Charlie was slipping the truck into reverse, when the passenger door opened. She banged her head against the steering wheel and let it rest there. “Go away.”
“Can I catch a ride?”
She was silently stunned by audacity.
“Come on. It’s a long walk and it will be at least an hour before I can get a cab.”
“Fine. Where are you staying?”
“Same place. I just rented it out while I was away.”
Charlie was silent for the five blocks, while Cody went on about something that didn’t register through her autopilot mode. She drove somnambulistically, without thought. She didn’t need to think about which turn to take or how far down the street it was, because she’d driven to that little green house so many times.
She pulled to a stop along the curb and waited for Cody to get out, but a few minutes later, and one hangnail scraped off of her thumb with her index finger, and he was still sitting beside her. She stared into the darkness at the far end of the street where the world vanished from perception.
“I want you to know I’m sorry.”
She swallowed hard. “Are you?”
“I’d do anything to take it back.” His hand brushed down her back. She felt his touch tingle into her toes.
“Well, it’s too late.”
“I feel responsible for what you’ve become.”
She looked out the driver’s side window. “Oh, you mean a peeler?” He was staring at her. She knew it and it drew her eyes back to him.
The expression on his face straddled the fine line between pity and contempt. Her stomach was dangerously close to dropping through the floorboards of the truck. He was right. She was garbage.
She tipped her hat down to hide her shame.
“No. No. Charlene,” he said pulling her into his body. “Don’t cry. Things don’t have to be like this. Things could be different this time.”
His kiss was hard and dispassionate, but his words— they were pulling her in. Familiar. Something lost and then found. She parted her lips.
Cody didn’t bother to unbutton her shirt, didn’t even pull her pants off of her left ankle. Let alone invite her into the house. She stared at the yellow glare of a porch light across the street and wished he’d just get it over with. She thought about Riley, and how she’d felt beneath his smooth, warm body. Why was she here?
The seat belt buckle dug into her thigh, but it was awkward for her to shift away from it, as Cody squirmed pulling down his pants. She wanted to be anywhere but here. To scream. To say “no”.
The glare of headlights lit up the cab of the truck, and then turned into Cody’s driveway. “Oh shit,” he said pulling his pants up quickly. “Looks like I got something better tonight. Maybe we can do this stroll down memory lane another time.” He zipped his Wranglers as he got out.
Charlie’s whole body shook as she pulled up her own pants. What was worse: if he’d gone through with using her for a masturbation toy, or the fact that she meant so little to him, another girl could pull into his driveway, and she ceased to exist? She wasn’t sure. She needed a drink, and a smoke. She needed a fucking life. She inhaled the smoke into the very bottoms of her lungs, watching as Cody greeted the petite brunette with a passionate kiss. Charlie didn’t recognize her. She put the truck in drive and crept to the end of the cul-de-sac, where she turned around. Driving back by the little green house, where her flower beds had long since gone to seed, through the window where her homemade curtains had faded, she saw them embracing each other.
There was nowhere to go. She couldn’t go home to Jacob’s. She wanted Riley, but why would he want her? And should she even want him? She pulled off the highway and drove up to the rodeo grounds, grabbed a six pack of beer from behind the truck seat and carried it out behind the chutes.
“Charlie, you gotta get your shit together,” she told herself as she cracked a can. “What the fuck was that?” She climbed up onto the wooden platform. The stars were bright and cosmically unsympathetic toward the lone girl with the disintegrating soul.
She closed her eyes and remembered past rodeos here. She’d once found a little boy under this same platform. They were loading the saddle broncs. She’d been gathering up her things, and as she looked up, he’d caught her eye. He was no more than a toddler and his wide brown eyes were frightened and lost, as he tucked further into a corner beneath the platform. Adrenalin had propelled her body toward him. She’d hauled him out to safety like mama bear before a horse might cow kick him through the rails. She held him tight to her chest for a long time. Finally, she loosened her grip on him to get a good look at the child in her arms. He was covered in layers of snot and dirt, but in those large eyes she saw a reflection of herself.
The boy snuggled into her as though she were someone he knew intimately. “Does this kid belong to anybody?” she shouted. But the cowboys were too busy strapping on spurs and flak vests and rubbing rosin into their saddles. “Do you have a name, little guy?”
He said nothing.
She found a bandanna in her rigging bag and dipped it in the cool stock water trough. It had smeared mud around his cheeks with the first few swipes. She had to rinse the cloth a few times more before she could unearth the little boy hiding under the dirt.
“You must be hungry, hey little guy?”
The small child said nothing. She wondered who would let their child loose in only a diaper, at a rodeo. Her father. He would have.
She found a concession stand and bought a plate of fries, which the boy wolfed down, as though it was his first meal. She dabbed the ketchup off of his chin with a napkin and opened a bottle of water for him. That was when Cody had found them.
“Look what I found,” Charlie said, feeling more than comfortable with a child on her hip. “Can we keep him?” It was said like a joke that had more truth than jest to it.
“No. Put him back where you found him. I’m going to get my gear out of the truck. Where’s the keys?”
The little boy tucked his head into the curve of her neck “Here,” she said, handing Cody the keys. “What do you want me to do, put him back under the platform?”
“How the fuck do I know?” he called back over his shoulder.
She turned to walk away, but a man saw a man was approaching, so she stood fast. “Hey, there you are,” he said, snatching the child from her arms without even a thank you, and the boy disappeared with him, somewhere into the crowd.