Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chapter Thirty-Two: Starlight

When Compass finally awoke, it was already dark. It was very disconcerting, waking up in the dark and unsure if this was morning dark or evening dark. She looked at her clock: 6.17. Time for dinner or breakfast? Her head was sluggish and slow. She turned on the TV to find Katie Couric, which confused her still further. Was she still on daytime TV? Hadn’t she shifted to nights? Compass stared at the screen and tried to remember.

The cats were curled at opposite ends of her, one wrapped around her head like a hat, the other bundled under the blanket at her feet. Compass extended an experimental hand out from under the thick gray afghan. It was cold in her little home. She pulled the hand back in and reconsidered this whole getting-up idea. She was hungry, having not eaten since the scone, and she wasn’t even sure how long ago that had happened. The cats weren’t moving, and taking her cue from them, Compass closed her eyes and fell back to sleep.

The phone rang some time later, jolting Compass from a nice dream that had penguins in it. The cats were now on either side of her, pinning her under her blanket, so it took a bit of thrashing around before she could get loose to answer the phone.


“Compass? Hey, it’s Mark. Did I wake you?”

Early days of relationship, Compass noted. We’re still announcing ourselves by name on the phone.

“That’s OK. I needed to get up anyway. What time is it?”

“It’s a little after 7.”

“Ah.” Compass thought for a moment. “What day is it?”

Mark laughed. “I had the same problem. I wasn’t sure if it was Sunday night or Monday morning, and when I turned the TV on, it was Katie Couric, and that didn’t help at all.”

Compass felt warmer, just hearing him laugh. “And the answer is . . . ?”

“It’s still Sunday night. I thought we could maybe get some dinner.”

“That sounds fantastic. Give me a bit to clean up? And wake up?”

“You got it. I’ll come by in, say, 45 minutes?”

“I can do that.”

“Bring a sweater. And a jacket. It’s chilly out there.

Compass was showered and had clean teeth and relatively calm hair by the time Mark arrived 48 minutes later. Still in the throes of dress to impress mode, she had put on a skirt and blouse, but he sent her back into her closet for jeans, boots and a heavy sweatshirt.

“Where are you planning to have dinner, exactly? You know, they call it the Outback Steak House, but it’s not actually in the Outback.”

Mark just grinned from beneath his stocking cap. “You’ll see.”

They drove for about an hour, leaving the city lights far behind them.

“Lemme guess. My mom took a life insurance policy out on me today, and she’s hired you-”

Mark leaned down and cranked up Peter Gabriel on the radio, drowning Compass out. She gave up and the three of them sang “Salisbury Hill” as Mark turned off Highway 2 to follow a little dirt road that Compass could barely identify as a road.

They followed that for a little while, bumping and jostling through potholes and over rocks until finally they came out of the trees to a big, open prairie. In the darkness, Compass couldn’t make out the boundaries of the prairie; it could have stretched on forever, for all she knew. Or cared.

They drove across this open space for a while, finally ending up in front of a high cliff that reached up from the prairie to the sky. Mark turned off the engine, and they sat for a moment listening to the ticks and pings of the cooling car. Compass braced herself for the cold and got out of the car.

“Where are we?”

“Christmas Crag. It’s a popular spot for rock climbers. I’ve been here a few times, but I’ve always wanted to see the place after dark.”

“Why’s it called that?”

Mark took her arm and turned her toward the cliffs. He pointed up, and Compass could just make out a single, perfectly shaped fir tree silhouetted against the starry sky.

“It’s at the top of Unclimbable, so named because it really is. You can’t tell in the dark, but this part of the cliff is actually broken off, separate from the rest. And it’s slick as ivory and wet nearly all year ‘round, there aren't any bolts, and nowhere to place protection. No one I know has ever even attempted it. But every year at Christmastime, someone decorates it. Someone climbs up there with tinsel and ornaments and a big silver star and decks it out for Christmas. No one knows who does it. Cool, huh?”

“It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful here.” It really was. It had rained recently, and the air smelled of clean, fresh dirt and pine trees. It was so still that Compass could hear the ringing in her ears.

