Thanks for reading!

Any use of real places, events, corporations or products within this text are strictly for the purpose of adding realism and authenticity to the writing. Critiques are always welcome. Also, please let me know what you think of the format. If you want more information about any rodeo events, there are tons of resources online.

Written exclusively for Nifty Archives. This story involves sexual relationships between boys, aged 15 and older. If this is illegal in your area, please do not read on. This story is work of fiction. Any similarities between real places, people, and events is completely coincidental and unintentional. If you read the archives frequently, then you know the drill. Take the rest with a grain of salt. This story is (c) 2007-08, Milos. All rights reserved! Please do NOT repost this story without permission.

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"Mattie comes in this week."

"You happy you're getting to see him?" Reagan shifts in her chair. Pulls at the back of her skirt.

"Yeah." I smile. "It's been miserable the way he always disappears like that. Finally at a point where we're actually talking every other day or so."

"Think he wants to re-establish a more meaningful relationship?"

I sigh. "I don't know." I fidget with my jeans. "Reagan?"


"How, um... where does a guy go to get tested?"

She puts her glasses on top of her head. Leans forward. "Tested for what?"

I feel a tingling in my cheeks. "Um, dirty things."

"Sexually transmitted things?"


"Have you done something that you think you're at risk for?"

"Well..." I clasp my hands. "I just don't wanna do something with Mattie with something like that over my head. It was that thing Rook told me. I've just been scared to do it."


"I'm scared they might find something wrong with me."

She leans back. "That's just part of being responsible. Either way, you should probably see your doctor."

"I don't know if I could see my doctor. We've been seeing him since I was little. He might say something."

She shakes her head. "Lem, he cant legally say anything. Is it a comfort issue?"

I nod. "I guess."

"I know there's a Planned Parenthood in Great Falls. You call them up and make an appointment. They do a blood test. They've also got HIV tests they can do in about twenty minutes where they take a swab of your mouth. Costs about a hundred dollars for a full screen."

I shake my head. "I don't know if I could do it alone."

"It's hard, but it's the right thing to do. I'm glad you're trying to be responsible. Why not take your sister? She seems okay with things."

"Maybe." I shrug.

"You have any reason to go to Great Falls? Any excuse that could get you out of the house without suspicion?"

I lean back and think. "Still got a little Christmas shopping to get done. It's shit I could get over in Havre, though."

She smiles. Holds her hand out to the side. "Road trip! Good chance to bond with your sister a little bit. Get that last bit of shopping done."

"That's a decent idea, I guess. Mattie doesn't get in for two more weeks. Maybe I could get her to go down this weekend."

# # #

I'm on my way home when the cell phone rings. The display says it's Skyler. I get a little pit in my stomach. I haven't really talked to him since I went back to South Dakota to get my stuff. I hit the send button. "Hey, man. Long time no see."

"Yeah, has been a while, hasn't it?"

I smile. "A little." I can't really think of what to say. "Thanks again for helping me load my shit."

"No worries. Wouldn't leave you high and dry like that." Sounds like he's trying to get at something.



"Man, I'm sorry about that brawl back in Tulsa."

"Dude, I said some shit I shouldn't have. Honestly," he stalls, "I was scared because I kinda liked it." Chuckles softly. "Well, I liked it a little too much for my own good."

"Think you'll find a guy and try it again?"

He sighs. "Lem, you'd be the only one I'd ever trust to do something like that."

I think about it for a second. Chew on it. "That means a lot to me. Thank you."

"I miss hanging out. It's quiet around here without you."

"You miss hanging out, or you miss the sex?" I laugh.

"A little of both. Hold on." The phone crinkles a little. Hear mumbling. "...yeah. Thanks. Sorry. Hey, uh, Lem, I got a little bad news."

"Shit. Don't tell me that."

"Well, Brian's in a world of hurt right now. He's barely talking to anyone. Took to the bar pretty heavy, lately."

"What happened?"

"Remember that nice little head-wound he got? He and Brynn kept fighting about it. Guess she got sick of it and said it was either her or the bulls. They broke up."

"Oh, no."

"There's more. She's pregnant."

"Oooooh shit."

"Yeah. She told him he didn't need any help from him, and that she didn't want his damned money. She's gonna go it alone."

"Did they try to work it out?"

"She told him she didn't want to talk to him. I don't know what's up. The kid coming into the picture made things a lot worse for him, I think. Would you call him? See if you can cheer him up a little? I tried and he won't say much to me."

"Yeah. I'll do it right now. I'll talk to you later on."

"Hey, Lem?"


"Sorry for being an asshole."

"Don't worry about it." I hang up and dial Brian.

It rings through to the voicemail the first time. I try back.

He talks really quiet. "Yeah?"

"Brian? You okay, man?"

Long pause. "I'm alive, not that it counts for shit."

"I hear you're beating yourself up pretty bad over Brynn."

"Ah, hell, ain't about her, no more."

"The kid, then?"

"Who told you 'bout that?"

"Skyler mentioned it. He's worried about you. So'm I."

