Perhaps I should have known from the beginning how it was going to end. Perhaps.
My mouth was as dry as the arid scrublands that the highway cut through like a surgical incision. Dust devils of brown soil whirled across the barren landscape, skimmed across the pavement as if purposely dashing from one side to the other. Even with all the windows rolled up, grit invaded the inside of the car, finding its way between my teeth where it settled; an irritant that I lacked the spittle to expel. The glaring sunlight that cooked the earth formed watery pond-like mirages on the highway that vanished just before they were reached.
The only indication that there was life in the region, other than the infrequent truck stops, roadhouses and ramshackle motels or motor lodges was the images of kangaroos, wombats and camels painted on the yellow signs that stood along the roadside. Occasionally, a land train with several semi-trailers pulled by a prime mover sped by, heading east. They were like huge, terrifying, roaring metal beasts. Their tires stirred up clouds of dirt and tossed rocks like solid raindrops against my windshield.
My sister, June, had fallen asleep in the seat beside me soon after we departed Port Augusta. She curled up in the seat and remained motionless with her windbreaker pulled over her. She slept silently and motionless, inert like a pile of laundry. I fought the urge to shake her awake and remind her that it was her idea that we drive the 1,700 miles west, taking the Eyre Highway to see this stretch of the outback, the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. She had placed the cost for renting the car on her credit card, so there was that at least.
In the rear view mirror I glimpsed the Volkswagen van following behind. It kept the same distance from my car from the moment it suddenly appeared out of nowhere fifty miles back. It was a 1980s model, blue, but in need of a paint job. Its front grill was dented and one of the headlights was missing. I tried to check out the person driving it, but sunlight reflected from the van’s windshield and hid his face. He was male. That’s all I could tell. There was no one in the passenger seat.
For many miles, the scenery rarely changed. There weren’t abandoned structures or remnants of farms, silos, or ghost towns reminiscent of many highways in the American west. Unlike the plains of the United States, the vast space wasn’t broken up by miles of fencing. There were no road turnoffs.
It was apparent from the onset that the Eyre Highway would live up to its billing as the longest stretch of straight road on the planet. Looking ahead was mesmerizing, hypnotic, like staring into a never-ending tunnel filled with light. Miles of seeing nothing but the beige landscape sporadically dotted with a patches of saltbush and bluebush scrub produced the same effect I once experienced when becoming snowblind while trekking in the Alps; I lost my range of vision.
I might have missed the rest stop altogether had June not awoken in time to sit up in her seat and call out when she saw its entrance fifty yards ahead.
The heat was all-enveloping, so oppressive it made breathing difficult. It felt as if my lungs were being seared with every breath. Sitting on a picnic table bench in the shade under a corrugated tin awning I watched the visible waves of heat rise up from the pavement in the rest stop. Unlike back home in Seattle where there was always the feel of moisture in the air, on that stretch of the Eyre Highway, there wasn’t the slightest hint of it. The breeze came from the north carrying the scent of baked earth.
I guzzled a full bottle of water and was halfway through another as sweat ran down my back in rivulets. June stood at a map of the area pinned on a corkboard under a sheet of plastic near a row of soda and snack machines. She slowly traced the single black line that marked the highway with her finger as if unable to accept that the line never veered from its two-directional course.
Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail held together with a bright yellow scrunchie. She tilted her head from side-to-side, as if listening to music. Her hair swept across her upper back like the pendulum of a metronome.
It was moments like that I forgot she was only a few years younger than me and we were no longer children. At twenty-nine she had retained many of the same movements and gestures she had when she was a girl of six or seven.
An orange-colored dingo wandered into the rest stop, and she turned to watch it─entranced the entire time the wild canine sniffed about the trash cans and around the doors of the restrooms. June had taken time off from finishing her courses to become a veterinarian to take this trip, so animals of any kind were of special interest to her. When it ran off, returning to the open scrubland, she went into the women’s restroom.
I shifted on the bench to get a better look at the Volkswagen van that had sat parked in the driveway leading into the rest stop, arriving there within minutes after we did. The driver of the van didn’t get out. He sat hidden in the shadows inside the vehicle.
I was considering talking to the driver of the van when June came out of the restroom. She called out to me. “How far to go until we reach The Bight?”
“Another hour or so,” I replied. I looked to the west, uncertain even after looking at the map of Southern Australia a dozen times, where the Nullarbor Plain began and ended, and if we had entered it. The name alone conjured up in my imagination fantasies of places that seemed other-worldly, like the Sahara Desert and Machu Picchu.
June sat on the bench on the other side of the table. She rubbed her shoulder and winced.
“You shouldn’t still be feeling pain there,” I said.
“It’s not actual pain,” she replied. “It’s psychological.” She hesitated before asking, “Does anyone ever get over being shot?”
I looked to where the van had been sitting. It was gone. “I don’t know,” I answered her.
I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff holding binoculars to my eyes and looking out over the turquoise waters of The Great Australian Bight. A large pod of Southern Right whales breached the surface, shooting fountains from their blowholes. At the base of the cliffs, small waves washed up onto the narrow strip of beach that extended along the coastline. Seagulls circled and swooped above the white-capped currents. Far out, the white sails of a large yacht gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.
June sat on the ground near me, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. Bits of grass she tossed into the air fluttered above her head like wounded butterflies before being blown inland or sucked into the ocean breeze and pulled seaward.
After a long silence between us, she said flatly, “I miss Patty and Mom.” The suddenness of the statement took me out of the moment and hurled me back to Seattle the year before.
I had just returned from a trip to Iceland and was sitting at the kitchen table in our mother’s condominium drinking a glass of iced tea. She leaned back against the sink stirring a cup of coffee. The sliding glass doors that led out to the balcony that looked out on the Puget Sound were open and a fish-scented breeze blew in. She gave birth to June and I when she was young and as she gazed at me it struck me that she could have passed for a woman in her early thirties. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her face.
