Authors: Lisa Wingate
Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000, #Women professional employees—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction, #Life change events—Fiction, #Ranch life—Texas—Fiction, #Land use—Fiction, #Political corruption—Fiction
A sense of solitude cloaked the car, the weave thick and tight, shutting out sound, giving the feeling that we were stepping off the edge of the world. My lust for adventure wavered, and I found myself again wishing for a hotel room.
Daniel rested his elbow comfortably on the window frame, seeming completely at peace with the lack of civilization.
“Are you sure it's okay for us to show up so late at night like this?” I shivered as the water-scented breeze worked its way down the neck of my T-shirt.
“I gotta go tinkie!” Nick's unceremonious announcement interrupted the flow of conversation.
Daniel reached back and patted Nick on the knee. “Hang in there, buddy. It can't be far from here. Just a few minutes.” He held up the paper with the directions, squinted at it in the dash light, then set it down and turned left at an intersection
where one gravel road looked about as dark and unwelcoming as the other. “Here we go. Say, see ya later, stop sign.”
Daniel and Nick fell into a game I'd heard them play before, talking about things as we passed, so as to make the miles speed by.
“Later, gad-or,” Nick chimed in.
I wished the subject of gators hadn't come up.
“You cold?” Daniel asked, and I realized I had my arms clutched tight. All the blood had moved to the center of my body in an instinctive flight response. “Not sorry you threw in with us blokes, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
Don't complain. Don't complain. Don't be a party pooper, fun killer, namby-pamby little fraidy cat.
“But what if someÂ .Â .Â . security guard mistakes us for prowlers and shoots us or something when we get there?”
“The place is so remote, I don't think there's any need for security. That's why Jack has his research facility and crop plots there. He's pretty paranoid about people trying to spy on his work. The only houses close to ours are a little guest cottage of Jack's and an old cabin on Firefly Island. Jack has a bigger place and a ranch headquarters on another piece of land twenty miles down the county highway. His house there is massive, actually. At the symposium, he was showing pictures of the generator. Solar and wind systems power the house and barns, and he uses modified geothermal units for cooling and heating. Seriously innovative. I've never seen anything like it. He designed the whole system himself.”
The two of us fell silent as an imposing white limestone entranceway came into view, dwarfing the Jeep and the U-Haul. The heavy wooden gates were closed like the barriers that protected the old Spanish missions. Daniel exited the Jeep and punched the magic numbers into a keypad inside a metal box, then slid back into his seat as the gate swung
open, letting us through. We proceeded along the narrow drive toward what appeared to be a grouping of buildings ahead. Oddly, there seemed to be no lighting of any kind, other than what the moon afforded. I had the disquieting thought that maybe we really weren't expected here at all.
Corbin's story swirled through my thoughts, and I considered asking Daniel what he knew about Jack West's sordid past, but I didn't. Daniel wouldn't have brought us here if he thought we were in any danger. I had to trust in that.
“Yup, there it is.” He pointed as the headlights outlined a simple, one-story Craftsman-style house with clapboard siding. The structure appeared to be of forties or fifties vintage, with a fence around it made of painted iron pipe and wire. It wasn't the sort of fence built for decoration, but more for function, to keep something in or out.
I wondered. Livestock? Wild animals? The gates had been adorned with welded-on pieces of old farm machinery, as if to dress up the place a bit.
“Why aren't there any lights on?” I'd waited as long as I could to bring up the obvious.
“Not sureÂ .Â .Â .” The hint of uncertainty in Daniel's voice was disquieting. “But that's the houseâfirst building on the left. Jack said there are some barns and whatnot out back, and Jack's little house. I get the impression he doesn't use it anymore. The greenhouses and the lab building are a couple miles down the ranch road.”
“Oh.” I couldn't think of much else to say as we rolled to a stop by one of the yard gates. All three of us sat in silence, nobody willing to make the first move. The darkness was incredibly thick, the low-hanging moon hiding behind a cloud. Some sort of night-flying creature strafed the car again. It looked like a bat. The fine hairs rose on the back of my neck.
“Where is everyone?” Scanning a 180-degree circle, I could
only see one set of lights that might belong to a houseâone sign of civilization far in the distance, floating beyond a swath of fathomless blackness that was either a deep canyon or part of the lake. The air smelled of water and wet limestone. “Didn't they know we were coming?” I'd expected a welcoming of some sort; Daniel's new boss or a caretaker with a key, at least. Instead, I felt like someone, or something, might be lurking out there in the darkness, waiting for us to step out of the car.
