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Jack came alive in my senses. He rolled toward me, all warm and naked, a cresting wave of perfect masculinity. He took me in his hands, all rough but gentle, and I reached out and touched the place where golden wires of hair curled all moist with sweat above his heart. I inhaled the perfume of his maleness, the separate scents of sweet clean skin and acrid sexuality entwining in my nostrils, more intoxicating than the exhalations of fresh hay, more riveting than the arrow of first light across the prairie on a clear, crisp morning. Now I tasted his kiss, a mixing of vital juices served up in the glass of life. I listened to his breath, a long, shuddering exhalation that bore my name like a leaf on a river that flows out of the mountains: "Em."
He came to me with the force and surrender of the ocean meeting the shore. He was smiling, and yet his hands trembled, as if with fear. Again he whispered my name, and again. "Em. Em ..." It became a hum, a rumbling from his deep interiors, a cat purr, an earthquake. He was in love, now kissing my neck, my throat, the place between my breasts. In the clarity of those moments, I was real only where he touched me, a taut line of existence that ran from my head clear through to my crotch as one burning wire. I squirmed on the sheets, unable to process the chaos of sensation.
Our promise thus offered to the changing winds of theFates, we fell asleep, long months of courtship settled at last. He had loved me that night so long and so intensely that although I at last lay quietly, I still felt the rolling of his hips in the muscles of my own, much as (I would soon come to know) a sailor still feels the sea hours after walking onto land. Even the arrival of sleep came in waves, by turns submerging me in dreams and lifting me to the waking clarity of peace and happiness in the roll of dust motes all golden in the first light of a perfect summer's dawn.
The damned telephone woke us not two hours later. How I wish he had not answered it.
"Hello?" he said groggily, one hand clutching the instrument to his ear, the other sliding down my belly in proprietary exploration.
It was my turn to roll toward him. I nuzzled up under his chin, worked one thigh between his, licked his neck. I heard a tiny voice coming out of the phone, squeaky, all quick and agitated. He said, "Yeah, you woke me but--okay--no, give me a moment, will you?" And then he got out of bed. As I watched him walk away, I thought playfully, He'll come right back if he knows what's good for him!
But he didn't. I suppose I fell back to sleep, because the next thing I remember was the shower running, and then the scent of bacon frying, and the breakfast tray landing gently on the bed. He was already dressed, and not in his customary Saturday sweatshirt and jeans but in chinos and a pressed shirt, ready for work.
"You're kidding," I said. "Tell me this is some kind of joke."
Jack blushed, which was rare. He's blond enough that after it rose past his receding hairline, I could see the redness transit his scalp. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I do have to go. You can stay here, of course, as long as you like. Make yourself to home." Then, slipping into his most Southern of Southern drawls, he popped me on the nose and said, "I got to go fer a while, cupcake. Bum timing. I'll be back. Don' chew fret."
"When will you be back?"
He cleared his throat. "I'm, really, truly sorry to tell you, my succulent little treat,"--here he took my chin in his hand and bent to kiss me--"but it could be days. I'll be in touch as often as possible. Come on, eat up, this is getting cold."
I thought, Getting cold? No shit! But I put a lid on my temper and ate. There's no excuse for wasting good eggs and bacon.
So that was it. We had just one night together before he left on his unspecified assignment.
He called the first night. "Hi there, love."
"Jack! Where are you?"
A sigh. "Sorry, but I can't tell you. I'd like to set up a time each day when I can phone you."
"Does this mean you might be gone more than a couple of days?" I tried to keep the edge out of my voice. I told myself, This is how it might always be, Em. The man's a security specialist. A spook. He goes to places he can't admit to being and does things he can't talk about. You knew this going into the relationship.
Yeah, but before last night, the phone calls weren't calling him out of my bed, I countered, arguing with myself.
It wasn't your bed, it was his.
Don't get technical!
(I lose a lot of arguments with myself.)
So we set up a time when he'd call. And then he didn't.
One night. Just long enough to catch me like a thorn, just short enough to make me doubt my heart, and my sanity. Either way, enough to send me looking for him. To Florida, of all places.
