Countdown: Pete and Trisha
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Black boots, black jeans,
black t-shirt. Ray-Bans covering
almost half his face under his thatch of dark hair. The words long, cool drink of water slid into Trisha Peterson’s mind as she
walked down the front steps of her apartment building with a canvas tote
slung over her shoulder. Then she
thought, No, long, cool shadow,
because he seemed to be one, lounging against his silver Porsche—convertible,
top down—in the glare of the
“I’ll say one thing for the
great state of
When she reached him, Trisha put the tote down on the pavement and moved into his embrace. His t-shirt and jeans, she noticed, were well broken in but clean, and he smelled faintly of anti-static dryer sheets.
“I guess I could say the
They kissed until the heat of the sun made beads of perspiration spring out between her shoulder blades. Pete, whose fingers were roaming in that area, tipped his head forward and let his glasses slide down his nose so that he was peering at her over the tops of the lenses.
“You know it’s almost ninety?” he frowned. “At in the morning.”
“It’s a beautiful day.”
Pete considered the sky, with its pale haze of humidity, and shrugged. “I guess so. They haven’t issued the daily tornado warning yet.”
Trisha slapped at his shoulder, then picked up her bag and dropped it into the back of the car. “You’re terrible.”
“I’ve got a full tank of gas, a wallet full of cash, and seventy-two hours to use ’em in. Destination’s up to you.”
“Well…you were talking
“Darlin’, if we go to Nuh Awlins, I won’t surface till Labor Day. I think they’d notice I was missing.”
“Or we could go to that nice hotel you booked, with the air conditioning and the room service.”
He was looking past her, at an upstairs window. “That your sister?”
Trisha turned and looked but could see nothing but blinds closed against the sun. “Probably.” Grinning, she moved back into his arms. “Grab.”
“Grab. Anything that suits you, flyboy.”
“Jesus, and you called me terrible.”
The objection didn’t last long. Stroking rather than grabbing, his hands found the familiar curves of her body. Her hands clasped at the small of his back as they kissed, and their murmured sounds of pleasure competed with the muffled noise of someone trying to start a bad engine some distance away.
“Last time I did this,”
Pete commented, drawing away from the kiss, “I ended up on the cover of the
“Maybe we should go, then.”
Trisha caught the beginnings of a peculiar expression on his face—and the beginnings of something else, farther south—and offered, “Sorry, Major. I didn’t mean to start the countdown before all systems were go.” Before he could answer, she had skirted around to the passenger side of the car and popped open the door. Then she spotted something resting on the passenger seat that made her gape in horror. “Oh, my lord,” she blurted. “Where did you get that awful hat?”
She was staring at it as if it were a coiled rattlesnake. “Hey,” Pete protested. “That’s a great hat.”
“It is if you want to look like J.R. Ewing.” Shuddering, Trisha grabbed the hat and dropped it into the back of the car alongside her tote, then slid into the seat, closed the door and fastened her seat belt.
“I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for that hat.”
Trisha leaned across and opened the driver’s door. Still vaguely insulted, Pete dropped in behind the wheel, then reached into the back seat, seized his hat and plopped it firmly on his head. His expression dared her to object.
“Give it to Alan,” she said. “It’d look fine on him.”
“I’m not giving Virdon a two hundred dollar hat.”
“I thought it was a hundred and fifty.”
“There was sales tax,” Pete told her stubbornly.
Rather than say anything
further, he started the car and revved it for emphasis. With one hand resting lightly on the wheel,
he shifted the Porsche into gear and aimed it toward the road to
They had been riding maybe fifteen minutes when Trisha lifted the hat off his head, returned it to the back seat, then ruffled his hair with her fingers. He leaned into her touch, smiling contentedly when she rested her palm against the back of his neck. After another minute or two of silence, he flipped on the radio and began humming along with the song that was playing, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”
“I never noticed that before,” Trisha said. When Pete looked at her inquisitively, she pointed to the small gold letters “BB” set into the dashboard.
