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.