“I will be out of the office starting on January 15th and will return on February 1st. During this time, please contact Reed Meyerson at email@example.com or 717-555-1111 if you need assistance. I wish you all a happy and productive two weeks.
Best Regards, Lana Orlovsky”
I am finally taking a vacation. After three years of only taking the bare minimum of time off for family holidays and company holidays, I am going to use half of my annual vacation allowance in the first month of the year. Even when I had only two weeks of vacation, I never used it all before it expired without even a whispered farewell to my hardworking, driven self on every December 31st. My parents, especially my dad, always reminded me that life wasn’t only about working. “No one’s going to care about all the times you stayed late to finish a project when you’re six feet under.”
“Morbid, Dad. People do appreciate it now. I just got another bonus for that email investigation I wrapped up two weeks ago.”
“That’s wonderful, Lana. It really is. I’m sure that McAllister is better place because of your work.”
“It sure is.”
“Don’t forget about yourself, though.”
He was great at that reminder and almost always took his own advice, though he worked plenty hard too.
When I woke up on this first morning of my New Zealander vacation, the communal deck outside my patio door was quiet and even clean after last night’s party. I might have joined the group or been kept up by their laughter and clinking of glasses if it hadn’t been for the thirty-three hours of travel that wrapped up when I arrived in time to grab dinner at a pub in downtown Queenstown yesterday.
I was out for the count as soon as my head sunk into the pillow.
I made a little cup of tea and went out to the chair closest to my room door to enjoy the stillness of the city before the other vacationers made their appearance. It reminded me of those days when I was little and I got up early enough to sit with my mom while she had her morning coffee and I pretended to understand what she told me about the headlines. Bethany was still asleep and that meant I had Mom all to myself.
SUSQUEHANNA RIVER REACHES RECORD LOW DURING HOTTEST MONTH ON RECORD
GOVERNOR INITIATES SPECIAL INVESTIGATION INTO ELECTION DISCREPANCIES
I nodded and drank my mug of juice like I was an adult.
Today, I drank tea and felt my mind race through all the things I had finished on Friday. I knew I had checked off everything on my list, but did my list have everything I needed to do?
Stop. You are on vacation. Relax.
What do people do on vacation alone?
Until two months ago, I wouldn’t have been alone. I would have brought Chris with me and he would be the one pulling me out of my own head, knowing that I was still marinating the corporate juices of McAllister Enterprises. Until two months ago, I was still trying to fit myself into that relationship, but not anymore. Even if my job might have been part of the reason it didn’t work, there were still other reasons.
My stomach growled and I got the idea to find breakfast, so I changed into more suitable clothes and headed down to the lobby.
“Good morning. How can I help you?” The young receptionist in a navy blue polo shirt and khaki shorts set down her pen and smiled at me.
“Hi, do you have any recommendations for a healthy breakfast? I’ve been subsisting on airport food since Friday.”
“That sounds terrible. The place up here on the corner is actually quite good, lots of fresh ingredients. That’s where I’d go, unless you want to go downtown. There are loads of places down there.”
“Thanks, fresh is just what I need.” I smiled and walked across the wooden floor. As I pushed open the front doors, the cool morning air rushed in and delivered a serious blow to those work worries.
You are on vacation. Now act like it.
The aroma of fresh bread and the warm lights emanating from the open door drew me to the glass case of pansy-topped, poppy seeded buns filled with vibrant greens and thin salmon. The shelf above that held cylindrical cakes and corresponding swirls of thick, white frosting and translucent, candied orange slices. I was lost in the sight.
“Good morning,” a slender woman in a black canvas apron found me bent over admiring the baked goods. She smiled as she caught me off guard.
“Good morning, hi. Just one for breakfast please.”
“Sit wherever you like and I’ll be over to get your order in a few minutes,” she handed me a menu. “Coffee?”
“Tea, please, with honey and lemon.”
The table I chose was in front of a window on the side of the café. It faced a street that ran down the hill to Lake Wakatipu. There was a glass jar of raw sugar in the center of each table and that was it, but the wooden floors under the metal legs of the wooden chairs and tables held the warmth of a bakery that had just brought the last batch of brioche muffins out of the massive oven. I could see them sprinkled with powdered sugar and sitting on the counter next to the cash register.
I hung my jacket on the back of my chair and sat down. Everything looked delicious and only half familiar. I went back up to the counter and ordered a poached egg sandwich that came with avocado, a “greens shot” and a “chia pot.” At least the ingredients were recognizable, even if I wasn’t sure about their delivery method.
Back at the table, I pulled out my phone and almost checked my work email. Instead, I stopped my compulsion and put the phone back into my bag.
