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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 12 (REVISED)

Written by circes_cup :: [Sunday, 12 February 2017 14:40] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 12 February 2017 17:22]

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CHAPTER 12 – REVISED

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SYNOPSIS TO THIS POINT:

A wrong turn in a Kentucky cave landed Howard and Julia in an alien world – a world run by amazon women whose supernatural strength was derived for a mysterious drink called Nourishment. What’s worse, they were stranded, the return route unknown.

To their good fortune, a local family took them in. Headed by the mother, Ruth, the household of their hosts also consisted of Mindy, the elder daughter; Becky, the younger daughter; Ruth’s husband, Bob, and son, Roddie.

Despite the hospitality, their first days in the new world were rocky. Mindy’s friend Amanda, in keeping with local custom, Borrowed Howard for a romantic night on the beach – the infidelity of which did understandable damage to their relationship. Worse, an attempted return through the caves ended in disappointment as it became clear that the return route could not be improvised. Amanda, somehow aware that she had harmed the couple through their romantic dalliance, made a point of saving them from certain death in the caves.

Despite the power of these women, Julia found their bodies disgusting, and she happily promised Howard that she would avoid the Nourishment drink. But the seemingly endless advantages of the Nourished life wore away Julia’s resistance, and she soon found the mysterious substance on her lips.

The transformation was quick: it was only the next day that Julia was joining Mindy on a hundred-mile-an-hour run to the beach. Another kind of transformation, too, was just as rapid: Julia was beginning to look, and feel, like a local. Before they even made it to the beach, Mindy was helping her new friend pick out a swimsuit for her new body, the fitting of which resulted in the destruction of a pendant that symbolized for Julia the relationship she and Howard had built.

She tried to reassure Howard – reassure him that she was still committed to returning to Earth, that there were advantages to having a super-strong girlfriend for that return trip. But Howard grew increasingly distressed at what Julia had done – and also what she could now do. A swim lesson that should have been a chance for Howard to rebuild his confidence ended up only humiliating him further.

Julia suspected the only way to mend fences with Howard was to find the route home. So, she did.

Howard was elated, and he wanted to leave for home immediately. But analyzing the cave system wasn’t the only activity in which Julia was engaged. She and Ruth had met a group of fun guys during a morning swim, and planned a party on the beach with them the very night that Julia had identified the way home. Julia insisted on attending the party, as a courtesy to Ruth and a treat for herself.

But things did not go as planned. The party became only a reminder of how much fun Julia would be leaving behind. What was worse, her overactive hormones landed her in the arms of another man, Benjamin. He did not find her enhanced musculature unattractive, and he was a hell of a lover. Julia began to realize that she didn’t want to leave this world just yet – not after all the pleasure it brought, and not after such a short stay.

Ruth tried to teach Julia the ways of men and women in this world, the Dance that can keep both sexes happy – even as the power is held by only one. However, to the extent any of Ruth’s advice sank in, Julia did a horrible job using it: when she informed Howard that they would be staying a bit longer, Howard only tried to run away, and Julia found herself wrapping him In an iron bar to ensure that he stuck around. That night ended with more partying for Julia.

But when she came back for her boyfriend, the bar and Howard were nowhere to be found.

WARNING

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.

==================

Think, Howard! Think!

He couldn’t. Emotion overwhelmed him as he watched his girlfriend’s hulking form recede into the coastal haze. The disappointment was almost too much to bear. His breaths came in deep gulps, each spasm of his ribcage digging the iron bar more painfully into his side.

Acting purely on instinct, Howard found himself suddenly fighting for his freedom. He thrust his torso forward, testing the firmness of the drainpipe to which the bar was attached. His chest smarted in pain, but wait – yes, there was a little bit of give.

