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63 Degrees North Latitude

January 1994

By Catherine Kitcho

I just don't think it's a good idea. I would be liable, you know," warned George. In his own office, he shouldn't have to explain the reasons for his decisions, they were just his.

"But George," Cindy pleaded, "we are headed back to the exact same spot where that woman geologist was mauled last summer. Both Helen and I grew up with guns. We know how to use them, and could in an emergency. Right, Helen?"

Helen, quiet until now, added, "Yeah, George, we're confident we can handle them. We would feel a lot safer." Cindy glared at Helen; it was not convincing enough for Cindy's taste.

"You both know the old catch-22 about bears and guns, don't you? If you don't have a gun they can kill you, and if you do use a gun on them you only make them mad and they still kill you. The bears in that part of Alaska are huge. You'd need a 45 caliber to even wing them. And I doubt that either one of you have hands big enough to shoot a 45 accurately; the recoil alone could sprain your wrist. My answer is no on this one. Now here's a copy of the itinerary I sent on to the engineering firm. You're to meet their engineering reps at the Fairbanks airport on the 12th. I'll come up and see how things are going at the end of the month."

"Why are they sending reps?", Cindy asked.

"Part of our contract; they will monitor your work," George replied.

"Do we need monitoring?" Cindy retorted. Helen gave her a warning look to not push it. Cindy clarified, "I mean, it's not as if they know how to do airborne recon; that's our forte." Cindy was digging herself in deeper. Helen and George were silent. Finally Cindy said, "Well, we can turn it into a learning experience for them, I guess. That might be fun. I'm sure we'll do a fine job, George."

On their way out of the office, Helen thought to herself, this will be an interesting experience. Cindy is so pushy, I'm going to have my hands full mentoring her on this assignment. Cindy had been assigned to work with Helen when she joined the firm. Cindy was short, bubbly, vocal, fearless and smart. Very, very smart in her field - remote sensing and aerial recon - which is why they hired her. Helen was jealous of Cindy's ability to attract men; maybe Cindy could give her lessons in flirting. Helen chuckled to herself. She couldn't imagine herself flirting; it wasn't professional. Cindy seemed downright promiscuous by comparison; Helen suspected she probably was.

Cindy brooded the rest of the day. Why was Helen so damn uptight all the time? Why didn't she back Cindy? Story of her life, she decided. She was always the front runner, always the one who would just get off the dime and do it. Do something. Cindy detested indecisive people. Cindy respected Helen but thought she wasn't any fun at all. She remembered their first trip together. They had sat next to each other on the plane. "So, Helen, are you married or single or have a significant other?"

"Single." Helen replied, caught off guard.

"Are you dating anyone now?" Cindy continued.

"No, I'm in between right now. I've been too busy lately." Helen wished Cindy would take the hint and change the subject.

Cindy was relentless. "Ever thought about getting married someday? I mean, I was married once and the guy I'm living with just can't commit, and it gets so frustrating. So what do you think?"

"I guess it's in my five-year plan there somewhere." Helen said. "I have a question. Did you remember to bring that report from last year?"

Cindy was still curious about Helen's private life. Maybe she would open up more on the trip to Alaska.

That evening, Helen looked pensively at her reflection. First with clothes, then without. "Damn it!" she said to no one. The cat wasn't even there. "Why am I so plain - so boring - so tall and dishwater blonde? Even my name is boring. Why not Debra or Jessica or Candace? I need sun. My eyes even look pale." She turned in profile, sucked in what there was of a tummy. Her breasts looked great in profile. But why were they attached to a tree trunk with popsicle stick legs? Stephanie had liked her legs. And her breasts. Every now and then, she would see someone with short auburn hair and remember. After that had been Ralph, then confusion and abstinence.

Cindy stormed into Helen's office the next day. She never entered a room in a civilized way. "So tell me about Tok Junction. Have you been there? I brought the map. It's way up there, but I guess it's south of Fairbanks, huh? It looks like it's about 63 degrees north latitude. Does that mean we might see the aurora borealis when we're there?"

Helen smiled. It was difficult to not get caught up in Cindy's excitement. Helen imitated Cindy's rushed voice and said, "Yes, yes and yes." Cindy grinned.

"I did my thesis near that area, so I passed through a couple of times," Helen explained. "This is one of the best times of the year for the aurora, so if it's clear we should be able to see it. We'll plan our trip so that we have time to see Anchorage on the way and then I'll show you around the university at Fairbanks. How does that sound?"

"I'm almost packed!" Cindy replied.

On the flight to Fairbanks, Bruce and Joe sat next to each other.

"H. Wells and C. Lubik. Any guesses as to what their first names are? " asked Joe.

"Probably Harold or Henry. Carl or Charles. I had some geologists in my math classes. They always have dull sounding names, wear hiking boots, and the real devotees wear bolo ties with those little mineral clasps. You can spot them a mile away," Bruce replied.