"Well, it was bound to happen. Girls just don't like rodeo when us guys're off chasing the next ride. They're all the fuckin' same. I wish I could stand the thought of being with a guy, 'cuz it just seems like it'd be a hell'uva lot easier."

"Brian, it's not easy. It's never been easy."

"How come? How can you do it like it's so natural?"

"I've been with a girl, Brian. It never felt right. I was just lucky I had Matthew in a place like Burlee. I couldn't have been like this without him."

"So, you wouldn't be like that without him?"

I pause. "I don't know how it'd be. I got a lot of regrets, Brian, I do. But being with men isn't one of them. There's as much baggage with a guy as there is with a chick."

"Gay... Straight... nothing ain't easy, is it?"

"Told you I'm not gay."

"No no no no. Didn't mean it like that." I hear him slurp something. Hear a clinking noise, like a shot glass being put down.

"You been drinking?"

"Just had a beer or two."

"Or ten."

"So? I've had a couple."

"Brian, go home."


"Go home and sleep it off. Call me tomorrow. You're letting go of a good thing, man. I'll try to help you through it any way I can, okay? I want you to have a clear head so you remember what I say."

He pauses. "You better call me. I'mma forget."

"I will. Go home."

# # #

A baby starts wailing. Just screaming it's little head off. I look over at it. His momma smiles nervously at me. Rocks the baby back and forth and starts shushing it.

Chase leans over and whispers in my ear. "I hate places like this."

"Don't you tell me you've been in a planned parenthood before."

She rolls her eyes. Leans her head against my shoulder. "I have needs, too, Lem. I'm nineteen, I can make my own decisions."

"Some reason, that don't reassure me, much."

"Give me some credit. I've been on birth control since I was sixteen."

"Noooot listening. La la la la."

"Oh, stop it. I started to take it to help with my cramps. I didn't have sex until you and Jason were far enough away that I knew you two wouldn't kill my boyfriend."

I laugh softly. "You waited 'till I left for school?"

"The night you left."

"Okay. Okay. No details." I start taking a sip from a bottle of water.

"I know about Jeff."

I choke. Try to regain myself. Got water dripping down my chin.

She looks over at me, like it ain't no big deal. "Joey told me. And before you jump her frame for it, I begged her to tell me. I was kinda curious about you n' Mattie."

"You could'a waited until I was done drinking." I wipe off my chin. "I really wish she didn't. I was hoping you wouldn't hear about that side of me."

"What, the side where you like guys?"

"No. The one where I'm such a big asshole. I really don't mean to be like that. Things just got so damned confusing. Last few years, I've just kinda gone through life like a zombie or something."

"I don't blame you for anything. I still love you. No matter what."

We sit for a few seconds.

"Eric?" There's a nurse standing by the doorway next to the reception counter.

I walk up to her slowly. My feet are heavy, because this could be bad news. I scratch the back of my head, look at the floor as I walk up to her, look back at Chase, then back to the nurse. "Can my sister come in with me?"

She looks at Chase really quick. Gives me a grin. "Let's do the consultation and a few of the tests, first. I don't think you'll want her in there for some of them. I'll come out and get her when we're ready."

I nod. Lip some words at Chase. Be right back.

The nurse leads me through a few hallways, takes me to an examination room. Shuts the door behind me. "So, we're doing a little testing today?"

I shuffle in. Sit in one of the chairs next to the exam bench. "Yes, ma'am."

"You don't have to be shy. We've seen it all, and we're not here to judge you. My name is Karren." She sits on a stool. Clicks a pen and starts writing some stuff down on a clipboard. "Lets start by talking about why you're visiting us."

"I've, uh, had sex a few times. Few of them were unprotected. Being kinda stupid. An old friend of mine found out and gave me this big, long lecture about it."

"Sounds like a good friend." She winks at me. "How many partners have you had unprotected sex with?"

"Uhh, a few. Four." I feel ashamed. Sounds like a lot, when you're talking about it like this.

She writes something down. Doesn't even look like she cares. "How many same-sex partners have you had?"

"I... I-I-I... uh... I'm..."

She kinda giggles. "It's okay, Eric. There's nothing wrong with it."

I hunch over. Lean forward on my elbows and stare at the ground. "Four."

"How about girls?"

"There was one."

"Was she an unprotected encounter?"


"You have any symptoms you know about? Any discharge? Any itching anywhere?"

I shudder. "No, ma'am. Not that I recollect."

"Anyone you think might be of particularly high risk?"

I feel my cheeks buzz again. "The first person I was with, maybe. Don't know if he was exactly high risk, but the last time we were together, he ended up forcing himself on me."

"Sorry to hear that." She kinda frowns. "Did he rape you?"

"I'm told that's what it was. It was enough to make me question a few things, though. I've worked through it."

"Did you seek medical attention afterward?"

"No. We'd been dating up to then. Most people still don't know about me but my therapist."

She writes something down. "Did you ever press charges?"

"No. I don't want people knowing about me, or that I ever did stuff with a guy."

