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← 14. Joey
16. Legacy →

15. 14 months on... From Lem

Milos%s's Photo   Milos, 06 Aug 2012

These things are a little meaner than I remember; this one’s a far cry from that little steer at ‘ol Dawson's. He's a red one named Cinnamon, and it's only the second time I've been on the back of a steer like this for competition. The coaches liked my barebacking so much, they just kept me doing that--telling me I'm more built for broncs than bulls.

Fuck 'em all.

I tip my hat at the thought and pull the rope tight across my hand; it's time to prove myself. I nod at the gateman. “Pull!”

He yanks the chute open, and I hold on for dear life.

This one's bucking like a real bull, so I figure there might be a real future for this one yet. It's hard to keep balance with all this crap on: Kevlar vest with neck brace; elbow and knee pads; big old helmet. I feel like a hockey player out for a ride on a tumbling Zamboni, and I probably look like a fucking snowman.

My arms start to ache. Cinnamon kicks and jumps all over the place, but at least he isn't going into a spin cycle. I start to go over sideways.

Where's the fuckin' buzzer?

Feels like forever. I'm going go over. Shit.

'And there's the Buzzer for Lem Taylor on the back of Flying W's Cinnamon!'

I fly off the side, hit the deck, get up and run toward the fence.

The steer's giving the wranglers a pretty good chase, then he starts running toward me. I hop up on the gate and let him pass.

It feels pretty good--I'm the only one who stayed on past the buzzer.

* * *

In 1990, both Lane Frost and a rank named Red Rock were inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. There were two bulls that got that honor before Red Rock: Tornado and Oscar.

Red Rock was a smart bull. It's said that he knew what a rider was going to do, then go the opposite way. When a rider was off his back, he'd never go after the rider. He'd go the other way. Lane Frost studied Red Rock over the Challenge of Champions, got bucked off the first few shows, and then, finally, Frost was one of the first to cover Red Rock for all eight seconds.

Backdraft is smarter and meaner. He knows what the rider's going to do, but he's completely unpredictable. Lots of riders studied him, but he never makes the same move twice. That, and he charges.

* * *

I push the throttle on the handlebars; the four-wheeler jumps forward and peels out in the dirt. The slack in the ball-hitch makes a loud clank when it pulls out, and the jolt knocks one of the spools of fence wire off the trailer.

"Fuck," I hiss.

I put the break lock on and hop off, pulling my work gloves out of my back pocket. I lift the spool back to the trailer and make sure it's secure; I'd hate to see a roll of barbed wire careening down a hill.

I get back up on the seat and ease onto the throttle, trying to keep things nice and slow.

When I pass Smokey's stall, he rears his head back and whinnies; I think he wants to get out and stretch his legs for a bit. He’ll probably just romp around the pasture while I work.

I pull out of the barn, park the ATV, go back inside and take Smokey's halter off the hook on the wall. When everything’s all set, I lead him out of the barn.

Momma's standing on the other side of the main gate. "You gonna ride 'em both?"

"Naw. Just gonna let him run around while I work."

"You're getting the fence at the back part of the pasture, right?"

"Dad said the one that started at the gate leading to the state pasture. He wants me to fix the part running along the Hedquist property."

"Just checkin'." She leans forward against the fence and pats Smokey on the nose. "I'll have Chase bring you out some lunch later."

I get back up on the ATV and wave at her as I circle around. "Thanks."

Once I get past the back of the barn, Smokey shakes out his mane and breaks into a canter; he must know where we're going, because he's always liked the back pasture for some reason. Smokey follows a few yards behind the trailer, blowing his lips at me every so often like he's telling me to slow down.

"Come on, ya' old fart!" I start whistling On the Road Again.

He whinnies and shakes his head, breaking into a slow gallop to close the distance he's losing to me.

