David Christianson no longer remembered how it felt not to be angry. It had been months since he last laughed easily and even more months since he’d awakened without his jaw clenched and aching.
This morning, his first at Doubtful Sound, was no exception. It was too early for more than a hint of lightness in the eastern sky, as he pulled on a jacket and stepped outside into the stillness. He meandered along the shore to a spot where a tall rock poked through the surface of the water. He bent and picked up a couple of stones the size of ping-pong balls then took up his stance and threw. The first stone missed the rock, but the second hit with a satisfying whack before bouncing off at an angle and landing with a splash.
He scooped up more stones then threw them in rapid succession. Hard. Each cracking against the target rock before disappearing into the water.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Can you not give it a rest already.”
He whipped around to confront the speaker, a woman sitting on a fallen tree behind him. In the dim light he was able to make out only a pale nimbus of hair surrounding an indistinct face.
“Excuse me?” He’d been getting into the strike zone with regularity until she interrupted him, but he’d been taught to be courteous, so he kept his tone neutral despite his irritation.
“I was here first, and your rock-throwing is disturbing me.” The voice, unfortunately American, sounded years younger than he expected, given the color of the hair.
“I must have missed the ‘No Trespassing’ signs. And it’s a distinct pleasure to meet you, too.”
“There are miles of shoreline. Find your own spot.”
Nope. He wasn’t going to be around long enough for that. He’d come, he’d seen, and as soon as he was able to arrange it, he was heading back to civilization. What made Ted think this was any kind of an answer, anyway? Doubtful bloody Sound. Someplace most New Zealanders probably never bothered to visit. But when it became imperative for him to find somewhere to lick his wounds, his indifference had joined in an unholy alliance with Ted’s offhand suggestion, and here he was.
“My apologies. I won’t intrude on you again.” He sketched a slight bow in the woman’s direction before dropping the rest of the stones with a clatter that made her wince. Good.
He turned and stalked back to the cabin he’d been assigned—fuming at the woman, at himself, at the world. Fuming all through the brewing of coffee, the toasting and buttering of bread, and the drinking and eating of same.
~ ~ ~
Van Peters watched the man march across the open area toward the cluster of visitor cottages. His annoyance was obvious in the stiffness of his stride and posture. But so what? He’d annoyed her first, although she had hesitated to speak up, given he’d been hurling rocks with such naked aggression.
The old Van would not have spoken, would have either sat without moving or slunk away before he noticed her. But that was before the experiences of the past year. The exact quote had been, “You have to stand up for yourself, Van, or they’ll take everything you’ve got.”
She hadn’t, and they had.
In the process, she’d learned a number of things. Among them that being innocent of wrongdoing and having lived a life of honesty and dependability didn’t matter one jot if there was “evidence” against you, and that even those you considered good friends could be quick to believe the worst of you.
The most painful of her losses? Her reputation.
This morning she had finally stood up for herself. Too little too late, of course. But it was a start, asserting her right to be left in peace on the small patch of shoreline where she usually began her days. It was a peace she’d fought hard to acquire, and she was not giving it up because some man decided to throw stones.
But speaking up had left a sour aftertaste in her mouth. Was this what she’d become? A bitter woman who snapped at strangers? She closed her eyes, trying to banish the discomfort the interaction had generated and resume her meditation, but her thoughts refused her attempts to corral them. Instead of calming, they continued to serve up doses of guilt for the harsh way she’d spoken to the man, who had to be the visitor they were expecting.
After a time, she sighed and opened her eyes to see only a few clouds trailed like gray ribbons against the rose glow of the rising sun, giving her hope the day would be more pleasant than its beginning.
~ ~ ~
“Ted, it’s David.”
“Ah, you made it to Doubtful?”
“And I’ll be making it right back out as soon as I can arrange it. Good name for it, by the way.”
“You’ve been there, what, five minutes?”
“And that’s been more than sufficient.”
“Well, you can’t come back here. Not for a while. You may as well stay.”
“Why not just fire me?”
“Hell’s bells, David.” Ted was no doubt standing behind the big desk with its piles of folders and papers, facing the wall of monitors and scrubbing a hand across his brow. He always arrived at the office in a reasonably tidy state, but within minutes, his shirt sleeves would be rolled up and his tie jerked loose. “I don’t abandon my troops. Leave it at that.”
