Author’s note: I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2020. In Round One, which ended a few days ago, I had to write a story of no more than 2,500 words using the following prompts:
Character: A Rookie
I won’t know until late March/early April whether my story scored highly enough in my heat to advance to round two, but it was still fun to write. Well, sort of. 😉 I hope you enjoy reading it!
I’m always open to constructive criticism, so feel free to comment with your thoughts/feedback if you’re so inclined. I know the title is awful and I fully intend to change it to something better after judging for this round of the contest has been completed.
Synopsis: Dani is sore and nervous about leading her first solo wilderness excursion for a pair of newlyweds. Her resolve and strength will be put to the test in ways she never imagined.
I parked near the trailhead, shifted in my seat, and took a couple of deep breaths. I winced as the muscles in my legs and rear end screamed at me. In hindsight, that hour-long kickboxing class yesterday wasn’t the smartest idea.
I scanned the lot, trying to ascertain whether my clients had arrived before me. The only other car I could see was a shiny black sedan with tinted windows.
Odd. Doesn’t look like the kind of car wilderness adventurers would drive…
I shook this thought off as I tried to calm my nerves.
You’ve got this, girl. Fake it ‘til you make it.
It was my first day on the job with Honeymoon Adventure Excursions, LLC. I was a newly-minted guide – something that terrified me, truth be told. I really should have had a more seasoned guide with me for this first trip. But it was the end of August and nobody else was available.
“You’ll be fine,” my boss had said. I was pretty sure she was just saying that though to salve her own conscience about taking a beach vacation this week and throwing me to the wolves.
Figuratively, I mean. There were wolves in these woods, but there’s no way we would run across them. Probably.
I only had two couples signed up for this excursion and one of those cancelled last night. So, it was just going to be me and… what were their names?
I looked at my phone: Kris and Craig.
Kris and Craig. Kris and Craig. Kris and Craig.
I shuddered as I thought about being the proverbial extra wheel out alone in the woods with a pair of newlyweds.
Ugh. But, I need this job. I need this job. I need this job.
Deciding there was no point in delaying the inevitable, I stepped out of my car, wincing again. Some ibuprofen probably would have been a good idea. I wondered idly if I’d packed any. It also became painfully clear that this trip would be uncomfortable for reasons wholly unrelated to my sore muscles; the humidity in the air hit me like a brick wall.
A few other cars had entered the parking lot, but their occupants were singles or parents with small children in tow. Definitely not Kris and Craig.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the mysterious sedan’s passenger-side window descend. In the front seat sat two large men in suits and sunglasses. It looked like they were scrutinizing the parking lot, looking down occasionally at a piece of paper the passenger held.
Could that be Kris and Craig? They look like the kind of guys who would be named “Vinnie.” I assumed Kris would be female, but maybe I should remember the old advice about what it means to assume. When you assume, you make an a…
Just then, an SUV screeched into the spot next to mine, obscuring my view of the Vinnies. A blond leapt out, pushing designer shades onto the top of her head. A wave of perfume assaulted me. Was she actually wearing short shorts? And, were those hiking boots with six-inch heels?
A moment later, I wasn’t thinking about her choice of attire. When she opened her mouth, the sound that followed could best be described as a screech.
“Ooooh! It’s a hot one, hon!” She turned to address the man who’d emerged from the driver’s side of the car. He, at least, seemed to be dressed appropriately for nature.
Please don’t let this be Kris and Craig. Please don’t let this be Kris and Craig. Please don’t…
“Excuse me, ma’am!”
I am definitely NOT old enough to be called “ma’am.” I hate her already.
“Are you Danielle? Our guide? I’m Kris and this,” she pulled the man close and planted a sloppy kiss on his lips, “is my husband, Craig. I just love saying that, sweetie!” The newlyweds made dove eyes at each other.
Shoot me now.
There was something familiar about this young woman, though… Where had I seen her before?
Doesn’t matter. Time to put on your cheerful guide voice. You NEED this job.
“Hi! Call me Dani. Nice to meet you, and congrats on your recent wedding! I sure hope you’re ready for an adventure of a lifetime. It’s just going to be us. You get a solo guided excursion for the price of a group tour. How about that?”
Kris and Craig exchanged a look.
“Getting the VIP treatment even out here in the middle of nowhere, Krissy.” Craig put his arm around his bride. She looked at him adoringly.
“Daddy said this was a bad idea, but it’s turning out great so far, baby.” Kris ran her hands over Craig’s chest.
