She turned off the car's headlights and drove by moonlight. The birch trees stood tall along the nearly abandoned road and the full moon shone brightly through bare branches. The air was serene. Now she turned off the radio and listened to the road, hearing her studded tires break through the thin crust of snow and scrape against the ice below.
The one-lane road was once a favorite training route for the local dog teams. Encroaching development had cut the trail in pieces, and even the strong Iditarod lobby had been unable to protect it from the builders. It worked well for her, though. Her cabin was far enough away from the main road to make it unattractive to developers. Too close to the protected State-owned land. Too expensive to wire for electricity. Impractical to hook into the plumbing and the virtually non-existent sewage system of the nearest town. So, she was able to stay out here on her own as long as she was willing to draw her water from the well and rent a snowplow to clear the road a few times each season. A few hardy neighbors lived in the area, but her four-acre lot generally provided her with enough isolation to satisfy her reclusive instincts.
Morgan relaxed her foot on the accelerator, let the car slow to a crawl, and steadied the steering wheel with her knee. Her hand shook as she fingered the manila envelope on the seat beside her and lifted it to rest on the steering wheel. She examined the typed address label on its front. She had read it a dozen times. Her name-Mrs. Richard Mayfield-and her address, done on a computer printer. No return address, no postmark. Hand delivered.
She found it this morning, shoved through the mail slot in the front door. She had argued with Richard when he bought the door the last time they remodeled. "It's silly, Richard. No one uses a mail-slot anymore-the postman drives a jeep and insists on curbside boxes. He grumbles about even having to come to the door with packages. Besides, isn't it a security risk, having an opening in the door like that?" But Richard had brushed aside her objections with a wave of his hand and pronounced the door bought and installed. "It fits the 'look,' Morgan. And it's no more a risk than the dog door you insisted on for the kitchen." And so it was done.
There were eleven pictures inside the envelope-large, grainy, black-and- white photos apparently taken with a telephoto lens and blown up to show grotesque detail of the subjects. There was no doubt it was Richard. The camera was obviously a good one, and the photo clarity left no questions.
In several pictures she could see the small scar on his cheek, a reminder of their honeymoon. During an especially active round of newlywed lovemaking, her ring had caught him near his eye-she was unaccustomed to the stone-and he had bled all over the pillow. He often joked that it was his "battle scar." In her more irritated moments, she often thought it was the one feature that added character to his face. Richard hadn't grown well into middle age. Instead of aging gracefully with his face taking on distinguished lines and personality, his features had become pudgy and soft. Where she struggled to maintain her appearance and figure, he scoffed at her outdoor lifestyle and rigorous pastimes in favor of rich, fancy dinners and long nights of drinking with business clients at the local "gentleman's" club.
Although the scar was not visible in every picture, there were other ways to tell it was he. The photographer had snapped the picture at just the right angle to show his mouth, his lips, his fast-talking and faster- moving tongue hard at work. Yes, he was always good with his tongue. She could recognize the line of his back, the soft angle of his jaw, and the weak shelf of his chin. The kneeling curve of his hips and the soft pocket of flesh above his buttocks were unmistakable. Even from behind she knew it was Richard. Bile rose in her throat as she looked at the pictures. She swallowed angry tears and refocused on the road unwinding under her car tires.
The edges of the pictures bent as she shoved them roughly into the envelope and tossed it into the back seat. It was too distracting, too tempting to open it again, too tempting to examine the faces, to see Richard's face locked in what looked like a painful grimace. She knew it was the look she had seen countless times over the years, the almost near snarl when he came. She could hear in her head the grunting exhalation that always accompanied that look. She could feel his weight as he thrust deeper into her, pounding her against the mattress.
It was always the same when he came. Despite how they started, despite how many times they rolled and shifted and changed positions, he always ended up on top, between her legs, when he wanted to come. She had tried for years to change that. She had tried riding him until her legs trembled, clenching him tightly between her thighs, matching his thrusts with her hips. She had wanted to match his intensity, grinding hard against his groin, rushing her own orgasm, trying just once to change the routine. She'd tried bringing him to orgasm between her lips, drawing her tongue across his cock, flicking the ridge under the tip of his penis like she had seen in the films Richard kept hidden in his night stand.