You are on vacation. Relax.
For a few minutes, I didn’t know how to pass the time without my electronic crutch. Then I saw a basket of magazines near the door and went over to choose one. A few more people came into the café while I perused the reading materials. A family with an adorable little baby who would lose his patience with the whole thing half-way through their pancakes sat down next to me. An older guy in red spandex biking shorts and a man bun took a spot toward the back of the restaurant. Six twenty-somethings in stylish adventurewear filled a table right up front with expressions and hair-dos that screamed “It’s too early for breakfast!”
I chose a magazine with what I would call an “artsy” cover that made it hard to tell what it was about, but there was an article about mindfulness that seemed to be a good starting point for me.
While I read the article and made several mental notes about how to avoid the mindlessness traps of my regular days, more people came in. By the time my food arrived, the café was full and I was feeling even more like it was the right place to be.
My breakfast looked “artsy” too. It came on a circular wooden board with each item in its own section. The poached eggs and avocado were on a slice of fresh bread in the third by my right hand. Across the way by my left hand, a double shot glass of green something piqued my curiosity and skepticism. At the top of the circle, red currant jam, chia pudding, and a smooth layer of whipped cream layered up in a glass jar I might have bought jelly in.
I started with the greens shot and it was just what I expected – half delicious and half too healthy. I guessed there were beet greens in it and knew that it was good for me. I decided to take sips throughout the meal to alternate the flavor with others I thought I’d like more. Next, I bit into the poached egg, which spilled the yolk down my hand to my wrist before I caught it with my napkin. The bread was soft and the avocado was the perfect amount of ripe. A pile of fresh ground pepper and salt in the middle of the board added just the right amount of spice. One bite of the chia pot told me that it was dessert and that I should ration it.
Throwing my original plan out the window, I chugged the rest of the greens shot and ate everything else in order of healthiness with the chia pot rounding things out.
Instead of going back to my room after breakfast and following the responsible routine of showering, tooth brushing, and packing a bag of everything I might want for the morning, I went straight to the beach and followed signs for the Queenstown Gardens hike, starting with the portion that went along the water. The gravel path crunched beneath my feet and the scent of pine filled the air. One type of tree stood out from the rest and when I found one that had a sign nailed to its bark, I wasn’t surprised at all to see “sequoia” in the name. Its reddish bark and stunning canopy looked like row after row of open arms. I stood there looking up until I knew that there was no way I’d ever be able to capture it on film. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t try, though.
I stopped at the shoreline and took some photos of everything I could fit into the frame – the waves, the mountains, and the rocky beach. The wind blew my hair into my face and I closed my eyes to feel only that natural force I couldn’t control.
I am on vacation.
I began my first real adventure on New Zealand’s South Island yesterday morning when I boarded a ferry to cross Lake Manapouri. It was 7:30 a.m. and I was well-rested from an easy night at a local holiday park (a.k.a. campground) in the town of Manapouri. Everyone else on the dock looked as bewildered as I felt. About twenty people clustered around five staff members in matching shirts as we turned in our medical release forms complete with emergency contact information for people “who are not on this trip with you.” I didn’t know anyone else in the country, so that would be easy.
I did have a quick flash of what it would be like to try to reach anyone back home if I would happen to capsize my kayak and hit my head on a rock or something. It involved a helicopter and an industrial-strength walkie talkie that would reach Queenstown and relay my mother’s name and cell phone number seven THOUSAND miles away while I was receiving CPR and a tourniquet around my head.
It’s a kayak in the Doubtful Sound, known for sheltering boats from rough seas.
With all of our forms signed and the basic information shared, we were ready to board the boat and I found a spot near the front. If the weather had been warmer, I might have sat upstairs to get clear views of the landscape. As it was, I was already scoping out the staircases to get some clear shots of the rising sun and mountains reflecting themselves in the vast water that would take fifty minutes to cross.
Here’s where things started to go a little off track. First, I noticed a trap door in the floor next to my seat. It seemed to me that it might lead to a mechanical room or some other thing passengers needn’t concern themselves with. Then, I felt a breeze come out of the crack around the door. Next came a light that shown out of the crack for only a few seconds before it disappeared. No one else seemed to notice it, but I alternated my casual tourist glances out the windows with quick ones at the door.
When nothing happened for a few minutes, I pulled myself away to take some photos of the sunlight in our wake and the passing mountains. Those are some of my favorites from this trip so far.
The upper level was so windy that I pulled my hair back, put up my hood, and leaned forward to keep my balance. Even so, I was surprised that no one else had had the same idea. That was o.k. with me too. I had clear shots everywhere I looked.
