The four women arrived back at the Willowbranch B&B at 5 o'clock. Rose smiled at them as they came in the back door, dragging their feet and moaning about how worn out they were from all the walking. She was sitting at the counter having a ‘cuppa'. Fred was at the kitchen table, reading a weekly newspaper he had borrowed from mum when he'd gone into town earlier.
"It's a big city, isn't it?" Rose asked the girls as they sat down at the table.
"Too big for me," Carly said.
Paige nodded in agreement. "There are so many people!"
"Now you see why we don't go into Melbourne very much. In fact, it's been about eight years since I was in the city to do any shopping. Thank the Lord our kids don't live right in town!"
Davie burst through the back door into the kitchen. "Where have you guys been?" he angrily demanded of Shannon , without so much as a g'day to anyone.
"Well, hello to you, too, Davie ," Shannon replied back, angry that he'd spoken to her in that tone of voice. "We went out shooting pictures, with Mr. Bannister's approval, as you recall. Didn't Rose tell you?" She looked up at Rose, who nodded her head.
"I was supposed to go with you!" Davie said, annoyingly. "But you were already gone when I came up to the house. And Rose said she didn't know where you went." He turned and glared at Rose.
"There wouldn't have been room for you, Davie ," Shannon said quietly. "There was barely room for us women in my little sports car. And why would you want to tag along with four women, anyway?"
The question was left unanswered as Davie went to the fridge and pulled out a beer. He looked questioningly at Rose—holding the bottle out—and she nodded an okay.
"Where did you go?" Davie asked Shannon again, still in a rough, demanding voice.
"Why do you want to know, Davie ?" Shannon said. She was getting perturbed with his attitude. "We don't have to answer to you. These are my friends, and they don't have to tell you anything, either, if they don't want to. Have you forgotten that I'm on my own personal time, because we haven't started shooting yet?"
She stood up and glared at him, with her hands on her hips. "So really, Davie , it's none of your damn business where we've been! I'm tired, and I don't want to talk about this! And, furthermore, I don't give a shit what you tell your precious employer! What I do with my personal time is none of his business, either. So back off, little man!"
Davie looked beaten again, as Shannon always got the best of him. He was only trying to do what Mr. Bannister told him to do, but he was not being very successful at it. And he'd not yet learned the art of diplomacy and tactfulness.
Carly and Paige had gotten up from the table when Shannon rose to tell Davie where to shove it and headed down the hallway to their room while this confrontation took place. They didn't know what was going on, anyway, and didn't want to get involved. Jo had stood up, too, and was by Shannon 's side the whole time. She was alarmed because she had never heard that kind of language coming out of Shannon 's mouth before. It surprised her. But Davie had asked for it.
Jo wanted to find out why Davie was so nosey, too, but Davie quit talking and sat down at the table next to Fred and opened his beer.
"Thanks for running me down into town, Fred, to get a battery for my mobile," he said pleasantly, back to his usual politeness and ignoring Shannon for the time being.
"No worries, Davie boy. Anytime you want to go somewhere like that and you don't want to walk, I'll be glad to take you," Fred replied, looking up from his paper. If I don't have anything else to do, he thought. He brought the paper back up to his face, high enough that Davie couldn't see the grin that was slowly spreading over his face.
"I'll be starting dinner in just a little bit," Rose said. "You girls probably want to go rest a bit and get cleaned up. I imagine it was really hot today where you were, wasn't it?"
She was glad to see Davie put in his place, but thought it best she change the subject at the earliest opportunity. When Davie discovered the girls had left without him, he had tried to pump her for information about where they had gone, too, and she didn't appreciate it. She put him off, saying they had just gone to take pictures.
"At times, the heat was unbearable , Rose," Jo said. "But we managed to cool off now and then. Come on, Shannon ; let's go back to our room for a while. I'd like to lie down and take a nap, and I think you might like to, also." She noticed Shannon was still glaring at Davie —even though Davie 's back was to her—and Jo wanted to get her out of the hostile environment before she really blew her stack.
Shannon , still fuming, followed Jo back to their bedroom, where she sat on her bed and started talking angrily.
"Who does that young buck think he is? The little twerp! I don't have to follow his orders! And why is he doing this? I know it's because Jeff Bannister told him to, but why ?"
