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  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2001
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    Alabama
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    “Women in Black”

    By Strelnikov
    Copyright 2005 by the author


    Author’s Note: This story turned into a novella, 30+ pages of 10-point type, because I couldn’t tell it in anything shorter. It’s closely related to “Dani Deaver” and my other stories set at Commonwealth University. It’s also closely related to another – you’ll know which when you get there. Hope you enjoy it – as always, feedback is encouraged and welcome.


    Alicia Jemison laid her book aside, stood up and stretched. Should have found something else to read, she grumbled to herself. She liked David Weber’s science-fiction novels about Honor Harrington, a female Horatio Hornblower of the far future, but three of them back-to-back was a bit much. Still, there wasn’t much else to do in a college town on a summer Thursday afternoon.

    Alicia was 19 – she would be a Sophomore at Commonwealth University this fall. She was an Air Force brat whose father was stationed at RAF Lakenheath. She had stayed on for the summer – she knew she didn’t have a prayer of finding a summer job in the UK. She was a small girl, trim and fit-looking, with brown eyes and long, straight dark brown hair. She wore a blue CU t-shirt and loose, comfortable khaki cargo shorts – she hadn’t bothered with shoes. She moved with the tigerish grace and economy of motion of a dancer.

    Alicia looked Mediterranean – Greek, maybe – but wasn’t. Her family name was the tipoff – she was a Seneca Indian. “Pure-blooded Seneca” is an oxymoron. Alicia’s ancestor Mary Jemison, captured by raiders in 1758, was just one of many “White Indians” adopted into the Seneca Nation. Alicia’s European facial features were the expression of that part of her bloodline.

    Air Force families are an eclectic lot – Alicia had learned belly dancing from a friend’s Lebanese mother at age 14, and had kept it up ever since. It had gotten her a job at Ali Baba’s, the local Persian restaurant – during the school year, she danced two 20-minute sets, twice a week. Her appearance was a bonus – in costume, she looked Mediterranean.

    Now, she waited tables at lunchtime on the days she danced, and the dinner shift on three others. It all paid the same – a free meal and minimum wage – but half of her tip income came from dancing. Not this week though, or the next. This was a slow time of year, Mr. Mooshie had closed the restaurant so that he and his staff – many of them members of his large extended family – could take a vacation.

    What I need right now is a workout, Alicia thought. She put a CD of Middle Eastern music in the player and got to work rehearsing her dance routine.

    Alicia’s apartment building was a tall Victorian mansion that had been chopped up into student apartments long ago. Her second-floor apartment wasn’t air-conditioned, and the day was warm – before long, she had worked up a sweat. She had just finished dancing to the second tune when the phone rang.

    “Hey, Alicia, it’s Natalie. Got time to talk?” Natalie Lasko was a friend from Alicia’s Freshman dorm – this fall, she would be living in the apartment across the hall.

    “Nothing but time,” Alicia replied. “The restaurant’s closed for vacation ‘til a week from Monday. What’s the occasion?”

    “I’m at my grandparents’ farm right now,” Natalie said. “My cousin Kelly is here too. Want to come and visit?”

    “Where is it?” Alicia asked.

    “Eastern Pennsylvania. You’re only about 4 hours away. I could pick you up at the bus station in...”

    “D”you mind if Stacy Haviland comes with me?” Alicia interrupted. “You’ve met her– Shelly’s older sister. She’s got a car.”

    “Grandma won’t mind,” Natalie said. “And there’s plenty of room here. I’ll email you directions and a map.”

    Stacy lived in Apartment 1A with her older sister Ashley. Their younger sister Shelly, Natalie’s dorm room mate, was back home in Maine for the summer – she would be joining them this fall. Alicia looked out the front window. Parking was never a problem during the summer. Stacy’s car – a generic minivan, plain and practical – was parked out front.

    Stacy’s apartment was locked up. Alicia walked to the back of the building to the former kitchen, now a common laundry room. Stacy wasn’t there either. Then onto the back porch, and she saw that her friends were sunning themselves on a blanket spread on the weedy back yard.

    Both were in bikinis – Stacy’s was bright orange, Ashley’s was red. They shared a strong family resemblance. They were the same physical type – small and trim like their québécois forbears, with fit and shapely bodies. Stacy was the easy-going middle sister, eminently sensible, a 21-year-old Junior majoring in Hospitality Management. She had curly shoulder-length brown hair and soft brown eyes. She worked at the restaurant too, waiting tables and learning the business. Ashley was the oldest at 23, a first-born overachiever, a Grad student and teaching assistant in the Math department. She had short dark blonde hair and cool gray eyes.

    “Hi, Alicia, come join us,” Ashley greeted her.

    “Maybe later,” Alicia said. “Right now, I need to talk to Stacy. We’ve been invited to go visiting.”

    “Where?” Stacy asked.

    “Natalie’s grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania. Amish country.”

    “Men in black,” Ashley said.

    “Women in black, like something out of the 1800’s,” Stacy said. She made a gesture that encompassed her body. “I like this better.”

    “We’ve been out here long enough,” Ashley said. “Let’s go inside and get something to drink, and you can plan your trip.”

    “You don’t mind us going off without you, sis?” Stacy asked as they walked back inside.

    “Nope,” Ashley said. She had a key tied to her bikini string – she used it to unlock the door. “Gives me a chance to work on my thesis project without interruption.”

    “Then I guess I’ll have to interrupt you now,” Stacy said with a devilish grin, and jumped Ashley.

    They wrestled, rolling around on the floor, their struggle enlivened with squeals, giggles, yelps and girlish laughter. They were evenly matched – neither could quite manage to get the upper hand. I could join in, Alicia thought. But on whose side?

    Alicia grabbed the nearest foot and tickled. “HAHAHA!” Ashley laughed. She lost her hold, and it was all over. Alicia and Stacy rolled Ashley onto her tummy and subdued her, and and Stacy sat on her facing aft.

    “Hey! Get off!” Ashley yelled, and tried to buck Stacy off.

    “Nope, I gotcha!” Stacy said, a little short of breath. “Thanks for the assist, Alicia.”

    “Luck of the draw,” Alicia confessed. “I just tickled the nearest foot.”

    “Turned out OK though,” Stacy said. “Let’s see now...” Stacy grabbed Ashley’s ankles, pulled, and wrapped a leg around Ashley’s shins, tucking the foot under the upraised knee of the other leg in the figure-four leg lock. “This ought to do it.”

    Ashley stopped struggling – with both legs out of play, she lacked leverage. “OK, you got me,” she said in a resigned tone. “Get it over with.”

    “I like it better when you fight it, sis,” Stacy said. “More of a challenge.”

    “Oh, go to– Hee! HAHA! HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHAHA!” Ashley laughed as Stacy’s tickling fingernails flicked her arches. She laughed at the top of her lungs, squirming and straining and trying to buck Stacy off. Stacy kept her seat with the ease of long practice and tickled down Ashley’s arches, drawing figure-eight’s and other tickling shapes. Her well-manicured nails flicked and scratched the arches and onto the heels as streams of laughter poured out of Ashley. Then tiny flicks with the tips of her nails up both arches, not making much contact but tickling like crazy.

    Ashley was struggling harder now, trying desperately to escape the tickling – she knew what was coming next. Stacy fooled her, held her toes back and tickled the soft skin underneath, forcing wave after wave of ticklish laughter. But Stacy knew where her sister’s feet were most ticklish, and saved the best for last. She tickled a stretched out sole in the exact middle, along the crease. Ashley howled with forced mirth as Stacy tickled across the balls of both feet to the other sole.

    Stacy drew fast, looping figure-eight’s on the balls of both feet, covering every square inch of sensitive skin with unbearable tickling. Twice on each circuit, she hit the sweet spots and gave them a few extra nail flicks, and Ashley’s laughter went up a notch. Ashley laughed and laughed as Stacy spider-walked her nails on the balls of both feet. Then two-handed tickling in the middle of both soles – Ashley’s toes twitched and curled as her laughter went off the scale. Stacy speeded up, fingernails flying, tickling at warp speed. Ashley lost it and laughed herself breathless.

    “Doin’ OK, sis?” Stacy asked.

    Ashley took long deep breaths, eyes closed, tears of laughter running down her cheeks, trying to get her breathing and heart rate normal again. “I’ll... get you... for this,” she said.

    Stacy grinned and tickled Ashley’s feet – Ashley burst into ticklish laughter again. “You’ll tickle me anyway – I’ll take my chances,” she said. She gave Ashley another 30 seconds of tickle torture, flicking both heels with a motion like chording a guitar, then quit and left her sister gasping.

    Stacy stood and gave Ashley a hand up. “You are so gonna get it,” Ashley said. “Woo! I’m exhausted!”

    “I wish we could capture that energy and use it some way,” Stacy said. “As much as we all tickle each other, we’d never have to pay a utility bill again.”

    Tickle power? What an odd notion, thought Alicia. But she played along. “Too bad you’re busy this weekend, Ashley,” Alicia said. “It’s a 4-hour drive. It would be fun to tickle you on the way, and save on gas money while we’re doing it.”

    Ashley snorted. “Dream on,” she said. “Let’s order a pizza – my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.

    ***

    Alicia and Stacy left early the next morning. Both of them wore jeans shorts and t-shirts – Stacy’s was white, Alicia’s Air Force blue with a USAF Winged Star logo in red-white-and-blue. Stacy drove north to the interstate and headed westward. As soon as she did, Alicia kicked off her flip-flops, propped her feet up on the dashboard and closed her eyes.

    “Too bad Ashley couldn’t come,” Stacy said. “She’d find a way to keep you awake.”

    Alicia opened one eye. “Lucky for me,” she said. She wiggled her toes. “I’m safe for now.” She closed her eye and went to sleep.

    Alicia woke up an hour later, and discovered that they were already out of New England and into southern New York State. Two and a half hours after they started, Stacy turned southwest and crossed into Pennsylvania. They drove for another hour, then got off the interstate at Pembroke. The road was two-lane blacktop – it ran south through rolling hills. The area was cultivated, corn and alfalfa mostly, with occasional patches of woodlot. They saw black-and-white cows in pastures too, and an occasional farmer on a tractor.

    They passed through a country town called Corfu, then more farms, and then the smaller town of Darien. There were several Amish communities in the area south of Darien, each of 25 families or so. At first glance, the Amish farms didn’t look any different from the rest. After a little thought, Alicia realized that the telephone and electric power lines didn’t connect to all of the farms. The farms without were Amish. All of those, unlike the other farms, had windmills on tall steel-frame towers, the old-fashioned type once ubiquitous on American farms. Stacy passed a black-painted buggy pulled by a horse. The driver and passenger were both elderly women – women in black, thought Alicia.

    They stopped to check their navigation in the village of Bennington an hour before lunchtime. The place was little more than a wide spot in the road – just a crossroads, two churches and maybe two dozen houses. The churches were old ones. One of them was Lutheran – the sign in front of the other said “United Church of Christ”, but the raised letters over the door said Evangelische und Reformte Kirche in the Fraktur font.

    “Two more miles,” Alicia said after a little study. “Look for a one-room schoolhouse. Map says it’s Amish – I guess they have their own.”

    A few minutes later, they drove past a one-room school on the east side of the road, and crossed a ravine on a high earth fill with a culvert at the bottom. Alicia saw a silvery thread at the bottom of the ravine – a little creek. Natalie’s grandparents’ farm was just past the creek, the farm buildings were directly south of the schoolhouse.

    The farm house was old, added to many times – it stood on a small rise overlooking the highway, screened by a row of big old maple trees. A wide porch went across the front of the house and wrapped around the south side. The graveled driveway turned off from the highway south of the house and curled around to the north, behind the house. Stacy parked and the girls piled out.

    Natalie and Kelly were sitting on the side porch with Natalie’s grandparents – they came out to greet the newcomers.

    Natalie Lasko was a petite girl with long fiery red hair, bright blue eyes and freckled fair skin. She was fit and athletic-looking without being muscular – she had played soccer in high school. She was cheerful and outgoing, with an even temper and a ready smile. She wore a green-and-white striped top with spaghetti straps, old gym shorts and flip-flops.

    Kelly Sandler was 18 or so, a little cutie with shoulder-length brown hair, bright blue eyes, tanned fair skin and curves in all the right places. She had a dancer’s figure, very trim and fit-looking, and moved like a dancer too. She was barefoot, wearing jeans shorts and a black Pittsburg Steelers t-shirt.

    “Have any trouble finding the place?” Natalie asked.

    “Nope,” Stacy said. “Just as well – until we got to Bennington, the only people we saw to ask were two old Amish women.”

    “They could have told you – they speak English,” Natalie said. “The Yoder family across the road are Old Order Amish. The Stolzfus family too – they own the farm behind ours. They’re good neighbors,” Natalie said. “Anyway, this is my cousin Kelly Sandler. She lives in Harrisburg. C’mon, I’ll introduce you to my grandparents.”

    “Are you in college too, Kelly?” Alicia asked.

    “Just got out of high school,” Kelly answered. “I’m going to Trismegistus University this fall to study Computer Science.”

    “Hi, girls! Come and have a seat,” the old man called out as they approached – he was wearing a plaid shirt, overalls, work boots and a ball cap.

    “Glad you could come,” his wife added. Natalie had her grandmother’s size, facial features and blue eyes – this was what Natalie would look like in another 50 yrs or so. She was in jeans, a ratty sweat shirt and sneakers.

    “This is Stacy Haviland,” Natalie said. “She lives in the apartment downstairs from mine at school. This is Alicia Jemison, she lives across the hall.” She completed the introduction. “My grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Sandler.”

    The big country kitchen opened off the side porch. The girls carried their gear indoors and through the kitchen to a hallway. Natalie’s grandmother led them up a steep flight of stairs with a right-angle turn at the top. Natalie and Kelly would bunk together in Natalie’s mom’s old room, the other two girls in Kelly’s dad’s room.

    “Just like old times,” Mrs. Sandler said. “I grew up in a house like this. There were nine of us kids – six girls. I shared a bed with my younger sister until I got married.”

    “Must have been crowded,” Alicia said.

    “It never seemed that way to us at the time,” the old lady said. “It was just the way things were.” She paused, remembering. “Kinda nice in the winter, we kept each other warm. Back then, the only heat in the house was the wood stove in the kitchen and a Franklin stove in the parlor, and we banked those at night. We didn’t live all that differently than our Amish neighbors – there was no electricity until the REA brought it out here in the 1930’s.”

    They had coffee in the kitchen. Natalie’s grandparents were retired, Alicia learned – this was no longer a working farm. Natalie’s mom and Uncle Ted had both gone away to college and hadn’t come back. The old man had kept farming until a few years ago, but now rented his land to a neighbor. This 160-acre farm had supported generations of Sandlers, but times had changed – the Amish excluded, a farmer just couldn’t make it any more on less than 600 acres.

