The good folk at Blog Battle have now increased their upper word limit to 2,000, so I am shamelessly re-posting this piece with some slight amendment.
In the waning evening light, Jack saw the highlighted crowns of the gumtrees first. 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 but the other 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?’ After a minute or so, he said ‘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 lowered the man onto the tray. Again he used the man’s jacket as a makeshift pillow and draped a 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.
As he drove, 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 sustainable 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 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.
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. 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 his 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. When she came up for the funeral, Colleen said he’d decided to die because he couldn’t imagine life without his brother and that sounded about right to Jack.
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. When it came to life, he drew a blank.
Snapping back to the present, Jack turned into the track to the farm. He pulled up at the large machinery shed and, using an old wheat bag trolley, Jack wheeled the man in and rolled him onto some hay bales. He measured out a length of chain, looped one end around one of the shed uprights and padlocked the other end to the man’s ankle.
Jack reached for his phone and waited for his call to connect. When it did, he said, ‘Colleen, you have to come home straight away. Bring some medical supplies and don’t tell anyone where you’re going’.
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 case.
‘So, what have you done to yourself now?’
‘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, she 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.’
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, with what I have in mind for him, he won’t want us found. 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.
‘Colleen, just go.’
Colleen gathered her gear and sped off into the sunrise.
Jack sat on the 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 the camera on his phone 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.’