A lone tree sat completely still in the barren and fiery desert. There was not even the slightest gust to bristle its leaves or wipe the sand from its branches. The cruel January sun plagued the land and even the age-old tree was begging for shade. The desert came to life as a white wagon soared past, sending up clouds of dust and dirt into its rear-view.
‘…In the desert you can remember your name,
cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,
La, la, la, laaa, la, la, la, laaa…’
Rorey sang along to the stereo, steering the car with one arm while drumming with his other on the outside of the door. The burning wind soared through his hair and under his pits. His chest was bare and he could feel drops of sweat trickling down his pale skin. Jimmy sat in the passenger seat with his head rested against the window, staring at the digital clock while his head bounced against the glass. His eyes stayed fix on the 2:13 above the dashboard, seeing if he could count in the same time as the clock to the next minute. He had oil stains on his West Perth footy shorts and his sunglasses were resting on top of his shaved blonde hair.
They were nearing the end of their journey to Karijini National Park, a paradise of mountains and waterfalls hidden among the red oblivion of the Great Sandy Desert. They had two hours left on their three-day journey and had just taken the shortcut that leads straight through to Juna Downs. Years ago the Aprico Oil & Gas Company, a Western Australia mining giant, carved the path to do seismic surveys and find oil but the path was now completely abandoned.
The Triton groaned as it moved between gears on the bends and slopes of the surface. The lifetime of annual road trips was finally beginning to take its toll. Jimmy reached into his pocket and lit a cigarette, struggling to spark it as the wind sailed through the car.
‘How many times do I have to tell you not to smoke in the car?’ Rorey said.
‘We’ve got another week in this hotbox for the smell to fade. This car’s nearly older than us anyway,’ Jimmy replied.
Rorey’s attention stayed on the road, trying not to get bogged as the all-terrain tyres veered through the sand. Suddenly the back wheels flew sideways and the car went hurtling off the path into a large ditch. They took a deep breath, relieved they weren’t bogged, and revved the car back up the hill, cheering her on like it was one of them. The tyres crawled up with all their might. They finally reached the top when the engine made a frantic squeal and thud. The car stopped. Both of them watched sadly as it rolled back down the ditch it had come up. After eyeballing each other they rushed to lift the hood, which now had smoke surging from under it. Jimmy—the grease monkey of the pair—searched for the problem.
‘How is she?’ Rorey asked.
‘Something has pierced through the sump,’ Jimmy replied, shaking his head in disbelief.
‘What does that mean?’
‘Well to put it in simple terms… we’re screwed.’
Jimmy walked away with his hands on his head, gazing out across the endless plains of wasteland. There were no signs of life: no buildings, no cars, no road signs, nothing. The waves of heat rippled like fumes in the air and he swore it could have lit his cigarette on its own.
‘Head up, we can sort this out,’ Rorey said.
‘Do you not understand our situation?’ Jimmy screamed. ‘All alone in the desert with no service, we haven’t seen another human in two hours and have barely enough food to last the day. It must be forty degrees out here.’
Silence returned as they sat back down. The sun was low enough over the horizon that it gave them shade on one side of the car, but heat still radiated off the ground. Jimmy took a deep breath and let the grains of sand run through his fingers. He closed his eyes and his mind drifted far away, back to a home that seemed so far gone. He dreamt of the view of the park at work, the local oval and the smell of coffee when he walked past the café on Maylands Terrace.
‘So what can we do?’ Rorey said, heaving him back to reality.
It was soon nightfall and the air around them had cooled. They rested against the car door and watched the stars gradually appear. Rorey placed an arm around Jimmy’s shoulder, but had it brushed off a few moments later.
Rorey was woken by a glowing shade of blue that emerged across the sky, devouring the nightfall like an army across the battlefield. His heart quickly sank when he saw no signs of rescue. It seemed even more desolate than the day before. Jimmy was still asleep by the wheel next to their last remaining tub of water, which was half-empty. After hesitating to upset his dreams and drag him back to their unsettling truth, Rorey shook him awake.
‘What do we do?’ Rorey said. ‘I think if we can find our way back to the main road maybe someone will drive past.’ He spoke encouragingly but a shrill and desperate tone revealed itself in the back of his voice.
‘But what if we don’t find anything?’ Jimmy said. ‘People always say to stick with your car.’
A long argument followed and they agreed on their usual way of settling their differences. Jimmy rustled through the car for his wallet and pulled out a ten-cent coin.
‘Heads or tails?’ he said.
The coin spun through the air as the sunlight reflected off each side before burying itself in the sand. After accepting its result and realising time was critical, they made preparations and set off easterly.
A few hours of hiking later, they felt as if they hadn’t moved at all, still captives of the never-ending red sea. The only indicator of progress was their footprints stamped behind them. I wonder if this is how Neil Armstrong felt, Jimmy thought, up there on his own surrounded by a great infinity of nothing. He had read books on the Sahara desert and wondered why this felt so different. No camels, no pyramids, no ancient artefacts, just fucking sand. With every thousand steps they walked, time seemed to vanish further from their experience. The only gauge of it was the sun climbing through the sky, yet still they marched on. Left, right, left, right.
They hadn’t spoken for what felt like years and the only sound was the ghost-like whispers whirring through the sand. The wind carved through the dunes, releasing grains into the air only to send them falling again to create other golden mountains elsewhere. The only disturbing of silence came from Rorey.
