Perhaps she should run the car for ten minutes and blast herself in heat? She scotched the idea immediately, unable to afford wasting precious fuel.

Her phone, now four days out of credit, suddenly beeped at her. She glanced at the reminder: JobSeeker form. Bugger! Before she could lodge it, she needed to apply for ten jobs. It was the game she played to receive a ‘looking for work’ allowance—aka ‘go directly to poverty’ allowance. The government thought she should work until she was sixty-five. Helen wanted to work beyond sixty-five, but employers in the real world only wanted to employ people under fifty-five. Over the course of a year, her optimism had morphed into realism before settling on jagged disillusionment. Filling in the form was a fortnightly farce, only no one who received the allowance was laughing. Helen had long ceased applying for jobs she was qualified to do, instead applying for anything to keep the bureaucrats happy. Anything to eat and keep petrol in her car.

Over the previous two hours, the noise of passing traffic had changed from a constant thrum to the occasional whoosh. Helen curled her knees to her chin, pulled the doona over her head and silently recited the opening paragraphs of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. It was as much a memory challenge as it was to block out the cold and encourage sleep.

She woke with a start, jerked to consciousness by the whoops and yells of male voices. A hot flush raced across her skin, sweat beaded and she lay rigid, assessing the risk. She hadn’t heard a car, but after months on the road she was less attuned to vehicle noise than to human and animal sounds. It was hard to tell how many men or how close they were. Had they noticed her car? Holding her breath, she listened with acute intensity.

The haunting hoot of an owl echoed around her but no voices. Relief rushed air back into her lungs, easing the burn of fear. It lasted five seconds. Then the sky lit up with the brilliant white of spotlights, arcing like searchlights seeking enemy planes.

She shrank under the doona. Don’t find me, don’t find me. Dear God, please don’t let them find me.

The crack of a gun shocked the air, vibrating around her in brutal and terrifying waves. Her fist flew to her mouth so fast it bruised her teeth and her stifled scream pooled in the back of her throat, choking her. Voices cheered. More shots rang out—each one coalescing dread. Seconds elongated to minutes as her mind grappled with her best course of action. Stay or go? Both choices were precarious. Definitely dangerous.

The car provided shelter but it offered scant more security than a park bench. She weighed up the fact the hoons hadn’t noticed her versus the attention she’d draw if she started the engine. Although reasonably reliable, it hated cold weather and always took a few turns of the key before it kicked over.

Helen eased herself up, keeping her head low, and peered out the window into the dark. Two utes were parked haphazardly across the road, their positions creating a rally-driving obstacle course for her if she left. She swivelled to look out the back window, hoping an easier exit lay behind her.

The car suddenly flooded with light so bright she saw the white scars on the backs of her hands.

‘Hey, someone’s here.’

Before she had time to dive under the doona, a man’s jowly cheek was pressed against the window. His slack mouth leered at her.

‘G’day,’ he slurred. ‘You want some company, sweetheart?’

How drunk was he? Very drunk, because she was old enough to be his mother—possibly even his grandmother if she’d started early.

‘No, thanks,’ she said lightly. ‘I’m pretty tired.’

‘I know how to wake ya up.’ He tried the locked door. ‘Hey, Ricky. Bray! I’ve got a live one here.’

A live one? Panic exploded.

She scrambled between the bucket seats, banging her head on the central light and scraping her knees on the console. Her hips screamed as she hauled her legs through the tiny space and forced them under the steering wheel.

‘Come and have a drink with us, love.’

‘You’re not planning on going, are ya?’ a new voice said. ‘Not when Stu’s being all hospitable, like.’

The spotlight swung straight at her. Blinded, all she saw were a haze of dancing red spots and black splotches. Her arms rose instinctively and she dropped her head, protecting her eyes.

A series of clicks and thwacks detonated around her as the men tried all five locked doors.

‘Open the door!’

She shook her head.

‘Playing hard to get, eh? We can play along, can’t we, boys?’

The car suddenly lurched to the left and then to the right, its suspension rocking wildly. Would they tip it over? Did it matter? They had more than one gun between them and they could shoot out the windows.

Still blinded by the brilliant light, Helen shoved her foot forward and found the accelerator. She pumped it twice and fumbled for the key, feeling the plastic head scrape against her palm.

Come on, car.

She turned the key. The ignition clicked and whirred.

Dread dug deep and she tried again. The rocking car gained momentum, then lurched so violently she slid sideways. Her right shoulder slammed hard into the door. The pain barely registered.

Third time lucky. Please.

The clicking and whirring of the ignition was suddenly drowned by the throb of the engine. She had no time for gratitude—the spotlight was still blinding and two utes stood between her and the road. Gripping the gearstick, she moved it into reverse, pressed the accelerator and shot backwards. There was no ominous thud, only outraged yells.

Pulling hard on the wheel, she turned the car away from the light, miraculously avoiding colliding with a tree. Blinking frantically against dancing silver spots, she gunned it. The tyres spun on the gravel, making the car fishtail wildly and she had a split second to decide which was the lesser evil—slowing down and risking being caught or slamming into a

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