[EXT. – OUTSIDE THE BRACKEN HOUSE – EARLY MORNING]
“She’s all good to go, mate.” Mr. Pfeiffer slapped the bonnet of the rumbling 4WD. He threw the keys to Mr. Bracken.
Mr. Pfeiffer was the type of straight-talking Aussie bloke that Mr. Bracken loved. He had arms the size of tree trunks, a chest covered in thick black hair and fingers stained by the honest art of auto-maintenance. He burped and swore, loved his footy and carried his ancestors’ European surname with just the right balance of pride and self-deprecation.
Mr. Pfeiffer was the type of loud-mouthed Aussie bloke that Perrie Bracken hated. He had arms that swung too wildly, a chest that should be hidden under a proper shirt and hands that looked like sausages that had been left out in the sun for too long. He burped and swore, loved his stupid macho ball game and didn’t really play to well with anyone who wasn’t also a European descendant.
“Couple’a cans’a gas in the back, ‘case ya need ‘em. Maps in the GPS and under the seat. Just gotta bring some water and stuff with ya.”
“Thanks, mate. I can’t thank you enough for this.” Mr. Bracken said.
“It’s no problem at all. She wasn’t getting much use with me. Better to go to a good cause. I just hope you find the lad soon.”
“We all do.”
Mr. Pfeiffer had agreed to lend his outbacking rig to the Brackens after their trusty Red Laser had been taken on a drive-about. He’d been hesitant to let someone else drive it at first, but when Perrie explained that they needed it to chase her brother into the outback and hopefully bring him home, he accepted. That sounded like a right fun adventure.
“Just don’t bring ‘er back full of holes, eh?” Mr. Pfeiffer slapped Mr. Bracken on the back. “I’ve seen how you drive hahaha!”
“You don’t have to worry, mate. I’ve got back up.” Dad put his hand on Perrie’s shoulder. It was funny, Perrie thought, that even though she was taller than him by a good foot and a half, he still needed to feel like the bigger figure.
“We’ll take good care of it, I promise.”
“You find him, right?” Mum shouted from the door. She was dressed in her pink dressing-gown, the one she wore a lot when she was stressed out and needed a “personal day”. She nursed a green tea.
“We will. He’s not that far away, really.” Perrie replied. She wanted to soothe her mother’s fears. Luke had been gone for more than a week… a bad prospect for someone without any experience camping or travelling.
“We can hope.” Dad slammed the driver’s side door shut behind him. Perrie jumped up to the passenger side seat and buckled up. She checked under foot for the huge bottles of water they were carrying and found them all safe and sound. Luke had taken the family tent (a ratty old thing anyway) and most of the Bracken’s outdoor gear, so there wasn’t much in way of slupplies. But Mr. Pfeiffer had made sure that they had everything they needed for a long journey, “If it came to a long journey.” He said.
“Alrighty. We’ll be back as soon as possible. We’ll have our phones and everything, so we’ll keep in touch.” Dad shouted over the sound of the engine.
“Good luck, mate!”
The two Bracken’s, father and daughter, rolled down the street and turned right, joining the steady flow of traffic leaving the city. Dad rolled down the window and Perrie flicked on the radio. She tuned it out of AM, past Triple M and straight to Triple J.
“Where to first then, deary?” Dad asked.
“Well, the last thing he posted was from…” Perrie flicked through her phone…
“… Port Augusta.”
“Bloody hell!” Mr. Bracken couldn’t helped but exclaiming. “That’s a fair drive.”
“I don’t even know if he’s there now. He could have driven somewhere else by now.”
“I guess that’s a start. See if you can get him on the line again.”
As Mr. Bracken changed lanes, Perrie dialled her brother’s number. She put the device to her ear, feeling the slight heat and bubble of radiation press against the side of her skull. It rang…
“Hi, you’ve reached Luke. Can’t come to the phone right now, but leave me a message if you want.”
Perrie didn’t even know what to say to that automated echo of her brother.
“Where are you?”
[EXT.- AN OUTBACK TOWN – THE SUN, THE SUN, ALWAYS THE SUN]
See the boy.
Luke absent-mindedly kicked a small red rock. It exploded into a shower of ochre dust, sending little meteorites flying from the tip of his shoe. He wasn’t worried about dirtying them though, they couldn’t be anymore dirty than they already were.
