Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online



Dawnwalker

Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle


a novel by
Wes Boyd
2002, 2008




Chapter 62: December 1998

Catching Josh was always a tricky problem in the winter -- he was out on the trail a lot, sometimes at weird hours, and often at night. Randy had been out checking progress and a couple paperwork issues at a major interior remodeling job out on the north shore of the lake, and since he went within a mile of Josh and Tiffany's dog lot, he thought it was worth the trip out of the way. He had a little business to take care of with Josh, but didn't want Crystal around when he did it; he'd made a couple of attempts before without managing it.

This time, he did. He found Josh breaking down a dog team, obviously having come in from a training run. He got out of his truck, pulled on a stocking cap to block some of the cold wind, and went over to see if he could help. "Yeah," Josh said. "Take this dog by the neckline and don't let him go, whatever you do. He wants to run, but I don't think he wants to run any farther than that bitch in heat I've got back in wheel."

Josh unfastened the tuglines on two other dogs, and unhooked and grabbed the necklines. "Crystal around?" Randy asked as he waited, looking around the dog lot. There were a lot of dogs out there, some sleeping on top of their doghouses, some dancing and barking at the ends of their chains, some at them, some barking just for the hell of it. It was pretty noisy, and not for the first time Randy wondered how Josh and Tiffany -- and Crystal, now -- ever put up with it. At least it wasn't a big hassle with the neighbors; the only ones within a half mile were Mike and Kirsten, and Mark and Jackie. They had dogs, too, though not as many, but all the sled dogs in this area made the locals call the road out front "Dog Town Road."

"No, she and Tiffany have teams out somewhere," Josh said as he turned and headed for the dog lot.

Randy followed Josh onto the lot. There hadn't been much snow yet, but it was just about a moonscape, with dog-dug holes all over the place, dog dung, and dog-chewed doghouses covering an acre or more. He knew that Josh and Tiffany moved the dog lot around the property a couple times a year to minimize the damage, and ran a grader over it, but the dogs soon turned the new area into a war zone again. "Tear it up pretty good, don't they?" he commented.

"Yeah, it's a pain in the ass," Josh said. "And it's not as good as it could be for the dogs. Sometime when I'm not so goddamn busy I don't know whether to shit or go blind, I want to sit down and talk with you about that."

"Sure," Randy said. "What you got in mind?"

"Couple different ideas," Josh said, stopping at a doghouse not far inside the lot, and snapping one of the dogs to a chain. "One of 'em is to see how much money it would take to put about four inches of concrete out here. It'd keep the dogs from digging, help keep the toenails under control, we wouldn't have to move 'em several times a year, and we could hose the dog crap down rather than having to clean it up with a rake."

"It ain't gonna be cheap," Randy said. "That's a lot of damn concrete."

"Yeah, I was afraid you were going to say that," Josh said, moving to another nearby doghouse to fasten the dog to its chain. "Actually, there are a couple problems with that and it's not what I really want to do anyway. If I had the money to burn, what I'd really like to do is to build a dog barn specifically designed for the purpose. There's a guy by the name of Jeff King up in Alaska who has exactly what I'd like to do. Individual runs for each dog, feeding sort of centralized, and the dogs are inside out of the worst weather. That'd save a lot of time on dog maintenance. But I know that's going to cost money I don't have, and we're always running this operation close to the wire."

"Let's get together sometime anyway," Randy said as Josh took the dog from him and fastened it. "Give me some idea of what you're talking about, and let me push a pencil around a bit. There might be a short cut or two, maybe build it in stages or something. At least it would give you a hack on how much money you have to come up with."

"Yeah, I've been sort of meaning to do that," Josh said, looking around. "OK, let's see, who goes next? Kybo, I guess you're up," he said, looking at a dog jumping at the end of its chain, apparently ready to run. He went over, snapped a neckline to the collar, and unhooked the dog chain. He handed the neckline to Randy, and said, "Hold on tight; this guy is pretty exuberant till he gets on the trail a while. Anyway, I've been so goddamn busy I just haven't had the time, and it won't get better till we get back from Alaska, and then only for a while."

