The middle of the road is where the white line is – and that’s the worst place to drive. – Robert Frost
“Well, that’s not exactly the response I expected. A whole minute of total silence.”
“Jesus, Jack, what do you expect? You mention this ten minutes after I leave for the airport?”
“I’ve been trying to ask you all weekend. Kept getting nervous. Looks like I was right to be.”
“Jack ... don’t take my not saying ‘yes’ as me saying ‘no.’”
“Kind of hard not to. I thought ... I thought we were ready. I know I am.”
“I just ...need some time to think. This isn’t a small thing.”
“I could make a really gratuitous smutty remark at this point, but this is too important.”
“Give me some time, okay? I love you.”
“Love you more. Have you decided yet?”
“God, you’re annoying.”
“Yes. I am.”
Daniel’s eyes were gritty and sore. Driving any distance in heavy snow will do that. It had started pretty much as he left Duluth airport, light and fluffy at first as he eased up 61 to Two Harbors, then heavy and wet, the kind that quickly accumulated and made getting anywhere hazardous when he hit 15 north.
The journey was going to take way longer than it should have. And now it was getting dark and the temperature was falling still further. And the further out of town he drove, the going was getting progressively tougher and slower.
“Fuck,” he sighed, changing the radio station when The Ronettes came on for the umpteenth time, ding-a-ling-a-ding-dong-dinging for all they were worth. A man could only take so much festive jollity. The girls’ voices gave way to the unmistakeable sound of Johnny Mathis. “Fuck.” Another station change, and this time some obscure opera filled the Ford Escape rental. Jack would have loved it. But Jack wasn’t here and Daniel didn’t love it. Despairing, he turned the radio off.
Concentrating hard, he found the turning that finally took him east on country roads towards the lake.
He swiped at tired eyes under his glasses and rolled his shoulders, shifting in the driver’s seat. He was stiff and stressed and he needed to pee. Things couldn’t get much worse.
Up ahead, he spied a set of tail lights. The vehicle had stopped and its hazard lights were flashing.
It was Christmas Eve and he was late.
Of course things could get worse.
“You sound tired.”
“Is it because you’ve been lying awake at night thinking about your answer?”
“No, Jack. I’ve been working late all week and as soon as this call ends I’m going to take a shower and go to bed.”
“Davis will never stop pursuing through the corridors of the Pentagon and these days I’m not there to stick out a foot and send him sprawling.”
“Shut up. You chose to retire and retreat to the ass end of nowhere to, and I quote, ‘get the foul stench of Washington off my skin.’ Paul’s a good friend.”
“Yes. Well. He wants to be more and has ever since that trip to Moscow.”
“That was years ago!”
“The heart never grows old.”
“Oh, please. Can I go to bed now?”
“If you give me your answer.”
“Good night, Jack.”
Slowly, Daniel drew the car to a halt and he peered through the swirling snowflakes to determine the problem ahead. He jumped when a knock came on his driver side window. Turning his head, he found an elderly man wearing a woollen hat pulled low over his forehead smiling at him. Jack’s unsolicited advice in such situations came through loud and clear: “Threat assess, Daniel. Never roll down the window.” At that, Daniel had looked heavenwards. Then Jack added, “Unless you’re in Minnesota. In which case, being friendly and helpful is mandatory.” Daniel rolled the window down.
“There’s a tree down across the road. Help’s on its way. Should be along soon. Better settle in for a while.” The man had a pleasant, craggy face. Lived in, some might say. Daniel estimated he was probably in his late 70s, with long-ish gray hair poking out under his hat. The man shrugged further into his heavy coat. “Got caught short. Had to pee.” He inclined his head toward the trees and bushes lining the side of the road. “One of the perils of old age.” He rolled his eyes.
Daniel smiled. “Well, I don’t have that excuse and I still need to pee.”
The man sniffed. “Go ahead. I’ll keep an eye out.” He nodded to the Super Duty in front. “That’s mine. And it ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Daniel winced. Talking about needing to pee made him need to pee more.
“Okay. Thanks. I won’t be, er ... yes. Right.”
He walked gingerly across the road in expensive but unsuitable brogues, silently declaring a Joe Faxon Inappropriate Footwear Moment and god only knew what brought him to mind. He edged into the woods, leaning from one tree to the next. When he was sure he was far enough away from the road, he unzipped and sighed in relief as the took care of business.
