The Back of Beyond
The lush green hills behind the beach rose steeply to a mountain ridge capped in clouds. Jordan Beck stood on the rear porch of his house, smoking a cigarette and looking for birds in the rainforest trees. He had lived in far north Queensland for a year and he was amazed by the variety of tropical birds that inhabited this part of Australia. It was a wonder to him that the snakes hadn't eaten all of them long ago since several species were quite adept at climbing trees.
His bird-watching was interrupted by a knock at the front door. He crushed his cigarette on the porch railing , went down the steps and walked around the house. When he yelled "Hey!," Wilson Critchlow jumped like he had been shot.
"I wish you wouldn't do that, mate," Critchlow said.
Beck laughed. "Need a change of underwear?"
Critchlow was a ruddy-faced Aussie with dirty blond hair below his ears. He was Beck's drinking mate and worked as a tour guide whenever he needed beer money. He grinned at Beck, showing a missing front tooth.
"I change my undies once a month whether they're dirty or not," he said.
"Anyone ever call you skid marks?"
"Bloody hot today," Critchlow said, ignoring the remark.
"You say that every day and you were born here."
"This rotten climate is only fit for reptiles. You have any beer?"
"Not even a shortie," Beck lied.
"Let's drive to Port Douglas and hoist a few."
Beck walked past him and opened the front door. "You might as well come inside."
They went to the kitchen table and Beck got two beers from the refrigerator.
"You sodding hoarder," Critchlow grumbled.
"Shut up and drink your beer."
Critchlow downed half the bottle in a long swallow and belched loudly. "I'm hired for a job next week. Bloody tourists from California. You wanna go?"
"No thanks," Beck snorted. "The last time you were so pissed you couldn't find Cooktown on a map."
"We had fun, didn't we?"
"Don't you remember what happened?"
"Bits and pieces."
"You got the jeep stuck crossing a stream in a flash flood."
Critchlow curled his lips into a smile. "No worries, mate. We didn't drown."
Occasionally Beck accompanied Critchlow on the bush tours and took photographs of the wildlife they encountered. He sold the photos to the tourists and often made a sale to travel magazines if he included an article. The money was enough to support him in the simple life he had chosen. The major drain on his finances was buying shouts or rounds of drinks at the local pubs where Critchlow took him from time to time.
"Let's go to Port Douglas," his friend suggested again.
"I've got plenty of beer," Beck replied.
"You stay home too much. The boys in town think you're a bleeding hermit."
"I wish you hadn't told me. It's going to keep me awake nights."
"I'll buy the beer."
"With what money?"
"The advance I received for next week's tour."
"You're joking. Someone paid you an advance?"
"I swear it's true."
"They sure don't know you very well, do they?"
"I'm good for it," Critchlow insisted.
Critchlow looked at his wristwatch. "Finish your beer so we can get going."
"You got a hot date or something?"
"I wouldn't want to be a third wheel."
"Don't be stupid. If I had a date, I wouldn't take you along."
He went to the refrigerator and removed two beers.
"Go ahead and help yourself," Beck said, but the sarcasm was lost on his friend.
"For the long drive," Critchlow beamed.
"It's twelve miles with no traffic."
"Too far without something to drink."
Critchlow's jeep was so rusted and encrusted with dried mud it was difficult to tell what color the original paint job had been. They got in and Critchlow twisted the ignition key. The engine groaned as it turned over and finally started.
"I'm always a bit surprised when it starts right off," the driver admitted.
"I know what you mean," Beck said. "It's like the second coming of Christ to me."
"Yank humor. I love it."
Critchlow floored the gas pedal and started fiddling with his bottle of beer. Beck snatched it out of his hand.
"You drive. I'll open it."
A moment later Critchlow mentioned they were going to a particular restaurant.
"What's wrong with the pub?" Beck asked.
"I want something to eat. A Brisbane bug would hit the spot."
