Excerpt: Rosewater – by Mason Kuldinow

Chapter Twenty Three – Truth or Consequences, NY

The games they played were not the kind where they could drink all day. They had purpose, and it was to find triangular stones, or stones containing shapes of three. Suzanne laughed as she elatedly scratched with her fingers through a dry creek bed. Andy was somewhere close by. He was also laughing. She called him over like it was something to be shared between them. The rocks in her hands felt smooth and interesting.

“Are you finding anything over here?” Andy had his hand in his shorts pocket and was shaking the stones to express how many he had.

“I can’t concentrate on their shapes.” She laughed and then sat on the ground facing him as he stood on the edge of the creek bed. “I haven’t found any.”

“Delia said we have to have at least a dozen for each person. I’ve got enough for everyone.”

“Let me see those.” She gazed at the rocks he held out in his hand and saw various shapes, though none that she could see had a pattern of three points. “Are you high?”

“Not at all,” he replied. “We haven’t had the urge to do anything since we got here.”

“Well, I’m in the mood for a glass of wine tonight. I think it will be nice.”

“This is incredible, being with you guys. How are you doing with Charlie and Delia?”

She laughed. “I haven’t even thought about it since we got here.”

“She really knows how to keep her campers busy. That theater school must really teach people how to coordinate happiness.”

“It does seem like we’re under some kind of influence though, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“C’mon, every other time we took these trips we spent the whole time inebriated.”

“Well, we would. You’ve never been much of a smoker or drinker.”

“It doesn’t take as much for me, because I’m sensitive to it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.”

“What’s not to enjoy?”

“I’m just glad we’re having a good time. Now let’s find some real rocks. Those things in your hand aren’t good for runes or divining stones.”

“Is that what we’re making?”

“Weren’t you listening? Delia said what we’re doing. She’s improvising and I totally respect that.”

“Sometimes I wonder if she could be some kind of Druid. They weren’t just men, were they? Like the way priests are?”

“It wasn’t just men. From what I understand, women played a greater role in society. It was Roman rule that brought the misogyny and patriarchal norms into Great Britain; their influence after conquering the Celtic world changed everything.”

“She must be a descendant of those women, who lived before the Romans came.”

“It was because the Celtic world was scattered that it happened. It wasn’t overnight. It took a thousand years, and that’s why so much still remains.”

“Look!” He reached down and picked up a triangular stone. “Now that’s a divining stone.”

She took it from him and examined the edges. “Yes, this is the kind we’re looking for.” Then she put it in her pocket.

“Hey, I found that one,” he said, and then she gave it back.

“You’re right; we should present the ones we find ourselves. At least now I know what we’re looking for.”

Suzanne continued her playful games of sharing the rock collecting with Andy, and then decided to make herself Celtic. She skillfully sought and found the correct bending branches to fashion herself a wreath of hollies.

“You’re just full of surprises.”

“How do I look?”

“You look like someone at the Renaissance fair.”

“That’s kind of you to say. I love how those women look.”

Her golden locks draping over the white lace of her flowing blouse, she looked like Gwendolyn of old, her fresh cheeks capturing the afternoon light and expressing her youth proudly. And her eyes were blue skies to become lost in. Andy stepped into her arms and kissed her lips with passion. She tasted like licorice from what they’d shared earlier, and a touch of hickory from the fires of life on the trail. Otherwise she was completely Suzanne. There was nothing strange about having her in his arms. In fact, it was perfect.

“I never kissed you before Andy.”

“Yes you have.”

“What?” Her cheeks became rose colored, like the blush of late summer evenings. “When did we ever kiss before?”

“At the Seventh Adventist Eucharist ceremony,” he said hoarsely. “It was our first communion.”

“I don’t….” She thought back on the spring nights when they were in school together. Her first communion with Father Capek leading the ceremony…and then she remembered, and smiled. She looked at Andy and saw the boy who looked the same as he did then, only he was sexy and holding her so well.

“You tricked me then! You told me to look into your eye to see if there was something in it, and then you kissed me.”

He laughed. “You do remember.”

