Horror Science Fiction

Going Nowhere

By Sean Williams
5,446 words · 20-minute reading time
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From Adelaide to Perth by road:

It didn't look so bad when he broke it down into little bits, which the touring map he referred to did. The stretch of Highway One between Ceduna and Norseman, for example, was just a string of 35's and 101's that crossed the border between South and West Australia. It didn't sound like far, really, until you added up all the little bits and realised that it totalled one thousand, two hundred and fourteen kilometres.

And that was less than half the total distance—the boring, straight, completely flat half at that, along which the road came to look like a razor's edge, a crack, a tightrope, a hypodermic needle filled with black death, a terrible boundary with nothing one side and nothing on the other. The mind, without a reference point, began to lose track of reality. Between an empty white‑blue sky and featureless, sandpaper Earth, the horizon pulled you in, sucked you forward, made you forget the dangers inherent in travelling the highway alone.

To stave off an oppressive loneliness and to keep himself occupied, Gerry Baxter began to calculate ETA's. He quickly became obsessed with the idea of saving time. Twelve hundred kilometres at one hundred klicks was twelve hours; at one‑twenty, ten hours; at one‑sixty, seven and a half. By increments, he nudged the cruise control of the Falcon upwards until whatever tiny details that might have existed on the eternal nothing of the Nullabor Plain were eradicated by speed, washed into a never‑ending blur. The faster he went, the easier it became to imagine that he was standing still, and the more eager he felt to go faster still.

Hell, Gerry Baxter thought, must be something like this. Exactly the opposite of life. One long stretch of white line fever.

The previous day he'd almost gone up the back of some young long‑haired kid and his girlfriend in their quaking, multi‑coloured Volkswagon campervan. Lost in desert dreams, he'd watched them come closer and closer—from a faint, distant speck to a looming set of broken tail‑lights with an exhaust pipe squirting black smoke—before belatedly realising they were really there. He'd swerved just in time to pass them safely, and their faces had flashed by, blissfully ignorant of their near‑demise.

Cursing at himself, he'd tried to feel sorry for them. Judging by the speed with which they had fallen behind, he estimated that they had been doing roughly eighty klicks. If so, the crossing from Ceduna to Norseman would be roughly fifteen hours for them, assuming the van lasted that long.

What was that Mexican word? Cojones?

"Uni students," Mary had said, "like me. No money to hire a car, unlike you."

He'd grunted something noncommital in reply and kept on driving.

Mid‑afternoon the next day, alone, he'd passed the VW again, but this time it was stalled by the side of the road. He'd slowed as he went by, to see if help was needed, and had caught a glimpse of Mary's black, confident hair through the side window.

Without conscious thought—without wanting to think—he'd planted his foot on the accelerator and roared by.

The next town was called Kilburra, according to the map. A tiny circle, no population mentioned. Just another nowhere in a nowhere kind of place, but somewhere at least he could rest and get a grip on himself.

He yawned, scratched his stubble, and glanced in the rear‑vision mirror out of habit, not really expecting to see anything. He'd looked a million times and never seen anything before; he couldn't understand why he persisted—

He blinked. Then glanced back.

Something was following him: a black dot at the vanishing point of an infinite line. As he watched, it grew distinctly larger.

Not just following, then, but gaining.

The distance between him and the speck halved in seconds, and halved again. He glanced at the speedometer: no, he hadn't slowed by mistake. That meant that the vehicle behind him was doing an enviable speed.

Within minutes it had become the front end of a wide‑bodied black car, sun glinting lightning‑sharp from its polished chrome and tinted windscreen. He couldn't see the driver.

Closer.

He felt oddly nervous, and flashed his brake lights.

No change, and within moments it was looming hard in his slipstream, hypnotic and fearsome—a mechanical behemoth bearing down on him from behind, going god only knew how fast.

