The Women of Independence
by Mona Ingram
Loving From Afar
Dani tightened the last screw on the bracket, mounted the fan, and slipped the screwdriver back into her tool belt. “Much better,” she said, with a satisfied bob of her head. “That’ll help to vent the place.” She poked at the double layer of poly that covered the domed greenhouse. “It’s a great setup.”
“Thanks to you.” Allison smiled at her friend. “You know, it’s been years, and I still can’t believe you run a successful construction company. What did you say you have lined up for your next project?”
“Mr. And Mrs. Berkshire’s sunroom. They’ve asked me to tear off the old one and build them a snazzy new one.” She watched the air sweep over the seedlings in the greenhouse. “I’m looking forward to it. Did you say the airflow from the fan is actually good for the seedlings?”
Allison was accustomed to her friend’s abrupt changes of subject. “Yes.” She wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “The air strengthens them while moderating the temperature.” She tugged on a pulley at the end of the greenhouse and opened a 2’x2’ flap on the end wall. The vents had been Danielle’s idea when she put the structure together. She’d installed one vent at each end to catch the gentle breezes that swept through the valley.
“The Berkshires. They’re Timothy’s parents, aren’t they?”
“That’s right. Really nice people.”
“Did you ask them about Timothy?” Allison forced herself to look her friend in the eye. “About where he is now?”
“I didn’t have to ask. They were eager to tell me all about him. He’s in Vancouver and doing well. He works for a company down there that provides services to the television and film industries. Apparently he scouts locations and stuff like that.”
“Huh.” Allison picked up a handful of potting soil and closed her fist around it. In the heat of the greenhouse, the Pro Mix dried out quickly. She’d have to dampen it down again before she did any more transplanting. She raised her head. “Back in high school, was I the only one who didn’t know that Timothy was gay?”
Dani lifted her shoulders. “I can’t honestly say that I knew, either. He didn’t come out or anything.” She raised an eyebrow. “Cole never said anything?”
Allison shook her head. “Nope.” There was a catch in her throat. “I thought we shared everything.”
“Guys are different about stuff like that. Anyway, it was what...ten, eleven years ago? People weren’t so open.” She turned thoughtful. “Timothy was lucky that Cole befriended him. He needed all the protection he could get. I think the other kids sensed he was different, even if he never confirmed it.”
A wry smile twisted Allison’s lips. “Yeah, Cole was like that.”
Danielle paused, and took a deep breath. “He’s back, you know.”
Allison’s head came up sharply. “Timothy?”
“And just how long were you going to wait to tell me?”
Danielle grinned. “I’m telling you now.” Her smile faltered “I hear his father’s been ill.”
“Why haven’t I heard that?” Allison frowned.
“Because you hide yourself out here? Because you have no social life anymore? Just the other day, Faith was just saying she hasn’t seen you in over a month.”
“What about you? When was the last time you were out on a date?”
“Oh, no you don’t.” Dani’s eyes flashed. “This isn’t about me. And don’t tell me that going out with Mark counts as a date. You two are just propping each other up.”
“No fair! I–”
Dani shook her finger. “You shouldn’t tell me these things if you don’t want them to come back at you.” She looked at her watch. “I have to go.” She walked out the wide greenhouse door and looked at the long, straight rows of black plastic, ready to receive the seedlings. She turned slowly. “He looks hot, Al. I scarcely recognized him.”
Allison closed her eyes and let her head fall back. The sweep of air from the fan cooled her momentarily, but it would take more than a fan to cool down what she still felt for Cole Slater.
Dani’s tone was gentle when she spoke again. They’d known each other too long; had helped each other survive too many emotional train wrecks. “I thought I’d better warn you,” she said softly, then climbed into her pickup truck and headed up the long driveway to the road that ran along the high side of the valley.
* * *
Cole found himself on the twisting road that led through Hidden Valley. The road surface was lumpy and badly patched, much as it had been when he was a teenager. The difference was that his bike was bigger now, and it took the twists and turns with ease.
He knew that Allison had bought a place out here, but he wasn’t ready to see her yet... if ever. She was growing flowers, of all things. Flowers for drying. Evidently she made them into bouquets and sold them all over the Okanagan. He told himself he wasn’t looking for her place, but even so, he noticed the sign by her driveway as he roared past. It wasn’t large, as signs went, but it didn’t need to be, considering that she didn’t encourage visits from the public. It read The Flower Farm. He caught a glimpse of rows of black plastic as he passed, and smiled to himself. It was difficult to picture Allison farming...even if it was flowers. As far as he could remember... and he remembered everything... she’d never shown any interest in gardening. But that was all so long ago...
Lost in memories, he found himself at Green Lake in no time at all. He and Allison had come out here a lot when they were young. The numerous beaches along Okanagan Lake were a magnet for tourists as well as the locals, and as a result, they generally had Green Lake to themselves.
