Lauren felt the plane slow and come to a halt. Looking out the window, she saw nothing but rolling desert hills covered with low-lying trees and shrubs. If there were people and a village, it must not be close.
Brent unbuckled his seat belt and stood up. “I’ll be right back,” as he disappeared into the cockpit.
Lauren unbuckled her own belt and went to her daughters. Megan and her grandmother were already unfastened and collecting their meager belongings, a couple of backpacks. “Thanks, you two,” she accused. “I don’t have any of my stuff.”
Megan winked at her great-grandmother and passed a dark green duffle bag that looked like it had seen much better days to her mother. “You’re welcome. It is mostly your favorite things. Dad said not to worry that he had everything else we would need here.”
Lauren chuckled, “I bet he does.”
Her grandmother laughed out loud, “That boy always did have everything your mother needed, Megan.”
“Grandmam,” Lauren chastised.
“What, child? Am I wrong?”
Lauren was glad that the object of their conversation stepped forward just then. It gave her the excuse she needed to ignore her grandmother’s all too accurate assessment.
Brent looked from one smiling woman to another, “Did I miss something?”
“Nothing at all,” Lauren denied too quickly. “Is everything all right? Can we get off the plane now?”
“Yes, of course. I was just getting some updates from Jason.”
Lauren immediately recognized the name of the trusted friend and pilot who had often flown them and other scientists into some of the world’s most remote locations. His skills had always seemed almost magical, managing to get them into areas isolated by natural disasters, sometimes even before the government or aid agencies had arrived. She should have known that Jason was piloting the plane. Brent trusted few people, and Jason was one of them.
“How is he?”
“Things have been kinda rough this past couple of years. You knew that Mildred died? Breast cancer.” He paused as Lauren nodded her head. “The old coot tried to retire on me, but when I begged him for this one last favor, he could not deny me.”
“He was always more of a father to you than your own dad.” She had always been saddened by Brent and his father’s strained relationship, though she understood why.
“Yeah, well, then he is off to find his other son now. Travis is surfing the waves somewhere in Baja California. We haven’t been able to reach him on his cell, but he knows where the extraction point is for that area. There have been a series of small quakes in Southern California. So I am hoping the idiot is smart enough to realize what is up and gets his butt to it.”
Lauren noted the dark shadows and deep worry lines on his face once more. “I know how protective you are of Travis, but he is smarter than you give him credit for.” She was falling into old patterns already, defending his younger brother.
“Smart never was the issue with that one. He could think circles around me. If he tried. His problem is that Dad and I babied him too damned long. He is the most irresponsible little brat there ever was,” his face turned redder with each word.
“Come on; I think that is a bit harsh. I’m sure it wasn’t easy growing up the younger brother of the great Brent Jacobs, boy genius, Rhodes Scholar, and esteemed scientist.”
“Well, he used it as an excuse not even to try. He has spent almost thirty years playing. Surfing, mountain climbing, sky diving. Anything and everything to avoid getting an education or a job or any other kind of responsibility.”
‘But you can’t rest until he is here with the rest of us.’ Instead of saying it, she changed the subject. “You want to help me get Elise going.”
Brent’s face lit up at the mention of their child. He strode past her to the back of the small jet where Katie was collecting the child’s assortment of comfort things; chewy sticks, squishy balls, ankle weights, and the weighted blanket that she had been wrapped in throughout the flight. The child clutched her favorite doll, an old Raggedy Anne, with bright orange yarn hair and a striped red and white cotton dress.
He bent down and scooped the child into his arms. Lauren’s heart skipped a beat as Elise wrapped her tiny arms around her father’s neck. “How’s Daddy’s bestest little girl today?” He crooned in that baritone, which always sent Lauren’s blood flowing like molten lava, burning everything in its path, especially her sanity.
Brent carried the child past her as Katie finished packing the last of the child’s things into a large tot. She fumbled with it for a moment then fell in step behind the man. Drawing a deep breath, Lauren resigned herself to the week that lay ahead. A week in the company of a man, who still held her body, mind, and heart in the palm of his hands. ‘This is going to be interesting.’
As if reading her mind, her grandmother came up behind her. “You did the right thing, child. That man loves his children – and you. The thought of not being able to care for you would have driven him insane.”