The driver wasn't going to change course—he knew this instinctively. It was going to keep coming and coming until it hit him and forced him off the road, out of its path. As the car yawned over his, its expansive grill grinning in the evil sunlight, its shuttered headlights blind, he swerved onto the wrong side of the road and ground the brake pedal with as much strength as he dared.

The car breathed by on his left, as silent as a gagged scream.

He watched it pass, as though in slow motion, and saw the same uni student from earlier waving at him from behind the wheel—not a hello or fuck‑you, but in terror. He was screaming, mouthing words inaudible over the screech of Baxter's tyres and the racket of his stereo. Bleached blonde hair flailed in tatters out of the window, desperate but gone in an instant.

He had a momentary glimpse of black enamel gliding by—an endless wall of seamless darkness and one long, thin window that stretched the whole length of the rear of the car, oddly familiar—and then it too had passed with a rattle of air and dancing dust, vanishing into the distance impossibly quickly.

His car jerked to a halt and stalled.

"Fuck!"

The kid was crazy, insane, a maniac. And probably on drugs, too. Baxter waxed lyrical about homicidal drivers for thirty seconds before remembering that he'd almost done exactly the same thing the previous day, to the very same kid.

Revenge?

He belatedly recalled the dark sleekness of the car, the long window that had seemed so strangely familiar. Where had he seen something like that before?

It was a moment before he realised. His father's funeral and his sister's; two friends killed in a air accident. They all had one thing in common:

A hearse. The kid had been driving a hearse.

But what had happened to the campervan? And the girlfriend? And Mary?

What the hell?

He took a moment to catch his breath before restarting the engine. When he did, he pulled the car back into the correct lane and drove on, trying hard not to keep looking back in the rear‑vision mirror.

Two hours until nightfall.

Time, as they said, was a‑wastin'.

The hearse came through Kilburra like a bullet out of the fire‑blackened barrel of the highway. Sgt David Garman was leaning on the verandah of Kilburra's main store, minding his business and waving at flies. He looked up just in time to see it pass.

With a scream and a hurricane in its wake, it shot up the centre of the main street, clipped a signpost twenty feet into the air and skewed sideways, losing control. A parked car sent it spinning headlong in a shower of sparks but slowed it by only a small amount. It destroyed a small, struggling tree, a billboard that advertised Coke and four streetlamps before plowing into the irrefutably solid brick wall of the Nullarbor Pub, est. 1905.

The scream ended with all the force of an explosion. Fragments of brick and plaster rattled on the roof of the main store for ten seconds after the impact. A full half‑minute passed before someone shouted:

"What the fuck was that?"

And Sgt Garman still hadn't closed his mouth.

His junior officer, Steven Szimanski, got up off the ground, brushing dust from his uniform.

"Jesus Christ!" he said. "What—?"

"A hearse," said Garman, not certain he believed what his own eyes had seen. "I think."

The town's hundred or so inhabitants were already converging on the scene, and he stirred himself to action. Unbuckling his sidearm, he jogged the short distance to the ruined hotel. Through the settling dust, he could see the large hole in the wall left by the car's passage. Part of the roof had collapsed. The hearse itself was nowhere to be seen.

"Was anybody in there?" he asked the small crowd.

"Only Harry," offered an elderly woman. "Business is slow this time of year."

"Shit." Garman jogged to the main entrance and carefully opened it. Szimanski followed him inside.

The hearse had come to rest in the heart of the bar, buried like a flattened arrowhead in a pile of broken glass and splintered wood. Garman sniffed the air, but couldn't smell petrol.

"You look for Harry, whoever he is," he said to Szimanski, and went to study the cause of the damage.

The cabin was crushed and twisted but, on the whole, still intact. The windscreen was amazingly unbroken. Garman tried the door, but it was either locked or sealed shut by the impact. The window was down, however, so he peered inside.