"There's no sense in getting worked up about it, Shannon . Jeff Bannister isn't here, and I'm glad it's only Davie you have to put up with. I wouldn't want to tangle with your employer. I don't know why Davie is acting like such a jerk, either. But as long as we keep taking off without him, there's not much he can do about it. And he knows it. Rose and Fred aren't giving him any slack, either. Did you see the grin on Fred's face?"
"Yeah," Shannon said, softening. "They're great people, aren't they? You're so lucky to have friends like that."
"I'm going to hop in the shower," Shannon continued, with a smile, her anger now abating as Jo talked to her. "Want to come with?"
Jo looked at Shannon , sure that her face was registering complete surprise. Was Shannon actually inviting her to take a shower with her? They'd had separate showers before now.
"I know Rose and Fred have to conserve on their water supply," Shannon went on, "because it doesn't rain that much in the summer. I just thought we could save them some water by showering together. You're not embarrassed, are you?"
"Absolutely not! And we really should help them conserve water!" Jo heartily agreed. This is too good to be true, she thought.
Shannon knocked on the door of the red room, which was closed, and told Carly and Paige that if they needed to pee, to do it now, as the bathroom was going to be occupied for a while. Paige opened the door a crack and said they had already done that and were now occupying themselves by reading books together until Rose called them for dinner. Shannon closed the door again. Sure, they're reading! she thought. Sexy books that turn them on!
"Come on," Shannon said, retrieving fresh clothes from her suitcase. Jo dug around for something clean to wear, too, and joined her.
Shannon turned the shower on so the water could warm up. The water had to travel a long distance from the water heater at the farthest corner of the washroom and would be chilly if they stepped into it right away. When they were stripped down to their bare skin, Shannon reached over and pulled Jo to her and began kissing her and holding her while the water heated up.
"I want you," Shannon said breathlessly, steering them both towards the shower, clinging to each other. Jo closed the stall door behind them.
The shower walls began fogging up with steam. "Pass me the soap, would you, please, Jo?" Shannon said, finally letting go of her. Jo reached behind her to the soap dish and then excitedly watched her suds up. Shannon handed the soap back to Jo when she was finished, and Jo did the same thing.
"Would you wash my back?" Shannon said, handing Jo her washcloth. Jo carefully and slowly scrubbed her back, adding more soap suds, knowing her hand was shaking all the time.
"Would you wash mine now?" she asked, and Shannon took the washcloth and washed Jo's back.
They were very polite to each other as they took their shower. But they were both feeling the overwhelming stirrings of desire. And by the time they had finished washing and were standing under the shower head together rinsing off the soap suds, there was no denying what would happen next.
"Shannon, I...uhh," Jo began.
"Yes, Jo?" Shannon said. She brushed against the front of Jo, replacing the soap in the soap dish behind Jo's back. She stayed there with her firm nipples touching Jo's breasts.
"Shannon, I..." Jo began again.
"What are you trying to say, Jo?" Shannon asked, starting to breathe rapidly.
"Shannon, I…uhh," Jo began a third time.
"Good grief, Jo! Shut up and do something!" She wrapped her arms around Jo's neck and brought their lips together.
Jo responded and returned Shannon's kiss passionately, rubbing her hands up and down Shannon's back while Shannon was sliding her fingers down Jo's stomach. Then Jo excitedly reached for Shannon's breast with one hand, while Shannon clung to her mouth. All their sexual sensation was growing from a bud into a full-blown flower! Their lips were still glued together, unwilling to part while their hands did other work.
"God, Shannon, you're so hot down there!" Jo finally said, pulling her mouth away. She had managed to find Shannon 's wetness, while the cooled shower water cascaded over them. She was cupping her cunt with her middle finger on Shannon 's clit. "Do you know how long I've wanted to do this again?"
"Jo, I know," Shannon replied. "And I haven't really been fair to you."
She leaned her head on Jo's shoulder, cupping a breast with one hand while her other hand held onto Jo's hand that was between her thighs. "I've denied you something that I know you want very much, because I don't know whether I'm coming or going."
Jo thought she better do something quick, or she was definitely ' coming ' while she just stood there in the shower with Shannon .