She'd tempted him in the kitchen, the living room, crawling on the floor between his legs as he sat in his office, anything to change the pace, anything to add spice to a sex life that had become stale and routine. But he didn't respond. Sex was for the bedroom, and when she clung to his hips, pushing him into the bed, he tensed, pushed back. He always pulled out, flipped her on her back, and pounded into her until he came between her legs. Always the same. So, yes, she knew that look.
Caught up in her own thoughts, Morgan almost missed the turn-off to her cabin when the narrow road opened to a bell-shaped turnaround marked with a "Private Property" sign. She shifted the car into park and sat with the engine idling softly. An unmarked and almost overgrown path led from behind the sign through the trees. The path never did get used much. Richard hated the cabin, hated the rustic "work-for-it" life she sought out during their infrequent vacations, so she only managed three or four trips a year to the cabin she had inherited from her father when he finally died.
Daddy had held on for so long. He and Morgan would come out here every summer, spending weeks fishing on the lake behind the cabin, tromping through the woods along familiar paths, enjoying each other's company, arguing about books and politics and movies.
They had stopped coming about two years before he died, when he could no longer make the short, quarter-mile hike from the parking lot to the cabin. Morgan had offered to have the path paved, to bring out a contractor to widen it and make the trail accessible to him. But Max Carter was stubborn. "Its perfection is in its natural state, Morgan. Let it be." So she did, and at his wishes, she continued coming here every summer. Richard refused to come with her. "If I want to draw water from a well and chop wood, I'll move to the Third World," was his standard argument. "We've evolved past that, Morgan." So she came alone.
She turned off the ignition and opened the door. Her boots crunched on the old snow. The weather had been in a strange freeze-thaw cycle, and there was a layer of ice over what would normally be soft powder. Hers were the only boot tracks in the lot, although she could see evidence of a moose and several snowshoe rabbits crossing from the trees on one side of the lot to the trees on the other. She saw a track that didn't belong, and in the moonlight she knelt down at the edge of the clearing to examine it more closely. She fingered the edges, but there was no doubt as to what it was. "Strange," she muttered. "The bears should be asleep by now."
There were several caves close to the cabin, and she knew that occasionally a bear hibernated not far from the stream. This late in the season it was unusual to see evidence of one still up and around. Unusual, but not unheard of. Some of the dog mushers on neighboring lots would occasionally tell stories of early-spring or late-summer bears surprising them during training runs. She made a mental note to keep her trash in the locked shelter outside the cabin instead of hauling it down to the car each day. Car tires were notoriously hard to resist for a chewing bear.
She opened the back door of the car and turned her focus to the envelope now sitting on top of her warm winter coat. Morgan again fingered the flap, opening it enough to see the now-crinkled edges of the plain photograph paper. They were apparently home-developed, for there was no watermark or other identifier on the back or edges of the prints, only the single line note taped to the back of the first one:
"Thought you should know. From, A Friend."
Nothing else to help her track down the person who took the pictures and dropped them into her life, unasked. Nothing to help her figure out who had troubled to expose Richard's ugly little secret. It wasn't surprising that her "friend" would want to remain anonymous, given the nature of the pictures. She could only assume that her "friend" was the other person's lover or spouse. Nor was it surprising that the pictures were amateur, developed in a workshop dark room, probably in someone's garage. Most professional places frowned on developing pictures of people engaging in oral sex. She closed the envelope and put it carefully in the front pocket of her backpack. She shouldered her pack, took her walking stick from the trunk, and started the hike to her cabin.
It was a short trail, just long enough to discourage the occasional curious wanderer, and she reached the familiar comfort of the cabin in easy time. She dropped her pack on the front step and did a quick check around the outside for evidence of tampering or intrusion. Last summer a wolverine surprised her. It had apparently decided that her cabin would make a nice den. Lesson learned the hard way. It had taken her weeks to get the pungent musk smell from the furnishings.