“Don’t have a plane any more,” he explained. “And they wouldn’t let me paint it on the ship.”
“My parents named me Patty Peterson,” Trisha sighed. “I went through three years of grade school with kids calling me Pee Pee. When I decided to tell ’em my name was Trisha, they called me Toilet Paper.”
A laugh burst out before Pete could stop it.
“Keep that up,” she said, “and you could be stayin’ in that hotel by yourself.”
“I’ll think of something nicer to call you,” he promised.
Pete drifted awake sometime after to find Trisha’s half of the bed empty. A little squinting around in the dark located her over near the room’s floor-to-ceiling oceanview windows, wrapped in one of the hotel’s white bathrobes, arms folded over her chest, gnawing pensively on the knuckle of her index finger.
“You okay?” he asked as he joined her at the window.
She nodded. “There’s a ship out there.”
Indeed there was: a tiny smudge of light at the horizon. “Cruise ship,” Pete said. “Too many lights for anything else.” He waited, but she didn’t move. “You coming back to bed…sugar plum?”
She turned to him then, the crease in her forehead visible in the dim amber light cast up from the pool area eighteen floors below. When she didn’t say anything to put him off, he untied the belt of her robe, slipped his arms around her waist, and drew her close to him. She nestled into the embrace but did nothing to respond to it.
“You okay?” he asked again.
He nuzzled her ear for a moment, then murmured into it, “Rishy-rishy-bo-bishy…”
“The name game. Didn’t you ever play it when you were a kid?”
“C’mon, T.P., ’fess up. Something’s bugging you.”
“No,” Pete said. “You’re not.”
She stood there for a minute with her head resting on his shoulder, then turned and pointed to the light on the horizon. “That.”
“You wanted to go on a cruise?”
“I started thinking about you, way out there in that little tiny ship. Out in the middle of space. Alpha Centauri? I’m not even sure where that is.”
The first thing that popped
into his head, another attempt to tease her, faded away. She was chewing her lip now, and even in
the pale light from the pool she didn’t look well. “Can’t see it from here, or I’d show it to
you,” he said apologetically, then tried another
tack. “The ship’s not that little. Know how big the
“Seventy-five feet long. Forty guys sailed on it with
“But out there—it’s so far. And there’s nothing—”
Her legs wobbled and her eyes lost some of their focus. With an arm curled tightly around her, Pete walked her over to the bed and sat her down. “Put your head between your knees,” he suggested. “Just take it easy.” She didn’t seem to hear him, so he tipped her in the right direction and gently but firmly held her there until she stopped quivering, then helped her straighten up slowly. “Remind me not to recommend you for the space program,” he smiled.
“I don’t even do well in elevators.”
He frowned. She’d demonstrated the not-doing-well for him when they’d arrived at the hotel, refusing to look out the glass wall of the hotel’s main elevator as it ascended the lobby atrium, choosing instead to face the solid doors until they had safely arrived on the eighteenth floor. “It’ll be fine,” he assured her. “They’ve tested the guidance system a million times, and we’ve spent over a thousand hours in the simulator.”
“How can you—”
“I’m nuts,” Pete told her.
When Trisha rolled over, just awake enough to notice the room had begun to silver with daylight, Pete’s half of the bed was empty. Still fuzzy-eyed and muzzy-brained, she groped around until she found her bathrobe, tugged it on, and wandered over to the window. The ship on the horizon was long gone, but she stood looking out at the pastel-tinged line between sea and sky for a minute. Here in the room with the air conditioning running, she could almost believe the world outside was cool, and that the clouds building up out to sea were nothing more than a decorative addition to her view of the wakening world.
The stubble of Pete’s beard had created a sore, chafed spot on her jawline, and she reached up to touch it with a tentative hand.
They’d been at the hotel for nineteen hours, in this room for all of it except the hour they’d spent strolling the beach at sunset. Dishes from their two room service meals littered the round table in the corner, and the scent of warm beer drifted out of the two bottles Pete had not quite drained.