Daniel leaned over the steering wheel, squinting beyond the headlights. “I left a message on Jack's voice mail saying we'd be later than we thought, but he never answered.” Squaring his shoulders, he fished a key ring and a small penlight from the console. “Guess I'll go unlock the door and see what I can do about finding some switches.”
“Okay.” On the one hand, I was exhausted. On the other hand, I was petrified. The two opposing forces clashed like Titans inside me. It was hard to say which one was winning. “We'll wait here.” I reached for Nick, who'd managed to unbuckle his seat belts and climb onto the console to follow his dad. “Hang on, Nick. Let's just stay here and wait for your dad to figure things out.” As much as it pained me to do what my mother would have done in this situation, I was happy to let Daniel venture forth while I stayed behind to protect the young. Nick squirmed into my lap, and I hugged my arms around him, resting my chin against his silky hair.
Daniel hovered half in and half out of the car, messing with the pen light, which was shuddering and blinking, threatening to fail us when we needed it most. “At this point, I'm ready to lay that air mattress down anywhere, as long as I can sleep.” He swung the door shut and walked off into the night, his flashlight beam crossing the yard and bobbing up a couple steps to the house. Moments later, the glow of the
penlight moved from window to window inside the house, but no lights came on.
A full fifteen minutes had ticked by before Daniel returned. He'd found plenty of switches, but none of them worked. With the penlight quickly losing steam, we had little choice but to give up on electrical power and just move in anyway. We were too exhausted to care anymore.
We unpacked the sleeping equipment by the light of a waxing moon and settled down on the floor of what appeared to be our new living room. The house smelled musty and old, until we opened the windows to let in fresh air. Outside, a blanket of stars stretched across the sky, and somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard waves gently lapping at the shore. I wondered if it was only my imagination, or if we were closer to the water than I'd thought. Did lakes have tides like an oceanâa cycle of rising and falling that followed the moon?
Nick curled up in his sleeping bag, and Daniel and I slipped beneath the quilt on our hastily inflated air mattress, the last twinkle of the pen light fading slowly into oblivion as Moses Lake rocked us to sleep with its lullaby of water and stone.
We came by night to the Fortunate Isles,
And lay like fish
Under the net of our kisses.
(Left by Kotoyo and Sgt. Ben [ret.], forbidden love a lifetime ago)
awaiian mythology describes Tangaroa, the ruler of the ocean, who breathes only twice in twenty-four hours, creating the tides. I heard the legend when I was thirteen, just entering that spindly-legged and awkward stage of semi-adulthoodânot a girl, not a woman, old enough to wish the beefcake Hawaiian storyteller would ditch the luau audience, mysteriously fall in love with me, and sweep me off to a life of bliss in a thatch hut somewhere. I looked into his dark eyes, saw the firelight reflected, heard the pounding of the surf. The corners of my vision narrowed, blocking out the movers and shakers for whom my father's client had planned this island meeting. I fell into the tale, felt the storyteller's love of the ocean, his understanding of it, his reverence for the vastness and the mystery of the world around us.
It wasn't in the tides that the breath of God could be found, I decided, but in the water itself, in the endless rhythm of it, ever present, ever constant, louder amidst the storms of life, softer in the peaceful times. Not a god only moving twice a day like the mythical Tangaroa, but a God moving countless
times. Always. Continually. A God present in the deepest parts of our lives, sometimes crowded out by all the surface clutter as we stroll along the shore, our minds preoccupied with things that seem important. Then a wave rises higher than the rest, strokes soft and cool over sun-warmed skin, and we hear it again, the constant breath of God. We think,
How could I not have heard that all along?
Our first morning on Moses Lake, I woke with the breath of God in my ears. It flowed softly in and out, rocking me to wakefulness in the way of a parent gently rousing a beloved child to a new day. In that misty land between sleep and reality, I wasn't certain where I was, but I thought,
This is perfect. I love it here. I want to wake up to the soft morning breeze and the scent of the water, to this peace forever.
The air mattress shifted beneath me as I burrowed deeper into the quilt that Grandma Louisa had long ago made in anticipation of my wedding. I felt as if I were floating on the water, a ship drifting at sea. Not a thing in the world to worry about.
You're on vacation,
a dream-voice whispered.
No need to get out of bed. You can lie here as long as you want.
The smell of coffee teased my senses just as I was beginning to drift again.
The thought registered, and a stomach rumble concurred. I rolled over, stuck my face in the pillow, fought waking and rising. As much as I'd always wished I could be a morning person, it hadn't happened yet.
