Thursday, May 10, 2012

PLD Chapter 9

“Stand up Keeley, stand up!” she heard Clay yell from behind her. Keeley instantly popped up and peddled harder to get up the muddy incline.

It was late morning, possibly early afternoon, and they’d gone five and a half miles already. Just the one little hill left to crest and they’d break for lunch. Keeley’s legs and back and elbows—every bone in her body essentially—were already aching. But, surprisingly, she was having a blast.

It hadn’t taken her long to the hang of things, once her nervousness and intimidation had worn off. And she’d only almost gone careening off the trail twice. The second time was pretty uneventful; the first time though, Keeley had turned to glance back at Clay and run straight into a log. “And that’s why we keep our eyes peeled forward,” Clay had said with a smirk as he waited for her to catch her breath.

 “Good job,” Sara said appreciatively as Keeley finally crested the top. She and Tuck had already shed their helmets and were setting up for lunch. She hopped off her bike and gently set it on the ground. Screw the kickstand, this works just as well, and went to make sure Clay got up okay.

Of course, as she watched him crest the hill like a pro, she realized she had nothing to worry about. Even though he was using his hands to pedal instead of his feet, he was doing just as well as Tuck and Sara. And loads better than her, which wasn’t saying much.

He braked quickly in front of her, smiling and sweaty. Keeley noticed a smudge of mud on his cheek. “Having fun yet?”

She grinned and nodded quickly. “My entire body hurts though.”

Clay laughed in agreement. “I hear that.” He rubbed his chest and gave the cushion covered bar he leaned against a dirty look. “My sternum’s killing me.”

“I bet,” Keeley said, eyeing the bar. Nothing about the handcycle looked comfortable. Guess that’s the price you pay though, she thought as mildly as they headed towards the food.

Tuck and Sara were sitting on the ground, talking quietly and already eating. Keeley joined them and waited for Clay before she dug in. He quickly unstrapped his legs and pivoted on the seat, grabbing his left leg and bringing it to the right side. Then quickly he sort of plopped to the ground in front of them, his legs tangling a little bit in the process.

“Ah,” he said and fell back onto his back, arms spread out and stretching. “That feels good.”

“There’s a ham and a PBJ left,” Sara said sliding her backpack towards them. “And some water.”

Clay shot up. “PBJ?”

Keeley grinned. “I’ll take the ham.”

They ate quickly and after a short break, went back at it. Before they headed back down, Keeley wandered to the edge of the trail and looked down. Tree covered mountains, still mostly untouched by man went as far as the eye could see. In the distance she could see a few birds circling and she could only imagine the wildlife that ran rampant in the forests.

“Don’t realize how high you are until you’re up here looking down, do you?”

Keeley turned to find Clay behind her, helmet on head and strapped onto the handcycle, ready to go. “How high are we?” she asked, not wanting to tear her eyes away from the incredible view.

“2,300 feet I think,” he answered, taking in the view as well. “It’s hell getting up here, but worth it isn’t it?”

Keeley nodded, feeling peaceful and serene on top of the mountain. “Indescribable,” she agreed.

 “You say that, but you haven’t seen the sunrise from here yet,” he replied with a grin. “We’ll have to come back for that.”

Keeley’s heart fluttered at the idea of future camping trips with Clay. “I’d like that.”

He smiled and slapped the handlebars. “Well, as amazing as this is. Something better awaits us at the bottom.”

“Not possible.”

Clay nodded vehemently. “Come on. Let’s see if you can figure out the kickstand on your own this time.”

“About that,” she said looking around innocently as they made their way towards the discarded bike. Clay laughed, but wouldn’t let her get back on the bike until she’ shown him she could find the correct lever.

 Shortly after, they mounted their bikes and were off. Going downhill was tremendously easier, Keeley soon found out. At one point, they happened upon a ramp looking thing. Clay quickly explained it was a stunt and started making his way around it. She hopped off her bike and followed him. They watched as Sara and Tuck each jumped it with ease. Keeley found herself wondering if Clay wished he could’ve too.

The six miles down the mountain passed much quicker than the uphill ones had. In what seemed like no time at all, the trail was widening and the forest was clearing a bit. She heard a distant thundering sound. Looking up though, all she saw was sunshine and clear skies.

