A Backwoods AwakeningbyYDB95©
Melissa straightened the collar of her suit coat and steeled herself for the inevitable inappropriate comments as she climbed onto the bus. The swampy Southern air was awfully hot for a coat, and she had been sorely tempted to leave it in her car. But there was no way she was joining Mr. Morahan's brood of investors -- rich, entitled older men one and all, and most of them soused as well by this time of the afternoon -- in only the sheer white blouse she had on underneath.
Left to her own devices, of course, she would have worn a darker top for the occasion. And pants rather than a skirt, to be sure, and most of all flat heels! But Mr. Morahan had his rules. And that Melissa swallow her feminist sensibilities and doll herself up for the guys was one of them. His money is green, she reminded herself as she stepped up into the bus and the onslaught of hoots and claps began. We only have to live with it until we can afford to move away. And after all, she had done the same sort of thing on purpose back in her high school days. But that seemed a lifetime ago now, rather than the five or six years it really had been. So much had changed for Melissa in that time, but her hometown had not changed at all.
Setting down her binder on the front seat, Melissa forced a smile as the usual suspects shouted out their lusty approval of her hair, clothes and curves. Mr. Morahan had outdone himself on the booze this time, as the aisle was already littered with miniature bottles of scotch and vodka and heaven knew what else. "Good afternoon, everybody!" she called out over the inebriated din. "I trust Mr. Morahan has told you about the land we'll be seeing today."
"He told us we'd be seeing you too!" called out old Mr. Bucks, whom Melissa knew from numerous previous trips. He, at least, could be counted on to open his wallet.
"But aren't you awfully hot in that coat, Melissa?" teased Mr. Jameson, one of the younger investors, and also one of the stingier ones, although Mr. Morahan had suggested to her that if she would only join him in his Jacuzzi for just one afternoon...
"I'm hot without it too, Mr. Jameson," she replied. "But that's all you're ever going to know of it." She was rewarded with an uproarious laugh from most of the men, and Mr. Jameson slunk down so low in his seat that she couldn't see him. "Now, as I was saying, gentlemen, Morahan's Woods is our newest concept for new luxury homes, scheduled to break ground just as soon as we complete our investment campaign. The development will be built on a plot of beautiful land just beyond the river's flood basin, which we were recently able to purchase. Mr. Morahan has had his eye on the area for years, and at last we've got access to it. I think you're going to like what you see."
From one of the closer rows came a raised hand. Mr. Sheridan, one of the few passengers for whom Melissa would allow the term "gentleman" actually fit. "Yes, Mr. Sheridan?" she asked, relieved that he was the only one with an immediate question.
"If Donny has wanted this land for so long, why'd he only get his hands on it now, Melissa? I've known Donny Morahan since before you were born and the man does not wait around when he sees an opportunity."
"That's right!" called out a chorus of several others, followed quickly by one of them demanding, "How long will it take for our investment to come back if he took so long to get the land?!" That also earned a round of hearty agreement.
"Gentlemen, relax!" Melissa reassured them with her best cheerleader's grin. "There's a perfectly simple answer to Mr. Sheridan's concerns. The land for Morahan's Woods was off limits until recently because of burdensome federal regulations. But now that we have a friend of business in the White House..." She paused knowingly, and sure enough the bus full of Republicans responded with a resounding cheer. "Now you are free to buy the land and wait for your robust returns!" she called out. Her days in the College Republicans weren't all that far behind her, though it did feel a bit funny to be appealing to such things when she was no longer sure she believed in them. The investors did not need to know --any more than her parents needed to know -- that she had voted the other way last year in her first election. It wasn't for environmental reasons anyway, but no one needed to know that either. If any man on that bus had known her real reasons...but Melissa put that thought from her mind. No one ever need know once she had made her escape.
"Now then," Melissa concluded, as she darted her eyes briefly out the bus window to see Mr. Morahan pulling up in his Ferrari, "If there are no more questions, the man of the hour is here and we'll be on our way. Have some more drinks, and enjoy the ride!" Welcoming another round of applause with a wave at the old men, she stood aside and watched as her chubby boss waddled up to the bus and climbed on. He looked ready to keel over from heatstroke in his brown suit and his face was flushed as he clambered up the stairs, but he had his winning smile ready for gladhanding the investors as soon as he appeared at Melissa's side.
