I slept in until six that Saturday morning — an act of indolence that would have scandalized my farming parents and grandparents — then sat down to spend some quality time at my keyboard. I had no cows to milk or irrigation sets to change, though, so my level of guilt about it was low. Three hours later, I got up and stretched.

My next order of business was to hit the gym for an hour or so, then go to the office and spend the afternoon doing market research. My phone rang just as I snagged my workout bag.

“Sean! How’s it goin’?” a familiar voice said in my ear.

“Hey Alex. Long time no hear.”

Alex and I had hired on at Jensen Securities right out of college two years before and we’d been casual friends during his time there, but he’d left six months ago to join another investment firm, claiming they had better long term prospects. I had my doubts about that, and rumor had it that his departure hadn’t been voluntary.

“Dude, I’m tubing through the canyon today,” he said. “Wanna come along?”

“Uh, I’ve never been up there.”

“Seriously? Then you gotta do it. The temperature’s gonna be perfect and the river’s always wall-to-wall with hot babes. They’re ripe and it’s time you started doing a little picking.”

“Oh, I don’t know that I’m ready to get back out there.” It was my stock excuse.

“Come on, Sean. It’s been like a year, right?”

I could have told him off the top of my head that it had actually been one year, six months, fourteen days and eleven hours, but who was counting? Still, while I had zero intention of ever getting back out on the dating scene, I knew I was spending too much time alone. It might actually be nice to get outside and be around some people who didn’t obsess about derivatives and P/E ratios.

“Well, I suppose I could go into the office tomorrow. If I came, what would I need to bring?”

“I’ve got a floating cooler, so you’d just need your suit and a tube. We can pick up some beer and ice on the way out of town.”

“I don’t have a tube, but I do have a small inflatable raft. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll be in a tube, but you see a ton of rafts there too.”

“Look, it’s already after nine. I’ve heard that it’s best to be on the river before the heat of the day.”

“Well, I was at a party until pretty late last night, so I just dragged out. Not to worry, though. There are people going down the river all day long and it’ll be cool enough since we’ll be in the water.”

“Oops, almost forgot. I’ve got a five-thirty tee time with some of the guys from work.”

“No problem. It’s ninety minutes on the road each way, and the trip down the river only takes two hours. You’d be back in plenty of time.”

I ran the numbers in my head. Assuming we could be out of town by ten, three total hours of driving and two hours on the river would have us back by three, leaving me time to get ready, plus a two hour cushion. Against my better judgment, I decided to do it.

“Okay Alex, I’m in. I should be able to round up my stuff by the time you get over here.”

There was a pause. “Look Sean, I’ll, uh, buy the beer if you drive.”

Wow, when he’d asked if I wanted to “come along” I’d just assumed he was driving. “We’d have a lot more room for your tube and cooler in your Cherokee.”

“True, but it’s in the shop with a blown tranny.”

Big surprise. I’d advised him not to shoehorn that hot rod V8 into his ancient Jeep without beefing up the transmission, but he’d thought I was just being my usual over-cautious self. Of course I didn’t remind him that I’d told him so. That wasn’t the kind of guy I was.

“Gee, that stinks,” I commiserated instead. I was already wishing I’d said no to the whole thing, but I didn’t want to back out after having said yes. “I guess I’ll pack my stuff and swing by your place in a few.”

“Thanks dude. Don’t worry, it’s gonna be great.”

When I arrived, Alex was only just starting to round up his gear and we had to try five different ways before we figured out how to wedge his fully inflated tube and cooler into my car. By the time we left the liquor store it was after ten-thirty. Kiss thirty minutes of my cushion goodbye.

Alex damn near begged to drive, and while I didn’t particularly relish the idea of being consigned to passenger status, I couldn’t think of a reason to tell him no without being rude.

We were still in town when Alex reached into the back seat at a stoplight and grabbed a beer out of the cooler. “There’s an open container law in this state,” I reminded him timidly.

“Sure, but you’ve got tinted windows. Who’s gonna see?”

