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The bull just kind of jumps up and down. Doesn't really turn much. He's a little black and white cow of some sort. Doesn't really know what to do, how to react. He's just trying to get the flank strap off. If he does, he'll probably just stop and stand there, look around stupidly with me sitting on his back and moo at his bad luck.
This seems easier than riding a bronc. At least a horse is going to put something into it. This training bull is boring. But it would be a mistake to think that riding a real bull would be this easy.
Mattie's sitting on the fence, watching me. Dawson's leaning up against the fence next to him. Jeff's running around the field near me, keeping a barrel between him and the cow. Makes sure I'm alright. Once in a while, he'll yell something at me. Where to put my feet. How to hold my body. How to ride that woman.
I grin at Mattie, make a face. He laughs. I think I about have this thing licked. My rope comes loose in my hand, and I bail off the side, hit the ground and roll face up.
"Get up! Get up! Get up!" Jeff already has the flank strap in his hand. The cow runs around a little, then stops. Looks around.
I just got the wind knocked out of me.
The cow walks up, holds his face down to mine and licks me. Huge 'ol cow tongue across my face.
Jeff shoes it off. Helps me up. "If that was a real rank, he'da squished you already."
"Guess the kiss was his way of saying sorry." I rub the cow's nose. "I lost my breath."
"You get the shit knocked outta you all the time, even on horses. The bull's gonna be way more dangerous. This thing is too domesticated. The next one you ride isn't going to be trying to get your phone number for a date."
I run my hand across my face, wipe off a trail of green spit. Gross. I hold my hand up toward Mattie. "Want it?"
He wrinkles his nose.
"That was pretty easy until I fell off."
Jeff punches me in the arm. "Don't underestimate your ride."
I look at Mattie. "You should try it. It's not that bad."
Mattie looks uneasy, like he's putting things together. "I better not. Don't want to hurt myself."
I laugh. "Come on, Mattie! It was easy. I bet you could do it." I smile, nudge him with my eyes. "Go for it, give it a try."
Dawson burps, laughs. "I bet'cha this lil' son'vu bitch could stay'n longerth'nyoo." He has Mattie by the arm, lookin' right at me.
"Naw. I'll bet he'd only stay on for a bit until the cow got bored with him." I smile.
Mattie knows I'm joking, but now he looks downright determined. "I bet I could stay on him twice as long as you."
"I thought you didn't like buckin' animals, Mattie."
The look in his eye. He squints, thinks. His courage is fizzling out. "Next time. You and me."
"I'm holding you to it."
Jeff and Dawson push the cow back into a wooden chute. Dawson works on the flank strap. Jeff turns toward me. "Come on, Lem. Let's get you back on."
# # #
There are people who wont ride Backdraft, on account he's such a dangerous animal. There are professional riders with a lot at stake that turn down the ride. Nobody ever thinks less of them. They're the smart ones.
There are people who will ride Backdraft as a matter of pride. If a person can keep from getting bucked off, if the rider can keep him covered, Backdraft's known for being a high-scoring bull. His second-to-last ride on PRC scored him and the rider 97 points between the two of them. (47 for the rider, 50 for Backdraft.)
# # #
I stop in the mud room, just on the other side of the kitchen, kick off my muddy ropers. Dad built this room on the house just after Jason was born. It has tile floors and a drain in the middle, for the times you'd only get it clean by hosing everything down. There's tile half way up the wall, keep the dogs from shakin' off and getting the walls dirty. Dad's dogs stay in here in the winter, since it's warmer than the barn. There are three kennels under the counter against the wall that were built by hand. They look more comfortable than the plastic ones. Chase and I used to play in them when we were little.
There's a mop stall that was Momma's suggestion, so you can stand in it and hose off your boots. I run water over my ropers, scrape off a few thick clods of mud with a metal scraper. The legs of my pants are filthy. The washing machine room is built into the mud room, and you have to go through it to get into the house. I take my pants off, find a pair of my shorts in the laundry basket that's sitting on the dryer.
Mattie's still scraping mud off his boots.
I walk into the kitchen and open the fridge. Behind me, I hear someone clear their throat.
