Henry stayed as close to the middle of his track as he could manage.
He wished he had a stick. Fortunately, it appeared they were almost back to camp. At least, he hoped they were. He’d once again completely lost track of time.
He felt Alice’s hand slip into his. He looked over at her. She had that mischievous look again.
“I’ll protect you from the big, bad snakes, Henry,” she said, laughing, “Lions and tigers and bears, too.”
With her body wrapped in that psychedelic towel and her head covered in that psychedelic hair, she looked ageless, like some kind of voodoo priestess who’d mysteriously teleported from the sixties. Yet, as he looked at her, he realized he actually did feel better holding her hand. Not that he’d ever admit it to her. Not directly, anyway.
“Not much of a country boy, I guess,” he said, glancing off into the scrubby grass following alongside the trail.
“No, I’d definitely say you’re not.”
He felt his towel slip a notch and grabbed it with his free hand. Alice had his newly washed clothes and didn’t seem in a hurry to give them back.
“Just because we paused doesn’t mean the game’s over,” she said, “Right?”
He stopped and looked at her. “Wait. I think it was a draw.”
“A draw?” She threw him a laugh that was too sinister by miles. “A draw? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I thought so,” he said, wincing, “Seems now I’m having second thoughts.”
“No draws. It’s un-American. I can’t abide a draw, never could. In my world we play to the death.”
“You were lying, weren’t you?” he said, “You don’t give a crap about any trophy. For you it’s just the kill. You like chasing your prey through the dark forest, isn’t that right? You like watching them grow more and more frightened, keeping them looking over their shoulder, waiting for them to tire out so you can take your shot. Just nod or smile if I’m close.”
Alice feigned offense. “My goodness, Henry. What a low opinion you have of me. Do I really look that dangerous?” She batted her eyes at him. “Well, do I?”
“More dangerous than any single person I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. He meant it.
She laughed again. “We’ll continue it through the day.”
“What do you mean we’ll continue it through the day?”
“What’s the matter,” she said, squeezing his hand, “Scared you’ll lose?”
“Scared to death. But that’s not important right now. I don’t see how we can do it. If I ask you what time it is, does that count as a question?”
“Good lord, you have such a rigid way of thinking.”
“Go ahead. Make fun,” he said, “But a game needs structure. Otherwise it’s not a game, it’s just life.”
“Fine, Analman. What’s your plan, then?”
“Well… I’m not sure.”
“Give me your best guess.”
“All right. For starters, I suggest we create pause and resume buttons.”
“Yeah, like whosever turn is next has the option to say ‘Game On’ at any time, and the game resumes. Or they say ‘Game Off’, and the game pauses.”
She looked at him like he was nuts.
“It’s not that complicated, Alice,” he said, “Surely a girl who has ‘a sense about things’ can figure it out. Game on, game off. Simple.”
She dropped his hand and punched his arm.
“Ow!” He grabbed his shoulder, and as he did his towel dropped to the dirt.
“Oops,” she said, laughing.
Henry quickly grabbed the towel and pulled it up over himself. “Damn towel!”
“My goodness, you’re a shy boy, Henry.”
He secured the towel and sent her a look. “I’m not shy! We just… we barely know each other.”
“We were just skinny dipping together, for love’s sake. It’s not sexual Romper Room, it’s just your skin.” She was still laughing.
“Well, there might’ve been people coming up ahead. Or maybe your brother, Nancy. How the hell can I walk naked in front of a bearded guy named Nancy? Fuck!”
“Henry, everyone bathes nude back here. Why would anyone want to wear a suit in a hot spring?”
“I’m just more comfortable with… dressed!” he said, scowling, “Let it go all ready.”
“Fine,” she said.
“Fine,” he said back.
“But you look perfectly normal naked, if that’s what worrying—”
“Relax, my dear. I’m just playing with you.” She grabbed his hand, held it to her nose, and sniffed. “Geez, you clean up good. You don’t smell like shit or anything.”
Henry pulled his hand away. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Have you always been so particular about being naked? How about when you were a kid? Did you wear trunks to take a bath?”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“I mean, you were publicly hitchhiking covered in vomit, piss, and who knows what else, and you seemed perfectly comfortable with it. But going naked in front of strangers has you mortified? I don’t get it.”
“How far are we going with this?” Henry snapped, “When we’ve known each other longer than a day I’ll do the Macarena naked for you. Until then, stop making a case of it, all right?” He was getting pissed.
“A day? That’s a deal, mister. And I’m inviting Nancy.”
“Like hell, you are.”
She looked at him for a moment. Her lasers abruptly intensified, and then she said, “Of course, maybe it’s not modesty at all. Maybe it’s something else.”
He sent her a look. “My God, Alice! You’re obsessed with this.”
“Maybe you’re just afraid you’ll look at me naked and have a naughty thought at an inopportune moment.” She squeezed his hand as she laughed.
She was thoroughly amused with herself, and he was thoroughly irritated by it. “You’re some piece of work.”
“It’s the most natural thing in the world, Henry,” she said, still tittering, “Land sakes, some guys have to take pills. You should be grateful.”
“Bloody hell! Are we almost there?”