To Seek The Next Handhold (A Season Seven)

Chapter Twenty-Seven

SATURDAY

"Oh, wow, Auggie!" shouted Toby as the Frisbee whisked past his ear. "You nearly got me that time!"

"Didn't you catch it?" Auggie asked, stopping and standing up. "You mean I got it that close and you didn't catch it?"

"I caught it," said Toby.

"Oh, well, good job then, Kiddo."

"No, I lied, Auggie. I didn't catch it." Toby sounded a bit remorseful.

Auggie smiled. "Thanks for telling me, Tobe. You're getting better, though. I can tell that."

"You're getting better, too, Auggie," said the boy and Auggie laughed out loud.

"Thanks, Tobe."

"Hi!" called a voice across Auggie's driveway. Auggie turned toward the voice, puzzled until he heard Toby call out to his father.

"Dad! Come, you can meet Auggie!"

"Hi," said the man again, and Auggie stepped towards his voice, his hand outstretched to greet his neighbour for the first time.

"Hey, August Anderson," he said, waiting for the other man's hand to grab his.

"Hi! Paul Hardings. Good to meet you," said Toby's father, finally shaking Auggie's hand. "Sorry if my boy's been over here bugging you. I told him not to be a pest, I hope he hasn't been."

"No, not at all. We were just perfecting our Frisbee skills," said Auggie, half-turning to include Toby.

"He loves his Frisbee. Oh, that's a different kind of Frisbee. Is that yours?"

Auggie wasn't positive, but he thought Toby's father was probably addressing him. "Yeah, that's mine. My fiancé bought it so I could play with Tobe."

"Oh, he has plenty of Frisbees, you didn't have to get one. This kid loves Frisbees. And rubber balls. Don'tchya, Tobe? Against our bedroom door on weekend mornings?"

"It's a good throwing hallway," replied Toby.

"Kid needs a dog." Said Mr. Hardings. "Wife won't hear of it. We're working on her, though, eh, Tobe?"

"Yeah. I want a dog so bad."

Auggie smiled. "I would wager to bet you'll have one some day, Kiddo."

"So, how are you liking this old house?" Mr. Hardings asked. "I didn't know if it would sell, the Gladstones seemed pretty choosy. But they were great old neighbours."

"Yeah, we met them when we put in our offer. We really liked them."

"Well, this place is great, if you like rustic. You're married?"

"No, we're engaged. Getting married in September."

"Kids?"

"Would it be me out here trying to catch this Frisbee if I had kids?" Auggie joked. He didn't hear any response but the other man could have smiled. He shrugged, shaking his head with a grin. "No, we don't have any kids... yet. But it's on the wish list."

"We wanted another but it just never happened," said Mr. Hardings. "But... one never knows, right? August, is it? Nice Corvette, by the way, couldn't help but see that going by."

"Yeah, August. Uh, you want a beer or something?"

"Yeah, sure."

Auggie turned and headed toward the house, his hand out to alert him to the bushes in front of the verandah or something to give him an idea exactly where he was. He could've used Toby's shoulder right now, but for some reason, he didn't want to do that in front of the kid's father in his own yard.

He was good in his estimation of where he was, his hand grazed over the rosebush and he kept moving to the right. Bingo! There was the railing. He climbed the steps and stopped, turning his head. He didn't hear the other man behind him.

"Come on, Dad!" He did hear Toby, his footsteps on the stairs beside Auggie.

Auggie stayed at the top of the stairs, waiting.

"Dad?"

"Toby, we shouldn't bother Mr. Anderson."

"But he—"

"Come on, Toby. It was nice to meet you, Auggie. I hope you enjoy the house. We'll try to keep Toby from bothering you too much."

"He's no bother," Auggie said, listening to the boy drag his feet back down the stairs. "Tobe? I challenge you to a rematch, okay?"

"Yeah, for sure, Auggie! Dad, do we have to leave already?"

"Your mother wants you to come help her," said his father. "Come on, say goodbye to Mr. Anderson."

"See ya, Auggie!"

"See ya, Kiddo," said Auggie.

