Flying High

 

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Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

“What do you really think, Lauren?”

She walked to the window and looked out over the green fields, the phone pressed to her ear and the other hand absent-mindedly twirling one of the dark blond curls that hung around her face.

“Major, I haven’t examined your son and I had no intention to. I’ll see what he needs as a result of the addictive nature of Aurora as Sydney described it to me and treat it the best I can. Otherwise there’s not a lot I can do for him. Time and a break from the new pursuit is the best I can offer and probably the best thing overall right now.”

“I can see your difficulty…”

“And I can see yours. But you’ve told me Jarod doesn’t know he’s here as my patient and I don’t somehow think that he’d be thrilled to find out. As far as he knows, he’s here to get away from the usual stresses, maybe get some color and that’s it.”

“And…you think you can help?”

“I can promise to send Jarod home a darn sight better that he was when he left, but he’s been on an emotional and physical roller coaster ride since he found out about having a son. Being at the Centre, no matter what they were giving him, wouldn’t have helped much either. But with all the information I’ve received from you and Sydney about Aurora, I’ve at least got a starting point and we’ll work from there.”

“Okay.” There was a moment of silence. “Just… just please take care of my son for me, Lauren.”

“I will, Major. You know I will.”

As she disconnected the call a hand tapped her on one shoulder. Spinning around, Lauren found herself facing with a tall man whose blue eyes twinkled with fun. Giving a delighted shriek, Lauren threw her arms around her brother’s neck and hugged him. The room was suddenly full of sound as another man walked in and began a conversation with his father and mother.

The loud voices in the formerly quiet house woke Jarod from his light sleep and he stared blankly around the room for a few seconds before remembering where he was. Stifling a yawn, he sat up, feeling a headache start at the same instant as he saw a glass of liquid on his bedside table. The piece of paper under the glass caught his eye and, somewhat curious, Jarod picked it up.

‘You’re probably dehydrated. This is pure, Aussie tap water. Two litres every day will help get rid of the headaches. Loz.’

With a small smile, he picked up the glass and drank the contents, filling it again from a bottle that stood beside it and swallowing that as well. The headache faded to a bearable pain and he stood up, pulling on his shoes before making his way down the stairs. One of the newcomers looked up to see him standing silently in the doorway and grinned, dimples appearing in both cheeks.

“Hey, Loz, I think we’re making a bit too much noise.”

Lauren looked up to see her visitor in the doorway and laughed. “Jarod, come on in and join the party.” She pulled forward a man who had his arm around her shoulders. “This is my big brother. Mark, this is Jarod. He’s here to do a stint with the RFDS.”

“Hi, the Yank. Good to see you here.”

She grabbed the sleeve of the man who had alerted her to Jarod's presence, pulling him forward. “This is my baby brother, Steve. The one you heard me talking to on the radio.”

“Great to finally meet you, the Yank.”

Jarod smiled faintly. “Nice to meet you too, Steve. Dad told me about you.”

Mark walked over to the fridge and opened it. “Anyone want a beer? Dad?”

“Wouldn’t say no.”

“Steve?”

“Kill for one.”

“Jarod?”

He shrugged, not wanting to cause any problems but slightly concerned at the thought of the way alcohol might affect his system. Before he could respond, however, Lauren jumped in.

“Give him water, Mark. Alcohol won’t help with dehydration and, after eighteen hours of recycled air on planes…” She trailed off, seeing an expression of relief in Jarod's eyes. “But I’ll have one.”

“What, my baby sister drinking a beer?” Mark tried to look horrified as he gave out the cans and kept one for himself. “You’ll have a nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade.”

“You’ll get a ‘nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade’ all over your great noggin if you’re not a bit more careful.” She took the can out of his hand and laughed at the expression on his face as she sat on the sofa. “Thanks.”

* * * * * * * * *

Austin, Texas, USA

Charles taxied the plane inside the hangar and got up to unlock the door so the men could begin unloading the cargo. Then he went back to the cockpit and looked at where Jordan slept in the co-pilot’s seat. Charles was unable to stop himself from comparing the face of this boy with both that of the man he had watched walk through the doors at JFK airport and also that of the boy on the DSA he had seen almost two and a half years earlier. After a moment he put out a hand and gently shook the teenager.

