Erica Davidson looked around at the group, her group for the next couple of weeks, and wondered again what she was doing there. The mix of men and women all seemed to know what they were getting into, unlike her, and were breaking the ice in twos and threes. The conversations seemed to revolve around where people were from, what they did for a living, and where they had hiked previously. No one had approached Erica. She wondered if the slight frown on her face was putting them off. An older man had glanced at her curiously. She couldn’t handle small talk at the moment and was happy when he had ultimately sought out a woman with striking red hair.
What was she doing? She asked herself with impatience. She was a lawyer, a city girl, and certainly not the outdoor type. She didn’t know how to pitch a tent or tie knots. She wore make-up and heels. She was yoga fit but she wondered how far that would get her when faced with mountains and gorges. God, this was a mistake, she concluded.
“Okay everyone, listen up!”
One of the guides called for the group’s attention. He looked to be in his mid twenties with scruffy blonde-brown hair that escaped his broad brimmed hat.
“We are going to be heading off in about five minutes. We’re just packing the last of the supplies into the trailer then we’ll get you all on the bus. It is about an hour or so out to the trailhead. My name is Dan,” he grinned, showing a set of healthy white teeth. “I am one of your guides for this trek. The other is Franky, who you’ll meet shortly. We are responsible for your safety over the next 16 days and ensuring you make it through to the end. This is a challenging trek, most days we will be going over rough terrain and camping in some very isolated places. In saying that, you will see some beautiful country and do some amazing stuff,” he qualified.
“Dan forgot to mention we’ll have a shitload of fun as well.” A dark haired woman said with a grin, coming up behind Dan and giving him a friendly nudge as she passed him. She wore the Ultimate Adventures badge on her long sleeved shirt. Her long tanned legs were toned and she looked fit and healthy. Her hat was pushed to the back of her head giving Erica a glimpse of attractive green eyes.
“This is Franky, your other guide,” Dan said, nodding in her direction.
Erica felt the energy of the group lift immediately. While Dan was laidback and casual, Franky seemed to exude enthusiasm.
“Any questions so far?” Dan asked expectantly. “Nope?” He sounded surprised.
The red head spoke up then. “How far are we going today?”
“We’ll aim for Wilson’s Creek but we’ll see how everyone’s travelling.” Erica felt his eyes slide over her and wondered if he could tell she was a novice.
“When’s lunch?” Asked someone and there was a burst of laughter.
“Okay, last chance for a loo stop,” Dan told them.
Erica decided to take the opportunity. She suspected it might her last chance to sit on a toilet. The romantic notion of sleeping out under the stars was jaded somewhat by the practical realities of peeing in the dirt. The other women seemed to share her sentiment and they followed each other like a trail of ants to the toilet block.
“We’ll kill for some soap in a week,” an older lady said to Erica at the basin, smiling at her in the mirror. “I’m Liz,” she added.
“I hope not,” Erica said, then introduced herself.
“People have murdered for less,” Liz laughed.
It was true as Erica knew from her short time as Governor at the Wentworth Correctional Centre. “I better keep a sharp eye out on my secret stash then,” Erica joked. She wanted to make a friend and Liz seemed nice in a benign, harmless way. She was pleased to see Liz laugh in appreciation.
“Chocolate is always coveted as well,” Liz went on conversationally.
“You’ve done one of these before?” Erica asked curiously.
“Repeat offender,” Liz admitted. “I did the Larapinta with this mob, and the Western Arthurs. Just can’t seem to stay away.”
“You enjoy it then?” Erica couldn’t help asking.
“Sure, you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t, would you?” Liz said matter of factly. “You know how it is.”
Erica didn’t. “First time,” she admitted.
“Oh,” Liz peered at her, slightly curious, “you’re in for a treat then.”
Erica wasn’t sure but she remained quiet. Liz was clearly an enthusiast, always looking on bright side of life probably, and wouldn’t understand Erica’s doubts.
