Macgyver, verb transitive. To improvise a solution, usually to a mechanical or technical problem, using available repurposed found objects.
One: Present Imperfect
The early sunlight of the spring morning slanted through heavy cedar boughs and threaded its way amongst crowding stands of dense fir and hemlock, delicately reaching down through the drifting mists that cloaked the narrow valley that held the river. During the winter months, the mist resisted any attempts by the weakened sun to pierce the grey depths; but the season had turned again, and the mountains were responding to the change. The last few stubborn patches of snow were retreating to higher altitudes every day, and the thick dark mud that the snowmelt left behind bogged every trail and clung stubbornly to the bootsoles of anyone impatient enough to attempt to intrude upon the forest as it awakened.
The river chattered and roared, swollen with the spring freshet. The jade-green water was cloudy with silt brought down from the heights, as the turning cycle of time pulled one more thin layer of stone from the mountaintops and dragged it down towards the lowlands and the waiting sea. Eventually, it would wear the mountain down – but by that time, another mountain would have grown up, if not here, then somewhere else.
The man who paused at the bend in the trail, knocking his hiking boots free of the latest accumulation of heavy, fertile mud, knew he was close to his goal. He’d been stalking this particular suspect patiently for several days, watching as the target became less nervous and returned to regular habits, growing easier to predict and to follow. This morning, he’d been up since well before dawn, hoping for clear weather and the extra touch of luck that he needed.
Once his boots were more or less free from the dragging weight, he cut away from the path and slipped along the top of the ravine overlooking the river, careful to stay out of the direct line of sight. His feet stepped softly now, the damp moss and fallen needles deadening his steps.
MacGyver lowered himself carefully to a prone position, pulling himself forward as gently as he could across the stone shelf to the vantage point. His right knee complained at the effort, and he set his teeth and tried to pretend that it was just a temporary twinge, not the same recurring pain spike from the old skiing injury. He’d been lying to himself about it for enough years; he ought to be good at it by now. The fingers of sunlight reached through the screen of the cedars and drew sparks of silver from his shaggy hair.
He peered carefully out across the canyon before he fished in his bag for his binoculars. No improvised equipment this time; the high-powered field glasses were a generational leap beyond the pair that Ed Gant had replaced so willingly over twenty years before, and they were, finally, better than the old ones had been.
After such a long pursuit, it could have been anticlimactic when the view through the glasses showed Mac exactly what he’d been hoping to see; but the thrill made his breath catch, and he remained still for several long moments, absorbing every detail. At last, he wriggled back out of sight, stood up again, stashed the field glasses, and reached for his notebook and pen.
A thought struck him before he started to write, and he stuffed the notebook into a pocket and dug into the outer zipped section of his game bag. Yes, the new gadget was there – and a quick check of the display confirmed that he even had a signal strong enough to run a quick field test.
His thumbs flicked over the buttons of the customized Blackberry.
confirm 2 eggs bald eagle nest in standing dead tree N fork Stillaguamish River both birds present add 2 log pls Mac
He’d only been ten minutes on the way back before he felt the unit vibrate in his pocket: there was an answer.
@macgyver log entry made confirm pancakes rdy on ur return need ETA luv u grampa
Mac’s grin, proud and sheepish, would have burned away any remaining mist. He thumbed a reply to his granddaughter.
@petra 30 minutes don’t burn ur fingers luv grampa
MacGyver spotted the lights on the indicator panel by the computer as soon as he got back to the cabin, but he ignored the signal while he focused on breakfast, added details to Petra’s log entry, and chased his younger granddaughter, AnnaRose, around the cabin until she was giggling too hard to run, and he was panting with exertion and wondering why he couldn’t have had granddaughters when he was still young enough to keep up with them.
Finally, he bowed to the querulous demands of the indicator alert and sat down at the computer. He’d rigged the panel so that different specific lights went on in combination when emails from particular addresses hit his private server; this one didn’t require immediate attention, no matter what the sender thought. As far as he was concerned, these days none of them did; although he never put off anything from Sam, or from the girls’ mother.
Mac glanced at the email – Hey, mountain man, aren’t you ever going to check in? One of these days? Remember, like you promised? He sighed, pinged the sender, and switched on the webcam.
“Well, good morning, campers.” He beamed at the screen with a smile he knew would annoy the other party. “So what does the Director of Operations for the Phoenix Foundation want with some washed-up quasi-retired personnel at a lowly research outpost on this fine sunny morning?”