    Natalie took the others on a tour. A dirt track intersected the gravel driveway just behind the house. South of and parallel to the track was a long wooden building with a peaked roof. It had once been winter shelter for hogs on the ground floor, a chicken coop above – now it was used for general storage and a garage for the car and pickup truck. Beyond and in line was a big metal building, empty now, formerly a place to park and repair tractors and other farm machinery out of the weather.

    Across the track to the north was a tall square wooden building – Natalie said that her twice-great-grandfather and his neighbors had built it. It still had a blacksmith shop, tack room and stalls, from when it had housed the farm’s horses and the smaller farm machinery of times past. The upper hayloft was empty.

    The graveled driveway continued northward to a graveled flat big enough to turn a milk tanker truck around. The flat had been the site of an old barn in Natalie’s grandfather’s youth – he had built a big concrete-block barn with a half-octagon roof just north of that, oriented north-south. He had sold the old barn to an architect who wanted to build a big house with “rustic atmosphere”, and saved himself the trouble of pulling it down.

    The land bounded by highway, house and barn was a kitchen garden and a small apple orchard. North of the barn, the land sloped downward into the creek ravine whose sides were far too steep to cultivate. That was pasture, dotted with grazing black-and-white cows.

    On the south end of the barn was a sort of anteroom – it opened into the barn proper and into a much smaller building on the east that had once contained refrigerated holding tanks for the milk. The tall concrete silo connected to the west side of the anteroom, its curved shell forming the anteroom wall.

    They looked into the barn – it was was empty, but still held a faint odor of cows. There was a wooden ladder bolted to the east wall about in the middle. Natalie climbed it and disappeared through a big open hatch – the others followed.

    At first, all Alicia saw was shapes, but it got clearer as her eyes adjusted to the dim light that filtered in around the edges of a big double door on the east side. They were in a cavernous empty hayloft under the half-octagonal roof. There was just a little loose hay scattered here and there.

    One big door had a smaller, people-sized door in it. Outside, Alicia saw that the ground had a gentle upward slope toward the east. A shallow flat had been cut into the slope to level an area for the barn. It had been backfilled on the east to create an earthen ramp to the big double door in the side of the hayloft, a ramp that allowed hay wagons to be taken inside for unloading. The girls came down the ramp and circled around to the north end of the barn. They walked north to the pasture and ducked under the barbed wire fence.

    Natalie and Kelly were wearing sneakers, but the others were in flip-flops. The slope was steep, difficult footing – they finally took their sandals off and picked their way carefully down it, avoiding the meadow muffins and the grazing cows. The flow in the gravel-bottomed creek was sluggish. Water skimmers walked the surface, dragonflies droned above. The highway wasn’t far off – the stream crossed under it in a big culvert about 100 yards to the west – but there was little traffic.

    “Does this creek have a name?” Alicia asked.

    “Not even on the quad sheet – I checked,” Kelly answered. “And I’ve never heard it called anything but “the crick”. It’s too small.”

    They started back upslope. Suddenly Stacy did a pirouette and landed on her butt.

    “Your mom should’ve named you Grace,” Natalie said. “Are you OK?”

    Stacy checked herself out. “Eww! I stepped in a cow flop!”

    Kelly laughed. “It’ll wash off. A little shit’s not so bad, so long as you don’t have to shovel it.” She gave Stacy a hand up. “C’mon, we’ll wash it off at the barn.”

    All four girls were puffing a little by the time they got back up to the top. There was a water hose on the north end of the barn. Natalie hosed off Stacy’s feet, then sprayed her butt.

    “Hey!” Stacy yelled. “Why’d you do that?”

    “Get the dirt off from when you sat down.”

    Stacy growled and jumped Natalie. They wrestled for the hose, which of course got turned on and soaked both of them. The overspray got Alicia and Kelly too – they joined in, a four-way water fight, punctuated by squeals, laughter and various foul blows.

    The water cut off, and the hose went limp. All four girls were dripping wet. Alicia looked over, and saw Natalie’s grandfather by the faucet. He had just shut the water off.

    “Just the thing to brighten up the day,” the man said, grinning. “A wet t-shirt contest. Trying to give me a heart attack?”

    Alicia wasn’t wearing a bra – good thing I’m wearing a blue shirt, she thought. Stacy wasn’t either, which was pretty obvious because her shirt was white. She yelped and covered herself with her hands.

    “Now look what you’ve done, Grandpa!” Natalie said.

    “OK, OK, I’m going!” he said. “Pretty good show anyway.”

    Stacy blushed.

    “Let’s change and hang this stuff up to dry,” Kelly said. “It’s almost dinner time.”

    “Dinner?” Alicia asked. “I thought...”

    “Grandma’s a farm wife,” Natalie explained. “She still cooks like one. Big breakfast that you work off by noon. Big noon meal that you work off in the afternoon. A light supper, because you’re finished working for the day.”

    They changed into their jeans and dry shirts, and hung their wet clothes on the clothesline. Dinner was ready by the time they finished – fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, creamed early corn, biscuits, sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden, topped off with apple pie. Alicia knew she was eating too much, but couldn’t stop herself. She wasn’t the only one. They helped with the dishes – afterward, all of them were content to sit on the porch and digest for a while.

    “I’d weigh 300 lbs if I ate like that all the time,” Stacy said. “I’m stuffed!”

    “This was for us,” Kelly said. “They still eat their main meal at noon, but not like when this was still a working farm. If it was... well, Daddy said he ate 4,000 calories a day when he was our age, and never gained an ounce.”

    Alicia kicked off her flip-flops and propped her feet up on the porch rail. The big meal, warm day and quiet surroundings combined to put her to sleep. She nodded off in her chair, oblivious to the conversation going on around her.

    The laughter woke Alicia. She blinked and looked over. Natalie must have nodded off too, and Kelly had taken full advantage. She had Natalie’s ankles in an arm lock, tickling her feet with verve and gusto. Natalie laughed like a lunatic, squirming and bucking, trying desperately to escape the tickling.

    Natalie’s feet were insanely, unbearably ticklish all over, so everything Kelly did drove her wild. Kelly flicked and scratched Natalie’s soles, traced tickling shapes in her arches, scrabbled her nails on the ticklish heels. She kept it up, fingers flying, flicking and scratching the heels, the arches, the soles while Natalie laughed and laughed. She scratched between Natalie’s toes, tickling between each pair and forcing more bursts of helpless laughter, then down the soles and arches to the heels, tickling both at once. Natalie laughed at the top of her lungs, red-faced, tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks. She wasn’t struggling any more, the tickling had completely overpowered her.

    Kelly held Natalie on the edge, never letting her zone out, always letting her catch just enough breath to laugh. She tickled Natalie’s feet from toes to heels, bringing forth stream after stream of helpless laughter. She tickled side to side across the balls of both feet, getting on the creases in the middle of the soles, covering the sensitive skin with unbearable tickling. Natalie’s laughter went off the scale. Kelly kept it up for a minute or so, enjoying the ticklish laughter, then quit and released Natalie’s ankles. Natalie giggled weakly as the tickling sensation faded – Kelly had really gotten her good.

    “I’ll get you for this, Kelly!” Natalie threatened good-naturedly. “I can still feel it!”

    “That was a good one,” Alicia said. “Couldn’t have done better myself.”

    “Lots of practice,” Kelly said. “It used to drive Natalie wild. Now she loves it. What did you do to her at college?”

    “She made the mistake of tickling one of our dorm neighbors,” Alicia said. “Turned out she’d tangled with the Tennessee Toe Ticklers – Danielle and Tara were friends back home, some little town way back in the hills, and they’d been tickling each other for years. They got even, and then some.”

    “It was the worst tickling I’d ever gotten, and I found out I liked it,” Natalie said. “It drove me crazy while it was happening, but afterward it was... exhilirating. Kelly and her brother just didn’t tickle me enough.”

    “But the rest of us did,” Alicia said. “She returned the favor too – she turned into a pretty fair tickler herself.” There was probably more to it than Natalie let on, she thought. Alicia had experienced the tickle high herself, but Natalie was such an eager ticklee that Alicia suspected she was probably getting off on it.

    “Kelly already found that out,” Natalie said. “I guess she needs a reminder.”

    Kelly grinned impishly. “You’ll have to win a tickle fight first,” she said. “You’re lots more ticklish than I am.”

    “Hold that thought,” Natalie said. “Let’s go for a walk instead. We can play tonight.”

    Their shorts were dry by then. The girls changed into them and, like Natalie and Kelly, put their sneakers on – they had learned their lesson on their earlier hike.

    The girls walked east on the dirt track, between two corn fields. The plants weren’t finished growing, but even so they were taller than the girls. The woods were in the northeast corner of the property, on ground dotted with glacial boulders – a mixed stand of oaks and maples and another of pine. The hardwoods had survived because the area was too rocky to cultivate, Natalie said. The CCC had planted the pines when her grandfather was a boy, back during the Depression. His father had tapped the maples and made maple syrup, but Grandpa had given that up when he took over the farm years ago. The syrup house was still there though, a low building with a stone chimney and a rusty tin roof, its clapboard siding weathered to a silvery gray.

    The pines grew right down to the creek. The stream bed was steeper here, the water splashing over the rocky bottom. The source was just upstream, back in the hardwoods – a spring-fed pool maybe 50 yards across, with a natural dam of boulders.

    “Hello! Anybody here?” Natalie called out. No answer. “OK, we’re good,” she said, and led them past the dam to the shore of the pond. Cat-tails grew around most of the shore, but there was a rocky place that gave easy access – one big stone slab jutted out over the water. A knotted rope was tied to an overhanging tree branch.

    “This is the local swimming hole,” Kelly said. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

    “It’s right on the property line with the farm behind. I yelled because Amish kids use it too,” Natalie explained. “But usually only on Thursday afternoon – that’s the least busy time of the week for the Amish.”

    The woodlot backed up on another cultivated field, this one of alfalfa, with a barbed wire fence separating them. The farm buildings in the distance didn’t look any different from the ones Alicia had seen already, but the two men in the distance... Alicia’s eyesight was better than 20/20. She checked them out: bearded, white shirts, dark trousers and vests, broad-brim straw hats. Amish.

    They backtracked through the pines, carpeted with a thick layer of old needles. Alicia looked back at a noise behind her. She thought she saw a dark shadow, but couldn’t be sure – it was gone before she got a good look. A deer? Surely there were no bears in these woods!

    Alicia’s inattention cost her – something rolled under her foot. She yelped, overbalanced and went down on her tummy. She was about to pick herself up when she saw a long white skull grinning at her from under a thin covering of pine needles. She screamed, practically levitated back to vertical and backed up until a tree trunk stopped her.

    “Alicia! What’s the matter?” Natalie said.

    Alicia just pointed.

    “Oh! That’s just Old Pete,” Natalie said. “My great grandpa sold his horses to the Amish during World War II – bought a tractor because Grandpa and his brothers all went in the Army. Old Pete was too old to sell – he got turned out to pasture.” She probed around with her toe and exposed a thigh bone, some long rib bones and some vertebrae the size of two fists. “He died when Mom was a kid – she said the kids around here used to sword fight with his ribs.”

    “I... wasn’t expecting anything like that,” Alicia said. “Why’d they leave him here?”

    “Think of how much trouble it would be to bury a horse,” Natalie said. “Not to mention dragging him through the woods to where you could bury him. He wasn’t causing any trouble here, so they let the wild animals get the benefit of him.”

    They walked back westward along the creek, ducked under another fence and continued along the creek through the pasture. Alicia paid careful attention to where she put her feet, and noticed that Stacy was doing the same.

    They ended up back below the barn, and made the climb to the flat. They cut through the apple orchard and kitchen garden to the house. Natalie’s grandparents were sitting on the side porch. Her grandmother had made iced tea – it was welcome after their exertion.

    “Alicia met Old Pete today, Grandpa,” Kelly said with a wicked grin. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear her scream all the way up here.”

    Alicia blushed. “There was something following us in the woods,” she said. “I looked back and tripped. The skull surprised me.”

    “No kidding!” Natalie said. “You haven’t spent much time in the country, have you?”

    Alicia shook her head. “I grew up on Air Force bases, in places like Okinawa and Korea, Germany and England. Even rural areas there are pretty built up. This seems like the end of the world.”

    “Hey, everybody, let’s spend the night with Old Pete,” Stacy said mischievously. “A camp-out.”

    But the others vetoed the idea. Some other time maybe, when they were better prepared. Alicia was secretly relieved – this region had been settled nearly 300 yrs ago, but she still wasn’t 100% sure about the bears. Some Indian I am, she thought – that humming noise was generations of her ancestors turning over in their graves.

    The girls had their after-supper coffee on the porch. Alicia and Natalie walked down to the road to check the mail box afterward. Across the road, the Yoder family were relaxing after the end of the day’s work.

    Both parents were sitting on a bench on their front porch with a boy of 16 or so. Three boys maybe 14, 12 and 10 yrs old and a trim brunette in her late teens were playing with a dog on the lawn. Alicia checked them out.

    Amos Yoder was a powerful looking man about 40 yrs old with a full beard but no mustache. He wore a white shirt, dark trousers and vest, a dark jacket without lapels, black boondocker shoes and a low-crowned, broad-brim straw hat. The teenage boy was beardless – he and his little brothers were dressed like their father, except that the two youngest boys were barefoot.

    Rachel Yoder had her gray-streaked brown hair done up in a bun. She wore a black bonnet, a black apron over her plain, dark-blue long dress, and black shoes with black cotton stockings. She had no jewelry of any sort. Her daughter was dressed pretty much the same, a brunette about medium height with long wavy hair and a trim shape that her dark green dress couldn’t quite disguise. Her face and hands were tanned from outdoor work. She had taken off her shoes and stockings, barefoot like her brothers – good legs too, if a little pale, from what little Alicia could see as the girl moved.

    “The girl is Leah Yoder,” Natalie said. “She’s my age. We played together sometimes when we were little. She has a married sister a few years older.” Natalie paused, then went on. “The Amish marry young. It’s pretty unusual to find one who’s still unmarried at 20 – Leah’s almost an old maid by their standards,” Natalie said. “Unmarried women wear their hair long, married women wear it in a bun. Married Amish men grow beards and don’t cut ‘em – old grandpas have beards like Santa Claus.”

    “Why no mustache?” Alicia asked.

    “There’s Biblical authority for beards,” Natalie answered. “But mustaches are associated with warriors and soldiers. The Amish are pacifists, so mustaches are forbidden.”

    Alicia noticed something else about the Yoder farmhouse – like the Sandler house, it had an LPG tank next to it. “Do they use gas?” she asked, a little surprised.

    “Yah, they don’t shun modernity,” Natalie said. “Just connection to the outside world. They use gas to cook, make hot water and heat their homes, just like we do. There are gas-powered refrigerators too, and most Amish people have ‘em. And gas lights with Coleman-type mantles work every bit as well as electric lights.”

    Natalie started back up the driveway to the house, with Alicia following. “And in case you’re wondering, they have indoor plumbing too,” she said. “They use the windmills to pump the water.”

