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I convinced Momma to let Mattie and Me drive over to Shelby for a few hours. Hink invited us to hang out at a restaurant on the edge of town. A late-night dive known for it's deep fried chicken tenders and crinkle-cut fries. 'Bout one of the only places around here, I reckon, you could get a banana milkshake. Heaven in a metal cup.
They could have gone to a bar or something, but I hear Hink doesn't drink alcohol. He's also not very good with women.
Hink's got himself a pretty big burger. Puts his elbows up on the table, holds the burger up and just about burries his face in it.
His friend's pickin' at a basket of fries, eyeballin' a rodeo magazine. Once in a while, he'll say holy shit or point something out to Hink. Tyler seems like an alright guy. Kind of an ass-kisser. You can tell Hink's everything that Tyler wants to be someday. Just another face in the posse.
"How long you been in rodeo?" Hink takes a long draw off his Cherry Coke. Takes another bite of his burger and ends up with sauce all over his face. "The announcer said something about a fourteen years record?"
"Yeah. I was 'bout five. My parents got me into 4H pretty young. Mattie and me started about the same time."
He looks at Mattie. "What events you do?"
"I used to do pole-bending and barrells when I was younger. Got into team roping, but I haven't done rodeo in almost two years."
I smile at Hink. "He was pretty damn good at it, too."
Hink puts the burger back in the basket. Wipes off his face. "Why'd you stop?"
I give Mattie that troubled look.
Mattie doesn't even skip a beat. "Had a few head issues." I'm about to say something when he just up and says, "few things I thought'd best be settled by a razor blade and a hot bath."
Tyler looks over his magazine, look on his face like he didn't know if he heard that right.
Hink has a blank look on his face. "Sorry to hear that."
"Not something I'm proud of. I got over it, though."
"Why'd you get it in your head to do something like that?" Looks like Hink caught himself running his mouth a little further than he wanted to. "I mean... sorry, kid. You can tell me to mind my own business and all." Shakes his head. "Yeah, just tell me to shut the hell up."
"I didn't see any way out of it. Let something eat at me. Got real worked up about it, just kept letting it ding at me. I was looking for an excuse. Picked a fight with Lem and used it as amunition."
Tyler's not very graceful on the art of changing topic. "Hey Lem, here's that bull you rode tonight. I knew I saw it here somewhere." He folds the page back and slides it across the table.
It's a page full of stats. A few pictures. Contractor information. "Sure enough." I look over the page and hand it back to him.
Mattie smiles at Hink. "Lem was highschool state champion in bareback last year."
Hink scoops up his burger again. "That so? Why the change to Bulls?"
I swallow the fry I'm chewin' on. "I've always wanted to ride beef. Always looked up to Bull Riders. I was born a year after Lane Frost died, but I've seen 8 Seconds, like, a jillion an'a half times."
"Bet your mom was proud of you for that ride tonight."
"She loves bull riding, but not when it's me doin' the riding. I'm surprised she let me do it."
"Looks like you got a future in it."
I shrug. "Maybe. Guess I should see where college gets me, first."
"Smart idea. Maybe we'll see you riding at CNFR next year?"
I giggle. "Claw my way up the ranks, first. Plenty of guys better than me. Be lucky if I qualify."
"Don't see why you wouldn't."
"All I can do is try, right?"
"That's the spirit, Lenk." He winks at me.
Mattie blinks at him. "Lenk?"
I shrug. I guess I don't get it either.
Hink just grins. "When I first met Lem here, he's so nervous that he said his name was Hink." He laughs. "'Juss figured I'd just call him Lenk."
Mattie nods like he's still lost somewhere. "Okay."
Feels like an honor to get a pet name from a pro bull rider. I'm happy as a fed baby bird right now. Best friend in the world sitting next to me. Hanging out with a local celebrity. Covered my first bull. What else could a guy want? I smile at Mattie. "It's better than Susan or something."
"I guess." He kinda frowns. Must have brought back some bad memories.
Hell, my head starts drifting in that direction.
"Now that's one mean rank." Everyone looks at Tyler. "You heard of this one, Hink? This Backdraft?"
Hink leans over and looks over the page he's holdin' up. "Yeah. Heard he's a real piece of work. Can't believe they got a snapshot like that. Some good timing."
I'm curious. Lean forward a little. "Mind if I look?"
