is an original work conceived and written by Roo.
The characters of Dr. Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas are the sole property of MCA/Universal and the author intends no copyright infringement in the writing of this fan fiction. The content of this story and the additional characters are creations of the author and may not be used or re-printed without permission of the author herein.
Also, the author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of her consultant and beta reader, Diana, without whom this story might very well have sat unread on the shelf. Thank you.
Please take note that the illustrations lending beauty and atmosphere to the text of "Home Fires" are the property of a talented artist, Lori Puster, who retains all ownership and bragging rights.
WARNING: The foregoing fiction contains spoilers for The Xena Scrolls.
As all true bards live for feedback; yours is encouraged,
desired and appreciated.
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Alice Greenway leaned against the railing of the screened-in verandah and fanned herself with her wide-brimmed hat. It was October, high spring, and the heat at Coolinga Station was malevolent. The house and grounds, enveloped in a profusion of wildflowers and spinifex, broiled beneath an eiderdown of iron-gray clouds.
With more force than was necessary, Alice smacked opened the screen door and plunked down on the last of seven steps, digging the toe of her chukkas into the dark, red earth. Salty droplets stung the corners of her eyes and she wiped them away with a leisurely pass of her hand. It was the first day of spring break and she was bored. Bored stiff. Bored to tears. But the four-legged remedy to her boredom stood grazing in the paddock, growing fat on Bahia hay. She launched herself from the steps and strode purposefully across the grounds. Minutes later, she emerged from the paddock astride a sturdy, though somewhat lethargic gray gelding. She pulled the brim of her father's old hat down about her eyes and gathered the reins and a clump of silver mane in her hands. Squinting into the midday sun, youthful eyes picked out an oft-visited destination: a cool blackwater billabong nestled in the shade of a cathedral of fifty-foot silver ghost gums. Alice dug her heels into the belly of the horse and spurred him across the salt pan at a gallop.
* * * * * * * * * *
The cramped cockpit of the Lockheed Electra had none of the amenities usually associated with flying no padded seats, no stewardess, no legroom - not that Janice Covington, at a mere five-feet-four-inches required a great deal of legroom. But the engine, for all its wear, ran smoothly and the controls were crisp and responded immediately to her touch. As she steered with her knee, she unstopped a water jug and drank deeply the last of her tepid water. She'd removed her trademark leather jacket upon takeoff, opting for shirt sleeves and now, three hours later, her thin cotton blouse was plastered uncomfortably to her back. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she was only a few short miles from her destination. Gazing out the dirty windscreen, as far as she could see, flat, russet-colored earth swelled to meet the horizon, its monotony broken only occasionally by small water holes and stands of gums, silver in the season. One mile looked very much like another, and yet she had referred to her map only once since leaving the airfield at Birrubi, relying instead on a combination of instinct and luck to bring her into close orbit around Coolinga Station and its current proprietress, Melinda Pappas. She and Janice had not seen one another or spoken in more than six months, a fact which both confounded and angered Janice. As she gazed at a cluster of pinpricks gleaming like quicksilver on the horizon, she determined that she would not leave Coolinga without answers.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the time it took to tether her horse to a low-hanging tree limb and cast off her boots, Alice was wading knee-deep in a cool, black velvet heaven, sharing the waters with a single bold finch whose kin decorated the branches of the gums like colorful buds. She sloshed across the pool, stirring the satiny silt to the surface and plopped down on the sandy bank, her feet still dangling in the water. Gazing into the pool, she idly appraised her reflection: broad face, wide-spaced eyes, aggressive auburn hair. She looked like her mother, which was not a bad thing. Her mother had been considered a beauty in her youth, after her marriage to Jack Greenway but before her exile to this island in the outback. Nine years of isolation and grinding drudgery, eking out a living in a land that would not willingly give up a green blade of grass, had taken a physical and emotional toll on the woman and the marriage. The ink had not dried upon the divorce papers when Peggy Greenway packed both her possessions and her child off to her mother's small home on the coast of New South Wales.
Alice had spent the last three years shuttling between the neat green cottages in her Adelaide suburb and her father's beloved patch of saw grass in the outback. The downside to spending holidays at the station was the almost perpetual isolation, the nearest neighbor being three hours by car. The town of Church Hill, population 605, situated at the foot of the Kakadu Escarpments was hardly a thriving metropolis. Even when she lived at the station year round, Alice could remember having visited Church Hill only a half dozen times. There had never been much there to interest a child - public houses, stockyards, a small grocery below a dilapidated boarding house - all populated by people her mother judiciously called sturdy colonial stock. Four-hundred miles west of Coolinga Station, in the heart of the outback, lay Birrubi -- slightly larger than Coolinga, it boasted yet more pubs and sturdy colonials, but also a small movie house, an airstrip and a school, which her mother refused to allow her to attend as it was populated almost exclusively with aborigine children. Thus, before the divorce, Alice's only contact with children her own age had been through the wireless school run by the government. What the faceless teacher did not offer in the way of stimulation, curriculum or companionship, Peggy Greenway sought to provide herself. The end result of such an insular upbringing among adults made for a quietly confident, eerily mature thirteen-year-old girl...who resembled her mother.
