It was the snuffling in my ear that stirred me. Several light sniffs, followed by one loud snort, and then the offending cold nose made its way to my neck and started the whole process over again. I made my displeasure known with a moody groan.
"Pratt, no," I murmured.
The nose retreated, followed by a high whine.
"Too early," I reasoned.
Another pitiful whine. Then a sharp bark.
My eyes popped open. Then immediately shut from the brightness. The ground was hard, course and freezing, all rock. I lifted my cheek from it, brushing away the tiny pebbles embedded into the side of my face. Hearing a frantic rhythm of clicking, I coaxed my eyes to squint open on four golden paws dancing on a white painted line.
Christ, I'm on the road.
A second bark startled me and I blinked up into the overcast sky. The golden retriever wriggling in front of me gave an excited turn and licked my face. I flinched, disgusted. "Hey," I admonished.
But the dog was already distracted by something down the road, ears pricking at a distant whistle, and I was suddenly aware of a terrible pain flaring in my foot. As the dog ran off, I propped myself on my elbow and looked down at myself. I was dressed in my wrinkled clothes and my sneakers were on, but they weren't tied. Carefully, I kicked off the right shoe and tugged off my sock. My big toe had swollen to twice its size and was red and it hurt like a—
"Mother-fucker!" I screamed.
Flying upright, I rooted around for my foot under the fur blankets. I couldn't see a thing in the dark, but the intense pinch in my toe felt like someone had rammed a needle under my toe nail.
There was slow stirring on either side of me but I was too agitated to feel guilty for waking them.
"Layla? You okay?"
"No," I snapped, touching my toe carefully. The pain spread like my foot was on fire, but my toe felt generally unmolested and in one piece. "I think something bit me."
"Bit you?" Riley squeaked. "You told me there was nothing in the cave that could bite."
I felt her warm, bare body pressing against my left side as she guardedly drew in her limbs. On my right, Pratt flicked back the heavy bedding and took my foot in his large hand.
"You were hysterical. I would have said anything to calm you down."
"Gee thanks," she muttered and I could feel her getting up on her knees. "Hey. Hey you. We need a fire. You know, fire? For light?"
Riley had found her voice around Pratt; unfortunately "Hey You" was the only thing she cared to call him.
"A please would be nice," I told her.
"Why? It's not like he understands me anyway."
"He understands your tone," I said and then hissed as Pratt's tongue came out to gently lick the affected toe.
Riley found my hand. "Here. Squeeze as hard as it hurts."
"Actually, it's not that bad anymore." I pumped her hand anyway. "It's like I stubbed it, it'll fade."
"I wish I could see it."
"Pratt can see it."
"Oh, so when did Pratt become premed?"
I grinned at her in the dark. "You're cute when you worry."
"So what do you do? Suck out the poison?"
Riley looked up at me, smiling wryly. "I'm not certified in poison sucking."
The fire was high and hot. Riley and I straddled the smooth, gray log bench, my foot propped between us so she could examine it. Pratt was near the tunnel, scooping a cup of water. The pain was a low pulse in the tip of my toe, but Riley was very careful not to handle it directly.
Tucking her strawberry blonde hair behind both ears, Riley hunched forward for a better look, a serious crease between her grey blue eyes, but my gaze roamed downwards. She was beautiful: skin like a China doll, small, taut breasts, and the lean fold of flesh that appeared across her stomach when she was bent over. Further down, flaxen pubic hair tinged with blush. "Typically, spiders are blamed for all unknown bites, but without a sample anything could have bitten you. It's a little swollen and there's some bruising around it." She glanced up. "Are you listening?"
My eyes snapped up to her face. "Yes," I said through a grin.
Her eyes narrowed good-naturedly at me. "Are you allergic to anything?"
"I don't think so."
I felt Pratt settling down behind me and then a cup of water appeared in front of me. I started to reach for it, but Riley grabbed it instead.
"Thanks," she said, pouring a splash over my toes. "Now if we only had some antibacterial soap and some ibuprofen, I'd feel a lot better. Ecstatic even, if I had a bandage to keep it clean."
"It feels better than it did," I said and put both feet on the floor. "Must be your miraculous touch."
"But now I have to pee."
"Can't help you with that."
I turned to Pratt. His golden eyes were soft with worry. I pointed to the tunnel and pressed my thighs together tightly, anxiously, and the comprehension was near instant in his exquisitely intelligent face. He nodded and rose to his feet, reaching for Riley's hand.
"Why can't we just all go together?" Riley wondered out loud. "I know I wouldn't mind and it would save time."
I smirked. "I think his head would explode."
"You're probably right."
Pratt guided Riley up the rocks to a shadowy raised area where her chains hung empty. Despite his behemoth size, he was always gentle with us. I watched the easy way his large, hirsute feet mounted the rocks, the peculiar way his knees and hocks bent in unison as he climbed. The mink streamers of his loincloth shifted and swayed against his well-developed thighs and fine chestnut hair covered his body in humanly patterns. He used the key from the belt of his loincloth to lock Riley's wrists into her shackles. Riley was very casual as she let him do it, holding still, gripping the chains nonchalantly and the serene look on her face was almost angelic, even during the obligatory nipple twist with his long fingers and black talons.
At first, I was insanely jealous when he began touching her during our nightly ablutions, but I think I enjoyed watching him manipulate her body. And the way she'd boldly meet my gaze as he was doing it, her lips whispering a smile without an ounce of arrogance or haughtiness, was quite arousing. She had changed immensely in her short time in the cave, considering in the beginning Pratt could hardly approach without her screaming bloody murder. Even now, Riley managed to keep a certain emotional distance from him. She didn't love Pratt the way I did and I think on some level she preferred to stay out of our way. Pratt and I had a bond, and Riley wanted nothing to do with it.
With Riley secure, Pratt returned to me and I took his offered hand. He led me through the dark tunnel to another cavern with a dirt floor and a single flickering candle so that I could do my business. After, he led me back, but stopped me at the fork in the passageway, as he did every morning now after my evacuations, and stood against the wall with his arms staidly folded. The bones in his face were delicate, almost feminine, and despite his aloof posture, his eyes were intensely distressed as they flicked back and forth from me to the exit.
I knew the way out of the cave now. I even knew where he kept the key to the locked door at the end of it. Since the night I found my way out and chose to stay, every morning he let me choose again and I could see how it stressed him, the possibility I might decide to leave him forever. But knowing I could leave made me want to stay and I wedged a hand under his elbow to tug him back towards the firelight with me.
He bared his teeth, his signature smile, and followed me.
We had to walk through the fire pit area to get back to my bed of straw and furs where my chains suspended, but my eyes snagged on something in the shadow of the log bench. Pratt watched me curiously as I leaned over to pick it up and held it up to the light.
It was Amy's bird's foot ring. The delicate black claws were curled around an imaginary perch.
I looked up at Pratt and showed it to him and he looked mildly surprised to see it. For a moment we gazed at each other, sharing a private memory. Pratt had been as angry as I'd ever seen him when he tore the ring from Amy's hand and threw it blindly over his shoulder. The next day Amy was gone. I still didn't know what had happened but I had a few theories.
I handed over the ring so he could put it in his dark alcove of tchotchkes. Maybe someday he could make it into a necklace. But he held up both hands, shaking his head, and then pointed to me.
"Really?" I said dubiously.
He jabbed a black finger nail at me again, nodding certainly, his eyes bright.
So I tried it on. Amy's fingers had been thin as jackstraws and the ring only fit on my pinky, but it went well with my rabbit tooth bracelet in a morbidly disturbing way. I offered Pratt a polite smile and he amiably swatted my behind to get me moving back to the bed. It occurred to me we hadn't made love yet this morning and the nagging itch between my legs wanted attention.
I wasn't sure how I felt about wearing Amy's ring, but I wondered if Amy knew of the door at the cave's entrance. Did she know escape wasn't possible, even if she managed to slip out of Pratt's arm at night? All those times Pratt brought her back from her bathroom breaks...had he stopped to give her a choice, too? Maybe that was why she was gone; because she had finally decided to. But then I remembered Amy had been quite adamant about staying. She had locked herself in her own chains in order to remain.
Later, after Pratt brought Riley out for a quick break and gave us both a drink of water, Riley pointed at the ring while my hands were splayed across Pratt's lower ribs for balance.
"Pretty," she said, breathless and flushed.
"Thanks," I rasped, plunging down on Pratt's rigid organ without missing a beat.
"With all that jewelry, you'll be the envy of all the other cavewomen," she jested.
"All I need now is a pair of bone hairpins."
She bit her lip to stifle her smile, closing her eyes blissfully. She moved like a cork in the sea, her fingers digging into Pratt's pectorals. I could see the underside of Pratt's jaw, the sinews of his throat madly flexing as his tongue was buried in Riley's fair shrub of pubic curls. "Oh god I'm close," she groaned. "Kiss me."
Changes in the cave had evolved following Riley's menstruation cycle. Now Riley slept with us at night and naturally the early morning romps included her as well. Pratt was not so much of a stickler with the chains anymore and usually only put us in them when he went hunting or to keep our hands out of trouble. Pratt was gone longer in the evening to fetch food, but we spent the time well, cracking jokes or playing an X-rated version of 20 questions that usually had us crying with laughter.
Over the last several days Pratt had become rather logy. He had lost interest in all his other projects, or maybe they were all finished. If he wasn't out hunting, he was usually yawning and stretching by the fire. Sometimes he curled up in bed with us and took long naps. Other days he was content to just dreamily watch us as Riley and I entertained each other. It made me wonder if Pratt had hibernation instincts. He was, after all, still a creature of habit.
Our amusement came in a wide range of activities. I taught Riley some of the games Pratt favored when there was extra food, which wasn't often. And although I wasn't clear on Pratt's change of heart, talking was okay now—whispers when he was asleep. Riley liked to keep her fingers busy when she chatted and was always knuckle deep in my hair, twisting some new elaborate braid. Pratt recognized this the first time she did it and brought us several faded scraps of ribbon to preserve her braids. She began weaving the decorations in the braids as well, which I imagined looked pretty, but I could only feel the back of my lumpy head when she was done. It was the only time in the cave I wished for a mirror. I tried to return the favor, but I only knew how to do a basic braid and something that resembled a sloppy, uneven French braid. I improved marginally with practice. And when we were all talked out and our hair was perfectly braided and we'd already played a round or two of dirty 20 questions, we'd start a new activity. Quietly. So we didn't wake Pratt.
There had been few conversations of leaving the cave. Sometimes I would think back to my first night in the cave, how I once assumed Amy and I might use the chains as some way to communicate and orchestrate an escape. Now, Riley and I enjoyed hours and hours of freedom, much of it alone, and if escape came up, it was almost rhetorical. Like when Riley declared there must be two exits to the cave. She was kneeled up behind me, undoing yesterday's braid, collecting a pile of old, hoary ribbons beside her.
"I told you, there's only one," I said. "And it's locked up tight."
"But the tunnel is so drafty. There's got to be a second way to the outside where the air is circulating from."
The smoke was getting out somewhere; it was the only reason we weren't suffocating. I assumed there were narrow fissures in the ceilings acting as air vents, but was there another exit? One that wasn't locked? A second exit meant nothing to me—I knew where the key was—but was it giving Riley just enough hope to keep her going? And how often was she thinking on these matters of escape? I never told Riley Pratt was giving me a choice to stay. I was sure he wasn't extending this gratuity to her and certainly she would try to talk me into leaving. It was in these tortured moments of quiet deliberation I felt the most guilt.
The day after I found Amy's ring, after Riley and I had eaten all our huckleberries and our hair was weaved with ribbons, we reached that restless stage of our company earlier than expected. Still slaked from the morning, we had little else to do but snuggle under the covers and doze together. When I woke, it was with a start and it roused Riley at the same time. "You okay?" she crooned blearily.
"Yeah. Sorry. Go back to sleep."
The fire was low and glowing. I could just make out her face of empathy as her cheek rested on a mound of furs. "Bad dream?"
Hesitating, I pulled the blankets up to my chin. "It's just a dream I keep having of my dad." I wasn't going to say anything more, but Riley was nestling back into the furs, getting comfortable, waiting for me to finish. I internally sighed. "When I was 14, our dog Lady bit a little boy who lived down the road and my dad had to put her down. But in my dream, Lady bites me instead."
Riley slowly grinned, sexy and devious. "I thought you were going to tell me it was a sex dream. I swear I have about three a night."
Laughing, I said, "I've had my share. Once, I dreamed of being rescued by a group of well-hung men...and one woman." I could still remember the green-eyed man as the ring leader of my erotic capitulation.
Riley dropped her jaw, mocking shock. "The woman was well hung?"
I laughed again, but cut it short when Pratt moved beside me, sleepily exhaling.
"So how many days has it been for you now?" she asked. "In the cave."
"Thirty-eight," I sighed.
"Wow. If you were on Survivor, you'd be a finalist."
I grinned, but it only took a moment for it to go dry, that familiar guilt rising in me again. I was free to leave at any time; meanwhile, Riley's grades were dwindling with every absent mark she received. For the most part, I had gotten pretty good at pushing these thoughts out of my mind but sometimes I tried to bring it up, just to feel her perspective.
I rolled over to face her, tucking my arm under my cheek. "Do you ever think about getting off the island?"
Riley smirked, eyes bright, lively. "Not with that hidden immunity idol I know you have."
"I thought you couldn't use those after day 35?"
"Shouldn't matter, we're still in an alliance, aren't we?"
Admittedly, these conversations were often one big prevarication.
"I'm serious, Riley."
"Oh, Layla. Stop worrying. For me, the cave isn't so dark anymore. And with you here, I can handle just about anything. Now," she said, her cool hands groped around to cage my breasts in her small palms. "I want these."
I chuckled. "With your frame, you'll be hunched-back in a week."
Giggling softly, she slipped one hand down to clap the side of my hip. "I wouldn't mind these, either, as long as you're doling out body parts."
"You wouldn't want them. I have a strict return policy. Besides..." I softened my voice. "Your body's amazing."
"Ha. I have the body of a twelve year old boy. Doesn't exactly ooze sexuality."
"Who told you that?" I asked, gently affecting insult.
She looked at me strangely, considering a moment before answering. "No one has to tell me. It's everywhere. Television, movies, magazines. It's in the looks people give, the comments they make."
