“The Australian Valiant in Its Natural Habitat” by Welton B. Marsland

“Sunrise Sunset” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″

They were somewhere on the wrong side of Horsham. At least the number beside Melbourne’s name on the road signs was steadily declining.

Jeremy’s right foot had been on the accelerator so long that he wouldn’t be surprised to find it stuck there at journey’s end. Heat and sweat caused the gum trees on the roadside to dance in his peripheral vision for a fleeting, sickly moment.

“You okay?”

The voice from the back seat prickled the back of Jeremy’s neck. He hadn’t realised he’d moaned softly. “Huh?” he glanced into the mirror. The boy was sprawled along the Valliant’s long back seat, grubby hands cradling a sawn-off shotgun, both truncated barrels pointed at Jeremy’s nape.

“I said,” the boy sighed, “Are you okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

Jeremy stared at dark blue bitumen. “Nothing.” What else could he reply? He’d only been heading out for coffee, after all. He wondered again—117th time this journey—how long did Dirk and Grania wait in their favourite Fremantle café as Jeremy’s expected arrival time came and went? How many different types of shit did they call him for standing them up?

Jeremy remembered how smooth Dirk had sounded on the phone. He’d accepted the purred invitation without hesitation, tied his hair back, grabbed his leather jacket and gone. Almost out the door, he’d doubled back to his bedroom, searching amongst the detritus on the floor for the silver star on a chain Grania and Dirk had given him last Christmas.

They’d wanted coffee in the café he’d first met them in—a good sign. He’d pulled out of his driveway hastily, the sleek classic car narrowly missing the letterbox. At the end of his street, as he checked for non-existent traffic, he realised two things—one, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table, and two, there were shotgun barrels currently being pressed to the back of his neck. The sensation was cold and sharp; he could actually feel tiny, vicious nodules of rudely hacked metal scraping his skin. The Valiant stalled.

“Get it started again! Move it!” The voice sounded so young. Was this a joke? The barrels jabbed him once, twice. Jeremy fumbled the gear stick and ignition, deciding any joke that went like this was best played along with for the time being.

“Right,” the voice resumed when they were back on their way, “I’m heading for Melbourne. You’re gonna be nice and take me there.”

“Melbourne?!” Jeremy stared stupidly at his petrol gauge. “How?!”

“Drive me there of course, dickwit!”

And so it was.

Jeremy barely even noticed Perth falling away behind them those first few hours. His eyes were glued to the roads, not even daring to glance into his mirror. Several times, his fingers cramped around the wheel; knuckles bloodless, white. This Can’t Be Happening, he thought repeatedly, the shotgun’s lazy presence telling him otherwise, even as he thought it.

“We’re … we’re almost out of petrol.” He’d found his voice at last, somewhere behind his knees, apparently.

“Better stop somewhere then, hey?”

A small servo loomed up before them. “You got enough money on ya? Do ya want me to pay?”

Jeremy thought of the coffee and cake money in his jacket and stammered his negative reply.

“Settled then,” the voice breezed, like a boss announcing he’ll pick up the tab at a business luncheon. “I’ll pay our way ’til we get there.” A rolled up bundle of money plonked into Jeremy’s lap. “Use that. And be nice.”

Be nice? Jeremy almost laughed. Shouldn’t the voice say something like “Don’t try anything stupid”? or “No funny business”? Surely “be nice” was a little out of place here?

He stopped the Valiant at a bowser and because the place had a hand-painted sign boasting of driveway service, he waited for an attendant. A man soon appeared, smearing oil stains over a dirty overall. He waddled up to Jeremy’s window, smiling gap-toothedly.

“Series S,” he leered at the Valiant as though appraising a barmaid’s cleavage. “Bewdiful condition. Must be proud of her?”

Jeremy nodded dumbly. There was silence from the back seat and the shotgun had moved from the back of his neck. Surely, though, the amputated barrels were pressed into the restored leather upholstery of his backrest, waiting to blow both he and his beloved car apart unless he did his best to “be nice”.

“Fill her up, thanks,” he croaked.

The attendant shuffled the bowser nozzle into place, free hand tapping on the shiny black roof. “Restore her yerself, did ya?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy sighed. “Spent all summer on it. Me and some friends.”

He was lost for one sweet moment in memories … the bonnet sparkling in strong Perth sunshine, he and Dirk with heads bent close over mechanical intricacies, so engrossed that only Grania jiggling as she waxed the Valiant from bumper to bumper could distract them.

“Must be proud of her,” the attendant drawled again. Jeremy passed the man some money from the roll in his lap, the man passed back some workshop-grubbied change.

“Y-yes, I am. Thank you.”

Back on the road, the voice rose again. “Does that radio work? Or is it just for looks?”

“It works.” Jeremy twiddled the knobs, trying to find something the voice decided it liked.

“Cool!” the voice exclaimed, “Leave it on this!”

They travelled hours without saying a word. Jeremy tried not to look at the landscape too much; he hated being out of the city and this never-ending expanse, the unflinching openness of it, made him queasy. Jeremy instead filled his mind with candlelit images of bedrooms, rough kisses in dark nightclubs, three person conga lines around his kitchen table to cocktail music rescued from op-shops. His abductor stretched out along the back seat and growled along with every lyric the radio spilt into the car’s interior. Darkness was deep around them by the time the voice realised its driver must be wearying.

“Hey!”

Jeremy started at the sound, at the very poke of the voice.

