Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Rebecca Gibney as Lauren Taylor
Andrew Clarke as Bill Taylor
Judith McGraw as Peta Taylor
Brett Climo as Steve Taylor
William McInnes as Mark Taylor
Mandaway Yunupingu as Pete Tingay
Nikki Coghill as Susie
Matt Day as Joel
Gary Sweet as Bruce
Ben Tari as Dave Faraday
Nikki Webster as Henrietta Faraday
Ernie Dingo as John
Andrew McKaige as Man on Plane
David Wenham as Barman
Aaron Jeffery as Paul
Sydney walked slowly into his office, placing the notes he had written of his most recent session with each of the Seraphim caretakers on the desk. He hated what he was doing now, knowing that Jarod was only a few floors away, yet far beyond his reach. But then, it wouldnt have mattered if they had allowed him in. The Jarod in that room wasnt the man he had worked with and been proud of for so long.
Aurora had taken care of that.
Sitting down in the chair, the psychiatrist sank his head into his hands with a groan, briefly closing his eyes, trying to force from his mind the images that he had seen on the DSA that he had made the mistake of asking Broots to retrieve for him. Opening his eyes again Sydney stared at the fine wood grain of the desk, running his hand over the smooth surface.
Then he saw the note pushed under his blotter, only one corner of which was visible.
He looked around carefully before pulling it out. There were no surveillance cameras in his office, or so Miss Parker had assured him. But now he had to wonder, too, if Miss Parker was the same person he had thought she was for so long. Regardless, he pulled out the slip of paper and read through the sentences it contained, lowering the paper again to stare blankly at the surface of his desk once more.
Glancing at his watch, Sydney knew that he could consider himself finished for the day, and so, clearly, did the person who had left him the note. Standing, he pushed the paper into his pocket and then collected his things. Getting into the elevator, he resolutely put a finger on the button for SL-14.
His visit to the chemistry labs went unchallenged and took only a matter of minutes. It would take a lot longer to get to the post box in Maryland, but he did have all night.
Sydney found himself staring blankly at the steering wheel when he eventually got in the car. This action should have galvanized him with a sense of purpose. The items he had gathered and was going to leave at the post box identified by the spare key that had been taped onto the back of the note would at least be a start to help with the withdrawal.
There was just one small problem to be overcome first. Jarod's father had to trust him again. That was potentially risky enough in itself.
According to the note, Ethan had already made contact with Jarod's father and the clone whom he understood they had named Jordan. That probably meant they would be ready for what they needed to do, whenever Jarod got out of the Centre.
Always assuming that the Major would trust Ethan, and that was a problem in itself. But, as long as he did, they would be ready when Jarod was out.
And then there was another problem that Sydney hadnt reckoned on during his initial calculations -- the problem that Jarod wouldnt be willing to leave when the time came anyway.
Two comparatively small problems and one huge one.
Eyeing the glass test tubes for a moment, Sydney turned back to the road. He reached the phone booth specified on the note and went into it, still clutching the scrap of paper. For a few moments he stared at the mechanism before lifting the receiver, inserting the coins and dialing the number.
* * * * * * * * *
Have you got everything you need, Jarod?
I think so. Jarod looked at the bag he carried and shrugged. If not, Ill just have to do without, I guess.
You can buy things there. There was a glint of amusement in his fathers eye. Its not that much of a backwater.
Hey, I know nothing about it. Jarod's tone was resentful. Im only being sent there, remember?
Well, I bought this for you, so that you could do a little research on the plane. Charles pushed a book into his sons hand. Its great -- but I dont know how much you should believe.
Jarod glanced at the book. Bill Bryson. Down Under. He looked up and tried to smile. Thanks, Dad.
Jordan eyed the information board and then Jarod. Your flights just started to board.
He nodded. I should go.
Major Charles gave him a slip of paper. Thats the cell-phone number of the person whos meant to meet you in Melbourne and the other number is her parents if she doesnt answer. He hugged his son. Call us any time, okay?
I will, Dad. Jarod hugged Jordan. Dont worry about me. Ill be fine. Back before you know it.
Take your time. Enjoy the break.
Look after yourselves.
We will, son.
Jarod picked up the bag, looked once more at his family and walked through the doors.
* * * * * * * * *
It was dark on the airplane when Jarod opened his eyes, glancing around at the other passengers drowsily for a few moments before rousing fully and turning to lift the small plastic window shade beside him. Being night outside, it didnt make a lot of difference but provided enough illumination for him to consult his watch and learn that hed only had two hours sleep. Aurora had given him a chance to get some of the best sleep that he could remember; Jarod knew it would take time before his body could readjust to his earlier sleeping patterns. Particularly, he thought wryly, since it was supposed to be mid-day, rather than three oclock in the morning as it was at his destination. Knowing that more sleep was impossible, regardless of how tired he felt, he put a hand into his bag and took out the book his father had given him. Examining the cover, he eyed each of the objects on it, able to recognize some but staring in complete bewilderment at others. The big, red thing that sat in the middle was the most puzzling.
Jarod turned to the man in the seat next to him who had noticed the confused expression on his face. And that is?
Oh, youre a Yank. The man grinned. Know anything about geology?
Bits and pieces.
Its the worlds biggest monolith. The stranger gave a proud smile that spoke volumes for his patriotism. Also the worlds most photographed.
Why would anyone photograph a rock?
He shrugged, grinning. Because its there, I guess. Been Down Under before?
Down Under. Its another name for Australia, you know, where the planes intending to land. He laughed. If you were aiming for a different destination, its a little late for you to change your mind now, but you could go and ask the captain.
Jarod managed a faint grin in reply. No, thats where Im headed.
Probably lucky. Its a long way to swim back. So what will you be doing?
Just taking a break, he answered cautiously. Several people were worrying that I was working too hard.
I know the feeling, the other man replied. Well, youve certainly picked the best place on earth for it. Youll leave there a changed man.
That, Jarod responded solemnly, is most definitely the plan.
* * * * * * * * *
The door of the car opened and the man slid into the passenger seat, glancing over at the man who sat behind the wheel. The second figure spoke softly.
He got away okay. He wasnt too happy about it, but its important to get him out of here, at least for the next few weeks.
Sydney nodded. What did he take with him?
Enough of that drug to help him with the withdrawal symptoms for the next two weeks. If he stays longer, she knows the composition and she said that someone can make more up for her.
Hes getting over it. It wasnt easy for him and he had some bad hours while Jarod was initially recovering, but thats eased. Hes been better since the plane took off.
The psychiatrist looked somewhat amused. No matter how great the distance between them is, the connection they have wont be affected.
Except in his mind, Major Charles reminded the other man. And that makes a big difference.
Granted. Sydney stared thoughtfully through the windshield for a few moments and then turned to the other man. You will let me know how he gets on?
Dont you think hell contact you?
Not yet. Sydney's fingers drummed the steering wheel impatiently. Jarod wont want to get in touch with anyone from the Centre for the next week or two. The pull of Aurora is still too strong. Youre a much safer option. He knows you helped him to get over it.
And you were the one who supplied the necessary medication, or at least made it available for collection at the post box when we needed it.
It was Angelos suggestion and Jarod doesnt know I did it, the psychiatrist reminded him. Did he ?
He never asked and, as you suggested, I never offered the information. Charles eyes softened. Dont you think he ought to be told? He needs to know that you played a part in this too - a very important part.
For a moment Sydney was tempted, but then old habits reasserted themselves and he shook his head. No, its more important that he knows what you did, what all three of you did. We had our chance. Its time for him to build a future with his family. I cant teach him who he is. Not anymore. Its your turn now.
Slowly coming out through the doors he walked stiffly, his legs still not working properly as he had sat for almost the entire long flight.
The sound of his name made him start before looking around to see a woman standing a short distance away. Coming over to her, he nodded.
How did you know it was me?
She smiled, dimples appearing in her cheeks, as her green eyes looked him up and down.
Well, at a guess, because nobody else is wearing layers of black in the middle of a hot-spell and nobody else looks as white as a sheet. She produced a picture of him and grinned, her tanned skin providing a startling comparison to her white teeth. Oh yes, and because your dad sent me a photo.
She reached out a hand to take his bag but he shook his head and, as they began to walk toward the buildings exit, she returned the photograph to the pocket of her dress.
Did you check any luggage in for the flight?
No. I travel light.
The woman nodded and suddenly stopped. I just realized that I didnt introduce myself. She turned and stuck out her right hand. Im
Lauren Taylor. Dad told me about you.
She grinned again. Nothing bad, I hope.
When he stayed silent, Lauren glanced at him without speaking as they continued to walk toward the exit of the airport, surrounded on every side by the sound of passengers arriving and leaving. Laurens professional gaze noticed him flinch occasionally as a particularly loud or piercing noise made itself heard above the general racket.
By some miracle I managed to get a park near the entrance so well soon be out of this.
The doors opened and they stepped out of the air-conditioned building into air so hot that Jarod gasped.
Bit warm, isnt it?
She grinned as they entered the passage that divided the terminal from the car park. As they got to a machine that stood at the end, Lauren fed in the ticket and coins, taking the slip of paper as the machine spat it out, before leading the way to a cream-colored Land Rover parked nearby.
Luckily my air-conditioners good, but this summer looks like being a hot one. Again.
Jarod thankfully put down the bag and took off his coat, waiting beside the car for her to unlock it.
Hey, whos driving here? You or me?
Jarod looked up to meet her amused gaze and then down to find that he was standing next to the drivers door. With his face reddening slightly from a combination of heat and embarrassment, he walked around to the other side as Lauren unlocked the car and got in behind the wheel. Tossing his things into the back seat, Jarod climbed in beside her.
Gradually she eased out of the car park into the line of cars that were stopped at the traffic lights before glancing at him. Itll be a longish drive so Id suggest you either take out a book or try to catch up on the sleep you probably missed during the flight. She reached into the back seat and retrieved a plastic bag, giving it to him. If youre hungry, theres fruit and soft-drink in this, as well as water.
Pushing aside the feelings of nausea that even the mere mention of food caused him, Jarod put the bag down at his feet and then looked at her with mild curiosity.
How long is longish?
Even if we were just going to Melbourne, an hour. Thanks to the nightmare that the government is pleased to call a highway, its better than it was, but you made the mistake of catching a flight that landed in peak hour on Monday morning so itll be a bit lengthy.
If? I thought we were going to Melbourne. Jarod saw the grin on her face and the expression of vague curiosity returned to his eyes. What?
I just love the way you say it. Your accent - theyll die at the pub!
Hey, Im not the one with the accent, he objected faintly.
Oh, you are. On this side of the world, you most definitely are. She laughed and merged into the traffic, accelerating.
So, what did you mean by if?
I got a call from Dad after brekkie to say that Mum took a tumble and he wanted me to come and take a gander. I thought Id show you a typical Victorian country town and review your credentials at the same time.
Jarod thought through the parts of the sentences that had made no sense to him, which, he was forced to admit, had been most of it, and decided for the moment that it would be best to ignore them. So where are we going?
His face was blank.
Gippsland. Lauren paused. Eastern part of the state. Victoria. She laughed when there was no change to his expression. Jarod, do have a clue where you are?
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren glanced over to see that the motion of the car as well as the long flight had had an effect and he was asleep. With a sympathetic smile on her face, she turned on the radio, keeping the volume low and listening as the sports commentator began to get worked up about the match. At the same time she thought through the final conversation she had had with Sydney, almost half an hour before Jarod's plane had landed.
It would still be better if he wasnt told you know about the Centre, or if you cant avoid revealing the fact, exactly how much you do know. His desire for Aurora might mean hed physically force you to call them and tell them where he was.
Lauren lifted an eyebrow as she looked around the airport café, finally fixing her eyes on the flight information board. Do you really think hed go to such extremes, Sydney? Id had the idea Aurora would be making him more pliable, rather than more inflexible and demanding, or even potentially dangerous.
While he was under its influence, Id have agreed with that, the man replied in almost anguished tones. But the drug itself is completely out of his system. Its the cravings that control him now, and you know how strong cravings in an addict are.
Nodding slowly, Lauren could hear the pain in his voice as Sydney was forced to use the word addict.
Fine, Ill do my best to keep it a secret. But hell have to know I know something or hell wonder why hes being sent to someone so incompetent.
Hes staying with you because youre a friend of his fathers and the Major trusts you, he stated evenly. He doesnt need to be told more than that, unless you think its wise. Itll take time before hes back to his usual wariness of people who might have some connection to the Centre, largely because of what such people can offer him.
From what I heard, it was a struggle just to get him on the plane.
