Monday, January 2, 2017

Chapter 29

“Wow, the honeymoon suite,” Charlie said, as Riley turned the engine and put the truck in gear. “That sounds kinda fancy.”

Riley laughed. “It’s not. Don’t get too excited, before you see it.”

They drove past a row of old log cabins and a weathered corral, then headed straight down a long partially groomed landing strip. Far in the distance rose a mountain like the face of a man lying on his back. “It really takes the breath away, doesn’t it?”

Their accommodations stood tucked back in the trees near the end of the airstrip. The honeymoon suite wasn’t much more than a matchbox with a set of bunks stacked in one corner, a double bed against the back wall, and a loft with a bed above it. Not exactly set up as intimate accommodations, except for maybe polygamists. Dim light filtered in through the thick trees past the two curtainless windows. A picnic table sat under one of the windows, and an airtight stove stood near the door. With the door still open, Charlie could hear the rushing of the Graham River, as if it ran right to the step.

Honeymoon suite. No. It didn’t really hold up to its name, but it did have a romantic charm, in spite of needing a good cleaning before the food and bedding could be unpacked from the truck. She swept out the mouse shit, lit a mosquito coil, and wiped everything down with some disinfectant wipes, while Riley split and stacked the firewood outside.

If luxury meant to most people, a place where you could wrap yourself in so much comfort you could forget the hardships of the outside world, to her it meant only a place you could forget your name…forget everything you were called by. A cabin in the woods, in the mountains, near a river, and nothing from the outside world could find her here. Names had responsibilities and reputations and shames and histories attached to them. They didn’t exist. Here she had only the way Riley might say her name, and all the things that went with that just might be worth trying to straighten out. Maybe even possible.

She lit a smoke and leaned against the door frame to watch him, his broad shoulders swinging an axe, cracking the layer of her, in the way he splintered the fibres of wood with one confident and graceful fell at a time. OK, so yes, it would only amount to play acting. The really good things never lasted long, because she was simply not calibrated for really good things, and sooner or later the universe always figured that out and then righted it all in the wrong ways again. But today, just for today, she could pretend, and if she pretended hard enough, then today, just for today, wouldn’t that still be real…if just for today?

It was nearing supper time when she finished cleaning the cabin. Riley brought the food and bedding in to her and she unpacked, while he lit a fire outside, the coordination of these things happening in a comfortable silence. Their words had all but fallen away, as though they were being written out of the evolutionary changes happening between them. He took care of what needed to be done outside, and she made the bed against the far wall, tucking the blankets in securely to discourage little visitors from crawling in. Then she took a package of hotdogs and a bag of buns out to join him at the fire he had built.

She found herself sitting very near Riley, before she had taken a moment to think whether or not it was OK for her to do so now, with the confusion between the boundaries of what seemed so much like it could be love, and what was physically allowed, contradicting each other. She waited, very still for a long half minute, but his body gave no sign of shifting away from her. She leaned a little closer to him, distracting her movement by pulling a wiener from the package and offering it to him. He took it from her, with fingers so patient, it hurt not to pull him closer for more. And then he jabbed his hotdog on the end of a sharpened stick, and exchanged it with her for the package. He skewered another wiener, and then there they were, roasting hotdogs with overzealous concentration, staring intently into the fire, trying to quiet what was burning inside both of them.

The sun climbed down from the sky and the evening air began to cool rapidly. They were fed, and it was getting late by the mountain clock. Riley spoke at last, out of necessity. “You can have the double bed tonight,” he said. “I’ll sleep in the loft.”

“No.” She looked into his eyes, the brown centres illuminated by amber flames. She waited for him to respond to her. Nothing. “I’ll take the loft,” she said, defending her pride, when what she had really wanted to say was, “No. Hold me. Be close to me.” She felt weary. Dizzy and shaky. Detoxing, or too much drama...she couldn’t figure out...something…but it hit her with a cold convulsive shiver.

Riley left the fire and returned a moment later with a blanket to drape around her shoulders. He took her in his arms for extra warmth, and she leaned her head against him.

“Do you ever dream of more?” he asked her.

Her teeth chattered as she spoke. “More than what?”

“Like do you ever dream of where you want your life to go? Or is it always just trying to outrun whatever is behind you? Do you ever wake up and plan a day by what you want, instead of what you fear? Do you ever dream of more?”

“It’s not a matter of wanting.”

“You can have it, you know. The moment you believe you deserve it, you can have it.”

She laughed sarcastically. “Have what?”

Riley paused for a long time, and she braced herself for another lecture about her life. So much for escaping the outside world. It didn't matter where she went. There was always someone to lecture her. And maybe all those people who thought they knew so much better than her weren’t so smart after all, because none of them seemed capable of seeing that she wasn’t at all like they thought—that whiskey and shallow admiration were the fuel that made a girl like her run. And she was damn fine with that.

“See, you don’t even know,” she told him.

“No,” he said squeezing her close to him, “It just isn’t something I can answer for you. You have to know for yourself. You have to answer it yourself.”

“That’s fine for you to say that. But you think you know. Don’t you? You have the answers, and you’re waiting for me to figure out what you have all figured out about me. There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Riley.”

