Disclaimer : Characters and situations all belong to other people who are not me.
Warnings : Sex and love between women
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013 Geonn Cannon
The shadow of their names rested upside down on the counter, cast by the BISHOP + ABBOTT written in a wide arc on the front window. Emerson Bishop moved the ledger so that the double-T wasn't blocking her light, her pen hovering over the figures to make sure she hadn't made any mistakes before she committed to a final tally. Her pencil was dull, so she reached for the sharpener as the side door opened.
Melita Abbott swept in on the scent of oil and grease that drifted from the garage. Her thick red curls were tied back and held with a strip of leather but several strands hung down on the right side of her face as if to bracket the grease marring the opposite cheek. She was a few inches shorter than Emerson but made up for it with curves her partner lacked. Emerson raised an eyebrow as the curvy Greek mechanic passed her, and Melita responded by slapping the pilot's rear end.
Melita only laughed and took a bottle of pop from the icebox. "The plane is ready for takeoff, Commander."
"Not if we can't afford fuel." She scratched her cheek with her middle finger, lips twisted in agitation. "Gaines owes us a favor, doesn't he?"
"Nope. We owe him now."
Emerson shook her head in frustration. Melita took a long draught from her bottle and pressed against Emerson's side. There was enough room for Emerson to step aside, but she liked the pressure even if Melita's jumpsuit left smears of grease on her slacks and shirt. She took the pen from Emerson, poked her tongue against the corner of her mouth, and pointed to several boxes before she spoke.
"Here. We offer Blake free service for three months if he gives Desmond priority rates. Then Desmond owes us credit and we apply that to Gaines, and he'll give us enough fuel for the month."
"But we'll owe Blake three months, three months that he won't be paying for, mind you. We'll end up even deeper in the red than we are now."
Melita shook her head. "We'll go where Blake wants for free. But once we get there, we pick up new business for the flight back."
Emerson pursed her lips. "Seat of the pants."
"We do what we must." She turned her head and kissed Emerson's cheek.
Emerson recoiled and looked nervously toward the window. "Stop that. What would you do if Blake or Desmond happened to walk up as you did that?"
"I'd tell them to mind their own business."
"Like we can afford that." Under the protection of the counter, she brushed her hand against Melita's. "I'm sorry, honeybee. Don't be cross. I'm just a silly, anxious twit."
"Yes, you are." Melita stepped away from her sounding more resigned than angry. "But you're not wrong. It's bad enough we work together and live in the same house."
Emerson turned back to the books. After a moment Melita passed her to go back to the garage and she brushed her palm over Emerson's back as she passed.
"Thank you for worrying about my reputation."
Emerson smiled down at the page as the door closed and she was left alone once again. The barter and exchange web Melita suggested would work. There was always a chance they would come up short on the opposite leg, which would leave them in the same dire straights when payments for Desmond's credit came due but at the point it was either crafty maneuvering or shutting up shop completely. She made a note to call around and set up the balancing act.
They had set up Bishop + Abbott: Mail Transport Cargo after Emerson got back from the war, where she was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Melita had been one of hundreds of mechanics, but Emerson had been drawn to her. They were two-fifths of a group who had gotten together to talk or play cards or lend a supportive ear, but it never went further than that until they got to the Alaska Territory. One night not long after they moved into their current home, Emerson had woken to find Melita standing in her bedroom doorway, backlit by the dim hallway light that revealed the shape of her body through her thin nightgown.
"Couldn't you sleep?" Emerson had asked.
"Sleeping isn't the problem. It's the dreams I have once I get there."
At first Emerson thought she meant nightmares, flashbacks to the war, but the truth soon became apparent. They slept together platonically at first, holding each other in the night while maintaining their lie during the day, but soon Emerson gave in to her own feelings. One night when Melita came to bed, Emerson was waiting for her. They faced each other, wrapped snugly in the blankets, and Emerson whispered, "Stop me when I go too far."
The next morning Emerson woke and found Melita watching her. "You didn't stop me."
"You never got to the point where I wanted you to stop."
Emerson touched Mel's hair - she had always loved her hair - and brought a handful to her face to smell it.
After that they discussed how to proceed with their relationship. Even in their two-lane hamlet of a hometown they could have been run out of town on a rail for being unmarried and "carrying on." Emerson didn't want to know how tense she would be if she presented herself to the public as a woman.
The ruse hadn't been intentional at first. She kept her hair cut in a short, mannish style for ease. She left her hair long enough in front to rest across her forehead at a sharp angle like a raven's wing shading her eye. She favored men's shirts, buttoned at the collar even when she wasn't wearing a tie. Her voice was naturally husky which caused the real-estate agent who showed her the house to call her Mr. Bishop. The choice not to correct him had been made in a split-second, but she'd never regretted it. She didn't mind refraining from wearing makeup, and binding her breasts wasn't enough of a hassle to irritate her. It was all worth it when she was able to deal with men who wouldn't give a woman the time of day.
She finished diagramming Melita's suggestion and shut the cover of the book. She smoothed her palm over the leather cover and looked out the window. Across the cleared area that served as their runway the forest loomed, thick stands of pine and oak that carpeted the mountain that shaded their bedroom window in the mornings. As always after balancing their books, she needed a visual affirmation of where her money had gone.
The hangar was Mel's domain, but its occupant was Emerson's baby. The green-and-white biplane stood at the wide hangar door, its propeller nose aimed toward the crystal blue sky as if straining to break free. Emerson gave the plane a wide berth and reached up to run her palm over the underside of the wing as she got close to the body.
It was a brand new 1949 de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, only six months old. They'd had a surplus of cash before she dug into their savings to buy it. Selling their original plane hadn't paid them back as handsomely as they had hoped, and it seemed like every month was spent trying to catch up. Still, she didn't regret the purchase and Mel was grateful for the new toy to play with. Maintaining a new engine was much less stressful than trying to patch together one that was on its last legs.
Mel came around the tail of the plane. She'd washed her hands and face, the zip of her jumpsuit open to reveal her rumpled shirt underneath.
"Want to take her up?"
"Probably shouldn't use the fuel. I just didn't want her to think I'd forgotten her."
Mel nodded slowly and moved to stand behind her. She kissed the dark peach fuzz at the base of Emerson's skull, and Emerson reached back to draw Mel's arms around her.
"Mr. Bishop," Mel said with false breathlessness. "People will talk."
"Let 'em." She turned in the loop of Melita's arms and touched her cheek. "I know another girl who might be worried I've forgot her. How about we go back to the house and remember each other?"
Mel smiled. "I could always use a reminder."
Emerson bent down to kiss Mel, swaying with her in the shadow of their plane.
That night, after a delicious dinner of caribou steak that Melita prepared, Emerson drew a bath. She added just enough soap to create a thin film of bubbles on the water's surface. By the time she had undressed and unbound her breasts, Melita was done washing the dishes and joined her. Emerson reclined against one curved side of the tub as she watched Mel undress, then pulled her long legs up to give her a place to sit. Once Mel was settled Emerson stretched out a little more and Mel placed her feet on Emerson's knees.
"I talked to Blake this afternoon. He agreed to the trade, and I figure Des and Gaines are a done deal. Tomorrow I'll set it all up and if I have enough daylight left, I'll head up north. I haven't been to Qiluk for a while, so they might have some business."
"See? Things are looking rosy already."
Emerson couldn't help smiling. No matter how dire things got or how grim she felt, Melita had a way of making her feel fine. She reached back to take the rough sponge off its shelf, wetting it before she lifted Mel's right foot and began to scrub the sole. She ran the edge of the sponge over the arch of Mel's foot, massaging gently with her other hand as she wiped the past two days off her lover's skin.
Mel relaxed against her side of the tub, the pale of her breasts rising above the water just enough to expose the pink nipples. She loved Melita's curves, her softness and grace. Even her skin, under the grease and grime, looked like something soft and pliable. A pillow or a cloud freckled with pinkness. Emerson considered her body a grim contrast to Mel's suppleness. She was all hard edges and flat plains, her breasts just large enough to cause sideways glances if she didn't bind them. Her hair was lank and flat against her forehead, while Mel's retained its bounce and shine even an hour before bed.
Emerson finished washing Mel's feet and let them sink. Mel opened her eyes and smiled at her, Emerson's knees still forming islands in the soapy water between them. She rose from her spot, easing Emerson's knees apart and kneeling between them. She braced one hand on the tub's side so she wouldn't slip when she leaned forward and covered Emerson's lips with her own.
The bathroom was one of two places where she could count on Emerson not turning her away. It had no windows where prying eyes might spy, and the bedroom windows were so completely draped by curtains and drapes that she felt safe if the lights were low. As a result, they mostly made love either shrouded in just enough light to tease or submerged so that they felt weightless.
Melita shivered as Emerson brought her hands up, trailing water over her stomach and breasts before caressing them with moist palms. She curled her fingers and pinched the nipples between her first two fingers, sinking lower as Mel loomed above her. Emerson craned forward and Mel dropped down to meet her, kissing her again with more passion than before. Emerson rested her tongue against her bottom lip and let Mel push it back with hers. Mel slid her legs forward until they met the crux of Emerson's thighs, and Emerson tightened her thighs around them. The water sloshed around them, lapping against Mel's flanks and cresting over Emerson's chest to pool in the hollow of her throat.
Mel guided them, using her legs to direct the thrusts as her arms found balance against Emerson's body and the curved walls of the tub to either side. Emerson stared up at Mel, raising and dropping her hips against the slick column of Melita's thigh. She moved her hands from Mel's breasts to the back of her neck, linking her fingers and bearing down.
"My lovely love," Mel whispered, and Emerson responded with a cry of release.
Melita dropped her hands into the water and scooped up water with her palms. She brought them up and tilted them, letting the water cascade over Emerson's head, trickling down over her broad forehead and the Roman slope of her nose until it reached her lips. Emerson tilted her head back to let the baptism drip into her hair and then sank back.
Melita bent down and pressed her lips to Emerson's throat, sucking away the water that had accumulated there before she sucked on Emerson's neck. Emerson dragged her fingers over the surface of the water, wetting them before reaching for Mel underwater.
As Emerson cupped her mound, Melita kissed her way up to Emerson's ear. Through a series of moans and guttural growls, Mel expressed her approval for everything that was being done. She nipped at Emerson's cheek and whispered things to her, short breezy sentences that meant nothing out of context but made them both shiver. Mel stopped speaking only when her breath caught in her throat twice in succession, and she pressed her cheek against the side of Emerson's head and began moving against her fingers.
"Look at me," Emerson whispered, and Melita leaned back to comply. She managed to keep her eyes open until the apex of her orgasm, at which point she slumped forward and kissed her hard, taking Emerson's tongue onto her mouth. Her fingers raked through Emerson's short hair, the sections long enough to be moved standing up in spikes as they kissed.
Afterward Mel settled between Emerson's thighs, her knees resting high against the tub on either side. She took the sponge and used it to wash Emerson's face and chest with a reverence archaeologists used on fossils. Emerson continued to stroke Mel, pausing to dip her thumbs into her small teardrop navel.
"You've always taken care of me, sugar." Mel's voice was so sincere that Emerson looked up into her eyes. "Thank you for loving me."
"And I always will," Emerson said. "That's a promise, cinnamon."