They rounded a turn and the trail opened up to a pristine and sparkling mountain lake. The water was so clear that the mountain was reflecting in it.

“That sound’s the river,” Sara explained, pointing over the hill. “Amazing huh?”

Clay pedaled up beside Keeley and nudged her. “Was I right or was I right?”

“You were right,” she breathed, still stunned by the serenity of the place. Charleston was great, but Keeley was a born and bred mountain girl; the ocean just didn’t compare. The water was still and she could hear the birds chirping in the trees. Can I just stay here the rest of my life?

The serenity was soon ruined by a huge splash. What the hell? Keeley thought and for the first time she noticed the families milling about and the people swimming in the lake. She looked around for Sara and Tuck and spotted them, a little ways out waving for her and Clay to join them.

“Water feel’s great!” Tuck hollered loudly. “Come on!”

Keeley looked to Clay. He grinned, the expression on his face clearly saying he was game if she was. A sweaty, slightly disheveled looking Clay, swimming around in a cool mountain lake? Hell yeah, she thought and pulled off her pants, grateful for the long spandex shorts she’d donned earlier.

Clay quickly pulled own shirt over his head, leaving it on the seat of his handcycle, and transferred to the ground. He brought his knees to his chest and crossed the ankles with his hands, then scooted backwards as far as he could, his legs falling and straightening in the process. Keeley followed him slowly as he repeated this process down the ten or so feet to the water’s edge.

When they finally reached the lake, Clay quickly disappeared underneath the surface. A few seconds later he popped up about twenty feet out. Wow, to only be able to use his arms, he went very far, very quick, she thought.  He popped up grinning and shaking the water from his hair, squinting it out of his eyes, looking shockingly just like any other guy on a camping trip with friends.  He gestured with his head for her to join him.

She shook her head, eyeing him suspiciously and not liking the wicked grin playing on his face. “I don’t think so.”

He shrugged, eyes sparkling. “I’ll come to you then,” and before Keeley knew it he was right beside her, vigorously splashing her.

 She prepared to retaliate as Clay dipped down and disappeared again. The suddenly he popped up on the other side of her, grinning wickedly, challenging her. “Oh,” Keeley said, steeling herself for the disgusting lake water she was probably about to ingest and took a deep breath. “It’s on Mr. Whitlow, it’s on!”


They swam in the lake until it started getting dark, enjoying the water and each other’s company. An hour and a half of racing, having splash wars, treading contests – which Clay won, to no one’s surprise—and seeing who could hold their breath the longest (Sara) and Keeley was having more fun that she had in years. She felt like a little kid again, the infectious fun-loving attitude of Clay and his friends affecting her too.

For the first time in a while, she swam and goofed off enjoyed herself without the cloud of Brent or work hanging over her. No dig to work on and no one around worrying about pruny fingers. A girl could get used to an occasional vacation every now and again, she thought as they headed in to shore to dry off and head back to camp.

Keeley grabbed Clay’s chair for him as soon as she hopped off her own bike twenty minutes later. He looked pleasantly surprised as she brought it over. “Thanks,” he said kissing her lightly on the cheek. Clay quickly transferred to the chair. Keeley noticed he looked a little relieved to be back in it.

He headed off towards the tent and Keeley wandered over to where Tuck and Sara were trying to get the Coleman stove started. “That’s not how you do it Tuck!” Sara said exasperatedly.

Keeley chuckled. “If you don’t pour as much fuel in, it’ll be easier to keep under control.”

They both turned to her with surprised expressions on their faces. She shrugged. “I’ve lived off one of those for weeks before.” Tuck managed to get some of the fuel back into the canister and sure enough, the stove started right up.

“Don’t underestimate Keeley,” Clay said grinning as he came up behind them. Keeley noticed he’d changed into some shorts and a teeshirt. He tugged gently, pulling her into his lap and grinned ruefully. “She might not be able to bake biscuits, but she can brave the elements.”

Tuck snorted at the biscuit comment. Sara elbowed him and turned to Keeley with an apologetic look on her face. “Ignore him.”

Tuck jerked his thumb in her direction. “She burns water, so she understands.” Sara rolled her eyes. He continued, “I’ll admit that I saw you were what Clay had dragged along this morning, I was skeptical.” Keeley raised her eyebrows and looked at him indignantly. Tuck laughed and held his hands up in defense. “But, you did good out there. Much better than that one did his first time on a bike.”