"We'll get a few of these tests out of the way so your sister can come in." She turns around toward a medical tray. Picks up this white strip of paper that's almost a foot long and an inch wide. Got plastic on one side. She splits it open, pulls out this Q-Tip that looks like it could probably clean the left ear from the right side. "This is the worst one. We'll get it out of the way first so your sister can come in."

"Uhh. What's that for?"

"One of the ways we test for certain STI's is with a swab. I'm not going to lie, it's going to be a little uncomfortable. It'll probably sting." She pats the exam table with her free hand. "Drop your pants and have a seat up here."

"Where does that go?"

She nods at me. "Inside your urethra."

"My who now?"

# # #

The nurse walks back into the room. Sets the clipboard on the counter and sits down on a stool. She looks at Chase. "Are you okay with your sister knowing your medical information?" She looks at me.

"If it's bad news, I don't know if I could do it alone. She's fine."

Chase smiles at me.

The nurse picks up her chart and looks down the page. Flips it over the top of the clipboard. Gives me a reassuring smile. "Well, you're negative for HIV antibodies. So I think you're pretty good, there. We're going to double check with the blood sample we took, which should take us about a week with our workload right now."

"Why's that?"

"I want to be a little more thorough because we did find a little something, but it's nothing serious. I'll give you a perscription for some antibiotics, and it should be gone in a week or two."

I feel the blood drain outta me. I am about to shit a puppy. "What?"

She smiles again. "Don't worry, it's not sexually transmitted. It's a Urinary Tract Infection we found with the swab. Pseudomonas aeruginosa." She pauses. "Been in any hot tubs lately?"

I can almost feel the floor again. She scared the living SHIT outta me. "Yeah. I ride around on the rodeo circuit. We sit in the Jacuzzi after a long day of riding, if the hotel has one."

"Chances are you got it from a hot tub or a pool that didn't have enough chlorine in it. It's the same bacteria that causes swimmers ear, ear infections, rashes, that sort of thing. You have any of those symptoms?"

"I get heat rash if I sit in the tub too long. Nothing I noticed."

She writes something down. "Well, in early stages, it's nothing serious. It'll be gone in a week or so. It can get really serious with people who wear contact lenses because the bacteria gets caught behind the lenses and grows. Do you wear contacts?"

"No, ma'am."

"Good. Since you didn't feel it when passing urine, I think it was a fairly new infection."

I think back to Tulsa for some reason. "Chase, cover your ears."

She does. Starts humming a little.

I look at the nurse. Talk quietly. "Can you get it from doing someone in the rear?"

"Through unprotected anal sex?"

I nod.

"How long has it been?"

"About three or four months."

"When's the last time you were in a hot tub or pool?"

"'Bout a week ago. I stopped in Thermopolis on my way home. Hung out at the hot springs for a night."

"I think that's more than likely going to be the cause." She smiles.

I nod at Chase. She uncovers her ears. I look back to the nurse. "So, nothing serious?"

"At this point, it doesn't look like it. We'll run the blood tests. If we find something, we'll call you back. If you don't hear from us, just assume that no news is good news. If you want to call and double check, just give our office a call and we'll be able to pull your file and check. Any questions?"

"The prescription, I can get it at any pharmacy, right?"

She nods. "You sure can." She writes something else, then folds the pages back over the top of the clipboard. "Let's get you checked out." She stands up, holds the door open for Chase and I. We stop just outside of the door. "I've got to get the doctor to sign off on your script, so I'll meet you at the counter. Just go straight down this hall and talk to the receptionist." She goes down the hall the other way.

Chase and I start for the front. I can't wait to get the hell outta here. "I can see why you don't like places like this."

"What do you mean."

"That was kind of embarrassing, them finding something... down there."

She sighs like she's getting a little annoyed. I can tell it's fake, the way she's doing it. Like she's trying to be sarcastic. "Lem, girls get UTI's all the time."


"First time I got one was from scented toilet paper. Try talking to an OBGYN about that one."


"That's a vagina doctor, Lem."

"Ugh, Chase, that's not what I meant." I shake my head. Shudder. "Let's talk about something else."

She pauses. "So," she says quietly, "what's butt sex like?"

My cheeks are on fire. I clinch my teeth, kinda growl and giggle at her at the same time. "Chase!"

"Just kiddin'..."

I have to talk to the receptionist looking like someone picked me off a raspberry bush.

# # #

Momma makes the best pumpkin pie. It's like the pumpkin cheesecake some restaurants make. It's worth sneaking a slice in for breakfast, especially since Momma and Chase went to Havre, and I didn't get up quick enough for breakfast.

I also got a cup of coffee. I'm happy as a kitten sleepin' on a warm patch of rug.

Dad walks in from the mud room. Seems he was out tinkering with the snow blower again. One of these days, I'm gonna get him a new one. I think he found the damn thing in the barn when my parents moved in. It always breaks down. Cantankerous piece of shit.

He goes to the coffee pot, pours himself a cup. "Sleep well?"

I look up at him as he sits down at the head of the table. "Yeah. Better than a hotel, that's for sure."

