Read an excerpt from THE ISLAND:
The sign said ALICE SPRINGS 25, TENNANT CREEK 531, DARWIN 1,517.
She took that in for a second or two.
If they somehow missed Alice they would have to go another five hundred kilometers (well over three hundred miles) before they could get food, water, or gas. She looked through the windows on either side of the empty highway and saw exactly nothing. The radio had been drifting in and out for the past twenty minutes but the signal, perhaps, was getting a little stronger. She could make out John Lennon singing about “old flat-top” who was “groovin’ up slowly.”
She could identify pretty much every Beatles song from just one or two bars or a snatch of lyrics. Her parents and almost everyone else on Goose Island had worshipped John Lennon, and with only intermittent TV and internet reception, music had been even more important. The song ended and a DJ began his patter. “That was ‘Come Together,’ the opening track of Abbey Road. And before that we had ‘Hey Jude.’ Can anyone tell me what album ‘Hey Jude’ was on?”
The DJ paused for his listeners to reply.
“It wasn’t on any album, it was a seven-inch single,” Heather whispered.
“Nah, don’t call in. This isn’t a competition. It’s a trick question. ‘Hey Jude’ never got released on any of the original Beatles albums, just the compilations. Well, mates, I hope you enjoyed the balmy weather at midnight where we just hit the low temperature for the day—thirty-six degrees centigrade, which for you oldsters is ninety-six point eight degrees Fahrenheit.”
Tom groaned in his sleep and she lowered the volume. He had a busy morning ahead, and every second of sleep he could get now would help him. She turned to look at the kids. They too were asleep. Although Owen had been on his phone until about a half an hour ago, hoping against hope that a Wi-Fi signal would materialize out of the desert. Olivia had conked out long before that. Heather checked that both their seat belts were still securely fastened and turned her attention back to the empty road.
She drove on.
Rattling transmission. Moths in the headlights. The drumming of the Toyota’s wheels on the blacktop.
She reflected that the Mad Max movies had been skillfully edited to erase the actual tedium of driving through outback Australia. The landscape from Uluru had all been like this. It made one long for the comparative excitement of the morning traffic jam on the West Seattle Bridge. No other vehicles at all here; just the noise of the Toyota and the radio drifting in and out. There were no people around, but at a roadwork sign she could see big khaki machines covered in dust resting by the cutoff like slumbering mastodons.
She drove on and began to worry that she had taken a wrong turn. There was no sign of a city or an airport. The GPS hadn’t updated in a long time and according to it, she was lost in a vast blank nothingness somewhere in the Northern Territory.
Her uneasiness increased as the road surface got worse. She looked for signs of life ahead or out the side windows.
Damn it, back at the construction site she must have taken the wrong—
A big gray kangaroo suddenly appeared in the headlights.
She slammed on the brakes, and the Toyota shuddered to a stop with an alarming amount of deceleration. Tom and the kids were flung forward, then pulled back again by their seat belts.
Tom groaned. Olivia whimpered. Owen grunted. But none of them woke.
“Wow,” she said and stared at the kangaroo. It was still standing there, five feet in front of the car. Another second and they would have had a serious accident. Her hands were shaking. It was hard to breathe. She needed some air. She put the Toyota in park and, leaving the lights on, turned off the engine. She opened the door and got out. The night was warm.
“Scoot,” she said to the big kangaroo. “I can’t go on if you’re in the middle of the road.”
It didn’t move. “Scoot!” she said and clapped her hands.
It was still staring at the car. How could it not understand the universal language of scoot?
“The headlights might have blinded it. Turn ’em off,” a voice said from the darkness to her right.
Heather jumped and turned to see a man standing a few yards away from her in the desert. On learning that she was going to Australia, Carolyn had warned her about the “world’s deadliest snakes and spiders,” and when that hadn’t worked she sent her a list of movies about hitchhikers murdered in the bush by maniacs. “It’s an entire genre, Heather! It must be based on reality,” Carolyn said.
Heather had watched only one of them, Wolf Creek, but that was scary enough for her.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the man said. Her heart was thumping, but the man’s voice was so calm, gentle, and unthreatening that she was put immediately at ease.
“Um, sorry, what was that about the lights?” she asked.
“The headlights must have blinded it. Turn ’em off and give it a minute,” the man said.
She reached into the Toyota and killed the lights. The man waited for a few moments and then walked onto the road. “Go on, big fella! Go on out of it!” he said and clapped his hands. The kangaroo turned its head, looked at both of them with seeming indifference, and then, at its own pace, hopped off into the night.
“Well, that was something. Thank you,” Heather said and offered the man her hand. He shook it. He was about five foot six, around sixty years old, with dark curly hair. He was wearing a red sweater with jean shorts and flip-flops. They had been in Australia now for nearly a week, but this was the first Aboriginal person Heather had come across. Out here in the middle of nowhere.
