Here's the first chapter of my about to be released book, Currents of Change. Enjoy!
ara’s fingers gripped the wheel, convulsing on it like a live electrical wire. The speedometer crept higher. Five…ten…twenty kilometres over the speed limit.
Gorse, clay, and punga trees merged into a green and yellow blur at the edge of a road that was cut into the face of the hillside like a tar sealed scab on Mother Earth. A scar that would never heal on Papatuanuku’s wild green skin.
She kept her eyes fixed on the road and her jaw clenched until the distracting buzz of her phone fell quiet and she could breathe again.
So much for silent mode. She should have switched the damn thing off.
She swallowed, relaxed her fingers, and eased her foot back off the pedal, just a bit. Just a tiny bit.
The car crested the top of the hill and began the descent into the valley below. For a moment she got a glimpse of farmland stretched out like a blanket and the blue sparkle of the sea beyond that. Then the trees rose up again and shadow covered the road.
She’d been driving for hours. Since well before dawn when even the city had an eerie, deserted feeling about it. It was a feeling that extended well into the bush and tiny country towns that were all she’d seen since lunch. She hoped it would be deserted enough.
The world had potential in it – like the ocean she had glimpsed in the distance. There was sunlight somewhere, and she could get to it now. She had to believe that. To cling to it. She would find what she needed soon. The sacrifice had been too great otherwise.
She flicked the switch on the door and the driver’s side window slowly wound itself down to let in the wind. The cool air buffeted her hair and face, cleansing and free, until she was trembling with cold, but her skin tingled with exhilaration. She had done what she needed to do. She was free.
A light flashed on the side of the road, bright and startling.
She hit the brakes but it was too late. She hadn’t realised how quickly her speed had crept up again. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. Sure enough, a speed camera vehicle sat tucked into the trees like a spider waiting for her unwary flight.
“Damn it.” What speed had she been going?
She flicked the switch again and the window wound its way up. Her skin warmed quickly. She should have known better. Her mind began working on ways she could hide what she had done – ways she could pay the fine and keep safe.
Then it struck her: she didn’t have to. It wasn’t her vehicle anyway and she was already safe.
Already safe! The words echoed in her mind like something forbidden. Like blaspheming the laws of nature. The absurdity of it fizzed in her like a chemical reaction and she found herself laughing. Laughing in great gulping breaths that tore at her insides, where she wasn’t quite healed, and cramped her stomach with pain but somehow she couldn’t stop. She pulled the car over to the side of the road and yanked on the handbrake while the shuddering mirth ripped through her body. Sobs mixed into the laughter and suddenly she found she was crying. Crying and shuddering like a madwoman. Insane.
She clutched at her hurting stomach and tried to slow the sobs. She pushed the emotions down, forcing air into her lungs, deep and even. In through the nose, out through the mouth. That’s what the counsellor had told her. For once Sara was glad she’d been visited by the woman. No matter what she might have told the nurses and doctors when she’d left, at least this simple mantra seemed to help.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She swallowed the last of the emotion down and closed her eyes for just a moment.
It wasn’t far to go now. She was nearly there.
“Come on, Sara,” she told herself, her voice little more than a whisper. “Sort your shit out.”
Her stomach ached still and she wondered if she was bleeding. No point stopping to check now. She’d deal with it when she got to her destination. She put the car into gear and accelerated out onto the road.
An hour later, the town of Kowhiowhio was a blip on the highway, just north of the Bay of Islands. She hadn’t found it on a map. Even her GPS had struggled, only giving her a nearby intersection of the highway. If she hadn’t been given a description of what to look out for she’d have driven right past it.
Wide green paddocks gave way to a sudden burst of shops and houses, like paint drops spattered on green carpet. There was a petrol station, a pub, a convenience store with its familiar aproned grocer beckoning from the sign on the eaves, and a few others.
“Kowhiowhio Four Square,” read the sign. This was the place.
Sara pulled over and parked the car. Her grandmother’s words echoed in her head. “Once you get there, ask the locals. They’ll know where it is. It’s a bit of a town landmark.”