“Jordan? We’re here.”

Blearily the boy opened his eyes and looked up before undoing his seatbelt and groggily rising to his feet. Picking up his bag, the man put an arm around the boy’s shoulders, walking with him off the plane and into the small room that had been promised for them at the airport.

“Are you hungry?”

“Not really.” The boy shrugged drowsily. “Just kinda tired.”

Charles nodded at one of the two beds. “Have a nap, son. It’s been a long few days.”

Nodding, Jordan stumbled over to the bed and stretched out on it with a yawn. The man pulled a blanket gently over him, watching as the boy curled up underneath it before he relaxed into sleep. He’s getting better, the man thought to himself as he stood beside the bed and eyed the fading shadows under Jordan’s eyes. By the time Jarod gets home from Australia, he should be almost back to normal.

With a satisfied nod, Charles left the room to help with the unloading, quietly shutting the door behind him.

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

Jarod ran a trembling hand through his short-cropped hair, once more at the length he had worn it for so many years. He pulled up the sleeves of his t-shirt, eyeing the track marks on his hands and arms where the needles containing Aurora and the anesthesia and withdrawal drugs had gone in. The thought of the days of sleep and withdrawal made his brow fold into a glare directed at the floor of the room.

The days before leaving America had been particularly unpleasant, the first of which primarily passed with him sleeping off the anesthetic under the supervision of Jordan and his father. By the following day he had the strength to protest at being fed. Following that he had become engaged in another argument between himself and his father, this time about the trip. He could remember the difficulty he had had in simply being able to get worked up enough to argue in the first place. Although Aurora had been purged from his system during the hours of enforced rest in Maryland, the flat emotional state it had brought him to was now almost a habit, as was the fact that during his weeks back at the Centre, he had allowed or been forced to allow others to make decisions for him. Ironically, it was this that had caused the argument with his father in the first place, filling him with resentment at the way that decisions had been made without either his consent or input. And it wasn’t only the detoxification that he’d been objecting to. The trip was another sore point and this umbrage, as well as his own marked lack of interest, had made him unwilling to do any investigation into his destination.

He couldn’t help regretting that a little now.

Jarod found himself hating the very thought of the two weeks.

His gaze traveled to the needle lying on the flat surface in front of him filled with the substance - his own creation - to help reduce the withdrawal symptoms he was suffering. For a few moments he thought through the time when, in 1968, he had created it. He could still remember the instant of realization when he knew what he needed and the decision that had made him get a sweeper to escort him to the lab where, in the early hours of one morning, he had sat down and made it.

With a feeling of faint amusement Jarod also recalled the expression on Sydney's face when the older man had burst into the laboratory, understandably angry and also concerned at his seeming disappearance from his room. Even the psychiatrist’s interest in the project hadn’t been sufficient to conceal the worry he had felt, and it had taken three days before their working relationship had returned to normal.

Jarod wondered vaguely if Sydney even knew that he was no longer at the Centre.

His mind coming back to the present, Jarod eyed the needle again, this time with a feeling akin to loathing. Knowing it didn’t contain the one substance he would happily inject until every vein in his body collapsed, he had no real incentive to use this. But understanding how vulnerable the shaking and nausea made him feel, he reluctantly picked up the syringe. Finding a viable vein proved difficult after so many weeks but eventually Jarod managed. After clearing the syringe of air bubbles and twisting around, he awkwardly slid the sharp point into a vein at the back of his knee and carefully pressed the plunger.

Lauren put the last form into the fax machine and sent it off before standing and walking down the hall to the room where her visitor was sleeping. Waiting in the doorway, she watched him silently for a minute before speaking.

“Can you ride?”

Jarod looked up as he screwed the lid onto the sharps container that he had brought with him and into which he’d dropped the empty syringe. “Ride what?”

“Elephants, Jarod.” She rolled her eyes and grinned. “Horses, of course.”

