When I walked into the living room, I saw all their eyes on me, questioning. Unable to talk yet, I shook my head miserably.
"Oh, the poor child." Emma whispered. I saw compassion and sorrow in all their eyes. Michele's golden brown eyes were shiny with tears. She had lost two friends today, both, ultimately, at my hands. Would that affect the way she saw me? God, I hoped not. I wanted to comfort her but I felt too numb and raw. I knew that if I opened my mouth right now, I was likely to burst into tears.
Always good at picking up my emotions, Kaye stood up. "Come into the kitchen, Lori, and help me make some more coffee." Silently, I followed her into the kitchen.
"Do you want to talk?" Kaye sent me a sympathetic sideways glance as she put coffee into the percolator. "You look like you've been hit by a sledgehammer. More than normal, that is."
I snorted, feeling some of the tightness in my throat releasing. "That good, eh?"
"It must have been hard in there." Kaye offered tentatively, not wanting to push me. I felt a wave of affection for her, mingled with sorrow that Skye would never have the chance to experience this bond.
"She was just a kid, Kaye. No kid should have to die alone like that. This whole mess just sucks."
Kaye reached over and touched my arm. "She wasn't alone, Lori. She had you and I just know that helped."
I met her eyes pleadingly. I wanted so much to believe that I had reassured her in her last moments. "How do you know?"
She smiled gently. "Because I know you, Lori. Kids gravitate to you, always have. There is something about you that makes them trust and like you immediately. I'm sure that Skye felt that connection, too, and was comforted in the end."
Some of the knot in my chest started to unravel. If she was just saying that to make me feel better, it was working. "Thanks, Kaye. I hope you are right."
"I know I am." Tucking her dark, straight hair behind her ear, Kaye's manner became brisk. "Now help me get this coffee out there before the troops start a revolt."
Not really ready to face the others, I handed out the coffee and made an excuse to check on the toddlers in the playroom. Alex gave me a big smile and then went back to playing cars. Sarah lay on a beanbag looking wan. "Hey baby." I cooed, swinging her up in my arms. "Looks like someone needs a nap." She lay her head on my shoulder and wrapped a plump arm around my neck. I carried her to the kids' room, walking straight past the closed spare room door, and tucked her into bed. Ignoring her half hearted protests, I sang her a lullaby until her eyes closed. One nice thing about babies is their uncritical appreciation of singing. That would change.
Walking into the living room, I immediately noticed the solemn looks on the others' faces.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Kaye beckoned me over. "We've finally managed to contact other survivors!"
"That's great!" I responded hesitantly, confused by the serious mood. "So why the long faces?"
Ken spoke up. "They paint a pretty grim picture, unfortunately. They're all surrounded by massive numbers of zombies. The group in the dental clinic are reporting thousands of zombies in the streets."
"More worrying," Mike added grimly. "is the failure of the army to contain the situation."
Frankly, seeing Mike look so serious was a bit unnerving. I had come to rely on his unflappability, I realised. "Who says they're failing?"
He grimaced. "I'm reading between the lines. Three different groups reported seeing army units engaging the zombies and being overrun or forced into a retreat. Add that to our own observations, and it does not spell success."
"Okay," I said slowly, feeling like I was missing something. "But once they realise what they're up against, they'll change their tactics. Surely, it's just a matter of time before the army gets this under control. We just have to hang on until then."
Mike hesitated and then nodded. There was something he was not saying, I could feel it.
Just then, the CB crackled to life. "Hello, is anyone there?"
Mike grabbed the microphone. "Yes, mate. This is Mike Bridges. Who am I speaking to, over?"
"Happy to hear a friendly voice, Mike! I'm Travis."
"G'day Travis, where are you hailing from, over?"
"Smithfield, mate. We're stuck in a warehouse." The voice crackled. I met Kaye's eyes. That was only about fifteen minutes from here, halfway to the beaches.
"How many are there with you, Travis, over?" Mike was asking.
"Thirty. There were more but some died last night."
Mike's green eyes sharpened with concern. "Bitten?"
"Yeah. One was infected and before we understood how it worked, she'd attacked a few others. We got it under control, though. Over."
"Glad to hear it. Can you tell us what the situation is there, over? "
"The whole area is overrun with those creatures. I think we might be the only ones still alive. We were lucky. A girl came running in yesterday, screaming about some kind of riot outside. She had blood all over her, so I made the decision to lower the security screens. Only got them down just in time. Those creatures just swarmed in, attacking everyone in the other shops! Man, it still seems unbelievable. Those poor folks were slaughtered, torn apart before our eyes. And those creatures...they were dead, man! Over."
We looked at each other solemnly. I wondered what percentage of the hundred and sixty odd thousand who lived in Cairns was still alive. Thousands? Or just a handful? "What about the army?" I interrupted.
The man snorted in derision at the question. "Oh yeah, saw them in action last night. There was a hell of a firefight right outside the centre, in fact. Let me tell you, the army got their asses handed back to them! Now we've got what seems like half the army banging on our security screens. I'll tell you straight up, man, I'm worried. I'm not sure how much pressure these screens are designed to withstand."
My heart went out to him and his group. As bad as our situation seemed, it was clearly a lot worse elsewhere. After arranging to talk again tomorrow at the same time, Mike signed off. Looking around the group, he stated firmly, "I don't think we can rely on the army to save our butts. I want to see for myself what is going on in this city. Are there any spots nearby where I can do that?"
