"You read it," I said, holding out the damp blue and white test stick, "I can't look."
Neeka took it from me and held it under the lights over the bathroom vanity. "Negative," she said.
"Crap!" I said, with feeling. "Crap! Crap! Crap!"
"Are you sure you peed on it long enough?" Neeka asked.
"I," I replied haughtily and with a slight hysterical tremor in my voice, "will have you know that by now I am an expert pee'er. I could probably hit one of those stupid things from three feet away."
"Please don't bother to demonstrate."
"Your loss. How many was that? I've lost count."
"Enough," she said with a sigh. "We've been doing this every morning for a week now. You're just not pregnant."
"Why not?" I asked plaintively. "What does it take to knock me up?"
"It wasn't for lack of trying. I will testify to that. You slept through a lot of it, but I watched the whole thing. Kirk tried his best. He put enough cum into you to give you sextuplets."
The knock at the door wasn't a completely unexpected interruption. It wasn't even poorly timed.
"Sam? Honey? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Mom!" I called. "We'll be out in a minute." I knew as soon as I said it that I'd said it wrong.
"We?" came the voice from the other side of the door that I now knew wasn't going to go away without an explanation. I supposed she was due one. It was her house and therefore her bathroom door she was knocking on. "Is Monique in there with you?"
"Yes, Bambi. I'm here," Neeka confessed. She's one of three people who are allowed to call Mrs. Reynolds 'Bambi'. I'm not one of them. I call her 'Mom' because that's what she wants me to call her and because she legally adopted me. Well, OK. Not actually adopted. At 18, I'm technically an adult, but she had her will changed to include me in a way that puts me on par with her two sons. She gave me the room in her house that she'd intended to be for her daughter if she ever had one. She's going to put me through as much college as I can stand. She pays my credit card bill every month. And she loves me dearly. She's 'Mom' way more than my birth mother ever was.
The doorknob rattled.
"Honey? Why do you have the door locked? What's going on in there?"
There wasn't much the two of us could have been up to that she wouldn't have been welcome to join in, so locking the door had been an outright admission of guilt. A quick exchange of thoughts, then Neeka turned the latch and pulled the door open. Mom came in and closed it again behind her, implicitly joining whatever we were up to rather than disrupting it.
Even with three of us in there, the room wasn't crowded. Mom knew how to design a bathroom. She hadn't done too badly with the rest of the house either. The place had her signature on every room, from the spacious bathrooms to the cavernous closets to the private deck on the roof. In hindsight, trying to hide from her in her own house had been a poor decision.
"So," she said to the two of us, "What's going on?"
The silence of an awkward moment is the most painful quiet there is. It felt like the air in the room had suddenly been sucked out, leaving a vacuum that pulled on every part of me. If I'd opened my mouth, everything would have rushed out. I pressed my lips together to keep it in and held my breath for good measure.
Mom saw the box of test strips on the vanity by the sink. She looked at me, sitting on the toilet wearing just the sheer top to my shortie nightgown. Then she looked at Neeka, also in her PJs but more fully-dressed and still holding the latest test strip in her hand.
"Tell me you're not pregnant," Mom said. She sounded like she was trying to keep her voice firm, but had trouble masking notes of urgency and alarm.
"I'm not pregnant."
"Good!" She said, a bit more firmly and with an obvious degree of relief. "Then perhaps one of you young ladies would like to explain why you've just gone through a dozen pregnancy tests to establish that fact?"
"She wants to be," Neeka blabbed. I wasn't mad at her for it. Being ratted-out was better than being forced to confess.
"Wants to be what?"
"I see," Mom said. Her eyes darted back and forth between us as though deciding which one of us would be most likely to break under interrogation. Then she took a deep breath. "No, Monique, I don't see. Why does Sam want to be pregnant?"
"She thinks it will prove she's still human," Neeka explained.
"I'm right here," I said, starting to get annoyed at being talked-around even though I was also relieved that I wasn't the one being pressed for an explanation. Something about sitting bare-assed on the toilet puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to cross-examination. I pressed my knees together and tugged self-consciously at the hem of my nightgown.
"But maybe not all there," Mom said to me, meaning I was obviously crazy and so couldn't be expected to give a logical explanation for my behavior. Then she asked Neeka, "How long has this been going on?"
"A couple of weeks. It's been building for a while now. I think it started with the claws, then the scales, then the, uh..."
"Snout," I suggested.