"How was the drive to Great Falls?" He's startin' to look a little long in the tooth, these days. Starting to go a little gray. Few more wrinkles under his eyes.

I shrug. "Roads were pretty clear. It was good to catch up with Chase."

"It gets quiet around here, anymore." He shakes his head. "Drives me nuts." He reaches for the pie, pulls it toward him. Cuts a piece and eats it right off the pie plate. "Mom's a little worried about you."

I chew for a second. Swallow. "Oh? Why's that?"

"She says you sound sad. Everything okay?"

I chuckle. "Everything's great. Really good."

He smiles. "I knew you'd make a pro rider outta yourself."

"You always said I would."

We both take a sip of coffee at the same time, like it was synchronized. He rests on his elbow, holds the coffee cup off the table in front of his face. "Uhh, your mom's concerned. With the bull riding, I mean."

"What, that I'm gonna get hurt or something?"

"Well, she always worries about that. You 'n Jason both. I guess it's an occupational hazard."

"What's she worked up about?"

He sighs. "School. She doesn't think you're going to go back since you've gone pro. She thinks you're gonna back out on your promise."

"Dad, how could I turn that down? It takes guys years to get into the Ford league."

"I know. And I know there's a lot of money to be made, too. She thinks you're throwing away your future."

Sounds familiar. "I told her I'd go back. Might be later than sooner. If I do this, Dad, I'll be able to pay for my school and everything else. It's what I'm good at."

He smiles. "I know, kiddo. I'm a little on the fence about it, but I have faith in you."

"You 'n Momma talk about it a lot?"

"She brings it up more often than not. It's all I can do to keep her from flyin' off the handle about it." He pauses. "Like I said, she thinks you're backin' out on a promise."

I sigh. "I'm not, Dad. I'm gonna go back. I just need to fudge that promise out by a year or two. I know you always say to live up to your promises and follow through. I will follow through. I just need more time."

"You know, I never went to college. You 'n Chase'll be the first ones to graduate with a college degree."

"What about Momma?"

"She's got vocational training. You didn't have to have a degree to be a veterinary assistant way back when she started."

"I don't want her to be mad at me."

"Lem, she's not mad at you. Or disappointed. She's just as proud of you as I am. She's a little concerned. You've got quite a bit of money wrapped up in school. She just doesn't want to see you throw it away."

"Well, I talked to the administration before I left. Made sure I'd be able to come back or transfer all my credits later. I thought about it all pretty hard."

"As long as this is what you really want."

He knows it is, but I lie to him. "It's all I've ever wanted."

# # #

It's hard to get away from family around the holidays, especially when you want to be alone with someone. A greater good conspires with me today. Momma had some last minute stuff to get, so she decided to spend the day in Havre. Chase went with her because she knew I needed some time alone with Mattie. She said she'd call and give me a heads up when they were on their way back.

Wouldn't do any good, Mattie getting caught with his pants around his ankles, and me wrapped around him.

Dad got called off for work, and he said he wouldn't be back until late tomorrow sometime.

Soon as he pulled out, I hit the phone.

I look out the window. See Mattie walkin' up the way all bundled up. His breath steaming out in clouds. I open the door and lean against the frame. Cross my arms and watch him get closer.

He stops at the bottom of the steps and looks up at me.

"You gonna come in or what?"

That smile. I've missed it, and as soon as he's on the other side of the door, I lead him in close by the back of his head and taste those lips.

He's got Twizlers candy on his breath. His mom always has a bucket of them around the house. It draws me to him that much more. His skin is soft to the touch. Slightest hint of his cologne. It's sweet, but a little different than it used to be. More grown up. He's... grown up a little more.

Lip locked, and how I've waited for this moment. Everything he does feels thought out, like he's been thinking about it just as much as I have. We shuffle to the couch in the living room, sit on the side closer to the fireplace. I get him out of his coat, never once taking our lips off of each other. Right now, nothing needs to be said.

The fire crackles, the light dances around us. The warmth of each other's embrace. I topple over on top of him. Time means nothing here, now. Judging by the light peeking in from outside, Mattie's been here for a little over an hour already. It's starting to get dark.

I run a hand up under his shirt and feel his stomach. Start kissing at his neck where my favorite freckle lives. I can melt him like this, even when he's in a mood. He caresses the back of my head. I look down his body, and something catches my eye. Something red.

I sit up and look at his tummy, where the shirt's lifted enough that I can see skin. Right on his hipline, just above where he wears his pants, about four inches shy of his belly button--a tattoo. A fleur de lis, just like the one on my chaps. Same design and all. Thick black outline, red ink.

I run a finger over it, lean over and kiss it. Looking in his eyes, it's like he's telling me it was for me, like he wanted me to find it. It's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me.

He sits up a little and lifts my shirt off. Kisses my chest.

I start to lift his shirt off of him, but he puts his arms down. Pushes me forward. Something in my gut tells me this isn't him being playful, he's trying to hide something. Readjust myself a little, pull him against me and hold him. Slide my hands up the back of his shirt. He still doesn't let me take it off. I whisper in his ear. "What's the matter?"

He hedges. "Cold in here."

