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Finally, they arrive at the familiar: Sarge and Skye, soaking at the springs, drinking martinis, smoking cigars. Andorra sits at the crystal table, carefully braiding Rachel’s hair. Shafts of sunlight land at points all around them. A squadron of patio heaters fights off the October chill.
Sarge has been occupied with business matters, but still has made time to introduce some amusements. Skye’s favorite was a mining tunnel converted into a lawn bowling golf course. The track included mini-golf novelties like ramps, spirals and fountains. At one point, Skye had to roll up his pants to rescue his ball from a water hazard. They also went to a private theater to watch Bird and Lady Sings the Blues, and later played with an interactive music machine. One could change elements – samba to bossa nova, sax to trumpet, fast or slow tempos – by placing tokens on an illuminated table. The next day, Sarge and Skye jogged on a pair of treadmills with a 360-degree video screen. They ran through the Champs Elysee, then Angkor Wat and Mount McKinley. Their meals were one bonanza after another: Scottish haggis, oysters on the half-shell, Cajun jambalaya with hush puppies. Last night, they sat in a small boat, anchored in Sarge’s swimming pool, as remote-control tugboats motored their way with plates of sushi.
Sarge lived an imaginative life, and a single day at the Springs offered more sensations than the average person took in during a month. Still, nothing worked. With one surprising exception, Rachel was more of a blank slate than ever.
They are smoking cigars with green wrappers. Sadly, the effect is strictly visual – they smoke and taste exactly like their brown brethren.
“I could swear,” says Skye, “that those two have become sisters.”
Sarge attempts a smoke ring and gets a pretzel. “You are more on the mark than you know. Andorra lost a little sister to cholera. They were very close. I imagine that this is very good for her.”
“And it couldn’t hurt Rachel.”
“So you’re the expert on Rachelosophy,” says Sarge. “Any changes?”
Skye takes a deep drag, considering how much candor their friendship can withstand. “Last night she… took liberties.”
“It was sort of a matter of preparing the equipment and hopping on board.”
“That is very surprising.”
“She appeared to be asleep. I would guess that she was able to access those desires at the level of dreaming, which is one of the few levels still open to her. I was not thinking this at the time, of course. I was thinking, Aren’t I a lucky boy.”
“You certainly were. And if I were more of a cad, I would say that a woman who has sex with you but refuses to talk is pretty much the perfect mate. But of course I’m not a cad, and I would never say something so callous.”
Skye gives him a conspicuous once-over. “You are an evil man. But there’s more to this thought. I have known people who, directly after losing someone close, become incredibly horny. It’s a natural response. You fight off the power of death by tapping into the power that creates life.”
Sarge takes a thoughtful sip. “Perhaps that explains the popularity of horror movies. If you take your date to see all that death and gore, perhaps she’ll have the same reaction.”
“Write up a thesis. I’ll see if I can get it published in a journal.”
“I’ll put it on my list.”
The steam from their tubs drifts into a beam of sunlight, creating drifts of golden fog. Andorra is applying a curling device to Rachel’s eyelashes.
“She’s like a doll.”
“Yes,” says Skye. “And I wonder if I should be more afraid of what happens when she comes out of this.”
Sarge waits a long time before responding. “Because you’re in love with her?”
“Tomorrow, my friend, I pull out the secret weapon. An adventure you will not soon forget.”
“Because it’s you, Sarge, that statement scares me a little.”
Sarge laughs. “It should.”
They breakfast in the back garden that Skye recalls from his first visit. A few days of sun have melted the snow, but a fresh front of clouds are gathered in the west. Sarge seems determined to fortify them with hearty foods: an array of sausages with hash browns and a spinach omelet. He has also supplied them with hiking clothes. He sits at the head of the table, blowing steam from a mug of Nicaraguan coffee.
“So,” says Skye. “You’re going to remain mysterious about this.”
“Have to,” says Sarge. “Otherwise, it would lose all its charm.”
“Well, whatever it is,” says Skye, patting his parka, “it’s going to be rugged.”
“Helicopter skiing? Rugby? Who knows?” He stands. “Are we all nourished?”
