Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Part TwoBirds of the Air
Mark and Jackie were a long way south of Spearfish Lake before the thrill of the moment began to wear off, and some of the old doubts began to rise in her again.
Because of that kiss at the airport earlier, she had felt like leaning over against Mark, so close in the cockpit next to her, but now she thought better of it. Perhaps it would be better to keep what distance she could, just to keep them both from getting ideas.
Try as she could to look into the future, it seemed clouded. Mark had become a real friend in the few days she had known him, and had always been the perfect gentleman. But what would it be like to be living with him?
Thatís what she would be doing, too Ė living with him, sleeping with him, in the same tent. Those words implied a lot more than she hoped they would mean.
Sheíd drawn a lot of money out of the bank at their brief stop there. If things got out of hand she would have the means to go home, even if it meant going home in shame. She knew she would rather not do that, either, but she could if she had to. Hopefully, it wouldnít come to that.
Although it was quieter in Rocinanteís cockpit than it had been in the Stinson, it was still pretty noisy for casual conversation, so she kept her misgivings to herself. The decision had been made; the note left behind for Sarah and her father sealed it. There would be no turning back now, she resolved; still, perhaps it would be better to wait a few days to see how things went, as well as give her father and Sarah a chance to cool off, before she called home.
They were passing well to the east of Camden when the largely forested land below began to change to more open fields. Below, Jackie could see the snow was mostly gone; spring was already closer. Mark had a map folded open, thrown up on the dash. For the sake of something to do, she took it and tried to make sense of it.
After a minute or so she realized the town off to her right had to be Atlanta; there was the double-tracked main line railroad running across their course, and the branch line heading north. All of a sudden, a curious question arose in her mind. Over the roar of the engine, she turned to Mark and asked, "Where are we going, anyway?"
"South," he told her in a loud voice, "As far south as we can get by flying hard. The farther south we can get, the warmer itíll be camping tonight."
"How about tomorrow?" she asked.
"Farther south, I think," he said, "Unless you can come up with a better idea. Iíd kind of figured on going right to Florida, to see if we can find a place to hole up for a few days. Iíve been pushing so hard for so long, I think I need to kick back and do nothing for a few days and learn how to slow down and enjoy myself all over again."
"Sounds good to me," Jackie said. "Iím tired of winter. Letís get all the way away from it." It was a good idea, she thought; it would give them a chance to learn how to live with each other Ė there was that phrase again Ė to work out how they would operate; that was a better-sounding way to say it.
They landed a little after one at a small airport well over three hundred miles south of Spearfish Lake. It was noticeably warmer, although still jacket weather. Mark had Rocinante gassed up, and they managed to borrow an airport courtesy car long enough to drive to a nearby restaurant for lunch. "I think, if we want to save money, weíd better pack a lunch if weíre going to be flying all day," Jackie commented as they sat down in a booth.
"I hope there wonít be many days weíll be flying all day," Mark told her. "Thereíll be days we want to get some miles on, but flying all day, every day, kind of misses the point. The trick is going to be to get away from airports, either with Rocinante, or on our own. I sort of have a feeling that just stopping in some farmerís hayfield isnít going to work as well as it did for the old barnstormers."
"Maybe weíll just have to find out." Jackie commented as the waitress walked up. All of a sudden, she felt free as a bird. This little restaurant might well have been Rickís, and the waitress might well have been her, a week ago. How long ago and far away it seemed, now! "Do you have any idea of where weíre going to hole up in Florida?"
"Are you two going down to Florida for the Apollo launch?" the waitress asked. "Iíve always wanted to see one of those."
Mark turned to look at Jackie, to see her eyes opened wide in obvious wonder. "I didnít know there was one coming up," he said. "I havenít been paying attention to the news. Do you have any idea of when itís going to be?"
"Next week, sometime, I think," the waitress said. "I saw it in the paper this morning. You want coffee?"
"Black," Jackie said absent-mindedly, thinking about watching an Apollo launch.
"Black," Mark agreed, thinking the same thing as Jackie was thinking. "And is there a copy of the paper lying around here?"