Mel smiled and bent down for a soft, lingering kiss. Afterward they continued bathing each other, Melita dipping her head underwater and then she turned so Emerson could work out the tangles and wash it for her. They toweled each other off as the tub drained, and Emerson used the towel to wrap Mel's long hair, darkened by the water, into a turban before leading her down the hall to their bedroom.
The house had two bedrooms, and one was decorated as if Melita spent her free time there. Books lined the shelves, the bed was made, and a few outfits were draped over the back of the armchair next to the closet. It existed only on the off chance that someone would come into the house and snoop at the private areas.
Emerson slept in the nude, but Melita put on a gown with cap sleeves and a mesh bodice. They climbed under the covers from opposite sides of the bed, kissing goodnight before they settled in. Melita kissed Emerson's chin, cheeks and lips.
"G'night, honeybee." As always, Melita drifted off to sleep first. Emerson watched as the muscles of her face went slack. She smoothed the still-damp strands of hair from Melita's forehead. Melita, from the Greek meli , which meant honey. Melita was Emerson's honeybee, her cinnamon, her humor and her relief. She kissed Melita between the eyebrows, grateful they had found each other despite everything that stood in their way.
In the morning she would get up early, fill their plane with what remained of their precious fuel, and make the flight to Qiluk. She would pick up the mail, make arrangements for deliveries, arrange for passengers to fly with her back to civilization... it would work out. And if it didn't, she or Mel would find some other way to make ends meet.
As long as they had each other, Emerson didn't mind a little seat-of-the-pants financing.
Melita stirred briefly when she felt Emerson putting socks on her. She glanced down, the shape of her lover visible against the dawn breaking outside the window. Her feet often got cold during the night no matter how many blankets they piled on the bed, but she couldn't fall asleep wearing socks. One morning not long after they started sharing a bed, she was awoken by Emerson at the foot of the bed, rolling a pair of wool socks onto her. She had murmured a quiet thanks and fallen back to sleep. It became a habit on particularly cold mornings, an unspoken kindness that Emerson rarely acknowledged.
This morning Melita was awake enough to whisper her gratitude and Emerson moved up to the pillows. "Well, if I'm not here to keep you warm myself, it's the least I can do." She cupped Melita's face and pecked her lips. "Love you, honeybee."
"I love you, too. Going to Qiluk?"
"Mm-hmm. Then Unguwan. Should be back by this evening. Wish me luck on getting new business."
"Good luck, Emmy." They hooked pinkies and snapped them apart. Emerson rose and tucked the blankets around Melita's shoulders. She turned and shut the bedroom door so she wouldn't disturb Melita's return to sleep when she turned on the lights for breakfast. Melita burrowed into the pillows. The smell of coffee and cooking bacon drifted to her as she fell back to sleep, a promise that it would be there when she woke even if Emerson wasn't.
She was so accustomed to seeing "Mr. Bishop" that sometimes, in her dreams, she was surprised to see the Emerson she had met back during the war. She had always worn her hair short, but before she started passing for male she had styled it. When they met it draped along her left profile in finger waves, with an S of black resting against her cheek like the back of a hand caught in a gentle caress.
She had been called out for staring by her friend Johanna. "You got a little drool on your chin, dear. Might want to see to that."
Emerson had chosen that moment to look over, and Melita spent the rest of the day cursing her own awkwardness. The next morning when she arrived to work, her curls bundled up in a kerchief and the wing-like collar of her white shirt spread across the lapels of her jumpsuit, she found Emerson waiting for her.
"I hear you're the one to talk to about joining the poker game."
Melita didn't know what poker game she was talking about. She wasn't even sure she knew how to play poker. But she spluttered, "Who told you that?"
Naturally. "Well. Um. I guess we could always use a fourth."
Emerson tilted her head. "Johanna said I'd be the fifth."
"Right. She... I always forget about... one of them." She blushed crimson and looked down to her boots. "Point is, I'm sure we'd love to have you."
"Great. When do you gals get together?"
Melita made up the schedule on the spot, and Emerson promised she would be there. Melita had watched Emerson walk away across the garage and was caught staring when Emerson looked back at her. They had smiled at each other, Emerson took one hand out of her pocket to wave and Melita returned it sheepishly. She had been all too aware of her jumpsuit in comparison to Emerson's leather jacket and yellow-tan slacks. Mel's sleeves were rolled up past her elbows and pinned in place, and the legs of her pants pooled over her shoes. She looked like a little girl caught playing dress-up by her urbane older sister. Melita waited until Emerson was out of sight before she hurried off to find Johanna to throttle her for not giving a little warning.
She had loved Emerson before she was in love with her. She wrote off her feelings as sisterly; it was just easier than dealing with romantic urges for another woman. They went out for drinks and danced with men, and Melita took more than a few of them out to the parking lot. She had always assumed Emerson did the same, but she'd later confessed she had been celibate for years before Mel climbed into her bed.
Melita woke again when the sun was shining directly into the bedroom window, a natural alarm clock that rarely failed to get her out of bed. She pushed back the blankets and sat up, wiggling her toes in the socks Emerson had put on her, and stretched her back before standing up. She wasn't sure if she'd been in the middle of a waking dream or a memory so strong it had acquired a dream-like quality due to her exhaustion, but she was happy to remember those days. She still got a thrill from the touch of Emerson's hand or looking up to catch her staring, but back then it had been all they had. The little stolen moments were all they could afford.
In the kitchen she found her breakfast waiting for her in the icebox. She warmed it up on the hotplate and rested her hands on the counter to peer out the window. It was a beautiful day, crystal clear and quiet, and she smiled as she imagined Emerson out in that open blue. She listened to the radio as she ate her breakfast, then went into the bedroom to dress for the day. Even without Emerson or the plane present, there was still plenty of work to keep her occupied.
She was in the front office when the radio came alive. "This is Ike Willoughby in Unguwan. Bishop and Abbott, you got ears on?"
Melita smiled as she unhooked the mic. "Willy Willoughby, what are you bothering me for?"
His voice came back to her through a cloud of static. "I'm hoping I've caught you 'fore your feller took off for the next trip."
"You're a couple hours late for that, I'm afraid. He's already aloft."
"Well, shoot. You wouldn't happen to know if he packed any of my special magazines, would you?"
Melita smiled. The first time she'd heard mention of the special magazines, she'd just assumed they featured naked ladies. She brought it up over dinner one night and, once Emerson had gotten her laughter under control, she went to get one of the packages and opened it to show Mel the truth: Astounding Science Fiction , which featured stories of science-fiction and fantasy.
"He's embarrassed because he thinks they're for little kids. But I've read a couple of the stories. They're really good."
Melita pressed down the button on the mic again. "I'm sure he has them aboard. He knows about much you enjoy 'em." She stood and walked around the counter, trailing the cord. "He should be getting there any minute now. He only had one stop 'tween here and you, so depending on how long that took him..."
"Oh, you know me. If it ain't right smack-dab on time, I start to pace."
"Just give Emerson a little time. He'll be there."
"Okay... now... when are you two gonna get rid of that second name on the business, huh? Just Bishop Aviation. Got a ring to it."
She smiled sardonically. "You trying to get him to fire me?"
"Trying to get him to see what he's got in you."
To that, she gave an authentic and enthusiastic laugh. "You've never even seen me, Willy Willoughby. For all you know I could be a troll with warts and lesions all over my face and that's why ol' Emerson hides me in the garage."
"Feh. When he gets here I'll tell him to make his move or I'll hitch a ride and come down there myself. Woman like you, still single at your age... it's a shame is all."
"I ain't that old, Willy. Now hush your mouth. Call me when you get your magazines, hear?"
Melita reached for the radio and switched it to the frequency Emerson used. "This is Honeybee calling to N129WR, come on in, over." She rested the microphone against her chin as she waited for acknowledgement. After a few seconds she lifted it again. "N129WR, the Honeybee is calling you. Best pick up your phone or I'll feel shunned. Over."
She listened to the static of the open line and bent forward so she could see more of the sky as she waited for a response.
"C'mon, Emmy," she whispered. "Answer the damn call."
She tapped her foot against the floor, imagining Emerson up in Qiluk. In her mind's eye, she was standing on a muddy road in her high-waisted trousers and her shirt buttoned all the way up to her collar. Her hair would be covered by a flight cap, and every time she heard the squawk of the radio she would roll her eyes and mutter that she'd get there when she got there.
Melita stopped herself from calling again. Part of the whole purpose of the trip was to drum up new business. She'd gotten there early and was now at the trading post, or at the restaurant, or at the little post office where she dropped off the mail to be sorted. Looking for work, trying to keep them in the black for another month. She hooked the mic back on the side of the radio and rubbed her hands as she went out into the garage.
She wasn't going to let some old fisherman's overactive imagination get the better of her.
Emerson was in flight. She felt pressure behind her knees and against her chest, but other than that she was airborne and still. The contradiction didn't make sense to her, sent her already confused mind reeling, and she opened her eyes in the hopes a visual would clear things up. Knowing the reality only made things worse, for she saw the cracked windshield and her memory came rushing back to her.
She remembered the fog rolling off the mountains, her attempt to avoid it causing her to hit a wave of turbulence. Now the plane was caught in the canopy, nose aimed at the ground. She ran her hand over the strap holding her in the seat. If she released it, she would drop onto the control panel and the force of her fall would most likely dislodge the plane. But she couldn't very well just sit there and wait for someone to find her.
The microphone had been knocked off the radio, dangling down near her feet. She stretched for it, startled when something red dripped from her forehead down onto her arm. She ignored the blood and wrapped her arm around the cord until she could close her fingers around the smooth contours of the receiver.
Once she had it in hand, she looked at the actual controls. She had to adjust the frequency to call for help, but she didn't trust the ebb and sway of the plane. It felt like a single branch was keeping her from plummeting. She held her breath and let it out slowly as she carefully stretched her arm out.
Something snapped, and there was a harrowing moment of weightlessness just before the branch gave way.
Emerson flattened her feet against the floor and pressed herself back against the seat as the plane crashed down toward the frozen ground. She closed her eyes and prayed it was closer than it had seemed through the broken glass.
"Stupid, you're being so stupid." Melita's voice was a low growl as she admonished herself, not slowing as she toss the greasy rag onto the counter. She snatched the mic off the radio, and turned it on. She heard the squelch of static before she opened the line. "Emerson Leigh, you pick up your goddamn microphone right now and tell me where you are." She released the button and waited. The only sound above the static was her own rough breathing. She closed her eyes and brought the mic up to her lips, so close that they brushed the metal grill when she spoke. "Emmy. Please. It's been an hour. You should be back in the air by now. So please get on so I can yell at you for being late. Just answer me."
She couldn't count the number of times Emerson had failed to answer a call, couldn't begin to list how often she had tried to get in touch and been met with static. But for some reason she felt a cold, swirling nausea deep inside her that this silence was different. She still had her eyes closed, and she thought back to her last sight of Emerson that morning. A dark shape moving through the inky light of dawn. She remembered Emerson's gentle touch as she rolled the socks onto Melita's cold feet. It had been as sweet a goodbye as she could remember.
She wouldn't let it be their final farewell. She wouldn't let their story end like that. She opened her eyes and held down the button again.
"Emmy, you listen to me... I'm coming for you. Wherever you are, whatever happened, I'm coming for you."
She put the microphone down without hanging it up, moving quickly now that she had a plan. She needed to dress for a hike, she needed to get a map and figure out Emerson's flight plan, and then she had to go into town. Trying to find Emerson would be like trying to find baseball in a dark room full of rocks, but she knew a way she could help improve the odds.