“Even when you were a toddler, I couldn’t hold on to you. You always wanted to run off and explore,” she said.
June came into the kitchen at that moment, her arm draped around the shoulders of her girlfriend, Patty. They were giggling like adolescent schoolgirls, which suited June’s bubbly personality at that time, but was unusual for Patty who was usually sober and restrained. They had flown in from Chicago the evening before to join me at Mom’s to celebrate our mother earning her masters in social work.
“What are the two of you so happy about?” Mom asked.
June kissed Patty on the cheek and with a huge smile on her face, said, “Patty and I have decided to get married.”
Just as quickly I was brought back from Seattle to that cliff when I realized June was sobbing. I let the binoculars drop against my chest and hang there by its strap and sat on the ground next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her against me. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat there staring out at the whales until they disappeared from sight.
When we stood up I turned and saw that the Volkswagen van was parked not far from where I had left our car. It pulled away and returned to the highway as we began walking toward our car.
Twilight saw the spread of bands of purple and gold across the darkening sky. The Nullarbor Plain stretched out beyond the opposite side of the highway like an endless dirt carpet, looking as if it had been bulldozed. I stopped the car a few times so that we could watch troops of kangaroos crossing the plain, the first large number of them we had seen, which was surprising given that their images were on every sign and their remains littered the highway. The landscape didn’t seem to offer much in the way of vegetation for them to eat.
June got out of the car each time we spotted a troop and took dozens of pictures, then got back in breathless with excitement as she chattered on about them. When we were children it was she who had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, canaries and fish. I was still inside the car when I heard her shout, “An albino kangaroo!”
I got out of the car and standing by her side saw an entirely white kangaroo hopping along with the troop. To me it resembled a large white mouse.
“Do you have any idea how rare an albino kangaroo is?” June asked as she took pictures of it.
“I think an albino anything is kinda rare,” I replied.
Minutes later I realized she was holding her camera up to her eye, with the lens pointed at the albino kangaroo, without snapping anymore pictures. “As rare as I used to think it was to be shot by a mass murderer’s bullet.” She put the camera back in its case and got back into the car.
I watched the albino kangaroo for a few more minutes before returning and opened the map. I spread it across the steering wheel. I had the town of Cocklebiddy circled in red ink. It was about a half hour away.
June rolled up her window and rested against the glass. Her eyes were closed.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
She sighed, expelling breath like a punctured tire. “Now that I think about, maybe coming on this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
“You got to see an albino kangaroo and you said they’re rare.”
“Yes, they’re rare.”
In the ambient light of night I could see the Volkswagen van following us, maintaining the same distance and always at the same speed.
Countless stars glittered in the night sky, distracting me from what would have been an otherwise very boring trip from the time we saw the albino kangaroo until we reached Cocklebiddy. June said only a few words during the long stretch of darkness, keeping her eyes closed during most of it, although I could tell from her breathing that she was awake.
I tried to entertain her with anecdotes from my travels, but after twenty minutes of not getting a response from her, I drove the rest of the way to Cocklebiddy in silence. Upon approaching and entering the small town I had the uncharacteristic response of feeling happy to see lights, my preference being to travel where there was less civilization.
There was a roadhouse in the town for those just passing through and a small motel where I had pre-booked two rooms for us before leaving Port Augustus. When I pulled up to the curb in front of the motel June opened her eyes and gently placed her hand on my arm.
“What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said, despondently.
The Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle catered to a gay clientele which is why June and Patty chose it to celebrate Mom’s achievement and their plans to get married. Although it was Mom’s car we used to go to the restaurant, June drove and Patty sat in the front passenger seat. Mom and I sat in the back seat. Along the way, Mom pointed out everything that had changed en route to the restaurant since it had been three years since I had last been in Seattle, which was to attend my father’s funeral. The trees that lined the curb in front of the restaurant were strung with white lights and two large rainbow flags hung from its facade.
We parked a block away and walked to the restaurant, merrily chatting and laughing the entire way. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be, so we managed to get a table by the front window. Before I sat down I looked out and saw a blue Volkswagen van park across the street from the restaurant. I sat next to June. Patty and Mom sat across from us.
We were almost done eating when I saw a man get out of the van and cross the street, but gave it little thought and didn’t see what he was carrying, until he walked into the restaurant, raised a gun and started shooting.
In a moment of disconnect, I thought it was firecrackers I was hearing and not gunshots, and then I saw Mom get hit in the back and Patty shot in the head. June was struck in the shoulder before I had the presence of mind to react. I shoved her from her chair and threw my body on top of hers. The shooting, the killing, seemed to last forever. It was only later that I learned the shooter had been tackled and pinned down by an off-duty policeman until help arrived. The killer owned the Volkswagen van.
The motel in Cocklebiddy had a sign in front of it with an image of a young kangaroo peeking out from its mother’s pouch. The name of the motel was Joey’s Motel. The woman at the check-in counter was gregarious and talked non-stop while I checked us in. When she paused long enough for me to answer her numerous questions, I explained that it was June who had decided on the trip across Southern Australia. I didn’t explain anything further. June had remained at the motel office door, staring out at the street as if lost in thought. When we got to the doors of our rooms that were next to one another, June opened her door and went in without saying anything, and shut the door.
My room was nondescript with hardly a suggestion that it was Australian. I threw my backpack on the bed, laid down next to it, and without intending to, I quickly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a few hours later overcome with a sense of dread. I bolted from my room, ran to June’s and pounded on the door. When June didn’t answer back, I turned the doorknob and it opened.
Moments later I found June lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, dead. She had slashed her wrists.
I’ve not seen the blue Volkswagen van since then.