"You must be flush if you can afford lobster."
"We only live once, mate."
"Something stinks and it's not your undies this time," Beck said.
Critchlow shot a sideways glance at him. "I don't know what you mean."
"Don't lie to me. You're hiding something."
His friend swerved the jeep to miss a large rock on the road. "Paranoia is an ugly trait, if you ask me."
"Who's at the restaurant, Wilson?"
"No one. Customers. How the hell should I know?"
"I'll get even with you if this is some sort of prank."
"It's no prank," Critchlow said without turning his head. "On my
"You don't have any honor."
They passed 10-mile Beach, a wide expanse of packed white sand where drivers often took their street vehicles. A few minutes later Critchlow pulled into the parking lot of the fanciest restaurant in town and turned off the engine. He looked over at Beck.
"Then you can watch me eat while you drink beer."
They entered the restaurant and a waiter seated them at a table with a view of the harbor. After the beer arrived, Beck turned away from the window and began searching the faces of the other customers. He was surprised when he didn't recognize any of them.
While Critchlow gorged on lobster, Beck sipped his second beer and tried to make small talk, but he felt uncomfortable. He was facing the door when a young woman entered the restaurant and looked around. Her brown hair was much shorter than he remembered.
"You son of a bitch," he muttered to Critchlow.
His friend wiped his chin with a napkin. "She told me she's your wife, mate."
"How did you find me?" Beck demanded.
They were sitting at another table at the rear of the restaurant as Beck glared at his friend across the room.
"You shouldn't have sent the letter to your mother," Patricia said.
"I asked her not to tell you."
"Why did you do it, Jordan? Was I such a terrible wife?"
"Then I don't understand. You have to help me understand. You owe me at least that much."
"There's nothing to understand."
She smoothed her green skirt with one hand. "Please don't say that."
"You shouldn't have come here, Patty."
"What was I supposed to do -- pretend you were dead?"
"That might have been a good idea."
Her lower lip began to tremble. "I can't believe you're acting this way."
Her eyes filled with tears when Beck didn't answer. "Don't what?" she shouted in a hoarse voice.
"Calm down," Beck said. "I'll get you a drink. What do you want?"
"Nothing. I'm fine."
Beck summoned the waiter and ordered two double brandies.
"I hate brandy," Patricia said.
"Drink it anyway."
"When did you start drinking brandy?"
"Today," he said, gulping his drink and signaling for a refill.
"You can't face me without getting drunk?"
"Stop it or I'll leave."
"I flew six thousand miles to --"
"What did you think would happen? You must have known I didn't want to see you."
"Why? What did I ever do to you?"
"Nothing," he said, looking away.
"I can't stand this, Jordan. You have to talk to me."
Beck finished his drink quickly and stood up, reaching for the check. "This is a complete waste of time for both of us. Go home, Patty."
He went to Critchlow's table and dropped the check in his plate. "You can pick up the tab."
"What's going on, mate?"
"None of your goddamn business."
Beck left the restaurant and walked to the harbor. He looked around until he spotted a bald man who was sitting in a pickup truck.
"Can you give me a lift to my place?"
"If you don't mind waiting a few minutes," the man said.
"Thanks, Roger. I owe you one."
Beck lit a cigarette and watched Roger talking to a deck hand on one of the fishing boats. A short while later all three of them were headed north along the coast highway.
The next morning Beck was eating scrambled eggs and drinking his second cuppa when he looked out of the kitchen window and saw a taxi pull up in front of his house. He grimaced and went to the front porch as Patricia paid the taxi driver.
"You shouldn't have brought her, Harold," he muttered.
"A fare is a fare, mate."
Beck glanced at his wife. "Take her back to town."
"I don't want to go back until later." Patricia took a step toward the porch.
"You heard the lady," the driver said. The taxi crawled back onto the pavement and sped away.
"How did you find this place?" Beck asked.
