The driver, unaware that his wife is watching, is enjoying the dark silence of the journey, sees a few drops of water on the windscreen. It is the first rain of the wet season.
The woman, woken by the growing whine of the car’s engine, turns her head to watch the driver. Corkscrewed for hours against the headrest, her neck muscles tighten in protest. She touches her cheek. It is damp with saliva and bears the imprinted scar of a pillow’s edge. Despite discomfort, it has been a deep sleep, and she guesses they may have travelled halfway home.
Emma, unnoticed, studies her new husband’s profile, down to the warm, velvety skin just below his earlobe, the small commas of hair resting on the nape of his newly suntanned neck. She smiles, thinking of how many times in the last two weeks she has kissed him there, her lips brushing against those soft black curls.
“Don’t you fall asleep, husband.” Emma smiles, stretches her arm across and, finding a rib, buries her finger playfully into his side.
“I’m not.” Ben says, squirming. “It’s been so great. I was just thinking about what could go wrong. And now it’s pouring.”
The old highway from Brisbane to Sydney changes at night. And with weather. Before they pit-stop for dinner and fuel, the road is jammed with overstuffed cars, towing caravans or trailers. Bored children poke out tongues at passing cars, and exasperated adults sit in impatient silence.
This evening, the road is empty. The vehicle is quiet except for a sudden continuous drumming on the roof and the fast click-clack of wipers. A metronome keeping time with the downpour. Occasionally the lights of a huge rig barrel up behind, and recklessly overtake along the narrow, winding asphalt, throwing up water and stones in a clattering hail.
The noise of the storm covers the sick sound of the engine as the car glides around bends and flies through one-pub towns. During daylight, they could attract the attention of a lone speed cop, hiding patiently, but the night and the weather assure the driver he can keep up the pace, abandon caution. Until.
“That noise is getting worse,” Emma says.
Ben slows, looking for somewhere to safely pull off the road, to wait at least until the heaviest part of the storm subsides, his wipers no longer keeping pace with the sheeting deluge across the glass. His new wife is the most loving, the most attractive, the most annoying person he knows. Her hair, darker than his, shines in the lightning that breaks through the car windows. Her eyes, the colour of a placid summer ocean, widen at each burst of slow, rumbling thunder.
“Hurry, sweetheart,” she urges. Over and over. “We need to stop.”
In the lay-by, Ben pops the hood and searches in ignorance for a solution as warm droplets wet his collar, trickle down the back of his shirt, drip from the tip of his nose. But the engine is a complex puzzle to him and Emma is calling through the rain.
“I don’t think we should stay here long, honey,” she shouts, as Ben, in tired frustration, kicks at the mud forming around the wheels.
“And it’s very dark over there,” she adds, gesturing towards the impenetrable edge of the rainforest.
Speeding through the night, Ben has not noticed how dense and ominous the forest is, just metres from the car. During the day, the sun splinters through the trees as they race along the winding highway. The road ribbons ahead, defined and black. The gnarled gum trees distinct in grey and green.
Here, ten steps beyond the lights of the car and he will be swallowed by a thick, oppressive nothing. The thought, and a soaking shirt, sends a shiver along the back of Ben’s neck.
“Emma!” He calls to the open car window. “I think we should try to make it to the next town. Find someone to fix the car tomorrow.”
As he starts the engine, another curtain of heavy, tropical rain falls to the earth, splashing brown onto his jeans and covering his shoes in the slippery, rutted earth.
“I saw a sign a while back.” Emma says. “A motel. Do you think we’ll be okay till then?” But Ben, who has already rejoined the road, white-knuckles the wheel and stays silent.
Anyone driving south along the old Pacific Highway for the first time might miss the motel. Particularly at night. There is a steady, then sharper gradient as the road swings west through thick National Park and continues until a sweeping, ocean-side curve opens up. Halfway around sits the faded, duck-egg blue Jax Motel.
Ben is exhausted. He enters the yellow lit office, catches his face in a rust stained mirror and notices what Emma calls his ‘drunk eyes.’ Eyes so tired he can’t fully focus, so heavy he is desperate to kiss his new wife goodnight and just sleep.
“I’ve got the key.” Ben waves it at Emma, who is still sitting in the car, out of the rain. “We’re up those stairs. Number 37.”
“Not exactly the Bellagio.” Emma says.
The room has the mustiness of old closets and leaky showers, but the sheets are crisp and white. Coffee and cookies for the morning. A double bed sits in the centre of the room, mustard coloured comforter pulled back, as Ben, oblivious to coffee and decor, finally sleeps.
It is not the Bellagio, the swish Vegas playground where they stood, strangers on a walkway, Ben blocking her view of the choreographed fountains. Where she gently tapped his shoulder and asked him to please trade places. Where his lanky frame turned, looked down at her and their lives changed forever.
The rain has eased for the moment and Emma can hear the surf swashing up onto the rocks below, retreating into the ocean, each time blown heavier and higher against the cliff face by the growing storm.
The air-conditioner is dead and the heat of day has left moisture hanging in the dank room. The wall to the left of the bed is covered by plush and dusty brocade drapes, behind which Emma finds a set of firmly sealed glass doors. She had hoped for a window, to release the humidity out into the night and cleanse the room with fresh, ozone laden air. She holds back the drapes just a little, and a huge moon floods the room. For seconds the bed, the dresser, much of the room is illuminated, before storm clouds roll across again and all form inside the room is lost.
Alone in the dark, as Ben sleeps, Emma lays her head on the fresh cotton pillowcase and drifts off hoping that tomorrow will be better.
Around 1 a.m., Emma is woken by a sensation of deep sorrow, a dream of rain and childhood. Muffled sobbing fills the room, silenced only at each crack of thunder and spear of lightening.
Just beyond the foot of the bed, the battered wooden dresser sharpens her focus. Although the drapes are now firmly closed, there is light. A cold current creases the air. Thinking that she may be still half asleep, she questions where she is, feels for Ben’s sleeping outline beside her, unable to turn her eyes from the shimmering glow on top of the dresser. A large mirror sparkles in the reflected light, a solid white mist that grows then dims. It hovers, twisting in uneven, organic rhythms.
“Oh, fuck. Do you see that?” Ben is up on his elbows, craning to see better, as Emma lays fixed in the bed.
“I’ve been watching a while,” she whispers, and instantly, like a child caught in the act of unwelcome behaviour, the mist switches off and is gone.
“Geez,” he says. “What was that?”
The room is swallowed by a solid silence. The thunderstorm has stopped dead, but the wind driven rain still raps on the glass behind the curtains.
Emma does not dare to say what they have just seen, but she is relieved that Ben saw it too, that this one will not be a story for disbelief and mockery. Ben is the kind that believes only in the touchable and the seeable. And she knows he saw.
The storm leaves but before they fall back asleep, tight in each other’s arms, she pulls back the heavy drapes, and slowly the moonlight cuts the gloom into comforting pieces.
The morning arrives in torrents and Emma is impatient to check out. She uses the endless rain and thundering sky as decoy for her jangled nerves. The unexplained, and its unspeakable conclusion, hang in the air as she packs.
“When I dropped in the key, the office guy recommended a garage, ” Ben says.
He has been up, ready and quietly waiting. To speed their exit, he darts around the room in silence, gathering bags and phones, and soon the door is slamming behind them. They step out under the dripping, rusted awning, hurry down the rain-shined steps and into the car.
Ben has already consigned the night to being ‘the thing that never happened’ because he is the one that people trust for sound advice, a level head, a clear mind. Not glowing lights in a mustard coloured room in a rundown blue motel in the middle of a wet nowhere.
Several hours later, down the curve and just one kilometre from the motel, the clouds are in a holding pattern. The storm reduces to a constant drizzle of warm droplets over the small beachside village, A lone mechanic extracts the alternator with the skill of a neurosurgeon, as Ben and Emma wait on a bench inside the workshop, dry and silent.
“Holiday?” The mechanic asks.
“This might take a while.”
The temperature plunges as the storm reignites and sucks all warming humidity from the air. Emma, dressed only in shorts and a singlet, moves closer to Ben.
She watches the man pass his hands across torn overalls black from his trade, and reach for the wrench that hangs from his back pocket. Metallic clunks and the oily smell of engine grease fill the workshop. He notes the silence between the couple and raises his head from under the hood.
“The Jax Motel is just up the hill,” he says. “If you want a coffee, lunch, or something. Don’t let the look of the place scare ya, it’s a good little restaurant.”
“It’s not the restaurant that’s scary.” Emma can’t resist the temptation, and Ben turns away from her, annoyed that she will break their unspoken pact.
“Pardon luv?” The mechanic’s brows force together, head tilts. “What do you mean?” he asks.
Emma is straining to undo the silence, the secret that is tying her nerves in knots.
“We stayed there last night and —,”
“—Yeah, I know what you’re going to say, luv.” The mechanic speaks with the drama of someone reading a grocery list. “Room 37. Ball of light. Kid crying. Dead cold?”
Stunned, Ben is finally compelled to ask:
“Massive storm a few years back. Kid sleepwalks out the big windows and over the balcony. Fell onto those rocks, down below. Swept out to sea. Poor little bugger.” He narrates the tale he has told a hundred times.
“Sad.” Ben has no other words.
“Yeah, but don’t you guys go spreading this when you get home.”
The mechanic is serious. He leans into the couple, huddled on the metal bench.
“It’s bad for the motel. And bad for the town.” He says and turns back to the engine.
Ben and Emma, compelled by his intensity, nod a silent confirmation.
By four o’clock, the car is finally fixed and ready to go. The rain is easing again.
“I think he’s right about not telling anyone.” Emma says.
“Yes, and thank you." Ben agrees and hugs her with love and relief.
Ben sits behind the wheel, deflecting thoughts of the thing that never happened and enjoying the steady, gentle drops on the windscreen. Emma happily corkscrews her neck again, presses a cheek to the window and readies her pillow for sleep.
The engine purrs quietly, slipping into reverse as Ben rechecks his rear-view mirror.
A small boy is standing on the footpath alongside the garage. As Ben rolls down his window, he sees that the child, no more than six, has broad gashes across his face, from which a continuous stream of blood is falling, down translucent white cheeks, and mixing with his tears. The boy wears pyjamas, so drenched that rivulets are running down to the concrete, forming a crimson puddle where he stands.
Ben gasps and Emma raises her head to meet the child’s eyes, the saddest thing she has ever seen, and begins to cry. The boy pokes out his tongue, then waves, turns, and runs up the hill, back to the Jax Motel.