An image popped into my head of my dad behind the fortress of his Sunday paper, where he always felt more comfortable cracking jokes about thunder thighs and the weight capacity of brassieres. For a long time, that was my reality, the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.
"Not here," I said.
"Where? You mean the cave?" Her eyes disengaged from mine and floated around the dim cavern curiously, as if making sure. When her gaze was fixed to me again, she had the reluctant, slightly crooked smile of someone who had just been proven wrong. "Point taken."
I touched her hair, wrapping a thick strand of blushing blonde around my finger (Pratt's special tongue combings always left it gleaming) and leaned to kiss her. She kissed me back with specter lips, surreal, downy cherub feathers softly sweeping over my mouth, her tongue like a drop of rain. Everything was feeling with her. No stress, just snuggling, cuddling, fondling. Propping up on one elbow, Riley laid across me, our bellies sealing, and everything seemed to fade into the background. It wasn't until Pratt stretched out next to us that I became aware of anything else.
"We have company," I whispered.
She pushed away to kiss my breasts. "Ignore him."
Pratt moved in to nuzzle my face and I closed my eyes, intoxicated by his woodsy scent. He withdrew and my throat made a drowsy little growl as Riley began to fiercely suckle at my left nipple. A moment later, I felt the rush of cool air on my lower half as Pratt lifted the blankets and then the brush of his warm, hairy body settling in between my thighs. The juices inside me leaked onto my inner thighs in a torrent, elevating my desire, and as I lifted my knees to prepare for his penetration, Riley threw her head back, suddenly gasping.
Behind her, Pratt had his claws in her hips, dimpling the tender flesh there. I felt her naked body jostling on top of mine as he hopped up on his haunches to line his loins with hers.
She was interrupted, body jerking as he entered her, for the first time as far as I knew, and her face flinched once before her mouth dropped open and hung that way in a noiseless moan. Pratt was wildly thrusting. Riley submerged her face into my cleavage and groaned.
My brain wanted to sulk, but my body betrayed me, passion coursing through my veins. Riley's knee was jammed between my legs and it was slick now against my damp sex. I lifted my hips, discovering pleasure in the friction of her skin, rubbing to their rhythm, to the wet beat of spanking flesh.
Riley began to fight me, pressing upwards on my breasts. "Oh god, Layla," she husked. "Scoot back."
I felt the sting of rejection as she shoved me, but I lifted up on my elbows anyway and struggled out from underneath her. This was inevitable, to be pushed out, discarded. Neither of them needed me anymore and my eyes heated up with the tears of my own obsolescence.
Riley's arms locked around my thighs. "Far enough, sweetie. I want to kiss you again."
I moaned as her mouth pressed to my pubic lips, her little tongue darting out to stroke my special spot, which was already bloated, craving and thudding with heat. Beyond her, Pratt's blonde eyes fastened to mine, burning through the haze of desire, spearing me, tugging us closer. My cheeks were moist from tears but they meant something different now, something much more overwhelming, the romance of it swallowing me up. My simultaneous love for them was devastating and crushing and it knocked me over the edge of my climax. Howling my release, a cathartic deluge of emotion poured out of me and I was only distantly cognizant of Pratt and Riley as they bucked and grunted through their own pleasure.
Time with my new lovers was now short, but I was unaware...my journey was nearly complete.
I lifted my head off the bed. "What?"
We had no sooner finished and Riley was looking at me, insulted. Behind her, Pratt's face dipped out of view and I heard the vulgar slurp as he started to lick her post-coital juices. Riley was still on her knees as she shook him off.
"Not now, fuzzy," she said. She dropped her face to examine my toe, horrified.
It was red and tumid and I think there was milky leakage coming from the wound, but I jumped out of my skin the moment she touched it. "Layla, it's infected," she scolded.
It had been dully throbbing all last night and today, but nothing I couldn't sleep through as long as no one was picking at it.
"Hey. Hey you," Riley said. She scooted aside and pointed my foot out to Pratt. "She needs medical attention now. Do you understand?"
He gave my foot a fleeting look, and then flicked his eyes between Riley and me rather nonchalantly, comprehending nothing.
"Are you deaf? Her toe is infected. If we don't do something, she's going to get very sick."
Pratt gazed blankly at her.
"Dammit, Layla, he doesn't listen to me!" She folded her arms crossly. "He's just a big dumb dope!"
Pratt growled at her tone and I found myself missing the days when Pratt didn't allow talking. I didn't like the way she talked about him and it seemed unfair he couldn't understand her insults.
"Maybe we could boil water to clean it," I suggested.
"It's not enough. Without bandages to keep it clean, it will just keep festering."
I sighed. I didn't want to hear any of this. It was like that part of my brain had turned off and I was disinclined to give my foot any thought. "It'll go down on its own if I give it time."
Pratt wasn't hearing it, either. He gave a sudden yawn and crawled over to me, circled his arm around my waist and pulled me back into bed. Riley was scowling, but it made her appear childish and it was difficult to take her seriously.
I patted the space in front of me. The furs were still warm from our earlier slumber. "Come on. Let's talk about it after a nap."
Riley dropped it grudgingly, crawled into bed with me and when I woke some time later, she was still snoozing under a stack of pelts.
Pratt was kneeled at my side, holding a cup of water, gently provoking me by caressing my arm with the smooth side of one claw. Torpidly grinning, I sat up and took the refreshment. He leaned backwards to sit against the wall, holding an arm out as an invitation. Peering sideways at Riley, I carefully pushed aside my blankets and nestled in beside him. It seemed like such a long time since we had last been alone, bathroom breaks aside. Lately, all my energy had been directed at Riley and I felt a pang of remorse. Pratt didn't look neglected, but he seemed extraordinarily cheerful to have me near him.
Sipping my water, I leaned against the side of his ribs. I noticed there was something in his hand. I pointed at it and looked up at him, evincing a curious frown as a silent question. Smiling a sneer, he lifted his hand and let it drop down. I inhaled sharply and tucked my cup between my knees so I could handle it. It was a necklace. Unfinished, as there was no clasp yet to close it, but a delicate wire held together a string of ivory white...vertebrae.
I didn't know what animal they came from, rabbits if I had to guess. The larger, lumbar vertebrae were centered as the focus and smaller ones tapered upwards towards the neck.
"It's lovely," I said and smiled pointedly up at him. I gestured enquiringly at Riley. He nodded and I smiled again. I patted my heart to let him know she would love it when it was finished.
Shrugging humbly, he carefully folded the necklace and set it next to him. Swiftly, his hand came up to touch his breastbone and then pointed to me. When he met my eye to see my reaction, I hid my grin by bashfully nuzzling the side of his chest. The arm he had draped around my shoulders briefly embraced me and his hooks lightly raked my arm. Eventually, both our gazes settled on the tangled nest of strawberry blonde, sticking from of a pile of rabbit fur blankets.
I know he loved me, but did he love Riley, too? Or Amy? I wanted to ask, but I was afraid his response might be too complex for gestures. I think he did love them in a way and I don't think I wanted to hear it. Would he want to know I loved both him and Riley? Actually, I think he already did know it and I lifted my head with an unexpected thought. He looked down at me with a questioning tilt.
"You chose her for me, didn't you?" I whispered.
Pratt blinked at me.
I leaned back into him, pressing the side of my face into the hair of his chest. "You must be able to smell something in our chemistry. Our pheromones or something. Something that...matches. Or maybe even something that doesn't match. I haven't figured that out, yet. In either case, you knew we would be attracted to each other and that's why you picked her. You didn't choose her for yourself. You chose her for me."
I raised my head and he grinned at me without understanding, his golden eyes glittering with oblivious happiness. I think he just liked listening to the sound of my voice, especially when I got dreamy and long-winded like this. It was easy to speak out loud a stream of consciousness knowing my opinions couldn't be judged.
Thinking of something else, my eye sharpened on him. "Did you pick me for Amy, then?"
His jovial expression didn't change.
"Because I don't think Amy liked me very much. So...does that mean you picked me for you?"
Crouching down a bit, he licked the side of my temple twice.
I sighed. "I guess it's not a perfect science." I lifted the cup to my lips and finished off the water. Grimacing, I peered into the bottom. "This batch is a little bitter."
Pratt divested me of the cup and nudged me with his elbow to get my focus. His arms shot out in front of him, palms facing out, and he waited with a mockingly arrogant raise of his nose. It took me a moment to know what he was doing, but when I realized it I began to mimic him.
Before Riley arrived, I had showed Pratt a magic trick, but I never showed him how it was done. Since then I sometimes caught him reenacting the trick on his own, trying to figure it out. I imitated his movements until the moment of truth, the trick's pivotal point, and with practiced insouciance he reached over to adjust my arms, lowering them an inch.
I grinned warily at him. He was looking askance to me, smug, sneaky.
The secret to the trick was in the casual correction, the misdirection; when he grasped his hands together again it was in a much different way. Deliberately, he rotated his fastened hands so that the thumbs pointed up and separated his hands with a whimsical flutter of his fingers. The illusion was the equivalent of turning your head all the way around, only with your wrists.
I proudly bumped my shoulder into his side, nodding emphatically to acknowledge his triumph. "You figured it out."
Pulling me against him affectionately, he held me with both arms and an odd contentment settled over us like a warm quilt. I felt peculiarly complete, like something had concluded between us, as if we had finally learned all we could from each other.
I sat with him for a long time, until I felt sleep dragging on me. I let myself close my eyes and drift off for another nap that lasted most of the afternoon. When I awoke, Riley was in her chains and Pratt was serving her share of water.
Riley noticed me stretching. "How's your foot?"
It freaking killed. "Better," I said and forced a smile.
I awakened several more times throughout the day. Each time, Pratt's location in the cave was different, but it felt like no time had passed in between, like flipping through a stack of picture stills. Once, he was staring at the fire as he sat by it, another time I found him standing by the bed glowering at me in serious thought. I think one time he was tinkering around his dark alcove. Sometimes Riley was awake, sometimes she was asleep.
I finally woke again with Pratt behind me, his large hand cupped around my chest, his thumb absently running over one stiff nipple. I was still drugged with that ultra-groggy feeling of getting too much sleep, but it felt extremely good to stretch out, arching my backside against him with his hands on me. His nose skipped down my shoulder, inhaling me.
"You've been sleeping a lot today," Riley said from her chains, tone dropping into that objective voice of a future doctor. "Are you sure you're feeling okay? Do you have a fever?"
"I feel fine. A little groggy, I guess."
She nodded, but I could still see the worried strain in her face.
Pratt jumped up to get more water.
"I think he's starting to get it," Riley said, her eyes flicking over to him.
I propped up on my hand. "Who? Pratt?"
"He hasn't left your side in hours. He's worried about you. He just strokes your hair and watches you sleep."
"Didn't he go hunting?"
"Not yet." Her chains rattled as she adjusted, sitting up. "I think he's afraid to leave you."
Kneeling down, Pratt handed me a cup of water. I was feeling thirsty, but I made sure to leave half for Riley and handed it back. He urged me to keep drinking. The bitter aftertaste was still there, I noted, and it reminded me of something Riley told me in the menstruation room. She told me Pratt had given her something to make her sleepy. Was that why I was sleeping the day away? Perhaps Pratt thought sleep was some kind of cure-all. If I wasn't so weary, I'd be angrier with his all-natural roofie.
When I was done drinking, he got to his feet and reached down for my hand. Riley was right about Pratt: he did seem worried, the intense way he stared at me without blinking.
I favored my right foot as I got up. I found if I walked on the outside of my foot I didn't have to limp too much and Pratt helped me keep steady by holding my hand.
"Try to keep your toe elevated in there," Riley warned from her chains. "That giant litter box we use as a bathroom is a cesspool."
I smiled. "I'll try."
We entered the tunnel and Pratt spun around to face me at the fork. His eyes were on fire as he glared at me, imploring that I make my choice again, now. He seemed more torn than usual, glancing fretfully down at my inflamed foot. I think part of him wanted me to choose to leave. He was afraid for me and he knew he didn't have the resources to help me.
Shooting him an irritated look, I didn't hesitate as I headed down the right tunnel. My infection would clear up on its own. Pratt had the right idea; all I needed was a little extra rest.
I heard Pratt's quick exhale and I don't think it sounded like one of relief. He followed me into the next cavern and I started to head over to the bucket where I usually did my business, but my vision started to cloud and my balance faltered.
"Whoa," I said and reached out for Pratt. He caught me from behind to hold me stable. "I think you gave me too much sleepy-juice that time."
Taking another step in the right direction, I felt my body tipping again, my bleary eyes struggling to focus, my head woozy and full of helium, but I felt secure as Pratt wrapped his arms around me and guided me down to the floor. As I fought to straighten my bearings, Pratt cradled me on the inside of his arm, gazing down at me. His eyes sadly gleamed.
"Hey, I'm going to be okay," I said and tried to reach up to touch his face, but my limbs felt heavy, strapped down with concrete bricks...
...and that's when I realized his overdose had been intentional.
"Pratt," I croaked. "Pratt, no..."
Whining in response, his hand trembled as he ran his nails through my hair. There was a muscle in his jaw that flexed continuously and he took sporadic sips of air through his nose. Behind him, the room was spinning and I felt sick.
"Please, I'm not ready..." I choked. There was a hardness growing in my throat and my eyes distorted over with tears. "I have to say goodbye to her...to you. I can't...I can't let our last conversation be about cesspools!"
But he comprehended none of my words. I could feel everything slipping away quickly, tenebrous shadows looming in the edges of my vision. He turned his head away to wipe an errant tear. He looked back at me. I fought to memorize his face. But everything was fading so fast, it was like looking at him underwater, wavy and nebulous. The vague outline of his wild hair, the dark, bottomless pits of his eyes, the shadowing of his face hair...this was not how I wanted to remember him!
And he just kept rocking, rocking, rocking.
Until I floated away.
There were a few instances of consciousness that I can still remember. The scratchy inside of a sweater dragging over my face. Looking down at Pratt's bare feet, trudging through sun dappled, autumn leaves. Brushing bits of hard asphalt from the side of my face...
But when the last of Pratt's magic water left my system, the world, bright and white, filled in slowly around me, a gradual focus. Daylight hurt my eyes, but it was the cold wet nose that prodded me to open them. I found myself staring up two shiny black nostrils, snorting huffs of air on me.
"Ugh, you again," I said. My throat was so dry it hurt.
