by Trish Kocialski
It had started out so simply. I was looking to have one last adventure before entering into the world of nine to five, so I had applied, and with some very good luck won a chance to be on a new game show called Fear Masters. The premise as they explained it was to make you do various stunts, and then if you survived them you had to answer a question to win. I know it sounds very silly but it had been a big hit in Japan or somewhere in Asia and since there are no original ideas in Hollywood these days, they hoped it would be a big success here.
I had received my contestant packet in the mail and found out my guide, as they called the production assistant who was assigned to each person, was named Sloane. Images flashed briefly before my eyes of some geeky intern whose uncle probably got him the job escorting me around while I was on the show. The packet also contained several release forms one of which made me wonder if I was signing away a first born. One thing I was sure of... I had just signed my life away for one week for a free trip to California.
After spending a month convincing my mother I wasnt going to get myself killed and having my friends congratulate me, I was off to Los Angeles.
The flight had been very uneventful and long, but I decided it was just easier to wait until the businessmen and families grabbed their luggage from the overhead compartment before I exited the plane. As I scanned the waiting area looking for the driver that was to meet me at the gate I wasnt quite sure what to expect but here I was. Scanning the gate area again, I saw a tall slim man wearing of all things a Hawaiian shirt and long basketball shorts running up to the gate holding a sign with my last name on it.
Oh yeah he got a job from his uncle.
"Hi, I am Rebecca Brady. Are you Sloane?"
The boy I should say since he couldnt be more than 16 years old, looked at me confused for a moment before he grinned and shook his head saying, "Oh no. That is my sister. She is waiting for us in short-term parking. She sent me to come find you."
Well, there went my visions of a dark suited chauffeur and a nice limo ride.
"Umm, my name is Michael, by the way," as he stuck out his hand nervously at me and we started walking back the way he had come.
Wandering around LAX wasnt quite as bad as I thought it would be, and Michael made an excellent guide as we navigated the corridors to pick up my luggage. It probably didnt hurt any that he was pretty tall and that tended to intimidate some people to get out of our way. We found the luggage area fairly quickly and for once there were no problems with my luggage. As we stepped out into the short-term parking area I noticed Michael raise his arm and start waving wildly. I followed his line of sight to see a tall dark haired woman leaning on a Jeep Cherokee looking very disinterested in being there.
My backpack was on my left shoulder and I carried my duffel with my right hand. As we approached the Jeep, I switched the duffel over to my left and extended my right hand in greeting. "Hi, Im Rebecca Brady."
"Sloane," she responded in a growl, ignoring my outstretched hand. She glanced briefly in my direction while she popped the back hatch of the Cherokee. "Toss your stuff in here," she said, indicating the nearly empty back end. There was another backpack and small suitcase there, and I assumed it was luggage for another contestant. "Travel light," she added as a comment rather than a question as I placed my two items in the back.
"Yeah, Im a minimalist at heart," I told her with a grin then added, "except for my techno toys, but most of them are at home." She didnt respond, just waited for me to get out of the way then slammed down the rear latch and went to get in.
"Cmon," she said gruffly. "Your plane was late and now were late for the rules seminar."
I looked over at Michael and he just shrugged, then escorted me to the passenger side of the back seat, holding the door open like a true gentleman. "Thanks," I said with a genuine smile and slipped into the seat. He blushed slightly and closed my door before getting into the front seat with his sister.
Well, at least manners run in part of the family.
"So, whats this rules seminar about?" I queried cheerily, bound and determined to make conversation with this woman.
"Oh, hmm I got that part! Since were obviously going to be late, cant you share?"
Sloanes eyes pinned me from the rear view mirror. "Theyll tell you everything you need to know when we get there."
"Okaayy," I drawled. "I guess Ill just have to wait," I conceded, albeit a bit testily. It was obvious to me that Sloane was not particularly happy with her "guide" job, and I was already beginning to regret my participation. As we headed out of LAX, my inner voice spoke up, rebuking me for my attitude.
Now, now, lets not get into a pissing contest here. Youre tired and she doesnt know you from Adam. Besides, you really need that prize money to pay off your graduate school debts, so keep a stiff upper lip and think positive!
Michael had picked up a file of papers which I recognized as a photocopy of my application. "Wow, youre an oceanographer! Thats cool!" He turned in the seat to look at me. "Where do you work?"
"Nowhere yet; I just finished my doctoral degree and hope to land a job soon. Im keeping my fingers crossed for a position with the Office of Naval Research or the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association, or maybe even with the National Underwater and Marine Agency. I was in the Sea Grant program. My specialty is marine geology and geophysics."
"Wow. I can barely understand high school physics. You must be really smart."
"Well, lets just say Ive learned to study real hard. Besides, things come easier if its something you really like doing."
As Michael and I chatted on about deep sea diving and sea mammals, coral reefs and the like, I kept track of how often Sloane peeked at me in the rear view mirror. Hmm, was I seeing a bit of that crusty veneer cracking?
We got stuck in a huge traffic jam and Sloane had to call in that we were going to be really, really late. The only part of the conversation I heard were occasional umhms and yups mixed in with a series of curses. It looked like Sloane was going to have to give me the rule seminar one-on-one and she wasnt too happy about that. Oh well, such is life!
We finally arrived at the small studio about four hours later. I never saw a studio name, just a big number at the gate where the guard motioned us in. Sloane skidded to a stop at a one story building on the back lot. She got out and slammed her door, waving at us to follow. I got out before Michael was able to gallantly open my door, but let him have the satisfaction of opening the building door for me.
"Is your sister always so uncommunicative?" I asked in a faint whisper as we followed her into the building and down a dark, quiet hallway.
"Oh, well, um, not really."
He was obviously hedging his response, so I raised my eyebrows in a questioning mode and stared at him.
"Shes been this way ever since Sam "
Nodding in understanding I said, "Ah, been dumped, huh."
"Something like that, I just hope she finds someone else soon or shes liable to jeopardize her job. People around here are really getting tired of her attitude. I think thats why they put her on this detail so shed only have to deal with one person.
"Lucky me," I said with a cluck of my tongue.
Sloane turned a corner and we suddenly found ourselves in a large, nearly empty sound stage. In the center of the cavernous room sat a small wooden desk with a half circle of chairs scattered before it. On the desk was a packet of papers and some pens. Sloane went behind the desk and pulled out the chair from the kneehole and sat, motioning for Michael and me to sit. I pulled a chair right up to the desk and waited patiently. Michael faded into the background, sitting in the furthest chair.
"Okay, heres the drill. There will be five rounds of stunts for you to complete, each one increasing in point value. You get to pass on only one any more than that and youre out of the game. The contestant with the highest point total is the winner. If there is a tie, there will be a final challenge round. Whoever wins that gets the one million dollar prize." She finally looked up at me and said, "Any questions?"
She talked so fast, my head was spinning! "Okay first question: how many competitors are there?"
"Five. Three guys, two gals."
"Second question: do you know what the stunts are?"
She shook her head. "No. Only the producers know for sure. Youll find out what each one is on the day its to be done."
"Okay." I inhaled slowly to focus. "I suppose you dont know what the challenge round is either."
"Wrong. Actually, I do. That will take place here in the studio before a live audience. It will be an intellectual rather than physical challenge, but I dont know the question."
I nodded, hoping that my years of schooling would help me in that round if I made it that far. I could sure use the bucks to pay off all my school loans and get some needed techno toys. Plus the left over cash would give me a cushion until I got a real job. "Okay, so where do we go from here?"
"Easy New Zealand."
I choked out a gasp at that one. "What? New Zealand? They never said anything about overseas travel. Why there?"
"Simple. There are more opportunities for shall we say difficult stunts in that country. Plus we wont have to worry about the insurance and liability issues as we would here in the States." She crossed her arms over her chest in a deliberate manner as though she was concluding the session.
"I wondered why we had to have a current passport," I said as an afterthought.
She cocked her head at me and sighed. "Anything else?"
"Only one more question. When do we leave?"
Sloane opened the packet in front of her and pulled out two Air New Zealand tickets and flipped them open, then checked her watch. "The flight leaves in six hours. We have just enough time to get back to the airport and get through all that security."
"Six hours!" Gasping, I sat back in the chair. "I need to call my mom."
Sloane dropped her head and inhaled deeply. "Theres a pay phone on the back wall. Make it quick."
We made it to the airport in half the time it had taken us to get to the studio. Most of the traffic was coming against us until we got close to LAX, then it bogged down again. Michael dropped us off at terminal two then sped off with a grin on his face as he drove away in Sloanes Jeep. It took us another two hours to make it through the ticket counter and check our bags; Sloane packed almost as lightly as I did. Then it took another hour to get through gate security and up to the boarding gate. The entire time, Sloane barely said a word to me.
I collapsed into one of the few empty chairs and groaned. "Phew! I thought coming from the East Coast was a pain."
"Hmph. You think this is was bad, wait til your first stunt."
"I thought you didnt know what they were?" I sat up in my chair and waited for her to explain.
"I dont but Ive been to New Zealand on the pre-visit and those Kiwis have a real adventurous nature. I can just imagine what the producers have come up with."
Bummer. Here Id thought I was going to get a little inside track information. I sat back and looked at my watch. It was a little after 8:00 p.m. and I realized I hadnt had anything to eat since Id left home, save for some pretzels and an orange juice on the plane into LA. As if on cue, my stomach growled loudly. I looked up at Sloane who was still standing near me and shrugged my shoulders. She almost almost cracked a smile, then the realization of what shed nearly done seemed to hit home and she frowned. Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a granola bar and tossed it at me. "Here, thisll hold you over until they serve dinner on the plane."
"Thanks," I said, catching the bar and tearing it open. I was so hungry I shoved the whole damn thing in my mouth in two bites. My cheeks were puffed out like a chipmunks full of sunflower seeds. When I looked up, I didnt see Sloane at first. She had moved over to one of the pillars and was discreetly watching me. When I turned and looked directly at her, I saw it. She was smiling! Not a great big smile, but a little one, as though she was amused. When our eyes made contact, the scowl returned and she turned and walked away.
Finally, passengers began boarding the huge plane. Sloane had given me my ticket back at the studio, which was fortunate as she never did come back by my seat after giving me the granola bar. I looked around the waiting area and didnt see her in the immediate area. Oh well, shell be on board somewhere.
