Authors: J. L. Merrow
“Or fallen down a waterfall,” she said with a bite I hadn’t expected.
“Sorry—God, I’m sorry. Ignore me, I just had a bad day. How are you settling in?”
“Fine. Mags—Doctor Kettle, that is—she’s been great. I think we must have been good friends before. She stocked up the flat with food, looked after my car, stored my stuff—”
“Yeah, she seemed really nice.” I waited, but she didn’t say anything more. I suddenly wished I could see her.
“Is everything all right?” I asked. “You’re sounding a bit… I don’t know. Are things at work okay?”
“Yeah, fine…” Her tone was falsely bright. “You’ll think I’m being daft.”
“I…” There was an audible sigh. “I just got used to you being around. That’s all.”
“Scratch…” The childhood nickname usually made her smile. I wasn’t sure it worked this time.
“I just wish you’d stayed with me for the summer. Your term or semester or whatever it is doesn’t start for weeks yet, does it?”
“Only a couple. And besides, I needed to get my bearings. Reconnect. If I’m ever going to get my memory back—”
“Why is that so important? It’s a year out of your life, that’s all. Most of your life’s been in Britain—why not reconnect with that?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything from Britain!”
“And maybe there’s a reason for that. You know what the doctor said—”
“Yes. I know, all right? I’ve got a job here. The institute’s been kind enough to hold the position for me; the least I can do is fulfil my obligations to them. I’ve got friends here too,” I added, not all that truthfully.
I only really had Mags. Viggo? I wasn’t sure which category I should put him in.
“Yeah? Where were they when you were in hospital, then?”
“Well, they were several hundred miles of Atlantic Ocean away, for a start. Scratch, you know you’re saying all this too late. I’m here now.”
“I know. Just look after yourself. Please? I know I’m not Mum, but I worry about you.”
“You’ve been a great mum,” I told her, feeling a warm rush of fondness for her, mingled with a touch of guilt. I’d thrown that accusation at her several times during a troubled, newly orphaned late adolescence. Despite being two years younger, she’d always been the mature one, not me. “But I’m all grown up now, okay? I’ll be fine.”
“Told you you’d think I was being daft, didn’t I?” she said, her voice small. I could picture her twisted smile, imagine her wrapping slim arms around her knees and pulling them up to her chest.
“You’re not being daft. Well, not any dafter than usual—”
“Ha-ha. At least I’ve never run out of a chemist’s without buying anything just because I bumped into a teacher I had a crush on.”
“Hey, I was only seventeen. And I’d have been fine if I’d gone in for a toothbrush. I just didn’t want him seeing me buying condoms.”
“You were eighteen, actually.” As I’d hoped, Gretchen’s mood seemed to lighten with my teasing. We chatted awhile longer, about the flat and our respective jobs—even that old standby, the weather—but when I yawned, she insisted on hanging up. She left me with a slightly unsettling, “You know you can come back any time, don’t you?”
It made me wonder how I’d been on the phone with her when I’d been here before.
Didn’t she think I could be happy here?
The next day, I surrendered to the inevitable and found myself driving out to Geysir, Alex by my side. I might not be delighted by the company, but I had to admit my office—and my work—had seemed stuffier than usual after my trip on the river and its unsettling aftermath. Getting out again would do me good.
I took the main road, the Sudurlandsvegur, for no other reason than that I’d taken the more direct route to the Hvita riverjet the previous day and fancied a change of scene. It took us past the small town of Hveragerdi, where hot springs bubbled close to the surface, surrounding us with vents of steam from cracks in the low-lying hills. That, and the massive silver pipes from the geothermal power plant that stretched across the barren, grey-green landscape, made me feel like I’d strayed into a scene from
Actually, as I recalled,
traditionally had a much lower budget for special effects.
“This place is something else, huh?” Alex enthused beside me. “Like we just drove into a sci-fi movie.”
