Well, the author’s feeling rather bad that she wasn’t able to release an LAC and its matching “MerryHigh5” coupon for Christmas or whatever holiday you do or do not celebrate. We’ll forgive her this time and promise to crack the whip after she celebrates her own Christmas.
So, from the ten of us, a Merry High Five with, um, absolutely no monetary value but a hell of a lot of spunk.
And ‘t’is the season for swiping things. Okay, maybe not. Giving then. Giving. I’m giving you the chapter I swiped…
It seemed merely a moment had passed before I opened my eyes again. The unexpected brightness hurt like hell. I worked to adjust as I stretched to force the sleepiness from of my body. That was when I realized Claudia was not beside me.
“Claudia?” I quietly called, which I instantly realized was quite stupid. She could not have been anywhere in the tiny room without being seen.
I shot upright, and my eyes sped to the table. Her cup was gone. She and Earl had traipsed off somewhere. I reached for my phone: 8:07. Maybe she had gone to the bathroom. I hoped for her sake it was not the one I had visited last night. Not yet interested in clothing my naked body, I slid back into the sleeping bag, rolled off the air mattress, turned myself around, and slithered to the door. A reach up got me the doorknob, a twist got it open, and a peek through the crack got me nearly the start of my life. There she sat on the tiny cabin’s tiny porch, mere inches from my face. Her knees were up, her arms wrapped around them, and Earl hung onto her hand.
“Claudia?” I called again. “It’s cold. What are you doing out here?”
As though she were fifty million miles away, it took a moment for my presence to register. When it did, she simply said, “Oh, good morning. Did you turn your coffee on?”
Damn good question. I slithered, reached to slap the switch, and slithered back to her.
“Are you warm enough?” I asked, noting she had on only a sweatshirt, and sweatpants, and socks. When she nodded, I asked how long she had been up.
“About the same time as the birds,” she answered.
My attention drifted to our surroundings. I heard her birds, but everything else seemed surreally quiet to me, almost as though we were the only people left on earth. The sun tried its best to poke through a cold haze, not unlike the one in my head. Jesus, I needed coffee.
Thankfully, the sissy four-cup coffee maker did not take that long to make my brew. As soon as I heard its final gurgle, I grabbed her empty cup and slithered to the table. After handing the filled cups to her, I slithered back to the door. Had I not been naked in the sleeping bag, I would have joined her. As it was, I put only my head outside and kind of slurped from my cup like a drunken cat.
With great intent, she began bobbing the new Earl. Just as closely, I watched her, sensing that something was not quite right but having no clue what it was. She seemed pensive. That was hardly a crime or even a harbinger. I decided I would not push, knowing full well my gut could have been way the hell off.
“How’d you sleep?” I asked her.
“Fine,” she answered. “I was really tired. How did you sleep?”
Basically, I repeated her reply and then asked whether anyone else was up. She said she had seen Kris head behind the cabins and that she smelled smoke. “Breakfast in the works, I would guess.”
Okay, elevator chatter was getting me nowhere. I braved, “Honey, is something wrong?”
“Not really,” she responded, and I knew that was not a no. “Just thinking.”
Oh shit, I had already forgotten. “Did you come up with any ideas?”
This time she gave me what I knew to be the start of my life, “I think we should go with your porn idea.”
“My porn idea? My porn idea? … What? Why? We were kidding. … Weren’t we?”
She nodded but said, “I think it makes the most sense.”
Say the hell what? “How does a porn idea make sense?”
“Because I don’t think anyone would believe it about us.”
Flabbergasted, I said nothing.
“Well, maybe Holly would—about me anyway.”
“Holly? … Why the hell would Holly believe it?”
She half-laughed. No, she quarter-laughed. “I used to complain to her all the time about not being able to get you into bed soon enough.” She turned to look at me, and with a most grave expression, she said, “I think I would have gone to bed with you the moment I first laid eyes on you.”
“You were so patient, Kate.”
“I would not call it patient. I was scared to death.”
“Well, you still could have done something rash, but you didn’t. You waited until you knew it was right.”
“Claudia, I waited until I had enough guts, until I was able to tell you that I loved you. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t wanted to a thousand times before that.”
Her mind drifted, and admittedly, mine was blown. What the hell had she been thinking out here while I slept? I still didn’t frickin’ get it.
“Claudia, are you serious about the porn idea?”
“It sounds good to me.”
“Because no one will believe it?”
“Why should we tell one that no one will believe?” Fear suddenly seized me. “What’s wrong with the truth, Claudia?”
“I don’t like the truth.”
This time throat demon seized me—so hard I thought I would puke. “How can you not like the truth?”
