Thea Thomas edged quietly through the undergrowth. She crouched low, camera clasped in both hands, moving with as much stealth as she could muster. The ground underfoot squelched and she could feel cold water seeping into her boots. She barely noticed. She was so close to her goal. Just a little further...
In the clearing ahead her target lifted its head, ears flicking. Thea froze.
Don’t see me. Don’t see me, she thought.
She’d trekked for hours for this opportunity. She couldn’t lose it now. After a few tense moments in which Thea was sure she could hear her heart hammering in her chest, her target dipped its head and carried on drinking from the pool in the clearing’s center.
Thea crept forward, resisting the urge to hurry. Carefully she edged into the clearing, keeping low so the high grasses hid her, and went into a crouch, bringing her camera up to her eye.
“Easy, boy,” she muttered to herself. “Just stay right there.”
Her target sprang into focus on the viewfinder. It was the perfect shot. The moose lifted his head and looked right at her, his large, liquid eyes, fixing on her with mild curiosity. His magnificent antlers, grown to all their glory now the rut was so close, spread at least four feet to either side.
Thea pressed the button on her camera, sending it into automatic mode, the little motor whirring as she snapped shot after shot. Finally! She’d got what she came for! Her editor would be ecstatic and, if Thea was really lucky, this would kick start her new career and her new life.
She took a step forward and a branch snapped beneath her foot, sounding as loud as a gunshot in the still mountain air. The moose bounded away, disappearing into the trees in a heartbeat.
“Damn it!” Thea growled, cursing her clumsiness. What kind of wildlife photographer was she?
She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. Her stomach growled and she realized she’d not eaten all day. She was tired, hungry and really wanted to get these pictures to her editor. Yes, definitely time to get going.
Shouldering her pack, she turned on her heel and strode away through the woods. It was a long trek back to the motel. Her GPS device ensured she didn’t get lost and as she walked, she kept her camera ready in case she spotted anything interesting. She didn’t. It seemed the local wildlife had all cottoned on to the fact that she was prowling.
A couple of hours later she finally reached her motel, footsore and ready for a long soak and a big glass of wine. Thea hurried up to her room and was grateful to be able to kick off her boots, drop her backpack, and sink onto the soft bed. With a sigh, she lay back and closed her eyes, allowing herself to revel in the luxury of doing nothing for a moment.
Then, with a sigh, she sat up. She might just be able to catch her editor if she hurried. Crossing over to the desk, she got out her laptop, connected her camera and eagerly took a seat, hunched over as she scanned through the images she’d captured today.
As always, many of the pictures were no good. Some were blurred; others were overexposed or too dark. But then one flicked onto the screen that sent excitement racing through her. It was a picture of the moose with his head raised, looking directly at the camera, diamond droplets of water falling from his mouth. The setting sun had turned the background gold and orange and was reflected in the animal’s eyes like tiny flames.
“Ha! Got you!”
She quickly logged into video calling and dialed her editor’s number. It took a few seconds to connect before Amy, the picture editor of World Wanderer magazine, answered.
“Hi, Thea,” Amy said. “You better make it quick. I’m just about to go into a meeting.”
“Sure. I got it!” Thea said breathlessly. “The picture you wanted for the cover?” She quickly emailed it over.
Amy glanced to the bottom of her screen and nodded. “Sure. That’s a great shot.” She looked up at Thea. “But I’m afraid we’ve already commissioned the picture for the next edition’s cover. Adrian, one of our regular freelancers, sent us a still of two eagles fighting in mid-air. It’s amazing.”
Thea stared at Amy, her mouth working like a landed fish. “But...but...we agreed!”
“No, honey,” Amy said patiently. “That’s not how it works. I said we’d consider it if you got the shot we needed. You’re a freelancer, remember? There are no guarantees. Our first responsibility is to our readership and what we think they’ll like best. And that’s Adrian’s picture.”
Thea’s stomach fell. “But...but...” she said, her voice small. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Amy smiled sympathetically. “It’s still a great shot. Look, I’ll send it off to a few editors I know. Maybe one of them will take it.”
Thea nodded, forcing a smile onto her face. “Sure. Great. Good night.”
She ended the call and spent a moment staring at the blank screen.
Get over it, she told herself. It’s only a stupid picture.
But it was much more than that. After a difficult year it was her chance to start over, to follow her dreams. Having her work taken by a prestigious publication like World Wanderer would lead to other gigs, perhaps even a staff job. As she’d nursed her grandmother through the last stages of her illness and then after, when she’d lost the house to the creditors, it was this thought that she’d clung to. One day she would be a wildlife photographer.
She’d never wanted to do anything else. Brought up by her grandparents after her mother left, it was her grandfather who’d instilled a love of photography in her. That’s why, instead of doing something ‘useful’ at college as her grandmother wanted, she’d studied photography instead.
