Adam listened to the old man puffing on that last hill, but he knew he was good for it; no doubt taking in the crisp, clean air. He was always talking about that and how it used to be thick with brown, dirty smoke.
“There has to be something good from all this,” he said over and over again as though he was trying to convince a hardened pessimist. “Something good … It really isn’t end of days!”
The boy could not remember a day past without his father talking up the positives of a world without people. And on their pilgrimage to the old house, every year, Daniel was even more optimistic. He smiled readily even when the trail became perilous. During these journeys he allowed himself to talk about the before time.
“She’ll be there this year. I can feel it in my bones. She’ll make it this time.”
Adam had almost no memory of his mother. He was only two years old when it all happened, when she disappeared from their lives. He only had impressions and no doubt many of these were reinforced by his father’s stories about the old days.
“We had a car. It was a real beaut. An old 1970 Holden station wagon, dark green and it would polish up a real treat. We’d load up a picnic basket and head down to Port Arlington or Queenscliff. You loved the beach. Your mum did too. I wasn’t fussed, but they were good days.
”The first time we took you to the seashore, you got so excited by the waves lapping over your toes you peed yourself.”
“No, son. It was funny. You were just a tiny little tacker and it was a joy to view the world through your eyes. We saw the world brand new … not like now. But everything we had known all our lives, well, it took on a different perspective. You got excited about butterflies and puppies. You loved big trucks and trains. Nothing much like those any more.
He watched butterflies in the fields they passed.
“The trucks and trains, I mean.”
They walked in silence for awhile, both listening carefully for the telltale whoosh sounds of transports overhead. There were fewer of them in the last couple of years but they were still about, mostly at night but occasionally one would fly over during the day.
The man and the teenager knew exactly what to do if they heard one coming; twelve years of practice. Although it was trial and error in the early days, they were incredibly lucky. The errors belonged to others long-gone. Daniel and Adam learnt quickly what would work to survive and what would not. An offensive certainly did not.
The first to go were the capitals of the world. The buildings were virtually unharmed but the people vanished into thin air or so it seemed. The main centres of population soon followed and those living in small towns, villages and in the countryside had some chance of escape if they were quick to accept what was happening.
Those in denial presumably perished. They were harvested along with those who could not get out of the cities quick enough.
Daniel and Jennifer were on holidays when it happened. They had packed the car and taken off on a whim to see the Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road. Again, on a whim, they decided to take the back road through Simpson, then across to Terang to visit a friend. Adam gurgled happily in his baby seat or slept so the long journey was no problem at all. As they zig-zagged their way along back roads, occasionally taking a wrong turn, laughing and doubling back, they channel surfed the radio to find a good song, harmonising to “I can see clearly now”.
Jennifer was a compulsive dial twiddler and after that song she went surfing for another, crossing a news channel.
“Stop it there!” Daniel yelled.
“No, let’s look for music. Not interested in radio drama,” Jennifer laughed.
Daniel pulled the car over to the side of the road.
“It’s not drama. That’s the news,” he said, disbelief and shock spreading through his body.
Stunned, Jennifer turned the radio back to the previous station. A man was yelling down the microphone in panic that people were disappearing before his eyes.
“This is real. This is actually happening. There was a flash in the sky, then people just disappeared where they stood. All that’s left are their clothes. There are piles of clothes all up and down Bourke St. There are reports of this happening everywhere. Not just here but all over the world. It’s happening now. It’s …” then silence.
Jennifer turned the dial on the radio. There was an assortment of music, pre-recorded shows – and static where there should have been news bulletins.
Daniel pulled the car back onto the road.
“Aliens?” Jennifer ventured.
“Doesn’t matter what or why,” he answered. “We have to have a plan.”
Both had tears in their eyes. However, fear and confusion did not cloud Daniel’s sense of self-preservation. He immediately began looking for a route that would take them deeper into the isolation of country.
They made their way inland, skirted Hamilton and kept going north-west until they came to old farming country. There were fields of blossoming canola for as far as the eye could see although along the roadsides they were edged by the purple Salvation Jane.
Daniel remembered the flowers. He remembered the ruined old house and how they were able to hide the entire car in there. And he remembered they stayed there for as long as they could until their supplies ran out. Soon after, they were separated when they ventured into a small mountain community which got hit by a transport. Daniel was not clear on the rest of that day or that week or that year.
“Where’ve you gone, Dad?” Adam asked. “You’ve got that far away look again. Hey, we’re nearly there. She’ll be there this time. She’ll be there.”
