TWO

Text copyright © 2015 by Beau Johnston

As soon as everyone had assembled at the front door, I took them on a tour of our new home. The stone fireplace in the lounge room was well received by everyone. As we wandered further through the house, Dad gave subtle nods of approval for the old-fashioned architecture and the building’s sturdy construction. Mum was more concerned with the logistics of getting the kitchen and laundry to function without electricity. Ben and Rebecca mostly kept quiet in the background.

When Dad saw the mess in the laundry, he immediately spoke up. “You two made sure the house was safe and you got rid of the carcass, so I’ll clean the mess in the laundry. But it can wait until I’ve had breakfast”.

“I’ll help too,” Rebecca offered. “I’ve learnt a thing or two about cleaning up blood from working in the hospital”.

“Thank you,” I said. I knew the job had to be done but I really wasn’t looking forward to doing it.

I thought it best to allocate sleeping quarters here and now so we could avoid any disagreements later.

“Alright everyone” I continued, “Sleeping quarters are as follows; Mum and Dad, you are in the master bedroom at the front of the house. Ben and Rebecca, you will take the second bedroom. I’ll take the study”.

“The study? The room’s an empty shell! Where will you sleep?” Mum asked, her voice full of motherly concern.

“Mum, I’ll make do. At least I have a roof over my head and a secure building to sleep in. It’s far better than sleeping on some of those islands” I replied, holding my hand up to call an end to the discussion.

Before Mum could get agitated, Ben interrupted “I’ve got an inflatable air mattress in the back of my four-wheel drive. I use it when I go camping. It’s just as comfortable as any real mattress I’ve ever slept on”.

“Thanks mate” I said with a grateful smile. I didn’t relish the idea of sleeping on the hardwood floor.

With that issue settled, the rest of us emptied the vehicles while Mum familiarised herself with the kitchen. Everyone’s personal gear was unloaded and stacked into their room. All food items, kitchen utensils and cleaning products went in the kitchen. Mum quickly packed the food and other supplies away. Rebecca offered to help but Mum ushered her from that end of the room, proclaiming the kitchen was hers to worry about. Firearms and fishing gear were temporarily left in the lounge room to be dealt with after breakfast. The remaining tools, gardening equipment and fuel cans were left in the vehicles so they could be transported to the shed after breakfast.

By the time we’d returned to the kitchen Mum had put everything away, wiped the dust from the flat surfaces and prepared breakfast for us all. It might only have been cereal and long life milk; but it was food, and all of us were here to enjoy it.

“Sarah” Dad said, breaking the silence as he entered the kitchen. “Even out here, after everything’s gone to pot, you’re still looking after us. You are an amazing lady! I’m lucky to have you”. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and grinned.

“Awww Jimmy, you old smooth-talker. You’ll make me blush”. Mum coyly returned his smile.

Mum and Dad were childhood sweethearts who married in their early twenties and never looked back. They’d survived some tough times when work and money was scarce, but they’d always managed to make do. They were lucky to have each other and I was lucky to have them for parents. Dad was no angel; he could be rough and crude, but never with Mum. He always treated Mum like a lady. Given our current situation, Ben and Rebecca couldn’t hope for better role models. While everyone ate, I took advantage of having a captive audience to hold an impromptu meeting. This gave me the opportunity to call everyone’s attention to the most pressing issues we were facing and allow them to ask questions.

I drew everyone’s attention by clearing my throat. “Ok everyone; before we all run off in different directions looking for something to do, we need to take a few minutes to assess our current situation and discuss what we need to do to improve it. In a moment, I want to hear from each of you regarding what you believe to be our most pressing concerns. I’ll start the ball rolling with security. For now, we have to assume that society as we knew it is gone; and friendly faces will be few and far between. Even though we’re many kilometres away from town, there is still a possibility we might be found by raiders or other survivors. We also have to be aware that any number of zombies could come shambling along our secluded dirt road at any time. So as I stated yesterday, everyone must carry their weapon with them at all times. There are no exceptions to this rule”.

