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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 1

Written by circes_cup :: [Sunday, 28 June 2015 15:53] Last updated by :: [Monday, 29 June 2015 09:28]

SYNOPSIS UP TO THIS POINT

Julia and Howard took a wrong turn in a Kentucky cave and tumbled out into an unknown wilderness. Food is scarce. Julia finds some fruit she can eat, but it soon makes her delirious. And Howard simply wretches the fruit back up. Starving and delirious, they need help. And eventually, they are rescued, but by whom?

DISCLAIMER

This story contains adult sexual content. If you are not of age to read this stuff, don’t. No resemblance between these characters and real people on Earth is implied or intended.


Julia awoke to the feel of a bed beneath her. She forced open her eyes and looked around the room. The fluorescent lights of a hospital ceiling glared back at her.

Relief flooded her nerves: the were saved. She found herself weeping a bit. They were going to be OK. The anxiety of the last few days came crashing down upon her. First there was the catastrophic stumble in the caves, during which she and her boyfriend careened clear down a steep mountain slope. Then there was waking up, stranded, in a strange wilderness. Then the hours and hours of walking to find civilization, with nothing to show for it but worsening physical condition for both of them. Then the growing sense of vertigo in Julia’s head due to all the strange fruit she was eating. And through it all, there was that strange sense that the wilderness seemed just a little bit off – colors and sounds and sights that were somehow familiar, but somehow alien to Julia as well.

Ha, Julia laughed to herself, looking back on it! She had almost convinced herself that they had landed in a parallel dimension or something. That is what your mind will do to you in the wilderness, I suppose, she chuckled to herself. But now, thank heavens, she was in a hospital room that was, by all appearances, normal. She was out of the woods-- literally.

Howard was not in the room. Instead, a hospital employee stood next to her, in hospital scrubs.

Julia tried to sit up, but the grogginess prevailed. “Doctor, where’s my boyfriend? Is he OK?”

“He’ll be fine,” the man replied. “And I’m not the doctor. I’ll get her for you now.” He leaned his head out of an opening and announced that the patient had come to.

The curtain was momentarily darkened by a large shadow before it separated to reveal the most enormous woman Julia had ever seen. From her reclining position, Julia found that she had to crane her neck backward in order to meet the woman’s eyes. She was perhaps seven-and-a-half feet tall, and proportionately as broad. She wore a full length white lab coat. Given her size, the coat made her look like a refrigerator, with arms and a head attached. Julia felt sorry for the woman. What female would want to be built so large?

“How are you feeling?” The doctor asked. She cradled a clipboard and jotted a few notes.

“Fine, I guess. I don’t remember much after passing out next to my boyfriend.”

“You overdosed on fruit from the Diana tree,” the doctor explained. “It contains toxins that overwhelm your system and force it into a coma. You were out for a week.”

“How’s my boyfriend? Is he ok?”

“Yes, I’m in charge of his care, too. He’s been admitted into the Men’s Wing. He was near starvation when they found you. He tried desperately to wake you, but no success. The fruit has that effect when consumed in large quantities.”

The mention of the fruit sent a pleasant shiver through Julia. “What was that stuff, anyway? When I was surviving off of that fruit, I felt … fantastic. I had more energy, was dropping weight, felt whole and content.”

The doctor laughed. “Of course you did. That’s why it’s sold in concentrate.”

“You mean, I can buy it in stores?”

The doctor laughed again. “Of course you can. It’s called Nourishment, honey. It’s only most popular packaged food of all time, the staple of every woman’s diet.”

Julia had never heard of this before, and her face must have shown it.

The doctor studied her for a moment. “You came from the caves, didn’t you?”

Julia nodded. “We fell and tumbled out.”

The doctor reached into the cabinet, extracted a white can, and popped the lid. The familiar, aroma of the fruit filled the room – much more intense than she had experienced in the forest.

The aroma sent another pleasant shiver through Julia. “So, would drinking the concentrate allow me to feel the way I did in the forest – more energy, more vitality?”

“That, and a lot more. To make the concentrate, the toxins are filtered out. Then fruit juice gets boiled away to produce a syrup-like liquid. It contains the equivalent of about 20 pieces of Diana fruit per one cup serving.”

“That must be pretty potent.”

The doctor let out a light chuckle. “Without Nourishment, I’d be weak and frail as a man.”

“I never thought of men as weak,” Julia mumbled.

“Have you ever lifted weights before? What’s the most that you can bench press? 200 pounds? 300 pounds?”

