They were going north this year, just the four of them heading out again on a cold, winter’s Friday night. Jodie smiled as she drove, watching the lights of a small town disappear in her rear-view mirror.
There was a hint of mist in the bush on either side of the road and her headlights cut an eerie passage in the darkness. Like a tunnel guiding her safely through the night.
Or straight to hell.
Jodie stifled a shudder at that ugly thought. She knew about taking the wrong tunnel – and the places it could lead you. But that’s not going to happen, she told herself. Not now. Not with these friends.
‘Here, have some chocolate.’ Louise held out the broken-up block of fruit-and-nut next to Jodie. ‘Ray’ll be on his way to swim club about now. I’m eating chocolate and he’s running around after both sets of twins. It’s great.’
Jodie checked the clock on the dashboard. ‘James should be picking up Adam and Isabelle from the birthday party. There was a heap of red cordial and lollies when I dropped them off. He’ll be begging them to go to bed in a couple of hours.’ She grinned at the thought of the two ramped-up kids her ex would have to deal with and tossed a square of chocolate in her mouth. ‘Mmm. Good choice, Hannah.’
‘Ta,’ Hannah said, leaning over the back of Louise’s seat to take a piece. ‘Pete’s on car pool duty for basketball tonight. That means he gets to cart around stinky kids, shout Macca’s on the way home and have dinner with Mum, who’s looking after Chelsea. He loves our weekends away, I tell you.’
‘Bailey and Zoe are staying with the outlaws. Is it too early to crack open the champers?’
Jodie lifted her eyes to the rear-view mirror again and grinned at Corrine and the champagne bottle she was holding aloft.
‘I brought plastic flutes in case of an emergency,’ Corrine added.
‘What kind of emergency would that be?’ Jodie asked.
‘I’d say no alcohol at six-fifteen on Day One is definitely an emergency.’
Jodie laughed but as she rounded the next bend the sound died in her throat.
A car was in the centre of the two-lane road, lights on high beam, maybe a hundred metres away. Coming at them fast. Its movement was loose and uncontrolled, lurching one way then the other. Jodie’s heart banged in her chest.
At the speed they were going, if she didn’t do something quickly . . .
She took a solid grip on the wheel, remembered her defensive driver training and resisted an urge to slam the brake through the floor. She touched her foot to the pedal, swerved left. The tyres on that side skipped off the road and a hailstorm of stones sprayed the doors. Someone in the back screamed. Beside her, Louise braced herself against the dashboard. The other car roared past so close Jodie could have reached out and touched it. The rush of wind that followed pushed her car further onto the dirt. The tyres couldn’t get traction. The rear end fishtailed violently. The front lurched sideways in the start of a fast, wide arc.
Her headlights swept across dark scrub. Then the dirt at the edge of the road. Then the two-lane strip of bitumen. Jodie pulled against the steering wheel, desperate to drag it off its circular course. Minutes, hours, probably only micro-seconds later, the car tilted out of its spin, reversed direction. The lights swept back across the road. Across the dirt. Then Jodie saw what was going to stop them. The reflective dot on top of the white marker post glowed like a beacon in the headlights for about half a second before it slammed into the grille.
Jodie was thrown hard against her seatbelt as the car thumped to a stop. Her foot was locked on the brake, her fingers held their death grip on the steering wheel. For a long moment, no one said a word. The engine gurgled, the white post was somewhere underneath it and the sound of breathing seemed to fill the car.
‘Is everyone okay?’ she finally said.
‘Oh my God.’
‘Jesus H. Christ.’
Jodie rubbed her chest where the seatbelt had cut in. ‘Is that a yes from everyone?’ She turned off the ignition and looked over each friend to make sure. Louise’s mass of curly hair had fallen over her face and she had one hand on her chest, the other on a knee, rubbing gently. Hannah still gripped the back of Louise’s seat but she smiled grimly at Jodie. Corrine held the champagne bottle with both hands like she was clutching a lamppost in a hurricane.
‘Thank God the champers is safe. We’re really going to need it now,’ Corrine said without a hint of humour.
Jodie felt a wave of relief before anger charged in behind it. ‘What a bastard. What the hell was he doing? He could have killed us.’ She pushed her door open, slammed it behind her, stomped around to inspect the damage. ‘Bastard! Look at my car.’
It had come to a stop on rough gravel about a metre off the road. Dense scrub was no more than a giant step from the passenger side doors and the glow from the one headlamp still working was the only light on what looked to be a very dark, isolated stretch of road. The car itself was a mess. The front looked as though it’d been hit by a battering ram. A deep cleft was gouged into the left half of the grille, the hood on that side was crushed and the mangled end of the bumper was lying on the dirt.