UUUGGHGGGHH. Howard slammed his torso forward again, and felt the pipe give a little bit more. UUGGGH. After several more tries, POP. He felt the thing give way. With his feet tucked beneath his butt, Howard slowly lifted himself up, wiggling back and forth until he was finally free of the pipe. The bar was still wrapped around him, of course, a straight-jacket effect that kept his upper arms pinned to his sides. But he could deal with that later, after getting away from the house.

Propping his face against the side of the shed for balance, Howard slowly struggled to his feet. With a kneeling motion, he got his hand low enough to grab his caving bag, full of gear.

Then, Howard ran, as fast as he could. A few miles, that was all he needed – just get out of sight long enough to get the damn bar off of him and make a plan. What sort of plan? He had no idea. He would improvise. He would do whatever he needed to get away from the women who wanted to subordinate him, to rob him of his old life.

With the bar pinning his arms to his sides, running was more complicated than Howard had expected. He couldn’t move his arms up and down, as a runner normally would. And without the stabilizing effect of that motion, his torso jerked back and forth with every stride. He fell more than once, slamming into the earth with without the use of his arms to brace against the impact, and then having to struggle back to his feet. Only the swamp heard his grunts of pain.

But he was free, the master of his own fate, Howard told himself. And there was no other way to live, was there?

==================

“Think, Julia! Think!” she hissed to herself as she once again surveyed the environs of the broken drainpipe.

Howard was gone. Not in the house, not on the beach – he had fled the area entirely.

What the hell got into me, Julia wondered as she surveyed the horizon with telescopic vision? How did I become so brash, so harsh with him? How did I so easily slip into cheating on the man I love?

Julia stopped in the house only long enough to trade the fragile bikini of the prior night for an elastic tank top and beige denim shorts. Their sturdy cotton was a better match for the rigors of a search for Howard.

As the pink hues of dawn crept over the horizon, she set off on a brisk walk along the road behind beach houses, looking and listening for any sign of him. Each house was complemented by a large rack on which hung sea kayaks, ladies’ swimming fins, and late-model cars. Some houses were pulled closer to the water, but some were sitting on their permanent footings further inland, unoccupied for the weekend. Those empty houses offered plenty of places for Howard to hide.

But something – an instinct, perhaps – told her that Howard wasn’t here. Her feet wanted to follow the off-road trails, ones that lead further inland.

And so she did. The fresh and salty smell of the ocean gave away to the dankness a swamp. The WHOOSH-WHOOSH of the waves receded behind her and was replaced by a chorus of insect noises. There were houses here, too. But the structures were smaller and older. On some, the paint had peeled. On others, a tarp had been spread across a faulty roof, or cardboard had been inserted where window glass had been. Cars – mostly decrepit – rested not on racks but on their wheels. This is where men live, Julia knew – men who don’t have a woman to provide for them.

Howard must fear this, she realized. He gets stuck in this world. Maybe I grow tired of him. His income potential is nothing near a woman’s. And then this is where he winds up. The realization sent a chill through her.

================

As Julia walked, the path thinned and at times even disappeared. Large clouds of vapor issued from the water wherever it was touched by the rising sun, creating a thick grey screen to her left and her right.

You mistreated him, Julia accused herself. You took advantage of your power. And you’re alone now. She called out to Howard, repeatedly, for an hour. But her voice was swallowed up by the thick, grey air. Occasionally, a bird would call out at her approach, its voice quickly swallowed up by the grey muck. The birds eyed her warily. Julia couldn’t help but see a glint of accusation in their stare.

Beyond the cries of swamp birds, Julia heard something else as well. It was more mechanical, like an engine repeatedly revving. It seemed to be coming from just around the next bend in the path, but when Julia arrived, nothing was there.

Your supersensitive hearing is playing tricks on you, Julia realized. She picked up her pace, her long female stride covering ground so fast that a male would have had to jog to keep up. Two miles later, the source of the noise finally revealed itself: a pickup truck, stuck deep in the mud. The truck’s heavy duty tires sprayed a shower of mud skyward as they spun. A large winch on the front of the vehicle was also in motion, its cable wrapped around a large tree. The winch produced a pathetic whine.

