The forceful rap on the door startles Barb. It’s late, rain is pitching down on the roof. She is curled in a ball on the couch, under a blanket; the fire is roaring.
Lifting her head, she decides to ignore it.
The forceful rap becomes a thunderous knock.
She throws back the blanket, slides her feet into slippers and walks to the door. Her brow is knotted in confusion.
Who could this be?
‘Who is it?’ she asks behind the dead-locked wooden door.
‘It’s Mel. Your neighbour. From 33, two houses down.’ A pause.
Barb’s mind races down the street, checking her visual recall for faces, letterboxes, paint colours, children in yards. Anything that’s going to bring a picture of Mel. She’s got nothing.
‘I need help,’ Mel’s voice cracks and she sniffs.
Barb’s tummy flips at Mel’s words. She scrambles to place her. Is Mel the one with the big husband? The guy with the beer gut and red nose? Or is she one half of the lesbian couple?
Barb rests her head on the frame. Torn. She doesn’t want to get involved. But she clicks the lock and pulls open the heavy door. A yellow streetlight behind the shape standing on Barb’s verandah gives her a menacing glow but keeps features darkened, blurred. It takes Barb’s eyes a while to adjust to the dim light. But then she sees her.
Mel’s brown hair is matted, slick with blood. Her right eye is closed over, reddish blue bruising and dried blood covers most of her cheek. She’s holding her torso, like some women hold their pregnant belly. Barb looks closer—is she pregnant? She can’t tell. Mel is clutching a towel over the area.
‘Oh my god,’ says Barb. ‘What’s happened? Come in.’ She ushers her inside, closes the door. Yep, she’s the one with the huge, ruddy bloke. A truck driver, probably. ‘I’ll call the police.’
‘No!’ Mel screams. ‘Please, I just need a place to rest. Recover. Then it’ll all be OK.’
‘It won’t be OK. You need a doctor. Your eye looks bad.’ Barb glances at Mel’s belly. The towel she’s holding is bloody. ‘And your tummy! You’re bleeding. What happened?’
‘It’s just a nick.’
‘Let me see.’
Mel keeps the towel firm to her belly.
‘Let me see,’ Barb repeats, insistent. She strides over. Mel moves the towel. Barb is looking at a deep gash, next to Mel’s belly button. ‘Right, that’s it. I’m taking you to the hospital.’
‘You came here for help. Let me help you.’
‘You don’t know him. You don’t know what he’ll do.’
Barb ignores her. She changes into trackies and a jumper, slides into her runners. ‘We’re off.’
Barb helps Mel into the back seat of her car. She gently lowers her, so she’s lying down, and fastens the seat belt over her. Mel groans.
‘OK, no belt, then. I’ll drive super carefully.’ Barb unclicks the belt. It whooshes back up the seat.
As they drive out Barb’s driveway, with Mel lying down, Barb sees him in the yard of their home. He’s staring out into the black of night. He glares at her as she drives past. There’s nothing magnanimous about that guy, Barb thinks.
‘Mel, does this happen a lot?’
Mel doesn’t answer.
Barb looks over her shoulder. Mel’s lost consciousness; this can’t be good. She presses harder on the accelerator.
Ten minutes later, she pulls into the ambulance bay at the emergency department of the local hospital.
‘Help!’ she screams as she runs inside, leaving the car’s engine running and the door wide open.
‘We’ll take it from here, ma’am,’ a nurse calls. Three more run out with a gurney.
Barb retches in the garden bed. Someone approaches her. ‘You’ve done the right thing. We’ll take care of her. Come inside, let’s get you a coffee.’