Everything appeared undisturbed, so she unlocked the door and started the now-familiar routine of making the cabin her home. Within an hour she had the wood stove crackling, which banished the worst of the winter chill. She put a large pan of water on the stove to heat, and the steam rose from her boots as they thawed next to the stove. She unpacked her weekend's worth of clothing and hung her spare shirt and jeans in the small cupboard Max had built for her one summer.
"You need your own space, Morgan," he had insisted when she was entering her teens. "You're growing up, and you won't be Daddy's little girl much longer." That was the same summer he knocked out a portion of the wall and added a small alcove near the stove. It closed with a thick curtain and was a place for Morgan to feel alone, private. It had remained her "room" throughout the remainder of her father's life. After he was gone she had trouble moving from the alcove to the big bed where her father and mother had slept, where her father had slept alone after Mother grew tired of "roughing it." Morgan used to think that Richard and Mother would have gotten along well, and she often wished that Mother had been alive long enough to keep Richard company while she and her father enjoyed their annual cabin vacations.
She made one more trip to the car for the small cooler filled with weekend provisions, then started the coffee percolating on the stove. She changed from her wet jeans and flannel shirt into the comfortable fleece nightgown and again turned her attention to the pictures. In the yellow glow of the battery-powered lamp, she could think them through with a more dispassionate, more rational mind.
Sitting in front of the wood stove, she examined them again for any clue, any hint as to who Richard's fair-haired, handsome partner might be. She turned them over one at a time, forcing herself to look closely at the man's face, his hands. She saw how his fingers buried themselves in Richard's thinning hair and seemed to press her husband's mouth harder over the cock between his lips. She could see the indentations in the cushion under Richard's knees, and she could see the shine of Richard's manicured fingernails as his fingertips dug into his partner's meaty thigh for balance.
The man wore a wedding ring. Was it his wife who had caught them together? Had she suspected something? Morgan had resigned herself to the fact that Richard was probably having an affair, but she had written it off to a mid-life crisis and assumed he was screwing one of the young office workers who were too often bursting from their sweaters and thrusting their tits in his face as they brought coffee and deliveries to his desk. She had never dreamed that Richard's infidelities would be with another man.
One by one, Morgan fed the pictures into the fire and watched them curl and turn to ash. With each one, she could feel the last of her marital obligations burn with the paper. Eight, nine, ten. It didn't take long. She held the last picture in her hand an extra moment before feeding it into the flickering light of the flames. Eleven photographs lay in ashes in the stove. She had left the twelfth photograph-Richard on his knees behind his partner, fingers pressed hard into the narrow hips of the man beneath him, his face knotted into his "I'm coming" look-sitting on the kitchen table, under Richard's "Working late, don't wait up" note.
She had scrawled a note of her own. "Richard-left for the weekend. Please be gone when I come home." He wouldn't miss her. For years their marriage had been no more than a convenience. She was good for his career, he was good for hers. Employers expected certain things from their ad executives, and marriage represented stability. But she was established now, and she could do without him. She had her own name. He would, of course, have to find someone else to play hostess for his parties, but that was no longer her concern.
She brushed the ash from her hands and stood, unfastening the buttons of her winter nightgown as she moved to the small, hand crafted table that took up the center space in the cabin. She dropped the gown to the floor and stepped out of it, feeling the fire-warmed air of the cabin wrap around her skin. She spread a towel over the polished surface of the table, and moved the washbasin of hot water from the stovetop to the table.
With quick, smooth movements, Morgan began washing the city from her skin. She lathered her hair and bent over the basin, letting the hot water flow over her neck and shoulders as she rinsed the hairspray from her professionally styled hair. The scent of her shampoo surrounded her, and she clenched her eyes tightly as small rivulets of suds slipped from her temples to her eyelids and off the edge of her nose.
She massaged her temples and the back of her neck, working her fingertips through the ends of her hair, twisting it into a thick rope and sighing as the warm water flowed over her wrists and palms. She wrapped her hair in a clean towel and dabbed the last of the suds from her cheeks and eyelids with the terry-cloth corner. She dipped a washcloth in the warm suds and wiped the dirt and grime of the city from her face and throat, dipping into the hollow of her collar and the cleft between her breasts.
