Flying High

 

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Somewhere Else
Northern Territory, Australia

In the gathering darkness, John pointed to a group of trees ahead of them and said something to Lauren, who nodded and turned to Jarod.

“That’s where we’re making camp for tonight.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

She grinned. “What, you mean you didn’t enjoy your first day of hiking across the broad, brown land Down Under?”

“You sound like a travel brochure.” He took off his hat and waved it in front of his face, trying to stir the hot air enough to produce something like a breeze.

“Well, the next time you talk to your dad, you’ll definitely be as tanned as a real Aussie.”

He rolled his eyes and spoke mockingly. “Wow! My ambition in life fulfilled!”

“Easy life you must have,” she laughed.

Jarod didn’t comment but sat down, watching John gather a small pile of wood. The American felt a tremor go through him, watching his hands begin to shake although he struggled hard to control them and cursing inwardly that he didn’t have any of the necessary medication with him to stop it. He looked up to meet the concerned eyes of the native, who turned to Lauren and spoke in tones that were obviously questioning. Pulling a nearly full box of matches from her pocket and handing it to him, she replied in soft tones, not looking at her white companion. Jarod leaned forward.

“What did he say?”

“He wanted to know if you were sick.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“That it was a reaction to an earlier sickness. I didn’t have words to try and explain what it’s really all about.”

When the fire was burning brightly, John got to his feet and walked off through the trees, quickly disappearing.

“Where’s…?”

“He’ll come back. Don’t worry.” Lauren opened the bag that she had been carrying on her back all day, pulling out an apple and tossing it over to him.

“Here. Dinner.”

Jarod rolled his eyes. “Just like dinner yesterday and breakfast and lunch today.”

“Hey, be thankful.” Her voice became serious as she produced a third green item, placing it near the fire. “These are the last.”

He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. “It doesn’t seem like we had much food.”

“Oh, we had plenty providing we were careful. But I know how skilled John is so I didn’t bother to ration. He’ll get something for us. Luckily we’ve got enough water and, as we aren’t in the middle of the Simpson Desert, we’ll be able to get more when we need it. But we won’t be that long.”

He looked up at her. “How long, exactly?”

“John says that it should take about three days to get to the last house he saw, so that’s a third gone already with the walking we’ve done today.”

“And why is he alone? I mean, isn’t that a little dangerous?”

“Walkabout.”

Lauren grinned at the mystified expression on his face and she bit into her apple, waiting until she finished the bite before speaking and trying not to laugh at the obvious impatience on his face as Jarod waited for more details.

“It’s something a few of them do occasionally. They go off into the bush or the desert for anything from a few days to several weeks at a time and live off the land the way they used to. I was going to suggest that you go on one when you arrived, but we went to visit Mum and Dad instead.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Seems like I was destined to anyway.”

“It does seem a little like it, yes.”

She looked around at the dying light of day and felt as the temperature began to plummet. Pulling her jacket closely around her, Lauren reached into her bag and produced the survival blanket, handing it to him.

John reappeared in the circle of light cast by the fire and dropped a pile of leaves onto the ground before sitting cross-legged in front of them. When he asked for something, Lauren untied a metal container from her bag and gave it to him. John filled it with water from her bottle and then put the lid on, using a forked stick driven hard into the ground to hang it over the fire. He gave a handful of others to Jarod, who took them a little nervously.

“What’s this?”

Lauren smiled. “Smell it.”

He did and looked up at her skeptically. “Peppermint?”

“Something like that.” She lay down, watching him. “Eat them.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Jarod, trust me.”

He cautiously put one into his mouth, chewing tentatively, and then swallowed it before looking up at her and grinning. “Well, I’m not dead.”

She laughed. “And nor will you be. Your dad would never have sent you here if he’d thought I was going to kill you. That will help you a lot, as will the tea that John’s making.”

Jarod glanced over, eyebrows raised. “And how will it help?”

Lauren grinned slyly across the fire at him. “Peppermint’s very good for tremors, nausea, cramps, and various other aches and pains. And that’s a pretty accurate short-list of your symptoms if we add loss of appetite, sweating and drowsiness. It won’t do much for the insomnia but that seems to have gone away on its own, at least as much as it supposedly does with you.”