“Well, but it was so long ago. How do people our age talk about things that happened twenty years ago?”

“Because we’re more than family,” he said. “We’re part of something incredible about to happen. Delia is leading the ceremonies like a practitioner from the time before Christ.”

“I know, and it seems to me like I should be doing it. I have so much more knowledge. But I suppose that’s all shoptalk compared to what Delia seems to know with instinct.”

“She says there is something you’re going to show us.”

“I know; it’s so exciting, just thinking I’ve been singing these songs, these runes, to my father and to you all in my sleep.”

Andy said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you singing in your sleep.”

“I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we always sleep separately.”

He kissed her again. Then they walked hand in hand into the wide open field descending from the place they had been, where many felled trees told the story of Hurricane Irene. They faced the view, where they saw lakes and rivers glinting in the sunlight. Some were as far as thirty miles from where they stood. Then they went to a meadow tucked within the mountaintop.

“What is that?” Suzanne let go of his hand and then dashed into the grassy brushes growing in the wet soil. She thought it had to be from lingering aquifers after the snowmelt. What she saw that caught her interest was a giant nutshell, sitting on the edge of a half-acre pond. It was rose colored, like rosehips going dormant. But this was something she had never seen. She looked back at Andy and saw him walking gingerly through the tall grass. “Come over here! There’s something really strange here.”

When he arrived by her side, his mouth gaped as he examined the round apparatus that appeared to have come from Bosch’s most famous triptych. “This is really bizarre. I’m almost willing to bet Walter made this.”

“You’re right,” she said. “He has things very similar to this. But they’re not this big.”

“You know, this kind of looks like one of the big nuts from a poplar tree in the village, like near the park. But I get the sense that it was built to float in this pond.”

She stepped back and looked at it again. “Yeah, it looks like we can jump right in.”

“This is somebody’s toy,” Andy said. “Whoever it is must come up here to play games in the woods. Upstate New York has some really strange people.”

“Yeah, but they’re brilliant. We can’t pass this up. Let’s climb inside.”

“Shouldn’t we be naked?”

She smiled beamingly at him. It was pure excitement. “Yes, let’s take off our clothes.”

They giggled like children as they dashed from the bush where they placed their clothes and then crawled together into the smooth space that was perfect for making love. There was no top and no bottom in this inner sphere, where the soft bedding was alive as their pounding hearts.

“Doesn’t it feel like we’re moving?”

“I don’t know.” He let himself go and cried out in purging anguish and pleasure combined. Suzanne was his. And it made him cry.

“What’s wrong, darling?”

“I’m so in love with you right now. I don’t want it to ever end.”

“Are we moving now?”

“Just don’t say this is the end.”

Andy, we’re moving!”

When he felt it, he sat up, still inside her, and getting hard again. It was beyond ecstasy, this rage of pleasure, so much larger than life, as they continued their passionate embrace.

“This is getting to be too much,” Suzanne said, veering her eyes from the wild scenes outside their love nut. She saw bodies of writhing flesh, and it was all it took for her to splash back into Andy’s hunger. She rocked her hips until they came together again, while all the while their craft was sent farther into liquid scenes and paisley curls of every color imaginable. The giant nut bobbed archly as a gentle current brought the couple through scenes of other people doing the same.

Suzanne laughed as she saw arms, legs, and hips waggling in ecstasy. But when she suddenly realized that the people she saw there were locked in their acts forever, the mere notion frightened her. “Andy, please stop!” she cried. “We should know what’s happening around us.”

“I love you Suzanne. Don’t make me stop.”

“I love you too, Andy….”

They floated through miles of erotic scenes, though they were too engrossed in themselves to examine any one scene for long. When they heard thousands of birds chirping in unison, the copulating spell finally began to wane, and they were allowed to separate. However, they kept their bodies close together, as they couldn’t let go completely.

“Look at those birds!” she exclaimed. “They’re surrounded by dead people!”