Julia approached the open driver’s-side window. “Are you stuck?”

He was older, and dirtied with mud, but there was a serene beauty to the man, too. His eyes were glacial lakes – pure blue water reaching to untold depths. Julia felt an involuntary warmth inside when she looked at him.

His expression was originally of surprise, followed by something else. Recognition? Julia couldn’t be sure.

“Yes indeed.” He cut the engine.

“Is a tow truck on the way?” she asked.

“No, the tow trucks take forever out here. They prefer the beach neighborhoods, where the women give fat allowances to their men. Those men tip twice as much as I.”

“Can I help?”

“Of course. No sane man would refuse a woman’s help.”

Howard would, Julia thought. Howard would say no out of pride. He would try to figure it out himself.

She circled the truck. The front tires, the front bumper, even half of the front grill were buried in the muck. Julia thrust her hand downward into the brown goo, searching with her fingers for the undercarriage handle built specifically for a woman’s hand.

“And you? Been a long time since I’ve seen a woman so deep into the swamp. Are you lost?”

Julia supposed that the literal answer was ‘no’. She had counted 3,798 strides on her walk in here. She could remember the route back with unbelievable precision – every tree, every rise and fall and twist of the trail. But Howard had left her, and would he ever come back? In that way, that deeper way, she felt more lost than ever. And she said as much with a nod of her head.

“Being lost can be good. It’s how we discover the places we’ve always wanted to be, but have never known they existed.”

=================

After a solid hour of running, Howard could feel his right foot shifting inside his boot. He stopped at a pile of rocks to check it out.

As his lungs billowed for air, he took in his surroundings. The grey fog of the swamp had closed around all the trees, thick fingers of dampness combining into a single grim fist. Howard could barely perceive where he was going, or where he had come from. Normally, he would have been diligent about noting and marking his path. But his state of mind today was anything but normal. Did he come from between those two trees? Or from the right of the other one? He couldn’t remember.

The rock on which he sat was located on the edge of a pool of water. The air was made heavy by thick, grey clouds of vapor. They carried the dank smell of standing water.

He examined his boot. The shoelace had snapped. Out here, that would normally be a problem – a huge one. Nothing in the wilderness could substitute for a shoe lace, and walking more than a mile or two without a shoe was out of the question.

But Howard was prepared. He congratulated himself silently as he opened his pack.

His arms constrained by the bar, rifling through the pack was no easy feat. Several times he almost spilled the contents entirely. Once he found it, Howard balanced the shoelace on his thigh as he struggled to close the zipper.

THWIP. The shoelace slid off his thigh and fell into the pile of rocks. He watched it skitter and slide until it settled near the bottom.

Oh no, he thought. Howard set the pack on the ground and got down on his knees, the wetness of the dirt soaking his kneecaps. He would have to move a rock the size of a beach ball to get at the shoelace.

Howard applied himself to the task as an UUGGGGH escaped his lungs. The rock didn’t budge.

Julia could lift this thing, he admitted. And that was humiliating. He threw himself into it again, the awkwardness of his arms only adding to the challenge. UUUGGH, he screamed.

It went nowhere.

Five more times he tried. The moisture on his cheeks could have been condensation of the wet air, or sweat. He wasn’t sure. He was failing.

He threw himself into the rock, heaving his arms and his body against it. Still, it did not budge. Howard realized that he might just be too weak.

================

Julia realized that she might just be too strong. The truck weighed only a few tons, and it would be easy to tear the thing apart as she tried to raise it. Her fingers now wrapped around the truck’s carrying handle, she directed her supernaturally enhanced bicep to increase the force by just five hundred pounds at a time until the truck began to shift upward.