Alice's hand shot out, scooping the frowning visage up and across the pool in a sheet of water where it disbursed, landing in drops and dribbles upon the sandy bank, a fractured reflection. Before the water could calm and resolve itself into her likeness again, she withdrew her legs and trudged across the sand to a paperbark stump where she used her socks to brush the sand from the bottoms of her feet. She shook out her boots in the event some scorpion had taken up squatter's rights and slipped them on, all the while squinting at the outbuildings of Coolinga Station. The latest in a long line of potential stepmothers, house-sitting while Jack was in service to his country, was hard at work in the hangar on a project in which Alice didn't care to feign interest. Owing to Jack Greenway's weakness for younger women, Melinda Pappas was fifteen years his junior, a noted archeologist, and nothing less than striking. She was also kind and funny. In all honesty, the worst that could be said of Melinda was that she was American, a shortcoming Mel could do nothing to remedy.
Alice was startled out of her reverie by the distinct droning of a twin engine aircraft; she raised a hand to shield her eyes and caught the glint of sunlight on an aluminum fuselage substantial enough to be a DC-3. She wondered briefly if it were her father, home on leave early. The plane banked and whined, its engine running hot. Having logged a hundred hours at her father's side in the family Cessna, she recognized the telltale signs of a too-rich fuel mixture. As the aircraft aimed for the white windsock on the hangar roof, she knotted her boots and swung gracefully into the saddle.
* * * * * * * * * *
Janice popped open the wedge of glass at her left shoulder, but the rush of hot fresh air did nothing to relieve the stifling heat inside the cockpit. Again she observed the windsock above the hangar, drooping, airless and impotent. She throttled back, aiming the nose of the plane at a grassless patch roughly fifty feet wide and two thousand feet long. She throttled back again, cutting her speed by half, and the aircraft seemed to hang, suspended and weightless above the makeshift runway before touching down hard on all three wheels. It bounced once, kicking up a cloud of red dust, wavered and touched down again, the tires finding the neat groove worn into the track. She coasted there, comfortable in that niche, applying the brakes evenly, toying with the flaps. At the runway's end she used just enough throttle and hard rudder to pivot the aircraft 180 degrees. As it turned facing into the sun, she cut the engine, blinking as the decelerating props sliced segments of sunlight. "Another textbook landing," she muttered, sliding her sweaty palms against her slacks. Somewhat self-consciously, she observed the adolescent face of rebuttal through the windscreen and though the smile on the child's face was pleasant enough, her posture arms folded, weight on one hip - was clearly judgmental. Acknowledging the girl with a smiling nod, Janice threw her jacket over her arm and ran her fingers haphazardly through her honey-colored hair, gave up and slapped a battered brown fedora atop her head. At the rear of the cockpit, she reached above her head to pop the hatch. With the ease of a gymnast, she climbed through the hatch and onto the expansive left wing of the aircraft. The rubber grip tiles along the valley between fuselage and wing were soft and clingy from the heat, yielding the leather soles of her boots only when adequately persuaded. Janice's first impulse was to curse. "Son-of-a-bitch," she muttered under her breath.
Alice's disappointment at not finding her father behind the controls of the aircraft vanished upon sight of the first female pilot in her experience. "G'day!" she hailed enthusiastically.
Janice looked up to find the teenager regarding her with undisguised bemusement from her place beside one of the stilled props. "Afternoon," she replied, even as the girl possessively stroked the worn metal prop. "You like her, eh?" Janice encouraged with a wink as she jumped down from the wing.
Alice nodded and smiled broadly. "She's beaut! A Lockheed Electra 10E, nine cylinder, air-cooled, eleven hundred horsepower. I suppose you know your fuel mixture is a bit off."
Janice lay the flat of her hand against the fuselage; her fingertips were touching Alice's and they were eye to eye. "I don't pretend to know the mechanics of flying, sweetheart...lift plus thrust equals my butt in the air." The girl laughed appreciatively. "I intend to fly the thing until it drops from the sky."
Alice cocked an eyebrow. "Then what?"
"Then," replied Janice. "I'll walk. You seem to know your planes."
Alice shuffled. "My dad's a pilot in the Australian Air Force, and we have a Cessna in the hangar over there. When it's working, it's a sweet craft, but this -" again, she stroked the metal skin of the Electra. "-this is just like the one flown by Miss Amelia Earhart on her round the world flight. Strewth, you even dress alike," she concluded breathlessly as she gestured at Janice's jodhpurs and tall boots.
"One difference," quipped Janice. "We know where I am."
"Too right! Very good," said Alice, giving the stranger's hand a friendly pat. "I'm Alice Greenway." She extended her hand, expecting neither the iron grip or the enthusiastic pump that followed.
"Pleasure to meet you, Alice. Janice Covington."
Alice went wide-eyed and let her grip slacken until she felt Janice's fingers slip from her own. "Doctor Janice Covington."
For a brief moment Janice wondered what Mel had told her potential new family about their relationship. "Hardly a household name."
"I read your book, The Xena Scrolls: Myth or History."
Janice fanned the black flies away from her face. "Fanny Hill it ain't."
"I thought it was fascinating," Alice reiterated. "What're you doing in Australia?"