“Are you sure he isn’t already, Grandmam? Have you actually listened to his theories?”
“I might not understand the science of things the way you do, child, but no one needs to tell me that something is happening. I have been on this earth for more than seven decades, and I have never seen anything like this. It might not make sense to your logical mind, but my heart tells me that boy is on to something.”
Lauren shook her head. “The sight again, Grandmam?”
“Yes, the sight. And if you had half the sense you think you do, you would not dismiss everything you cannot put a name, number, or theory to. If you learned to trust your heart sometimes, you might still be married to that boy,” her grandmother rebuked her. It was hardly the first time Grandmam had made her feelings known about their divorce, but it was perhaps the strongest.
“I’m here, aren’t I? I could have called the police, you know.” Lauren could not help but feel the need to defend herself to the woman that had been more like a parent than a grandparent, loving her through the darkest days of her life when neither of her parents cared enough to be there.
“First sensible thing you have done in years, child,” the woman pushed past her, following Brent off the plane.
Lauren looked at the last person remaining on the aircraft, her eldest child. “So Megan, want to tell me why you did not warn me what your father was up to?”
The girl bent her strawberry blond head to stare at the tan carpet covering the floor of the plane. She shrugged her shoulders. “I love him, Mom.”
Lauren’s green eyes misted over. Until that moment, she had not realized how much pain the divorce had caused her daughter. Ironic since she, of all people, knew the high price that the children paid when adults decided to call it quits.
Reaching out, she placed her hand on Megan’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I should never have placed you in the middle. Of course, you love your Daddy.” Lauren gave her a weak smile and drew her into a hug. ‘The problem is…so do I.’
Drawing back from the embrace, she tried to change the subject. “So, have you been to this place before?”
Her daughter’s face lit up. “Yeah, it’s where we came the past two summers. It’s awesome, Mum. Everything and everyone is sustainable. Dad designed it to use alternative energy. He brought the best of the technologies that Jacobs Energy has been experimenting on. He convinced Grandpa to use this place as the testing ground for most of it.”
“And the food they grow here, wait until you taste it. Dad’s friends from A&M used this place to bring back some heritage varieties and test new hybrids. But the thing that Elise loves most is her pony.”
Lauren was shocked at how much she had not known about the six weeks each summer that her daughters spent with their father. She knew, of course, that he took them to one of his father’s working ranches in West Texas; her solicitor even had the address.
Of course, she faithfully made her twice-a-week calls to the girls, but the conversation usually centered as much around whatever fieldwork she was undertaking that year as their daily routines. Megan had occasionally mentioned riding or playing with farm animals, but Lauren had no idea that they were so invested in this place.
That Elise had her own pony. One of the therapies that she and Brent had agreed to try over the years was adaptive riding, but Lauren had given up on it after a few lessons when Elise seemed too frightened of the large animals. “Does she actually ride it?”
Megan shook her head, “No, but she will stand there and stroke it for hours. She talks to it too, Mom. I swear she even says the word…horse.” Looking down at her feet, she blushed, “Well, sort of anyway. She calls it orshe.”
Lauren promised herself then that she would use this week, not to finish the articles, but to reconnect with her daughters. Before it was too late, because she knew that sometimes things got so bad that there was just no way to fix them.
Like her parents’ divorce. Like her relationship with her mother. Like hers and Brent’s marriage. She would not let her relationship with her children become one of them.
She was drawn out of her reverie by Brent’s voice coming from just outside the small plane. “Come on, you two. Jason needs to get things moving, and you girls are in his way.”
She draped her arm across their daughter’s shoulder. “Let’s get going. I can’t wait to see it for myself. If it is half of what you say it is, I’m sure it is wonderful.”
Megan snuggled against her as they walked off the plane together. Since she was seven and had started to read herself to sleep at night, Lauren had forgotten how wonderful it felt to hold her child. She relished it for the moment and swore it would not be so long until they shared this closeness again.
“Alright, alright. You never did have any patience,” she accused her ex-husband as she stepped out into the bright early morning light. “It was your one weakness as a scientist.”
“Sweetie, science aside. I am a virtuoso of patience. I waited twelve years for you to grow up. And I’m still waiting for you to realize that nothing is stronger than the love we share.”
