Navigating through the buffet was a bewildering affair. She should have heeded the warning she’d seen online. Never go to the buffet on boarding day. Go to one of the sit-down restaurants.
Janey couldn’t stand it. Her comfy, rubber-soled shoes and long jeans were out of place here. You’d think the behemoth of a ship was heading on a Caribbean cruise in July instead of to Alaska in late September, given the number of shorts and sandals. What were people thinking?
A cruise is a cruise, I guess, she thought.
But she had to get the hell out of the buffet, and fast. Food could wait. She finally found an out of the way salad bar on the observation deck and loaded a plate with greens, chunks of white cheese, and little rolls of ham. Balsamic and olive oil dressing rounded out her lunch. She sank into a well-padded lounge chair with a sigh of relief. This portion of the ship was mostly empty, though she bet when it was debarkation time, this lounge in the front of the ship would be prime real estate. There was not only an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean, but what looked like a fully stocked bar.
Well, she was here first, she had food, and her daypack held an e-reader full of more “to be read” books than she could get through in a week at sea.
As she munched her salad, Janey had to admit it felt weird to be alone. Usually, it wasn’t a problem. She liked it, actually. But the cruise ship seemed filled with couples, families, or tour groups in matching yellow T-shirts. Solo cruisers were rare, she guessed, but here she was. All because she’d promised Heloise she wouldn’t moulder away in their house on the hill, all alone.
And, since she’d promised to love Heloise the rest of her life in a simple ceremony all those years before, Janey went out. Did things. Took salsa dance lessons. Went to movies. Concerts, even. And now, because she’d always wanted to see an Orca, she was heading to Alaska.
The cruise was very strange. Oh, the views from her balcony were stellar, and the sense of being surrounded by water calmed her, but other than that? There was an actual go-cart race track on the ship. And laser tag. Discos. Musicals. Karaoke. Gambling. She walked the ship daily, even walked the outdoor, circular track on Deck 17, getting her steps in. And the excursions to the glaciers, or to watch whales, were every bit as delightful as she’d hoped. Orca, it turned out, were as gorgeous and powerful as she had imagined. The sight of the sleek, muscular bodies sent a shiver down her spine. She would never forget it. She just wished she could tell Heloise about it.
But the ship itself? It was a traveling carnival of alcohol and enforced fun. A flashy Vegas hotel at sea. She had thought she’d have interesting conversations over dinner. See some sights. Retire to her room with a book when she was tired. Turned out, though, the days of assigned seating that forced you to interact with the same small group of people were long gone. This cruise was a free for all at meal times, with more options than a small city. The only way to ensure you’d run into the same people in the throng of 3,000, was to join “activities.”
The very word made Janey shudder. She could almost hear Heloise’s laughter. She had loved Janey’s reclusive nature, and Janey’s constant shock at what Heloise called “the most ordinary of human interactions.”
The observation lounge was full this afternoon. It was a sea day, so the serious drinkers had been at it since breakfast, starting with Bloody Marys and working their way up from there. Janey guarded her padded chez-lounge-with-a-view, not daring to leave even for a toilet break. After the first day, it had become Janey’s favorite afternoon haunt. She would nurse a single glass of white wine or a cup of tea and gaze out the giant windows at the vast, gray ocean rolling by, dipping into her book when she felt like it. Mornings were for her private balcony. Late afternoon, early evening time was for the observation lounge.
She’d known that people drank a lot, but hadn’t really been face to face with it before now. The raucous camaraderie was kind of endearing, if not still slightly off-putting.
Then, just as suddenly as the wave of humanity had crashed in, it crashed out again. People were off to watch shows or go dancing.
She felt a touch on her shoulder and jerked around. No one was there. A dozen feet away, bartenders took advantage of the break to restock cocktail olives and banter with each other.
Then she smelled it. That combination of rose oil and amber. A scent that warmed her from the inside out. The scent that could still arouse her after all these years. Even alone on a ship at the age of sixty-seven.
“Heloise?” She kept her voice soft. Low.
The scent grew stronger, then faded.
“What? Don’t go…”
The scent returned, then drifted away. Returned, then drifted.
“You want me to follow you?”
There was no answer, but Janey felt the compulsion to go. She shoved her e-reader into her small leather bag, slipped her feet back into her shoes, and rose.
The scent grew stronger again. It was heading toward the stairs.
