The boat lurched as many hands pulled at it.
"One, two, three..." Mike counted quietly. I propelled myself forward as hard as I could, over those pale eyes in the water, and hit the water a good six feet away. Immediately, I kicked my feet and surged away as fast as I could. Desperation leant strength to my arms and legs and within seconds I had reached the cooler dark channel in the middle. Mike passed me and, with a glance at me, headed downstream. Even knowing that the river was probably too deep for the zombies, I expected to feel a hand or teeth on my legs at any moment.
We stayed in the river for several more minutes until we reached a dense stretch of mangroves unlikely to be accessible to humans - and, therefore, zombies. We swum to the side of the bank and heaved our wet bedraggled bodies out of the water. I collapsed on the bank, panting. Just when it seems I could not be more frightened, life seemed to be determined to prove otherwise.
"Come on." Mike said, readjusting his wet pack. "We haven't got far to go." Yeah, right.
For the next half hour, we struggled through the mangroves until we reached the creek which in turn led us past the shopping centre where our bike was parked. We stayed low as we made our way along the river bank. The highway bridge stood empty and silent. As we drew parallel to the centre, we crawled to the top of the bank and peered across the road. The park still crawled with corpses. They staggered and bumped against each other as they wandered aimlessly across the park and along the road. I gazed yearningly at the spot I knew our bike was waiting for us but I knew that it would be ridiculously dangerous to try to navigate the corpse-infested streets at night by bike. We had already discussed it and decided to follow the river home, even though it would take another hour. Another hour that Sarah was without treatment.
Sighing, I turned to Mike. "Can we at least try to contact the house from here? See how everyone is? Surely the walkie talkie will be in range?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, walkie talkies don't take well to a dunking."
"Oh." I replied in a small voice. "Forgot about that."
Mike's voice softened as if he could read my thoughts. "I know it feels like we've been away all night, Lori, but it's been less than four hours since we got the call from Emma. Sarah will be fine."
He was right, I realised, feeling my spirits rise a little. I smiled tentatively at him. "The sooner we get going, the sooner we'll get there, I guess."
We followed the freshwater creek, staying below the top of the bank. As the creek wound its way closer to the road, we could hear the sounds of the dead dragging their feet nearby. It was unnerving, knowing there were so many corpses within touching distance. If they chose to look over the bank's edge...It was a relief to enter the cover of the trees which lined the river as it passed through the suburbs, even though it meant we had to move more cautiously. While the thickets along the river hid us well, it meant they could hide other things also.
The silence struck me all over again. No cars driving by, no planes overhead, no radios and tvs blaring, no babies crying - just total stillness marred only by the moans of zombies. Even the birds and crickets seemed to have fallen silent. I shivered and edged closer to Mike's solid presence. As the river meandered its way closer to the road, I peered through the trees. The hint of moonlight shining through the overcast night revealed a few corpses standing on the lawns of darkened homes or wandering down the road, endlessly searching for something. Us, a voice whispered insidiously.
A sudden crashing through the trees ahead froze us in our tracks. Something blundered through the shrubbery with all the finesse of a mad bull. My heart stopped for a moment as I realised it was headed straight for us. Mike pushed me against a thick tree, covering my body with his. We stood perfectly still, trying to blend in with the shadows as a dark shadow floundered nearby, seeming to trip over something. I heard a plethora of panicked curses as the man struggled to pick himself up.
All around us, the bushes erupted as corpses bludgeoned their way towards the poor man. Everywhere I looked, I saw dark shapes. Mike instinctively pressed harder against me, making it difficult for me to breath. The man screamed in panic and thrashed through the shrubs towards the creek. Hurry, I urged him silently, get to the creek. Unfortunately, the sounds he was making were moving diagonal to the creek. Was he disoriented or reluctant to get in the fast flowing water, I wondered as I strained to follow his progress.
Mike tensed, and with the pressure of his body, forced me to slide slowly around the side of the tree. I realised that one or more corpses were approaching our tree. My heart started pounding in my chest as the awareness that we were surrounded hit home. The shape of a dead man pushed through bushes to stand beside our tree. From the corner of my eye, I could see the hook shape of his nose and the white gleam of his eyes as he stared into the darkness. He was so close that if he turned even two inches, he would see us. For the longest horrifying minute, we stood in a frozen tableau, just waiting... and then the corpse lurched forward after the man who was still frantically crashing through the trees and shrubs.