Tyler holds up the magazine and turns it around to show us the picture, like a kindergarten teacher would do.
There's a guy on his way off the back of the bull, his hat just barely coming off the top of his head. Reminds me of that scene in the Snatch movie where Brad Pitt gets walloped in the face in slow motion. Where the punch knocks all the sweat and snot right off his face. The guy's face is mashed right into Backdraft's back hoof.
"What're the chances of something like that actually happening?" I sit back and cross my arms across my chest.
Hink shakes his head. "Slim to none. But on a bull like this, anything could happen. Reminds me a lot of Bodacious."
"Broken jaw and some busted teeth. Surprised a kick like that didn't knock his head clean off." Tyler ticks his tongue. Looks across his shoulder. "Think you'd ride something like that, Hink?"
"I'd wanna know more about that thing 'fore I was within thirty feet of it. I saw him at CNFR a year ago. Totally unpredictable. Like ten different bulls wrapped up in one." He runs a finger down the page. "You know if anyone's covered him, yet?"
"Not a one."
"Huh. Guess he'd be one to watch."
I smile. "I bet if anyone'd be able to do it, it'd be you."
Mattie elbows me in the side. Guess he saw me jumpin' into the ass-kissing pool.
Hink smiles back. "Well, the way you rode, I'd be willing to bet you'd have a fair chance someday. Well, after you get in a few more rides."
I nod. "Yeah. I kinda like my face where it is." I look at my watch. "Shit. I think we'd better start back for Burlee. Momma doesn't want me out too late since I'm riding tomorrow."
Hink pulls a pen outta his shirt pocket. Clicks it open. Grabs himself a clean napkin. "What's your email address? We should keep in touch."
I look at Mattie. Flush a little bit. "I don't have an email address. Only time I ever used a computer was at school."
"Guess I can't blame you. I never wanted one either, but the organization told me to get with the twenty-first century." He leans forward, fishes a wallet outta his back pocket that looks like a speed-bump.
"I should probably figure it out someday. If I do, you'll be the first one I send an email to."
He laughs. "Just don't be reeled in by all those Viagra ads an' stuff." Hands me a card from his wallet with his name on it. It's got his email address and phone number, too. "If you find yourself on the pro circuit, drop me a line. You're more than welcome to run around with me and my guys. I try to get to College Finals every year, I'll 'prolly run int'a you in Casper."
"That sounds cool." I stand up, stretch my arms over my head right quick.
Mattie folds his napkin just like it came out of the dispenser and puts it under the basket his dinner came in. He's always done it. A little tick of his. He stands up and shakes Tyler's hand.
Hink holds his hand out, shakes my hand with a firm grip. "Nice to meet you man. We'll see you on the field tomorrow."
Mattie and I take to the parking lot, walk back toward the truck. "I think he's taking a liking to you."
I bump shoulders with Mattie. Blind affection. "Really?" I smile. "What gives you that idea?"
He eyeballs me. "Oh, you know what I mean. He wants you to run around with his little gang." He smiles. Looks like he's tryin' to be coy.
"I'm a far ways from that, Shadow. He'd probably be retired before I could even break into the PBR."
He shrugs. "You never know." Sighs. "You think Tyler and Hink are... well, you know."
I look at him. Giggle. "Tyler's got his head so far up Hink's ass," I point at Mattie, "and I don't mean in that way, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins."
"Now that you say it, I guess Tyler is a little bit of a yes-man."
I unlock the passenger side of the truck for him. Look him up and down from top to bottom. "So, what you say we find a place off the side of the road somewhere?"
He blushes. Smiles. "Why, Lem, what ever do you mean?"
I look around the parking lot and make sure nobody's lookin'. Take off my cowboy hat and put it on his head. "I'll let you figure that out." I turn around and walk to the driver side.
# # #
The buckle bunnies, they start 'em out young in Montana. We're at the barn dance just after the finals part of the rodeo. I've got on a shiny new belt buckle. Just as big as Mattie's satellite dish. I still got to figure, how the hell did I outride Hink?
I ran into Heather just after my ride. She came down and gave me a big 'ol hug, congratulated me. She wasn't gonna go to the dance, but I told her she should stop by. Talked a little bit before her mom tugged her off in the other direction.