"OK," Randy said, getting a good grip on the neckline. Yeah, this dog could pull hard.

"Tiffany and I are going to cut back from five training teams to four this weekend if we can figure out which dogs to cut," Josh continued as he went for another dog. "That doesn't solve anything, 'cause we'll just start running more miles, so it's all a wash. Thank God you came up with Crystal for us. She's about the best rookie with dogs I've ever seen, and having her around has reduced the time situation to only nearly impossible."

"Glad I could help," Randy said, as Josh went for another dog.

It so happened that Randy had caught Josh and Tiffany at a low point on Thanksgiving evening. They'd taken a couple hours off dog training to have dinner with her parents, but only on the provision that Mike could come over and run a team for a few hours that evening. Since Mike was getting a lot of miles on dogsleds anyway, it wasn't any big deal for him, but both Josh and Tiffany felt guilty about it. Besides, they were wishing that, just for once, they could lay back, fall asleep during the afternoon football game, and maybe go home afterward and get a little romantic instead of having to get about three hours training each on five different sets of dogs. It got them a little bummed out, and Josh's protest that he didn't have much money in the budget for a paid dog handler only made him feel worse.

It had been a little difficult to talk around the fact that Crystal was sitting only a few feet away as Randy called, but he'd made it work. "Might be such a thing that there could be some help with that," he'd said obliquely.

"Clark Plywood, maybe?" Josh asked from the other end of the phone line, knowing who he was talking to.

"Maybe," Randy had told him. "I'd have to do some checking. One way or another."

"Yeah, well, in that case, have her come out tomorrow morning," Josh said, getting the message. "You going to be in the office tomorrow morning?"

"Pretty much. Give me a call when you get a chance."

Randy had figured it would cost a couple thousand dollars to subsidize Josh to pay Crystal to work for him. He wasn't about to pay the whole shot, but he liked Josh and was willing to pitch in a little, especially if the pitching in could come from one or the other of the Clark companies as a sponsorship tax write-off. He knew he'd have to get together with his dad or Brent to work that out, but he was willing to dip into his own money if he couldn't come up with something. As it turned out, that hadn't been necessary. He really did like Josh and Tiffany, and knew that they were hoeing a pretty tough row, but this way everybody got something out of it.

"Yeah, cripe, she's a helluva worker," Josh said as he picked out another dog. "For someone who's never worked with dogs before, she's a natural. Needs some more experience with a sled, but she's doing fine if we stay on good trails in the daylight. I figured that just feeding and trying to keep the lot halfway clean would eat up most of her time, and never figured on getting trail miles out of her, too. Keep her up here a couple winters, and I wouldn't be surprised if she starts saying things like 'I wanna go to Nome.'"

"Wouldn't surprise me," Randy said as he turned to follow Josh back toward the sled. "But then, it wouldn't surprise me if she didn't either. The thing that first caught my attention about her is that she isn't very oriented toward competition, races and who's best. I know that at least twice she turned down offers to get on tracks that could have taken her to the Olympics: swimming and maybe ski jumping if they open it up to women."

"Hummph," Josh snorted. "I didn't know that. She is a little different, I guess."

"Don't tell her I told you so. She's a little sensitive about it. You haven't told her about the money, have you?"

"No, you told me not to and I didn't," Josh replied. "You got a check, by any chance?"

"In the truck," Randy told him. "I've been carrying it around for a week trying to find you to give it to you without her around. Clark Plywood is now one of your sponsors."

"Not the first time," Josh grinned. "But it has been a couple years. Your dad has been pretty good about helping us out if we get short when we're getting down to the wire, but as luck had it, we didn't need it last year."

"I just don't want her getting any ideas that giving you some sponsorship means that we're giving her charity, because we're not. She'd be sensitive about that, too."

"Is she anything to you?"

"We're good friends," Randy told him. "Close friends. She's had a couple bad breaks with her family, and I try to grease the skids a little for her when I can."

"I thought maybe there was something going on," Josh smirked.

"I did ask her to marry me once, a couple years ago. She never said yes. Now, with this most recent deal, it's probably not in the cards. You don't need to tell her that, either."

