We’d been driving all night when we hit the kangaroo.
The sun was just rising in all its vermilion brilliance over the cracked red earth of the outback. I imagined we were caught in a firestorm summoned by some primordial god at the behest of one of the aborigines we’d passed on the road and I refused to stop for. We’d heard there was a roadhouse nearby and now the sky was ablaze, I saw it in the near distance and pointed. Sarah turned her head to look, so we didn’t see the kangaroo until it was too late. There was a loud thud, like the sound of a door slamming. The windscreen cracked and we were thrown forward. The car spun once, maybe twice, and then skidded to a stop, facing the wrong way. We looked at each other, wild-eyed.
‘Fuck,’ Sarah said, breathing hard.
‘Are you hurt?’ I asked, but she didn’t answer.
We’d known each other for years without being close, but were united by our mutual craving for Australia. Thirty hours into our journey to Alice Springs and the cracks had widened, with still another six hours on the road until we could go our separate ways.
I was the first to stumble out onto the road. The rising sun had burnt the blue Ford red, and as the light inched its way up to the windows and over the top of the car, I felt myself slipping away, losing focus, melting into the sky and the earth and the flames. The only sound was the hum of blowflies until the other door creaked open and Sarah staggered towards me. She brought me back to myself and we both looked at the damage in silence. There was a dent in the grill and on the bonnet, as though a boulder had fallen on it, but the windscreen had borne the worst of it. I realised we were lucky to be alive.
‘We’re not far form Alice Springs and the roadhouse is only over there,’ I said, about to point but then thinking better of it. ‘We’ll call the rental company from there and they’ll send a pickup truck for us. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll lose our deposit, but that’s it.’
Sarah fumbled for the cigarette packet she had thrown out of the window twenty hours previously.
‘You quit,’ I reminded her, thinking of how unbearable she had been ever since.
‘Shit,’ she said, kicking the front of the car before sitting on the bonnet and after a moment, looking me in the eye. ‘That was a kangaroo we hit, wasn’t it?’
‘Of course it was,’ I said, ‘there aren’t any people out here, not at this time.’ I looked at the flat expanse of Australia stretched out before me and suddenly felt afraid.
‘Where is it then?’ Sarah asked.
‘It must be back there.’
‘We should check,’ Sarah decided, and led the way.
We walked slowly, edging our way to the back of the car. I didn’t see the kangaroo at first, just skid marks and a fast fading flush of darker red. But then we heard movement so Sarah grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the side of the road to some low bushes, and there it lay. It was still alive. One of its hind legs was at an unnatural angle, the bone protruding, and patches of its fur were missing, revealing the sinews and the strength underneath. The animal was terrified. It’s other leg kicked at the ground when it saw us, desperate to escape. That’s when we noticed the dead joey hanging out of its pouch, shrouded in flies, and I felt the vast emptiness around us close in.
Sarah retched, stooped and vomited onto the ground. I turned away and tried to ignore the rasping cries of the kangaroo as it struggled to crawl away from the road.
Sarah, pale and trembling, lurched back to the car. I followed.
‘What are we going to do?’
‘I’ll walk over to the roadhouse and make a phone call, if anyone’s there this early.’
‘I don’t mean about the car for fuck’s sake,’ Sarah snapped.
‘I know what you meant,’ I said, raising my voice.
Sarah fumbled for the cigarette packet again and cursed herself when she remembered where it had gone.
‘It might die on its own. It’s only a matter of time.’
Sarah said nothing.
‘It might have internal injuries, which would speed things up.’
Sarah still didn’t speak.
‘Sarah? Are you okay?’
She shook her head. ‘We can’t just leave it to die.’
‘What are you suggesting? We’d never be able to lift it into the car.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘You’re tired and not thinking straight after the accident. Let’s go to the roadhouse, call for help and by the time we come back, the kangaroo will be dead.’
‘The baby. Did you see it?’
‘Of course I did,’ I said quietly.
The sun had risen now and the sky had become an intense, immersive blue with only the dark edges of night remaining on the west horizon. The dying animal belonged to a different time.
Sarah was about to speak, to argue, when we heard the sound of tyres on gravel. We turned in unison to see the dirt cloud of a ute approaching at speed. We stood in front of our wrecked car and waved our arms until the driver stopped.
He stuck his head out of the window and blew air out of his cheeks. ‘Strewth, you two are in the shit. What happened? Anyone hurt?’
‘We’re fine,’ I said, trying to smile, ‘we’re going to head over to that roadhouse when it opens and call for a pick-up truck.’
‘Poms, eh? Going to Alice Springs?’
‘We’re not hurt,’ Sarah said, ‘but we hit a kangaroo and it’s over there, still alive.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ The man stretched over the passenger seat and came out of the ute carrying a rifle.
Sarah and I instinctively stepped back but the man didn’t seem to notice our alarm.
‘Where’s this roo then?’
We led him to the wounded animal and he knelt beside it. ‘It’s in a pretty bad shape,’ he said, before cocking his gun. ‘You two go back to the car, I’ll sort this out.’
Sarah and I walked away in separate directions, just as the shot sounded and was carried over the unbroken outback, from one horizon to the other, until there was only the buzz of the blowflies and Sarah, fading into the haze of the morning sun.