No Hard Shoulder

The Mona Vale Road in Sydney, Australia, is a notorious stretch of highway running between the residential suburbs of Mona Vale on the Northern Beaches and St Ives on the North Shore. Almost completely enveloped by dense bushland and devoid of street lighting, it is one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in the city and has been the site of numerous fatal car accidents, particularly after midnight. It has also become known as a dumping ground for murder victims. Most people who drive it at night turn their car radio up loud to overcome the terrifying thought of breaking down along it. Some people believe they have witnessed supernatural activity and that the road is haunted by the ghosts of the dead. A few never complete their journey.

Tom Dawson was a jerk. He’d purposefully picked a fight with Charlotte in front of his friends with the express purpose of humiliating her and despite her best intentions she’d got teary and left without saying goodbye to everyone. So, he’d won. Again. People would now think she was a high-maintenance princess who wasn’t worth his time. She was a fraction highly-strung, she admitted, but she wasn’t the crazy cow he’d been trying to make her out to be. Now, she was in her car, hurtling away from the restaurant where they’d been celebrating Tom’s cousin’s birthday and looking for the quickest way home. It was probably for the best it was over between them. This is what she told herself every time they endured another bump in their volatile relationship. But this time, she would have to resist her own urge to call him within forty-eight hours and convince him they should give it another go. This time, it was final. It had to be.

Charlotte turned up the radio in her red Toyota Corolla hatchback – an action intended to accomplish two things: firstly, to forget the events of that evening; secondly, to lessen her trepidation now that she had decided, in the interests of getting home as quickly as possible, to take the Mona Vale Road back to St Ives where she still lived at home with her family (though granted, in her parents’ self-contained basement flat giving her a much-needed dose of psychological, if not material, independence). The beat of “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles blared out with sufficient strength to compete admirably with both her frustration and fear, but didn’t manage to stamp out either. Still, she needed some privacy and although it was just after midnight, there was nothing she hated more than pulling up at traffic lights only to be glimpsed by a driver in a neighbouring vehicle with tears streaming down her face. This shortcut would not only get her home quicker but would mean no one would likely see her at all.

As she turned away from Mona Vale and started into the thick scrub that enveloped the highway, she felt more relieved than anything else. Her petrol tank was full and her car had only recently been given the all clear at a service. She clicked her doors locked and flicked on her high beams as she rounded the first bend away from the last street lamp for over four miles. She could now enjoy the peace and quiet – well, except for the radio. She was momentarily tempted to switch to the classical channel but didn’t. Her mind was less likely to wander back to analysing every word of conversation she’d exchanged with Tom if there were stronger lyrics providing the soundtrack to the drive. As long as she didn’t go too fast, there was nothing to worry about on this road, save for perhaps the small risk of having a car load full of drunken teenagers pass her at some point. Hopefully, they wouldn’t tonight. Her tears had now stopped and she wiped the last of them away with a long finger only to find that her hand was shaking slightly. She cursed. Why did she let herself get so worked up?

“My Sherona” by The Knack was next on the playlist. At this time of night there were few ads and no mindless DJ chat. Just an all night ‘club mix’ of classic party tunes well into the morning. She concentrated on the beat and sang the chorus out loud every time it was repeated. As she did this, her hands slowly loosened slightly on the steering wheel as she eased into the drive. She was feeling less tense now. Occasionally, she would glance out into what little of the bushland her headlights illuminated taking in the deathly white, crooked fingers of ghostly gums reaching up into the night sky, a flutter of moths around the desiccated leaves at their ends. Mostly, though, she stared straight ahead, fixated on the double white lines that guided her through the curves and undulations of the road, the occasional pot hole the only hiccup on an otherwise smooth journey. The speed limit was seventy but it was easy to creep above it, especially with so little other traffic. Yet every now and then the road would take a sweeping turn this way or the other, forcing her to brake and navigate it carefully.