Dad's sitting at the table, his arms resting on his belly. Kind of leaning back in his chair. "Can I talk to you for a second, Kiddo?"
Shit. How did he find out about the bull riding? I shrug, try to play it cool.
He pulls out the seat next to him. "Come sit down."
"Mattie's in the mud room, just so you know."
I pull the chair in, get comfortable.
Dad grins at me. He ruffles my hair, pulls me in for a hug by the back of my head. "I got something for you."
I sit back up. "You do?"
"Well, it's for your birthday. I know it's a little over a week off yet, but I thought you'd want it for the homecoming dance." He reaches over to the hutch, grabs a small, white box. Judging by the size, it looks like a belt buckle. "Your mom and I spent a pretty penny on this, so I want you to promise me you're not going to wear this riding. Take good care of it."
He hands me the box, sets it in my hand. There's a brand new watch inside. It's the most beautiful timepiece I've ever seen. I hold it up to get a better look at it. It's gunmetal colored. The inside track of links are iodized dark red. The face of the watch, the inside is rimmed with the red metal, and so are the chronograph parts. The numbers and hands are white. It's a Seiko. So much nicer than the one Jason got when he turned sixteen.
"God, Dad! It's beautiful!"
"It's kinetic, so you don't ever have to change the batteries. You have to wear it once a month to keep it all charged up."
"What kind of metal is it?" I look at him, still holding the watch in front of my face.
"The guy at the store said it was tungsten and aluminum."
"I love it!" I smile.
He scratches the back of his head. Smiles again. "Well, every man needs a good timepiece. I got one when I was your age, so did your granddaddy. You can tell a lot about a man, his character, by the timepiece he keeps on his arm. You can tell how reliable he is. If he's early or on time. It's important to be on time in life. I thought you'd need one, seeing you're a man now."
I put it around my wrist and clamp it on. It fits perfectly. I look it over carefully.
"I have the links for it, so when your wrist grows, you can get it sized up."
"I probably won't need 'em."
"You'll grow into it a bit. When I was your age, 'bout the time I met your mother, I was your size. Didn't really grow into my body until I was nineteen or so."
"Momma always said you were built like Jason."
"I was pretty scrappy, but I was small. She was taller than me until I was eighteen. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to talk to you about this for a while, seeing you and Brooke are getting pretty close these days."
God, Mattie, hurry up!
"I know you probably know more about these things than I do, what now with the Internet and everything, but I want to make sure you're being..." He swallows. Gets red in the face. "Well, guess I wouldn't be doing my job if I weren't making sure you were being safe. Make sure you know how to treat a woman right. Take responsibility, you know?"
This is so fuckin' awkward. "Well, I'm in no hurry for-"
"Well, I know, son. But I wasn't about to fiddle-fart around with the idea, either, when your mom and I had Jason, but you know how one thing leads to another. One minute you're drivin' out in the sticks, looking at the stars, the next minute you're testing the shocks on the truck."
"God, Dad! I could have lived my whole life not knowing where Jason came from."
He chuckles, turns red. Big sheepish grin on his face. "Well, now..." He stops, looks at the door. "Hey, Matthew."
I look over my shoulder. Mattie's standing against the doorframe, arms crossed. He looks a bit red himself, almost looks like he's trying not to laugh.
Dad checks his watch. "Guess I better mosey down to the feed store before it gets too awful late. Don't need a bunch of hungry dogs on my hands." He stands up, pushes in his chair. "Just you remember what I told you... bout the watch and the girl. Be careful with them."
"I will, Dad."
Mattie walks over, passes Dad on his way out the door.
I hold the watch up toward him. "Check this out."
He takes it, eyeballs it. "Hot damn. That's sweet." He looks at me. "He give you the birds and bees lecture?"
I laugh. "You heard that?"
"Some of it."
"I hope I won't have to worry 'bout that for a while. I don't know if I ever want to get in Jason's truck again. A bit weird driving around in a car your brother was made in."
"Totally gross, man." He laughs.
"Hey, I had to sit through it!"
"I think Ronnie was the only one made in a bed."
