Coming Home

by Joyce Reynolds-Ward

Adrienne Taylor forced a smile on her face as she chatted her way through the crowd at the reception.  She was careful not to look closely at the photographs.  Things…happened…around her mother’s pictures sometimes.

“No, I haven’t heard from Ruby in months.  I’m surprised she’s not here.  She doesn’t usually miss something like this,” she said to one lanky museum donor with the slim figure and gaunt face of the competitive bicyclists common to the Bend area.

“She didn’t tell any of us anything,” she said to the rough-skinned rancher from Blue Bucket who’d politely asked about Ruby’s much-publicized disappearance.  “Rent’s paid up at her storage and nothing’s gone from her house.  The police don’t have any clue.  I’ve been talking to them daily for the last month.”

“Yes, I have to agree, these are her best pictures yet.  I’m happy the Museum is featuring them,” she said to the cute young Portland couple in matching Columbia Sportswear sweaters.

She fretted her way through the polite chatter.  Chatter wasn’t something she did well; it wasn’t necessary in her own work.  At one point she slipped off to the lizard exhibit, just to get away.  Then, drawing a deep breath, she rejoined the dwindling crowd, still careful to keep from looking deeply into Ruby’s photographs.

At least there hadn’t been any mysterious disappearances tonight.

“Everything all right?”  Jack, the museum–curator? what was his title, she could never remember the title of the museum event organizers, even after all these years–came up to her.  Adrienne gave him one of her daughter-of-the-great-woman smiles.

“You’ve done a great job with it.  Ruby would be proud if she were here.”

Jack shrugged.  “I just set it up according to her directions.”

“You did it well.”  Adrienne glanced at her watch, relieved to see she could now leave.  “Thank you ever so much in going ahead with this exhibit even though she’s dropped out of sight, Jack.  I know a lot of folks wouldn’t have gone that far.”  Not after all the weirdness.

Jack shrugged.  “Ruby’s always been there for us.  It’s only fair that we follow through.  Just wish we had something more definitive on where she is.”

“Well, I’m going by her place tomorrow, make sure everything’s kept up, take some valuables back to Portland with me for safekeeping.  Maybe I’ll find something then.”

“I hope so,” Jack said.  “We miss her.”

“Don’t we all.”  Adrienne checked the clock one last time.  Yes!  She could leave now.  “I need to go, Jack.  Long day tomorrow.”

“No problem.  Let us know what you find out.”

“I will.”

A bare skiff of snow covered the blacktop as Adrienne walked along the long, curving walkway to the parking lot nestled among the lodgepole pines.  Unlike most of the attendees, she wasn’t staying at the exclusive golf resort across the way, or at any of the others dotting the Bend and Redmond area.  Her chosen refuge was on the highway strip near the county fairgrounds, an anonymous chain motel amongst farm equipment businesses, strip malls, and fast food joints.  It was easier to avoid the magic that way.

Once safely back in her room, she checked her voice mail, hooked up the laptop and checked her e-mail, and checked with the front desk.  Nothing.  No one.

Adrienne heaved a deep sigh.  She had hoped it wouldn’t come to this.

Oh well.  Tomorrow.

She ran herself a tub of hot water, poured a big glass of single malt Scotch, and retired for a soak and pampering session to prepare for the next day’s ordeal.  She’d need every bit of it.
She rose early.  Breakfast was an anonymous cheap frozen microwave pseudo-Chinese thing with rice and chicken in a foul sweet sauce, and instant coffee made with hot water from the bathroom.  Rather than turn on the TV, she opened the curtain and studied the eastern sky while she ate.  High clouds skittered across the sky, the sun periodically breaking through.  Fresh snow dusted the tops of the brown desert hills.  With any luck, she’d not have to deal with any fresh snow on the passes. Yesterday’s weather had suggested the weather could go either way, between snow and rain.  Typical early spring day.

One of Ruby’s favorite seasons.  For a moment, Adrienne considered turning back, until the weather was more predictable.  It might be safer that way.

No.  Nothing is safe now.

