“Alright, everyone set to go?” Darren, the leader and course instructor, eyed the group carefully. Of the eight students and two leaders, one student was missing.
Sheila, his wife, spoke up. “I sent DL for a few last minute things. He’ll catch up with us.”
They adjusted their packs and started up the trail. Anna realized that her training for the swim league was going to come in handy. Already the pack was pulling on her shoulders and they would be hiking for seven days through densely forested mountains.
Footsteps pounded behind her and she smelled rank body odor.
“Doesn’t he know what deodorant is?” She hissed the words to Jackie who walked beside her.
“Yes, I know what it is.” Anna flinched and turned her head to meet DL’s disappointed gray eyes. She felt her cheeks heat under his scrutiny.
He broke into a jog again and Jackie turned on her with an accusing glare. Anna threw her hands in the air and shrugged. “I didn’t know he was there!”
“No kidding! I ‘m sure Miss Prissy wouldn’t be mean to someone’s face.” Jackie rolled her eyes.
“He always makes me feel small and… petty. I can’t stand being around him.” Anna pulled her gloves out of the pack around her waist.
“Maybe that’s your conscience, Anna. You might try listening to it.” Anna bent over a dandelion and waited until Jackie had sped up enough to leave her behind. She made sure no one was looking before she reached up to wipe the tears. Lifting her chin and rubbing a black-fly bite, she readjusted the backpack and continued on. Alone.
The group stopped for lunch beside a burbling creek. They were required to find their food in the forest and Anna had snagged some wild onions, dandelion greens, and chicory during the hike. She swatted at mosquitoes as she knelt to dig up a wild parsnip.
“Nice find.” Tears pricked her eyes again at DL’s voice right beside her.
“Thanks. There are some mushrooms right beside that tree if you want to grab them.” Anna slapped at another mosquito.
“You aren’t really an outdoor gal are you?” He studied her thoughtfully.
Anna forced a smile. “Sure I am… the outdoor pool, the outdoor tennis club, the outdoor beach.”
DL snorted a laugh. “Ditch the deodorant. The bugs like it.” He turned to pick the mushrooms.
“Oh.” She looked away and blinked furiously at the dampness in her eyes.
“If you’ve never been in a forest, why this course? And how did you…” DL waved in the direction of the canvas bag of plants Anna had collected.
“I signed up to study the ecological effects of humans on the forests of New York State. I didn’t realize I would actually have to hike them. Anyway, it interested me… it was something different.” She thrust the parsnip into her bag. “And anyone can learn about edible plants from pictures and books.” Anna saw an awareness blaze in his eyes.
“You’re too talented, aren’t you? Too smart. Too rich.” He cocked his head. “Too much?”
Despite Anna's best efforts, her laugh sounded faked. “I’ve never heard it put quite that way before.”
DL finished collecting the mushrooms and dropped them into her bag. “Do you know what DL stands for?”
Anna sank back on her heels and pulled off her gloves. “Nope.”
He seemed to be waiting for her reaction. “Durian... isn’t that a fruit?” She knew exactly what it was… had eaten it while vacationing in Hawaii with her family.
“Yup. Smells like dirty socks, rotten onions, and puke, with some skunk thrown in there.” His eyes twinkled at her, ocean blue now. “They’re pretty ugly, too.”
“You aren’t ugly!” Anna blushed again and DL grinned. “Well, you aren’t. You may not be another Brad Pitt but who cares? I’ve had Durian. It stinks and it’s not the prettiest thing, but the fruit inside is… indescribably amazing.”
DL quirked an eyebrow at her, then stood and brushed his hands off on his jeans. He helped Anna to her feet and pressed something into her hand. She stared at the garlic bulb in confusion. “Eat lots of this and your wild onions, helps with the bugs.”
He turned and strode back toward the creek.
“Durian, wait.” Anna gave him a tentative smile when he stopped and faced her. “If we’re both going to stink, maybe we should stick together.”
DL laughed. “Only if you wash off that stinky deodorant!”
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