‘Did you know that Australia is the driest continent in the world?’
‘What?’ Jimmy replied.
‘…well second after Antarctica but nobody lives there so I don’t really count it.’
Jimmy was so anxious that he couldn’t even bring himself to shut Rorey up, who was only making matters worse. He could feel his mortality squirming in his gut and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness made putting one foot in front of the other an almost impossible task.
‘HELP! HELP! SOMEONE HELP!’ Jimmy shrieked frantically. The cries summed up the panic they were both feeling inside but had refused to show each other, trundling along like everything was fine.
The return trek was like a bad dream. The sun leaked through the beach towels wrapped around their heads, and despite the volcanic heat, neither could muster a drop of sweat. The never-ending walk turned to delusional stumbling until they couldn’t even remember what was happening. They eventually spotted the car up ahead, but just as they did, Rorey collapsed face first into the sand.
Jimmy struggled to lift Rorey from the dirt and threw him over his shoulders, fighting the existential dread in his every bone. As Jimmy stumbled on, he felt Rorey wrap his arms around his chest
Once they reached the car Jimmy’s legs gave out instantly, and they both went crashing down in exhaustion. He searched for the water bottle and crawled over to Rorey, nursing him the precious final drops that remained. Rorey moaned as he was stirred back to consciousness, feeling no better for it. The end seemed certain.
‘I’m sorry we walked,’ Rorey said. ‘I thought we would find something.’
‘Jim?’ he repeated
Jimmy stayed silent.
‘Well if we are going to die here together at least say something’—Rorey paused for another moment—‘Fuck you then man! Why do you always do this?’
‘Drop it,’ Jimmy yelled.
‘I wont drop it, we are about to die out here! You know we’ve never been the same since—‘
‘Don’t go there Rorey.’
‘Why not? What are you so afraid of?’
‘I said don’t fucking say it.’
‘So you’re just gonna pretend it never happened? That we didn’t both say what we said?’
Jimmy kept his eyes lowered in the dirt. ‘I couldn’t care what I said, I was drunk, now drop it! Sorry if I’m not a little fag like you.’
‘The fuck did you say?’
‘You heard me,’ Jimmy mumbled, turning to walk away.
Rorey exploded with rage. He threw himself at Jimmy and speared him into the side of the car. Jimmy countered with a right hook across his jaw. Back and forth they wrestled through the sand, using every final scrap of energy. Years of frustration, tension and secrecy poured out with every blow. Eventually, they stood pressed against each other in a stalemate, gasping for air and spluttering from the dust filling their lungs.
‘It doesn’t have to be this way you know,’ Rorey said through his bleeding gums. ‘Since when have you ever given a shit what anyone else thinks? When has it not been just you and me?’
‘Jimmy… I—‘ Rorey hesitated. ‘I love yo—‘
Jimmy screamed hysterically, refusing to hear the rest of the sentence. He lifted Rorey and slammed him across the car bonnet. Rorey was laid motionless, his spine indented in the boiling steel. Jimmy sobbed, but with no water left to fill his tear ducts. He whelped for the blood on his fists, for the ending of a brotherhood, and for what seemed the end of their lives.
Jimmy pulled Rorey from the bonnet, who was still motionless, and rested him softly on the ground.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Jimmy said, though he knew Rorey couldn’t hear him.
He rubbed the sand from his face and rested against Rorey, and rubbed his hand across his bloody, sunburnt cheek. What am I doing? You’re right, he thought.
After faltering for a moment, Jimmy leaned in and kissed him. His lips were burnt raw from the sun and his mouth far too dry, but Jimmy felt the slightest of movement as Rorey’s lips wrapped around his, and for just a moment, his sense of hopelessness, his growling stomach and the regrets sealed deep in his heart vanished in a gush of happiness.
Rorey woke up to Jimmy shaking him violently. He opened his eyes and removed his face from the dirt, but his body barely reacted as they both lay in agony.
‘Still nothing,’ Jimmy said. ‘Rorey, I think this may be it.’
Jimmy laid back against the car and broke down again, burying his face in his hands. Rorey struggled to stay awake. He felt a deep sense of calm surge through him as he accepted the inevitable.
‘Jim, gimme a dart,’ Rorey said.
‘Ha! You bastard! Since when?’ Jimmy replied.
‘Now’s as good a time as any.’
He grabbed one but struggled to raise his arms enough to light it.
‘Here,’ Jimmy said, as he grimaced over and lit it for him.
‘Hey Jim,’ Rorey said, ‘remember that’—he stops to splutter for a moment—‘remember that time when—‘ He starts coughing violently and sits back.
He smiled faintly, breathed out a big puff of smoke and closed his eyes. His head slowly leaned forward. The cigarette rolls down out of his mouth and branded his arm. He doesn’t flinch.
Jimmy watched on, horrified, but his body unable to react. He just stared for minutes, trying to see Rorey through his blurry vision. He felt the length of his blinks stretch out more and more, until finally, his eyes don’t open again.
Channel Nine News music plays:
‘Our top story tonight: two Perth men in their early twenties have been found dead near their vehicle in the Great Sandy Desert, just six kilometres from a bore of fresh water. Authorities say they suffered dehydration and severe heat stroke and had passed a few days earlier before being found. Their families remember them as lifelong best friends, talented footy players and loyal, free-spirited young men.’
Words by Connor Foley
Photography by Claudia Gregory