The nose withdrew and the golden retriever it was attached to lifted his ears at me and sat down. His tail thumped eagerly against carpeting.
At least I was off the road. I moved my squinty eyes, processing large sunny windows, maple carpentry, and the forest green upholstery underneath me, covered in blonde dog hair. Stifling under a faded patchwork quilt, I threw it off me like a disease and leaned up on my elbow. The wood slab coffee table in front of me was concealed in open newspapers, junk mail and two half-drunk cups of cold coffee and the sage accent rug was littered with crumpled white men's socks and shredded chew toys. The flat screen TV on the wall seemed too big for the room and I swear the monstrous black woodstove in the corner was radiating the flames of hell from its vents. Add that to the clothes I was suffocating in and already a light sheen of greasy sweat was developing under my arms.
The dog's ears suddenly flattened and his tail quickened, looking adoringly up at someone entering the room behind me.
"You're up," said a man, circling around with a sense of urgency. He was carrying a black roasting pan with both hands and a spa green bath towel was draped over one shoulder. His jeans were soft and worn, especially at the knees, with a splatter of white paint dried at the ankles. As he set the pan on the floor, I could see the sleeves of his blue flannel shirt were rolled up his hairy forearms and the front was open, revealing a gray tee-shirt with some black writing on it. His physique was mildly husky and a week's worth of brown whiskers raggedly covered his cheeks and neck. He started to spread the towel out in front of the couch I was lying on. "Bucky, move."
The golden retriever obediently backed up just enough to be out of the way.
Through tufts of dark brown hair, his bright green eyes flicked up from his task to briefly meet mine. "I'm Jack," he said and tipped his head sideways toward the dog. "That's Bucky."
I answered with a sharp inhale, my rescue dream swimming up in my mind's eye. Jack wasn't exactly like the helpful man in my dream, but the eyes were dead on.
"Your foot hurt?"
He nodded down at my feet. "Looks like it hurts. Did you step on something in the woods?"
I glanced down at my bare foot and my angry big toe. "Yeah. I mean, no."
"Which is it?" His green eyes scanned me, curiously concerned.
"I think something got in my shoe. It bit me. Where am I?"
"About three miles west of Highway 135."
"Ugh," I groaned, running a hand through my hair. "It's too early for cardinal directions."
He chuckled. "Not far from Kugler. Bucky, stop!"
Bucky suddenly quit sniffing a spot on my jeans and looked guiltily up at Jack.
"Can you sit up?" Jack asked me, moving the roasting pan to the towel he just laid down. "Dip your foot in here. Let me know if it's too hot."
I scooted upright and swiveled forward, lifting the cuff of my jeans as far as it would go. The water was pleasantly hot and as my foot settled, some pinkish-gray sediment roiled up. "What's in it?"
"Baby detergent," he said. He cleared a spot off the coffee table and sat on the corner of it.
"Oh." I looked around the cabin for signs of a baby. A bib, a nookie. Something. "You have one?"
"What? A baby?" He gave me an odd look. "No. It's just good for infections."
I nodded, noticing Jack's concern deepen as he lowered his gaze to my front.
"Your shirt's on inside out. Backwards, too."
I looked down, the care tag of my sweater sticking out at the base of my throat. "It's how the kids are wearing them now."
He snorted a laugh. "Are they even yours?"
"Of course they are. Why do you ask?"
"They're way too big for you."
They were looser, I realized, thanks to the 38 day Cave Cleanse. I shrugged in a noncommittal way and thankfully Jack didn't ask any more questions about it.
Instead, he thought of something and jumped to his feet. "Be right back."
Bucky stayed and looked at me sideways, trying his best to be obedient.
Unable to stand the heat anymore, I removed my jacket, a navy blue windbreaker I had been wearing on my way home about 40 days ago, and as I did I noticed Amy's bird-foot ring on my pinky. Feeling a strange, watery sort of déjà vu, I remembered my rabbit tooth bracelet, and I dug under both cuffs of my sweater to find it was still on my right wrist.
Glancing over my shoulder to the hall, I hurried to lift the bottom ribbing of my sweater up over my head to turn it right side out. I also noted I wasn't wearing a bra, but I didn't blame Pratt for omitting that baffling undergarment.
I thought the sweater seemed scratchier than I remembered, but it might have been because it was inside out. The break from the extreme heat was definitely welcome and I considered leaving the sweater off, until I remembered I was in the real world now where things like that didn't swing. I wriggled into the bulky pullover the right way and as I smoothed it, I dared another look to the hall behind me, where Jack was standing.
He looked like he'd been stopped, but now he hustled into the room, keeping his eyes averted from mine. Above his scruffy stubble, his cheeks were stained pink and his neck was flushed as a rash. Maybe I wasn't as quick at redressing as I thought I was.
Jack said, "I think he smells your dog."
I had discarded my jacket to the couch cushion beside me and Bucky was eagerly taking in all the new scents it offered, but recoiled abruptly when he found a smell he didn't like. He eased back in warily to continue sniffing.
Jack sat back down on the edge of the coffee table and set a first aid kit down on the floor and then handed me two bottles: water and ibuprofen. He draped a matching sea green hand towel over one knee. His gray undershirt flattened against his chest and now I could read the logo on the front: Anderson Construction.
"I don't have a dog," I said. "I'm a cat person." I cracked open the water and took two large gulps.
"Ah," he nodded. "That must be what he smells."
Doubtful, I thought. I put two capsules on my tongue and washed them down with another three drinks of perfect water, flowing down my parched throat like ribbons of silk.
"So are you going to tell me how you ended up face down by my mailbox?"
"Um," I started. I had a pretty good idea who put me there and part of me wanted to tell Jack all about it. The cave and the strange creature who held me there, who kept other women and how we had to call the police to get a search going to find Riley...
Oh Christ, Riley. Poor Riley. If Pratt was mourning my eviction the way he'd mourned Amy, then Riley was probably thirsty and hungry right about now. And scared. She said she could only handle the cave if I was there.
"Let me guess. Wild night?"
"Sort of. I was in the woods. And I got...lost."
I wasn't sure what to tell him. I had no idea if anyone was looking for me, if I had been declared a missing person or if I would have to eventually explain the last 40 days of my whereabouts. Lying straight out of the gate would probably not bode well, but I decided I could claim confusion later on if I had to.
"Oh." He frowned. "You must be exhausted. Do you live around here?"
"My uncle has a cabin on Pike Bay. It's no-where near as nice as this, though." Dirty socks and shedding dog aside.
"You're visiting him?"
"No he's not there. I'm just borrowing it. For work."
"Work? What do you do?"
"I'm a writer," I said.
He looked vaguely impressed. "Anything I might know?"
"Not unless you've had coffee with my mother. She's my biggest promoter."
"I've written a series of books on small town life in Minnesota."
Narrowing his eyes to appraise me, he said, "L.B. Ringer."
My jaw went slack. L.B. Ringer was my professional name. "How did you—"
Smirking, he got to his feet and bent towards me, propping a hand on the back of the couch. My heart squeezed. I thought he was leaning forward to kiss me, but he was reaching for something on the console behind me. I had to duck sideways to keep his hispid chin from brushing the top of my head and I stared unblinking at the dwindle of dark whiskers covering his Adam's apple. He smelled good. Some spicy shower gel.
Retreating, he handed me a recent edition of my first book. "I thought you looked familiar. The leaves in your hair must have thrown me off."
I flipped the book over to the back jacket where my photo was printed. I remember the day it had been taken. The photographer was an hour late, which meant we had an hour less of outdoor light. Half the pictures were too dark and useless. "You've read it?"
"It's my wife's. She gave it to me to read."
My stomach plunged, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Of course he had a wife. Men like him were not often single. It was a game of musical chairs and once again I'm left standing alone.
Truthfully, I didn't know why I cared so much. I just met him.
"And did you?" I asked, a little too acidly.
"Not yet," he said and looked down at his empty hands. He switched the subject. "So you're not from around here?"
"I have an apartment in Duluth."
"City girl," he said and I didn't appreciate his teasing half-smile. "Heavy forestry must puzzle you."
"Uh, sure." Before the creep of urban sprawl, my childhood home had been quite remote.
The humor drained from his face as he changed his tune. "Hey, I get lost in these woods all the time."
I crossed my arms and looked away, suddenly feeling so isolated. Secrets'll do that to a person.
Jack cleared his throat. "I think it's soaked long enough."
He had me prop my foot on his toweled knee and then opened his first aid kit. Every home had some semblance of first aid even if it was just a bottle of peroxide and a tin of Band-aids. If Pratt had one, I might still be in the cave right now.
Jack's hands worked quickly but gently to disinfect and bandage my toe and I only winced once when he secured the tape firmly.
"Good as new," he muttered. "If I were you, I'd soak it two or three times a day until it heals. I'll give you some detergent to take home."
Since my toe screamed every time I tried to put on my shoe, Jack also gave me one of his heavy thermal socks to put over my thin ankle sock. Then he offered me an insulated coat to put on over my windbreaker—thirty-eight days ago, it had been warm enough for just a windbreaker—and Jack commented how he couldn't believe I didn't freeze to death last night. But I passed on the extra layer. The cool air would feel good on my heated skin.
As I hopped to the entryway steps, Jack slipped an arm around my waist and braced me against his side to help me down to the landing. I felt a warm swell in my chest and my armpits began to broil as we exchanged tentative looks.
"Come on, Bucky," he said and opened the door. Bucky barked once and shot out. Jack cursed. "Not again."
Lying on Jack's welcome mat was a heap of gray fur. As Bucky was cautiously sniffing the bloodiest parts, I realized it was dead rabbit.
Elated, I hobbled onto the porch, steadying myself against the wooden rail, and my eyes trawled the tree-line around Jack's rural property. I didn't think Pratt came out in the day, unless it was early morning to pick berries. Was he still out there? Was he watching us now?
"Bucky, no," Jack said, approaching the rabbit and picking it up by the ears. "This is the fourth one in two days."
"What?" I asked, dazed. I felt numb inside as I witnessed the collision of my two worlds.
"Can you wait a sec? I gotta put it in the trash can in the garage. If I throw it in the woods, Bucky'll just get to it." He started to step off the porch.
"Let me have it," I said.
He looked at me with those sharp green eyes. "What for?"
"It's a perfectly good rabbit. Fresh kill. I'll make stew out of it."
"Stew?" He sounded like he'd never heard the word before. "It could be poisoned."
"I'm sure it's fine."
Jack wasn't convinced and arched an eyebrow. "You know how to skin and gut a rabbit?"
"I've seen it done lots of times. How hard can it be?"
Reluctantly, Jack put the rabbit in the back of his pickup. Then he drove me home. Bucky sat in the middle, enthralled with some scent on my sleeve. The hair was raised on his shoulders. On Highway 169, I kept my eyes peeled for my abandoned car, but it had been long towed away and I reminded myself I was going to have to hunt down the impound lot that was keeping it.
I wondered why Pratt would leave rabbits on Jack's doorstep. It made me think his dropping me off at Jack's mailbox was not coincidence and those rabbits represented a kind of dowry. Poor Jack. He had no idea what was going on.
I directed Jack to my cabin and he pulled up to the porch and turned off the engine. He carried the limp rabbit to a picnic table in the front yard and asked if I had any newspaper to put down.
"To soak the blood."
"Why can't I put it in the sink inside?"
"Trust me, you won't like the smell."
I found a local flier for Zup's grocery on the doorstep and laid it down for Jack.
"You're sure you don't want help gutting it?"
"No," I said, propping my hands on my hips as I stared down at it. "This is something I should do by myself." Plus I had about 40 days of showers to catch up on and I'm sure the answering machine inside was completely full. I lifted my foot off the ground and reached down to take off the thermal sock he'd lent to me.
"Oh, thanks," he said and took it back. "A sock without a mate is pretty useless, I guess."
"Not always," I mumbled and our gazes linked together, heavy with some unspoken connection. I thanked him for his help, which he modestly dismissed, and I watched him give me a friendly wave as he backed down the driveway. I gave the rabbit a heavy glance before going inside.
Alone, it felt bizarre.
I leaned against the door and gazed inside with a hard, pragmatic look. Despite the overcast outside, the room was blindingly bright. And hot as hell. It had been recently renovated and everything was blonde oak. The walls, ceiling, floors, even the kitchen table and chairs. The cupboards had been stripped and painted antique white and the counters were dark granite. It was open to the living room and the furniture was all beige leather with a discreetly sized TV. To my left was the door to the master bedroom. It was a stranger's home and even though my dirty coffee cups were in the sink and my laptop and all my research notes were strewn across the oval dining table, I found it difficult to unwind.
Immediately, I headed for the windows, lowering blinds and shutting curtains. I found the thermostat under the stairs, set to a blazing 74 degrees. I tapped the button until it was at 65 instead.
After that, I opened the refrigerator. All condiments, including the cream I used in the morning (which was now expired) and white origami boxes of Chinese leftovers. I hadn't eaten since breakfast yesterday, but I wasn't desperate enough for old spicy hunan. I realized if I was going to make rabbit stew, I was going to need ingredients. Fortunately, the grocer in town delivered. For now, I found some slightly stale saltine crackers in the cupboard and reluctantly headed for the side table in the living room, leaning over the answering machine, bracing for a double digit number flashing red at me.
One. One message.
Stunned, I pushed play. It was the towing company who had my car. I'm not sure how they got this number, but they gave me the address and phone number of where I could reach them. I called them immediately and made arrangements tomorrow to pay the impound fee and pick it up.
Next, I powered up my laptop to check my email, but first I noted the date in the lower right hand corner of the screen. October 21, Sunday. My makeshift calendar in the cave had been right on.
I found one email from my mother dated about a week ago. Just a casual note. She hoped I was getting a lot of work done. Nothing from my editor. Of course, my cell phone was in my car, but if my editor was having trouble getting a hold of me on that, she would email me. If it was a true emergency, she had the number to the cabin.
I just wanted to shower, eat something and take a nap, but I pushed all that back as I looked up how to skin a rabbit. I found instructions that included with or without a knife. Pratt could do it without, but it involved a lot of joint bending I wasn't keen on. After a cursory inspection of the kitchen, I discovered a hunting knife in one of the utility drawers. It was in its own leather case and looked brand new.