Me and Mattie, we dance with all the pretty little señoritas. All the line dances and two-steps. The slow dances. It's like the girls are lining up to dance with us. Every girl from fourteen on is batting her eyelashes, tryin' to make pretty. I think it's about wearing me out. I even got asked to dance by little miss Gracie Bane. She's five or six. Had to dance with her standing on my boots for a little. I just ended up picking her up and holding her to my side. She was just tickled pink. I even got a kiss on the cheek when the dance was over. Now there's a polite young lady.
Mattie's got a little following of his own. It's funny to see, on account he's always been so awkward around girls. But I'll catch Mattie's stare once in a while. We just look at each other like we know where we want to be. The smile on his face...
Joey and Heather been sitting at the table most of the night. From the looks of things, they're having a good conversation. Once in a while, someone'll get them out to dance, Heather more so than Joey. There's this one kid, looks about fourteen, who's asked Joey to dance several times. Skinny kid who's about her height. He's about as gawky as Mattie is, too.
I catch Mattie between Dances. Looks like he's getting as hot and sweaty as I am from all this moving around. "We should get Heather and Joey up here before too awful long. Before they think we forgot about 'em."
Mattie nods. "Proly' a good idea."
We start for the table. "Should we switch after a dance or two?"
He grins at me. "I don't think they'd dance with each other."
"Smartass." We walk up to the table. I tip my hat at Heather. "Ladies."
Heather smiles. "It's about time!"
"Shall we?" I take Heather by the hand, lead her over to the dance floor. We waltz to Strawberry Wine.
She's two left feet when it comes to waltzes. Kicks my foot a time or two. "Sorry."
"It's okay." I smile at her. "Havin' a good time?"
She grins. "Yeah. I don't get out often, so this is pretty nice." She looks up at me. "Nice buckle you won yourself."
"Thank ya' kindly."
"I like this song. Don't hear it too much, anymore. Always reminds me of home."
"Something about it. Don't have to be away from home to be reminded of it."
"Guess not." I look across the dance floor and spot Mattie and Joey. I never realized Mattie was so good at the waltz. So is Joey. I bet you could put them in a fancy dance competition somewhere. Mattie really is a good dancer if he's comfortable with the person he's dancin' with. My minds on fire with thoughts of Shadow.
Heather squeezes my hand. "What'cha thinkin' about."
I shake to. "Off in space. Just thinkin' about friends. How things change."
"Can't hold time still."
"We should hang out a few times before you go off to College. I don't have much in the way of friends, and I'd like to have something to look back on when I get old." It looks like she's forcing a smile.
"Definitely. Maybe we could get the horses together or something." I pause. "You 'n Joey were sure talkin' up a storm."
"That girl's a hoot and a half." She leans in a little. "I think she might be a little off."
I raise an eyebrow. "Off?"
"Well, like her head isn't in the right place. Not that I have a problem with it or anything. But I guess she does come across as a bit boyish, so it shouldn't surprise me." The music fades out. We stand there for a second. She looks down at the floor, then into my eyes. "I'm sorry, Lem. I hope you don't think none less of me."
"Talkin' bad about one of your friends like that. I shouldn't have brought it up."
"Heather, if you could get to know her as a person, she ain't bad at all. Definitely the girl you want on your side in a fight. Trust me, she can throw a mean hook."
"I don't have a problem with her as a person. Not at all." She leans forward, whispers to me. "What if she hit on me or somethin'? I don't know what I'd do with myself."
"She won't hit on you. You can be straight and still have friends like Joey. It don't mean nothin'."
Her cheeks flush.
Mattie walks up. Holds his hand out to Heather. "May I?"
Heather smiles, looks at me, then at Mattie. "I declare."
Mattie leads her off for a two-step.
I laugh a little inside. Hold my hand out to Joey. We start dancing around the floor.
"Well, I do declare!" She puts a hand on her chest. "De-caly-or! Think she's from the south?"
"I think she's from here. Her Mom must say it or something."
"It's like she just came out of a finishin' school or something." She smiles. "Miss Congeniality. Be careful. I think she's takin' to Mattie."
"She better not," I joke. Look over my shoulder at them.
"Oh, how sweet! You're jealous!"
I laugh. "She thinks you're a hoot and a half. You like her, don't you?"
She slaps my arm. "Lem!" Looks around. "So what if I do?"
"I don't think she swings that way."
