Chapter 1: Nick

Caution: This Erotica Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Fa/Fa, Consensual, Oral Sex, Big Breasts, .

Desc: Erotica Sex Story: Chapter 1: Nick - This story is ONLY for fans of my Ordinary Sex Life series. If you have not read through AOCSL2, do not even bother starting this one.

-- AUGUST 28 --

What the hell am I hell doing here? I'm a college graduate, cum laude from USC. Sure, I could've been magna cum laude if I'd just applied myself a little harder, but I still got through it and got my degree. I got my dream job, doing business consulting for a Big 4. It's Monday morning, and I should be downtown, kicking back in my 33rd-floor office looking out the window of the city that used to be right at my fingertips.

I should be dressed in that Armani power suit, hobnobbing with some of the finest business minds in the country. Sure, they'd have continued working me like a slave for eighty-plus hours a week, but my raises were guaranteed at twenty percent a year, plus bonuses. I could have been making six figures by the time I turned 25 and a partner by 30.

I should be dining on the finest steaks at Mastro's in Beverly Hills with Martina. Damn that girl had a smokin' body. Still does, I suppose. I'm sure she would have been absolutely crazy in bed, but I'm never going to find out because I'm never going to see her again. A girl that hot can't stay single for long. She's back home among the wolves while I'm stuck here in the middle of podunk Oregon or somewhere. And instead of eating steak I'm liable to end up milking cows for the next year.

Fuck.

She was out of your league, anyway. Look at you. Flabby, average-looking nerd. How the hell you got a girl that hot to go on a date with you in the first place I'll never know.

Screw you. And I started working out.

Pssht. Sitting on a stationary bike not pedaling while watching SportsCenter doesn't count as 'working out'.

Fuck you.

It's your own damn fault you're here, you know. Nobody put a gun to your head.

It's not my fault!

Of course it is.

What else was I supposed to do, huh? Downtown L.A. is not the place to be after hours.

Would've been better than how things turned out, wouldn't you say?

Things weren't that bad. Nobody died or anything. Everyone's just overreacting.

You still could have killed somebody.

But I didn't. Why does everyone keep forgetting that? It wasn't such a big deal.

If it wasn't such a big deal, then why are you sitting here in podunk Oregon arguing with your own conscience. Huh?

Hey dimwit, we're still in California. Get it straight.

Did you just call your own conscience a 'dimwit'? Who's the real dimwit, huh?

"Fuck you."

A sharp elbow caught me in my ribs. I quickly turned to the source of the elbow: a girl my age with vintage cat-eye glasses and dirty-blonde hair with a forelock dyed neon purple. "Watch your language," she hissed at me. "This is a family camp, doofus."

Wincing, I shook my head and muttered, "Sorry."

Purple-streak gave me a strange look, wondering about the weirdo talking to himself in the middle of a presentation, and cursing at himself no less. Shaken from my reverie, I turned my attention back to the front of the room where a camp polo-clad middle-aged woman with a weatherbeaten face stood and continued on with her orientation.

Paying attention here was just as difficult as in a college lecture hall. In the back of my head, I knew this information was important for me to understand, especially since I knew diddly squat about Morris Camp and even less about being a ranch hand. But I was still seething inside at the utter humiliation of even being here in the first place that I was finding it quite difficult to concentrate.

Really, I didn't belong here. I'd looked around the room and engaged in polite conversation with some of the thirty-odd young men and women in the room when I'd first arrived. Some of them were seasoned veterans: previous staff members who had served the camp before, or had at least done so this current summer. The others were at least frequent visitors to the camp, fully comfortable in this environment and this way of life. And unlike me, every single one of them wanted to be here.

I didn't particularly understand the logic. Why would anyone want to give up the creature comforts of modern life in favor of rustic charm and rural limitations? I'd been living alone in a one-bedroom downtown loft apartment, entertaining myself with a 50-inch plasma TV and a top-of-the-line gaming computer with the fastest graphics card money could buy. Here I'd be sharing a room with some dude I'd never met before while the nearest TV was an old CRT in the staff lounge, and there wasn't even a cellular tower within range to get a single bar. Mom wouldn't let me bring even a laptop, which was just as well since this place didn't have Wi-Fi anyway. I wondered if the bathroom would be attached to my room, or if I'd have to hike through the great outdoors to take a communal shower beneath a jerry-rigged garden hose.

