He managed not to kick the dirt in fury but he was having a difficult time reining his temper in. No matter what way they turned, the scenery would change and now they were utterly lost. Setting out in the direction of the creek hadn’t been a bad idea, but with this stupid spell, there was no telling where the creek was, or if it would even remain the same with this – shift spell – on it.
They had immediately decided to mark their trail by etching marks into the tree trunks, but going a mere ten steps from a tree they’d etched proved this task futile, for in looking over their shoulders, they discovered the tree to be entirely altered, and so the mark was missing. Nevertheless, he continued to mark their trail just in case, perhaps now out of sheer obstinacy.
After marching about for a fueled hour, Elise said, “Stop.”
Derrick glanced back at her. She seemed rather winded and it occurred to him that she couldn’t maintain the pace he’d set, particularly carrying a pack on her back. He stopped but scowled his displeasure at her.
He stood there with his hands on his hips, nudging the dirt and leaves with his foot restively, waiting for Elise to pick up her pack again so they could resume their quest into the unknown. He glared at her and sighed loudly. She glared at him and turned her back on him, crossing her arms with a loud rattle of the chain.
Derrick rolled his eyes skyward and began to crack his knuckles one by one, as if each pop was some unmentionable act.
Derrick glanced over his shoulder. How dare she? He snorted and popped two more knuckles as loud as he could.
Elise rounded on her heel. “I said, stop it!”
In reply, Derrick held up his hand defiantly and, meeting her eyes, cracked every single joint in his right hand.
Elise’s blue eyes narrowed with unbridled fury. “If you don’t stop cracking your knuckles, I’m gonna kick your ass,” she growled between clenched teeth.
Derrick didn’t know whether to laugh or reply in kind. Instead, he raised his left hand and, without leaving her eyes, cracked the rest of his knuckles and took a step forward with each crack, a challenge he knew she wouldn’t be able to resist, but he was past caring.
He had a last memory of the whites around her eyes before she launched herself at him.
“What the hell are you doing!” he yelled but had no more time for discussion for he was ducking punches. He’d certainly never believed her claim of physical force. Stupid, considering the blow she’d delivered just the other day. He’d thought she’d just start a yelling match.
He ducked two more swings at his jaw and took one to his torso before he attempted to hold her back. Damn, she fought like a wild thing being caged! Then he got a face full of the chain, stunning him just long enough for Elise to land a good blow to his jaw. Well, damn, he’d always maintained he’d never hit a girl, but what to do when she was hitting you? And how embarrassing, she barely came up to his shoulder!
He came up behind her and tried for the bear hug approach, but perspiration made her slick. She squirmed and slipped around in his arms so that he was beginning to doubt the effectiveness of such a technique. She clawed at his arm and then brought her foot crashing down on his instep and her elbow into his stomach, sending the air out of him, doubling him over.
“Bitch!” he gasped as she struggled free. Now he was pissed.
She couldn’t get far with the chain, however, and while he wouldn’t hit a girl, he had no qualms about tripping one. As everything slowed to a second-by-second motion, he saw the perfect move, as in athletics. He waited until the chain on the ground was in between both of her feet, and then in a swift movement, yanked the chain up. Elise fell forward and Derrick triumphed in the “oomph” that she released when she fell on the ground face first.
By the time she raised herself up on her elbows, the side of her face streaked with leaves and dirt, Derrick had his wind back. He stood straight up, crossing his arms across his chest, and was considering jerking her up into a sitting position by the chain, but as she rose to her knees, she surprised him by yanking the chain and catching him off-guard. Nevertheless, he was ready for her when she tackled him. Some detached part of him found the entire encounter bizarre but the rest of him was so consumed with rage that he welcomed the outlet.
He caught her but she propelled him into a tree. Amazed at the strength her small frame harbored, he used the tree behind him to anchor himself as he gripped her slim shoulders and drove her back. She fought without restraint, punching and clawing! Getting hold of her arms was imperative, he was taking far too much damage and spending way too much time ducking; this was ridiculous. But he wasn’t going to hit a girl!
As Derrick deflected the heavy, rattling chain, he realized that Elise had inserted one of her legs between his, and he had just enough time to realize that, besieged, he was about to find himself abruptly on his back.
His head cracking painfully against a tree root, a string of unflattering obscenities escaped unbidden.