"She needs some friends. I don't think she has any."
"What makes you say that?"
"She told me." I spin her a couple times. "What if we were all to go campin' next weekend? Take the horses out and ride somewhere for the night."
"Well, you, me, Mattie, Heather. Maybe Chase."
Joey sings part of the song. "Some broken hearts never mend... I think it'd be fun. How'd you convince your parents to go camping with a bunch of chicks?"
"That's why my sister would go. It's not the chicks Momma has to worry about."
"Yeah, but it's not like she knows."
"Let's just hope she doesn't find out." I sigh. "Just, whatever happens when we leave for school, please keep an eye on Heather. She's had a rough life."
"I gathered." She shakes her head. "Don't worry. I'll watch out for her."
"She suspects things." I grin at her.
"What'd you say?"
I shrug. "I didn't say anything! She said she didn't care if you was, but she didn't know how she'd take it if you were to, say, get fresh with her."
She laughs. "That's what everyone says."
The DJ switches the song to Me and my Gang.
Her eyes light up. "I requested this! I told Mattie I'd have him for a good two-step." She smiles. "'Scuse me."
By the time the singing starts, they're dancin' like old pros. Spinnin' around and sweepin' up like they own the floor.
I sit down next to Heather. Give my feet a chance to rest. "Pretty good, aren't they?"
"I could see why you were upset." She looks at me. "You're lucky to have him."
I clasp my hands together, look down at them. "What do you mean?" Look over.
"He thinks the world of you."
"Can't figure why."
"I think it's sweet of him that he's thinkin' about following you to South Dakota."
She gets a worrisome look in her eyes. "I thought you knew. Don't tell him I told you. Please."
"He'd be plain stupid to turn down a full ride. What the hell's going on in that head of his?"
"He said he'd figure out a way to make it work." She sighs.
"I'd smack the crap outta him if he did. What else did he say?"
"Hinted something 'bout you two."
"Ugh. Shit." Shake my head. "That kid's gonna be the end of me."
"I kinda put things together myself. I asked him about it, but he didn't say either way. Is it true?"
"I don't take it you're the type that'd freak out and tell everyone if it were."
"Who'd I tell? Reagan?"
I sigh. "Reagan already knows. I just don't want people finding out because I don't want Shadow gettin' hurt." I blink at her. "I'm waitin' for the hammer to fall. How's it that everyone's just okay with Mattie n' me?"
"I told you I don't have a problem with gay folk."
I keep a hushed tone. "I'm not gay."
"I... I don't understand."
"Mattie's the only one I could be with like that. I can't explain it." I hold my head in my hands. " I really don't know why he's the exception to the rule."
"I'd be a hypocrite if I thought less of you and your Mattie."
"I thought you said you weren't that way."
She glares at me from under her eyebrows. "I meant this." She points at her wrists. "People won't talk to me because of this. This... stupid... little... scar." She leans closer. "They're afraid to get to know me because they think I'm gonna try to kill myself again. They don't want to get attached. So far you and Mattie and Joey are the only people in this whole... goddamned county who will have anything to do with me. We all got hangups. Most people should be grateful to know people like y'all, you know that? Most people here are narrow-minded little pricks who can't see past their own ding-dongs. Far be it from me to turn down a friend or two."
"Welcome to the ass-end of the U-S-A." We look over the dance floor, watch Mattie and Joey dance. There's a pressure in my bladder tellin' me I should hoof it to the boy's room. "I gotta use the restroom." I stand up. "I'll be right back."
The bathrooms are across the path from the barn, next to the rodeo arena entrance. I think the whole fairground complex was built around the old barn. Guess they figured they could keep it for social events. The Shriners meet there once a week. So does the Elks Club. They built in a little kitchen, converted it to a meeting hall of sorts. Every year around this time, they throw open the doors on both ends of the hall, call in the DJ and throw a little party.
There's a small line of guys waiting to take a piss. I wait for a while. Finally get a urinal. Have to concentrate. Don't like it when there's a crowd and I'm tryin' to take a leak. Takes me a bit, but I finally relax enough. Two shakes, button up.
I walk back to the barn. Joey and Heather are sitting at the table. "Where'd Shadow go?"
Joey looks out the door on the south end. "Went to catch some fresh air. Get away from all the girls." She smiles.
