The clincher wasn't the thought that I hadn't been down to see my folks in nearly two years, it was the realization that I'd last seen them on a short leg of my last vacation. I hadn't had a vacation in almost two years? Whoa, something was seriously wrong. The career that ate my brain.
But for a brain-eating career, it wasn't a bad one. It wasn't a malicious career, a malignant career. I spoon-fed it every bit of my brain that it ate. I considered it a redemption of sorts.
There's the adage that children are like pancakes: the first one should be thrown away. As the oldest child in my family, I was working hard at being the exception. I'd taken my B.A. in English to New York, certain that its emphasis on creative writing would easily propel me to Park Avenue.
I'd sold a travel piece to the in-flight magazine of an airline that went bankrupt before I could cash the check. A short story was accepted by literary journal too insolvent to pay even in contributor's copies. Then I happened to bump into this guy with a dream and some money, and we co-founded "Architecture Now".
Not that I'd ever considered buildings as other than buildings; some were ugly, some were not. But for an okay paycheck I learned to make distinctions.
The magazine was true to form. None of the usual fawning shit. We had no use for the staid and moneyed. Not the Southern Mavericks whose visions of Southern Living were produced by too much consumption of Southern Comfort. No interest in the jacuzzi-in-every-room mentality of Hollywood Heels. In fact, we had a monthly feature that made fun of that sort of shit.
Our biggest problems were trying to exist on such a slim advertising base, and fighting off the interests of people wanting to buy us up just to shut us down. And, of course, trying to hunt up an issue's worth of worthy constructions each month.
"The Bank of the Best just put up a new branch down here and it's real pretty so I thought I'd tell you just in case you might want to do a story about it."
That was one of my major problems--gently shrugging off Mom's best intentions.
"I'll definitely check it out when I'm down there."
Mom was on the phone to me, settling up plans for the grand reunion of the immediate family. "Hannah's going to be flying down from Chicago early Monday afternoon. Then, as I understand it, she and Leah are going to go camping up in the state park for a few days. But they'll be back by Hannah's birthday."
Gee, I thought, my birthday never engendered family reunions.
"So Leah's still living in town then?"
"Oh yea. She has a cute little apartment across town. Did I tell you she got on out at the state park? Though who knows how long that'll last--she's doing pretty well with all that freelance guiding and rafting and stuff she does."
So Leah too was finally making her move towards solvency and stability, and a sort of respectability. It was as if while Mom and Dad stood around deciding whether or not to toss me in the trash, Leah lay there on the griddle smoking away. College lasted less than two years for her. She'd led snorkeling expeditions in the Caribbean, spent a few years as a ranchhand in Montana, was a ski instructor in Colorado. But I guess she'd burned out on the wide-beyond. It was terribly convenient that there happened to be nearly a million acres of hiking, camping and white-water rafting within easy reach of the old spawning ground.
The curious thing about Leah, though, was that as a girl she'd been such a full-bore bows-in- the-hair princess. Pale, frail and demanding. But at the cusp of puberty she discovered horses, and she'd been an outdoorswoman ever since.
By the time they got around to Hannah, our parents had pretty much figured out this parenting thing. Hannah, the charming, practical one. Well-adjusted. Hyper-intelligent. The go-getter. When she was five, she announced at dinner one evening that she was a scientist. She left the table in tears because none of us understood her. "You want to be a scientist? How nice!" NO! "You're going to grow up and become a scientist?" NO!
No, damnit! There was no longing involved. Quit using the future tense. She was a scientist. There was no surprise, then, that Hannah got a doctorate in some esoteric branch of science; that she wound up at a very well-paying position at some science institute in Chicago; and that she spent her days doing the sort of sciencey stuff that scientists like to do all day long.
I wasn't quite sure how Leah had managed to talk Hannah into going camping with her. But I didn't see a need to question it. It wasn't that I thought Hannah had an aversion to outdoorsy things, just that they didn't have much application to her life. The girl lived in her labcoat.
As well, I should have felt personally bruised at not being included. Actually, I did, but the feeling was so brief it barely registered. I got over it in about a minute's time, emerging from the hurt with a big grin on my face.
