Chapter 13


"They can smell fear," Mel echoed as she made her way down the hall. At the kitchen door she stopped, one hand flat against the smooth wood grain. She breathed deeply - in through the nose, out through the mouth - and entered the room with all the enthusiasm of a woman facing summary execution. Alice was at the stove, her back to the door as she fussed with the contents of a heavy iron skillet. Mel was grateful for the opportunity to pat the perspiration from her face before speaking. "Somethin' smells good," she said, laboring for nonchalance, though the smile that met Alice's gaze came without effort. "Good mornin'."


"Good morning." Alice gave the sizzling potatoes a cursory stir with a spatula. "Made ‘em just the way you like ‘em: sliced thin, fried crisp and plenty of onions. There's coffee, too. Have a seat. I'll get you a cup."


Though her mind was elsewhere, Mel's stomach voiced unmistakable approval. "I should be making you breakfast," she said, taking a chair at the table, content to be waited upon as it gave her the opportunity to fold Janice's freshly-washed blouse and brassiere into discreet packages. No doubt Janice was waiting on both items . . . sitting on the bed, half-dressed, vibrating with nervous energy. God above! You are so easily distracted, Melinda! Focus! She looked up as Alice approached with a cup and saucer. "You must be tired."


Alice shrugged. "I am a bit, I expect. I'll have a lay down after brekkie." As she hefted the kettle from the stove, she remarked that the coffee had been a gift from Neville Bonner. "--and I ‘membered how you like your coffee." She set a cup on the table and filled it with a liquid so black it did not reflect light.


Mel wrinkled her nose at the contents of her cup, but managed an enthusiastic retort. "Well, it just smells wonderful. Thank you for thinkin' of me." Although she abhorred presumption as a rule, Mel poured liberally from the cream pitcher before tasting the coffee; the sludge in her cup swallowed the light with no discernable change in its own ebony complexion. "Fascinatin'," she muttered, reaching for the sugar bowl.


"Isn't Janice coming to breakfast?" Alice asked.


"When she's dressed." Mel spooned a third helping of coarse ground sugar into her cup. Keenly aware of Alice's scrutiny, she took a tentative sip; her lips puckered and pulled back simultaneously. "It's . . . interestin'," she said, struggling for a suitable word. "I've never had coffee with body before."


The response, meant to discourage, had the opposite effect. "Can I have a cup?"


Mel smiled. "I suppose it's useless to deny you anythin' at this point." Alice retrieved a cup from the cupboard and enthusiastically hefted the coffee kettle. "Half a cup," Mel cautioned. "...the rest milk, and then come and sit with me." She indicated a chair at the table. "I think we need to talk."


Alice furrowed her brow. "Talk about what?"


Mel patted the seat of the vacant chair. "Come and sit. I promise I'm not angry with you." With some trepidation, Alice took her cup and sat at the table. "Fix your coffee," Mel said, with a nod to the cream and sugar. Three heaping teaspoons of sugar and all of the remaining cream went into the effort to make Neville Bonner's coffee palatable, with little success if Alice's sour expression was any indication. "Strong stuff."


Alice nodded and pushed the cup from her. "What did you want to talk about, Mel?"


Mel pursed her lips and said, "I saw the drawin’ you left on the verandah."


Alice's first instincts were defensive. "Honestly, I didn't mean to spy, Mel. I just -"


Mel reached across the table and covered Alice's hands with her own. "No, no . . . it's lovely. I think you're a wonderful artist."


Alice's voice conveyed surprise. "You're not angry then?"


"Well, I'd like to have had somethin' to say about the time and place, but no, I'm not angry. I am concerned, though . . . about you." Alice's brows came together in a dubious line. "I realize that what you saw between Janice and I may have left you feelin' a little . . . confused." Mel crossed her legs beneath the table. "I want you to know that I'm here to answer any questions you might have."


Alice wet her lips and met Mel's gaze. "Any questions?"


Gulp. "Within reason." Mel laced her fingers around her coffee mug and lifted her brows slightly to indicate her receptiveness. "Fire at will."


Alice leaned forward against the table and dropped her voice as she met Mel's eyes. "Are you still going to marry my dad?"


Quickly, like pulling out a splinter. "No," replied Mel, careful to return Alice's steady gaze with mutual, unblinking honesty. "There's someone else in my life. When your daddy returns home on leave next month, I intend to tell him."


"Good," Alice interjected briskly. "Because I have to say that if you weren't going to talk to him, I would've done. After all, he's not here to look after his own interests. No offense intended, Mel."


"None taken," replied Mel as she drummed her fingers against the hot porcelain cup.


"Do you mind if I ask why you don't love my dad? I mean, he's a good bloke, hardworking and a good father."


"I think I have seen enough of your father to echo those sentiments, Alice. The best that can be said of him is that he deserves a wife capable of loving him without reserve and in all honesty, I'm not that woman." She thought she saw a fleeting glimpse of regret on the child's face, though it may have been a trick of the early morning light. Mel looked thoughtfully into her coffee cup before speaking. "My nana always said that the wrong things aren't supposed to last."


Alice cocked her head, committing the epigram to memory, as she did most things. "You're in love with Janice." It was a simple statement of fact made poignant by the absence of rejection and contempt.


Mel had been prepared to defend her life choices, as she always had. Instead, she sat across the table from the very face of acceptance given physical form, and she was emboldened by the revelation. "Yes," she replied, the admission humming on an air of expectancy.


Alice nodded and fidgeted with the frayed ends of the table cloth. "It's more than just being the best of mates, isn't it?"


"I know this must be very difficult for you to understand, Alice; sometimes I have trouble understandin' it myself. I've spent the last 28 years livin' to please other people . . . one third of my life worryin' about what other people thought of me."