    They took the mail indoors and came back out onto the porch. Kelly kicked off her flip-flops and went out onto the lawn. She did some stretching and limbering-up exercises – the same kind I do, Alicia thought. She looks like a dancer. Ballet maybe?

    Kelly stood at attention, arms at her sides, then went into a martial arts stance. The training kata she did next was every bit as stylized and graceful as a dance. She finished and came back to attention, then relaxed.

    “Join me, Alicia?” Kelly invited. “We could spar a little.”

    “I’ve never done martial arts,” Alicia said. “I’m a dancer. I thought you were too – you look like one.”

    “The way you move, I thought you did karate,” Kelly said. “I’ve had dance training,” she continued. “It helped me with karate – the discipline’s much the same. You could make Black Belt in just a few years if you wanted to. C’mon, I’ll show you the basics.”

    Alicia slipped off her flip-flops and joined Kelly on the lawn. The basic moves – advance and retreat, high and low blocks, kicks, blows, and so forth – weren’t much like what she was used to. But they depended on mental discipline, physical conditioning, body awareness, balance and precision. Those were things that Alicia had in abundance.

    It was a good workout. The girls did some stretching exercises afterward. Maybe there’s something to this, Alicia thought. I’ll have to look into...

    “BANZAI!” Kelly yelled. The girl was unbelievably fast – before Alicia quite knew what was happening, she was on her tummy on the grass, with Kelly sitting on her facing aft.

    “Hey!” Alicia yelled. “No fair! You didn’t give me any warning!”

    “That’s right,” Kelly said sweetly. “You should’ve been paying attention. It’s called situational awareness.” She grabbed Alicia’s ankles and wrapped a leg around Alicia’s in the figure-four leg lock. “Eww! Grass stains!” she said. “I guess I’ll have to tickle ‘em clean!”

    “NOOO! NOT THAT!” Alicia yelled. She struggled, but to no avail – she was had. “Oh SHIT! Hehe! HAHAHA-HAHAHAHA-HAHAHA!” as Kelly’s fingernails flicked and scratched her ticklish soles.

    Kelly grabbed Alicia’s right foot with her left hand and made a claw of her right hand. Alicia laughed at the top of her lungs as Kelly raked her nails down the foot, drawing four parallel zig-zag lines and applying just enough pressure to tickle unbearably. Kelly repeated the tickle half a dozen times or so, then did the same to Alicia’s other foot, while wave after wave of helpless laughter poured out.

    Kelly spider-walked her nails down Alicia’s arches, scrabbled her nails on both heels while Alicia laughed like a maniac. Alicia laughed her head off as Kelly held back her toes and drew fast, looping figure-eight’s around the balls of both feet. She flicked her nails along the creases in the exact centers of Alicia’s soles as helpless laughter streamed from Alicia. Then Kelly tickled side to side under all ten toes, and Alicia went wild, squirming and bucking and trying desperately to pull her feet away.

    “Looks like I found the sweet spot!” Kelly said, and picked up the pace. It was more than Alicia could bear – she lost it and laughed herself breathless.

    Kelly dismounted. Alicia rolled over and sat up, breathing hard, and brushed her hair back out of her face. She shuffled her feet to get the tickle off, then inspected a sole. “Still some dirt,” she said. “Nice try though.”

    Kelly grinned. “I could try again,” she said hopefully.

    “Thanks just the same,” said Alicia. “I’ll use soap and water instead.

    “Spoilsport!” Kelly said. “Let’s gang up on Stacy!”

    “Let’s not,” Mrs. Sandler said from the back door. “Kelly, this is the second time today. You know how your grandfather feels about tickling.”

    “Sorry, Grandma,” Kelly said, instantly contrite.

    “It weirds Grandpa out,” Natalie explained. “Mom said he used to raise hell when Uncle Ted tickled her. Mom and her friends went elsewhere or used the syrup house – out of sight, out of mind.”

    The old couple still kept farmer’s hours – the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. They were in bed by 9 PM. The girls sat on the porch chatting. After a while, Alicia yawned and stretched, and that got everybody else started. It was only 10 PM, but they had had an active day. They took turns in the shower and headed upstairs to bed.

    Alicia changed into her night shirt, then went back downstairs. She walked away from the house toward the field on the east. She looked up at the sky. Air bases were lit up like Christmas in peacetime – only the brightest stars were visible, and only under ideal conditions. Most of East Asia, Europe and New England had enough sky glow to make star-gazing pretty questionable. But there were no lights here, a new moon, and not a cloud in the sky. The stars were diamonds on dark velvet, more of them than she had ever seen. The Milky Way was like a river across the sky.

    “Pretty, isn’t it?” Natalie said quietly. “Even out here, they’re not usually this bright.”

    “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Alicia confessed. “Thank you for having me, Natalie. Seeing this was worth the trip, all by itself.”

    “Look! A shooting star!” Natalie said. “Make a wish!”

    No need, thought Alicia. The night was already perfect.

    ***
    Last edited by Strelnikov; 08-25-2008 at 02:02 PM.

  2. #2
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    (continued)

    Alicia giggled in her sleep. She giggled again and woke up. Fingernails flicked her bare soles – she pulled her feet back and sat up.

    It was still dark outside, though the eastern horizon held a rosy glow. Stacy was still sound asleep, curled up in the blankets. Natalie was at the foot of the bed, her hand under the covers. She pulled it out and straightened up.

    “Rise and shine!” Natalie said. “We’re burnin’ daylight!”

    Alicia rubbed her eyes. “There’s no cows to milk – why’d you wake me up?”

    Natalie laughed. “Grandma and Grandpa have been up for over an hour. Breakfast’ll be ready as soon as the biscuits are done. Rustle yer stumps!”

    Alicia put her feet on the floor. “OK, OK, I’m up,” she said. “What about Sleeping Beauty here?”

    “I’ll let you wake her up,” Natalie said on her way out of the room. “See ya at breakfast.”

    Stacy wasn’t a morning person – Alicia had heard her sisters complain that she was always difficult to rouse. Alicia shook her – no response. She tried again – Stacy made a wordless sound of protest and snuggled deeper into the blankets.

    Sterner measures are called for, thought Alicia. She grabbed the covers with both hands, getting ready to yank them off...

    No. I’ve got a better idea.

    Alicia carefully peeled the spread off the bed and worked it under the remaining covers next to the sleeping girl. She went around to Stacy’s side of the bed and grabbed the covers again. One hard yank, and they were on the floor. Instantly, Alicia rolled Stacy onto the spread, scrambled onto the bed and rolled Stacy up in the spread like a burrito.

    “Mmf! Hey! What the...” Stacy said through the muffling folds of cloth, still half asleep.

    Alicia gave Stacy another half-roll onto her back. “This is your wakeup call, girlfriend,” she said. She folded the spread back from Stacy’s face. “Think of it as a jump-start.” She rolled the spread up on the bottom to expose Stacy’s feet, then sat on the bed and trapped her legs in a simple leg lock. She stroked a single nail in a circle around the ball of Stacy’s right foot.

    “Oh SHIT!” Stacy wailed, wide awake now. “Sta– Haha –ap! Don’t tic– Haha! Tickle mee– Hehehe!”

    “Did you just ask me to tickle you?” Alicia asked. “You just said “tickle me”, didn’t you?”

    “NOOO! HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHAHA! HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHA!” Stacy laughed as Alicia’s well manicured nails flicked her ticklish heels.

    “Oh yes,” Alicia said, and dug in. Stacy arched her back and laughed her head off. “You awake yet, Stacy?”

    But Stacy wasn’t capable of speech – she was laughing too hard.

    Alicia tickled between Stacy’s toes, held them back and tickled under them, circled a nail around the balls of both feet in a big figure-eight. Twice each circuit, she hit the sweet spot – the exact center of Stacy’s soles, along the creases, where it really, really tickled – and Stacy’s laughter went off the chart.

    Alicia tickled down Stacy’s arches and onto the heels, flicking with her nails like chording a guitar. Streams of laughter poured out of Stacy as Alicia tickled her heels and arches two-handed with just her nail tips. Then back up the arches, drawing circles and other tickling shapes on the sensitive skin just behind the soles. She tickled both soles again, watching the toes twitch and curl as Stacy laughed at the top of her lungs.

    Now to finish her off... Alicia held Stacy’s toes back, tickling the sweet spot on one foot, across to the other, back onto the balls of the feet again. Stacy laughed and laughed as Alicia tickled from the left to the right and back again, over and over. Then onto the left sole, on the sweet spot again, fingernails flying, and tickled Stacy’s breath away.

    Stacy laid there, gasping and tickled out. Alicia released the leg lock and unrolled her.

    “Oh Ghod... That tickled so much...” Stacy said.

    “Got the blood flowing, though, didn’t it?” Alicia asked. “Ready for breakfast now?”

    They put yesterday’s clothes back on and padded downstairs barefoot. Everyone else was at the table already. Breakfast was just being served – scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, biscuits, more sliced tomatoes, and plenty of strong coffee.

    Mrs. Sandler looked at the two latecomers with a twinkle in her eye. “This morning’s like old times too,” she said. “My sister Lorraine was a sleepyhead – somebody’s gonna have to shake her awake on Judgement Day. But the rest of us managed to wake her up. Like you did, Alicia.”

    “Fun, isn’t it?” Alicia asked, grinning.

    “She never thought so,” the old lady said.

    “I really don’t mind, Mrs. Sandler,” Stacy said. “I’ve got two sisters – this wasn’t the first time. And besides...” Stacy smiled a wicked smile. “I get even!”

    “Lorraine got even too – all six of us girls did our share of laughing. Why, I remember the time...”

    “Breakfast’s getting cold, Janet,” her husband said. “And I never could figure out why you girls liked to tickle each other so much,” he added in a puzzled tone.

    “Never mind, Grandpa,” Natalie said gently. “It’s a girl thing. You’d never understand.”

    The girls helped with the dishes, then took cups of coffee out onto the porch. There were no chores to do, but old Mr. Sandler went out to the small barn anyway. He had a project going, building a bent-willow chair out of sticks he had been soaking in an old horse trough for weeks.

    “Well, what’s the program for today?” Stacy asked.

    “There’s the swimming hole,” Kelly said. “We’d have it to ourselves – Amish kids are all hard at work this time of day. Or drive around and see the sights, such as they are.” She paused. “Or we could go out to the syrup house and play for a while.”

    Stacy stood up. “Well, what are we waiting for?” she said. “I’ll grab our gear out of the car.”

    “Good idea, Stacy,” Natalie said. “I could use a good tickling.” She stuck her head in the kitchen door. “Bye, Grandma!” she called out. “We’re going out to the syrup house for a while.”

    “Bye, dear,” the old lady replied cheerfully. “Have fun!”

    The door wasn’t locked – nothing worth stealing was inside, and that wasn’t a problem here anyway. Kelly gave it a bang to loosen it – the frame was warped – and they went inside.

    “Should be something we can use out here,” Natalie said. “Let’s see... OK, here’s some old kitchen chairs and a saw horse. Grab some of these feed sacks and dust ‘em off. Where’s your gear, Stacy?”

    “Right here,” Stacy said, holding up a canvas book tote.

    “Good. Lay it out over here, on this table. Set up two chairs with the saw horse in front. Then tie me up.”

    Kelly wrapped the feed sacks around the crossbar of the saw horse to pad it. Natalie turned her back on Stacy and crossed her wrists behind her – Stacy strapped them together. Natalie sat in a chair and rested her ankles on the saw horse crossbar. Stacy passed a strap over Natalie’s lap and under the chair seat, another around her shoulders and the chair back. She strapped Natalie’s ankles together, tied them off to the crossbar to anchor them. The finishing touch – she tied Natalie’s big toes together with twine.

    Natalie wiggled her toes and grinned. “Who wants to sing a duet with me?”

    “How about you, Kelly?” Alicia asked. “I owe you one. Are you as ticklish as Natalie?”

    Kelly grinned. “Tie me up and find out for yourself.”

    Natalie and Kelly ended up bound side-by-side. The other girls set two overturned 5-gal plastic buckets facing Kelly and Natalie’s feet. Alicia paired off with Kelly, Stacy with Natalie.

    “How d’you want to work this?” Stacy asked.

    “See how long you can hold us on the edge,” Kelly said. “Ready?”

    Alicia lightly flicked her well-manicured nails on the balls of Kelly’s feet. As it happened, those were the sweet spots, where Kelly’s feet were insanely, unbearably ticklish. Kelly threw her head back and laughed at the top of her lungs. Her toes twitched and curled as she laughed like mad.

    “Top that if you can,” Natalie said cheerfully.

    “Hush,” Stacy said, and held Natalie’s toes back. “All I want to hear from you is laughing.” She used a single nail to draw fast, looping figure-eight’s around the balls of Natalie’s feet. Natalie howled with forced mirth, her skin turning pink from laughing.

    Alicia covered both feet with tiny nail flicks. She tickled Kelly’s arches and heels two handed, then held back her toes and tickled the soft skin underneath. Still holding the toes back, she tickled both stretched out soles, left-right-and-repeat, lingering on the soles and balls of Kelly’s feet where it tickled unbearably. Kelly wasn’t struggling any more – all resistance had been tickled away. She laughed and laughed, helpless to resist the fiendish and well techniqued tickling.

    Alicia glanced over at Stacy and Natalie. Stacy tickled side to side under Natalie’s toes while helpless laughter streamed from her victim. She released Natalie’s toes to tickle her arches and heels. Then holding the toes back again, she tickled the stretched out soles mercilessly. Natalie laughed her head off, tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks.

    “Let’s finish ‘em off,” Stacy said, and picked up the pace. Alicia speeded up too, and both ticklees laughed at the top of their lungs. Natalie lost it first and laughed herself breathless. Kelly laughed like a crazy woman, filling the room with her sweet ticklish laughter – she’s got stamina, thought Alicia. She switched to two-hand tickling, covering both soles with tiny nail flicks, and tickled Kelly into gasping, red-faced silent laughter.

    “Not bad at all, Stacy,” Natalie said when she had her breath back.

    “You have our next-door neighbors to thank for that,” Stacy said. “Danielle and Tara showed us a few tricks – Nicole too, come to think of it. This rig is hers.”

    Alicia saw something move outside one of the dirty back windows. She ran out the door and circled around. Nothing.

    “What’re you doing?” Stacy asked – she had followed Alicia outside.

    “Saw something out here. It’s gone now.”

    “If it ever existed outside your imagination,” Stacy said tartly. “C’mon, they’ve got their breath back by now, let’s play some more.”

    “Let’s not. I’m feeling kinda jumpy.”

    The others were disappointed too. Natalie started singing to the tune of “Pretty Baby”, joined immediately by Stacy and Kelly:

    Every party needs a pooper,
    That’s why we invited you–

    Party pooper! Party pooper!


    “Make fun of me all you like,” Alicia said sharply. “I know I saw something out there.”

    Natalie sighed. “It doesen’t matter. Turn us loose, and let’s find something else to do.”