* * *
They made it as far south as a little airport in Kentucky before the day found itself waning. Mark got permission to tie Rocinante down out in the grass and camp under the wing.
Mark had never gotten around to setting up the tent, which he had mail-ordered back around Christmas. It had a reputation of being a good tent, but it was complicated to set up the first time, with many mistakes and errors before they finally got it standing. "It wonít be as bad, next time," Mark said as he and Jackie found places afterwards to sit and blow up their air mattresses.
"Once we know what weíre doing," Jackie agreed, "Itíll go better."
A little later, Jackie stuffed her air mattress into the tent. Mark handed his in to her, then their sleeping bags and clothes bags, and then crawled in after her to unroll his sleeping bag.
As he crawled inside, Mark saw Jackie on her hands and knees, back to him, her pants tight across her fanny. He found himself thinking she had a nice ass, and had to bring himself up short. This was Jackie, not Mei-Ling, after all. "A little on the crowded side in here," he commented.
"Weíre going to have to work out how we do this," Jackie said, turning around and sitting as best she could; the tent was more than a foot short of being tall enough for either of them to stand up. "I mean, getting dressed and even just rummaging through gear."
"Itís going to be awkward," Mark agreed. "Maybe we should have brought your tent, too."
Jackie shook her head. "Itís too late, now," she said. "Besides, you said weíre pushing the weight limit."
"Well, if it doesnít work out, we can always get another tent," he promised. "I donít think itís going to matter tonight, anyway. Itís going to be cold enough I think weíre both going to want to wear our long handles. Letís get out of here and make ourselves some supper."
Mark had hunted high and low to find a camp stove that burned aviation gasoline, not white gas, since he didnít want to have gas in the luggage compartment, and it seemed ridiculous to have to worry about stove gas when he would have tanks of aviation gas close by. Heíd been unable to find a two-burner stove light enough or small enough to go in the plane, but had managed to come up with two single-burner army surplus stoves that burned just about anything. He showed Jackie how to fill the camp stoves from the fuel sump drain, then spread a ground cloth under the wing and set the stoves to burning. Soon, there was hot water boiling on one stove and stew cooking on the other.
"Weíre going to want to work together on the cooking, I think," he said. "How about if whichever one of us doesnít cook washes up, and we trade off?"
"Sounds fair to me," Jackie said. "But I think we want to eat something other than just beef stew every night."
Mark nodded. "Yeah, I think I could even get tired of it after a while. Look, with two of us, this food thing is going to be tricky. We canít carry a whole lot because of the weight. That means we have to hit a grocery store every few days, and there are going to be times it wonít be easy. If we need them, Iíve got several freeze-dried meals, but they taste like crap and are as expensive as hell, and there arenít going to be many places weíll stop where we can replace them; I had to mail-order the ones I have. We might want to save those for any backpacking we do, anyway."
"I guess that means we open a lot of cans," Jackie shrugged. "We can do that. If itís OK with you, why donít we just make do with coffee and cereal for breakfast, and just kind of have snacks or sandwiches for lunch."
Mark got up and dug around in the planeís luggage compartment as he answered, "Thatís kind of how I planned it. Weíll eat out once in a while, and I wouldnít be surprised if we got asked home to dinner on occasion. Weíre just going to have to live a little grubby, thatís all."
"It doesnít look like weíre going to get a shower every night, either," Jackie commented. "Weíre going to have to take a bath once in a while, though."
"Iím used to it from the Army and can probably stand you longer than you can stand me," he said, sitting back down with the folder of maps in his hand. "But when it gets too bad, weíll have to work out something. Find a place to go swimming, or maybe get a motel room once in a while."
Jackie was silent for a moment. Somehow, the thought of sharing a motel room with Mark was far more distressing than the thought of sharing a tent with him. "I wonder how we register at a motel," she said finally, with more than a little accusation on her voice, "Mr. and Mrs. Gravengood?"