Hes scared, Lauren, the psychiatrist admitted. And fear isnt a thing Jarod is used to feeling. He wont know how to deal with it, at least for the first few days, and that means he wont know how to deal with you or anything else any new situations present him with. Then hell think back to how he felt under the influence of Aurora and itll all be even worse for him.
Sydney's voice was so full of a tender, affectionate pain as he finished speaking that Lauren was forced to swallow a lump in her throat before she replied.
Sydney, Im going to take care of him. I cant promise to send him back cured - we both know it may never be possible for that to happen - but if he isnt back to the Jarod you knew, hell be as close to it as I can get him. I promise.
Lauren glanced over at the sleeping man once or twice, knowing that the exhaustion was the only thing that had finally made his eyelids close. Jarod's sleep would be spasmodic and last for short periods, at least for the next few days, and so she made as little noise as possible to give him the rest he needed. Approaching a low bridge, Lauren glared at the white item tucked up behind the review mirror, knowing what would happen as they drove under it. A sudden, shrill beep made the man jump in his seat as he awoke, the panic evident in his eyes.
What was that?
The E-Tag. She reached up with one hand, pulling an item out of a clip on windshield and giving it to him. Its the way the group in charge of this stretch of road makes sure we arent all getting freebies.
Jarod turned the small gray and white object over in his hand. This reminds me of the things they use on the New York Thruway.
Lauren grinned. And I thought Aussies were the only people with so little taste anywhere except in their mouths that they could come up with something this weird.
She took it back, replacing it in time for it to emit another loud beep as they passed under another low bridge. Lauren turned off the slow-moving highway onto another, speeding up significantly, and put a hand out to increase the air-conditioner. Jarod watched her in silence for a few minutes before eventually deciding that, as long as he had to be here, he might as well know a little about what was planned for him.
So, want to tell me more about where were going?
Now or when we get back from visiting my parents?
Her hand reached down, about to turn off the radio, when Lauren hesitated. Jarod's voice was full of impatience.
The commentators voice was loud in the car. Its in the air. If Brett Lee moves, he could - Yes! Yes, hes out! What a marvelous catch! That was just so special! With superb bowling by Shane Warne, Darren Gangas been caught out on 99! You really just cant help but feel a little sorry for the poor guy
Oh, yes, you can! A grin on her face, she turned down the volume. Sorry, just had to hear that.
And that was?
A test match. His face was blank again. Cricket?
Jarod shook his head and she laughed again. I guess youve got even more to learn about us than you thought.
* * * * * * * * *
Itll take us about an hour and a half to get to Yarragon and then another twenty minutes or so before we get home.
Do you live in Melbourne?
Lauren rolled her eyes. Some of the time. Im divided between Katherine and the RFDS office in Melbourne, which is where Ive been for the past two months. Then, whenever I have a spare five seconds, I go home to visit my parents. It doesnt happen too often, by the way, so be ready for a reenactment of the fond reunion scene.
And when did your dad call?
After brekkie - breakfast, she clarified, grinning at him. Youve got a whole new vocabulary to learn here as well.
But I thought you people spoke English, Jarod protested mildly.
Would it matter if we didnt? She cast a sly look at him. Id ask how many languages you speak, but I dont think I want to know.
With a laugh, she looked back at the road as she explained.
We write, and for the most part speak, British English because Australia was a colony of England until the first year of the twentieth century. But over time weve created our own slang vocabulary that a lot of people, especially in country areas, use. Youll need to get the drift of at least some of it. Hope you like a challenge.
He leaned back against the seat, stretching and smiling slightly. Sounds good.
And, at the end of your time here, well send you back to your dad fitter than - Lauren stopped abruptly. You may want to call him to let him know you got here safely and that I didnt forget to pick you up.
She disconnected the phone from the car charger and gave it to him. Showing his eagerness for contact with somebody he knew, Jarod quickly dialed the number, his fingers rapping impatiently on his knee until it was answered.
Jarod? Is that you?
You got there okay?
Fine. You were right about the flight. It was long and unbelievably boring. The in-flight movies were awful. And I wont even start on the food.
And hows the weather?
Charles laughed. It can only be good for you.
Did you meet Lauren?
Yeah. She was waiting at the airport.
Can I talk to her?
Jarod held out the phone and she put her ear against it, keeping both her hands on the wheel. Id love to chat, Major, but Im driving right now. Ill call you when we get there.
He made an appalling attempt to imitate the Australian accent. No worries.
Hey! She laughed. Thats my line.
Just look after my son for me, okay?
I will. Well talk soon. Bye.
* * * * * * * * *
They had remained silent since the end of the phone call, Lauren having seen the emotion on her visitors face as Jarod watched the scenery fly by outside the car. Finally, however, she spoke.
Thats one relieved dad youve got there.
Hes been worrying about me.
I know. I could hear it in his voice.
Jarod remained silent for a moment as he wondered how much she really did know, but decided to change the subject rather than ask her.
So, how are we getting to Katherine? Driving?
Lauren stared at him for a second in stunned silence and then broke into peals of laughter, only stopping as she saw the hurt look on his face. Im sorry, Jarod, but Id love to see my dads face if I said we were going to just drive to Katherine. She tried not to laugh again.
Wed be on the road for days!
He nodded skeptically. Uh huh.
You dont believe me? Okay, Lauren tried to recall the information she had looked up earlier that morning. Youre asking me if were going to drive from the equivalent of somewhere in Florida - Tallahassee, say - to Harlem.
His eyes widened. New York?
Jarod choked. Montana?
Mmm hmm. Her eyes twinkled. So how long, Jarod? How long would it take to drive there over roads that make you feel like youre sitting in a blender?
Okay, I get your point.
Lauren grinned. If you think thats impressive wait until you see my office and, for the time being, yours too. Its the stuff dreams are made of!
He folded his arms and leaned back against his seat, looking over at her with an eyebrow raised. Youre not raising my expectations unnecessarily, are you?
She smiled. Not unless your expectations are way higher than Ive been led to believe.
Jarod stared through the windshield for several moments before turning to her again.
Do you know about what happened? Why Im here?
Lauren phrased her response carefully, Sydney's warnings ringing in her ears and unable to help casting a wary look at the large and still-powerful hands that lay idle in Jarod's lap.
Your dad filled me in on some of it. He mentioned the Centre in passing, but said he didnt want to go into details. Im not sure I want to know any more than I do already.
How did the two of you meet?
She smiled, relieved at the ease with which they had got through it.
My brother. Youll meet him when we get to Yarragon. Steve went to the States for his last year of university and loved it so much that he stayed for another three. His main obsessions always been flying and your dad was his instructor for a few months. I came to visit Steve and met your father just before he found you and then lost you again. The Major told me about that.
Does your brother still fly?
Constantly. And if the rest of his body isnt up in the air, his head is. Steve runs a flight school out near Mum and Dad and hires out planes for crop dusting.
As she finished speaking, there was a loud roar overhead. A plane appeared from behind a bank of trees and flew slightly ahead of them as they drove down the highway. Jarod followed it with his eyes as Lauren laughed.
Thats probably him now.
She pulled the car into the emergency lane on the left and turned off the ignition. Immediately the plane raced ahead, only to turn and head back towards them. Lauren reached over and picked up the receiver that was attached to the two-way radio in her car.
Alpha Romeo to Victor Charlie. Steve, what are you playing at?
Hey, Loz! I thought it was you.
Yeah, a whole lot of Land Rovers around here have great big black letters A and R whacked on their tops. She laughed. Did you want something?
Dad asked me to find out how far away you were, so I thought Id do a fly-over. Is the Yank there too?
What did you think Id do - abandon him at Tulla? Lauren laughed. So what does Dad want?
Asked you to do some shopping before you arrived. Theyre out of milk.
She snorted. Oh, youre funny, Steve. Regular laugh riot.
Okay, okay. He said for you to buy the things the two of you want before you arrived so that you wont have to go out again tonight. I think he wants a hand while Mums out of action.
And I guess youre slacking off, as usual.
Hey, Im busy!
Like Im not. She laughed. Okay, well see you whenever you actually decide to show your face at home - but be warned. I might pick up fish and chips later.
I know. Lauren laughed. Thanks, Victor Charlie. Over and out.
As she restarted the car Lauren looked over at Jarod. In case you didnt pick up on it, my brother landed you with a nickname. Get used to it.
And what did he call you?
Loz. Short for Lauren. Thats what most people call me. You can too, if you want. There arent many people around here who dont get their names cut down somehow, although my Mum still calls people by their full name.
And how did you know that he was kidding about why your dad called?
Lauren chuckled. My parents live on a dairy farm, Jarod. They can get all the milk they want by stepping outside the back door and grabbing a cow. Gippsland - the area were driving through now - is one of the major dairy producing areas in Victoria. She grinned. I hope youre ready to help with the milking. Mums really out of action, by the sounds of things.
You dont know?
All that my Dad said was that it wasnt too serious, but he wanted me to take a gander - I mean, look at it. I dont even know what shes done, apart from falling off her horse.
Suddenly she laughed.
Oh God, Im really bad at this - I havent even told you my parents names yet. Mums name is Peta and my Dads Bill. Theyll be highly offended if you call them anything else, especially Mr. and Mrs. Taylor.
And we have to go shopping first?
Yup. Well go to the supermarket at Warragul. Although, if you want, I can go in and leave you to sleep a bit more.
How much longer until we get there?
She glanced down at the clock. Add in shopping time, about half an hour.
I can wait.
Thinking over the things she had said on the radio, he glanced at her again, feeling curious in spite of himself.
Why does your car have letters on the roof?
Safety. If anything happened and we got lost or broke down - in the bush or anywhere else - itd be easier to see black letters in greenery or dirt than just white that reflects the light back into the eyes of the person whos searching.
He nodded in agreement. Is that such a big problem? Getting lost, I mean.
It depends. If the driver is the kind of moron who heads off without planning it properly or telling anyone where hes going, its a real necessity.
And whats Tulla?
Tullamarine Airport - where you landed. She grinned. Were the movies really so bad on board or were you just upholding the cliché to your dad?
I dont know, Jarod replied honestly. I didnt see them.
He stared out through the windscreen at the green landscape. Yeah, something like that.
She looked at him sharply, glimpsing the shadows under his eyes and the lines around his mouth as well as the beads of sweat glistening on his face despite the air-conditioning and finally noting that his hands had also started to tremble, although he was fighting to control them. Laurens lips thinned slightly as she turned back to concentrate on the road.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren shut the door of the four wheel drive and put up one hand to protect herself from the two small dogs that were leaping up to lick her face.
Patterson, Banjo, get down! Down! She grabbed one by the scruff of the neck and held it in front of her face, where it licked her nose. Bad dog. You know better than that. With a gentle shake, she put the Australian terrier down and, as she wiped her nose with a laugh, he, along with the other, ran around to sniff Jarod's feet. Dont worry, theyre harmless, unless you let them lick you to death.
Loz, is that you?
Sure is, Dad. She was caught up in the embrace of a man who had come out of a nearby shed and groaned as he squeezed her tightly. One day, I promise, those ribs will snap!
Not while I live and breathe.
You wont be the one having problems. She walked around to the passenger side of the car and he followed. Dad, this is Major Charles son. Jarod, this is my Dad.
The names Bill, the Yank. Its great to finally meet you. My son hasnt been able to stop talking about your father since he got back from the States.
As Jarod somewhat limply returned the handshake, Lauren opened the back of the car to take out the plastic shopping bags, but her father stopped her.
Ill get those. You go and say hi to your mother.
Whats she done? The doctor reached into the back of her car and took out a large, flat case.
At best guess, badly sprained wrist and ankle.
You mean you didnt even take her in to Warragul to have it x-rayed?
What do we need to hang around that hole for when we have you? Why else did we pay to put you through so many years of uni? Besides, its Monday and with a weekend of no x-rays it would be a nightmare around there this morning.
She rolled her eyes and then turned to the visitor. Jarod, come with me. Ill show you your room and introduce you to my mother all at one go.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod was glad to feel the dramatic drop in temperature as they walked into the house, seeing the large air-conditioner on the wall. Sitting in a chair underneath it, one foot up on a footstool and her left arm resting in a sling, was an older woman dressed in denim slacks and a blue shirt. Lauren went over and kissed her cheek.
Cant stay out of trouble, can you Mum?
Hi sweetie. Hey, any excuse to get you here that gets you here
Even if it has to be painful? Kneeling down, Lauren eased off her mothers shoe and felt the joint before looking up and trying not to grin. Oops.
I should hope so. The woman looked up at the stranger. This must be Jarod. My names Peta, Jarod, and I have the misfortune to be the mother of this rude creature.