It smells so good out here.
I lasted about five minutes up there before the wind sent me back downstairs to warm up.
The door was still there when I returned to my seat and so was its wind. I put my foot over the crack just to see if anything would happen and it froze there, not like it was really cold. It felt like it was stunned in place, like in one of those superhero movies.
I tried to move in a way that looked at all natural, but that was impossible. It didn’t look natural to struggle against the floor and my leg wouldn’t move.
Stay calm. This can’t last.
I relaxed my leg as if I didn’t want to move it, and after a few minutes something loosened, and I was free again. That didn’t make sense to me, but I was relieved anyway.
A few ferry attendants huddled near the exits and chatted among themselves. It seemed like they might not even notice that we were there, not how I imagined they’d behave if they had something terrible to hide on the boat. I looked from them to my fellow passengers who also chatted on about this thing or that thing and no one at all seemed the least bit worried about the trap door next to me.
I was about to dismiss the whole thing as an illusion, a very convincing illusion, when the trap door flipped open and filled the whole boat with a sharp light.
No one reacted to it except me. I gasped and fell to the side. No one noticed that either.
I sat up and moved a little farther away from the aisle.
“Excuse me, sir?” I waved at the attendant who was closest to me. “What’s going on here?”
He came right over and stood next to me and that whole as if there wasn’t a light blasting him in the face, as if I might just have a regular nautical question like so many other passengers most certainly had had in the past – how does the navigation system work? How fast are we going?
“Yes, how can I help?” He smiled, open to whatever I might ask. He looked certain that he had the answer.
“Um, do you see, uh, what’s this in the floor?” I pointed to the trapdoor.
“I’m not sure what you mean. This little spot here?” He rubbed his foot across the carpet. “I think that’s just a bit of water that will dry in no time.”
He doesn’t see it.
“Oh, sure, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Thank you.”
“No worries,” he said with a different sort of smile and looked at me a little too long.
He knows something.
We arrived at the other side of Lake Manapouri with no further incidents from that trap door, but I gave it one last look as I left my seat. It looked normal, just another mechanical room like in so many other boats of its size.
Why did the attendant look at me like that?
“Everyone please enjoy your trip into the Doubtful Sound, one of New Zealand’s most treasured places,” a voice was wrapping up her parting remarks as I filed out the back of the boat with thirty other people who would either be with me for the next two days as we kayaked or would be out and back on a quick one day tour. For a few seconds, I tried to guess who would choose which option.
I smiled at a couple who looked to be my age. They were wearing sandals like mine while most others were in hiking boots.
As I reached the edge of the boat and the attendant smiled at me once more, I saw a rope hanging from a tall T-shaped post at the end of the dock.
I did something crazy, something even my eighteen-year-old self wouldn’t have done.
I made a ran for it and --
-- left, right, left, JUMP!
I grabbed the rope, ran around the base of the post and swung into the lower level of the boat. I saw the tall attendant try to reach for me as I flew past him and through a window into that supposed mechanical room. When I landed on the floor, I felt blood running down my leg and heard footsteps running down the stairs toward me. I had cut myself on the broken window, but I didn’t have time to do anything about that right then if I want to check out that room.
GO GO GO!!
I ran to the front of the boat where I had seen the light. There was another door in the floor under my seat on the main level.
I looked back.
The tall Attendant was quick on my heels. I pulled open the door and plunged my whole body through it to the other side, letting it slam behind me.
I fell through the air for a full minute before I landed in a net that catapulted me into a room where I floated up toward a cloudy ceiling that had appeared above me right that second. It was clouded like on a night after a day of thunderstorms. I could see familiar shapes like I might have seen back home where a big puffy cloud would turn into a man’s face with chubby cheeks and a bulbous nose.
The clouds provided just enough light to reveal a few things, like a green elephant figurine balancing on the edge of a small, round table with a glass of red wine.
This was not on their website.
Before I reached the clouds, I wanted to figure out how to get back to the floor where I had come from.
I tried the breaststroke in mid-air and only made a fool of myself.
I thought really hard about floating toward the wall. Nothing.
Finally, I swung myself over to the wall by flinging my legs toward it. The wall felt like it was covered with the soft grass I remembered from my grandparents’ yard. I could have sworn I was back under their maple tree running my fingers through the emerald blades looking for lost change or those tiny snail shells I’d sometimes find there.
Halfway down the wall, the grass ran into a small creek. I held onto the edge with my left hand while I let my right linger in the gentle current for a few seconds before I reached for the other bank and pulled myself farther toward the floor, my legs floating straight up behind me. It wasn’t hard to descend the wall, but there was something about that ceiling that pulled my curiosity back. My rational side was trouble-shooting.