I was a bit unnerved by him echoing my thoughts so nearly. “It makes you wonder what the original settlers must have thought of the place,” I said.
“Back in Viking times? Yeah, I guess some of those Norse myths don’t seem so far-fetched when you see a place like this. You see the land breathing out smoke, it’s kind of a short leap to think maybe there’s dragons living in the hills.” He laughed. “Maybe that’s why they have so many horses around here. Keep the scaly bastards fed. You know, I wasn’t expecting that,” he went on, waving at the window as we passed by yet another field of sturdy Icelandic ponies. “If you’d have asked me back in the States, I’d have guessed the place was full of sheep. I haven’t seen a single one since I got here.”
I managed a smile. “Makes you wonder where they get the wool for all those hand-knitted sweaters, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe they shear the ponies in the summer?” he suggested. “No, wait, this
summer. I keep forgetting that. Is it always this cold here?”
I glanced at the display on my dashboard. “I wouldn’t call sixteen degrees
“No? It sure as hell ain’t summer, though. How did you find the winter here?”
It could have been a simple slip, but when I turned, I caught Alex watching me intently. Until our eyes met, and he looked away. “I don’t remember,” I said slowly, unease building once more. “Although I’m sure I managed. Anyway, you’re only here for the summer, so you won’t have to worry about it, will you?”
Alex broke into a disarming grin and rubbed the back of his neck. “Guess not, huh? So, uh, how long are you planning on staying?”
“At least a year. Maybe longer. It depends if the institute decide they want to keep me on after this year’s up.”
“Must be weird, leaving your family and friends behind for so long, flying off to another country where you don’t know a soul. And hey, you’ve done it twice now. Uh, was that kinda tactless of me?”
His expression was the very picture of “aw, shucks”, and I couldn’t help smiling. “Probably. But it’s true enough. Although I don’t remember the first time.”
“No? I mean, I thought it was just the Iceland stuff you’d forgotten. You’re saying you don’t remember leaving England either?”
I shrugged. “I guess it’s all part and parcel of it.” I said it a bit shortly. I was getting sick and tired of rehashing my memory-loss story. Was it really all anyone ever thought of when they were with me? “So where are you based in America? Professionally, I mean.”
“I’m at Boston University.”
“No—the, uh, sagas are kind of a new interest of mine. I’m an assistant professor in early American history.”
“So it was Leif Erikson who sparked your interest in Vikings?” I guessed.
“Uh, yeah. Although I’m kinda surprised they chose this place to settle, not the States. Me, I’d pick the place that actually has a summer any day.”
“And yet, here you are,” I pointed out, pulling onto the car park next to the Geysir hotel and gift shop. It was half-full, and I was lucky to find a space near the road, arriving just as another visitor pulled out. Over the road and a short distance across barren, rocky ground, I could see a wide circle of people ringing what must be Strokkur, the largest and most active of the geysers. We’d barely set foot out of the car when it erupted, a jet of water spurting up eighty feet into the air.
“Hey, there she blows!” Alex said. We stood and watched the natural fountain for a second or two, which was all it took until it died back down into the depths of the earth, leaving only steam behind. “Okay, how long do we have to wait for the next performance?”
“Only around five or ten minutes,” I said absently as we crossed the road. There was no fence, no entrance fee to the area; people were free to just wander in as they chose. The circle had thinned, but there were still plenty of people waiting for another look, many of them holding cameras at the ready. I wished them luck trying to capture the moment with their digital cameras—I’d always found myself a crucial second late with snapshots.
“Huh. I guess you haven’t forgotten everything, then.” Alex spoke just as I realised I’d had a flash of memory, and the effect was incredibly disorientating for a moment.
Then it occurred to me to wonder just what he was suggesting. I turned my head sharply to look at Alex, but his face was unreadable. “I didn’t remember,” I said slowly. “I read it on the Internet when I looked up the route here.”
