Riley’s arm rested around her comfortably, not in the possessive and macho way she was accustomed to, but in a relaxed and familiar way. He accented the confident intimacy by completing every other sentence with her name, “Charlie.” The rest of the world had forgotten that name—had forgotten the girl who answered to it and replaced her with their own ideas of cold forged bronc riders and plastic strippers. But not Riley. He’d never forgotten her. Even after knowing her and what she was, he spoke to her in a voice that was barely above a whisper, seeking out that very human part of her with hushed reverence—seeking only to find a girl inside who was falling in love with him under the stars.
In the dim light, Charlie studied the other women. Which one had dated him last? Which had been his high school girlfriend? How many of them had he made feel the way she did now? She couldn’t recall him ever having had a girlfriend, but she wouldn’t have known, anyway. And right now, she didn’t want to know. All she could count on was that it was in this moment and nothing more. If it was more, that would mean eventually she would have to let him much closer, and that wasn’t going to turn out so great, either. She took a swig of beer and made a pact with herself that she’d just let it be whatever it was, and then hang onto it for as long as either of them could stand.
His sister, Jen looked across the circle from the far side of the bonfire, nodded and smiled. Only a short time ago Charlie had been sure this girl would kick her ass, and now she was receiving this small blessing from her. She was unused to being accepted so easily. It wasn’t usually like this with people, especially not in her line of work, never mind the fact that she was an outsider here. But for once, she felt welcomed somewhere. She wanted it to go on and on. But everything that began would have to end.
She tossed the stub of her cigarette into the fire and stared at the flames for a long time. When she closed her eyes, the after vision stretched across the backs of her lids, mimicking the crown of the Northern Lights. The image faded and she opened them again. It took her a moment to focus on Riley’s face— that laid back goofy grin still spread across it. She scanned the other faces around the fire. That grin must’ve been something contagious that you caught out here. She could tell by the way her own cheek muscles had been hurting all day that she was infected too. Everything seemed so perfect; she wondered if she hadn’t stumbled into someone else’s life by mistake.
George swayed back and forth on her other side, precariously perched on an upturned log he was using for a makeshift stool. His eyes wandered to the left and then, as he tried to rise, he lost his balance and toppled forward. Charlie leapt for him and caught the back of his nylon jacket an inch before his face met the flames. She strained to heave up his dead weight, until Riley helped her to get him to his feet. “C’mon George,” he said. “Let me take you up to the house.”
“I’m phhhiyne,” the old man slurred, pulling from his nephew and nearly falling in the fire for a second time.
Charlie reached for him again. “I’ll come tuck you in, George,” she offered, with affected flirtation.
The combativeness left the old man’s posture and he let her take a hold of him around the waist, while Riley hoisted a limp arm over his neck. “I’m goin ta bed with my bareback riter girlfriend now,” he announced with pride. Charlie laughed with good humour, as a few people cat called and a couple others wished him luck.
Together she and Riley helped the old man to the house and down the stairs to the basement where a single bed stood against the far wall. They laid him down on it and Riley removed his uncle’s worn out running shoes from his feet. Charlie could hear the crinkling of a plastic sheet under George’s body, as she pulled a blanket up over his shoulder. “Gimme a kiss,” he said. Charlie bent to indulge him with a kiss on the cheek, but he planted a square one on her first. His lips were limp and wet. She pulled away and turned from him, so he would not see her wipe away his saliva. The old man laid back and closed his eyes.
Riley moved toward the stairs and she followed him through the darkness. George was snoring before they ascended the first flight.
Riley paused on the landing in front of the door. He turned to her and a stream of silver moonlight filtered through a window and struck against her face. “You’re beautiful Charlene,” he told her.
She looked away and threw a playful punch into his ribs. “Not when I look like I lost a round with Ali, I’m not.”
He gently guided her face back to meet his. “No, you’re beautiful.”
“Do you think your uncle will be OK?” she asked.
