My first ever work on this site! Hope you like it...
"She follows the path of least resistance, she doesn't care to see the mountain top. She twists and turns with no regard to distance, she never comes to a stop. And she rolls—she's a river—where she goes, time will tell… And she rolls, all by herself." –"The River and the Highway"
Chapter One: Motor Vehicle Theft
The air was warm and sticky, and I could smell the coconutty scent of gorse on the breeze. A stream burbled nearby, echoed by the warbling of a morepork, invisible in the shadows. A dog barked somewhere behind the house, but the windows remained dark.
I crept forward, wincing slightly as my blistered feet chafed in my new shoes. I'd stolen them sometime yesterday afternoon from a porch I'd passed by. I felt a little sorry for the man or woman that would go looking for their trainers and find my battered ones in their place. Then the feeling passed. I was getting used to taking things.
By then, I was close enough to the house to hear bedsprings suddenly complain as a body moved, and a gravelly voice shout wordlessly through the open window.
The dog abruptly fell quiet. I froze.
I waited several moments before I dared move again, creeping towards the rusty old ute parked near the house. I'd spotted it earlier that evening from the main road when I'd stopped to peel the socks from my stinging feet. Funny what sore feet can motivate a person to do. I'd stolen shoes, food, and even a warm winter coat before. I could certainly steal a vehicle.
I'd hidden in the brush down by the entrance to the property, waiting and watching. It seemed like the only inhabitant of the small farm was a tired, middle-aged man. I figured I could easily wait for him to go to sleep—farmers usually turn in early, in my experience—and then take the ute. Again, I felt badly about stealing, but he had a house and food and a bed, and I had a backpack and blistered feet.
Once I was sure the man was asleep again, I hurried forward, trying to pick up my burning feet with minimal disturbance to the weathered ground. The dog remained silent from its place behind the house.
The ute wasn't locked, but the door uttered a metal squeal of protest when I opened it. I heard the dog whine and woof softly. Fortunately, the dog's owner didn't seem quite as alert. I climbed into the cab, prepared to hotwire the vehicle if needed, but a quick fumbling search proved fruitful. The key was already in the ignition.
I suppose a farmer this removed from civilization didn't have much trouble with thieves and joy-riders. Just me, a vagrant with sore feet wanting an easy ride to the next town.
I turned the key, and the ute rumbled to life, trembling all around me. It was an older model, and I was slightly worried it would simply shake to pieces, and there I'd be, sitting amid the rubble, dazed and surprised.
It didn't fall apart, but it grumbled a little as I shifted it into gear and began to slowly maneuver down the bumpy track towards the main road. The dog was barking again, this time more intensely, and a glance over my shoulder gave me a good look at the house. A light had gone on in the window, where a man stood silhouetted.
"Shit," I hissed, shifting gears and slamming my foot down on the pedal.
The ute lurched forward with a roar, bumping and jerking along the track. I kept glancing back, expecting to see the man in pursuit. The light was still on in the window, but the man was nowhere to be seen—not in the window, not in the doorway, not on the track.
I drove over a bump with a jolt and turned my attention back to the road. Except I didn't see the dirt track: I saw about fifty confused and cottony sheep milling about, some of them glancing up at the one working headlight with mild curiosity as I approached.
I jammed my hand on the horn, stealth flying out the window. Sheep are stupid creatures, though, and these ones simply froze. Stealing a vehicle was one thing, but flattening a man's entire herd of sheep was another. In one swift, kneejerk reaction, I spun the wheel and steered myself directly into a dry gully, crunching the front of the ute into a thick tree trunk and banging my head sharply against the steering wheel.
Everything went black for a moment, before I was brought back to life by the blaring of a horn. My face was pressed against it.
A soft groan escaped my lips. I didn't feel it come out of me, just heard it, like somebody else had uttered it as I peeled myself off the steering wheel and tried to sit up straight. The cab spun around me, and I flailed my arms out to steady myself, fearing that the tree had given way and the ute was sliding the rest of the way down into the gully.
