The January sun burns hot in these parts. Peak Aussie summer and we are broken down. A busted tyre on the side of the Murray Valley Highway.
I pick up a water bottle we’ve been sharing all the way across the state. Cloudy, warm swill. I roll the circular bottle between my palms and press the bare skin of my lower back right up against the warm and sticky vinyl passenger seat in our 1984 Holden sedan.
He tells me we have no spare tyre and we’ll have to flag down a passer-by. I consider the chances of one in the next hour and think to myself slim.
The windscreen is smeared with the greasy innards of bugs. An inevitable massacre of a road trip. The death stained windscreen makes me queasy. Can’t sit still so I step out of the car, slamming the Holden’s heavy metal door behind me. It thuds and in my dehydrated, sleep-deprived state I swear I hear it echo over Lake Boga, which we’ve ended up beside. An irregularly circular patch of crusty terrain. Used to be filled with water and jet-skiers.
The road’s asphalt is dark and hot and refracting. I quickly walk over it and reach the dirt bank beside the road. Stopping there, I scan for Tiger snakes and once more for Brown snakes, which are harder to see and blend in just fine with the dirt and scrub.
I shield my tired eyes from the burning sun and look up over the lake. There’s nothing to do but wait and as I consider the uncertain length of time we will be waiting here, my chest aches dully. I rub sweat off from under my eyes and correct my ponytail.
I’ve got a paperback book, somewhere on the back seat. A run of the mill romance novel I picked up at a rest stop. It was the only book that didn’t have a cover faded to pastels, in the basket just inside the door marked “$1 Bargain Books” so it made my choice easier. I had flipped through it to make sure all the pages were intact. Didn’t bother with the blurb, the cover image said enough.
When I put it on the counter to pay, the rotund middle-aged man with a wispy grey moustache, peppering his thin top lip flashed his eyebrows at me and then curled his lips up into a little smile. He told me it was a good choice and I shrugged. I put the dollar on the counter so our skin wouldn’t touch and then I walked back outside into the blistering heat.
As soon as I got to the car, I threw the rags to riches novella onto the back seat and waited, rolling a cigarette to pass the time. My dirty feet up on the dashboard. Pink nail polish on my toenails almost entirely worn off.
I’m 20 metres into the dry lake when he calls after me. He asks me what I’m doing and tells me there’s bound to be snakes out there. I tell him it’s all the same, over here or over there. They could be anywhere. Probably spiders too I mention.
It’s so quiet. I focus on the silence and stare at the cracks in the dirt. I consider how long it takes for them to form and how quickly they disappear when and if the rains come in. Nothing much to do out here, nah. Nothing much to do but stay awake and wait.
There’s a tree between the road and the lake, but you’d call it more of a log sticking up out of the dirt, really. There’s a large, flat rock at the foot of it and so I wander over and sit on it, letting my legs hang freely over the side of it. I find a comfortable position and stare into middle space.
He’s lit a rollie. The shuffle of his shoes sound, along the asphalt quickly, then slower on the dirt. He tells me we are out of water and I nod. I take the cigarette from his offering hand and drag. His body blocks some of the sunlight. The nicotine is relaxing but I instantly feel guilty and hand it back to him. He says it’s bloody hot. I nod. He says we should have prepared better. I clap my eyes shut.
After some time, doing nothing seems like a great effort, so I make my way back to the car to retrieve the book I don’t really want to read. I stick my upper body through one of the back windows and stretch an arm to grab the book. I hear a motor in the distance
and so I move quickly, shuffling backwards, away from the car. In the distance is a white truck. I call out and say help is in sight. I wave both arms around over my head and in front of my body. He jogs out and stops by my side frantically starts waving too. We start saying hey, quietly and then louder and louder the nearer the truck gets to us. The truck moves closer into view and we realise its carrying livestock. We look at one another. I stopped eating meat months ago. I tell him I don’t want to stop a livestock truck and he shrugs. He tells me it might be our only chance for a while. He reminds me we are out of water and that it’s bloody hot. Yeah. I nod.
The truck comes to a stop and the driver, a grey bearded bloke in a faded green singlet asks us if we’re okay. He shakes his head and tells us we should have a spare tyre. I agree with him, then drop out of the conversation. I make my way back towards my tree and rock. I’ve got to get away from the bleating.
He jogs over to me and tells me the truck driver can drop us off at the nearest servo and from there we can call for help and source a tyre. My eyes are closed and my throat is dry. I swallow and I tell him there’s no way I am getting on a livestock truck. No way in hell. He tells me to stop being dramatic and I tell him to go without me, I will wait. I sense his hesitation to leave me by myself, but he’s too tired for a fight and knows I’m stubborn, so he tells me I should suit myself and he will see me when he gets back. He walks towards the truck and turns back one more time to ask if I’m sure I want to stay, with the snakes he adds. I don’t look at him. I tell him yes.
The truck brakes ease off and the bleating fades into the distance along with the rumble of the motor. I hop off the rock and kick a pebble.
Nah, nothing to do but sit and wait.