Charlie opened her eyes slowly. Every morning seemed to be a surprise these days. She never knew where exactly she’d wake up. There was no TV on. It wasn’t a hotel room. No radio. It wasn’t Jacob’s place. A charcoal Percheron ascended the heavens, askew to the perspective from which had been drawn, dangling on the page by a partially torn corner.
Gradually coming back into her sense of the world, Riley, sitting patiently at the foot of her bed, emerged into the definitive edges of her reality. “Where are the rest?” she asked. “The drawings…”
“Here,” he said, handing her a mug of tea without answering the question. “My aunt made this for you.”
The warmth of it felt soothing against her battered hand. But his kindness gave her a grating nausea that caught in her throat. “Thanks.” The previous day…the previous week…the last few years…they rolled into each other catching her in with them and binding her into the centre of the snowballs many layers. She couldn’t look at him. It was more than she deserved, and it bewildered her.
“It’s a little bitter, but it should help.”
“What is it?”
“A special blend. My grandmother’s recipe.”
“It tastes like horseradish and aspirin,” she said, adding a laugh as an afterthought to blunt the unintended ingratitude.
“That’s the rat root and the fungus. Rat root for your immune system. And fungus…yeah, it’s like aspirin, but it also cleanses your spirit too. It’s good. Trust me.” And with this, she did.
The tea shook in her hands. The shakes. She was getting those so much more now. All the sloppy old drunks…middle aged women being helped down the street, too drunk to pull their sagging pants up over their ass cracks…men smoking home rolled cigarettes, their lips wet with whiskey saliva. She had hundreds of images like this that came to mind when she thought of drunks. But she was young and pretty. A party girl. She wasn’t like those old men, slurring their words and raising their voices in a desperate cry to have a story heard. Or like the women who beat futility on their husband’s back, because those men had broken their hearts again, and there was nothing else they could do but pound their fists, and drink some more, and forget it. Riley’s uncle George. He was a drunk. He had plastic sheets on his bed. But she was a party girl. Expect now she knew she wasn’t. She was on the edge of finding herself a way toward death.
“I need to go now,” she said, scanning the room for her things. “I gotta go.”
Riley’s aunt peeked through the door. “Hey sleepy head, I hear you got pretty banged up yesterday. I brought you some salve for that hand of yours.”
Jumping out the window was looking like a logical option. But not quite logical enough. “Is it one of your mother’s recipes, too?” Charlie asked, over compensating with her tone.
Riley’s aunt adopted a stoic stance, a serious look on her face. She spoke in a deep husky voice. “No.” she said. “It’s Lakota.” And she held up the tube to show, just for effect.
Forever like some kind of tourist who couldn’t catch her bearings and blundered at every turn, all she could do was laugh, more at herself than the joke.
Riley’s aunt sat beside her on the bed, gently lifting her busted hand.
“Thank you ma’am,” Charlie said.
“No. No. Call me Betty.”
She didn’t need to finish her question.“What? Help you a little? Charlie,, it’s a very sad thing in this world to be so lost. To hurt so bad you don’t know how to carry your own spirit. And to have no people of your own to help you find your way back? No one should feel so alone in this world. And I see lonely in your eyes. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. It’s not good to be alone in this world.”
Charlie had to fight the urge to press her head against Betty’s chest. She was like someone who’d been travelling eons and suddenly just now, now that she found a safe place to rest, was feeling the weight and exhaustion of the years.
But Betty was done now. She screwed the cap back on the tube. “As for this guy over here,” she stood and tussled his hair, “he loves you, I think. You take care of people you love.”
By instinct she couldn’t control, Charlie hid her face in her hands and held them there in a tight defensive position, even after she sensed that Betty had left and Riley was directly in front of her.
He pealed her hands away from her. “So, ready to keep your promise?” he asked.
“Ah…” she wriggled guiltily. “I can’t. I said I’d be back tonight.”
“Please, just give me a few days.”
“A few days?”
“A few days.”
“I guess I could work something out. For a few days?.”
“For a few days.There’s some place I want to take you.”
“It is. You’ll love it.”
She wasn’t convinced. Yes, she needed time to ponder the fucking wreckage of her life. But here he was coming to try and rescue her yet again. And he was one of the things she needed to be figuring out. Wasn’t she supposed to be stepping back and gaining some perspective on that, not jumping in head first all vulnerable? She didn’t know.
“Where are we going?”
“The mountains. Just a couple hours from here, not far.”
Then again, she wanted to be protected and cared for. She drew him to her and kissed his perfect smile.
“Really, you’re going to love it,” he said, forcing himself to pull away from the kiss she could tell he so obviously wanted too. “When you’re ready, my aunt has breakfast waiting,” he said.
Maybe going was a stupid idea. What was the point? For love? What was love that couldn’t even meet a kiss?
