She heard the rattly old ute before she saw it barrelling towards them. The elevated road was scarcely wide enough for one, let alone, two vehicles. She tightened her grip on the wheel, applied the brake and steered to the left so the ute could pass but the car skated out of control, the wheels unable to grip the slippery red earth surface. Jack screamed and the forested landscape held its breath as the car cleared the road’s edge, suspended for one stupefying, stretchy second above a 50-metre drop. Tiffany’s inner voice begged someone to stop the film, because this wasn’t how it was supposed to end as the car plummeted into a darkness devoid of time.
She shielded her eyes from the blinding light and struggled to pull her mind back into shape. Jack sat beside her on a granite boulder.
‘What happened?’ She stared at the disembowelled and mangled Corolla lying belly up.
‘Are you okay?’ Jasper picked spiky seeds out of her mustard yellow tee.
‘I don’t know. My head hurts like hell.’
Everywhere she looked was blurred like in a dream. Jack sounded faraway and she struggled to grasp the meaning of his words. But the repetitive splash of blood on her jeans was real.
‘Listen,’ he grabbed her hand, ‘we nose-dived off the road. You were knocked out and the driver’s door jammed. I dragged you out of a window.’
Tiffany’s probing fingers reached a sickening, sticky warmth on top of her head. Appalled, she wiped her quivering hand on her top, gagged at the crimson stain.
‘We have to get up there.’ Jack pointed at the road and she shuddered at the steep climb.
‘Am I dying?’
‘What? No. But it’s stinking hot and I couldn’t turn the engine off. The Corolla could burst into flames.’
‘First, let’s get back to the kerb. Hang onto my arm.’
As they scrambled up the bank, they dislodged stones which trickled down the slope, twice she lost her footing. At the roadside, emerald flies like sparkling jewels blanketed the carcass of a wallaby. Dizzy, she sat on the terracotta earth, lowered her pounding head and hugged her knees.
Jack flagged down the first car he saw and a smartly dressed man got out.
‘Hi, I’m Ben.’ He squatted beside Tiffany.
‘I’m a doctor. Can you lift your chin, open your eyes and look at me.
But to her alarm, her right eye was glued shut.
‘Am I going to die?’
He shone a light into her left eye and gently prised the right one open.’
‘No, but you’ve had a miraculous escape. He handed her a handkerchief.
‘Here, use this to wipe the blood off your face.’
Lying on a stretcher in the Flying Doctor’s van, Tiffany’s thoughts galloped like horses in a steeplechase, she blathered about Kalgoorlie, how Jack wanted to go there to research the gold mine for his latest book. She bragged about being a pianist, talked about her horse, bemoaned the extinction crisis and Bunbury’s trade in lobsters. She told them the Swiss had banned boiling crustaceans alive because lobsters die in agony, their claws scraping in vain against a pan’s closed lid.
At the hospital, when the driver pulled up, Tiffany blurted, ‘It’s not me that’s injured. My husband can’t breathe.’
An orderly rushed the wheelchair meant for her in Jack’s direction. Tiffany gingerly stepped out of the van, but her feet sank into spongy ground. She swayed on her feet as the world rocked back and forth and the milling crowd and red brick hospital shimmered in the sun. About to keel over, a nurse steadied her.
‘Tiffany, we’re taking you for an x-ray.’
‘You have a nasty head wound.’
Tiffany’s plaited fingers trembled in her lap.
‘Feeling alright?’ The nurse asked.
‘Can I lie down?
‘Getting checked out.’
Then the nurse quickened the wheelchair’s speed. Tiffany often imagined how she’d like Jack to behave towards her. Today, he should be holding her hand, concerned, attentive, protective. A young girl with her arm in plaster and her mum pressed up against the wall to watch their wheeled procession.
‘Here we are.’
The door opened and a tall, youngish man pushed Tiffany towards a large machine.
‘My name’s Martin. We’ve not x-rayed anyone for a while,’ he said. ‘This is a community hospital, our patients are overworked mums, snake bite victims, women in labour, victims of domestic violence and geriatrics.’
‘Not many emergencies then.’
