Lacey painfully peeled her elbows off of the vinyl tablecloth, wincing at the audible rip. This was, by far, the worst sort of tourist trap, the kind of place she had been hoping to avoid by opting for a walking holiday. Reading the brochure, she’d treated herself to visions of clambering over the highlands of Scotland in search of tiny but cozy villages in which to spend the night. There would be a few houses, plenty of sheep,one pub- the kind of village pub where everyone would stop stop their conversations to regard with curiosity the exotic stranger who had entered into their midst. She would say something worldly about her travels and be invited to share a dram with the men gathered at the bar as they inquired about her adventures of the day.
She had not bargained for five days of walking along endless,flat canal paths, the view never changing as she dragged herself from town to town, sharing the same flavourless stew each night with the same group of flavourless tourists she’d encountered numerous times over each day’s walk, before settling down for the night in a barren rented room, all but identical to the one she’d departed from several kilometres back each morning. Why bother walking at all, she wondered to herself, the monotony beginning to make her question her will to continue.
She’d opted for the bus that morning, feeling not the slightest bit of guilt for skipping the day’s walk. She’d seen enough canal path to last a lifetime, and the next town promised a museum, her “personalised” guidebook informed her. She had hoped for something quaint and local, perhaps explaining how the town had once prospered making widgets and thingamajigs until the canal trade dried up. Or else offering a glimpse into the life of a long-forgotten local Laird.
She did not expect the plasticised loch ness monster museum, the kind of place crawling with children and the germs the brought from the corners of the globe. The staff seemed to be trying to combat the latter even as they catered to the former; the entire complex reeked of cleaning chemicals so strongly that Lacey doubted, if the monster did exist, that it could have survived the runoff from this place.
Even in the cafe, there was a strong and inexplicable whiff of chlorine, a scent that made her tea entirely unappetising. With all the chemicals, she thought to herself, they could have at least de-stick-ified her table after the previous child had finished making a mess of whatever sugary delight it had consumed.
As she picked up her pack to leave, a child burst into wails far louder than its frame should have been able to support. Right, Lacey thought to herself, it is far past time to leave.
She briefly considered attempting the day’s scheduled walk in reverse- at least it would make a change to have the canal on the left instead of the right, but dismissed the idea as a rather overgrown path leading away from the canal caught her eye. Lacey smiled. This would be more like it. Perhaps she could finally have use for that compass the tour company had for some reason recommended so strongly that she procure for the trip, as though following the canal would prove a challenge. Reinvigorated by the prospect of a challenge, or at least a bit of distance between herself and the hoards of children in the museum, Lacey set off down the path at a bouncing pace.
The problem with compasses is that they are nearly entirely useless to those who know neither where they are nor where they are going. Lacey stared at the face of the thing intently, as though it were a crystal ball that might yield its secrets only to one who proved worthy. If that were the case, Lacey had failed that test spectacularly. She pulled out her map as well, though had little hope that it would be of any use. All of the paths looked identical, or at least they did until they stopped looking like paths at all, presenting her with a choice of either fighting her way through the underbrush or doubling back.
Her water nearly gone and her supply of granola bars equally depleted, Lacey began to feel nervous for the first time. It had been ages since she’d seen any sort of signage, and even then the last sign had been a badly decayed “no trespassing” notice, though why anyone would want to trespass here she had no idea. This bit of forrest looked just like all the others she had passed through, with the exception that it lacked any clear paths whatsoever. She’d tried to retrace her steps, but must have taken a wrong turn at the third oak for she couldn’t find the slightest trace of any of the paths that had led to wherever she was now.
Lacey had almost given up hope, had started to debate attempting smoke signals, when she abruptly stumbled onto not just a path but what appeared to be a well-used road through the forest. The surface was rutted and strewn with loose rocks just large enough to provide a challenge to walkers, but the path was short on weeds and laced with tyre tracks. Lacey grinned in delight before setting off to the right. The tracks in the mud looked fresh, sharp angles in the treads telling her that someone, riding something motorised no less, had passed here recently. Perhaps that someone might even give her a lift back to town. . .
