The posts on the Stuart Highway were white with round, red reflectors attached at the top. Most of them reached to the middle of Amelia’s thigh, but post three hundred and forty-eight, counting south from Alice Springs, stuck out of the ground at an odd angle, clipped by a car or a truck. Or kicked over by someone like her. If she narrowed her eyes till her vision blurred, she was not alone: the posts ahead became red-eyed stick-aliens awaiting her arrival on their stretch of desert road. She stopped walking and touched the fur on Lucy’s head in a signal for her to do the same. Something rattled in Amelia’s pack and took a moment to settle, and then there it was: the buzz of a vehicle in the distance.
Lucy stood on guard, ears pricked, her nostrils twitching as she sniffed the air. Amelia looked down the highway to the quivering horizon, left then right, but saw no sign of life. Her pack towered above her like a high-backed chair, tugging her shoulders back. She tightened the strap around her waist for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, then ran her finger beneath the rubber bands around her wrist, clearing out the sweat. She walked on. Lucy panted along beside her, the tags on her collar clinking.
Post three hundred and fifty-one was striped with green paint from base to middle, a feature she hadn’t noticed on any of the others that morning. Red sand lay flat around her, ripped in two by the highway, and the long threads of cloud above were of no use, leaving her exposed to the December sun. Trees and bushes were scattered across the land, bonsai versions of the flora growing closer to the coastline; they provided no shade. A month had passed since she had been in the little town on the east coast. As she walked, she summoned the sea breeze, wished for its coolness against her burning cheeks. She’d spent a couple of weeks in that town, in a studio apartment with stark white walls. The nights were warm, and she’d lain on top of the bed in her undies, window open. A breeze lifted the sheer curtain and brushed the material against her skin. She’d grown used to the rumble of the ocean, to the way the slap and sucking back of waves delivered her into sleep.
She was thirsty again. She swung her pack off her shoulders and let it fall to the dust. There was no hiding her neglect of it: a tear ran the length of the side so that a layer of lining oozed out, and the green canvas was stained with dirt and rings of salt. She longed to spend time sponging its creases and sewing patches over the injured material.
She stretched, rolling her shoulders back, pressing in hard on the lumps in the muscles around her neck. Her old Mount Franklin one-and-a-half-litre bottle was wedged in the side pocket of her pack, a few mouthfuls left in the bottom. She yanked it out; the plastic popped and snapped as it caved in and reshaped itself. The water was warm and tasted chemical, having stewed with the inside of the bottle. She held a sip in her mouth, then let it seep slowly down her throat.
She lowered to a crouch, a knee cracking on the way down. ‘Here you go, girl.’ She made a bowl with her hand and poured water in. Lucy lapped it up, then gave Amelia’s fingers an extra lick. Her dark fur was hot to touch, its flecks of auburn lit up by the sun. The light brown ovals above her eyes wiggled like beetles as she followed Amelia’s movements, asking for more. Amelia made another pool in her hand, careful not to spill a drop.
She tracked the buzz of the engine, guessing the direction of its approach, wondering if she should change her course, get out of the desert, perhaps head back to the coast. Lucy had loved it there too, especially the mornings, when sunrise bruised the walls pink. They got up early to walk along the cliffs, past the barrier threaded with notes and flowers: messages for the lost souls who had jumped. One morning she’d sat on the cliff edge, legs dangling, counting the seconds between waves of white water smashing the rocks beneath her. A woman had called out, asked if she was okay. Amelia tucked up her legs, eased back from the edge to placate her. Once alone again, she moved forward, imagined being obliterated below, joining the collision of salt water on stone.
The buzz was now louder, transformed into a drone; she squinted her eyes against the glare, looked up and down the highway, but there was still no hint of the source. She hoisted her pack onto her knee, then twisted it around and over her shoulders, heaving it as high as it would go. Her back twinged after a few steps so she took hold of the shoulder straps, shifting the pack’s weight forward. This provided some relief, but without a free hand she was at the mercy of flies, unable to shoo them away; they landed on her lips and nuzzled into the corners of her eyes. She cursed herself for not being tougher in the heat, wished she was back at the coast, swimming beyond the breakers. She had floated on her back out there, watching the sky flare into day. It was a good place for Lucy and her for a little while, until Zach appeared in the faces of the townsfolk. She’d see him in flashes on the main street, but sometimes he emerged when she dived beneath the waves, an underwater predator. She couldn’t keep him at bay while she lingered in the white room.