It's got to be damn near ninety this close to the fire. "I'll keep you warm."

He chews on the inside of his mouth, stares into the fire. Absentmindedly fiddles with the strings of the bracelet he gave me so long ago. The one I have a permanent tan line from.

I get his shirt up to his nipples before he lifts his arms up. I pull it over his head, pull him against me again. I start kissing his neck, but it feels strange because he hasn't really moved. My eyes fall on his shoulders. Several lines of raised scars that weren't there before.

He looks away when I run my finger over them. Must be a dozen or so. No... more. Scares over scars.

"God, Shadow..." I hug him again. Kiss his scars and burry my face in his neck. "Just where the hell'd you learn to do something like that?"

He sighs. "Never could figure out why my world was so upside-down. I'm not proud of it. Just found myself in a dark corner for a while. It felt too good to bleed."

"Mattie... fuck! Why?" I squeeze his arms. "Why?"

"I was stressed. I was lost. I don't know, it was just a way to blow off steam."

"It's a fuckin' cry for help! I thought you said you were over wanting to kill yourself."

"I am. I just had to remind myself of that."

"There're, like, layers of scars there."

"Well, life's shitty sometimes."

"You're too beautiful to do that to yourself."

"Heh. Shit."

"Please, just stop it. I've lost you so many times now, it just hurts. I don't want to lose you forever."

"I'm an ugly person, Lem. I'm horrible inside. All these bad thoughts."

"You're not ugly to me. Don't you ever say that again. Personally, I think you need to go back to therapy and talk to someone."

He sighs. "I have been. For a year now. Those are old scars." He hugs me. "Stop worrying so damn much about me."

"I worry about you because you keep disappearing. Why didn't you ever tell me?"

He almost yells it. "Because I was ashamed and I thought you'd stop talking to me."

I just bite my bottom lip and shake my head. One of those times the walls feel like they're coming in on me. Like I'm front seat to these horrible things Mattie does to himself.

He blinks a few times. Looks like he's trying to hold back tears. "Why do you even put up with me?"

"Because I love you. Look, if shit gets bad, call me. Please?"

He wraps his arms around me again, rests his chin on my shoulder. "When you start riding again?"

"You're hedging me."

"I don't wanna talk about it anymore."

"What if I do?"

"I came over here to enjoy what little private time together we could. I felt good until five minutes ago. Please, just drop it."

I grit my teeth for a second. "My first Ford show's in New York City second week of January. Made it to all the invitationals after that."

"God, that's somethin'."

"I'll be passing through Arizona in February. What if we got together?"


"I've got almost two months off starting in May."


"I was thinkin' about gettin' apartment in Phoenix, for when I'm not on the road. Got enough saved up I can live for six months."

"What about school?"

I kiss his neck. "Gonna transfer my credits. There are a few places in Arizona that I can do online courses while I'm on the road. I think it's gonna be the only way I'm gonna be able to keep momma off my ass and still ride."

He hugs me tighter. "Did you mean what you said?" He seems so small right now. Almost like a big kid or something.

"With what?"

"That you love me?"

"Mattie, I really do love you."

He puts his lips on mine. The most gentle kiss in Montana.

# # #

I'm watching a set of prelims from the fence on the stands side. On the ground level leaning against the gate, just resting my arms up on a rung about four or five from the top. Peekin' through the bars. The news hasn't been good, lately.

I hate California as it is. When the rodeo comes to town, it brings out every fruit, nut and flake in the city. Sacramento has way too many hippies for it's own good. As Skyler says, the whole fuckin' bowl of cereal.

I got word that Brian tried to work things out with Brooke. After Brian found out she miscarried, he got despondent. She moved back to Idaho, and he headed south. In Texas somewhere. Skyler's workin' on getting his new number. At least an address. Nobody even knows if he's still in the rodeo. I never could figure out why she was okay with it until his accident. Shit gets so complicated, sometimes.

A rider falls off his bull a few feet in front of me. The bull runs toward the fence where I'm standing. I take a step back as it slams it's side into the fence and runs toward the back of the house. Stomps around a little.

I lean back up against the fence. To watch. To clear my mind. My rides gonna be coming up here after a bit. I get an itch in my balls, an anticipation. It's not about the ride, it's tied to Mattie. I got an idea in my brain, and I can't shake it. Something from one of those strange commercials. It unnerves me, a little. I don't know why.

There's a smell on the air. A cologne that's familiar, but it's not Mattie's brand. Takes me back to the sticks outside of Burlee. That trip to see Rascal Flatts when they came to Montana. The inside of Jeff's truck.

Why is it when I'm having these thoughts that everything comes crashing down like a landslide?

Someone leans up against the gate next to me. I don't pay no mind. People do it all the time, just come down and stand by the gate to get a better look. Kids, teenagers. Enthusiasts. Sometimes they try to talk to you. Sometimes they try to watch.

Heh. Landslides. February is two weeks away. There's a month between Mattie and Me. If I can wait that long. Eternal stretches of black asphalt, long yellow lines. Miles and miles between me and him. Dallas, Winston-Salem, Tampa, Tallahassee, Oklahoma City, Anaheim. Glendale, my saving grace. A stones-throw from Phoenix.