A particularly sharp bend obliged her to slow to well below the seventy kilometer an hour speed limit and as she eased into it she heard the crunch of gravel and eucalyptus leaves beneath her as her tires veered ever so slightly off the tarmac. As she pulled out of the curve and started to accelerate again, her eyes fixed on those double white lines, she glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye. Turning towards the distraction she saw to the right of her vehicle a woman. The woman was standing there, in plain sight, where the hard shoulder would have been were the road wide enough to accommodate one. Instead, there was just gravel falling away into a bed of crisp leaves and the fertile humus beneath. That is where a woman stood – her right arm stretched out as if to hail a ride, her slim figure clearly discernible in a pale summer dress.

Charlotte was already well past the bend, so she took her foot off the pedal so as to slow down further and glanced back in her rearview mirror, wondering if the woman had succumbed to that most dreaded of events for any female solo traveler – a breakdown on the Mona Vale Road. Yet there was no vehicle by the side of the road as far as Charlotte could see and stranger still, there was now no sight of the woman in her rearview mirror. Charlotte didn’t stop. It was all too strange. If there had been a woman by the side of the road – perhaps who had walked some way away from her broken down vehicle – she would still be there, her arm perhaps flopping to her side in frustration that yet another motorist had failed to render assistance. She would not have retreated into the bush had she been trying to flag someone down. Perhaps Charlotte was imagining it. Maybe there hadn’t been a woman there. Maybe it was just some teenagers playing tricks with a mannequin. That was most likely it. It was a mean trick, but some people, she supposed, had nothing better to do with their Saturday night. It was late and she had been crying. She was a good candidate for being duped and she was lucky she hadn’t fallen for it and stopped only to be jeered at by a group of drunken youths. Charlotte smiled to herself. That was obviously what it had been – kids playing tricks. At least it wasn’t just the product of her own imagination. That would be awful. If it had been that would mean Tom was right when he told her she was crazy. Charlotte resolved to continue on and put it out of her mind. If she did need psychological help, seeking it out would have to wait at least until the morning.

She must have been at least half way along the road by now, she told herself after several more hundred metres. Still, though, an uneasy feeling rested at the bottom of her stomach. What if there had really been a woman there, trying to attract the attention of a passing motorist one second, then gone the next? Had she been dragged back into the bush by an attacker she had been trying desperately to flee? That was too awful to think about, but it was also impossible. Not least because Charlotte was convinced that in the split second she’d glimpsed the figure, the woman’s face did not seem distressed. Charlotte couldn’t be sure, of course – it was dark and Charlotte had seen her far too late to get a good look at her face. But the woman had just been standing there, not running into the road, or even along it, not flailing her arms or screaming frantically. Just standing there, raising her arm casually as if signaling to a bus or taxi driver. No, there had been no one there at all. Charlotte was just in a fragile state of mind.

By now the music had taken a more chilled-out tone and “Sadeness” by Enigma was providing an appropriately dark soundtrack to Charlotte’s journey. The road now felt rougher under her vehicle – she slowed down to sixty kilometres per hour. She hadn’t passed another car at all in the time she’d been traveling this highway which was unusual. Sure, it was not well-frequented at this time of night. But it was rarely totally empty either. She turned the radio up and kept cruising at sixty. At this slightly slower pace, she could take in her surroundings better. They now seemed far eerier. The eucalypts on either side of the road seemed to stretch up into infinity, their pale, withered bark tearing off them in long, gnarled strips, like skin might peel away from a burn; their leaves unnaturally still like they were part of a theatre set built around Charlotte who was lost in some vortex of time and space, where nothing was alive but her. Her Toyota Corolla suddenly seemed to offer her little protection from this otherworldly environment at the sides of the road. Only the tarmac directly beneath her and its central pair of white lines could keep her safe now. She had to focus on those and the strange trance music that had come onto the radio following Enigma – its repetitive beat offering up no familiar lyrics, not even a familiar melody, just a rhythm that seemed to be coming not so much from the radio as from outside her car, from the surroundings. Up ahead, she could just make out a pale spec in the distance. Something white, off to the side of the road, but it wasn’t an unusually shaped branch protruding nor a road sign. She progressed towards it, her speedometer still showing sixty kilometres an hour, but somehow convinced that she was traveling much slower than that.