He considered for a moment. “Probably not the way you’re thinking of.”

“What did you do, a stint at a rodeo or something?” She laughed at her own joke and then came in, opening the cupboard. Taking out a plaid shirt, she held it out to him. “You’re going to need to wear something other than black or you’ll bake in this heat.”

“Whose…?”

“It’s Mark’s. He said you can wear whatever of his you want, and I hope you do ‘want’ because I certainly don’t want to work with an American undertaker under the guise of a doctor. You’ll get the uniform, of course - white shirt and dark blue trousers and jacket - but you’ll need some off-duty clothes too.”

Jarod peeled off the t-shirt he’d been wearing since his arrival and put on the sleeveless red shirt. Lauren glanced from the needle marks on his upper arms and the faint scar on his lower left arm to the shoes lying the floor beside his bed and then pulled out a pair of boots.

“You’ll need Blundstones, too. You can’t ride in those.”

He pulled them on, the elastic sides allowing his feet to slip easily into the boots, and followed her downstairs. At the door, she took a floppy, broad-brimmed Akubra hat off a hook and put it on his head, placing a similar one on her own.

“We’ll pass on the sunstroke quite this early in your visit, thanks.”

The heat settled on them like a blanket as they walked out of the house.

“Will it get cooler?”

“Tonight, probably not much. It’s only 28 degrees right now, though. It was a lot hotter when you arrived.”

She caught sight of his expression and laughed. “I forgot, you’re such a strange mob over there that you still calculate temperature in Fahrenheit. You’ll have to do the conversions yourself, I’m afraid. My maths was never that good. From memory, Celsius is five ninths of Fahrenheit minus thirty two.”

He thought quickly, a little astonished that he hadn’t even thought about the fact that this place used a different system, something that he was actually well aware of.

“Eight-three? At seven thirty in the evening in mid-October?”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “I guess. We are going through a bit of warm spell right now. It’ll be worse at work, though. Much worse.” Looking at him, she laughed as she saw the confusion on his face. “Jarod, you do remember that summer’s coming on this side of the world, don’t you?”

As they approached a gate, saddles over their arms, Lauren clicked her tongue and immediately the ears of two horses pricked up and they trotted over.

“Hey, beautiful.” She stroked the nose of one, slipped the bit into its mouth and fastened a buckle, leading it over to him. “This is Dad’s horse, Billabong. He said you could ride him. Do you want to saddle him?”

He hesitated. “You do it.”

Nodding understandingly, she gave him the reins, placing the blanket onto the horse’s broad back after she had checked that there was nothing underneath it that could cause an irritation and then did up the saddle straps. Jarod got up, a little awkwardly, into the seat and settled himself as Lauren flipped up the reins and lengthened the stirrups so that they were the right length. As she did this, the second horse approached and impatiently nuzzled her, almost pushing her to the ground.

“Okay, okay.” She turned and laughed, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a carrot. “You are so spoilt, Matilda.”

It only took a few moments for her to saddle the horse and swing up expertly as a voice could be heard calling from the doorway of the house.

“Where are you going, Loz?”

“To get dinner,” she called back. “But we’ll be quite a while, Steve. I’ll show Jarod the surrounding countryside at the same time. Back in about two hours. Maybe three.”

“Okay, have fun.”

The figure disappeared back inside the house and the two wheeled their horses around, Lauren slowly leading the way towards the gate.

“All right?”

“I guess.”

Lauren looked over to find Jarod looking somewhat helplessly down at his hands and she looped her reins over her arm before reaching over to position his fingers properly. Jarod's face suddenly reddened with embarrassment as the feelings of the reins in his fingers became all too familiar, recalling previous times when he was on the back of a horse. Jarod couldn’t help wondering if her question about the rodeo had been intended or just off-the-cuff. Spotting the change on his face but ignoring it, Lauren spoke quietly.

“We won’t go too fast at the start, but you’ll need to be more used to it by the time we come back. It’s seven kay’s - kilometers - from here to the shop and if dinner’s cold, we’ll be cursed.”

