A six-legged, round-backed beast with a small head was padding along the marshy verge of the forest below. She watched it carefully as Mickey eased his way down to the water’s edge.
“Is it still going away?” He waved at her to come down.
“Yes.” She quietly joined him on the sloping gravelly beach.
She stared at the fording-place without much joy. Half an hour ago, the two of them had sat and watched a small herd of beasts, with slightly curved backs like horses and cows. They had large, long heads with antlers or horns visible. They were unable to determine the number of legs in the far distance. They had studied quite a few sets of tracks and other signs on the way.
“It only looks about fifty metres across.” He studied the layout. “I can see stones and stuff in the bottom, at least I hope they’re stones.”
“Damn.” It was clear she had certain misgivings.
“Okay, well. I’ll coach you through it.” He gave her a serious look. “I took a course a long time ago.”
“Yep. It was a correspondence course, but I got all A’s.” She groaned. “How cold do you think it is, right now?”
“Six degrees.” She said it with no hesitation.
After a moment’s thought, a shudder went through her. Mick bent down and shoved a hand half under the surface.
“Okay, well the water’s not much warmer.” The smile became a wince. “It looks shallow, but it could be two or three metres deep out in the middle.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Mickey.” Her arms were crossed across her body, and she was sort of shoulder-bent, not standing up straight at all.
“I’m just as shy as you are.” She wondered what he meant by that.
She was about to find out. Mickey opened up his bags and found a pair of the biggest plastic garbage bags they had. Shaking them open, he instructed her to put all her stuff in one of them.
“Now the bad news. You’re going to strip down, to bra, panties and you can keep your socks. We’ll put our clothes in on top of the load. You can probably guess the rest.”
“Oh, God, do we have to?” She groaned in dismay.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Deloussian.” Mickey was all formality now, but she saw no lasciviousness, no lewdness or lechery on his boyish face, it was just all pinched up around the eyes with genuine concern for her safety.
It was a look of sympathy.
“Keep your towel on top, too. I’m real sorry about this.” They’d cut up the tablecloth in pieces.
“No, it’s okay, Mickey.” He turned his back.
Mickey hustled out of his clothes, very quick and deft in his movements, a certain businesslike quality about him just now which she found to be somewhat reassuring.
She wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and taking off the heavy hooded jacket, she began to fold it carefully and stuff it in her bag. Mickey’s back and shoulders were not unpleasantly skinny, she noted. A few ribs showed that he wasn’t inclined to fat. His long, skinny neck flushed with something that might have been a kind of embarrassment. She giggled at the pun, as Mickey jammed his jeans and sweater down into the bag, and stuffed his shoes in next. Mick shot her a quick glance and kept jamming stuff in the sacks.
“I’ve got a big zip-lock bag, if you have house keys, or a pocket full of money, or something.” She shook her head, intent on what she was doing.
On impulse she looked up just then, and saw Mickey’s eyes intent upon her face. He studiously avoided looking down.
“Your gun is tied in your shoe, they’ve under the towel.” She nodded brightly.
Wordlessly, Mickey took her jeans and shirt, and stuck them in her bag. He tied a double knot, strong fingers working quickly as she got used to the light but cool breeze stroking at her skin. She kept her arms around her, in close to her torso.
“Brrr.” It was all she said.
Mickey tied the two sacks together.
“There.” He looked very calm.
“You grab the rope, and kick like crazy. I’ll be right here with you. I’ll tow you across if you can’t make it. We’d better go now, Melissa.”
Melissa was cold enough already. Thank God she was wearing sensible cotton panties, and not a thong or anything like that. That would have been too much. She simply couldn’t have done it. She just nodded. Taking hold of the rope up tight, a hand close to each of the two bags, she began to shuffle forward with Mick into the cold water, with him helping to support the load. Through her sock feet, she could feel gravel and sand. The water was biting on her ankles. The water was shockingly cold, and they both gasped at the same time, but not unpredictably Mickey was gasping with laughter.
She marched into the water, groaning mightily as it rose up her abdomen, Mickey wincing like crazy as it rose up to his kidneys. She felt strangely child-like and trusting all of a sudden. He was huge, before her, breaking a bow-wave for them. He towed her in deeper. Sooner or later, you had to trust someone.
“Aw, hell, you only live once.” He blurted it through gasps and shivers. “C’mon, Mrs. D, let’s go for it.”
She watched in awe as Mickey plunged face forwards into the water. She could still touch bottom so she kept plodding forwards. Mick turned around, splashing cold droplets everywhere, and she gasped. She gasped over and over again, realizing that this alone was a threat. He laughed at the serious, intent, determined look on her face.
“Okay, okay, I’ll go easy on you.”
“Damn you!” Her feet hit a deep pocket in the silt and her head plunged under the surface.
Thin, slimy weeds plucked at her cringing skin as Mickey roared and splashed like a madman, his voice distant and muffled by the water in her ears. She came up spitting, but now she began to kick out in earnest as Mick slanted around towards her side in a very slick-looking crawl, although he kept his head up out of the frigid water.
“Forty metres to go. You’re doing fine. How’s the water?” The conversational tone of this last remark infuriated her for some reason.
“Argh!” She gasped and spit. “That’s easy for you to say.”
“You’re a good swimmer, Melissa. It’s just that this way you get to do all the work.” She growled, still kicking up a storm, though.
“How far?” She had her breath again.
“Twenty-five metres. If you want to strike out for shore, I can bring the bags in.” He sidled in close to her left side, and put a hand in the middle of her upper back.
“Uh, uh, argh!” She groaned in frustration at their slow pace.
The cold would quickly kill them, she knew that much.
“You’ve had enough.” Mickey decided right then. “Stop for a minute, whoa, stop! Climb up on my back, okay?”
When she had complied, he grabbed the rope and half a minute later his big thumping flutter kick had them going again. She arched her back and pointed her toes to keep her feet out of his way, but found herself physically drained. The racking shivers continued. Her heart hadn’t stopped yet, but the body had a weird kind of magical logic of its own.
“Oh, Jesus.” She spoke loudly beside his ear. “Oh, fuck!”
“I know, I know.” He cheerfully agreed. “Well, if I had told you how bad it was going to be…”
“Oh, God!” She cried out in misery and pain.
She was shuddering up against Mick’s back, and he could feel the convulsive spasms in his own body core.
This was just the early stages of hypothermia.
“Ten metres.” His words cut through the agony and renewed her hope of relief. “Here you go, up you go.”
He gave her a shove as they tumbled up out of the last metre or so of cold, tinkling water. A few more splashes and she was on dry land. Mickey pointed up the bank and she obediently turned and began to climb, too cold and miserable to speak. Melissa shivered uncontrollably, looking forlorn and bedraggled, totally demoralized by the experience.
“Thank you, Mister Greenwood. That will be sufficient.” Mick pulled his hand off her hip.
She could make it on her own.
“I’ll have the bags up in a minute.” He stole a quick glance at her pale, retreating figure, resplendent in soaking wet panties and soggy socks, the wet brassiere barely holding its own against the forces of gravity and inertia.
Mickey looked away right smartly, and focused on bringing their luggage up from the beach. The words ‘Oh, my God,’ rattled around in his head and wouldn’t go away, or perhaps it was due to the rattling of his teeth and bones. It was the kind of vision a man might never forget. He shook like a leaf.
“I’ll have a dry towel and your clothes out in a second.” She waved her left hand without looking back and kept climbing. “Okey-dokey, then.”
He started into the climb.
Author's Note: this is the first scene of chapter nine, and the first twenty percent of the book can be viewed at Smashwords.