Bile rose in David’s throat. He tried to speak, but for a moment, was unable to manage it. Then the constriction eased. “Trust me, Ted, you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes here either.”
“To the contrary. I’d love to trade places with you. Peace and quiet. Fishing.”
“You’re exhausted, David. You need time to regroup. Somewhere peaceful. Come see me in three months. In the meantime, give Doubtful a chance. It won’t kill you, you know.”
Slowly David hung up the phone, all the arguments and aggression draining away. After all, Ted might well be correct. Maybe time in a setting as remote and out-of-touch as Doubtful would be good for him, if he didn’t go mad from boredom or get into a fight with one of the two dozen or so inhabitants. Although, he’d already done that. With the Lady of the Lake, no less.
He debated going back out to take a few more potshots at the rock—the woman had to have finished her dawn contemplations by now—but the urge had fled. Instead, he wandered over to a bookcase stuffed with games and paperbacks, the cabin’s only recreational touch.
It had been a relief to find this accommodation so simply furnished after he’d met his landlady and seen her idea of homey—knickknacks on every surface quietly accumulating dust and knitted items drooping over the backs of the sofa and two chairs. While that decor fit Molly’s grandmotherly image to a T, he had no desire to share his personal space with bric-a-brac and random roses. Not even for five minutes.
“I’ve stocked the kitchen for you,” Molly had said, as she’d opened the door to the cabin last evening. “If you need anything else, just let me know.”
After he’d tolerated her introductory spiel about Doubtful’s residents—all scientists working at the Doubtful Sound Research Institute—he’d ushered her back outside, more quickly, no doubt, than good manners would dictate. Helen would have frowned at him and then stepped onto the porch with Molly, regardless of how tired she was. Helen had always been the one who chatted up hotel clerks, waitresses, and random strangers. By the end of a stay at Doubtful, she would have bonded with Molly, along with everyone else, then added them all to an already bulging Christmas card list.
All the residents were scientists, Molly had said. Which meant they couldn’t all be little old ladies, of the arsenic and old lace persuasion perhaps? Nice remote area like this, they could knock him off, and he might never be found. Who besides his kids and Ted even knew he was here? Perhaps best if he skipped any invitations to tea, at least until he got a better feel for the place. Molly appeared to be harmless, but he wouldn’t put it past the woman from this morning to slip a bit of something toxic in a cuppa.
He abandoned his examination of the bookcase and stepped outside, but when he found low-hanging clouds had moved in and the air smelled of rain, he returned to the bookcase. He chose a book at random, then stretched out on the couch and began to read. The next thing he knew he was waking up to sunlight slanting into his eyes.
He sat up breathing in air filled with the glitter of dust motes. The angle of the sun’s rays meant it had to be late afternoon, which made the nap he’d just awakened from the longest stretch of undisturbed sleep he’d had in weeks.
He glanced at his watch. Nearly six, which was when Molly said he needed to present himself at The Cooks for dinner. He set the book down and stood, debating whether to make himself a sandwich and call that good, or go see what was on offer.
His stomach growled, settling the debate. A dining arrangement where someone actually cooked was clearly the better option. He’d simply ask to be seated at a table for one. He tucked in his shirt, splashed water on his face, and smoothed his hair before walking over to the building Molly had pointed out during his arrival orientation.
A sturdy young woman wearing an apron greeted him at the door. “You must be Mr. Christianson. Welcome to Doubtful. I’m Katie Cook.” She shook his hand then pointed. “Dining room’s right through there. Go on in. Introduce yourself to Ian and Terry.”
Feeling disoriented—he’d thought “The Cooks” was a café, not a home—David walked into the room Katie had pointed out to find a boy, a man, and an infant seated around an oval table. All three looked up and grinned at him, the infant’s grin adorned with something a bilious shade of green.
“Mr. Christianson, is it? How’re you going? I’m Ian.” The man offered a quick shake then gestured toward the boy. “This is Terry, and the little lady with the peas all over her face is Audrey.”
“Please, call me David.”
“Of course. Sit down, sit down. You can put the homework away, son.”
The boy carried the book he’d been reading into the other room, while Ian wiped at the baby’s mouth. “Van should be here any minute, and Katie said dinner’s almost ready.”
