[EXT./INT. – THE LAST HIGHWAY – WHITE HOT SKY LOOKS DOWN]
See the boy. He struggles with the car’s air conditioning. For the past two hours it has been spitting out nothing but dusty heat. The car groans and shivers as if in the critical stages of sunstroke.
See the boy, his right arm burnt red raw by the sun, his face a mess of sweat, salt and redness. His beard is thin and scratchy, yet visible. Across from him, sits a tall figure in black, hunched over and spread across the passenger seat like some wet, eldritch thing. Behind the boy, the tall figure in black also sits, sprawled out across the back seat, amongst boxes, bottles and sleeping bags. Around him, the desert sprawls outwards. Somewhere out there, The Desert stands, tall and brooding, drenched in electric midnight, watching.
“Come on.” Luke slammed the heel of his palm into the dashboard. There was a clicking sound, a slight change in the tone of the constantly vibrating whir. A little bit of red dust popped out of the air vent.
The car rumbled onward, as quickly as it could, over gravel and sand. It bumped, rocked and kicked as if it were a wild horse. Every now and then, another CD case would fall from the passenger side compartment and snap open on the floor. The camping gear in the back rolled around noisily. The huge bottles of water, slowly emptying, sloshed violently.
Luke was tired. He was so tired. But Marree was just ahead. Turning there, he could brave the Oodnadatta Track, that holy pilgrim’s path he had read so much about. No doubt, it would be a hard day of travel down that unsealed route, but he knew that that was the path to take. He could feel it in whatever bones he had left.
Fill up every bottle I can at Marree. Get some money out. Go over the car. No problem. Luke repeated to himself over and over again. No problem.
From Marree it was a good few days of slow driving and sightseeing back through Roxby Downs and Port Augusta. Easy. Simple. No problem.
The only issue being… what happens when I get home?
“You’d better check you’re on the right path.” Said the electro-static voice next to him.
“Right.” Luke had to be sure he was on the right road. It wouldn’t be easy, for sure, but turning down the wrong road out in this wide ancient land would probably mean death. Luke fumbled down past the silent radio for his phone. He kept his eyes locked on the road ahead, and felt his way through the mess of cables and buttons.
“There you are!” Luke pulled the mobile from the dashboard compartment and unplugged it from the charger with one swift finger movement. He tapped in his passcode without even looking, letting muscle memory take over. With a few more taps, he was in. The world opened up below him in, contained within a small, handheld box. It was all lines and grids, flat whites and long blues. On one long road, he could see a small figure moving at high speed.
“That’s you.” The Desert said, matter-of-factly. “Look how far you’ve come. And all by yourself. Aren’t you proud?”
Luke was proud. He’d never travelled so far from home by himself before. He was doing it. He was barrelling forward towards the life that he knew he always wanted, but the one he could never reach sitting stuck at home.
“You’re coming to visit me soon, yes?” The Desert asked.
“What do you mean?”
Luke lifted his eyes from the miniaturised version of himself… just in time to see a lumbering shape step out on to the road.
See the boy drop his phone and grasp the steering wheel with a white-knuckle grip. See the muscles in the boy’s arm move like a chord cut loose and sent whipping. See the steering wheel spin to the right. It is, of course, dear audience, too late.
The rusting red Ford Laser spun into the thick dirt on the side of the road. It’s wheel dug deep into the cloying muck. No brakes, no clever steering, could save it from its brutal spin over the embankment and into the rocks that lay scattered all across the field like so many broken bones. A violent red cloud exploded into existence and rubbery black fragments were thrown across the landscape.
Soon, the universe settled. There was silence again. The car rocked once, twice more, then finally laid down to rest in the furrow it had dug for itself.
The engine ticked and steamed. The sun continued to shine. Somewhere, out there, The Desert watched.
[EXT./INT. – B83 – EARLY AFTERNOON]
Perrie watched in silence as the mountains rolled by, seemingly close enough to touch. She could see now why Luke had taken the out-of-the-way road to Blinman instead of the straight track north. These were the Flinders Ranges, a land that seemed so alien in comparison to the rest of flat, old Australia. Through sharp valleys and needle shrub, Perrie and her dad drove in search of their lost brother and son.
The dynamic duo hardly felt dynamic. They had slept in the cheapest motel they could find, and the search itself had taken most of the night. They were exhausted already. Perrie had no idea how Luke could have been travelling and exploring for almost a week straight.
Something caught Perrie’s eye… a tall, slender, black figure standing out in the dirt. It moved with a strange, loping stride.
An emu! Woah. Perrie ripped out her phone and tried to capture the rare moment on camera. What city kid ever saw an emu just walking around?
Mr. Bracken rounded a smooth corner and, just as soon as it had appeared, the emu disappeared again. Damn. Perrie didn’t get the shot. All that came out was a grey green, pixely smear.
The phone vibrated in her hand and made a soft PING noise. From the top of the screen, a little banner unfolded.
Luke Bracken added a Life Event.
“Dad. Luke just posted something.”
“Really? Read it out then.”
“Hmm…” Perrie waited impatiently for her phone to load past a bright, white screen. Slowly, words appeared out of the mists of time. Names, numbers, clouds of data, began to spill forth.
“‘Hit my first dirt track today.’ blah blah blah… ‘Planning to stop somewhere and make Marrree later today.’”
“Marree! That’s ridiculous. There’s nothing bloody there.”
“What’s a Marree?” Perrie asked. Before her dad could answer though, she was searching away. Her research was slowed by the lack of reception among the hills, but a page did eventually pop open.
“It’s an outback town. Start of the Oodnadatta Track…” Mr. Bracken started before slowly drifting off. “I hope he’s not planning to take the Laser down that road.”