The group unanimously agreed this rule was in everyone’s best interest. It would be mildly inconvenient, but it wouldn’t take them long to adapt. Personally, I would be worried if I didn’t have my weapons with me. As soon as I get out of bed, I put on my weapon belt. My tomahawk and machete rest in their sheaths and sit comfortably on my hips. My torch and hunting knife sit at the back of my belt. The knife blade points upward and the handle protrudes below my belt. The leather strap and metal press-stud on the sheath prevents the knife falling out. I’ve become so accustomed to the dagger strapped to my right ankle that I sometimes forget it’s there.

“Whenever we are outside, we must constantly be aware of our surroundings. Regardless of what you are doing, everyone must get into the habit of scanning the area they are in. Just a quick look around every couple of minutes will reduce the chances of someone.... or something, sneaking up behind you. We can decrease our chances of being discovered by keeping sounds, smells and visual cues to a minimum”. I paused briefly to allow them to absorb the information. “After security, food is our next immediate concern. I have a rough idea of what we managed to bring with us, and if we carefully ration what we have, we can survive comfortably for at least a fortnight. But we can extend that indefinitely by hunting and fishing”.

“What about a vegetable garden?” Mum asked. “We won’t get results for a little while, but if we start work on it in the next couple of days, we can plant seasonal crops”.

“That’s a great idea” I smiled at Mum. “Can you and Dad to go through the equipment we brought with us; then compile a list of the things we need?”

Mum nodded enthusiastically. She appeared to be happy to have responsibilities beyond the kitchen.

“Does anyone else have something to contribute?” I asked the group.

“Yesterday, you mentioned that a river runs along the back of the property” Rebecca chimed in. “Can we use it as a source of water for the house?”

“Fresh drinking water” I continued, “isn’t as big a problem as it could have been. We have a large supply of water stored in the four water tanks in the backyard, but without electricity, we will have to pull water from the tanks with a bucket tied to a length of rope. And as long as we don’t do anything to pollute the river, we’ll always have access to that too”.

“What about bathing?” Rebecca continued, her nurse’s training continuing to assert itself. “From my perspective, the biggest risk to our long term survival will be through a lapse in basic hygiene. The importance of hand washing and regular bathing can’t be stressed strongly enough”.

“Showers are definitely out of the question, but we can use the hand basin for sponge baths. I don’t want to waste tank water, so we will draw water from the river for bathing and flushing the toilet. For bathing purposes, it would be preferable if we could heat the water. It looks like we’ll have good weather today, so heating water and cooking our food outside won’t be a problem, but we have to prepare for rainy days and winter”. I turned to Dad “You’re our mechanical genius, can I leave you in charge of rigging up some way for us to cook food and heat water indoors?”

“No problem. I saw a shed in the backyard earlier. I’m sure I can knock something together with the material I find inside”. Dad sat just a little taller and prouder as he responded. He realised he was going to be relied on for his mind, as well as his capacity for manual labour.

The group then turned to Ben. So far, he had remained silent; but his silence didn’t mean he hadn’t been thinking. “I thought it might be a good idea if I went down to the river so I could get an idea of what sort of animals live on and around our land. I’m pretty sure there will be feral pigs, rabbits and kangaroos; but I’d like to see what sort of game fowl live here. As far as fishing goes; if we’re lucky, there will be bass and rainbow trout in this section of the river”.

Once Ben had finished speaking, I took the floor again. “That reminds me of a very important point. Ideally, nobody should go anywhere alone; I want everyone to travel in pairs. It never hurts to have a pair of eyes to watch your back”.

“Travel in pairs? What about you?” Mum protested. “You’ve already gone off on your own several times”.