    “Something else” was skinny-dipping in the swimming hole. The girls peeled off their clothes, and Natalie waded right in. She swam to the middle and treaded water. “Come on in,” she said. “Water’s fine!”

    “It’s pretty shallow here,” Kelly said. “Don’t dive off the rock – you’ll break your neck.”

    Alicia grabbed the rope and climbed up on the rock. “GERONIMO!” she shouted, and launched herself out over the pool.

    She hit the water, went under and surfaced spluttering – the water was cold! “Why didn’t you warn me?” she asked accusingly, treading water. “I’m freezin’ my ass off!”

    “Figured you’d find out for yourself,” Kelly said, grinning.

    Alicia splashed her. Kelly yelped and jumped in. Alicia was a little taller than Kelly – she could touch bottom. That gave her all the advantage she needed – she grabbed Kelly and put her under. They struggled, laughing and squirming, trying to dunk each other. Stacy did a cannonball off the rock and joined in. Natalie submerged and grabbed Alicia’s ankles, and this time Alicia went under.

    Alicia paddled to shallower water and put her feet down. It didn’t feel so cold now. She was used to it – the water fight had helped.

    They swam, swung on the rope, jumped off the rock, swam some more. After a while, they all got out and got dressed again. Kelly led them downstream, then cut through the woods to the dirt track that led to the farm buildings.

    ***

    Lunch – dinner – was pot roast with all the fixin’s. Alicia had learned her lesson yesterday – she ate small portions so she wouldn’t feel so bloated afterward.

    They went for a drive after lunch, south 2.5 miles to the Persons Corners crossroads, then east 4 miles on the Federal Highway. They crossed the old iron bridge over Stony Brook and into Varysburg, a town of perhaps 500 souls. South of the bridge, upstream, was an old mill dam with the ruin of a stone grist mill on the eastern end. The dam created a pond 50 yards across at the dam and 350 yards long.

    A numbered state road entered the town from the north, parallel to Stony Brook. It crossed the Federal Highway and continued southward. The town was spread eastward along the highway, with tentacles extending north-and-south along the brook and the state road. The place had had rail service long ago, but the tracks and the old depot were abandoned – the trains hadn’t run in a generation.

    “The Amish have big families,” Natalie said. “There’s not enough farmland for all of ‘em, so some have to find jobs. That’s what’s keeping Varysburg alive. In other places, a no-stoplight town like this would have become a ghost town.”

    There was a two-pump gas station just over the bridge. A sign proclaimed that it sold kerosene too – another sign said that the bus stopped here. The Amish cheese works was a low painted-block building across the state road from the gas station. The sales room was in a separate building in front. It had a graveled parking lot with a hitching rail and a watering trough at one side.

    “We’ll stop and get some cheese on our way out of town,” Natalie said.

    They continued on the highway, here called Main Street, and passed a hardware store and a dry-goods store that sold cloth yard goods, sewing sundries, hats, work shoes and the like. Across Main Street was a big low building with a row of roll-up garage doors on the front. “That’s the farmer’s co-op,” Natalie said. “Organic food has been good for Amish farmers. They can fertilize with manure, weed with hoes and pick bugs off vegetables by hand, and still undersell their competition.”

    A group of Amish carpenters was framing an addition to the building. There were four of them, men in their 30’s with full beards. All wore straw hats, white shirts with the sleeves rolled up and dark trousers held up with suspenders. Their vests and jackets were draped over the side rail of a horse-drawn freight wagon that held lumber and hardware. The two horses were unharnessed, halter ropes tied to the opposite rail, placidly munching corn from nose bags.

    A black buggy stood nearby, the horse standing patiently between the shafts. Two women with their hair done up in buns spread a tablecloth on a picnic table, then set out dishes and flatware for the noon meal.

    “Those guys are probably brothers or brothers-in-law,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t ask for better workers – there’s no such thing as a lazy Amish man.”

    They got to the eastern edge of town and parked on the side of the road. There was a long wooden building near the road, with a semi-tractor with a flat-bed trailer at the loading dock in front. On one side was a big open shed piled high with lumber. Two colorful open carriages and four black buggies, all without horses, were parked hub-to-hub on the other side. An ordinary-looking trucker was tying a carriage down on the trailer, while six Amish men with sawdust on their pants rolled another carriage onto the loading dock to join it.

    “Thought you’d like to see this,” Natalie said. “This is the local buggy works.”

    “What’s with the fancy ones?” Alicia asked.

    ”Remember the trip we took to Boston? The carriage ride around Boston Common?”

    Alicia nodded.

    “Well, the carriage came from here, or another place just like it,” Natalie said. “They’ll build ‘em for anybody, and paint ‘em any color the customer wants.”

    Natalie turned around and drove back toward the bridge. She stopped at a storefront that proclaimed itself to be “Miller Furniture Factory”. Next door was a house that appeared to have been converted to office space. She was just getting out when a man came outside onto the porch to smoke – a clean-shaven, balding middle-aged guy in a golf shirt and khaki pants.

    “Mr. Kraengel! Got anything to go out Allegany Road?” Kelly called out.

    “Who– Oh, you’re Jack and Janet Sandler’s granddaughter,” he said. “Got some papers for John Lapp. He’d get ‘em eventually, but he’ll appreciate it if you take ‘em to him.”

    “Mr. Kraengel’s the outside business agent for the Amish businesses around here,” Kelly explained as they drove off. “John Lapp is… I guess you could say “first among equals” in the local Amish community. What he says carries extra weight, because everybody respects his judgement.”

    “He’s the pastor too,” Natalie said, “but they don’t use that term. We drove past his farm on our way here.”

    The girls stopped at the cheese works and went inside the sales room. The sales room was separate – the place had electric lights, refrigerated cases and a telephone. The girl working the counter was a blonde teen dressed in a food-service work uniform.

    “Help you?” the girl asked.

    “We’ll look around a little first,” Natalie said.

    The cheeses were the sort traditionally made in Germany and Switzerland. There were wrapped packages in various sizes up to a pound. There were also huge wheels of cheese to fill larger orders. They bought a pound each of Swiss and Munster.

    “I thought the Amish didn’t use electricity or telephones,” Alicia said.

    “That’s true, because they don’t want to be physically connected to the outside world,” Natalie said. “But this building is separate, and I’m sure you noticed that the girl working the counter isn’t Amish. She’s part of our world, so it doesen’t matter. And they have no problem doing business with our world.”

    They drove back the way they came. Two miles north of the crossroads, Natalie turned into a graveled driveway and parked near the house.

    The girls got out of the car. Behind the house was a kitchen garden. An old woman, dressed entirely in black, was hoeing weeds with the help of a 10-yr-old boy. Alicia saw that this farm had a tall windmill like other Amish farms. But there was a detail she hadn’t noticed when they drove by before.

    “What’s that?” Alicia said, pointing.

    That was a wooden structure that looked like an old-time outhouse, right next to the house. An overhead telephone line ran to it from a pole by the road.

    “Mr. Lapp is an important man,” Natalie said. “Sometimes people need to get hold of him in a hurry. So he has a phone, but since it’s not actually in his house, it doesen’t count as a connection.”

    “How common is that?” Stacy asked.

    “Not at all common, and always for the same reason,” Kelly said. “There may be three or four other Amish farms around here with phones, but certainly no more.”

    Natalie went on ahead and knocked on the kitchen door. A woman in her late 40’s came outside, drying her hands on a dish towel. Her gray-streaked dark hair was done up in a bun, and she wore a small white cap instead of a bonnet.

    Alicia was suddenly acutely aware of their Daisy Duke shorts, colorful tank tops and flip-flops. “They’re so different. What do they think of us?” she whispered to Kelly.

    “They don’t,” Kelly whispered back. “They judge themselves by their own rules. They don’t judge others. Our kind of people, they figure what we do is between us and God.”

    “Hello, Mrs. Lapp,” Natalie said. “I have papers for Mr. Lapp, from Mr. Kraengel.”

    “Hello, Natalie. He’s in the barn. DAVID!” the woman called out to the boy.

    “What is it, Mutti?” the boy answered in Deitch or Pennsylvania Dutch.

    The woman continued in the same language: “Tell your father that we have visitors. Jack and Janet Sandler’s girls from up the road. They have papers for him from Herr Kraengel.”

    Alicia had no trouble understanding them. Her father had been stationed in Germany when she was small, and she had soaked up the language effortlessly from their neighbors off-post. The accent sounded archaic to her, but otherwise much like the Plattdeutsch dialect still spoken in parts of Germany.

    The boy took off running toward the barn, yelling “Vati! Vati!” – “daddy”, Alicia knew – and disappeared inside. John Lapp came out of the barn a minute or so later, putting his coat back on to greet his visitors.

    He was crowding 50 – not a big man, but muscular and fit-looking. Like his wife Mary, his hair was still mostly dark under the straw hat, but his beard had gone gray. He had that indefinable something called presence – he looked every bit the leader he was. Alicia saw that his shirt had regular buttons, but the coat and vest were held closed with hook-and-eye fasteners.

    “Thank you, Natalie,” the man said as he accepted the papers. “I see that Kelly is with you, and friends too. Will you stay for coffee?” He spoke with a pronounced regional accent. Natalie’s grandparents had the same accent, but theirs had the edges knocked off by 70 yrs of radio and 50-plus yrs of television.

    “I’d like to, but Grandma and Grandpa expect us back home soon for supper. Another time, maybe?”

    The girls drove off. “David is the Lapps’ youngest son – the others are probably out working on the farm somewhere,” Natalie said. “Their daughters are all married – 6 grandchildren at last count. The older woman is Annie Lapp, John’s mother.”

    “The other Amish women we’ve seen wore different color dresses,” Stacy said. “Dark and plain, but still color. How come she’s wearing all black?”

    “She’s a widow, and old-fashioned even by their standards,” Kelly answered. “Most others reserve their black dresses for funerals only. They’re not all women in black.”

    ***

    Natalie’s grandparents left after supper – they planned to visit friends. After they were gone, Alicia kicked off her sandals and started her stretching and warm-up exercises. “Hey Kelly, you gave me a karate lesson last night,” she said. “Want a dance lesson?”

    “Sure,” Kelly said, and joined the exercises. “But don’t expect too much.”

    “I don’t,” Alicia said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 14. It takes time.” She finished with a split, then stood. “This t-shirt isn’t gonna make it, you’ve got to see my muscles move, and I didn’t bring my costume. Let’s see what you and Natalie have.”

    They went upstairs. Natalie had a midriff-baring sleeveless top, a little too small for Alicia, but it had some give – it would work. Kelly changed into a similar top. She had a boom box – they brought it outside with them.

    “What’re you gonna dance to?” Stacy asked. “You didn’t bring any music, did you?”

    “I can dance to anything with a beat,” Alicia said. “Natalie, you’re into classic rock. What d’you have in your car?”

    “Led Zep, Airplane, the Stones, Bob Seger,” Natalie said. “Maybe some other stuff. C’mon, let’s have a look.”

    Alicia riffled through a pile of CD’s. “Mmm... Let’s see... Led Zeppelin 4,” she said. “This’ll do. “When the Levee Breaks”? Nah, too long... “Four Sticks” maybe, or... OK, cue up “Black Dog” for me.”

    Alicia struck a pose, and Kelly copied it as well as she could. Natalie started the music. A few guitar notes, then Robert Plant’s unmistakeable voice:

    Hey–ey mama, said the way you move,
    Gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groo–oove–


    Jimmy Page came in, hard guitar licks with a pounding beat, and Alicia threw herself into the dance. Kelly lasted less than a minute, because she didn’t know the moves – she threw up her hands in surrender and just stood there watching. It lasted almost 5 minutes. Alicia came back to her ready stance when it ended, her skin lightly filmed with sweat.

    “Rock and Roll” was the next cut, a faster tune, and Alicia danced again. This one was shorter, and Alicia was sweating when it finished – belly dancing is physically demanding.

    The music started again. “Kill the music,” Alicia said. “That’s enough.” She inspected a sole and grinned. “Dirty again – want to tickle ‘em clean?”

    Kelly grinned back. “Let’s tickle Natalie instead.”

    “Well, don’t waste time talking about it,” Natalie said. “Who, where and how?”

    “Alicia’s already tickled Stacy and me today,” Kelly said. “How about it, Alicia? D’you want to tickle her?”

    “Sure,” Alicia said. “She turns such a pretty pink!”

    They tied Natalie’s hands behind her back, bound her to a chair, then tied her ankles together. Alicia sat in another chair and lifted her right thigh. Natalie put her ankles on Alicia’s left thigh, Alicia let her right leg down and tucked the foot behind the left calf to anchor it – a simple but effective leg lock. She flicked her fingernails on Natalie’s soles – the redhead giggled, and her toes twitched.

    “Can’t have that,” Alicia teased, and held Natalie’s toes back.

    “Well, what are you waiting for?” Natalie demanded. “Tickle me sill– Eee! Hehe! HAHAHA-AHAHA-HAHAHAHA!”

    Natalie laughed at the top of her lungs as Alicia tickled her, fingernails flicking the sensitive soles. Alicia spread Natalie’s toes two-by-two and tickled between each pair, each time getting a wild burst of laughter from Natalie. She tickled down Natalie’s soles and arches, onto the heels, and back up to the soles. Natalie’s toes twitched and curled as musical ticklish laughter poured out of her.

    Alicia made a Peace sign and scratched the balls of both feet at the same time, just behind the big toes – the redhead was red-faced, sweaty, her cheeks streaked with tears, laughing at the top of her lungs. Alicia eased off – Natalie dropped back to normal rated laughter as the tickling moved down her arches and onto her heels. Alicia lingered there, drawing wavy lines and other tickling shapes. Then holding the toes back again, she tickled the soft skin under the toes, fingernails flying, and tickled Natalie into gasping, red faced silent laughter.

    “Oh... Ghod... ” Natalie gasped out.

    “Could have been worse,” Alicia said. “Danielle and Tara wouldn’t have gone easy on you like I did.”

    “Easy!” Natalie said with mock indignation. “You tickled the shit outa me!”

    “Oh, come off it, Natalie,” Stacy said. “You love this. Ready for some more?”

    “Go for it!”

    Stacy took the place Alicia had vacated and dug in. Natalie laughed her head off as Stacy’s tickling fingernails explored her sensitive soles.

    Alicia and Kelly left the tickling scene and walked around to the front of the house to watch the sunset, followed by Natalie’s wild helpless laughter. The Yoders were on their porch again – Natalie waved. A buggy rolled up and turned in across the road. The driver dismounted and got her passengers out – she was a young Amish woman with her brown hair in a bun, a baby on her hip and holding a girl toddler by the hand.

    “That’s Sarah Yoder,” Kelly said. “Sarah Beiler now. She comes to visit about once a week.”

    They went back to the side porch. Stacy had Natalie in the zone by now, laughing like a madwoman, tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks. Her fair skin was pink from laughing, tears of laughter ran down her cheeks.

    “My turn next,” Kelly said. “Finish her off.”