I turn around. Go to find him. Stop just outside the door and let my eyes adjust to the dark. I look at the sky. Feel this cool breeze. Nothing but stars. I forget how big the Montana sky is sometimes.
The door leads to a large lawn that they hold weddings on from time to time. There's a little crick up near the fence. I can't make it out in this light, but I can hear it. Just barely make out a person standing by the fence, way out of the light. Nobody'd even see you, if they didn't think to look. I walk over hoping it's Mattie.
Shadow looks over his shoulder. "I love it when the moon's hiding. You can see every star in the sky from here."
I stand next to him and look up. "Think they're any little green men lookin' down on us?"
"What you think they'd say if they saw us out here?"
I can hear him smile when he talks. "We'd probably end up on some alien wildlife documentary show or somethin'."
"We should use our belt buckles and signal them down."
He leans his head on my shoulder.
I look off in the distance, see black shapes where the mountains are. The twinkling skies. The music in the barn echoes through the valley. Starts playing Momma's favorite Etta James song.
"Dance with me."
He lifts his head, looks toward me. "What if someone sees us?"
"It's so dark out here, I can hardly see you two feet away. Don't worry."
I can make him out looking around. He puts his hand in mine, sways with me a little bit. "Feels funny being out here in the open like this."
I put my arms around his hips, pull him closer. He hugs around my back. We just sway, step in beat to the music. Dancing to a song that every person in love thinks was written for them. A moment I will share with one person, too selfish to share with anyone else. Pressed cheek to cheek. A floating feeling. Two hearts carried away on wings. A gentle kiss here and there. Separated from everyone else by a field, alone, where people like us stay out of reach. To be all we are.
His touch, his warmth. Nothing need ever be said again.
# # #
I sit on the front porch and stare off down the lane. Just lost in myself. Nothing really going on upstairs. The breeze is picking up on the plane, which means we might have one hell of a storm later on tonight. That's always been one of Momma's favorite things to do--sit under the awning out behind the mud room and watch the thunder storms pass. When we were kids, if she saw a storm comin' in, she'd bake fresh cookies, and we'd sit out there with a handful each and a glass of milk.
Mattie was always so afraid of thunder claps. Sometimes he'd get caught over at our house and have to wait out the storm. I can always remember the look on his face when he was little. Nibblin' at a cookie like a nervous bunny, just hiding behind the thing best he could. Huge orange eyes darting around like a humming bird. Then the lightning'd strike and he'd lunge at me and hold on for dear life. Just burry his face in my side and shake like a leaf. First few times, why, Momma'd try to comfort him, make sure he was okay. He wouldn't let anyone near him except me. Momma always thought it was cute.
I guess we were just raised that way. We knew there was nothing in the storm to be afraid of.
Jason comes out with a duffel bag over his shoulder. Lets it fall and land on the porch.
The jolt shakes me to attention. "Jesus hopped up Christ, you got a corpse in that thing?"
"He's still in the shower. Got a long drive to Texas." He sits down next to me. Punches me in the arm.
"I thought you two were flyin' over."
"Gotta get my car down there somehow."
I punch him back. "Asshole. Why'd you lie about the car?"
"I didn't want Momma asking a lot of questions about how I got the money for it. Dad knows, kinda."
"How does Dad kinda know?"
"Because I told him it was from my hazard pay. You know Mom'd shit a puppy if she heard that."
"Where is Momma?"
"Cleanin' up the breakfast mess."
I sigh, sit back. "Jason, what do you really do?"
"I can't really say."
"It's national security. Lamont and I do a lot of the same missions and we're not even allowed to talk about it between the two of us when we're alone."
"You're full'a shit."
"Look, all I'm gonna tell you is that when I'm on a mission, most of the time I don't even wear identification. If someone found my dead body somewhere, nobody'd know who I was."
"Now I know you're full of shit."
"It's true. I wish I could tell you some of the stuff I done. We have stuff that we use for recon missions that would just blow your fuckin' mind."
"Glad you found a job you like so much."
"What the fuck else would I do? Go off to college like you?" He gets me around the neck and gives me a noogie. "Just you stay in school and make something of yourself. I might just be watchin' you from a satellite somewhere, so you behave or I'll know about it."
I laugh. "Liar." Push him off me. "Why didn't you just fess up and leave the car here? You know Dad'd take good care of it."
