Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tales of the Dead Tropics - chapter 22

An occasional zombie lurched towards us as we passed, but the road ahead remained largely free of cars and people.  A few cars had driven off the road and into the ditch on the side, possibly the source of the zombies we spotted, but we travelled unimpeded to the turnoff.   I reached over and tapped Lucas on the shoulder to remind him to turn.  He nodded and smoothly took the exit to Redlynch. 

On the right was a large shopping centre and a little further on were a couple of schools.  From the lack of pedestrians or shoppers, I felt pretty confident that the residents were now aware of the dangers facing them today and were hiding in their homes. Or they've all been turned, a small voice suggested.  I ignored it as the anticipation of seeing my family grew.  For the first time all day, I allowed myself to imagine holding them in my arm, covering them in kisses and reassuring myself that they were well. 

We soon left the suburbs behind and started passing large acreages dotted with horses.  Then we passed into the rainforest estate.  Thick, dense foliage covered the road on both sides as we travelled over the rickety old bridge that crossed the fast flowing river.   Just past it, was the road my sister lived on.  The motorbike's engine groaned in protest as it struggled to get us up the hill.  Topping the hill, I anxiously scanned the street for any sign of trouble but it looked as serene as ever.  

As Lucas parked the motorbike at the bottom of my sister's steep driveway, I jumped off and ran up the driveway as if my feet were on fire.  My heart felt like it would burst with the need to touch my kids.  As I reached the stairs, I heard the sliding doors open and the pitter patter of little feet.

At the top of the stairs I saw the placid faces of my babies.  "Mummy!" Sarah smiled happily.  Alex cautiously placed a plump foot on the top step as he started down towards me.  I laughed and bolted up the stairs.  Sweeping them up in my arms, I spun around, causing them to laugh and squeal.  Oh, they smelt so good! I nuzzled my face in their neck.  Then, in the doorway, I saw the most beautiful sight in the whole world - my daughter Michele, healthy and smiling.

I grinned, trying to think of something to say that wouldn't embarass her when all I wanted to do was burst into tears and cover her in kisses.  "Hey, honey."
"Hey, mum. " Did I spy a hint of tears in her eyes? "What took you so long?"
I shrugged, blinking rapidly while I readjusted the kids on my hips. "Got delayed at the school."

Kaye pushed past Michele and hugged me tightly, babies and all.  "I've been so worried." She stepped back and slapped my arm.  "Couldn't you ring at least?"
"Hey, I tried several times!  I think the lines were swamped or something."
She gestured dismissively.  "It doesn't matter now.  Come inside - all of you."  She smiled welcomingly at Emma and Lucas as they topped the stairs. 

Inside, Roy shifted nervously from foot to foot as I moved towards him.  Freshly showered and wearing Charlie's clothes, he looked younger and more vulnerable.  He held his hands up defensively. "I had to leave, Lori.  You told me to keep the kids safe.  There were so many of those things around the ambulance and more kept coming - I was worried we wouldn't be able to get away so I decided to circle around the block a few times.  We looked for you but you never came..."
Putting the babies down, I touched his arm.  "Roy.  It's okay. I'm not mad at you." I smiled reassuringly, a little amazed at his anxiousness. Surely I wasn't intimidating? " You did the right thing. Thank you."  If they hadn't left when they did, they might have ended up in that traffic jam...I shuddered to think what might have happened then.
"Yeah, well." He blustered.  "The day's been bad enough without having Lady KillBill on my case."

I rolled my eyes and turned away to look at the rest of the group. "Where's Jessie?" I asked anxiously as I realised who was missing.  Kaye touched my arm reassuringly.  "She's sleeping.  Come and see."  I followed her into my nieces' bedroom and saw the frail looking child curled up in the bed, looking peaceful and angelic.
"Is she okay?" I whispered.  I suddenly realised that I didn't even know why she was in hospital in the first place. 
Kaye nodded, understanding what I was asking.  "Turns out she's an asthmatic.  She had a bad attack last night.  Needed to be observed overnight but she is fine now. Just a bit tired.  I gave her a bath and some food and then suggested she have a nap."