Clay laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was a little heavy on the brakes going down an incline and went flying over the handle bars,” he explained. “Broke two ribs and my left arm.”

Tuck laughed at the memory too. “Your mom was so pissed when we came home.”

“Yeah, because my brother’s wedding was the next weekend and I could barely move!” Clay added, still chuckling, remembering this memory much more fondly than he had the tent fiasco in Cashiers. Keeley snuggled closer in his arms. “I looked—”

“Like you had a stick up your ass,” Tuck said with a grin. Sara smacked him on the shoulder with the fork she was using for the burgers.

“—like I was in immense pain,” Clay corrected with a pointed look at Tuck. “Which I was, my ribs were broke and I was practically deaf from Mom yelling at me all week.”

Tuck frowned. “Your mom isn’t a yeller. She’s more of a kill with silence kind of disciplinarian.”

“What’s that?” Clay asked cupping his ear towards Tuck. Sara and Keeley both dissolved into laughter.

The rest of the night passed quickly and with a lot of laughter. Keeley learned Tuck was a trial lawyer in Columbia—something she never would’ve pegged—and Sara was the venue manager at The Mill Rehearsal Facility in Colombia.  Small talk quickly gave way to fun childhood stories though.  It was obvious by the way that Tuck and Clay playfully nitpicked and tried to outdo the other, that they’d been friends a long time and through a lot together. They sort of reminded her of herself and Jan, except on intensified.  After one particularly outrageous story involving paint, underwear, and a cow, Clay finally explained to Keeley that he and Tuck had been neighbors growing up, along with college roommates.

After the stories started slowing and tiredness from the day’s activities started setting in, Sara held up four unbent clothes hangers and grabbed a bag of goodies beside her. “S’mores time!” she announced excitedly.

“Now, Sara, that’s not even hardly roasted,” Clay said in a teasing tone a few minutes later as she started preparing her s’more.

Sara narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like burned marshmallows.” She pointed at Clay’s own marshmallow, about to drop off his coat hanger. “Or sticky globs.”

“Fair enough,” Clay replied bringing the marshmallow slowly towards him. Right before he got it onto his graham cracker it dropped, landing on his thigh instead. He frowned and wrinkled his nose. “Crap.”

“Here,” Keeley said offering him a napkin. Just then, his leg started bouncing up and down, sending the graham cracker and chocolate bar flying. Keeley saw Sara and Tuck look away, suddenly immensely interested in the constellations about them. But she, was finding it ashamedly hard to avert her own eyes.

“Shit,” Clay muttered. He pressed down on his knee gently until it stopped jumping a few seconds later. He looked at Keeley, his deep green eyes slightly guarded. He sort of nervously half-laughed. “Guess that sticky glob was pretty hot.”

But the expression on his face clearly said it was anything but. He looked frustrated and annoyed as he gestured for Sara to hand him the box of graham crackers. But mostly, he looked embarrassed.

Keeley reached over with the napkin she still had in her hand and wiped what was left of the marshmallow off his leg, hoping he realized it was her silent way saying, it’s okay and showing her acceptance.

Clay grinned crookedly; she knew she’d done the right thing. She stood up from the ground and walked to throw the used napkin away. She heard Sara say, “And that is why marshmallows are best only a little roasted.”

Keeley heard a feminine little shriek and then deep laughter. When she turned around and headed back to where they were sitting, gathered around the campfire, she saw that Tuck had essentially attacked Sara and was tickling her ferociously, rolling around on the ground.

“You can throw my marshmallow in the fire, but I won’t crack” she yelled playfully between gasping breaths, “Warm marshmallows are still better!”

Clay was laughing at the scene, but Keeley noticed he still looked a little…rumpled by what’d just happened. He shifted in his chair and glanced into the fire, a pensive thought on his face. Keeley sat back down on the ground beside his chair where she’d been before, leaning slightly against it. After a moment Clay glanced down at her, smiling ruefully. “It’s kind of weird huh?”

“Huh?” she asked. Really intelligent sounding there Keels. He slapped his leg. She mentally smacked herself. “Oh.”