‘Our technology is analogue, not digital. Stay still. Don’t move a muscle.’
A clanging dissonance bullied the space. Surely, they’d give her a bed now.
But Martin said, ‘I have to do another x-ray this isn’t clear. Did- you- shift- your-position?’ He clipped each syllable as if she was deranged.
‘I have to do it again.’
‘But, I’m queasy.’
‘Won’t take a minute.’
He adjusted the angle of her head, told her to freeze.
When the clank and clanging stopped, he held the x-ray up to an illuminated screen.
She fretted about how much radiation had zapped her brain.
‘Yep. Got it.’
‘Is that it?’ Her voice hoarse, yet hopeful.
‘Nope,’ he said examining the x-ray. ‘You need stitches.’
He pressed a buzzer, the door opened and he exited.
Again, the nurse took her through a warren of identical corridors and finally into a compact room with an unused desk and empty cabinet of books. After a long wait, a burly tweed-jacketed man with thick salt and pepper hair breezed in.
‘It’s my day off,’ he swept his hair off his forehead and discarded his jacket.
‘I’ve come in just for you. I was watching the test.’
‘Sorry about that.’ Tiffany propped up her head in her hand.
‘How did this happen?’
He drew so close; she felt the warmth of his beery breath on her skin as he peered at the gash in her head.
‘Apologies, but when I stitch that wound, it’s going to sting.’
She was grateful to be alive. She’d cope. But she’d underestimated the pain and the ugly sensation of thread dragged through uncooperative skin. Blood drained from her face.
‘Here vomit into this.’
The doctor handed her an empty waste-paper bin. At the sight of a masticated blob of gum stuck to the bottom she dry retched.
The Corolla cleared the road and dropped…
‘Nurse put my jacket around her shoulders. Shock’s setting in.’
As the car consumed kilometres, she glimpsed wildflowers, kangaroos, a goanna clambering up a tree. But the carnage, a dead kookaburra, echidna and koala sickened her. She was startled when Jack pulled up off the road in a spume of dust.
‘Tiffany, my back’s playing up. You’ll have to take over.’
‘I’ve never driven an automatic.’
‘It’s easier than a manual.’
Jack arched his back, groaned with pain.
Swallowing her resentment and suspicion, he had promised to do all of the driving, she replaced Jack in the driver’s seat. He talked her through the car’s start up routine. Half listening, she tapped the steering wheel, daunted by the thin-waisted red dirt road ahead winding through hilly terrain.
She’d never driven on an outback road. She breathed deeply and started the engine. Chuffed with her progress, when Jack turned the radio off, she thought he was going to praise her.
‘Pick up the pace Tiff or we won’t get there before dusk.’
How she loathed him shortening her name. With her eyes pinned on the road and against her better instincts she drove faster.
Glad to wake from a semi-conscious state, she saw they were in a two-bedded hospital suite with expansive picture windows. The nurse fussed over Tiffany’s bed and tucked the sheets in super tight. She said the double room had been christened Honeymoon Suite, after another young couple, also on their honeymoon, had careered off the road in the exact same spot.
‘Oh but,’ Tiffany began, ‘We’re not on our…
‘Could I have some pain relief?’ Jack cut across her words.
‘Yes, I’ll get some. At least you’re together.’
The grinning nurse ran her hand down the already perfectly neat and tidy blanket.
‘How are you?’ Ben glanced at Tiffany and then studied the clipboard.
‘My neck hurts.’
‘That’s whiplash.’ The doctor scribbled on her chart.
‘It hurts so much,’ Tiffany told him.
‘I bet, but heat therapy will help.’
He hung the chart at the base of her bed.
Tiffany had longed to lie down, now that she was, her mind raced, she was cold, the mattress hard. She couldn’t settle and Jack’s rasping snores chafed her ears. Whenever she shut her eyes, she relived the moment the car skidded over the mountainous rise. She reached for her phone but knocked it to the ground. Jack stirred.
‘Hey Tiff, can’t you sleep?’
‘I’m getting flashbacks…’
‘Think of something else.’
‘Yeah,’ tears welled, ‘it’s not that easy.’