A drop of sweat ran between her eyebrows, slid down to the tip of her nose; it hung there for a moment before falling, leaving a tiny crater in the dust. She stomped on it and carried on, blowing at damp strands of hair that stuck to her face.
It was almost midday. Both truckies and tourists travelled that highway so, setting out at six in the morning, she’d been confident of a ride. Too confident, it turned out, since she had by now walked too far out of town and was almost out of water. But that sound was getting closer; by post three hundred and sixty-two, it could be there beside her. It would probably be a white car. White was more common than red, black or silver. She’d begun counting with Sid when they were kids, up the hill that divided their suburb from the next. The first time they’d counted, she was so sure red was the safe bet. But after an hour white won with thirty-seven compared to red’s feeble twelve. She wasn’t used to losing, not then, and especially not to Sid, all skin and bones and insecurity.
She gained a visual on the vehicle: a red road train. Not white after all. And it was headed south: her way. ‘Lucy, heel.’ Lucy moved in close, her body radiating heat, fur tickling Amelia’s calf. She took three steps away from the edge of the road. The last thing she wanted to do was spook the driver. Road trains were the gods of outback roads; they had taken her huge distances, and she had learned to respect the brute force of them and the endurance required to drive them. She stuck her thumb out.
The truck moved closer, about twenty posts away; the size of the monsters surprised her each time. She listened for any acceleration or deceleration of the engine, however slight, gauging whether the driver was considering picking her up. But the engine belted along with a roar that quickened her heart. She raised her arm higher and stood on her tiptoes just to be sure. She managed to catch the eye of the truckie as he passed; he gave a short nod and lifted his index finger off the wheel. She swapped her thumb for a wave as the truck zoomed by. Its wake slapped her in the face, the thunder of it ringing in her ears. She pressed her lips together and closed her eyes against a spray of grit. Lucy sneezed.
Amelia took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled, then turned and continued walking down the highway. Though her arm ached in protest, she put her thumb out again in an invitation, as if it might conjure the next vehicle.
Post three hundred and sixty-three. Her heart was too fast and the skin on her chest was pulled taut by the straps of her pack. The air was thick, difficult to push down her throat. She concentrated hard on the details of each post: white paint peeled in different patterns; one was streaked with dried bird shit, another sprouted a dandelion at its base.
At post three hundred and eighty, she stopped for more water. She couldn’t help but be disappointed in her usually loyal Mount Franklin bottle for being nearly empty, but immediately regretted the feeling. Her thighs trembled as she squatted at Lucy’s level, struggling to balance under the weight of the pack. Lucy drank from her hand, dry nose pressing her palm.
There was another vehicle. She stood – this one was already close, a modern engine sneaking up on her. It was white and looked like a ute, which was a good sign the driver might be dog-friendly. She faced the vehicle, arm out, thumb straining as high as it would go. Lucy barked once, her tail swaying slightly, as if she was unwilling to celebrate too soon. The ute passed and, through a haze of exhaust and dust, the brake lights illuminated: the shining red of salvation.
She paused for a moment to savour the view. Sometimes a stopped car was only a mirage, broken when a family piled out because a kid was about to vomit. Or she approached the window only to find some grey nomads squabbling over a map. But this was the real deal, she was sure. Gripping the shoulder straps of her pack to steady it, she ran towards the ute; a quick approach minimised time for the driver to change their mind. Lucy ran too, getting ahead then turning in excited circles while she waited for Amelia to catch up. Amelia’s pack jangled and a length of rope attached to a side strap whipped her in the ribs as she ran.
The driver’s forearm rested along the open window. There was something relaxed about it, at ease, as if its owner were kicking back in a lounge chair. She tried to flatten the knots in her hair as she approached the passenger side of the ute. The window was open, and when she peered in the driver lifted his sunglasses onto his head.
‘How you going?’ she said.
‘Good, good.’ His smile was slow and lazy. ‘Where ya headed?’ His eyelashes were impossibly long, the kind her mother would comment on, and they softened his face, an outdoors face. She tried to interpret her instinctual response to him; there were only a few seconds to decide if she trusted this man.
