Jill rents a Nissan at the airport. The woman at the counter hesitates with the keys, eyeing her bed hair and foreign credit card. The men at the taxi rank call to her and she almost changes her mind. But Jill always preferred the road. Her kids would slink from the house when she mentioned driving lessons, in the same way their father would disappear years ago when she would suggest more permanent contraception. Now, keys waiting in the ignition, Jill winds the windows up tight and slams each door, flinching at the echoes around the carpark. She slides into the driver’s seat: on the left in this city. She flicks at the buttons on the dashboard until she finds the choppy syllables of a morning bulletin.
‘Why?’ Jill whispers to the radio.
Jill reverses out of the carpark and takes the first exit, turning the strange voice up loud, listening for the sounds she recognises.
The line was mostly static, and even as it connected she cursed herself for accepting twelve-digit numbers, especially so late at night. But then she recognised the sigh and the silence, and she was already pulling her passport from the bedside drawer as Bo told her: Tokyo, this time. Jill didn’t wait for an explanation, just pulled the overnight bag from the coat closet on her way out into the night.
He’d told her he was going to get milk for his late-night Milo, and she’d felt like a bad mother for skipping her mid-week grocery run on the way home from work. But stirring guilt was part of his routine: a distraction from the half-litre in the fridge, the cash missing from her wallet, the adolescent eyes bright with expectations.
As a kid Bo hadn’t wanted to leave town. ‘What if I don’t come back the same?’ he would ask from the back of the car, his bag perched on his lap while his sister slept.
‘Let’s play I-Spy,’ Jill would respond. Or she’d ask him about Doctor Who. Or, in earlier days, his father would turn the music up louder.
‘I spy something that starts with D.’
Jill would pause, counting to three to show she’d thought about it. ‘Is it Dog?’
‘Did you see a dog?’
One, two, three. ‘Driving?’
No answer from the back.
‘Is it… Danger?’
‘No.’ Bo would suck in his breath, and hold it.
Jill wouldn’t bother to feign hesitation this time. ‘Distance?’
‘Disappointment.’ And he’d blow on the window until his lungs grew heavy and Jill would have to pull over.
The billboards along the highway advertise alpine holidays and skin-whitening cream. Jill shrugs out of her cardigan. With her free hand she finds the power button for the GPS and waits as the loading light flickers against her freckles. She rubs at her steering wrist, feeling for weakness. She wonders how long Mark waited around this morning. How he’d reacted to an empty bed and an abandoned daughter. Maybe he’d forgive her, after a week off and another empty promise to have the kids visit their father soon.
Jill’s memories of other midnight journeys tell her the bus station will be west of the city. From inside the body, the indicator sound seems to crescendo, and she wonders about the limits of the volume if she lingered here at the intersection, let her son find his own way back. He might even be able to follow this ticking, like some dreadful and relentless Morse.
‘Why do we travel?’ Bo would ask Siri when he was older and the day spa had added an iPhone to Jill’s contract. He would bring the phone into her treatment room and read to her clients the names of the latest tourists to die in Thailand. Jill would take the opportunity to flex her tendons, gently pulling her fingers back towards her elbows. The clients would listen to Bo, faces buried in the tissue paper around their breathing hole. They would hmm at the right moment, at the same pitch as when Jill’s hands kneaded the muscles in their lower back.
‘Why do we travel?’ Bo would ask Jill. And she’d dip her palms in the hand sanitiser, flicking the drips against the sink as she thought of today’s answer.
At the traffic lights out of the western tunnel, Jill watches the smog melt from violet to blue. A woollen figure approaches the car, bucket in hand. Jill remembers she has no cash in this currency, and shakes her head. The woman peers in the window, and laces her elbow around the bucket, folding her hands into a prayer. Jill concentrates on the ticking of her indicator until the lights change.
Of course she’d expected to find porn eventually, in a house with two teenagers and one computer. But recently, while searching for old photos from a Hotham winter, Jill found Bo’s video files. They had been filmed in his bedroom with the lights dimmed right down, his voice a deep whisper, with a faint backing track of his sister’s video games. The first few focused on his face and a sci-fi cover, as he read aloud, pausing every few sentences to glance at the viewer. But in others, he undressed while reading, leaving on only his gloves. In one towards the end, his eyes lingered on the viewer, and he whispered something that she didn’t try to make out. Then he trembled and sighed and the film cut out.
Jill takes a speed bump too swiftly, and something scrapes beneath her. She should have called the spa from the airport, left a message for the regulars. Carpal tunnel, again? She rubs her wrist.
After the first call, from Madrid, he tried to explain it.
‘I wanted to know if I liked it,’ he told her as she watched the red dust curl up along the roadside. ‘Flying. Travelling. Leaving. I don’t know which verb is best.’
She recovered at the airport and offered him coffee. He took a pecan tart and they boarded together. In a mock-serious silence they mouthed the announcements in a language they’d have no excuse to speak.
Jill looks past the skyscrapers, and turns the radio down to a hum. Her eyes and ears are tired of finding symbolic meaning in new cities.
‘How do I know this is a window?’ he asked Siri, after returning from a day with his father. ‘How do I know it’s not a piece of glass pretending to be a window?’
When Jill arrives at the bus station, Bo is standing in a loading zone, vehicles honking as they weave around him. He points a thumb to the afternoon sky, grins at her, clicks the passenger door open and flops inside. Sweating in clothes for a Melbourne winter, he has at least thought to eat and drink in the past few hours. He pours water from a plastic bottle over his face and fingers, and the trickles spread in all directions across the upholstery. He pauses to watch them, perhaps considering future flight paths. Jill pulls back towards the road.
Ruby Mahoney lives in Shanghai as an insatiable reader, a high-school literature teacher and a tea enthusiast. She also commissions and edits fiction for Feminartsy, and is pursuing (somewhat clumsily) the art of travel-blogging over at chinafortwo.com.