Authors: Lisa Wingate
Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000, #Women professional employees—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction, #Life change events—Fiction, #Ranch life—Texas—Fiction, #Land use—Fiction, #Political corruption—Fiction
I also learned what fully qualified caretakers already know. The stomach flu is contagious.
By the time Daniel came home, Nick and I were a couple of washed-out rag dolls, strung across the recliner, nibbling soda crackers and blearily watching
for the umpteenth time. Daniel went down to the Chinese restaurant on the corner and bought soup for us. When he came back, he fixed trays and then got to work cleaning up the offal of towels, clothes, DVDs, toys, and empty Pedialite bottles that had overtaken the apartment during our quest to survive. The phone rang while he was carrying an armload of stuff to Nick's toy box. He took the call in the bedroom. When he came out, he was as pale as Nick and me.
“What's wrong?” I asked. He looked like someone had died. I immediately thought of his family in Ohio. I only knew what Daniel had told me. He had a mom, dad, grandparents, and various cousins, aunts, and uncles all living within a thirty-mile radius, and a brother who lived in Boston with his wife and kids. Like my parents, Daniel's parents still owned the house he'd grown up in. I hoped the call hadn't brought bad newsâa car accident or something.
“I think I just got offered a job,” he said, his jaw hanging slack after the words, a hint of five o'clock shadow testifying to the fact that, in his rush to return home to Nick and me, he hadn't even shaved this morning.
“A job?” That didn't sound like bad news. Why the horrified expression?
He nodded slowly, his eyes shifting toward the bedroom doorway, as if the spirit of something large and life-altering were hovering there, and he expected it to come storming up the hallway any moment.
His next two words explained everything. “In Texas.”
The course of true love never did run smooth.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
(Left by Brent, who spent the night
I heard it that way, as if it were several sentences rather than one. My life flashed before my eyesâtwo lives, actually. Two completely different possibilities. In one, I was sitting at a table with the Gymies again, a week from now or maybe a month, eating round-robin pie, engaged in yet another conversation about video game characters, Disney animation, and fascinating computer-related topics like bits, bytes, and black-hole servers. Meanwhile, Daniel and Nick were far, far away in Texas. Pretty close to the other side of the world.
In the opposing scenario, I was packing my pumps and my black suit, those knockoff designer purses I loved so much, and the rest of my worldly belongings. Outside the window, a moving man with a dolly was pushing my life up the ramp a few boxes at a time. I was headed for Texas, to some big city or other. They did have big cities in Texasâcommerce, corporations, skyscraper office buildings, shopping mallsÂ .Â .Â .
I'd watched an entire season of
reruns on DVD during a girl trip with my sisters. I could live in the world of the Ewings. Find out who shot J.R. for real.
Once again, I'd be moving far, far away from my family.Â .Â .Â .
My mother would have a coronary.Â .Â .Â .
You've only been dating the man a month. What are you thinking?
Maybe we could do the long-distance thing. I could fly down on weekends. Daniel and Nick could visit for the holidaysÂ .Â .Â .
Flying with a three-and-a-half-year-old would be a hassleÂ .Â .Â .
Those thoughts and a dozen others raced through my mind, rapid-fire, but all I managed to say was “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Daniel breathed, then pressed his lips together and swallowed hard. Behind those gorgeous eyes, I could see the wheels turning, full speed like mine. I wondered where they were headed.
“UmmÂ .Â .Â . where in Texas?” Inside me a voice was wailing,
Say something. Tell me what you're thinking.
I mentally cycled through the possibilities, calling up scattered shreds of Texology gleaned from pop culture references and office chitchat. One of the cosponsors of the Clean Energy Bill was a congressman from Texasâsomeplace out in the sparsely populated part, where cowboys and oil wells dotted the lone prairie.
City names swirled through my mind, potential backdrops for my potential new life.
Dallas, Houston, AustinÂ .Â .Â . uhhhhÂ .Â .Â . SanÂ .Â .Â . somethingÂ .Â .Â . San Antonio. Abilene, like in the old song about cattle drives. Or was that in Kansas? Abilene, Kansas, or Texas?
“Moses Lake.” Daniel's answer broke through the clatter in my mind, silencing it momentarily.