One way or another she had to find out.  For herself.  On her own terms.
It took several hours to reach Ruby’s isolated trailer.  Adrienne spent at least one hour lost on muddy gravel back roads after taking a wrong turn off of the highway.  She hadn’t come here often enough to make sense of the maze of unmarked roads making their way through featureless sagebrush hills.  She finally stumbled across the correct county road, however, and before long the kachina-like towers of the Northwest Intertie power lines rose ahead of her.  Adrienne followed the road along the power line, until she reached the lone juniper which signaled Ruby’s turnoff.  She stopped her Subaru and hopped out to check.  No new vehicle tracks marked the gumbo and gravel jeep track.

Adrienne sighed.  She’d hoped for more.  She scouted briefly along the road, checking the muckiness of it.  It’d be hell to get bogged down out here.  Satisfied that the road was in decent shape, she got back into the car and drove along the top of the ridge for about a half mile before the track wound down toward the lavender trailer house sheltered by a couple of cottonwoods and a ponderosa pine in the lee of the ridge.

At last Adrienne stopped next to the trailer.  She studied it carefully.  Everything looked in order; no equipment or outdoor furniture loosely scattered about; Ruby’s old Jeep parked in the carport; all the windows in good shape.  Could Ruby have wandered off somewhere and had a heart attack?  A stroke?  Should she have brought someone with dogs–no, the Ogden County sheriff had assured her that they’d done that already.  But still…there were mine shafts in this country, Ruby could have fallen down one.

Adrienne puttered around the outbuildings, checking the pumphouse and storage shed.  All was in order.  At last she climbed the steps to the trailer and unlocked the door.  The living room was in Ruby’s usual state of disarray (“Honest, sheriff,” she’d told the Ogden County sheriff–what was his name?  “She always keeps the place like this.”) with newspapers, magazines and books scattered about at random around the places Ruby liked to sit.

Dust covered everything that had been disturbed her last visit, and there were no signs that the dust had been disturbed since then.  The kitchen was clean–Adrienne’s doing.  She’d pulled out all but the food in cans and secured in glass, so as to not attract vermin while leaving something should Ruby return and be looking for something to eat.  The refrigerator was bare except for the bottled waters and juices from Adrienne’s last visit.  The freezer had a few microwave dinners in it, nothing more.
Adrienne proceeded to the bedroom–nothing new there, either, then to the studio.  She tensed in preparation for what she might find.

At first, it looked the same.  A huge photograph of the Imnaha River Canyon lay on the framing table.  The mat for it, not quite finished, was next to it, while the glass and uncut frame pieces leaned against the wall nearby.  Adrienne let out the breath she’d been holding.

Then she looked at the picture itself.  She frowned.

This shot had been a wilderness picture, a simple piece with no houses or roads or any such thing included.  That’s what she’d seen last time she’d been here.  But she could swear she now saw a path along the curve of one hill, and something moving….She leaned closer to look, and could almost smell the spring sweetness after that afternoon thundershower, see the doe with her spotted twin fawns moving cautiously out of cover in that stringer of ponderosa pine, reach out and touch that hand reaching for her….

Adrienne jumped back.  That’s new!  She bolted from the room and slammed the door behind her.  She didn’t stop running until she was back outside, in the chill of early spring while a brief snowstorm blizzarded around her.  Somehow, she managed to get into the car, her hands wrapped around the wheel, shaking with fear.

She actually drove as far as the main road back to Blue Bucket.  Then Adrienne took hold of herself.  Okay.  The worst case scenario had happened.  Now she had to figure out whether Ruby had gone willingly or not, and whether she now wanted to return.  And just what was it that had grabbed at her?

She allowed herself a brief walk alongside the muddy road before she got back into the car.  Not for the first time she wished for the comfort of a sibling, or spouse, or even a close friend to help her with this.  But she’d held herself alone, except for Ruby, for so long that she really didn’t know how to connect with someone.

Besides, how to explain it?  “My mother gets into her pictures.  No, she really gets into her pictures.  She used to take me along sometimes.”  Adrienne snorted.  No one would believe her, not even if she grabbed them and dragged them along on an expedition.  It would be a quick ticket into a mental hospital.