He tugged her by the hand. “Yeah.”
She followed him up the second flight of stairs and past the kitchen where his aunt was playing a game of cribbage with a heavy set lady. The two women looked up and laughed knowingly. Riley kept his eyes low to the floor and it gave Charlie butterflies that lasted long after the giggles were shut out by his bedroom door.
She was amazed when he turned on the light. Not an inch of the white drywall could be seen. Every space of his room was covered with pencil sketches— grey lines on white paper, depicting a plethora of equine movement. “Wow! You’re an artist.” She was intrigued. He blushed his signature red. Breaking from the grasp of their entwined hands, she moved closer to examine the drawings. “These are unreal. When do you find the time?” Riley shrugged and the gesture reminded her of his mystery. “So, what have you been doing all summer, anyway? I haven’t seen you around much, except at rodeos.”
“Studying,” he answered.
“No,” he said rubbing the back of his neck, “natural horsemanship.”
“Really?” She looked him up and down. How did she not know these things? “So, are you like a horse whisperer now, or something?”
He laughed. “Not quite.”
She grabbed at his t-shirt. “Well what do you call it?”
“I don’t know. But, I’ve sure learned a lot.”
He nervously fingered the frame of a picture that sat on the dresser. That he was uneasy talking about himself was charming, especially after endless hours spent listening to guys who couldn’t say enough about how great they were. That he could still be self-conscious when he’d known her for as long as he did was flattering. “Just stuff,” he finally answered.
She took the picture from his hand. A woman and a boy stood fishing on a riverbank. The woman was turned to face the camera, her wide smile sparkling through the grainy photo paper and poor focus. The boy was looking up at the woman. “Your Mom?”
Riley stuffed his hands in his pockets and nodded.
“She’s really beautiful.”
“Yeah, she was,” he said.
He narrowed his eyes on a sketch pinned just above his dresser. She followed his line of vision to a drawing of a woman riding a horse toward the heavens. When she looked back to him, she saw that he was scrunching his eyes so tightly they were nearly shut. “Yeah, breast cancer. I was twelve.”
Charlie replaced the photograph on the dresser and ran a hand along his arm. When his face relaxed and he was able to turn his attention to her again, she saw that the sadness was still there. In almost every mental picture that she had stored of him in her head he was wearing that big white smile, but for the first time she could now recall the sadness that had always been lurking in those eyes.
She stepped in and pulled him close to her. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s just part of the journey,” he said, dismissing it with a hard swallow
“What about your dad?”
“Probably still in jail. I don’t know. I let it go…him go. I had to.”
“Yeah, I did the same,” she said, now looking away herself. “My dad’s a prick, too. Kicked me out when I was sixteen and moved in his twenty-year-old girlfriend.”
“That must have been hard.”
“Yeah,” she said in a way that was cold and detached, “considering it was less than a year after my mom killed herself.”
Riley took Charlie’s chin in his hand and tilted her face so that her attention could be nowhere but on him. “You’re a strong woman,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” she said, shrinking away from him, but he wrapped both his arms tightly around her. It wasn’t that his hold was too firm for her to pull away. It was that she couldn’t will herself to do it. There was nothing to lose now by giving in, nothing to hide. Deep under the surface of his skin, she was certain she could sense cracks. Her own damage was so transparent, she was awed by the meticulous way he had been mended, at its invisibility and how she had missed it. The distant fantasy crossed her mind that maybe it was her imperfections he loved.
When he lifted her Stetson from her head, the exposure left her feeling more naked than she could recall ever having felt on stage. Suddenly, she understood how he could be so self-conscious and blushing with her. She needed a cigarette, a distraction, something to keep him from seeing into her eyes. She didn’t want him to look there anymore.
