The front wheels of the truck hit another rugged outcropping in the shallow water. A mist of liquid mud coats the windshield. As my teeth knock together, I sneer and fight the clenching of my stomach muscles. I will not throw up, I will not throw up,
I chant to myself. My knuckles are white with the grip I have on my seat belt.
“Sorry about that!” Mitchell yells at me. His thick, Southern American accent being overpowered by the chugging grind of the engine.
When Mitch called me up last weekend to ask if I wanted to go camping I did not imagine this. I imagined something nice and green, perhaps. I imagined camping further north where grass grows. It’s springtime, maybe some flowers blooming.
With every hill we climb and low-water crossing we traverse, the green is left behind. We work deeper into the brown, scruffy brush of the Oklahoma desert.
About two hours ago, when we turned south on I-44 and left the prospect of hills and lakes behind, I grew anxious. “Where, exactly, are we camping, Mitch?” I asked.
He laughed at me, “A little late to ask? We’re going to my Uncle’s place. Sort of out in the middle of nowhere.”
Any hopes for having a sweet, romantic drive rolled away with the dirty tires when we left pavement behind. So now I cling to the hope that the evening will be spent around a quaint fire, cozying up in a cabin.
‘Rattling around’ is a good way to describe the painful thing my teeth are doing. Each jarring pock and drop off forces my jaw to clench violently. I have to curl my tongue, fearful that one plunging dip will make me bite it off. If that happens there’d be no hope of kissing him.
“Whew, Nadia! That was a rough one!” he declares as we finally make our way up the other side of the low-water crossing.
The urge to punch him square in the jaw rears up as the truck finally levels out. Compared to the rocky creek bed, the smaller jolts and juts of the uneven ground seem easier to maneuver. They don’t send painful jolts to my teeth, at the very least.
He clears his throat before yelling. “It’s just over these hills!”
I glare out the front window. He said that thirty minutes ago.
We climb skyward then almost tumble earthward - twice. Then work around one rather deep gorge with no discernible bottom, the road being a carved out shelf that runs around the rim. Finally, we make our way down one steep slope that sends my stomach to my mouth.
When the truck comes to a stop in the middle of an open field, near a cliff type drop off, I feel stunned. Part of me is expecting us to plummet tail end down the cliff in front of us. It seems like Mitch would give a ‘yehaw’ for that.
“You okay, there, Hun?”
My mind is blank, I have nothing to say in response. I’m beyond the point of being terrified. Between us and the hills in the distance is an expanse of missing earth. It’s as if someone erased the hills and holes that are supposed to be there and forgot to fill it in.
Metal creaking jars me out of my stupor.
“We’re here, Babe, you alright? I guess it got a little tense, hunh?” he asks as he pries the door open.
Cold, crisp air whips through the cab of the truck. I cough and clear my throat, taking in a steady breath. “I’m okay.” I manage as I slowly turn toward him. My shoulders are so stiff I have to roll them to work out the cramps. When I finally step out of the truck bed he has to catch me so I don’t fall. My legs feel like jelly.
Eyeing me incredulously he asks, “You sure?” No,
I think, no I’m not sure.
I’m just too stunned and jarred to say anything. My brain feels as if it needs a kick start. His boots scuff the hardened earth with a deep rhythm as he walks to the truck bed.
“Want to eat something before we set up camp?” he asks while hoisting himself up.
I look around as I flex all my muscles and shake out the jitters. We’re not too high up. The area where we are is a large plateau jutting out from the side of one hill. The earthy conical that rises above the plateau is not big, mostly a scrub covered mound of orange dirt and massive boulders.
The open, vast span of deleted landscape is really a series of smaller hills smothered with gnarled trees. There’s a meandering river visible here and there. A few taller tree tops peak up over the rim of the plateau. A solid sheet of bright, cloudless blue stretches out overhead. That, coupled with the constant wind, is typical for this area. I sigh, missing the trees of Vermont and how they crowded over every inch of earth and road.
The view is beautiful, though. As are most southern states in their own ‘vast plane state’ sort of way. While my mind churns this over I make my way to the truck bed. This weekend isn’t anything like what I expected, but I decide I’ll still try to enjoy myself. One look at him, muscles flexing, sweat dampening his hair, and my decision to tell him how I feel about him comes back to my mind. Yes, I had an agenda and will still see to it.