I should have done dentistry like Gran wanted, Thea thought. Then I might actually have a future. She sighed. Right. Tomorrow I’ll go home and start looking for waitressing jobs.
But that was for tomorrow. She had one night left in the motel before her money ran out and right now she had the overwhelming urge to drown her sorrows. Without bothering to change, Thea grabbed her purse, put her boots back on, and made her way down to the bar.
It was busy, with most of the tables occupied, so she perched herself on a stool by the bar and ordered a large glass of red wine. She drank it quickly and ordered another.
“My, that is someone wanting to drown their sorrows if ever I’ve seen it,” said a voice.
Thea looked up from her contemplation of her glass to find an old woman perched on the stool next to her. She hadn’t noticed her arrival. The woman was easily old enough to be Thea’s grandmother, or even great-grandmother, by the deep wrinkles that framed her face and the iron-gray bun pinned to the back of her head. She was so short that her legs dangled from the tall stool and she wore a large coat held shut with a deer-shaped brooch that made her look wholly out of place in the ultra-modern bar.
Thea smiled at her and lifted her glass. “Nothing better for it than red wine.”
The old woman shook her head. “Nah, lass. Ye want whisky. A good single malt will sort ye out a treat.”
The woman had a broad Scottish accent and a twinkle to her eye that made Thea smile despite herself.
“I think I’ll stick to the wine. Whisky gives me a headache.”
The woman smiled, her dark eyes twinkling. “Most wise.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Irene by the way. Irene MacAskill.”
Thea took it and was surprised to find that, despite her advancing age and diminutive size, Irene had a grip like iron. “Thea. Thea Thomas. Pleased to meet you.”
“Not half as pleased as I am to meet ye, my dear. Aye, now that I look at ye, I’m certain ye are the one. Ye will do just fine.”
“I’m sorry?” Thea asked, puzzled.
Irene cocked her head, regarding her with an intense gaze. “What are ye doing up here, lass? What are ye looking for? And I dinna mean what ye are trying to find at the bottom of that glass.”
Thea smiled wryly. “A shot. The shot. One that will make my career. That was the plan but you know what they say about the best laid plans.”
“Ah, and here’s me thinking ye were searching for something else entirely.” Irene’s dark gaze caught and held Thea’s and she found herself unable to look away.
“What else would I be searching for?” Thea asked with a nervous laugh.
“Somewhere to belong?” Irene replied. “Yer place in the world?”
Thea opened her mouth and closed it again. “I...I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The smile Irene bestowed on her was kindly. “Aye, but ye will. A choice is coming, lass. There will soon be a fork in yer road, a choice of which path yer life will take. Which will ye choose? Yer current path: adrift and alone, searching for something ye can never find? Or will ye choose a new path: fraught with danger but one that may ultimately lead ye to where ye are supposed to be?”
A shiver walked down Thea’s spine at the old woman’s words. She felt suddenly cold. “Why are you saying these things to me?” she demanded. “Who are you?”
“Somebody who wishes ye well,” Irene replied. “And to see events take their proper course.” She hopped down from her stool and patted Thea on the arm. “Keep yer eyes open, lass. Ye never know when opportunity will come knocking.”
Then without another word, she strode away, disappearing through the door and out into the night. Thea stared after her, feeling oddly unsettled. What the hell was that all about?
She turned back to her wine glass but found her heart wasn’t in it anymore. Pushing the glass across the bar she climbed down from her seat and made her way back up to her room. She’d have a shower then go to bed. The sooner this day was over, the better.
But when she arrived at her room, she saw that Amy was trying to call her on her laptop. She sprinted across the room and quickly accepted the call.
“There you are!” Amy said. “I’ve got some great news. I’ve shown your photo to our European office, and the editor loves it!”
“She does?” Thea said a little breathlessly. “So they want to buy it?”
“Better than that! She’s just had one of her photographers quit and needs an urgent replacement. She wants you to fly over to Scotland for an assignment! They’ll pay your air fare and everything!”
Thea stared at the screen, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. It sounded like she was being offered a job! But that couldn’t be right, could it? Things like that just didn’t happen to her.
“Um...I beg your pardon? Could you just say that last bit again?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “I told you it was a good picture, didn’t I? Look, I’m emailing over the details now. She says you’ve got until 9am tomorrow to accept or they’ll need to find somebody else. Okay?”
“I...um...yes. Thanks,” Thea stammered.
Amy ended the call and Thea sat staring at the screen for a long time. Irene MacAskill’s words came back to her. Ye never know when opportunity will come knocking. There will soon be a fork in yer road, a choice of which path yer life will take.
Had the strange old woman had a hand in this? If she had Thea would give her a bear-hug and plant a big sloppy kiss on her cheek if she ever saw her again! Elation washed through her. All the months of anguish—losing her grandparents one by one, then being thrown out of the house she’d grown up in were suddenly bathed in the warm glow of something she’d not felt in a long time. Hope.
She was going to Scotland!