“Degrees of Separation”
by Ruth Nestvold
Rolynka, Alaska, September, Six Degrees Celsius (Forty-Three Degrees Fahrenheit)
Ellen Teayoumeak clambered down from her pickup and pulled the shoulder bag with her paperbacks from the passenger seat. Hopefully Rita Piscoya would have some books in the trading post that Ellen hadn’t read yet. When the days started getting cold, there wasn’t much to do this close to the Arctic Circle besides read and watch television. And Ellen usually found television boring — most of the stories had only one thread that led too easily to the ending, without chance, without random luck, without magic.
The strap of the bag slipped out of her hand and tumbled to the ground. A fat paperback of old plays fell out and landed open on the dirty road. Ellen sighed and squatted down to retrieve it, wondering if maybe it wasn’t time for her to
try to lose some weight, given how hard it was to just bend over.
Ellen glanced at the page where the book had fallen open. Love in fantastick triumph sat. A shiver ran down her spine like it often did when she recognized a moment of magic but didn’t know its significance. Then something glittering caught her eye and she picked it up. An earring, a delicate structure of silver thread and what looked like real precious stones, aquamarines and opals in a shimmering chandelier.
Not exactly a trinket someone might buy in the Piscoya Arctic Trading Post.
Ellen rose with a groan and looked up and down Seward Avenue. There, an off-season tourist with a helmet of blond hair, making her way towards the Golden Nugget.
“Wait, you lost this!”
Ellen trundled after the woman as fast as she could. She really should stop eating so many potato chips.
Finally the blond woman noticed she was being hailed and stopped. Ellen caught up with her, breathing heavily. “Did you lose an earring?”
Blinking in confusion, the tourist felt her ear lobes. Her hair was bleached to near perfection and looped under in curls unusual this close to the Arctic Circle, but Ellen was used to a lot of strange sights between June and September.
Not to mention during the Iditarod.
“Here,” Ellen said, handing her the intricately crafted piece of jewelry.
“Ach, thank you!” the woman said. She was German or Austrian or Swiss from her accent. They got a lot of those here on Seward Peninsula. Ellen had heard that most Germans went south when they were on vacation, but it didn’t seem like it in Rolynka.
“I do not know what happened,” said the tourist with the helmet of hair. She took the earring, a shocked look on her face, as if people did not often do such things as returning lost property to her.
Ellen smiled. It was good to know she had put a little bit of everyday magic in motion.
Stuttgart, Germany, October, Twelve Degrees Celsius (Fifty-Three Degrees Fahrenheit)
Washing her hands in the women’s room, Regina glanced at her reflection in the mirror and smiled. She was so glad she hadn’t lost the earring; or rather, glad the Eskimo woman had noticed and returned it. It wasn’t only that the earrings were valuable, they had been a gift from her late husband. Perhaps it had been less than wise of her to wear them in such a place as Rolynka, Alaska, but now that she was no longer raging at fate — or at least not quite as often — she liked to have things around that reminded her of Wolfgang. The earrings were particularly good for that. Every time she turned her head, she felt them move against the skin of her neck, heard the slight tinkle of stones and silver, and it was as if he were there with her.
She dried her hands off and returned to her workspace. The communal office was large and full of light, free of confining cubicles. Many of her colleagues missed the privacy of those cubicles, but Regina liked the open spaces.
Her neighbor Henning Meyer, however, was probably regretting the lack or privacy every minute of every day at the moment. When she sat down at the desk next to his, he was staring at his screen, his lips pressed together, not even seeing what he was looking at, it seemed.
Heartsick. As everyone in the office knew, the girlfriend he had been living with for over five years had left him.
She suppressed a sigh and called up her email. What was this? A business trip to the software testing lab in upstate New York?
Regina let out a little whoop, bringing Henning out of his trance.
“What is it?” he asked.
She gazed at him for a moment and then back to the email, thinking fast. “Oh, wait, this won’t work. Schade. I have to babysit my granddaughters for part of the time.” Henning would be the next in line for the assignment, since they had been partners in developing ESE, the component being tested in New York. She would have loved to go, but he needed to get away more than she did right now.
Regina almost jumped out of her chair. Only Wolfgang had ever called her that — only Wolfgang had dared. And it had sounded so much like his voice. Maybe she was already going senile at the age of fifty-seven.
Or maybe she should just appreciate the hallucination.