The lodge appeared smaller than it actually was, a compact wooden structure dwarfed by the ancient trees that surrounded its clearing. As Melita approached she saw the old man halfway up the ladder to his cache with a bag slung over his shoulder. She could make out the shape of a deer against the sides of the sack, and she knew the old man would eat well over the winter.
During her approach she watched him reach the apex of his climb to lower the bag inside. She hailed him as she walked over the frosted grass of his front lawn, and he reached the porch at the same time she did. He was breathless, but she knew that offering to help would only have drawn his ire. She also wasn't in the mood to waste time with formalities.
"Kuka, I need your help."
He looked at her for a long moment. The set of her jaw, the tension around her eyes, and her posture told him everything he needed to know without her saying. He could read her desperation clear as day. The old man wasn't actually her grandfather - wasn't even a father as far as anyone knew - but the entire town had taken to calling him by the name as a sign of respect. He was Aleut, and his presence in the wide clearing predated the town itself. Once he determined the severity of what she needed, Kuka nodded and turned to go inside. He left the door open, so she followed.
"What do you need?"
"Hiking boots and a rifle. Medical equipment." She pushed her hair back out of her face, trying to think of the worst case scenarios. "I think Emerson crashed." It was the first time she'd said it aloud, and she had to fight to keep her voice steady. "I don't want to waste time fumbling around out there. I thought there might be some old hunting trails that could save me a little effort."
"Oh, sure." He spoke off-handedly as he went through a foot locker. He began stacking things in his chair. "Lot of old trails all over." He stood and rested his hands in the small of his back as he scanned the rest of the room. The lodge was made up of a single room with a small sleeping area built on a shelf near the ceiling. He pulled out a map and held it out to her.
"Oh. I have a map."
"Someone walked through here one time, wrote it down, you call it a map. This, this was made by people who lived here all their lives. They know where the real trails are."
She nodded her thanks and added it to her supplies. When she looked up Kuka was already on his way into the kitchen. "He'll need clean water. How long has he been out of contact?"
"Four hours. He left this morning around five."
"Mm. That's not good."
Melita closed her eyes, hating and appreciating that he was being blunt with her. "No. It's not. He was on his way to, um... Qiluk and Unguwan. I called ahead to Qiluk and he never made it there."
He came back with a large leather pouch of water that he added to his provisions. "Qiluk's an hour away. If he crashed, he's been on the ground for at least three hours."
She had already done the math, but she appreciated hearing it from him. "Yeah."
"He was in the military, so. Whatever went wrong, I'm sure he can take care of himself until help comes."
"Yeah." The WASP records were classified, so they didn't have to explain how Emerson Bishop was a part of a women's organization. Emerson technically wasn't even a veteran, but most people in Arnaq simply accepted that she was a veteran with sealed records. "Thank you for your help, Kuka."
He nodded dismissively and then sat down to pull on his boots.
Melita watched him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm not sending you up there alone."
"Kuka, thank you, but that's not necessary..."
He didn't stop getting ready. "When you find him, if he needs to be carried out, you'll be stuck. I won't have both of you stranded."
Melita knew the truth in what he said, but she also knew that if Emerson needed medical attention, it would be very hard to conceal her secret. She was torn between the help she knew she needed and preserving their life.
"Kuka... wh-when we find Emerson, if he needs help, there's something you should know. Something about him that might seem unusual."
He pulled the straps of his pack into place on his shoulders. "Do you know what we call berdache?"
Melita was thrown by the change of topic. "No."
"Berdache or two-spirit. Your man, he is one." He picked up a rifle and held it out to her. "I know who your man is. I don't care who he was born as."
She took the gun. "Thank you, Kuka."
He dismissed the gratitude, since in his eyes he'd done nothing worth being thanked for, and checked to make sure he had everything. Finally he nodded and gestured for her to lead the way out of the lodge. She took out her map, the one he had deemed useless, and unrolled it when they were on the porch. He took one side to free her hands, and she pointed to their airstrip. She ran her fingernail over a line she'd drawn between it and Emerson's destination.
"The plane could have gone down anywhere near this line. He's flown it enough that he doesn't let himself drift very far, so figure about five degrees on either side of the line."
Kuka grunted. "That's a lot of ground to cover."
Melita nodded, not trusting herself to agree out loud.
"We'll need a truck to cover the ground that's passable on four wheels. I think Elmo Gaines has one."
"Emerson and I owe him enough already. He gave us fuel on credit yesterday." She had a moment of seizing fear in her chest when she realized the house of cards she'd built would come crashing down if they didn't have a plane. She just had to hope and pray that whatever was wrong with the plane would be fixable once they got it out of the woods.
Kuka snapped his fingers. "Laverne has a truck."
Melita tensed. Laverne scared the bejesus out of her, but it was for Emerson. She nodded and said, "Lead the way."
Kuka smiled at her nervousness and led her away from his home. Melita adjusted the straps of her backpack and headed after him, her eyes straying back to the mountain where Emerson was waiting to be found. Just a little longer, baby. I'm coming, I promise.
Emerson had been in love with women before, but she'd never taken the leap to actually being with one. Too much at risk, too much chance of rejection. The moment she decided Melita was different, they were in the backseat of another pilot's car on the way home from a night of dancing off-base. Emerson was as dressed up as she ever got, but Melita looked like she had stepped off the silver screen. Her hair was done, her makeup only enhanced her natural beauty, and Emerson was smitten.
Melita was exhausted from a night of dancing with all comers, anyone who wanted to share the dance floor got her attention for at least the duration of a dance. By the time they finally left she practically had to carry the redheaded dynamo across the parking lot and pour her into the car. Now, feeling drowsy herself even though she'd stayed at the table for most of the night, Emerson tried to ignore the inch of lace visible under the hem of Melita's dress, the way her breasts rose and fell under the bodice with each breath, or the soft feel of her hand.
The woman driving took a corner, and Melita slumped against Emerson's side. Emerson held her breath, waiting for Mel to sit up and straighten herself up but she only cuddled closer to Emerson's warmth. She started to gently ease her up, but Mel muttered, "Please? I'm cold."
Emerson pushed back her anxiety and slipped her arm around Melita's shoulders. Mel murmured a thank you and drifted off again. Emerson was tense, all too aware of the curves pressing against her, and she had rested her cheek on the top of Mel's head. The smell of her shampoo seemed to fill the car, mingling with her perfume. Emerson hoped some of it clung to her when she went to bed that night.
"I'm glad I met you, Emmy. It was worth coming to a war."
Emerson's heart soared, and she smiled against Melita's hair. "You're worth a war, too, honeybee."
She opened her eyes with the words still echoing in her mind, the dark cold of the backseat replaced by the bitter cold of the mountain air. She was flat on her back, unaware of how she'd gotten out of the plane but grateful she had. She saw it now, resting tail-up against the wide base of a tree, the nose twisted and broken against the ground. The sight of it broke her heart. Dreams, plans, futures, all vanished in the smoke that was still curling up from the cowling. She fought the urge to sob and looked around for evidence of how she had gotten free.
The windshield was broken, and looking down she saw broken glass on her clothes. Her shirt and trousers were ripped in multiple places, indicating she had crawled through the gap after impact. She hoped she had crawled through. If she'd been propelled out when the plane hit ground... She reached up and touched her forehead.
The pain was blinding. When she looked, her first three fingers were slick with blood. She managed to change her cry of despair into a grunt, smearing the blood on her shirt and looking for something to staunch the flow. She had a first-aid kit in the plane. If she was careful, she could get to it. She pushed her hands against the ground and put her weight on her right leg, howling as she collapsed back to the ground.
Broken. Of course.
The pain radiated through her, a warning klaxon from her brain that she should stay where she was as long as possible. When she exhaled, a white cloud obscured the trees high above her. It took her a moment to realize that half of the blur was due to her eyes watering. She wiped them clear and then looked down at herself again. Only her head seemed to be bloody, which was good. A broken bone was bad, but an open fracture would most likely have been the end of her. She supposed she would have to be grateful for small favors.
After the pain faded enough for her to risk moving again, she got her hand into her pocket and withdrew the small Swiss army knife she carried everywhere. She untucked her shirt and cut off a large triangle from the bottom of one side. She folded it four times and felt her forehead until she found the source of the pain. She hissed as she pressed the pad against it and felt the throb of her pulse through the thin material.
Once she got the bleeding stopped, she would have to find a way to move to the plane without aggravating her injuries. And then she would have to get inside to find her medical kit without knocking the whole damn thing over on herself.
All of that could wait. For the moment, she focused on holding the bloody compress to her forehead, forcing her memory back to the night she had sat with Melita in the back of a dark car and realized she was hopelessly, dangerously in love.
A large wooden framework filled the middle of the church dining room, a patchwork quilt stretched between its boundaries. Seven women on the far side of sixty were positioned around the perimeter, hunched forward to do their work while gossiping about the various rumors and politics that cropped up in a small town. Kuka had led Melita through the ominously silent church building, through dark offices until they reached the ramp that led down. The kitchen was on a lower level than the rest of the building, but not quite a basement.
Seven heads turned rheumy eyes turned toward them as their footsteps echoed on the hollow wood of the ramp, and seven lips curled up in crone-like smiles. They followed Kuka's progress to the kitchen as he studiously ignored their attentions.
"Hello, Grant!" one lady called in a flirtatious sing-song.
Kuka grunted a response and continued through the swinging door into the kitchen. Melita followed, trying to maintain her invisibility before the old ladies turned their attention to her. They didn't like her, her hair, her job, or the clothes she wore. They didn't like that she lived in the same house as Emerson, and they thought she was shirking her duties at home when she joined the war effort. She had gotten used to their tight-lipped stares and the way they shook their heads and whispered to each other once they thought she was out of earshot. They were old and set in their ways.
Laverne, on the other hand... She tensed when she saw the tall, broad-shouldered woman standing at the sink. Laverne had thick black hair that reached her belt and muscular arms that were currently on display due to her sleeves being rolled up to her elbows. She wore tight jeans tucked into her boots, and finished washing off the plate in her hands before acknowledging that she wasn't alone anymore.
"One of these days you'll give in to them, Kuka. A man shouldn't be alone."
"There once was a man who had set down roots and never wanted for companionship. He's up for parole in five years."
Laverne laughed without turning around. "What do you want, old man?"
"We need help."
"We?" She turned and saw Melita and her eyes grew dark. She turned away and picked up a towel to dry off her hands. "Sorry, Kuka. I'm busy today."
"It's about Emerson," Melita said.
Laverne lifted her chin. "Emerson doesn't want my help. He made that abundantly clear when he made his choice."
Melita looked away. The only way they could live together without a giant scandal was to pretend they were platonic business partners. She could take the neighbors who, regardless of what they claimed, whispered and clucked their tongues. Unfortunately the lie meant that Emerson had to present herself as a bachelor. Most of the single women in town had accepted his polite rebuff. Laverne had not been so easily dissuaded. In her eyes, Emerson chose to wait in perpetuity for someone who would never love him.
"It's a matter of life and death, Laverne," Kuka said. "You want his death on your conscience?"
"He's not my responsibility. He had his chance to be, and he didn't take it." She kept her eyes locked on Melita.