The vehicle’s emergence from its muddy trap was announced with a loud SLURP as the wet earth slopped off. Julia used her spare hand to reorient the object so that it rested vertically, nose down, on her left hand. Where even the winch had failed, her muscles succeeded easily. And the truck – it felt so light in her hand! She almost had to remind herself that, for a man, a truck was an impossible weight.

“Where would you like it?” she asked.

“I was thinking you could put it over there, in the other pool of mud. It likes variety.”

Julia laughed. He isn’t intimidated, she thought.

“On the ground is fine.”

She looked at the dirt road ahead. It was unusually wet. There was perhaps enough dry ground for people to walk, but getting a truck down it would mean another encounter with the thick mud.

“The water rose last night for some reason,” he explained. “There’s something going on in the mountains – something powerful.”

Those eyes, that depth of blue! Although his face and neck were covered in stubble, although the sun had left his lips fractured with cracks and his skin populated with freckles, there was more to this man than trucks and mud and the callouses of time. “There’s no way you can get this truck through that mud. How far away is your home?”

“Two miles, I’m afraid.”

Julia considered her situation. She had been looking for Howard over the course of several hours to no avail. And this man seemed to know the swamp well. He might be able to help her, if she did the same for him. At least, that was what she told herself. Something else in her simply didn’t want to be alone right now.

“I can walk it home for you,” she offered.

The man’s face initially reflected gratitude, but then shifted to – there it was again – recognition. “That’s too kind. Please don’t inconvenience yourself.”

Julia started walking, the vehicle balanced in her hand, her genetically enhanced tricep barely swelling. “It’s no problem,” she assured him. “After all, your truck is only eight thousand pounds.”

================

At twenty pounds, Howard's bag was heavy enough to make his muscles ache. It would have been ok if the thing was on his back, but with his elbows still pinned to his sides, the only choice was to carry it in his hands. His muscles were tiring quickly.

But this is better than being trapped, better than being entirely beholden to my girlfriend, Howard tried to remind himself.

Pains and aches began to form also in his shoulders, his back, his right calf, his feet. The grey clouds of wetness suffocated his breath and drew the warmth out of his limbs. He wondered how much further he could go before his arms needed another break.

=================

I feel like I could walk forever, Julia thought to herself. The truck felt to her new body about as heavy as a bowling ball felt to her old one. What was more, her muscles were not just stronger, but their endurance was phenomenal. Even the weight of a bowling ball would grow tiring over a long distance walk. But this truck – she felt like she could carry it endlessly.

Julia had started the walk hoping that she could limit the chat to small talk. But the man, who introduced himself as Sallan, was too good a listener. Before long, the distress in her thoughts began to fight their way through her composure.

“Sallan,” she began.

“Yes?”

“I think I did something terrible. Something that will lose me the man I love forever.”

Before she knew it, she had shared everything – where she was from, how recently she Nourished, how she had attempted to help Howard adjust to the situation, and how poorly that had gone. She even came close to describing the events of the previous evening, but stopped short of that, wondering whether the strangeness of what she had shared so far was too much.

It wasn’t. Sallan took all the information in stride, listening but never judging or even reacting. Despite his ragged and muddy clothing, he had an inner dignity that seemed to rise above the lowliness of the swamp he occupied. “You seem unfazed by all of this,” Julia remarked. “Somehow I get the feeling you were not always a resident of this … place.”

“I am alone in life now, but I was majordomo to a great woman once.” His eyes were distant. “She was a member of parliament for one term, a self-made business success, and even a poet, although she would never admit it. And I managed her entire harem. Her Claimed, the Borrowed, the Unattached that from time to time became guests of her bed. When the men misbehaved, had disagreements, or needed assistance – those situations almost always came to me. And on the matters in which she personally intervened, she always sought my advice, and followed it.”

“And now what do you do?”

“I live in a shack in the swamp.”

That seemed odd to Julia, but she did not dare press the point. “This majordomo role – it is the first time I have heard of a woman in this world seeking a man’s advice.”