“It’s nothing but dirt and gravel. He’s going to puncture a tyre, or skid or something. That car has done to many kilometres to stomach that.”
Perrie opened up an image of Marree. It looked dusty and hard. Shells of water towers and broken-down trains filled her imagination… and so did the wreck of the rusting Red Laser, lost amongst the wilderness and baking under the sun.
“Let’s just hope we reach him before he does, then.”
[EXT. – T͎͖͙̱̖͡H̷̦̥̘̜E̯̹͇͔ ҉̯͖͖̞̮L͉̼̖̺͈ͅA̪̲̘͕͝ͅS͚̰͈͕T͝ ̛͙͚̫̹̗͕͇H̜͞I̴G̱̻H̤̳̜̞̀W̶̻͍A͟Y – SOMETIME EARLIER]
Luke kicked open the door of the car and let himself fall bodily into the dirt. He tried to rise once or twice, but found that he just couldn’t. His legs shook. His entire body shook. A small line of red ran down his forehead and into the socket of his right eye. He wiped it away with the back of his shaking hand.
Luke lay there, amongst the spiky shrubs, just breathing for what seemed like hours. He watched as the steam from the engine evaporated in to an invisible ripple high above him.
When he felt some blood rush back into his arms, he propped himself up and surveyed the carnage. There was a long trench in the dirt now, dug up by his wildly spinning car. The car itself popped and hissed, leaning a little bit to the right. Both of its right-hand tires had exploded, leaving nothing but rags of scorched rubber hanging off of the now naked rims.
In the road, he saw a strange figure, something dark and man-sized, but with proportions that were just… all wrong. For a minute, he thought it was the black mass that had been dogging him for the past month, but when he looked closer, he could see feathers, claws and a small, blue beak.
Would you look at that. He thought to himself. An emu.
Luke went to grab his phone, but found his pocket empty. When he looked up again, the giant bird had moved on. Damn.
“Welcome.” said a voice behind him. Luke didn’t even need to turn around to know where it came from. “Looks like you’ve finally made it.”
“No. No, this isn’t what I wanted.” Luke scrabbled to his feet and limped towards the car. He inspected the wheels, the drivers side window (cracked now) and the bonnet. “This isn’t what I wanted at all.”
“Sure it is. You wanted a new life, free from the horrors of home. Here you’re free. Here you couldn’t be more liberated. It’s just y̝o͙̕u͉̤͉̪̘̣̻.͕ And me.”
“No. No, no no.” Luke reached inside the cabin and pulled the keys out of the ignition. He flicked the bonnet release toggle up and heard the POP of the latch coming loose. Luke lifted up the car’s red hood slowly, letting a small cloud of boiling steam escape. He could feel its heat through his clothes.
Inside was a mess of slick, black oil and torn cables. Somehow, the drive belt had come loose and shredded itself in the front of the engine. The oil tank had obviously sprung a leak somewhere (or, more likely, it had been leaking for a while). Other than that, Luke didn’t know what the hell he was looking at. It was like staring into the corpse of something savaged by dingoes. There was no way to repair the damage and make the car live again.
The wheels were another issue all together. There was a spare tyre in the back… but what was the use of it? He needed two and a new engine.
“This is exactly what you wanted. I should know. Here you have all the makings of a new life. Here you don’t have to conform. Here you don’t have to worry about relationships, or petty drama. There’s just you, t̴̻̘h̪̫̞ḛ̳̪͠ ̮̮̱͙̘̱h̜͇̟͚e̝͚̤̼̻͇r͖̫o̧̬̥̜͕!͓͜” The Desert almost purred. Luke could feel the breath in his ear and down the length of his neck.
“LOOK!” Luke spun around to try and face the thing, but it was not there. It was nowhere. A few feet away, a cloud began to form above the ground. “This is serious! What do I do? I’m tired! I’m hungry! I’m burned as shit. Look at this.” Luke showed his arm to no one in particular. “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?”
The electric cloud grew and grew.
“No one said it would be easy. No one said there wouldn’t be consequences. Look at The Cloud. Look. That’s what you’ve escaped. Don’t let it return.”
Luke could see it clearly now. In the middle of nowhere, undistracted by skyscrapers, business and traffic, Luke could see The Cloud for what it really was. He could see it as… as his life. His old life, at least. It gibbered and flashed, shooting out tendrils here and there. It was everything he’d wanted to leave behind, the hurt, the embarrassment.
He could see faces, hear voices and all the things he’d ever said within it. It was an amalgam of Luke and all the other Lukes that had ever existed. It was his Facebook profile, his internet presence, his search history, his conversations with friends. It was a window to an alternate dimension. A vessel for ghosts.
He could see the boy. The boy is desperate for attention. The boy is scared. The boy is uncertain. W̯̲͕͈̭ẖ͓̞̼o̶͚̳̰̜̥ ̗̰̰i͏̜͚̫s ҉̭̥̣ͅțh͚͕͓̟̗́e̙̭̬̠͈͟ ̵b̙o̠̜͖̮̖͈ͅy͇̠̠͚̣̱͞?̲̘̹̜̝ ͈͈ͅ
“See.” The Desert continued. “If you want a fresh start you have to leave it all behind. If you want to find out who you really are… You have to join me.”
The Desert stepped out from the cloud, arms outstretched.
“Who are you? Someone who’s going to live in fear for the rest of his life? Or a hero that is going to take charge of his reality?”
Luke couldn’t see the creature’s face, but he was sure he could see a smirk somewhere in that inky darkness.
“Welcome to your new life, Luke. This is your story, now.”
Operation Electric Forever, was created during the SA Writers Centre Digital Writer in Residence program during 2016.