SECRETS, LIES & GRACE
The lonely road loomed ahead of Grace, snaking its way up the wooded range. Destination: anywhere away from the mess her once-happy life had become. Even though she now had company in the car, her own loneliness had already clawed at her shattered heart, cutting and shredding it to slivers. She really didn’t care where the journey ended.
She reached for her phone yet again, shutting her mind to everything around her. This time she hit Kain’s name and tapped ‘Hi Kain.’ Her finger hesitated, hovering above the screen trying to figure out what to type next. But there really wasn’t anything left to say after what he’d done.
He’d made it clear as the purest glass – they were over. Done. After five, beautiful happy years. No logical explanation. No opportunity for her to beg him to reconsider, or to find a solution to their problems. Hell, she hadn’t even realised they had any problems. He’d seemed happy until . . . until a few days before the final goodbye. He changed. Became quiet, moody. Her finger tapped out the words, ‘Just letting you-‘
Without warning, the car jerked left, then to the right. She looked at the driver, opened her mouth to scream, but her head smacked the top edge of the car door. Whipping pain hit her neck. She dropped her phone, grabbed the door handle with one hand and reached for the steering wheel with the other. Her scream mingled with the screeching of the tyres, stabbing her eardrums. The car rolled and tumbled, crunched and scraped down the ravine. Pain surged through her head, chest, legs, everywhere. She screamed until her throat became a knife’s blade of pain.
The car door flew open and disappeared with a screech of tearing metal. Grace hit the ground and rolled with the momentum, landing against a rock. A flash of pain shot through her shoulder. The smell of petrol so strong she could taste it. Another crunch from the car, then silence. She spat dirt, lifted her head and looked around, trembling, fighting back a choking sob. Her car was now an upside-down mangled mass of metal thrown against a tree further down the ravine, one wheel still turning and smoke drifting upwards.
The driver! Taking hold of a sapling, she pulled herself to her knees. Sweat dripped from her face, the forest spun and shimmered but she had to get down to the car. She swallowed saliva and attempted to stand. Pain flared from her feet to her head.
A surge of heat hit her like the sun had burst and she fell onto her face. A sickening, burning smell filled the air, more than just the incinerated car. Burning flesh. She opened her mouth and vomited on the ground. Afraid to look but needing to know, she looked back. A fireball rolled high into the air, past the treetops. No one could ever survive that inferno.
Flames licked at the grass around the wreck. Get away! She raised herself to hands and knees, crawled and scrambled up the hillside, scattering sticks and loose dirt.
Pushing to her feet, she ran, stumbling as she wove between trees and ducking low hanging branches, hoping to find the road. Her thigh muscles strained and burned. She gasped for each ragged breath. The hill levelled out and she stopped, bent over and sucked life-saving air into her tight lungs.
Grabbing an overhanging branch for support, thorns tore at her dirty, bare, bruised skin. She yanked her arm back and rubbed the fresh scratch stinging her forearm. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she stepped backwards. One of her joggers broke a stick. Snap echoed through the endless trees.
Pain and disbelief tore at her fractured heart and crumbling sanity. The accident. The driver. Nobody deserved to die that way.
Was this some horrible nightmare? Am I dead? Is this hell?
She held her breath. No traffic sounds. No road. Nothing.
The summer air hung thick. Glaring sun, stifling heat, and sweltering humidity drained the life out of her.
A growl and flash of golden tan to her right froze her to the spot, froze the blood in her veins. Afraid to breathe or swipe away the bush flies settling on her face, she turned. That growl could only come from a meat eater.
Another deep growl.
Icy chills sluiced down her spine. A huge, lean dog stood behind a full-grown Ironbark tree, watching her. A breath jammed in her throat, bringing her racing heart to a brief halt. It looked like a German Shepherd. Thank God. Maybe its owner was nearby.
“It’s okay boy, I won’t hurt you.” She shaded her eyes and scanned the bush, searching for campers or bushwalkers. Please. “Hellooooo. Anyone there?” No reply. The dog watched her, head low. Invisible lasers shot from its eyes, cutting through every part of her aching body. She whistled through sand-paper lips, barely audible. She leaned forward and reached out a dirty hand to the dog.
It didn’t move.
Her long hair fell down the sides of her face. She was sure she’d tied it up in a ponytail before . . . before what? Bits and pieces flashed through her brain but nothing made sense.
She straightened and pushed hair behind her ear before rubbing her aching temple. When she brought her hand down, blood and sweat marked her fingers.