Is anyone following me?
Once on the ground, I made my way to the table and wrapped a foot around one of its legs. I looked for a door or a slit, anything that looked like a way out or in. There was nothing at first.
Then, a space opened up a few feet away from me and a scene played out. The tall attendant from the boat was red-faced and angry as he shouted into a walkie talkie next to the staircase at the back of the main level. I couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t see me, but I got nervous when he stopped shouting and started listening and nodding. He took out a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket and started taking notes.
That was all it took for me to abandon the little elephant on the table, no matter how intriguing its very life-like tusks might have been.
I let go of the table leg and floated up to and through the clouds, getting wet with future rain that might soon pepper the room and whomever would enter. The clouds lasted for a few minutes and my clothes were almost drenched by the time I reached dryer, warmer air.
My head bumped into a soft mass that I somehow knew I'd need to dig through if I wanted to keep going. I scraped and clawed my way into and beyond thick threads all knotted together. It smelled like dirt to me and I was right. If there had been any light, I would have seen that I was digging through the complex and cohesive root system of a rain forest.
When I found daylight again, I was climbing up out of a hole in the ground. It was as if I had never left the kayaking group. I was standing next to an orange, metal shed where people were talking. The sun stung my eyes as they compared it to the underground cavern. I walked along the corrugated steel wall and peered around the corner of the building. Seven people from the boat were putting on layers of clothing I hadn't brought along. There was an eighth pile sitting next to them.
“Hey Lana, all set? This one is for you,” Katja, our guide, pointed to that remainder. “Put on the wet suit first, then the blue thermal and then slip the spray skirt over your head.” She pointed to her own layers as she explained.
“O.k., got it.” I smiled and tried to seem oriented. Seven complete strangers were about to see the red and white striped one-piece I had found at the end-of-summer sale last August and I didn't know the first thing about how to put on a wet suit.
In other circumstances, I might have wondered how many people had worn that wet suit before me. My imagination might have also wandered to the question of how in the world anyone would go about washing and disinfecting something that spent most of its time wet, but not that day. Instead, I followed Katja’s instructions without question, desperate for some stable reality.
As my hands pulled the wet suit onto my legs, I saw that there was no dirt under my fingernails. My hair was also clean and secure in the braid I had shaped it into that morning. The other kayakers were already starting to walk down to the boat rack to help carry the kayaks to the beach. Katja had told us about that step and the importance of having everyone’s help, but I knew I wouldn't miss the chance to go back into the forest one more time.
I finished dressing in my new wardrobe and started to put my most important things, the only things I’d be taking with me, into the dry bag where they’d be all but guaranteed to stay dry even in the rare event of a capsizing. As I rolled my pajamas and back-up swimming suit into neat bundles, the last person finished their bag, smiled and said something like “See you down there” as she left. Katja came up to check on us, met that second to last person a few yards from the shed and continued on to me.
“How’s it going in here? Need any help?” She smiled her very experienced, totally comfortable with the prospect of living out of a tent and kayak for the next two days smile and leaned against the doorframe.
“Yeah, I’m just about done with this. I’ll be down in a couple minutes. I’m going to use the bathroom one last time.”
“O.k., sounds good. I’ll see you down there.” Katja pushed off of the doorframe and turned back toward the beach.
I hurried through the last few items and then went out to where I had come up through the ground, except that I couldn’t find it. Even though I went farther into the forest than I thought necessary, I couldn’t find any kind of hole anywhere. There was no disturbance to the lush ground cover and the forest was so thick that I started to wonder how I could have dug through any of it at all.
"Hey, Lana." Katja waved me over. "You're just in time to grab the other end of this kayak."
"Perfect!" I jogged a little to shorten their wait. "Sorry I took so long getting ready."
"1 - 2 - 3," Katja counted down and we all lifted in unison. "Don't worry about it. You haven't missed much.” She started to lead us down the hill. “Set this kayak on the far end of the tarp, perpendicular to the water. Any questions?”
“I don’t think so,” I looked around at my cohorts.
“Nope,” Malcom said.
“Great! I’ll meet you on the beach,” Katja hurried ahead of us.
"Have any of you been on this trip before?" I've done plenty of kayaking and wasted no time in implementing my personal strategy for keeping the boat from hitting my legs while we walked down the gravel incline.
"I haven't, but my neighbor from Dunedin recommended it. She said it was her favorite part of the West Coast." The woman who had left the shed just before me spoke first. "I'm Allison. Nice to meet you, Lana."
"Nice to meet you too."
"All we know is what we read on the website," the guy behind me piped up. So far, I sounded like the only non-Kiwi.