I printed out the directions and watched a couple internet videos to refresh myself. Then I put on an old sweatshirt, made myself a little workstation on the old picnic table outside and finally got to work. I needed this time to myself, to decompress, as a way to ease back into my old life. The directions kept blowing away and I had to hold them down with rocks. I made several small cuts around its paws, the neck and under the tail, but it was peeling back the skin that took a delicate touch, at least to my novice hands, and I went slowly.
Thinking of Riley as I worked, I speculated how she would make it through those first few days of Pratt's lament. There had been a time I would have sent help to the cave, but my scruples had gotten fuzzy over the last two months. And I feared what might happen to Pratt if anyone found his home. Getting through those first few days would be difficult for Riley. After that...well...I hoped they would get along as well as Pratt and I had.
Forty days missing. Two relatively noncritical messages. I was still reeling from this reality, although I guess I could believe it. I was by no means a shut-in, but I was borrowing the cabin for four solitary months with the intension of finishing my next book. Everyone knew I wanted to be left alone. And now it was crunch time. If I was going to make my deadline, I was going to have to work nonstop.
It took me about an hour from start to finish, compared to Pratt's quick 5 minute skin, and when I was finished, I felt quite accomplished. I skinned a rabbit. Forty days ago, I hadn't even touched a dead rabbit before. Now I was about to make stew from one. Pratt intended this rabbit to be a gift and doing anything less with it would be an insult.
I set the knife down, wiped my bloodied hands on my shirt...and hysterically bawled.
As it turned out, someone did miss me during my absence. Daisy, my cat. I had let her outside the evening I disappeared and now she was gone. I supposed it was a good thing. Forty days locked in a house, Daisy probably would have starved to death. I left some food and water on the porch to tempt her home and went in to shower and take a nap.
It was stifling in the bedroom and I had to keep a window cracked before I could get any sleep. At first the bed seemed too soft, the quilts too heavy, but I ended up sleeping a solid five hours of dreamless slumber. I slept naked like I had grown accustomed, but when I rolled out of bed, the light tee-shirt and yoga pants I fumbled in the dark to find seemed heavy and binding. My hair felt atrocious against my face, my punishment for falling asleep with wet hair, and I pulled it up in an elastic band.
Punching random buttons on the fireplace remote, I managed to get a fire going in the living room. That, paired with a tiny decorative lamp in the corner of the kitchen counter was more than enough light for me to function in. While the oven preheated, I decided to cook the rabbit like I would a chicken and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I had already thoroughly washed it in the sink, and had been storing in a roasting pan in the refrigerator.
Todd, the delivery guy from Zup's, arrived around five. I had just made the cut off for an online order this morning. His van was backed up to the porch. He had white blonde hair under a stocking cap, fair eyebrows with matching eyelashes and ruddy cheeks. "Ooh geez," he said when I opened the door. "Did year power jus' go oot?"
"No," I said and pointed him to the kitchen. I had to grin at his accent. They were always noticeable in small towns, even to other Minnesotans. "I just like it dark."
Chopping potatoes and vegetables, I used the remote to turn on the TV, but shut it off again after a few minutes and tried the radio instead. I shut that off, too. They were good for staving off loneliness, but I was content with the quiet bubble of boiling stock water.
Later, I ate three large bowls of hot stew until I was stuffed and put the rest in the refrigerator. I had just sat down to organize my research notes when headlights panned over the front window blinds. Hobbling to the bedroom, I strapped into a bra. From the way poor Todd had been staring, I knew it was obvious to him I wasn't wearing one and I didn't want to embarrass anymore visitors.
Someone was knocking by the time I ran back into the main room. I opened the door.
"Jack," I greeted, pleasantly alarmed.
"Hi." He smiled and briskly nodded, already brushing by me to enter. "Can I come in?"
I had to stumble backwards. "Uh, sure."
Taking off his khaki coat, he glanced at the flickering fireplace. His hair looked wet from a shower and he had changed his shirt. "Is this a bad time?"
"Not exactly. Why are you here?"
"Did you make that stew?" he asked.
"Why? You want some?"
He hung his coat on the back of one of the bar chairs and smirked at me. "I made sure to eat before I came."
I gave him a sly, wary look. "Then why are you here?"
"Someone should really be here to call poison control."
"So that's what this is about," I said and smothered a grin. "Well, Smart-ass, I just had three bowls and I feel fine so far."
Looking around: the kitchen, the living room, the workstation on the dining table, he said, "Sometimes symptoms don't show up for hours. But I will take something to drink."
I cocked my head at his pluck. "All I have is water."
"Water's fine," he said, sliding back the bar chair to sit at the counter.
I went to the refrigerator for two bottled-waters. I slammed one down in front of him and cracked open the other.
"It's dark as a cave in here," he noted, casually rubbing his short beard with the back of his fingers. "Sure you weren't expecting someone else?"
"Wearing this?" I wryly asked.
His eyes flickered to my chest. "Were you getting ready for bed?"
"You'd know if I was," I said, sipping my water.
"I sleep in the nude."
His mouth opened slightly, speechless. I was surprising myself with my own boldness, but then his expression turned hesitant, that all too familiar I-have-a-wife look. Slowly, he started to open his water.
Immediately, I reigned myself in. "Where is your wife, tonight?"
Lifting the water to his lips, he stopped, his moss green eyes going cold. I noticed there was no ring on his finger and tried to remember if there had been one there earlier so I could accurately appraise his level of scuzzballness. For some reason, I pictured his wife as a blonde. A blonde spin-class instructor with tight thighs.
He lowered the water bottle without taking a drink. "She's about twenty-six miles from here," he said and his tone had dropped 15 degrees, "at the Calvary Cemetery in Virginia."
I squeezed shut my eyes and sighed, wishing this moment would quickly pass. I glared at him. "You couldn't have told me that before?"
At least he had the grace to look contrite. "Sorry. I'm used to people just knowing. Small town and all."
"What do I know, I'm from the city," I said blandly.
His shoulders dropped. "Give me a break, will you? After I let you take that rabbit, my whole day was shot, wondering if I was going to find your picture in the obits this week. Frankly my conscience couldn't take it."
Feeling a stab of disappointment, I took his admittance as a rejection. So this wasn't about me at all, it was about him, his conscience and his nice-guy reputation. But I was still curious. "So what now?"
"Just keep doing what you were doing," he said and faintly smiled. "I'll keep a vigilant watch on your vital signs."
"Well I was about to soak my foot."
I remembered seeing a foot spa in one of the upstairs bathrooms and went up to get it. When I came back, Jack was standing at my workstation, holding my well-worn printed directions for skinning a rabbit. It was wrinkled from the wind and smudged with dirt from the rocks I'd used as paper-weights.
He showed it to me. "You really didn't know to skin a rabbit?"
He looked at me, bemused, and then helped me fill the foot spa with hot water and a splash of baby detergent. He asked me if I had a deck of cards anywhere and while my foot soaked we played cribbage on the sofa cushion between us. While proceeding to skunk me, he told me about his contracting business, stories about Bucky when he was a puppy and how his parents just recently moved to Texas to get away from the cold. I wanted to ask about his wife, but in light of our misunderstanding, I decided to wait on that. He asked me what it was like to be a writer. Remembering my one message on the answering machine, I stopped myself before the word "lonely" dropped from my lips, instantly elevating my foot from the foot bath.
"I think I'm done soaking."
"Here, let me." He discarded, turned his cards face down on the couch, and got down on his knees. Drying my foot for the second time today, he ran the hand towel from the back of my calf to my toes. "You should leave it unbandaged for the night. So it can breathe."
I nodded. "That reminds me. I, uh, have to pick up my car at the impound lot in Virginia tomorrow. Do you think you could give me a ride?"
He frowned and I thought maybe I had overstepped my bounds again. He had already done so much for me over the course of the day. "They towed your car after one night?"
Ah, shit, I thought. I gave him an ignorant shrug. What was one more white lie? "I guess."
"Well aren't they on the ball," he muttered. He let the towel fall and continued to massage my foot with long, strong fingers. They felt warm on my skin and I felt the crackle of connection while his hands lingered, the yank of souls as his brilliant green eyes met mine. There was a knowing little smile on his face. "Yeah, it's no problem. I can give you a ride."
My heart was thudding in my chest, but I eased my foot from his hands. "That tickles."
"Oh," he grinned. "Sorry." He reached for the tub and brought it over to the sink to dump the dirty water and used the sprayer next to the faucet to rinse it out a little. "Where do you want this?"
"I'll take it."
I carried the foot spa into the master bedroom and shoved it to the floor in the closet. I hovered in the shadows for a moment, watching as Jack wiped his hands on a dishtowel. He folded it neatly on the counter and headed back to the couch, where he began to rearrange his hand of cards.
I wondered about his poison control excuse, if that was really why he was here, or if he had some ulterior motive. A few moments later, I walked back into the main room and stopped at the edge of the living room carpet. Jack was still mulling over his cards. "Did you want to stay the night?" I asked.
His gaze flicked up to my exposed bra, down to the tee-shirt clutched in my hand, back up to my face. "Jesus," he mumbled and jumped up, dropping his cards down on the couch cushion. He darted straight for his coat on the back of the bar chair and thrust a hand in the pocket for his keys.
Sidestepping, I blocked his way to the door. "Hey, you don't have to go." I shook my head down at my shirt, fumbling with it. Christ, this was so much easier in the cave. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."
I saw his coat land on the floor in a heap and I looked up just as he pressed his lips on mine. His hand pressed on the back of my head as he stopped to take a breath, angling his head the other way. I let his tongue into my mouth. His whiskers were severe on my face, nothing at all like Riley's gentle angel kisses, and I loved it, the roughness—the grit—of a man's kiss that I missed. Sliding his hand down to lift my rear end, he tugged me against him and I felt him pushing something into my empty hand. Not keys, but a smooth little packet, a condom.
"Okay?" he breathed between harsh, humid kisses.
"Back here" was my only answer, motioning to the master bedroom.
He pushed me backwards like a bulldozer, slamming open the door, and we shuffled around the bed in the dark. Our faces parted as I got on the bed, lying across it. I could feel his weight sinking the mattress as he kneeled up on top of me. "Cold in here," he whispered.
"Helps me sleep," I managed to say before his warm mouth found mine again. I ran my hands over his shirt, searching for the buttons, undoing them. "Off."
He wrestled with his shirt, but he struggled with the sleeves and drew back. "Dammit. The one time I fasten the cuffs..."
While he worked at his sleeves, I fondled the crotch of his jeans, firmly rubbing my thumb over the stiff knot inside. I heard his breath hitch in the darkness and I paused for a nano-second, wondering how long it had been since he'd been touched there. He tugged at his sleeves with new determination and I heard a muffled snap as a button pelted me and then his shirt was finally off. I felt his hand push mine to his jeans and he moaned.
In a libidinous fog, I rolled over on my hands and knees, nudging backwards, and he grabbed my hips. "Shit," he gasped, grinding his erection against me, but I was anxious for penetration, the comfort of warmth inside me.
"Pants," I husked.
In one swoop, he yanked my sweatpants and underwear down to my bent knees. I felt his trembling hand slip between the back of my thighs. "Jesus, you're soaked."
"Bra," I demanded.
His fingers scrabbled at the hooks on my back and it was that moment I decided the straps of my bondage in the cave were never as uncomfortable as the torture of an underwire. My breasts hung heavy as they were released and while I wrangled with the bra, he rooted for them, kneading as they overflowed in his hands. His scratchy beard was planting kisses along my spine when his body unexpectedly withdrew. I sensed a change in his mood.
"What the—" he said.
"What?" I asked, fog dissipating.
His fingers grazed under my arm, exploring, and I recoiled with an involuntary giggle.
Suddenly he was gone and I flipped over, gaping into the darkness until I was blinded by the lamp as Jack clicked it on. I scowled, throwing my arm over my eyes and I felt Jack's bulk shifting the bed again as he crawled up. Reaching down for the waistband of my sweatpants, I tried to pull them back up, but Jack plopped down on my belly.
"The light," I complained.
"Are you European?" he asked and I perceived some teasing in his voice.
I peeked out from under my arm, but I'd never seen light so bright before. Did my uncle only buy 1000 watt bulbs? "I think my mom's family is Dutch, why?"
"No, I mean," he chuckled. "I mean, it's no big deal, I just wasn't expecting it."
Moving my arm back, I peeked at him. He was grinning, shirtless, crop circles of dark chest hair around his nipples and belly button. His stomach was soft and relatively flat, but I think he was sucking in slightly.
"What are you talking about?"
He indicated to my under arms and I lifted my head off the mattress a little to see. Forty-plus days without a razor made for a rather natural look and the one currently in the tub was dull and rusty.
"That's nothing. You should see my legs," I said insipidly, trying to avoid more blatant scrutiny of my body hair. I was starting to see myself in the third person, like I did my first few days in the cave, when I hadn't quite adapted to being naked for longer than a ten minute shower. "Light, please."
"I think I'll leave it on," he said, pressing his lips on my throat. "My heart can't take more surprises. Keep going."
My arm swung around his neck but my hand cupped over my eyes to obscure the brightness. "Going?"
"Ordering me around. I like you bossy."
First I was hairy. Now I'm bossy.
"Um," I said, thinking. But I was thrown. "Turn the light off?"
He laughed and continued to nurse my neck. His whiskers were rubbing me raw.
And as I tried to sink back into the moment, all I could think of was no matter how dark or how chilly I made the house, it still wasn't the cave. And Jack wasn't Pratt. No razors, no make-up, no perfumes...Pratt liked us natural and I wasn't used to feeling shame over body hair.
"I think you should go," I whispered.
He snapped up, eyes wide, perplexed. "Wha—" He frowned, almost sad. "Why?"
"I just need you to go now."
"Is it the light?" He touched my side gently. "I only want to see you. We can turn it off."
"The moment's passed." I strained for the fabric of my sweats and wrenched them up. Jack had to roll to the side so I could do so, but he was propped up on his elbows, his legs hanging over the edge of the bed, still beside himself.
He scoffed. "Is it because of what I said? I was serious. I don't care about the arm hair."
"I believe you," I said.
But he didn't look convinced.
"I do. It's just not going to happen."
A muscle clenched in his jaw as he nodded shortly. "Okay."
Through the gap in the bedroom curtain, I watched Jack clutching his coat on the way out to his truck and throw it in the passenger seat. To avoid an awkward goodbye I didn't walk him out, and while he dressed I averted my eyes from his hands, trembling as they buttoned his shirt.
