Jill’s brain told her she’d escaped Shelob’s lair, whatever that was. She had no memory of the year and a half spent in what the doctors called trauma induced ambulatory catatonia. One day her brain resumed receiving signals from the rest of her body. That was it. The vague sense of something missing was like a disappearing echo in her head. The thirty-six years of her life before the accident were a black void punctuated by jagged flashes of recollection.
Jill lifted her kayak onto the roof of her Land Rover. Her duffel of climbing gear went into the cargo area next to the camping gear. She took off the orange down vest. Soon the sun would pop up over the rocky bluff behind the house and temper the Colorado early fall chill. Her hiking shorts, tank top and unbuttoned denim shirt would be good for the rest of the day.
“Coffee?” Marcus stepped out from the garage and handed Jill a mug. It had a silhouette of a woman suspended from an overhang with the words I’D RATHER BE CLIMBING.
“Thanks. Almost packed.”
They clinked mugs. Marcus said, “I hate to see you go.”
“Yeah. It’s been a lovely year. I’m still not that good, but at least I’m fit now.” They finished their coffee in comfortable silence. Jill put some last-minute things in the car and faced her mentor. Her breath rose as she exhaled.
“Well, I guess this is it. Tell Megan I’m sorry I missed her, and congratulations to both of you on the granddaughter.”
They hugged. Even at five-foot-seven, Jill had to go up on her toes to give Marcus a soft kiss on the cheek. Gravel crunched under her tires, and Marcus waved in her side mirror. She navigated down the mountain to Durango and turned north. Mexican restaurants and weed dispensaries gave way to the lush Animus River valley. Pine dotted rocky slopes standing guard on both sides morphed into thick forests as she climbed up to the Engineer Mountain trailhead. She tied her boot laces, redid her long auburn ponytail, checked her water bottle, and headed up. She savored the fresh pine smell of the forest. An hour in she took a seat on a fallen tree trunk, sipped water, and let some bikers by. A fish broke the surface of a lake some yards off the trail. Another peaceful hour with stops to look at interesting moss formations or a quirky bent tree landed her in a grassy meadow. The rising sun lent an orange tint to the bare, gray rock pinnacle that jutted like a giant tooth above the tree line. She’d been to the peak, but that wasn’t her goal today. She sat on a rock and drank in the view.
“My friend, I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but I surely will.”
Back at her car, she took a sandwich from a travel cooler, poured tea from a thermos, and sat on a rock. She pulled out her phone and read the text message that made it ding four months before. Jill knew it by heart but had never answered it. She put her phone down, ate some sandwich and sipped tea. Picked the phone up. Put it back down.
The hinges on her bedroom door cried. Bridgette stood still, not daring to breathe. She waited. Her father’s snores fractured the darkness. She hoped he was too far gone to come to her room. He was an angry drunk. Angry he was laid off at the pill factory. Drunk because he was angry. Bridgette took his abuse to deflect him from her baby sister. Her grandfather, who had emigrated from Germany to work in the Puerto Rican pharmaceutical plants, would have beaten the shit out of his no-account son. But he was long gone, as was her mother.
Her long legs made slow progress, being more suited for strutting down a runway than running on a sidewalk. She was out of breath by the time she made it to the meeting place. The BMW’s lights flickered. She got in. The driver was a woman, pretty, with long black hair.
“Bridgette?” Her voice was soft and steady.
“Yeah. That’s me.”
“My name is Gloria. I’m glad you called. Did you bring the portfolio?”
Bridgette handed over a brown folder. “I couldn’t afford a professional photographer. A friend with a camera took these.”
“They are quite good.” Gloria turned in her seat. “Now tell me, what are your goals?”
“I want to be a model. And to get my sister and me away from my father.”
“Does he abuse you?”
Bridgette stared at the hands in her lap. A drop shattered on her palm.
Gloria said, “And your sister?”
Bridgette shook her head. “She’s only twelve. It’s all I can do to deflect him.”