I got in line and followed the masses on board, trying to determine who among them might be my competition. I thought I had the guys pegged, but was still mystified as to who the other female was. I showed my boarding pass to the attendant and she directed me to the other side of the aircraft. I walked down the long aisle knowing that my seat was somewhere in the rear. When I finally found it, it was two rows from the very end and had only two seats in it a window seat and an aisle seat, and I was elated that I wasnt stuck in the middle row that had four seats in it. My seat turned out to be the one by the window so I stored my backpack overhead and slipped into it, buckling the seat belt in an automatic motion. I looked around the rest of the cabin to get my bearings and was glad to see the restrooms were at the back, too. Then I settled in and watched the rest of the passengers as they readied themselves for the flight. Traffic in the aisles started to thin out and empty seats sprinkled the cabin here and there, but I still hadnt caught a glimpse of Sloane. I was beginning to get a bit nervous. After all, so far she was the only person I knew on the whole plane! Folks were pretty well settled in their seats and it was almost flight time when I saw Sloane coming down the aisle, stopping at the empty seat next to me. Without comment she stowed her backpack and sat down, buckling her seatbelt and stretching out her long legs.
Looks like my first challenge just arrived.
I figured I had about 12 hours to get her to say more than four words to me. If I could accomplish that, I knew I could win this competition. At least I knew we had some common ground - Phil had dumped me for a roll in the hay with a professor and an A in Geothermal Physics. Well, I had plenty of time to work out a plan, so we both sat quietly in anticipation of the safety spiel to come while the jumbo jet lumbered down the tarmac. As the TV screens came alive with the safety information and the attendants demonstrated the motions for us, I thought I would try breaking through with a little humor.
I giggled as I remembered a recent flight. "I flew on a Southwest flight a while back and the attendants cracked me up with their version of the safety spiel." At the front of our section, the attendant was holding up the seatbelt, going through the latching and unlatching of it. "The attendant on Southwest told us that if we didnt know how to buckle a seat belt yet, we shouldnt be on the flight!" I chuckled and looked over to see Sloanes reaction - which was none.
Okay, try again.
Now came the part with the oxygen mask. In a low tone, I repeated the words being spoken by the attendant, but changed it when it came to the child sequence. "If the person sitting next to you is a child, or an adult acting like a child, put your mask on first, then assist them with their mask." This elicited a minor response, as I caught the corners of Sloanes mouth curling up just a bit. Aha! I was making progress, so I ended with the Southwest attendants version of an emergency water landing. "In the event of an emergency water landing, you will find a life vest under your seat. If you want to use it, go right ahead, but lets face it, folks - if we hit the water, the fat lady has sung her last note."
I realize now that it was at this exact moment, when I looked over at Sloane, that I fell in love with her. I thought I heard her stifle a laugh then felt her moving, turning her head to face me, and she was smiling. Thanks to the gleam in her eyes and the dazzle of her smile, her face was radiant. Okay, maybe it was the rays of the fast setting sun that were radiating on her face, but the effect was staggering. Whoa! Be still my heart! I felt my face flush and my palms broke out in a sweat and worse yet, the door to the butterfly cage in my stomach popped wide open! Gulp!
Cautiously I said, "Pretty lame, huh?"
She pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah, pretty lame. Thanks."
"Thanks? For what?"
"For your persistence." She smiled that blinding smile again. "I havent had a laugh in a while and it felt good." Then she turned to face the front of the plane. Closing her eyes, she laid her head back on the seat and the conversation ended.
All right by my count she said 19 words. Yep, Im a shoe-in to win this competition!
About an hour into the flight, the attendants came around with the drink cart. To my surprise, they served complimentary wine along with the usual beverages. Sloane was still sitting with her head back and eyes closed although she had reclined the seat for comfort. I took the opportunity to open the conversation again, eager to see that gorgeous smile leveled at me once more. I was also hoping that she was warming up to me, and that wed be able to have a nice companionable chat. Plus, I had just spent an hour capturing those damn butterflies and felt like I was back in control again.
"Um, Sloane," I began cautiously. I didnt think she heard me so I lightly touched her arm and repeated myself.
"Yes?" she finally responded, but it seemed the edge was back in her voice.
"The drink cart is moving our way. Do you want anything?"
"Water, no ice." she replied, and without opening her eyes, she reached up and dropped her tray down.
Well, so much for conversation. When the attendant came by and went through the options, I ordered the water for Sloane and looked at the wine. What the heck, I thought, its free.
"Ill have a glass of the Shiraz, please." The steward nodded and poured a glass for me then went back up the aisle with his cart.
Okay, I admit that by the time the dinner cart came rolling our way, I had a comfortable buzz going on; that granola bar had no chance staving off the effects of the wine. I had two nice size glasses of the dark red liquid now coursing through my blood vessels, enticing me to relax. In fact, I was so relaxed that I was humming Blow the Man Down as the dinner cart stopped by our seats. I smiled what I thought was a charming smile at the cute attendant as she repeated the meal choices.
With what I thought was the teeny tiniest bit of a slur, I said, "Ill have the chicken, maam and a little more of that marvelous Shiraz." As I held out my glass, Sloane reached up and grabbed my wrist, opened her eyes, and told the stewardess that Id be drinking water with my meal. The woman nodded and smiled a knowing smile back at Sloane and proceeded to fulfill our dinner requests - minus the Shiraz. When the cart moved out of earshot, I looked over at Sloane as she ate and tried to intimidate her by raising my eyebrows and staring at her. She just sighed and turned to face me before speaking.
"Look, its going to be a long flight and if you want to be in top form for your first stunt, I suggest you lay off the booze and drink water lots of water. You need to keep yourself hydrated or youll be worth diddly when we get to New Zealand." As an afterthought she added, "And after dinner, go to sleep." She turned back to her meal and ate in silence.
Hot damn! That was a whole slew of words this time more than I could count, even if she was a bit terse with me.
I sat there staring at her, wondering if she actually cared about how I did on the show. Then she brought me back to my senses and I was totally embarrassed.
Without looking at me she said, "But, hey, if you want to bomb out early, go right ahead and have some more wine. Makes no difference to me, I get paid just the same."
Ouch! That hurt!
Well, right then and there I made a pact with myself to go the distance. I was going to win this stupid game if it was the last thing I did! I ate my meal, drank my water and went into a half sleep half doze mode. I woke every time the attendants came by with water and Id drink a glass and go to the bathroom. Then Id doze off again until the next watering.
Just before arriving in Auckland, the cabin lights went back on and people started moving around the cabin. I must have missed a couple of the watering/bathroom rounds because my bladder was now singing Anchors Away. I turned to ask Sloane to let me out, but she wasnt in her seat. I folded the blanket and stowed it with the pillow in the seat pocket in front of me before slipping my hiking shoes back on and grabbing my toiletry bag out of my backpack. There were a number of people waiting to use the facilities, so I stood in line not wanting to miss my turn. When I got into the tiny toilet, I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror. Boy, did I look like something the cat dragged in! I washed up, combed my scraggly short hair, and brushed my teeth. Looking back in the mirror, I was pleased with the transformation and felt pretty darn good. Sloane knew what she was talking about, thats for sure. I could only hope that the other contestants hadnt gotten the same advice from their studio guides. When I got back to the seat, Sloane had returned and she looked radiant. Its unconscionable to be so damn good looking after a twelve hour transoceanic flight but here she was, defying all odds. I looked down at her and the embarrassment of the pervious evening came back to haunt me. I wanted to explain about my inexperience with long flights, and lack of food, and
"Um, Sloane Im sorry about last evening. Its just that "
"Dont mention it," she said, cutting off my apology without even looking up.
"I just never "
"I said dont mention it." She now looked up at me and her gaze was cold. "Better get in, the breakfast cart is coming."
She stood and allowed me to get to my seat. Well, fine just fricking fine! I sat down, buckled up, and waited quietly for our breakfast. I passed on the proffered bubbly and drank three glasses of water, orange juice, and two cups of coffee with my meal. Just before landing, my bladder called me to the facilities one more time.
"Sloane, I need to use the restroom."
She nodded and smirked. "Yeah, I bet."
"Just trying to do what you suggested," I countered evenly.
"That was for last night," she said, finally looking at me as she stood to let me out. "Now youll be lucky to make it through Customs without busting your bladder."
I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldnt help it, but my nerves just felt raw. My emotions were running high, my libido was suffering from whiplash and besides all that, I was ready to start menstruating. A tear slid out before I could stop it. I quickly reached up and wiped it away, then pushed past her. Damn it! I needed to get control and fast. In the restroom, I emptied my bladder and my tear ducts as I sobbed on the toilet. I dont know how long I was in there, but I had just finished washing my face when the steward knocked on the door and told me I had to get back to my seat for landing. Looking in the mirror, I was satisfied that the puffy eyes were back to normal and the red nose was too. I calmly opened the door and held my head high as I returned to my seat. Sloane was standing in the aisle waiting for me. She started to open her mouth to say something, but I turned away from her, sat down, buckled up, and stared out the window during the entire landing process.
When we disembarked the jet, Sloane was in her guide mode and led me to an area where several other people were gathered. Introductions were made and I was pleased to see that I had guessed right on the male contestants but was completely surprised by the other female. She was about Sloanes build but looked, or I should say, should have looked like a Miss America contestant. Silently, I thanked Sloane for her advice as I watched "Miss Georgia Peach" stagger down the hall, with her studio guide giving her a boost every now and then. The guys didnt look too bad, but they didnt look too peachy either with bloodshot eyes and tousled appearances. Even though they looked disheveled and worse for the wear of the long flight, I hoped that the stunts would not require brawn because if they did, the guys definitely had the advantage. Not a one of them had a neck, and their muscles bulged under their rumpled t-shirts.
Our little group was then led off to the Customs section, where we retrieved our bags and stood in line with the rest of the international travelers. A cute little beagle was being led through the throng, and he sniffed each and every bag. Occasionally, he would stop and look at his handler, who would then do a hand inspection of the bag. There were no arrests made for illegal items so the line moved fairly rapidly. When wed all made it through, we were greeted by a member of the production crew on the other side. There was a small bus waiting for us at curbside to take us to our hotel.
Our small hotel was on a quiet side street away from the main downtown area of Auckland. We were given room keys and a phone card to use when we called the States so the studio wouldnt go bankrupt paying for the phone charges from the rooms. We were further instructed to dress in jeans and meet back in the lobby at 12:00 noon to grab some lunch then learn about the first stunt. It was now 7:30 a.m. Well, I needed a long, hot shower and wanted to make a call to my mom, so I was glad for the reprieve and the solitude. I was still stinging from Sloanes remarks. I also needed to get into "game mode" for the afternoon anyway. The other contestants and I were dismissed, while the studio guides were held for a meeting of some sort.
After my call home and a nice leisurely shower followed by a soak in the tub, I slipped on the complimentary robe and checked the clock. 8:30 a.m. Hmm, too much time to kill. I walked around the room and read the tourist pamphlets on the desk, flipped through the TV channels, and finally opted to recline on the bed for a little rest. I had the presence of mind to set the alarm, just in case I drifted off. I really wasnt tired. Sloanes advice had been sound and I found I did not have any jet lag at all, but I closed my eyes anyway and tried to prepare myself for the coming adventures.
