Author: CottageGhost PM
In the middle of the journey of her life, Carolyn looks back and finds the result wanting...Rated: Fiction K - English - Drama - Words: 18,714 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 2 - Published: 02-02-04 - Status: Complete - id: 1715935
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A million thanks go to both Mary and Kathy for their sharp eyes and equally sharp wits. There is no way whatsoever this would have seen the light of day without your help -- I owe you one!
The leaves had already started to turn and there was now a definite chill in the air. Carolyn turned her face into the slight, easterly breeze and inhaled deeply before turning back to her book. She had picked it up in Boston while visiting Candy and the grandkids. She had wandered into a bookstore while waiting for her daughter to be done with her last minute errands and the title had just jumped at her: Time Out of Mind: Time as a By-Product of the Living Mind. She smiled; there had been a whole raft of time travel movies in the past few years, and while the whole premise was a little far-fetched, she had to admit that she had enjoyed quite a few of them – those with that young actor, Michael J. Fox, were especially funny. Those had kindled a growing interest in that particular field – in fact, one of her guilty pleasures in the past couple of years had been reading time travel novels, The Time Machine and Somewhere in Time being particular favourites. Those, in turn, had made her curious to know what scientists had to say about the subject. Hence the book she was now holding. While this one had more of a psychological slant to it, she wasn't about to tell Daniel about it, she thought with a bit of a blush. For some reason she couldn't quite fathom, the subject seemed to displease him no end, a fact he carefully tried to hide from her by teasing her mercilessly. She had suffered it good-naturedly, giving him a chance to blow off steam in his own way, while allowing that he was entitled to have his fun, too. Besides, it wasn't like he had too many targets left to exercise his wit. Carolyn sighed as she put the book aside, squinting a bit as she rested her gaze on the glittering waters of the bay. Martha had retired almost ten years ago, electing to move to Florida with Ed to be closer to her sister. Jonathan and Candy had left Schooner Bay to go to college and had gone on to build their own lives from there, Candy getting married during her last year of school and settling down shortly thereafter to a home practice as a psychologist, Jonathan choosing a career as a naval engineer, acting as consultant to shipbuilding companies, which meant he travelled a lot. Carolyn smiled as she recalled the look on her son's face and the twinkle in his eye when he told her and Daniel that he had been accepted for a six-month internship at the shipyards in Bristol, England. Her smile grew wider as she recalled the look in Daniel's eyes – he had looked so proud!
"You seem miles away, my love. Or is it aeons?"
Carolyn closed her eyes, dropping her head a little. "You're impossible, Daniel Gregg, you know that?" she replied as she looked up at the spirit, trying to be annoyed, but failing utterly. It still amazed her how, after all these years, the mere sight of him could bring her such contentment that it made her knees turn to water.
He bowed his head with a smile as he settled next to her on the porch swing. "How could I not, with you reminding me constantly?"
"Oh, you!" she said with a laugh, wishing for the thousandth time she could whack him on the arm. Sobering, she looked back toward the bay. "I was thinking about the kids and Martha and…just how things have changed in general."
"And is this what has brought this on?" Daniel asked, waving the book at her. "More of this nonsense?"
"Daniel!" Carolyn protested, taking the book from him, annoyed at the flush she felt creeping into her cheeks.
Taking pity on her, he relented a bit. "I'll admit that it is an intriguing subject, but hardly worth obsessing over."
"Obsessing! You really think I'm obsessed with this?" Carolyn asked, feeling her temper rising as his words hit a little too close to home.
"Look me in the eye and tell me you're not."
Looking into his eyes was never a good idea, she found. They beguiled her so, all rational thought fled her whenever she got lost in their limpid depths. But she could not ignore the ring of truth his words had. She looked down at the book, her gaze resting silently on the half-hidden title beneath her fingers. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw his hand land softly next to hers. She looked up at him questioningly.
"I'm sorry," Daniel said contritely, his eyes remorseful. "That was uncalled for."
Carolyn shook her head with a small smile. "It's all right. But why does this trouble you so?" she asked with a frown, genuinely curious about his apparent aversion to the subject.
Why indeed? Cursing himself inwardly for setting himself up like this, he tried to hedge a bit. "It's not like you to get stuck on one subject like this," he said with a bit of a wince, the words sounding lame to his own ears. "You're usually after three subjects at a time, while considering another two as potential article material – "
"And what's wrong with my deciding to have a little more focus in my life?" Carolyn asked, her arms crossed, a hint of challenge in her tone.
"Is that what you call reading the same book, cover to cover, twice – focus?" Daniel replied sarcastically.
She suddenly stood up, glaring down at him. "I'm not sure I care for your tone!"
"And I'm not sure I care for your attitude, Madam!"
That gave her pause. He hardly ever called her that anymore, except when he was teasing – or very, very serious. Taking a deep breath and letting it out, she forced her tone – and her anger – down. "What do you mean?"
Also making an effort to master his temper, Daniel explained. "You're cutting yourself off, Carolyn. You don't visit with Mr. Hampton like you used to, you've been begging out of your bridge nights more and more often, even Claymore is wondering if you haven't disappeared off the face of the Earth! You're turning into a recluse!"
"I don't believe this!" Carolyn finally exploded, her face livid. "You're policing me again!"
"I'm doing no such thing!" Daniel thundered back. Closing his eyes briefly and taking a calming breath, he lowered his voice back. "I'm worried about you, love."
The endearment, which usually filled her with a warm, fuzzy feeling, thoroughly failed to break through the barrier of her outrage. "Is that what you call spying on me – worry?" she mimicked, her tone clearly aiming to goad.
But rather than irk him, her response seemed to deflate his anger, leaving in its wake a deep sadness. "I'm sorry you feel that way, my dear," he replied quietly. "I can only hope that, someday, you'll be able to appreciate my concern for what it is."
He looked so sad, and the hurt was so clear in his voice, that Carolyn wished she could take every single syllable back and swallow each one whole, never to be uttered again. But it was too late – the damage was done. And not knowing how to fix it, she did the only thing that sprang to mind: she turned her back on him and ran inside, slamming the door behind her.
Daniel stared at the door for a few seconds, then walked back to the swing and picked up the book from where Carolyn had left it. He sat on the rail with it, running his fingers broodingly along its edges, his eyes moving of their own back to the door. This newfound fascination with time and time travel did trouble him; she was right about that. But she couldn't guess how much, nor could he tell her why. Oh, had it been strictly a matter of interest as she claimed, he might have let it slide; but the combination of that particular interest and the restlessness he had been feeling increasingly in her was just too disturbing to ignore.
And that was really where the problem lay, wasn't it? She did her best to keep it from him, but Daniel knew Carolyn was feeling lonely; no, worse than that – unneeded. With the kids and Martha gone, she no longer needed to act as provider, and the memoirs were doing well into their third edition, so money was no longer a problem – hadn't been for quite some time, in fact. Given all that, Carolyn essentially found herself like a ship without a rudder: at once aimless and incapable of reaching any destination.
All vanity aside, he well knew that part of her unrest had to do with him. She hadn't said anything, of course; but he had been human once and he did remember what it was like to pine for something he could never get. He had recognized the look in her eyes – Lord knew, he had seen it often enough staring back at him from the mirror. When things had come to a head, years ago, and he had found her in tears, cursing the Fates, he had reminded her that everyone has a cross to bear and this was theirs. When that hadn't gone over too well, he had quietly asked if she thought it better that he should leave. The look on her face and the break in her voice would remain etched into the very fabric of his being till the end of time, he felt certain. Things had settled back to normal after that; in fact, they had grown closer still, more comfortable around each other than they had ever been up to that point.
And now, this.
Gazing down at the book he still held, he frowned, oddly uneasy. He had leafed through it while Carolyn wasn't looking and had come upon a section that had produced in him a flash of dread so quick, yet so intense, that it had left him reeling. Directed dreaming, they called it: the ability to not only create one's dreams, but to take complete control of them – enough to be able to influence events in real life, whether past or present. That was the whole premise behind the book – time as a phenomenon of the mind as much as one of physics. That's when he knew that what he had thought resolved years ago was anything but. The unrest in her heart and her soul had lain dormant, unheard and unheeded, the necessities of earning a living to provide for her family demanding her undivided attention. But now that this part of real life had gone quietly to sleep… "Confounded woman," Daniel growled, fondness colouring his tone despite his misgivings. When would she learn that admitting to a need – any need – was not a sign of weakness? He sighed. He could only hope that she would put a stop to this obsession before she incurred any more grief. He had meant what he had said to the kids on their second Christmas together: dreams were indeed lovely, but only while they lasted. They could also be far more potent than people could ever imagine…
"You look lost, Captain! Want me to get you your compass?"
Daniel looked up in surprise. He had been so lost in thought that he had been completely oblivious to the car coming to a stop near the gate and to the woman approaching with a load of groceries. She waved him back down when she saw him rising to help her. "Don't bother, it's nothing a mere human female can't handle."
"Insolent as ever, I see," Daniel remarked, his lips pursed, but the twinkle rekindling in his eyes.
"Of course – got to make sure you get your exercise!" was the cheerful rejoinder.
Daniel chuckled. He dearly liked Clara, Martha's niece. She was so much like her aunt: she had that same unflappable, cool head and that same wit that had been such an irritant at first, but were now occasionally painful reminders of Martha's absence. He would never forget his first meeting with Clara: her aunt had insisted on introducing her to him, so she wouldn't start doubting her own sanity when she heard or saw things she couldn't explain. Plus, as Martha had so logically reasoned, it would help down the road when Carolyn decided to be difficult when she got sick or just plain stubborn. He had to hand it to the lass; she had a lot of spunk. When he had appeared to her (as instructed by Martha), she had blanched slightly, but without flinching, then had given him a good once over before nodding to him and saying in a fairly steady voice that she was glad to make his acquaintance. That had gained her his respect right away. But she had won him over completely a few months later when Carolyn hurt her wrist and her shoulder after slipping on a patch of ice. The doctor had insisted she not do anything strenuous, which included staying away from her keyboard. Of course, Carolyn had promptly ignored that, despite both Daniel's and Clara's admonishments. What she hadn't counted on, however, was how much alike these two thought. In no time at all, they had made it so impossible for her to even approach the machine that she had finally just given up – less than gracefully – and let them fuss over her. He was so glad to have such an ally!