"Camp," I muttered to myself as if it were a curse word.

The pay was minimal. There was no real 'vacation time' and the health plan began and ended with the nurse's station at the back of the Main Lodge. The nearest bar serving alcohol was an hour's drive away, and the only thing we'd be able to watch on TV was the collection of old VHS tapes gathering dust in the corner.

And yet, to a person, everyone truly wanted to be here. Unplugged. Unconnected. Happily cut off from the outside world. Some of them were taking a hiatus from their lives, pausing before, during, or after their college careers for a year or so before going back and re-entering the real world. Some never went to college and never planned to, deciding that the joy of the great outdoors was worth not pursuing anything more ambitious than this simple life. ALL of them had some connection to Morris Camp, either growing up in the area or at least visiting with their family at some point.

All of them, except me.

Well, that's not technically true; I did have some connection to this place. My mom had grown up at this camp, visiting every year practically from birth and into her twenties. Only after meeting Dad did she stop coming. But some old friend or another had told her about this 'ranch hand' program they were running. So when the shit hit the fan back home, when I was terminated from my dream job, and when only Dad's connections managed to get me off from any criminal charges beyond a simple slap on the wrist, I got sent here.

'It will toughen you up, ' Mom insisted.

'It will help you build character, ' Dad agreed.

Fuck toughening. Fuck character. I wanted my old life back.

But you can't have your old life back; that's the whole point. Look at the bright side.

Bright side?

You could've been spending the next few years in jail. Being a ranch hand won't be so bad, right?

I sighed. Right...


The interminable orientation ended, and the collected ranch hands talked amongst each other while our "Ranch Leads" started singling us out one-by-one.

Before the orientation, I'd been chatting with a guy named Aaron about the Dodgers and we'd sat down together. Now, I stood up to stretch while we started talking again about nothing in particular. But a moment later, my breath caught in my throat as I saw her.

Fuckin' A. How the hell did I not notice this girl earlier? She was tall, blonde, busty, and beautiful. Oddly enough, there were disproportionately more girls than guys working as ranch hands at this camp. From the brief conversations I'd had with them before the formal orientation, I gathered that girls were more likely than guys to give up a year of their early-20s to do something like this. Supposedly there was also a high female-to-male ratio signing up for things like the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations, and being a ranch hand at Morris Camp apparently wasn't much different. Unfortunately, the majority of those girls ranged from plain to downright unattractive, although there were a few pretty ones in the bunch.

Still, I should have noticed the blonde earlier, as I now found her to be the hottest one in the room. Well, there was a brunette with a very pretty face, but she was also the one giving 'back off, fucker' glares to any guy who happened to check her out. The blonde, on the other hand, was smiling and twirling her hair in one finger as she chatted with a good-looking guy who had taken the initiative to engage her in conversation.

"Earth to space cadet..." Aaron waved a hand in front of my face.

I blinked, met his gaze for a moment, and then gestured with my eyes toward the blonde.

Raising his eyebrows, Aaron turned around and looked over, whistling beneath his breath. "Yeah ... you think I didn't notice her the second I walked in the room?"

"Boys..." Purple-streak girl with the cat-eye glasses sighed behind us. "Is sex all you think about?"

I turned around and blushed, my automatic reaction when dealing with a woman expressing displeasure in me. Hell, I probably blushed a lot of the time when dealing with a woman who wasn't expressing displeasure in me. My conscience was right: Martina had been way out of my league. Even I didn't know how the hell I'd gotten her to go out with me.

Get real. She liked your car and your bank account.

I sighed. The car was gone now, and the bank account was useless in a place like this. What could I do, impress a chick buy buying every Kit Kat they had stocked in the snack bar?

Aaron stepped past me and grinned at the shortie scowling at us. "Sex isn't the only thing we think about, but it's pretty high up the list."

The girl rolled her eyes obviously and sighed. "Well if you really want, go have at her," she said while gesturing toward the blonde. "That one is a total slut, so you've probably got a good shot of getting a piece of her."

