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The LaPorte Caves – Revised – Ch 09a – The Light of the Blue Chimney

Written by circes_cup :: [Thursday, 02 January 2020 01:38] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 19 April 2020 19:09]

CHAPTER 09a – THE LIGHT OF THE BLUE CHIMNEY


SYNOPSIS UP TO THIS POINT: Julia and Howard took a wrong turn in a Kentucky cave and tumbled out into a world of amazon women. Julia had promised to refrain from taking the elixir that transforms women to amazons, but later broke that promise. Now an amazon, she is enjoying a host of new powers, from phenomenal strength to intelligence to athleticism. But as thrilling as it may be to her, their sojourn in the Weald is equally distressing to Howard. He feels inferior and helpless. Mindy has begun to bully him, and his trust in Julia has diminished. One last, desperate attempt to deal with his situation ended in Howard being unintentionally humiliated by his girlfriend.

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 didn't know how long she walked. She had watched Howard recede toward the house, his clothes and his hair soaked and covered in pond scum. She had wandered away, the unsatisfied ache of desire for her boyfriend's touch still clawing at her insides.

She soon found herself following a paved access road that ran behind the beach houses. Most of the residences were like Ruth's: large and well appointed.

As Julia passed one of the houses, she watched a man and his daughter exit. The man had bags of clothes in his arms – probably on his way to the dry cleaners, Julia figured. He approached a rack from which three cars were hanging. He pointed at one. His daughter got the car down, placed it gently on its wheels, and waved as he drove away. So humiliating, Julia thought – to rely upon your daughter to get a car down for you every time you need to run some errands!

As Julia continued along the path, she observed that some of the houses were back by the roadside. But with others, women had clearly carried them forward to the beachfront for a day of fun in the surf.

As Julia passed one such house, she saw a man ferrying groceries inside from the family SUV. Since the house had been moved all the way forward to the beach, his trek was a long one: fifty yards back and forth, through the soft sand.

"Need a hand?"

"Oh!" The man was startled by her approach. "I wouldn't want to bother you."

"It's not a bother." Julia counted the grocery bags that remained in the back of the SUV. There were nineteen. Ten more trips back and forth – the poor guy.

The man looked at the distance to the house. "You really shouldn't trouble yourself. It's menial – men's work."

"I was thinking of something a bit less menial." Julia reached under the rear bumper to find the handle. Once her hand had it, she hoisted that end of the car upward. Her bicep swelled only a bit at as the three-thousand-pound mass rose under her muscle's immense power. Additional handles were located under the center of the car. She got her left hand on one of them and hoisted the SUV straight up with only one arm, her genetically enhanced tricep doing easily what a hundred male ones could not. With all four wheels dangling above her head, she led the man out over the sand to the house.

09a1 Helping With The Groceries"Of course. How silly of me," he admitted. "Easier for you to carry the car to the house than go back and forth with the bags."

It was only a few short days ago that such logic would have seemed absurd to me, Julia thought. How quickly this all becomes second nature. "With nineteen bags of groceries, you must have a growing family."

"Twin daughters. Seventeen years old. They just went on full Nourishment a few months ago."

"Did you ask them to move the house back for you before going to the beach today?"

"I don't just ask. I beg. They ignore me most of the time."

How demeaning, Julia thought. She held the back end of the SUV level with the open kitchen window as the man scrambled into the house and reached through the window for the bags. He's a grown man and he has to beg his daughters to leave the house where he can get to it.

09a2 Helping With The Groceries Close Up“Are you here for the blue chimney?” The man asked. “Girls often wander into this neighborhood looking for it.”

I’m not a girl, Julia thought. But then she realized that she looked little different than a girl half her age, that men needed circumstantial clues – attire, demeanor – to estimate the age of her body. He had meant no insult. “I’ve never heard of the Blue Chimney. What is it?”

“A swimming hole of sorts. A vertical shaft down in to the limestone, filled with water. Two hundred yards straight down gets you to a horizontal passage to the ocean. Lots of side passages as well. Of course, only women have seen it. But it’s pretty cool, I hear.”

“Not a single man has been down there?”

“How?”

“With SCUBA gear, or whatever your equivalent is? An oxygen tank, wetsuit, fins? ”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Fins are the only deep water gear I can think of, and those are only for females, of course.”