The coffee wouldn't leave me alone. It wanted meÂ .Â .Â .
A heaviness settled in, like Grandma Louisa's old Fat Cat (that really was his name,
) sitting atop the quilt, weighing down the fabric.
I couldn't quite remember where I was. Memories flitted in and out like the skittish white moths that hatch in multitudes
in late summer.
There was a carÂ .Â .Â . something about the air-conditionerÂ .Â .Â . and alligators in the roadÂ .Â .Â . no, no deer. Deer in the roadÂ .Â .Â .
I blinked the new day slowly into focus, dapples of sunlight falling over my face. A severed head was staring back at me, its glassy black eyes gazing into the distance from beneath a massive pair of antlers. I did a clumsy upward scramble, bunching the pillow against my back. Instead of a headboard, there was a wall. I smacked my head on a windowsill.
“If that doesn't say good morning, I don't know what does.” Daniel's voice and the fact that I was now a married woman took a moment to register. So far, I'd remarried Daniel in the first few moments each morning. I wondered how long it would be before I stopped being my old single self in my subconscious mind.
“Nice, huh?” he added. He was sitting on the other side of the air mattress, wearing a pair of jogging shorts and a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, his dark hair tousled into slightly damp curls, his long legs crossed one over the other.
He made a very appealing picture.
I blinked to gain a clearer focus, trying to concentrate on Daniel, that gorgeous hunka-hunka husband, rather than the disembodied head on the wall.
The head was powerful, though. It pulled at my gaze until I was looking sideways at it with morbid fascination. I thought of the
movie. Bambi's father. He was on our wall, nicely highlighted by the sun filtering through a set of ancient mini-blinds that hung off kilter, a slat or two missing.
There was a
in our living room. A body part of a dead animal. My stomach roiled, and I wondered what was inside the head. Bones and flesh, preserved with formaldehyde or
something? Was that even possible? How long could eyeballs possibly last, hanging on a wall?
Maybe it was mummified, the brains removed through the ear, like the body in an Egyptian sarcophagus.Â .Â .Â .
“Do you think the eyeballs are real?” I kept a sideways focus on the head as Daniel grabbed an already prepared cup of coffee and handed it to me.
He chuckled. “Of course not. They're glass. None of it's real. It's just hide stretched over a plastic form, like aÂ .Â .Â . leather coat.”
I took a sip of my coffee.
A random thought, an endearment of sorts, traveled through me, warm like the sip.
He already knows how I fix my coffee.
“What's it doing there? I mean, you think we're in the wrong house?” Maybe we'd misread the directions last night after all, and we were trespassing where we shouldn't be.
“What? You don't find that sort of woodsy and charming?” A hand flourish added dramatic flair. “Don't go in the bathroom, then.”
?” Suddenly last night's power outage seemed like a blessing in disguise.
“And the master bedroom.” He pointed toward a doorway that led to the shadowy hall where some sort of ancient velvet wallpaper was peeling off the wall. “The good news is that the place does come with electricity. I finally found the breaker this morning and turned it on.” He grinned at me, and I couldn't help it, I laughed.
“Okay, but if you tell me there are stuffed dead animals in the kitchen, I'm going to be sick.”
He gently shoulder bumped me, creating waves in my coffee. “Kitchen's clean. Well, not clean, exactly, but there are no dead animals. We're going to have to do some work in there. The good news is that there's a nice little cafÃ© in townâThe
Waterbird Bait and Groceryâand they open at five a.m. for the fishermen. The coffee's good. Nick and I brought back a breakfast burrito for you. They're good, too.”
“You guys went to town without me?” I looked around the room. Some stepmother I was. Until that very moment, I hadn't thought about the fact that there was supposed to be a third person with us. A little person. “Where's Nick?” A tiny spear of panic cut through my morning fog, ramping up my heartbeat. Surely Daniel wouldn't just forget about Nick. If the lake was close enough that I could smell the water, Nick might be in danger of wandering into it.
“He's outside, withÂ .Â .Â . someone.”
“Someone?” I threw off the covers, envisioning our new boss just on the other side of the wall. I couldn't meet Jack West for the first time looking like this. I wanted to make a good impression, to help Daniel start off his new job on the right foot. “You didn't tell me there was someone here. Is the shower working?”
“Relax.” Daniel snaked out a hand, palm-up, like he was going to catch the coffee cup if I dropped it. “He doesn't care, I promise. Besides, you look beautiful.” His fingers caught my T-shirt, stalling me in a crouch as I set my coffee cup on the floor.