Rachel hasn’t been nourished for weeks – is, in fact, beginning to show ribs – but Skye’s in the mood to be optimistic. “Quite nourished! Sir!”
“Excellent, private. I recommend a pee-break all around, and then we venture forth.”
He takes them to the horsetrack auditorium and all the way across, to a non-descript door that may as well lead to a janitor’s closet. The other side reveals a long tunnel, granite carved away in scallops, bright lights positioned overhead at regular intervals. Upon a pair of tracks sits an unusual vehicle: a red metal cube with wedges of black at either end, like the front halves of two minivans welded together. The doors slide back in the fashion of an elevator, and they walk inside.
The interior offers a U-shaped bench covered in black leather, surrounding a sleek gray coffee table with cup-holders and two stationary iPads. Along the back stands a black cabinet with beer taps and a coffeemaker.
The black wedges turn out to be tinted windshields. Each end of the vehicle is equipped with two captain’s chairs. The interior is tall enough that you can stand without ducking your head.
Sarge goes to the cabinet. “Drinks, anyone?”
“I’ll have white wine,” says Andorra.
“I’d like another coffee,” says Skye.
After distributing the beverages and taking a beer for himself, Sarge joins them on the couch. “Ready for launch?” He gets no answer. “I’ll take that for a yes.”
He turns on one of the iPads and punches a series of buttons. The doors close, the interior lights go down and the vehicle slides forward, producing a barely audible hum. The ride is tremendously smooth; the only hints of movement are the tunnel lights flashing past.
Sarge sits down and takes a swig. “I think this is my favorite toy of all.”
“How fast are we going?”
“Not too. Maybe forty. Join me on the bridge?”
Skye takes his arm from Rachel’s shoulder and nudges her toward Andorra, who pulls her close and smooths her hair.
The view at the front is a bit over-stimulating, what with the full frontal windshields. Skye keeps expecting patches of sunlight, perhaps even a brief passage to the upper world, but they remain resolutely underground. The overhead lights are a little hypnotizing.
“Yep. Piped in through the wheels. I guess you’ve noticed, I’m a little geeky about technology.”
“This tunnel is a tremendous bit of luck. It is built almost entirely of pre-existing silver mines. Still, it took ten years to finish.”
“But definitely worth the wait.”
“And you’re not going to give the slightest hint where we’re going.”
“Okay, you’ve got me. There’s a ‘Niners game today; we’re on the fifty yard line.”
“It’s a tremendously long tunnel.”
“Okay. But wherever it is, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”
After a long straightaway, the vehicle slows to a halt at the tunnel’s end. They pile out and do a little stretching at the side of the tracks. Sarge proceeds to a door just as non-descript as the first, pulls out a key and undoes a padlock. They climb a flight of rough metal steps and come to a set of rungs fixed to the wall. Sarge reaches for the ceiling, hits a latch on a circle of metal and pushes it open.
“This is the tricky part,” he says. “One of these days, I’m going to find a grizzly up there.”
He pushes through. The hatch swings to one side and lands with a thunk. Gray light filters into the stairwell.
“Aha! No grizzlies.”
Sarge climbs out, then spins around to peer back in. “Why don’t you send Rachel first?”
Skye nudges Rachel upward, while Sarge takes her hand and pulls her through. Andorra and Skye follow.
They’re standing in a blanket of ferns, under a stand of Douglas firs. A light snow trickles through the canopy. Sarge lowers the hatch and covers it with leaves. He claps the dirt from his hands and walks toward a narrow trail. Andorra follows.
Skye takes Rachel’s hand. “Time for an adventure, honey.”
The trail skirts a jumble of granite boulders and crosses a small field. Next to a small creek stands a tree with ochre leaves, half of them fallen. They cross into another stand of evergreens, trying to keep up with Sarge’s pace. A hundred feet on, Skye sees the light of another field. By this time, Rachel is running.
Andorra and Sarge turn just in time for Rachel to dash between them. Skye comes soon after.
“Rachel?! What the hell!”
He’s amazed that someone who’s been so dormant can move so fast. The cold air is burning his throat, but he’s afraid to let up. Rachel stops halfway across the field and drops to her knees. Skye jogs to a stop and lands behind her, wrapping her up. She’s shaking, breathing in ragged huffs, and staring at something across the field.
