Pulling Even
Chapter 1

Monday, October 29, 2001

There were a few brief notes of harp strings, and then Myleigh's voice came over the receiver: "This is Dr. Harris. I'm sorry I'm..."

Crystal hung up the phone. Where could that woman be? She'd tried calling both her home and her office many times over the weekend, and this was getting on toward the last chance. She glanced out over the parking lot at Lee's Ferry and watched the handful of tamarisk trees wave in the stiff wind blowing upriver under the leaden gray skies. The rafts sat nosed up to the shore, loaded and ready to go for the last trip of the season through the Grand Canyon. It was going to be a long, tough pull to even get down to Badger in this wind. This could still be a good trip, but it had been a long season, and she was actually looking forward to having it over with for once.

There was no putting it off any longer. She'd been dreading this phone call ever since she realized it would have to be made, but she'd rationalized and temporized as long as she could. With a sigh, she picked the handset up again and started punching numbers.

The phone rang on a desk located in an office near the Michigan-Wisconsin border about fifteen hundred miles to the northeast of Lee's Ferry. The sky was even more leaden and gray there, and Crystal knew from having been there that there were more trees visible from the office window than existed within miles of where she was calling from. In a moment, she could hear the phone being picked up with the words, "Clark Construction, Randy."

"Hi, Randy," Crystal said shyly. "What's happening in Spearfish Lake?"

"It's the ass end of October, the leaves are down, and it's raining, so everything is about as attractive as hell with the fires out," he replied. "Shouldn't you be on the river by now?"

"The customer bus is going to be here any minute," Crystal said. "Look, Randy, I'm sorry you're not going with us."

"I told you it was likely to happen," he sighed. "You know I don't plan to do stuff very often since it usually works out I don't get to go."

At one time, even as recently as a month and a half ago, Randy had been scheduled to be on this trip, working on his insurance qualifications to be a part-time Canyon Tours boatman. Crystal's old boyfriend, who had been sort of a fiance for a while, really was pretty good at the oars of a raft, and had been looking forward to the trip – but his family-owned construction business had to come first. On her break before this, Crystal had come into the office to find a message that there was too much hanging for him in wrapping up the construction season to be able to get free.

"Just as well," Crystal said. "The weather forecast for the next few days here really sucks."

"Got to be better than here," he sighed. "You know the old rafters' saying: 'The worst day at the oars is better than the best day at work.'"

"Well, maybe next spring," Crystal said sadly, still not wanting to come to grips with what she had to say.

"Not much chance," he sighed. "They opened bids on a new gym down in Blair this morning, and we're low. We'll have to be ready to fly when the weather breaks, so that shoots April in the ass."

Oh, damn, Crystal thought. That's just lovely. He'll be happy to get the work, but the last time she ran with Randy, he'd spent hours bitching about all the extra inspections and paperwork involved in school projects, so it's a mixed blessing at best. Still, having me call from Lee's on a trip he'd wanted to be on can't make him feel any better, and the news she had wouldn't help, either. Well, there was no putting it off any longer. "Randy, is there any chance you and Nicole could fly down here for a couple days over Thanksgiving weekend?"

"Not impossible," he replied. "Something cooking?"

"Well, sort of," Crystal told him. "We have a Canyon Tours season wrap party the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I ... uh..."

"That's really just for you Canyon Tours people," Randy commented.

"Randy, I've told you before, we consider you one of us," Crystal protested, and figured she'd better get on with dropping the bomb. "Besides, since we're having the party, Preach and I decided it would be a good time to get married."

"No kidding?" he laughed. "Nicole said the two of you were getting close when she ran with you back in August, but I have to say, I never dreamed you'd wind up marrying a minister."

"Me either," Crystal giggled. "Well, former minister, anyway. Can you come?"

"If it's on Saturday, and if we can get tickets to fly out Friday and back on Sunday, we ought to be able to," he said.

"Good," she said. "Sorry to drop this on you at the last minute, but it's been a madhouse on this break, and I really wanted to tell Myleigh before I told you. But I can't get hold of her, either at her office or at home. Or Trey, for that matter."

"Not a chance of that," he said. "They were up here over the weekend. I'd guess they're out on the road somewhere by now, heading back to Kansas City."

"Damn, I should have called yesterday," Crystal sighed. "I really don't want to have to use the satphone to call her. Could you get in touch with her for me, and see if you can get her out here for the wedding?"