"No no no noooo! Not cool!"
He laughs again.
"So, you ask Sarah to homecoming?"
Mattie blushes. "No. She's going with someone else."
I sit back. "You actually asked her?"
"No. I asked someone else."
I almost fall off my chair. "Seriously?"
"You goin' with Brooke?"
"Back up the fuckin' train here! Who you goin' with?"
He looks out the window. I guess he figures I won't stop bugging the crap outta him until he spills it. "Joey."
"Joey? As in JoAnne? Tomboy Joey?"
He sighs a bit. "Yeah. Why not?"
I could say so many things right now. I just shrug it off, keep my mouth shut.
# # #
I told Dad and Momma that I was staying at Mattie's after the homecoming game. I am going to Mattie's, eventually. Jeff and I left a bit early. Our team was getting their asses handed to them by Shelby. Happens that way every year. I told Mattie I'd meet up with him after a while. We made plans to watch movies and everything.
Jeff's driving me out toward the lake. We're gonna hang out, party a bit for my birthday. We don't have school tomorrow because it's a teacher day, but the homecoming dance is tomorrow night. The rest of the weekend Momma's got plans for everyone, I'm guessin' it involves working in the yard. Getting the barn ready for the cold months.
We stop on top of the hill, where it looks over the south end of the lake. He lets down the tailgate and climbs in, sits against the tool box. He's got a cooler strapped into the back against the side. The nights aren't too cold yet, but I'm wearing a light jacket. Gets a little cool over the lake.
We're completely alone.
Jeff flicks the cap off a bottle of Coors with his lighter, hands it to me. Lights up a cigarette. He holds up his drink. "Happy birthday."
We clink necks together, take a swig. I sit back and look at the darkening sky. A few stars twinkle above us, reflect in the water below. The radio in his truck is playing Hank Williams.
"What'd you wish for?"
I look at him. "I didn't know I was supposed to wish for anything."
"I mean for your birthday."
I hadn't thought about it. I lie and tell him "world peace." Look back at the sky. We're sitting arm to arm. He's warm, I can feel his heat. I know I'd wish for something more worldly, fleshly. I want to know him like Hope knows him. I've never felt like this around anyone before, and lately, jerking myself off, I feel guilt. Wonder what's wrong with me. I ain't supposed to feel like this. Guys aren't supposed to go for guys that way. I can't help myself.
He snorts. "You're fulla' shit."
I look him in the eye. "Yeah, I am. I can't tell you my wish."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because. It's bad luck." I take a drink. "You taking Hope to the dance tomorrow?"
He sighs. "I think so. If she can get off work early 'nuff to get her hair done up and drive all the way over."
"She's somethin', your Hope."
"Yeah. She's somethin' alright. Brooke isn't too bad, either."
"Thanks, I guess."
There must be something in my tone. Jeff looks at me. "What's wrong with Brooke?"
"You don't sound too sure of yourself."
"Oh." I think for a second. "I should be over a mountain at the thought of dating a girl like Brooke. She's... she's pretty, and smart. Beautiful." I look at Jeff a second. "Don't tell anyone, but I don't really feel much for her when I'm around her. I like her, like, as a friend, but I know I don't feel like I should, for dating a girl like that."
He crooks a smile. "Why? You two not done it, yet?"
I shake my head. "No." I lean my head back against the tool box. "Fuck, Jeff, I don't even know how to kiss a girl. But if I did, I don't know if that would change anything at all."
"Don't look too far into this, but you kiss like a cold fish."
My heart jumps. "Pardon?"
"Well, when you were all high with me in Helena, you fumbled it. You gotta be secure, sure of what you're doing. Don't open your mouth too much. When you kiss her, kiss on the lips, not over them."
I'm embarrassed, starting to get a stiffie. "Whatever." I shrug.
"Well, you'll have to kiss her sometime."
I get to the bottom of my bottle. I hold it up and shake it. "Got another one?"
He roots through the cooler, pulls out another beer. Blue Moon. "Out of the Coors. Here." He pops the cap and hands it over. It's smooth. Has an orange taste to it.
"I think I like this one better." Smile at him.