Melita finally met her gaze. "What do ya want me to say, darlin'? You want me to say I'll give him to you if you help me? Hand him over like he's property? Emerson made his choice. But be a human being, for God's sake. Emerson crashed. He could be really badly hurt. Are you honestly going to just leave him up there to die, or are you going to loan us your goddamn truck so we can find him?"
After that it was Laverne who turned away. Finally she reached into her pocket and put the keys onto the counter. "I want it back tonight. With gas."
Kuka picked up the keys. "I'll see to it."
"Thank you," Melita said.
Laverne snorted. "If I'd said no, you probably would have just taken it anyway."
"That's not true," Kuka said. "I would have, but Melita would have fought me on it. Come on. Time's wasting."
They were almost to the back door when Laverne stopped them by saying Melita's name. She had turned back to the sink, speaking to the soapy dishes rather than to her. "I hope Emerson is okay."
Melita nodded. "Me too."
"We're losing time," Kuka whispered.
"Right... thank you, Laverne."
The woman at the sink nodded slowly as Melita followed Kuka out to the truck. It was already past noon. If her fears were right, then Emerson had been waiting to be rescued for six hours. She hoped they weren't already too late as she climbed behind the wheel of Laverne's truck. The tires kicked up frozen earth as she pulled away from the church and aimed for the foothills.
With the bleeding staunched, Emerson got herself turned around without standing. She used roots and dug her fingers into the mud to pull herself inch by inch closer to the plane. Her left leg seemed undamaged so when the time came to stand, she kept her right knee bent and balanced carefully against the upended plane. Most of its contents had fallen against the windshield or fallen out onto the ground, and she searched for the med kit in the easily-accessible items. She found a bottle of water and drank conservatively, resisting the urge to drain the entire thing in one swallow.
Holding a mouthful of precious water on her tongue, she stood up as straight as she could and rested against the frame of the broken windshield. The radio mic was still dangling, so she snatched it up and stretched to turn the dials in the futile hope she could get a signal. After a few seconds of fruitless searching she decided her energy was better spent elsewhere. She sorted through the items that had fallen in the crash, looking up to make sure the cargo was fully secured and wouldn't crush her. Her right leg throbbed, but she was almost used to the pain by now. Her head swam every few seconds but she stayed focused. She dug through the haze until she found the small white box that held the medical supplies.
"Beautiful you..." she whispered. She tucked the plastic box under her arm, grabbed the two water bottles she could find, and eased herself out of the window. She crawled away from the plane just in case it decided to tip over and leaned against a tree. She opened the box on her lap and went through the items. First she applied the goopy antiseptic to the wound on her forehead and covered that with a proper bandage. She conservatively applied medicine to the worst of her cuts and scrapes, but she didn't have enough to cover them all. She took another drink of water, and then wet one of the rags that she found in the kit. She wiped the mud and mulch away from her wounds to curb infection and then rested the back of her head against the hard bark of the tree trunk.
She could see the sun through the trees and thought it was oddly positioned. Her watch was broken, but she didn't know how it could possibly be noon already. She winced because looking at the sun was hurting her head. Once she blinked away the afterimages, she looked at the wreckage of their plane.
All of Mel's careful tinkering to keep it safe, all of her meticulous plotting to keep the company viable, and she had to go and pull a damned stupid stunt like this. Tears stung her eyes and she balled her hands into fists. She wanted to throw a fit, wanted to break something or just hurl something into the woods with a cry of frustration. She couldn't risk it. Everything she had now was precious, every item potentially necessary to keep her alive just a minute longer.
Emerson touched her tongue to her top lip and closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down. Deep breaths that she held in her chest, then slow exhales that seemed to deflate her entire body. Then again. Then again, until her chin dipped toward her chest and she felt her mind drifting. She knew she shouldn't sleep, knew that her head injury made it a life or death decision to let herself fall asleep.
"I've been meaning to tell you," she heard herself say, speaking loudly over the crunch of tires on gravel, "your name is beautiful."
The darkness faded into the scene, Melita beside her in the passenger seat, wind whipping her red curls against her cheek. She smiled and reached up to brush them aside, squinting behind the Foster Grants she only wore when they were off-base. They were in a borrowed Jeep, the wind making conversation difficult. But the content of the conversation made the effort worthwhile.
"Thank you. It's Greek for honeybee."
Emerson smiled. "Honeybee. I like that. I think I might call you that from now on."
"You do and you die, sweetheart. No one calls me honeybee, Emmy."
"Ah, you've made your point." They rolled to a stop at the crossroads and she pushed up one of her driving gloves to check her watch. "We have time before we need to be back. Want to just drive for a while."
Melita balled her hands in her lap and stretched, leaning toward the windshield to look back toward the base. Emerson admired the muscles in Mel's arms, the curve of her back under the thin material of her blouse. She could see the lines of Melita's undergarments and forced herself to look away before her mind went too far.
"Sure. It's been too long since I just drove."
Emerson smiled and pulled away from the stop sign, turning away from the base and aiming them toward whatever lay to the east. Their journey came back to Emerson in flashes:
Melita at the window of the abandoned diner, hands cupped around her face as she peered through the dust-covered windows.
Getting gas at a station where the clerk guffawed at the possibility they were from the base, only to have Emerson shut him up by showing her identification.
And the rain.
The storm clouds that opened up on their way back home, drenching them while Melita cursed her for not getting a vehicle with a roof. And Emerson, soaked to the bone, covering Melita's head with her jacket as they ran back to the barracks after checking the Jeep back in. Standing in the corridor, their teeth chattering as they dripped on the faded tile outside Melita's room. Hugging themselves, nervous and awkward, neither saying anything but neither willing to part company.
"Well, that was an interesting day."
"Until the end," Emerson allowed.
Melita shook her head. "No. Things can't always be cherry. You gotta have balance."
"Next time I'll get something with a roof."
"Or at least check the weather report. Wouldn't have been so bad if we'd had an umbrella."
"I'll keep that in mind." Her eyes dipped past the wet hair plastered to Melita's cheeks and forehead to the V of her blouse's collar. Rainwater beaded on the pale skin, and Emerson wondered what would happen if she ducked her head to lick it away. She rocked back on her heels, embarrassed by her own thoughts. "Uh. I oughta let you go change. You'll catch your death in those clothes."
"You want to change into something here? Wait for the rain to stop? I hate sending you back out there..."
Emerson's mind shouted at her to retreat, evade, escape. "Nah. I want to lie down. Thank you for the offer, though. I-it was mighty sweet of you."
"Sure. I had a really good time today. Maybe the only good time I've had since I got here. Thank you."
"So... until next time, Emmy."
"If you call me Emmy, I'm going to call you honeybee."
Melita shrugged a shoulder. "I've been thinking. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad." She held up one slender finger in warning. "Long as it doesn't catch on."
"I'll only use it when we're alone."
Melita smiled. "Sounds like a nice compromise to me. See you tomorrow, Emerson."
Emerson could only nod. She debated kissing Melita on the cheek, going back and forth so long that the moment, if it even existed, had passed.
She watched Melita go into her room, rubbed the back of her neck, and walked away. Her footsteps sounded hollow echoing off the walls, and she heard the rumble of thunder as she stepped back outside. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes to let the water pool on her face, pouring down into her ears and down the collar of her shirt. She felt pain in her jaw as she started to cry, the tears running invisibly down her cheeks with the rain, her lips twisting at the corners as she wept.
She didn't know what she was crying about. The day had been amazing, but torture at the same time. Every touch she shared with Melita had been a thrill, but each one pained her knowing she wouldn't be allowed anything more. She had to admit that her feelings for Melita went far deeper than she'd ever expected, deeper than any feelings she'd had in the past.
Emerson knew at that moment, soaked to the bone and adding her tears to the storm, that she was in love with Melita Abbott. And she knew that was why they should never see each other again.
Melita instinctively drove toward the mountains, but Kuka instructed her to take a winding road that would lead them out of town. He had the official map unfolded on his lap with the hand-drawn guide on the dashboard. As she pulled out onto the road and turned north, he explained his reasoning. "I was out all morning. If he had gone down nearby, I would have heard it. So we can eliminate this." He swept two fingers over the first third of the journey. "No sense in trekking through woods he definitely isn't in. We need to save our energy. No point walking fifty miles if we can meet in the middle." He pointed at the center section of Emerson's guesstimated journey.
"Why not closer to Qiluk?"
"Same thing. Someone would have heard. They would have known Emerson was in trouble when you called to check up on him." He tapped the center of the line, then leaned forward to look at the sky. He was bent almost in half, neck craned so he could look up through the glass. "Clear day. There was some fog earlier, though... cleared up around the time you say Emerson took off, but it lingered around the mountain for a bit."
Melita kept quiet as he figured the possibilities in his head. She had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel, trying to ignore the pendulum swing of string doll hanging from the rearview mirror. It rocked back and forth in steady time, counting off the seconds Emerson was still in danger, still hurt, still lost.
"What time did Emerson take off?"
"Five o'clock, give or take a few minutes. I was still asleep." She cursed herself for not saying a proper goodbye, then immediately chided herself for even thinking it had been her last chance.
Kuka tapped one thumb against his lips as he examined the map. With his other hand resting flat on the map, he swept his hand slowly across the land as if marking the weather system. When his palm passed the line, he stopped it. "She was here when the fog lifted. We'll search here." He looked up and pointed down the road. "Go on for another five minutes, then we'll take a trail up."
Melita nodded and twisted her lips, biting the bottom one as she followed the winding path. She tamped down the rising fear and dread, fought past the cobwebs of despair forming in her mind by thoughts of what she would do if anything happened to Emerson. She swallowed the lump in her throat and, in the interests of self-preservation, she tried to cast herself back to the early moments of their acquaintance.
Emerson did eventually join her and Johanna, along with another pilot and mechanic recruited for their impromptu poker game. The next day Johanna stared at Melita across the engine they were servicing as if she was waiting for the punchline to some joke. Melita simply stared back and shrugged.
"What? We can still play poker if you're so all-fired insistent on it, but we need to find someone else to fill the last spot."
"I thought you two really hit it off last night. Hell, half the time I wasn't sure you knew we were still there."
Melita shrugged and bashfully focused on her work. "I was just trying to make her feel welcome. But the more she talked, the less I could stand her."
Johanna laughed. "What's not to like?"
"She's so full of herself. She's obnoxious and snooty."
"Well, she is obnoxious. You have to give me that."
Johanna shook her head. "You're the only one saying that. Renee and Patty both adored her. We're talking about making it a regular thing, if you want to."
"A regular... every week, sitting across from that-that... that..."
"That what? C'mon, spit it out."
Melita put down her tools and wiped her forearm across her cheek. "You want to keep playing, that's fine. But you'll have to find another player. Either to replace her or to replace me."
She walked away and, moment later, heard Johanna rushing after her. "What is your problem? The whole poker game was so you could spend time with her."
"Well, I don't want to spend time with her. Every time I look at her, I feel queasy. She speaks and I want to cover my ears. And when she looks at me... when she looks at me, I want to... run." She hugged herself and looked down at her boots.
"Sounds like someone has a crush."
Melita's head snapped up, and she grabbed the lapels of Johanna's jumpsuit. She spun the other mechanic so fast that Johanna didn't have time to react before she was slammed against the lockers.
"Not everyone is like you. Hear me?"
Johanna only stared at her, looking both shocked and sympathetic. Melita heard footsteps approaching from behind her and then the one person she didn't want to see asked, "Everything okay, ladies?"
