This story has been entered into the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story competition. It is an extended version of an earlier piece for the Blog Battle site.
As his headlights cut a hole in the blackness of the remote road he knew well, Jack saw another source of light exposing the crowns of the gumtrees on his right. He slowed his tray-back to a crawl until he spotted the crumpled vehicle half way down the roadside gully. He stopped and turned on his roo-shooting spotlight, swiveling it to light up the scene.
The car appeared to have rolled a couple of times but was resting upright. Either steam or smoke or both drifted up from the engine bay. He grabbed his torch and worked his way down the slope. The torch revealed that the driver and the front passenger, both men, had eyes that only the dead possess. In the rear seats, one male passenger had suffered the same fate. Seatbelts and airbags aren’t going to save you at the speed they must have been travelling. However another man lay moaning, blood streaming from a head wound but clearly still alive. And he knew that face.
‘Don’t worry, mate, I’m gonna get you out. Can you talk?’ A guttural noise was his only answer.
‘Can you move?’ Barely perceptible shake of the head.
Jack reached for his skinning knife and slashed the seat belts. He half hauled, half lifted the man from his seat and laid him on the ground. He retrieved the man’s coat from the wreckage, folded it and placed it under the man’s head. The brisk night air seemed to revive him a little.
‘Can you breathe OK?’ Nod.
‘Can you move your arms and legs?’ A pause. ‘Yes’. His first intelligible word.
‘OK, you’re going to have to help me get you up to my ute. There’s no mobile reception out here and if I leave you here until I get help, you’ll probably freeze to death in the meantime. ‘Understand?’
Jack sat the man up, lifted him under the armpits and managed to get him to his feet. Slowly they inched their way up to the road, with the man mostly a dead weight but he was able to stand occasionally while they both got their breath. When they finally made it, Jack knew he was never going to be able to get the man into the cabin in his condition, so he lowered the tailgate and sat the man on the tray. He unrolled a greasy tarp to provide some protection from the cold and dirty metal surface and manouevered the man on to it.
Again he used the man’s jacket as a makeshift pillow and then draped the rest of the tarp over him. ‘Sorry, mate, best I can do for the moment.’ The man grunted and passed out.
Jack climbed into the vehicle and examined the two phones he’d taken from the man’s jacket. He removed the batteries and left them and the phones on the passenger seat, ready to fling into Thompson’s Creek when he drove over the bridge.
He began to move slowly into the night, doing his best to avoid the more obvious potholes. As he drove, he mulled over his next steps but his mind kept drifting from the past to the present and all the stop-overs along the way.
Along with his sister, Colleen, he’d been raised on the family farm, mostly by his father after his Mum died of leukemia, not long after Colleen was born. He was the fourth generation of the Dean family on the barely viable farm but his father and his never-married uncle, Joe, managed to survive. Jack and Colleen didn’t want the farming life and their father accepted that he would live out his days here. Jack joined the Army and Colleen went nursing.
Jack came home between tours of Afghanistan to find the living ghost of his father and an exhausted Uncle Joe. The longest ever drought in the region and the machinations of international trade had all but stripped them of their reserves of hard-bitten resolve. Trees planted a century ago were dying, the paddocks had become dustbowls and creeks that no-one had ever seen dry were now like a cracked mud road.
After the last big drought, a raft of politicians and bureaucrats came to visit for photo opportunities and promised dams, bores and low interest bank loans. But like the rain, these things never came and after a few weeks the drought moved further back in the paper and disappeared from the television. Elections are won and lost in the cities and few people understand the link between farms and the food on their table. Until there isn’t any.
This time, the bank had refused to help and the pittance of government drought relief couldn’t hope to cover their costs. Their stock, carefully bred over generations, had been sent to the slaughter yards. There were only prize breeders left now and they were dependent on donated hay from farmers not much better off than themselves. There was nothing left to sell, including the now virtually worthless land itself. But Jack’s father’s pride would not let him walk off, as many others had already done, leaving the landscape dotted with derelict houses and sheds.
One afternoon Jack and Uncle Joe returned from fence-mending to find Jack’s father face down in the shed, with his shotgun by his side. It was over.
Uncle Joe collapsed in shock and, after a few days in hospital, died in his sleep. Colleen said he’d decided to die because he couldn’t imagine life without his brother and that sounded about right.