Before he’d arrived in the parking lot at the apartment complex yesterday afternoon, she hadn’t seen him for five months. He’d kept in touch sporadically, just often enough to guarantee that he could call when the spirit moved him and not be rejected, and no more than that.
Reject him? she thought. She hadn’t been able to reject him since the first time she laid eyes on him, perched on a stool at the Lasso, his hands curled around a mug of beer that Jesse, her boss, had served him.
“Pete Burke,” he’d said when he knew she was looking at him.
“That’s not much of a line.”
“You want a line? I’ve got a million of those.”
“And do they work?”
“Just what I love: a guy with no ego.”
Accompanied by the clumping rhythm of boot heels against hardwood from the crowd attempting to line dance, she pushed a towel around the scuffed surface of the bar, mopping up spilled beer and peanut shells. Pete Burke’s eyes didn’t leave her for an instant, except when she looked in his direction; then he pretended to be fascinated by the row of liquor bottles on the shelf over the bar mirror. When she pushed the cloth close enough for her to hear him, he said quietly, “Got a name?”
“Jane Doe, then.”
“Got a boyfriend, then.”
A corner of his mouth quirked up. “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Before she could stop herself, her eyes drifted over to his left hand, where there was no sign of a ring—no telltale ridge in the skin, no pale, untanned circle. He caught her looking and offered, “No wife. No ex-wife. I’m as free as the evening breeze.”
That was so awful that she stopped pushing the cloth and let out a laugh that sounded more like a sneeze.
“I always give it three tries. Pete Burke.”
“And what time does this little slice of hillbilly heaven close, Trisha Peterson?”
He was staying with a friend; she shared her apartment with her sister, so they found a Motel 6 a few miles down the road. Lying awake that night while he snored quietly with his pillow balled up under his head, she supposed hopping into bed with someone about whom she knew nothing more than his name wasn’t the dumbest thing she’d ever done, but it had to make at least number five or six on the list. As if he’d heard her think that, he’d snuffled in his sleep, rolled over, and buried his face in the pillow.
He still slept that way, in positions no one else on Earth would think were comfortable. Snuffling now and then, like a puppy, or a little kid with a cold. Most of the time, he stayed awake long enough to make sure she was comfortable and content, then fell into sleep like a rock dropped off a bridge.
An hour or so ago, he’d been sleeping curled up beside her. In a few days he’d be…out there.
The first night of their weekends together was always the same: he would sleep for a couple of hours, then blink himself awake and snuggle close to her, nuzzling her skin. She slept very little, if at all, on first nights.
Fear gripped her heart, the way it had in the wee small hours, when he’d found her at the window, and she felt her breath catch in her throat. Her knees threatened to give way, and she had to reach out quickly to grab the edge of the desk that flanked the window to keep from falling. Slowly she inched toward the armchair in the opposite corner and lowered herself onto the seat, then dropped her head into her hands, barely aware that tears were rolling down her cheeks. “Dear God,” she murmured. “Oh, my dear God.”
In a way she didn’t dare question, the tears loosened the grip of her fear. By the time they stopped flowing she was calm, although in a numb sort of way. Sniffling, she got up from the chair, went into the bathroom and peered at herself in the mirror. As she expected, her eyes were bloodshot, so she fumbled in her makeup case for the bottle of eye drops she carried around because of her allergies and squeezed a couple of drops into each eye, then soaked a washcloth in cold water and used it to pat her face.
Then she went back to the window.
She’d known where he’d be now, and when she looked down, she saw him, all by himself, swimming laps in the pool.
It was still early enough
to risk a trip to the pool wearing just the robe, but she took time anyway to
put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, one he’d given her, a souvenir of the
There was still no one else in the pool area. Trisha picked out one of the terrycloth-covered lounge chairs and perched on the end of it, elbows resting on her knees. Pete was swimming with his face submerged and didn’t notice her until he’d done three more laps. When he did see her, he paddled over to the edge of the pool and pushed his hair back from his face with one hand as he held onto the lip of the pool deck with the other.
