Highway

by Patty Jansen

I wrote this story some time ago. It was published in 2005 in the Infinitas Newsletter. The story is about a real stretch of the Bruce Highway, about 200km where there is no mobile phone reception and no radio reception, 200km worth of virtually straight road through empty, grey-leafed scrub. In real life, ghost stories circulate about the road. I once left Rockhampton at dusk, and, like the main character in the story, found myself being tailgated by another car which would not overtake me. Not much fun when you’re in a tiny hatchback, alone, and female, and without mobile phone reception. Having arrived at Sarina, I pulled up at a service station. The other car came in behind me. I got all steamed up, until I saw that the driver was an elderly man, who’d probably been just as scared as I was.

Highway

Patty Jansen

 

There is a bend in the road and the last glimpse of the suburbs slides from the rear vision mirror: black hills strung with orderly pinpricks of light, like a Christmas tree.

The road ahead is empty. Three white lines – two unbroken, one dotted – meet somewhere beyond the reach of the headlights.

The milky way arcs overhead and witnesses my progress. Black shadows of bush lurk on both sides of the road. By day, grooved tree trunks guard its secrets, under a veil of grey-green leaves. Brigalow, I think it’s called, and its sapping monotony feeds the ghosts of imagination. If distances were measured in units of boredom, the stretch of highway from Rockhampton to Sarina would be the longest road in the world.

Old Bill from down the street swears that every time he drives along this road, he meets his wife. She waits for him at the spot where their car left the road and crashed into a fencepost; where he waited for more than an hour beside her mangled and bloodied body before help arrived.

Too late.

These days, he says he stops and offers her a lift. They talk about the kids and changes around town. Poor fellow.

A fuzz settles over the broadcast of the local radio station. I twiddle the dial, but I know it is no use. And I have again forgotten to bring my tapes.

Why did I tell Mum I’d be home tonight? Dad’s 50th birthday is not until Sunday. I could have left tomorrow morning.

I stare ahead, wishing I was turning into my parents’ driveway in Mackay. The clinking of beer bottles on the veranda, friends’ and neighbours’ voices, my sister’s piercing laughter drifting on the night air. Home.

A distant light appears in the rear vision mirror; it grows until it splits in two. A car coming up behind me. Yes, this Laser is not the fastest car around. When I finish Uni, I will get a proper job and I’ll buy a proper car. But then I won’t drive it on this road. Ever.

My gaze keeps wandering to the rear vision mirror – there’s nothing to watch ahead. The car approaches, its lights blinding me, but I cannot take my eyes off the mirror. Why doesn’t it overtake?  I speed up and so does the car behind. I slow down and it does the same.

Jesus, there’s no need to remind me how much I hate this road.

A deep, reverberating honk tears the silence; for a split second, time stops. A huge truck looms up before me, like a monster with shining eyes.

I hold my breath and stare past the blinding headlights, sweaty hands clamping the steering wheel, hoping the road is where I think it is.

Where did it come from? Yes, I was watching the car behind me, but this section of road slices through the scrub as if cut by a giant hand along an invisible ruler. My sister and I used to play games, guessing how long it would be before a vehicle we spotted passed us. In the night, I should have seen a truck this size ages ago.

When my pulse returns to normal the car behind me is gone.

A small white cross flashes past in the glare of the headlights of my car. A memorial erected by relatives for someone who never came home from their journey.

Dave Helms. I remember because he was the same age as me – about two years ago. A life wasted. Fell asleep at the wheel on his way to a mate’s wedding. Careened into the path of an oncoming truck. Bloody unlucky he was to meet a truck on this road. Traffic is so scarce that once when I was on a high school excursion, the bus driver stopped in the middle of the road and let us out for some star gazing. The milky way is beautiful out here.

The road goes on ahead; three white lines pointing to infinity. I try to sing a song, but my voice sounds hollow.

Half an hour later, another car approaches from behind. There are spotlights on the roof, a bullbar at the front. Hunters… young men with guns. And they are in a hurry. I slow down so they can pass. I look in the mirror. That is how I see it happen.

The car behind me swerves suddenly. Headlights flash, twist. Red sparks scatter in the dark as first the roof, then the side, then the wheels and the roof again connect with the bitumen.

In a moment of panic, I slam on the brakes and my car comes to a screeching halt. With trembling hands, I open the door and look behind me… into pitch darkness.

Nothing. The car behind me is gone.

On the road verge stands another memorial. A small white cross projecting an almost endless shadow in the headlights of my car. Written on it are two names. Young men, eighteen and twenty – brothers. I remember because their parents were on the news. I was in the living room at home. My mother stopped setting out the dinner things; she just stared at the screen without speaking and when she turned away, I caught her wiping her eyes. Two young lives wiped out in a second; their parents left with an empty house full of memories.

I lean against the car and listen to my wildly beating heart. It must have happened more than five years ago…

I stumble back into the car and drive on. I claw at the mobile phone on the seat next to me, peer at the screen to will it into action.

It is no use. Out here, there is no reception. The highway is dead; it is the domain of the ghosts. They are many; I am alone.

Three white lines point on ahead, towards Heaven.

All I see before me is an image of old Bill’s face, almost a ghost himself. He had climbed on a table in the middle of the pub. Wagged a crooked finger at us as silence rippled out from where he stood. ‘What I tell is true,’ he said, but no one dared look him in the eye.