    Stacy used all of her fingernails to tickle between all of Natalie’s toes at the same time. She held Natalie’s toes back and tickled the sensitive skin underneath, and tickled Natalie’s breath away.

    Kelly immediately switched places with Stacy. Natalie just had time to catch her breath, and then she laughed wildly as Kelly tickled her two handed, covering her feet with tiny nail flicks. Natalie wasn’t resisting. All of her strength had been tickled away – and besides, she really did love this.

    Alicia and Stacy went into the kitchen to make a pot of tea, working to the accompaniment of Natalie’s musical laughter. They took the tea out onto the porch when it was ready. By then, Natalie was laughing her head off as Kelly tickled the balls of both feet. Kelly speeded up, nailtips flicking the sensitive skin, and Natalie lost it and laughed herself breathless.

    Kelly released Natalie. The redhead leaned back in the chair, limp and tickled out. She had a dreamy, contented look on her face. Definitely getting off on it, Alicia thought.

    By the time the girls finished their tea, Natalie’s grandparents got home. Just like the day before, they were in bed by 9 PM. The girls stayed up for a while, but soon enough they went to bed too. By 10 PM, Alicia was sound asleep.

    ***
    Last edited by Strelnikov; 01-05-2006 at 10:33 PM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    May 2001
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    Alabama
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    (continued)

    Alicia never knew what woke her up. Her eyes popped open. The night was silent outside the open window – even the crickets and other night insects had quit. Some trick of acoustics carried a faint sound to her ears – laughter! It stopped, then came back stronger. But by then, the bugs were picking up again, and she lost it.

    She sat up in bed, and Stacy did too. Natalie and Kelly came in. “What the hell was that?” Kelly asked.

    “You mean the laughter?” Stacy asked.

    “No, before that – something shook the house, like a gust of wind.”

    “Seemed like it was moving toward the Yoder place,” Natalie said. “Let’s check it out.”

    They looked out a front window. A faint line of light shone around the edges of the big door into the Yoders’ hayloft. Then laughter again, two young women laughing their heads off – faint, but still there if you knew what to listen for.

    “Why don’t we go and see what’s happening over there?” Kelly suggested.

    “OK,” Natalie said. “Jeans and sweat shirts, everybody! Sneakers too. Let’s move it, people!”

    Alicia’s jeans and sweat shirt were both black. Another woman in black, she thought.

    Natalie led them through the kitchen garden to the ravine. “We’ll cross the road through the culvert,” she said. “That’s how Leah and I used to go – her parents didn’t really approve of her playing with an Englisher kid.”

    Cows are lazy – they always find the easiest path. The girls followed a cow trail down into the ravine, then headed downstream. The culvert was 6 ft diameter. A 4 x 4 timber had been hammered into it crosswise, horizontally – it kept the cows out without impeding water flow. They ducked under and splashed across. Good way to get blisters, Alicia grumbled to herself.

    Natalie stopped at the far end, where a foot log spanned the gap to the bank. “Big scour hole under this end,” she said. “I’ll go first and help you across. Try not to make any noise.” Probably wouldn’t matter if they did, Alicia thought – the laughter was louder now, two girls laughing at the top of their lungs.

    The slope was gentler here. They sneaked up the side of the ravine, feet squelching in soggy sneakers, and approached the big slate-roofed barn’s hayloft doors. The man-door was open just a crack – the girls peeked in.

    By the light of a hissing Coleman lantern, Alicia saw the Amish sisters on their tummies side by side on a spread blanket, laughing like mad. Leah and Sarah were barefoot, hogtied with what looked like harness straps. A trim and shapely dark-haired girl in her early 20’s, a little shorter than medium height, kneeled at Sarah’s upturned feet, tickling her with skill and enthusiasm. A taller girl with dark blonde hair and a great body, maybe 18 yrs old, was similarly situated, tickling Leah. Both wore black pullovers with three-quarter sleeves, black cargo pants gathered at the ankles, ninja slippers, and some sort of close-fitting silvery bracelets.

    The brunette flicked her nails on Sarah’s heels, forcing a wild stream of helpless laughter. She tickled two-handed up the arches to the soles, then spread Sarah’s toes apart two by two, tickling between each pair. She held Sarah’s toes back and tickled the balls of both feet at once, then side to side on the stretched out soles. Sarah laughed like a madwoman, tears of laughter running down her face – her hair had come out of its bun and lay in tangles around her face.

    The blonde tickled down Leah’s arches, onto the heels, and back up to the soles as a solid stream of laughter poured out of Leah. Then holding Leah’s toes back, she tickled a stretched out sole in the exact middle, along the crease. Leah howled with forced mirth as the tall blonde tickled across the balls of both feet to the other sole. She drew fast, looping figure-eight’s on the balls of both feet, covering every square inch of sensitive skin with unbearable tickling. Leah laughed and laughed, unresisting – all she could do was lay there and laugh.

    The brunette held Sarah’s toes back again and scrabbled her nails on the soft skin underneath, then across both soles, side to side, over and over. Then two fingernails, drawing circles around and onto the balls of both feet while Sarah laughed and laughed. She flicked and stroked her way down Sarah’s arches and got on her heels – suddenly, Sarah was laughing at the top of her lungs, squirming and bucking and trying desperately to pull her feet away

    “Tickle Leah’s arches and heels,” the brunette said. “It drives her wild!”

    The blonde was already tickling Leah’s soles two-handed, watching the toes twitch and curl. She worked her way down the arches, drawing figure-eight’s and other ticking shapes. She spider walked her nails in the back of Leah’s arches and onto her heels – four fingernail strokes in succession with each hand, three times a second – a rate of 180 nail flicks a minute. Leah went crazy, squirming like a worm, laughing her head off. Her laughter went off the charts – she lost it and laughed herself breathless.

    Leah took long deep breaths, eyes closed, tears of laughter running down her cheeks. Sarah was still laughing beside her, harder now, as the brunette’s tickling fingernails roamed her sensitive soles.

    “Not too shabby, Connie,” the brunette said. She looked off to one side, still tickling. “I guess it’s time for another break – crystals are at full charge anyway. But first...” She gave Sarah’s heels another burst of tiny nail flicks, and Sarah’s laughter went off the scale. The girl speeded up, tickling at warp speed, and tickled Sarah’s breath away.

    Sarah was gasping for air, red faced and sweaty, hair a mess, cheeks streaked with tears. Leah was no better off, but she didn’t really seem to be in any distress. Just the opposite, Alicia judged – tickling got Leah off too, it appeared.

    The two black-clad ticklers got up and walked out of Alicia’s field of view. “What are we gonna do?” she whispered. “They’re getting tickled silly!”

    “We’re gonna jump ‘em!” Kelly whispered back. “I’ll handle the tall one. The rest of you get the brunette.”

    The two ticklers reappeared. “Ready for some more?” the brunette asked.

    “Gott im Himmel!” Sarah said in Deitch, still short of breath. “It tickles so much...”

    “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,” Leah answered in the same language – her sister scowled at the sacrilege. Leah tossed her head to get her long brown hair out of her face. In English: “Go ahead, Jessica – she’ll be all right.”

    Stacy yanked the door open, and the girls charged in. Kelly neatly hooked the tall blue-eyed blonde’s feet out from under her and subdued her on the floor with a joint lock. The brunette snatched at a wandlike something clipped to her belt, but the other three swarmed over her and bore her down to the floor.

    Sarah looked up, blinking away tears, alarmed at the commotion. “It’s not what you think,” she said.

    “Say nothing.” Leah said sharply.

    Natalie unstrapped the Amish girls and brought the straps to the others. They used the things to bind the two ticklers. Sarah got up on her hands and knees and found her hairpins. She twisted her hair up into a knot and pinned it up again. Her eyes were blue – the harsh light gave them a violet cast.

    “Leah, what’s going on here?” Natalie asked. “Why were those two tickling you and Sarah?”

    Sarah answered instead. “It’s a business arrangement. We have a product we sell.”

    “Tickle time?” Natalie said, baffled. “Why...?”

    “Shut up!” Leah snarled. “Go and wake up Vati,” she said to her sister. “We need his help. Never mind your shoes, you silly goose! Go!” Some trick of the light turned Leah’s hazel eyes to amber – tiger eyes.

    Sarah hiked up her skirts and ran out the door. Alicia placed a restraining hand on Natalie’s arm. She decided to not let on that she understood them. The whole affair was making her uneasy, and the advantage of understanding without them knowing she did might give her an edge. She said nothing – in this case, Leah probably had the right idea.

    “Hey, look at this!” Stacy called out from across the barn. “Natalie, what d’you make of it?”

    Haylofts get emptied out by late spring, and stay empty until the hay and alfalfa harvest at summer’s end. This one was cavernous, echoing. Just inside the big doors sat a... vehicle, Alicia supposed, but unlike any she had ever seen.

    It looked like a topless, engine-less, wheel-less pickup truck with rounded edges. It sat on three self-leveling jacks, one at the front and two behind. A door on the right side opened downward to provide a step. The right-hand seat had aircraft type controls: a control stick, rudder pedals and a lever with a twist grip to the left of the seat. The left seat faced backward, an armless recliner of sorts with a foot rest just wide enough for two ankles – on the inside panel next to the ankle rest was a rack that held a dull-green sphere the size of a cantaloupe. A forward-facing bench seat was behind the others, wide enough for three people. Inset in the dashboard behind the windscreen was a gleaming faceted red crystal the size of a man’s fist.

    Beside the machine was a folding rack with two more similar jewels, and four footlocker-sized cases. Natalie flipped back the lids – both were filled with stacked arrays of crystals. In two cases they were glistening bright red, shining with internal light – the crystals were dull black in the others. The cargo bed of the vehicle was stacked with identical cases.

    “It’s a vehicle of some sort,” Natalie said. “It must fly – no wheels, and aircraft type controls. But where’s the wings?”

    Natalie climbed into the cockpit. “Looks like some sort of communications gear in the dashboard,” she said. “And what’s this? Toolbox maybe?” She popped it open. “Yah, toolbox. Electronics tools mostly. Some brushes too. Guitar picks? And this,” she concluded, holding up a cell phone sized object.

    “Hey! Be careful with...” the brunette said, alarmed, straining against her bonds.

    A flash, barely visible in the violet, a crack! of displaced air, and a smoking hole the size of a quarter appeared in the roof overhead. An instant later came a clatter of fractured roof slates hitting the ground outside. Natalie yelped and dropped the thing on the floor.

    “What the hell is that?” Kelly asked. “A ray gun?”

    The brunette rolled onto her side and tossed her hair out of her face. Her eyes were dark brown, almost black. “It’s a cutting tool, not a weapon,” she said. “Like an ax.”

    By then Natalie had another object, a thing that looked like a retractable-blade utility knife. She worked the button on the top, and a faint glowing line tipped with a shining red bead extended from the handle.

    “Retract the blade!” the brunette yelled, really alarmed by now. “That’s a monofilament cutter – a single big molecule. It’ll cut you to ribbons!”

    Natalie worked the slide and extended the filament 3 ft long. “Wow! You could use this thing for a sword!”

    “We don’t use swords,” the brunette said. “It’s a tool. It’s a utility knife, a machete, a saw. Please close it before you hurt yourself!”

    Natalie closed the thing and put it back in the toolbox. “Better search ‘em both,” she said. “No telling what else they have.”

    The “what else” was pocket litter, not too different from their own, and utility belts with pockets, like cartridge belts. The tall blonde had a wand clipped to her belt over her right hip. The brunette’s wand was on the floor – the girls retrieved it and added it to the pile.

    “All right then,” Stacy said, ever the sensible one. “Let’s get to the bottom of this. Who are you people?”

    “I’m Jessica Jameson – don’t call me Jessie James,” the brunette said. “My friend over there is Connie Seldon. And like Sarah said earlier, we have a business arrangement with the Yoder sisters. Why don’t you untie us, and we’ll talk about it.”

    “Not a chance,” Stacy said. “What sort of business arrangement? Why were you tickling them?”

    “You’d never believe it if I told you,” Jessica said cheerfully. Alicia had seen this girl’s type before – a charming rogue, and not to be trusted.

    “How about you? Connie, isn’t it?” Stacy went on.

    “Jessica?” Connie said.

    “I’ll do the talking for us both,” Jessica said. Despite being hogtied and outnumbered, now she seemed completely at ease.

    “Oh, you will, will you?” Stacy said. “What is it you don’t want her to say?”

    Jessica grinned. “That would be telling. C’mon, untie us.”

    “I have a better idea,” Stacy said, and pulled off Jessica’s shoes. “Natalie and Kelly, see what you can get out of Leah. Alicia, you’re gonna have a little talk with Connie. Pretend she’s our old friend Shannon. I’ll deal with Jessica.”

    Alicia pulled off Connie’s shoes and kneeled at the girl’s bare upturned feet. Stacy had done the same with Jessica, she saw. Oddly enough, neither of the captive girls was struggling or resisting in any way – surely they knew what was coming!

    Stacy flicked her nails on Jessica’s heels, and the brunette burst into ticklish laughter. Alicia started at the other end, spread Connie’s left little toe apart from its neighbor and scratched between them. Connie let out a yelp and laughed at the top of her lungs.

    Alicia tickled her way across between each pair of toes, forcing stream after stream of laughter. Connie laughed helplessly as Alicia held her toes back and tickled back across on the soft skin underneath. Then across again on the stretched out soles while Connie laughed and laughed. Alicia released the toes and tickled both soles, watching the toes twitch and curl. Then down both arches, drawing overlapping circles that tickled like crazy, and onto the heels, nail tips dancing on the ticklish flesh. Like Natalie, and Alicia’s own room mate Lindsey, Connie was beyond ticklish – everything Alicia did drove the girl wild.

    Stacy tickled two-handed up Jessica’s arches to the soles, drawing circles, squares and other tickling shapes – Jessica laughed like mad, tears of laughter running down her face. She laughed her head off as Stacy tickled between her toes, then held them back and scrabbled her nails on the soft skin underneath. Stacy tickled across both soles, side to side and back again. Each time she got on the creases in the exact middle of Jessica’s soles, Jessica’s laughter went off the scale.

    “Looks like I found the sweet spots,” Stacy observed. “How about you?”

    Alicia’s nails kept up their tickling dance, and making Connie laugh like a crazy woman. “She doesen’t have one,” Alicia said. “It’s all good. Isn’t it, girlfriend?” She picked up the pace, and Connie laughed at the top of her lungs.

    “Good! Keep it up!” Stacy said. She kept tickling Jessica, using two fingernails to draw figure-eight’s around and onto the balls of both feet. Twice each circuit, she got on the sweet spots and gave them a few extra nail flicks, forcing stream after stream of wild ticklish laughter.

    Connie’s senses were wide open – by now, her feet were sensitized by the tickling. Fortunately, Alicia had tickled Natalie and Lindsey a lot last year – she had a well-practiced touch that kept Connie laughing wildly but didn’t tickle her out.

