Ben's terror had wrung down to despair even as night had finally fallen across the Vermont Appalachian forest. He pressed the button on his watch, reassured by the glowing red LEDs. The rest of his church troop had probably reached the van hours ago. They had to have noticed by now that he was missing. They should have noticed at the next water stop.
He had only stopped to pee behind a tree. He had walked back around the tree, retracing his steps, sure that he was walking the right way, expecting to come across the trail. Instead, he found himslf deep in the woods, disoriented, lost.
He was glad nobody had been around to hear him cry. Men don't cry. At least, he hoped, not where anyone else could hear. Ben's father never cried. The only witnesses had been chirping bugs and the wind through creatking trees. He had shouted and waited for answers, but no answers had come. Curled up under a pine tree, head between his knees, he prayed silently that there were no bears or wolves or bobcats out in the woods, that soon he would hear the bark of dogs and maybe the chop of a helicopter looking for him. His head felt light and his stomach tweaked. His last snacks had gone down hours ago and his canteen was nearly empty.
He heard rumbling in the distance, making him feel a chill. He wasn't ready for rain. He could still see the stars, so many of them, more than he'd ever known in his life. A ribbon of silver traveled across the sky, seemingly neither north-south or east-west: the milky way, the edge of the galaxy. Where Kirk and Spock alway got into trouble. Funny that it was so ragged and off-center, like God didn't quite set up right the heavens Man could see.
He heard another rumble, and it might have been louder. The temperature dropped quickly, and Ben wondered how cold it would get tonight. He wrapped his arms around himself and prayed he would get out of here alive. Preferably not sick. While he prayed aloud, he heard something else. He convinced himself it was just a tree creaking again, but that conviction last all of a minute. Those were footsteps.
"Hello?" Ben said. The footsteps stopped, then began again. "Hello?" It might have been an animal, Ben thought. A big animal, too. He changed tactics. "Go away!" he shouted, trying to sound angry. "Go away, do you hear! Don't come in here! I've got a knife!"
"Can I see it?"
Ben turned. The shape in the darkness was smaller than him, human. The voice was a woman's. "What... what... "
"You're lost out here, aren't ya?" She came forward, whoever she was. "Are you okay? What's your name?"
"Ben," he said. "Benjamin Durson. I... I'm lost, yeah. Do you know how to get back to the trail?"
"The main trail's that way, about a mile," she said, pointing into the darkness. Ben would not have guessed. "How did you get so far off course?"
Ben nodded. "I stopped to, uh..."
"Nevermind. You're cute. How old are you, Ben?"
"Seventeen," he said. "Who are you?"
"Name's Alice. I live out here. You're in my woods."
"Oh. Is that bad?"
"Do you have a gun?"
"Then it's not too bad. I don't mind helping a stray. C'mon, can you see me well enough to follow me?"
"I think so."
Alice led Ben through the forest. Where she managed to be utterly silent, Ben crashed through the undergrowth like a falling boulder. Birds winged away from him, crying in the darkness. He heard an owl, and a broken hissing sound that he finally identified as bats. "Do they bite?"
Alice said, "Do what?"
"Not you. Here we are. Home sweet home."
With only ancient starlight, Ben could barely detect the outline of a rectangle in a clearing, a tiny cabin that must have had no room for one, much less two. It was nothing at all like his Mom's rambler. "Wait here," she said. Ben heard the tinkling of keys, and then a rattle, the creak of hinges, soft footsteps on a wooden floor. A flare of matchlight, and then the dimmer light of a lantern. "Okay, you can come in now. I didn't want you tripping over anything in the dark."
Ben cautiously stuck his head into the cabin. It smelled of wool, wood and iron, with a strange perfume tinge. The floors creaked under his booted feet. A bed to his left, piled high with folded blankets at its foot, the wall behind it with a glass window and lacy curtains greyed with age. A small table with the fuel oil lamp for light. Two chairs. On his right, Ben saw Alice, leaning against an L-shaped table pushed up into the corner. Behind her, pots and pans hung on the wall.
"You're a... a... "
"Yeah. Bastet," she said.
