By Christine “Roo” Toups
Dr. Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.
NOTE: © copyright 2000 One Bard Writin’
Alice Greenway leaned against the railing of the screened-in verandah and fanned herself with her wide-brimmed hat. It was October, high spring, and the heat at Coolinga Station was malevolent. The house and grounds, enveloped in a profusion of wildflowers and spinifex, broiled beneath an eiderdown of iron-gray clouds.
With more force than was necessary, Alice smacked opened the screen door and plunked down on the last of seven steps, digging the toe of her chukkas into the dark, red earth. Salty droplets stung the corners of her eyes and she wiped them away with a leisurely pass of her hand. She was bored. Bored stiff. Bored to tears. But the four-legged remedy for her boredom stood grazing in the paddock, growing fat on Bahia hay. She launched herself from the steps and strode purposefully across the grounds. Minutes later, she emerged from the paddock astride a sturdy, though somewhat lethargic, gray gelding. She pulled the brim of her father's old hat down about her eyes and gathered the reins and a clump of silver mane in her hands. Squinting into the midday sun, youthful eyes picked out an oft-visited destination: a cool blackwater billabong nestled in the shade of a cathedral of fifty-foot silver ghost gums. Alice dug her heels into the belly of the horse and spurred him across the salt pan at a gallop.
* * * * * * * * * *
The cramped cockpit of the Lockheed Electra had none of the amenities usually associated with flying - no inflight meals, no stewardess, no legroom; not that Janice Covington, at a mere five-feet-four-inches, required a great deal of legroom. The engine, for all its wear, ran smoothly, and the controls were crisp and responded immediately to her touch. As she steered with her knee, she unstoppered a water jug and drank deeply the last of her tepid water. She had removed her trademark leather jacket upon takeoff, opting for shirt sleeves and now, three hours later, her thin cotton blouse was plastered uncomfortably to her back. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she was only a few short miles from her destination. Gazing out the dirty windscreen as far as she could see, flat, russet-colored earth swelled to meet the horizon, its monotony broken only occasionally by small water holes and stands of gums, silver in the season. One mile looked very much like another, and yet she had referred to her map only once since leaving the airfield at Birrubi, relying instead on a combination of instinct and luck to bring her into close orbit around Coolinga Station and its current proprietress, Melinda Pappas. She and Janice had not seen one another, or spoken, in more than six months - a fact which both angered and confounded Janice. As she gazed at a cluster of pinpricks gleaming like quicksilver on the horizon, she determined that she would not leave Coolinga without answers.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the time it took to tether her horse to a low-hanging tree limb and cast off her boots, Alice was wading knee-deep in a cool, black velvet heaven, sharing the waters with a single bold finch whose kin decorated the branches of the gums like colorful buds. She sloshed across the pool, stirring the satiny silt to the surface, and plopped down on the sandy bank, her feet still dangling in the water. Gazing into the pool, she idly appraised her reflection: broad face, wide-spaced eyes, aggressive auburn hair. She looked like her mother, which was not a bad thing. Her mother had been considered a beauty in her youth, after her marriage to Jack Greenway but before her exile to this island in the outback. Nine years of isolation and grinding drudgery, eking out a living in a land that would not willingly give up even a green blade of grass, had taken a physical and emotional toll on the woman and the marriage. The ink had not dried upon the divorce papers before Peggy Greenway packed both her possessions and her child off to her mother's small home on the coast.
Alice had spent the last three years shuttling between the neat green cottages in her Adelaide suburb and her father's beloved patch of saw grass in the outback. The downside to spending holidays at the station was the almost perpetual isolation, the nearest neighbor being three hours by car. The town of Church Hill, population 605, situated at the foot of the Kakadu Escarpments, was hardly a thriving metropolis. Even when she lived at the station year 'round, Alice could remember having visited Church Hill only a half dozen times. There had never been much there to interest a child - public houses, stockyards, a small grocery below a dilapidated boarding house - all populated by people her mother judiciously called sturdy colonial stock. Four-hundred miles west of Coolinga Station, in the heart of the outback, lay Birrubi. Slightly larger than Church Hill, it boasted yet more pubs and sturdy colonials, but also a small movie house, an airstrip and a school, which her mother refused to allow her to attend as it was populated almost exclusively with aborigine children. Thus, before the divorce, Alice's only contact with children her own age had been through the wireless school run by the government. What the faceless teacher did not offer in the way of stimulation, curriculum or companionship, Peggy Greenway sought to provide herself. The end result of such an insular upbringing among adults made for a quietly confident, eerily mature thirteen-year-old girl...who resembled her mother.
Alice's hand shot out, scooping the frowning visage up and across the pool in a sheet of water where it dispersed, landing in drops and dribbles upon the sandy bank, a fractured reflection. Before the water could calm and resolve itself into her likeness again, she withdrew her legs and trudged across the sand to a paperbark stump where she used her socks to brush the sand from the bottoms of her feet. She shook out her boots, in the event some scorpion had taken up squatter's rights, and slipped them on, all the while squinting at the outbuildings of Coolinga Station. The latest in a long line of potential stepmothers, house-sitting while Jack was in service to his country, was hard at work in the hangar on a project in which Alice didn't care to feign interest. Owing to Jack Greenway’s weakness for younger women, Melinda Pappas was fifteen years his junior, a noted archeologist, and nothing less than striking. She was also kind and funny. In all honesty, the worst that could be said of Melinda was that she was American, a shortcoming Mel could do nothing to remedy.
Alice was startled out of her reverie by the distinct droning of a twin engine aircraft; she raised a hand to shield her eyes and caught the glint of sunlight on an aluminum fuselage substantial enough to be a DC-3. She wondered briefly if it were her father, home on leave early. The plane banked and whined, its engine running hot. Having logged a hundred hours at her father's side in the family Cessna, she recognized the telltale signs of a too-rich fuel mixture. As the aircraft aimed for the white windsock on the hangar roof, she knotted her boots and swung gracefully into the saddle.
* * * * * * * *
Janice popped open the wedge of glass at her left shoulder, but the rush of hot fresh air did nothing to relieve the stifling heat inside the cockpit. Again she observed the windsock drooping airless and impotent above the hangar. She throttled back, aiming the nose of the plane at a grassless patch roughly fifty feet wide and two thousand feet long. She throttled back again, cutting her speed by half, and the aircraft seemed to hang suspended and weightless above the makeshift runway before touching down hard on all three wheels. It bounced once, kicking up a cloud of red dust, wavered and touched down again, the tires finding the neat groove worn into the track. She coasted there, comfortable in that niche, applying the brakes evenly, toying with the flaps. At the runway's end she used just enough throttle and hard rudder to pivot the aircraft 180 degrees. As it turned facing into the sun, she cut the engine, blinking as the decelerating props sliced segments of sunlight. "Another textbook landing," she muttered, sliding her sweaty palms against her slacks. Somewhat self-consciously, she observed the adolescent face of rebuttal peering at her from the other side of the windscreen; though the smile on the child's face was pleasant enough, her posture - arms folded, weight on one hip - was clearly judgmental. Acknowledging the girl with a smiling nod, Janice threw her jacket over her arm and ran her fingers haphazardly through her honey-colored hair, gave up and slapped a battered brown fedora atop her head. At the rear of the cockpit, she reached above her head to pop the hatch. With the ease of a gymnast, she climbed through the hatch and onto the expansive port wing of the aircraft. The rubber grip tiles along the valley between fuselage and wing were soft and clingy from the heat, yielding the leather soles of her boots only when adequately persuaded. Janice's first impulse was to curse. "Son-of-a-bitch," she muttered under her breath.
Alice's disappointment at not finding her father behind the controls of the aircraft vanished upon sight of the first female pilot in her experience. "G'day!" she hailed enthusiastically.
Janice looked up to find the teenager regarding her with undisguised bemusement from her place beside one of the stilled props. "Afternoon," she replied, even as the girl possessively stroked the worn metal prop. "You like her, eh?" Janice encouraged with a wink, as she jumped down from the wing.
Alice nodded and smiled broadly. "She's beaut! A Lockheed Electra 10E, nine cylinder, air-cooled, eleven hundred horsepower. I suppose you know your fuel mixture is a bit off."
Janice lay the flat of her hand against the fuselage; her fingertips were touching Alice's and they were eye to eye. "I don't pretend to know the mechanics of flying, sweetheart...lift plus thrust equals my butt in the air." Janice turned and walked towards the tail of the aircraft, the curious girl on her heels. "I intend to fly this baby until it drops from the sky."
Alice cocked an eyebrow. "Then what?"
“Then," replied Janice, inserting her hand into a half-moon hollow on the cargo door, "I'll walk." She put her right shoulder into the door and pulled on the handle, lifting as she did so -- a combination that worked in lieu of a key. Without lowering the portable steps, she groped inside the door. "You mind?" she asked, holding a pair of chock blocks by the ropes connecting them.
"Aw, sure, no problem," Alice replied, trotting forward to wedge the chock blocks, one beneath each balding tire. "That left tire's low," she said as she re-appeared at Janice's elbow. "We've got a portable pump in the hangar. If you like I could -- "
Closing the cargo door, Janice quipped, "A good pilot doesn't need three tires." The girl smiled and laughed, a trio of warm staccato chuckles that rang with sincerity. Yep...like her already. "You seem to know a little something about airplanes."
Alice shuffled. "My dad's a pilot in the Australian Air Force, and we have a Cessna in the hangar over there. When it's working, it's a sweet craft, but this - " again, she stroked the metal skin of the Electra. " - this is just like the one flown by Miss Amelia Earhart on her 'round the world flight. Strewth, you even dress alike," she concluded breathlessly, as she gestured at Janice's jodhpurs and tall boots.
"One difference," quipped Janice. "We know where I am."
"Too right! Very good," said Alice, giving the stranger's hand a friendly pat. "I'm Alice Greenway." She extended her hand, expecting neither the iron grip nor the enthusiastic pump that followed.
"Pleasure to meet you, Alice. Janice Covington."
Alice went wide-eyed and let her grip slacken until she felt Janice's fingers slip from her own. "Doctor Janice Covington?"
For a brief moment, Janice wondered what Mel had told her potential new family about their relationship. "Hardly a household name."
"I read your book, The Xena Scrolls: Myth or History."
Janice fanned the black flies away from her face. "Fanny Hill it ain't."
"I thought it was fascinating," Alice reiterated. "What're you doing in Australia?"
"Currently, I'm standing here feeding the flies," she retorted, grinning good-naturedly. "More specifically, I'm heading an aboriginal dig at Kakadu."
Alice seemed to perk up at the mention of the dig. "Then you must be here for Mel, right?"
Janice plucked the sweat-damp cotton blouse away from the small of her back. "I didn't know anyone but me called her Mel." Her eyes moved across the paddock to the sprawling white house beyond. Under the verandah was an aviary of twittering budgerigars, but no Mel. "Is she here?"
"In the hangar, last time I looked," replied Alice, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She fell into step beside Janice as they walked towards the hangar.
They passed a horse, lathered with sweat, lungs working like a bellows. Janice said, "Kinda dangerous, isn't it? To run a horse in this heat?"
"I thought you were my dad, coming home. I wasn't thinking about the horse, particularly," the teen admitted without a hint of remorse.
A reproof knocked at the back of Janice's teeth; as the adult, she thought she ought to make some stern remark, but standing eye to eye, chatting with this mature teen, it was easy to forget, even briefly, that Alice was not a contemporary. In the end, she held her tongue, reasoning that it was not her place to reprimand or discipline another's child.
"Are you here to take Mel back with you?"
"I don't know, kid. I'd love to have her on the dig, naturally." Janice shrugged. "But she has a life here to consider."
"Did she really play such a large part in the discovery of the scrolls?"
"Well, you read my book. She was instrumental. I couldn't have done it without her."
Alice merely nodded, conversation closed. As they entered the hangar, Janice focused upon the green and white twin engine Cessna and the island of light puddled around the form with her back to them. She was painting, with infinite care and patience, the words 'Greenway Charters' across the fuselage in a bold, no-nonsense script.
Alice called out experimentally, testing the waters for turbulence. "Hey...Mel?"
Without looking up, Mel replied in the accent that Janice had once quipped made Scarlett O'Hara sound like a carpetbagger. "I thought I heard you thunder up." She dipped the brush into the quart can at her feet and, steadying one hand upon the other, resumed her tedious work. "How many times have I told you not to run the horses in this heat?"
Alice muttered her stock reply, "Too many times."
To her credit, Mel changed the subject. "Was that the mail plane?"
Ignoring her baser instincts, Janice took her hat in her hand and slid neatly into the segue with, "Would you be terribly disappointed if it wasn't?"
Mel's back stiffened and she halted, brush poised on the downstroke. With deliberation, she placed the brush across the top of the open paint can and turned to face the speaker. Her face was a mask of polite detachment, and she struggled for the matching tone of voice. "Well," she said, taking in the unexpected arrival of Janice Covington. "This is a surprise."
Janice shuffled and squashed the brim of her fedora against her thigh. A surprise. Non-committal. Neither good nor bad. Just a surprise. "You look good, Mel." Oversized, paint-stained coveralls, long hair pulled back in paisley scarf, cateye glasses on the bridge of a nose daubed with black paint - she looked incredibly good to Janice.
Mel stopped just short of returning the compliment, so ingrained were her Southern good manners. "Well, Janice Covington," she drawled with forced nonchalance. "What brings you to my door?"
Alice piped in, "Dr. Covington's in charge of the Kakadu dig, the one you turned down."
Janice shrugged and interjected, "Professor Moffat said I wasn't the university's first choice."
Mel approached, wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth. "Alice, run ahead and put the billy on." She moved her gaze to Janice. "You'll stay to tea?"
"Billy? Tea? You've gone bush, Mel," quipped Janice with genuine amusement.
"I've adapted, Janice. I hope you don't mind tea. Coffee's in short supply these days," replied Mel.
"Tea'll be fine," Janice conceded with a nod, even as Alice hurried out of the hangar at a trot. Alone at last, the pair could speak freely. "It's been a long time, Mel...how've you been?"
"Busy. Jack wants to start a charter business when he's discharged, so I've been--"
"I meant personally," interjected Janice. "How are you?"
"I'm a mess," Mel replied abruptly, making a preliminary swipe at the paint on her fingers. "I need to wash up."
"You look fine to me...except..." Janice took the cloth from Mel's hands, folded it to find a clean edge and wiped the smudge of paint from the end of Mel's nose. "There." She smiled and returned the cloth to Mel's hand. "All beautiful again."
Flustered, Mel's full lips parted to retort, "I...you..." She studied the paint-stained cloth, avoiding the other's gaze. "Thank you."
Janice grinned, enjoying Mel's predicament; the brunette was seldom at a loss for words. "This is where you're supposed to say, 'You look good, too, Janice.'"
Mel looked up and regarded Janice coolly as they stepped from the hangar into the dazzling late afternoon sunshine "You've lost weight."
Mel elaborated with an abrupt gesture to indicating Janice's hips. "The pistol and the whip."
"Will I need them?" Janice retorted playfully.
Mel squinted at the teenager bounding down the front steps of the house. "I don't want them where Alice can get at them."
"Relax, Mel," replied Janice, following her gaze. "They're in a locked strongbox in the cockpit, and I have the only key."
"I put the billy on," said Alice as she joined them. "Want me to put out the lemon biscuits Dad sent from Singapore last month? I was saving them for a special occasion."
Janice clapped the teen on the shoulder. "I'm flattered."
Alice beamed with appreciation. "Suppose I could get a look inside the Electra after tea?"
Janice looked sidelong at an ambivalent Mel. "If it's all right with Mel, I don't see why not. Mel?"
Mel directed her gaze at Alice. "You tend to that horse of yours before he drops of the heat, and I'll consider it."
Alice clucked her tongue. "No worries, Mel," she said, backpedaling towards the paddock. "Be in to tea in a few minutes."
"She's a good kid," Janice said once Alice was out of earshot.
"She's better than good," Mel replied, steering Janice towards the house. "She's her father's daughter."
"They're pretty close, huh."
"So close there isn't room for me between them," Mel muttered.
Janice sensed that there was real hurt behind the disclosure; she was primed to notice everything. She decided to spare Mel her observations and pushed the hat back on her head, gesturing broadly towards the resting Electra at the same time. There was more than a hint of maternal pride in the her entreaty. "Whatta ya think of her?" Mel put her hands on her hips and idly appraised the aircraft. Its nicked and pitted props, balding tires, and worn aluminum fuselage spoke of thousands of hours of wear and tear. "I won it in a poker game a couple of months back." She patted the aluminum skin. "Nice, huh?"