As she approached from fifty meters, then twenty, then only ten, she could see it clearly now. It was a woman. It was the same woman in the pale dress that she had passed many hundreds of metres back down the road. This time, as she seemed to be moving so slowly, she could see the face of the woman clearly. Indeed, all her features were now discernible. She was pale skinned. Her face was drawn and pallid as if there was no blood circulating through her at all. Her eyes were hollow and staring. Her pupils seemed to be almost completely dilated and her straw coloured hair fell limply to her shoulders. Her mouth hung slightly open and her arms and legs were so thin they seemed not to be attached to her trunk at all, as if they were stick legs drawn by children in a crude primary school art class. And there she stood, barefooted, on the lip of the tarmac, her entire silhouette almost as pale as the gum trees behind her. This time, Charlotte floated straight past her as if in a dream. There was no temptation to stop. The woman’s vacant expression remained unchanged as the Toyota Corolla slid past, the woman raising her right arm as it did, almost saluting it, her long, white fingers hailing Charlotte’s vehicle to no avail.

Charlotte was in a daze. Glancing in her rearview mirror, not sure if she was hallucinating, she could now clearly make out the woman in the distance, getting further and further away, smaller and smaller, but still there, her arm held out towards the road, her empty stare following Charlotte’s Corolla. Charlotte, now sure of what she’d seen, pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator, digging her hands into the steering wheel to stop them from shaking. She was taking turns carelessly now, straining to see to the very ends of the phosphorescence shed by her headlights, praying that her instructions to the gears met with the direction of the road. She was making her vehicle take every dip and bend with the full force of it, willing it on back to the civilisation at the end of the road, to the first hint of a street lamp, a house, a set of traffic lights – anything!

Within seconds a pothole loomed under her left wheel but she was too soon upon it to avoid it. The vehicle jolted violently as she ran right into it. Gravel spurted up and spattered the windscreen like hail and Charlotte was terrified it might crack but it didn’t. As soon as she was through it, her hands still welded to the steering wheel to steady herself, she felt the left side of the car begin to sag. She cursed under her breath, feeling her heart thumping against her rib cage and reduced her speed enough to hear the flapping of what she knew was her punctured front, left tire.

She brought the Corolla to a complete stop, making only a token effort to pull over to the side – there was so little room before the tarmac gave way to the bare earth it was almost impossible to get off the road. Glancing in her rearview mirror, Charlotte could see nothing but black bushland behind her. No sign of the woman, no sign of anything. Her doors were still locked, her radio was still on – that same, strange trance music playing.

She fumbled to find her hazard lights. Was it real, what she had seen? Maybe she needed to see a psychiatrist. That’s what Tom Dawson thought. Maybe her upset and angst had made her hallucinate? In any case, she was out here alone with a bum tire and needed to pull herself together. She breathed in and out a few times and tried to steady her hands before undoing her seat belt, unlocking her doors and stepping out into a mild and oddly silent night. Well, almost silent. Her car radio was still playing, churning out the same trance music. But a faint hum seemed to be coming from all around, not just from inside her Corolla. A brief inspection of her blown tire confirmed her fears. She should call the NRMA, she thought, but that would mean waiting out here, in the strangely pulsating bushland.

She may just be able to make it back if she took it slowly. After all, she couldn’t be far from the end of this road and the start of civilization and she’d not passed a single other car on her entire journey along this road. It was better than waiting alone for help to arrive. Looking back down the road from where she came, she was relieved to see it was empty. No woman. To the front of her car was empty space and moths dancing in her headlights. Should she try to make it? Or should she sit in her car, doors locked, and wait for someone to come and rescue her? As she contemplated this, her eyes were drawn downwards to some skid marks on the asphalt directly in front of her feet. Thick, black swerves that dived off the edge of the tarmac and into the bush just a few metres ahead of where she was parked. Whoever was in the vehicle that made those marks didn’t just ‘straighten up’ and get back on track. They had careened off the road. She let her eyes follow the trail to where the skid marks flew off the road only to see a parting in the trees where the spindly arms of eucalypts had been violently torn away, as if a missile had shot through them. To her horror, through the trees – and with just the glow of her headlights to steer her vision – she could make out a vehicle some way down in the bush. From it came a faint hum. It wasn’t the engine humming, it was the radio. The car’s radio was still playing.