Hi, Peta. Its nice to meet you. He shook the uninjured hand that she cheerfully held out to him.
Glad to have you here. Steves been thrilled at the thought of meeting the son of the man that he looks up to so much, and its always great to have a new face around the place. Not to mention a new accent.
And lets not forget the new doctor, Lauren added. The service can do with it even if it is just for a while. And speaking of which, she looked up at him. I know youre pretty jet-lagged but want to make a snap diagnosis?
Her mother looked up, trying to conceal a smile. I could think of more a appropriate word under the circumstances, Lauren.
Oh, I dont know. Snap might fit pretty well. She laughed and looked down. Well?
Jarod glanced up from where he had reluctantly knelt beside the footstool, waiting until the doctor lifted an eyebrow at his hesitation before slowly replying. I agree with your dad. Sprained.
Lauren nodded. I agree on the ankle. She picked up her mothers hand and gently felt it. Okay, diagnosis upheld. Thats your first test come through with flying colors. She grinned. No pun intended.
Jarod looked bemused as Peta groaned. They just get worse, dont they?
Lauren laughed. Now its obvious how long its been since you were in a room with Paul.
Well, whose faults that? I wouldnt mind seeing him occasionally too, you know.
Okay, okay. Lauren rolled her eyes. Ill see what I can do.
Peta grinned and then glanced over at the silent man. Make sure you do. But for now, take Jarod up to his room before he falls asleep at your feet, will you?
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 havent examined your son and I had no intention to. Ill 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 theres 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 youve told me Jarod doesnt know hes here as my patient and I dont somehow think that hed be thrilled to find out. As far as he knows, hes here to get away from the usual stresses, maybe get some color and thats 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 hes 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, wouldnt have helped much either. But with all the information Ive received from you and Sydney about Aurora, Ive at least got a starting point and well 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 brothers 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.
Youre 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 were 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. Hes 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?
Wouldnt say no.
Kill for one.
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 wont 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 Ill 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. Youll have a nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade.
Youll get a nice, refined, ladylike glass of lemonade all over your great noggin if youre 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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-pilots 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? Were 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 boys 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. Its 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. Hes getting better, the man thought to himself as he stood beside the bed and eyed the fading shadows under Jordans 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 wasnt only the detoxification that hed 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 couldnt 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 psychiatrists interest in the project hadnt 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 didnt 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 hed 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 youre 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. Youre going to need to wear something other than black or youll bake in this heat.
Its Marks. He said you can wear whatever of his you want, and I hope you do want because I certainly dont want to work with an American undertaker under the guise of a doctor. Youll get the uniform, of course - white shirt and dark blue trousers and jacket - but youll need some off-duty clothes too.
Jarod peeled off the t-shirt hed 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.
Youll need Blundstones, too. You cant 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.
Well 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. Its only 28 degrees right now, though. It was a lot hotter when you arrived.
She caught sight of his expression and laughed. I forgot, youre such a strange mob over there that you still calculate temperature in Fahrenheit. Youll have to do the conversions yourself, Im 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 hadnt 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. Itll 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 summers coming on this side of the world, dont 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 Dads 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 horses 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 well be quite a while, Steve. Ill 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.
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 couldnt 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 wont go too fast at the start, but youll need to be more used to it by the time we come back. Its seven kays - kilometers - from here to the shop and if dinners cold, well be cursed.
His stomach twisted again at the thought of food but as hed 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.
She laughed and slowed the horse down. Okay, well walk until you get used to it. Im guessing you havent ridden a lot, or at least not for a long time.
And Im guessing you have.
Since I could walk. With the property being the size it is, weve 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 hadnt been able to work it out himself.
Youll have to get used to riding. Its a bit of a necessity, especially in our work.
And what is that, exactly? You still havent told me yet. All Ive heard so far are a whole bunch of initials.
She looked up. Ill tell you but first I need to ask you a few things.
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 arent 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. Youre custom-made!
The RFDS, which stands for Royal Flying Doctor Service. Theyre 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 isnt an official base, though. If the main office in Alice Springs gets a call thats too far for them, or theyre 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 were funded by donations, contributions and government grants.
He glanced over to see the satisfied smile on her face. You love your work, dont you?
Yes, I do. And once youve met a few of the mad creatures that we help and done a bit of helping yourself, I guarantee youll 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.
Whats School of the Air?
Very much what it sounds like. Its an offshoot of the RFDS meaning that they use the same idea and equipment, but wasnt 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 its widespread?
Lauren laughed. Everything in Australia is widespread, Jarod. But yes its 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. Its probably grown by now.
He paused. And you work alone?
Never. She shook her head definitively. Its far too dangerous. I have a regular partner but hes in Broken Hill now, at the hospital there. The directors sick and Paul volunteered to substitute for him. Thats one of the reasons youre here. Well be working together, flying around from place to place and treating people. Thats 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 guests horse following. Grinning over her shoulder, Lauren clapped her heels to Matildas 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 animals neck as it began to pick up speed. When Billabong did the same thing, the man on the horses 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 didnt 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.
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 didnt mean he had to like anything that wasnt 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 twod 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. Id just like the chance to see my big brother once in a blue moon, thats 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 havent seen any until youve seen them in the Top End and at Uluru.
Somebody mentioned that to me. Its pretty good?
Its spectacular. I can never get sick of the sight and Ive flown over it, walked around it, climbed it and slept beside it.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod lay on the bed without bothering to turn it back. He had the feeling that he wouldnt be able to sleep a lot, if at all, so there didnt 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 hed 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. Hed mentally made up a tentative withdrawal program and knew hed 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 hed 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 didnt wake you. Lauren closed the door behind her and sat in a chair opposite him as he shook his head.
Ive never been a big sleeper.
These might help. She held out a box of tablets. Theres 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, youll get over jet-lag quicker.
He nodded silently and she eyed him before speaking again.
Jarod, youve 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 youll 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 youre up to that. Its not easy, as you know, and theres 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. Ive got a few days before I have to report - Thursday to be exact - so provided you tell me before Wednesday night, thats 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 wed go and give one of our neighbors a hand with the shearing.
He nodded without really understanding, but didnt have enough energy to bother asking exactly what she meant. Will that take all day?
Probably not. If its still hot, well go for a dip in the creek in the evening. Otherwise Id guess that some time not doing much will probably be the best thing for both of us. Lauren hid a yawn. Ive been working flat-out for the past few months and Im looking forward to a lazy couple of days. Im probably going to be a pretty unexciting hostess.
I think I can cope. He smiled faintly. Dad would probably say its good for me.
She eyed his pale face. He might be right.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
Howre you feeling, son?
Better. The boy smiled as he got himself a bowl of cereal, adding milk from the jug on the table. After hed eaten several mouthfuls, Jordan looked up at the man. What are we doing today?
Well, the next load wont be ready until tomorrow so weve 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? Im 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 mans waist as they roared away from the hangar.
As the two arrived on horseback, they saw a small boy of about four years of age run out of the house, dancing excitedly around them as they dismounted.
Hi, Shorty. She hugged the boy. Wheres your dad?
Top paddock. He was hoping youd come because he wants help rounding up the second flock. Can you go up there now?
No worries. Lauren swung back into the saddle, waiting until Jarod did the same, and pulled the boy up in front of her. Ready?
Wheeling the horse around, she urged it into a gallop, glancing over her shoulder to be sure that Jarod was managing and grinning as she saw how comfortable he was. As they came close to a moving mass on the hillside she waited until he came alongside before handing the boy to him.
This is always fun. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
Nodding, Jarod reined in the horse and watched Lauren gallop over to where a number of people were keeping the sheep in a group and constantly moving down to where he could faintly spot a collection of buildings. The boy scrambled off the horse to stand on the fencepost, a wide grin on his face as he yelled encouraging things to those doing the rounding up. Keeping an eye on their actions, Jarod very quickly realized how much skill it took just to keep the sheep under control.
It looks great, doesnt it?
He turned to find the boy watching him and nodded. It sure does.
Its even more fun in the shearing shed - all the noise and wool flying all over the place and the sheep crying because theyre cold
Jarod raised an eyebrow at the last point and the boy laughed. Thats what Dad told me it was; after the wools taken off the sheep, theyre cold and they cry cause they want it back.
So thats shearing, huh?
Yup. But they have to get them down there first, and sheep are dumb, so, if they get the leaders moving in the right direction, the others do too. He nodded at the animals that were beginning to pass them, heading downhill. Youll see the leaders. Theyre the ones that try to go against what Dad and the others want them to do.
A perfect metaphor for the Centre, Jarod couldnt help thinking. It might provide me with a useful present for Cox when I get back, if I can be bothered with that game again.
Keeping an eye on the sheep it was quickly obvious that the boy had been right. Suddenly one of the animals broke away from the others, running towards them. Without stopping to consider, he let Billabong break into a fast canter, directing the horse as he had seen the others do, and headed off the panic-stricken animal before it could get away. Lauren was quickly beside him and they forced the animal to join the rest of the flock.
Good work, the Yank, a voice called out from among the other riders and Jarod looked over to see Steve grinning at him. Your dad never mentioned that youd done this sort of work before."
Im a fast learner, Jarod smiled. And I never liked sitting on the sidelines that much.
So it would seem. Lauren looked at him out of the corner of her eye, pleased to see the livelier expression on his face. As youre such an expert, maybe we can leave the whole lot to you and be down there waiting.
You could be waiting a while, Mark put in from her other side as they moved the animals further downhill. And he is only a beginner. Lets cut the poor Yank some slack, at least for now.
Laughing, the group continued to direct the animals down towards the shed from where, as they approached, Jarod could hear the sounds of which the boy had given him such an enthusiastic description. Driving the flock into a waiting paddock and firmly closing the gate behind them, the group dismounted and leaned on the fence to watch the animals run around in confusion. Hearing the sounds of panting, they all turned to see the boy running up to them.
You left me there, he said accusingly to Jarod and the others burst into loud laughter.
He was helping, Shorty, Steve teased, picking up the boy and scrubbing his hair with a fist. If youre going to be mean to our Yank, well suggest they shear you as well as the sheep.
* * * * * * * * *
Feeling up to a walk?
Sure. Jarod got up from his seat on the veranda. This morning wasnt that bad.
She grinned. You know, it must be kind of nice to be able to just watch people work and then just do it all so expertly.
In a way, it is. He shrugged. But at the same time there are down sides.
As there are in everything, she reminded him. As much as I love my job, I do still find parts of it that I dont like.
I guess thats true, he commented. But I havent really been thinking about that lately.
No, I can imagine. She looked at him curiously. Why do you help people the way you do?
Jarod shrugged. It was just something I always enjoyed doing.
Laurens eyebrows rose into her bangs at the use of the past tense but as her eyes were fixed on the ground they were coving, Jarod didnt notice and continued.
I liked the way it felt when I could look at a situation and know that, because of a part I played, it was that much better.
Do you honestly expect that to change? The question was softly put. Should the things youve recently gone through make any difference?
Im not sure, he replied hesitantly. Id like to think they wont, but right now I dont know if Ill ever get back to that point again.
For a moment Lauren considered not asking the next obvious question, but felt it too important to ignore. Have you changed as a person, Jarod, or is it Aurora thats done all the changing?
He stopped in his tracks and stared at her. How did you ?
I told you I know some of what you went through. How else, Lauren asked, her lips curling into a smile, would I have known what to offer last night?
Jarod accepted this with a nod and thought over what shed said. You may be right about Aurora doing the changing. I dont think Ive changed, not all that much anyway.
So theres no reason for you not to get back to that stage.
No, he agreed with a small smile. I guess there isnt.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren fired the engines and glanced at her co-pilot, the pre-dawn dark outside giving no hint of coming daylight Ready to go?
She nodded and the plane began to move along the runway. Once airborne and level, she turned to him.
Want to fly?
He smiled faintly. If you can trust me with your life.
Her voice became serious. I know you were only kidding, Jarod, but Ill make this point now so you can understand what youre getting yourself into. This country is the harshest in the world. Australia has the most venomous creepy-crawlies anywhere and out where well be working the days are baking hot while the nights drop below zero regularly. If, in a worst-case scenario, we had to make a crash-landing in those conditions then youd be trusting me with your life and Id be trusting you with mine.
Jarod remained silent as the enormity of what he was undertaking struck him. Looking at Lauren, he saw that she was watching him.
I know that its kind of overwhelming, but out there, its the difference between not knowing and knowing that could save your life.
Jarod nodded. I understand.
She raised an eyebrow. Well, Im glad you think you do, but I think you should wait and see it before making sweeping generalizations like that.