Delicately, but with conviction, Alice said, "I think you turned out all right, Mel."


"I'm glad you think so, too," replied Mel. Alice met her eyes briefly before turning her gaze toward the floor, actions Mel interpreted as anxious precursors to some momentous disclosure or question. "S'okay," she said quietly. "You can say anythin' to me."


Alice looked up, her face alight with genuine curiosity. "How do you know who to love?"


Mel scratched her head; the question was both naive and insightful. "That's a very good question, and I would be lyin' to you if I said I knew the answer. But the truth is -- where love is concerned, we adults make a dozen false starts in our lifetime . . . We succumb to peer pressure, we seek to please others and we are vulnerable to suggestion . . .  Mistakes get made along the way."


"Like my mum and dad. Mum says they got married for all the wrong reasons."


"Hon, I think I'm probably just confusin' you more."


Alice shook her head vigorously. "No, Mel. I understand. You're saying ‘look carefully', don't be swayed by the opinions of others . . . and be true to myself."


Mel looked dumbfounded. "I said all that?" Momentarily, she reached across the table and touched Alice's hair. "You have an exceptional head on your shoulders, but use your heart, too. One of my old archeology professors once told me that it's possible to recognize somethin' by its absence . . . like a puzzle missin' one piece . . . you know the shape of what should be there, even if you don't know what color it is."


"Like Janice," elaborated Alice, grasping the parallel between intellect and intuition. "Your puzzle piece."


"Yes, just like that," Mel replied simply. "Promise me you won't ever settle for less than your heart's desire."


"I promise." Alice's smile faded as a thought occurred to her. "Will Janice be staying on?"


"No, I'm afraid not. She's returning to the dig site today. I think that's for the best . . . considerin'. Don't you?"


Alice replied, "I dunno. I think she and Dad would get on fine."


Oh, you are soooo young. "That might be a little too much to hope for," quipped Mel.


Again, there was a noncommittal shrug. "Guess so. This is really awful stuff," Alice said, indicating the coffee. "Is it all right if I chuck it?"


Mel intoned playfully, "Wasteful, wasteful . . . "   She made a face at the black sludge in her own cup and then pushed it across the table by her fingertips. "I won't tell if you won't." As Alice rose, a cup in each hand, Mel asked, "Any other questions?" Alice responded with a brisk shake of her head, but Mel was doubtful.  "Nothin'? You're sure?” Mel sighed in relief, and she wondered briefly if this registered on her face. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm hungry," she proclaimed aloud to Alice's retreating form. She gathered the small bundle of clothing to her and stood. "Why don't you dish up breakfast, and I'll see what's keepin' Janice."


Alice nodded and began to clear the cluttered sink before drawing back her hand with the speed of one who is snake bit. "Hell's teeth!"


Mel wheeled at the profanity and found Alice standing at the sink, clutching one bleeding hand in the other; all thoughts of a reprimand vanished at the sight.  Moving faster than she had all year, she bolted for the sink, leaving Janice's clothing on the floor where she had dropped it.  "What did you do?" she exclaimed, observing the injury. Since there was too much blood to make an accurate assessment, she turned the spigot to a steady stream and tested the water temperature. "Here, put'cher hand under here."


Alice grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut as the tepid water washed over her hand. "All I did was reach into the sink to clear the dishes and . . . ssssshitthathurts!"


That's two. Mel would later credit a recessive mother gene with the compulsion to keep tabs on the use of profanity; she stored the information the same way a squirrel stores nuts. "Hurts like the blazes, doesn't it?" She dipped into the bloody water, moved aside the soaking roast pan and cautiously groped beneath it until she came away with a six inch, razor sharp French carving knife which she displayed briefly for Alice.  "That's the last time we let Janice do the dishes." She laid the knife out of harm's way and shut off the running water. "Okay, lemme see . . . " She cradled the injured hand in her own, squinting as a livid crimson line welled across the width of Alice's palm. Although the wound was fairly shallow, it bled profusely. "I know it's a lot of blood, but it looks worse than it is. Open and close your hand for me."


Alice complied, flexing the muscles cautiously, biting back the urge to curse, but there were tears in her voice as she asked, "You think it's all right?"


Mel marveled at Alice's glistening cheeks, and the brown eyes swimming with the first tears she had seen Alice cry. "Oh, sweetie," she crooned, wiping the tears away with the balls of her thumb.  "I think it could've been much worse." She gingerly patted at the wound with a dry dish towel before wrapping it twice around the hand. "You look like you're about t' faint." She took Alice by the elbow and steered her toward the kitchen table. "Keep pressure on it, like this…" She pressed her fingers into the heavily bandaged palm and with her free hand pulled another chair close until she and Alice were knee to knee. "How does it feel?"


Alice sniffed. "It's throbbing." She shook her head and laughed self-consciously through her tears. "I feel like a great wally, grabbing a knife like that."


"Oh, like you're the only person ever to do somethin' careless." Mel tugged Alice's chin between her thumb and forefinger. "Keep the hand elevated and you'll be just fine, sweetie. Now, I want you to sit here for a few minutes and meditate on your surprising grasp of profanities while I scrounge around for somethin' to put on that."


A beat, followed by the quiet accusation: "You called me ‘sweetie'."


There was a tiny prickle of fear at the base of Mel's spine; had she overstepped her bounds? She smoothed her dressing gown against her thighs and prepared for the backlash. "It just slipped out. Does it bother you?"


Alice wiped her tears against the back of her hand and looked at her feet. After a moment, she muttered, "My mum only ever calls me by my name . . . "


Mel's mouth quivered; there was something decidedly mournful about Alice's disclosure. "It's a nice name . . . Alice."


When Alice looked up, there were fresh tears in her eyes. "I like it when you call me ‘sweetie', Mel." Blue eyes met brown in perfect understanding. "You'd've made a good mother."