"Turn the water off, Jo," Shannon said hoarsely, "before we freeze in here!" She was panting with desire and then let both her hands go and cupped Jo's buttocks and pulled her close. "I'm so cold! I need your body close to me for the warmth."
"And for something else, too, I hope," Jo said.
She reached up and turned the faucet off while Shannon backed up against the shower stall with the fingers of Jo's other hand still cupping her wet center. Jo dropped to her knees and placed her face on Shannon 's pubic hair and began to nuzzle the soft, fragrant mound she found there.
"Oh, God, sweetheart, do it...do it!" Shannon said, moaning. One hand was on Jo's head now, the other behind her trying to hold herself up against the wall.
Jo spread Shannon's thighs open with one hand, while her other hand moved around to grasp Shannon 's buttocks. Her face buried itself in Shannon 's furry patch while she spread open her lips with her hand. Her mouth found Shannon 's clit and her tongue started moving around in circles. She held onto Shannon's buttocks as Shannon undulated her hips in response, keeping rhythm as much as she could while she was standing up.
"Oh, baby, do it...oh, God...oh, God..." Shannon murmured with ecstasy. "That feels so good, sweetheart."
Jo was circling her tongue rapidly and began to get even more passionate while her own arousal was escalating. She took Shannon swollen clit between her lips, sucking and then holding on to it while flitting her tongue back and forth on the top of it. Then she brought her other hand back around and two of her fingers found Shannon 's vagina—which was no easy thing to do while she was kneeling. She began moving her fingers in and out.
Oh, Lord in heaven, what have you sent me? Jo thought. I think I'm gonna die!
"Almost there...almost there...Oh, God..." Shannon moaned. Then she arched her back and gave a shudder, which went clear down her legs. Jo pulled back and stood up and caught Shannon as she collapsed in her arms. Shannon hung on to Jo's muscular shoulders for support, quivering until the orgasm was over.
Shannon held on to Jo tightly, and after her breathing slowed she began kissing her passionately. Jo knew what she had done to Shannon was going to be reciprocated, as Shannon started reaching her hand down again to Jo's center of desire. But Jo had already come! She had been hanging on to Shannon, too, while own shuddering orgasm subsided, at the same time Shannon had collapsed into her arms.
She tenderly began to lessen their passionate kiss and slowly backed away. "Baby, it's all right. It's all right," she said, gently bringing Shannon 's hand back up. Shannon backed away from Jo, realizing then what had happened.
"I'm so sorry," Shannon said. "I didn't know—"
"It's all right. Really," Jo said. "There'll be another time." She gave Shannon a tender kiss.
"Do you think we should shower off now in cold water? Or should we wait for it to get warm again? Which it probably won't." Shannon looked at Jo questioningly as she talked.
"I think we've used up all the hot water. And, really, I think maybe we should use a little cold water, anyway!" Jo laughingly said. "As long as we don't freeze our nipples off!"
"That's all right. No problem in warming them up again," Shannon replied, as she placed both hands over Jo's breasts and kissed her.
They dried off after washing again, each giving the other a vigorous towel rub to warm up before getting dressed.
After dressing, their lips met in another deep and sensual kiss, while they ran their hands up and down each other's bodies with promise.
" Shannon , don't ever do that to me again," Jo said, holding her close. "Don't ever lead me on again by climbing into bed with me and then dropping me by the wayside like you did when you said you needed me, but didn't want sex."
"Oh, sweetheart, I never meant to hurt you. I just didn't know what was happening to me. I still don't know what's happening. And I don't know how to explain it, either. We need to talk...about Kim. But it's very difficult for me. I'm not sure I really know how . I don't know what to say. Give me time, will you, to sort things out? I'm as confused as you are. But you know that I love you, don't you?"
"Yes. And I love you, too," Jo answered. She hugged her close again and kissed her tenderly. "Whenever you're ready to talk, Shannon , I'll be here. But don't leave me out of your life." The present moment was all she had, and she was going to hang on to it for as long as she could.
They emerged from the bathroom together, dirty clothes in hand. Carly and Paige were coming out of the bedroom at the same time. "Hey, guys," Carly said, looking at them suspiciously. "What's going on?"
"Nothing you'd be interested in," Jo answered nonchalantly.
"We heard Rose call from the kitchen," Paige said. "I think dinner is ready."