* * * * * * * * *
Many hours later, with the sky shimmering around them and giving a promise of the heat outside, she reluctantly shook him.
Jarod, wake up. Were going to be landing soon.
He muttered inaudibly, turning his head away, and Lauren couldnt help grinning as she leaned over.
As the words were yelled in his ear, Jarod jumped, his eyelids flying open and his heart pounding as he straightened in his seat.
Okay, all right, Im awake. Geez.
Just checking. She laughed and handed him the headphones that had slipped off when he fell asleep. You might want to listen in. This is fun.
Jarod placed the black objects over his ears and settled back into his seat, staring out through the windshield.
Station Victor Tango 81, to confirm. You want five kilos of coffee, eight kilos of sugar and a new part for your gas stove.
An elderly voice came through. I havent had a cup of coffee in two weeks.
Jarod raised an eyebrow, looking over at Lauren. This isnt the RFDS channel, surely?
No, its not. A few years ago, a company got the idea that itd be good if they offered a shopping service in a similar way to the medical service. Its kind of like shopping on the net, except that its more secure.
He could hear the crackle of static as the channel was changed and then a more mundane sound of planes being directed for landing and take-off.
Thats the channel if were ever flying and need to land at the airport instead of the base. It does happen sometimes but Ill let you know if its necessary.
Again the channel changed so he could hear familiar medical terms being discussed. He glanced down at the radio and saw a red cover on one of the preprogrammed buttons before looking up at her.
So pushing that will get me onto RFDS?
Correct. Lauren grinned at him and waved a hand towards the endless blue expanse in front of them. So, what do you think of the office, Jarod?
He looked up, his eyes taking in the view. Amazing. Just amazing.
When there was a pause in communication, she activated the radio.
Tango Lima Foxtrot to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.
Loz! There was no mistaking the enthusiasm in the voice. Hows life in the big city? Over.
Tell you everything when I get in, Joel. Can I get clearance please? Over.
Sure thing. Youre right to land. Over.
Thanks, Katherine. Over and out.
Jarod smiled. Youre popular.
She laughed. Joel was on holiday when I left the base for Melbourne and he loves all the gossip from that office.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren brought the plane in to land and taxied into position, a short distance from where the white building with a big red cross painted on the roof gleamed in the sunshine.
You can leave your things with Susie - the receptionist - and well go to the flat - uh, apartment - later.
I was wondering about accommodation.
Ive got a spare room that Im offering you. Normally Paul uses it but, like I said earlier, hes off in Broken Hill right now and its not exactly convenient for him to commute there every day.
Why? Jarod glanced at her. How far is it?
In ideal conditions, about six or seven hours flying time.
His jaw dropped. No way.
Oh yes. And thats not very far at all, around here.
She opened the door and they walked into the substantially cooler building.
Loz! The petite woman ran around from the other side of the desk, her honey-colored hair flying around her face, and hugged the doctor. I was starting to think youd bolted with the plane.
Yeah, right. As if I would. Lauren turned. This is
Lauren grinned. Correct.
Hi, Jarod. My names Susie.
It is not. Its Susannah, a male voice corrected.
As the secretary laughingly pulled a face at this revelation, Jarod noticed a man standing in the doorway with a broad smile on his black face. Lauren walked over and hugged him. Hi, Pete. Hows life?
Better now my girls back. He turned to the American and held out one hand. You must be Dr. Shepherd. Im Pete Tingay. His grin widened and dark eyes twinkled. Im your boss.
Glad to meet you.
And this is Joel.
Jarod looked down at the young man who had come out of another office and offered his hand. Jarod.
Rolling his eyes, Jarod nodded and Lauren laughed. I said youd get stuck with it. Blame Steve. He called here a few days ago, after it was decided you were coming, and told everybody.
Are you guys going to go straight to the flat or do you want to hang around here for a few more hours until the shift changes?
I want to check on a couple of things here, if Jarod doesnt mind.
Jarod shrugged. Not at all.
He looked up as Susie came over and reached out to take his bag. Want me to look after it for you?
Thatd be good. Thanks.
Pete came over also. Let me do the honors of the base, Jarod. You might as well know where youre going.
* * * * * * * * *
Coming out of her bedroom after unpacking the things shed brought up from Melbourne, Lauren saw Jarod asleep on the sofa in front of the television. For a few moments she stood, looking at him, as her mind replayed a videoconference from almost a week earlier.
I got the email, Sydney, but Im not familiar with some of the drug components.
The psychiatrist looked serious. But you understand possible implications of combining some of them.
Some, yes. But just by looking at the chemical compounds, I cant fully appreciate the effect that it will have had on him.
The man sat back in his chair, looking thoughtfully at the screen as the moonlight illuminated his living room. How much can I trust you, Lauren?
Implicitly, Sydney. The second man spoke softly, his face wearing a worried expression. I trust her. I know you can too.
Sydney nodded and leaned forward, activating something on his computer, before sitting back in his chair. Lauren, Ive just sent you a file I had Broots retrieve for me. That will show you some of the impact that Auroras had.
Lauren started up the file to see a dark-haired man moving around a room and passively obeying the orders he was given as a woman stood behind him. As she saw the man struck by a heavy-set man in a black suit, the blow sending him to his knees, she flinched, but he stayed there until a second directive had him once more on his feet. She looked back at the two men.
I understand that hell have had a period of detox by the time he arrives.
Charles nodded, glancing over his shoulder before looking back at the screen. Yes, hes going through that now.
But, with some of the components, we would still expect withdrawal symptoms to continue after his arrival. Is that correct?
Without a doubt, due to the amounts that he was being given, Sydney told her.
She nodded thoughtfully. But you think those items on the list you sent me will be sufficient to combat those?
Lauren raised an eyebrow. Hopefully? She leaned in closer. Please, Sydney. I want to help Jarod, and to help you help him. What else arent you telling me?
Looking down, Lauren saw that Jarod's face was beaded with sweat, in spite of the air conditioner above his head, and that the muscles of his face were taut. For a moment, she watched his eyes flicker under closed lids before he began to shiver violently, rolling onto his side with a soft groan and curling up in such a way that it appeared he would fall off the sofa.
Softly she walked over to the other side of the room and opened a cupboard, pulling out a blanket that she put over him. In the bathroom, Lauren moistened a cloth and returned to the living room to wipe Jarods face with it, stroking the side of his head. As he gradually relaxed, without waking, Lauren stood up and returned the cloth to the bathroom before going into the kitchen.
She looked up ten minutes later from a salad she was mixing to see him standing in the doorway. Hungry?
Not really. He shrugged. Must be the heat.
Lauren nodded sympathetically. It can get a bit much. Ive sometimes felt that way just coming up from Melbourne and it was awful coming home from the States in December. Very cold winter to baking hot summer. Ugh. She shuddered with a grin and then looked up at the clock. Do you feel up to doing anything tonight or do you just want to crash?
He raised an eyebrow. To what?
She laughed. To go to bed. You can if you want. Just the flight up heres enough to wipe you out completely if youre already a little tired.
Do you mind?
Not at all. Ill leave some of this in the fridge if you feel hungry later on. Theres cold meat and cheese as well. Just help yourself.
No worries. She smiled. Sleep well.
Jarod lay in bed, his hands tucked in behind his head, staring at the ceiling and hating the thought that hed lied to her but not willing to admit the truth of how he was feeling. He knew that he could tell her what was wrong and shed probably be able to provide something that would help him, but he wasnt used to asking for help and a part of him rebelled against doing it now, even though he knew that it was probably necessary.
He wiped the perspiration off his face with his hand, feeling that the skin was tender to touch, and got up, looking at himself in the mirror. Well, he wasnt white anymore. In fact, he thought ruefully, but at the same time with slight amusement, a greater contrast between his former blanched look and the roasted appearance he now displayed probably wouldnt exist anywhere. Glancing down as he turned to go back to bed Jarod saw a tube of cream on the table and picked it up, unfolding the note that had been held around it with an elastic band.
Hurts, doesnt it? I suggest that tomorrow you put on sunscreen more regularly. In the meantime, this will help it fade to a less painful brown in a few days. Ingredients inside. Loz.
Smothering the urge to laugh, he pulled out the sheet of paper and quickly read through it before undoing the cap on the tube and applying a liberal amount of the cream to his face. A smile still on his face, Jarod got back into bed and rolled onto his side, closing his eyes.
An hour later Lauren opened the door of his room to find him lying in a similar position to the one he had occupied on the sofa. Quietly walking over, she put a bottle of water and another package of tablets on his bedside table, having seen that he had finished the earlier ones, before going to her own room and booting up her laptop. She emptied her glass and refilled it from the jug of iced tea beside her bed before the video call was finally answered.
Lauren? The man yawned and looked at his watch. Do you want me to tell you what time it is here?
I dont even want you to tell me where you are. She laughed. Can you get Sydney online for me too so I can talk to you both at once?
Ill do my best.
There was a pause of several moments before a second window opened on her computer.
Good morning, Sydney.
Yes, it is. He tried to hide a yawn.
Laurens eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement. Good or morning?
Morning. I dont know how anything this early could possibly be considered good.'
Major Charles laughed softly before becoming serious. How is he, Lauren?
The womans lips thinned. It seems that hes getting over the insomnia but, as we knew it would, thats leading to more problems.
Sydney looked concerned. Such as?
Tremors, cramps, nausea, loss of appetite; a standard list for withdrawal but with the addition of the nightmares and his desire for Aurora, particularly as theres nothing to take the edge of those cravings, such as a drug similar to Methadone -- not to mention his emotionally flat state, although that is gradually improving. Its all exacerbated somewhat, of course.
So what are you doing about it?
Giving him the medication we came up with, but there's not a lot more that can be done. I do know hes using the drug he created in 1968 as well. Lauren leaned back with a sigh. But apart from that theres nothing. As we know, the only cure for this is time. Hard work, distraction, and time.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod came out into the hangar to find Lauren checking over the machine in which theyd arrived the day before. Anything I can do to help?
Just the person I want. Come and learn about the parts of the plane.
He raised an eyebrow. Isnt that a little necessary before a person can fly?
Not unless youve always flown air ambulances, Lauren retorted with a grin.
Okay, good point.
Climbing the three stairs, Jarod stared around at the altered interior. Where was it all before?
Here at the base. We dont fly around with thousands of dollars worth of equipment when were not working in case the plane gets stolen or crashes or something.
Nodding, he looked around more closely. It looks like a large ambulance.
Thats a pretty accurate description, although most ambulances dont have kitchens in the back. She opened a door to reveal a space containing an urn and a tiny electric hotplate. Sometimes being able to provide coffee to a frantic parent is as important as providing medicine to an injured patient.
How many can you carry at once?
Maximum four patients and no passengers, two patients and four passengers, one patient and up to six passengers, or a neonatal unit and three passengers. But I have got away with more, although they were nearly all kids. She jumped out of the plane and he followed.
More patients or passengers?
Both. I was carrying four injured children, three uninjured and two teachers.
Jarods eyes widened with curiosity. What happened?
Fire at a school. It was a little crazy. Fun, though.
Ill bet. He leaned against the plane wall, his arms folded. What does Joel do? Is he a doctor as well?
Lauren looked up from filling the fuel tank. Yes he is, but he stays here and does all of the radio communication. Its tough for a guy in a wheelchair to fly around.
And what happened to him?
She grinned. He had polio.
Polio? He stared. Here?
Australias had a terrible time with polio and a lot of other diseases, particularly for the people out here who couldnt get medical attention so easily.
He nodded. Im beginning to realize that.
I thought you would - and also that it would take some time. She looked up as a figure could be seen at the window, waving at them. Well, lets find out where were headed.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod eyed Lauren as the plane leveled. So where are we going, exactly? And dont tell me the name again. It doesnt help. Describe the directions.
She grinned at his sharp tones. Were going to a small cattle station a few hours north of here.
Roughly two hundred head.
He raised an eyebrow. I dont count that as small.
For most people around here, thats a hobby farm. A number in the thousands is more common, especially when youve got a station the size of a country like, say, France.
She grinned, watching Jarod choke on the water he had just started to drink.
Hey, no dying on me. Youve got a job to do here, remember.
He laughed. And the patient?
She handed him a clipboard, to which was attached several sheets of paper. Its an old patient of mine, and I mean that literally. He lives with his daughter on their station and occasionally tries to do too much. The drugs he sometimes needs arent in the RFDS kit. On the unlikely chance that we bring him with us, Ill get you to fly back.
She grinned at him. Even without the accent, its obvious you arent Australian.
