Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Five

Tasha saw them first. She had counted the days and watched for the wagon ever since Carina and Donovan had first been expected back. "They could be delayed by as much a week or more," Amalia had warned her, to no avail. Tasha looked for any excuse to stay close to the house working in the vegetable garden, or go foraging for herbs and edible plants, where she could stay within sight of the road. She kept the heavy binoculars around her neck and scanned the horizon hopefully every time she thought she saw a dust cloud.

It was with immense excitement that she saw the familiar wagon in the distance and ran, screeching, to the paddock to give Will the news. Together, they ran to get Amalia, who was gathering the first of the calabazas in a field by the creek. "Are you sure?" she asked, distrusting her eyes as she scanned the horizon.

"Of course she's sure," Will answered for her. "She saw them in the binoculars."

Amalia fought a simultaneous surge of joy and anxiety. "Let's wash up." She put Tasha in the wagon, then grabbed Cordelia by the bridle and started toward the house while Will ran on ahead. She did some quick mental calculations. At the pace of two donkeys walking and pulling a load, it took at least thirty minutes from the base of the mesa to the front gate. It had taken Tasha perhaps five minutes to notice them, another ten for her to notify Will and for them to find her out in the field...if they hurried, they might just have enough time for showers and clean clothes. They could put Cordelia up later.

"Quick shower only!" she shouted at Will as they pulled up at the low wall outside the kitchen garden. "They're going to be dirty and they'll want warm water."

While the children rinsed off under the garden showers, she ran inside and grabbed towels for them. Then while they went inside to dress, she bathed, too. She wrapped herself in a robe and went inside, stopping only to peek out the front window on her way to the bedroom. They were still a little ways down the road, but there was no longer any need for binoculars. Amalia stole a hand to her hair. There was no way it would dry before they got here. Well, at least she was clean. She dressed, added a little lipstick and a pair of earrings, and tied her damp hair with a ribbon.

The children were already at the gate when Goneril and Regan pulled into the drive, heads up and sniffing the air. From the kitchen gate, Cordelia brayed and jerked her head up and down in excitement. The children shouted and Tasha tried to launch herself into the wagon, coming dangerously close to the moving wheels. Then Amalia came out of the house, looking fresh in a peach-colored dress that showed off her pretty legs. Carina knew at an instant what her sister's dress and lipstick were all about. She fought down a wave of disappointment, but what had she expected? That she would've forgotten about him? She willed herself to be tolerant as Amalia flashed Donovan a brilliant smile, then helped Carina to the ground.

Amalia folded her in an embrace. "I'm glad you're home."

"Me, too." Luckily Carina didn't have to look her sister in the eye when she said it, or she would've revealed herself a liar. The children were hovering, anxious for her attention and she turned to them, doling out hugs and asking questions about chores, lessons, and had they been good and obeyed Amalia? When she looked up, Donovan had climbed down off the wagon. Amalia had twined her arms around his neck and was speaking rapid, excited words that he listened to with all appearance of interest. When he kissed her and put an arm around her waist, Carina turned back to the children. She picked Tasha up in her arms, even though it required her last reserves of strength. "I think you've gotten bigger since I've been away." She looked at Will. "Why don't you bring the wagon up closer to the house so we can unload? I think Cordelia is anxious to see her sisters."

"She's anxious to see you. All the animals have been acting funny without you here. They love you."

"Ah, yes. Loved by all the wrong people. Wasn't there a song that went like that? I guess that was before your time." They began walking toward the house, Will leading the jennies and Carina straining to hear if Donovan and Amalia were following. When they arrived at the kitchen gate and all three animals were touching noses and snorting excitedly, Carina dared to look over her shoulder.

Amalia and Donovan were still in the driveway and he was holding her close, saying something. Whatever it was, it seemed to be what Amalia wanted to hear, because she was smiling. Donovan's eyes, when he looked at Carina, offered a hint of a challenge, reminding her she had the power to put a stop to it all. Carina looked away, unable to bear it. She began directing the children in unloading her things from the wagon.

"I'm glad you're back," Tasha said as she clutched the wooden keepsake box to her chest. "Are you glad to be home?"


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Four

Carina and Donovan reached the abandoned ranger's cabin at dusk. It was too late to do any fishing, so they ate out of their stores. The meals were growing dull without fresh eggs, game or vegetables, but there was no point in complaining. The next morning they headed out at dawn and soon found themselves among the mesas. Carina grew thoughtful as the day wore on, and even the animals seemed to know they were barely a day from home.

When they stopped for lunch, Carina made love to Donovan in a desperate way, as if she could somehow keep time from slipping away, but it didn't lighten her mood. If anything, she became quieter as mid-day sloped into afternoon. By the time they reached the rancho, she was deep inside her thoughts and had to be brought back to reality.

