The meal progressed as all intimate celebratory meals do, with laughter and cheer, and much lingering over the courses. There were a few tears, as there had been at previous graduations when Andrew Halivand had been missed; but joy salved the wound. The early mosquitoes and the clock drove the party indoors, and Olivia went upstairs to change into practical clothing.
When she came down, Rebecca was shaking Avery’s hand, and saying, “Thank you for attending to us so well, Mr. Godwin. Please consider yourself welcome here any time you please.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Halivand. You’ve been a wonderful hostess, and have delighted my poor, travel-stained soul.”
“What about us?” Susannah demanded mockingly. “Mom may hold title on the property, but we do the work around here!”
“And you, too, Susannah,” Avery said. “Have you plans yet for your summer in the north?”
“Assemble my twelve inch reflector and look for a comet,” Susannah said promptly. “And convince Mom and Via to let me take my college entrance exams.”
“On the last, you’ll fail,” Olivia said from the stairs. “We’re tight on time, Mr. Godwin.”
Avery nodded. “Always. Until Sunday, then,” he said, and kissed Susannah’s cheek, then Corrine’s, then Rebecca’s. He picked up the two bags in the hall, let Olivia hold the door for him, and they were off. A cab waited at the end of the driveway.
“A busy day,” he said softly as they settled in.
“Normal,” Olivia admitted. “A day without a crisis is the exception, not the rule.”
“I hope they’re not as extreme as today’s have been,” Avery said.
“Usually, our problems are quite prosaic – a missing term paper or a printer driver gone awry, two apples when we needed three or spoilt milk. But Mom and Corrine have a … a dramatic streak.”
“I hope Corrine does, considering her profession,” he said. “But your mother seems quite sensible.”
“She is, when things go well. But when something she doesn’t fathom goes wrong, she gets flustered. She’s why I’m good with computers.”
“You’re quite incredible, were you aware of that? Can they survive without you?”
“Oh, yes,” Olivia said. “I’m no different than anyone in the same circumstance.”
“You’d be surprised,” Avery said.
The plane was a six seater, and the pilot was old enough to make Olivia comfortable. “It’s a tight fit,” Avery said, and helped Olivia into the seats just behind the pilot and co-pilot. “Unlike a commercial carrier, we can’t have electronics, but Jim will play CDs, as long as they’re blues.”
“I assume he has his own collection?” Olivia smiled.
“Yep. Any preferences?”
“Delta rather than Chicago.”
Jim twisted in his seat and raised an eyebrow at Olivia. “You know blues?” He slotted a CD from the file suspended from the cockpit ceiling, but didn’t push it in. “Only until we’re ready to leave – ” he consulted the thousands of gauges in front of him – “another ten minutes. Fueling’s taking longer than expected. The pumps are slow tonight.”
Olivia nodded her consent for music and Jim started up a T-Bone Walker disk. Avery settled into his seat and put his ear protection on. She followed suit.
“We’ve music and voice,” he said through the headset. “We’re on a different channel than Jim and Marla, but they can patch into us. Nervous?”
“A little. All those stories about small planes…”
“They’re safer than cars, and as safe as being on a major carrier. It’s a perfect, clear night, with no wind and no storms, and it’s safer to fly at night than during the day, since fewer small pilots have night clearance.” He patted her hand. “We’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure.” Olivia took a deep breath. “I’ll try not to be … twitchy.”
Twenty minutes later, they sat in silence on the runway, waiting for final clearance. Marla, Jim’s wife, co-pilot and navigator, had patched their headphones – though not microphones – into the same channel that she and Jim listened to, and while only one word in ten made sense to Olivia, it was interesting. She hoped someday, she could give Susannah this. Susie would love it.
Then the plane started forward…. bit air, and lifted. That moment in every flight that Olivia hated, when the plane debated with gravity and lift which would be the winner of this particular contest, seemed to go on longer than in a jet, until lift finally won. Only then did Olivia notice that she’d been holding her breath, that the chatter from the tower had ceased, and that Avery was speaking in her ears over their channel.
“Breathe, Olivia. The cabin has pressure. You may be used to altitude, but if you don’t breathe, you’ll pass out.”
Olivia inhaled and exhaled deeply several times, then settled into a regular breathing pattern. The cabin was dark, and Jim had warned them they could not use light, so instead they talked about favorite books and things that had nothing to do with their project. Olivia learned that they shared a fondness for popular science writing and history as well as a genuine love of science fiction.
Although it was well after midnight when they landed, a car waited outside the gates of the airfield. “Tower tells me the car’s for you,” Jim said.
“That would be the realtor,” Avery said. “Neilson said he’d meet me here with the keys.”
“Yes, but how do we get there?” Olivia said. She held her bag on her lap, waiting for the pilot to chock the wheels and open the door.
“I’ve had a leased car parked here since we took interest in this site. Don’t worry, we’re not walking in the dark.”
Olivia followed him out, and stood away while he spoke to the man at the gate. Two hours in cramped quarters had forced them to sit shoulder to shoulder, to speak directly into each other’s ears and to be very conscious of each other. Avery had never let more than two minutes pass without conversation, talking trivia when nothing about the project would serve. It was a strange contrast to their earlier companionate silences in her office and walking around campus. Of course, I didn’t exactly mind…
“We’re off. Neilson tells me we’ve got hot water and heat, but no electricity until Monday. Can we survive with the lamps and candles he left?”