The voice comes like the click of a gun, the discharge of a bullet. "Susan..."

I turn my head to the right.

Jeff tips his hat, and everything I had in me just crumbles to nothing. Just becomes meaningless. He's standing there, leaning against the gate, watching the floor. "It's not like you to be so quiet."

"How should I be, then?"

"Seems the last time we met, you knocked my on my ass." He spits off to the side. Long, black string of dip. "How's your little Shadow doing these days?"

"You'd do well to remember what I told you last time."

"Then why let me ruffle your feathers?" He's pushing my buttons, his voice just wraps around me like a cold sunset.

I can't think of anything else to say. He don't know any better anyway. "He's dead."

"You're lying."

I watch the rider call the pull. The breakout. I try to keep from looking at him. "What the hell do you know, anyway?"

He chuckles. Spits again. "I'd like to think we all grow up over time."

"Then why come down here and bother me with it?"

"Been riding the Copenhagen tour. Came to catch the show, and who do I see standing by the arena dreaming of being a big rodeo star?" He chuckles. "It's Susan!"

"So you came down to preen? Good for you."

"Why are you here?"

"It ain't your concern."

"You think you're gonna ride with them, don't you?" He grins. Evil as can be. "Thought they'd let you ride in the Ford series if you stood down in the pit long enough?"

"Where the hell you been the last three years?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"I'm down here because I need to be."

"You need to be? You make it sound like a job."

"It is my job." I keep staring at the arena. I won't let myself look at him.

"So, guys can be buckle bunnies, now? Never figured you for the type."

"I have a prelim coming up."

"Really? When?"

"'Bout ten minutes or so."

"You don't have to lie to impress me. I know where you come from, and I know where you got your skills."

"You're sure as hell not the reason I'm here."

There's a silence that's a little unsettling. I look over at him, only to find nobody's there. "You're a nobody." His voice is all around me. His smell lingers. I turn around, look up in the stands where all the other riders are. Up and down the aisles. He isn't here. He wasn't there. A figment of my mother-fuckin' imagination.

Why is he haunting me? Why now?

# # #

Hink's sort of a ring leader, and he doesn't even know it. I'm walking around the stadium with him, Tyler, and three or four of his other friends.

They always set up these little expo shows in the halls, sell lots of products. Booths for western art, belt buckles, lariats, boots, you name it. Even the sponsors have exhibitions. Ford always has a truck that gets parked in the front somewhere, inside the event hall, if they can help it. Smokeless Tobacco. Enterprise Car Rentals. Local companies giving out information.

Tyler leans over to Hink. "What the hell's Chuck's?"

Hink looks at the booth and smirks. Got this smug grin on his face. "It's a western gay club."

One of the other guys, the stocky one, laughs. "Buncha' fags. Don't they have their own rodeo? Buncha guys in dresses or something?"

One of the other ones decides to chime in. "K-Y cowboys. Someone should say something. Queers ain't got no right being here."

"Someone's oughta drag 'em out back and shoot 'em. People don't get away with that sort of shit where I come from."

I feel like I'm trying to blend in the walls, just disappear. These guys would kill me, and they wouldn't think anything better of it.

"Ah, leave 'em alone. They've got a right to be here." Hink scratches his arm. "It's not like he's standing there in assless chaps or something."

"What'd it take, Hink? Next they'll be fuckin' each other right on the table, there."

I think the guy at the booth heard 'em. He kind of shoots us a dirty look. I'm hangin' to the back, lip I'm so sorry at him.

"Long as they keep it in their own bedroom, I really don't give a hoot."

"An attitude like that'll get you into trouble, one'a these times. You're too nice to people, especially to people who should be shipped off to some gay prison yard somewhere. Makes me sick. That guy probably has AIDs or something."

The stocky one kicks in a thought. "Why would they let them even set up a booth at an event like this? Shit, man, it's gotta go over like a can of smashed assholes."

God, I hardly know these guys. They would hurt Mattie, if they got their hands on him. It scares me. Makes me feel sick. Some feeling inside me guides my hand to the tungsten ring hanging around my neck. It's gunmetal gray with a thick red line around it. Matches my watch. I hold it in my hand, let the weight pull against the silver chain. For the last month it's been hiding under my shirt, but now I almost want to take it off and put it in my pocket. Far as they know, it could have been something for good luck. What if they get suspicious?

Mattie wants to meet up with me tomorrow, since he works tonight. Most of these guys are hitting the road after the show, heading for St. Louis. I might just go see what this club really is, maybe try to find the guy and apologize. Guilt by association. At least if I break of from the pack a few days, I won't be missed.

# # #

I find the club a little after nine-thirty. Park my truck down the street a ways and walk to the club. I'm cleaned up, dressed to the nines. Dressed in black, cowboy hat, one of the buckles I didn't win at a rodeo. I'm shivering. It's not because it's cold outside or anything, I just don't know if I can bring myself to go in there. Who knows what sort of people are in there. I won't fit in.