"Where do you want to put the animals?" Donovan asked. "We can't keep them indoors. We're out of hay. They need to graze."

"Oh." Carina scanned the grounds without seeing.

"Never mind. I'll figure it out."

By the time he got the animals taken care of, the sun was going down. He found Carina on the back patio sipping scotch and watching the fiery reds and golds fade out over the mesas. At the sound of his footsteps, she turned and smiled, but it was a sad sort of smile, one that masked words he wasn't sure he wanted to hear. He sat next to her and accepted a glass of scotch— a real glass, not a cup.

"Where'd you find these?"

"In there." She waved a hand in the direction of the house, which explained nothing. "They seem to be real crystal."

"Maybe we should take them with us."

"If you like."

They watched the darkening sky in silence for awhile. A cool wind picked up and Carina shivered.

"Want me to get your cloak?"

"It doesn't matter." She took a deep breath. "About tomorrow..."

"What about it?"

"I want things to be as they were before. Between me and you. And between you and my sister, if that's possible. What's between us can't continue."

Donovan knew what she said was the proper thing, but fought a sudden wave of anger that she should be the one to say it. "Why not? We'll just tell her the truth."

"Yes. I'll tell her that right after becoming a widow, I've stolen her man. That'll go over well."

"She'll get over it. She loves you. You're her sister."

"Some sister I am." Carina reached for the bottle, but then thought better of it and set her empty glass aside. "Especially after I was the one who encouraged her with you. No, after tonight, it's over."

"Don't I get a say in this?"

She shook her head. "I don't know what your plans are, but the whole rest of my life is on that farm. This has to be it. Don't you understand?"

"No." He got to his feet. "Has there been nothing real about these past few days?"

Carina cast a guilty look at her hands. "My feelings for you are real."

"But you never intended it should last."

"I didn't intend anything. I didn't think at all. Did you?"

Donovan stopped pacing, ashamed of himself. "No."

"So I guess that settles it."

"It doesn't settle anything."

"It does for me."

He gazed at the stubborn set of her shoulders and the maddening way she lifted her chin, and he knew with a sick feeling in his stomach that she wasn't going to change her mind. What was it Alvi had said about obsolete women who didn't think they needed a man? A quiet voice inside him whispered that Carina was giving him a great gift, sacrificing her feelings to give him some measure of freedom, but he needed to prove her wrong. "Come to bed." He reached for her hand.

"It'll be no different in the morning."

"You don't know that."

"Yes I do. I've made up my mind."

"I'll make you wish you hadn't."

* * *

Carina stood on the patio, cooking the last of their food. It had been insanity to delay so long in notoriously toxic Catalunia, to the point where their food stores were this low. If the wagon broke down or a jennet went lame today, they would have to hunt or forage. Carina straightened her back and looked out across the mesas. No, they wouldn't be so lucky. They would be home tonight. She stirred the contents of the skillet, fighting back tears. It was good food, but the smell made her gag. She held her breath and took the food off the grill, then walked toward the empty swimming pool where the air was clearer. Here it smelled only of wind, dust and piñon. She breathed deeply, waiting for the knots in her stomach to unravel.

Feeling a little better, she went back and divided the food onto two plates. Her stomach had settled, and a good thing, since she had no choice but to eat it. The brownies were gone, the juice Amalia had packed at the outset of their trip had gone rancid, and she needed something to sustain her. Courage alone wasn't going to do it.

Donovan walked onto the patio looking tired and pale underneath the glow of his brown skin. Carina's breath caught and for a moment she thought she'd never seen him look so handsome, all in black with that vaguely accusing look in his eyes. She couldn't bear it and turned away. "Breakfast is ready."

"So is the wagon." He sat down but only picked at his food.

"Better eat it. Other than a few dried apples, it's all we've got until we get home."

"Are you going to eat, too?"

"Yes." Instead of sitting down, she took an empty bowl, filled it with earth from the defunct garden and shook it out over the coals. They wouldn't have time to let the fire die of its own accord.

"You can still change your mind."

"I know that."

Donovan's eyebrows flickered and he looked away. "Just making sure." He fell to eating, as if it were a chore that couldn't be put off.

* * *

They spent the morning traveling the broad flat expanse of the mesa, finding themselves at noon on the edge of the trail leading to their valley. Donovan halted the team, set the brake and put a hand on Carina's wrist. "Wouldn't you like to—?"

She pulled her hand away. "No."

Donovan straightened the wagon, clucked at the team and they started down the switchbacks. They were nearly at the bottom, just one curve of the road between them and a full straight view toward home, when Carina, acting on a last wild impulse, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard, as if trying to imprint some final memory of him upon her mind. Then just as suddenly, she pulled away and looked into the distance, jerking her chin up in the familiar way that Donovan knew was her way of staving off tears. "Is that it?" he asked.