When they were back at the bus, Dan told them to put their packs into the trailer and grab a seat. Erica took hold of her new Osprey backpack and with some effort attempted to swing it onto her shoulder. Its weight threw her off balance and she felt the pack careen wildly then hit something in its path.
“Whoa! Careful with that thing! It’s a lethal weapon!” The tone was teasing.
Erica turned to see who she had almost taken out. Green eyes greeted her, gleaming with humour, then disappeared in shadow as Franky slipped her hat back on her head. “Sorry,” she said.
“No worries,” Franky grinned. She grabbed one of the straps and helped Erica toss it into the trailer. In fact Erica suspected it was all Franky’s strength that got the pack all the way to the back of the trailer in one fluid movement.
“Thanks,” Erica smiled. “You’ve done that before.”
Franky laughed easily. “One or twice,” she agreed. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in no time.”
On the bus, they sorted themselves into pairs, Erica hesitated then sat next to Liz. Dan was driving and Franky sat in the passenger seat. She turned around once they were on the way and told them about what they could expect over the next 16 days. She was articulate and engaging. It was clear she had the spiel down pat but she managed to inject humour and spontaneity into it.
The more Erica heard, the more nervous she became. It was clear she was in over her head. She stared out the window. She knew though, despite her fears, that she wouldn’t back out. She had to do this. For herself. For her father. She remembered the argument she’d had with Mark over setting a date for their wedding. “You need to sort your shit out Erica,” he’d said angrily, “once and for all so we can get on with our life together.” It had sounded like an ultimatum. She knew he was frustrated with her constant stalling. She didn’t know why she couldn’t commit but Mark had decided it had something to do with her father’s death, that she had issues she hadn’t dealt with. Maybe he was right.
After an hour, they turned off the sealed road and onto a dirt track. The bus bounced around and she saw Franky grab the Jesus bar and say something to Dan. She caught the words“...me drive.” She didn’t hear Dan’s response but she heard Franky’s laughter. It sounded gleeful. Erica was suddenly envious of her carefree attitude.
Franky turned around and leant part way into the back of the bus. “If you look out the left side of the bus, you’ll get a glimpse of one of the peaks we’ll be summiting.”
They all peered left and eventually an intimidating wall of rock appeared in Erica’s vision. “Is it too late to turn around?” Someone joked. It got a round of laughs. Erica didn’t laugh. She stared at the mountain. This was a bad idea. She turned back to the front of the bus and caught Franky watching her. The green eyes held hers for a moment and Erica wondered if Franky could see through her facade to the fraud she was.
An hour later Erica was pretty sure she could. They had been hiking up a gorge which lacked water but not giant boulders that needed to be navigated around or over. The going was slow as they picked their path and the group had spread out over about a kilometre. Erica found the going tough not being used to the extra weight of her pack or how it changed her balance as she hopped or clambered over rocks. Her quads and gluts were screaming after twenty minutes. She was halfway over a boulder bigger than her in height when she realised she couldn’t create enough forward momentum to get herself and her pack up and onto the giant rock. “Fuck,” she muttered as she jammed her boot into a crevice then realised she needed to be about a foot higher if she had any hope of making it. She looked for another foothold in vain. Eventually she realised she’d have to try and throw herself over and hope her hands could get enough purchase to pull herself up. She leapt and her hands slid across the smooth rock surface for a second before she found a secure handhold. She was then faced with another problem. She wasn’t strong enough to pull herself up. Her boots scrambled hopelessly against the side of the rock. She could feel her hands slipping and knew it was only a second before she fell.
Without warning she felt two hands on her butt, effectively stopping her slide. “I’m going to push you up on three. One. Two. Three!” Erica felt herself move forward and suddenly she was on top of the rock, lying prostrate, her knees burning from where they had scraped against the hard surface. It wasn’t a dignified ascent and she rolled over quickly and sat up just in time to see Franky make the climb easily. Sure her muscles flexed under the strain, and there was a thin sheen of sweat which made her skin glow but her foot placements were sure and her breath steady as she looked down at Erica.