"Okay," Shannon replied. "We'll be there in a jiffy. We just have to throw these clothes down somewhere.” Carly and Paige looked strangely at them, but wandered hand-in-hand down the hallway to the kitchen.
"Jo, sit with me for a minute, would you, before we go eat dinner?" Shannon asked, taking her by the hand and sitting down on her bed. Jo sat next to her.
"Jo, do you remember I told you about a national park where Kim began to change?"
"Yes, I do," Jo replied. "But you said you would explain it later."
"Sweetheart, I want to go to the national park tomorrow. It's called The Grampians , and is almost a three-hour drive from here. I feel that I have to go."
"I won't ask why. Because you'd probably not be able to tell me, anyway. But...all right. I'll come with you."
"I was hoping you'd say that. I need you there with me."
There she goes again—this need thing, Jo thought. Why does she need me?
"We'll have to get up early in the morning before anyone else does," Shannon continued. "I don't want anyone to know we're going. Absolutely no one! Not even Rose. And especially not Carly and Paige!" Jo nodded her head in understanding. "We can eat breakfast somewhere on the way. I know a few good places to eat. As you've probably guessed, I've traveled this route before."
"Right," Jo answered. "I'll set my alarm and put it under my pillow so no one can hear it but me."
"We'll wear our rugged clothes tomorrow, with our hats and boots," Shannon said.
We're really getting down to business here , Jo thought. I wonder why we're going there. And what are we going to do when we get there? She guessed she would find out the answers as the trip unfolded.
"Let's go eat dinner now and pretend this conversation never took place," Shannon said.
They walked into the kitchen together and sat down at the table with genuine smiles on their faces. Rose had already filled a plate of food for herself and was sitting at the counter rather than crowding the kitchen table by bringing a chair in from the dining room.
Davie seemed to have gotten over his earlier grouchiness as he put two heaping spoons of mashed potatoes on his plate and smothered it with rich brown gravy. Then he took two thick slices of pork roast and covered the rest of his plate with steamed veggies.
Everyone was watching him with interest while he piled his plate high with food. Davie seemed oblivious to their stares as he started eating. He stopped momentarily and said, "Please pass the rolls." The others started passing the food around after that and filling their own plates.
"Mum is coming over in a little while," Rose said between mouthfuls. "Fred will go pick her up when we finish dinner. She felt left out when we didn't get to play cards when Mr. Bannister got here, so we're going to try it again. She doesn't get a chance like this very often. We'll have eight people now, and we'll play at the dining room table with two decks of cards—four partners. That will really liven up the game!"
Rose was excited about playing cards, also, as they rarely had guests that would want to sit down with them and play. Even Carly and Paige thought it would be something different to pass the evening rather than watching TV. Davie was the spoil sport. He wanted to watch McLeod's Daughters , but Fred talked him out of it, saying he wouldn't be able to play if Davie didn't, because he needed a partner.
They played two games of '500,' then called it a night. Mum was too tired to play anymore, and—once again—Rose and Fred said they had to get up early. Carly, Paige, and Davie excused themselves for bed when Fred got up to take mum home.
Shannon and I will be getting up earlier than anybody, Jo thought to herself. I hope we beat Rose and Fred. She didn't know what the trip had in store, but she was sure that going anywhere with Shannon alone was going to be exciting!
* * * * * *
" Shannon ?" Jo whispered loudly. The house was quiet, and she and Shannon had been in bed for about an hour.
"What?" Shannon replied, whispering also, but sounding fully awake.
"I can't sleep. Why don't you come over here and climb in bed with me?" Jo said simply. She was lying in bed naked. Her voice was quivering with desire, knowing that Shannon was only a few feet from her.
"I can't sleep, either, Jo, but I didn't want to disturb you."
Jo waited a minute and then felt a warm naked body slide in beside her. Shannon began applying her soft lips to Jo's mouth, tenderly kissing her while rubbing her hand up and down her thighs. Then she brought her hand up to the smoothness of Jo's neck.
"Oh, baby, that's the only way I want you to disturb me—" Jo said breathlessly. Her lower parts began to throb, and she could barely contain herself while Shannon made love to her. Shannon turned loose of Jo's mouth as she began to work her way down to her breasts, fondling and licking them and sucking on her nipples. She moved down to her stomach with her tongue and then placed her mouth just above and close to where Jo was more than ready for Shannon 's fingers. But then she brought her head back up and started kissing Jo's breasts again. Oh, God, I'm dying , Jo thought.
