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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 14

Written by circes_cup :: [Monday, 13 February 2017 08:03] Last updated by :: [Monday, 13 February 2017 11:10]

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CHAPTER 14

===========

Howard tried to slide himself away. But the mud was halfway up his thighs now, and it held him in its cold embrace. He tried to stand but his legs only sunk further in the mud.

The creature, meanwhile, was taking form. The ridge of its long torso had broken the surface now, a full fifteen feet in length. And even through the murk of the water, Howard could see even more of the animal. Two eyes, grey and malevolent, poked up through the flatness of the water to focus on him. Its jaw emerged next, sagging downward, drops of saliva spilling out. It was hungry.

Howard watched his hands fumble with the utility tool. He had wanted to fold away the file and extract a blade. But his hands were shaking beyond his control, and the tool tumbled into the water with a PLOP.

The creature moved toward him. Time seemed to slow down. Howard’s breath came in rough gulps. He could get away from it, with luck, if he moved gingerly.

But the alligator-type beast was emerging from the water more rapidly now, its fearsome girth spreading the water as it rose. This thing is larger than the Florida version, Howard realized. Its jaw is the size of my leg. Howard tried once more to extricate himself from the mud, but only sank in deeper.

===========

Julia thundered through the forest, her 375-pound mass moving in a blur that belied its weight. She had to pause occasionally to pick up the scent of her “quarry”, but after a moment of examination it quickly came back to her, and she was soon again blasting through the underbrush.

The shell burned at her insides the way that no physical fire could imitate. Something was wrong with Howard. And it was getting worse. She tried not to speculate what it might be. She tried not to think about how empty life would be without him.

Julia covered nine miles in just over four minutes, her maximum speed probably clocking in at a hundred and twenty five miles per hour. It would have taken a man three full hours to cover the same distance. Even Sallan’s truck wouldn’t have done much better, restricted as it was to roads rather than a direct route through the untamed swamp.

She did not slow for underbrush or tree limbs. They snapped and shattered against her unbreakable body, tearing at her cotton tank top and shorts, but doing her skin no harm.

Howard’s scent grew stronger. But Julia could tell that it was changing too. The smell of his sweat was laced with something that reminded her of fear. And there was a new smell, rich with iron.

Blood.

===========

The alligator-type creature lumbered towards Howard. Its slightly open maw dropped cold pools of drool onto the exposed parts of Howard’s legs. Howard desperately tugged at the submerged parts, to no effect.

I didn’t want it to end this way, his mind told him. I am not some living. And I didn’t want to leave her this way. He and Julia had always promised each other that they would never go to sleep angry at each other. He didn’t want to go to his death that way either. Howard found himself wondering who would take his place in her arms, in her life. He found himself wondering whether that process had already begun. The way she looked at other men, the way they looked at her – Howard wouldn’t have been surprised.

Howard found himself thinking about their first date – when he had taken her out for dinner. She had tried to pay, the fool. She didn’t have a enough money for a car or for anything else, and of course girls never pay for a date to begin with, but nonetheless she tried. Julia was the only person in his life who had never wanted to take advantage of him, had never asked anything of him. And for some reason, that had brought out the generosity in Howard like no other relationship had. He found himself giving her everything he thought she needed – and more.

The beast’s snout was only a foot from Howard’s now. The time was close.

The time might as well come, Howard thought as he felt himself sinking further into the muck. She doesn’t need me anymore. And life was a lot more meaningful when I was needed.

===========

The ground darkened for a moment before the space between Howard and the alligator seemed to explode in a shower of water and mud and grass. Julia had arrived with a flying leap, clearing twenty feet of water before landing in front of him like a human artillery shell.

She towered into the sky: eight feet of genetically redesigned muscle that blotted out the sun. The soft earth slouched underneath Howard in deference to her excessive weight. He threw out a hand to avoid going face first into the muck, only to have the bar once again dig into his upper arm.