"I know he would. I'm going to leave it with Lamont's mom until he can afford to get her a car of her own. She takes the bus everywhere, but we made an arrangement so that she takes it to church every sunday. Picks up some of her old lady friends on the way. That way it gets started once a week. She'll take it in and get the oil changed and get it serviced. I pay for that and the insurance. Lamont pays for the gas card. She wouldn't be able to afford it any other way." He shrugs. "At least someone's getting use out of it while I'm gone."
"Probably better off there than in Burlee. What are the payments on something like that?"
"Hell, I don't know. Not in debt. Don't have any other bills to pay. Just saved up all my paychecks until I had enough. Bought it outright."
"That's something else, you in a big fancy luxury sedan. Why didn't you get a nice pickup or something?"
"Not practical. Don't have any use for one off the ranch."
"I'll let you drive it next time I come home. Well, if the roads aren't snowed over."
"Think you'll be back for Christmas?"
"No. Probably not gonna happen." He looks around the yard. "You figure it out?"
I cock my head at him. "Figure what out?"
"That puzzle I sent you."
"Yeah. All those silver pieces. They make a little cube when you get 'em together."
"I couldn't figure out what the hell those were."
"Back when I got to Afghanistan, my corporal put one just like it down in front of me. Told me to figure it out. Took me three days to get the damned thing together. Came back between missions and just picked at the damned thing for hours on end until I got it put together right."
"I'll have to sit and figure it out."
He smiles. Pulls something out of his pocket. Drops it in my hand. "You're gonna need the last piece."
"You know, as soon as you turn twenty one, I'm coming home and I'm gonna take you to a tittie bar."
"Hell yeah! We'll make a real man outta you yet!"
"I don't need no titties to make me a man. You know better'n to fuck with a bull rider."
"Bull rider?" He laughs. "You're still wet behind the ears."
I start wailin' on his arm. "I beat a pro rodeo rider last night. How you like them fuckin' apples?"
"Shit! He let you win!"
"I won it fair and square!"
"I guess you did." He squeezes me around the shoulder. "I'm proud of having a brother like you."
"'Cuz I know you're gonna do great things someday."
"God, you got all sorts of weird."
"I know I did."
"Well, whatever it is you do, thanks for doing it." I grin at him. Knock his shoulder with mine. "Jarhead."
# # #
Mattie strikes the log pretty damn hard. Splits the log on the first go. We're taking turns with the ax. He gathers the logs in his arms and runs them to the wood pile. I get my log up there to split. Have to go at it twice.
Riddle's got about six cords of wood he wants chopped up, and he ain't gonna shut up until every splinter's been hacked and hacked again. He has to stand there and critique my ax swing every fuckin' time I try to do it. Mattie too. He kinda wandered off about half an hour ago.
I take another swing and get the ax all the way through this time. Lean over and start gathering my wood.
Mattie's walkin' back toward me. He just stops and looks forward without really saying anything.
I look over my shoulder.
Ronnie's standing there.
I stand up, take a few steps back toward Mattie. Join this odd little three way stare we got ourselves going. I nod. "Ronnie."
He rubs the back of his head. Looks at the ground. "Matthew. Lem."
Shadow just bites his bottom lip. He looks a little more than angry.
Mattie shakes his head. "We got shit to do." He turns around and starts picking up the wood I dropped. "Just fuckin' ignore him, Lem. He ain't got no good reason for bein' here." Mattie walks back to the wood pile with his arms loaded up.
Ronnie takes a few steps forward. Puts a log on the block. I get a little pit in my stomach when he takes the ax in his hand. Lifts it high over his shoulder and takes a swing. Picks up one of the halves and quarters it.
Mattie's standing there with his arms crossed. "What the hell you think you're doing?"
Ronnie sets down the ax, shakes his head. He leans over and gathers the logs up. Starts toward the wood pile.
Mattie takes a step back and stands next to me, kinda out front like he's guarding me from something.
Ronnie goes for another log. Halves it.
"You think cuttin' a few fuckin' logs is gonna make up for that shit stunt you pulled?"
Ronnie takes an angry swing and lodges the ax in the block. "I came to say some things. I fucked up." He holds his hands up to the sky. Slaps them at his sides. "I wanted to talk to you in private, before we got to a point that we'd never talk to each other again."
