On a beautifully mild fall afternoon a trim convertible scooted into a little filling station just off the rural highway. The driver, a lithe young woman of at most nineteen, parked her sports car in front of the single self-service pump and got out and stretched and looked around. It was the middle of nowhere. Hills of color-heavy forest loomed all around. Crickets munched the hot air. The cinderblock building squatted in the sun, its broad pane of glass catching the glare full-face, showing the girl nothing but golden light. The young woman shrugged her thin shoulders and lightly shook her mane of rich red hair, and then she filled the tank and went inside the little hut to pay.
"Yummy day, isn't it?" said the cashier, herself a young woman barely into her twenties.
"You shore do have the reddest hair," the cashier said as she counted out the change, placing each bill carefully into the girl's small palm. "Red as those trees out there. Beautiful beyond for sure!"
The girl's face reddened a touch, and she brushed her hand across a few stray strands. "Thank you," she said. Two coins slipped from her grasp. The copper circlets clattered and jingled against the counter top before wobbling to a stop.
"What a nice noise they make!" the cashier remarked. "I love when they do that little dance." The girl smiled at the gas station woman.
"And what beautiful big eyes you have, so green and glinty."
Again the girl blushed.
"Don't tell me you're not used to compliments! A beauty like you?"
The girl looked down shyly. "I guess I'm just tired from all the driving and jittery from too much coffee. Do you, uh, have a bathroom I could use?"
"Right back there, honey, just help yourself."
A moment later the girl came out of the cubby.
"Did you have a good pee?" the cashier grinned. "It shore did sound like it."
"Oh God!" the girl said, blushing again. "Was I that loud?"
The cashier grinned wider. "I've been told I've got big ears, but don't you worry: that sweet little gurgle of yours was no more loud than the trickle of a baby brook. Forgive me, I just wanted to see you blush one more time. You look so delicious all red and flushed like that."
"You're making me do it again," the girl said, laughing lightly, but yes, blushing.
"I know! I'm mean, aren't I?"
The girl nodded, adding a shy smile.
"I'm Sara," the cashier said, offering a hand of long slim fingers, the nails clean and sharp and colorless.
"Annie," said the girl, touching the woman's fingers lightly with her own.
"Hi, Annie, so nice to meet you. Are you going far?"
"Well," Annie said, "I hope not too far. Do you know where Hunters Road is?"
"Shore do!" Sara said. "Right up in those hills. 'Course it's kinda tricky to get to. What do you want with Hunters Road?"
"My boyfriend's grandma has a cabin up there. He's arranged for us to use it for a few days." The girl suddenly blushed deeply.
"That is so sweet," Sara said. "Is your boyfriend up there now?"
"I don't think so," Annie said. "Bard had some family business in the city. He said if I got to the cabin first there'd be a key under the mat."
"That wouldn't be Bobbie Bard?" Sara said. "Your boyfriend?"
"You know him?"
"We've had our little spot of history," Sara said. "Nothing monumental or momentous. Nothing that couldn't be fixed."
"Robert, I mean Professor Bard was, uh, is my history professor up at college."
"Oh," Sara said, "Figures. Is he a good teacher?"
"He's very patient," Annie said.
"Mm," Sara hummed.
"Patient and persistent."
"Uh-huh," Sara said. "The Bard I remember, well, I would've picked a different p-word... one that rhymes with ick."
"Oh no," Annie said. "Bard is gentle and wise and understanding."
"Maybe he's mellowed some," Sara conceded. "Is he a good lover?"
Annie squeaked softly. "We haven't, um, we haven't actually..."
"Been to bed?" Sara said.
"I see. So you're planning on doing it this weekend, you and your Professor Bard, in Grandma's big bed?"
"Oh, no!" Annie insisted, "We're more along the lines of just good friends, you know? Robert's going to bring his sister and everything."
"His sister, huh?"
"Yes, I haven't met her yet... I guess she's about my age or a little older."
"Mm... Well, I can tell you exactly how to get up to that cabin," Sara said. "But if I were you, I'd be sure to bring along a little protection."
"Protection?" Annie said. "You mean like... condoms? I told you Robert and I weren't... aren't..."
"Protection like this." From behind the counter, Sara drew out a gold-plated pistol. Stray sunlight danced along the gleam of the long barrel. "You want to borrow this baby?" Sara hefted it playfully.