I'd gladly leave the wildlife to my sisters. That would give me more time to hang out with my parents. Plus I had a little wildlife of my own to attend to. There was the matter of Linda, an old old girlfriend of mine who, the last time I'd been in town, had been very happy to see me. She freelanced out of a converted garage, concentrating on her work while her kids were at school and her husband was downtown. I'd gone over and helped her have a couple of deliriously productive mornings. You can pound on my door anytime you're in town. Sounded like an open-ended invitation to me!
I should have turned around the minute I walked in the door, headed right back out to the airport. Sat out there for however many hours--or days!--until the next available flight back home. I should have done that, and I would have done exactly that, but unfortunately I had to stay inside at least long enough to use the phone--my taxi had collected his larcenous fare and sped off before I'd had time to hoist my bag from the side of the road.
There was a regular wake awaiting me in the livingroom. Mom, Dad, and Leah, playing the parts of both the mourners and the deceased.
"Hi, I'm here," I announced into the gloom.
A muscle in Mom's cheek gave a little twitch of recognition.
"Hey, great to see you guys, too. By the way, I'm Dan, your son and brother, in case you've forgotten."
Mom sighed, stirred, and stood up. She sort of ushered me into the kitchen, the de jure conference room in our household. "Hannah couldn't make it," she whispered fiercely, "she came down with some sort of violent stomach bug at the last minute."
I bet she did, I bit my tongue. "Well, glad to see that my presence has done so much to pep up the party," I hissed back. "By the way--why are we whispering?"
"Daniel! Leah's incredibly upset. She had her heart so set on going camping. It's all she's been talking about for the past month. Planned down to the most minute detail."
"So why doesn't she just go ahead and go?"
Mom tilted her head and gave me a queer look. "Leah can go camping by herself anytime she wants. It's basically in her job description. She wanted to share a part of her life with a member of her family."
"With Hannah, you mean. Right? Specifically with Hannah; let's keep that straight." I could smell where this was going. "Hannah couldn't make it, so let's forget about camping and have a good time right here."
"I'd go myself, but you know me--I can barely pack a picnic lunch."
Dad ambled into the kitchen on cue. "I haven't slept on the ground since I was stationed in Germany. But I think I've gotten over that. Too bad I threw out my back shoveling the drive last winter."
"You still have all your old Scouting equipment down in the basement." Leah stood in the doorway.
I turned to glare at her. "Oh, no," I started into my lie before I realized she'd said that as a statement, not a question. "I'm sure I gave all that away ages ago."
"I checked earlier; everything you'd need, it's still down there."
"No! I mean it. I don't want to go camping! Sorry. I'm a big boy, now. I get to decide. I'm a big city boy. The woods are a wonderful place where I never care to wander. I sleep in beds. I eat at tables. I get up in the mornings and take a shower. Period."
I slept in a bed. I got up late in the morning and took a long hot shower. I ate lunch at the kitchen table. Then I got in Leah's car, refusing to be the one to bring anything up from the basement.
"Please? It'll be so much fun, you'll see."
"What's a couple of days? Don't you want to make your sister happy?"
"Out in the wilds, surviving by your wits--help toughen you up, big city boy."
Voices out of a nightmare! And the only way to make them go away was to do exactly what they wanted me to do.
One thing I knew for sure was that if I made it out of the wilderness alive, Hannah was going to be getting one heated phone call. I was mad at her... for being smarter than me. Big city girl--no doubt her idea of roughing it was to spend an hour on a sunny Saturday afternoon hanging out in Lincoln Park.
I saw it all. Camping in the state park? Er, sure, Leah, that sounds great! A quick call to a travel agent would have given her the itinerary. Flight so-and-so arriving at such-and-such a time? Great! Let me firm things up and I'll call you back. Why hadn't I thought of a stomach bug that wouldn't have cost me a cancellation fee? Because I was the inadvertent patsy.