Mattie stands there with his arms crossed. Spits off to the side. "You can say whatever you came to say in front of both of us."
"Get your ass back in that truck, because I don't wanna listen to your shit."
I put my hand on Mattie's shoulder. "Hear 'em out, Shadow."
He yanks his shoulder outta my grip. Keeps fixed on his brother. "Say it or go."
Ronnie's voice cracks. "You're one of the few things in the world I love more than anything, Matthew. I'm not gonna say what I gotta say in front of someone like..."
Mattie takes a big step forward. Takes everything I got to get ahold of him. "Someone like what? Like WHAT Ronnie?"
The boiling point is being reached. They're both turnin' red in the face. Tryin' to holler over each other. "It... Tore... Me... Up that I could'a lost you again. It was worse that I was the one that almost killed you!"
"Someone like WHAT?"
"I don't wanna see you hurt, and I sure as hell don't wanna see you around with him." He points at me. "I came here to apologize to you because I couldn't live with what I done."
"Then you fuckin' apologize to Lem."
"I don't owe him nothin', I meant what I said." He rests his hand on the ax handle.
"Don't you fuckin' touch that ax, Ronnie, I swear to God."
"You don't need to be runnin' around with queers. You can get better friends than him and that dyke."
"Say it to my face!" It takes everything I got to hold Mattie back. He's a yelling, spitting mess. "You come over here and say it to my GODDAMNED MOTHER FUCKIN' FACE!"
"What'd Mom think if she saw you actin' like this right now?"
He shakes loose of my grip. "Well, what the fuck would she think if she fount out you held a loaded gun at someone and almost shot me?"
"You think this is some blackmail game I'm playin' with you? People like him are dangerous, Matthew! All he'll do is fuck up your life and probably make you sick with some disease."
He takes a few quick, long strides at Ronnie. "Who in the fuck do you think you are?" Mattie takes one long leap and ends up toppling them both over.
They roll around on the ground in a jumble of fists.
By the time I get over to them, Mattie's ended himself on top and he's got his hands around Ronnie's neck, choking the living shit outta him.
Ronnie's face is turning red.
"I told you I'd beat the living crap outa you..."
I grab his shoulders and pull him back. Try to get them apart. "Goddamn it. Knock it off before you both get us shit-canned!"
Mattie stumbles back, accidentally knocks his elbow into my side. They both scramble to get to their feet.
"Just what the holy hell is this goin' on here?" Riddle's standing just on the other side of the woodshed.
Ronnie looks over at the old man.
Mattie know's he's not gonna try anything. He walks up to Ronnie and pokes a finger into his chest. "Lemme tell you somethin'. I am what the fuck I wanna be, and I don't need you in order to live my life. I used to think you were different. If there was anyone who would take me for what I was, I thought it'd be you.
"I won't forgive you until you can show me and Lem both some dignity and Goddamned respect. We don't have anything else much left to talk about, now, do we?"
Ronnie starts backing away. "We're not done talkin' about this. This ain't over."
"Ronnie, this was over when you held a weapon to my best friend's face. Just, fuckin', save face and get yourself home."
Ronnie walks past us, back toward the driveway.
"Is there an issue here?" Riddle sounds like he's gettin' a little on the angry side himself.
"No issue, sir. I'm sorry, it's been taken care of." Mattie yanks the ax out of the stump and goes for another log.
Seems to be good enough for Riddle. He just walks off again.
"I don't wanna fuckin' talk about it." He swings at the log.
# # #
I walk into Reagan's office. Shut the door behind me.
She's sittin' there writing something down in a file. Got one leg crossed over the other. Kinda reminds me of one of those sexy librarian types people joke about. She closes the file and looks up at me. "Hey, Lem." She stands up, looks down at my hands.
I'm holding a long-stemmed rose and a card. "Well, seeing as this' our last session before I go to school, I wanted to give you something to say thanks."
She puts a hand on her chest. "Oh my God, that's so sweet. You're gonna make me cry!"
I hand it to her, give her a hug.
"You're such a gentleman." She holds her hand out toward the couch. "Have a seat." She puts the rose and card on her desk.
I sit down across from her. Take off my hat and set it on the armrest.
"So, how're things going?"
I smile. "I feel like I'm on top of the world." I pull my buckle out of my jacket pocket. Hand it to her. "Look what I won last weekend!"