Mel cupped the girl's face in one hand and smiled. "You would've made it a joy."


Chapter 14


It began with paper thin slices of veal, slathered with spicy mustard and stacked between two pieces of sourdough. "It's not enough," Mel said aloud as she cut the sandwich in half, in effect creating two sandwiches. Still not enough. She wrapped each half separately in waxed paper and placed them in a paper sack, atop a wedge of sharp cheddar. Rooting through the icebox, her fingers closed around the last apple -- mealy but pleasantly tart; that, too, was consigned to the bag. Folding the sack closed, she murmured, "Woman is all appetite."


She wiped her hands on the apron tied loosely about her waist and studied the sack as if it were a sculpture, a work in progress. For all its contents, it was empty. There's a metaphor in there somewhere . . . Turning again to the icebox, she stared absently into its depths -- at the half-empty milk bottle -- an optimist would have called it half full -- and the bundle of leeks, beyond the anonymous waxed parcels backlit by a cold white light. Squinting into the middle shelf, she muttered, "Eggseggseggs . . . " She gathered three large brown eggs delicately in her hand, knocking a fourth from the bowl to the shelf, where it wobbled past an obstacle course of condiments before plummeting to the hardwood floor. A suicide, Mel mused, studying the glossy yellow pearls on the toes of her shoes.   "Well, isn't that a fine mess."


Some minutes later, she left the eggs to boil atop the stove while she adjourned to the bedroom. The curtains were drawn, diffusing the morning sun and casting the room in a vague light that seemed to suit her dour mood. She stood in the doorway for some time, overwhelmed by the scene, noting the appearance and position of every article of discarded clothing or linen -- the bed sheet she had draped upon her body to such mutually satisfying effect, the voluminous white shirt that she knew, even now, would smell of Janice. She left both articles untouched where they had fallen and flicked on a small lamp, preferring its anemic illumination to the full frontal assault of the sun; she simply wasn't ready to view the room in daylight.


Janice's battered leather satchel lay open atop the unmade bed. She hefted the bag with an appreciation for how lightly her partner traveled:  a toothbrush, trousers, a fountain pen and notebook, the latter plump and frayed, bound by a single, fat elastic. The essentials. She wondered how a woman with such apparently simple needs could be so complex. It was that contrast -- the fine line between needs and desires -- that served to make Janice so appealing. She shook herself from the reverie occasioned by the weight of the bag in her hand and turned, avoiding the mirror because she didn't want a confrontation.


Stripping the blanket from the bed, she balled it up and pitched it into the corner, then grasped handfuls of the fitted sheet and pulled. It was warm work; despite the hour, the stifling heat was beginning to bleed through the walls and the panes of glass. By the time she had consigned two pale pillow cases to the pile of linens, there was a fine dew of perspiration on her face and arms. She exhaled audibly through her mouth and gathered the linens in a loose ball, dabbing her face absently with the corner of one sheet. Perhaps what happened next was automatic, certainly self-indulgent, if for no other reason in that no one was watching. She closed her eyes and brought the bundle to her face, stirring up olfactory ghosts -- salt and smoke, sweat and sex. Something primal in her could separate those elements of herself from everything that was Janice.  More evocative than each of them individually was their essence as a couple...of what they did and who they were when in one another's arms; she could taste it on her tongue. In the heat of the room, she shivered and clutched the bundle more closely to her, reluctant to dismiss such a palpable rush too quickly.


This . . . was it. She would have to be content with memories, at least until she and Janice were reunited. Hot tears welled in her eyes. Strange, she thought, to be missing someone who had yet to leave. She dropped down onto the bare mattress, the sheets in her lap, hating that part of her which was unable to deal with loss. Naturally, she would not expire from the grief of a temporary separation. Janice had survived it, after all. Janice. In between heartbeats, she had an epiphany: I did this to her ... to Janice.


The cruel clarity of hindsight helped to paint a mental picture of Janice, distraught and abandoned, reading and re-reading the note she had left on the bedside table. Her throat constricted. Fear and pain rose in her like waves.  She loosed a strangled cry of anguish before burying her face in the bundle where she sobbed for a full five minutes, unabated and inconsolable. When she pulled up, sniffling, her blue eyes wide, it was not because her tears were spent -- she had quarts in reserve. She had stopped, shutting them down as quickly as one might flick a switch, because of The Sound . . . a low rumble humming through the ground, up through the bedroom floor into the soles of her feet, then rising to a high-pitched whine so powerful it rattled the panes of glass in the windows. It took her muddled mind a second to identify the source, but once the message had made its way from her ears to her brain, she was on her feet in an instant.


She skidded to a stop on the verandah, spitting gravel and red dust beneath her feet as the screen door slammed unnoticed behind her. With her heart in her throat, she grasped the railing and watched as the Electra's spinning propellers rifled the saw grass on either side of the makeshift runway. "Janice!" The double tap on her shoulder was calculated for effect. Mel spun, hand over her heart, to find Janice leaning against the clapboards of the house, a sly smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Mel narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to speak but realized the futility of words while the Electra held the monopoly on sound.


Janice winked and gazed beyond Mel's shoulder to a target in the cockpit window. She drew a finger across her throat -- momentarily, the engines died and the props chuffed to a halt. "It's nice to know you can really move when you're motivated. I was beginning to have my doubts."


"You -- are evil!" Mel accused, but it came away sounding complimentary. She watched Alice clamber nimbly out of the cockpit hatch. "I suppose you put her up to this."


Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Would it surprise you to know it was her idea?"


"She didn't have a cruel bone in her body before you showed up." Mel turned to the Electra, her body tense, her hands white knuckled at her sides.  "Alice, mind your step gettin' outta there!"