"Sorta wondered," Josh grinned. "I mean, I thought she'd be outa here every evening and into town to see you, but it's only been a couple times."

"Only when she wants a shower and you're out of hot water," Randy laughed. "I actually figured on seeing her more than that myself, but apparently she's just as happy living in your old camper. It's got a bunk, it's got a heater, and apparently that's all she needs."

"Well, she does use the john in the house, and eats with us sometimes," Josh said as they reached the sled and began hooking up dogs. "But the camper is all right if she likes it. Tiffany and I lived in it a couple months a year up till last year. In Alaska, too, a damn sight colder than it ever gets around here. She doesn't think it's any big deal. She has some friend down south somewhere who's lived in a little travel trailer for years."

"Yeah, Scooter," Randy smiled. "I met her a couple times, but never saw the trailer. Good people, maybe around your age. Did the AT once, started it with Crystal a second time, and her knees gave out. Sort of makes me wonder what ever happened to her."

"We've heard Crystal mention her a couple times. Sounds like she's still running rafts down in North Carolina somewhere."

"Did she use the term 'NOC?'"

"Yeah," Josh said, hooking up the last dog.

"Figures. Like I said, I never got to know Scooter real well, but she's another outdoor junkie like Crystal. Like you and Tiffany, for that matter."

"I'd love to do one of those raft trips," Josh said, standing up and going to unhook a dog that had been waiting. "Especially the Grand Canyon. The way she talks about it, you'd think it was a guy she has the hots for or something. She promised to stay around till we get back from Alaska, but I'll bet as soon as we're back we won't see anything but taillights."

"Yeah, you're right," Randy said as Josh handed him a neckline on the new dog. "She's got it bad. Wouldn't mind doing one of those trips myself, but they're all in construction season, and not a chance for me."

"Me either," Josh said. "If I'm not running dogs, I'm running railroad engines. Damn, especially now that we have the store, I just don't have time for those kinds of adventures. The Nome run is about all I can manage. Well, maybe in the spring, at least, things do slow down a little, and maybe you and Joe can take me out and get me going on whitewater a bit. It'll be fun to do something outdoors with something that doesn't eat or shit."

"Hell, I wouldn't mind learning a little about this. I don't think I ever want to deal with a pack of dogs on a regular basis, but this would be something new to pick up."

"We'll have to find some time, sometime," Josh promised. "Hell, it'd be nice to have someone else I could call on to help with the training once in a while. But, this time of the year, I don't know where I'd find the time. Maybe I could have Mark or Mike take you out. Actually, probably the best time would be while Tiffany and I are in Alaska. Mark, Mike, and Crystal, now, will still have to get out and give the dogs still here some exercise, do some yearling training. Get you out a bit, then put you on a sled with four or five dogs, with a good leader or two, and I think you'd like it."

"And you get someone else you can volunteer, that way," Randy grinned.

