At dusk, a Homegrown truck went past on the highway. Li registered the logo and then didn’t think about it again until it stopped up ahead of her. When she came level, the cab door opened and the driver climbed down. An older man, suncreased and balding, wearing tiny shorts. The age Val would be now. No, that was wrong, Val would be older. This one was holding a bottle in one hand and something she couldn’t see properly in the other.
She watched him approach, knowing she couldn’t run. It was only her hands that gave her away.
He held the bottle out. ‘Go on, it’s clean.’
She didn’t take it.
‘Don’t be a hero. You look like you could murder a drink.’
‘I don’t have any trade,’ she said. But she took it. Felt the cool liquid through the metal.
‘Guess you’ll have to owe me, then.’
She unscrewed the lid carefully, sniffed it. Tilted the bottle. The water was cold and heavy in her mouth and it tasted of nothing. She drank and drank. Gulped it – felt it running down her throat, branching through her body, making things possible again.
‘You got a container?’ the truckie asked.
She hesitated, the water bag wasn’t something she could lose, but the water in her belly made her reckless. He took it back to the truck and pushed the door open wide so she could see his co-driver up in the cab with a rifle. Company supply trucks were always double-crewed now, and the crews were always armed. He said something to the co-driver and she passed him down a jerry can without taking her eyes off the scrub. One of her knees jiggled nonstop, keeping time to some too-fast rhythm.
Li watched the truckie fill her water bag carefully, not letting a drop spill. She understood that this was his personal supply. Since she left the bore outside Birree she’d been harvesting water, half-cups at at time, bound by the hours it took for heat to draw up condensation out of soil or plants, out of her own urine. Drinking it warm, just enough to take the edge off. When he brought the bag back it was full for the first time in days. The heft of it made her lightheaded.
‘What is that, sprained?’
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘Maybe a ligament.’
The other thing he was holding was a first-aid kit. He unzipped it, resting it open on his knee while he sorted through it. ‘I’ve got anti-inflam in here somewhere. Here you go.’ He threw her a small green tube, kept looking. ‘And a whadayou call, compression bandage.’
‘Why?’ she said, holding the cream.
He shrugged. ‘Company issue – no skin off my nose. Half this stuff’s past its use-by anyway.’
It came to Li that maybe he didn’t want anything. Maybe he was just kind.
The woman called down to him to hurry up.
He said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and kept hunting.
‘You’re going the opposite way to everyone else,’ he told Li. ‘Where you headed?’
He looked up quickly and then down at her ankle. ‘That’s still about forty k to the turnoff. You know it’s dry, right?’
‘I’m meeting someone there.’
‘Hell of a spot for a date.’
‘Yeah. It’s my daughter. We got split up.’
He nodded, head down. ‘How’d you know she’s there?’
‘I heard she was with a bunch of other kids, heading that way to camp. Maybe they thought there’d be water.’
The truckie found the bandage in its paper and plastic pouch, gave it to her.
‘Have you seen anything like that?’ she asked. ‘Children walking?’
‘Walking where? On their own?’
She shrugged, stuffing the bandage in her pocket. ‘It’s what I heard. Maybe dumped by the Agency, trying to find a way in?’
The truckie shook his head. ‘I see people all the time. You can’t always stop. If I saw a bunch of kids on their own, but…’
Li watched him thinking about the limits of what he could do. She imagined, for the first time, someone like this stopping to pick up her child from the side of the road. Because she was a child, not for what he could get because she was a child. For a second the grip on her heart eased off a little. She looked past him at the truck, the size of the wheels, the engine inside the metal and dust, the distance it could cover while she crawled. If Matti had got into a truck she would never reach her walking. If she hadn’t, if she was still there camped on the lake bed? Forty k. Li could be at the turnoff in twenty minutes.
‘Can I get a ride?’
The truckie was already shaking his head.
‘Just far as you’re going that way,’ she said.
‘You know I can’t do that.’
‘Stu?’ the co-driver said loudly from the cab. ‘I am not getting docked again because of your bullshit.’
‘I can patch,’ Li told him. ‘You need anything fixed, I can fix it.’ She looked at him straight, knowing she was filthy and probably stinking, blistered and cracked-lipped and lame. ‘Or. Whatever you need.’
He took in her meaning and his face twitched and then went stern. ‘No passengers, love. Company policy.’
She’d insulted him, she saw that, judged him wrong, injured his sense of himself as a good man who did good things. If he didn’t want to trade, she didn’t know how to fix it. She said, ‘Who’s going to know?’
He jerked his head back towards the cab, at the other driver watching, her jaw working.
‘Is she the boss, then? She the one I need to talk to?’
‘Bloody hell, woman.’ He was angry, finally. ‘Company’s the boss. Everyone’s just looking out for themselves.’