When he made it back to the car, the man was still standing by the driver side, talking into his cell phone.
Daniel smiled at him and debated whether or not to get back in the car. He decided to stretch his legs and wandered up the road to check out the damage. A huge black spruce lay right across the road. It was too big to move manually and even with the right equipment it might take some time to clear. He sighed, his breath condensing in the freezing air. He kicked out at a branch in frustration and it pinged back at him defiantly. He peered at it accusingly before fishing in his pocket for his phone.
The call went straight to voicemail, which irrationally made Daniel even more annoyed. He took a breath and listened to Jack’s voice. He loved Jack’s voice. It meant home; wherever Jack was, that was home. Even the wilds of Silver Creek, Minnesota, in the midst of winter. He waited until the end of the message. “Hi, it’s me. I’ve hit a roadblock. Um, not literally. There’s a tree down and it could take a while to clear. I’m fine. Cold and pissed, but fine. I’ll call you when I know more. Okay. So ... go ahead and eat dinner. Okay. Love you. Bye.”
“Nothing worse than a ruined pot roast.”
The old guy was standing beside Daniel, eyeing the tree with resignation.
Daniel eyed it, too.
“Fish, actually. Catch of the day, with potatoes, winter vegetables and a buerre noisette, so I was told eariler.” His stomach rumbled at the very thought. The unpalatable airline sandwich had been hours ago.
“Your girl sounds like a good cook.”
Daniel hesitated, and thought “what the hell.” His days of being wary of people’s reaction were long gone. If the guy didn’t like it, screw him. There were more immediate things to worry about. “He is. Just don’t tell him. He’ll be more unbearable than he already is.”
There was a moment’s silence as the information was processed. The ensuing conversation would go one of two ways. He was always prepared for both.
“He caught the fish and cooked it?”
“That’s my Minnesota boy.”
“Then I’d say he was the catch of the day.”
Daniel cast a glance his fellow traveler’s way. The man’s blue-gray eyes were twinkling.
“Daniel Jackson.” Daniel put out a gloved hand.
They shook hands and smiled before turning their attention back to the cause of their ire.
“I have a Thermos of coffee in my truck, Daniel. Care to share?”
“Do desperate men pee in the woods?”
Elliot’s laugh was deep and long. Daniel felt a large hand slap his back as they headed for the big Ford.
“What do you mean you can’t get here until Christmas Eve?”
“That I can’t get to the cabin until Christmas Eve. It’s really quite simple.”
“But I thought you were taking the weekend off, too.”
“I was. Now I’m not. There’s ... stuff ... happening with the program.”
“Stuff you can’t talk about over the phone?”
“Yeah. That sort of stuff.”
“Damn. Wish I was still there.”
“No you don’t.”
“No. I don’t. But retirement sucks when I’m here and you’re there.”
“It won’t be forever.”
“Ahhh. Does that mean you’ve got an answer for me?”
“No. It just means that I won’t be working in Washington until the end of my days on Earth. Things will change.”
“You know I’m going to sulk about this, right?”
“You’re such a child.”
The inside of Elliot’s truck was warm and dry, and the coffee hot and strong. Daniel raised his cup in grateful thanks.
“Never go anywhere without my Thermos. I can hear my wife now, ‘You never know when you might get stuck, Elliot.’ Wise woman my Jeannie.”
Daniel took a sip and closed his eyes. Bliss. Despite the woolen gloves, his hands were freezing. Wrapping his fingers around the cup was helping to thaw them out.
“Jeannie know you’re going to be late?”
There was a pause. “Oh, I’m sure she does, although not in the conventional sense. She’s not waiting at home. Been gone four years now.”
Daniel frowned. “I’m sorry.”
Elliot sighed. “So am I, Daniel. Miss her every day. Even miss the tellings-off over tramping dirt through the house on muddy boots. It’s the little things.” He went quiet then .
Daniel peered into his cup. “I know what you mean. I lost my wife and I still miss everything about her, good and bad. Not that there was much ... bad.”
Beside him, Daniel felt Elliot shift a little in his seat. If he was shocked to hear that the man with a Minnesota boy waiting for him had previously been married to a woman, he didn’t show it. Quite the modern man, Elliot Petersen.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Elliot said, no hint of pity in his voice, merely shared understanding. “You’re too young to lose someone that precious.”