"You'll regret it."

"I know."

"Okay, then." He slapped the reins against the jennets' backs and they turned the last corner toward home.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Three

Donovan played along with Carina's whims for an hour, then went to check on the animals and the state of the wagon. He found some parts that were loose, so he made a few crucial repairs, concluding it was perhaps well enough that they were staying in town another day. But the state of the animals' feed worried him. If Carina wasn't ready to move on by the next morning, they would have to turn Goneril and Regan out to graze, no matter what the condition of the local weeds. And too bad for them, should they find themselves short of forage farther on, because after tonight there would be no more hay until they got home.

Carina spent the rest of the morning poring over old magazines and a family scrapbook that had been left behind, alternating these activities with long pensive gazes toward the mountains. She prepared lunch for Donovan around noon, but took only a few dried apples for herself after spending several minutes and a lot of effort trying to open an old tin of mandarin orange slices, only to find them spoiled.

"What did you expect?" Donovan asked.

"I don't know."

When Donovan returned to his work, she went upstairs and made a thorough investigation of the rooms. She found some books and a tarnished silver bracelet that perhaps Amalia would like. In a dresser drawer were a few fading ribbons that she could put in Tasha's hair. There was an entire sewing kit on a hall closet shelf and she confiscated the needles, pins and scissors, leaving the thread behind because it was of poor quality and had become brittle. A bathroom cabinet turned up several towels, and the bedroom closets proved to be treasure-trove of old clothes, although little was of any practical value. But when she came across a man's leather coat, she laid it on a bed and examined it. The leather was stiff with age, but if they oiled it properly at the first opportunity, it might work for Donovan.

When he came in for dinner, the coat was lying across a chair. "Try it on," she urged him. "If you like it, I'll condition it when we get home."

The coat was almost a perfect fit, a little long in the sleeves, but nothing one could complain about. "It's a good thing we're heading out tomorrow," he said, looking at all the things she had found. "Another few days in this place and we wouldn’t have any room in the wagon for all your stuff."

"Some of it is yours now, or don't you want the coat?" She had been about to go outside and start dinner, but came over to him instead. "And yes," she added, "We are most definitely leaving in the morning."

"I didn't mean it that way." He kissed her on the forehead.

"Yes, you did. I know I've been silly, and you've been very kind to indulge me." She returned his kiss with a few that weren't quite so platonic. "We'll get up early in the morning and leave, if you're up for it. Because I think I'd like to keep you up all night."

"Maybe we should skip dinner and get an early start on that."

Carina laughed and abandoned any notion of cooking.

* * *

True to her word, Carina was up before dawn, wearing the absurd pink scarf again, but otherwise sensibly dressed. She stirred about making coffee, preparing breakfast and packing. She had Donovan's coffee waiting for him when he came downstairs. He sat at the kitchen table and stared at it sleepily. "You're spoiling me. Late mornings like yesterday, late nights like last night...I don't think I know what to do with this early morning stuff any more."

"I'm sure you'll remember once you're on the road."

"We're trying to make the ranger's cabin, right?"

"Yes." Carina sipped her coffee. "With any luck the roads will be clear. You can never be sure after a storm."

Donovan frowned in concern. "Is the area we'll be going through prone to rock slides?"

"Not usually. I think I'll take this broom with us, though. It's pretty beat up, but it will be good for clearing branches and small debris."

They left Catalunia as the sun was coming up over the mountains. They bounced over the broken concrete of the residential area and found their way onto the main path out of town. Theirs were the only tracks in the smooth wash of sediment that was slowly obliterating the road. All around them the darkened eyes of vacant buildings stared, but now that Catalunia had been their private playground, any malignant spirits that remained no longer held any power over their imagination.

The road followed a straight path out of town through waving silver grasses, deadly with contaminants. Then they were at the foot of the mountain, staring at the switchbacks winding toward the tree line, where everything looked green and inviting. If all went well they would reach the cabin by nightfall. The next day they would be at the rancho, and the day after that, home.

Home. Donovan had not been allowing himself to think about it. The whole weight of Amalia and the children, and now the problem of Carina, pressed on him every time he thought of the farm. Not that he regretted a thing, but it didn't seem likely he could continue on with both of them like this. He had always drifted in life, never planning too far ahead, and things had always worked out. But now it seemed he had backed himself into a corner where he had responsibilities and uncomfortable decisions to make. He didn't like it a bit.

Carina scooted closer and leaned her head against his shoulder. "It's too pretty a day to be so pensive."

