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It was a dark and stormy night. lightning flashed. An eerie howl echoed mournfully through the big old house. The lights went out.
She had to stop watching Gothic horror movies, Mardie Rainey decided, as she told Bounce to cut it out with the howling and groped to the sideboard for candles. She especially had to stop watching horror movies on nights when a storm was threatening to crash through her roof.
Bounce, her twelve-month-old border collie, was terrified. Mardie was more irritated than spooked. The vampire had been sinking his fangs when the power went off. Now she'd never learn what happened to the fluff-for-brains heroine who would have been a lot more interesting with fang marks.
What a night. The wind was hitting the chimney with such force it was cutting off the draw, causing smoke to belch into the room. She was down to a few candles and a flashlight.
There was a leak in the corner of the room. She'd put a bucket underneath. Without the sound of the television, the steady plinking was likely to drive her crazy.
She should go to bed.
A crash, outside. A big one.
Bounce stared at the darkened window and whimpered. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
'It'll be one of the gums in the driveway,' she told him, feeling sad. She loved those trees. 'That's for tomorrow and the chainsaw.'
There wasn't a lot she could do about it now.
Bounce was still whimpering.
She took his collar and headed for the bedroom. 'It's nothing to worry about,' she told him. 'We don't have trees close enough to hurt the house. Lightning and thunder are all flashy show, and I warned you about watching vampires.'
Bounce whimpered again and pressed closer. So much for guard dogs.
Normally he slept in the kitchen. Not tonight.
It really was a scary night.
Maybe she did need vampire protection, she conceded as she headed for bed. Bounce might be a wuss but the only alternative was garlic. A girl couldn't sleep with garlic.
'Bed's safe,' she told him. 'The sheep are in the bottom paddock and that's protected. The house is solid. Everything's fine. At least we're not out in the weather. I pity anyone who is.'
Blake Maddock, specialist eye surgeon, should have stayed the night in Banksia Bay, but he wanted to be back in Sydney. Or better still, he wanted to be back in Africa.
He'd wanted to leave Banksia Bay the minute he'd discovered Mardie wasn't there.
What sort of stupid impulse had led him to attend his high school reunion? Wanting to see Mardie? That had been a dumb, sentimental impulse, nothing more. As for the rest, he'd turned his back on this place fifteen years ago. Why come back now?
Nothing had changed.
Or it had a little, he conceded as he drove cautiously through the rain-filled night. But not much. There'd been births, deaths and marriages, but the town was just as small. People talked fishing and farming. People asked where he was living now, but weren't really interested in his answer. People asked did he miss Banksia Bay.
Not so much. He'd left fifteen years ago and never looked back.
Three miles out of town was his old homehis great-aunt's house. He'd been sent here when he was seven, to forget Robbie.
Ten years ago, sorting his great-aunt's estate, he'd found a letter his father had written to her after Robbie's death.
We don't know where else to turn. His mother never warmed to the twins, to boys. Now They were identical, and every time she looks at him she feels ill. She's drinking too much. Her friends are shunning her. We need to get the boy away. If we can tell people he's gone to relatives in Australia so he won't be continually reminded of his brother, the pressure will ease. Can we send him to you, for however long it takes until his mother wants to see him again?
And underneath was the offer of a transfer of a truly astonishing parcel of shares of the family company. How much had his parents wanted to get rid of him? He knew now, how much.
So a bereft seven-year-old had been sent to the other side of the world, to a reclusive great-aunt who'd run away herself, years before, after a failed romance. Who'd been kind according to her definition of the word, but who'd lived in the shadow of her own tragic love affair and never spoke about Robbie.
No one spoke about Robbie. No one here knew.
'Don't tell people about your brother,' his father had told him as he saw him onto a plane. 'Least said, soonest mended. I know it wasn't all your faultyour brother was equally responsible. Your mother will accept that in time. Meanwhile, get on with your life.'
His life as a kid no one wanted. His life in Banksia Bay.
It was dumb to have come tonight, he conceded. This had been his place to hide, to be hidden, and he had no need of that now.
And Mardie hadn't even attended.
Mardie had been in the year below him at school. His one true thing.
He remembered the first day he'd attended Banksia Bay School, dropped off by his silent great-aunt, feeling terrified. He remembered Mardie, marching up to him, littler than he was, all cheeky grin and freckles.
'What's your name? Did you bring lunch? I have sardine sandwiches and chocolate cake; do you want to share?'
How corny was it that he remembered exactly what she'd said, all those years ago?
It was corny and it was dumb. It was also dumb to think he might see her tonight. He hadn't thought it through.
He wasn't actually in a frame of mind where he could think anything through. He'd flown in from Africa exhausted. Dengue fever had left him flat and lethargic. It was four more weeks at least before he could return to work, he'd been told.
Bleak thoughts were all over the place. He'd stayed at his great-aunt's apartment in Sydney, the place she'd kept for shopping. He'd kept it because it was convenient, somewhere to store his scant belongings. It was the only place he could vaguely call home. Listlessly he'd checked mail that hadn't been redirected since he'd been ill, and found the invitation to the Banksia Bay reunion.
And he'd thought of Mardie. Again.
For some unknown reason, during this last illness Mardie had strayed into his thoughts, over and over.
Why? She'd have forgotten him, surely, or he'd be a distant memory, a blur. Theirs had been a childhood friendship, turning into a teenage romance. She'd be well over it. But he wouldn't mind seeing her.
Could he drive to Banksia Bay and back in a night?
The question hung, persisted, wouldn't listen to a sensible no.
He'd decided years ago that Banksia Bay, the place where his parents had abandoned him, the place where he'd been sent to forget, was a memory he needed to move on from. But now, with his career uncertain, his focus blurred by illness, the reasons for that decision seemed less clear.
