Ellie is fleeing the city. Her belongings are packed tightly into the boot and backseat of her small Volkswagen, some even in the passenger seat next to her. Her breathing is quick and shallow as she zooms down the familiar highway, desperate to outrun the horror of the past week. The images of Mike are right there, just behind her eyes, they are coming with her to Nan’s cottage. Funny how she still calls it Nan’s.
Her mind is thick as mud. She can’t even remember how many days it’d been since she found him hanging, naked, from a rope tied securely to the walnut tree in the back yard; his eyes bulging and face purple, contorted. The funeral is a blur; his mates declaring their sadness over the loss of a bright, happy friend. Strangers chatting banally, patting her hand while murmuring that one day she’d feel normal again. Yesterday (or was it?) she gratefully accepted the extended leave her boss had offered, and this morning she said goodbye to her best friend, Janie, leaving her a set of keys to the home she’d shared with Mike.
Ellie tries to slow her breathing. She tells her brain to delete the picture of Mike hanging, feet dangling from the tree, his perfectness turned ugly, but it is no use: what is seen cannot be unseen. She thought they were happy, and the pain she feels now is too deep, too fresh.
The two-lane highway out of Melbourne is long, straight, and dull. The fields on either side of the road are filled with lush green grass, cows lifting their heads to stare with doe, almost sympathetic, eyes – can they sense her anguish? As she exits the highway at Moe, heading towards the town of Erica, the scenery changes to trees, tall and proud. Nan’s cottage – well, it is solely hers now – is on the far outskirts of the little mountain town, nestled down off the road. Quiet. Hidden. Nan’s cottage is, and has always been, a safe haven.
She follows the winding main road to the dirt-track turn-off that eventually becomes Nan’s driveway. Down deeper she drives, through the foresty-scrubland. The trees seem to get taller. Then the clearing – she always loves this bit, where the trees part to reveal the charm of Nan’s cottage and its surrounds. Ellie is taken aback: the garden at the inner edge of the cottage is beautifully maintained; she’d expected to see it quite overgrown. She pays a local girl to clean the cottage once a month, but has never bothered to include gardening. The brightness of the crisp red roses, the bright pink peonies, and yellow daffodils beckon her closer just as they did when Nan was alive.
She grabs her suitcase from the boot, but leaves the rest. She hurriedly unlocks the front door and walks inside, the smell of lavender and sandalwood wafts. Distinctly Nan. She glances around the room – exactly as Nan left it when she passed away. Ellie lights a fire, then sighs with delight as she goes into her room– she cannot bring herself to sleep in Nan’s room – and places her suitcase on the queen-sized bed, the only change that she’s made since Nan’s death. Her trinkets from childhood are still lovingly displayed on the dressing table. Ellie smiles wanly.
She finishes unpacking. She eats Party Mix lollies, chasing them with a bottle of white wine. That’s dinner then, she thinks, and allows herself to cry. She sees Mike’s face in the flames, hears his laughter in the cracking of the burning wood.
The next day she wakes, the fire long gone out, still on the lounge suite with the empty packet of lollies on her chest, the empty wine glass and bottle tipped over. She looks around, wiping her eyes. Now that she’s run here, what is she to do? She steps out the front door, shielding her eyes from the bright sun. A man is in the garden, holding a pair of secateurs. He stands as he notices her in the doorway. He is beastly tall, and wearing a blue singlet. She can see his broad shoulders and arms thickened with muscles. He nods at her.
‘G’day.’ he says.
‘Hi,’ Ellie responds. Her heart is racing, her armpits damp with sweat. It’s only nine o’clock on a crisp late-autumn morning.
‘Name’s Rob.’ He smiles at her, as if he can sense her anxiety. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes, she notices.
‘Ellie Cooke. Um, do you mind telling me why you’re here, what you’re doing?’ She clears her throat. Her hair is sticking to the back of her sweaty neck.
‘Oh, right. Yeah. Sorry. I just come by ev’ry few weeks to look after the garden. My sister’s ya cleaner.’
‘Ok. Well, thank you. I guess…’ Her voice trails off.
They stand in awkward silence for what feels like five minutes.
‘Can I get you a coffee, or something?’ Ellie offers half-heartedly.
‘Er, nah thanks.’ Rob responds.
‘Right then, well…see you around.’ She closes the door.
Inside, she rests her forehead on the front door and sighs. Eventually, she sets about making herself some Vegemite toast. She can’t remember the last time she’s eaten a proper meal. Her eyes fill with tears and she wipes them gruffly away. After throwing the butter knife into the sink and the plate on the kitchen bench, she laces up her runners and heads out for a run through the tree-filled surrounds of Nan’s cottage.
Weeks pass, all merging into a time-warp of Ellie hiding in grief, running from the raw wound that Mike’s suicide gave her. Sometimes she jogs through the forest and into Erica for coffee at the general store. She keeps to herself. One day she runs the three kilometres into Rawson, Erica’s neighbouring town. She remembers from her childhood visits that there is a pub, set back off the main road and down a hill.
