Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tales of the Dead Tropics - chapter 24

The remainder of the trip home was spent in sombre silence.  The reminder that the zombies were nearly on our doorsteps, if they weren't here already, made it suddenly frighteningly real.  The illusion of safety and peace I had felt in the midst of the rainforest was shattered.  It was inevitable that the zombie horde would reach our doorstep; it was just a matter of when, not if.

As we pulled into the driveway, I spied a battered panel van parked at the top and two familiar figures standing beside it. "Jim!"
"Ken!"   Emma exclaimed joyfully.  As Kaye drew her car up beside them, we clambered out and hugged the men with squeals of delight.  After everything we had been through together, they felt like part of the family and my heart swelled with happiness to see them looking so well.  The two men grinned and accepted our attentions graciously.  Roy lifted Ellie and Beth out of the car before clapping his hand around Jim's arm and then Ken's.

Interrupting the reunion, I  started to shoo everyone upstairs.  Ken took off his glasses and started vigorously rubbing them.  "You going to introduce them to Lizzie, Jim?"
Jim looked at him with hooded eyes.  "Reckon so."  Curious, I watched him walk around the back of the van.  My mouth dropped open as he returned with a quivering, short-haired brown chihuahua under his arm.  I don't know why the sight of a big, burly man holding a tiny dog should be so startling but it was like finding myself suddenly in an alternate reality. "This is Lizzie.  She was my parents' dog and I sorta inherited her when they died."  He looked around the group placidly.  "Don't be fooled. For a small dog, she's got a lot of verve." 
I cocked my brow teasingly.  "Verve?"
"Gumption." He corrected himself.
"Gumption?" I raised my eyebrow higher.
Jim narrowed his eyes at me. "Something wrong with your vocabulary all of a sudden, Lori?"
"No, not at all.  I'm sure she's a very plucky little dog.  You must feel very secure in your home at night."  As the others laughed, I grinned and held my hands up in a gesture of peace.  A smile tugged at his lips as he acknowledged the point.

I ushered the group upstairs for some coffee and a pow-wow.  Little Lizzie was promptly whisked out of Jim's arms by the children.  I had no doubt she would be thoroughly spoilt.  Even Lucas and Michele sat nearby with big grins on their faces, trying to tempt the dog over with pieces of cheese.
Jessie giggled as the chihuahua placed her paws on her chest and licked her face enthusiastically.  I felt a twinge of guilt as I watched the thin little girl hugging the dog.  I had barely exchanged two words with her since she'd woken up.  Looking up, she caught me looking at her and grinned happily.  I beamed back at her and promised myself that I would make some time to sit down with her - as soon as our complicated life permitted.

The toddlers were immediately vociferous in their hunger so Kaye and I plonked a packet of biscuits and some chips on the table.  Yeah, sue me; I'm a bad mom. 

Turning back to the adults around the table, I waited for Jim and Ken to bring us up to speed.  He popped a gum in his mouth, and in a few words, summed up the last few hours.  The trip to his home had been uneventful, bar a handful of zombies spotted on the road.  He'd picked up Lizzie and they had moved on to Ken's house.  Eyes cast down, Ken quietly told of finding bloodstains on the kitchen floor but no sign of his parents.  Emma reached out and grabbed his hand tightly.  Looking from her to Ken, I realised sadly that they had both been orphaned today.