Gloria touched her shoulder. “You have the right body and your face, well there’s something exotic about it that photographers will love.”
“My friend says the same thing. I guess it’s because my dad is German and mom was Puerto Rican.”
“She died two years ago. They ruled it an accident, but I never believed it. She’d been fighting with him about his night visits to my bedroom.”
“I may be able to help you, Bridgette. I assume you’d have no problem leaving home.”
Bridgette laughed. “Are you kidding? As long as my sister comes with me.”
“Excellent. You will need some training. It will be hard work, but in a few months, you should be ready to audition. How does that sound?”
“Like a miracle.”
“Perfect. I’ll be in touch soon. We need to work out the details and plan your extraction.”
“We don’t want problems with your father.”
Bridgette snuck back in. She looked in on Else and slipped into her bedroom. For the first time since her mother died, she had hope. All she had to do was wait a few weeks. She lay back and smiled in the dark.
The hinges on her bedroom door cried.
Gloria had her phone on hands free.
“This one definitely goes on the market. Look at her, and she’s barely sixteen. There’ll be a bidding war.”
“What about the little sister?”
Gloria shook her head. “She’s too young. We’ve had this discussion. I won’t do it.”
“Ah, yes. We all have our red lines.”
“Except you, my dear.”
“What if we made them a package deal? Then they won’t be separated. Would that conform to your sensibilities?”
Gloria frowned. “I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Anyway, I’m going to pick them both up. I won’t leave the little one alone with the dad. She’ll be better off with a conventional adoption.”
“Very well. We’ll table the decision for now. What’s your plan?”
“We’ll get them while the dad is out drinking.”
“Will he be a problem?”
“Not for long.”
Jill stared at her phone. “This is stupid.” She dialed a different number. “Anne. Hi.”
“Well hello stranger.”
The phone vibrated in Jill’s hand. “Is this a bad time?”
“I haven’t had my coffee yet, but other than that. What’s up?”
“I’m all packed up.”
“Good for you. I think it’s the right choice for you to settle things with Jack, even if it doesn’t work out.”
She shuddered at the memory of that day. The day they had discharged her and had expected her to restart a relationship with an ex-husband whom she barely remembered loving. The day she fled in a panic. Jack was the only person she saw before she left. The image had haunted her for the last year. Jack’s shoulders slumped, his face a living pain as she crushed his hopes.
“Don’t wait for me, Jack,” she’d said. “I don’t know what’s ahead for me or if I will ever come back. I just know I can’t do this now.”
Jill fled west and didn’t stop crying until she crossed the New Mexico border. She didn’t stop actively hating herself until she summited her first rock face. And now, the year Jack had given her was up in four days.
“Jill? Are you still with me?” Anne’s voice startled her.
“Yeah. Sorry.” She coughed. “What if he’s moved on? I wouldn’t blame him for hating me.”
“Bloody fine time to rethink the last year of free phone therapy. Why don’t you just call him?”
“Yeah right. ‘Hi Jack, this is your ex-wife, you know, the one who checked out and left you to deal with our daughter’s death? It’s been a year since we talked, but I was wondering if you’d like to hang out, maybe get back together.’ Solid plan that.”
“I see your point. How about Mason? You’ve said you don’t trust her. But think about it. She’s the one who took over the trust that funded your care, moved you to Florida, and got you world class specialists. Me, for example. Why would she do that if she had designs on Jack?”
“But what if that’s changed? It’s been a year and I haven’t communicated with either of them. Although Mason sent a text about four months ago offering me a job.”
“Oh really. Now that’s interesting.”
“Yeah, so maybe she’s trying to preempt me with this job offer.”
“All the more reason to call her. If she tells you to stay away from her man, then you can unpack your shit and go back to climbing rocks. Or take the job, whatever it is.”
“I don’t know. I feel so guilty.”
“We’re not going back there, Jill. You can’t blame yourself for going catatonic. That wasn’t a conscious decision. You were just as much a victim as Jack and Jessica.”