Nikki Carpenter Haines glowered at him – actually, due to the webcam, she glowered at a point in space about a foot to his right, which always amused him so much he’d never adjusted it.
“Sunny? I thought it always rained up there.”
“That’s just a wild story we tell the tourists to keep them all from movin’ out here and spoilin’ the place.”
“Are you ever going to get a real phone put in?”
“Not if I can help it.” MacGyver grinned. “Why should I? I mean, look at what we’re doin’ right now. I’ve got a real video phone – how cool is that?”
Nikki tried to hang on to her sense of exasperation as she looked at him, although the sight made it difficult. Mac’s smile still made her breath catch, and she had to hide both the thrill and the annoyance it caused. His face had somehow grown craggier over the years without developing all that many extra wrinkles; and the laugh lines had persisted even when there hadn’t been much reason for laughter.
There had been that scare about his heart two years earlier, which had blessedly come to nothing; but the strain of the long months of forced inactivity had taken their own toll. This past year, he’d returned with a vengeance to a physically rigourous life, and the added flesh had melted away. He’d stopped letting his hair grow long several years back, although it tended to look unkempt and shaggy at the best of times, and this wasn’t the best – the mop was mostly silver-grey now, rapidly heading for white, and it looked as if he’d been cutting it himself with his pocketknife, on random whims, without a mirror.
“It’s not at all ‘cool’ when you miss your regular radio check-in. Eighteen hours of silence past your scheduled time, and then all the poor guy got was a nice breezy, ‘All well, same time next week, same bat-channel’ – what the hell were you thinking, Mac?”
MacGyver shrugged. He picked up a small plasticine figure that was perched on top of the computer monitor and began to turn it idly over in his fingers. “Look, I didn’t think anyone would get that stressed out over a late check-in. We had a little trouble with the radio is all – it took some time to fix.”
“Trouble with the radio? Are you kidding? I’d have thought you could fix a radio in your sleep.”
Mac looked sheepish. “Well, the truth is, AnnaRose took the radio apart to see how it worked, and I made her put it back together herself. I figured she’d learn more that way.” He peered at the screen; Nikki’s face had vanished. “Nikki?”
The dark blur on the webcam resolved itself as Nikki lifted her head back up from her arms and gave Mac a long-suffering look. “MacGyver, can someone please explain to me why anyone thought it would be a good idea to breed more of you? The radio? Last I heard, she was just taking apart the toaster.”
“Mac – ” Nikki interrupted herself and peered at the figurine he was fiddling with. “What is that, anyway?”
Mac held it up. “AnnaRose made it. It’s supposed to be an eagle.”
Nikki raised an eyebrow. “I hope she’s better at engineering than she is at sculpture.”
Mac looked at her severely. “Are you criticizing my granddaughter’s aesthetic achievements now? I’ll have you know this is a fine imitation of, um, early Haida totemic art. From the Tukwila period.”
“Right. So how much longer are your evil geniuses going to be up there with you?”
“Spring break’s almost over. Their mom’s coming out for them tomorrow.”
“She’s coming out on the chopper herself?”
“Yeah. She likes me to be there when she inspects them for damage.”
“And how about you? Any plans to come back to civilization someday?”
MacGyver set down the figurine, his face firmly neutral. “Nope. No plans. Period.”
When I was a kid, it seemed that the Minnesota woods just went on forever . . . more than enough room for anything, and plenty of room for a kid to go with all his childhood anger and frustration and grief, and keep going until the endless peace and silence just soaked it up. At first, it was pretty small stuff, though I didn’t think so at the time – a reprimand from my dad, a bad day at school, an experiment that had resulted in another big mess instead of a great discovery.
Later on, after we lost dad and grandma, I had to go farther out into the woods and stay longer. I always came back, of course . . . my mom needed me, and there was stuff I had to do.
After I lost Pete, it felt like there couldn’t possibly be a forest big enough and deep enough to make a difference . . . there wasn’t enough silence anywhere to soak up what I felt.
I went anyway.
I just didn’t figure on coming back this time.
The girls were safely occupied in the clearing in front of the cabin, apparently engrossed in their ongoing scientific investigation into the properties of mud. Mac went over to the woodpile and picked up the axe.