"Cool, me too." I glanced over my shoulder. "Wow, are you two brothers?"
They laughed, in unison with matching smiles surrounded by some formation of ginger facial hair that was growing beyond its usual boundaries. It would soon connect to their curly piles of hair.
The water was starting to come into view and we'd be there in a minute or two.
"Twins, but I'm older."
"What Malcolm means to say is that he is thirty-seven seconds older."
Allison and I laughed.
"Don't mind Jerome, my little brother."
"By 'little,' he means an inch taller."
"I see. We'll try to keep that in mind."
"In all seriousness, we're not really those kinds of brothers, ya know the ones who compete at every possible opportunity."
"That’s probably good. I know some brothers like that, seems exhausting." I knew three brothers like that – Chris and his two younger brothers dominated many family gatherings with their one-upmanship.
It was a very quick jaunt down the hill, even with a two-person kayak.
“Excellent, set it here next to the this one.” Katja pointed to a light blue kayak that had the New Zealand silver fern on the side we could see.
“Aye aye, Captain,” Allison joked.
Katja watched us while she unpacked a duffle bag and set several plastic containers on the sand.
“Well done, team. There’s just one more kayak to bring down.”
The four other kayakers and Katja stayed on the beach to sort the supplies into a pile for each boat and we headed back up the hill.
“This boat will be our kitchen boat. It’ll have the dishes and drinks.”
“Sounds like Katja has done this a few times.” Malcom said.
“This boat will be—”
Then we were out of earshot.
“I bet she has. I think I heard her tell someone that this is her fourth summer in the Doubtful Sound.”
“So, how much kayaking have you done?”
“Enough to sign up for this trip. I live near a lot of rivers and I always mean to kayak more.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Um, probably because I work too much. On the weekends, I don’t have much energy for anything except the housework I didn’t do during the week. BUT, I’m changing that. This trip is the first step in that process.”
“That’s good,” Jerome said.
“Jerome and I get out as much as we can. There’s a club in Christchurch.”
“Well, you’re in the perfect place for that. I just got here on Sunday and I’m already planning to come back.”
That was true and I was planning to come back, especially if two weeks wasn’t enough to figure out what in the world had happened on that boat.
“How long will you be here?” Allison was walking next to me.
“I’ll be in New Zealand for two weeks.”
Out on the water, Allison and I turned out to be ideal kayaking partners. We fell into an easy rhythm that made our trek smooth. I was in the front of the kayak, the look-out position.
The sky that day was gray and it was drizzling. Everyone wore their blaze orange outer layer all day. The spray skirt kept my legs warm and dry. I was soon so comfortable that my mind began to wander.
I watched the tiny water droplets land around me and ripple out to one another. I noticed how the water would curl behind my paddle as I pulled it back. I spotted little patches of blue sky.
I thought about how to find out if I had dreamed that whole thing on the cruise across Lake Manapouri. Everything from me deciding to swing into the bottom level of the boat to crawling out of the ground next to the shed made no sense.
Could I ask Katja? Would she somehow give me a clue? Who else might know something? Would I see something during the kayaking trip?
A few hours later, we stopped at a rocky beach to eat lunch. Other than that, we were in our boats. Katja gathered us together a couple times to tell us Maori legends about things like how the Doubtful Sound were formed. She knew those stories inside and out and could answer any question.
There was even a story to explain the terrible sand flies we’d soon become quite familiar with. Their bites would itch for two weeks and the visible evidence would take a month to disappear. According to the story, the sand flies were added to the Doubtful Sound so that it wouldn’t be overrun with people and would always stay beautiful.
Those little flies did their job well. Fortunately for us, they don’t venture out to boats very often.
The entrance to our campsite was an inlet that was only noticeable when we were already coming in to get out of the water. Like the rest of the Sound, it was wooded and rocky, but a small path was visible from several meters away. We floated in and my eyes stayed fixed on each new section of the path, hoping to see something to help explain the ferry.
We pulled into watery parking spots and began to relax.
“Well done, team. I’ll show you where the kayaks will go. Then, while you’re doing that, I’ll get things set up, including hot drinks for you after you’ve had a chance to settle in.”
“Mmmm, hot drinks.” Malcolm went to the front of the first boat.
“Yes, indeed. We’ll have hot chocolate, tea and coffee. 1 – 2 – 3.” Katja led five other people to lift the first kayak and three followed to the kayak shack.
We all took turns pitching in to heft the remaining three full kayaks over wet rocks, down a muddy path, over tree roots and onto wooden beams that would hold them away from the rising tide while we slept that night. Most of that work was easier than I had expected and everything went like clockwork right from the start. There was one point where the wider middle of each kayak barely fit between two trees, but my petite stature finally became a benefit and I slipped through alongside the boat.