He kissed her completely with his entire being. Her frame stiffened in his arms and became guarded, as he laid her back onto his bed. Sensing her disconnection, he paused. “Is this OK?” She could find no words to answer. She wasn’t sure she could do this, but she couldn’t figure out what else to do. She closed her eyes and let him kiss her again—to give in to the gravitational attraction. To give in to so much tenderness it sent far reaching tremors rippling through her and splitting new fissures in her already broken heart.
“Do you know how much more you deserve from this world?” Riley whispered. She could feel herself slipping from her body, but as he yanked the snaps of her shirt open, a flood of cold air brought her back to herself. She lifted her navel in anticipation of him releasing her belt buckle and clung to his t-shirt like it was a lifeline that could keep her from turning to dust. He slid her jeans down her thighs.
Riley pulled himself from the t-shirt, breaking the lifeline. The physical world fell away. She tried hard to focus on his bare chest to anchor herself. It was smooth and hairless and marked with large misshapen pocks across his pectorals. She traced a finger over the coarse topography of those scars and let her fingers lead her to a brand by his right shoulder. A circle with the cross running through it. “What is this?” she asked.
“These,” he said brushing a hand over the pocks, “are the future. This,” he explained touching the brand with only his index finger, “is the past.”
So many things to know. She pulled back the buckle, unzipped his jeans and held her breath, and then, his pants fell to the floor and they were skin on skin.
There was nothing rushed in the way he handled her. There was urgency, but his touch was slow and deliberate and invited her to a place so fathomless, she was not sure she could return from it. She began to dissolve under his breath— to lose the definition of her own body. She pressed the side of her face against the cool cotton sheet and sought the path back, but before she could return, he brushed his cheek against the exposed side of her face and the road vanished. She became only a breath and a heartbeat that moved as part of one cadence with his.
The fissures widened and split deeper into her chest.
“Are you OK?” he whispered, wiping his thumb carefully across her wet bruised cheek.
She nodded a silent yes, but the denial was futile. A torrent flowed behind that smudged tear. She wanted to hide from him, to turn back, but he held her between his hands. He wasn’t going to let her go. She might as well crack into a million pieces and let her spirit free to be with his. He would hold all of those physical pieces and when she found her way home again, he would help her to put them back together again.
He placed a finger on her bottom lip, not to silence her, but to encourage her, as he drew it down, to give her permission to enjoy the way his own body loved hers. His other hand guided her pelvis toward him. She relaxed into it. Taking him was not a challenge or a performance. There was nothing to prove and nothing to fight. There was only a yearning to accept this moment, and all that he was offering her—to give in to all they could be together, if she could only forget herself. She bowed her head and pressed her lips against the scars, until nothing more existed, but their spirits and those places where they could not feel hurt again.
After they had both exhausted themselves, Charlie’s tears returned. Riley held her, until her body quit shaking in his arms, and then he dozed off with a quiet purr in the back of his throat.
She couldn’t sleep. She’d gone too far. It was someplace further than she had ever been and she now realized how stupid it was to give this moment to him. He held no magic that could repair her. She slipped from his arms, pulled on her clothes, and crept out to the kitchen. It was dark and empty. There was no sign of his aunt or her friend. She opened the fridge in search of a beer, only to find none. Her body trembled in the dim light. It shook with emotion and physical exhaustion, and the imminent need for another drink. From a window she could see a group of die-hards still carrying on by the fire. She pulled on her boots, not bothering to untuck the pant legs, and stumbled out across the dew heavy grass.
As she approached the fire, one of Riley’s friends offered her a beer. She took it happily and parked herself on the van seat, stuck a cigarette in her mouth and searched her pockets for a lighter.
“Hey, bareback rider,” said one of the early-morning-party-goers. “Here, use this.” He held out the smouldering end of a stick. She leaned forward and pressed the tip of the cigarette to it, inhaling deeply.
“Thanks,” she said, the vinyl squeaking as she settled back in the seat. She pushed her hat down low over her brow. It blocked her view of the sky. Through the small window below the brim, she could see only the dying embers of the fire.