Mel looked sideways at her ex-partner and sighed. "As if your life isn't dangerous enough, Janice Covington, you have to rise up to meet God halfway."
"Mel," quipped Janice, nudging her gently in the ribs, "believe it or not, standing here next to you is the most dangerous thing I've done in months."
Mel's smile dissolved into a flat line. "Don't do that, Janice."
Mel folded her arms. "Don't be charming," she warned, turning for the house.
Janice shrugged, tossed her jacket over one shoulder and muttered at Mel's retreating form, "Well...shit." She caught up with Mel on the steps. Conjuring up the right note of firm, yet injured dignity, Janice said, "Hold it right there."
Mel froze on the spot, her back to Janice and her hand on the iron doorknob. "What?" she inquired, her tone unmistakably hostile.
"Look, sweetheart," Janice began, her voice oozing sarcasm. "I came a long way to see you, the least you can do is pretend you're flattered." She swept the hat from her head and wiped her brow against the back of the same hand. "All I'm asking for is a little civility." She paused before adding, "You owe me that."
Mel didn't argue the point; her downcast eyes held a mixture of guilt and regret. "You're right," she said at last, regarding her guest. "I apologize."
Janice tilted her head slightly, gauging Mel's sincerity. It didn't surprise her that the apology, wrung from a gentle woman under duress, smacked of indifference. Janice didn't care. If it bought her time with Mel, she simply didn't care.
The screen door opened with a protesting screech as Mel preceded Janice into the house, flicking a wall switch as she entered. A fan mounted on one of the exposed beams in the ceiling began stirring the warm air around. "Won't take long for it to cool down in here," Mel assured her as she pulled the scarf from her head and shook out her long raven tresses.
Janice made a noise of acknowledgment deep in her throat and gave the spacious room a glance. It oozed masculinity - lined with bookcases bursting with dusty volumes, and trophy heads mounted on the dark paneled walls. Dead center of the room, facing a rather imposing stone fireplace, was a worn leather sofa, hand-made brocade pillows at each end the only perceptible evidence of a feminine presence in the house. "Nice room," she said at last, fanning herself with her fedora.
"It's a tomb," replied Mel with a shrug. "I feel right at home. Speakin' of tombs, how's the dig progressing? Finding anything of interest?"
"Oh, the usual...cave paintings, pottery, burial sites...Kakadu boasts some of the earliest tropical settlements, but there's nothing as noteworthy as the Scrolls there, trust me. The whole site has a vaguely picked over feeling...like someone's been there before me and removed all the really fascinating bits."
Mel quipped, "I swear I haven't left this station in a month." She playfully crossed her heart for emphasis.
"Don't you miss it? The work?"
"What?" Mel countered, plumping one of the brocade pillows. "Miss grubbin' about in the dirt? Hardly." She used her scarf to pat her glistening face. "I put that life behind me for good."
Janice thought that Mel's last claim lacked sincerity which both saddened and pleased her. "Well, if everything goes according to schedule, we should be wrapping things up by the end of the month, before the monsoon season."
"And then where will you go?" Mel asked, feigning nonchalance.
Janice shrugged. "Don't know really...have several interesting offers."
"Interesting meaning risky?"
"Some more than others," Janice replied succinctly. Any further discussion on the matter was lost in the demanding whistle of a tea kettle. Janice followed Mel into the kitchen, which was easily the largest residential kitchen Janice had ever seen. It was dominated by an enormous oven and fireplace. Spacious cupboards with screened doors displayed shelves of canned goods, and the room held the tantalizing odor of seasoned meat. "Something smells good."
Mel turned down the fire under the kettle and cracked the oven door to study its contents. "Braised veal paprika."
"She cooks, too," Janice said with a wink.
"My mama insisted." Mel turned to the tea service Alice had prepared. "How do you take your tea?" she asked, filling a china cup from the kettle.
"Black, two sugars. Speaking of which, she wants you to call her."
"You spoke to my mama?" asked Mel in disbelief.
"She's worried about you." Janice rested her hands on the table top and leaned forward. "We both were. I cut a swath through Europe looking for you...Athens, Singapore, Beijing, Sydney. That's the path of a woman trying hard not to be found."
"Exactly," Mel replied, propelling the cup and saucer across the table with her fingertips. "Why are you here, Janice?"
"Two reasons." Janice grabbed Mel's wrist as it neared her, spilling tea into the saucer. "You left me high and dry in Athens," she began with infinite patience. "I think I deserve an explanation."
Mel locked eyes with Janice, pulling from her grasp; momentarily, her hand was her own again. "I thought I made things perfectly clear in my note," she said, absently rubbing the tender skin of her wrist.
"Oh, yeah...the infamous note."
Mel watched in silence as Janice retrieved a slip of paper, folded and re-folded many times over, from the inside breast pocket of her jacket. You kept it.
"'Dear Janice...I'm sorry. Mel'." Janice clucked her tongue as she re-folded the note. "Five words scribbled on the back of an envelope... Even as 'Dear John' letters go, it's harsh." She folded her jacket deliberately and lay it over the back of a chair. When she looked up at Mel again, her eyes were level and serious. "Why, Mel?"
Mel's mouth twitched as she brought the cup to her lips. "Why?" she repeated pensively, looking out over the gently undulating brown liquid.
Janice folded her arms and settled her weight on one hip. "Why did you just walk out on me? Wasn't it good between us?"
"You know it was," Mel retorted, laying the cup down without sipping from it. "But... we don't...fit, Janice."
"We fit, Mel...We fit like spoons!"
Mel waved her hand dismissively. "I'm not talkin' about that. That was always fine."
Janice couldn't keep the smile from her face as her partner blushed the most endearing shade of crimson. "That has a name, Mel."
Janice leaned forward slightly and bounced on the balls of her feet. "It's called sex. It's a word. Look it up."
"Shhh," admonished Mel, looking around for Alice. At last, her mesmerizing blue eyes fell on Janice, who returned the gaze with unspoken urgency. "I never meant to hurt you, Janice."
Janice softened at the confession. "Okay."
"I don't know... Maybe it was fear," Mel admitted in a whisper.
Stunned, Janice murmured, "You were afraid of me?"
Mel was quick to soothe her. "Not in the classic sense, no. You have to understand, Janice. Everything I ever had that was good in my life eventually turned on me - my father... my career in archeology..."
"Hey, now, that's unfair. The book -"
Mel silenced her with a look. "It's not about the book. You were never anything but generous and ethical when it came to our professional partnership. To use your phrase, I submarined myself in that arena."
"It's not too late, Mel," Janice said. "I hear professionals over 25 make brilliant comebacks all the time."
Mel laughed in spite of herself. "Stop being so accommodatin', will you?"
Janice approached Mel and captured her trembling hands in her own; she didn't fail to notice that Mel's manicure had succumbed to the elements. "Right now...the truth... tell me."
Mel inhaled sharply. "We burned white hot...for 35 days." She smiled sadly at the memory. "We burned so hot, so fast... Anything that burns that brightly has a short life. I just knew it wouldn't last...that one morning I would wake up, and you'd be gone."
"So...leaving me was a pre-emptive strike," Janice concluded as she released Mel's hands. She was silent as she walked the length of the room. At the sink, she turned and said, "You must think I fall in love every day."
Mel's resolve faltered at the sight of Janice's wounded countenance. "I only know that I don't."
"Who do you think you are? Some damned oracle?" Janice charged across the room until she was standing toe to toe with the other woman. "You want to know what's on my mind, what my plans are - you ask me. It's that simple. All I can tell you is that I will be there. As long as my life is my own hands, I will be there. Trust me." Softening, she cupped Mel's face in her hands. "Can you...trust me, Mel?"
"Ahem..." Alice cleared her throat and wriggled her fingers, her polite smile withering under the gaze of two pairs of accusing eyes. "I'm sorry to interrupt." She shuffled. "Should I pretend I didn't hear any of that?"
Mel replied with an unequivocal, "Yes, please," and moved to the sink to busy herself with the dishes stacked there while Janice feigned interest in her tea. "Did you tend to the horse?"
Alice crossed in front of Janice and reached for the icebox door. "Cooled down, rubbed down, watered and fed. Can I have some lemon squeeze?" she asked, even as her fingers closed over the fluted handle on the pitcher.
"Have water," Mel replied as she filled a freshly-washed glass from the tap. "It's better for you."
Alice chose not to argue the point; there was enough tension in the room. She took the glass offered her and, between gulps, asked, "When's supper?"
"Not for another hour, at least." Mel turned to face them while drying her hands on a dish towel. "It'll be worth the wait, I promise."
"Are you staying to supper, Janice?" Alice asked hopefully.
Janice hesitated, took a pull of the tepid tea and frowned at Mel. "I haven't been asked."
Mel recognized the thinly-veiled dare. When Alice's gaze swung to her, she was quick to respond. "Apparently I've committed just the worst social faux pas by not inviting you to supper in the first ten minutes of conversation."
Janice gave a small nod. "Forgiven."
"Would you like to stay for supper? There's really too much for just two people..." Anticipating Janice's response, Mel folded the dishtowel in a square, disguising her emotions behind a veneer of polite indifference.
"I thought you'd never ask," replied Janice, grateful that the emotional tide seemed to be going out at last. "It'll be a nice change...not to have to catch my dinner."
"Guest does the supper dishes, right, Mel?" Alice interjected looking sideways at Mel.
Mel nodded. "Right. House rules," she explained to Janice. "The guest shows his or her appreciation by helping with the dishes."
"Oh. No problem," replied Janice, displaying her hands. "These hands could stand some soap and water. As a matter of fact," she took a delicate whiff and wrinkled her nose, "the whole body's in need of a bath."
Mel leaned into Janice. "I'm so glad you said it first."
Janice began backpedaling from the kitchen. "My bag's in the plane. Back in a jiff."
Disclaimer: Please be advised that there is at least one instance of foul language in the upcoming text.
"Idiot. I am a complete idiot," Janice muttered as she rummaged through the items in her satchel. "She doesn't want me here. A blind man could see that, but do I take the hint? Noooooo. Glutton for punishment..." She slung a clean pair of slacks over the back of the co-pilot's seat, and pushed the other garments in the bag from one side to the other, searching in growing frustration. "Damn...how could I pack one and not the other? Maybe I can get by with this one..." She lifted one arm and took a judicious whiff. "...aaaaannnd maybe not. Come on, God..." she said, turning her eyes skyward; heaven was a grid of plates and rivets. "Give a girl a break." She sighed, balled up the slacks and stuffed them back into the satchel. In doing so, her fingers closed around a familiar cylinder - hand rolled, Cuban. "Ahhh," she sighed, closing her eyes briefly. "Someone up there likes me." She passed the cheroot under her nose, savoring its aroma. "Mel hates it when I smoke," she murmured aloud. "What the hell. It's my body," she proclaimed, putting the cheroot between her teeth. She groped about in the satchel; coming up
empty, she patted her trouser pockets, turning up a single match, precious as gold. "You little bewdy," she crooned in the vernacular. She struck the match on the overhead. It flared to life on the first pass, seasoning the sweltering cockpit air with the tang of sulphur. As she touched the match to the tip of the cheroot, she heard the clatter of boots on the Electra's wing; cautiously, she peered out the cock-pit's windscreen. She could see Mel returning her scrutiny from her place on the verandah - hands backwards on her hips, fingers splayed down her backside.
"Huh? Oh, shit!" Janice yelped, dropping the match to the floor. Fire, bad! She tucked her fingers between her teeth, cooling the singed flesh and looked up; Alice was leaning into the open hatch. "Oh, hiya, kid." She pinched the singed end of the cheroot and dropped it into the breast pocket of her shirt. "Need something?"
Alice fit her reply in between roaming glances around the Electra's cockpit. "Uh...no...I was just wondering if you needed anything. Lotta room in there...our Cessna's a cracker box."
Janice scratched behind one ear, correctly interpreting Alice's expression of unadulterated curiosity; it was almost indecent. Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she rocked on her neatly shod heels. "Does Mel know you're here?"
Alice favored her with an innocent grin. "It was her idea. She told me to tell you she's running you a hot bath, and you're not to fritter about or...what was it? Oh, yeah, you're not to dawdle."
Fritter? Dawdle? A chink in the armor! Mel often fell back on the comforting rhythms and expressions of her homespun vernacular when excited or stressed. Janice was secretly delighted to know that her presence still had such an effect. Just for that, let the frittering begin! "Well, kid, what she doesn't know is that I'd prefer a cold bath!" Gesturing with a sweep of her arm, she said, "Welcome aboard."
"You mean it?" Alice crowed. She hauled herself up and spun about on her behind until her legs were dangling through the hatch; she felt Janice's strong hands at her hips, bearing her safely to the cockpit floor. "Strewth," the teen crooned, awestruck. Her fingers brushed the dials above the co-pilot's chair, swept the length of another instrument panel. "Just think: Miss Amelia Earhart piloted a plane like this one. Fred Noonan would've sat here..."
"More likely he'd be in the back, opposite a port window," corrected Janice. "Where he could spread out his charts..." Alice merely nodded, her mouth agape. "Go on...have a seat."
"You mean it?" Without further prodding, Alice slipped into the warm leather chair, her hands poised inches from the static wheel before her. At Janice's urging, she wrapped her fingers around it with something akin to reverence. "It's so heavy," she said, making a concerted effort to cut the wheel 45 degrees. "Like it's mired in treacle."
"This ain't no Cessna, sweetheart," replied Janice, sliding into the pilot's seat. "We're talking about 17,000 pounds of state-of-the-art aircraft. Amelia knew her planes, but she wasn't the best of pilots." Alice raised her head, stricken. Janice felt compelled to temper her slanderous disclosure with, "Bar room scuttlebutt, kid. I shouldn't have repeated it."
Alice was grateful that Janice cared enough to explain, refreshing in a household where the adult word was law and she was expected to smile and accept, and never to question authority. She turned back towards the instrument panel, comfortable in the knowledge that she was in the presence of someone who viewed her as an equal, and not just a child. Sweat beaded her upper lip as her gaze ranged over the array of gauges and dials within arm's reach. The brake pedals in the floor were a stretch, but she could reach both throttle and flaps with ease. "How fast does she go? A hundred?"
"She cruises comfortably at ninety, but I've had her as high as 170." The teen whistled appreciatively while Janice neglected to mention that the latter speed had been achieved during an uncontrolled power dive in the midst of heavy turbulence. She regretted the omission, but only as long as it took Alice to broach the topic of taking the Electra aloft. "I think the heat's gotten to you, sweetie," Janice said with a smile. She stood, reaching for Alice's arm. "Come on, up with you."
Unconsciously, Alice's hands closed firmly over the wheel. "Give me one good reason."
"I can give you a dozen, the most persuasive being that Mel would have my head and other pertinent body parts if your altitude exceeded eleven feet while in my presence."
Alice made noises of discontent, arguing with a child's logic that wasn't as much persuasive as it was pitiful. "You don't know that for certain. If you approach her the right way, take the right tack, she'll be a sport. Come on, Janice. This may be my one and only opportunity to fly an Electra."
Janice snorted in disbelief. "You've gone from riding to flying!"
"I've logged over a hundred hours in our Cessna, and I learn really fast. It's not like I'd be going up alone..." Alice's formerly pleasant voice was now one half octave from annoying, but to her credit, she recognized the potentially devastating effects of long-
term whining. The last thing she wanted to do was alienate her new friend. Reigning in her enthusiasm, she appeared genuinely contrite as she focused on the artificial horizon. In time, she heard Janice reclaim her seat; it was a wordless demand for an apology. Licking her lips, tasting salt, she said, "I just get carried away when it comes to flying. My mum says I'm too young to feel truly passionate about anything, but I feel passionate about flying."
Janice was struck by the sincerity in Alice's voice. As her eyes lighted on the vacant doorway of the house, she knew that she and Alice had passion in common.
Standing in the large master bath clad only in a camisole and panties, Mel swept a scented wash cloth over her arms and neck, inhaling deeply as the exotic fragrance of lilies and sweet sage rose from her chest. Toujours Moi. A gift from her lover, purchased in haste from a street peddler in Athens, expensive at forty American dollars an ounce. In a very short time, it had become her signature scent. She'd rarely dressed without first daubing a bit at the hollow of her throat or between her breasts, until the day four months later she had discovered it open and half evaporated on the window sill, a casualty of the merciless outback heat. After that, she used it sparingly, or not at all. Emptying the last few precious drops into the pool of cool water in the sink, she soaked the cloth, letting her hands linger a moment while her gaze traveled to the cracked mirror above the vanity.