“Because there are two truths, Kate,” she said. She paused to set down her cup of Earl, and then she tugged up her sock. “There’s the truth that you believe, which is what everyone else believes, and then there’s the truth as it is for me, which I don’t think anyone would believe. So, if we go with something that no one will believe, we won’t have to deal with this whole thing.”
What? “What whole thing?”
“The whole two truths things. You can keep yours. I can keep mine. The rest of the world can think what the hell they want to.”
Jesus, was I goddamn stupid for not knowing what the hell she was talking about? Two truths? I was a reporter sent to interview her as president of the business club. I honestly thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Somehow—God only knows how—she found herself attracted to me, pursued me, and then patiently waited for me to get up the nerve to reciprocate. There were little nuances to the story, but that was the gist. That was the truth of it. How the hell could that be disputed? How the hell could there be any other truth? I knew! Hell, I was frickin’ there!
I had just opened my mouth to ask what the hell she was talking about when, “Good morning, chickies!” woke people two counties over. “Claudia, do you want to walk to the bathroom?” She shouted, “Anybody else up?”
“Sutter, you want to have a cigarette?” the detective beside her yelled. “Oh, and do you have any coffee you’re willing to share? We forgot to make some. We were busy.”
“I’ll go with you, Holly,” Claudia informed, and I just kind of watched what seemed even more surreal. “Let me go get my things. Laura, Kate just has to throw on some clothes.” She hurdled over me, and then I found myself being dragged backwards into the cabin. “Make sure you dress warm enough, honey. It’s chilly this morning.”
“Claudia, I’m not going anywhere until I understand what you were talking about. What are the two truths? How can there even be two truths?”
“I’ll explain,” she said. “I will, but I really need to go to the bathroom. Too much tea. Go have a cigarette with Laura, or come to the bathroom with us.”
As quickly as I could, I dove into my pants, threw on a shirt, and then as I slipped bare feet into shoes, I glanced out the window. A group had gathered in the roadway: all the littermates and a stray crybaby. This crybaby knew there was no conceivable way to have a conversation with her in that herd. “I’ll have a smoke with Laura,” I told her, “but promise me you’ll explain this to me when you get back.”
“Hey, Sutter, we got coffee from Kris. Thanks anyway.” Laura’s voice came so loud and clear, I almost glanced to see whether she stood there with us.
Claudia kissed my cheek. “Just relax. Have a good time with Laura, and don’t let my brooding ruin your morning.”
“You’re not talking to me is what’s going to ruin my morning.”
“I was talking to you. I will talk to you. It’s me, Kate,” she said and gave me another kiss. “It’s not us.”
The herd was now shouting her name and probably stomping their hooves.
“I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
And she was gone.
I tried like hell to make sense of what the hell had just happened. We had gone to bed close. At least I thought we had. I had: I at least knew that for frickin’ sure. Why hadn’t she snuggled with me this morning, just as we always did, unless something was wrong? Did she have a bad dream? Had she gone to sleep thinking about the stupid-ass story? Or, did she awaken to thoughts of it and escape to the porch in a kind attempt not to wake me?
Unless she chose to frickin’ talk to me, I was left with a lame-ass guessing game. I sucked at those … unless, of course, the goal was to guess everything bad imaginable. Then, I excelled. But, she wasn’t mad at me; that was a good thing. Plus, she had used the word “brooding.” My cerebral dictionary reminded me that meant she was thinking deeply about something that made her unhappy. I didn’t like the idea of her being unhappy, but I loathed the idea that the thought of our getting together made her unhappy. How the f-word could that be?
I heard Laura paging me, and I quickly turned off the suffocating space heater, grabbed my smokes from the table, and blasted out the door.
“Grab your coffee, Sutter,” she yelled as I took the step off the porch. “We both have coffee.”
“We both” meant Janice, who stood next to her, her cup raised right along with Laura’s.
I hightailed it back inside, filled my cup to the brim, and took off again.
When I got to the road, my head whiplashed to the left to see whether I could spy Claudia in the distance. I couldn’t.
“Trouble in paradise?” Janice asked.
“No!” I damn near screamed, right before I panicked. “Why do you ask? Did she say something? Did somebody say something?”
“No!” she damn near screamed. “I was just giving you shit. Sorry.”
“Why, Sutter? Is there something to say?”
“No!” I damn near screamed. “She just woke up in strange mood this morning.”
“Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, did she?”
“Waking up on the wrong side of the bed when you’re sleeping in a loft is not a good thing. Could prove fatal.”
“We didn’t sleep in the loft.”
“Because you were fighting?”