I stop on the sidewalk, stare at the door across the parking lot. There's a heavy guy sitting out front, checking people as they go in. A few cowboys walk across the lot. There ain't nothing screaming about them being gay. Just a few guys dressed a little like me. Boots, hats, wranglers.

I take a deep breath and start walking slowly toward the door. The closer I get, the further away it feels. Finally, I'm standing about five feet away from the bouncer. There isn't a line or anything.

"Hey, babe. Can I see some ID?"

I blush, or, maybe I was already blushing. I pull my wallet out, hand him my ID.

He looks at it. Holds it long way. Tilts his head back and opens his mouth. "Ahhhhhhhh. There it is. Never find the birthday on some of these drivers licenses." He smiles at me. Seems friendly enough. "Have fun." Hands me back my license.

I shuffle it away in my wallet and walk inside. I'm in a lobby of sorts. There's a bar in front of me, looks like there's two separate rooms. A guy in a dress leaning against the wall. He almost looks like a real woman. I can hear country music from the room to the right. See that there's a big, wooden dance floor in there. As I'm walking toward it, a small group of older guys stare at me and watch me walk by. I feel naked.

I go through the door, walk into the country side of the club. There's a set of guys two-stepping on the floor, like a man and a woman would. The guy that's following has his arm up proper, looks almost like he's a ballroom dancer. People lean up against the rails that look over the floor, sip on their drinks when the fancy strikes them. There are benches in the corner, kind of up on platforms. Guys with guys everywhere. Some of them kissing in the shadows. Look back to the dance floor in time to see a set of women, dykes, walk out onto the floor and start two-stepping alongside the guys.

I'm so lost right now. It's so new. So damning. The only thing I can think to do is walk up to the bar and get myself a drink. I don't drink much other than beer, occasionally. I decide to try Tyler's drink. "Can I get a whiskey sour?"

I pay for my drink and walk around the dance floor, pass another bar on the short side of the floor, walk past some pool tables. There's a boot shiner tucked away in the corner, kind of secluded from the rest of the bar area. A guy with brown hair finishing up with a client. I look down at my boots, figure they could use a good cleaning. After the guy steps off the chair, I walk up to the shoe-shiner.

"What do you charge for a polish?"

He smiles. Looks me up and down. "Well, we don't charge anything. We just ask for a five dollar donation to help pay for our equipment."

I nod. "Sounds fair."

"Hop on up." He holds out his hand, helps me up to the platform.

I sit down in this old metal tractor seat. Put my feet up on the risers.

The guy checks his watch. "Hold on for just a second. I'm supposed to be off, so my other guy should be here." He walks around the corner, through a doorway. Comes out a few seconds later, followed by a blonde guy carrying a bucket of water. Can't really see anyone's face in this light, not to mention the blonde is looking down. The first guy pats my leg. "He's gonna get you all taken care of. Hope to see you around again!" He winks at me and walks off.

I watch him take off across the dance floor. Almost runs into a couple doing the pretzel. I feel the blonde starting to wash the boots. Takes a rag with soapy water and scrubs the dirt right off them. Brushes the edges with a toothbrush.

"First time in Phoenix?"

"No, but it's my first time here, at this bar." I take a drink and look around, try to get the lay of the land.

"Good lookin' guy like you have a hot cowboy at home?" He starts massaging the top of my feet through the boots. Feels good. Damn, this guy has some strong hands.

I giggle, feel myself blush. "You might say that."

I look down at him as he starts to dry off my boots. He never really looks up at me while he's working. Just see the top of his head. Least he's not making me quite as uncomfortable as the rest of the people here. I can tell he's thin, gangly. In a red and white plaid shirt with his sleeves rolled up above the crook of his arms. He works expertly. Don't think I've ever had such a thorough boot cleaning before--not even when I do it myself.

"So, what brings you this way?"

"Following the rodeo. Decided to stop in for a few days and visit someone special."

He pauses a second. Goes back to drying. "That sounds sweet." He gets out a can of black polish. Turns it upside-down and holds a lighter under it. The light flickers across his face, dances with the flame. Almost alien to me, aside those...

...damned orange eyes. "Matthew Hedquist, don't you tell me you're trying to make a living polishing boots."

He grins on one side of his face. "People here call me Matt."

"You're polishing boots for a job?"

He laughs. "Nope. Whatever I make doing this goes to a charity."

I lean forward, whisper at him. "How did you even get in here, Shadow?"

He looks around, makes sure nobody's in earshot. Looks up at me, takes a few fingers full of polish. "Fake ID. I work on the weekends. Pick up empty glasses, clean up. Doing this is the only time I actually get away from doing that." He eyeballs me. Starts rubbing polish on my right boot. "Never thought I'd run into you here."

"Saw a booth at the rodeo. Some of Hink's friends were making fun of the poor guy who was working it. Thought I'd come down and see what this place was. Wanted to see if I could spot the guy and apologize for some of the shit the guys were saying."

Mattie takes out a polishing brush. Starts buffing the boot. "Like what?"