He was right about SCUBA, Julia suddenly realized. She had seen countless beach shops in her wanderings, and none of them contained such gear. She had seen countless advertisements related to ocean recreation, as well, and none of them included images of men in SCUBA gear. And why would they ever bother to invent it? Women were so much more capable in the underwater environment, there had never been any reason to innovate on behalf of the men. And all of the recreational equipment companies were owned by women. Why develop the equipment, the expertise, the training, the certification program if the only result was to place a man in physical danger, for a fraction of the productivity and fun that woman could achieve through nothing other than her superior genetics?

“If you decide to go, just know that it’s too narrow for a swimming fin. Just go in as you are. You can hold a rock in your hands if you want to get to the bottom faster.”

“Maybe I’ll check it out,” Julia concluded. “Thank you.”

"The gratitude is all mine," the man gushed as he accompanied her and the car back to the driveway. "You have no idea how hard it can be to be a man sometimes."

"Yes I do. I used to be as weak as you," Julia replied, setting the SUV back on its wheels. She did it a little too roughly. The BOOM of the car hitting the ground was a reminder of its immense weight.

"No, it’s not about being weak. The hardest part about being a man is the lack of control.”

Julia thought about that as she continued her walk along the road. In addition to the houses along the roadside, there was another cluster several miles away on the opposite side of the cove. In an instant, Julia’s eyes powered up to telescopic levels, laying bare the activities of men on the other side of the cove who had no idea they were being watched. There were families having breakfast, the men clad in aprons and frantically shuttling between stove and table to keep pace with their wives’ appetite. There were women chatting with each other in the shade while their husbands remained inside scrubbing the bathroom to a gleaming shine. There were daughters sunning themselves on beach chairs while their brothers struggled to carry the heavy bottles of Nourishment out to them.

She even observed a man sneaking a breather on the front stoop while his daughter fomented chaos inside. The surreptitious break lasted only a few moments, however, before he was discovered. Men had been led to believe that the hearing of the Nourished was only a dozen times better than a man’s, Ruth had revealed to her. The widespread lie had been promulgated by a government program designed to facilitate the control of male behavior. But in fact, the Nourished could hear with hundreds of times the precision: that wife who retrieved her husband from the front stoop had made a show of just happening to come across him, but Julia knew full well that the wife had heard his breathing coming from the wrong place in the house, and she had heard it through a thick exterior wall. In his efforts to avoid her, he had never stood a chance of avoiding her.

In the same way, men believed that the eyesight of the Nourished was only a dozen times better than that of a man. But in fact it was hundreds of times better. Even mist and atmospheric effects did little to hinder the vision of the Nourished. That scene with the man getting caught on the front stoop… he thought he was alone, but Julia had been watching him the whole time – from four miles away. It gave Julia an unbidden thrill to be reminded that these powers were hers now too, and they came as naturally as breathing.

The poor men of this world resorted to mysticism and superstition to explain the odd happenings in their lives. There were plenty of men, for example, who believed that songbirds were merely minions of women, spying on men and relaying their findings through their songs. This world was a prison for men – not a physical one, but one in which the surveillance capabilities of the other gender far exceeded their feeble imagination.

But as thrilling as the power may have been for her, how much fear must Howard feel at the prospect of living out his life under these conditions? What sort of freedom did a man truly have?

She observed the scenes inside those homes: supposedly harmonious families eating supposedly peaceful breakfasts together. Fathers fruitlessly cajoling their daughters: don’t harass your brother. Please. Pretty please. I’m begging you, darling. Husbands silencing themselves mid-sentence when their wives interrupt them. Boys casting blank stares at the kitchen table as their sisters listen to the high-speed mutter of sixteen broadcasts at once.

The path to the Blue Chimney was easy to find, and the earth around its outlet was well worn from prior use. Someone had even stacked a pile of spherical rocks that could be used to speed the descent. Julia grabbed one of the rocks. A bit wider than her shoulders, it tipped the scales at only five thousand pounds. She rested it in an upturned palm – a one-handed Atlas – and stared into the blue below. It was strange that no other preparation was required. No donning a wetsuit, no checking equipment, no warning sign cautioning divers what not to do.

Just jump in.

After a minute, Julia did. Holding the rock in front of her, she plummeted into the depths, pale blue fading to indigo fading to black. The pleasant tickle of the water was replaced by the crush of greater depths – pressure that would have blown a man’s eardrums but caused her no discomfort.