Invisible talons grabbed her throat at the sight, squeezing out all breath. Her life could be oozing out with that blood.
The car. What happened? Why did it crash?
She tried to remember but winced from the pain in her head. The dog walked away from the tree, its full size now exposed. Saliva dripped from strong jaws. Yellowish menacing eyes never left her face.
Sunlight beaming through the trees highlighted the tannish-orange of the dog’s matted coat that covered prominent rib bones. The white-tipped tail remained motionless. This was no one’s pet.
And it was hungry, very hungry.
Another dog, smaller and with the fairer coat of a pure dingo, came into view only metres from the first. It glanced at the other dog in front then to her. Hunger showed in determined eyes and drooling jaws. Hunger showed in a hollow, tucked-up belly. Hunger equalled desperation.
Grace’s heart thumped like an angry bass drummer. Come on, think! They were wild, ravenous dogs and she, their food. They smelt her blood, her fear. She spun around, looking for any sign of civilization.
Nothing except endless bush – gum trees, iron-barks, wattles and lantana, bloody lantana. She hated the pest after helping her parents clear it from a back paddock.
With no climbable trees close by, Grace searched for another saviour. Two steps to her left lay a metre-long stick. With that she’d have some hope of defending herself. She edged out her left foot.
The bigger dog growled again and took a step forward. Not too much of her skin showed. So what. They could rip jeans to shreds in seconds. She shuddered, fighting back the tears that stung her eyes, the lump forming in her throat.
“Look”, she said to the evil staring her down, “I won’t hurt you if you just leave me alone, okay.” She inched her left foot closer to the stick, followed by her right, dragging it through ankle-high grass.
Life was perfect then it all came crashing down . . . but why? Dammit, she couldn’t remember. What does it matter now anyway? Her life could end at any minute. Any second.
The dog took another step toward Grace, lowered its head and growled again.
A louder rumble came from the west. The sun disappeared behind black clouds. Another rumble. Thunder.
Neither dog moved a muscle, ignoring the approaching storm.
Tears slid down her cheeks. As if the dogs weren’t terrifying enough, now she also had to contend with a storm. Her legs weakened, threatening to crumple, but that would definitely be the end. She’d be ripped apart, eaten by bloody wild dogs, her bare bones left to bake in the relentless Queensland heat. Kain will never know how much she still loved him.
“Stuff you, Kain Burrows.” She shouted until her lungs hurt and her throat burned. “I loved you and now look where I am.”
Kain was her life, she couldn’t imagine being without him. She, ready to get married and start a family and he decided he needed to go out and find himself. Find himself? Who the hell is going to find her in this God forsaken place?
She imagined him running through the bush, calling her name, finding her, assuring her what a big mistake he’d made and that he still loved her. That was the part that hurt the most. When he’d told her he no longer loved her. The part that grated her heart into little pieces, like these dogs wanting to rip into her body and tear it to bite sized pieces.
Grace shot her hand down and grabbed the stick, grasping the end with both hands and raised it high. Searing pain speared through her right shoulder. More tears flowed. She dropped her right arm with a defeated cry.
Jumbled images continued swirling through her brain. She remembered feeling tired then the hitchhiker standing by the side of the road, with nothing in her hands. The hitchhiker in the car. What was her name? Sally? Susie?
Lightning shot to earth, immediately followed by the sharp crack of thunder. Thunder that seemed capable of splitting anything in two. Again, neither dog flinched. The storm was building fast and heading toward her. She had to keep it together.
It was too much. “Damn you friggin’ things! Why can’t you just run away and hide?” Gritting her teeth, she swung the stick around her head. “Go on, get out.” She screamed, hoping to frighten the dogs but they didn’t budge. Instead, her parched throat now burned like she’s swallowed a red-hot ember. Water. She needed water. She dropped her throbbing right arm and held the stick in her left hand.
That scream was familiar, but why? She wanted to scream out longer, louder, harder but when she opened her mouth only a hoarse croak came out.
That same scream had filled the air when her car left the road and surged down the side of the range. But she wasn’t driving. She’d seen Sally’s (or Susie) head hit the steering wheel.
Phone. Grace felt all her pockets, including the one in her blouse. All empty. There seemed no hope of escaping the dogs.
More pain flowed through her right shoulder and arm. No, wait. Against her better judgement she’d been texting Kain to tell him she was going . . . going where? She shouldn’t have even bothered the courtesy of letting him know.