You say, Florida? Em Hansen, renegade Wyoming cowgirl, itinerant geologist, in Florida? The Em Hansen who regards open water with something akin to morbid fear? Em Hansen in a state almost completely surrounded by water? No, it's even worse than that. Florida is not only surrounded by water, it's saturated with it. The parts that aren't chin-deep swamp are undercut by limestone solutioncavities that are full of water, and at any moment the ground might collapse and drop you and your Buick into a brand-new lake. But yes, I went to Florida and I'm here to tell the tale.
I went to Florida with the standard measures of ignorance--that Florida doesn't even have any geology, for starts, and that instead of cattle ranches they farm alligators, when in fact they have all three. Geology, I mean, and cattle ranches, and alligator farms. Reptiles, for heaven's sake. We have reptiles in Wyoming--snakes and lizards, to be precise--but you can whack them with a shovel if you have to, and like as not you'll never even see them, the both of you going your own way and having a nice life, just as things were meant to be. You don't have to worry that they're going to walk up across your lawn and eat your pet dog. Not that we have many lawns in Wyoming, or keep dogs just as pets, but bottom line, we have no reptiles in Wyoming bigger than you can stuff in your hat.
In summary, therefore, you might ask if I had taken leave of my senses. On the contrary, going to Florida was entirely a thing of the senses. Each time I thought of Jack, and each time the wind brushed my cheek, and each time my nostrils caught the scent of a flower, he came to me all over again, and the day-to-day sanity of the ordinary world would dissolve into a thing sight and sound and touch and taste and scent all over again; a thing more real and riveting than the moment, so intoxicating that wherever I was, I'd stop, and grab a railing, or touch a wall so I wouldn't fall over. Eyes closed, I'd be right back in that place where all things came together in a moment that belonged to him.
It would come over me like a wave. Overpowering. Compelling. Debilitating. Enough to make me, who feared water, long for it as the nearest substitute for the completeness of the experience. Eyes closed, hand groping for some solid object, I was gone in memory again, both loving it and terrified.
It was a haunting, pure and simple: Having caught myheart, Jack vanished like a ghost, and I was left with all the agony of being fully corporeal, stuck in a body that longed for his. You just don't do that to a woman. Or at least, not this woman. I had waited too long for him. The middle of my thirties had come and was quickly leaving. That made me old enough to value life and too young to be philosophical about it.
I told myself to relax, that he'd call when he could. Bereft of contact, I ran my sensory movie, or should I say it ran me, until remembering worked its way deep enough to drive me into foolish action.
That action was a visit to Tom Latimer, the man who had introduced us. As I drove to Tom's house, I promised myself that I'd just ask a few questions. Drop by and say hello. Maybe ask if he had heard from Jack. Real casual-like. But as I stared at the carpet in Tom's living room, fighting back the latest wave of longing, I couldn't hide the fact that I was worried.
Out of the corner of one eye I saw Tom's wife, Faye Carter (who was lounging back on the couch in an attempt to get comfortable) move her legs to a new position, then try another. She looked down at her belly as if having a conversation with it. The baby was getting big in there. Her lips curved in a private smile. Was the baby kicking her?
Tom and Faye had been married and formally cohabiting only a handful of months, and the living room still had a look of impermanence and all-too-recent attempts to weave two lifestyles into one. Pictures leaned against the wall waiting to be hung, and books were stacked randomly. Isolating himself within this chaos, Tom observed me as abstractly as if watching a dog sniffing something on the sidewalk across the street. In his usual austere fashion, he sat sideways in a straight-backed chair, supporting his grizzled chin in one hand. Since marrying Faye and taking early retirement from the FBI, he seemed to have gone slightly out of focus. On this occasion, he had forgotten to shave, or perhaps had decided consciously that such matters of outward concern could wait. The salt-and-pepper stubblemade him look older, old enough to be Faye's father (which was very nearly the case), even though he still kept his long, lean body rock hard. I almost wished he would return to work. Then, I would have a clue what was going on in the remote vastness of his mind. Clearing his throat, he said, "Jack won't be gone all that long, Em."