Jill picked up a rock and threw it down the bank behind the parking lot. “I know. It’s not that. When you finally let Jack see me, it was obvious he was still in love with me. My head was so fucked up I didn’t know what I felt, except I had to get away.”
“Well, you certainly did a first-class runner. I call to set up our first appointment after your discharge and you’re halfway to Colorado. I thought, well, there goes some pretty good work.”
Jill sipped her tea. “We loved each other once. I just don’t know if there’s anything left.” Or if I am worth loving.
“An unasked question has no answer.” Anne chuckled. “And that’s your free Moment of Zen for the day.”
Jill’s brain stuttered. Was that a reference she was supposed to get? She let it go.
“A few months ago, I heard him calling me. I had just summited a climb I hadn’t been able to complete before. The air was cold and clear, and I had that exhausted exhilaration one gets. I know it sounds crazy, but I heard his voice calling me. Do you think it was my subconscious telling me there was something unfinished between us.”
“That’s a possibility.”
“Who knows? I’m more centered now. Maybe it will work.”
“That’s my girl. My advice, call Mason and get a read on her and Jack. If the door is still open, go for it. And Jill, don’t forget our work on letting go. It’s important.”
“OK I will. And thanks Anne. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Call me when you get down this way. We should have a few real sessions. At least I can bill for those.”
Jill laughed, rang off, and set the phone down. She reached, then jerked her hand away like the phone was an angry diamondback. She stood, paced around the gravel parking lot. Two cyclists puffed up the highway in low gear.
“This is bullshit.” She dialed.
“Jill. Oh my God. How are you? Where are you?”
“Hello Mason. I’m fine. Um, I’m in Colorado.”
“Did you get the text?”
“Yeah, well um, I was wondering about the job. Is it still open?”
“Of course. Are you interested?”
Jill’s brain tumbled. Am I? She should’ve thought this through.
“Maybe. Can you tell me some more, you know, like what you have in mind?”
“Sure. My business is finding and developing art talent. I saw your work at Jack’s. What a shame to lose it when the house burned down. You’ve got talent in spades, girl. My philosophy is it takes talent to recognize and develop it, so you’re perfect.”
Her brain tripped on a rock named Jack.
“Jill? Still there?”
“Yes. Sorry. I..I don’t paint anymore. I tried a few times, but I think… I’m afraid it’s gone.”
“The talent is there and I’m sure it will come back to you. But you don’t need to paint, just see that spark in others and help them grow. Does this interest you?”
Jill thought about it. The part of her memory that was the clearest was living alone and painting in the Adirondacks. She missed that which had captured her soul, defined her before Jack, and.. well before. Could she go back into that world as an observer? Maybe this would be the path to painting again.
“Yes, I think I am.”
“Outstanding. What are your plans?”
“I’m leaving Durango today, driving. It’ll take a few days. I can call you when I get to the Panhandle. Um, where, you know, where would I be based?”
“Didn’t I put that in the text? Sorry. I want you to develop the Caribbean. We’ll start in Puerto Rico. I have an associate there, but she’s limited as she runs her own gallery. I need a full-time agent. Some very promising talent has fallen off the radar. Gabby just hasn’t the wherewithal to follow up.”
Jill frowned. She fantasized it would be Switzerland or maybe Chile, some place with mountains and rivers. Not a goddam tropical island. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can live on a beach. I need to be in the mountains.”
“The mountains in Puerto Rico are only slightly lower than the Adirondacks. And much of your work will be up in the center of the island, the highest part.”
“Oh well, that may not be a deal killer then. I’ll look it up.”
“Great, so I’ll listen for your call in a few days.”
“Yeah. Sure. Um, Mason?”
“Yes? Something else?”
“Um..h..how is Jack?”
“He’s ok. Pretty much recovered from the gunshot. Are you going to see him?”
Gunshot? “Yeah. I am. The year’s up.”