I took a step back as his headlights flashed over the window. I wasn't sure how I felt about his leaving. Disappointed, yet somehow relieved.
Clicking off all the lights, I undressed. Then I opened the bedroom window another inch, tugged the elastic band from my hair and went to bed.
Lying there, waiting for sleep, I absently rubbed the coarse little hairs under my arm. Two months ago, I would have been disgusted by my lack of hygiene, now I hardly gave them a second thought. I read somewhere arm hair was coming back, though. A woman I went to college with wrote a blog on the Internet and I often tuned in to read. Last year, she grew out her arm hair and dyed it hot pink as some big feminist statement, then chronicled her experiences, mostly the shock and revulsion of other people when they saw it.
But I could hardly blame Jack for his surprise. Sure, he knew the rules. But he didn't make them. Still, I couldn't get over the strange out of body sensation, watching myself in bed with Jack. I realized that's how I always had sex before the cave: in the corner, watching myself and judging what I saw.
I wondered if sex would ever again be like it was in the cave.
An hour passed as I thought on these matters. Restless, I sat up and looked around the darkness. Something was missing and it took a few minutes before I realized what it was.
Throwing back the covers, I headed into the bathroom and felt my way to the sink. I gripped the faucet and turned it a hair, releasing a small amount of water so that it came out in drips. The hollow way they dropped into the drain was just like it was in the cave. I returned to bed and was asleep in moments.
Morning came much too quickly. I lied awake facing the ceiling for a full minute before I realized it was the knocking at the front door that woke me. I was out of bed in a second, running around in my birthday suit to hunt down a robe. If I was going to start sleeping in the nude, I was going to have to buy a decent robe for situations like this. Instead, I opted for the quilt on the bed, draping it tightly around me and scuffling barefoot into the main room. I opened the door a few inches to keep the bright sun at bay. Jack sidestepped into view, wearing reflective aviator sunglasses and looking very Top Gun, holding up a bag of donuts and a fiber carrier with two large coffees.
I swung the door open wider but moved out of the dusty shaft of light pouring in. "Jack? What are you doing here?"
"Ah..." He glanced down at my quilt with a vapor of a smile. "I thought you needed a ride to Virginia to pick up your car."
I shook my head, surly and confused. "After last night, I figured I'd take a cab."
His posture slumped slightly, a humorless half smile evoking apology. "You still need your car, don't you?"
I sighed. "I'll be right out."
When I came out fully dressed, Jack was sitting on top of the picnic table, pitching a tennis-ball across the yard for Bucky. The donuts and coffee were next to him. I used my hand to shade my eyes as I approached him and he smiled at me, the skin around his eyes crinkling. "Ready?" he cheerfully asked.
Once we were on the road, I explained very vaguely my car might be out of gas and he offered to let me use the can he kept in the back of his truck for emergencies. I was thankful he didn't ask any more questions about it.
I couldn't remember the last time I had a donut and I wolfed down three. I decided I could afford the extra calories. My warm layers were looking baggy and sloppy on me.
"I read your book last night," Jack said, glancing out at his side mirror.
"All of it?"
"A lot of it. I haven't finished yet, but I'm enjoying it. I wasn't expecting so many personal stories from the people you interviewed."
I nodded, masking my awkwardness. I didn't like talking about my books. I especially didn't know what to say, knowing it was his wife who had recommended the book to him.
"I like how you capture the sense of community in small towns," he added, and I could tell he was trying to lead me into a meaningful dialogue.
"Personally, I prefer the anonymity of large towns," I snipped.
His sunglasses swung over to regard me for a moment, his expression unreadable, but at least he dropped it. A few minutes later, he pulled into the gas station and turned off the engine. He reached for the door handle. "Stay here, Bucky."
Jack grabbed the gas can from the aluminum saddle box on the back of his truck and while he filled it with unleaded, I went inside to pay. I had to use the cash I had laying around at the cabin since my purse was—hopefully—still under the passenger seat in my car.
"Four-eighty-two," said the cashier who rang me up.
Sliding five bills across the counter, I gave the woman a double look. "Amy?" I blurted.
She met my eye furtively. She was different than I remember. Her hair was much darker, closer to her original color, and it had been cut short, just barely brushing her shoulders. Her face was sun-kissed and her make-up was done very natural, but her expression was still severe. She wore a navy cardigan over her uniform polo and her name-tag read Manager under her name.
"Amy, it's me, Layla," I hissed.
She took my money. "I think you've mistaken me for someone else."
"No, it's me," I said, glancing to the other cashier, busy with another customer. I lowered my voice. "From the cave?"
She shook her head at the cash register and when she spoke, she sounded rehearsed and robotic. "I don't know what you mean. Eighteen cents is your change. Have a nice day."
I could only stare at her and I could tell it made her uncomfortable. There was someone in line behind me so I couldn't press it anymore. "Thanks," I muttered and left.
As I secured my seat belt, Jack asked, "You okay?"
I nodded numbly and kept my gaze on the windshield.
Why wouldn't she acknowledge me? It was possible she was blocking the cave from her mind, but I knew she recognized me. Maybe she simply didn't want to remember the cave. Had it been so traumatic for her? But she didn't want to leave...so maybe it was the banishment she wanted to forget. Surely she could talk about it with me, I had been there. Unless it was me she wanted to disremember. After all, Pratt chose me over her. He'd put her in my chains as punishment, taken away her luxuries and given them to me. Christ, I'd hate me, too.
It took a great amount of politeness and graciousness to get the man at the impound lot to check under the seat of my car for my purse so that I could have my ID and credit card to pay the fee. He also made Jack show his identification before he'd let me have the keys. While Jack transferred gas from the can to my tank, I opened the driver's door to make sure everything was the way I remembered. The grocery bag from Zup's was still in the passenger seat, with a box of bran flakes and a crossword book. The bottle of antacids I had been trying to open when Pratt ran in front of my headlights was half empty and overturned on the floor and pastel colored tablets dotted the floor. I kneeled on the seat to pick them up.
"You'll be able to get to town on the gas in your tank," Jack said. "But I'd fill up somewhere on your way back."
Preferably not at the place Amy works. "Okay. Thanks again."
He set down the gas can and stepped towards me. His khaki coat was open and his sunglasses were dangling from the collar of his undershirt. Jamming his hands in the side pockets, he asked, "Do you want to grab some lunch?"
"My treat," he added and moved closer. He smelled good again. Shower clean and soapy.
"You've already done way too much for me," I said.
He narrowed his eyes as he glanced away, looking out at the street beyond the tall chain link fence. "Is it about last night?"
Shaking his head, he said, "I knew that condom was a bad idea. If you bring one, you're a presumptuous jerk, but if you don't bring one, you're an insensitive jerk. What are the rules now?"
"Oh, the rules haven't changed," I said mordaciously. But I have. I sighed through my nose. "Jack, I just got out of a relationship." It was sort of true.
His eyes hardened on me like emeralds. After a moment, he swallowed. "He hurt you?"
I nodded, forcing down a lump in my throat.
He took his hands out of his pockets and reached one hand up to touch me, but then changed his mind. That muscle in his jaw tensed up again. "He was a fool to let you go."
My belly seared and I felt the rapture all the way in my groin. "Thanks" was all I could think of to say.
"Well," he said and started to take a step back. I felt a goodbye coming. But then I saw his eyes darken. I sipped the air and we fell into a kiss. His fingers curled around the belt loops of my jeans, crushing me against the car door with his hips and my vehicle jostled in protest. His whiskers were like wire digging into my face, his hair wads of dark silk in my fists, and I knew Pratt meant for this to happen. It's why he left me by Jack's mailbox, why he'd been leaving rabbits on Jack's door step. To ease my heartbreak, Pratt had sniffed out a mate for me. Admittedly, the physical biology was heady and irresistible, more potent when we were together, but I could still feel my grief bubbling just below the surface.
Breaking the kiss, Jack dropped his hands and took a large step back. He cleared his throat and fumbled with his sunglasses, slipping them on quickly. "Sorry. That was...uh..." He raked both hands through his hair.
"Unexpected," I finished. I took a deep drag of fresh air to sober myself.
"To say the least." He aimed his sunglasses at me for a moment and then reached into a pocket on the inside of his coat. "I know enough when to leave a woman alone, but—" He handed me a business card. "—call me if you ever want to talk."
I tried to tug the card out of his grasp, but he held onto it and made sure he had my attention before he said, "Don't lose it."
The next day, I went back to Amy's gas station. She was behind the counter with a clipboard, counting cigarettes, I think, wearing a brick red sweater today and the sides of her hair were pinned back with small combs. It was a demure look in my opinion, and I knew she was anything but. In my mind, I recalled that tattoo on her lower back, the one that stood for 'big fucking mistake' in her own words.
I approached the counter and grabbed the first candy bar I saw. She approached the register cautiously and set the clipboard down to ring me up.
"This is all?" she asked.
"A dollar seven."
I put down a dollar bill, a nickel, two pennies, and one bird's foot ring. Peeking up through my bangs, I evaluated her reaction. For a long time, she just stared at it. I could see her shoulders rising and falling as she breathed. Finally, she scooped it all up, the money and the ring. Then she pointed to some Formica booths next to the Slushy machine. "Sit. I'll get someone to cover the registers."
A few minutes later, Amy came out of the back room with a young man, who took post behind the counter. Stopping by the coffee station, she glanced over her shoulder at me. "Coffee?"
She poured two small cups of coffee and sat across from me.
"You look great," I said. "Your hair is adorable."
She wasn't listening. "How long have you been out?"
"Out of what?"
She rolled her eyes and sipped her coffee. Her lipstick was a very subtle shade of pink and the color stuck to the paper cup. I noticed the bird foot ring was already on her middle finger and next to the red cardigan, it looked pretty bad-ass.
"Oh. Two days ago," I said. "He left me on the side of the road. A man and his dog found me."
"Jack Anderson?" she asked, although it didn't sound so much like a question.
It occurred to me I never did ask what Jack's last name was, but my eyebrows went up. "You know Jack?"
"Everyone knows Jack. That was him in the pick-up yesterday, wasn't it?"
"His wife died two years ago, did you know that?" she asked. Her tone was sharp and accusing.
"Ah, yeah. He mentioned that." Small town curse, I thought with disdain. Everyone knows your business whether you want them to or not. I'd be surprised if Amy didn't already know about our kiss at the impound lot.
"He still visits her up at Calvary once a month, you know." She was moving her cup in little circles, making the coffee swirl, trying her best to seem casual, but I got her point, loud and crystal clear.
"I understand," I said.
She shot me a look. "Jack's laundry still needs to be washed in the delicate cycle, if you catch my meaning."
"Yes, I get it," I said firmly, through my teeth. I decided to switch gears. "Where did Pr—I mean, where did he leave you?"
Glowering thoughtfully into her coffee, she said, "Under a tree swing, in a pile of dead oak leaves. It was the water, you know."
"I know," I said and I knew she meant the water Pratt gave us to make us sleepy. "I realized it at the last second." I sat up and lowered my voice. "Pratt mourned you for three days. I thought you were dead."
"Three days?" She scoffed. "He grieved five over Brooke."
"Brooke..." Then it clicked. "The girl before you."
"Before Brooke, it was Rachel. After that, I don't know."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I don't know." She shook her head. Her dark bangs swayed on her eyebrows. "Because Brooke didn't tell me, I guess."
We couldn't talk long. Amy's break was only fifteen minutes. Unlike me, Amy had some people who missed her, mainly those she worked for at the gas station. The old manager had the police go to her house and when she turned up, the man who owned the tire swing brought her to the hospital where she stayed overnight for rehydration and observation. She claimed memory loss, but at least she had a job to go back to as soon as she was ready. Her boss was being transferred to another location and she applied for the manager position and got it. Don, the man with the tire swing in his backyard, was taking Amy out for their second date tomorrow night. Amy said he had a young daughter who came over every other weekend.
Pratt, the matchmaker, I thought.
"Sounds like things are turning out for the better," I commented.
Amy snorted. "Hardly. I'm up to my eyeballs in hospital bills. And Don's mother hates me, I'm pretty sure. But..." She paused, staring down at her coffee. "I'm definitely not the same person I was going into the cave. I can't really put my finger on it. But I think I respect myself more having gone through all that."
I nodded, understanding. I also left the cave with more than I entered. Now the real world was falling short on my expectations.
"He was different with you, you know," Amy said.
"He never came to me in the middle of the night."
I felt the heat go to my face and my voice was like wind through a reed. "You heard us?"
Crookedly grinning, she swallowed her coffee, but after scanning me a moment her face went grave. "You haven't told anyone have you? Your family? The...police?"
I shook my head no. I decided not to tell her I'd thought about it, how I pictured an old-timey witch-hunting mob casing the woods with burning torches. I didn't want that for Pratt. I could tell Amy didn't either. Then something popped into my mind, something Riley had said in the cave about Stockholm's Syndrome. I reminded myself I was going to have to look that up.
"Shit," Amy said, glancing down at her watch. "I gotta get back." She hesitated. "Thanks for bringing the ring to me."
"No problem. It's yours."
Leaning forward conspiratorially, she said, "You know, I'm a little surprised he let you go. I thought he was looking for his mate."
"Well, he sort of had to. My foot got infected. It only would have gotten worse in the cave."
"Hmph," she said thinking to herself.
Walking out to my car, I stopped at the trashcan by the door, fishing for Jack's business card in my coat pocket. Jack Anderson, Contractor, it read. There was a moment I almost didn't throw it away, but I wasn't ready for it all—the care instructions for Jack's dirty laundry, the town scrutiny, the gossip, any backlash that might arise. It seemed virtually serendipitous, how his wife had wanted him to read one of my books well before her death, but I was more than ready to cast that off as coincidence. I tossed his card and left.
My fourth day out of the cave, I found myself speculating what Riley might be doing. By now, Pratt had certainly finished mourning me and they were probably getting to know each other without me there. Consulting the calendar I had roughed out on the back of some notes, I estimated Riley had about another week alone with Pratt before he brought in another woman for them to play with, plus another couple weeks after that before Riley would be released.
But I saw Riley a mere five days later.