And his memory of Mardie was suddenly right back in focus.
Two hours there, four hours for dinner, two hours back. Okay, he'd be tired, but he didn't want to stay in Banksia Bay. Doable.
So he'd put on his dinner suit, driven from Sydney, sat through interminable speeches, too much back-slapping and too many questions. All on the one theme. 'Isn't it wonderful that you're a doctorhave you ever thought about coming home?'
This wasn't home. It was the place he'd been dumped after Robbie.
And of course Mardie wasn't at the dinner. He hadn't realised it was a reunion for just the one class.
He'd left as soon as he could. He should have gone straight back to Sydney.
But the thought of Mardie was still there. He'd come all this way.
Could he casually drop in at ten at night? Um maybe not.
The trees on the roadside were groaning under the strain of gale-force winds. The windscreen was being slapped with horizontal sleet.
Mardie's farm was right here. If it was daylight he would be able to see it.
Why did he want to see her?
She'd been a kid when he left Banksia Bay. Sixteen to his seventeen. She was probably married with six kids by now.
The impossibility of dropping in was becoming more and more apparent. On a moonlit night, maybe. If he'd rung ahead, maybe. He knew her phone numberhe'd had it in his head for twenty years. As he'd left the reunion he'd thought he'd see if her lights were on and then he'd ring, and if she answered, he'd take it from there.
Only of course he'd forgotten there was no cellphone reception out here. Or maybe he'd never known. He'd left practically before cellphones were invented.
Enough. He needed to get back to the highway, put sentiment aside and focus on sense.
Focus on the road.
A blind bend. Darkness. Rain.
Mardie's house was a couple of hundred yards from the road. No lights. So that was that. Maybe she'd moved. Of course she'd moved. Did he expect her life to have stood still?
And then a dog, right in the middle of the road. He hit the brakes, hard.
If it wasn't wet he might have made it, but water was sheeting over the bitumen, giving his tyres no grip.
His car skidded, planing out of control. He fought desperately, trying to turn into the skid, trying.
A tree was in front of him and he had nowhere to go.
Bounce was quivering beside the bed, flinching at each clap of thunder. Growling at the weird shapes made by lightning.
'You're starting to spook me,' Mardie told him as she snuggled under the covers. 'One more growl and you're back in the kitchen.'
The next clap of thunder sounded almost overhead and suddenly Bounce was right under the duvet.
Farmer with working dog. Total professionals. Ha! She hugged him, taking as well as giving comfort.
'We're not scared,' she told Bounce in her very best Farmer-In-Charge-Of-The-Situation voice.
Thunder. Lightning. The house seemed to tremble.
This one had her sitting up.
For the last crash was different. Not thunder. Not a falling tree.
It was the sound of tyres screaming for purchase, and then impact. Metal splintering.
And then it looked as if she was braving the elements, like it or not.
He wasn't hurt. Or not much. There was a trickle of blood on his foreheadthe windscreen had smashed and a sliver of metal or glass must have got past the airbags. But he'd hired a Mercedes. If there was one thing these babies were good at it was protecting the occupant.
One of his headlights, weirdly, was still working. He could see what had happened. The trunk of the tree had met the front of the car square on. The whole passenger compartment seemed to have moved backward. The windscreen seemed to have shifted sideways.
The tree was about a foot from his nose.
Rain was sheeting in from the gap where the windscreen had been.
He ought to get out. Fire
That was a thought forceful enough to stir him from his shock. He was out of the car in seconds.
A dog met him as he emerged, knee height, wet, whining, nuzzling against him as if desperate for reassurance from another living thing.
The dog. The cause of the crash.
He should kick it into the middle of next week, he thought. Instead, he found himself kneeling on the roadside, holding it, feeling shudders run through the dog's thin frame. Feeling matching shudders run through his.
They'd both come close to the edge.
He tugged the dog back a bit, worried the car might blow, but it wasn't happening, not in this rain. Any spark that might catch was drenched before it even thought about causing trouble.
The sparks weren't the only thing drenched. Thirty seconds out of the car and he was soaked.
What to do? He was kneeling beside his crashed car in the middle of nowhere, holding a dog.
He was four miles from Banksia Bay, and Banksia Bay was in the middle of nowhere. It was a tiny harbour town two hours from Sydney, set between mountains and sea. He'd already checked for phone reception. Zip.
He had a coat in the car. He had an umbrella.
It was too late for coats and umbrellas. He was never going to be wetter than he was right now.
The dog whined and leaned heavily against him. A border collie? Black and white, its long fur was matted and dripping. The dog was far too thinhe could feel ribs. It was leaning against him as if it needed his support.
He put a hand on its neck and found a plastic collar, but now wasn't the time to be thinking about identification.
'We're safe but we're risking drowning,' he said out loud, and he stared through the rain trying to see Mardie's house.
Still, it was the closest house. It was over a mile back to his aunt's old home which, someone had told him tonight, had become a private spa retreat, but was now in the hands of the receivers. Deserted. After that He couldn't think.
The trees around him were losing branches. He had to get out of the weather.
Did Mardie still live here?
How ironic, after coming all this way because he'd stupidly assumed she'd be at the school reunion, to end up on her doorstep like a drowned rat. Waking her from sleep.
His head hurt. He had no choice.
He turned towards the house and the dog plodded beside him, just touching.
'Mardie and a husband and six kids?' he asked the dog. 'Or a stranger.' And then, despite the rain, despite the shock, he found himself grinning. 'I came all this way to find Mardie. It seems fate's decided I'm still looking.'
The phone was dead.
There was no mobile reception here ever, but she did have a landline. Not now. The lines must be down.
She was on her own.
A car crash.
This was worse than vampires. Much worse.