“It’s just sort of… a defense mechanism; I guess you’d call it. To pain, when you can’t feel it,” he rolled his eyes and sort of half grinned. “More like an annoying and embarrassing nuisance.”

"Pain you can't feel?" Curiosity got the best of her. But as soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could have taken them back. 

"Yeah," Clay said slowly, drawing the word out, absentmindedly rubbing his thigh. "Pain I can't feel." He absentmindedly rubbed his thigh. Then, he smiled brightly. "Good job, actually asking a question by the way." 

She rolled her eyes. "What are you talking about? I ask questions all the time." When Clay started laughing in response, she finally conceded he was right. "Fine, I don't ask questions. My mom always taught me it was rude to ask personal questions." Keeley said, gaving him a quick once over, her eyes lingering on his lower body, one part in particular, as in appropriate as it was.

She blushed fiercely as Clay noticed and raised his eyebrows suggestively, a little grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. Personal questions? Maybe should have rephrased that Keels. Before she could blunder out an apology thought, he grabbed her arms and gently tugged her up into his lap. "Keeley," he said, looking into her eyes. "You can ask me anything." 

Anything? "Anything?" 

"Anything." Clay flashed her a charming smile. "Except what my favorite color is. I've been working on that one since first grade and still don't have an answer for it." 


The rest of the camping trip was a blur, spent taking another much quicker and shorter bike ride and fishing. Both facts that Keeley found herself grateful for—she wasn’t sure she’d ever been this sore in her entire life.

Saturday everyone had pitched in on making dinner. Tuck worked on figuring out how to fry fish on a Coleman stove, Sara and Keeley tried their hands at making edible homemade hushpuppies, and Clay managed to create a pretty decent tartar sauce. Eating around their ragamuffin dinner, munching on PopTarts for dessert, and listening to Tuck’s stupid ghost story around the fire, Keeley felt strangely content in a way she’d never felt before.

She popped to her feet abruptly, remembering something she’d stashed in the truck early Friday morning that she’d forgotten about until now. “Hey,” Tuck said indignantly as she walked off. “You’re the only one who hasn’t heard it before. And you’re about to miss the punch line!”

“Three out of four pirates prefer Dr. Pepper right?” Keeley laughed over her shoulder as she jogged towards the truck. She quickly grabbed what she need and headed back towards the circle. She smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I had heard it before. It’s a favorite of my brother’s.”

“Well, obviously,” Tuck muttered.

Clay nodded what Keeley was carrying. “What is that?”

Keeley grinned. “My dad used to say no campfire was complete without music,” she set the black case down and popped the locks open. Inside was an old, but gleaming Gibson guitar.

Clay looked at her, surprised. “I didn’t know you brought that. Hell, I didn’t know you could even play that.”

Keeley smiled coyly. “There’s probably still a lot you don’t know about me Mr. Whitlow.”

“Fair enough,” he shot back with a crooked grin. And I’d wager there’s still a lot I don’t know about you, she thought momentarily, eyeballing the chair.

 Keeley leaned against his chair comfortably and started strumming absentmindedly; tuning and trying to remember the chords to “Wildwood Flower” her dad had taught her when she was thirteen.

“Do you know any John Prine?” Tuck asked excitedly when she had finished the short song. Sara turned to him with an incredulous look on her face.

“Yeah,” Keeley answered laughing. She started strumming and singing “Please Don’t Bury Me,” laughing the whole time as Tuck sang along, very off-key.

“What about ‘Magdelena Hagdelena’?” Clay asked with a grin when their duet ended and Sara took her fingers out of her ears.

“No,” Keeley said cocking her head. “Can’t say I know that one.”

“‘Magdalena Hagdelena Uka Taka Waka Taka Oka Mocha Polka was her name?’” Clay asked in what might have been a singsong voice. Keeley raised her eyebrows, trying to keep from laughing. He looked around the circle. “What you never sang that at summer camp?”

The three of them shook their heads. “‘She had a crazy hair upon’—oh, forget it,” he said stopping and shaking his head dejectedly. “Must have been an Athens Y Camp thing.”

Keeley laughed, wishing she could hear the rest of the song. She paused and took a sip of her water. Gently, she started strumming the strings again, trying to think of something else from her scant repertoire. Got it, she thought and changed tunes.