There's a small wooden bridge Dad made a few years ago that crosses a small crick; it's strong enough for a truck to cross with a trailer. As soon as we go over it, Smokey breaks into a dead run and gallops around the field—I guess he wants to find his own adventure for now. He won't go too far because he doesn't like me to be out of his eyesight for too long when he's out of the barn.

I stop at the gate that opens to state land, looking up and down the fence line. There are a few dips in the barb-wire that'd be easy enough for someone's cows to walk over, if they were so inclined to hang out in our pasture.

The snow doesn't usually fall deep enough to cover the fence, but this part of the fence sits at the bottom of an incline, and the wind blows the snow around pretty good. It creates a pretty tightly packed snow bank that just fucks up the fence posts to no end. We have to do these little repairs every year before we let any livestock loose.

Momma wants to get two or three head of Bison for slaughter next year and stash them in the back pasture until they're good and fat. We might mix a few cattle in there and sell the extra off for profit. We did buffalo once before, and they’re mean fuckers—you have to keep an eye out for them when you're out in the field.

Starting right to work, I jostle one of the posts around to see if it'll still hold. They're all pretty solid, so all I’m going to have to do is string up some new wire in the parts where it’s fallen, and straighten up some of the old stuff if it's not in too bad of shape. Thank God I won't have to reset the posts.

I unwind some wire and start at the gate, moving up the pasture post by post. After half an hour or so, I get to a spot on the fence where everything’s still good, so I tack up my wire, cut it, and move back to the gate.

Sometimes you’ve got to fight with the shit, seeing it always gets caught on everything. I always had Jason and Dad to help me with this before, but Dad didn't think it was too bad this year. Seeing Jason's off in the Middle East, I'm on my own.

There's a tune on my lips, and since I’m out here all alone, I can't help myself. I pull a row of wire taut with some pliers and start tacking it back up to the post, all the while whistling a little Johnny Cash. The spring sun beats down on my back, making me sweat; my only saving grace is this cool breeze that chills my back from time to time.

As tin-eared as I am, I sing a little under my breath for a while, then just start belting it all out. I like to mess up the lyrics on purpose because I think I'm being funny: "Momma sang bass, daddy sang tenor, me and the cow'd jump right in there..."

I'm sure Johnny Cash is doing back-flips in his grave right now.

I make a loop with the fencing and pull it tight. "Momma sang bass, daddy sang tenor, me 'n... come on you 'lil son of a bitch!" I yank the wire back with as much weight as I can, almost knocking me on my duff. "Piece a' shit..."

"Havin' an issue there?"

I just about shit myself, because I didn’t realize there was anyone else out here.

It seems Ronnie snuck up on me; he's sitting on the gate admiring the shine on his boots. His face is hidden under the brim of an old cowboy hat.

"Goddamn it, Ronnie. Fuckin' warn a person!" I throw the vice-grips on the ground and let the wire go; it springs back and coils up on the ground. "Never thought you'd go out of your way to talk to me." I look around the yard, because it's uncomfortable to be this close to him.

"Heh. Shit." He kicks the gate a few times with his heel.

"Yeah... seein' you wanted to end me and all." I take off my gloves and scratch my shoulder, sticking the gloves in my back pocket. It smells like wild flowers and wet grass out here; funny the things you notice at times like this. "I don't want to start shit with you, Ronnie. What's done is done."

He snorts and giggles a little bit.

"I fail to see where this' so funny." I lean over and pick up my pliers. "Unless you wanna tell me what brings you to this side of the fence, I got shit to finish before nightfall." I grab my gloves out of my back pocket and slap them across my other hand a few times. I just want him to get the hell away from me. Slipping my hands back into my gloves, I start back to work on the fence, keeping my shoulder to him.

"I hear you got into Black Hills on a rodeo scholarship."

"I guess that's what people been sayin'."

"Congratulations," he says quietly.

"Well, thank you."

"Why South Dakota?"

"Because it's not here." I glance around for any other signs of life. Even Smokey would be a welcome sight right about now.