“That’s what you get,” Elise sniffed.
Derrick’s vision was still increased twofold but he had no trouble narrowing it with rage before he jerked Elise and her smug tone off her feet by the chain. Unfortunately, this jerked her nearly on top of him, which then sent them grappling anew and rolling around atop each other in the leaves and dirt. He banged his head at least twice more against a tree root and scraped his elbow on a rock. He employed a number of wrestling moves on her but she wriggled and writhed too well, and while he would have won a match in a ring, this wasn’t wrestling, and she wasn’t playing by the rules. Of course she wasn’t, she was a girl, girls never played by the rules!
All he knew was that while he never hit or punched her, he delighted in using his considerable weight as an advantage in shoving or rolling on top of her. He decided they both used the chain as an equal advantage; it had rapped him several times painfully. She, however, used her fingernails quite unfairly, she had to be sheltering at least a quarter of his skin underneath them by now…. He also was beginning to see why men never fought women, he’d already gotten a few accidental handfuls of things he shouldn’t have, but he’d be damned if he was going to apologize for a single thing. She started this whole mess after all.
Grunting, he rolled on top of her torso and managed to pin her arms to the ground by her elbows so she couldn’t squirm free. Finally! His weight alone kept her immobile and he waited until she was done straining against him.
“Get off me,” she panted, livid with anger.
Derrick continued to sit atop her, his own chest rising and falling with exertion. “No. Not until you give in.” Her eyes glinted dangerously and he was glad he had taken this action, for he now felt sure she would have continued to fight him. Where did she get such vigor? Staring at her flushed face, a drop of perspiration trickled a clean trail through the dirt on her face. He waited while she glared at him.
He recognized then that this was not going to be easy. She was so stubborn! “Give in, and I’ll get up.” A breeze blew the blades of grass around of her face. He wasn’t going to sit up just to have her fly in his face again. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if he could walk away but they were stuck with each other, to each other, in fact.
“Well?” he queried insistently. In other circumstances, he would have found wrestling around in the grass with a girl an ideal turn of events. This, on the other hand, was irony at its best.
“Ugh! I give in! Just get off me, you big brute!” she snarled.
Derrick snorted derisively and sat back, releasing her elbows. She propped herself up on one arm and shoved him square in the chest with the other. He fixed her with a withering glare and swung his leg off of her, moving off to the side as she sat up. He swiped a forearm across his temple, wiping off the dirt and sweat and shook the sticks and leaves out of his hair. An experimental probe of his mouth revealed the distinctive taste of blood.
Licking his lips, Derrick discovered that his lip was split open and, glaring once again at Elise, he spat forth dirt and blood. A number of scratches adorned his forearms, as well as several scrapes from tree bark and rocks, and what he felt sure would be bruises in various places from well-aimed punches, jabs, rocks, roots, and falls. Again, he marveled at the irony – he wouldn’t get this banged up in a fight with a guy, because he could swing back. Instead, he had to endure damage and look like a wimp in a fight with a girl. His only consolation was that she appeared to be nursing some wounds herself, for all he hadn’t struck her. This was stupid. This was all her fault.
The warm wind teased his hair into submissive dishevelment, though he raked a shaking hand through it anyway. Damn her! This was of her doing, all of it, and there she stood impassively, her face turned toward the sun, with her short curls bouncing and her dress flapping about in the wind.
Well, okay. So he could have acquitted himself with a bit more maturity in regards to the stupid windits, but, feeling his temper rise as his tongue explored his split upper lip and tender lower gum, so could’ve she. Damn her!
And damn Gabriella! If this illustrated a conventional mode of discipline applied by the people of this world, he was glad he hadn’t grown up here. This was the penalty for recurrent quarreling? What did they do to kids who were guilty of whatever served as serious offenses here? Damn Gabriella, he swore again as he focused his narrowed gaze on the leaves that the breeze relieved of their boughs flit down in the goldish-green light of the late afternoon sun. Damn all women.
He rarely encountered trouble socially. Derrick benefited from an assorted multitude of friends – several from football, wrestling, baseball, and certainly guys from his classes. If the scarce disagreement surfaced, it never erupted into a dispute, physical, perpetual, or otherwise. Up until now, his mere presence had never begotten a case of Instant Attitude, Just Meet Derrick, the way Elise over there had.