And explaining it?  A talent?  Gift?  Black magic?  All she knew was that Ruby could walk into any picture–painting or photograph–that she wanted.  Adrienne could walk into Ruby’s photographs but no one else’s.  Whatever the mysterious talent or gift or curse was, hers was limited next to Ruby’s.

Ruby had never been gone this long before, however.  And she’d always been careful to leave some sort of record of her passing, something to cue Adrienne that all was okay and she would be back.  And there had never, ever been that hand reaching out to grab Adrienne.

Then again, there was the cancer.  Ruby could have passed through and not been able to get back.  Or chosen not to come back.  Time passed differently in the picture worlds, depending upon what picture was chosen.  She didn’t think that Ruby could be forced to stay–unless it was connected somehow with that grabbing hand.

Maybe that’s what’s happened to the others.  Mysterious disappearances happened around Ruby’s exhibitions.  Ruby and Adrienne had checked them out a few times and found nothing to suggest foul play.  No clues within the pictures, no sign that anyone besides themselves had crossed the threshold into the picture world.  It was one reason Ruby had given up big exhibitions….until this High Desert one, as a favor to Jack.

Adrienne sighed.  She got back into the car and drove back to Ruby’s.  This time she avoided the back room and sorted through various things she wanted to take to Portland.  She then fixed herself something to eat, and dug out the lockbox where Ruby kept her picture traveling notes.  Maybe there was something in there.

And maybe not.  By nightfall, Adrienne was convinced.  She had no choice but to check the picture.  It wasn’t something she wanted to do by night.  First light of day was best.  Yes.  Rule out all possibilities.

She debated driving back to Blue Bucket to spend the night.  At last, she chose to stay.

She slept fitfully, gaining perhaps three hours rest.  By first light, Adrienne was up and preparing for her excursion.  She toyed with the thought of a weapon, and decided against it, choosing medications and extra food instead.  She was ready by the time dawn lightened the world around the trailer.  She cautiously entered the room, opened all the blinds, then stepped forward, picking the picture up and setting it on an easel.  Then she took a deep breath, and focused on the rolling hillside.  She moved close.  Touched the picture, smelled the sweetness of rain-slicked grass, listened for the cries of meadowlarks.  Closed her eyes.  Took another few steps…and then there was grass underfoot.

She stopped and opened her eyes, looking back.  She could still see the studio behind her, in a small square picture oddly out of place in this wild country.  Adrienne carefully noted the place markings around her, then picked up the studio and fixed it into place, just like Ruby had taught her so many years ago.  No one else in the picture world could see this but her and Ruby.

She found a well-worn path before her, and followed it as it dropped below the top of the ridge from the picture.  The doe and fawns she’d spotted the night before sprang up in surprise, bouncing away.  She could now smell the faint wisps of smoke from a campfire.  It didn’t surprise her to follow the trail around the ridge to find a small, primitive camp with Ruby crouching by the fire.  Ruby didn’t look up until Adrienne touched her shoulder.

“You fool!”  Ruby snapped.  “You shouldn’t have done this!  What the hell am I going to do now–Adie, he didn’t get you too, did he?  Damnit, he promised.  He promised!”

She burst into uncharacteristic tears.

It took a while to calm Ruby.  Adrienne was glad she’d brought her provisions.  Ruby was gaunt, her already thin frame emaciated and the skin drawn tight and pale over sharp bones.  Careful questioning revealed she’d not eaten much for ages, and had lost all track of time.

Once fed, Ruby curled up and went to sleep.  Adrienne used the time to clean up around the camp, gather more firewood and water, and prepare a better shelter.  That done, she waited.

At last Ruby woke.

“You’re still here,” she said.  “Thought you’d have the brains to go back by now…before it’s too late.”

“Not without you.”

“Can’t.  Can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

Ruby shuddered.  “He won’t let me.”

“Who are you talking about?  I haven’t seen anyone.”

“You haven’t been looking.  Got any tea?”