Puke. Why did I sign up for a company that does newlywed tours? Oh yeah. I need this job.
“Well, let’s grab our gear and get moving, shall we?”
As I popped the trunk to get my backpack, I noticed the Vinnies had exited their super-secret tinted mystery sedan. One stood with his back against the hood with his arms folded; the other alternated glances at the paper in his hand with intense looks in our direction.
Creepy… Stalk much, Vinnies?
Kris and Craig hadn’t noticed the Vinnies yet, and I intended to keep it that way. No sense making my clients uncomfortable before we even got into the woods.
“Got everything from the packing list our office sent you? Great, let’s head this way,” I gestured toward our path, not giving them time to answer.
As we reached the trailhead, I glanced behind me and saw the Vinnies still standing in the same places. Satisfied they weren’t a threat, I turned my attention back to my charges. They were holding hands and murmuring to each other, presumably what my grandmother used to refer to as “sweet nothin’s.”
Dear lord… this was going to be a long week. I reminded myself that I really needed this job, and cleared my throat.
“Have either of you hiked these trails before, or been on other overnight wilderness treks?”
Kris giggled. “Nooooo! The longest hike we’ve been on was five miles and I thought I was going to die. Of course, I didn’t have good hiking boots like these.”
Riiiiiiight. The hiking boots with six-inch heels.
I stopped in my tracks and suppressed a smile as the lovebirds nearly tripped over each other trying to avoid walking into me.
“You both signed the waivers. You do understand what this trip entails, right?”
This time, it was Craig who answered.
“We’ll be fine, ma’am. We really just wanted some privacy, away from everything. This vacation, er… excursion, fit the bill.”
I was trying to ignore the “ma’am” and process the rest of his response when something whizzed by my head.
Craig made an “oof” sound and Kris screamed/screeched. It wasn’t just me then; something had nearly hit them too.
I didn’t have time to finish that thought. Two large forms rushed out of the trees we’d just passed.
Oh my God. It’s wolves, isn’t it? Or bears? I’m going to die on my first solo trek… I really needed this job…
When I saw that it wasn’t wolves and wasn’t bears, I was relieved, but mildly miffed too. It was the Vinnies, both still wearing their suits and sunglasses. Sweat glistened on their brows, and… were those guns?
I stepped in front of Kris and Craig without thinking.
“What the heck are you goons doing, shooting into these woods? It’s not hunting season. My clients or I could have been hurt!”
Vinnie #1 looked at Vinnie #2. They snickered.
“We’re not hunters, and we’re not shooting to kill, ma’am. These are just tranquilizers.”
No, no, no. Not him with the “ma’am” too. Did I age somehow overnight?
I resisted the urge to pull out a mirror to check for new grays. Also, should I have been comforted by the knowledge that they were only using tranquilizers? They were still guns, for crying out loud. I was about to tell them just how reckless their behavior was when they looked past me to address Kris and Craig.
“Miss Hanson, come with us and nobody gets hurt.” Vinnie #2 spoke to Kris directly, gesturing wildly with the gun. “When your father pays the ransom, we’ll let you go.”
“Listen,” Kris screeched. “I don’t know who you bozos are, but I’m not Miss Hanson anymore. I got married on Saturday.” Kris held up her left hand and waved it back and forth, momentarily blinding everyone as the sun glinted off the rock on her ring finger. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She punctuated this with a stomp of one high-heeled hiking boot-clad foot.
I stepped aside absently. My mind was still turning over what Vinnie had said.
Hanson… ransom… No, it can’t be, can it?
I looked carefully at Kris, studying her features. Then it hit me: She was THE Kristine Hanson. You know, Kristine Hanson. The heiress to the Hanson Bread Company.
Mmmm… bread sounds good. Huh… ironic that she comes from bread money. She doesn’t look like she’s ever eaten a carbohydrate in her life. Maybe she kickboxes.
The Vinnies advanced, shoulders hunched and gun hands outstretched. Craig chose this moment to step in front of his wife. Well, lurch in front of her would be more accurate.
“Lishen heeeere, fellash… I dunno whassss…”
His chivalrous effort was well-intended, but short-lived. Craig face-planted in the weeds next to the path, a bright orange dart protruding from his rear end. Craig, it would seem, had been tranquilized. And, was that poison ivy he’d fallen into? Craig was NOT having a good day.
Kris screamed, but even her annoying shriek didn’t stop the Vinnies from moving toward her. They both seemed laser-focused on reaching the heiress quickly.