"Yeah, sure," Randy said, sounding a bit smug about it.

"What was she doing in Spearfish Lake, anyway?"

"Oh, boy," Randy laughed again. "She really ought to be the one to tell you, but since you're heading out on the river, I guess I should let the cat out of the bag. She was down at Weatherford for a concert Saturday night. They had this reception just before the concert, and right in the middle of the thing she got up and made the announcement that Trey had asked her to marry him, and she'd accepted."

"My God!" Crystal gasped. "I knew they were closer than they let on, but, well, I wasn't expecting that! At least not this soon! What brought this on?"

"Not sure, but it was a surprise to me, too. But that's not all the news. She's leaving Marienthal, and she's got a spiffy new job in the lit department at Weatherford. Trey is going to be working for Jennifer and Blake, doing some business management and running their new studio. It looks like they're going to be buying a house right up the street. Long story about that; I don't want to get into it now."

"You're kidding!" Crystal laughed. "And to think that neither of us was willing to marry you because we'd have to live in Spearfish Lake!"

"Yeah, you want irony, there it is," Randy shook his head. "I mean, I'm just as happy the way things worked out, but, let's face it, if I'd known things were going to work out that way, I might have done something different. But, that's all water down the river now. Over the years, I've come to understand that the things I like best about Myleigh are the things that would drive me up the wall in the long run."

"I suppose," Crystal agreed. "When are they getting married?"

"December 29, the Saturday before New Year's," Randy said. "They wanted to get the wedding in this year for tax purposes. It's going to be up here, at Jennifer and Blake's. I'm sure she'll want you here."

"Are they still going down to Florida for our surf week?"

"Don't know," Randy said. "Probably not, although we didn't have any real discussion of it over the weekend. Knowing Myleigh, I doubt she'll want to spend her honeymoon in a tent."

"That's probably a good guess," Crystal laughed. "Well, the rest of us can have a good time."

"I hope so," Randy replied a little listlessly. "I may even get in a day or two."

"What do you mean?" Crystal said, an awful feeling coming over her. "I thought you had the week cleared away."

"I did," Randy said. "But then, we had to have this construction conference the week you and Scooter and Jim and Preach and I were going sailing, and I pissed and moaned and got it moved up so it wouldn't get screwed up. The wedding pretty well took care of that."

"It turns out that Scooter and Jim aren't going," Crystal told him, a really sinking feeling coming over her. Why did this have to work out this way? "Look, is there any way you could break Nicole free to come sailing?" she asked desperately.

"No, she'll have to be back in school," Randy told her. "She took enough absences in the last year that it'd be hard for her to break free again."

"Well, come on along anyway," she sighed. "We'll still have a good time. I've really been looking forward to it, especially the way the first part of December got loused up this weekend."

"Loused up?" Randy said. "What do you mean?"

"Long story, I don't want to get into it now, but we sort of got strong-armed into making a trip around a bunch of churches in the southeast, talking about the Canyon, and how you can do cool stuff and still be a Christian. That goes up almost until Christmas, but we ought to have time to do Christmas here and still make Spearfish Lake for Myleigh's wedding. The surfing and the sailing will be Preach's and my first real break."

"I understand," Randy said glumly. "You two have fun. I guess that's why I shouldn't plan stuff, since I never get to do any of it anyway."

"But Randy," Crystal said. "After the way Nicole and I strong-armed you to go sailing with us, well, we still want you to go."

"No," he sighed. "That was supposed to be with you and Scooter. Crystal, I know what you said, but I'm not going to horn in on your honeymoon, and that's that."

"But we were only talking a week," Crystal protested. "Randy, you got the short end of the stick so many times over the years, I feel like I need to make it up to you somehow."

"No, Crystal," he said glumly. "I'm used to it by now, I guess. You and Preach have a good time. You deserve it. But fuck, that even screws up the chance to go surfing. I just can't ask those people to reschedule things again."

"I'm sorry, Randy," she said. "I'm really sorry. I wish you didn't feel that way."

"Don't you think I'd feel just as crappy if I came along?" he said. "That would really be pretty damn shitty of me, now wouldn't it?"

"Yeah, Randy, I know," Crystal sighed. "But, damn!"