"It was easy. Everyone in Port Douglas seems to know everything about you."
"Can I come inside?"
Beck gave no answer. He returned to the kitchen and resumed eating his eggs. Patricia wandered in timidly and looked around the house.
"Sort of rustic," she said.
"You mean primitive."
"Actually, I rather like it."
"Like hell you do. You want a cuppa?"
"A cup of what?"
"Tea. I don't have any coffee."
"Tea sounds fine."
Beck poured the tea and watched her take a sip.
"Delicious. What kind is it?"
"Oolong from Communist China. You can tell our friends I've gone left-wing in my eating habits."
"Let's not argue, Jordan."
"Why did you come?"
"I wanted to see where you lived."
Patricia laughed for the first time since she had arrived in Australia. "I'm curious about your new life. Do you live alone here?"
"I don't have a girlfriend if that's what you're driving at."
"Not even in Port Douglas?" she teased.
"Not anywhere in Australia."
"Strange, but I believe you. That makes it more difficult to understand."
"There's nothing to understand."
"Please stop saying that. Will you give me a tour of the property?"
"If you promise to stop asking questions."
"I'll be as quiet as a mouse."
They hiked to a bluff above the house, Patricia trailing several steps behind her husband. By the time they reached level ground she was gasping for breath.
"You're certainly in great shape," she observed.
"I don't work in an office anymore. What do you think of the view?"
She shaded her eyes with one hand and scanned the coastline. Close to the beach the water was aquamarine, turning dark blue a quarter mile offshore. A row of coconut palms along the highway swayed in the strong breeze.
"It's beautiful," she said finally. "It reminds me of Hawaii."
Beck knew she was referring to their honeymoon on Maui, but he let it pass.
"Do you rent this property?"
"I knew you couldn't stop asking questions."
"Oh, shut up. I'm enjoying myself."
Now it was Beck's turn to laugh. "You haven't changed a bit."
"Yes, I have. I want you to know that."
"It doesn't matter, Patty. You are what you are and I am what I am."
She giggled. "You sound like Popeye. I yam what I yam."
Beck frowned and shook his head.
"What a grouch. I'll bet I can beat you down the hill."
She bolted down the trail before he could stop her.
"Don't run!" he shouted. "You'll fall and break your neck!"
She was several yards ahead of him when he thought of something that would slow her down.
"Watch out for the snakes!"
Patricia squealed and stopped in her tracks. "Where?"
He caught up with her and noticed that she was trembling. "I didn't see a snake, but you have to watch where you step."
She doubled up her fist and punched him on the arm. "Damn you! You scared the hell out of me."
"There are poisonous snakes around here."
"Why didn't you tell me on the way up?"
"We weren't racing then," Beck said, waving as he took off.
He was waiting on the rear porch, sipping a beer, when she
straggled up the stairs.
"You cheated," she said.
"And you were always a sore loser."
She sat down on the top step and Beck noticed that she was still trembling.
"Are you all right?"
"I hate snakes. You shouldn't have scared me like that."
He sat down beside her. "Okay, it was a rotten trick. I'm sorry."
"No, you're not."
Beck saw tears forming in her eyes and resisted an urge to put his arm around her. "Don't take it so seriously. It was only a game."
"It's not that," she said. "I feel so exhausted I can't think."
"You have jet lag. Why don't you lay down and take a long nap?"
"I'll go back to my hotel."
"There's a perfectly good bed right here. I'll have lunch ready by the time you wake up."
She looked surprised . "You know how to cook?"
"You wouldn't believe how much I've learned in the past year. I'm a professional photographer for one thing. I have my own darkroom in a shed behind the house."
"Really? I'd like to see your photographs."
"Not now," he said, standing up. "You go take a nap first."
"Do I have to?"
"I have some work to do this morning. I'll wake you in a couple hours."
He led her to the bedroom. "I change the bedbugs once a week."
She looked around nervously.
