Henry's tour of the facility was quick, perfunctory. It's just his normal workday, she reminded herself. At each of the few enclosures with actual animals, he excused himself to check in with the vet techs, leaving her to explore the photographic opportunities. Her camera hung heavy on her neck – the light and the subjects not as inspiring as she'd hoped. She'd need a lot more equipment to get anything really attractive out of the possibilities present, though she thought she'd probably gotten one or two sweet shots of an otter with a bandaged back flipper playing with a vet tech.
After peering into the last, also empty, holding tank, they headed back toward the lobby of the building walking side by side through a sterile hallway. The overhead fluorescent lights had a pinkish cast offset by depression green walls. Even his sun-weathered skin looked sort of sickly – she didn't want to think about her own.
"There aren't many animals here right now, which we like to call a good thing. But it doesn't make an interesting tour. There were a lot more a few weeks ago…" His words, as they had been since she arrived, were slightly clipped, and for the first time, Tallie wondered he was irritated with her.
She felt heat rise to her cheeks. "I'm sorry. It was probably over a month ago, when you suggested I come by. I just… I'm sorry."
Henry didn't look at her, and she found the side of his face difficult to see or read. He didn't say anything either and just as it occurred to her to wonder if he was waiting for her to say something more, her contrition evaporated. Was he thinking she somehow owed him more than that, admittedly stupid, apology? She didn't know him well enough for him to have expectations of her. She tried to put together words that would convey what a mistake she'd made to come at all, that clearly she'd misunderstood his invitation, or he'd misunderstood her situation and decision to accept it, or…
He stopped, and she felt in her body the momentum to keep on going, to break into a run, and escape out the door with the illuminated red exit sign overhead just yards away. Already a few steps ahead, she forced herself to stop and turn back to face him.
He was smiling. "I'm really glad you called." His face was open and clear, his light brown eyes lit and happy. She believed him, felt a friendship in him that surprised and confused her.
The pressure in her chest dropped to her stomach. She fumbled for words. "I… wasn't sure."
"Let's walk down to the beach," he said, stepping through the space between them.
Big glinty waves crashed hard on the stony beach, then melted into backlit lush white foam shushing the next waves following as they pulled back out to sea. Henry walked toward a log close to, but safe from, the water's farthest reach. They hadn't said much since leaving the facility.
Tallie asked how many animals the facility could accommodate, how often it was full, how many vets were on staff. Henry's answers weren't brusque, but they were concise. She tried to think of what else to ask. Again, Tallie felt confused about what he wanted from her, why she'd come. A silence fell between them, at first a small thing, a possible wedge, but then as Tallie began listening into it, hearing the waves, and birds, and wind, it seemed to wrap around them, a bundling blanket. She closed her eyes. At some point she sighed, and felt she could almost lean into the comfort of it.
When she opened her eyes and turned to look at Henry, he was watching her, his eyes – again – so kind, his lips soft in barely a smile.
"When you look out at this," he asked, gesturing back to the ocean. "How do you see it?"
She felt an ease in her body that surprised her – how long since she'd felt so at ease? She considered the question, resisted lifting her camera to her eye.
She pointed to the horizon. "That's the emotional center of this view for me – if I were going to take a picture, I'd want it solid and formed, just the way we see it right now, the deep slate gray juxtaposed against a light dove sky, naming and focusing the line."
She stood, took a few steps forward and crouched, again avoiding a cliché by framing a shot with her fingers, though she imagined them just so. "But these waves are the story, their brutality collapsing into something so soft and…" She reached forward toward foam that had been tossed onto the beach. She was suddenly self-conscious and glanced back at him. "Is this what you mean?"
He was smiling. "Yeah, exactly."
She smiled back at him, returned to the log. "The real trick of the shot – if I were going to take a picture," she paused, and he nodded his agreement of the assumption. "Would be the light. The light, of course, is everything. It controls the whole deal. What you think you see before you take a picture has nothing to do with what you'll get, if you don’t let the light tell you where to stand, where to point, what's possible and what isn't. Some of that you can overcome with the right equipment, but it's all, always, about what the light wants to say."
"What the light wants to say…" Henry's voice held a smile.
Tallie smiled but continued, eager to say it aloud. "When I first started taking pictures, it was a huge surprise to me. It's like a camera gives light a voice to talk, and we suddenly have to listen. Once it's caught on film – or, you know, pixels, though they're more easily manipulated – it tells you whether the picture was possible. It tells you whether you're looking at the right things."
Tallie smiled and shrugged. "I know. It sounds far out."
"No," Henry said, touching her arm. "I love it."
Before she thought about it, she lifted her camera and took his picture. He let her, holding his open smile. She set it back in her lap and felt heat rise to her cheeks. "I… you were... The light was right." She said, then laughed.
"I believe it," he said, his smile deepening. He leaned forward slightly.
Tallie stood up. She was embarrassed. She smiled at him, held out her hand to help him up. "You probably have to get back to work," she said.
He laughed again and took her hand, pulling himself up. "Yeah. Well, I probably do." He let go her hand and brushed off the back of his pants. She immediately missed the warmth of his hand in hers, rubbed her own together, brushed off her own backside.
They turned back toward the hills and began making their way across the sand. "Thanks for coming out here, Tallie," he said.
She grabbed his hand lightly, quickly letting go. "I'm so glad I came, Henry."