Daniel took another drink of coffee. It was cooling quickly. “It was a long time ago.” It was, but sometimes it felt like yesterday. He could still smell the rich, musky oil she rubbed into her body after bathing; feel the unbelievable smoothness of her skin; taste the sweetness of her lips. Sha’uri ... I still love you, do you know that? Nothing will ever change that, whatever I decide.
“Time moves on and we have to move with it, right? Standing still means going backwards and Jeannie was never one for that.”
Daniel smiled. “Neither was Sha’uri, my wife. She loved to learn, although the truth was I learned far more from her than she ever learned from me.” He swallowed hard. “I wasn’t very good husband material.”And there, right there, was the rub. He’d failed her in pretty much every way; couldn’t get her pregnant, wouldn’t put her before his obsession with work, didn’t see that his selfishness was making her unhappy. And he was very much afraid that none of that had changed in the years since he’d lost her.
He wasn’t designed to be half of a marital whole.
He wasn’t cut out to be the marrying kind.
He was afraid to fail anyone in that way again.
“Oh, Daniel. I’m pretty sure you did a better job of it than you think you did. You loved her, even I can see that, and that’s with these damned cataracts. Ease up on yourself, my friend. Your Sharon ...”
“Sha’uri loved you for who you were. Jeannie loved me warts and all. That comforts me to this day.”
Daniel loved the way Elliot’s face lit up when he mentioned his lost wife’s name. The deep creases, which spoke of years of laughter and a man at ease with himself, smoothed and allowed the years to fade away. Daniel acknowledged his own ping of jealousy; would that he were that comfortable in his own skin.
“You know, this is an incredibly deep conversation considering we only met half an hour ago,” Daniel said, his tone a mixture of surprise and mild joshing.
“Isn’t it? Guess that’s what mild adversity can do to a person.” And Elliot chuckled. It was a warm, comforting sound, the kind that made your heart glad. And Daniel thought, “This is what it would have been like to talk to dad. Grown man to grown man.” He felt immeasurably sad, what with memory of Sha’uri so vivid, too. Afraid that his emotions were about to spill over, Daniel fumbled for the door handle.
“Think I’ll just get some air.”
He practically stumbled out of the truck and slid in those fucking brogues – why hadn’t he put his boots on when he changed out of his work clothes? It was rural Minnesota for god’s sake. He should have swapped footwear before leaving Washington, but he’d been too preoccupied, his thoughts too tangled, his mind too distracted. So the boots were in a bag in the trunk.
Thanks a bunch, Jack.
He gulped in the freezing air.
“You can breathe in Minnesota,” Jack always said. Well, Jack was wrong because, right now, Daniel was having a really hard time catching his breath.
“Hi, I’m at the airport and miracle of miracles the flight’s on time. I should be there about seven.”
“Can’t wait. I’ve missed you.”
“Santa has something nice for you.”
“Well, I’ve been good all year.”
“Not so good when you wrecked the bed in that New York hotel.”
“That was entirely your fault. You shouldn’t have got me so ... worked up.”
“Worked up? Fucking out of control, I’d call it.”
“Or out-of-control fucking.”
“Gotta go. Boarding.”
“Anything else you’ve got to tell me.”
“Thought not. But I live in hope.”
“In the Kingdom of Hope, there is no winter.”
“What? Well, there’s a shit load of winter in Minnesota. I need to check the generator. Make sure there’s no chance of a power outage while you need the coffeemaker. That could get ugly.”
“Love you. Bye.”
“Did I say something to upset you, son?” Elliot caught up to Daniel as he reached the tree. Staring at it didn’t seem to be making it go away.
“Oh, no, Elliot. You didn’t. I’m ... struggling with some stuff. My stuff. I’m sorry if I made you feel awkward.”
“You didn’t. Not much makes me feel awkward. Unless it’s having to smile and pretend I’m enjoying Elsa Harborn’s butter cookies. Goddamn awful things but she makes ‘em and brings ‘em over every damned Christmas. I think she wants me.”
Daniel laughed, and it released a whole bunch of tension. He immediately felt better. “I take it you’re not looking for someone new in your life.”
“Not Elsa.” Elliot leaned in, conspiratorially. “They say her first husband, Leonard, died in mysterious circumstances when they lived in Minneapolis. Her second went out on a Monday night and never came back.”