"What degree you goin' for?"

I figure I should be nice, because there's got to be a reason he's over here. "I don't know yet. Think I'm gonna get the main courses outta the way first and decide from there. Maybe major in Wildlife Management or something. Minor in singin'--you hear I'm gettin' better?"

He lets out a loud belly laugh. It sounds different from Ronnie, but then again, I haven’t seen him for a little over a year.

"Huh. So you did. Think I'll win American Idol next year?" I stare straight ahead, and I can feel him staring at the side of my face. My skin tingles wherever his glance touches. I shudder, and go back to untangling the wire.

"Glad I got to see you while I was here, even if it were for a quick laugh."

"Well, if you can't laugh at yourself." I stop and think a second. "Why are you even here?”

“What, I can’t hang out in my back pasture?”

“No, what are you doing in Burlee? Shouldn't you be in Bozeman getting ready for your finals or something?"

I take a quick glance at him and jerk back when I realize I'm not looking at Ronnie at all. He’s too thin to be Tay, and too tall to be Ronnie.

He's a Hedquist, all right. He's at least six foot five, and comes equipped with those trademark orange eyes and that strawberry blonde hair. The dude’s all legs.

There's something familiar about him, and I can't quite place it. I know he had a cousin that was about his age that I met years and years ago, but I can’t imagine that he’d remember me; he only spent a month here one summer, and if I recall, his hair was a little darker.

My head is a jumble of noise.

He jumps off the gate and takes a step forward. “It’s been a little bit.” Then: that smile.

The universe buzzes around me, snapping and bending at the whim of the chaos in my mind. "Jesus Christ, Shadow!?"

It's got to be another dream.

I almost trip trying to get at him, and I want to smile and cry all at once. I throw my arms around him, and I don't care who sees it. "Fuck, Mattie, I never thought I'd see you again!"

Even if he is a ghost, he's not getting away from me; not this time.

He squeezes me and chuckles softly in that way you can hear him smiling. "Jenny's having her baby, so Ronnie's coming back for the week. He should get in sometime tonight."

"He's having a kid?"

"They're gettin' married this summer. He came back to help her pack up her stuff and move her to Bozeman."

"Ain't that somethin'? Just don't let him catch you over here or he'll probably skin us both alive."

"Let me worry about him. What I do isn’t any of his business."

I look him over; his shoulders filled out, and his face is a bit more angular. Other than that, his eyes and smile still look the same. "God, Mattie, you grown up so much. I didn't even realize it was you sittin' there just now."

"Matthew."

“What?”

“It’s Matthew.”

"Huh." I scratch my head. "You really did grow up."

Maybe he just came over to say hello. Maybe it doesn't mean anything that he's here at all.

"How long you in town for?" I ask, trying to get my head about me.

"Two months." He smiles big. "Then I'm goin' to Arizona."

"Arizona?"

"For college. I busted my ass and graduated a year early."

"Well," I kick the dirt and try to look him in the eye, which is hard because he's so much more a man than me. "If you're up for it, I mean, if you wanna, I'd like to catch up while you're here. Hang out, maybe like old times?"

He looks over toward his house and mumbles: "...maybe."

I get the feeling that he doesn’t really want to; the thought is like a pair of fire-hot vicegrips on my heart. I should expect this, seeing as we're different people now. Hell, Reagan spent a year working on my head, and I feel like everything she worked for might just come undone here in the five minutes he's been standing in front of me.

I start to wish I hadn't seen him at all.

He looks toward me and dawns one of his golden smiles. "Got some time this afternoon?"

I try not to let myself hope for anything. "I can't until later tonight. Dad wants this done by the time the sun sets. I really wanna see you, though."

"Mom's making this huge dinner for Ronnie and Jenny. It'd be about eight before I could sneak out."

"Sneak out?"

"Yeah, Mom's keepin' tabs on me. She don't know I'm here right now."

"What'd she do if she found out?"

