Hitch

This is an extract from the beginning of Kathryn’s debut novel Hitch, which will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in 2019.

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         The posts on the Stuart Highway were white with round, red reflectors attached to their tops. Most of them reached to the middle of Amelia’s thigh, but post three-hundred and forty-eight, counting south from Alice Springs, was angled out of the ground, clipped by a car or a truck. Or kicked in by someone like her. If she narrowed her eyes till her vision blurred, she was not alone: the posts ahead became red-eyed stick-aliens awaiting her arrival on their stretch of desert road. She stopped walking and touched the fur on Lucy’s head in a signal to do the same. Something rattled in her pack and took a moment to settle, and then, there it was: the buzz of a vehicle in the distance.

Lucy stood on guard, ears pricked, her little nostrils twitching as she sniffed the air. Amelia looked down the highway to the quivering horizon, left, then right, but saw no sign of life. Her pack towered above her like a high-backed chair, tugging her shoulders backwards. She tightened the strap around her waist for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, then ran her finger beneath the rubber bands around her wrist, clearing out the sweat. She walked on. Lucy panted along beside her, collar tags clinking.

Post three-hundred and fifty-one was striped with green paint from base to middle, a feature she hadn’t noticed on any of the others that morning. Red sand flattened out around her, ripped in two by the highway, and the long threads of cloud above were of no use, leaving her exposed to the December sun. Trees and bushes were scattered across the land, bonsai versions of the flora growing closer to the coastline; they provided no shade. A month had passed since she was in the little town on the east coast. As she walked, she summoned the sea breeze around her, wished its coolness against her burning cheeks. She’d spent a couple of weeks in that town, in a room with stark white walls. The nights were warm and she lay on top of the bed in her undies, window open. A breeze lifted the sheer curtain and brushed the material against her skin. She’d grown used to the rumble of the ocean, to the way the slap and sucking back of waves delivered her into sleep.

She was thirsty again. She swung her pack round off her shoulders and let it fall to the dust. There was no hiding her neglect of it: a tear ran down the side so that a layer of lining oozed out, and the green canvas was stained with dirt and rings of salt. She longed to spend time sponging its creases and sewing patches over the injured material.

She stretched, rolling her shoulders back, pressing in hard on the lumps in the muscles around her neck. Her old Mount Franklin one-and-a-half litre was wedged in the side pocket of her pack, a few mouthfuls left in the bottom. She yanked it out; the plastic popped and snapped as it caved in and reshaped itself. The water was warm and tasted chemical, having stewed with the inside layer of the bottle. She held a sip in her mouth, then let it seep slowly down her throat.

She lowered to a crouch, a knee cracking on the way down. “Here you go, girl.” She made a bowl with her hand and poured water in. Lucy lapped it up, then gave Amelia’s fingers an extra lick. Her dark fur was hot to touch and flecks of auburn were brought to life in the sun. The light brown circles above her eyes wiggled like beetles as she followed Amelia’s movements, asking for more. Amelia made another pool in her hand, careful not to spill a drop.

She tracked the buzz of the engine, guessing at the direction of its approach, wondering if she should change her course, get out of the desert, perhaps head back to the coast. Lucy loved it there too, especially the mornings, when sunrise bruised the walls pink. They got up early to walk along the cliffs, past the barrier threaded with notes and flowers: messages for the lost souls who had jumped. There was a track down to the water. Amelia swam out beyond the breakers, floating on her back, watching the sky flare into day. It was good there for a little while, until Zach appeared in the faces of the townsfolk. She’d see him in flashes on the main street, but sometimes he emerged when she dived beneath the waves, an underwater predator. She couldn’t keep him at bay while she lingered in the white room.

The buzz had grown louder, transformed into a drone; she squinted against the glare, looked up and down the road, but there was still no hint of the source. She hoisted her pack onto her knee, then twisted it around onto her shoulders, heaving it as high as it would go. Her back twinged after a few steps so she took hold of the shoulder straps, shifting the pack’s weight forward. This provided some relief, but left her at the mercy of the flies; they landed on her lips and nuzzled into the corners of her eyes. She cursed herself for not being tougher in the heat. A drop of sweat ran between her eyebrows, slid down to the tip of her nose; it hung there for a moment before falling, leaving a tiny crater in the dust. She stomped on it and carried on, blowing at damp strands of hair stuck to her face.

It was almost midday. Both truckies and tourists travelled that highway so, setting out at six in the morning, she’d been confident of a ride. Too confident, since she had walked way too far out of town and was almost out of water. But that sound was getting closer; by post three-hundred and sixty-two, it could be there beside her. It would probably be a white car. White was more common than red, black or silver. She began counting with Sid when they were kids, up the hill that divided their suburb from the next. That first time counting, she was so sure red was the safe bet. But after an hour, white won with thirty-seven compared to red’s feeble twelve. She wasn’t used to losing, not then, and especially not to Sid, all skin and bones and insecurity.

She gained a visual on the vehicle: a red road train. Not white after all. And it was headed south: her way. “Lucy, heel.” Lucy moved in close, her body radiating heat, fur tickling Amelia’s calf. She took three steps away from the edge of the road. The last thing she wanted to do was spook the driver. Road trains were the gods of outback roads; they had taken her huge distances, and she had learned to respect the brute force of them and the endurance required to drive them. She stuck her thumb out.

The truck moved closer, about twenty posts away; the size of the monsters surprised her each time. She listened for any acceleration or deceleration of the engine, however slight, gauging whether the driver was considering a pick-up. But the engine belted along with a roar that quickened her heart. She raised her arm higher and stood on her tip toes just to be sure. She managed to catch the eye of the truckie as he passed; he gave a short nod and raised his index finger off the wheel. She swapped her thumb for a wave as the truck zoomed past; its wake slapped her in the face, the thunder of it ringing in her ears. She pressed her lips together and closed her eyes against a spray of grit. Lucy sneezed.

Amelia took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled, then turned and continued walking down the highway. Though her arm ached in protest, she kept her thumb out in an invitation, as if it might conjure the next vehicle. Post three-hundred and sixty-three. Her heart was too fast and the skin on her chest was pulled taut by the straps of her pack. The air was thick, difficult to push down her throat. She concentrated hard on the details of each post; white paint peeled in different patterns, one was streaked with dried bird shit, another sprouted a dandelion at its base.

Post three-hundred and eighty and she stopped for more water. She couldn’t help but be disappointed in her usually loyal Mount Franklin bottle for being nearly empty, but immediately regretted the feeling. Her thighs trembled as she squatted at Lucy’s level, struggling to balance the pack’s weight. Lucy drank from her hand, dry nose pressing against her palm.

There was another vehicle. She stood — this one was already close, a modern engine sneaking up on her. It was white and looked like a ute, a good sign that the driver was dog-friendly. She faced the vehicle, arm out, thumb straining as high as it would go. Lucy barked once, her tail wagging slightly, unwilling to celebrate too soon. The driver’s foot came clean off the pedal and an indicator flicked on. The ute passed, and through a haze of smoke and dust, the brake lights illuminated: the shiny red of salvation.