He didn't need to ask to know why Paul Hardings had suddenly switched gears. The man had just figured out his neighbour was blind.

His disappointment about this was soon overshadowed by thoughts of Toby. Why hadn't the kid told his parents about this one little fact? Had the kid forgotten to mention it? Had he not thought it important? Had he mentioned it and they hadn't heard or believed him? Usually kids had fewer problems with his disability than adults, and obviously this was the case again. He wondered what the father was telling his son about blind people. He wondered whether Toby was refuting the teachings.

He stood there thinking about it for way too long. If Toby had a chance of any kind, he'd be back to try to get another Frisbee toss game in. Auggie decided not to worry about the kid's parents. He didn't have to prove himself to them. He didn't.

Except now he couldn't stop thinking about how he wanted to prove himself to the Hardings. He turned and found the door handle to the patio doors, heading inside, deep in thought.

"Your opponent went home?" Annie asked him.

It took a moment for her question to register with him. Then he turned toward her voice. "What?"

"Toby, did he go home?"

"Oh, yeah. His father just came over."

"Oh, called home, huh?"

"Yeah. I guess he was needed."

Annie saw Auggie was distracted. She stood up. "What's the matter, Auggie?"

Auggie sighed and brushed it off. "No, it's nothing. I like that kid. He has a lot of questions, but I like him. I think maybe they think he asks too many questions, but the kid just wants to know about dogs and Frisbees and how many elastic bands it would take strung together to reach the moon."

"Well, he's come to the right person then," Annie said, tapping Auggie's chest. He reached out and pulled her close, sighing into her hair. The kid was definitely not the problem.

"So," Annie said, pulling back and looking at him. He smiled at her, waiting. She trailed her hand down his arm and took his hand, guiding him to the red sofa.

"You all packed?" Auggie asked.

"Yes. I think so. It's been so long since I went camping, actual camping, that I'm not sure if I have enough or if I have too much."

"I have a camper's checklist," Auggie grinned. "Remember, I'm a pro."

"I think it's good that we decided to get away. This whole wedding thing is starting to get out of hand. If Danielle calls me one more time to make sure I have the flowers coming on the right morning, I'm going to scream."

"Oh, but it has to be better than my mother checking to make sure your mother isn't wearing sunflower yellow to the wedding every other day."

"Speaking of my mother," Annie started.

"I don't know if I want to," Auggie said. Despite their every measured move not to have this wedding go seismic, their families had begun suggesting little details that they could incorporate. They had held their ground, Auggie fielding his family, namely his mother, and Annie holding her own against Danielle and their mother. Danielle had pushed to come help them in the final week before the big day, but Annie refused to let her, saying they were taking that last weekend and going camping, just the two of them. It had only been an excuse, to keep people from descending on their home and things from escalating into too much activity. But the more she had thought about it, the more she had liked the idea. She had brought it to Auggie after mulling it over for the afternoon, and after some thinking, Auggie had agreed it would be good to get a final bit of alone time before the maelstrom happened.

The more he thought about it, the more he looked forward to it. He used to love camping. He had loved that part of Eagle Scouts, and he'd earned the badges to prove it. However, he'd never camped since that tour in Iraq, which had been a kind of camping in itself. He was sure there were parts of it he couldn't enjoy anymore, parts he couldn't do, but he was intrigued by the challenge it offered. And with Annie by his side, it would be safe. They would prove it together, no-one would be around to question anything they tried. It would be just them and the wilderness. Together.

They had borrowed, bought, and cajoled some camping gear, and had been working at packing their list for the past few evenings. They had begun loading up Annie's SUV after supper, before taking a break, and then having their young neighbour show.

"They're just trying to be helpful," Annie said. "I guess."

Auggie rolled his eyes and smirked. "We're getting out of town. If we have to call Joan to cover for us should they descend, I'm not averse to the idea."

Early Friday morning, the SUV pulled out of the drive before the sun even cracked the sky. Annie had no idea where they were headed, but Auggie let her make the destination a surprise. He liked when Annie surprised him.

"You're allowed to doze," Annie said. "I know cars are boring for you."

"I know. I'm still here. I'm just relaxing."