Adrienne set a pot to boil on a flat rock in the fire ring.  “Who are you talking about?”

Ruby shook her head.  “Shouldn’t tell you.”

“I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.  Who the hell are you talking about?”

Ruby sighed.  “It’s a long story.”

“So I’ve got time.  Tell me.”

“After I have some tea.”

It seemed to take forever before Ruby was finally settled in and ready to talk.  But at last she propped herself up against a handy stump, leaned back, and began to speak.

–The pictures didn’t just happen, you know.  Oh, that’s what most of ‘em want to think about me, that I was a major talent who exploded out of nowhere, but like any story, there’s more to it than that.  I spent years and years working on trying to get the shot.  Trying to capture that right shading of light on the mountains, trying to catch the play of light on cirrus clouds, get the right shapes and frames and the whole nine yards.

No one’s seen that work, not since you were born.  I burned all of it after–but I’m getting ahead of my story here.  Let’s just say that there’s a lot of snapshot photographers out there with cheap equipment who could turn out better pictures without trying than I could with my good equipment and planning.  I’d know I got the shot, but it didn’t matter if I developed it or someone else…what came out of the developing fluid wasn’t what I’d done.  Or thought I’d done.

Your father was a tough man, Adie.  When I got pregnant with you, I knew there was trouble.  Big “T” trouble.  His plans didn’t involve children.   I had to get away from him.  It was hard, but I kept on dreaming about my pictures, wishing there was a way I could be a parent and still keep working on the photography.

I ran away to Blue Bucket.  Your grandparents were still alive.  They didn’t have much, but they were willing to help so I could find work.  They didn’t understand my thing about photography, but at least I could borrow a few dollars here and there for film and developing.

Blue Bucket’s a funny place, as you probably know by now.  Some people say it’s haunted.  Others say folks are just inbred.  I think it’s a little bit of both.

I started dating this new fellow in town while I was pregnant with you.  Charlie.  He wasn’t much for photography himself, but he liked taking me out and watching me do pictures.  Funny thing was, when I was around him, the pictures started turning out.  Not quite what I wanted, but pretty damn close, closer than they’d ever been.  He just wouldn’t let me take a picture of him.
Well, I did it.  One day, when we were out in the woods, and he was sleeping, I took his picture.  Boy, was Charlie mad.  Chewed me out up and down, then drove me home.

Never saw him again.  At least not in that world.  He dropped me off, and when I turned to wave goodbye, he disappeared.  Cursed me out, told me I’d learn the folly of my ways and pay someday–and then he was gone.  Car and all.  No puffs of smoke, no Star Trek transport shimmering–one moment he was there, the next he wasn’t.  I thought I saw him and the car go a little sideways before they went, but you know, I was crying and wasn’t sure of what I saw.

Well, that was no good.  I’d been hoping he’d stand in for your daddy after you were born, but now that notion had just plain gone squat.  I didn’t develop the pictures until I took in some rolls of your baby pictures, and I didn’t even look at that roll until six months after that.  And when I did….well, I thumbed through ‘em until I got to the ones I took of him–and there was nothing.  Nothing at all.  No sign that a person was in the picture, no shadows, nothing.

Picture was way damn nice, though.  I ended up putting that one aside and getting it blown up for a county fair photography exhibit, figuring it was my best chance yet.

You know that one.  It’s the rock and pine shot.  My first big one.  Took grand champion at county and state fair, both.  Right after I got it back from state fair, I was looking at it when you were down for a nap.  Kept on staring at it, and thinking of him…and then I was back there.  Alone, but back there.  In the picture.  Just like we’ve done all these years.  Scared the pee-wadding out of me.  Then he talked to me.  Told me I could do the picture-walking, but that one day I’d take the wrong picture, and go walking, and pay the price.

I guess that’s what happened to me now.

“So what do we do?”  Adrienne asked.

“Do?  Girl, there is no ‘do.’  Not for me, anyway.  Perhaps something for you.  You oughta be able to get out of here.  I’ve tried.  I can’t.  He grabs me back every time.  I was setting up to frame this picture when he reached out and yanked me in.  Told me it was time for the payback.”

