Charlie woke up in a hotel room, but she couldn’t remember checking in anywhere. The shower was running and a man’s watch and boot wallet sat beside the TV on the dresser. She pulled back the covers to find she was wearing a t-shirt and panties, which was a good sign; though waking up in a man’s hotel room was not. She tip-toed from the bed to the dresser, picked up the wallet and opened it. There was no way in hell she could ever top this fuck up. She knew the face that stared back at her from the driver’s license. Carl. She’d met him at Riley’s party. She let the wallet fall back on the dresser, and collapsed to the floor. Too numb and still too drunk to actually cry, she wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth.
Just as the idea came to her that she should get dressed and get the heck out of there, the bathroom door opened and Carl walked out. His long black hair was wet, but he was fully clothed. “You all right?” he asked the girl on his hotel room floor.
“Oh man, I just majorly fucked up.” She closed her eyes and shook her head back and forth disbelievingly.
“Are you worried that— No. No. Shit no. Nothing happened. Honest.” He blushed. “Don’t worry. The way you kept going on about Riley last night…he’s been my best friend since we were four.”
“What did I say?” It was her turn to blush.
He laughed and extended a hand to help her off the floor. “Oh, just how much you’re in love with him.”
“Yeah, you did.”
She groaned. “Is there anything else I should know about?”
“You had a big fight with your ex last night. I think it was about something your ex had told Riley.”
“A big fight?”
“Yeah. It took a couple of us to pull you off him. You fight like a rez girl. Hardcore.”
The room was spinning. She had to sit on the bed. “You’re not going to say anything to Riley, right?”
“If he asks...” He pulled on his boots and stuffed his wallet into the right one.
“Could I get a lift to my truck, if you don’t mind? I have to ride in an hour.”
“No need,” he told her stepping over to the window and drawing the curtain back. She walked over to see what he was pointing at. “You left your truck here last night and we walked over to the other bar.”
It was coming back now. She’d started at the Fort Hotel, because it was one of those kind of bars that Cody wouldn’t be caught dead in, but Riley’s friends had talked her into going over to the night club. That was where it all went fuzzy. “Was Riley there for the fight?”
“No. I think he’s coming up some time today.”
Great. He was going to hear about how she spent the night making an ass of herself over him. She wasn’t sure what was worse, her confessions of her love for him, or that she’d thrown down on Cody. She slipped into her jeans, begged Carl one more time not to tell Riley about any of it.
“My best friend since four. I dunno.”
She liked that he wouldn’t promise her. It meant he was honest, because really, who wouldn’t tell? She hopped in her truck and headed for the rodeo grounds.
Charlie had no idea how long she had been locked and hiding in the outhouse. At least long enough to convince herself she was done with rodeo for good, and she to decide she was packing her shit when she got back to Jacob’s and getting as far from everything she knew as she possibly could. Someone was outside banging away on the door impatiently, and had no choice but to compose herself, to cowgirl up and get back out into the world.
The man on the other side of the door was not who she’d expected to see. That man she used to call “dad”. He looked at her like she was dead rat he’d just found in the barn. “You know, you used to be a helluva barrel racer,” he said. “You should have stuck to it instead of trying to be a man. Look at you.”
She flicked the nails of her good hand against the gold plating of her belt buckle, pumped her eyebrows and spat between his feet. “Win some. Lose some,” she said, pushing past him.
If there was a single bone left intact anywhere in her left hand, she’d have been surprised. She needed a cigarette, but her riggin bag might as well have been across the Sahara. “Mind if I bum a smoke,” she asked approaching Jim, who was working his magic on some girl of questionable age, flirting comically through that ridiculous painted face of his.
“Sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his pack.
She plucked the lit cigarette from his mouth. “That one will do,” she said. It was slimy with red grease paint, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. The smoke made her throat feel dry and she asked him if he’d mind getting her some water from her over in her gear.
“Sure,” he said. “Where is it?”
“Right there,” she said pointing to the corner where she’d left her things.
The girl of questionable age looked bored and wandered away.
“Where?” Jim asked her again.