Clara stopped by his side, eyeing him critically. "Had some words with the missus?" she finally asked sympathetically.
He arched an eyebrow at her choice of word, but didn't contradict her. "Unfortunately, yes."
She scowled slightly when she saw what he was holding. "Not the book again?" At his nod, she clucked her tongue, shaking her head. Clara couldn't claim to know Carolyn as well as her aunt just yet, but she had gleaned enough in her time here, not to mention from everything her aunt had told her, to know how determined Carolyn could become when she wanted to get to the bottom of something. And the fact that she didn't live here at Gull Cottage allowed her to find out certain things that might have remained hidden from her otherwise – like the fact that Carolyn hadn't been out much lately and that her absence from town was beginning to get noticed.
"I don't know what to do anymore," Daniel admitted softly. "I've tried the subtle approach, the not-so-subtle approach, the direct approach – a lot of good that one did me," he said with a scowl, eyeing the door briefly. He looked up at Clara. "I'm watching her turn into what I was when she first came here – a recluse – and I can't let that happen. I can't let her heart and her mind get poisoned the way mine did by solitude and lack of contact. But I'll be damned what to do about it."
Her heart went out to him. He cared so much for Mrs. Muir; Clara was convinced he would rather consign himself to Hell for all eternity than do anything that would hurt her in any way. And if she had anything to say about it, it would never come to that. "Let me see if I can turn her around," she offered gently, wanting to ease his burden as she knew he would were their situations reversed.
He smiled at her offer, but shook his head. "Thank you, but I'm afraid that's something that we have to work out between ourselves." He got up then, tucking the book under his arm and picking up one of Clara's bags. "Here, let me help you with those." He opened the door for her, then followed her inside, closing the door quietly behind him.
Up in the main cabin, Carolyn sat at her desk, staring at her computer screen while chewing angrily on a pen. She was fuming – the nerve of the man… ghost… HIM!
Well, if he's so wrong, her conscience whispered insistently, why are you so plagued by that look on his face?
She sighed. She had hurt him; she had really hurt him. And that galled her more than anything else that may have passed between them. But he had just gone too far! A recluse, her – really! So she had decided she wanted a little time to herself to enjoy her days quietly and peacefully. True, she hadn't gone on her walks and tea outings with Cleveland quite as often lately, and she had skipped a few games of bridge, but so what? She just didn't feel like company, that's all. There was nothing wrong with that – was there?
Throwing the pen on the desk, she got up and walked to the French doors, her eyes seeking solace in the gently lapping waves. Maybe he was feeling lonely, she thought pensively. With everyone gone and Clara coming in only a few times a week, maybe he felt ignored or left out when she got lost in her reading and that bothered him. "Blasted man," she said affectionately, her lips curving up of their own accord. When would he realize that it wasn't a crime to admit to loneliness? Or to anything else, for that matter?
A knock at the door made her turn. "Come in." Her eyes grew wide in surprise when she saw him standing there, his hands behind his back.
"May I come in?" At her nod, he walked in, stopping in front of her. He just looked at her in silence for a few moments, as if debating something. Then he brought his hands in front of him: they were holding her book. "Truce?"
Feeling a little misty, Carolyn simply nodded as she took her book from his hands, not trusting her voice. How could he be so loving when she was so mean to him? "I'm so sorry for what I said," she whispered unsteadily, unable to erase the echo of her words from her memory.
He shook his head, smiling faintly. "I pushed you to it. I'm afraid I let my temper get the better of me once again, but I just couldn't bear the thought of you spurning human contact for the sake of a book – "
"Oh, Daniel! That's a bit overstated, don't you think? It's not like I've sworn off the rest of humanity!" She smiled gently up at him, wanting him to see. "It's just a book."
"Is it really?" She nodded. "Prove it – tell me you will put it away and go back to your old routine."
She hesitated, and she could see that her pause wasn't lost on him. But the truth was, she couldn't do as he asked. Not yet, anyway. There was just something in there she had to see to its end before she could move on to other things. "I will – but not just now. Please, Daniel, listen to me," she said beseechingly when she saw the storm gathering in his eyes. "I just need to hold on to it long enough for me to write the article I have in mind. Then you can throw it in the bay for all I care." Looking deep into his eyes, she continued in a softer tone. "It's just something I need to get out of my system, all right? Will you let me do that?"
Daniel looked down at her, his blue gaze penetrating. "If you swear to me that's all it is – "
"That's all it is."
Letting out a breath, he nodded. "Very well. But when you're done, I want this book out of the house. Agreed?"
"Agreed." Another knock made them both turn. It was Clara, balancing a tray on her hip as she waved a white cloth like she was asking for a parley. "Have all hostilities been called off or should I run back for cover?"
"Oh, come here, you!" Carolyn said with a laugh, helping the younger woman with the tray. Feeling her good mood returning, Carolyn settled back into her desk chair, turning the computer on as she shooed the other two out. "The quicker I get this started, the quicker I can get it done! And I just know how to go about it…" And she began to type, totally oblivious to the other two leaving.
Outside Gull Cottage, thunder rumbled low.
Inside, in the small alcove at the far end of the parlour, Daniel Gregg paced, his jaw set, his brow furrowed ominously. He hated mysteries, always had. A century in the afterlife hadn't changed that one whit, he reflected grimly. Something was amiss, that was plain. But that… that… accursed female refused to tell him what the problem was! And she was the one accusing him of not being free with his emotions! "BLAST IT ALL!" he roared, sending his precious sea charts flying. Outside, the thunder echoed louder in answer to his outburst. He had thought, fool that he was, that allowing her to do as she asked was the surest way to deal with those new reclusive tendencies he had seen emerge with increasing disquiet. But no, it had actually made things worse. She had sworn to him that it would take her no more than two days to write the whole thing at the speed she was going; it was getting close to four now and still, she remained holed up in the main cabin, no closer to the end of her article than she had been nearly two days earlier. According to Clara, she had barely eaten in that time, the tray she diligently brought up to her invariably waiting by the closed bedroom door, virtually untouched, whenever she stopped by to bring it back down. And Daniel knew for a fact she had had very little sleep in all that time. The few times he had been able to pop into the room unnoticed, he had caught her dozing in her chair, her head nodding occasionally. Then she would wake up, looking directly at him in that uncanny way she had and he had to leave before she got angry with him for policing her, as she put it.
He hunkered down by his charts, lying haphazardly on the floor. What the devil had changed since the moment he had given her that book back? Again, he was assaulted by that feeling of dread he couldn't explain. He was sure it had to do with that dreaming nonsense. But Carolyn was far too practical to take this seriously – wasn't she?
She was also very human, he had to concede a second later with a sigh. A living being with very real needs – needs as simple as the touch of a hand – that he was quite incapable of fulfilling. So she was probably trying to create a reality of her own, in the safety of her dreams, where everything turned out the way she thought it should – including his being real, he had no doubt. Whether she thought whatever was in that book would help her make it more real seeming, he couldn't tell. But he was worried by what would happen once she came back into the real world – her world. The consequences could be – devastating.
Shaking his head, he began picking up the charts, finding the banality of the gesture soothed his churning thoughts somewhat. Well, there was nothing more he could do at this point, except let her know that he was there for her should she need him. All he could offer her was his support and, little as he felt that was, it would have to suffice.
Carolyn didn't even flinch as thunder crashed outside. She was so tired; her head seemed to weigh a ton, her eyes felt scratchy and she couldn't seem to be able to focus, except on one thing: rescuing Daniel from death.
She had scoffed at the idea when it had first taken root into her thoughts after reading her book. The premise seemed sound enough, but in the end, it was just that: a premise, a hypothesis, something that looked good on paper but that had no empirical data to back it up. And yet… If Daniel had been able to show her her memorial service, to take her back to his own time, to create a whole new reality through dreams, who was to say she couldn't do the same? And who was to say that she couldn't make that reality come true somehow? If thoughts and dreams were made of a similar fabric and if they were more real to him than her own reality, she reasoned, then recreating the day of his death in dream fashion and preventing that death in the dream should have some kind of effect on him – right?
A wave of fatigue washed over her. She would have to give further thought to this, but not now, while she couldn't even think straight. The surface of her desk looked so very inviting at the moment... Finally giving in, Carolyn crossed her arms over the top of it and put her head down, promptly surrendering to sleep…
Carolyn looked up from the paper she found herself holding, squinting as the bright sunshine, peeking momentarily through the lingering clouds, struck the still churning waters of the bay. A little annoyed with herself for spacing out like this, she turned around and all the air in her lungs promptly rushed out. Well, Carolyn, she thought dazedly, you sure aren't in Kansas anymore.
The sight before her was straight out of a Victorian novel: horse-drawn carriages were coming and going on the tamped down, muddy dirt of the main street, conveying people in twos and threes to different parts of town, though they seemed to be doing so mainly in the direction of the pier where, upon closer inspection, she spied the towering heads of masts and the webwork of rigging belonging to sailing ships. Noticing the long, flowing gowns the women all seemed to be wearing, Carolyn looked down at herself to find she was wearing a similar outfit, made out of luscious green velvet. Shaking her head at the inner workings of her mind, she looked up again and took in the scene once more, a wondrous smile growing on her lips.
She was in Schooner Bay in Daniel's time.
Wonder what he would make of that one, she thought as she laughed softly to herself. Looking down again at the paper in her hand, she saw she was holding a copy of the Schooner Bay Beacon, dated November 14th, 1869. She ran her fingers lightly over the title, noticing the difference in the print and the quality of the paper – oh, she just had to make the most of this dream and see where it would take her! Looking down toward the pier, she was delighted to see that the Inn she was familiar with was there. What better place to observe the goings-on of the people in town and finding out the latest news? Her course set, she walked determinedly toward her destination.