After an hour's drive we turned off the highway onto a freshly paved if narrow road that wound around forever through hills and vales before reaching a parking lot. The place looked like an RV dealership, except the millions of people running around screaming were mostly children, not salespersons. The ground around was stomped to bare dirt. There were trees, sure, but the only other thing that seemed to flourish were picnic tables. Parked about ten feet from every table was an oil drum garbage can, but with such an incredible distance between each, it was hardly any wonder the pathways connecting them were strewn with litter. As well, at a ratio of one to every three or four tables, the area was dotted with crusty black grills sunk into concrete. I could well imagine how the various tribes battled over the rights to them come mealtime.
I did spy a copse of pines standing off on the edge. Once we'd parked and stood there stretching on the asphalt, I pointed it out as I walked around to her side of the car. "That looks like a good place to set up."
Leah gave me a squirrelly look, then bent down to tie one of her shoes. I noticed two things. She was actually wearing big stomping hiking boots. And the laces she was retying hadn't really come undone at all.
Standing back up, Leah squinted at me, then gave a little pause. "Well, what I was thinking... I know this really great site a little way on up that trail over there... get away from all this."
I shrugged. "Sure." Lead the way. "Sounds great to me." After such a drop, my spirits were nearly soaring. "We can drive there, can't we?" I whined.
She shot me such a look I cracked, cackling until she returned a wan little smile.
We loaded our backs with our gear, locked the car, and walked off in the direction she indicated through a break in the surrounding forest. Once we were in the full shadow of the canopy Leah slowed until we were side by side. Then she gave a gentle jut of her elbow in my ribs.
"You had me going, you know. At first I thought you were serious about the car thing."
I laughed a little. "God, Leah, I don't even own a car. I renew my license as a formality. Basically, every day I walk all around my little island. That's miles and miles, on concrete. What's a soft ten minute walk in the woods to me?"
And I was dressed for the job! A comfortable pair of sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt. What surprised me was how ill-clad Leah was: khaki shorts and a long-sleeved thermal top. I did very much admire the shirt--it was an off-white, nearly cream color, printed with tiny pale blue flowers. "Aren't you going to burn up in that top? Or else freeze?" I nodded at her bare legs.
She shrugged. "It's light cotton; it breathes. I can always push up the sleeves. I'm in shorts. If it gets cool further in, it's your torso that keeps you warm, not your lower limbs. But you, you're dressed to die. You're going to swelter in those jeans, and then shiver in that shirt. And I guarantee you your feet are going to make you wish you were dead. Not to second-guess my big brother or anything."
"Thanks for the confidence," I rolled my eyes. "Say, by the way, where did you get that top? It's beautiful; I want to own it."
Leah glanced down, then looked at me from under the cover of her hair. She held her hands out flat, palms up. "I don't know. Some store?"
"Really? I mean, what I've seen, they've moved beyond white to the tiny crayon box of bright colors. But that's all."
She plucked out a spot of the fabric for my perusal, the twin hillocks of her small breasts seemingly transformed into an enormous central mountain. "Tiny flowers," she snorted, "try the Women's Department."
"Oh. Okay." As if! Thermal underwear. I told myself I was not going to blush. Insistently, I forbade it.
Leah burst out laughing. "That's right, wander through the forest of panties and bras for an hour. When you hit the rack of crotchless teddies, take a left. Once you see the wall of socks, you're almost there!" She was nearly bent double. "God, you guys, I swear!"
Switching subjects as quickly as I could without it seeming obvious that I was, I began babbling about how nice it was to be surrounded by photosynthesis instead of assault and battery. Leah indulged me. In this way, ten minutes became half an hour. It turned into a lovely walk. We chattered on about Hannah, then our parents, touching base on some old memories.
>From there we drifted into a long bizarre conversation about what each of us was doing in our lives. It really was like two monologues pausing for one another. We traded stories of white-water rafting for those involving urban architecture. In a way, though, navigating a modern tube raft through a series of low water cataracts wasn't all that much different from trying to negotiate a modern building through a series of lowbrow zoning constrictions. Hit the rocks wrong and you're sunk.
I was surprised, and proud, that I'd retained some knowledge of nature over the years. Instead of pointing and exclaiming, "Boy, look at that big old tree over there," I was able to state more authoritatively, "Damn, that white oak must be at least three-hundred years old! What a wonder no one ever cut it down."