Skye follows her gaze and finds a monstrous block of blue-gray stone, like a mountain that’s been split in two. The frame of snowfall gives it the feel of a dream, but it’s real, and it’s Half Dome.
“It’s beautiful, honey, but for God’s sake, you didn’t have to take off like that.”
Her breathing slows. Snowflakes stick to her hair. Skye hears the hurried footsteps of Andorra and Sarge.
“I design clothes for Barbie.”
He shuffles around to look her in the face. The lights are on.
“The day job. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you. I’m a fashion designer for a toy company.”
Skye says nothing.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
He kisses her on the cheek. “It’s good to see you.”
“Is that really Half Dome?”
They end up in the grand dining hall of the Awahnee Hotel. As if nothing extraordinary has happened. As if none of them has recently returned from the dead.
“And how’s the asparagus?” asks Rachel. “It’s not overcooked, is it?”
The waiter is a stick-thin college boy who seems incapable of taking offense.
“They are especially careful of that. Just the right bit of crunch. I promise.”
“Wonderful. Thank you.”
The waiter heads off and the table grows quiet. Rachel reads the pause and keeps talking.
“Don’t you love the beams in this place? It looks like someone carved them with an ax. I’ve seen photographs of Ansel Adams here, performing in amateur skits.”
She stops. Nothing.
“Do I have a large insect sticking out of my forehead?”
Skye takes a sip of water. “Do you remember much from the last few weeks?”
“You know those stories about people dying on the operating table, floating above themselves, watching the doctors try to save them?”
“Out-of-body?” asks Andorra.
“Just like that. I was living in this world where I felt normal, but everyone around me acted like I wasn’t. And I remember everyone. I remember Mickey and his crazy Cadillac. I remember Sarge, who’s been so gracious, and Andorra, who’s taken such good care of me. And Skye…”
She stops and looks at him, and then she takes his hand.
“You’ve been so good to me. I don’t know what I did to…” She picks up her napkin and dabs at her face. “I’m sorry. I get a little emotional.”
Skye feels his body filling up with light. “Not lately.”
“No,” she says. “I guess not.”
The food arrives. They dig in as if they had not, just two hours earlier, consumed an enormous breakfast. Rachel seems to be making up for lost time. Halfway through his salmon, Sarge wipes his mouth with a napkin.
“Well let me say, Rachel, now that you’re back with us, how sorry I am about… your parents.”
Rachel stops mid-bite. “I didn’t realize you knew about them.”
“Well, yes. Skye told me.”
She takes a bite of her chicken and chews it down. “I do miss my mother sometimes. But that’s the sad reality about abused women. You tell them to get away, you cajole them, you threaten to call the cops. Then you call the cops. You threaten to leave them forever, and then one day you realize you have to make good on that threat, too, if only to save yourself. I keep hoping one day she’ll show up on my doorstep.”
Skye shares a glance with Sarge and takes Rachel’s hand under the table.
They cross the valley floor in dying light, Yosemite Falls dangling above them like heaven’s necktie. Sarge uses a scanner to home in on the hatch, and is soon escorting them into the tunnel.
Skye feels a little cursed, so pleased to have Rachel’s legs draped over his lap on the ride back, so burdened with what she doesn’t seem to remember. He receives his reward that night. Rachel’s body is electric, her nerve endings packed with energy. She smiles, wrapped against him, her eyes half closed.
“Okay,” she says. “Now I’m tired for a good reason. Thanks, Big Skye.”
“I like the sound of that. Very Montana.”
“Did we get to Montana?”
“Missed it by fifty miles.”
“Damn shame. Next time.”
The next morning, their breakfast is interrupted by Sarge, who is wrapped up like an Arctic explorer.
“You are going to love this!”
Rachel laughs. “Are we?”
“Bubba used the snowcat to make the world’s most awesome toboggan run.”
“Sarge!” says Skye. “You are too old for these shenanigans.”
“Yes, probably. You’ll find winter wear in the closet next to the front door. I will expect you in ten minutes.”