“Nourishment increases the processing power of a woman’s brain, but not her wisdom. My lover told me repeatedly how much she valued my advice, and that of course made me work all the harder to help her. She brought out the best in her men, and I think this was part of her success.”

“So, she treated you as an equal,” Julia concluded.

He laughed. “Never. Far from it. A woman is the head of her house, and responsible for everything that happens in it. She provides not only for her children, but also for whichever men she takes into her fold. She defends the family interests against outside threats, and must ensure that the family’s internal dealings are harmonious. With responsibilities like those, her authority must be beyond question. Now, she can choose to be kind. She can choose to respect a man’s advice. And the most successful women do choose to do these things. But make no mistake: a woman’s respect for her men is built upon their unequivocal deference to her authority. Without this, there can be no peace in the home.”

“That is completely foreign to me.”

“The physical and mental power that you women possess dwarfs that of us men. Your earning potential exceeds ours in an identical way. There can be only one type of relationship between the sexes: you women are clearly dominant.”

Dominant. The word sent an unwelcome thrill through Julia. She had never wanted a lopsided relationship with Howard. But being in charge, having so much power in her relationships … her nipples hardened at the thought, their distended roughness scraping with agonizing pleasantness against the fabric of her shirt. But the facts of her current situation quickly sobered her. “I asserted myself with my man a bit last night, told him how things were going to be. Even detained him. But the ways of this world are foreign to us both, and my assertiveness was a shock to him, and an insult. He fled.”

“That is odd,” Sallan replied. “He clearly must have known that his disobedience would invite a punishment from you. And no detention is worse than life without a woman.”

Julia placed a hand on Sallan’s stained and tattered clothing. “He is the man that I love, Sallan. I’m scared for what could happen to him – and what could happen to us.”

“Perhaps my experience in the administration of men may be of some help to you. Tell me how this happened, and I would gladly give you some advice on this Howard of yours.”

As Julia thought about this, the air filled with the clicking and whining of insects. The day’s heat was intensifying. It was one thing to confess your troubles, but another to invite advice from a stranger. Should she do it? Take the plunge and tell him everything? The chatter of the insects got louder as the hot, angry sun raked over her skin. She looked over as Sallan, and saw only acceptance on his face. The cool glacial pools of his eyes were inviting her to jump in.

===================

Howard’s shoelace had completely come off now, leaving his right boot dangling on his foot with no more grip than a beach sandal. It made walking doubly awkward, and eventually, Howard gave up. He tossed his boots aside and began walking barefoot, only hoping that a false step would not injure him.

But his hopes were misplaced. One of his feet came down on a sharp stick, a pain shooting up his leg. He pulled it out, screamed at the woods. He tried to find a bandage in his pack, but in the first aid kit was designed for a wound this big. He was soon walking again, a red splotch on the ground behind every footfall.

====================

How to describe last night’s events? Where to begin? She felt her bare feet sink deep into the soft earth with every four-ton step. Sharp sticks and roots bore into the soles of her feet. They were easily sharp enough to puncture her old skin, but these protrusions only tickled her new one.

“I guess it all started at a party.” She paused and wiggled her toes in the mud, feeling the buried sticks and roots grind themselves to splinters. “Ever since we arrived in this world, my life has been nonstop anxiety. It started with the stress of being lost, the stress of finding myself in a foreign land, the stress wondering if I was ever going to get home. But it got worse with Howard. He made me promise not to take the Nourishment, even if that made me a freak in everybody else’s eyes. Well, I promised, but I eventually broke down and took it, which made him absolutely furious. Ever since that point, he has refused to do anything but try to get home.”

“Why all the urgency?”

“Even back on Earth, Howard couldn’t stand being in a situation where he was not in control. But here, it’s so much worse that he’s started living in denial. By now, he ought to know that my mind is more powerful than his, but even last night he denied that I could memorize a map. By now, he ought to know that he’s physically incapable of hurting me, but even last night he believed otherwise. In fact, if he hadn’t seen my strength over and over again, I bet he would have den=ed I had any strength at all. That’s how much trouble he has with being bested.”

