SHORT STORIES

Illustration by Matt Weismantel

The Girl Inside | Elspeth Findlay

It gets harder every year to relax. They’re always over before I recover. Before the sludge of the nine-to-five clears. Before I even begin to recollect myself. Holidays somehow slip away now, like life on planet earth. The thought of extinction is somehow beguiling–mustn’t think that. Tears threaten to spill behind the giant sunnies, so I squeeze the wheel and squint harder at the black ribbon unfurling away across the Nullarbor Plain into a hazy horizon. I’m fighting off driver’s torpor, need some coffee and wish for once I had someone with me. Maybe I’ll stop and get my thermos out–but maybe I won’t, because it’s a long time since I passed anyone. There’s that niggle of fear about lonely roads and predators that might be patrolling. Better wait ‘til I reach a Roadhouse, safe there.

As if my wish for company were instantly granted, a figure seems to materialize out of the grey scrub that straggles here and there beside the road. I slow down, maybe I’ve nodded off and I’m dreaming her. I sit up, shake my head, but she’s still coming up on the passenger side. As she gets closer I watch her cock her thumb, watch the leisurely sway of her walk, the long mane of chestnut hair catching sunlight, just lifting a little in the breeze. She’s familiar. There’s a spark of intuition, a shivery frisson of fear, but I’m upset, overtired; I let it go, because it’s such a comfort to see another woman in all this emptiness.

Gravel crackles as I pull over. She bends down to the passenger side: peeling nose scattered with freckles, slightly elfin slant where her cheekbones run up past her eyes, her long fingers draped over the windowsill. The familiarity is so palpable I have to stop myself reaching out to touch her. "Where are you going," I ask. "Your way," she points vaguely ahead. "Hop in then." My voice has gone high, chirpy. She’s tall and has to fold herself onto the bench seat of my vintage HR. She arranges her long foal’s legs underneath her. She’s wearing blue jeans with worn-out sandals covering her calloused feet. Then for a moment she turns, regarding me with pale-blue eyes. It’s like looking into mirrors. I want to dispense with formalities and take her in my arms. Instead I say, lamely, "don't we know each other?" Stupid cliché, she looks out the window, murmurs something  I don’t catch.


Automatically I start the car and we motor off up the road. Mostly she's watching the horizon but increasingly I feel her eyes on me. Probably thinks I’m some kind of hipster hag with my designer jeans and vintage car. "So, where you going?" I try again. "Nowhere interesting, yet." I’m getting irritated now, that feeling of apprehension growing, pricking at me. There’s something weird, even dangerous that I can’t grasp. I glance over and there it is, an ice pick stare, fixed and furious. Fear stabs me as she arcs up, filling the cab with rage, hitting the seat with her fists and mimicking: "Don’t we know each other? Where are you going? Same old bullshit! You know exactly who I am, but you don’t want to know, you tuned out years ago zombie woman!"

The accusation burns out of that pale contorted face and I can’t look away. I throw up my arm as she launches herself at me, grabbing the wheel and pulling it hard around. The car lurches sideways across the bitumen, down over the shoulder, gravel showers up past the windows, then screeches and grinds into paneling as the car rolls and ploughs over it. My seat belt gouges across my chest and shoulder, my head rolls wildly, ricocheting off the seat. I see her, a belt-less crash dummy bouncing off the cab ceiling. Her body becomes a ragged missile, mashing into me. Now we are one, melding together against the driver’s door, then she is torn away by centrifugal force. Everything slows and melts, I remember a joy ride called The Wild Mouse: it’s her memory, our memory. How can I be thinking this in the middle of a car crash? There is a shrieking metal soundtrack, cymbals of smashed glass crash and diminish as the car settles on its blown-out tires. My head lolls, neck feels broken, everything numb. I want this crazy dream to stop, but her mouth is against my ear, she's leaning in through my window. "See what I can do?" she hisses.

