“Verra nice,” he said, trying not to laugh. “Keep it up. Prractice makes perfect.”
“Well, did you bring your guitar, at least?” She stood on tiptoes, trying to look behind him. “Or that groovy drum?”
“It’s in the car,” Brianna said, putting away her keys as she came up beside Roger. “We’re going to the airport from here.”
“Oh, too bad; I thought we could hang around and have a hootenanny afterward, to celebrate. Do you know ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ Roger? Or are you more into protest songs? But I guess you wouldn’t be, since you’re English—oops, I mean Scotch. You guys don’t have anything to protest about, do you?”
Brianna gave her friend a look of mild exasperation. “Where’s Uncle Joe?”
“In the living room, kicking the TV,” Gayle said. “Shall I entertain Roger while you find him?” She linked one arm cosily through Roger’s, batting her eyelashes.
“We got half the doggone MIT College of Engineering here, and nobody who can fix a doggone television?” Dr. Joseph Abernathy glared accusingly at the clusters of young people scattered around his living room.
“That’s electrical engineering, Pop,” his son told him loftily. “We’re all mechanical engineers. Ask a mechanical engineer to fix your color TV, that’s like asking an Ob-Gyn to look at the sore on your di—ow!”
“Oh, sorry,” said his father, peering blandly over gold-rimmed glasses. “That your foot, Lenny?”
Lenny hopped storklike around the room to general laughter, clutching one large sneaker-clad foot in exaggerated agony.
“Bree, honey!” The doctor spotted her and abandoned the television, beaming. He hugged her enthusiastically, disregarding the fact that she topped him by four inches or so, then let go and looked at Roger, his features rearranged in a look of wary cordiality.
“This the boyfriend?”
“This is Roger Wakefield,” Brianna said, narrowing her eyes slightly at the doctor. “Roger, Joe Abernathy.”
“Call me Joe.”
They shook hands in mutual assessment. The doctor looked him over with quick brown eyes, no less shrewd for their warmth.
“Bree, honey, you want to go lay hands on that piece of junk, see can you bring it back to life?” He jerked a thumb at the twenty-four-inch RCA sitting in mute defiance on its wire stand. “It was working fine last night, then today…pffft!”
Brianna looked dubiously at the big color TV, and groped in the pocket of her jeans, coming out with a Swiss Army knife.
“Well, I can check the connections, I guess.” She flicked out the screwdriver blade. “How much time do we have?”
“Half hour, maybe,” called a crew-cut student from the kitchen doorway. He glanced at the crowd clustered around the small black-and-white set on the table. “We’re still with Mission Control in Houston—ETA thirty-four minutes.” The muted excitement of the TV commentator came in bursts through the more vivid excitement of the spectators.
“Good, good,” said Dr. Abernathy. He laid a hand on Roger’s shoulder. “Plenty of time for a drink, then. You a Scotch man, Mr. Wakefield?”
“Call me Roger.”
Abernathy poured a generous measure of amber nectar and handed it over.
“Don’t imagine you take water, do you, Roger?”
“No.” It was Lagavulin; astonishing to find it in Boston. He sipped appreciatively, and the doctor smiled.
“Claire gave it to me—Bree’s mama. Now, there was a woman with a taste for fine whisky.” He shook his head nostalgically, and raised his glass in tribute.
“Slàinte,” Roger said quietly, and tipped his own glass before drinking.
Abernathy closed his eyes in silent appreciation—whether of the whisky or the woman, Roger couldn’t tell.
“Water of life, huh? I do believe that particular stuff could raise the dead.” He set the bottle back in the liquor cabinet with reverent hands.
How much had Claire told Abernathy? Enough, Roger supposed. The doctor picked up his tumbler and gave him a long look of assessment.
“Since Bree’s daddy is dead, I guess I get to do the honors. Reckon we got time for the third degree before they land, or shall we keep it short?”
Roger raised one eyebrow.
“Your intentions,” the doctor elaborated.
“Oh. Strictly honorable.”
“Yeah? I called Bree last night, to see if she was coming tonight. No answer.”
“We’d gone to a Celtic festival, up in the mountains.”
“Uh-huh. I called again, eleven p.m. And midnight. No answer.” The doctor’s eyes were still shrewd, but a good deal less warm. He set his glass down with a small click.
“Bree’s alone,” he said. “And she’s lonely. And she’s lovely. I wouldn’t like to see anybody take advantage of that, Mr. Wakefield.”
“Neither would I—Dr. Abernathy.” Roger drained his glass and set it down hard. Warmth burned in his cheeks, and it wasn’t due to the Lagavulin. “If you think that I—”
“THIS IS HOUSTON,” boomed the television. “TRANQUILITY BASE, WE HAVE TOUCH-DOWN IN TWENTY MINUTES.”
The inhabitants of the kitchen came pouring out, waving Coke bottles and cheering. Brianna, flushed with her labors, was laughing and brushing off their congratulations as she put away her knife. Abernathy put a hand on Roger’s arm, to keep him.
