He walked to the cliff edge, where Nick had broken away the stone. He could just barely make out Natasha's frail figure through the fog. He cried out, "Hang in there, 'Tasha, I'm coming." He got a coil of rope from the trunk of the Fiat, and tied one end to the axle. He tied the other end around his waist.
The only way to get there was to jump. He had to jump, and land on that little platform without falling short, or overshooting, or knocking her off. He had too, it was the only way.
"I'm coming, look out!" He paced back about 30 feet, and started running toward the cliff. At the very last moment, he leaped, leaped with all his heart, toward Natasha. As he leaped, he saw her turn toward him and hoarsely scream "NO!" She was almost gone, the skin lay slack upon her face, making it a mockery of the once beautiful waitress he had seen so long ago.
He landed, on the edge of the platform, and teetered, but regained his balance. He grabbed at Natasha, as he saw her falling backwards into the void. The rope around his waist snapped taut.
He held her tight, making soft comforting noises in his throat. She was crying, but not from despair now, but from happiness. "You love me, you really love me... I can't believe it... but it's true.... it's true..."
Mark was clutching a decayed cloth, rough in texture, almost like homespun. There was no woman, starving or otherwise, within. Mark sobs, his heart broken again. This time, though, the pain only lasted a short time. He had, after all, done his best, and she was happy at the end. He had done his best, and that's all anyone can really do.
He squared his shoulders, and made his way down the gulley separating the platform from the rest of the cliff. He kept the rope tight by wrapping the slack into a coil and tying it to his waist every few feet. It seemed like hours, but he finally made it back to the firmer ground of the pass, back to his car. The fog had begun to lift above, and there was a brighter glow to his surroundings.
Nick appeared again, but he seemed different. He had an icepack on his head, and bloodshot eyes, and was moving slowly. He was also dressed all in white, like some sort of dissipated ice cream man.
"Not you again, I'm done with you. DONE! GET THEE BEHIND ME SATAN!" shouted Mark.
"It's all right, man. Don't shout so much, I've got a killer hangover. There are some things you don't know."
Then Jack appeared, dressed in robes and wearing a yellow headband. He handed Nick a reddish colored drink with a stalk of celery in it, and winked at Mark.
"Mark, you done good. You made it through, you did the right thing. I hope you didn't mind that little hazing business there..." Nick mumbled apologetically.
"Hazing?!?" Jack spoke, "The Big Guy gets a little carried away when he gets into the sauce. All the Angels say so. This time *I* got picked as his D.D."
"Designated Demon. It comes with the job."
"So Tom Waites was right? There's no Devil, just God when He's Drunk?"
"Yeah... well... it's getting a bit better this millennium. Anyway, who are we to Judge?"
Nick waved Jack aside, and continued, "Aaaanyway, I feel bad about how I treated you. So, no hard feelings?" He handed Mark a white gold band, and his wallet. "Oh, and I got that Baltimore parking ticket fixed for you. I've got friends in high places, after all... No hard feelings?"
Mark took back the ring, and put it in his jacket pocket, and the wallet, and put that back in his pants pocket. "Why should I be mad? You've dragged me through Hell the last few weeks, literally. Why should I have 'hard feelings'?"
Oddly enough, he didn't have any. He was content, at peace for the first time since... well, he couldn't remember when. He looked at Nick's outstretched hand, and shook it. Nick beamed in relief and said "I *knew* you'd understand."
"Well, You would, wouldn't You?"
"Nope. I know a lot, I can see all, hear all. I know when you are sleeping, know when you're awake... but it all comes down to the fact that you have Free Will. Now, get back in your car and get on with your life. Or not, whatever you decide. " Then Nick and Jack waved, and vanished into the slightly thickened air.
Mark got behind the wheel of the car, and reached for the keys. Then he decided, "No, I feel like napping now. After all, I've got Free Wi..." and he was out, like a light, head tilted back and snoring to beat the band.
Mark drove down from Donner Pass, through Sacramento and Antioch, now convinced he would settle in the San Francisco area. He noticed that the area is beautiful but somewhat empty.
He started looking for houses. The prices were depressed due to the dot com bust, and the rise of telecommuting.
Mark leafed through the San Francisco Bay Guardian classifieds, marking good prospects with a felt tip pen. Most of them appeared to be listed by an agency called N. Schaefer and Associates. He gave them a call. The secretary took his name and number, then let him know that Ms. Schaefer was out at a property in Oakland, holding an open house. He got directions there, and hung up.
Mark drove there, through a very nice neighborhood with quite a few For Sale signs. He parked out front, and went up to the door. It was a typical new model home, with the garage converted to a sun room. He went in, and heard a voice call from the back "Be right with you." It sounded familiar, but that couldn't be. He leafed through the photo book of listings on the coffee table.
Ms. Schaefer glided into the room, a faint smell of cinammon hung in the air. It was Natasha! Mark stared, mouth slightly open, until she asked "See anything you like, Mr.... ?" "Stratton, Mark Stratton", replied Mark, and he remembered to shut his mouth this time. "You must be Ms. Schaefer."
"Call me Natasha, Mr. Stratton." "Mark, call me Mark." "Well, Mark, did you notice any homes you were interested in seeing?" She put a little additional emphasis on the word "homes", and smiled.
"Yes, several. I'm looking for an older home, not too large, with a fair amount of land around it. Not here, no offense, but this is what I'd call a "scary neighborhood."
"I understand completely. It's nearly time for me to close up here, why don't you hang on a second and I'll show you something more to your liking."
Mark was seeing quite a bit to his liking already. She really did look like Natasha the demoness. But how?
Natasha and Mark visited many houses in the San Francisco area, each one more suitable than the last. They chatted during the long drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, and soon started meeting over coffee and biscotti as well. She talked a lot about the present, and the future, but almost never the past. She couldn't get over the feeling she had met him before, and that the feelings she started to have, she had also felt for him before. She started to pick out houses because they appealed to her, in addition to appealing to her favorite customer.
Finally, they find a house in Carmel they both loved, and she sold it to him. After signing the papers, he proposed. She turned him down, gently, but said she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, and that she might change her mind about marriage later.
San Francisco at dawn, the Golden Gate shining its trademark color in the early morning light. Mark was filled with a quiet optimism as he and Natasha stood for a moment, hand in hand, and pondered the sight. They turned to each other and kissed, then went back to the car, to go back to their new house. This car, which had taken Mark on the journey of his lifetime, was about to take him onward, into the rest of his life.
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