I had about forty days of writing to catch up on, but after a couple days of practically no progress, I began writing two novels. One on Minnesota small town life and another chronicling my time in the cave; it was the only way I could concentrate and I essentially lived at my laptop. I did some research on the local cryptozoology, trying to find evidence on strange man-creatures whose reported existence had no proof. I came up empty. However I discovered for a small delivery fee I was able to have my Chinese Combo #5 brought to my door step instead of driving into town for it. And Todd from the grocer made a few more appearances to bring me more cereal, milk, and to restock my supply of antacids. Poor guy kept offering to call the electric company for me ("Looks like a cave n'dere!"), as I preferred to work in silence by firelight. Some nights, I camped out in front of the hearth, naked, wrapped up in just a quilt. And almost always, as the electric hiss of the flames soothed me to sleep, I dreamed of my father again. I was always coming home from school, my mother always in the kitchen and I always woke up when I got to my room, looking at my mangled face in the mirror. But sometimes it wasn't always my father crying in the garage. Sometimes it was Jack. And it wasn't always Lady who had been shot in the woods, it was Bucky. I had emailed my editor and my mother, mostly to feel them out, their level of worry. My editor was a big fat zero, my mother was maybe at a four, simply because she was my mother and her perpetual concern for me was constantly set at two, even if I was sitting right in front of her. I continued to monitor Daisy's bowl outside, but the mound of cat food remained untouched, even after I moved it to the top of the picnic table. Every evening, I circled the tree line, calling for her. It saddened me she had run away, but it had no-where near the effect Lady's death had on my father and as long as I didn't find Daisy's body on the side of the road, I could maintain she had found a family along the lake who had taken her in. Finally, my toe had also gotten progressively better. The baby detergent seemed to be working a small miracle and eventually I only wore a bandage when I went outside just to keep it clean.
Nine days out of the cave, I awoke to a cold fireplace and I stretched out on the floor. The sun was leaking through the sides of the curtains and I estimated it was about 8 or 9 in the morning. I started a pot of coffee and headed nude to the master bath for a hot shower. After, I grabbed the laundry from the dryer in the utility room and stepped into my black sweatpants and a light tee-shirt and ate cereal at my workstation while I checked my email and organized my notes for the day's writing. When I was finished eating, I rinsed my bowl out in the sink and secured a new Band-aid to my toe before I slipped on my shoes to check Daisy's bowl outside.
I got as far as the porch. The lump of clothes on my welcome mat brought me to my knees and I recognized the strands of strawberry blonde hanging lank from a pale blue stocking hat. I rolled Riley towards me on her back. Christ, she was thin. Near skeletal from the last time I saw her. And white as a cloud. Her lips were shriveled and desiccated from dehydration, but she was breathing.
Although she was a fraction of the weight I remembered her, I still hadn't the upper body strength to lift her so I hooked my hands under her arms and clumsily dragged her over the threshold, across the floor to the fireplace. I caught intermittent whiffs of sour sweat and wondered if Pratt had groomed her at all after I was gone.
I went back to close the door, but stepped out on the porch to scan the edge of the woods. Pratt knew where I lived, I realized. Was he still out there, watching? I was tempted to run out and look for him, but I also wanted to be here when Riley woke up.
Back inside, I removed Riley's hat and mittens and her black North-face jacket. Underneath, her sweater was inside-out and the loose threads were all showing. I slid the quilt over and tucked it around her, sweeping her cold hair out of her face. By the time I went to the kitchen for a bottle of water and a package of fresh saltine crackers, she was stirring awake.
Leaning over her, cupping her face, I stroked her cheek with my thumb, coaxing her eyes to open. They did, in drowsy little slits and she grinned at me sleepily. "Layla," she murmured. Then her eyes popped open. "Layla!"
Riley started to sit up.
"Just relax. You're in my uncle's cabin on Pike Bay."
Gathering her wits, she darted her grey-blue eyes around the room, to the fireplace, the dark windows, to me. "It's like I moved from one cave to another. What happened?"
As I broke the seal of the bottle, I told her my theory about Pratt's water. She took the bottle from me and guzzled. Then she began rubbing her eyes. "My eyes burn, they're so dry."
"Drink more water," I said. "Riley, what are you doing here? It's only been nine days since I left."
"Only?" She raised her eyebrows at me incredulously. "Without you, it was the longest nine days of my life!"
I twisted my lips and tipped my head. "I'm sure Pratt kept you plenty entertained."
Struggling to swallow, she coughed a laugh. "Oh yeah, I had a blast watching him mope all day in bed. He's been in a funk ever since he released you."
"I don't understand."
Coughing again, she took another quick swig and replaced the cap. "Can I have those crackers?"
I ripped them open and held them up for her and she took two in both hands. "Eat slowly, sweetie."
I narrowed my eyes at her and she smiled. Her eyes were glassy from coughing.
"So, he didn't give you food or water for nine days?"
"Mmm," she said, mouth full, shaking her head. She gulped hard. "After three or four days of lying in bed, he finally brought me a cup of water. One cup a day for four more days. Or was it three? Doesn't matter. The last two days, he actually left the cave to bring me about a handful of berries. But Layla, he didn't do anything but lie in bed."
"He missed you." Biting off the corner of one of her crackers, she gauged me with a long look before she fidgeted with something at the back of her neck and said, "There was someone else in the cave before me, wasn't there?"
I sighed wearily and nodded. "Actually, she was there before me." I told her about Amy, the short version, and the other women, Brooke and Rachel, although I left out the part about meeting Amy several days ago.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because it wasn't supposed to end this way for you. He was only supposed to grieve for a few days and then—"
"You broke him." She shoved the rest of her cracker in her mouth.
"I didn't break him."
I barely understood her muffled "Whatever" as she dug for another cracker. She scratched again at something on her neck and gave an irritated sound of complaint. "What's on me?"
"Let me see," I said, reaching for the collar of her sweater.
I folded down the seam to expose the vertebrae necklace Pratt had made for her. It was unfinished, held closed around her neck by a rough bit of twine, the best he could do on short notice, I surmised. He couldn't take care of Riley anymore and he brought her to me because he knew I would. It made me appreciate just how little danger we were in while in the cave. Pratt knew his limits. The moment he sensed things going wrong, he deposited us out in the real world.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Your parting gift," I chuckled.
Riley tugged it out of her shirt, all the little bones ticking together like bag of seashells, but when she saw it, she gave a disgusted little scream and began to wrench on it.
"Get it off, get it off!" she shrieked.
Her abrupt reaction scared me. I hopped to my knees and scrambled to release the knotted twine at the back of her neck but the more she yanked the tighter it became and the louder she yelled for me to "Get it off, get it off!"
"Can't you lift it over your head?" I asked. I was trying to keep calm, but there was a frantic vibe in my voice I couldn't seem to subdue.
"Oh my gawd get it off get it off!" Tears streamed down Riley's cheeks.
Scurrying on my hands and knees across the carpet, I found the sewing basket tucked behind an easy chair and pawed through a half completed scarf and several knitting needles and three skeins of royal blue yarn before I found a pair of shears. I carefully moved her hair to the side, slipped the blade under the twine and clipped it apart, whipping the necklace back out of Riley's sight. The bones clacked together like the wooden pieces of a tumbling Jenga tower.
"Okay, it's off. It's off!" To prove it to her, I showed her my empty hands. Immediately she threw herself into my arms and sobbed. Her hair felt thick with oil and it left a residue on my hand as I stroked it, calming her. "You're okay," I murmured, my heart still thrumming against my ribs. "It's off."
I made Riley a sandwich with a side of potato chips and a tall glass of milk. She ate every crumb and drunk every drop and then took a long nap on the couch while I did some work at the dining table. She slept well passed dark and with the excitement of her arrival, I had forgotten to check on Daisy's food. I slipped my shoes on and quietly left, but the bowl on the picnic table hadn't been touched. Shivering in the fall chill, I began circling the tree-line, calling Daisy's name like I did every day, until I thought of something.
"Pratt?" I said, lowering my voice to a normal speaking volume. If he was out there, he'd hear me. "Pratt?" I held my breath to listen, staring into the dark woods.
It didn't take long for me to give up and go inside, feeling ridiculous, but as I began to make dinner, filling a pot with water for the spaghetti noodles, I wondered what else Pratt might be doing. His cave was empty now, apparently for the first time in a very long while, and he had been to the cabin, actually stood on my front porch. It was the same at Jack's house, when he'd left the rabbit. Both times, Pratt had been so close and I had no idea. What else would he be doing if he wasn't out there, watching us? It hurt my heart to think.
Riley woke shortly after I began frying the ground hamburger and wanted to clean up before dinner. I showed her the way to the master bath through the bedroom and pushed back the shower curtain.
"Towels are in here," I said and opened a small linen closet. I grabbed her two clean ones and turned to face her. Her sweater was already on the floor and her breasts hung delicately from her chest as she leaned over the tub to turn on the water. Even though I knew her breasts almost as well as I knew my own, my whole body flushed.
She tested the water, adjusted the knobs and without a second thought, unbuttoned her jeans and pushed them to the floor. A saw a flash of her naked buttocks and an instant later, she was in the shower, rattling the curtain shut. The whole thing took about ten seconds.
"Um," I called over the sound of the water, "I'll leave the towels on the counter." I waited for her response, feeling the swell of old feelings for her, but when she didn't say anything I went back to tend to dinner.
"I used your toothbrush," she admitted immediately when she came out. "And borrowed your clothes."
The spaghetti was almost done. The sauce was done, but the noodles needed another minute. Riley was wearing a thin white shirt of mine and a pair of light grey sweatpants she had clearly cinched tightly at the waist to keep from falling off her. The shirt was too big, too, falling over one of her bare shoulders, Flashdance style. Her hair was wet and stringy, combed back away from her face.
"What are you going to do about school?" I asked her while we ate at the counter.
She was eating too fast, blowing on each oversized forkful. She shrugged her bare, bony shoulder. "It's not too late to withdraw, try again next semester."
"Do you want to use my phone to call anyone? Let them know you're all right?"
She chewed thoughtfully, staring down at her plate as she twisted her fork around her spaghetti. "Tomorrow maybe."
She helped me clean up the dinner dishes when we were done. I settled at my workstation to get a little work done before bed and Riley lied on the couch with the remote, clicking through the cable channels and fell asleep watching something I'd never seen before. Something with witches, werewolves and vampires and I think all the characters were still in high school. Around ten, I closed my laptop, shut off the television and snapped off the tinny lamp on the kitchen counter. Riley didn't wake at all, not even when I covered her with an afghan from the back of the couch. I approached the door, scanning the moonlit yard for a moment. I almost didn't lock it.
In the morning, I threw on some flannel pants and a long-sleeved tee-shirt and came out of the bedroom to a brightly lit kitchen and living room. All the curtains had been flung open wide and Riley was at the stove, stirring something in a pan. Bacon was piled high on a paper-towel lined plate on the counter and there were two place settings set with two squat glasses of orange juice.
"I made breakfast," Riley sang.
"I see that," I said, squinting. I left the windows be and climbed into one of the chairs. "For what army?"
She sheepishly grinned. "I think my eyes are bigger than my stomach. You know, I haven't had eggs and bacon since I was twelve? Twelve, Layla. Once my mother switched me to fruit and dry wheat toast, my boobs never had a chance," she finished with a wink.
I smiled and watched her, pondering about Riley's experience in the cave, how incomplete it had been. Amy left with self-respect and I think I became bolder, but it made me sad to think Riley wasn't in the cave long enough to acquire its full benefits.
But as Riley flit around the kitchen, scrambling eggs with a wooden spoon, flipping slabs of bacon with a fork, I could see she was letting something go, taking joy in something she had been denied a long time. A difference was there, but I could only see the pieces, not the whole picture. Even if I could, it wasn't my whole picture to see, it was Riley's.
Then again, maybe I was just projecting meaning where none existed. After all, this wasn't the yellow brick road. And Pratt was no wizard.
"Up here. To the left," said Riley, pointing out the windshield. I flipped my blinker and made a left into a wayside dirt lot with three parked cars. After breakfast, Riley had asked if we could pick up her car.
"Which one is yours?"
"The silver one on the end. In front of the historical marker."
I pulled up alongside her car, stopping before my bumper hit the weeds and we both got out. There were trees all around. Riley glanced over her car to make sure it was how she left it, fishing through her coat pocket for her car keys. I glanced into her backseat, noticing stacks and stacks of the Pioneer Press, a Cities' paper. I ignored it. Her hoarding tendencies were her own business.
"So this is where he took you."
Riley nodded. She gestured to the hiking path sloping up the hills to Jasper Tower. "I took the path for about a quarter mile. I got some great shots of the tower at twilight. But that's all I remember."
Thinking of something, I headed back to my car and from the side pocket in my door, I grabbed my Minnesota road map and in the center console, I found an old pencil with a rock-hard eraser. On the hood of my car, I unfolded it carefully to the northern part of the state and located the tower on the map, marking it with a small dot.
"What are you doing?" Riley asked.
"I'm terrible at directions. I just need a better way to visualize it."
I glanced over at her. "Where the cave might be. If you were taken here, at Jasper Tower, and I was last here, on 169... Amy lives south of Tower..." I marked the map appropriately, three small dots, like the holes in a bowling ball, all about an inch apart.
"You think his cave is in that triangle?"
"I don't know. What do you think?"
Riley's eyes clicked to mine. She was smirking with a glint. "Follow behind me?"
Tower, Minnesota had no department store, so we had to drive all the way to Virginia, where we dropped a little over $100 on supplies. An hour after that, we left our cars parked on the side of a county road and were making our way through the long grass into the ditch, carrying a plastic, thirty-gallon water trough between us by the handles. We used it to haul the rest of our newly bought necessities.
"Maybe we should come back later this evening," I suggested. "When he normally hunts."
"It's still early," she said, glancing back at the cars. "He might still be on a breakfast run."
"Yeah, but for whom? There's no one left in the cave for him to feed."
Riley didn't reply and we continued tramping through dried weeds and dead leaves, weaving through leafless trees. There was a new compass still in its packaging in one of the plastic shopping bags, just in case, but we were careful to keep in a relatively straight line, even after our cars dropped out of sight.
"Here?" Riley asked.
I glanced around at the carpet of brown and orange leaves and nodded. "Here."
