The car swerved. Jack yanked his wife’s hand from the steering wheel. Dust and stones kicked up from the desert floor as the speeding car ploughed off the blacktop and onto the baked dirt and sand. Sparse shrubs slapped at the bottom of the car as Jack fought to guide it back onto the road. The roar of tires quietened as they made it back to the bitumen. They sat in silence for a couple of seconds, just breathing. The silence didn’t last.
“Are you trying to kill us?” Jack yelled. “Bloody hell!”
“Just pull the damn car over Jack!” Sarah retaliated. “If you don’t want me here just pull the fucking thing over and let me out! I don’t need this! I don’t need any of it!”
“You know what Sarah? Neither do I! You want to walk then be my guest.”
But he didn’t pull the car over. Tough words aside, neither of them wanted that.
The atmosphere in the car was toxic. They sat, silently fuming. The heat from the desert battered the windscreen and the side windows, and the air-conditioner fought a valiant but losing battle. Jack gripped the steering wheel hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Sarah glared out the window, her arms crossed. She tapped her leg incessantly against the centre console.
“Would you stop that tapping?” Jack said. His voice was snappy, but it was tired.
“Yeah that’s good. Fuck you too Sarah. Fuck you too.”
Way to be mature about it, Jack thought.
He glanced again at his dashboard. The petrol light was burning brightly, and the needle had been steadily dropping, well into the red. If he didn’t find a petrol station soon then both of them would be walking. And God help him if that ever happened. He didn’t even want to consider what kind of fate-worse-than-death Sarah would reign down upon him if they ran out of petrol way out here.
The desert stretched out in front of them; going nowhere, coming from nowhere. Deserts could be beautiful, but they held such bottled up loneliness. Isolation.
Suddenly he leaned forward, squinting through the dusty windscreen and the heat haze that seemed to have been following them for the past four and a half hours.
“A petrol station” Jack said. “Up there.”
He snuck a glance at Sarah and saw relief flicker across her face before she buried it again. He could tell she wanted to stay mad at him, to crucify him slowly and painfully for not asking directions when they had the chance. She’d conveniently forgotten that she was the one that read the map wrong in the first place.
He shook his head. This shouldn’t be happening. They shouldn’t be driving aimlessly through the desert. They shouldn’t be fighting, screaming, trying to hurt each other. They should be at the resort right now, sipping Champagne by the pool, making love in the spa and then chuckling at the poor bastard that had to clean out the filter. Not arguing, and definitely not running out of petrol in the middle of the desert.
Gravel crunched under their tires as Jack guided the car into the petrol station and killed the engine. Everything was covered in red dust, and it looked completely deserted. A tow truck stood off to the side, a few burnt-out cars nearby.
He squinted at the building. An Open sign hung in the doorway. Thank God for that, Jack thought. He looked at the dirty numbers on the petrol pump. It was one of the older mechanical types, with the little numbers on the wheel instead of the new electronic ones you see in the city.
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye. He stared at the building. The curtains on the front door were swingingly slowly, as if someone had brushed past. Then he noticed: the Open sign now read Closed.
That was weird.
He turned to his wife, his mouth open, ready to say something. But say what? What the hell was he supposed to say? This was supposed to be the perfect holiday, a relaxing getaway, a celebration of five years of what, if you really bored down to the truth, was actually a happy marriage. Instead it turned into the holiday from hell with room service by Lucifer himself. And all because of one wrong turn off the highway. He sighed loudly, blowing air through gritted teeth.
“I’ll go see if we can get some petrol”, he said
Jack turned, reached for the door handle, and stared straight into two eyes just centimetres from his window.
He yelled, jumping sideways in his seat.
“Oh bloody hell. It’s just a boy”, he said, his heart thudding in his chest, threatening to break through his rib cage and escape out the passenger side door. The sudden noise had startled Sarah, but she quickly scrubbed the fright from her face and continued to stare silently at the horizon, ignoring him. Punishing him.
Jack rolled his eyes and again reached for the door handle. The boy stepped back far enough for him to swing the door open a foot or so. Intense, dry heat poured through the gap, instantly extinguishing all the hard work the air-conditioner had put in over the last few hours. He levered himself out of the narrow gap, and then pushed the door closed.
The boy looked to be about nine or ten. His grimy face showed no emotion at all. Matches my wife perfectly, Jack thought. Could be bloody twins.
A generator grumbled noisily from somewhere behind the petrol station.
“Hi there”, Jack said loudly, trying to compete with the rumble of the generator. “Your mum or dad around?”
The boy just looked at him silently.
“Okayyy…look we need some petrol. We, ah…we ran out.”
The boy continued to stare at him.
“Right. I’ll just fill it up…okay?”
Jack reached for the petrol pump then suddenly stopped. He stared blankly at the stump of bone protruding from his wrist. Blood squirted from the torn flesh and splattered his severed hand, which now lay by his feet, on the dusty ground. Then the pain struck him like an avalanche of razor blades and Jack shrieked, falling to his knees.
“What the fuck?” he squeaked. His good hand gripped the end of his stump, blood pouring through his fingers. Got to put the blood back in or I’ll die, he thought with a panic.
He looked at the boy in front of him. The boy’s clothes were streaked with blood. His blood. The kid was holding a machete, the gleaming blade stained red. The little fucker must have been hiding it behind his back.
“What…what the hell did you do that for?” Jack begged.
He was crying now. This can’t be real.
He fell heavily against the car door, still gripping his stump.
“Sarah…help me. I’m bleeding…”
“She’s not listening mister”, a new voice said.
Jack’s eyes were blurring (was it from the tears or from losing all this blood? So much blood.) He tried to focus on the little girl who appeared from behind the car.
Twisting his neck around, he tried to see his wife. His body was numb, like he was floating up above and looking down at some poor bastard on his knees, a bloody hand lying in the dirt beside him. Then the nausea hit. Jack vomited. He fought to hold consciousness, trying to push away the darkness that crept over him. Drowning him. Trying to take him away from here.
He had to stay alive.
He had to protect his wife.
Suddenly his eyes snapped open. “SARAHHH!”
Sarah sat in the car. She was still. Her foot tapping had stopped. A pencil jutted from her eyeball, and a mixture of blood and what looked like melting jelly ran down her cheek, smearing her eyeliner and mascara. The pencil had little pink dinosaurs on it, Jack realised in horror. And oh how the dinosaurs danced as the world faded, and consciousness left him. He fell forward into the dust; into a pool of his own blood and vomit that was already congealing in the desert heat.
The little girl looked at her brother, their faces expressionless.
“Get the nozzle Tommy. You know what to do.”
She selected a match from a battered matchbook as she watched her brother take the nozzle from the pump and proceed to calmly spray petrol over the car and the corpse at his feet.
Inside the petrol station their grandfather sat, his jaw frozen in a silent scream. His rotting body was still propped in the chair, his pants still undone, his fly still lowered. A pencil jutted from his neck, the pink dinosaurs caked brown with dry blood.
Outside the little girl struck her match.
“They’ll never hurt us again Tommy”, she said. “The bad grownups will never hurt us again.”
More on Sam Stephens and his fiction can be found at www.samstephens.com.
The Australian Literature Review