It was 1960. A mother and her eight-year-old daughter sat on the front bench of their little grey sedan looking at each other; a baby boy was asleep on the back seat. The mother didn’t know what to do; it appeared the vehicle had run out of fuel. “You know how your father always likes to tell people that our old Zephyr still goes like the wind,” the woman addressed her offspring, “well it just ran out of puff.”
“I could walk to the shop and get Mrs. Provera to ring Daddy to come help,” the little girl offered. It wasn’t the mother’s preference, but a viable alternative considering the options and other circumstances, especially the fact that her knee was recovering from an injury that wouldn’t allow her to walk the extra mile or so. She contemplated risking further damage, but having to carry her son because his pram was still at home, would make it a near impossible task. If only they’d made it to the main road, maybe one of the farmers would come driving by in his utility and tow them to the petrol bowser. But the car had stopped short of that, and as it was only lunchtime it would probably be hours before any of the locals considered their work done and come in for supplies.
“I could do it, Mummy,” her daughter pressed, “easily!” Dorothy was a fit, healthy youngster and in their small rural community of only ten houses plus a few outlying farmsteads, where everybody knew each other and doors were left unlocked, the aspect of safety wasn’t an issue.
“I know you could darling, I’m just not sure Daddy will be impressed.”
“Yes he will,” the little girl tried to reassure her, “he’ll be proud of me!” she said puffing up her chest, and bringing a smile to her mother’s face. “Please let me.”
Getting word to her husband about their predicament was the only solution Dorothy’s mother could think of. “Maybe that will work,” she muttered to herself, and then out loud, “thank goodness your brother is asleep. He’ll be fine in the car, at least I managed to park it in the shade,” she said as she hobbled to open the back doors so that the little breeze there was could flow through. “I’ll come as far as the corner with you.”
“I’ll be okay on my own, honest Mum. Please don’t hurt your leg.”
“It’s okay Sweetie,” now it was her mother’s turn to be reassuring. “I can make it that far and I’ll feel better if I watch you for a while.”
When they reached the bend Dorothy’s mother kissed her, told her how much she appreciated what she was doing, and watched as her daughter proudly strutted down the road. However, the child hadn’t gone that far before a couple of magpies that had a nest in the top branches of a nearby Poinciana tree swooped down upon her. The same thing had happened once before during school holidays when she’d gone for a long ride on her bike. That time she’d fallen off, skinned herself all over, hit her head so hard on the ground that she suffered concussion and to this day couldn’t remember getting up or pushing her bike home.
Dorothy knew the aggressive black-and-white birds would return. She started to run, hoping that as soon as she got past the towering tree they would leave her alone, but they didn’t give her any reprieve at all. One after the other they tried to peck at her uncovered head. She felt one whoosh past her ear and almost stumbled trying to avoid getting struck by its hard, pointed beak. Just as she was expecting another attacking dive a car stopped beside her and the front passenger door was flung open. “Quick, get in,” the male driver said. Dorothy didn’t give a thought to what she was doing and rushed into the front seat, hastily slamming the door.
“That was close,” the man said, as he began driving off.
“A lucky escape,” Dorothy breathed a sigh of relief.
“Where are you heading?”
“I’m going to the shop, it’s just up there,” Dorothy replied, pointing ahead to the left.
“Yes,” the man said, “I know.” It wasn’t hard to miss. Apart from the few houses on either side of it, the general store was the township. It was one of those places that if you blinked while travelling through, you missed it. “Why were you walking where the magpies could get you, didn’t you know they were there?”
“Yes, I did know they were there,” Dorothy said in typical little girl fashion, “ but I didn’t have a choice. Our car ran out of petrol and I was the only one who could get help.”
“What a good little girl,” the man said, “and cute to boot,” he smiled as his roving eyes took in her diminutive form.
Dorothy glanced across at the man with the dark slicked-down hair, deep brown eyes, bushy brows and hairy arms. He was dressed in city clothes, unlike the locals who wore dark blue singlets and work shorts. She didn’t like the way he was staring at her. “We’re coming to the shop, you have to slow down now,” she said.
“I know,” the man replied, keeping his foot firmly planted on the accelerator. “Hey, I like the way you’ve tied your beautiful blonde curls into pigtails with those pretty pink ribbons,” he said, trying to keep their conversation going, but Little Dot, as she was affectionately known around the intimate country community, wasn’t interested in discussing hair preferences with the man who was starting to give her the creeps. Her inner alarm bells beginning to ring.
“We’re near the shop, you need to stop now,” she reminded him.
“I know,” he said again, but still didn’t slow his vehicle.
This time when Dorothy looked at him it was with fear in her heart as she realised he was actually driving past the shop and out the other side of town. What was he doing? Why wasn’t he stopping? She was scared, very scared. He wouldn’t hurt her would he? She’d heard about men who did bad things to children and wondered if he was one of them. Her heart started to beat faster and she thought about trying to open the car door and jump out, but they were going too fast.
“You have to stop now,” she yelled out, but the man kept driving.
Just as Dorothy was about to scream at him again, he disengaged his left hand from the steering wheel, raised his index finger to his lips, turned his head to look at her and softly expressed, “Shush now, I’m not going to hurt you, I love little girls. I have one of my own you know, although she’s not half as pretty as you. She’s a bit older too, which is a shame because now that she’s a teenager, she doesn’t love me like she used to,” he lamented, reaching out to touch the soft skin of Dorothy’s cheek with the back of his hand. “But never mind, I have you now and everything will be just fine.”
If he thought his words would calm her, they didn’t. Dorothy didn’t exactly know what he meant and her mind quickly began to wander and wonder, especially about where he was taking her and what he might do. Then something within her snapped and she allowed the thought that was burning inside her brain to burst free. “My mother saw me get into your car,” she said loudly – and slow so that her words didn’t get muddled up like they sometimes did when she was excited.
The man turned sideways to look at her, trying to ascertain if the little girl was telling the truth. “I didn’t see anyone,” he said, thinking she was bluffing.
“She was watching me,” Dorothy stated flatly, looking directly into his eyes, holding his gaze and trying not to blink. She didn’t know why, but something made her do that even though she was almost panicking. “Mummy was standing under the old gum tree where the dirt track that goes to the creek meets the bitumen road,” she imparted the information matter-of-factly, before repeating, “Mummy saw me get into your car. She was watching me.”
So was the man now – intently. Was the youngster telling the truth, or lying? The answer to that question could change everything. Considering the consequences of choosing incorrectly, he pushed his foot hard on the brake causing the car to fishtail for a short distance down the middle of the one-lane outback highway before screeching to a halt. Dorothy’s small frame was thrust forward and she almost smashed her face into the dashboard. The man threw out his arm either to protect or grab her. Dorothy didn’t know which, but didn’t waste any time finding out. She hastily pulled down on the door handle, pushed it open, jumped out and began running as fast as she could back towards the shop, willing her jelly-like legs to keep moving.
The man accelerated quickly away.