“Grabbed you in,” Adrienne said slowly.  “You mean like a big hand reached out to pull you in, instead of the usual walk-through?”

Ruby nodded.  “That’s why there was no note.  No supplies.  I was dressed warm, at least, because it was cold in the studio and I didn’t want to light up the heater just yet. It’d been cranky of late and I was going to have you pick me up a new one the next time you came out.  I was measuring the picture when he pulled me in.”

“He tried to pull me in, too.”

Ruby scowled.  “He lied to me, then.  He said it was just gonna be me.”

“Maybe he counts me as part of you.”

“Maybe.”

“So what are we gonna do?”

“Damned if I know.”

“That’s not an acceptable answer,”  Adrienne said.  “You need to go back.  You need to finish your treatments.  You can’t stay here.”

“Might as well die here as any other place.”

“Motherrrr….”

“Damn it, Adie, I don’t know, all right!  Give me some time to think about it!”

“We don’t dare take too long about it.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

In the end, she went without telling Ruby anything.  She left the pack and everything else, unsure as to whether she’d be back soon, or….or who knew?  If she could leave and come back, she could bring more things for Ruby, make her comfortable.  And if she couldn’t…well, she couldn’t.  There was only one way to find out.

Her picture was gone when she reached the top of the ridge.  Adrienne looked around, swearing softly to herself.  Now this wasn’t what she had expected.  Maybe she’d gotten it wrong.  She circled around, checking her markers…nope.  Gone.  Completely.

“Looking for this?”  a voice said behind her.

Adrienne turned.  A dark-haired, brown-skinned man with braids and dressed in a ribbon shirt and jeans leaned against a tree behind her, swinging what looked to be a small picture from the fingers of his left hand.  There was a faint hint of a point to his ears and his eyes weren’t almond shaped as much as they suggested the same sort of elongated points which marked his ears.

Fey, she thought.  Native American fey?   He was clearly not what she’d expected.

“Wh-who are you?”  she croaked.

The man grinned.  “I think you know exactly who and what I am.”

“Give it back, Charlie.  She needs help.”

Charlie laughed.  “She told you, eh?”  His voice hardened.  “She broke the rules.  She pays the price.”

“You ran out on her when she needed you.”

“I left her the gift.  Did you ever feel deprived?”

Adrienne shook her head.  “That’s not the point.  The point is…..”

“The point is,” Charlie drawled, “that you want to break the rules just like she did.  Don’t you think she’d die happier here than there?”

“Only if you were with her.”

His face froze.  “That’s never gonna happen.”

“Why not?”

“The rules.  She broke the rules.”

“So you’re holding that against her?”

He shook his head.  “It doesn’t change a thing whether I do or don’t.  They’re just the rules and I can’t change them.  Maybe if I was one of the Ice.  But I’m not.  I’m Fire.”

Fire?  Ice?  Adrienne sighed, expelling her breath slowly, prickling crawling up and down her skin.  Years ago Ruby’d told her stories about the beings of Fire and Ice.  She’d always thought they were fantasies–not real.  She looked closer at Charlie.  He looked like Ruby’s description of the Fire fey.

“Okay,” she said slowly.  “Fine.  But I’d always heard that Fire stuck to a bargain.  Let me go back through so I can get some stuff to make it easier for her.”

“Can’t do that, either?”

“And why the hell not?”

“Because,”  he sighed,  “there’s a lot more to this than I can explain.”

“Try me.  Better yet, under what conditions can I make Ruby’s life–what remains of it–better?”

He blinked.  Then, softly,  “You have to agree to the same terms she violated.”

“Terms?  You had an agreement?  Ruby didn’t say anything about that.”

“It appears,”  he said slowly,  “that she left a lot of things out when she told you.  Not surprising since she was unwilling to complete her promises.  You don’t break a Fire promise.”

“Okay.”  Adrienne glowered at him.  “Tell me.  Everything.  Now.”

Charlie sighed.  “Long version or short?”

“Keep it short.”