Leah was visibly impressed. "Three-fifty is the standard guess. It survived because it was considered sacrosanct. A landmark. What we're walking on was once part of a pioneer trail, a settlement route. That's called the Signal Oak. The path takes such a sharp bend here because it's the easiest way back down into the valley."
Which meant that we were climbing out of the valley. I started to lose steam and my enthusiasm was definitely on the wane. The advantage of Leah's boots over my sneakers began to crystallize, but really, I'd had no intention or intimation of going on a rigorous hike. My feet were getting sore. We'd been going for well over an hour. My steps dwindled to about one for every two of Leah's, and soon she was a good thirty feet ahead of me. The conversational lag wasn't going to be improved by that.
Finally I just stopped. "Leah!" I shouted. "Leah!" I shouted again, then a third time before she halted and turned. I approached her, slowly, and without another word.
As I reached her, she asked, "Yes? What is it?"
I swiped the back of a hand across my eyes. "I thought you said this great place was right up the trail."
"It is," she answered brightly.
I mulled a moment. "Right up the trail doesn't qualify as an hour-and- a-half forced march in my book."
"Oh, come on. What are you, a wuss?"
"Well," I dwelled, "I agreed to sleep on the hard ground in a tent for a few nights. Nothing was said about retracing, backwards, the footsteps of westward expansion. So frankly, if we won't get where you want to be going in five or ten minutes, let me know. Because if that's the case, I'm turning around."
"Suit yourself," she shrugged. "It will be a longer walk back to the car."
What was I supposed to do? Spend several days living in a car surrounded by savages?
Though she remained a good ten feet ahead of me, Leah did make the effort to slow her pace and keep the gap no greater than that. But ultimately that proved to be a profound distraction. For awhile I daydreamed about getting back and calling Linda. And after having called Linda... but every time I started getting to the good parts, I'd trip on a fucking root or something. I really needed to keep my mind on the trail; it kept getting rougher the further we went. But Leah was right in the way of the far end of my necessary range of vision. There was that thermal top I was going to have to find a way to steal. But worse than that was the full evidence of how well the outdoor life and all its exercise suited Leah. At least the manifestation visible to me. I didn't want to be even thinking this. But there it was, because there it was. There was no denying the truth. Her ass looked splendid in those khaki shorts. The firm buns shifting up and down with every stride. While it was strictly her business what style of panties she felt comfortable wearing, there was no secret to her choice. I was stumbling on stones every other step. Finally I had to hustle to catch up to her to keep from killing myself.
"Second wind?" she quipped.
"Good. We break through that stand of pines up ahead. About a hundred yards in there's this beautiful glade; the ground drops on one side and the view is tremendous. But we need to set up camp pretty quickly."
"What's the rush? It won't be dark for a few hours."
"Different kind of dark." Leah glanced around. "I have no clue where this came from, but it's going to be pouring within the hour."
"No way," I looked up. "There's not a cloud in the sky."
"Oh, there will be. You'll see. See?" Leah held her hand in front of me, level with the ground. Then she bent her fingers down. She traced the declivity with the forefinger of her other hand. "The ground drops down like I said?" The other hand curled, and swept back up over the sloped fingers. "The front moves in like this. We're in for a treat. This will be spectacular to watch. And don't worry," she shook her head, "I don't think this is an electrical storm."
Leah unrolled her tent, gave it a crisp shake like a bedsheet, and the whole thing just sort of popped into place. She'd accomplished all that while I was still searching among the folds of canvas for all the railroad spikes. Then I went looking for a big rock to use in place of the sledgehammer I'd neglected to bring. Had to hunt up some lengths of properly hooked green branches to do in stead of a few missing stakes. By then Leah had a huge piece of clear plastic tarp elaborately rigged up over the fronts of both tents. She had enough spare nylon rope to replace all the rotten cotton hanks I had. Finally Leah showed me how all the pieces of aluminum tubing really did fit together.