“Thanks,” Erica said as she took the proffered hand and clambered to her feet. “But I could have done it.” She felt obliged to claim, a blatant lie, when faced Franky’s smart-arse grin.
“Really?” Franky’s grin grew wider. “Next time I’ll leave you to it then.” With that she hopped casually to the next boulder and Erica was left to follow. She had no hope of catching those tanned, toned legs, one sporting a tattoo on its calf. At some point Franky had ditched her long sleeved shirt in favour of a sleeveless top, which showed off her defined triceps and shoulders.
Erica let out an exasperated breath. She heard someone approaching and looked back to see Liz looking up at the rock. She was shorter than Erica and seemed to be baffled by the challenge the rock presented. “How did you get up?” She asked.
Erica was reluctant to reveal exactly how she made the ascent. “I’ll help you.” She said instead, offering a hand. “Left foot into that crevice,” she instructed.
Liz made it up easily with Erica’s assistance. “Thanks,” she took the lead. “Seen any of the others?”
“Franky’s just ahead of us,” Erica told her as she followed in Liz’s footsteps. “But she’s making quick time.”
“Probably gone ahead to set up for lunch,” Liz informed her. “Hope there’s beer on offer.” Erica didn’t think there would be and said so. “Just wishful thinking.” Liz replied with a quiet laugh. They hopped a few rocks in silence. “Bet Franky likes a beer though, she strikes me as a regular party girl.”
Erica thought about the attractive woman with her quick smile and energy. She would be popular in a crowd, she guessed. Even in the short time she had interacted with her, Erica had felt her charisma. “Why would she guide as her job then,” she wondered aloud. It seemed an odd choice for a party girl. “Stuck out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Maybe she’s running from something,” Liz speculated. “An ex?”
“Maybe she’s a fugitive,” Erica couldn’t help but fuel Liz’s imagination. It took her mind off her aching muscles.
“Prison break!” Liz said with glee. “I can just see her breaking all the rules.” She was clearly on a roll.
“Better watch out Liz, I bet she has already worked out where you stash your chocolate.” Erica said with a smile and heard Liz laugh.
“Worse, she might nick my loo paper!” Liz began cackling, clearly amused by her own joke. It was contagious and Erica found herself laughing as well despite the ridiculousness of it.
Lunch was sandwiches and fruitcake. Erica ate perched on a rock admiring the view, slightly detached from the rest of the group. She accepted a cup of tea from Franky with a grateful smile. “Thanks!”
“How are you doing?” Franky stopped to ask. She eyed Erica’s grazed knees. “I’ve got some ointment for that,” she offered.
“It’s ok,” Erica said immediately.
Franky looked slightly bemused then shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Erica instantly regretted her dismissive tone. “I mean, my knees don’t feel nearly as bad as my butt,” she explained lightly.
Franky, who had been in the process of moving away, stopped and looked back. “I dunno,” she said slowly, “your butt felt pretty good to me.” Her green eyes danced and Erica could hardly misinterpret the comment. She felt herself blushing and saw Franky’s smile grow wider.
Franky was a lesbian, she realised, and wondered how she had missed it. The girl had a tattoo of a naked woman on her upper arm after all. Aside from being caught red handed in a compromising position with another woman nothing screamed lesbian quite like that. Not that Erica cared. She thought of herself as fairly liberal minded. People were entitled to love who they liked and, as long as it was consensual, do what they liked. Given that completely logical rationale she wondered why then she felt so unsettled.
She realised suddenly that she was still staring at Franky, who had long since moved back to the group and was now talking to Liz. A lot of laughing ensued and Erica gathered there was some good natured teasing going on. She gave herself a mental shake. Franky was just one of those women who flirted with everyone. Was it inappropriate given her role? Probably, the lawyer in Erica acknowledged, but she was harmless.
Erica was going to find out Franky was about as harmless as a lightning strike.