There was silence in the room as we pondered the question. "What about the dam lookout ?" Lucas suggested, a bit tentatively. "It's a bit of a hike but we'd have pretty good views of the city from there."
"You're right, Lucas!" Michele jumped in enthusiastically. Her eyes were shiny with admiration, causing him to blush a bit. I grinned inside but was careful to keep a poker face. I knew my daughter would never forgive me if I embarrassed her in front of a boy.
"But what about the zombies?" Emma asked, still looking worried.
Kaye shook her head. "There is only rainforest between us and the dam. I guess some tourists at the park could have been turned, though."
"It seems a reasonable risk." Mike said bluntly. "We need solid information in order to make plans. Otherwise we're just sitting ducks." Several heads nodded in agreement, including mine. "Has anyone made the hike before?"
Kaye and I held up our hands, grinning at each other over the memory. "Oh yeah." I said. "It nearly killed us but we got there in the end! If you're keen, I guess you could do it in an hour. The walking track starts about ten minutes up the road." I hesitated briefly before jumping in. "I'll show you the way." From the corner of my eye, I saw my teenage daughter giving me an unhappy look. I'll talk to her later, I promised myself. Nodding, Mike started to speak but was interrupted by a sound that had already become unfamiliar - an engine.
Exchanging surprised glances, we rushed to the balcony. Roaring up the street towards us on his trailbike was the teen boy from down the road. Somehow he had made it past the zombies around his house and seemed intent on making a break for it. Heart starting to beat fast, I tried to calculate his chances. Already the zombies in front of our house were spilling onto the road in the excitement of seeing their first human today. With a sinking heart, I realised that the boy wasn't going to make it. By the time he reached the crest of the hill, the road would be blocked with zombies. With drains and long grass on each side, I didn't think his trail bike would be enough to evade the zombies.
"He's not going to make it." Michele echoed my thoughts despairingly.
"Yes he will." Mike said quietly, walking up to the balcony with his rifle.
Taking careful aim, he started taking out zombies like ducks at a target shooting stall at the fair. There was no way he could take them all down but I realised, with admiration, that wasn't his intention. He was creating the smallest of breathing spaces at the edge of the crowd which maybe, just maybe, would allow the boy to slip by. Would the kid even see it? I wondered breathlessly as I watched him skidding past the first of the zombies at the top of the hill.
A zombie fell to the road with a neat bullet hole in her head. Another fell off the road into the ditch. Look, I urged the boy silently, go left, go left. You can make it. To my delight, he spotted the opening, and opening up his throttle, skirted past the zombie horde by riding the very edge of the ditch. "Yes!" I squealed and clapped like a child as the boy disappeared down the street and over the bridge. Ignoring the zombies beneath us, we cheered and laughed. Mike slung his rifle over his shoulder with a smug smile on his face that said 'told you so'. I didn't care. He'd earned the right.
As the others returned inside, I lingered behind for a few minutes, staring after the boy. I couldn't help wondering how the boy would survive out there by himself? Beneath the balcony, the moaning of the frustrated zombies was relentless. More stood on the lawn staring at me while the ones from the boy's home journeyed laboriously towards us. We were definitely the only party in town now.
"He'll be fine." Mike came to stand beside me, resting an arm on the balcony.
"How can you be so sure?" I asked.
He shrugged, turning to gaze over the silent, lush valley. "I can't, but I choose to believe it."
He was silent for a long moment. "I've lived long enough to have seen that, for every act of cruelty or unbearable unfairness, there are moments that are nothing short of miraculous. I think it's about time the good guys scored one, don't you?"
"Yes, I do." I gazed at him, taking in the hardened exterior in which, it seemed, beat the heart of a true romantic. He saw me staring at him and crooked his brow.
I shook my head. "Nothing, really. Just... that was the most talking you've done since I met you."
"What can I say, I'm deep."
Snorting, I moved back. "Yeah, well. I think I understand now how a guy like you ends up with a dog like Lizzie."
"Oh really." He drawled, eyes narrowing. "And how's that?"
I grinned cheekily and walked away with answering. Somehow I didn't think he would appreciate my observation that he was just a big ball of marshmallow on the inside.
An hour later, backpacks loaded with snacks, binoculars, weapons and a walkie talkie, Mike and I prepared to sneak out the back door. I felt a hand on my sleeve. It was Michele, looking somber.
"Honey?" I queried.
"Do you have to be the one to go, mum?" A pang went through me at the anxiety in her eyes. "Haven't you done enough?"
I touched her face, warmed by her uncustomary concern for me. " You know me, Michele, I'm a control freak. I've never been good at delegating stuff." I grasped her hands as I tried to reassure her. "I can't just sit back, honey, not as long as my family and friends are at risk. And until we get out of this town or the authorities take back control, then none of us are safe. It's just something I have to do. Can you understand that?"
"I guess so." She nodded, still looking unhappy. "I've never seen you like this before. It's freaking me out a bit."
"Like...taking charge, taking risks and stuff. It's like finding my mum is Xena." She said with some disgust.
I threw my head back and laughed. "Don't worry, honey. When this is over, I'll go back to being just bossy mum."
Michele's eyes crinkled. "I hope so. I don't think I could handle a bossy mum who can kick my ass!"
"Hey! Watch the vulgarity, missy."