"Snout?" Mom echoed, confused.
"Muzzle. Snoot. Snout. Whatever you want to call it. She grows one now ... when she Changes."
"I see. And she thinks this proves she is no longer human?"
"No, that's because she thinks she's immortal."
That silence was back. This time it was longer and more painful than before. I quit trying to make my nightgown longer and put my hands between my thighs.
At last Mom said, "Let me get this straight. Despite having been through some dangerous situations, you're alive; so you must be immortal. Is that your reasoning?"
"Gee, when you put it like that..." I said.
"And how would you put it?"
"Uh, I'm not dead?"
"Maybe between the ears," Neeka muttered. Her participation in my plan had always been reluctant. Now she saw her chance to defect, she was taking it.
"You hush," Mom told her. "I'm trying to find out why Sam thinks having a baby will help the situation."
"If I can get pregnant it will prove I'm still human, that this Dragon thing hasn't gone too far."
"I see. Does the baby get a vote?"
"This baby you're trying to conceive. Does it get any say in the matter? Have you considered how it will feel about this? That it's being cavalierly brought into this world just so you can disprove this absurd idea?"
"Uh?" She had me there. I hadn't looked at it that way at all.
"Does being unbelievably selfish count as evidence of your humanity? If so, I think you have all the proof you need."
"And what about me?" Mom asked, planting her fists on her hips and leaning over to address me. Now that she'd successfully ridiculed my plan she felt she was on a roll.
"Had it occurred to you that I'm too young to be a grandmother?"
Neeka and I didn't have to look at each other to read each other's thoughts, but we did anyway. Neither of us could tell if she was kidding or not. It didn't sound like it from her tone of voice.
"No?" I said meekly, not meaning it to come out as a question.
Even if she was pulling my leg about the grandmother thing, she still had a point. I hadn't been thinking of anyone but myself. I hadn't even thought past getting pregnant. How it would complicate more lives than just my own.
Mom straightened up and crossed her arms under her breasts, lifting them up and threatening to pop them out of her silk wrap-front blouse. It was something she did whenever she wanted to distract whoever she was talking to and it even worked on me, and my bust is bigger than hers.
"Breakfast will be ready in half an hour. I'm making omelets," she said and left me to think about what she'd said. And I don't mean the part about the omelets, although I wouldn't be able to keep from thinking about that very long. Mom's cooking would make a Cordon Bleu chef jealous. Her domesticity was late-blooming and her standards were higher because of the privileged life she'd led since marriage. She couldn't just scramble eggs; it had to be a production. I think she just loved the idea that she could go into any restaurant and sniff at their fare with an attitude of "I could do better" and know she could back it up. I'd overheard her instructing the caterer she used for parties, so I knew that she'd successfully terrorized at least one local restaurateur.
"I guess she's right," I said. "I am being selfish."
"Finally!" Neeka said. "That's what I've been saying! Why didn't you listen to me?"
"Because you never explained it in those terms."
"My butt is freezing. Let's get ready for breakfast."
Showering helped. Getting clean always made me feel better. Having help doing it made me feel loved. The telepathic link Neeka and I share makes us so close that even when we're skin-to-skin there aren't any flying elbows or accidental bumps. It's like we're one person washing four arms, four legs, and two torsos. When I suddenly felt I needed a hug, a pair of soapy arms was already around me.
"Sorry," I said through the water streaming over my mouth. "My head is all messed-up."
"Tell me about it. You've been getting more obsessed with this every day. You're like a hamster in a wheel, running faster and faster but not getting anywhere."
"I need a vacation," I said, my face in the hollow of her neck. The warm water streaming down masked my tears, but Neeka knew how I felt anyway.
"I need to get away from all this for awhile or I'll be a wreck when school starts," I said.
"It has been a busy summer."
"That's putting it mildly!"
"I can't go with you," She said, understanding and trying not to sound disappointed.
"No, 'away' means away from everything. Everything means everything. I need some 'me' time to get my head straight."
Much of our conversation was repeated over breakfast. Fortunately, Mom was completely on-board with the idea of me getting as far away from things as possible. I think she suspected Neeka of aiding and abetting my plan and she wanted to deprive me of my enabler. That part was almost true. Neeka hadn't agreed with the plan, but she'd certainly helped with the execution of it — even to the point of holding my legs apart while I was being inseminated.
"Where will you go?" she asked.
"No idea. I just need distance. The moon might be far enough."