"Did you have any trouble getting here?" I asked, thinking of the traffic jam we had battled through.  The two of them snorted at the same time.
"You could say that." Jim said wryly. 
Ken started the story.  "After we picked up some equipment, we decided to take the old back road via Freshwater.  We figured there'd be less traffic. Which there was." Jim inclined his head in agreement. "There's a short cut through the cane fields my family used to take.  Unfortunately, we found the Kuranda tourist train parked across it."
"It looked to be abandoned but we decided it wasn't worth investigating." Jim took a deep slug of the coffee Kaye placed before him. "We decided to cross the train line a little further up and backtrack across the edge of the field to the dirt track.  Figured no one was going to sue us for any damage to the cane."
"Unfortunately," Ken continued. "as soon as we crossed the line into the field,  we discovered where all the passengers had disappeared to."
Emma gasped, her hand going to her mouth.  "They were in the sugar cane?"
Eyes bright with remembered excitement, Ken nodded.  "They just started pouring out of the sugar cane. "
"What did you do?" I had to admit the story had me as sucked in as Emma.  At least I knew this one had a happy ending, as they were both sitting in front of me.

Ken looked at Jim who sat with one arm slung over the back of the chair, clmly chewing his gum.  He shrugged.  "Pulled out one of those pieces of equipment I mentioned earlier.   It's amazing how quickly a chainsaw can separate a head from a body."
"Eww." Kaye made a face across the table to me.  Ken grinned.  "Jim leaned out of the window and cleared a path like he was trimming a hedge!  Didn't get rid of all of them but it gave us enough wiggle room to get the old van across the field to the dirt track.  After that, it was clear sailing."

Jim pushed his chair back.  "Reminds me, we need to get our stuff in." He glanced outside.  "Have to shore up the place before it gets dark, too."
Roy grimaced, as he stood and stretched.  "Yeah well, I need to take a ten minute cat nap before we get started on that stuff.  My head's bloody killing me."
Emma rolled her eyes at me but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.  We had all been through a lot today.  "I'll get you some panadol."
He looked a little surprised.  "Thanks."

As Roy lay down on the sofa with a groan, I hurried downstairs, knowing that the toddlers were in safe hands with the teens.  As long as they weren't busy making goo-goo eyes at each other, I thought.  Beside the van was a growing pile of stuff.  I spotted the chainsaw, rope, a couple of bags of tinned food, a rifle and extra ammunition, and something that looked like a radio. "It's a CB radio." Jim clarified for me.  "If communication remains down, it may be the only way for us to communicate with the outside world."
He grinned down at me. " And I still have some contacts from my days in the forces who might be able to tell me something useful."
"You're full of surprises, aren't you, Jim?" I smiled at him, feeling sudden affection for a man I had only known by sight for years.  He kinda reminded me of that British action hero, Jason Statham, with his clean shaven head and muscular build.  Not that I was about going to tell him that.  He was cocky enough as it was. 

I left him and Ken to it while Emma, Kaye and I unloaded the four wheel drive again.  I placed anything that could be used as a weapon, like the axe and long handled shovel, next to the sliding doors upstairs where we could reach them quickly.
After transferring our stores to the house, we set to work shoring up the house's defences.  Finding wood wasn't a problem as the shed was full of bits and pieces.  Charlie was quite the handyman and had, in fact, just finished building a treehouse in the forest for the kids.  Jim and Ken put together a rough barrier at the bottom of the stairs to deter any zombies while Emma and I covered the rear windows of the house.  Being on a slope, the back of the house was accessible to any zombie who decided to make the long trek up the driveway and through the rainforest.  Kaye left to prepare dinner and organise baths for the kids.  I grinned as I heard her muttering something about getting the short end of the stick as she went upstairs.

All the hammering and noise soon brought out our neighbours.  The retired couple on the left, Mr and Mrs Brand, stood in their back yard peering at the goings-on over here.  Across the road, I saw Jodie and her teenage daughters, Jasmine and Skye, heading towards us.   Further down the road, I could see a man and his little boy watching us.  I didn't know much about that family, though, apart from the fact that they had a teenage son who annoyed everyone with riding his quad bike on Saturday mornings.