Lauren’s heart shifted into overdrive. Her throat tightened at his bold words. Every little girl dreamed of the handsome prince that would sweep in on his white steed and save her from the dragon. Standing next to this man at that moment, nothing had ever felt closer to that daydream.
But that was all it was, her mind protested. A silly daydream that was archaic. It put feminism back to the Dark Ages. Brent Jacobs was more mad scientist than shining knight. The Jacobs Energy jet was no white horse. And no dragons were waiting to devour her…or volcanoes waiting to erupt in masse. This was a wild goose chase, and she would be smart to remember that.
‘Don’t let your guard down now, Lauren,’ she chided herself.
Pushing past him without a word, she turned to her daughter. “You want to show me that pony you were talking about.”
Megan cast a forlorn look over her shoulder at Brent as she led her mother towards the series of rolling hills. “How about we get settled in first, Mum?” Turning back to her father, “Is Mum staying at our place too?”
Brent cleared his throat, caught off guard at the question. He had not considered this particular issue. Of course, it made perfect sense for Lauren to sleep in their cabin near the girls. But was he prepared for being so near this woman? Knowing that she was asleep just down the hall would be a new form of hell.
If the sexual frustration of a week with Lauren so close was not enough, the intimacy of being a family again was just as daunting. Hopefully, even working alongside her once more. If anyone could tweak their model to give them a closer prediction, it was Lauren. He ran his fingers through his hair as he realized for the first time just how difficult this week was going to be.
Of course, he hoped like hell that he had gotten the approximations close enough. Acceding to her demand had been a considerable gamble. What if he were off by days or weeks? He would have to return Lauren and the girls to England. Knowing that next time would be even more difficult to convince her.
He half-smiled at the all too common plight with volcanology. When to call for evacuations remained the biggest challenge. It was the boy who cried wolf. If they evacuated too soon, people would get antsy, and too many return to their homes, placing themselves back in danger. But if they waited too long, it did not bear thinking about.
No, he would find a way. Even if his predictions were off slightly, he would find a way, some way to convince Lauren to remain. After all, this place was as much her brainchild as his. Their dreams come to fruition.
Studying his ex-wife’s round backside, not that he would be averse to convincing Lauren other ways. He thought back to the way he had woken to her in his arms. It had felt so incredibly right. Of course, she had pulled away the moment that she realized where she was. But the soft moans and bright pink stains on her cheeks had given him hope that perhaps just maybe, Lauren felt even a fraction of the attraction that he still did. If so, he would undoubtedly use it to his advantage too.
To their advantage. He never doubted for a moment and never would – they were meant to be together. “Of course, if you want, sweetie. Put her into your room. I will rearrange things. Perhaps Elise can stay with Katie and Grandmam next door, or I can bring in another bed. We’ll figure it out,” he reassured as Lauren turned back to face him with a scathing glare.
It did not surprise him that she was upset about this latest development. He was confident that he would hear all about it later. It was another thing that he always loved about her – her courage in standing up for what she believed in. Even if that had worked against them in the end as every single decision about Elise’s care became a battle, another eruption of a different kind.
He flashed a smile at his daughter before continuing, “The important thing is that you are here now, and we are all together. Well almost. I need to speak to Daniel and Samuel. Double-check on a couple of things. Will you show your mom and the others where everything is?”
That was partially true, at least, but it was also about getting his own emotions under control. And other things, he cursed his cock that had not fully softened since waking to her softness pressed against his chest.
Brent was determined that if they were going to do battle again…this time, he would remain in control. It was the only chance he stood against her. Lauren was never comfortable battling on anything other than an intellectual level. The moment that emotions became involved, she turned and ran. Looking for someplace to hide safely. So this time, he would play by her rules. Beat her on her own ground. He just had to convince his damned cock and heart to go along with the game plan.
His daughter exchanged a conspiratorial glance with him. He hated putting his child in the middle, just as much as he hated using Grandmam, but both of them had clearly chosen to align themselves with him on this one. And he was grateful for the help. Goodness knows he was going to need it.
“Sure, Dad,” Megan led the small band of women towards the hills. “Things may not be as comfortable as we had at home. It’s pretty basic, actually. The living facilities are much smaller, and things like microwaves and television were energy drains that are not sustainable.”
He watched her lead them away for a long moment. When had his child become such a strong and beautiful young woman? She reminded him so much of her mother. That same stubborn set of her chin. That same spark of intelligence and youthful idealism in her green eyes.