Janice joined her partner at the top of the stairs. Perhaps it was a matter of proximity, or simply the profound connection they shared, but she could feel the energy coming off Mel in waves. It was the same provocative pheromone that had driven her to distraction last night -- the same, and yet different. She needed distance if she was to think clearly. "‘nother hot one," she drawled, fanning the fedora past her face in large, lazy strokes. "Yup. Pur-ga-torial." She tipped back on her bootheels until her shoulder blades met a support post. This is better...just inane chatter and diesel fuel now...nothing to excite a body... Yeah, right. She scrutinized Mel's profile as lit by the sun; she had been crying. Janice was certain of that. The lips she had kissed time and again were the palest pink, parted and trembling... Tears had washed the color from her face and the blue from her eyes. Janice had the irresistible urge to touch, as if doing so could commit to memory this exquisite tintype brought to life. Extending her hand, she said, "You've been crying."


Mel's jaw bunched beneath Janice's touch and, tight-lipped, she responded without taking her eyes from Alice. "We have an audience..."


"So..." Janice let her arm fall naturally to her side, as if breaking contact were her idea. "Hiya, kiddo," she hailed brightly as Alice joined them. "You did good."


Alice's face lit up with pride. "Aww, it was beaut!" she said breathlessly. "I can't imagine anything better than flying! When I cranked that engine and closed my eyes, feeling all that power humming beneath me...I was almost I was cruising at 10,000 feet!"


"Oxygen deprivation," quipped Mel, finding her voice. "Can you really afford to lose any more brain cells? Lemme see your hand."


"It's fine, Mel," argued Alice with a sigh. She mounted the steps and thrust her injured hand in Mel's face. "See?"


Mel examined the grimy bandage, clucking her tongue in disappointment. "I told you to try and keep this clean," she admonished, putting her hands on her hips. "What am I gonna do with you?"


Janice nudged Alice in the ribs. "She's only asking because she doesn't have a clue." The three of them laughed for a moment, until, one by one, they peeled off to an awkward silence.


It was Alice who broke the silence, wrinkling her nose with the inquiry, "Is something burning?"


Mel's eyes widened. "Ohmigosh, the eggs! Alice, be a lamb and take them off the stove, will you?"


Replying with a confident, "Right, no problem, Mel," Alice stepped between them and made straight for the kitchen.


"I'll say it again," said Janice, her sharp green eyes following Alice's retreat. "Good kid."


Mel made a noise of assent and bowed her head, gazing at a knothole in the plank   floor.  She had left her glasses inside, beside the kitchen sink, but she didn't need them to know that she, too, was an object of interest. "You must be anxious to get back to the dig."


The corner of Janice's mouth twitched. It wasn't often that the right answer and the tactful answer were one and the same; this would be no exception. "Anxious, no. Obliged, yes. There are people depending on me for their paychecks."


"I guess," replied Mel as she traced the knothole's pattern with the toe of her shoe.


Janice hooked her thumbs into her trouser pockets, drumming her fingers absently on her thighs as she struggled for a retort. "Professor Moffat's expecting a detailed inventory by Tuesday next."


"That soon?" Mel moved her gaze to Janice's face, a paler reflection of her own misery.


"I'll need every spare minute to catalogue and pack the artifacts. If my luck holds, I should be back in Darwin no later than the 15th...Speaking of which..." She groped the pockets of her jacket, finally producing a battered business card. "This is the number of the hotel in Darwin where I'm staying..."


Mel turned the card over in her hand and squinted at the spiky script. "The Drake?"


"It's a dive," Janice elaborated wryly. "But the sheets are clean. Just call the front desk and ask for --"


"No phone." Mel held the card between her middle and index fingers. "Jack doesn't believe in them. And the radio's only got a range of a couple hundred miles."


Janice closed Mel's fingers around the card with the directive, "So? Shoot up a flare or send out a carrier pigeon..." She leaned in close and lowered her voice. "Think of me...I'll be here with bells on."


Won't you be awfully chilly? It was a pat response, coy, yet witty, and she'd almost said it aloud, so familiar were the rhythms of their conversation. Standing close enough to feel Janice's breath on her face, Mel was surprised at the effort it took to form a serious retort. "Don't you think it might be better if I came to you?" Even without her glasses, Mel could see Janice take a step back and set her jaw. "This isn't about logistics, you know. It's Jack." Mel paused, using the time to collect her thoughts. She walked the length of the verandah, settling comfortably into the glider before speaking. "He's been good to me, Janice."


Janice checked a molar with her tongue. "I know."


"He deserves better than --"


"A Dear John letter?" Sweet Mother of God, where did that come from? Janice stole a sideways glance at Mel, who regarded her with wide and wounded eyes. In the resulting silence, it was clear that each woman had made a conscious decision not to dwell on the remark. "I'd better make one last sweep of the house...Don't wanna forget anything." Without waiting for Mel to reply, Janice turned and disappeared into the house.


Chapter 15


Janice stood in the doorway, leather satchel swinging gently against her thigh as she scanned the spacious bedroom. It was a perfunctory act; she had everything. But having lingered noticeably longer in the house than it took to gather her possessions, the most she might be accused of was procrastination, which, she conceded, beat the hell out of cowardice. At last, she took a step backward into the hall, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her, leaving only memories in her wake.


She met Alice in the living room as the teen emerged from the kitchen with a small crate cradled between her good hand and her hip. "Got everything?"


Janice shrugged. "I'm leaving with more than I had when I arrived, so yeah, I'd say I have everything.  Whatcha got there?"


Alice rested the crate on the back of the sofa and took inventory. Beside a bulging, but otherwise nondescript paper bag was the obvious. "Jug of fresh water; I saw that yours was bone dry."


