When Jack talked about losing himself in Minnesota, Sam never really understood the appeal.
It isn’t that she doesn’t enjoy herself when she’s up there – she does, very much so, but she never really gets what it is about the place that makes it his touchstone. He could pretend to fish just about anywhere with a few feet of water and a good sized rock to lean his back against while he waits, eyes closed, for the nibble that never comes. She supposes that if she’d been a party to all the summers he’d spent here as a kid, she might feel that little pull of nostalgia, but then again, her family had moved around so much when she was growing up that it had made sentimental attachment a luxury she never bothered to indulge.
She’s fine the first two days after they park the truck and hang the keys on the hook behind the cabin door. Relaxed even, as much as she can when completely cut off from the outside world. She honors his request that she leave the laptop at home; there’s no internet to be tapped into with these ancient phone lines anyhow, and setting up the equipment to pick up a wireless signal is a sure way to ruin his rare uninterrupted vacation time. He doesn’t even have a television here, never even bothered with one of those old black and white deals with the rabbit ears.
She understands he’s here to get away from everything. Every meeting, memo, and midnight phone call about the fate of the planet. He just wants to be able to shut down and recharge once in a while.
But unplugging just doesn’t do it for her. Heck, since she first stepped on board the Hammond, single-tasking is as challenge, though she suspects she’s been like this for longer than she can actually recall. It’s always a wonder that she and Jack don’t kill each other by day three.
Which is why, as she settles on to his lap on the back bench of the aluminum fishing boat to a groan from him so guttural she can feel it in her thighs, she’s surprised to discover that there is nothing on her mind but how his skin tastes in the late summer sunshine.
But even that thought is fleeting.
“You asked if I ever actually catch fish,” Jack says, as if this is all the explanation he needs for hauling her out of bed at the crack of dawn. He lifts a small cooler onto the kitchen table.
She stares back at him, eyes still blurry with sleep. He’s amassed a pile of supplies which doesn’t look much different from the hodge-podge of parts and wires he’d collected each time he’d let another repository of Ancient knowledge fill up his brain, and for a moment, she’s alarmed.
“Dress in layers. We’ll be gone all day,” he tells her as he pulls a pair of travel mugs from a cupboard. “And don’t forget your bathing suit.”
He’s still speaking English, so his mind’s in one piece. Sam realizes she can smell coffee, and the promise of a fresh cup is incentive enough to get her feet moving.
Minnesota is known as the ‘land of ten thousand lakes’, or so say its license plates. Sam just never realized that most of them were practically right next door. The topographic map is dotted with names like ‘Trout’, ‘Finger’, ‘Long’, and ‘Otter’, but by the time Jack cuts the truck engine at the end of the long, dusty gravel road, Sam is so turned around that she’d need a GPS or a locator beacon to find her way out of here.
She slides out of the truck and stands beside Jack where the road dips down and ends in the lake. He’s squinting into the dark water and frowning.
“Used to be a boat ramp here.”
“Used to be?” she asks, though she really shouldn’t be surprised. The only tracks on the road after the last turn had belonged to a quadruped, and a large one, at that. Probably a black bear picking its way along the overripe blueberry bushes spilling down the rocks, Jack had guessed. Sam wonders how long it’s been since the last time he’d been out this way.
“Lake must be higher this year.” He starts back to the truck. “I’ll back her in as far as she’ll go, but we’re going to have to carry the boat.”
It turns out they don’t have to carry the boat after all, though in a breath-holding moment when the boat trailer is completely submerged and the truck’s tailpipe is burbling in the water, Sam questions the sanity of this plan.
There are a few clouds in the sky, but they’re wispy and move languidly through the troposphere. As the boat eases along the edge of the small bay and out into the main body of the lake, Sam has to close her eyes against the brilliance of the sun reflected at them off every tiny wave.
The day is going to be a hot one.
Once they’re out into deeper water, and the danger of snagging the prop against a submerged rock has passed, Jack twists the throttle on the outboard motor, the boat planes out, and Sam lets the G-forces push her back against her seat. There are a few waves, but they cut through them smoothly, and it feels like they’re flying. It’s as close as she can get to that moment when the throttle’s full but the wheels haven’t quite left the ground without actually being in the pilot’s seat. Sam relaxes and lets the warm air rush over her.
They follow the shoreline, for the most part; it’s a big lake and a long paddle back if the engine were to cut out. They skim past islands – some so small that they’re nothing but a granite dome with a lone tree and a flock of pelicans and seagulls preening on every surface, and others are so large that it’s easy to lose track of where they end and where they begin, or if they’re even an island at all.