"Look at you," she said. Her voice sounded strange to her and she couldn't help but look around the room before returning to the scrutiny of her reflection. She hadn't been in a salon in two months, the length of her stay at Coolinga Station. Jack had taken the only car for the long trip to Sydney for his induction. So, here she stood, in the middle of the outback, without the amenities large cities could provide. Looking at her short, blunt nails in the water reminded her just how much she missed the little luxuries: a manicure, a facial. Her formerly alabaster skin was lightly tanned; the blue eyes some said were her best feature were naked, devoid of mascara or liner. Her raven hair was long...too long to wear in her trademark chignon, and so it hung loosely down her back...the way Janice liked it. Mel smiled, wringing out the cloth. Oh, if her genteel Southern mother could only see her now...She'd have apoplexy, she thought wryly.
She made one final pass down and under each arm with the cloth before pitching it into the hamper. Before leaving the bath, she took a moment to place a new cake of soap atop the towel draped over the side of a claw foot bathtub. She could no longer see steam rising from the water's surface, and without thrusting so much as a finger into its depths, she knew it was tepid, on its way to cool. "Serves her right..." she murmured as she moved through the alcove into the bedroom. A gray A-line skirt and simple print blouse had been laid out atop the faded bedspread. Both needed pressing, but they were clean. She dressed without thinking, slipping on a pair of black pumps, one of only two pairs of street shoes she'd brought with her. Facing the full-length mirror on the back of the door, she smoothed the lines of the skirt with her hands. She looked at her face in frank appraisal and thought that she just might join her mother in that fit of apoplexy.
* * * * * * * * * *
"So, Alice, what're your hobbies? Apart from flying, that is?...More throttle... more... we're running out of track...now, pull back on the wheel...gently, don't yank on it. That's it. God, I love that feeling -- the wings growing fat with lift...the way you feel that little drop in the pit of your stomach when the wheels leave the track...Pull back just a hair, or you're gonna take the tops off those trees." Alice responded accordingly, pulling the wheel back towards her chest. Janice watched her face intently and conceded that the kid had a flyer's instincts. "When you're not flying Electras, what do you like to do?"
"I like school...English especially. Sister Bonaventure says it's one of the reasons my vocabulary is so impressive. I like sketching, too," she said, as if the idea surprised her. "No shortage of subjects out here," she added, trapping the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth in a display of extreme concentration. Reaching above her head, she brought the flaps up another notch without being told; looking at Janice was an afterthought.
Janice conveyed approval with a subtle nod. “You ever sketch Mel?"
Alice never took her eyes off the horizon. "I don't do people." Her left hand drifted down to an instrument box anchored to the floor between the seats. "Throttle?"
"Listen for it. She'll let you know if you need more throttle... there'll be this little keening whine...Let her climb at her own rate...you don't rush a lady." She reached across the aisle and patted Alice's arm. "You're a natural, kid. Okay, when we reach two thousand feet..." she tapped one of the round gauges with her finger. "...watch this gauge...when that needle hits two-oh, level off and make your cruising speed eighty knots."
"Eighty knots. Check." Alice blew a soothing breath out between her lips and looked sideways at the altimeter.
"You like Mel, don't you?" Janice persisted.
Alice shrugged, grateful for the relief it brought her aching shoulders. "She's all right, I guess. Two thousand on the nose..." She brought the wheel forward slightly, until the artificial horizon reflected level flight. "I've learnt not to become too attached to them...Dad's girlfriends, I mean. They don't seem to stick around very long."
Janice thought the girl's voice sounded distinctly, and prematurely, cynical. "Mel hasn't said anything about leaving, has she?" She took note of the girl's white knuckles. "Loosen up on the wheel. Grip it like an egg."
Alice flexed her fingers briefly, her palms seated lightly against the surface of the wheel. "No, she hasn't said anything, but I don't think it'll be long."
Janice's brow furrowed. "What makes you say that?"
"Just a feeling. She seems...I dunno... unhappy. I think she misses her old life."
"Her old life..." Janice echoed. Her heart thumped in her chest; she was sure its deafening beat was reverberating off the walls of the cockpit, but Alice ears were primed only for the voice of the Electra. "Okay, apply the left rudder...gently...and make a wide turn to the right...That's it. Take your time. You've got plenty of sky. What makes you think she misses her old life? Has she said anything?"
Alice eased off the rudder pedal, her face slick with perspiration. When she had once again achieved level flight, she chanced a sidelong look at her companion and wondered just how much she should divulge. What were her perceptions and opinions to Janice, if the only thing she had to back them was a feeling, an instinct. Although, Janice was a pilot, and 'A good pilot,' her father had once said, 'keeps close company with instinct.' Alice decided to take the risk; the odds seemed in her favor. "She hasn't said so...not in so many words..." Following Janice's orders to throttle down a notch and look for Coolinga's track, she once again turned her studious brown eyes to the world outside the windscreen, a wide brown scene painted in a neat oblong frame. Comfortable with her newly-acquired flight skills, and thrilled at her instructor's seemingly nonchalant manner, Alice felt compelled to clarify her earlier statement. "She never said anything to me, but I could tell when university contacted her in September that she was interested. I just got the feeling that if Dad hadn't pressed her to give it up, she'd have been at Kakadu." Alice frowned, slightly uncomfortable with having voiced her father's shortcomings to a stranger. "Dad thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen, not on the dig."
"Philistine," grumbled Janice under her breath. She looked at Alice, who appeared not to have heard. "Okay...got the windsock in sight?"
Alice squinted at the horizon. "Yes, it's just over there..." She pointed an index finger as a gesture of clarity and adjusted the craft's flight path accordingly, turning the wheel forty degrees while sparing the altimeter and speed indicator a glance. "Eighty knots...isn't that too fast?"
"You might cut the throttle back...just a hair...you don't wanna stall." Janice leaned back in her chair, lacing her fingers across her middle, affecting an air of nonchalance. "So, other than that one disagreement about the Kakadu dig, you think Mel and your dad get along okay."
Alice's fingers grazed the flaps control above her head, her lips moving soundlessly for a moment before giving voice to her thoughts. "Promise this is just between you and me?"
Janice drew a cross over her heart and held up her hand. "Word of honor...Whatever you tell me doesn't leave this cockpit."
Alice nodded; it seemed like an oath she could live with. "I don't think she and Dad have...you know...done it."
"Done it," Janice repeated before realization dawned. "Oh. It." She shifted in her seat and peeled the shirt away from her skin; the air inside the small cockpit was rank and close.
Alice could sense Janice's discomfort. Sex, in general, was a source of curiosity for any healthy teen. Sex, or the lack of it, beneath her own roof was sufficient cause for speculation. Thumbing the flaps to half, she ventured, "You like her, don't you?"
Janice was unprepared for a frontal assault. "Mel? Of course I do."
"No, I mean...you like her. You love her."
Janice blew warm breath slowly past her lips. "You know what, kiddo... it's none of your business."
At the same moment that Alice realized she had overstepped her bounds, the dusty red-track runway gained definition, rushing towards the nose of the Electra at breakneck speed. She twisted the wheel in her slick hands, her voice vaguely urgent. "Janice...should I cut the throttle or pull back on the wheel at this point?"
"At this point?" Janice gazed mildly out the windscreen and reached for the cigar in her breast pocket. "This is where you crash and burn, sweetheart."
"Just like that?!" Alice was incredulous, unwilling to believe that a mere few seconds distraction could have such dire repercussions. "But I only took my eyes away for a second!" Those same eyes swept over the busy instrument panel where the gauges registered zero across the board: zero altitude, zero speed. She exhaled with force, collapsing like a rag doll against the steering column, her brow shiny with sweat. Momentarily she felt a hand on her shoulder and, without looking up, she knew Janice was crouched beside her. "Five seconds... five, tops..." she muttered, and her shoulder received a sympathetic squeeze. At last, she looked up and regarded Janice with genuine regret. "I killed us."
"Yup," was the minimal reply. Janice stood, tucking the cigar between her teeth before adding wistfully, "Such a waste. I was so young."
Alice threw up her hands in frustration and sat back so forcefully that the co-pilot's seat groaned in protest. Wetting her lips, she stared hard at the unslaked earth beyond the co-pilot's window, earth that a few seconds earlier she had regarded as the Electra's undoing. As her heartbeat slowed to normal, she marveled at the combined effect of Janice's powers of suggestion and her own vivid imagination. She looked at the perspiration pooled in the creases of her palms. It had seemed so real. Re-running the scenario in her mind, options that might've spared the Electra and her passengers sprang to mind, and she was visibly eager to put them to the test. "Okay, Janice, I think I know what I did wrong before."
"Oh, you do."
"Can we take her up again?" Alice ventured. "This time for real. Just once around the field?"
Janice loosed a hoot. "I told you: Mel would have my head." She hefted the satchel and slung it over her shoulder. "Come on, I need a bath. I'm starting to offend myself." To her surprise, her pronouncement was accepted without argument or complaint, and by the time she had boosted Alice through the hatch, the conversation had shifted from Electras to the blurry orange sun beating down on them with ferocious commitment. "Is this what the locals call a fair cow of a day?"
"Crikey! You’re joking,right?" replied Alice, as her rear made contact with the super-heated metal skin of the Electra. "The real heat hasn't even begun yet."
"Swell." Stepping on the arm of the pilot's seat, Janice passed the satchel into Alice's waiting hands. "Careful with that," she cautioned. "Precious cargo in there."
"I've got it," replied Alice. She slid down the fuselage to stand on the wing. She heard someone call her name from ground level and had to shield her eyes to make out two silhouettes framed in the sun. "Dinah?"
The smaller of the two figures stepped forward, into the shadow cast by one of the Electra's massive wings. "G'day, Alice." She smiled, her teeth a white slash in her ebony face. Her features were pinched and tight as she regarded her contemporary and the unfamiliar craft beneath her feet. "This is new. Is it yours?"
Alice squatted on the wing, bringing the satchel to rest at her side. "Wish it were. That your dad with you?" The second Aborigine, clad in wrinkled khakis and a denim shirt opened to the waist, joined Dinah in the welcomed shade of the wing; the ground was cool beneath his bare feet. Alice greeted him with casual respect. "G'day, Mr. Bonner."
Neville Bonner was heavy-browed and broad-nosed; as his large frame intimated, he both spoke and moved with economy. "Alice." He nodded at her, and then his large yellow eyes shifted to Janice as she emerged from the plane.
"Alice, who are you..." Janice froze momentarily, 120 pounds of startled archeologist suspended in the open hatch by her considerable upper body strength. Green eyes, as no-nonsense as a jeweler's scale, moved from daughter to father as his long, ropy arms helped Alice to the ground.
"Janice, this is my friend, Dinah..." Alice put her arm around Dinah, as if to demonstrate the level of their friendship, "and her dad, Neville Bonner. This is Dr. Janice Covington... the Electra's hers."
Janice jumped from the wing unassisted. "G'day, Mr. Bonner." Tribal body paint, visible on his arms and chest, was similar to that adorning the bodies of her Aborigine diggers at Kakadu - hard-working, family-oriented men who kept to themselves. She watched a black fly make lazy progress across Bonner's brow as she struggled to recall the name of the tribe. She hazarded a guess. "Alawirrynu?"
Neville grinned, displaying teeth that had seen better days. "Gupapygnu."
"I was close," Janice conceded with a self-deprecating grin. "You're a long way from home."
"Not really," Dinah interjected, her eyes narrowing to slits as she scrutinized the young woman in masculine clothing. She had only ever met a dozen whites in her young lifetime, and she could, without a twinge of conscience, relegate half of that number to gumafj, the Gupapyg word for abyss, the place you never look back. But she liked Janice at once. "Our home is beyond the billabong...There..." She thrust a dark finger west, in the direction of the merciless sun, but not one of the four spared the locale a glance before she inquired delicately of Alice, "Your mum about?"
"She's back in Adelaide. She'll be flying up next month to collect me, so you're safe for now," replied Alice with a knowing wink.
"Well, if you'll excuse me..." Janice relieved Alice of her satchel. "I have a date with a bar of soap." Neville, who had been standing nearest her, smiled politely and nodded. "Nice to meet you both." Dinah, whom Janice perceived as garrulous by Aborigine standards, merely grunted and took Alice by the arm; the girls were head to head, immersed in whispered conversation before Janice set foot on the verandah.
The screen door opened with a tortured screech, and closed with the report of a gunshot. Janice's reaction was as ingrained as breathing: she ducked before she could stop herself. "Jesus!" she exclaimed.
"The spring's broken," said Mel, fighting the urge to laugh. She stood at the kitchen threshold, holding the door open with the toe of her shoe. There was an apron tied loosely around her waist and her hands were dusted with flour. "You have to let it back gently."
"Thanks for the warning." Janice gave a nervous laugh and approached Mel, stopping halfway across the room, the large leather sofa between them. "You baked bread. I can smell it." Even from this distance, it was more than flour and paprika; on the warm air was the familiar scent of sage...it was an invitation to sweet memories.
"Sourdough," Mel replied simply, displaying her powdered palms. She let the door swing shut behind her, committed to the conversation.
My favorite. Janice's throat tightened, unwitting accomplice to the foolish grin that was no doubt pasted on her face. The situation begged for a snappy retort. A quick comeback was a damned religious imperative, but her brain wasn't on speaking terms with her tongue. No other person on earth could steal coherent thought from Janice Covington faster than Melinda Pappas...in an apron...with dough on her hands. She made a beautiful thief. "Sourdough." She blinked, as if waking from a coma. "Good." Sourdough good? Covington, you ole smoothy you! She's reduced you to a monosyllabic Neanderthal. Sourdough good. Very slick. She inhaled deeply, glad for the segue occasioned by an unfortunate whiff of herself. "Bathroom?"
"Through there." Mel gestured with her hand, raining flour upon the hardwood floor. "There's towels and soap...water's lukewarm, I'm afraid." She couldn't resist the dig, "You ought not'a dawdled."
Janice smiled unconsciously. "Yes, ma'am." She popped a mock salute, turned on her heel and left Mel to decipher the mood in the room.
Mel's puzzlement and the faint line between her brows faded with the feather-light touch at her elbow. "What...oh, Alice...I didn't hear you come in." She touched the girl's hair and face and smiled with genuine affection just before nag mode kicked in. "You smell like a stable. Go and wash up for supper."
Alice tossed a glance over her shoulder at the fragmented silhouettes beyond the screen door, and followed Mel into the kitchen. "Can I help with something?"
"Hands," replied Mel. She gave her own a cursory swipe with the corner of her apron and then used the same corner to grip the oven door. Using a fork, she noted the consistency of the veal and the color of the juices bleeding from the puncture site. "Almost there."
Alice watched her from her place at the sink, hands thrust under the running water as she perfected her approach. "Mel, you remember my friend, Dinah, don't you?"
Mel's head disappeared into the icebox as she rooted around for the butter. "Who?"
"Dinah...you know...you met her last month when her father, Neville came to fix the loo; she's Neville's daughter."
"I think you have made that abundantly clear," replied Mel patiently as she straightened. She set the butter dish on the butcher's block and closed the icebox door, giving Alice her undivided attention. "Now, is this conversation leading up to somethin’, or are you just killin' time?"
Alice wiped her hands briefly on a dish towel, but they were still wringing wet as she tossed it aside. "Dinah and Neville are out front. There's a corroboree tonight. I've been invited."
"I see." Mel studied the girl's hopeful face and weighed the options: she had a responsibility to Jack and to Peggy. She had made promises to them both. Alice had been present at that same meeting in September, the day before her father's induction. She had, in essence, been dropped on the doorstep by her mother, bag in hand. Mel remembered that although Peggy Greenway had been cordial and polite, she had never set foot inside the house Jack and Mel shared. Instead she had leaned on her car, one arm draped protectively about her daughter, and laid the ground rules out for all parties. She had been especially careful to wring a promise from Mel that Alice would have no intimate contact with the local aborigines, whom Peggy deemed to be a bad influence on her only child. She, Mel, had grudgingly agreed to keep the two apart, but she vividly remembered a clandestine wink in Alice's direction as she shook her mother's hand on the deal. She had so wanted to be the good guy in her new role as stepmother. Now, 2000 miles away, Peggy Greenway was calling her bluff. "I made a promise to your mother."
"I remember," replied Alice. "But Mel, this is different."