Julia reached toward the creature’s midsection. The animal’s body erupted out of the water, hundreds of pounds of reptile hoisted forcibly by Julia’s superhuman strength. The alligator turned out to be even larger than Howard anticipated – perhaps twenty feet in length rather than fifteen. It thrashed violently in Julia’s grip, its tail and snout throwing water forty feet in each direction. Julia held it at arm’s length with no sign of effort on her face. Her mud-stained cotton top was so thoroughly ripped that it could no cover mask the formidable column of musculature that was her torso, its sleeves to short to hide the thick power of her arms. Her thighs positively erupted out of her tiny denim shorts, nearly as thick as his torso.

The creature’s turned its head toward Julia, reaching back with an open jaw.

She turned to Howard. “What in the WORLD are you doing out here – trying to get yourself killed?”

The beast opened its mouth further, the top of its jaw rising like a drawbridge.

“Julia … watch out!” Howard responded.

The creature closed its jaws on her leg with vicious force. Howard watched the muscles of its mandible flare as its teeth sank into her skin.

Or rather, the teeth tried to sink. To the degree the creature was causing Julia pain, her face sure didn’t show it.

Julia, rolled her eyes. “Still worried about me, are you? Still trying to protect your helpless girl? YOU’RE the one that should have been more careful around it.” Without bothering to turn her head, Julia shoved the twenty-foot-long beast into the air— a one-handed thrust that sent its frightening mass spinning for twenty yards before hitting the water with immense force. A plume of water rose high into the air.

Howard felt her grab the bar that encircled him, and then felt his legs yanked violently out of the mud. She raised her forearm until he was eye-level with her, his feet dangling several feet above the surface of the water. It was like being lifted by the hydraulics of an elevator, a smooth motion that did nothing to suggest muscle strain.

“One more time. What in the hell were you thinking?”

“I was reclaiming the freedom you took away from me.”

“How?” Her pupils narrowed in anger. “By drowning yourself in a lizard-infested swamp?”

“That wasn’t the plan.” Howard diverted his gaze from hers.

“And what WAS the plan, Howard?” Her voice boomed throughout the swamp.

Her walnut irises appeared indeed hard as wood. The eyes are the window to the soul, and this particular soul commanded a body of superhuman ferocity. He diverted his gaze, lest he anger it further. What WAS the plan, she had asked?

“I don’t know,” Howard admitted.

“Howard, I am SO going to kill you for this.”

It was just a phrase, Howard knew. They had used it with each other all the time back on Earth. But here, coming from a girl that really could kill him with a single thought, the words felt different. His brain knew that she loved him, but his body shuddered in fear.

“I’m sorry,” he found himself saying.

His girlfriend released a sigh of frustration. The tendons on her hand loosened a bit, and she brushed her fingers over his cheek.

“If you hadn’t injured your foot and bled over half the swamp, I wouldn’t have needed an extra few minutes to find you— and that could have been all the difference! You really scared the crap out of me! The smell of all that blood …”

Carrying him like a satchel, she strode out of the water and onto dry ground.

Julia crouched on one knee to examine the bar. Her thumb traced the notch that Howard’s hours of effort had created. “How did this happen? Did you try to saw your way out?”

Howard nodded. The muscles of his hands ached at the memory.

“Wow. You’re stubborner than ever. It’s cute, in a way.”

WHUUUNG. With a quick tug of her hands, she snapped the steel like a piece of dry spaghetti.

At the sight of the severed bar, Howard felt his breath catch. His hours of painful work had produced nothing compared to the casual might of her superhuman body.

“But your stubborn side scares the crap out of me, too.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, swallowing Howard up in her muscle before releasing him again.. “Do you have any idea how upset I was when you’d gone missing? Ruth had to take me inside I was in such hysterics.”

“Good.” Howard shrugged out from under her arms and collapsed on a log, shoulders on kneecaps. “That’s what you get for wrapping me in a bar.”

