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by Charles E. Magness
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2016 Charles E. Magness
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
The opening that Lynne had noticed in the face of that house-sized boulder proved to be a niche that was more than large enough for us both—about seven feet long and five feet deep. The ceiling sloped from about six feet high at the rear to about five feet at the opening. We entered it, and we dropped to the ground. Looking about, I saw that the alcove was where a huge chip had broken from the boulder's bottom corner as it had fallen, eons ago, from what had then been the edge of the butte above.
Now we'd been out of the wind and the rain for a few minutes, but we were both badly chilled. And we weren't warming up, in spite of the shelter we'd found. It didn't take us long to figure out that our shirts and our jeans were the reason; they were sodden and cold.
I replied, "We have to get out of these wet clothes. I think we'll warm up if we get them off and get our warm-ups on."
She looked me in the eyes. "I don't have anything on under my shirt," she said. "Can you handle that?" She paused awkwardly. "Uh… I mean…" She paused again, fumbling for words.
Smiling at her, I said, "I know what you mean, even if it came out wrong. I promise I won't look."
We took our packs off and dug out the warm-up gear—fleece pants and jackets. Turning away from each other for modesty's sake, we stripped off the wet clothing—which, in my case, included my underwear. Once the soaked articles were off, we replaced them with the fleece articles. We made the change none too soon. I was definitely too cold, but Lynne was shivering visibly and there was a blue tinge to her lips.
Miserable, arms folded across her chest, she looked at me, looked into my eyes. "Jase, I'm so cold! Are we going to die here? Tonight?" she asked. She was fretful. I saw no fear in her; only deep sorrow at the possibility that we might have spent our first eighteen years preparing for lives we wouldn't get the chance to live.
I pulled her toward the rear of our refuge and, seating myself with my back against its rear wall, I pulled her down close to me. I took her into my arms, hoping that the combined heat of our bodies would make us both more comfortable. "We'll warm up faster if we stay close," I said. She put her own arms around me and snuggled against me, tensely but gratefully, on my left. Slowly, her shivering subsided, and she relaxed. I realized then that she'd been dangerously cold. I didn't know it then, but now I know that she was on the verge of hypothermia: she'd been nearly so cold that her body's ability to generate heat wouldn't be enough to keep her alive. But we'd warmed her up in time. I was warming up, too, but I hadn't been as chilled as she.
“We have some shelter, now," I told her. "And we have each other. We got into this together, and we're going to get out of it together! We'll have a long, miserable night, but we'll be alive when it's over. I won't let you die, Lynne! And you won't let me die!"
She smiled, and her deep blue eyes looked into my eyes as she said, "Deal! You've got you a deal, Jason!" I returned her smile. I could tell that she was still worried about the coming night, but now she knew that we had hope.
The rain hadn't stopped while we'd recovered from the chills the storm had brought us, but it had subsided to a gentle patter and the wind was now just a breeze. No rain had penetrated our shelter, and the coarse sandy earth under us was dry. The unbroken cloud cover to the west glowed above the horizon; the sun hadn't set. I looked at my watch and confirmed that it was seven-thirty, or about half an hour before sunset. There was still plenty of light, but it would fade quickly now; our long night was only beginning. The wind and rain had stopped almost completely. And then I noticed something about our boulder.
"We may be better off than we thought," I told her hopefully. "Let me up so I can check."
She moved so that I could get up. I stepped out into the open. It didn't take me long to make up my mind. I rejoined her in the alcove, sat back against the boulder where I had been a few moments earlier. She looked at me questioningly as she moved back against me.
"It's a lot warmer in this space than it is out in the open. Feel the boulder. It's warm. The sun must have heated it up before the storm."
She looked up at me and, after reaching back to test what I'd said about the boulder, she said, "Maybe this won't be as bad as we were afraid it would be!" She smiled and went on. "But I'd rather keep warm by leaning against you than against a rock. You're softer." She wiggled in a little closer.
Having just been out in the open, I could now feel heat radiating from the boulder. And I realized that the dry sandy floor of our space was warm, too. It wasn't hot, as the sand we'd walked through that afternoon had been, but it wasn't cold, either.
"You're softer, too," I remarked, putting both arms around her and giving her a little squeeze.
She relaxed against me, and I relaxed, too. When we were no longer talking, I found myself thinking about how we'd gotten ourselves into this fix. It had started on a Saturday afternoon a month earlier…
"Jase! Jase!" Lynne had yelled as she burst through the front door of my parents' house, unannounced and without knocking. "Jason! Where are you?"