"You deserve that," Annie said. "Joan's had you covering more bases than Hank Aaron at an elementary school gym class."

Auggie only turned his head and gave her a look.

"Well, she has. She has at least three ops going under your watch, I know. And you've been going after that WikiLeaks hacker for weeks now. Not to mention the Paris desk, the Kohber file and the Acker trace."

"What are you, a spy?" Auggie smiled but didn't open his eyes.

Annie laughed. "I don't know all your secrets, Handsome, but I know a lot of 'em."

Auggie disliked the distance and the untility box between their seats. She wasn't so close he could just slide his hand over to her knee. Modern vehicles had none of the old conveniences. He knew that he would soon have her all to himself, so he let himself be content with just listening to her talk, feeling her presence there beside him fully.

"Sun's coming up," she said as they cruised smoothly along the highway.

"Yeah? What colour is the sky now?"

"Kind of a grey-orange. With a touch of mauve."

Auggie grinned. "That's quite the combo."

"Can you picture that one?" Annie asked him.

He shook his head. "It's not really quite right," he said.

"How do you know?"

"It's just not coming to mind," he said with a shrug. "I know it's not right but I can't seem to picture it."

"Well, the sky ahead of is like a dark grey purple. You can just start making out different shapes in different shades of grey. Out your window, the sky is light at the edge of the horizon, and it's almost a smoky orange glow. Not bright orange, more like a hint of it behind the shadow. It's starting to outline all the shapes with a bit of a brightness. They sort of have a bit of hope to them, with the glow that's starting to hit them. The highway is changing from a dark ribbon broken up with lines, to almost a white colour in comparison to the shadows still around as the light gets stronger. How's that?"

Auggie had been entranced in Annie's description, and the images were rolling freely into his mind. Annie gave him so much light.

"You couldn't have given me a better description," Auggie said, opening his eyes and turning towards her. "I see it now."

"I'm glad," she replied, and he could hear her smile in her voice. "Sun just cracked the edge of the world. The glow is now kind of a pale yellow orange and it's getting much brighter. Are you hungry?"

"I am. Could do with some coffee, too."

"Good, because I'm pulling in here and we can have both."

Auggie nodded with a smile. She parked and took his order, running inside the small restaurant shop to grab some breakfast for them. She returned in less than ten minutes and Auggie could smell coffee and hashbrowns.

"English muffin with eggs, hashbrown, coffee. Napkins are in this bag. I'm putting your coffee in the cup holder to the front left of your left knee. Need anything else?"

Auggie shook his head. "Nope, it sounds good to me," he replied. "Are you going to drive and eat at the same time?"

"No, I thought we'd just sit here and take our time. One thing about this car, we have plenty of room." The sound of the bags crinkling stopped and Annie laughed. "I see that face," she giggled. "And I know what you're thinking. Save it for the tent, Soldier."

Auggie laughed and took a bite of his breakfast sandwich. As they ate, Annie gave Auggie a running commentary of the people coming and going in the early morning hours to get their caffeine and the breakfast they were too half-asleep to make before they left the house. When they were finished, Annie started the ignition, set her coffee in the cup holder, and leaned over to Auggie, turning his face with her hand and kissing him.

They were back on the road again, and Auggie didn't care where the car was pointed. He was with Annie, the love of his life, the one he'd been waiting for before he knew her and long after he'd met her.

The last part of the trip was a scenic side road. Annie checked her GPS several times and then she touched Auggie's arm as they came in view of a lake.

"I see it."

"By it you mean?"

"The lake."

"What lake? No, wait. I don't want to know where we are. I want to say we were completely lost together. Is it a big lake?"

"It's a fairly big lake. I can see all the way around from here, though," she said as they pulled closer. Auggie felt the vehicle bob around the rougher terrain as Annie manoeuvred as close as she could to good camp site. She stopped and turned off the engine.

"It's beautiful here."

Auggie smiled, feeling it. He opened the door to hear nothing but the sound of birds, a gentle breeze in the trees around him, and the openness of the lake to his left as he climbed out.

"It's so peaceful," Annie said, looking around. "Do you want me to describe it to you?"

