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Far Beyond the Brilliant Sky: 17

Far Beyond the Brilliant Sky - Part 17It takes hours to reach the Stoneman and, when they do, night is falling and the temperature has dropped. The group are aware of the stiffening breeze and the occasional shard of ice across their teeth, but they don’t feel the cold as viscerally as they might. They stand beside the Stoneman. It soars into the air, standing so tall that Angie can’t see the top.

She leans back, feeling the bones of her old, tired neck pop. How can I not have seen this before? she thinks, and laughs at the wonder of it.

The others laugh, too. The monument is so massive; clouds gather above. A lone bird calls out in the distance but the sound is muffled and wadded against the stone.

“Am I dreaming this?” Gerry the Gin says and he rubs his eyes. Angie feels sorry for him; she supposes he feels embarrassed. All this time, walking and trapping in the tundra, guiding men whom drink in Shay’s Bar and speak of heading north or south. She has heard him, offering advice as to which route to take and which to avoid. And he had no knowledge of this Stoneman. How could he have missed it? How could any of them have missed it?

Hettie is kneeling down next to Ernest and pulling his coat about him, though the gesture seems to come more from habit that necessity. Ernest’s cheeks are rosy. Angie feels hot, too, the warmest since leaving Stokeland. She reaches out, tentatively, and puts a hand on the rock of the Stoneman. Odd images flash in front of her eyes – her grandmother, shelling peas in a wicker chair, the smell of menthol – and the rock is warm.

“We should stay here for the night,” Frank says. He sets down his backpack. “We can study the map again, now we’ve found the Stoneman.”

“Or he found you.” A voice in the mist, not one of the group. Angie swings round quickly, a sliver of alarm stretching across her belly. They all look around, confusion in their faces. Who could be here, now, all this way out?

And then a man walks around the side of the Stoneman. He is wearing a long trench coat and carries a smart briefcase, hilariously inappropriate for such an environment. Angie hoots with laughter. It is Ray Sullivan.

“You old devil!” and she runs to him. She feels joyously pleased to see him and throws her arms around his neck. It is the first time she has ever embraced him and, as she presses her cheek against his rough, whiskery skin, she thinks Ray is like all the men she has ever slept with: a little seedy, doused in aftershave. A player. She glances back at Hettie and sees the other woman has felt longing, too.

“What the hell, Ray…” and Jackie is beside him, too, pumping the man’s hand. Connor, as well, slapping the salesman on the back. They all gather around him, and they see his smart shoes, tailored trousers.

“There’s a settlement a few miles north of here,” Ray says, by way of explanation. “And one just a mile south. You must have walked past it. I have an appointment there.”

“We hoped we’d find you,” Frank says. His round eyes take in the scene.

“And I wondered whom I might meet on my travels. I do come across groups such as yours, from time to time.” Ray bends over and pops open his briefcase. He takes out a hipflask, sips, and passes it round. They all drink, even Ernest.

“You’ve walked everywhere,” Frank says. “You know where roads lead that we don’t know exist.” Frank leans over and touches the Stoneman. “We didn’t even know this was here.”

Gerry coughs and shuffles his feet. Angie feels the tang of sympathy for him and slips her hand into his own. Ernest is holding on to Connor again, who edges against Jackie. Hettie links her fingers into the crook of Frank’s elbow; they are all touching each other again, forming a circle, in the middle of which stands Ray.

Ray looks at them all in turn, taking his time. “What are you looking for? What on earth can have enticed you all the way out here, where even the snow is afraid to fall?” But he is smiling as he asks. Angie sees that he knows already.

“Quilaq,” she says, softly. “And you know where it is.”

A hum; a low drone. The sound is back. Angie feels it fuzzing behind her bellybutton and the sensation is joyous and wonderful. She flexes up on her tiptoes, lifted up by it.

“Of course I know,” Ray says.

They are crying now, as one. Silent, easy tears flow. Ernest drops Connor’s hand and tugs on Ray’s coat. “Will you take us, mister?”

Ray grins down. His teeth are yellow and filmy; he is a drinker. But he nods. “Of course. It should be easy now we are all together.”

Angie is puzzled but the fluid, soothing feeling of lightness is too precious to let go, so she doesn’t question him. Instead she holds out her hand for Ernest to catch and the circle moves, glides, out onto the tundra beyond the Stoneman.

Quilaq is becoming more and more real…Will they finally reach it?

About Rebecca Burns

Rebecca Burns - writer of short stories.

Debut collection, "Catching the Barramundi", published by Odyssey Books in 2012 and longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award in 2013. Rebecca was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2011 and profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes" project, which is funded by the Arts Council and showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in Leicestershire.

Read a sample and download "Catching the Barramundi" at Amazon.

To read more of Rebecca's work, visit her web site found on the link below.

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