"How is it different?"
"Dinah's father is sending her to school in Perth. I won't see her again until next break." Alice advanced until she was within touching distance of Mel; she knew the value of passive intimidation. "The corroboree's a going away celebration. It's an honor to be invited." Mel nodded solemnly, feeling slightly claustrophobic. Alice applied a verbal wedge. "It would be an insult to refuse."
"And you were raised better than that, is that it?" Mel asked as she pushed open the kitchen door, Alice hot on her heels. She stopped short of the front door. She could see Dinah and Neville through the screen. As their boundaries had been set years before, both stood near the Electra, talking animatedly between themselves, as if the drama inside the house did not concern them. "The answer is no, Alice." Before Alice could open her mouth in protest, Mel elaborated. "We have company this evening. Imagine how Janice would feel if you abandoned her at the first opportunity."
Alice shifted where she stood, staring holes into Mel's back. "Janice would understand," she replied confidently. "Ask her."
Mel turned at the waist. "This is not a democracy. I am the adult." Sometimes adults make unpopular choices. "You are the child. Now, my mind is made up," she said, wishing her voice sounded more resolute.
Quietly, her voice void of bitterness, Alice said, "Can I ask why?"
Mel was impressed by the quiet strength in the girl's voice. "Because it's late...because I don't know their character..."
"You know mine," Alice countered levelly.
Mel nodded, tight-lipped. It was a good argument. She felt well and truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis, and it was a trap of her own making. A final guilty glance at the two figures beneath the Electra's wing, and she turned again for the kitchen. She stopped briefly, the flat of her hand against the swinging door and without turning, she said, "Go on and give them your regrets, and then come back in and set the table." She stood there, frozen, listening for an angry retort and heard only the indifferent groan of the door as it opened and closed on the meager rapport she had once shared with Alice.
Mel felt a hand between her shoulder blades; it would have been so easy to turn around and melt into what would surely have been a welcomed embrace. "You heard?" The warm hand migrated to her arm, imparting an affirming squeeze. "Oh, Janice...I have just made a horrible mistake."
Janice turned her forcibly until they were face to face; the blue eyes that met hers were clearly troubled. "Nothing that can't be put right again. I mean, who but us is ever gonna know that -"
"I promised her mother I would look after her."
"And you're doing a great job; she's a terrific kid with a good head on her shoulders." Mel was quick to nod agreement, and Janice took advantage of that. "Then trust her."
"I want to, but if something were to happen to her -"
"She'll be fine. She's more mature and more responsible than half the adults I know. I won't name names," she said smiling before her lips dissolved into a serious line. "Be her friend, Mel...She's got a mother." Mel's eyes shifted from anxious to wounded, and instantly Janice regretted her tendency to speak every thought on her mind. She had stepped into the middle of a situation where her opinion was not wanted, needed or welcomed. Worse still, she had offended her hostess and impugned her parenting skills. Open mouth, insert foot. "Well, I've insulted you. My work here is done," she announced, her cherubic face displaying a devilish grin that was just as likely to hinder as it was to help. She searched Mel's cherished face for signs of forgiveness; the smallest smile would have sent her off to soak with a lighter heart. She turned and walked towards the bedroom door, pulling the shirt tail from her jodhpurs, giving the offended party every opportunity to put her ill-mannered guest at ease. But once she was on the other side of the rough-hewn door, peeling the sticky blouse from her body, she gave up hopes that Mel could forgive her for this breach of etiquette. If she had harbored any doubts that she was welcomed at Coolinga, welcomed back into Mel's life, they had just been confirmed with deafening silence.
Mel had taken up a position at the front door, her nose inches from the screen. On the other side, black flies buzzed and knitted their legs against the tightly‑woven metal, and beyond the flies, under the searing outback sun, Alice said her farewells to Dinah. She couldn't make out the words, but the gestures ‑ hands swiping at tears, a last lingering embrace ‑ spoke volumes. Neville Bonner, his dark face a impassive mask, endured in silence the girlish expressions of sadness and regret, but as his daughter dropped her arms to her sides at last, he stepped forward and took Alice by the shoulders. Mel watched as he spoke earnestly to her, gesturing once towards the house before placing his rough, dry lips against her forehead. Mel regretted that her position did not afford her a better view of Alice's face as Dinah moved away, walking backwards in her father's shadow, returning Alice's wave before turning into the sun.
The solitary figure left standing by the plane placed her hands on her hips, her chest rising and falling in a long sigh of resignation. She turned and walked towards the house. Mel watched them, the retreating figures of Dinah and her father, and Alice as she approached the door; she was impressed that neither girl turned to look back at the other. She pushed the door open as Alice stepped onto the verandah, aware that she was probably the last person in the world the girl wanted to see at this moment.
"Thanks," Alice murmured as she brushed past Mel on her way to the kitchen.
Thanks? Okay, scan for sarcasm. Nothing. Mel closed the heavy door with care, and even before she pushed through the swinging kitchen door, she could hear the clatter of silverware being drawn from drawers.
Alice had spread a good quality lace cloth on the table beneath windows that opened onto a view of the paddock and windmill. As she carefully laid out the silver, the great knife on the outside, fork on the inside debate raged in her head. She heard Mel enter the room, and without looking up, she said, "You might want to check your bread."
Mel reacted as if startled. "My bread...?" A quick glance inside the oven. "Oh, my..." Using a couple of paper thin pot holders, she carefully moved the baking pan from oven to butcher's block. "I think it's alright," she said, poking the golden crust with a finger. "You just narrowly averted a disaster." Alice conjured up a smile and collected three mismatched plates from the cupboard to Mel's right. As she passed Mel to set the table, she was humming. "Just two place settings, Alice."
Alice turned, the plates flat against her middle. "Am I sent to bed without supper?"
"I don't know what they're servin' at the corroboree," replied Mel quietly, moving the length of the kitchen. "Probably somethin' still wigglin'." She took the plates from Alice's hands and addressed her seriously, so there was no misunderstanding. "We'll miss your company at supper."
"You mean it? I can go?" Her face lit up with a jaw‑breaking grin. "Rippa!"
Mel held up her hands in an attempt to stem the tide of enthusiasm. "Hold your horses now...Go splash some water on your face and run a brush through your hair..." She followed Alice into her bedroom, all the while issuing advice and directives. "I declare...you look like a ragamuffin. And you have Mr. Bonner walk you back afterwards. I don't care how late it is. I won't sleep a wink until you're back safe and sound."
"Can't I stay the night?" Alice dragged a brush through her hair, from roots to end. "Since it's Dinah's last night here...I could be home first thing in the morning."
Mel exhaled wearily. "I must have ‘sucker’ written all over my face. Alright," she conceded, jabbing an index finger at Alice's chest, “but you be home bright and early."
Alice tossed the brush onto her cluttered bureau and presented herself for inspection: dusty chambray work shirt, khaki slacks rife with horse hair and sweat. "Look alright?"
Mel knew her opinions didn't matter one way or the other, but she thought it sweet of the girl to ask. "You'll do...Better run if you wanna catch up to them."
"Strewth, yes!" Alice barreled out her bedroom door with the enthusiasm of a freshman fullback, leaving Mel alone in the room, rooted to the spot by sheer disbelief.
"Not so much as a thank you. Well..." She turned to leave and saw Alice's dirty battered hat, with its sweat‑stained kangaroo‑hide band, lying brim down on the bed. "Honestly," she said, picking it up. "Forget her head if it wasn't attached." She shrugged and caught her reflection in the mirror, breathing genuine surprise into the word, "Sucker."
"Hey, Mel?" Alice's reflection joined hers in the mirror. "I ‑"
"Forgot your hat," Mel finished for her as she settled the hat atop Alice's head, tilting it first to one side, then to the other, then back until it sat jauntily on the crown of her head. "Oh, well, you wear it however you like."
"I wanted to say thank you, Mel." Alice straightened the hat, and in the ensuing silence, she could tell that her expression of gratitude had caught Mel off guard. "Those should have been the first words out of my mouth. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate this, and I promise," she elaborated, her words taking on the weight of a blood oath, “not one word of this will ever reach my mother's ears."
"Better not," Mel cautioned, smiling crookedly, “or you'll have company in the dog house." She tucked an errant strand of hair behind Alice's ear and ran her finger the length of a strong jaw; although Pappas family etiquette warranted a greater display of affection, she knew that not everyone was comfortable with such things. "Okay, scoot."
Alice stepped back, eager to be on her way and yet careful not to offend Mel with a too rapid exit. "You're okay, Mel."
Mel laughed. "The most tolerable in a long line of fiancees?"
"The most," Alice agreed, backpedaling from the room before turning and gaining momentum as she plunged through the screen door, heedless of the explosive return as it fell, unchecked, back to its jamb.
* * * * * * * * * *
CHHH‑POK! Janice sat bolt upright, sending a small tidal wave over the side of the tub. She had drifted off in her tepid, wet cocoon only to awaken abruptly to the sound of a gunshot. Oh, Jesus. She's killed her. She put the soap, which had refused to lather in the hard water, back into the soap dish and stood up in the tub, murky water running off her well‑toned body in sheets. She wrapped the large bath towel around her as she heard the bedroom door open. "Mel?" As there wasn't a shy bone in her body, Janice stepped around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. "Mel...are you okay? I thought I heard a ‑"
"The door. Remember?" Mel cast a lingering glance over Janice's exposed body. There was little she hadn't seen ‑ in half light, in Braille in the dark ‑ but this was different. Full afternoon sunlight was cascading through the bedroom windows, bouncing off the damp blonde hair, soaking into the golden skin of her exposed legs and shoulders. Mel tilted her head; she didn't remember that little starburst‑shaped scar on Janice's collarbone; it looked new. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss it.
Janice was encouraged to be the subject of such thorough scrutiny, and so it took a supreme effort to pull the towel tightly around her and tuck a corner into her cleavage. She even managed to conjure up a suitably flustered expression. "Hey, how would you feel if I looked at you that way?"
Flattered. Mel blushed, and her eyes instantly found other targets on the floor of the room. "I'm sorry. I just came in..." She bent and gathered a discarded pair of jodhpurs and the grimy white blouse. "...to collect these. I'm startin' a load of wash."
"Mel, you don't have to do that...Matter of fact, I'd prefer it if you left the blouse especially. I don't have a clean one to wear."
"Well, if you think I am going to let you sit down at my supper table in this ‑" she held the blouse away from her body, out of respect for her nose. " ‑ you have another think comin'." She added the white brassiere to the pile in her arms.
"Aw, no, not that, too! C'mon, Mel...what am I supposed to do?" She threw up her hands. "Turn up in a towel?"
Mel backed towards the door, a quirky smile on her face. "Well, dinner will be informal."
Janice put her hands on her hips. "Don't tempt me, sweetheart."
Mel moved towards the open bedroom door, turning at the threshold. "I'll find you something to wear. Alice probably has somethin' that'll fit you. Be right back."
Janice plopped down onto the bed and crossed her legs, the towel riding up to mid thigh. "So help me, she brings me anything with cute little animals on it, I'll be sick," she muttered, her fingers tented open on either side of her, testing the spring of the mattress. She hadn't slept in a bed in five weeks, and the clean linens and firm mattress were like a siren's call. She fell lazily backwards, eyes closed, with her hands cradling her head.
That's how Mel found her minutes later. She stood in the doorway, a starched white blouse dangling from the fingers of one hand, while those of the other established a deathgrip on the doorknob. There was nothing furtive in her observation; Janice need only look up to see her. In the end, it was precisely the idea of those jade green eyes opening and fixing on her own that prompted Mel to slip the clean blouse over the inside doorknob and leave the room.
Padding down the hall, mindful of the sound of her heels on the hardwood floor, she wondered at her attraction to Janice Covington, a woman with a bit of dash and a predilection for hazard. She was a cynical, brilliant archeologist with the gift of keen insight. The image of Janice, stretched out on her bed clad only in a towel, crept into her mind, and she chased it away as counter-productive to her current retrospection.
That was her gift - to be able to switch mindsets in milliseconds and to concentrate her intellect on one thing exclusively. She made an audible sound of amusement as she entered the kitchen. Wonder who I got that from?
Her own background consisted of mostly‑absentee parents; she had been raised by an affectionate grandmother, with only occasional input from her mother. There had been select boarding schools in the Carolinas, and she was an alumnus of the college where her father had been dean. Although she was not without intelligence, she had to concede that she had traded on the family name and her father's reputation more often than she cared to admit. The name Melvin Pappas, mentioned in the right circles,
opened doors and minds alike. And after his accidental death on a dig in April of 1940, she had flown to Istanbul, at her mother's request, to close his affairs. Chief among those duties had been replying to unanswered correspondence. There had been stacks of letters, unopened bills, and a dozen yellowed telegrams, one of which led her to Macedonia where a hail of bullets awaited her. In the end, it had been her father's good name, dropped in the receptive ear of Dr. Janice Covington that led her back to the half-nude vision recumbent on her bed. She didn't know whether to curse her father or to thank him.
She gave the bread a half an hour to rest and used her time well, slicing the veal thin and layering it upon a garishly‑painted platter. She ladled new potatoes and au jus over the meat and placed a few sprigs of parsley along the perimeter, hiding the chain of purple daisies that bordered the platter. Along with the bread and the fresh green beans she'd prepared, there were green olives and sweetbreads like her grandmother used to make. It was a great deal of food. She and Alice would be dining on leftovers for a week. She took the platter to the table then lay a small dish of fresh butter beside the bread. After folding the linen napkins in a fan pattern, she swapped the placement of knives and forks and stood back to admire the table. "Well, it's not Delmonico's, but it'll have to do."
"It all looks and smells marvelous, Mel."
Mel jumped, her hand to her heart. "Janice...I didn't hear you come in. Did you have a nice nap?"
Janice shrugged and dug her hands into the front pockets of her slacks, feeling decidedly ill at ease in the borrowed blouse, which fit well about the waist and shoulders, but cut her just slightly across the bustline. It gave her a modicum of comfort to know that she couldn't slip effortlessly into the clothes of a thirteen year old girl. "You couldn't resist, could you?"
Mel's eyes jumped from the firm breasts beneath the straining buttons to Janice's face too quickly to disguise what could only be described as honest-to-goodness lust. "Beg pardon?"
Janice fingered the colorful embroidery just above her left breast. Whomever the seamstress was, she had been a true artisan - the words St. Ignatius' School for Young Ladies were plainly visible in Shelley‑Volante font‑style. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
Mel couldn't suppress a laugh. "Janice, honestly, I never even bothered to look. I chose that one because it's cut large." Janice merely grunted her displeasure and screwed her face into a scowl. "Would you rather it were emblazoned Our Lady of Perpetual Debauchery?"
Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Honestly? Yes." She smiled wryly and, in doing so, changed the whole complexion of the conversation. "I suppose it, like your supper table, will have to do."
"You are truly magnanimous, Dr. Covington. Would you care to be seated?"
Mel held out a chair, indicating that Janice should take what was traditionally the head of the household's seat. The implication was not lost on Janice. "Only two place settings?" she inquired as she pulled the chair up to the table. "Alice not joining us?"
"I sent her on to the party." Mel opened the icebox. "It seemed the thing to do if I wanted to live with myself."
Janice swiveled in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. "Was she being difficult?"
"Just the opposite," came the muffled reply as Mel groped about in the dark icebox. "She was civil and mature." She poked her head above the door and narrowed her eyes at Janice. "You know how that grates on me."
"She's got you here, Mel," chided Janice, displaying an upturned pinky finger. "Admit it."
"I knew I could count on you to be sympathetic and understandin'. Remind me again why I asked you to supper?"
Janice's gaze was level and serious. "Maybe you missed me..." She pinched her thumb and forefinger together. "...maybe just this much?"
Rather than confirm or deny Janice's intimation, Mel opted to change the subject. "What would you like to drink?"
"What've you got?"
Mel moved items from front to side, clearing a path for her reach. "Simply everythin'.
There's milk and lemon squeeze...water, tea...oh, and some perfectly awful local beer." Mel displayed a labelless amber bottle. "I think it's bottled in a woolshed someplace. I don't recommend it."
"That'll do." Janice crossed the floor and took the bottle from Mel. Having been at the very back of the icebox for some time, it was half frozen, just the way she liked it. "You know me: I like living dangerously." She held the bottle up to the light as she walked back to the table and judged the meager amount of sediment floating within to be acceptable.
"Why don't you put on some music?" Mel, her hands occupied with condiments, gestured with her chin to a standing oak phonograph beneath a curio shelf.