He eyed her sharply. “Who have you been talking to?”

She couldn’t help smirking slightly. “Your dad. And Sydney.”

Eyes narrowed, he leaned back. “Sydney too, huh? That gives me the hint of an idea that maybe this is more that just a vacation.” Jarod paused.” So how much do you really know about me - Doc?”

Lauren laughed. “You didn’t honestly think that I happened to have those tablets I gave you just by chance, did you?”

* * * * * * * * *

Taylor Family Property, Yarragon
Victoria, Australia

“What’s the situation, son?”

“It… it’s not too good, Dad.” Bill could hear the tension in his son’s voice. “They called the weather bureau but the contact dropped out before they could warn them about a second storm front that was approaching. If they couldn’t find somewhere to land before it hit…”

In the silence that followed, the man exchanged glances with his wife, gently squeezing her hand as tears filled her eyes.

“They’ve got everyone out looking,” Mark continued. “But so far there’s no sign and it’s been like an oven up here today. Last night got to almost zero and they expect it to go even lower tonight. Pete said their chopper was stocked for emergencies and Lauren had checked it just before they took off, but we don’t even know if we’re looking in the right areas…”

The younger man’s voice broke and there was another long moment of silence before he spoke again.

“I think you need to call the States.”

* * * * * * * * *

Same Place As Before
Northern Territory, Australia

Jarod looked up to see Lauren lying with her eyes closed, shivering slightly, her jacket insufficient to keep out the freezing night air. Getting up, he picked up the blanket that had, at her insistence, been around him, and was about to put it over her when John stopped him. Without speaking, the Aborigine placed one hand flat on Jarod's chest and pointed to the spot on the ground beside her, taking the blanket from him. For a second Jarod hesitated, until the other man repeated the action with more vehemence, and then he nodded. Lying down beside her, his head on one arm and his other arm wrapping itself naturally around her, Jarod felt the blanket gently placed over them and raised his head to see the Aborigine go back to his seat beside the fire. Looking down, Jarod saw that, although Lauren hadn’t moved, he could feel, as he lowered his head and shut his eyes, that the shivering had stopped.

* * * * * * * * *

Several hours later Jarod opened his eyes to see the pink-flecked blue sky, signaling that the sun was only a short time from rising. Looking down, he saw that Lauren was still asleep and carefully lifted his arm, replacing the blanket as he stood up. The Aboriginal looked up from his seat beside the ashes and offered the billycan to him. With little more than a raised eyebrow Jarod took it and drank the leftover tea from the night before. The disgust on his face as Jarod extracted the bits of leaf from his mouth made John break into loud laughter and the sound woke Lauren, who sat up, taking a sip from her water bottle.

“Ugh, cold billy tea.”

Jarod grinned as he put the can down on the ground. “I’ve had worse.”

She glanced down at a pile of things that John was watching to make sure that they didn’t crawl away and grinned.

“Depending what you consider bad, you might be about to do so again.”

Jarod's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What are you talking about?”

Lauren bent over to pick up one of the insects and, with a wicked grin on her face, she held it out to him. As it wriggled in her grip, Jarod saw that it was white, six inches long and about five times as round as his thumb.

“Say g’day to brekkie.”

His jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. Witchetty grubs. Nature’s multi-vitamin pill.” She bit the head off the insect and sucked out the insides, chewing and swallowing, her eyes dancing with laughter. Jarod stared at her, a mix of horror and disgust on his face

“That was still alive!”

“Of course.” She licked her lips. “Tastes like chicken.”

John picked up one and, also grinning, offered it to Jarod, who quickly moved back half a dozen paces, raising his hands in refusal. “No thanks.”

“You don’t have any choice,” Lauren told him firmly. “I’m not having you collapse on me between here and wherever we find help. Eat it, Jarod. Doctor’s orders.”

Tentatively he took one, closed his eyes and bit into it, the look of disgust slowly leaving his face. “You’re right. It does taste like chicken. Very uncooked chicken.”