He refused her challenge to fight. “Yeah,” he agreed, “there is. And there’s a lot you don’t know about me. A lot of places I’ve been that have never entered into your ideas about me.” His voice was soft, empathetic, almost a whisper. “Somewhere along the way, I learned we don’t have to be the people we were. All those stones of yesterday we picked up along the way? We don’t have to carry those around with us forever. We can put them down and use them as steps to raise us up.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a philosophy too. You keep holding on for one more day and pray like hell the sunrise brings you a fresh horse.”

“And if one doesn’t come? Then what?”

“Then I scrape through the day and hold on for the next.” By scrape by she meant she got good and numb, and maybe found someone convenient to make her feel pretty.

“Why depend so much on what the world brings you? You can’t control that. Why not go out and make your own opportunities, instead of leaving it to luck? Bad luck comes just as easy as the good kind.”

She felt warmer now, perhaps from the anger growing inside her. “How come everyone has to tell me how to live my life? Like I have nothing going for me.” She pulled away from him and set her jaw. “I ride bucking horses better than most men, and I can bring a house down in a pair of stilettos. And I’m not June Cleaver so somehow I’m still shit?”

“I didn’t mean that. But does any of it make you happy?”

“Hell yeah! Why else would I do it, Riley?” She stood in a challenging posture. She liked it a lot better when they weren’t talking. “What do you like about me anyway? I’ve been trying to figure it out for a long time, and I still don’t get it. Why would you fucking bother with someone like me?”

The flames only deepened the ire of heat in her eyes, and the bitter taste of bile thickened her tongue. Her mouth was watering. She had to get away from him. She threw off the blanket, and ran toward the river, stumbling and falling down the steep bank, tripping clumsily over herself the remaining few steps to the river, where she dropped to her knees and let her guts go.

Riley was beside her and she hated him. He needed to just fuck off. He placed a hand on her back. “Don’t touch me. Don’t fucking touch me.” She clawed her way back to her feet and stepped away from him, even as he tried to pull her in closer. She took long deep breaths trying to stop from vomiting again. He reached for her once more, but she turned away. Across the bank, through the trees, she saw the redheaded cowboy. He was watching her too. He was always watching her. “Don’t touch me! You’re just like everyone else. You play the good guy, but you’re not! You’re fucking not!” she screamed. Her voice turned hoarse and powerless. “You dangle me by a thread too. A game for affection I’ll never win. There’s no winning with you. With anyone.” The sound of her words melted into the rushing of the current as she folded to the ground, too heavy to even lift her head back up from the rocks and the dirt.

Riley pulled a small golf ball sized beige piece of fungus from his pocket and pressed his ignited lighter to it, until the flame turned to a funnel of spoke smouldering out from it, exuding the gentle scent of sweet anise. Careful not to touch her, he fanned the smoke over her heaving body, in slow deliberate wafts. She wanted to punch him in the face. How dare he try to help her, and pull some kind of healing bullshit on her, when he was the one hurting her. She wanted to punch him in the face, but she couldn’t catch enough breath between guttural sobs, to get herself up off the ground. All she could do was let go and let him do whatever it was he was doing. She had not even enough strength left to hold her breath a second longer than her lungs willed.

A song began creeping from his throat and past his lips—a vibrational tone that extracted the wailing of long forgotten pains from inside the dark and hidden centre of every molecule of her heart. She pulled herself upright by those screams, and then everything went silent with euphoria, and a veil of midnight dropped over her, turning the world black.

She came to in Riley’s arms, as he was carrying her across the threshold of the cabin known as the honeymoon suite. And it was anything but romantic. It was humiliating. All these Prince Charmings who never really meant to save her at all. She struggled to get her own feet under her, but Riley held his grip on her until she was sitting safely on the bed against the back wall. Her jaw quivered, dicing the insults she had for him before they could escape her mouth, and draining the momentum of her intended resistance.

Riley kneeled before the airtight stove, arranging kindling and paper to make a fire. A sliver of moon slipped through the window and landed on his back. She knew why you didn’t dream. Why you didn’t want things. Because the things you wanted and the things you could have were never the same, and all that wanting just turned everything beautiful into hate.

When he had the fire going, he came back to her, kneeling before her on the floor. He reached his hands up slowly, in the way he might approach a soured or spooked horse, and drew the zipper of her jacket down, sliding it off of her and setting it over on the nearby bunk. He took the buttons of her shirt in his hands and undid them one by one in the kind of ceremony a man preform on the woman he loves—a ceremony of honour and trust to exfoliate the layers that have become hard and calloused for all the times they were ripped and torn off, and not surrendered.

She wasn’t sure how long this undressing had taken, but he was beside her now, under the covers, both of them naked. She knew there was no chance he would touch her sexually. And she needed him to, but wanted him not to…or maybe wanted him to, but needed him not to. But when she silenced her mind, she was again the girl without a name. There was nothing that had ever passed between them, and no wanting of more than the feel of skin to skin she felt now. The feel. The feel of now. She was a nameless girl without a history and without a future. All there could ever be in this darkness, with the whir of the fire in its drum, was the feel. Warm tears spilled onto her cheeks.

Riley stroked the back of her head. “No, don’t be sad,” he said, “The way I feel about you is beyond your imagination, but that doesn’t make it less real.”

What she couldn’t tell him was she wasn’t crying because she felt rejected, but because for the first time in all of her existence, she didn’t.

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