"Thanks, kid. This for me, too?" Janice dropped the satchel at her feet and inspected the contents of the paper sack with a raised eyebrow and an appreciative whistle. "Holy apple, hard boiled eggs, cheese...I see all the food groups are represented. Did you do all this?"

Alice shook her head. "Mel. I expect she wants to make sure you don't go hungry."


"I expect," Janice echoed as she watched Alice juggle the crate with her uninjured hand. "Want me to take that?"


"Aw, no, I'm good." As she fell into step behind Janice, Alice said, "I wish you could stay on a bit longer.  We hardly had a chance to talk at all."


Janice held the door open with the toe of her boot. "There'll be other opportunities."


"You mean it? You'll be back?"


Between roaming glances for the absent Mel, Janice tactfully replied, "I mean, you haven't seen the last of me." Her vantage point on the top step of the verandah afforded her an uninterrupted 180 degree view of the station and the surrounding bush, but her ability to see was hampered by the dazzling morning sun as it bounced off the Electra's gleaming fuselage. "You see Mel anywhere?"


Alice shaded her eyes with her free hand and squinted into the sun. "I see feet," she announced triumphantly. "On the other side of the plane..." She preceded Janice down the steps. "A dollar says she's plotting how to sabotage your departure."


"You'd lose your money, kid," Janice countered, fishing in her trouser pockets. "There's not a wicked bone in her body, trust me." Squinting at the broad face on her watch, she glowered in disapproval.  There were hundreds of miles to be covered on the return flight to the dig site and every minute she delayed left the Electra to bake in the sun. During her pre-flight check an hour earlier, the thermometer inside the cockpit had registered 87. Eighty seven degrees before 9AM...somewhere in the world, that's a crime. She pocketed the watch just as Mel emerged from around the nose of the aircraft.  Acknowledging Mel's appearance with a smile, she struggled for something clever to say. "There you are." Covington, you wit, you!


Mel ducked beneath the wing, sliding her hand, palm side up to remind herself just how little room there was between her head and potential injury. "I've just been havin' a look around your airplane. It's bigger than I thought at first." She frowned at her dirty fingertips. "And dirtier."



Janice set her jaw and quipped gently, "The maid doesn't come until Wednesday." She popped the fuselage door with some effort and lifted her satchel.


"That's a door," Mel announced, gesturing with her chin. "If you've got a door, why do you come and go from the cockpit?"


"The cargo hatch doesn't lock from the inside; you have to fight with it a little." Using a handhold built into the fuselage, Janice pulled herself onto the wing. "Alice, wanna get the chocks for me?" Wordlessly, Alice lifted the crate up to Janice and scrambled to unwedge the chocks. "I had a peek inside," Janice said, referring to the sack lunch. "Thank you. You didn't have to do that."


"I couldn't send you off to God-knows-where without somethin' to put in your stomach." Mel loosened another button on her blouse and pulled the material away from her damp skin with a rapid, fluttery motion. "If there was any way I could keep you here..."


" would. I know." Janice leaned as far into the cockpit as she was able to without losing her footing and let the supply crate drop to the floor with a noisy clatter.


"To tell you the truth," Mel began coyly, "I did entertain wicked thoughts of puncturin' your tires." Janice reacted with genuine surprise, which prompted a further confession. "Or maybe puttin’ a little sugar in your gas tank..."


Janice squatted in the wing valley to look Mel in the eye. "Sweet thought." She stole a kiss, catching Mel on the corner of the mouth. "And out here, it's called petrol...not gas." As Alice approached from the rear of the craft, Janice stepped onto the grounds of Coolinga Station for what was probably the last time.  "Everything secure?"


"You're all set," replied Alice, stowing the chocks in the fuselage. She struggled with the door, putting weight behind her shoulder and irritation into her voice. "Close you damned thing!"


"Alice Greenway," Mel cautioned, her hands set on her hips. "Whatever has become of your mouth? Make a sailor blush, I swear..."


"I'm sorry, Mel," replied Alice, genuinely contrite. She moved aside to allow Janice to secure the door.  Under Mel's withering gaze, her only recourse was the lame excuse, "It just sort of... slipped out."


"Uh huh." Mel was dubious. The look she shot Janice was rife with reproach.


"Hey, don't look at me." Janice surreptitiously put a dollar bill into Alice's hand. "You were right by the way."  


Alice enjoyed a conspiratorial wink at Mel's expense and stuffed the ill-gotten gains into a pocket. "Oh, strewth, almost forgot. I've got something for you, Janice."


"You didn't have to do that, kid," retorted Janice, though she was obviously moved.


"Well, it's not much...but I have to get it...inside..." Alice backed towards the house, scrubbing her hands on the backside of her dungarees. "I might be a few minutes..." she allowed pointedly before turning on her heel for the house.


"Now what was all that about?" asked Mel.


"What was all what about?" Janice echoed innocently. "Excuse me," she said, easing Mel out of the way as she ran practiced hands over and around the port flaps, feeling for debris that might impede their function.


"Money changed hands...any particular reason?"


"My, my, are nosy," said Janice as she withdrew from the business of pre-flight checks. With deliberation, she plucked a handkerchief from her back pocket and wiped her hands. "Look, Mel, since the kid was thoughtful enough to give us a few minutes to ourselves, don't you think the time would be better spent -"


"Sayin' goodbye." Mel was surprised at how much the words hurt. "I can't let you go, Janice...without first telling you how much I wish you would stay."


With a cautious glance towards the house, Janice took Mel by the hand and tugged her beneath the Electra's wing until they stood in its shade, out of the sun and away from curious eyes. "Mel, don't you know it's killing me to leave you here?"


"I know, I know," said Mel, blinking back tears. "I'm bein' unreasonable."


"And I love you for it. The truth is the only way I can go is knowing that you'll follow me." Janice looked seriously into her lover's eyes. "You will follow me...right?"