Never heard of that one.
implied something pleasantâwater, sun, surf. Texas did have coastal areas and large inland bodies of water. The Clean Energy Bill's Texas cosponsor had tucked something in there to provide financial incentives for hydroelectric power generation on Texas rivers.
Moses Lake could be good.
Keeping an open mind here.
“Where is that?” I inched into new territory, since I had no idea what Daniel was thinking and how this job offer might affect the two of us.
A baffled headshake answered my question. “I'm not exactly sure. Somewhere in the middle. There's an island involved. Firefly Island.”
“But what's it near?”
Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio. Give me a reference point. Someplace to anchor my fantasy future.
Daniel shook his head again, his gaze analyzing the room, as if he were already considering the size and number of moving boxes needed. “Don't know. I didn't want to look like an idiot, asking the man a million questions. He was in a limo on his way from the airport, so he didn't tell me a lot, except that he maintains research crop plots there, as well as a state-of-the-art lab, and then he mentioned something about Firefly Island. I'm sure, being Jack West, he just assumes that people know all about him. He wants me there in a month.”
Jack WestÂ .Â .Â .
Why was that name familiar?
Nick tapped my hand with a cracker package, and I opened it without thinking, then handed it back to him. “There you go, peapod.” Over the past couple days, I'd adopted my mother's usual endearment for anyone under the age of twenty-five,
“I need a map,” Daniel muttered and headed for the door. “A real paper map I can look at all at once.” He didn't even
ask if I would stay and watch Nick. He just left. Somehow, I liked that. It implied that I belonged here.
By the time Daniel came back, he'd already looked at the map and folded it to two panels surrounding the mystery job location. Moses Lake was a tiny dot in a crease, the letters so small it practically blended into the background. Surrounding it, although not too closely, lay other little map-dot towns with names like Cleburne, Blum, Aquilla, and Walnut Springs. There was nothing of major metropolitan size nearby. Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and even smaller cities like Waco seemed disturbingly far away, reachable only via pencil-thin strips of highway printed in an unpromising light gray.
I felt myself going queasy, my bound-for-Texas version of the future warping like an image in a funhouse mirror. Clearly, I wouldn't be following Daniel and Nick to Texas, applying for jobs nearby, setting myself up in a little apartment around the corner until such time as we'd come far enough in the relationship to merge our lives, so to speak. This place in the fold, this Moses Lake, was a life without me in it.
I could see in Daniel's eyes that he was seriously considering the trade-offs. I could hear it in his voice as he talked about the offer from Jack West, the owner of tiny, but well-funded, West Research. Daniel was more excited than I'd ever seen him. He'd heard Jack West speak at the symposium. Apparently Mr. West had heard Daniel, as well, and he was impressed. He felt that Daniel's work with genetically modified grains would fit nicely into West's master plan to develop super crops and super growth environments designed to produce food in the increasingly harsh conditions of a world plagued with erratic weather. By some standards, Daniel admitted, Jack West was a flake, or at the very least, eccentric and anti-establishment. He'd found fame in the sixties as an actor, then had a short political career before marrying into
Texas oil money. He'd inherited an unfathomable fortune when his first wife died.
While he was out looking for a map, Daniel had scoured the Internet via his phone and come up with a
New York Times
article about Jack West. As I read it, Daniel watched me, his gaze trying to bore through the side of my head and discern my thoughts. There was a sense of the room holding its breath, as if every stick of furniture and stitch of clothing, including Nick's toys, were lining up, whispering,
Toy box or moving box? Which one? Which one?
On television, Owl was talking to Bambi and Thumper about being twitterpated, a hopeless infatuation that causes love-struck young creatures to completely lose their minds in the spring.
“I don't knowÂ .Â .Â .” I looked across the table at Daniel and thought,
Don't go. Don't do this.
I wasn't only considering myself, considering us. I was afraid for him, and for Nick. “It sounds kind ofÂ .Â .Â . crazy. I mean, you've got Nick to think about and your job andÂ .Â .Â . wellÂ .Â .Â . health insurance and retirementÂ .Â .Â . everything. And what about day care? Nick would have to get used to someone totally new. And then there are your parents, and your brother and his kids. They'll be so far away.” I heard air slowly escaping Daniel's lips. I knew I was deflating him, but I couldn't help it. Selfish motives and genuine concern were a mishmash at this point, like multicolored blobs of Play-Doh carelessly pinched together, impossible to separate now. I didn't want Daniel and Nick to go. I couldn't bear the idea of it.
