove box,’ he said.
I didn’t move.
‘Open it,’ he repeated.
Slowly, I reached out and unclipped the latch, my hand shaking the whole time. Inside it was dark and messy. I couldn’t see what was what.
‘On top there,’ he said, pointing. ‘Grab that on top.’
I took hold of something cold, something thin and metallic. Bringing it up to the light, it looked to me like the handle of a knife.
The man nodded. ‘Push the button under ya thumb.’
I did as he said and watched a silver blade shoot out and stand upright in front of my face. Shocked, I stared at it, studying the gleaming surface and sharp curve.
‘Now keep that,’ the man said, turning away. ‘Next time you might need it.’