"NASA doesn't go there anymore," Neeka said, unhelpfully.
"How about the Appalachians?" Mom suggested.
"You mean hillbilly country? Moonshine and marrying your cousin and all that?"
"I think you'll find that things have changed some over the last century or so, but yes — those Appalachians. There is a cabin up in a small town in western North Carolina that Ben and I rented a few times when he wanted to get away from work for a few days. It's a really beautiful and very remote area. I could see if it's available."
"Sounds perfect," I said. "Thanks."
Actually, it sounded like I'd be joining the cast of a remake of Deliverance as an extra, but I wasn't about to add ingratitude to Mom's growing list of my character flaws. She was being very reasonable about my problem. She could have just as easily insisted I visit a psychoanalyst to help me work through things. It's not that I have a low opinion of shrinks, it's just that every theory of psychoanalysis I'd ever read sounded like it had been invented by someone who published it before they sobered-up.
Even on virtually no notice, the cabin was available. I could pick up the key at the rental office at my convenience. I could then spend the next several days sitting all by myself in the woods trying to decide if I was an inhuman monster or simply crazy.
Mom packed for me. I expected to have to pull over and lighten the load before my car would make it up into the mountains, but she was remarkably reasonable about things.
"You won't need much," she said. "There isn't really anything to do other than fish and hike in the woods, so casual clothes will be fine. The weather is usually a few degrees cooler than it is here, but I doubt you'll need a coat or anything. The cabin is pretty rustic, just the basics, really. I've packed you some food. There's a charming little general store where you can get anything else you need."
It must have been the word 'rustic' that tipped me off.
"TV?" I asked, suspiciously.
"I'm afraid not."
"Tell me my cell phone will work."
"It's the mountains. Reception will be spotty, unless they've built a lot more towers than when I was last there."
The moon started to sound a lot more appealing, but I was committed to the backwoods.
I left early Saturday morning. The drive was a long one, and keeping to the Interstates most of the way made it even more tedious. By the time I was able to turn off I-75 near Chattanooga, I was ready for a change of scenery — one that didn't include staring at the back of an 18-wheeler.
I got my wish. The scenery was lovely and the hills were rolling and gentle for the first few miles. I relaxed and began to enjoy the trip. Then things got ugly.
I don't mean the scenery was any less beautiful, but the road started to try to crawl out from under my car. It began to dip and twist and curve like it wanted to throw me off. I pulled my seat-belt tighter and kept going, but I was used to driving on flat roads and this was a new experience for me. Curves, I could deal with. But curves that went up and down and sideways felt like I was driving on a rollercoaster. When the going started to get really steep, I had to slow down. Every bend felt like I was heading over the edge and I had to slow to a crawl to make sure I didn't fly off the road. This didn't sit well with the people behind me, who kept crowding my bumper and giving me frequent encouragement by honking their horns. I ignored them as best I could, since I didn't see how they could possibly go any faster than I could on roads like this, but after several miles of 'encouragement', it started to get on my nerves.
At the first scenic overlook I came to, I swung off and stopped to let the line of traffic behind me pass. It took me a few tries before I was able to pry my fingers off the steering wheel. Then I put the car in park, carefully set the parking break and climbed out to stretch my legs and work the cramps out of my hands.
The view was spectacular. The overlook was just a wide spot on the outside of a curve with only a high granite curb to keep you from driving over the edge. There was room for only three or four cars. Three at the moment, since I'd done such a poor job of parking next to the two cars already there.
The mountain side of the road was a vertical wall of dark rock made even darker by a constant trickle of water across the middle of it. On the outside of the curve, a vista of green trees covered hills that undulated away into the distance. It looked like you could see for miles, but I had no clue if it was two or ten.
I stepped around the car to get a better look. As I walked toward the edge of the precipice, I began to feel a strange force that seemed to want to suck me over the brink. I was able to save myself by digging in my heels and bracing, but only barely. I looked around, but the tourists from the other cars didn't seem to be affected by the same mysterious force. Instead, they appeared quite unaware of anything out of the ordinary as they went about pointing and taking photos of each other standing obliviously next to the hungry, yawning abyss.
I wanted to shout to them to run for it and save themselves, but since I was the only one who appeared affected by the inexplicable shift in the local gravity I decided to spare myself the shame of calling attention to what I had started to suspect was my own inexperience with matters mountainous.