Jodie looked up as the light came on inside the car. Louise had opened the door, was speaking to Corrine and Hannah. She couldn’t hear what Lou was saying but she kept flashing her hand across her face, as though she was reliving the moment the car sped past. Corrine was leaning into the centre of the car, hugging the champagne bottle to her chest and Hannah looked white under the dim overhead light.
Jodie’s stomach tightened. She’d almost killed her best friends. Almost destroyed four families. She put a hand to her mouth, swallowed hard against nausea rising in her throat. Her hand started to shake, trembled all the way back to her shoulder and rattled down her spine. Oh God, she didn’t want blood on her hands.
Her knees buckled and she landed on her butt in the dirt. Someone squatted beside her, put an arm around her shoulders.
‘Hey, it’s okay.’ It was Louise.
She felt Hannah’s firm nurse’s hand between her shoulderblades. ‘Head between your knees, Jode. Suck in big breaths. In and out. That’s it.’
Jodie kept her eyes open, her mind in the present. They are alive, Jodie. All of them.
The cold hit her then. Suddenly, as though her brain had just got around to processing her physical state. An icy breeze sliced across her face, made the nearby scrub shush. She looked up, saw a huge, black, moonless sky. Off to her right, a champagne cork popped.
‘I think we all need a stiff drink,’ Corrine said. ‘The plastic flutes got squashed when we were bouncing around so we’ll have to drink straight from the bottle.’
Jodie watched as Corrine, lit up by the headlight in her high heels and long coat, tossed her blonde hair over her shoulders, tipped her head back and swung the champagne bottle up in one fluid movement for a slug. Only Corrine could stand in the rubble at the side of a dark road after a near-death experience and do that with style. Jodie grinned and held out her hand.
‘Pass that thing over here,’ she said and wondered for the hundredth time how she ended up with a friend like
Corrine. Jodie couldn’t do glamour. She was a high school PE teacher and a single mother of two sports-mad kids – what was the point of even trying?
‘So where are we?’ Corrine asked, handing the bottle over.
Jodie took a mouthful and screwed up her face. Too bubbly, too cold, too much adrenaline already making her head spin. ‘Good question,’ she said. She stood up, brushed off her jeans and looked in the direction they’d come, to where double yellow lines disappeared around a bend, then the other way to the crest of a hill. ‘Somewhere outside Bald Hill, I guess. We can’t be too far away. The agent said it’d take about an hour and a half from Newcastle, and we left an hour ago.’
‘So what do we do now?’ Corrine asked.
Jodie gripped the twisted end of the bumper and pulled on the cold metal. It groaned but held fast. ‘Well, we’re not going anywhere in my car. We’ll have to get a tow.’
‘I’ll get my phone,’ Louise said, starting around to the passenger door. ‘I put the NRMA on speed dial the last time my car broke down.’
While Louise walked in circles with her arm up in a looking-for-reception pose, Jodie checked over the damage again. It was going to be a major pain without a car for the weekend, not to mention for the couple of weeks while it was being repaired. At least her insurance would cover the cost of a tow truck.
‘I can’t get reception,’ Louise called from the edge of the road. A minute later, all four of them were wandering around in the dark, phones held high.
‘I’ve got one bar,’ Hannah called. She was across the road on the edge of the bush, one side of her face lit in blue by her phone. ‘What’s the number?’
The champagne was passed around again while Hannah handled the rescue operation.
‘I hope this place you booked has decent heating, Jodie. It’s freezing out here,’ Corrine said, pulling her coat
‘And a toilet. I need to pee,’ Louise said.
‘And lights, ’cause it’s really dark tonight,’ Hannah called.
Jodie handed the bottle to Lou. ‘It’s got an open fire and two loos and if it doesn’t have lights, I’m pretty sure we could ask for our money back.’ It had been Jodie’s turn to book the accommodation this year and she knew only too well the success of the weekend could turn on the lodgings. Four years ago she booked a houseboat – a leaky houseboat – and it had rained and rained and no amount of red wine and chocolate could make up for an overflowing loo. She was feeling more than a little pressure to come up with something fabulous. ‘No, seriously, it looked great on the website. A hundred-year-old barn.’
‘Tell me we’re not staying in a barn,’ Corrine said.
‘It’s not a barn now. It was renovated last year. The pictures are lovely.’
Corrine took the bottle from Louise and pointed it at Jodie. ‘Okay, but let me just make this clear. I don’t care what state your car is in, you’re driving me straight back home if I see anything that looks even remotely like a farm animal.’
Their laughter echoed into the cold night as Corrine swung the bottle up for another slug. Jodie shook the tension out of her shoulders as the terror of the last few minutes dissipated. Nice to know a brush with death hadn’t ruined the mood of the weekend.
‘Okay,’ Hannah said, coming back across the road. ‘Road service got onto a local service station and they’re sending a tow truck out. I hope you’ve all got your thermal undies on ’cause it’s a half-hour drive out here.’