Colleen stayed on for a while to help him sort out funerals, paperwork and the detritus the dead leave behind but she had to get back to work. On her last night they went through old photos and she lingered over a picture of their Mum, clipped from the local paper, holding one of her prize sponges from the local show. Colleen asked if Mum had left a recipe book. Jack smiled wryly and said, ‘All in her head, passed on from her Mum and Grandma. Even the CIA couldn’t have wormed those recipes out of her.” Another dead end in keeping her memory alive.
After Colleen left in the morning, the foundations that had started to crumble in Afghanistan finally mixed with the relentless dust of the farm. He wasn’t going back to the Army and he was certain he was never going to find his way back to anything he recognised as himself. He was permanently damaged goods, who barely slept and interacted with as few people as possible. He’d thrown away the zombie pills. He continued to exist for reasons that became less clear with each day; life was a biological condition, not a state of humanity.
Jack abandoned packing to return to base and looked at the peeling, papered walls and the chipped brown furniture and then out to the barren paddocks. The mad rooster that crowed at all hours reminded him that he still had to end the days of the chooks. In a surreal daydream, he calculated the possibilities that a payout from the Army would last him long enough to take a chance on the drought breaking next year. ‘Idiot’, he said out loud.
Then he’d be the last of the Deans to walk of the farm and he didn’t want that dubious family legacy. What family?, he thought. Colleen clearly played for the other team, although it had never been discussed, and Jack was single. Neither of those facts was going to change any time soon. The bottom line was he wasn’t going back to the Army but the trail to somewhere else had long disappeared.
Jack turned into the track to the farm. During the journey, he’d worked out how he wanted all this to end.
He pulled up at the large machinery shed where Uncle Joe had fashioned himself a makeshift doss-house in one corner, with a single bedroom and a tiny bathroom with toilet and shower. Jack didn’t know whether Joe simply wanted a space of his own or he couldn’t cope with Dad’s legendary snoring up at the house but the setup would serve a useful purpose for now.
Using an old wheat bag trolley, Jack wheeled the man into the bedroom and rolled him onto the bed. The man was drifting in and out of consciousness and coherence but seemed stable enough.
Jack measured out a length of chain, looped one end around the toilet base and padlocked the other end to the man’s ankle where he lay on the bed. He didn’t want to risk a miracle recovery and escape. Not yet.
Jack reached for his phone and when the call connected he said, ‘Colleen, you have to come home straight away. Bring some medical supplies and don’t tell anyone where you’re going. And turn off your phone and take out the battery’. He ended the call without waiting for a response, knowing she would come.
When the vibration of the phone had woken Colleen, she was expecting to be called into work. A highly-skilled theatre nurse, she was used to broken sleep. She tried to ease out of bed without waking Dee but she stirred and said, ‘What’s happening?’.
‘I’ve been called in, go back to sleep.’ Dee groaned and rolled over. Colleen rationalised that she wasn’t actually lying; she just hadn’t said who’d called her. Just as well, because Dee hated all men, including Jack, and they’d fought about it more than once. Colleen gathered her emergency kit, slid into the cold plastic seat of her car and cranked both the heater and the stereo up to fall blast.
Just after dawn, Colleen’s small hatchback barreled into the yard, the raised dust no longer a harbinger of bad times but a lifeless fact. She pulled up where she saw her brother standing in front of the shed and emerged carrying a small suitcase. She’d assumed he’d hurt himself and was too stubborn to go to the local bush nursing hospital. She remembered how when he had a burst appendix he drove himself to that tiny establishment, grey-faced and sweating, in case the volunteer ambulance was needed for something more important. Just like their father would have done.
‘So, what have you done to yourself now?’ Small talk was never a feature of their relationship.
‘I’m alright but there’s someone in the shed that’s a bit crook.’
Colleen followed Jack inside, looked at the man on the bed and, as her eyes adjusted to the relative darkness inside the shed, was visibly startled.
‘Jesus, Jack, that’s …’ Jack interrupted with ‘Yeah, I know.’
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? What have you done to him?’
‘Nothin’, Jack said. ‘He was in a prang. Three others dead. Couldn’t leave him there.’
‘So you’ve rung for the ambos and the cops?’
‘Nah, not yet.’
It was then that Colleen noticed the chain attached to the man’s ankle. Slowly she turned to Jack, searching his face for some sign of derangement and then realised that, with someone like Jack, you’d never see it until it was too late. Just like his father.