“Couldn’t be worse than barbequed grasshoppers.”

He looked sharply at her but she was eating another and Jarod felt it was easier to take a second wriggling insect and, eyes firmly closed, bite into it, than ask her how she knew.

* * * * * * * * *

Somewhere Else Again
Northern Territory, Australia

“John says we’ll definitely find that house he remembers tomorrow, probably some time in the late arvo - afternoon, that is. A few hours before sunset, anyway.”

“So we’ll back in civilization tomorrow night.”

Lauren grinned. “If you call hospital ‘civilization.'”

Jarod looked startled. “Hospital?”

“For observation, yes. Believe me, it’ll happen. We’ll have been exposed to the elements of three scorching days and freezing nights by then, as well as having not much food.” She looked over to see John pick up a stick and prod the strips of meat that were hanging over the fire. “Well, not as much as normal.”

“You know, weird as this may sound, I only wanted to see your native animals, not eat them.”

“Oh, come on. You’ve only had Witchetty grubs, kangaroo and now snake. Besides, you cuddled the koala. You didn’t take a bite out of it.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “I still want to know how John caught that snake.”

“Don’t ask. You might be tempted to try it and although I did bring the snakebite kit with us, I don’t want to have to use it. Not on you, at least.”

“Okay, so what’s for breakfast tomorrow?”

“Would m’sieur like to place his order now? What do you fancy, Jarod? Roast possum’s tail? Emu wing? Maybe that nice, tender koala steak I suggested when you were holding it? Or the greatest delicacy of all that tastes so bad even I won’t eat it - Bogong Moth?”

Jarod laughed. “I’ll wait and see what John manages to catch.”

“Actually,” Lauren grinned, “going by the way you’ve eaten things so far, you’ll be a lot more likely to wait and not see what John manages to catch.”

* * * * * * * * *

As the darkness increased, Jarod stared up into the sky, his back to the flames so he could look at the stars. Lauren sat beside him, gazing also.

“It’s kind of weird to realize that I can’t even see the constellations I know.”

“Just shows how far you are from home.” She smiled faintly. “Do you know the names of any on this side of the Equator?”

“Nope. Never learned them.” Jarod grinned. “The Centre never thought I’d see them.” He suddenly laughed. “Neither did I.”

Lauren pointed out the ones she could see and then lay down, one hand behind her head and the other still tucked into the sling.

“I really hope nobody told your dad. He’d have fifty fits if he knew about this, despite the fact that it’s done you good.”

He glanced down at her in slight surprise. “I guess it has, hasn’t it?”

She smiled. “Nothing like walking all day in peaceful surroundings to soothe a stressed mind, not to mention that fresh air and natural remedies are doing wonders for your withdrawal, even more than the things you brought with you.”

Jarod smiled. “I think I’ll miss it when we go back.”

“I know. I do, too. Sometimes, after visiting patients, Paul and I land somewhere, just for the heck of it, spending a night out in the open. Of course,” she laughed, “we usually plan ahead and have enough food with us. Tell you what, Jarod.” She looked at him with a smile. “We’ll do that before we leave the Top End. Deal?”

“Deal. I’m looking forward to it already.” Jarod grinned, teeth shining white in his tanned face, and lay beside her, both brown hands tucked behind his head. John said something too fast for Jarod to catch the words, in the dialect that he was already making stringent efforts to learn, and Lauren laughed. The eyes he turned on her demanded an explanation.

“What?”

“We’ve got a surprise for you tomorrow.”

“Really?” He rolled over onto his side and looked at her eagerly. “What?”

She rolled her eyes. “If I told you then it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it, you great nong?”

* * * * * * * * *

Washington Avenue,
Blue Cove, DE, USA

Sydney walked into his house and turned on the light in the living room to see a note lying on the table. Reading the few words it contained, he looked around.

“Major? It’s safe.”

The man walked out of the kitchen and Sydney was horrified by his appearance. “What? What is it? What’s happened?”

“Jarod and Lauren have disappeared.”