And on the subject of the opposite gender, he had enjoyed a providential affinity thusfar. Upon occasion, Derrick had misplaced a date’s phone number, even once or twice forgot the date altogether, so he had now and again accrued some choice words, well-deserved and attributed to his lousy memory. But aside from that, he got along with everyone, girls – both social and romantic affiliations – guys, teachers, coaches, family, even opposing teammates usually.
And then Elise comes along – what kind of name was that, anyway. She didn’t even know him! Yet so far she had judged him, denounced his character, called him conceited, and stuck-up, and…. What a - Renewed anger furrowed his brows and his fists clenched in resentment.
“You might,” Elise broke into his thoughts, “try closing down the mental works, or this chain’s going to get a lot shorter. I would really not have to have a hand in helping you relieve yourself,” she finished with a cool neutrality and then she held up her slim wrist and rattled the chain attached to it suggestively, adding in a dry tone, “Literally.”
How she made him want to explode! “Go to hell!” Derrick growled.
“You first,” she rejoined, unruffled.
Derrick sucked in a ragged breath in slowly, unclenching his jaw, breathing deeply, counting to ten. The chain that connected him to her clanked, but he ignored it, screwing his eyes shut, concentrating on suppressing his animosity. No use getting so irate over her.
When at last he opened his eyes, she was standing right there, peering up at him.
“What the –” Derrick, startled, moved away, incensed again despite his efforts.
“There are forty-two links in this chain,” she informed him in placid tones.
“Hey, good for you! You can count!” Derrick retorted sarcastically, though he wondered inwardly what she was getting at. Furthermore, he marveled grimly at just how she excelled in bringing the worst out in him. He couldn’t recall ever behaving so badly.
Elise’s eyes narrowed to ice blue slits; placing her hands on her narrow hips, she returned with asperity, “There were sixty in it when we left.” She turned her back on him to lift her chin to the perpetually blowing, sun-warmed wind. He heard what she hadn’t said: Or hadn’t you noticed?
All right. He knew when he was down, there was no use kicking himself. Heaving a long sigh, Derrick rolled his neck around on his shoulders. So revolted at being chained to his archenemy had he been that he had never in fact contemplated the actual instrument of torture itself.
Sobering, Derrick forced himself to focus – this was the first concrete evidence there was. What had she just finished saying? This chain was going to get a lot shorter…. If what? If he persisted in thinking rude thoughts, he supposed with a grimace. That would make sense, if you were Gabriella and wanted two kids who hated each other to start getting along. But how could a chain shorten itself? Oh, never mind. You couldn’t apply the laws of science to a world that operated on magic.
Squaring his shoulders, Derrick summoned his manners and ventured, “So every time we – yell at each other – or whatever,” he stumbled guiltily, “the chain loses a link?”
Elise looked him up and down before answering evenly, “Or whatever.”
Without warning, she sat down against a tree and drew her knees up in front of her. The movement tugged at the chain attached to his wrist, yanking him forward, like a dog on a leash, he thought, starting to seethe again. Then he stopped. They’d be dogs on a very short leash if he continued to react like that. All she did was sit down, after all, and that was only natural, after standing all this time.
Derrick sank down in the grass as far away as the chain would permit him comfortably and allowed himself to relax. Why should I let her bother me, why should I care what she thinks of me?
After some reflection, he decided gingerly that perhaps that he wasn’t accustomed to being disliked. Or criticism, or inaptitude either. He flicked a bug off of his knee and rearranged himself restlessly. But still he returned to the same question – what had he ever done to inspire such condemnation? He had never seen Elise until the day he found her and the others that first day by the stream.
Knowing he had nothing to lose by asking, Derrick leaned his elbows forward on his knees and resolved firmly to stifle any negativity from his demeanor. “So why exactly do you hate me so much?”
Elise turned to regard him and arched an eyebrow. “I should think you’d know by now.”
Well, yes. Let’s see. She’s decried me for being conceited, stuck-up, stuck on myself, arrogant, sanctimonious, a know-it-all, an idiot, condescending, patronizing…. But what did I do to merit such appraisals?
Derrick managed to master his expression, though his inquiry rang dry. “Fine, but what did I ever do to make you think that? No one I know but you thinks that.”
“That’s because they all see you through their rose-colored glasses as some kind of god. I see you for the jerk you really are,” she responded tartly.