A story inspired by this week Writers Island prompt – lost highway.
It was a night for goblins dancing on the roof. Angel couldn’t see them but she knew they were there. Pounding, thrashing, banging all night. Unrelenting.
It was usually the way of it. Just when you craved a bit of silence the wind started up, getting under the loose slate on the roof, setting the goblins free.
Her throat was hoarse from shouting out the odds, remonstrations, admonishments. Seth didn’t listen to anything she said, merely continued to drink, unconcerned, as if he were all alone. It irked her so badly that he wouldn’t even look at her, acknowledge her concerns, that she started to goad him, taunt him – always a dangerous undertaking.
It didn’t take him long. He hit her so hard she slid backwards across the newly varnished floors as she fell, snagging her skirt on a tiny splinter so that a ladder formed in the soft fabric, ragged as a scar.
‘My skirt,’ she said, oblivious to the pain lining up like sharpened dominoes from her jaw to her scalp. ‘It cost over a hundred dollars. It’s ruined.’
‘That’s your fault for being so self-indulgent. Who pays a hundred bucks for a stupid skirt?’ Seth was unsympathetic.
Angel struggled to her feet. Her vision was edged with streaks of orange, plumes of yellow. She spat blood into her hand. It sizzled, still hot.
‘Look what you did,’ she said thrusting her blood-filled hand into Seth’s face. ‘You’re a brute.’
‘Don’t speak like that to me in my own house.’ Seth pushed his chair back in a rush so that all the empty bottles on the dining room table jangled like bells. ‘You’re asking for it, I swear.’
A growl emanated from the corner of the room, beside the old armchair Angel had inherited from her grandfather. ‘That’s real leather, right there,’ he’d always said. ‘None of that cheap vinyl stuff.’
It was Minnie, Angel’s old black Lab. She was getting on a bit and had always been gentle, but she could be nippy when warranted. Minnie came to stand by Angel’s side, ears up, doing that bass growl she did that sounded like waves tumbling over rocks.
The argumentative glee of the dipsomaniac was still lighting up Seth’s face but he knew better than to take on old Min. ‘Keep that mutt away from me,’ he said as he staggered on to the couch and fell asleep.
Angel waited for fifteen minutes. Thirty. Forty five. Counting under her breath in reassuring lots of one hundred. After an hour she knew he was in a deep sleep and would be unlikely to stir until morning. She began to pack.
She used every suitcase, every bag she had, taking all her clothes, her books, her stuff. She didn’t care about the big things – there were always more refrigerators, more televisions to be had – but her stuff could never be replaced.
As Seth snored, clutching at his chest as if it pained him, Angel loaded all of her things into the old Holden truck she’d bought for work. It was an old rattlebucket but it had plenty of room for her cake tins and trays and the portable drinks fountain that was proving so popular with her clients. She wondered again why she spent so much time devising new recipes and sourcing the best produce she could find, Seth never ate any of it, eating greasy burgers or two-day old pies every night at the pub.
Angel was about to leave when she saw the chair, comforting and solid as an old friend. ‘I can’t let him have my old chair,’ she thought. ‘I’d rather pour kerosene over it and set it alight.’
It was an old burgundy leather wingback with oak legs, not enormous but unwieldy nonetheless. Angel didn’t think she could lift it on her own but she was determined to get it into the truck. She dragged it, inch after painstaking inch over the hardwood floors that were Seth’s pride and joy, praying with every desperate breath that she wouldn’t wake him up. It took her over an hour but she got it into the truck, her hands were shaking with the effort and the back of her neck was slick with sweat, but she’d done it.
The goblins had been hammering on the roof the whole time, making her nauseated with panic that they would wake Seth. Just as she finished loading the chair into the truck, they stopped.
‘Minnie,’ she whispered, suddenly filled with a sense of urgency. ‘Get in the car, girl. Come on, get in the car.’ Minnie, head on paws, tail sweeping the dirt, regarded her with one raised eyebrow. ‘Minnie.’ Angel spat the name between clenched teeth. ‘Get in the car.’
‘Well, well, well. If I didn’t know better I’d think you actually had some backbone after all.’ Seth was standing on the porch, the rising sun glowing behind him like an apocalyptic backdrop. Angel felt like this was the only day of her life that counted, the only day that remained. ‘Come, Minnie.’ Seth held out his hand to the old dog, pulling the beef jerky treats she liked from his pocket.
Minnie sniffed the air, hesitated, then began to amble towards him. Seth began to laugh – a gloating, grating sound. ‘Stupid old dog would sell you down the river for a treat,’ he said.
Angel wasn’t prepared to give up. She had come this far. She started the truck. ‘With or without you, Minnie,’ she shouted. ‘I mean it. It’s time.’ She held out her hand, the old dog wavered, keen for Seth’s treat, but also fully aware of the scent of leaving in the air. So she turned, and with a vigour she hadn’t demonstrated for years, jumped into the car.
‘You can run, but you can’t hide,’ Seth called after her. ‘I’ll find you. You know I will.
And then you’ll pay.’
Angel drove for hours with the only sounds the wind buffeting the windows and Minnie shuffling in sleep on the passenger seat. The freeway was fast and long and sure as steel. She could see the bones in her hands, incised with purple, set to plunge out from her flesh as a result of her stern grip on the wheel. Every few minutes she glanced in the rear-view mirror to see if Seth was tailing her but so far the road behind her remained deserted. The legs of her grandfather’s chair dropped in and out of her vision, moving slightly as if egging her on.
‘I’ll find you. You know I will.’ Seth’s final words bounced around the cabin of the truck, causing spots to form in front of Angel’s eyes so that she began to fear spinning out in the traffic.
‘Get a grip, Angel. Get a grip,’ she said. ‘He’s nowhere near you.’
Angel knew what she had to do and it was almost as daunting as leaving. She had to do it to be safe. Magenta clouds were forming in the sky. The wind pulled them apart and left them frayed like torn crepe paper. A group of currawongs circled in the limpid clouds that hung just below the peak of the mountains. The one tree stood, hanging over the road, the lone gum. Angel knew it was now or never and turned the truck off the freeway, sharply to the left.
She plummeted through bush and rocks and orange dirt, feeling she was losing control. Feeling the very earth was going to suck her into its belly. The steering wheel shook and squealed. She called out the name of every God she had ever heard of, asking for their protection; and then the brush cleared and she found herself on a lightly tarred stretch of road, bordered by trees.
She drove, hesitantly, knuckles white, biting her lip so hard she tasted blood. And then she saw it – the kangaroo paw nailed to a brushbox tree, a signpost to a world no one was sure really existed. Maybe she had gone mad with fear. Perhaps she was delusional, but it seemed like for now, she was riding the lost highway of Happy Jack.
Her grandfather had told her the story as a little girl. Happy Jack, the adventurer, the man who lost his life on the old highway trying to save lost souls who couldn’t save themselves. The highway had been swallowed up by the bush many years ago but it was said Happy Jack re-opened it for those who needed sanctuary. You had to look for the currawongs circling beneath the mountains near the lone gum. And follow the sun, always follow the sun.
The sound of the freeway was completely gone. It was quiet, the way it is when winter first sets in and everyone retreats to their books and their fires. Angel began to relax. The road behind her had disappeared, all she could see was trees.
The road before her stretched up to the horizon, cutting through the landscape like a ribbon of black silk. She drove at ease – she knew this place. She knew she was safe. She knew Seth could not follow. Relief swept over her with the purity of a hymn. And she ambled, flowing like water, along the lost highway that felt like the road to home.