Less than an hour later, Lacey heard the distant rumble of an engine. Grinning in relief, she found a new source of energy that sprung her tired feet into a sprint down the road, heedless of the ankle-twisting rocks and holes. By some miracle, she came within sight of the rusty old tractor without falling on her face. She stumbled to a stop in the middle of the path, waving her hands over her head as though there was some chance the driver might miss her.
The tractor rumbled to a stop before her her. Lacey’s breathlessly grinned up in triumph at the driver, a roughened, tanned man in flannel who looked decidedly unpleased to see her, not that Lacey could care.
“Who are you?” the driver demanded, his anger at encountering her evident in both his posture and tone.
“Lacey,” she replied, still grinning. “I got lost, could I trouble you for a lift back to town?”
“This is private land. A research facility. A delicate research facility. Did you not see the signs? Every entrance is clearly marked.”
Lacey paused, taken aback by his hostility. Everyone here had been friendly, even those wrangling hordes of shrieking children. “I’m sorry. . ..I didn’t come by the path.”
“Silly Lassie. Stick to the paths if you know what’s good for you. And get out.”
“I was lost, see . . .” Lacey started again apologetically, desperate to salvage the situation.
“That much,” the driver spat, “is obvious. Town is that way. Now get!” he shouted, shooing her from the path as he started the motor again.
“Please,” Lacey started, but quickly scampered from his way as the tractor rumbled towards her. She watched in dismay as her would-be saviour rumbled around the bend and out of sight. She stood in shock for a full minute before heading off in the opposite direction, where he said she could find town. She wished she could have asked how far, though that hardly seemed to matter now. She would get there eventually, though likely long after her water had run dry.
She knew crying was a waste of water and energy, but couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. How could she have been so foolish? Never again would she stray from the given path, no more adventures, she promised herself.
As she walked on, she grew delirious. As she rounded every bend, she entertained both the notion that she would glimpse the soft lights of the village in the distance as well as the fear that some giant monster would pop from the bushes to devour her. As the evening dragged on, she no longer had much energy to react to hope and fear these fantasies alternately inspired. At one point she dreamed she heard the rumbling of the tractor in the distance, coming back to flatten her into the path.
A puff of exhaust brought her to her senses and she looked up to see the tractor idling beside her.
“Get in,” the driver told her.
Unwilling to risk the chance that he might drive off without her again, Lacey clambered aboard, settling herself next to him on the narrow bench. As he rumbled off again, Lacey was nearly thrown off balance by the motion, grabbing firmly onto his thigh to keep herself from toppling forward.
He scowled down at her. Perhaps Lacey was still somewhat out of touch with reality, but she could have sworn she saw his rough exterior crack a bit.
“Here,” he said, reaching down to produce a plain, metal bottle from under the seat. “Water.”
Lacey could have worshiped him. She fumbled with the cap for a moment before gulping down the contents greedily. She didn’t look up again until she had drank it dry. The driver spared her a sideways glance, just for a moment, before turning his attention back to the road with a smirk. It seemed an improvement from the scowl.
Lacey looked down again to see that she had dribbled a good portion of the water down herself in her haste. Cheeks flushing bright red, she passed the empty bottle back to him. “Thanks,” she offered inadequately.
He acknowledged her with a slight grunt before stowing the bottle again.
The rode in silence for several minutes before the tension grew too much for Lacey.
“So,” she began, “what sort of research do you do here?”
No further elaboration coming, Lacey tried to ask another question, but each died in her throat. Just as she resigned herself to silence for however long the trip took, and began spending the time instead working the numerous twigs she’d collected free of her hair, her companion spoke.
“How did you come to be so far from town?”
“I went for a hike,” Lacey began feebly. “I was supposed to hike the canal path, but that got very redundant. I thought I’d try something a bit more adventurous. I just didn’t expect it to be quite the adventure that it was.”
Instead of a reply, she was treated to something of a “harumph” from the driver. Cowed into silence, his reply took her by surprise. “Can’t exactly blame you for that. The canal path, and certainly those on it this year, try my patience.”
Lacey cocked her head, well aware, that she was one of those that he had just. . .insulted? Then again, she couldn’t disagree. If anything, she had made even more of a nuisance of herself. The others just clogged the cafes and pubs, tittering aimlessly, or, at worst, wandered blindly into what little traffic there was as they tried to decide whether it was worth walking a few kilometres down the road to this ruin or that monument. They didn’t, generally, wander into protected areas, nearly die of thirst, or pester the locals for lifts back to safety.