“No!” I damn near screamed. “We weren’t fighting. We aren’t fighting. We just didn’t sleep up there. We slept on the floor.”
“Al and I didn’t either. Too flippin’ high for me.”
“Maybe your little woman will feel better after she gets some breakfast in her, Sutter,” Laura proposed, obviously trying cheer me up, but I wasn’t bummed. I was frickin’ confused. “Kris is back there slaving away. Pancakes, I think.”
Okay, hope was alive and well. Pancakes could make anyone feel better.
“Should we walk?” Janice asked.
“I’d rather wait for Claudia to come back,” I replied.
“Sutter, most of them are going to shower. Plus, they’ll get to gabbing. We have time, lots of time.”
Bobbing up and down, Janice asked, “Can we please head in the direction of that closer bathroom that’s supposed to be over here?”
“Jesus, Janice, have you been in that bathroom?”
When she shook her head, Laura laughed. “Well hell, let’s go then. Thiel, you’re missing out on something truly phenomenal.”
That, at least, got me to laugh, as cruel as it was.
I looked down the road once more, and still not seeing Claudia, I followed them.
Wordlessly, we meandered in the direction of the mouth of hell and simply gawked at the scenery. I occasionally tried determining what other campers were having for breakfast, based solely upon smell. It kept my mind off fruitlessly trying to figure out what was going on in Claudia’s head. That had proved hard enough when I was right in front of her. Remotely, it felt beyond impossible.
At the bathroom, Laura offered to hold Janice’s coffee while she went in.
Not a moment after the door slammed shut, a “Holy crap!” ruptured the silence.
Laura loudly instructed, “Just do what you’ve got to do as fast as you can do it.”
“And, Jesus, hold your breath.”
Then, Laura took advantage of our aloneness to inquire, “Are you sure you and Claudia are okay?”
That question seemed to put me in a bind that I did not appreciate. Since the bonfire incident, I had asked her the same about Holly a bazillion times, and she had answered, whether she wanted to or not. I guessed that she seemed to respect the fact that I was owed an answer because I had been there for her. Did I now owe her the same? Really, though, there was no indication that Claudia and I were not okay. In fact, she had made a point of telling me that we were okay. So saying we were okay wasn’t really lying, was it? What the hell! I decided to go with the truth, “We’re okay, but something seems to be bugging her. I just haven’t had enough time to get it out of her.”
“Want me to get Holly on it?” She seized her cell phone from her pocket. “She could get it out of her in a minute flat. You could know before Claudia even gets back.”
I admit: I was tempted, but something told me I was blowing this out of proportion, creating unscalable mountains out of frickin’ midget mole hills. “No,” I said. “She’ll tell me. She said she’d tell me. Plus, once we get moving on writing our story, she’ll have no choice.”
“You didn’t come up with your story yet?”
“Jesus, no, Why? Did you?”
“We had ours before we even went to bed last night.”
Thankfully, Janice appeared to save me from any further humiliation.
“Holy crap, it stinks in there, and it flippin’ amplifies everything.”
“It was deafening,” Laura teased as she handed off both the cups she held to Janice. “My turn.”
As soon as she disappeared, I timidly asked whether Alison and she had already come up with their story.
“Heck, no,” she answered as though that would have been virtually impossible for anyone to have done. “We had fun reminiscing last night, though. Well, not that we have years and years like you two.”
“We had fun last night, too,” I said, making the point to myself rather than simply conversing with her. We did have fun. We both laughed. What the hell had changed?
Laura returned, and wanting nothing to interfere with Claudia’s return, I decided to do the smartest thing and brave the mouth of hell, hoping to hell it wouldn’t be as bad as it had been in the dark of night. I gave Laura my cup for safekeeping and made a dash.
Okay, it proved not quite as creepy as it did the night before. The downside, however, was that everything was visible. Completely grossed out, I took care of business in record time.
The three of us aimed toward the cabins again, this time with a much quicker pace. That told me that all three of us were crybabies, and I felt right within my element for a change.
We had almost completed our journey when I saw Claudia in the distance, as well as the rest of the herd. I felt anxious, and I wasn’t at all certain if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I had missed her, which was odd because only a short amount of time had passed. It probably would’ve been safer to wager that I had a major-ass case of the insecurities. Regardless, I was about to get her back.
The three of us dawdled, trying to look as though we had been standing there all along. I slowly finished the rest of the ice-cold coffee.
The closer she got, the more she smiled, and that made me relax somewhat. Whatever it was, I told myself, was not a big deal.
Now nearly running, she quickly eliminated the distance between us, and she grabbed my arms soon as she could. “How’s the coffee?” she asked. “Is it working its magic?”