“Need some help?” I offer up
Bent over, his hands around a bundle of firewood, he glances up at me and smiles. “Dinner?”
“Yeah, sounds good.” I nod, though not truly believing that I can stomach food.
“Over there, Sweetheart.” he motions to the rocky hill that smothers the plateau. “We’ll camp there, it’ll shield us from the wind.”
” I remark under my breath, “fabulous.
He holds out a backpack filled with food and other supplies. I take it, flinging it over my shoulder. The weight of it nearly knocks me off balance. I hear him laugh quietly as I struggle to catch my footing.
That laugh reminds me of why I’m so drawn to him. His smooth charm and easy going demeanor. My disappointment with our cliff side camping wanes.
He hops out of the truck bed, scoops up the firewood and a duffle bag filled with pots and pans. Together we trudge over to an alcove between two large orange-brown boulders which fell from the hillside quite some time ago.
“My brothers and I worked to dig these this out when we were kids. It took us several trips out this way but it was worth it.”
I gaze up at the slabs of sandstone and how they lean against each other like two carefully balanced playing cards. A half-circle of small stones is in the center. The outside is worn rough from rain, bleached from the sun. The underside is a dark brown in color, having been shrouded in darkness for all these years. It’s not until we’re standing underneath in the dark, cooler shade that I realize how hot it is in the sun.
Then, I can only stand back and watch as he removes a few food items and hangs the packs on metals rods driven into back wall of the carved out cave. He’s comfortable, here, having done this an untold number of times in his life. Mitch expertly stacks the firewood together in a pyramid of sorts just outside the opening, douses it with fluid from a small can, then lights it.
As the fire crackles to life the wind picks up, sending a clattering spray of fine pebbles and dust across the open plateau. He’s right, though, we’re shielded from the direct wind here. The fire dances only a little.
“How often did you guys come here?” I ask while sitting on a small, red stone.
With the fingers of one hand slunk into his pocket he pokes at the fire with a large stick. “Every weekend for years. During the summer it was hard to keep us away.”
“It’s not what I was expecting.” I offer up.
Mitch chuckles as he sits next to me. His long, jean clad legs fold and his knees are high in the air as he sits next to me. With his arms perched on his kneecaps he watches the flames. I look at him, in his natural southern element. It does seem so much like him, his attitude and the way he carries himself does not say ‘I camp in cabins.’
The fire licks through the wood, sending curls of smoke skyward. He nudges my shoulder with his elbow. “What were you thinking?”
I shrug as a loud pop sounds out, echoing off the rocks. “That we were going north, maybe to Lake Eufaula.”
“You’ve never gone camping like this before?” He looks out around the plateau but my eyes are drawn to his bicep and how it flexes when he shifts his hands.
I nod, remembering my parent’s version of camping when I was a child. “Absolutely. We had an RV. It was a lot of fun.”
His laughter whips out. “That is not camping. An RV? Really Hun?”
“Okay, so it wasn’t anything like this. We were in Vermont, it’s always cold this time of year up there.” I scowl at him, watching the brown of his eyes as his brown irises gleam.
“Yeah, I forget you’re still city.”
I feign mild offense. “I am not city. My Dad ran a lumber crew for twenty years before he passed away.”
He smiles at me, intentionally bumping me as he gets up to set a small cooking tripod over the fire. Each bit of contact thrills me.
In an effort to even the offended field I ask him, “So what’s with the suicide attempt to get here? Don’t tell me there’s not a road or a town we could have gone to instead of hacking through the outback for an hour.”
“Afraid not, Love, this is it.” he says with his lazy, southern drawl as he hangs a pot of beans. “Just the two of us alone for miles and miles.”
My thoughts from earlier, about finally telling him how I feel, stirs again. We already have this light, undefined level of affection between us. I don’t know why I’m so nervous about opening up to him.
Our conversation falls to comfortable topics as we relax and eat food. He’s opening a cattle feed supply depot with his older brother. I’m still doing my interior decorating for my Aunt’s business. His sister is having another baby. My car needs a new transmission. Just simple, life related things of that nature.
