12. The Road Home
Melissa stopped for diesel in a small, single-street community at the base of the rolling hills, where they met the plains. She got some funny looks; no surprise, really, a lone, attractive woman driving a big-rig. Well, they could screw off. She was probably a better truck driver than they were. She finished fueling, and pulled out of the station and across the bridge back onto the main road.
She was half a kilometer down the road when she remembered that she'd meant to phone her mother. She sighed, pulled off to the side of the road, pulled a u-turn, and headed back for the service station.
She parked around the back and headed for the payphone. She dropped a couple of coins in and dialled her mother's number.
“Yes?” Ah, how she'd missed her mother's harsh squawk.
“Hi mum, it's 'Liss.”
“MELISSA! WHERE ARE YOU?” Melissa held the phone away from her ear and winced. Her mother didn't entirely grasp the idea of volume control.
“Don't shout, mum, please. I'm in –” she poked her head out of the phone booth to look at the sign on the service station – “Castle Hill. I'm on my way home, so don't worry.”
“Is Jay with you?” her mother asked.
Ha, Melissa thought, you do care about him when it comes down to it. “No, mum, I'm not sure where he is; he got stuck in a bit of trouble.”
“Did he get you in trouble? I told you he was trouble.”
Melissa sighed. “No, mum, he got me out of trouble, but only by getting himself into it. I'm going to make sure he gets some help. Anyway, I'm on my way home, I'll come and see you before I do anything else, okay? I'm about an hour away from town.”
“Okay honey, see you soon.” Her mother subsided a little. “Take care.”
When Jay came to the light was already fading. He was face down on the track; he spat out the dust that had worked its way into his mouth, and worked an arm around to clear the powder from his nostrils. He sneezed, and winced. He hurt all over.
It was coming on night, he was in no state to go anywhere, and he had no shoes or jacket. He was going to die.
Don't think like that. There must be something he could do. He lay for a moment, reflecting.
Hmm, maybe. It would be better than nothing, and a poor chance of survival was better than no chance. He pulled himself up to hands and knees and dragged himself off the track, where he set about tearing up bundles of tussock and throwing them in a pile. It was slow, painful work, but it was his only chance.
When he felt the pile was big enough he crawled into it, covered himself as best he could, curled into a ball, and slept.
He woke in the middle of the night, cold — but not dangerously so. He crawled out and spent a few minutes pulling more tussock for his pile, then crawled back in and slept again, safe in the knowledge that he wasn't going to freeze to death in the night.
It was well dark when Melissa pulled into her mother's driveway, and her mother ran out to meet her as she was jumping down from the cab.
“What sort of vehicle do you call that? That's not something a woman should be driving?”
“It was all I could steal, mum,” Melissa said.
Her mother laughed, then stopped when Melissa didn't. “You're serious! You stole a truck? What were you thinking?”
“I told you it was trouble, mum. It was the only way I could get home. Now, let's go inside, and I'm going to have a shower then call the police.”
Her mother went quiet, then began fussing again. “Oh of course, I'm sorry, what am I thinking, come inside. I should have some of your old clothes around still, too, you look like you could do with a clean change.”
Clean and fed, Melissa rang the police. To be honest, it was a relief to be on the phone; her mother was forced to stop talking for a moment.
Ten minutes later, Melissa was seething. How dare they not believe her? What right did they have to claim that she was making things up? She'd been missing, and Jay was still gone, and they were telling her that – what, she'd crashed her plane and got a bit confused by a concussion? Then – she was furious at the memory – they suggested that if she'd stop looking for an investigation, they'd be willing to overlook her theft of a truck.
Her mother wasn't helping, either, all “it'll be okay dear” and “I'm sure they know what they're doing” and “you'll just have to trust them.” Melissa called a taxi and stormed out of the house to wait on the front porch. When the taxi arrived she piled in the back, telling the driver to take her to their hangar at the airport. Once there she changed back into jeans and jersey – a little more practical than the nice dress her mother had dug up for her. She pulled her old leather flight jacket out of the wardrobe and shrugged it on, beginning to feel a little more like herself again.