On a distant shore were giant birds of fantastic colors, all chirping as they mingled with naked people, some of whom appeared to be dead by the gray color of their skin. They watched as one of the birds reached to another shore and snatched up a living person with its sharp beak. The bleeding man struggled as he was plunged into the water, and then dropped at the giant bird’s feet, broken. And when the man rose up shortly afterward, Andy and Suzanne both screamed in shock, as his resurrection was more horrifying than his death.

“We have to turn back!” Andy declared. “Those birds are killing people, and turning the corpses into zombies!”

“Can we control this thing? I don’t even know how we got here.”

“We have to swim,” Andy said, as the current grew heavier, leading them to the cruel beaks of birds, who shepherded the dead and the living to join them. “Don’t look at them!” He took her hand and pulled her toward the opening of their craft.

“Wait…I’m so tired.”

“Me too, but we have to go. I’ll help you swim.” With a forceful tip, they rolled their nut craft and then the water immediately swallowed them. Andy dragged her fiercely until Suzanne finally regained her will, and also began to fight the current. When they rose triumphantly to the surface, she saw darkness and flames. She cried out, “Don’t let me go!” as they were suddenly thrashed wildly by what felt like an ocean wave.

When the water became calm, she only wanted to know if she was still alive. “Where the hell are we?”

“I don’t know. Just keep swimming. If you don’t, you’ll drag us down.”

“I’ll try,” she said as she paddled like a pup, with her nubile legs and her one free hand.

Her gift of salvation came in the form of rocks under her feet. They were slimy and covered with weeds, but she didn’t care; she was just glad to be walking onto the riverbank. She felt the divine help from Andy as he half-carried her into a bower, away from the river that now flowed lazily.

Hours later, when darkness became replaced by shade, Andy was there, smiling in triumph from their battle with the current. He looked perfectly natural, his long hair brushed behind his ears, like one of the boys she’d seen at a mud saturated concert that she attended when she was sixteen, and her lustful puberty was blown wide open by scenes of cocks flying through mud. It seemed like the roaring sixties had returned. Those young men she pictured sliding in sex positions through the murk of New York soil were like gods in her memory, to which Andy stood equal. She wanted to tell him, but all she could do was stare at his body.

He was encrusted with dirt. Seeing his beautiful smile, she was glad to be with him in hell.

“Is that your water knight?”

She glanced into the fairy woods and saw the familiar creature; its droopy silver mug skulked low behind the ferns rife with buzzing insects.

“Suzanne!” Andy exclaimed. “I think it’s afraid of you.”

“Yeah, but it has something to tell us.”

“No, I think it’s just hungry for some of our blood. We give it to the mosquitos. Let’s see what happens when we give it to him.”

She saw its familiar cords rise above the ferns with Andy’s suggestion.

“Go away!” Suzanne shouted. And then the gelatinous invertebrate squished into the unseen gullies. She heard it slide across the rocks and soil, leaves shaking in its wake.

“That’s the way back,” he said. “We have to follow it.”

She knew he was right and they walked into the high space under the tree canopy. “It wants our blood,” she whispered as they walked through the giant landscape like ants in a garden.

“I’m not worried,” he replied.

“Just don’t make any more of those invitations, like you just did. I think it might be thriving on your enthusiasm, Andy.”

“I can’t help it.” He leapt onto a log and then padded across the smooth dead wood. “I feel so full of wondrous energy.” He looked like a male Venus to her; she couldn’t think of anything else to compare with his androgynous beauty. It was Faustian at moments, and she had to laugh, thinking of this little devil with a cock dangling from a tuft of brown hair. But he wasn’t the little Grecian sprite with hooves she pictured from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he was strong and exquisitely built.

But he gets mistaken for a woman, she reminded herself. If he wanted to he could pass for a woman. He had done it before.

“Maybe you should try to stay in control,” she said. “We can still get hurt out here.”

“Somehow I don’t think so.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Don’t you recognize it?”

She looked around and saw they were in the meadow. It was different. The giant nut was still in its place, leaning slightly as it sat on the edge of the mountain top pond.

“What’s happening?”

“There!” He pointed to the trees where their clothes were hung willy-nilly. “Do you see?”