As they pass one of these behemoths Jack eases off the throttle and finally cuts the motor, and they drift into the shelter of a bay. The water is calmer here but no less brilliant; a deep, clear, tea color, stained by the tannic acid from the pine forest that perches with its finger-like roots to the Precambrian rock that rises around them.
The place feels old and untouched. As the last echoes of the motor fade away, Sam gets a sense of the solemnity of the place, as if she’s just stepped over the threshold and into a cathedral.
“We used to come here a lot,” Jack tells her. He lowers a drag anchor over the side and plays out the rope until he’s satisfied that they’re not going to float off. Sam wonders at who ‘we’ is.
There are parts of his history that she is never meant to be a part of, and she’s okay with that. Everyone’s molded by what comes before. This intentional bleed-through of places and events, however, this communion with what he holds dear, is his way of tying her to him with a strength that can’t be matched by any ribbon of gold.
“Fishing’s usually pretty good, too.” Jack pulls out the tackle box and starts tying a rig. “There’s a bunch of shelves about fifteen feet down. The walleye like it when it’s hot out.”
They fish for several hours, and actually do catch a few keepers. Sam’s left her watch back at the cabin, and she’s lost all sense of time. The sun tells her it could be near three in the afternoon, but she’s not certain; there’s more daylight at this northern latitude during the summer months, and the lack of any semblance of a schedule has skewed her perception of it. It’s like being a child and on summer vacation all over again, and the days are endless.
“Hey, no napping. You’ll lose your rod when you get a bite.”
Sam starts at the droplets of cold water that run down her face. The lake water isn’t cold, really, but she’s been sitting here in the sun so long, slouched in her seat with her bare feet hanging over the gunwale, that she must be radiating heat by now.
“Wasn’t sleeping,” she says as she pulls herself up a bit. Dozing, maybe, but not sleeping. She can’t remember the last time she’d felt relaxed enough to simply drift off like that. Jack’s watching her from behind his sunglasses, and she can tell that he doesn’t quite buy it, but it doesn’t seem to bother him, either.
Afternoon air convection lifts a breeze off the water, even in this sheltered bay, and Sam can hear birds on shore making noises of approval. Her canteen is almost empty, and as she swallows back the last few warm mouthfuls, she hears the sounds of ice chattering in a cooler. Jack holds up a can of… something. She can’t see what it is with the sun glinting off the aluminum can, but it looks cold and wet, and that’s good enough for her.
She steps carefully over the benches and around the fishing gear, but she over-estimates gravity as she gets to the stern. The boat rocks. Jack reaches out to steady her, catches her hip just as she makes a grab at his shoulder, and they ride out the rocking like that.
She never doubts that he won’t let her fall.
His fingers are still buried in the fabric of her shorts, and though the boat has settled, she discovers that her pulse hasn’t. His other hand, the one with the drink, comes to rest along her side, underneath the faded button-down shirt she’s wearing over her bathing suit. It’s cold - the can, that is - and she draws in a sharp breath.
“Sorry,” he says. She can see his eyes behind his shades now, and she likes the way they travel first down her body, and then back up again.
“No, you’re not.”
“No.” He’s got a hint of a smile, a bit of playfulness that she hasn’t seen in what feels like forever. “Not really.” And then his hand is sliding up, under the shirt, and she arches her back against the chill. She digs her fingers into his shoulder and feels him clench at her hip with his other hand.
She’s leaning close enough now that the boat starts to list, but he doesn’t seem notice. His attention is focused on the pale crescent of skin where her bathing suit top doesn’t quite meet her shorts. She’s long outgrown her teen-aged love of bikini tops and Daisy Dukes; she’s got too many scars she’d rather not remind him of.
He doesn’t seem to care though, because he’s studying each one of them as if, rearranged and stitched together, they form a tapestry that reveals a map of the universe. The notion ignites something hot low in her belly. His lips find her skin, a warm counterpoint to the chills of the can still in his other hand. The breeze ripples the water and lifts her hair off her forehead and the back of her neck. Her breath quickens. She needs her other hand to steady herself.
It’s not like her to come undone this easily.
She stumbles when his hands work their way higher, and he lets her, catching her before she falls into him. The boat lurches, but it’s broad and shallow, and made to take the heaving and rolling while reeling in the big one. There’s no danger of tipping.
And then she loses all sense of which hand is where, and there are mouths on hot skin and the taste of sweat and salt on her lips and her tongue. The logistics barely register as clothes are shed, but somehow she keeps the button-down. She lowers herself onto him and as her mouth finds his shoulder, she breathes deep and thinks he smells of sunshine. In this place of no distractions, she comes fast and hard, and she thinks she can hear the waves crashing into the shore as she rests her forehead against his neck and lets her breathing slow. He holds her tight as they wait for the ripples to still.