Most people here say no worries and not no problem.'
Whats the difference?
No problem means there isnt and itll get done, guaranteed. No worries means that it might get done whenever the person can find time and inclination.
He grinned. Ill stick with what I know. Thanks anyway.
* * * * * * * * *
Is it my imagination or is it hotter than it was when we arrived? Jarod wiped the sweat from his face and then replaced his hat, swinging up into the saddle of his horse.
Lauren laughed. No, it should actually be a little cooler. Evenings coming. The doctor mounted her horse. Thirsty?
I feel like theres a drought in my throat.
She unclipped the water bottle from her waist, tossing it to him. Sip it. If you gulp it, your thirst will only increase.
Jarod raised one eyebrow but did as he was told. The things you learn when youre thousands of miles from what you know.
She caught the bottle as he threw it back, replacing it on her hip. Ready?
They urged the horses into a canter and, almost half an hour later, returned to the small airfield at which the plane was waiting. When they were back in the air, Jarod turned to her.
Im starting to see why you like it so much.
She nodded with a smile. And it only gets better.
Tango Lima Foxtrot, come in. Over.
Lauren activated the radio. This is Tango Lima Foxtrot. Whats up Joel? Over.
Are you currently carrying a patient? Over.
Negative, Katherine. He was stable when we left. Over.
Good. Do you have fuel to get to Batchelor and then on to Darwin? Over.
Lauren glanced at the fuel gauge and then at a list on the wall. Affirmative, Katherine. Over.
Good. Youre wanted on station Charlie Delta 42. Over.
Joel is it Henri? Over.
There was a moment of silence. Yes, Loz. Her dad just called. Over.
Okay, Katherine. Were on the way. Over and out.
Damn! She stared out of the windshield in front of them for a moment. Handing over.
Taking over, Jarod responded automatically and placed both his hands on the yoke, his eyes running over the instruments as Lauren rose from her seat and walked to the back of the plane. Despite the closed door he could hear her take several deep breaths before she came back to her seat.
Im sorry, Jarod. Its just that sometimes this job bloody well stinks.
Its okay, he replied softly, not looking at her. I know the feeling.
Handing over. He removed his hands from the yoke. I hate to have to ask, but could you fill me in?
Lauren sighed deeply. Were going to see a little girl called Henrietta Faraday. Shes got juvenile diabetes. And if were being called in then shes a very sick girl indeed.
You know her well?
Yes, I know both she and her dad very well. Shes a gorgeous kid - youll love her. And as were taking her to Darwin youll get plenty of time to get to know her, provided shes conscious.
* * * * * * * * *
Hi, Dave. Lauren jumped out of the plane without lowering the stairs and Jarod did the same. How is she?
Bad, Dr. Taylor. You know that. The man looked up. Whos this?
Jarod Shepherd. Hes filling in while Paul works at a hospital near Broken Hill.
Im glad to meet you, Dr. Shepherd.
Jarod returned the greeting, seeing the sadness in the mans eyes and feeling immediately sorry for him. The three walked towards the house, in front of which Lauren had parked the plane. As they entered, a small girl on a sofa slowly raised her head, red curls lying limply on the pillow and pain evident on her face. Jarod glanced around the room and saw the official RFDS bag open on the floor.
Hi, Dr. Taylor.
Her voice was almost inaudible but Lauren forced a smile, walking over to kneel beside the child and reaching into the bag with practiced ease, pulling out the thermometer.
Couldnt go another month without seeing me, huh?
Okay, sweetie. Just relax and keep that under your tongue for me.
She picked up the girls wrist and rapidly timed her pulse before glancing up at Jarod and Dave. A small nod and the girls father left the room. She took the instrument from the girls mouth, looked at it, got up and walked over to her partner.
Get the bed ready in the plane, will you? Were definitely taking her with us today.
She held up the thermometer so he could read it and as Jarod's mind instantly did the conversion his lips pursed into a soundless whistle. 42.7 degrees Celsius - 109 degrees Fahrenheit. This was indeed a very sick little girl.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod, are you okay up here?
He glanced over his shoulder as she opened the door to the cockpit. Fine.
How much longer?
ETA, twenty minutes.
Lauren slipped into the seat beside him and he looked over as she put on the headphones and activated the radio.
Tango Lima Foxtrot to Darwin Base Hospital. Can you read me Darwin? Over.
Loud and clear, Tango Lima Foxtrot. Whats up, Lauren? Over.
Ive got Henrietta Faraday on board. Request an ambulance to meet us at the runway in ETA twenty minutes. Over.
Received, Tango Lima Foxtrot. Will do. Over and out.
She looked over at him and half-removed the headphones. If you dont mind, Ill land. Can you go back there and keep an eye on her?
Sure thing. Handing over.
Taking over. She glanced up. Thanks, Jarod.
He smiled and went through the doorway, softly shutting the door behind him.
* * * * * * * * *
They watched the ambulance pull away from beside the plane, lights and sirens alerting people to their hurry, and then Lauren sighed, turning to Jarod.
I dont know about you, but I could do with a drink. A big one. And weve still got some time while they refuel.
The two of them walked slowly toward the collection of buildings that made up Darwin Airport and Lauren led the way into the bar.
Well, if it isnt the Cough-Drop Deserter. What brings you into town?
Lauren sat down on a stool at the bar, grinning. You reckon, if I gave you a go, you might be able to guess for yourself, you great nong?
The barman grinned back at her and began pulling the beer. And youve even got yourself a new partner. Foreigner, too.
Jarod stared. How did you know?
The skin, the hair and the accent, mate. You work it out.
He laughed and put two brimming glasses on the bar in front of them, shooting the woman a look of mock-hurt as she pretended to offer him money, before going to the far end of the bar where a group of men were discussing the cricket that was being shown on a television in the corner.
Dont ask stupid questions, Cough-Drop, you drongo. We are, of course.
She laughed and continued to drink her beer.
He sipped at the lager, waiting for the same tastelessness he had experienced over the last few weeks every time he ate or drank something. Jarod was stunned, as the first mouthful of icy-cold beer slid down his throat, to find that he was actually getting the full flavor of the drink. Staring at the glass incredulously he enthusiastically took another sip, delighted to find that it wasnt a one-time thing. His action meant that he missed the look Lauren shot in his direction and the smile on her face as she realized what was happening. Eventually Jarod turned to her, another part of his mind still being exercised by what hed heard.
You going to explain that to me?
What, you couldnt work it all out for yourself? And I gave you such an extensive lesson in Strine, too. Oh thats right, you fell asleep in the middle of it. She grinned and drank a mouthful of the foaming ale.
In what? Over the rim of his glass, he stared at her.
Strine. Short for Australian Slang.
And what did he call you?
The Cough-Drop Deserter. My nickname being Loz, thats easily lengthened to Lozenge, which is what both Mark and Paul call me. Its not a very big step from lozenge to cough drop. And, as you know, I havent been around here for nearly two months, hence deserter. She grinned. As for you being foreign, despite the fact that youve been here for nearly a week, youre still pretty pale, at least by Top End standards.
Jarod glanced around the bar at the darkly tanned, dusty patrons and was forced to agree with her.
And whats a nong?
Lauren tried not to laugh and nearly choked. I love the way you say that! A nong is an idiot, a complete fool. One of our politicians said it in Parliament a few years ago and a lot of people picked it up. And a drongos the same. She looked from her nearly empty glass to his half-one. Get a move on. We want to get home before dark.
* * * * * * * * *
Hey, Loz, you nearly missed the snake man!
What?! She jumped down from the plane as Susie ran up. Bruce is here again?
Yup. Get a wriggle on. We told him you were coming. She turned and ran back to the building through the increasingly darkness as Lauren looked up.
Hurry up, Jarod. This is one person you have to see.
Raising an eyebrow, he jumped down after her. Did Susie say snake man?'
She did, Lauren called over her shoulder. Bruce is a lunatic - but a lot of fun!
He hurried behind her into the building, stopping short as he saw a man standing in the foyer with a snakes body, the diameter of which Jarod mentally calculated had to be at least five times the size of his wrist, draped around his neck.
Ive been waiting for you, Loz.
I should hope you would.
Jarod noticed that both spoke softly and he saw that Lauren was cradling a long snakes body in both hands as its head quietly began to investigate the inside of her shirt.
Hey, stop it, Beauty. That tickles. She looked over at Jarod, the hint of a smile on her face. Can you give me a hand?
Applause, yeah. But Im not putting so much as a finger anywhere near
Oh, come on, Jarod. Its a python. It wont bite you.
Not at all reassured, Jarod edged nervously closer, holding out both arms, onto which she slid the body of the fifteen-foot python before running her hand down its neck to retrieve the snakes head from almost under her arm.
She took it back and let the python drape itself over her shoulders in the same way that the larger snake was around Bruce as Jarod looked on, wide-eyed.
Does the Yank want to hold one?
Its fine. He raised both hands and took a step back. Ill just watch.
No, you wont, Lauren told him firmly. Your Dad told me to immerse you in the local culture and this is good immersion. She looked over at the other man. Bruce, give him the diamond python.
As the snake was draped over his arms, Jarod realized he had been too busy watching Lauren to properly feel the other reptile in his arms. He ran one hand along its body and was amazed to find that it was both cool and smooth, despite the scaly appearance of the skin. He now felt his earlier nervousness slowly being replaced by more familiar fascination at this new experience.
The snake man stood in front of him. Dont let it wrap itself completely around you or you could find yourself being a little too lovingly embraced, but otherwise just let it explore.
Jarod nodded, feeling as the snake ran its forked tongue over his hand and grinning at the ticklish sensation, still trying to relax as the body of the reptile moved around him. As he kept one eye on the direction in which the snakes head was traveling, Jarod recalled all of the information he had ever learned about this particular animal. As he became more used to the feel of the snake around him, Jarod looked up at the man who stood watching him.
Have you been doing this long?
Twenty-three years. I breed them to farm the venom that can be made into antivenin so doctors like you can help people who are either stupid or unlucky enough to get bitten.
And have you ever been bitten?
By pythons, a lot. That usually isnt a problem because their preferred method of killing their prey isnt to inject it with enough toxin deadly enough to kill several fully-grown men. They far prefer to squeeze it to death. Not that it doesnt hurt like buggery if they sink their teeth into you - you just know that you wont die as a result of it. Usually.
Bruce grinned in a way that Jarod couldnt help thinking was more than a little foolhardy.
I once got bitten by a western brown snake. Nasty little blighter. Hurt like the very devil, that one. Luckily I had a snakebite kit and a good friend handy.
He eyed the American somewhat severely.
And thats a good piece of advice. Those two things in that order are what will save your life if youre foolish enough to play with them.
* * * * * * * * *
You have weird friends.
Lauren grinned from her seat opposite as they sat enjoying their midday break in the coolness of her apartment the following day.
Bruce? I guess he is a little eccentric, but without him and other people like him, wed never have managed to develop the wide range of antivenins that weve got in Australia today. If it werent for that, hundreds more people would have died of snakebite. Since the mid-eighties, though, when antivenins first became available, not many have.
But how can you do that? He gave a mock shudder and she grinned.
The snakes we handled were ones hes had since they hatched. Theyre used to being touched, not that they dont get a little nasty sometimes. But Bruce brings them to schools and places like that to teach the kids about them.
And the parents dont mind?
Of course not. Out here, the kids have been living around snakes for their whole entire lives and a bit of knowledge can go a long way. About two years ago, one of my patients was a boy whod been bitten by a death adder. Hed have been dead by the time we arrived, except that he and his friend knew what to do about bandaging the site and keeping calm. Both boys told me that Bruce had shown them when he visited their school. Lauren gave a shrug, reaching over to pick up her glass As I said, a little knowledge is a useful thing to have.
But they wouldnt eat people?
Lauren grinned. Well, a python is able to eventually consume an object of up to 68 kilos - 150 pounds. She saw the alarm in his eyes and laughed. But they dont do it too often because of the energy required to swallow and digest something so large. Besides, Lauren looked him up and down, a teasing light in her eyes. You have got to weigh more than 68 kilos.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren put the plate down in front of him and took her seat opposite, watching Jarod eye the food that she had prepared for lunch.
At least have a bit.
I Im not all that hungry.
Just try it. Lauren picked up the salad servers to put some of the leafy green vegetables on her plate. You dont have to have much, but youve got to eat something.
Yes, Doctor, he muttered and she laughed.
If I hadnt detected the faintest notes of sarcasm in there, Id be pleased how easily persuadable you are.