After a bit, things did seem to ease off and I was even able to approach the edge as closely as fifteen feet or so.
"That's enough for now," I told myself and backed cautiously to my car, slid around to the driver's side and got back in.
"Whoo! This is going to be fun!" I said, not believing a word of it, but not wanting the mountain to know how scared I was of it.
Stopping at every overlook and wide spot in the road helped to shake the tension out of my shoulders and to let my stomach settle from the continuous roller-coaster movement of driving over mountain roads, but it made the trip longer than I'd expected. I didn't get to the rental office until mid-afternoon.
The rail-thin woman behind the counter introduced herself as Helen Mangrum and welcomed me to Tree Top Realty with more enthusiasm than I thought was really necessary for an establishment only slightly larger than most toll booths. I gave her the name I was currently using, showed her one of my corresponding IDs and told her someone had called to arrange for a rental. She checked her list, had me sign for the key, handed me a copy of a crudely-drawn map of the local roads with the approximate location of the cabin circled on it and wished me a nice day. I stared at the map, trying to get oriented and then asked for directions. Those included a landmark to let me know where to turn off the paved road and that the cabin was a "ways back" into the woods.
"Ways back" turned out to be local color for "hell and gone". I must have driven for miles before the rut-lined, moss-encroached, narrow dirt trail ended at a quaint wooden building (aka "shack") with native-rock steps leading up to a small porch. A sign by the steps identified the place unimaginatively as "Cabin # 5".
"This is the place," I said, trying to stay positive. "Home Sweet Home for the next week."
The key fit the discolored deadbolt lock, which turned with only a small amount of reluctance. Inside, it was musty and dark and clearly had sat shut-up without being aired-out for some time. What little light filtered through the trees was further muted by the yellow-brown curtains on the windows. I wasn't sure that was their original color or just the result of decades of use.
I reached for the light switch by the door and flipped it. Nothing happened.
"Wonderful," I muttered, pondering the drive back to the rental office.
"Maybe it's just the breaker," I thought. "I should check that first before I go asking for help turning on a light."
The electric panel on the kitchen wall hung open. Taped beside it was a sign that said, "Help us save electricity. Remove fuses when leaving." Sitting on the bottom of the metal box were two screw-type fuses.
I figured either the cabin must sit unoccupied a good part of the year or the owners were the cheapest so-and-so's in the state. I screwed the fuses into their sockets and went back to try to light switch again.
This time a lamp came on. The light it gave seemed as old and yellow as the curtains, as though the electricity powering it had come from an older time when lights weren't as bright as they are today, but it was light and I was glad to have it.
"Now let's get the A/C cranked up and see if we can't do something about that musty smell."
Mom's prediction that the mountains would be several degrees cooler was as inaccurate. It was warm and humid and the trees blocked any wind that might come along. In anticipation of dealing with the car's A/C blowing on me for several hours and expecting crisper weather at the end of the trip, I'd worn a long-sleeve knit top and a pair of snug Capri pants. Now that I was out of the car, the top was almost sticking to me and the pants felt like a wool blanket on my legs, prickly and hot.
The floorplan of the cabin was straightforward. The living area, with a couple of reading chairs and an overstuffed couch in front of a fireplace; the kitchen, with appliances that were obviously older than I was and may have been older than Mom; and the bedroom, with a full-size bed covered with a chenille bedspread. I looked everywhere for the thermostat. There wasn't one. Nor were there any vents to indicate the presence of any type of central system. Nor was there a single window-mounted airconditioner. No ceiling fan. Not even an oscillating fan. In a drawer under a corner table I found an old bamboo-handled church fan with a faded illustration of lost souls burning in the fires of Hades on it. I thought that was a bit self-defeating.
"Now I know what 'rustic' means. Just great!"
I went around and opened every window in every room. I pulled back all the yellow curtains, which I decided hadn't started out as that color. It didn't help. Not a single curtain moved. I propped the front door open with the paper-covered brick that was there for the purpose. Nothing helped. There was just no breeze to be had.
"A fan would have been nice," I said, "but fans use electricity too and we can't have that! Maybe this place was built when electricity was this new-fangled thing that nobody was sure would catch on?"
That sounded a bit too reasonable and I wondered just when rural electrification had actually reached these parts. Just to make sure, I went around flipping wall-switches to see if they actually did anything. They did, but sometimes it wasn't what I expected. The light-switch for the bathroom was actually in the bedroom, for instance. I was sure someone must have thought that was a good idea, but I was very glad I had twigged to their stroke of brilliance before I stumbled into a dark bathroom in the middle of the night.