Mark shook his head, understanding her fully. He had, of course, realized he and Jackie could wind up in bed together at some point, and if it were handled right he was sure he wouldnít mind. However, if it did happen, it might not be a long step until she really became "Mrs. Gravengood." It was a possibility he hadnít considered. Having a girlfriend, even one he made love with, was one thing; marriage was another. Not that it would necessarily be unwelcome when the time came, but he just had not thought that far ahead. "No," he said, finally. "Weíll use our own names. If anybody asks, youíre my sister."
"Iíd have to be your half-sister," Jackie laughed at his unease. "After all, our names are different."
"All right, Sis," he laughed with her. "Youíre my half-sister. I always wondered what it would be like to have a sister."
"Thatís fine," she said, feeling some of the pressure come off. "I always wondered what it would have been like to have a brother closer to my age."
* * *
They studied maps while they ate supper, giving special attention to the area around Cape Kennedy. The launch of Apollo 15 was still a week off, so they had plenty of time, but if they could find a good place to camp in the vicinity it would be a good place for Mark to unwind and for both of them to learn how to be together.
After supper, while Jackie did the dishes in the leftover hot water for the coffee, Mark dug the telescope out of the baggage compartment, and they spent some time looking around the sky, dark now as it was past the full moon. Time passed rapidly, and, even though they wanted to get an early start the next day, it was later than Mark had hoped before he realized the time.
"Iíll put the telescope away," he told Jackie. "Why donít you get your longies on and get in the sack while Iím doing it?"
"All right," she said, heading for the tent. It seemed ages to Mark as he walked around Rocinante, checking the tie downs, before he heard her say, "You can come in now."
She held a flashlight for him while he climbed in, zipped the tent door closed, and got out his long underwear. "Why donít you kill the light while Iím doing this?" he suggested.
She turned out the flashlight and said, "Iíll roll over so I canít see you."
"Not much to see in the dark," he said. "Besides, I wasnít planning on taking off my underwear. But, thanks anyway."
As she lay there with her back to him, she heard him thrash around behind her, and a little anxiety crossed her mind. She was zipped in her sleeping bag, zipped into the tent, unable to get out quickly. She made up her mind sheíd scream if he touched her, although she realized a goodnight kiss would be nice; the kiss theyíd shared at the airport in Spearfish Lake had been wonderful, but under circumstances like these, who knew where it could lead?
Eventually, the thrashing around stopped, and she heard him say, "Good night, Sis."
"Good night, Brother," she said with a little smirk, still tense, still awaiting a touch she both hoped for and feared, waiting until she heard the soft, slow breathing that told her he was asleep, then she waited longer, half wondering if coming on the trip had been such a good idea after all.
* * *
Light was filtering through the tent when Jackie awoke. Something seemed out of place, but she couldnít quite figure out what it was.
All of a sudden, she sat up with a start. She realized she wasnít in her bedroom at home in Spearfish Lake, or even out camping with her father; the day before, sheíd run off with Mark, and they were in a tent somewhere in Kentucky, on their way God knew where, and her bones ached from the cold of the night.
She rolled over to see Markís sleeping bag was empty and wadded up into a pile. Hurriedly, she unzipped her own sleeping bag and crawled out partway, then unzipped the tent and stuck her head outside.
The sun was just coming up, and she could see frost on the grass in the shadow of Rocinanteís wing. Mark was sitting on one of the planeís wheels; one of the stoves was set up and hissing, with a pot of water on top of it. "Ah, the dead awaken," Mark said. "Did anybody ever tell you that you snore?"
"I donít snore," she protested, reflecting that she was a little surprised to wake up and still be a virgin; she wouldnít have bet a nickel on it the night before. "I didnít sleep at all last night, it was so cold." And I was so scared, she thought.
"It was a little chilly," Mark agreed. "Thatís why I want to get farther south. Itís still April, after all. You like a cup of coffee to warm you up before you get dressed?"