Charles finally looked up to meet the eye of the psychiatrist as Sydney took a step backward, the father’s face set in an effort to keep the emotion he felt from rising up and overwhelming him.

“It’s been forty-eight hours and no sign. The days are all above 110 degrees and both nights were below thirty-five. Steve said the rescue teams will give them another two days before they change the search and rescue to a search and retrieval.” He swallowed hard. “To bring back the bodies.”

* * * * * * * * *

Same Place As Before
Northern Territory, Australia

He could hear from her breathing that Lauren was asleep and Jarod rose to his feet, covering her with the survival blanket before doing up the zipper of his jacket as he walked thoughtfully out of the temporary campsite, several embers still glowing red in the makeshift fireplace. After checking the ground for anything venomous as John and Lauren had shown him, Jarod lay on his back and stared into the sky. Despite being hours since the sun had gone down, the hard, rocky ground still felt warm and Jarod closed his eyes momentarily, appreciating the peace and quiet.

He suddenly realized that he was enjoying the situation, not only at that moment but also the long days of walking that were behind them and the day still to come. A thought had occurred to him in the early hours of the day before and returned to his mind now that the trembling he had hated so much during his early days of the withdrawal had basically all but disappeared as had most of his other symptoms. Even being awake now wasn’t due to insomnia but rather the fact that he had a lot of things to think about. Gazing at the stars, he saw the shadow appear beside him and sat up.

“Scared.”

Jarod had had enough conversations with the man who sat down beside him, in both languages, to understand his short, almost Pidgin English and knew what he meant.

“I’m sorry, John. I never meant to scare you.”

“Thinking.”

“Precisely.”

“What?” The Aboriginal turned towards him, curiosity in his eyes. “Miss family?”

“Not exactly, although I am looking forward to seeing them again.” Jarod smiled. “I was actually thinking how much things can change in such a short time.”

“Good or bad?”

“Oh, good,” he assured the man before hesitating. “At least it is now. But I guess it got bad pretty fast too.”

“Looking forward to…” The man paused, struggling for the word he wanted and which didn’t exist in either his language or his English vocabulary. “To time after sun comes up again?”

“To the future? Yes, I think so.” Jarod smiled. “I wasn’t when I first arrived in Australia, but now I am.”

A short distance away, Lauren lay with her eyes closed, listening to the conversation that carried easily on the still, chilly air. She couldn’t prevent a satisfied smile from appearing on her face as she pulled the blanket closer around her and tried to go back to sleep.

* * * * * * * * *

Somewhere near water
Northern Territory, Australia

He looked into the blue water that constituted his surprise as they arrived at the billabong where they would wait through the hottest part of the day.

“Is it safe?”

Lauren looked up at him in admiration. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually got to the point where you ask before jumping in. But John says it is safe. No crocs, no water snakes, nothing.”

Jarod hesitated for a moment, raising an eyebrow. ”Uh, water snakes?”

“Well, swimming snakes then. Poisonous little buggers.” She unwrapped the bandage and placed it on the ground beside her dark blue trousers.

“You’re going in like that?”

“Yup.” She glanced down at her white shirt. “It’ll dry in no time flat.” Lauren waded into the water and ducked under the surface. Jarod quickly followed, glancing over his shoulder as John dived in neatly after them.

“Don’t do too much swimming, Jarod. We’ve still got several hours to walk before we get to help and I’m not carrying you.”

He glanced at her. “I keep forgetting we’re even lost.”

She grinned. “To tell you the truth so do I but we are, despite having John to look after us.” She made several careful strokes over to a rock that sat on the edge of the body of water and gently eased herself up onto it, looking through the trees that protected them from the sun to the clear blue sky above.

* * * * * * * * *

Station BZ 23
Northern Territory, Australia

“Station Bravo Zulu 23 to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.”

“This is Katherine. Go ahead Bravo Zulu 23. Over.”

“Aw, gee, Joel. I didn’t know we’d been gone for so long that you’d forgotten my voice already. Over.”

There was a moment of silence and the man’s voice was almost a whisper as he replied.

“Lauren? Is that you?”

“Sure is. Over.”