The person behind the wheel was in much the same state as the car itself: whole, but severely mangled. And very dead. There was enough blood evident to have made that fact unarguable. The corpse's only distinguishing feature was long, blonde hair, much of which was stuck in clumps to the dash.

"Boss?" called Szimanski. "Over here."

Harry, the bartender and owner, had been behind the bar when the hearse came through the wall. If the splinter of two‑by‑four hadn't killed him, then being crushed between the hearse and the far wall had. There was an expression of indescribable surprise on what remained of his face.

"Shit," said Garman again. "Go back to the car and see if you can raise someone on the radio."

Szimanski stepped gingerly over the rubble and left the hotel via the hole in the wall. Larry Bunting, the owner of the main store, had entered in the meantime and was studying the hearse with interest.

"No tyres," he said. "Thought so."

"What?"

"Didn't hear any brakes," explained Bunting. "Looked like it was flying when it came through."

"Are you crazy?"

Bunting shrugged. "See for yourself."

Garman peered closer at the wreckage. Sure enough, the wheels were bare, just stubs of axle with the merest hint of discs that had never been designed to hold tyres.

"And here," said Bunting, pointing into the heart of the hearse through a crack in its body. What should have been an empty space that might once have contained a coffin was filled with silver, shining machinery, smoking with heat.

"This ain't no ordinary car."

Garman turned to Bunting, whose calm statement suggested a man either unsurprised or pushed beyond surprise. "You seen this sort of thing before?" he asked.

"Never in my life." Bunting scratched his hair beneath his hat. "But all sorts of things come out of the highway. Unexplained things. You wouldn't believe some of the weird shit I've seen over the years."

"Like what?"

"You wouldn't believe it, I said. None of you city folk do. You're all full of smog and shit and don't give a damn. We've been asking for a full‑time cop in Kilburra for twenty years now, and we still don't get nothing but patrols with radar guns and big‑city egos once a week, stirring up trouble."

"I—"

"Let me tell you something, Sergeant Garman." Bunting turned angrily on the police officer. "Harry's dead and it don't mean shit. In another twenty years I'll be dead too, and Kilburra still won't have a cop. And the Nullabor'll be out there, same as always. Mark my words. It's bigger and older than all your cities put together, and it don't like—"

Bunting stopped suddenly, wiped his face with one hand and turned away. Garman felt his face burn with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, although he understood the real cause of the outburst. He looked up gratefully as Szimanski returned.

"There's a spotter plane on the way," said the junior officer. "The nearest car is down at Madura, and they're being called in too."

"Good." Two hours away, he thought, but still coming.

"What do you reckon, boss?"

"I don't know, exactly," he answered honestly, "but there has to be some sane explanation."

Bunting spat noisily into the ragged debris. "It don't like people," he said. "It just don't like people."

Garman glared at him, but said nothing.

Half an hour out of Kilburra, Baxter spotted a plane overhead and cut his speed back to the limit. He'd heard about the various means employed by the West Australian police force to catch drivers who broke the law. Aerial patrols were one of them. The plane followed the highway into the setting sun, directly overhead.

When he saw the police car approaching him with lights flashing, he assumed he'd been caught and pulled over with his license ready.

The officer that got out of the car was swarthy and looked as though he'd had a bad day. There was dust in his thinning hair, plastered to his forehead by sweat. His name was Sgt Garman.

Baxter explained that he was heading to Perth on business. His company couldn't afford air‑fares any more and had decided that the road would be cheaper. He didn't mention that the financial manager had bet him he couldn't do it, that he was determined to win the bet, or that his wife thought him a damn fool for agreeing to go.

But Garman wasn't interested and didn't want to check his license.

"You see anything back there?" asked the officer, pointing back the way Baxter had come.

"No, I... Not really." Baxter shuffled from foot to foot, feeling circulation return slowly and painfully. "I passed a car a while ago, stalled by the side of the road, and then someone passed me. That's all."

"The car that passed you—was it a hearse?"

"I think so. Why?"