At first, my mind was a blank screen of pure white. Then, a tiny spot appeared in the middle of the screen and began to grow slowly evolving until a vision of Sloanes face materialized. It was as I had seen it highlighted by the suns rays as they poured through the fuselage window, now it filled my mental screen and released those damn butterflies all over again! I erased the image and tried again, picturing the clean white screen in my minds eye. The tiny spot reappeared and grew again into that beautiful face. Scrunching my eyes tightly, I wiped the screen of her image and fought to bring back the empty screen, only to have Sloanes face reappear time after time. Boy! Was I in trouble! I was just about to scream when I heard a key in the door. I sat up and looked around the room for something to use as a weapon. There was nothing in sight, so I quietly slid off the bed and stood at the ready to run out the door, straight past whoever was coming in. When the intruder cleared the short hallway and entered the room, I was faced with the real-life image from my mind. Sloane stood there, bags in hand, just as surprised to see me as I her.
"Sorry," she said, starting to back out of the room. "I guess the studio doubled everyone up with their charges. No problem Ill just see if theres a vacant room available."
She turned and started to pull the door shut behind her and I felt so out of place and inconsiderate. What would it hurt to share the room? I reached for the door and caught it before it closed completely. "No, you dont have to do that," I offered, "Cmon in." I pulled the door back open and waved her inside. Sloane turned and looked at me, considering the offer, then nodded and reversed course back into the room.
"Look," she began softly after the door closed, "about the comments on the plane they were totally uncalled for."
I dropped my head and took a deep breath. "Well, Im sorry too. I wasnt acting sensibly."
"Im partly to blame for that," she began, "I didnt fill you in as completely as I should have. I knew from your application that youd never taken a transoceanic flight and I should have prepared you better. Thats my job and I wasnt doing it very well."
I raised my head and stared at her. "Well, I guess we were both at fault then."
She nodded. "How about we start over again?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Sure. I dont see why not." She smiled and those damn butterflies started taking flight again.
Holding out her hand she said, "Hi, Im Sloane Smith. Im your studio guide."
I accepted the proffered hand and smiled back, hoping that she wouldnt feel me shaking inside. "Hi, Im Rebecca Brady."
We stood there, just shaking hands and smiling at each other. Finally the awkwardness of the extended handshake seemed to hit home at the same time. We let each others hand go at almost the same instant. I backed into the room and went back to the bed I was resting on earlier, making the way clear for Sloane to enter.
"Well," Sloane sighed, "I guess I should shower and get into some clean clothes. Weve got a big day ahead of us." She picked up her belongings and went to the vacant bed and tossed her bags on top of it. Selecting her toiletry bag and clean clothes, she left for the bathroom.
Okay. Now all I need to do is focus on the upcoming competition! Unfortunately, my body was still tingling from her touch and I began debating whether it was better to be angry with her or not. My focus was definitely not on doing any stunt. I looked up into the mirror on the wall directly across from me and saw myself caressing my cheek with my right hand. Oh boy!
At 11:50 a.m., we were heading to the lobby. Sloane had filled me in on my competitors during the interim, as well as doing her best to give me a pep talk of sorts. I think she knew what the slated event was for the afternoon, but was unable to tell me. Well, Id find out soon enough. What I did find out was that the guys were going to be tough competition, but Sloane figured the female, Jenny, was all fluff and wouldnt make it past the first two stunts. She was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys and a school librarian. The tallest guy, Darren, was a Marine drill instructor; the really buff blonde guy, Mica, was a weightlifter from Ohio State. If he had grown a Fu-Manchu mustache, he could have passed for Hulk Hogans younger brother. Finally the last guy, Howard, was a bouncer at a New York City Dance Club and hired out as a bodyguard for visiting celebrities. All I had to do was complete every stunt and Id be assured a spot in the final round. Piece of cake!
At 12:00 noon, we were all assembled in a small room in the back of the restaurant. A buffet table was set up to speed the lunch process and we all got in line to get some grub. Sloane was right behind me in line and whispered suggestions to me as I placed food on my plate. I followed her recommendations, comparing the meager contents of my plate to the heaping ones my companions had when I sat back at the table. I certainly hoped she knew something I didnt know or I was going to be really pissed off. As we ate, the New Zealand producer, Rodney Selkirk welcomed us and reiterated the rules of the competition. Yadda, yadda, yadda... Get to the stunt already!
"Well, I suppose youre all wondering what the first stunt will be, eh?" he said, smiling at us. "You will find out in about twenty minutes. Our bus just pulled up outside, so finish your food quickly and board the bus."
"Damn! Whats with all the secrecy?" I whispered to Sloane.
"They dont want to give you too much time to think about it," she answered discreetly as we stood and left to board the bus.
Ten minutes later we were disembarking at a building called Sky City in downtown Auckland. "Hey, I saw a brochure about this place in the hotel room. This is where you can " My face went white as I remembered the details. "Shit! No wonder you wanted me to eat light!"
We took the escalator down one level then entered the elevators to the top of the tower. When we got out, we were led to a room where Rodney filled us in.
"Okay, heres the first stunt and its worth 100 points. Out that door," he pointed to the one in the back of the room, "is a platform that is 192 meters up from the ground thats almost 630 feet to us Yanks. You will be doing a controlled free fall at 70 km or 43 mph, to the landing platform below. Any questions?"
The bouncer from New York City spoke. "Whats a controlled freefall?"
"Youll be connected to wires that will control your descent. Its similar to the devices used in the movies. Did you see Batman?"
"Yuh, who didnt?" Howard said with a sneer.
"Well, they used a similar device in the movie. Its all safe, just high." Rodney looked around the room. "Okay whos first?"
I looked around the room and saw my fellow contestants all looking at me. What the hell, Im not afraid of heights and if its safe "Ill go first," I said as I stood up. I glanced over at Sloane who was hiding a smile. Sure glad I ate light!
It took almost three hours to get suited up and do the jumps, but in the end, nobody chickened out not even the librarian. Well, maybe they wanted us all to succeed at least at first. I was the luckiest of the group. My light lunch stayed right where it was while everyone else lost theirs. I gave Sloane a thankful grin as I watched the librarian run off to the toilet on landing. She was pretty green and looked like she was going to need a change of clothes, too. Round one was over and we all had 100 points.
The ride back to the hotel was quiet as my colleagues were still trying to control their stomachs. Me, I was whistling a happy tune and wondering what tomorrow would bring. When we got off the bus, Rodney told us we could eat dinner at our leisure but to be packed and ready to leave the hotel at 7:00 a.m. He didnt elaborate on what was next, but said the trip would take about four hours. Sloane and the other guides were asked to stay for a short meeting, so I went up to the room to take a quick shower and relax. I didnt think I would see too many of my colleagues at dinner and besides, I wanted to wait for Sloane.
I finished my shower and gathered my dirty clothes. The room had a stacked washer and dryer in it, so I thought Id take advantage while I could. I didnt hear the door open over the sound of the washer filling, so when I hurried out of the room, I literally ran smack into Sloane. She wound up wrapping her arms around me and doing a quick spin to keep us both from falling on the floor. We stood there wrapped in each others arms and not speaking, at least, not verbally. Our bodies on the other hand, were screaming to each other! I could feel her body physically assail mine, and of course, mine seemed to have a mind of its own as it pressed even closer to her. It seemed like minutes passed as our physical selves enjoyed the closeness while our mental selves tried to deal with the awkwardness of the situation.
"Sorry about that, I didnt hear you come in," I stammered reluctantly as she very slowly released me.
Damn! Those butterflies were on the loose again!
My knees were shaking from the encounter. It took all the effort I could muster to walk normally into the bedroom area. I watched her as she walked into the room and seemed to contemplate saying something. I was afraid she was going to tell me what a klutz I was, so I said, "Im doing a bit of laundry do you want to add anything to the washer? Its still filling."
Sloane gave me a lopsided grin and hiked her right eyebrow at me. "Sure, as long as you dont mind our stuff mingling together."
Oh, my! Was that what I thought it was, or are my hormones just raging?
Before I answered, I cleared my throat and turned away to keep her from seeing the flush rise on my face. "Um, no not at all feel free to help yourself."
Dumb, dumb, dumb For such an educated person, you are positively inept at times!
I heard her chuckle as she walked over to her bags to get her things, then she was in the bathroom adding them to mine. I picked up one of the tourist brochures and pretended to read it as my stomach growled loudly as Sloane reentered the main room.
She looked at me, hesitated, then said, "Do you feel like having dinner?"
I looked down at my stomach and then back up at her. "Guess you heard that, huh?" She nodded. "Yeah, Im starved. That lunch wasnt enough for a rabbit." I noticed the slight wince she made and quickly added, "But, Im very thankful for your suggestions or I would have been just as green as Jenny. Thanks."
"Youre welcome. Now, since Ive been to this country before, how about we skip the hotel restaurant and go someplace nice?"
My mind said, Oh wow you bet your sweet ass Id like that! But my mouth said, "Uh, yeah, sure." I gave myself a mental slap, I am so suave!
"Great. Slip into some jeans and a shirt and Ill order a cab. Oh, and take a sweatshirt if you have one. It may get chilly down by the wharf." Sloane went to the phone to make the arrangements while I dressed in clean jeans and a long sleeved purple polo shirt. I didnt have a sweatshirt, but grabbed my fleece vest.
While she changed into a black sweatshirt with a sliver fern design on it, I discreetly checked the cash in my wallet. Meals were supposed to be a part of this gig, and just having finished grad school, I wasnt very flush in the money category. Mom did give me a hundred dollars to add to my meager cash supply, so I figured I could probably blow a few bucks if I was careful the rest of the week.
Walking by the hotel restaurant, I saw the guys bellying up to the bar, but Jenny was nowhere in sight. We left in the cab that was waiting outside. Sloane gave the driver the name of a restaurant and I settled in for the drive. It only took ten minutes to get there and the cab fare was only five dollars. I reached into my pocket to share the fare, but Sloane put her hand on mine stopping me.
"My treat," she said with a smile. "Ive still got some Kiwi money left from the preliminary visit." She pulled out a colorful bill and handed it to the driver. As we exited, Sloane pointed to the restaurant. "Guess I should have asked if you like Japanese food."
"I sure do; actually, its one of my favorites," I replied with a grin. In all honesty, there isnt a food I dont like.
"One of your favorites? What else do you like?" Sloane opened the door and ushered me in as she waited for my reply.
"Well, lets just say my mom made sure I experienced a wide variety of foods."
"Anything you didnt like?"
I grinned broadly. "Nope, not yet!"
"Okra?" she asked.
"Yep," I smiled back.
"How about spinach?"
She squinted and thought. "Bet you dont like cabbage."
I rubbed my stomach and cooed, "Yum. And the little Brussels sprouts too!" I licked my lips. "Cmon." I jerked her toward the hostess as I growled, "Youre making me hungry!" She allowed me to drag her over and we arrived before the small Japanese hostess laughing like schoolgirls.