Melita looked over her shoulder at Emerson, then released Johanna's jumpsuit and stepped back. "Perfect. Just fucking perfect." She walked away, twisting her body so she wouldn't smack her shoulder against Emerson's as she fled. She stopped a few feet away, back still turned, breathing heavily. "Next poker game is next Wednesday. Be there if you want, or don't. I don't care." She sniffled and stormed off without waiting for Emerson's response.
Now, as Kuka directed her to pull off the road, she wished she could send herself back to those feelings. Indifference and denial were more comfortable than the cold swirling pain in the center of her gut. Ignoring how she felt was better than venturing into the wilderness to find the only person she'd ever loved broken or... or...
Kuka was watching her and she realized they had been parked for almost two minutes and she hadn't made a move to get out of the truck. She grabbed her pack off the seat between them and threw open the door. The pain was better, she decided. The tipping point between the two extremes was the difference between requited and unrequited love, and she wasn't going to sacrifice that for any amount of fleeting comfort.
Emerson used two branches to brace her broken leg, tying them in place with strips of cloth cut from her sleeves. She didn't dare try walking on it yet, but if enough time passed she might not have the luxury of waiting. She probed the injured area, hissing at even the slightest amount of pressure on the bruised area. The medical kit had morphine, so she took one pill in the hopes it would help with the pain but also keep her head clear.
"Melita," she whispered. She knew that men planned and God laughed, but she never expected how far the big mythological man would go to make sure Emerson couldn't shun Melita forever. A week after deciding she would never see Melita again, she was lying in her bed when Melita stormed into the barracks like a force of nature. She shouted Emerson's name, and Emerson figured she was in for a tongue-lashing over her avoidance.
She had been laying awake, waiting for the day to begin, and pushed back her blankets as she stood to take the redheaded Greek bullet barreling toward her. "Mel..."
Melita jumped into her arms, spinning them around with the force of her pounce. Emerson had no choice but to catch and hold her. When she put Melita down, she saw her eyes were wide and wild. Her hair was caught in her eyelashes and she was grinning to beat the band. She was also in her pajamas, surprisingly pale and pink legs extending out of her nightshirt. She was barefoot and, when Emerson set her down, she had to look up into the pilot's eyes.
Melita chuckled breathlessly, then said, "It's over."
Melita softly slapped her. "The war. The war, the war, it's over."
Emerson's heart leapt into her throat. "What?"
"The Germans surrendered. It's done. We're going home." She jumped into Emerson's arms again, laughing against her neck. And Emerson, who had just spent a week avoiding Melita, was stricken dumb by the thought of never seeing her again.
Later that afternoon, both of them dressed and dumbstruck by all the celebrations they'd been through, they finally had a moment of silence sitting on the back of a supply truck. Melita was on the bumper and Emerson was above her, on the trunk. Melita rested her head on Emerson's lap and Emerson, unsure of what else she could do, stroked her hair.
"I've missed you this week."
"Yeah... I've... been busy."
Melita nodded. "I hope it wasn't because of what happened on the drive."
"What happened on the drive?"
"I don't know. I liked it, but if you didn't--"
"No, I did. I did." Her voice softened as she pulled one of Melita's curls straight. "I liked the drive. And I've missed you, too, Honeybee."
Melita chuckled and sat up. "Where are you going now?"
Emerson realized now that she had to go somewhere, live somewhere, and have a life. A life that more than likely wouldn't involve planes. The thought hit her hard, combining with the reality of losing Melita, and she felt her eyes filling with tears. Melita's hand touched her face, soft and warm, and Emerson turned to her.
"God, don't let anyone see me cry."
Melita guided Emerson's head to her shoulder and stroked the back of her head. "You know, Renee was talking about where she was going to go. She and a couple other pilots were talking about the Alaska Territory. They need pilots for everything since everyone is so far apart and everything's so wild and crazed."
Emerson sat up and surreptitiously wiped her sleeve over her cheeks. "Alaska Territory?"
"I mean, it's an option right?"
"I guess." She sniffled. "What about you? Where are you going now?"
Melita's cheer faded. "Oh, me. Back to South Carolina. Back to The Plan my parents have always denied having for me. They let me sign up to 'get it out of my system,' but I guess now it's time to start being the lady they always wanted me to be."
Emerson felt like she had a bite of apple stuck in her throat. "Come with me."
Melita nodded and slid forward in preparation of getting off the truck. "Okay. Where are we going?"
"Alaska Territory." She tightened her grip on Melita's hand. "Come with me. I'll be a pilot, and you can be my mechanic."
Melita stared for a moment and then turned toward the celebration that had spilled out of the mess hall. "I thought you were getting sick of me."
"Is that what you thought?" She lightly rested her hand on Melita's cheek. "I'm sorry, honeybee."
Melita looked at her again and the touch turned into a caress. Emerson felt like she'd been caught in a trap, unable to pull her hand away although she desperately wanted to.
"Are you really asking me to come with you?"
"If you want to."
Melita bit her bottom lip and nodded. "Yeah. I do."
Emerson heard something snap and opened her eyes. Her head was foggy and the pain was a dull throb that covered her entire body. She saw the plane still standing like a totem pole a few yards away from her. She rearranged herself with a hiss of pain, wanting another pain pill but reluctant to sacrifice the little clear thought she had remaining. She rubbed her right thigh and scanned the woods around her for any evidence of someone coming to help her. She remembered the snap that had woken her and twisted to look for the source.
The wolf was standing on a rise about twenty feet away. Its head was lowered and pulled to one side to look at her around the tree trunk. She tensed, willing every muscle in her body to go still as she locked eyes with the wolf. It was as gray as a stone, like a piece of nature that had been brought to life. Emerson swallowed hard, trying to envision the supplies she had around her so she wouldn't have to turn away from the predator.
The wolf didn't look away as it moved to close the distance between them.
Melita focused on Kuka's broad back as he led her up a trail only he could see. Whenever she paused to think about where they were going or look to see where she should put her feet, she ended up second-guessing herself and falling behind. Twice she had to call out for him to slow down, hating herself for it even as she huffed and puffed to keep up. After the first two forced breaks, she decided to occupy her mind with other things.
The first night she spent in Emerson's bed, their first real night together, sleep had been impossible. Emerson, though, had fallen immediately to sleep after her second orgasm. Melita cradled her, stroked the lank hair away from her forehead and traced her eyebrows, and smiled. Emerson's slumber was the relieved relaxation of someone who had been fighting for a long time and was finally allowed to surrender.
She ended up watching Emerson for six full hours that night and still dawn was an unwelcome intrusion. The dark sweep of her eyebrows, her eyelashes resting like slivers of charcoal, her lips just barely open enough to show her two front teeth. But the sunlight slowly filled the room enough that Emerson was brought back to consciousness. Her eyelids fluttered, eyes focused, and then she smiled when she saw who was holding her. Melita knew then that she'd made the right choice to go down the hall and admit what she'd been hiding ever since they were stationed together.
Before that, when Emerson told her she'd found them a home, the news had been tempered with the revelation that Emerson would have to pretend to be Mr. Bishop. The Alaskan people were open to the idea of a female pilot, but the businesses they had to deal with were run by men just the same as in any other state. Embracing the misconception would make things easier all around.
Melita had accepted the information with selfish happiness. If Emerson had to pretend to be male, then she wouldn't be dating anyone. By that point Melita was already so far gone that she had stopped going out to the bars when they were still on the base. It wasn't cheating if Emerson was still just a friend, but she couldn't justify going out to some man's car and leaving Emerson behind alone.
She thought about the interminable nights when they were still just roommates and coworkers, when their dinners ended with a chaste kiss on the cheek and they adjourned to separate beds. Lying on top of the covers in her nightgown and staring at the ceiling as she listened to Emerson in the bath and tried not to picture it. The nights when she could only get to sleep by tugging up the hem of her dress and touching herself until the images went away and she could get some rest.
Kuka stopped ahead of her and she nearly ran into his back. "Why are we stopping?"
He touched a broken branch. "Something big ran away. A caribou, maybe." He scanned the mud for tracks and nodded. "It came down near here. But higher. It will have ended up much higher than we are now. But at least we were only a little way off. Follow." He motioned for her to try to keep up as he started walking again. Melita allowed herself a brief spark of hope as they started climbing again.
The wolf circled her position slowly, eyes never straying from Emerson's. She tracked it without moving any more than necessary, straightening against the tree trunk as it moved between her and the plane. She kept her head up, her shoulders square, and her hands flat on the ground as the wolf stopped directly in front of her. She returned its stare and hoped she didn't show any obvious fear. The wolf's ears stood up, the skin of its nose wrinkled as if caught in mid-growl.
"Back off," Emerson whispered without moving her lips. "Go on. Get."
The wolf swayed from side to side, almost hypnotizing her with its movement. It bared its teeth and the low growl increased in pitch. She dug her fingers into the mud and suddenly remembered something an old man who lived in Arnaq had told her. He sold them meat from the animals he hunted, and she once asked him if he'd ever been cornered by any wild animals.
"Hunter becoming hunted? Oh, yes, sure. But you have to know how to handle them. Wolves need their prey to run, run away. They lust for the chase before the kill. Prey that stands its ground, eh, they hesitate."
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Hope you know what you're talking about, Kuka." She held the wolf's gaze, sure that her heart was pounding hard enough to make her entire body vibrate. She mimicked the wolf's stance as much as possible, lowering her chin while keeping her eyes up, hunching her shoulders. She envisioned the wolf lunging at her and tried to envision what she would do. It would come at her face, so she could grab its head and twist. If it got close enough for her to grab, she knew she could kill it.
"Please don't make me kill you," she whispered. "Go hunt something else."
The wolf rocked back on its heels and Emerson braced for the attack. To her surprise, however, the wolf reeled around and ducked away through the underbrush. She exhaled as hard as if she'd been punched in the stomach, too stunned to believe the animal had actually left. She waited until she was certain it was gone, aware of all the sounds in the forest around her. When she was convinced the danger had passed she let the tension seep out of her body and tilted her head to the sky.
"Thank you, wolf," she said. "Thank you." She laughed quietly and closed her eyes and listened as the echoes of her laugh faded into the ambient sounds of nature.
Melita clung to the refuge of memory as they continued their arduous ascent.
It had taken her some time to get used to seeing Emerson as a man, and even longer for her to stop slipping pronouns in public. In private she called Emerson her girl, and Emerson let down her guard a little when they were behind closed doors and curtains, but her closet was full of male clothing down to the underwear and socks. Now the ruse had gone for so long that Melita couldn't even picture Emerson wearing her uniform skirt without it looking peculiar.
One of her favorite mental images was when they were together in the bathroom. She liked to lounge in the bath for a long time, getting the grease out from under her nails and letting the water ease it off her skin, so she reclined against the curved edge and watched as Emerson prepared for work.
Emerson stood at the mirror with her back to the tub, half-dressed in briefs and a tank top that just barely hid her bindings. Her hair slicked back against her skull, not yet styled so that it fell across her forehead. Melita could clearly see the lines of Emerson's back and shoulders as she dragged the straight razor across her cheek, clearing away the shaving cream and then swishing it in the water before taking it back up.