"Any preferences?" Janice asked, as she raised the battered lid of the phonograph. "I think I spoke too soon." She picked up a sleeveless 78 with more care than it had previously been shown in its lifetime. "We have a very scratchy copy of...ooh, Noel Coward." She made a face as she looked at Mel. "I think I was ten when this was recorded."
"The phonograph was a wedding gift...for Jack and Peggy." Mel popped the cap from Janice's beer and began serving the veal. "I think those albums are probably original to it."
"Billie Holiday," Janice crooned. She removed the slick black record from its sleeve with care and held it by her fingertips. "With Teddy Wilson. Naw, Mel, this is relatively new." It wasn't just new, it was pristine, and had, in fact, probably never been played at all, very likely due to the color of the artist. Considering what little she knew of Peggy Greenway and her narrow opinion of the Aborigines, she marveled that the album had been allowed in the house at all. "You Go To My Head, More Than You Know..." Song titles that might have easily been describing Mel, a possibility that was given further credence by the next song title: Them There Eyes. She looked to the table, where Mel had taken the chair kitty corner from her own, and seated the record beneath the needle, setting the volume to 3 on the dial. She opened the double doors on the phonograph's face to reveal the speaker as You Go To My Head opened with a combustible alto sax. She was sitting beside Mel shaking the napkin into her lap as a clarinet riff paved the way for Holiday's one‑of‑a‑kind vocal stylings. The timbre was just a touch cynical, and Janice knew, without actually knowing Holiday personally, that she had been burned at love before. "This is nice, Mel," she murmured, feeling decidedly warm beneath the thin blouse. She looked down at her plate, trisected neatly with meat, starch and vegetable, all carefully prepared by a talented cook, and yet nothing looked as enticing as the woman seated across the table from her.
"Janice..." Mel turned an anticipatory gaze on her guest. "You aren't eating."
"Savoring the moment, Mel," Janice replied. She sliced into her veal with enthusiasm, but it was all for show. Food no longer held any interest for her. Mel's proximity had whetted a different kind of appetite. She lay the knife across the edge of the plate, dropped her free hand into her lap and speared the vaguely rare meat with a fork. When she looked up, she found Mel's eyes waiting, alight. Before she had taken one bite of veal, she was already anticipating dessert.
"...sandstone ramparts hundreds of feet high, miles wide, pockmarked with caves.” Janice absently swirled the warm beer at the bottom of the bottle. "But you know something, Mel, and this might be the beer talking, but I think it's the sort of dig I could just walk away from. The whole place just has a...a feel about it...more churchyard than graveyard."
"Kakadu's a spiritual place," Mel replied. "Small wonder you're uncomfortable. Your workers...are they local to Kakadu?" Janice nodded. "There's your problem." The serving fork hovered over the meat platter, targeting a slice of veal. "More veal?"
Janice waved her hand, fending off a third helping, but was careful not to lose her train of thought. "It's standard practice to employ the natives, Mel."
"You haven't found anything they didn't permit you to find. The real finds, the genuine rarities will elude you as long as you use locals to point the way.” Mel tucked an olive between her perfect white teeth before sucking the pimento from its salty green blanket.
Janice was entranced, holding the last sip of beer in her mouth briefly before swallowing. "And what would you have done differently? Hire outsiders?"
Mel lifted an eyebrow. "If I had taken the job, then, yes, I would have imported a crew, but that's a moot point, Janice. The dig is yours." She laid her fork and knife across the plate, signaling an end to the meal, and to the discussion.
But Janice was persistent. "Why didn't you take the job, Mel? You were local; you were Moffat's first choice ‑‑"
"Because I was local and for no other reason." Mel folded her napkin in quarters before tucking it beneath the edge of her plate. "Jack said it was probably because I work cheap, and it's true. I would've paid Moffat for the pleasure of headin' the dig."
"Instead, here you sit...one of a handful of warm bodies in a three hundred mile radius." Janice's voice held the unmistakable edge of sarcasm as she quipped, "Flies, heat, isolation: I can see what you like about it." Further conversation on the dubious virtues of the outback faded away on the dying strings of a violin passage. For a moment there
was only the ghost of a heartbeat, the rhythmic thump thump thump of the needle as it rode the groove of dead air between tracks before sliding into the last song on the record. Carelessly, Janice's personal favorite on an album full of memorable tunes, began with the incomparable piano work of Teddy Wilson. Two beers brave, carelessly might also have described the way she looked Mel in the eye and said, "So tell me
Mel pursed her lips and sat up straight, lacing her fingers around her water glass. Her eyes held Janice whole as she groped for a response. One of the advantages of outback isolation had been the almost total lack of peer judgment. Unfortunately, that same isolation left her unprepared to field even the most harmless inquiries about her relationship with Jack. "What's there to say?" Her voice went up at the end, making two syllables of one, a tell‑tale sign of unease. She recognized it...as did Janice. "He's divorced, as you know...a cargo pilot in the RAAF...He's 42..." she let her voice trail off, giving the impression that she had imparted all that she knew about the man.
"Forty two..." Janice whistled softly, one short note of disbelief as she enjoyed Mel's discomfort. "What does he look like?"
"Dark hair, dark eyes...tall...my head fits just beneath his jaw when we dance," Mel replied with a little smile as a memory warmed her. In the smoky warmth of a first floor hotel room in Athens - champagne on the bedside table, Cole Porter on the radio, and a crown of honey‑blonde hair tucked neatly beneath her chin while warm breath traveled the valley between her breasts and four bare feet interlocked, puzzle pieces on a hardwood floor... Indelible little details of first‑time foreplay. The memory was so vivid, yet made painful by the realization that that life was behind her.
"He's tall, I got that much." Janice's fingers beat a lazy tattoo on the empty beer bottle. "What else? How did the two of you meet?" Mel stood abruptly, taking up her plate and glass. "Mel?" Her eyes followed Mel's retreating form across the kitchen. "What's wrong?"
"Nothin's wrong," Mel replied, as she stacked the dinner plates by the sink. "I don't understand your interest in Jack, that's all. Another beer?"
Janice waved a hand dismissively. "Hey, you brought him up. Besides, I think I deserve to know a little bit about the man. After all, I'm sitting in his chair...eating his food..."
"Sleeping in his bed...Goldilocks." Mel returned to the table for the meat platter.
"Speaking of sleeping in his bed ‑" Janice began pointedly, “how is he in that area?"
Mel's jaw dropped noticeably. "I don't know why I'm surprised you asked that. With your ego, you'd be forever beggin' comparison."
Janice laughed, but there was no heart in it. "I have a healthy ego, as you pointed out."
"With good reason," Mel replied as she turned away. "You spoiled me for any future lovers."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"It is, yes," said Mel, "when you're tryin' to start a new life."
Janice shrugged. "What was so wrong with the old one?" A reply was not immediately forthcoming. Mel's back was to her, but Janice could see her hands were still and her head was down. "Mel?"
"He's a dear, dear, man, Janice..." Mel began quietly. "He's kind, sympathetic, funny...
I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t met him when I did."
Janice fought to keep her composure. "You mean, it was just a matter of timing."
"In a way...yes." At the butcher's block, Mel wrapped the leftover veal in waxed paper, secretly relieved to have something to do with her hands. "We met the very day my steamer docked in Sydney Harbor. I was comin' down the ramp, he was seein' his niece off. I broke a heel off my shoe and would've pitched right over the side if he hadn't been there."
"A real Sir Galahad," mumbled Janice, although it occurred to her, somewhat cynically, she conceded, that the niece Jack had been seeing off at the dock was very likely not his niece at all. Naturally, she was alone in her suspicions.
"He insisted I share his cab, waited with me while my shoe was repaired and bought me a lovely supper." Mel slid the wax package into the icebox and stood in the open doorway, savoring the chill air on her body. "It was the best possible introduction to the country."
"Better than gunfire and death threats?" quipped Janice with mock surprise.
"I know that tone, Janice," said Mel, moving reluctantly from the icebox to the table. "And it sounds suspiciously like jealousy."
"Not at all," replied Janice, quick to dismiss the notion. "On second thought, I will take another beer." She rose from her chair. "You want a beer, Mel?" She could feel Mel's eyes pursue her into the kitchen.
"You don't have to be jealous, Janice." Mel's voice was kind and soothing, and she meant well, but she couldn't help saying the wrong thing as a general rule. "You're not in competition with Jack."
"I know that, and I am not jealous." Janice opened and closed the icebox without removing anything. "What I am, is hot. It's hot in here."
From her place at the table, Mel gazed out the window where the windmill cast long shadows upon the hard‑baked ground, blood‑red in the twilight. "Sun's settin'...Why don't we take this conversation out to the verandah...where it's cool?" She switched off the phonograph and closed the cover.
"Peachy." Janice bit back a more acidic retort, dismayed at the possibility of an in‑depth conversation on the merits of her rival. Perhaps rival was not the right word, although it had seemed appropriate enough during the long flight to Coolinga. But now...here she was, a guest in Jack Greenway's home, where his personality permeated everything as surely as a sponge soaks up water. His chair. His food. His woman. She followed Mel from the room, convinced that any hopes of a reconciliation were about to be finally and irrevocably dashed to pieces.
At the foyer, Mel continued out to the verandah, while Janice excused herself to visit the bathroom. She splashed water on her face and patted it dry with a hand towel, studying her fractured reflection in the cracked mirror as she did so. She had come to Coolinga convinced she would find Mel miserable, aching for the lover she left behind, but their reunion had been on the tepid side of passionate at best. Still, she was certain Mel had warmed to the idea of her presence. The woman had baked her sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, for Chrissakes! "If that isn't love, what is?" She was surprised to
hear genuine confusion in her voice; she was unaccustomed to the feeling.
All her adult life she had been able to have her way, whether by skill, wits or sheer force of will. In a field rampant with male counterparts, she was unique and notable for far more than her gender. By age 25, she had made enough money to live comfortably and to have the luxury to pick and choose the archeological commissions which most
interested her. With her gifts, came hard‑won notoriety; she had the respect of her peers. What she didn't have, however, was what she wanted most. Ain't that always the way?
She pushed away from the counter and knelt on the bedroom floor to root through her satchel. To her relief, she found the object of her search nestled discreetly in a cocoon of wool socks. Squat at the bottom, rising in a tall, graceful neck, the dark amber, 94 proof Tennessee Sipping Whiskey was the only Jack she was interested in at the moment. It had originally been intended as a gift to soothe the ruffled feathers of a mechanic to whom she owed money, but she would have to find another way around him. She broke the seal on the bottle, intending to down a generous swig or two before joining Mel on the verandah. She hadn’t decided if she would brush, or simply pop a mint afterwards. She hadn't thought that far ahead. She hefted the bottle carefully, almost reverently, tasting the full, sweet flavor of burnt caramel and vanilla at the back of her throat before a single drop of whiskey had touched her lips.
Tapping, and her name uttered as a hiss. "Janisssss."
Janice opened her eyes, a revelation in itself, since she hadn't been conscious of closing them. Across the room, on the opposite side of a six‑paned window, Mel rapped on the glass with her knuckle. She had seen the bottle, but there was no reproach in her voice as she said, "Bring that...and two glasses... and hurry, or you'll miss it!" she beckoned, conveying a sense of urgency before stepping out of view, leaving confusion in her wake.
Miss it. Miss what? Janice stopped in the parlor to collect two heavy glass tumblers from the sideboard and made her way onto the verandah, successfully navigating the explosive screen door without dropping her kit. Using the toe of her boot, she eased the door closed and looked for Mel, who was conspicuously absent. "Mel?" She set the whiskey and glasses down on a sturdy wicker table and sighed heavily, her frustration
evident. "Where'd you go?"
Mel poked her head around the corner of the wrap‑around porch. "Over here...come see!"
Janice walked the length of the porch, her curiosity snuffling ahead of her like a keen beagle. Rounding the corner of the house, facing to the south, she saw Mel standing poised, dead center of the front stoop. Her hands were clasped atop her head, which was tilted slightly back, and her mouth was open unabashed wonder. "What is it? If it's a dingo, I've seen plenty of those."
"Try not to sound so jaded, Janice Covington, and come here," Mel hissed reproachfully, fanning one hand to her, gathering the smaller woman under her shoulder. "Now," she whispered, as if more volume were an intrusion, "stand just here..." She stepped back and guided Janice into her place on the worn gray boards. "Do you see it?"
Janice exhaled wearily, her eyes scanning the horizon, left to right, from soft sage and violet to a vivid spectrum of crimsons and yellows. It was breathtaking, and it wasn't a dingo. Points for Mel. "Yes," she whispered, trying to convey her pleasure. "It's beautiful, Mel." She felt warm fingers at her temples and a gentle upward pressure; unconsciously, she found herself leaning back into the support provided by Mel's lanky frame. She could feel two firm breasts, peaked, at attention, against the sensitive skin of her shoulder blades. She might have reveled in that feeling indefinitely if her breath hadn't been snatched without warning from her chest. Directly above her and to her left, divided by a line of native wattles, the sky was clear with a quarter moon and a blanket of dazzling stars; and to the right, off‑set just slightly by the sagging tin roof of the house, the sun was setting, wallowing gloriously in the foothills, using its last minutes to bathe the gums and mulga in raw, homespun gold. Day and night sharing the sky at the same moment. It was, Janice conceded, the oddest, most beautiful of dichotomies.
"It happens every sunset." Mel's mouth was just inches from Janice's ear, so close her breath stirred the tiny wisps of hair at her nape. "...a few minutes later every day. I find myself standing out here, where you're standing now...waiting. I know that must seem foolish to you, but I suppose I'm a simple woman."
Janice turned to face Mel, careful to maintain the physical and emotional connection that had been created. "You're not simple at all...you're a damned pioneer, Mel." She left those fathomless cerulean pools to turn her own eyes skyward again. "I mean, look at it..." The last vestiges of light were leaving the land, being replaced by a creeping carpet of mauve and ebony. It stole Janice's breath the way few things could. "I've been living in this land for six weeks...sleeping under the stars, and do you know, it never once occurred to me that this place had anything new to show me. How thick is that, I ask you?"
"Pretty thick," Mel echoed with a grin. She dropped her hands to her sides, unintentionally skimming Janice's hips as she did so. "Oh, sorry."
I'm not. "No problem." Janice turned on her heel. "I got whiskey, remember?" At the little wicker table, she opened the bottle and turned to Mel, who had taken a seat on a wooden glider. "How do you take it? On the rocks? With water?"
Mel countered brightly, "Oh, however you like it is fine."
"Two fingers. Neat." She passed Mel a tumbler and seated herself in an old bleached rocker that overlooked the wide expanse of horizon. Shaking out her damp hair, she took her first sip of whiskey...center cut, her father had called it...like the heart of a good watermelon...strong and flavorful and just what she needed. She sighed contentedly and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. The sun was a molten sliver on the horizon, and the worst of the day's heat was over at last. Trees growing by the verandah were full of sparrows and finches twittering in concert with their counterparts inside the small aviary. Somewhere to her left, just beyond the hangar, a dingo howled. She was primed to notice everything, most especially the woman she loved, sitting across from her, making a face as she swallowed her whiskey in one gulp. Janice raised both eyebrows inquiringly as Mel choked. "Uh, Mel? You might want to slow down..."
Mel screwed her eyes shut, sputtered and nodded rapidly, holding her glass in front of her. "May I have..." cough "...another, please?"
Janice left her glass on the arm of the rocker and retrieved the whiskey bottle. "This is sipping whiskey, Mel...say it with me...sip‑ping‑whis‑key..." She held the bottle over Mel's empty glass. "If you're not accustomed to it, it'll bite you back." Mel lifted her glass until it clinked against the bottle. "Okay, suit yourself." She refilled the glass, unable to shake the impression that Mel seemed to be marshaling her courage, fortifying herself for some earth‑shattering admission. "What's on your mind?" she asked, giving voice to her thoughts; she toyed briefly with the possibilities, none of them favorable if your name happened to be Janice Covington.
"I was...I was mulling over the virtues of a really fine whiskey," Mel replied, her fingers grazing Janice's as they clasped the neck of the bottle. "I don't have a great deal of experience with drinkin', as you know, but I find that I quite have the knack for it." Mel took custody of the bottle. "This has a...a kinda smoky quality to it..." sip "...oak, I think." long sip "Yes, definitely oak."
"Probably aged in oak barrels. You sure you don't want me to take that?"
"Did you want another drink?" Mel asked as she held the bottle possessively between the pillows of her breasts.