"Bad joke," Beck said. "You used to have a sense of humor."
"I'm sorry, I didn't think --"
"Just get some sleep. You need it."
He closed the bedroom door behind him and made his way to the darkroom shed. After turning on the red light, he took a negative from the drying line and centered it in the glass holder that slid into the enlarger. Then he opened a box of 8x10 print paper and started exposing the enlargements.
At eleven-thirty Beck finished making soup and grilled sandwiches for lunch and went to the bedroom. Patricia lay on top of the bedspread, still dressed in her skirt and blouse. She was sleeping so soundly he decided not to wake her for awhile. He lingered in the bedroom doorway, recalling that she had always looked like a little girl when she slept. She was thirty-one, but even now there was something in her repose that reminded him of innocence. Beck caught himself feeling sorry for her, an old habit that had led to endless trouble when they lived together. He suppressed the feeling and closed the bedroom door quietly.
An hour or so later, after he had eaten and opened another beer, he thought he heard a sound from the bedroom. When he opened the door, he saw Patricia undressing beside the bed. She stepped out of her panties and stared at him.
"What are you doing?"
She walked to him and wrapped her arms around around him, burying her head in his shoulder.
"This isn't a good idea, Patty."
She repeated the word in a whisper and clung tightly to him until he began stroking her hair. She lifted her face and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she reached down and unbuckled his belt. When she tried to unbutton his shirt, he clasped her hand and kissed her.
"I can get undressed."
She crawled under the sheet and watched him take off his clothes. He felt strangely awkward in front of the woman who had been his wife and lover for four years. Patricia noticed this and smiled inwardly. She believed his shyness meant that he still had tender feelings for her.
After they made love, they lay in bed wrapped in each other's arms.
"I really thought you were the one for me," she said wistfully.
She gazed up at him. "You're suppose to say you thought I was the one for you."
"I did at first."
Beck smiled sadly. "Life."
"What do you mean?"
"I came back from the dead. The last couple years in California I was a walking corpse. I went through the motions of living, but I felt like a zombie."
"And you feel alive here in Australia?"
"Yes, I do."
"Because I'm not here to spoil it for you."
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to."
"Listen, I'm only going to say this once. It wasn't your fault or mine. Things like this just happen sometimes. You can either accept it and move on to something better or pretend it didn't happen and have a miserable excuse for a life."
Beck got a cigarette from the night table and lit it.
"I want you to show me your favorite places," she said.
"What are you talking about?"
"The places you love in the outback."
"It will help me understand why you're staying here. You can do that much for me, can't you?"
"It's no picnic roughing it in the bush, Patty."
"I promise I won't complain. When it's over, I'll return to California and never bother you again."
Beck looked in her eyes as if he were trying to read her mind.
"All right," he said after a moment. "You might get a kick out of it."
"I hope you don't mind if Critchlow comes with us."
She smiled. "Of course not. The more the merrier."
"He's a pretty good guide when he's sober."
"Does he drink a lot?"
"Only when he's conscious. He hasn't figured out a way to drink while he's asleep, but I know he's working on it."
"That certainly inspires a lot of confidence."
"Don't worry, I'll keep him in line."
On the third day of the trip they were camped on a barren escarpment overlooking a muddy stream lined with gum trees and bamboo. The sun was like a torch in the clear afternoon sky and Patricia squatted in the only shade provided by a tent. Critchlow sat on a rock drinking beer and watching Beck gather firewood.
"My God, it's hot," Patricia moaned.
"You should be here in February," Critchlow told her. "The heat is enough to peel the skin off of a goanna."
"What's a goanna?"
"A big lizard," Beck said. "And don't listen to Crocodile Critchlow. He tells more lies than a ten-dollar whore."
Critchlow grinned. "I resemble that remark."
"Can we take a swim in the stream to cool off?" Patricia pleaded. "Or does it have giant man-eating crocodiles like the river we crossed?"