"Did you notice anything unusual? Anything at all?"

"Well, as a matter of fact—"

"Is that a yes?"

"... Yes."

"Right. You can tell us on the way. Lock your car; we'll pick it up on the way back."

"I—what?"

"Come on, Mr Baxter. We're in a hurry." Garman strode purposefully back to the patrol car.

"Where?" he asked, although he already suspected. Garman pointed back the way Baxter had come, back along the endless highway, and his heart sank. Muttering obscenities under his breath, he did as he was told.

The patrol car, with Szimanski behind the wheel, weaved its way onto the thread of bitumen. Impatient acceleration pushed him firmly back into the seat.

"What's going on?" he asked, avoiding looking out the window at the ground he had already passed.

Garman explained what had happened at Kilburra, his voice flat and business‑like. Baxter, in response, outlined the mystery of the blonde‑haired boy.

"So," said Garman, scratching his scalp, "you passed this kid in the Volkswagon, then he passed you in the hearse. Right?"

"Right."

"But why?" Garman turned to his off‑sider, who shrugged and said:

"Beats me, boss."

He turned back to Baxter. "The spotter‑plane reported a stationary vehicle not far from here. A van of some sort. They said they could see two people near it, but no other details. Since the kid wasn't the original driver of the hearse, one of these people must have been."

"Unless there was somebody else in the van."

"Of course," said Garman. "Was there?"

Baxter bit his lip. "No... "

"How's this?" suggested Szimanski. "The hearse stops to help the people in the VW. The kid—for some reason—steals the hearse, leaving the original driver behind. With the girl."

"Fair enough," agreed Garman. "The kid doesn't know how to drive the hearse, just points it and goes; maybe he doesn't even know how to steer it, for some reason. He goes past you, Baxter, unable to stop, and eventually crashes in Kilburra, killing himself in the process." He looked thoughtful for a moment, obviously dissatisfied with the theory but prepared to go with it for the moment. "So why did the kid take the hearse in the first place? Why would he leave his girlfriend behind?"

"Because he was afraid," said Baxter, remembering the boy's terrified face and the hair waving in the wind.

Szimanski thumped the dash. "Shit, yes! The kid was escaping from something!"

Baxter felt his stomach slide. "Like what, exactly?"

"Don't know." Garman settled back into his seat and tugged his hat over his eyes, ending the discussion for the time being. "I guess we'll find out when we get there."

Baxter took the hint, but couldn't stop himself from thinking furiously. The kid, the girlfriend, and the unknown driver of the hearse: that made three.

Which left one unaccounted for.

He picked her up just past Kimba, attracted by her dusty, dark‑haired beauty and sense of aimlessness. Mary—"just Mary"—was a hitch‑hiker leapfrogging her way to Perth with a half‑full rucksack over her shoulder. "Family," she explained, although he never learned if she was running from or to them.

She was optimistic about her prospects; the vast stretch of highway that lay in her path didn't daunt her in the slightest. If he hadn't stopped to pick her up then someone else would have; she seemed certain of the fact, and privately he agreed. Maybe it was the way she walked with her thumb out, not even bothering to look over shoulder—as though it didn't really matter if she hitched a lift, as though she would walk the whole damn way by herself if she had to.

She made driving easier, despite the fact that they didn't talk much. The four hours she was his passenger flew by with relative ease. Her presence alone was soothing, her smell and the sound of her breathing good enough company. She made him remember times when he had been young and fresh, inexperienced and invigorated. Times long thought forgotten, but awakened with discomforting ease.

When he stopped for the night in Ceduna—his only intended overnight halt—she came with him to the hotel.

"Hitch a room?" she asked.

He looked at her, at her filthy jeans and faded "Eat My Shorts" t‑shirt, at her wide smile and bright eyes.

"No," he said, hating the tremor he heard in his voice.

"You sure? I owe you."