“Morning,” he smiled.
“I’m sorry I woke you up. With that whole business about the ship.”
“Not a big deal,” Pete shrugged. “Things seem bigger in the middle of the night.”
Trisha tried for a smile and almost succeeded. “Do they?”
“Ouch,” he whimpered.
“How many you up to?”
“Almost done. Five more. No, four.”
“You’re not gonna join me?”
Trisha shook her head. “Not this time.”
With a shrug to serve as an okay, he dropped back under the surface and finished his remaining four laps, then climbed the ladder out of the pool and grabbed up the towel he’d left lying on a chair. “Water’s so warm it’s like swimming in the tub,” he complained mildly.
“Hey—c’mere a minute.” When she reached him, he wrapped his arms around her and rocked her gently back and forth. “You’re not still spooked, are you? It’s gonna be fine, I’m telling you. If anybody’s got a reason to worry, it’s Alan and Jonesy, being cooped up with me.”
“Then take a deep breath and forget about it, okay?”
“Good. And you know, while I’m away, I can put
together a list of things I don’t have to bother doing with you. Top of the
That, and the foolish grin he wore as he said it, made her laugh.
“Better,” he nodded. “Look—that spa in the hotel opens at ten. You can go there and have them purty you up while I hit the gym, and later on we’ll put some clothes on and try out the restaurant with the fancy chandeliers. What do you say? Think we can handle a dinner in a room with other people? I promise not to repeat that trick where I knock the candle over into my soup.”
“Hey, mister,” a small voice said.
Pete and Trisha both turned to look. Standing a few feet away, wearing a scowl that seemed bigger than his head, was a boy about six years old dressed in cutoffs and a t-shirt that matched Trisha’s. “You that astronaut?” he asked Pete.
Pete nodded. “Yeah.”
The kid looked Pete over carefully, taking in the sodden hair plastered against his head, the beginnings of sunburn on his shoulders, and the puddle of chlorinated water he was streaming onto the pool deck. If the kid had come out here looking for a hero, apparently he had not found one. “Huh,” he said, then shook his head, turned, and walked back toward the door to the hotel.
Pete, who had never made a secret of his fondness for kids, was disappointed by the snub—that was written all over his face. With a sigh he used the towel to scrub his hair partially dry, then wiped himself down to stop the dribbles of water running down his legs. Trisha watched him do it, remembering the easy strength visible in his shoulders as he swam, and the ease his hands had displayed on the wheel of the Porsche the day before. She had heard it said of people that they handled a car like an extension of their bodies, and that had never seemed so true as it was with Pete Burke. The Porsche seemed to react to his touch, and he to it, as if they were joined together, parts of one machine, one mind. Maybe he and that thing, that ship, functioned together the same way.
“You know what I’ve been trying to figure out?” she asked.
“Why the room service menu says seventeen dollars for a whole steak, and twelve dollars for a Danish and coffee.”
“Small steak?” Pete suggested. “Big Danish?”
“I guess so.”
The door to the hotel’s rear corridor opened again, and out came a walking souvenir stand of a man. He looked to be somewhere in his early forties, scrawny, balding; wearing yellow Bermuda shorts, a bright red Six Flags t-shirt, and a Disney World cap. “Hi, there,” he said cheerfully, thrusting a hand in Pete’s direction. “Name’s Walt Decker. That was my son, the grumpy one, there, came out a minute ago.”
Hemmed in by deck chairs, Pete had little choice but to shake Walt Decker’s hand.
“Major Burke, right?” Decker rambled on. “We saw ya from in there.” Decker tipped his head toward the building, in particular toward the glass-walled coffee shop that faced the pool. “Been seein’ your picture all over the news, the magazines, hell, you’re on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ three or four times a week. Never expected to see you here. Figured you’d be hard at work, gettin’ ready for takeoff.”
“Twelve days,” Pete said.
“We launch in twelve days. They gave us the weekend off.”