"Freshies don't bite," Critchlow assured her.
She gave him an irritated look. "Can you translate that into English?"
"There's freshwater crocodiles in the stream," Beck explained. "They're not very big and they won't bother you."
"Then I'm going for a swim."
"I'm not helpless, Jordan."
"Watch where you step."
"We haven't seen any snakes in all this time," she said. "I think it's a tall tale you invented to scare me."
Critchlow roared with laughter. "She won't last long out here, will she, mate?"
"I'm going for a swim," Patricia said emphatically.
"Who's stopping you?"
The two men watched her march down the trail and disappear into the trees.
"Bad-tempered little thing, isn't she?" Critchlow mused.
Beck chuckled. "I knew she would hate this trip. That's why I brought her."
"What's the story on you two?"
"There is no story. Our marriage was finished a long time ago."
"So you just took off without telling her."
"It was simpler that way."
"Sounds bloody cold-hearted to me."
"I don't remember asking for your opinion."
Beck got a beer from the cooler, opened it and took a long drink.
"She's a genuine looker, I have to give her that much," Critchlow said. "I wonder why she married an ugly bastard like you."
"She thought I had a lucrative future as an advertising executive."
"You fooled her, didn't you?"
"It was mutual," Beck said.
"She cheat on you?"
"Not that I know of." He thought about it and then added: "No, I don't think so."
"That's the thing about good-looking Sheilas," Critchlow said. "Other guys are always trying to get into their undies. Makes more sense to marry a plain Jane."
"How come you never got married?"
"Me? I wouldn't want any woman who would have me for a husband. She'd have to be crazy."
They heard a scream echo from below the escarpment and both men took off on a dead run. Beck reached the stream first and saw Patricia stretched out on the bank, covered in mud and kicking at something in the water. Critchlow crashed into him from behind and started laughing when he spotted a two-foot croc floating in front of Patricia.
"Get him away from me!" she shouted.
Beck walked to the water's edge and lifted Patricia to her feet. "Take it easy. I told you they won't hurt you."
"The damn thing rubbed against me in the water," she complained.
"He was only curious," Critchlow said. "He wanted to see what you felt like, the poor little baby."
"It made my flesh crawl," she said, shuddering as she stared at the yellowish unblinking eyes of the small croc.
"Stay out of the stream from now on," Beck ordered.
"How am I supposed to wash all this mud off my clothes?"
"Follow me," Critchlow said. When Patricia didn't move, he took her hand. "There's a waterfall upstream."
"Go with him," Beck told her. "I'll get the camp fire started."
They were gone much longer than Beck expected. When they finally showed up at the camp site, they were chatting away like old friends.
"The waterfall was exquisite," Patricia beamed. "Clean, cold water for a change."
"You two kiss and make up?"
His wife glowered at him. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Except I notice you seem to have lost your bra."
"I left it to soak in the waterfall pool. What's the matter with you?"
"Nothing. Did Wilson watch you take it off?"
"You're wrong, mate," Critchlow said.
"Am I? You two couldn't stand each other a couple of hours ago when you went to the waterfall. What the hell took you so long?"
"This is ridiculous," Patricia said and went inside the tent.
"If you want some fish to eat with the beans, you better go lay a fish line in the stream," Beck suggested to the older man.
"I know what to do. Let's settle this right now. Nothing happened at
"Forget it. I guess the heat is getting to me."
"Then have a beer and cool off."
Critchlow opened his backpack and took out a tangled fishing line
strung with hooks.
"Did you bring any bait?" Beck asked.
"I'll take care of it. If you remember, I taught you how to do this."
Critchlow peered inside the tent. "You wanna watch me catch fish?"
Patricia ducked her head outside. "Love to."
She flashed an angry look at her husband as she strolled past him.
Beck watched them follow the trail to the stream, talking to each other and touching shoulders as they went. When they vanished behind some trees, he tossed a large can of beans into the fire and waited. A few minutes later the can burst open at the seam with a loud pop. He dipped a spoon into the hot beans and tasted them carefully.
