Who told you you could be in here? says a voice behind her.
She turns and finds Richard Grierson standing in the doorway, his fists clenched at his sides. He is five years her senior, but he’s one of those young men who still hasn’t got fully shut of his boy self.
I was just takin stock, she says. It’s quite a captain’s cabin you got here.
He shakes himself out of his previous anger and straightens the lapels of his jacket.
I apologize, he says with a formality that makes him seem almost feminine. We’re not used to visitors. You are of course welcome in this room anytime.
So you’re the one responsible for all the ships I see around here, she says.
You got a good touch, she says. It takes a fine hand to play music and build itty-bitty boats. My hands, they’re made for a larger scale.
She holds up her hands, with the one clipped pinky, to show him, and he winces slightly.
Yes, he says. Well . . .
You do the maps too?
No, he says. I just found them in books. James brings some to me when he finds them.
I know you didn’t cartograph em or anything, but the routes, you drew them?
What are they of?
His face brightens, and he comes to stand beside her and pulls some books off a low shelf.
These are the places I’m going to go when everything is back to normal. I’m going to sail around the world.
Really? You can do that?
People have. Look, have you ever heard of New Zealand?
I didn’t even know there was an old Zealand.
Look here, he says and opens the books onto bright photos of rolling hills, tall mountains, curving beaches, foreign markets populated with street stalls and colorfully dressed people—picture postcards from all the world around—a collector’s set of beautiful places. And here’s Australia, and this is Tahiti. And Madagascar. Even Greenland, which isn’t green at all but frozen in ice all year long.
Gosh, she says. You know how to get to these places?
He closes one book and looks down at the binding of it.
I would try, he says.
Then why ain’t you goin now? she says. Greenland ain’t comin to you. What you waiting for?
He looks at her uncomprehendingly.
With things the way they are? he says. It would be impossible. But one day, when the world gets back to the way it’s supposed to be.
What do you know about the way it’s supposed to be? You ain’t that much older than me. You were born into the same world I was.
But I’ve read about it, he says, sweeping his hand across all the worn spines of the books on the shelf. All these books. Hundreds of them. I know what it was like—what it’s going to be like again. Grandmother says it’s only a matter of time.
Richard Grierson smiles, but it’s an inward-pointing smile, a smile of someone folding himself back up for storage in the colorful corners of his own crayon fantasies. She looks at the books, their titles hazy with a thin film of sawdust, and she looks at the toy ships built for imaginary journeys along the red dotted lines of a child’s map, and she looks at the exotic pictures in the books still open flat before her, and she understands that these places are just places of the mind, and she wants to be able to exalt his wild dreams and imaginings along with her own—but there’s something about them that make them feel like the saddest thing she’s ever seen.
SHE STAYS in the house another week, longer than she meant to—walking the fence during the day, helping Maisie in the kitchen just to have something to do. Mrs. Grierson teaches her a card game called pea-nuckle, but she gets too good at it and has to let the old woman win half the time out of pure graciousness. Nights, she takes the path to the bluff and looks out over the city and counts the lights. Sometimes James Grierson goes up with her, and sometimes she is alone. Sometimes she passes by his room in the middle of the night and the door to his bedroom is open and she finds him lying on the bed waiting for her. They do their private deeds, when he’s not too drunk, but she doesn’t sleep in his bed because she’s not used to sleeping next to someone and she doesn’t want to get accustomed to it. In the dark, she wonders where the light is coming from that is reflected on the surface of his eyes. They drink from the same bottle, and he tells her she can come with him the next time he makes a run for supplies.
She nods, thinking she’ll be long gone by then. She imagines the road, the car, by herself again, the long narrow tarmac leading forward deep into a country that keeps unfolding, dead and alive.
She wonders where she will go next. She’s been down south for a long time now, almost as long as she can remember, flying like a blackbird back and forth from post to post along the same decaying fence. Maybe she’ll go north to see Niagara Falls, where Lee the hunter had been—all that water tumbling over the edge of the earth, and the river never running out of it. It is something she would like to see, no doubt about it. And then maybe up into Canada since she’s never been to another country before—except maybe Mexico, and only that because the border isn’t so clear anymore and she may have tipped over it to the other side once or twice when she was in Texas.
Or the beaches of California that she’s seen in tattered magazines published decades before. Palm tree sunsets, the wide white meridians of sand, the piers projecting out toward the horizon and the water crashing violently against the barnacled pilings. She has heard that there are places in California to live—large areas fenced off and safe. Places where commerce has resumed and governments have been reestablished on a small scale. Oases of civilization. It puts her in mind of a new world. She might like to see something like that.
Or the snowy mountains, where she could build a castle of ice. She saw the snow once before, in the mountains of North Carolina. You could drive hours along a snowy road without seeing one slug—they don’t naturally take to the cold. They don’t die, but they slow down to a stop and freeze in place. She remembers one small town built up around an abandoned ski lodge. A community of frozen meatskins like statuary in the streets. She walked among them and wondered what God had to do with a tableau like that one, for surely He must know that such a thing existed.
Even Richard Grierson knows that the world is a wide place. And the way she figures it, it’s as much hers as anybody’s. Only there are some things that stay with you no matter where you go.
And James comes to find her on the bluff one evening after dinner when there are no clouds in the sky and the lights of the city below seem like dazzling reflections of the stars.