"Currently, I'm standing here feeding the flies," she retorted, grinning good-naturedly. "More specifically, I'm heading an aboriginal dig at Kakadu."
Alice seemed to perk up at the mention of the dig. "Then you must be here for Mel, right?"
Janice plucked the sweat-damp cotton blouse away from the small of her back. "I didn't know anyone but me called her Mel." Her eyes moved across the paddock to the sprawling white house beyond. Under the verandah was an aviary of twittering budgerigars, but no Mel. "Is she here?"
"In the hangar last time I looked," replied Alice, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She fell into step beside Janice as they walked towards the hangar.
They passed a horse, lathered with sweat, lungs working like a bellows. Janice said, "Kinda dangerous, isn't it? To run a horse in this heat?"
"I thought you were my dad, coming home. I wasn't thinking about the horse particularly," the teen admitted without a hint of remorse.
A reproof knocked at the back of Janice's teeth; as the adult, she thought she ought to make some stern remark, but standing eye to eye, chatting with this mature teen, it was easy to forget, even briefly, that Alice was not a contemporary. In the end, she held her tongue, reasoning that it was not her place to reprimand or discipline another's child.
"You are here to take Mel back with you...right?"
Janice thought it was an odd question...prophetic, but odd. "I don't know, kid. I'd love to have her on the dig, naturally." She shrugged. "But she has a life here to consider."
"Did she really play such a large part in the discovery of the scrolls?"
"Well, you read my book. She was instrumental. I couldn't have done it without her."
Alice merely nodded, conversation closed. As they entered the hangar, Janice focused upon the green and white twin engine Cessna and the island of light puddled around the form with her back to them. She was painting, with infinite care and patience, the words Greenway Charters' across the fuselage in a bold, no-nonsense script.
Alice called out experimentally, testing the waters. "Hey...Mel?"
Without looking up, Mel replied in the accent that Janice had once quipped made Scarlett O'Hara sound like a carpetbagger. "I thought I heard you thunder up." She dipped the brush into the quart can at her feet and, steadying one hand upon the other, resumed her tedious work. "How many times have I told you not to run the horses in this heat?"
Alice muttered her stock reply, "Too many times."
To her credit, Mel changed the subject. "Was that the mail plane?"
Ignoring her better instincts, Janice took her hat in her hand and slid neatly into the segue with, "Would you be terribly disappointed if it wasn't?"
Mel's back stiffened and she halted, brush poised on the downstroke. Exhaling audibly, with deliberation she placed the brush across the top of the open paint can and turned to face the speaker. Her face was a mask of polite detachment and she struggled for the matching tone of voice. "Well," she said, taking in the unexpected arrival of Janice Covington. "This is a surprise."
Non-committal. Neither good nor bad. Just a surprise.
Janice shuffled and squashed the brim of her fedora against her thigh. "You look good, Mel." Oversized, paint-stained coveralls, long hair pulled back in paisley scarf, cateye glasses on the bridge of a nose daubed with black paint - she looked incredibly good to Janice.
Mel stopped just short of returning the compliment, so ingrained were her Southern good manners. "Well, Janice Covington," she drawled with forced nonchalance. "What brings you to my door?"
Alice piped in, "Dr. Covington's in charge of the Kakadu dig, the one you turned down."
Ouch. Janice shrugged and interjected, "Professor Moffat said I wasn't the university's first choice."
Mel approached, wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth. "Alice, run ahead and put the billy on." She moved her gaze to Janice. "You'll stay to tea?"
"Billy? Tea? You've gone bush, Mel," quipped Janice with genuine amusement.
"I've adapted, Janice. I hope you don't mind tea. Coffee's in short supply these days," replied Mel.
"Tea'll be fine," Janice conceded with a nod, even as Alice hurried out of the hangar at a trot. Alone at last, the pair could speak freely. "It's been a long time, Mel...how've you been?"
"I've been busy. Jack wants to start a charter business when he's discharged so I've been--"
"I meant personally," interjected Janice. "How are you?"
"I'm a mess," Mel replied abruptly, making a preliminary swipe at the paint on her fingers. "I need to wash up."
"You look fine to me...except..." Janice took the cloth from Mel's hands, folded it to find a clean edge and wiped the smudge of paint from the end of Mel's nose. "There." She smiled and returned the cloth to Mel's hand. "All beautiful again."
Flustered, Mel's full lips parted to retort. "I...you..." she studied the paint-stained cloth, avoiding the other's gaze. "Thank you."
Janice grinned, enjoying Mel's predicament; the brunette was seldom at a loss for words. "This is where you're supposed to say, you look good, too, Janice.'"
Mel looked up and regarded Janice coolly as they stepped from the hangar into the dazzling late afternoon sunshine "You've lost weight."
Mel elaborated with an abrupt gesture to Janice's hips. "The pistol and the whip."
"Will I need them?" Janice retorted playfully.
Mel squinted at the teenager bounding down the front steps of the house. "I don't want them where Alice can get at them."
"Relax, Mel," replied Janice, following her gaze. "They're in a locked strongbox in the cockpit and I have the only key."