"I can hear the trees," Auggie said, turning his head. "All I hear at home when it's quiet is traffic. Even at the house, when you go outside, you can still hear it off there in the distance. This..." His voice trailed off as he closed his eyes and breathed in the air. "I can smell everything. I can smell the trees and the water, and the sun on the old, long grass."

"I guess I don't have to describe it for you, you already have a clear picture," Annie said. "It's pretty much that."

Auggie grinned at her over the hood of the SUV, and then he turned back around the door and reached in for his cane. First things first. Once he had that unfolded and in hand, he took a few steps in exploration, and then headed to the back of the vehicle to help Annie with the equipment. Annie scouted out a good spot not too far away, and they set to moving things over. Annie took a rope from the SUV and tied it to the slender tree near the front driver-side bumper. She walked along to another tree and wound the rope around the tree, shoulder-height. She continued this as Auggie took their gear out of the vehicle, moving in as straight a line as possible to a nice little flat spot with a good shelter of trees on one side. She tied the end of the rope to a tree nearest the open, even ground, and then headed back to help Auggie bring the gear. When she got there, she stopped Auggie and kissed him again, longer this time.

"I could stay here for a very long time if that's how it's gonna be," he said.

"Come on, come check it out," she said, taking his hand as they walked to the front of the vehicle. She placed it on the rope tied on the tree, and he directed a wink at her before following it with one hand and keeping his cane sweeping the ground in front of him to learn the terrain before he carried things. Annie followed him, carrying a pack, letting him take his time. There was all the time in the day here. She walked him around the camp site plot, and he found it to be flat and slightly grassy. Returning to the SUV, he again noted the terrain and how many trees he passed. He folded his cane and put it on the passenger seat. Annie loaded him up, a tent pack over his shoulder, a cooler in one hand. He trailed the side of the car to the tree with the rope and began moving things over to their perfect spot. It didn't take them too long to have the gear all over, and Annie put down a blanket for them to take a break on. They faced the lake, and Annie told Auggie about the kingfisher that was fishing over on the other side.

"Did you pack your fishing pole?" Auggie asked her with a grin.

"I may have packed yours," Annie replied so quickly he wondered momentarily if he even had a fishing pole and had she found it? He was quite positive there had been no such thing in the apartment.

"You look puzzled," she said.

"No, you got me for a minute there," he said.

"You don't have a fishing pole, do you?"

He shook his head.

"That's how a spy double-talks for information."

"Oh, is it? And what information were you searching for?"

"Did you ever fish?"

"Got the merit badge."

Annie laughed. "Is there anything you haven't done?"

"Well," Auggie said, clamping his hand over her knee. "I haven't camped blind."

"Oh. Right. Well, you're doing pretty damn well so far."

"Wait until you see me put up that tent," he joked. "You ain't seen nothin' until you see a tent shaped like a rhombus."

"How about I peg the tent, and you just get the poles up? Teamwork."

"Sounds like a plan I can work with."

"You find a way to work with any plans," Annie said. "Oh, the kingfisher just caught his fish."

"Living up to his name," Auggie said.

"So... tent... campfire... what do you want to do first?"

Auggie shrugged. "I'm not going to be any use to you with firewood," he said. "But my fire-building skills are unmatched."

"Perfect," Annie said. "I'll go get us some wood. I think we can put it just over here, there's no grass, it's just little flat stones. We can make a ring of the bigger rocks along the side of the lake."

Between the two of them, they had the campfire built and ready to light, and the tent up, within the hour. Auggie sat back on the blanket near the site of the campfire and absent-mindedly traced the blanket and the ground around him with both hands.

"Is this my Eagle Scouts blanket I gave to you to take to the Farm?" he asked, the idea just coming to him.

"Yes," Annie said. No doubt.

"You've had it all this time?"

"I kept it on my bed," Annie said softly. "It stayed very close to me."

"Annie..." The words he couldn't speak turned into a smile that crossed over into his eyes.

"I know. I should have given it back."

"Obviously, you shouldn't have. I'm glad you had it."

"It's very soft," she said.