He fought the desire that surged through him. Uncertainty made him tremble. Christ, he wanted her. Wanted her badly, if only to capture for a moment the youth he had lost. It was like pain in his chest, an ache for things he hadn't even known he had put behind him.

"No," he said again, falling back on the truth even though it was hurtfully irrelevant: "I'm married."

"No shit," she said, fumbling for her rucksack without meeting his eye.

"It means something—doesn't it?"

"If you say so." She looked at him then, and there was a depth to her eyes he hadn't seen before. "If you're afraid of it, it means something."

He opened his mouth to disagree, but the words wouldn't come.

She left him sitting on his backside in the front seat of the rented Ford Falcon without looking back, slamming the car door shut with one hand and swaggering out of the car park, whistling. He watched her go with a feeling akin to despair.

His palms were sweaty and he found it hard to sleep that night. Driving the next day was even harder.

She had been in the broken‑down VW; he was certain of that, even though he had only seen a glimpse of her hair. It made sense: she would have kept going through the night, not wanting to stop; the kids would have picked her up, grateful for the company. Maybe they'd smoked a joint and talked about sex or something, anything to pass the time. Having fun, making friends.

Until the van had broken down, leaving them stranded. And he had driven by without stopping, frightened by his desire and inadequacies, ashamed of his lack of youth.

She was just a kid, albeit one whose innocence was somewhat jaded, and Baxter was terrified of meeting her again. He wanted to explain the way he felt, but knew that he would freeze solid, unable to express the terrors of growing old, if given the chance.

So he kept his mouth shut in advance, held the fear deep inside, and tried in vain to remember his wife's face.

One hour later, a cloud of black smoke appeared on the horizon. Behind them, the sun was sinking into the expressionless face of the desert; within minutes, Baxter knew, it would be completely dark, with all the abruptness of a Nullarbor nightfall.

"Almost there," said Garman unnecessarily.

The endless plain was a wash of deep purples and reds, marred only by the highway and the cloud of smoke. As they drew closer, another distant detail appeared: the campervan, parked on the shoulder of the road. The source of the smoke was not the van itself, but a patch of desert nearby.

Garman unclipped his holster with an audible click that made Baxter jump.

The highway reeled in the abandoned Volkswagon, and Szimanski slowed to a bare crawl. The scene was deserted. The fire off to their right, beyond the van, was burning unidentifiable fragments and still issuing the foul smoke.

"Stop," said Garman, and the patrol car jerked to a halt.

The two police officers got out of the car, pistols at the ready. Baxter, unwilling to be left alone, followed nervously.

The scene was still, disturbed only by a whispering, feathery breeze. Garman shouted a hello, but there was no reply, just ominous silence. Baxter trailed behind the policemen as they warily circled the campervan to inspect the fire.

A rough circle of ground twenty metres across had been burnt black, as though petrol had been liberally splashed and then set alight. Two empty jerry cans lay on their sides nearby, supporting this theory. Someone had thrown parts of the campervan onto the conflagration to produce the smoke, possibly dousing them with petrol beforehand. A few relatively unmarked scraps were visible in places amongst the blackened remains, some remarkably untouched by flame. He could see a skeleton of a car seat, plus scraps of what might have once been a sleeping bag, a rucksack, a surf‑board, an esky.

And, through the ash‑flecked haze, parts of a human body. A hand clutched nothing, fingers curled like the legs of a dead spider; a hollow ribcage lay on its back; smoke issued in trickles from the eye sockets of a severed head. Below the stench of burning rubber and polystyrene, he could smell freshly‑cooked meat.

His stomach turned, but he couldn't look away. One particular white fragment had captured his attention, fluttering in the breeze, with a single word written upon it.

"... shorts," it said.

"Jesus," breathed Baxter, and saw the second skull near the first, fleshless and charred. "Oh, Jesus... "

Szimanski looked like he was going to be sick. Baxter's face had become deathly pale. Garman stood with his hands on his hips, breathing slowly and steadily through his open mouth.