"Hey Jodie." I called out between blows of the hammer as she walked around the house.  "Hey girls."  They waved at me as they wandered over to watch the men at work.  I guessed all those muscles on display were a lot more interesting than our red, sweaty faces.
"Hi Lori."  Jodie looked anxious. "You look like you're preparing for a cyclone." 
"I wish I were."  I put down the hammer and nails and wiped my face. "Do you need help getting your place ready, Jodie?"  I knew her husband had left a few months back and she didn't strike me as being very self-sufficient.
She hugged herself nervously. "Do you really think it's necessary?  It seems a bit like overkill for a bunch of rioters."
I sighed.  Here we go again.  What to tell and what to keep to myself?  "It's more than people rioting, Jodie.  These people have been infected by a virus.  They are extremely violent and irrational.  You need to take every precaution to protect your family."

Jim walked over, his damp shirt clinging to his chest.  "Ma'am, if you need help making your place secure, I could come over after I'm finished here." Jodie looked at him with interest.  I felt a moment of vague irritation.  Time and place, lady, time and place. 
She smiled at him.  "Thank you.  I would really appreciate that."  Beckoning her girls, she waved a coy goodbye and walked back down the driveway.
Jim looked down at me and cocked a brow.  I rolled my eyes and picked up my hammer.  As he walked away, Emma snickered. "Looks like Jim's got himself an admirer."
I snorted derisively.  I couldn't believe that there were women who had time to flirt even in the midst of a crisis.

After finishing the windows, we discussed the back door which looked onto the rainforest.  We decided to leave it unboarded in the event we had to make a sneaky getaway through the forest.

It was getting dark as I went upstairs to arrange the supplies into some sort of order.  Ken and Jim had headed over to Jodie's.  Roy was still asleep on the sofa.  Poor guy, he must have been very tired, I thought, if he could sleep through all the hammering and the kids playing around him.  His ten minute nap had turned into, I checked my watch quickly, over two hours!  Sarah came running out of the bathroom, naked as the day she was born.  Smiling, I opened my arms and she threw herself into them.  I loved the way the babies smelt and the softness of their skin.  Years of tropical sun had left my arms bronzed and freckly, and they didn't look very attractive against the pale, smooth baby arms of my daughter.

"Ooh, where are your clothes, munchkin?" I teased as I tickled her.  She squealed and wiggled.  "Don' haf any!"
"Well, I'm sure your aunty has laid some out for you in your cousins' room.  Go have a look."  I watched with a cheesy grin as she paddled out of the room.  What can I say? I'm a sucker for babies.

Turning back, I gathered all the bags of food and carried them into the kitchen.  If we were lucky, they would stretch out our food to five days, although by the end, everyone would be complaining, I had no doubt.  The tins of food that remain uneaten in people's cupboard tend to be the stuff no one wants to eat, like my impulse purchase of tinned artichokes.  Jim and Ken's contributions included tins of kippers, red cabbage, bamboo shoots and spam, which, in my eyes, just proved my theory.  Heck, I didn't even know spam was still being produced!

A giggle alerted me to the return of my daughter.  As I gathered some bottles of juice and soda in my arms, I heard Roy groan.  Glancing over the pile in my arms, I saw Sarah poking Roy in the cheek.  Grinning inside, I headed for the kitchen.  About time he woke up, I thought, quelling the little voice that said a good mother would teach her daughter that it was rude to poke sleeping people.

And then my world fell apart.  My daughter screamed in pain and fear.   I dropped everything as I spun around, a cold sweat breaking out all over my body. Roy clutched my daughter in his outstretched hands, pulling her towards him.  The cold eyes, the pallid skin...oh god, how could I have missed this?!

I flew into the room and, as he brought his mouth to her neck, I grabbed Sarah around the waist and wrenched her away.  Kaye came running into the room.  "What's happened?"  She cried. 

Ignoring her, I examined my daughter feverishly.  There was blood all over my daughter's hand.  The room spun as I saw she was missing her three middle fingers.  No, no, no.  For a moment, I wanted to die.  I knew what the future held and I didn't want to face it.  She had been bitten and I knew, without a shred of doubt, what that meant for her.