Lucky bottle. Janice shook her head slowly, placing her hand over the wide mouth of the tumbler. She took two steps back, leaning against a support post. As she watched Mel go repeatedly to the well, she determined that at least one of them should stay sober.
Mel settled back into the glider, the open bottle of whiskey tucked between the armrest and her hip. She kicked off her shoes, heedless of where they fell. Her face was flushed, warmed by the liquor, and her eyes were luminous in the moonlight. Meeting Janice's expectant gaze, her courage waned temporarily. It wasn't until she'd cautiously tipped back another shot of whiskey, that she found her voice. "If you drink from a bottle marked poison, it's almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later."
"If you're referring to the whiskey..."
"It's from Alice in Wonderland, and I'm trying to make a point. Please, don't interrupt." Janice settled back against the post, suitably reproached, while Mel focused on a knothole in the floor boards. "Lewis Carroll as prophet...it's not an idea many people can warm to." She kept her eyes down, unable to bear either the confirmation or denial in the other's face, and she was grateful Janice had the presence of mind to remain silent. "All my life I knew what I wanted, what was expected of me as a woman, and as the
daughter of Melvin Pappas. These things were seldom complementary of one another..." Mel's voice trailed off; she groped for the bottle at her side, but her hands were shaking
and her aim was slightly off. She felt Janice's fingers close over her own. "One more...for luck."
"I think you've had enough, Mel." Janice set the bottle on the table between them. "Just...take a few deep breaths and spit it out...whatever it is." She took a long pull on her whiskey, reflecting miserably on her inability to cope with rejection, and braced for the worst.
"I've made some mistakes in my life, Janice," said Mel, the words leaping from her lips, a verbal suicide. "I have done some things that I've regretted, and people I cared about paid the price." She looked into the bottom of her glass and was afforded an unobstructed, if distorted, view of her bare feet. "Oh, my...look at that..." She tilted her head in wonder. "I have big feet," she said, as if the idea were a revelation.
Janice rolled her eyes. It's official: she's drunk. It's a damned record. The number one problem with drunks, in her opinion, was the propensity to be distracted by the smallest things. It was both blessing and curse. "You have nice feet, Mel," she said succinctly as she approached the glider. She took the empty tumbler from Mel's hands. "I think you should probably lie down for a while, sleep this off."
When Mel felt Janice's hand upon her elbow, she looked up into a pair of sparkling green eyes and felt compelled to apologize. "I'm sorry you came all this way, Janice." Strong fingers encircled her arm, drawing her into a standing position. "I know it must seem like a tremendous waste of time to you now, and if I'd known you were comin', I'd've stopped you."
Standing there, with Mel's arm wedged securely between her own hip and elbow, Janice felt her knees go to jelly. Here it comes. "Later, Mel...All this can wait till later." She stopped at the front door of a house settled with shadows. With her free hand, she groped for the lights.
"Did you bring the whiskey?"
"It's fine where it is," Janice replied, frustration bleeding through to her voice. "God dammit, what're you people? Bats?!"
"I haven't always liked the choices I've made, Janice," said Mel, flipping a light switch on the opposite side of the door. "Erratic, my daddy would've said." She leaned heavily into the smaller woman. "You steer, I'll walk...Following my, my heart one minute, my head the next..."
"Can't go wrong with either of those. Whoa, watch your head." Janice guided her across the bedroom threshold, relieved to find the light switch on the first attempt. She backed Mel across the floor until her calves met the edge of the bed. "Okay. Sit."
"I made mistakes...Sit?"
Janice snorted. "Bend your knees...it'll happen by itself."
Mel's face softened. "You're so good to me, Janice," she said sincerely; the ache in her voice broke Janice's heart. "You and Jack...both so good to me."
Jack. There's my wake‑up call. "Yeah, well..." As a sparkling retort, it failed miserably. "Get some rest, Mel."
"Did'ja ever do that? Try something just to try it...to get it out of your system, like the cold or the flu...or to satisfy someone else's expectations..."
Better and better. Worse than a fling, an experiment. Janice set her jaw; there were no words to convey her hurt, her disappointment. When she turned to leave, it was all she could do not to bolt from the room.
"I've hurt people, Janice..." Mel's voice stopped her at the door. "I hurt you."
"Yeah. You did...but I'm tough, Mel," Janice replied, her back to the room. "I'll get over it."
"I won't. I can't. Janice...please look at me."
Look at her? Yes? No? Janice suspected that whatever steely resolve she still possessed would vanish at the first sight of tears. "That's probably not a good idea, Mel."
The bed creaked as Mel stood. "Please...You're gonna walk out that door, and I'm never gonna see you again...I just know it...So you turn around and lemme say this one teeny tiny little thing."
Janice inhaled deeply and squared her shoulders like a boxer bracing for a blow. Mel swam into her field of vision...flushed and bleary‑eyed, weaving just slightly as she smoothed her skirt with sweaty palms. Different picture, same effect. "Okay...I'm listening."
Carelessly, words and music by C. Kenny / N. Kenny / N. Ellis used without permission
Author's note: Please be advised that the following chapter contains scenes of consensual foreplay between consenting adults of the same sex.
Mel blinked rapidly, astonishment plain on her face. Clearly, despite her heartfelt appeal for indulgence, she hadn't anticipated Janice would yield quickly, if at all. Her legs were watery, anesthetized by a combination of whiskey and anxiety, but she was determined to deliver this next bit of information standing, if for no other reason than that it might give Janice pleasure to knock her down. A quick inhale and on the exhale, the words, "I love you, Janice." There was the smallest twitch between Janice's brows, easy to miss unless one knew what to look for; but seeing it was one thing, and translating it was another.
Janice’s response was inflectionless and noncommittal. "I see." The two syllable equivalent of a polar bear in a white room.
Janice's apparent apathy took Mel by surprise and sent her scrambling for elaboration. "I plan on leaving here when Jack returns next month." She shrugged. "Don't love him...
love you." On the strength of that claim, Mel crossed the floor, knees shaking. "I'm askin' to come back, Janice... I'm askin' to be a part of your life again." Her eyes, swimming in hot, unspilt tears, scanned Janice's carefully‑set face. "Well...say somethin'..."
Janice breathed in through her mouth; she could taste Mel on her tongue, a frothy concoction of whiskey and guilt and fear. There were few things that sobered a drunk faster than fear. "God knows, Mel, when I arrived here, I'd have forgiven you anything just to have you back in my life...And a few minutes ago, those words and your tears might've been enough to reconcile our differences. But frankly, now...I have to say I don't come that cheap."
Light‑headed and loose‑lipped, Mel saw the folly of argument. "What can I do? What do you want me to say? I've been as honest as I know how to be."
Janice was tight‑lipped. "In vino veritas." She clucked her tongue. "Wine or whiskey, you had to knock back a third of a bottle to be honest with me...to confess the truth: I was a mistake, and our relationship was an experiment." Mel opened her mouth to argue, but was cut off abruptly. "Mel, you said as much." She turned her eyes to the sagging ceiling, struggling to recall the exact turn of phrase. "Did you ever try something just to get it out of your system...? Ring a bell?"
"If you're gonna go around quotin' me, at least get it right. I never referred to you as an experiment or a mistake. The truth is ‑" cough Mel fought down a brief wave of nausea, holding up a finger indicating that Janice should wait. "...the truth is..." cough
"The truth is you left me because you were afraid I would leave you. Somewhere in the back of my mind, that makes sense, in a paranoid, insecure kind of way. It's even kind of flattering. What I don't understand is your situation here and now ‑ this mop-the-
floors‑laundry‑on‑the‑line‑dinner ‑on‑the‑stove domestic bent. I don't get the attraction, Mel. Granted, Alice is a great kid, any woman would be proud to have her as a daughter, but ‑"
"I can explain."
Janice waved her off. "It's okay, Mel. I understand. You were raised in a conservative, Southern household, by a conservative, Southern grandmother. Your future included white picket fences and babies, and a husband. But before you settled down to all of that, you wanted to sow your wild oats, as they say ...Experiment with different things. Well, I had a good time. I hope you did; and now that you've got it out of your system, you can settle down to marital bliss with the partner your parents always wanted you to have...someone with facial hair, who dresses left or right."
Indignation and embarrassment fought a pitched battle on Mel's face. "Now, you jes' hold on!"
"Although, I have to get my own two cents in here and say that you have lousy taste in men. I mean, I don't know Jack Greenway from Adam, but from everything I have heard and seen in the last few hours, I know that he's the last man on earth I would pair you with. What is it, Mel? Does he remind you of your daddy?" she asked facetiously.
"Are you through? Can I talk now?" Mel asked through clenched teeth, a reaction that was as much anger as it was a way to bite back her rising gorge; too late she had discovered that she was a proficient drinker, but a terrible drunk. " You keep sayin' you understand this, and you understand that. News flash, Janice: you don't understand anything." Mel looked seriously down into the youthful face of cynicism; it was one of those times when her height was an advantage. "Now...you sit." She thrust a finger at the bed. When Janice hesitated, she raised a single eyebrow and from somewhere deep in her ancestral line, summoned up ‘The Look'. "Your butt on that bed. Now."
Janice lighted on the corner of the mattress, watching in silence as Mel struggled to maintain her upright position. "Maybe you should be the one sitting."
Mel took a step back and leaned against the wall for support. "You say you talked to my mama. Long conversation?"
"Ten minutes, thereabouts."
The corner of Mel's mouth twitched. "That's plenty time enough. Did you love your mama, Janice? I mean, before she left you and your daddy, did you have a good relationship?"
Janice scratched her ear and shrugged. "We were close, yeah. Is this going someplace?"
"Indulge me. Would it be safe to say that you did your utmost to please her?" Janice nodded and Mel countered, "Out of love and respect." Again, a nod. The tall Southerner melted against the wall, kept upright by sheer force of will. "You had ten minutes, long distance with Miss Julia Pappas. How was it?"
Janice labored for just the right word. "Interesting."
Mel coughed, and then laughed into the back of her hand. "Don't play the diplomat, Janice; it doesn't suit you."
"You want me to say she was cold and abrupt? Okay, I will. One minute into the conversation, I was ready to throttle her."
"Get in line,” Mel said, nodding sagely. "Knowing my mama as I do, I'm gonna guess that she didn't tell you I called her from the airport in Athens the night I left."
"Funny...she didn't mention it."
"We had quite a long talk...or maybe I should say: she lectured and I listened, a first for me. All those years growing up, I managed to tune out a lot of what she was saying and find my own way, my own paths, always to her dismay. I could never please her, and she never tired...tires... of reminding me of my failures. The way she saw it, leaving you was the smartest thing I'd ever done, which only reinforced my opinion of her. I had called for understandin' and sympathy and gotten a slap in the face. She said, ‘Come home, Melinda. I forgive you.'...like lovin' you was some kinda crime. She even offered to
wire me plane fare, but I didn't want anythin' from her." She flushed and weaved;
Janice was at her side in an instant. "I have to sit for a spell..." Without speaking, Janice helped her back to the bed, though she herself remained standing. "Look at you," Mel said, her voice softly marveling. "Even now, as angry as you are with me, you have such good instincts, Janice; that was one of the things that drew me to you."
Janice softened just slightly, though it would take more than flattery to win her back. "And Jack..." she prompted with genuine curiosity, "what drew you to him?"
Mel closed her eyes briefly, as if conjuring forth the recollection. "His innate decency, I think. He spoke of his family, his daughter, with such affection."
Sitting on the bed, with some distance between them, Janice remarked on the only thing about Jack Greenway she liked, apart from his absence. "Like I said, Alice is a good kid. You had a ready‑made family here."
Mel looked at her hands, trembling in her lap. "Certainly that was an attractive prospect. It wasn't until later in our relationship that I discovered I was merely the last in a long line of sweethearts. When he left here seven weeks ago, he gave me the house keys, two hundred dollars in cash, and his word that he would be back. He gave me all that, but..." she held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers, "no ring." She shrugged. "You don't give a ring to your house sitter."
"It never...well, it never went beyond that?"
Mel smiled, amused by Janice's delicate approach. "If you're askin' if we ever consummated the relationship, the answer is no. Oh, there were a couple of false starts, but I think he knew my heart wasn't in it. My first night here he took a blanket and pillow out to the sofa and never pressed the matter again."
Janice heaved a sigh of relief. At last, the ‘experiment' had been identified and the only thing that shocked her more than the identity was Jack's surprising depth of character. "If you didn't love him, why did you stay, Mel?"
"Because I fell in love," Mel replied simply. "With the country. You've seen enough of it to know what I'm talkin' about. There simply isn't another place on earth like it. I got off that steamer flat broke, needin' isolation, time to think. This house provides all that. Jack. Well, I suppose you could say I fell in serious like with the man. He's kind and generous. He knows when to talk, and when to listen, and he doesn't hoard his emotions like a lot of men do. So, when you ask if he reminds me of my daddy, I'll have to say ‑ no, he most certainly does not."
Janice reserved comment. She had closely watched Mel's face throughout her confession, gauging sincerity or deception based on what she saw there. Her instincts told her that what she was hearing was the truth, stripped bare of all pretense, absent of mitigating circumstances. She wanted to return that honesty with words, a touch, a kiss...a caress...yet something inside her screamed for caution. She didn't trust her hands, so she sat on them. "I want to believe you, Mel."
Mel turned to face her. "I don't know what else I can say, Janice, except that you are not and never have been anythin’ but what I absolutely wanted out of life." She extended a hand and cupped the heart‑shaped face lovingly in her palm. "Can you accept that I made an awful, horrible mistake the day I left you? Do you know how much that has hurt me every day since?" Her hand, unsupported by Janice's own, began to tremble with the fear that she had misread the situation and moved too soon. "Tell me you don't want me...Tell me there's not this huge achin' chasm where your heart used to be...Tell me you don't love me, and you can walk out of here and never hear from me again."
Janice's swallowed hard; Mel's hand against her skin was almost painful. Beneath her thighs, her own hands scrunched the bedspread into fistfuls. "I don't think I can do that.”
Mel dropped her hand slowly to her side, and swallowed deeply, audibly. "Do you hate me very much?" She dreaded the answer.
A smile turned up the corner of Janice's mouth. "Some day, I gotta compile a book of useless questions."
Mel almost wept with relief. Her plea, "Kiss me, Janice," carried all the weight of a dying man's cry for water, a request that, in good conscience, could not be denied. She leaned forward, meeting Janice halfway, and when warm lips connected, she felt a shudder run down her spine - hot and icy at the same time. "More..." she urged, her lips sliding against Janice's, an unquenchable thirst begging to be slaked. She plunged one hand into sweet‑smelling honey hair, while the other slid beneath the blouse to cup a firm breast, its nipple made hard and erect by the single brush of a calloused thumb.
Janice was not prepared for the mindless lassitude that gripped her at the first touch of those talented hands. Had she not been able to taste the whiskey on Mel's lips, present in every kiss rained upon her face, she might have been content to endure such an assault indefinitely. She knew she should resist; it was the honorable thing to do, even if she would hate herself in the morning. "Mel...Mel, honey...we have to stop..." she murmured without conviction. She groaned, tilting her head back as feather‑soft kisses grazed her from chin to cleavage, and fingers fumbled at the buttons of her blouse. "I mean it, Mel..." she protested, even as her nipples sprang to life, minds of their own. Traitors. Summoning up her last reserves of self‑control, she wrested herself from Mel's embrace and stood up. "I think we should stop..." She said as she observed her lover, laboring for breath, her eyes bright and slightly out of focus. Janice could see her reflection clearly in those wide, cerulean pools, and it flattered her to be seen as an object of lust. Which made her self‑denial all the more difficult. "I gotta go splash some water on my face or...somethin'..."
Mel caught the retreating figure by the arm. "Janice...did I do somethin' wrong?"
"Aw, no, sweetheart, it's just...well..." Janice tugged at the front of the blouse, pinching the icon of St. Ignatius between her thumb and forefinger. "There's just somethin'...I don't know... indecent about being groped in this blouse."
"If it bothers you that much...take it off."
Janice chuckled. "Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"So would you," replied Mel pointedly. "Make love to me, Janice." She held Janice's gaze as her long fingers drifted down to the buttons of her own blouse.
Janice raised her eyes heavenward. "This is a test...it's gotta be." Passion's gauntlet. She shifted her gaze back to Mel, who was murmuring soft obscenities as she struggled with the top button of her blouse. "Not tonight, honey. You have a headache."
Mel got to her feet. "I am not drunk," she said adamantly.