She swallowed, caressing her left ear lobe and the earring hanging there. “The lab in New York needs a developer for support during the ESE 3.0 test,” she explained to Henning. “You’ll have to go. I’ll forward the email to you and explain to Schwarz.” She would also have to explain to her daughter, but Sabine was hardly likely to turn down a babysitting offer.
Henning cocked his head to one side. “Are you sure? Isn’t there anyone else who could babysit the grandchildren?”
Regina hesitated for a moment. No, Henning needed to get out of his everyday environment, get away from the things that reminded him of Beate, and she would make sure he did.
“I’m sure,” she said, smiling. “You should see if you can get a couple of days vacation, some extra time to travel around a bit, maybe get down to New York City. You need it.”
He shrugged. “That’s up to Schwarz.”
She patted his elbow. “Something tells me he’ll give you a few days off.”
Schwarz owed her a favor. She would see to it that Henning got his recovery time.
New York, NY, November, Eighteen Degrees Celsius (Sixty-Four Degrees Fahrenheit)
Henning had expected it to be much colder this close to Christmas in New York City, but since he wasn’t a fan of big cities in snow, he wasn’t the least bit disappointed. In and near city streets, the pristine, white beauty turned to cold, wet muck that ruined shoes and froze toes and became a dirty beige slush so fast, it was more nuisance than pleasure. Rain had plagued his visit to the Big Apple, so the weather wasn’t exactly a joy, but in between the rainy spells, the sun had actually been shining in that brilliant way it did sometimes just after the air was washed clean, slanting down between the skyscrapers wherever it could.
Regina had been right — he’d really needed to get away from Stuttgart and his life there. It had been almost six months since Beate moved out, and it still took his breath away whenever he found some little thing she’d left behind: a night shirt that had slipped behind the bed, a romance novel hidden at the back of the bookshelf, a Bob Dylan CD in the middle of his Oasis collection. When he got back to Stuttgart, he should start looking for a new apartment, get away from the memories that wouldn’t leave him in peace.
He took a deep breath of the smog-infested air in the valleys between the skyscrapers; a deep breath of the life and energy of the most vibrant city he he’d ever seen. It was strange how much just ten days in a different place had allowed him to gain some distance from his pain. New York was a single, on-going distraction. Just what he needed right now.
He turned down Fifth Avenue, heading for F.A.O. Schwartz to buy presents for his nephews. On a busy corner, a white street musician with dreadlocks sang an old Crosby, Stills and Nash tune. The performance was on the monotonous side without the three-part harmony, but Henning stopped anyway — and laughed out loud at the sign.
Spare change for a trip to Morocco.
He stopped in mid-chuckle. He had actually laughed.
It was raining again, not a good time to try to make money from passers-by, but Henning stood with umbrella up until the street musician ended the song.
After the young man crooned the last train-boarding line, Henning stepped forward.
“How much do you still need?”
Dreadlocks stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “What do you mean?”
“How much more do you need for the trip to Morocco?” Perhaps he was crazy, but these last ten days were the first time in ages that he had been able to function normally — enjoy things on a regular basis even. By getting away, he’d been able to see life from a different angle.
The street musician obviously thought he was crazy. He shook his head. “A couple hundred bucks, mister.”
Henning pulled out his wallet and began counting the bills. “Do you promise me you will use it for a trip to Morocco?”
“Does it really matter to you?”
“Yes, it does.” He pulled three hundred dollars out of his wallet and handed it to the young man, who stared at the cash without taking it.
Henning took his limp hand and pressed the money into his palm. “Go to Morocco, if that’s what you want. I’m sure you won’t regret it.”
He turned away, not waiting for a word of thanks. Perhaps the street musician would just go to the nearest bar and get royally drunk. Henning resisted the temptation to ask for the money back — how stupid was that to give a street musician the Christmas money for your nephews?
Well, he had credit cards. And maybe it hadn’t been all that stupid, given the silly grin tugging at his lips, waiting to spread across his face — if only he would stop creating negative scenarios in his mind.
He continued down Fifth Avenue, smiling.
Casablanca, Morocco, January, Twenty-Four Degrees Celsius (Seventy-Five Degrees Fahrenheit)
Del Vogel snapped his guitar case shut and headed in the direction of the Parc de la Ligue Arabe. Back in New York, he would have made tons more money in an hour, but what had found its way into the guitar case was easily enough to pay his lodging for a night or two, and a good dinner to boot. Besides, the weather was sunny and warm, and only five minutes away there were park benches under palm trees. Casablanca had nearly the same bustle and energy as New York, but it was more laid back. Warmer. Happier.