The sun starts to drop in the sky, casting a long, looming shadow over everything which falls short of the truck bed. The flames begin to light the inside of our little cave with a flickering dance. A cold breeze whips into the opening, making me shiver.
“We need to set up the tent before it gets too cold.” he says as he stands, taking the metal plate from my hands.
I stand, stretching my legs. Though it’s not what I expected and the beginning was a terrifying journey through the rugged terrain, I’m still enjoying time with him. I promise myself that tomorrow I’ll talk to him about ‘us.’
I stare at the lumpy sack of dirty dishes that he wedges into the truck bed. He really does have an attractive physique, I think. His long arms have a nice bit of defined muscle from hard work, not weight lifting. He’s athletic and lean, with cowboy boots on. Maybe this weekend I can find out what he looks like with only
his cowboy boots on. Maybe that brimmed hat he wears, too.
A clattering of silverware jolts me from my scandalous thoughts. I eye the bag of dirty dishware and struggle to figure out how we’re supposed to go about washing them up.
We set about the act of building a tent near the fire and alcove area. The process is simpler than I remember when I had to help my Uncle set up a tent at our family reunion. No cumbersome maze of metal poles and tension cables. Instead, it’s fairly simple with flexible rods and spring tension bands. All in all, it takes only thirty minutes without an instruction manual.
“Tomorrow,” he explains as he hammers another steel tent peg into the ground. “We’ll go down to the creek and wash up the dishes after we fish.”
It’s adorable, his accent, the way he butchers the English language with ‘tomorrah’ and ‘goh.’ I smile at the thought as I peer off into the blackened distance. I know the hills and trees are out there. The night is so thick I can’t see anything beyond the hood of the truck. The river is lost amid the darkness. “In the creek?”
He laughs, “Yeah Sis, in the creek.”
I scowl at him through the shrouded distance, he’s only ten feet away but the blackness is swallowing him up. The flashlight on the ground lights only his boots. “Did you just call me Sis?”
“Yeah, you’re like my little sis, you know. Why else would I bring you out this way?”
My stomach heaves, my mind spins. He thinks of me as his sister.
My thoughts race over this revelation. Somehow I fell under the impression that we were entering a new level of a relationship. Yet here I am being demoted to the inferior sibling in his mind.
When he declares the tent ready to be slept in I hastily gather my sleeping bag and pillow, unzip the tent, and toss them onto the floor. After shrugging on a hoodie I dig out my flashlight and a roll of toilet paper – and walk away. My emotions are shaken. Overall, I’m struggling to understand how he and I veered apart from each other.
Heading around the curve of the hill I kick at the dusty earth. I went along the path of: acquaintance – friend – closer friend – romantic interest
. I would be a fool not to. He’s smart, rugged, attractive, and has goals in life. He’s not a bad example, poor company or detestable in any regard.
As I shimmy my pants down to pee near a rock I consider where he went wrong. How does one go acquaintance – friend – sister
? I hate my sister, I loathe her. I don’t even like my brother all too much. It’s hardly a compliment that he sees me in the same way he sees his sister, Alyssa. In fact, I consider that it’s a little creepy.
I’m confused even more when I consider that he calls me all sorts of endearing names like Babe, Honey, Sugar, Darling, Love. He calls me Love.
I feel stupid when I realize he’s treated me only with the basic cordial respect any southern boy would treat a girl. I’ve been an idiot, interpreting his southern nature as something more. When really, it’s nothing but upbringing and tacit behavior.
By the time I make my way back to our little campsite I am fuming. I want answers. When I see him he’s busying himself at the fire pit. Mitch is handsome with the way the light of the fire reflects off the gruffness of his skin. The way he stands, how he holds the stick of wood in his hand. Hurt takes place of anger and I can’t bring myself to be a hag. Not tonight. Instead, I sit by the fire and watch the flames lick the darkness as I try to figure out what I can do to change things.
Morning starts out with an awkward tension. Judging by the way he’s eating a third pop tart, he doesn’t feel anything other than hunger.