By the time I'd brought everything in from the car and put it all away, I was positively dewy. A drop ran down my forehead and out to the tip of my nose and hesitated. I puffed and it flew off across the room in a spray.
A change of clothes seemed to be called for. I pulled off the sticky top and went to pick out some cooler garb. If I couldn't cool the environment, I'd have to do the next best thing and air out as much of me as I could. I thought of going nude, but in a strange house in a strange place, that seemed like something I'd save for a last resort. I didn't think I had any neighbors, but I didn't want them coming around trying to be friendly and catch me in the buff. If I was going to be here for the next several days, I wanted to fit in, not get thrown out for dress-code violations.
Living in a near-tropical climate, you either stay indoors and run the A/C or you wear as little as possible and stick to the shade. I hadn't brought much of my hot-weather stuff, but there were a few things that would work. A pair of cut-off denim shorts with the side seams ripped up to the waist was one. I peeled off the Capris and pulled on the shorts without bothering with the zipper. They'd shrunk enough in the laundry to stay up on their own and it meant that much more of me would be exposed to any potential breeze. The zipper would only go halfway up before it got stuck, anyway, the result of a moment of urgency when I had to pee and in my hurry I'd jerked it bit too hard.
I also had a sleeveless peasant blouse that tied under my boobs. It was one of those things that wasn't strictly my size, but I could get away with wearing it by making the knot in front small and tight. It wouldn't work with a bra, so the bra was history. The only thing I kept was my pair of canvas slip-ons, and I only kept those on because I didn't trust the warped wooden floor not to have splinters lurking in it, just waiting to stab me.
When I checked the mirror I realized that I'd only been there a few minutes and I'd already 'gone native'. I looked around for a stalk of hay to stick in my mouth to complete the effect, but the only thing growing outside was ferns and ivy.
Having settled in as much as I could, I sat down on one of the old metal chairs on the narrow porch and propped my feet up on the wooden railing.
"I will now relax and commune with nature," I announced as I leaned back and opened my consciousness to the whole bucolic experience.
The silence was soothing. The stillness was almost total. It was the perfect opportunity for deep, soul-searching introspection and navel contemplation. A Buddhist would have been delighted with the ambience of the place.
Five minutes later I was bored. I went inside and walked around from room to room to room. It was a short trip, since there were only three rooms. Ten minutes later and I was bored out of my mind.
"I have to get out of here. This place is stifling. I have to go find something to do. This introspection crap is going to take some working up to. Maybe if I unwind a bit first."
There were still a couple of hours before sunset, so I got back into my car and went back to the realty office. The drive back seemed shorter than it had going up. When I got back to the small office, Mrs. Mangrum seemed just as happy to see me the second time as she had the first. Of course she did, I was probably the only person she'd seen all day.
"Well hi there, Samantha! You get settled in OK?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you. The cabin is lovely. Very ... peaceful."
"I wouldn't say that ... I just need to unwind after that drive. I'm all keyed-up and I can't just plop down and relax."
Mrs. Mangrum looked down at me from her tall counter. She looked me up and down as if she thought I looked quite relaxed enough in my little hillbilly outfit, but if she had an opinion, she kept it to herself. I thought she probably got a lot of practice at that while dealing with clients who turned up dressed in whatever they thought counted as 'tourist garb'.
"Not really a lot to do around here," she admitted. "Most of our customers come up for the peace and quiet. The big attraction is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest."
"Great," I thought. "Just what I need ... more trees."
"You could rent a boat and go fishing. But you don't strike me as the fishing type."
I shook my head. Fishing has never appealed to me. I always though of it as an elaborate and time-consuming way to drown worms.
"You could drive over to Nantahala. It's up the road apiece. They've got an outdoor center over there. You could go river rafting. Bit late in the day for that, though. And tomorrow's Sunday. Might plan to do that come Monday if you think it's something you'd like? There's flyers for outfitters behind you in the rack."
I didn't, really. But so far it seemed the most exciting thing I might find to do, so I took a flyer, thanked Mrs. Mangrum for her suggestions and went back to my car.
I was just opening the door when a rattle-trap pickup truck rolled past. From the amount of rust on it and the throaty, rumbling sound of the engine, the owner had spent every penny on what was under the hood and nothing at all on the bodywork. The passenger door and bed were both different colors from the cab and there were spots of Bondo all over where repairs had been started but never finished. The driver slammed on the brakes and the truck squealed to a stop without pulling off the road.