The hostess handed us a menu and escorted us to a table where four other patrons were seated. The young man sitting next to me introduced himself and his friends. They were tourists on holiday from Australia and I was charmed by their accents. Since arriving that morning, I was enjoying listening to the accents around me. Coming from the East Coast, I found them much more enjoyable than the ones I normally heard and found myself chatting eagerly with each one of them and especially Jake who was sitting at my side. About halfway through the meal, I noticed that Sloane had withdrawn from the discussion and sat quietly concentrating on her food. When I tried to bring her into the dialogue, she would shake her head, passing on commenting. By the end of the meal, I found myself no longer participating in the conversation either and wondering what had happened to the fun we were having when we arrived at the restaurant. I looked furtively over at Sloane, only to see her staring off in the distance. When our bill came Sloane paid it despite my protestations that I should pay my share, saying it was her idea to go out to dinner. I sensed that arguing would be fruitless, so I conceded and thanked her. I got a nod in response and then we left the restaurant.
"Hey, is that the wharf where the Americas Cup boats are?" I asked with a bit more enthusiasm, trying to recapture the earlier rapport.
"No, theyre in another part of the harbor, and at this time of night, under lock and key." She hailed a cab as it went by, but the driver was either off duty or didnt see her.
"Want to go for a walk?" I suggested as the lights of the wharf twinkled with a hint of Cup partygoers.
She looked at her watch and sighed, "No, we should head back. You need to be ready for tomorrow." Another cab approached and Sloane pulled a New York City move, stepping out into the road to wave him down. This driver saw her and pulled over just short of making contact with her body as it remained in the roadway.
"Well, at least let me get the cab fare back to the hotel," I asked, as I tried to figure out what had changed her mood.
We got into the cab and Sloane gave the driver the name of the hotel. In a short time, we were pulling into the driveway and exiting the cab. I reached over to hand the driver the fare. The smallest bill I had was a ten and he looked at it for a long bit before commenting that he would have to make change in New Zealand currency.
"No problem, Ill be in the country for a few days. Im sure Ill find somewhere to spend it and add to your economy." He laughed and handed me back my change a ten dollar bill and two coins that were worth two dollars each. "Wow, thats some exchange rate here." By the time the transaction was complete and I left the cab, Sloane was nowhere in sight so I headed up to the room. When I got there, she wasnt there either. Confused about the turn around the evening had taken, I consoled myself by finishing off the laundry and repacking my duffel. I folded Sloanes clothes and left them on her bed, then cleaned up, put on my sleep shirt and slipped into bed. Figuring to wait up for Sloane and talk to her about the evening, I turned on the TV to pass the time. I dont know when Sloane came back to the room, but when I woke up, the TV was turned off and Sloane was in the other bed, asleep.
Well, Ill get to the bottom of this in the morning.
The alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and I jumped at the sound of its blare. Hitting the off button, I flopped back down and tried to let my heart rate return to normal. I didnt hear Sloane move at the sounding of the alarm, so I turned to call to her only she wasnt there. Her bags were packed and setting on her bed, but she was not in the room. Assuming she had already gone down to breakfast, I showered quickly and packed up the rest of my stuff, then headed down to the restaurant.
"Hi, Jenny," I called to the librarian/cheerleader. "Have you seen my studio guide, Sloane?"
"No. But then, I just got here." She indicated the chair across from her for me to sit.
Looking around the room, I didnt see Sloane, so I sat, and when the waitress came over I ordered breakfast. The buffet looked good with a variety of fruit and cereal, and the eggs looked palatable, so I loaded up a plate and chowed down. I knew breakfast would be a safe meal today since we were told that we were in for a long bus ride before our next stunt. By the time I finished, I had just enough time for a brisk walk before I had to get my stuff to meet the bus. I decided that a bit of exercise would be in order since Id be sitting for the next four hours. There was a nice walking path that wound around the hotel complex, and I headed in that direction. I took to the path at a nice pace, enjoying the warm morning and the sounds of the native birds. Other than keeping me on the path, my mind was oblivious to my surroundings so I never saw Sloane sitting on the bench by the small pond. If I had, I may have noticed the moisture glistening on her cheek as the sunrise peeked through the trees and shone brightly on her face.
After my walk, I went up to the room and once again found it empty, except for my bags setting right where I left them. I looked around the room wondering where my mysterious guide could have gone off to. Maybe she had another meeting, but I was a bit miffed that she hadnt bothered to fill me in and I was becoming worried. Something had happened last night but what?
Our bus was a full size coach which afforded everyone a single seat if they wanted it. A couple of the guys, Howard and Mica, were sitting by Jenny and by all indications, looked like a pair of preening peacocks. Several of the studio guides were sitting together, and Howard was off by himself with a book, reading - of all things - Thoreau! I spied Sloane in the last row next to the restroom, stretched out across all three seats. Obviously, she wasnt interested in company. She had her sunglasses on, head pillowed on a sweatshirt, and seemed to be asleep. Okay, Ill give her space. Maybe by the time we get there I took a seat two rows in front of her and stretched out myself. I checked my watch and noted that we had pulled out at precisely 7:30 a.m. The driver headed down the road in the same direction that Sloane and I had gone the night before. In the daylight I was able to see that we were right on the waters edge, and the crowds that had been out partying the night before were nowhere in sight at this hour. As I watched the city roll past, I tried to get my bearings. Before long, I was awestruck by the New Zealand countryside unfolding before me as we headed south. The spread of Auckland gave way to rolling hills, ancient trees, and sheep everywhere there were sheep and cattle too, but certainly a lot of sheep. The whole countryside looked like it had been lifted right out of a storybook it was so beautiful. The roads, on the other hand, left much to be desired when compared with our wide shouldered, double-lane super highways in the States. These were narrow with barely a shoulder, and they twisted in and out following the natural lie of the countryside. The next time I looked down at my watch, it was nearing 11:00 a.m., and I assumed we would be getting close to our destination. I decided to take advantage of the on-board toilet and slipped out of my seat to walk the two rows back to it. Sloane was just becoming aware of our surroundings and shifted into a sitting position as our bus slowed and made a turn. When I came out, she looked up at me with that controlled mask firmly in place.
"Looks like were getting close," I said, smiling. I took a chance and sat down on one of the closest seat leaving an empty one between us. "I know you cant tell me about the stunt, but do you have any friendly advice?"
She looked out the window, seemingly considering my question. "No, I dont think theres anything I can say about this one."
I waited for her to turn back to me but when she didnt and I felt the bus turning into a parking area, I gave up and went back to my seat. I read the sign as we pulled in. Oh boy a ropes course. This should be fun!
Rodney stood up at the front of the bus and held the onboard mike in his hand. "Okay folks, this is it. Your next round awaits you where youll have the opportunity to earn 300 points. You can leave your bags on the bus; theyll be perfectly safe here. When you file off, head to the low tan building on the left. Youll get your instructions there."
We all filed off and went to the assigned building. Inside we were greeted by five staff members of the Rock n Ropes course and led over to an orientation area and instructed to sit. Rodney stepped to the front of the room.
"Welcome to your next stunt challenge. After yesterdays stunt, this should be a breeze." His laughter led me to believe that he was taunting us. "There are several challenges here, but were going to stick with only five of them." He held up his hand splaying all the fingers. "The first two are worth 25 points each, the third 50 points, and the last two are 100 points each. You have to complete each successfully in order to receive the points, however, if you refuse to attempt any one of them, you will lose all the points earned at this site." We all nodded in understanding and he continued. "The staff will gear you up and then well move out to the first challenge."
The staffers from the facility split up, each taking one of us over to a rack of harnesses and helmets to get us suited up in safety gear.
"Hi, Im Petra. Ill be handling your safety rope
I looked Petra over noting the strong arms and legs and nodded. "Im Rebecca. Nice to meet you." I held out my hand and she grasped it firmly. "Ever drop anyone?" I joked as she had me step into the harness.
"Oh, yeah at least one a day," she joshed back. "But Ive already done that today, so youre safe." We laughed good-naturedly as she tugged and pulled on the straps making sure it was a snug fit. Then she pulled a helmet off the rack and handed it to me. "Try this on for size." It fit perfectly so I nodded and finished securing the straps.
"All right, lets go," she said, smiling as she led the way out. "The first challenge is the Rickety Bridge. Its a nice mild wood slat bridge that wobbles just a bit. Just shuffle across and back and youre done."
"Sounds easy," I said with a smile and then looked at the bridge above my head. It had to be at least twenty feet in the air and there were no rails to hold on to. I gulped.
Petra snapped the cable onto my harness and led me to the ladder. "There you go now. Show em how its done!"
How come I have to be first again? I gulped again as I started up the ladder, then climbed steadily up to the platform and looked at the bridge. Okay, it looks pretty stable. I took a tentative step out and realized it was all an illusion and was glad that Petra was on the other end of my safety line. I inhaled deeply and shut my eyes, willing my body to be calm. Opening my eyes I focused on the opposite platform, extended my hands out for balance, and shuffled on out, adjusting my balance as I went. I reached the other side and blew out a relieved breath, then headed back over. All right, that wasnt so bad Whats next? I came down the ladder to applause from my fellow contestants, their guides and Petra, but didnt see Sloane anywhere.
Next up was Darren. He bounded up the ladder, took a quick look at the situation, stepped out with confidence and crossed the bridge and came back in what seemed to be record time. Mica, Jenny and Harold also made it over and back without incident, and we were led to the next challenge.
"Oh, this ones a beaut! Its called the High Log," Petra said with a grin. "Its like the bridge. Just have to get across and back, but your walking surface is a bit smaller. Not to worry, mate. Its just the first two steps that are the hardest."
I looked up and saw the log perched above my head. It was up about as high as the bridge was. Good thing Im not acrophobic.
Harold climbed up first and crossed the span then back. We all cheered as he came down, and his grin broadened as he dusted off his hands. "Piece of cake!" he commented. Then it was Micas turn. Unfortunately, Micas bulky wrestlers body made it difficult for him to be agile enough for the log, and he slipped off mid-way across. Darren and Jenny seemed to dance across the span, and then it was my turn. I, too, had no problem with this challenge, having spent many summers hiking in the Adirondacks and Appalachians and crossing many log bridges. Except for Mica, we were all tied in points. I looked around and still didnt see Sloane.
Ian, Micas staffer, led us to the Giant Swing. This one looked like it would be a lot of fun. "Okay, folks, Im going to be up on the platform with you to snap you in. When you jump off, just pull your feet up straight in front of you, hang on tight and enjoy the ride down." Darren was the first up this time, followed by Jenny, Harold, myself and Mica. Except for the arduous climb up - this one was at least fifty feet off the ground - the ride down was a blast. Jenny let her legs down too soon and did a flip on the landing mat, but other than that, we all earned an easy fifty points.