    Connie laughed and laughed as Alicia tickled her soles two-handed, watching the toes twitch and curl. Alicia tickled down the blonde’s arches to the ticklish heels and lingered there, drawing figure-eights and other tickling shapes – Connie laughed her head off. Alicia’s figure-eight’s turned to overlapping circles again, up both arches, and then circled just behind the soles, tickling unbearably. The tickling sensation had completely overcome her – all she could do was lay there and laugh.

    Stacy held back Jessica’s toes and spider walked her nails along the crease in the exact center of Jessica’s right sole, tickling as fast as she could. Jessica went crazy, bucking and squirming, laughing her head off. Stacy tickled across the balls of both feet to the left sole, flicking and scratching. Jessica’s laughter went off the charts – she lost it and laughed herself breathless.

    “Good one, Stacy!” Alicia said. Her tickling fingernails still had her victim laughing madly, tears running down her cheeks. “I’ll finish this one off too.” She tickled Connie’s heels two handed, and tickled Connie into red-faced silent laughter.

    “Ready to talk yet?” Stacy asked. She flicked her nail tips lightly on Jessica’s soles, and was rewarded with a stream of giggles.

    “Is that– hehe! –the best– hahaha! –you can– HAHAHA! –do? Hehe-HAHA-haha-hehe!” Jessica laughed and giggled out.

    “I guess the answer’s no,” Stacy said, and got to work. Jessica arched her back and laughed her head off.

    “How about you?” Alicia asked Connie. “Had enough?” A pause. “No answer? Then how about this?” She tickled both arches two-handed – Connie squirmed and bucked, laughing at the top of her lungs.

    “Take it easy!” Sarah said over the sound of Connie’s helpless laughter. Alicia looked up, still tickling – Sarah’s bare feet and the hem of her dress were splashed with mud.

    “Back so soon, and by yourself?” Leah asked. She had ditched her bonnet and apron. She was still barefoot. Her cat’s-eyes gleamed golden in the lantern light.

    “Vati left to get Herr Lapp and my Daniel,” Sarah said. “I thought maybe I could help– ”

    “How?” Leah asked. “Listen to them laugh! The Englishers don’t need any help – they’re doing just fine tickling Connie and Jessica by themselves.”

    Alicia took the conversation in, but she never slowed down. No finesse this time – she gave Connie maximum tickle torture, her well-manicured nails flicking and scratching the ticklish flesh. She tickled Connie mercilessly, tickling her feet from toes to heels and back, over and over. Connie’s wild ticklish laughter echoed in the big loft. She lacked Jessica’s endurance – Alicia tickled her breathless again.

    “No more! You’ll kill her!” Sarah said.

    “I’ve had worse done to me,” Alicia replied. “We’re just getting started.” She tickled Connie’s heels again, and got another wild burst of laughter. She switched to random nail flicks. “Ready to talk?”

    “Hehehe! Go to– Hee! HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHAHA! HAHAHA-HAHAHA-HAHAHA!”

    Alicia prolonged the tickle torture this time. She tickled Connie’s heels, up her arches and onto her soles, watching the toes twitch and curl. She scratched between two toes, tickling like crazy. Connie laughed like mad as Alicia repeated it between the other toes. She tickled from toes to heels and back, well-manicured nails flicking, while Connie laughed, and laughed, and laughed some more.

    A short break, just enough for Connie to catch her breath, and then Alicia held Connie’s toes back and tickled the stretched out soles. Connie’s wild laughter streamed out as Alicia spider-walked her nails side to side on the ticklish skin underneath the toes. Alicia tickled the balls of Connie’s feet, down the left arch to the heel, onto the right heel and back up the arch to the sensitive soles again. Connie’s laughter went off the scale as Alicia tickled the exact centers of both soles, along the crease, fingernails flying. Alicia showed no mercy, and reduced Connie to gasping, red-faced silent laughter.

    Jessica was still laughing helplessly as Stacy’s nails flicked her soles – she had a surprising amount of endurance. Not so with Connie. She flinched as Alicia touched her nail tips to the ticklish soles again.

    “Did it tickle, Connie?” Alicia asked. “How about this?” and traced a figure-eight around the balls of both feet. “Got anything to say now?”

    “No! Hehehe! Yes! Haha-haha!” Connie giggled and begged. “No more! Hehehe! I’ll talk! HAHA-hehe! Don’t tick– HAHAHA! –tickle me– hehe! –any more! Haha-HAHA-haha!” She was a mess, hair tangled, sweaty, cheeks streaked with tears.

    Jessica bucked and squirmed, still laughing like mad. Stacy tickled the center of her sole, and she subsided, laughing like a lunatic.

    “Kelly! Get over here!” Stacy called out. “Keep Jessica laughing while we talk to Connie.” She never missed a stroke – Jessica was helpless now, completely overcome by the tickling.

    Kelly kneeled next to Stacy and smoothly took over, her nail-tips stroking and flicking while Jessica’s laughter streamed out. Stacy knee-walked over to Alicia and Connie and rolled their captive on her side.

    “OK, now, what’s this all about?” Stacy asked. “Who are you people? Where did you come from? Why are you here? And why were you tickling two Amish girls who never did you any harm?”

    “Oh ghod!” Connie gasped out, blinking away tears. “That tickled so much! You might as well give up on Jessica. She won’t beg – she loves it. Like Leah. Like some of our shipmates... HAHAHA-HAHA!” she laughed along with her friend as Alicia tickled her. “NOOO! I said I’d talk!”

    Alicia kept her nail-tips just touching Connie’s sole. “Quit stalling then,” Stacy said. “Finish Jessica off,” she said to Kelly. Kelly nodded, held Jessica’s toes back and made a Peace sign. She scratched the middle of both soles at once, and tickled Jessica’s breath away.

    “Start at the beginning,” Stacy said. “Who are you?”

    “We’re part of... a ship’s crew,” Connie said. “Trading Ship Amanda Jennings – the Mandy J. Not a space ship like you might be thinking. This world is one of many parallel worlds, existing side by side. All of them are inhabited by people as human as we are. Ours has built interdimensional transports, to travel between the worlds like fingers turning the pages of a book.”

    “Shut... up... Connie... ” Jessica gasped out. “HAHAHA-HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHAHA!”

    “Leave her alone!” Connie said. Jessica kept on laughing – Kelly was tickling her silly! “I’ll tell you what you want to know. But please don’t tickle her any more!”

    Kelly quit – Jessica took long deep breaths, eyes closed, tears running down her cheeks. Like Leah, and Natalie earlier that night, she was in no distress. “Why did... you stop?” she asked, and somehow managed a grin. “It was just... getting good!”

    The others ignored her. “What do you trade?” Stacy asked. “And how do you do it? I’ve never heard anything about this!”

    “We trade... various things here,” Connie said. “Always with isolated groups like the Amish, people who keep to themselves and have little to do with your mainstream society.”

    Stacy nodded to Alicia, who tickled a foot.

    “HAHAHAHA! Stop it! We buy power from the Amish,” Connie said. “We pay cash we get from other groups. They need cash to pay their taxes, if nothing else.”

    “Power? They don’t use power,” Stacy said, and nodded to Alicia again.

    “NOOOO! HAHAHAHA! Our world is powered by laughter! Laughter! Don’t tickle me, I can’t stand any more!”

    “Go on,” Stacy said skeptically.

    “In our world, laughter was developed as an energy source by a... sorceress, or maybe alchemist would be a better term... ages ago,” Connie said. “She discovered the effect while she was trying to make a Philosopher’s Stone. She was an idealist – the sort who notices that roses smell better than potatoes, and from that concludes that they would also make better soup. Her magic could only be used in certain ways – nothing overtly destructive, and always with a kind of cartoonish quality that appealed to her sensibilities. She keyed the whole system to feed off “laughter energy” – she naively envisioned a world of happy little people powering civilization through their own glee.”

    “You expect us to believe that?” Stacy asked, and nodded to Alicia again.

    “HAHA-HAHAHA-HAHAHA! Tickle me to death, and it’s still true!” Connie said angrily. “D’you want to hear the rest of this, or are you enjoying tickle-torturing us too much?”

    “Go on,” Stacy said.

    “Like I said, she saw happy people powering civilization with laughter. And that’s really how it works most of the time. We were spared some of the worst aspects of your own Industrial Revolution – happy workers produce more power than unhappy ones. After the scientists and engineers put it all on a sound technical level, the technology took off. We’re where you might be in another 300 yrs or so. We’ve been traveling between the worlds for about that long.

    “Powered devices all have one of those red crystals to collect and convert ambient laughter energy. The crystals have storage capacity too – comedy clubs, theaters and cinemas all have racks of them that are charged during performances and sold afterward as portable power supplies, like your batteries. Obviously, comedies and comic acts are popular, and first-rate comics or humorists are highly regarded. They help add to the energy that keeps civilization running.

    “But the crystals have a limited discharge rate, and ambient laughter energy is pretty diffuse. That was OK early on, but a high-tech society is a high-energy society. Besides, ambient energy is only available in our own world – it’s useless for powering ships to other worlds. Our civilization needed compact, portable, high-intensity laughter-power sources that can be turned on and off at will.”

    “Tickling!” Stacy said, amazed.

    “Right the first time,” Connie said. “Tickler and Ticklee – Ler and Lee – are job titles. I’m a Lee. Think of us as the oarsmen on an old-time galley.”

    “Slaves?” Stacy asked.

    “Free women,” Connie answered. “Oarsmen on merchant ships were free too, and well paid. It’s the same with us. A lot of us love it, like Jessica does. I don’t, but I can stand it – it’s the entry level job on a trading ship.”

    “But Alicia made you beg her to stop,” Stacy objected.

    “She was torturing me,” Connie said. “It’s not like that on a ship – we get breaks. We’re after sustained power that we can keep up for as long as necessary.”

    “Natalie would love to be a Lee,” Alicia observed. “Danielle and Tara would be great Ler’s. Your ex-neighbor too, Stacy – Eric Vita. Remember the time I came visiting, and he tickled me senseless?”

    “There are male Ler’s,” Connie said. “But the usual progression is from Lee to Ler, and no one would hire a male Lee.”

    “But guys are ticklish too,” Stacy said. “Why not?”

    “There’s another part of this technology,” Jessica said. She was caught, and she knew it – she was too sensible to fight for no reason. “I’ll take it from here, Connie. Picture a right angle Cartesian axis. The vertical axis is tickle-power output. The horizontal axis is age.

    “The baseline is a horizontal line all the way across, above the horizontal axis. It varies with the individual – obviously, it’s zero for people who aren’t ticklish – but most of us cluster around an average value. Barring illness or injury, the baseline is more or less constant your whole life.”

    “So why can’t guys be Lee’s?” Stacy asked.

    “I’m coming to that. From birth to the start of puberty, the power output line slopes up gradually from zero to the baseline value. Then it goes up steeply before leveling off at physical maturity. Power output stays pretty much constant at that level until somewhere in the early to mid 30’s. The curve turns downward then, continues as a straight downward sloping line, and finally another curve that merges smoothly with the baseline around age 50. With me so far?”

    Stacy nodded.

    “How many X Chromosomes do guys have?” Jessica asked.

    “One.”

    “And us?”

    “Two. What does that have...”

    Jessica cut her off. “It has everything to do with it. Remember the peak? Its magnitude is the number of X Chromosomes, plus the same number raised to the same power, times the baseline. For guys, the multiplier is 2 – their output doubles. For us, it’s 6 – our output is 6 times the baseline.”

    Stacy thought that one over. “Then Lee’s are always women?” she asked.

    “Always young women,” Jessica corrected. “There’s no incentive for child labor, thank all that’s holy. Men’s ticklish laughter, or older women’s, is OK for some things, but the pure form that develops maximum power comes only from young women. I’m 21, and right at my peak. Connie’s 18, and a little short of hers.

    “Go to hell,” Connie said good-naturedly. “I’m a lot more ticklish than you are.”

    “Anyway, that peak in the plot is the reason ship’s crews are usually all female,” Jessica continued. “Always, on a ship as small as ours.”

    “So you were tickling Leah and Sarah to generate power? Why them?” Stacy asked.

    “We were a few crystals short of a full load,” Leah said. “They bring us cases of power crystals, and Sarah and I charge them and sell them back. A lot of Amish girls around here do it too. My sister and I each started when we were 14 – we’re considered adults when we finish school. But she had a baby four months ago, so we got behind.” Leah grinned. “Sarah tickled me double to make up the difference. Connie’s right, I do love it. I found that out when I was little – Natalie and Kelly ganged up on me once and tickled me silly. And around here, you get your entertainment wherever you can.”

    “How long does it take to... charge a crystal, is that how you say it?” Kelly asked.

    “It used to take Sarah over an hour to tickle a full charge out of me, or me out of her,” Leah said. “Now, it’s a little under 30 minutes. I never knew why until just now – I thought we were just getting better with practice. And speaking of which...”

    Leah rolled Connie and Jessica back onto their tummies. Farm work had made her stronger than she looked – she easily shifted Jessica over next to Connie with their thighs touching and their feet lined up. She hiked up her skirts and kneeled facing all four feet.

    “I enjoy tickling too!” Leah scrabbled her nails in their arches, and both girls laughed their heads off again, eyes closed, tears streaming, their faces turning red from the tickling.

    Alicia stood and gave Stacy a hand up. Leah had a rapt look on her face, concentrating on the tickle torture. The women in black were laughing harder now, in stereo, their echoing laughter giving the effect of half a dozen ticklees. Alicia moved away and signed for the others to follow her. Sarah came with them, still looking agitated.

    “D’you believe ‘em?” Alicia asked.

    “The evidence is right there,” Stacy said, pointing to the vehicle and its load. “Can you think of another explanation?”

    “It’s true – all of it,” Sarah said. She looked them over angrily. “I was saving for a down payment on a farm, and you’ve ruined it!”

    “Sounds to me like Leah’s trying to make up for it over there,” Kelly observed. “She’s pretty good – they’re laughing their heads off.”

    “Knows all about it from the inside,” Natalie said. “I think we started something when we tickled the shit out of her that time.”

    “I was a little ashamed afterward – she never played with us again,” Kelly said. “How old were we?”

    “It doesen’t matter,” Stacy said. “What matters is, what are we gonna do now?”

    Jessica stopped laughing, but Connie’s laughter went off the scale. “You’re a lot more fun than Sarah,” Leah said. “Kille, kille!” – kitchey-koo. Alicia looked over and saw Leah lightly flicking Connie’s feet with her nail tips, covering the upturned feet with fiendish and well-techniqued tickling. She was holding Connie on the edge, just like Alicia had done – the blonde Lee laughed and laughed, red-faced, tears streaming.

    “I think we should...” Kelly started. Alicia looked back to her friends, but she never found out what Kelly was planning to say. Suddenly all four were paralyzed, suspended upright, unable to move or twitch or do anything but blink their eyes. Connie’s laughter stopped abruptly.

    “Get me... out of... this rig!” Connie said breathlessly. “That really tickled!”