"Probably kill me. Don't worry, I cleared your name."

"What'd you say?"

"I just told her that I was thinkin' about it for a long time. I said I felt hopeless, and that I thought nobody liked me. I said you were the one that always held me together, but you were on a date when I was thinking about doing it, and I didn't have anyone to talk to. I said it wasn't about you or Brooke, it was just me."

"Mattie, I said some things... God, I just wanted to--"

"Tell me later."

"Huh?"

"Get back to your fence. I'll meet you at eight thirty." He kisses me on the cheek, gives me a once-over and starts backing away.

Suddenly, I don’t want him to leave. "Wait, where?"

"At the fork in the road."

* * *

I was distracted all afternoon; it’s hard for a guy to do his work in the middle of a tornado like Matthew Hedquist. I spent most of my time praying that I could understand everything, because I am sick of people telling me he was sick. I'm sick of being psychoanalyzed and everything else. I want to hear it from him.

I keep rehearsing everything I want to say in my head over and over again, but I have to keep telling myself that I need to listen, too. Maybe that's it. Maybe I just need to listen to him. Lord knows what kind of shit happens when I open my big mouth.

I squeeze a bit of soap onto one of those fancy loofa sponges, make it all foamy, and wash the stink off me. Working all day in the sun isn't the best smell in the world to leave a good impression with someone, so I get the arm pits, my nuts and everything else. Work a little soap into my butt-crack, but stop short of fingering myself. I wonder if this meeting is going to lead to something later on.

The last time I made love with someone was with Brooke, and that was a disaster.

Maybe it's all just wishful thinking.

Maybe I should jerk it now so I'm not so hotheaded when we meet up. Maybe I should wait before I try to get down his pants. Maybe he doesn't even want to mess around. Maybe he doesn't want to be friends at all.

Shit.

I don't think I could even get a hard-on right now if I tried; I'm so worked up that I don't know what to do with myself. This is a weird feeling, and a strange place to be.

God, Shadow, what are you doing to me?

After I get all washed off, I grab a towel and put it over my shoulder, staring at my naked body in the mirror through the steam: these sorry green eyes; this mouth that always gets me into trouble; the pathetic child that looks back at me.

I put on my favorite pair of boxer-briefs, some deodorant, and start back for my room.

Chase is heading downstairs. "God, Lem! Put on some pants, would you?"

"How 'bout I walk around naked?"

"You're so gross. Nobody wants to see that."

I close my door behind me and go through my dresser for a clean pair of blue jeans and a nice shirt. I set the shirt on my bed, throw on a tee shirt and head downstairs to eat.

Momma's finishing up at the stove; Chase is helping her set the table.

"Momma? Some friends are getting together. You mind if I hang out?"

"You gonna be drinkin'?"

"No. Don't wanna screw up the scholarship and get thrown off the rodeo team."

"Not gonna be out too late, are you?"

"Midnight, maybe."

"You get the fence all done?"

"Yeah. Wasn't too much damage this year."

"Good. I think we're going to Havre in the morning to do some shopping. Want me to wake you up?"

"I don't think I need anything. Gonna stay home. Got a little homework to finish, anyway."

* * *

Momma has Russian Olive Trees along the dirt road up to the house, and they're coming into bloom. It's nice when the air doesn't smell like cow shit. I pass the barn and the antique horse drawn tiller that sits near the gate. It's sometime after eight and the sky's turning pink.

My boots scratch under my feet while I walk around in circles at the fork in the road near my house. A pair of headlights come over the hill; it's Ronnie's old truck. I just hope it's not Ronnie who's driving.

The truck slows to a stop.

Mattie sits behind the steering wheel, and smiles like he's glad I'm coming along. I can only try to smile back.