The spasm of pain that hit him when he grasped the handle wasn’t physical – it was the inadvertent result of months of association. It passed quickly enough as he positioned a section of sawn wood on the chopping block, focused on the simple arc of his swing, brought the axe around and down, severing the wood cleanly. Set, focus, swing, strike. Repeat. A wedge and a splitting maul, a whetstone and an axe. Once he got started, the pain and grief retreated, hovering nearby instead of weighing him down; it was only habit that made the act of picking up the axe feel as if his heart and guts were being ripped out again.
The heart attack had hit Pete Thornton on the sixth of June. The funeral had been on the twelfth. By the fifteenth, MacGyver had packed away the nonessentials, made storage arrangements for the bike, and left LA for good. He’d been spending more and more time up at the cabin in recent years anyway, and there hadn’t been that much stuff that needed to be brought in by the chopper.
He’d left the Jeep with a friend in Seattle, and made the final trek out to the cabin on foot; it had taken three days, but it had felt right. But the ache of loss had followed him up into the mountains. The day after his arrival, MacGyver had started cutting firewood.
By October, the woodpile had become so large that he’d had to stop and build an extension to the snowshed that kept off the worst of the weather. In November, he’d made arrangements for the entire stock of split firewood to be given away to some of the poorer residents of rural Snohomish and Skagit counties – almost everyone had wood stoves or fireplaces, and fuel oil was staggeringly expensive. He’d started over with fresh logs and an empty woodshed, and repeated the whole donation process again in February.
He knew it was obsessive, of course. No matter how high the woodpile grew, it couldn’t wall out the pain of losing Pete. But at least while he worked, he could lose himself in the soothing rhythm of the swinging axe, take visceral comfort in finding a place to put the pain. In the end, each length of firewood would go into the flames, warm a home, cook a meal, push the darkness back. Life went on. Another tree grew, another season swung around. Behind him, he could hear the girls laughing, and he smiled in spite of himself.
“Grampa! Grampa! Look!”
MacGyver looked, and had to set down the axe while he bent over laughing. Both girls were nearly covered with mud, hair slicked down and arms coated. The two pairs of dark eyes, so like his own, gleamed wickedly from faces smeared with black muck.
The girls scattered as Mac approached, and he had to stretch his legs before he collared both and hauled them over to where the river curved around the bend near the cabin. The forest echoed with ear-splitting shrieks as he dropped them into the calm pool near the bank, where he maintained a breakwater to control the vigor of the river’s current. The noise was part of the game; they were both tough as nails and impervious to cold, even the glacial chill of the Stillaguamish River in spring. They’d been coming up here with him since they were toddlers, and they started splashing in the river every spring almost before the snowmelt was gone.
Petra bobbed her head back up, shook her hair out of her eyes, and glowered at him. “Grampa! No fair! Mom won’t be here till tomorrow!”
“Yeah? And what’m I supposed to tell her if I can’t find you two ’cause I lost you in a mud puddle?” Mac leaned out over the pool as he stared her down, bracing himself for the next step in the game. Once he was in position, AnnaRose hurled herself from the water and wrapped her arms around his legs, and he let her pull him off balance so he toppled in with a resounding splash. His own yell of anguish when the cold water hit him was drowned in the shouts of laughter.
The solar collectors that provided electricity to the cabin had a useful side feature – MacGyver had rigged a drying rack in the dead space under the roof to take advantage of the waste heat produced by the energy conversion. It got a lot of use when the girls were visiting. He basked in the heat of the small loft area, letting the chill of the river bake away before he slipped into dry clothes himself and climbed back down to the main cabin.
“Grampa, you’ve got mail.”
Petra looked over her shoulder and grinned. The indicator panel by the server was showing a new constellation, one of his favourites; she didn’t need to say anything else. “Do I hafta get off the computer right away?”
“No, you earned your time. You finish up.” Beside Petra on the computer table was an hourglass Mac had made for her; half filled with glittering mica dust that sparkled as it slid downwards. Upstairs in his loft bedroom was a larger jar of the dust; both girls could earn extra sand for their hourglasses in any number of ways, or occasionally just by grandparental whim. The hourglasses weren’t especially accurate, but the girls loved them. AnnaRose had been known to simply set hers out in the sunlight and watch it.
AnnaRose was hanging over the back of Petra’s chair, watching with envy. “Grampa, when can I have a MySpace page?”