"Iíd love it," she admitted. In but a moment, Mark mixed her a plastic cup of instant and handed it into the tent to her. It was very hot, hotter than she liked it, but the warmth of it coursed through her, making her realize how coldly she had slept. She drained the cup and set it outside, then, not daring to expose her bare legs to the cold air, slipped her long handles off while still in the sleeping bag and pulled on her ice-cold jeans, wanting to scream at the chill. Getting on her shirt from yesterday and her jacket was not much better, but eventually she was able to clamber outside and stand up. "I donít think Iíve ever been so cold in my life," she said as he handed her a second cup of coffee.
"The sun will warm things up, soon," he said. "We can leave as soon as it melts the frost off the wings."
"Have they opened up yet?" she asked, nodding at the office.
"No," he told her. "If itís using the john youíre thinking about, Iíd suggest the bushes on the far side of the hangar."
It was what Jackie had been thinking about, and she realized she wasnít going to be able to wait much longer. She took a sip of her coffee and realized it was really too hot to drink, so she set the cup on Rocinanteís cowling and hurried toward the nearby hangar.
A few minutes later, she was back, and the coffee was just about right. "Itís awful cold to be hanging my bare butt out in the breeze in the bushes," she commented.
"Kind of em-bare-assing," he smirked.
"Yeah, that too," she said, laughing at the pun. "It probably wonít be the last time I do it on this trip, though."
They each had another couple cups of coffee, although cold cereal didnít seem appealing in the chill. While they sipped their coffee, they stuffed their sleeping bags, let the air out of their air mattresses, took down the tent, and packed everything but the stove and coffeepot in Rocinante.
By the time they finished, the sun had stripped the frost off the Cessnaís wings. "Might as well get going," Mark said, emptying the rest of the coffee water onto the ground. She took a rag and mopped off the windshield and the leading edges of the wings, then they both clambered into the cockpit.
"Before we get going, thereís something I forgot about last night," she said, turning to him.
"I kind of forgot to kiss you good night," she said, reaching over with her long arm, grabbed his far shoulder, and pulled him over to her. Their lips touched, and they kissed for a long time, feeling each otherís warmth in the cold cockpit of the plane.
"I guess Iím just as glad you didnít kiss me good night last night," he said finally. "A kiss like that could get misinterpreted, real easy."
"Yes," she agreed quietly, "I think weíd better keep that out of the tent. For now, anyway."
* * *
They flew south all that day, stopping for lunch and fuel. They camped that night at a little grass strip in northern Florida, and it was a lot warmer Ė warm enough that they didnít bother with long underwear. They could have flown on to Cape Kennedy that day, but Mark had suspected the airport at Titusville was big enough and busy enough that they wouldnít have a good place to camp, so he wanted plenty of daylight to make other arrangements.
As it turned out, they could have camped at the Titusville airport, but it was already filled to the point where all the regular tie downs were taken. Mark had to get out the tie-down kit to fasten Rocinante down, far down the runway.
The airport manager was able to make recommendations, both on the best place to watch the Apollo launch and the best place to camp; heíd been faced with this question before. Unfortunately for Mark and Jackie, without a car, it would involve a lot of walking. "This wasnít quite what I had in mind for our first backpacking trip," he told her, "But weíre going to have to play it like weíre backpacking."
The packs had not been loaded for backpacking; hers had just had stuff thrown into it, two mornings and fifteen hundred miles before. It took them a while to sort and rearrange things for camping out for a few days. With their packs full, after Mark locked the plane and took the telescope box in one hand, they started for the airport gate.
It was a long hike along a busy highway to the area the airport manager had told them might be both a good camping spot and a good place to watch the launch, still several days away. It was not really very hot Ė only in the high seventies, or so Ė but to the two of them, still conditioned fully to a Spearfish Lake winter, it might have been the middle of Death Valley in high summer. Both still had on long jeans; Jackie had on the one short-sleeved blouse sheíd managed to throw in, and Mark had on a T-shirt, but sweat was still rolling down both of them. "As soon as we get camped," Jackie said at one point when they stopped along the side of the road for a drink and a breather, "Iím turning these jeans into cutoffs."
"Me, too," Mark agreed. "If weíre going to spend the summer like this, thereís no point in loading up on winter clothes. Did you think to bring a swimsuit?"