I delicately finished up with this tent-raising business while Leah squatted down to attend to a small campfire, watching me all the while, the smirk never quite leaving her face.
"Finis!" I announced with a flourish.
Leah stood up. The motion must have released some pressure on her diaphragm; her laughter rolled out in waves lapping clear to the tree tops.
"Daniel! That looks like a cartoon!"
That was just the head-on view. Stepping to the side, it was the most sway-backed piece of shit ever. Leah wasn't about to let that go by. "If it was a horse, we'd have to shoot it!"
I didn't say a word, even though I was getting a bit grumbly. Be it ever so humble, and all that.
"Please," she keened through the sheen of tears in her eyes, "when we're ready to leave, can we just burn it to the ground?"
That was enough. "Fucking fine with me. I'll never dare use it again. You can torch it right now if you'll give me the keys to the car."
"I'm sorry, Dan, it's just... it's just... it's just that it's the saddest little tent I've ever seen." She turned away and buried her face in her hands. As if that would disguise her hoots of derision.
Disgust drove me into the tent. I pushed my pack in ahead of me, and then sat inside with all my stuff. It wasn't such a bad little tent, I sniffed. At least the reek of mildew wasn't too strong. I gave another sniff. It wasn't at all unbearable if one didn't spend more than a few minutes inside. God, what was I going to do? Spend a couple days pouting in my tent? Filling my lungs with spores?
"Hey!" I could see the fine long lines of Leah's bare legs standing in front of the opening to my tent. "Knock knock. How about some dinner before this storm brews?"
That brightened me up. "Sounds good--I'll be right out." I thought fondly of a pan of bacon sizzling over an open fire. I hadn't eaten a strip of bacon in years. It was one of the things I was saving for my old age. Goddamn, breakfast on my 65th birthday--two pounds of bacon, a quart of bourbon; skip the cake and substitute 65 cigarettes for the candles.
Well I remembered the beauty of campfire bacon from my boyhood. How diligence had no bearing--no matter what you did, how carefully you tended to it, you always wound up a panful of shredded fatty meat that was simultaneously charred and raw. My mouth was watering. Sure hoped Leah had remembered the bacon. I seemed to recall that fish, maybe chicken, was about the only thing that kept her from being a complete herbivore these days, but hell, the smell of bacon frying away in the odor zone of wood smoke... even a total vegan couldn't resist that!
Goddamn but I was hungry! Lunch was so far in the past, and all that stumbling that passed for hiking had fired my appetite.
I crawled out of my tent. There was the campfire, merrily crackling away. As well it should, given that nothing was obstructing the flames. I stood up, glancing around; no utensils in sight. This did not look good. Leah sat over on a log, by a large pile of firewood secured under plastic, chewing on something. I walked over her way.
"So what are we cooking for dinner?" I casually asked as I squatted down.
She gave me a very blank look. "Nothing," her reply came muffled by mastication. "I just like a fire. Maybe boil up some water for a cup of herbal tea in a bit if you'd like some."
"Then... " I ventured, "what's for dinner?"
Leah passed me a plastic bag of rocks. Wood chips. Small dried dark things that looked like rodent turds. I took the bag and carefully set it down. I didn't want to accidentally spill any of it on my shoes.
"Hmm, interesting collection. But back to my question... what's for dinner?"
"Trail mix, you goof." To emphasize her point she reached over for a handful and crammed it in her mouth.
I nearly gagged in sympathy. "I'm supposed to eat bits of shit you picked up along the trail and call it the main meal of the day?"
"Trail mix, idiot. Like snack mix, except it's good for you."
"Good for you, maybe. But I was raised to eat real food." I couldn't stand tree nuts, and the dried fruits were like chewing on sweetened erasers. The bulk of the bag looked to be petrified oatmeal. Or hardened cat puke. I began the miserable task of picking out the peanuts and raisins.
"Have a power bar, too, if you'd like."
I tore open the neon foil wrapper. Power bars, so named because they use power saws to cut the bars from vast sheets of particle board. Honey-formed sawdust.
I was not a happy camper; I guzzled about a quart of water to fool my stomach into thinking it was full.