When she saw her naked body lying on the ground, she felt her entire sentience morph into an arrow, pointed straight at her body. The giant mantis was there, hanging over Andy, and she felt the anguishing helplessness in the face of danger. Pinpricks, billions across her skin, woke her and compelled her to breathe heavily and try to move. But it was like her body weighed tons. She managed to look at Andy and saw that he was still. He was covered with tubules, all enriched with his blood, as they squeezed and contracted to pull the red fractals into the creature’s organelles. It was fixed upon her. She raised her head as her wits returned. The creature was insect-like and quivering like some repugnant thing she wished didn’t exist. But it was there and she didn’t want it touching her. But it was forceful this time. She reeled in panic as she felt the tubules rippling under her back. She knew it was taking hold.

Suzanne was incensed, just like the time before when she’d faced this creature. She forced her arms to defend her body, amid her fatigue, still heavy and dragging her into darkness.

The next thing she saw was Andy’s face.

“Get this shit off me!”

“You’re okay,” he cooed. “You’re okay. Everything is okay.”

She felt yet another awakening, remembering the others, layers deep. She was gasping for air and was grateful for the arms that held her. She knew it was Andy. She was thrilled to know it was him. But in her state, she could only stare at the ground as he rocked her in his arms.

“I have….” She gasped as she spoke. “Never felt…anything…like this…before.”

“What was it, Suzanne?”

“Don’t tell me…you don’t…remember.”

“I remember our kiss.”

“No…you have to…remember.” She felt the clothes on her body and wondered again what was happening. Her eyes scanned wildly around as she tried to find the mountaintop pond. “That…couldn’t…have…been…a…dream.”

“You just crawled into my arms in the grass and fell asleep, dear. We were kissing and then you started moaning about Walter’s Bosch display.”

“I saw it…. I….” She looked into his eyes sheepishly. Gradually her shaking subsided. “That couldn’t have been….”

When she was calm, he took her hands and pulled her up with him. “Let’s head back.”

She walked quietly, holding his hand, wondering what was real and what wasn’t.

***

At the campsite, Sarah and Isabel pondered over their collections of stones.

“Are you guys okay?”

“We’re fine,” Andy said. “Suzanne had a little bad dream.”

“We all had one,” Sarah said. “This whole day has been one big trip.”

“This is better than any drug I ever tried,” Isabel said. “I keep falling asleep and having the weirdest dreams of my life.”

“So what happened to Charlie and Delia?”

“They’re out there somewhere. I don’t know.” Sarah concentrated on her stones. Some of them were perfect. Most of the others did not look like what Suzanne thought they should be finding.

“This project is really hard,” Suzanne said. “Delia didn’t bother to mention these side quests that are involved.”

“That’s because she thought we would have known it by the time she gave us our quest,” Sarah replied. “I think she sees things coming and she assumes we see them too.”

Isabel lit up when she presented the stones that she and Sarah collected. “Sarah and I have fifteen three pointed stones. How many did you two find?”

Suzanne reached in her pocket and took out one decent looking stone, though it wasn’t much like the perfect triangle they were all looking for.

Sarah looked at her with a smile that seemed devilish in every respect. “What do you think? Are you two becoming an item?”

“Huh?” Suzanne looked down at her feet and then at her stone. “I didn’t have a lot of luck with finding these.”

Isabel said sarcastically, “So I guess those side quests take up a lot of time, and that’s why you both have only one stone to show between the two of you.”

“No!” Suzanne said. “He has a whole pocketful of them.”

“Yeah,” Andy said, and then dumped his pile next to Sarah and Isabel’s cache.

“What the hell is wrong with you two?” Sarah asked. “Did you guys really get it on out there in the woods?”

Suzanne stood shocked and unable to dodge the question. “We were looking for stones!”

“All right, we won’t press the issue,” Isabel said. She looked at Andy’s pile and the one stone from Suzanne, and then asked, “What the hell is wrong with you two?”

“She passed out for a while,” Andy said. “That’s why she only found one.”

“Okay,” Sarah said. “Now sit down and stop acting like the accused.”

Suzanne shook her head like she couldn’t get anywhere with them.

