(x) Days of Photography is a flash fiction/photography collaboration with Austin Andrews of Disposable Words. This is Day Ten.

He returned to the car to find it covered in black, pink and silver graffiti tags, and wondered where she had got to.

Nowhere, it turned out.

She was sitting on the front passenger side and staring vacantly through the graffiti on the windscreen, past him, at the green, white, and yellow glow of the service station. A car came from behind him and shot light through the windscreen. For one moment the shadow of graffiti was marked on her face. She squinted. She was putting it on.

He had asked her questions all the way down the freeway. After half an hour of no response he started answering his own questions in the hope she would want to correct him.

“How old was he? Mm, I don’t know exactly. Did he have any family? He may have had a girlfriend or three. Really, but none that you saw? He never brought them home. Pity that. He must have had a good job?
She rested her head against the window and closed her eyes.

He continued, “He worked very hard, and got paid handsomely for it; but he worked too hard: late nights, weekends. Sometimes he’d arrive home from work, only to have to leave two hours later. Why didn’t he stay at the office? Sleep under the desk? Routine was very important to him.” At that point he paused. “Was.” He had not meant to say this word aloud, but it weighed all his questions down. He might be the last person to ever ask after this man. “And how about you?”

He wanted to change the topic of conversation, but was not at all curious about her. If he had any questions for her they were all in relation to him. Her silence, however, was making it rather difficult to talk about anything else.

He unlocked the car and sat down beside her. “Thanks for watching the car.” He passed her a cup of tea but she just put her head back against the window and close her eyes so he put it in her cupholder: “For later, then.”

He started eating his hamburger in the hope it would make him tired. He had driven all day and felt like he could drive all night until morning and still not be through with asking questions that would remain unanswered.

He wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a sip of club-lemonade and sat and watched the comings and goings of the service station. It was like its own little township in the middle of nowhere, with an exact replica one-hundred metres away on the other side of the freeway. From where he had parked he could see straight through the fly-screen back entrance of the kitchen and the woman in a black apron and white top working over the grill. He had worked in a kitchen once, scraping plates and scrubbing pans. They had called him ”dish-pig” because he found his dinner in half bowls of soup and soggy french fries. A young girl, just dropped out of school, took over the job when he left and the boys in the kitchen called her dish-pig as well, which probably wouldn’t have happened if she were queen of the prom. But if she had been queen she wouldn’t have been washing dishes, and he wouldn’t be in a service depot on route to nowhere thinking about her.

To the left of the kitchen was an automatic car-wash. He found the keys in his pocket, started up the car, and drove around behind the car wash, parked on the platform, and put in his money. Through all this she didn’t wake. Her breathing was heavy now and he could hear a slight wheeze in her chest.

The car wash started up and the car slowly moved forward and then stopped in position. First, a high pressure spray. He liked the noise of the jets hitting the car. It was like putting your head under a shower and the only thing you could hear was the water pressure. Second, the rinse. He took his hands off the steering wheel and put his fingers in his ears. He didn’t like this sound, back and forth, squeaky, squeaky. He started to hum to block out the noise, but that didn’t work, so he screamed. Quietly at first, and then loud.

She woke and flung her arm out and whacked him fair across the nose. He was stunned and stopped screaming. But then he started up again. This time louder, as they went through the blow-dryer. She joined him. They faced each other and screamed louder again.

Two truck drivers smoking next to their rig looked at him as he drove past and headed back out on the freeway. He made his way across an emergency road exit and onto the otherside of the freeway, heading back in the direction of the city.

They drove in silence through the night. He wasn’t sure when she slept and when she was awake, as her breathing was pretty much all the same, and she sat against the window the whole way. He liked driving at night. He liked being the sole car on the unlit parts of the freeway with only his headlights to guide him. He remembered back to yesterday morning, and what the man in the pyjamas, beige overcoat and… had said about… at the bottom of the cupboard. When he was in the apartment the night before, that is where she had been hiding. He lifted his eyes and saw a line of lamp posts curling around the top of the hill and a rig slowly making its way up to the top. He changed lanes and sped up to pass.

They made it back to the city by morning. He made it through dawn and his energy increased with the light. Without thinking, he drove to the apartment where they had been only yesterday and parked in the alley. She woke up soon thereafter. Every vertebrae in her back crackled. She looked out onto the street and saw the front entrance to the apartment and looked over at him. He shrugged his shoulders.

They were only twenty metres away from the entrance and he could see white chalk and hand marks on the entrance door where the police had been. A train of school children, tallest to shortest, dressed in safety fluro yellow vests, walked along the sidewalk in front of the building. For a moment he wondered if those were his fingerprints, but then remembered he wore gloves and didn’t go through the entrance door.

She was nervously knitting with her index fingers and mumbling, “purl, purl, stich; purl, purl, stitch…”

He turned to her and put his hand reassuringly on her arm: ”I’m sure you’ve left many strangers behind you.” And he opened the car door and walked across the street towards the entrance door and pushed it open, leaving his fingerprint amongst the others in the remnant of chalk.

She reached over and took her cold cup of tea from the cupholder.

(to be continued)