The natural next stage would have been to lapse into self-pity. Fortunately Leah had been right about the storm. Not only was the front moving in, but the view of its arrival was spectacular. It was a fine distraction. The darkness of dusk creeping in from the eastern horizon was mirrored by the storm's advance from the west. Leah was again correct in her predictions; there was nothing flashy about it. No big booming bolts. Just the wonder of watching the bruised line at the horizon slowly build up into a hugely looming mass. And then, when it was within a mile or so, we could see the wall of water advancing upon us.
It took forever to reach us, which was probably a good thing. Everything Leah had touched was likely lashed down so well a tornado wouldn't have made much of a ripple. A brisk breeze, however, might've sent me and mine twirling to Oz. As description, a wall of water wasn't all that off. It came down like clouds falling. Within minutes the air was thick with the sickly scent of chlorophyll. Leah and I grinned at each other, our skin tones gone sort of green. The smoke from the fire drifted beyond the protection of the tarp, where it seemed to disappear, washed to the ground.
It was a grand fifteen minutes of fun. But then we were just sitting out under a piece of plastic in the pouring rain. A rain that didn't seem likely to relent in our lifetimes. In the dim gloom of an early night, wrapped in the chill brought on by the damp. Even building up the fire didn't do much good. It had that cheery cellophane glow of a fireplace display model. While it looked cozy and warm, it radiated all the heat of a 60-watt bulb.
Even if the fun had run out after fifteen minutes, the rainfall remained hypnotic. We sat out there for nearly another hour, barely talking, occasionally poking at the fire. Eventually Leah stood up and gave a great stretch. "Nice as this is," she yawned, "I think I'm going to bet on the morning being nicer."
"What is it? Nine? Barely ten?"
"Who knows? Who cares? It's night."
She had a point there. But I was afraid that my body would know and would care. I had a very strong nocturnal gene and rarely went to bed before midnight. Tossing and turning in a bed was bad enough. Even so, I didn't want to build up the fire and commit myself to another hour or so of this.
Leah crawled into her tent and turned on a portable lamp. It was a florescent one, which just about made up my mind for me. The quality of the light. Sitting alone surrounded by trees, I felt like I was in a bar at closing time. Last call, lights up, look how ugly everyone is. Definitely time to call it a night.
She was quickly back out with a cup and toothbrush, did that, then ducked back inside. This time she emerged fighting with some crinkly rolled up yellow thing. I watched the proceedings without comment. It turned into a large poncho, which she slipped over her head with a few choice words. Finally, curiosity unfurled my tongue. "Leah, what the hell are you doing?"
I knew the answer before I finished the question. "Leave something in the car?" I grinned.
"Hey, I thought those modern tents came equipped with a potty pouch."
"Boys!" she glowered at me. "You'll probably just stand at the edge of the tarp and whiz out into the rain. Just be sure to do it downriver from my tent!"
As if it was my fault I had a handy-dandy spigot!
"Geez, Leah. Look at you. Koran-approved. I don't care if you just squat down somewhere under the tarp. Downriver from my tent, of course. I promise: I'll close my eyes, I'll stopper my ears... I'll plug my nose... "
"Shut your mouth!" she snipped, stomping off in the rain.
Bit of a dichotomy there, I chortled. After all her outdoorsy years, I would have thought Leah could've just taken a leak sitting on the log beside me without my ever having noticed.
When she returned, she made a show of shaking out the poncho, splattering me, before she draped it over a branch and snapped it secure. She growled a goodnight and crawled off into her cave.
I decided to take advantage of the illumination from her tent, reaching into mine to fetch my toothbrush. Then, indeed, I did take a long hearty piss out into the rain.
As I shook off the final drops, my cock gave a lurch and started to surge. Hey, that feels great; do it again! Images of Linda were flooding my brain. Cut it out! While a penis was undeniably useful for taking a piss in the woods, I didn't think Leah--or any of the non- penile half of the population--quite understood what a bother it could be to have such equipment parked between your legs. Rowdy feller wakes up every morning and thinks it's Christmas Day.