"He said maybe just a few days."
"Right, and it's only been, what? Four?"
"Six. And I haven't heard from him in five, even though he said he'd call every evening."
"Not even a week. That's nothing. It's like this in the Bureau."
Faye grunted derisively.
He considered the stink-eyed stare she fixed on him, then said, "That's one reason in so many that I was willing to quit, Faye. It's not much of a life when you get sent out of state. Adventure, maybe ..." He sighed, then turned his words toward me. "Em, you're forgetting that Jack was sent here from out of state to begin with. It was just as long as we were working on that project together that he got to stay here. Now he's off on some other ops. Or something." His gaze suddenly turned inward, like a sea creature retracting a tentacle when poked. What had he just said to himself that had triggered that reaction?
I said, "Where out of state, Tom? What state, for instance ?"
Tom did not answer.
I said, "Have you heard from him?"
Without looking at me, he shook his head.
I glanced over at Faye for support. She gave me doe eyes and pursed her lips sympathetically. She knew my little fact, that Jack Sampler and I had slept together ... made love ... for the first time the night before he had taken off.
From the close examination Tom was now making of his fingernails, I knew that he knew this fact of my personal history, too. Faye would not have exactly told Tom, but hehad, after all, been an FBI agent, one of the best, and was damned good at reading between the lines.
I began interpreting ambient data a little bit myself, such as the fact that Tom was choosing his words carefully and avoiding making eye contact with me. I wondered for a moment if this was an unspoken judgment of the predicament in which I found myself, and thought: Tom, you social dinosaur, but then told myself, Don't project this on Tom, Em. He is for once just trying to stay out of your business. And your business is legitimate. Jack's a good man and he loves you. And he'll be back. People walking out of your life, and you walking out of theirs, is a thing of the past.
I stared at my own fingernails for a while, reassuring myself that there had been nothing casual in what Jack and I had done. Jack and I had met on a job. After the case was wrapped up, we had kept seeing each other. Jack came along as witness when Tom got married, and I was there for Faye. After that, everything seemed to glide along smoothly. It was all very natural.
Jack wore well, as my mother used to say. He was a big man, nicely framed and pleasantly muscled, the kind of guy who's fun to show off. He was a Southerner by upbringing, or at least, that was what I had come to presume about him. He was not much on offering up details about himself and he gave short answers to leading questions. Asking, "Where did you go to high school?" got me, "Down South." I tried a few times to pump Tom Latimer for information about him, but he said little beyond, "Jack? I don't know. But I'd trust him with my life." So Jack was a friend for the long haul, but also a creature of the moment, and that suited me well enough that I had quit asking questions after a while.
Then one day we went hiking in the mountains east of Salt Lake, and he sat me down on a rock next to a beautiful stream and went down on one knee. "Em, sweet thang," he murmured, nuzzling my hand, "will you be my lady?"
I watched the mountain breezes play though his hair. A fish broke the surface of the nearest pool, and a woodpeckerjumped from one tree to the next. "I thought I kind of was," I replied.
"I mean, would you please accompany me to the clinic for a little blood work?"
How times have changed, I thought, we now prove our love by our willingness to visit professionals in white coats to check for viruses before we jump in the sack. About as sensual and spontaneous as filling out a form 1040 for the IRS.
Remembering this, sitting in Tom and Faye's living room, the wave of longing hit me again, so strong this time that I gasped for air. The room seemed to dissolve, and Tom and Faye seemed like people outside a fish bowl staring in at me.
I snapped, "How long will he be gone, Tom?"
"As I said, another week. Maybe two. Three, tops."
"Where'd he go?"
Tom stared out the window. "I don't know."
"Don't know or can't say?"
Tom's face darkened. "I'm out of the loop, Em. I'm retired from the Bureau, remember?"
"Yeah, but he's your pal."
He fixed an unreadable gaze on me and said concisely, "I think that now you are closer to him than I am."