When Julia reached the bottom, she released the rock into a pile of others and began to explore. Light was faint down here. But there was enough to see that ocean life had found its way in from the sea. The fish were beautiful, displaying a variety of colors and shapes she had never seen on Earth. She followed some of the fish in an out of small passages, giggling as they struggled to get away from her, but also appreciating how they would turn back, curious, once they had reached a safe distance.

After following the fish for a time, she became aware that she would eventually need to breathe. But when Julia turned to confirm the route back, she found only a rock ceiling where she had been expecting to find a vertical shaft. She had threaded her way in and out of so many passages, she did not quite know where she was, or even which way was up. There weren’t many things that could kill a woman in this world, Julia knew, but asphyxiation was one of them.

Julia darted about with a growing sense of panic, her air running out, and the passages going nowhere. She thought she could smash through a rock wall to get to the chimney, but her fist found only endless rock, and her abuse of it clouded the water with debris. Panic began to set in.

She could die here.

Julia swam more desperately now, in and out of passages. Fish scrambled to get out of her way, the unlucky ones smashed into the passage walls by the desperate turbulence her body created.

The panic grew worse.

And then – like a lighthouse in a storm – she saw it. A singular shaft of fading afternoon light, too faint for male eyes, forming a vertical line in front of her. She swam to it and directed her gaze up into the faint glow. Yes, this was it. She was back in the chimney, and the way out was clear.

With the assurance of that light, her heart rate began to slow, and her calm returned. She realized that the air in her lungs would last her several more minutes, at least.

Julia had never needed to leave – at least not yet. She had just needed to know that the way out was clear and available to her.

With relief replacing panic, Julia began to explore again. She followed another passage, more carefully now. As she did so, Julia began to think about Howard again. That must be how it feels for him right now, she realized. Trapped in a place that could destroy him, with no idea where the route out might be. He was safe here – safe and comfortable. In the same way that Julia still had plenty of air in her lungs, the panic came not from the immediate danger but from the very possibility of being trapped, of someday running out of the thing that gives you life.

The passage turned out to be a simple loop, leading away from the Chimney and then back to it. The return portion of the passage would be too narrow for Julia: she could see that as she approached the bottle neck. But the familiar vertical shaft of light was on the other side, and this time, her heart did not succumb to fear. She slipped her arms out of the spandex top so that it dangled from her ribcage. Then, she reached through the bottleneck, found handholds, and pulled herself forward. She could feel the scrape of the limestone against her breasts as they easily dug channels through the solid rock. A rumbling sound filled her ears as her soft flesh – soft to her, at least – crushed the rock to dust.

Julia enjoyed the sensation of her nipples gouging out tracks in the limestone. Everything that was fixed and immovable to men was just a toy to her. She wanted to explore this world, and her body, so much more!

And Howard, like Julia in the chimney, doesn’t need to leave – not yet. He just needs to know that the way out is known and available to him. He needs to see that shaft of light, Julia concluded, and it’s my job to find it for him.

————

The house was quiet when Julia returned to it. Andos had already taken Becky, Roddie and the other boys away, per his wife’s instructions. Mindy and Ruth were nowhere to be found.

She slipped into the home office, unseen. On the computer, a single image of the caves consumed only a fraction of the five-foot-wide space. The remainder was dark.

Her fingers traced over the keyboard, its keys packed with symbols, its layout as complicated as the written language it codified. This keyboard had bewildered her earlier. But with her new mastery of the written language, she had to furrow her brow for only a moment before she had it.

Julia opened a browser window and did a simple search on the Caves. Howard was right: the caves were like a bowl of spaghetti. The extreme complexity was only worsened by the task of displaying the three-dimensional complex on a two-dimensional screen. Looking at a bowl of spaghetti in cross-section tells you nothing about where the noodles are going, Julia realized. She flipped through a dozen maps in rapid sequence: even taken together, they presented an incoherent picture. Even interactive maps that allowed her to rotate the image were of no use: the bowl of spaghetti was equally incomprehensible from all angles. No wonder Howard had found the task impossible.

"Try a visualization." It was Mindy's voice, rich and sweet like chocolate. "They're easy to find on the internet."

Julia had been so engrossed that she had failed to notice the obvious sounds of the four-hundred-pound girl approaching. "What's a visualization?"

"Men can't do them." The girl reached over Julia for the keyboard.