I was not going to crawl in my tent and milk the weed. Stop thinking of Linda! stop thinking of Linda! stop thinking of Linda!
I whipped my head around at a rustling noise. It was just Leah in her tent. It was just the silhouette of Leah against her tent. Shadow Leah pulling down her shadow shorts.
Hey, looky there! It's one of my presents being unwrapped right now!
I don't think so! I snarled, shoving myself rudely back in my pants. Can't I take you anywhere?!! Good god! Start thinking of Linda! start thinking of Linda! start thinking of Linda!
Fortunately the light clicked off, leaving me in the dark to crawl into my tent. To pretend that sleep was anywhere within hours around.
I woke up in the middle of the night. The rain had let up to some extent; while no longer the monsoon, it was still coming down at a steady musical clip. The sound of the rain had aggravated my need to pee, and--I was instantly wide awake with mortification--my god! the whole of my sleeping bag was sopping wet! My first thought was that I would never be able to live this down. Gradually though, reason came tapping on my shoulder. The human bladder wasn't capacious enough to do this amount of damage.
I turned miserably on my side to the cold dark comfort of the corner, but instantly rolled back to the middle of the tent possessed by the vague horror of a vestigial memory. Ahh, that was it, I remembered more fully. Never touch the tent! It was an old scouting trick, one the more resourceful of us boys would exploit to extract revenge. Simple dew would do, but actual precipitation was even better. You'd go to your enemies' tents late at night and quietly rub the flat of your hand all across the fabric. It was amazing magic. The touch turned the canvas to cheesecloth!
As well the memory welled up of a pack of tame boys turning into wild dogs when it came time to pick out tents. The older the cloth, the more it tended to seep all on its own.
Fuck! I was fucked. Totally fucked.
I reached around. Everything I touched was wet. Rolling over, my sleeping bag made squishy sounds. I found my pack, where I'd cleverly wedged it in the corner. Soggy at the top. I gave up, settled back down, and closed my eyes. Then started shivering so severely my eyeballs rattled around like marbles.
So much for sleep. I was miserably wide awake. Think, think, I told myself. My brain groaned, you expect me to think? What was there to think, anyway? There wasn't but one thing to do. Crawl into Leah's tent and scare the shit out of her--aiiee, it's the Bog Man!
I stumbled out of the tent and walked stiffly over to the firepit. There was still a little glow under the ashes, so I rummaged in the wood supply, gathered an armload, and dropped the whole bunch on the coals. I took a stick and jabbed around until the flames flared up. Woo, magic! After rolling the log a little closer, I sat down for a long night of fun. There, that was better. Marginally.
Within five minutes I had to back the log away. I was beginning to feel like a strip of campfire bacon. The legs of my pants weren't just hot, they were boiling hot. My knees were steaming. While my whole backside remained just this side of ice. It wasn't really nearly that cold, but the damp had penetrated to my core; it was the Bone Chill Factor.
I had to figure out some other ways to help me warm up. If I'd had anything substantial to eat since noon, I might have had the energy for a rousing round of calisthenics. As it was, I could barely keep myself seated upright. Visualize something, fool!
I thought dreamily about the steam radiators in my apartment. Mmm, hot to the touch. The gurgling and whistles the call to the cat to come bask at the feet of her personal god. I drifted with the image, but soon found myself banging on the stone cold metal with a wrench, cussing out the super, the landlord, and every employee of the city's Housing Authority. Who the fuck scripted the law saying they could turn off the boiler at eleven--I'll kill the bastards!
The sun, then, I thought. The luscious glow of the sun. Definitely not this coming morning, perhaps not the following morning, but ahh, the morning after that. My own personal sun, rising before my face. The cottony cloud cover stripped away. The white glare of that sun right in my face. I imagined kneeling behind Linda, slowly, so-o-o slowly pulling her pants down.
I was confused in my reverie by a very real rustling of fabric.
There came an explosion of coughing behind me, and I whirled around to see a very sleepy looking Leah clambering out of her tent. The tent glowed like a window in an office tower, lit from within by the fluorescent lantern. Leah looked dressed by committee--the thermal top I'd been admiring all day, a pair of specialty-shop panties, and bare feet slipped inside her unlaced boots.