"People like us should be taken out back and shot. That sort of shit. Kinda scared me, Mattie. They wouldn't think twice about beating the crap outta either one of us."

He starts smearing polish on the other boot. Looks up at me. "It's part of living this way, unfortunately. Aaron's taken on his share of dip-shits in the parking lot."


"The eskimo looking guy out front. He's a teddy bear, but he can bend a guy in half."

"I wouldn't put it past him." I sigh. "Does your mom know you work in a bar?"

"She found out a few weeks ago. About this and a few other things."

"Uh, what other things?"

"That I'm gay." He just polishes his boots like it's nothing.

"How the hell'd she find out?"

He stops, looks back up at me. "I told her."

"Shit! Uh... Jesus, Shadow. How'd she take it?"

He shakes his head sadly. "I lost everything."


"Mom, Dad, Taye, none of them even want to talk to me. Ronnie's hard pressed to even answer his fucking phone whenever I call. But we talked last weekend. Ronnie and me did." He looks up again, shakes his head. Has a big tear in one of his eyes, eyelashes starting to clump together. "He said everyone thinks I'm mentally sick." He wipes his eye sockets across his sleeves. Pulls out a buffing cloth and starts running it across my boots.

I lean over, reach down and put my hand on the side of his face.

He stops buffing for a second, but just keeps staring at the floor.

I push my hand around to the back of his head, kinda rub it. Hold him with a hand around the back of his neck.

He starts again, quietly. Concentrated. Stands up when he's done, stands close to me with his hands on my knees. Puts his cheek up to mine. Steps back. "How they look?"

I lean forward, take a gander. "Never seen 'em sparkle so much." I lean forward a little further. The ring falls outta my shirt and dangles there by the necklace.

Mattie squints. "What's that?"

I grab it, hold it. I look at his eyes for a moment.

"I understand." He looks away for a split second. Kneels down and starts cleaning up his station. Caps the shoe polish. Scrubs his hands in the bucket.


He shakes his head. "It's on the house."

I hop off the platform, take the necklace off. Slide the ring off the chain. I squat down next to him and put my head on his shoulder. "You gave me something once." I pull up my sleeve a little, show him that I'm still wearing his bracelet.

He sighs. "Excuse me, I gotta get back to work." He stands up, leans over to pick up his bucket.

"Mattie, fuck sake, stop a minute, would you?" I stand up. Stare at the back of his head.

He turns around, sets the bucket on the floor and crosses his arms.

"I didn't want to do this in a place like this. I've been holding onto this ring for a month now. I'm not the kind of person that'll get down on his knee and make a fool of himself in front of everyone. It's the only place I could keep it safe, Mattie." I grab his left hand, put the ring in his palm and wrap his fingers around it. "I know we can't be like a man and woman can. But that don't mean I can't give you a piece of me the way you did. I wear your scar with me everywhere. The only time I take off this bracelet is when I'm taking a shower or on a bull.

"This is my heart, Mattie. You can throw it away, you can step on it and break it, you can put it in a little box and hide it away somewhere, but I'm giving it to you." I sigh. I know I've got to be pretty red about now. Thank God there isn't anybody over on this side of the bar, aside a few lesbians sitting on one of the benches by the pool tables. "I'm yours. Entirely."

I can see his hand tighten around the ring. His frown kinda falls in a way I can't read him, and I don't like it. He holds up a finger. Turns around and starts to walk past me.

I turn toward him a little. "Mattie..."

"Goddamn it, just stay here a minute."

I don't like the sound of his tone. This isn't at all how I pictured it. Any of it. There should have been a nice dinner. A bottle of wine. The right moment. At a park sitting under the moon. I would have slipped it on his finger there. It's just me being all sentimental, I reckon.

He's not back after five minutes. I feel my heart sinking, like he's really squeezing the ring in his hand, trying to choke the life outta me. I lean against the shoe shining platform and sit on the edge. Rest my head in my hands.

Few minutes later, I get a whiff of Mattie's cologne. Look up in time to see him walk by.

He's got a bottle of Patrone by the neck. Slams two double-sized shot glasses down on the table and pours them both to the brim. He sets one in my hand, throws his shot and slams the glass back down on the table.

I take mine kinda sheepishly.

He almost rips the glass outta my hand before I'm finished with it. Pours two more. Takes his shot just as quick as the first, puts a lime in his mouth and pulls me over by the back of my head.

Gives me the kiss of a lifetime.

Forceful, playful, and totally filthy in that way kisses can be sexy. Passes me the lime. Takes his hand off my wrist and puts his arm over my shoulder, then the other.

I could get lost in this forever, but it hits me that we're in the middle of a club. It feels good with him, but uncomfortable otherwise. We pull apart. I take the lime outta my mouth and hold onto it. "Sorry, I was waiting for the right moment."

He slips the ring on his wedding finger, squeezes me. "I almost thought I'd lost you, too." I didn't think he'd wear it like that. I never expected it. It was just a small token, a gift. Now it's amplified; it means so much more.

"You've always had me, Shadow."


Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!