After supper that night, Patricia retired to the tent while the two men sat near the camp fire drinking beer. They talked about their destination the next day until Beck was sure his wife was asleep.
"You can sleep in the tent if you like," he said.
Critchlow crushed his empty beer can with his foot. "This is getting tiresome, mate. Why don't you give it a rest?"
"She's not my wife anymore. I'm going to tell her to get a divorce
when she returns to California."
"You're a bloody fool."
Critchlow unfolded his sleeping bag and made a pillow out of some spare clothing. He stretched out on his back and stared at the stars in the clear night sky.
"I think she likes you," Beck said. "And she's great in bed."
"Go to sleep, mate. You're drunk."
Beck laughed. "The pot calling the kettle black."
Critchlow rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. Beck opened another beer and a short while later he could hear the Aussie snoring.
The jeep lurched over a bump in the rough dirt road and Critchlow shifted into a lower gear. Beck had insisted on riding in the back seat, claiming he wanted his wife to have a better view of the landscape. So far this morning they had seen a few large red kangaroos darting across the dusty plain.
"What's going on?" Patricia asked.
Critchlow glanced over at her. "The road gets better farther on."
"You two haven't said three words to each other since we started today."
"I've got a bad hangover," Beck said. "I don't feel like talking."
"You stayed up all night drinking beer?"
"Something like that."
"I suppose you men were discussing me last night. Tell me, who gets to sleep with me tonight?"
"Don't talk rubbish," Critchlow said.
"I don't care who you sleep with," Beck remarked.
His wife looked exasperated. "What the hell did I do?"
"I have no idea, Patty."
Critchlow hit the brakes and started turning the jeep around.
"What are you doing?" Beck demanded.
"This trip is finished. We're going back to Port Douglas."
"Stop screwing around," Beck said.
He reached across the seat and grabbed the steering wheel. Critchlow swung his left arm and slammed Beck across the bridge of the nose with his elbow. Beck clutched his face with both hands.
"This is my vehicle!" Critchlow shouted. "Keep your bloody hands off!"
"Goddamn you, Wilson. I think you broke my nose."
Patricia tried unsuccessfully to stifle a smile. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right. The son of a bitch hit me."
Critchlow ignored him and steered the jeep toward the the mountains they had crossed two days earlier. Patricia handed her husband a piece of tissue paper.
"Your nose is bleeding."
Beck snatched the tissue from her and dabbed his nostrils. They rode in silence for nearly an hour until they came to a stand of gum trees.
"Stop the jeep," Beck requested.
Critchlow kept going.
"I have to take a piss if you don't mind."
Critchlow skidded to a stop and killed the engine. He took the ignition key and wandered away without saying a word. Beck opened the rear door, climbed outside and stretched his arms in the air. Patricia followed him into the trees.
"Are you going to watch me piss?"
"You really shouldn't have grabbed the steering wheel," she said.
"Somehow, I knew you would take his side."
"Don't be such a baby. It is his jeep, after all."
"I want you to file for divorce as soon as you get home."
"Just like that?"
"There's no sense in dragging it out. I can't give you alimony for awhile. Hopefully, I can afford something later on."
Patricia stared at the ground. "I don't want any money, Jordan."
"Why not? You deserve it. I walked out on you."
"I think I understand why you left."
"For Chrissakes, don't turn noble on me. I don't think I could stand it."
"I'm not being noble. I only want to . . ."
"What? I'd like to know exactly what you want from me."
"I want us to remain friends," she blurted out.
"You're the best friend I ever had."
"It doesn't work like that when a couple breaks up. They go their separate ways and forget each other."
"Is that what you want me to do? Forget you?"
"You'd be smart if you did."
They heard a shout from Critchlow. When they returned to the jeep, they found him in the driver's seat with the door open. One of his pants legs was rolled up and he was bent over examining his leg.