Smiling faintly, he cut off a piece of cold roast chicken and put it into his mouth. His eyes widened slightly as, the way it had in the bar, the full flavor seemed to hit him, and his next mouthful was a lot more enthusiastic. Looking up, he saw Lauren watching him with a small smile on her face and the grin widened.
You knew, huh?
It was just a guess.
Uh huh. He nodded skeptically and she laughed.
If you dont believe me, why ask?
Without answering, he took up the salad servers and pointed to the crisp, green leaves.
Well, let us try some then.
She groaned, rolling her eyes. I thought I escaped from puns like that when Paul went to Broken Hill. Lauren watched him serve himself some of the salad and place several pieces of cheese on his plate. At least theres nothing you can say about that.
Jarod eyed the package from which squares of cheese had been cut, attempting to suppress his amusement. Gouda-ness me, I dont know, he replied as, his eyes twinkling, he glanced at her. Maybe I can come up with something.
* * * * * * * * *
Hey, Loz, you and the Yank coming to the barbie this evening?
Only if youre not cooking, Joel, Lauren teased from her desk as she wrote a report. I like snags, not sticks of charcoal.
Oh, thanks, he remarked, trying to sound offended. Just because we had to think about calling the fire brigade last time
Well both be there and Ill take over if it seems like theyre flaming a little bit too enthusiastically.
Ill bring the fire extinguisher, Susie joked from the doorway.
And Ill hook up the pump from the pool, Pete put in with a laugh. Just to be on the safe side of course.
Are we swimming?
No, Loz, were walking on the water, Joel commented drily. Its a skill weve all been working on while you were down south.
Just checking. She glanced at Jarod. You did bring bathers, right?
He raised an eyebrow questioningly and she quickly amended her sentence.
Swimming trunks of some description.
Good. She scribbled the last word on the report, pushing it aside. What time are we gathering there?
Six. Beer and snags provided. BYO everything else.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod could smell the cooking meat as they neared the house and looked over at Lauren. So thats a barbie, huh?
Thats right. She laughed. I should have bought you a Strine-American dictionary.
Oh, Im managing. He eyed the bags they were carrying. Is this sort of thing usual?
Very. A backyard barbie - barbeque - is a great Aussie tradition.
Jarod glanced at his watch. So if we were meeting at six, why is it now seven and were still not there?
Another Australian tradition, she laughed. Being fashionably late. And I bet we wont be the last people to arrive either.
Im still curious - whats a snag?'
Another name for a sausage, she told him with a grin. And that, wrapped in a bit of white bread and slathered with tomato sauce is probably as close as we get to a national dish in Australia.
Seems like a funny sort of dish.
Were a funny sort of country, she told him laughingly. But no funnier than you mob over there.
Thanks! He tried to look offended but eventually grinned. I guess that every country has its own quirks.
She looked at him in mock-surprise. How very deep and meaningful. Maybe you dont deserve to be pushed into the pool, the way we were planning to, after all.
Walking into the back garden, Jarod saw his boss standing in front of a large brick structure with a black metal sheet, on which were cooking sausages and hamburger patties. A large red bottle of what he assumed was ketchup stood to one side, as well as several bags of bread. Lauren led the way over to him.
Where should I stick the drinks?
In the Esky.
Pete nodded at a brightly colored plastic box and Jarod watched Lauren open the lid to put in the bottles among the ice cubes and water. As she finished, Susie looked over from where she sat at the table among a group of people that Jarod had been introduced to the day before.
Hey Loz, weve got the possible list of starters for the big one in November. Will you give us your deeply considered and presumably painfully accurate opinion on the winner for this year?
As the woman laughed and went to join them, Jarod walked over to where Joel sat by the edge of the pool and pulled up a seat beside the wheelchair.
Whats that about? He nodded over to where the group was pointing at a list on a sheet of paper and the younger man laughed, his brown eyes twinkling.
Ever heard of the Melbourne Cup?
Jarod half-smiled. Would it surprise you if I said no?'
No. Joel grinned. Its a horse-race held every first Tuesday in November, down south.
How did you guess? The man laughed. Exactly. If youre still around then, Im sure Lozll take you.
Ill see, he commented noncommittally. So youve got a list of horses already?
Not officially, but the Spring Racing Carnival started a couple of weeks ago and people generally work out wholl be running on the big day from that.
And why should Lauren know?
Joel laughed. Three years ago, they were doing that and she wandered over, put a finger on one of the names and said thats going to win.' Everybody just fell about laughing and then two weeks later
Exactly. Shes done it every year. Its freaky.
Maybe shes psychic, Jarod suggested with a smile.
Only about horses, Lauren remarked, coming up behind them and sitting down in front of Jarod so that her bare legs dangled in the water. Or maybe just that race.
About half an hour later, hearing a sudden shriek, Jarod turned from a discussion he was having with Susie about Australian versus American culture to see Lauren picked up from where she sat beside the pool. Grinning, he watched Pete pull off the womans sarong and, ignoring her shrieks and wriggling, he and the three others tossed her into the pool. The amusement in his eyes didnt go unnoticed by the woman sitting beside him.
This is a little different from what youre used to, huh?
It certainly seems more casual, Jarod responded carefully. I cant imagine anybody Ive worked for in the States inviting their workers to their house for dinner and tossing them in the pool.
He turned at the sound of his name to see Lauren with her arms resting on the terracotta tiles that surrounded the pool as water streamed from her hair. Are you coming in, or will you just sit there like a bump on a log?
He slipped off the footwear Lauren had lent him - bizarrely called thongs - and, peeling off his t-shirt, neatly dived over her head into the clear water. As he swam with powerful strokes along the bottom of the pool, Jarod couldnt help enjoying the feeling of quick, smooth motion.
Ladies and gentlemen, Joel pronounced loudly as Jarod broke the surface at the other end. We have an expert.
We still beat the living daylights out of them in general though, Susie commented from her seat, even if they do have a few good swimmers.
And so we should, Joel responded. I mean, any nation where the football players have to wear helmets He rolled his eyes and shook his head as if to suggest that the sentence wasnt even worth finishing and Jarod glanced at Lauren questioningly as she swam up beside him.
When we get back to Melbourne, she promised, Ill take you to a footy game.
He raised an eyebrow. Should I be scared or grateful?
Its contained mayhem, Pete remarked from his seat on the edge of the pool. And its more fun if you dont understand the rules than if you do.
Just because youve never tried to, Lauren responded quickly, her eyes full of laughter as she saw the group of men sneaking up behind the Aborigine. With a quick move, she grabbed Jarod's hand and pulled him away as, amid gales of laughter, their boss was pushed into the deep, blue water.
Katherine RFDS to Darwin Base Hospital. Come in Darwin. Over.
Jarod leaned against the doorframe of the office, his arms folded, as Lauren spoke on the radio.
Go ahead, Katherine. Over.
This is Dr. Taylor. I wanted to know the condition of patient Henrietta Faraday. Over.
Just a moment, Katherine. Over.
Lauren leaned forward, her fingers tapping impatiently on the table in front of her.
Are you there, Katherine? Over.
Yes, Darwin. Go ahead. Over.
Hi, Loz. Its Ruth. Henri had a good nights sleep and is improving by leaps and bounds, the way she generally does. Well be sending her home soon, within a few days anyway. Over.
Lauren grinned and sighed with relief. Thanks, Ruth. I really appreciate it. Over.
Hey, we appreciate everything you do for that kid, too. Now stop clogging up our radio. Over and out.
Lauren put down the radio with a laugh. Well, I guess Ive been told. She turned to Joel as he entered. Did you hear that?
I sure did. He grinned as he took his usual place at the desk. And its not many people who can tell you off!
Its so nice to have friends. She picked up a piece of paper from the desk. Is this from the folks at the Weather Bureau?
Yup. Latest forecast from 0800 this morning.
She scanned the words and symbols, her lips pursed. Wed better hope that front keeps going. I dont want to have to try flying through it.
In her office, she sat in the chair behind her desk, her eyes fixed blankly on a point about Jarod's head. He waved a hand and she blinked, laughing.
Sorry, miles away.
He smiled. Why do you calculate distance in kilometers but have a figure of speech in a non-metric calculation?
Do you know, she looked up at him in astonishment. I have no idea. Just one of those things, I guess. But now that you mention it, it is kind of weird. Her eyes brightened and she looked at her watch. What say we see if your Dads available?
Why not? Its ten now, so depending on exactly where they are, its should be about four oclock in the afternoon yesterday there. He might be online. She booted up her laptop, ensuring that the camera was firmly attached, and then got out of her seat so that Jarod could sit in it. Rapidly the program started and just as quickly a familiar figure appeared on the screen.
Hey, Dad. He grinned. Hows life?
Better now. The father looked anxiously at his son. Are you okay?
Im fine. Stop worrying about me. Jarod pushed back the hat that like everyone else he was now used to wearing indoors and allowed his father a glimpse of his tanned face. See? Told you.
The man nodded. Jordan wants to say hi.
Jarod waited until the boy appeared on screen and grinned at him. Howre you doing?
Im good but Im jealous.
Oh? Jarod raised an eyebrow. Why?
You look so relaxed!
Hey, the pretender protested, laughing. Im working!
Flying all day over one of the nicest places on earth. He glanced at Lauren out of the corner of his eye and watched her grin.
Thats not fair!
Jarod heard the sound of his fathers laughter in the background. Thats why I didnt tell you what he was going to be doing, Jordan. Charles reappeared on the screen. Is Lauren there?
Hi, Major. She moved into shot behind Jarod. Its good to see you again. And Jordan, its good to meet you. Jarod's told me a lot about you.
Jarod looked up. Im going to get a cup of coffee. Want one?
Commit murder for one. Strong, black and no sugar.
He shuddered, a look of disgust on his face. Youre the boss.
Lauren looked down at the screen as he left the room. Just a sec.
Major Charles nodded and she got up to shut the door. Coming back, she could see the look of concern in his eyes and hastened to ease it.
Sir, your son really is getting better!
Have there been any further problems with the withdrawal?
A few, but nothing huge - some tremors and a little nausea, but only when hes tired, as we both are at the end of the day. Im keeping a close eye on it, but I really think hed got over the worst by the first night up here, as I told you before. Hes also giving himself the drug you used during the detox session and it appears to be counteracting the withdrawal well.
He nodded slowly and she leaned forward.
Major, Im not going to keep secrets from you. Like I said a couple of days ago, lots of hard work and distraction are the best things for him right now. The work were doing, and the fact that only normal pressures are involved in it instead of his old trick of trying to bring someone to justice, are helping more than any magic pill or potion that I can make for him. You know as well as I do that most of the problem, once he got out of that place, was as much mental as physical. Hard work, fresh air and interaction with some of the crazier members of the Aussie population are the most likely things to heal that mind.
The tension began to leave Major Charles face. She continued.
When Jarod first arrived he was twitchy as a two-day-old lamb, and silent to boot. Now while hes still a little quieter than I imagine he may have been before, hes able to join in conversations and jokes as well as perform well the work hes here to do. Oh yes, and then, she added as she saw the door opening, theres that little habit of snake-handling hes picked up.
He - what?!
Jarod came back into shot and placed the coffee in front of Lauren who got up so that he could sit in front of the screen again with a laugh.
Its okay, Dad. That was just the one time. Looking back, though, it was kind of fun."
Lauren, I thought you were taking care of him for me!
They were only pythons, Major. And there were four doctors with kits chock full of antivenin, just in case.
Well, that makes me feel a lot better!
Laughing, Lauren swallowed the last of her coffee, looking up as Susie appeared in the doorway. She took the folder and glanced at Jarod who nodded before turning back to his father. Sorry, gotta go. Duty calls.
Major Charles smiled. Enjoy yourself, son.
I will, Dad. Thanks!
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren flipped through the pages in front of her, then reached down to pick up a map, unfolding it.
He glanced over and she placed a finger on the map. Heres our destination. Newcastle Waters. Youll get to see the effects of snakebite at close range. She shook her head, a look of disbelief on her face. God, some people are stupid.
Tennant Creek. Its the nearest hospital. Well refuel there and head back to Katherine.
She reached into the pocket behind his seat for two white kits. Opening the first, Lauren showed him that it held a number of small bottles, a few pipettes and a syringe. With a laugh she took out a small bundle that unfolded into a large sheet covered in small print.
Instructions for finding out what type of snake sank its fangs into you. Want to try and read it first time around in a panic?
Jarod grinned. Is it all necessary?
Vital. Luckily I know it all already and Ill teach you as we go along - unless you feel like speed-reading it now!
As he laughed and shook his head, she did up the first case and slipped it into her pocket. Pulling out the second, she flipped it open it to reveal a number of glass vials and several syringes.