The maintenance was hardly necessary, but she figured that since she had to purchase the necessities at the grocery store she might as well go through with the ritual. Melita knew it was deeper than that, however. Putting on the briefs, binding her breasts, dragging a razor over her cheeks and chin before slapping aftershave into her pours... it was how Emerson transformed her private self into the person she showed to the world.
She dressed in the bedroom and came back to help Melita out of the tub and dry her off. Melita would brush the back of her hand over Emerson's cheek and make an approving noise in her throat. Emerson's skin, so tight and so smooth, always felt good after a shave. Then Emerson would go out to man the front desk - in the rare event a passenger needed to buy a ticket - while Melita dressed.
Most days that Emerson wasn't in the air they just killed time. Melita tinkered, Emerson went over the books, but occasionally they were able to just sit out front and enjoy the fresh air. Melita would lean against the wall or crouch next to Emerson's chair, and Emerson would put her feet up on a hitching post that was leftover from the days when a horse was the only way to get around town. The building housing their business started life as a post office. When the old postmistress died, the council built a hangar in the hopes it would attract a pilot and a plane. Some of the older people in the village said Emerson's arrival later that summer was the answer to a prayer.
Now Melita had to wonder if their arrival in Arnaq had been a blessing or a subtle curse. Surely if God had directed them to this corner of nowhere, He would have made it easier for them to stay. She kept herself focused on Emerson's welfare but knew that losing the plane would be just as tragic. Even if it wasn't totaled, she had no idea how they would get the wreckage down off the mountain to be repaired.
Kuka held up a hand to stop her. He backed up a step and crouched, so Melita mimicked him before she scanned the woods for what had brought him up short. After a moment she heard it: something rustling through the underbrush. Kuka brought up his rifle and pressed one finger across his lips to indicate she should remain silent.
The sounds stopped as whatever it was sensed their presence. They remained silent and soon the creature proceeded on its downhill journey. Melita caught a flash of mottled gray fur through the brush and looked to Kuka for confirmation. Once the animal was gone he nodded and straightened slowly with a grunt of exertion.
"Wolf. A silly one, too. Shouldn't even be up this early."
Melita couldn't believe how stupid she had been; she'd never even considered wild animals. If Emerson was hurt, if she had been thrown from the plane or...
"Wolves need to chase," the old man said, reading her expression. "If Emerson is hurt, he's not going to run. Wolves should be no problem."
"What about bears?"
Kuka thought for a moment. "Bears might be a problem."
Melita grimaced and indicated he should continue on. He nodded and led the way, letting her follow in the nearly-invisible path he blazed. They had been walking for almost two hours and there was a very real possibility it would be dark before they got to wherever Emerson was. Even with a flashlight and lantern, she didn't relish the idea of going back down the mountain with an old man and an injured woman without the sun to guide them. They had gear if they had to camp out, but given the cold bite of the wind, she wasn't much looking forward to that either.
Once they were back at home, safe and sound in their own bedroom, she was going to give Emerson what-for about crashing in winter instead of summer.
To get her mind off the pain, Emerson pictured the streets of Arnaq. She pictured the people moving at their slow paces, the old men having a conversation on a street corner. She saw the flag waving above the town square. It still looked odd to her to see a flag flying without Old Glory flapping in the breeze alongside, but lack of statehood meant a surplus of freedom. She saw the old church and the mole-like women who occupied the sunken kitchen for their quilting circle. She and Melita had each gotten a quilt when they moved to town, though only one was in use.
Thoughts of the quilting circle brought her back to Laverne Bedford. She grimaced and adjusted her position, the bark biting her back through the material of her shirt. Laverne had circled for months before making her move. A series of pointed conversations had gotten Emerson to admit she had no romantic feelings toward Melita, a confession that still tasted like ashes in her mouth. She felt like Peter denouncing his friendship with Christ in the Bible and had been ashamed the rest of the night, distracted by her own necessary betrayal that she didn't see Laverne lurking by her truck when she left the bar.
"It's not right, you know. A man like you living with a woman you ain't interested in."
"We're friends," Emerson said, trying to step around the drunken woman without touching her. "We were in the war together. We like being close to each other."
"I understand. But if you're not getting as close as you can... well. A man has needs." She lurched for a kiss and moved her hand forward. Emerson twisted just fast enough so that Laverne's hand hit her hip rather than what she was grabbing at. Laverne's lips slid sloppily from the corner of Emerson's mouth to her ear, and Emerson was forced to shove her back.
"What is your problem?"
"I'm sorry, 'Verne. I really am. I wish... things were different. But things are the way they are. Understand?"
Laverne pushed her hair out of her face and crossed her arms as Emerson unlocked her truck. She was about to climb in when Laverne spoke.
"How long you going to wait for her?"
Emerson stared, confused.
"You want her. It's plain as day. And I think she likes the attention, but she's never going to say yes. You know that, right? She's making a fool of you. You look like a pitiful pup. People laugh at you, you know that? Carrying a torch for someone who can't even see you."
Emerson's cheeks burned. "Go home, Laverne. You're drunk."
"You might be willing to wait, but I won't. You hear me?"
"I hope that's true."
Laverne stormed back toward the bar, and Emerson bit back her anger until she got home. She found Melita in the bedroom folding laundry.
"Hi, Emmy. I managed to get the stain out of your shirt. See?"
Emerson grabbed Melita, spun her around, and kissed her soundly. "I love you. More than anything or anyone I've ever said those words to, I love you. More than flyin', more than anyone I've ever known, I love you."
Melita opened her mouth a few times before she shrugged and held up the shirt. She spoke in a tiny voice. "It... uh. I just used... d-dishwashing liquid."
Emerson smiled and pushed Melita down on the pile of fresh laundry.
She opened her eyes and focused on the wreckage in front of her. Laverne's aborted grab had terrified her. Even after making love to Melita and apologizing for what she'd said ("We agreed," Melita whispered as she finger-combed Emerson's hair. "Outside of these rooms, we're not the same people we are when we're here."), she envisioned Laverne's eyes widening as she reached for a bulge and came up with a handful of nothing. The word would spread through town like wildfire and she didn't want to think about what would have happened next.
A few days later, she returned from a flight to Uksuak with a package tucked under her arm. Melita was at the front counter, and Emerson checked to make sure no one else was there before she put the box down in front of Melita and kissed her just behind the ear.
Melita straightened and moved the box so that it was sitting directly in front of her. "It's not my birthday. But you can always give me presents just 'cause. Can I open it now?"
Emerson leaned against the back wall and watched as Melita undid the tape and lifted the flaps. She peered inside and went very still before she looked over her shoulder. She raised an eyebrow at Emerson and looked down at the box as if to confirm what she'd seen.
"Well. Would you look at that."
Emerson pushed away from the wall and pressed against Melita's back. "I know you used to go with fellas." She kissed one side of Melita's neck. "And I think I've given you everything you could have gotten from them. But I've never been able to give you..."
Melita put a hand into the box and stroked the length of it. "I don't know if I was ever given one quite this... large." She giggled and turned so she could see Emerson's face. "You gonna wear this for me?"
"If you want?"
"Uh-huh. I want." They kissed, and then Melita picked up the smaller object in the bottom of the box. "What's this one for?"
"That one is for wearing under my clothes." She nibbled Melita's ear. "The big one would be a bit too obvious. Laverne Bedford follows me 'round enough as it is." She took the smaller, limp attachment from Melita and placed it back in the box. "C'mere. Help me put it on. We'll see how it looks."
Melita locked the door and carried the box back to their house. They shut the windows and decided to have the "fitting" in the living room. Though the light coming through the muslin was dim and dusky, but she could still hear birds outside the window. She heard a truck on Arnaq's main street and felt a thrill at being bottomless in the middle of the day.
Emerson folded her trousers and draped them on the back of the chair as Melita knelt in front of her so she could step into the leather contraption. She tugged it up, settling it on Emerson's narrow hips, her tongue poking the corner of her mouth as she made sure the straps were snug on either side before she sank back on her heels.
"Well now, Mr. Bishop. Hasn't anyone ever told you it's impolite to point?" She reached up and smacked the toy so that it wasn't aiming directly at her head.
Melita giggled and wrapped her fingers around the shaft. She craned her neck to eye it from the side. "Certainly well-endowed, Mr. Bishop."
"Well, thank you, Ms. Abbott."
"Poor men. The one thing they have goin' for 'em, and we've found a way around it." She giggled again and began to stroke it. "I do wish I could feel if it was having an effect."
"Oh, it's having an effect."
Melita looked up. "Oh? You can feel it?"
Emerson nodded and put her hand in the small of her back. She pressed her hips forward and bumped the tip against Melita's red lips.
"So rude and impatient." She sighed and took the head into her mouth, and Emerson choked back a grunt as she watched. Melita heard and looked up. Emerson pushed Melita's hair back and held it in a loose ponytail so her view wouldn't be obstructed.
"What do you think, honeybee? Money well spent?"
Melita made a sound of agreement as she took the toy deeper, pulling back so she could wet the tip with her tongue before taking it into her mouth again.
Emerson knew that they could have held that position for the rest of the day, but the toy had other uses she wanted to try out. She put her hands on Melita's shoulders and pushed her back, bending forward to kiss her lips. Melita stood without ending the kiss. She undid the buttons of Emerson's shirt from the bottom as Emerson fumbled for the zipper of Melita's jumpsuit. They both moved toward the bedroom, gasping between kisses as they moved down the narrow hallway.
"Here," Melita whispered.
"Right here?" Emerson said.
Melita's only response was a growl, so Emerson pressed her against the wall. She quickly tugged the jumpsuit off Melita's shoulders, shoving it down and exposing underwear that was quickly pushed out of the way as well. Melita swayed her hips from side to side to work the material past her knees, making her shimmy as Emerson doffed her shirt and tossed it to the floor of the hall. Melita bent her knees and curled her fingers under the shaft, wetting her lips as Emerson moved closer.
"Guide me, cinnamon..."
"Go slow. It's been a while."
"Yeah." She kissed Melita's face - cheeks, nose, eyebrows - and listened to the peaks and valleys of her breathing as the tip of the toy pressed against her. "Ready?"
Emerson went slowly, watching Melita's face. Melita kept her eyes open as long as possible, holding Emerson's gaze until her bottom lip began to quake. Emerson pushed inside, then slowly withdrew. She looked down to watch them come together, seeing the wetness on the shaft as she rested with the tip just barely inside of Mel before she thrust forward. She brought her eyes back up and focused on the blush creeping up from the scooped neck of Melita's undershirt, over her throat. Patches of pink bloomed on her cheeks and forehead like fevers, her brow furrowed as she reacted to Emerson's thrusts.
They kissed and Melita put her hand on the back of Emerson's head, her neatly-trimmed fingernails feeling like talons as she grinded against Emerson's hips.
"There, there, there," Melita said against Emerson's mouth. Emerson swept her tongue across Melita's bottom lip and Melita captured it, continuing to moan as she trembled through the aftershocks of her orgasm. Finally she pulled away so quickly that her head knocked against the wall with a hollow thud. "Ow. And wow."
Emerson smiled and stroked Melita's head. "Are you okay?"
"Mm-mm. Take me to bed."
Emerson complied, lifting Melita and carrying her the short distance. Melita, still shackled by her stripped jumpsuit, braced her knees on the outside of Emerson's hips until she was lowered to the bed. Emerson started to climb on top of her, but Melita stopped her and sat up. She ran her hands over Emerson's chest, her stomach, and down to the straps of her new toy.