"Bloody bad luck," he said, breathing heavily. "It was a king brown."
Beck turned pale. "Are you sure?"
"I know a king brown when I see one. I practically stepped on the bugger."
"What's a king brown?" Patricia asked.
"A very poisonous snake," Beck said, leaning over to take a look at the two fang marks. The leg was already starting to swell and the area around the bite was discolored.
Patricia looked dismayed. "He'll be all right, won't he?"
"If we get him to a medical clinic in time. He needs a shot of anti-venom as soon as possible."
"But we're miles from any town."
"Help me get him in the back seat," Beck told her.
After Critchlow was in place, Beck said: "You stay with him and keep him comfortable."
"I don't know what to do."
"Put his head on your lap and buckle the seat belts around both of you. The ride is going to get rough."
"Noowali is the nearest clinic," Critchlow said in a strained voice.
"You take it easy, Wilson. I'll get you there in a flash."
Beck climbed into the front seat and started the engine, then looked over his shoulder at Patricia. "Lock the doors and hang on."
She looked terrified and moved mechanically to do what she was told. Beck revved the engine and let the clutch out. A moment later the jeep was hurtling along the dirt road, leaving a large dust cloud behind it. Now and then the vehicle became airborne as it leaped hill tops. At one point Beck ran off the road and over-steered to recover, tilting the jeep up on two wheels for a few seconds that seemed to last forever. Patricia choked back a scream and dug her fingernails into the seat cover.
"Don't roll the bloody vehicle!" Critchlow bellowed.
Half an hour later Patricia said: "He's unconscious, Jordan."
With one hand Beck reached for a canteen on the floor and tossed it to his wife. "Put some water on a rag and mop his face with it to keep him cool."
"How much farther?"
"A couple hours."
"Will he last that long?"
"Just keep him cool!" Beck shouted, glancing into the rear-view mirror.
Patricia unbuttoned Critchlow's shirt and rubbed his chest with the wet rag. Then she poured more water on the rag and wiped his face.
"If I soaked his clothes with water, the evaporation would cool his whole body," she reasoned.
"All right, do it."
The jeep raced through lonely stretches of the Outback where time seemed to stand still. As Beck drove on, he recalled Timo, the young Aboriginee friend who had taught him the Dream Time mythology. To the native people the past and the future culminated in the present moment and eternity was another name for now. It was a strange philosophy that intrigued Beck and comforted him whenever he felt lost. He wondered if Critchlow had ever embraced such an alien idea.
Some time later, after the jeep sped over a rise in the road, Patricia groaned.
"Oh God, I think he stopped breathing."
Through the rear-view mirror Beck saw his wife clasp her hands over her mouth. "You think?"
"His chest isn't moving."
"Give him mouth to mouth."
"I don't know how to do it."
"Hold his nose closed and blow into his mouth. Count to three slowly between breaths."
Patricia looked paralyzed.
"Don't lose your head now!" Beck shouted. "I can see the town in the distance."
"Goddamn it, Patty!"
"Stop yelling at me."
She went to work on Critchlow, counting aloud between breaths. After a minute or so, she let out a clipped hysterical laugh .
"I think he's breathing again!"
"Keep going," Beck said. "You're doing a great job."
Patricia continued mouth to mouth while the jeep rushed onward. In the vast barren plain the vague outline of the town seemed to recede like a mirage. Beck pushed the accelerator pedal harder to obliterate the illusion of distance. His mouth was dry and gritty with dust and he could hear his heart pounding in his ears. With a sudden flash of insight he realized that this is what Timo had described as the eternal now.
Critchlow remained in a coma for two days at the medical clinic. On the third day he regained consciousness and the doctor gave an optimistic prognosis that he would recover without any permanent damage.
When Beck visited his room, Critchlow forced a smile and said: "Now I know I'm not in heaven."