"I put the billy on," said Alice as she joined them. "Want me to put out the lemon biscuits Dad sent from Singapore last month? I was saving them for a special occasion."
Janice clapped the teen on the shoulder. "I'm flattered."
Alice beamed with appreciation. "Suppose I could get a look inside the Electra after tea?"
Janice looked sidelong at an ambivalent Mel. "If it's all right with Mel, I don't see why not. Mel?"
Mel directed her gaze at Alice. "You tend to that horse of yours before he drops of the heat and I'll consider it."
Alice clucked her tongue. "No worries, Mel," she said, backpedaling towards the paddock. "Be in to tea in a few minutes."
"She's a good kid," Janice said once Alice was out of earshot.
"She's better than good," Mel replied, steering Janice towards the house. "She's her father's daughter."
Janice winced. "They're pretty close, huh."
"So close there isn't room for me between them," Mel muttered.
Janice sensed that there was real hurt behind the disclosure; she was primed to notice everything. She decided to spare Mel her observations and pushed the hat back on her head, gesturing broadly towards the resting Electra at the same time. There was more than a hint of maternal pride in the entreaty, "Whatta ya think of her?" Mel put her hands on her hips and idly appraised the aircraft. Its nicked and pitted props, balding tires, and worn aluminum fuselage spoke of thousands of hours of wear and tear. "I won it in a poker game a couple of months back." She patted the aluminum skin. "Nice, huh?"
Mel looked sideways at her ex-partner and sighed. "As if your life isn't dangerous enough, Janice Covington, you have to rise up to meet God halfway."
"Mel," quipped Janice, nudging her gently in the ribs, "Believe it or not, standing here next to you is the most dangerous thing I've done in months."
Mel's smile dissolved into a flat line. "Don't do that, Janice."
Mel folded her arms. "Don't be charming," she warned, turning for the house.
Janice shrugged, tossed her jacket over one shoulder and muttered at Mel's retreating form, "Well...shit." She caught up with Mel on the steps. Conjuring up the right note of firm, yet injured dignity, Janice said, "Hold it right there."
Mel froze on the spot, her back to Janice and her hand on the iron door knob. "What?" she inquired, her tone unmistakably hostile.
"Look, sweetheart," Janice began, her voice oozing sarcasm. "I came a long way to see you, the least you can do is pretend you're flattered." She swept the hat from her head and wiped her brow against the back of the same hand. "All I'm asking for is a little civility." She paused before adding, "You owe me that."
Mel didn't argue the point; her downcast eyes held a mixture of guilt and regret. "You're right," she said at last, regarding her guest. "I apologize."
Janice tilted her head slightly, gauging Mel's sincerity. It didn't surprise her that the apology, wrung from a gentle woman under duress, smacked of indifference. Janice didn't care. If it bought her time with Mel, she simply didn't care.
The screen door opened with a protesting screech as Mel preceded Janice into the house, flicking a wall switch as she entered. A fan mounted on one of the exposed beams in the ceiling began stirring the warm air around. "Won't take long for it to cool down in here," Mel said as she pulled the scarf from her head and shook out her long raven tresses.
Janice made a noise of assent deep in her throat and gave the spacious room a glance. It oozed masculinity, she thought to herself; lined with bookcases bursting with dusty volumes and trophy heads mounted on the dark paneled walls. Dead center of the room, facing a rather imposing stone fireplace, was a worn leather sofa, hand-made brocade pillows at each end, the only perceptible evidence of a feminine presence in the house. "Nice room," she said at last, fanning herself with her fedora.
"It's a tomb," replied Mel with a shrug. "I feel right at home. Speakin' of tombs, how's the dig progressing? Finding anything of interest?"
"Oh, the usual...cave paintings, pottery, burial sites...Kakadu boasts some of the earliest tropical settlements, but there's nothing as noteworthy as the Scrolls there, trust me. The whole site has a vague picked over' feeling...like someone's been there before me and removed all the really fascinating bits."
Mel quipped, "I swear I haven't left this station in a month." She playfully crossed her heart for emphasis.
"Don't you miss it? The work?"
"What?" Mel countered, plumping one of the brocade pillows. "Miss grubbin' about in the dirt? Hardly." She used her scarf to pat her glistening face. "I put that life behind me for good."
Janice thought Mel's last claim lacked sincerity which both saddened and pleased her. "Well, if everything goes according to schedule, we should be wrapping things up by the end of the month, before the monsoon season."
"And then where will you go?" Mel asked, feigning nonchalance.
Janice shrugged. "Don't know really...have several interesting offers."
"Interesting meaning risky."
"Some more than others," Janice replied succinctly. Any further discussion on the matter was lost in the demanding whistle of a tea kettle. Janice followed Mel into the kitchen, which was easily the largest residential kitchen Janice had ever seen. It was dominated by an enormous oven and fireplace. Spacious cupboards with screen doors displayed shelves of canned goods and the room held the tantalizing odor of seasoned meat. "Something smells good."
Mel turned down the fire under the kettle and cracked the oven door to study its contents. "Braised veal paprika."
"She cooks, too," Janice said with a wink.
"My mother insisted." Mel turned to the tea service Alice had prepared. "How do you take your tea?" she asked filling a china cup from the kettle.