Petra led us to the fourth challenge. "Okay, this one will be fun and will separate the men from the boys " she looked at Jenny and me, then added, "and the women from the girls." She pointed at the towering pole. "Its called the Giant Trapeze and its worth 100 points if you complete it. The top is thirteen meters up. Once you get up there, you need to take a leap off and reach for the trapeze which is about two meters in front of you, so make sure you get a good jump out. Once youve caught it and are stable, hang on and well lower you down."
Jenny looked up and shook her head. "Hey, theres no platform and nothing to hold on to at the top."
"Yep, thats about it. Just the top of the pole is all," her staffer said with a grin. "But the pole is about 45 centimeters in circumference, so theres plenty of room for your feet."
My brain kicked in and converted that to inches. "Hmm, about eighteen inches," I told Jenny. "That should be wide enough to balance on." Jenny looked at me with a wry look and plopped down on the ground. Shed obviously decided she wasnt going to be first. Our Marine, Darren, jumped up and started up the pole as soon as his safety belt was secured. He looked like a lumberjack as he climbed steadily. His strength and agility got him in a standing position and he took a few seconds to catch his breath and concentrate before leaping out for the trapeze, yelling "Semper Fi", and catching it with ease. Before we knew it he was being lowered to the ground, grinning from ear to ear. Just before landing, he did a flip through the space between his arms and the bar then dropped to the ground. I heard Jenny mutter something that sounded like "show-off" while the rest of us clapped.
Mica went next and after a shaky moment at the top, he leapt out and snagged the trapeze. I could see the relief on his face as he let go of the handle, dropping the last three feet to the ground. I went next and had to use all my willpower and shaky strength, to make that final step up to the top of the pole. There really wasnt much room for error and I was sweating profusely. Standing on the top, I wiped my hands off on my jeans and sent a little prayer out to my guardian angel. I could feel my legs shaking and knew I had better be quick about it or I wasnt going to make it. For some strange reason, I looked out and saw the parking lot, the bus and Sloane. I could have sworn she was holding her breath. Shes holding her breath shit what about me! Okay concentrate on what youre doing. You need these points! Inhaling, I crouched a bit and jumped, extending my hands for the trapeze. My right hand caught the bar, but my grip was slippery with sweat. My leap must have been a bit off center because the fingertips on my left hand barely curled around the bar, but I held on trying to stabilize the swing. On the up swing, I pulled with my right hand and was able to get my left hand tightly curled around the bar. On the downswing, the sweat on my right hand made me lose my grip and I hung there by one hand. Okay okay. Just hang in here, get stable and youre home free. I looked down at the group below and for whatever reason, smiled and shouted, "Hey, just trying to make it look hard!" As ground crew lowered the trapeze, I looked out in relief and waved at Sloane who had come into the compound and was standing near the back of the group. She was smiling!
Harolds turn at the trapeze came next and he scampered up the pole easily. The trouble came when he tried to get on the top of the pole. He managed to squeeze himself on, but he didnt have enough room on the top to get a good jump off and he missed the trapeze. He had two staffers on his safety rope, and they caught him easily and lowered him to the ground.
Jenny was still sitting on the ground looking up at the pole. I walked over and bent down to give her some encouragement. "Hey, Jenny, its not all that bad. You danced across the beam and tackled the swing...you can do this too."
She looked up and me and sighed, got up and went to the base of the pole. When her safety rope was secure, she started up. At the top, she had a bit of trouble getting to a standing position, but somehow managed, albeit a bit wobbly. I saw her take a deep breath then make the leap of faith out to the trapeze. She caught it, stabilized, and was lowered. We all cheered as her feet touched the ground.
I didnt notice Sloane walk up next to me amid the cheering. "That was a nice thing you did; not many competitors would have done that," she said softly. Caught off guard by the compliment, I just nodded and mumbled my thanks.
Petra came up and ushered me to the final challenge. "This one is a toughie. Only one in twenty completes this challenge." She chuckled and winked. "But I have a feeling youre up to it."
I felt kinda giddy from Sloanes compliment and Petras flattering remark, but soon came down to earth as we were instructed on the last challenge the Chicken Walk. Rodney was standing by the structure and pointed up at the two parallel cables about twenty feet overhead that stretched for about twenty feet between two platforms. There were no hand cables for balance.
"Okay, this is the final challenge for today. This little tiebreaker is called the Chicken Walk. You have to make it from one platform to the other, walking on just those two foot cables. You cant use your hands to traverse the distance; you have to do it standing and moving across on your feet. Its a true test of balance." He looked around the group. "Right, now, we have Darren, Rebecca, and Jenny tied with three hundred points each so far for the first two days. If anyone makes it across this without falling, theyll be in the lead all by themselves." He paused and looked each of us in the eye. "Okay, whos first?"
Mica was only twenty-five points in the hole; he knew if he could make it, he would be back in the game and in the lead. Harold had missed out on the hundred points from the Giant Trapeze, but could even the score if he made it across. Neither volunteered to go first though, both preferring to wait and see how the action played out.
Jenny rose to the challenge and went to the ladder with her staffer. They both climbed up and the safety rope was put in place. "Go, Jenny!" I called from below, and she turned and smiled at me. She started across fairly well; then halfway across, she began to wobble. As she tried to correct, things went from bad to worse and she took a header off the cables with a scream. Her staffer was right on it and caught her up with ease, lowering her safely to the ground. Darren went next, but he barely got on the cables before he lost his balance. Then Mica gave it a try and almost made it, but ultimately suffered the same fate as the others. I started to move to the ladder, but Harold beat me to it, which was fine with me. Id rather be last on this one. Harold slid one foot out, then the other, all the while adjusting for balance as he went. It seemed he was taking an inordinate amount of time, but in fact was moving along fairly well. I held my breath as he came within two feet of the far platform. He inched closer, just barely sliding his feet forward. Finally, he made a bold move and quick-stepped off the cables and onto the platform. We cheered and he whooped as he came down the ladder on the other side.
Sloane looked at me and whispered, "Looks like its up to you to break the tie." I nodded and headed for the ladder. Petra and I ascended and just before I stepped out, I looked down at Sloane and there it was that brilliant smile. Yeah, you got it the one that sets the butterflies free. Damn, why now? I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate, closing my eyes. Well, that was the wrong thing to do. The screen in my head was full of visions of Sloane and butterflies. Opening my eyes, I focused on the platform across from me and took the first step with my right foot. It was followed by my left, then right, and so on as I flapped my arms to maintain my balance. I was doing it! I couldnt believe it; I was almost over to the other platform. Remembering Harolds bold move, I decided to copy it, and it would have worked if I had been maybe twelve inches closer. The good thing was we were all still tied, except for Mica. And the best thing was - Sloane had put her arm around me in consolation.
By the time we got back on the bus, it was nearly 5:00 p.m. and we were all beat and hungry. The ropes course had juice and fruit for us to snack on between challenges, but what I craved now was food. Real food.
Sloane had resumed her seat in the back and I moved my gear to the row just in front of her. "Hey, how long before we get to the hotel?" I asked in mid-stomach growl.
Sloane looked up and smiled as she recognized the sound. "Not long. Were staying in Taupo for the next few nights. Well be there in about fifteen minutes."
"Good. Im starved," I moaned animatedly.
"Yeah, I can tell," she replied with a chuckle. "You did good today, Rebecca."
I crinkled my nose in distaste at the sound of my full name. "Um, my friends call me Becca," I said as I realized that this was the first time she called me by my name. "Only Mom calls me Rebecca, and thats usually when Im in trouble."
Sloane nodded and grinned. "Okay. You did good today, Becca."
There was that grin again. I grinned back, thankful that we were talking again.
We arrived at the hotel and were in our rooms by 5:30 p.m. We were to gather for dinner at 6:00. I didnt know what I wanted first: a shower to wash away the perspiration of the day, or food. I chose a shower, knowing that Id much prefer to smell clean while dining with Sloane. At least I hoped wed be dining together.
"Hey, Sloane," I said softly, "You coming to dinner with us?" A cloud seemed to pass over her face, but then just as quickly lifted.
"Yeah, sure," she replied after a moment.
"Great!" I called out excitedly. "Im gonna grab a quick shower first." I grabbed my toiletry bag and skipped into the bathroom. Ten minutes later, I was dressed and ready to go. We were on the second floor and the hotel faced the lake. When we stepped out of the room, I saw the lake stretching out from across the road and off into the distance. The sight was stunning and I stopped at the railing to soak in the view.
"Pretty awesome isnt it."
"Yes, it is. Whats the name of the lake?"
Sloane chuckled. "Taupo."
"Ohh," I muttered softly, "I didnt realize the town and lake had the same name." I looked out over the distance. "It looks pretty big."
"Yep, it is. Its also in a volcanic crater."
"Really? Thats cool."
"Want to take a walk on the beach after dinner?"
For a second, it seemed as though she wanted to retract the statement, but then just shrugged it off. I was really tired from the adrenaline rush of the afternoon, but I wasnt about to pass up a chance to have some quiet time with Sloane. "Yes, Id like that." She seemed to smile at my response and then turned to head down the stairs to the restaurant. Okay, now whatever you did last night, dont do it again! I swallowed hard, putting the butterflies back in their cages before following Sloane down the stairs.
When we got out of the restaurant, the sun was beginning to set and the reflections across the lake were amazing. I wanted to grab my camera before heading across the street to the beach. "Sloane?" I asked gently.
"Mmm?" she responded, just as quietly.
"Id like to run up and get my camera. Take some shots of that awesome sunset."
"Okay," she replied, quickly adding, "if youre still up for a walk. I know you must be beat."
Hmm, is she trying to back out of the walk on the beach? "Oh, no. Im still up for that." I watched her face to try to read her reaction. It looked like she was warring with her feelings: a part of her wanted to keep her distance, but another part needed wanted the company.
Shes probably still hurting from her break-up better take it nice and easy. Whatd her brother tell me her boyfriends name was? Oh, yeah Sam. Thats probably why her moods swing so badly. Mine sure did when Phil left me.
I ran up the stairs and grabbed my little point and shoot 35 mm camera, made sure there was film in it, then ran back down the stairs. Sloane was talking to Darren at the base of the staircase. Or rather, Darren was doing all the talking, obviously hitting on Sloane. She didnt look too happy about it either, but wasnt having any luck being nice about her turndown.
"Hey," I said as I intervened, slipping my arm around Sloanes elbow, "ready to go?"
She seemed stunned by the gesture at first, but quickly grasped the situation and nodded with a smile. "Sorry, Darren." She smiled coyly at him. "Maybe another time. Ive promised to show Becca the town."
He looked at me, then at my grip on Sloane and nearly gagged.