He waited for an answer, drumming his fingers on the passenger headrest. Lucy jumped up against the door, resting her paws on the windowsill. The man clicked his tongue and stretched his arm across the car towards her. After a quick sniff, Lucy accepted his pat.
‘Adelaide,’ Amelia said. A lie, but she had to appear purposeful, as if someone was expecting her.
‘Righto. Well, I can take you part of the way. A good part of the way. I’m goin’ to Port Augusta.’ He flicked his head towards the passenger seat and made a short whistling sound, which sent Lucy’s ears up and then back against her head, tail wagging. ‘Jump in.’
He was young – Amelia guessed late twenties – and she stood for a moment more, transfixed by the triangle of sweat that darkened the blue fabric of his T-shirt just below the neckline, and the few chest hairs that poked out above it. He swatted at a fly near his face, and the movement snapped her out of the trance. His smile was different then, and she knew he was laughing at her; she’d been staring too long. Sid was always telling her off for that.
‘Thanks,’ Amelia said, her hands gesturing wildly out to her sides under his gaze until she found a place for them on her straps. She walked to the back of the ute and hefted her pack into the tray. At the passenger door, the man was moving things to make room for her, jamming CDs into the glove box. She climbed into the cab, into a smell of hot chips and tomato sauce. Lucy scampered in on top of her, then found a seat in the middle behind the gearstick. As she got comfortable, Lucy’s tail whipped the driver in the face; he gently pushed her out of the way. After a quick head check, the driver steered the car onto the road, spinning the wheel with the heel of one hand.
‘I’m Will,’ he said. He extended his hand across his body towards her, keeping hold of the wheel with his left. A detailed tattoo of a curling wave took up most of the inside of his right forearm, the blues and greens vibrant. Lucy sniffed his hand and Amelia shook it briefly, the skin rough, the fingers thick around her own.
‘I’m Amelia. And this is Lucy,’ she said, surprising herself by giving their real names; she’d been enjoying shrugging in and out of other titles. ‘Thanks for stopping.’
‘No worries,’ he said, staring ahead. His arm returned to the windowsill, his sunglasses back on. ‘Good to have the company.’ He seemed unmoved by her presence, almost as if they knew each other and had planned to meet there, in the middle of nowhere.
A square patch of astroturf rested on the dash. Two plastic cows and three sheep grazed there, and a zombie figurine lurked at the edge of the scene, arms extended.
‘Nice farm,’ Amelia said.
‘Well, thanks a lot. Nice to see a bit of greenery out here, don’t you reckon?’
She smiled, and scratched behind Lucy’s ear. The long journeys across that territory seemed to demand a kind of nesting in vehicles. She thought of telling Will about the oil tanker driver who had picked her up near Darwin – how he had a scrap of purple crocheted blanket across his lap and a gearstick cover to match – but she couldn’t quite force the words out of her mouth.
The rest of Will’s dash was dusty; an indecipherable word had been traced along it and then scrawled out with a fingertip. Lucy perched on the middle seat, tongue moving in time with bumps in the road as she looked out the window ahead. Wind blasted through the car and Amelia closed her eyes, feeling it hit her face from different directions; this part was okay, the acceleration after hours of meandering. She put thoughts aside – where to sleep, how to keep moving, whether she had enough food or drink – and surrendered to the thrust of the vehicle.
‘Been out there long?’ he asked.
She opened her eyes. The question shrank the space in the car so that it pressed in around her; the roof teased her hair and even Lucy’s panting was hot and heavy beside her.
‘Kind of, yeah. Left early this morning, but nothing till now. Thought it would be a bit easier, to be honest,’ she said. Lucy walked across her lap and stuck her head out the window. ‘What about you? Been driving long?’
She tried to mirror Will’s behaviour. It was a habit she’d developed that made rides as smooth as possible for drivers and for herself, too, providing a guideline for interaction. People wanted something out of picking her up and she tried to be quick in working out what that something was.
‘Few hours. Was in Tennant Creek this morning,’ he said.
‘Right, right . . . What’re you doing in Port Augusta?’
‘Just started up a business, me and my brother. Moving bits and pieces of construction equipment round. Fiddly things that can be real tricky to get your hands on when you need ’em, especially in these parts. Supposed to be a tiny thing on the side, but it’s hard to do small-scale out here, know what I mean?’
