The solitary inflated tube bounced clumsily down the frenzied river with its four passengers. Cold water from the New River sprayed LaKia Jackson over and over as she dipped her oar into the crystalline water in unison with the others in her raft.
Urgently Terrence shouted, “Nic, LaKia rock...left!”
Terrence and Kendis removed their oars from the water. LaKia and Nichelle dragged their oars in the river and paddled repeatedly until sweat blended with the mist of river water covering their bodies.
“Rock, right!” belted Terrence.
“LaKia watch your right,” repeated Kendis.
Concentrating on her left, she had ignored Terrence and Kendis’ last call. Her oar collided with a rock, snapping and cracking as it ripped from her hands shattering into smaller pieces. Her fingers quivered from the prickly sensations shooting through them. Her heart leapt from her chest when she saw the rock in front of them. The momentum from her body cast her from the raft.
Kendis caught her around the waist, but his grip slipped.
She fell sideways, rocking the raft, into the water. The vibration inside her helmet as it bounced off the rubber tube rang in her ears.
Cold spring water of the New River gorge rushed into her mouth. Gasping for air, she tried to pull herself back into the raft. Her hands were too wet. A sickening wave of terror welled up in her belly. “Nic-, Terrence help.”
Frantic, her friends’ hands and arms thrashed through the water. They couldn’t catch her as they guided the raft around the rocks. Waves of salty water filled her nose and mouth; she sank beneath the water, but her vest buoyed her back to the surface.
She had been trained for this...what was it again? Point your feet downstream, keep your body limp, and protect your head. How do you keep your body limp, when you’re scared out of your mind?
Her torso ping-ponged from rock to rock banging her arms and back against every stone in the gorge; slowly consciousness began to drain from her body. Choking from the water in her mouth, she gagged as she slipped beneath the water again. The ragged pieces of her vest, shredded by the gorge’s rocks, floated in the water around her.
The arm that pulled her out of the river felt as solid as the rocks beating against her body. For a moment, she thought she wasn’t being pulled from the water and that she had drowned. But, then she felt the warm air of summer brush across her cold wet skin; her rescuer’s other arm reached down and wrapped around her body to secure his grip. Shivering as she laid on the bottom of the raft, she opened her eyes. Kendis Washington—her enemy, was now her rescuer.
She stirred and awakened as Kendis slid his hands beneath her limp frame. Each shove of her battered body sent a painful shock through her. Fluidly, he scooped her off the rubber floor of the raft and headed toward the dressing tents.
The lantern-lit dirt trail leading to the changing area was covered by indistinguishable shadows and silhouettes to LaKia. She could make out the sounds of small wildlife scurrying about toiling through their nightly rituals, and other guests finishing up their day on the river revving up their car engines to return home. Hickory scented smoke perfumed the air as some rafters prepared for a hamburger, and hot dog medley.
Kendis gingerly navigated the fallen brush and holes dug by man or maybe the local wildlife to bury food or dwell. But, she frowned with the vibration of each step.
She tightened her arms around his neck to control her bounce in his as he carried her to the dressing tent with Nichelle and Terrence in tow. Once inside, she cautiously uncurled her incredibly long legs in search of the cement floor beneath them. She wanted to say something. “Thank…you.” Then her words failed her.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he responded.
“Me, too. I don’t care what you say, you need to learn how to swim,” said Terrence.
Terrence and Kendis retreated to the male dressing tent. Nichelle helped her slowly remove her wetsuit. “I was so scared, Ki. I don’t know what I would’ve done if he hadn’t saved you.” She watched as her friend tucked the tattered suit away into her netted garment bag resting on a bench in the corner. The bear hug Nichelle trapped her in caused her sore muscles to hurt even more, but as her friend’s tears fell to her shoulder, she gritted her teeth and hugged her with the last ounces of strength in her body.
Nichelle stepped away and wiped at the tears dangling from her lashes. “But, what a story you have to tell. Gorgeous man scooping you out of the waves and carrying you back to your tent.”
Shaking her head rigorously from side to side, she tried to shake the thoughts of Kendis out onto the ground beneath her feet. As much as her body hurt it should have been easy, but she could not stop herself from imagining his arms encircling her again. “No story to tell,” she croaked.
With carefully planned movements, she undressed in the tarp tent. “I can’t believe I fell in. I can usually lock myself in the raft pretty good.” The bruises from her fall prevented her from moving as quickly as her friend.
“Maybe you were nervous.”
Cutting Nichelle a what-are-you-talking-about look, she asked, “Nervous about what?”
“Do you remember once when we were at work there was this gorgeous courier that gave you a package, you signed then immediately turned around and tripped over air? He picked you up, and helped you with the box you were carrying.” Holding her stomach, Nichelle rested her back against the metal pole in the center of the tent. Her body shook from laughter. “Oh man that still brings tears to my eyes. At least I know you like the way Kendis looks.”
“I didn’t throw myself out of the raft to get his attention.” Secretly, she thought she wouldn’t have to work that hard. He struck her as the type of guy that wanted to be noticed and that would take notice of anything in a skirt. “I think I fell out because you and your husband were so busy watching me and Kendis that y’all didn’t guide the raft around the big fat rock we hit.”