I don't realize it, but I'm kind of cuddling with his arm. "You okay there?"
I blush. "I must be getting a buzz. Sorry." I sit back up.
"What ever you say, Susan."
We sit in quiet for a bit. "So, what was the deal with that boy in Coeur d'Alene?"
He looks at me sharply. I can barely make out his eyes under the brim of his hat. "What you mean?"
"Well, I was just wondering, seeing I never heard your side of the story."
He looks up at the sky. "He was just a friend."
"Did anything happen?"
He elbows me in the side.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to get so personal."
"Don't worry 'bout it," he says slowly. "Remember what I told you about Matthew? It's not your business to ask things like that."
"Fuck, man. Stop apologizing. Wears on my nerves."
# # #
I end up on Mattie's doorstep a little later than I thought. I don't think it'd be a good idea to just knock on the front door, reeking of beer and all. I go around the back, knock on the basement window. After a few seconds, I see Mattie's face through the curtains.
A few minutes later, he peeks his head around the back door. Nods for me to come in. The stairs to the basement are by the back door, next to the kitchen.
"What the hell took you so long?" Mattie stops at the bottom of the steps, turns around and looks up at me.
"Sorry. Jeff and I had a drink or two, since it's almost my birthday." It was more like five or six. I'm surprised I can even stand.
"You were drinkin'? Fuck, Lem, you're going to get yourself into some serious shit if you're not careful."
"Mattie, I'm fine." I should think before I talk. I almost fall off the bottom step, land on Mattie.
"See, this' what I mean."
I wrap an arm around his neck, give him a noogie. "I'm fine."
"Ass! Cut it out." He tickles into my sides, pushes me against the wall. He's stronger than he looks. "Tone it down a bit before we both get our asses in trouble."
We walk into Ronnie's little hideaway. He's sitting on the couch, watching a movie. There's a blanket at the other end of the couch where Mattie must have been sitting. "Hey, Lem."
"Ronnie." I just start giggling for some reason.
He looks up at me. "What's so funny."
I stop, try to straighten up. "Nothing. Nothing."
He squints. "Been out with Jeff?"
"For a bit."
He nods. Gets up. "I'm heading for bed. Don't be too loud." He looks right at me. "Behave."
He walks into his room, closes the door. Mattie takes off his shorts so he's just in his underwear. Plonks down on the couch. I sit next to him.
We sit quietly for a while, watch the last hour of the second Matrix movie. When it's finished, I look over and find him leaning up against me. He looks half awake, like he's a little ways into a dream. He rubs my arm softly. "Lem?"
"Why you been acting so different lately? You've never like people like Jeff."
I look down at the top of his head. "What you mean?"
"You never used to drink. We used to talk about everything. Now you're always running off with Jeff. I'm beginning to think--"
I sit up, knock him off my shoulder by accident. "Think what, Mattie?"
He blinks at me, blushes. "I was going to say I'm beginning to think you don't much like me anymore."
I sigh. "Nothing's changed. You're still my best friend."
He rests his head back on my shoulder. Come to think of it, he's always done that. Ever since we were little. Leaned on me for comfort, just to know that I was still there. Like I was a wall or something. He whispers. "Sorry."
We sit for a while. I just listen to him breathe. He readjusts his head every once in a while. For once in my life, I feel a connection. Feel like I can understand him, level with him. Feel his fear, his insecurities.
# # #
I wake up to find Ronnie kneeling over me. I look over and see Mattie laying on face-down, butt in the air. His face is mooshed into the pillow. I look back up at Ronnie.
He signals me with a finger, to follow him.
I get to my feet. Realize I have a horrible headache. I follow Ronnie into his room, he shuts the door behind us.
"You got anything for a headache?"
He sits on his bed. "That's just the way a hangover is. You're just gonna have to live with it." He pats a spot on the bed next to him. "I want to talk to you 'bout some things."
I sit, look at him.
"Been spending a bit of time with Jeff?" He's always had a confident way about him. Fatherly.
"Look, I'm only doing this because I've known you long enough that you're one of my own kin. I have a few issues, not entirely with you, but they have a lot to do with you. You came in here drunk as a skunk last night, and it's a good thing my mom and dad didn't see you."