I arched an eyebrow. "Slut? What makes you say that? Do you know her?"

She shook her head. "No, I just know her type. Girls don't get boob jobs unless they're gagging for male attention."

Aaron, staring over at the blonde, was shaking his head slowly. "I don't think that's a boob job. Believe me, I've spent countless hours both on the internet and in real life evaluating women's breasts, and I think I'm pretty good at spotting implants."

"Pssht," the girl beside us scoffed. "Look how big those are, and how skinny she is. No way are those things real."

I shook my head, thinking of Martina and smiling at the memory of her Playboy-model quality body. "Not necessarily. Some girls are blessed with good genes, and I think you're just jealous."

"Ugh," Purple-streak groaned and turned away. "Horny bastards."

My new friend chuckled and then extended a hand to her. "I'm Aaron, certified horny bastard."

Despite herself, a smile crept across the girl's face and she took his hand. "Zoey. Pleased to meet you."

Aaron grinned and pumped her hand. Zoey then let go and with a sigh, extended her hand to me. But just as I reached to shake hers, someone from behind called my name.

"Nick Campbell?"

I picked my head up and turned toward the voice. "That's me."

A scruffy-looking guy with a tanned face beneath an unruly ginger beard grinned up at me and grabbed onto the hand I had left proffered out for a shake. "Hey, I'm Todd. I'm your Lead. Pleased to meet you."

We shook, and then Todd glanced over to Aaron, his eyes dropping to my new friend's chest and catching the scribbled nametag stuck to the front of Aaron's shirt.

"Oh, hey. Aaron Nantz?"

My new buddy nodded in confirmation.

Todd grinned. "Cool. I'm your lead, too. That makes this easy. Both of you come on back with me into the other room. There's some paperwork we've got to fill out and I'll get you both squared away."

Aaron shook hands with Todd and then we all turned back to Zoey. With an amused smile, she gave us a short wave and said, "See you guys around."


-- SEPTEMBER 4 --

The alarm clock on the nightstand blared to life, screeching relentlessly in the most annoying electric sound 1960s-era engineers could devise. Jerked from blissful sleep by the harsh tones, my left hand flailed out over and again, slapping the nightstand surface, accidentally turning on the radio as well, and nearly knocking over the table lamp before finally hitting the right button to shut the damn thing up.

"Unnnngh..." I groaned, and not in a good way. "Somebody shoot me now."

On the opposite lumpy twin-long mattress, Aaron groaned as well. "I can't shoot you. You have to shoot me first."

When Mom first suggested this job, I had asked her what the hell it meant to be a "ranch hand". Googling it sent me to some truck accessory store. Wikipedia redirected the phrase to the article for "cowboy". My mind was filled with images of riding a horse while herding cattle and swaggering about the dusty prairie wearing chaps and a six-bullet revolver in a leather holster.

In a week, I'd learned it really meant "camp slave". It was just a random title given to everyone, much in the way Disneyland calls all its employees "Cast Members" like they're part of a movie or something. Everyone was a ranch hand, and a ranch hand could be assigned to do literally anything around the camp. Shovel manure? Done it. Bathroom janitor? Hell, yeah. Scrape up dried Mac & Cheese from underneath the tables of paying camp guests? You betcha. Only thing I hadn't done yet was milk a cow, and looking at the schedule showed I was due for that this afternoon.

Much, MUCH later this afternoon. Or at least, it seemed that way given that our alarm was going off at the ungodly hour of 6:00am, and on a Sunday no less. No more sleeping in on the weekends – those were peak days for the guests. No more rolling out of bed at 7:30 on the weekdays and tousling my hair before taking the elevator down to the garage and making the 5-minute drive to work rather than walk ten blocks.

In retrospect, it would've been a better idea to walk. At the very least, my body would have been a little more used to physical activity that way. As it was, my most significant daily exercise had been the short commute from my 33rd-floor office to the Keurig coffee machine about twenty feet away. And after a week of regular "ranch hand" duties, I didn't think there was a muscle on my body that wasn't sore.