I feel a whole jumble of emotions; everything from pure annoyance at all the southern pet names for me - especially when he says ‘Love’ - to pure lust for him when he carries another bundle of firewood from the truck bed. In truth, I’ve never been so twisted up before. This newly declared sibling status has me stirred.
Hours go by and I say very little. There’s nothing I want to discuss with him. If I unleash my thoughts I’ll say something I’ll regret. Funny how I seem to be the only one worried about that. He’s only two years older than me but denoting me as ‘Little Sis’ seems to thrill him completely. By the time we’re ready to head down to the creek I want to put my fist in his face. I have a new host of nicknames. ‘Munchkin,’ ‘Baby bell,’ and worst of all, ‘Pips.’
“Here,” he holds an insulated backpack out to me. “You can carry the fish back in this one.”
My nose crinkles with disgust, which he finds highly amusing. “What did you think we were going to eat? Mudpies?”
I roll my eyes as his southern nature enters into the realm of pet peeves.
“How do we get down?” I ask as I flip the pack onto my shoulders. It’s skimpy contents are barely enough to hold it in place.
He gives me a look I can’t place as he turns to walk away. I eye his silly looking boots, covered in scales – I assume they’re snake skin. They’re absurd, really. Just the night before I was considering how sexy they were. Of course, the moment the snide thought comes to mind I know it’s only because I’m hurt, not because my view of him has actually changed.
“My brothers hung the ladder. It’s over this way,” he explains as he walks away.
We make our way to the far edge of the plateau. The wind is gusting, I’m gripped with the horrifying image of being blown into the wild blue yonder. On hands and knees I crawl to the edge. Mitch laughs at me as if I’m the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Bulky knots of rope are anchored into the ground between two large boulders. A single hand-hewn rung marks the top before the ladder disappears over the rim.
“It’s not that bad,” he says derisively.
I glare up at him. “You go first.” I snuffle out of the way to let him pass. He walks to the edge and quickly turns around, smoothly descending one rung at a time.
When he’s eye-level with me he winks just before dropping below the edge. “Come on.”
My pulse races, sweat drips from my temples even though it’s chilly out on the ledge. “I can’t.” I crawl back.
“Come on, Darling. I’ve got you.”
His little southern pet name swaps my fear for irritation. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed that I’m acting like an incompetent nitwit in front of him. I swallow and stand while I grit my teeth. I’m still worried, but not as much.
Hand-hewn rungs travel down the cliff face like a long zipper, then disappear into the tree limbs below. If I look at the cliff face in front of me, and not down at the leaves below, I’ll be ok. With the flat of my hand gripping the boulder, I turn and carefully bring my foot down to the top rung.
We descend in silence. My hands tightly gripping on each slat. The rough rope of the ladder has handled the weather well, though it’s frayed a little in some places from rubbing against the rocky surface. Every now and then a clatter of pebbles makes their way down to the earth below as a toe scrapes the surface.
Just as my arms begin to burn he calls out to me. “Almost there. Just a little bit further, Babe.”
I groan with irritation. For a while during my descent I forgot all about my sisterly status and his sweet, southern nothings. When I get to the bottom
, I tell myself, I’m going to demand answers and have it out
. Bitterness is distraction, I'm jarred when my foot hits solid earth. As was the night before, when I turn to see him smiling at me, I lose my nerve. There’s something to him; it’s the same thing that made me say yes to this trip, and the same thing that has made me tag along with him for years. He’s like a magnet and I’m a shard of iron.
Mitch jostles the rucksack on his back, draws a large knife out from a concealed pocket, before leading me into the thickets. I bite my lip to stifle a laugh as I think of the ‘now that’s a knife’ scene from Crocodile Dundee. My Mitch is different than that Mitch, though. My Mitch doesn’t have a croc-tooth trimmed hat.
We wind through the cross timbers, pines and shrubs. A path is worn into the barren ground in some areas, evidence that this was well traveled in the past. I can see Mitch and his brothers carrying loads of beer and fishing rods out this way. Only this time, as the galling thought of me being a mere sibling rears, I shove it back down. I have the means to change his opinion of me
, I think as I watch his muscles flex while he slices the thickets again.