“I thought you’d like it.” And even in the dark, Compass could hear him grinning.

Using the light from his headlights, Mark pulled a tarp out of the back of his car and laid it on the ground. On top of this, he put a blanket, then another blanket, then a basket.

“The battery’s good. Should last us awhile,” he said.

“No, please turn the lights off, will you? There’s enough light to see by.” Much too bright, the lights felt artificial, intrusive. Mark shut the headlights off, and they sat together on the blanket, readjusting to the darkness.

There really was quite a lot of light, more and more as the clouds rolled away and the sky slowly filled with stars like someone pouring diamonds into a bowl. It was, if not a full moon, then near enough as to make no difference, and it rose fat and shiny as a new dime.

Mark had been to the Japanese shop down in the International District. He pulled out fried garlic tofu, deep in sweet plum sauce, and a container of rice and veggies still steaming when he unwrapped several layers of towels from around it. He even had chopsticks and hot coffee laced with Bailey’s Irish Cream in his thermos. For dessert he produced thin slivers of apple, sweet and crisp, to dip into honey.

They didn’t talk much, just enjoyed a silence thick enough to wrap around their ears. The food was delicious – eating in the dark made Compass more aware than usual of the smells and tastes and textures of her food. When they finished, Mark packed the empty containers back in the basket and handed Compass a little foil packet. She was about to laugh at his presumption when she realized she was holding a handi-wipe. Then she had to laugh at her own. She wiped her sticky fingers, gave the trash to Mark to put in his basket, and lay flat on the blankets to watch the sky.

Mark came back from the car with one final blanket. He pulled off his shoes and lay down next to her, pulling the blanket over them. They lay for a long, silent moment, watching blips of airplanes, counting stars, making wishes. Mark put his arm under Compass’s head as a pillow, and despite the chill air and lying on the stony ground, Compass thought she’d never been so comfortable.

“You really came prepared,” she said, a feeble attempt at a thank you she didn’t know how to say.

“I used to do this with my family when I was a kid. My parents and my brothers and I would drive out into the mountains, find a place, eat a bunch of good food my mom had packed, and fall asleep on the blanket as my parents talked.”

“That sounds nice.”

“It really was. My brothers and I never fought on those trips, which is pretty amazing, really. But they were special, you know? We didn’t want to break the spell.”

“I get that.”

“What fun stuff did you do when you were a kid?”

Compass thought hard to remember. “There wasn’t much. My mom was never . . . a fun person. But I went to camp every summer. Camp Tecumseh. We ate s’mores and wove lumpy wallets out of prairie grass and swam in the lake, stuff like that.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did,” Compass said, surprising herself a little. “I never thought I would. I protested every summer, but I always liked it. I think I just hated having to do the ‘getting to know you’ stuff every summer. There was always that risk that this summer I’d be that kid everyone picked on. I never was, but I always worried about it. Little girls are vicious, you know.”

“You go through the world worrying that people aren’t going to like you? Has it ever happened to you that someone didn’t? Ever?”

“Just my mom.” Compass meant it as a joke, but it came out all wrong. She told him the story of what had happened after he left the hospital. He was quiet for such a long time, she worried she’d put him to sleep.

“It strikes me,” he said at last, startling Compass a little, “that there’s more there than you know. Probably more than you’ll ever know. You’re an awesome person, Compass; I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like you unless they had some warped reason for it that had nothing to do with you.”

Compass snuggled up a bit against Mark’s side. He was so warm, she couldn’t imagine him ever feeling cold.

“I don’t remember her ever liking me,” said Compass. “I grew up with a nanny. Doesn’t that sound weird in this day and age? To have a nanny? We weren’t rich, but we had enough money for that. I don’t know, maybe we were rich. Anyway, the nanny – Jenny – was young and fun and sweet and she loved me. Mom was like a ghost for most of my childhood. She wafted through rooms, scaring people, and we reported mom-sightings to each other because they were so rare.”

“What happened to Jenny?”