Mel’s smile was automatic, as was the hand which stroked Janice's cheek. "I'll arrange passage on a mail run to Darwin; as soon as I've squared things away with Jack, I'll join you there."


Swiping the hat from her head, Janice leaned blissfully into Mel's caress. "Kiss me, Mel...make me a believer..." The fedora dropped unnoticed to the ground.


"Well, twist m'arm why don'tcha?" Cradling Janice's face in her hands, Mel kissed her with thorough expertise. In response, possessive arms circled her waist, drawing her closer. She settled against the trim, compact body with a murmur of contentment. In such close proximity, she was acutely conscious of fragrance, of the taste and texture of lips as they glided over hers and the little sounds of pleasure as their tongues dueled. It was, Mel decided, a torturous sampling of the million nuances that made up the woman.  She was keenly aware that when the kiss ended, they would have to part. It was incentive enough to linger in the embrace, to trace salty lips with her tongue, to impart tender pecks at the corners of a provocative smile. She could have died happy in that moment.


As it was, it was Janice's selfish need for air which broke the spell. She surfaced to catch her breath.  Clasping Mel’s hands in her own, she confessed, "I'm gonna miss you."


Mel blushed warmly and retorted, "No you won't. You'll be busy with the dig and --"


"Mel --" Janice won the argument with a simple gesture of trust and affection; she placed one of Mel's hands inside her blouse, over her heart. "Do you feel that?"


Mel nodded as the warm pulse beat a frenetic tattoo beneath her palm. "Beatin' like a trip hammer," she replied, her voice softly marveling.


"You do that to me, Mel. It's not something a girl forgets."


"Why Janice Covington, beneath that leather jacket beats the heart of a romantic."


"Yeah, well, there are rumors of a bard somewhere in my ancestry." Janice plucked her hat from the ground and rapped it soundly against her thigh, stirring the dust from its brim. "What kind of person would I be if I couldn't call on that gift when my own words failed me?"


Mel laughed.  "Oh, well, that's profound."


Janice slipped out of her leather jacket and cast her eyes upward in mock piety. "I'm a deep person. Wear your waders." The report of the screen door as it slammed shut was so well timed it might have been calculated for effect. Had Janice not been reasonably certain that she and Mel could not be seen from the house, she might have called Alice on the carpet for spying. As it was, she had given them a generous five minutes together. It went without saying that neither woman had had enough time to say all that was on her mind. "Here she comes," she said, as the girl came tripping down the verandah steps with an item in each hand. Slinging her jacket over one shoulder, Janice advised, "Put on your party face, doll."


"You're so glib," quipped Mel, marshaling her public facade. "Teach me that."


"Another time." Conjuring up just the right note of enthusiasm, Janice greeted the approaching teen. "Hey, kiddo, I was beginning to think you weren't gonna turn out for the Big Goodbye scene."


"Oh, no," countered Alice, tucking a nondescript flat parcel beneath her arm. She thrust a hardbound volume at Janice. "This might be my only opportunity to get your autograph." She proffered a fountain pen. "Would you mind?"


Janice passed Mel her jacket and accepted the book. "The Xena Scrolls," she intoned. "No doubt plucked from its place of honor beneath the uneven sofa leg, eh?" She opened the book and flipped past the copyright and the acknowledgements to a page bearing the simple dedication: For Harry Covington. As the pen hovered above the paper, she looked at Alice from beneath the brim of her hat. "My first autograph."


Mel grinned and quipped, "Now that's not exactly true."


"Parking tickets don't count," replied Janice good-naturedly as she committed her signature to paper with short, economical strokes. She chased the wet ink across the page with a warm breath before returning the book with the self-deprecating remark, "There you go. Be the envy of all your friends."


Mel inspected the familiar spiky scrawl with a grin. "You do realize, Alice, that this will  prob’ly bring down the value of the book?"


Alice chuckled, her eyes moving possessively over the signature on the page. "I'll take my chances." She closed the book and reached for the parcel beneath her arm.   "Now, I have something for you." A sandwich of cardboard and paper filled the space between the grinning teenager and Janice.


Gaulle's Premium Bond. Mel recognized the sketchpad as one of three she had purchased as a birthday gift for Alice the previous month; she made an educated guess regarding the contents. Assumptions aside, she held her breath as Janice lifted the flimsy cover to reveal the portrait which lay beneath rendered in raven black, stark white and muted shades of gray.


"Wow," whispered Janice. She had, of course, seen the drawing before, but conceded that she had been too startled and preoccupied at the time to see it as anything more than evidence. Her opinion then had been tainted by guilt and, if she were to be honest with herself, fear. Her eyes ranged across the page, studying the two subjects, appreciating the nuances created by a sharp eye and a talented hand. She was, more than anything else, profoundly grateful that the moment had been captured...frozen in time...not by the unforgiving eye of the camera, but with those same qualities reflected in the artist -maturity, affection...and innocence. She looked from the drawing to Alice and the delicate timbre of her voice surprised her. "This is swell, kid...I mean it. This is really something. I thought you didn't do people."


"Well, I don't normally. I'm not very good at them," replied Alice with a shrug.


"That's not true at all. I think it's a wonderful gift," interjected Mel. "You've got real talent."


"I had good subjects. You take it, Janice. I want you to have it."


"I will, but only if you'll sign it." Janice tilted the sketchpad and returned the pen. "Please."


Alice hesitated just a moment before uncapping the pen to scratch her signature across the bottom of the page. "Who knows? Maybe it'll be worth something some day."


Janice tweaked Alice's earlobe affectionately. "It's priceless now." Alice reddened at the compliment.


Mel slid an arm around Alice's shoulders and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "She blushes beautifully, don't you think?"


"Aw, Mel."