His stomach twisted again at the thought of food but as he’d done before, Jarod pushed aside the feelings, concentrating instead on what he was doing as they rode down the drive of the property and out on the road. A touch of her heels prompted Matilda to a trot and, as Jarod's horse did the same, Lauren looked at him and was forced to hide a smile.

“Grip with your knees.”

“I’m trying!”

She laughed and slowed the horse down. “Okay, we’ll walk until you get used to it. I’m guessing you haven’t ridden a lot, or at least not for a long time.”

“And I’m guessing you have.”

“Since I could walk. With the property being the size it is, we’ve all had to learn.”

Jarod listened as Lauren gave him a few instructions and adjusted his style accordingly, instantly feeling more comfortable as well as irritated that he hadn’t been able to work it out himself.

“You’ll have to get used to riding. It’s a bit of a necessity, especially in our work.”

“And what is that, exactly? You still haven’t told me yet. All I’ve heard so far are a whole bunch of initials.”

She looked up. “I’ll tell you but first I need to ask you a few things.”

“Shoot.”

Lauren quickly decided on the best way to pose the question, already knowing the answer but still feeling it wiser not to reveal that. “First, can you be convincing as a doctor even though you aren’t one?”

He straightened up in the saddle, feeling the sun warm his back. “I can be whatever you want me to be.”

She nodded. “Second, can you fly?”

Jarod raised an eyebrow. “Not without wings and maybe an engine.”

Lauren groaned. “Oh, you are just so not funny! Only my brothers are worse than that! Seriously, have you flown planes? Small ones I mean, not 747s.”

“I can fly both - and helicopters.”

“A chopper pilot too?” She beamed. “You’re custom-made!”

“For?”

“The RFDS, which stands for Royal Flying Doctor Service. They’re the people I, now we, work for.”

Lauren leaned back slightly in the saddle.

“It was started in 1917. The Reverend John Flynn was trying to find away to care for people living impossible distances from medical aid and set up a system of radio communication. When people need help, they call our base. Every homeowner receives a medical kit stocked with medication, and the doctor at the base will instruct the patient what to take for what illness. If necessary, we treat them at home or bring them to a hospital for surgery. Katherine isn’t an official base, though. If the main office in Alice Springs gets a call that’s too far for them, or they’re too busy, we take it.”

Jarod nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds like a good idea. The whole thing, I mean. Not just your base in Katherine.”

“It is, and it runs on an absolute shoestring. Our treatment is free and we’re funded by donations, contributions and government grants.”

He glanced over to see the satisfied smile on her face. “You love your work, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. And once you’ve met a few of the mad creatures that we help and done a bit of helping yourself, I guarantee you’ll love it too.”

“So what kind of people will we be helping?”

“Everyone - old people, farmers, kids.”

“Kids?” He looked at her curiously. “How do kids get an education in the middle of nowhere?”

“School of the Air.”

“What’s School of the Air?”

“Very much what it sounds like. It’s an offshoot of the RFDS meaning that they use the same idea and equipment, but wasn’t it started until 1951. The main base is in Alice Springs. The students - more than 1,200 at last count - have a half-hour lesson with a teacher each day by radio.”

“And it’s widespread?”

Lauren laughed. “Everything in Australia is widespread, Jarod. But yes it’s a big thing. A decade ago, it was worked out that more than a dozen schools service a area of about 1.5 million square kilometers.”

She watched, a twinkle in her eye, as he did the conversion, staring at her in shock. “580,000 square miles?!”

”At last count, yes. It’s probably grown by now.”

He paused. “And you work alone?”

“Never.” She shook her head definitively. “It’s far too dangerous. I have a regular partner but he’s in Broken Hill now, at the hospital there. The director’s sick and Paul volunteered to substitute for him. That’s one of the reasons you’re here. We’ll be working together, flying around from place to place and treating people. That’s why I needed to know that you could be a convincing doctor.”

“So you know all about me?”

She shrugged. “Maybe not all. But your dad told me a lot.”

