Danielle A. Vann
A single wisp of smoke traced up my nose and clung to the back of my throat. My lips parted, breaking the Whizbang machine’s electric kiss of death. My heart drummed out the rapid beat of fear, reminding me I had changed history. I had beaten Tunney’s cloak. I could feel it. I was alive, trembling, and soaked in perspiration.
Still, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wished I hadn’t listened to my father’s pleas and had welcomed death with open arms. It would have been simpler in the long run. I held still and waited for a sign, for someone, a sound, a clue as to where I was, anything. None came.
“Hello?” I whispered. “Mom? Grandpa Jack? Hello?” My eyes peeled open, blinking away the haze of a dusty fog, and then gently shut. “Where am I?”
The stench of hot char hit my face, bringing with it a raw dirtiness that sent my body recoiling. Wrenching my shoulders forward, I violently wiggled against the heaviness covering my chest.
I have heard a wise man say that love is a form of friendship, and friendship a form of love; the line between the two is misty. I happen to know that this holds true because I have roamed that misty line. Time has passed since then, but I cherish the memory of the blue roses in grace and perpetuity — our blue roses. It all began with a fortuitous encounter.
* * *
On a fine day in early April 1999, I was sketching in the sculpture court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I felt hesitant working in such a public space, but this was a homework assignment for the art class I was taking. The object of my sketch was a sculpture of an adorable young woman, a nude, reclining on a moss-covered rock surrounded by an abundance of flowers. The smooth texture of the white marble sensually expressed her lively body, which shone with bright sunlight beneath the glass ceiling of the court.
My drawing materials were simple, just a number 2 pencil, an eraser, and a sheet of heavy white drawing paper. The assignment was to capture the skin of a figure in as much detail as possible. I had almost completed sketching the woman’s body and was working on the rock and flowers. I was not doing badly, I thought, for a small crowd of museum visitors had gathered around me, showing approving faces and nods.
“Ah, this is excellent!” one man exclaimed.
I recognized the voice and turned to see Hans Schmidt, standing amid the crowd wearing a big grin.
“What a surprise!” he continued. “I didn’t know you had such an artistic talent, Mark. How are you?” He came forward and firmly shook my hand.
I greeted him, then pointed to my drawing. “I’ve been working on this for a while. I wasn’t sure how it would come out. But it’s coming along all right, I guess.”
“I don’t know much about drawing, but this looks great.” He gestured enthusiastically to a young woman next to him. “What do you think?”
“It’s pretty.” Her voice sounded like a bell.
“This is Yukari, my wife.” He guided her toward me, his hand lingering at the small of her back.
I swallowed. I knew Hans was married, but this was my first time to meet his wife. Hans’s wife is Japanese? How lovely she is. Hans, you devil, you’re a lucky man!
“Pleased to meet you.” I gently shook her small refined hand. “I’m Mark Sanders. Hans and I are good friends.”
The Vale of Leven, Strathclyde, Scotland 1071
Catrìona stepped to the edge of the crag perched high above the vale. Wind whipped her auburn hair and umber cloak behind her as she raised her gauntlet and let the falcon fly free.
Spreading his long wings, Kessog soared into the air over the blue waters of Loch Lomond.
Her heart soared with him.
This land of tall peaks and deep lochs was her home. Gray clouds might hover over the tops of the mountains, but bright yellow wildflowers graced the steep slopes and the foothills were clothed in the green velvet of spring.
In the distance, the falcon shrieked as he arrowed toward the loch’s crystalline waters, then flew in tight circles over a flock of teals, seeking his prey. The clouds parted and a golden shaft of sunlight reflected off the ducks’ wings and shimmered in the waters of the loch.
Thoughts of her future filled her mind and her excitement rose in anticipation of the arrival of her intended, Domnall mac Murchada. This very day he would come by ship from his family’s lands in Leinster to meet with her father and seal their betrothal. Domnall’s home in Ireland was a place she had heard much about, but had never seen.
In her mind Domnall appeared a most handsome man, except for his nose, which was thin with a high ridge. His wavy light brown hair was always neatly combed and his darker beard invariably neatly trimmed. His eyes were pale blue. But it was not his appearance that had made her father choose Domnall. It was his noble Irish lineage and the trade between Leinster and the Vale of Leven.
During Domnall’s visits, she had been keenly aware of his pale blue gaze following her. In his eyes, she had glimpsed desire, flattered he wanted her and not just the trade with her father. Her cheeks flushed to think that one day she would bear his children.
In the distance, Kessog streaked toward a duck, but missed his strike.
Catrìona watched the falcon for a while until a sharp gust of wind made her shiver. She had a sudden urge to return to her father’s hillfort.
Bognor, West Sussex, England, April 1784
Except for the small waves rushing to shore, hissing as they raced over the shingles, Bognor’s coast was eerily bereft of sound. Lady Joanna West hated the disquiet she always experienced before a smuggling run. Tonight, the blood throbbed in her veins with the anxious pounding of her heart, for this time, she would be dealing with a total stranger.
Would he be fair, this new partner in free trade? Or might he be a feared revenue agent in disguise, ready to cinch a hangman’s noose around her slender neck?
The answer lay just offshore, silhouetted against a cobalt blue sky streaked with gold from the setting sun: a black-sided ship, her sails lifted like a lady gathering up her skirts, poised to flee, waited for a signal.