"Yaah, you betcha," Josh laughed.

~~~~~

Josh and Tiffany didn't take very many days off, and certainly not for bad weather -- they had to take the race as it came, and getting out in the worst possible weather that the Spearfish Lake north country could manage was only a warm-up for what they'd face in Alaska. Crystal wasn't much of one to take days off, either -- not as many as the racers would have expected her to ask for, anyway -- so they had no problem with her taking off the Monday before Christmas, after she'd dealt with the morning feeding.

Crystal spent the afternoon at the Szczerowski house with Nicole and Jacqueline -- Jackpine -- going over plans for their hike that would be starting in a little over two months. Randy joined them in the evening after he got off work, and they'd ironed out a number of arrangements.

Though he'd heard a lot about her, it was the first time that Randy had met Jacqueline. She turned out to be rather plain appearing with a big nose, but very tall, towering over him, and very slender, as well. He'd wondered about that from Nicole's description, but when he saw her muscle structure in a tight T-shirt, he also knew she was strong and in good shape, and quit worrying about that part of it.

Many things were going to be much the same as they'd been two years ago. They worked out that Randy was going to again serve as the home base for mail drops and the like; he knew the drill. Everyone had been impressed with Crystal's strategy of switching over to the ultralight gear for the summer, and using the many available places to buy food in the middle part of the trip to keep the load down. Jacqueline was a more experienced backpacker than Nicole, and she'd been impressed with the idea of only carrying loads in the twenty-pound range, or even less, rather than twice that for most of the summer. It was clear the two intended to move fast through the middle section of the trail. If, like Crystal, they could get through Maine on the lightweight gear before the fall weather came, so much the better. Nicole hoped to be back in time to at least get a last gasp at the teacher hiring cycle, and planned to send out some resumes before she left, with the notation that she wouldn't be available for interviews before the middle of August.

It had also been decided that Randy, Nicole and Jacqueline were going to fly to Atlanta, where they'd rent a car so he could take them to Amicola Falls. If everything worked out right and he could clear away the time, he was planning to hike up to the trailhead with them and see them on their way. One big change from Crystal's trip was that it would be even earlier in the year than she had started -- that had been somewhat dictated by Randy's getting free on spring break back at NMU. Crystal had suggested targeting the first of March to begin, unless there had been a string of bad weather or there was rough weather forecast in the near future. It would be even colder than she and Scooter had experienced on the first few days of the trail, but unlike them, Marlin and Jackpine planned to do their pre-trip training in the north country, much of it outside, so they'd be more weather-hardened than Crystal had been, doing most of her training in the Keys.

Randy would also somehow work out a pickup at Katahdin. He might drive to Maine, but if his work schedule was tight, he'd fly and do another rental car; the actual details would have to be worked out as the girls approached the end of the trail.

Also depending on work schedule and weather, Randy planned to meet the two girls somewhere on the trail sometime around Memorial Day to make the major gear exchange, and possibly walk a day or two with them. Where wasn't quite clear yet; it would again depend on weather, and how fast the girls were moving, but Shenandoah National Park had been thrown in as a possibility.

As it had two years before, it seemed a little disheartening to Randy. Here the two girls were heading out on an adventure he'd like to share -- actually, he'd like to share it one on one with Nicole, but if he could have made a threesome with them, he would have. But once again, there was a school job on the schedule, a big one at that, and there wasn't going to be much getting away, certainly not for six months or so. Some day, he was going to get the chance to have his one big adventure, but it was going to have to be a short one, unless he could think of something to do in the coldest months of the winter, and then it would be iffy. A couple times, he'd given whimsical thought to seeing if he could come up with something in Patagonia or New Zealand or Australia. It wasn't quite a dead issue in his mind; once in a while, it would give a twitch, like tonight, as he sat with the three girls as two of them planned their Georgia-to-Maine excursion.

Eventually the trail talk died down -- there was only so much that could be talked about after all, even with Crystal telling trail stories, and starting to tail off into other stories about her wanderings in the last two years. He'd heard quite a bit about some of them, but now heard some he hadn't heard before about the trip to Hawaii on the Andromeda, and a couple more about the Inside Passage on the Glacier Bay, as well as stories from Cooper Hill, and of course, the Grand Canyon, which had become her favorite topic.

Damn, it wasn't right, he thought as he listened to Crystal ramble. It's supposed to be the girls who stay at home wondering, like the Irish fisherman's wife in Dawnwalker, while the men were out doing the trips and the adventures, not the other way around. But Nicole and Jacqueline were going to be the ones on the AT, and Crystal in the Grand Canyon, while he kept the home fires burning and watched the dawn -- well, actually, the mailman and occasionally the telephone -- for some sign that they were all right. He ought to be used to that by now, and there was no sign that he ever would be.

Crystal and Nicole were used to it, and didn't notice, but Jacqueline picked up on his discomfort. "Doesn't it make you a little jealous?" she asked him.