She was slightly out of breath after lurching down ten flights of stairs and skirting around her fellow travelers without bumping into them with each roll of the ship. Janey hurried down a glitzy corridor of high end, duty-free shops dripping with modern chandeliers. A pre-recorded women’s voice extolled the virtues of Alaska over the intercom system, competing with the Muzak. The voice recited a history of Alaska’s fishing industry, information Janey already knew, having prepared for the trip for months in advance.
“My researcher” was one of Heloise’s pet names for Janey, always spoken with great fondness. Heloise had loved just about everything about Janey, including the things that annoyed other, more ordinary, people. Her love had turned Janey’s life around. She’d even come to appreciate her own quirks and now guarded them as jealously as that padded chez lounge she’d just abandoned.
The perfume aisle hit Janey with such a cacophony of scent she sneezed. And lost Heloise’s scent. Damn it.
Janey cleared the perfume section, whipped her head around, and sniffed the air. A woman in a slim black dress gave her one of those looks that said she found Janey too old, too frumpy—though in simple slacks, tunic, and a cozy sweater coat, Janey thought she looked just fine—and too weird.
Well, screw you, too, Janey thought. The beauty of being in her late sixties, and having known Heloise’s complete admiration, had made Janey immune to the sting of other people’s stares. She still couldn’t abide the rudeness of it, though.
Now, where could Heloise have been heading?
“The only way through is forward,” she muttered, not realizing she’d spoken the words aloud until she got another one of those looks.
Jamie finally cleared the throng, pushed her way down one more set of stairs, and looked around. There were discreet, wood paneled doors to the washrooms, more of the modern chandeliers, and the blue and gold swirled carpet. She was alone. She sniffed the air again. There it was, to her left. Amber and rose.
Inhaling the beloved scent, she held the back of her hand to an automatic door opener, and one set of glass doors slid open, then a second set, and she was free. The lingering smell of Heloise’s perfume gave way to the scent of ocean. The Icy Strait. Gray, tranquil, and smooth as a large lake. Directly in front of her were low, dark hills shrouded in fog.
Shimmering through the fog was a perfect rainbow, descending from the sky.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?”
Heloise had always love rainbows, and not just because they were a symbol of queer pride. She loved folklore and religion, and as she was dying, had told Janey she was ready to cross Bifrost, the shimmering rainbow that bridged worlds and would take her to the realm of the Gods.
Janey always thought it was a fancy, a minor indulgence on Heloise’s part that Janey was happy to grant. Heloise certainly put up with enough of Janey’s strangeness. But standing on the deck of this great ship, she could see it now, for the first time. She could see the way a rainbow could become a passageway. She could imagine her beloved rising through the mist, feet stepping surely on the rainbow path.
And then the fog thickened. Clouds darkened overhead, and the rainbow was gone. Janey was left in the rising wind and encroaching cold.
“Goodbye, my love,” she said. “Thanks for giving me another chance. Thanks for a whole wonderful life.”
Her face was wet with mist and tears, but her heart was lighter than it had been since Heloise died. Maybe the rainbow was a sign that a new phase of her life was about to begin. Perhaps some new adventure was in store until she was ready to cross the rainbow bridge herself.
A throat cleared behind her. She turned, swiping at her cheeks, and then stood tall, wrapping her sweater coat more tightly around her. There stood a beautiful man, head haloed with brilliant white hair that contrasted with his dark skin. There were crinkles around his mouth and eyes. He looked like a movie star. An aged matinee idol.
Janey felt something stir inside her and then felt surprise. She hadn’t felt attracted to a man in what felt like decades, but here he was. Heloise’s parting gift?
“I’m sorry if I’m interrupting,” he said, “but I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Just woolgathering,” she replied. Only half a lie. “Thinking of a friend.”
He nodded as if he knew exactly what she was talking about.
“My name is Charles.” He held out of his right hand.
“Janey,” she said, holding out her own.
They shook, her hand cold inside his warm one, there on the mist-covered deck.
Janey could swear she heard Heloise laugh, delighted. Janey smiled. “How about a cup of tea, Charles?”
“I think that’s just the thing. There should be fresh scones in the observation lounge right about now.”
She let the way, pressing the back of her hand against the automatic door opener, leaving the misty deck behind.
Her heart would always carry Heloise’s love, but perhaps there was room for more.
It was never too late, was it?
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