Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 10

The lingering echo of Jacob’s breath in her ear, whispering, “Look into my eyes,” it zapped her like an unexpected swarm of wasps. Charlie pressed her fingernails into the palm of her left hand. She reached for her pack of cigarettes with her right. The cardboard was wet with beer and tore in her hands as she opened it.

      A white kid with a backwards ball cap and pants that hung somewhere between his waist and his knees came back to the table. Charlie had been waiting for someone to kick him out, because he didn’t look like he could have been out of high school yet. “Hey, Riley,” said the kid, “I just talked to Eddie. He says their havin’ a bonfire out at your place.”

      “My place? Why not Eddie’s?”

      “’Cause you’re the one with the fire wood.”

      Charlie became aware of the outer edge of Riley’s thigh pressed against hers. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it, strange maybe. But instead of pulling away from him, she held the touch, playing with the idea of it— of her and Riley. She drew a damp cigarette from the pack and put it in her mouth. The soggy white stem broke from the filter.

      “Is Jen there?” Riley asked.

      Charlie pulled her thigh away and threw the broken cigarette in the ashtray.

      “Yeah, of course she is.” The kid turned to Charlie. “Do you mind?” he asked and picked out the broken smoke. “If you’re not gonna smoke it—”

      “Well, I guess we better get out there, before Eddie burns my place down,” said Riley. He took a sip of his Coke and whatever it was mixed with. “You’re coming right?” he asked Charlie, as he rose from the table.

      Charlie lit the only dry cigarette she could find. “Sure,” she said, before chugging the last of her beer.

      “You evuhr been out to the Halfway?” his aunt asked her.

      “Rodeoed there a few times.”

      “You gotta a car? You’ve been drinking. I’ll drive for you,” she said as she helped George from his chair.


Charlie wasn’t sure how Riley’s aunt managed to steer with two extra passengers smushed into the cab of the truck with them. Riley’s green Ford wasn’t much better. It didn’t look like there was room for a drop of water in it. “Hey, thanks for the ride,” one of the young women said. I’ve been trying to get back out to the rez for a few days now.”

      “Yeah, thanks,” her friend echoed handing her a beer.

      “Hey, no drinking while I’m driving,” Riley’s aunt scolded them.

      Charlie smiled and shrugged. “No worries,” she said, setting the beer on the floor boards for later.

      They turned onto the Alaska Highway, and headed north out of town.

      She was relieved when Riley pulled in at the Charlie Lake store, because she hadn’t thought to grab fresh smokes before leaving the bar. His aunt put the truck in park, and she ran in for a couple of packs. When she came back out, two more guys were piling into the box of Riley’s truck. She shook her head.

      “It’s a party. What can I say?” He laughed.

      She laughed too. She’d always liked how he looked out for everyone else. She knew so few people who were genuinely like that. Her cheeks hurt, and it suddenly occurred to her, she’d been smiling like an idiot since he walked through the door of the tavern. The realization made her blush. She turned quickly and piled back in her own truck.

Her right leg was asleep and her left hip was sore from pressing so hard against the door, by the time they came over the hill and down toward the small community. It wasn’t hard to tell which house was Riley’s, because the yard was full of people. A few horses stood tied to the front step, and the fire was raging.

      The girls jumped out, almost crawling over top of her, but she hung back to help Riley unload the chicken feed and salt blocks out of his own pick-up, while his aunt went in search of some volunteers to help her with the groceries. She wasn’t back yet by the time Charlie and Riley had unloaded the feed, so they unloaded the groceries, too.

      Riley never said much about himself. She knew he had horses, but she hadn’t known he had chickens and cows. She hadn’t known he lived with his aunt, either. She suddenly had the feeling that she really didn’t know anything about him… but she wanted to.

      Thirst was getting the better of her and she was itching to join the party. However, she couldn’t leave him to finish the chores himself, so she hopped in the truck and headed out to check on the herd with him.

      When they got back, Riley’s aunt brought out Styrofoam bowls of elk stew and fresh bannock for them. It was the first meal Charlie had eaten that day. Actually, apart from breakfast the day before, she couldn’t remember eating much in weeks. Sitting on Riley’s tailgate, she ate with an appetite she’d almost forgotten, because she couldn’t really recall when eating wasn’t just a matter of survival you had to give in to, instead of actually done for nourishment.

      He took her empty bowl from her, and without asking, filled it again. She knew it was far from ladylike, but she couldn’t help but wolf that down too.

      After they’d eaten, they moved over to the fire and joined the party. It wasn’t long, and they attracted a small amused crowd, curious who the new girl was who by all appearances was setting off some serious chemistry with Riley.

      “You finish each other’s sentences,” remarked his aunt. “Cute.” And everyone laughed.

      “We’ve spent a lot of time on the road together. I used to date Riley's friend, Cody,” Charlie responded, a little too defensively.

