July 3rd. Stuart Highway in the Top End, Australia.
“Words, words, words!” Bonnie Plum wasn’t the type to talk to herself. She wasn’t the type to speak much at all. Words were not her favourite thing. In fact, that dislike of words was the very reason for her muttering under her breath while chasing a long hot road through Australia’s Top End.
Before agreeing to her most recent trucking job, Bonnie had had to wade her way through a verbose contract, full of phrases like “the Transportation Services Provider shall,” which kicked off into long, incomprehensible sentences, set to trap the unwary. The fewer words in life, the better. That was Bonnie’s credo.
Now the words of the contract were pestering her again. They’d dug themselves in, deep in her head, lurking like funnel web spiders ready to pull her into their traps when she let her guard down. Like when she was trying to enjoy the peace and quiet of the open road.
Bonnie had a friend who did get on with words. Trilby Trench was a technical writer. She knew her way around syntax and semantics. In Bonnie’s opinion, that was Trilby’s one failing. Give her a chance, and she’d explain the origin of a word or chuck a book your way. On the other hand, Trilby’s understanding of language had come in handy with that dratted trucking contract.
Bonnie and Trilby had sat down with the contract on the table between them. They’d spilled coffee on the contract, left chocolatey fingerprints on the most bothersome words in it, and thrashed the nonsense out of it. Until Bonnie was happy she knew what she was signing. Which was, basically, nothing sensible. Just a lot of words. More real to Bonnie was the warm aroma of the chocolate as it came into contact with their skin. The smile that rearranged Trilby’s no-nonsense expression into one of impish fun.
“Dunno how you work with words all day. It’d drive me batty.” Those were Bonnie’s last words to Trilby after they’d conquered the contract together. Trilby had grinned as she left. Off to write more words, no doubt.
“Words, words, words.” Bonnie was muttering again, but her tone was softer and her thoughts were of her friend now, rather than that dratted contract. It was a couple of weeks since they’d last seen each other. Bonnie and her rig were barreling up Stuart Highway in Australia’s Northern Territory. She’d delivered her cargo to a cattle station a couple of days ago. Now she was heading for Darwin. The nearest big smoke.
In her role as commercial trucker, Bonnie had travelled this road more than once. Locals called it The Track, with that typically Australian habit of ironic nicknaming. Reducing the grand to the insignificant while at the same time bestowing more significance. Using fewer words too, most often.
The turnoff for Batchelor was coming up. Batchelor was a small town, but it would no doubt offer something cold to drink. Bonnie lifted her foot off the accelerator while she contemplated a quick diversion to the town. She’d spent the night at a roadhouse and had started the drive to Darwin early this morning. Now it was after midday. Layers of hot air rolled off the highway. Still an hour or more to go before Darwin. A cold drink in Batchelor would hit the spot. Bonnie flipped on the jake brake and slowed the big Kenworth truck right down, in preparation for the turn.
Up ahead, a dark vertical stripe appeared in the heat haze. The red earth simmered. The grass glowed green. The stripe gradually coalesced into a thin, wavering figure that could be a person, could be something else. An emu. A buffalo. An ozraptor. Who knows. Anything was possible out here. The Kenworth’s engine brake rumbled and chattered. The dark figure drew closer. Definitely a person. Slow moving. Not disturbed by the sound of a 615 horsepower truck coming up from behind.
The trees stood still in the windless heat. Black trunks, white trunks, stark against the background of green and red. A purple wheelie bin squatted on the side of the road. Middle of nowhere, and there’s a purple wheelie bin. Some council’s idea of modern style, or an attempt to make the bins easily findable. The figure had come to a dead halt. Had still not turned to look at the approaching behemoth. Just stopped.
As Bonnie drew up, she saw the person was a youngster. Thin legs and arms, skinny neck, short hair. Clad in baggy shorts and shirt. Just standing there, head bowed, facing away from the truck. Bonnie decided to stop and see what’s what. The forlorn figure roused her curiosity, tugged at her heartstrings. She was almost stopped anyhow. No vehicles around. The road widened briefly into a rest stop up ahead. Safe to bring the truck to a halt.