* * * * * * * * *

Mouth Worth National Park
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

Lauren could feel Matilda getting twitchy and shot a sly glance at the American. Seeing that there was only a little more emotion in Jarod's eyes than when she had picked him up from the airport, she turned to him, her own eyes gleaming in fun.

“Feeling more comfortable?”

Jarod nodded and she steered her horse off the road and onto a track that led into scrubland, her guest’s horse following. Grinning over her shoulder, Lauren clapped her heels to Matilda’s flanks and the animal took off, first at a fast canter and then at a flat gallop. A hand clasping her hat, she leaned forward over the animal’s neck as it began to pick up speed. When Billabong did the same thing, the man on the horse’s back could do nothing but hold on in a similar manner. After almost ten minutes of flying along the winding trail, Lauren slowed Matilda to a trot and waited until Jarod came close behind. Instantly she turned her horse in to a clearing and grinned as he stared at her with wide eyes, his mouth hanging slightly open.

“What was that for?”

The shock of it had rendered Jarod almost breathless but his companion sat calmly watching him.

“Just wondering how good you really are. And to have stayed on through that is pretty impressive, Jarod.”

“You mean…that was for fun?”

There was a note of disbelief in his voice and she laughed.

“You didn’t enjoy it? Not even the tiniest little smidgen?”

He looked up at her, a small smile appearing on his face. “Now that I think about it, maybe I did.”

“More?”

Jarod shrugged, affecting nonchalance but thinking to himself that he had found it fun, despite his earlier determination that, while, he might be being forced to be here, it didn’t mean he had to like anything that wasn’t American.

“Sure. Why not?”

The two horses made their way along the winding trail, occasionally beside one another but more often behind each other. Finally they reached the top of the hill, coming out into an open area with picnic tables. Dismounting, Lauren tied up the horses before she and Jarod sat on one of the big tables, watching the sky turn from blue to pink and finally to a brilliant red, as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. After it had vanished, however, there was still enough visibility in the twilight. Jarod turned to Lauren, about to ask a question, when he heard barking and two familiar-looking dogs ran across the picnic area. Instantly Lauren looked over her shoulder.

“Mark, where are you?”

He appeared, also on horseback, and grinned. “I knew those two’d give me away. Where are you headed?”

“To the shop for dinner in a bit. Is the milking done?”

He nodded. “Finished half an hour ago, but you two will have to help tomorrow. I have to go back to work.”

“Already?” There was a note of disappointment in her voice.

“Time waits for no man, Lozenge.”

“I know,” she grumbled. “I’d just like the chance to see my big brother once in a blue moon, that’s all.”

Mark and the two dogs had already left when Jarod and Lauren started to ride back. She nodded her head in the direction that the last hints of red were fading from the sky and grinned. “Not bad, huh?”

He smiled, shadows of dimples appearing on his cheeks. “I love sunsets.”

“Well, you haven’t seen any until you’ve seen them in the Top End and at Uluru.”

“Somebody mentioned that to me. It’s pretty good?”

“It’s spectacular. I can never get sick of the sight and I’ve flown over it, walked around it, climbed it and slept beside it.”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property
Yarragon, Victoria, Australia

Jarod lay on the bed without bothering to turn it back. He had the feeling that he wouldn’t be able to sleep a lot, if at all, so there didn’t seem much point in going to the effort. With a rueful sigh, he stared at the ceiling, feeling that he was a long way from everything he knew, in a country he had no chance of understanding.

Once, he thought bitterly to himself, this would have been an incentive, a challenge to be enjoyed, but now it felt like an insurmountable difficulty. It was, he realized, not only that he felt a long way from all the things he knew, but also what he’d been before going back to the Centre. He seemed to have such a long way to go to get back to that point, to the point where he was able continue to help other people, his family and himself. Right now he had to wonder whether it was really worth the effort.

And there were the physical things he felt. He’d mentally made up a tentative withdrawal program and knew he’d be over almost everything when he went back to the States but there was the next two weeks or so to get through first, at least in as far as the physical side of things went. He knew the other parts - the mental ones - would be more difficult to overcome. And those mostly had to do with the things about Aurora that he found himself missing. The peaceful sleep was just one of a number of benefits, the best of which was the total lack of concern he’d felt every time the drug had been administered.