Scratch that: my penis muscle wasn't getting much of a workout. Forget having sex; I couldn't even really jerk off. First of all, I'd gone from having a downtown loft all to myself to sharing a small room with another guy, so privacy was scarce. There was no internet and I hadn't thought to stash away any magazines, leaving me with only my memories (which weren't all that great) and whatever fantasies I could conjure up. Sure, there were several attractive females working around me, not to mention the occasional smoking hot guest to perv on. But the grim reality was that in this particular place, I was one of the least desirable males around; and saddled with that knowledge of the girls' low opinions of me, I found it difficult to muster up enough suspension of disbelief to even properly fantasize.

I suppose I couldn't blame the girls for their opinions. The metrics used to value a potential male's worth at Morris Camp were considerably different than the metrics of LA and Hollywood. Back home, my new model E-class with chrome rims and gleaming black paint job grabbed a girl's attention. My fancy watch and willingness to buy expensive drinks held that attention. And talk of spending a weekend away from my high-paying job to drive up the coast and visit my parents at their beach-front Malibu compound made girls wet between their legs while dreaming of a life spent in luxury.

Not so here.

Female ranch hands at Morris Camp were fit, every one of them in good enough shape to hike for hours, chase a loose mare around a corral long enough to get a bridle on it, and then swim back and forth across the lake a few times just for the fun of it. And they expected a man to more than keep up with them. The girls here didn't pay attention to what brand of clothing a guy wore; they paid attention to his muscles beneath. They weren't interested in charming conversation about the latest band, latest trends, or latest episode of Laguna Beach. They wanted to talk about the environment, the mystical interconnection of the universe, or your personal philosophy on one's sense of self.

That's not to say every girl at camp was a dirty, spaced-out hippie wearing hemp clothing and waxing poetic about metaphysics. In fact, most of the girls took care of their appearance, wearing at least a little bit of makeup and putting in some effort to enhance their physical appeal. Because for all the ideals of getting away from the rat race and the rest of the outside world, single young people at Morris Camp acted just like single young people anywhere else in America.

They flirted like hell.

Only a week into the program, and the rumor mill was spinning in overdrive with discussion of who was hooking up with whom and which guy was seen hitting on which girl. The metrics were different, but the hormones were the same. Seemingly every ranch hand was involved or rumored to be involved or rumored to be potentially involved with someone else. Everyone that is, except me.

It wasn't that I was bad looking. Granted, I'm no Orlando Bloom or Stephen Colletti, but I knew I had a halfway decent face. I was tall, with good posture and a confident carriage. And although I wasn't well-versed in liberal politics or the Seven Chakras, I'd bantered with quick-witted L.A. players and enough future trophy wives in the club scene to keep up my end of any conversation.

No, my biggest problem was that on Day One of orientation, I had proven myself to be the chunkiest, flabbiest, wimpiest guy in a hundred mile radius. All the new recruits had gone on a hike together to familiarize ourselves with the camp's grounds and to bond as "brothers and sisters" or so the Kumbaya-philosophy went. A mile into the hike I'd started dragging at the back of the pack. Two miles in one of the ranch leads decided to carry my backpack for me so I could keep up. And by the time we reached our first destination, one of the cute girls giggled while pointing at my sweat-drenched face and commented that it looked like I'd already gone swimming.

We actually did go swimming a few days later. I'd thought my bright orange Hurley board shorts looked pretty cool back in Santa Monica. Here, they just made me stick out like a sore thumb and called everyone's attention to the vast amounts of pasty white flab hanging over my waistband.

Shoulda walked the ten blocks to work, I muttered to myself more than once.

Adding injury to insult later on, I'd cramped up in the lake and started drowning. No seriously, drowning. Purple-streak Zoey had been the first to realize I was foundering, and I'd suffered the ignominy of needing a 5'4", 115-pound girl to rescue my sorry 6'2", 240-pound ass.

Suffice to say, in a world where the most attractive male attribute was physical fitness, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Every guy - every guy - was a hardbody compared to me. And having every other ranch hand watching as the most basic of camp labor tasks completely wiped me out day after day after day was not helping my self-esteem, either.

And today I would get to milk a cow. Joy. At least things couldn't get any worse.

"C'mon, dude," Aaron reached out and slapped my shoulder as he stood up and then headed for the sink to wash up. "Gotta get to breakfast and load up on calories if you're going to survive today."

