Friend of the Wood

byLesLumens©

"Sure," he immediately replied.

Test passed.

She quickly tapped out, "Pick me up at eight. Don't be late."

He was ten minutes early — and bearing flowers. It turned out to be only the beginning of a wonderful evening. He was attentive and sweet all through dinner, reminding her very much of their first time there.

She more or less expected him to hint at coming back to his place afterwards, but he surprised her. By the time they shared a goodbye kiss in front of the house, her anger had all but evaporated away.

****

Terra smiled as Keith pulled into the drive on his motorcycle the next morning — right on time.

His prompt arrival was yet another sign that he was trying to make up for the previous day's mistake, and that suited her right down to the ground.

"You might try looking a little less smug," Ella suggested as she loaded jugs of juice and recycled paper cups into the back seat of the car.

"Shush," Terra admonished under her breath, and then hurried over to his bike.

Watching over her shoulder, she waited until her sister was ready, and then signaled for Keith to lead the mini caravan to the lake. With the powerful motorcycle rumbling between her legs and her arms wrapped around his waist, all was right in the world once more.

That changed as soon as they pulled up to the lake.

Keith put down his foot as he rolled to a stop. "Thought you said you had it all picked up?"

Terra scowled at the fresh mess of cardboard, bottles, and cans strewn around the edge of the lake. "We did. Some jerks must have been out here last night."

"Somebody had some fun," Keith chuckled while pointing at a pair of panties lying discarded in the weeds next to a used condom.

"You've got to be kidding me," Ella remarked as she walked down next to join her sister.

Keith gave an empty can by his foot a light kick. "Kind of fighting a losing battle here, I think."

"Oh no we're not," Terra said with a note of ominous finality.

Nathan sighed when he walked down to see the mess. "Want me to help pick this up first?"

Terra shook her head. "No, go ahead and get your stuff and start in the lake. Dale and Keith can work on this while Ella and I set up the refreshments. Everybody else will be here in half an hour."

"Dibs on that side," Keith said, pointing in the opposite direction of the condom.

"Gross," Dale muttered as he walked back toward the truck for bags and trash sticks.

Keith let out a snorting laugh a few minutes later when Nathan walked down to the water in his gear, carrying an underwater light, burlap sack, and his flippers.

"Hey, it's Scuba Steve."

Terra pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. "Be nice."

"Okay. Okay," Keith grumbled, then returned to spearing cans with his trash stick.

Terra turned to her friend. "Go ahead, Nate. I really appreciate it. I was wondering how we were going to deal with the glass in the water."

"I need the practice. I'll see what I can do. If I'm right about something, it may not be that big of a deal," Nathan said as he walked down to the shore.

"Hope you're right," she said as Nathan sat down at the edge of the water to put on his flippers.

The results of a single night's revelry didn't take long to pick up, and it was made easier because whoever had left the mess had refrained from breaking bottles for entertainment. By the time the other volunteers began to arrive, they were once again ready for the painstaking work of raking and searching out bits of broken glass.

The work provided plenty of opportunity for creative bending and stretching, just like the day before. The bikini-clad girls and shirtless guys were taking full advantage of it to show off for members of the opposite sex. Terra smiled, thinking that on top of everything else, she'd likely played matchmaker for several couples.

Nathan surfaced and slipped his regulator out of his mouth some time later. Terra walked down to the edge of the water.

"What's it look like?" she asked.

"I was right, and we're lucky. There's so much clay in the soil that the silt just slides down into deeper water, and it took most of the broken glass with it. The clay is what makes it so slippery."

Terra grinned, remembering countless occasions where the slick bottom had resulted in hilarious falls — and a few of her own that were only funny in retrospect.

"I can probably get everything up here pretty quick so nobody gets cut, and then grab what I can from down deeper before my air runs out," Nathan finished.

"Great." Terra wiped her brow. "We may all need to take a dip before long."

Several people agreed with that assessment. It was an especially hot and humid day, and the proximity of the cool water only made it seem more so.

"I'll get back at it then," Nathan said.

Keith walked up and grabbed Terra's bottom, prompting her to swat his hand away and admonish him to behave — though the way she said it was meant not to be too discouraging.

