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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Uncharted Territory by Charity Tahmaseb

"How far do you think we have to go?"

Lillian's question came at what Gordon guessed was the five mile mark. Although in the dark, on an unfamiliar road, in the middle of August, he really couldn't judge. Another five miles? Or perhaps fifty.

"Until what?" Every stone, every pebble bit through the thin soles of his Italian loafers. "We drop dead from exhaustion?"

"Maybe we should check the map," Lillian said.

Gravel stopped crunching behind him. Gordon turned. Lillian's white T-shirt shimmered like a ghost above the dirt road, her black hair and dark jeans fading into the night. The sky held only a sliver of moon. Thick, humid air felt like film clouding his eyes.

Check the map. A reasonable suggestion, assuming there was light, which there wasn't. "With what?" he asked.

"My key chain."

Yes, of course. "That makes perfect sense."

She didn't respond to his words or their sarcastic tone. Lillian's knapsack-style purse thumped on the ground. A moment later, a penlight sliced through the dark.

"See?" she said, rattling the keys. The thin beam of light flickered and bounced.

"Clever, sweetheart. Now where's the map?"

"You have it."

Silence bloomed between them. For the first time since they started their trek, Gordon noticed the noises of the night. Tall cornstalks lined the road, and something rustled in the inky void they created. Mosquitoes nattered in his ears.

"Gordon?" Her voice cracked, just slightly. "Don't you have the map?"

"I thought you had it."

"I told you to take it," she said.

"Why would I when you carry around everything in that damn knapsack of yours."

Silence again. A thrashing came from the cornfield. Gordon jumped and backed toward the center of the road. "What the hell was that?"

"Just some animal in the cornfield."

"I know that." He gave an audible sigh. "I was wondering what it is."

"Afraid it might eat you, city boy?"

"Considering the options at this point--" He broke off to slap the mosquito that was probing its way toward his jugular. "Let's go. Maybe we can find the main road from here."

Lillian fell in behind him, her Chuck Taylor All Stars pounding out a cadence against the gravel. He'd complained about the sneakers and her T-shirt before they left for the evening. The jeans he tolerated--they showcased enticing snatches of her skin through the many holes. When she saw his outfit, Lillian rolled her eyes.

"You said we were going to a boat party." He brushed imaginary lint from the sleeve of his navy blazer and ignored her derisive snort.

"This isn't Long Island. It's not that kind of party."

They arrived to the aroma of bratwursts sizzling and popping on the grill. Jet-skis roared through the bay and children chased each other along the shore. Lillian's bikini-clad best friend felt the need to hug him, imprinting an oil slick on his blazer. He still wore the sweet odor of coconuts--no doubt attracting every mosquito within a five-mile radius. Leaving early had been Lillian's idea, the inadvertent wrong turn, his.

The footsteps behind him halted. Gordon glanced over his shoulder. Lillian's T-shirt wavered.

"What are we doing?" she asked.

"Trying to find the main road."

"I mean … you ... me ... us."

He knew what she meant. At first he'd found the contrast exhilarating. He was NYC, summers in the Hamptons, a vintage Jag that spent most of its time in the shop. And Lillian was--he slapped another mosquito--corn-feeds in the YMCA parking lot, the county fair, a Girl Scout.

Last month, he slipped her into Manolos and Prada and showed her off to his friends. The other night, her brother had scrunched a John Deere cap on Gordon's head and pushed him toward left field. An innovative game where, upon reaching home base, players received a cup of foaming, lukewarm beer. Not surprisingly, Gordon stayed sober.

When had their summer fling changed? What had it changed into? She shuffled across the road, away from him. He neglected to shoo the mosquitoes until one sneaked inside his shirt and added a sting just above his heart.

"I just don't know what we're doing anymore," she said from across the road.

"Neither do I."

She stomped her feet, a frustrated sound that left a fine layer of grit on his skin. The silence settled around them again, punctuated by Lillian's hitched breathing.

"Sweetheart," he said. "Are you crying?"

"No," came the muffled reply.

"Did somebody say something? One of your friends?" He ran his hands through his hair. "Christ, it was my mother, wasn't it? What did she say to you?"

"Actually, she was very nice."

"She did mention my taste in women has improved dramatically."

A hiccup or a giggle? He couldn't tell. "Your mother seemed to like me," he ventured.

"Are you kidding? She brought out the good sherry. She adores you."

"So what do you think?" Gordon shrugged although he knew Lillian couldn't see him. "Would they get along?"

"The only thing they have in common is the same color nail polish."

"Really?" He hadn't noticed. "Kindred spirits then." Gordon paused and let the mosquitoes fill the quiet for a moment. "Think there's a chance for their offspring?"

"Oh, Gordon."

How did she do it? How did she say his name with so much sweetness and just a hint of admiration? Or was it love? He didn't know. He hated nicknames in general, and Gordo in particular. Because of that, he'd never called her by one, not Lil, nor Lilly--unless he called her sweetheart.

"So." He glanced around--again, not that she could see him, not that he could see much of anything but Lillian's white Tee. "You grew up around here?"

"About twenty miles south. It's not like we had a cornfield in our backyard." She kicked at the ground and pebbles scattered. "Well, there was one down the road from us."

"A guy could get used to cornfields."

"What are you saying?"

"I don't know." He didn't, so why not admit it? "I do know that I've never called anyone sweetheart before. And I know if I have to be lost, I'm glad it's with you."

"So you ran out of gas on purpose?"

He laughed. "Believe me, I haven't intentionally run out of gas since I was seventeen."

Now that was a giggle. The cornstalks rustled. A slight breeze chilled his sweat-soaked skin and chased the mosquitoes away. "So. You ... me ... the cornfield. What next?"

The white T-shirt shrugged. "I've never been stranded in a cornfield with a guy before."

"I don't believe it." He took a step toward her side of the road and was rewarded with the sound of her footfall. "That makes me your first."

"I guess, in a way, you are."

They met in the center of the dusty county road. He traced his fingertips over the contours of Lillian's face. Her skin was slick from clammy air, sweat, and tears. Her hands worked their way through his hair and around to the back of his neck. He was about to pull her in for a sultry kiss when Lillian yelped.

"What?" He spun around, expecting to confront the beast from the cornfield. "What is it?"

She caught him and ran her fingers over the welts on his neck, a move that tantalized and satisfied all at once. "You have a million mosquito bites!"

"I'm sure it's not that many," he said, his tone dry.

"I think I have some ointment in my backpack."

Gordon let her fuss, let her dab the bites with sticky cream that would ruin his linen shirt. The ointment wouldn't help, but he didn't care. He wanted to remember the feel of her touch and how she smelled after walking for miles on a hot August night.

When she crouched to tuck the ointment back in the knapsack, he said, "Damn, you really do have everything in there." Only this time, he said it with admiration. A guy could get used to that, too.

"Well, almost." She sighed. "We still don't have a map."

"That's okay, sweetheart." He clasped Lillian's hands and tugged her to her feet. "We'll find our way without one."

About the Author: Charity Tahmaseb traded BDUs and combat boots for power suits and high heels, then traded those for the dissolute life of a technical writer. She splits her free time between her junior football player and his sister, the aspiring mermaid. On most days she's reminded that you can take the girl out of the Army, but you can't always take the Army out of the girl. Visit Charity at her website:

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