"Black, two sugars. Speaking of which, she wants you to call her."
"You saw my mother? Is she all right?"
"She's fine, worried about you." Janice rested her hands on the table top and leaned forward. "We both were. I cut a swath through Europe looking for you...Athens, Singapore, Beijing, Sydney...that's the path of a woman trying hard not to be found."
"Exactly," Mel quipped, propelling the cup and saucer across the table with her fingertips. "Why are you here, Janice?"
"Two reasons." Janice grabbed Mel's wrist as it neared her, spilling tea into the saucer. "You left me high and dry in Athens," she began with infinite patience. "I think I deserve an explanation."
Mel locked eyes with Janice; momentarily, her hand was her own again. "I thought I made things perfectly clear in my note," she said, absently rubbing the tender skin of her wrist.
Janice checked a molar with her tongue. "Oh, yeah...the infamous note."
Mel watched in silence as Janice retrieved a slip of paper, folded and re-folded many times over, from the inside breast pocket of her jacket. You kept it.
"Dear Janice...I'm sorry. Mel'." Janice clucked her tongue as she re-folded the note. "Five words scribbled on the back of a grocery receipt...even as Dear John' letters go, it's harsh." She folded her jacket deliberately and lay it over the back of a chair. When she looked up at Mel again, her eyes were level and serious. "Why, Mel?"
Mel's mouth twitched as she brought the cup to her lips. "Why?" she repeated pensively, looking out over the gently undulating brown liquid.
Janice folded her arms and settled her weight on one hip. "Why did you just walk out on me? Wasn't it good between us?"
"You know it was," Mel retorted, laying the cup down without sipping from it. "But... we don't...fit, Janice."
"We fit, Mel...we fit like spoons!"
Mel waved her hand dismissively. "I'm not talkin' about that. That was always fine."
Janice couldn't keep the smile from her face as her partner blushed the most endearing shade of crimson. "That has a name, Mel."
Janice leaned forward slightly and bounced on the balls of her feet. "It's called sex. It's a word. Look it up."
"Shhh," admonished Mel, looking around for Alice. At last, her mesmerizing blue eyes fell on Janice who returned the gaze with unspoken urgency. "I never meant to hurt you, Janice."
Janice softened at the confession. "Okay."
"I don't know...maybe it was fear," Mel admitted in a whisper.
Stunned, Janice murmured, "You were afraid of me?"
Mel was quick to soothe her. "Not in the classic sense, no. You have to understand, Janice. Everything I ever had that was good in my life eventually turned on me...my father... my career in archeology..."
"Hey, now, that's unfair. The book-"
Mel silenced her with a look. "It's not about the book. You were never anything but generous and ethical when it came to our professional partnership. To use your phrase, I submarined myself in that arena."
"It's not too late, Mel," Janice said. "I hear professionals over 25 make brilliant comebacks all the time."
Mel laughed in spite of herself. "Stop being so accommodatin', will you?"
Janice approached Mel and captured her trembling hands in her own; she didn't fail to notice that Mel's manicure had succumbed to the elements. "Right now...the truth... tell me."
Mel inhaled sharply. "We burned white hot...for 35 days." She smiled sadly at the memory. "We burned so hot so fast...anything that burns that brightly has a short life. I just knew it wouldn't last...that one morning I would wake up, and you'd be gone."
"So leaving me was a pre-emptive strike," Janice concluded as she released Mel's hands. She was silent as she walked the length of the room. At the sink, she turned, "You must think I fall in love every day."
Mel's resolve faltered at the sight of Janice's wounded countenance. "I only know that I don't."
"Who do you think you are? Some damned oracle?" Janice charged across the room until she was standing toe to toe with the other woman. "You want to know what's on my mind, what my plans are - you ask me. It's that simple. All I can tell you is that I will be there. As long as my life is in my own hands, I will be there. Trust me." Softening, she cupped Mel's face in her hands. "Can you...trust me, Mel?"
"Ahem..." Alice cleared her throat and wriggled her fingers, her polite smile withering under the gaze of two pairs of accusing eyes. "I'm sorry to interrupt." She shuffled. "Should I pretend I didn't hear any of that?"
Mel replied with an unequivocal, "Yes, please," and moved to the sink to busy herself with the dishes stacked there while Janice feigned interest in her tea. "Did you tend to the horse?"
Alice crossed in front of Janice and reached for the icebox door. "Cooled down, rubbed down, watered and fed. Can I have some lemon squeeze?" she asked, even as her fingers closed over the fluted handle on the pitcher.
"Have water," Mel replied as she filled a freshly-washed glass from the tap. "It's better for you."
Alice chose not to argue the point; there was enough tension in the room. She took the glass offered her and between gulps asked, "When's supper?"
"Not for another hour at least," Mel replied, turning to face them while drying her hands on a dish towel. "It'll be worth the wait, I promise."
"Are you staying to supper, Janice?" Alice asked hopefully.
Janice hesitated, took a pull of the tepid tea and frowned at Mel. "I haven't been asked."
Mel recognized the thinly-veiled dare. When Alice's gaze swung to her, she was quick to respond.