‘I’ll buzz a nurse,’ Jack said.
‘Why?’ Tiffany asked.
‘For a sleeping pill.’
Jack told the nurse on duty. ‘Tiff needs something to help her sleep.’
‘Sleeping meds are never given to head trauma patients.’
‘Why not?’ Jack asked.
‘In case they don’t wake up.’
Adrenaline flooded Tiffany’s system.
‘Jack, please talk to me?’
‘I’m freaking out.’
‘What should I talk about?’
‘You must calm down Tiff.’
‘Can you put on the TV?’ She wanted to add – give me a hug, don’t break promises. Distract me. Care. Apologise.’
‘Sure. Now, I must sleep. We could be on our way tomorrow.’
Tiffany fought a wave of nausea.
She was scarcely awake when a nurse breezed in. Sunlight streamed through the open curtains and Ben was beside her bed. When the nurse helped her to sit up a sharp pain speared her neck.
‘How are you?’ Ben asked as he took a pen out of his pocket.
Tiffany fingered her swollen right eye.
‘The glass peanut butter jar knocked you out.’ Jack explained, a takeaway steaming coffee and a croissant in hand.
‘How could it do so much damage?’ She asked.
‘At the velocity it flew, anything from a can of tomatoes to a beer bottle becomes a lethal missile. Best to secure food stuffs in the boot,’ Ben said.
‘Remember, I told you to stow the esky behind the passenger seat?’ Jack chipped in.
Tiffany took a deep breath. ‘So what’s wrong with my eye?’
‘It’s a haematoma.’ Ben clasped the clipboard to his chest.
‘Meaning?” Jack sat on the edge of Tiffany’s bed and put his coffee on the bedside cabinet.
‘A really bad bruise.’
‘I’d hoped to leave this afternoon?’
Jack looked at the floor and crossed his ankles.
‘That’s far too soon. Tiffany needs rest, heat therapy and physio.’
‘How long will we be here?’
‘A few more days. I’ll send a nurse to check on your sore ribs.’
Each night, patients shuffled past the suite and stared. She waved at first but soon realised she was nothing but a freak show, with her battered face and protruding eye. She was like an exhibit in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not or a victim of domestic violence. By the third night, she regarded the procession as a sleepwear fashion show as the patients filed past in patterned pyjamas, rabbit onesies and slogan bearing tees.
A woman trilled, ‘Such a shame, she would have been real pretty once.’
Jack was on edge, fidgety, bored on the fourth day in hospital. He’d read all the books he’d taken on the trip and refused to use a kindle.
‘Can we resume the trip tomorrow?’ Jack asked.
‘Not yet.’ She had to tell him soon about her horror of doing that.
She flicked through her paperback.
‘But you’re pretty much mended.’
‘How would you know Jack?’
Her stomach churned at even the thought of navigating another meandering narrow road in a flimsy rental.
‘You won’t be doing much.’
‘Not driving anyway.’
‘You already said. I get it.’ Jack’s wheedling had a mean edge.
‘Rather than miss out you could always go alone.’
‘You’re not the only one who’s sore.’ Jack pressed his hands to his ribs.
‘Yes, I know.’ Tiffany gingerly leant back against the pillows.‘We’d hook up again in Perth.’
‘How would you get there?’
Surfacing from another troubled doze, she heard Ben say, ‘Neck injuries can have life-long repercussions.’
‘Yes, but…’ Jack began. She knew from the men’s conspiratorial hushed tone they thought she was asleep.
There was a lull, an expectant silence. She held her breath, not wanting to miss what Jack would say.
‘Ben, I really have to ask. …?’
‘Will she always look like that?’
Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer. Her memoir Elvis and Me: How a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was published in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, USA and Canada in 2016. Her short stories have been published in Unbelievable Stories, Writers Underground and recently, ‘The Challenge’ was long-listed in Fiction Factory’s short story competition. She has published with Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Weekend Review, Limelight Magazine Arts Hub and Artist Profile. She lives with her artist husband, Elvis and three other rescue horses, three ducks and a greyhound in Brisbane, Australia.