Fortunately, that wasn't the case, but it did seem that I'd banged my head pretty hard. Sheep bleated somewhere nearby, and the ute continued to hiss in protest. I couldn't see clearly, and my eyes were stinging. Something warm dripped down my forehead. I wiped it away with a limp hand, feeling sticky.
"You all right?" asked a voice.
I stared like a startled deer through the cracked window, hardly able to see a face through the spiderweb of glass. My head was still spinning, and I wasn't sure I was capable of speech, and I really didn't want to move just yet, so I just continued to stare dumbly in disorientation.
The fractured face disappeared after a moment, and boots crunched on the rocky ground, circling around the back of the ute, assessing the damage. Sheep continued to bleat, and back at the house the dog was still barking, going crazy, and those boots were crunching this way and that, and my eyes continued to sting—there was blood in them, I think.
The door suddenly opened, and I slumped over, nearly falling out. A pair of arms caught me, supporting me with steady, easy strength until I managed to find my balance. Even then, when I stumbled and lurched, they caught me.
I smelled tobacco smoke and immediately bent over and heaved. Nothing came up but a bit of bile, as I hadn't had anything to eat all day.
"Come on," said the voice, while one of those strong arms wrapped around my shaking shoulders. "Let's get you inside."
I think I may have nodded, but my entire body was trembling so badly that it could have just been that. I limped forward, my hand weakly grasping a wad of the man's soft flannel shirt as he guided me back up to the old farmhouse, its one lighted window shining like a beacon.
It wasn't until we reached the steps up to the porch that I realized that my limping had little to do with my blistered feet and more to do with a sharp ache in my left ankle. The man helped me inside, taking me through a cluttered sitting room, where he briefly propped me up in a corner. I watched as he cleared a pile of newspapers from a chair.
"Sit," he said simply.
He didn't seem angry, though with my blurred vision it was difficult to see his expression.
The man crouched in front of me, looked me over, turned my sore ankle this way and that, before standing with a grunt and disappearing. He returned after a moment with a damp rag, indicating that I press it against my forehead.
"Your foot's not busted, just sprained."
"You a doctor?" I inquired sarcastically. Well, I tried to be sarcastic, but my voice was shaking too much, and it probably just came across as babbling.
"You steal cars often?" he asked.
I was quiet.
After a long pause, he added, "You in a hurry to get somewhere?"
I suppose after being awakened in the middle of the night by a thief stealing his ute, then crashing it in a ditch, he deserved a few answers.
"Just trying to get out of here," I mumbled.
He sighed and plodded thoughtfully over to the window, staring out into the darkness. "Seems to me you'll be staying tonight," he said after another pause. "You can use the spare bed."
Staying the night was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn't see that I had much of a choice. I could hardly stand up straight, much less walk.
"You hungry?" the man asked.
I shook my head and immediately regretted it as a wave of nausea spread.
"Then I'll draw you a bath." He left before I could protest.
I suppose I was a little fragrant. It had been ages since I'd had a bath.
It actually stung quite a bit, sinking myself into that hot water, especially my feet. I could see the dirt and oils float to the surface of the water, covering it in a light scum. I used as much soap as I could stand to rub into my stinging skin and then climbed out. I don't think I was in for very long, but there were clothes waiting just outside the door for me. I snatched them up and changed quickly into the worn flannel pyjamas. I have to admit, that part felt good.
Limping out to the sitting room again, I found the man sitting in the chair I'd recently vacated. He stood as soon as I entered and pointed me upstairs, helping me up to the spare room. He didn't say a word, just waited in the doorway until I'd settled under the covers, then turned the light off and closed the door. I saw his shadow beneath the door for a few moments before he turned away, retreating with the sound of creaking floorboards.
I should have thanked him, but I didn't think to do that until it was too late. By dawn I'd be long gone, well down the road to avoid the embarrassment of my failed attempt at motor vehicle theft in the cold light of morning.
That was a few hours off yet, though, and the bed was comfortable enough, if a bit sunken and squeaky. I couldn't recall the last time I'd slept on a mattress, though that could've just been my head, which had stopped spinning and started aching.
Just a few hours of sleep, and then I'd be rested enough to move on.