The older woman felt a shiver run through her as the scent of hibiscus filled the air. The warm weight of the girl's breast scraped over Julia's forearm, with agonizing slowness. She felt a warmth, too, forming between her legs. Howard left me hungry for affection, Julia realized, and the lingering alcohol in me is only adding fuel to that fire.

Under Mindy's control, the screen lit up – not just the part Howard had been using, but the whole five-foot-by-four-foot area. It filled with numbers.

"The government publishes this data for everyone to use," Mindy said. "They're coordinates: latitude, longitude, and depth. Each one plots a point in the cave complex. You can use them to make a three-dimensional map."

"How?" Julia paged down the screen. The tally at the bottom indicated that the data set represented about two million points.

The luxurious sweetness of Mindy's voice filled the room with laughter. "You memorize them, you dolt."

"Two million numbers. How can I possibly memorize all that?"

"No, each of the points has latitude, longitude and depth. Two million points on the map – that's six million numbers." Mindy's laughter returned. "What are you, scared?"

Julia grew self-conscious. A girl nearly half her age was mocking her intelligence. Julia felt like she was back at the side of the house, being told to grab a bar and lift.

She forced herself to relax, to clear the anxiety away, to let her brain function at its best. She stared at the screen, the size of a small dining room table. It contained the first five thousand numbers. They soaked into her brain instantly. Wow, Julia thought. She could feel her mind rising to the challenge, flexing like a muscle. The sensation was thrilling.

She paged down. Another five thousand numbers soaked in. Oh wow.

She paged down again – another five thousand numbers. She could recall them all perfectly. It felt fantastic.

She paged down again – another five thousand numbers.

"Uggh." Mindy's voice dripped with sweet disdain. "I'm going to get old and grey before you're done with this."

Julia felt the younger girl's finger press down on top of her own. The key beneath clicked, causing the browser to page forward. Mindy kept the woman's finger gently pinned down, and the screen became a blur. It was paging through reams of data at blinding speed. One hundred thousand numbers sped by. Then two hundred thousand. Then the balance of the data set, all six million numbers. Julia felt her mental function swell with newfound power, absorbing the deluge of data with ease, committing it to perfect memory. She could access it, all of it with only a thought – no staring at screens, no flipping through paper.

Mindy took her finger off of Julia's, tracing a tantalizing trail up the woman's forearm. "Now," Mindy said, "close your eyes."

Julia did so. Her field of view filled with blackness. She felt Mindy's strong hands settle on the slopes of her shoulders. She's flirting with me, Julia thought. But Julia didn't resist.

Mindy's voice oozed over Julia's mind like warm syrup. "Now, plot the points in your mind."

She thought about the first few coordinates and plotted a point into the blackness - just a single bright dot in her mind's eye. She did another, and another, and then let her mind loose on the task. The blackness blossomed into millions of bright dots – a three dimensional map more complex and detailed than all of the old-style maps she had seen.

“My mind is absurdly powerful,” she whispered.

“Comparing Howard's mind to yours…” Mindy whispered back, “… is like comparing the size of a normal man to the size of a skyscraper.”

Julia rocked back in the large office chair, her eyes still closed. She could feel her brain accelerating again as it visualized all two million plotted points instantly and with perfect accuracy. She tried to recall her original walk into this world: the specific ways in which the passages she traversed had twisted and turned. She tried to remember anything unusual. A hairpin turn, a long straight stretch – anything that would stand out in her new visualized map. Her memory of the cave passages was fuzzy, as she had traversed them before her mind had been Nourished. But several aspects of the first cave walk stuck with her, and she began to search for those items on the map.

With fewer than four thousand possibilities to evaluate, the task took her computer-like mind only half a minute. Once she was done, only a small fraction of passages remained eligible. She then thought about the intersections, comparing the twelve thousand ones in her mind's map to the ones she remembered from her walk. After only a few seconds, she rose from the chair a smile on her face.

"That was easy," Julia whispered, her eyes opening. Julia tilted her head back to look up at Mindy, the girl's downward-pointed face framed by a curtain of luxurious, walnut-colored hair. "There are three thousand nine hundred and sixty passages, and nearly twelve thousand intersections. Howard never would have figured it out."

"Duh. Guys can never figure stuff out." Mindy yawned. “You going to scout the route?”

“Yes, tonight, if I can.”