“Sounds like an urban myth to me, and I’m an expert in rumors, lies and fairytales.”
“You a writer?”
“I work for the Government in a consulting capacity but I’m an anthropologist and linguist by trade. An expert on ancient cultures.”
Elliot huffed a laugh, shuffling on the spot in a bid to stay warm. “Elsa’s ancient alright. A whole two years older than me.”
“Age is just a number, Elliot.”
“You sound like you speak from experience.”
“My partner’s older. It doesn’t matter to me. I think he thinks it does, sometimes. And being older makes him ... impatient for things to happen, citing his ‘Life’s to short’ mantra.”
“Well, we’re all getting older. That’s the other certainty in life, the one that runs alongside death and taxes.”
“I like certainties.” It came as a shock to realize that he did. So much of his life had been chaotic and unplanned, and being settled and sure of his future was overwhelmingly appealing. And, if that was the case, why the fuck couldn’t he give Jack the answer they both wanted? He shrugged further into his coat and pushed the thought away. “I wish I knew for certain when this tree was going to be cleared.”
Elliot half-turned to look down the road. “This kind of thing happens a lot around here.”
Daniel shoved his hands deeper in his pockets. “You live close by?”
“About twenty minutes the other side of that damned tree. I’ve been visiting a friend over Christianson Lake way. We get together every Christmas. The road was fine when I drove down this morning but we had a bad storm about a week ago.” Elliot indicated the fallen spruce. “This beauty couldn’t take it, I guess. I called my buddy and he’s coming out with his son and a couple of chainsaws. Quicker than waiting for official help, and the logs will come in useful. You got far to go?”
“Up near Amberger Lake.”
“Should still make it in time for midnight.”
“I’ll get there when I get there.” The same could be said for making decisions, and he couldn’t, wouldn’t, rush the one Jack was so desperate for him to make. Some things were too important. Out of the blue, Daniel yawned, partly thanks to the energy he was expending trying to keep warm and partly due to emotional overload. “Think I’ll rest up for a bit. It’s turning into a long day.”
Daniel walked back to his car and climbed in. God, he wanted to get to Jack. They hadn’t seen each other in five weeks and it was starting to feel like a lifetime. He set the seat back and closed his eyes, hoping that when he opened them again he could be on his way to smiling brown eyes and an embrace warmer than Elliot’s coffee.
He drifted for a while, his consciousness aware of the steady shush of the big trees in the wind and the wet slap of snowflakes on the windshield. And then, as the rhythmic sounds of the world outside the car lulled him, he saw images of Sha’uri, moving sensuously beneath him as they loved; laughing as Daniel attempted to grind yaphetta flour; crying as she told him that, after another month, she wasn’t carrying his baby. And wisp-like images turned to unsettling dreams as sleep finally took him. He was standing outside the cabin and he knew that Jack was inside, searching every room for him, calling out his name, softly at first and then with more and more urgency. Round and round the cabin Jack went, in and out of every room, but Jack couldn’t find him. Daniel stood outside, watching, doing nothing, getting colder and wetter as the snow fell thicker and faster, although he felt nothing. He was numb. And then Jack burst through the door, frantic, stumbling.
“I can’t find you,” he shouted, “Daniel, I can’t find you.”
Daniel said, “I’m here.” But Jack didn’t hear him.
“I’m here.” But Jack didn’t see him.
Daniel woke up calling Jack’s name. Mouth dry and heart pounding, he sat up, an insistent noise that was not trees or snow demanding his attention.
He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light cast by the snow. Up ahead, a couple of guys were carving up the heavy trunk of the fallen tree. Elliot was standing by, talking to an older guy, his buddy, Daniel assumed.
Daniel breathed out a long, calming breath and rubbed a hand over his face.
Dreaming. He’d been dreaming.
He grabbed his cell phone. Again, his call went straight to voicemail.
“Hi, Jack. I guess you’re checking the generator, or something, and, as always, your phone is in the pocket of the coat you’re not wearing. Anyway. They’re working on clearing the tree. I’m here – I can’t find you – and I’m fine. Call me when you get this. I love you. I really ... just call me, okay?”