She wasn't prepared for the size of the crowd she saw there. In her own time, the Inn was a busy place at just about any given time, being a favourite spot for both the tourists and the locals. But it was nothing compared to this: the place was packed to the gills with people coming, going or milling about in the lobby, two harried-looking porters seemingly on a constant run to meet the needs of all the patrons there. Carolyn started picking her way toward the back, where the dining room was, figuring she could sit down and watch, fairly unnoticed amid the hustle and bustle of the place. Once inside the large room, she found a spot near the door, right across from the bar. Four men were sitting at the end of it, talking in low voices. One of them, she noticed, seemed rather upset. He sat with his elbows on the polished wood of the bar, his shoulders hunched, his eyes peering unseeingly into the empty glass sitting in front of him. He would occasionally give a negative shake of his head to what one of his companions was saying, his face set as if he were ready to explode. Her curiosity getting the better of her, Carolyn strained to hear what they were saying.
"Can I get you anything, Ma'am?"
Carolyn nearly jumped out of her skin, startled by the sudden appearance of a young waiter by her side. "Uh… coffee would be nice. Thank you." Nodding, the waiter left, leaving Carolyn free to resume her observations. The tone of the conversation seemed to have raised considerably, enough so that a number of the patrons were throwing occasional looks toward the end of the bar. "Nathan, mate," she heard the man who had been speaking earlier say, "let it go. There's nothing for it now. Hell, there was nothing for it earlier, either. If he had it in his head to – " The man stopped speaking suddenly as he found himself speared by Nathan's glare.
"If he had what in his head?" Nathan challenged in a low tone Carolyn found frightening. The other man looked down in silence. "Go on, Jed. Say it."
Jed looked up to reply, but was distracted by a man who had just entered the room and was standing just behind Nathan. He looked fortyish or so, his hair was dishevelled, and his hands were clenching nervously around a cap that had seen much better days. Noting the look on Jed's face, Nathan turned around, his eyes growing suddenly cold at the sight of the man. Without further warning, Nathan lunged for him, one of his hands clamping successfully around the man's throat before the other three men got hold of him and pulled him off his intended victim. "Nathan, stop it! Stop it, I say!" one of his companions said as he finally managed to shove him down into a seat further away, standing between the two as an extra precaution. He signalled the barman that everything was under control, but the commotion had already brought the rest of the room to a standstill. It was impossible to miss a word of what was said now. "Leave the poor bastard alone, will you? It's not like he killed him."
"Oh yes, he did! Just as good as if he had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger!" Nathan shot back, seething, his eyes glaring murderously at the poor wretch who was now shakily occupying Nathan's former seat.
"I'm sorry," the man said brokenly, his eyes shiny with tears.
"Sorry?!?! You're sorry?!?! I'll show you sorry!" Nathan made a move to take another swipe at the man, but was firmly held down by the two men standing on either side of him.
Motioning to one of the flabbergasted waiters, the man who had broken up the almost fight asked that the small, stooped man be accompanied to the door, out of Nathan's reach. Once the man was gone, Nathan's friend came over to him, his gaze sympathetic. "Come on, Nathan, try to simmer down. What would the Captain say if he saw you like this?"
"He'd show you a lot worse if he were here," Nathan replied sullenly.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Nathan! I know the two of you have been friends for a long time, but he was a man like you and me, and he did have a lot on his mind these past few weeks. Maybe it just got to be too much – "
Nathan shot out of his seat like a bullet, stopping only a few inches from the other man's face. "Daniel Gregg had broader shoulders than bloody Atlas himself. I don't care what anyone else says: nothing would make him take his own life, unless it was to save another. Don't you ever forget that."
The other man nodded, visibly shaken by Nathan's intensity. "Here," he said, motioning the barman their way. "Let's have one last drink to him before we move on. It's almost time." He placed one of the shot glasses the barman had just filled in front of Nathan and raised his own. "To the Captain," he said quietly.
Nathan echoed the words, bringing the glass to his lips, but stopping as he was about to drink from it. Looking suddenly defeated, he took a shaky breath and, gathering all the dignity he had left, put the glass down and called the barman over once more. Turning to the other men, he said quietly, "If I'm going to toast my friend, I'm going to do it with his drink of choice. Tea," he said to the barman, who quickly ambled away with Nathan's still full glass.
Across from the bar, Carolyn was brought out of her state of shock by the sound of her cup rattling within its saucer. She spared it a fleeting glance, a detached part of her mind noticing how badly her hand was shaking. She kept telling herself that she must have heard wrong, but the mounting evidence her brain kept trying to push on her was becoming virtually impossible to evade.
Today was November 14th.
Those were Daniel's men, drinking a toast in his honour.
And Daniel Gregg, their captain, had died less than twenty-four hours ago.
Getting up on shaky legs, feeling faint, Carolyn made her way through the oncoming crowd, oblivious to all going on around her, a mantra taking up residence in her brain, blotting out all other thoughts: Daniel is dead. Daniel is dead. Danielisdeadanielisdeadanielisdeadanielisdeadanielisdead…
She practically stumbled out of the Inn, panting for breath, her tears blinding her, the buzzing in her ears nearly overwhelming her. Walking unsteadily toward the water, she stopped when she reached the boardwalk, casting her eyes on the whitecaps ruffling the waters of the bay. He would have loved a burial at sea, she thought sadly, feeling the sting of fresh tears anew. Then, inspiration suddenly seized her, freezing the drops on her lashes. Her jaw set determinedly, she turned back the way she had come, then made her way toward the centre of town.
The small clearing sitting a short distance behind the little church wasn't nearly as overrun by the bush as Carolyn remembered, but it was still a sorry sight. When she arrived, two men were already busy attacking the turf with their shovels, oblivious to her presence. The location of the plot wasn't lost on her; suicide victims, according to the living, would be restless souls, so they were buried near a crossroads which, it was believed, would confuse these roaming spirits and keep them from haunting anyone. Carolyn felt her lips twist into a bitter smile. They sure got that one wrong, she thought. She tensed slightly when she saw them pause in their work as they heard the sound of wheels creaking along the little-worn path leading here. Carolyn followed their gaze to find the four men she had seen sitting at the Inn's bar, walking alongside an uncovered wagon pulled by a large horse. The small procession soon came to a halt close to the grave the other two men had dug, Carolyn watching the proceedings with trepidation from her hiding place. She had a sinking feeling she knew what their cargo was, but she wouldn't believe what her heart told her until her eyes actually saw the evidence for themselves.
She didn't have long to wait. The four men went to the back of the contraption, pulling out a burlap sack with the greatest of care and bringing it to the grave as the diggers doffed their caps in respect. There was no possible doubt as to the contents of the sack. Carolyn bit down hard on her clenched fist, forcibly stopping the sob she felt building in her chest from getting past her throat. She shook her head in grief and disbelief as the men lowered the body gently into the gravediggers' waiting hands below. She could barely make out the voice of Nathan, Daniel's friend, as he paid his final respects to his captain and comrade. This couldn't be happening!
She barely noticed when the two gravediggers started shovelling the dirt back into the hole. She also barely registered the conversation that was taking place, sotto voce, mere footsteps from where she was. "Nathan, you don't want to do this. You'll put an end to your career sure as punching a hole through the hull of a ship if you do this!"
"Listen!" Nathan hissed angrily. "If that whisky-sodden excuse for a man had seen fit to show up on time, none of this would have happened! The Captain would have stayed in town until the repairs were done, he would have gotten stuck back here like the rest of us, he would have slept at the Inn instead of the Cottage, and he'd be having lunch with us as we speak, big as life, instead of – this."
"Don't you think I know that?!?!" The other man grabbed Nathan by the shoulders, forcing him to look into his eyes, cloudy with unshed tears of his own. "If I thought that stringing that wretch to the tallest yardarm could bring the Captain back, you'd have to fight me to get at him! But it won't bring him back! Do you hear me, Nathan? Captain Gregg is dead! The least we can do for him now is to let him rest in peace."
Carolyn didn't hear the rest of the exchange. She backed out of her hiding place, numb with horror and grief, and ran for all she was worth, not knowing where she was headed and not caring. Finally, her knees gave out and she fell, face down, her lungs burning and incapable of drawing breath. Okay, Carolyn, she thought to herself as calmly and rationally as she could. You're having a panic attack, that's all – a panic attack. All you need to do is wake up – you'll find yourself in Gull Cottage, everything will be as it was, and you'll feel just fine. This is just a dream, it's not real, it's not –
Wait a minute, she thought, feeling her breathing ease as her brain seized on something. She was already in the dream; she didn't have to create it from scratch or anything. Why not see if her hypothesis made sense – right here, right now? Recalling some of the conversation she had overheard by the grave and that had somehow registered on her, she realized she had a good head start, so to speak: she knew what she had to do to make things right and who she needed to find to make it so. All she needed, really, was to cast herself back a full day. Taking long, deep breaths to calm herself further, Carolyn thought of everything she could remember about what Daniel had told her of that day for the memoirs, focussing all her thoughts on the events that had led up to his death on November 13th, 1869…
A sudden gust of wind nearly knocked her sideways, making her realize she had been staring out at the water without even seeing it. Annoyed at herself for spacing out like this, Carolyn turned around and stood stock still as a wave of déjà vu hit her. "That's how it started the last time," she said to herself, her thoughts in a whirl as she beheld the familiar scene. Without thinking, she looked down at her hands, hoping the paper would confirm that her attempt had been successful.
They were empty.
Frantically, she glanced around, hoping to find a copy of the day's paper, even a discarded one. She quickly froze, her mouth open, as her eyes fell on the unmistakable form of Captain Daniel Gregg, standing not twenty feet away from her. He was accompanied by four other men – the same men she had seen previously at the Inn and… later, she finished to herself, swallowing hard as the images came back to haunt her with a swift fierceness she was unprepared for. He looks tired, was the first thing that popped into her head as she involuntarily edged closer to where he stood, discussing something with his men.
"You haven't heard from him yet?" Nathan asked, clearly annoyed at whoever had been so derelict.
"No," Daniel answered with a sigh, lifting his cap and running his hand through his hair before putting it back on. He cast a weather eye on the gathering clouds while turning his face into the wind. "But he'd better show up soon, or he won't be able to get anything done before this gale hits."