Shannon was uttering little moans, calling her sweetheart, darling, and any other endearing term that came to her mind as she fondled Jo. Jo groaned with pleasure, running her hands up and down Shannon 's back. She wondered briefly if Carly and Paige were hearing them. But she didn't care if they did! She felt the tender and sensuous caresses from Shannon like she had never felt from any woman, and in that moment loved her with an intense love she wouldn't have dreamed possible.
Shannon 's fingers found Jo's clit on the second time around, and she lingered there for a minute, rubbing it up and down and circling. "Don't stop there, sweetheart," Jo said. "Do it to me—I want your mouth," she said insistently. Shannon moved her head down between Jo's thighs. As her tongue began licking her already engorged crown jewel, two of her fingers found Jo's wet opening below her labia and began moving in and out, circling at the same time. Jo thought she was going to die from ecstasy.
Her orgasm wasn't long in coming—she had been so ready—and as she came, she brought Shannon's head back up to her and began kissing her with abandon, like she couldn't get enough of her. Jo felt Shannon yield to everything she was doing. After her body ceased its shuddering, Jo powerfully pulled Shannon underneath her and open her legs and started rubbing clits back and forth, creating a friction that aroused them both. They both shuddered in the throes of orgasm at the same time, as if they read each other's mind at the exact moment when it was time to let go.
Jo relished the feel of Shannon 's smooth warm body underneath her and lingered for a minute while she was lying on top of her. She ran her hands up and down the outside of Shannon 's thighs until her breathing slowed and she could feel her senses come down to earth again. She didn't want to let her go—she didn't want to ever let her go.
Shannon said, "You're so good for me," as she wrapped her arms around Jo and started kissing her again. Jo rolled off of her and gathered her up in her arms, with their lips still locked together. Jo knew she could keep on like this all night—never getting enough of Shannon 's lips, her breasts, her smell, her taste. But she knew they had to stop somewhere, as the night didn't stop for anybody . They needed to get at least a little sleep before they took off on the long drive to The Grampians.
Jo said, pulling away from her at last, "That was so good, baby. That was so good."
"Do you think you might be able to go to sleep now?" Shannon asked, sensing the reason Jo was reluctantly disengaging herself. "I think I can. We have to get up early, you know." Jo was in full agreement with her, but regretted it at the same time.
“I think I might manage to sleep now—if you kiss me again," Jo replied.
Shannon kissed her deeply and tenderly and then stayed in Jo's bed the rest of the night. They slept with their arms wrapped around each other, neither of them wanting to be alone.
"Jo, where are you?" Shannon whispered in the dark, moving her hands around in Jo's bed and discovering she was not there. It was pitch black in the bedroom. Shannon had awakened long before Jo's alarm was set to go off. She was too much on edge to sleep any longer, so had grabbed her clothes and went into the bathroom to dress, leaving Jo to sleep a little longer. And now Jo wasn't in her bed!
"Jo, are you up?" she asked, starting to panic.
"Yes, I'm up," Jo whispered back. "I'm over here by the windows. I'm just about finished dressing. Wish I could see what I'm doing, though. I don't know if I put my shirt on right side in or right side out! I came over here, thinking I might have some light to see by, but the porch light must have burnt out in the night sometime. There isn't even any moonlight shining in the window. I wondered where you'd disappeared to when I whispered your name and you didn't answer."
"I went into the bathroom to dress, silly," Shannon said. "Why didn't you come in there ? I was able to turn the light on in there because there aren't any windows. And we agreed not to let anyone know where we were going, so I couldn't turn on any other lights just in case someone was roaming about."
"The thought never crossed my mind, sweetheart, to dress in the bathroom," Jo said gently. "Not enough sleep does that to me, you know? Actually, I was in the subterfuge game mode. You know? The kind of thing where everything is done under the cover of darkness?" She tried to make light of the matter.
"Well, anyway...come on," Shannon said, laughing softly. "Grab your hat and let's get going. I'm all set. I've got my camera around my neck, and everything else I need is in my tote bag. We'll need to get some of Rose's bottles of water on our way out. I don't think she'll mind. We can pay her for them when we get back.”
Jo felt her way back over to her bed, thinking that it was darker that the Cave of the Winds where she lived! She cursed as she bumped into Shannon, who was standing right by her bed. "Sorry," she said, as she took hold of Shannon 's hand and then reached under her pillow with her other hand and turned off her alarm. She grabbed her shoulder bag and hat, which she had placed on the floor at the head of her bed last night. She had packed her essentials in the bag—everything she thought she might need.
"I think I'm ready now," she told Shannon . "Tell me if I'm all together when we get into the kitchen, will you?" she added, jokingly. Shannon laughed softly again.
They padded quietly over the kitchen floor and took three bottles of water each from the pantry, seeing their way along by the night light from the kitchen. There was always a dim light left on in the kitchen when everyone went to bed, as Rose didn't want guests to stumble around and fall or bump into things when they were up getting a drink of water or a snack during the night. Rose always left snacks out for guests who got hungry in the night. Shannon stuffed her water bottles in her tote bag and Jo put hers in her shoulder bag. She wished they didn't have to carry things like ‘bags,' but had no other choice. Jo thought if she emptied out her backpack, it might be an alternative, but she didn't have the slightest idea what Shannon was going to do, and didn't want to carry an almost empty backpack around.
They exited the front door quietly and carefully, as it led right onto the concrete patio in front. They had discovered that the back veranda creaked every time someone walked across it, and going out the front door would create the least amount of noise in the house. Shannon had parked her car alongside the weeping willow tree before she went to bed. She started the engine and found the road at the end of the driveway with only the parking lights on. Then she turned on full headlights as they turned left and headed out towards The Grampians National Park .
She never noticed the dark green car which pulled in behind them and started following from a reasonable distance away. The sky was just beginning to lighten with the dawn.
They found a road sign on Maryborough's main street which directed them onto the Western Highway , one of the major highways in Australia . It was well-marked and very smooth. With the exception of the super-highways surrounding large cities where there was a lot of traffic, major highways in Australia —like this one—were only one lane in each direction. There were no Interstate highways like those in the U.S. The population of all of Australia —approximately 25 million people—didn't warrant the construction of multi-lane highways where roads were sparsely traveled.
The highway passed close to Lake Learmouth . It had once been a vast lake, and in the pre-dawn light they could see the outline of piers jutting out from where the shoreline had been. But there was no water now. It had completely dried up because of drought. Shannon said there used to be a yachting club there.
Then they passed Lake Burrumbeet on the Western Highway —which was National Highway #8. It, too, was bone dry. The drought in Australia had been of long duration and was very widespread. Jo looked at a map of Australia before she flew over from the States, and lakes like these were shaded in blue. So she had no idea that they were the dry lake beds they were now driving past.
They arrived at Beaufort and had to stop for a bathroom break at a public restroom. It was early morning yet, and they weren't that hungry, so decided to press on to Ararat for breakfast. Shannon knew of a McDonald's there that would be open. A fast food place would be more than adequate. She knew of other restaurants, but she didn't want to sit at a table and be waited on—which would take forever , she remembered from ten years ago. She wanted to get to The Grampians as soon as they could and begrudged even the time they would take for breakfast. But they had to eat.
On the way to Ararat, Jo noticed some wind turbines gracing the hills to the south in the distance. Shannon told her that was part of the power for the town, which was quite a large town for this area.
It wasn't long until they arrived at Ararat and found the McDonald's . They were well on their way now, and the sun was up and shining brightly. Hot black coffee sounded like a good idea to begin with. They both realized just how hungry they were when they walked in the fast food place.
They stood in line only a short while. After they bought their breakfast and were seated, Jo took a sip of her hot coffee, saying "Ahh," as the delicious warming liquid ran down her throat. Then she said, "Do you want to tell me why we're going to The Grampians? "
"Because Kim is there," Shannon stated, as matter-of-factly as she could, her mouth full of pancakes dripping with syrup.
"Kim is there?" Jo opened her eyes with amazement. "You said you hadn't heard from her for ten years, except for one time. What makes you think she's around there ? Or even in Australia , for that matter?"
"Do you remember when Joyce hugged me at the ice cream store?" Shannon took a drink of coffee to wash the pancakes down. "God, these are good pancakes, aren't they?"
Jo nodded in agreement to both questions.
"Well, Joyce said something to me then."
"I thought she did, but I never heard what it was."
"Joyce told me that they never knew what happened when Kim came back and I wasn't with her. She said, 'She's never told us anything .' Joyce used the present tense, and that told me Kim was still here—still in Australia ."
"But why do you think she's at The Grampians National Park ? "
Shannon wiped her mouth and hands with a napkin and then reached in her tote bag and pulled out a square envelope, a little worn with age. "Read this," she said and handed it to Jo.
Jo noticed the envelope was postmarked from Melbourne , but there was no return address. It was dated sometime in December, ten years ago. She lifted the flap and pulled out a Christmas card with a note stuck inside. She read:
My darling Shannon,
As I told you when we said goodbye in Melbourne , I had to answer a higher calling. I have finished my training among the Aborigines now and on the third Saturday of December I will be initiated at The Fortress as a shaman. It is an exciting day for me.
I will never stop loving you. But please be happy for me. This is where I belong and where I can do the most good.
Jo sat there in silence for a minute, not knowing what to say. Today is the third Saturday in December! And Christmas is just a few days away . How fitting , she thought ironically, glancing around at the Christmas decorations scattered about the inside of McDonald's .
But that was ten years ago!
"Where is The Fortress? " Jo asked. "No, don't tell me. The Grampians ."
"Yes," Shannon said. "And I just know that's where she is!"
" Shannon ," Jo said, "what makes you sure she's there now ? God, it's been ten years since she became a shaman—since she wrote this letter."
Jo deliberately forced Kim's words that she'd read—'I will never stop loving you'—to the back of her mind, as she didn't want to think about it. What if Shannon did find Kim? What then? But she wasn't about to voice her thoughts. She was afraid of what Shannon might say.
"Jo, I just know ! This is the day she'll be there!" Shannon said, stuffing another heaping forkful of pancakes into her mouth.
Jo saw that it would be pointless to try to persuade her otherwise. Shannon had made up her mind, and there was no turning back. What do I do now? she thought. What can I say?
"Why do you have to find her?" she finally voiced, and was rewarded with silence.
"What is The Fortress? " Jo asked with her mouth around a hunk of sausage. She might as well start somewhere to try to understand why Shannon was so hell-bent on getting there.
"When Kim and I were at The Grampians, we went on a four-wheel-drive tour. Our tour guide stopped at various places that would be of interest to us. All of our stops were preplanned, of course. At one place he stopped, we walked a hundred yards or so down a path to see some Aborigine rock paintings. It was fenced in so that tourists couldn't get close enough to touch the rocks, but could still take pictures through the wire. Our tour guide told us it was one of only six places in the park where tourists could come and view the rock paintings and use their cameras. There were many other ancient sites, but people weren't even allowed to go there because they were sacred sites for the Aborigines."
Shannon drank some more coffee, gathering her thoughts before she continued. "We went a little further on and made one last stop before we went on to McKenzie Falls for our mid-afternoon lunch. We looked across a wide valley, and to the south the tour guide pointed out a range of mountains known as The Fortress . He said a lot of Aboriginal sacred sites were known to be there , but that it was virtually inaccessible. He said no one ever went there because it was too hazardous and difficult to get to.
"He said some company had tried to get a helicopter permit to fly tours over The Grampians —which would, of course, have made The Fortress somewhat accessible, relatively speaking, from the air. But they were turned down. In addition to that, the park allowed only four-wheel-drive vehicles on roads that were not paved, and there weren't any roads at all going to The Fortress . That hindered further exploration of The Grampians by tourists. The park eventually designated The Fortress off-limits to anybody wanting to go there."
Shannon stopped for a brief moment and looked at Jo, who was swishing her coffee around in her cup, eyes down. Oh, Jo, I wish I could tell you how much of a relief it is to talk to someone about all of this—after being silent for ten years. She reached a hand over and put it on Jo's arm. The noise from customers in McDonald's got louder. She moved close to Jo. "Stay with me, sweetheart," she said. Jo looked up at her with sadness in her eyes.