Leaving the car unlocked, he wandered up the street, peering into the empty, blind windows of abandoned shacks. A magpie took flight. A ute sped past at ridiculous speed, kicking up a cloud of the same rusty dust that Luke had been breathing for the past week. Luke stopped to take a quick photo. That was a nice one. He planned to upload it when he could find signal again.
Walking along the other side of the street, matching his pace as best as its long non-legs could manage, was his eternal companion. Its long black coat dragged in the dirt, causing a small, gibbering cloud to rise. Everything was dust and clouds and flies and heat… God damned heat. It shouldn’t be this damn hot in Autumn, thought Luke. Global warming for you.
Luke entered a small store, one of the few buildings in that part of town not boarded up. Inside, an old fridge whirred and a fan spun on, filling the silence with a constant hum. It became the silence. A new kind of it, at least.
Luke pulled a few random coins from his pocket. A few silvers, fifties, two fives and three gold dollar coins. He clenched his fist, looked around for any witness, then snatched a Snickers bar from the shelf. He felt it melt in his back pocket. He was about to grab a fluorescent sports drink from the fridge as well but, at that moment, the sunburnt store owner appeared from a back room. Luke accepted the suspicious gaze levelled at him. He decided to, at least, buy the drink.
“Hey, is there somewhere I can fill up water bottles here?” Luke asked the owner as he handed over half of his physical wealth.
The owner, a sweaty and pink man, continued to level a curious gaze at Luke. “Sure. Got a bore out back.”
Luke filled his ten litre jugs from the slowly dribbling tap as flies buzzed around his back. The car sat, now, a few metres away, staring at him with a permanently squinting gaze. The right headlight had cracked some time ago under mysterious circumstances.
He tried his phone again. Only one bar. A dozen missed calls. Hundreds of social media notifications that he’d left to sit and accumulate. He hoarded them like gold.
The trip was going well, he thought. Sure, he hadn’t eaten properly for a few days, or showered for that matter, but he finally felt like he was becoming… Someone out there. In the space of a few short days he’d come to see himself as an adventurer, as someone much braver than he once thought.
The Cloud had all but disappeared. He was no longer troubled by the pointless drama of his everyday life in Adelaide. He’d cut himself of from it. He was free. A new man, recognised not for his quiet acceptance of city life, but of his radical bravery and adventurous spirit.
The only thing he couldn’t shake was the thing standing behind him. It loomed, a ten foot darkness full of sparks.
“Your fa̙̲̘mily are trying to reach ỳ͊̾̂ͫo̊̎ͨ̏́̀ǔ͂̍ͣ, you know.”
“Don’t answer. Ț̜͈h̠̙͇e͈̜͔̹͇̠̦y̱ ̺w̟̤̬̼͓ͅo͉͙̝u͍l̩̙̭d̟̤̮n̲’t̹ ̺͎͓ͅu̺͔n̪̞̥̘͓ḓ̯̜e͉͇̝̙̻̳r͕̬̩̲s̞̣̻̪̳̗t̺a̦͓̬ͅn̼̤͙d̮̫̟̟͍̯ ͉̰̟͈a̙̲̘n̖̬̻̠̖͎̣y̹̟̰̪̥͍ẉ̠̠̫̰̫ͅa͙̟͖̘̤̜̪y.̱̣͍̹”͍͍̠͉
Luke looked down to see the list of missed calls and messages. Perrie. Perrie. Dad. Perrie. Max. Floor, even… No… They were part of the past, part of The Cloud. He couldn’t pick up the phone until…
“Until what?” Luke asked.
The Desert remained silent. For once, it withheld its esoteric advice.
Luke lugged the bottles back to the car with great effort. He searched through his rucksack for any more food to accompany his melted Snickers. Nothing. He’d have to use his credit card at the next big store. Marree would have something, surely.
As he surveyed the raggedy packets and empty boxes in the back seat of the car, Luke began to feel a powerful tug, stronger than the dark magnetism of the creature standing behind him. He could feel them… Someone was coming for him.
I have to go back. Luke thought. This is dumb. What the hell am I even doing?
“You’re becoming You.” The Desert replied.
But… but that can’t be true. I AM me. I’ve always been me.