Alice was a small woman, about 5'2". She wore old, faded fatigue pants and a loose plaid shirt. Her hair was black, pulled back in a pony tail, and two very large feline ears, black with white trim along the outer edges, reached up to the ceiling. Her tail, also black, swung back and forth behind her. Ben knew that sweep from his own cat: caution, but not fear. Her skin was pale, but not white the way white people were white. Her feet were bare. "I've never met... one of you before."
"Most people haven't. Are you hungry?"
"Yeah," he said.
"I'll fire up the stove." She turned to the small, iron box stove in the last corner of the cabin. Ben wasn't sure what she did. He heard a loud creaking like a dishwasher, saw the flare of a match, and then she closed a small metal door again. He heard the fire hitting the side of the box, felt head fill the tiny room. "Is that why it's so small?" he asked.
"Your cabin. Is it small because the stove has to heat it?"
She looked at him, puzzled. Ben frequently worded things in a kind of semaphore that irritated his parents and his friends, but they figured out what he meant eventually. So did Alice. "The cabin is small because it's all I wanted. The stove is small because it fits the cabin. Stay here."
Alice left with a pot, and returned with it filled with water. She busied herself about the stove for a few minutes, then turned about. She was smiling in a funny way, as if her mouth worked like two halves, a left and a right, each pulling independently of the other. She had a tooth out of alignment on one side. "Where are you from, Ben?"
"And you just happen to be wandering around [the woods]?"
"I was with my church group. We were doing a day hike up to Mount Washington, and I just walked away from the trail for a minute. How far could the get in a minute?"
"You'd be surprised. The woods just make some kinds of sounds disappear. And if you get turned around the wrong way, you'll never find the trail again. The right thing to do was tell your group you were stopping, so some of them could stay on the trail and guide you back if you got lost."
"Oh," Ben looked down at the floor.
He heard her footsteps. Her feet came into view, and he hadn't known she was barefoot at first, then he looked up. She was standing only inches away. "It's okay, Ben. It happens. You're not the first stray I've met. Just the first this year." A bell went off behind her. "Dinner."
She dished out two small bowls of ramen noodles in a salty broth with some rectangles of meat in them. Ben hadn't seen where the meat came from and he wasn't about to ask too much. Seeing the food made him feel so hungry he was willing to ignore everthing. "Slow down, Ben, you'll make yourself sick eating that fast."
Ben tried. He put the spoon down after every bite at first, but soon forgot as he reached the bottom of the bowl. He looked up, but Alice just shook her head. "That's it until morning. I have some oatmeal, and then I'll walk you out to the parking lot. It's about two hours from here."
"Thanks," he mumbled. He put his head down to the crude wooden table. "God, how did I get so lost?"
He felt the warmth of her hand around his own. "Hey, it happens. At least I found you."
He nodded, looking at her again. She had a round face with puffed out cheeks that made her look like a teenager. Being alone with a woman like her made him uncomfortable suddenly. He wanted to talk about something else. Fill the air. "Thank you, Miss Alice. Why do you live out here?"
She shrugged. "I have my reasons. I can't stand small towns– there's just not enough going on. I lived in DC most of my life, but after my kits were old enough that stopped working for me. Too many people who expected too much." She sighed. "I figured I'd be better off spending my last years out in the woods, away from it all."
"Your last years? You don't look like you're older than twenty, Miss Alice."
"I'm forty-three, Ben. I've had four kits, three of which are still alive, which is better than most Bastet tabbies. I've had a very lucky life. But after all that, I decided I wanted to come out here." She gestured. "It's all I need. It's warm, it's quiet, nobody's around." She grinned. "I guess it's lonely at times, but I can live with that. Usually."
Ben didn't understand what she meant, but he heard the change in her voice, a soft drop of the tone and a gentle purr that he hadn't heard earlier. "Where's your..."
"Outhouse. Out back. Walk out the door, turn left, take about twenty steps down a slope. There's a trail. I'll leave the light on so you can find your way back. I'd hate to have to track you down a second time." She leaned very close to him, paused, and inhaled deeply through her nostrils. "I could probably do it easily now." A loud rumble caught their attention. "You'd better go now, before the rain starts."