Watching her scanning him, he broke her gaze with ‘Better have a look at him, don’t ya reckon?’ The man roused as she began to examine his head wound and she settled his startled face with ‘It’s OK, I’m a trained nurse. I just need to check you out.’ She checked his pupils, his pulse, his heart rate and his blood pressure. She poked and prodded his body, evincing grimaces but no cries of pain.
‘I’m going to give you something to help you rest but you’ll be right as rain in a couple of days.’ Relieved he took the proffered pill and glass of water and was soon asleep again.
Outside, Jack said, ‘Well?’
‘Big cut to the head but not too deep. Minor concussion. A lot of bruises. I think he’ll recover OK but I can’t be sure until we get him to hospital for X-rays and a full work-up. So I’ll ask again, what do you think you’re playing at?’
‘I just figured I’d take the opportunity to tell him a few home truths.’
‘And then what?’
‘Drug him up, leave him somewhere safe and then ring the ambos.’
‘Has it not occurred to you that he’s seen both our faces. I don’t care anymore about the stupid decisions you make but now you’ve dragged me into the dumbest idea you’ve ever had in your life. I’ll get gaol for this and I’ll never be able to nurse again.’
‘Nah, nobody will ever know it was us. Besides, you can go now. You’ll be home in time for breakfast.’
‘But what if he dies, Jack?’
‘Then he’ll be even less of a problem.’
Colleen was now sure that Jack had crossed a mental line and there was no going back, just like the one their father had crossed. There was no shotgun in sight but she knew how this was going to end anyway.
‘Colleen, just go.’ And, as an afterthought, a mumbled ‘Thanks.’
Colleen gathered her gear, making a mental note to burn it all on the way home, and sped off into the sunrise. She flicked from the stereo to the radio.
He sat on an old metal milk crate and watched as the man woke, instinctively looking for his phone and demanded ‘Who are you? Where’s my phone?’
‘Right now, what’s more important is who you are, Prime Minister.’ Jack set up his phone, with it’s inbuilt camera, on a box next to the bed and pressed record. Jack had decided that this is where the conga line of political clones, with their mealy-mouthed clichés, empty promises and photo opportunities, ended.
‘I’m going to tell you our family story, including the bits about the wars we’ve fought in for the likes of you and how, bit by bit, over the generations, you’ve destroyed us. And then you’re going to tell Australia why.’
Colleen came to a gravel-spitting halt on the side of the road and began to shake uncontrollably as she listened to the broadcast.
‘Good morning, this is the ABC and I’m Jacinta Chung. Welcome to this special early edition of AM, which centres on the disappearance of the Prime Minister. He and his Agriculture Minister and his two security men failed to arrive at their destination of Murrayton after leaving Tambalong by car late last night. Their planned flight had to be cancelled due to bad weather but the Prime Minister insisted on meeting his commitments and chose to drive through the night. He and his entourage have not been seen since. We’re crossing now to Brad Seymour in Canberra for more. Brad?’
‘Yes, good morning, Jacinta. As you can imagine, there is chaos here at Parliament House this morning and accurate information is hard to come by. The Deputy PM made a brief statement a moment ago, saying that Federal and State Police had been urgently despatched to the area where the last known phone signal from the car was tracked. He refused to take questions but asked the media to show restraint and not speculate until further facts were clear. We understand he is now huddled with police and national security staff. Of course, the media generally have shown no restraint at all and rumours are flying, ranging from Muslim terrorist involvement to Chinese agents embedded in Australia. You’ll recall that when Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach in 1967, the most persistent rumour was that he had been taken by a Chinese submarine, so for the moment, we’re back in that weird space once again until more is known.’
Colleen couldn’t listen any longer. She was about to turn around and drive back to the farm but then realised the whole area would be inundated with police by now and all cars would be stopped and searched. Still shaking, she drove on to her home.
Dee was up and preparing breakfast when Colleen walked in. Gently, she said ‘So how did it go?’ ‘We lost him.’ Dee reached to hug her and said ‘Like I always say, I’m sure you did everything possible.’ Colleen dodged the hug and said ‘I’m not sure I did. Anyway I need a shower.’ Dee’s puzzled expression met Colleen’s back as she went into the bathroom and shut and locked the door.
When the dialogue with the PM was finished, at least as far as Jack was concerned, he hit the record button on his phone to end it. Then he sent the recording to enough people in his Contacts to ensure it would see the light of day. Then he called the local police station and told them where they could find the PM.
Jack walked back to the house, took his father’s shotgun from the secure gun locker, loaded it and waited for the right time.
Just like his father.