Type
Short Story Prize

Don’t tell me | Runner-up, VU Short Story Prize

On the southern edge of the Nullarbor we stop to stretch our legs and I find phone reception strong enough to call my father. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘have you considered changing your name?’

His messages have been banking up for several days as the tour weaves in and out of range. We haven’t spoken more than once, I know, since I got out of prison. The van is parked under a green metal shade-awning reserved for the cross-country busses, a little island amid a fortune of sunlight.

‘This is what you wanted to talk to me about?’ I ask.

‘A new name,’ he says. ‘You could say you’re anybody; get a job, get a girlfriend. Nobody would know who you were, unless they went looking. And who would go looking?’

‘Are you ashamed of me?’

‘My god,’ my father says. ‘Of course I’m ashamed. Wouldn’t you be?’

 

Later, in the high school hall, when the video has finished and all the questions have been asked, we filter off stage and stand, blinking, in the sudden darkness of the wings. We have fallen into a habit of silence immediately following each presentation.

Then Bradford hands out cigarettes and the four of us step through the stage door to the car park and smoke by the hot afternoon road as we wait for Tony to turn up with the van.

‘I think that was a good one,’ says Hetty, wiping her eyes.

The rest of us nod, all knowing that, by now, two weeks into the tour, no talk we give is better or worse than any other. Sometimes the group’s confidence on stage will be palpable, sometimes we will all sit sullenly through the tragedies being projected onto the screen behind us, awaiting our turn to rise and speak. Much of it hinges on if we eat lunch beforehand.

Tony, our manager, appears and we finish our cigarettes and get in the van. Westward. It is autumn and cool. We buy sandwiches at a gas station and trade them between bites and watch, through the tall windows, lightning far away.

On the long drives between each town the group naps or tells stories, another habit. We talk about jobs we had before our accidents, past loves. We talk about anything except the crimes which brought us here – after so many presentations we know those stories well.

Because my incident was far less severe, and for my silence during those drives, I am called the baby of the group, though at thirty I am the second eldest after Bradford. None of them got off easy. Each accident left grieving relatives, memorial services, online funds for the victims. It’s clear I was filling a gap when Tony recruited me to join his little tour.

‘My first job was at a butcher’s,’ says Sal. ‘You think it’s going to be practical, but all I learned was how much blood everything has. The first time they gave me a knife I cut my thumb basically off.’

She grips her hand to mime the violence.

‘Do you have a scar?’ Hetty asks.

‘Sure,’ Sal says, waving off the thought. ‘Somewhere.’

‘Once,’ says Hetty, ‘I was at a winter dance in the bush and a snake bit me. Winter’s not really a snake-bite season, but it’s not really a dancing season either so there you go. No-one can really say what’s about to happen.’

‘Was it poisonous?’ Bradford asks.

‘I was so drunk I didn’t notice until the next morning, so I guess not.’

Bradford tells a story none of us can follow about his old job in finance. Something to do with the financial crisis, currency valuations, how he had to speak into two phones at once. He says he was the only one in his office to escape the panic with his mind intact. The unsettled ridges of his nose, broken in some long-ago crash, occasionally catch the afternoon light.

‘I liked Sal’s better,’ says Hetty.

‘Ok, says Bradford. ‘Here’s another one.’

When we get to the motel it is dark and we are tired of story. Before we can retire, Tony gives out notes on the day’s performance. Sal spoke too quickly during her monologue, Bradford needs to move his hands more. Hetty, as usual, was impeccable. Each day on stage she weeps as she recounts the damage she caused, the life she left behind, the sickness she realised wasn’t there, the wonders of modern rehabilitative therapy. Real tears too, as far as any of us can tell.

‘What about me, coach?’ I say.

‘You,’ Tony says, flipping through his notepad. ‘You need to stop drifting off while the clips are playing. You won’t scare anybody if you’re falling asleep on stage. If anything, you’re making road deaths look relaxing. Remember why you’re here. Be truthful and the money will be good.’

Tony himself has the air of the recently incarcerated. Clothes nobody wears anymore, his arms uglied by old blue tattoos. He has sunk a great deal of his own money into this venture, we know.