Ben nodded. He found the little square shack with the moon symbol easily enough, made use of it and found his way back. When he re-entered, Alice had cleared the table and changed into a floor-length plaid flannel nightshirt laced up to the throat with a thin cloth cord. Her boobs pushed the shirt out just enough, giving the front a kind of topography like the map Mr. Stasser had shown the troop before they'd headed out. He lifted his eyes to hers, and she grinned at him. He blushed. She said, "Be right back. Don't touch anything."
Ben nodded. She went out the same way he had. He wondered what he could touch. Maybe put out the light, but he was sure that a bastet could smell her way back to the house she had left behind. Bastet were supposed to have really good noses. She'd lived out here for a few years, she must have known her way around.
He gave her shack a closer look and spotted something he'd missed before: the bookshelf. It lined the ceiling all the way around the circumference of her home. He recognized some of the names: Heinlein, Herbert, Asimov, Clarke, Moorcock. He smiled as he recognized an entire run of yellow hardcover spines as Tom Swifts. He was still gawking when Alice returned. "You found my books."
"You read a lot."
"There's only about four hundred or so up there. I have to go into town every other month for supplies, and I think I crate another forty or so every time I go." She laughed. It was a beautiful sound. "I should stop that. It's a lot of weight." She touched his arm, and he pulled it away, surprised. "Sorry. Ben... I'm sorry."
"Ben, what do you know about Bastet?"
He thought for a moment. "Nothing."
"You've heard stories, right?" He'd heard lots of stories about them, mostly from his peers, which he couldn't believe. They never knew anything. He'd heard that male Bastet could make you a fag if they stared at you too long, and that female Bastets would have sex with a doorknob if there was nobody around. They all died young and beautiful.
Alice didn't seem like that. She might look young and beautiful, but she said she was forty. She wasn't desperate, she lived alone, she lived away from people.
"Yeah, I've heard stories. Everybody has."
"They have a grain of truth, you know. All stories do." She smiled at him. "There's only one bed, and I don't have another for you. But... I haven't been touched by anyone in more than a year. I don't know– Ben, have you had sex with a woman yet?"
Ben's brain took a long time coming unstuck to answer. Between her question and his answer, rain began to drum on the roof. "No," he said. "Not yet."
"You were with a church group, too." Her ears fell slightly. "I ought not to ask... I can't..." She swallowed, then spoke rapidly. "I'm sorry, Ben. Here, you sleep there." She indicated the bed. She pulled some of the blankets off it and laid them out on the floor next to the table. "I'm still tough enough. I can stand a night on the floor." She built up layers, almost a quarter the thickness of her mattress, folded one for her pillow, and left another for a cover. "That's good enough."
Bewildered by her actions, Ben allowed her to direct him to the bed. He was exhausted after all the walking and all of the fear. She'd fed him. The rain on the roof was oddly soothing. He tore off his Keds and left them on the floor, hoping his feet didn't stink too badly.
Sleep didn't come even after she blew out the lantern and whispered, "Good night, Ben." What she'd said turned around and around in his mind like a song by the Beatles. She'd really been that close to asking him for sex. Ben could hardly believe it. Even as he thought about it, thought about the woman under that nightgown, about those beautiful tits he imagined she had, his breathing quickened, his face flushed, and he felt himself getting hard under his shorts.
He wasn't alone. He didn't dare touch himself. Even as he thought it, his hand crept down to his pants and he felt his hard dick through the fabric of his shorts. He tried to stop himself. He was just going to touch it. Just rub it a little. His hand started to rock back and forth over the lump.
He pulled his hand away, ashamed. He turned over in bed, putting his crotch down against the mattress, putting it away so it wouldn't tempt him.
The hardness barely subsided. After a few minutes, his dick started to hurt, crushed between his body and her mattress, where her barely clothed body had lain night after night. He was face-down to her pillow, and he inhaled a deep breath, wondering if he could smell anything of her on it. Unable to distract himself, he turned onto his back again.