I interrupted her before she could get too worked up about my safety, “That was only through necessity. And I’ve got a little more experience with zombies than the rest of you, so I have a better chance avoiding trouble. Trust me; it’s not my idea of a good time. Anyway, it’s time we wrapped up this meeting and took a walk around the property so we can familiarise ourselves with our new home”.

With the meeting drawn to a conclusion, everyone took their dishes to the sink. Mum insisted we leave them for her to take care of later. I think she was just as eager as everyone else to go outside and look around. I was pleased to see that everyone picked up their weapons before following me out the back door. As we walked past the laundry I held my breath then reached behind the door to collect the key to the shed.

Our first stop was the water tanks. Fortunately, all of us had lived with tank water at one time or another, so we all understood how precious every drop of water was. Dad was impressed by the size of the tanks. He walked around each one, performing a visual inspection for leaks and weak spots. Once Dad confirmed there were no problems with the tanks we continued our journey past the rotary clothesline and on to the shed. The weathered, wooden building was slightly larger than a property of this size required; but it would easily shelter both four-wheel drives and my quad bike from any bad weather we may have to endure.

I unlocked the padlock and opened the double doors, allowing fresh air into the dusty building. The air was so dry it smelled as though the shed hadn’t been opened in years. The thick layer of dust coating everything confirmed my theory. A row of dirty windows ran along the northern wall, letting mottled sunlight into the room. After I opened the windows, a gentle breeze wafted through the disused workshop, blowing some of the stale air away.

Dad’s eyes lit up when he saw the garden tools and hand tools hanging from hooks on the southern wall. They looked old enough to be museum pieces, but he obviously knew what each one was and how to use it. They all appeared to be in good condition; only old and dusty. Among the things I could identify were shovels, spades, hoes, several axes, and a rake. I also spotted a couple of scythes leaning against the wall; which answered my unasked question of how I would cut the grass around the house. I wasn’t worried about the appearance of the yard, but snakes love hiding in long grass. Toward the back of the shed, along the south wall were several oil drums, piles of metal rods and tubing, various lengths of wood, several rolls of fencing wire, boxes of nails, screws, nuts and bolts. Between the contents of the shed and the tools we brought with us from the farm, I was confident we could deal with any household repairs or maintenance issues that arose. The rolls of fencing wire reminded me I would eventually have to inspect the boundary fences. We didn’t have any livestock on the property, but barbed wire fences were another obstacle for wandering ghouls to overcome. The property report from the real-estate agent stated the fences were in good condition. For now, that assessment was good enough. Inspecting and repairing them could wait for another day.

Much to Dad’s displeasure, we left the shed and continued our tour. I was probably being overcautious, but I wanted to make sure everyone could find their way to the river and back home again without getting lost. The journey wasn’t much of a challenge; the path ran in a straight line from our back door to the stony riverbank and the grass growing either side of the path grew no taller than my hips.

From where we stood on the water’s edge, I estimated the river was at least twenty metres wide, and probably several metres deep in the middle. Looking further along the riverbank, I could see areas of thick scrub that marked the northern and southern boundaries of the farm. It’s likely the owners of the neighbouring properties were less concerned about access to the river. The Barakee National Park lay on the other side of the river. It was an old growth forest thick with trees and dense undergrowth. Our property had plenty of fallen trees lying on the ground; but when that ran out, the nearby forest would be an invaluable source of firewood, as well as game.

Mum and Rebecca admired the scenery and chatted about how pretty the river was, while Dad and Ben remained silent. It was safe to assume they were thinking about fishing and hunting. They were both experienced hunters, so I didn’t have any major concerns about them going out together. On the way back, the group chatted excitedly about the positive aspects of our new home. I was glad to see that their optimism had risen since our discussion last night. Obviously, our new accommodations were better than the rat-infested hovel they imagined I was dragging them off to.