“She went back to England. Don’t say it, I know; a British nanny, even. I was 12 when she left. I used to write to her a lot, and she’d send me baskets of Twiglets and Scottish shortbread cookies and Cadbury’s fudge bars. Then mom made her quit because she thought I was getting fat. After that she sent me soaps from Bronnley, fun things from Harrods, stuff like that.”

“Do you still hear from her?”

“She died eight years ago. I didn’t know about it until I got a check from Mitchell & Norris, Solicitors, for 148 pounds. I was in her will. That was my share of her estate.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been bad.”

“It was. I cried a lot. I told Mom, but she just shrugged it off, of course. I used the money to pay part of a ticket to England to visit her grave. I stayed with her brother’s family. They told me a lot about her that I never knew.” Compass sighed. “She went back to England because she had some great, mysterious love affair, and she was apparently pining for the guy. But the relationship was never healthy and ended badly. She never told me about it, and her family never met the guy. I was the closest thing she had to a family of her own, I guess.”

“That’s not so bad.”

“She was a writer. I mean, she was going to be. She wrote a book about life with me and my mom, but she couldn’t find a publisher.” Compass started snickering, remembering. “They said it wasn’t believeable enough – the mom was too much of a cartoon villainess. Can you believe that?” Compass went from a snicker to full-on hoots of laughter, tears rolling from her eyes to soak Mark’s sleeve. “The original Nanny Diaries.”

Mark started laughing too, and then there was a lot of rolling and thrashing about and holding of stomachs and then holding of each other’s stomachs and then some very different rolling and thrashing and another foil packet and they glowed so brightly together that another star lit up, way up in the night above them.

When it was over and all was still again, Mark wrapped his long, lean legs around Compass, anchoring her so she didn’t fall into the sky. Compass wanted to drift off into sleep, but it was too cold here, and uncertain rustlings in the grass nearby were eventually going to penetrate her post-coital calm.

“I have to go back to the house,” she said, her voice calm and steady against the blackness.

“I’ll go with you. We’ll dress in black and paint our faces with charcoal and sneak around with flashlights.” Mark’s voice was sleepy and amused.

“So, no different from usual trips to visit Mom, then. You know, I pretty much tore that place up looking for clues to her disappearance. I didn’t see any more boxed bugs. I don’t think there are any. She would have sold the jewels off by now.”

“The emerald has to be somewhere,” Mark reminded her. “Best guess is it’s in the house. Or maybe we’ll find a key to a safety deposit box.”

“Or a locker at the train station, like in the movies.”

“Why not?” Mark cupped his hands together and blew, making a hoot like an owl. From somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted back.

They lay for another moment until, very nearby, a group of coyotes starting singing. Compass shot out from under the blankets at the unexpected sound, and that set Mark off laughing again. In the time it took him to get under control, Compass had the blankets folded and the car packed. It took forever to get back to the main road, and once one of the coyotes trotted in front of the car, unafraid, his eyes glowing red in the headlights. Compass stared back, thrilled to the core.

“Can we come here again, when it’s warmer?”

“Anytime you want,” said Mark, and he rubbed his free hand along her thigh.

Compass hadn’t thought of Jenny in years, but now her head was crowded with her: Jenny laughing, Jenny trying to be serious and failing, Jenny making faces behind Mina’s back when she didn’t know Compass could see her.

All of a sudden, Compass couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see through the spots in her eyes.

“Oh my god,” she finally croaked out. “Oh my god.”

“What?” Mark took one look at her face and pulled the car over.

Compass had to force her body to speak. “Jenny had a bracelet. I remember playing with it when I was little. Jenny said never to tell Mom about it because it was our secret. It was a charm bracelet with little silver charms, lots of them. She got a new one every year on her birthday, in the mail, from England.”

“OK . . .”

“The charms, Mark. The charms were dragonflies.”


NuclearToast said...

ARGH! More dragonflies, more questions! But what a great chapter! I have an urge to go on a picnic now...

stag62 said...

Nice move! But yes... always more questions. I can't wait for more answers. Does Mark have a brother? I think we all need a Mark (sigh)

Ash said...

Great chapter! More soon please! I can't wait to figure out the Jenny connection!