I gathered up my nerve and did my best to stand up for myself. “Look, since I started driving this car, I’ve been pulled over four times. Cops see the logo and racing stripes and they look for any excuse to get a closer look. The last thing you need is to have them smell beer on your breath and find empties in the footwell.” I halfheartedly gave him a look that tried to reinforce that I was serious.

“Look, Sean, I bought the beer, don’t tell me when I can drink it.” With that, he popped the top and took a long draught. I just stewed, more upset with myself for being such a weenie than at him for being a moron. Still, I was reminded again of why I hadn’t associated with Alex much recently.

Traffic wasn’t terribly heavy on the winding two-lane road up to the dam, but there were a lot of slow-moving trucks, and passing opportunities were few. Finally we ended up behind the mother of all rolling roadblocks.

“Damn, I hate this shit!” Alex muttered, pounding on the wheel.

“The sign says there’s a passing lane coming up in half a mile,” I said, trying to cool him down. He was a far more aggressive driver than I was.

“Yeah, but that’s like forever. I can’t stand it when… wait, I think there’s a break.”

Alex stabbed my Ford into second and put the hammer down. Five hundred and forty supercharged ponies screamed their freedom as we darted across the centerline and began to pass the boat-towing motorhome and triple-trailer semi.

When I saw the road ahead of us, I realized that Alex’ idea of a break in traffic was a bit different than mine. My reaction was immediate and visceral.

“Oh shit!” The distinctive grill of an oncoming Kenworth was approaching quickly. I didn’t think there was any way we were going to make it.

Alex’ move was foolhardy, and in just about any other car would have gotten us killed, but we were picking up speed at a nearly ludicrous rate. He speed-shifted into third as the tachometer hit redline and the meaty rear tires chirped loudly.

We were doing better than a hundred and twenty when he whipped the Shelby back into our lane. Air horns were blasting at us from both trucks, but the Kenworth was still fifty yards away. Alex dumped the throttle and we eased back down a bit closer to the double nickel speed limit.

I wanted to scream at him to pull over and let me drive, but I didn’t. He’d made the pass successfully and despite my displeasure, I had to admit to myself that it was good to be moving at better-than-bicycle speeds again. “Alex, could you please be a little more careful?” was about the best I could manage.

“Take a pill, beanpole. That’s the way a car like this should be driven every now and then. Besides, you’re the one who’s got his panties in a wad about getting back in time.”

He did have a point, but I was regretting this whole deal more and more by the minute. And I hated it when he called me beanpole.

As we approached the base of the dam where the launch area was, Alex explained that the standard operating procedure upon arrival was to drop all the gear and passengers there, have someone drive the vehicle down to the landing area, and then hitch a ride back up to the top. That way the tubers could get straight into their vehicle and leave just as soon as they got out of the river.

I hadn’t factored that into my calculations. There went another thirty minutes of my cushion.

Not wanting to let him drive my Mustang without adult supervision, I told him I’d take on the parking and hitchhiking duties.

The launch area wasn’t exactly buzzing when we arrived. I began to suspect that Alex’ assurances that there would be plenty of company later in the day may have been a bit exaggerated. There was a group of four girls ready to get in, though, looking like they were ready for their driver to return from the landing area. Then, as we got out, an Escalade pulled up and disgorged six girls and guys. I watched surreptitiously and was able to tell that they were here as couples.

My heart lurched a little and I wished I was there with Amanda instead of Alex. That wasn’t ever going to happen, though, so I got back to work.

We quickly unloaded our gear. I unpacked my raft and threw the bag back in the hatch. Then I pulled out my big, double-action foot pump and handed it to Alex.

“Would you mind?” I asked hesitantly.

“You want me to blow up your life raft?” He was seemingly shocked at my presumptuousness.

That was Alex for you; always way quicker to ask a favor than to do one. It also bugged me that he called my vessel a ‘life raft’. It was nothing of the sort, being an expedition-grade whitewater craft. I wanted to correct him, but instead I said “well, it would mean that we could leave sooner when I get back.”

“Well, uh…” He glanced over at the girls. I noticed that they were really young, maybe not technically jail bait, but high school seniors or college freshmen at best. “I’m gonna give those girls a hand hauling their stuff down to the water, but after that, sure, I can do the raft.”