Del loved walking down the avenue of palm trees. He’d been intending to move on several days ago, make his way south to Marrakesh, do homage to Crosby, Stills and Nash, but somehow he hadn’t found the energy or initiative to leave.
The nearest park bench was empty. Del sank down, shoving the guitar case under the bench. The sun on his shoulders was warm. Nearby, two men were arguing in Arabic, gesticulating wildly and pushing each other around a bit. Beside him, hibiscus bushes bloomed in bright shades of red and orange and pink and yellow. A woman pushing a baby buggy, wearing little more than a hint of a scarf over her dark hair, walked past the two men, who stopped fighting to smile at her.
Del had to smile too.
He was so damn lucky to be here in Morocco. The most exotic place he had ever been in his life. And all because of a good deed from a complete stranger.
“Help! Thief! Stop him!”
Del sat up and looked around, but he didn’t immediately see where the woman’s voice was coming from.
“My handbag! He has my handbag!”
Wasn’t anyone going to help the woman? Del couldn’t leave his guitar — it was his livelihood. Of course, he didn’t expect the woman with the baby buggy to run down a thief, but the two men who had been arguing did nothing more than stare in the direction of the shouting. Perhaps they hadn’t understood?
Then a man came running down a palm-lined path, a leather handbag clutched in one fist, and turned down the avenue opposite Del. The two men watched curiously but didn’t move.
Shit. It was up to him.
Del sprang up and sprinted down the avenue after the thief. Faster, Del!
Some people ahead were enjoying the shade of the palm trees. “It’s a thief, stop him!” he yelled.
A heavy-set man turned, and when he saw what was happening, he lunged for the thief. He missed, but in dodging the outstretched arm, the thief slowed down just enough. Del made a tackling dive and brought the younger man down with a thud. He was going to have bruises all over his body.
He snatched the handbag and pulled it out of the thief’s hand. With a shove, the man pushed him off and rolled away, jumping up and running down the avenue and out of the park.
The heavy-set man and the others with him helped Del back to his feet.
“You are good?” a woman asked, and Del couldn’t help chuckling. Yes, against his will perhaps he had been good for once in his life.
He nodded despite the aches. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Limping slightly from what felt like a twisted ankle, he made his way back in the direction he’d come. A brown-haired woman was running barefoot towards him, sandals in hand.
“Oh, my handbag! Thank you so much! It would have been such a nightmare if you hadn’t recovered it — I’m supposed to fly back to the States on Friday. And without a passport, without credit cards …”
She finally stopped to take a breath, and Del handed her lost property back to her. “Glad to help.”
The woman gazed at him with dark brown doe’s eyes as if he were some kind of god. Del swallowed. She was no longer young, but that was some look.
Then he remembered his guitar. “Sorry, I need to check on my own property,” he said, skipping away. “Have a good flight!”
He couldn’t run very fast with his twisted ankle, but he didn’t want to leave his guitar alone any longer than necessary.
When he got back to the square where the avenues of palm trees met, however, the woman with the baby buggy was sitting on his bench.
And the guitar was still there.
He stopped running and limped the rest of the way to the bench. The young mother shaded her eyes and looked up at him.
“Thank you,” she said.
Del blinked and sank down on the bench next to her. “Thank you. You guarded my guitar for me.”
She turned to him and smiled. “But you helped that woman. It is good to see.”
How odd — he had made her happy even though he hadn’t even helped her directly. Del smiled back and massaged his aching foot.
Perhaps it was worth a twisted ankle.
Seattle, Washington, February, Zero Degrees Celsius (Thirty-Three Degrees Fahrenheit)
When Alexandra returned to Seattle, it was raining. Cold rain, just a touch away from snow. Surprise. Rain in Seattle was almost as inevitable as death.
No wait. She wasn’t going to think that way anymore. Good things did happen, and they even happened to her. The Morocco trip had been wonderful — sunny and colorful and exotic and vibrant — but it could have been a nightmare.
Someone had saved it. Had saved her days of hassle, maybe even weeks, saved her from dealing with bureaucrats and calling credit card companies and airlines to rebook her flight.
Not to mention saving her over a thousand dollars in native and foreign currency.
Instead, she’d suffered nothing more than a few minutes of panic.
When the taxi dropped her off at the split-level she now occupied alone, it was already dark. She tipped the driver generously. “Here’s hoping you don’t end up having to drive on ice tonight.”