Mere inches from Mel's face, Janice could smell the proof. "Oh, yeah?" She held up three fingers. "How many fingers?"
"Ohhh," Mel grinned slyly and groped Janice. "I like this game!"
Janice squealed and captured Mel's roaming hands in her own. "Jeeze Louise, Mel!"
Mel managed a genuinely wounded expression as she stood there, both hands pinned against her chest by Janice's strong grip. "I'm comin' on too strong, aren't I?"
"Oh, God...don't ask me that. I'm almost certain I'll lie." She released her grip and gathered Mel to her in an embrace that seemed to temporarily satisfy their mutual need for intimacy without jeopardizing either woman's integrity. They had been moving in a slow, almost indefinable circle for a full minute before Janice was conscious of the movement. With the covert introduction of a melody, it graduated from random motion to sensuous dance. The words of the song wound their way from Mel's lips to her ear in
a sweet, mournful sigh, taking on the aspect of a heartfelt confession. She would never again listen to the lyrics in the same way.
How carelessly You gave me your heart
And carelessly I broke it, sweetheart
I took each tender kiss you gave to me
Every kiss made you a slave to me
Then carelessly I told you good‑bye
But now at night I wake up and cry
I wish I knew a way to find the
love I threw away so carelessly.
"That was nice, Mel," Janice murmured. "Reminds me of that night in Athens...remember? Our first night together?" She felt Mel nod against her shoulder. "Cole Porter on the radio, $8 champagne on ice...you and me in the bed...on the floor... against the wall. It was perfect."
Mel disengaged and stepped back, putting enough space between them so that she might look Janice seriously in the face. "I promise, Janice, never to be intimidated by perfection ever again."
Janice winked and once again pulled Mel into an embrace. "I'm gonna hold you to that," she replied. She spun Mel out to arm's length and held her briefly by the fingertips. "Dip?" With a snap of her wrist, she pulled her partner into her and dropped her in a dip that even Astaire would have envied. Grinning, she queried, "Am I good...or what?"
"Janice...would it spoil this moment for you if I threw up?"
Author's note: Please be forewarned that the following chapter contains acts of consensual sex between two consenting female adults.
Mel groaned, awash in inarticulate misery as she clutched the white porcelain bowl. Janice sat behind her on a short footstool; one hand kept long, raven hair pulled back, out of harm's way, while the other grasped the chain pull. "Okay?" Nodding, Mel leaned against Janice's knee, surrendering to the pounding in her head as the water gushed and swirled counter‑clockwise down the pipes. Janice put a glass of water into her trembling hands with the simple command, "Rinse. Spit." Mel obeyed without question, after which Janice pulled the chain again and helped Mel to her feet.
Leaning heavily on the smaller woman, Mel whispered, "I'm sorry ‘bout your boots."
"Washed right off," replied Janice.
"And your blouse..."
"A little cold water...Okay, hang on just a sec..." Steadying Mel with one hand, she hastily turned down the bed with the other. "Okay, don't get any ideas now." Leaving her charge teetering at the edge of the bed, Janice snaked her arms around Mel's waist and groped for the button at the back of the A‑line skirt.
Mel put her hands on Janice's shoulders for support. "You've come to your senses at last?"
"Nope." Janice popped the snap. "Still out of my tree." She passed the skirt over shapely hips and chased its descent with her hands until it fell in a puddle at Mel's feet. "Step out...first one foot...that's good, now the other - that’s my girl...and she does it all without a net."
Mel sat heavily upon the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble."
"Undressing you, Mel, is a lot of things, but trouble ain't one of them." Janice's hand moved deftly over the pearly buttons of Mel’s blouse, popping each with a practiced, three‑fingered maneuver that was normally a prelude to more strenuous activity.
She slipped the blouse from Mel's slim shoulders and glanced appreciatively at the camisole draping tantalizing swells and curves in a fine satin sheen. "Nice. You do wonders for it."
"Wonders for what?" Mel asked groggily.
Janice rolled her eyes. "Never mind. You're too drunk to appreciate my wit."
Mel arched an eyebrow. "Maybe I'm not drunk enough."
Janice clucked her tongue, then replied, "I reserve comment," and plumped a couple of down‑filled pillows before sliding Mel's legs beneath the blanket. "There now, you're all set."
Mel's fingers scrunched the blanket on either side of her hips. Her attractive face could best be described as panicked...and green. "Janice..." she sucked a breath over her teeth, "...the room's spinnin'..."
"Of course it's spinning," Janice retorted, tucking the blanket close. "Good whiskey will do that." Mel groaned, unable to appreciate the sarcasm. "Close your eyes. It helps." She stepped away to switch off the powerful overhead light in favor of the small lamp atop the dresser. The 40 watt bulb beneath a natty fringed shade cast the room in a soft yellow light more conducive to sleep. Kneeling beside the bed, she stroked Mel's pinched brow. "Better?"
Mel shook her head miserably and threw one arm over her eyes. "Shoot me, Janice, just shoot me now."
Janice laughed and kissed Mel's forehead. "Oh, no no...I have plans for you, Melinda Pappas."
Mel peeked out with one eye and conjured up the hint of a smile. "At last, a reason to live."
A few minutes later, Janice left her there, half‑asleep in the half‑dark. She kept the bedroom door open a few inches, should Mel should call for her, and padded quietly down the hall and into the kitchen. The scene awaiting her was tantamount to a battlefield: dirty dishes, pots and pans, food left on a cluttered table. Who knew that two people could generate such chaos? "No wonder I eat take out so often."
She tied the apron loosely about her waist and went to work clearing the table of leftovers. She didn't play favorites; everything from vegetables to sweet breads went to the icebox, although she found room in her full stomach for the last of the olives, simply because they reminded her of Athens, and Mel. She washed and dried the dinner dishes and made a half‑hearted attempt to scrub clean a particularly dirty roasting
pan before finally consigning it to soak overnight in soapy water. When she looked up at the old clock on the wall, she was surprised to see that it was nearly nine in the evening. "Time. It do fly," she quipped, mildly startled by the sound of her own voice in the large, unnaturally quiet house. While her hands were clean and dry, she opened the phonograph and carefully re‑sheathed the Billie Holiday record; she suspected it wouldn't see further play in her absence. Small minds, she mused.
She turned, bundling the crumb‑strewn tablecloth by its corners. As she prepared to shake it out, she pondered how long to let Mel sleep, while at the same time contemplating the merits of simply weaving her arms and legs into and around that lanky frame and drifting off to sleep beside her. There was another, slightly less pleasant option which consisted of two fingers of whiskey, a good book and her feet up. The sole benefit of this scenario was that it required no explanation to an inquisitive child arriving home unexpectedly.
She opened the back door with the toe of her boot and flung out the linen, shaking it by two corners. Draping it over one arm, she stood in the open doorway, enjoying the smells and sounds carried on the night air ‑ wattles in bloom, and dingoes, and the windmill rods pumping hard in the cool evening breeze. Tossing the tablecloth over the back of a chair, she stepped outside, closing the door behind her. The moon was just peeking over the backbone of the roof, shedding pale light across the yard, onto the
bleached rail fence and the crude clothesline strung between the fence and the porch. She recognized her jodhpurs, still heavy with water, hanging limply from the line; in contrast, her white blouse and brassiere greeted her with an obscene wave. She fished inside the blouse's breast pocket with two fingers, seeking the cigar she had earlier secreted there, but came up empty. She muttered an oath and slung the blouse and brassiere over her shoulder just as something slithered, to papery effect, through the tall saw grass just beyond her line of sight; she was not inclined to investigate. Instead, she backpedaled towards the house nonchalantly, affecting a shiver, as if her abrupt departure had more to do with the brisk northerly wind than any creepy crawler, real or imagined.
Inside the house, the temperature had dropped to a cool 65 degrees, only slightly warmer than the air outside. Dropping the blouse and brassiere on the table, she slipped into the familiar warmth of her leather jacket as she left the kitchen to check
on Mel. She glanced through the four‑inch gap without touching the knob, because the bedroom door had the tendency to squeak. Mel lay facing her, a large pillow crushed
to her chest by her long, slim arms. Her lips, slightly parted, breathed softly into the linen. A corner of the pillow lay trapped between the mattress and one exposed thigh. Janice's knees went weak; she had never wanted to be a pillow so badly in all her life. Down, girl. Turning to leave, she gave the luscious vision one last glance. Think baseball, baseball!
In the living room, she took a moment to peruse the rather impressive library Jack Greenway had amassed over the years ‑ Hemingway, W.B. Yeats, Mark Twain ‑ literary luminaries sandwiched between lesser‑known local authors. She squinted at the spines of a set of technical digests, sounding out the titles aloud. "Secrets of Night Bass Fishing...Fly Casting and How to Tie Them...How to Land a Trophy Fish." She sighed heavily. Makes sense. What else would a land‑locked man do but dream of fish? In the end, she selected Death in the Afternoon and adjourned to the glider on the verandah. She poured herself a drink, crossed her ankles atop a low wicker table and opened the book, flipping past the acknowledgments. But the whiskey, Hemingway's laconic writing style and 30 hours without sleep all combined with predictable effect. She surrendered to sleep before the first bull was bloodied.
Mel found her there sometime later, recumbent on the glider, the book tented open on her chest and an empty tumbler dangling precariously from her slackening fingers. From her place in the open doorway, the tall Southerner watched with a stillness she had forgotten; it occurred to her that Janice appeared younger when asleep. Her normally expressive face was cherubic and unlined, her full lips drawn into a strange little smile that was both innocent and provocative. Mel approached for a closer scrutiny, the bed sheet she had draped over her shoulders for warmth whispering against her bare legs as she walked. She rescued the tumbler from certain disaster and carefully extracted the volume of Hemingway, glancing at the title before laying it aside. Janice lay ripe for the picking. Sleeping Beauty. Once the analogy was in her head, Mel had no choice but to content herself with a single kiss, feather‑light upon warm lips which fell open like the petals of a rose.
"Nice," Janice murmured, without opening her eyes. "But just one?"
"You were asleep," Mel retorted. "Give me credit for a little restraint." She pulled the sheet close around her and withdrew until her back was against a cool support post. "Pleasant dreams?"
"Very." Affecting nonchalance, Janice folded her trembling hands in her lap, but she could do little to calm the wild beating of her heart. Content to indulge in what seemed to be mutual appreciation, pale green eyes moved over an impressive physique every bit deserving of such patient scrutiny. The bed sheet, pale as Mel's pale skin, alternately clinging or draping at the whim of the wind, gave her the appearance of a living Greek sculpture. And it was all hers for the asking, once she found her voice. Anticipation was a powerful aphrodisiac, yet she was so unaccustomed to the feeling that it presented as pain. "You must be cold in that," she managed at last.
"Just the opposite." Mel relaxed her grip, and the sheet slipped down to reveal a bare shoulder. She dropped her voice an octave, drawing the slow, sensual tones from her throat like a weapon. "I'm very warm."
There was a hint of delicious friction as Janice uncrossed her ankles and stood. Over the noise of her blood, she heard herself say, "You look like you're feeling better."
"I'm sober as a judge, if that's what you mean," Mel replied. A small smile turned up the corners of her lips. "I'm not drunk, and you're not dreamin'...although I could pinch you if you like."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "Maybe later."
"Are you glued to that chair?" Janice erupted in a chuckle of nervous laughter that Mel found endearing. "What's the matter? More afraid of peace than war?"
"What would you like me to do, Mel?" Ohh, there's a loaded question.
"This is a seduction, Dr. Covington." Mel opened her fist and the sheet slid from her
shoulders - over the soft roundness of her hips and the bared violin curve of her waist - until she was standing before Janice, nude. "Use your imagination."
Possessed of a vivid imagination, Janice cut the space between them without delay, pinning Mel roughly against the clapboards of the house. Immersing her hands in loose raven tresses, she crushed Mel's mouth to her own in a bruising kiss that was part passion, part combat, and all surrender. She felt hands at her face, on her breasts, in what seemed a frenzied grope; while her own hands roamed, mapping the landscape of her lover's body. Mel was peaks ‑ oh, what wonderful, pebbly peaks that stirred beneath her touch ‑ and valleys... Her left hand skimmed the flat plane of an abdomen, stroked the silky, damp nest of curls below, and drew one long forefinger through the wetness before coming to rest on a high, hard nub of flesh.
"Oh..." Mel's body froze at a peak. "There..." she murmured against Janice's neck. "...right
...there....oh...ohmy..." she groaned. She used the pleasure pulsing through her body in waves to fuel her own exploration, trading skin for leather as she worked the jacket from Janice's body. "One of us..." she gasped. "...is over‑dressed."
Janice answered the complaint with a deep kiss as she shucked off the jacket, flinging it carelessly aside in the rush to maintain crucial momentum. Tangled in Mel's grasping arms, she was groping for the buttons on her slacks when the howl of a dingo filtered through the blood pounding in her ears. "Jeez...that sounded close."
"Just a dingo..." Mel muttered breathlessly as she pushed the khakis down over Janice's hips. She seized handfuls of the white blouse, impatiently bypassing the buttons, choosing instead to ruck the material up and over her lover's head, exposing ample, round breasts. "Oh, God," she crooned, "I love your body." She was sure she growled as she fell upon the deliciously swelling flesh, ringing the aureola inside her warm, wet lips while her tongue danced unseen over an erect nipple. Janice's groan of satisfaction was unmistakable. "So perfect..." Mel murmured as she peppered the washboard stomach with tiny, nipping kisses, and swirled her tongue in and around Janice's navel.
Accomplishing all of this while standing was awkward; even in bare feet she towered a full six inches above Janice's head. She scanned the plank floor at her feet for obstructions and was preparing to take their lovemaking to an entirely new level when she felt Janice stiffen in her arms. Mel's voice was a mixture of dread and disbelief. "Janice Covington, don't you dare! Not yet...not without me!"
Janice was too preoccupied to be offended. She dipped and hitched up her slacks. "We can't do this, Mel...not here."
"Why? Are you cold? C'mere," she coaxed. Her hands cupped Janice's backside, drawing their bodies together once more. "Lemme warm you..."
Janice reluctantly peeled herself away. "I swear, Mel, you've got more arms than Vishnu! Have you forgotten about Alice?"
"Alice." Mel shivered, the sweat on her body beginning to cool in the night air.
"Yeah. Thirteen, bright but impressionable? That Alice." Janice squinted into the surrounding blackness. "What if she were to come home and walk up on this...this anatomy lesson?! Have you thought about that?"
Mel crossed her arms and, grinning, replied, "Not once." She secretly wished for her glasses; the shock on Janice's face was, no doubt, priceless.
"Where's my shirt? Criminy, Mel...put something on, will ya? You're distracting me!"
"Relax, Janice," Mel cooed, plucking the rumpled white blouse from a wattle branch. "It's just you and me."
Janice snatched the blouse from Mel's extended fingertips. "Thank you!" she snapped. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were enjoying this."
Mel retorted, "I was, up until a minute ago."
Janice narrowed her eyes and sputtered, "You know what I'm talking about. God dammit, where're the buttons on this thing!?"
Mel suppressed a giggle. "You have it on inside out. May I just say one teensy tiny little thing?"
Janice dropped her hands to her side and exhaled wearily. "What?"
There was a moment of anticipatory silence before Mel announced, "Alice is staying the night with her friend. We have the house to ourselves."
"Oh." Janice shifted where she stood; there was nothing worse than a thoroughly wasted tantrum. "You knew that all along, but you let me get dressed again?"
Mel approached her in a sensuous stroll. "Only because it's such fun undressin' you. Now," she said, "Why don't we see if we can't find a way to re‑direct all that misplaced energy of yours." She drew Janice closer with one hand while the other skimmed a bare midriff on its way south.
Janice captured Mel's lips with her own as fingers moved against her pleasantly aching flesh. As her hips rose to the caress of a skillful hand, she sucked in her breath, absolutely light‑headed with pleasure. "Oh, God, Mel...that curls my toes..."
Mel responded by wiggling her thumb; Janice shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut. "I have many skills.”
"How f‑fortunate for me," Janice sighed as she surrendered to gravity.
DISCLAIMER: Please be forewarned that the following chapter contains references to acts of consensual sex between two adults of the same sex.