“Are you both okay? Over.”

“We’re fine - nothing that a good meal, a night’s sleep in a real bed and a few bandages won’t fix. Over.”

“Who’s injured, Loz? Over.”

She handed the radio over to Jarod with a grin as they both heard the loud chatter of voices in the background that made Joel’s words almost inaudible. “Go ahead.”

“Lauren is, Joel, but it’s just a cut. Nothing life-threatening. Take your time getting here. Over.”

“Tango Lima Foxtrot’s on the way, Jarod. So where the heck’ve you two been anyway? Over.”

“Walkabout, Joel.” Jarod grinned, winking at Lauren. “Lauren was introducing me to a new aspect of Aussie life. Over and out.”

* * * * * * * * *

He watched a cloud sail overhead before looking over at Lauren, who was sitting in a chair on the veranda with her eyes closed.

“Hey, you awake?”

“Uh huh.” She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“Why didn’t John hang around?”

She looked down at the ground in front of the house before raising her eyes to his. “Some people around here don’t like Aboriginals and he thought, if he came with us, that the people here might have refused to help. FYI, it’s another four days walk from here to the next homestead. I looked at the map.”

“That seems pretty rough. The attitude, I mean, not the distance.”

“In a way, it is. But you need to understand that prejudice against ‘blackfellas’ is a huge problem across the entire country. For most people in the larger cities, like Melbourne or Sydney - and I mean the place not the person, so you don’t get confused - they aren’t an issue because people can ignore them. But for people out here, the most common contact they have with them is when they have too much to drink and smash shop-front windows or lie unconscious in the gutter. Lots of things white man done to the ‘black’ society has helped to break it down including the ‘Stolen Generation’ that you read about in the book your dad gave you.”

She sighed heavily.

“Most of those affected that way who didn’t commit suicide now drink alcohol and some reason it has greater effect on Aboriginals than on a white man. Lots of them have children and don’t look after them properly because their money goes on drink and then the parents can’t take care of them. This denies the kids a decent education and a future because, in one example, the School of the Air will only allow kids to participate if they have somebody to correct their work and most Aboriginal kids don’t.”

“Doesn’t that just make a vicious circle?”

“A very bad one, particularly when you consider that although some people have tried to break it, a popular view is that Aborigines bring the problems on themselves and don’t deserve anything. Of course, you can’t come outright and say it in this day and age, but the lack of assistance that any charities connected with the Aboriginal people get speaks for itself.”

She sighed again and shifted slightly, wincing as her arm began to throb. “But that’s only one of a number of problems in Australia, all of which urgently need help and most of which won’t get it.”

“Like what?”

“You name it. Drug addiction, alcoholism, youth suicide, crime rate, unemployment, lack of good education. And that’s where the problem of distance comes in. It’s very easy for people to ignore what isn’t directly on their doorstep and when the problem’s several days’ travel away that makes it very, very easy to ignore.”

“So what can you do?”

“Work in my own little part of the world and hope that one day I may make enough of a difference to prompt someone else to do the same.” Lauren sighed again, waving away a few flies and fixing her eyes on a silver dot that was approaching the house through the bright blue sky.

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Plane Over Station BZ 23
Northern Territory, Australia

“Lozenge, half of the planes of the RFDS have been out hunting for the pair of you over the past four days, not to mention the Westpac choppers and Search and Rescue.”

She glanced at Mark who sat beside her and tried to smile, slipping the hand of her good arm into his. “Did they find the chopper yet?”

“Still looking, although I’d expect them to locate it soon, now that we’ve got a smaller area to look in.”

As he spoke, Pete peeled away the bandage to reveal the leaves that had been secured over the wound after the swim before glancing up at her.

“You two had help?”

She grinned. “We did. Your son was very obliging, Pete.”

Jarod stared at her, mouth open, and a tube of cream that he had been applying to his arms lying forgotten on his knee. “That was his son?”

“Oh, I forgot to mention that?” Her grin became a little wicked. “Oops.”

