Limping at a frustratingly slow pace due to pain and sheer exhaustion, she finally makes it through the wooded area and finds herself in the Mount Ridley Nature Conservation Reserve, as evidenced by the carved wooden sign she uses as a crutch for a few moments rest. She’s at the edge of a narrow dirt road, lined with overnight camping sites on each side. It’s still dark, sometime after midnight she suspects, and perfectly quiet, but she knows she needs to seek cover quickly.
About 300 metres ahead stands a small wooden building, illuminated by a single light post casting an eerie shade of yellow on the ground below. Beneath it, she can just make out a sign with male and female symbols; a toilet. As if on cue, her throat begins to burn and she wearily rises to make her way to water. She stops midway in her journey, nicking a pair of red trackies, a large black hooded jumper and towel from the clothesline at a campsite along the road.
A sigh of relief escapes her chapped and cracking lips as she steps into the dimly lit building to discover a row of three shower stalls along the far wall. She’s too desperate to even ponder the issues of hygiene. She steps into a stall and pulls the curtain closed, collapsing heavily onto the small wooden bench.
With aching joints and muscles, she peels away the dirt stained teal, discarding it in a pile in the corner of the stall. Stepping under the shower head, she turns the knob and hisses as the ice cold bullets pelt against her skin. Inhaling sharply, she steps fully under the cascade, turning an open mouth, greedily gulping the water to soothe her flaming throat. Lacking soap, she washes as much dirt... death ...from her hair and skin as she can, until her body shivers violently from the cold.
She dresses in the stolen clothes; pants too short and a jumper that swallows her impressive curves, leaving the towel and teal in the dirty stall. In the cloudy mirror above the metal sink, she stares at her fuzzy, but obviously ashen, reflection as the sound of dirt on wood reverberates through her brain. She turns on the faucet and vigorously splashes her face, trying to wash the haunting music from her memory, though she knows no amount of cleansing will ever make it go away.
She lifts her head from the sink and nearly jumps when her bleary eyes make contact with the troubled stare of an older woman standing a cautionary distance behind her. The woman timidly approaches, as if she’s approaching a wounded animal... really, she is... stopping at the sink next to Joan. Concern is etched across her generously wrinkled face as she takes in the pallid color of Joan’s cheek and the red and bloodied knuckles of her hands. Joan watches her warily in the mirror.
“Miss, are you ok? I don’t mean to pry, but you look like you need help.” The woman leans slightly closer and meets Joan’s gaze in the mirror.
For a moment Joan doesn’t respond; her ever calculating mind flipping through an array of possible plays for the scenario, seeking the best method to protect herself. Her mind’s not as sharp as normal, which frustrates her, but after a few seconds she falls upon the perfect plan. Ever the master manipulator, she commands her eyes into performance, willing the fat crocodile tears to well and then tumble down her cheeks. With a ragged breath and trembling lip, she replies.
“My….my husband….” she trails off weakly, meek eyed, yet ever watchful of the older stranger’s reaction. The woman’s eyes fall to Joan’s bloody knuckles, then up to the red ring that’s just begun to peak from below the neckline of the hoodie.
“Did he do that to you?” Joan intentionally drops her gaze and shoves her hands into the pocket of the jumper, a perfect picture of a battered woman. The stranger steps closer and lays a gentle hand on Joan’s bicep.
“Would you like for me to call the police?”
“No, no, he just does it when he drinks too much. I just…if I could just get to my sister, she’ll take care of me...but I don’t have a car.”
“Where is your sister? Could she come get you?”
“She’s at work and I don’t want to call and worry her. She works at a 24 hour cafe in Mernda.” She reaches up and wipes fresh tears from her cheeks. The older woman stands silent for a moment, it’s clear she’s thinking and Joan nearly smiles at how easy it is to deceive.
“Why don’t you come back to my camp with me and I’ll wake my husband. I’m sure he’d be willing for us to take you there, it’s only half an hour or so from here anyway.”
“Thank you. I would appreciate that very much. I just want to be away from here before he realizes I’m gone.” With a shy smile and nod of agreement, Joan allows the woman to guide her out the door.
Ten minutes later, she’s crouched in the backseat of an old Volkswagen Golf that reeks of mildew and greasy chips. Thankfully the ride is mostly silent as the elderly couple seems to be at an uncomfortable, for them at least, loss for the appropriate words. For Joan it’s a relief because the headache pounding relentlessly against her temples is threatening to destroy any remaining amounts of her composure. They reach the tiny cafe just off Schotters Rd at half past four.
Pulling into a spot near the door, the old man meets Joan’s eyes in the rearview mirror. There’s a kindness in his mossy green gaze that Joan thinks rare to find in men, at least most of the men she’s encountered.
“Would you like for us to accompany you inside?” He asks her gently.
“No, you’ve done more than enough. Thank you for your generosity and I’m sorry to have robbed you of your sleep.” He offers a small smile and nod.
“It was no problem at all Miss; I’m just glad we could help. And listen…” he hesitates slightly before he continues, “you deserve better than a man that thinks it’s ok to treat you that way.” Joan offers a timid nod in response, then slips wordlessly out the car door.
She enters the cafe and moves off to a corner, out of view from the car, where she can watch for their retreat. She waits another five minutes before she leaves, making her way around the back of the building to the small street behind it.
It’s an old section of the town, where the few small homes and their elderly inhabitants stubbornly defy the test of time, forgotten and mostly left to decay, until some property development company comes in from the city to buy it up and build some new modern community. For now it’s ignored, a perfect secluded place if one should need to hide, which is precisely why Nils had kept the property when his aunt had passed away, transferring everything to his ownership under a pseudonym.
Reaching the small white cottage at the end of the street, she climbs onto the porch with growing fatigue and retrieves the hidden key from the high beam of the eave overhead. She steps inside the cottage, closing the door and leans heavily against it with a sigh of relief.
Knowing she is safe, exhaustion permeates every fiber of her being, weighing heavy in her limbs and aching body. She makes her way into the single bedroom at the end of the hall and collapses onto the bed that’s too short for her frame. Curling into a fetal position, she closes her eyes and quickly succumbs to a fretful sleep.