Fred, our border collie, chuffed a couple of times at the invasion; but he quickly subsided after he had confirmed that it was Lynne, and not The Unspeakable Enemy. (We knew that the mailman would never enter the house like that, but Fred wasn't so sure.)
"Up here, Lynne!" I yelled back.
Breathlessly, she continued as she mounted the stairs two at a time, "Jase! Let's go see these next month! After we're out of school!"
I stepped out of my room, where I'd been hanging out, to greet her. Her short, light brown hair flew as she bounded toward me. She had a slender, lissome build and small breasts that bounced a bit as she ran toward me. While I couldn't help but notice the latter, I'd never thought of her in a sexual way, and her body didn't induce anything in me beyond awareness, almost subliminal, of the difference.
When she reached me, she shoved a Denver Post article from the previous May, almost a year earlier, into my hand. It was about Picket Wire Canyon's dinosaur tracks, down in the National Forest Service's Comanche National Grasslands near La Junta, Colorado. She had cut the article out, stuffed it into a folder, and laid it on her desk almost a year ago. And then she'd promptly forgotten about it. She'd just found it as she was going through things in a fit of what she called "spring cleaning." I looked over the article curiously, and I decided that I wanted to see those tracks, too.
Lynne and I were the closest of close friends, but otherwise introverted kids—and nerdy. We shared academic, scientific bents. All four of our parents worked full-time, so when school wasn't in session, we spent a lot of time hanging out with each other.
We both liked everything science, but she was particularly interested in the life sciences—paleontology, in particular. So dinosaur tracks were right up her line. My interests were stronger in astronomy, math, and computers. But I thought the life sciences interesting, too. According to the newspaper, the site in Picket Wire Canyon had hundreds of fossilized apatosaur and allosaur footprints. The article said they'd been made a hundred-fifty million years ago.
"That's really cool!" I said. "One-hundred-fifty-million-and-one-year-old dinosaur tracks!"
Light blue eyes flashed at me. "No, Jase! One-hundred-fifty million!" she corrected me without really hearing what I'd said.
"That's what it says in the paper," I agreed. "But the article's a year old!" I went on to rub it in: "One-hundred-fifty-million plus one is one-hundred-fifty-million-and-one!"
"Okay, Nerd!" she retorted. An eye-roll expressed her exasperation at my remark. "It's no wonder you don't have a girlfriend when you make jokes like that!"
"You must make jokes like that, too, Nerdette," I pointed out helpfully. "You don't have a boyfriend!"
"Touché!" she replied, smiling. Neither of us had a love life, and both of us knew it. We both regretted it. But we teased each other about it all the time; it wasn't something we would allow to affect our friendship. "But they're still one-hundred-fifty million years old!"
I went on. "I'd like to see those tracks! But it's a good three- or four-hour drive. And the tracks are over five miles from the closest place where we can park, so that's a two- or three-hour walk. And that's only one way. We'd probably have to spend a night away from home. Will your parents let you do that?"
"Dad wouldn't let me do it by myself. He thinks girls are too weak to do things like that alone!" she said. The emphasis she'd put on the word "weak" was very slight. I was probably the only person in the world who knew her well enough to pick it up—along with the scorn in it. She continued, "But we're both 18 now, and he'll let me go with you."
Lynne was, literally, the girl next door. Twenty years earlier, within days of each other, her parents and mine had moved into a pair of next-door houses on 17th Avenue Parkway in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood, which was peopled mainly by liberal Democratic professionals. Then, a little more than a year later, our mothers had gotten pregnant at almost the same time. They'd had their babies (Lynne and me) just nine days apart that April.
Being our respective parents' only children, we had grown up together. Really together! So much together, in fact, that by the time we were six we were making our parents split the difference and celebrate our birthdays on the same day each year: the day that fell halfway in between, naturally. Which house? There was no way to split that difference, so we took turns.
We'd been friends, fast friends, inseparable friends, ever since we were three, though she'd never let me forget that she was older than I—by nine whole days, eleven whole hours, and twenty-six whole minutes. A few weeks before showing me that newspaper article, she'd even scolded me, for having a different opinion about one of our teachers than she, by saying, "The trouble with you young people today is that you don't respect your elders!" I usually gave as good as I got, but that had been a jaw dropper I hadn't had a reply for.