“Sorry,” Lacey offered, again inadequately, but couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“Was it worth it?”
Lacey glanced at the driver. The question was asked evenly, and though she expected it to be a barbed taunt, his expression gave no indication that he was anything other that curious.
“It was better than hanging around the museum all day. And was at least quieter.”
To her surprise, the driver cracked a genuine smile and gave a brief, but hearty belly laugh. “There’s hope for you yet,” he said with a smile.
Lacey sat back with relief. “Perhaps, but still, I should have known better. I haven’t hiked in ages, and then was with my father. He did all the navigatey bits, I just followed. I didn’t realise how hard it is.”
“Not hard. Just takes practice. And caution,” his tone became hard again and Lacey cringed at the well-deserved criticism.
“That’s what he said. I wandered away from camp once. Not far, mind, I could still see the fire, but he came after me and threatened to thrash me if I set off on my own again. Never did though, I stayed put.”
“Perhaps he should have,” the driver continued. “Sometimes there are no second chances to learn a lesson. If you’d had a good hiding then you might not have gotten yourself into today’s misadventure. If I were your father. . .”
His words struck a chord with Lacey, and she went very still. After a long pause, she replied sheepishly. “I guess I do deserve it. I wouldn’t blame you if. .. you know. . .”
The driver cast her another sideways glance, lingering appraisingly this time. “I’ve half a mind to do so, but that’s another adventure bigger than you probably think it is.”
Lacey collapsed slightly. He was probably right, much as her father threatened, he’d never so much as swatted at her. Still, what must this man think of her, to suspect that she couldn’t even take a beating? She was a grown woman after all, well able to withstand a childish punishment, even if it was demeaning.
“I’m serious,” Lacey retorted. “I do deserve a thrashing, for putting you out if nothing else. I might not have been able to navigate, but I can accept the consequences.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. If I were to thrash you, it would be no trivial matter. It would be painful, overwhelmingly so, or it would not be worth doing. And it would not be for putting me out. I’m headed this way anyway. It would be for carelessness. Recklessness. Tresspassing. Failure to prepare. Putting yourself in danger.”
His words drew tears to her eyes, tears that she tried to brush away unseen before replying with only a slight sniff. “I guess. Still, if that’s what you think I deserve I’ll accept it.”
The driver stopped the tractor as the road came to a T and turned to regard her. “You might be more responsible than I first thought. All the same, I doubt very much that you’re thinking clearly after what you’ve been through today. In any event. This is where I leave you. Head left for a half a kilometre or so and you’ll be back in town.”
Lacey muttered a final “Thank you” as she climbed down from the tractor seat. As she turned to go, the driver called to her once more.
“If you’re serious about facing the consequences, meet me here at seven tomorrow morning. Don’t be late. If not, enjoy the rest of your trip. And keep to the path until you know enough to find your way.”
Lacey stared after him as he rumbled off in the opposite direction, watching until he disappeared from sight before turning toward town.
The stew was flavourless as ever, the aimless chatter of her dining companions as meaningless as ever, but Lacey hardly noticed, her mind on the day’s adventures and the morning’s choice.
If she were smart, Lacey would have set off down the canal path with the others that morning, but she had already demonstrated her lack of intelligence. Instead, she left before breakfast, snagging a few crusty rolls, a packet of nuts, and an apple from the shop before heading off back down the road to where her saviour had left her the night before.
She had waited no more than fifteen minutes before the tractor rumbled up. The driver gave her the slightest look of surprise as he stopped next to her, before nodding for her to get in.
“You sure you want to do this?” he asked her.
“I deserve it.”
“You know I will be strict with you. What you did yesterday was careless. I don’t know what sort of ideas you have, but this will be punishment, not some sort of romantic adventure.”
“I know,” Lacey told him.
“It will be painful. You will be bruised.”
“I know,” Lacey said mournfully. “I deserve it. If you meant me harm, you could have just left me. I trust you to be fair.”