"Ugh, I hate guns," Annie said, shivering slightly, and Sara couldn't help noticing the light little ripple of Annie's breasts brushing her blouse.
"It's beautiful up there in the woods," Sara said. "Beautiful, but wild... in fact, there's rumors of a madman roaming those very woods."
"Probably just a story."
"Although some people have disappeared."
"Naw, I'm just teasin' you. Still..." Sara waved the gun.
"Thanks but no thanks," Annie said. "I'm a big girl. I can be brave. I can take care of myself."
"Well, then, best follow my directions carefully," Sara said sternly. "We may have rounded up all the madmen, but there's still plenty of lions and tigers and bears." Then she giggled. "When all is said and done, it might be a good idea to stick close to the path... and don't talk to strangers!"
Annie smiled and said thank you and waved goodbye.
A moment after Annie's convertible pulled onto the highway, Sara flipped the store-window sign to closed, hopped into her pickup, and chugged up the steep back roads.
The key, sure enough, was under the mat. Sara unlocked the door and put the key in the back pocket of her jeans. It took only a moment for her to fix things inside the cabin, then she backed her truck down the lane and onto Hunters Road. She drove a few hundred yards down the hill, parked, and waited.
About twenty minutes later Sara heard the snug purr of Annie's convertible coming along the road from the opposite direction. Sara's fingers tightened on the steering wheel of her truck, but she sat still until she heard the little car's engine shut off. Then she started up her pickup and drove to the little cabin, parking directly behind Annie's car.
Annie was standing on the porch, her hands on her hips. "Why did you follow me?" Annie said. There was anger mixed with puzzlement in her bright green eyes. "The key's not here. I looked. I looked under the mat and it's not there. It's not anywhere. What are you doing here? What should I do? I'm sorry. Shit. God. Shit."
"Hush," Sara said softly, stepping up to Annie. "Hush." She touched the girl on the delicate point of her shoulder, then moved her fingers slowly inward towards the thin neck. She crossed the little ridge of fabric onto bare skin, and Annie shivered. Sara's fingers moved slowly up the slope, all the way to the little earlobe, unadorned, bare under the bright red hair. Annie stood still as if momentarily paralyzed by Sara's touch. Sara gave the girl's earlobe a small squeeze before withdrawing her hand, breaking the spell.
"But the key's not there!" Annie said. She looked bewildered, helpless, almost about to sob.
"I know," Sara said. "I know. You know what I think?"
"What?" Annie asked, her big eyes wide with hope and interest.
"I think you have a really nice perfume."
"Huh? But I'm... I don't..."
Sara pressed her finger against Annie's lips. "Shy and quiet and a little woodsy, like a soft place in a deep forest, a secret place untouched by man, with just a wet little hint of want."
"I'm not wearing any perfume," Annie blurted, and then she bit her plump lower lip between her teeth, the tip of her tongue touching the spot where Sara's finger had rested an instant before.
"Oh ho," Sara said, eyes sparkling, "I'm known for my sharp nose." She grinned boldly. "I wouldn't make that up about your smell. Fear and excitement do a good job of bringing up the flavor."
Sara moved her fingers slowly towards Annie's face, but the girl brushed them away. "Who cares about my smell," she said angrily. "The key's not under the mat. He said the key would be under the mat and it isn't."
"Don't yelp," Sara said. "Maybe he just lied. Men will do that, you know. Or maybe someone took it."
"I've been driving all day," Annie said. I'm hot and sticky and all I want to do is get inside and take a long hot bath."
"What's so funny?"
Sara gave a girlish snort. "Your long hot bath. There's no bathtub in there. Cabins like these don't have bathrooms."
"Not even running water. No electricity. No phones. Nothing. I told you, it's wickedly wild up here."
"How am I supposed to wash?"
Sara snorted again. "You're more than clean enough for these woods. You could stumble across some springs lower down, but even in mid-summer that water's icy."
Annie choked back a sniffle, and then in a small but not quite calm voice said, "How come you followed me?"
Sara smiled. She allowed some mid-afternoon sunlight to soak into the silence. "Woman's intuition," she said at last. "I just wanted to be sure you were safe; that you didn't lose your way."
.... There is more of this story ...