Softly she started singing a Joshua Radin song, her favorite, and hoping her voice wouldn’t crack:

“Been up all night staring at you
 Wondering what's on your mind
 I've been this way with so many before
 But this feels like the first time
 You want the sunrise to go back to bed
 I want to make you laugh”

She glanced over at Tuck who was whispering something to Sara. She threw her head back in quiet laughter and nodded. Then she sank back into Tucks arms. They’re so comfortable and happy, Keeley thought as she played some more. I want that.

Then, she looked up at Clay, whose eyes were practically boring holes into her. He was smiling at her affectionately, and she realized with a start, that she just might have that, right at her fingertips. Just don’t nut up, she heard Jan saying in her head. She smiled back, the butterflies that had become familiar to her returning to her stomach.

A few songs later, they finally convinced Clay to say the rest of the “Magdalena Hagdalena”; he stoutly refused to sing—something Tuck and Sara were quick to assure her was a blessing as she put the guitar away.

Sara headed towards her tent as Tuck quickly stamped what was left of the small campfire out while Clay tossed some water on it and Keeley replaced her guitar in the truck. By the time she was through Clay was already in the tent and under the sleeping bags they’d laid out on top of the air mattress.

“You know,” Clay started as Keeley quickly changed into some unattractive, but warm, flannel pajamas of his. “There’s just something about a pretty girl with a guitar.”

Keeley smiled and blushed as she snuggled under the covers and closer to him, breathing his scent in—the smell of fresh cut grass, slightly smoky from the fire and a faint trace of Jovan musk.  “Oh?”

“Oh,” he repeated grinning and pulling her closer. “You know what else?” he whispered in a sultry voice as he nipped at her ear playfully.

“Hmn?” Keeley asked, tracing his collarbone with one of her fingers. Her heart pounded and she hoped they were leading up to that tent time Clay had promised her Friday morning.

“Somebody’s got to turn that light off.”

Keeley groaned, and looked up at the electric lantern she’d finagled into a hanging position, while Clay laughed heartily. “I’d rather leave it on than expose myself to the cold.” Feeling especially daring she gave him a pointed look.

“Uh-uh,” he shook his head laughing. “The rest of me is extra sensitive!”  

“The entire rest of you?” she asked in a velvety voice—at least she hoped it was velvety, to her it just sounded stupid—and kissed his neck lightly, hoping to that would get the ball rolling.

“Ehhh, let’s not quibble over the details,” he answered with a small laugh and a charming grin.“But the parts of me that would exposed to the cold? Yes.”

Keeley playfully slapped his shoulder, “Fine,” she said, getting up. “I’ll turn the damn thing off.”

She squealed as her bare feet hit the cold floor of the tent. Less than ten seconds later, the lantern was off and Keeley was back to snuggling with Clay, tent time forgotten as fatigue from the camping trip quickly set in once the tent was submerged in complete darkness. She drifted off quickly, wondering exactly what those “details” Clay didn’t want to quibble over were.


  1. I looooove you EJ. Clay is no doubt amazing. Keeley is one lucky lady.

  2. I really love this story! It gets better and better with each instalment.

  3. Bonus! A twofer! :D

    These chapters were very interesting as I wondered about the whole camping thing. Also very fun and warm-hearted and delightful. Hmmm....I think I just described Clay!

    Don't suppose you have another couple of chapters handy???? :D

  4. Applause, applause . . . I can hear everyone clapping!

    Thanks for another terrific chapter.

  5. What a surprise! Thanks for the prompt update. I love this story!

  6. I love how you augmented your story! Great job.

  7. This is turning into my favorite story. I love Clay. Please more soon!

  8. We are so lucky here to have so amazing, talented writers here with us!! Thanks so much EJ for the update. I am loving this story and I can`t wait for the next update. Keely hasn`t asked any questions about his injury yet, I guess they will have to talk about it soon...?


    1. Thank you for comment Tina! I do need to have them talk about his injury soon...just unsure of how to bring it up. :-/ looking for suggestions if you or anyone else have some! :)

    2. Hi EJ, I was out of town for vacations and while I checked this site, I didn`t look in the comments of posts I had already read, so I just saw your reply. I don`t have any ideas, unfortunately, but I trust your imagination and skill as a writer! Can`t wait for an update!