A strange sensation came over Charlotte. It was like she was watching a film and though she should have been terrified, she felt a strange wave of calm wash over her. Rather than feeling instantly compelled to rush back to her car and call the police, she felt somehow drawn towards the car in the bush – as if all the bad things that could happen on this road had already happened, but not to her. To that other car, down there in the bush. Her fear, in fact, had almost completely subsided. Knowing she would have to call the police, she first wanted to see who was in the car and so she left the tarmac and stepped into the bush, feeling her shoes sink slightly into the soil, allowing the sharp fingers of the trees to prickle her sleeves as she moved through them, toward the car that had torn through the brush. She could hear the music coming from the car’s radio more clearly now – it was the same trance music that her car radio had been playing. The radio was set to the same station. Approaching the car from the back, she could see that the car was a Toyota Corolla, the same make as her own. The light wasn’t strong enough to be sure, but it even appeared to be the same colour as hers – red. She stood at the back of the vehicle for a moment, concentrating her vision on the registration plates, trying to decipher the letters and numbers in the dark. She read each one in her head a few times over, then said them out loud, just to be sure, starting again at the beginning and reading through several times over. The letters and numbers were the same as those on her vehicle’s registration plate. She let out a small cry. Not so much a cry of terror as of incredulity. She walked around the side and towards the front of the vehicle. The music was now clearly audible, the same rhythmic trance music she’d been listening to for the past ten minutes. Peering in through the driver’s seat window, she was relieved to see there was no one in the car. All doors except for the driver’s were closed. The driver’s door was slightly ajar and she could see that the windscreen was cracked and smeared with blood where the driver must have hit their head during impact. In the same instant, she lifted a finger to her own forehead and felt a sticky wetness there. It transferred to her hand and she smelt it just to be sure. A ferric scent entered her nostrils. She was bleeding.

Fear didn’t exist now. Instead, Charlotte felt incredibly tired, like she was about to fall asleep right then and there. She was in a complete daze, spaced out by the music and the incredulity of all she had witnessed. She made her way slowly back to her parked on the road. It was still there, still playing the same music, still with its flat tire. She got back into the driver’s seat and shut the door behind her. Then, she reached slowly over to the passenger seat and fumbled around in her handbag for her mobile phone. Pulling it out, she cursed as she saw that she only had two bars of reception. Still, when she punched in the emergency numbers, it rang. A soft but firm voice answered: “Police, fire or ambulance?”

Charlotte didn’t answer. She was too tired. The strange torpor that seemed to have enveloped her meant she could no longer send instructions through to her muscles. Her voice seemed to have left her body. A wave of dizziness passed over her, rendering her slightly nauseous.

“Police, fire or ambulance?” the voice came again, this time infused with more urgency.

Only now did Charlotte notice an unusual odour hanging in the air, the faint whiff of decaying vegetables. She could barely process her own thoughts as she glanced down at the air conditioning unit, wondering if that was on and allowing the strange fug into her vehicle, but it wasn’t and the windows were up. A hint of movement behind her made her glance in her rearview mirror. There, in the near total darkness of the back seat, she met with a pair of eyes. Dead eyes, attached to cheeks so hollow and a brow so pale that in their entirety the features could hardly be said to constitute a face at all. The woman from the side of the road was inside Charlotte’s Toyota. At least, it was some kind of incarnation of a woman.

“Thanks for stopping” the figure croaked, its voice so distant it seemed not to be emanating from its body. But before Charlotte could scream, or even turn to face the true horror of it, its hand was over her mouth and the smell of decomposing flesh overcame her.

This entry was posted in Short Stories. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply