Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars + 4

Corcovado5.1

IV

His mother, Elizabeth, had grown up in the Episcopal Church, and, with her parents, she had worshipped at St Andrew’s over on the west side of town, the ‘money’ side of town, every Sunday. And though James was her ‘sweetheart’ even then, he wasn’t drawn to the church – had never been interested in any church – yet that didn’t seem to matter to her. She talked James into going with her a time or two but nothing stuck, yet she was true enough to him to let the matter rest – “in the Lord’s hands,” she liked to say. When the war in Europe started, actually during the Battle of Britain, James went down to the Post Office and signed up for pilot training; he ended up in California learning to fly the earliest models of the B-17, and it turned out he was a very good pilot.

They corresponded, by mail, after he left Vermont, and soon she understood that he had lost all interest in religion – and why; she, at home on the other side of the country, had started going to St Andrew’s several times a week – and her interest in religion only deepened. By the time December Seventh rolled around, he was training new pilots and she was teaching Sunday School; when James shipped off to Britain in ‘42 she went to study religion at Boston College.

And so it went. They were polar opposites set on a collision course from the very beginning, and at the end of James’ war, after he returned from Britain, he was a very different man. As different as Elizabeth had become over the intervening years.

Yet they picked up where they’d left off – in each other’s arms, still madly in love with one another. Weeks after his return they walked the aisle in St Andrews hand in hand, as husband and wife, yet, if anything, his understanding of God and His Church had only diminished in his eyes. James had, he told his wife, been on many of the so-called ‘thousand plane raids’ over Dresden and Munich, he had fire-bombed whole cities, killed thousands upon thousands of human beings; there was, he told her, “no room in God’s House for the likes of me.”

They had talked about salvation and confession and he told her those were mere words to him, and she could feel the flames of burning cities aglow in his eyes. She said she understood after one bitter night, and she never pressed him further. Not once. She was, she told him, content to let God come to him when He was ready.

They wanted to wait a few years to have kids, or so they said, so he could earn some money and build up his bank account, and she told him late in 1949 that she thought it was an opportune time. Why ‘opportune’ he did not know, but he agreed and soon she was with child.

Yet he was too good a pilot for the Army Air Corp to let go of him completely, and, because he’d signed on to participate in the newly formed U. S. Air Force Reserves, when asked he was soon flying B-29s over Canada and the Arctic. When war broke out in Korea off he went, and two months after he arrived in Japan his daughter Rebecca was born, though he very nearly never got to hold her in his arms.

On a mission over the North his formation was attacked by Mig15s and his aircraft was damaged badly in the brief skirmish. He nursed the -29 back to the sea and had almost made it back to South Korea when fire broke out inside the right wing; he got his men out and rode the aircraft down, belly landing in the Yellow Sea. He managed to crawl out of the sinking wreckage and into a life raft, but both his legs were badly mangled.

His war officially ended on a hospital ship in Japan; he was back in the States a few weeks later, though he spent months at a succession of military hospitals in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And, finally, in White River Junction, Vermont, and that’s where he finally met his daughter.

And though in many ways James was the same sweet man Elizabeth had always known, he had come back a changed man – for the second time. Whereas he had exuded an infinite invulnerability when he came home from Europe, he now cast a wary eye almost everywhere he looked…like he was suddenly unsure of the very ground beneath his feet. Still, he persevered, met his doubts head-on. He walked, then he ran back to his life in St Johnsbury, and Elizabeth knew then that God answered all prayers.

When Rebecca fell ill – some sort of meningitis, the physicians told them – she prayed and prayed, and yet Rebecca passed. In the aftermath Elizabeth fell away from the Church, and in the fullness of time she completely lost her faith in God.

She finished her graduate degree – in social work – and helped coordinate social services throughout northern Vermont…everything from helping the recently disabled to the newly homeless. She came to be regarded as something of a saint among the ‘down and out’ – and even to the pastors and bishops that worked the pews around the region, hers was a well-regarded soul.

And then something horribly unexpected happened. A girl, an eight year old Chinese girl, was raped one summer’s evening near the old highway that went from St Johnsbury south, and a trucker who had been passing through on his way from Montreal to New York City was apprehended. And this mysterious truck driver – who was, apparently, from Hong Kong – was being pursued through the forests south of town. It was only a matter of time, they heard on the radio, until the monster was caught.

+++++

The rain had let up a little, and he could see faint patches of blue through thinning clouds from time to time. Melissa was sitting with him in the enclosed cockpit, rain and wind-driven spray still spattering on the canvas overhead, while Ted and Tracy were standing at the mast pulpit, looking for timbers on the Sound’s roiled surface.

And yet he and Melissa had said little to one another since she boarded. He didn’t know what to say to her, and she wasn’t sure she had anything left to say to a man like him.

Then, up on the bow, Ted pointed to the left and he looked that way too, saw a massive timber sjust awash and corrected his course to miss it – and as suddenly Ted was pointing frantically to the right – and he saw more timbers roped-up in a tight clump. He stood to get a better view of the way through the knotted seas, then he cut back on power, slowed to bare steerage-way and worked his way around and through the flotsam – and he found he was holding his breath more than once…until they were through, anyway.

“This is really bad…” Melissa said moments after he sat behind the wheel again. “I’ve dealt with crab-pots in Maine, but never anything like this.”

And he knew he was beginning to tremble a little – only for another reason. He’d had three cups of French roast and his bladder felt like it was about to rip apart, right down the middle, but he didn’t want to leave the wheel…

“You okay?” she said when she saw the expression on his face, the perspiration on his brow.

He shook his head. “Nope. Bladder’s about to…”

And she stood, took the wheel – and he looked at her like she was out of her mind – until the need to let loose from both ends grew like a three-alarm blaze. He nodded and ran down the companionway steps to the forward head – and didn’t return for ten minutes.

And when he did she was still behind the wheel, steering deftly between timbers, taking the hand signals Ted gave her without the slightest hesitation.

“You tired?” he asked.

“Not in the slightest…this is – exhilarating!”

“Well,” he mumbled, “that’s one way to look at it.”

And she laughed at that, then leaned over to look forward again. “I’m making for that buoy up there,” she said, pointing to a can about a mile ahead. “That marks the entrance to the inlet, right?”

“Yup.”

“Damn, this is a fine handling little ship, Jim. World of difference between my 325 and this thing…”

“Nothing beats displacement in seas like this.”

“I’ll say. Man, if you ever want to trade, give me a call…”

He laughed at that. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” He watched her watching the sea, watched the way she shifted her weight with her knees to roll with the swells and he nodded his approval. “Yours have a pedestal, or that rig under the seat?”

“Pedestal. That other rig always felt dead to me.”

“So I’ve heard.” He turned and looked forward then, content to let her steer for a while longer, and he noticed more and bigger patches of blue sky. “You may get lucky. Looks like some sun is trying to break through.”

“Yup,” she groaned, working Altair down the backside of a large roller.

Yet she kept her course, he saw. She bore down on the rise, fell off the crest, never missed a lick. “You do much racing?” he asked.

“A little. Why?”

“Because you’re damn good on the helm, that’s why.”

He wasn’t looking at her just then so he didn’t see the look in her eyes.

“Can you come up a bit?” he said. “I want to head straight in the inlet, not come in at an upwind angle.”

“Got it,” she said, and he watched the bow swing to starboard a little…twenty minutes later they passed the buoy and he turned and looked at her.

“You wanna take it now?” she asked.

“No. You’re doing fine,” he said as he came to the pedestal and changed the displays on the plotter.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the display.

“Chart with a radar overlay here, and forward-looking sonar here, on the right.”

“Sonar? You mean…those are the walls of the inlet – underwater?”

“Yup.”

“Holy moly, this is like cheating…”

He grinned. “Kinda, yup, but it sure beats driving your boat up onto the rocks.”

“I’ll say.”

“Slow her down to 1600 RPM,” he said in his typical flight instructor’s voice, then: “Come to 3-3-0 and let’s see how much the current plays with us.”

“Got it.”

“Okay…see how it’s pushing us to starboard? Let make 3-2-5 and bring the revs up to 1800.”

He watched as she adjusted the throttle and made the course change, then he looked at the sonar readout and the plotter for a moment. “You’re doing great…okay, fall off a little more…okay, you got it…”

And then, just like that, they were through.

“Moorings in here?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Anywhere, in particular, you want to drop the hook?”

“Depends. If there’s room there’s kind of a waterfall all the way in. Nice sound to sleep to.”

She nodded her head; smiled a little, too. “Did I see a store back there?”

“Yeah. If you run out of food it’s okay in a pinch.”

“Expensive?”

“Man.”

“How far back does this thing go?”

“Not quite three-quarters of a mile,” he said, signaling Ted to get the anchors ready. “Keep an eye out for anchor lines…so don’t cut too close to other boats…I’m gonna get the Zodiac ready.”

+

Once the anchors were set he came back to the swim platform and tied off the Zodiac, then he watched her as she looked around the boat, wondering why he’d been so taken by her earlier that morning.

Was it just because he was lonely?  Whatever, it was his choice and he was in it now. Duty-honor-country wasn’t at work here, not like with Babs? His father had taught him about those things, but then again his parents had lived kind of an idyllic life – at least compared to what he and Barbara had endured…

“Endured…?” he said, unaware he was speaking aloud.

“What’s that?” Melissa asked, now standing on the aft deck – looking down at him still sitting in the inflatable.

“Oh, sorry, I was just thinking.”

“What did you endure? My turn behind the wheel?”

He chuckled at that. “No, not at all. I was impressed, really. You’re quite the helmsman.”

“Well, okay. Now what?”

“Excuse me?” he replied.

“You gonna run me over to the beach, or you want me to swim for it?”

“Water’s kind of cool for that, I think.” He looked at her for the longest time, then he sighed.

“You look…perplexed,” she said – perplexed.

“I’m not sure I know how to say this, but the odds of you finding a place to stay around here are somewhere between slim and none, and I don’t suppose you’re carrying a tent and sleeping bag in that duffel. So, what are your plans?”

“Get ashore, find a road and start walking. Something always comes along.”

He shook his head. “Not here. The only roads are back by the village, and there aren’t many places to sleep on this part of the island…unless you’ve got a home lined up.”

“Okay…so what do you suggest?”

“Stay here,” he said, his voice lost somewhere on the quiet side of hope.

“Here?” she replied. “With you?”

“Yup.”

“Okay,” she said, looking at him again.

And he felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and that puzzled him.

She came down to the swim platform then. “Can I give you a hand?” she asked.

He turned and looked around the cove…it had emptied out earlier that morning after they’d departed for Nancy’s. He assumed people had seen the break in the weather and pulled anchor – and now Altair’s crew had almost the entire cove to themselves.

When he turned to her he saw she’d taken off her shoes and was sitting on the platform, and she was just now dangling her feet in the water.

“Yikes…this IS cold,” she said, surprised. “Like Maine kind of cold.”

“This is not the Gulf of Mexico…that’s for sure.”

“What happened to your mom and dad?”

“Hmm? Oh, they passed about, oh, Mom went first. I think six years ago. Dad passed a few months later. Broken heart, I guess. Couldn’t live without her, so I think he chose not to.”

“He wasn’t sick?”

“Nope. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. That’s the way to go, I reckon.”

“They were that close?”

“Closer than forever.”

“What?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

“You think about them a lot?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I do. I miss them. I – miss – what they stood for.”

“You mean, like…politics?”

“Good Lord, no…just the opposite. They were diametrically opposed politically, from the very beginning, I think, but that didn’t seem to matter. Not to them, anyway.”

“Dad?” Ted said, coming back to the aft rail. “You through with the Zodiac?”

“For now. You two want to go exploring?”

“Yeah. Is there enough gas?”

“Yup. Two gallons, at least. That ought to be good for a couple of hours at low speed. Grab a hand unit and some water, maybe some sunscreen too.”

Ted nodded and left to get stuff from below, and Melissa pulled her feet out of the water and shivered a little. He found himself staring at them, at how white they’d become.

“You better get some socks on,” he said.

“Oh, they’ll warm up.”

“You say so, but don’t be surprised if you catch a chill. It’s cold and damp, not what your body is used to…”

He changed places with Ted a few minutes later, then they watched as Ted and Tracy took off across the cove, headed for the little waterfall, and as he watched them go he felt kind of odd. Like happy and sad, at the same time.

“How long have those two known each other,” she asked.

“I think this is the fourth day.”

“What? Really?”

“We had dinner at a restaurant in Vancouver, near the marina we were tied up at. She was our waitress, and Ted kind of fell for her.”

“What does that mean…‘kind of’?”

“Ted’s kind of confused right now. He’s been like a heat-seeking missile, dead-set on becoming a priest for as long as he’s been able to recite the Lord’s prayer…”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ I’ve been picking up little signals that something happened this past year, but I’m not prying. Not yet, anyway. That said, he’s of a mind right now to meet a girl and do the deed.”

“He’s a…”

“Indeed he is. By design, not chance, but, like I said, something changed this past year. Something changed inside him.”

“And she’s the first girl he’s…”

“Yup,” he sighed. “I think you’ve got the picture.”

“I don’t like it. There’s something really off about her.”

“How about heroin and a pathological liar. Is that a good combination?”

She stared at him, then shook her head. “Why?”

“He’s going to be 21 in August. He’ll do the right thing.”

“He might. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with her in the picture. Did you get her junk off the boat?”

“Yup.”

“You say she’s from Australia?”

“That’s what’s her passport says, yes.”

She nodded. “Think her passport is here, on board?”

“I don’t know. I guess so.”

“Mind if I take a look?”

He shook his head. “I’d rather not break those boundaries, if you don’t mind. What are you? A cop?”

She shook her head. “Nope. I work in the prosecutors’ office, with the DAs office, in Atlanta; for the most part, I work sex crimes.”

“What…like rape…stuff like that?”

“Yeah, stuff like that,” she said, looking him in the eye.

“Interesting.”

“Interesting? Why do say that?”

“My mom was very religious when she was younger. She became interested in social work, worked with victims of sexual assault.”

“When was that?”

“Back in the 50s, I think. At least, that’s when she started. She kept at it ‘til Dad retired and they moved to Florida.”

“She was a little ahead of her time, don’t you think? Weren’t too many women back in the 50s working with those kinds of people. Do you know why she developed an interest in that work?”

He shook his head. “No, not really. It was was of those things she never talked about.”

Melissa nodded understanding. “It’s usually for personal reasons.”

“Oh? You too?”

She kept nodding. “Yeah, you could say that.”

He looked at her, then turned away for a minute – his eyes closed.

And she looked at him closely just then, not sure what she was seeing, then she leaned over, put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you some sort of an empath?” she asked.

“I don’t know…I’m not even sure I believe such a thing is possible…”

“Oh, it’s possible, alright.”

“And?”

“I can see it all over your face. You read people, don’t you? I mean, read ‘em like a book.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes things are clear to me.”

“Things?”

“People.”

“What about Tracy? What could you see about her?”

“Trouble. All kinds of trouble.”

“Such as?”

“The things she told us about her life seem out of place, but it’s her…”

“Her eyes.”

“Exactly. Something in her eyes.”

“Something…?”

“Dishonest.”

“Dishonest?” she said wonderingly. “How about…dangerous?” she added.

“I thought so when I first listened to her talk about her family, her parents. Now I’m not so sure.”

“First impressions are usually the right impressions, you know?”

He nodded, looked at her anew. “You brought cameras, lenses?”

“Yup.”

“Got a good telephoto.”

“I do. But I don’t think we have a way to get to shore right now.”

He scrunched-up his lips, then shrugged.

“Maybe you just wanted to be alone with me out here on your boat?” she asked – quietly.

“You know…? I think I’m too tired to do much of anything this afternoon, not without taking a nap first. I hate to leave you, but I really am tired.”

“Can you show me where to put my bag? I’ll need to unpack a few things.”

He hesitated, then shook his head a little. “Follow me,” he said, and just aft of his stateroom was a little office – that also had a small bunk against the hull, “Be it ever so humble,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”

“Kind of small,” she sighed. “Where do you bunk out?”

“Forward,” he said, feeling very sleepy now.

“You look beat. What time did you get up?”

“Two, two thirty. That’s my usual, though,” he said as he stumbled to his berth. “You mind if I take a rest for a while?”

“Be my guest.”

He lay down – and was asleep before his head hit the pillow…yet he was aware something was wrong.

His dreams were fevered, and the pain started then.

+++++

The police called Elizabeth, asked her to come to the hospital. They told her to hurry and James drove her.

A detective from the state police met her when she arrived, told her the victim, a young Chinese girl, had been found – dead – south of town, her throat cut, evidence of anal penetration – semen, the policeman said, unsure of himself around this lady – and that the girl had never talked.

“Why do you need me?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “I’m not connected with the police.”

“Well, the problem is a little unusual, Ma’am. We found a truck nearby, a box truck, nineteen-footer…and it was full of Chinese gals. None of ‘em speakin’ much, but one of ‘em said they were going to New York. They got jobs there. And they just come from China, on a boat.”

“How many girls, officer?”

“As best I can tell, something like ninety.”

“Ninety? In a nineteen foot truck?”

“A-yup. Packed like oysters in a tin can. Smell about the same, too.”

“Isn’t this a problem for the immigration people?”

“Probably so, a-yup, but you see…I think there’s something else goin’ on, and I heard you was good at talkin’ to folks. So, I was wonderin’ if, maybe, you could talk to these gals some, help us get a handle on where these folks is headed. Think you could?”

The detective helped her find the conference room where the girls were being held, and when he opened the door the sight she beheld was like nothing she had ever seen. Two hours later she was as angry as she’d ever been in her life – and she knew, too, that her life would never be the same.

+++++

This chapter (c) 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | just a little bit of story-tellin’

Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars 3

corcovado 3

III

He looked at the chart plotter again, checked their depth carefully as he motored slowly into Squirrel Cove, a convoluted inlet on the southeast side of Cortes Island – and deep inside Desolation Sound. It was almost seven-thirty, and while the sun was still up, somewhere up there behind the clouds, they’d been at it all day – setting sail at four in the morning and pushing-on through one heavy rainstorm after another. Now, with the end of their journey at hand, visibility was down to fifty feet and at ferocious wind, right out of the south at sixty knots, was pushing Altair towards the rocks on the right side of the narrow, westernmost inlet. Tracy looked terrified; Ted looked bored. He knew his father, knew he was enjoying this, the extra challenge at the end of a long, hard day…

A violent gust rocked the boat and he turned Altair into the wind a little, though she rolled more than thirty degrees right for a moment – and Tracy shrieked her displeasure then, now, suddenly, beyond terrified. Yet Altair stood up again and he added power, his eyes now fixed on the chart plotter…and the way ahead.

“Another hundred yards or so and we’ll be out of this wind,” he said for Tracy’s benefit – just as another gust slammed into Altair, sending her almost on her beam.

“Jesus, Dad, the wind gauge hit ninety…!” Ted called out, but he was still focused on the rocky ledge about fifteen meters ahead – because these gusts were pushing him right for it…

He waited for the wind to settle a little, then slipped the transmission into reverse and backed down hard, his rudder to starboard a little, and as Altair’s bow pointed away from the ledge he put the transmission in forward again and gunned the engine, kicking the old girl with his spurs on one more time. A minute later they were inside the sheltering cove, and the wind, just as he said it would, fell off to the gentlest breeze imaginable.

“Get the eighty pound ready first,” he said, quietly, to his son, and Ted ran off to the bow to get the anchor ready to drop. “How you doin’, kiddo?” he added, looking at the disbelief in Tracy’s eyes.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Get us in here…?”

“Badly, I’m afraid. I should have anticipated those last two gusts.”

“Badly?”

“Yeah. Sorry about that…that really could’ve gone smoother,” he sighed, but his eyes were on the plotter again. He overlaid radar on the display and he could see the contours of the cove now, and every boat anchored inside, too, even though visibility in the heavy rain was still under fifty meters. He changed range scales and fiddled with the gain setting, knocking back the rain-clutter, then he saw a likely place near the far east end of the cove.

Ted had the eighty pounder on the roller now, ready to go, and he waved him back to the cockpit. “No reason for you to stand out there,” he said as his cold, wet son clambered back into the cockpit.

“How far?”

“‘Bout a half mile, and I don’t think this rain is gonna let up anytime soon.”

“What’s the forecast look like?”

“More of the same, like maybe two, three more days.”

“Swell,” Ted grumbled. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

“It’s pretty here,” Tracy sighed, peering into the murk. “Nothing but trees…”

“Oh,” he said, grinning, “there’s more here than meets the eye.”

“Like?”

“You’ll see,” Ted added, though he was grinning now, too.

“What’s the big mystery,” she whined.

He looked at the plotter, confirmed there were no wayward currents pushing him around inside the cove, then he looked up, checked the radar against the boats he saw looming out of the mist and rain just ahead. “About three hundred yards, Ted.”

“I’m gonna get another fleece, my gloves, too.”

He powered back a little, turned away from a group of boats anchored along the south side of the cove, then noted several were rafted-up together, forming a sort of floating community out here in the middle of nowhere…then Ted was bounding out into the rain again. He picked his spot and throttled down, let Altair drift to a long, arcing stop, then he toggled the windlass and let the anchor down…slowly…and then, when Ted gave him the signal, he backed down until he felt the anchor set.

He shut down the engine, marveled at the quiet of this place once again – even as he listened to the wind through the pines and rain pelting the cockpit enclosure…then he noticed Tracy looking at him.

“Does anything bother you?” she asked.

“What?”

“That storm…the rocks…you could’ve lost your boat, maybe our lives, but it was like you were, well, on heroin. Nothing seems to upset you…”

“People get in trouble when they panic. When they stop thinking the problem through, when they just start acting. That’s probably the first thing a student pilot learns, too, by the way.”

“So, that’s it? You run into things like this all the time, so it’s like…just no big deal? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yup.”

“What happens if you screw up?”

“People die.”

+++++

He opened his eyes, looked around. Navy gray everywhere, and ductwork…the thrum of air conditioning and heavy machinery buried deep within the bowels of the living, breathing ship. A medic of some sort fiddling with his bandaged leg, then adjusting an IV hanging from a tree over his face.

“Oh…you’re awake…”

“If this isn’t a dream,” he replied, “I am.”

“No, sir, Lieutenant, no dreams allowed in here.”

“Where am I?”

“Back on the Roosevelt, sir. Docs operated on both legs, and turned out that snake’s venom was pretty mild, like maybe he didn’t get a good strike or somethin’, but I’ll go get the doc…”

He nodded, then looked down at his legs and shook his head. “Fuck,” was about all he could think to say, then he just stared ahead until a man in blood-splattered green scrubs came up to his gurney.

“Guess you had a helluva night, Lieutenant.”

“What happened?”

“Beats me. By the time the Seals got to you, well, you were out cold and seriously fucked up. Good thing you powdered that wound on your right leg…that shard got close to, well, let’s just say you had a close call and we’ll leave it at that.”

“And?”

“We still don’t know what kind of snake got you. One of the Seals got it with an M16, brought back some pieces so we could ID the thing. I think what saved you was, well, your vascular network down there was already pretty compromised, so the venom just couldn’t spread. It’s responding to anti-histamines so it’s probably a hemotoxin, so it wasn’t a cobra or something like that.”

“When can I get back to flight status?”

“Well, that’s the good part. No fractures and no major muscle damage, so assuming no infection I’d give it about two months…”

“Two…MONTHS?”

“Believe me, Lieutenant, when you get on your feet again you’ll realize how close a call you really had…”

“Can I go back to my quarters now…” he asked, clearly perturbed.

“You’re leaving for Germany on the next COD,” the physician added, “then stateside.”

The squad CO, Dan Green, came in a few minutes after the doc left, and Green looked at his leg for a while, then came closer. “Close one, Jim. You remember what happened?”

“First SAM – went wide right, the second went just aft. What about the Sukhois? Did I get ‘em?”

“Yeah, you sure did. Nothing got airborne, and the base is history. We got some Seals in there to secure the place this morning. It’s a done deal now, anyway. Saddam’s people are bugging out, disappearing into the hills, and their air force is, well, they split too, flew to Iran.”

“Iran? I thought…”

“Everyone thought they’d go to Jordan. They didn’t.”

“So, what? They’re just going to sit this one out?”

“Guess none of them felt like being martyred this week, if you know what I mean.”

“I guess, yeah.”

“So, they tell me you’re headed to Wiesbaden?”

“Can you talk to someone, Dan? No broken bones…shit…I ought to be ready to fly in a few days.”

Green laughed at that. “Hell, Jim, this thing is going to be over in a few days, for us, anyway. They’re already talking about moving a couple of the carriers back out to the Indian Ocean, maybe to the Med. Seems like Saddam is getting ready to shoot off some Scuds, and the thinking is he might try to hit Israel.”

“Too bad for him if he does.”

“Yeah, anyway, by the time they get that leg fit for duty we’ll probably be back at Pearl. I wouldn’t sweat it, but if it heats up again you’ll be ready to go. You’re a short-timer, aren’t you? You weren’t thinking of extending?”

“I wasn’t, until this thing. My hitch is up in June.”

“Call it four months, then? Well, who knows. If we’re still here in a few weeks I’ll put in a request. About all I can do, Jim.”

“Thanks, Skip.”

“Yeah. Well, some of the ground-pounders wanted to talk to you…”

“The Seals? Great…!”

And with that, five men came into the compartment.

“Hey, L-T!” their CO said as he led his men into the little compartment. That was some mean shootin’ you did out there…”

“Shooting?”

“That cat. You nailed it, right in the throat. Dropped him like a sack of potatoes. Pretty good for a 1911 – at that range, anyway.”

“Cat?”

“Yeah, that spotted thing. Looks like a leopard, only it’s not. Some kind of swamp-cat…but man, you got him…”

“All I remember is the snake…coiled up by my feet…”

“Yeah, he was still there when we got to you. Hernandez got him, emptied a whole fuckin’ magazine into his fat ass, too.”

He looked around at the Seal team and nodded. “Thanks, men. Appreciate your laying it out there for me.”

He heard their chorus of “You bets…” and “No problemos,” then they were gone, Green too, and he felt himself coming down hard and fast now.

“Germany…?” he sighed. “Well, at least I can call the folks from there, and Babs, let ‘em know I’m okay…”

Then the throbbing started.

By the time he arrived in Germany his right leg was splotchy blue and the docs told him some kind of bug had gotten into the tissues of his lower leg…something from that swampy marsh…

“A bug?”

“Yeah. They get in through the wound, find their way into the space between the muscle and your skin. They multiply like crazy in there.”

“And?”

“We try antibiotics, three or four of ‘em, over the next 24 hours.”

“We try? And what happens if they don’t work?”

And the doc shook his head. “Let’s not go there right now…okay?”

+++++

Tracy was shivering and Ted was almost as white as snow when they came in from setting the anchors, so, as much as he didn’t want to, he fired up the generator then turned on the cabin heaters. He set about making dinner then, though he kept his eyes on the weather every few minutes. The forecast was for almost freezing temps overnight, the mid-30s, anyway – and that was for Vancouver! – yet three days from now sunny and in the 70s.

“What a roller coaster…” he sighed as he turned to the chicken in the skillet.

“What’s for chow?” Ted asked as he came out of the aft cabin.

“Lettuce wraps and that coconut soup you like.”

“Ah…nothing like Thai on a rainy night.”

“You’re cooking Thai food?” Tracy asked. “On a boat?”

“Why not?” he replied. “It’s not that difficult, and it doesn’t take long.”

“Lettuce wraps?” she added. “Really?”

“Sure. I washed the lettuce and made the soup this afternoon. All I have to do is grind the chicken and put the soup in the microwave.”

“The microwave? You have one of those, too?”

He shook his head – again – then turned to the stove – again. He added lemongrass and basil, and finally one crushed cardamom pod, then he turned down the heat and let the chicken simmer for a while. “Tea’s ready, if anyone wants some.”

“Don’t tell me,” Tracy sneered. “Fresh chai?”

“Yup.”

“This is ridiculous,” she sighed. “This is like a floating restaurant…”

“You’d rather I opened a can of dog food for you?” he asked, trying to keep calm.

“I just don’t get it,” the girl said. “Getting away from it all…”

“Doesn’t mean I have to deprive myself of the things I like to eat, Tracy. You forget. This is my home, and the idea of living like a backpacker doesn’t appeal to me all that much.”

She nodded. “Yeah…I get that…”

Ted was rummaging through a pantry about then, and he stood up, beaming, holding forth a can: “Dad! Look! Pork and beans, with weenies, even! Trace? Want some?”

She sneered again. “No thanks.”

Ted looked at his old man – and winked.

+

She helped with the dishes, and he let her know he appreciated the help, then he went to the chart table and looked over the batteries.

“Gonna have to run the generator all night?” Ted asked.

“With this water temp the fridge and freezer won’t draw too much, but the heater? That won’t run off batteries.”

“So? We’ve got good blankets…”

“Yeah? At 36 degrees and with three bodies in here there will be enough condensation on the ceiling in the morning to take a shower with…”

“Dad? We’re like, ya know, laying down a smoke-screen out there. The fumes are overwhelming.”

“So?”

“Well, do the words ‘pristine’ and ‘wilderness’ ring any bells?”

“Does freezing your ass off all night mean anything to you? Then dealing with an unholy mess in the morning?”

“I vote for warm,” Tracy said, tossing her two cents into the up. “I kind of like warm.”

“Me too,” he said. “Don’t you just love democratic systems of governance, Paco?”

Ted sighed, shook his head. “I like warm, too. I also hate turning this harbor into a cesspool. Like, we came here to get away from all that crap?”

“Right, Paco. Who’s up for a movie?”

“Movies?” Tracy said…and he sighed – then turned the generator to AUTO and flipped the heater to STAND-BY – and complete silence enveloped Altair…and the entire cove, for that matter.

And moments later he heard cheers and applause coming from all the boats anchored around Altair, and he shook his head as he retreated into his cabin.

+

He slept late – ‘til three a.m., anyway – then he got up – shivering – and turned on the generator, then the heater. He put on coffee and took his shower, then fired up the chart table and looked over the current weather. “Wind still out of the south, at forty, forty-five, and rain all day. A high of fifty-five? Well, well, well…sounds like a good day to read.”

He decided to check on Ted and poked his head in the aft cabin – and saw Tracy curled up by his son’s side.

He closed the door gently and tip-toed to the galley, trying not to grin, then he put on some hot water to make that tea-like crud Tracy was using to help back off the heroin. He got out “her” cup and added the recommended amount and let it steep for a while, then he went back to her room and woke her.

“Is it time already?” she asked, and he nodded.

He went back to the galley and a few minutes later she came out, looked at him getting ready to cook breakfast and she walked up behind him, put her arms around him.

“Good morning,” she said, then she disengaged and walked to the main table in the saloon and sat – as usual, tucking her bare feet under her thighs.

“Sleep well?” he asked, handing her the mug.

She looked at him and grinned. “I wish I’d known he was a virgin,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “I’d have baked him a cake or something…”

He shrugged. “All things being equal, I’m kind of glad it was you.”

She teared up at that, then turned away. “Me?” she said a minute later. “The lying heroin addict?”

“Sorry. That’s not the girl I know. I know this girl named Tracy, the one who meets problems head-on, and doesn’t quit.”

“That’s not the girl I know.”

He shrugged again, then smiled at her. “Looks like were in for a long, rainy day. You like to read?”

“Depends…”

“Well, I’ve got a few books stowed for a rainy day…”

“You said you have movies?”

“Yup. On my laptop. Play ‘em through that iMac over there,” he said, pointing.

“Do you have any oldies?”

“Oldies? How old does a movie have to be before it’s an oldie? The first Star Wars, maybe?”

She grinned at that. “No, I mean old…like Elvis kind of old.”

“Ah. Well, I do have Paradise, Hawaii Style, if that counts?”

“Which one’s that?”

“He plays the fired airline pilot who comes home…”

“That figures,” she said, grinning. “I bet you have The High and The Mighty, too.” And he started whistling John Wayne’s iconic theme at that, and she broke out laughing. “My God, you do have a one-track mind, don’t you?”

“You could say that.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask…what happened to your leg? The right one, there?” she said, pointing.

He turned away from her question, went back to the galley. “Just a bad night,” he said as he pulled out a skillet. “A bad night, a long time ago.”

“Was it serious?”

“No, not really.”

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, not really.”

“Okay. Can I help?”

“I’m just gonna whip up some breakfast. You hungry?”

“Actually, yes. Want me to wake up Ted?”

“Just see if he wants to get up yet…”

She walked past, brushed up against his back as she passed and a chill went up his back, and he leaned forward, put his outstretched hands on the counter and closed his eyes, trying to remember the last time he’d been so attracted to another human being…

+++++

“Hey, Pumpkin,” he said as he came into their apartment. He was carrying his flight bag in one hand, his car keys in the other, and he could hear Barbara working away in the apartment’s tiny kitchen, so he put his bag down and walked in. He could smell bourbon and the realization unsettled him – if only because it was not quite lunch time.

“How was your night?” she asked.

“Long.”

“Ben Chambers called this morning. He wants you to call-in as soon as you get settled.”

“Oh? Did he say anything?”

“Nope. You want to grab a shower? Lunch will be ready in about ten minutes…”

“Yeah. I’d better,” he said, thinking he might have to run back out to the training center after lunch. He walked into the bedroom and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Something didn’t feel right, he thought. Something was – off.

He shook it off and hopped in the shower, washing away the night – and the sudden panicky vibration gripped him again, then he dried and got dressed…in a hurry. She had huevos rancheros and fresh guacamole on the table and he dug in. “Jeez, darlin’ – you’re getting better and better at these…”

“Thanks, Jim. Glad you like ‘em.”

“Well, I love you, Pumpkin. It’s sweet of you to do this for me. When do you go in?”

“Three to midnight again. You off tomorrow?”

“Three days off, then I start Atlanta to CDG – for three months, anyway.”

“Paris…? Think we could spend a long weekend there?”

“You know it, babe.”

She sat beside him, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, then she smiled. “That could be fun,” she added…a little too suggestively.

“Where would you like to stay?”

“I don’t care…somewhere old, away from… No. Maybe by Notre Dame. Are there any hotels over by that part of town?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I can ask one of the guys when I start…”

“Could you?”

“Sure. You need help with the dishes?”

“No…you’d better go make your call,” she said, and he nodded, went to their bedroom again, and again, the hair on the back of his neck shot up in electric warning.

He shook it off, called Chambers’ office at the training center and held while someone went to find him.

“Jim? You haven’t put on your pajamas yet, have you?”

“No, sir. What’s up?”

“An opportunity, I think, if you’re up to it?”

“Oh?”

“Listen up. Word is headquarters is dead set on unloading most of our widebodies, including the L-1011s. I don’t know what the timeline is yet, but even if we keep the TriStars around you’re way back on the seniority list. It could be ten years before you get to the left seat, and then what? You make it just as we dump the type? Then what?”

“Jeez, Ben. When’d you hear this?”

“Couple days ago. Look, I know you’re getting ready to start this week, so here goes. We’re getting our first 752s in this year, and from what I hear management is really going to get behind this hull. I’m thinking, with your experience you could make captain in two, maybe three years, and the 57 is Delta’s future. You hearin’ me?”

“I am. And, what’s the punchline?”

“Our first school starts in three weeks. You can start the Paris run as scheduled, put in your app and wait, but I think they’ll take you.”

“What do I need to do?”

“I’d get down here pronto and get the paperwork in.”

“Like, this afternoon?”

“Like yesterday, Jim. The word’s out. Tomorrow will be too late for the first group of FOs.”

“I’ll be there in an hour,” he said as he hung up the phone, and when he turned around Barbara was standing in the doorway, glowering at him.

And that’s when he noticed the used condom on the floor by her shoes. He looked at it for the longest time, then he picked it up and carried it right past her on his way to the bathroom. He flushed it down the toilet, washed his hands then left – without saying a word to her.

He missed the smile on her face as the door closed behind him.

+++++

“Two days of this rain is enough, Paco. I’ve had it. You ready to run down to Nancy’s, grab some chow?”

“Oh, man, I thought you’d never ask!”

“Is Nancy’s that place you two keep talking about?” Tracy asked.

“Nancy’s is only the best place for breakfast on earth,” Ted sighed, suddenly almost salivating.

“And what that really means,” he added, “is that he’s tired of my cooking.”

“I’m not,” Tracy said, smiling.

“Well, I am,” he said. “I could use a break. You ready to pull up the hook?”

“You wanna leave now?” Ted asked.

“Yup. Maybe we can get there before the early morning rush.”

“The early morning rush?” Ted croaked. “In Lund, B.C.?”

“You see all these boats anchored here, Paco? Well, there are probably two hundred more over in Gorge Harbor, and in about an hour they’re all gonna wake up and have the exact same thought – at the exact same time. My-oh-my, but a fresh cinnamon roll over at Nancy’s sure sounds good!”

“Alright, alright…let me grab my gloves, Captain Bligh.”

“Good. I’ll warm up the diesel.” He preheated the water lines and flipped on the spreader lights, then went to the cockpit and started the engine, watching the gauges as it warmed. When Ted pulled up on the trip-line and gave him the thumbs-up, he ran the windlass, pulling the anchor, and it’s chain, up onto deck, and he verified their position on the plotter while he turned to leave the cove.

Light rain and a wind-driven, four-foot chop greeted them outside, and he set his course to 1-5-6 and engaged the auto-pilot, then went topsides to roll out the headsails. When both were pulling he and Ted raised the main, then he ducked below and fell off the wind a little, letting the sails fill, then he fiddled with the heading on the AP for a while, until a gust hit and Altair heeled over dramatically.

“Whoa!” Tracy shouted, grabbing the cockpit coaming and holding on for dear life. “Where’d that come from?”

He chuckled. “Where did what come from?”

She scowled as she looked at him, then she smiled too. “It is kind of fun, isn’t it?”

“Kind of.” With her port-side rail over far enough to ship water in the troughs, Altair bit into the wind and began racing south towards Lund, and still the sun was nowhere to be seen. The sky was simply sifting through shades of gray as night turned to day, and the water looked impossibly black out here…like India ink. He saw the lights of a fishing boat ahead, and a few channel markers were flashing in the darkness, but there was almost nothing else…

“Dad! Logs!”

He saw them then – almost invisible in the rolling waves – a half dozen trees had broken loose from their raft and were adrift mid-channel, so he fell off the wind and they picked their way through what turned out to be several hundred fifty-to-seventy-foot-long timbers, knocked free from their rafts by the storm, so he did what he thought best and called the hazard in to the Canadian Coast Guard…

It took two hours to make the run down to Lund after that, and he was more than ready for a cinnamon roll, too, by the time they tied off at the nearby fuel dock. He was stressed now, afraid of hitting an errant log and holing the hull, maybe losing his home.

“Stayin’ long?” the owner, a very old man asked, and when he pointed to Nancy’s the old guy just smiled and nodded. “Take your time. No crowds ‘til nine or so. See many logs out?”

“Yeah…hundreds…”

“I heard some guy called ‘em in to the Coast Guard. That’s a laugh…”

“A laugh?”

“They’re too busy running down the druggies to do much about it. Besides, happens every summer up here…”

“Oh? I’ve been up here a few times, never seen it so bad.”

“They’ve been cuttin’ trees like nothin’ I’ve seen before, and all winter, too. China, I guess. They’re building like crazy over there – and usin’ our lumber to do it, I reckon.”

“Lot of drug running up here?”

“Non-stop. Word is most of it’s comin’ from North Korea, too. Chinese heroin, I’ve heard, for the most part. That’s kind of funny, don’t you think?”

“China has made an art out of playing both sides of the street – for a long time.”

“Playin’ us the fool, too, and laughing all the way to the bank.”

He shook his head then went about topping off both tanks, but he turned to Ted then and told them to go on up and get a table.

“Want a roll?” Ted asked.

“Yup…”

“Need water?” the old guy asked. “The hose is right here…I can watch the pump if you want to top off your tanks…”

+

He was chilled – and soaked to the bone – by the time he made it inside Nancy’s, and he made it to the table just as his cinnamon roll arrived.

“Coffee, sir?” their waitress asked.

“Yup. A big one, French roast if you’ve got it. You know what? Make mine a latte, if you can.”

She nodded, smiled at him and walked off to the counter.

“Man,” Ted began, “that’s some snotty weather, Dad…I don’t know about this…”

“Not the weather that bugs me, Paco. It’s all the wood out there…”

“Wouldn’t they just bounce off?” Tracy asked. “It’s just wood…?”

“Maybe, if you hit one just right, but that wood is soaked with water, almost as hard as iron. Odds are, I think, a strike would knock a hole in the hull. A big one.” Her eyes went wide as she realized what they’d just been through, how close they’d come to a real emergency, then she looked away – out to sea. “Talking to the guy at the dock,” he continued, “he says this is the worst summer for rafts breaking up, ever. Been a lot of incidents in the main channel, too.”

“What do we do?” Ted asked, his mouth scrunched up into a lopsided frown.

“Well, for one, I think when we leave we’ll head back slowly, only on days when the visibility is good, and only in daylight. Next…we’ll have to set a bow watch.”

“Oh…joygasm…” Ted sighed, knowing what that meant.

“We won’t head back until this weather clears, and it’s warmed up a bit…man, these cinnamon rolls haven’t changed one bit, have they?”

“I just saw a yummy looking bagels and lox,” Tracy said. “I’m gonna get that.”

He looked at her, wondered just how much she could put away. She’d been eating non-stop for the last two days, nauseated if she didn’t eat, and he felt for her. Again…

“Yeah, it looked pretty bad,” Ted added.

“Bad?” he asked.

“Bad…sick…that means they really kick ass these days, Dad.”

“Ah. Well, good to know I have a translator.”

The door opened and a girl came in – a woman, really, he noted. Short, squat, almost soft looking, and she peeled off her rain gear – then turned and shook them off just outside the door. She came back in and hung them on a hook, then took a microfiber cloth and cleaned her eyeglasses as she walked to the counter – and he found he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

The place was empty now – but for the four of them and the staff, and he wondered what had gotten her out so early. He watched her order coffee at the counter then she turned and looked right at him – right in the eye – and he couldn’t turn away.

Red hair, white skin set in a nebula of freckles, and even across the room he could see her eyes were deep blue – then the woman walked right up to their table…!

“You came in on the blue boat, right?” she asked – and her accent was pure Georgia, thick as molasses.

He was watching her lips, entranced by the shape of them as she spoke, then her words registered. “That’s right. What brings you out this early in the morning?”

She looked puzzled hearing that, shook her head. “I was trying to get over to Cortes Island,” she said, the question she wanted to ask hanging in the air, apparent.

“Oh? What’s over there?”

And again she shook her head, the tone of his question obviously unsettling. “Seals, for the most part. I wanted to take pictures of seals over there, because I’ve heard it’s lovely at dusk.”

“It might be,” Ted interjected, “if the sun came out every once in a while.”

She laughed a little at that. “Yes. Nice weather so far.”

“How long have you got?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” she replied.

“To spend on the island?”

“I was hoping to make it a day trip, but it seems that’s impossible from here.”

“Yup,” he added. “About a two-hour trip. From here, anyway.”

“You’ve been?”

“Yup. We’ve been anchored at Squirrel Cove…”

“Really! That’s just where I wanted to go. The pictures I’ve seen of the area are really just amazing.”

“We had fifty-foot visibility,” Ted began, a little sarcastically. “Great for looking at, what, Dad? What could we see?”

“Trees. Once.”

“And a whole lot of fog,” Ted added.

Her coffee came and she took it, still standing by their table.

“Would you care to join us?” he asked.

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“Not at all.”

“So, you see, I wanted to get to the island, walk around, take pictures, then get back here, to the hotel…”

“I thought there was a boat to Whaletown…?”

“There is, but not for two days.”

Not too many places to stay over there, by that cove,” he added. A few guest cottages, but they’re…”

“Well, it’s too early in the season. Not open yet.”

“So,” he said, then he paused, thought over the options running through his mind, “you could hop over with us. We’re headed back after breakfast, we’ll probably stay for a few more days, so you could look for a place to bunk out over there, then hitch a ride back with us.”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“No, of course not.”

“When are you leaving?”

“As soon as we have some chow.”

“I ask as I’ll need to go pack my things and check-out…”

“Why don’t you sit down and have some breakfast. We’ll help with your bags…”

And when she looked at him this time the still, unsettled look in her eyes rattled him. “I don’t mean to be forward,” he added. “Probably just be easier that way.”

She nodded her head then looked at the dock where Altair was tied-off. “Is she an Island Packet?” she asked.

“That’s right. How’d you know?”

“I’ve had a couple. Last was a 325 I kept down at Destin.”

“I hate that harbor entrance,” he said, lost in a memory. “When the wind picks up it’s snarky.”

Now it was her turn to take a deeper look – at him. “You’ve been there more than once, I take it?”

“My folks retired there. He kept a Tashiba 40 down there by the pass.”

“Oh? Nice boats, beautiful interiors.”

He nodded. “Yup.”

“That’s what got you into sailing? Your parents?”

“I guess so, yes, but I was always interested, even as a kid…”

He looked at Ted just then, looked at Ted looking at this stranger, then back at him. And his son was grinning, or trying not to grin…and that got to him…as in – just what kind of signals am I putting out?

“So,” the woman asked. “This is your first boat?”

“Yup. Probably my last, too.”

“Really? Why do you…”

“Well, it’s home now. And I’m not big on moving.”

“You’re full time? A liveaboard?”

“Seems to be the general consensus,” he said, grinning.

“What do you do?”

“I fly, for Delta.”

That seemed to take her back a notch, too. “No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

“My husband flew for them…I mean, my ex-husband flies for them?”

“Oh? What’s his name?”

“Terry Goodway…”

And he laughed at that. “Small world,” he sighed. “He flew with me a bunch when he first got his type. What’s he up to these days.”

“I don’t know, besides hanging out with his brand new, nineteen-year-old wife.”

And he laughed again. “You’re kiddin’ – right?” But he could tell by the expression on her face that no, she wasn’t kidding. Not in the slightest. “I’m sorry,” he stumbled, “but I don’t recall your name.”

“Melissa.”

“Jim,” he said, reaching out with his right hand.

She took it, but at the same time added: “And let me guess. Your wife got the house, and you got stuck with the boat…?”

Ted bristled. “Not quite,” his son snarled, his voice dripping with malice. “Dad gave her the house, and he took the boat.”

“Oh, really?” Melissa said, her disbelief plain to see.

“Really!” Ted said – as he pushed his chair back and walked outside.

“Wow, sorry…” the woman said. “He’s…uh…”

“Pretty sensitive about things right now. It happened not long ago.”

“And, well, still waters run deep, I guess. What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“She’s had issues. We decided it was a good time to go our separate ways.”

And she looked at him again, this time as if she was changing her mind, then she looked at Tracy.

“And you are?”

“Staying out of this,” Tracy said, matter-of-factly.

“No, dear. Do you have a name?”

“No, not right now I don’t.”

“Ah, well,” Melissa said, looking at him, “perhaps I’d better let you and your happy brood  go your merry way.”

He stood as she stood, then held out his hand again. “Nice to meet you. Hope you get to your island.”

“Thanks,” she said, then she went back out into the early morning drizzle.

He watched her go, saw Ted walk up to her and he watched them talk for a few minutes, then they shook hands and Ted came back inside.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“Nothing. I just needed to clear the air.”

“Okay.”

The rest of their breakfast passed in near silence, and when it was time to pay-up he went to the counter and had more cinnamon rolls boxed-up to-go, some bread, too, then they walked down to the fuel dock together.

Melissa was there, a large blue duffel at her feet, waiting for them.

+++++

He was waiting outside the operating room, pacing back and forth in quick, anxious strides. She was eight months pregnant – but had gained almost a hundred and ten pounds – and now her blood pressure was off the charts. 223 over 130 earlier that afternoon – when someone at her office had insisted she go to the hospital, and when her obstetrician arrived she’d insisted they try to induce labor, or, failing that, take the baby before he was compromised.

He’d been somewhere over Florida when the SELCAL chimed, someone on the company frequency calling. He’d taken the news calmly, outwardly at least, but he was hurt, almost angry as he listened to the chief pilot telling him what was happening. He’d done everything he could to get her to stop eating, had cooked the healthiest meals he knew how – only to find out she’d been eating several candy bars – an hour – all day at work. She was, he understood now, content to not merely kill herself. She was going to take as many people down with her as she could, and he wondered what he might try next.

At least he’d gotten her off the sauce. He’d begged her to do at least that much, at least until the baby came, and she’d relented, promised him she wouldn’t – until he came.

Pacing the floor he had wondered…had she scarfed down the most damaging crap in the world simply to put on as many pounds as possible – so she could resume drinking that much sooner? Had his faith in her fallen so low? Had his faith in himself fallen so far…?

Her doc came out a while later, told him that both she and their son were alright now, that the boy was a little premature but nothing serious, and he had fallen away inside the moment, tried to hang on to that one bit of good news for as long as he could.

+

She let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she had no intention at all of staying home with Ted, not even for breastfeeding, and he’d simply nodded.

“You’re going back to work, I take it?”

“That’s right,” she said – bitterly. “And don’t you dare try to stop me!” she’d screamed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t think of it, Barbara,” he’d whispered, then he’d gone to change the boy’s diaper. Later that morning he called his mother, told her what was happening. She’d flown up that night, moved into the guest room and taken over – and had never once uttered a bad thing about anything, or anyone. In time he realized that Barbara loved his mother more than she loved her own, this his mother was the mother she’d never known. Babs began watching his mother, learning from her, and in time she learned to love honestly, without condition, perhaps for the first time in her life. On Ted’s second birthday she had promised him she’d never drink again, that she’d try to be a better mother…

And, within a few weeks, she was drinking again.

And his mother came back, resumed her duties while he flew and Barbara worked, then got drunk. Night after night. He tried to get her to seek help, any kind of help, but she would curse him and flee into the night.

In time they, he and Ted, started spending time down in Destin, spending time with his father on Altair. His father’s Altair. When the weather was nice they’d go out the cut and sail offshore, and Ted had always loved those bouncy rides best of all, and other times they had motored down the intra-coastal waterway, all the way to Panama City most trips, then they’d come back by way of the sea.

One day they’d been offshore when Ted spotted a weird, drooping fin of some sort and they’d altered course, gone over to see what it was…

“Oh,” Ted’s grandfather said, “that’s a Thresher shark. Not real dangerous, but he’s pretty weird looking, isn’t he?”

Other days they went out and ran across pods of dolphin and Ted would lean over and reach out for them as they swam alongside; he’d learned early on that his son had fantastic balance, and was fearless, too. He’d held on protectively until Ted was seven or eight, then he knew enough to just let go.

His father had been a pilot, too, in the war. The Big One, as it was called. Flown B-17s over Germany and lived to tell the tale, or so his old man liked to say – when he’d had a few too many, anyway, then he’d come home and gone back to work for his father…at the family’s hardware store in St Johnsbury, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. He’d married his high school sweetheart and they’d had one girl – and then him, many years later. His sister Becky died when she was in kindergarten, and so he’d learned all about love and loss and life and death – and at an impossibly early age. Lessons, he knew now, that had never slipped away…lessons he’d learned from his father.

When he went away to college, to Boston College, his father had known it was all over, but really, he had known for years. His father had managed to get hold of a Cub, a Piper Cub, and had started teaching his son to fly. They flew the Green Mountains, up and down the Connecticut River Valley and all around Lake Champlain, and before long he knew that’s what his son wanted to do. His father knew all too well, if only because that had been his dream, too.

But there had been the family business lined up against all those distant hopes and dreams, his son taking over the family business chief among them, yet in the end it had been easier to sell out than to hold on a little longer, so his father had done what he had to do, then moved to Florida and settled in for the duration. And somehow Altair had become a part of his father’s new life down there. Not golf, not tennis, not even flying…no, it was sailing – something he’d never imagined his father doing…and yet his old man had taken to it with a vengeance – like a duck to water. His old man had even bought an old Greek fisherman’s cap and had been known to hang out around the docks, talking the talk.

Then Ted came, and Barbara flamed out.

And there he was again, like he’d always been. Shoulder the burden, help as best he could, and that first Altair had become the means to an end. Grandfather and grandson, tied together forever by a boat, and yet he’d not been the only connective tissue holding this family together, because his mother was always there too, always taking on the role Barbara should have…

And that had confused Ted.

Once Ted went to kindergarten, once he learned how other families got on, he’d begun to wonder why his family was so different, and, naturally, soon enough the boy had begun to wonder if it was something he’d done. If it was all his fault.

And, of course, as a new father, he’d never seen it coming.

But his mother had. And she’d done her best to answer all Ted’s questions – but, he knew, it’s never enough.

In time he watched his son grow up in the shadow of benign neglect – on Barbara’s part – and an almost smothering love – on his own mother’s part – and then one Sunday, against his wishes, his mother had taken Ted to Sunday School.

(c) adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | fiction, always fiction…

Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars 2

corcovado 2 im

II

His eyes were red, his mouth tasted like old fish and bug-juice, and now this. Someone, somewhere in Washington, had gotten a bug up his ass and wanted a bunch of Iraqi Migs hit before they could, conceivably, get airborne – and thereby be instantly shot down by some U.S. Air Force pukes loitering above Ali Air Base. There remained an outside chance, however small, that these Migs could break out and go after one of the carriers in the Gulf, and that just would not do.

The problem, as he saw it, was that his squadron had just bombed the living daylights out of just that airfield, including bombs that had cratered the runway beyond any further possible use. The other problem? Someone in the NRO had just gone over the latest satellite imagery and one runway was, somehow and against all odds, operational. And then, under cover of darkness and against all odds, the Migs had arrived.

No, that would just not do…not one little bit.

Ali Air Base was the closest operational base to Kuwait City, and, therefore, to the Gulf, and had been, literally, plastered two days before, when Operation Desert Shield rolled over into Desert Storm. And, he had flown at least six sorties there over the last two days. His Intruder had taken several hits from small arms fire this morning, driving home the point that, as hapless as the Iraqis seemed to be, a ‘Gomer’ with a flintlock could always get off a lucky shot off – and thereby ruin your whole day.

The squad XO had rousted him from a nice, warm dream less than a half hour ago, given him enough time to grab a shower and drop by the air wing’s dining room for a bologna sandwich and some bug-juice, otherwise known as Kool-Aid, as he walked to the briefing room; he began to regret the sandwich as soon as he finished it – and wished he’d tossed down two more Dixie-cups of the red stuff – on top of the four he’d tossed down – but already his bladder was aching…and that just wouldn’t do…

The Wing’s intel weenies had set up an overhead projector in the little compartment, but as only three Intruders were being detailed to this strike the room had kind of an intimate, less formal feel going down just then, until the CO walked in and that vibe disappeared – in an instant. Commander Dan Green walked up the lectern and looked at his team, then shook his head.

“No use going over the how or the why,” Green began, “but Gomer has moved some assets on the ground at Ali that weren’t there four hours ago, and that can only mean one thing. Somehow, someway, we didn’t get the runways as good as we thought. Also, there are eight Mig-23s on the ground there, and ten Frogfoots just landed, maybe an hour ago. They’re loaded with ordnance, or so I’m told, and we got Marines on the beach, if you get my drift…

“Jim, you’re taking 5-0-9.”

“5-0-9, sir?”

“We’ve apparently got two of those new AGM-84E missiles onboard, and 5-0-9 is the only bird we’ve got that can handle them. You’re also the only man in the squad with any training on the dash-84, and someone on the E-ring wants it used – tonight. Here’s your attack profile,” Green added, handing over a hastily mimeographed piece of paper – full of charts and graphs. “You’ll launch and arc in from the west. The missiles’ tracks are programmed to hit the fuel bladders, again, and the OPS building, which we, somehow, missed today. Satellite imagery has their pilots in-barracks right now, but they’re fueling the Migs as we speak, so odds are they’ll try to take-off before the sun comes up. With that many aircraft up, the thinking is one or two might get through, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

“So, I launch, shoot and boogie back?” he asked.

“Not quite. Your load-out includes two cluster bombs. Look on page three. You launch, impact should be within two minutes. The XO and I will come in from the south and east a minute later, then you come in from the west about a minute after that, drop on anything that moves.”

“Okay.”

“One other thing. See the note page five…you’ll meet up with a Raven at those coordinates. He’ll lead the strike, jamming for the most part, but he’ll be carrying anti-radiation heads, too. He launches first, then you. Got it?”

He looked over the attack profile and shook his head. “Why so low over the border?” he asked. “I thought their radar were down across the board?”

“A Saudi E-3 is picking up emissions in the area.”

“Oh, swell.”

“Yeah. Good news all over. Word is someone picked up Buk transmissions late last night, and some Air Force A-10s picked up some SA-7 fire when they tried to hit a road about ten clicks north of there…”

“You’re full of good news, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well, if it was easy…”

“Yeah, yeah…I hear you, skipper.”

“5-0-9 is gonna shoot from cat one, and she’s on the elevator right now, ready to go. Cartwright ought to have the coordinates loaded by now, all but the rendezvous with that EF-111. Try not to bust 300 AGL inbound, okay?”

“Yup.”

“Seeya.”

“Yup. Good hunting, skip.”

“You too. Better get a move on.”

He picked up the rest of his gear and made it to the flight deck as the Roosevelt turned into the wind, and he did a quick walk-around the Intruder as an S-3 applied full power next to his catapult, checking his ordnance was racked correctly and all pins removed. He climbed up into his cockpit just as the Viking launched, and the cockpit filled with JP-9 fumes.

His BN, Jerry Cartwright, was still entering waypoints into DIANe when he clambered into the left seat, then his crew chief helped hook up an O2 line to his face-mask; they both straightened out his harness before the chief pulled the safeties on the ejection seat, showing him the pins before he disappeared into the darkness below. He took a deep breath and looked around – but all he saw outside the Intruder was pure black…not even a flicker of moonlight on the sea…

He applied power and taxied from the elevator, watched the deck come alive as he lined up on the rail, then he closed the canopy and ran up power, waiting for the wand. A minor swarm walked away from the Intruder a moment later, all the last minute checks complete, and he then ‘Pri-fly’ came over the net right on cue.

“Tiger 5-0-9, clear.”

“5-0-9.”

“You got her spun up? We ready to roll?” he asked Cartwright as he checked power and rechecked the wing.

“I’m nominal.”

“Okay. Let’s go do this shit.” He turned to the wands down in the dark and adjusted his head a little, pushing his body back in the seat a little more, then he turned his head a little and saluted into the night…

…And the Intruder roared down the deck…slamming him into the seat…

In the enveloping darkness the transition to flight was subtle…just the slightest dip as 5-0-9’s wings bit into the thick air as she cleared the deck…and, as was his habit, he shook his head and worked his jaw as he raised the gear and cleaned the wing, keeping one eye on the altimeter, the other on his airspeed, scanning the engine tapes until he was at 1500AGL and everything was still working the way it was supposed to.

“Come left to three one zero,” Cartwright said. “You got the Raven’s coordinates?”

“Entered.”

“Okay…why don’t you do some of that pilot shit and wake me when we get back.”

“Yup, you take a nap. Just remember to wake me somewhere over Kansas, okay?”

“Yup.”

“Tiger 5-0-9, Big Stick.”

“Five by five, Stick.”

“Tiger Lead is airborne. Start your hack in five, four, three, two, one – mark.”

“Got it,” he said as he reset the chronometer and punched the go button.

“509, contact Turnout on 244.3, and good hunting.”

“Forty-four three, and thanks.”

He trimmed the Intruder into a shallow dive and slipped the HUD into terrain mode, looked at the sea’s surface one more time before he turned all his attention to his cockpit instruments. He would for the rest of this first segment, anyway.

“5-0-9, Turnout,” he heard a few minutes later.

“5-0-9, go.”

“Come to 3-2-0, get down in the weeds now.”

“3-2-0.”

“Uh, 5-0-9, we’re picking up emissions inside Al-Wafrah, profile looks like SA-11.”

“Got it.”

“Turnout, Weasel 3-0-9, expedite.”

“3-0-9.”

“Uh, 5-0-9, make that 3-3-0. Someone just went active.”

“Jerry?”

“I’m looking…” his BN said as the Intruder’s threat receivers started warbling…then…“I gotta launch! One airborne. Now two…! High-PRM, headed south! Get down in the weeds, man!”

He sighed, felt his sphincters relax a little as he pulled up on the stick a little. Five twenty knots and one ten over the waves meant one wrong twitch and Tiger 5-0-9 would become a smeary patch of oil in the waters off Kuwait…then he saw the beach a mile ahead, and a few campfires down on the sand as they roared over seconds later.

“5-0-9, feet dry.”

“5-0-9, come left to 3-1-0 and climb to at least 200 AGL, buddy, or I just can’t see you.”

“Three ten and two.”

“How long?” Cartwright asked.

“To?”

“The Raven.”

“Call it ten minutes. Maybe nine minutes forty seconds.”

“Wish there was some moon.”

“Not me. Too many b-b-guns down there.”

“Hear anything from Barbara?”

“Nope. She went back home, I think. To her parents for a while.”

“5-0-9, got an outbound strike headed to the Stick, two miles north, 300AGL.”

“Okay.”

“5-0-9, come left to 2-2-0 NOW!”

He hit the stick hard, reefed the Intruder into a steep left turn, his eyes focused on the altimeter as he came off the power a little, then the threat receiver came on again.

“What the fuck!”

“Looks like heat-seekers. SA-7s, my guess,” Cartwright croaked, the G-forces making it hard to talk now.

“Every Gomer with a flintlock,” he groaned – as he straightened out on 2-2-0.

“5-0-9, you guys still with me?”

“Roger that. Looked like SA-7s.”

“5-0-9, concur, your traffic is now two zero miles, come right to 3-4-0.”

“Got it.”

“Okay, come up to 7000AGL, then start your attack profile after you hook up.”

“Seven, yeah, got it.”

Moments later the EF-111 appeared high and to their left, coming out of Saudi Arabia, and he reefed the Intruder into a gently arcing turn and slipped into the Raven’s four o’clock.

“Magpie, 5-0-9. You ready?”

“Affirmative.”

“Follow me.”

He looked around once, finally realized the night was clear and it looked like there were a billion stars out, then he focused on the -111 and followed this Magpie into a steep dive, letting his speed build up to almost five hundred and ninety knots – as fast as the Intruder dared go at this density altitude, and with this payload.

“Magpie, 5-0-9, I’ve got two transmitters targeted, launching in three-two-one…”

He had his visor down in an instant, and he squinted ahead just enough to see his instruments – yet even so the intense bloom from the Raven’s anti-radiation missiles almost blinded him.

“Fuck!” Cartwright shouted. “God damn, I’m fuckin’ blind!”

“Magpie, 5-0-9, launching in three-two-one…”

He clinched his eyes tightly this time, and still he saw the bloom – only it was deep red this time – leaving the jangled impression of blood vessels on his retinae. He shook his head, looked at the attack cue on his HUD and armed both his missiles.

“Launch in fifteen seconds,” Cartwright sighed, flipping the final safeties to OFF. “Ten seconds. Magpie, launching ONE in five, four, three, two and one…launching TWO in five, four, three, two, one…”

His eyes almost wilted under the sustained fire that burst forth from his wings.

“Magpie, Turnout, two impacts, high probability detonations on target. Come left to zero-two-zero, start jamming off axis.”

“Magpie, 0-2-0.”

“509, SLAM ONE has detonated. I’ve lost your second…no…wait one. SLAM TWO detonation, both appear to be on target. Tiger 500 and 5-0-2 are starting their runs. Come to zero-eight-two degrees and 500AGL, 300 K-T-S.”

“509, 500 and three.”

“509, start your run your discretion.”

He looked at the chronometer on the panel…call it fifteen seconds…as he trimmed out of his dive and went to full power. “Going now,” he said to the controller in the E-2C, then, to Cartwright: “Pickle’s hot?”

“Your bombs,” his BN added, unnecessarily.

Even from thirty miles out the fires were visible, yet he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like down there. At least ten thousand pounds of high explosives had just hit the Iraqi airfield – everything from fuel storage bladders to the control tower had taken hits, and now he was coming in to literally drop bombs on anything, or anyone, left standing.

Then…the threat receiver screamed at him…

…As five SAMs lit off and arced off into the night – chasing the skipper and the XO…

“Turnout? Got a vector to the launcher?”

“500, 509, negative. Hit the airfield again, got that! Repeat, stay on target!”

“509, roger.”

“509, Turnout, radar contact, we got three aircraft taxiing for the runway, looks like the Sukhoi-25s.”

“Vector?”

“Call it zero-eight-one.”

“Show me four-zero seconds out. Gotta drop from at least eight hundred.”

“509, no active emissions from the SAMs…looks like they shut down…probably putting more on the rails.”

“Yup. Runway in sight…confirm…looks like three Frogfoots and a Flogger…”

The threat receiver began howling again…just as he pickled his bombs on the Sukhois…and seconds later he saw the SAM arcing in from the left. Flares and chaff, push the stick down, turn into the missiles flight path, try to confuse their radar seekers, more chaff, stick up, jink right and push down…

One missile exploded harmlessly in his wake…

The second missed, but only by a few meters, then it exploded a hundred meters behind his Intruder…

And fire alarms went off, then hydraulic pressure alarms. Electric buses went next, then he looked over, saw Cartwright’s head was – gone – low geysers of raw arterial blood pumping from the stump…then he felt the pain in his right leg. Shooting up from his ankle all the way to his thigh…

“Uh, 509, I’m going down – fast.”

“509, say again?”

“509, I’m hit, my BN is gone, engines out, losing pressures…uh…okay, fire on the wing…punching out now…”

He didn’t hang around for a reply, and the next thing he knew he was hanging from his parachute harness, drifting down towards a black hole in the desert…

+++++

He was sitting on the swim platform, Altair still just visible – low on the southwest horizon. He could hear Ted describing Altair’s systems to Tracy, trying his best to impress the girl, and no doubt failing miserably despite his reassuringly authoritative choice of words. In his experience girls just didn’t give a damn about electronics and all such ‘stuff,’ though they often tried to appear interested. If they were, well, interested in the boy talking, that is. Only he wasn’t sure who or what this girl was interested in – yet – and that bothered him.

The whole license thing bothered him, too.

Like she didn’t appreciate the gravity of his passport explanation and so had decided to play him. To call him on it, in other words…and in his world eighteen-year-old girls just didn’t do that. No, he wondered who she really was, and what her angle was.

And just then he wished Ted had checked his testosterone back in Boston, but that was a done deal now. He’d have to deal with it as best he could.

He sighed, took a deep breath as he rubbed the scar on his right shin, the he looked aft and saw he could still see Vancouver’s lights in their wake, and while the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky it was still quite dark out.

“Just like me,” he said softly. “Groping around in the dark again. Trying to make sense of the senseless…”

+++++

He could see Tiger 509 cartwheeling after it slammed into the earth, spraying jet fuel in wide arcs as it tumbled – and suddenly vast swathes of grass lit off. Following the prevailing wind, the flames marched to the north, but then the thought struck him…

The flames were bright, and he looked up, saw his olive colored parachute as plain as day – which meant any Gomer within ten miles could see him, too.

And now, hanging up here in the sky, he noticed his leg really hurt.

At least, he said to no one in particular, he felt somewhat intact. Not like…

No, I’m not going there, he thought. I’m alive, he isn’t and I’m sorry, but I’ll worry about all that later. He reached for his SART radio and turned it on, but left it attached to his harness…

“509, how do you read, over?”

He fumbled for the transmit button and pressed it. “509, still in my chute.”

“Confirm, you are down?”

“I will be, in about thirty seconds. The aircraft is about a half mile east of my position.”

“Are you injured?”

“Affirmative. Some metal sticking out of my legs, but that’s about all I can see from here.”

“Call when you get set.”

“Yup,” he said, but the ground was rushing up now, and he knew what was coming next…

He tumbled for what felt like forever, his chute full of the southerly breeze and dragging his body through what had to be acres of marshy reed and prickly grass…then the silk got tangled in some sort of stunted tree and he rolled to a stop. He lay still for a moment, listening to his heart beat in his temples, then he tried to slow his breathing down but realized he was just too disoriented for that. He felt pain all over now and pulled out his K-Bar, cut parachute cords, cutting himself free of the fluttering parachute.

He rolled over, tried to see the wound but it was still too dark and he didn’t dare use his flashlight out here in the open so he leaned up and took a look around. He was in the coastal marsh, he could hear the sea beyond – and a small city perhaps ten miles away…probably Abādān…and he knew troops were there…that’s where the SAMs had come from…

He turned again and he hurt all over, felt light-headed for a moment and he steadied himself on a rock…until he heard movement in the marshy grass a few meters away…

Then he remembered…there were supposedly crocodiles in these marshlands and he pushed himself up, gathered the remains of the parachute and walked directly away from the marsh as quietly as he could…

He came upon a low escarpment of rocky scree and he strung up the remains of the parachute between a few stumpy trees, making a shelter of sorts as he knew the sun would be brutal in just a few hours, and only then did he unclip the light from his harness and look at his leg…

He saw one piece of metal jutting from the top of his left thigh, and it looked thin – and sharp – then he shined the light on his right shin and saw a much more ragged piece – of something – had gone all the way through this leg, and this wound was bleeding – badly. He felt for the little first aid kit in his right breast pocket and pulled it out, felt for the powder he was supposed to pour on wounds like this to control the bleeding and found it. He gently opened the pack and poured a little on both wounds, then leaned back and took a deep breath…

‘The radio!’ he thought… ‘Got to get on the radio, turn on the beacon…’

He found the beacon and flipped it on, then turned on the radio and called in: “509, on the air.”

He paused, heard nothing, then called again.

“509, checking in, how do you read?”

“509, we have your beacon, some bad guys in the area looking for you right now, so keep your head down. Call in at 0500 hours, earlier if compromised.”

“Got it.” He turned the radio to standby – to conserve power – then he bunched up some extra parachute material into a pillow and leaned back – and the light-headedness returned…this time with a vengeance. He reached out to steady himself but he was falling again, falling through cool clouds, falling to the earth, and into the night…

+++++

They dropped anchor that afternoon, a mile off the main channel in a protected harbor on the south side of Musket Island. He inflated the Zodiac and put the little Honda outboard on the thin wooden stern, then held her off with one hand while he pulled the little inflatable to Altair’s bow. Ted was on the  foredeck, getting the second anchor ready on the foredeck as he pulled up, and he took the anchor from him, put it on the Zodiac’s hard floor, then turned to the motor and pulled the crank…

“Ready to pay out the chain?” he asked as the little outboard sputtered to life.

“I’ve got 200 feet ready. Is that enough?”

“Should be.”

“I think we should tie the stern off to those trees,” Ted added, pointing to shore. “Maybe keep us from swinging too much…”

“Not with these tides, unless you want to stay up all night paying out line,” he said as he puttered slowly away from Altair. When he was fifty yards away from their first anchor he let this second one, a 44 pound Rocna, go; when it hit bottom he moved off a few yards then dropped the remaining chain overboard.

“Okay, back it down a little, rudder to port.”

“Okay!” Ted called out, but by that time he was paying attention to Tracy again. Arms crossed over her chest, the same petulant expression on her face she’d worn all day. ‘Not quite bored yet,’ he sighed inwardly. ‘But give it a few more hours…then the hurting will begin.’

The first thing he’d noticed as the day warmed and sweatshirts came off were the tell-tale tracks on her arm, and that had set off all his internal alarms. This was his ship and he was responsible for any drugs found on board, and that meant if they were boarded and drugs were found – anywhere – he’d conceivably lose the boat. His home. And that meant he had to proceed carefully, and quickly, to get to the bottom of this.

“So,” he said aloud, “tell Ted and let him handle it, or do it myself?”

Do it yourself, the little voice in the back of his head said. Don’t put this on Ted.

He nodded as he set a trip-line for the anchor, then he motored over to the rocky shore, to the crumbling remnants of an old granite quarry. He waved at an older couple anchored as he passed, noting their little sailboat had come all the way from Southhampton, England, and he shook his head, wondering what it would be like to be cooped up on a thirty foot boat in the middle of the Atlantic…for weeks?

The water was clear near the rocky shore as he slowed – then beached the Zodiac, and he hopped out, walked the rocks for a few minutes, looking at Altair as he walked, at Ted and Tracy talking on the foredeck. He was not looking forward to this…no, not at all…

He looked-over the old quarry for a while, climbed among the rusted detritus wondering where these slabs of time had ended up. Some courthouse in Vancouver, probably, he sighed. He turned, looked at the sun…maybe an hour before twilight, so it was time to head back and get to it.

By the time he was motoring back he noted Ted and Tracy had gone below, and he groaned. ‘God, not already,’ he said inwardly…

He circled Altair once before he approached the swim-platform and tied off, and by the time he reached for the rail Ted was standing there, waiting, looking at him.

With a couple of baggies in hand.

And with what looked like a handful of insulin-type syringes in the other.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Heroin,” Ted said.

“Did you get all of it?”

“Unless it’s stashed up her ass, yeah.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve checked already,” his son added. “We can drop her at Powell River on the way up, in the morning.”

“Is that what she wants?”

“No. She wants to stay.”

“Nowhere to go?”

“Nope.”

“No money?”

“A few bucks.”

“What’s with the McGill story?”

“Bullshit, for the most part. She came over a few years ago, dropped out after her second year. Been drifting ever since.”

He nodded as he looked at his son. No, no longer a boy, that much was certain…but what kind of man was he going to be?”

“And what do you want to do?” he asked his son.

“Get rid of this shit.”

“Take the Zodiac, get some rocks from the beach and put them in the baggies, take them off a-ways and dump ‘em. Next, what do you want to do about her?”

His son looked down, shook his head… “I don’t know, Dad. I just don’t know.”

“Well, whatever you decide to do is fine by me. I’m proud of you, by the way.”

Ted looked up, smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say something like that, Dad.”

“Oh?”

“You’re not the most demonstrative dude in the world, ya know.”

The words hit him, hard, and he felt old and hollow inside for a moment, then he looked at his son again and nodded his head. “I am my father’s son, Ted. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize, Pops. I guess it just makes it all the more meaningful, ya know?”

He nodded again. “I’m going to put on some water for spaghetti. Is she in her bunk?”

“Yup.”

“Is she hurting yet?”

“Yup.”

“Goddamn it all to Hell,” he muttered. “This isn’t exactly what we had in mind, was it?”

“This is the world we live in, Dad.”

“I must’ve missed something along the way.”

“Somehow I doubt that, but it’s a not the eighties anymore.”

He smiled again, and nodded, then smiled as he said: “Maybe you should be a cop, Ted.”

“Why not a pilot?”

“Because if you have a family you’ll miss all the fun.”

“And a cop wouldn’t?”

“You got a point there, Bucko. Well, you’d better get to it.”

“Right.”

“Should I just ignore her?”

“No, I think she’s expecting you. She saw you looking at her arms; that’s when she came to me.”

“Okay.”

Ted pushed off and motored away, then he turned and stepped into the canvas enclosure on his way down below. Once in the galley he pulled-out a large pot and filled it with water, added some salt and olive oil then set it to boil while he pulled out a skillet and chopped onions and peppers, then set them on a burner in some more olive oil. Add a little garlic and cilantro, he thought, then a few cans of diced tomatoes and some basil to kick things off.

“That smells good,” he heard the girl say, and when he turned he saw she was sitting in the saloon, her feet tucked-in under her legs – and his heart went out to her sitting there. She looked like a used up waif, her life not beginning now, but in tatters.

“Next – my secret ingredient, a good shot of Merlot…”

“In spaghetti sauce?”

“It’s classy spaghetti sauce, kiddo.”

“Like you, huh?”

“Me? I kind of doubt that…”

“I don’t.”

He turned and looked at her again. “How you feeling?”

“Strung out, burned out.”

“Lost, and maybe a little alone?”

She turned away, started to cry…

“Knock it off, will you?” he sighed. “We’re supposed to grown-ups around here…okay?”

“Sorry…I’m not feeling very grown-up right now.”

“How are you feeling? Besides strung out?”

“Like I’ve been found out…by my parents, my father.”

“And what would your father have done?”

“Beat me half to death, I suppose.”

“And then…?”

“Him? He’d have gone down to the pub, I reckon. Had a few pints…”

“And your mother?”

“She wasn’t around much, if you know what I mean?”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“She worked nights, mostly.”

“Nights?”

“On the street.”

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight…? Dad was a drunk and mom was a hooker?”

She nodded her head, looked away. “We were poor, lived in…”

“Pardon me, but I really don’t believe a word you’re saying?”

“What?”

“I don’t believe you, Tracy.”

She stared at him now, unsure of herself – and angry.

“You told Ted you spent two years at McGill, but somehow I don’t see a heroin addict raised in that kind of home ending up at a school like that. It just doesn’t, you know, add up,” he said as he turned back to his sauce.

“You think you know me…?”

“Who – me? No, not at all. Point of fact, I don’t know you at all. Second point? I don’t think you know yourself very well.”

“Oh, and what do you think I am?”

“In my limited experience, people lie like you are when they’re trying to conceal something.”

“Oh, and just what am I trying to conceal?”

“Beats me, kid. And even if you knew, which I kind of doubt, I don’t think you’d tell me anything that even remotely resembles the truth. You want some wine?”

“Yes, please.”

He poured her a glass of Merlot and walked it over to her, looking her in the eye as he handed it to her. “The thing is, if you want to talk, I’ll listen, but I think I’ve already got the contours outlined in my mind.”

“Oh, really?”

He walked back to the stove and stirred his sauce a little, sighing… “Yeah. Daddy was a rich man, Mommy was the drunk and she didn’t get involved much, did she?”

“Involved? What do you mean?”

“He abused you, didn’t he?”

“Abused? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. You tell me…?”

She looked away, took a big pull from her glass then looked at him again. “It wasn’t like that, not really. I think he wanted to, but I don’t think he had the courage.”

“Now that’s an odd choice of word, don’t you think, Tracy? Courage?”

“Well, he always told me I was cute…too cute…”

“Ah, so it all comes down to restraint on his part? That’s what you mean by courage?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“Because you’re so, what, so irresistible?”

“Yes. I guess.”

He looked at her again, careful not to say a word.

“God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it?” she added.

He stirred the tomatoes and nodded his head. “Kind of, yes. What does your father do?”

“Imports mainly. Foodstuffs, from South America for the most part, I think.”

“And he’s wealthy?”

“Yes. Very.”

“And mother?”

“She plays cards.”

“And drinks a fair bit, I take it?”

She nodded her head again. “Yup.”

“You want a salad?”

“Can I help?”

“Sure…I can always use a fresh galley slave…”

She laughed at that, and was still smiling when Ted came down – and saw them both smiling and chattering away.

‘God…I’ll bet she never knew what hit her,’ he thought, smiling a little at thoughts of other nights, and other interrogations.

+++++

‘Yes…there it is again,’ he thought. ‘Something in the grass, moving this way…”

The pain in his right leg was almost overwhelming now, but the blood flowing from the wound had slowed a little after he put the coagulant around the penetrating metal shard, and though he’d wanted to shoot an ampule of morphine he knew he couldn’t relax yet. Not now.

Then he’d heard something in the grass and curled up behind a large rock.

But then…nothing. Like as soon as he moved, the movement in the grass stopped…

He pulled some of the ragged parachute fabric over his body, trying to hide as best he could without disturbing the little structure he’d built, and then he’d lain still for minutes, trying not to move anything. Then he’d looked at his watch…

And cursed. Almost five now, almost time to check in with the E2 orbiting somewhere out there in the night, somewhere out over the Gulf.

He flipped the SART radio to active and pushed the transmit button: “509, 509, 509,” he whispered, as per protocol. “509, in the clear on 243.”

“509, sitrep.”

“Something moving in on my position, being very quiet about it, too.”

“Okay. Seal Team airborne at this time, be at your position less than two zero minutes. Jolly Green will be coming in behind them.”

“509, got it.”

“Hang tight, fella. The cavalry’s comin’…”

He flipped the power to standby, turned his attention back to the marsh, looking for a shift in the shadows…when a new, sharper spasm of pain broke over him. He looked down at his leg, saw a snake of some kind coiled up beside his right foot and he knew, just knew, he was going to die just then.

He heard more noise in the grass then and looked up, saw a small leopard walk out of the waist-high reeds – looking right into his eyes.

He was reaching down for his 45ACP – slowly – when the snake struck again.

this chapter (c) 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Corcovado | Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

Corcovado 1

So, while working on Deep End I started work on a new story, a sailing story, of course. I don’t like working on two stories at once – which is why I usually ending up doing just that – but this is a work-in-progress, too, and unfinished (boo-hiss). Still, have fun. I’ll finish this before Deep End, I guess.

The title? A song, of course. I like Sinatra’s version, but there are dozens out there, including a nice one by Queen Latifah (oh, try her rendering of Poetry Man).

So… Pour yourself a Drambuie and settle in, put on some music and have a read.

+++++

Corcovado | Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

I

She was gone now. Gone just now, and he was alone in their house, their home, and memories seemed to push in on him.

Twenty-three years together. Gone, down in flames, an assumed destiny reduced to the lowest common denominator by depositions and faultless recriminations. Contrived recriminations, he reminded himself. False memories, misplaced motives.

He heard it first, through a grapevine he’d never known existed, that she was having an affair. Young guy. Some guy who had time on his hands…time enough to take care of her liquid dreams. First, a quiet confrontation, then an equally quiet agreement, and once arrived at it was over – there was nothing left to say, little left to do.

Or…was there? Like…what comes next?

He moved his belongings down to the marina, moved onto the little boat they had sailed on weekends – together. It was big enough, he told himself, to hold onto the things left, the things worth holding onto.

He went to work two days after he moved aboard, drove out to SeaTac, walked to the dispatch office, picked up and scanned through the preflight briefing for the leg to KSLC. He read the met synopsis, checked off the squawks and signed the fuel load-out, then walked through the quiet terminal to the security line. He checked his watch – 4:20 in the morning – while he shuffled through the crew line, then, when he was through, he walked out to the gate and onto the old 757.

All the lights were off – save a few in the galley that cast oblique little pools of blue and amber where the Jetway met the doorway, and he grinned at other memories. How long had it been, he wondered, since he had been the first to board? How long ago had he worn three stripes on his sleeves?

He went to the cockpit and reached into the darkness, feeling for the switch on the overhead panel that would turn on the dome light, but it was second nature now – and had been…for fifteen years. He had to admit…this confined little space was home, his real home. Barbara had never understood that, not really, and had never been willing to share him with this other world. Even if she was proud, in a way, of his calling, she hated him for this one chaste passion.

He sat and started flipping switches, activating electrical buses and checking ground power status, then he started entering data in the old girl’s nav system. He heard a couple of flight attendants come aboard, listened to their careless banter – because they assumed they were the first aboard this morning – and he smiled when he heard one of them notice there were lights on in the cockpit.

Then…footsteps.

A knock on the door.

“Captain? You here already?”

He turned, looked at Marcy Stewart and smiled. “Yup. That seems to be the case.”

“Can I get you some coffee, Jim?”

“No thanks, darlin’,” he said. He liked Marcy, had been to her wedding two summers ago and, because her father had recently passed and he had walked her down the aisle, given her away as best he could.

“We heard about Barbara,” she said, walking into the cockpit just a little. “I’m so sorry, Jim.”

He nodded, turned back to the panel and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment – then he felt her standing right behind his seat, her hand on his shoulder.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m copacetic.”

“How many we got this morning?”

“Looks full. Sorry. No rest for the wicked.”

“Orange juice?”

“Oh…sure. A little one?”

“Comin’ right up.”

He watched the fuel boss supervising the truck for a moment, then heard his FO walk through the galley on his way up…

“So, it’s true,” Will Eberling said as he came in and hung up his coat. “How long you been here?”

“Half hour, maybe.”

“Leave anything for me to do?”

He almost laughed. “Maybe. I hear the aft head portside is clogged. Why don’t you go do some of that plumber shit…”

Eberling ignored that one, contorted his way into the right seat and ran through his procedures, and even managed to set up his FMS in less than ten minutes. “Ready to hit the bricks?” Eberling said when it was time to do their walk-around down on the ramp.

“Starting to rain a little,” he said as he made his way to the galley. It was cold out, too, like not quite 40 degrees yet, and it was still snowing like crazy in Salt Lake. He made it down to the concrete and walked to the number one engine, confirmed oil and hydraulic pressures were good, then he walked around the gears and tires, giving them a practiced look over. When he was finished he walked over to the fuel boss and took the chit, looked it over once and signed it.

Eberling was waiting for him at the metal stairway, looking southeast. Mount Rainier was barely visible – just – in the dim, early morning light, and he stopped and looked into the shades of gray for a while, then they walked up to the vestibule that connected the old girl to this earth.

Marcy was waiting for him, a glass of orange juice in hand when he came back to the pools of light.

“You sure you don’t want something hot?” she asked, looking at the water running off his rain-coat, and his nose.

He took the juice and downed it, shook his head. “Maybe before we shut the door?”

“Got it,” she said.

He noticed the way she looked at Eberling just then. Kind of a “keep an eye on him this morning” look.

“There are no secrets between crew members,” he remembered one of his training captains telling him once – almost thirty years before. Just the opposite of life in the Navy, he’d had to remind himself. Everything was different – again.

Yet there’d been one constant all through his life so far: Barbara. And Ted, he had to remind himself.

She’d been by his side since their second year together, at school. She’d stuck with him when he’d decided to go into the Navy after graduation, and she’d visited while he struggled through OCS, and he couldn’t have finished without her, he knew. She was his future even then, and they knew it. They got married after he finished up at Pensacola, and when they moved to Pearl she seemed to love him all the more for his calling.

But…things change, don’t they? People change, too.

Eberling was calling out the pre-start checklist now, and he woke up the old girl with her old, familiar routines, got her ready for another day in the air. He was on automatic pilot too, and he knew it…going through all the old, easy motions. He didn’t have to think about what he was doing now; all these motions were in deepest muscle-memory. His fingers found switches without any need to look, because every little thing in this cockpit had it’s own sound and feel.

“Yaw dampers – ”

“One and two, check…”

“IRS – ALIGN to NAV…”

“One, check…two…and three…”

He watched the pushback truck line up, felt the slightest jolt as they mated – then he was talking to the ground boss…

“Clear to start One, Captain…”

“Starting one…”

Eberling finished the switch from ground power to internal buses while he kept his hand on the tiller, then the truck was free…

“Delta 217, clear to taxi Bravo to one-six left. You’re number two behind a Scandinavian 340, contact tower one-nineteen-nine. Good day.”

“217 to left and nineteen-nine,” he said – and suddenly, in that moment, he knew he’d be okay. All the weight from the past couple of days slipped from his shoulders and he took a deep breath, shook his head.

“You okay, Jim?” Eberling said – a little too quietly.

“Yup. Five by five.” He watched the taxiway lights slip by – in an order he understood all too well – and he braked when they were still about a hundred yards behind the A340 – while Eberling called out the last items on the pre-takeoff checklist.

He watched the -340 turn onto the active, it’s drooping wings heavy with fuel – then it’s engines ran up and she lumbered down the runway.

“217, taxi to position and hold.”

“217.”

He turned onto the runway, lined up on the centerline, flipped off the taxi-lights, turned on the wing lights…

“217, clear for takeoff, contact departure one twenty decimal four for a Summa One departure.”

“217, 120.4, Summa Four, roger.”

He advanced the throttles to 40%N1 then cut them to idle for a moment, turned on the auto-throttle and the flight director, then engaged the auto-pilot…and the old girl eased down the runway for a few seconds – until she transitioned to full take-off power – then she screamed down the runway and leapt into the sky.

“Positive rate,” he called out, and Eberling raised the gears, then: “One-sixty, slats two. One seven five…clean the wing…”

He watched the autopilot track in on the Summa intersection, then as it made the transition to the Baker City VOR…

He didn’t remember much about that day, only the feeling of normalcy that seemed to come for him so gently, so quietly. He remembered having dinner with Marcy that night, at some raucous place in Malibu. How she’d held his hand after, telling him that it would be alright soon.

“It already is, Marcy.”

She’d nodded once, then looked at him long and hard. “Divorce is like death, Jim. You’ll grieve…”

“No, I won’t. She was cheating on me, Marcy. I won’t grieve over that. I can’t…”

Then she had just nodded her head again. Slowly. Knowingly. Just like Barbara might have…

+++++

And, of course, it hadn’t been quite that simple…because at points both lawyers were trying to run up the hours…but the thing about it was – he didn’t want a fight, and neither did Barbara. She was willing to give him the house and the boat, but then he’d asked “Where the devil will you live? That guy’s apartment?”

And so…he’d let her have the house, because, he told her, he knew she loved it so.

And when she broke into tears and ran into his arms he’d held onto her, instinctively, protectively – just as he had for the past thirty years – then he’d kissed her on top of her head and slipped free, that one last time. He signed some papers a few weeks later and it was a done deal, and somehow it was like the last thirty years had never really happened.

+++++

Altair was inscribed on the boat’s navy blue stern…which was how his son found it that morning. He’d moved the boat from Shilshole Bay Marina to Lake Union a few weeks before, and only remembered to let Ted know the night before, before he boarded his overnight flight in Boston for the trip home. His own flight got in a half hour after Ted’s, and by the time he made it to the dock Ted was already lounging in the cockpit.

“Ah…the prodigal son returns, but – my God…you look just like Jesus! When’s the last time you went to a barbershop…?”

“Hey, Dad. How’s it hangin’?”

“Still down to my knees.”

“Yeah…but does it still work?” Ted quipped as he hopped down to the dock and hugged his ‘old man.’ “Well, at least you still look like you could…”

“You might, too, someday, if we could only get you out of diapers.”

“Ooh…low blow.”

“Get your stuff stowed?”

“Yup. You sure you want me to take the aft cabin?”

“Yeah, I like it up forward. Where I put my stuff when…”

“You really got three weeks off?”

“Almost four. I don’t have to report back until June 28th, and man-o-man, am I looking forward to some downtime.”

“So? Where we headed?”

“Feel like hitting Desolation Sound?” He watched his son’s eyes light up like a little kid’s and they both smiled, then he looked around the deck. “Got everything you need?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Did you call your mom? Let her know you’re in…?”

The change that came over his son looked just like a fat summer’s cloud racing across a hot August prairie – bright sunshine to cool, lingering shadow in a heartbeat, then the heat again. Ted was still sorting through his anger, trying to understand her sudden, final betrayal, but he had yet to reconcile with her – said he never would. He had been content to let it go at that while Ted was so far away, but now that he was “home” he was going to have to do something about it. Barbara was still fragile where Ted was concerned.

“No,” was Ted’s final stony, sullen reply.

“Okay.” Which seemed to take the wind out of his son’s sails. “You wanna grab the bowlines while I warm up the motor?”

“Will do.”

A few minutes later he backed out of his slip into Lake Union, and he let Ted take the helm while he tidied up the deck, making Altair ready for sea –

– but first – they’d have to transit Ballard Locks, and Ted had never tackled them before.

So he ran the lines needed while Ted steered down-channel, then he took the wheel when the lock’s entry signal turned green –

“When we get lined-up in there, toss your lines up to the lock-keeper on the dock. He’ll tie us off – our job is to let out line as the water drops and we fall, keeping us off the wall – and the boats around us. It gets pretty turbulent, so brace yourself.”

A half hour later they were running through Shilshole Bay – leaving Seattle in their wake – when the sun broke through early morning, low-scudding cumulus.

“You bring any beer?” his son asked.

“Diet Dr Pepper and chicken salad sammies today.”

“No beer?”

“No beer.”

“Dude…you’re sick.”

“Dude…you’re twenty.”

“But…I thought it was like against the Law of the Sea to leave port without a case of Budweiser.”

“Yup, that’s probably true.”

“So?”

“Sorry, Dude. I’m just not into that stuff.”

“Got any new books, at least?”

“Nope.”

“Jeez, Dad…a month without beer…and no books? You going for the priesthood or something?”

“No. One in the family will be enough.”

Ted looked away. “What makes you say that?” he said a while later.

“Jesuit school, Jesuit college all those theology classes. Or maybe I don’t know you that well.”

“You’re the only person who ever got me, Dad.”

“So…seminary school is next on your horizon?”

“I think so, yeah. But…”

“What about med school?”

“Yeah, that too.”

“Still no girlfriend?”

And again, Ted turned away, lost, trying to find the right words. “I was kinda hoping to try that this summer.”

“Try – what?”

“The whole sex thing. Girls, that kinda thing.”

“Oh,” he said, grinning at the irony. “No girls in Beantown?”

“Just hasn’t been right.”

“I see. Would you grab me a DDP?”

“Sure. Want a sandwich?”

“Nope, not yet.”

He watched his boy amble down the companionway and come back up with four Diet Dr Peppers, and they both downed one in a fast gulp, then opened their second and sipped that one slowly.

“What about that gal from Rhode Island? Didn’t work out?”

Ted shook his head. “She was weird, like she was looking for someone to be her daddy.”

He laughed. “I know the type.”

“Mom?”

“No…a couple of stews I’ve known…”

“Dad!?”

“No, not that. It’s more like I’m a, well, a Father Confessor to a lot of the girls. When they get in trouble it seems they always come to me.”

“Trouble?”

“Abusive boyfriends, husbands. Unwanted pregnancies. That kind of thing. I guess I have that kind of face.”

“You always have.”

“What?”

“As long as I can remember. You remember Pete Baker?”

“The kid with eyes like a smallmouth bass? Used to sleep over weekends?”

“Yup. He thought you were God Almighty Himself. You’d come in from a flight in your uniform and all he wanted to do was stay up all night talking airplanes…”

“So? What are you getting at?”

“Remember when he broke his leg? Playing football?”

“Yeah…we went to see him at the hospital.”

“Yeah. All he wanted was to hear you tell him everything would be alright. Didn’t matter what his mom said. To him, well, you were his dad.”

“What?”

“You didn’t know that, did you? You have no idea how you affect people, none at all. I think that’s what’s so hard to take about you.”

“Hard to take?”

“Yeah. It’s like you’re this high priest, the High Priest of Boeing.”

He laughed at that – for quite a while. “Of Boeing. I like that.”

“Yeah? Well, it’s true. You’ve always had that effect on people. Half the kids from school who came over hoped they’d get a chance to talk to you…”

“About?”

“Anything.”

“I think we need to stop off for some beer.”

“See? There’s a method to my madness.”

+++++

They docked in Friday Harbor that night, and though the sun was still up when Altair entered the little harbor, once the boat was tied-off in the tiny marina they decided to head below and grab some sleep. It was just past two in the morning when he woke up – at his customary time – and headed topside to look things over.

Altair was a chunky forty-five feet long, broad-beamed with an enclosed center cockpit that provided better-than-decent shelter from the often drizzly weather on Puget Sound. The tradeoff with this design was simple enough to understand, however, because while it kept the sun and the wind and the rain out, he had lost the stars, and his most beloved star of all – Altair.

Old habits die hardest, he grumbled as he stumbled around the deck in the dark. He woke up at least once every night and to check the dock-lines – more often when the weather was wild – and he held onto stanchions and lifelines as he made his way forward, stubbing a toe once on a cleat and trying not to curse.

“You up already?” he heard Ted say, and as his eyes adapted to the dark he spied his son sitting on the bow pulpit.

“Every morning at two, come rain or shine.”

“You know…that’s not normal.”

“It is…if you have to be in the cockpit by four.”

“Maybe that’s why Mom always slept ‘til noon. Or…maybe it was the bourbon.”

“It wasn’t easy for her, you know.”

“She knew what she was signing up for, Pops. You were her meal ticket, her free ride.”

“She’s your mother, Ted, and I’m not sure she deserves that.”

“You always went too easy on her.”

“Easy?”

“The booze. The fucking around.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“Jeez, Dad…she’d been cheating on you since I was in middle school.”

“And your point is?”

“My point? Well, when you were gone she was either stone drunk and passed out by the time I got home from school, or…”

“Ya know, Ted, it’s water under the bridge. I don’t want to hear it and you don’t need to live there. It’s over, and it seems to me a little forgiveness is in order – eh, Padre?”

He stood in the silence that followed, looking down at the stars reflecting off the water, searching for Altair.

“What about you, Pops? Did you fuck around?”

“Not once.”

“Figures. You’re the most saintly soul I’ve ever known. Too bad you’re an atheist.”

“I am not an atheist.”

“Oh, come on, Pops. The only time you’ve been in church was for a wedding or a funeral…”

“What does church have to do with God?”

They laughed at that one, one of his favorite lines, but he knew in his heart he might be wrong about all that stuff.

“I spend a lot of time in church now,” Ted added. “With the Fathers.”

“That sense of community is a powerful thing, son.”

“I know.”

“Is that what attracts you to the idea?”

“Maybe a little, but it’s the idea that there’s some purpose to all this, that maybe things happen for reasons we can never really fully understand.”

“My father was the same way. Said the only religious experience he’d ever had in his life was when he climbed a mountain over in Switzerland.”

“Sound like hypoxia to me.”

“Smart-ass.”

“Yup, and I have the SAT scores to prove it, too.”

“You got your brains from my dad, and your mother. Man, she was a real rocket scientist.”

“Until Jack Daniels came calling, anyway.”

“I guess we all have our crosses to bear.”

“You know what her’s is?”

“No, not really. A hunch, but she would never open up about it.”

“What’s your hunch?”

He sighed, shook his head. “You know what? Maybe you should ask her someday.”

“You’re just not going to speak ill of her, are you?”

“Nope.”

“You still love her?”

“Yup.”

“Jesus, Dad. Why…?”

“Why? Oh, I guess it has something to do with standing before God and making a promise to that effect.”

“But she…”

“There are no buts, kiddo. A promise is a promise, even if the other person can’t keep up their end of the bargain. You’re only as good as your word, and don’t you ever forget that.”

“I don’t imagine you’ll let me.”

“I won’t always be around, Ted. That’s something you’d do well to remember, too.”

“Oh?”

“You and your mother need to clear the air, come to terms.”

“Is she sick?”

“Not that I know of, but…”

“I’m not ready for that, Dad.”

“Okay…”

They heard it then…a disturbance in the water…a rippling in the air, and they turned and looked down into the inky starscape, saw a sea otter swimming on it’s back, looking up at them as it circled lazily under the bow pulpit.

“I’ll be…” he said.

“I thought these guys were extinct,” Ted whispered.

“Not quite. I see ‘em every now and then, even in the lake.”

“Damn…he seems almost tame.”

“Not likely. More like brazen confidence. They don’t fear us anymore, I guess.”

“Did they hunt them for their pelts?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Damn.”

“Yup. They’re kinda cute, ya know?”

“Kind of? I don’t know about you, but I’d like one as a pet.”

“Yeah? Well, aside from being aquatic mammals, they’re also wild. I don’t think that’s a such a good combination, even for a dorm room, but go ahead – ask her.”

“Her?”

“Hey, Paco, she’s laying on her back…see any relevant hardware?”

“When did you start calling me Paco? I was still a spud, right?”

“Oh, when we went down to Mazatlán that Christmas. You were, let’s see, four? You couldn’t eat too many tacos, and, well, Paco rhymes with…”

“Gee, that sounds original, Dad.”

He looked up into the night sky, found Altair in an instant and felt suddenly reassured that it was still there, and that struck him as odd. Had his life changed so much, been so thoroughly disrupted that now he felt unsure of even the stars? Then images of Ted eating tacos in a Mexican village filled his mind’s eye…

“You had to be there, I guess, as a parent. You stuffed those things in so fast…your cheeks were so puffed-out…you were a sight. You had your first beer then, too.”

“I – what?”

“Well, you don’t drink the water down there…”

“I remember…the Aztec two-step…”

“And then you bit into a huge jalapeño. Your face turned beet red and you started to tear up, and I had a bottle of Carta Blanca in hand. You reached up and grabbed it, downed about three-quarters of that bottle in one go…”

“And I’ve been madly in love with beer ever since.”

“I guess you thought it saved your life.”

“It probably did, ya know? Hallelujah, and praise the Lord!”

“Milk does a better job, so does Coke.”

“Thank God you drank beer those days.”

“Well, too late. There she goes,” he said as the otter rolled over and disappeared beneath the still waters.

“Damn. And I was really hoping…”

“So, you wanna get moving?”

“Now? It’s still kinda dark out, Pops.”

“Track’s laid in on the GPS…no problemo.”

“Well, sure; I’m still on east-coast time, so I’m up for the day.”

“Okay…I’ll fire up the diesel. You better go below and stow your gear…”

“I know the drill, Dad.”

Ten minutes later they were motoring out of the little harbor, north towards Little Flattop Island – and Canadian waters – and still there was no sign the sun was ready to put in an appearance. He sat behind the wheel, looking at chart symbology as Altair motored through the various channels between all the big and little islands that formed the way north, and then he heard Ted down below fixing coffee and warming croissants.

“You still do the Nutella and orange marmalade thing?” his boy, his “Paco,” called out over the rumbling diesel, and he shot a thumbs-up back at him. A few minutes later they were eating in the rumbling silence, the only sound the diesel working down below, but soon enough an apricot-salmon sky appeared over the mountains to the east, and he wondered what the day would bring.

“So, we putting into Vancouver tonight?” Ted asked.

“Yeah. Nanaimo is still kind of dead.”

“Suits me. Is Nancy’s still around?”

“Yeah, think so. Some traditions are still too strong for time to kill.” Nancy’s was THE place to meet and eat on the Sound, literally. It wasn’t called Desolation Sound without reason, but it helped the food was truly good. “You wanna steer for a while? Time to drain the main vein…”

“What? No autopilot? No flight director with auto-land capability?”

He shook his head while he flipped on the autopilot, then walked to the aft rail and pulled down his shorts just enough to fire a stream into their wake, his knees braced against the rail as he looked up at the fading stars. Altair was gone now, disappeared beneath the southern horizon, and he felt that old familiar tinge of sadness – when he heard Ted walking aft, by his side, and soon draining his vein into the sea, too.

He took the cut between Deer Harbor and Jones Island, adjusting his course on the chart-plotter and executing the change, then he cycled the radar, saw there was still no traffic on the water…but then he saw Sucia Island ahead, and Echo Bay. Probably the worst weekend of their lives lived in those returns…

“Echo Bay?” Ted asked, pointing at the screen.

“Yup.” And he saw his boy shrink from the memory. Barbara, drinking more than usual that weekend, decided it was time to shred her son to pieces, and with her razor sharp tongue had belittled and berated him while he’d been out on the water in one of their kayaks. He’d looked on as Ted dove off the bow and swam ashore, so paddled in to see what had happened.

Ted was sitting on the rocky beach, knees pulled up to his chest, tears falling from reddened eyes – trembling like a leaf – again.

They’d sat and talked until the sun went down, then he’d gone back to get another kayak to bring back to the beach – and he noticed Barbara wasn’t in the cockpit. When they both got back to the boat she still wasn’t there so he’d gone below – only to find Barbara passed out, only this time with an empty bottle of Valium in hand.

She’d been carried out by the Coast Guard that night, airlifted to Bellingham. Stomach pumped, three long days and nights in the hospital there, then back home. Ted a total wreck by that point too, but nothing compared to Barbara…

And here it was again. All those feelings tied to this place.

“I know it still hurts,” he said, “and I guess it always will…”

“I don’t know why you think I should forgive her.”

“Because of human frailty, son. Nobody’s perfect…”

“That’s a laugh, Pops. She’s the meanest human being that ever lived.”

“She wasn’t always that way, Ted.”

“Oh? What changed her?”

“Lots of things, I think, but first among them was, well, me.”

“You?”

“Yeah. When we started to drift apart maybe I could’ve…”

“Dad…stop. You can’t take the blame for who she is, all the things she did. She’s a crazy narcissist, maybe she’s even a goddamn psychopath, but all you did was fall for her, once upon a time, but you don’t have to carry that around for the rest of your life. YOU need to move on, YOU need to find someone else – while you’re still young enough.”

“You think so, huh?”

“Fuck yeah, you old goat.”

“So…you wanna get laid this summer?”

“What?”

“You said you wanted to try the whole girl thing this summer. What’d you have in mind? Falling in love, the whole nine yards, or just getting your rocks off?”

“I’d like to, well, both, maybe.”

“Has this got something to do with the whole priesthood thing?”

“Yes.”

“So, you’re really serious about this seminary thing?”

“Yes.”

“But…what if you meet some girl this summer, and you fall in love? Then what?”

“Then that whole thing wasn’t for me.”

“Okay. Then what?”

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe…like…take one thing at a time?”

“Maybe, but if being a priest is what you really want to do, well, maybe you should just turn away from these things. It might just fill you with all kinds of regret later down the road.”

“Father Murphy talked to me about that, ya know?”

“Oh, how is the old goat?”

“Fine. He sends his regards, by the way.”

“Hard to believe we both had him as a prof.”

“Yeah…those Jesuits…they seem to hang on the longest. He turned eighty last year.”

“And still looks like he’s fifty, I bet.”

“Forty.”

“All that clean living.”

“Yeah, right. Those guys love their vino, that much I’ll say.”

“So…a girlfriend. You want to try a one night stand first? Vancouver is probably a target-rich environment.”

“Isn’t that line out of Top Gun?”

“Top Gun was right out of real life, Paco. Art imitates life, remember?”

“You mean, you guys really talked that way…?”

“Sorry. Yes.”

“Sorry? Why are you always apologizing?”

“I don’t know…kinda feels like the thing to do. So. Vancouver? We goin’ on a pussy-hunt?”

“Jeez, Dad, you sound like Trump…”

“You mean, I take it, that Trump sounds like ninety percent of every other white-Anglo-Saxon-male in this country? Man, what a double standard that guy has to live up to… Ya know, I heard that W was at a birthday party down in Texas, like before he was governor, and he was drunk as hell and walked up to the honoree, a woman who had just turned fifty. He asked: “Gee, does it feel the same to fuck after fifty as it did before?”

“Yeah, I heard that one. Did you know he was arrested in Maine, for driving while intoxicated…?”

“Yup, and did you hear he assaulted the trooper who arrested him?”

“Yup. Kinda makes me think there’s a double standard at play here, don’t you think?” Ted asked.

“Oh? How so?”

“Well, Clinton gets a BJ in the oval office and gets impeached, while W skated on all that stuff.”

“W had smarter people around him. Politics is the art of not getting caught.”

“Man, have we sunk so low?”

“We? What do you mean? There’ve been politicians for thousands of years, of one stripe or another. All this crap is nothing new, and all of which seems like a good way of you avoiding the question. Do you want to get laid tonight?”

“So, just like that…you can get me laid tonight?”

“No. That’s up to you.”

“Jeez, Dad…”

“Hey, Paco, you need to remember this: girls like sex too. Got it? You act like a Neanderthal and you’ll never get anything, but take it easy, be yourself and then let nature take its course.”

“I’m scared around girls.”

“Yeah? That’s been programmed into you by millions of years of evolution. You SHOULD be scared of ‘em, Paco, because once they sink their fangs into you, you’re doomed.”

Ted laughed, a nervous laughter full of expectation and insecurity, then: “Is that what Mom did to you?”

“Exactly. Didn’t I ever show you the bite marks?”

“Ha-ha.”

“I’d say the trick, given the biology of the situation, Ted, is to not fall in love. At your age you’re programmed to fall in love, it’s a biologic imperative. The drive impairs your thinking, too, makes you say silly shit and do even sillier shit. Like marry a gal you hardly know, promise to spend your life with her…”

“You mean, it all comes down to testosterone?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“And that’s what happened to you?”

“I don’t think I’m any different than any other red-blooded male out there, Paco. I say stupid shit under the influence of either testosterone or tequila. Or, as the case may be, both testosterone and tequila. You mother got me at a Cinco de Mayo thing over by the commons.”

“She…got you?”

“Got a couple shots of tequila into me, showed me some thigh. I was a goner after that.”

“You make it sound so simple…”

“Falling in love IS simple, Ted. You just gotta let it happen. You’ll know when it does, too. Take my word for it.”

“And, if I went for the priesthood…?”

“That’s a calling, Ted. In the purest sense of the word, and you’ve always been interested in this stuff so I’m not all that surprised.”

“You’re not? It sure surprised me…”

He looked at the chart-plotter again, noted they were abeam the island now and he checked the depth under the keel, then watched as the autopilot changed course to 315 degrees – about thirty miles to the next course change – and already he could see jets angling in for their approach to Vancouver International. How many times had he shot the same approach, he wondered? How different everything looked from up there.

“Want a DDP?” Ted asked, and he nodded.

He swept the horizon while his boy was below, and he saw a Coast Guard cutter on radar – then visually just as Ted came up from below.

“I think we’re going to have company,” he said, pointing at the display, then at the white hull arcing through a turn in their direction.

“Coasties?”

“Yup.”

“You got any dead bodies stowed below?”

“Two or three, why?”

“Just wonderin’?”

They watched in silence as the cutter drew near, near enough to see half a dozen-or-so men looking at them through binoculars from the bridge.

“I thought you have one of those stickers?”

“Yeah, still do, but that just allows me to clear-in without having to go to the Customs Dock in Seattle.”

“What are they looking for?”

“Drugs. Terrorists. Horny college students. You know…the usual.”

One of the men on the bridge-deck waved at them and the cutter changed course towards Bellingham, and he waved back. “Well, we’re in Canadian waters now, or will be in a few minutes. Guess it wasn’t worth the hassle.”

“When will we get to Vancouver?”

“Oh, about ten hours,” he said as he popped the top to the Dr Pepper. “I think the wind will pick up in about two hours, so if you want anything hot to eat, now’s the time to do it.”

“You got bacon and eggs down there?”

“Yup.”

“Stove still work the same way?”

“Yup, it does.”

“How many eggs? Still do three, over easy?”

“I do.”

“Okay, comin’ right up, Master.”

After ‘growing up’ together with Altair, there’s was an easy routine. Ted knew where everything was, how everything worked, even how to break a few non-essential items, too, but he knew his way around the boat almost as well as his father did. And soon enough, the smells coming out of the galley hit all the right buttons and he began to feel hungry – as they skirted along the Saturna Islands.

He watched the water closely as the sun poked up beyond Mt Baker, and he thought he could see Garibaldi’s crown beyond Vancouver as the first puffs of breeze filled in. They’d be able to make sail within an hour or so, he thought. Then he wondered where he could take his son to get laid in Vancouver.

And how long had it been, he wondered, since he’d had any?

+++++

They tied-up at the Coal Harbour Marina an hour before the sun slipped under the horizon, and after he showered he walked up to the Harbor Master’s office and talked to a few guys there while he waited for Ted. The locals recommended a few places overlooking the marina and once Ted arrived – off they went.

Loud music and watered down drinks seemed to be the order of the day, and though there were a few womenfolk around nothing seemed to call out to either of them so they left after a few minutes. They walked to another place that happened to have a deck overlooking Altair, and they took a table on the deck overlooking the marina – about fifty feet from the boat – and a waitress came to take their drink order.

“Dark rum collins for me,” he said. “Ted? Name your poison.”

“The same,” Ted said – cooly.

“I’ll need to see some ID, sir,” the waitress said.

“He’s my son.”

“Doesn’t matter, sir.”

“How about a ginger ale,” Ted sighed. “Maybe with the cherry on the side?”

The girl grinned. “What do you want?”

“A beer. I’d kill for a cold beer.”

“Been out on the water,” she asked.

“Two days,” Ted said. “Coming up from Seattle.”

“Oh? Where are you headed?”

“Desolation Sound,” Ted added. “Been there?”

She smiled then walked off to grab their drinks.

“She’s kinda cute,” he said.

“Kinda?” Ted added. “Man, she’s hot.”

“Sounds like an Aussie accent.”

“Is that what it is?”

She came back a minute later with his drinks, a ginger ale and an ice-cold Moosehead. She put the beer down away from Ted and put the soda down in front of him.

“You from Australia?” Ted asked.

“Melbourne. Been there?”

“Not yet. You been there, Dad?”

“Yup. Once or twice.”

“My dad’s a pilot,” Ted sighed. “He’s been everywhere.”

The girl turned on him then, curious. “Yeah? You fly for an airline?”

“Delta,” he said.

“You fly to Australia?”

“I’ve been down there. Sydney once, Melbourne a few times, but not on duty. When we had a run to Hawaii from Seattle, I did that for a while. These days it’s mainly LA and San Francisco, sometimes Salt Lake or Cincinnati. What are you doing here?”

“Spending the summer here, then headed to McGill.”

“I’m at Boston College,” Ted added.

“Oh? What year?”

“I’ll graduate next spring.”

“What are you studying?”

“Pre-med, philosophy.”

“Really? Me too.”

He smiled when he saw Ted’s reaction. “So,” he added, “you didn’t answer. Been to Desolation Sound?”

“No, I haven’t, but then again I’ve only been here a few weeks.”

“Done much sailing?” Ted asked.

“No,” the girl said, then she just walked off.

“Too fast, kiddo. Ignore her when she comes around next time.”

“Right. We gonna have dinner?”

“You want to stay put, or move on?”

“Stay. There’s something about her, Dad.”

“Yes, there is. Interesting type, that one.”

“For me, Dad. Not you…”

And he had to laugh at that. “Don’t worry, Paco. I’m not looking.”

“You could’ve fooled me.”

“Just trying to back your hand.”

“Okay…well, the menu looks good.”

When she came back to take their order Ted didn’t even look up at her.

“Maybe you could find some sort of middle ground,” he said.

“What?” Ted said, confused. “You said to ignore her.”

“Give her a smile next time. Make eye contact.”

“Jeez, Dad. Maybe you should be a priest…?”

“You’re right, Paco. Just be yourself…”

“Right. Nervous and unsure of myself. That’s a winning combination, every time.”

“Probably better than ignoring her.”

“Now he tells me…”

She came back with their salads a few minutes later.

“So, what’s in Desolation Sound?” she asked.

“Killer whales, sea otters – and Nancy’s.”

“Nancy’s?”

“Bakery. Best cinnamon rolls in creation.”

“Ah.”

“You wanna come with us?” Ted asked – with a straight face.

“What?”

“Would you like to come with us?”

“For how long?”

“How long you got?”

“Let me see,” the girl said before she disappeared back into the restaurant.

“Jeez, Paco…!”

“Hey, you said to just be me.”

“You are direct, I will say that.”

“You think she’ll come?”

“Depends.”

“On?”

“Well, she just got here, but she’s cute as hell so the manager is probably hitting on her. She’s away from home for the first time, maybe trying to earn a few buck before school starts but just figuring out that with the cost of living here she’s barely going to be treading water. Then there are the visa problems…”

“Jeez, Dad. What are you – like some kind of clairvoyant?”

“Nope, but I have been around the block a few times.”

“So, what do you think?”

“Don’t be too surprised if she says yes.”

“Really?”

She was different the next time she came out, when she dropped off their dinners. Not so distant, her smile full of curiosity, her eyes ready for the next adventure.

“She’s coming,” he said. “Mark my words.”

“You think so?”

“Yup.”

The next time she came by Ted pointed out the blue-hulled boat across the way: “See that one? Altair on the stern?”

“The stern?”

“On her bum?” Ted added, helpfully.

“Oh. Yeah?”

“We’re here tonight, leaving in the morning around eight. If you feel like coming along, you know where we’ll be.”

He watched the girl looking at his boat, wondering what was going through her mind, wondering what sort of calculus a girl made at a time like this. Unknown versus an unknown-known, an adventure versus a slow-motion train wreck.

If what he supposed was indeed going on.

But then the girl nodded her head and moved off again.

“Well?” Ted asked.

And he shrugged, but maybe he smiled just a little, though he thought he already knew the score. “Just have to wait and see,” he added – knowingly.

“I knew it. She’s coming…”

And again, he only smiled, yet he wondered why he thought he knew the answer. Jaded, perhaps? Getting a little too cynical about things? Or…simply judging other people through the prism of his life with Barbara…?

“Ya know,” he sighed, “wouldn’t surprise me either way.”

“That’s kind of a…”

“A cop-out? Yeah, I guess it is.”

“What’s wrong, Pops?”

“I think I need a change of pace, Paco. A real change of pace. I’m getting close to sixty years old, you know? I can retire next year…in fact, I think they want to push some of us old-timers into early retirement. We’re getting expensive, and a lot of us still have pension obligations the company will owe us. All these new guys? Mainly 410Ks, matching contributions, that stuff…”

“How long could you fly, Dad?”

“Well, a few more years, like four, but I could matriculate over to the training academy, teach there, do check-rides…”

“What did you used to call those guys? The Silver Eagles?”

“Yup.”

“Could you do that?”

“I could, but I’d have to move to the east coast.”

“Yikes. You wouldn’t…?”

“I used to think so. Now, I’m not so sure…”

“Dad! Leave Seattle? You’ve lived here, what…twenty-two years?”

“Yup. Year you were born. It would be hard, have to give up the boat, that whole thing.”

Ted shook his head. “That’s not you, and you know it.”

“What do you think you’re gonna do, Paco. I mean, really…getting laid is one thing, but…”

“Dad, I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a priest…”

“What? That’s a big change…when did you start feeling this way?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s like the more science I take the more incongruent religion and science become. Two competing worldviews, I guess, but one feels more and more like a child’s fairytale to me.”

“You think medicine’s the answer?”

Ted nodded his head.

“Why now? Just exposure to new ideas?”

“Maybe. But sometimes,” his son added, pausing to take a deep breath, “it just feels like growing up.”

“Ah. So, religion is childish?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Oh? What did you say?”

“I’m not sure I want to spend my entire life cloaked in a mystery that, well, there’s nothing about religion grounded in fact, is there?”

He shook his head. “You can’t confuse fact and faith, son. You have faith, then that becomes bedrock; if you don’t, well, it’s easy to turn and walk away.”

“But it’s not always so easy, is it? I mean…”

“I know what you mean. That’s why I’ll never deny the existence of God, and why I can’t go to church. I have my doubts about the whole thing, but I don’t have the courage of my convictions so here I sit, still sitting on the fence, looking at life go by and wondering what all the commotion is about.”

“What about Mom?”

“I think, in a way, the question drove her to drink.”

“Seriously?”

He laughed a little, inside, at his son’s sincere expression. “I don’t know, Ted. Look at the Irish…they brought Christianity to the British Isles, and then they turned around and invented whiskey. Talk about cause and effect…”

“Is that true?”

“Hell, I don’t know. One of the Fathers told us that in a history class…but then again, he was Irish…”

Ted shook his head. “Why do you think she drinks, Dad?”

“Because she hurts, son. She drinks to make it all go away because she doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions.”

“What? How so?”

“Because she has no faith, either in God or in herself. She always turned to anyone who’d offer to ease her pain…”

“You mean, like, buy her a drink?”

He nodded, but, in his mind’s eye he remembered coming home early more than once and finding her and another man in the throes.

“What is it, Dad? What are you thinking?”

“About her.”

“About her, what?”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to go there, son.”

Ted shook his head too. “I know. I came home from school more than once…”

“Ted, please. Just stop. I don’t want…we neither one need to spend any more time there than we already have, do we?”

“No, sir. Question?”

“Fire away.”

“What do you think? Would I be a better priest than a physician?”

“Wow, now there’s a question.” He looked out at the night, looked up at the stars. “Maybe they’re not as far apart as you think?”

“Hmm? Why do you say that?”

“Well, they’re both grounded in a kind of rigorous curiosity, and at the same time they’re both concerned with helping people find answers about themselves, maybe even their truest natures.”

The boy nodded his head slowly, but for the first time he saw something odd in his son’s eyes. A man’s eyes. Thoughtful, yet full of understanding.

“Anyway, I doubt you’ll ever be able to turn away from the Church, not completely. Maybe you’ll just turn out like a lot of the rest of us…you’ll go once a week and leave those mysteries to someone else.”

“But, me?”

He shrugged. “What I think really doesn’t matter, does it? You know, in your heart, what the answer to that is, and you don’t need all my baggage cluttering up the floor…”

“Maybe, but I’d like to know what you think.”

“Well, of course, I’d like to see you find your way to happiness. I think medicine would…well, I think you’ve got the right temperament for medicine. You’ve always been a kind of scientist, even when you were in Sunday school. You’ve always asked the hard questions, the kind of questions your teachers couldn’t answer, not effectively, anyway. Their easy answers always seemed to…”

“They pissed me off. They still do.”

“Still?”

“The answers never change, Dad. Someone is senselessly killed and there’s only one answer. It’s all a part of God’s mysterious plan, or we can never really know why…”

“Which presupposes there’s a why out there.”

“Exactly. Which means an order, a purpose to all this, which is comforting…”

“So, what do you tell an old man when you find out he has something like pancreatic cancer? That he’s going to die? Do you tell him the facts, turn him loose to find comfort in senseless emptiness?”

“I’m not sure I believe in the whole heaven and hell thing anymore, Dad.”

“Then you just answered your question, Ted. Case closed. Do you want dessert?”

They laughed at that and were still giggling when the girl came by and asked if they wanted something sweet to finish off their meal. She looked puzzled when they started laughing again…

+++++

He slept late that morning, didn’t get up ‘til three-thirty. He showered and put on his running shoes, then went topsides and filled the water tanks before he went for his run. There was a huge, forested park across the little inlet and he stretched first, then took off, as always sure running was the most stupid form of exercise ever invented. After fifteen minutes he was sure running was the greatest thing ever, and after forty minutes he was wrapped in the familiar warmth of his runner’s high. He slowed as he returned to the little marina, then walked it out for a few minutes – looking at his watch only once as he took in a few more really deep breaths.

He saw her on the dock just then, sitting on a dock-box, a large duffel on the planks by her feet – and he smiled.

When he walked up she looked up, saw him and smiled.

“Sorry about the hour,” she said.

“You brought everything, I see. Burned all your bridges, did you?”

She nodded – but she turned away, too. “Yup, looks that way.”

“You sure about this?”

She looked him in the eye then. “Yes. You’re a good man. I can tell that much just by looking.”

“I see.”

She laughed at that, and he did too. “It’s your son I’m not so sure of…?”

“Ted? Oh, he’s harmless. Confused as hell, but harmless.”

“Confused?”

“No spoilers, young lady. Oh, by the way, my name is Jim. Yours?”

“Tracy. Tracy Singleton.”

“Well, Tracy, I hate to ask, but do you have your passport handy?”

That seemed to take her back a little…

“We may be boarded by the Coast Guard…in fact, odds are we will be more than once. They’ll check, and as it’s my boat it’s my responsibility.”

“So, you’re a pilot? I mean, really?” she said as she pulled out her passport and handed it to him, hardly taking her eyes off him as he looked over her passport.

He looked up at her then, sizing up her words as a record of her experience so far. “Yup. Really.”

“Can I see your pilot’s license, then?”

He laughed at that. “Sure. You wanna come up, or wait here?”

“I think I’ll wait here.”

He nodded then hopped aboard, went below for his wallet – and he found Ted stumbling out of the aft head, rubbing his eyes. “Oh. You’re up,” he groaned.

“So is Tracy.”

“Who?”

“Tracy. The gal you’re going to marry.”

“Jeez!”

“Better put some clothes on, Paco,” he added, on his way to get his wallet. He went back out a minute later, stepped down to the swim platform on the stern and handed his license over to the girl – who looked duly impressed.

“So, no-foolin’, eh? You’re not a pretender?”

“I take it you’ve seen your fair share?”

“That’s all there seems to be lurking about these days…if you know what I mean?”

As if the word ‘lurking’ wasn’t enough, there was the look in her eyes: distrustful, alert, lonely. Distant. The literal opposite of Barbara, in other words. Where Barbara had always been reaching out, this girl had turned inward at some point. Her good looks had probably invited too much-unwanted attention…

“I suppose it’s always been that way, Tracy. You ready to come on up, or having second thoughts?”

She handed her duffel over, then looked at his outstretched hand before she took it.

He saw it took an effort on her part, then he watched her looking at all the stuff that made Altair work.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can just sit back and watch…”

“Could you teach me?”

“Teach you?”

“To sail.”

“Sure…but Ted’s a better teacher than I ever was…”

“I doubt that,” the girl said, looking him in the eye.

“Well, let me show you around down below.”

“Do I have my own room?”

“Yes. It’s small, but…”

“Oh, that okay.”

He led her down the companionway, showed her the galley and the head, then led her to the tiny cabin under the cockpit. “Well, here it is…”

“You weren’t kidding,” she sighed.

“It’s kind of a storeroom that happens to have a bunk,” Ted said, now standing behind his father. “If it bothers you, we could switch places.”

“No. I’ll be fine here,” the girl said.

Yes, he thought, you will be.

(c) 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | just a little bit of story-tellin’…

The Deep End of Your Dreams + Ch. 14

Deep END 14

Chapter 14

The road was rough, and, of course, there were thunderstorms just ahead. Albuquerque lay beyond this latest line of storms, somewhere beyond the lightning, and Claire was smoldering inside.

Stopped by Los Alamos security near the entrance to the highway to Santa Fe, she had finally been stuffed into the back seat of a gray Ford sedan – only to find Levy already in the car. Handcuffed, as it turned out.

Then she was handcuffed, and for the first time in her life she’d wanted to cry. She also didn’t want Ben to see her crying, to afford him the opportunity to see so deeply into her fear, so she turned away, looked at her reflection in the glass…

Amanda…gone. How was that even possible? How did the best train in the country derail, without apparent cause, in the middle of nowhere?

When the FBI agent had asked where she was going she’d told him, and after he apologized he told her he hadn’t heard any details about the accident yet. “If you don’t mind me askin’, Ma’am, how do you know your sister’s dead?” the agent asked as they passed through Santa Fe.

“He told me,” Claire replied without evasion, pointing at Ben.

“And, sir, how did you hear this information?”

And he couldn’t very well answer – ‘Gee, I learned of this a thousand years from now,” so he thought for a moment before answering: “On the radio.”

“I didn’t think they did that,” the agent said. “But then again, I don’t think you’re telling me the truth.”

Then Ben looked at Claire’s reflection in the glass – and their eyes met for a moment, yet she turned away. Just like Amanda turned away.

“You’ll have to ask the people at the station,” Ben added.

“I will,” the agent said, looking at Ben in the rearview mirror.

“Where are we going?” Claire asked the agent, still looking at her reflection.

“To take a ride in an airplane, I guess you might say.”

“I see,” she added, thinking about the people who would want to talk to her after the sphere had been reported over her house. That meant Oak Ridge or Washington. She thought about the sphere seen here, then the one off the coast of Spain. That one had been clearly observed – and by everyone – including the president.

Yes, she was going to be taken to Washington – to see Roosevelt. Because…she had to be under suspicion now. Well, she’d just to have to let Levy talk to them, let him figure out what to do next – because one way or another she was pretty sure Ben wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

Slate-colored clouds loomed ahead, and she saw lightning in the clouds, too, then fat drops of water hit the windshield. Heavier drops began to beat the Ford’s roof and she closed her eyes, listened to the mysterious rhythm… Why, she wondered, did humans see patterns everywhere? Why? And what pattern did Amanda’s death fit into?

Then the thought hit her: he had chosen not to protect Amanda? Why? Had she been so peripheral to the future? Or had her death – now, today, this afternoon – preserved some pre-established order?

Then yet another thought slammed into her: what if Amanda’s trip to the ship had severely altered a timeline? What if her immediate death had become the only way to realign a presumed natural order of time?

Then, another leap of insight. What if…when she’d uprooted Amanda, brought her west from Philadelphia, what if she had altered…but wait…how could she ever know anything like that was true? She couldn’t, not with any certainty. If time was a river, how many tributaries could be generated by just one person? By just one person in the course of a single day? How many ‘what ifs’ could there be?

‘For all intents and purposes, an infinite number.’

Because if just one person confronted an almost infinite number of momentous choices in the course of a lifetime, the permutations would literally be very nearly infinite. One would never know – unless they could somehow see into the future, or somehow measure the results of one choice against another.

What crushed her in that moment, what made her feel completely insignificant was the thought that Ben and Trevor – and all the people like them she assumed were already working here – had just that ability. If so, there’s was an Olympian vantage, one not so different than what the ancients thought characterized the gods.

She opened her eyes, looked out the window, saw the outskirts of Albuquerque as they emerged from the thunderstorm. The rain-soaked two-lane blacktop was nearly deserted now, and she had seen only a few trucks headed to Santa Fe so far, while up ahead Albuquerque’s lights were winking on as the sun licked the far horizon. They drove through the city in silence, Ben apparently looking at pedestrians out the Ford’s window, yet now with his arms crossed over his chest, somehow looking very bored while also projecting an image of pure vulnerability.

‘He doesn’t belong here, does he?’ she asked herself. What must that feel like? To not belong in such a profound way?

They drove out onto the tarmac at the Albuquerque Army Air Force Base, right up to a waiting DC-3, and as soon as they were aboard the aircraft the pilots throttled-up and taxied to the runway. It felt to Claire like only minutes passed before they were airborne, headed east over the Sandia Mountains – and into an infinite night.

+++++

More FBI agents met their aircraft at the airport, and the small convoy made the short drive across the Potomac in silence. Even more agents were waiting at the White House, where both she and Ben were searched before being escorted to Harry Hopkins’ office. She recognized Dean Acheson as they walked into the cramped office, and she saw smoldering malice in the diplomat’s peregrine eyes, then she saw Hopkins was in the room too. And he did not look in the least happy.

“The blue spheres,” Acheson said, pointing at Levy without preamble. “What are they?”

Ben stared at both Hopkins and Acheson for a moment, then shrugged. “In essence, while each mimics a plasma, what you’ve witnessed is but a small electromagnetic field that resides around a single sub-atomic particle. Power is applied to the field and that regulates the size of the sphere.”

“And why would you do that, Mr Levy?”

“Because the resulting sphere can be manipulated.”

“You mean Time, don’t you, sir? You can manipulate time?”

“No, sir. Not me, personally.”

“Your people, then.”

“That is a true statement, Mr. Acheson.”

“Are you human?”

“Human enough.”

“Where are you from?”

“Kent, sir.”

“Don’t lie to me, you son of a bitch.”

“I am not, sir. Of that, you may be sure.”

“Alright…one more time. Where did you come from?”

“Where did I come from? You mean…”

“You know exactly what I mean,” Acheson snarled.

“‘Where’ isn’t the correct question, sir. ‘When’ is more appropriate. Or – more to the point.”

“When? And just what do you mean by that?”

“My first iteration was created in 1866, sir. This body, the one you’re interacting with just now, was created in the year 3037. That is from when I come – this time.”

“You expect me to believe…?”

“I’ve told you the truth. Every time you’ve asked me a question, I’ve told you the absolute truth.”

“Well, the president seems to take great stock in you,” Acheson sighed, “though for the life of me I have no idea why.”

Levy only smiled, though he steepled his fingers just then, as if measuring the passage of time to a metronome only he heard.

“You’re a time traveler, is that it?” Hopkins said, speaking now for the first time, stepping tentatively into the flow.

“Not true, Mr. Hopkins. I am – we are – engineers.”

“What kind of engineers?” Acheson snarled, suddenly perturbed again.

“Time, sir,” Levy said – looking from Hopkins to Acheson. “We engineer Time. We try to do so in such a manner that we disrupt certain unwanted imbalances. That we ensure more acceptable outcomes, without disrupting our own existence.”

“And,” Acheson growled, “if I may be permitted to ask, acceptable – to whom? To you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You know…I think I’ll have you shot.”

“That’s quite understandable,” Levy said, smiling again. “I’m sure the Russians would allow you to, though I feel quite certain Mr. Churchill may take offense.”

“What have they got to do with all this?” Acheson said, his eyes narrowing.

“Everything. Absolutely everything.”

“What did you mean when you said you were human enough?” Hopkins asked. “Human enough for what? To fool us?”

Claire looked at Ben now, her eyes full of questions. “You say you were born in 1866? The original iteration of you – whatever that means?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Ben said, grinning.

“What was your name? Back in 1866?”

Levy smiled broadly now. “Herbert.”

“Herbert?” Acheson said, his voice unbelieving. “Herbert…what?”

“Herbert George Wells.”

And it was Claire who burst out laughing this time. “You should pick your doppelgänger with more care, next time – Herbert.”

“Oh, I am not he.”

“Iteration?” Hopkins said. “What did you mean when you said that?”

“I am a copy.”

“A copy?” Acheson added. “Of H. G. Wells? Named Ben Levy?”

“Yes. Just so.”

“And you are not completely human?”

“Not the type of human you would recognize.”

Claire turned inward now, afraid of the next question she had to ask. “Who created you, Ben?”

“Our granddaughter, Claire. Though her father helped.”

She nodded before she turned away, then closed her eyes – to stop the flow of tears.

 

(C) 2017 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | fiction, all of it…

The Deep End of Your Dreams + Ch. 13

Deep end 13

Chapter 13

Roosevelt was in the Oval Office, looking over the FBI’s final report on the latest matter out in New Mexico, reading through it for the third time. The blue sphere had been seen twice over Los Alamos, the report stated plainly enough, yet Aubuchon had denied any knowledge of its (re)appearance, and that troubled him. It troubled Harry Hopkins too, and Cordell Hull. They had all caught a brief glimpse of the sphere over the Atlantic, twice on the Iowa’s return voyage; the first when the Condor approached off Spain, the second when that strange Navy aircraft appeared over the Georges Banks and attacked the German battleships.

And now, another sphere – allegedly over Aubuchon’s house in Los Alamos? He just didn’t know her well enough to understand what this meant.

So he picked up the telephone on his desk and spoke to the switchboard operator. “Get Harry, would you?”

A few minutes later Hopkins entered the Oval Office. “We have the latest German rail car dispositions you asked for, Mr President. Attacking fuel transport lines seems to be working.”

“Harry? I need to speak with Claire…Dr Aubuchon. And I need to see her eyes when I speak to her.”

Hopkins nodded. “Yessir. I understand.”

“Handled discreetly, of course.”

“Yessir. She’s just arrived in Los Alamos. There are no records she took her sister to a hospital in Santa Fe, by the by.”

Roosevelt looked down at his hands, coughed once. “There are days I truly hate this job, Harry.”

“What do you think…”

“She’s lying, for one thing, Harry. That means she’s hiding something. And if a person in her position is hiding something, then we’re all in trouble. The entire project could be compromised.”

Hopkins pursed his lips, nodded slowly. “Do you want to remove her now, or wait until we can finish a full security review?”

Roosevelt leaned back in his wheelchair and sighed, then shook his head. “We can’t afford a breakdown in security now. Especially not now. Chop her off, bring her in, and anyone else in that house. We need to know who she’s consorting with.”

“Her sister Amanda is on the approved list, as is that Levy character. Those are the only two in the house. At least, as of last night.”

“Have the FBI handle it, but I want it handled discreetly. And I want to talk to her as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Mr President.” Hopkins turned and left the Old Man with his thoughts. He knew that look, after all, well enough – didn’t he? He went to his office and called the director…

+++++

Amanda looked odd the next morning. Clear-eyed and suddenly looking almost emaciated, Claire guessed her sister had lost no less than twenty pounds in the last three days; an impossibility, true enough, but the evidence was right before her eyes. But…how?

“Well, hi there, sleepyhead. And how are you feeling this morning,” she asked Amanda as her bare-footed sister padded into the kitchen.

“Excellent. You?”

“Tired. I was in the lab well into the night.”

“I know. I heard you come in. Around two, wasn’t it?”

“That sounds right. When I start on something I often lose track of time.”

Amanda nodded. “Father was like that,” she sighed, still coming to terms with the passage of so much time, and her absence from the flow. “Charles was too, back in high school, anyway.”

“He still is.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Who? Father?”

Amanda nodded her head carefully, slowly, hesitation clear in the hesitant movement.

“I didn’t know him the same way you did, Amanda, but my memories of him are of a warm, caring person.”

Amanda smiled, a tenuous, wounded smile – her eyes full groping hands in dark shadows. “I’ve seen Ben before, you know?”

“Ben? Before? What…? Where was that?”

“In Sweden. He was the physician who took my baby?”

“What?” Claire felt inrushing pressure when the words registered.

“I couldn’t place him at first, I think, because he hasn’t aged. But it’s him. I remember his voice most of all, but oh yes, Claire, it’s him. Of that I’m sure.”

Claire stared at the stovetop, lost in breaking waves of suddenly inexplicable implications. Ben…Trevor…and who else? Had they been following her all her life? But, to what purpose? Why watch her so closely? And why would anyone take a fetus?

“You must be mistaken, Amanda. That’s clearly not possible.”

“Clearly, yes, I agree. Yet he was there. Ask him.”

“Have you?”

“No. I think I’m a little afraid to, and I guess I wanted you with me if I do.”

Claire shook her head, tried to laugh a little. “This must all be a coincidence of some sort, dear sister. That such a thing could be? Well, it’s simply just not possible.”

“Impossible. Yes. I dreamed last night that you were on a ship of some sort, a ship near a strange planet, and that people were talking to you about something called the shift. It was all very real feeling, like we were really there.”

“A shift? Really?”

“I’m thinking your work here has something to do with it. What does it mean, do you think? This shift?”

Claire shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“I wonder who he is?”

“Who? Benjamin?”

“Yes. Is it true? You’re going to marry him?”

Claire looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “What makes you say that, Amanda?”

“I’ve heard you two talking, but it’s not like I was snooping around. Well, is it true?”

“I think, yes, maybe.”

“But why? You don’t love him, do you?”

And Claire shrugged. “I don’t know that it’s as simple as that, Amanda. There are other things I’m considering.”

“Other things? Such as…?”

But just Claire turned to Amanda, looked her in the eye. “We’ll talk to him tonight, I promise. About Sweden, about your dream – all of it.”

Amanda took the evasion in stride, met her sister’s gaze on terms at once familiar – yet full of loneliness. Claire’s words felt like a betrayal, and that was not a feeling she remembered coming from her. They looked at one another for a moment longer, then she made up her mind. “I think I should return to Philadelphia, Claire. I’ll only be in your way here, and you have more important things to take care of.”

“Nonsense. There’s nothing more important than you.”

“Could you get me on the next train?”

“Really? You want to go home now? You haven’t seen or done anything here yet, and there’s so much…”

“Yes, I feel homesick, as silly as that must sound. Really, I’d like to go home, back to Pennsylvania.”

“Alright,” Claire said, feeling dejected – and a little relieved. “I’ll call.” She turned and walked inside, leaving Amanda on the patio staring at the Blood of Christ mountains.

+++++

“Where’s Amanda?” Ben asked as he walked into the kitchen.

“On her way home. I got her on the one-thirty Chief.”

“Home? You mean, Philadelphia?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“How…unexpected.”

“Really? I thought you knew everything?”

“Her trip to the ship was not expected.”

“So, the future has been altered once again.”

Be nodded his head. “Yes.”

“Yet, you’re still here?”

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“When are we to marry? Is tomorrow too soon?”

“After the war concludes. If we married sooner it would appear suspicious.”

“Is it – suspicious?”

“What do you mean?”

“Amanda mentioned that you were the physician in Sweden, the man who removed her baby.”

“Indeed?”

“She said there was no mistaking you, or your voice.”

“I see.”

“Is it true?”

“Yes,” Ben sighed, “it’s true. You’ll understand, in time. There’s no frame of reference yet Claire, or I could tell you.”

“Frame of reference? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“The reasons why we had to, not to mention the technology involved, but I promise, I’ll tell you someday. Before I die, anyway.”

“And what about Amanda? What about her feelings?”

Ben shrugged. “Turn on the radio.”

“What?”

“Turn on the radio. Now.”

She moved to the living room and turned on the set, then, waiting for the tubes to warm, she asked if he needed anything to eat or drink.

“No. I’m fine.”

As she tuned-in the station in Santa Fe she recoiled in horror. The Chief had derailed near Walsenburg, Colorado, and rescue operations were just now getting underway. The scene of the accident was remote, the announcer said, noting it was miles from the nearest roadway.

“We should go,” Claire said. “I’ll need to be there when they bring her to the hospital.”

“There’s no rush,” Ben said, his face a mask of barely concealed pain.

“Why? What do you mean?”

“She’s gone, Claire.”

“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”

“She did not survive.”

She stumbled to her chair and fell into it, hands covering her face. “Gone,” she sobbed. “Amanda? Gone?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You bastard!” Claire screamed. “You did this!”

Ben looked away, then walked over to the little fireplace and started putting piñon on the grate, and soon he had a fire going. When he turned Claire was looking at him, pure malice in her eyes.

“We had no part in what happened, Claire. Amanda simply arrived at her moment in time, the end of a chain. It was her time, and there was nothing we could do to alter that.”

“Oh, yes there is.”

“Yes, but to alter that timeline once again could prove disastrous.”

“Once again?”

“Come. Stand with me by the fire.”

“I’m not cold.”

“Nonsense. I’ve never known anyone so cold.”

Her stare turned to icy stone at that, and then she left the house. He heard her driving off into the night so he walked out onto the patio in time to see her speeding down the canyon towards the highway that led to Santa Fe – and Walsenburg. He sighed again, then returned to his little bedroom off the kitchen.

He was smiling just then, for a million little reasons, when someone knocked on the door. He walked over, opened it, saw two policemen and another man in a dark suit, and he tried not to smile – at time.

“Come in, gentlemen. Dr. Aubuchon just left, but is there anything I can help you with?”

 

(c) adrian leverkühn | abw

The Deep End of Your Dreams + Ch. 12

Deep end 11.1

Chapter 12

The house was odd, he thought. Odd, and tiny. And the walls seemed to be made of mud.

How had Claire made the adjustment? From that house in Philadelphia – to this?

The entire house – all three bedrooms of it – was quite literally smaller than the library. The walls were bare; not a single picture adorned the walls. There was no paneling on the walls, no library, and one bathroom little larger than a telephone booth.

And while Claire had returned to her own bedroom, and put Amanda in a large bedroom near her own, she had put him in a tiny space off the kitchen he assumed had been provided for some sort of domestic help.

And here he had thought she was developing real feelings for him…

He lay in his bed that night thinking about this sudden uncomfortable turn of events, wondering if he should simply abort the mission and return to the ship, try to reconcile events that had already been altered with potentially more agreeable outcomes. Still, he knew what they’d say…

‘It’s a good plan…stick with it a little longer…’

Planting dreams…molding the shape of her intellect to help create the best possible outcome…and then she’d stumbled upon the Shift – the worst possible outcome imaginable. All it would take to sunder the current order was one simple ripple in the fabric of time caused by the shift – and then they would come. The people living on earth now thought they knew what true evil was, but no one here had ever met one of them. The silent ones, the mind readers. Keepers…that’s what they called themselves. No one knew what they kept, unless it was a certain order to the universe.

He thought about that for a moment…

What if someone went back to the very beginning of time, to the moment when the universe came into being? To the moment of inception? What if someone went back and took that cosmic thimble full of matter and put it in a suitcase, then made the suitcase disappear? What if all the matter of the universe simply vanished? What then?

The theory said if the Shift began it would send the universe back to the zero point. Was that what the Keepers sought to prevent? What if the Shift was unstoppable once it started, if the arrow of time was to become corrupted?

The shift was fundamentally different than the time-shadows. The spheres could be controlled, and easily, and travel could take place without distorting the flow of time. Not so the Shift. The Shift was a one-way ticket back to the very beginning, and conceivably whatever lurked before the beginning.

Before the beginning?

Is that what the Keepers were guarding?

He sat up in bed and walked out the door to the kitchen, then he stumbled to another door and walked out onto the stone patio. He took a deep breath of the crisp air, then looked up at the stars. Was there something beyond, he wondered? Something on the other side of all that blackness? Was that the secret?

He heard someone coming out of the house, walking up behind him – and he stood perfectly still, looking at the pole star, imagining the earth spinning round and round.

Silence enveloped him. Only the sound of someone’s breathing disturbed the perfect silence.

He turned, saw Amanda standing there, a large knife in her hand, a slash-wound across her belly.

His eyes went wide, he began to feel panic for the first time in his life. “What have you done!” he cried…then she lunged at him, the knife aiming right at his heart.

+++++

Claire heard Amanda walk from her room, heard the door that led to the backyard open. She shook her head and slipped on her jeans and hiking boots, walked through the living room until she saw Amanda in the yard, the knife drawing back. She saw Benjamin standing there with his back to them both, looking, as he seemed to do often, at the stars – and she knew what was going to happen. She started running and was through the door when Ben started to turn around. She came up from behind Amanda, her eyes fixed on the knife, and as she lunged she hooked her arm around Amanda’s neck and knocked her to the ground; she then saw the belly wound and thought it must have happened in the fall.

Ben was kneeling now, applying pressure to the wound, but the flow of blood was simply catastrophic. Without thinking he pressed his left temple and waited…

+++++

The scientist’s compound at Los Alamos was, in early 1944, one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the United States. Guards in Jeeps patrolled constantly – both the paved streets and the rugged arroyos that surrounded the compound. Several guards saw the blue sphere that settled over the small house on Sycamore Street, and they raced to investigate.

When they arrived they found blood in the backyard, the back door to the house standing open – and no one inside the house.

And no blue sphere.

Thirty four minutes later Harry Hopkins walked into the president’s bedroom and gently shook him.

+++++

The room was impossibly small, the walls bright red – and Claire shook her head as the dream…but no, this wasn’t a dream, was it? Amanda was on an operating table and two machines hovered over her body. Retractors had pulled open and revealed an enormous cavity; the robots were moving so fast she could neither see nor understand what they were doing. Screens flashed as readouts changed, one of the machines moved to what looked like a storage device and opened it, then plugged a bag of red fluid – was it blood? – into the IV that coursed into Amanda’s arm.

She saw that Ben was beside her, and that they were in a small clean room off the operating room, and that Been was talking on an intercom of some sort.

“She’s lost too much blood,” she heard him say, and she began to fear the worst. Then she heard him say: “Are you sure?”

He listened for a moment, then keyed codes on some kind of electronic typewriter. One of the machines stopped what it was doing and went back to the storage unit, pulled out another bag and added that to the IV.

Ben turned to her. “She’ll be alright now,” he said.

“But…she’s dying…”

“She was, yes.”

“What do you mean, she was?”

“She is not dying now. She will be better in about five hours. We can return to the house then.”

“Are you kidding? Look at her!”

But when Claire turned and looked at her sister the fourteen-inch long gash was gone, and her color was improving – right before her eyes.

“What have you done to her?”

“She’ll be better now. In every way.”

“In every way? What do you mean?”

“You will see.”

“Where are we?”

“A hospital.”

“Where?”

“Here.”

“You won’t tell me?”

“No. I cannot.”

She turned and looked at Amanda. “Why did she do this?”

“I do not know.”

“What’s wrong with you, Ben? You don’t…you’re not speaking right.”

“I am tired. I must rest.”

And with that he turned and walked from the little room, but the door slid shut behind him as he left, leaving her locked in the cabin. She looked at Amanda, at the machines working on her, then she too felt tired. A small bed slid out of the wall and she just made it before she passed out.

+++++

She woke and looked around, rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. Her bed, in her bedroom. In Los Alamos. The hard sunshine pouring in through the window left sharp shadows on the walls, and the sky over the spine of the Sangre de Cristo was the deepest blue she had ever seen…then she remembered the blood.

Amanda!

Then, knocking on the door. Frantic knocking, then men at the window, looking in. One saw her and tapped on the glass…

“Dr. Aubuchon?”

“Yes, just a minute. Let me get dressed, please.”

The man seemed to visibly relax, then he disappeared around the side of the house. She slipped into her jeans and put on a flannel shirt, then walked to Amanda’s room. Her sister was sleeping fitfully so she let her be, then walked to the kitchen, and into Ben’s room.

Gone. The room was empty, and there was no trace of him at all.

She walked to the front door and opened it, saw a half-dozen uniformed and plain-clothes policemen standing there, all looking very agitated.

“Dr. Aubuchon?”

“Yes?”

“We’ve been searching for you for hours now!” one of them, apparently an FBI agent, said. “We found blood all over the backyard…”

“I’m so sorry,” Claire began. “My sister fell and cut herself last night. I ran her down to Santa Fe.”

“Officers saw some sort of sphere descend on the house. Do you know anything about that? Some sort of experiment, perhaps?”

She looked at the agent and shrugged. “I wasn’t conducting any experiments.”

“So…everything’s okay here?”

“Yes, and thank you for your concern.”

“Is your sister here, or at the hospital?”

“Here. Back in her bedroom now, sound asleep.”

“There was a lot of blood…what happened to her?”

Claire looked down. “I’m sorry, but she has emotional issues. Hallucinations.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the agent said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“It’s no intrusion, officer. Would you like to check on her, see for yourself?”

“That’s alright, Ma’am. Doctor Oppenheimer would like you to check in with his office as soon as you can.”

She nodded. “Thanks, I will.”

“Well, good day, doctor.”

“And you,” she said, closing the door, then she retreated to the kitchen, to Ben’s room. There was no sign he’d ever been there and she felt gut-punched, almost bereft – because she knew he wouldn’t be back. She walked, head down, into the kitchen – wondering if, after last night, life would ever be the same.

Those machines! Performing surgery! And the red walls…? It had to be that ship…

She put her hands out and steadied herself on the counter, took a few deep breaths, then she saw another agent in the backyard, just standing there, looking up at the sun.

Then she saw the shape of the man’s head, and she just knew.

She went back out to the patio. “Ben?” she asked, and the man turned around.

“No,” the man said.

“Do you know where he is?”

“He failed. He will not be returning.”

“Failed? What did he fail to do?”

“To protect you, and your family.”

“He didn’t fail…”

“That was not your decision to make.”

“Was? May I see him?”

“No. That is no longer possible.”

“I see. And, what happens next?”

“My name is Andrew. I am to be your husband.”

“Well, Andrew, nothing personal, but Ben was going to be my husband. I’d rather like it if that came to pass.”

“I see.”

“Would you mind going back to wherever you just came from and see if you can make that happen?”

“That may no longer be possible.”

“Goodbye, Andrew.”

“Goodbye.”

She watched the man, if that was indeed what it was, walk off into the arroyo, then she returned to the kitchen and made coffee, then scrambled some eggs. When she had cleaned up after, she showered and put on fresh clothes, then went to Amanda’s bedroom again and sat on the edge of the bed.

There was something different about her this morning. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but Amanda definitely looked different. She pulled back the sheets and looked at the wound – and found nothing but smooth, white skin – and no trace of any sort of wound.

“The robots,” she sighed.

“The what?” Amanda groaned.

Claire looked at Amanda, saw the illness in her eyes was gone, replaced by a less malignant confusion. “My, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know.”

“Any pain anywhere?”

“Pain? No…not really,” but Amanda seemed to look at Claire for a long time, then: “Claire? Is that you?”

“Yes, of course it’s me. Who did you think…”

“Where am I?”

“What?” Claire sighed, now confused too. “Where do you think you are?”

“I have no idea…” Amanda quailed, soon on the verge of tears.

“You’re at my house, Amanda, in New Mexico…”

“New Mexico? Since when did you have a house out there?”

“For two years now. I work here.”

Amanda sat upright in bed, her eyes searching for something recognizable – but after a moment she gave up, hugged her knees to her chest and started crying. Claire came close and enfolded her sister in her arms.

“Sh-h-h,” Claire whispered in a soothing, maternal way, “it’s alright. I’m here. It’s alright now.”

But Amanda was shaking her head…her confusion abnormally oppressive.

“What’s the last thing you remember,” Claire asked.

“I’m not sure.” Then: “Father, running to a fire. At the Navy Yard.”

And Claire gasped. “Amanda, that was almost twenty years ago. Do you remember nothing since?”

“What? Twenty…?” she said, trying to stand just now – her knees almost buckling.

“Here, let me help you?” Claire steadied her sister and helped her to the bathroom, but when Amanda saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink she screamed, terrified.

“That’s not me!” she cried. “Oh, please God! Tell me that’s not me! Oh, please…who is that?”

“You should shower now,” Claire said. “Then we’ll get you dressed.” She turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, yet Amanda stood – transfixed – looking into the mirror at the stranger staring back…

Claire led her into the shower and let the spray beat on the back of her sister’s neck, and soon the water brought her back to the present. “Oh my, that feels so good.”

“Just stand there. Relax. I’ve got a new toothbrush for you, too.”

“Could I have it, please. My teeth feel like they’re coated in saw-dust.”

“Sure. I’ll be right back.” She went out to the hall closet and found the brush, then she saw a man standing on the patio. “Benjamin?” she whispered.

He nodded his head and she ran to the door, let him in then flew into his arms.

Yet he seemed almost inert, spent, and she stepped back, looked into his eyes. “Ben?”

“Yes?”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m very tired.”

“Why don’t you take a rest. Amanda’s just now up, and I’ve got her in the shower.”

He nodded. “That should help, but Claire? She’s very fragile now.”

She nodded her head too. “Go rest. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

“Where?”

“Your room?”

“Show me?”

“Show you? You don’t remember?”

“I told you, I’m very tired.”

She helped him to his room off the kitchen, then thought better of it and took him to her room. “Just lay down and rest your eyes. I’ll be right back…”

When she took a new toothbrush to the shower, she found Amanda staring into the steam-covered mirror, wiping rivulets of moisture from the silvered glass. “I recognize my eyes,” she said, “but nothing else makes sense. When did this happen to me?”

“What, my dear?”

“How did this happen to me?”

Claire saw the confusion in her sister’s eye, but the source wasn’t quite clear, yet. “Amanda, tell me…what do you remember? How old are you?”

“Twenty-three, I think – I’m twenty-three, and I’m going to finish college next year, because after spending the year in Sweden…” Amanda began, then her voice trailed off into the dissolution that had held her in it’s grip all these years.

“What happened in Sweden, Amanda?”

Claire watched as her sister looked inside the glass, and wondered what she saw in those silvery echoes. But, apparently – nothing, as Amanda turned to her and shook her head. “Isn’t that odd? I can’t recall a thing about the trip. Where’s father?”

“He’s not here just now,” Claire whispered, afraid now.

“And Charles? Where is her?”

“Charles is in Washington just now, Amanda, but he’ll be out to see you soon enough.”

“And mother? Where is she?”

“She’s with father now, dearest.”

“And Elizabeth?”

“At home. At home in Philadelphia.”

“I want to go to Bookbinder’s, for soup. Will you take me – but, oh, you say we’re in New Mexico? How silly of me!”

“How about I fix some eggs and coffee? Would that do?”

“Oh, yes please. I do feel hungry.”

“How many eggs?”

“Oh, you know me…just one, over easy.”

Claire nodded – as she did indeed remember, then, not quite sure what had happened to Amanda over the course of the night, she walked back to the kitchen and lit the stove. A while later Amanda walked out, and Claire was astonished to see that the dress she’d worn the day before hung loosely on her sister’s suddenly diminished frame.

“One egg, over easy,” Claire said, putting the plate with the egg on a little table in the kitchen. Amanda ate half, then declared she was full before she had her coffee, black.

“I’ll need to go into work for a little bit,” Claire said, looking at  her sister. “You’re looking tired…would you like to take a nap?”

“Ooh, yes please. I’ve never felt so tired.”

When she returned a few hours later Amanda was on the patio out back, laughing gayly as a harried looking Ben Levy tried to keep up with her fractured conversation.

+++++

There was a small kiva in the corner of Claire’s bedroom, and a few pieces of piñon burned and popped away there, lending the room a smokey hue that was pleasant in the extreme – or so Ben remembered. He had never expected to feel the way he did just now, laying on Claire’s bed with her head resting on his lap. He had never known love, not even a mother’s love, but as he ran his fingers through her hair he knew, sitting in the amber light, that the feelings coursing through his veins could only be one thing.

He wondered about miracles for a moment, and if this is what people meant when they spoke of such things. And the oddest thing of all? They hadn’t said a word in what felt like hours.

Because, he understood, there seemed to be no need.

“We’ll need more wood for the fire,” she said. “I’ll go get some.”

“Show me how?” Ben asked.

“What?”

“How to make the fire work?”

“You’ve never made a fire?”

“No. There has not been much need where I live.”

“And where is that? The ship?”

“Connecticut.”

“Connecticut? Really? I always thought winters there were somewhat brutal.”

“Not where I lived.”

“And where was that?”

“New London.”

“And when did you move to London?”

“We were older then.”

“You went to school there?”

“Yes.”

“What did you study?”

“Science. Chemistry and physics.”

“Quantum mechanics?”

“Of course.”

“And metallurgy?”

“Yes.”

“Boeing is working on your titanium process; they should have results in a few weeks.”

“If necessary, I can go to Seattle with you.”

Claire looked away then, lost in a sudden thought. “Can you tell me about Amanda? What you treated her with?”

“Treated? You misunderstand. She treated herself.”

“What do you mean?”

“There were errors in replication…”

“Replication?”

“In DNA.”

“And that is?”

Ben blinked, shook his head. “The bacteria in her gut were out of balance. This caused a cascading series of failures in other relevant areas of her internal biome. This sequence has been reversed. She will feel better soon.”

“I see,” Claire lied, not having the slightest idea about what he was talking about. “What about these errors in replication?”

“I’m sorry. I misspoke.”

“Ah. So, the emotional problems she’s experienced?”

“There will be consequences, but with counseling they should be manageable.”

“Will she loose weight?”

“Yes. She has lost four kilos already, and her basal metabolic rate…”

“Her – what?”

“The rate at which she burns energy?”

“How did you determine that, Ben?”

“It is not important.”

“Tell me, what is important, Ben?”

“These feelings. The feelings we are experiencing.”

“Oh? Tell me how you feel?”

“How? I think I understand what, not how.”

“What do you feel now.”

“I think it is love.”

“Ah. Have you ever been in love before?”

“I have read about love, I have seen love, but no, I have never personally felt love.”

“How is that possible?”

“That was quite normal where I grew up?”

“Do you think you could love a child, Ben?”

“A child?”

“You said we would have two children. Don’t you know that children need love most of all?”

“Children need love?”

“Affection. Feelings of trust and understanding.”

“How so?”

“Children need to develop in an atmosphere of trust and understanding, tempered with affection. Without these things, children grow to become emotionally distrustful, even mean.”

The words washed over Ben Levy and he struggled to understand the meaning behind her words. Had she just told him he was mean, and not trustworthy? Surely that was not love?

She watched his reactions, the reactions of a child, of someone who had not the slightest idea of what it meant to be human, and that only made her more curious. It was no longer a question of who he was; it was more now that she didn’t know what he was?

Human? Yes, of course, but he hadn’t been born in the 1800s –

That just couldn’t be. Could it?

“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s get some more wood.”

The only thing she knew just then was that she had to keep him talking. The more tired he became, the more he talked… The more he talked, the less she understood, but that wasn’t important now.

She remembered everything, every word he said. When he went to sleep she would go to the lab, because there was much to do now.