"No, not really," he said with a grin he didn't really mean. "The truth is that it makes me a lot jealous. Sure, I'd like to do things like that, but it's not in the cards. I do get to go out and do stuff once in a while, but not as much as I like. Hell, last week I got to drive all the way down to Camden. That was my big adventure of the fall. Oh, and I got out to Snow Snake once with the snowboard. Nicole and I talked about going to Akinback Mountain over Thanksgiving again, but when those relatives of hers from Texas, and Myleigh, and then Crystal showed up, that shot that in the butt. I don't try to plan anything very often since it usually gets shot in the ass before I can do it."

He tried to keep it light, but there must have been some cynicism showing through. "It does bother you, doesn't it?" Nicole said.

"Yeah, it does," he said. "Not real bad, and not all the time, but it's been hard to sit here tonight and hear you talking about the adventures you'll be having while I'm thinking about torturing or killing the state school board electrical inspector. Seriously, all the trips I'm going to have this year will be hauling you and Nicole around, Jacqueline. That, and Nicole and I are planning on going to Florida surfing next week. That's just going to have to hold me. Maybe another year."

"That's right," Crystal said with a knowing smile. "You and Nicole did say something about that. Buddha and Giselle's again?"

"Is there any other place?" Randy grinned.

"You know, I'd love to go," Crystal said. "It's been two years since I've seen them. But, there's no way I can get away from work that long."

"My God! I never thought I'd see the day," Randy said sarcastically. "Do you remember when we were down there two years ago? You and Nicole were talking about hiking the AT, and I said I'd love to go but I had to work?"

"Yeah?" Crystal said, a little quizzically.

"I never thought I'd get the chance to say this to you," his sarcasm deepening. "But I'll give you back what you said to me: 'Bummer when you gotta work, isn't it?' That's going to carry me a long way."

"Randy," Nicole said quietly. "I had no idea this was bothering you that badly. Would you rather I just forget about the hike?"

"No, Nicole," he said, as serious as he could be. "Absolutely not. Under no circumstances. Understand me, if something came up to keep you from going, like, oh hell, a broken leg for example, I'd be sorry it blew up in your face, but glad to have you around for a while. But there's no way I'd ever want you to pack it in just on my account. There's a lot of reasons for that, but the big one is that you have to do this stuff while you have the chance, because it may not come again. I blew the chance, as if I ever really had one anyway, and now it'll probably never come. You have your chance. Take it. Besides, if you did pack it in on my account, you'd wind up hating me for your losing the opportunity. I won't have that."

"All right," she said. "I wish there was some way to make it up to you. I know I've wanted to spend more time with you than I've been able to manage, but things just haven't worked out. Look, I've only got two more weeks at Mosquito Valley after the first of the year, and that'll be your slow period. Maybe we could take off and do something."

"Probably not," he sighed. "First off, you're really going to have to be concentrating on your training for the hike if you and Jackpine are going to pull this off like you planned. You're actually a little behind on training now, right?"

"Only a little," she said. "I've done a fair amount of walking all fall. Mostly it's been right there in Mosquito Valley, but I've been going up and down hills a lot. That, and some road walking."

"Still, assume we could take a month off," he shook his head. "I can't, but assume. You're just going to fall further behind, right? That could screw up the trip as bad as if you'd said screw it in the first place. Besides, there's no way I could take a month off. We're already up to our ass on this Albany River Middle School project. I can get off next week, fine. A month, no. We're still trying to tighten up the schedule. They'd like to be moved in by the start of school, but I don't think there's any way in hell we can manage that. We're still three months from breaking ground if we're lucky, and if we have a late spring or something goes wrong, we could still be there when the snow flies. If very much goes wrong, it may be Dad picking you and Jackpine up at Katahdin. I just won't be able to get away."

Crystal frowned. "Randy, assume you get a good start and things go pretty right. You'd still be free along in, say, October or early November, right? Come do a Canyon trip with me."

"Don't torture me like that," Randy said, hanging his head. Even the thought hurt. "You have no idea how much I'd like to do that, but I can't even dream about it. Even if the school project goes all right, some other damn thing will come up. I might be able to get away for a week or so if things go just right, but you're talking about three weeks for a Canyon trip. There just ain't no way."

"You could maybe do a half-trip, hike in or out at Phantom Ranch," she suggested, trying to help. "I'd suggest the second half if you can. That's a hell of a hike out, it's better to go downhill."

"Still probably impossible," he said. "How far do you have those trips booked ahead?"

"Pretty far," Crystal admitted. "As far as I know, everything's booked for next summer at this point, but there are occasionally cancellations. There were open spots on the November trip this fall. About all you can do is call in and ask. But, I might be able to talk to Al or Louise and get you on as a sort of swamper with like no notice. Don't just dump the idea, huh?"

"It's a possibility," he sighed. "Probably no way in hell it's going to happen."

"Nicole, you're going to be subbing in the fall, right?" Crystal asked. "Maybe you could come, too, if everything worked out."

Nicole shook her head. "I don't think so," she said. "Like I told you, I don't really like whitewater just as a thrill ride."

"There's a thrill ride aspect," Crystal told her. "But there's a lot of other neat stuff, too, including some good hiking like you'll never get anywhere else. I think I enjoy that as much as the river itself."

"I'll think about it," Nicole said. "Don't expect it to happen. There's another reason, too."

"What's that?"

"Randy has been pretty good about waiting for us to come home while we're out having our fun and big adventures, you, me, even Myleigh last summer," she said slowly and thoughtfully. "I think that just to be fair, maybe for once I need to be the one who waits at home for him."