While we worked on that, Katja pulled out the group gear of dishes and everything else we’d all share to setup the bug-free tent next to the kayak shack. She also freshened up the “bathroom,” an elevated port-a-potty close to the end of the neat path that wandered through the campsite.
I was thankful for my end of that bargain.
By the time all of the kayaks were out of the water, Katja had also laid out the tents, their corresponding footprints, and sleeping bags for those who hadn’t brought their own. There were about ten sites to choose from, each covered with gravel very well pressed into the ground and succumbing to moss. I chose a site toward the last curve before the path veered left to spill out onto the rocky shore of the Garnet River. It seemed like a logical place for me to explore the area from after dark. There was also a tall plant next to it that looked like a short cousin of the palm trees I had seen in Florida and it was nice to see something so familiar. The branches started at the base and surrounded the stalk with row after row of emerald green, finger-like leaves.
I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that traipsing around in a foreign forest in the middle of the night was not something I had ever done before. It wasn’t even something I would have imagined myself doing, but at that moment it seemed like the most logical thing possible. I thought about how I might approach the investigation the whole time I was unpacking my tent, laying down the footprint, feeding the collapsible poles through the fabric sleeves on the outside of the tent, and arranging my sleeping bag and pack inside.
It would be dark. I’d have the sand flies to content with. I’d have no idea where I was going or what I was looking for. That would be a challenge for sure, but I wasn’t actually worried about it. I had a strange sense that all I’d need to do was follow my instincts and curiosity. There was no real reason to believe that and I half-worried that it might have been a textbook case of wishful thinking.
When my tent was all set up and I had dressed in warm, dry clothing, I made my way back to the common tent where we’d all eat dinner together and enjoy the lack of sand flies. Halfway there, I turned my stroll into a jog. I felt light and healthy, a little like in my high school track days when running was such a natural part of my life. The gravel crunched under my feet and I smiled, jumping over the occasional rock or downed tree.
A few minutes later, I seemed to have jogged a lot farther than I had expected and I stopped to get my bearings. My new paranoia pulled my imagination into a fantasy of running too far, getting lost and discovering yet another new place that made no sense.
Laughter. I heard laughter to my right and followed it.
Less than a minute after that turn, I saw the kayak shack and the common tent right next to it. I let out a big breath. I was right where I was supposed to be.
It looked like any other pavilion-style tent with an opaque roof, no bottom, and mesh sides sitting on top of a clean, wooden platform. Ten tiny lawn chairs that looked like they belonged in a pre-school classroom hugged the inside octagonal structure from the camp stove to the door. There was a long zipper door facing me and I was just in time to see Allison close it behind her like her life depended on keeping the sand flies out. I thought through how I’d follow her example. No one wanted to be the one who let in those flying monsters.
“O.k., Jerome, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.” Katja had the various canisters of ingredients on the floor near her feet.
I reached down to pull up the zipper, one foot already on the platform to catapult me inside when the time came. First an inch at a time, then my hand flew upward and I hurried through like Allison had. There was a second opening to my left. It looked like a pitch-black room, for lack of a better word.
Jerome was sitting to my right, next to Malcolm and across from Allison. None of them seemed to notice that I was there. They looked like they were behind some sort of screen, like I wasn’t quite in the tent with them. When I turned my head to the left, I could see several lights in the dark. I closed the zipper behind me and followed them.
I was in a different place, but it wasn’t quite a room. I’d say it was outer space, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t that simple or straightforward.
There was a floor or ground holding me. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it. I reached out my hands and felt nothing around me. I looked back and the tent door was gone. If I hadn’t had that experience on the ferry, I might have panicked. This time, I looked for ways to get my bearings.
Mist blew across my skin and my eyes wanted to blink more often to stay clear. I wondered if there were roses nearby, bright and fragrant enough to reach me from wherever they were. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see anything but those lights. They were far from me and each other. The one to my right seemed just a tad brighter, like the most promising of the four possibilities. Eager to make progress and gather more clues about this place, I started toward it. That took me farther away from the other three and dimmer lights around that light became visible. I heard a crunch with every step, similar to the gravel path I had just come from.
“Hello?” It was worth a shot, but no one answered.
The scent of roses intensified with each crunchy step. Every so often, I’d reach out my hands and try to find anything at all. As far as I could tell, I was alone.