Once we were big enough to open doors by ourselves, we had treated both houses, and both yards—not to mention both sets of parents—as though they all belonged to both of us. I don't remember how our parents at first took our shared habit of barging into either house unannounced, whether accompanied by the other or not. Now it was just the way things were; we each even had a key to the other's house. Neither of us ever bothered to tell our parents when we were going next door; they knew exactly where to find us if the two of us weren't in their house and hadn't told them we were going somewhere else. I suppose we could have taken advantage of that, but we had never thought of doing so. For years, now, they had taken it for granted that each couple owned just a little more than half of their only child. But as compensation, they owned nearly half of the neighbor child.
Each of us had called the other's parents by their first names ever since we could remember—though I've been told that when I was really little I'd addressed Robin as "Lynne's Mom," Dennis as "Lynne's Dad," and, for a week or two, my own parents as "my Mom" and "my Dad." She called my folks "Al" and "Julie."
Lynne and I had played soccer on the same team in a City Park unisex league, together.
We'd learned what dirty words meant, and how to use them (as well as when not to), together.
When a bully had picked on either of us, we'd joined forces and kicked his ass, together.
When several bullies had ganged up on either of us, we'd joined forces and gotten our own asses kicked, together.
We'd gone to the same private schools, together. There, we took courses, together, and prepared for the same tests, together.
We'd gone to a local driving school and earned our driver's licenses, together.
We were both long distance runners on our high school's track team; and, even off-season, we panted and sweated through training runs, together.
If it was an important part of growing up, we had done it together. Hell, it's hard to think of even unimportant things we hadn't done together.
She's a girl and I'm a boy, so as kids we'd each thought that the other had a serious handicap on that account. We'd thought the other's sex a defect something like being blind, deaf, or lame. But we'd been able to overlook that, just as we would've overlooked blindness, deafness, or lameness in a friend.
Yeah, parents can't watch kids all the time, and we'd played the standard "I'll show you mine if…" game. We'd managed to avoid getting caught, and it had been sort of interesting. But we hadn't thought it was any big deal. The difference between boys and girls, we'd concluded, was just that they had different arrangements for taking a leak. For some unfathomable reason, boys weren't supposed to see girls' arrangement, and vice versa. We weren't sure what that was all about.
There were the cooties, of course. But by the time that other boys had told me that girls have them, she was such a good friend that I could ignore hers. (I knew that she didn't have to ignore mine, because boys don't have them.) Our close friendship, cooties notwithstanding, did mean that other kids thought we were a little bit weird. But they already thought us weird on account of our shared nerdiness. And what the other kids thought didn't bother either of us: we had each other.
Lynne and I talked about everything with each other. Our school had separated the boys and the girls for sex ed classes when we were pre-teens. At that age, we were old enough to get a grasp of the mechanics but young enough to be fundamentally uninterested in what they might mean for us. But Lynne and I talked about everything that those classes covered. After all, I had to be sure that Lynne hadn't learned something I hadn't. She felt the same way about what I had learned.
Even after we knew that there's more to The Difference than leak-taking equipment, we still talked about nearly everything. We would have talked about everything, but there just wasn't enough time for that! As we went through our high school years, we would have talked to each other about all of the nitty-gritty details of our love lives, if either of us had had one. But nerds don't have love lives, and there could be no doubt that we were nerds. Possibly even total geeks. Moreover, I was too shy, too afraid of girls; and Lynne was one of those smart girls who terrify so many boys.
We talked to each other about how much each of us wanted a love life. But it hadn't occurred to either of us that the other might be, or have, what we were looking for. We just didn't see each other that way—we were real friends, not a boy-girl couple! So neither of us happened to think that either set of parents might have objections to their 18-year-old's spending a night on the road with no company but an 18-year-old friend of the other sex.
And, as it turned out, none of them had any such concern. Neither Lynne's parents nor mine saw any reason why we shouldn't do what we had in mind, provided that we gave them some evidence of having thought things through by producing a definite plan that they could approve or (preferably, we suspected) make us revise. (Or, I suppose, that would give them reason to rescind permission completely if it was too half-assed.) We spent an afternoon making one, and they approved it on the first try, with only minor adjustments.
We were high school seniors, about to be graduated. Our last final exams would be on the middle Friday of May. Then we would have three weeks with no classes before commencement ceremonies. We decided to take several days off after we were out of school, to relax and to prepare for this trip.