Setting the trough down, we used a fallen tree as a sitting bench and began sorting through the bags. A set of enameled camping bowls with matching cups, candles, a boiling pot, the compass, a small hatchet, a sewing kit and, of course, a first aid set. We also stopped at a jewelry gift shop and picked out a necklace made of black paracord, decorated with engraved silver beads and a shark's tooth. Tiger-shark actually, according to the saleswoman.
"Do you think we should be doing this?" I asked.
"Doing what?" Riley asked.
I held up the coil of rope I had just liberated from its packaging. It was an impulse buy we thought might be useful, although neither of us speculated out loud what nefarious things Pratt might actually use it for.
She was wrestling a pocket knife out of its air-tight plastic, but then she stopped as if just realizing what she was doing. Stroking the outer camouflage enamel of the knife, she blushed deeply, a beautiful shade of coral. "Remember in the cave when I was having a hard time...going? You were so nice to give me half your share of berries."
"I wanted to help."
"Well it wasn't the berries that helped. It was something else. Something inside me that I had to set free."
"Dignity?" I quipped. I was only half serious.
Her offered smile was tiny and pinched. "Maybe. But you know...dignity is like a tree. You have to prune it back so that it will grow fuller."
I tossed the rope into the reservoir tank, nodding. So smart.
We stayed until just before dark, but in the end we covered the newly purchased supplies loosely in branches to detract human hikers, trusting this was Pratt's usual stomping grounds and our scents would be enough to lead him to it. Stopping in town, we picked up two #5 combos from my favorite Chinese place and ate back at the house in front of the fire. After storing the leftovers in the refrigerator, I told Riley I was going to take a shower before bed and when she was tired she could have her pick of any guest room upstairs.
In the middle of my shower, I reminded myself a new order of razors would be coming tomorrow with my groceries. Not that I felt I needed to shave for aesthetic reasons—and I was certainly not shaving because Jack had pointed it out—but the hair was starting to tickle under my arms.
I felt a little bad for throwing Jack's card away, but I doubt he was waiting by the phone for me to call. It occurred to me Jack was only responding to the same chemical reaction Pratt smelled. It was no coincidence I had been dropped off at his mailbox, just like it was no coincidence Amy had been left under Don's tire swing. So was it only coincidence Riley was released at my door step? I already suspected Pratt had chosen her for the cave because he knew we would be attracted to each other, but it was different with Riley. We had already been through so much together. And I knew I could trust her.
Although there was something she wasn't telling me. She hadn't called home yet. I knew her parents were dead and she wasn't very close to her roommate, but even I checked in with my editor and my mother as soon as I was able. I thought about searching the Internet for Riley's name. There must be a database somewhere of Missing Persons and I was interested to see if she was on it.
After my shower I dried off, hung up the towel and ran a brush through my wet hair. Entering the bedroom, I noticed the bedside light had been turned on and Riley was lying over the covers on my bed, completely nude.
"Is this okay?" she asked.
I nodded and approached the bed. Equally naked, I lay down next to her and stared at the ceiling with her.
"I closed the window," she mentioned. "It was chilly in here."
A moment later, her cool fingers laced through mine and squeezed. When her thumb began to absently rub over my knuckles, she spoke again. "Can I ask you something?"
"Why aren't you married?"
I turned my head to look at her over my pillow.
She gave me a sideways glance and grinned contritely. "I'm sorry. You don't have to answer that."
"No, it's okay." I carefully paused. "I guess I haven't met the right person."
"So if you had met the right person, you'd be married?"
Her bewildered look sought for explanation.
"There're other factors. Kids, for instance."
"So you want kids?"
I hesitated, smiling at her, perplexed. "I haven't decided. Why?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm just wondering what you're waiting for."
I felt the smile drain from my face and Riley saw it.
"Oh. Oh god no, that came out all wrong." She rolled towards me and threw an arm over my belly, squeezing. Her small breast pressed against the back of my elbow. "I'm genuinely curious. You must know something I don't."
"I see," I said, stifling a grin. "You're seeking wisdom from an elder."
She giggled. "Maybe."
I freed my arm and pulled her closer, her cheek resting against the flank of my right breast. Exhaling, I tried to think of something sagacious to say. "I didn't want to settle for someone that wasn't completely crazy for me."
"I didn't realize you were attracted to the insane."
I laughed. "You know what I mean."
"So how could you tell they weren't?"
"Weren't what? Crazy for me?"
"Mm-hmm. I have a hard time believing there wasn't at least one person in your past that wasn't totally mad for you."
"Maybe," I said. "But it's a two-way street."
"Hmph." Her hand had inched up to my left breast and she was stroking it with the side of her thumb. I felt both nipples constrict pleasurably and I froze so as not to disturb the thrill of the moment. "How do you think Pratt chooses who to bring back to the cave?"
"I'm not sure."
"Do you think he can smell unhappiness? Like he smells fear?"
The question startled me. I never really considered myself unhappy before the cave. Restless, maybe. Not unhappy. "Were you unhappy when Pratt found you?" I asked.
"Is that why you left the Cities? Because you weren't happy?" Brushing her hair back from her face, I pressed my lips to her temple. Is that why she refused to call home?
"I don't know. It was just a silly theory." Her head tilted then, wrapping her lips around my swollen nipple and electricity shot to my loins.
Threading my fingers through her hair, I arched towards her. Her hand lifted to hold my other breast and I breathed out a moan. Peeking down, I saw her pretty tongue roll out and run back and forth over the firm nipple until it was shining.
She peered up at me. "This okay?" she rasped.
She briefly smiled against my breast before she continued to kiss it, leisurely, languorously. "I missed these."
Her knee pushed up between my legs, her pubic bone digging into my thigh, her wetness cooling on my skin. Elevating my hips, we began a slow grind of loins, thighs slickening from the rub of pubic lips. The bed rattled and creaked with our deliberate pumping. Groaning, Riley lifted up, her head dropping back in pleasure, her nipples quivering in front of my face. I managed to capture one in my mouth, latching on, suckling on the young skin. When I had enough, I laid my head back on the pillow and nodded up at her.
This was how it was like in the cave: easy and in the moment. I was present. I existed. I was not watching from the corner like a troubled wraith of my former self.
We were already acquainted with each other's bodies, our preferences, our proclivities, and without words she swung a leg over me, sliding open as she lowered against my face. She was fragrant with feminine musk. My tongue squirmed into her folds, feeling around to reorient myself to her anatomy. Further down, I felt her kiss the inside of my left thigh, the static of her hair brushing the inside of my legs, and a second later her mouth found my heated pubic lips. My legs dropped open as she reciprocated pleasure. We slowly writhed, our practiced rhythm leisurely and unhurried, becoming one unit, arms twined around legs. Riley came first, her nether region undulating against my mouth, moaning low between my legs. I felt her tongue flit with fresh determination until I came undone.
She tumbled sideways, panting. For a few minutes we lay like that, side by side, head to feet, thought gathering. I noticed the ceiling fan was still and thought about turning it on to circulate the air. I changed my mind and rolled up on my elbow to reach the lamp.
Riley sniffed. "Layla."
She sniffed again. "I think I love you."
I hesitated with my hand on the lamp switch and for some reason checked the red digital numbers on the clock. 9:38. I snapped off the light. "Come here," I said and tugged up the covers.
Snuggling with me under the blankets, Riley's head burrowed against my shoulder as I opened my arm to her. She was crying, but trying to hide it and it felt surreal to be wept over this way. It touched me.
Pressing my mouth into her hair, I said, "I love you, too."
She lifted her head a little. "Since when?"
"Your first day in the cave," I admitted.
Her head came off my shoulder completely and I sensed she was searching for my face in the dark. "Don't shit me, Layla."
I chuckled, feeling the burn of my own tears in my eyes and I used the knuckle of my thumb to wipe at them. "I wouldn't shit you, you're my favorite turd."
She burst out laughing and I felt her body jerk as she threw back her head. "You're such a dork," she said and cuddled back into my arm. "What do you want for breakfast in the morning?"
"You don't have to make me anything."
"How about pancakes? I haven't had pancakes since I was—like—ten."
I smirked to myself. "Pancakes sound great."
When I woke, I was alone in bed. Out the window, the morning light filtered through the cloudy sky. Despite my lack of clothes, I was lightly sweating and I had kicked off the covers at some point. For some reason, it aroused me to know this was how Riley had seen me this morning, naked and glistening. I would have loved to have woken up to see her this way, but apparently pancakes were calling her name.
I didn't dress. Since my return from the cave, I usually put it off until after I showered in the morning. However, I did brush my teeth, quickly, just to get rid of that early-morning breath, looking forward to feminine lips and sweet cherub kisses.
"I'm coming out," I called, opening the bedroom door. The main room was bright as well and I found my eyes weren't as repelled by it anymore. "I'm naked, so don't drop the batter."
I turned the corner to the kitchen and stopped.
I expected the counters to be sooty with flour and a leaning tower of possibly-burnt pancakes on a plate with more cooking on the stove top. But the kitchen was still tidied from cleaning up yesterday's breakfast. I headed for the living room and looked out the window. Riley's car was gone.
We were probably out of milk. And pancake mix. And I don't remember ever ordering syrup from Todd at the grocer's, either. Syrup being, of course, the most important part.
But then my eyes dropped to something on the coffee table and I almost ignored it as nothing. It was, after all, just a newspaper folded up in quarters to the Lifestyle section and Riley's rabbit vertebrae necklace was laid on top, so I knew she would be back. Strange, though. I didn't get the Pioneer Press here and I know we didn't get one while we were out yesterday, but I remembered the heap of newspapers stacked in Riley's back seat.
Reaching down, I let the necklace slip off as I picked up the paper. It was on the wedding announcement page and I scanned the print briefly before my eyes settled on the black and white photo under: Norton/Perks Engagement. The picture was of Riley in a traditional indoor setting with a marbled backdrop. She was sitting with a handsome young man with glasses and a striped sweater, a nerdy version of Ryan Gosling. I realized I didn't know Riley's last name, until I read it in the article. Her fiancé, Henry Norton, was a biology major at the U too and their wedding was scheduled in June of next year.
Picking up the necklace, I let the spine bones click hollowly together, thinking of all her talk of marriage last night in bed. Foolishly, I had thought she was trying to ascertain my outlook on the matter, but she was merely having doubts of her own impending nuptials.
That was her foible. Her snag. Her lion without courage.
Something occurred to me and I flipped the newspaper to find the date. The announcement had been printed on October 5, a Friday, four weeks ago. Dots connected, I deduced Riley had a mini-meltdown the week it had come out, probably bought out the store in an irrational attempt to keep the news from getting out. Maybe she'd quarreled with Henry and then drove north for the weekend to regain perspective. It certainly could have happened differently, but it didn't matter what really happened. The mere fact I was seeing the announcement at all evidenced her return to Henry. Leaving behind her necklace was no accident, either. In order to make it work with Henry, she was going to have to forget about the cave, about Pratt. About me.
When I eventually got around to writing the book, I didn't omit Riley from it, although I changed a few of the most telling details about her. In it, I wrote about the closure Riley had given me in respects to my experiences in the cave, how she held a special place in my heart and that I would never forget her.
It sounded more poetic than what actually happened.
Shredding the newspaper in a hundred pieces with my bare hands, spitting the words "You fucking bitch, you fucking, fucking bitch!" and then sobbing for an hour in my bed were a few of the most telling details about myself I didn't want in the book. It was Todd the grocery boy who roused me from my breakdown, knocking with the order I had put in yesterday.
"Ya forgot da candy," Todd said, sliding the paper bags across the counter top.
"Da Halloween candy. Though all da way oot here, ya prolly woont get any trick er treaters. We're lucky ta get one er two. Anyways, I hear it's sposed ta snoo, not dat id'ever stopped me when I wassa kid from gettin' my share ove candy."
"It's Halloween already?" I asked. How fitting.
Todd frowned at me. Those nearly invisible blonde eyebrows were looking very worried and more compassionate than I'd ever seen. "Y'alright, Miss Ringer?"
I told Todd I was fine, gave him a big tip and shooed him out the door. Sniveling with dry heaves, I began putting the groceries away, the perishables, at least, like the milk and ice cream, intending to deal with the rest later. I found the lady razors I had added last minute to the order and quickly broke open the packaging. I took it into the bathroom, stripped down and stepped into the empty tub.
The triple blades were shiny and new and did the job efficiently. I thought it would be harder, but it was facile, like an old habit, and I let the hot water run as I did it. Soon my underarms were as smooth as the commercials guaranteed. It was the last of it, the arm hair, the last of the cave on me and I wanted rid of it.
Swishing the blade in the bath water, I set it on the side of the tub by the wall and finished bathing. My legs were still prickly, but I didn't bother. It was typical for me not to shave them until shorts-weather rolled around again.
By the time I was toweled dried and dressed, it was snowing. I opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch, watching as heavy, plump flakes gently sifted the yard, a thin layer of frosting already covering the world. It not only marked the conclusion of fall, but I could feel the closure inside me, too, sealing a chapter of my life in a tight little package.
After allowing myself one night of self-deprecation (the half gallon of mint chocolate chip Todd delivered was especially helpful), I woke up early the next day, bright-eyed and ready to work. I showered, ate a decent breakfast and brushed my teeth. I dressed in clean jeans and a casual blouse and sat down at my workstation to organize myself. I put aside all notes and drabbles about Pratt, Riley and my time in the cave and made an earnest effort to finish my current project before starting any new ones. I had only five weeks to do about three months of work and I relied on the pressure alone to keep me focused and sticking to a rigid routine. After a solid day's work, I made sure to stop so I had time to decompress and get ready for the next day. There was no sleeping at my desk and I left all the blinds open in the day, as well as a sufficient amount of lighting at night. I kept the windows shut and the heat on to a steady 72 degrees.
One night after I'd finished a long afternoon of work, I remembered to look up Stockholm's Syndrome on the computer. I chose an article at random and skimmed it.
"...an unconscious act of self-preservation...triggered by intense fear...joining the abductor's cause...minor acts of kindness from the captor are seen as signs of friendship...even when the hostage is able to escape, they choose not to...the victim identifies with the aggressor, long after they are released from captivity..."
When I had read enough, I left the website and closed my computer.
I finished my final draft two days before the due date and wasted no time sending it off to my editor. I had come to my uncle's cabin to finish my book and now that it was, there was little reason to stay. I planned on leaving first thing in the morning. I didn't bring much to the cabin, but some of the groceries I would have to take with. I thought about driving out to the place where we'd left Pratt supplies, to see if they were gone, but now that my judgments of Riley were not so vicious, I decided maybe she had the right idea. Clean break and all that.