He replied to her with a passionate kiss as a field sparrow flitted through the trees, pipping at them.


"Here," Auggie said, finding another acorn under his hand. "Give it a try." He was trying to show Annie how to turn an acorn into a whistle. He had been impressing her with the survival knowledge he'd learned in Scouts, telling her he'd become Eagle Scout at age sixteen when he'd earned enough badges to merit the title.

"Gahd, Auggie, you always were pretty dorky, weren't you?"

"You like it," he teased her, hoping she did.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," she said. "Your merit badges have sure helped me out in the field," she said. "I've relied on them through you."

She had watched him build the wood into a well-aired construct, and make a rock border around it in a slightly oval ring, and when she found some straight alder branches, she watched as he took out a small sharp knife and whittled the end into a point. His fingers found one branch that had a fork in the end, so he carved both tips sharp.

"Double marshmallow," he said, handing it over to her with a grin.

"You think of everything," she said, always admiring how he used his hands so perfectly.

"I hope you packed fire-friendly food," he said.

"I have all the required campfire foods," Annie said. "Hot dogs, marshmallows, beans, corn. I have two pots and a grate to set up on rocks over coals. Plus, we have chips, chocolate, and granola bars."

"If only you could have figured out a way to keep your beloved ice-cream frozen," Auggie lamented.

"Come on, camping requires all the staples."

"Oh, I know it."

"You probably have the merit badge," Annie said.

"I do," Auggie deadpanned. If she was going to keep teasing him about it, he would have to tease her right back.

"Well, I know you brought some water, having lugged the jug of it in. You packed the booze, right?"

"I can't believe you didn't ask me before now," Annie said. "Do you want a beer now after all your hard work?"

"Just let me get this lit. You have more wood around here somewhere, right?"

"Yeah, to our left I put a good stack that will do us until the morning. I'll get some more later, or in the morning."

Auggie held out the matches to Annie. "I'll let you do the honours," he said. "My lady."

She grinned and took the matches, lighting one and taking his hand and placing it quickly over hers, moving them together to light the bonfire as a team. It caught and Auggie heard the snap and crackle as the flames licked along the drier parts of the wood and branches. He soon smelled the smoke and it flooded his memory banks with so many fires he'd sat beside just like this one.

"Is it going to stay lit?" Auggie asked.

"It's already taking hold," she said. "Don't worry, I won't ask them to take your badge back. You still build a mean fire."

"Then I will take that beer now," Auggie said, feeling a bit smug about himself.


"Okay, what's this one?" Annie asked, placing the leaf against Auggie's hand. He took his, his fingers tracing over the shape of the edges. "That's simple," Auggie said, scowling. "Maple. Give me a harder one."

"Okay, Smartie-Pants. How about this one?" Another leaf touched the back of his hand. He took it, again feeling it's shape and the veins within. He squinted, trying to remember. "Is it ash?"

"Kinda the same shape. Here. This might help. A branch."

He felt the feathery brush of several leaves against his forearm and he took the slender branch in hand, touching the pairs of leaves that fluttered along it.

"Ah," Auggie smiled. "That's a sumac."

"Damn. I can't stump you," she said. "How about this one?"

Auggie held out his hand and in a moment, he felt a small ruffled leaf placed there. He traced the heart shape with its many veins and small points to each one at the edge of the leaf.

He searched his memory for that shape. He knew there was a tree that had that ruffled edge to its leaves. What was it? Oak leaves were far more distinct than this, but he knew he knew this one.

Annie saw the concentration on his face as he gingerly touched the edges of the leaf. She tapped another hint on his arm and he moved his hand toward it, taking it from her.

Papery thin, almost curling in his hand and Auggie recognised what she'd placed there.

"Birch," he said with confidence.

"You win," Annie said.

"What do I win?" he asked her with a grin.

"Everything," she replied, sliding in close. He put his arm around her.