"Never crossed my mind," Jackie admitted. "You donít think about swimsuits in Spearfish Lake this time of year. I probably ought to get one. Maybe we can hike back into town tomorrow and do some shopping."
"Tomorrowís Sunday," Mark told her. "Probably everything will be closed."
"Sunday already?" Jackie said, amazed. "Iíve lost track of time, already."
Finally Ė it seemed like all day, although it had only been a couple of hours Ė they found a suitable location in some sandy scrub brush where they were concealed from the highway. The site overlooked a tiny bay with a beachy area that would probably do for swimming, although neither of them were too sure how much they wanted to swim in salt water and not be able to rinse themselves off afterward. Best of all, a few feet away from their campsite was a little hummock. From the top of the sand pile, they had a clear, though distant, view of the Saturn V being prepared for liftoff.
"It would have been nice to be able to camp by the ocean, instead of this backwater," Mark told her as they huddled in the shade of a bush, out of the midday sun. "That would have been a hell of a walk, though."
Mark had peeled off his shirt by now, and Jackie wished she dared do the same; then, comfort flying in the face of caution, she told him, "Donít get any ideas," and took off her blouse, not daring to remove her bra as well.
That was a little better, and, after a while, they had cooled off enough to move ahead with erecting the tent. With it up, Jackie crawled inside and stripped off her jeans. With the tiny pair of scissors from her sewing kit, she chopped off the legs of the jeans and pulled them back on. She was a little surprised to find sheíd cut them off a lot shorter than sheíd intended, but theyíd have to do; besides, theyíd be cooler that way.
After a while, they took the tent fly and, with the aid of some sticks they found, managed to rig it up as a sun fly to get some shade. The afternoon was humid now, almost oppressive; thunderheads could be seen building up in the distance. They lay down in the shade of the fly; Mark told her, "I donít know about you, but Iím going to take a nap."
The idea sounded good to Jackie, and she lay down beside Mark, but sleep wouldnít come. She lay there, looking out across the water at the handful of boats out on the river and at the far side of the tepid waterway, almost lost in the haze of the afternoon. Spearfish Lake seemed far away, almost in another world, distant and unreal. She wondered, not for the first time, what her father and Sarah and friends like Kirsten must be thinking, finding it didnít concern her as much as she thought it would. So far, the trip with Mark had been fine, except for the sweaty hike this morning and the recovery from it, but she realized this had to be part of the adventure, too.
She did find herself wishing they had thought a little more clearly when they had been sitting in the hangar office not many days before, making out a list of things sheíd like to take on the trip. A swimsuit, of course, was one of the more glaring omissions, but the list should have been more heavily oriented toward warm-weather clothing, as well; otherwise, she wouldnít have to be sitting there in her bra and cutoffs. And sunscreen! Mark had an uncomfortable sunburn already, although luckily she had a complexion that tanned easily, rather than burning. It would have been a good idea to have a book or two, or a portable radio, just to help them while away slow, dull afternoons like this one.
She knew there ought to be something she could do, just to keep busy. All of a sudden, she had an idea. It wasnít perfect, but it would kill time.
The denim from the cutoff blue jeans wasnít a perfect material to work with; she could have done a much better job, in only a few minutes, with decent scissors and a sewing machine. But, it gave her something to do.
When Mark finally woke up some time later, she had finished the halter top. It wasnít a perfect fit; given the circumstances, there was a limited amount she could do. Somehow, though, it felt better than wearing her bra in front of Mark; it felt more proper.
By then, the afternoon was wearing on, and the sun was down enough that they could come out from under the shelter and explore their domain, although there wasnít much to see Ė just more and more of the scrubby brush poking up through the sand. They wound up on the beach below their camp. "I kind of wish weíd brought the rod and reel," she told him. "Itíd be fun to tie on a spoon or something and just throw it around out there. God knows what a person would catch, though."
"You left it back at the plane?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I didnít think Iíd want it."
"We could get it tomorrow or sometime," he told her. "I can see our water is not going to last very long. Maybe tomorrow, early, while itís still cool, one of us should hike back and get some more."