Tucking the sketchpad beneath her arm, Janice exhaled. "Well...I suppose I can't put this off any longer."


Mel's smile dissolved into a tremulous line. "So soon?"


Janice swept a strand of hair behind her ear and manufactured an air of bravado she didn't feel in the least. "Mel, you give new meaning to the word procrastination." She watched as tears made determined progress down finely-sculpted cheekbones. Under a third party's scrutiny, Janice could not permit her gaze to linger; it was with barely-disguised regret that she shifted her eyes from Mel to Alice and rummaged through her emotions for a smile. "Hug or a handshake?"


Alice extended her hand, determined to preserve the mood of composure and restraint; she hunted for just the right parting remark. Thumping the leather bound, newly-autographed first edition of The Xena Scrolls: Myth into History, she said, "I can't wait for the sequel."


Janice laughed. "You and me both, kid. Take care of yourself now. I expect big things from you."


Without further word, Alice smiled and backed away, clutching the book to her chest. From a distance, she watched Mel and Janice embrace briefly, exchange a few words...regrets and promises, or so she assumed; she had no burning desire to know the exact dialogue. As she mounted the verandah steps and wrapped her arm around a fat support post, she knew that, like any great film worth its salt, this story could be powerfully told in pictures alone. Janice's face, though partially obscured by the brim of her hat, was carefully set --shining eyes and a grim smile. Her thumbs were hooked into her belt, her feet set apart --like a derrick --for stability. She was totally unreadable, except for the effect her presence had upon Mel, whose back was to her. Despite that, Alice had no trouble interpreting her posture --arms clutching Janice’s leather jacket to her chest, head dipping just slightly as her shoulders hitched.  Crying. Love hurts, she decided. That was her first conclusion. It hurts, but people do it anyway. She made an audible sound of amazement. Until today she had only her parents as points of reference --two lonely, grasping people who expressed their love for her at the top of their lungs, in mile high letters while sniping at one another from behind barricades of anger and recrimination. She was a prize to be won, and though their love for her was genuine, it was also somehow...selfish. 


Love, the way she saw it now, drawn in shades of discretion and restraint, was the whisper drowning out the scream, and the profound silences that follow a lingering touch. Love was the world writ small, two persons standing toe to toe in their last minutes together, scrambling for words as they endured a blistering sun...and an inquisitive audience. She dropped her gaze to the ground, suddenly more ashamed than curious. An ant crawled across the toe of her boot and she felt about that small.


"She still watchin’?"


Janice glanced surreptitiously over Mel's shoulder. "She's going into the house. She's curious, Mel; you can't blame her."


"All the same..." Mel lowered her head until her chin touched her chest. "I'll talk to her later...after..."


Janice shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, there can't be any ‘after' if I don't leave, so..." She laid a hand on Mel's arm.


Mel looked down at the fingers curled around her arm -tanned and strong and only as possessive as she needed them to be at any given moment. "Janice, I...I just..." She choked back a sob; she had no words to describe her churning emotions. Sometimes, she lamented, the English language is a futile, clumsy encumbrance.


Standing in the shadow of Mel's distress, Janice conceded that few things spoke more eloquently than profound silence. "Don't cry, Mel," she said quietly, diverting the tears with a strategic caress. "If I can't be around to kiss them away, they'll only go to waste." She tucked the flat of her thumb between her lips, savoring the suggestion of salt.  "Now, I really gotta go."  Her fingers curled around the collar of her jacket as it was crushed against Mel’s chest and her voice was sweetly persuasive.  "Mel, jacket?" 


"Oh.  Sorry."  Mel loosened her deathgrip on the jacket and looked down at her hands, now empty and trembling. "What am I gonna do when you’re gone?"


Janice slung the jacket over her shoulder, where she held it by two fingers.  "You’ll hardly miss me."


"Only every minute of every day," Mel retorted.


"I love you.  Now, go get out of the sun.  Have one of those awful beers and think cool, pleasant thoughts."


Mel squeezed Janice's fingers. "I'll think of you," she replied earnestly.


Janice loosed her grasp on Mel's hand and backed away a half dozen paces while her gaze remained fixed on her partner's face. "I'll see you in a few weeks."


Mel nodded, hands splayed on her hips as she turned towards the house. "Of course!"


Of course. Janice threaded her fingers through the metal handhold in the Electra's fuselage and pulled herself aboard the broad expanse of wing. She flung her jacket through the open hatch, then took careful aim and let the sketchpad drop dead center of the pilot's seat where it fell open. The nagging, brutal truth that had been gnawing at her subconscious since awakening that morning rode upon a wave of hot, rank air rising from the cockpit interior. She felt a self-indulgent tide of anger swell in her chest. Standing with her arms braced against the hatch, her eyes fixed on the simple drawing, she felt more than heat, more than unwell...she felt...Betrayed. Even as the word rumbled around inside her head, she felt sick. Oh, God,'re almost outta here...a clean getaway...Leave it be!


Going in search of Mel had been a pride-swallowing experience, but until this very moment, she had not acknowledged the depth of her humiliation. She blinked the sweat from her eyes. Blood hummed in her ears like static and although she was vaguely aware of Mel calling her name, she did not feel inclined to respond immediately. She swiped the hat from her head and dragged her forearm angrily across her eyes, over her brow, blotting sweat and tears alike; they were chemically similar. Both had bite. If she was going to live with herself, she knew she couldn't climb into that cockpit without first biting back.


"Janice, is somethin' the matter?"


Janice turned slowly, with deliberation to find Mel regarding her with polite confusion; she hadn't even heard her approach. She leaned against the fuselage, her hip to the searing metal - the discomfort was just enough to keep her grounded and focused in the face of confrontation. Wordlessly, she walked the wing valley and perched on the edge where the trim was rounded over and most sturdy. Fanning her hat across her face, she regarded her lover with a gaze as remote as the moon.