    “It was supposed to,” Jessica said. “You were the distraction. Thanks, Leah – we owe you one.”

    Leah and the others moved into Alicia’s field of view. Jessica had the wand in her hand, holding it in businesslike manner. “We do have weapons,” she said. “This is one – a snare field wand. Nonlethal, like all laughter-powered devices. But you can’t move a single voluntary muscle. Has an anti-gravity feature too, useful for moving you around.”

    “Something else you ought to know,” Connie said. She bent down, grabbed Alicia’s ankles, rotated her around her center of gravity until she was facing the roof, then pulled off the wet sneakers and socks. Alicia felt fingernails touch her soles, and suddenly she was laughing at the top of her lungs as Connie tickled her soft feet. “See, a tickle laugh is a reflex,” Alicia heard through her helpless laughter. “The field doesen’t affect it. You’ll feel it all, and laugh yourself senseless, and I’m gonna enjoy every bit of it!”

    Alicia heard Stacy’s laughter start, then Kelly, and finally Natalie. She still couldn’t move, but judging from the sound they were arranged with heads close together, feet pointing outward, like the spokes of a wheel. She figured that Sarah had joined in, no doubt to charge a few more crystals toward the cost of her farm. Alicia was losing it, the tickling crowding out her thoughts. And then Connie found the sweet spots under her toes and tickled them mercilessly, and Alicia laughed her head off at the top of her lungs.

    Connie eased off a little to prolong the tickle-torture – she tickled Alicia’s soles, watching the toes twitch and curl while Alicia laughed with wild abandon. She drew figure-eight’s, circles, squares, and other tickling shapes in the arches. She scratched and scrabbled on the heels, then flicked her fingernails in Alicia’s arches, fast as she could. Then the soft skin under the toes again – Alicia laughed and laughed, wildly, helplessly, at the top of her lungs. She was no longer capable of coherent thought – it had been tickled completely away.

    Mercifully, Alicia zoned out, still laughing wildly. She never knew afterward how long it lasted. Her tickler (or ticklers, she noticed some variations in technique in her lucid moments) gave her an occasional break, just enough to catch her breath. But then she (or they) started in again, tickling fiendishly and inventively. They kept it up until she was soaked in sweat, until her ribs and abs ached from laughing, until she thought she would burst from an overload of tickling.

    A creaking sound, a sudden draft, and the tickling stopped – Alicia giggled weakly as she drifted down off the tickle high. Natalie and Stacy stopped laughing together. Someone gave Kelly one more flurry of tickling, and Kelly’s laughter went off the scale. The laughter stopped – Kelly’s breath had been tickled away.

    “Now you can call me Jessie James,” Jessica said.

    More ticklish laughter, not far away and getting closer. The laughter reached a crescendo, then it stopped too. The hinges on the big double door creaked as somebody pulled it closed.

    “Took you long enough, boss,” Jessica said.

    “Don’t get me started, Jessica. You screwed the pooch this time, and that’s a fact.” A young woman, but well out of her teens from the sound of her – late 20’s maybe.

    “You ought to oil those hinges, Vati,” Sarah said in Deitch.

    “That’s the least of our worries,” a mature man’s voice said. “You were right, John. Good money or no, easy work or no, our people should never have made this arrangement with these outworld Englishers.”

    A sigh. “What’s done is done, Amos,” John Lapp said. “Now we must repair the damage.” In English: “Captain Sewell?”

    “Sir?” The woman who had answered to “boss”.

    “Two of these girls are granddaughters of Amos’s neighbors across the road. The others are their friends. I’m sure you can see the problems that could cause. Have you a way to... erase their memories?”

    “No sir,” the woman said. “The Navy does – our Navy – but a tramp trader doesen’t carry that sort of equipment. We couldn’t do it without harming them.” A pause. “Why would you want to erase their memories? We can clean ‘em up and put ‘em to bed. They’ll have no proof when they wake up, and your people won’t talk. Who would believe their story?”

    “You can do that?”

    “Yes, sir. It’s been done before,” Captain Sewell said. “They’ll either keep quiet, or they’ll be made fun of as flying-saucer nuts. Either way, nothing will come of it.”

    “Very well then.” In Deitch: “Daniel, take your wife and go home. It would be best if she stayed there. Amos, take your daughter and go back to bed. Tomorrow... Perhaps Leah should leave us for a time.”

    “Why wait?” Leah said. “I’ll leave right now. I’ve been thinking about leaving anyway.” In English: “Captain, I’d like to leave with you. Please give me a few minutes to say goodbye to Mutti and my brothers. I have Englisher clothes already.”

    “All right,” the woman said. “Ten minutes, no more. Jessica, how long have these girls been frozen?”

    “Dunno, Cap. Fifteen, twenty minutes maybe?”

    “Get ‘em out of it. Use the spare cuffs from the floats.”

    Alicia caught a flash of a black-clad female form as someone rolled her face down. Something slipped onto her wrists and ankles, and there was an odd crawling sensation that went away immediately. Alicia’s wrists were crossed behind her back – she felt a tap, and another at her ankles. Then she drifted gently down to the floor, and discovered that her muscles were back under her control. Not that it did her any good – her wrists were bound behind her back, her ankles bound together.

    “Behave yourself,” Alicia’s captor said. “Don’t bother to yell – nobody’s gonna hear you anyway.”

    Alicia shifted and raised her head. Her friends were laid out beside her, bound the same way. Like her, they all seemed to have decided that it was best to say nothing.

    Their captors stood in a little group. Jessica and Connie. A beautiful redhead in her early 20’s, with Celtic-fair skin and jade-green eyes. An attractive blue-eyed brunette in her mid to late 20’s. A buxom blue-eyed blonde a little younger than the brunette. One more brunette, green-eyed, about the same age as the blonde. All wore the same sort of black clothes, shoes, utility belts and silvery bracelets as Jessica and Connie. No, that wasn’t quite right – Alicia saw that the redhead was barefoot.

    They waited 10 minutes or so. The blonde, the redhead and the younger brunette kidded Jessica and Connie about getting caught. The captain – the older brunette – wasn’t amused. “We’ll have to report this to the Navy,” she said. “Probably pay a fine too, for interference.”

    “Connie and me will pay the fine out of our share,” Jessica said.

    “No, I’m not letting you off that easy,” was the response. “That would be “easy come, easy go”. We all own an equal share, we’ll all share the fine equally. Cost your shipmates money, that will get your attention.”

    “As I recall, Robin, you’re the one who gave it up that time,” the blonde said.

    “I took chances when I was a Lee, Melissa,” Captain Sewell – Robin? – replied. “You know – you were with me.”

    “Yah, 18 yrs old and on my first trip out,” Melissa said. “We were pretty wild back then.”

    “I learned my lesson,” Robin said. “You did too. I thought Jessica had more sense.”

    “Or was sneaky enough to not get caught, anyway,” the green-eyed brunette said. “Good thing this was your last stop, Jessica.”

    “You got that right, Lori,” the redhead said. “Too bad I wasn’t on this trip instead of Connie. They could’ve tickled me silly, and I wouldn’t’ve given it up.”

    “And you’d’ve enjoyed it too, Anne,” Melissa said.

    “So would you, Melissa,” Anne said good-naturedly. “Oh well... I guess we’ll have to make up for it back at the ship.”

    “You all talk too much,” Robin said. “Lori, go see what’s holding Leah up... Never mind – here she is.”

    Alicia looked up. Leah was with her family, Sarah holding her baby and her husband the toddler. But instead of Amish garb, Leah wore denim capri’s, a sleeveless V-neck top with red-and-white stripes arranged as downward-pointed chevrons, flip-flops and a blue hooded sweat shirt. A fluffy red elastic held her hair back in a pony tail.

    “Load up – put ‘em up in the back seat of this float,” Robin said, all boss now. “Load up the crystals too, all of ‘em – Sarah’s gonna have to lie low for a while. Mmm... Anne brought us here. Melissa, it’s your turn in the seat. Anne, you drive the other float – use Lori, and take Connie and Jessica. Leah, ride with ‘em. Hustle, people!”

    Somebody froze Alicia again, levitated her off the floor and rotated her back vertical – easier to move her along that way, she guessed. She was handed up to Anne, who parked Alicia in the seat. Side pressure told Alicia that her three friends were crammed in with her, a tight squeeze, good thing they weren’t big girls like Connie. Anne vaulted over the side – Alicia saw that she was still barefoot, but carrying a pair of the black slippers in her free hand.

    Melissa climbed aboard with Robin. Wordlessly, she slipped off her shoes and stowed them under the recliner, then turned her back and crossed her wrists behind her. Robin tapped the silvery bracelets with a stylus of some sort, and the rings fused – that must be what’s on our wrists and ankles, Alicia concluded. Melissa sat in the recliner – it shifted somehow to accomodate her, and the ankle rest went up. Tentacles extruded from it, binding her to the seat across shoulders, hips and ankles. A sub-tentacle rose from the ankle bonds and circled her big toes, immobilizing her feet.

    Robin un-froze the captives and took the driver seat. Alicia looked around. The others – all but Leah – were already in the other vehicle, with Lori bound in its recliner. Leah said her final good-byes and vaulted aboard.

    “I thought you weren’t slaves,” Stacy said. “Why are you tied up?” she asked Melissa.

    “We’re not,” the girl said. “But we have to be immobilized to keep us from hurting ourselves or someone else. I love to be tickled, but some of the reactions are reflexes and can’t be controlled.”

    “Leah!” Alicia called out.

    “What d’you want?”

    “I wish I’d had a chance to tickle you,” Alicia called back in Rhineland-accented German. “Some other time perhaps? You can get my address from Natalie’s grandparents – she’s my neighbor at school.”

    “You speak Deitch? You understood us?” Leah asked.

    “I speak Deutsch. And yes, I understood everything.”

    “Oh shit!” Melissa said. “Sounds to me like one of our guests knows it all, Robin.”

    “Can’t be helped,” Robin said. “And anyway, like I said, who can she tell?”

    “Maybe I will come to visit,” Leah said with a crooked grin. “You’ll enjoy it – I’m every bit as ticklish as you are!”

    “Any time! Auf wiedersehen!” Alicia said.

    “Are you through?” Robin demanded. “We have to leave now.”

    “Sorry, Captain,” Alicia said. “I guess I was showing off. Couldn’t let her think she got the better of me.”

    Robin nodded and turned back to the controls. She did something, and the globe turned day-glo green and moved in front of Melissa’s trapped feet. It was still anchored to the inner panel by some sort of stalk that came out and then up underneath the globe. It acted like a pivot, Alicia saw.

    “What’s that?” Kelly asked.

    “Mini-Giggler,” Melissa said. “We’ve got bigger ones in the ship.” The thing extruded six tentacles of its own, each tipped with smaller tendrils that waved like an octopus.

    “What’s it do?” Natalie asked.

    “Watch!” Robin said over her shoulder, and twisted the grip on the lever between the seats. The tendrils flicked the bottoms of Melissa’s feet, all over. Melissa threw back her head and laughed her head off. The crystal on the dashboard lit up a brilliant red.

    “Cool! Where can I get one of those?” Natalie asked. “Looks like fun!”

    “You can’t. Now shut up, I’m busy,” Robin said.

    Lori started laughing too. Alicia looked over to the other vehicle – Lori was in that one’s recliner, with another tentacled green orb tickling her feet.

    Robin eased the lever upward, and Melissa’s laughter went off the scale. The vehicle – float, did they call it? – rose about a foot and rotated until it was pointed at the closed door. The other float matched them – Lori was laughing helplessly now, eyes closed, tears of laughter on her cheeks. Robin inspected the crystal, then shrouded it with a cover that had just a bulls-eye opening to view it. Amos Yoder and his sons opened the doors. There was a thump as the landing jacks retracted. Robin moved the stick forward, then centered it again. The float glided outside and paused, hovering, followed by the other – Melissa and Lori were laughing like mad. The light disappeared as the loft doors were closed.

    “OK, we’re headed to the ship. Follow us there,” Robin said in a conversational tone, barely audible over Melissa’s ticklish laughter. She paused, as if listening – must be wearing a throat mike and ear bug, thought Alicia. “No, just follow us back to the ship. I want to do it close to an autodoc, just in case one of ‘em has a reaction to the drug.”

    Robin moved the stick forward again, and the float glided off – now all Alicia heard was Melissa’s helpless laughter. The Giggler was doing a fine job, keeping Melissa laughing wildly but not tickling her out. That must be what Connie was talking about, she thought – no human has that level of control.

    The Giggler quit tickling after 5 minutes or so. Melissa took long deep breaths, trying to get her breathing and heart rate normal. “Woo! I love this job!” she said after a minute or so.

    “Why’d it quit?” Natalie asked.

    “This system isn’t too efficient, but even so I put out twice as much power as we need right now,” Melissa said. “The crystal stores the excess so the Giggler can give me a breather. Unloaded, it’s 3 minutes on, 3 off. With the load we’re carrying, 4 and 2. At max continuous power setting, it’ll tickle me 5 and 1 – that’s pretty tiring, even for me. And there’s an overload setting – continuous tickling. Most Lees can make 7 or 8 minutes, 10 tops. I can go as long as 15 if I’m well rested, but that’s pretty unusual.”

    “Chatty, aren’t we?” Robin said sourly.

    “Hey Cap, you said it – who are they gonna tell? Eep! HAHAHA-HAHAHA-HAHAHAHA!”

    They flew along for two more Giggler cycles. Alicia tried to figure how fast they were flying by landmarks on the ground, but visibility was poor – the moon had set long ago and high clouds obscured the stars. Some sort of force field sheltered off the wind, so that was no help either.

    “Heads up, we’ll be down in one minute,” Robin said into her throat mike – must be talking to more crew members aboard the ship, Alicia thought. They landed in an old stone quarry, or so Alicia guessed from the tool marks on the stone cliff face – Melissa let out one more burst of wild laughter on the way down, then laughed at the top of her lungs for another two minutes to recharge the crystal before the Giggler shut down. The ship was just a shape, elevated on landing jacks, with a dimly-lighted ramp underneath.

    Robin released Melissa, then froze Alicia and her friends again. Robin climbed down, and Melissa passed the girls down to her. Alicia heard laughter behind her, faint but growing louder – the other float coming in, with Lori laughing her head off to power it.

    “Don’t be afraid, you’ll come to no harm,” Robin said. “You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling rested.”

    Alicia felt a sting on the side of her neck, a feeling of warmth, and then consciousness fled.

    ***
    Last edited by Strelnikov; 04-14-2006 at 12:33 PM.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2001
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    Alabama
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    (conclusion)

    The sun was well up when Alicia woke up. She sat up – she was nude, in Kelly’s father’s old bedroom in the Sandler farmhouse. Stacy was beside her, breathing softly, sound asleep.

    Alicia scrambled to her feet and pulled her nightshirt over her head. “Stacy! Wake up!” she called. She bent over, shook the sleeping girl. “STACY!”