"There's still a little time, Captain," the man Carolyn recognized as Jed said. "Why don't you come with us for a pint at the Inn while you wait for him? No need to stand around waiting for him in this wind," he pointed out, turning up his collar as another gust buffeted all of them.
"I don't know…" Daniel replied, scratching his beard, obviously tempted, yet reluctant to accept Jed's offer. "I'm rather tired, mates."
"Aww, come on, now! You can have that infernal tea of yours if you're so afraid you can't hold your liquor," Nathan rejoined with a devilish glint in his eye.
Daniel narrowed his eyes at him in a way Carolyn knew from experience meant major trouble. But the effect was promptly spoiled when the laughter that had been bubbling up in his chest couldn't be contained any longer. Shaking his head, he grabbed Nathan by the back of his collar and shoved him amicably toward the Inn with a "Lead on, Macduff!" that echoed in Carolyn's head long after she lost sight of him.
Carolyn stepped out of the way of the bustling traffic, everyone rushing about to get all of their errands squared away before the storm hit. She huddled by the corner of the closest building, considering what to do next while staying out of the rapidly cooling wind. The image of a smallish man, his hair in disarray, his hands clutching a weather beaten cap nervously suddenly flashed in her mind, even as snatches of what Nathan had told that other man as they had stood by Daniel's grave came back to her: whisky-sodden excuse…stuck back here…fit to show up on time…none of this would have happened…That little man she had seen at the Inn had to be the one they had been discussing just now, she reasoned. He was the one Daniel was waiting for – the one who, because he hadn't shown up on time in the real world, had given Daniel the perfect excuse to go home – and die.
Well, he wouldn't if she had anything to say about it. Praying she was guessing right, Carolyn hitched up her skirt and set out for the outskirts of town, where the tavern stood.
Carolyn stood by a piece of broken fence abutting a crooked old tree on the other side of the road from the tavern, rubbing her upper arms briskly to counteract the bite of the wind. She had been waiting there for a good twenty minutes, she estimated, pondering her next move. When she had cleared the little hillock leading here, she had intended to simply march in, go straight to the man she was looking for and get him to come back out with her as quickly as possible. Thankfully, her brain had caught up with her and reminded her that this was the late 1800's, not the 1990's; much as she'd like to, she couldn't just walk into a tavern and hope nobody would notice. Then, she had told herself that this was only a dream – moreover, her dream – so she could do whatever she darn well pleased. A cooler part of her head had prevailed, however, raising a doubt as to her ability to continue the dream if she rocked the boat that much at this point. Hence the reason she was standing there, in the cold, keeping one eye on the establishment, the other one on the road. Twice already, she had seen men coming up the same small hillock she had cleared to head inside, and twice she had let them go unchallenged, hoping against hope that some other brilliant plan would present itself and allow her to carry out her mission.
So far, nothing.
No matter how much her mind chased itself in circles, she came to the same conclusion every time: the only way she was going to get what she had come all this way for was to ask someone to go in and bring the man out for her. And now was her chance: a man, alone, was coming up briskly upon her position, his collar turned up, his shoulders hunched against the chill in the air. Gathering her courage, she broke cover and walked straight toward him even as she called to get his attention. "Sir? Excuse me – sir!"
The man, startled at having someone call out to him in these parts – and a woman, to boot! – stopped dead in his tracks and looked at her a little suspiciously, taking a moment to glance surreptitiously behind her, fearing she might be a front for someone on the lookout for an easy prey. Reassured that she seemed to be alone, he gave her a good once over as she drew up to him and came to a stop. She was one good-looking little thing – past her prime, maybe, but still far too distinguished to be haunting this part of town. He wondered what her story was? "Ma'am," he simply said in answer, waiting for her to make the next move.
Carolyn tried her best to fight down the blush his earlier scrutiny had triggered. Putting on her best smile, she addressed the man again. "I'm truly sorry if I startled you, but I need your help. There's a man in there that I need to take back to town with me immediately, and as I can't exactly go in myself, well…" she finished, looking hopefully at her potential benefactor.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he considered her with an insinuating smile. "That man wouldn't happen to be your husband, by any chance?"
The smile left her face so completely and so quickly that the man facing her actually took a step back. "Listen," she said in a tone colder than the wind, "a very good friend of mine is waiting for that man in town as we speak. If he doesn't show up before this gale hits, he won't be able to do the work he's supposed to on time, and my friend will be in serious trouble."
"And how come you're the one standing here instead of your friend?"
That drew her up short; she had been so dead set on her objective that she hadn't thought the whole thing through. Closing her eyes and hoping to God Daniel never found out about this, she took the plunge. "All right, here's the truth: my daughter's fiancé, who's a ship's captain, promised he would marry her today, but only once the repairs to his ship were completed." She gave him a beseeching look. "Look; my husband and I will be in town only till tomorrow at noon, and they promised us they wouldn't elope. If they don't get it done today, they'll have to wait yet again for another opportunity, and this is the second time they've postponed it already, and – "
He lifted a hand to stop her, his suspicious look turning into a sympathetic smile. "You should have said so in the first place! And who's the lucky man, if I may ask?"
His jaw dropped. "As in Captain Gregg? Our own Schooner Bay Captain Gregg?" At her nod, a brilliant smile appeared on the man's face and he clapped his hands with a whoop of laughter. "Well, it's about time! And if you're anything to go by, it looks like he found somebody who's a match for him, for once," he said appreciatively. Bowing slightly, he said, "I'll be happy to help you, my lady. Who do you need tossed out on his ear?"
Laughing as much from the words as in relief, Carolyn described the man she was looking for, as she had no idea what his name was.
"Latey!" the man exclaimed the moment she mentioned the much-maligned cap. He scowled in annoyance. "Living up to his nickname again, I see. And he obviously doesn't hold his life very dear – crossing Daniel Gregg! The idea!" Tugging his jacket into place, he winked at her with a devilish smile. "Don't you worry none, Ma'am; I'll get good ol' Lattimer out of there for you, and I'll even throw in the escort to town, no extra charge."
"Thank you," Carolyn said in a heartfelt tone, her relief so great she thought she would faint.
"My pleasure. You just wait here; I'll be right back." Walking briskly, he crossed the road and bounded up the two steps leading inside, shouting, "Lattimer! There's a lady here to see you!"
Carolyn felt giddy all the way back to town, so relieved was she that her plan had actually worked. Upon leaving the tavern, Lattimer firmly in the grasp of Carolyn's benefactor, who insisted she call him Gabe, she had made the latter solemnly swear that he wouldn't breathe a word of what had just transpired to Captain Gregg. She loved her future son-in-law dearly, she explained, and really wanted to avoid riling him, especially on what promised to finally be his wedding day! Gabe had wholeheartedly agreed, glad for a chance to bring a little joy to the Captain's life.
It was also agreed that Carolyn would let Gabe go into the Inn alone with Lattimer, so as not to spoil her plans. She watched, a little anxiously, as the two men disappeared through the white doors, wondering if there would be some kind of change in the air, some sign that she had managed to redirect the march of time. She tensed as she saw Gabe and Lattimer come back out almost immediately, followed by a knot of men, Daniel Gregg towering easily over them. He still looked a bit tired, she reflected, but he seemed more relaxed. Maybe the prospect of finally being able to have everything in order for the winter before the day was out had lightened his load somewhat.
She watched from around the corner, fascinated by his interaction with his men and the two newcomers. She marvelled at how easily he laughed with them, at the way he held himself in their midst. Whatever it was that, according to one of his men, had been weighing on him lately seemed to have lifted, leaving in its stead some small measure of peace. She stepped a little further back when she began catching snatches of what they were saying.
"Whatever you say, Latey!" Nathan boomed with a laugh and a hearty slap on the back of the slightly stooped man.
Lattimer straightened up indignantly. "It's true! I swear! Just go up the road and you'll see for yourself." He jammed his old cap on his head with a frustrated grumble. "Damn wheel! If it hadn't come off, I would have been in town early this afternoon and I'd be done by now. Instead, I had to walk I don't know how long and, well, being already parched from the road – "
The men started teasing him again, but Daniel stepped in with a smile. "All right, all right, gentlemen! I think we've hazed the poor man enough for today. I'm sure he'll remember next time he has business with us – isn't that right, Lattimer?" he asked softly, his penetrating gaze resting squarely on the little man. Lattimer seemed to shrink under the weight of that gaze. And no wonder, thought Carolyn, fighting down the shiver the look and the tone of voice he had used had produced in her. "Come on; time to get to the ship," she heard Daniel say as he took another look at the darkening sky. "It'll be close, but I think we can make it there and back before this gale becomes full blown." She watched as they began heading down the street toward the pier, a foolish grin spreading on her lips quite against her will. I've done it, she thought, stunned. I can't believe it – I've actually done it!!!
"Well, I'll be! Daniel Gregg!"
The smile froze on Carolyn's face. Strangely, her eyes were drawn right back to Daniel rather than to the source of the voice. He looked startled for a moment, then a brilliant smile lit up his whole face as he recognized the man the voice belonged to. "Willy MacNeil!" She watched as Daniel asked his men to go ahead with Lattimer, then retraced his steps, stopping in front of the other man and grasping his hand warmly in both of his. "You lousy excuse for a landlubber!" Daniel exclaimed with a laugh as he gave the other man a good once over. "Still a copper, I see!"
MacNeil nodded with a laugh. "Somebody has to keep you bloody sailors in line!" He lifted a hand when he saw Daniel about to protest. "I know, I know – 'sailor is a landlubber's word'. Well, that's what I am – so live with it!"
"Is it true what I hear?" Daniel asked eagerly, his eyes sparkling. "Your little one is finally born?"
The way MacNeil's eyes softened tugged at Carolyn's heart. "Seana Patricia," he replied with a slightly watery smile. "She'll be three weeks tomorrow." Clearing his throat, he clapped the seaman on the shoulder. "You should drop by; Bridget has been dying to have you over for dinner!" He leaned in conspiratorially. "Though I don't think it's so much for the company as for your outrageous stories!" She watched a little apprehensively as the two men talked some more, then found herself heaving a sigh of relief as Daniel promised that he would indeed be happy to drop by and started making his way back toward the pier.