"Thatís pretty well a got to," she said. "I donít think weíve got enough to get through tomorrow, but it must be a good three or four miles back to where we can get any."
He looked out at the little bay. "You know, a swim might cool us off."
She looked longingly at the water. "Iíd love a swim," she said. "But all Iíve got I can wear in the water is what Iíve got on, and I really donít want to get it wet."
"I suppose youíre right. What do you say we set up the telescope and take a look at the rocket?"
It only took them a few minutes to set the telescope up on top of the little hummock. Mark kept the tripod legs pulled in, so they could sit comfortably and study the activity around the huge Saturn, miles away. With a medium-power eyepiece, it was pulled in quite close to them, although it was difficult to make out much of what was happening through all the shimmering heat waves. "I think they keep it lit up at night," Mark told her. "Maybe after dark itíll settle down and weíll be able to see better."
They spent several minutes trying to make something out of the spectacle in front of them. Finally, Mark put the dust covers back on the telescope, and they went back to camp, and lay down under the sun shade. A little breeze had sprung up by now, cool and pleasant but not cold. They lolled around for some time, not saying much of anything, just looking across the bay.
"You know, I hate to admit this," Mark said, "But Iím a little bit bored."
"I guess I am, too," she told him. Somehow, this was one thing she hadnít expected on the trip.
"I know what the problem is," Mark said. "Weíre both people who have to be doing something, and the past few months thereís been more to do than thereís been time for. Now, here I am, camped out on what might as well be a desert island, with a beautiful girl at my side, just like it was a dream, and I hardly know what to do with myself. But, itís like I said, I need to slow down and learn to take it easy and enjoy myself."
"I donít think of myself as beautiful," she said. "Just sort of ordinary."
"Youíre beautiful, Jackie," he told her gently, "If for no more reason than youíre here with me. Have I told you yet that Iím glad you came with me? If you werenít here, then Iíd really be bored. I think youíre taking to this trip better than I am."
She turned to him and smiled. "Well, Iím glad you brought me," she said. She wanted to kiss him so badly it hurt, but she knew a kiss just then would be the first step to going places she didnít want to just yet Ė though she found herself realizing the possibility of it happening bothered her less than it would have even a couple of days before.
Mark realized the danger, too. Calling Jackie "beautiful" was not a lie, for sitting there on the sand in the late afternoon sunlight, she exuded a glow heíd always suspected was there. It would have been fun indeed to liven up the afternoon with a little sex in the sand, and if Jackie had been like Mei-Ling, it would have happened long before. But, in Jackie, he recognized something more valuable, something not worth ruining over a brief fling, and he could feel letting things get out of hand would scare her off for the long run.
He finally got an idea to defuse the situation. "Why donít you go over and sit on the side of the hill, there, and let me draw you. I need to get back in practice, if nothing else."
"Me?" she said as he crawled inside the tent for his pack, where he had a drawing pad and some pencils.
"Yeah, you. Donít know of any other pretty brunettes around here."
Rather reluctantly, with a little coaxing on his part, she went over and sat on the side of the hummock. "Donít worry about looking pretty," he told her. "Just look comfortable." He went back over into the shade of the tent fly, picked up the pad, and started to draw. Jackie felt very self-conscious for a few minutes, but as they sat and talked, she found herself becoming more at ease, while Mark worked away at the drawing.
Gradually she lost track of the time, and she had no idea of how much later it was before Mark put the pad down and just looked at her for a minute or two, then picked the pad up, and looked at the drawing. "Well, itís not real good," he said, "But weíll work on it. You make a good model, Jackie."
"Can I see?"
"Sure, come on over," he said.
She found she had gotten a little stiff from holding still for so long, but it was good to get up and walk the few steps over to him. She took one glance at the drawing and said, "Iím not that pretty!"
"Sure you are," he said. "Iíll admit, I could have done better. The shadow detail on your legs and your torso just isnít right, for example, but for a practice drawing, itís not worth fixing. Iíll do better next time."