“Why can’t I remember?” Anger replaced fear. A large stone caught her vision. She bent, grabbed it in her right hand without thinking. With a painful grunt, she hurled the stone at the menacing dog.
The stone hit its front leg. A sharp yelp. Another louder growl sent more slivers of fear through her body.
The other, smaller dog, mouth open and tongue hanging out, trotted forward stopping beside the larger dog. Long white teeth showed. Teeth that could soon be tearing through her skin and muscle, ripping out her innards. Tongues that would lap her blood. Icicles of fear sped through her veins and dropped into her stomach.
The breeze dropped. Bird songs fell silent. The storm, imminent. The growls fell silent. Even the thunder fell silent. The only noise, her sharp breathing, her heart pounding and her blood pulsating in her ears.
Both dogs ready to go in for the kill. A loud clap of thunder. Grace screamed and jumped. Sweaty hands quivered, her chest tightened. If the dogs don’t eat her, lightning will strike one of these trees above her. Either way, she’d die.
She dropped the stick, turned and fled. One of her shoes slipped off. She didn’t stop but dared look back. Both dogs lolloped after her, gaining ground, mouths open, pink tongues exposed. A blinding bolt of lightning lit up the bush. The ground shook as the thunder continued on with its deep rumbling. Rumbling like a volcano with colic.
Grace pushed onward, swiping low branches, jumping fallen logs and rocks, hoping like hell she wouldn’t trip. Her jeans caught on a snag. Her right arm ached as it swung about. A painful stitch ripped into her side.
But all was quiet behind her. She halted, bent forward and gasped for each agonising breath as she turned around. Both dogs had stopped. They could have caught her if they’d continued running.
The wind picked up. Large raindrops hit her head and eerie darkness descended. The heavy clouds approached at top speed. More thunder clapped and rumbled after each flash of lightning.
The raindrops hit faster and heavier, soon washing away her tears and her blood.
The larger dog howled, came closer, crouched. The smaller one stood back. Their coats ragged and pathetic as the rain pelted them. Grace brushed wet, clingy hair from her eyes.
“I love you Mum and Dad.” She needed to say her goodbyes out loud. “And you Sophie, little sis.” She sucked back a sob and gulped in a breath. “Steve, I love you too, big brother where ever you are.” The ground tugged away at her strength, but she remained standing. “And you, Kain, I’ll always love you, no matter what.”
The larger dog sprang. The smaller one circled left. Grace opened her mouth to scream but her brain had gone mute. Everything now in slow motion.
No more energy to run and nowhere to hide. Pain disappeared. Only numbness remained. Spittle sprayed from the dog’s mouth. Nano-second images of her life flashed by. Her body seemed weightless, her hands turned to ice. Stomach acid rose, burning her oesophagus and throat, that was about to be torn out. Feet cemented to the ground.
A short, high-pitched whistle shot passed her head. Lightning flashed. A sharp crack, but not a crack of thunder.
Almost upon her, the dog jerked and crashed to the ground, skidding along the grass. Its skull exploded. Bone, blood, fur, and brain matter splattered in all directions. One eye disappeared but the other remained open, watching but seeing nothing.
Grace jumped back, clasping her hand to her mouth. The dog had been about to kill her, now it lay at her feet, mutilated. Dead. She gasped to get air down her throat, constricted from fear.
The other dog bolted away. The gaping head wound of the dead dog filled with water. Enlarged teats along its belly tugged at Grace’s heart for a second. She shuddered, bent and dry retched. Her body trembled, both from cold and shock. The rain continued pelting down. More thunder growled overhead, drowning out the dull roar of the wind and rain.
Spinning around, she saw a man as yet another flash of lightning lit up the surrounds.
On a small ridge, black hat, long dark coat, rifle raised to his shoulder. He stood, amidst the whiteness of the pouring rain. She hadn’t heard the shot. He had saved her . . . or maybe he’d been aiming for her.
Adrenaline and fear fused and reignited. No fight, just flight. Again, she turned and ran. The torrential rain stung her face and arms. The wind howled like a demented monster, sending branches crashing around her.
A white flash. A bone-jarring crack echoed through the forest. Branches from a large tree exploded to her right, the shower of sparks hurting her eyes. Blinding pain hit her back. She screamed.
Everything spun and blurred. She crashed to the wet ground. Kain’s cheeky smile flashed through her mind right before she plunged into blackness.