"You don't want to go to heaven," Beck said. "None of your mates would be there."
"I thought I was a goner for sure."
"The snake that bit you died of blood poisoning."
"Serve the bugger right if he did. Where's your wife?"
"In the room we took over the pub."
"I don't remember much after you tried to roll the jeep. How in blazes did you get me here in time?"
"I took a shortcut."
Critchlow grimaced when he tried to laugh. "There isn't any shortcut."
"I guess we were just lucky. All the beer you drank must have diluted the snake poison."
"Sorry about punching you, mate."
"I had it coming."
Critchlow grinned. "If you say so."
"You better get some sleep. The doctor says you need as much rest as possible."
"How about smuggling a shortie to me the next time you come? My mouth is dry as a wallaby's ass."
"I'll see what I can do," Beck laughed on his way out of the room.
He stopped in the pub for a quick beer and then went upstairs to their room. Patricia was curled up asleep on the bed. She woke and yawned when he sat down beside her.
"Did they let you see him?" she asked.
"He's doing fine. He wants me to bring him a beer."
"Your friend is a real character. I'm glad he's all right."
"Wilson has nine lives like a cat. Anyone else would have died from that bite."
"Really? I think I'll believe your warnings from now on."
"I'm driving you to the airport in Cairns tomorrow morning. You can catch a flight into Brisbane."
"Are you mad at me for getting flustered in the jeep?"
"No," Beck said. "You just don't belong in the Outback, Patty."
"It could easily have been you that was bitten. I shouldn't have brought you out here in the first place."
He pulled away when she tried to kiss him.
"But the snake didn't bite me," she said.
"It was stupid luck. I only agreed to this trip because I was convinced you would hate it and go back to California right away."
Patricia sat upright in bed and placed her bare feet on the floor. "Oh, I see. And here I thought you were on the verge of forgiving me."
"Stop it! You haven't done anything that needs forgiving."
"Then let me stay another week."
"Please, Jordan. What harm will it do?"
He stood up, walked to the window and looked at the barren landscape that stretched to the horizon. With his back to her, he said: "You won't understand this, but I'll say it once anyway. The Jordan you remember is dead. When I arrived in Australia, I had to became a completely different person to survive. I had to burn all my bridges because if I didn't, I'd never make a go of it. If I tried to live two lives in two places at once, I'd fail at both. And I don't want to be a failure anymore."
He turned around to face his wife.
"That was quite a speech. I don't know what to say."
"I didn't think you would understand," he said. "I don't blame you. We live in different worlds now."
There was an awkward silence while Patricia stared at the floor. "All right, I'll leave tomorrow if that's what you want. But I think you're making a mistake."
"I expected you would," Beck remarked. "I'll get another room for myself tonight."
"You don't have to do that."
"Yes, I do."
The next morning, after they visited Critchlow at the medical clinic, Beck and his wife set out for Cairns in the jeep. The long drive took most of the day and neither of them spoke much along the way. Beck kept his eyes on the road and tried not to think. He was grateful that Patricia had resigned herself to leaving.
The Cairns airport was jammed with travelers and Patricia had to wait in line for half an hour to buy her ticket to Brisbane. They went to the airport bar to have a few drinks while waiting for departure time. Beck refrained from looking directly at his wife and indulged in small talk to make the time pass. He felt nervous and tipped over his beer when the boarding call came at last.
At the boarding gate he couldn't avoid his wife's eyes any longer.
"I suppose this is goodbye," she said, clutching her ticket in one hand. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "I'll think of you, Jordan. I hope you find what you're looking for."
He only nodded and smiled. His hands suddenly felt like claws and he stuffed them into his pants pockets to keep from reaching for her. Patricia handed the ticket to the flight attendant and disappeared inside the airliner cabin. When the cabin door closed, Beck turned and walked to the terminal exit. He was in the parking lot before he realized he had forgotten to say goodbye.