“You’re not from around here, I reckon,” the man said.
“No. Not at all. I’m Heather, from Seattle. Um, in America.”
“I’m Ray. I’m not from around here either. We just come in for the show. Me mob, that is.”
“Yeah, we just come in for the show. Come in every year.”
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw now that there were a lot of people with him in the desert. In fact, it was an entire camp, maybe twenty or thirty in all. Older people and young children. Most of them were sleeping but some were sitting around the embers of a fire.
“Where are you trying to get to? Alice?” Ray asked. “I’m trying to reach the airport. If I keep going on this road—”
“Nah, they should have signed it better. This road’ll take you on a big circle out into the bush. Just go back to where you saw the roadwork and go right. You’ll be in Alice in fifteen minutes. There won’t be any traffic.”
Ray nodded. They stood awkwardly for a moment. She found that she didn’t quite want the conversation to end. “What’s the show you’re talking about?” she asked.
“The Alice Springs show. It’s the big event of the year in these parts. The white fellas don’t like us to be around town but they can’t stop us coming in for the show.”
“What is the show? A state fair?”
Ray nodded. “Something like that, I reckon. It’s a livestock show but there’s food and music. Rides for the kids. People come in from hundreds of miles away. It’s usually in July. Having it earlier this year. Mobs from all over the territory, even some from Queensland. My mob’s been walking in for three days.”
She gazed at his “mob” again with wonder. These people—grandmothers, parents, young children—had been walking across this desert for three days?
“None of the nippers will have met an American before. Something for them to talk about. Mind if we say a quick hello?” Ray asked.
Heather spent a few minutes meeting Ray’s family— the ones who were awake, anyway. His granddaughter Nikko, his wife, Chloe. Chloe admired her earrings and Heather begged her to take them as a thank-you gift for Ray’s helping her back on the road again. The gift was accepted but not before Ray gave Heather a small penknife he’d made himself.
“I’m selling these at the show. Jarrah hardwood and meteor iron,” he said.
“Yeah. From the one that came down at Wilkinkarra.”
The penknife was carved with emus and kangaroos on one side and what she took to be the Milky Way on the other. It was beautiful. She shook her head. “I can’t possibly take this! It must be worth hundreds of—”
“I’ll be lucky to get twenty bucks each. Take it. It’s fair dinkum. An exchange. The earrings for the knife. See the ring at the bottom of it? I’ve been told that if you put your keys on that and put it in the tray outside the metal detector with your phone, you can even fly with it. They just think it’s a key-fob thing.”
Ray was not to be talked out of the gift and she accepted it with good grace. She got in the Toyota, waved goodbye, and retraced her journey to the roadwork sign; this time she took the correct turn for Alice. As the town got closer, the road became more certain of itself. Houses and stores loomed out of the dark. She saw campfires with men and women gathered around them. More indigenous people who, apparently, had all come in for the show.
The phone reacquired a GPS signal. The radio came back on. “At the next junction, take a left for Alice Springs airport,” Google Maps suddenly announced in a perky Australian accent. Heather was at the airport ten minutes later. She drove to the rental-car lot and turned the engine off. A sign said DO NOT FEED DINGOES, WILD DOGS, OR FERAL CATS above a drawing of a sad-looking dog and an indifferent cat. She made sure the doors were locked and let everyone sleep for a while longer.
“We’re here,” she said finally and gave Tom a gentle shake.
He stretched. “Oh, great. Thank you, honey. I would have driven some! You should have woken me. Any problems?”
“Not really, but there was a big kangaroo in the middle of the road,” she said, attaching the penknife to her key chain.
“You saw a kangaroo and you didn’t wake us? Come on, Heather!” Owen grumbled from the back seat before a yawn convulsed him.
They woke Olivia and got their bags and walked dazed and bleary-eyed into the terminal building. They were three hours early for the flight. Tom had never been late for a flight in his life and he wasn’t going to start a bad habit now. The airport was deserted except for an overly made-up goth couple who apparently looked nothing like their passport photographs. When it was her turn at the X-ray machine, Heather smiled at an older female security officer.
“Goths these days, too much makeup and not nearly enough pillaging,” she said. The woman thought about it for a second and then chuckled to herself. She waved the family through.
No one confiscated the penknife. Which was lucky for Heather. Because two days later it would save her life.
—The New York Times Book Review
—Sarah Pearse, New York Times bestselling author of The Sanatorium
—Karin Slaughter, New York Times bestselling author of Pieces of Her
—James Swallow, bestselling author of Nomad
—M. J. Arlidge, bestselling author of Eeny Meeny