Daniel breathed out again. He felt so off-kilter. He needed to be home. For a moment, he rested his head on the steering wheel. The whole day was turning into something hugely surreal. He was on a never-ending journey, had met a stranger with whom he’d shared more of his feelings than just about anyone except Jack, had experienced a disturbing dream that Freud would have a field day with and he was so hungry he was considering eating snow.
He banged his head on the dashboard in sheer frustration, wrenched open the door, gasped against the rush of cold air and slithered around the car to open the trunk. Inside his overnight bag, he found his walking boots, and, hopping from foot to foot, he changed his footwear, shoving the probably ruined snow-covered work shoes under the bag of gifts he’d bought with him.
Slamming the trunk shut, he saw Elliot walking towards him, a frown firmly in place.
“Erik reckons this is going to take some time. Could even require specialist help in the morning. You might want to head back to the 15 and find another route. It’ll be longer but at least you’ll be moving.”
Daniel shoved his hands under his armpits. He was getting colder and wearier by the second and the snow was showing no signs of letting up. A detour didn’t sound appealing but it did make sense.
“Yeah. You’re right. Jack’ll start sending out the search parties if I’m not there by morning.”
“Jack. That your fellah?”
Daniel smiled a small smile. He couldn’t help it. He loved hearing Jack described that way.
“Yeah. That’s my fellah.”
Elliot blew on his hands. “That stuff you said you were struggling with. Anything to do with him?”
Daniel eyed him sideways. The man was too perceptive by half. “Everything to do with him.”
Elliot nodded. “You’re a scientist, right? You analyze stuff and like everything set out in neat rows and tables where it all makes sense.”
“Life isn’t like that, Daniel. It’s not some problem to be solved. It’s to be lived and embraced. Don’t analyze or over-think whatever it is you’re having a problem with. Just ... go with your heart. Isn’t that what your Sherry ...
“Sha’uri. I keep getting that wrong, sorry. It’s beautiful name. Kinda unusual.”
Daniel smiled. “Actually, that pretty much sums Sha’uri up.” Beautiful. Unusual. Unique. Feisty. Opinionated. And I failed her ...
“Isn’t that what your Sha’uri would tell you to do? Go with your heart?”
Daniel could hear her saying the words, fixing him with those soulful, expressive eyes. “She would.”
Elliot turned towards Daniel and took him by the shoulders. “Then do as she says. God knows, women are always right. We might not like it, but they are.”
On the road ahead, Erik and his son were slicing through the tree.
Elliot gripped Daniel’s shoulders more tightly. His hands were strong, thanks to years of living the outdoor life. “The road ahead is clearer than you think, my friend. Time you were on your way.”
Daniel took a good look at the man in front of him. He wondered if he was anything like Jack’s father, or grandfather. They built them honest and straightforward around here.
“Thank you, Elliot. For the coffee and the advice. Sometimes, I can’t see the wood for the trees.”
They both laughed as they shook hands, and Daniel winced in apology; the old saying was way too apt for their present circumstances.
Elliot began to walk back towards Erik, checking his watch as he went. “Looks like my luck’s in. I’ll probably miss Elsa Harborn and her damned cookies.”
“A wise man told me life’s to be embraced,” Daniel called after him, “And that includes friendly women bearing cookies.” That elicited a wave of the hand.
Daniel grinned. His cell phone rang as he slid into the driver’s seat. He picked it up and hit the button. Time to stop over-thinking. Time to stop failing. Time to say ...
“The answer to your question is yes.”
There was a stunned silence. “Well, it’s about time.”
“It’s past time. You do know that I’m a selfish, tunnel-visioned, work-obsessed asshole on occasion.”
He started the engine and moved slowly in reverse.
“I know that.”
“And that I’m not quitting work until the time’s right, even though you’re here and I’m there and the twain shall meet not nearly as often as we’d like.”
“I know that, too.”
“And you still want to marry me?”
“Then let’s do it as soon as we can.”
Daniel turned the Escape around, waving a “thank you” to Elliot as he completed the manoeuvre .
“You eat all the fish?”
“Nope. Saved yours. Hungry?”
“I’ll have it ready.”
“I’m taking a detour but it shouldn’t take me too far out of the way. See you soon.”
“You did say yes, right?”
Daniel put his phone on the passenger seat and hit the radio. The Ronettes and Sleigh Ride. Of course.
This time, he sang along.