He parked the bike and squeezed through the turnstile gate, heading for what he still thought of as “their” spot. Ponderosa pines offered shade, and the sweet scent of resin filled his nostrils. Dried pine needles crackled underfoot and memories engulfed him. He sat down at the edge of the steep hill leading down to the lake, and took it all in. Very little had changed since the last time he was here. The place was silent, except for some intermittent birdsong. He braced his arms on raised knees and lowered his head. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on those days. His father was ill... probably dying... and he needed to keep himself strong for the ordeal that lay ahead.
So why had he come here, where memories of his time with Allison were the strongest? Why was he torturing himself, wondering what might have been?
The answer was obvious, even if he didn’t want to admit it. He’d never gotten over her. Never gotten over the shock of what had happened. Back then, his father had been dating a nice woman. Cole had driven home, told his dad that he was leaving, and taken off like a bat out of hell. Taken off to make a new life for himself; a life where he controlled the outcome, a life where he wouldn’t have his heart ripped to shreds by a woman.
The distinctive chatter of a Kingfisher brought his head up. He searched the trees along the edge of the lake but couldn’t spot it. It didn’t matter; just knowing the bird was there was comforting. It meant that there were still fish in the lake. Some things, at least, had stayed the same.
He’d loved growing up here in Independence. The other guys his age had talked constantly about getting out, about going to a larger town, but he’d been content. His mother had died when he was young; he scarcely remembered her. His dad had lived by the Golden Rule and expected him to do the same. It had seemed corny at the time; corny and old fashioned, but as Cole grew older, he’d come to appreciate his father’s wisdom.
They’d lived in a small mobile home park that was tucked into one of the narrow valleys that ran roughly parallel to the lake. There’d been those few months right after his mother died, when his father hadn’t known what to do, but other than that, Marty Slater had done a great job of raising him.
The fact that his father had smoked all his life was catching up with him now. Since he’d left home, he’d managed to see his father a couple of times a year. His father usually came to Vancouver Island, where Cole ran a successful business, but when he’d arrived back in town yesterday, he’d been shocked to see the rapid deterioration in his dad's health. These days, Marty Slater spent most of his time in a big recliner facing the television; Cole could tell by the way he’d gathered everything on two side tables. Books, remote controls, cell phone, tissues, and the pain pills he’d tried unsuccessfully to conceal. Loose, baggy clothing could not hide the fact that he’d lost a lot of weight. Cole wondered idly if the doctor would give him an estimate of how much longer. Probably not.
“Jesus,” he said aloud, and dropped his head again. It was almost too much to take in. He’d always been aware that his father flirted with lung cancer every time he lit up, but he was only in his mid-fifties. It was too soon for him to die. He wondered if Allison knew.
He pushed himself to his feet. Damn her for creeping into his thoughts at a time like this! But then whose fault was that? He’d been an idiot to think that by coming here, where they’d shared so much, he could face up to the past and get her out of his system. This was where they’d dreamed of a future together and every thought led him back to that time.
A loon warbled on the lake, but he didn’t look. He had to get going, get away from this memory-laden place. Besides, the community nurse was coming to check on his father right after lunch, and he wanted to be there when she arrived. The nurse might be more forthcoming about his dad’s prognosis than the doctor.
Reflection from the black plastic caught his eye as he rounded a corner. He knew the road well, and this was where he’d seen Allison’s sign.
He slowed his bike, knowing he shouldn’t, but something compelled him. He tore off his helmet, braced his feet on the loose gravel at the top of her driveway, and looked down at her place.
Movement in the greenhouse drew his eye, and a woman emerged. At first he wasn’t sure. The woman was about the right age, but there was something different about her; about the way she carried herself. The bright aura that had always surrounded Allison was missing from this woman. And yet... there was something achingly familiar about her.
The woman raised a hand, as though to wave at him... or was that wishful thinking? She fussed with her hair, then shaded her eyes and looked directly at him. And then he knew. This was Allison. The bond they’d developed a decade ago still pulsed between them. He could see it in her eyes, even from this far away, and it scared the hell out of him. They stared at each other for a long, intense minute. Then he replaced his helmet, started the bike and drove off.
* * *
Allison invariably looked up when she heard a motorcycle. Some people, like her friend Faith, looked to the sky when they heard an airplane; with Allison it was motorcycles. She pretended she didn’t know why she looked, but she wasn’t kidding anyone, especially herself. Cole had bought a motorcycle as soon as he was old enough to get a permit, and ever since, the sound made her heart leap into her throat; made her pulse speed up a little. Her reaction had mellowed over the years, but it was still there, springing to life every time she heard that distinctive sound. She’d always believed that he would come back one day, even though things could never be the same. Too much time had passed for that, but she still hoped.
The motorcycle had stopped at the top of her driveway. The driver braced himself, removed his helmet and looked down at her. He made no sign of recognition, but he didn't need to; she knew it was Cole. She raised a hand to wave, then caught herself just in time and raked her fingers though her hair. If she waved and he rejected her now, her heart would break.
She shaded her eyes and stared at him, willing him to come down the driveway and say hello. The longing to see him again, to hear his voice, to feel his touch, was almost more than she could bear. She knew he’d been up at Green Lake. It had been their spot to go and talk; the fact that he’d been out there must count for something.