Folding some of my clothes in the utility room and inserting them straight into my last suitcase, I heard someone at the door. I froze and muttered a curse under my breath. I had ordered another round of groceries for the week before I had finished my work early and had forgotten to cancel it. I wondered if I gave Todd a sizable tip if he would take back the groceries and refund me.
I opened the door and reached for the screen door handle. "Todd, I'm sorry, I—"
Jack was standing on the porch, looking insulted and put-out. The sky was overcast again but the temperature mild, so he wore his coat open, exposing his flannel and tee-shirt layers. His face was still thick with dark whiskers. And in his arm, claws out to hold onto the sleeve of his coat and giving Bucky very reproachful looks, was my cat.
"Daisy!" I cried and darted out.
"Did you lose it?" Jack snapped at me.
I had my arms out for Daisy but I put them down at my sides when I heard Jack's tone. I didn't realize he cared so much about my lost pet. I thought he was a dog person. "Yes. She's been missing for weeks."
His scowl wavered into confusion for a moment and then he glanced down at Daisy. He handed her over. "So he is yours—she, I mean. I found her down by the road on my way in."
"I'm surprised she let you pick her up," I said. "She probably smells your cat."
"I don't have a cat," he said, but then he saw my smirk and nodded with a sarcastic half-smile.
I turned and let Daisy jump down inside. Bucky barked once and brushed by my legs to follow Daisy, who immediately jumped up on the counter and gave a disapproving hiss down at the golden retriever. I approached them to break it up and Jack came in, tapping snow off his boots at the threshold and standing at the door.
"Boy you two just come in whenever you feel like it, don't you?"
Jack ignored my comment. "So you lost it?" he asked, a little less sharply than before.
I frowned. "I just told you I did."
"Not your cat," he said.
I thought for a second and then it hit me. "Oh, you mean your card. No, I didn't lose it."
"Oh," he said, dimming, retreating into himself to think critically about something.
"I threw it out."
Jack looked up suddenly and darkened. "Oh." Wincing, he shook his head at himself, and his eyes snagged on my luggage next to the door. "You're leaving soon?"
"Ah, yeah. I finished my work yesterday. I'm heading back to Duluth in the morning."
He nodded distractedly and shoved a hand in his coat pocket to grab his keys. "I won't keep you from it," he clipped. "Come on, Bucky, let's go."
I caught Bucky by the collar as he went by and he swished his tail at me as I lowered down to his height. I let him lick my cheek. "You came all the way over here to see if I still had your card? Did you give away your very last one, or what?"
"No, I don't need it back. But if I'd known you were just going to throw it away—" He sounded like he was going to say something rather cutting, but stopped himself and shook his head again. His voice sharpened. "Bucky, let's go."
Bucky dutifully stepped towards his master, but I distracted him with some ear scratches, which made him swish his tail faster. I hadn't forgotten about Jack these several weeks. Knowing the nature of our pairing, I had expected to think of him some during his absence, but I had also expected the magic of our attraction to eventually fade and our separation would ultimately lead to his forgetting me. I had no idea he was still waiting for my call. "I'm sorry," I said and meant it. "I shouldn't have accepted your card if I had no intention of using it."
He glanced sideways at me, but still seemed annoyed.
"I was...scared." I realize now trusting anyone was a gamble.
Turning to face me, his scowl smoothed out. His lips parted, but he didn't say anything.
I gave Bucky's fur a final ruffle and urged him to the door. Standing, I offered Jack a small smile of contrition.
Jack exhaled. "No, I'm sorry. You said you were just getting out of a relationship. I should have given you more time."
"If you had waited any longer, I'd have been gone."
He glanced down at my luggage and gave a sideways nod. "Maybe my timing was just right."
"Maybe," I agreed.
Bending over, he gave Bucky some attention. "We haven't eaten yet," he said and looked at me. "Are you hungry?"
"Sure," I said. "My treat, though."
"Can't argue with that," he said and grinned lopsidedly.
"I'll get my purse." I rounded the counter, pausing to scratch under Daisy's chin. I realized I should probably leave some water out for her and maybe a little food, too. I went to the cupboard for a bowl, filled it with tap water, and poured a handful of cat food directly onto the counter. The shake of the bag was enough to get Daisy to respond and she patted over. I threw my purse over my shoulder.
Jack was waiting at the door, one hand on the screen door handle, the other in his coat pocket. His lips were quirked. "So, who's Todd?"
"Oh," I smiled. "He delivers my groceries."
His eyes glinted with recognition. "You mean Todd Larson?"
"You know him?" I asked, and then shook my head. "Of course you do. Small town."
Jack chuckled. "You know, when you said his name I thought maybe I had missed my window. Something just came over me." He scoffed dismissively.
"Oh, yeah? What was it?"
"I don't know. Something..." He shrugged one shoulder, indifferent, almost shy, not quite meeting my eye. "Territorial."
I felt my face deaden, smile gone.
Jack noticed my changed expression, startled. "What?"
I let my purse drop to the floor with a jangle of change, crossed my arms around his neck and kissed him hard. He wasn't expecting it. One hand clutched my hip, the other fought to free itself from his coat pocket. I could hear his keys ringing. With both arms liberated, he wrapped them around me, crushing, pushing back with his lips, his face rough on my skin. He withdrew to take in a breath, his lips blood red, eyes cloudy. We kissed again, tongues curling together, and a current of elation spiked through me. One of his arms left me and I heard the front door latch as he closed it.
"Back he—" I gasped.
But he was already shuffling towards the bedroom. "Back here, I know," he murmured. "Bucky, stay."
It was night. The moon glowed high and full, the air thick and warm. Guarded, he crept as close to the edge of the trees as he dared, surveilling carefully for the mongrel that was always there. If it caught his scent, he would be forced to retreat, as he often did when he came this close to the house.
The Man was sitting in the back yard on a long lounge chair, sipping drink from a dark bottle, contemplating the starry sky. There was only one light on in the house, on the ground floor. Upstairs was completely dark and as a warm breeze picked up, he heard the heavy crinkle of construction plastic covering the open walls of the second floor addition like the gauzy, discarded skin of a garter snake. That, upon the pleasing sonata of frogs and crickets, and he barely heard the quiet hiss near his feet.
The cat he liked. Gray with black stripes, it was always cautious at first, but after a few scratches behind its ear, it was usually purring and rubbing up against his leg. He knelt and stroked the back of its soft head with the side of one large claw, keeping one golden eye glued to the house.
His other hand played with the animal tooth hanging at the hollow of his throat by a man-made rope. It was shaped like an arrowhead and it had been treated somehow with chemicals, but he could still smell fragments of the animal it had come from. Nothing he would likely ever come across in these woods. It was an animal humans hunted, for food he presumed, although humans were the only species he knew that hunted for fun rather than sustenance.
Another light blinked on and a shadow moved around inside. A moment later, the glass door slid open sideways and he could smell her fragrant scent. Heart thumping, he stood for a better view. He didn't always get to see her—Layla—when he came, but when he did his attention became so rapt, nothing else existed.
As she came outside, however, so did the mongrel. Thankfully, he put his nose to the ground and immediately followed a scent to the far edge of the yard.
Layla was wearing a heavy dark robe, cinched tightly at the waist. Her dark hair was still long, shining in the moonlight, splayed around her shoulders. As she approached the Man, her bare feet padded across the deck boards silently, and he had barely a chance to lift his face to her when the robe fell to a puddle at her feet.
The slant of her hips, the heavy sway of her breasts, rounded behind...she was just as he remembered her, save for her midsection, which was thick with child. Even as far back as he was, he could smell her arousal, a sweet pungency mingled in the humid summer air, an aroma he knew very well, as it once filled his entire cave. Sometimes, on rainy nights, he could still detect her in the fur blankets, even while his newest tribute was sleeping there.
"Jesus," the Man said. He set down his bottle of drink with a woody thud and pulled her into his lap, her back against his chest. Layla guided his hands to her breasts, but he resisted. "Are they still sore?"
"Only a little." She curled an elbow back around his neck so that he could explore her, dark hair growing fine and wispy in the hollow of her arm pit.
Taking great care not to touch roughly, the Man delicately cupped her, softly rubbing both thumbs over her stiff pink parts. After several moments of getting reacquainted, the Man showed his enjoyment by growling into the back of Layla's ear. A feeble sound in his regard, but it made Layla scream in delight and succumb to a fit of giggles. To his keen nose, the harmony of their scents was truly intense.
His cave had always been devoid of laughter, except during Layla's short stay. Screams, yes, but never laughter. And after he had brought Layla her gift—Riley, she called her—his cave had never sounded so happy, and it likely never would again.
He loved all the women he brought back to the cave, in some way, and some more than others, but Layla most of all. Layla, he felt, was the only one who loved him back, really loved him, beyond just the pleasure he provided. Of all the women he released, Layla was the only one he returned to. Part of him hoped he would find that same restiveness he first detected on her—that he sensed on all the women he took—so that he might have an excuse to take her back, but she was always stinking of the Man. And now she had the Man's child to take care of. As a rule, he never took mothers with young spawn, no matter how much they reeked of uneasy discontent. He didn't have the heart.
"Did you finish it?" Layla whispered back to the Man.
"Pretty imaginative for someone who only writes nonfiction," the Man said. He was still nuzzling her from behind, his hands settling to the firmness at her belly, rubbing in small circles.
"Yes, well..." she trailed off. "Who says it's not?"
"Not what? Nonfiction?" The Man laughed heartily at the sky. "Are you saying I'm the monster?"
"He's not a monster," she said, tone darkening.
"Sorry, okay. Am I Pratt, then?"
She sighed. "No comment."
"I see. Well, I do have a problem with one part."
"Fire in a cave is completely unbelievable. The smoke alone would make a billion spiders come down from the ceiling."
Layla sat up a little, looking back at him and it was very hard to tell if her insult was mocked or not. "There weren't any spiders."
"What about the one that bit the girl?"
She sighed again, but it was happy and she settled back against him. "Everyone's a critic. Stick to reading nonfiction, lover. It's what you know best."
"Fine, you want to know what I really think?"
"Lay it on me, baby."
"You've heard of the ego, the superego and the id, haven't you?"
Layla turned back to look at her mate with a baffled grin. "When have you ever taken psychology?"
Eyes coming together in slight, he said, "Hey, I took a half semester at Bemidji State."
"A half semester? Well this outta be good, then."
"So you know the superego is the part of the psyche that monitors rules and norms—societal, cultural, religious, parental...that sort of thing. And the id is in charge of impulses, primal...instinctual...sexual..."
The Man slid a hand into the pubic hair between her legs to elicit a response. Layla sharply inhaled and nodded.
"And the ego keeps the both of them in check," she finished quickly.
"For me," the Man went on, "the cave represents the id."
Layla seemed to sober momentarily, despite her mate's finger still stirring around her private place. "Go on."
"Everything outside the cave is the superego and your protagonist is the ego, struggling to negotiate between the two."
Smiling slowly, Layla said, "Now that's interesting. You never cease to amaze me, Jack. Oh—that reminds me." She scooped the Man's hand away from her nether region and laid it against her curved belly instead. "Amy and Don are coming over for barbecue tomorrow."
"How does that remind you of Amy and Don?"
His look turned suspicious. "Tell me again, how is it you know Amy? I've never pictured you as the type to run with her crowd."
But Layla didn't respond and simply moved his hand back down to the thatch of black between her legs. The Man growled at her again, the only part of their conversation he understood.
Except for Pratt. He recognized that word. There were few words he could comprehend, but he knew "No." That was easy of course, and he tried to be sensitive to their demands when the word was directed at him. Generally, consent made it easier for women to reach pleasure. And they always consented eventually. That word was "Ohgodyes."
Not that he always listened to their words. Scent played a larger role and when their fear was reduced to just a bitter whiff, he knew they were almost ready. Except for Layla, of course. He had never met a woman whose fear had faded so quickly and so completely, in spite of the difficulty it took for her to let go.
That was another thing about humans. He had never known a species to sexualize their females so much, while simultaneously holding them to impossibly high standards. Little wonder the women he brought back to the cave were so sexually stifled.
Turning in the Man's lap, Layla straddled him, arcing back so that the Man could kiss her breasts. Soon, his kisses blended to light suckling.
Layla's familiar moans reached his ears and he felt sick with heartbreak. He had picked the Man specifically for her, long before she was fevering with infection, but every time he thought of her impending release, he'd feel an uncomfortable tightness in his chest, an anxiety so strong it consumed every thought. He suspected he might never let her go and when he left the choice up to her, she always chose to stay. But he could smell the oncoming foulness of her sepsis and he knew she had to go, and to prepare for her arrival, he had left numerous donations on the Man's front porch. He had never done that before; leave gifts for the male. But he wanted the Man to be adequately supplied to take care of Layla.
Fumbling eagerly between them, a wild craze in his green, gimlet eyes, the Man freed his cock and Layla's hips began to move. He watched the Man roughly squeezing the flesh of her heart-shaped rump as it plummeted down on his manhood. The metal squeaks of the lounge chair's frame increased tempo and the satisfaction in Layla's groans let him know she was pleased with the Man's size, which relieved him marginally. He wanted her to be happy.
Feeling the rising tingle of his own passion, he slipped his hand through the strips of his loincloth to rummage for his semi-hard penis, but he had hardly noticed the golden mongrel trotting out from the far end of the yard until the yapping stunned him. The tiger-striped cat suddenly scaled the tree he was leaning against with a rapid, splintery sound, hissing down at the ground.
"Bucky, shut up," the Man hollered thickly.
He took an alarmed step backwards, his foot coming down to snap a branch under a layer of old leaves. Layla and the Man swung their heads in his direction. The mutt barked unrelenting at the tree line.
"Who's out there?" the Man grumbled.
Layla grabbed his whiskered chin, directing his attention back on her. "Let them watch," she grinned.
Retreating to the woods, he was reluctant to leave the ceremony of lovemaking, even though he knew he would be back, at the very least to get a glimpse of their offspring. But he stopped for one last glance.
"Jesus," the Man breathed, fingers dimpling the flesh of her butt cheeks as he thrust up with renewed drive. "I fucking love you."
May 8, 2018 in romance