I grinned at Darren and waved my fingers at him. "Bye!" He flushed and then turned around and went back into the restaurant. When he was out of sight, I slipped my arm out from Sloanes and looked up at her. "Um, sorry about that, but I heard the conversation as I came down the stairs. It was the quickest thing I could think of to rescue you from the situation. Hope you dont mind."
She looked over at the restaurant and back at me, then picked up my hand and slipped it back where it had been. "Nope, dont mind at all." She pursed her lips and nodded. Smiling, she patted my arm and chuckled. "Maybe we should stay like this until were out of his sight."
Be still my heart! My breath caught for a second and then I nodded eagerly. "Yeah, sounds like a plan."
We walked across the street arm in arm, still in full view of the restaurant. As we walked along, Sloane pointed at different things with her free hand explaining what they were, but didnt release her grip on my arm. I felt like I was floating on a cloud or maybe it was the butterflies lifting me up in the air. All I knew was that I sure hoped the restaurant had a great view of the beach!
We walked for at least a mile down the beach, still arm in arm, and I was lost in the sensations of her touch. I had completely forgotten about taking any pictures of the gorgeous sunset, concentrating on the warmth building inside my body instead.
" and theres a thermal vent over in that rock outcropping. Would you like to see it?"
"Hmm?" I had been so in tune with my body as it reacted to her touch that Id barely heard a word shed spoken. "Oh, ah yes, sure." I hoped that was the right response because all I heard was her asking me if I wanted to see something. We walked down to the waters edge and a jumble of rocks. As we got closer, I saw the steam lifting from gaps in the rocks and exclaimed, "Oh, a thermal vent!"
Sloane looked at me with a bewildered stare. "Yesss, thats what I said it was." She looked at me a bit closer and then added, "Are you okay? If youre tired, we can head back." She slipped her arm out from mine and held my hand as she waited for an answer.
The setting sun was between us and enhanced her aura as I looked into the dark blue pools of her eyes. I felt myself moving closer to her as if tugged in by her personal gravitational pull. She seemed to be moving closer too, but then a cloud passed over the sun, darkening the space between our bodies and a wisp of cold air washed across us. We stopped our movement and inched away from each other, fully aware of what had almost happened.
Sloane looked across the lake as the sun reemerged just before it dipped down below the horizon. "I guess we should be heading back," she stammered. "Its going to get chilly now that the sun is down." She dropped my hand and slipped hers into the pocket of her jeans.
Trying for a light mood, I interjected, "Well, we can always warm up by that vent." We both laughed a nervous laugh, each wondering what the other was thinking at this moment. I knew I was thinking about what her lips would have felt like on mine and what her skin would have felt like beneath my fingers. Those thoughts alone warmed me up.
She looked at her watch. "Its going on eight thirty. We could stop at one of the bars on the way back if you like. Try one of the local brews."
No, I want to go back to what we were going to do!
"Sure." I nodded and looked at my camera. "Guess I forgot to snap those pictures."
"Therell be another night," Sloane said softly and I heard a hint of regret in her tone.
"Yes," I replied sadly, "but, tonight was almost perfect." I hoped shed caught my meaning.
We headed back the way we came, stopping in the corner bar for a night cap. The rest of the studio crew was there and Sloane got whisked away for another meeting. I told her I was tired and would go back up to the room. She smiled at me as she was led away by a fairly tipsy Rodney. By the time Sloane came back to the room, I was fast asleep.
We found out about our next stunt at breakfast the next morning. Looked like we were slated for a bungee jump from a helicopter over the lake at 7,000 feet!
Oh boy! This height thing is starting to get old
In the first place, I wasnt thrilled about bungee jumping. Id done a tandem skydive back in the States, but drew the line at bungee jumping. Besides, the thought of having my feet tied together with a big rubber band didnt sit well with me. Plus, I remembered a news story that had happened several years ago about a bungee that snapped and sent the poor soul head first into the concrete. I knew the bands were a lot stronger these days, but still Secretly, I wished I knew what the other two stunts were. If I only knew that, I could possibly pass on the bungee jump.
I looked over at my fellow contestants, trying to read their reactions. Darren was grinning, as usual, and Harold and Mica were unreadable. Jenny on the other hand was white as a sheet. I watched her raise her hand and knew she was going to pass on this one.
"Yes, Jenny," Rodney said as he noted her raised hand.
"Id like to pass on this one."
"Are you sure? You can only pass on one, and this one is worth 200 points." She nodded her head vigorously. "Why dont you come up with us and make the decision up there," Rodney prompted with a smile.
"Ill come up, but Im passing," she said with a note of finality.
Shortly thereafter, we left for the airport in our little bus . A big commercial helicopter was hired for the jumpers and a smaller one would take the video crew. Sloane was back in her seat at the rear and I wandered back there too.
"Mind if I sit with you?" I indicated the seat.
"No, help yourself."
She was staring out the window again and I wondered what she was thinking. I thought about asking her about last night, then decided now wasnt the right time.
Sloane turned towards me with a thin smile. "So, what do you think of the stunt today?"
"Honestly? Im not real comfortable about this one. The height doesnt bother me, its the bungee part that does. Im not into foot bondage!" I laughed at my dim-witted joke. Sloane laughed too. "If I knew what was coming for the next two stunts..." I hesitated, "Id probably pass, too." Sloane looked up at me, seemingly ready to protest. "No! No I know you dont know whats coming next. Thats not what I was getting at. Im just really scared about doing this. Unfortunately, I really need to win this stupid contest.
"Why?" she asked sincerely. "Why do you need to win?"
"Ive been in school most of my life; first my undergraduate degree, then my masters, and now my doctorate. Im not from a rich family and its been a struggle for Mom and me. I got as many scholarships as I could, but an education is very expensive these days." I blew out a breath thinking of all the sacrifices my mom had made so I could pursue my dream. "Ive got applications out, but my first loan payment is due next month and I still dont have a job lined up. The economy sucks right now and most places are laying folks off instead of hiring. With research funding in the toilet, Im not exactly in a career thats clamoring for hot bodies let alone my body."
She smiled at that remark and looked me over. "Oh, I dont know your body looks pretty hot to me." We both flushed at her comment and she quickly tried to recover. "I mean well what I meant was "
I patted her leg and smiled. "Thanks I needed that." I removed my hand and continued. "Anyway, the prize money would take care of the loans and Id be able to repay Mom for all the sacrifices shes made for me. She hasnt said anything, but I know shes not feeling well. Its just a gut feeling I get when I go home. Theres this medicinal smell in the air. Ive asked her, but she denies it."
"Wouldnt your dad or someone else in the family know?"
Sloanes genuine interest surprised me. "Nope, no relatives were it."
We both sat looking out the bus window. I was trying to calm my fears and Sloane was thinking about whatever it is she thinks about. Our thoughts were interrupted as we pulled into the airport. The helicopters were parked at a sky diving venue, so the bus pulled into the lot.
"Well, here goes," I quipped with as much good nature as I could muster as I stood to leave. Sloanes hand reached up and held me back.
"Wont the second place money help?" Her eyes searched mine, looking for an answer.
"Well, $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at. Its barely enough to cover one tenth of my education debt that accrued over the last eight years, but it could come in handy to get Mom to go to a doctor."
"Okay, then try to think of something else when you jump and be careful," she added straightforwardly.
"Me be careful? Hey, you need to tell that bungee crew to be careful!" I laughed and turned to move out of the bus. I could feel her eyes watching me as I walked down the center aisle and decided that rather than focus on the jump, Id close my eyes and visualize Sloane.
"Whooowheee! What a rush!" Darren exclaimed as he boarded the bus after the jumps. The rest of us boarded a bit more demurely having survived the stunt for another day, all that is except Jenny. She stayed true to her word and passed on the stunt. There were now just three of us tied with 500 points, and Mica with 475 points. Jenny was further behind with 300 points. I walked past them all heading to the back row where Sloane was already in place.
"Did you watch us on the monitors?" I inquired as I sat in the third seat of the row.
"No? You mean you didnt see me waving and mouthing Hi, Sloane to the cameraman?"
She turned and looked at me with a stunned expression on her face. "You did that?"
I laughed and nodded. "Yeah, right after I mouthed Hi, Mom. Then I held my thumbs up and jumped."
"Damn," she muttered. "What made you do that?"
"What? Jump or what I said?"
"Uh, both I guess."
"Well, on the way up there I got to thinking. I knew the paperwork I signed with the studio would pay my mom $100,000 if I died accidentally on the show and I figured that amount would do her nicely and my loans wouldnt be able to tap that money. This competition is about facing fears, and so far, this has been the only real fear Ive faced. So then I thought of Winston Churchill."
"Yeah, you know the only thing you have to fear is fear itself" and I thought, okay, if it happens, it happens but what are the odds of that? So, I jumped!" For a fleeting second I thought she seemed miffed, but then she smiled and said she was glad Id made it. What I didnt tell her was that I had fallen in love with her and didnt want to disappoint her.
"Well, as they say down under good on ya, mate." Sloane smiled at me and gave me a hug.
Whooowheee. What a rush!
We got back to the hotel around 12:00 p.m. and were told we had the rest of the day to relax or sightsee. I was still floating from the hug, and thinking that relaxation had nothing on a hug from Sloane! When we disembarked the bus, Sloane was hustled off into yet another crew meeting. I managed to say Id wait for her at the restaurant and she nodded in agreement before heading off to the small room adjacent to the restaurant.
I was still waiting for Sloane at 1:00 p.m. and my hunger was getting the best of me. I flagged down the waiter and ordered a club sandwich, salad and soup. Sloane got to the table just as my order arrived. "Sorry, I was disrupting the entire restaurant with my growling stomach." I offered her my sandwich, but she said she could wait and told the waiter to bring her the same things I was having.
"So," I began around a mouthful of salad, "since youve been here before, what do you suggest for an afternoon of entertainment?"
"That depends," she said with a twinkle in her eye, "on whether youve had your fill of adrenaline pumping adventures or not. Theres quite a bit to do around here, but a lot of it is pretty active stuff."
"Hmm, well, Im for some relaxation. What do you suggest?"
"Well, theres always the beach. This part of the lake is thermal fed so the sands nice and warm."
"Sounds great an afternoon of chilling on the beach."
We spent the entire afternoon lazing on the sand and warming our toes in the clear, warm water. I went out for a swim and found that the further out you went the water became quite chilly. Sloane turned back as soon as those cold thermal planes hit her body. I joked with her that Californians just didnt appreciate a nice cold swim. She agreed readily and headed back to shore.
The evening was spent in the hotel restaurant and bar with the rest of the contestants and studio crew. We pretty much had the place to ourselves since we took up most of the rooms with all the guides, contestants, camera crew and gaffers needed to tape the show. All in all, it was a pleasant evening and I retired to bed that night feeling quite refreshed.