“Van?” He took the seat Ian indicated, noting the table was set for five.
The baby twisted her head away from the washcloth Ian was wielding. “Van Peters. Ah, Van, right on cue,” Ian said. “This is David Christianson, if you two haven’t already met.”
Suppressing a swoop of dismay, David stood. “As a matter of fact, I believe we have.”
The woman gave him a quick startled glance and a nod before taking her place across from him. “Indeed. The man who throws stones.” Her tone was cool.
He now saw that his impression from this morning, that she was elderly, was false. Her hair, short and ruffled, might be gray. but the face it framed was not yet middle-aged. She was casually dressed in fitted jeans and a T-shirt. He’d no doubt have considered her attractive if this were their first encounter rather than their second.
“Did you skip the stones?” Terry slid onto his chair, giving David an interested look.
“I aimed them.” He tried to smile at the boy, but his lips felt stiff.
“I can do a fiver. I’ll show you how tomorrow.”
David was saved from having to respond by Katie arriving in the doorway carrying a platter of food. Ian got up and helped her finish serving then he nodded at Terry, who said a quick grace, while peeking around his hands at David. After grace, Ian asked David how he was finding Doubtful so far.
“I haven’t had time to get fully acquainted, but I have noticed how quiet it is.”
“One of its major charms,” Katie said, smiling. “How did you find out about us, David?”
He answered Katie’s question briefly, knowing his performance was skating just shy of being discourteous, but he couldn’t seem to muster the energy to do something about it. His professional life might involve talking, and a lot of it, but he was, in truth, an introvert who preferred to sit back and listen to others.
“How long will you be staying?” Van asked.
“I’m not certain yet. It depends on…” For a moment he couldn’t think what ought to come next. He ducked his head and took a sip of iced tea. “I’ll just have to see,” he finished.
“Fisherman or hiker?” she said.
Okay, he might be trapped, but he wasn’t defenseless. “Neither.” He looked across at her, his expression daring her to ask another question.
She simply raised her eyebrows slightly before looking down at her plate. He judged it a tie.
“Well, now, you may want to reconsider,” Ian said. “Hiking and fishing are about all there is on offer. Unless you’re working on a project, like Van. Speaking of which, how’d it go today?”
“I finished purifying the extractions from those last three samples of eyebright,” Van replied. “And this afternoon I discovered another patch in a different area, so all in all, a good day.”
“Good on you,” Ian said, looking pleased.
Although David had no clue what they were talking about, he didn’t ask any questions. Instead, he focused his attention on the food. Katie was rightly named Cook. The meal—roast venison, chunks of pumpkin, homemade bread, and a salad of fresh tomatoes and leaf lettuce—was delicious. Chewing, he debated whether to order additional supplies and cook for himself so he wouldn’t have to interact with a group every evening. The only problem? Katie’s food was the first that had tasted good in a long time.
As dinner continued, Van quizzed Terry about his day. He was in first grade, he announced, apparently for David’s benefit. When Van asked him what was the most interesting thing he’d learned that day, Terry put his finger to his lips and bobbed his head back and forth. Finally, a wide grin split his face. “Oh, yeah. We read a story about an elephant hatching an egg and we did a drawing.”
The piping voice, the enthusiasm, and the gap-toothed grin all brought back vivid memories of family dinners when Nick and Christie were young and competing with each other to tell about all the amazing things they’d just discovered. David grabbed the glass of iced tea and swallowed quickly, pushing the memory away.
“Was the elephant named Horton?” Van asked.
“Yeah, that was it. The bird who left the egg, her name was Daisy or something like that.”
“Yeah. How’d you know that?”
“I’ve read that story to my nieces. I like it too. It’s a very good story.”
Talking to Terry, Van seemed pleasant enough, but David had no intention of being fooled by it.
~ ~ ~
Van glanced across the table at the man from the morning whom she now recognized as one of the TERRA News Channel’s senior foreign correspondents. In the old days, before her life had fallen apart, she’d watched TERRA regularly, which explained why, sitting across from her, David Christianson seemed familiar. It was, however, a false familiarity, and one she had no wish to replace with the real thing.
He looked older in person than he did on television, his face pared down to the bone. His dark hair, liberally sprinkled with gray, was much shorter than the last time she saw him on TERRA. The gray was either new or he normally colored it, although where did one find a colorist in the midst of an insurgency or a famine?