Suddenly he wanted to feel it again, just once more, right now, so he could have one final night of peaceful, solid sleep to prepare him for whatever was going to happen next. His empty stomach twisted painfully inside him and Jarod sat up, filling the glass and gulping down the water. Staring out of the windows over the grazing land, dotted with big, blurry, white shapes that, in the daylight hours, would reveal themselves as cows, Jarod knew water, at this time, was really the only thing that his stomach was able to cope with. But he also knew that, no matter how uncomfortable it made him feel, the fact that his body could recognize it should be hungry was a positive sign. He knew, too, that that would fade in a few days, and then for a couple of days after that, the sight of food would make him feel just as bad as the mention of it did now.

At the sound of a gentle tapping on his door, Jarod looked up sharply. “Come in.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you.” Lauren closed the door behind her and sat in a chair opposite him as he shook his head.

“I’ve never been a big sleeper.”

“These might help.” She held out a box of tablets. “There’s a sheet with the ingredients included so you can decide if you want to take them or not.”

He warily took them, putting them next to the empty glass. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” She noted the condition of the bed. “If you at least try to sleep at the correct times, you’ll get over jet-lag quicker.”

He nodded silently and she eyed him before speaking again.

“Jarod, you’ve got a few options with all this. Three, to be exact.”

“And they are?”

“First, you can be my pilot, meaning that the only real contact you’ll have with any of the patients will be lifting them in and out of the plane. Second, you can be my assistant. But I need to know if you think you’re up to that. It’s not easy, as you know, and there’s a lot of pressure. You need to work out if you can cope with all of that or not.”

“And the third option?”

“You can stay here in Yarragon for the fortnight - two weeks,” she corrected hurriedly as she saw the look of confusion in his eyes. “I have to be up in Katherine in a few days, but I can always get someone from one of the other offices as my pilot and you can stay here. Mum and Dad are quite happy to have you.”

Jarod stared at his hands for a couple of seconds before looking up at her again. “Do I have to tell you right now?”

“Not at all. I’ve got a few days before I have to report - Thursday to be exact - so provided you tell me before Wednesday night, that’s fine.”

“What did you have planned for tomorrow?”

Lauren smiled. “Well, after as much sleep as you want - and as much as I do - I thought we’d go and give one of our neighbors a hand with the shearing.”

He nodded without really understanding, but didn’t have enough energy to bother asking exactly what she meant. “Will that take all day?”

“Probably not. If it’s still hot, we’ll go for a dip in the creek in the evening. Otherwise I’d guess that some time not doing much will probably be the best thing for both of us.” Lauren hid a yawn. “I’ve been working flat-out for the past few months and I’m looking forward to a lazy couple of days. I’m probably going to be a pretty unexciting hostess.”

“I think I can cope.” He smiled faintly. “Dad would probably say it’s good for me.”

She eyed his pale face. “He might be right.”

* * * * * * * * *

Austin, Texas, USA

Charles filled his mug from the kettle on the stove and sat down, sipping as the hot coffee as the door of the kitchen opened.

“Morning, Da.”

“How’re you feeling, son?”

“Better.” The boy smiled as he got himself a bowl of cereal, adding milk from the jug on the table. After he’d eaten several mouthfuls, Jordan looked up at the man. “What are we doing today?”

“Well, the next load won’t be ready until tomorrow so we’ve got the whole day free.” He grinned at the boy, knowing how popular his suggestion would be. “How about another flying lesson?”

“Sure.” Jordan eagerly scooped up the last of the cereal before picking up an apple from a bowl on the table and biting into it. “And could we go shopping somewhere? I’m out of PEZ.”

Charles laughed. “It being such an emergency, maybe we should do that first.”

The boy grinned as he followed the man from the room. Shrugging on his jacket, Jordan pulled on a helmet and climbed onto the motorbike that stood outside the door, holding on around the older man’s waist as they roared away from the hangar.

On to Act III

 
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