I smiled, and then wanting her to know things were okay between us, I teased, “It’s not a mean cup of coffee like my favorite waitress would have given me.” She laughed, and I desperately suggested, “Want to go to the cabin and talk?”
“I would,” she said, “but I got drafted to help with breakfast. Want to help me?”
All I cared about at the moment was being close to her. I would have volunteered to clean the mouth of hell if it got me that. “Sure,” I said. I grabbed the duffle bag from her and told her I’d meet her at the fire with a fresh Earl.
Eventually, we were gathered around the warmth of the fire, and I consumed far too many pancakes. Kris did a damn good job feeding the ravenous masses, and with everyone’s help, the area was quickly cleaned up. I figured this was finally my opportunity to talk to Claudia, but Ginny quickly informed that we’d be walking to the orchard in just fifteen minutes. Claudia seemed gung-ho about the idea, and I didn’t get the impression that she was stalling so I willingly went along with it.
We walked to Drixel’s main building, where Kris hunted down Vernon, who had agreed to lend us a wheelbarrow for our eventual haul. It wasn’t until we reached the main road that Ginny informed us the orchard was about a mile and a half away. It seemed as though we had already walked that far, as evinced by the bitching that ensued.
Ginny said, “It’s good for us, unless you want to go home with thunder thighs. This way you can work up an appetite for the lunch Kris has planned.”
Once more, food proved the great motivator, and we quit our bitching and picked up the pace.
Claudia grabbed the sleeve of my sweat jacket and tugged me out of the fray. I wasn’t at all sure why, but once we started marching again, I realized her intent was simply to move us to the end of the line—where we could have some privacy to talk. At least, I hoped.
Sure enough, she threaded her arm through mine, making an attempt to make it look sisterly instead of loverly for the frickin’ passers-by. Then, she said, “Let’s see if we can talk without anyone else hearing us.”
“Go for it,” I said. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Oddly, she instructed, “Honey, repeat all the porn titles you came up with last night.”
“You’re still serious about wanting to do a porn story?”
“Just humor me and list them.”
“Okay.” I scoured my brain for a recollection of last night’s conversation. Then, I leaned close, and in a hushed voice, I rattled, “‘The Nerd and the Cheerleader.’ ‘The Nose-Picker and the Almost Prom Queen.’ ‘The Bachelor and the Master.’ ‘The—'” I knew there were more, but I couldn’t think of them. I continued to scour, only to have her stop me.
“That’s enough,” she said. “Now translate them into fairy tales.”
“What do you mean ‘translate?'”
“Think of fairy tales that pretty much tell the same story.”
Um… Nose-Pickers had to be the Brothers Grimm. Um… There weren’t nerds way back then, but I figured there had to be something similar. Um…
“Try ‘The Reporter and the Very Sexy Waitress.'”
“Try ‘The Nerd and the Cheerleader ‘backwards. ‘The Cheerleader and the Nerd.'”
“Remember that last night you told me that you thought I was the most beautiful woman you had ever seen?”
Um… Aha! Too frickin’ easy! “‘Beauty and the Beast!'” I shouted, and half of them turned around to gawk. Once they looked away, I asked in a more subdued tone, “Am I right? Is it ‘Beauty and the Beast’?” When she nodded, I inquired, “Are you saying you want to do ‘Beauty and the Beast’?”
“Does it fit us?” she asked.
“Pretty much,” I answered. “Although, I don’t think I’m princely anywhere inside.”
“How about ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ would that fit?”
“And we’re still talking porn here?”
She laughed and screeched a “No!” for all of them to hear. “We’re not doing porn!”
I was greatly relieved.
“I only said that because of the titles, because of what they say about us, about you, about me.”
Apparently, I was a Beast with no working brain cells, for I was still confused as hell. “What about the titles? What do you mean?”
“What they all have in common. That’s what I was brooding about.”
“Explain,” I gently prodded with a squeeze of her arm with my own. “I want to know what’s in your head.”
“It’s the whole two truths thing I told you about. Most of the time, I just ignore it, thinking it’s better to just let it be. Sometimes it just bugs the hell out of me.”
Jesus, was she speaking in a foreign language, or was I really that stupid? Either way, I didn’t frickin’ get it. There weren’t two truths. I was a reporter, a presenter of facts. I would have known. Facts were facts. How could they not be? How could there be two sets of facts? Two reporters couldn’t tell two different truths of the same story unless… Bias! Unless one of them had a frickin’ bias! That was a big-ass no-no in my realm. Otherwise, I’d be writing headlines: Swearword governor schmoozes far too long in Granton. That would have shown my bias and tossed my credibility into the journalistic pit toilet. Some truths you just didn’t tell. Aha! Did she have a bias? Is that what she was telling me?
