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.
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
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.
Janice coming to breakfast?"
she's dressed." Mel spooned a third helping of coarse ground sugar into her cup.
Keenly aware of
The response, meant to discourage, had the opposite effect. "Can I have a cup?"
smiled. "I suppose it's useless to deny you anythin' at this point."
patted the seat of the vacant chair. "Come and sit. I promise I'm not angry with
you." With some trepidation,
Mel pursed her lips and said, "I saw the drawin you left on the verandah."
reached across the table and covered
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."
Gulp. "Within reason." Mel laced her fingers around her coffee mug and lifted her brows slightly to indicate her receptiveness. "Fire at will."
like pulling out a splinter. "No," replied Mel, careful to return
"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."
think I have seen enough of your father to echo those sentiments,
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.
know this must be very difficult for you to understand,
but with conviction,
glad you think so, too," replied Mel.
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."
looked dumbfounded. "I said all that?" Momentarily, she reached across the table
"Yes, just like that," Mel replied simply. "Promise me you won't ever settle for less than your heart's desire."
"No, I'm afraid not. She's returning to the dig site today. I think that's for the best . . . considerin'. Don't you?"
Oh, you are soooo young. "That might be a little too much to hope for," quipped Mel.
there was a noncommittal shrug. "Guess so. This is really awful stuff,"
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
wheeled at the profanity and found
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
like you're the only person ever to do somethin' careless." Mel tugged
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?"
mouth quivered; there was something decidedly mournful about
Mel cupped the girl's face in one hand and smiled. "You would've made it a joy."
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."
-- are evil!" Mel accused, but it came away sounding complimentary. She watched
Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Would it surprise you to know it was her idea?"
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. "
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."
jaw bunched beneath Janice's touch and, tight-lipped, she responded without taking her
Janice let her arm fall naturally to her side, as if breaking contact were her idea.
"Hiya, kiddo," she hailed brightly as
"Oxygen deprivation," quipped Mel, finding her voice. "Can you really afford to lose any more brain cells? Lemme see your hand."
fine, Mel," argued
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?"
It was Alice who broke the silence, wrinkling her nose with the inquiry, "Is something burning?"
eyes widened. "Ohmigosh, the eggs!
with a confident, "Right, no problem, Mel,"
say it again," said Janice, her sharp green eyes following
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.
need every spare minute to catalogue and pack the artifacts. If my luck holds, I should be
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.
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.
Janice shrugged. "I'm leaving with more than I had when I arrived, so yeah, I'd say I have everything. Whatcha got there?"
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
expect," Janice echoed as she watched
no, I'm good." As she fell into step behind Janice,
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?"
"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 ...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?"
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. "
"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..."
"...you 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..."
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
all set," replied
"Alice Greenway," Mel cautioned, her hands set on her hips. "Whatever has become of your mouth? Make a sailor blush, I swear..."
sorry, Mel," replied
"Uh huh." Mel was dubious. The look she shot Janice was rife with reproach.
don't look at me." Janice surreptitiously put a dollar bill into
"You didn't have to do that, kid," retorted Janice, though she was obviously moved.
it's not much...but I have to get it...inside..."
"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, my...you 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?"
smile was automatic, as was the hand which stroked Janice's cheek. "I'll arrange
passage on a mail run to
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 Mels 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."
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
"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."
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
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."
inspected the familiar spiky scrawl with a grin. "You do realize,
Premium Bond. Mel recognized the sketchpad as one of three she had purchased as a birthday
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
I don't normally. I'm not very good at them," replied
"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."
slid an arm around
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?"
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
Janice laughed. "You and me both, kid. Take care of yourself now. I expect big things from you."
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 Mels chest and her voice was sweetly persuasive. "Mel, honey...my 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 youre gone?"
Janice slung the jacket over her shoulder, where she held it by two fingers. "Youll 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, Janice...you'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 asked...no." 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 Mels 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, hair trailing in the Electra's propwash. It was a memory as indelible as any photograph.
Three weeks. It would be a lifetime.
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