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Mark and Nicole agree to meet mutual friends for an easy hike and a bit of camping, but when signals get crossed and Mark gets hurt, they find themselves alone in the woods.

*****

When she got back to the fire, the packets were sizzling in the coals and Mark had rigged up two sticks with a rubber band to use as tongs to get them out of the fire. He pulled them out and put them on one of the big stones ringing the fire and Nicole settled the pot down into the coals and covered it. She tore the hot packets open and filled their plates with steaming hot, buttery potatoes and nicely roasted veggies and they settled into the grass to eat.

Between bites, Mark asked, “So, where did you learn all of this?” He made a sweeping gesture with his fork.

Nicole swallowed. “Boy Scouts.” Mark made a face at her. “Seriously. I have five brothers and they were all scouts. So my family spent a lot of time camping.”

“That would explain it.”

“That and two of my brothers and I own a chain of stores that sell mountaineering, hiking, camping, and all sorts of other outdoorsy adventure gear. And I write a column for a major hiking magazine. I told you wasn’t kidding when I said it’s what I do. I hike and camp for a living.”

“Wow,” was all Mark could manage.

Nicole swallowed a mouthful of hot potatoes. “And not for nothing, but I tie a hell of a knot and can paddle the shit out a kayak, too,” she added.

“I’ll have to remember that if I ever need to be tied up and paddled,” he said, flashing her a wry grin.

Nicole smiled back. “A few hours ago I would have happily pegged you out with my spare tent stakes. Mind you, I’d have staked you to the top of an anthill…”

Mark raised an eyebrow. “Should I be worried now?”

“No. Well, not about the anthill anyway.” She smiled coquettishly and licked butter from her fingers.

“Naughty…”

“Oh, you have no idea.” She winked, and instantly regretted doing it, feeling like a badly drawn character in a cheap porn novel. She pulled out a couple of mugs and a couple of tea bags from her food supplies and adding boiling water from the camp pot she set them to steep. She quickly went about cleaning up the supper things, rinsing them with the rest of the hot water from the camp pot and stowed them carefully in the food bag. She took the bag to the edge of the clearing and looked for a tree with a likely branch. Finding one that would work she attempted to throw the rope over the branch and missed twice. Mark was suddenly behind her.

“Let me,” he said, and they both caught that sweet bit of warmth as his fingers brushed hers when he took the rope from her. Deftly he coiled the rope into a tight ball and with a flick of his wrist sent it sailing up over the branch and unraveling neatly to the ground. “I told you,” he said. “Softball. Second base.”

She left him to hoist the food supplies out of the reach of bears, raccoons, and other scavenging critters and picked her way through the underbrush to collect a few more branches for their fire.

The sun was setting in the western sky. Beyond the trees, the sky was turning a deeper blue and the high, thin clouds were tinting the sky with shade of scarlet and deep violets. The air was turning cooler and Nicole felt goosebumps rising on her arms. “It’s going to be chilly tonight,” she said. “Did you bring any warmer clothes?”

Mark hooked his backpack with his cane and pulled it to him. “I have sweats and a fleece jacket and a long-sleeved shirt. Between that and my sleeping bag I should be okay, I think.” He reached in and pulled out a couple of books. “And if all else fails I’ve got Thoreau to read while I die of hypothermia. Then my obituary can say, ‘In an ironic twist of fate, he expired on the side of a God-forsaken mountain, a copy of Walden clutched in his frozen fist’.”

“You realize the odds of freezing to death in July this far below the treeline are pretty small, right? And please tell me that you were just being ironic in choosing to read Walden on a camping trip. Please. I beg you,” she said laughing.

“Oh, it would be totally douchey otherwise, wouldn’t it?” He pretended to shudder. “Actually, I teach high school English—literature, mostly—and before I fell halfway down a mountain I actually thought it would be interesting to read Thoreau out in the woods, and maybe journal some of my own thoughts about nature as a creative exercise to share with my classes.”

Nicole groaned. “I could never sit still for stuff like that.”

“Stuff like what?” he asked. “Reading?”

“No, not reading. I love to read. And I love to write. But all the analysis and ‘what did the author mean here’ and ‘what is the theme’. It takes all the fun out of a good book. And don’t even get me started on poetry.”

“You don’t care for poetry?”

“I just don’t get it. It’s too flowery and metaphorical and just seems unnatural.”

“I bet you just didn’t have the right poetry teacher,” Mark suggested.

“Maybe you could enlighten me sometime. Here,” she said, sitting up at attention like a schoolgirl at a desk. “Teach me. Tell me what thoughts you’ve come up with so far about your experiences in the woods.”

He laughed. “I went to the woods to live deliberately, only to discover that Henry David Thoreau and I have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever. Nature is a mean bitch,” he finished definitively. Nicole threw her head back and laughed, and Mark laughed with her. “You have a great laugh,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling a wool shirt over her arms and doing up the buttons. She unrolled his sleeping bag and spread it out on the ground, and after helping Mark to settle down on it, took her cup of tea and handed the other mug to Mark. “I suppose it’s easy to think of Nature as a bitch before you get to know her,” she replied pointedly, sitting close to him on the soft down blanket.

“So you’re saying that if I relax and get to know Nature more intimately I’ll learn to appreciate her softer side?”

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable Nature is when you stop fighting her and let yourself enjoy her just as she is. Follow her rhythms instead of forcing your own on her.”

“I see how that could be enjoyable,” he conceded.

“Oh, it’s very enjoyable. Before you know it, you and Nature have become one and you’re sleeping like a baby in her arms.”

“I think I could learn to like that,” he said. “But isn’t Nature unpredictable? What if she rejects me as unworthy?”

Nicole thought for a second. “It’s true, lots of men never learn to appreciate Nature for what she is. Can you appreciate Nature not just for her beauty but for her strength and resilience as well? Can you respect the wildness of her and not try to own her?”

“I can,” Mark said. “Appreciate her, I mean. I do appreciate her…now. Or I’m learning to. I didn’t this morning, but when you explain it like this, I think I have a deeper appreciation for Nature than I ever have.”

“Then I’d say things look promising for you and Nature,” she said, setting her mug of tea down near the fire and taking Mark’s from him. “If you’re being truly honest about what you can accept and appreciate and aren’t just saying that you do in order to get into Nature’s panties.” She leaned in to him and brushed her lips against his cheek. “My metaphor fell apart at the end there,” she whispered into his ear, “but I think you catch my meaning.”

He raised his hands to her face and brushed the hair from her cheeks. ” ‘True beauty dwells in deep retreats’,” he said and looked into her steel blue eyes where the flames of the campfire reflected and danced. She pressed her lips to his, softly, slipping her arms around his neck and pulling them both down onto the ground.

She released his lips long enough to murmur the inquiry, “Thoreau?”

“Wordsworth,” he replied, depositing a line of kisses along her jaw line and down her throat. She tipped her head back as his lips found her collarbone and he unbuttoned her shirt as he spoke. ” ‘True beauty dwells in deep retreats’,” he repeated, undoing the first button of her shirt. His fingers manipulated the second button as he continued, ” ‘Whose veil is unremoved’.” The third and fourth buttons gave way as he nuzzled closer to her neck and spoke, his breath warm against her skin, “‘Til heart with heart in concord beats’,” his hand skimming lightly over her breasts as her shirt fell open, her nipples hardening at his gentle touch. He whispered in her ear, ” ‘And the lover is beloved.’ ”

*****

“Walden” is published in its entirety in Seven Nights and is available for the Kindle, Nook, or in Paperback.

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