Pete laughed as he began to clean the wound. “No, Jarod. He isn’t really my son. John’s dad died a couple of years ago and, as I was helping Lauren to look after his mother, I kind of adopted him. He comes by when he’s in the area.” The man looked up. “How was he?”

“Great. He looked really well.” Lauren inhaled sharply as the wound began to bleed. “He said he’d drop in some time during the next week for a visit.”

“Well, you won’t see him.” Mark told his sister firmly. “You two are coming back to Melbourne for some R and R.”

“No, we aren’t.” Lauren spoke equally firmly. “We’ll come back when we said we would and not before.”

“But, Loz…”

“But nothing, Mark. I’m not giving Pete more of an organizational nightmare than I have already. Paul will be back permanently from Broken Hill on Monday,” Lauren cast a grin at the man who was flying the plane as he smiled at her, “and I was meant to have a holiday from then anyway.” She eyed her older brother. “So you can go back home and tell Mum and Dad that I’m safe and I’ll see them soon.”

* * * * * * * * *

RFDS Office, Katherine
Northern Territory, Australia

Lauren put on the headphones and grinned at Jarod. “You ready?”

“Yup.”

“Hey, Loz?” The voice came clearly through the headphones.

“What’s up, Pete?”

“I wanted to ask - this week, could you avoid crashing my chopper, smearing it with blood, going missing for four days and making half the country hunt for the two of you?”

She laughed. “We’ll see what we can do, Mr. Boss, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it. See you in a few weeks. Say hi to the Melbournites for me. Goodbye, Jarod. Thanks again for all your help.”

“No worries, Pete. Bye.”

He grinned at Lauren as the plane rose into the clear blue sky and she laughed.

“Not a bad accent and all.”

Not replying to that, Jarod glanced at the two backpacks in the rear of the empty plane. “So where are we going?”

“We’ll land at the airstrip, get the horses they’re keeping for us and head out to Uluru for a couple of nights. Then we’ll go on to Melbourne.”

“On horseback?” He grinned and the dimples appeared in his cheeks.

“Tell you what.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, laughing. “You go on horseback. I’ll fly. When, several weeks or months later, you finally get in to Melbourne, drop by my house. I’ll be waiting.”

“I bet you will.” He settled back into his seat, the yoke firmly in his hands and a grin on his face. “I just bet you will.”

* * * * * * * * *

Lauren's Apartment, Melbourne
Victoria, Australia

Jarod looked from the pile of shirts and jeans on his bed to the black clothes he was about to put into the bag. Taking off the last tartan shirt, Jarod slipped on the black t-shirt that was lying at his right hand. He casually folded the garment and added it to the pile, placing his Akubra on top. With a regretful sigh, he packed his few belongings into the bag and did it up, putting it on the floor at his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, Jarod saw something whizzing through the air towards him and it was only instinct that allowed him to grab it.

“Good catch.”

He looked from Lauren in the doorway to the new Akubra in his hand. “What… is this for me?”

“Why else would I be throwing it at you, drongo?” Lauren grinned as she walked into the room. “I thought you might like a souvenir to take home.”

“Thanks.” He put it on immediately. “I’ll have to break it in.”

“Well, if you wear it like the one you’ve been wearing here, that shouldn’t take too long at all,” she responded, laughing. “Although it might make you stand out a bit.”

“Oh, and my tan isn’t going to do that either?” He grinned. “I’m going back to winter there, if you’ll remember, not summer.”

“That’s your choice. I’ve invited you to stay and the service would love to have you.”

“Tempting though the idea is, there’s a lot I have to do back there.”

“Well, maybe one day you can make your home here or something.”

“We’ll see.” He smiled. “There’s a few small things that have to be done first.”

She laughed. “You can always come back for a visit, you or any members of your family. Open door policy, you know.”

“Thanks.” He bent down to pick up his bag. “But, as I am going, it’s probably time for us to head off to the airport, huh?”

Lauren eyed him. “To catch what?”

“The aeroplane,” he recited obediently, grinning, with deliberate emphasis on the middle syllable.

“Very good,” she applauded, leading the way to the car. “I knew you could learn proper English if you tried.”

On to Epilogue

 
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