As we arrived back at the house, Mum decided we should have an early lunch. We were treated to a plate of cold baked beans and an apple. After lunch, Dad moved the remaining equipment from the vehicles to the shed; then started working on a way for us to cook our food and to heat water. Ben sat in the lounge room and cleaned the firearms, storing the cleaned weapons in the broom cupboard in the kitchen when he was done. As soon as he’d finished his cleaning jobs he collected his fishing gear and announced he was returning to the river to try his luck. I was glad to see Ben didn’t need any prompting to take his shotgun with him. Mum and Rebecca returned to the backyard to plot out the vegetable garden. I went back into the house to take inventory of our supplies and work out what we needed most. It was going to be difficult for them to adjust. I’d already had a few weeks to adjust to making do and going without, but they’d had it thrust upon them less than twenty-four hours ago.

Food was an obvious necessity; I didn’t need to write down specific items. My shopping list would always be: Grab as many non-perishable items I could get my hands on, whenever I found them. Things like soap, dish washing detergent, laundry powder, toilet paper and personal hygiene items.... the group would learn to appreciate whatever I could bring back. I was not looking forward to the day these basic supplies run out. Even going house-to-house, there is only a limited amount of toilet paper, soap and toothpaste in Gloucester.

I must have been alone with my thoughts for a few hours when I heard Mum enter the room. She asked me to come out to the backyard but she didn’t sound distressed, so I calmly followed her outside. In the backyard, I was glad to see my team had made good use of their time. Mum and Rebecca had marked out a sizable area of the backyard for us to use as a vegetable garden. They’d also managed to remove most of the grass from the area. Mum pointed at the back veranda where Ben stood next to a respectable pile of wood and kindling he’d managed to collect. Resting on top of the woodpile were five rainbow trout he’d caught. Standing next to Ben was Dad and his masterpiece; a brazier he’d made out of an old oil drum he found in the shed.

Dad gave us a brief overview of his creation. The design was simple, but clever. He stood the barrel on its end, then removed the top half with a hacksaw. To keep the barrel off the ground, he’d bolted four legs made from metal tubing, to the side of the barrel. Using a hand-cranked drill, he made a series of ventilation holes around the side and underneath his creation. On top of the brazier was a wire rack that looked suspiciously like a shelf from an oven.

“Not only can we cook our meals on this little beauty, we can also boil water on it” Dad said with a smile. “There are several metal buckets in the shed. We can fill them with water then sit them on top of the brazier. First thing in the morning I’m going to start work on a model that can be safely used inside the house. This is just a prototype, but at least we will have some semblance of civilised living tonight”.

I stood there and smiled at the group “Thank you all for your hard work and your willingness to get things done”.

“Actually” Dad replied on behalf of the group, “thank you for making sure we all got here safely. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have survived last night. And we certainly wouldn’t be here now”.

After Dad finished speaking, the rest of the group expressed their appreciation for my actions. They talked among themselves for a few minutes until Ben volunteered to cook dinner. Mum looked a little surprised, but she was happy to let him display his culinary skills as a campfire chef. While Ben cooked, I went into the house and lit the fire in the fireplace. It was too warm to have the fire burning but after sunset it would be pitch black inside the house. I knew my family would need some sort of light on their first night in a new building and we had to save the batteries in our torches for emergencies. Dad drew two buckets of water from the water tanks. He left one in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom.

Mum came to the back door to let us know that dinner was ready. As we stepped outside, we were greeted by the delicious smell of freshly cooked fish and campfire smoke. The rapidly setting sun prompted the crickets and tree frogs to serenade us with their nocturnal songs as we dined. Mum decided to use paper plates tonight because it made cleaning up afterward a lot quicker and easier.

I didn’t remain with the group very long after dinner because I was exhausted. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on and I knew tomorrow was going to be a busy day. I excused myself and retired to my room. When I arrived, I found the air mattress had already been inflated. My sleeping bag lay on top of the mattress and a pillow had been provided too. I took off my boots and weapon belt; then collapsed onto the bed. Sleep took me within moments of my head hitting the pillow.

 

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