Before I could complete my epiphany, she continued, “I thought I could simply go along with what’s expected of us and have fun with it, but now I’m not sure I can.”
How the hell could I ask her what her bias was without it sounding accusatory? How could I get her to spell this all out for me without frustrating her with my stupidity?
She said, “And I was wrong about who believes the wrong truth. Ginny and Kris don’t believe it; they never did. I know Holly doesn’t, and I don’t think Laura does, either. She just kind of plays along with what you believe.”
With what I believe?
“That probably holds true for everyone else, too, but still, it keeps something going that shouldn’t be going, because it’s not the truth.” She took a deep breath and then said, “I think that’s exactly what Kris and Ginny were talking about, how something that really happened gets embellished to the point where it becomes a legend or a myth.” She squeezed my arm very tightly. “Please don’t get mad at me, but I think you’re the only one who believes it a hundred percent. You’re the one who keeps the lore alive.”
“Me? … What lore? What legend? What myth? What the hell is it that you think I believe, Claudia?”
“The titles,” she replied, as though I should have had an easy time comprehending, but I didn’t. “But I’m not blaming you. I’ve tried to help you see the other truth, but I obviously didn’t do a very good job. I just didn’t keep at it enough. I didn’t try hard enough. I let it slide. Maybe this is our opportunity to get it right.”
Okay, I was left with no choice. If I was the one at fault here, then there was no need to approach her with kid gloves. “Claudia, I have no frickin’ clue what you’re talking about. Spell it out for me. What about the titles?”
“Honey, every single one of those titles tells the story about how this less-than person—this nerd, this nose picker, this beast, this frog, this person with only a bachelors degree—somehow miraculously ended up with this better-than princess.”
“That is not the truth, Kate. That’s your truth, and that’s the crap everybody else buys into because that’s how you come across. But anytime anyone doesn’t dispute it, it just cements it in your head a bit more. Every time I don’t dispute it, it cements it. It’s worse when I do it. I’m the horse’s mouth in this instance, even though I look more like the horse’s ass.” She took a breath. “It’s a myth, and it’s just like they said, too. It’s something you believe, put in your head, to help you explain what seemed—and probably still seems—unexplainable.”
“Jesus, that is not true!” I said in a way that caused all heads to turn again.
“Baloney, Kate! That’s absolute baloney!” she said in a way that caused the entire caravan to come to a standstill and all caravan-ers to about-face.
We stopped just short of running into them.
They stared. We stared.
“Is everything all right?” Kris asked.
“It’s just fine,” I said very defensively, and that would have been fine had I not caught Laura narrowing her eyes at me as though I had lied to her about there being something wrong. There wasn’t something wrong then. How the f-word had that changed?
“We’re okay,” Claudia said. “Just a spirited discussion.” Then with an uncharacteristically snotty tone, she challenged, “We’re allowed to have those, aren’t we?”
“You certainly are,” Ginny replied and started physically twisting people around. “Let’s get moving before all the apples are gone.”
They marched again, and when they were several paces ahead of us, Claudia asked, “We are okay, aren’t we?”
Were we? How the hell had this happened? “Are we okay?”
“I sure hope so,” she replied. “It would be kind of stupid if a discussion like this did us in.” She paused for a few seconds before saying, “I’m not mad at you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m mad at me.” She tugged my arm to get us marching again, and then she inquired, “Are you mad at me?”
Um… What the hell was I feeling? What precisely was this shit in my gut that riled throat demon so? Scared, for some reason. Frustrated. Confused. Blindsided. Hurt. Jesus, I hurt. “Overwhelmed,” I answered.
“I’m sorry for overwhelming you. Just take some time and think about it, and we’ll talk again. Just remember this comes because I love you.”
“All right,” I said, knowing I desperately needed time to sort the sudden chaos in my head.
She sped us up so we weren’t so far behind the rest.
Then, much too quickly, we stood at the entrance to Conyers Apple Orchard & Pumpkin Farm. Again, all heads turned around, and all eyes scrutinized the crap out of us. Frickin’ nosey women!
“Are we ready to pick apples?” Ginny asked, and I knew what she meant, “Hey, you two at the rear, do we need to pause for a knock-down drag-out fight?”
“Let’s pick some apples!” Claudia charged.
I plastered a smile on my face and gave two thumbs up. Not because I wanted to pick apples. Because I wanted them to pick apples and quit frickin’ staring at us. Personally, I wanted to disappear.