“How long have Delia and Charlie been out there?”

“They left the same time as all of us,” Isabel said. “Don’t you remember?”

“This whole day has been like a haze.”

***

Charlie stomped into the campsite with Delia only steps behind. “We have a cache of stones here that is going to blow your minds,” he said, emptying his pockets and revealing beautiful specimens that he and Delia had found.

“I’m afraid I might have come up short,” Suzanne said. “I only found one.”

“Well then, that’s the correct amount,” Delia informed her. “Finding one is perfectly acceptable.”

“Now you tell us,” Sarah remarked facetiously.

“All of you found the correct amount. I can see how you are keeping yours close to you. The only wrong amount would have been zero.”

“Did anyone else have a strange experience?” Andy asked. “Suzanne and I were plagued by visions.”

Suzanne looked at him, surprised. “You said you watched me fall asleep.”

“I did,” he said. “And then I fell asleep too. You were talking to me, but you were describing things different from what I saw in my vision.”

“Was she singing?” Delia asked.

Andy replied, “No, she only said sporadic words about…well, it’s not the kind of thing I want to repeat.”

“Yes, please don’t,” Suzanne snapped. “Tell us about your vision instead.”

“Well, I passed out and didn’t realize it; you know those dreams, like when you wake up in front of your computer screen with a hundred pages of m’s because your head was on the keyboard? You were in my arms, and when I fell asleep, I dreamt we were flying together. The most amazing thing was the landscape. We were going all over the world. And it was all in color. So anyway, while we were enjoying our flight of fancy, I felt something biting me or stabbing me in my side. I didn’t want to let go of Suzanne to feel myself, because I wasn’t even sure how it was happening—it didn’t matter to me until that moment. The pain became unbearable after a while and then I finally had to do something. I let go of you, and you almost fell, but I held on with one hand while I used the other one to feel what was hurting me. And then I saw that it was this big glass dragon carrying me. It was clinging to my back furtively, like it was some kind of parasite that wanted me to believe I was flying on my own.”

“You’re talking about Suzanne’s shape-shifter,” Isabel said.

“But why would a water spirit have wings that can fly?” Charlie asked.

Sarah said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a flying fish?”

“Well of course, but…yeah, okay. Why am I trying to make sense of this?”

“It should all make sense,” Delia said. “Suzanne, what does it mean to you?”

“It scares me. As soon as Andy said he was thinking of letting me go, I felt really bad, like something was trying to hurt us while we were asleep. My dream was also scary.”

“So it was just us then?” Andy asked.

“No,” Isabel said. “When you walked up I told you I kept having dreams. They were just like you said—I thought I was awake and then I would realize that I was dreaming. Mine were just about walking around here, looking for stones. It was kind of maddening—like I would be looking, and then I would wake, and then start looking, and then wake up again, only to realize that I hadn’t gone anywhere. It reminded me of that guy who rolls the rock up the hill, and then it always rolls back down, so he has to start over.”

“Sisyphus,” Suzanne said.

“Yeah, you’re right—thank you.”

“Do you think you might wake up again?” Delia asked.

Isabel shivered and then looked at her stones. “God, I was afraid I was going to look down and find them gone. Delia, don’t do that!”

She laughed with a devilish tone. “Charlie and I were also having dreams. He thought he was making love to me a few times, and it was just him writhing in the ferns with his hand down his pants. My dreams were about the silver phantom too. He wasn’t hiding from me. He was trying to impress me with his wings and his wild shape shifting ability. He could be as big as a dragon like what Andy described, or he could be small as a child.”

“What about you Sarah?” Andy asked.

Sarah looked down at her stones for a moment. “Yeah, it was happening to me too. I didn’t see the shape-shifter. I saw that man we thought we saw on that first night; the one who turned out to be a stump. His silhouette kept showing up in my dreams. Every time he appeared, he was standing still and watching me. It had that Sisyphean character, like Isabel’s dream, because I kept waking up, and then the same dream would start over again. I remember asking myself why it was happening, and the answer I would get was that I never wanted it to end.”