At breakfast the next day we learned about the fourth stunt. We were going to get a crash course on kayaking and then have to shoot the Tongariro grade 3+ rapids. This was one stunt that we all felt pretty comfortable with and were all glad that it was not going to involve any heights for a change. The point value for this stunt was 100 and we were eager to earn them and have another afternoon off.
We arrived at the river at 8:00 a.m. Instructors from a local kayak vendor were there to greet us, give us the minimal information we needed to be safe, provide the kayaks and safety gear and be our safety net as we individually navigated the rapids. It had been a good winter with a heavy snow pack and the spring was pretty wet, so the river was high and fast, but I had spent a couple of summers kayaking on the lakes in upstate New York so I thought I would be able to adjust to the rapids fairly easy. One by one, we took our turn navigating through the marked buoys on the river. It was set up in a slalom fashion and we got 10 points for every gate we navigated through successfully. Mica did the best of all of us, scoring a perfect 100 points. Harold and Darren struggled to get 80 points each and Jenny and I came away with 90 points apiece. At the end of the stunt, I found myself in a tenuous lead with 690 points. Darren and Harold were right behind me with 680 points each, and Mica pulled up with 650 points. Jenny was in last place with 490 points. We were told that the final stunt would have a point value of up to 300 points and anyone could still come out on top. Tomorrow would be our last stunt in a place called Rotorua. We had to be packed and ready to board the bus at 9:00 a.m. The ride to the stunt site would take just over an hour and by nightfall wed be back in Auckland.
Back at the hotel, I took a long hot shower to warm up before lunch. We had the afternoon off again, but this time Sloane and I discussed doing some tourist treks.
"How about a leisurely walk through a thermal valley? That should excite the geophysicist in you."
My eyebrows hiked up, pleased that shed remembered my educational background. "Sure! Id love to explore some while Im here. This country has a wealth of geothermal activity. Is it far?"
"Just down the road a bit. I can use one of the cars the studio rented. And if youre really up to it, we can take a helicopter ride over the active volcanoes south of the lake." The waiter returned with her order and we settled in, making short work of our lunch.
The afternoon went by quickly once we got out on the road and got into the "tourist" thing. The thermal park was truly awesome and smelly. I found the up-close and personal contact with the steam vents a rewarding addition to my educational background. My area of professional preparation was more on the marine side of geothermal activity, but the topside version was still an awe-inspiring event.
We passed on the helicopter trek to the active volcanoes, mostly due to my limited funds. Sloane said she could have written it off on the studio, but I refused to allow her to do that. Instead we traversed some of the other area sites, including the short walk to Huka Falls. I had to admit that the Kiwis needed to see Niagara to understand what a formidable waterfall was truly like, but Huka was unique in its own way. For one, the water was much cleaner than anything that had crossed the summit of Niagara in decades. After Huka, we stopped at some tourist shops, ate ice cream, tasted local honey, sipped fruit wines, and visited a woodcraft shop. I was really intrigued by the character of the native woods and of Sloane pressing up close behind me to view a 30,000 year old wooden bowl that was on display. When we arrived back at the hotel, I was still tingling from that encounter! We had such a relaxing afternoon Then the roof caved in.
About 7:30, we decided to go to a local restaurant for dinner and selected the Irish Pub. Things were going well between Sloane and me, no pressures, no pretenses, just enjoying the sights like two tourists. We had a booth in the bar area of the pub and were looking over the menu when a group of people came in and sat at the bar. I wasnt really paying attention until a guy came up to our table. I looked up and recognized him. It was Jake from the Japanese restaurant in Auckland.
"Hey, Jake! What brings you down here?"
"Ah, me and my mates decided to take our holiday to the Kiwi outback." He winked and nodded at his friends back at the bar. "What are you doing here?"
"All part of the competition," I quipped. "Sloane and I just spent the afternoon checking out the thermal valley north of town. Have you been there yet?"
"Nah, were looking for other natural wonders." He raised his eyebrows and looked us over with a big grin.
"Ah, looking for some play mates, eh?" I winked back at him.
"Oi, you catch on fast. So, what are you two beauties doing tonight?"
I looked over at Sloane, wondering why she hadnt chimed into the conversation and saw that she had tuned out and was concentrating on the menu. "Eating dinner," I finally replied, pondering why Sloane was so quiet.
"Well, Ill let you two get on it then. Maybe later?"
I looked at Sloane who was still reading the menu, the answered, "Maybe." When I saw her flinch, I quickly added, "And maybe not." Jake gave us a little salute and went back to the bar to be with his friends. When he was gone, I looked over at Sloane.
"Sloane?" She continued to study the menu. Something was bothering her and I was going to get to the bottom of it. "Hey, are you okay?"
She dropped the menu on the table and looked up at me. "Im fine. Are you ready to order?"
Her voice had lost the warmth it had held earlier and I felt as if I was dealing with a female version of Jekyl and Hyde. One minute shes warm and friendly, the next shes cold as ice. "Uh, yes, I think so. How about you?"
She nodded in response to my question and waved the waitress over. After our order was taken I sat there trying to figure out where to go next. I knew it must have had something to do with Jake because she was fine until he came up to the table. Maybe he reminded her of Sam? I remember when Phil left me my emotions were up and down like a roller coaster.
"Sloane," I began tentatively, "whats wrong?" When she didnt answer and continued to stare at the table top, I persisted. "Look, everything was fine until Jake showed up. Is it Jake? Does he remind you of Sam?" Her head snapped up at Sams name, and I saw anger and hurt in her eyes.
Her eyes pinned me. "What do you know about Sam?"
"Nothing really," I back peddled as fast as I could. "Michael just mentioned the break up is all, and well, I was thinking...."
"Michael?! Look, you dont need to think anything! You dont know anything! So shut up about Sam!"
I could see tears welling up in her eyes and I reached out to touch her arm. She pulled away from me with a violent jerk and sat back in the booth, fighting back the tears and crossing her arms defiantly. I was stunned at the reaction and found myself speechless as I tried to think of something to say to ease out of the situation.
"Sloane, Im sorry. Its obvious youre hurting and I didnt mean to bring back the pain."
"Pain? You know nothing about what Im feeling!" She turned her head away, then snapped it back to look at me. She took out some bills and threw them on the table and choked out, "Ive lost my appetite," then got up and left.
I moved to go after her, but the waitress came up on my side with a tray of salads and two beers. I nearly knocked the poor woman down but was able to stop in time and help her steady the tray.
When she got herself stabilized she looked at the door closing behind Sloane and a worried look came over her face. "Is she okay? Do you need a doctor or something?"
I followed her gaze and watched Sloane through the window as she ran across the street toward the beach. "No, shes okay. Its just been a long day and shes a bit wiped." I pulled out a couple of more bills and handed the lot to the waitress. "Is this enough to cover our order?"
"Yes, too much really, Ill get your change. Would you like me to fix your order to go, Miss?"
I looked out the window and didnt see Sloane anymore. "No, just keep the change and sorry, I have to run." I ran to the door and looked out across the roadway, scanning the beach in both directions. There were still several people on the beach and I didnt see her in the crowd. I ran to the right, all the way to the marina, and didnt see her. I ran back in the opposite direction for a mile past the pub and still didnt see Sloane.
I went back to the hotel and checked our room. No Sloane. I walked the beach in both directions again and still didnt see Sloane. It was getting darker and I was getting worried. Where could she have gone? Sooner or later, shed need to come back to the hotel, so I decided to call it quits and wait for her there. I had no idea what I was going to say to her when she came in. I just knew that I wanted to comfort her, though I wasnt sure if she wanted to be comforted. I waited in the room sitting up in the chair so I wouldnt fall asleep, but found myself drifting off anyway. I got up and paced to keep awake, but soon wore myself out. Finally, I lay down, still in my clothes, hoping Id hear her when she got back. I didnt need to worry about hearing her she came back like a freight train!
The door banged open, waking me from my fitful sleep. I sat up and watched as Sloane stumbled into the room. I thought she was hurt and jumped up to help, but soon found out the reason for her unsteadiness she was as drunk as a skunk. She still had the bottle of Scotch in her hand and lifted it to her mouth to take a swig. I gently held her hand back and told her shed probably had enough to drink.
"Ya think?" she slurred, trying to focus on my face.
"Yeah, I think," I replied gently.
"Hokay howboutyou? Ya wanna drink?"
"Nah, Im fine thanks. How about you sit down and let me help you get in bed."
"Bed? You wanna go to bed?"
"No, you should go to bed." I looked her over and saw that she was covered in sand and dirt. She must have fallen several times on the beach or lawn in the process of getting back to the hotel. "On second thought, maybe we should get you cleaned up a little first."
After a bit of work and encouragement, I helped her out of her soiled clothes and into the bathroom, where I seated her on the toilet stool. I started to prepare a wash cloth and Sloane said shed rather take a shower. I thought thatd be a good idea, so I turned the water on and adjusted the temperature and asked if she needed any help to get out of her underclothes.
She looked up at me and smiled. "You want me naked, doncha?" she slurred and grinned.
Damn, even stinking drunk she was beautiful. I wanted her naked all right, but not like this, not drunk. "No, Sloane. I just want to help you if you need it."
"Aww, sure ya do." She waved her hand at me. "Cmere Ill tell you a little secret."
I moved closer and before I knew it, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me. It was a solid kiss, right on the lips. Not sloppy or hard, but actually soft and very sensual. If the situation had been different I would have wanted the kiss to linger. Lord knows I wanted her badly, but instead, I pulled back and looked her in the eye. "Sloane, thats just the booze talking. Ill help you into the shower now, okay?"
She dropped her head and muttered, "Okay " And I thought I heard her say something about Jake, but couldnt make it out. I helped her out of her underclothes and into the tub.
It was a struggle and in the end, I had to get in with her to keep her in an upright position and get her cleaned off. After toweling her dry, I got fresh underclothes on her and helped her into the bedroom and into bed. I pulled the trash can over closer to the side; having had some bad moments just like this in my undergraduate years, I wanted to be prepared for the inevitable. I got her settled then put on fresh underclothes myself, turned down the lights, and crawled into my bed.
Sloane turned and looked at me barely breathing out my name, "Becca,"
"Lay with me please? I dont want to be alone."
Her voice was so soft and sounded so fragile, my heart ached for her. Whatever happened between her and Sam must have been very traumatic. I got out of bed, then lifted her covers and lay down next to her, pulling her into my arms. I could feel her body shudder as the tears began to fall. I pulled her in closer and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead. Cooing softly as I gently ran my fingers through her hair, I whispered, "Shhh, its going to be alright. He wont bother you anymore." Just before she drifted off, I could have sworn I heard her call for Sam, but she said Samantha instead. My heart started to beat wildly could it be? Was Sam actually Samantha?