Tales of the Dead Tropics - chapter 23

The streets were eerily empty.  No cars moved along the road, no children played in front of their homes,  no school children played in the grounds.  Everywhere, people huddled silently in their homes.  A lone zombie stood beside the road as we drove by, staring blankly ahead.  Blood marred the whole left side of his body. I saw a shiver go through Kaye's body.  "I knew you were telling the truth but to see it for myself..." She whispered.  I nodded silently.

As we turned onto the highway, the situation changed dramatically. We watched, open mouthed, as tanks, jeeps, and trucks full of grim faced soldiers passed us, heading for the city.
"Yeehah!" Roy exclaimed.  "Now those zombies are going to get their arses handed to them!"
I felt a moment of excitement.  "I hope so, Roy."  The thought that this might all be over by tomorrow or Sunday was heady.

For the next several minutes, vehicles continued to pass us, heading into town.  As we took the turnoff to the Tablelands, we fell in behind another civilian vehicle coming from the beaches, presumably with the same idea of leaving town.

"What the hell..." Roy murmured.  Before us, armed soldiers stood across the Tablelands road, backed by a tank blocking any access.  A few civilian cars were pulled over on the side of the road.  We slowed to a stop as a soldier with a loudspeaker moved forward.  "There is a quarantine order in place.  Please turn around and return to your homes."  As the driver ahead of us pushed open his door and emerged, the soldier backed away rapidly.  The other soldiers brought their weapons up sharply.  "Sir, return to your vehicle immediately." As the driver, a tossled fair-haired man in his early thirties, continued to move forward belligerently, I started to get a bad feeling about this.  The soldiers looked jittery and nervous and I could see this situation going bad quickly.  "We have orders to shoot, sir.  Return to your vehicle now." 

The driver paused.  "You can't force us to stay here!" He yelled, gesticulating wildly.  "It's not safe!" The soldier lowered his loudspeaker.  I heard his voice clearly as he tried to calm the driver down.  "I understand, sir.  However, you need to take your family home and make your house aas secure as possible.  Lay low and it will be over in a few days."
"Yeah, when my family and I have been killed by those lunatics!" The driver screamed, face red with frustration.  He started to move forward again.  "I want to talk to whoever is in charge of this goddamned operation!"
The soldier stumbled backwards as the other soldiers charged forward.  "Move back, move back now!" They all yelled in agitation, guns raised to firing position.
"Oh my God." Kaye whispered, horrified.  "Can't he see they mean business?!  They are going to shoot him!" 

We watched, aghast, as the desperate man continued to approach the soldiers determinedly.  A shot rang out and the man jerked.  He touched his chest in surprise and then took another stumbling step forward.    We watched in horror as a barrage of bullets pierced his body, causing him to jerk around in a grotesque caricature of a dance.   As the noise faded away, his body collapsed to the road.  Agonised screams erupted from his car.  The passenger door flung open and his wife ran out.  I closed my eyes, unwilling to watch this disaster play out.  The loudspeaker blasted a warning for the wife to stop.  As I heard no more gunshots, I ventured a peek.  The wife was on her knees a few feet from her husband's body, sobbing  her heart out.

"He just wanted to get our baby to the Mareeba hospital." She cried in grief and anger.  " He didn't deserve to die, you bastards.  You're supposed to protect us, not kill us!"  She stretched out to touch her husband's foot.
"Your daughter's sick, ma'am?"  The soldier's suddenly alert voice should have warned her but she was too distraught to notice.  "Was she bitten?"
She nodded distractedly.  " She's unconscious.  She needs treatment!"
Without a word, the soldiers circled around her towards the car, weapons high again.  "Have you been bitten, ma'am?"
The young woman nodded, her eyes still glued to her husband's body.  "She bit me on the finger.  It's nothing." She turned her eyes on the soldier pleadingly. "Please - just let me take my daughter to the hospital."