She completely missed the look her boyfriend and Nathan exchanged before the latter slipped back beneath the surface of the water.

****

Terra's eyebrows lifted a little when she saw her sister direct a splash at John. She'd wondered why Ella had asked him and a couple of his friends to come, as they weren't part of the twins' usual circle, but that splash spoke louder than words. It was a game in their family, which was an expression of affection, started by their dryad great-grandmother. When John responded in kind, Ella's smile was radiant.

After the surprise wore off, Terra gave him a quick, appraising glance and had to admit that he was good looking. She'd never seen him with his shirt off before, and he'd been hiding nice muscle tone. If she was right about her sister's intentions — and she was sure she was — he would be the first guy who didn't play sports that either of them had dated.

Most everyone else was in the water as well, enjoying the fruits of their labor. There was likely still glass in the surrounding area, but they had done a good enough job on the 'beach' for everyone to feel confident taking off their shoes. Keith waved for her to return to the water, and she held up a finger before walking over to her brother.

John's two friends had hit it off with Nathan and Dale, and they'd been as thick as thieves. All four had pulled back on their shirts, so she asked, "Are you heading home?"

Dale answered, "Yeah. Going to get a game going. Guess it will just be the four of us, though."

He nodded toward where John and Ella were engaged in a splash war. He knew as well as his sister did what that portended.

"I know where to find some good rocks for the fire pits, and I already have some trash barrels. I'll come out tomorrow and help finish up," Nathan offered.

"Thanks Nate. You've been a big help getting the truck and everything."

"No problem," he responded, wearing a wide grin.

Keith walked up and slipped a dripping arm behind Terra's back. Nathan immediately snapped his gaze to Dale and asked, "Ready?"

"Yeah."

The four headed to the truck, and as soon as they were out of earshot, Keith asked, "What's with that dude?"

Terra turned toward him and asked, "Hmm? Who?"

"That Nathan guy. He's always hanging around."

Terra laughed in surprise. "Oh my god. Are you jealous?"

"No. Just wondered."

"He's just a friend. He's like another brother." She rolled her eyes and chuckled.

Keith shrugged and then slid a hand down to cup her bottom. "So, you want to get back in the water?"

This time, she didn't protest his touch. After the date the previous evening and seeing him shirtless all day, she was beginning to feel frisky as well. Between the time packing to come home from summer break and what had happened since, it had been almost a week since they'd been to bed together.

"It looks like a lot of people are thinking about leaving. Why don't we dry off so we don't get the bike seat wet?" she suggested.

"Cool."

"Feel like watching a movie?"

"Sure. What's playing? I haven't been paying attention."

"Actually, I was thinking about watching something at your place."

His grin as she stood up on her tiptoes to kiss him was all the answer she needed.

****

Terra woke up a couple of hours later than usual because she'd been at Keith's apartment until the wee hours of the morning. A note on top of the alarm clock revealed that Ella had left some time earlier for a second date with John. Considering she'd replaced the O in his name with a heart, Terra assumed things were going well. A second note from her brother lay nearby and said that he and Nathan had gone to take the trash barrels and rocks for the fire pits out to the lake.

She took her time dressing and eating breakfast, expecting that Keith would be asleep until at least noon. After several days of abstinence, she'd been rather enthusiastic in making up for lost time, and he'd already fallen asleep by the time she emerged from the bathroom.

The sound of tires crunching on gravel drew her to the window, and she was surprised to see her brother and Nathan climbing out of a white Civic.

She walked outside and asked, "Did you get rid of the Beetle?"

Nathan patted the hood of the car as he walked around it. "Nah. I still have it. Found this at a government auction — dirt cheap. It's natural gas."

"Cool. Isn't that a pain, though?"

"That's why I still have the Beetle. I can only really fill this one up at the house with the rig there. Use it any time I can though. It's cheaper, and burns cleaner."

Terra wholeheartedly approved of that choice, though his diesel Beetle got excellent mileage anyway.

"Guess we've rubbed off on you a little, huh?"

He laughed. "Yeah. Just wish I could afford an electric."

"What are you up to? Going down to the basement to fight goblins?" she teased, referring to the role-playing game that the two — and sometimes her father — played.

Dale shook his head. "Scout meeting to plan for the weekend camp out."