The light was dropping down, casting a warm evening glow off the lake. They'd prepared their tent and had made themselves a pretty decent camping meal. Auggie had let Annie be in charge of the toasting and grilling, and he'd worked at getting them each another beer, and arranging the condiments and plates. The food was simple, and yet, to Auggie, nothing had tasted better to him in months. It may have been the fresh air, or the sounds of the natural world around him, but everything seemed easier to feel, to taste. Everything felt gentle, unsolicited, only augmented by the quietude and undemanding surroundings.

Now, the fire crackling in front of them, Auggie and Annie spent minutes in golden silence, just feeling the moment. Annie would now and again give a visual that she felt Auggie needed or wanted, and he smiled contentedly.

"We should do this every year," Annie said, watching the fire dancing in the embers. As the sky dimmed, the flames seemed to get stronger, more dramatic. A spark popped, making Auggie jump. Annie said nothing, but continued to stroke his forearm with her fingers.

A loon appeared on the lake, and Annie made a game out of guessing where he would come up from his dives.

"Where you right that time?" Auggie asked as she alerted him again to its resurface.

"Nope. Way off."

He chuckled. "Toby is like you."

"Toby, the kid?"

"Yeah, Toby, the kid. He tried to tell me he'd missed my perfect throw. I kind of said he should have caught it. I felt badly afterwards, I didn't mean to pressure him. But it was great, he told me he caught it fine. And then he admitted immediately that he hadn't caught it. Told me the truth instead of an easy lie. You could have just told me you were winning at this loon game."

"I don't ever," she said. "Not any more."

He knew he'd never really know, especially after she'd admitted to sitting next to him on that fateful bus trip downtown to Helen's apartment, but he'd only ever believed she'd regretted it and had never, in fact, kept anything from him again. It was the only thing to think, the only way to go forward.

"I know," he said. "I always trust you."

"Well, it comes from the amount of trust you put into me," she replied. "And the sun has just touched the treetops over there."

Auggie lifted his chin, as if he was glancing up to the line of the horizon. "No better team," he said.

"Joan always knew it."

He smiled, thinking of his mentor. He hoped she wasn't working the weekend, hoped she was spending time with her beautiful family. He hoped Arthur had put his suits aside for a couple of days and was down on the ground getting dirty with Mackenzie. He needed them to be okay, because if they could be, so could he and Annie.

"So, this dress..." Auggie started, tickling her below her rib cage.

She squirmed, giggling. "Nope, you can't know about it until the wedding day."

"I can't believe it's here," he said.

"It's taken a lifetime," Annie mused wistfully.

"It's been worth it," he told her softly. "You'll let me see you before everyone else does, right?"

"Auggie, if I had my way, you'd be the only one who sees me on our wedding day. With hands, ears, mouth, any way possible."

"Damn, can we just uninvite everyone right now? Or maybe I'll just ravish you here and be done with it." He turned, sliding her down his arm to the blanket, leaning over her, finding her cheek with his palm and guiding his mouth to hers.

"You'll see it before anyone else," she whispered, a smile in her voice. He felt his own smile cross his face and he kissed her behind her ear, down her neck, along her bare shoulder.

"What's this?" he asked with a grin as he ran his fingertips along her arm. "Are those goosebumps? Are you cold? Or does this make that happen?" Again he kissed behind her ear, along her neck, simultaneously brushing his fingers over her arms, feeling the little fine hairs standing up and the tiny bumps that rose from her skin.

"Maybe a little bit of both," she said.

"Do you have a sweater or another blanket?"

"I have a shawl, let me grab it."

He moved back so she could get up for a minute, and felt the warmth of the fire on his face. As Annie returned, she added some more wood to the bonfire before settling back beside him again.

"Hi," she said, grinning.

"Hi," he replied, returning the smile.

"You look happy."

"I am happy."

"I'm glad." Annie pulled the bag of marshmallows over to her and got the toasting stick. "You want another marshmallow?"

Auggie nodded. "Toast me," he said.

Annie laughed, putting the marshmallows on the stick and holding them carefully above the red coals rather than over the flames. She didn't need Auggie's badges to know how to toast a perfect marshmallow. She glanced over at him, the flickering fire reflecting off his face and in his eyes. There were many obstacles and hurdles in their lives, but together, they would work around them and succeed. Annie had no doubt.


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