Every day for the last eight months, I've walked down the highway after dark. I find that, amonst other things, it helps clear my head after a soul-crushing day of data entry and meaningless office chatter. Now it's become so much part of my routine that every day after I leave work I feel a gentle pull, like a reflex in my feet carrying me in the direction of the Shell servo that glows like a navigational beacon beside the underpass. Lately I've found myself venturing further and further, sometimes almost taking me far as the outskirts of the sprawling suburbia. Occasionally, a colleague leaving late spots me and offers a lift. Each time I decline, which predictably provokes more water-cooler suspicions. Janelle, one of the customer reps, accosts me the day after Derek tried to convince me that I should get into his Mazda 6. "Charlie! Why didn't you just go with him?" she squeaks, blue eyes bulging. Most days I can hardly listen to, let alone be an active participant in her insipid gossipping about social media trends and who's fucking who and god knows what else. But I extract a small smile without taking my eyes off the screen, hammering sales figures into Excel with one finger. "Oh you know, better to not accept lifts from strangers, right?". Janelle huffs, drumming acrylic nails on the desk. She turns away, to another rep. "Hardly like you don't know him when he works downstairs, right Sarah? Besides Charlie, if you're that keen on getting fit you should just join a gym, I go to a really good one. You know the model Jessica Pittman, she also.." I've tuned out, but Sarah chimes in. "Yeah, I'd be freaked out as hell to walk down the Eastern alone. Specially with weirdos out there abducting girls and.." Sarah trails off too abruptly, exchanging nervous glances with Janelle. I know exactly what they're both thinking so I excuse myself from the room.
I should mention an important detail now, that my older sister Briony was murdered several years ago. Mum had Briony young. I was (allegedly) a more considered afterthought years later, so by the time I was preparing to try on my first school uniform, Bri was about to discard hers for good. Then, suddenly she was gone from this world. It's surreal to think that she'd now be in her late 30s, maybe married and with kids of her own. My parents weren't exactly big photographers in those early years, but from the meagre snaps that exist, you can see that my sister was a real head turner. When I was in year six I snuck downstairs on a sticky summers evening to eavesdrop on what adults talk about late at night. Dad was up, drinking with his brother. Through a gap in the wooden sliding doors, I spied him slumped down, clutching a photograph capturing a rare moment of my sister and I at a birthday party. Briony radiates a smile, with perfectly straight teeth and a cascade of chestnut hair, arm wrapped protectively around my shoulders. "Plain as an undressed pavlova, that one" I hear him say, obviously meaning me. "Bri on the other hand, that girl was like sunshine.." He chokes up. "If I ever..find that bastard who took her away from us, I'll.." I run back upstairs before someone finds me and gives me a hiding. I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling, the air too stifling to permit sleep. Bri at that point, is starting to become like a fictional character from a TV show in my head. Bits of memories I have of us together are merging with imagination. The murder case, by that point had been long declared unsolved. It's also the last time I heard Dad talk about her.
That photo now sits on top on a TV cabinet in my sparsely furnished flat. I live alone in a squat, brown-brick shitbox, that overlooks more shitboxes and a dustbowl park with a creaky swing and sandpit that's probably full of syringes. But it's my shitbox, somewhere I can crawl to every night and fade out the rest of the world. Today, I get home after my customary walk, grateful to finally flick on the TV and slurp down some two minute noodles.
For a long time, all I had left of Briony was that photo and a plastic choker, you know the diamente studded kind that was really popular with girls in the late 90s. Bri loved those chokers, but she was terribly forgetful. She'd constantly lose jewellery and stationery, it drove Mum up the wall to buy her things over and over. I stole one of the spare ones from her room, and used to wear it wrapped around my wrist when she wasn't around. After it happened, Mum started seeing all these different counsellors and advisors of varying degrees of credibility. The worst ones were basically glorified quacks who preached about 'life energies' and 'spiritual cleansing'. Unfortunately Mum listened, and I came home from school camp one day to find Bri's room totally cleared out. Mum said she'd packed everything up and sent it to a storage unit. A tragedy like the one we went through would probably break up the Brady bunch, and the Blake family was hardly even functional to begin with. I don't think anyone was surprised when Mum and Dad split a few years later. Least of all me. Mum kept our family home, so it wasn't until about a year ago when she decided to downsize that I finally found it. Tucked away in the back of storage unit, an unassuming archiving box. The contents of which would galvanize the next chapter of my life.
I flip through the channels, skipping over ads and talk shows until I land on a news program. There's a long, boring report about economic sustainability, then the perky newsreader segways into CrimeWatch . I love CrimeWatch . Tonight's report is essentially a recap of warnings about a trend of incidents that have occurred around the southern suburbs, in the Eastern highway locale. A police sargent warns women in particular to be on the lookout for any unusual or threatening behaviour, especially at night. It's nothing new, so I flip it off. This is the reason why Janelle and Sarah weirded out on me today. There's rumours that an attempted abduction bears striking similarities to what happened to Briony. The local news channels even dug up archival footage of my family after the murder and juxtaposted it against the sensational headline, Are we in the grips of a potential serial killer? To me, it's not even a question in my mind. I know we are .
chamomile I head to the kitchen to start my nighttime ritual - a mug of tea. I live on the ground floor of the building, which I actually quite like because the living room adjoins to a little courtyard, and in summer if I open the doors the flat isn't stifling. The courtyard has bricked walls, so I've always felt safe here. But as I cross the living room, I detect a flash of motion in the corner of my eye. I feel a cold slash of dread deep in my stomach, which then turns to scorn at my own silliness. You've lived here for eighteen months. You walk highways alone at night, and now you're jumping at shadows? The irony isn't completely lost. Since the courtyard door is locked, I quickly jump to switch off the living room lights so I can see clearly out into the night. The tiny glass table and chairs I've wedged in the space are in the same position I remember, but apart from a slight rustling of the overhanging tree branches, nothing looks amiss.