"Apparently I've committed just the worst social faux pas by not inviting you to supper in the first ten minutes of conversation."
Janice gave a small nod. "Forgiven."
"Would you like to stay for supper? There's really too much for just two people..." Anticipating Janice's response, Mel folded the dish towel in a square, disguising her emotions behind a veneer of polite indifference.
"I thought you'd never ask," replied Janice, grateful that the emotional tide seemed to be going out at last. "It'll be a nice change...not to have to catch my dinner."
"Guest does the supper dishes, right, Mel?" Alice interjected looking sideways at Mel.
Mel nodded. "Right. House rules," she explained to Janice. "The guest shows his or her appreciation by helping with the dishes."
"Oh. No problem," replied Janice, displaying her hands. "These hands could stand some soap and water. As a matter of fact," she took a delicate whiff and wrinkled her nose. "The whole body's in need of a bath."
Mel leaned into Janice. "I'm so glad you said it first."
Janice began backpedaling from the kitchen. "My bag's in the plane. Back in a jiff."
DISCLAIMER: Please be advised that there is at least one instance of foul language in the foregoing text.
"Idiot. I am a complete idiot," Janice muttered as she rummaged through the items in her satchel. "She doesn't want me here. A blind man could see that, but do I take the hint? No. Glutton for punishment..." She slung a clean pair of slacks over the back of the co-pilot's seat, and moved the other garments in the bag from one side to the other in growing frustration. "Damn...how could I pack one and not the other? Maybe I can get by with this one..." She lifted one arm and took a judicious whiff. "...aaaaannnd maybe not. Come on, God..." she said, turning her eyes skyward; heaven was a grid of plates and rivets. "Give a girl a break." She sighed, balled up the slacks and stuffed them back into the satchel. In doing so, her fingers closed around a familiar cylinder - hand rolled, Cuban. "Ahhh," she sighed, closing her eyes briefly. "Someone up there likes me." She passed the cigar under her nose, savoring its aroma. "Mel hates cigars," she murmured aloud. "What the hell. It's my body," she proclaimed, putting the cigar between her teeth. She groped about in the satchel; coming up empty, she patted her trouser pockets, turning up a single match, precious as gold. "You little bewdy," she crooned in the vernacular. She bit the tip of the cigar, spat it over her shoulder and struck the match on the overhead. It flared to life on the first pass, seasoning the sweltering cockpit air with the tang of sulphur. As she touched the match to the tip of her cigar, she heard the clatter of boots on the Electra's wing and lowered the cigar and match quickly, one to each side of her body as she peered out the cockpit's windscreen. She could see Mel returning her scrutiny from her place on the verandah - hands backwards on her hips, fingers splayed down her backside.
"Huh? Oh, shit!" Janice yelped, dropping the match to the floor. Fire bad! She tucked her fingers between her teeth and looked up; Alice was leaning into the open hatch. "Oh, hiya, kid." She pinched the singed end of the cigar and dropped it into the breast pocket of her shirt. "Need something?"
Alice fit her reply in between roaming glances of the Electra's cockpit. "Uh...no...I was just wondering if you needed anything. Lotta room in there...our Cessna's a cracker box."
Janice scratched behind one ear, correctly interpreting Alice's expression of unadulterated curiosity; it was almost indecent. Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she rocked on her neatly shod heels. "Does Mel know you're here?"
Alice favored her with an innocent grin. "It was her idea. She told me to tell you she's running you a hot bath and not to fritter about or...what was it? Oh, yeah, not to dawdle."
Fritter? Dawdle? A chink in the armor; Mel often fell back on the comforting rhythms and expressions of her homespun vernacular when excited or stressed. Janice was secretly delighted to know that her presence still had such an effect. Just for that, let the frittering begin! "Well, kid, what she doesn't know is that I'd prefer a cold bath!" Gesturing with a sweep of her arm, she said, "Welcome aboard."
"You mean it?" Alice hauled herself up and spun about on her seat until her legs were dangling through the hatch; she felt Janice's strong hands at her hips, bearing her safely to the cockpit floor. "Strewth," the teen crooned, awestruck. Her fingers brushed the dials above the navigator's chair, swept the length of another instrument panel. "Just think: Miss Amelia Earhart piloted a plane like this one. Fred Noonan would've sat here..."
"More likely he'd be here...next to Amelia," corrected Janice, putting her hand on the back of the co-pilot's seat. "Where he could look out the windscreen and see the stars and the horizon." Alice merely nodded, her mouth agape. "Go on...have a seat."
"You mean it?" Without further prodding, Alice slipped into the warm leather chair, her hands poised inches from the static wheel before her. At Janice's urging, she wrapped her fingers around it with something akin to reverence. "It's so heavy," she said, making a concerted effort to cut the wheel 45 degrees. "Like it's mired in treacle."
"This ain't no Cessna, sweetheart," replied Janice, sliding into the pilot's seat. "We're talking about 17,000 pounds of state-of-the-art aircraft. Amelia knew her planes, but she wasn't the best of pilots." Alice raised her head, stricken. Janice felt compelled to temper her slanderous disclosure with, "Bar room scuttlebutt, kid. I shouldn't have repeated it."