I stammer. "Oh... okay."
"I'm starting to grow a little chary of Jeff lately, some of the things he does. I'm not an angel, Lem, but there comes a point when it just gets to be too much, you know?"
"I guess? We talking drinkin' here or something?"
"And the weed. I know how Jeff is, and I know how you are. How many times?" He points to himself with three fingers, like he's trying to drag the information outta me, through my skin.
"How many times what?"
"You know what. How many times you smoke with him?"
I look at the floor. "Just once."
"I want you to be careful around him. I don't think he's the best person for you to look up to, and oh, I know you look up to him."
"Upp... let me finish. I'm not mad at you, I'm not going to kick your ass or anything. I just want to say this. My baby brother looks up to you. Thinks the entire world of you. I'm glad he has a friend he respects so much. I'm glad he's invested so much trust in you. My family is the only thing I've got in this world, and the only thing I'd kill for."
"I'd die for Mattie." I look into his eyes.
"Lem, I know you would. I used to think that when I went off to college, he'd be in good hands with you, that you'd look over him. Take care of him like I did. You're starting to make some choices right now that're kinda making me second-guess myself. I want to know that kid is safe, and I don't want him around drugs or Jeff. I won't let Mattie take the fall for you, that's for damn sure."
"What makes you think that--"
"I think that because Mattie'd fallow you to the ends of the earth. He is loyal to you in ways I don't understand, and I don't figure you do either. Do not deny this world my brother. I just want you to understand that if anything happens to him, by means of you or anyone else..."
I nod stupidly.
He holds his hand forward, sideways, like he wants to give me a five. I brush my hand with his. He takes my hand, pulls me up to him and wraps his other arm around me, hugs me. "You're a good kid. Just be careful around Jeff. Don't let him fuck up your life, or Mattie's. Okay?" He pulls back. "Okay?"
"There's Advil in my bathroom cabinet."
# # #
I'm waiting for Brooke to come back from the ladies room with her flock of lady friends. They're playing a slow dance right now, few people here and there. Jeff's sitting at the table with me, Hope went with the girls to powder her nose. I wonder what they talk about when they go in the bathroom together like that.
Matt's on the dance floor with his date. I don't know Joey personally. She lives in Conrad, close to the school. Her hair's cut down pretty short, like, almost buzzed. She has it spiked forward, colored black as coal. You'd catch a glint of blue in it, if the light hits it right. Her eyes are done up a bit dark. She has nice features in the face, angular. Her body is thin, lanky, and tall. Almost Barbie Doll proportions without the hips or tits. She's a bit on the flat side, what Jason would call a carpenter's wife. In her heels, she looks Mattie right in the eye. If she was a bit more girly, she'd probably be good for him, other than she smokes. They look so out of place together, unfamiliar. They both have an alien quality to them right now, and it's just awkward.
Mattie's pretty good with slow dancin', but they've been sitting at the table most of the night, especially with the two steps and ghetto kind of dancin'. I don't get why guys like it so much when a girl grinds her ass on their crotch. Should save it for the bedroom. Better yet, they should keep it in their pants. Last year there were ten pregnant girls in the graduating class. As they say, nothing to do but drink, do drugs, and fuck.
Brooke and a bunch of girls come back to the table. She's wearing a red satin dress, her hair done up like Martina McBride. Hope is wearing white. With her blonde hair, it makes her look like a china doll. Her skin is porcelain white. She still looks really good.
Brooke looks at Mattie and Joey. "Why didn't he ask Sarah out?"
"He told me she already had someone to go with."
"Mattie was so busy playin' hide and seek with himself that she got sick of waiting for him to ask her out."
"You know, I don't know what the hell's going on there."
"You think it'd go anywhere between them? I mean, I always thought she was a dyke."
"Just because she's a tom-boy doesn't mean anything."
"Well, I didn't mean there's anything wrong with it, if that's her prerogative. Sarah was lookin' forward to going with Mattie. She really likes him."