Finding herself on the receiving end of a particularly unnerving stare, Mel's fingers grazed Janice's boot, enveloping the slim but sturdy ankle in an anxious grip. After an interminable silence spent searching Janice's face with mild concern, she trolled for a response. "Y'alright?"


Tenting the fingers of her right hand against the hot steel, Janice vaulted gracefully to the ground. "Since you" Without offering an immediate explanation, she stuffed her hands into her trouser pockets, turned from Mel's puzzled gaze and walked the length of the wing in silence. She stopped at the wingtip and stood in a dwindling puddle of shade as her eyes sought some intangible target in the distance.


Mel put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. Although she was clearly perplexed by Janice's behavior, she was also obliged to indulge it. After all, the woman had crossed two continents looking for her --at the very least she owed her patience. "Take a moment. We've got nothin' but time," she said as Janice ground her boot heel into the earth as if extinguishing a lit cigar.


Janice studied her boots for a moment longer, aware that she, too, was the object of scrutiny. She could feel Mel's gaze beat down upon her with all the commitment of the rising sun; that kind of love was palpable, unstoppable. At least she hoped so. She dragged hot air over her teeth and deeply into her lungs before turning to speak. "Standing here, looking at you, a lot of things go through my mind." Mel's befuddled smile encouraged her to continue. "I can think of a thousand words to describe how you make me feel at any given moment, but here...right now one word stands out: trust. I don't...I don't trust you, Mel...anymore." There, I said it. God, I said it! Don't think, Janice, just talk. "I know this comes out of the blue, especially after last night, but the truth is, I wanted you back so badly that nothing else mattered -- I had you in my arms -- I could put blinders on when it came to the rest."


Over the liquid thud of her heart, Mel stammered, "I hurt you. I know that. I'm so sorry.”


Janice covered the distance between them in deliberate strides and lay a finger softly against Mel’s lips.  "Don't apologize," said Janice, her voice taking on the flat, impersonal qualities of emotional self-preservation. She watched in mute fascination as tears again welled in Mel's eyes, reflecting her own miserable countenance in limpid pools briefly before a combination of surplus and gravity sent them cascading down the peaks and valleys of that finely chiseled face. "I don't want an apology, Mel," she reiterated, letting her hand drop to her side. "What I want is your word that it won't happen again. You ripped my heart from my chest once...and for a long time it was all I could do to haul my butt out of bed on a daily basis."


Mel swiped at the tears dribbling down her cheeks as she held Janice's stare fearlessly. "What can I say to you when my word is no longer good enough?"


Janice held up her hands defensively. "All I'm saying is that I would rather part here on my own terms than wake up one morning -- a month, or six months, or a year from now to find your side of the bed empty. I couldn't live through a repeat performance."


"I deserved that." Mel pinched the bridge of her nose, gazing at Janice as clearly as her astigmatism would permit. "If I am a lifetime rebuilding your trust in me, I have no one but myself to blame. But I swear to you, on my daddy's head that I will be there, Janice."


In counterpoint to her wildly beating heart, Janice's face was a carefully subdued mask. "Alright." She exhaled, leaving suggestions of doubt and bitterness to linger in the air between them. "Don't disappoint me, Mel. If you do, you'll regret it...not because I'll come looking for you..." She settled the fedora deeper on her head. "...but because I won't."


"I will never again put you in that position, Janice," Mel said, her voice resonant with obligation and resolve.


Janice narrowed her eyes and the little smile that touched her lips was almost wistful. "I want to believe you, Mel."


"And I want to be believed." Mel smiled, her blue eyes crinkling amiably at the corners. "Where the two flow together you fish, right?"


Suppressing a laugh, Janice scratched behind her ear. "Well, it's a good place to start anyway." Love may not make the world go ‘round, she thought, but it sure as hell puts a spin on things. After a moment's hesitation, she hooked her thumb over her shoulder. "Look, I'd better be going."


Mel drummed her fingers along her hips. "No more bombs to drop?"


Janice could sense that she was only half-kidding and retorted with a cautious wink. "It's early yet."  Without further delay, she pulled herself aboard the wing.


"I'm not gonna say ‘goodbye'," Mel called from the ground. When Janice turned to face her she said, "I'm gonna say see you soon."


"And I am gonna hold you to that." She climbed aboard the hatch, legs dangling in the sweltering heat of the cockpit while the superheated fuselage bled aggressively through the seat of her pants; there would be no unnecessary lingering. "Stand back now, Mel."


Mel stepped clear of the plane, shading her eyes with one hand as she searched for Janice's face in the sun. "I love you!" she called.


As Janice turned for the pre-requisite last glance, all of the cool resolve she had worked so hard to sustain melted away in a fond glance. "I'm counting on it!" She tossed a wave over her shoulder and slipped into the cockpit, mindful of the truth spread open at her feet. She closed and locked the hatch behind her and hung her jacket over the back of the co-pilot's chair. She propped the opened sketchpad in the seat, according it a place of prominence where its beauty could be savored and its promise anticipated.


The warm pilot's seat felt strangely agreeable as it molded itself to the backs of her thighs and the small of her back, cradling her in its pliable leather embrace. She mashed her thumb down repeatedly on the fuel line to prime the engines. With the key in the ignition she turned on the master switch and the engines coughed to life on the first attempt. I must be livin' right. She drew her lap belt taut, opened the throttle and checked her peripherals -- starboard and port -- as the Electra began to trundle down the runway. For a fleeting moment, Mel's figure, poised on the verandah, filled the frame of the port window -- hands on her hips, midnight hair trailing in the Electra's propwash. It was a memory as indelible as any photograph.


Three weeks. It would be a lifetime.


The End


Return to The Bard's Corner