We looked wordlessly at each other around the table. The kids' faces were ashen. I imagined I looked much the same. My head spun. A nuclear bomb. I just could not get my head around it. Sighing, I rubbed my eyes. I didn't want to deal with this, not yet. Give me time to catch my breath, I pleaded childishly to the nameless gods.
Looking back up, I took a deep breath. "Okay. Regardless of what kind of bomb they are going to use, we need to get the hell out. Agreed?"
There was a murmur of still stunned agreement. I looked at Mike. " So how much time do we have?"
"Troop withdrawals were to be completed by oh six hundred hours, so any action would probably take place within an hour or so of that. However, in light of the army base being overrrun, that may have changed."
"Great. So the best case scenario is that we have less than eight hours to get out of Dodge and reach a 'safe minimum distance'. Worst case, it's too late."
Mike nodded, with a wry quirk of his eyebrow. "Pretty much sums it up."
"Okay. So let's have some ideas on how best to get out of here."
"The highways are impassable which leaves hiking out on foot or going by sea. Considering the small tykes, hiking out isn't really feasible so the only real option is to get out by sea." Mike stated succinctly.
"Right." I said slowly, trying to process my thoughts which seemed a bit sluggish at the moment. "That means going to the marina to find a boat."
"With lots of fuel." Ken added.
"And power." Lucas quietly interjected. "We need to get as far away as quickly as possible." It was the first time I had heard him speak since I got home.
"So, to recap, we just need to get across a the zombie-infested town safely, and find ourselves a big, powerful, fuelled up boat." I said, drily. "That should be easy. Oh, and does anyone know how to drive one?"
Mike, Ken and Lucas put up a hand. Well, of course, I thought, just managing to control the urge to roll my eyes. What self respecting man in Cairns doesn't know how to fish and drive a boat.
"What about Dad?" Michele asked quietly. She was looking at me with hurt in her eyes. She thinks I've forgotten about him.
"Once we have a boat, we will be able to find him, Michele. We know he's coming in from Jorge's Patch, so it shouldn't be too hard to plot a course that will intercept him on his way in." I looked at the men questioningly to confirm that I was right.
Ken nodded. "Sure. We can also broadcast on the emergency channel to cover our bases. If the boat is monitoring it, they should hear us."
See, I smiled reassuringly at Michele, it will be alright. She smiled back. I could see the tension in her shoulders relaxing. I wished I was as easily reassured as that. So many things could go wrong in the next six hours...I might not even get the chance to warn Joe away. My mind shied away from the thought. Focus on the here and now, I told myself firmly.
"The closest marina would be Yorkey's Knob." Ken said, thoughtfully, removing his glasses to rub them.
"Um, I have a question." Kaye put up a manicured hand. "How do we get to the cars? There are a lot of zombies downstairs. I doubt a distraction will get rid of all of them."
"Forget the cars." Mike interrupted, searching his pockets for a gum. "There's a pile-up blocking the road over the hill. There's no getting through by car." Damn, I'd forgotten about that.
Mike popped the gum in his mouth with a sigh of bliss. "We'll take the creek."
"Huh?" I think I spoke for all of us.
"We float downstream till we get past the blockage, then we check the houses till we find a car, and drive out." He looked pretty pleased with himself. Smug bastard.
Emma looked horrified. "What about the zombies? They might be in the water!"
Mike shook his head. "The current is pretty fast. Shouldn't be a problem."
Ken squeezed Emma's shoulder comfortingly. "What about the kids? We can't hold the babies afloat the whole way."
Kaye smiled. "That's one thing we don't have to worry about. Living in the tropics with kids means we have every water toy imaginable. We've got an inflatable boat, air mattresses, floaties, boogie boards..."
"Okay, okay." Ken grinned. "I get the idea."
I looked at my watch, seeing the time ticking inexorably away. "Let's make a list of essential items to take with us. Do you think we can be ready to leave in an hour?"
"We need to be, regardless." Mike said with deadly seriousness. The reminder of what was hanging over our heads sent a cold shiver through me. As desperately as I had fought to keep my family safe, I knew that some things were out of my control, and that knowledge made me sick with fear. Swallowing, I put the thought at the back of my mind. Focus on the here and now, Lori.