“Great. Just lay it out flat first and don’t over inflate it. I’ll top it off when I get back.”

“Sure thing, beanpole. I’ll just blow it up as hard as your dick gets, then, when you get back, you can get it as hard as mine.”

Ouch. I was tired of his endless braggadocio. To hear him talk, he was hung like a porn star.

I stacked everything in a neat pile at the edge of the parking area, then hopped back in the car. I was about to fire up the beast when I remembered the item in my pocket. I got back out and handed it to him.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s the adapter that lets the pump’s hose hook up to the raft. You’ll need it.”

“Gotcha.” He stuffed it into the pocket of his cutoffs and headed over to help the girls.

The driver of the Escalade took off just ahead of me. I was glad to follow him because I wasn’t completely sure of where I was going. It turned out that the dirt road that led from the highway to the landing area was extremely dusty and bumpy. Again I wished we had brought Alex’ Cherokee. I exercised extreme caution and never bottomed out, but the Mustang’s suspension wasn’t meant for off road work. The road went for 2.1 miles by my odometer, with the first half mile running parallel to the highway on the other side of a barb wire fence. I looked over at the pavement longingly. It was a much more suitable environment for my pony car.

I parked on the outskirts of the lot, near the exit, hoping to avoid door dings. Droves of people were coming up out of the water, all carrying tubes. I didn’t see another raft anywhere. Great.

I walked over and stuck my thumb out. It was only a matter of seconds before I was picked up by a load of guys who’d already finished their trip. “Dude, you sure are starting late,” the driver said, after I’d wedged myself into the back with a couple of his friends.

“Yeah, my buddy told me there are groups coming down the river all day long, but it looks like morning must be the popular time.”

“That’s for sure. It was a total zoo when we got here. Tubes fuckin’ wall-to-wall on the way down. Most of ’em are gone already, but it was a major party all morning.”

The guys were in a hurry and we traversed the road at triple the speed I’d traveled on the way in. Four minutes later, they dropped me off at the highway, then headed back toward the city.

I stuck my thumb out again, but the only traffic I saw for the first couple of minutes was coming from the river and heading down the highway the other direction. Then a pickup dropped off the driver of the Escalade right next to me.

“Looks like we may be here for a while,” I warned.

“Yeah, my group likes to come later in the day to avoid the crowds. Having to wait for a ride is the downside.”

“Most people seem to like the crowds.”

“Well, we’re all old married folk,” he said with a grin. Old? He couldn’t have been my senior by more than a couple of years.

I stuck out a paw. “Sean.”

“Ethan,” he said, shaking my hand with a firm grip. “First time up here?”

“Yeah, my friend talked me into this.”

“You’ll have fun.”

Like me, Ethan was wearing a hat and sunglasses, but he looked vaguely familiar. I would have sworn I knew him from somewhere, but I just couldn’t place him. I hate it when that happens.

A distant hum of tires on the asphalt alerted us to the fact that a vehicle was coming up the highway. We stuck our thumbs out and were rewarded when a Suburban with two tubes strapped to the roof rack rolled to a stop next to us. Its dark window came down.

There was a cute Asian girl behind the wheel and an equally attractive brunette riding shotgun. Both were slightly plump, but wearing agreeably brief bikinis and I figured Alex would be thrilled if we could find ourselves floating the river with them.

“Going to the top?” asked the driver.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Then hop in, guys.” She nodded toward the back.

I opened the door to reveal two more girls sitting on the middle row bench. The far one was very tall, thin and dressed in one of those wrist-to-ankle swimsuits used by those trying to avoid too much sun exposure. Being quite fair skinned and a frequent outdoor swimmer, I actually owned stuff like that myself, but had left it at home, figuring it would probably look out of place in this crowd.

The nearer girl was clad in a conservative one-piece, but was actually the hottie of the group. She was vaguely Hispanic with a stunning face and a body made for sin. There was space enough for four on the bench and the thought of being tight up against her wasn’t at all unpleasant, but she wordlessly directed me rearward, toward the third row.