He was twisting words. I could feel it in the little muscles that were tensing up all over my body. But I said nothing more. I didn't want to tell him about the craving I felt to be near Jack, or the boredom I felt sitting around waiting for him to return.
Faye shifted slightly on the couch. It was a subtle movement; just an odd rotation of her hip, but something in it seemed like a signal. And the expression on her face was suddenly a little too innocent. "Tom," she said, "I've been thinking. It's about time for a last trip before baby comes. How about Em and I go down to Florida and visit my aunt? Get a little sunshine, and--"
Tom's eyes snapped toward her. His voice hardeninginto a tone of warning, he said, "It's perfectly sunny here, darling."
I pounced. "Florida?"
Faye went into a cat stretch, pointing her long legs toward Tom. It arched her round, smooth belly outward, emphasizing the voluptuousness of her pregnancy. She fixed a smile on him that would melt butter in January. "Florida is lovely this time of year, no matter what anyone says. The humidity is good for the skin, and it rains almost every afternoon, breaking the heat. We could just hang out ..."
Tom closed his eyes and pinched thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
She purred, "Tell her, Tom. Come on."
Tom slammed his fist against the back of the chair. "Faye! Have you been listening in on my private conversations ?"
I jumped in quickly lest the point of my conversation be lost in another of a long string of domestic squabbles. "Where in Florida?"
Tom's entire person was focused on Faye, his head down like a stalking animal. Faye shrank back into the couch, no doubt wondering how her do-gooding had gone wrong for her this time. Tom spoke from between clenched teeth, his voice a hiss. "Yes, Faye, I'd like to know that myself. And I'd like to know exactly how you know it!"
"It was nothing, Tom! The word 'Florida' was all I heard. Honest. You raised your voice for a moment while you had your head in the refrigerator to get him a beer, that was all." Faye's tone waxed sarcastic. "I admit I had to strain a little to hear, but aren't you proud of me? Doesn't that make me a good detective?"
Tom cackled viciously. "No, you are not. Your friend Em here is the detective."
"Forensic geologist," I interjected, still trying to knock him off his track.
Tom said, "Forensic geo-detective, Junior Woodchuck, whatever; Em, you just stay out of this. Faye, I demand toknow! Have you or have you not been listening in on my private discussions?"
Faye managed to look affronted. "No. You guys were just talking--you know, having your beer before Jack took off--and I was lying down in the bedroom there minding my own business, thank you very much!" Quickly she added, "I suppose you didn't know I was in the house."
"We damned well did not!"
I hollered, "Is there some good reason I can't know where Jack is?"
Tom's posture stiffened, which told me that until then, he hadn't been as worked up as he'd been trying to appear. He had jumped on Faye to try to shut her up, and had continued his attack as a crude subterfuge to evade my questions. Faye seemed to have read that in him, too. She smiled brightly, a kind of girl-scout-cookie-salesperson grin meant to sell him on something he didn't want. On Faye's aristocratic face it looked downright goony. "That's all I heard you say. Honest." She wiggled her eyebrows at him.
He wiggled his graying eyebrows back.
Afraid now that I might at any moment lose them into the bedroom, I roared, "Come on, Faye! If that's all you heard Tom say, then what did Jack say?"
Faye looked from her husband to me doubtfully, then shrugged her shoulders. "Well, he said he was going to Florida."
I said, "And?"
"And something about 'code-name dust,' and 'don't tell Em, she'll get the wrong idea.'"
I glanced at Tom. His lips twisted wildly for a moment, then he turned and stormed out of the room. I heard the back door open and slam shut. Heard a car engine start up. Heard the sound of tires squealing on blacktop as the vehicle left the curb abruptly.
I looked at Faye. We both knew that this was no act.
She stared at her belly and began to cry.
I thought of going to her and trying to comfort her, butfound that I could not move. I now knew where Jack was, geographically--two thousand miles east and south--but without more information, that was just a compass direction along which to direct my longing. And, jammed right up against that longing, I now suffered a new, infinitely worse emotion: the first shards of fear.
Copyright © 2003 by Sarah Andrews Brown.