She stroked from her shoulders to her breasts, letting her fingers lingers over her nipples. She remembered the breasts she had when she married Richard. High and firm, taut and responsive to Richard's slightest touch. Over the years she had struggled with diet and exercise to maintain her figure. Her breasts were still firm although perhaps a bit lower than they had been. Age and gravity had taken their inevitable toll, but she had resisted the urge to have them lifted by a surgeon. Richard had never complained. "Of course not," she said aloud, wryly. "He was never a breast man."
She let the lather drip down over her breasts to her belly and hips. She sat beside the table and raised one leg to rest her foot on the other wooden chair. With the rough cotton washcloth she stroked the soap up the inside of her thigh, remembering the first time Richard had touched her. She mimicked the memory of his fingers between her legs, stroking her opening folds, coaxing a moan from her lips. She leaned back against the chair, spreading her legs further, opening herself to the warmth of the fire, letting its heat warm her sex. It was easy to give herself over to the fire, and her own moisture mingled with the water on the cloth. Her fingers slipped over her clit and dipped inside, dragging the rough cloth over her sensitive button. Thrust and scrape, matching the pace of her fingers to the rapidly increasing, shuddering breaths drawn through her clenched teeth. With quick, sure strokes, she brought herself to a single, hard orgasm, shuddering through the solo act.
She heard her father's voice echo in her memory as she sat, letting her breath calm. "Never forget, Morgan, that you are strong. Never let a man convince you otherwise. Any man who doesn't want a strong woman, isn't a man worth your time or energy."
"Oh, Daddy," she cried quietly, letting the tears flow for the first time. They stung her eyes, and left trails down her cheeks as she lowered herself to the floor and cried, steam rising from her wet skin.
She cried herself quietly into a restless sleep, sitting naked in front of the stove, her legs tucked under her bare bottom and her head resting on her arms against the hand-hewn chair. Her hair had dried in the comforting heat of the stove, and it had taken on the familiar earthy smell of the wood smoke. She was confused for a moment when she opened her eyes and stretched. Her body was stiff from the unnatural position in which she had fallen asleep. Confusing images lingered from a dream, something about her father. He was talking, but she couldn't hear his words. She could see his lips move, knew he was being reassuring. Something about sending someone or something to help her, but she didn't know who, or to help her with what. The pictures faded quickly as her eyes adjusted to the shadows cast by the flickering fire.
Faint red lines and marks dotted the pale skin of her thigh and hip where her body had pressed against the wooden plank floor. As her mind cleared the day came back to her in a rush, images of Richard and his lover bombarding her thoughts. She rubbed the palms of her hand against her eyes, as though to push the pictures from her brain.
That's when she heard it-a soft rustling outside the cabin, near the door. Her instincts told her it was too big to be a squirrel, or a rabbit, or a wolverine, but not big enough to be a bear or a moose. At this time of year, that left only one real option. She slithered quickly back into the crumpled nightgown on the floor beside her, slipped her arms through the sleeves of her coat, and grabbed the shotgun from its rack on the wall. Quickly breaking the barrel and dropping in two shells scooped from the jar hanging next to the gun, she cracked the window next to the door and put the stock to her shoulder, resting the barrel on the windowsill.
"Who's there?" Morgan shouted from relative safety of the cabin. She knew full well that if the intruder was malicious, there was no way the cabin would offer much physical protection. Her father had schooled her early on about the dangers of loving isolation. "Know your weapon, Morgan," his voice rumbled in her memory. "Know your weapon, and rely on your instincts. Trust your gut. It usually knows danger before your brain does."
This wasn't the city, and most strangers weren't ill wishers or violent. Morgan knew the odds were in her favor that the stranger outside was a lost hiker. They often had lost hikers in the summer passing by needing a meal and coffee, maybe a place to stay the night. It was an unspoken rule out here that people helped each other. After all, you never knew when you were going to be the next one lost and needing help.