“I’d say so.” Olivia shouldered her bag, picked up the stuff sack of sleeping bag and followed him around the perimeter of the strip to the parking lot. A small car stood alone against the outer fence.
“Our carriage, our faithful steed, our… Mazda.” Avery popped the trunk and took her bag. “Neilson put a fruit and cracker basket in the kitchen, a cooler of beverages and air mattresses in a couple of the bedrooms. He apologized. The furniture will be delivered on Tuesday.”
“Avery, we’ve Occupied, we’ve protested the banks, we’ve camped in the dead of winter on the Pearl Street Mall to protest how Boulder treats our homeless people. A smooth floor is fine. Carpet is a treat. An air mattress is heaven.”
“Did it work — the homeless encampment?”
“Somewhat. Boulder repealed some of the vagrancy statutes.”
“Better man than I, Gunga-din.”
He drove smoothly, consulting his phone’s map only once at a red light. Olivia held it on her lap, but with no references to the landscape and not entirely sure where north was without mountains on her west, she could not navigate. Instead, she memorized streets. “Is it a grid pattern city?” she asked.
“Mostly, though city might be too grand. We’ll take a tour tomorrow, if possible.”
“Or not. Don’t worry about it,” she said. He turned onto a side street of older houses sheltered by large trees, and turned into a drive.
“It’s a flagpole lot, so there’s a house up front, but there are good hedges, and I thought you might prefer to be shielded from the street.”
“Thank you. That was very thoughtful.” He turned off the car at a blue, square house, two stories with a broad porch.
“There’s a bedroom downstairs, as requested, and a sleeping porch, which is probably not comfortable yet, but Neilson assures me will be wanted in August.” He pressed a key into her palm. “It’s your house, as long as you need it. I’m just a visitor.”
“Come on, Avery. It’s too late for gallantry.” Olivia retrieved her bag and unlocked the door on a long, narrow parlor. “Let me find those lamps.” The blinds filtered and softened the moonlight, so Olivia moved carefully across the bare, wood floors.
“Here they are, and matches,” Avery said, and lit a candle, then both lamps. They smoked.
In the fusty red light, Olivia could see clearly enough to correct the matter. She turned down the wicks until the lights glowed clearly. “Better.”
“How do you know these things?” he demanded.
“Live in the foothills in an old neighborhood in an old house. You’ll learn, too.” Avery still held the candle, but at an angle, dripping wax on the counter. She corrected his grip, and then blew it out. “Don’t tip it.”
“I knew that,” he said sheepishly. He covered her hand on his own with his free one. “Thank you.”
Olivia could feel the warmth of his skin through her sleeve. She barely breathed, afraid he’d move away. “You’re welcome, though I’m not quite sure why. ”
“For dropping your life and flying off with me into the unknown.”
“Of Minnesota, not Outer Mongolia,” she said. “Anyway…”
He put the candle down, but kept her hand in his left. With his right, he brushed back a strand of hair. “I’m not exactly my own person…” he trailed off.
“Nor am I,” Olivia said.
“Well, this is more than that,” he said uncertainly. “I mean, there’s the ethics policies.” He took a deep breath. “When I finished school and came to work at HiveCor, well, I never expected… much of anything.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I’m mystified.”
“Oh… I don’t know,” Avery said suddenly. “It’s complex. I’ve no idea what to say right now.”
“You could explain why you’ve laid claim to my hand,” she said.
“Because… if I don’t let it go… then what’s attached to it can’t go away.”
All of the light in the room seemed to narrow to the small point of space between them. Her muscles would not work on their own, and no amount of direction from her brain would convince them to cooperate. She could not look away from his face.
“I should let go,” he said. “For your sake, if not mine.” Yet he pulled her arm towards him, so that they stood breast to breast. Her eyes were an inch below his own. He closed his and sighed. “I’ve been a fool for far longer than I’ve been wise and the habit is pretty strong.”
She watched his face contort in the fire light until he found control. Then she shattered it; she lifted on her toes slightly and put her lips to his. He moaned against her and held her hard.
“Discretion,” Olivia murmured.
“Our private lives our own,” she agreed.
“Nobody’s business but ours….” he said softly. “I can’t promise you anything, no matter how much you deserve it. No matter how much you deserve everything I could ever give you.”
“I’m not asking for promises,” she said. “Neither of us have anything to promise.”
“But you deserve better than… stolen moments.”
“Let me make my own decisions,” she said. “I’ve never had anything but stolen time. I don’t mind.” She kissed him like she’d wished to do since she’d pushed him away on the street and made him believe it. “There’s no one here to question or judge. Shall we steal this time, or let it slip?”
“I would beg forgiveness if I believed in a god,” he breathed. “This cannot be anything but a sin. Forgive me for not being free to cherish you.”
“Take the lamp. Brush your teeth. Decide.” Olivia stepped away from him and took her own lamp up the stairs and away from him. She carried a sleeping bag in her off hand, her bag over her shoulder.
He took advantage of the downstairs bath as she suggested; from the sounds of the pipes, so did she, upstairs. He peered into his own eyes in the dim mirror and didn’t much like what he saw staring back at him. For a bright man, Avery Godwin, you’ve been a blithering idiot. How could you have been so dumb? All you’ve ever been is a pawn… and you’ve cooperated. Olivia deserves better than such a weakling. He dropped his gaze from his own face, ashamed of what he’d allowed himself to become. He went to the downstairs bedroom and pulled on pajamas in the dark, determined to just go to bed and not take her offer. She can make her own decisions, but I can’t. It’s not fair to her.