Perhaps all he needs is a little persuasion, just a bit of coaxing to bring him along. Then I can jump out of the sisterly embers and into the sensual fire. I squint at him as we pass through a ray of light and wonder: what would he do if I grazed his cock on accident?
We descend one last hill and the ground levels out. I can hear a brook gurgling not too far away, a grove of scrubby bushes blocks it from view. We follow along the hedgerow and the rocky ground gives way to smaller pebbles, and soon a moss covered path becomes evident.
He cuts quickly to the right, wields the machete through the air again, and cleaves into the hedges. I nearly walk into him when he comes to a sudden stop.
“Awe hell,” he groans as he slips the ruck from his shoulders.
“What?” I ask the meat of his sweat drenched back.
He glances at me over his shoulder before stepping aside. “I’ll have to rebuild the dock.”
When he steps aside the view is quite beautiful. The brook is narrow. Maybe ten feet. The slopes on either side are steep, and nothing else seem to take root other than moss. Off to the right is a cluster of trees, one of which leans out over the water. The branch is low enough to sit on. It’s picturesque.
The hedgerow crowds out the top of the slope, leaving only a small section for me to skirt – which I do very carefully. The last thing I want to do is step on the steep embankment and tumble away. It’s early in the springtime, meaning the water is probably still near winter-temperature. The thought of an icy bath makes me shiver.
Finally, I make my way down the mossy slope to the trees. He’s already at the waterside, having dumped his ruck and the sack of dirtied dishes on the low swooping branch.
I stand awkwardly against the tree trunk and close my eyes. A breeze rustled the leaves and cools the sweat from my skin.
“Hey.” He touches a bottle of water to my arm. “The wind makes it easier to dehydrate. Drink it.”
I crack the cap and take a sip. We stand together in silence as the wind gusts through the valley, drinking. Watching two birds dive to the water and come away with fish I begin to think about the ways of nature. Which leads me to think about sex. That leads to me to imagine us fucking against the branches of the tree we’re leaning against.
“Why am I-” your sister
. . . I begin to ask, but stop myself short.
“Why are you what?”
“Nothing” I shake my head and push myself off of the tree. I walk down the hillside, mindful of every step. “So what of the dock?”
“It was taken out in a flood, I guess.” He motions down the stream.
I stare at the last bit of the slope, trying to see where the dock was. There’s no evidence of any anchor points. The slope is blanketed in green until the edge drops off where it meets the water.
He makes his way back up the hill. “We’ll have to build another one.”
I stare at him for a moment, struggling to imagine what kind of a dock we can build without tools before the sun sets. He stops off, digs a few items out of the ruck, before making his way along the hilltop. He doesn’t seem out of place at all here.
I, though, can’t get a good, solid step on the hillside to save my life. I almost fall twice as I slowly scramble after him, hands over feet.
“How are you going to do that?” I ask, huffing and wheezing behind him.
“Bamboo, there’s a grove of it over this way.”
I crinkle my brow in confusion. “Bamboo grows here?” I look around, trying to remember horticultural class from college.
Mitch slows his pace and turns toward me. “Did I do something?”
I panic inside when the answer ‘yes’ screams out at me, but I try to show confusion over the suggestion. “Hmm?”
“You’re mad, I can tell. What did I do?”
The tone he’s taking reminds me of my ex and how he always assumed he did something, even when he didn’t. Only, this time it’s not a false assumption, I am genuinely angry with Mitch. I want to say, ‘Yes, I hate that you think of me as your little sister,” but I can’t make the words come out. I feel like a foul beast for spiting his lack of feelings for me. I realize that it’s my fault for waiting so long to try to tell him. Maybe if I said something two years ago things would be different right now.
“Spit it out, Nadia. You haven’t said much to me since last night. If you don’t tell me then I can’t fix it.”
“I’m terrified of heights.” I spit out, and cringe at the lie.
Relief washes over his face. “Christ Almighty, Woman, I swear.” He draws me into a big hug, his body rocking with laughter. “Damn, I swear.”