Around them, even the birds are quiet.
The water is cool enough that she gasps as she surfaces, but it’s refreshing after the slick sweatiness of before. She treads water for a few minutes as her overheated body acclimates, churning the warmer top layer of water into the cooler one at her feet. It’s not long before she’s comfortable, and after a few quick strokes further into the bay, she turns around and swims back to the boat.
Jack watches her, his own feet propped over the edge, and his fishing rod completely forgotten. She grabs on to the gunwale and hangs there in the water, letting the gentle lake currents wash over her bare skin like lazy quicksilver.
The drink can is handed over the side, and the tab has already been popped. The lemonade is still cold. Time moves funny out here, or at least her perception of it.
For once, this doesn’t bother her.
As the sun starts to set, the lake calms to a near glass-like finish, broken here and there by the subtle delta-shaped waves of water bugs skating across the surface and the perfect circles from the fish surfacing to swallow them up. Somewhere across the bay, a loon calls to its mate with a high-pitched giggle that echoes across the water and bounces off the rocks behind them.
They lay side-by-side on a warm, sloping spread of granite with their faces to the sky and the gentle thunk thunk thunk of the boat as it drifts against the rocky shore somewhere off to their left.
The remains of their supper are packed away, and clothes have been scrounged up and put back on. Time has sped up again.
Across the bay, the sun is golden as it slips below the trees, and for a few minutes, the sky is on fire. The Earth keeps on turning, as it always has, as orange deepens to red, passes through spirited indigo before hesitating on soft, deep blues, and finally, settling on a black so clear and rich with stars that Sam thinks she can see all the way back to where time begins.
Jack raises an arm to the horizon with his index finger making an angle with his thumb in a casual parody of a protractor. “There,” he says. She shifts slightly so her head is next to his chin and she can sight along his fingertip. “Right where you parked it.” They never can agree on whether the ship is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, not with a name like The Hammond.
And there it is, alright. She’d be lying if she said the goose bumps that suddenly rush across her skin were from the cold. There’s no denying the thrill of seeing her life’s aspirations hanging, literally, right in front of her eyes.
It’s also a sharp reminder that their time here is running short. Sam’s not sure she’s ready to leave just yet. She hasn’t figured out how to take whatever it is that enchants this place, hasn’t discovered what exerts this pull that can bend and stretch time as if it were nothing more than a piece of warm taffy. She tells him this, and he laughs. “There’s no magic here.”
"Time dilation field?"
Jack puts a hand against her forehead as if checking for fever. "I didn't just hear you say what I thought I heard, did I?"
Sam shoves his hand away, but it's a half-assed effort; another two days and it'll be weeks before she's back on earth again. She knows that when the Hammond's interior lights have been dimmed in a semblance of night time, and the third shift bridge crew are well into the second hour of their watch, she'll miss this easy contact with him the most. When she's awake, but shouldn't be, and listening to every creak and hiss the ship makes, and she feels the weight of the lives of every member of the crew in the palm of her hand; that’s when she’ll miss how a simple word or a subtle touch from him can center her. How easily just being near him can ground her. It's during those long hours before the artificial dawn that she will long for her Minnesota.
And then she understands; it's not about the fishing at all.
It's about taking something that's constant and solid, something that hasn't been touched and stolen and spoiled by the enemies they stare down day after day, year after year, until it seems that war is all they've ever known. It's taking that something and holding it dear, like the soldier with that creased and well-read letter from his girl back home; those words carefully tucked into his shirt pocket which give him purpose as he steps onto foreign shores with his rifle at the ready, knowing each minute that passes may well be his last.
This is what Jack has been trying to give her all along.
“You heard me.” She settles her head back into the angle of his shoulder again.
He pulls her tighter against him. There’s a chill in the air now; this time the goose bumps are followed by a shiver chaser. “The place kind of grows on you,” he agrees.
“Think we could figure out a way to bottle it? Maybe a stasis field, or something?”
“You want to bring it with you like a trophy for your desk?” He’s looking at her with a mix of disbelief and exasperation, like all the effort he’s put into today has gone to waste.
Sam bites her lip. She could play him a little longer, but she doesn’t want to ruin the moment. She wants him to know that she finally gets it. She understands the pull this place has on him. “How about a t-shirt to take home, at least?”
Jack slips a finger between the second and third button of the one she’s wearing – the button down she’d grabbed from his closet this morning - and gives it a little tug. “Looks like you’ve already claimed that too.”
She’s serious. “I just don’t want to leave. Not yet.”
She can see him nod in the dark, feels him brush a kiss across her temple. “It’s another excuse to come home.”
Sam slips her hand through his hair, catches his neck and pulls his lips to hers.
Not that she needs one.