Backseat Highway


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The sunlight coming through the window begins to hit this skin like a smashed plate. The rays have been on this skin for too long, smothered by the steaming desert air. These fingers pinch an arm, in case a different type of pain will be distracting. The sting fades quickly though, leaving the ache of heat all over. It blends into the silence in the car, everything becoming too warm and blank. The quiet is stifling, but speaking with Stephen will require too much effort.

These eyes look out the window, then at these sweaty feet on the ground. This mouth flicks words around, squeezes sentences from these teeth, but cannot find anything worth saying.

'Jessica is what I called that girl,' Stephen says. This head jerks to look at him, unsure if he is really speaking or if it is just a voice in the distance. Stephen closes his mouth and scratches the stubble on his cheek.

'Jessica?' this mouth asks, even though the name had become familiar in Father's house whenever Stephen was present – muttered, cursed, thrown about.

'Jessica,' he nods and continues, 'blonde hair, kept in a ponytail if I was driving somewhere. Left those tiny hands on my thigh and that mouth shut, only ever opening it to squeal when I went over the speed limit. Blue eyes, long eyelashes.'

'Jessica sounds beautiful,' this mouth says, even though he's said it all before. Skin that felt like butter when he touched it and long, tamed fingernails that were coated in clear polish. Wore lip-gloss that was pink and cherry-flavoured, and as soon as the sun left the sky the gloss was replaced with red lipstick.

'I had to report Jessica. One night Jessica's body was too tired to complete duty and I had needs, you know? When I woke the next morning, the disposal truck was pulling out of the driveway and just like that Jessica was gone. I didn't say goodbye.'

This head nods, thinking of the way that body must have sat in the disposal truck, air sucked from the space around that skin. Those eyes, already seen the last of the light they'd ever see. Time stiffening while Jessica waited for whatever was coming next, and all of those girls not looking at anything but the floor, knowing all of them had done wrong.

'I think about Jessica more than anything else,' Stephen says. He rubs his eyes with his left hand, leaving the other one on the wheel to steady the car, 'I wish I never done it.'

Stephen doesn't say if he had felt regret at the very start, or if it came over time, when he found himself cold without that body in bed and the house quiet and hollow upon him arriving home of an evening. This mind wondered if his regret was something that grew in retrospect, after giving his memory time to trace over the features of that body.

Stephen reaches into his pocket, his right hand remaining on the wheel. The car still swerves though, and something rattles in the boot. His hand struggles, closes around something, and then pulls out a photograph.

The photograph is folded in half, and the crease in the middle runs deep. A blonde girl takes up the left side of the picture, and the white edge of a house occupies the rest of the space. The girl is smiling with those eyes closed. It's the kind of smile that forms seconds before a laugh, cheeks indented and mouth about to erupt with delight.

'I just wish I could change it,' Stephen says. He has said it before, many times, and will say it again.

'You’re a man, you’ve always got to do what’s right,' this mouth says. Stephen increases the speed. The air does not move any faster. It continues to hover around this body.

'I did the right thing,' Stephen says. He exhales. The indicator ticks for the car to move lanes, and Stephen places his foot lightly on the gas. His hand finds this thigh, and this hand moves over his, a synthetic token of support. The car travels even faster. The air still does not move.

This mind wonders what Father felt when he reported mama and didn't tell. He didn't tell this body either, or his sons. He sat down at the dining table the next day, said, 'Mother has been disposed of,' and that was that.

It was clear mama was going to be disposed of. It was clear as soon as mama placed that fork in Father's dinner. After the years spent here, trained to resist the temptation, trained to take nothing more than what was given, mama ruined it all.

'Ah fuck, I gotta get more fuel,' Stephen says. He slams on the brakes. This body thumps against the seat, and lingers, unmoving, as the car slows into a gas station. Truck drivers walk from the pumps to the building, their shirts big and their hair long and greasy.

In the background, the sky looks pale, as though the relentless sun has faded it too. Around us is the flat, quivering desert. Stephen was only just driving past fir trees this morning, and they looked as though they would continue on for days on the highway. Now though, Stephen has journeyed somewhere tarnished, too far gone.

The car stops, and these shoulders jerk. Every time the engine is switched off it feels as though the world stops. Stephen opens his door and walks over to the petrol pump. The smell of gasoline drips into this nose straight away. It is almost like a syrup leaking through the air.

A few seconds later, Stephen is back at the car. He opens the glove box and pulls out his finance card.

'Get some food for that mouth, yeah?' he says. He scratches his crotch with the edge of the card, then passes it over.

'Sure,' this mouth says, placing the card between this index and this middle finger.

This body walks to the station, past the truck drivers. Their gazes are like clammy fingers on this skin. They trace up and down these legs, and creep over these arms, trying to reach into the sleeves of this shirt.

This body reaches the glass doors, and waits for the doors to part, but they remain shut. These legs step side to side, forward and backwards, hoping movement will cause the doors to open, but the glass stays in place.

