The freeway at night was empty, black and white outside the reach of the headlights. Flat paddocks as far as you could see, way down beneath the stars. Scars of fences stretched across. The bitumen hummed beneath. Sometimes trucks would swing round a bend and come at me, all lit up like digital dragons curling through the darkness, and there’d be a rush of sound and wind. Then they’d be gone.
Giant green exit signs, the white letters glowing in the headlights. Maybe this one, I’d think. I’d see the towns, the warmth of the streetlights just off the freeway. Cars whispering along the suburban streets. I had no destination in mind. Just drifting, watching the distance disappear. The radio whispered static at low volume.
When I couldn’t keep my eyes open I’d pull over into a rest stop and sleep, seat reclined right back, jumper wrapped over like a blanket. I’d twist round, legs squeezed beneath the steering wheel, and I’d look out onto the night till I faded.
I’d wake in the cold of morning, windows misted, drips of condensation streaking through. In the daylight, it was yellow grass paddocks and blue grey mountains on the horizon. And I just kept driving, floating further out. I wondered what would happen next.
I’d pull over at rest stops every now and then and just sit, watch the families and truck drivers and people talking on their phones saying ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’. Some people walked their dogs round and round in circles. One couple walked their cat, and it twisted and flailed and clawed at the leash and they picked it back up, arms held out straight to avoid a stray claw.
I watched people walking into the McDonald’s, coming out with brown paper bags. I wandered past the bins, picked out whatever they’d left. Cold outlines of bite marks on half-eaten burgers.
When the car stopped, I rolled it into a rest stop. I opened the bonnet and looked but I had no idea what I was looking at and I closed it back up. There was a blue emergency phone nearby but I had no one to call.
I sat on the front of the car and watched the people coming and going. Then I laid back and looked up at the clouds. Held my hands up in the glinting sunlight. I stayed there for some time, just staring. Then I closed my eyes.
There was a food van selling coffee and donuts and there were kids over on the playground and I watched one family pull into one of the elongated car parks. They had a four wheel drive, pulling a caravan behind, and they parked the car and three kids dropped out of the back and scattered across the concrete. The parents followed behind, held hands as they went.
I watched them, those kids running in shorts and t-shirts, and I remembered hopping across too hot concrete when I was a kid. Feeling the sand tinkle along my naked skin. When nothing mattered more than chasing the sea as it fizzed back down the beach, rushing in. Those times.
I walked over to their car and I went to the caravan door and pressed in the lock. It was open. It had a steel latch lock on the outside and I unhooked it and opened the door and stepped in. I pulled the door shut behind, held the handle down so as not make a noise.
It was cramped inside, all squashed in. There was a double bed at one end and a table and chairs at the other. I wide-stepped over the bags lined along the floor and got over to the double bed and leaned onto it and peeled back the curtain. I could see the parents waiting up by the food van, talking to each other. I sat on the bed looked around, tried to work out somewhere to hide. There was no room under the bed. The cupboards were packed with bags of all different kinds then I could hear voices coming closer, tiny footsteps scratching across the concrete and I lay down on the bed and pulled the blankets over myself and held my breath.
I could hear talking outside but couldn’t make out then words, then the latch scraped along the outside of the van and slotted back into place. Then car doors opened and closed, the van shook as they did. Then the four wheel drive rattled to life, shivering all through the metal and I looked up from the blankets and pulled out the curtain, clouds passing as we moved out onto the freeway. I looked back to my car, broken and abandoned, then it was yellow grass paddocks. Then I lay back down and let the motion rattle me into sleep.
I had a dream where I was drifting, sailing out on the ocean, but I was never actually moving any place. Then a girl was there, in the boat with me, and she was upset, eye swollen red from tears. She didn’t say anything, she just stared at me, her face wilted, her eyes pleading.
She was holding a shell with a surface like a pearl, or petrol in water, changing colour in the light. She held onto it, like it was all she had, and she just stared. I knew who she was. I knew those eyes all too well.
Voices woke me. The truck had stopped and I sat up, peeked through the gap in the curtains. The father was outside, putting petrol into the truck and I ducked down, kept a watch on him. It was windy outside, could feel it pushing against the side of the van and I lay back down onto the bed and looked up at the sky. Grey clouds rolling. The four wheel drive started moving again, rattling back towards the road.
I got up and stepped, unsteady, along the van and pulled open up the cupboard, held onto the door as the van tilted round a corner. There was no telling what was in all the bags, they were those green supermarket ones, the cloth ones that people bring with them, and they were all tied up and stacked on top of each other and then they all fell out onto me and I balanced them, pushed them back in.
I opened each one, bag by bag, emptied them onto the floor. I found packets of chips and in one, a portable DVD player in another. Cartoons like ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Cars’. There was a photo album too. I got back over to the bed and lay back down and I set up all the packets of chips around me. I held up the screen to watch a movie, but the DVD kept skipping, jumping with the bouncing of the van.
I took out the photo album and went through. It felt comforting, seeing the family in happy time. I pretended like I should be here, like I was going on holidays with them. Holding up a fish on a line. Sitting on a boat at sea. I imagined that I was there. Taking the photos, and that’s why I was never in the picture. That they were my family. I smiled at the thought.
As we rattled along I watched the sky pass above and I wondered what would happen next. I was drifting, with no prospects, no hope and I wondered if there was any way out of this.
I thought of times way up on the city buildings, at the top of the world. Of slender fingers sliding in between mine. I wondered if anything could ever be like those days again, back when nothing else mattered. Or was I broken, cursed through my own misdeeds.
Maybe God would never forgive what I had done. Watching from way up above those clouds.
The four wheel drive was slowing. I sat up and peeked out the curtains and there were trees along the side of the road now, crooked and bare up to their tops, poking out of the sand. The sides of the road were worn away by orange dirt then we passed a wooden sign, a national park. A road leading up over a hill, sand all across. We were coming into a beach town.
We came round a corner and we were at the top of a hill and right across you could see the blue line of the ocean. There were double-storey houses, beach towels hanging over balconies. We came into a caravan park, rows and rows of vans all set up with their circus tent extensions and kids bikes lying in the grass. Tents were set up side by side on flat sections of freshly mowed grass and I realised I’d have to get out of here. I’d have to kick out the door or jump through the window then just run, hard as I could. I looked for options, ways to get out of this.
The four wheel drive stopped then reversed and I could hear voices all around now and I got down low onto the floor, down below the window line. I slid over the bags, across to the doorway and the van stopped, then moved back again then stopped and my legs were twitching, ready.
As soon as I heard the latch flick up I ran hard as I could at the door, smacked the metal frame into someone’s face and bowled over kids and I ran out onto the path and across through the tents, tripping on guide ropes and pegs and I scratched my way through the bushes at the edge of the park, stumbled out onto wet sand, cold all down my body.
I got up and kept running, my feet sinking in as I scattered along the waterway and over onto the beach, my whole body burning as I kept running out onto the rocks and got round a corner and hid just inside an overhang, where the waves were crashing in just at my back.
I looked out onto the ocean, puffing, watching the breakers wash in. The afternoon light reflected in the ripples. I watched, as I got my breath back, as the splash of the waves flicked up. The sand tinkling against my naked skin. I watched.
The ocean fizzing back down the sand, right along the distance. I breathed it in.