After what seemed like almost an hour of walking, I finally got close enough to the light to see that it was actually the top of a lighthouse. I never would have guessed that because its light was still, rather than rotating like the lighthouses I knew. Those dimmer lights were brighter until I reached the base of the lighthouse. Then they turned off all at once and the roses were replaced with the sea. Waves were crashing up the far side of the lighthouse and I was standing on a stone path that lead to a sturdy, red wooden door in the concrete foundation.
I looked back on my path and found that the three original lights were also dark. There was only this one light. I tried to walk back a little just to see if the others would appear again and felt a force akin to gravity pulling me back to the lighthouse. It seemed that I had only one option and I took it.
My first step onto the stone path was solid, in spite of the stone's rather uneven surface. Ahead of me, there were about thirty more like it, all spaced the exact the distance for my stride. It was easy and clear what I should do. Each one had the usual color variations of any field stone and all the edges seemed to be in the process of disappearing into the sandy soil along with the sparse beach grass. Back in Pennsylvania, we'd chat about this terrain in the context of "going to the shore." Everyone had their favorite and mine was all the way south off the Atlantic coast of Georgia - Tybee Island. It was close to Savannah and my family always went there when I was a kid, even when we lived in Wisconsin. Tybee had a lighthouse too, but the similarities with this one ended at the category level.
As I drew closer to that red door, slight whiffs of the building itself floated by and caught my attention. They were familiar, like the back of the barn where my grandpa did most of the mechanical work. It was a combination of the dirt, damp concrete walls, and motor grease. I have vivid memories of visiting him there as a little kid and asking every question I could think of. "Why do you do that?" "Will I grow up and work on the lawn mower too?" "What is that thing?" "What's your middle name?" and my perennial favorite - "Can I help?"
The door wasn't painted red like Grandpa's barn. It was stained red. I could finally see that when I was close enough to touch it. The black hinges and latch looked brand new. Being that close to the water, they probably had to be replaced often. Salt and humidity do a real number on metal.
I lifted the latch, pushed the door inward and followed, losing the light of the beacon. The only light I had came from outside, but the door wouldn't stay open. I stretched and searched as far as I could until I could flip something that felt like it could be a light switch.
I was stunned.
The light filled the internal cavity of that incredible building and pulled my gaze ever upward along a spiral staircase that started to my right and disappeared into the eventual darkness of the tippy, tippy top. The wooden ribs of the building glowed a golden rust of graceful aging and diligent care. Before I knew it, I was walking up the stairs, running my hand along their railing, all of it seeming to have been carved out of a single piece. The higher I went, the more enthralled I became. The stairs were not only a beautiful color, they were also spotless. This was a place that someone cared for very much and I wondered when or if I might meet this person.
"Hello?" I called upward, tried again to find someone, anyone, in this place. Just as before, there was no response. Below me, I could see the red door and the wrapped stairs I had already climbed.
The wall was, of course, windowless, but nonetheless warmly bright as if it had been soaking up sunlight for years, never knowing a colder season. As I got lost in imagining how that was possible, or achieved, something else was happening above me. I didn't notice it at first. Then I heard footsteps on the other side of the ceiling. First, I stopped and listened, staying as still as I could to make room for any other clues I might hear.
Click, click, click across the wood, left to right. There was also a murmuring that could have been a hum, a song, or a melodic monologue. It was too faint for me to recognize.
I skipped one step and eased my way up two steps closer. Then two more and two more. By then, I could see that the stairs disappeared into the ceiling and that, unless I turned back, I would have no choice but to discover the wearer of those heels that clicked. There was no way in the world I would miss out on a chance to talk to a real person in that place, no matter how confused or anxious I might have been.
Two quiet steps at a time shortened my wait, intensified my anticipation.
Click, click, click and a clear voice.
"Blue skies, smiling--"
I know that song.
I sing that song.
I sang a little to myself in a whisper, choosing Willie Nelson's version, because he reminded me of my dad, if my dad could/would sing. Also, I never felt quite right scatting along with Ella Fitzgerald even though I knew all of her syllables. The woman above me had no such insecurity and flung those dwee's and doo's around the room. That was the instrumental part of Willie's song and I sat down to listen to her. I hummed along and felt heard her voice harmonize with mine as if she knew I'd take the lead or I knew she wouldn't.
The opening at the top of the stairs was quite visible by then and I could watch her shadow pass by as she turned around to head left again.
I know this voice.
My caution took over and I stood with my back to the inside curl of the stairs to obscure her view of me. Long side strides brought be closer and closer until I had to turn around and squat to fit under the ceiling, below the surface of the floor. She was on her way to the other side and I thought she'd have her back to me. I needed to move like I wasn't afraid. I needed to see her before she reached the other side and turned back toward me.