I hop into the cab, and we look at each other for a minute like strangers do. It feels weird because he looks so different, now. He's wearing a pair of jeans that you would probably have to buy in a fashion store in a mall somewhere, a tight tee shirt, and black boots. He's got a leather watch on his arm that looks huge because of his small wrists, and a thinner leather bracelet on the other arm. There’s a different smell about him--still sweet--not too flowery, but clean and crisp. His hair is short now. It's all spiked up.

He's... fuckin' hot.

I never felt like that for any other guy than Mattie, just now.

All I can think of to break the ice: "Ronnie's not hidin' in the back, is he?" Smooth.

Mattie just laughs. "No, he gave me his truck after he got his new car." He puts it in gear and heads down the road. "Came and saw me with Jenny one day. I thought it was hers, since it was brand new. Before he left, he handed me the keys and said to take good care of her."

"That's cool. How often did you see him?"

"He's the only one that came down to see me at all. Mom and Dad came down once 'er twice, figured they saw me enough on holidays. But after Jason started school, he came down twice a month. Brought me care packages and stuff. He's not a bad person, Lem."

"I know. He's a good brother. I wish mine was more like him."

"How is Jason? I heard he got into the army or something."

"Military. He told me he was gonna make something of himself. 'Bout fell outta my chair when I found out he made some sort of elite recon troop or whatever it was."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. When he finished his training, they shipped him right off to Iraq. Sometimes, the way he talks, he makes it sound like he’s doing something top secret. It kind of creeps me out sometimes."

"That's cool. Never figured he had it in him."

"It was kinda strange. He told me the reason he wanted to do it was because of me. Like I inspired him or something after I got arrested."

"Yeah, I heard something about that."

"Word travels quick, I guess. I just got my license back, actually."

"Why'd you steal Jason's truck?"

I look over at him. "To find you."

He smiles, and blushes. "Thanks for the Christmas card, by the way." He reaches over and grabs my hand, lightly squeezing it. "It got me through some pretty dark times."

"I said some pretty stupid shit to you. Been talking to this head doctor in Havre since I got in trouble. After I finally broke down and told her about everything, she helped me come to terms with everything. I was wrong to say what I did. About us and Brooke and everything."

We drive for a little bit. When we hit the pavement road leading into town, he squeezes my hand again.

I squeeze back. "Where we goin'?"

"Don't know. Just figured we'd drive around until we found someplace to just hang out." He sighs. "What ever happened with you an' Brooke?"

"That was a mess. Sure you really wanna know?"

"Only if you wanna tell me." He glances over and grins.

I breathe in deep. "Well, after everything that happened, she just kinda started dismissing it--that you were gone, and that I was having problems with it. I don't think anyone knows what happened other than me and Joey, but prom came around. Brooke and I went and left early. She wanted to do it, so we found a place and messed around in her car. She wanted me to eat her out, and damn that was nasty."

"Does it really taste like tuna?"

"No. It smells like an unwashed horses ass when it farts. I imagine it tastes about the same."

He giggles. "Ewwww!"

"Not that bad, but it was pretty gross. I couldn't even keep it up when we did it. I tried, but I couldn't. It just didn't feel right. Then... oh, then a month later we break up, right? I just had enough of her, and I couldn't bring myself to like her. I mean, I just figured I was expected to, you know? I think it was regret for you an' everything. And the way she treated me--total bitch.

"So, I tell her it's over, right, and she says she's late." I give him a sad laugh. "She took one of those home pregnancy tests and it popped a false positive. I told her to prove it to me, that she really was pregnant, and I'd do the right thing. Three days later she told me she had her period."

His jaw drops. "Shit..."

"Yeah, I about crapped a puppy. I wonder if it was a power-play move to keep us together. That was a weird one to tell Reagan."

"She's your therapist?"

"Yeah."

"I met her a couple of times. Nice lady."

I look at him. "What-- did she talk about me?"

"No. My roommate was one of her patients. I came into the room to get something and they were at the table talking, and she asked if I knew you. I talked to her for a while after she was done with Tanner."

"She never said anything about it to me."