He had to think of something else. He couldn't just take it out and jerk off. The rain was loud on the roof now, loud enough that it might even cover the sound of his jerking his meat. She was a Bastet, she would smell it.
Thunder and rain rolled over the tiny wooden house. Ben moaned softly, cursed with his own painful needs– to deal with his lust, to exorcise it, to be good, to be manly.
He heard a shuffling sound next to him. "Ben?" Her hand was on his leg, moving up. He groaned, unbelieving. She had meant. "Do you want me?"
"Yeah," he said, his voice cracking.
The bed creaked like an alarm as she leapt onto it and landed astraddle his hips. She leaned over, he felt the brush of her nightshirt against his arms and he muffled a sharp whine of surprise as her mouth came down on his. He hadn't expected her to kiss him. He didn't know what to expect from her at all.
His body knew what to do. He opened his mouth, and felt her tongue against his, and within minutes the kiss became a sloppy mess, spit on his chin and his cheeks. If it wasn't normal, Ben had stopped caring. His dick was about to explode inside his pants. He hadn't expected her to weigh so much, or that he would feel so strong. He wanted to wrap her in his arms, grab her and do her. In the absolute darkness of her cabin, without any light at all, with no sound but the drumming rain on her roof, Ben was in the grip of flesh and smell.
She stopped kissing him and Ben felt her weight shift upward. Then she was back, kissing him again, and when his hands found the strength to move he found only her smooth, warm skin. He held her tight, squeezed her and about the waist. "Naked, Ben. I need you naked."
Ben's frantic shedding of clothes could probably have won an award at next year's Olympics in Moscow except the United States wasn't. There probably wasn't a clothes-shedding event.
Ben had never been naked in the presence of anyone else since he was old enough to remember. His church had avoided locker rooms for their group events and he'd always showered alone. His dick responded to the realization with a quick drop to near-nothingness. Even in the flurry of lust that was Alice's attention, Ben's dick didn't seem to want to rise again.
"Ben, relax. I'll make it better."
Her hands stroked his dick and gave it attention. It rose again, and now she shifted around in the bed. Ben couldn't tell what she was doing, but the smell of her body grew stronger and suddenly he felt warmth and wetness and teeth against his dick. "Oh, Jesus," Ben cried. He felt the surge of desire in his groin. She couldn't have been sucking on his dick for more than a few seconds before his sensitivity spiked hard, the head of his dick hurt, and he spurted into her mouth. "Sorry, sorry!"
But she stayed where she was for a few moments longer, and Ben felt her body against his shudder hard, and then she let go of his dick. She shifted, turning around in the bed, and straddled his body again. "You're young, Ben. You'll be able to do that again soon. Trust me. Bastet know." She lay next to him, but his mind was still swimming. His first blowjob. His first lover is a Bastet, not a normal girl. He was ruined before God. His soul would forever be tainted with memories of this woman. "Can I touch you?" he asked.
"Yes, Ben, please." He knew where she was, but had no idea what he'd find. He found warm, smooth skin, soft to the touch, covered with tiny hairs. Her hair brushed against his cheeks, soft and superfine. "Touch me, pet me," she whispered.
He passed his hand along her back, touching her, trying to imitate the way he'd pet a very large cat. She pressed her chest to his, her breasts suddenly prominent in his attention. She began purring. He didn't know Bastet could do that.
He fumbled, confused. He wanted to touch more of her, wanted to put his fingers down there, touch what was her. He caressed her back with one hand, but the other sneaked down across the hard arc of her hip down underneath, into a hollow. She hummed softly, pushed that leg out of the way. "Go ahead," she whispered, just loud enough to be heard over the rain. "Find out."
She knew. He should never have tried to sneak in. No one could have sneaked across his groin, after all. His fingers trembled as he touched a dense patch of silken hair, not like his own at all, and then into the wetness of her... her... her thing. He didn't have any words for it. He regretted that. He knew what men and women were supposed to do, but other than the ugly technical word vagina, Ben didn't know what to call it. It was wet, almost drippy. He wondered why he didn't feel squeamish about it, but instead curious, desperate for more. His dick hardened to stone at the idea. "I'm hard again," he said.
