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The back door leading into the kitchen flung opened, revealing a mud-caked Jo. She limped slowly across the threshold and stopped on the mat just inside the door to remove her equally mud-caked boots. Natalie and Tootie looked up from their books and stared slack jawed at the female equivalent of the Swamp Thing.
"Jo, is that you?" Natalie tilted her head left and then right, trying to get a better angle. The picture remained unchanged.
"Don't start, Nat; I've had a really bad day."
"I'll say, and you better be careful not to get any mud in the house. Mrs. Garrett spent all morning cleaning." Tootie chirped from her front row seat. "By the way, how'd you get so dirty, Jo?"
"You remember the railing on the highway that's in need of repair?" Jo struggled with the laces of her boots.
Natalie's eyes bulged from their sockets. "You mean the spot near dead man's curve?"
Successfully unlacing her right boot, Jo moved to her left one. "That'd be the one."
"There's a fifty foot drop off on the other side of that railing!" Natalie stood and moved towards her friend. "Please tell me you didn't roll off the edge of the cliff."
A pair of whites, set against mud-colored skin, rolled dramatically. "I wouldn't be standing here in one piece if I'd gone off the side, Nat."
Tootie pushed to her feet and moved next to Natalie. "So, what happened?"
"I had to turn sharply to keep from flipping over the railing, and I over corrected." Jo grimaced, flexing her sore knee. "I slid to the other side of the road and landed in a huge hole. I guess you've figured out by now that it was filled with muddy water."
"Gosh, Jo, you could've been hurt." Tootie zeroed in on the red stain that covered the knee of Jo's ripped jeans. "Oh, your knee's bleeding!" Hurrying to the sink, Tootie turned on the faucet and began to run cold water over a kitchen towel.
"Mrs. Garrett is going to ground you from riding your motorcycle when she finds out about this; probably for life." Natalie supplied, leaning down to inspect Jo's injury.
Jo stood to her full height and placed her hands on her hips, glaring menacingly at her two friends. "Not if she doesn't find out."
"Find out what?" A voice sounded from the door, and Natalie bit down on the edge of her lip while Tootie quickly swept the wet rag behind her back. Jo sighed and bent down to resume her struggle with her boot laces.
"Nothing that concerns you, Blair. Why don't you go find one of your magazines to read? I'm sure there's some survey or quiz on finding the perfect man that you haven't completed yet."
Blair, as usual, ignored the suggestion and moved further into the room. Getting her first look at her roommate, she started, but somehow, she managed to keep her voice neutral, hiding her concern with an air of disgust. "Jo, what on earth happened to you?"
"I joined the mud-wrestling team." Jo never looked up.
Natalie chuckled aloud, and then, realizing she was the only one finding humor in the situation, she quickly placed her hand over her mouth.
Blair ignored the outburst and hesitated for just a moment as she narrowed her eyes in thought. "We don't have a mud-wrestling team."
"I think we're about to," Tootie muttered under her breath, hoping Blair would drop the subject altogether.
Jo finally looked up at Blair. "I fell in a mud hole, okay? Now, Nat, do you think you can help me with this boot? I can't get a grip on the laces."
"Sure, Jo." Natalie knelt down next to her friend and tried to grab hold of the slippery laces.
"What mud hole?" Blair wasn't about to let Jo off the hook so easily. If Jo was trying to keep something from Mrs. Garrett, then she was trying to keep something from her, too.
"Just some stupid mud hole, Blair. What does it matter where it was?"
Blair glanced over at Tootie who suddenly found the design on the floor quite fascinating. She turned back towards Jo. "I have a feeling the location of the hole has everything to do with it."
"I'll say. If Jo had gone over the railing at dead man's curve, she'd be a goner." Natalie was so focused on her task; she hadn't realized she'd spoken out loud.
The color drained from Blair's face. "Dead man's curve?" Her whispered question was filled with shock, but mostly with something else, something very foreign to the always confident and in control Blair Warner fear.
Natalie worked quickly to loosen the laces on Jo's boot. "There." Pushing up from her kneeling position, she couldn't help but notice Blair's expression. "Um, Tootie? Do you think we could go over the lines of your play upstairs?"
"Huh?" Tootie looked over at her friend, immediately noting Natalie's head gestures towards Blair. If she didn't know better, she'd have sworn there was something terribly wrong with Natalie's neck. "Oh yeah, that's a great idea, Nat."
The two grabbed their books from the table and raced from the room. Jo and Blair were oblivious to their departure; their focus was solely on each other. Several moments of silence ensued until Blair finally spoke.
"Dead man's curve, Jo?"
Jo stepped out of her boots and nervously shuffled her wet socks on the mat. "Yeah."
"Where the railing is broken?"
Jo stuffed her muddy hands in her muddy pockets. "Yeah."
"Where the " Blair's question was cut off by Jo's explosive words.
"Yes, Blair, I almost rolled my bike over the railing at dead man's curve! And, yes, I know how dangerous that was! And yes, I know that . . . I know that . . ." her words trailed off into a whisper, "that I could've been killed."
"Oh, Jo." Without any regard to her new designer sweater, Blair leapt across the room and pulled Jo into an embrace. Jo slid her arms around Blair and squeezed tightly. Until that moment, she hadn't realized just how lucky she'd been. In the silence of the room, the two closed their eyes and clung to each other like a pair of twisted vines, separate but unable to exist without the other.
Blair was the first to pull away, and with a shaky hand, she moved a muddy strand of hair from Jo's face. "You need to get out of these clothes. I'll run upstairs and draw you a bath. Mrs. Garrett will be home soon."
Jo smiled. Blair was going to cover for her, just like they always did for each other. Nodding her approval, she reached for the hem of her shirt.
Blair returned the smile and turned to leave. At the door, she turned back to ask Jo if she wanted any bubbles added to her bath, but instead, she could only stare at the vision before her. Oblivious to anything else but removing the muddy clothes from her body, Jo had no idea she was being watched as she struggled to shimmy out of her shirt.
Even with mud-caked skin, Jo was quite the specimen with her muscled arms, broad shoulders, and firm breasts. A shade of pink colored Blair's cheeks, but she continued to look on in appreciation, even when a mud-laden bra dropped onto the mat with a loud splat.
When Jo finally moved her hands to the button of her jeans, Blair forced herself to leave the room, but not before she made a very important decision. There would definitely be no bubbles in Jo's bath water.
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