“We’ll be okay,” she whispered to her baby. “Everything will be okay soon.”
Lana stepped backwards off the bus and pulled hard at the pram. The thick wheel swivelled out of control.
“Here.” A middle-aged man, also exiting the bus, grabbed the handle and helped her lift it down.
“Thanks.” She gave a small, tight smile.
“It’s hard to handle on your own, isn’t it?”
“What?” The question came out defensive.
“Those prams. They’re so bulky these days.”
“Oh, yes.” Lana tightened the strap on her backpack. She needed to relax. She needed to stop seeing danger where there was none.
The man peered into the pram. “What a cutie. What’s his name?”
She felt the man’s eyes on her, taking in her unwashed hair and stained clothes, the yellow-purple bruises smudging her arms. Her split lip still tasted satisfyingly of blood.
Lana waited until the man had gone, and the bus drove off with a bilious puff of black diesel. With shaking hands, she dialled the number she’d saved to her phone.
It rang and rang. Please pick up, she prayed. She had no Plan B.
“Is this Amy’s Haven?”
“Yes. Who’s this?” The voice was calm and soothing.
“It’s Charlotte,” Lana whispered. “I phoned you last week about needing a place to stay. My son…He’s only twelve weeks old.”
“Yes, I remember you. We still have a room available. I’ll send a driver out to collect you. What’s your address?”
Lana glanced around her. There was no one in sight. “I’m at a bus stop on South Coast road and…” She took a few paces towards the sign. “Near Turrumbin Wildlife Refuge.” She wasn’t familiar with the area. It had simply been a matter of which bus came first and which stop came last.
“Okay, a taxi will come and pick you up. It might be about twenty minutes.”
“Please come quickly,” Lana said. “He’ll kill me if he finds me.”
“It’s going to be okay, Charlotte. We’ll see you soon,” the voice said and the line went dead.
Lana threw the phone in a nearby rubbish bin and exhaled slowly. Everything was working out just as she’d hoped. She lifted Samuel out of the pram and held him to her. He mewled and flailed his tiny fists against her chest. She kissed the downy hair on his head and breathed him in. The calm voice echoed in her mind. “It’s going to be okay.”
They were no longer safe. Strapped in the cotton sling, Samuel’s pudgy legs bounced as Lana raced through the wildlife sanctuary. She had to get as far away from that man as possible. As she ran, thoughts and images whirled through her head like bats. They were onto her. The man would catch her and then what? But she had been so careful. Had someone seen her stepping onto the bus? She heard the crack of branches behind her. The footsteps were gaining on her. She made herself run faster. A rush of blood pulsed in her ears. Sweat stung her eyes and trickled down her face. She didn’t dare turn around, didn’t want to see how close he was. A black cockatoo screeched overhead and flew towards the canopy of golden wattle trees. Perhaps the bird was beckoning her, leading them to a safe place. She wove through the trees. Her jelly legs felt disconnected as she pounded along the undulating terrain. She ran and run until the jabbing pain in her side forced her to stop.
Gasping for breath she slid down onto the ground and leaned against a paperbark tree. The bush was silent now and she wondered if she’d imagined the pursuer. Had she dumped Samuel’s stroller and run into this refuge for nothing? The nappies, his change of clothes, her phone and purse. It was all gone. At least she still had her backpack with Samuel’s formula.
The stillness of the bush mocked her. Some part of her knew she was crazy. But the fear that coursed through her body was real. He’d made her crazy. Because of him, she didn’t know what was real and what was in her head anymore.
Dusk settled over the forest, turning the trees a muted grey. The rhythmic clicking of frogs, whip-crack call of birds and the trill of crickets crescendoed in a bush symphony. Lana thought of the taxi pulling into the bus stop and then driving off without her. That bed at Amy’s Haven would be slept in by another woman with her own sad story. Lana was tired and her head hurt. She and Samuel would sleep here tonight, and in the morning she’d figure out what to do. Lana focused on the warmth of Samuel’s body as he nestled into her. She closed her eyes.
A loud snap jolted her awake and Samuel begun wailing. A kangaroo hopped through the clearing towards them. It nibbled some grass then stood upright on its hind legs, suddenly alert. Its ears rotated back and forth before it turned and bounded away.
“Shh,” she soothed. Samuel cried and cried, and she grew angry. She hated his ungrateful red mouth and those small slitted eyes. Why was he still crying? She was protecting him like a good mother. She was doing her best.
Then it came to her. He was hungry. She unzipped her backpack and pulled out water, his baby bottle, a tin of formula and a teaspoon. She contemplated the water for a moment. Her throat felt dry but she needed to save it. Samuel was her priority. She’d endured the pain, even embraced it. Everything for him.
She pried the lid open and stabbed the foil. Lana added two scoops of formula, poured in some water then shook the bottle vigorously. She forced the teat between the baby’s lips, watched it splutter, then suck. Something about the tilt of the baby’s head, its cheeks full and round triggered a memory. Before. Sitting on the grey couch in her living room. Samuel swaddled in his blue baby blanket. She could almost feel the tingling in her breast as he latched. She could almost smell the sweet-sour tang, the sharp pain of lips drawing milk from her nipple. How could she love a memory so much and yet hate it too?
A strong white beam streaked across the bush. Lana froze and held Samuel to her chest. He gurgled as the light bounced and danced around the trees. “Shush,” she urged. She grabbed the cotton sling and held it to his mouth. She could hear footsteps. Voices. Samuel whimpered and she pressed the cloth harder. “Be quiet,” she hissed. “You don’t want them to take you away, do you? I’m the only one who loves you.”
She motioned to the bruises staining her right arm. “Look at what I did for you.” The pain hadn’t worried her. It had brought a kind of relief, the knowledge that she was one step closer to Samuel. Her Samuel who’d driven her crazy. Given her so much happiness and then taken it all away. This was her last chance at happiness. She pressed the cloth harder still. And then he was quiet.
It happened quickly. The light too bright in her eyes. Footsteps thudding. The search party closed in around her, a black condemning shadow. “Oh God,” a man said. Hands snatched Samuel from her. A woman spoke into a walkie-talkie. Lana looked up at the night sky. A swollen bellied moon gazed reproachfully down at her. The baby wailed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Because it wasn’t her Samuel anymore. Her Samuel was long gone.