"I know," Alice whispered. She reached down for his dick, held it up. "Ready?"
Ben nodded in the absolute darkness. She seemed to see the nod anyway. Ben felt her thighs move against his own, felt the wetness of her thing against the head of his dick, and then she surrounded him. He gasped at the sudden rush of undreamt pleasure, so much more than anything he'd ever felt at his own guilty hand. "God, Ben, you're big."
"Is that good? Bad?"
"No, no, just... I need to adjust." She sighed softly in the dark, took his hands. "Touch." His palms met fleshy fullness, her breasts. She rose on his dick, then pressed down. "Yessss," she hissed. It didn't sound feline like that.
God, his dick was about ready to explode. In this darkness Ben could well imagine that Alice was a creature from Hell sent to taunt him. Bastet weren't part of God's plan, even they confessed to being outside of His works. Ben's helplessness before her was absolute, his body thundering with lust like the storm outside, his head filled with the smell of her, his hands on her breasts mashing her.
"Yes, Ben, yes, Great River yes!" She was pounding herself on his stone-hard shaft, her butt hitting his legs with every thrust, his body taking it on the creaking bed. She cried out, "Yes!" and held perfectly still for a moment, then fell forward, her hair again brushing his face. Her lips were on his, and she was still doing it, still going, trying to extract something more from him. "Ben, you take over."
"Do it. You know how." She grabbed at him, pulled both of them over onto their sides, then onto her back. Ben slipped out, but she guided him back into her. "That's it, like that. Come on, Ben. Now."
He was soon deep inside her. He did know how to do it. His body knew, a miracle, a gift God had given him, knowledge to be kept in secret for his future wife, now spent on this woman. But he couldn't stop. God forgive him, but it was too good, too wonderful. He pounded at her, she opened wide for him, and even as it began to feel so good it hurt he couldn't stop, couldn't even think of stopping. He pounded his body against hers, bruising both of them without complaint, until he finally exploded. His body thrust against hers, he shouted, trembled, fell.
Onto her. Ben's exhausted brain registered only the strongest sensations: her body, solid and warm beneath his, shuddering with its own energies, the woolen blankets on which they lay, the cool of the cabin, the thud of thunder past, fading.
He rolled off her, unable to do anything else. He needed room from her. He pushed himself away, sat up, sat on the edge of the bed. "What have I done?" he whispered. "God, what have I done?"
He felt her slim hand on his shoulder. She kissed his back, then slid one hand around. "Usually, Ben, men sit like this when they fail, not when they succeed."
Ben said, "I did?"
"Yes, you did. Ben, it's okay. Believe me. You might even want more, and it's a good thing your church group lives away from here. It'll keep you from temptation. I'm sorry, Ben, that I used you like this. I don't know... did you want to stop?"
The truth, even if it hurt. "No," he said, cracking with the strain. "I just thought that I shouldn't. It's not right. You're not... not one of God's creatures."
She kissed his neck. "Nobody knows if I am or not, Ben. Don't fight this too much, Ben. Don't make yourself crazy about it. The stories aren't true, you can go to other girls. In time, you'll even forget what this was like, and you'll marry and do well with her." She chuckled. "Oh yes, you'll do very well with her."
Pride was another emotion Ben wanted to put off but didn't. He smiled in the darkness. "Thanks, Alice."
"Lie down," she said softly. "You're tired now. I can hear it in your voice. Sleep, Ben."
He followed her down to the bed again. She lay next to him on the narrow bed. He thought he would have trouble going to sleep. Her body felt so good next to his own, and she purred, a sweet buzzing next to his thighs and shoulders And yet, he did sleep, and soon.
Ben awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon and the sound of frying. Alice had her back to him, fully dressed, working the stove. "How many eggs do you want?"
"Two, please, Ma'am," Ben said. He felt his blush hit him. He had no idea what Alice looked like naked, but he could imagine it. He'd held her naked body in his hands last night, made love to her like a man. He wanted to do it again. Putting that thought away was impossible.