Trembling all over, I released my breath slowly. There were still other corpses nearby. We remained motionless as we waited for the dead to stagger away in the wake of the unseen man. Only after we had heard no further sounds of movement around us for several minutes, did we relax. I drew deep, gasping breaths in. Mike was still pressed against me as he looked over my head at our surroundings. As the terror receded, I started to feel uncomfortably aware of his body along the length of mine, the feel of his thigh, his muscled arms on either side of me, his breath in my hair... glancing up, I caught the gleam of his eyes as he looked down at me quizzically. My cheeks flamed as I realised he could probably feel my heart racing.
"Lori?" He breathed my name questioningly, and the way he said it made my loins melt. There was so much yearning in his voice, so much left unsaid. He cared for me, I suddenly realised with wonder. Not just as a friend and comrade in arms, but as a woman. It was a feeling he would never act on, and yet I suddenly wanted him to act on it. Desperately. For the first time in my life, I didn't want to plan out tomorrow, I didn't want to be in control. I just wanted to lose myself, to feel alive and whole again in the arms of a man I desired.
I reached up tentatively and stroked Mike's cheek. His eyes widened and he sucked in his breath, standing motionless, as I ran my finger lightly over his eyes, down his nose and along his lips. My fingers curled around his neck and pulled his head towards mine. His lips hovered hesitantly above mine for an unendurable moment. I arched yearningly against him, my eyes pleading with him in the dark. Just let us have tonight, Mike. There may not even be a tomorrow. As always, he seemed to hear my thoughts. His uncertainty disappeared as his arms closed around me. He brushed his lips teasingly against mine. I could feel the hint of a smile on his mouth. The touch of his firm lips set my nerves alight throughout my body.
"Mike..." I groaned breathily, achingly. I quivered like an excited puppy when his hands tangled in my hair and drew my head back, exposing the long line of my neck.
"So soft," He breathed as his mouth painted a delicate path down my neck. "Your skin feels like silk..."
"Mike..." I pleaded, feeling giddy with the scent and feel of him as his lips made their way back up my neck, over my cheekbones and down... The tip of his tongue traced the outline of my mouth, sending a shiver of desire through me.
Oh. The utter delight of his lips over mine. The kiss went on and on, filling my senses till all I could feel was the gentle firmness of his mouth, the slightly rough brush of his cheek, the sweetness of his breath. I moaned softly as he deepened the kiss, drawing me in with his need, his hunger for me. I had forgotten it was possible to feel this way...so delirious, lost, intoxicated with the feel of holding your beloved close.
A distant scream broke the hypnotic spell we had woven around us. It came from the direction the man had taken. Sadness flooded me. He had been so panicked and confused...he had never really stood a chance. I looked back up at Mike who had pulled away a little. The moon had risen overhead, dimly lighting the grove around us.
He cleared his throat. "We should get going."
I nodded, still feeling his kiss burning on my lips. He hesitated for a moment and then leaned forward to look intently into my eyes. "You're everything I ever wanted in a woman, Lori. Courageous, passionate, funny...I've spend my whole life looking for you and when I find you, you belong to someone else. How's that for ironic?" His eyes searched mine and I guess he found the answer he was looking for. He nodded and smiled wryly. " 'Such is life.' "
I swallowed, my heart and mind in turmoil, as he moved off through the dense trees. I wanted to reach out to him but I couldn't even begin to talk to him about what had happened when I felt so confused. Silently, I followed him.
Relief flooded me as we crossed the bridge and saw the house still intact. However, the number of zombies surrounding the house had swelled fourfold. The ground beneath and around the house was thick with dark swaying bodies. I kept my fingers crossed that the steep tangled rainforest on the hillside would continue to deter them from blocking the back entry.
We crossed the road further up the street and made our way quietly up the mountain till we were directly above the house. It was hard going feeling our way through the thick rainforest in the dark and I was sweating profusely by the time the house came into view. Cautiously, silently, we moved down the mountain towards the back door. Pausing frequently, we listened for sounds that didn't belong in the rainforest. Like dead people.
Mike slipped up to the back window and flicked his Maglite torch on and off. A minute later, we were inside the house surrounded by familiar, smiling faces, softly lit by candlelight. Michele and Jessie wrapped their arms around me tightly as other hands patted me on my back and shoulders. I gripped the kids tightly and grinned widely at the people surrounding me. It was the best possible homecoming ever.
"Last time I'm sending you to the shops." Emma declared cheekily.
"Ah, come on, Em." I responded. "We just got a little sidetracked, is all."
Mike snorted, busy trying to fend off the delighted licks of Lizzie who had jumped in his arms. "That's an understatement."
Kaye shooed us into the living room. "Eat first and then you can tell us all about it."