Makes sense; they probably want to just shut her up. I mean, that shriek! But, what’s their end game? Are they kidnapping her? Can you kidnap someone who isn’t a kid? Is that adult-napping? Will I still get paid for leading this excursion if my clients are tranquilized and kidnapped? I kind of need this job.
A plan formed in my head. I slowly released my backpack straps so I could drop it to the ground. I wish I could say I managed to rid myself of my pack with ninja-like stealth. Unfortunately, in crouching to place it on the trail, my sore muscles protested and I may or may not have let out a string of expletives.
I’m guessing I did, since the Vinnies whirled toward me, tranquilizer guns raised.
“Whoa there, guys! I’m not a threat! I promise. I’m just the excursion guide!” I raised my arms over my head and took a few tentative steps back, trying to look as unmenacing as possible.
“Sorry ma’am, but we just can’t be too careful in our business.” Vinnie #1 lowered his gun. After a moment, Vinnie #2 followed suit.
Ma’am again. That’s it. These guys are going down.
Both Vinnies had now reached Kris who had, thankfully, stopped shrieking and was now just weeping.
“You hurt my Craigy! Bad move, mister. Daddy won’t give you any money if he finds out you hurt Craig.”
Vinnie #2 wiped sweat off his brow and looked down at Craig’s prone body before addressing his partner.
“What do you think? Do we need to bring the boyfriend, er, husband too?”
Vinnie #1 eyed their targets and looked back at the path we’d all traversed, no doubt calculating how much work it was going to be to get them both back to their getaway sedan. Both Vinnies’ suits sported impressive underarm sweat patches by this point.
While their attentions were diverted, I’d crept around behind them, ninja-like in this endeavor at least.
It’s now or never, Dani. Time to put those early morning workouts to use for something besides fitting into your skinny jeans.
I didn’t think; I just moved, ignoring my protesting muscles. My kickboxing skills in the gym were questionable at best. I never seemed to be able to follow the trainer’s instructions. Here though, out here in the woods? Here, I was the instructor. And I was going to kick some kidnapper butt this morning.
My right foot connected squarely with Vinnie #2’s lower back, sending him sprawling on top of Craig’s still-tranquilized body. This, predictably, made Kris start wailing again.
Meanwhile, Vinnie #1 started to turn my way but I immobilized him with a one-two punch sequence to his face and a roundhouse kick that would have made my trainer proud. He fell backward into a patch of weeds that definitely included poison ivy.
In a move straight out of a Hollywood action movie, I caught his tranquilizer gun before it hit the ground.
Can I really fire a gun? Even if it’s just a tranquilizer gun? Guess we’re about to find out!
I pulled the trigger twice, finding my intended targets as if I’d been shooting goons like the Vinnies all my life.
Kris looked up at me, eyes wide in her mascara-stained face. “You saved us, ma’am! Wait ‘til Daddy hears about this!”
Together, we managed to move Vinnie #2’s sweaty, limp frame off of Craig. We each put one of Craig’s arms over our shoulders and managed to support him… OK, drag him, all the way back to the parking lot and into the newlyweds’ car.
Kris babbled all the way to the car, but as she put the key in the ignition, she fell silent.
“Are you going to be OK, Kris?” Oddly, I found I actually cared.
I’m going to have to examine that thought later.
She nodded, wiping a single tear from her cheek with a shaky, but spectacularly-manicured, hand.
“You’d better get out of here. Is there someone you can call? I don’t know how long those guys will be out, but you should get yourself somewhere safe, fast.”
“Thank you for saving us, Dani. You’re a kick-ass excursion leader, in more ways than one!” Oddly, her nails-on-the-chalkboard voice was growing on me. “We’ll call the office about rescheduling… maybe.”
As I started my own car, I saw the Vinnies stumble back into the parking lot. Orange tranquilizer darts dangled from their suit pants. I briefly considered running over the goon squad to more permanently immobilize them. In the end though, I decided the wiser course of action would be to get out of Dodge. So, I did just that, contemplating my future as I sped away.
I don’t really need this job, do I? There are plenty of other jobs out there, right? Safer jobs. You know, like dealing with pseudo-celebrity divas, or working with bears and wolves. Or maybe the gym would hire me as a trainer/kickboxing instructor instead…
I realized I wasn’t actually disappointed in how the day had turned out. While I hadn’t gotten to lead my first excursion, I had found my inner strength. Even if I would be sore again tomorrow.