"Hey there!" a male voice came from inside.
I had nothing better to do than to meet one of the locals. I walked over to the truck and stepped up on the running-board so I could see inside.
I expected something out of Deliverance, featuring missing teeth and chewing tobacco. What I saw was more Dukes of Hazzard. The guy was in his early twenties and not terribly bad looking if you ignored the unfortunate haircut and the overgrown mustache. I couldn't see his teeth for the scraggly fur hanging off his upper lip. I waited for him to lean out and spit, and I was happy when he didn't.
"Hey, yourself," I said. If he invited me to go fishing with him, I was history. Anything else was negotiable.
"You renting?" he asked, nodding toward the office behind me.
"Come with your folks?"
"No. Just me. Had to get away for a while, you know?"
"I heard that. Looking for something to do?"
"No, I like being bored-silly."
"You came to the right place for that. We got bored we haven't used yet. If you need a change and you don't mind a bit of excitement you might try Red's Barn. That's a beer joint over on the far side of the lake."
For a second he couldn't meet my eyes. Usually that's because guys are looking at my boobs, but this one seemed to think he needed to say something else.
"What?" I prompted.
"Well ... I don't want you to think I was trying to trick you. This place is pretty wild. Don't come if you're not ready to party."
This was starting to sound like my best chance to avoid a long night of possibly more rustic boredom than I could stand. And how wild could things get in a place this far back in the boonies? I had visions of a rousing Battle of the Jug-bands or a Quilting Bee where the gossip turned mean and Granny threatened someone with her knitting needles.
"How do I get there?" I asked.
"Follow the lake road there. Turn up the hill past the old Sinclair station. There's no sign, but you can't miss it. Just look for all the trucks and bikes."
"Bikes? You get bikers up here?"
"Not the kind you're thinking of I expect. These bikers mostly don't ride hogs and choppers. They ride those Jap bikes and they come for the twisty roads."
"What should I wear?" I asked.
"What you got on is fine. We're not fancy around here. Don't wear stuff you're fond of."
That certainly sounded interesting. I raised my estimate of what 'wild' looked like in these parts.
"I'm Samantha," I said.
"Clyde," he replied. "See you tonight!"
I stepped off the running board and Clyde drove off.
"'Clyde'? I think that may be the first Clyde I've ever met. At least I've got something to do tonight."
Going back up the hill to the cabin, I figured out that the best way to make it up the drive was to stay on the high side of the ruts, even if it meant coming closer to the trees than I was really comfortable doing. Without all the jarring bumps, the trip seemed shorter too.
Having plans for the evening made being alone in the woods much more tolerable. I went through my limited wardrobe a couple of times, but couldn't find anything I liked better than what I had on so I decided to stick with the country-girl outfit.
I couldn't figure what Clyde meant by suggesting I not wear clothes I was fond of. Was the place that dirty? I pictured dirt floors and hay bales for furniture, but that sounded a bit too 'rustic'. He'd called it a beer joint. I certainly knew what that was. We had them back home. Longnecks, rednecks, and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the jukebox. Not precisely my crowd, but I was sure I could manage to fit in. 'Redneck' is pretty universal, even if the local dialect might have a different twang than I was used to hearing.
Going back down the mountain in the dark was much different than doing it in daylight. Trees kept jumping in front of the car and I found myself leaning over the steering wheel to try to see what I was about to run into. When I finally turned onto the paved road again, it was a big relief.
Finding Red's Barn wasn't hard, but it was much further up in the hills than Clyde had implied. The Sinclair station was easy to spot. It looked like it had been abandoned for decades, but the green dinosaur was still visible on the sign. After heading up into the hills, I almost turned around a couple of times thinking I'd taken the wrong road but eventually I got there. As promised, it was easy to know when I arrived. For one thing, the road ended and the only way to proceed was to turn through a gap in a barbed-wire fence.
Parking was wherever you liked. Cars, trucks and few bikes were all over a grassy field. I pulled up next to a tree I thought I could find again later and got out.
Other than the vehicles, there was no indication this was anything but an old barn out in the country. No neon. No signs. No nothing but the muted sound of music coming from inside and light spilling out through an open door.