Food.  I suddenly realised I was starving!  Kaye recognised the look on my face and laughed.  "Come on, I'll make you guys some sandwiches and you can fill me in on everything.  I'm still trying to process the stuff Roy and Michele told me!"  As my sister talked, I  felt the tension start to drain from my body.  My sister, my kids, my friends - we were here and, for now, we were safe. I  I knew it wouldn't last but for now, a few moments of peace felt like a slice of heaven.
After a long drink of cold water, we sat around the long wooden table and brought each other up to date.  I briefly told our story, although I'm sure they filled in the more unpleasant gaps for themselves. "What about here?"  I asked.  "Any activity, dead or alive?"
Kaye wrinkled her forehead.  "No, it has been as quiet as ever.  I haven't seen or heard anything unusual - unless you count the sight of an ambulance coming up my driveway."
 At my querying look, Roy pointed downwards.  "Parked it next to the four wheel drive. Guess that's why you didn't see it. "
"What about the radio or the tv?" I asked. "Any information?"
Kaye snorted.  "In the morning, there was all that talk about the encephalitis outbreak and then the minister came on at lunch to say that they were considering implementing a quarantine. Nothing since!"
"Maybe we should check again." Emma suggested.
Kaye gracefully stood up and picked up the tv remote.  She frowned as only static came on.  She flicked to another channel and then another.  There was static on all the channels.  Kaye moved to the radio and tried to find a station.  Static.  She turned to us with a raised brow.  "I'm going to take a stab and say that this is not a good sign."
I sighed.  "We need to talk about what we should do next.  Do we sit tight, make this place secure and wait for our armed forces to bail us out? Or do we make an evacuation plan?"
"What about Jim and Ken?" Emma asked anxiously. 
"I hope that they are okay, Emma, but if they are not here in the next couple of hours, we are going to have to assume that they are ... not coming.  In the meantime, we need to make plans."

For the next half an hour, we discussed our options.  Going north was out of the question as there was only rainforest and the ocean.  And, as I pointed out, Cape Tribulation seemed to be the origin of this plague so heading in that direction was not a good idea.  Going south was not a good option as it seemed likely that most of inner Cairns was lost to the plague now.  That only left the hills.  About twenty minutes up the road was the exit to the tablelands, the mountainous farming region of far north Queensland.  As far as we knew, that road was still clear, but for how long?  We needed to make a decision soon.

Once we'd determined our two viable options, we argued about the pros and cons of each for several minutes.  I felt torn.  All I wanted to do was huddle under a blanket and sleep, and in these peaceful surroundings, it was easy to believe that the plague would never reach us.  I desperately wanted to believe that I could just relax and leave it to the government to fight the walking dead.  However, the cynical side of me said I should pack up and head out of this hellhole while I had the chance because the only thing I could count on was myself - and my small group of family and friends.  But what about Joe, an anguished voice inside me cried out,  who would look out for him if we left? 

"We have to go." I said tiredly. "We don't know how long this situation could go on for.  We don't know how long we can hold out here for.  It makes sense to take the kids up to Claudette's farm until this mess has been cleared up."  I would find a way to get through to Joe, I promised myself.  The ship usually arrived back around 6pm and his mobile phone came back into reception range about half an hour before that.  I could warn him. And if that didn't work, maybe I would head back into town and pick him up myself...

"What about Jim and Ken?" Emma repeated her earlier question. "Are we going to wait for them?"
I shook my head.  "We can't.  You saw how quickly things deteriorated in the city.  We don't know how long the road will remain open.  We'll leave them a note so they know where to find us." If they make it here, I added silently.  Emma nodded slowly, chewing her lip.

Roy spoke up. "Um, what if this problem has spread to the Tablelands?"  I stopped short.  The thought hadn't even occurred to me.  Pushing myself away from the table, I looked around the group.  "Maybe it has.  If we need to, at least we can take the inland route down to Townsville; hell, we can go all the way down to Melbourne if we want! Here, we have no options except to stick it out."

There were nods of agreement around the table.  With that decided, we split up to pack food, clothes and whatever weapons we could find.  I found an axe and long handed shovel in the shed; Kaye produced some butcher knives and Roy located some star pickets.  Twenty minutes later, we pinned a note to the verandah post for Jim and Ken and piled uncomfortably into the four wheel drive and headed for the Tablelands exit.  In the backseat, Kaye's toddlers wriggled on Emma and Roy's laps, while Michele and Lucas juggled my two in the rear beside a sleepy-eyed Jessie.  I rode shotgun as Kaye drove.  Glancing in the rearview mirror, I grinned as I caught Michele and Lucas casting sidelong glances at each other.  Even in these circumstances, teenage hormones don't rest, it would seem.

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