She pushed the car door open and dragged her aching body out onto the footpath. A town this size couldn’t have too many landmarks but even here it seemed strange for an empty old house to make the list. She put her hands on her hips and arched her back in a stretch. Her stomach still hurt but not as badly as she’d feared.
Straightening up, she tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear, then reconsidered and pulled it forward again to hide her cheekbones. She glanced at her phone. The screen glowed with notifications of missed calls and text messages. She slipped it into her handbag and strode into the store.
The layout was similar to most country dairies, if a little larger than most. It likely served as the local supermarket – if such a word could be applied to a shop this size. To the left, an internal door connected to the fish and chip shop next door. On the right, a segregated booth held a sign proclaiming, “Nate’s Electrical” and had spools of cable on a counter but no attendant. In the main section of the store, shelves ran in straight lines with a clear path to the checkout counter.
Sara paused to pick out a few items of food. She was going to have to eat while she was here, after all. Something quick and easy for tonight, and something for tomorrow’s breakfast. She’d come back and do a proper, healthier shop in the morning. She couldn’t face much more than that right now and anyway the doctor had told her to rest up. She tried not to imagine what he’d say if he knew she’d been driving all day.
She grabbed a couple of tins of spaghetti, some cereal and milk. Then, as an afterthought, picked up a vegetable and fruit juice concoction in a small glass bottle as her nod toward at least attempted nutrition. Her arms full, she made her way up to the counter.
A handsome man in his mid-thirties was talking to the shop clerk. He was tall and rugged with dark hair that was just a little too long and stubble across his strong jaw. He wore jeans, a polo shirt with “Nate’s Electrical” embroidered on it, and a troubled expression.
“You don’t think she’s up for it?” he said.
The woman behind the counter shook her head, her black hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail that bobbed with the movement. She was a Maori woman in her early forties with a tribal band tattooed around her wrist. “She needs to learn responsibility first or you’ll have trouble on your hands. I think you need to learn more about how little girls think. You’re floundering. You have been ever since Em died.”
“Actually, Moana, I think I’ve done pretty well.”
His jaw tightened, strength evident in the line of the muscles there. “Meaning?”
The woman opened to mouth to answer, then caught sight of Sara. She frowned. “Yes?”
Sara felt her face get hot. She lifted the groceries in her arms. “Sorry to interrupt.”
The man turned away.
“No problem,” the woman said, still eyeing Sara suspiciously, as though she’d intentionally been eavesdropping. “Haven’t seen you before. You passing through?”
Sara dropped the items on the counter and watched as Moana scanned each one. “Actually, I’m going to be staying in town for a while. At the old O’Neill house. Do you know it?”
Moana set a tin of spaghetti down with a bang. “Are you serious?”
Sara licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry. “Yeah. Why?”
The scanner beeped twice before the woman spoke again. “No one with half a brain goes there, girl. That’s a bad place.”
Sara felt her fingers curl into fists. “And why is that?”
“Just don’t stay there. It’s a run-down dump of a place anyway. Why would you want to live there?”
A range of answers ran through Sara’s head.
Because it’s my family home.
Because I have nowhere else to go.
Because this whole town is a run-down dump so what’s the difference? At least no one will find me and I’ll be safe.
She was tired – so tired – and sore inside and out. This day – this whole nightmare – had gone on long enough. Frustration turned into belligerence and before she could moderate it, the words spilled out of her mouth. “Well that’s my business, isn’t it?” She threw the money on the counter and picked up her bag of groceries. “Can you give me directions or not?”
Moana’s jaw dropped.
It was the man who answered, an amused twinkle in his bright blue eyes. “Head north from here, take the first road on your left, then the third right. It’s a gravel road, looks like a driveway. The O’Neill place is right at the end.”
Sara forced herself to nod graciously. “Thank you.” She turned on her heel and walked back to the car.
“Don’t blame me if the ghosts come for you in the night,” Moana’s voice called out as she reached the door.
Sara felt the echo of her earlier hysteria bubbling in her chest. Ghosts were the least of her worries.
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