Charlie turned to look where she was pointing. Crap. Someone had swiped it while she was balling in the outhouse. She opened her mouth to ask Jim if he had seen anyone over there, but he was off in pursuit of the girl. Charlie hobbled over to the stripping chute to collect her riggin. She searched the line of gear, freshly stripped from the broncs that had just been bucked out, but it wasn’t there. It looked like whoever had swiped her bag had swiped it too. She gritted her teeth, trying to hold it together. It had to be there. It wasn’t. “Fuck!”
The stock contractor leaned over the fence.
“Looking for your gear?
“Your boyfriend grabbed it,” he said.
“Boyfriend?” She wasn’t aware that she had any. “Don’t tell me that stupid little fuck Cody took it.”
“No, not your ex. I mean Riley.”
And then he caught her eye, standing there, a coy smile spread across his lips. After everything she’d done to him, Riley was standing there smiling at her.
Her face knotted in confusion. She didn’t know what to say. There was nowhere to begin. It was a wheel spinning and she wasn’t sure at which part to come in.
“I thought you might be a bit busted up, so I packed up your things for you. Are you OK. You had me worried, Charlene.”
Her face warmed to a smile. Tears trickled onto her cheeks. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you.”
He was uncomfortable with the vulnerable display of emotion. He could have easily grabbed her and kissed her right there, but he couldn’t. “I uh, couldn’t find your butt pad, when I was rounding up your things.”
She laughed and turned her backside toward him. “That’s because I still have it.”
He reached down her pants just a little and yanked it out with a comfortable familiarity.
When she turned back to face him, she saw that Cody was watching from a few feet away. She thought it would be the perfect time to kiss Riley and give Cody a good show. But it wasn’t what she really wanted. She suddenly felt very private and protective of her feelings for him, as though they were something too special to flaunt for revenge. Special beyond all of that. “Riley,” a few more tears escaped from the corners of her eyes. She wiped her face with her sleeve, and tugged the brim of her hat down to cover her face. “You’re a saint.”
When he hugged her, she hugged him back, every ounce of her body feeling apologetic. She could imagine no explanation for why he was forgiving her. She didn’t want forgiveness. She wanted him to yell at her and tell her how worthless he was. But she needed him to hold her, just like he was.
“Hey Black Bull, get a room.” Cody shouted. “Or maybe she’s too tired from being with your buddy last night.”
Charlie felt Riley’s body stiffen in her arms. She pulled his face back to meet her eyes. “I didn’t— Nothing happened,” she stammered.
“I know,” he said. “Carl told me all about it.”
“Her relief gave way to embarrassment. “All about it?”
“Yeah. All about it. Come on.” He threw her riggin bag over his shoulder and put his free arm around her.
He stowed her bag in her truck and then they walked over to the beer gardens. The tent was packed, but they managed to spot a few empty seats at the end of one of the rows of tables. They squeezed their way between the benches.
“You all right there, bareback rider?” asked an ancient, knotted up old-timer, as she passed by him.
Charlie turned and smiled at the man, a little too overeagerly to convey sincerity. “Just a scratch or two.” She patted his shoulder reassuringly with her good hand. A room full of eyes turned toward her. She was used to being recognized, but today the attention was suffocating. She made her way toward the empty seats with her head down, like a coyote.
“I need a beer,” she said to Riley. Her voice was hoarse and her body starting to tremble with withdrawal.
“I’ll get you something,” he said, reaching out to help her sit. He stopped himself, unsure if she wanted assistance, or not.
Charlie smiled. She would have welcomed the help, if it wasn’t for all those eyes peering out from beneath a sea of cowboy hats.
She settled in uncomfortably. The dirty athletic tape cut into her swollen flesh. She held her busted hand under the table and worked at ripping it free, hiding her winces beneath her hat. By the time Riley returned, she had crumpled it into a ball and was rolling it on the thigh of her Wranglers with her good hand.
“Here,” he said, placing a drink in front of her.
She slapped the ball down on the table. “Thanks.”
“I thought you might be hungry, so I got you a burger too.”
She lifted the plastic cup to her mouth. “Orange juice? This better have something in it.”
“Nope. Just drink it. It will make you feel better, get your blood sugar back up.”
Begrudgingly, she took a sip. How could she say no to someone who seemed to care so much?
“Look,” he told her, “I’ve got to go get my horse ready. Will you be OK here, for awhile?”
She nodded her head, her mouth already being full of burger.
He was making his way back through the long aisle before she was able to swallow, and thank him properly. to let him know just what his showing up really did mean to her.