“Well, at least you’re okay. “
“But what do you think? Of him? You two going on a date? You know.”
LaKia stretched her legs along the wooden bench she sat on, and massaged her bruised thighs as she frowned. “What do I think? We work together.”
“Not really.” Nichelle slipped on her crisp, dark blue jeans.
“He’s gorgeous, but we do work together.”
“You always look for an excuse.”
Annoyed, she responded, “An excuse?”
“Yeah. What happened between you and Derrick doesn’t mean you have to shut yourself off from the opportunity to meet someone else—-a good man.”
“Every time I tell you I don’t want to meet someone, you think it’s because of Derrick.”
“Well it is.”
“No. It’s not. What about Tony?”
“Okay. You gave one guy a chance, but it didn’t last long and I still don’t know what happened with that.”
“There’s nothing to know...it didn’t work out,” she snapped.
“I guess not. But this time it was my husband. I told him you were tired of my matchmaking. Sorry girl, but I knew you’d find a reason not to come if you knew only the four of us would be rafting.”
“You’re right. Remind me to strangle your husband.”
“You’re a beautiful twenty-eight year old woman whose life is work-work-work.”
“I like what I do.”
Nichelle stopped tying the lace on her sneakers; stood up, and wagged a finger in her direction. “Good lord, that’s not what I mean.” She pointed at LaKia’s body, and then her hair. “If you put a little effort into the way you dress, your hair, or take a vacation once in a while maybe you’d meet a great guy or at least have a little fun.”
“What? Do you want me to walk around dressed like a hooker with a big FOR SALE sign on my forehead?”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she muttered.
“Come on out of there ladies. We’ve changed and we’re ready to go.” Terrence yelled from outside of the tent.
“We’re on our way out,” her friend shouted, and she grabbed her ears. Nichelle’s yell made her head ache even more. Nichelle threw a hand over her mouth, and only removed it briefly to speak in a whisper. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.”
“I’m okay. Don’t worry about it. Go ahead. I’ll be right behind you.”
She had a hard time convincing Nichelle she could finish by herself, but finally she left her alone, and exited the tent laughing as she said, “Terrence leave my girl alone. She’s getting dressed.” She tugged at the sleeve of his t-shirt in an unsuccessful attempt to pull him away.
Terrence continued to harass her. “Were you ladies talking about me and my expert rafting?” He yelled at Kendis. “Can you believe it, man? I think they’re talking about us.”
After minutes of coaxing, Nichelle finally managed to drag him away. His laughter faded as he and Nichelle disappeared down the dirt trail toward their cars.
Slowly, LaKia continued to dress.
She shoved her head through the neck of the cotton t-shirt she struggled with. A shadow flickered across a light outside of the tent.
Kendis had paused by the women’s changing tent.
Why’d he stop? She thought of how she’d shivered in his arms as their friends guided the raft to the end of the trail. She’d felt fragile in his arms, and for some reason she didn’t want him to let her go.
Now as she watched him through the crack in the tent as he watched her, she realized she’d forgotten to re-tie the closures after Nichelle left. The thick canvas doors of the tent had gotten entangled in the debris on the ground, creating a gap.
He had protected her—rescued her, but now...he was like everyone else.
Fifty pounds of dead weight wrapped around her ankles, gluing her feet to the cold concrete floor, impairing each step. Pain coursed through every muscle. Laggardly, she tied each rope.
His eyes scanned her body.
She moved deliberately. The rocks had taken their toll on her leaving her frail and weak. Every time their paths crossed at work they were equals, but now, she was vulnerable. And he took advantage of it.
Her face grew hot as she was assaulted with distant but not faded memories. She squeezed her eyes shut as she remembered how her college sweetheart, Derrick, forced his knee between her legs to keep them from closing. She kneed him in the groin, and dug her cotton candy colored acrylic nails through his t-shirt into his shoulder, he grimaced, but the pain only temporarily deterred him.
Derrick hadn’t responded to her pleas. His drunken haze had permitted him pretense to seize her.
Terrence’s voice in the distance disturbed her thoughts, and severed their connection. She moved to another position inside of the tent.
Kendis waited for her a few steps up the path.
When she neared him he reached for her hand to guide her up the poorly lit path, appalled by his touch, she snatched her hand away.
“Let me help you. It’s dark.”
“I’ve got it.”
Cagily plotting a route through the hole-littered path, she tripped on a veiled tree root. Falling, she flung her arms forward, and braced her body for impact. The boulder she banged into sent an undulating pain through her fingertips that mushroomed through her entire body. A whimper escaped her as she pushed herself upright.
Kendis helped her up.
He extended his hand again, this time, she accepted his offer, and they walked up the trail together in silence to join Nichelle and Terrence.
“Kendis can you give my girl a lift back home?” asked Nichelle. “You guys live so close to each other. You’re right around the corner on Lottsford Rd.”