She’d always considered him better looking than the New York anchor, less plastic, more real. At the moment he looked very real, as though he’d spent time on the same limited rations as those he’d been reporting about the last time she saw him. However, given his unpleasantness and the fact he was a reporter, she wasn’t inclined to be sympathetic about his less-than-robust appearance. Not that she was being exactly warm and fuzzy herself, but she had tried to be congenial, asking how long he planned to stay. He’d raised his head and his eyes had met hers with such a fierce look, it was like a physical touch.
The only time his face looked remotely pleasant was when he spoke to Terry, although it was obvious he’d had to force his lips into the proper configuration for a smile.
She hoped he wouldn’t be staying long. His presence was a reminder of a time she fervently wished to forget. Besides, her psyche was still much too fragile to expose it to someone as angry as this man.
David snapped awake, his heart pounding. The dream faded but not quickly enough, leaving behind a disturbing vision of Helen, her face stretched into ugliness, screaming at him for accepting another overseas assignment. Saying she didn’t marry him to raise Nick and Christie as a single mother.
He sat up and swung his feet to the floor, then sat rubbing his head, waiting for his heart rate to slow. It was just a dream. Not reality. Nick and Christie were grown, and the last few years Helen had always accepted the news he was going back overseas with a tolerance he now saw as more ominous than honest fury.
Suddenly, tears tipped out of his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. He no longer knew when they would hit, nor could he stop them when they did.
He hadn’t cried, not while reporting on the atrocities in Zimbabwe, nor when Carmen was killed in Zaire and Jase’s leg was blown off by a land mine in Iraq. Not in all those years, when awful was the norm, had he cried.
The tears dripped silently and he sat waiting them out, listening for night sounds. In Africa, Iraq, New York, and other places he no longer cared to remember, the nights had been full of clicks, buzzes, chirps, screams, sirens, thrums, and sometimes the snap and thump of gunfire. Here, silence pressed down on him, heavy and absolute.
Finally, the refrigerator compressor clicked on, giving him assurance he wasn’t going deaf. He got up and dug out the sleeping pills his doctor suggested he bring. He swallowed one, then lay listening to the hum of the refrigerator until he found himself opening his eyes to daylight and the distant sounds of a dog barking and children playing.
He’d made it through another day and night.
~ ~ ~
David turned his gaze from the water, with its calm reflections of mountains and a fitful sky. A small girl, Terry, and a dog stood staring at him. The dog, which appeared to be mostly golden retriever, was wagging its tail.
The girl was the one who’d spoken. “You want to skip rocks with us?” she said.
“I’m good as my dad,” Terry said. “Better’n Bree.”
“Are not.” The girl propped her hands on her hips and stuck her tongue out at Terry. “I’m best. Last time you got three skips and I got four. So there, Terry Cook.”
“Bet I can beat you today.”
“Bet you can’t.”
The dog danced between the two children, woofing happily.
“Stop it, Sunny,” Bree said, every inch of her tiny frame vibrating with haughty command.
The dog jumped and swiped a tongue across her cheek.
“Ugh. Down, Sunny.”
In the melee, David found himself forgotten, which was fine with him.
“Bet me and Dr. Peters can beat you and him.” Bree had freed herself from Sunny’s exuberance and she faced Terry, jerking a thumb in David’s direction.
“Bet you can’t,” Terry said.
“Bet we can.”
A horn honked and Terry and Bree ended their standoff to race toward a car with a school bus sign David hadn’t heard arriving. Sunny accompanied the two, barking. They reached the car simultaneously and jostled until an apparent command from the driver established order. Then Bree, her nose elevated, climbed in the front seat, while Terry, whose shoulders drooped, climbed in the back.
“Those two are something, aren’t they?”
He was slipping, badly, taken unaware by two children, a dog, a school bus, and now Van Peters. Doctor Van Peters.
“A word of advice. Never try to referee one of their disputes,” she said.
“Have you done that?”
“Once.” She gave him a rueful look, before walking on by.
He watched her cross the compound and enter one of the shed-like buildings on the other side. As the door closed behind her, he felt the first niggle of curiosity about what sort of project she might be working on. It just wasn’t enough of a niggle to overcome his reluctance to speak to her.
