The trucker yawns, rubbing his eyes with a rough hand. Warm wind gusts through the open window as the countryside slips by, yellowy green against red dirt, blue sky, white clouds. The engine rumbles—the weighty bass the only music he can listen to. The radio conked out hours ago, and boredom threatens to send him off to sleep.
Pressure builds in his bladder. Phil looks for a likely spot to stop and take a piss. He eases the semi to a halt on a long straight stretch of road in the no man’s land of the Northern Territory. Engine still running, he climbs out of the cab and aims for a ghost gum growing by the worn bitumen. He whistles as his bladder empties and wishes the radio wasn’t stuffed.
As he climbs back into the truck he checks his watch: 1500. Renee would be at school picking up the kids. He smiles in anticipation of seeing her tomorrow. Over the vibrating engine he hears a sound—singing? Like those Muslim prayers. A frown crosses his face as he looks around.
Nothing but road, savannah, and sky.
He glances at the radio and fiddles with the dial. The singing grows louder. His frown deepens. He turns the engine off, and as the truck settles into silence the wailing voice dominates the cabin.
“What the fuck?”
He turns the dial, smacks the face of the radio with the heel of his palm. It’s the kind of prank Russ would pull, but Russ is a thousand Ks away. What’s the point of such an elaborate prank if you can’t see the reaction?
Phil leans his head out of the open window just in case. In case what? There’s a Muslim cleric standing by the truck? He snorts at himself as he scans the landscape. Then chokes back a cry.
There’s a bearded man in pale robes standing beside the truck. He’s wearing a white turban, and at the sight of Phil he smiles in a friendly manner. Phil pulls his head back into the truck, sweat beading on his forehead. His chest feels tight. Images of deserts and guns and bearded, robed men fill his mind. His mind races: has he stumbled upon a terrorist training camp in the middle of nowhere?
“Get a grip,” he mutters. He leans back out to speak, but the man is gone.
The singing edges under his skin, makes him squirm. He spins the dial again and static assaults his ears before harsh electronic music replaces it.
“That’s awful,” he complains, but the radio refuses to respond. He can’t turn it off or change it. With a groan he turns the key and the engine roars to life, but the music amplifies to compete with the rumble. Phil throws the door open and gets out, trying to escape from the vaguely musical noise. The man is standing on the other side of the road. His smile widens and he points down the road.
Phil looks. The sky is odd: like there is an oil slick rainbow smeared across it. His boots crunch gravel and dirt and loose shards of bitumen as he takes several steps away from his truck. The screeching, banging music fades; the sound of the engine subsides. The silence is filled by his ragged breathing.
His truck. Phil turns. The truck is gone. The tightness returns to his chest. The air flickers—the cleric stands where the truck was. The cleric points down the road, in the opposite direction from before. Dizzy, Phil looks.
Laughter. The cleric shimmers: his robes darken, an ink stain bleeding through the fabric, turning it indigo. He is hairless, his head bared to the sun. He laughs again, points up the highway, to the oil slick rainbow. He vanishes.
Phil stumbles, falls to his knees. A flock of wild budgies shriek as they take to the wing. The scent of blood and strawberries fills his nostrils. He pushes himself up, shaking his head to clear it. His hands clench fitfully. He staggers toward the oil slick rainbow, but a sound behind him makes him pause and look back.
Nothing. Road, savannah, and sky.
Mouth dry, he reaches for the rainbow. Maybe Renee will be at the other end. A dark grinning face looms before him, mouth stained pink. Strawberries and blood. Darkness.
The ghost gum stands alone at the side of the road. Nothing here but road, savannah and sky.