The highway stretched out ahead of them as far as the eye could see, a dark concrete line that stood out sharply against the tan sand of the surrounding terrain. In didn’t matter which direction you looked out here; flat desert was all there was to see.
This highway had nearly no curves. From Alice Springs to Katherine, the road ran almost perfectly straight, parallel with the state lines on either side it.
They had already been driving for a full day and a half, plus the two days it had taken them to get to Uluru, the most famous landmark in Australia, sacred and rich with Aboriginal folklore. To see the magnificent shade of red it had turned when the sun hit it that first morning made the drive before dawn worth the sleep deprivation.
They had to keep the windows down since the air conditioner had died back on the coast. The hot wind that filled the truck made their backs slick with sweat, but at least some air was moving. It made it too loud to talk unless they shouted, but it didn’t matter. They were both comfortable enough with silence.
By now, they had been on the road for four months. An epic road trip had taken them from their starting point in Queensland, where they followed the coast up through the Daintree rainforest, gritted their teeth on the Old Telegraph Track going north towards Cape York, otherwise known as ‘The Tip’, then back down again to the mines of Mount Isa.
Definitely not the most traditional of courtships, but it worked for them. From the moment they met, the conversation flowed like a river, lacking in the awkward pauses and clumsy hesitations that had come with everyone else either of them had known. The decision to spend what little time they each had in the Land Down Under travelling together seemed like a no-brainer. They were kindred spirits, living out of a tent and a truck with nothing but each other’s company, a map and a few guidebooks, but they didn’t need much else.
Their next destination, Katherine, held promises of a return to civilization. Hot springs and crystal-clear swimming holes dotted the national parks that surrounded the town, a welcome relief after nearly a week in the dry, dusty desert.
They allotted three full days to make the journey, but at this rate they would make it there in just over two. The plan was to stay in Katherine for a few days before continuing on a few more hours north to Darwin, but they hadn’t talked about what would happen after that.
For the last few days, the same question had been at the back of both of their minds, but neither had brought it up: what would happen at the end of the road? Would they go on together, or did the end of the highway mark the end of whatever this was?
There was a roadhouse up ahead, easy to spot on the flat landscape. These little oases dotted the northern territory, mostly consisting of a long wooden building in the middle of the yard, a gas station out front, a water tap, and picnic tables scattered around.
On cue, he signaled and slowed down, then steered the truck towards the right side of the highway. The cabin began to heat up the moment the air went still. They bounced along the uneven yard before pulling up next to a gas pump. Without a word, he let himself out to fill the tank while she grabbed the water jugs and went looking for the tap, a routine performed so many times over the months on the road it didn’t even require planning anymore.
When she came back, the truck was parked in a shady spot along the long side of the roadhouse. All the doors were open, and the hood was popped up to allow the engine and cab to cool down a bit. He was sitting at a picnic table making a couple of sandwiches, and an apple had been cut in half. She didn’t wait for him to finish before picking up her half and taking a bite.
“We’re going to have to get jobs when we get to Darwin,” he said, breaking the comfortable silence between them. “The clutch is on its last legs.”
She chewed and swallowed before she answered.
“Yeah, I figured we would be due to park it for a little while soon. How much do you think that’s going to cost?”
“Probably around $800. But I’m not sure; it depends on the labour.” He was handy, but living in a car meant travelling light, and they didn’t have nearly enough tools to fix anything themselves.
“Ok, so why don’t we stay in Darwin for three months? That way we can earn enough to pay for the clutch, and we’ll have some extra spending money for the last leg of the journey”
She opened up their most used guidebook, the one with the route that terminated in Perth highlighted in pink. They planned to sell the truck in the west coast city and spend the last few weeks of their visas enjoying the beaches, the food and the nightlife. Three months spent in Darwin would give them just over a month together in Perth.
They hadn’t talked about what would happen after that.
Truthfully, they had been avoiding it. Whenever conversation veered in that direction one of them would abruptly change the subject. Aside from realising they’d both need to leave the country when the visas expired, neither knew the others’ post-Australia plans.
For her, not knowing was like having a third passenger sandwiched between them, one she was getting tired of having around. A familiar phrase started to rise up from her diaphragm, a string of words she practiced saying in her head as they drove and wind whipped her hair all over the place, or that she would mouth to her reflection after a cold $2.00 shower in any of the roadhouses they had frequented. She had thought it a million times, lying awake in the tent after he had gone to sleep, but hadn’t said it out loud, not even to herself. She had almost said it, a few times, but always talked herself out of it. Things we’re going well, the trip was fun, and she didn’t want her prodding to be the reason it ended.
This time it was getting hard to stop, though. The words kept rising, slithering up her throat and into her mouth, coming to rest on her tongue. She held her breath, afraid that they’d tumble out if she exhaled. Her palms were slick with sweat. He kept looking at the map, oblivious.
She should wait. Wait until they get to Darwin. Wait another month. Just not today. If she asked today, it could be bad, very bad, and she’d have nowhere to go to get away from it.
Or it could be good. Great, even. She could leave the third passenger at this very roadhouse, she could stop wondering and worrying, and they could spend the night together, alone in the dessert.
Scared to find out but needing to know, she slowly and quietly let out the breath she had been holding back. The words didn’t fall out like she feared they would; in fact, they got stuck on the way out, resulting in the funny sound one makes when they start to say something and then decide against it. It was enough to get him to look up, and when his eyes met hers, he knew something was coming.
Neither blinked. Neither moved. The sandwiches were forgotten about. One by one, the pages of the guidebook turned over until the book closed.
“Have you thought about staying together when our visas end?”
The words came out slower and more controlled than she imagined they would. She might even have come across as calm. The moments he took to answer felt like years, but he didn’t look away, he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t change the subject.
After a little while, his eyebrows came together, and a thoughtful expression came over his face.
“I have,” he articulated slowly, “and I don’t see that happening.”
Her stomach dropped and she felt her face get hot.
“It’s not that I don’t care about you. I’ve loved travelling with you, I wish it didn’t have to end.” His words spilled out more quickly now as he tried to fill the silence that would never again be comfortable.
“But there are a lot of things I want to accomplish, and I can’t see myself reshaping my life for someone, anyone, that I barely know. You and I met less than a year ago.”
That was true, it hadn’t been that long. Her eyes were quickly filling up with tears and there was no way he couldn’t see them. She felt like a fool, embarrassed to have asked such a question to and be having this reaction in front of him.
He reached out to hold her hand, but she pulled it away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
She stood and started packing up the little picnic he had set out. He watched her for just a second before gathering up the map and guidebooks. Quietly, they packed up their little life, climbed back into the truck and continued their way north. The third passenger got in between them, nastier and more obnoxious than he had been before.
The air was slightly cooler in the later part of the afternoon.
In the rear-view mirror, she could see the picnic table they had been sitting at, the last place they would ever be together care-free and uncomplicated. She watched it as it grew smaller and smaller until, finally, it disappeared.
The highway stretched endlessly ahead of them. The highway that eventually came to an end, in Darwin.