"Why? What's so bad about today?"

Aaron gave me a lopsided smirk as he tapped the duty-schedule we'd taped to our bunkroom door. "We're back on the manure-shift this afternoon."

I closed my eyes and groaned, "Ah, shit."


"Cold one?"

The sound of Aaron's voice snapped me out of my momentary reverie. It wasn't that I'd been lost in thought or anything contemplative. I was simply so fucking bone tired that for several moments my brain had lacked the energy to even think.

Blinking slowly, my eyes swam back into focus as I looked up at my roommate. He stood over me, remnants of sweat still dotting his forehead from a long day's work. And in his right hand was a tall glass of dark liquid topped by a mouthwateringly thick layer of foam.

In my previous life, I'd experienced countless similar scenes. Back then, the location had been one downtown bar or another with plush leather couches and tasteful lighting. Today, I found myself in the camp's staff lounge, sitting on a battered vinyl armchair with several tears in the cover to reveal the cheap yellow foam beneath. Back then, the tall glass would have contained a $7 draft beer or a $10 cocktail. Today, Aaron's 'cold one' was most assuredly a Diet Coke, free from the soda machine humming in the corner.

But one thing turned out the same as before. The second I reached a hand up to gratefully accept the cool soft drink from my closest buddy, a hot blonde walked by and suddenly my 'best friend' was crossing the room, a crooked smile on his lips.

"Heyyy, Deedee..." Aaron greeted in an amiable tone. "Cold one?"

"Hey, thanks," the gorgeous blonde with the big rack replied, sporting a megawatt smile that would have lit up the room had it not already been filled with natural sunshine on the pale yellowing walls. One hip jutted out to receive her left hand while her right took the glass from my roommate, their fingers touching for just a brief moment and causing Aaron's smile to get even bigger.

It was understandable. Deedee was considered the hottest girl in camp, an opinion that had only been verified the first time she emerged from the lake wearing an American Flag bikini, her nipples hard from the Sierra-cold water. Three guys promptly stood up and solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance with their hands over their hearts. But despite her name matching her apparent cup size, after more than a week nobody had managed to land her. She'd told every potential suitor straight up that she wasn't interested in a boyfriend and had come here to work and enjoy her trip to paradise, but that didn't stop guys from trying, my roommate included.

"What happened to bros before hoes?" Zoey cracked as she dropped onto the seat next to me and then tilted her head back to take a swig from her own drink.

"That's a myth," Edwin commented from a barstool on my left. "It's a fictional law invoked by the guys who AREN'T getting laid to complain about their friends who ARE getting laid."

"And you wonder why women are so reluctant to believe a single word coming out of a guy's mouth?" Marie drawled as she sat down on Zoey's armrest, sipping at her own soda.

I found my gaze being drawn to a bead of moisture running down the length of Marie's glass, collecting with other beads at the base before forming a droplet big enough to fall and splatter on the bare skin of her knee.

Reflexively, I licked my lips in thirst and then took a deep breath, steeling myself for the exertion ahead.

Marie caught my look and realized I was staring at her glass, not her. "Thirsty? Why didn't you get one before you sat down?"

Zoey reached out and patted my arm. "Nicky here only had enough energy to make it to the chair, not to the soda machine and back."

A grin spread across Marie's face and without hesitation, she slipped off the armrest and went to the soda machine to get me a drink.

"Don't forget to make it a Diet!" Zoey called after her.

I scowled momentarily. From Day One, my lack of physical fitness had become the butt of many jokes amongst the ranch hands. And by now, my ego had been so battered down that I really didn't care anymore. "Of course," I groaned, patting my too-large belly.

And so it went, the ritual of the day: Wake up at some ungodly morning hour. Slave away until noon. Play "newbie shadow" to one of the experienced staffers who'd been at the camp all summer, downloading as much information as I could on an empty stomach while watching the guests eat first. And then scarf down as many calories as I could manage in less than 30 minutes before heading out to the fields to slave away all afternoon.

