Henry scrubbed his soaped shirt against a submerged rock.
He’d seen the aboriginal people do it this way on National Geographic a hundred times, but in actual practice, it just didn’t seem that efficient. Maybe it was the buttons. He didn’t think loincloths had buttons.
When he’d scrubbed it about as long as his attention span would allow, he rinsed it, wrung it out, and threw it up over the same rock where his pants and underwear were drying in the sun. Then he sank back down into the hot pool and closed his eyes. Alice had been right; he did feel like a new man. Or at least a refurbished one. Even his headache seemed to have taken a vacation.
“Everyone’s heading back to Fort Drift.”
Henry nearly jumped out of his skin.
He twisted around toward the voice and found Alice standing over him. Her head perfectly blocked the sun so that her face was shadowed within a golden halo. It sent him reeling back to his school days, to his years of incarceration at St. Barnabus, to the saints looking down at him with their cold, judging eyes. The image was so surreal, he couldn’t think to do anything but stare at her.
“Hello? Earth to Henry?”
Her voice again slapped him back to the moment. “Sorry,” he said quickly. Another profound moment in the Life of Henry.
“I said everyone’s heading back to Fort Drift.”
She shifted to one leg. The sun popped over her head, thankfully shattering the holy illusion. He held a hand up to block the light. She was mercifully repackaged in her towel again.
“Fort Drift?” he said, squinting up at her. He wondered for a moment if he’d blacked out again.
“The van,” she said with a laugh, “It’s kind of a family name.”
“You name your van,” he said. His first assessment had been right: Madder than hatters, the whole bunch.
“They’ve had enough,” she said, “Bridge and Ed are going to grab some Z’s. Nancy’s going to throw breakfast together.”
“Oh, that’s cool.” He winced at that. Oh, that’s cool. Really groovy, man. What was he, twelve?
“I’m going down to the river bend for a regular swim before I go back,” she said, waving toward the amphitheater-shaped cliff, “It’s not far, and the water’s deeper there. Care to join?”
Before he could reply, she’d grabbed his towel and held it out like a royal robe for him to climb into. He wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.
“Earth to Henry,” she said again, “The clock is ticking.”
He looked up at the waiting towel. “Oh, did I say yes?” he asked seriously, “Because I don’t recall that. Maybe I just didn’t hear myself say it?”
“You didn’t say it. But you were about to.”
He made no effort to get out of the water. He wasn’t about to prance naked before a stranger. Especially a stranger who looked like—
“You’re keeping me waiting.”
He studied her for a moment. Though her face was still darkened before the sun, he could feel the intensity of her gaze. “Do people always do what you order them to?” he asked her, mostly as a diversion.
“Even people you’ve just met?”
“I told you, I have a sense about people. I know their needs better than they do.”
“Well, you sure as hell don’t lack confidence.”
“I have low tolerance for indecision,” she said firmly, “It’s a useless trait, one whose only purpose is to annoy those of us who are decisive.”
He recognized that tone; it probably came from her mother. He still didn’t get out of the water.
“Are you trying to annoy me, Henry?”
“I suspect annoying you would not be a smart decision,” he said.
“You suspect correctly.”
Her laughter amused him. It was unselfconscious, a laugh that took its job seriously. It was not good news.
“So,” she said carefully, “For the sake of clarity, let me repeat. I am going for a swim in the river. You would care to join me.”
“Since you put it that way, I guess I would.” But as he looked up at the towel, he again hesitated.
“Do I need to look away?” she said.
“I barely know you.”
“Don’t be so shy, Henry. We’re all born naked.”
“We’re also born incontinent. Doesn’t mean I’m going to urinate in front of you.”
“You don’t have to. I saw your clothes. I don’t think you have many secrets left from me.”
That simple statement suddenly put everything into perspective. There was no armor he could put up to fend off that truth. His only path now was to retreat.
“Well,” he said, shaking his head, “That’s about as sad a kernel of truth as I have ever had the misfortune to hear.” And with that, he climbed up out of the water and stepped into the waiting towel.