I pulled off my backpack. "Food would be great but first I need to get these antibiotics into Sarah." I looked questioningly at Emma.
"I've been treating her with fluids but the fever is still present. The sooner we get the antibiotics into her, the better." She agreed. I followed her into the kids' bedroom where the four toddlers were sleeping. Sarah was flushed and restless even in her sleep. A pang went through me anew at the sight of her shortened arm, but, I reminded myself, she was still alive and that's all that mattered, ultimately. Emma set up the intravenous line for the antibiotics while I sat down beside my baby. Sarah stirred and opened her eyes.
"Mummy!" She smiled. "Miss' you."
Tears blurred my eyes as a wave of fierce, possessive love gripped me. "I missed you too, baby." Bending forward, I kissed her hot forehead.
"Allie 'nock me over." She pouted, making me laugh. Dobbing is an art mastered young.
"Bad Allie." I shook my finger scoldingly at the bunk above us. Sarah giggled, and wriggled in her bed. I grinned and tucked the sheet in around her. "Now go to sleep, rugrat. You'll feel a lot better when you wake up."
Emma was watching me as I rose. "One day this will make a great bed time story."
"How mummy braved zombies to get the medicine she needed."
I shook my head. "You have no idea."
In the living room, MIke was hoeing into a simple meal of baked beans and scrambled eggs while holding his audience captive with the tale of our adventures. It smelt so good that my mouth instantly watered. Kaye saw my face and rose from the table. "Coming right up, old girl." Mike looked over at me with a warmth in his eyes which instantly brought a blush to my cheeks. Of course his sharp eyes noted it and his lips quirked in amusement, which I decided to ignore. I didn't even know how to begin with dealing with my rash, impulsive behaviour, so I was just...avoiding it entirely. Pulling up a chair, I promptly devoured the meal Kaye placed before me in record time.
I was content to let Mike finish filling the others in on the events of the day. Pushing back the plate, I sat back contentedly and looked around at the group. On my left, Ken stood behind Emma's chair with his hand touching her shoulder; across from me, Michele, Lucas and Jessie sat wide-eyed around Mike, with Lizzie the chihuahua jumping from lap to lap, while Kaye brewed some strong coffee in the nearby kitchen. They all appeared spell bound by Mike's dry rendition of our 'adventures'. Zombies, crocodiles, soldiers - maybe one day it would sound exciting to me, too, instead of a bloodcurdingly terrifying memory.
"There were zombies in the water?" Emma shivered. "God, I would have died from pure fright."
"Not high on my list of activities to repeat. Ever." I agreed, with a blandness to equal Mr. Cool across the table.
"So the army is bugging out?" Ken questioned, a frown on his face. "What does that mean for us? Are we supposed to just sit tight while they let this virus burn itself out?"
Emma's eyes widened. "Of course not!" She glanced around the table. "It doesn't mean that, does it? They wouldn't just leave us. There are still people alive in this town!"
Mike looked around the table, his face growing unusually serious. "It's worse than that, I'm afraid."
"Worse than that?!" Emma squeaked. "What's worse than that?!" Somehow, I didn't want to know the answer to that question.
Mike sighed and rubbed his closely shaven head, a sign I had learned meant he was stressed. "Anders confirmed to me that something big is going down in the morning. Something that is causing a ruckus amongst the big boys."
"Your bomb theory again." I said flatly. I had been afraid that was what he and Anders had been discussing...
"Bombs?" Kaye looked from me to Mike incredulously. "You think they are going to drop bombs on us?"
"'Fraid so. And, folks, we really don't want to be here when that happens."
"This Anders friend of yours," Ken asked quietly. "Did he hear about the bombs firsthand or is this just army gossip?"
Mike looked at Ken appraisingly. "Anders has many contacts in key positions and, put together, their information paints a pretty clear picture. It would be foolish of us to dismiss his information as just gossip."
Ken's brow furrowed. "Fair enough. What kind of bombs are we talking here, Mike?"
Mike looked a little grey. "There are a few options - fuel to air, maybe - but the word is that they are planning an attack that will...annihilate... this problem, permanently."
Ken was the first to understand what he was alluding to. "You're actually suggesting our government is going to nuke us."
I gasped. Surely that wasn't what he meant! But the silence that greeted Ken's statement was deafening.
"The government would never allow it." I argued. "The backlash..."
"They can't let this virus get out, Lori. It has destroyed this town and an army in less than two days! Imagine what a virus like this could do to the country - or even the world. In the face of a threat like that, we are acceptable losses."