The first few minutes after sex are commonly referred to as afterglow. The word was full of positive connotations, yet the idea mystified Janice. She could count her pre-Mel sexual experiences on one hand, and she couldn't recall once ever having glowed. Today, tonight, this time...was different. She could feel the heat radiating from her body, reflecting off of Mel's as they lay tangled in one another in the large bed, and she was keenly aware of soft breath and warm flesh where it touched hers. Luxuriating in Mel's embrace, she realized that she had never felt more feminine, nor more vulnerable, than she did at this moment, lying in the arms of the one person capable of breaking her. Such a revelation was more intimate than any sex act conceivable in her imagination, and she understood the concept of afterglow at last. Is that all it takes? she asked herself. "The right person?"
"Hmm...wha'?" Mel responded groggily.
Smoothing sweat-dampened hair, Janice whispered, "Shh...go back to sleep."
Mel nuzzled Janice's neck, gazing up with sleep-heavy lids. "I don't wanna miss anythin'."
Janice gathered Mel more closely to her. "Believe me, there's nothing I could do alone that wouldn't be more fun with you."
Tucking her head beneath Janice's chin, she felt a warm chuckle rumble through her lover's chest. She sighed contentedly as she snaked an arm around Janice's waist. "I had a real good time tonight, Janice."
"Me, too." She kissed the top of Mel's head.
Mel drew her finger in a line beneath Janice's ribs, sending a shiver across the taut muscles. "What's this scar here?"
"I was 10...pitched right over the handlebars of my bike." She felt warm lips paint the old scar with gentle kisses. "Have you seen my appendectomy scar?" she quipped. It never bothered Janice to be the object of Mel's fervent scrutiny; she had no desire to keep secrets from her. When she felt long fingers draw a hook-shape on her inside right elbow, she willingly volunteered the information. "Split that open on some rocks when my truck overturned a couple of years back...Needlework could be a little better, huh?"
Mel traced the livid pink ridge with her tongue before planting a kiss in the crook of the elbow with the admonition, "You should be kinder to your body." Janice merely clucked her tongue and shrugged while Mel continued her macabre inventory; her fingers gently skimmed the starburst - shaped scar where the neck and collarbone joined. "This is new."
"Gunshot, three months ago in Istanbul," she replied lightly; both the wound and the memory were still very fresh. "Never step between a man and the woman he's battering without first checking him for weapons. That's a little piece of advice from me to you."
"Ohhh, Janice," Mel squeezed her tightly, her face a mixture of fear and regret. "I wish I had been there for you. Does it hurt much?"
"Less with each passing minute," she replied, anticipating and receiving another sizzling kiss upon the healing scar. "You don't have any scars, do you, Mel?" She drew her foot slowly up the length of Mel's leg. "You're flawless," she sighed.
Mel screwed her face into a scowl as she raised herself up on one elbow. "And you need glasses more than I do. What do you call this?" She lay a finger atop her right breast.
Janice squeezed her eyes shut and pounded her forehead with her free hand. "Wait...don't tell me. I know this one!"
Mel groaned and slapped her playfully across the cheek. "No, silly...look closer."
Janice rolled Mel onto her back, straddling her sleek torso while pinning her arms above her head. "Well, looky there..." She made a show of examining the circular birthmark above what was otherwise a perfect breast. "How'd I ever miss that?"
At the first touch of a warm, wet tongue, Mel stretched and groaned, weaving her fingers into Janice's as first one breast, then the other was suckled upon until the nipples were aching peaks. She could feel the comforting weight of her lover's breasts, heavy and aroused against her ribcage, and the unparalleled warmth of her center as it married with her own. Articulate thought was the first casualty. "...so wet...fer me..."
"For you..." Janice bit an erect nipple, slavered her tongue around it. "Because of you." Green eyes met blue in a serious gaze as she transferred Mel's grasp to the spindles on the headboard. "Don't you let go now," she warned in a low, throaty voice, her fingernails grazing the insides of long, supple arms. "The minute you let go...I stop."
The threat was implicit in word and tone. Mel licked her lips, trapping a corner of flesh between her teeth. Lips and tongue, white hot against glistening pale skin, murmured little endearments as they made lazy but determined progress down the length of her quivering, eager body. Legs parted, pearly gates welcoming, enveloping Janice's retreating form in a heady, fragrant embrace until her ankles crossed at the small of her back, drawing Janice into a needy union of flesh and teeth and tongue. At the first stroke, the master stroke - broad and rough and achingly slow - her hips left the bed in an instinctive spasm. Prickly, breath-snatching sensations, like tiny heart attacks, radiated outward from her groin. She screwed her eyes shut, in delicious agony. Hands, damp with sweat, closed into tight fists, wringing discordant squeaks from the wooden spindles of the headboard as Janice began her work in earnest, with a reverence generally reserved for prayer - the body as a temple. Minutes later, gathering breath for a scream, Mel's body arched like a bow under the expert ministrations of a devoted worshiper.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Make way! Hot, hot!" Emerging form the house, Janice moved briskly across the verandah clad only in one of Jack Greenway's voluminous shirts, balancing a thick slab of buttered sourdough bread atop the mug of hot tea. "Your tea."
Seated on the glider, Mel wordlessly opened the heavy blanket with one hand while accepting the proffered mug with the other. She was careful to hold the brimming hot liquid away from her as her partner situated herself against the warm niche of her hip. Once the glider had settled to a near standstill, she cooled her tea with a breath before taking a sip.
Janice bit into the slab of bread she had cut for herself and observed Mel over its glistening buttered surface; the blue eyes that returned her gaze were casually expectant. "Wha'?" she asked, her teeth sunk into the cottony-soft bread. She chewed and swallowed hurriedly in an effort to expedite the conversation. "Something wrong with your tea?"
"I can't believe you actually bit me." Mel sipped her tea through a tight grimace and tried to sound angry as she said, "You're insatiable," but the phrase came across as more a compliment than an indictment.
"I barely even broke the skin," Janice argued, pausing to lick a dollop of sweet butter from her fingers. "It didn't even bleed."
"Still an' all, you bit me."
"Hey, you could've let go at any time, remember? Now who’s insatiable?" Janice tucked her bare feet beneath her like a bird, commandeering a little more of the blanket for herself. "I think I sprained my tongue, if that’ll make you feel any better."
Mel looked horror-stricken for a moment as a thought struck her. "What if it scars?"
"It won't," countered Janice in breezy counterpoint.
"But if it does..." Mel persisted. "I mean, how does one explain bite marks there..."
Janice pulled away slightly, until she could no longer feel skin touching skin. "Why would you have to explain? C'mon, Mel," she coaxed playfully. "Think fast."
Equal to the challenge, Mel fired back, "My family doctor might ask."
Janice laughed. "Good answer." She popped the last morsel of bread into her mouth and, chewing thoughtfully, leaned into Mel, filling the hollows of her exquisite body like two spoons in a drawer. They sat in companionable silence for the next few minutes as the quarter moon descended below the foothills, briefly backlighting a stand of bare gum trees, their gnarled branches outstretched in an eerie, questing embrace. With the retreat of the moon, the breeze freshened, whispering through the tops of the trees. "This is beautiful, Mel." Janice's voice was furtive, as if she were imparting confidential information. "I can see what you love about the country."
"Mmm, but I've learned one thing in the last twelve hours..."
Janice snuggled closer, drawing her knees up and over Mel's thigh. "And that is?"
Encouraged by proximity and opportunity, Mel kissed her and replied, "That even the most breathtakin' panorama can be improved upon." Under the blanket, one hand absently caressed the sensitive skin behind Janice's knees. "Must be after two o'clock..."
Janice touched Mel's hand where it lay exposed, clasping the blanket closed around them. "Don't think about the time, Mel...no watches or clocks here. We have hours yet..." She threaded an arm around Mel's waist and felt her shiver. "Cold?"
Mel burrowed closer into her lover, until they exchanged breaths. "Maybe a little."
"Let's go inside." Janice set her feet on the ground, feeling the cool night air against her legs. "I can start a fire."
As Janice stood, Mel grabbed the dangling shirt tail and pulled her back into the fold of blanket. "Why don't you stay right here and start a fire?"
"Oh. Oh, I can do that, too."
* * * * * * * * * *
Janice awoke to find the sun coming over the horizon, washing the landscape in rich hues of sienna and gold. The horses in the paddock pawed the hard-packed earth and whinnied for their oats. A cloud of green finches wheeled with military precision in the translucent sky before lighting in a stand of pale gums to feast on the insects there. Bon appetite, guys. Two soft-boiled eggs, bacon crisp, hash browns scattered and smothered. Her mouth watered. As a prelude to breakfast, she stretched her arms and flexed her calves, rotated her ankles - minimal isometrics that began her every morning upon waking. Routine for routine's sake. It was the comforting weight upon her chest and the feel of a possessive arm across her middle that set this morning apart.
She drew the blanket over an exposed shoulder and peered intently into Mel's face, waiting for her to wake. Her anticipation was almost painful. She inhaled and pursed her lips, preparing to blow a cool breath across impossibly long eyelashes when her eyes caught movement at the far end of the verandah. Seated cross-legged atop a weathered coffee table, placidly sketching charcoal on a piece of butcher's paper, was Alice.
Janice's first instinct was to smile and nod, even as her heart was beating wildly against her sternum. "Morning," she said in a whisper.
As hoped, Alice took the cue, adopting a conspiratorial voice as she set her charcoal and paper aside. "Good morning."
Innocent brown eyes observed the possessive lover's clinch, and it occurred to Janice that Alice was either oblivious to the implications, or too tactful to make inquiries. She hoped it was a bit of both. She shifted, careful not to disturb Mel. “Been sitting there long?"
Alice shrugged. "Not very...twenty minutes. You both seemed so peaceful lying there...I didn't want to wake you."
Janice was pleasantly baffled. "You look exhausted...happy, but exhausted."
"Oh, but I had a great time." Alice moved quietly across the verandah to sit in the chair opposite Janice where she elaborated in an enthusiastic whisper, "The blackfellas roasted pig and yams, and we danced ‘round this huge fire, and Dinah and I stayed up talking almost the whole night."
Janice squinted into Alice's face. "Is that war paint?"
Alice made a tentative swipe at the dry circle of whitewash on her cheek. "Tribal totems, for Dinah's safe journey...It washes right off." She tilted her head and scanned the length of the glider. "Mel never lets me sleep in the glider overnight. Is it nice?"
Janice restrained her inclination to lie. "I've slept in sarcophagi more comfortable. Why don't you go inside and wash up? I'll dress and make you some kind of breakfast."
Alice stood. "It's already on the stove." One hand closed over the door handle. "I hope you like eggs and fried potatoes."
Janice's stomach growled audibly as a tantalizing aroma reached her nostrils. "Do I smell coffee?"
"Mr. Bonner gave me a quarter kilo of ground djumiya. It's what passes for coffee out here...strong enough to float an iron wedge, or so he said."
"Now there's an appetizing analogy," quipped Janice. "I tell you what: lemme wake Mel, and we'll be in in a few minutes." Alice nodded and disappeared inside the house. Janice listened for the sound of retreating footsteps before waking her companion. "Me...ellll..." she coaxed in a sing song voice. A little more forcefully, she crooned, "Mel, darlin'..." which succeeded in soliciting a murmur and a sleepy smile from her lover. Janice felt the weight of one long leg drape itself across her own, shinnying up her bare thighs while fingers trickled provocatively over her ribcage. She groaned in frustration. Be strong, Janice. "Mel," she said, raising her voice. "Wake up, the sun is rising."
Mel's eyes fluttered open briefly, "Five minutes..."
"The house is on fire."
Mel simply murmured, "Mmm, tha's nice..." and snuggled closer.
Janice rolled her eyes, shook Mel's shoulder and said sharply, "Mel, wake up. Alice is home."
Mel sat up quickly in the close confines of the glider, causing it to pitch and rock precariously. "Janice Covington," she scolded, narrowing her eyes to slits. "That was cruel." Gathering the blanket around her, Mel extracted herself from Janice's arms and stood, wiping the sleep from her eyes. "You definitely have a mean streak in you."
Uncovered and left to shiver in the chill morning air, Janice replied, "I thought we established that fact last night." She launched herself from the glider and squinted through the screen door just as Alice disappeared into the kitchen. The aroma of strong coffee wafted through the house, battering down her defenses. She shivered and wheeled where she stood. "Mel, you know I love you, but I gotta say that the attempt to break this to you gently is running neck and neck with my desire for a cup of coffee."
Mel opened her mouth to respond, preparing an acid retort, and instead tasted seasoned potatoes on her tongue. "You're really not jokin'." She took two quick strides to Janice's side and then was very still for a moment, separating the ambient sounds of nature from the clamor of activity in the kitchen. "How much did she see?"
By way of response, Janice picked up the charcoal drawing, an accurate, if primitive, rendering of the two lovers as observed by a third party. Shit. With some trepidation, she showed it to Mel. "What's that old saying? A picture's worth a thousand words?"
Mel's blue eyes went doe-eyed wide. "Oh my Jeezus..." she murmured.
"I dunno..." Janice regarded the drawing at an angle, as if considering a Picasso. "I think it's kinda sweet. Look there, she caught you perfectly."
Mel hissed indignantly, "I am so glad you find all of this amusin', Janice. You can afford to, after all...you're gonna get in that plane and take off, outta her life..." She hitched the blanket around her as it began to slip from her shoulders. "I, however, am committed to life under the same roof for just a while longer. What am I supposed to say to her?"
"Mel, relax." Janice put her hands on Mel's shoulders and steered her from the door. "I talked to her and -"
"You talked to her?" Mel was incredulous. "You talked to her over my sleepin' body?" she hissed. "Could you be any more casual?"
Janice clapped a hand across Mel's mouth and lowered her voice. "If you'd shut up for two seconds, I'm trying to say I talked to her and she seemed fine with everything. She's only 13 years old, Mel. She goes to a Catholic school, for Pete's sake." She peeled her hand away by degrees. "How much do you think she knows?"
"I didn't know anything at 13, and I went to Catholic schools," Janice retorted.
"Hardly a ringin' endorsement." She stepped to the door and peeked in. After a moment of consideration, she said, "I should go talk to her...say somethin'."
Janice put her hand on the doorknob. "I agree, but you might want to dress first," she quipped. She opened the door and pushed Mel, by the small of the back, over the threshold. Hugging the periphery of the room, prepared to make a mad dash if necessary, the pair proceeded down the hallway, breathing a sigh of relief only when the bedroom door closed and locked behind them. "Piece of cake," Janice said as she slid a pair of trousers over her hips.
Mel stepped into her dressing gown, tying it tightly around her waist as she gave her full length reflection a disapproving glance in the mirror. She felt a hand on her arm and turned to see Janice's worried face. "I don't have a clue what to say to her."
Janice touched Mel's face, a tender gesture as she imparted battlefield strategies. "Be honest, but brief. Answer direct questions, but don't volunteer any information."
There was a barely concealed glimmer of disapproval in Mel's eyes as she quipped, "Name, rank and serial number?"
Janice gave her a peck on the lips. "You catch on fast. No wonder I love you."
Mel laughed soundlessly and unlocked the bedroom door, turning back to look at Janice before leaving. "Any last advice?"
"Yeah," Janice replied sternly. "Smile. They can smell fear."
"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 drawing 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 knowledge. "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."
Mel reserved comment. "I should just hold my tongue. 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 her 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, huh?" 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 thumbs. "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."
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 rubberband. 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, the tide lapping at the shore. 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 side. "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 light-headed...like 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 get my bag...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.
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 Toledo...an 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 her 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; all thoughts of a speedy departure vanished from her mind. Acknowledging Mel's arrival 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..."
"...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. "Maybe 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?" she called as she met Alice's eyes.
"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."
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, 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. As Janice's lips parted to reply, Mel cut her off. "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 prying 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 tilted her head and looked seriously into her lover's eyes. "You will follow me...right?"
Mel suppressed the inclination to chuckle, but her 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, to clasp two large hands between her own. "I'm gonna miss you..." she confessed breathlessly.
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. "Can 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, smoothing her skirt and marshaling a 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 draped her jacket over her arm and accepted the book. "The Xena Scrolls," she intoned, reading from the spine. "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 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 probably 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 with the solemn announcement, "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?"
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 or 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 hanging loosely at her sides, her hands clenched into fists, 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 watching?"
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 folded her arms across her chest and 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 well‑placed 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. "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. "I love you, Janice."
Janice grinned and in an effort to forestall her own tears, fell back on the familiar rhythms of irony. "Gee, what a coincidence: I love you, too." She 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, up her throat, into her face, into the very tips of her hair. 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 humbling 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 in an audible pout. 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 tolerance. "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 her lips, she let her tears speak for her. "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.
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