“So you want to live out here forever?” Andy asked.

“We do live out here,” Sarah said. “It’s not much different than being at home. We all take walks at night, and sleep outside on the lake deck, or with the windows open. You know, I’ve already quit the journalism program…and now I’m hoping tocome back to Paul Smith. That’s probably why I’ve been having so much trouble. I hate living anywhere else.”

Andy looked at her in surprise. “I didn’t know.”

“That would be great if you came back,” Suzanne said. She didn’t comment on the news. She knew it was probably hard for Sarah, going through yet another life change. “I’m sure you can work something out with the administrators.”

Delia wanted to keep talking about Sarah and Isabel’s shared experience. “Sarah, what else can you describe about the visual phases of your dream?”

Sarah said, “Isabel and I would be talking and laughing, and we both didn’t know whether we were dreaming or not. And then every time, Isabel would see it first—she would see the man standing and watching us. But we can never see his face. Once he was too close for me to handle, so I started forcing myself to stay awake; I was afraid of what would come next.”

Delia cleared her throat when Sarah finished speaking, and said, “There are threes of significance in virtually all aspects of universal energy and space. In physics and math, three term equations are the keystone to higher understanding, and solving riddles of many types. In the Celtic world, the elements of the universe were understood as a combination of three unique forces. It was the original Trinity.”

“What about all of the rituals involving the four directions?” Isabel asked.

Delia replied, “There are branching prongs from each element, from which they can tie in all knowledge and understanding.”

“Oh, well that’s convenient,” Sarah said.

“You have to understand how Druids viewed their world, and worked to justify the anomalies that defied their beliefs. Science is no different. We use variances to explain why we aren’t exact, and then reward our mistakes with high ratings of accuracy. But you will be surprised how accurate their divining methods can be, especially if we all cooperate and follow suit when our turn is called.”

“What do you mean by that?” Charlie asked.

“These tri-pointed stones carry the connection to universal energy within their shape, but only if they are naturally formed as such, or worn into their present design by an ancient means other than by breaking.” She collected all of the stones into a velvet sack that she produced from her pocket. “Those will reveal themselves when we tell our fortunes tonight.”

***

The stones glowed under the fire light, their surfaces glinting from the water that was sprinkled upon them. They became obviously different colors, and the ones formed into varying triangles were also underscored by this method of separation, as they were so obviously apparent from the rest. Delia and Suzanne picked away the ones that didn’t belong, and then the others did likewise. When it was done, most of the stones were gone, and only fifteen remained. Everyone had three, except for Delia who had two, and Suzanne who only had one.

“This is another example of the ancients chipping down to the prime,” Delia said.

Suzanne felt the significance of the first prime number, and it made her shiver to think what it meant.

“Suzanne!” Sarah shouted, reaching out for her friend, who had suddenly slouched and then fell closer to the fire.

“She’s okay!” Delia asserted. “She’s not close enough to fall in.”

Aywun, daeg-floo stuh maean, sereddse evah, chaev enyu….

“She’s singing!” Andy shouted. “What is she singing?”

Delia shushed him. “I’ve never heard these words before…in fact, no one has for a thousand years.”

They all watched in awe as Suzanne sat with her head lolling forward and then side to side as she sang the strange words in ancient meter.

“What is she saying?” Isabel asked in a whisper.

Delia said, “It’s ancient Breton—this dialect is completely vanished from the world.”

“I’ve heard Welsh spoken before, and it sounds a lot like this,” Isabel added.

Delia whispered to inform the others of the meanings in the song that she could feel rather than understand linguistically. “She’s praising the three elements. It’s an incantation. The ancestor spirits are gathering to listen. We’re hearing the voice of our origin, my friends. We’re getting closer to them than anyone has for eons.”

Andy said “Shouldn’t we be recording this or something?”

Delia gave him a chastising look. “By no means should anyone record this. The ancestors would be very offended. It isn’t time for that yet.”

“How do you know?” Sarah asked.

“Suzanne would tell you—the Druids never put anything in writing. This is how they memorized it; they would sing it in their sleep.”