"I'll talk to Nicole, and see if we can make it out for your wedding," he said. "Especially since it looks like it's all the vacation I'm going to get for the next year or so."

"Randy, I wish you didn't feel that way," Crystal said glumly.

"Yeah, I wish I didn't either, but that's the way it is, isn't it? Like I said, you two have fun. I'll survive. See you in three weeks, maybe."


"If I can get free, I'll be there," he said. "But I just had another lesson in not trying to plan things."

"Randy, please don't feel like that," Crystal said. "We'll get to do something, sometime. Preach and I are going to be doing some outdoor shows in February and March, maybe we can work out something. When does Nicole go on spring break?"

"First week of April, right when I'll be getting up to my ass in gymnasium. Crystal, there probably isn't anything you can do. I've just got to get used to the fact that I'm a job slave. At least I can think about my friends who are traveling and having fun and adventure, since I can't have any myself."


There were only three rafts nosed into the shore at Lee's Ferry; there would have been four if Randy had been able to make the trip, and three were almost too many for the number of customers going. As much as Crystal liked her life in the Grand Canyon, there was a big dose of "is this trip really necessary" going through her head.

"So how did it go?" Preach said, knowing Crystal had been concerned about the call.

"There's one good thing about it," she told her fiance. "Only one."

"What's that?" her younger sister Nanci said from the next raft, where she'd been sitting with the boatman, her de-facto boyfriend Kevin. She was just finishing up her first summer as a swamper, and had done well at learning how to handle a raft, too. Depending on who was available when it was time to make up crews next spring, she might well wind up with a raft of her own – a fact that astonished Crystal every time she stopped to think about it.

"He's at a construction company," Crystal sighed. "There ought to be somebody around there who knows how to fix the hole he's punched in the wall by now."

"Yeah, he does have a temper," Nanci said. She knew: she'd been on the receiving end of it once, back when she'd been running wild. Although she could look back now and see that every bit that he'd done had been justified – and he hadn't laid a hand on her – just seeing that temper had made her fear for her life. "But, he's married, after all. He doesn't have any reason to be jealous, does he?"

"It's not that," Crystal said. "I think he's genuinely happy about Preach and me. But Nicole and Myleigh and I jerked him around an awful lot, and we're still doing it. Nanci, when you and I both had been thrown out of the house, Randy and his family were all I had in the world to depend on. He did an awful lot for me, never asked for anything in return and he got even less. If he didn't have Nicole and that job and the duty to his family that goes with it, he'd be right down here, right now, and this is where he really would like to be. I'd probably already be married to him. Nicole is a nice person, but she gets out to do stuff, and he can't get time to do anything. It bothers him, and it just gets worse and worse."

"I remember," Preach said. "Back when he ran with us last spring, you could feel the frustration."

"That's kind of sad, you know?" Crystal nodded. "I mean, Dad and Mom and I set up that trip the way we did at least partly to make up a little for the way he'd been so nice to me all those years, and it backfired in our faces. We couldn't even give him the trip as a freebie, he wouldn't take it, not that he couldn't afford it anyway. That's the kind of guy he is. So, Dad and I got cute with an idea to set him up to qualify as a part-time boatman, just to give him an incentive to get out and do some of the things he'd like to do. Then, Preach, when you came along, we decided we couldn't offer it to him without offering it to you, too, and that part of it worked out. But now, it'll be a year at the earliest before Randy can get free and don't hold your breath. On top of that, Nicole got to do a trip instead. I mean, as far as I know, he was perfectly gracious about it, but I know it bothered him that she got to come and he couldn't."

"From what little I know about it, I can see how he would be troubled," Preach agreed.

"Back before Nicole did her hike up the Appalachian Trail, well, we were talking one night and he sort of sounded off about it," Crystal remembered. "Nicole said right on the spot that she'd stay home if he asked her to, and he said, 'No, go do the hike; you'll resent me too much if I keep you from doing it.' That was when I blew my last chance with him. If I'd said I'd stay back and she didn't, she'd have been history and she knew it. So, she went and did the hike, and he'd have liked to have been with her every step of the way, but no, he had to stay home and bust his butt on some school building. Same thing with me two years before." She shook her head. "Poor Randy. Things like that shouldn't happen to one of the world's nicest guys."

"I take it he wasn't happy about the sailing trip? I mean, I know you and Nicole twisted his arm pretty good to go along, but that was before things changed."