“Thanks,” the woman said with a wide grin. “With this, I just might be able to quit early.”
Alexandra smiled and slipped out of the taxi.
She let herself into the empty house and flipped on the hall light. Her cat Missie bounded up the stairs to greet her, not looking at all starved, and the newspapers and mail were on a neat pile on the coffee table in the living room. The neighbor boy had apparently done an excellent job of house and cat sitting.
Alexandra uncorked a bottle of Merlot and poured herself a glass. Settling down on the sofa, she picked up the thick stack of mail and began thumbing through. Near the top were several from her lawyer — about the divorce, probably.
Demands from Rob.
She allowed the letters to sink back into her lap and took another sip of wine. Rob wasn’t asking for alimony, he just wanted half the value of this house. But he had lost his job at Microsoft years ago, and every hair-brained scheme he had tried since had only cost them more money. She had paid off much of the mortgage alone. And still he had left her.
He didn’t deserve half. She’d been the breadwinner longer than he had; this house belonged to her.
She leaned her head back on the couch and stared at the ceiling, her hands curved around the glass. Was she just punishing him for all the pain he’d caused her? Her lawyer insisted he could make a case for her getting the lion’s share of the value of their property, even though they had no marriage contract — but that’s what lawyers were for, wasn’t it, to incite people to battle things out in court?
And slowly it came to her, amid letters and wine and jetlag and the dim light of a single lamp — came to her after some stranger in Morocco had come to her aid and saved her from hysteria and hassle — she was being unfair.
Alexandra sat up, set her wine glass down on the coffee table, and looked at her watch. It was after eleven, but Rob would be up. He was a night owl.
He answered on the second ring.
Rolynka, Alaska, April, Minus Six Degrees Celsius (Twenty-One Degrees Fahrenheit)
Rob still couldn’t believe what had come over his ex-wife; couldn’t believe that he was driving a rented pickup through the late April snow from Nome, Alaska to nearby Rolynka, a decade and a half into his past. Rolynka had an airport now too, but no car rental, so he had booked a one-way ticket to Nome when he’d suddenly been given the opportunity to start over.
With the divorce through and the money from the house in his bank account, Rob was free to run down a dream from his twenties that had never left him — to become a musher and someday have his own team of dogs in the Iditarod. He was no longer young, but the longer he waited, the less likely it was he’d ever fulfill his dream.
He had to at least try. And what better place than his old home turf, Rolynka, where the dream had first started to take shape?
When he hit the outskirts of town, he was surprised at how little the place had changed. Clapboard houses built on gravel fill and piles still ruled — the cheapest method of construction that also took into consideration the effects of permafrost.
There were a few new houses, and some of the names were different. What had once been the Star of the North was now the Bering Straits Inn, and the public library had a surprisingly modern-looking building.
But when Rob turned down Seward Ave., he felt like he was a kid again. Some of the store fronts were repainted, but it was so close to the old memories that his throat closed for a moment.
Was it possible that Ellen Teayoumeak still lived here?
He pulled into a parking space in front of the Piscoya Arctic Trading Post — formerly Ed’s General Store, if he wasn’t mistaken.
Rob climbed down from the cab of the pickup, overcome by a surreal sense of past and present colliding. Just down that alley, he’d made out with Ellen against the clapboard until she finally took him home with her and they slept together for the first time.
And at the end of the summer, he had left.
He decided to start his inquiries at what had once been the general store and the center of town.
Before he reached the door, a large Eskimo woman exited, shoving several used paperbacks into her shoulder bag. One of them didn’t make it into the bag and fell into the snow at his feet.
He bent down to pick up the book, some kind of fantasy with garish dragons on the cover, and knocked it against his thigh to get rid of the snow.
“Here, ma’am, you dropped this.”
She turned, and her eyes widened. “Rob?”
It was Ellen.
She weighed about thirty percent more than she had when they were in their early twenties, but then, so did he. She still recognized him, and her eyes still lit up. He could not possibly have imagined a better welcome back to Rolynka, Alaska.
“Ellen,” he said.
Ruth Nestvold has published widely in science fiction and fantasy, her fiction appearing in such markets as Asimov’s, F&SF, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, and Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her work has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree, and Sturgeon Awards. The Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” award for best international work, while her novel, Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur, has been translated into German, Dutch and Italian. She maintains a web site at http://www.ruthnestvold.com and blogs at https://ruthnestvold.