“It’s been a while,” Julia replied. “Maybe 75?”

The doctor laughed. But Julia must have expressed hurt on her face, because the woman’s tone instantly softened. “Nourishment will make you look something like this.” The woman held the panels of her coat apart for Julia’s inspection.

Underneath the coat, the women was wearing only cotton lace panties and a camisole that stopped just below the bust. But if the skimpiness of her attire was a surprise, that was nothing compared to the rest of the view. The woman’s body was unreal. As the doctor had suggested, not a scrap of flab was to be found. In its place was a stack of hard-edged, voluminous muscle. Calves as wide as grapefruits lead up to thighs resembling stone columns. Her abdominals were the size of apples, and Julia couldn’t even think of a piece of fruit to compare to the woman’s mammoth, firm breasts.

“I usually keep the coat on to avoid distracting the nurses, but since it’s just us ladies …” The doctor slid the jacket off her shoulders. Her biceps were so large that, even in their current resting position, Julia would just barely be able to get two hands around them. Her shoulders were generous layer cakes of muscle, topped by trapezius that sloped like the side of a mountain. Back home, if a college football player saw a body like this on the other side of the line of scrimmage, he could have been forgiven for pissing in his pants. And if it wasn’t for the sympathetic expression on the woman’s flawless, beautiful face, Julia too would have feared for her safety.

The sight was grotesque.

Something isn’t right here, Julia thought. Julia began to wonder exactly what sort of hospital she had landed in. With cans of this “Nourishment” around, it seemed more like a lab for a dietary supplement company than a true hospital.

“Nourishment is about more than just size,” the doctor continued, oblivious to her patient’s concern. She draped her coat over the chair and resumed her professional duties without seeming to care about her state of undress. “Without Nourishment, you’ll be susceptible to diseases carried by germs and viruses. You will get tired when you haven’t had enough sleep. Your skin will wrinkle with age.”

I feel like I’m in the middle of an infomercial, Julia thought.

“Sure you don’t want to try some?” the doctor asked, holding up a can.

Every cell in her body screamed YES. The fruit had made her feel so good! But Julia shook her head vigorously. “No, I want normal medical care, like I could get in any other normal hospital, not some sort of freakish supplement. And I want to go home.”

The doctor seemed hurt. “That may not be possible. I have a police officer that needs to speak with you.”

The curtain separated again, and another enormous woman entered through it. If the Doctor had been concerned that a show of skin would distract the men, this woman seemed to share no such compunction: a short-sleeved lycra top clung tight to everything they covered, and they left the abdomen bare. Hip-hugging “boy short” bottoms, also some some of lycra, seemed more suited for a trip to a beach than police work.

The body filling this undersized outfit was every bit the equal of the doctor’s: carved calves, expansive thighs, powerfully rounded abdominals, voluminous busts and generous, muscle-laden arms. Disgusting, Julia thought.

The officer was wearing a belt full of equipment, as police always seemed to do. And upon further examination, Julia saw that her taut garments were colored imperial blue and black – police colors – with a silver badge pinned to her top. Julia began to wonder if she had indeed been taken in by a cult.

The officer eyed her with concern. “Who did this to you?” she asked.

Julia glanced at her skin. The bruises were back. She had slept for a week, the doctor had said, which meant she hadn’t eaten the fruit for a week, too. “Nobody did it to me. I fell in the caves.”

“I’m not talking about the bumps and the bruises. I’m talking about this,” the officer waved her hand dismissively at the length of Julia’s body. “How you became so stunted?”

“She’s says she’s never heard of Nourishment,” the Doctor offered.

The officer didn’t believe it. “Where did they keep you your whole life, a dungeon?”

“She said she came from the caves,” the doctor offered.

I came from St. Louis, Julia thought. And I’m going back there as soon as I get out of the stupid hospital, out of this stupid room with the stupid doctor that doles out body building supplements like they are medication.

“Strange things happen in those caves,” the officer said. “Sometimes, people go into them and never return. Other times, people arrive, from … other places. Where were you born?”

“St. Louis, Missouri.”

The officer was taking notes now. “Can you spell that? L-O-U-I-S-E?”

“No, it’s Louis. It’s a man’s name.” Julia felt a growing sense of unease.

“A city named after a man?” The officer seemed baffled. “And you said that was where? Can you spell the state?”

“M-I-S-S-O-U-R-I” Something really, really wasn’t right here.