Julia’s eyes grew glassy at this: she was wounded. “And so you’re getting back at me by feeding yourself to an alligator?”

Sure, I almost got eaten by an alligator. But you’re getting eaten, too, he wanted to say – by all your power. And that’s worse. At least, with an alligator, it’s obvious how much of the person has been consumed.

===========

With the bar finally off of him, Howard collapsed on a log.

She sat next to him, her weight elevating his end of the it like a see-saw. She seemed too lost in thought to notice that, as a result of her weight, his feet were dangling off the ground. She held the remains of the bar in her hand, and eventually brought her hands together, collapsing the metal as though it were nothing more than a cylinder of soft clay. A distressed GROAN emanated across the swamp, reminding Howard of the sickening extremes of her power.

“I’m sorry I wrapped you in this.” She kneaded the wad of steel nervously, reshaping it with thoughtless superhuman might. “But you’ve refused to touch me since I Nourished, and this body can’t stand being ignored. I was going mad with need, and it affected my judgement. I still have a lot to learn about controlling this body.”

“You make it sound like you’re stuck in a tank and don’t know how to drive it.”

“Something like that. But in some ways, I’m actually a lot deadlier than a tank. So, there’s more pressure to get it right.” Julia tossed the wad of metal away with such force that her arm blurred.

Howard heard two mysterious BANGS before the midsection of a large, dead standing tree exploded with a CRUNCH, spraying shards of wood across the forest floor. As the upper section of the dead tree hit the ground with a resonant BOOM.

When she resumed speaking, her voice was nonchalant. “Despite having some stuff to learn, I’ve realized that I want to experience this place, this body, some more.”

“How much more? Forever?”

“No, not at all.” She put a hand over his thigh and squeezed it in reassurance, a gesture she had adopted early in their relationship. But this time, Howard felt his thigh reduced to jelly under the terrifying strength of her fingers. “I DO want to leave at some point. I’ve got family back home, and you’ve got a career. But I’d like to stay here a few more weeks.”

“Well, no one can stop you. Least of all me.”

“I know. But I don’t want to have this experience alone, honey. I want to be with you, and I think that staying here would also be a good experience for you.”

He struggled for the right words. Her fingers were compacting the largest of his leg muscles with thoughtless, terrifying affection. The power of the women here was extreme and humiliating, all the more so now that his girlfriend had joined their ranks. But Julia clearly did not see this as a problem. She wouldn’t understand. He needed to be tactful. “These people … this culture … the way that men are so dependent upon their women … it’s unhealthy.”

“The fact you say that is exactly why I want you to experience this place some more. When we were back on Earth, you and I took several trips to countries where women were subordinate to men, and I never heard you suggest that we cut the visit short because the culture was ‘unhealthy’. The fact is, you’ve never had to tolerate a situation where you don’t have the edge, where you don’t have the upper hand. And I want you to know what life is like from that perspective. I think it would make you a better boyfriend.”

Howard stared at the ruined dead trunk of the tree, the peach-colored daggers of newly exposed wood stabbing at the sky, a monument to her power.

“I never would have had the guts to say any of that to you back home. But lifting cars does wonders for a girl’s self confidence.”

Howard could have sworn her cheeks grew a bit flushed when she said that. Her so-called self confidence was a rush to her. “I don’t like it here,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s because you haven’t tried. All kinds of men are happy here, have you noticed that? They’ve got incredible beaches, incredible food, an entire culture that no Earth person has ever seen before. And for you in particular, I hear the skiing is absolutely awesome.”

Howard could barely believe that he was considering this. Everything – the place, the influence her presence had over him – it was all so foreign. He scooped up a handful of the oddly purplish leaves and let them tumble out of his grip.