I summoned my inner mountain lion and moved.
She wore a short-sleeved, yellow dress with large, dark purple pansies around the full and wide bottom hem. Those matching purple heels weren't any old heels. They were the kind women bought to dance in. Her brown hair was pulled up into a French twist with a purple silk flower tucked into its seam.
I watched her until the very last second, the second when she'd turn around. It happened with a whirl of her skirt and a slender arm that lead back toward me. Her profile followed and that was all I got before my nerves slid me back under her floor.
I know her.
My heart beat a new rhythm against everything it could reach, not holding anything back for the sake of reason or self-preservation.
Relax, relax, relax. Losing your cool won’t help.
Walk up and pretend that you’re lost.
I shifted my weight on the stairs and tried to find the position that looked the most natural in case I would be discovered.
What am I saying? I AM lost.
She was almost to my side of the building. I scooted down a few more steps, away from the opening.
Grandma was always polite and friendly. She’ll help me. At the very least, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
I held my breath as she made her final approach. This time, I saw a thin slice of yellow dress spin along the floor’s edge and disappear.
I stood up like the adult woman I was and walked up the stairs. When I felt the top of my head break that visual plane, I resisted the urge to duck.
She’s a nice person.
She continued on her path.
Maybe she can’t hear me yet.
“Hello, I’m lost. Can you help me?”
“Never saw the sun shinin’ so bright..” The song continued.
I knocked on the floor, as if it was a door. I stepped out of the staircase toward her.
“Excuse me, can you help me?”
She spun around at the far edge and started back toward me. We were eye to eye and she didn’t seem to notice.
She was younger than I had ever known her, but her eyes were the ones I knew from birth – striking and gray like no others I had ever known. That voice filled the room with the power of professional training she never had and the confidence she always had.
I smiled and waved. Can she really not see me? I walked toward her.
Nothing. Instead, I had to move out of the way to let her pass. Otherwise, those beautiful shoes would have done a real number on my sandals.
I stood silent and watched her spin at the stairs and walk back the other way.
The room was set up like a house. One side had a complete kitchen with clean dishes drying next to the sink and a dining table set for six on a blue, braided rug. I walked over and sat down on a familiar chair, the tan vinyl cushion deflating a bit under my weight. The dishes were the same white with silver trim that I had eaten many meals from.
This is Grandma’s kitchen.
I turned back toward the live music box performance. She couldn’t be my actual grandma, but that wasn’t as comforting as it might seem.
Grandma sang and paced, and I looked for clues.
The refrigerator was full of fresh food. A carton of eggs was half empty and the butter was short a tablespoon or two. I filled a glass with cold, clear water, smelled it, and took a tiny sip. It tasted like the water from the well on my grandparents’ farm.
Window cleaner, sponges, dish detergent, and all their usual comrades filled the cabinet under the sink. Cans of cream of mushroom soup, canisters of sugar and flour, and boxes of cereal took up prime real estate in the pantry cabinet. Even Grandma’s glass ring holder was in its spot to the right of the sink. It was empty, but I knew that her wedding ring would slide onto the center post every time she did dishes, if she did dishes in that place.
Across the room, under the staircase that led round and round to the beacon, a cream-colored couch with brown and orange flowers wore a color-coordinated blanket Grandma had crocheted the winter before my sister was born across its broad and sturdy shoulders. I sat down and stirred up a quick breath of Grandma’s perfume.
I watched and listened to her routine while I worked on a plan, without much success.
I need more information.
The opening in the stairs was about five yards to my left and upward seemed like the only way to figure out what was going on.
“See you later, Grandma.” I walked to the staircase and continued the climb, looking back toward the singer every few steps until I reached the next floor and she was far below me.
That floor wasn’t so easy. It was blocked by a red door with a black, metal latch like the front door. I slid the cross-bar away from its mate and pushed up the heavy wood as I finished climbing the staircase.
The beacon was still stuck in one direction, away from the water. That reminded me about the other lights I had seen when I first left the tent, what they were and where they might have led me.
I walked toward the windows facing the water to try to figure out where we were. Like many beaches, there weren’t many clues off the shore or in the dark, especially without the moon. The beach stretched out as far as I could see in either direction and the white caps disappeared from sight a few yards out. I continued around the room to the other side where I found a five-rung ladder and climbed up to the base of the light. There, I had to shield my eyes and keep my head below a certain point to see anything at all, but I was determined.
Most of what I saw was the smooth metal base of the light, but then I noticed something that looked like a small cage attached to the side. I reached out and felt a lever inside the cage. Not knowing what it was or what it might do, I acted on impulse and flipped it down.
The beacon went dark.