"But Mark!" she protested, studying the drawing of the long-haired, long-legged, well-built girl in a halter top and brief shorts half-sitting, half-laying on the hillside. "I donít have a build like that! It hardly looks like me."
He held the drawing up and compared it to her. "It looks a lot like you," he said. "I donít think I overemphasized anything. It just doesnít fit your mental image of how you look."
"Do you really think I look like that?"
"Pretty much," he said. "Iím no great artist, but itís a fair image, under the circumstances. Weíre starting to lose the light, but maybe tomorrow Iíll do another one, just to show you I can do better."
As Mark turned to preparing supper, Jackie kept returning to the drawing. The girl in the drawing was pretty, and after a while, she realized the girl was at least based on her. Could that be how she really looked to him? What a compliment if it was! Sheíd never thought of herself as being pretty, just too tall and too thin and rather mousy and shy.
Perhaps Mark really did see something in her she couldnít see herself. It was an awesome thought, indeed. For an instant, she wondered how the drawing would have looked if sheíd offered to pose nude for him, and she realized, surprised a little with her boldness, that sooner or later sheíd make the offer.
Not yet. She wasnít ready for it, yet, but she realized she was looking forward to the time when she was ready for it.
* * *
They took their time over supper, dragging it out until after the sun went down, and when they realized twilight was falling rapidly, they then had to hurry and get the dishes done and their air mattresses blown up before full darkness was on them. After dark it was cooler, but still warm enough they didnít bother putting more clothes on.
They sat around talking for a while after dark, and Mark smoked a cigarette, the first one in days. "We should have scrounged around and seen if we had enough dry brushwood around here for a little fire," Jackie suggested.
"The stuff I see wouldnít make for much of a fire," Mark agreed, "But a little one would be nice."
"Weíll have to do it tomorrow," she agreed. "Why donít we go up the hill and see if we can see anything more of the launch pad, now that the heatís settled down some?"
They trudged through the loose sand up to the top of the hummock, removed the dust covers from the telescope, and spent a long time looking at the rocket, brightly lit by floodlights around the base of the pad. "I canít imagine what it must be like to ride one of those things," Mark said, "But the view must be tremendous. I canít imagine what it would be like to look out the window and see the moon closer than you could ever see in an eyepiece."
The moon was down, just then, so when they got tired of looking at the Saturn, miles away, Mark turned the telescope on the sky and managed to hunt up Omega Centauri, the huge globular cluster considered one of the showpieces of the southern sky. "I saw this a lot better in Australia," he told her. "It was almost overhead, not down in the haze and the skyglow like this, but itís still a pretty sight. We should be able to see it better down in west Texas, when weíre there a month or so from now. The air is a lot clearer and dryer there."
They spent perhaps a couple of hours exploring the sky, both with the telescope and without it. Mark taught Jackie some of the constellations she didnít know and showed her how to guide the telescope to some of the better things to look at. They explored space in the only way open to them, since they couldnít ride the huge skyscraper of lit-up machinery a few miles away.
Eventually, they covered the telescope and walked slowly back to the tent. As Mark unzipped the door, he said, "I donít know if youíre just too nice to say anything about it, or what, but I think I still stink from our walk in today. Iíd sure like to clean up a little."
"Well, I donít think I smell too good myself," she said, "But we donít have fresh water to waste. Too bad we couldnít go for a midnight swim."
"Yeah, too bad we didnít think of swimsuits. Of course, itís dark enough, we could do without," he joked.
She felt herself blushing at the suggestion, no matter how dark it was, no matter how he meant it as a joke. On the other hand, the water would feel good . . . and sheíd begun to feel just a little uneasy at herself for cringing at everything that might be considered a little suspicious. She was a little surprised to hear herself say, "Promise you wonít turn on a flashlight?"
Mark was more surprised to hear Jackieís words than she was. Heíd meant it as a joke, but apparently she was willing to take him up on it. Things could get out of hand, too soon, much too soon . . . "Great idea, but weíd better not," he said. "In the dark, we might not know if thereís something there we wouldnít want to tangle with, like an alligator or something. I can stand you tonight, if you can stand me."