This is a standard pack of antivenin. Theres doses here for every snake in Australia.
Surely some snakes are only located in certain areas.
Thats true. But, we never know where well get called to and, as you dont want to have to make state-specific kits, its easier to do this. Besides, the buggers do migrate.
He nodded and, half an hour later, the chopper began to make its descent.
* * * * * * * * *
Okay, now I get why knowing is such a good idea.
Lauren grinned as the helicopter took off. I bet you do. She snorted. We only wanted to make sure that it was dead. Great. Well, Im glad that they were able to be so easily convinced that it wasnt.
Jarod laughed. And will he be okay?
In a few days, yes. If wed been another 30 minutes he might have had some difficulties, but we werent. He wont be very comfortable for the next couple of hours, but thats his own stupid fault.
After a silence of several minutes, she reached forward and picked up the radio handset.
Tango Charlie Delta to the Bureau of Meteorology. Come in. Over.
Go ahead, Tango Charlie Delta. Over.
I just wanted to check on the condition of that front you notified Katherine RFDS of, at 0800 this morning. Over.
Its moved 100ks south, Tango Charlie Delta. But
There was a burst of static and Lauren raised her eyebrows.
Darwin, can you repeat that? Over.
The static continued.
Darwin, weve lost you. Can you still hear us? Over.
After another few minutes of static, she reached forward, pressing the red button. Tango Charlie Delta to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.
There was nothing but more static and Jarod looked over at her.
What is it?
At a guess, bad weather between us and there. We can set down and wait until it passes or keep going and try to get closer. She glanced through the window to the red-brown earth that seemed to stretch out endlessly below them.
How long could that last?
It could be anything from a few hours to a day or more especially at this time of year, coming into the rainy season.
And what do you want to do?
Lauren reached forward and tried several other combinations on the radio but heard nothing and then glanced at the dial showing the level in the fuel tank. Weve got enough fuel to get us closer but I was trying to fly straight back so we wont go over any towns between here and Katherine.
We can hope, but I doubt it.
Jarod watched out of the corner of his eye as she pulled out the map again and started to study it earnestly.
Nope, nothing. Nearest house is more than three hours away. Well head for it and hope to get a shelter of sorts there. If we set down here and now, we could be in all sorts of trouble.
Having handed over to Lauren, Jarod watched as the wind began to pick up strength. As a funnel of wind developed on the ground away to their right, he looked at the pilot.
Willy-willy. Miniature tornado.
She steered the helicopter away from it, keeping a firm eye on the direction they were flying. The sky had been clear and blue only moments earlier but was now amassing clouds to the west and that, Jarod noticed with a feeling of disquiet, was almost exactly the direction in which they were flying. A violent gust of wind swung the helicopters tail around so they were suddenly facing a different direction altogether, and he watched Lauren fight to control the machine that was now bucking as the wind strengthened.
Are you going to land?
Too dangerous, she replied shortly.
What? He looked around. How can it be?
Theres lots of hot up-draughts coming up from the ground due to the hot weather. With the cool down-draughts pushing us towards earth, wed get caught in-between when we tried to land and probably crash.
So we keep flying?
She focused her eyes on the ground, ignoring the compass as it spun in circles while the machine was tossed first one way and then another.
Im hoping to find a nice, soft ridge where there might be enough protection to enable us to put down.
Jarod raised an eyebrow. A nice, soft ridge? Out here? He looked through the windscreen.
She glanced at him out the corner of her eye and grinned. Start praying, Jarod.
* * * * * * * * *
This, Lauren remarked between gritted teeth, was not exactly what your Dad had in mind when he suggested a vacation.
Her eyes picked out a spot of shadow on the ground with a natural windbreak of trees and, in her mind, Lauren calculated their chance of survival. Not great, but better than if theyd had to land on open ground, as far as landing fairly safely went anyway. She decided to worry about what theyd do after that had happened once it had.
Were going to land there. She pointed and he looked down. I hope you dont get seasick.
Theres a first time for everything.
The helicopter began a slow descent, swinging like a pendulum from side to side as it was caught in an up-draught and then a down-draught. Jarod put up a hand, hanging on to the handle above the door, checking that his seatbelt was secure. As they sank lower in the direction of the ground the swinging increased until there were times that the machine was almost on its side.
Hold on. Nearly there.
Jarod glanced over in time to see her left arm torn from the jerking yoke and slam into the wall of the helicopter, blood beginning to pour from it immediately.
He realized that in the tension of the moment, she probably hadnt even felt it and looked down to see the ground only a short distance below them. As they had nearly reached it, a gust picked up the machine, lifted it twenty feet in the air and dumped it onto the red soil. There was a second of silence before she spoke and Laurens voice was calm.
What? Jarod stared at her in disbelief.
Get out now.
Without looking at him, she reached forward and began to flick the switches, undoing her seatbelt with her injured arm and ignoring the blood that was quickly reddening the floor of the helicopter.
Her voice was sharp but she still didnt look at him. Jarod, as your superior I order you out of this helicopter and at least fifty metres away from it. Now.
Although one part of him wanted to protest, another, larger part still appeared to be in the habit of instant obedience to which Aurora had brought him. Despite the anxiety he felt, Jarod undid his seatbelt, jumped out and, ducking to avoid the still-spinning rotors, ran a short distance away. He turned at once, his eyes fixed on the ruined machine.
Come on, come on.
He muttered the words under his breath and then sighed in relief as he saw her, clutching several packages under her arm, jump from the helicopter and run in his direction.
Are you okay, Jarod?
He pressed a hand on the cut, trying to stem the flow of blood. She handed him one of the cases she had been carrying and raised her arm into the air, supporting it with the other and ignoring the blood that instantly reddened the sleeve of her shirt.
Theres bandages in that.
Jarod flipped open the flat case and pulled out a roll of bandage that she took and pressed on the wound.
Theres another roll in there. Well need it too, but it should be fine without stitches.
Lauren glanced over her shoulder towards the mangled helicopter lying silently on the hot ground behind them, the rotors spinning lazily, and Jarod noticed the movement. He eyed her curiously.
What? What is it?
She turned to face him, a faint grin on her face. Jarod, I sure hope that you werent expecting to be home in time for dinner tonight.
* * * * * * * * *
Seeing Jarod take a sudden step back, Lauren looked up from trying to bandage her arm to see him staring past her to something that was obviously only visible over her shoulder. She turned quickly and then straightened up, smiling.
The Aborigine put down the spear and boomerang that had caused Jarods momentary feeling of concern and slipped out from between the towering eucalypts, reaching up to tear a branch off a nearby tree. He quickly stripped the leaves, crushing them between his hands, saying something in a language Jarod couldnt understand. Lauren nodded, gently easing off the wad of bandage, and allowed him to spread the green pulp over the injury. John then held it as she wound another broad strip of bandage around her arm, after which the Aboriginal, wearing a worried expression, nodded his head in Jarod's direction. Lauren responded in English.
Its all right, John. Hes a doctor with the service.
Nodding, the man fixed his eyes firmly on Jarod for a couple of seconds, his gaze intense. Finally he turned back, nodding again, before Lauren looked at her white companion.
Its okay, Jarod. This is definitely a friend. And he understands English so youll be able to talk to him.
What language did he speak?
Lauren laughed. You mean you didnt understand it? She saw the look of frustration on his face at her teasing and became serious. Its his tribal dialect. He can speak English, but not much.
And you can speak it?
Yes. His mother was very ill for months and I was her primary doctor for that time. It was easier to learn it.
And is he going to help us?
He sure is. She turned and said something to the man, who nodded. John says hell help us for as long as we need it.
She looked up to see the clouds increase and darken overhead. Her voice was quiet.
And I know that we do.
Jarod looked at her curiously. His name isnt really John, is it?
She smiled, settling her arm into a sling that Jarod gently put around her neck.
No, not by birth. But a lot of these people believe its bad luck, even a curse, for a white man to use or even know their tribal names. I dont think hes ever told me what it is.
The two of them began to walk slowly towards the helicopter and Jarod glanced at her.
What were you worried about, before?
That the petrol tank would go up and take us with it. But that danger should be over by this time. Lauren reached in through the open door and grabbed the radio receiver Mayday, mayday. This is Tango Charlie Delta of RFDS Katherine. Can anyone hear me? Over.
There was silence from the radio and she glared at it, picking up a small, hand-held device from under the seat. Static was all they could hear and, as she glanced at the clouds, Lauren frowned.
Well, we wont get help until all that clears, if then. The disturbance caused by the storm must be blocking the waves. This isnt very powerful and that, she nodded at the larger radio, must have been damaged in the crash. You can have a look at it if you want, but I doubt itll help. If theres a lot of electricity in the air - and I think there will be - then this, she waved the small radio, will be virtually useless. But were taking it with us, just in case.
So where are we?
She glanced around, hiding a smile. Australia.
Jarod raised an eyebrow and grinned. Great.
Still in the Top End, if that helps at all.
Not really. He became more serious. You mean you dont know?
How could I, Jarod? We must have been blown a long way off course. But at a guess, Id say we might be somewhere near the Barkly Tablelands, and thats a long way from where were meant to be. She pulled herself into the helicopter. Well need to get supplies for the next few days.
Lauren took her jacket from the back of the pilots seat and slid her uninjured arm into the sleeve, pulling it around her shoulders, before collecting various items from the back of the helicopter and putting them into a backpack.
Jarod took the bag from her. What are we going to do, Lauren?
She grinned at him. Well, youre about to get the chance to see one of the most beautiful things in this country - an outback storm.
What - here?
Of course. Johns making us a temporary shelter in case it rains and well sit in that until it blows over. Then well start walking.
His eyes widened. Walking?!
Lauren eyed the slight incline that had given them sufficient protection to land and then the trees surrounding them.
Theyd fly over us all day and never see the chopper. Thats the problem with landing where we did. Were alive - but if John hadnt come along we probably wouldnt have been for long.
* * * * * * * * *
The forks and sheets of white lightening illuminated great expanses of ground on all sides as the thunder growled and, despite knowing how much danger they were in, Jarod agreed with Lauren. It was an amazingly beautiful sight, made more so by the absence of rain that allowed him to see it all perfectly clearly. He looked over to find her watching him, a smile on her face.
Been in a situation like this before?
Kind of. I was in a plane crash in Yellowstone, a few years back.
Good, so you know what to expect.
He thought over that time, looking around at the sky and feeling the heat coming from the ground, as a small smile curled his lips. I suspect this could be a little different.
Well, maybe. She stretched out on the ground, trying to find a comfortable place to put her arm.
Jarod shook his head incredulously. Is every Australian as bad at understatement as you? Ill live when youve got a great hole in your arm, Its a bit warm, isnt it? when even the buildings are wilting
Lauren shrugged and tried not to grin. Probably.
And what did John put on the aforementioned hole?'
The Aboriginal, who had been listening silently to the conversation, turned and picked up a leaf from a pile beside him, holding it out and saying something Jarod couldnt follow. The American took it and lifted it up to his nose, cautiously smelling it before glancing at Lauren.
What is it?
A native version of an olive leaf. Its good for healing wounds and helping blood to clot faster.
He nodded and handed it back to the man who replaced it on the pile and turned to stoke the fire in front of them.
You may as well try to sleep, Jarod. Well have to start walking early.
Because assuming that the storm clears up tonight the way John thinks it will, well have another scorcher of a day tomorrow and we need to start before it gets too hot.
* * * * * * * * *
Bill hung up the phone and turned to the other three people in the living room, the color gone from his face. His wife looked at him in concern.
What is it?
Theyve disappeared. Loz and Jarod went out to a call mid-afternoon and they never returned to Katherine.
Steve looked up sharply. What have they got organized?
The search parties went out an hour ago. The man swallowed hard. They had to come back in to base thirty minutes ago because of bad weather. A storms crossing the Territory.
Mark looked at his brother. Im going up there. Steve, will you fly me in to Melbourne? Its quicker than driving. Ill catch the first plane to Darwin and go on from there.
Peta looked at her son. Im coming with you.
You cant, Mum. He eyed her ankle. You arent able to get around quickly enough and we both know how fast things can change in a search. I know youre worried, but try to be reasonable.
Without waiting for an answer he left the room followed by his brother, both returning in under ten minutes, Mark carrying a small bag. Bill stopped his son before he could leave the room.
Do you want us to call Jarod's dad?
No. Mark shook his head. Wait until I get up there and Ill
call you. When we know more about whats going on, then we can make that
decision. His eyes traveled from his mother to his father, his voice suddenly
quiet. If the weathers still as bad as it has been, there may not
be any point.
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.
