Chapter 1

Four months after her husband had asked for the divorce, Donna drove east from the Mount Isa airport on the Barkly Highway, a well-paved two-lane road. Spindly acacias with yellow puffball flowers—Lonely Planet called it wattle, Australia’s unofficial national tree—rolled past the front window of her Queensland government-issued black Land Rover, glowing in the late afternoon sun. Land that had seemed barren from her airplane window sprouted tufts of scrub, reminiscent of a teenager’s first beard. As she reached town, two smokestacks popped up like jack-in-the-boxes. Smoke undulated from the larger one, a Chinese dragon swaying day-glo orange in the wind, welcoming her to her new home.

In tourist brochures, she’d seen the maps of routes to Isa—paved roads marked in red, dirt roads in blue—from Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, Karumba on the North Coast, Rockhampton and Townsville on the east. Mount Isa was known as the Crossroads of the Outback. People passed through the Isa. Like an overgrown airport, the city was in many people’s minds a non-place, a way to get somewhere else.

After she’d accepted the Medical Chief post at the Base Hospital, she’d met more than one Australian. They all had the same reaction. Mount Isa? Are you in mining? She would shake her head, and their eyes would widen. Why on earth would you go there? She’d answer with a laugh and a toss of her jet black hair, Why, escaping, of course. I’m wanted by the law.

With only minor jerking she slowed onto a wider two-lane road, lined with mature elms, evergreens, and fruit trees. Behind square green lawns, aluminum-sided houses stood like tin soldiers, perfectly aligned. Chain fences created a grid, marking off each house’s territory. The area was like the working-class neighborhoods she’d seen along the highway from Ohio to Michigan when she’d visited residency programs, not what she’d expected from a desert town. She downshifted to second—surprisingly, she was already getting comfortable with left-handed gear shifting—as she glanced at the map of town that had been left for her with her car and house keys at the information station at the airport. Her route and her Queensland Health house, 51 Gracie, were highlighted in yellow.

She passed through the residential neighborhood into the center of town where, at a quick glance, she saw signs for Kmart, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut—not exactly the charming small-town shops and diners she’d hoped for. After one stoplight, she was back in a residential section. Donna saluted the meticulous lawns, the lush flowers, the immaculate small homes cradled in the desert.

After two jet-lag amplified scares with wrong-side-of-the-road driving, she pulled onto Gracie Street. As she inched along looking for her address, she almost ran over the birds congregating like rubberneckers at an accident scene on the side of the road. Galah parrots. She’d seen them along with the stuffed kangaroos and wombats, frozen in mid-motion in the Australia diorama at the Museum of Natural History. How ridiculously beautiful they were, dusty rose and gray, her wedding colors. Their pale pink crowns were the exact shade of the bow on her bridesmaid dresses. She shifted into neutral, threw on the emergency brake and looked over her passenger seat to have a better look. Rubberneckers were exactly what they were. One of them had been hit by a car, clearly dead, and the others were nudging it, as if trying to get it to fly.

She thought of her honeymoon in Nepal, when she and Greg had walked hand in hand up the Swayambhunath Stupa at sunrise, surrounded by tiny birds chirping and the monkeys chattering, begging for food. At the top of the stairs was a monkey who clutched her dead baby. Surrounded by the pink glow of all that holiness, she dragged the limp body around like a rag doll, an offering to the Buddha.

Donna reached into her pocket to finger the gray velvet bag she’d carried for the last few months, warm from her body heat. She was over the original shock of losing Greg. After losing her parents and the baby, the grief felt familiar, almost homey. She’d known what to do with it, what music to listen to, how many cigarettes to smoke while looking up at the water towers of the buildings near theirs, and how the sadness would lessen with time.

Carefully avoiding the Galahs, she negotiated the clutch and continued to search for her house. She needn’t have looked at house numbers. The houses were identical, but hers stood out, a patch of brown grass sandwiched between two lush lawns. The previous doctor had clearly never watered, and Donna vowed to be a better citizen.

She parked in the gravel driveway and walked up the crumbling concrete stairs, digging for the house key in her pocket. As she turned the key in the lock, the ground beneath her shook. Earthquake? She imagined being trapped under concrete and pea-green aluminum siding with no one to report her missing. She would be swallowed up in this strange earth, miles from anyone she’d ever known. She grabbed onto the doorknob with both hands. It seared her palm with the heat it had collected from the day’s sun, but she would not let go.