Mindy took Julia’s hands and gently pulled the woman to her feet. There wasn’t much room to stand, and women with such bustlines needed room. Julia felt the hardness of Mindy’s nipples dance across her own. “Take me with you.”

“I don’t know…” Julia could only imagine the havoc Mindy’s precocious behavior would wreak on Earth.

“I can help you make it safe for your little man with his puny little body,” Mindy pouted.

“That’s quite alright. I can do that on my own.”

“But you owe me, for helping you.” The girl’s pout was simply adorable.

Julia felt her resistance slipping. She put up her hands in protest, but they landed on the girl’s immense biceps. Her immensely sexy biceps.

“Think about it,” Mindy hummed. “No Howard, no boys, just us. No fragile egos to coddle. No fragile bodies to protect. Just two super-fucking-strong girls in two super-fucking-invincible bodies in a very fragile world. Don’t you like that idea?”

Oh, Julia thought. That sounds so, so sweet.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Mindy prodded. “Just give me a poke to say yes.”

If I let her come, it should be because of her specific abilities, Julia cautioned herself. Not because of how much fun it sounds. Not because of how sexy she seems to me right now. But then her mind’s eye visualized the girl’s fabulous curves, how she looked in that skimpy blue thing the other day, and suddenly the idea of Mindy coming along seemed very, very nice. She felt the nubs of her breasts harden into the ends of nightsticks.

“Ooooh! There’s the poke! I knew you’d like the idea,” Mindy purred, dropping her hands and taking a step back. “Want to fuck a few guys before we leave? Amanda brought some extras.”

“I’ll stick with my one guy, thanks.”

Julia was incredulous. Their minds had just performed a superhuman feat. And now Mindy had somehow secured herself a spot on the next trip through some magical portal into another world. And yet, the only thing the girl could think about was where to get fresh boy toys. Mindy was so nonchalant about all of this, Julia began to wonder whether bringing the girl to Earth was a horrendous idea. It was like showing the bull how to get into the china shop. She began to look for reasons for Mindy not to come.

“Wait? Isn’t your recital in a few days?”

“Yea, so?”

“Does it really make sense to come? Don’t you have to practice? Aren’t you nervous?”

“No, I already practiced. At this point, I’m pretty much perfect.” The teenager strode out of the room, her taut, spherical derriere and powerful thighs swaying beneath her flimsy skirt.

Yes, Julia thought, her resistance to the girl’s attractions melting. Perfect indeed.

————

She followed Mindy out the back door to the porch and the beach. Howard was out there, chatting with some guys that had been strolling down the beach at sunset.

"Howard!" Julia startled herself with her own volume. Her voice boomed across the beach like a cannon and ground the activity of the men to a halt. It was the voice of authority. He turned and she motioned him to her.

Howard didn't come at first. At a hundred yards away, her magnificent vision could easily detect the corners of his mouth turn downward by a fraction of an inch. He was still upset over the day's humiliations, she could tell. He looked straight at her, and then returned to the conversation.

But the other men admonished him. When a woman calls, you answer, she heard the men say. You don't jog, you run.

Howard jogged.

"Let's talk inside," Julia suggested when he arrived. "I want to tell you something special."

"Why? It's not like anyone can hear us over here."

Julia was not in the mood to cajole. She grabbed Howard by the upper arm, one-handed, and hoisted him off his feet, his 175 pounds nothing to her, and marched him to the house. He squirmed and protested, feet flailing in the air, but could do nothing to return himself to the ground. It was actually pretty cute. Despite the trouble it's caused us, she admitted, having so much power can come in handy.

Howard's feet did not touch the ground until they were back in the home office. He sunk into the couch across from the computer. It was large and plush, with leather upholstery and heavy wood framing. He seemed to disappear into it.

She stood over him as his gaze bore into the carpet.

"Howard, I need to tell you something. Please look at me."

But he didn’t.

The bottom of the sofa contained convenient handholds, so that women could move it without damage. Julia crouched down, slid her fingers into them, and lifted. Howard and the sofa rose easily off the ground.

Julia took a moment to appreciate the muscles that were doing the work – if it could even be called "work." The man and the furniture combined couldn't have been more than 500 pounds. Her football-sized biceps had not flexed at all to handle that load.

Howard’s gaze continued to avoid hers.

"Howard, you and the sofa weigh about as much as a cup of coffee to me. I can hold this position all day if I need to." As if to emphasize the point, she removed one hand from the sofa and rested it on her hip.