He had lost so much. A few weeks in the summer, every other Christmas, and the occasional visits anytime he was close to Europe was simply not enough. His babies were growing up, and he was missing it. His chest tightened at the thought that one day all too soon, Megan would be grown, a woman just as determined and strong-willed as Lauren.
His eyes drifted to his wife as she listened intently to their eldest daughter’s enthusiastic explanations. Once again, his mind wandered to the futile past time of wishing for things that could not be but should have been. He had made so many mistakes over the years. But letting her go was the biggest one of them all. He choked on that thought. Somehow he promised himself, somehow he would win her back. He had to. Without her, he was not whole.
Lauren observed Megan as she spoke. Where had this mature young woman had come from? It seemed that in the space of a trans-Atlantic flight, her oldest child had gone from care-free soccer star to self-appointed leader.
As they rounded the backside of the series of hills closest to the airstrip, Lauren caught her breath at the sight before her. These were not gently rolling hills but, in fact, houses of some sort. The South facing aspect of each ‘hill’ was a metal façade with expansive sliding glass doors that opened onto front porches. Assorted plant pots graced most of them. The only distinctive feature of the ‘houses’ was the color, each a different hue of the rainbow and beyond.
Megan smiled at her mother. “Dad’s tiny home idea. You remember? Old cargo containers buried beneath mounds of earth to conserve heat.”
It was a dream that the two of them had toyed with for months before Elise was born. They drew up diagrams of the home they would build, away from the city. Each night after Megan was in bed, they would play with new features, new technologies to make it even more self-sufficient.
Megan stopped by the second ‘hill,’ gesturing for her great-grandmother and Katie to enter. “This will be yours. It is not very large, but there is a small bedroom at each end. The bathroom is next to the bedroom on the left. A small kitchen is right next to that. Cooking and heating are provided by a wood stove. Someone will show you later how to work that.”
“There is a small reception area next to that for eating, reading, or whatever. It may not seem like much, but around here, most of our time is spent outdoors, so the living facilities are more about a place to sleep. Our place is right across there,” she pointed to a deep brown-colored unit across the pathway and down a couple of houses.
Her great-grandmother bent over and kissed her head. “You get your mother and sister settled, sweetie. We’ll manage. And don’t worry about showing us how to use the stove. I grew up with one, so I am sure I can figure it out.” Turning to Lauren, she added, “You should get some more rest. You look like crap.”
“Gees, thanks, Grandmam. I wonder why? Kidnapped by my ex-husband and flown halfway around the globe because the world is coming to an end.”
“Consider it a much-needed back-to-nature holiday, child. And get that rest.”
Taking Elise’s small hand from Katie, Lauren tugged gently. The child fell into step with her mother and sister until they were a few feet from the front of their new home. Elise stopped, digging her heels into the sand. Throwing back her head, she howled, “Orsh-ie.”
Megan smiled, “I told you.” Kneeling in front of her younger sister, “Yes, horsey. Doctor Doo-Little is in the barn. I will take you there as soon as we get Mum settled at the house.”
“Noooo,” the girl screamed in a high shrill tone.
Lauren knew the look well. Patience and later were not words in the vocabulary of a child on the autistic spectrum. When her daughter wanted something, she wanted it instantly. “It’s alright, Megan. I’d like to see her pony.”
Megan led them to the end of the row of hill homes. Turning left, they passed several more rows of the unusual abodes.
“How many homes are there here?”
“I’m not sure anymore. There were a hundred and twenty this summer. But Dad adds another one every time a container is retired from use by Jacobs Energy. All of these were once used to transport drilling equipment.”
Her daughter shook her head, “Granddad thinks he is as crazzy as you do, but he’ll do just about anything to keep him at Jacobs Energy since he came back after…” Megan trailed off uncertainly.
“After the divorce, you mean. Your grandfather always was disappointed that your dad chose academia over the family business. He said he spent good money on your dad’s education to ensure that the company had the best leader at the helm when he was gone. He used to blame me; said it was all a waste. So, I’m sure he indulges your father’s whims.”
“This isn’t some whim, Mum,” their daughter defended her father. “Dad is doing something important here. He is helping people to reconnect to our roots. To live in harmony with our world. And whether or not he is right about the volcanoes and another Ice Age, I’m proud of this place and him.”