This time period, from 4 to 5pm, was my only true reprieve. It was the time when all the day shift ranch hands could sit down and relax for an hour here in the unglamorous staff lounge, sipping cold sodas, eating snacks, and talking shit before prepping dinner for the guests. Sure, we had free time for ourselves in the evenings after our own dinner. But that was for the people who weren't so completely exhausted as to crawl into their bunk and fall immediately to sleep (i.e. everyone but me).

It was a shitty daily existence. And I hated it. Sure, there was a silver lining: I'd lost 5 pounds already. But the work wasn't toughening me up, only beating me down. And I certainly didn't think I was building any character.

I wanted to go home.


"Explain to me again why a backwater hippie retreat like this doesn't have any weed?" I groaned, reaching my hands up to my temples and rubbing the sides of my head in circles.

"It's a family camp, doofus," Zoey reminded me for the umpteenth time as the four of us trekked along the hiking trail that wound northwest from the camp.

"The owners take their reputation seriously. Zero tolerance for drugs," Aaron intoned. "Last year, I was here as a guest and the family in the next cabin got banned for life for toking up."

"You should stay away from the stuff anyway," Marie chimed in. "Leads to nothing but bad decisions and actions you'll regret for the rest of your life."

"Spoken from experience?" Aaron queried with raised eyebrows.

Marie just scowled and didn't look at him.

That quieted everyone down for a minute, giving me ample time to stare up at the encroaching mountain and notice how far away we were getting from camp. After giving the trail behind us a long, lingering look, I came to the realization that every step we took forward was another step we'd have to take back to get home. And in a voice even I recognized as petulant, I whined, "Are we there yet?"

Zoey cracked up. "Wow, you have given up ALL pretense of being a man, haven't you?"

"I'm tired. My whole body aches. It's humid. I'm sweaty. I'm miserable. And I've got a fucking headache, okay?"

"Hey! Language, doofus," Zoey snapped at me.

I didn't care. I was rubbing my temples again with my eyes closed and whimpering when my toe stubbed on the trail. Caught off-balance I stumbled, windmilling my arms desperately before quite literally faceplanting in the dirt.

As I lay there, snorting out the powdery muck that had climbed up my nostrils, my so-called "friends" howled in laughter above me. I decided in that very moment to remain right where I was and not bother getting up. Ever. This shithole was as good a place to die as any.

A foot nudged my side. "C'mon, dude. Get up. Shake it off," Aaron grunted. I didn't budge, except to look at him. He sighed heavily and then muttered, "Fine, then. Quit. Seriously. Not everybody is cut out for this place. Go home, really home, so the rest of us don't have to hear you whine anymore."

"Hey, be nice," Zoey admonished him, accompanied by a slap upside the back of his head.

Aaron growled as he rubbed his head and shot Zoey an annoyed look. She stuck her tongue out at him and he cracked into a wide smile.

A hand suddenly touched my shoulder. I twisted my face out of the dirt to see that Marie had come to kneel beside me, her hand rubbing me encouragingly. She was actually very pretty, once you got past the lack of makeup and the perpetual frown, and she wasn't frowning right now. Instead, her expression was one of warmth and concern, and she gave me an encouraging smile. "C'mon, it's not very far now; we're almost there. Really. Since you've never been, this is something you really shouldn't miss, and we're running out of time."

She rubbed my shoulder again, and this time I let her nudges assist me in rolling onto my side. Aaron stepped forward and offered me a hand. And after taking a deep breath, I got to one knee and let him help me up the rest of the way.

With one more deep breath, I began dusting myself off and then gave my friends a wry shrug. "Fine. Almost there."

Aaron clapped my back. "Think of it this way, dude. I think you pretty much hit rock bottom with that little dirt-dive. Your life has nowhere to go from here but up."

I sighed and shook my head. "Wanna bet?"


As it turned out, Aaron's words were prophetic, but not in a good way for me. Our path quite literally turned up, as we left the main trail and began to climb up the mountain on a series of switchbacks. My BMI was around 30, which meant that I was clinically obese. And seeing as I had been hot, tired, and sweaty to begin with, lugging my extra forty-five pounds up a mountainside was not going to improve my mood.

Still, I doggedly made it up. My ego had been taking a serious beating over the last week, and like Zoey said I had long ago abandoned any pretentions of masculine dignity. But one thing I was not was a quitter.