 

Reflexively I unclench the seat belt, drag myself across to the other door and push desperately on the handle, but it won’t give. Fear makes me strong. I ram the door with my shoulder, and as it flies open I spill headfirst out into the dust, or some of me does. With my arms guarding my face, I manage a half-roll onto my back, but my legs are still stuck, twisted on the floor of the cab. My vision clears and there she is, silhouetted against the sky staring down at me. There’s a vast silence except for the wind sighing across the Nullarbor Plain. Like the silence that has fallen between me and the girl I used to be. "You could’ve killed us," I cry. "Better dead than dead-alive," she cuts in. She comes around behind me, so I can’t see her, and I tense for what might happen, but she only wraps her long, freckled arms around my chest and hauls me out of the car. It hurts as she props me against the back wheel, and maybe I should stay afraid, but I love her touch, I’m comforted by it. I try to take her hand, but she quickly pulls away.

She reaches into the wrecked car, dragging out my old briefcase from behind the seat.

She rips it open with strong hands, her voice becoming a sarcastic sing-song. "What’s in here, then? Oh, how interesting: briefs, policy documents, protocols, letters to clients, and here’s some certificates! Wow, haven’t we done well for the mining industry?" She explodes. "Lawyer lady, how could you sell us out to that corporate parasite?" I try to reach towards the case, but she skips away, pulling out one fat sheaf of paper after another, tearing the pages apart and throwing them away. They drift around me and flutter like sterile moths into the scrub. She strides back and squats in front of me. “Where’s our heart work? Make any poems lately, or stories, what about the novel? What did you actually create in your precious holidays?” Her hair is like a curtain of red copper tangling and whipping around her. My hair, before I pinned it into neat submission. She’s in my face, snarling. "We lived on almost nothing, but we shared spaces and belongings, we worked with our friends, remember friends? We were doing great, anthology out, publishers interested, reciting work at those slams! People told us to keep going no matter what. We were alive, happy, before you pushed me under! What happened? Why are you always dragging us back to that luxury lockup you call a home, and that bullshit, boring job that pays for it?"

I want to explain, but I realize there’s no point in going on about the hurt and disappointments that made me the fearful, grasping woman she’s attacking. She’s been inside me through it all. I’ve betrayed the vivid girl I once was. "Dead-alive" is what I used to call people who betrayed their soul, but I had no idea how easy it was to fall. Losing confidence, fed up with just getting by, settling for conventional jobs. I’ve put away all my principles, laid them in the same coffin as my sore heart, nailed down the lid with bitterness and skepticism. In return they give me money, compensation for years of compromise. Now I realize that every contract renewal I’ve signed has been a suicide pact, that the company was mining me, just as surely as it was drilling into Earth, destroying her, extracting her riches, leaving her crushed and polluted, pushing us both toward extinction.

"We can do so much better than gradual suicide." Her voice is gentle now. "So much heart work unfinished, so much beauty we can offer." I look directly at her and make a promise with my eyes. This time she doesn’t withdraw, she comes straight back into me.

_________

I push myself up, away from the shadow of the car. Bright light touches my dusty face as I rise; it’s painful, but a crowd of tiny finches chee-chee merrily through the spinifex, shitting on the scattered documents as they go. I’m smiling, then laughing, as I do a dance amid the snow of paper around the wreck, kicking at the emptied briefcase as I go by. Before I lock it up, I stuff the debris of my old life into the cab of the Holden.

Perhaps someone will torch it before it can be salvaged. A sacrificial fire in the timeless majesty of the Nullarbor.

It’s just a scramble up the gravel onto the verge. The ribbon of road melts away into horizon, a shimmering blend of ochre earth and cerulean sky. I pull the last pins from my hair, feel it tumble out, feel the wind catching it. My body settles into a leisurely sway as I walk, my cocky right thumb at the ready.

Dwelling in the Northern Rivers of NSW, Elspeth Findlay’s poetry and prose are published in the Northerly, Emergent Literary Journal, and Furiously Knocking. Elspeth is studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Creative Writing. 

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.