“Oh. Huh. Yeah, I guess I should have figured you’d do your homework. Being an academic and all.”
“You say that like you’re not one yourself.”
“Are you kidding? Voice of experience here. I used to drive my ex crazy, always looking up places we planned to visit on vacation.” He shot me a wry smile. “That wasn’t why we broke up.”
He seemed to be expecting me to ask more so, perversely, I didn’t. “Did you bring a camera?” I asked instead as we slotted into one of the gaps in the ragged circle of onlookers.
“Damn. No. I guess I’ll have to make do with my phone. You?”
I shook my head. For all I knew, I might have hundreds of pictures of the thing already. I still had plenty of boxes left unpacked, and I’d barely scratched the surface of my laptop’s hard drive, so to speak. “I think it’s starting,” I said, leaning heavily on my stick. I was getting tired of the way he kept staring at me rather than the geyser we’d ostensibly come to see.
The surface of Strokkur’s pool, which was perhaps twenty feet in diameter, was, in fact, beginning to agitate. We watched for a minute or so as the water rippled hugely, like a bathtub in an earthquake—then all at once the pressure came to a head, and a clear, glassy blue dome formed on the surface. It was oddly beautiful. A moment later, to the sound of
and a dozen cameras clicking, it erupted into the great jet we’d seen earlier. Shorter in both height and duration this time, there was also an aftershock of about half the strength before the whole thing died down, leaving only the steaming, rippling pool once more.
I glanced at Alex. He was grinning. “Are we going to make the obvious innuendo here, or just take it as read?”
“Innuendo? Sorry, not sure what you mean,” I deadpanned, and he laughed.
“Right, yeah. No sex, please, you’re British. Hey, now we’ve seen the main event, you want to take a walk around? If your leg’s up to it, that is.” He put away his phone, apparently satisfied with whatever he’d captured.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, already turning to set off.
“Sure? It’s kinda hilly. You let me know if you need a hand or to take a break, okay?”
I needed him to stop treating me like an invalid, but I swallowed my irritation and walked on. There was water running down the path at one point; leaning on my stick, I bent down to touch it. Beside me, Alex crouched low to do the same. His face took on a look of boyish wonder.
“Hey, it’s warm. Cool. Uh, you know what I mean.”
“Have you been to Hveragerdi? You can boil eggs in the hot springs there.” I was suddenly overtaken by a sense memory. Warm boiled egg, the vivid yellow yolk just the right side of set, and fresh lava bread.
“That the place where we saw the dragons?” He had a nice smile, I noticed.
“Yes.” I remembered something else. “There are tales of a nineteenth-century traveller who strayed into one of the springs there and was scalded to death. Eventually.”
“Huh. Makes you wonder how come the murder rate in Iceland is so low. That’s gotta be a great way of getting rid of someone—
Honest, Officer, he just slipped and fell.
Vertigo slammed into me. I leaned hard on my stick, dragging air into lungs that seemed to have seized.
“Shit—Paul, are you okay?” Alex’s arm was around my waist, his face close to mine. I found I was leaning into him. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”
I was cold, shivering with it. “Sorry,” I managed. “Bit dizzy. Didn’t have time for breakfast.”
“C’mon, we’ll go down and hit the café,” he urged, his grip tightening.
“No—I’m fine now.” I freed myself from his grasp and walked on up the hill without waiting to see if he would follow. He did, of course. The upward gradient, the solid ground beneath my feet (not rushing water, not empty space) seemed to help. I felt faintly embarrassed that I’d lied to Alex—but telling him I had nightmares about falling? There’d have been no “faintly” about that level of humiliation.
By the time we reached the top, I was much calmer. I was surprised how far we’d climbed, although the ache in my leg really should have clued me in a little sooner. Turning, I could see the whole of the Geysir site, its visitors like stick figures in a Lowry painting, and much of the wide, green Haukadalur valley. As I watched, Strokkur went off again, and I heard distant shouts from below.