Alice was grateful that Janice cared enough to explain, refreshing in a household where the adult word was law and she was expected to smile and accept, and never to question authority. She turned back towards the instrument panel, comfortable in the knowledge that she was in the presence of someone who viewed her as an equal, and not just a child. Sweat beaded her upper lip as her gaze ranged over the array of gauges and dials within arm's reach; the brake pedals in the floor were a stretch, but she could reach both throttle and flaps with ease. "How fast does she go? A hundred?"
"She cruises comfortably at ninety, but I've had her as high as 170." The teen whistled appreciatively while Janice neglected to mention that the latter speed had been achieved in an uncontrolled power dive in the midst of heavy turbulence. She regretted the omission, but only as long as it took Alice to broach the topic of taking the Electra aloft. "I think the heat's gotten to you, sweetie," Janice said with a smile. She stood, reaching for Alice's arm. "Come on, up with you."
Unconsciously, Alice's hands closed firmly over the wheel. "Give me one good reason."
"I can give you a dozen, the most persuasive being that Mel would have my head and other pertinent body parts if your altitude exceeded eleven feet while in my presence."
Alice made noises of discontent, arguing with a child's logic that wasn't so much persuasive as it was pitiful. "You don't know that for certain. If you approach her the right way, take the right tack, she'll be a sport. Come on, Janice. This may be my one and only opportunity to fly an Electra."
Janice snorted disbelief. "You've gone from riding to flying!"
"I've logged over a hundred hours in our Cessna, and I learn really fast...it's not like I'd be going up alone..." Alice's formerly pleasant voice was now one notch from annoying, but to her credit, she recognized the potentially devastating effects of long-term whining. The last thing she wanted to do was alienate her new friend. Reigning in her enthusiasm, she appeared genuinely contrite as she focused on the artificial horizon. In time, she heard Janice reclaim her seat; it was a wordless demand for an apology. Licking her lips, tasting salt, she said, "I just get carried away when it comes to flying. My mum says I'm too young to feel truly passionate about anything, but I feel passionate about flying."
Janice was struck by the sincerity in Alice's voice. As her eyes lighted on the vacant doorway of the house, she knew that she and Alice had passion in common.
Standing in the large master bath clad only in a camisole and panties, Mel swept a scented wash cloth over her arms and neck, inhaling deeply as the exotic fragrance of lilies and sweet sage rose from her chest. Toujours Moi. A gift from her lover, purchased in haste from a street peddler in Athens, expensive at forty American dollars an ounce. In a very short time it had become her signature scent. She'd rarely dressed without first daubing a bit at the hollow of her throat, or between her breasts, until the day four months later she had discovered it open and half evaporated on the window sill, a casualty of the merciless outback heat. After that, she used it sparingly, or not at all. Emptying the last few precious drops into the pool of cool water in the sink, she soaked the cloth, letting her hands linger a moment while her gaze traveled to the cracked mirror above the vanity.
"Look at you," she said. Her voice sounded strange to her and she couldn't help but look around the room before returning to the scrutiny of her reflection. She hadn't been in a salon in two months, the length of her stay at Coolinga Station. Jack had taken the only car for the long trip to Sydney for his induction. So, here she stood, in the middle of the outback, without the amenities large cities could provide. Looking at her short, blunt nails in the water reminded her how much she missed the little luxuries: a manicure, a facial. Her formerly alabaster skin was lightly tanned, the blue eyes some said were her best feature were naked, devoid of mascara or liner. Her raven hair was long...too long to wear in her trademark chignon, and so it hung loosely down her back...the way Janice liked it. Mel smiled, wringing out the cloth. Oh, if her genteel Southern mother could only see her now...she'd have apoplexy, she thought wryly.
She made one final pass down and under each arm with the cloth before pitching it into the hamper beneath the medicine cabinet. Before leaving the bath, she took a moment to place a new cake of soap atop the towel draped over the side of a claw foot bathtub. She could no longer see steam rising from the water's surface and without thrusting so much as a finger into its depths, she knew it was tepid, on its way to cool. "Serves her right..." she murmured as she moved through the alcove into the bedroom. A gray A-line skirt and simple print blouse had been laid out atop the faded bedspread. Both needed pressing but they were clean. She dressed without thinking, slipping on a pair of black pumps, one of only two pairs of street shoes she'd brought with her. She turned, facing the full-length mirror on the back of the door, smoothing the lines of the skirt with her hands. She looked at her face in frank appraisal and thought she just might join her mother in apoplexy.
* * * * * * * * * *
"So, Alice, what're your hobbies? Apart from flying, that is...more throttle... more... we're running out of track...good...now, pull back on the wheel...gently, don't yank on it. That's it. You've got the touch, kid. God, I love that feeling, don't you? The wings growing fat with lift...the way you feel that little drop in the pit of your stomach when the wheels leave the track...pull back just a hair or you're gonna take the tops off those trees." Alice responded accordingly, pulling the wheel back towards her chest. Janice watched her face intently and conceded the kid had a flyer's instincts. "When you're not flying Electras, what do you like to do?"