“Look, I’ll admit, Howard, it’s a rush to be in this new body.” Julia raised her elbows over her head and stretched, her back fanning from a wide “V” to an even wider one. “It’s a rush to be super strong. It’s a rush to be super smart. It’s a rush to know that I can’t get sick. It’s a rush to know that I never have to fear for my personal safety, be it on a dark street at night or in a swamp with a shadow lizard. But it’s also a rush to be in love with you. And if staying with you for the rest of my life means giving all this up, then I’ll do it. It will be hard. But if it comes to it, I’ll do it.”

“You’re asking me to hang out in a world where every tenth person could snap me in half easier than I could break a carrot. I don’t even feel safe here.”

“But you ARE safe. Once you get Claimed, life in this this world is far safer than any life you could lead on Earth. Women here tend to avoid contact with each other, and therefore they almost always respect the Claims of other women. And guys – if any guy were ever to lay a hand on you, the shit I could do to him without breaking a single law … you probably don’t need to hear the details. Ruth and her family live in a city with five million people, and not a single Claimed man has been a victim of violent crime in the past five years. And getting Claimed – it’s just a simple tattoo. We could do it this afternoon.”

“If we miss our return date, your family will be beside itself with worry. They’ll report us missing, organize search parties. We can’t do that to them.” Again, Howard cursed himself. He had slipped from refuting the principle of staying to expressing concern over the particulars of his plan. He was losing this argument. Something about her just made him want to agree with her, he thought, as she patted his thigh. He tried not to wince at the force of the impacts.

“Well, my family knows we’re on a vacation. And you’ve got a deep bench of talent at your firm that is pretty much accustomed to you taking long wilderness adventures. A round of simple emails is all we would need to put everyone at ease and buy us a few more weeks.”

“Emails?”

“Sure. We type up some basic emails to family and work colleagues on our cell phones – let everyone know that we’re going to be a few more weeks. We return to Earth via the caves. When we get to the mouth of the cave, we turn phones on, the emails go out, and then we come right back here. I’ll probably spend no more than five minutes on the Kentucky side of the cave before coming back.”

Howard had to admit that the plan sounded reasonable enough in the abstract. But in his gut, he knew he didn’t like it. Howard slowly crumpled the purple leaves and let the pieces fall like confetti.

“Honey, I’m not going to force you to stay. If you’re scared, or embarrassed about being the weaker one, and you don’t think you can handle a few weeks here, we can go home.”

Something about that made Howard bristle. “No,” he objected. “I’m not scared. I never said I was scared. I don’t like you being addicted to that stuff, I worry about the health implications. But I’m not scared. I can handle it. If you want to stay here a few more weeks, be whatever you are for a bit longer, then fine. We can stay.”

“Are you sure?” Her brown eyes went warm with expectation.

‘Yes, on one condition—”

“Thank you, sweetie, thank you! Anything you want!” She wrapped her thick arms around him and squeezed, humming happily.

Howard felt his body compacting under the unintentional brutality of her embrace. When he was free again, he found his speech was short of breath “I don’t want you to traverse the caves alone. I want to go with you. The only way I’ll feel comfortable staying here is if I’ve seen with my own eyes the route back there.”

“Well OK, but It’s faster if I do the caves alone. Maybe you could try to trust me again,” Julia suggested. “I know the thing with the bar was upsetting, but we have to go back to trusting each other some time.”

“No, it’s not just about trust or the route,” Howard paused. “I guess I just want to know that I’m not going to lose you in those rocks. I want to make sure you’ll be ok.”

“That’s so sweet!” She pecked him on the cheek. “You’re as adorable as ever. If you insist, yes, you can come with me.”

His girlfriend stood, the absence of her weight causing the log to drop with a CLUNK. The motion threw Howard of balance and he tumbled to the ground. “You ready then, to go back to civilization?”

“Yes, I’m ready.” Howard stood himself up.

And he dusted himself off.

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

When the couple returned, half the neighborhood was milling around outside the house – four women and perhaps a dozen children and men. News of Howard’s disappearance had clearly spread.