“Ah. That’s right. I’m glad.” Was she?
“Mason. Um.. please don’t tell Jack I’m coming. I want it to be a surprise.”
“Of course. Jill? You sound a little uncertain. Are leaving room to change your mind?”
“N..no. I’m.. well um.. Yeah, I’m gonna see him. I mean, un..unless he’s moved on.
“He hasn’t moved on from anything, Jill. This has been a rough year for him, and I wouldn’t want to see him hurt again.”
“I won’t let that happen, no matter what.”
“Ok then. Can’t wait for you to get here. So excited about us maybe working together.”
“Well, I guess I’d better get on the road.
By the time the woman made it to her usual table by the window, Stellaris was already heading toward it, her service tray loaded with a mug of coffee and a blueberry muffin. The woman smiled.
“Gracias, chica. Have you something new to show me today?”
Stellaris plucked a portfolio from the opposite chair. “Si signora. I think you’ll like them.” She moved away to check on another table. When she returned, the woman had two watercolors out.
“These are very good. You’ve made amazing progress over the last several months. Have you thought about formal training?”
Stellaris frowned. “No ma’am. I don’t think that’s possible. We barely get by now on what I make. I couldn’t paint at all without the supplies you give me. Besides, if I went off to school, who would take care of my little brother?”
“Ah yes. And how is little Adaberto? He’s what, thirteen?”
“Fourteen.” Stellaris smiled. “He’s a handful, too much for my aunt.”
The woman put the paintings back in the portfolio. She stood and placed two twenties on the table. “I know someone who can help you. What time does your shift end?”
“I have a double today, and I pick up Adaberto at school and take him to soccer. Then I have to cook supper and help with homework.”
“So much for an eighteen-year-old to handle.”
“I don’t mind. I love my brother. He needs stability after our parents died, and my aunt can barely take care of herself. Once he gets older, maybe there will be some time for myself. I just wish I could paint more.”
“Beautiful and talented girl like you deserves a better life. I’m going to talk to my friend. Can we meet tomorrow?”
“I’m off at eleven. I can walk down to the Plaza.”
The temperature in the mountains was ten degrees cooler than the Puerto Rican coast. The walk from the restaurant to the plaza was pleasant enough, although Stellaris barely noticed. Her mind was doing its best to not hope that just maybe she was about to get a break. She had changed out of her frumpy uniform, but still her ragged jeans and turquoise blouse embarrassed her. With her current lifestyle, there seemed little point in spending money on clothes for herself when Adaberto needed soccer shoes.
The woman stood up from the wooden bench and hugged her.
“I brought sandwiches.” Stellaris set a paper bag on the bench between them.
“That’s so sweet of you, but you shouldn’t have.”
“It’s ok. My boss comped them.”
They moved to one of the stone and plaster gazebos and sat with a small wrought-iron table between them. Stellaris lifted a sandwich out of the bag. “I got egg salad. Figured that was safe enough.”
The woman smiled and pushed her long black hair behind her ears. “How long have we known each other?”
Stellaris stared. “Not long enough for me to know whether you eat meat. Or your name.”
The woman laughed. “Oh my. You’ve been serving me for six months and I’ve never introduced myself?”
“No ma’am. Or ordered anything but coffee and muffins.”
“Well, let’s fix that.” She held out her hand. “Gloria. Nice to meet you. I would have equally enjoyed a Cubano.”
The two women shook hands and ate in silence. Gloria set her sandwich down.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Stellaris made a tight-lipped frown. “Hardly. I hope this is not a problem for you, but I’ve known since I was little that I prefer girls.”
Stellaris shook her head. “I’m not out. It’s still too much of a stigma, especially away from the city. I don’t want to do anything to hurt my brother. Anyway, there’s no time for a relationship.”
Gloria said, “I spoke with my friend about you. He thinks he has a way to get you into a residency program. Would that interest you?
“Very much so, but I won’t abandon my brother.”