“When your mom says you can.”
“Why don’t you have one? You could have one and let me share it.”
“I’m too old.”
Mac picked AnnaRose up and swung her around, then pretended to collapse under her weight. “You see? Waaay too old.”
Petra abandoned her own web page update and joined the pile. It was some time before Willis’ email was answered.
The clearing where the helicopter usually landed was a wide meadow a few hundred yards from the cabin, the remnant of an old burn scar from a forest fire a generation ago. Five years before, when MacGyver had first started coming up to the cabin regularly, the clearing had been a tangled thicket of invasive species; Mac had cleared out the Scotch broom and Japanese knotweed and made room for the native plants to recover. The Washington Natural Heritage Program now used it as a starter location for reintroduction of endangered native species. In summer, it was a riotous blaze of wildflowers, and each year the girls listened attentively to a full rundown of which flowers could be picked and which should be noted and catalogued instead. They never got it wrong.
Mac made his slow way out to the clearing to greet the chopper, his left leg dragging. AnnaRose had decided to express her objections to leaving by wrapping herself around his leg, a small and squirmy ankle weight. She’d been doing this sort of thing for years, and had learned early not to cling to his right leg and risk hurting the bad knee.
Lupe Rodriguez set the helicopter down with her usual precision – she’d endured continual shrinkage in the part of the meadow where she was allowed to set down the chopper, and only complained when the girls tracked mud inside it. She waved at MacGyver and busied herself with her shutdown procedure as her passenger unstrapped and swung down from the cockpit.
Lisa Malloy had hardly scrambled out of range of the helicopter blades before she was met by a flying Petra. “Mom! Mom! Didja see? Two eggs in the eagle nest! We got pictures this morning! Didja see?”
“Yes, I saw, honey. I read your blog this morning. Did you take the pictures yourself?” She reached the edge of the clearing, hugged MacGyver, and smiled down at her younger daughter, still clinging to Mac’s leg. “I see you’re out on work release.”
Mac regarded AnnaRose, who peered up at them through the stray hair that was hanging into her eyes. “Yeah, we’re field-testing a new kind of ankle bracelet. The only problem with this model is that we think it can be bribed. Any convict with access to ice cream usually manages to escape.”
“Ice cream?” Petra and AnnaRose chorused.
Lisa wrinkled her nose at him. “Oh, thanks, MacGyver. Undermine my parental authority by establishing a reward for bad behaviour.”
“Any time.” Mac grinned down at her.
When her marriage to Sam had ended, Lisa Woodman Malloy had considered going back to her maiden name, but Mac was glad she hadn’t. They could both be impossibly stubborn people about most things – they’d been stubborn about getting married in the first place, and now they were equally stubborn about making sure the girls came first in every consideration. Sam and Lisa had both agreed that it was better not to make their daughters deal with a change of name – a change of identity – even though they had both joked that it would be simpler if they all just adopted the name ‘MacGyver’.
Mac had shaken his head at the idea. “No way, Sam. Give them a break. Besides – ”
“What?” Sam had sounded brusque, but they knew each other well enough to know why. They understood each other very well by now.
“You’ve got me. All you’ve got left from your mother is her name. Don’t let that go.”
Sam had simply nodded, and Mac knew it was enough. They both knew what was important.
Lisa lived in Seattle now, where she and Sam had settled during their brief marriage. Not that Sam had really managed to settle down – although he had tried. It was still home base for him, as much as anywhere. And Lisa was firmly entrenched; her practice was thriving – Seattle was a hotbed for alternative therapists, but there was still plenty of room for regular clinical psychology. Lisa worked three days a week out of her own office, donated one pro bono day a week to the local Veterans Association, and found time to raise the girls while still managing to sit on the boards of half a dozen non-profit organizations. MacGyver sometimes wondered where she found the energy, but he suspected that she thrived on the knowledge that her lifestyle and career choice infuriated her father.
AnnaRose pouted. “Why can’t we stay here, Mom? Grampa says we’re helping him . . . pleeease . . . ?”
“Spring break’s over. School starts on Monday.”
Petra scowled. “School’s boring.”
Mac ruffled her hair. “Yeah, I know. But you gotta go anyway. It’s a family tradition.”
“My grampa made me go to school whether I liked it or not. Your grampa’s gonna make you go. Besides, you have to learn all the new stuff they’ve found out since I was in school, and come back and teach me.”