Ruth reacted to their arrival with obvious relief, the tension in her face relaxing into a broad smile. Even Mindy seemed somewhat gratified to see them again.

Howard was directed to sit on a log while Ruth’s husband ran inside for a glass of water and a wet towel. The chatter of the group had fallen silent at this point, which made Howard uncomfortable. The last thing he wanted to be was a spectacle.

Luckily, he was not the center of attention for long. As Howard wiped the mud and dried blood of his face, the four neighborhood women clustered themselves into a tight knot of conversation with Julia and Ruth. With the group’s authority thus sequestered, the men began to converse with each other at a respectful distance while the children played tag between the trees.

Howard could pick up only snippets of the women’s whispers. “… he could have gotten hurt … need to remind him who is in charge … so important to you, young lady, but no Claim?… need to do a better job of controlling him … with all the problems at your company, Ruth, you really shouldn’t be letting this kind of trouble into your home …”

“That’s enough!” Ruth’s voice was no longer a whisper. “My houseguests are new in this world, and still learning our ways. Anything that happens within my four walls is my responsibility. A criticism of them is a criticism of me.”

That seemed to bring an end to the neighborhood conclave. Ruth walked back to the house, her arms crossed and head downward, shadow filling the sockets of her eyes. The rest of the group also began to dissipate, and Julia motioned Howard toward the house.

“What the hell was that about?” Howard asked.

Julia positioned herself between him and the other women as they walked. “They don’t understand why … don’t take this the wrong way … but they don’t understand why a man would ever run away from a woman like me. They don’t understand how I can love you and yet leave you un-Claimed. And they are unimpressed by my management skills – that I have a harem of one and even that one is out of control.”

“And what did you say to all that?”

“I told them that we come from a different place, with different traditions, a society where men and women share the authority. They tried to listen, but it clearly taxed their imagination. We’re foreigners here, Howard. They see our culture as interesting but misguided.”

“What do they want me to do – become submissive and deferential, the way their men are? I can’t abandon who I am just because of where I am.”

“But that’s exactly what you want people to do when they move to Kentucky. You’ve often complained to me about how some people from other countries don’t shower as much as Americans. If they come to our country, you like to say, they should be prepared to live life our way.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? Would you like to explain that to the neighborhood women? Go over there and tell them that we’re recent arrivals but we already know that our culture is superior to theirs?”

Howard looked at the four women, hugging each other goodbye with enough force to crush stone.

“Look at me.” Julia placed a gentle finger under Howard’s chin and with gentle upward pressure, tilted his head back until they were eye-to-eye. “I’m still Julia inside here. And you’re still Howard. And we don’t have to change how we treat each other. But at the same time, women here take a great deal of pride in having their households under control. When the men in her harem are hungry or demoralized or poorly dressed or running away, that reflects badly on the head of the household. The fact that you escaped, got yourself scraped up, and then nearly got yourself killed – that all makes me look pretty bad.”

“Good.”

“I can live with looking bad. But we are guests in Ruth’s household, and everything we do reflects on her as well. She was truly embarrassed by what happened. And that’s not OK. She saved our asses by taking us in, and it’s a debt that we’ll never be able to repay. So, whatever kind of relationship you and I have with each other, when the outside world is looking, I am in charge.”

Howard felt the red heat of anger rising to his head. “Julia, that’s absurd …” he began.

But then he noticed that her nipples had distended under the cloth her for top, swelling to the size of large strawberries. This power talk was turning her on; there was no doubt. Red hot anger was replaced by cold fear. It got colder when the the shadow of a second woman fell over him.

It was one of the neighbors, holding a pumpkin-sized ball of some sort in her hand. The ball had a thick iron handle on the top, like a kettle bell at the gym. It was encased in a nylon sleeve, which was decorated in a mauve pattern of flowers. When the woman spoke, her words were directed at Julia.