~~~~~

Over the next couple days, Randy did at least give a little thought to Crystal's suggestion, then filed it away in his mental "Maybe someday, but not very likely" file. He did tell Nicole that it was nice of her to make the offer about staying home while he took the Canyon trip, and the thought meant a lot to him even though it would probably never happen. After all, he still did whitewater trips that she apparently wasn't interested in, although not as many as he once had, but hopefully they'd continue in the future, and maybe that sort of counted.

There was one more thing that bothered him about Crystal's suggestion, but he hadn't mentioned it to Nicole -- the trip would be with Crystal, not with her. Though they still had an agreement not to have an agreement until the hike was over with, Randy's mental needle was settling down on Nicole, much as he had expected. Crystal's long absence had something to do with that. The last time he and Crystal had made love had been the night after they'd climbed Katahdin together, well over a year before; it had been a year since anything with Myleigh too, and that had been sort of unintentional. Even having Crystal available with Nicole gone hadn't changed it. There had been opportunities if he'd wanted to push it a little, but he'd tried to avoid them instead.

The offer he had made to Crystal was still lying out there, but she was going to have to be the one to take it. With her excitement over the prospects of the Grand Canyon, he doubted it had even crossed her mind. Sooner or later, something was going to have to be done about it, but Randy was reluctant to do it until Nicole finished her trip on the Appalachian Trail -- who knew what would happen there? In two years, the positions of Crystal and Nicole had subtly changed in his mind. When Crystal had started up the trail, Nicole had been the one he expected he'd turn to if things didn't work out with Crystal. Now, it was the other way around, and Nicole increasingly loomed in his future. He was a little sorry he'd worked out the deal for Crystal to stay in Spearfish Lake for the winter -- while he enjoyed having her around, though he didn't see her much, it might affect things with Nicole.

And, Myleigh was still there, too. He'd seen more of Myleigh this fall than he had all of last year, though it wasn't much more, and she still fascinated him; there was still the odd chance he might wind up with her.

And, then, there wasn't.

Myleigh had been around since Saturday, arriving even before Nicole, but they hadn't had much contact, even though she was staying with the Clark's, as usual. Most of her time was spent with Jennifer and Blake, working on another couple of cuts for an as yet unnamed follow-on to At Home; the sessions had gone late, and they just hadn't crossed tracks much.

Jacqueline had headed home the night after their long discussion, and Crystal had to work, so he took Nicole out to dinner at the Spearfish Lake Inn. It wasn't a band night, and it was quiet there, and they had a good evening of quiet talk, not settling anything, but enjoying being together. The following night, Ryan and Linda went over to the Augsberg's for dinner and cards, but Nicole came over to join Randy and Myleigh in front of the Clark fireplace, sharing a bottle of wine. Crystal had told Randy and Nicole on Monday night that she might show up for a good shower on Wednesday if work didn't go late. She showed up carrying a bag of dirty and dog-crap-smeared laundry, so soon the Clark washing machine was churning away at it, while a clean Crystal waited for it to finish, wearing Linda's bathrobe.

"It's been a while since it's just been the four of us," Crystal commented, a towel wrapped around the wet hair plastered on her head. "It's a shame it has to end so soon."