“In addition to Ian, our permanent scientific staff includes a married couple from Ireland,” Molly had said during her introduction, They have a daughter,” which must be where Bree fit in. “We also have one senior scientist visiting from America. She’s in the yellow cottage.” That was Van. “And five graduate and post-graduate students from New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, and Norway. Their digs are that building over there.” Molly had pointed at a utilitarian structure near the one Van had just entered. She’d also told him he was the only non-scientist visiting at the moment, which meant he was stuck with his own company, although being on his own suited him.
At least it did at first, when he was still jet-lagged, but three days in the peace and quiet was beginning to wear out its welcome. Especially after he’d spent those days mostly cooped up in the cabin, while the trees dripped relentlessly from intermittent showers.
Dripping and drear is Doubtful, and he, matching, was dour. He rolled the words around, tasting their bitterness.
The only break in the tedium so far had been the dinners at the Cooks’, an arrangement he’d not had the energy to back away from. Although, if he continued to eat and then laze around, he’d not only gain back the weight he’d lost, he might begin to develop a roll around his middle.
With that thought propelling him, he walked over to Molly’s to ask for hiking advice. She greeted him with a wide smile and invited him in for that suspect cup of tea, which he declined. He asked about nearby trails, and Molly pulled out a map and spread it on her dining table. “Now, what were you thinking, young man. Long or short, steep or not so steep?”
The “young man” worked only because Molly had at least forty years on him. “I think I’d better start with a shorter, less difficult trail.”
“Well, this one here is the nicest one in the area. It leads to a cliff garden that’s well worth a visit.” Her finger traced a red line. “It’s a bit steep in this one stretch, but you should be able to handle it. Just take it slow. Roughly four kilometers round trip.” She peered over the top of her glasses at him. “Probably take you about three hours.”
He drew a map listing the various landmarks she described and then followed her onto the porch, so she could point out the trailhead.
~ ~ ~
He’d been walking an hour, through intermittent light showers, when he stopped to take a drink of water and heard someone behind him on the trail. Flashes of gray between intervening tree trunks identified the hiker as Van Peters. He stood waiting until she was close before clearing his throat.
Her head snapped up and her eyes went wide. “Oh,” she said. And it wasn’t a happy “oh.”
Her body language was equally unenthusiastic, but after a brief pause, she continued toward him. He offered a hand to assist her up a particularly steep bit. After a momentary hesitation, she accepted his help. Clearly her impulse to be annoyed was warring with her impulse to be courteous. Interested, he wondered which would win.
“This is the Cliff Garden Trail, right?”
She nodded. “It’s not much further. I’ll see you there.” She tossed him a brief smile before walking on past, moving quickly, obviously wanting him to take the hint not to join her. Not that he wanted to.
He continued in her wake at a slower pace until he reached the place where the trail ended abruptly at the base of a cliff. Van emerged from the nearby underbrush carrying a mesh sack filled with plant material.
“I see you made it,” she said.
He looked up at the cliff that had to be Molly’s garden. Rivulets of moisture dripped down and around scaly lichens, while mosses captured crystalline drops. Additional moisture gathered and shivered on delicate tendrils of ferns.
Green was the predominate color, but there were also startling patches of deep orange, gray, pink, and yellow clinging to the black rock. He reached out to touch a lichen, finding it rough, but the moss he touched next felt as velvety as it appeared. He rubbed the damp from his fingers, still examining the living patchwork overlaying the rock.
“This is really something.” He cleared his throat, annoyed with himself for sounding so trite.
“The Weeping Cliff. It’s my favorite place.” Surprisingly, Van sounded almost pleasant as she moved toward him. She dropped her bag of leaves to the ground and stood, gazing in silence.
After a time, she shifted and startled him from his own introspection. He wondered how long he’d been standing next to her without speaking.
His stomach rumbled. He checked his watch to find it was past noon.
~ ~ ~
Meeting David Christianson on the trail unsettled Van, who still felt leftover tremors of unease from their first interaction. She greeted him then walked past, feeling a tremendous relief when he got the message and didn’t try to keep up with her. She reached the cliff and collected the plants she’d come for. She was planning to eat her lunch before returning to the lab, but then David arrived and decided to do that very thing. She had only two choices. Join him or hike back on an empty stomach. His quiet appreciation for the beauty of the cliff made it possible for her to choose the former.