"Jesus, Daniel, what are you doing? If you wanted to asphyxiate me, why didn't you just come hold a pillow over my face?"
"I'm hungry," I retorted. "I'm trying to turn myself into a country ham."
"God, come on, bank that, willya?"
"Bank that, she says. Bank what? What bank?"
Leah tried to give a sigh of exasperation, but she exaggerated it too deeply; she erupted with another fit of coughing. That didn't deter her from her business. She kicked a log around one side of the fire, then stomped down some of the burning stuff. Reaching up she pulled on a dangling rope I hadn't even seen; suddenly one edge of the tarp lifted and all the smoke went billowing out into the black of the drizzly night.
She stood there, facing out into the dark, as though bearing witness to her miracle. Standing there basking in the glow of the fire, Leah looked a bit like a miracle herself. The skin of her long strong legs were made of flickering gold. Her backside looked even better out of pants. That was not something I needed to be seeing, especially not while my brain was still freeze-framed on the hindsight of one Mrs. Linda Luscious née Sweetbottom.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" she turned around.
Quickly I averted my eyes. "Staring at the fire." Was staring at your ass; now not staring at your crotch.
"The primal reason, Leah, for sitting in front of a fire: to get warm. I'm freezing."
"What are you talking about? It's not that cold. See, look at me, standing here half naked and not a goose bump in sight."
See, look at her, standing there half naked... "Well, Leah, that's the difference between you and me, day and night, dry and drenched." To illustrate I wrung out a shirt cuff. The fire sizzled.
"Daniel! How did that happen?"
"I wet my bed, wahhh. Or my bed wet me. Or something wet me and my bed and everything else. It's a sad, sad story. See that tent? It's a clown--there may be a smile on its face, but inside it's weeping."
She gave a snort of disdain, "Well, I could have told you... "
"Yea, you could have told me," I snapped, "but you didn't, and what would it have mattered, this fucking rain, like I would have even come if I'd known the forecast, like I wanted to come in the first place, fucking camping, like I'm going to go out and spend hundreds of dollars to equip myself for the first and last camping trip of my adult life, I mean, geez," I sneezed, shivered, and suddenly my teeth were chattering too much to say any more.
"Oh my goodness," Leah squatted down, peering at me closely. "Your lips are going blue. Listen Dan, you better come sleep in my tent, but, you know, not in these clothes. They're too wet."
"Leah," I held my jaw steady, "I am wearing the driest clothes I have."
She cocked her head slightly, and I could nearly see in through her eyes how her brain was clicking away. "Okay. Get in the tent while I rig up a drying rack. You'll find a pair of blue gym trunks in my pack--should be a towel as well--then throw your wet stuff out here."
I did as she bid, but it took a bit. Her pack seemed to be stuffed full of panties. Racy pairs that made the ones she was wearing seem downright dowdy. I mean, in the underwear department I had a pair of spares in my pack, but she was equipped to change on the hour and half- hour. That or outfit an entire army of wood nymphs. No wonder our food supply was relegated to a sack of fabricated gravel.
As well I had to paw through all the paraphernalia of the well-prepared camper: first-aid supplies, nail-grooming kit, Swiss Army knife, birth control pills... finally I found the shorts, then stripped, wrapping myself in the towel before I started tossing my clothes out of the tent.
When I poked my head out to announce I was decent I immediately wished that I hadn't. Without leaving the protection of the tarp, Leah had somehow found nearly a tree's worth of branches and limbs, and all my clothes hung around the lowering fire. The image was of myself, in all my constituent parts. The sight was like viewing my remains from on high, seen through my spiritual eyes as I floated up to meet my maker, after the chainsaw murderer had dismembered me and eaten my head.
"Done!" I called, darting back inside.
I was content to be dry, but Leah insisted I slither down in the sleeping bag with her. "You need body heat to warm you up. I will not have your death by hypothermia on my hands."
She stretched across me and clicked off the light, then snuggled back up against my front. I would have worried about the closeness, but I was so bone tired I was but a minute or two from deep sleep.