One of the soldiers glanced at us and talked into his walkie-talkie. As he moved towards us, my hand clenched the armrest instinctively.   Kaye gasped nervously as he paused a few feet from our car.  He held his gun casually but alertly.  "Sorry, ma'am, but there is a quarantine order in place.  No one leaves the city.  We need you to turn around and head back home. Now."

I nodded, my eyes never leaving his face.  "We're leaving now."  Glancing at me, Kaye threw the car into reverse and slowly backed up some distance.  Once we were out of range of his weapon, we started breathing again.
"Jesus." Roy exclaimed from the back seat. "I thought we were goners for a minute!" 
"They are not taking any chances." I agreed shakily, as Kaye started to do a u-turn.  I could see that the other car and woman were now ringed by armed soldiers.  A soldier was cautiously poking his gun through the rear car window. The woman's posture was pleading as she begged them to help her.  I felt sick, knowing that she was not going to get it.  Not from the soldiers and not from us.  As we drove off, a volley of gunfire rang out, seeming to go on forever.  I didn't look back.  I couldn't bear to know.

Shaken, none of us said anything for several minutes as we headed for the Redlynch turnoff. 
"What do you think it means?" Emma asked quietly.  We all knew what she meant.
"It means they are serious about containing this disease." I answered, equally softly.   "And they are prepared to take any measures necessary to do so."
"Even killing innocent people."  It was a statement, not a question. 
"They did warn him." Roy added, halfheartedly.  "But to kill the family like that! Jesus!  There's no proof that everyone who gets bitten becomes a zombie!"  No one said anything.  Their emotions were probably as mixed and wrenching as mine.  That family could have been any of us.  The dead man had been trying to save his family just as I was still trying to do.

As we reached the turnoff to Redlynch and my sister's home, the staccato sound of nearby gunfire drew us to a stop. 
"I think it's coming from the city." Emma offered.  "It has to be those soldiers we saw earlier."
I frowned as I concentrated on the noise.  "It is a lot closer than the city.  Maybe just over the rise there." I pointed ahead.  No sooner had I said it than we saw figures pouring over the rise like ants down an anthill.  Hundreds of bodies flowing downhill towards us.  We watched in stunned silence for at least a minute as the human wave just kept on coming. 
"There must be at least a thousand!" Kaye murmured in awe.
"People or zombies?" Roy put into words the question we were no doubt all thinking.
"Any chance anyone remembered a pair of binoculars?" I asked halfheartedly, knowing no one did.
"No, but my camera has a pretty good zoom on it." Michele piped up.  Reaching back to grab the proffered camera, I beamed at my brilliant daughter.  She grinned before rolling her eyes.  Don't overdo it, mum.

As I zoomed in on the rise, we huddled around the little viewing screen.  Frustratingly, it couldn't zoom in close enough to see individual faces but what we saw was enough to confirm that the majority of the figures were zombies.  Interspersed in the crowd, I could see the uniformed figures of soldiers fighting for their lives.  Standing back to back, a group of six soldiers fired weapons at the mass of figures grouped implacably around them.  Moving the camera, I spied a man swinging his weapon desperately in circles as he tried to keep the creatures at bay.  Within seconds, he was consumed by the crowd.  Everywhere I turned the camera, I could see men fighting for their lives - and losing.

Coming over the hill, a truck full of men fired machine guns as they tried to make their way to the beleaguered men.  Except for the few zombies they hit in the head, the bodies kept pressing around the truck, making it increasingly difficult for the vehicle to move.  Even as we watched, the truck stopped moving and corpses swarmed over it.

"My God..." Roy whispered. "If the army can't win, what hope do we have?"
"Stop it, Roy." I said sharply.  "We've survived up to now, haven't we?  Maybe we are better equipped to survive than they are."
"How do you figure that?" He sneered.
"We know what we are up against." I replied quietly. "Something, it would appear, the army hasn't figured out yet." 

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.