“Daniel, I'm serious. I don't want him to think you're married to some kind ofÂ .Â .Â . lazy person who sleeps all day.” Based on my limited knowledge of Jack West, I was already scared to death of meeting him. I needed to be prepared.
The pull on my T-shirt increased, tipping me back onto the air mattress. I landed on Daniel's chest, and he wrapped his arms around me. “Just stay here with me a minute. We haven't had much alone time so far.” A sigh softened him against the pillow. “I'm sorry, Mal. I know this hasn't been what you dreamed of for a honeymoon.”
“It's been an adventure.” The words were upbeat, confident, a smokescreen for what I was really feeling. The hint of brokenness in Daniel's voice rattled me to the core. I wanted to take some of the pressure off. “Listen to me.” Twisting in his arms, I touched his face, turned him toward me. I saw him in minute detail, the squareness of his chin, the freshly shaven skin, the dark, arched brows, the glint of sunlight against his eyes. “I married you. You. Daniel Webster Everson. Not a road trip, or a house, or job, or a salary, or a location, or a living room wall.” I waved a hand toward the severed head, hanging on ugly gold-flocked wallpaper of seventies vintage. “As long as you and I are okay, that's all I need. You and me and Nick. The three of us. You don't have to try to make things perfect for me or pretend you've got it under control all by yourself. I can handle it, okay?”
I can. I will. Somehow.
“I'm not some fragile little china doll you need to shelter and protect.”
His gaze connected with mine in a way that seemed to reach into my soul. “I want you to be happy. I want to take care of you. Of us.”
I felt my center turning to mush. That was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me. I was the heroine in a 1950's western, the scene shot with a misty lens softening all the rough edges, leaving only perfection. We kissed, and I wished we could lock the doors and spend the morning curled up together in the wedding quilt, floating on the air mattress, two lovers lost at sea.
Something crashed outside, and the serenity vanished like vapor. We jerked apart. Daniel climbed off the air mattress, and I followed.
“I've got it.” He moved ahead of me into the adjoining room, which we'd come through in the dark last night. Judging by the row of old wooden windows and a painted stone
footer, the long, narrow space had been an outdoor porch at one time. The kitchen doorway was off to the right, and there was an old oak desk in the left corner of the room. Apparently this area served as an office, and maybe a dining room. The floor was covered with butternut yellow carpet. It felt sticky beneath my feet, and was dotted with stains I didn't want to contemplate.
“WellÂ .Â .Â . but who's outside?” Surely Daniel wouldn't just leave Nick out there with Mr. West. I tried to peer around Daniel's shoulder. If the new boss really was outside, I was going to bolt for the bathroomÂ .Â .Â . if I could remember where I'd found it last night in the dark.
“Come see for yourself.” Daniel opened the back door and stepped onto the wide covered porch behind the house. He held the screen until I could catch it, then disappeared around the corner as I tiptoed cautiously out.
The yard was huge by DC standards, an acre or two at least, enclosed by the iron pipe fence with rusty mesh wire over it. Ancient-looking stone footpaths fanned out from the porch, one leading to the driveway gate, another leading to an old garage building on the left side of the house, and a third heading directly across the backyard to what appeared to be another house, smaller than our own, with a low-roofed front porch that somehow looked empty and barren. From the overgrown flowerbed in front, a cement angel watched me. Sunlight glittered against the water in the birdbath at her feet, casting shifting ribbons of light over her skirt. A yellow butterfly sat on the basin rim, fanning its wings.
I thought of the woman and the little boy who'd disappeared. Jack's wife and stepson. Was the birdbath hers? Had the little boy chased butterflies in that very garden? Had she planted the irises that now bloomed thick along the foundation? Even with the gardens gone to seed and most of the
paint faded off the porch furniture, that place had the look of a woman's touch. There were lace curtains in the windows. Had she sewn them herself?
Shaking off the questions, I surveyed the roofs of barns and outbuildings beyond the little house. A grassy hillside dotted with pecan trees lay beyond. In the distance, the azure waters of Moses Lake peeked through. From the looks of things, it was close enough to walk to, but even though the view was beautiful, it was eerily empty. As far as I looked in any direction, there wasn't a single sign of another human. The ranch was like a tiny island in a vast wilderness.
I stood there feeling out of body, lost, vulnerable. Was this what it would be like here all the timeâjust Daniel and me, living in this house with no one else around? Even straining my ears into the distance, all I could hear were the sounds of crickets chirring, the rustle of the breeze in branches, the ragged caw of a bird.