“And what country is that in?” the officer asked kindly.

Julia assessed the officer’s arms, packed with more muscle than most bodybuilders dared dream about. The rest of the officer’s body, Julia knew, had similar proportions, as did the other woman visiting her. It didn’t make sense. As she looked into the sympathetic eyes of the officer, a renewed terror began to gnaw at her gut. She finally responded, “Missouri – it’s in the United States of America.”

“And how is that spelled?”

Julia screamed.

“We may need to keep you in custody for a while,” the cop said. “You seem to be in a state of crisis.”

That was when Julia stopped screaming, and started running.

-----

After she screamed, she ran. Julia ran right past the confused cop, down the serpentine hospital corridors, through the first door she found, and out into the open air.

The city streets were full of people: men only the size of her boyfriend, but women as big as the doctor. Huge, frightening piles of muscle, the women turned toward Julia with quizzical expressions on their faces, as if they were viewing a circus sideshow oddity. The men were equally confused, but handled it differently. They looked up to the women and drew closer to them, as if seeking protection or guidance.

The attention made Julia want to scream all over again. I have to find Howard, she exhorted herself. He will know what to do. She bolted down the block.

The street signs were in a foreign language. More confused stares turned her direction. Two hulking women pointed at her and began speaking in elevated voices. She had to get out of here.

Julia ran again, harder. She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t even keep track.

Another block went by, and another. There was shouting behind her. She looked. It was the cop, three hundred yards away, asking bystanders where Julia had gone.

Julia bolted down an alleyway. The sound of her panting filled the space. After only fifteen or twenty paces, she saw a darkening of the alley behind her. The cop had run three hundred yards in only a few seconds!

Julia came across a tiny, intersecting alley and darted down it. The alley was too narrow for the cop. Maybe it would buy her a few seconds. I have to do something, she urged herself. I have to get away!

Julia’s whole body ached from the exertion. A week without fruit had diminished her: she was just as overweight and easily winded as always. Julia burst out of the narrow alleyway onto the open street again. Without breaking her stride, she turned to see whether her pursuers had emerged. They hadn’t. She ran.

Then, WHAM. Julia collided with something hard, like a rock wall. Her entire body contorted with agony as flesh and bone crushed themselves against the unyielding mass. She collapsed to the ground.

Panting, she opened her eyes. High heels – those were the only things in her field of view. A woman, Julia realized. I slammed into a woman. And she had felt like rock.

Julia felt herself being hoisted by her armpits. It was indeed a woman, perhaps 27 years old, the usual enormous build. Her face was striking: high cheek bones, dirty blond hair, well tanned skin. Her eyes were sage in both senses: green, and wise.

Fear gripped Julia. She kicked her feet for purchase, but found them suspended in mid air. The woman was holding her up for examination, arms fully extended. The muscles of the woman’s arms were large as loaves of bread. What’s more, they were fully relaxed. That sent a new wave of fear over Julia. Even a strong person would need to show some exertion at holding a 160-pound object at arm’s length, wouldn’t they? Were these women human beings, or monsters?

“Are you OK?” the woman asked, gently.

“Pl … please. I need help. I’m not from here. I’m from Earth.”

The woman looked confused. “Where’s that?”

“It home,” Julia sobbed. “And that’s all I want – to go home, to find my boyfriend and go home.”

“You poor thing. You look terrified.”

“I’m so scared. The police want to arrest me.”

“Not arrest,” a voice behind her said. It was the cop, who apparently had caught up. “We just want her in custody of an adult woman, someone who can protect her while her situation is … resolved.”

Julia felt her legs swing below her as the woman turned to face the cop. The woman continued to hold Julia aloft without a scrap of effort, it appeared.

The pause in the conversation gave Julia a chance to assess the woman who held her. She wore an ivory linen top with suit-like lapels and buttons down the middle, as well as matching ivory linen pants. The outfit would have been appropriate for any office, had it not been for hem of the top, which stopped just below the breasts. It left the entirety of her midriff on display. The expanse of skin in the middle was a hilly terrain of baseball-sized abdominal muscles.

The contrast to Julia’s own body couldn’t have been greater. Having been off the fruit during the week of her slumber, her body’s shape and condition had deteriorated to their previous rotund state. She was terribly winded from the short run. Her feet and legs and other parts besides all ached with exhaustion.

The woman appeared to consider the police officer’s statement. “I can take her in. And her boyfriend, too.”