"Good afternoon, everyone!" he called out. "Thank you, Melissa, and I hope everyone is ready to see Morahan's Woods. It'll make you all even richer than you already are in no time. I guarantee it!" Turning to the bus driver, he nodded. The bus driver swung the door shut and the trip was underway.
Melissa gratefully sat down in the front seat and turned to admire the scenery her boss would soon be defiling. But Mr. Morahan wasn't done with her just yet. As usual, she could smell the stink of tobacco on his breath before he actually said anything, an unwelcome warning of an always-unwelcome order, and today was no exception. "Lose the coat, Melissa," he hissed.
"What?" she whispered, turning to see him bending over inches from her face.
"The guys don't need to see your tits, but they need to know you have them. Lose the coat!"
"And if I don't?" she demanded.
"Then I think you'll find your paycheck a little lighter this month." He straightened up to field a question from one of the men, so he didn't see the look of disgust on Melissa's face as she took in his threat. But she did remove her coat. Careful to avoid drawing any further attention to herself for the moment, she sat back and tried not to listen to the questions, but of course she heard them.
"Donny, just why was this land protected? Is that going to affect the ability to build there? I'm not going to invest in you putting McMansions in a swamp."
"Oh, you! C'mon, Jim, you know me!"
"We sure do, Donny. Answer his question."
"Geez, y'all are a tough audience! Well, guys, look, it was silly liberal overprotective bullshit, is what it was. Something about a waterfowl habitat. Nothing a few million dollars in the right pocket couldn't fix. It could and it has, for good."
"And why can't you just finance it with the proceeds from our last little venture, Donny?"
"'Cause that money's coming back to you, any day now! You know that?"
"Do we really? Hey, Melissa, do you have the latest numbers on the Bridgetree Development? I ain't heard them lately."
Melissa knew the numbers, all right, but Mr. Morahan clapped a clammy hand on her shoulder before she could even consider standing up to answer. "Well, now, come on, guys, let's not hassle the little lady about math, now shall we?" That brought on the longed-for response, a few drunken chuckles building into a nice loud laugh that Mr. Morahan himself gratefully joined in on, and then he skillfully turned the conversation back to his plans for Morahan's Woods.
He was good, Melissa had to admit to herself. Always had been, from the first time she could recall meeting him, at her parents' country club where she had worked as a lifeguard for several summers. Though she had spent most of her too-abundant free time eyeing the other women around the pool even as she tried unsuccessfully to interest herself in the men, it had been impossible to avoid taking notice of Mr. Morahan and his big-as-his-body attitude. Loud and brash, but always ready with a joke to take the edge off an uncomfortable moment, and even back then Melissa had seen it get him out of trouble time and again. That was how he'd grown so rich building gaudy apartment buildings and houses all over the countryside Melissa had so loved as a little girl. It was just as well she was planning to take off for New York or California as soon as she could save up the money, for soon there wouldn't be much left of her hometown as she recalled it anyway. Melissa wondered sometimes how she could sleep at night when she thought of her own role in defiling the land...but then she always remembered what life had been like in their little backwater for anyone who even thought she might be different.
Of course, it was a closed-minded, hateful little town -- that much she had come to know so intimately once she'd been away to college and tasted freedom to be herself for the first time. The things she had shared with her girlfriends there...well, all that didn't even bear thinking about as long as she was stuck back home for the time being, and she still wasn't quite sure if it was real or just experimenting anyway. But Melissa thought she liked it, at least. And she looked forward to the day when she could explore a bit further and make up her own mind. It would never happen here.
Morahan's Woods, or at least the land where it was set to be, was most of the way to the river, off a little-used freeway exit that Melissa herself couldn't recall using before. She was relieved when the bus pulled off the exit, for with Mr. Morahan having successfully tamped down the investors' skepticism or at least drawn attention away from it, they were rowdier than ever behind her. At least the trip would be lucrative provided she could sell enough of them on the land.