Screaming inside of her head at Nichelle...she couldn’t believe the girl had done it to her again. There was no way to avoid being trapped in his truck for five hours.
“Sure. No problem, if she doesn’t mind.”
Nichelle turned toward her with pleading eyes. “You guys are only about ten or fifteen minutes apart. I’m almost an hour. I left home at three this morning. It would save me a lot of time. Do you mind?” asked her new ex-best friend.
Through clinched teeth and a tight jaw, she responded, “I don’t mind.”
Nichelle had a look of mission accomplished on her face as the two couples separated and walked toward their cars. Over her shoulder, she yelled, “Great. Call me when you get home Ki.”
Standing at Kendis’ truck door, she said, “Thank you for offering to take me home.”
“No problem.” He opened her door.
Linen scented air wafted around her. Glancing into the backseat she saw nothing. Unsullied polished black leather beckoned her to curl up and nap all of the way home. She grabbed the hand grip; slowly she pulled herself into the SUV.
Kendis nudged her sore torso into the proper position, and snapped her seatbelt across her. “What’s your full address?”
“305 Benton Road. Thank you again for driving me home...you didn’t have to.”
He closed the door, rounded the truck and jumped in.
She watched as he keyed her address into his navigational system.
Settling into his leather bucket seat he responded, “Hey, my Mama would be mad if I didn’t help a woman in need.”
“And how does she feel about you peering through an open tent,” she said sharply.
Flinching, he responded, “I apologize, I didn’t mean to stare. I wanted to know if you were okay.”
“Whatever, I guess it’s the way you handle things.”
“What does that mean?”
Crossing her arms across her chest, she penetrated the side of his head with her stare. “You do what you want, when you want.”
He was just like Derrick. Eight years had passed, but she thought about it—him—everyday.
“Trust me, if I wanted a woman I wouldn’t have to peep in on her.” Pressing a button on his steering wheel, he lowered the volume on the radio.
“But you did. What were you trying to see?”
“The door was open. I wanted to make sure you were okay. That’s all.”
“You could’ve asked. You didn’t have to pull up a chair and watch.”
“It wasn’t like that at all.”
“Don’t worry about it. I get it. It’s who you are. I should’ve known from work.”
A streak of orange tinted sunlight cutting through the tree tops along the highway beamed into his eyes. His leather chair squawked as he shifted his position in the seat. “What...from work?”
“You and your company are taking what you want from small businesses in my mall.”
“So, you don’t think it’s time for development?”
“There’s always room for something new, but instead of working with us and the community y’all are going to tear up the environment and close down a hundred small businesses.”
“But we’ll add thousands of jobs and improve the economy of the city.”
“Improve the economy...humph...increase traffic, screw up wetlands, and take jobs out of the community.”
“I don’t see it that way. Better jobs and more money there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“There’s also nothing wrong with strong communities and families.”
Kendis’ hands formed fists around the wheel. “Strong families are rare.” He turned away from the steering wheel to glance into her eyes. “You sound like an ad for the YMCA.”
“Why? Because I care about something more than money?”
“So, you think I don’t?”
“I don’t really know what you care about...other than naked women.” Voyeur.
“I care about more than naked women and money. But, sometimes the things you want don’t want you back.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we can’t all be like you.” He took his eyes off the road; they met her glare. “Super heroes.”
Her body stiffened; slim, long fingers bowed into knotted fists. “Huh?” What did he mean by Super hero?
“I’ve watched you around the council meetings. I see how everyone’s always turning to you. I’ve seen the ads you run. I know how hard you work, but I work hard, too.”
Half the reason she worked as hard as she did was because of him. He was more detailed than a lot of the people she came up against. Others always underestimated her company, their influence in the community, and her. “I didn’t say you didn’t work hard. Your presentations to the council members are always detailed. I have to be ready for any curve ball you might throw at me.”
“I believe in what I do. Putting more jobs into predominately black communities is important to me. I think those companies deserve a chance.”
“We give new businesses a chance; but, what about the companies already there. Are you willing to throw them out to make room for the new?”
“Why can’t there be room for both?”
“We tried that, but your company didn’t like that idea.”
“No way. I never saw any proposal.”
“I was a part of the team that put the proposal together.”
“I’ll check around. Maybe something got pushed to the side before I joined the team as lead counsel.”
“Sure you will.” She saw absolutely no reason to trust him.
Short bursts of conversation speckled their return trip home. Kendis scrolled through the channels of his XM Satellite Radio system. The watery blue block shaped numbers on the dashboard lit up the car interior as they changed.
He turned onto Lottsford Road.
“Right there. That’s my house.”
Leaning forward in her seat, LaKia examined the house. “Nice.”
“I searched around this neighborhood when I looked for houses last year. You got lucky.”
He turned onto 202 South. The closer they came to her condo the more regularly the computerized navigational system chimed.
“This is it. Thanks again.”
Kendis eased the SUV to a stop.
“No problem.” He began to exit the SUV, but his door chime knelled at him. “Wait, I’ll get the do…”
She swung the door open. “I’ve got it. Don’t bother.”