"Well, I just hope they know how to drink beer. I hear that's all there is to do in Tok Junction. I looked it up. There are two motels, four saloons and no women. Lots of sled dogs, though. Malamutes. That's where most of them are raised for racing - what's that famous race they run - the Iditarod, I think it's called."

"Maybe the dogs will look good after a few weeks...." Bruce joked.

Helen and Cindy deplaned from Wien Air flight 105 in Fairbanks.

"Helen, I can honestly say I've never been on an airline that seats the passengers in the same area as the cargo!"

"That's why the seats are removable," Helen explained, "They never know how many passengers they'll have until the last minute. You have to be flexible in Alaska!"

They walked toward baggage claim. As they approached the main part of the terminal, Cindy stopped dead in her tracks. "Oh, my God! Helen, what is that?"

Helen smiled affectionately at the display of the Alaskan brown bear in the glass case. "Oh, that's Smokey. They've had him here in the airport for a while. I guess I forgot about that."

"Gees - it must be ten feet tall. Are all of them that big?"

"I think the average height is about eight feet. Don't worry, that one's dead."

Cindy resumed their stroll toward baggage claim, rethinking the gun discussion. Suddenly, the idea of having some monitors around didn't seem so bad. She hoped they weren't wimps.

"Well, I think that's everything. Shall we go find our official monitors?" Helen asked.

"Ready. What are their names again?"

"Bruce Cahill and Joe Alvarez. Let's just look for two guys sitting together who look like they might be waiting for us."

They walked through the main part of the terminal. There were a lot of men everywhere.

"Helen, how about if one of us waits with the bags, and the other goes approaching strange men to see if they want to join us?"

"Let me guess. You want to do the approaching, right?"

"Actually, I was hoping you would," Cindy said with a wicked grin. Helen conceded. Helen found them on her third try. One was tall with blond curly hair; the other was shorter with dark hair and a striking mustache. Both were trim and athletic looking. No wimps here. Cindy watched the looks on their faces when Helen told them who they were. Cindy laughed. She had been waiting for this moment. She loved surprising people by telling them what her occupation was. These two guys had obviously been expecting two other guys. Cindy went over to join them and introduced herself.

"I'm going to take Cindy on a tour of Fairbanks, then we'll probably have dinner here, so we'll meet up with you in the morning, if that's okay. Where are you staying?"

Bruce replied, "The Tundra Lodge. What about you?"

"Oh, that's a nice place," replied Helen. "We're at Happy's. We had some budget restrictions."

Cindy added, "Tomorrow night we'll go out for a beer. First round's on me."

As soon as they were in the car, Cindy said to Helen, "They're cute, don't you think? This could be fun. I like the Mexican one - Joe. Bruce was eyeing you with his baby blues, I saw him."

"Now, Cindy, we're on business here," Helen said halfheartedly.

"That doesn't mean we can't have some fun, does it? George told us we should get along with our monitors, right?"

Helen laughed. "I don't think he meant that in an intimate sense."

Joe drove the rental car to Tok Junction. "Which one do you want? I like the short one."

"Because she looks a little like your wife?" Bruce replied.

"What wife?"

"The one back in California."

"You single guys have no appreciation for marriage. I'm telling you, it's the best of both worlds. You can have your cake and eat it too."

"Well, whatever," said Bruce. "In any case, this looks like a really tough assignment, huh?" They both laughed.

Helen and Cindy and Bruce and Joe were on their best behavior the first week. Looks were exchanged, teasing crept in to serious conversations. All was above board until their first day off.

In the men's room at Happy's saloon, Bruce said to Joe, "Well, you got one of your wishes. They do drink beer. They can pack it away."

Joe replied, "Well, if everything goes according to plan, I'll get my other wish tonight, too."

"Just don't tell me the gory details, okay?" Bruce said.

They rejoined Helen and Cindy at the pool table, where Cindy just sank the eight-ball to finish the game.

Helen said, "The aurora should be visible tonight - now that it's finally dark. I had forgotten the sun doesn't set until 10:00."

"Ooh, let's go." Cindy headed toward the door. "Anyone want to join me?" Joe ran up and opened the door for her.

"You can't go out there by yourself - there are bears out there. You need a monitor," Joe said. Cindy grinned and gave Helen a look.

Bruce and Helen walked out to the ridge behind the motel and looked northward. "Where is the best vantage point?" Bruce asked.

"Any high point where you can see the horizon," Helen replied. "Let's sit up here in this clearing." Helen sat cross-legged on the layer of pine needles. Bruce sat next to her. She could feel him breathing but he was maintaining his space.

"Look, there it is!" Helen said. As they scanned the horizon, several threads of iridescent clouds waved eerily. Helen was transported back in time by the aurora. She stared unblinking, unable to speak, listening for its message. There was always a message for her.