“Mind me, Mr. Wakefield,” Abernathy said, his voice low enough not to be heard over the crowd. “I don’t want to hear that you’ve made that girl unhappy. Ever.”
Roger carefully released his arm from the other’s grip.
“D’ye think she looks unhappy?” he asked, as politely as he could.
“No-oo,” said Abernathy, rocking back on his heels and squinting hard at him. “On the contrary. It’s the way she looks tonight that makes me think I should maybe punch you in the nose, on her daddy’s behalf.”
Roger couldn’t help turning to look at her himself; it was true. She had dark circles under her eyes, wisps of hair were coming down from her ponytail, and her skin was glowing like the wax of a lighted candle. She looked like a woman who’d had a long night—and enjoyed it.
As though by radar, her head turned and her eyes fixed on him, over Gayle’s head. She went on talking to Gayle, but her eyes spoke straight to him.
The doctor cleared his throat loudly. Roger jerked his attention away from her, to find Abernathy looking up at him, his expression thoughtful.
“Oh,” the doctor said, in a changed tone. “Like that, is it?”
Roger’s collar was unbuttoned, but he felt as though he were wearing a tie tied too tight. He met the doctor’s eyes straight on.
“Yeah,” he said. “Like that.”
Dr. Abernathy reached for the bottle of Lagavulin, and filled both glasses.
“Claire did say she liked you,” he said in resignation. He lifted one glass. “Okay. Slàinte.”
“Turn it the other way—Walter Cronkite’s orange!” Lenny Abernathy obligingly twirled the knob, turning the commentator green. Unaffected by his sudden change of complexion, Cronkite went on talking.
“In approximately two minutes, Commander Neil Armstrong and the crew of the Apollo 11 will make history in the first manned landing on the moon…”
The living room was darkened and packed with people, everyone’s attention riveted on the big TV as the footage shifted to a replay of the Apollo’s launch.
“I’m impressed,” Roger said in Brianna’s ear. “How did you fix it?” He leaned against the end of a bookshelf, and pulled her snug against him, his hands on the swell of her hips, his chin on her shoulder.
Her eyes were on the television, but he felt her cheek move against his own.
“Somebody kicked the plug out of the wall,” she said. “I just plugged it back in.”
He laughed and kissed the side of her neck. It was hot in the room, even with the air conditioner humming, and her skin tasted moist and salty.
“You’ve got the roundest arse in the world,” he whispered. She didn’t answer, but deliberately nestled her bottom against him.
A buzz of voices from the screen and pictures of the flag the astronauts would plant on the moon.
He glanced across the room, but Joe Abernathy was as hypnotized as any of them, face rapt in the glow of the television screen. Safe in the darkness, he wrapped his arms around Brianna, and felt the soft weight of her br**sts on his forearm. She sighed deeply and relaxed against him, putting her hand over his and squeezing tight.
They would both be less bold if there were any danger to it. But he was leaving in two hours; there was no chance of it going further. The night before, they had known they were playing with dyn**ite, and been more cautious. He wondered if Abernathy would actually have punched him, had he admitted that Brianna had spent the night in his bed?
He had driven them down the mountain, torn between trying to stay on the right side of the road, and the excitement of Brianna’s soft weight, pressed against him. They’d stopped for coffee, talked long past midnight, touching constantly, hands, thighs, heads close together. Driven on to Boston in the wee hours, the conversation dying, Brianna’s head heavy on his shoulder.
Unable to keep awake long enough to find his way through the maze of unfamiliar streets to her apartment, he had driven to his hotel, smuggled her upstairs, and laid her on his bed, where she had fallen asleep in seconds.
He had himself spent the rest of the night on the chaste hardness of the floor, Brianna’s woolly cardigan across his shoulders for warmth. With the dawn, he’d got up and sat in the chair, wrapped in her scent, silently watching the light spread across her sleeping face.
Yeah, it was like that.
“Tranquility Base…the Eagle has landed.” The silence in the room was broken by a deep collective sigh, and Roger felt the hair rise on the back of his neck.
“One…small…step for man,” said the tinny voice, “one giant leap…for mankind.” The picture was fuzzy, but not through any fault of the television. Heads strained forward, avid to see the bulky figure making its ginger way down the ladder, setting foot for the first time on the lunar soil. Tears gleamed on one girl’s cheeks, silver in the glow.
Even Brianna had forgotten everything else; her hand had fallen from his arm and she was leaning forward, caught up in the moment.
It was a fine day to be an American.
He had a momentary qualm, seeing them all so fiercely intent, so fervently proud, and she so much a part of it. It was a different century, two hundred years from yesterday.
Might there be common ground for them, a historian and an engineer? He facing backward to the mysteries of the past, she to the future and its dazzling gleam?
Then the room relaxed in cheers and babbling, and she turned in his arms to kiss him hard and cling to him, and he thought perhaps it didn’t matter that they faced in opposite directions—so long as they faced each other.