"I didn't even tell him what we talked about, he drew his own conclusion," Crystal sighed. "Preach, I tried to talk him into coming along, or at least sound like it, maybe bring Nicole or something, to maybe soften the blow a little, but he wouldn't have any of it. Which is like Randy. But, you know what? He had to blow up our surfing week at Buddha and Giselle's to clear away the week he was going to go sailing with us, so now he gets screwed on that, too."

Now Preach shook his head. "Yeah, I guess I don't blame him for being upset."

Since Crystal had been sort of going with Preach – they'd never actually had anything that even sort of resembled a date, but since they'd been together in the Canyon the last six months, they really hadn't needed one – she'd tried to clean up her language a bit, but sometimes things showed through. "It's a piss poor way to treat him," she said. "And I can't think of anything better."

"There ought to be something," Preach offered.

"You tell me what it is and we'll do it," Crystal told him. "For once, I wish we didn't have to do this trip. Right now it's hard to be out of touch." She let out a sigh. "I think I'll go back up to the phone and try to call Nicole, just to let her know she's going to have her hands full."

"I don't know if it'd help," her fiance said. "Besides, here comes the customer bus."

"Check 'em in and get 'em started loading drybags, you know how," she sighed as she got up. "The least I can do is warn Nicole. Maybe she can think of something."


Crystal was wrong on one thing: Randy didn't punch a hole in his office wall. Not that he didn't feel like it, but he was enough of a realist to know that it was cinder block; it wouldn't solve anything and it would hurt. If it had been sheet rock, then things might have been different ... but probably not.

On the wall across from his desk was a calendar from Brine Brothers Trucking. It was a fairly large calendar, with a highway map of the United States on it. A little over two years before, when the chance had first come up to do the Grand Canyon trip with Crystal in her first summer as a trip leader, he'd eyeballed the similar map that hung there, and decided to drive out to Arizona. Earlier that summer, he'd spent a lot of time glancing at the map, imagining where Nicole had to be on the Appalachian Trail. He could glance at northern Arizona on the map and imagine Crystal in the Canyon; in the last year, he'd imagined some of the places that Myleigh and Trey had gone when she'd given concerts with her harp. He could glance at Florida, and imagine being down on the beach at Buddha and Giselle's near Sebastian Inlet; he could glance at the Bahamas, where Crystal and Scooter and Michelle had gone sailing the past two winters, where he'd hoped to be going. And, he could glance at the map and see other things he'd like to see, other things he'd like to do – but it was clear now that he'd never get to do.

The map was just torture, teasing him relentlessly. Enough of that. He stared at it a minute, then got up from his desk, ripped it off the wall, and threw it in the wastebasket. He glanced at the empty spot on the wall, thinking absently that he'd have to get something to replace it, something that wouldn't torture him every working minute. No scenery, no maps, no adventure stuff, nothing outdoors. Maybe something from an equipment company, with cranes and loaders and work stuff like that.

He really wasn't mad, just disappointed, more at himself than anything else. Initially he'd dragged his feet on the sailing trip mostly because it would mean leaving Nicole at home, but also because he knew that shit like this happened and it happened to him all too often. But last spring, down in the Canyon, on the trip that he really shouldn't have taken because of the huge pile of work that waited on his desk for him when he got back, he'd let Nicole and Crystal wheedle him into agreeing to going on the sailing trip. He'd allowed himself to get his hopes up. He should have known better. He was just going to have to admit to himself that he was going to have to be a worker bee who never got out to see the far horizons. Oh, well, he'd managed two trips down the Canyon, that would have to hold him for the rest of his life. It was two more than most people got. He shouldn't be bitching about that, but then it seemed most people got to do other things he couldn't.

No point in worrying about it. The steel beams for the Blair gymnasium, though, that was something to worry about. They'd be needed in July, but they were special order items, and the lead time was long. Even though the bid wouldn't be approved until next week and it would be a few more days before the contract was inked, he might as well be finding out who could give him a deal and what delivery times might be like. And there were the acoustic wall panels for Jennifer and Blake's new studio, an inside job that could be done over the winter. And, as soon as possible, he needed to get Rod Turpin or Don Bailey to go through the deLine house, and see what needed to be done before that deal got too far along ... there was plenty to do, he might as well resign himself to doing it.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Slow /