-----

From there, things took a slight turn for the better. The woman, who’s name turned out to be Ruth, accompanied Julia and the police officer back to the hospital. Julia would be discharged the proper way this time – not by running down the corridor screaming, but by filling out paperwork.

Julia followed the doctor back into the examination room. She signed a form titled “Consent for Release Into Care of Adult Woman.”

As she did so, Julia found herself eying the white can of Nourishment sitting on the countertop. I just found out that I am marooned in some weird alternate world, Julia thought. How can I possibly be thinking about the fruit?

And yet, the inviting aroma of the yellow fruit wrapped itself around her. Her body yearned for it. “Do all your patients take Nourishment?”

“All the women do,” the doctor replied. “The men are not compatible with it.” The doctor turned to jot some notes, still clothed only in panties and camisole. She seemed oblivious to the impropriety of it.

Julia looked over doctor’s otherworldly backside-- glutes shaped like volleyballs, thighs as thick as telephone poles. All those muscles – they were so manly, so distasteful. To think a woman would look like that – it made her cringe.

“I would recommend about twenty five gallons as an initial dose. That’s the equivalent of about 8,000 pieces of the raw fruit.”

“But I don’t want to be that big. And those muscles – no, I would never want to look like that,” Julia blurted.

The doctor turned. She had a look of surprise on her face.

“I’m sorry,” Julia offered. “I just want to feel like I did in the woods-- a little thinner, a little more energetic. Maybe I’ll just go back to eating the whole fruit.”

“No you won’t. The whole fruit contains toxins that cause vertigo, and eventually, a coma. That’s what happened to you in the woods. And now that you’ve experienced that condition, it will be quicker to return. You need to stick to the concentrate, which has the toxins filtered out.”

“But if I drink the concentrate in the quantities that you do, I’ll get huge. Maybe I’ll sip just a little bit.”

The doctor shook her head. “No one just sips it. The fruit is highly addictive-- about sixteen times the addictiveness of heroin. You’ve probably already felt the cravings.”

Julia’s every muscle, every bone, shuddered in agreement.

“Take a few sips now and you’ll soon find yourself finishing the can. And then asking for another. And another after that. You won’t stop until you’re fully Nourished. That’s the beauty of it: once you start, you develop natural cravings to ensure that you finish your transformation – to this.” The doctor waved a hand over the frightening expanse of her body.

Julia grimaced. “So, it’s all or nothing. Either I abstain entirely, and look like this …” she grabbed a roll of fat in her hand “… or wind up guzzling the concentrate and wind up looking like that.” She eyed the doctor’s massiveness.

The doctor nodded her head, inch-thick cords of neck muscle writhing across her shoulders. The sight made Julia queasy. “It’s your choice, but as a medical professional, I’d recommend you consider it taking the Nourishment. More than 99.99 percent of the women here do.”

“Well, I’m not in the 99. I’m going to abstain.”

“I see,” the doctor replied. “It’s available over-the-counter, so you can always change or mind.”

“I won’t,” Julia steeled her will. “I just want to find a way home.”

“Well, then I have some good news for you.” The doctor parted the curtains. In walked the police officer and Ruth, the woman who volunteered to take her in.

The police officer spoke first. “Please don’t ever, ever wander out into the streets un-Nourished and unsupervised. There are very few laws protecting women from abduction or abuse: most women simply don’t need them. That was the reason we considered enforcing a custodial detainer on you. But since Ruth here is willing to take responsibility for you, my sergeant is ok letting you go. Just be sure to stay close to Ruth and any other women in her household, while you are here.”

“Speaking of which,” Ruth interjected, “You can leave for your home as soon as you are ready. There’s an entrance to the caves in a state park, just a few hundred yards up from the parking lot. My daughter can drive you there tomorrow, if like. And in the meantime, I had my personal assistant cancel a vacation day to take your gear to an outfitter. We should have it all repaired by tomorrow.”

A deep wave of relief washed over Julia. She found herself crying – tears of blissful relief – even as she tried to speak. “Th … thank you, Ruth. I hate to cause you all this trouble. Your personal assistant – please extend her my apologies for ruining her vacation day.”

Ruth laughed. “He won’t mind. He’s just thankful to have a job.”

-----

The remainder of the discharge went by in a happy blur. Julia had to sign a Nourishment Non-Consumption Consent Form, in triplicate. The doctor announced that she was also in charge of Howard’s care, and she volunteered to take Julia to him. Her heart leapt at the knowledge that she would be reunited with him in only minutes, and leapt further at the knowledge that they would soon be going home.