‘Yeah . . . Must be nice to have a job where you can travel, keep moving.’
‘Yep, it’s all right. Pays the bills. But sometimes it feels like I live out here on the road, you know,’ he said.
She wasn’t sure if that was a question, so she was quiet.
‘What about you, though –’ he said, then sniffed sharply and flicked a finger beneath his nose, ‘– you look like a desert girl. Looks like you belong out here.’
She stiffened at the thought of his eyes moving up and down her, summing her up, but she worked quickly at rationalising his words. He must have had more opportunity to suss her out than she’d had him. He would have seen her as he got closer and drove past, then he probably could have watched her jogging up to the ute if he looked at the mirrors. That was about thirty seconds more time than she’d had. Anyway, his tone was respectful. Desert girl; she didn’t mind the title.
‘I’ll take that as a compliment. May as well let it get under your skin . . . fighting the desert is a losing battle I reckon,’ she said.
‘Couldn’t agree more,’ he said with a nod and a grin that made little folds at the corner of his eye. He reached behind his seat and shifted things around, keeping one hand on the wheel and his eyes on the road.
‘Thirsty?’ he asked.
Her Mount Franklin was wedged in the door beside her, nearly empty. ‘Yeah, a bit,’ she said.
‘Well, I’ve got something real special. You gotta try it.’ He revealed a three-quarters-full bottle of pub squash; the liquid inside was murky. ‘Oh yeah!’ he said.
‘What’s wrong with it? Looks funny,’ she said.
‘This is the ultimate concoction. This ute runs on diesel, and I run on this.’ His smile was so big she couldn’t help but return it, and if he were Sid, she might have reached out and pressed the softness of his earlobes between her fingers. He placed the bottle between his legs and unscrewed the cap. He held it to his lips, pausing momentarily before drinking deeply, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. When he was finished, he let out a sharp exhale, then tossed his head from side to side, energised, as if he’d plunged his head into a bucket of cold water.
‘Here,’ he said, offering her the bottle.
‘You gotta tell me what it is,’ she said. ‘It’s a weird colour.’
‘What?’ She looked across at him and he was biting back a grin.
‘Just kidding. It’s pub squash with orange cordial. The drink of champions,’ he said.
She frowned. ‘Dunno if I believe you.’
‘Righto, your loss. It’s bloody delicious. Liquid gold.’
Lucy had sensed the excitement and stood, wondering what the commotion was, looking back and forth between them.
Amelia held out her hand and he passed her the bottle. ‘Prepare your tastebuds,’ he said.
She took a swig. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she said, wiping a dribble that escaped down her chin.
He laughed as she took another sip. This time she savoured it, allowing the bubbles to pop around her tongue. It was warm, but the combination of two familiar flavours offered a level of refreshment she hadn’t felt in weeks.
‘It’s good, huh?’ he said.
‘It’s a wizard’s drink.’ She pressed the bottle to her lips for one last taste. Lucy curled up on the seat between them, and they settled into silence.
Will turned the tuner on the radio, catching a crackly Bon Jovi song. He sang shamelessly; at first she hid her smile by looking out the window, but then she wasn’t smiling, she was sitting on Zach’s bed with Sid, years ago, and Zach was in his rapper phase, learning songs by heart. He performed for them, using his silver spray can of deodorant as a microphone, his face moving so close to hers that spit landed on her cheeks. She didn’t move. She waited for the song to end, for the bulging veins in his neck to sink back into his skin. Then she and Sid clapped, the adoring audience.
The Bon Jovi song cut out but Will continued singing, belting out one last chorus. Amelia plucked the rubber bands around her wrist; there was the snap, then the sting, then the next one. It wasn’t enough. Zach was there, standing on the front porch of her mother’s house only two months ago, just after the funeral; until that moment, she hadn’t seen him in ten years, not since he’d turned nineteen and skipped town. He had a plastic bag of takeaway food. There was a whiteness at the edge of her vision as he was saying, ‘I hope you still like Vietnamese,’ and she was letting him hug her, listening to him say nice things about her mother, her ear crushed against his chest.
Will hit a lofty note and demanded a high five; she stuck her hand up, then looked out at the desert with narrowed eyes, tried to fill her mind with the deep red of endless sand.