Julia absently rotated the eight-thousand-pound truck like a weathervane, watching the sun’s reflection slide across its exterior. Talking about this is hard, she realized.

“So, yesterday afternoon,” she continued, “I found a way home. I was so proud of myself at first, until I realized what a mistake it was. Howard began pressuring me right then, right there, to take us back. And I know how Howard is – the pressuring that started last night would never have let up – not for one minute – until he got what he wanted. And meanwhile, this awesome beach party was coming together. They built a huge bonfire, were going to barbecue this incredible seafood, there was music, and everyone was getting into a great mood. And for the first time, I began to let my hair down.”

Julia closed her eyes for a moment and reminisced about the party. The rich taste of the seafood, the music, the red hot coals on the bottoms of her feet. It was all coming back in detail, and it made Julia yearn all the more for another carefree moment like that.

“I let my hair down,” she continued, “because I was finally growing to understand the reality of my situation. I could run a hundred miles without even feeling tired, smash my fist through solid granite like it was made of sand, process information at almost computer-like speeds. Caves that would have killed the old Julia were just amusing to the new one. There should be no rush to get back: when the time comes, nothing can stop me from taking us home. There should be no reason we couldn’t linger here a while longer.”

“How long is ‘a while’?”

“Maybe a few weeks? My only living parent is in twenty-four-hour care back home, and I have other family as well. I have to go back before long. But a few weeks here, I realized, would do us both a world of good. I could enjoy my Nourished state a bit longer. And Howard – he could learn a bit about what life is like when you don’t have all the power and all the talent.”

As they walked, the motion of her stride caused more mud to fall off the truck – big brown globs that dirtied her arms, stained her cotton tank top, matted into her hair. But she didn’t care. Talking to him was cathartic. She much preferred feeling dirty on the outside to feeling dirty on the inside.

“So, I told Howard that we were going to stay here a few more weeks. I didn’t ask him. I told him. For the first time in my life, I told him.”

Sallan answered only with soft footfalls. The silence quickly grew as thick as the swamp air, an accusation without words.

“It wasn’t like I was asking him to stay a century,” she defended. “Just a few weeks, at the fucking beach, no less! He could just relax and sip umbrella drinks if he wanted to! But no, that is too much for him to bear. Back on Earth, give the guy three weeks in a strange place and he would have explored everything – hiked all the trails, seen all the museums. But here, because this is a place where I am actually stronger than him, he’s got zero interest in exploring it. He couldn’t even give this place a chance. And that really pissed me off.”

“Your knuckles are turning white,” Sallan observed.

Julia ignored him. “… I wound up realizing that I was sick of it. Sick of his nonstop drumbeat about going home. Sick of how he couldn’t possibly live in a world where he is dependent on me for a change. Sick of how he couldn’t even acknowledge the realities of his situation, so fragile was his ego. And I finally thought, I am so done with this shit. So I wrapped his ass in a bar and walked away.”

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard a the groan of steel.

“It’s OK,” Sallan volunteered. “It can be fixed.”

“How?” Julia asked, her anger at herself building. “You don’t even know him!”

“I meant the handle.”

Julia looked. “Oh, no, Sallan. I’m so sorry.”

The truck’s steel handle had collapsed under her angry grip, the thick, reinforced material helpless under the contraction of her fingers.

====================

The puncture in Howard’s foot was not getting any better. It smarted with every step he took, and he didn’t know how many more of those there would be.

He was well into the thick of the swamp now, Howard knew. And there was no telling how to get out – of this place, of this world, of the dungeon his relationship with Julia was beginning to resemble. She had made him happy in ways that other women had not, but now she was scaring him in ways that other women could not.