I didn't quit Little League baseball when my coach told me I just didn't have the athletic ability to ever become a starter.

I didn't quit my Econ major when Professor Feldman turned out to be a hard-ass bitch with an agenda to wash me out of the program.

I never quit on my homework or studying, even when my friends wanted to skip class or call it an early night to go drinking instead.

And I wasn't going to quit Morris Camp.

For one, I had the very real prospect of a jail sentence hanging over my head if I didn't complete the program. But even putting aside that little factoid, it wasn't in my nature to back down from a challenge. Mom called me hard-headed. Dad said I was plain stubborn. I liked to think that once I committed to something, I committed.

Tell that to flabby-ass sitting on the stationary bike watching SportsCenter.

Shut up, you.

Okay, so maybe I wasn't the hardest worker, and I could be lazy like anyone else. But I was NOT a quitter.

"C'mon, dude. Just a little further. A little further. And ... hey! You made it!" Aaron started clapping, and was soon joined by Zoey. The noise caught the attention of several other people already up here on this naturally-forming ledge cut high into the ridgeline. And after taking a look at my sweaty pink face, they joined in on the round of applause.

Yeah, my dignity was LONG gone.

Marie took me by the arm and led me over to an unoccupied boulder, upon which I immediately sat down with wheezing gasps for air. We were among the last to arrive, and all of the man-made benches were taken. But this boulder had a relatively flat top and just barely enough room for two, a fact I found out when to my surprise, Marie squeezed herself onto the space beside me, her hip pressed tight against mine.

This was by far the most physical contact I'd had with a female in my short time here at the camp (excepting Zoey's dramatic lake rescue), and I found myself gawking at Marie in surprise. She wasn't paying any attention to me, her gaze locked onto the horizon. It was a gorgeous vista to be sure, the kind of view they publish in travel magazines. We could see clear across the valley filled with evergreens and the winding river. And in the distance, one could almost believe the sun itself was going to sleep in the water itself beyond the horizon.

But with Marie distracted by the view, I found I had a few stolen moments to look at her.

I'd noticed her the very first day, the brunette who seemed to have a nice body under unflattering clothes giving 'back off, fucker' glares to every male who so much as glanced at her. She'd softened around the edges as the days went on and everyone got familiar with each other. But she still refrained from flirting and had kept every guy at the camp at arm's length.

Hidden behind square but not unstylish glasses were blue eyes: sharp and wary whenever she looked at a guy, but warm and friendly whenever she was with a girl. The second night after our arrival, Aaron and I had gone through the laundry list of every female ranch hand and commented on their hotness and potential availability. Aaron had pegged Marie as a bitter lesbian from the beginning, an assessment I couldn't really disagree with, especially since her roommate and best friend Zoey seemed to fit the stereotypical lipstick lezzie to a T.

And yet here she was, hip-to-hip with me on a boulder staring out at the sunset. The view alone could make a quiet moment here into a romantic one, the very kind of situation Marie went out of her way to avoid. One could almost believe that this was her way of showing some interest in me as a romantic partner.

But I knew better. This moment was the last dagger in my dignity. Marie's physical proximity to me was not an indicator of my desirability. Rather, it meant that out of every single male within fifty miles, I was the ONLY one so completely pathetic as to not even be considered a potential romantic entanglement.

NOW I'd hit rock bottom.

With a sigh, I tore my gaze away from Marie and scrutinized the pebbles at my feet. By now I had caught my breath and no longer needed to hang my head from sheer exhaustion. But I found myself hanging it anyway, feeling crushed down by the weight of my failures and the misery of the situation in which I found myself.

"Hey, pick your head up." Marie nudged me in the ribs with an elbow. "It's a nice evening. Enjoy the view."

"It's just a bunch of trees."

She turned and fixed me with one of those 'fucker' glares she now reserved for the guys she believed actually owned a pair of balls. After pushing her glasses further up the bridge of her nose, she gestured grandly. "It's more than a bunch of trees. This is a special, special place. I've grown up around this camp my entire life, and there's a magic here you don't know about, not yet. This place transforms you."