Donovan sensed that her statement was a poorly disguised question, but if he said what was on his mind, they would have to talk about it, and that would make it real. He wasn't ready to feel the yoke of all those commitments. Not today. Carina had been right to insist they delay in Catalunia. Suddenly he found himself yearning for this journey to never end so they could go on like this forever, traveling forgotten back roads, sleeping in abandoned places. It was crazy that he was going to have to make a choice, and that his choice would hurt someone he cared about.

But there was still time before he had to do anything, and out here in the mountains, time seemed a flexible thing. Maybe if he was careful, it could be stretched out a little longer. They still had two more days, and the sky was still mockingly bright with promise. He put an arm around Carina's waist. She had no more substance than the thin mountain air. "Yes, it's a pretty day, isn't it?"


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twenty-Two

Carina left the warmth of Donovan's body to stir up the fire, but when he suggested they make coffee and have breakfast, she looked at him incredulously. This was not a day for something as mundane as breakfast. Sunlight streamed in the windows and lit the colored glass of the cupola, and she was seized with a desire to take a good look at the world.

She dressed and went outside while Donovan damped the fire and folded a piece of soft cheese into a tortilla for a hasty breakfast. Then he hurried after Carina and found her picking her way along the cracked sidewalk, throwing her head back from time to time to admire the infinite blue of the sky. "The prettiest days are always the ones right after a storm," she told him. "It's too muddy to travel today. Let's go exploring."

They made their way down potholed streets and through sticky expanses of mud. They explored an old school, an office building, and a post office covered in graffiti. Donovan wasn't sure if it was the glow of the golden day or just the warmth of Carina's sudden happiness, but the devastated town no longer seemed malevolent. In a corner store they found a few good safety razors and some dusty and curling postcards of Catalunia in happier days. They stopped at a playground and after checking the strength of the chains, Donovan pushed Carina on a swing. Then they squelched through the mud of a little park and sat on a stone bench to rest and ponder. When Donovan pulled his uneaten breakfast out of his pocket, Carina laughed. "You still haven't eaten that thing?"

"When would I, with you dragging me all over town? But I'm not like you. I can't live off the air."

Carina closed her eyes, tipped back her head and allowed a breeze to caress her face. "With air this good, I bet you could if you tried."

Donovan studied her. "It's nice to see you happy."

Carina stretched her arms overhead. "Right now is just a nice moment. I'm going to try not to think about anything else."

They went walking again, this time into a residential area. Many of the houses leaned at crazy angles and were surrounded by chunks of brick and plaster that had come loose and plummeted to the ground. One home, however, caught their eye. It was made of concrete that had once been plastered and painted to look like adobe, and inside there was still a bit of furniture and a fireplace with an intact chimney. "It would probably be more comfortable than the library," Donovan offered.

So they moved into the house. They parked the wagon in the garage, but Carina wouldn't let Donovan turn Goneril and Regan out into the scrubby yard to forage. "There's something wrong with the water here," she said. "That's why this town is abandoned. Everything that grows is contaminated."

Donovan stabled the animals in the garage and gave them hay and rainwater while Carina found a mouse-eaten broom and tried to clean up a little. They cooked dinner in the fireplace that evening and spent the night in a proper, if musty bed.

In the morning Donovan found Carina sitting on the lumpy living room sofa, flipping through an old magazine. She had found a gossamer pink scarf and knotted it loosely around her neck, and had put on a bit of lipstick. He approached her with a frown of concern.

Carina smiled. "Good morning. Want me to make some coffee?"

"Sure." His gaze wandered toward the window. It was another pretty day. Good traveling weather. "Don't you think we should get on the road?"

She stood and threw her arms around his neck. "Not today." She kissed him, then went into the kitchen for the coffeepot, and went out the back door to where she had already set up a spot on the concrete patio for a fire. She lit a bit of kindling with her flint, added a few broken branches from a long-dead potted tree, then set the grate over the fire and sat back on her heels to wait for the coffee to boil. "Too bad the fireplace is too small for the coffeepot," she said, "But it's nice to be outside on a day like today."

"Then why don't you want to travel?" Donovan asked, sitting beside her.

"I've got the whole rest of my dull farm life waiting for me back there, and for just a couple days, I want to pretend that things turned out different." Noticing the look of worry on his face, she smiled, her eyes reflecting all the blue of the morning sky. "I'm not trying to dodge reality; I'm just putting it off for another day. We'll leave tomorrow." She pulled the pot of boiling coffee off the grill and set it on the concrete. "Get your coffee cup, and one for me, too. And my magazine. I'll read you all the stories and we'll pretend we're an ordinary couple from the early years of the century, enjoying a leisurely morning coffee while ignoring that the world is falling apart."