“You’re silly, grampa. And you know everything.”
“Nope. There’s still – ” Mac’s face was a study in solemn concentration; his brow wrinkled as he counted on his fingers, then counted on Petra’s, then added Lisa’s. “There’s still twenty-six things I don’t know,” he finally concluded.
Both girls giggled. “What are they?” AnnaRose demanded.
“I don’t know! That’s the whole point. You have to find out!”
Mac and Lisa finally detached AnnaRose, and they watched as the girls ran back to the cabin to collect their knapsacks. Lisa wrapped her arms around her father-in-law and gave him an extra hug. “I got an email from Sam last night. I think he copied you on it.”
“Yeah.” They never discussed the times when Sam’s work became dangerous, only shared the relief each time he came home safely. He can’t really help it. Any more’n I ever could.
“And I heard from Willis – he and Jess are gonna be up here in June, and they’re bringing Daphne.” Willis’ marriage had surprised himself almost as much as it had startled his friends. His daughter was a year younger than Petra, and they’d been friends almost since babyhood.
“Is he coming up himself this time?” Lisa beamed in delight. “It’s about time. I never thought he’d find someone, you know. But Jess is as geeky and workaholic as he is . . . what kind of father does he make?”
“Kinda nervous. But they’re good together.”
“Jess is headed out to DC again – third time since the inauguration. Can you believe it? Willis doesn’t know whether to fret or preen.”
“I’ll bet. After eight years of being persona non grata in Washington, someone’s finally willing to listen to the environmentalists again.”
“We got plenty to say.” Mac watched his granddaughters running back from the cabin, and wondered how he could still manage to breathe at times like this, when his heart felt so much larger than his chest. When Sam had first walked into his life, it had taken a long struggle to get used to having so much joy and vulnerability, to being held an emotional hostage to the future. So many delicate strands tying him to the world – in the months since Pete’s death, the same strands had held him together and kept him from a complete retreat.
Lupe had only been carrying passengers on that trip; she wouldn’t be delivering supplies until the following week. MacGyver was surprised, and uneasy, when he heard a helicopter again the next afternoon. He rarely heard much in the way of air traffic out here, and the sound of an unscheduled chopper usually meant some kind of search and rescue operation. Mac looked anxiously at the radio, which had made no demands on his attention, and hurried outside to peer up at the sky.
It only took a few minutes before he reluctantly admitted to what his ears had known immediately. It was the same helicopter, Lupe’s chopper, returning far too soon, unexpected and unheralded. Mac’s face set into grim lines as he hurried out to the meadow to watch its landing.
He spotted the passenger while the chopper was still descending, but he didn’t actually recognize her until she shrugged out of her harness and slid from the cockpit, scrambling out while Lupe was still working her way through the shutdown routine.
Mac had started forward, but now he stopped and waited for the unannounced visitor to cross the meadow towards him.
“Nikki? What the heck is goin’ on? Why didn’t you let me know you were comin’ out here?” He didn’t mean to sound so gruff and cranky, but somehow it came out that way. Nikki usually had that effect on him, even after so many years.
For once, she didn’t seem interested in sparring or jumping on him for every imagined problem. She had recently succumbed to the creeping years and started wearing glasses, and her eyes behind the lenses were wide and grim.
“Sorry to alarm you, MacGyver, but it was urgent . . . I thought it would be better to come out here myself. I didn’t want to risk a call.”
“Risk a call? Nikki, my webcam’s not that scary even when I forget to shave.”
She didn’t even rise to the bait. “We’ve had some inquiries from Interpol. They were hoping we could help them out – I didn’t want to buy what they were telling me, but I couldn’t ignore it.”
“Couldn’t ignore what?” Mac was already feeling crankier. Nikki was usually much better at coming to the point; something must have rattled her.
Nikki bit her lip and looked around at nothing in particular before she finally met his gaze. “Mac, it looks like Murdoc has finally resurfaced.”
“That’s not possible.” MacGyver’s voice was hard and flat, each word as sharp-edged as a knife blade. He turned away from her and started to walk back to the cabin.
“MacGyver, aren’t you listening? You could be in danger! Didn’t you hear me? Murdoc’s back!”
Mac had intended to go on, but instead he found himself turning to face her, towering over her, his shadow crossing her face.