"Pssht. It's transformed me alright. A week ago I was a confident, happy, healthy young man. Now look at me."

She frowned at me, her forehead furrowed. "Why did you come here? Clearly, you're not happy. Aaron's right, maybe you're better off going home. No one here is a prisoner."

"-I- would be, if I tried to go home that is."

"What is THAT supposed to mean?"

I took a deep breath, picking my head up to see the bottom curve of the sun disappearing out of view. The people across the ridge had gone silent, but this last boulder was out of the way enough that if we kept our voices down, no one would really hear. "It's a long story."

"I've got time."

I glanced at her. "You're really interested?"

She shrugged. "Curious. I've been trying to figure you out for a couple of days. You don't really fit the type for a ranch hand around here."

"And you do? You know your way around camp, that's for sure, but most of the others are social creatures. You do a lot of observing, hanging in the background and not so much interacting. I've noticed that."

Another shrug. "I like trying to figure out what makes people tick: why they do the things they do, what is their motivation, and how that stuff forms who they are as a person."

"You a psych major?"

She laughed. "No, nothing like that. Just curious."

I mused on that for a moment, debating whether or not to tell her the truth. I could probably spin a fungible story, use the same one I gave Aaron and everyone else when they asked me the 'Why did you come here' question. It was the 'parents wanted me to build character' non-answer, and nobody had shown any interest in digging deeper.

But for some reason, I got the feeling Marie wasn't going to stop at so simple an explanation. And after pinching my lips together and taking one more deep breath, I finally said, "Long story short: I did something really bad back home and got sent here as punishment."

That got a raised eyebrow out of her, and she once again pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose with an index finger. "Punishment?"

"This is my community service. It was a sweetheart deal my dad worked out, and my alternative was going to jail. I'm one less mouth for the prison system to feed, and my paycheck goes to restitution, so it's a financial positive for the government. Bottom line: if I did decide to quit and go home, I wouldn't be going home; I'd be going to jail."

"Huh." Marie certainly wasn't expecting that explanation, and she turned her face forward.

I went silent at that point. No need to add further detail if it wasn't needed. That information alone made me look pretty bad, and it wasn't the sort of thing I would want becoming part of the camp rumor mill. As if my time here hadn't been miserable enough, having everyone around me know that I was this close to being a convicted felon would surely make my situation even less tolerable. And I wasn't even sure why I'd told her.

Maybe it was because I'd given up on Marie just as much as she'd given up on me. I was already so pathetic in her eyes that I knew I could sink no lower in her esteem. What infinitesimal chance I had of ever hooking up with her had already been wiped away. So what was the harm? It's not like I had to worry anymore about impressing her.

And in fact, I kinda felt better about my confession. If nothing else, at least ONE person in this place now knew precisely how much of a fuck-up I'd become. It was no longer a secret I had to keep entirely to myself. And one very small pebble had now fallen off the weight on my shoulders.

At least I felt better until Marie turned to look back at me. She had a look, an expression of deep, abiding disappointment on her face. It was the same kind of glare my dad had given me the day he found out what I'd done, and I found myself wilting beneath the heat of her disapproval.

Clapping a hand against my shoulder, Marie shook her head and then shook my shoulder. "Nick, you need to wake up and stop feeling sorry for yourself. You've been moping around this camp all week complaining and whining and bitching about everything you've had to do. But you don't realize how good you've got it. You don't realize how lucky you are to BE here."

"Huh?"

She now gave me a lopsided grin. "Look, I've never been in prison myself, but it can't be nearly as good as this. You're not on work detail. You're not dressed in an orange jumpsuit picking up trash on the freeways. You're not locked in a cinderblock eight-by-ten with a hulking bald man named Jasmine who's just waiting for you to bend over in the group showers. You are in one of the most beautiful and natural environments in the whole world, with clean air and genuinely nice people who don't want to butt-rape you. Wake up! WAKE. UP. And recognize that your time here isn't punishment. It's an opportunity."

I frowned at her. "An opportunity for what?"

She diverted her gaze over my shoulder and got a faraway look in her eyes. There was a stillness, a serenity about her as she gazed away somewhere else ... perhaps somewhen else. And with a deep breath, she sighed and said, "For a fresh start."

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