They didn’t speak much on the drive. The universe had returned to the awkwardness you’d expect of two friends who’d had sex, only to discover the level of their feelings exceeded their ability to relate intimately to each other, and so one of them had punched the tenderness of it all in the guts. And probably it was those eons of exhaustion broken loose, she thought, but as they climbed in elevation, the caring where it all stood drifted away; the awkwardness just was, and how it resolved itself could wait for another time. Right now they shared the same air. The same geographic location. The same moment in time. Not words. Not the truth of their feelings. But they shared space. And that at least, felt right. There was a harmony between the last of the autumn wildflowers in the ditch, and the cattle grazing in the brush, and the rocks that peaked the tops of their heads through the grass. And silence was doing what it was meant to in its own place and cycle.
The road grew increasingly steeper, upward toward the scratched-in-the-sky clouds. A teenager on a quad jumped out onto the road, startling them both. “The mountains were better when we were kids. Before all this shit with motors, back when you had to sit a horse or walk,” Charlie said, breaking the silence.
“Yeah,” Riley agreed. “It’s everything though. Everyone wants to cover as much ground as they can, as quickly as they can. Just cram it all in fast, and zoom off to the next thing. Never feel any of it. Not really. Can we really say we’ve been somewhere, if we weren’t really present enough to feel it?”
Heck, that’s what Charlie liked most about town to town to town. The not feeling it. But then she liked the way it was to see each unique strand of lichen on a branch, and to discover the bug crawling through it. The texture of a mushroom, or plant. Not a postcard snap, but something painted in brush strokes you could feel. Touch and feel.
He pointed out his window. “There’s an entire water fall made of fossils down that trail. A wolf den too. We can check it out when you feel better, if you want. There’s some other falls too. One you need to hike a long ways to, and another you have to ride to. I’d love to show it all to you some time.”
They began a slow decent down the hill, passing more men on ATVs, these ones dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles across the front of their small vehicles. “Where are all of these people coming from?” she asked.
“The campground,” he answered, as they reached the bottom of a narrow river valley. “It’s down that road.”
“Is that where we’re going?”
He smiled at her. “No. Where we’re going is a little further on.”
The road turned right to follow the bank of the Graham River. A tall sloping ridge line rose up out her side window and flanked them, pushing the narrow trail against the rushing waters. Ahead she could make out a lodge, with a few wood cabins just beyond it.
As they passed through the gate she read the cardboard sign fastened to it with twine: Rider toll: $5 per head or beer. She laughed.
A man and a woman were hunched over quartering a moose in front of the lodge. Riley stopped the truck and cut the engine. The woman glanced over to them only briefly, stuck in some work that couldn’t be abandoned straight off, but the man stood up, wiped his bloody knife against his already dirty jeans, and walked over to the driver’s side window. “Hey,” he said, bearing a spotty grin. Now, what brings you up here? Looking to put some meat in the freezer?”
“Maybe,” said Riley,, though he’d packed his rifle more as a precaution against grizzlies than with ambitions to hunt. “Mostly just came to get away.”
“And who’s the pretty lady?”
“Charlie. My friend.”
Charlie smiled and gave a small wave.
“Friend, eh? If I had a friend like that, I wouldn’t mess around like you. I’d be calling her my girlfriend. My wife. Heh heh. No doubt about it.” He gave a flirtatious wink. “You mean you drove all the way up here, just the two of you, and she’s still just a friend. Shame.”
The man’s wife overhearing him, and knowing he was about to get carried away, looked up from the hind quarter between her hands. “Mah,” she sighed, mocking her him with a shake of the head, as though he were a naughty boy. She let the hind quarter go, and got up from the tarp she’d been sitting on to join them at the truck.
“Never mind him,” she said excusing her husband. “He can be a handful.” She leaned in the window and planted a big kookum kiss on Riley’s cheek. “Good to see you. It’s been too long.”
“I know. Good to see you too, auntie. How’s your hips?”
“Well, you know. They ache. But this guy,” she pointed to her husband, “what’d he do without me? Useless on his own.” There was laughter in her voice that betrayed the decades of love beneath the jabs. “So, I keep moving.”
“Got any cabin’s free,” Riley asked, “or are you all booked up with hunters?”
“You didn’t want to stay over at the band’s camp? Free cabins there. We were there this morning. Only my sister and her boy.” the man said.
“They don’t want to stay there,” the wife said. “They want to be alone. Like the honeymoon suite.” She nudged her husband.
“I was hoping for more privacy,” Riley agreed. “Like kind of have no one know we’re up here.”
“Good luck with that, now that he’s seen you,” the wife chimed in.
“I won’t say a word,” the man said. “The honeymoon suite is yours.”
“Sounds great. You want me to pay you now or later?”
“No, no.” The man shook his head and waved a hand.
“No charge, Riley,” the woman reaffirmed. “But he could use some firewood cut while you’re up here.”