You shouldn’t be hitchhiking out here on your own, she says when she leans across and opens the door of her shiny four-wheel drive. The young woman she addresses hurries to throw her backpack onto the floor at the foot of the passenger seat. She quickly scans the driver for signs of her being an axe-murderer and, not finding any, settles into the passenger seat doing up her seatbelt.
You shouldn’t be picking up strangers, she smiles. Thanks. My name’s Kelly.
Maureen completes the introductions and asks the obligatory, Where are you heading? I can take you as far as Gummundah or the turn off from the highway if you want to keep heading north.
Nowhere, I’m going nowhere in particular. Gummundah sounds good.
Maureen had been startled when the shape of the young woman appeared in the headlights, an unexpected apparition at the side of the road, the little surge of adrenaline causing a tingle in her fingertips and making her hold in her breath. The girl had frightened her because she seemed to materialise out of nowhere, appearing fully formed in jeans, t-shirt and backpack.
They sit driving in the croon of the road noise for a while before Maureen says, Well, now that we know each other better, you can tell me where you’re really going.
Kelly laughs. She looks out the window at the trees and scrub that disappears at the perimeter of the headlights.
Yeah, what does it matter? I’m running away, she confesses.
Yep, like a little kid. Bad relationship, though, not because I got grounded. She laughs again, I’m actually heading to a cousin in Darwin but I figure it won’t matter how long I take to get there since he doesn’t know I’m coming.
You travel light, Maureen says looking at the small backpack like ones that kids use to carry schoolbooks.
Yeah, that was out of necessity too. I had to go quickly and quietly. She smiles tightly. He isn’t a nice person, my ex. Kelly breathes out heavily, He never hit me though, it didn’t ever get to that. I wouldn’t have let him hit me. The road signs flash past announcing town names and distances, warning that drowsy drivers die and that micro-sleeps can kill. The rumble strip glows at the edge of the road like a headless arrow pointing their way.
So, what about you? Why are you going to Gummundah, do you live there?
I used to. My dad runs the pub. I’m going to see him.
Mmm. How long since you’ve been back?
Well, that depends who you ask; either too long or not long enough.
Maureen grips the steering wheel and peers into the arc of the headlights. She imagines a messy tangled web that keeps expanding and becoming ever more tangled; knots swell and pulse at the junctions. The centre white line flicks past in time with the pulsing nodes.
They are quiet again. The trees on either side of the wide road nearly meet overhead in places, leave open spaces in others. Kelly looks forward to the openness and clarity of a desert night sky. Maureen dreads the malty smell of stale beer that creeps out of the carpet and sheds off the walls of the pub. It will make her feel like a child again. It will make her feel guilty.
Kelly rests her head back against the seat, breathing deeply. So, she says, why did you run away?
Maureen smiles, Who says I ran? Maybe I went to the city for work.
Doesn’t mean you weren’t running.
My mum got sick. Cancer. Dad and I looked after her until right near the end. We couldn’t do it on our own. Dad was trying to run the pub, he had help but it was still hard. I was seventeen. I quit school to be with mum. In the end I couldn’t watch her disintegrate in a hospital bed. I didn’t have my license but I loaded up the old ute and left. I wasn’t there when she died. Maureen can’t keep the catch of guilt out of her voice. She’s told the story many times, she tells it as a penance. She doesn’t want people to get the mistaken idea that she’d been a good daughter, doesn’t want them to pity her.
And your dad?
Maureen’s head snaps around to look at the girl, What do you mean?
What’s wrong with him, is it cancer too?
Maureen looks steadily at the hitchhiker, Yes.
The thud of the kangaroo makes them both scream. Maureen stomps on the brake pedal hard but too late. Kelly is still screaming when the car stops. A sharp intake of breath, scream, a breath.
Stop, says Maureen, loud, strong. The girl gulps in air like someone just pulled from beneath a weight of salt water.
Are you okay? Maureen asks. I have to check and make sure it’s dead. Okay? Kelly gulps and nods.
Maureen disappears into the darkness behind the car. She takes longer than Kelly expects but the girl doesn’t look around. She doesn’t want to see the shadowy shapes behind the vehicle, one maybe two still moving.
There is blood on Maureen’s hands when she returns to the car.
Can you get me the rag out of the glove box? It’s an old tea towel.
What happened? Are you bleeding?
It had a joey.
Where is it? Is it okay?
It was too small, Kelly.
Oh, was it dead? There are tears in the girl’s eyes, they shine in the interior light. Shadows dance in the headlights still looking down the road to their destination.
No, says Maureen, It wasn’t. Let’s go.
Deb Wain is a poet and short story writer who is passionate about the Australian environment. She has generally been employed in jobs where she talks for a living. When not writing or talking you can find Deb dancing in the garden, drinking coffee, or continuing her studies in creative writing. (Deb is a current PhD candidate at Deakin University.)