“I know this world is new to you,” the woman said, “so I wanted to offer you some advice on restraints. Never tie a guy to a drain pipe – or anything else that is improvised. Use one of these.” She offered Julia the ball. “It’s solid iron, only two thousand pounds, so you can take it with you to the beach, on a picnic, wherever you need it. And even ten or twelve men working together cannot move it. I try to avoid using it at all, but if one of my men is being completely out of control, it’s very handy. Here, this one is for you.”

“Thank you. “This is very kind of you!” Julia took the two-thousand-pound ball by three fingers and held it up at eye level. “And I love the pink leaf pattern!”

Howard wanted to wretch all over the mauve leaf pattern and the woman and Julia’s sickening niceness. But instead he remained silent, a cold sweat forming on his hands.

Once the door was closed behind them, Julia’s eyes were wide with apology. She gave him a soft kiss on the lips. “You’ve had a long night and a long day. You’ll feel better after you get cleaned up and get some sleep.” She held up the iron ball. “I’m going to go get put this thing out back where we don’t have to look at it.”

Howard felt the warmth of relief flood back into him. She was on his side, Howard realized, not theirs. He found himself laughing as Julia made for the side door. “You know what they say about marriage: it’s the old ball and chain. I must be the only guy on Earth that got a ball and chain while he was still dating.”

Julia laughed. “The only guy on Earth?”

“Yea.”

“You’re not on Earth.”

===========

The hot water felt better than he cared to admit. It washed away so much mud and dirt, the that he had to unblock the drain with a sweep of his foot. Would that it washed away the unease and the fear, too.

The heat and the steam seemed to relax his muscles, flooding him with a sensation of drowsiness. He was yawning before he even got to the bedroom.

Despite the fact that mid-afternoon light still streamed through the windows, Julia was waiting for him in bed, herself freshly showered and adorned in a diaphanous silk-like nightshirt. “I need some shuteye, too,” she admitted. “It’s been an eventful twenty-four hours for both of us.”

“What were the neighbors saying about Ruth’s company?” Howard asked as he crawled into bed next to her. “Something about ‘lots of problems?”.

“I asked Ruth the same question. She just looked sad and replied that she didn’t want to talk about it.”

Clad only his boxer shorts, Howard reclined alongside his girlfriend. His skin was bruised and scraped, but hers showed none of that damage. It was a flawless expanse of bronze. He couldn’t even find the place where the “alligator” had bit her, as if the razor-sharp teeth of the animal were so feeble that the didn’t even merit an acknowledgement from the superhuman surface of her superhuman body.

He tried to snuggle up to her, placing his head on her shoulder and letting her drape an arm around him. It was how the couple has been sleeping since the night they first shared a bed. And doing it now introduced a scrap of normalcy into Howard’s entirely abnormal life. After all the insult he had suffered, he still had a deep connection to her, he realized. He hoped it was enough to get him through this awful world.

But if the activity cuddling was normal, the sensation was anything but. Being sandwiched between her torso and her arm was like shoving his body into the crevasse of a granite mountain. He could hear her humming happily at his embrace and felt her granite arm pulling him into her the way she might pull a sweater tight to ward off the cold. He felt the wind leave his lungs her breast bore into his ribcage like a battering ram.

“It’s nice to have you back,” she whispered. “Like I said, you scared the crap out of me. Don’t ever do that again.”

Howard tried to reply, but there was no air to do it with. Her body was like an industrial compactor, squeezing his lungs shut.

She could crush me to death without meaning to, Howard realized, as his cheek came up against rounded granite of her shoulder. From this angle, he could appreciate the thick layers of pectoral muscle that undergirded her breasts – slabs of pure power that she had obtained without ever sitting down at the fly machine at the gym. Howard tried to squirm out of her embrace, but she seemed to interpret the motion as a desire to be even closer together, because her herculean bicep tightened just a little bit more, causing Howard to feel as though someone had piled a boulder on top of him.