He looks at me. "I asked her not to."

I'm floored. "W... why?"

"I’ono. I don't think I was ready for it. I was getting better, but I was still hurting."

"I guess that's why she said she thought she knew where you were. All she told me was that you were in good hands." I sigh. "Where were you, anyway?"

"I was at a home of sorts, for people with problems. It wasn't all people like me. I mean, some of these kids were fucked up, Lem. It put a lotta things in perspective."

"What was it like?"

"It was hell the first few months. It was a working ranch, though. Mom and Dad thought it would be good for me to finish out the school year there, then decide what they wanted to do with me. I worked through the summer and got way ahead on my school. Concentrated on that and working around the ranch. I told them I wanted to stay until I was outta high school."

"Why?"

"I was mad at my parents for dropping me off and only calling me once a month. They sounded like my grandma used to. I had an episode. My episode made them ashamed. Episode this and condition that. That, and it wasn't Burlee. I was on my own." He looks at me. "And I was away from you."

I swallow hard. "I'm sorry. Didn't know you felt that way."

"No, Lem. It's not like that. I knew I hurt you. I couldn't forgive myself for it. I didn't want to hurt you anymore."

I feel a tear running down my face. I have got to know, for my own piece of mind. "Why'd you do it, Mattie?"

He pulls over to the shoulder, and while staring at the road ahead of him, lets his hands fall off the steering wheel into his lap. He looks down at his hands like he’s praying to a higher power; he scrunches his face and starts to sob silently. "Because--" He sniffles. "Because I loved you."

A semi passes us, its tail-wind shaking the truck.

"Because I loved you and I couldn't have you. I was selfish." He blubbers a little, and he reminds me of the kid he was the last time I saw him. "I was selfish and stupid. I was a fool for you, Lem."

I squeak. "God, Shadow--"

"Don't call me that. Stop. I don't want to love you." He slumps over and starts bawling.

"Matthew. Mattie." I scoot closer to him, take his right hand, and start unlatching his watch.

He pulls back and stares at me like he's scared, holding his hand over his wrist.

Again, I gently take up his hand and pull it toward me, sliding his timepiece off his arm.

He looks out the window with puffy, red eyes.

I turn his hand over and look at his wrist.

Three thin white scars run across his arm, just below his hand. They're very slightly raised, and I can feel it when I run my finger over them. I pull his hand up to my face; his wrist smells like leather and his cologne.

I kiss his scars. They feel like a part of me, and they always have.

"Why, Lem?"

I hold his hand to the side of my face. "I wanted to understand."

This is real to me, now; Mattie's a survivor.

I lean over and kiss the side of his wet face, and kiss his lips, tasting the salt from his tears.

We stay connected as long as we can. He bites my bottom lip gently, keeping his forehead against mine. "I don't know if we should do this."

"There's something I've needed to say to you since the last time I saw you."

"Don't say it, Lem. Please."

"I gotta, Mattie. I gotta." I rub the back of his head and lightly squeeze his neck. "I hurt inside, and I need to make it right. I love you." My eyes water so much, I can hardly see. Now I really see him as a shadow. "I love you and I don't care if people think it's right or... or wrong. I only ever felt right with you. I thought you were another dream."

"What if I am just a dream? What happens then? What if I did really kill myself? I could be this fucked up figment of your imagination."

"You were a figment of my imagination for a while. Now you're here, and real. You know how I felt when Ronnie pushed me into that bathroom? I felt like..." I can't.

"Say it," he says between sobs. Then he screams, wild, like an animal. "SAY IT!"

"I felt like I'd killed you."

He pushes me over and mashes his face into mine.

I suck on his tongue, and he sucks on mine. It's violent, like an explosion. An eighteen wheeler horn breaks the silence, fading as it passes; it rocks the whole truck.

I stare deep into Mattie's eyes. "Maybe we should move off the side of the highway."