“…Eaen Gwyar, Eaen Calas, Eaen Newfrah.

When Suzanne stopped singing, she raised her head and looked at the others in confusion.

“What happened?”

“You were singing to us.”

“Are you kidding me? I had a dream that I was climbing a ladder that led through mist. I couldn’t see where I was going. The rungs would disappear every time I stepped up to the next. It sounds like more futility, I suppose.”

“You have a beautiful singing voice,” Sarah remarked. “I haven’t heard you sing in a long time.”

“I agree,” Isabel said.

“What did I sing?”

Delia answered. “You sang the praise to the four directions, and then the three elements that make life possible. You sang to light and knowledge, and you named yourself and Walter as the heralds; you sang to water and movement, and named Charlie and myself; and then you sang to stability and earth, and for this representation you named Sarah and Andy.”

Isabel sat, looking despondent. She asked, “Is there nothing for me?”

“The representative for your family in this song was Walter,” Delia said.

“What happened to the seventh family?” Charlie asked.

Delia looked troubled for a moment. “They could be anywhere. Understand that they were driven out of here in recent decades.”

Charlie seemed to be slightly confused. “But wouldn’t we have known them?”

“Not necessarily,” Delia said. “We may know everyone in New Destiny, but not in Saranac Lake.”

“Well of course not,” he said. “Then it’s possible that they’re still here.”

“I’m getting kind of scared now,” Sarah said. “This shadowy figure we keep seeing; it could be the deadly stranger in town we heard about.”

“Who is that?” Isabel stood up and looked in horror at some lurking figure in the shadows. “That isn’t a tree!”

Charlie stood up and shined his flashlight into the dark grass. “There’s no one over there.”

“Did you see him, Sarah?”

“No Isabel. I was talking to Suzanne and Charlie. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s just relax.”

“Come stand by me, Charlie,” Isabel said. She took his arm and glanced around. “Keep me safe and you’ll be paid handsomely.”

“Never mind,” he said. “I work for free.”

“Come with me into the lean-to. Are you guys coming to sleep?”

“We’re not done here,” Delia said. “But you two can go ahead.”

“What’s happening to us?” Sarah asked. “Look at the way Isabel is acting. Did she make up that whole thing just so she could grab Charlie?”

“How would I know?”

Andy looked at the lean-to, and then at his watch—he saw it was nine-thirty at night.

“It really is early,” he said. “Maybe we should take a walk.”

“What if there really is someone out there?”

“We’re not the only ones camped up here. They probably think we’re freaks because we keep screaming at them when they approach.”

“So if we stumble on their campsites, then they have all the right in the world to start throwing rocks at us.”

“I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.”

They left Isabel with Charlie and walked into the flat viewing area. Moonlight fell over Lake Champlain, shining brightly alongside the New York Thruway. They were close enough that it felt like they were safely in the womb of civilization. Suzanne picked a rock to have a seat on. Andy sat next to her, while Delia and Sarah shared the other end.

Suzanne looked at Delia and asked, “How do you feel about this?”

“He can do whatever he wants.”

“Don’t you think he’s kind of a man slut?” Sarah said.

“I’ll say,” Suzanne attested.

Delia said, “He is easily led by his penis. He loses all volition of his own when it comes to getting laid.”

“He wasn’t always like this,” Suzanne said. “I remember when he was really quite bucolic. We used to go for autumn walks and he would wear these goofy holiday sweaters that were about as fetching as turkey legs.”

“I remember that,” Delia said. “But then his inner brash person started to come out. I started to think about having sex with him about a year ago.”

“But then you went to do that play, and you fantasized about him constantly.”

“No, I didn’t think about him during that time. But something about being back here makes me want things the way I think they should be.”

“I think they call that megalomania,” Suzanne remarked.

“I know how it sounds. But we’ve been going through something really primal here.”

“Delia, I’ve always thought that the direction of humanity has always been away from our primal instincts. Sure, sometimes we need them, but we never let them consume us. You and I as women know this more than men do.”

Andy suspired. “Please don’t devolve into one of those gender bashing parties.”