By the time she arrives, she is ravenous. She walks towards the rough wood-clad building. It’s quaint, country, the kind that has animal heads on the wall. There’s a billiard table opposite the bar, wooden dining tables with bench seating and a space for a live singer and a dance floor. This place must jump with country bogans each weekend. She takes a seat at a table, her stomach churns and rumbles. The pub isn’t very busy, unsurprising for a Wednesday late-afternoon, but there’s still quite a number of folks around. She looks at the menu, but she already knows what she’ll order. There’s no live act tonight, but a jukebox is pumping out Shania Twain. Oh god this is a mistake. Pushing down her misgivings, she walks up to the pulpit-like ordering stand. A girl, who seems to Ellie to be about twelve years old, looks at her with the disdain the young have towards those deemed old, and says, “Yeah, what’ll it be tonight?”
‘Um, chicken parma, please. With chips and salad.’
The twelve-year-old keys Ellie’s order into the computer and takes her money, all without eye contact.
‘Here’s yer number for tha table.’ Still no eye contact.
Ellie nods. As she walks back to her table she spies Rob at the bar, flirting with the barmaid. She clenches her teeth. She’s thirsty for a pinot gris but there’s no way she’s going to the bar now. She ducks her head and picks up her phone to check Facebook, hoping he doesn’t notice her.
‘Hey, Ellie Cooke! Fancy meetin’ you ‘ere.’ Rob grins down at her, holding a pot of beer.
She looks up, and up. He really is tall. And broad – those shoulders!
‘Oh, hi…um…’ her voice trails off, pretending she can’t remember his name.
‘Rob,’ he says, still grinning at her. ‘What brings ya ‘ere to me stompin’ ground?’
‘Dinner.’ Her voice is terse.
‘Mind if I join ya?’
‘Actually, I’d pre…’ Ellie stops as he sits down and puts his beer on the table.
‘Can I buy you a drink?’
Ellie opens her mouth, then clamps it shut. She finds herself responding,
‘Yes, thanks I would. A pinot gris, please.’
‘Be right back.’ he jumps up from the chair, simultaneously reaching for his wallet in his back pocket and bounces, golden-retriever-like, to the bar.
Ellie’s stomach is now churning like a washing machine cycle, sensing the locals in the pub are staring at her. Her face burns fiery red. Rob comes back with a bottle of wine and smiles with all his teeth as he pours her a glass. Ellie gulps a sip, then another. He tops up her glass.
Their meals arrive, and they begin to eat to the sound of knives and forks scraping on their plates. Ellie offers the next round of drinks. When she comes back, she steers the conversation around Rob. He’s rather funny and despite herself, probably due to the wine, she enjoys chatting and laughing with him. He’s playing her, she knows. She goes for it, flirts back by pulling her long blonde hair out of its rough top-knot and letting it fall over her shoulders. He almost pants. She chuckles to herself; men are so easy. She tucks a strand behind her ear, and crosses her legs under the table, making sure that one foot brushes against Rob’s leg.
‘Oh, sorry, was that your leg?’ she feigns it accidental.
Rob’s eyes narrow as he unashamedly gazes at her breasts. ‘Ya know ya hot, donchya?’ he says while bringing his beer to his mouth.
She does, in fact, know this. Ellie is a stunning woman, a ‘great beauty’ as Mother used to call her in rare moments of affection and pride. But she smiles shyly at Rob. He looks at her. She knows that look, remembers it. She is loose and carefree. Perhaps a one-nighter might be just what she needs to quell her grief, to shake away Mike and his purple, misshapen face.
‘So…you want to have the next round at my place?’ she courageously asks.
‘Fuck yeah.’ is his response.
‘Oh, I jogged here,’ remembering suddenly that it was daylight when she got here.
‘I don’t think ya right to drive, anyway. I’ve got me ute, I’ll drive ya,’ he offers.
Back at the cottage, Ellie lights a fire while he opens a bottle of red. She takes a gulp then puts the glass down. She eyes him; he’s watching her intently as he moves closer to her. They kiss. Rob takes off his shirt, revealing another blue singlet. She pulls it off him, he’s got washboard abs. The room spins, so does her head, but in different directions. She looks down – she’s naked. He must’ve taken off her clothes while everything was spinning.
She moves to kiss him. She doesn’t see it coming. His hand strikes with such force that Ellie is thrown against the wall. He walks toward her. His foot swings backward, then, in a precise, perfect arc, connects with her head, as if he’d kicked a football. The pain is so fierce it splits her head in two. She sees bright, blurry light; warm blood seeps from her head. She tries to stand, but he pulls a fistful of her hair so her head jerks raggedly.
‘Ya just a cheap slut, aren’t ya?’ Rob snarls into her ear. ‘Look how easy it is for me to getchya starkers and on ya back.’ He pins her to the ground while unzipping his jeans, his dark eyes cold. Rob pushes himself inside her. It’s brutal, forceful and quick. He stands, zips up his jeans while she curls herself into a protective ball. Her head thumps in rhythm with the throbbing pain between her legs.
She sees her chance as he stands over her. With all her might she kicks her foot into his groin. He doubles over in pain. She runs, naked, out of the house. Her heart pumps, her legs burn as she runs through the garden towards the forest, away from her no-longer-safe haven. Twigs and sticks poke and scratch at her bare skin and feet. Her mind is thick and foggy as the tree canopy above. He loses her footing and comes crashing down into the mud. She cowers under a bush, holding her breath, terrified. Then footsteps, heavy but slow and purposeful, crunch through the undergrowth and stop. Her breathing is quick and shallow. She looks up; he’s standing over her. The forest wails a guttural scream. Then, Ellie understands it’s coming from her; it’s her yowling. She can’t flee the beast.