The sun faded and the fire grew, until it rose up like a mountain in the middle of the black night on the narrow flat. Loud hip-hop music blared from someone’s truck stereo. She didn’t care for it, and yet she found her body swaying to the rhythm. She could tell it amused Riley and knowing that only encouraged her to let loose a little more. But when Riley excused himself, she suddenly felt awkward and stiff, wrapping her arms around hers body self-consciously. As she watched him walk away, she had the feeling she was really seeing him and his goofy swagger for the first time.

      The husky voice of a woman called to her. “Hey, yooh. Yeah, cowgirl. We wanna talk to yooh.”

      Charlie turned back to the fire. Two women were watching her from across the flames. Light played across their faces in a way that made them look hungry, ominous. Charlie scanned the circle around the bonfire for someone familiar—one of the guys she’d ridden with...someone from the tavern. No one. It was a fine time for Riley to go and take a piss.

      “Come on cowgirl. We just wanna talk to yooh.”

      If this played out the way she thought it would, it wasn’t going to be good. Experience told her that when drunk women at a party said they wanted to talk to you, they didn’t, and they weren’t likely to fight fair. Who was going to stick up for her? She took a deep breath through her nose, trying to suppress the fear. If they could smell it, she wouldn’t stand a chance of holding off long enough for Riley to get back.

      “Come. Sit,” one of the girls said. “We don’t bite yooh knohw.” She patted an empty spot on a vinyl bench seat that had once been part of a van. The springs of it creaked as Charlie settled in— her thigh muscles taut, in case she needed to get up quickly.

      “So, Riley brought yooh here, eh?” said the other girl.

      Charlie leaned forward. “Yeah.”

      “You like our red skin boys, eh?”

      “Well, I never thought about it. Riley’s just a friend. We rodeoed together. I used to date his friend.” She set her beer down.

      “I know. I asked if you like NDN boys?”

      Charlie searched for the right words to slip out of the trap. “I don’t really have a preference.”

      “Well, I’m Jen, and I want to tell you someden white gurl.” She leaned in very near to Charlie. “Riley’s my—” she took a sip of beer and shook the can to gage its volume, while Charlie started to rise to her feet. “He’s my brother and he likes yooh. A lot. Like for real. So, you be good to him, ‘kay?” Cracking a friendly smile, she nudged Charlie in the arm, nearly pushing her off of the seat.

      “Yooh looked real scared there. Jeez, don’t be such a racist.”

      “Chyah, for real,” said Riley’s sister Jen. “White gurls…”

      Charlie squirmed uncomfortably.

      “Ah, we’re just teasin’. I gotta get another beer. You want one?”

      “Yeah, that’d be great,” Charlie said, settling back into the seat, feeling like a total idiot; not sure what was more stupid of her, being so damn obviously white, or letting these girls have some fun with her over it by walking straight into the setup.
      The fire was scorching and Charlie’s jeans burned against her legs. She got up and stepped back, as a new log caught. The rap music stopped and for a moment the air was silent, except for the crackling of wood. Staring up into the darkness, she had the feeling that the she could touch the stars. Maybe she could hold one in her hand and let it pull her up somewhere behind the blue/green crown of the Northern Lights.

       A quiet beat trickled from the truck speakers—so quiet at first, Charlie thought it might be the beat of her own heart, until it quickened and grew louder.

      “Ah, not this crap. Change it back,” someone groaned.

      Riley’s voice boomed back. “It’s my place and I asked him to play it.” Charlie was shocked. Riley scarcely ever spoke above a whisper.

      George slurred, “Turn it up!”

      Charlie was intrigued. She listened to the song grow from the beats. As she let the music creep into her bones and become a part of her organic make-up, a hand slipped out of the shadows and slid around her waist. It drew her back from the warmth of the fire further into the darkness. She turned to meet Riley’s broad beaming smile. “The music?” she asked.

      “You ever hear drum music before?”

      She shook her head and smiled silently, allowing the song to weave its way through the pores of her skin. He held her close and they were two heart beats in the darkness beating with the same synergy as the drum. She stroked his neck. It was smooth in a way that she had not known a man’s skin could be. Riley placed his lips against her ear and sang along softly to the chant of the 49.

      She pressed into his chest and let him hold her inside his denim jacket, where she traced the bold letters on his t-shirt.

      The earnest passion of the words in the song stirred the feelings that had been rising in her all afternoon and evening, maybe longer, maybe since the beginning of creation. All the need in her broke free and crested the surface. The key slipped in the lock and she saw what had been there all along. Standing next to Riley under the stars was what she had always wanted. The subconscious fear that had held her back was melting away. With Cody there had never been any question of where it would lead—little to be scared of because the outcome was predictable. But, this thing with Riley? She didn’t know if a word existed to explain how it made her feel. She had no way of mapping it. It was intangible beyond her imagination. She stepped back to find her bearings, but as she looked at his face, his eyes closed, serenading her, all she could do was move back in closer pressing her body against his.

      The music faded and was replaced by a loud pop country song. The cold of the night caused her to shake involuntarily and he rubbed her arms to warm them. “You’re freezing. Let’s get back to the fire,” he said leading her by the hand. She could follow him anywhere. But then that feeling that she had just grabbed a hold of one of those stars terrified her too. She needed the gravity of another beer to weigh her back down.

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