"This is fun. And this is going to get a lot of play. But you've never been missing anything. This don't complete you." She let the web of leather collapse, leaving Emerson's pubic hair exposed as Melita scooted away from her. "I liked playing with the toy, and I loved you using the toy. But now I want you to come up here so I can make love to you ."
Emerson stepped out of the harness and paused to peel off her socks before she joined Melita on the bed.
She realized she had fallen asleep only when the dream began to fade. She jerked awake, blinking at the woods to either side certain that the wolf had come back. She checked her watch out of instinct before she remembered she had to rely on the movement of the sun. She didn't like how far across the sky it seemed to be. The night would fall soon, and the wolf would be back with its friends.
She had to make a decision soon, whether it was to try descending the mountain with her broken leg or risk getting into the plane for the meager protection it could offer against the elements. The only thing certain was that she couldn't be caught out after dark fell and the forest was taken over by the beasts.
Kuka ignored her requests to stop and rest. Her legs burned and her back throbbed, but Melita was grateful to him. They couldn't waste a minute. If Emerson had been knocked unconscious by the crash, or if she had a concussion and didn't have someone there to keep her awake... She put thoughts of pain out of her mind and followed the old man, determined that she wouldn't collapse while he was still going strong. Occasionally he looked back at the sound of her rough breathing, but she just waved him onward.
She kept getting flashes of Emerson when she wasn't prepared. Just an image of Emerson bent over the books, the lock of hair she kept across her forehead falling so that it covered her right eye. Emerson striding from the runway to the front of the building, crossing in front of the garage and drawing Melita's attention. She saw Emerson at the town's summer picnic, transferring her glass of tea from one hand to the other and sucking the condensation from her bent knuckle. She smiled when she thought of how Emerson could seem completely stone-faced to someone else but Melita knew the skin under her eye would tighten ever so slightly if she was amused.
She thought of their fights, and oh there had been some barn-burners. Nights when Melita chose to sleep in the hangar because her fake bedroom just wasn't enough distance. Arguments over stupid things, minor irritations that built up until they could only be expressed by shouting. And then her mind conjured the Unfortunate Incident, and Melita didn't have the energy to displace it.
They had been arguing most of the morning, snapping at each other whenever they saw their enemy had entered earshot. Melita entered the office and moved behind Emerson's desk, muttering some snide comment about how she always hid the engine maintenance checklists. Emerson had spun in her chair to point out where it was just as Melita turned to face her. Their orbits collided with a sharp slap, the back of Emerson's hand smacking Melita's cheek so hard that it turned her head.
She didn't remember making a noise, but Emerson swore she squeaked. All she knew was that she was suddenly holding onto the file cabinet to keep from falling and Emerson was next to her, holding her in a crushing embrace.
"Mel, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, Mel, I wasn't looking."
Melita's right cheek stung, and her left cheek was hot from anger. She cupped her cheek and let Emerson turn her, accepting the hug without returning it, still too stunned to respond.
"I'm sorry, Melita." She kissed the top of Melita's head and Melita finally leaned back to return the kisses. Emerson pulled back and lightly touched her cheek. She winced when she saw the red mark. "I can't believe I did that."
"You didn't. It was an accident." She kissed the corners of Emerson's mouth and slipped out of her arms. "It's fine."
Mel... honeybee, don't..."
"It's fine." She kissed Emerson again and went back out into the hangar. Emerson followed a few minutes later with a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a dishtowel. She crouched in front of the bench where Melita was working without a word and gingerly pressed the towel against Melita's cheek. Melita put her hand on top of Emerson's, and they both relaxed as the kindness was accepted as an apology.
"Next time I'm hitting back."
Emerson smiled. "That's fair."
Melita shook her head to push away the images. She didn't want to focus on the bad memories, even if they had happy endings. She wanted to focus on the birthday parties, their bi-weekly discussion about whether or not they should get a dog, Emerson in the bath, Emerson sitting in a church pew with a stiff spine while she tried to move her lips along with the hymns so people thought she was singing.
She smiled at that memory, focusing on the "Emerson in Church" file of her mind's eye. In the summer Emerson always envied the women who were allowed to bare their arms and chest, who could sit and fan themselves during the service while she was forced to wear her suit. On the plus side, she was never asked to help with the Sunday Brunches like Melita was. She hated potato salad and had never eaten a bite of it, but she'd probably made more of the shit than most professional chefs.
"Here. Taste this."
"I'm sure it's fine, honeybee."
"I ain't going to poison the fine churchgoing people of Arnaq because you can't be bothered to taste it."
"Then taste it yourself."
"Even if it's perfect, I'll think it tastes horrible."
Emerson rolled her eyes and turned. She took the end of the spoon into her mouth, smacked her lips, and declared it edible. Then she frowned. "Wait. If it was bad, you risked poisoning me. When did I become the church council's official food-taster?"
"Hush," Melita said as she sashayed back to the kitchen.
Emerson rolled her eyes and focused on her flight plan. "You'd be better off just making okra."
"I don't know how to make okra."
Kuka looked back at her. "What?"
She hadn't realized she'd spoken aloud. "Nothing." The word came out as a gasp. She was dripping with sweat, and she ached everywhere it was possible to ache. She was about to give in and beg for a five minute breather when Kuka stopped. She thought he had sensed her fatigue and put a hand on his shoulder as thanks, her chest heaving as she gulped in air. She didn't know how long they had been walking, wasn't sure--
"--got a hole in it... yeah, my bucket's got a hole in it... an' I can't buy no more beer..."
Her head snapped up and she turned her head until she figured out where the sound was coming from. The echo was bouncing it around, reflecting off all the trees, but she spotted one of Kuka's broken branches. Some animal had run away from that direction, so Melita surged that way with renewed vigor. She leaped over a log and saw a flash of white through the trees. She couldn't breathe, couldn't focus on anything but running as she got close enough to see the wing of a plane standing on its nose.
"...me'n my... baby. Just bought us a Ford..."
"...an' now we sit together on the running board."
Melita gasped the next line, swaying to a stop in the clearing. Broken branches littered the entire area, sheared off by the plane as it fell. Sitting ten feet away, her clothes bloody and her right eye swollen half-shut by an ugly bruise. Her right leg was held in place by two branches tied with what appeared to be strips of her shirtsleeves. Emerson stared, apparently dazed, and then smiled.
"Hey. What are you doing on my mountain?"
Melita laughed and closed the distance, dropping to her knees hard enough to hurt before she gently put her arms around Emerson for a tender but emotion-filled embrace.
"I think that's a matter of degrees..."
"Sh. You're okay." She kissed Emerson's hair, ignoring the pebbles of glass, dirt and grime that she tasted because Emerson was underneath it all. She rocked back to rest on her heels and pulled the thick bladder of water from her back. Emerson smacked her lips at the sight of it, and Melita unscrewed the cap.
She held it up and whispered, "Slowly. Slowly. But take as much as you need." Some of it trickled out of the sides of Emerson's mouth as she drank eagerly, gasping when Melita pulled the bladder away.
Kuka finally caught up with them, looking up at the plane wreckage as he shuffled around it.
Emerson said, "You brought an old man up here with you?"
"Hey! She wouldn't have made it up here without this old man, thank you very much."
"It's true, Emmy. Being old just means he's survived everything the world's thrown at him so far."
Kuka grunted a laugh and knelt on Emerson's other side. "Let me take a look at you."
" No ," Emerson said, suddenly tensing. "I mean... Mel, Mel should--"
"He knows, Emmy. Just let him help you."
Emerson was tense as Kuka began to poke and prod her. He muttered to himself and pulled out his own medical supplies. Melita took Emerson's hand, squeezing it throughout the examination. Emerson relaxed against the tree and exhaled.
"Are you all right? I mean--"
"I'll be fine," Emerson said softly. "Now that I'm going home. Can't wait to sleep in my own bed..."
"We're not going anywhere."
Both women looked at Kuka, but it was Melita who spoke. "What's wrong?"
He braced his hand on his knee. "We have to build a litter to carry her out of here, and between you an' me that's going to be slow. It took us almost four hours to get up here. Figure it will take longer than that even going downhill all the way. We'll be carrying her through the woods after dark. You want to try that?"
Melita and Emerson looked up at the sky overhead.
"I brought supplies, and I can keep her in one piece until tomorrow morning. So we'll stay here. We can protect ourselves from the animals, rest up after that big long hike you and I just took, and we'll strike out at first light."
"He's right, honeybee," Emerson said. "It's all right. I made it this long alone, so I can make it until morning with your help." She smiled. "Just like always."
Melita brought Emerson's hand to her lips and kissed the knuckles. She could definitely use the rest, and now that she knew Emerson was relatively okay, she could relax. Waiting until morning to get her home was acceptable as long as they were together in the meantime.
Melita set up their camp while Kuka tended to Emerson's wounds. There was a cut on her side that she hadn't noticed, but it had been shallow and clotted well. He dried and bandaged it as Emerson warned him about the wolf that had passed through earlier. Kuka nodded sagely and assured her they would be safe during the night. When she was sure Melita couldn't hear, Emerson leaned toward Kuka and spoke in a low voice.
"Kuka... about my... secret."
"Are you going to try to justify or defend who you are? The person you've built yourself to be? To me? Why? I built myself a body of a wise old man who helps people when they need help. I don't explain that to you. You don't ask me to defend the choice I made to be Kuka instead of Grant Kavik. You're Emerson Bishop. You choose who that person is. Only you." He patted her uninjured leg and stood up to start cooking them dinner.
Emerson relaxed against the tree and watched as her partner helped the old man set up protection against the elements and the local fauna. She could see Melita was embarrassed when she saw the sheer volume of supplies Kuka had been carrying in his pack but he didn't seem put out by it. Once their camp was set up, he told Melita he was going to gather firewood.
"You should sit and rest," she said. "I'll gather it."
"You'll gather kindling," he said, although his tone made it kindly. "You should rest. You're not used to running around up here in the mountains. I've been doing this every day for the past fifty years. In this, I'm younger than you. Sit. Rest."
She gave in and sat down against the tree at Emerson's side. Emerson put her arm across her shoulders, and Melita cradled her head against Emerson's shoulder.
"Never scare me like this again, Emmy."
"I'll try." She kissed Melita's hair. "I can't believe you came all the way up here for me."
"I did even more. We had to borrow Laverne's truck."
Emerson shuddered. "You should have left me. Maybe a cartoon bear would have shown up and carried me down the mountain."
Melita giggled. "I'd have borrowed gold coins from Smaug the Golden to save you."
"I don't know what that means, darlin'."
Melita lifted her head to kiss Emerson's chin. "He was a very mean dragon in one of those books you make fun of me for reading."
"Oh." She smiled and tightened her grip on Melita's shoulder. "Well, we have time. Maybe you should tell me about it."
"Okay. Well, it started when Bilbo threw a party..."
They cooked a meal that was a combination of lunch and dinner over the fire, and then Kuka strung up a tent using Emerson's tree and the plane as his anchors. When night fell Kuka suggested they all turn in early so they could be up with the dawn. They transferred Emerson to a sleeping bag that they would put on the litter in the morning, and Kuka made a point of not saying anything when Melita slid in next to her. He settled in on the other side of the barrier and soon they heard his soft snores acting as a warning to any predators lurking in the shadows.
Emerson spooned against Melita's back, their fingers linked together. Emerson was nearly asleep when she heard Melita chuckle. She opened one eye and whispered, "What?"