Crouched behind a rock with her younger brother, Joanna hesitated, studying the ship. Eight gun ports marched across the side of the brig, making her wonder at the battles the captain anticipated that he should carry sixteen guns.
She and her men were unarmed. They would be helpless should he decide to cheat them, his barrels full of water instead of brandy, his tea no more than dried weeds.
It had been tried before.
“You are certain Zack speaks for this captain?” she asked Freddie whose dark auburn curls beneath his slouched hat made his boyish face appear younger than his seventeen years. But to one who knew him well, the set of his jaw hinted at the man he would one day become.
1 THE OWNER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
DR JONATHAN CHASELING – young, bearded and hipsterish-looking – navigated his car around ruts and potholes on a relentlessly straight, orange-red dirt track stretching away to infinity. Up ahead he saw a lone tree, a ghost gum with thin, white branches reaching for the sky like skeletal hands.
A few minutes later, he parked near the tree, which was growing in a hollow beside the track. There was no mobile reception here, so he couldn’t take a GPS fix or use Google Maps, but the tree ghost gum was a landmark that would help him find his way back to the car, a RAV4, normally white but now coated with red dust.
A 26-year-old medical graduate on his way to Alice Springs to start a hospital job, Chaseling had detoured off the main highway to check out this place. It was renowned for marine fossils – a legacy of the time, aeons ago, when this part of Australia was covered by a vast inland sea. He got out of the car and walked into the scrub.
Taking a weaving course round scattered patches of saltbush, he kept his eyes to the ground, which was littered with small pieces of flat, rust-coloured sandstone. Every now and then he stopped to pick up a rock and look at it, turning it over in his hand, hoping to see the form of a trilobite or other long-extinct species.
He’d been walking for about 10 minutes when he saw a flat slab of stone, almost a metre long, distinctive because it was the only large rock he’d seen since leaving the track. Chaseling bent down and gripped the edge of the slab. He gave an experimental tug but it didn’t budge. Then he shifted his right foot forward to give his body some leverage and put his back into the job, hauling upwards with both hands. There was a sucking noise as the slab came away from the damp earth beneath.
Holding the rock on its edge, he looked down at the patch of dirt he’d revealed – and noticed something white and rounded protruding from it. An ancient sea shell, perhaps. He set the slab down off to the side. Then he started scraping away the ochre dirt with a finger-length, sharp-edged piece of flint that had been underneath the rock. He gave a gasp. Staring up at him was the eye socket of a human skull.
His hands shaking, he uncovered the other socket, which like the first was filled with compacted ochre dirt. Next he scratched away the earth over the mouth, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Probably an Aborigine from the times before white settlement, Chaseling thought to himself. The teeth seemed to be grinning at him. He looked down at the piece of flint in his hand. It was a dark tan colour, very different in shade and composition to the other rocks in this area. And the picture became clear. This had been the dead person’s prized knife and it had gone to the grave with him. Or possibly her, although judging by the large size of the skull and teeth, it had most likely been an adult male.
Now he knew what to look for, he could see the shape of a rib cage in the dirt. And his eyes were drawn to something else. A small, disc-shaped object the size of a dried apricot, but thicker. It was caked with earth like chocolate on a Kinder
Surprise egg. He picked it up – it was heavy, some kind of rock – and scratched at the dirt with the piece of flint. There was a flash of phosphorescent colour. Opal! His heart started thumping with excitement.
As he uncovered more of the precious stone, he saw that it had raised, spiral ridges radiating out from its centre. It glittered with a kaleidoscope of hues – now emerald green, now a brilliant magenta morphing into electric blue, each shade burning with a fire from deep within the rock. He uncapped his water bottle and rinsed the stone. He thought how 100 million years ago or even earlier, a marine snail – an ancestor of the modern-day nautilus – had lived and died in a primeval sea bed. Its shell became filled with silica-rich mud and fragments of marine life. And after the sea retreated, the contents of the shell gradually transformed into a gem which shimmered with the green of long extinct seaweeds, the blue of ancient fish scales, the iridescent purple of giant sea urchin spines and the brilliant red and orange of prehistoric jellyfish. It could well be worth of a fortune.
Chaseling put the flint back down where he’d found it. After a few moments’ hesitation, he placed the opal in the pocket of his cargo shorts. It won’t be missed, the voice of his shadowy other self whispered inside his head. The previous owner has left the building. He scooped up some dirt and covered first the grinning mouth, then the eyes and nose socket of the long-buried skull.
1. Past (2002-2007)
When I was fifteen I left the smoky, wide-open skies of Dallas, Texas, for the rain and the thick, grey clouds of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It was less than a year after the twin towers in New York had fallen, and I’d spent that year living with my father before deciding, finally, to return home to live with my mother in a little apartment block somewhere on the city’s east side.
That year, I kept mostly to myself, managing a tenth grade quick and painless, turning sixteen along the way. Then, sometime through the eleventh grade I fell in love with my thirty-something Spanish teacher, Karen Thoreson, through the twelfth grade starting an affair with her. It was an involuntary act for both of us, to fall in love, and it scared me more than I’ve ever been scared of anything else. But even after all that’s happened, after all the suffering it’s caused and all the lives it’s destroyed, I still don’t know if I can say I’d have given up what we had.
It’s not that I don’t think we made no mistakes. There were a lot of things that happened that I would’ve done differently if I could go back and do it all over again. It’s just that what we had, for the time we had it, was so beautiful that I would never give back that feeling of having been with her.