Bruce gazed appreciatively and said, "I wish I'd brought my camera. That's really beautiful. Is it different every time, Helen? Helen?" Bruce looked at Helen. She seemed to be meditating. He was silent for a few minutes. He reached an arm around her; it was getting chilly. No resistance. He asked her if she wanted to go. She stood up and started walking with him toward the motel.

Wasn't that something?" Cindy asked. "What a place this is - so much to see and experience."

Joe put both arms around her, drew her up to him and said "You haven't seen anything yet." He kissed her softly, patiently. Cindy responded, returned the kiss with a hint of passion. Joe guided her toward his motel room.

Once inside, Joe resumed the embrace. Before he could kiss her, Cindy said, "Do you have anything to drink? I could use a little something." Joe opened two beers for them. Cindy sat in one of the chairs, started a conversation. Joe wasn't in the mood for conversation. He came over to her as she was sitting in the chair, knelt before her on the floor. He started stroking her thighs. Cindy stood up and said, "I think I'd better go." Joe snatched her into his arms again and kissed her hard. Cindy pushed him away and said "No thanks."

"Well, you sure seemed interested out there, didn't you? You're just a cock teaser," Joe said loudly.

"I wouldn't call one kiss an invitation!" Cindy challenged.

"You did have your tongue in my mouth!"

"And you loved it, didn't you!" Cindy yelled. She stomped out of his motel room, and started the half-mile walk to her motel. The aurora was still visible on the horizon. It was an ethereal guidepost back to her room. Cindy shivered. She thought about Joe. Half of her wanted to go through with it. The kiss felt good. She imagined what the rest of him would feel like. The other half of her was consumed by a sense of dignity. Where did that come from? Must be something in the air, she concluded. What a strange place this was.

Helen and Cindy talked about the aurora at breakfast the next morning.

"There's something spooky about it, Helen. It's as if you can be possessed by it." Helen smiled in recognition.

"Yes, it is pretty neat," she said. "Where did you guys go last night?"

"Oh, we went for a walk, then went back to his motel room, and had a couple more beers." Cindy winked and said, "He's a pretty sexy guy. We had a good time. How about you?"

Helen kept a straight face. "Oh, we found a nice spot on the hill and watched for quite a while. Then we called it a night." Cindy wondered about that. She had distinctly heard Helen come in to her room next door at about 4:00 A.M., according to her faithful digital clock.

Joe knocked on Bruce's door. It wasn't like him to be late for breakfast. He heard a voice from inside. "Yeah - who is it?"

"It's Joe. Hey, stud, up and at 'em. It's a workday again." Bruce opened the door and let him in.

"So, did you score last night?" Bruce said calmly.

"Would you expect any less from me?" Joe replied.

Bruce said, "Of course not. You're a man with a mission."

"How about you? I saw the way you were looking at Helen there. Did she warm up to you?" Joe asked.

"Somewhat," Bruce said. "These things take time."

Two months later, Helen and Cindy were on a plane again, ready to go make the final presentation to their client. Helen was anxious; she knew that both Bruce and Joe would be there and had critiqued their report. This would be awkward. But, George would be there, and as usual, he would perform his role of making everyone feel at home.

They stepped into the conference room. Bruce and his boss were already there; no sign of Joe yet. Helen went up to Bruce. "Hello, stranger. Seen any good auroras lately?" As she shook his hand in a professional, acceptable grip, the sparks were still there. Cindy and George were making small talk with Bruce's boss. Three other engineers joined them, but still no sign of Joe. Cindy came up to Helen.

"Should I go ahead and start?" she asked.

"Let's go ahead." She motioned Cindy to the front of the room, and everyone sat down. Cindy gave her report summary and asked for questions from the audience.

One of the engineers who had joined the group later said, "Yes, I have several issues here based on the critique by Joe Alvarez about your findings. Can you explain the basis of your conclusions in sections 7 and 8?"

Cindy spent the next half-hour defending the report, looking desperately at Helen and George for help. Helen jumped in a couple of times to clarify the details. At the end of the day, they left with the direction to re-do the report. Cindy was sputtering all the way home on the plane.

"That bastard. Just because he couldn't score with me is no reason to attack my report. That.." Cindy stopped when she realized what she said.

Helen checked to make sure George was not within earshot, and said, "Oh really? You implied that you made him very happy that night. You.."

"Well, I lied. He was a real sleaze about it. I left his room as soon as he tried something and I walked back home," Cindy revealed.

Helen thought about this for a minute. Should she fess up too? "Well, I'm relieved that nothing did happen between you. That would make it even messier."

Cindy said thoughtfully, "You must be a good influence on me; I'm coming up to your standards of professionalism. Maybe there's some hope for me."

Helen thought to herself, "And vice versa". She smiled.

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