I hit the release lever for the split seatback and packed my six foot five frame into the way-back. There were three more tubes in the cargo area behind me. Ethan looked like he was about to follow me into the penalty box, but the dark-haired beauty reached out and flipped the seatback into its upright position and motioned for him to join her.

Part of me was a bit hurt, but women had always tended to find me a bit gawky. I was used to it and it wasn’t like I was in the market anyway. Still…

She scooted a little closer to Ethan, but then he covered his mouth with his left hand and gave a little cough. She immediately saw (as he’d obviously intended) his wide wedding band. Her shoulders slumped and she moved back to where she’d been. That made me feel a little better.

“Thanks for the ride, ladies,” Ethan said. “I don’t know how long we’d have been stuck there if you hadn’t stopped.”

“Not a problem,” said the driver. “We got a late start because Kim had to work this morning,” she said, indicating the girl in the shotgun seat. “I’m Randi, that’s Trish in the middle seat, and Jessica’s in the wet suit.”

“I’m Ethan.”


There were murmurs of greeting all around, then Ethan turned to me. “Did your friend tell you about the rapids and the jump spots?”


“Well, the river runs through a canyon the whole way, but there are only three places where it’s safe to jump.”

Trish was up on the edge of her seat, talking with Randi and Kim, but Jessica was listening to Ethan. I got the impression that she was a first-timer as well. Her face was vaguely Asian and looked intelligent and friendly, if not as cute as any of her shorter companions.

“The first set of rapids are right after the first jump spot. They’re not particularly rough, but the water runs really fast and it’s less than a foot deep so you have to keep your feet up. The big rapids are near the landing area. You need to make sure you’re on the outside of the bend, because the inside is way too gnarly for tubes.”

“How long does it take, top to bottom?” I asked.

“If you float all the way without stopping, probably about four hours.”

“Four hours? Alex told me it takes about two.”

“Only if the reservoir gets too high and they release a lot of water. This summer’s been pretty dry, so I’m guessing four would be a minimum.”

“Damn,” I muttered.

I caught the driver’s attention in the mirror. “Randi, you’re coming back down to leave your truck after you drop these guys off, right?” She nodded. “Could I talk you into giving me and a friend a ride back to my car? I could give you a lift back up to the top so you don’t have to stand out there and thumb a ride.”

“You’re not going to tube?”

“No. I have to be back in town by five. That’s not going to happen if we’re on the river for four hours.”

I’d turned twenty-four just the day before and the guys had scored a coveted tee time at the country club for my birthday. I’d be damned if Alex was going to make me miss it.

“Sure, I can bring you guys back if you want,” Randi said.

When we arrived at the launch area, Ethan’s group was the only one there. I got the impression that Randi and her friends were going to be the last group of the day.

A few seconds later, I realized that Alex was gone.

I walked over to my pile of stuff. My raft and pump were still there, but the cooler and beer were gone, leaving just my two six-packs of water bottles sitting in the gravel next to my backpack. “That jerk,” I muttered.

“Your buddy took off with that bunch of girls just after you left,” said one of the guys from Ethan’s group. “They didn’t seem to be real excited about the idea of having him with them, but he told them he had a case of beer in his cooler. They were obviously under drinking age and only brought pop, so they were all over that offer. We gave him some crap about it, but he told us to fuck off.” He shrugged. “I hate to be rude about it, but that guy’s an asshole.”

“Yeah, I’m learning that.” I hoped the girls would drown him when they found out his cooler only had a twelve pack in it. Correction, eleven. He’d had the one on the drive up. No, ten. There was an empty can of Alex’ favorite lying on the ground next to the raft. I picked it up and tossed it into the recycling bin, three feet away.

I stuffed the bottles of water into my backpack, then began to unroll my raft. Only then did it hit me. I did a quick search, but it wasn’t there. Before I could even consider my next move, Ethan approached. “You’re welcome to float with us,” he said. “With a pump like that, it shouldn’t take you long to get inflated.”

“I really appreciate the offer,” I said, “but the adapter that lets me hook it to the raft is in Alex’ pocket. It takes forty-five minutes minimum to inflate this thing with the crappy little hand pump that came with it. You guys had better just go ahead and take off.”