"Yeah, two years since Buddha and Giselle's," Randy agreed. "It may not happen again for a while."

"I'd love to keep you three around next week," Crystal said. "But I guess it's not going to happen."

"No," Nicole commented. "Ever since our Christmas trip got screwed up last year, Randy and I have been promising ourselves this one. We won't get much chance to be together by ourselves again till next fall." Randy could see that she was still pretty sensitive about the discussion two nights before. It was something of a relief, in a way.

"And, I shan't be able to stay," Myleigh added. "I fear I must depart the day after Christmas."

"I know they're busting your ass pretty hard," Crystal commented. "But you had to blow up part of Thanksgiving weekend, then a big chunk of Christmas holidays. Sure you can't stay for a few days more? You wouldn't have to stay out in the camper with me, I'm sure."

"No, I cannot stay," Myleigh smiled. "I do have a thesis I must work on, and I have something else planned, as well."

"Like what?" Crystal teased. "A boyfriend, maybe?"

Myleigh blushed -- nearly a first -- gulped, but finally said with a smirk, "Well, actually, yes."

"Hey, great," Randy said. This was news! He hadn't heard a peep about it till now. It wasn't as if he had any particular hold on Myleigh other than just being friends, and this was good news.

"Well, come on, come on," Crystal grinned. "Details, lass, details! Is this serious, or what?"

"Oh, I dare say it's moderately serious," Myleigh grinned, now that the news was out. "We have spent several weekends together in the last two months, and plan on this weekend, as well."

"You mean that there's some guy who can put up with your snoring?" Randy grinned, trying to put her at ease. It was actually a relief to him. A year before, he'd sat down with Myleigh to discuss giving up any hopes of a long-range relationship and wound up in bed with her instead. Now, just by doing nothing, perhaps that part of the problem had solved itself.

"Oh, yes, Ron does not seem to mind," she smirked. "Not that we get a great deal of sleep when we're together."

"How did this happen?" Crystal grinned.

"I fear it is a long story," Myleigh said. "As I have told you, my roommate Olivia occasionally gets in a ranting mode, and I do not wish to be around when she is in such, which is part of the reason that I had Randy help me purchase my Neon last fall. She got in one of those ranting moods on the Wednesday afternoon preceding Halloween, and I decided to find something off campus to do. For no particular reason I decided to drive over to Franklin. Perhaps it was to see if some of the bad memories had washed away. At any rate, I happened to stop for gasoline, and noticed a poster for a haunted house. When I'd been a child, I'd enjoyed them, and I thought it would be fun to visit it. It was rather an elaborate one, and there were several interesting displays, but the largest crowd was clustered around one area."

She paused for a moment, as if trying to put together the words; long enough that Nicole asked, "Well, what happened?"

Myleigh let out a breath and continued. "This display was supposed to represent a Pilgrim village, and the characters were dressed in more or less that representation. I was to find out later that this group actually does what they do in a medieval reenactment context, and they'd thrown together the backdrop and costumes for the occasion, since most of the general public identifies better with Pilgrims than they do with the middle ages."

"Yeah, OK," Crystal grinned, "But what were they doing?"

Myleigh took a deep breath; there had to be some embarrassment, but she plowed ahead. "They had a couple foot stocks set up, and they would lock members of the audience into them and tickle their bare feet."

Randy grinned. That sounded like fun -- not that he wanted to be involved, but it sounded like fun to watch. "No wonder they were drawing a crowd," he laughed.

"Indeed," Myleigh laughed. "In the center of this whole affair stood a man dressed in something resembling a Pilgrim outfit, teasing the crowd, chiding them into becoming the next victim, in the most horrible travesty of Elizabethan English possible. I must confess I was of a mood that night myself, and since I possibly speak that argot nearly as well as did the Bard, I could not help myself but to stand in the crowd and chide him right back."

"Someone's got to ask, I might as well be it," Crystal said. "Are your feet ticklish?"