As the doctor led Julia to the Men’s Wing, they passed other patients in the hospital. The women and teenaged girls – every single one of them – were enormous, simply rippling with muscle. The men, sized normally, seemed likes dwarfs next to them. It was like a sideshow at the circus.

Julia also found herself looking at photos on the walls – the employee holiday party, the recent Patient Appreciation Night. There was a picture of a doctor, standing all of seven feet tall, hugging two of her male nurses, one in each arm. Her arms were wider than the men’s thighs. And, Julia noticed belatedly, the men’s feet were not on the ground. In her double bear hug, she was holding them aloft with no visible strain on her face.

The men had wide, silly expressions on their faces. Being overpowered like this wasn’t frightening for these these men, Julia realized. This absurd mis-match of power – here, it was normal.

-----

As luck would have it, the doctor had several priority patients to address before she could see Howard. That gave Julia a chance to visit him first, alone.

The visit was not a jubilant as Julia had hoped. Since he had awoken, only male nurses had visited, and Howard seemed still under the impression that they were back on earth.

“Are you making some kind of joke?” Howard asked, as Julia finished her explanation.

“No, I’m serious. It’s a different world. But there’s some good news, too. A family has offered to take us in. They are going to get our gear repaired. And they know an entrance to the caves, easy to access. We can get driven there tomorrow. They’ll even give us food for our journey back to our home world.”

Howard chuckled. “Did you hit your head in the fall?”

“Nope. Clean bill of health. They had to flush the toxins from the fruit out of my system, but no other injuries. I’ve been discharged already.”

“I see,” he replied. But his tone told her he didn’t.

Julia pursed her lips as Howard’s eyes wandered the empty hospital room. Didn’t he notice that things seemed a little bit different here, that the language on the signs and the labels was entirely foreign? “Howard, there’s something else.” Julia hesitated, reluctant. “The women here – they are all seven or eight feet tall. And covered in huge muscles.”

The smile disappeared from Howard’s face. “It’s no longer a question in my mind. You really did hit your head in the fall.”

“Howard, the doctor said I was fine – the 300-pound, female doctor, who was built like an ox.”

He looked at her head. “They must have missed something. You mentioned the toxins in the fruit. Do they have a hallucinatory effect?” He paused, concerned. “I knew I never should have let you eat it.”

“Honey, my head is totally fine. I know what I saw out there in the hallways. I’m just trying to prepare you so that you don’t make a scene when one of these women walks into the room. They’re huge and scary and gross. Just be ready for that.”

But Howard wasn’t listening. He had hoisted himself out of bed and was in the middle of another objection when the door swung open.

On the other side stood the doctor – seven-and-a-half feet of large, densely packed muscle lurked between the open panels of a white doctor’s jacket. Howard gasped and took a step back in shock. The doctor didn’t seem to notice.

“Well, aren’t YOU feeling a little bit better, young man!” The doctor smiled, grabbing him by the armpits and depositing him on the hospital bed. The bed was a massive, sturdy contraption, with motors for raising and lowering the head and feet. A half-dozen large pieces of equipment were attached to the bed, some as large as a picnic cooler. “Let’s get you into the light where I can see you a little bit better.”

The doctor grabbed two handholds on the bed and hoisted it – occupant, equipment and all – in a smooth bicep curl. She walked it toward the window.

Julia watched her with wide eyes. Like every woman in this world, this one’s size was grotesque and frightening. But at the same time, she was very sweet: a pleasant disposition and that easy confidence that must only come with … power. I don’t want to look like that, Julia promised herself. I would never want to look like that. But there was something about the way this doctor carried herself – so self-assured …

Howard was reeling. “How … how much weight is that, Doctor?”

The doctor stopped in mid-stride and gave him a thoughtful glance. “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell with the lighter weights.” She raised the bed, with its large stack of equipment, up and down several times. Her biceps expanded only slightly with the effort, their motion slow and controlled. “Six hundred, maybe eight hundred pounds?”

Howard’s voice was almost a stutter. “N … n … no … no …”

“Is he ok?” the doctor asked, bed and man still suspended in front of her.

“Honey, don’t be intimidated by her. She’s really nice.”

The doctor finished placing the bed by the window. “That’s right. I’m not even that strong anymore,” she laughed. Slipping out of one of her sleeves, the doctor flexed a bicep. The lines of her upper arm hardened and widened, its muscle ballooning into the size of a small watermelon. The doctor ran her free hand over its massiveness. “Only twenty inches around,” she explained. “You should have seen what it looked like when I used to work out.”