Then, pandemonium struck. Two shots rang out. Screams erupted from every corner, the sound of footsteps coming down at a run on the wooden sidewalks permeating the air as the shrill note of a whistle signalled danger.
With the strange timelessness of dreams, Carolyn was able to observe all of this with an odd sense of detachment, feeling strangely unthreatened by the events unfolding before her eyes. She watched as a man roughly grabbed a nearby woman by the hair and pulled her closer to him, using her as a shield, brandishing a still smoking gun in his other hand. She barely reacted when she saw that same man look up the street at a group of constables heading his way in answer to the whistle blown by Willy MacNeil, who had wasted no time reacting to the shots being fired. She finally began to realize how dire the situation was when she saw the man with the gun aim his weapon at the hapless constable who, after dropping his whistle, had tried in vain to pull his own firearm out of its holster. From where she stood, Carolyn could plainly see the fear, then the resignation on MacNeil's face as he realized that he wasn't going to get to see his wife and his baby girl ever again.
Just as suddenly, time seemed to snap back into place, leaving Carolyn reeling. She barely heard the running footsteps that blew by her, or saw the flash of black that flew past just before a third, then a fourth shot rang out. Then everything seemed to come to a standstill.
The crowd, Carolyn noticed, seemed to cluster into two knots: one was near the entrance to the bank, where the robber had been taken down, the shot miraculously missing his hostage, whereas the other group stood roughly where MacNeil had been, awaiting death's strike. It was to this last group that Carolyn moved to, her heart in her throat just thinking about how Daniel would feel when he found out his friend had been cut down.
Whatever it was she thought she would see, it wasn't this. For the space of a second, her heart literally stopped and her breath caught in her throat. The next, she was fairly deafened by the sound of the blood pounding in her ears: before her lay Daniel Gregg, his head resting in Willy MacNeil's lap as the latter tried, unsuccessfully, to staunch the crimson flow of blood that was escaping from the exit wound left by the bullet that was now lodged in MacNeil's shoulder. In the unnatural hush, Carolyn was able to make out the sound of someone weeping, and realized it was coming from Willy, who could see that life was ebbing ever more swiftly from his friend's body with each beat of his heart. Her attention focussed on Daniel, she noticed how peaceful he looked, how unafraid he seemed. If anything, he seemed more intent on attenuating his friend's grief then on contemplating his own impending death. When at last, Daniel's breathing became laboured, he moved his head about slightly, looking at all the faces around him as the light in his eyes dimmed, to finally stop his gaze directly on Carolyn. As her hand flew to her mouth, the sound of Daniel's breathing eased and his head sank a little more heavily in MacNeil's lap as life left him.
Stiffly, Carolyn took a step back, then another, then another, until she was well away from the gathering crowd and the broken sound of MacNeil's sobs. She came to a stop behind a nearby building, leaning against it as she doubled over, retching. How could this happen???? I brought Lattimer in on time! Daniel should have gone back to the Inn and stayed there for the night! Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to calm down and to think logically. The encroaching image of Daniel's blood-soaked shirt didn't make that easy. All right; I have to reach Lattimer earlier – before he gets to the tavern… but where am I supposed to find him?!?! She blinked as the image of a wagon with a broken wheel came to her. Of course! That's where I need to be – on the road to the tavern, so I can intercept Lattimer before he gets there. Then he can get everything done before the storm hits AND before the robbery even happens! Something about that last thought made her uneasy, but she couldn't say why. There's no time to think about that now anyway, she told herself firmly. Closing her eyes as she had done the previous time, she concentrated on Lattimer, the dusty backroad leading to the tavern, and soon found herself…
… in the middle of nowhere.
Great, she thought as she kicked at the dirt of the uneven road. And just how in heaven's name am I supposed to find Lattimer if I don't even know where I am – or when?!?! Heaving a sigh, she stood, undecided, looking up and down the dirt road in search of some kind of reference point. All she saw were rolling hills, a tree here and there – and the road. All right; let's approach this logically. Lattimer could only have come from one of two directions if he was using a wagon: either from town or going into town. According to what he said, the tavern was on his way to town after that wheel fell off. So he couldn't have come to the tavern the way I did; he had to come from the other direction. She scowled. "And at exactly which end of this road does the town lie?" she grumbled, annoyed. "Riddle me this one, Batman." One thing did reassure her, however: the wind was very light, and the sun, though hidden more often than not, seemed to be fairly high in the sky, which told her that, if nothing else, she had shown up earlier than on her previous attempt. Now, to the matter of which direction to take… She couldn't very well walk a great distance in these shoes, she knew from her previous attempt, her lips pursed as she looked at her delicately clad feet, feeling them protesting still. But she would have to do a bit of it if she was to ascertain which direction to take to reach Lattimer faster – preferably before he lost that wheel. Crossing her fingers, she decided to head to her right, her instinct telling her that the tavern lay that way. A few minutes into her walk, she spied the uppermost branches of a tree just clearing the small hill she was climbing. Hoping against hope that it might be that old gnarled thing she had hidden behind that last time, she walked faster, until finally, she saw it: the tavern, nestled at the bottom of the gently sloping road Carolyn stood on.
Elated, she started walking back the way she'd come with renewed vigour, able to ignore, for the time being, how very unsuited to walking her shoes were. She couldn't ignore that fact quite so easily maybe half-an-hour later, when her feet started to hurt so much she actually considered continuing on her hands and knees. Some dream, she thought disgustedly as she plopped herself down by the side of the road. I can't even get my mind to manufacture decent footwear! Her fingers were about to tug on the lace of her left shoe when she heard a faintly rumbling sound, accompanied by the more familiar creaking and groaning of wood. Getting up and dusting herself off, she tried to pinpoint the direction the sound was coming from. Turning in the direction she had been walking, Carolyn suddenly felt a face-splitting grin taking shape at the sight that greeted her: small, stoop-shouldered Lattimer, sitting alone on top of his old wagon, unhurriedly heading toward town. She could see him squinting from where she stood as he tried to make out just who the woman might be who was standing in the middle of the road and waiving her hands frantically at him to stop. She sighed in relief when he did, smiling gratefully up at him. "Good morning!" Carolyn said cheerfully, trying to get on his good side as quickly as possible. "I'm so glad you were coming this way, I can't tell you!"
Lattimer eyed the strange woman for a beat, scratching at the stubble covering his left cheek as he considered what to do. "I hope you won't take this the wrong way, Ma'am," he finally said with a hesitant smile, "but it's a little strange to see a lady like you lost in the middle of a road in the back of beyond. So I hope you'll forgive me if I don't come down just yet."
Seeing his point, Carolyn laughed, noting the slight note of hysteria it held. "Oh! No, it's nothing of the kind! I'm sorry if I scared you – my husband is waiting for me a little further down the road. It seems one of our wheels has come loose and I thought I'd walk this way to see if I could find us some help."
Clearly unconvinced, Lattimer scratched his cheek pensively. "How come you're the one doing the walking, and not your husband?"
Feeling her eyes grow cold and her blood starting to boil, Carolyn forced the smile to remain firmly in place. Daniel never told me what a bunch of sissies men could be in his time! she thought savagely. "Well, for one thing, he can't walk long distances at the moment; he broke his foot not too long ago and it's still on the mend. He also thought it might be better for him to stay back just in case someone came from the other direction. I know the tavern is down that way," she countered even as the man opened his mouth to make precisely that point, "but a tavern is no place for a lady, as you well know."
He couldn't possibly argue with that one. Getting down from his perch, Lattimer took off his cap and very gallantly helped Carolyn up to the bench. He put his cap back on as he went around to the other side to take his place beside her. Snapping the reigns lightly, he got the horse moving and they were off.
The wheel!!! Carolyn suddenly thought, aghast at having forgotten. "Wait!" she said loudly, her hand shooting out toward Lattimer's arm, startling him into bringing them to a stop. "You should check your wheels," she said in answer to his quizzical look. "I think one's about to fall off." The incredulous look he shot her had Carolyn wracking her brains to come up with a good excuse for how in the world she could possibly know a wheel was about to come off. "Our own wheel made a peculiar sound just before we lost it, and I think I just heard the same one." Please, please, please believe me! She thought a little desperately.
Shaking his head, Lattimer got off the bench, deciding that humouring the lady would probably be easier than trying to contradict her. Disgruntled captains, he could deal with; deranged women – well… He went around the wagon, stopping at each wheel to give it a good tug. At the third one, he felt a definite looseness, prompting him to look up at the petite woman sitting on his bench. "Well, I'll be hanged," he said under his breath. He walked all the way to the front again, shaking his head as he went, until he finally came to a stop, facing Carolyn. "Now, I don't know how you knew about that wheel, little lady, but it looks like I owe you a big one. So here's what we're going to do: you wait here while I go down to the tavern to get some help. With any luck, one of the men there will have a carriage or something to take you and your husband back to town while I get this fixed. You don't have to worry about a thing; everyone here knows what my wagon looks like. You won't be bothered."
Carolyn felt herself tense instantly at the thought of Lattimer stopping at the tavern for even a minute. "No, I'd rather not," she said in a voice she hoped sounded calm. "Besides," she continued, trying for a reasonable tone, "for all I know, someone's already come to my husband's help and he might just be in town as we speak."
Lattimer looked at her with wide eyes. "Your husband would leave you alone, on a deserted road, without coming to look for you?" he asked incredulously.
Blast! Hadn't thought of that…Placing her hands on her hips, she gave the small man a stern look. "I will not have you disparage my husband in such a manner!" Carolyn said imperiously, endeavouring to put a bit of Daniel's tone into her own. Making a show of calming down, she continued. "Given my husband's condition, it had been agreed between us that should help arrive before I came back, he was to make his way to the Inn in town where we are staying. As for being abandoned" – here, she put her small purse very visibly on her knees – "I assure you that I am well equipped to defend myself." She gave a small pat to the purse for good measure.