The inevitable happened about an hour later. I felt her body begin to retch so I quickly turned her on her side with her head over the edge of the bed. My aim was perfect and she hit the wastebasket dead center. I was thankful that the hotel thought to line the baskets with plastic bags. That would make the clean up much easier. As soon as she finished, I helped her up and took her to the bathroom to clean up. While she washed and brushed her teeth, I dug through my toiletry bag and came up with some Alka-Seltzer, tossed two tablets in a glass of cold water and handed it to her.
"Itll kill ya or cure ya.," I said with a smile. "Drink up, and you can thank me in the morning."
She took the glass warily and downed the contents as I directed. For a moment I thought she was going to have to hug the porcelain pony, but she managed to keep it down. "Thanks."
"No problem. Now, lets get you back to bed."
I got up quietly in the morning around 7:00 a.m., disentangling myself from the sheets and Sloanes arms. She had insisted I lay with her when we went back to bed and I wasnt about to refuse or complain. Now we had two hours before we had to board the bus, and I wanted Sloane to sleep for most of that. I dressed in sweats, ran a comb through my disheveled hair and silently crept out of the room. I had a huge breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, toast, juice and coffee. I didnt realize how hungry I was until I sat down. I guess worrying all night about Sloane made me forget I had missed dinner. The waitress came by and I asked for some plain toast and four coffees to go, hoping to get something into Sloane before we had to leave. When I got back to the room, Sloane was still in bed, sprawled out on her side and clutching her pillow to her chest. I set the take-out on the nightstand and gently sat on the bed.
"Sloane," I called softly, getting only a moan in response.
Ahh, the day after the night before...I certainly had my share of these moments.
Again, I softly called to her. "Sloane. Time to get up. We have to leave in forty-five minutes."
"Ungh." One blue eye popped open. "Is that coffee I smell?"
"Mmhm. Feel like drinking some?"
"Maybe. Let me see how I feel sitting up." Sloane moaned and groaned as she sat up on the side of the bed. "I feel awful."
I nodded my head in agreement and a bit of sympathy. "You should, if the dregs left in that bottle of Scotch are an indication of how much you drank."
She looked at the bottle on the dresser and than back at me. "I I dont know what to say." She lowered her head into her hands and rested her elbows on her knees. "I hope I wasnt "
"No, you were a perfect lady. A bit drunk, but hey, weve all been there one time or another." I muffled a snort of laughter.
She stood and walked to the bathroom, noticing her dirty clothes and the wet underwear on the towel bar. She picked up the latter and said, "Howd these get wet?"
"Ah, that would have been in the shower."
"Mmhm. I kinda helped clean you up last night before I put you to bed." I was actually a little embarrassed relaying this information. "You couldnt stand by yourself, so I had to get in and help you." The cloud started to lift and the memory of the kiss hit her and she flushed deeply. I gathered she had started to remember, so I tried to allay her fear, touching her arm softly. "Dont worry, Sloane. You didnt do anything to upset me. Honest."
She turned and looked at me with her bloodshot eyes. "But I "
"Yes, you did." I smiled and squeezed her arm slightly. Okay, here goes nothing "and under different circumstances, I would have kissed you back." Her eyes widened and this time it was my turn to blush. Confusion registered on her face and for a moment I thought Id blown it.
"But, I thought Jake "
"Jake?" And it suddenly all made sense: the tuning out when I chatted with the group in the restaurant and then last night when he showed up at the bar and the flinch when I said maybe. "You thought I was interested in Jake?" A nod. I shook my head. "No, hes not exactly my type."
"But, you were so "
"Talkative? Yeah, thats just me. Ive always had a friendly nature and I love to chat with people. I guess that does give the wrong impression sometimes. I wish you had said something to me "
"It didnt concern me," she said, lowering her eyes.
"Well, obviously it did or you wouldnt have reacted the way you did."
She looked up and her bloodshot eyes turned cold and then just as quickly warmed again.
"I had no right to interfere with your life, not when mine is in such a mess," she said, then turned away from me.
"Sloane," I said softly, "give me an honest answer here." I turned her back around to face me. "How do you really feel about me?"
"Feel? I honestly dont know Im caught between " she hesitated. "Its a long story "
"Okay, I can wait. But tell me this do you like me?"
She grinned as brightly as she could considering her hangover. "Yes. Yes, I do...a lot."
"Well thats good enough for me at least for now." I gave her a hug and looked at my watch. "Oh my, we have twenty minutes to get to the bus. Wed better hurry." I went out into the main room and started packing my bags while Sloane showered. When she came out, we changed places and I showered. With four minutes to go, we were packed and ready to leave. We both reached for the door handle at the same time and wound up holding each others hand instead.
Sloane turned to me and whispered, "May I try that kiss again?"
I nodded my head vigorously, then she bent her head and our lips met. I think that was the best kiss of my life. When we finally broke apart, I couldnt help but grin. "I think today is going to be a terrific day!" Oh yeah set the butterflies free!
The short bus ride to Rotorua went through some picturesque countryside and I snapped as many shots as I could. Sloane and I were sitting in the back row, only this time there wasnt an empty seat between us. We passed the time in companionable silence, enjoying the sights as we were whisked along the highway. By 10:30 we arrived at our destination and Rodney was back up at the microphone, ready to fill us in.
"Well, here we are at our last stunt for the series, and its a good one. Right now, Rebecca is in the lead, but anyone can come out on top. A total of 300 points can be earned here."
Yadda, yadda, yadda get to it!
I was antsy to get this over and fidgeting in my seat. Sloane reached over and took my hand and I settled down some.
"This place is called Hells Gate, and believe me when I say the name is appropriate. Were going to take a short walking tour of the area before your stunt so you can get a real appreciation of whats to come. At the end of the tour, well head over to the spa area. Youll get further directions there."
"Damn!" I cursed under my breath. "Why does he do that?"
"All part of the show." Sloane shrugged. "Builds suspense."
I let my breath out slowly. "Okay, lets take the tour and get this over with." We got up and departed the bus, joining the others at the entrance.
Just inside the gate, my nose caught a whiff of the vile sulfur smell. "Eeewww. This place stinks really bad."
Sloane wrinkled her nose and made a face. "Yeah, its a lot worse than the other thermal park."
Everyone walked quickly following the paths and signs, eager to leave the vile place.
"I dont think Im gonna like what Rodney has in mind," I said as we finally exited the tour area. The entire site was still enveloped in the stench and it was beginning to have a nauseating effect on us and especially Sloane. This is not a good place to be when you have a hangover the size of California.
We were led into the spa area and given tank suits and bathing caps. Okay, not bad so far, but the stench was grating on my olfactory nerve. Once changed, we were directed to the mud pool area and benches to await further instruction. Each of our studio guides was standing behind us. Rodney showed up carrying a duffel bag.
"My, dont we look fine!" he started as the camera rolled. "This is your final stunt on our show. He pointed at the pool of warm, putrid mud. "Your last stunt is to get into the mud pool and stay in for as long as you can. Youll earn 10 points for every minute you stay in, up to the maximum of 300 points. Thats a maximum of thirty minutes in the mud." He paused and winked at the camera.
Uh oh, that is not a good sign.
"Theres just one tiny little catch. You need to be submerged the entire time." He unzipped the duffel and brought out snorkels and goggles for each of us.
Panic hit me. I couldnt do this! I began to sweat and looked around at the others as they accepted the items from Rodney. I turned to Sloane and she read my panic.
She dropped to her knees, her concern evident. "Youve conquered worse than this, Becca. Whats the problem?"
"The problem is Im claustrophobic. VERY claustrophobic. Ill never make it ten seconds if I have to submerge in that muck."
"But Ive seen your application, youre a certified diver. Whats so different about this?"
"I wont be able to see or hear or and the mud is heavy itll be oppressive and worse than being in a sensory deprivation tank only my sense of smell will be functioning and I dont think that one will help and and " I knew I was panicking but I couldnt stop myself.
"Okay, okay," she whispered and gently touched my arms to try to control my fidgeting. "Take a deep breath and relax. You dont have to do this."
"Yes, I do. I can take time to be with mom take care of her and not have to worry about my loans if I dont get a job I have to do this."
"All right. How about if you close your eyes you said that got you through the bungee jump. Cant it work here, too?"
"I dont know," I said, wiping the sweat from my hands onto my tank suit. "The bungee jump only lasted a minute, and once I stopped bouncing up and down I could open my eyes. I dont know if I will be able to focus on something other than my fear."
"So, what you need to do is think of something more complex, thats all." She smiled and waited for Rodney to go back to the other side of the group and start leading them into the mud pool. "Why dont you think about this..." She bent down and kissed me. It was a deep, sensuous kiss that left me breathless with desire. When she stopped, she pulled away and said, "Now, think of what else we can do together."
The next thing I knew, I was stepping into the pool and slipping on the goggles and snorkel.
"Ready, folks?" Rodney asked, and I looked over at Sloane. She smiled that brilliant smile and winked at me, then I slid down below the mud with Sloanes face firmly implanted in my mind, and my thoughts of pleasure to come. When I surfaced, coughing and spitting mud after twenty-four minutes, I was surprised to hear the applause of the spectators. It seemed I was the last one to surface, having survived longer than Jennys twenty-one minutes. The guys barely made it past ten minutes.
Sloane was the first one over to congratulate me, helping me out of the pool and wrapping me in a large towel. "Guess my tactic worked, huh?" she said with a huge grin.
"Yeah." I spit more mud out of my mouth. "It certainly was an inspiration."
In Auckland we spent the evening just talking, starting at square one and learning about each other one story at a time. I told her about my tomboy childhood, my dream of being a marine geologist, my first kiss, and my last lover. I didnt hold back on the feelings I had for Phyllis or the pain Id felt at her betrayal. Sloane told me about her childhood, her rebellious teens, and her lover, Samantha. It turned out that Sam wasnt a bad person at all. They had been devoted to each other and they were on top of the world until Sam was the victim of a hit and run accident. Sam had died the previous fall, and Sloanes life slid downhill fast after that. Her father, not her uncle as I had surmised, was an executive at the studio and her mother was the dean of a small liberal arts college on the East Coast; she had an amiable relationship with both. She talked about her fear of being in another relationship and how she felt guilty that she could possibly find happiness again when Sam couldnt. We knew we both had baggage to work through, but we agreed we wanted to try. In the morning we were flying back to LA to film the final episode for the show. I had to go through the little awards ceremony and a blow by blow look at my performances, and Darren and Harold got to duke it out mentally for the second place prize, and Mica and Jenny would each get $5,000 for their effort. Sloane and I both wondered if the cameraman got that inspirational kiss I got from Sloane on film and if the studio was going to use it. Either way, we didnt care.
As the sun set we went out on the balcony to enjoy it before returning to the room where we laughed and we cried and we kissed and Sloane followed through on her promise, and gave me more complex things to think about.