“Tired? Want me to drive a while?”

Jeremy pulled the car into the gravel siding, feeling a little sick. “What’ll you do with me while you’re driving?” Oh god, his mind trembled, don’t let him put me in the boot. Oh god, please…

~

“So!” the boy slid into the driver’s seat, testing his foot-to-pedal comfort, “Ever been tied up before?”

Jeremy couldn’t help laughing. Could this teenager even guess why an adult might find that question amusing? He couldn’t be more than fourteen, surely? For godsake, he was being held captive by a little kid! He looked down at the complicated knots he was tied with and sighed heavily. A little kid who’d been a Boy Scout, obviously.

“Can you drive?” Jeremy demanded. “A lot of work’s gone into this car. I don’t want it wrecked by some little shit out for a joyride.”

The boy turned the engine over expertly and cast Jeremy a baleful look. “Do I look like I’m out for a joyride? Now be nice and sleep. I’ll need you driving during the day when people might see us.”

A flat tyre near the Victorian border was to be the only further event of the journey. Jeremy resigned himself to getting the kid to Melbourne quickly. He didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t want to try escaping and be a maimed or dead hero. The kid didn’t seem talkative either, so they rode out their trip with only the most essential of speech.

That’s why Jeremy was startled by the sudden questioning outside Horsham.

“You okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

“Nothing.” He sighed again. “Actually, yeah, something’s up.” He glanced into the mirror, finding the childish, wide brown eyes of his captor peering back. “I was heading out for coffee. Just a bloody coffee. There’s these people … you’re too young to understand, but this … couple … are very dear to me. I haven’t seen them for a while. We’d had this stupid argument over showing the car at a collectors’ show. Yeah, this car. Did it up together, see. Anyway. We had this stupid argument and haven’t seen each other since. I’ve been miserable, okay? Then suddenly they call me and want to meet in the place we first met. That’s where I was going when you popped up. Now here I am,” he made a sweeping gesture at the green and gold land rushing by. “Here I am thousands of miles out of my way, I’ve stood up the two people I love most, and I’ve got a shotgun pointed at the back of my frigging neck! To top all this off—have you seen the state of this car?! She’s a grand old lady and we’re putting her through a bloody cross-country rally!” Jeremy swiped angrily at tears as he finished, wondering what young thugs thought of blokes who cried these days.

The boy was quiet while Jeremy composed himself then, for the first time, he swung his legs over the red leather backrest and fell into the front passenger seat. “I wouldn’t worry about the car if I were you,” he said. “Vals are tough. You could drive her through a war zone and she’d pull up alright on the other side. Plus, y’know, you and yer mates did a great job on her. You could keep going up to Brisbane before she’d even need a service, I bet.”

Jeremy snorted a teary laugh. “And what would you know about cars?”

“My dad was a mechanic. Used to work on oldies like this. Old Valiants. Old Holdens. He would’ve loved this car. Always wanted a Series S…”

Jeremy glanced sideways and caught the wistful look on the boy’s face. It took him a moment longer to realise the shotgun had been left, forgotten, in the back.

“Is that why you chose my car? Because your Dad would’ve liked it?”

“Yeah. Plus it’s not hard to get into a locked Val. Sorry mate, but it isn’t.”

The boy and Jeremy both smiled cautiously. Jeremy shrugged, giving his attention back to the road. He still didn’t want to ask of the boy’s whys and hows, even though it was probably possible to do so now.

~

The lights of Melbourne’s skyscrapers winked at the Valiant as it approached journey’s end. The boy dozed lightly. Jeremy nudged him awake, telling him to put his seatbelt on.

“Sure,” the boy said, first leaning over into the back to shove the shotgun into a battered sports bag. “North Melbourne station’s probably the best place to leave me. D’ya know where that is?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Never been out of WA before.” He laughed grimly. “You know Melbourne?”

“Yeah. My mum’s here somewhere. Haven’t seen her since I was six, when Dad took me to Perth. She’ll probably pretend she’s glad he’s dead when I tell her. But she’ll be upset really, I reckon. She always said he was a loser, doing all those robberies and stuff. Now he’s gone and proved her right. He should’ve stuck to fixing cars, instead of driving ’em away from banks really fast…” He smirked and hauled the sports bag into his lap, hugging it close while Jeremy eased the car into the dark parking area at North Melbourne train station.

They sat silently, looking embarrassed for a short while. “My mum always told me to be nice to people who help me,” the boy fumbled with his seatbelt and sports bag. “I’m sorry if I scared yer too much or anything. I know I’ve really put you out, but there was nuthin’ else I could do. I had to get away real quick … and it’s such a cool car…” He held his hand out. Jeremy looked it at a moment as if wondering what the boy wanted, then he clasped it and shook it solidly.

The boy got out of the car, threw two rolled-up bundles onto the seat and ran off, shouting a childish “Thanks heaps!”.

~

Although he’d given up smoking years ago, Jeremy ripped open a pack of smokes from the nearby pub’s machine as he listened thankfully to the coins dropping into the pay phone. He raised his voice over the traffic-mumble around him and blurted “I love you” into the receiver, barely registering if it was Grania or Dirk who answered at the other end.

     

Welton B. Marsland is a queer-punk writer from Melbourne, Australia whose stories, poetry & more have appeared in many local & international markets. Debut novel “By the Currawong’s Call,” set in 1890s Australia, is available through harpercollins.com.au and recently won the Romance category at the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York. Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com

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