I laugh, too, while I breath in his scent and tamp down the guilt. He smells of wood shavings and earth. The feel of him against me is amazing, solid and warm. I drink in the contact, wrapping my arms around his waist. Knowing that I probably won’t get very many chances to touch him like this. I take all of it in and stockpile it with detail. The feel of his fabric, the rise and fall of his chest, the rhythm of his heartbeat. The day that Mitch hugged me with his wet clothes clinging to his muscular figure.
“Let’s get this dock built and we can fish before terrifying you again on the way up.”
As we make our way through the underbrush to the bamboo I force myself out of my stupor. We talk about movies we've seen recently. I’m sure to tell him that I love the brook with the mossy hillside; it’s inviting and relaxing. His eyes glint in the sunlight as he smiles and laughs. For a short while I pretend we think the same of each other, a fun little fantasy.
At the bamboo grove he takes a folded saw blade out of his pocket, shows me how to hold the shoot steady, and drives the sharp edge into the stalks. Slowly we amass a sizable stack of shoots and he hacks them until they’re all the same length before wrapping them up in several bundles with cord.
“I’ll take two, you take one.” Mitch tells me as he props two bunches across a fallen log. He steps between them and scoops one in each arm. With a bobbing shrug he hoists them onto his shoulders. The other end scrapes loudly across the wood as he walks forward, thudding to the ground as it clears the log.
I do the same with my bundle, hoisting it to my shoulder and then walking with it. He smiles at me over the top of his shouldered load. It’s harder to pull it through the dirt than I thought. The shoots threaten to slip out of my hands. When I go downhill it lurches forward, pushing against me. When I go uphill I have to grip it tight and dig my feet in. By the time we arrive at the creek hillside I’m soaked with sweat and worn out. Aside that, I’m starving and my hands are stinging from the effort.
We stop just before the hedged entrance to the bank. “Take a break, Sweetie, I’ve got this.” He nudges me toward the water.
Carefully, I make my way to the drooping tree and squirm my way on top of the branch so that my feet are dangling. I dig a granola bar and another bottle of water out of the sack. “You need a drink?” I call out to him.
I hear his laughter and what sounds like a ‘no’ floats through the thick brush. A minute later he’s walking down the slope with a bundle balanced on his shoulder. I hop off the branch and make my way down to meet him, by the time I’m half way there he’s already shoulder-deep in the water, stringing the bundle across to the other bank.
“Mitch, why didn’t you ask for help?” I scold him, feeling bad for slacking while he does all this unpleasant work.
A wry smile works its way across his face. “You can’t make it down the bank without fallin, Honey. I’ve got this. Just like old times.”
Using the bamboo for leverage, he hops back out, makes his way back up the hill for another. Soon, all of the bamboo reaches across the creek. While he’s at the far end, undoing each bundle while waist deep in the water, I go to help.
Squatting carefully, I lean on one bundle as I untie the two bunches. The last cord, though, is tied underneath the bamboo shoots. I hug the ground and reach around the stalks, feeling for the cord ends that are dangling somewhere.
“Nadia, I’ve got that.” He sloshes through the water in my direction just as my fingers feel the end.
“No, it’s right here,” I say as I get my fingertips around the knot. It’s harder to do without being able to see. I lean onto the bundle to get a better grasp, the rough ends dig into my gut as I work the tie loose. Just as the cord gives way the bundle splays open. I lose my balance, fall forward, and my sweat soaked shirt only lets me slip over the edge. I fall headlong into the water, my arms flailing to grab a hold of anything. . .
Something. . .
Nothing but icy, heavy water that pummels into me and shoves me around. I reach out, wildly searching for his arm, or leg. I know he’s there, I can sense him. If only I could just touch him I’d be fine.
I start to panic, the water pushes against me. It fills my ears and stings my sinuses. I hold my breath in, my one gasp of fearful air begins to burn in my lungs. Shit. Shit, shit, shit
. I think over and over. I know, now, that I’m downstream – somewhere. My mind races as I try to sort out my up from down. Suddenly, I feel bright warmth on my face. In an instant, my eyes fly open and I take in another lung full of air before I’m pulled back under. My pulse pounds in my lungs as I force myself to hold my breath again.
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with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.
<a href="https://www.lushstories.com/stories/straight-sex/tent-and-pegs-chapter-one.aspx">Tent and Pegs - Chapter One</a>