The bus rolled off the exit ramp and onto a narrow two-lane road, heading straight into the heavy woods found on both sides of the river. As the freeway receded into the background, Melissa felt a bit like she was being driven back in time. Back into the days when the countryside reached a lot closer in to town, when the locals still talked about places where the forest grew "so thick they have to pump the sunshine in," where she hadn't been allowed to ride her bicycle in the summertime -- and the tales of wild animals and wilder locals in the woods had scared her into obeying. Absurd as it felt to be heading into those woods now while dressed for a day at the office, the rustic, shady view was a lovely reminder of those scenes she could barely remember.
Inevitably, it came to mind that she was now about to try to sell those very woods to Mr. Morahan's buddies. A few of them made sure of that by reminding her in no uncertain terms. "Can't hardly wait to get the equipment in here, Donny!" "I can hear the chainsaw already...rrrrrrraaaawwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnggggg!" "Just wait until we clear out the view!" "Think of the golf course you could have here."
Before Melissa could get too uptight about it all, Mr. Morahan gave her a gruff pat on the shoulder and announced, "You're up, babe. Knock 'em dead."
"Yes sir," Melissa said icily, recalling his comment about her paycheck, and with a deep breath she forced a smile and stood up. "Okay, everybody!" she said with a cheerful bounce she didn't feel at all. "We're nearly there! Mr. Morahan and his team have already created a clearing just up the road, and our first stop will be there. It'll give you a feel for the nice rural nature of the land, and let you imagine what each plot of land might look like with a luxury home. There's even a nice little pond just off the clearing."
"Join me for a swim, Melissa?" called out one of the oldest and drunkest of the bunch from the far end of the bus.
Melissa swallowed her pride and put on a saucy grin. "Well now, if you sign up to join Mr. Morahan..."
The entire bus burst into hoots of salacious laughter, and Mr. Morahan was looking at Melissa like he just might give her a bonus, so she gripped the microphone and kept her fake smile and waited for the moment to pass. She was still waiting when she felt the jolt, a split-second before all the men since she was the only one on the bus who was standing. "Oooh!" Melissa heard herself say it before she realized she had squealed out loud, and she grabbed at the nearest seat before she was fully aware she had turned her ankle and broken her right shoe-heel as the bus was sliding off the road. Always so careful not to sound like a little girl while on duty, she caught herself and stood up as straight as she could without the heel, brushing a stray lock of hair out of her eyes.
Now that she had regained control, Melissa was suddenly aware that the bus was sliding diagonally off the road and into a muddy ditch. The driver was flailing at the steering wheel, struggling in vain to pull back onto the road. "Rusty, what in the name of God are you doing?!" Mr. Morahan boomed, jumping out of his seat just as Melissa finally had the presence of mind to return to hers.
"Both front tires went out at once, Mr. Morahan!" the driver protested, still struggling with the wheel. "I don't know what we hit, but the front wheels are useless!"
"Well, you'd better make some use of 'em --" Mr. Morahan broke off in mid-sentence as the bus splashed into the stream at the bottom of the ditch. Melissa held on for dear life to the handrest as the bus jerked to a stop. It was tilted heavily to the left and Melissa slid down and plopped against the wall of the bus. After the sting of the initial impact wore off, she was relieved to realize she was not hurt. Then the relief quickly turned to fear as she remembered that she was stranded in the woods in high heels -- one of them already broken -- on a bus full of drunken old men.
At least she wasn't hurt. Always the professional, she managed to get to her feet, disposing for the moment with both shoes, and clawed her way up to the aisle. "Gentlemen, there's been a setback, but I assure you Mr. Morahan and I will be on top of things in just a few minutes. Is everybody okay?"
"No! I spilled bourbon all over my tie! Donny gonna pay for my dry-cleaning bill?" The first complaint was followed by a few laughs and a much louder echo of irritation. Melissa turned around nervously to see if Mr. Morahan was ready to put in a word. He wasn't: he was sprawled against the driver's seat, the gearshift poking him in the hip in a way that couldn't have been any too pleasant, pinning the driver against the half-open window which was taking in water from the stream. Rusty, the driver, was soaked and stuck, but he knew better than to complain.
Mr. Morahan was grunting and flailing as he tried to stand up. "Melissa, goddammit, help me!"