‘Be truthful,’ I say. ‘Absolutely.’

I share a last cigarette with Sal before bed. I turn her hand over in the fluorescent light of the hallway but I can find no scar.

 

We drive through Fraser, Leonora, Ironbark. We drive through towns named for long-ago things – Rome, Denmark, Norseman. We skirt deserts on our way west. Sub-stations converted into community centres, public swimming pools empty of water, limestone quarries full of wind.

The students we talk to are the children of miners and cattle-station managers. They spend their weekends working early mornings at roadhouses or on highway maintenance crews. They struggle to fill our Q&A sessions with anything but inane questions. It occurs to me that the older kids have already accumulated more hours driving than the rest of us will in our entire lives.

‘Will you ever get your licences again?’ they ask.

We may, but only once we’re confident we can do it safely.

‘How did it feel to run someone over?’ the bolder ones ask.

It felt bad, heartbreaking. A feeling you can’t describe.

Each morning Sal predicts another storm, though the weather is in no hurry to change. We sleep in double rooms in roadside motels and to save Tony’s money we bunk up; Hetty and Sal in one room, me and Bradford in another.

One night, Bradford suggests that Tony has a scale. The more misery you’ve caused, the more he’ll pay you to talk about it on stage.

‘You should consider it,’ he says. ‘Make something up, something grim but realistic. You don’t think Hetty’s stretching a few things?’

‘How much are you earning?’ I ask.

‘That would be giving it away,’ he says, tapping his nose.

After two weeks I know the gentle signals of his sleeping body in the way his wife might back home. Sometimes he will shake in dream. One night it is so violent he knocks the glass of water from his bedside table.

‘It’s ok,’ I say.

‘Who else is here?’ he says, stunned. ‘There was someone.’

‘Nobody, not a soul.’

‘Can I tell you something?’

‘Not now. Tomorrow.’

‘I could have sworn,’ he says. He lays his head back down, already slowing. Then, as he’s about to disappear again, he says, ‘Don’t let me forget.’

 

I find phone reception outside the Cooktown Motor Inn and call my sister, the only other person who’s tried to reach me in weeks. The group has just come off stage at a school where the audience could not contain themselves.

They laughed when Sal described the dream she had after falling asleep, drunk, at the wheel, and the police found her.

‘I thought I was at a restaurant and they were asking me to leave, but I had no idea why.’

They loved the gaudy educational video illustrating the dangers of the open road. It was hard not to laugh with them.

‘Are you eating well at least?’ my sister asks.

‘Sure,’ I say. ‘They give us breakfast in bed at the hotels.’

‘They don’t have hotels out there,’ she says. ‘Don’t lie to me.’

‘Anyway,’ I say. ‘We’re getting to the end of it now. Only a few more dates.’

‘And then what? Work?’

I shift the phone to my other ear. ‘That’ll be hard,’ I say. ‘But something will turn up.’

‘So, no plan then,’ she says.

‘Dad said I could try becoming a new person entirely.’

I can hear a stranger’s voice in the background of the call. It takes me a moment to recognise that it’s my nephew. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before in my life.

‘Well, I’m needed elsewhere,’ I say.

‘Can you at least make your excuses convincing?’

 

Tony begins speaking to us more and more bluntly at the end of each day. He finds our errors more obvious, more vital. Our motels become less inviting as we approach the final dates of the tour. Soon he doesn’t bother giving notes, drops us off and heads out to find a pub alone at the end of each night.

The money, I guess, has not been good. Tony drives for many hours with his shoulders hunched, like a man who has expected trouble for a long time.

‘I feel like I’m the only one taking this seriously,’ he says.

‘You’re not,’ says Hetty.

‘I didn’t have to bring any of you into this. I’m doing you all a favour. This is my life, too.’

One night the four of us are forced to share a room, two to each bed. Where Tony goes for the night we can only guess. The contract we each signed at the start of the tour – with its clauses against overt fraternising, drinking – feel like a treaty from another time, something ratified a generation ago. Hetty and Sal pool our money and go looking for a bottle shop. Bradford and I harass the front desk for ice and some more cups.

