Extract: Darkness on the Edge of Town

COV_DarknessOnEdgeOfTown.indd

1.

The steering in the old girl lunges a little to the left, so on that night I was holding tight around the corners, swinging into them the way Marie says she hates. She can just see herself plummeting down the drop on the side of this mountain, but I’ve lived here for years and I know the road pretty good. It’s real green and bushy out here, and in the night it can look like there is nothing, no houses, just this winding precarious stretch of road. It was late, and I’d dropped Gemma off earlier at her girlfriend’s house. She’s sixteen, my girl, and she’s only just reached that girly stage. Nail polish and makeup. She came home from school the other day all dolled up. It was photo day and her friends had taken her aside and done her make up. I reckon she expected me to hit the roof, to tell her to ‘get that shit off’, but I just looked and didn’t say nothing. She washed it off anyway, soon as she got home.

That night, I was on my way home from the pub. I don’t drink much, just a couple of beers, but I like to see the boys now and then. It was coming into winter and the air inside the truck was cold. I lit a cigarette, banged around the final bend before my house, and right there, right out front, was the upturned car, engine still running. The lights of the car were shining down into the bush, lighting up the dark. I pulled up on the grass out front of my house and ran over to the car, peering in the window, but there was no-one inside. The smell of exhaust fumes lingered in the air, and reaching in I turned the engine off. There was a flicker of movement on the edge of the road. She was squatting there, swaying slightly, the bank dropping away steeply behind her. Humming – she was humming. In the moonlight she looked kind of crumpled and broken, her long dark hair falling forward over her body.

“Shit honey, you right?” I said, but she didn’t move, as though she didn’t hear, and so I crept up a bit closer, “Mate, you okay?”

She looked up then, and her hair fell away, and I could see in the shadow of her arm she held a baby. Its body was limp, its eyes closed.

“We got to get you some help,” I said, and she whimpered. I crouched in front of her, reaching out a hand. “Sweetheart, you need some help, come on off the road”.

I wondered how long she’d been there, perched like that on the edge of the drop. I needed to call an ambulance, but I didn’t know if I should leave her. Reaching out two fingers, I tried to feel the baby’s pulse. The baby was cold and I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t know CPR anyway. Up close I could see her. She had eyes like an animal caught in a trap, large and sort of misted, dark. The side of her face was bruised. She was youngish, I reckoned, early twenties. Didn’t look like she was from round here. Looked foreign, sort of. She held the baby tightly with one arm, the other hung dangling from her shoulder. Her shirt was lifted and her pale breast sat exposed above the baby’s head, dripping milk. Watery white drops that plonked slowly on the baby’s slack face.

“Oh honey, come on, come on off the road,” I said, starting to panic.

A line of blood crossed her face and fell in a sticky blob on the baby’s foot. She shuddered and toppled backwards, landing with a jolting thump, the baby’s head flopping sideways. Dusty pebbles rained down the slope behind her.

“Love. See that house there? That’s my house, and I’m going to pick you up and bring you inside so I can call an ambulance okay?”

I didn’t know if I should move her, but I figured, if I run inside and call an ambulance and she goes over the edge, that’s worse, and I wanted to check out her head, see if I could stop the bleeding.

She didn’t try to move away, but I guess she was pinned, holding the baby in one arm, and her other hanging loose like that. I came alongside her, close up to her baby’s head. It looked a strange kind of blue in the moonlight, and I felt suddenly sick. Slipping my arm beneath her legs, I scooped her up. She clung to the baby and sort of curled up around it, her loose arm swinging out and falling back against her. If it hurt her, she didn’t make a sound.

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