This silhouette moves about in the glass. These eyes try to look through the silhouette to see inside but there is only glare and a reflection of the dry world filled with men. These eyes try harder to see inside, staring until things overlap in this vision.

A man walks past, slamming against this shoulder. The doors open in front of him. These teeth press into this tongue and this body follows him through the doors. After all, this body shouldn't have been in his way.

The odour of burnt coffee thickens inside this nose, along with the clean smell of the air conditioner. This body feels as though it is standing outside in a cold street, surrounded by neon lights which appear both faded and clear at once. After a few moments, these eyes focus enough to see the girl's section on the other side of the station. These legs begin to walk towards it.

Another man walks too quickly past this body and slams into this shoulder again. A stack of magazines falls out of his arms and onto the ground.

'Bitch,' he says, and this body bends over to pick up the items. There is a whole pile of those magazines filled with girls, the girls who dress in lace that comes in every colour but white, and pulled so taut around their bodies that flesh slides out from underneath the material. Like the way a chunk of dead pig becomes indented by the white string pulled over the meat.

This body pauses. The man snatches the magazines and walks away without saying anything else. This body hesitates but stands, trying to remove the image of the girl from this mind. But the more it tries to, the more visible are the primed eyes, the open mouth, the bitten tongue, and the bare and too-eager body. A girl like that is the equivalent of a dirty word, one that Father would laugh at if his sons shouted, but would slap this cheek if it came from this mouth.

These arms shake. They try to smooth themselves against this skirt to steady them, but it does not make a difference at all, and they continue to tremble.

'Sorry,' this mouth says, but the word empties into a vacant aisle filled with food only men can eat and magazines only men can read. The man who was present seconds ago has already disappeared.

This body walks to the girl's section and browses through the food options. These eyes squint to look at the egg white omelettes, the mixed leaf salads, the grilled carrots. This stomach is complacent at the sight of it all, and these fingers turn Stephen's finance card over and over in these hands.

Opposite the food, there is a display of hair dyes. Rows and rows of boxes, with one girl smiling on each of the covers. Each box shows a picture of the same girl with different coloured hair.

These hands pick up the packet where the hair is the lightest blonde. The box is cold, and when it is tucked under this arm the edges dig through this shirt into the skin of this torso. These eyes glance around to see if there are any other customers nearby. There are no men inside but through the clear sliding doors, the only truck drivers left can be seen walking back to their vehicles.

Stephen's car remains still.

This body walks through the silent air to the counter. These hands press Stephen's card into the machine and after it beeps, these legs walk away, through the doors and into the world again. Sweat begins to form on this body as soon as it has left the station.

When this body sits down in the car, Stephen does not ask what this body bought to eat. He simply starts the engine and pulls out onto the highway. These hands place the dye at these feet, then open the glove-box and place his card back inside it.

'Say thank you,' he says.

'Thank you,' this mouth says.



As the sun goes down, Stephen stops at a different motel. His car is the first one in the parking lot. A few rays of sun seep out from behind the building. The motel looks like dust which has briefly been caught in sunshine. These eyes watch as Stephen walks to reception and organises the room. He chooses the room at the far end of the building again. Stephen waves and this body follows him to the room. He begins to take his shoes off as soon as he steps inside, but reaches for the television remote instead. This body pauses, looking at the peeling walls, the burgundy quilt, the way the bed sinks into the carpet. It is the same as the last motel, just dressed in different colours.

This body walks to the bathroom and locks the door. These hands open the packet of hair dye. Inside is the brochure of instructions, some gloves, and two different sized containers of dye, one bigger than the other. These hands pull on the gloves and secure them against these fingers as though they are a new skin. Then these hands pour the smaller bottle of dye into the bigger one, and shake it, as the instructions say.

These hands eject the contents of the bottle onto this head, feeling it ooze onto the scalp like cool lava. These hands massage it all into the hair until these fingers get sore. This body sits in the shower without any water running, pressing these feet into the tiles. This body lets the dye stay on until this scalp simmers with pain. In the next room, Stephen flicks through channel after channel on the television, blimps of sound echoing through the wall. It feels as though this mind is melting away. This mind is not bothered by the feeling at all. 

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About the Story

This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017. It's an updated version of what first appeared in the anthology.

In Virileville, the most important event of any girl’s existence is her graduation. On this day her fate is decided. If she is perfectly suited for the career designated to her, she lives. If not, she is disposed of immediately. One imperfect, unnamed girl awaits her demise. However, hours before the ritual, she is kidnapped by a family friend, Stephen, who has obsessed about her for years. As they drive the highways, it is clear that Stephen has no plan. The girl realises she can fight for power, but doing so can be more dangerous than she thought. 

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The Author

Carly Smith is a writer based in Brisbane. Since completing a creative writing degree at QUT, she has been published in Cowhide Journal, Scum Magazine, Barking Sycamores Journal, and Lower View Journal, and was also long-listed in the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize. She is currently working on her first full-length manuscript.


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