"I like school...English especially. Sister Bonaventure says it's one of the reasons my vocabulary is so impressive. I like sketching, too," she said, as if the idea surprised her. "No shortage of subjects out here," Alice replied, trapping the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth in a display of extreme concentration. Reaching above her head, she brought the flaps up another notch without being told; looking at Janice was an afterthought.
Janice conveyed approval with a subtle nod, although her mind was clearly elsewhere. "You ever sketch Mel?"
Alice never took her eyes off the horizon. "I don't do people." Her left hand drifted down to an instrument box anchored to the floor between the seats. "Throttle?"
"Listen for it. She'll let you know if you need more throttle...there'll be this little keening whine...let her climb at her own rate...you don't rush a lady." She reached across the aisle and patted Alice's arm. "You're a natural, kid. Okay, when we reach two thousand feet..." she tapped one of the round gauges with her finger. "...watch this gauge...when that needle hits two-oh, level off and make your cruising speed eighty knots."
"Eighty knots. Check." Alice blew a soothing breath out between her lips and looked sideways at the altimeter.
"You like Mel, don't you?" Janice persisted.
Alice shrugged, grateful for the relief it brought her aching shoulders. "She's all right, I guess. Two thousand on the nose..." She brought the wheel forward slightly, until the artificial horizon reflected level flight. "I've learnt not to become too attached to them...Dad's girlfriends, I mean. They don't seem to stick around very long."
Janice thought the girl's voice sounded distinctly, and prematurely, cynical. "Mel hasn't said anything about leaving, has she?" She took note of the girl's white knuckles. "Loosen up on the wheel..grip it like an egg."
Alice flexed her fingers briefly, her palms seated lightly against the surface of the wheel. "No, she hasn't said anything, but I don't think it'll be long."
Janice's brow furrowed. "What makes you say that?"
"Just a feeling. Sometimes she seems...I dunno... unhappy. I think she misses her old life."
"Her old life..." Janice's heart thumped in her chest; she was sure its deafening beat was reverberating off the walls of the cockpit, but Alice ears were primed only for the voice of the Electra. "Okay, apply the left rudder...gently...and make a wide turn to the right...that's it. Take your time. You've got plenty of sky. What makes you think she misses her old life? Has she said anything?"
Alice eased off the rudder pedal, her face slick with perspiration. When she had once again achieved level flight, she chanced a sidelong look at her companion and wondered just how much she should divulge. What were her perceptions and opinions to Janice if the only thing she had to back them was a feeling, an instinct. Although, Janice was a pilot, and A good pilot,' her father had once said, keeps close company with instinct.' Alice decided to take the risk; the odds seemed in her favor. "She hasn't said so...not in so many words..." Following Janice's orders to throttle down a notch and look for Coolinga's track, she once again turned her studious brown eyes to the world outside the windscreen, a wide brown scene painted in a neat oblong frame. Comfortable with her newly-acquired flight skills and thrilled at her instructor's seemingly nonchalant manner, Alice felt compelled to clarify her earlier statement. "She never said anything to me, but I could tell when the university contacted her in September that she was interested. That if Dad hadn't pressed her to give it up, she'd have been at Kakadu." Alice frowned, slightly uncomfortable with having voiced her father's shortcomings to a stranger. "Dad thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen, not on the dig."
"Philistine," grumbled Janice under her breath. She looked at Alice, who appeared not to have heard. "Okay...got the windsock in sight?"
Alice squinted at the horizon. "Yes, it's just over there..." She raised an index finger as a gesture of clarity and adjusted the craft's flight path accordingly, turning the wheel forty degrees while sparing the altimeter and speed indicator a glance. "Eighty knots...isn't that too fast?"
"You might cut the throttle back...just a hair...you don't wanna stall." Janice leaned back in her chair, lacing her fingers across her middle, affecting an air of nonchalance. "So, other than that one disagreement about the Kakadu dig, you think Mel and your dad get along okay."
Alice's fingers grazed the flaps control above her head, her lips moving soundlessly for a moment before giving voice to her thoughts. "Promise this is just between you and me?"
Janice drew a cross over her heart and held up her hand. "Word of honor...whatever you tell me doesn't leave this cockpit."
Alice nodded; it seemed like an oath she could live with. "I don't think she and Dad have...you
"Done it," Janice repeated before realization dawned. "Oh. It." She shifted in her seat and peeled the shirt away from her skin; the air inside the small cockpit was rank and close.
Alice could sense Janice's discomfort. Sex, in general, was a source of curiosity for any healthy teen. Sex, or the lack of it beneath her own roof was sufficient cause for speculation. Thumbing the flaps to half, she ventured, "You like her, don't you?"
Janice was unprepared for a frontal assault. "Mel? Of course I do."
"No, I mean...you like her. You love her."
Janice blew warm breath slowly past her lips. "You know what, kiddo...it's none of your business."
At the same moment Alice realized she had overstepped her bounds, the dusty red-track runway gained definition, rushing towards the nose of the Electra at breakneck speed. She twisted the wheel in her slick hands, her voice vaguely urgent. "Janice...should I cut the throttle or pull back on the wheel at this point?"
"At this point?" Janice gazed mildly out the windscreen and reached for the cigar in her breast pocket. "This is where you crash and burn, sweetheart."
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