"Get back in the car," he said to Baxter, who flinched at the sound of his voice. "Get back in the car now and lock the doors. Start the engine and keep it running while we look around."

Baxter nodded, without looking away from the dismembered bodies, and backed away. Slowly at first, then, turning, almost at a run, he obeyed the police officer's orders. The sound of the engine turning over was brutal, helped restore a sense of order to the insanity before them.

"Cover me," Garman said to Szimanski, and went to check the campervan itself.

All four doors—two at the front, one each on the side and rear—were open. The seats had been ripped out of the front, along with much of the upholstery. The back was similarly empty, except for a plastic bag tied at the neck. Its contents were glutinous and red. Garman didn't want to look too close, but did anyway.

The killer—whoever he or she was—hadn't just killed his victims: he had gutted them and thrown the bodies away, keeping specific parts for himself. Glands, internal organs, and nervous systems had become souvenirs, perhaps, or a grisly meal.

Garman was reminded of a time, years ago, when he had trained as an assistant pathologist. What he found in the bag recalled the animal dissections he had performed under the watchful eye of lab tutors. The killer had taken all the unique organs, plus a few scraps of muscle tissue and skin, and left the rest behind.

But why?

That line of thought was disturbing, and Garman told himself to concentrate on the facts at hand. He wiped his hands on his uniform trousers with a grimace of extreme distaste.

The campervan was empty, apart from the plastic bag, and the desert offered no other hiding place. There were no tracks leading away from the van or the fire, although the sand was extensively scuffed between the two.

And the fire itself disturbed him. Rather than looking like an attempt to destroy the evidence, it more resembled an attempt to call for help.

Or to attract another victim.

Garman shivered. He could feel eyes watching him balefully, waiting for an opportunity to strike. The killer was out there, somewhere. It was just a matter of finding him first, before...

A thought struck him, and he took two hasty steps away from the van. Barely had he bent down to look underneath when the urgent honking of the patrol‑car's horn sent him rolling with surprise, bringing his gun up reflexively.

Baxter watched Garman circumnavigate the garishly painted van, hearing only the massive pounding of his heart in his ears. The gloom was deepening, making details uncertain. He couldn't see what Garman had found in the van, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. All he could think of was Mary.

Dead Mary.

When he glanced back at the other police officer and saw the figure rise up out of the sand not ten feet from where Szimanski was standing, he thought it was a hallucination, a shadow in the twisting smoke. A shadow seven feet tall, dressed from head to foot in black—a desert dream with long, slender fingers that tapered to points...

But then the figure began creeping forward, wielding a long stick like a club.

He pressed both hands to the horn, thumping for attention.

Garman dropped like a stone and rolled, bringing his gun up on nothing. The ghostly figure leapt forward. Szimanski finally turned around.

The club came down. Szimanski's head seemed to cave inwards, and the young police officer fell bonelessly to the ground.

Garman fired two wild shots as the figure scrabbled for the fallen officer's sidearm. The figure rolled to one side, throwing dust in its wake, and fired back. Two more shots from the police officer also missed. The shadow vanished into the smoke, circling.

Baxter tugged the radio's handset from its holster and tried to make it work. He wondered if it was turned on, but all his poking at buttons seemed to make no difference.

Garman took shelter behind the van, head swivelling desperately to catch sight of his assailant. Whipcrack shots split the air as the killer fired under the van, looking for Garman's feet. The police officer went down screaming, one ankle exploding red and buckling.

Night fell. More shots were fired, but Baxter could see little more than shadows of movement through the thickening darkness. Willing himself to stay calm, to keep control, he put the car into gear and pointed it across the road, towards the van. He turned on the headlights.

Like an obscene pantomimist caught in a spotlight, the killer was revealed standing over Garman, one hand jerking from the kick of the gun. Garman fell back onto the dirt, blood spurting from one eye‑socket. He shivered once, all over, and was still.