But she wasn’t looking at him anymore, was already limping past him onto the track, her stick sliding on the gibbers.
‘Christ,’ the truckie said behind her. ‘Stay where you are, you’re no sweet talker.’
He went ahead and swung up into the cab. Li watched him asking and the woman shaking her head. He tried again and she reached for the CB handset on the dash and held it out to him.
‘You wanna call it in?’ she said. ‘Knock yourself out.’
The man held up his hands in defeat and turned back to tell Li what she already knew. But Li came forward on a hot wave of urgency. She felt the water inside her, knew if she could just lay her hands on the steel of the truck she would be lifted, just like Frank said. She was halfway there when the co-driver fired past her into the ground.
Li threw herself sideways, away from the explosion of sand and gibber that blew up and out like shrapnel. She landed on her sprained ankle in a blinding rip of pain. Shouted and balled up reflexively, knees to chest, shielding her head; her skin stretched so tight over the pain that she hardly felt the stones.
When she raised her head, the woman had the rifle trained on her through the open door. She said, ‘in case you were wondering we had bullets’.
She was somewhere in her twenties, freckled and red eyed. The rifle was a .308 – the kind Carl used for pig hunting. Li thought that she had never been shot at before, no one had done that.
‘Jesus, Ali,’ the man said, ‘you need to lay off the wakey. She look like a Mozzie to you?’
‘She looks like like a decoy. And your bleeding heart’s gunna get us both killed.’
Li stayed on the ground. Without the truck, suddenly, she didn’t know how to keep going, what to do. Get up, she figured, but the stick was two metres away and she couldn’t think how to close the distance. Pain preoccupied her. The woman got down from the cab with the rifle, walked past her to the edge of the road and started looking for the spent casing. Then the man came towards Li, carrying some kind of readies she hadn’t seen before – his own, probably.
He put them at her feet. ‘This stuff tastes like cardboard but it’s loaded with sugar and protein.’ He held out his hand but she didn’t take it, and after a few seconds he went and got her stick, placed it down beside the packets. ‘You should go back, file a report, maybe try the welfare groups. Someone lied to you. Pack of kids wouldn’t last five minutes up here.’
The woman was digging in the dirt with her boot. She said, ‘I heard about that.’
The man didn’t look up. ‘What’d you hear about, Ali?’
‘Couple of drivers on this route called in a group of minors heading north.’
Li focused on her, exclusively. ‘When? How long ago.’
The woman picked up the casing with a grunt of satisfaction and spoke to the man. ‘You didn’t hear about it? Last time was two, three days ago.’
He was staring at her now. ‘What’d Control say?’
She shrugged, wiped the casing on her jeans. ‘Not Company jurisdiction.’
‘They told him not to stop?’ The man sounded sick.
‘Sure. He had temp-sensitive freight.’
Two or three days. More than one sighting. Heading north. Li felt a slow buzz of elation. She took the compression bandage out of her pocket and started unwrapping the cloth on her ankle.
The driver stood watching, then he turned and headed for the back of the truck.
‘What are you doing?’ the woman called after him.
‘Checking the seals, checking the coolant,’ he yelled back. ‘Since we’re stopped.’
‘We have to clear customs in forty five.’
‘Why I’m checking it now.’
The bandage hurt like hell going on but Li’s ankle felt better inside it. She heard metal on metal and then the sigh of the airlock. Heard the woman swearing under her breath. She got a protein bar out of one of the packets and shoved the rest in her pack.
The truck horn blared.
The man slammed the doors and came back to Li. ‘You need to stick to the track till you get to the turnoff,’ he said. ‘This one veers east. The one you want’s a sand track. When you see the dunes, you’re close.’ He pulled a blister pack out of his top pocket, held it out. ‘Truckies’ special. It’ll keep you moving and you won’t feel anything that’d slow you down.’ He indicated the woman with a jerk of his head. ‘She doesn’t.’
Li took the pills, swallowed two of them down dry, waited for him to leave.
‘This stuff we freight,’ he said, ‘they grow this stuff under the sea now. Plenty of water, no Weather.’ He shook his head, thinking about it. ‘Move there myself if they needed drivers.’
She didn’t know why he was still talking to her. Maybe he was waiting to be thanked. She looked up and nodded – the closest she could get.
The co-driver started the engine.
The man took a step back and spoke under the noise. ‘Something for you on the track. I hope you find your kid.’
She watched the truck pull away, the speed of it, with barely a sense of loss. When it was gone and the dust had settled, she saw the melon. Small and perfect, the size of a rain globe. She limped over and picked it up out of the dirt and it fit in her hand like a sign.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clare Moleta has previously had short fiction and travel writing published. This excerpt is from the novel she wrote in 2017 for her MA in Creative Writing, about a woman searching for her missing child.