They walked into a gully. Beneath a row of huge boxthorn bushes, the soil had eroded away from a recipe of rabbits, wind and occasional flooding. A shallow cave provided them some protection from the skies. The boy took off his knapsack and pulled out a piece of beef jerky. He pulled it in half and handed a piece to his father. Daniel pulled out a roll of silver fabric. Dappled sunlight shimmered off its surface yet the material provided the pair with the best camouflage from the hunters. As they sat on the earth with the silver sheet covering them completely, they could hear the familiar whooshing sound. Their timing to find cover was perfect, as though they had developed a sixth sense.
Overhead, the noise increased, sounding similar to a heavy breeze, yet far more cold and uniform. It always heralded the imminent approach of the transports.
As a kid, Daniel remembered counting down with his own father between a flash of lightning and the growl of thunder to measure how far away a storm was. It was a similar thing he and his son did to gauge the closeness of this particular danger.
There was no panic. It had become second nature to them. Only once had they been caught in open fields but their silver sheet protected them from detection. However, the transport had hovered over them for over twenty minutes on that occasion. It could have been coincidence or that the hunters were checking their bearings, but Daniel decided never to chance it.
Adam discovered the camouflage trick on one of his foraging trips. When he returned to his father he was both excited and terrified.
“This old bloke with a long beard helped me hide from one of the gangs,” he gasped out.
“He had this cubby hidden under what looked like a pile of wooden pallets. Inside it was lined with foil. He said it kept the radio waves out so I thought he was a bit of a loon. One of the gang saw us go in there so when a transport came they tried to get in to our hiding place. The old bloke put on a silver cape and ran outside to draw them away.
“I watched through a crack. The beam came down and all the hoods disappeared, but the old bloke was left where he stood.”
After that, instead of looking for food, their top priority was to find similar material so they could make their annual journey to the old farmhouse with a greater degree of safety – and much more quickly.
Although they discussed the camouflage often, they never settled on why it worked. Daniel’s theory was that the creatures or whatever they were, could only ‘see’ heat. They were most active at night because the sun was too hot for them during the day. He figured the reflective material screwed with their equipment. Adam’s theory was that the material made the pair look like robots and thus inedible.
After the flyovers, Daniel and Adam always waited for at least an hour before venturing out again, although at night they would stay put until daybreak.
“Not far to go now,” Daniel muttered as he rolled their camouflage up and stuffed it into the knapsack.
For twelve years they made the pilgrimage. It was not until the tenth year that Adam saw his father begin to lose hope. It was that year they had found her wedding ring and a pile of clothes just outside the house. His father’s expression was burnt vividly into his mind. The horror and pain were almost too much to bear for the lad.
That year there was a lot more activity in the skies. They were a little late making it to the house. Daniel was panicking because he was sure (as he was every year) that she would be there to meet them but because they had to keep avoiding the transports, the going was much tougher than previous years.
When they finally made it to the house, they found her clothes and wedding ring at the front door. But Adam pointed out there was nothing else; no bag, no dental fillings, no jewellery or shoes. Nothing! Just the clothes and ring. They went inside the house, searching for further clues that she was still alive but found nothing.
The following year Daniel thought he saw a J scratched into the flaking paint, just under the rotted window sill. He just was not sure and his hope began to fade. Adam played it up, saying it was a sure sign. He could not imagine, even at his tender age, what it would be like if his father gave up.
Both were lost in their thoughts as they walked up out of the ravine and across the last field. In the distance they could see the outline of the crumbling old building. Inside would be sanctuary, at least, in the cellar that remained in tact underneath rubble. Amazingly, no one else seemed to have found it. Daniel made sure it stayed undiscovered, piling rubble back up over the hatch when they left each year. He rued that they could not just live there but it was too far from any resources. Besides, he also held out hope that they would find a community to join, or perhaps even happen across Jennifer in their travels.
“Nearly there,” he puffed up that last incline, trying to sound cheerful and optimistic.
“Nearly there,” echoed Adam.
“Here we go again, son,” he said.
“Yep. Here we go again, Dad.”
Suddenly, Daniel stopped. He looked in the sky, as was his first instinct when he heard something unfamiliar. Then swung around behind him. Nothing!
“What is it?”
They stood stock still.
A balmy breeze blew from the west. A real breeze, fresh and sweet. Then Adam heard it too. It came from the house, almost imperceptible. A woman’s voice singing.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way …