They sat on separate logs, and she pulled out her sandwich. “You’re not here on assignment, are you?” Okay, and why did she have to bring that up? There was absolutely no reason she couldn’t continue to pretend she didn’t know who he was. Nobody else had recognized him.
He looked up in surprise. “No. I’m taking a break.”
“Well, thank goodness for that.”
Enough, Peters, let it go. Except this might just be the best, perhaps the only, chance she’d ever have to strike a blow for all those who’d suffered what she had simply because circumstances rendered them newsworthy.
“I’ve always wondered what you call it, the way you all swoop in like vultures whenever there’s a tragedy. Asking people who’ve lost their home or a loved one, or just survived a plane crash that killed everyone else, what it feels like.”
“Part of the job.” His tone was clipped.
She was on a roll, to hell with the consequences. “I think a better label is repugnant.”
“Hey, don’t hold back on my account. By all means, feel free tell me what you really think.”
His sarcasm fueled the outrage that accompanied her memories of what he, or at least people like him, had done to her. It made her ignore her internal editor, who was jumping up and down, yelling at her to stop. “Further more, I don’t understand what you think you’re going to learn ganging up on someone en masse the way you do.” Okay, enough already! She hated confrontation. It always left her feeling unsettled, sometimes for days, so why on earth was she doing this?
He turned his head to look at her, his expression like that of a person who’d just discovered he’d stepped in dog poop. “We do have a role to play. Some techniques may not be laudable, but without journalists, you’d get only one side. The side in power. Stories like the Holocaust or the famine in Somalia or what’s happening in Zimbabwe or, for that matter, what your local town council is up to could be suppressed.” There was both anger and passion in his tone.
She’d obviously struck a nerve, but knowing that didn’t feel like a victory. Instead, she felt a little sick for baiting him.
~ ~ ~
It was an unpleasant shock to discover Van Peters knew who he was, but that was quickly followed by relief, when all she wanted to do with that information was strike a blow for beleaguered news sources. In his current circumstances, he much preferred a verbal attack about a generality to having to deal with an avid curiosity about a specificity. It was the one thing Doubtful had going for it—that it was someplace where nobody knew what had happened to Helen, and thus their eyes were free of pity and suspicion.
Van finished her sandwich then pulled an apple out of her bag, quartered it, and handed him two pieces. A peace offering perhaps? But instead of continuing to sit beside him eating her share, she stood and gathered her things. “I need to get back to the lab.”
“Thanks for the apple.”
She left and he continued to examine the cliff, trying not to allow his mind to drift and stumble over his memories. Only one did he not try to suppress—that of a Tibetan monk who once told him: “We have only the present. Fail to savor it, and we fail to live.”
He wasn’t yet managing that savoring, but at least he was finally remembering it was something he should be aiming for.
~ ~ ~
When David returned to the settlement in the late afternoon, he found Bree, Terry, and Sunny loitering near his cabin. Sunny trotted over to meet him, and David bent to pat the silky head before straightening and favoring the two children with a stern look. He didn’t want to encourage them to have expectations of him. Bree stared back, while Terry ducked his head and pretended to be busy rubbing Sunny’s ears.
“Terry says you throw rocks real good,” Bree said. “Is that true?”
“I thought you already knew how to skip stones,” he said.
“Of course, we know how to skip stones. We want you to show us how to hit that rock.” She swung around and pointed.
“Why?” he asked.
The expression on Bree’s face was identical to the look his daughter used to get as a young child whenever she encountered opposition. In those instances, Christie’s lips had fallen into the same configuration Bree’s now had, and she’d clenched her hands and lifted her small pugnacious chin in an identical way.
At his question, Bree chewed hard on her bottom lip. “Because stuff like that’s good to know,” she said.
“You planning to throw rocks at birds or animals?”
“Course not,” Terry said. “Well, possums maybe. Dad says they’re bad for the ’virement.”
“So, can you show us?” Bree’s voice held a hopeful lilt.
“Give me a minute.”
Terry, Bree, and the dog raced toward the shore, while David dropped his things on the cabin’s porch. He then followed behind the three at a sedate pace, thinking it was just too bad he was no longer able to face a single aspect of his life with such delighted abandon.