“He’s right,” Sarah said. “It’s not fair to him.”

“Thank you, Sarah.”

“Let’s not have you two running off now,” Suzanne said.

“I don’t see why not,” Sarah said. “Everybody here is getting laid except me.”

“Not everybody is getting laid,” Suzanne retorted.

“Huh?”

“Yeah,” Delia said. “I know you guys want to tease me about it, but Charlie and I have not done anything since we left on Saturday.”

“I really thought you and Andy were getting it on this afternoon,” Sarah said. “You guys were out there together for like six hours.”

“No, we kissed, and we were having fun, and then we fell asleep in this meadow.”

“That sounds like a Buddy Holly song,” Delia remarked. “But if it’s true, then Isabel and Charlie are the only ones doing it.”

“Well, that is weird. I’ve never seen her just grab somebody and take them into her bed. She must be really stressed out at work.”

“What makes you say that?”

Isabel was standing behind Sarah. Charlie came walking up seconds later.

“You’re right if you’re talking about me being stressed out at work. But Charlie and I were just sharing a little pleasure.”

“We noticed.”

“What? No, that’s not what I’m talking about. We were smoking pot.”

“Huh? Why didn’t you just do that with the rest of us?”

“It just didn’t seem like it would be appropriate.”

“Do you guys want some?”

“Not me,” Sarah said. “Maybe later I’ll have some. I’m enjoying this view.”

“See, that’s why we slipped away. Charlie and I talked about it earlier.”

Suzanne smiled and became strangely warped in her thoughts.

“Are you all right?”

“I don’t know what to think now. Before I thought Delia and Charlie were doing the nasty every time they slipped away. And then I thought Andy and I were going to have sex, because he was turning me on so much with his shirt off, and his long hair. Then I assumed it was Charlie and Isabel. Am I the only one?”

“Maybe you’re the only one who wants it that bad,” Delia said.

“No, we were just discussing it.”

“Well, maybe we should plan something like that,” Delia suggested.

Everyone in the group looked at her with shock and keen interest combined. No one said a word though.

“It’s not like we’re talking about something wrong and despicable. We’re all attracted to each other. That’s one of the reasons we became so close-knit. I understand that society tells us to be wary of these things, but—are we not mature enough to know that we want to protect each other, and keep other people away?”

“There are other factors involved in such ideas,” Isabel muttered. “There are attachments that can come of such acts. And the issues of protection you mentioned can have harmful effects.”

Sarah cleared her throat and then said with an even tone, “The logistics of this don’t make any sense.”

Delia threw her hair back and gave everyone a seductive look. “I think what Isabel and Sarah are trying to say is that we should make a plan.”

Silence prevailed for a minute.

“There is a beautiful place,” Delia continued, “where swimming naked is the way to go. It’s only another five miles. We could go there and own the place. My brothers found it—and they told me no one ever goes there.”

“There isn’t a place in this state where people don’t go,” Suzanne retorted. “Your brothers go there.”

“I’m sure no one will interrupt us.”

“Describe this place a little more,” Sarah said.

“Well, it’s a pool that was formed in what my brothers used to call a lost tributary of the Cold River. But it’s actually the outlet of several springs culminating from the High Peaks. There’s a beautiful brook that flows into this rock garden, and it’s just paradise, and the swimming hole, one of New York’s finest, is surrounded by natural sitting areas. It’s not easy to find. We would have to stash our packs for the steepest part, where it’s all stone channels and narrow passages—I mean really narrow. If it wasn’t difficult, people would go there.”

“Maybe we should stay up tonight and then walk out when the sun comes up,” Charlie suggested. “We can try to see Venus again.”

“Try to get some sleep,” Delia said, before walking back to the campsite.

The others stayed at the overlook. It was perfectly warm. Sarah slid down next to Andy and leaned with her back against the rock they shared. He shifted himself and got comfortable as he could. Suzanne also pushed up against the other side of Andy. Three of them fell asleep and were swept away by wild dreams before long. Charlie and Isabel followed Delia. They went to rest with her for a few hours before the sunrise.

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