After allocating tasks to everyone at the table, we broke up the meeting. I rummaged through our medical supplies, trying to decide what to bring. I also needed to prepare Sarah for the trip. Her limb needed to be protected from the water and any exposure to any further infection.
Emma sat down beside me, handing me the antibiotics from the bedroom. "So what's going on?" She asked with a meaningful nod towards Mike, who was bagging his guns to protect them from the water. I flushed. Trust Emma not to miss anything when it came to men and women.
"Nothing, really." I replied, discomforted.
"Which means, something happened."
I could feel my cheeks flaming. "It was just a moment of temporary insanity - on both our parts. I love Joe, you know that. It's just that..." How the hell do I put into words the tangled emotions I felt?
"You feel something for Mike, too." Yeah, I thought, maybe it was easy to put into words after all. I nodded slowly, feeling I was somehow betraying Joe just by acknowledging the fact.
Emma touched my hand understandingly. "Intense situations create intense feelings, Lori. You two have fought beside each other, saved each other's asses, laughed and cried together...it doesn't get much more intimate than that. It's not surprising you two have developed a bond."
"So I shouldn't feel guilty?" I said wryly. "Is that your point?"
She grinned. "My point is, give yourself a break, Lori. If we survive the day, then you can beat yourself up for being human. Until then, count yourself lucky that you have a man like Mike to watch your back. And let's face it - he's hot!"
I snorted. "It's amazing how you can make being attracted to a man other than my husband sound perfectly normal."
"Who knows what's normal is in a situation like this?" Emma said drily, getting up.
The CB came to life. "Mike, you there?"
Mike grabbed the handset. "Travis, good to hear from you."
"Relieved to hear you, too, mate. I've lost contact with the other groups."
Mike exchanged a concerned look with me and Ken as he hurried into the room.
"What is your situation, Travis?"
"Not so good. The security screens gave way. We've barricaded ourselves here in the storeroom."
"Any way out?"
"Yeah, we could go through the loading dock. We've got trucks parked out back but we'd have to fight our way through the dead people. No one's too keen on doing that."
Kaye and Emma joined us, our hearts going out to the embattled group. Mike rubbed his head. "Unfortunately, I think you are going to have to, mate. This whole city is going to be nothing more than an ugly blot on the landscape in a few hours."
Silence. "How sure are you of that?"
Mike glanced over at us grimly. "Sure enough that we're making a break for it ourselves."
Mike snorted. "Second that, mate."
"So what's your plan, Mike?"
"We're heading for the Yorkey's Knob marina, grabbing a boat, and getting the hell out of here."
"Well, maybe we'll see you there, mate. Once I've persuaded this group to fight our way to the trucks, that is. We're bound to lose a lot of good people..."
"Good luck, Travis." Mike said softly. "Hope to see you again."
"Thanks, mate. Good luck to you, too."
We stood in a somber circle for a few minutes. I wondered morosely if any of us would still be alive this time tomorrow. Mike stirred. "We're wasting time. Grab your backpacks, weapons and gather the kids. It's time to go."
Ten minutes later, we stood in the kitchen. Kaye, Emma, Lucas and Michele each had a drowsy baby strapped to their backs. I had tried to take Sarah but Michele shooed me away. "I can do it, mum. I'm bigger and stronger than you." As I knew that my ability to protect them might depend on my agility and freedom, I didn't argue with her. Jessie had Lizzie tucked in a little backpack. I wondered about the wisdom of bringing the dog but as Mike seemed to have more control over her than I did over my children, I said nothing.
"Mummy!" Grumbled a tossled haired Alex from Lucas' back. "Wan' get down!"
"Ssh, Alex!" I scolded. "Only soft voices, remember?" I prayed that the hike would soon lull the babies back to sleep. I knew that riding on my father's back as a child had always had that effect on me. In addition, I had given them a dose of antihistamines as that would make them drowsy and less inclined to talk. A loud voice outside could be catastrophic. I shuddered at the thought and crossed my fingers, effective as I knew that would be.