He swung his legs onto the floor, found his clothes, pulled them on again. She said, "We'll head out right after breakfast, okay?"
"Stop with the 'Ma'am,' Ben. I don't want to feel old. You helped last night. Don't undo the good you did."
Ben blushed again to hear her talk so openly about last night. She's a Bastet, not a normal woman. She's different. Ben stood up and stretched, feeling the effort in every fiber of his arms and legs. His dick was still a little sticky in his underwear. He'd have to live with that. He'd have to live with himself.
They were silent during breakfast. Ben's guilt weighed in his belly, heavier than the bacon and eggs, and she reached across the table and squeezed his hand. "Nothing happened, Ben. Just a little friendly... playing."
He pulled his hand away. "God says differently."
"I don't have to play by His rules. You do what you have to, Ben. You feel what you have to. Last night, you were in it as much as I was. And you even said so."
Ben's throat tightened. He said nothing.
He found his boots and laced them on. She let him refill his canteen, and then she led him down a barely visible trail. He couldn't help but watch her, the width of her shoulders, the swing of her tail. It made his eyes travel to her ass, from which he couldn't keep his eyes, and then he'd look away.
He tried not to remember last night but the images and the sounds, the sounds especially, kept coming back to him. Unformed feelings in his belly reached their unknowable limit and he stopped, his fists balled at his side, staring.
Alice noticed. "Ben?"
"I didn't ask for last night," he said, his voice raised.
She stared at him, her head cocked, as if listening for more. "You didn't ask to get lost. You didn't ask to be rescued by a lonely Bastet. But once you were, you did say yes when I asked."
"I was forced!"
"You were not," she said softly. It was that gentle tone that infuriated him further. "What are you afraid of, Ben? Your friends will only know if you tell them."
"God knows now," he said. "I can't hide from God. Nobody can."
"And He knows you made a choice, Ben. What you tell Him about it, what you decide it means, is just... yours." She stepped up to face him, well within his reach. Memories of lust, mornings of anger and a defensive crouch all plumed in his mind, that last telling him not to strike out because this little woman moved in a way that said she could kick his ass six ways before Sunday.
She took his hands, and he looked at her face. She was so beautiful, lust started winning. "Ben, I'm sorry if what happened last night wasn't part of your plan. It wasn't part of mine either, but sometimes the gods– yours and mine– send us what we need to teach us. I don't know. I do know that you were very good, and someday I hope you meet a woman who appreciates it."
Lust and pride pushed anger away. He blushed. He hardened. "Ben, it's time you went back to your real life."
"Yes, Miss Alice."
"Better," she said. "Come on."
They broke out of the woods almost two hours after, coming into a grass-and-gravel clearing with a large two-post wooden sign, a scattering of cars and pickups, including a white Park Ranger truck. "There," she said, leading him to the truck.
Even as they approached, a man was climbing out of the driver's seat. "Alice?"
Alice waved. "Yo, Jan. Do you have reports of a missing man in the woods?"
"I do. That him?"
"Ben, this is Ranger Jan Rode, a good friend of mine. Jan, Ben."
Jan looked Ben over. "How did you find him?" he said, turning to Alice.
Alice touched her nose. "He was pretty obvious to a Bastet."
"Bet he would be. Are you okay, Ben?"
"I fed him and put a roof over his head during the storm. He'll be none the worse for wear once he gets a shower." She smiled, held out a hand. "It was nice to meet you Ben. You were a gracious guest."
Ben shook it. He set his jaw so tight he was sure Ranger Jan could see it. "Thank you, Miss Alice."
"Bye, Ben." She turned and walked away. His eyes followed her as she reached the disappeared into the treeline. Never once did she look back, and soon her moving form was lost among the greenery. He let out a deep sigh.
"Yeah, she does that to me too," Ranger Jan said. "Come on, I've got to get you back to town, call your church, and there's a ton of paperwork." He indicated the pickup.
Ben got in beside him, wondering when he'd be allowed that shower. A time to be alone. A time to cry again. To cry for his lost innocence, or because he couldn't lose it again.