Lauren stopped and looked at her daughter. Megan’s blue eyes shone bright with emotion and perhaps unshed tears. “I’m sorry, sweetie. You are right. From the little I have seen already, I can tell this is an impressive experiment in cultural evolution.”
Throwing up her hands at her mother’s words, Megan grabbed Elise’s hand and strode off down the pathway. “No, Mum. This is not one of your experiments. This is a community. A community of people that I care about and that care about us.”
Lauren stared after her daughters for a moment. She choked back the distinct feeling of failure. Had she become so caught up in her career, in just surviving day-to-day life with a child on the autistic spectrum, that she had utterly lost touch with her older daughter? Was she following in her own mother’s footsteps, choosing one child over another? She could not bear the thought.
But this was not the time to think about such complexities, as she followed after her daughters, barely noticing her surroundings. It was just a short walk before they emerged next to a small stand of mesquite trees. A large barn and corral stood next to them.
Always a city girl, Lauren turned up her dainty nose at the smell that hung in the rapidly warming morning air. Urine, feces, and animal sweat greeted her empty stomach. And before her morning cup of tea too.
Megan seemed to notice her discomfort, “You can go back to the house if you want. There are no locks around here. I can take Elise to see Doctor Doo-Little.”
Lauren shook her head and drew in a deep breath. She regretted it immediately. Choking back a cough, “No, I really do want to see Elise’s pony.”
“Alright then,” Megan led them into the barn.
Lauren noticed few stalls with horses and cows, but most were empty. Towards the back of the barn, Megan stopped in front of a booth. Elise’s eyes lit up with joy. She jumped up and down, shouting, “Orsh-ie, orshie.”
Lauren followed the girl’s delightful squeals, stopping in front of the stall. “A miniature!”
“Yeah, Dad thought if it was an issue of her being frightened of horses because of their size, this might be better.”
Lauren watched Megan open the small paddock door. Elise ran inside and wrapped her arms tightly about the animal’s neck. So tightly that for a moment, Lauren worried about her cutting off its breathing, but the horse did not seem to mind. If anything, it seemed to lean into the enthusiastic embrace.
She stood transfixed in silence for several minutes as her daughters played and giggled. Then Megan placed a small brush into Elise’s hand, and the child immediately began to rub long strokes down the hind flank of the animal.
Megan stood up and walked to join her. “She will do that until someone stops her. Doctor Doo-little loves her tendency towards repetitive motions.”
Lauren fought back the moisture that gathered in the corner of her eyes, ashamed that she had given up so quickly on the horse idea. Why had she not considered this obvious solution?
She faced the challenging mirror of truth. All of the therapies they tried were quickly evaluated on their usefulness and on the effort they took. Had her tight work schedule meant that she discarded other treatments that might have proven useful if given more time or effort?
Brent stood in the doorway of the barn watching his girls. Once more, pride swelled his heart. It was not just the young lady that Megan was becoming, but at the progress, Elise was making.
Lauren had accused him of burying his head in the sand, refusing to face the fact that their daughter had autism. But she was wrong about that. It was not that he did not accept that fact. It was more that he refused to see it as the ‘disability’ that society and even Lauren did.
His gut had told him from the beginning that locked inside the sensory overload of this world was a brain to revile Einstein or Hawking. The problem was finding the key to open those doors. A way of bridging their world and his youngest child’s. A new way of communicating. They were not there yet, but in moments like this, his heart and mind caught glimmers of hope.
Elise was hyper-focused again. Stroking the horse. Did anyone notice the intricate pattern that she repeated time and time again? It was more than just starting at the head and working towards the tail as she had been taught. No, she paused, stopping the brush for a brief moment over certain spots. Always the same locations too. Even though it had been months since she had been here, since she had touched the animal, the areas remained the same.
He frowned, once more trying to put together the pieces in his own mind. Next time he would bring a diagram of horses, observe more carefully, marking the spots. Maybe if he took it to Brad, his veterinarian friend, when he arrived, he could make some sense of it.
Or maybe he only saw what he wanted to see — wishing for things that were not there. But he remembered as a small boy finding solace in such matters. Three paces, pause. Four steps, stop. It had been more than just a childish game for him. It had been a ritual. One that he was obligated to complete.
