Out on the gravel a vehicle rasps to a halt. Car door slams. Front door slams. “Lewis, where the hell are you?”
On the deck out back Lewis’ heart thumps. Until yesterday, he hadn’t heard that voice in twenty years.
The screen door creaks and Annie steps into the blue haze of evening.
“Figured you were out here.”
She drags an Adirondack chair towards his and helicopters into it, ever dramatic, blond hair swirling like a pennant above a battlement. There was a time he thought that gleaming mane gave her special powers. He liked the idea, anyway, the way he likes Milton’s Paradise Lost. Long ago he’d decided that God has an imagination. A sense of irony, even. The purpose of sacrifice isn’t always redemption.
“Those red cans are still in your truck.”
“Unless they grew legs.”
“Jesus, Lewis.” Annie taps her fingers on the chair arms. “Twenty years ago you were peaceable to a fault. What changed?”
Lewis thinks of time in chunks, like slabs of ice, or moons, a whole lot moving past at once, then nothing for a while. “Land titles, I suppose.”
He thinks about when they met in graduate school, half-drunk at a wedding reception. People come together in ways that are as inexplicable as random moments of the time-generator clock. There are so many bonds—covalent, ionic, one-electron—on and on.
The love bond.
“You haven’t told me if you saved the world.”
She snorts. Stands and does what he told her to do before she ran away this morning. She looks. He calls it Eden, a Douglas fir forest that spreads down and across the Hunter Valley. Soon everything this side of the river will be gone. The only question is whether it will become a clear-cut field of stumps with ruined soils and polluted creeks courtesy Sunrise Lumber or a landscape of charred timber not worth harvesting.
“Thing about being a hero, Lewis, is tomorrow you’re just yesterday’s news.”
“Wasn’t planning on being a hero.”
“You could use all that gas to drive somewhere new, someplace untouched. Montana. Alaska. Together.”
He stares at her gleaming hair and remembers the silky feel of it. He remembers its smell like the scent of Heaven.
“Who was it once said, ‘sometimes you have to take a stand’?”
“Dammit, Lewis, I’ve been to jail. It wasn’t fun, and for me it was never long.”
Lewis’ breath stops. He thinks of the picture buried in a shoebox, Annie in a blue silk gown, the two of them at a reception for an artist friend. Pretending for an evening they have a place in the everyday world.
Annie sighs. Sits. “What makes us do these things, Lewis?”
Wildflower scents drift on the cooling air. In the forest are deer, squirrels, foxes, chipmunks, bear. Dogwood, huckleberry, buckthorn, foxglove, lilac and rose. “Love, I suppose.”
“Look, I’m going with you. When you’re done you can throw those cans in my van. By morning I’ll be so far gone the hounds of hell won’t be able to find me.”
Lewis smiles. Sarah Bernhardt rides again.
They walk through the penitential dusk to their vehicles. Their hands brush and he spins to take her in his arms when she hands him a slip of paper. “Drop a dime.” She kisses his cheek. “Just don’t wait twenty years.”
Lewis looks at the forest. Wonders if fire really brings renewal or whether paradise can be lost for so long it doesn’t matter.
He knows the maze of jeep trails by heart and doesn’t need to switch on his lights. Follows one downhill half a mile, veers right at a fork and crests a ridge. Guns it across the newly cut logging road. The black silk ribbon of river is nearly in sight before he sees Annie is no longer behind him. Pulls to the side of the road, lifts two fingers and touches the spot on his cheek that is still warm, still the way she left it.