"Of course, sir." She made her way to the front as quickly as she could, struggling to keep her balance. He was still wheezing and grabbing at everything and nothing by the time Melissa reached him. "Okay, take my hand," she said, musing this was absolutely the only circumstance under which she would ever say that. Wrapping her other arm around the bar at the top of the steps, she held out her hand and he grabbed at it with both of his. He pulled so hard Melissa was worried he would dislocate her shoulder, but he still couldn't get to his feet. "Try rolling over," Melissa suggested. "At least get off Rusty before he suffocates."
"Gonna take that out of your paycheck," Mr. Morahan grumbled, ignoring the meek "Thank you Melissa" that came from Rusty under him; but he did take her advice and managed to roll out of the seat. He then promptly slid down to the wall beneath what had been Melissa's seat, where several inches of dirty water were now collecting. "Aw, Christ, wet!" he whined.
"I'm -- I'm sorry, Mr. Morahan," Melissa uttered meekly, barely hiding her amusement at her bombastic boss in his pathetic current state.
"You should be! Why didn't you tell me that road was so dangerous?"
"Yeah, Donny, and what else didn't she tell us?" came a voice from the back of the bus, where most of the passengers had managed to perch on the crooked seats and avoid Mr. Morahan's fate.
Melissa didn't miss a beat, as usual. "Gentlemen, I had no idea --"
"Of course you didn't!" snapped Mr. Jameson. "Donny, what does a woman ever know about the dangers of a place like this?"
"More than you do, I dare say," came a woman's voice Melissa had never heard before.
Startled, Melissa whipped around toward the bus door, where the voice had come from. While Mr. Morahan had been mouthing off at her, she had sensed a warm breeze behind her, but there had been no time to investigate that. Now she saw where it had come from. The bus door had somehow been wrenched open, evidently at the hands of the woman who had just spoken. She now stood proud and defiant just inside the bus, and Melissa found herself face to face with her. Tall and thickly built, similar to Melissa's own view of herself as "big but not fat" although she was rather bigger in every way, she had dirty blonde hair pulled into a careless ponytail that draped down behind her army-green t-shirt. She also wore worn but clean cargo pants, and work boots caked with mud that was now dripping precariously close to Mr. Morahan's wingtips. Melissa scarcely noticed that, though, as she was looking into the other woman's fierce green eyes and trying to decide what to make of her -- and tamping down the all-too-familiar feeling so many of the girls at school had inspired back in the days when Melissa understood she could go to hell for acting upon such thoughts. She was sweaty and dirty, but beautiful.
And she was trespassing on Mr. Morahan's bus, but Melissa appreciated her rejoinder to Mr. Jameson too much to accost her for that. "Um...hello!" she finally managed to say through her confused and titillated fog. "May I help you?"
"I think maybe it's the other way around, girl -- I can help you. If you don't mind my sayin' so, it looks like you could use the help."
"Well, yes," Melissa said, "The bus skidded off the road, and --"
"I didn't mean that, girl. I meant help with all your wealthy donors here. Looks to me like they need an attitude adjustment about the love of the land, don't you think? Unless you're one of their own, but I sure hope you aren't."
"'Course she is, you bitch!" called out Mr. Bucks. "Ain't that right, Melissa?"
Melissa looked into the other woman's hopeful eyes, and turned back to face Mr. Bucks. "Mr. Bucks, I'll thank you very much not to use that word in polite company. Would you say that to your wife?"
"Only if she catches him with his girlfriend," cracked one of the other investors.
Even Melissa laughed. But the other woman didn't. "All right, now look here!" she called out. "I'm going to have a heart to heart chat with your friend Melissa here, and that will determine what happens to y'all next. I suggest you show her some respect for a change, 'cause your immediate future is in her hands. Do I make myself clear?"
A few nondescript whispers of "bitch" and "cunt" and an unapologetic "get the hell off my bus" from Mr. Morahan notwithstanding, no one argued. Melissa looked down at Mr. Morahan and quickly concluded that he was in no condition to back up his order. She turned and nodded warily at the other woman, who was by then standing in the bus doorway waiting for her. Just as she was about to step off, Melissa remembered her broken heel. "Oh, wait a minute..."
"Just take your shoes off," the blonde said.
Melissa was shocked, but secretly thrilled at the same time. "How did you know...?"
"Because I know how it is to be pushed into wearing heels when you'd rather be in sneakers. You have that type written all over your Suzy Secretary self, girl. Now please, a word."