‘We’re having a party,’ he says. ‘We’ll keep it quiet. We’re reformed.’

Hetty and Sal return with two bottles of some fruit liqueur. We set up on a coffee table and take shots all night, thick and sweet as cough syrup, changing the music playing from our phones before each song can reach its finish.

Sal brings out a deck of playing cards and claims she can read them like tarot. Hetty draws the cards and we sit, patient and woozy, as Sal tries to remember what the nine of hearts signifies – the hierophant? The swords? – before she gives up and declares there is no equivalent.

‘You picked wrong,’ she says.

‘You’re making this up as you go,’ says Hetty.

‘Of course.’

Inevitably, the night becomes heavy with confession. Sal says she thought at least two of us would have slept together by now. She had me and Hetty pegged, but she’s looking directly at Bradford while she speaks. Bradford begins a story about how tall his children seemed when they visited him in prison for the first time, like their whole lives had already passed. He pauses to gather himself and the pause lingers until we realise the story won’t continue. Soon, I know, every story will end this way.

‘Ok,’ I say. ‘Here’s one.’

I tell them a story I’d never told them  – never told anyone, really –  about when I hit the hitchhiker. About being out on the highway in the deep dark, a little drunk but sobering up, back when I was a teenager and did that sort of thing a lot. It was a school night.

Those nights, when the darkness is absolute and it seems like there’s nothing in the world except whatever tumbles through your headlights, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you’re moving forward by some force outside of your control. Like a fish being pulled on a hook towards oblivion.

I was in the middle of that darkness when a young man, a hitchhiker with a pack, darted out across the highway and I hit him. A flash of black hair against the window. He went smoothly over the hood and the roof and came back down on the road far behind me, the whole thing over in less time than it takes to release a breath.

God, the sound of it. I stopped. I didn’t move. What do you do with a moment like that, except leave it there in the darkness?

It would have been easy to leave his body there and let gravity take back over. But I didn’t, and when I got out to check on him I found that he wasn’t only still alive, he was standing. He was breathless but unharmed. We stood there looking at each other before we began to laugh, realising that somehow we might be ok.

Neither of us could explain what happened. It’s hard to think of it as anything but a miracle. One of his arms felt numb but he could articulate it just fine. I drove him to the hospital to get checked out and the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with him. We kept in touch for a few years, even got drinks together once when he was in town. More time passed and I never heard from him again. His name was Connor.

‘No,’ says Bradford.

‘Nobody can say what’s about to happen,’ I say.

Hetty is watching me with her knees tucked to her chest, searching for something. For a while, at least, nobody changes songs.

 

At dawn Hetty asks me if I’m awake. She’s curled up with half a blanket on her. She’d moved all night, kicking the sheets away absently before pulling them back up. On the other bed, Sal and Bradford breathe quietly with a pillow between them.

‘Can I ask you to do something,’ Hetty whispers.

‘What?’ I say.

‘I don’t want you to tell me,’ she says, ‘about the boy you hit. The truth, I mean. I want you to keep the story how you told it last night.’

Soon Tony will arrive and bang on the door and call us to breakfast. We have a long drive ahead of us. We will stow the empty bottles and gather ourselves, aching. Sal will be sick in a petrol station bathroom. There will be no breakfast. There will be no more predictions of a storm.

‘Sure,’ I tell Hetty. ‘I can do that.’

Our hangovers will be impossible to mask on stage. We will yawn through each talk, the children will chatter as we tell them our stories. I’ll close my eyes and the beam of the projector will fill my eyelids. Inescapable, like the light of a car approaching in the night. Slow and distant at first, before it fills everything. Blinding. Then gone.

 

Image: Eyre Hwy, Nullarbor sunset / flickr

 

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jack Vening is a writer and editor from Canberra whose stories have appeared in The Lifted Brow and many places elsewhere. He is on the editorial team at Crikey and his fiction newsletter, Small Town Grievances, goes out to a few hundred strangers every few weeks.

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