"I'm going to go ride the coasters," Nathan said.

Terra's eyes lit up. It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the victory of cleaning up the lake. "That sounds like fun. I haven't been since last summer."

"Want to come along?"

"Let me call Keith," she answered as she reached for her phone — completely missing his smile fading when she said it.

Nathan climbed the steps to the porch with her brother and said, "Okay. I'm running in to the bathroom."

Terra tried his cell, and it rang a few times before going to voicemail. Thinking that he might not have woken up in time to pick up the phone, she tried again. On the fourth ring, he finally answered.

Her voice full of coquettish suggestion, she said, "Wake up. You'd think you were all worn out or something."

He chuckled. "Yeah."

"Want to go ride some roller coasters?"

"I don't really feel like it."

Her mouth already open to tell him to come pick her up, she gave a toss of her hair and said, "Huh?"

"Uhm... I don't know whether I'm just tired or coming down with something, but I feel like hell right now."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm just run down and achy. It may be nothing."

"Do you want me to come over?"

"No. If you want to go to the park, go ahead. I'll be okay."

"Sure?"

"Yeah. Go ahead. You'd just be sitting around here while I'm in bed."

"Okay. I'll call you later and see how you're doing. If you get any worse, call me, or go to the doctor."

"Okay. I'm going to lay back down."

"Love you. Bye."

"You too. Bye."

Nathan walked back outside as she ended the call, so she said, "Well, Keith's sick."

"Sorry. Guess you don't want to go, huh?"

"Nah. He said to go ahead. So if you don't mind driving, I'm game."

His smile returned in full force. "Wait for you in the car?"

"Sure. Let me grab my purse and stuff."

Since she already had sunscreen in her purse, it only took a minute or two to gather what she needed and meet Nathan in the car. As he pulled out, she noticed a book tucked between his seat and the center console.

"What's this?" she asked as she pulled it out, intrigued by the cover.

"It's the monster book for the game."

Terra opened the cover and flipped a couple of pages. "The pictures are really neat."

"Makes them easier to describe when you're fighting them."

She looked at the text below the picture of a bear and said, "All this stuff about d4 and turns and whatever makes my head hurt, though. It looks more like homework than a game."

He laughed. "The Dungeon Master takes care of most of that, but the more you know, the easier it is for everyone."

"Guess it must be fun. It's like all you and Dale do."

"It's a blast. You could always come down and roll up a character. Try it out."

"A cheerleader playing D&D?" she laughed.

"It could just be you, me, and Dale. Nobody else would have to know. It could be your dirty little secret."

"Yeah, I don't know about that," she said as she continued to flip through the pages.

She stopped and frowned when she reached an entry for dryads. "Why are dryads in the monster book?"

He broke out into laughter, but then cleared his throat when he saw her scowling at him. "Sorry, but that's exactly what Dale said the first time he saw it. Everything is in there. Humans even have an entry. It's just stats for everything you can encounter in the game."

"Oh, okay," she said, feeling a little less offended.

"We don't even use that any more. Dale came up with a cooler version of dryads that we use. Just a second." He pulled out his smart phone, tapped a couple of times, and handed her the phone.

The picture at the top was surely drawn with her great-grandmother as the model. Dale had done a good job capturing her and hiding her nudity behind strategically placed leaves. She read the text below and couldn't help but smile. Dale hadn't really come up with anything, but rather described what he knew to be the truth.

"That's much better," she said, handing him back his phone.

"I like his version a lot better. I usually have him run the dryads whenever one is in the story. He plays them perfectly, and we even have half-dryads as a player character race now."

You have a couple as players too, she thought with amusement.

"He's come up with a really interesting way for them to talk. It's sort of naive, but wise at the same time. Pretty cool."

"You're giving him a bit too much credit for creativity," she teased, and then flipped through a couple more pages before putting the book back where she'd found it.

He glanced her way and chuckled. "Well, the invitation to come down and play is always good. So, glad to be away from Professor Reynolds?"

"Oh my god, yes," Terra groaned. "If I ever have trouble falling asleep, I just play back recordings of him."

"You're lucky you didn't have Weinstein. He could put Reynolds to sleep."