She jumped into her car and headed down to the pilots' association clubrooms. She needed a drink, and a think, and her fellow pilots would be a help to bounce ideas off.
She pulled into the carpark, jumped out of her car, not bothering to lock it; the only people her at this time of night would be people she knew. She walked into the clubrooms.
“Hey look, it's Miss missing!” shouted a voice. A chorus of greetings and cheers followed.
“Where's your missus, missus?” someone asked. Melissa narrowed her eyes, and strode up to the bar.
“I'm gonna need a strong one, Lionel. Double brandy, please.”
“Sure thing, 'Liss. Jay okay? You're not looking your best.”
“Spot of bother, actually. Last I saw Jay he was getting pistol-whipped. Kinda why I'm here actually.”
The room fell silent. Obviously Lionel hadn't been the only one listening. Well, she needed help from all of them. She took the drink Lionel offered, had a swig and a blink and a gasp – it'd been too long; she'd really needed that drink – and swivelled around on the bar stool to face the room.
“We bumped into some fellows,” she said, “who think it's acceptable to shoot an unarmed messenger plane out of the sky.”
“The hell they do!” someone yelled from the back.
“God's honest truth. These same people, to add insult to injury, then decided to grab me at gunpoint and imprison me.”
“They what?!” said a voice at the front. “That is some seriously uncool doings.”
“Exactly,” said Melissa. “Anyway, long story short, Jay bust in to bust me out, but got himself beat up a bit and caught on the way out. That's where you guys come in.”
“What about the police?” That was her friend Lana.
“Hah,” Melissa barked. “Yeah, so you'd think. They told me I was hallucinating, wanted nothing to do with it. ‘Little lost girl took a bump on the head,’ all that crap.”
“Man, how dare they,” Lana said.
“So,” – that was Rich, the local know-everything mechanic – “what are we going to do about it?”
“Well,” said Melissa, “I'm hoping for a bit of support for a pick-up run. Maybe a bit of an armed invasion, chance of a fire-fight. I'm not particularly keen on just leaving Jay there; he was looking pretty beat up already.”
“Armed? Just how serious are these guys?” That voice belonged to Alvira. She was the first pilot Melissa had ever nav'd for.
“Guards armed with submachine guns; everyone else seems to be packing pistols. Big locked down building set in the middle of a lake – they've got a regular mad-scientist conspiracy vibe happening, although I couldn't say I have any idea what they're up to. It'll be worth looking out for the submerged anti-aircraft missile launcher, too. We may want to approach quietly.”
“Are these guys completely insane?”
“I have no idea,” Melissa said. “They're polite, and they dress well, and they're exceedingly professional up until the point they lock you up or gun-club you. So, probably, yes. Anyway, I'm not thinking we go straight in; we'll need to figure out where Jay is, first – no sense fighting all the way to the basement only to find out he's already gone.”
“How about,” Alvira said, “we take a couple of planes up to scope out the territory, then call for the rest once we've got a plan? I'll fly you up tomorrow morning – anyone else keen?”
“I'll come. Sounds like fun.” It was one of the newer pilots; Melissa couldn't remember his name.
“Need a navigator?” Lana asked.
“Sure thing.” He grinned at her. Melissa did her best to keep a straight face.
“Sorry, I don't know that we've met.”
“Ah, of course. Daniel Bishop.”
“Nice to meet you. Okay then, you and Lana, me and Alvira – we'll leave at first light. Make sure your plane's in shape.”
“Before we get too far ahead of ourselves,” Melissa said to the room, “how many of you are in for a gunfight?”
“Sounds like fun,” a voice said from down the back, and there was laughter and cheers and a chorus of ‘aye’s. It sounded like most of them; enough to have an impact, anyway.
“Alright. Thanks so much, all of you. Now I'm off to get some sleep. You okay to pick me up in the morning, Vi?”
Alvira nodded, then winked. “Be like old times, huh? Sleep well.”
Melissa drove home and slept.