She looked, but she could barely see her hand in the darkness. "What about it?"
Melita moved her hand back and forth. "When we fall asleep holding hands, you roll your wrist back and forth. It's like the yoke of your plane, you know? Like you're trying to fly me."
Emerson kissed Melita's neck. "Well, looks like you're the only thing I'll be flyin' any time in the near future."
They both looked toward the plane, rising above their camp like a monolith.
"We'll figure something out," Melita said softly. "We always do. I mean, we'll get the insurance check in a few weeks."
"Right." She kissed Melita's neck again. "Thank you for coming to get me, honeybee."
"It was selfish. I would've missed you."
Emerson laughed softly. "I didn't miss you at all today. You were with me the whole time. I kept thinking about us. When I met you, when I fell in love with you. Some of our best moments together..." She let her voice drift off as she trailed her fingers over Melita's palm. "Hm. The whole shebang. It got me through."
"Me too. I kept thinking about your voice."
"Mm. Doesn't even compare to the real thing."
Emerson kissed Melita's ear. "Get some sleep. Big morning tomorrow. It's a long way to walk."
"A long way for us to walk. Just a lot of carrying ahead of you. Broken leg... some people have all the luck."
"You're lucky I don't weigh much."
Emerson swatted Melita's rear end with her free hand, and Melita giggled and rolled to face her. They fell asleep holding each other, squeezed into the tight confines of the single sleeping bag but neither of them caring about the lack of space.
They struck their camp the next morning, when there was hardly enough light to see. The majority of debris going into Melita's pack at her insistence; if Kuka had carried it all up a mountain, she could carry half of it down. Melita secured Emerson in her litter, making sure she was comfortable before they set out. Emerson spent their preparation time staring up at the plane with sad resignation. Finally Kuka declared they had left the spot as near to nature as they found it and asked if they were ready to go.
Emerson didn't answer, so Melita touched her shoulder. "Emmy?"
"Insurance won't cover retrieving it. And even if it did, we'd still have to make the repairs. And it won't cover getting a new plane."
Melita squeezed. "We'll figure that out when we're home, okay? It'll work out."
Emerson nodded sadly. "Okay... I'm ready as I'll ever be."
They carried her down slowly, this time pausing to take breaks often so they didn't exhaust themselves. By the time they reached Laverne's truck, Melita felt like her arms would never hang normally again. When she released the handles of the litter, both arms rose a disturbing degree and hung away from her body at wide angles. Eventually they sank again, and she rubbed the feeling back into them as Kuka secured Emerson in the bed of the truck. She rode in the back with Emerson, sitting near the cab so she would be spared the worst of the bitter cold winds as he drove to Arnaq.
Kuka dropped them off at the general practitioner so that neither of them had to face Laverne when he took her truck back. The doctor was one of the only people in town who knew Emerson's secret and would have remained mum even without the confidentiality agreement. He had often told them that, the way he figured, it was nobody's business. He looked Emerson over, clucked his tongue, and told Melita to give him room to work.
While he worked Melita reluctantly left Emerson's side to walk home and get their truck. By the time she got back Emerson was dopey from the painkillers and had a fresh plaster cast on her right leg. He gave Melita the painkillers and strict instructions for Emerson's care before he let them go home.
The doctor had given them crutches, but Emerson leaned on Melita to get from the truck to the house. They both preferred that arrangement.
"Here we go... careful..."
Emerson sighed as she stretched out on the mattress and Melita tucked her in. "Thank you, honeybee."
"My pleasure. Want me to stay until you fall asleep?"
"Yes." She took Melita's hand. "When the insurance check comes... we..."
Melita shushed her. "We'll pay off the debts we have with Blake and Des and Gaines, and if there's anything left..."
"There won't be anything left," Emerson said softly.
"We'll figure something out." She reached up and brushed the tear away from Emerson's eye. "We always do, don't we?"
Emerson sniffed. "It's a pretty big hole this time."
"You were lost on a mountain, and I found you in less than a day." She bent down and kissed Emerson's lips. "The tallest walls and the deepest pits can be traversed by a love strong enough. And Emmy, my love could topple Jericho."
Emerson smiled sadly. "And mine could knock down the Great Wall."
"So what the heck are we worried about?" She squeezed Emerson's hand. "Get some rest. You had a big day yesterday."
Emerson nodded and her head seemed to sink into the pillow. Once Melita was sure she was asleep, she still couldn't bring herself to leave her side. She had gone through too much to get her back. Leaving her alone wasn't an option.
So she gingerly climbed onto the bed beside her lover and watched her sleep.
To their credit, Desmond and Blake were willing to put a freeze on the debt owed to them. Blake was a bit more crotchety, but he was the only one who actually lost any merchandise. Emerson paid for the fuel they'd actually used out of the insurance check, and that left them with a small amount of liquid funds with which they could do absolutely nothing. The money looked good on paper, but it was nowhere near enough to begin salvage operations on the plane Emerson had left on the mountain, let alone the repairs it would need to be airworthy again. Even if they turned it into scrap metal and added the money they got from the scrap yard, they weren't even within wishing distance of buying a new plane.
Emerson was irritable, which made Melita cranky, but they still spent their afternoons on opposite sides of the front desk debating their options while playing cards.
Melita played a Queen. "We pay off Blake, we're free and clear. We can go anywhere."
"Anywhere is a nice word, but what does it mean? When you can go anywhere, there's nowhere to go. There's nowhere I want to go. I love Arnaq. This is our home, Mel. I'm not going to abandon the only place that's ever felt like home just because we lost our plane."
"Well, you said you're not going to stock shelves at the grocery store, so..."
Emerson pushed her jaw out. It was easy for Melita, she was a mechanic. People still needed a mechanic. A pilot without a plane was redundant. Pointless and unnecessary.
"I didn't mean you weren't pulling your weight."
"You didn't have to." She put down her cards. "I'm going to go for a walk."
Melita put down her cards as well. "Emmy, don't be like this. Let's talk."
The door opened before Emerson could reply. A portly man with a ring of white hair stepped inside, smiling at Emerson before he focused on Melita behind the counter. He slapped his hat against his hand, pointed at her as if he'd caught her in a lie, and then spoke in a loud, echoing voice.
"A troll with warts and lesions, huh? Huh?"
Melita was in no mood. "Pardon me?"
Emerson said, "Mr. Willoughby, what are you doing here?"
Melita straightened on her stool. "Willy Willoughby! I haven't had the pleasure. Melita Abbott. It's a pleasure."
"And you said you were a troll. A troll, she said, Emerson!" He clucked his tongue against his teeth.
Emerson smiled through her confusion. "I didn't think you ever left your little villa on the lake, Mr. Willoughby."
He hooked a thumb at Emerson without looking at her, speaking to Melita as if in confidence. "How many times will I have to tell your man here to call me Willy?"
Melita looked at Emerson, her angst fading in the face of the ebullient man. "He likes to be formal, Willy. Don't take it personally."
Willy sighed. "Well. To answer your question, Emerson, I came to see what the heck is delaying my magazine deliveries. You are usually so reliable."
A cloud passed over Emerson's face, and Melita knew she was one bad day away from sinking into a true depression.
"We had a little setback, Willy," Melita said. "Plane crash."
"I heard. I heard. I doubt your insurance company was willing to pay for the repairs? They can be very stickish when it comes to stuff like that."
Emerson softly said, "Sorry, Mr. Willoughby. The plane would have to be replaced, and we just don't have that kind of money."
"Oh." He rubbed his jowl with the back of his hand. "Well. If that's all it is, I'll buy you a plane."
That made Emerson smile. "Thanks. But we'll give you a few recommendations for other services. There's an airstrip up in Pan--"
"Am I speaking the right language?" Willy interrupted. "If the only thing keeping you from delivering my magazines in a timely manner is lack of a plane, I'll buy you a plane." He took out a leather-bound checkbook and placed it on the counter. "I don't know how much the blasted things cost, so I'll just leave the amount blank and sign it... you just be sure to let me know how much it is. My accountants like to have specifics. Damned number-crunchers. Who chooses to count for a living?" He shook his head as he filled out the pertinent areas of the check.
"Mr. Willoughby, what are you doing?"
He didn't look up. "Melita, your man has some very worrying problems with the English language."
"Willy, you can't just buy us a plane."
"I'm not. You're using this piece of paper to get the bank to give you a plane." He tore it out of the book and held it up like a flag, twisting toward Emerson and then Melita. "Which of you do I give this to?"
"Neither of us," Emerson said. "We can't accept that."
"It's much too extravagant. We're touched... we're so touched, but we can't take your money."
The cheerful façade faded and he dropped the hand with the check. He looked at the floor before he finally faced Emerson. "I don't know much about you, son, but I know you served. Don't even know what you did, but that doesn't much matter." He unbuttoned the cuff of his right sleeve and rolled it up to reveal a row of blue tattooed numbers.
Emerson couldn't draw breath. "I just flew supply runs, Mr. Willoughby. I didn't... do anything."
"There was no such thing as 'just' doing anything in that war, son. You stood up when the time came. And when you came back, you humored a silly old man who likes to read about space pirates and cowboy aliens. You never made me feel ridiculous when I ordered those magazines. You gave me respect. I've spent most of my adult life making sure no one respected me, but you made me feel good. You made me feel like a prince. Now... I don't have children. I don't have a wife to siphon off my funds. I am a wealthy man. Giving you this check won't change my life, but it will change yours. Don't ask 'how could I possibly do this,' ask how I could justify not doing it. You're a good man, Emerson. And your girl always finds a way to make me laugh when I call her. I don't want your recommendations for other services." He held out the check again. "I want you delivering my magazines. I can afford to pay for that privilege. Take the check, Mr. Bishop."
Emerson swallowed the lump in her throat. "On one condition. From now on, your deliveries are on the house. Hell, we'll even pay for the magazines ourselves."
Willy narrowed his eyes. "You drive a hard bargain, but I accept your terms." He put his hat on, tugging it down over his ears. "Now you'll let me know how much the plane is, and when I should expect my next issue. I don't want to miss too much."
"We promise, Mr. Willoughby."
He pointed an accusing finger and turned angrily to Melita again. "I give him a blank check and still ...?"
"He's a creature of habit, Willy. Forgive him."
Willy rolled his eyes. "I'll break you, Emerson. One of these days, I'll make you call me Willy." He blew Melita a kiss goodbye and shuffled back out into the sunshine.
Emerson looked at the check and slowly sank to her knees. Melita came around the counter and embraced her, looking at the blank line where the price of their plane would go. She put Emerson's head against her chest and stroked her hair.
"You okay, Emmy?"
Melita kissed the top of her head. "You realize what you just did, don't you?" Emerson looked up and met her eye. "We got a plane, so we're gonna break even... but you just lost a customer by offering to deliver Willy's magazines for free. Plus the price of buying his magazines every month... we're going to be back in the red."
Emerson couldn't help laughing at that. She chucked Melita's chin and then embraced her. "We'll figure something out, honeybee. We always do."
Melita squeezed Emerson and smiled against her neck. "Yeah, Emmy. Yeah, we always do."
Thank you for reading! Be sure to check out all my books (all of my novels are now available in ebook form), especially my all-new novel The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary is due out on March 15! Also, be sure to check out my blog (blog.geonncannon.com) for information on an autographed Radiation Canary cover giveaway!
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