A soft THUD emanated from the bed. “Oh no,” the doctor said, perplexed. “Your boyfriend seems to have passed out.”

-----

“I’m so glad you’re ok,” Ruth said. She had been waiting in the reception area. “And you must be Howard,” Ruth said.

“Howard’s a little catatonic right now. They pumped him with anti-anxiety medication after a fainting spell.”

“As they always say, it’s the weakness that makes men so adorable. And this is my daughter, Mindy.”

Julia turned to find a six-foot-tall, bored-looking teenager sitting in a reception room chair. She sported a plaid, flannel shirt that had been tied in a simple knot. Panels of cloth that would normally have covered the entirety of a man’s chest seemed challenged to cover just the girl’s enormous breasts. A dark chasm of cleavage plunged downward toward the knot, and below it, intimidating balls of abdominal muscle were on full display. Voluminous thigh muscles exploded out of a small pair of jean shorts.

“Come over and say hello to our house guests,” Ruth instructed.

“OK, mom,” the kid groaned.

Mom, Julia thought. The daughter appeared to be eighteen years old, and Ruth appeared to be all of twenty-six. However, upon further examination, Julia was reminded of the sageness and maturity in the woman’s eyes. Maybe Ruth really is the girl’s mom, Julia thought. Maybe the Nourishment slows aging.

The girl had taken several of the hard candies from the reception desk and had balanced them on her own well defined abdominals. The girl stood up gingerly, her eyes on her midriff the entire time. She flexed her abdominals, further defining the muscles, turning them into little shelves that held the candies steady until she was nearly vertical.

“Knock it off, Mindy,” the mother scolded.

“Fine,” the girl groaned, relaxing her stomach in and allowing the candies to tumble away, into her hands. Mindy offered one of the treats to Julia. “You want one?”

Julia accepted the gift and rolled it over her hand. The candy was silvery and shiny.

“She can’t eat those, Mindy,” the mother chided, taking the candy away from Julia and putting it back in the bowl. “They’re cherries,” Ruth explained to Julia. “Dipped in stainless steel. Helps preserve the freshness.”

“So? She can just spit the steel part out. She doesn’t have to SWALLOW it.” The girl popped one more in her mouth and closed her jaws with a CRUNCH. The steel seemed to be giving her no more trouble than bubble gum. It must be a very thin coat of metal, Julia concluded.

The doctor pulled the hood of a windbreaker over Julia’s head and cinched it tight. “You and your boyfriend are free to go. Good luck to you. I hope you find your way.”

-----

Julia thought about loosing her windbreaker hood, but decided against it. The doctor must have cinched it for a reason.

As they left the building, true to her word, Mindy pursed her lips and blew the steel out. It made a POW sound as it left her mouth. Thirty yards away, the bark on a tree splintered.

“Mindy, how many times have I told you not to do that?” her mother scolded. It’s terrible for the trees.”

“You never let me do ANYTHING,” the girl retorted.

I didn’t see that correctly, Julia promised herself as she followed the two enormous women to the parking lot. Nobody can eject something from their mouth with that much force, in any world.

Having been off the fruit for a week now, Julia’s old aches and pains had resurfaced. Her ankle still hurt like hell, and she found herself limping even as she forced herself to keep up.

They passed other families who were on their way into the building. Julia began to feel eyes on her, and realized belatedly that she was the subject of confused stares. The stares weren’t coming from one person. They were coming from everyone.

“Mom,” she heard a teenaged girl ask. “Why is that woman so small? Did somebody do something to her?”

Julia turned in time to see the enormous mother slap a hand over her daughter’s mouth. “This is a hospital, young lady. There are lots of sick people in there. It’s not polite to stare.”

“But why is she walking funny?” the girl asked.

“She could be injured,” the mother whispered.

“What’s an INJURY, Mom?”

“Quiet, honey,” her mother responded. “It’s something that happens to men sometimes.”

“But why did it happen to HER?” she demanded.

“I don’t know, honey.” The mother shrugged in resignation. “I don’t know.”

Julia averted her eyes from the pair and limped on, ignoring the pain in her ankle. Bright afternoon light beat down on her black windbreaker, still cinched at the hood.

Julia suddenly figured out the purpose of the windbreaker. It’s not the weather that this thing is protecting me from. It’s the embarrassment.

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