Lattimer paled slightly at the thought of just what kind of "equipment" might be hidden within the folds of that purse, especially considering the display of temper he had just been a witness to! "Of course, Ma'am. My apologies." Reaching up, he helped her off the bench, then offered her his arm for the walk to the tavern. Carolyn couldn't help smiling to herself as she noticed Lattimer glancing periodically at her purse. Serves him right, she thought, satisfied. Let's just hope everything goes this easily once we're in town!
Carolyn shook her head slightly as they rounded the last bend leading into town, marvelling yet again at her great good fortune. All the way to the tavern, she had worried over whether or not anyone there would be able to offer both herself and Lattimer transportation into town, and do so in plenty of time to keep Daniel out of harm's way. Shivering at the images from her last attempt that flashed into her mind, she reflected that she couldn't take too much more of that.
"We're here, Ma'am." Carolyn shook herself, realizing that they were no longer moving. Their good Samaritan was standing patiently by the side of the carriage, smiling indulgently at her inattention, holding out a hand to help her down. Lattimer, she noticed, had already hopped off the back and was fidgeting, clearly in a hurry to get going. "Please, go ahead," Carolyn said with a smile. "I need to go to the Inn anyway to see if my husband made it in alright. But thank you for all your help; it's greatly appreciated." The last she said with utmost seriousness; he had been of great help to her, after all. Turning once more to the driver of the carriage, she put her hand in his and allowed him to help her down to the now-familiar dirt street. Thanking him for his trouble, Carolyn turned in the direction Lattimer had taken to make sure he wasn't making any unnecessary stops. That's when she saw him.
Daniel, heading her way, once again surrounded by the same four men she had seen earlier in her dream. She heard his exclamation as he spotted Lattimer walking in their direction, remarking that he was well ahead of schedule. Carolyn couldn't keep from smiling as she thought how poor Lattimer was going to explain this one to the Captain. Not wanting to push her luck, she headed quickly for the porch of the Inn, trying to keep out of Daniel's sight. She didn't want him distracted, not now, when she felt so close to her goal. She watched with mounting excitement as the group of men came to a stop by the side of the road, then started heading back up the street, making for the pier, where Daniel's ship had been towed. She hardly dared breathe, for fear something would happen to detract him –
"HELP!!! PLEASE, HELP!!!!"
Heads turned all over, as people milling about the busy waterside street stopped to try and pinpoint the source of the distress call. In no time at all, a collective gasp started spreading as several fingers began pointing out toward the bay: one of the boats busy offloading passengers from a recently arrived ship had capsized, sending all its cargo and occupants into the frigid waters of the bay. Carolyn found herself gasping right along with the rest of the swelling crowd, caught up in the unfolding drama. She would have forgotten all about Daniel had he not made a run for the water's edge, getting rid of his cap and his jacket as he ran, shouting to his men over his shoulder to get into a boat and come and help him. The gasp she had emitted soon turned into a sob of frustration as she saw Daniel use his long legs to his advantage, his ground-eating strides quickly propelling him into the water. He wasn't kidding when he said he was a strong swimmer, Carolyn thought admiringly as she watched his progress; by the time his men started pulling out with the boat, he was almost a third of the way to his objective already. Running to the water's edge to join the growing throng of onlookers, Carolyn managed to push through to the very front, anxious to get a good view. As her eyes found Daniel, she saw he was already making his way back toward the incoming rescue boat, Nathan leaning forward in the bow, ready to bring the first rescuee aboard.
Carolyn breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Daniel leave his charge in Nathan's care, but tensed anew as she watched him push off the side of the boat to go get another one. She noticed that three of the passengers were making their way to Nathan's boat under their own power, which meant less work for Daniel. Still, he kept going, but his progress was visibly slower, Carolyn couldn't help but notice with worry. That water must be so cold! she thought, shivering in sympathy. For a few heart-stopping minutes, she lost complete sight of him. She bit her lip, scanning the waters feverishly. She fairly shook from the wave of relief that flooded through her when she spotted his white-clad form moving with painful slowness back to the rescuing craft.
It happened so fast that Carolyn actually thought she had imagined the whole thing. One moment, Daniel was by the side of the boat, treading water as his charge was pulled onboard; the next, frantic shouts carried across the water, an excited murmur rifling through the crowd as one of the men – it appeared to be Nathan – dove in and disappeared underwater. For a few tense moments, nothing happened, the crowd alternately watching the people in the boat and following their glances to the surface of the bay, which remained unbroken still. A collective gasp of relief suddenly rippled through the assembled crowd as Nathan resurfaced, holding on to whoever it was he had been after. I can't see Daniel, Carolyn thought a little worriedly as she scanned the waters around the boat. Probably went up over the other side while I wasn't looking, she reasoned as she watched the boat beginning to inch its way back to shore under the applause and cheers of the onlookers. Carolyn felt herself smiling and clapping as well, caught up in the moment.
The applause soon faltered and the cheers began to turn into expressions of consternation as the boat finally pulled in, the rescued parties, shivering, quickly making their way out of the boat, all of them casting their eyes down shortly after having taken a furtive look back at the boat. Carolyn moved closer still to get a better look and quickly wished she hadn't.
The sight that greeted her could have broken the toughest of hearts: Daniel's men, all of them veterans of the sea, looked nothing so much like abandoned children, their wind-burnished faces lined with misery. For there, in their midst, lay the body of their captain. They brought him out with such gentleness, Carolyn couldn't help but observe, almost as if they were afraid to hurt him. But he would never hurt again.
They lay him down carefully on the sand as the onlookers watched, the men in the crowd all doffing their hats in respect for the dead. Nathan, dripping wet, was obviously in shock. He wasn't even shivering from the cold of the water the way the passengers were. He knelt by the body of his friend and commander, looking at the now-bloodless face stupidly, as if his brain was thoroughly incapable of processing the information. Carolyn was actually close enough to hear what he was mumbling, even as his friends were trying to drag him away so he could warm himself. "He was right there… he was ready to come onboard… must have been the cold… no water in his lungs – his heart probably just gave out… one minute, he was holding on, the other – he was gone… my God, he was only 45!… must have been the cold…"
Carolyn felt her brain shut down on her. This just wasn't possible – there had to be an explanation. She must be having a dream within a dream. Yes, that was it – her mind was playing tricks on her. Looking down next to where Nathan had been kneeling a moment ago, her gaze was met once again by the lifeless body of Daniel Gregg, his face peaceful as if in sleep. Shaking her head, she began backing away, her eyes clouding over until she couldn't see. Her heel caught in the hem of her dress and she fell backwards, drawing a few gasps from the people nearest her. She hardly felt the hands that picked her up and put her back on her feet, barely heard the feminine voice telling her that she looked awfully pale and that perhaps she should lie down. Moving like an automaton, she turned on her heel, making for the Inn, then continued right past the building, desperate to escape the persistent image of the dead man lying on the beach.
She sat on the ground, her back against a tree, her eyes staring at the ground from above her drawn-up knees. She didn't know how long she sat there, staring into nothingness, her mind numb with grief and denial. When the fog of pain finally lifted and she was able to think again, she was forced to confront a possibility that was beginning to sound more and more plausible: that she might be the reason Daniel kept dying when he shouldn't. Carolyn had had a nagging feeling that she just might be the source of the problem after her first attempt, but she had quickly silenced the voice of reason, ignoring its urgent whisper of warning.
And she had paid dearly for it.
She put her head in her hands. She was so confused. She couldn't possibly have come up with all of those happenings – could she? And even if she could have, why would she when her goal was to save Daniel, not facilitate his demise? And yet… She couldn't ignore the possibility that she had, in fact, created these events, or rather, made it possible for them to come to pass. Because try as she might, Carolyn couldn't remember Daniel mentioning a robbery or a sea rescue taking place on the day of his death, and surely he would have mentioned it – surely…
A sudden burst of anger shot through her as she felt her resolve weakening. NO! You can't give up now! There has to be an explanation. A slight frown creased her forehead as she squinted in thought. What's the common denominator here? Lattimer – he was there every single time. She emitted a frustrated groan. Yes, but no matter when he showed up, something still happened to Daniel. Can't be it. Her eyes widened slightly as she latched onto another possibility. Wait a minute – and what if it had nothing to do with one single person? What if it was a question of influencing events indirectly? She nodded slowly to herself as her hypothesis gradually took shape. That's right – every time you tried to prevent Daniel's death, you did it by making other people do something different. What if – Carolyn let out the breath she hadn't noticed she'd been holdingas the implications hit her. What if all I have to do is try to prevent his death directly? Actually keep Daniel from kicking the gas heater myself, and let everything else unfold on its own? Good Lord, it's so simple, it might even work. Smiling for the first time in what seemed like ages, she closed her eyes as she had done twice before, preparing to will herself to Gull Cottage…
Her eyes opened and the smile faded from her face as doubts assailed her with a ferocity that shook her. But what if a robbery truly took place that day? Or a passenger boat capsized? I have no way to verify any of that. What if one of those events – or something else entirely – actually happened that day and is repeated while I'm waiting up there for him to show up? What if he dies again? Her eyes closed again, this time against the ghastly images of Daniel's dead body. Clenching her jaw and raising her chin determinedly, she forcibly pushed the images away and concentrated again. I can't take the chance of missing him; I need to make sure he'll make it to Gull Cottage…Clearing her mind, she willed herself once more by the water's edge near the Inn, where everything had all begun…
The sunshine glinted briefly off the agitated surface of the bay, making Carolyn squint. Even as she turned to take in the scene behind her, the bracing touch of the wind nearly knocked her sideways. Sure feels right, she thought wryly. Her breath seized slightly when she heard from behind her "Lead on, Macduff!", uttered in a very familiar voice. Daniel. A tremulous sigh escaped her as she watched him moving toward the Inn. What was it Nathan had said – "big as life"? He most certainly was, she couldn't help but think. Her eyes never leaving him, she followed the group of men to the Inn, figuring there would be enough people there for her to remain fairly unnoticeable.