    Stacy stirred and sat up, blinking, nude herself. Alicia bolted out of the room and into the one Natalie and Kelly shared. She grabbed two ankles through the blankets and shook them. “Wake up!” she said.

    Both girls’ eyes popped open. They sat up. “I had the strangest dream,” they both said together, then realized they were nude and looked at each other with alarm.

    “It was real, wasn’t it?” Kelly said in a small voice.

    “Wasn’t what?” Sensible Stacy, in a ratty nightshirt and a bad case of bed-head. “Think about it. What proof do we have? Who are we gonna tell? Who would believe us?”

    “There must be something!” Alicia said. She looked out the front window at the Yoder barn. Sure enough, there was a lighter colored place in the roofing slates, about where that cutter ray (or whatever) had hit. But slate is a natural product – the whole roof was by no means uniform in color. It could have been that way before, and there was no way they could prove otherwise.

    “They bathed us before they put us to bed,” Stacy continued. “I checked my stuff before I came in here – the clothes I wore last night are clean and dry. My sneakers are dry too. Check it out – I’ll bet yours are too. And there’s other, more believable explanations for why we woke up nude.”

    Natalie and Kelly put their nightshirts on and checked their clothes and sneakers. It was just as Stacy said. Those others must have gone to some trouble to make it that way. If they paid attention to that level of detail, Alicia thought, it was pretty doubtful that they would leave any usable evidence. They could search the Yoder farm top to bottom, or Sarah’s place, and find nothing. And even if other Amish girls were in the same line of work... well, they didn’t have a clue who those girls were, and the Amish wouldn’t talk.

    “So they’ll get away with it,” Kelly said.

    “There’s no get away,” Stacy replied. “Their arrangement with the Yoder girls sounded to me like a legitimate business arrangement. We butted in and had a harmless adventure, one we’ll never be able to talk about. And that’s all.”

    “Harmless!” Alicia said indignantly. “They just about tickled us to death!”

    “Not even close,” Natalie contradicted her. “We were never in any danger. Those others are pacifists, like the Amish – didn’t you notice that their weapons were non-lethal? And as for the tickling, I could tell they knew just how far they could take us. Why not, they’ve had plenty of practice if their story was true. Geez Louise, we did worse to Connie. To each other too.”

    “I know where that stone quarry is,” Kelly said. “We could– “

    “–go there, and find trash, shot-up Coke cans, and old shotgun and .22 shells,” Stacy interrupted. She shrugged. “Go ahead. As far as I’m concerned, I went to bed last night and woke up this morning. Period. End of story.”

    The discussion continued in that vein for a little longer, but eventually the others came around to Stacy’s way of thinking. Stacy was right – they couldn’t prove a thing.

    They dressed in t-shirts and shorts and went downstairs. The coffee had just finished brewing when Natalie’s grandparents came back from church.

    “We thought you girls were gonna pound your ears all day,” Mr. Sandler said. “Must have made a late night of it. But considerate – you didn’t disturb us at all.”

    His wife unloaded a plastic shopping bag onto the counter – small stuff, the sort that wasn’t worth making a special trip to get. “D’you remember Leah Yoder?” she asked her granddaughters. “We went to Varysburg to get gas. Bill Kuhn at the station said Leah walked in at sunrise dressed in regular clothes and bought a bus ticket to the city. She’s gone.”

    “Gave the name “Lisa Phelps” when she bought it,” the man added. He snorted. “It’s a Phelps Oil station – three guesses how she came up with that half-ass alias.”

    “It’s something young Amish do sometimes,” the old lady explained to Alicia and Stacy. “The restless ones mostly. Most of ‘em come home, join the church and blend right in. A few years later, and you’d never know.”

    “Well, that one won’t be back, or I miss my guess,” the old man said. “Got any more of that coffee?”

    ***

    Stacy and Alicia rolled out right after lunch, north toward the interstate. They passed a buggy with a young Amish family in it, two kids already and the parents not much older than the girls were themselves. Alicia wondered if the young wife had a case of power crystals stashed somewhere in her home, to sell eventually to other women in black. She would never know.

    They gassed up at Pembroke and got on the interstate, headed northeast toward New England. The talked about various things, but by unspoken mutual agreement, never about their adventure.

    They turned onto their street a little before 5 PM and parked in front of their apartment building. As they were unloading their gear, Stacy mentioned last night for the first time. “I don’t think I’ll tell Ashley about this,” she said. “Not right away, anyhow.”

    ***

    Alicia was sitting in a plastic mock-Adirondack chair on the building’s front porch a week later, bare feet propped up on the railing. An older model Dodge with a Tennessee license plate rolled up, and the occupants got out – two dark-haired girls her own age, in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. “Halloo the house!” the taller one called out.

    That was a Southern mountain custom, from a time when honest folk had good reason to shoot first and ask questions later. These were friends from Alicia’s Freshman dorm, apartment neighbors now – Danielle Deaver and Tara Lynch, from Bituminous, Tennessee. The town and its environs was a tiny, isolated enclave in Northeast Tennessee, that had somehow survived when the US Forest Service took the surrounding land for the Cherokee National Forest in the 1930’s. Alicia privately thought of the place as “the ass-end of Nowhere”.

    Tara was tall and slender, a quiet, pretty girl with a crooked grin and the map of Ireland on her face. She had an unruly mop of black curls, over fair skin and startling blue eyes. She was the archetype of the Scotch-Irish who had settled the Southern mountains, moving west to put distance between themselves and government.

    Danielle was a little shorter than medium height, nicely tanned, with a fit and shapely body, long dark brown hair and gray eyes. There was a touch of olive in her complexion – Cherokee somewhere in her bloodline, or maybe Melungeon. She was the dominant one of the two, more outgoing than her quiet friend. And she was much sharper than she sometimes chose to appear. She often used that to her advantage. Aha! someone might think – this kid just fell off the hay truck. Too late, they would realize that they were had.

    “Welcome back!” Alicia called back. “I thought you two weren’t coming back to school until late August.”

    “Change of plans,” Danielle said, walking up to Alicia. “We made some money on a business venture, so even after buying this car, we’re all set for the year.”

    “Well, it’s good to see you both,” Alicia said. “Need any help with your stuff?”

    “Sure, why not?” Danielle said. She reached out and tickled Alicia’s feet, gently stroking with two fingernails. Alicia didn’t pull them away – a steady stream of girlish giggles poured out. “We can play later.”

    “Hahaha! Suits– haha! –me– hehehe!” Alicia said around the giggles. “Hehehe! Quit!” She put her feet down and found her sandals.

    She helped them settle in. Now that they had a car, they could bring more stuff. Danielle kicked off her flip-flops, dragged a box over to the side windows, kneeled and started unpacking it.

    A rainbow patch of light appeared on the wall. Alicia investigated – it was coming from a glass prism that Danielle had just set on the ledge under the windows.

    The prism was one of a dozen glass paperweights in the box. One was translucent blue with a starburst pattern of bubbles inside. Another was faceted and ruby red. Others had glass flowers, or swirls of color, or the colored patterns called millefiori embedded in clear glass.

    “I found these paperweights at yard sales,” Danielle said. “Like ‘em?”

    “They’re pretty, the way they catch the sun,” Alicia said.

    “Yah, they brighten up the room,” Danielle said. “It’s a mountain thing – lots of folks up our way collect ‘em too.” She looked amused, as if at some private joke.

    The restaurant was open again, so Alicia had to leave to get ready for work. She was dancing tonight, so she peeled off her t-shirt and shorts – she could get into costume at home and ride to work with Stacy. She stuffed a long raincoat into a duffel for the walk home – even in summer, New England nights could be chilly.

    Alicia’s belly dancing costume was a thing of bright canary yellow satin, sequins and filmy veils. The jewelry – a necklace, bracelets, anklets and belt – was made of silvery coins. She tossed her finger cymbals into her bag, stepped into her oldest sandals and went downstairs to Stacy’s place. She heard girlish laughter from Tara and Danielle’s apartment, across from Stacy’s. No surprise there – they were the notorious Tennessee Toe Ticklers, whose tickling games had gotten them tossed out of the dorm and had nearly gotten them expelled. Tara and Danielle tickled each other a lot, had for years, they said. Probably there wasn’t much else to do back home.

    Alicia did pretty well on tips that night. When she finished her last set of the night, she put her raincoat on, put her tip roll in the pocket and left through the kitchen door. Her feet felt grubby – in public places, even carpets that are vacuumed twice a day are filthy. But that was nothing new – that’s why she wore the worn-out sandals to work.

    There were lights on in Apartment 1B when she got home. She knocked, waited, then knocked louder. Tara opened the door, barefoot in black jeans and t-shirt. “Hi, Alicia, come in,” she said.

    “I’m glad you’re here,” Danielle said from the living room couch. For some reason, she was wearing black too. “We’re trying to decide which of our movies to watch. You can referee for us while we settle it.”

    Alicia knew what was coming – a tickle-fight, the sort she and her friends called a “Tickling Death Match”. Alicia ditched her coat, kicked off her sandals and sat on the couch.

    Danielle and Tara sat close on the floor, facing each other. They extended their right legs, drew up their left with the bottoms of their left feet flat against their right thighs. Each girl got a firm grip on her opponent’s right foot with her left hand. They had done this before – they knew the drill.

    “Ready?” Alicia asked. The others nodded. “Wait for it– one, two, three, GO!”

    Both girls flicked the nails of their right hands on the bottom of her opponent’s trapped foot, fast as they could. They both knew the best ticklish spots, and tickled them without mercy. Their tickling fingernails flicked and scratched, each covering the other’s foot with fiendish and well-techniqued tickling. Both girls laughed like mad, red faced, tears of laughter streaming down their faces.

    Danielle concentrated on the sole and ball of Tara’s foot, Tara tickled Danielle’s arch and onto the heel behind. Tara’s toes twitched and curled as she laughed and laughed – it was an added challenge for Danielle, but she was equal to it. They both laughed like madwomen, tickling as fast as they could, as time expanded and the tickling filled their consciousness.

    Danielle was just a hair more ticklish, and that was all the edge Tara needed. Danielle was losing it, laughing harder now, while Tara’s laughter was mixed with giggles. Tara tickled faster – her well-manicured nails danced in Danielle’s arch and onto the ticklish heel, where it tickled unbearably. Danielle lost it and collapsed onto her back, laughing at the top of her lungs. Her strength was gone, tickled away.

    Tara giggled as the tickling sensation faded, then picked up the pace as fine motor control returned. She tickled the sweet spots mercilessly, bringing forth wave after wave of ticklish laughter. Tara’s fingernails flicked and scratched, tickling horribly. It was more than Danielle could bear – she laughed herself breathless.

    Tara released Danielle’s foot and stood. “Pretty good, girlfriend,” she said. “You almost had me.”

    Danielle drew her knees up and laid there gasping. “That… really… tickled,” she said. She shuffled her feet on the rug to get the tickle off, then sat up. “OK then, “Casablanca” it is. You’re a pretty good tickler – you got me good.”

    “Years of practice – as you well know.”

    “I’ll make some popcorn,” Danielle said, and stood up. “Care to join us, Alicia?”

    “I have a better idea,” Tara said mischievously, and jumped Alicia. Danielle piled on. The two wrestled her down to the floor on her tummy, and Danielle sat on her.

    Alicia quit struggling – they had her, and she knew it. She had expected it anyway – this was what they did, after all. And even though she preferred to tickle others, getting tickled could be fun too, if it was done right. That’s why girls like Connie could stand to be Lee’s.

    “Go ahead and get it out of your system,” Alicia said, not the least bit upset. “I need a shower anyway. Tickle my feet clean – they could use it. Try not to get the costume wet.”

    Tara got a handful of nylon straps and hogtied Alicia. Nicole was really onto something when she invented this rig, Alicia thought. She was completely immobilized, but the straps weren’t too tight, and didn’t chafe at all.

    Danielle fetched an electric tooth brush and a cup of soapy water. Not only would the soap clean Alicia’s feet, but it would provide lubricant and make the brush tickle a lot worse. “Who’s up first?” she asked.

    “Me,” Tara answered. “I won the Death Match, remember?”

    “How could I forget? I can still feel it!”

    “Dibs on the right foot.”

    “Start at my heels and work your way up,” Alicia said. “Tickle me– Eee! Hehe! HAHAHA! HAHAHA-HAHA-HAHAHAHA!” She was an active ticklee – her coin-jewelry jingled as she struggled and squirmed and laughed.

    Tara kept it up, working the brush in circles on the ticklish heel. Satisfied, she carefully scrubbed Alicia’s arch – Alicia laughed like a madwoman, tears of laughter running down her cheeks. Tara held Alicia’s toes back and tickled the stretched out sole. She circled the brush around the ball of Alicia’s foot, then along the crease in the middle of her sole, forcing a steady stream of ticklish laughter. She scrubbed the tips of Alicia’s toes – the big toe was especially ticklish – and Alicia knew what was coming next.

    Alicia squirmed and bucked, straining against her bonds and laughing at the top of her lungs. A reddish glow in her peripheral vision – some trick of the light on the paperweights? But Tara spread her toes two by two and ran the brush between them, tickling between each pair, getting a wild burst of ticklish laughter each time. Tara saved the best for last – she held back Alicia’s toes and ran the brush side to side on the soft skin underneath. Alicia arched her back and laughed her head off at the top of her lungs.

    Tara quit, and none too soon – Alicia was sweaty, hair in tangles, on the edge of losing it. Her costume hadn’t been designed for this, but it wasn’t a bad choice – she was barely aware she had it on. She blinked away tears and took deep breaths while Danielle got in position. That red paperweight in the window – odd how it glowed, it was dark outside, it must be picking up the room light somehow.

    A sudden flash of insight – Danielle and Tara were from Appalachia, always sparsely populated and therefore dominated by distant governments elected by flatlanders. The US Government had treated the mountain people shabbily in memory of the oldest residents – TVA, the National Park Service and the Forest Service had all driven people off land their families had held for generations. Add to that the fact that the only remaining socially acceptable form of bigotry is that expressed against rural Southern whites. People who would never dream of calling a black person a “spook” didn’t hesitate to call these people “hillbillies”. It made them insular, clannish, close mouthed around government officials and outsiders. In other words, just the sort of community Connie had said the traders did business with.

    Alicia snorted with amusement. That was paranoia talking – these girls were her friends!

    Danielle started in on Alicia’s left foot, tickling the heel and arch, getting great reactions and stream after stream of helpless laughter. Alicia struggled and squirmed in helpless reaction, tossed her long hair back out of her face, blinked away tears. The red paperweight on the window sill was glowing like old fireplace coals, brightening as she laughed and laughed.

    I’m going crazy, Alicia thought, laughing at the top of her lungs. It couldn’t be!

    Could it?


    ***THE END***




    6 Jan 2006: Typo’s corrected, I hope.
    Last edited by Strelnikov; 01-05-2006 at 10:36 PM.

  5. #5
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    Wonderful story, great plot, and fabulous detailed foot tickling.
    Another gem.
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