But his gaze continued to crawl across the floor.

"HOWARD."

Her voice filled the room and vibrated its contents. The mouse on the computer jiggled so much that it brought the screen back to life.

He looked her in the eye now, scared.

Damn it, she thought. That wasn't how I wanted this to go.

She could see the reflection of the computer screen on his irises. She could see the furrows on his brows as he tried to comprehend it. "What is that?" he asked.

"A list of coordinates for the caves." Julia twisted the sofa in midair to give him a better view of the screen. She felt butterflies in her stomach. “I found the way home."

————

Julia found herself encircled by Howard's arms. He had slid down off the seat off the elevated sofa and into a in a vigorous bear hug. At least, she thought it was a bear hug. She couldn't really tell whether he was squeezing her or not. But she found his gratitude adorable. So caught off guard was she by the gesture that she had to place the sofa on its end just to reciprocate his embrace.

"Thank you, Julia. thank you!" He broke the embrace, slid to the ground, and grasped her hands. "I can't believe you found the way home. “I can’t believe you did it.”

“It was easier than you might think.” Julia felt a swell of pride. Whenever she had been in trouble back on Earth, he had always been the one that saved the day. Now, it was her.

"When do we go?" he asked.

The swell of pride crested and crashed on the beach. It was followed by a swell of misgivings. “I would have thought that just knowing a route existed would have put you at ease.”

“It doesn’t.” Howard released her hands and backed away. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“We’ll scout it.”

“Good. When do we leave?”

“Not you and me,” Julia replied sheepishly. “Mindy and me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Safety, honey. Mindy is not just stronger and faster than you. Things that would injure you have no effect on her. She can see in extremely low light conditions. Her endurance is exponentially greater. She can punch through solid rock with her fist. With no men along, we can do so much more.”

“But…” he sputtered. “But… you’re still learning cave travel. And Mindy knows nothing about it. I’ve got more exper—”

“Experience doesn’t matter when comparing the Nourished to the Un. I acquire physical skills thousands of times faster than you. And my mind is expanding now, too, which makes navigating the caves all the easier. When you combine that with how much physical power we have, there’s no point in having you along on a scouting trip.”

“Oh, well don’t let me stand in the way of your most important friendships.”

“DAMN IT, Howard.” Julia’s voice exploded into the room, rattling the windows. “The caves are DANGEROUS. People get hurt in there. You think this is all a game?”

She watched Howard’s body crumble in on itself, now fully intimidated.

That turned her emotions on their head. From petulant to vulnerable – he suddenly looked so scared, so in need of her protection. She wanted to cuddle him. She also knew right then and there that the argument was over: he would concede to whatever she decided. The fact that she had so easily taken charge of the conversation made Julia feel guilty, but it was also, Julia had to admit, just a little bit thrilling. She took his delicate, little hands in hers and forced her voice to soften again. “Please, Howard. I’m doing this for you – to reassure you that the path back is one hundred percent certain. And I’m doing it in the safest, fastest way possible, which means no men.”

That defeated look only worsened in Howard’s eyes. “There’s part of me that is just… starting to wonder whether I’ll ever see Earth again.”

She felt a warm glow when she looked into those eyes, full of fragility.

“You will see Earth again, honey. All in due time.”

“OK,” he conceded, his shoulders relaxing. “Promise me you’ll come back for me.”

The request wounded Julia. Did he expect her to abandon him? But she tried to ignore the hurt, tried to remember how vulnerable the man must feel. “I’ll do you one better than simply return: I’ll bring you a souvenir so that you can know for yourself that I made it to the other side. But you have to make me a promise as well: Stay close to Ruth and the family. There are good people here and there are bad ones. You haven’t run into the second category yet, but they’re here. And you’re an outsider, with little knowledge of how things work, few connections… you’re easy prey.”

“OK, I will be careful. It won’t be hard: this world already feels safer just knowing that Mindy won’t be in it.”

Julia laughed, the reminder of her precocious friend stirring something equally pleasant inside of her.

Howard grabbed her by the wrists, his almond eyes wide with sincerity. “And you be careful too.”

Him, worried about her? It was SO cute. It made her insides mushy with affection for him. Julia found her arms encircling him, his flimsy body collapsing easily into her snuggle. She would have done it forever if it hadn’t been for newly labored sound of his breathing and the soft crunching of his bones rearranging themselves to accommodate her embrace.

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