Mike slowly opened the back door. From beneath the house rose the moans and thuds of the dead people lying in wait for us. In the dim moonlight, he pulled himself up the steep bank and into the forest. As Kaye and Emma followed with difficulty, Mike reached down and offered them a hand. The kids and I were next while Ken brought up the rear.
As quiet as we tried to be, the moans suddenly intensified. They know we're up here, I thought, my pulse quickening.
We pushed our way upwards, through the moist, dense rainforest. Tree branches and vines whipped our faces and roots tripped our feet as we struggled to find our way in the dark. Within minutes, I was dripping sweat and feeling the strain. I heard a baby whine in protest as something snagged it, quickly hushed. Finally, Mike decided we had put enough distance between us and the corpses, and turned towards the road and the creek that ran beside it.
Beside the fast flowing creek, we unpacked the pool toys and the hand pump. Ken and Lucas stood guard while we quickly inflated the small boat, air mattress and arm floaties. Wading into the creek with the boat, Mike held it steady against the bank while we placed the suddenly wide awake babies in it. Jessie held onto the air mattress nervously. While she was a good swimmer, she had never been in a fast current before.
"Ready?" I smiled at her encouragingly. "Remember, don't panic. Just go with the current and when we are ready to get out, just swim sideways until you reach the bank ." Jessie nodded, her brown eyes fixed on me, but her grip remained tight on the air mattress.
Kaye and I grabbed the boat and waded into the middle of the creek, water gushing around our thighs. The babies watched us, wide eyed and uncertain as to whether to be scared or excited.
"Remember, only whispers." I murmured to them with a smile. "We don't want to wake the neighbours." Or let anything else know we're coming. I nodded at Kaye, and with a deep breath, lowered myself into the water and let the current take us. Immediately, we surged forward down the creek. In the moonlight, I could see Jessie just ahead, hanging onto the air mattress with Lizzie's head poking out of her backpack, buttressed by Michele and Lucas. I felt so proud of the way the teens had stepped up. I knew Jessie was in safe hands. Glancing to my left, I saw Emma, Ken and Mike swimming nearby, at ease with the fast flowing current.
Mike edged closer to me. "At this rate, it should only take half an hour to reach the suburbs."
I nodded, focused on keeping the wayward boat in the middle of the creek. "There are some hairy spots on the creek, though. Rapids and submerged logs. We'll all have to keep a sharp eye out."
A little face appeared over the edge of the boat. "Hi mummy!" His loud whisper echoed across the silent creek.
I grinned back even as I cringed inside. "Hi Alex, soft voice, remember?" Sarah's head peered over his as she spoke sotto voce. "I'm getting wet, mummy."
Mike grinned at her. "Not as wet as us." She giggled and their heads disappeared again.
I rolled my eyes conspiratorially at Mike. We rode down the dark bubbling creek in silence for several minutes. I tensed as I saw the old bridge coming up. We would be floating right behind the homes on our street. I knew silence would be critical. In the quiet night, the slightest noise would be heard as clearly as a bell. "No noise until I say so, kids." I whispered sternly. "Or there will be no tv or biscuits." The silence that greeted me reassured me somewhat that they had received the message.
The bridge loomed closer. The water became shallower and bumpier as we hit the rapids. Glancing around, I saw that everyone was riding high in the water, like me. After being banged by rocks a few times as kids, you quickly learn the best way to navigate rapids. And then the wooden bridge was behind us and we were cascading through the rapids. Up and down the waves, pushing off big rocks with our feet, keeping the boat at the right angle, Kaye and I struggled silently to keep the small boat from spinning off or ripping itself open on sharp rocks.
Suddenly we were back into smoother waters. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Babies, are you okay?" I whispered, trying to keep the shakiness from my voice. A wide-eyed face popped over the fat edge of the boat. "Yes, mummy." He whispered harshly, making me wince. From the other side of the boat, Kaye muttered weakly, "Well, that was fun. Not." I murmured a heartfelt sound of agreement.