That was beyond Decker’s reasoning, for whatever reason, and the man settled for heaving a shrug that sent his shoulders up close to his ears. “Pretty amazing stuff, I tell you. Been interested in the space program since I was hatched, pretty much. Never had a chance of it, myself. Bad eyesight, bad hearing, bum knee from a fall I took off a ladder helpin’ my dad paint when I was eight. But I am right there for you boys who have the guts to go out there. Twelve days, huh? Then it’s light that baby up and off you go!”
Completely lost for words—not that he would have had the chance to work them in anyway—Pete settled for smiling.
“This the little woman, here?” Without waiting for an answer, Decker seized Trisha’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically. “Nice to meet you, ma’am. Walt Decker.”
“I’m not his wife,” Trisha said.
There was indeed a name for her relationship with Pete, and Trisha had no objection at all to thinking it, or using it in the right company, but she suspected using it now would make Decker’s head explode like an overripe pumpkin hitting a sidewalk.
“That’s right!” Decker groaned, smacking himself in the temple with the heel of one hand. “It’s the other two that’re married. You’re the footloose and fancy free member of the bunch. Gotta say, Major, you got nice taste in girlfriends.” Then another thought occurred to him, and he produced a tiny digital camera out of the pocket of his yellow shorts. “Mind if I snap a quick one? Show it to the boys back at work.”
“Where’s that?” Pete asked.
“Miller’s Hardware. Route 17 and
Ten minutes later Trisha and Pete, wearing rubber thongs but still dripping pool water, stood alone in the solid-walled elevator that rose out of the pool foyer. Both of them were stunned almost to the point of silence by the whirlwind of sound that was Walt Decker.
“‘Sure wish I was goin’ with you,’” Pete muttered, mimicking the man. “If I had to be locked up in a ship with that guy, I’d find the nearest sharp piece of metal and drive it through my brain.”
“Now, honey,” Trisha chided, also mimicking Decker. “Mr. Decker is behind you a hunnert and ten percent.”
“No wonder his kid looks unhappy.”
After the humidity of the pool area, and the vague but noticeable mugginess of the elevator, the air conditioning in their room was a shock. Shivering, Pete trotted into the bathroom, fired up the shower, and scrambled in under the hot water. Once he had stopped shaking, he peeled off his swim trunks and flipped them into the sink. “Hey,” he called out to Trisha.
Thinking he needed a fresh towel, she pulled one off the rack and stepped closer to the shower. Grinning, he scooped her up and hauled her in with him. She yelped in surprise as the water hit her, and his grin widened. “Need help washing my back,” he explained.
When opening time for the hotel spa rolled around, they were dozing in each other’s arms on top of a nest of rumpled bedcovers. The rattle of the maid’s cart in the hallway roused them a little, but thanks to the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, she went on by without trying to come in.
“This is it,” Pete murmured.
“Monday morning they slap us into quarantine so we don’t get sick. I won’t see anybody ’cept Virdon and Jones and a couple NASA guys. No women ’t’all.”
A smile crept across Trisha’s lips. “Poor Petey. Poor Petey’s petey. No fun for almost a year.”
His head shifted, side to side. “Not that long. Time…funny in space.” Her hand had started to drift toward the object of her sympathy, but he caught it and held it against his chest. “Sleepy,” he muttered.
Something else clattered in the hallway: the room service dishes they’d set out to be picked up.
“Is kinda small,” Pete mumbled.
“Ship. But…figure if anything happens, it’ll happen fast, so…not gonna worry about it.”
That jolted Trisha awake. His hand, clasping hers close to his heart, was warm, and his skin still smelled faintly of the chlorine from the pool. His hair, though, was scented with the shampoo she’d used to wash the chlorine out. She turned her head enough to see his face: eyes closed, a damp lock of hair lying against his forehead.
Light that baby up and off you go, she thought.
“Come home safe, Pete,” she whispered, but he had already slipped too far down into sleep to hear her.