Shannon continued. "In the part of the park that was open to tourists, four-wheel-drive vehicles could be used only in the summertime , as dirt tracks turning off the few paved roads were impassible during the winter because of the rains. We were the last four-wheel-drive tour our guide had planned before winter set in. The rains had held off so far, but he didn't want to book any more tours. And the other tour company that ran four-wheel-drive tours in The Grampians had already shut down for the winter."
She stopped again.
"What happened?" Jo prompted. She didn't really want to hear any more about Kim, but yet she wanted to keep the conversation going, her curiosity mounting. But Shannon was disinclined to talk any more. She had finished eating and laid her utensils aside and stood up from the table.
Jo tried to put the Christmas card with the note back in the envelope, but it wouldn't fit. She noticed there was something else in there. She pulled out a picture of a boomerang.
"What's this?" she asked, standing also, holding the picture under Shannon 's nose.
"That belongs to my memories, too," Shannon said. She took the picture and stuffed it back into the envelope with the Christmas card and put it back into her tote bag without any further explanation.
Jo noticed that Shannon —as she had been talking—had been nervously looking around during the last several minutes at the people who had come into McDonald's since they first got there. She wondered why she was so jumpy.
Shannon didn't want to say anything to Jo—not wanting to upset her—but there was something familiar about a man and woman sitting in a corner booth at the back eating breakfast. They wore the almost-regulation type shorts and broad-brimmed hats that tourists wore, and their appearance rang a bell in her mind somewhere. But she couldn't place where she had seen them before.
"Let's get out of here, Jo," she said, hoping she didn't sound as uneasy as she felt. Her breakfast was threatening to become an indigestible lump in her stomach. "We need to stop at the Target store here and see about picking up a couple of day-packs, plus some rope and food supplies. The stores should be open by now." She looked at her watch—it was shortly after 9 o'clock. They had already spent too much time at McDonald's.
"Aren't you going to finish your story?" Jo asked.
"No," Shannon replied abruptly. She took hold of Jo's arm and headed them both toward the restroom to wash up before they went to the car. Jo's mind was racing in anticipation, wondering what in the world was driving Shannon so desperately. But she kept her silence.
Another Americanized store, Jo thought, as they pulled up to the store—called Target Country . But Americanized only to a point, she noted as they walked in. There was no indication they carried pharmaceutical supplies. She'd forgotten to bring her medicine on this trip to The Grampians— the pills she took for her migraines. But she also noted that she hadn't had a migraine since she landed in Australia ! Then she remembered that a person could get medicinal products at a chemist's store, so Target wouldn't have anything, anyway.
Shannon bought two day-packs and fifty feet of nylon climbing rope and stocked up on a few pre-packaged food items such as hikers would use. A cigarette lighter, some toilet tissue, anti-bacterial hand-wipes, plastic utensils, and a flashlight with extra batteries rounded out their gear. On impulse, Shannon hefted two machete-like knives in her hands and put them in the pile to be checked out.
"I think this is all we'll need," Shannon said, as they carried their purchases out the door. When they got to the car, they divided the things equally between the two day-packs. They also emptied what was in their 'bags' into the packs—all of their personal items. Shannon had also brought an extra lens and memory card for her camera. They deposited their now-empty 'bags' in the trunk of the car along with the full day-packs.
Jo had gone along with whatever Shannon wanted to do, not questioning her, but knowing from the supplies she purchased that they would be going on some kind of a hike. There was no other explanation for her buying all these things and putting them into day-packs. But why did Shannon purchase machete-like knives on the spur-of-the-moment? I hope she's not planning on doing something foolish , she thought.
Jo's writer's mind kicked into overdrive as she visualized an Indiana Jones saga about to be played out by two women who didn't have the foggiest notion what awaited them ahead...at least, on her part. Shannon seemed unperturbed at what lay ahead of them. She probably knows just exactly how this is going to play out, Jo thought, as she settled in the passenger seat and buckled up. I just wish she'd let me in on it.
But Shannon was far from being unperturbed as she pulled out of Target's parking lot. She kept looking around suspiciously as they shopped in the store and then packed the day-packs at the car. She couldn't shake the uneasiness she had felt in McDonald's . But so far, she hadn't seen that couple again. She couldn't imagine why she was so wary of them.
To be continued...
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