By the time the next car appears in my rear vision mirror, I have made a plan. The car is not real; if I stop, it will go away. I take my foot off the accelerator, eying the rear vision mirror while my car slows down, slower and slower until coming to a stop. The car behind stops as well. With trembling hands, I push open the door, step in the dust of the road verge, expecting the car behind me to vanish into the night, like the previous two cars.

Except it doesn’t.

The noise from the engine sounds real; the dust swirling in the beams of the headlights is real, too. My gaze drifts to the windscreen, but I can’t discern anything beyond shapes in its blackness. Shit. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere, facing some strangers on the side of the road. How much more stupid could I get?

As my breathing grates in the still air, the rear passenger door creaks open and a small figure emerges. A girl of about twelve. Glossy dark curls dance over her shoulders as she skips towards me.

I can only stare at her. In the glare of the headlights of the car, her skin has a peachy quality; it looks real. I reach out to touch her, but withdraw my hand. Somehow, I don’t want to know.

‘Who are you?’ I stammer.

Real, live green eyes look at me. ‘Evie Woods.’

She walks towards the passenger side of my car. ‘Can you give me a lift?’

I frown at her and gesture at the car behind us, too stunned to string together a coherent sentence. ‘But you just… What about them?’

‘Oh, my parents.’ She shrugs. ‘They don’t like going past here.’ She flaps her hand at another white cross at the side of the road.

Her parents? Were they…. I glance sideways, but Evie isn’t paying attention. She opens the door and gets in the car.

I am too stunned to think of objecting.

But I have to know. In a few steps, I am at the cross, kneel in the dust, squint at the letters scrawled in black felt pen across the white surface. A date, fifteen years ago, and two names: Terry and Susan Woods.

But then Evie… My gaze goes to my car, where I can see her struggle with the seat belt by the glow of the interior light.

Fifteen years ago… even if she survived the accident as a baby… she doesn’t look fifteen; she’s too young.

With a crunch of gravel, the car behind me reverses, turns, and leaves the scene, red tail lights vanishing around a bend. Leaving me alone… with a ghost?

Torn by indecision, I stand at the white cross, claw at the wood in hope of some heaven-sent idea. The night is still fresh; it will be hours until sunrise. Hours spent on the roadside in bitter cold. In front of my car, the three white lines reach into darkness. I wonder where they will lead.

No, I’m being ridiculous. I stumble back into the car.

Evie’s face is soft blue by the lights on the dashboard. She sits playing with her hair and looks very normal, very real. Her smile is real, too.

I slip behind the wheel and I keep on driving, wiping my hands on my trousers, glancing at Evie. Decide that yes, she is real. And  relax.

But then she holds up my mobile phone. ‘What’s this?’

My breath catches in my throat. ‘It’s a mobile phone,’ and this is followed by a silence in which I can almost feel her frown. My heart beating wildly, I make excuses. She must be from a poor family, or live in an area where there is no coverage… or… my skin puckers into gooseflesh… died fifteen years ago. The question is on the tip of my tongue, but I don’t want to ask.

Then she says, ‘Can you show me how it works?’

‘I can’t,’ I reply and when the disappointed silence lingers, I continue, ‘there is no reception here. I can show you when we stop in Sarina.’

She smiles wryly. ‘We don’t stop in the towns. We guardians are not welcome there.’

My heart misses a beat. ‘Guardians?’

But Evie smiles. ‘Those who guard the road. Those whose souls are bound to the road by events from the past.’

I open my mouth but don’t know what to say. There is another long silence before I dare ask the question, ‘Am I dead?’

She shrugs. ‘What is death but passage from one world into another?’

I’m not in the mood for philosophy. ‘Listen, I want to know. If I’m not dead, then why am I talking to you?’

She gives a wry smile. ‘Maybe I’d like to test your suitability as a guardian.’

It takes a few seconds before I realise the implication of her words and in those few seconds the three white lines in front of me twist like spaghetti. The car hits the dirt. It bumps and jolts for what feels like an eternity and finally comes to a grinding, sliding, gravel-crunching halt.

Gasping for breath, I look aside.

Evie holds up the mobile phone. ‘It’s working now,’ she says and then she’s gone.

I stare out the window, but I am alone, the running of the engine like a roar in my ears. The headlights of my car peer through a cloud of dust. Out the front window looms a large white sign with black letters. ‘Survive this drive’.

A laugh escapes my mouth. Survive? Surely, I must be dead! I laugh and laugh until I start to cry.

And slowly, it dawns on me. What did they call it again in the tv commercial? A microsleep?

I pick up the mobile phone from the seat beside me. Evie was right. It is working again. I put it in my lap like a cherished cat and return to the road.

Around the next corner, the street lights of Sarina embrace me with their warmth. Low timber houses, lush lawns like green fur in lantern light. Silent palms breathing tropical homeliness.

I stop at the very first service station and head for the food counter.

Coffee. Percolated, espresso, instant or a day old and reheated. I don’t care, as long as it’s black and strong.

Seated on a cheerless plastic chair in front of the window, I sip from a styrofoam cup and stare out into the night, gibbering into my mobile phone.

‘Yes mum, I know I’m late. Yes mum, I’m in Sarina. I’ll be home in about an hour.’

I head back to the car and stare in the direction from which I have just come. It hits me that in three days’ time I will have to go the same way back. I will travel by day; I will make sure I’m well-rested. ‘Test my suitability as a guardian’ Have I ever had a more ridiculous daydream?

A truck hurtles past on its way south. Black curls dance in the wind behind the open passenger window. A small hand sticks out and waves to me, and Evie’s voice drifts on the wind, ‘See you soon!’

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