I looked at Nick, tried to imagine him growing up somewhere else. Maybe with
Drawbacks popped into my mind in rapid succession, and I threw them out like road spikes in Daniel's exit path. “And then there's all the everyday stuff. I mean, that town looks
. Where would you find a good preschool next year? Where would you even
in a town that small?”
Daniel ran a hand through his hair, drew back that little curl that hung over his forehead, making him look like Christopher Reeve in
. “That's just it, wellÂ .Â .Â . that's one thing. The place is so remote that housing comes with it. The research lab and the crop plots are actually on West's ranch, which isâI forget what he saidâten thousand acres, or something, some of it right along the lakeshore. There's housing there for the ranch hands, and one of those houses is part of the job offer. Three bedrooms, two baths.” He looked at me, the expression in his eyes almost pleading with me to breathe gently on the dream, cause it to spark rather than blow out. “Nick could grow up in a house, a
house, instead of this dumpy little place. He could run around in the woods, build tree forts, catch frogs and lizards like my brother and I did in Ohio. It was a great way to grow up, you know? As long as we were home by dark, nobody worried about us. Mom could send us out the door in the morning, and all she'd have to tell us was to watch for snakes and be home by supper. And this place is even better than that. What kid wouldn't like to have a lake on his doorstep?”
I didn't answer immediately. I was still stuck on
. I'd never lived more than a stone's throw from neighbors and a mini-mart. Even my parents' house in Maryland was sandwiched between other large houses with manicured lawns. The only lakes I'd ever spent any time on were the sort at which my father schmoozed with congressmen, senators, and their familiesâthe kind with gorgeous resorts featuring nice, clean swimming pools and lovely cabanas. Were there beaches somewhere that weren't lined with resorts, littered with sunbathers, and dotted with colorful umbrellas? Did such places exist?
I felt tears pressing in, crowding my eyes and my senses. My gypsy king was gently telling me good-bye, justifying all the reasons he needed to go. I heard his voice almost in the background now, like a television droning on when you're busy with something else.
“Â .Â .Â . The salary isn't really any higher, but there's so much included. The house, the utilities paid, a company vehicle. It's like making twice as much as I make now. I'd be able to finally work my way out from under some bills and start putting away money for Nick's college.” His eyes met mine again, and I took a small bit of encouragement from that. Maybe he really did mean to continue our relationship long-distance. I didn't see how. There wasn't a major airport in Moses Lake. “It's the difference between two completely different lives, Mallory,” Daniel said.
Yes, it is,
I thought, my long-distance fantasy dissolving like a mirage on a hot day. It was the difference between
“And that's not even mentioning the work.” Daniel was so excited, he was talking ninety miles an hour, overloading my brain, causing it to whir. “This guy is a littleÂ .Â .Â . atypical, but he's light-years ahead of conventional science on all kinds of things, not just the super crops, but low-impact growth environments and foods that fight cancer. You wouldn't believe all the good his work could do. And he's got the funds to keep it going. Private funds. And I'll have a share in any patents we're granted. If we come up with the kind of modified seed grain I think we can, there's no telling what the bio-patents could be worth. Imagine corn that could grow in the desert, or wheat that produces under drought conditions. Imagine what that could mean.”
I nodded, swallowing hard. Sue me, but at that particular moment, I didn't care about growing corn in the desert; I
cared about the life I wasn't going to have. With Daniel. I'd finally found the right one, my prince had come, and some billionaire was determined to tumble my castle of cards before I could dab enough glue on it. Why couldn't Jack West buy someone else's boyfriend? Why did he have to have mine?
Because Daniel was brilliant, and he was wasting away at that USDA lab, and he was made for better things. I knew the reason. I knew I should love him enough to let him go. He wasn't happy in the job here. He was trapped in it.
His hand slid across the map, covered mine, clasped it. I felt reality staring me down like a Rottweiler, dark-eyed and malevolent.