The driver nodded once more, and drove on a few more minutes in silence. When he next stopped the tractor, he lept down with more grace than Lacey would have expected before turning back to help her down. Lacey’s hand trembled as he gripped it firmly to help her down. He kept his grip firm, but somehow reassuring, as he led her over to a stout stump. The tree had been hewn off at about waist height, and, judging by the positioning of the logs around it, had been used as a table by hikers in the not too distant past. The driver led her right up to the stump before releasing her hand.
He motioned to her legs. “I won’t mess about with your trousers. If we are doing this, it will be bare. Prepare yourself and bend over the stump.”
The prospect of punishment suddenly all too real, Lacey’s hands fumbled far longer than should have been necessary to adjust her clothing. When she had finished, she turned back to give one last pleading look.
“Don’t try that,” the driver replied, though his voice was soft. “We are only here at your request. Bend over or stop wasting my time.”
With new resolve, Lacey bend over the stump. “Good girl,” she heard him say, and the words touched her deeply, even through her fear and regret. “I should take a switch to you, but as you’ve cooperated and accepted your guilt, I’ll just use my belt. Fifty strokes.”
The number sounded very large to Lacey, but she was determined to take it. If this was the price of being saved from her own misadventure, she would gladly pay it. It was better than sleeping lost in the forest, she told herself.
As the first stroke seared into her behind, she wondered if that last thought were as true a she initially supposed. How was she supposed to endure fifty of these. She tried to think back to her condition the previous evening, tried to remember how lost and panicked she had felt, how desperate she was. This was better than that, she told herself. She screamed at the second stroke. This was deserved, she told herself, struggling to submit.
By ten strokes the struggle was getting the best of her. As much as she wanted to stay still, to show her repentance and take her punishment, she writhed helplessly. As each stroke fell, she wriggled to the side, trying to dodge the next even as part of her tried to stay put.
A few strokes later, she felt a heavy hand rest on her back, rubbing slightly in reassurance. “Stay still,” came a familiar voice, encouraging but not harsh. A sharp contrast with the searing belt wielded by the same man. With his encouragement, Lacey was able to stay reasonably still for a few more strokes before dissolving into incoherent sobs.
“We’ll take a break. Twenty more to go.”
Lacey remained draped over the stump. She felt the belt drape over her lower back- how could it be so gentle?- and a second, steady hand join the first, rubbing her shoulders gently, quieting her, settling her.
An age later, her sobs abated and the voice returned. “Are you ready to continue?” Lacey nodded, grasping the edge of the stump as hard as she could, the rough bark digging into her palms, the scratching pain insignificant compared with the throbbing ache in her behind.
She remained still for the final twenty lashes, more from exhaustion than anything else, but also with an acceptance. This felt warranted, right. She deserved this, she would learn, she would not wander off unprepared again.
Then the gentle hands were back, the voice soft and gravelly. “It’s over. It’s all over. You took it well,” he assured her over and over as she settled.
Lacey gasped shuddering breaths as she tried to process the pain, to process what he told her. It was over.
It was another age before she could rise and face her tormentor. He gave her a cautious smile. “I am proud of you. You were very brave to take that.” Lacey managed a small smile back, before realising that she was still half undressed. She bent down to retrieve her trousers from around her ankles, wincing as she worked the material back into place over her swollen behind.
“Come, I need to get to work, but can drop you into town first.”
Lacey regarded the tractor with suspicion. “I don’t think I can. . .I mean, I think I’d rather. . .”” the thought of walking was equally unappealing.
The driver chuckled and withdrew an old blanket from under the seat. “This should help a bit.” Lacey nodded gratefully, and climbed up into the tractor, wincing despite the improvised cushioning. The jostling of the tractor along the rutted path didn’t help, but Lacey told herself to accept this added torment as part of the punishment she had earned. All the same, she was relieved when the main street of the town rumbled into sight.
“There is a bus to the next town on the hour, picks up from the shop across the road. I doubt you’re in any condition for the walk.”
“No,” agreed Lacey with a wince. “I think I’ve had enough walking for a long while.” She bid the driver farewell, and watched him as long as she could. If not for the pain lingering in her behind, the strange encounter might have been a dream.
A bus pulled up. Lacey paid her fare and settled into a mercifully, unexpectedly plush seat- but a seat that nonetheless proved fairly uncomfortable for her. She might not have much of a walk today, but she had plenty to ponder.