"Between Sarah and Mattie, they both look like they're having a good time. Who knows? Mattie couldn't even ask for a burger at McDonald's without getting embarrassed and turning red."
Mattie and Joey finish their dance, walk over. There's enough space between them, walking back, you could probably drive a car through them. Mattie pulls her chair out for her, sits down next to her.
Brooke cocks her head, smiles at him. "Hey there, Shadow."
Mattie turns red and looks down at his lap.
"Sarah was askin' bout you the other day." Wow. Girls are mean.
"Oh. Really?" Mattie can barely bring himself to say it. He looks at me uneasy, like he knows I caught him in a lie.
Joey shakes it off, like she's not even phased by it. I guess her mind is elsewhere.
Brooke winks at Mattie. "She was wondering if you are free next weekend. Lem and I were thinking about catching a movie. Maybe you two could go with us?"
We were? This is getting pretty fucked up. Talk about a power play.
"Maybe." Mattie scratches the table, looks at Joey through the corner of his eye, like it was instinct. "I'll have to see what's goin' on."
With the way this' all goin', I get the feelin Mattie's not at all interested in Brooke's sister.
# # #
I walk Brooke up to her front door, stand on the step under the light. She hugs me. "I had a good time."
"I did too. Thank you." I take a chance, kiss her on the cheek.
She turns her head toward me, almost meet her nose to nose, and she plants one on me. I mean, she really just... yeah.
I've got my eyes open, kind of look around. Take in the details. She's too involved, got her eyes squeezed shut, workin' her tongue into my mouth. I try to roll with it. I notice a light inside go on. I put a hand on her shoulder, push her back a little.
"What's wrong?" She looks me in the eyes, like she done something wrong.
"Someone's up. Just saw a light go on."
She sighs, looks at the door. "Daddy must be waitin' up for Sarah and I." She smiles at me. "Thanks for the warning."
"I don't know if I'd be able to talk my way outta this one." I hug her again, try to be cordial.
"Would you do me a favor?" She whispers in my ear.
"I guess I could."
"Would you talk to Mattie? Find out what's goin' on with him and Sarah? She was right upset when Mattie turned up with that girl." She pulls back, licks her lips. They're still shiny from her lip gloss.
"I'll talk to him, but I don't know if I'd be able to get much out of him." I look over my shoulder at Ronnie's truck. Ronnie has his head back, like he's fallen asleep. Mattie looks up from a book of Ronnie's CD's, grins at me.
Brooke waves at him, smiles. "Night, Shadow!"
The door opens behind us. Her dad is standing in the doorway.
"Everything okay?" He has a beard. Has white streaks in it. He's a big guy, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was up late cleaning his rifle for the occasion.
"Yeah, Daddy. Lem was gentleman enough to see me to the door. I was just saying goodnight."
I take off my cowboy hat and nod at him. "Good evening, sir."
"Hey, there, Lem." He nods. "Don't be too long." He turns around, leaves the door open a crack.
I squeeze Brooke's hand. "Guess I better be gettin' on home."
She leans over, kisses me on the cheek. "Night."
# # #
"What's with you and Joey?" We walk slowly toward Mattie's house in the dark. Ronnie dropped us both off at my house. I'm walking him home because I don't want to go to bed yet.
"What you mean?"
"I never pictured you'd be interested in a girl like that."
"We just went as friends. I don't think of her like a girlfriend or anything. We just kinda started talking one day at practice. She was jokin' around with me, kind of the way you do. Got me talkin'. She's a nice girl. I feel like I can talk to her."
I stop. "You know you can talk to me, right? About anything."
"I know, Lem. But you're not always around, and... well... I guess there're things I can't talk to you about."
"Just things." It's all he's going to say about it. I know if I push him any more, he's just going to clam up.
"Well, what about Sarah?"
"What about her?" I guess that answers it.
I don't want to talk about girls anymore tonight. The kiss was weird enough. We start walking again, rub shoulders as we walk. He wasn't always taller than me. He kind of weeded up when he hit twelve. He's got four inches on me, but every once in a while, he still manages to put his head on my shoulder.
Please let me know what you think of the story. Send critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Lem.". Thanks for reading!