“Not back home. You were wallowing, suffering. Think about how much you’ve accomplished here already. How far you’ve come and how far you have to go.”
I know, but…
“Don’t give in now, Luke. There’s not much farther to go. You’re at the edge. You can break through. If͓͕̞̜͔̤̩ ͙͉̹̭͖y͎̳̭o̤u ͇͕̜̠͍̯k͓̻̝̩ͅe̲̗̫̜e̘̯̬͕̯ͅp̥ ̰̻̯̝̣͎͚go̗i͍n̘̳g͉͎̦̠͎,̜̮ ͈̠̥̙y̦̬̰̮̲̭o̩u̪̲̤ ͈͖w̝͖͕̜̬͉̞i̭l̟̰̮͓̟l͎͉̻̭ ̱͉͖̟b̘͍̠̳e ̹a̝̼̩̯̺ ͅh̦̱̰̯͎e̦͓̳̝̫̭r͓͍̗o̹͔͍̗ͅ.̭̜̗͉͓̺”
Luke looked off into the distance. He had water. He had shelter. He had less food than he’d like, but he had money and could survive for a long time yet. What was stopping him from going on except everyone back home, except The Cloud of strangling drama, except the constant pressure of people. At least out there he could become something. He could become a hero. And when he did return, oh boy! The stories he could share.
[EXT.- PORT AUGUSTA SHOPPING MALL – THE SUN SETS]
“It’s okay. Thanks for your time.” Mr. Bracken turned back to Perrie and slung his arms over the passenger side window. He peered down to see his daughter working furiously through her phone. “No one’s seen him or the car here. Even the police station can’t tell us anything.”
Two women walked by the car carrying huge shopping bags. One of the ladies was dressed in a fading floral frock and carried a bag full of the week’s groceries. The other wore a large winter jacket and dragged behind a bag full of cans, plastic and bottles. They chatted idly, totally unaware of the drama unfolding in the 4WD parked on the side of the road.
“He’s definitely moved on. But he won’t answer my freakin’ calls.” Perrie said. “But if I know Luke, he’s gonna wanna take the prettier route. Look at this, he’s been posting pictures on Instagram everywhere he goes.”
Perrie flashed her phone in her dad’s face. She scrolled through a collection of photos, seemingly expertly taken, of roads, mountains, shacks and sunsets that had appeared on Luke’s Instagram account. Perrie had been surprised that they were accumulating a huge amount of Likes. Luke never got more likes than her. She felt a twinge of childish jealousy.
“Hmm. Hold up. Stop at that one. No, go back.” Mr. Bracken said. “Look at this one. It looks like mountains. I reckon he’s gone Flinders’ way.”
“Maybe. I reckon he’d want to get some nice selfies in the mountains.”
“That settles it then. We’ll head up the B83 tomorrow.” Dad drew a line with his finger up the long yellow highway for Perrie to see. “He won’t be driving at night, that’s for sure. He must be camping everywhere he goes.”
“Yeah, he is. See.” Perrie flashed another photo to her dad. It was of Luke’s feet pressed against the foggy windscreen of the Laser as the sun rose in the background. It was captioned with “I could get used to waking up like this #sunsets #sunset #southaustralia #SA #camping #oodnadatta”.
“Then let’s get a room for the night and head of early tomorrow, yeah?”
“Sure thing, dad.” Perrie said. There was no point chasing ghosts in the dark. They’d have to wait and see what the sun brought with it the next morning. But before turning in, Perrie knew she had to try one last thing.
“Hi, you’ve reached Luke. Can’t come to the phone right now, but leave me a message if you want.”
Perrie breathed slowly.
“Luke. I trust you. I know you. I know you’ve gone through hard times recently, but that’s no excuse to run away. If that’s it, then, well, you know what I think about that… If it’s something else, I want you to tell me. We’re worried about you. We’re out here looking for you, for crying out loud.” Perrie sighed again. “I know you think doing this will make you feel better, as if you can only grow by growing your freaking ego and Instagram followers. But it’s just dangerous, Luke. Just… just tell us where you are, okay? Before anything happens.
“That’s it. Talk to you soon, okay?”
Operation Electric Forever, was created during the SA Writers Centre Digital Writer in Residence program during 2016.