Bonnie jumped down from the cab and walked back to the youngster. A boy, about twelve years old by the looks of him. Thick brown hair in a jagged cut. Eyes a dull greeny blue, wide and scared when he glanced at her before looking down at the ground again.
“G’day, mate,” said Bonnie. Tone carefully neutral. Nothing to scare him off. He was still motionless, but his stance had changed. Ready now to shoot off like a wild animal.
He didn’t reply. Just darted another glance at her face, then one at her feet. She looked down too, reflexively, to see what he saw. Sturdy work boots, purple. Thick rubber soles. Her gaze travelled across the hot red ground. His feet were bare, aside from a pair of decaying flip flops. The straps had chewed away at the flesh between his big toe and the neighbouring toe on both feet, leaving bleeding welts. He’d been walking a while. That was clear.
“Where you heading, mate? Want a lift?”
Still no response. The youngster’s arms and legs were covered in scratches. He was thin to the point of emaciation. Bonnie looked at his face more closely. His lips were cracked and bleeding. His eyes showed the dullness of dehydration. Time to take charge.
“No worries. Words aren’t my thing either.” Bonnie smiled, and turned back towards her truck. “Come with me. I have some water.”
To her surprise, the teenager followed with no objections. Bonnie hadn’t expected it to be that easy. This little guy was used to obeying authority. That made things easier.
Bonnie climbed up onto the step below the passenger door, opened the door, and gestured to the boy.
He clambered up and perched on the seat, barely taking in his surrounds. Pity really. Bonnie was proud of her rig, and particularly of the custom fittings in the cab. No worries, plenty of time for him to notice it later, after he’d recovered from his walk in the sun.
Bonnie closed the passenger door, walked round the front of the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat. She grabbed a bottle of water, twisted off the cap, and gave the bottle to the boy. He took it readily enough, raised it to his mouth, and drank. Not over eager, but good enough. His eyes darted to her face, checking whether he was doing OK. Doing the right thing. She nodded, then raised her hand when he’d had enough. No need to overdo it at first. Plenty more where that came from He stopped drinking, dropped his hand to his lap, and sat there.
“I’m Bonnie. What’s your name, mate?”
No answer. No surprise there. Bonnie was getting a feel for this guy. She wasn’t fond of words herself, but he took it to extremes. She tried again.
“I’m heading to Darwin. Can drop you off anywhere along the way. Want a lift?”
The boy stirred, turned to look at her with those big blue-green peepers. “Blue rain,” he said. His voice was crackly from lack of use. He said it again. “Blue rain.” Clearer this time. Not a lot of information there, but at least she knew more about his age now. His voice had broken. That put him at around fourteen rather than the twelve years she’d originally estimated. Small for his age. A little undernourished.
Bonnie started the engine. If he wanted to leave, he could do so. He knew how to open a vehicle door. At his age, that’d be a basic skill to have acquired. The boy looked startled as the engine sound rumbled through the cab. He dropped the bottle of water and grabbed the seat on both sides of his skinny knees. Then he relaxed, settling his butt against the backrest. He was here to stay. He took a deep breath, turned to face Bonnie, and parted his lips ready to say something. His gaze flitted over her shoulder, and he froze. The blank look slide back across his eyes just before he turned to the front and looked at the floor of the cab between his legs. It was as if he was aiming to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Why the change? Had he seen something? Bonnie turned slowly to look out of the window behind her. Two people were approaching, crossing the road towards the truck. They were dressed in army fatigues, red-brown in colour.
“Night owl.” The boy’s voice was so soft as to be almost a breath, dying away to nothing on the last syllable.
As Bonnie turned to look at the boy, two more people appeared beyond the passenger window. Dressed in the same red-brown fatigues as the first two. All four were big. All four looked tough. The boy stayed as still and quiet as a mouse. Bonnie realised she might be in a bit of trouble.
END OF CHAPTER 1
Note from the author: I hope you’ve enjoyed chapter 1! I’ll publish a few chapters here on the Trilby Trench site, to give you a taste of the story. If you’d like to read the whole book, you can get Words Words Words on Amazon as a Kindle ebook (USD $3.99) and as a paperback (USD $8.99). With thanks from Sarah Maddox.