She shuddered at the thought and started mocking her boring professor, much to Nathan's amusement. The miles rolled by unnoticed as the pair chatted and laughed. Soon enough, they pulled into the packed parking lot of the amusement park for a day of fun.

****

Though she was soaked to the skin, Terra was laughing when she emerged from the log flume into the brilliant sunlight. She blew a drop of water off her nose and broke out into laughter again when she saw Nathan wringing out the tail of his shirt onto the brick walkway.

"I haven't gotten this wet in all the times I've been on that put together," she remarked.

"Must have been a perfect storm of wind and the water level or something," he guessed. "It's not designed to completely drown you that way."

Such a nerd, she thought, and then reached for her phone when she saw Nathan check his. It had survived the dousing, but she was shocked when she noticed the time. A few taps called Keith so she could see how he was doing.

The call went directly to voicemail.

"It didn't ruin your phone, did it?" he asked when she pulled the phone away from her ear to stare at it incredulously.

"No. Keith knew I was going to call him, but it just went to voicemail."

"Maybe he's already got somebody on call-waiting or something. Give it a few and try again, I guess. Want something to drink?"

She plucked at her shirt, which was clinging to her rather indecently. "You wouldn't think so after this dousing, but yeah."

"Iced tea?"

"Mmm hmm."

He pointed behind him. "I scoped out a place that had it earlier."

They walked to the concession stand and got into line, but a familiar sensation caused her to look off to the side. Sure enough, she saw her sister at the same time Ella saw her.

As soon as her sister and John reached her, Ella asked her date, "Could you get me a drink?"

"Sure. What do you want?"

"Iced tea," Terra, Ella, and Nathan all said in a perfect chorus.

John laughed and stepped in behind Nathan to give him a friendly thump on the shoulder. Ella grabbed her sister's hand and pulled her off to the side.

"Guess what?" Ella whispered as soon as they were a few steps away. When her sister lifted her eyebrows in silent acknowledgment, Ella said, "He's passing all the tests."

"Are you doing that again?"

"I'm tired of wasting time on jerks who are going to annoy me or cheat on me. Should have done it with Caleb." She sneered the name of her last boyfriend with unconcealed contempt. "So, where's Keith?"

The connotations of her bringing up Keith in almost the same breath were hardly lost on Terra, as she knew how her sister felt about him.

"He thinks he's coming down with something."

Ella didn't look convinced. She looked over her sister's shoulder and moaned. "Doesn't he have a great butt?"

Terra didn't look, but she had noticed that herself at the lake the day before. "Guess you're serious, huh?"

"Mmm hmm. He's so funny, and the way he looks at me..." She shivered. "I swear it makes me melt."

The twins clasped hands and smiled at each other. They then turned when Ella gave the slightest twitch of her eyes, indicating that Nathan and John were on their way back.

The girls took their drinks and offered thanks, then Ella said, "Guess I'll see you back at the house." She took John's hand and led him back in the direction they'd come from.

"What do you want to ride next?" Nathan asked, and then took a sip of his soda.

"Let's see if we can find some shade for a few minutes."

Nathan looked around and spotted a bench under a tree. Terra nodded when he pointed at it, and they made their way there. As soon as she sat down, she pulled out her phone and tried Keith again.

Voicemail once more.

"Still not answering?"

She shook her head and frowned.

"I can run you by there to check on him if you want."

"I don't want to ruin your day."

He shrugged. "Ah, it's okay. I'm not going to have any fun if you're worried anyway."

"Sure?"

"Yeah. Just tell me how to get there."

"Thanks, Nate." She smiled and leaned in to give him a peck on the cheek before standing up.

She tried twice more on the way back — leaving messages both times. By the time Nathan pulled up in front of Keith's apartment, she was truly worried. Knocking on the door proved no more fruitful than calling him, so when she came back out, she scanned the parking lot and noticed that his motorcycle was gone.

When she called again before walking back to Nathan's car, he finally answered.

"Where are you? Why is your phone turned off?" she asked in a mixture of worry and irritation.

"Uhm... I decided to go to the doctor. Sorry. I had my phone turned off while I was in the office."

"You could have called me and let me know, or sent a text, or something. I'm sitting here in front of your apartment worried sick. So, are you okay?"

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