“Your father wasn’t the man Ruby was married to; she had an affair with one of us–Fire–and you weren’t supposed to be brought up there.  Ruby was never supposed to keep you.” He shook the picture slightly.

“Yeah.  Right.  I don’t believe this.”  Unfortunately, it was starting to make sense.  Ruby did stuff like that.

“Just where do you think you are now?  How many people can walk into pictures?  Ruby made a deal with him–we needed a child born over there, with certain talents and skills we could only get from her kind; in return she got her talent.”

“Then why did she get the talent, if she didn’t hand me over?”

“She kept you.  And the talent.  She banished me by taking my picture.  I was stupid…that was how she double-crossed your father.”

“So.  If I stay, what help can I get for her?”

He shook his head.  “Has to be of your own free will, no duress, no compunction to take care of her.  She has a price to pay.”

“She’s dying.  That’s payment enough.  If you let me say goodbye to her, and provide someone to take care of her until she dies, I’ll do whatever you want.”

He raised his brows.  “That’s a dangerous promise.  Can you do so without trying to escape?”

“Depends on what you want of me.”

He sighed.  “You’ll be dead to your other world.”

“There’s nothing left for me but Ruby.  I have no ties, no connections, no one who will really care.  If I know she’s cared for, then I have no desire to escape whatever it is you want.”

“A brave soul, indeed.”

“If I even have one.”

“Oh, you do.”  He stroked her cheek, and chuckled.  “You have a splendid and beautiful soul, all choked down and tied up because of her stupid choices.  Do you want to see what it’ll be like?”

She shook her head.  Not yet.  Not before she took care of her responsibilities.  That was the Fire in her.  “Let’s just get some help for Ruby.”

“Then it will be so.”

Adrienne stood over Ruby, curled up asleep next to the fireplace, and watched for a few minutes as Ruby breathed in and out.  Adrienne sighed and turned away.  Part of her wanted to shake Ruby awake and confront her one last time; another part of her acknowledged that such an action would be useless.

Ruby had made a bargain for her talent; a bargain that at the end she’d been unwilling to complete for the sake of her child.  As that child, Adrienne supposed she should be grateful.

But was my life any better for it?  A postponing of the inevitable?  She lacked any illusions about what the price would be that Charlie would ask.  Whatever she would become, it would be nothing like she was now.  She remembered enough of Ruby’s tales about the beings of Fire and Ice, and the eternal warfare between the two.  She could feel the Fire part of her being slowly waking.  It all made sense.

Adrienne stirred up the fire.  She sat back and waited.

At last she heard the faint rustle of footsteps in the woods.  A graceful young woman entered the clearing, heavy-laden with backpack and extra bags.  She nodded at Adrienne, then jerked her chin back in the direction she had come.

Adrienne rose quietly.  She bent over Ruby and kissed her cheek.  Ruby roused.

“Adie?  It didn’t work?  I’m sorry….”

“It worked, Mom.  Just not like I had expected.  See, I brought you some help.”  Adrienne gestured toward the young woman who was quietly unpacking her load and setting up a tent.  “Gotta go now.”

“Adie…”  Ruby gasped.  “What happened?  Did he con you?”

Adrienne shook her head.  Ruby stared at her, then dropped her head.  “All those years,”  she whispered.  “All that time.  And he got you in the end, just like he said he would.”

“I’m sorry,” Adrienne said.  She slipped free of Ruby’s grasp and stood up.

She walked away without looking back, much as she wanted one more last memory of her mother.  She followed the trail around to the place where he waited.

“I’m ready,”  she said.

“I’ve always been ready for you,”  he said back to her.  “Sister.  One of us.  You’ve been away far too long.”

What happened next wasn’t what she’d expected.

Then again, transformation never was what you expected it to be.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son.  An avid horsewoman and ski bum, she is also a middle school learning specialist at a small school on Mt. Hood.  Her publishing credits include a SemiFinalist placement in the Writers of the Future contest and past stints as an opinion columnist for the Portland State Vanguard (while earning her Masters Degree) and a computer columnist for the Catholic Sentinel.

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