Inside was vintage beer joint. Like my cabin, there was no air-conditioning and the air was warm and thick with humidity. A mostly male crowd occupied a motley collection of tables and chairs were scattered in no particular pattern over a rough wooden floor. Most of the seating looked like old rickety kitchen chairs that wouldn't have brought a dollar each at a flea market. A bar built of unpainted particle-board and two-by-fours was along one wall. If any of the stools in front of the bar matched, I couldn't tell. I went over and hopped up on one of the sturdier-looking seats that still had some padding.
After a few seconds, the bartender broke away from a conversation he was having with a couple of guys and came over.
"What'll you have?" he asked.
"What've you got?"
"You're not from around here, are you?"
I shook my head.
"We got Bud, Miller, and Coors. Two bucks — cash. Cans only. No glasses. No table service. Throw your empties in one of the blue barrels."
"Coors," I said and reached into my shallow pocket for the small wad of bills I'd brought. At two dollars each, I could still afford to get righteously bombed.
The bartender fished a can out of an ice-filled tub behind him and sat it on the bar. I handed him a ten and he made change out of his pocket.
I opened my beer and took a sip. The bartender leaned over.
"How'd you hear about this place? We don't get many tourists up here."
"A guy I met told me about it. Said his name was Clyde."
The bartender nodded like he knew who I meant.
"He tell you about the contest?"
He smiled and hooked a thumb at a low platform in the corner at the end of the bar. There were a couple of outdoor worklights clamped to the rafters pointing down at a blue tarp covering something large in the middle of the stage. On the back wall was a large black clock with three white hands pointing to 12. On a shelf below that sat a small plastic-looking trophy cup on a wood base and tacked to the edge of the shelf was a row of photographs too small for me to make out anything other than the people in them seemed to be in unusual poses.
"We got one of those mechanical bulls. Any girl who rides drinks free the rest of the night. Stay on fifteen minutes and you win the trophy and get your picture on the wall."
He seemed way too smug about it for that to be the whole story. The crappy trophy didn't seem like sufficient inducement and neither did getting your picture thumb-tacked to their wall. And mostly because fifteen minutes seemed like an awful long time to hang onto one of those things while it was bucking.
"And?" I prompted.
He laughed. "We added something extra to it. Like I said, the contest is for girls only. You interested?"
I was. It showed. The bartended grinned and slid a clipboard over to me. There were already two names on it: Lucy and Darlene. No last names. I added Samantha and handed it back.
"Thanks. You going to tell me what the deal is?"
"You'll find out soon enough. We start it up around nine. One thing I will tell you because you may change your mind..."
"You got to ride bareback."
At first I thought he meant it literally and I couldn't figure how it applied to a machine with the saddle built on. Then it dawned on me that he didn't mean the bull would be bare. He meant I would. It was so unexpected that I blushed.
"You going to chicken-out?"
I shook my head and smiled. "Nope. I'm in."
"Way to go. Good luck. I hope you win."
That sounded less than sincere, but I said "Thanks" anyway.
So that was the wildness that Clyde warned me about. I took a long pull at my beer. The prospect of riding a mechanical bull had seemed like fun to me. The idea of doing it naked in front of everyone in the bar was way more than fun. I was already getting excited thinking about it and anyone who bothered to check out the outline of my nipples under the lightweight top I was wearing would know just how excited I was.
I looked around to see if I could spot my competition. The light was dim, but my night-vision is excellent. I could see several possibilities. One table of five was an all-girl affair. They looked like they were out celebrating something because they were all overdressed for this place. Their hair was done and they wore dresses, like they'd been out to a restaurant earlier and had come here afterward.
Most of the tables were purely stag. Groups of guys wearing jeans, t-shirts, and ball-caps with logos on the front. I could see how guys with girlfriends might not want to bring them to a place with a show like this one. Still, there were a few females mixed in with the crowd.
One particularly had the look of a competitor. A brunette, she wore a tube-top and a wrap-skirt, both of which would be something I might wear if I knew I was going to be getting undressed quickly. She had a good figure and didn't seem to mind showing it. Her tube-top didn't do much for her boobs though. It was really too small for her and it gave her a kind of uni-boob appearance. I also knew when she took it off that she would have tread-marks from the fabric.
I was trying to spot the other one when one of the guys at a nearby table got up and came over to talk to me.
"Hey there!" he said, tentatively.
"You with somebody?"
"Not really. I thought I might run into someone, but I don't see him."
"Want to come over and visit with us while you wait?"