Howard wanted to tell her that she was crushing him. But his lungs couldn’t expand enough to get the words out. He tried to avoid the instinct to panic. He ran a hand over the cobblestone street that her abdomen had become, the hard swells of muscle there yielding nothing to his touch. Her body responded by relaxing a bit. Howard found himself almost panting with relief.

===========

Contentment filled Julia’s body as she snuggled with her boyfriend. He was safe. Their relationship was alive. And her new body was hers to enjoy for a bit longer.

Howard’s presence felt good, so good, to her. Julia found herself wishing that she could simply tear the clothes off of him, drench his brain in her pheromones and feel him inside of her. But that was not his wish, she knew – not with the body she now had. She would herself to respect the choice, she concluded, settling for an extra snuggle with him. Julia would just have to invite another man before the night was up. Howard didn’t need to see, didn’t need to know. But it was important to have the angst out of her system, she reminded herself as she began to drift into sleep.

In her old body, attempts to sleep usually began with extended insomnia, as was the case with many women. But her new body was supremely efficient. When she wanted rest, her body did it, deeply.

This time, though, the darkness was followed by something else.

She and Howard were walking along the beach, arm in arm. The tide was in, and the water was high. It coursed over the sand and lapped at the bases of the houses.

The houses were too far forward, Julia realized. Why hadn’t they been moved back? And why were some of them askew of their concrete footings, as if someone had tried to move them and failed? There were no voices, no footfalls only the SLAP SLAP SLAP of the waves against the buildings to keep them company.

Julia felt her hair. What had once been silken and resilient was now coarse and frayed. She felt her muscles. They were still large, but not as much as they used to be. And her feet – the cold ocean water had chilled them to an uncomfortable degree. When was the last time Julia had felt uncomfortable, she wondered? Before Nourishment.

Something was wrong.

Julia was scared. She nestled Howard closer to her, glad of his presence.

===========

Without warning, Howard felt Julia’s arm contract, not gently, but with anxious force. The breath went out of him again as her superhuman bicep collapsed his torso and then began to bend his ribs inward. Her rounded shoulder muscle, which had already been an uncomfortable pillow for his head, swelled with tension now, jamming his head to one side. His body was being pulled into hers with remorseless, industrial force. Her breast, soft in appearance, proved far firmer than him collapsing his windpipe and jamming his head backward.

“Julia!” Howard rasped. But his tortured body could manage no more than a whisper.

She stirred slightly, seemingly mollified by the sound of his voice. Her body gave his a little squeeze, doubling the amount of pressure her Herculean arm easily exerted. Howard’s rib cage was on the verge of snapping now.

I’m being crushed to death, Howard knew. He put a hand on her ribcage and pushed away with all his might. He might as well have been trying to move a mountain. His muscles shook from the exertion but did not move her arm an inch, or even a millimeter.

Panic overcame control. Howard drove his knee into her side, but her thigh was like iron. He tried to scream at the pain but hit came out as only a hiss from his collapsing lung volume. He reached for her face, hoping that a poke there would wake her. But she took his movement as an invitation to grab that arm and pull it tightly around her. Howard shifted his body as best he could to avoid the limb being pulled clear out of its socket. It was only a matter of time before he perished, he knew.

The shift in Julia’s position dragged Howard’s lips closer to her ear. He had an idea. With his final moments of coherence, Howard inserted a whisper, “Julia, it’s me. It’s going to be ok. I’m right here. And I’m not going anywhere.”

That seemed to relax her a bit, and Howard felt his breath returning to him. In a whisper, he reiterated, “I’m not going anywhere, honey.”

She relaxed some more, and for the first time, Howard began to suspect that he would survive this nap. It was an accomplished, he realized. She could have crushed you, he reminded himself. And yet, you didn’t panic. Through cleverness and perseverance, you held your own. And that’s what the women of this world have never seen: a man that holds his own.

Well, he promised himself, they will see one now.

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