"Jesus... "

The killer looked up into the glare of the headlights. almost as though it had heard. A scrap of skin had been torn from its high forehead; the dangling piece of tissue exposed the flesh beneath as far as its chin. Instead of red, it shone a dull white—like bone, but moist. Wide‑set eyes glinted a baleful green. It's mouth was a black, lipless pit, lined with swirling tentacles.

Slowly, the gun came up.

Baxter screamed wordlessly and dropped the clutch, slamming his foot onto the accelerator. The patrol car leapt forward, squealing across the bitumen. Baxter crouched low in the seat as bullets whined by him, braced himself for the bone‑jarring impact.

The killer lowered the pistol and tried to leap aside—an instant too late. It was crushed spreadeagled between the grill of the patrol car and the van's psychedelic paintwork. Black fluid gushed from the obscenely grinning mouth, splashing the shattered windscreen.

Baxter gritted his teeth on an urge to vomit. He kept the engine running in first gear, pinning the body of the killer between the two vehicles as he wrenched the steering wheel to keep them pressed firmly together. Nightmarish hands scrabbled with impossible animation at the bonnet of the car; the killer was trying to crawl towards Baxter despite the force that trapped its waist and legs.

The van hit a rock and tipped over. Baxter instantly threw the patrol car into reverse and roared backwards. The killer fell with a thump and a squeak of claws from the bonnet. The headlights were shattered, but Baxter thought he could see a shadow still moving, crawling spider‑like across the furrowed ground.

He considered going back and running over the body, finishing the job he'd impulsively started, but instead kept the car in reverse, backing as far away as he could before stopping and changing into a forward gear. He headed for the highway, fleeing from the horror of what he had seen and done. From what had happened to Mary, and to the others.

Barely had he made it onto the bitumen when two more gunshots split the air.

The patrol car lurched and skidded to a scraping halt. There was a screech of metal as the rims of the rear wheels tried in vain to find purchase. The engine screamed, choked, and coughed into silence.

In the rear‑vision mirror, something dark moved.

The car wouldn't restart.

Baxter slid down into the seat to present a smaller target and waited, trying not to cry.

A shadow lay on the horizon, cutting a swathe of blackness across the field of stars.

"Do you see that?" asked Marian, pointing forward through the windscreen. "Looks like mountains."

"Just a cloud," said her husband, Jack, trying his best to sound as though he knew what he was talking about.

"Out here?" she asked. "In the middle of summer?"

"Smoke from a bushfire, then."

Her sideways glance was irritated. "On the Nullarbor?"

He sighed, and said nothing.

This was their fourth trip across the endless plain, and he knew from experience that they were perilously close to flashpoint. Cooped together in the car for twelve hours, they were rubbing each other's nerves red‑raw. It was just a matter of time before some random irritant had them arguing bitterly, only to regret it later. After ten years of marriage, they knew how to hurt each other, but had almost forgotten how to make up.

"Just seems strange," she said softly, leaning back into the seat and closing her eyes. She understood. They'd survived the previous three trips, after all, and that surely counted for something.

He felt the caravan rock in a sudden wind. Behind them, the sky was lightening from black to grey, heralding dawn, and he started to feel tired. It was easier driving under the stars than by day, with the light of distant suns turning slowly overhead. The distance seemed insignificant in the face of the endless gulf above. He promised himself they'd stop at the next town, for a couple of hours sleep.

Kilburra, he thought. Don't count the kilometres or mark the time; just keep on driving.

Half an hour later, the shadow in the sky had vanished and he thought he could smell smoke. Just a fire, after all—but he refrained from mentioning the fact.

A large, black car passed them silently, going the other way, and he resisted the impulse to wave. Another lonely traveller on the roads of nowhere, aiming for the sun.

This story originally appeared in Intimate Armageddons.


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