"Yeah. Someone might see us." Mattie smiles and starts laughing like he's lost his mind. He sits up and checks his rearview mirror.

"You okay, Mattie?"

"It's not Mattie anymore."

"Sorry. Matthew."

"Don't call me that, either." He looks at me as he pulls the gear shift on the steering column down and skids out onto the road.

"What do I call you, then?"

"Shadow."

* * *

"Where the hell did you find a bottle of blueberry wine?"

"Mom had it hidden in the pantry. She probably forgot about it." Mattie pops the cork, holds his nose over the bottle, and breathes in. "Smells like blueberry jelly. It's homemade, too." He takes a swig and hands me the bottle. "Shit, stronger than I thought."

I giggle. "Careful. One of us is gonna have to drive home tonight." I take a good mouth-full. "Actually, I told Momma I wasn't gonna be drinking."

"What if she finds out?"

"I think she'd be more pissed that I didn't tell her I was out with you."

"Well, here we are." He looks over at me, and winks.

When he catches me giving him the eyes, he blushes and smiles; this is the Mattie I remember.

"How much longer you got school?" He asks.

"Got two more weeks until I graduate." I take a swig and hand it back. "Least we get out three weeks before everyone else. I got a job this summer."

"Really? Doin' what?"

"Workin' on the Riddle Farm hauling irrigation pipes. Till and seed. The shit ol' man Riddle's gettin' too old to do anymore."

"I need a summer job. Don't know anyone who'd hire me on for two months, though."

"I bet you could find an ag job around here somewhere."

"I guess." He swirls the bottle around and shrugs. "I could always help around home, but between my mom and Ronnie, they’re both about to send me bat-shit crazy."

"Can I ask you somethin', Shadow?"

He rests his head on my shoulder. "Sure."

"Are you okay? Like, you wouldn't hurt yourself or anything, would you?"

"I'm over all that, Lem. It's all part of life and making choices. Like the therapist told me, I just made a wrong one and was lucky enough to learn something from it."

"I missed you."

"I missed you, too."

We sit and watch the stars on the hood of the truck, laying there holding hands. I can feel his warmth against me, and I don't know if I should feel happy. What if it all goes wrong again? I prop up on an elbow, admiring his good looks and all he's become—leading me to lean down and taste the blueberries on his lips. I feel alive again, just to feel the most gentle kiss in all of Montana.

* * *

"You look happy. So, what'd you do last night?" Momma puts the whisk in the batter and starts stirring it; Jason always said pancakes were good hangover food.

I don't think I'm hung over, but I do have a sour stomach and one hell of a headache. Still, I'm all smiles. "Hung out with some of the guys from the rodeo team. Took one of the new kids snipe hunting." I hate lying like this, but it’s not like I'm going tell her I was off in the bush kissing on Mattie.

"You didn't just up and leave the poor kid out in the middle of the field, did you?"

"No. We found him after an hour or so."

"What if he would'a been hurt, Lem?"

"Scott had his dad's night vision goggles out. We were keepin' an eye on him." I play with a grain of salt on the table. "Ran into Mattie last night."

She looks up at me like it's no big thing. "Oh?"

"Sat and talked for a few hours." I look at her and try to read the look on her face.

"How's he doin'?" She pours a cup-full of batter on the hot plate.

"He looks real good. He grew up so much I didn't hardly recognize him."

"Think he's okay?"

"Yeah. He was smiling. Looked happy. Came back to town because Ronnie's girlfriend is having a baby."

"Jenny's having a baby? I didn't know that. Didn't look very pregnant last time I saw her." She stops and looks up at the ceiling. "Must have been three months ago. Guess she wasn't showing much then."

"Mattie's going to Arizona for college next year. Graduated a year early." I have to smile because I feel so good in my heart right now.

She sighs and flips a pancake. "That's good, I suppose."

"What's wrong?"

"Lem, I don't know if you should be running around with Mattie anymore."

"Why the hell not?"