She examines it. Runs a finger over it. Feels the texture. "That's really nice. You got first place?"
"My second ride ever. I outscored Hinkley Miller."
"Hink? He's a pro rodeo rider."
She nods. "Okay." Smiles. "You'll have to forgive me, I don't follow rodeo too close." She hands the buckle back. "How are you and Matthew?"
I blush. Chuckle.
"Good, I take it?"
I nod. "Yeah. I can't explain it, really. The feeling I get when I'm around him."
"That's what it feels like to be in love." She winks at me.
I shrug. "I guess. Heather told me a little something that's got me a bit on edge."
"You ran into Heather?"
"Yeah. She was at the rodeo. Came to the dance with Mattie and Joey and me."
"What did she say?"
"Mattie's thinkin' about following me to South Dakota."
She jots something down. "Where do you stand on that?"
"I wanna kick his ass."
She puts her glasses on her head, sits back. "For going to South Dakota with you?"
"Yeah. He's got a full ride scholarship to that school in Arizona. I don't want him to give that up because of me. He'd be stupid to do it."
"Do you think he's willing to make that sacrifice because he wants to start a more meaningful relationship with you?"
"Could be. But it's not like we could be like a man and woman and get married or anything."
"In some states you can."
"But I don't want him to give up a good future. He's got free school. He's all set. He deserves better than me, anyway."
"I want to come back to what you just said in a second." She writes something down again. "Have you talked to Matthew about it?"
"He doesn't know I know."
"So he told Heather, but not you?"
"Mentioned it while they were dancing."
"Have you thought how you'd bring it up, if you were to talk to him?"
"A time or two." I scratch my arm. "I know I'm gonna hafta' do it sooner or later."
"Are you two going to sustain a long distance relationship if you two are in separate states?"
I shrug. "Ain't thought about it."
She smiles. "I got a little homework for you."
"Before you talk to him, I want you to do something. Write a letter to him with everything you want to say. Why you do or don't want him following you. What sort of relationship you think you two should have. How you plan to stay in touch. Maybe mention how much you love him, and why you love him. Throw in a few good memories."
I swallow hard. "You want me to give it to him?"
"Oh, no. I want you to read it back to yourself a few times. Don't memorize it or anything. Fold it up. Destroy it somehow. If you can do it safely, maybe burn it. Do your parents have a paper shredder?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, I'm sure you could figure it out. However you decide to destroy the letter, just make sure it's not going to start a forrest fire or put anyone in danger." She smiles.
"Then why write it if I'm gonna destroy it?"
"It's a way to look at your thoughts on paper, so you don't say something you regret. It'll give you some foresight before you talk to him. Make the conversation a bit easier."
"Going back to what you said earlier. Can you elaborate on why you think Matthew deserves better than you?"
I shrug. "He just does. He's too good for me. I ain't ever done nothin' but caused him pain."
"I think he's deeply in love with you."
"He's a love-sick fool is what he is. I'd be selfish to make him wait four years."
"From what I know, it sounds like you're some of the best part of his life. Why do you think you've only caused him pain?"
"'Cuz I ain't no better than Jeff. I feel like I made him this way."
"Lem, sweetie, you didn't hurt Mattie like Jeff hurt you. From what you've said, Mattie wanted a relationship with you long before Jeff came along. Whoever this Jeff guy is, he practically raped you.
"What you and Matthew have is defined, non-superficial. The difference between you and Jeff is that you're trying to keep Mattie from getting hurt. You want what's best for him. I think that's very unselfish of you. Jeff had motives. He was unstable."
I look down at the floor. I feel ashamed right now. A little dirty. "If you say so."
She pauses. "How do you think he'll take it if you two have to break up?"
"I think he'll be sad for a while. I know I'm gonna be none too happy about it. I think he needs this, though. College, I mean. Get out and make a life for himself."
I nod. "Yeah."
"What if he doesn't want to go separate ways?"
"It's not like I'm gonna stop talkin' to him. I mean, we'll still see each other once in a while. Talk on the phone. There's somethin' in me that tells me I should let him free."
"Is it that you want him to be free, or do you want to be free?"
"I want him to be happy, and I won't let him throw away his future because of me."
"Sounds like you've got yourself quite a pickle, doesn't it?"
I sigh. "Yeah. I didn't want to have to think about this right now. Can we talk about something else?"
Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!