Once inside, she made her way to the dining room, where the bar stood and, finding the same table she had sat at the very first time was empty, pulled a chair and sat down to observe. Once again, the men sat at the end of the bar, but a number of things were glaringly different: first, they were laughing, having a good time. Second, Daniel was sitting in their midst, laughing right along with them. She noticed with some amusement that he had finally settled on a beer after Nathan had daringly accused him of being afraid he couldn't hold his liquor. She watched, mesmerized, as they talked about everything and nothing, too busy looking at Daniel, gloriously alive, to notice what they were discussing. She was brought out of her reverie when the group got up from their seats, paid for their drinks and, with a wave to the barman, made their way out again. Scrambling to keep up, Carolyn got up as decorously as she could, then hurried after them as fast as dignity would allow.
She caught up to them just as Daniel was asking his men if they were sure they didn't want to come spend the night at Gull Cottage instead of staying at the crowded Inn. There was plenty of room, he argued. Nathan declined, saying he'd rather stay around in case Lattimer did show up in enough time to get started on the repairs. The others also declined, saying they wanted to go around and see if they couldn't find Lattimer for him. Accepting their decision, Daniel clapped Nathan on the back, insisting they at least come up in the morning for breakfast, then started heading up the road leading out of town. It wasn't long before a man with a wagon hailed him down and offered him a ride, which Daniel accepted, quickly fading from Carolyn's view.
"Blast – hadn't counted on him getting away so quickly!" Carolyn began looking around to see if she could secure some transportation of her own.
"You look a little lost, dear. Is there something I can help you with?" Carolyn whirled around in surprise, to be met by a kindly-looking older woman, huddling against the wind under a thick, woven shawl, smiling benevolently at her.
How am I supposed to explain to her that I need to get to Gull Cottage to see Daniel? A whiff of cooking food, whipped their way by a sudden gust of wind, gave Carolyn an idea. "Well, you see," she began with a smile, "my husband is an architect and he's heard a great deal about the design of Captain Gregg's kitchen. So he made an appointment with the Captain so we can go up and visit. But, to tell the truth," she continued conspiratorially, "I was hoping I'd get a chance to see it on my own first – you know, before things get a little too technical." Glancing briefly at the road leading out of town, she looked back at the older woman. "I'm afraid I just missed Captain Gregg. I was really hoping I would get a chance to ask him if that could be arranged."
The other woman patted her gently on the arm with a reassuring smile. "Don't you worry, dear. My husband has to make a delivery near there before the storm comes; he's just about to leave. I'll tell him to take you along. He can drop you off where the road forks; it's only a few minutes walk from there. That is, if you don't mind the walk," she finished, hesitating.
Covering the woman's hand with her own, Carolyn smiled in relief. "Oh, that would be wonderful! But I don't want to impose – "
The woman shook her head. "Think nothing of it, my dear girl. It would be a pleasure." She eyed Carolyn speculatively then, an inscrutable smile stretching her lips. "And I'm sure the Captain won't mind, either," she said softly. She laughed delightedly as she saw Carolyn blush. "Come now! Despite his reputation with the ladies, I can assure you Captain Gregg is nothing if not a perfect gentleman. Besides, your husband is with you – oh dear, I had forgotten about that. What of your husband? What will he say when he finds you missing?"
Carolyn's heart fluttered as she tried to think of a good response to that, cursing the web of fabrications she was getting increasingly tangled in. What did Daniel tell me once? That he had always tried to tell the truth and shame the Devil? That's going to be my motto from now on, I swear to God! "I've already left a message for him at the desk at the Inn. I was hoping to see him before I left, but didn't want to risk missing him, especially with this weather."
"Oh good! No problem then – come around to the back. Gilbert must be about ready now. Gilbert! I have a passenger for you!"
Carolyn waved goodbye at Mr. Tuttle, who had taken pity on her and actually dropped her off right near the corner of the low stone wall surrounding the property. He had made her blush furiously when, after telling her that he probably wouldn't be able to bring her back himself because his own wagon wasn't covered and the rain would probably have started by the time he got back near Gull Cottage, he had said that the Captain would most likely offer to put her up for the night. Unless, of course, her husband insisted on coming back to town. Gilbert had laughed heartily at the blush and had hastened to reassure her; the Captain was as gracious a host as she was likely to find anywhere and he probably wouldn't hear of having any of his guests out in such horrific weather as what was coming their way.
Eager to make her way inside, Carolyn nevertheless took a few moments to look at the house. It was an incredible experience to see it in all its original glory: no shingles missing, no flaking paint, no runaway bushes that needed trimming. And the monkey-puzzle tree – it looked so small!
Shaking herself, she considered how to proceed. She couldn't take the chance of distracting him by coming through the front door and keeping him busy until the storm passed. Considering her track record so far, that might just lead to him slipping at the top of the stairs and breaking his neck or the whole house going up in smoke with him still inside… No – she would have to cut it very close: she would have to wait until the very last moment, just before the accident happened.
Remembering something Daniel had told her on one of their countless Madeira afternoons, she moved to the back door and, after taking a steadying breath, turned the knob. The door swung open effortlessly. Thank you, Daniel, she thought gratefully as she moved into the house by way of the kitchen. She paused briefly, listening intently to his comings and goings. Satisfied that he wasn't anywhere near, she crossed the kitchen area as soundlessly as possible, pausing this time at the bottom of the stairs. She froze as she heard something… He's humming, Carolyn thought with a fond smile, hardly surprised, knowing from experience how much he enjoyed doing it. She concentrated on the sound, trying to pinpoint his movements. It didn't sound like he was anywhere near the staircase or in the corridor. Must be in the master bedroom, Carolyn concluded. Ever so carefully, she hitched up the skirt of her dress and began making her way up the stairs, praying he wouldn't catch her trespass. After what seemed like ages, Carolyn finally made it to the entrance of the master bedroom. The door had been left ajar, a heavy book keeping the door from slamming shut as the stiff wind poured right through the open French doors, grazing Carolyn with its icy fingers on its way down the corridor. She watched in dismay from around the corner as Daniel battled the doors closed with a curse, then unexpectedly moved toward her. She hugged the wall, desperately hoping he hadn't seen her. Hearing him humming again, she chanced another glance around the corner. He was standing with his back to her, looking down at the spine of the book he had picked up from the floor. She waited until he had moved away to step closer to the door and to peer inside. He was obviously getting ready to settle down to a good read by the hearth – where the gas heater was…
Bending her head and closing her eyes, Carolyn took a couple of calming breaths. Okay, Carolyn, this is it. All you need to do is break a window – he'll be hopping mad and he'll probably toss you out on your ear, but at least you'll both be alive to discuss it after…All right, here goes nothing – Looking up, she froze, feeling the colour drain out of her as her eyes locked with and were held by the impossibly blue gaze of Daniel Gregg – her Daniel. "Daniel?" she said in a small voice, looking at him uncomprehendingly.
"Carolyn, you must put a stop to this. Now."
She felt like screaming. How could he do this to her?!?! "Daniel, please, you mustn't stop me! I'm so close – please, you have to let me through!" His only answer was to move even more squarely in front of the partially-open door, ignoring the goings-on behind him. She shook from the frustration and the fury building inside her. "Why are you trying to stop me? Don't you want us to be together? Don't you want to be with me?" she asked pleadingly.
His gaze turned earnest. "Yes, I do," he answered quietly and meaningfully. "And that is precisely why you have to allow this to unfold unimpeded."
"Don't you see? If I don't die here today, I don't get to meet you – ever. You don't get to write the memoirs, never getting to realize your full potential as a writer, never being able to offer your children the life you always wanted for them." He stepped closer to her. "Galling as it was, it was necessary – for the two of us. It was necessary to make us whole."
Carolyn's shoulders sank as her anger evaporated, replaced by the uncomfortable truth of his words. She suspected she had known that all along; she simply had refused to listen. Gathering her courage, she said quietly, "I want to see it."
Daniel was so shocked by her request that he actually took a step back. "No. Out of the question!"
It was her turn to step closer to him. "Daniel, please – if I don't, there will always be a doubt in my mind and I'll never have peace for as long as I live. Please – I need this."
He gazed at her for what felt like the longest time. Then, without another word, he stepped aside. She nodded her thanks at him before turning her eyes toward the fireplace, just in time to see Daniel's head rolling to one side, the book he had been holding slipping from his lifeless fingers. All the unspent grief within her seemed to burst out all at once and her knees gave out as the tears began to fall. She made her way to Daniel's body on her hands and knees, stopping only when she was close enough to touch his hand. She took it lovingly with both of hers, marvelling at how warm it still was. She kissed the back of it reverently before laying it to rest in his lap. She then moved her hand to his cheek, taking the time to run her fingers through his hair, laying a gentle kiss on his brow before moving to his lips, the saltiness of her tears now staining both their faces as great, heaving sobs wracked her uncontrollably.
On the other side of the door, Daniel suddenly clutched his left hand with his right, as if burned. He closed his eyes and let out a tortured breath as the feathery, tingling touch he had felt on his hand now moved to his brow, and shortly thereafter, to his lips. At that last touch, and at the heartbreaking sound of Carolyn's sobs, he looked up to the heavens, his own eyes glistening with tears he could no longer shed. Heaving a sob of his own, he vanished, too overwhelmed to stay.
Back in the master bedroom, Carolyn, spent, put her head down on the chair's arm, praying for oblivion, mind-numbing oblivion. She closed her eyes, her right cheek resting against the wool of Daniel's sweater, making it easy for her to imagine that he wasn't dead at all, but merely asleep. To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream… sounds like a good plan, she thought as her eyelids grew heavier and she felt her body loosen in slumber. She would probably have fallen into a heavy sleep if it hadn't been for the insistent touch of a hand on her shoulder. "Mrs. Muir? Mrs. Muir!"
Carolyn jerked awake, a wave of disorientation hitting her as her eyes focussed on Clara's face. "What – "
"I'm really sorry I woke you up, Mrs. Muir," Clara rushed to say as she wrung her hands nervously, "but I heard you crying out and I thought I should check in on you, just in case."
Still feeling somewhat dislocated, Carolyn asked, "How long was I asleep?"
Clara frowned in thought. "How long? Why, I'm not sure. About… twenty, twenty-five minutes, I'd say."
