Laura Elizabeth Woollett lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her first novel The Wood of Suicides will be published by The Permanent Press in January 2014. Find her at lauraelizabethwoollett.com
She walks in front of him. She always walks in front, as if he still holds a knife to her back. She walks in front, with her eyes to the dust, between the two crumbling pillars of the gas pumps. When she reaches for the door, his hand catches hers. He opens it instead, murmurs in her ear, Straight to the bathroom. Donít look at anyone. Donít cry.
In the convenience store bathroom, she examines the stub of her tongue. It stopped bleeding after the first week, and is now pitted with dark sores. She turns from her grimy reflection and into the nearest cubicle, trying not to notice the puddles on the tiled floor. She pulls down her panties, stares down at her knees. She has been holding it in for too long, and all she can manage is a stinging trickle. She worries about her insides.
Outside the bathroom, he is paying for gas, coffee, doughnuts. He sees the girl and adds to their purchases a carton of strawberry milk. It doesnít matter that she never liked strawberry milk, in her old life. The clerk eyes the grubby, downcast girl in her cheesecloth dress and sees nothing.
She walks in front of him, through the buzz and tinkle. Her sandals touch concrete, gravel, dust. A whiff of petrol reaches her, making her hunger for the carton that, as far as she is concerned, may as well be filled with pink paint. He wonít give it to her until they are safely inside the brown pickup truck; until he has slid his key into the ignition and taken up his coffee cup. They now have a full tank. The gas dial has swung from E to F.
He doesnít look at the girl as he hands her the strawberry milk. His eyes are on the road Ė that place between one pit stop of desire and another. She has known him to desire her up to four times a day; to pull over into wheat crops, dirt tracks, abandoned oil wells. All men have desires. The greater the man the greater the desires, he has told her, by way of explanation. After the desire, he has nothing left for her. He is as impassive as a priest behind his faded brown cap and transition lenses. He watches the gas dial.
She opens the milk carton, takes a tentative swig. She is still perfecting her new swallowing mechanism: head tilted back, taking the liquid into her throat like a duck. It takes her an hour and a half to get through the carton. By then, the landscape has changed from dust to prairies, flowering with black-eyed Susan and huge purple storm clouds. They reach the roadside inn at dusk, to the sound of brontide and birdsong. Nightingales, he tells her, mistakenly.
She was always a quiet girl, a girl who had trouble making herself heard, a girl whose tongue quivered inside her mouth. She was always a girl who blushed to the tips of her ears, when cruel adults asked her Speak any English? or Cat got your tongue? She was always a girl whose eyes said more than her lips did, who would have preferred to live in a world without dialogue. Still, on evenings like this, listening to the skyís seismic rumbling, the singing of night birds, she would give anything to have a voice of her own.
He locks her in the motel room, goes out for beer. It is his greatest kindness to let the girl have beer in the evenings, which helps her hate him less and herself more. While he is gone, she kneels on the filthy carpet, fiddles with the dial of the TV set. The storm has begun and every channel snows static. He returns a half hour later, sodden, but with the beer in tow, and opens a bottle for the kneeling girl. She swigs and swallows in her awkward duck way.
After the desire, he has nothing left for her. She wipes herself clean and examines her raw parts in the bathroom mirror. He is sleeping in the armchair when she comes out of the bathroom, his head back and his glasses off. She kneels beside his chair. She downs the last of the beer and watches the TV snow. Outside, the rain patters dry over the motel parking lot. She opens her mouth. The night birds sing.