“Yessir!” says Rachel.
They finish their coffees and troop upstairs to the above-surface house, where they find enough skiwear to stock a resort. Not only has Bubba groomed the snow, he has cut a path into it, ten feet across, with banks on either side. Sarge arrives at the top, trailing a toboggan behind him.
“Did I tell ya? It’s paradise. Just one safety note. At the end, there’s a huge pile of snow. When you see it, you need to stop – swipe it to the side, fall on your butt, whatever you have to do. Otherwise you’ll end up in Reno.”
Rachel’s already gone, bouncing off the sides, squealing with delight.
“Oh shit,” says Skye. “She’s a pro.”
“You’d better catch up,” says Sarge.
Skye takes a more conservative approach, controlling his speed with his feet until he’s learned the track. But Bubba’s done a fine job, and by the end he’s going for speed. A sudden drop sends him into the air; as soon as he lands, he sees the pile. He abandons any notion of schussing and simply wipes out, sliding and tumbling until he’s made himself into a snowman. He’s greeted by cackling laughter.
“No style at all!”
“Who claimed to have style?”
“It’s cause you’re a wussy Californian. In Connecticut, you pop out of the womb and they hand you a sled.”
She yanks him to his feet and licks the snow from his face.
“We had this place just behind our back fence, a little into the woods. Dynamite Hill. Every kid in town sledded that hill. My dad was the only adult, and he was nuts. He would stand on top of his toboggan and ride it like a surfboard. There was really no good way to stop, so he would simply launch himself into a snowdrift. One time the drift was so deep that he just arrowed in, and the only things sticking out were his feet. You okay?”
Skye realizes he’s staring. “Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.”
Rachel looks up the hill. “Now for the long trudge. It’s unfair that the fun part goes by so quickly.”
They hear an approaching rumble. A snowcat pulls up to the side of the run.
“Bubba!” says Rachel. “You rock!”
They grab their sleds and run.
Skye wakes up in the middle of the night to Louis and Ella but no Rachel. He gets up to conduct a search, wanders into the long hallway, reminiscent of those found in sci-fi space stations. He hears a faint sound and enters a small room, where Rachel sits reading a book. She looks up and smiles.
“It’s a library! Couldn’t sleep. Found a book on Edward Gorey. I love him.”
Skye feels compelled to sit on the floor and play with Rachel’s toes.
“Well that’s not going to get me to sleep.”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t care.”
She fights off the ticklishness as long as she can and then bursts into giggles.
“Skye! Stop it!”
She curls her feet beneath her on the easy chair. Skye wanders off to scan the bookshelves – not surprisingly, most of the titles are about musicians and artists.
Rachel closes her book. “What are we doing?”
“You are sitting in a library, somewhere east of Yosemite. I am here on a mission from my home planet, Klytorg.”
“Why do home planets always have names like that? Why can’t you be from the planet Johnson?”
“So be it. Although it will be hard to keep a straight face, because Johnson is a big planet.”
“Ho ho ho. Back to the question? In the broad picture?”
Skye picks out a book on Miles Davis and studies his dark, dark face. “I’ve been pretty focused on getting you back from zombieland.”
“Well I’m back.”
“Why don’t you spend the holidays with me? You can meet my family. Hopefully my sister won’t say something stupid.”
“You need to forgive her.”
“I was thinking of writing her off.”
“Don’t do it for her. Do it for you. Give yourself the luxury of forgiveness. Take a weight off.”
He might agree with her, but the irony is killing him. He rehearses a question seven times over, but still it comes out ragged.
“Rachel, are you aware that… Do you realize…”
“My father killed my mother. Then he killed himself. My mother is like a chain smoker who dies of cancer. You feel sorry that she’s gone, but you realize that she’s the one who stuck those things in her mouth and lit them. I accepted this eventuality the moment I left. My mother accepted it a thousand times. I won’t be forgiving them, because what they did to me was not forgivable.”
Rachel’s voice is calm, as if she’s not discussing a murder-suicide but last night’s baseball game. She’s beginning to scare him.
She unfurls her legs and extends them in his direction. “Now this time, why don’t you try massaging my feet?”
Photo by MJV