His chest tightened as he remembered the way that one nanny, in particular, had dragged him along. He had felt the alarm and panic growing with each missed pause. Finally, he had exploded, falling to the ground, kicking and screaming. His father had swooped in then, and Brent had trembled in fear. Sure enough, it had resulted in another spanking. But that nanny was gone too, and the one who came after was more tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.
That was what the nice older woman, who had managed to weather five years of outbursts from him and the mighty Jim Jacobs both, had called them. Peculiarities. Eccentricities. She had accommodated as many of them as possible. Others she had helped him to overcome with the patience of a saint.
Now, of course, he wondered, as he had for almost nine years since that first doctor spoke the A-word. And the more he read, the more he saw of himself. His throat constricted as he watched Elise stroke the pony. He was almost sure he could see the pattern. It was right there if he just had a bit more time.
But that would have to wait for another time, “I thought I would find my girls here.”
“Sorry, Daddy, but Elise couldn’t wait to see Doctor Doo-little,” Megan apologized.
Covering the short distance in only a few strides, he placed his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t worry about it, sweetie. When you weren’t at the house, I figured as much. How’s our girl doing this morning?”
“She’s fine, Daddy. The moment she saw the house, she knew where we were. Maybe she will even settle down, now that she has the pony.”
He kissed the top of his daughter’s head, relieved to have them safely here now. “Maybe, sweetie. But if I am right, Elise might be sensing things that we can’t. Some of the animals around here have been acting odd lately, too.”
“Like those snakes you told me about in China?”
He was pleased that she had remembered something they had talked about years ago. Both his girls were brilliant in their own way. “Exactly, pumpkin.” Not that that was surprising considering their mother, he looked at Lauren as she frowned.
“You mean Doctor Weisong’s work with the headbanging snakes in Guangxi province?”
“You’ve heard about it too, Mum?”
“Although I am not certain of its validity, there is ample anecdotal evidence of animal behaviors around the world preceding natural disasters such as earthquakes. When the Greek city of Helice was flattened by a quake in the third century BC, historians reported that rats, mice, and weasels had fled the city before the event. Of course, the weakness of such reports is that there is no clear causal link. There could be any number of other reasons why they left.”
Megan and Brent looked at one another and shook their heads. How like Lauren to so easily dismiss anything that she could not immediately prove. But that was the same old argument that had gotten them to this point and one he was not going to make the mistake of repeating.
Brent turned to his older daughter, “You want to stay here with your sister for a bit, and I’ll show your mom around?”
Megan nodded, “Is Sammy around?”
“He’s finishing up some homework I gave him before I left. But I told him you were here, so I’m betting the boy will finish pretty quick and be here before you know it.”
Megan’s face lit up at her father’s words. She smiled and went back into the stall with her sister, taking a seat on a pile of hay in the corner.
He was not sure he liked how his young ‘cousin’ and daughter had taken to one another. It struck a bit too close to home for comfort sometimes. But it was something else that would have to wait as he turned to his ex-wife, “Shall we?”
Lauren only nodded her head as he placed his hand at the small of her back and guided her towards the door. Brent tried to ignore the searing heat that seemed to scorch his hand at this familiar touch. He thought that during the brief break, he had managed to get his libido back under control.
But the truth was there never had been any way of controlling his feelings for this woman. Not since that first night when she had given herself to him in his dingy flatshare near the university. While he had not been a virgin the way she was, he had certainly felt like one. Nothing had ever felt like that. And he had somehow known nothing ever would.
“Who is Sam?”
Her words interrupted his memories, which was probably a good thing. “Do you remember my cousin Trent? He and his wife Stephie came to our wedding. Sammy is Stephie’s son from her first marriage. She and Trent were killed in a car accident almost a year ago. Sammy was fifteen. The state could not locate his father and was getting ready to put the kid in foster care. I told them I’d take him.”
He shook his head as he shared his concerns with her. It was something else that had just always been so natural with this woman. “I think Megan has her first crush. She spent all of last summer trailing after the poor kid. But then he didn’t seem to mind,” stopping, he reached down and placed his fingers beneath her chin. Lifting her face to meet his gaze, “Reminds me of another young boy and his tag-along girl. I hope that theirs is a happier ending.”