So lost was Howard in his thoughts about this that he didn’t notice the swamp insects quieting their chorus. He didn’t notice the uneasy calls of the squirrels to each other, or the crushed vegetation indicating that a creature of considerable size had passed.

It wasn’t until he heard the rustling of underbrush that he realized he wasn’t alone out there.

======================

Julia tried to control her angry emotions, deliberately relaxing her grip on the truck handle to prevent further damage.

“I know I shouldn’t have done it,” she concluded.

They walked in silence for a moment.

“I love him,” she continued. “And if he is miserable here, then I will be miserable too.”

“I see. My initial impression was mistaken. This is more than a matter of disobedience and punishment. This is about your happiness as a couple. And in this, you are wiser than many of the women here. Men are not just sexual toys, nor are they just domestic servants. They are these things, certainly, but those roles are only part of their identity. A man’s overarching purpose is to bring his woman contentment, and everything he does must serve that ultimate end.”

Sallan’s words made Julia uneasy, but she did not interrupt.

“However,” Sallan continued, “men cannot bring contentment to you if they do not have it themselves. The choice to stay should have been his.”

“I know that now. I knew it then, too. But somehow my thoughts were not so clear at the time.”

Julia shifted the truck to another handle, exposing the deep indentations her fingers had gouged into the first one.

“I’m surprised that Howard made you so angry,” Sallan said. “Men usually have a calming influence on the Nourished. Their presence reminds women of the pleasures of a man’s touch.”

A man’s touch – just hearing the words injected a warmth into her body. She snapped off a tree branch with her free hand and gripped its reassuring thickness between her fingers. Benjamin had been almost that thick down there – a girth that Julia had not believed to be enjoyable for her until that night. Her insides tingled happily at the memory. No, his girth had been more than enjoyable. It had been … sublime.

“Julia?” Sallan asked. “Was Howard’s presence not soothing for you?”

She fought the idle musings back. “With Howard, it’s not like that. He finds muscle on a woman to be ugly. And my size intimidates him, too. No, Howard has refused to touch me. His presence reminds me of what I cannot have, rather than what I can. I remained celibate for him until that night.”

“A Nourished woman … celibate? For multiple days? I had never known that to be possible.”

“It was … it was torture. My discipline finally broke down that night, and I found myself in the shower with one of the men from the party.

“Only one man, after multiple days of no one? He is lucky to be alive.”

“It’s so embarrassing, Sallan! My boyfriend was waiting for me just outside the house, and here I was inside the house screwing another guy. And do you know what’s even more embarrassing? The tryst in the shower wasn’t nearly enough.”

“Against your capacity for pleasure, a single man is nothing.”

“Perhaps he is, I don’t know. It was like going all day without food, and then eating a few pieces of popcorn. It only made me hungrier for what I didn’t have. And as maddening as he is, the boy is every bit as adorable, too. The fact that he refused to touch me only made the torture so much worse.”

Julia squeezed the branch with all her might, compressing the wood with such phenomenal force that the moisture began to drip out. “I tried to put it out of my mind and went to meet Howard at the location we had arranged. But my thoughts were a blur. I don’t know how I wound up wrapping him in a bar. It just, sort of, happened.”

“No, it didn’t ‘just happen’. You did not respect your body’s wishes, and therefore overlooked their power. So desperate was your womanhood for a man’s touch that you lost perspective and control. So distracted were you by your need that his protestations were nothing more than a nuisance. Wrapping steel around him was easier to you than continuing a conversation with him, so you did it. Is that right?”

Even the memory of that moment agonized her. Julia opened her hand to find the branch had become only a pile of dry wood shreds, more resembling the stuffing of a jacket than the insides of a tree. “Yes,” she slowly nodded. “By the time I was twisting that bar around Howard, my body was on fire.”

“You are new to the Nourishment, and did not listen to your what your body was telling you. Howard is out there somewhere, and you will find him. But the path back to him begins with understanding yourself.”

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