"Twenty-five minutes?!" Carolyn repeated incredulously. She felt like she'd been gone for days! Pushing up slowly from her prone position, her right hand brushed gently against the book resting on the corner of the desk. When she saw it, Carolyn recoiled from it with such speed that she toppled her chair, drawing a cry of surprise from Clara, who began to look alarmed at the combination of terror and disgust that was twisting her employer's face. Carolyn backed away from her desk as quickly as she could and didn't stop until she was resting with her back against the farthest end of the leather couch, a cushion held securely between herself and what she obviously perceived as a threat. Her eyes never leaving the book, she said, in a tightly controlled voice, "I'd like to be alone now, Clara."
The housekeeper frowned disapprovingly. "Now, Mrs. Muir, I think you've been by yourself quite enough lately! Why don't you ask the Captain to join you for a walk or something?"
At the mention of Daniel, Carolyn's eyes blurred with tears. "I said NOW!" At her wit's end, Clara threw up her hands and left, making sure, however, that the door wasn't clenched. Carolyn paid her no heed, her eyes never straying from the surface of the desk.
When darkness fell, she was still keeping her silent vigil.
The day had dawned clear and bright, with barely a hint of breeze to ruffle the leaves of the monkey-puzzle tree. Carolyn moved to open the French doors and let in some fresh air, but stopped as she spied a sparrow hopping lightly on the rail. She watched it with a faint smile, not wanting to scare it away. When, at last, it flew off, she opened the doors and walked out into the morning sunshine, turning her face into the light and warmth like a flower seeking sustenance. Letting out a contented sigh, she moved to the wheel, her hands grasping the spindles of their own accord as she leaned against it and rested her cheek against the polished wood. "Good morning, old friend," she greeted softly with a smile, "I've missed you." Just as I miss your master, she thought with a sigh, her smile fading. Lifting her head so her chin now rested against the wheel, she cast her mind back to the last time she had seen Daniel…
She no longer had any conception of the passage of time. For all she knew, she had been sitting here, her back firmly pressed against the deepest recesses of the leather couch, for a year and a day. She dimly remembered Clara coming in with a tray on a few occasions, trying to convince her to eat, but she had turned her away every time, until, finally, she stopped coming altogether, probably figuring that when she got hungry enough, she'd come out. Thereafter, she thought she'd heard Clara talking to someone, perhaps on the phone, she couldn't be sure, and even though she hadn't been able to make out the actual words, the distress that had laced them hadn't escaped her. Poor Clara…
"You must take care of yourself, my love."
For long moments, Carolyn remained as she was, staring vacantly at her desk. Eventually, she looked up, her face and her eyes devoid of feelings of any kind. "Was it really you in the dream that last time?" she asked. He nodded. "Why didn't you try to stop me earlier?" she asked in a strained whisper.
If she had taken the time to open up, to cast her mind outward, she would have noticed how haggard Daniel looked, how his left hand, resting on the base of his telescope, shook as if from exhaustion. But she was too mired in her own misery to notice such things. His answer, when it came, was quiet and without rancour. "I would have if I had known you were going to try such a scheme. But honestly, would you have listened to me if I had? Would you have believed me if I had told you that, incredible as it may seem, there is method to this madness called life?"
Unable to come up with an answer, she looked away, returning to her former scrutiny. "In a way," Carolyn said softly after a few moments, her voice flat, her eyes resting accusingly on the book, "I feel like Pandora after she opened the box. Only, in this case, the evil I unleashed was of my own making, and it came after me with a vengeance."
Daniel looked at her inscrutably for a time, then said, very quietly, "What about hope?"
"What about it?" she asked back, still not looking up.
"Hope was the one thing left in the box worth letting out." His voice grew softer still as he continued, almost in a whisper. "Hope of ever finding you was the one light that kept the shadows from engulfing me through the last hundred years. I suggest you let that same light guide you into safe harbour – where I'll be waiting." That made her look up at him. His eyes softened as he made to leave. "I beg you – don't close the door on hope." Then he vanished.
That had been four days ago, she thought with a sigh as she made her way back inside. The previous three had been bleak, anxiety-filled days, crowded by doubts about the path her life had taken up to that point and the one she was travelling now, her destination seemingly forever out of reach, pushed back further by every bend in the road and every hill that stood in her way. Her nights had been equally dreary, filled with false memories of Daniel's death and doors constantly blocking her way. That had all changed last night, however, after experiencing the most wonderful of dreams: in it, she had awakened as she had the three previous nights, her heart hammering, her eyes wild, her mind in a whirl, confused, the feeling of entrapment nearly overwhelming her. But things hadn't ended the same way; instead, she had watched, stunned, as Daniel had sat by her side on the couch, his eyes tender and compassionate, his fingers delicately brushing away a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes. Then, without a word, he had gathered her in his arms and held her, the depth of his love for her evident in his touch. It had been more than she could bear; great sobs had broken out of her, as if her soul had been trying to free itself from its cage. She had cried until there were no more tears to shed, no more screams to rend her throat. Through it all, he had held her, silently, taking the brunt of her pain as a rock stands up to the crashing waves. An incredible feeling of lightness had followed, and she had fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep, finding upon waking that she felt oddly refreshed – renewed. Now if only Daniel would appear… She sighed. Her breath froze in her lungs at the thought that she might have alienated him with her foolish experiment. True, he had come to her in her dream when she had most needed it, but that had been after a three-day absence that she couldn't fathom, and it scared her witless to think what such a prolonged absence could lead to…
"It is good to see the roses back into your cheeks, dear lady."
Carolyn turned toward the voice, a wide smile illuminating her features. Her joy at seeing him there, framed by the French doors, was so profound that she shook with the intensity of it. Without thinking, she moved toward him, but faltered slightly as he took a step back at her approach. Dismay at the thought that she had, indeed, alienated him, made her blood run cold. "Please tell me you're not leaving," she heard herself say in a tortured whisper.
Instinctively, he made to move to her, but reined himself in with great effort. He hoped that his eyes would convey what his words could not. "Never," he said fervently, wishing she could see into his very soul and realize how much he meant that. "I'm sorry for my absence, but our last encounter was… taxing, and I had to stay away. I beg your forgiveness if I caused you distress by doing so."
Concern for him quickly overrode all other thoughts. "Did I hurt you? I could never forgive myself if I had! Please, tell me that – "
He lifted a hand to stop her. "No, my love. Please don't concern yourself. But what I experienced in your dream after your last attempt was… rather overwhelming… and I find that I need a little time to regain my equilibrium." He couldn't tell her that her mere presence just now was battering at his mind, bringing back those last moments into sharp focus, making it hard for him to concentrate, or that the pain that had flooded her soul then and in the subsequent days had nearly engulfed him, like a dark, ferocious sea dragging him inexorably under. Maybe someday he would, when she had found herself again. But now was not the time. He would have to bear the discomfort alone for the time being.
Still disappointed but somewhat reassured, Carolyn sat on the edge of the bed, looking contrite. "I'm truly sorry for putting you through all of this. I don't know what came over me; I thought I had come to grips with the hand I have been dealt, but…" She shrugged. "I guess I was wrong." She continued softly, a thoughtful look on her face. "These past few years, the lack of purpose in my life – or the perceived lack, at any rate – has been weighing heavily on my mind. With the kids gone and Martha retired, things have been awfully quiet around here. Add to that the fact that work is no longer an imperative… Suddenly, there was no direction, no destination, and I found that I desperately craved one. And the only one that came to mind – the only thing that needed resolving – was you." She shook her head at him when she saw the protest taking shape in his eyes. "Please, Daniel, don't try to take the blame for this." Her lips curved into a small, bitter smile. "You would think that after all this time, I would have come to terms with the limitations of our relationship; and honest to God, I thought I had. But I guess that there still remained a small part of me that wouldn't accept those limitations, and it fed on that insecurity I didn't even know I was feeling, until it found the perfect way to express itself." She shivered as her mind flashed back on some of the nightmares that had plagued her so recently. "Remember how you told me, all those years ago, when I raged against everything that separates us, that I should trust that the universe was unfolding as it should?" He nodded. "Those were wise words, Daniel, words that you reminded me of four days ago and that I should have heeded, but obviously didn't." Her features softened into a loving, tender smile. "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, according to Tennyson. Well, I believe that it is better to have known you, with all the aches that implies, than never to have known you at all."
The battering on his mind eased; the feeling of engulfment receded, to be replaced by a sense of peace, of rightness, such as he hadn't known in… such as he had never known. His face relaxed into a smile, the one that was meant for her and her alone. Her answering one told him that her healing had begun, and rocky as the road ahead was, they would reach their destination – together. "You will be all right?" he couldn't help but ask before he left. He hated the thought of leaving her alone.
"Absolutely," she replied, her tone leaving no doubt as to the veracity of her words. "I'll go bug Claymore, I think; he owes me a cup of coffee or ten, and now seems like an ideal time to collect. I just need to do something here first." Bringing her fingers to her lips, she kissed their tips, then turned her palm toward him, moving her fingers lightly in his direction as if to send the kiss his way. "Take care, my love," she said softly. "I'll be waiting." Nodding at her, he returned the gesture and vanished.
Taking a deep breath, Carolyn turned her eyes to her desk, then walked slowly to it, taking the long way around, trailing a finger along its edge as she went. She stopped finally when she reached the end where the dreaded book sat, like a dangerous creature in slumber, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Resolutely, she picked it up with both hands, noting absently that they were shaking slightly, then went to sit with it by the fireplace. Don't close the door on hope, he had said. Well, not only would she not close it, she would open it wide and set hope free. Opening the cover, she deliberately began to tear the pages out, throwing each bunch of pages methodically into the fire. As she went on with her tearing, words her grandfather had told her as a child suddenly resonated in her mind: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. "I'm sorry it took me so long to figure that one out, Pappy, but I'm learning – I'm learning." As she watched the last of the pages shrivel and turn to ash, she reflected that most people would consider the hand she had been dealt a cruel one, and a small part of her had to agree with that. But when she considered the alternative… A bit of a heartache, she found, beat living hell any day.
Getting up, she walked to the closet to grab a sweater, then made her way out, a new spring to her step and a lightness in her heart.
This was, after all, the first day of the rest of her life.