Thats where were making camp for tonight.
Thats the best news Ive heard all day.
She grinned. What, you mean you didnt 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, youll 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt have words to try and explain what its really all about.
When the fire was burning brightly, John got to his feet and walked off through the trees, quickly disappearing.
Hell come back. Dont 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.
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 doesnt seem like we had much food.
Oh, we had plenty providing we were careful. But I know how skilled John is so I didnt bother to ration. Hell get something for us. Luckily weve got enough water and, as we arent in the middle of the Simpson Desert, well be able to get more when we need it. But we wont 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 thats a third gone already with the walking weve done today.
And why is he alone? I mean, isnt that a little dangerous?
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.
Its 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.
Lauren smiled. Smell it.
He did and looked up at her skeptically. Peppermint?
Something like that. She lay down, watching him. Eat them.
Jarod, trust me.
He cautiously put one into his mouth, chewing tentatively, and then swallowed it before looking up at her and grinning. Well, Im not dead.
She laughed. And nor will you be. Your dad would never have sent you here if hed thought I was going to kill you. That will help you a lot, as will the tea that Johns making.
Jarod glanced over, eyebrows raised. And how will it help?
Lauren grinned slyly across the fire at him. Peppermints very good for tremors, nausea, cramps, and various other aches and pains. And thats a pretty accurate short-list of your symptoms if we add loss of appetite, sweating and drowsiness. It wont 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 couldnt 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 didnt honestly think that I happened to have those tablets I gave you just by chance, did you?
* * * * * * * * *
Whats the situation, son?
It its not too good, Dad. Bill could hear the tension in his sons 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 couldnt 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.
Theyve got everyone out looking, Mark continued. But so far theres no sign and its 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 dont even know if were looking in the right areas
The younger mans voice broke and there was another long moment of silence before he spoke again.
I think you need to call the States.
* * * * * * * * *
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 hadnt 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. Ive had worse.
She glanced down at a pile of things that John was watching to make sure that they didnt 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 gday to brekkie.
His jaw dropped. Youre kidding, right?
Nope. Witchetty grubs. Natures 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 dont have any choice, Lauren told him firmly. Im not having you collapse on me between here and wherever we find help. Eat it, Jarod. Doctors orders.
Tentatively he took one, closed his eyes and bit into it, the look of disgust slowly leaving his face. Youre right. It does taste like chicken. Very uncooked chicken.
Couldnt 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.
* * * * * * * * *
John says well definitely find that house he remembers tomorrow, probably some time in the late arvo - afternoon, that is. A few hours before sunset, anyway.
So well back in civilization tomorrow night.
Lauren grinned. If you call hospital civilization.'
Jarod looked startled. Hospital?
For observation, yes. Believe me, itll happen. Well 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. Youve only had Witchetty grubs, kangaroo and now snake. Besides, you cuddled the koala. You didnt take a bite out of it.
He couldnt help laughing. I still want to know how John caught that snake.
Dont ask. You might be tempted to try it and although I did bring the snakebite kit with us, I dont want to have to use it. Not on you, at least.
Okay, so whats for breakfast tomorrow?
Would msieur like to place his order now? What do you fancy, Jarod? Roast possums 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 wont eat it - Bogong Moth?
Jarod laughed. Ill wait and see what John manages to catch.
Actually, Lauren grinned, going by the way youve eaten things so far, youll 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.
Its kind of weird to realize that I cant 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 Id 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. Hed have fifty fits if he knew about this, despite the fact that its done you good.
He glanced down at her in slight surprise. I guess it has, hasnt 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 Ill 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. Well do that before we leave the Top End. Deal?
Deal. Im 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.
Weve 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 wouldnt be a surprise, would it, you great nong?
* * * * * * * * *
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? Its safe.
The man walked out of the kitchen and Sydney was horrified by his appearance. What? What is it? Whats happened?
Jarod and Lauren have disappeared.
Charles finally looked up to meet the eye of the psychiatrist as Sydney took a step backward, the fathers face set in an effort to keep the emotion he felt from rising up and overwhelming him.
Its 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 wasnt 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.
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.
Im sorry, John. I never meant to scare you.
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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 couldnt prevent a satisfied smile from appearing on her face as she pulled the blanket closer around her and tried to go back to sleep.
* * * * * * * * *
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. Im impressed. Youve 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.
Youre going in like that?
Yup. She glanced down at her white shirt. Itll 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.
Dont do too much swimming, Jarod. Weve still got several hours to walk before we get to help and Im not carrying you.
He glanced at her. I keep forgetting were 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 Bravo Zulu 23 to Katherine. Come in Katherine. Over.
This is Katherine. Go ahead Bravo Zulu 23. Over.
Aw, gee, Joel. I didnt know wed been gone for so long that youd forgotten my voice already. Over.
There was a moment of silence and the mans voice was almost a whisper as he replied.
Lauren? Is that you?
Sure is. Over.
Are you both okay? Over.
Were fine - nothing that a good meal, a nights sleep in a real bed and a few bandages wont fix. Over.
Whos 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 Joels words almost inaudible. Go ahead.
Lauren is, Joel, but its just a cut. Nothing life-threatening. Take your time getting here. Over.
Tango Lima Foxtrots on the way, Jarod. So where the heckve 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 didnt John hang around?
She looked down at the ground in front of the house before raising her eyes to his. Some people around here dont like Aboriginals and he thought, if he came with us, that the people here might have refused to help. FYI, its 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 dont get confused - they arent 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 didnt 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 dont look after them properly because their money goes on drink and then the parents cant 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 dont.
Doesnt 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 dont deserve anything. Of course, you cant 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 thats only one of a number of problems in Australia, all of which urgently need help and most of which wont get it.
You name it. Drug addiction, alcoholism, youth suicide, crime rate, unemployment, lack of good education. And thats where the problem of distance comes in. Its very easy for people to ignore what isnt directly on their doorstep and when the problems 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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 Id expect them to locate it soon, now that weve 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 isnt really my son. Johns 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 hes 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 hed drop in some time during the next week for a visit.
Well, you wont see him. Mark told his sister firmly. You two are coming back to Melbourne for some R and R.
No, we arent. Lauren spoke equally firmly. Well come back when we said we would and not before.
But nothing, Mark. Im 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 Im safe and Ill see them soon.
* * * * * * * * *
Lauren put on the headphones and grinned at Jarod. You ready?
Hey, Loz? The voice came clearly through the headphones.
Whats 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. Well see what we can do, Mr. Boss, sir.
Im 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?
Well land at the airstrip, get the horses theyre keeping for us and head out to Uluru for a couple of nights. Then well 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. Ill fly. When, several weeks or months later, you finally get in to Melbourne, drop by my house. Ill 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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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. Ill have to break it in.
Well, if you wear it like the one youve been wearing here, that shouldnt take too long at all, she responded, laughing. Although it might make you stand out a bit.
Oh, and my tan isnt going to do that either? He grinned. Im going back to winter there, if youll remember, not summer.
Thats your choice. Ive invited you to stay and the service would love to have you.
Tempting though the idea is, theres a lot I have to do back there.
Well, maybe one day you can make your home here or something.
Well see. He smiled. Theres 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, its 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.
I wasnt kidding about looking like a new man, was I?
Jarod turned at the sound of the vaguely familiar voice as a man sat down in the seat next to him and laughed.
No, you werent. And I agree with everything else you said that day as well.
Glad to hear it. The man eyed his face. Where were you to get a tan like that?
Your favorite monolith, Jarod laughed. Among other places. But I spent the last couple of nights up there.
And did my favorite monolith, the man replied with a grin, get yet another photo taken of it?
Oh, of course. Several in fact.
Glad to hear it. The man looked at him closely. You know, I could almost believe Ive seen your photo in the papers up that way recently?
The American smiled. It wouldnt have been about the two doctors who crashed out in the middle of nowhere, would it?
Reaching into his bag, the man pulled out a copy of the paper and unfolded it. He looked from the photo of the man on the front page to the grinning person in the seat next to him before laughing.
I doubt that sort of thing was what the people who were worried about you would have picked as an ideal break, would they?
Im hoping they didnt find out about it, Jarod replied honestly. Not until it was over, anyway.
Want a picture of yourself in the paper to make your family proud?
Jarod thought of the articles in the red notebook that was stowed in his bag and shook his head, laughing. Thanks, its fine. I already got a copy.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod leaned against the wall with his arms folded, his face covered by the Akubra, and watched his father examining the people disembarking from the plane. Finally, as the last of them passed and not having seen his son among them, the man was about to turn away.
Major Charles turned to stare at the man whose dark eyes twinkled out of an equally dark face.
She sent the wrong person back!
Jarod laughed and hugged him. Something like that, Dad.
He looked up to see Jordan standing a short distance away and could see the hesitation in his eyes. Walking over, Jarod removed the Akubra from his head, placing it on that of his younger counterpart and slipping an arm around his shoulders as they began to walk towards the exit.
Looks like Im not the only one whos improved in the past two weeks.
Jordan tilted up the hat so that he could eye the man but remained silent. As well as the concern he had originally felt at Jarods possible condition upon his return, the awkwardness of not really understanding what he actually felt about this man was quickly reasserting itself. Jarod glanced at him as if surprised at not receiving a reply and his father filled the gap.
I wasnt that wrong before. She did send a different person home.
Jarod grinned. Just a little different. But its enough.
So what now, son?
Give me some time to adjust to being back! the pretender protested as they reached the car.
And youve adjusted fast enough to drive us? his father laughed and Jarod looked down to see that he was, once again, standing at the drivers door.
Like I said, he commented with a grin, firmly thrusting his hands into the pockets of his long coat to keep out the cold as he walked around to the passenger side. I need some time to adjust.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney lifted the kettle from the stove and carefully poured the water into the mug, his eyes fixed on his watch. Jarods father had promised to call once they got back from the airport and let him know how things had gone; whether the trip had had the desired result. To say that he had been waiting impatiently for the call all evening was, Sydney thought to himself with a wry smile as he carried the mug into the living room, probably an understatement.
Lifting the mug to his lips, he had just tasted the first mouthful when the cell-phone on his coffee table rang. The exchange of objects in his hand took him less time that he had believed humanly possible.
This is Sydney.
There was a second of silence before the psychiatrist could actually respond.
No, Sydney, its a Bunyip, the voice responded dryly. Who else would be calling you at four in the morning?
Well, according to your internal clock it should be six in the evening, shouldnt it? After all, that is the local time in Melbourne, Australia.
Thats very impressive, Jarod retorted. I had to wonder if you even knew I was out.
Can you doubt it? the man replied quickly. Who do you thinks been put on the hunt for you yet again?
Some things never change. There was a moments pause. And some do. Sydney, I didnt just call to let you know I was okay. I was also wondering, how are ?
the children? the psychiatrist prompted gently as the other man stopped abruptly. Not bad. But according to what I was told, theyre missing you, Jarod.
They miss what I was, what Aurora made me, the pretender snapped. Not what I am now.
Aurora changed part of you, the older man chided gently. But not the real person you are, and at least one child knows that.
There was a long silence on the other end but he could hear a sound of irregular breathing, as if the pretender was fighting for emotional control.
Its good to hear you sounding so well, Sydney finally commented quietly.
Well, knowing that Id have to keep ahead of the game again, Jarod responded, forcing a lighter note into his voice. I thought I should wait until I was back to my fittest before I resurfaced.
After all those days in the Australian Outback, Im impressed that youre even able to walk again, let alone run, Sydney smiled. But as for the game, I think the rules may have changed a little.
You know, Jarod mused thoughtfully. Somehow thats not a surprise.
I sent you a little something, the psychiatrist told him before the other man could hang up. Consider it a welcome home present.
* * * * * * * * *
Hearing the dial tone in his ear, Jarod disconnected the call, staring up into the stars that shone, clear and cold, in the sky, before wrapping his coat more firmly around him and going back inside the tall apartment building. Softly entering the room, he glanced at the boy who lay asleep on one of the twin beds and then sat down at the table, starting up his laptop.
Activating the attachment on the email he found in his inbox, Jarod stared at the picture that was slowly revealed. He was unable to prevent the tears that filled his eyes as he looked down at the image of the small boy, the large, brown eyes that he had inherited from his father staring up into the camera and a wide smile on his baby face.
Sydney was right.
The rules had definitely changed.
*With thanks to Mandy for the original idea
* The Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air are genuine, non-profit organizations that operate all over Australia to assist those living great distances from standard medical and/or educational assistance. Several of the small details were fudged slightly to fit the story. For more or accurate information about the RFDS, please check out their website: http://www.rfds.org.au/