Myleigh blushed so deep Randy thought she might explode. "Yes, they are," she said finally, and rather sheepishly. "Quite ticklish, in fact. Ron says that people must have been having a lot of fun, since he heard an awful lot of laughing." She took a deep breath and continued. "One of the cast members had to leave as she had a babysitter who had to get home, but she took me aside and offered to loan me her costume that I might fill in. I must admit, I had a great deal of fun. So much so that I went back the next three nights as a member of the cast, and never did see the rest of the haunted house. As I said, these people do medieval reenacting, which is not exactly my specialty of period, but close, and I felt I fit right in. They all appreciate the era. At any rate, following the last show on Halloween night, we invaded a truck stop still dressed in costume, and felt not out of place since many other people were costumed. We had a great deal of enjoyment in remembering the last nights."

"Come on, the dirty details," Crystal grinned.

"Well, if we must be tawdry," Myleigh laughed. "Ron was the man to which I referred. He's a touch older than us, twenty-eight, I think, about the size of your father, Randy, but thinner. Quite a gentle and sensitive man, I was to learn; the teasing, used-car-salesman manner is really nothing more than an act he enjoys. It is, in fact, an act that I found I enjoyed doing myself, if you can imagine it of me. We had a great deal of fun playing off each other. Anyway, when he offered to take me back to my car, which was still at the haunted house, I asked him to take me home with him instead."

"And you spent the night," Nicole grinned.

"I would not have done it except I knew Olivia was gone for the weekend with Cynthia," she said complacently. "Had I been sure she was going to be gone another night, I would have stayed another night. Randy, I do not wish to fault you in the slightest, but there is a . . . magic . . . I think, between Ron and myself that I find most enjoyable."

"That's great that you found it," Randy said, genuinely happy for her.

"Ever since, when Olivia has been with Cynthia for the weekend, I have been with Ron," she admitted. "It has been a fascinating experience."

"How's come you didn't mention this at Thanksgiving?" Crystal asked.

Myleigh sighed. "A number of reasons, actually," she said. "First, I did not wish to mention my adventures around Randy's parents. And of course, your arrival somewhat overshadowed it. But most of all, I'd planned to go back after Thanksgiving and break up with Ron."

"Break up?" Nicole frowned.

"Yes," Myleigh said. "A most horrible prospect. Randy, we have often discussed how we could most likely never become serious between each other because of the likelihood that I shall have to move far away to find a job in my field. It is no less true with Ron. I thought it best to spare ourselves the agony of an eventual breakup by doing it before things got too serious between us." She took a deep breath, and went on, "Perhaps I am weak, but Ron is a man with whom it is possible to discuss such things logically, and in the end, he convinced me, or perhaps, we convinced each other, to gather our rosebuds while we may, and worry about what happens after my doctorate as it comes."

"Absolutely," Randy said, his thoughts going back two nights. "Take the chance now while you've got it, rather than regret passing it up in the future. And who knows? You might get a miracle, like a job at Athens."

"Hardly likely," Myleigh said. "My decision is tempered by the fact that I may be some years getting a job in my preferred field at all, and I may yet have to fall back on my teaching certificate. I confess to having the odd amusing moment thinking of my resume landing on the desk of the principal of my old high school."

"How's that going to go over with your parents right in your back yard?" Crystal wondered.

"That thought has gone through my mind," Myleigh grinned. "There is great potential for interesting complexities. To date, I have explored none of them. Ron lives in a house out in the country, and we have not gone into town together, so I hope they have no knowledge that I have even been in town. After the first hour at the haunted house I was rather grotesquely made up, so I may not have been recognized. However, if they have found out," she laughed, "They will know where I was, and I believe that will cause them adequate consternation. I admit that it is a rather, ah, risky proposition, but love makes you do crazy things."

"If we weren't out of wine, I'd say, let's drink to love," Randy grinned as he got up. "I think there's another bottle in the kitchen."

"While you're getting it, I think I shall use the facilities," Myleigh said.

Randy was back before Myleigh, to find both Nicole and Crystal grinning. "Boy, she's got it bad, doesn't she?" he said.

"Yeah," Crystal said. "We were just talking about it. Glad it happened to her, finally."

"Yeah, me too," Randy said, realizing that Myleigh, at least, was no longer an issue between him and Nicole, although Crystal remained.

One down, one to go.



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