She looks up, like a stab, and purses her lips. "It took us almost a year to get you back to normal. I just don't want to see all that money we spent on therapy wasted for nothing."

"Why would it be wasted? He's not hurting anymore, Momma!"

"You don't know that, honey! You don't know what's goin' on in his heart. What if he hurts himself again, or even worse, what if he hurts you?"

"It's Mattie. What in the hell do you think he'd do?"

She points the spatula at me. "Lem Taylor, don't you raise your voice at me."

"It's not fuckin' like that anymore. He got better, an' I'm happy for seeing my best friend for the first time in more than a year. Why can't you just be happy 'bout it?"

Chase walks in and stops in her tracks. She just looks back and forth between Momma and me.

"Drop it, Lem. It's done. You healed, we moved on and things were getting back to normal. Did you stop and think about how we'd feel, Lem? Or what it could do to Mattie?"

"I've known him since we were three! What fuckin' difference does it make?"

"You watch your mouth in front of your sister! You might be eighteen, but I can still pull you over my knee."

"How did I figure you wouldn't understand?" I shake my head and start out of the kitchen.

"Lem. Lem! You keep your distance from him!"

I stomp up the steps and slam the door behind me. "Fuckin' bitch!" I said it pretty loud, like I wanted her to hear it. Deep inside, I hope she didn't. I sit on the bed and hold my head in my hands, trying to think. Nothing comes to me; I'm blank.

After a few minutes there's a knock on the door. It pops open.

Chase is standing there with a TV tray, bracing it against the wall so she can open the door. She gets the other handle and comes in. "Mind if I eat with you?"

I look at her out of the corner of my eye and sit up. "I don't care."

"Momma's eating on the back porch with Dad. It's a nice day out, sure you don't wanna come outside?"

"She's just gonna yell at me."

She looks at my bed. "That the quilt Missus Jensen made for you?"

The fabric I helped her pick out was really for me. She had it all done and wrapped for my birthday, but she wasn't around to give it to me. Eric Lemuel Taylor the tag on the outside of the box read. There was no card, no hint at who it was from; the quilt was enough to tell me.

Every other square has a fish on it. Between each one is a salmon or forest green colored square. There’s a nice border all the way around, and the back has nothing but the lure print on it.

It's huge. When I take it off to the dorms, I can probably fold it in half and still have enough to drape the entire bed.

I forget Chase doesn't come into my room very often. "Yeah, it is."

"It's beautiful." She walks to the side of the room and sets the tray on my desk. "I don't want to spill anything on it." She picks up the syrup. "You want me to do this."

I stand up and walk over, sitting on the other side of the bed. "No, I can get it."

She sits at the chair next to my desk. "Wanna talk about it?"

I squeeze the syrup over the stack in my lap. "Don't know, Chase."

"You were pretty broken up about it the first time. I can see why she'd be worried."

"Who is she to tell me who my friends are? I mean..." I take a bite. "...I'm happier than I have been in a long time. Just happy to know he's okay. We both picked up the pieces. Talked about lotsa' shit last night."

"Like what?"

"You sound like my therapist." Cut a flapjack with my fork; the blueberries in the pancakes are starting to remind me of the taste of Mattie's tongue. It leads my mind to other places--to the things we done.  "You wouldn't understand it, Chase."

She shakes her head at me. "Don't insult me. Just 'cuz I'm younger than you doesn't mean I don't have a brain inside my head."

"Think I'd lose everything I had if people knew. I just can't say. Something best left between me and Reagan and Mattie."

"'You told your doctor?"

"Yeah. She says everything we talk about is secret."

"Oh." She looks at me. "You know I can keep a secret, don't you?"

"It's not a good kind of secret, Chase."

"You don't trust me?"

"I don't even trust myself, sometimes."

"You know I love you no matter what?"

"I know. Thank you. For bringing this up and everything." I scratch at my jeans. "Maybe someday I can tell you about everything. Just, not now."


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