They discovered Katy perched on the wooden swing that hung inside Travis’ enclosed porch. She was huddled with her knees tucked up under her chin, wearing a Colorado State sweatshirt that was several sizes too large for her and a pair of pink slipper boots. As Ben and Travis swooped in through the front screen door, she looked up at them with red, puffy eyes. To Ben’s surprise, Travis ignored her and stepped past her into the house, shutting the door behind him.
Ben hesitated behind, feeling as though he should at least acknowledge her presence. She looked at him expectantly, and he said, “It’s cold out here.”
From her expression, it had not been the sentiment she’d been hoping for. She sniffled and shifted her legs, letting them drop down so that she could push the swing with her slipper-covered feet. She no longer appeared as provocative or mature as she had earlier. Her heavy makeup was gone, her hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She looked more like a vulnerable little mess. Although she’d caused such distress earlier, Ben felt a tinge of empathy for her. She was just a kid.
Travis swung the door back open and leaned against the frame with his arms crossed. He’d removed his coat and boots and stood there in his stockinged feet, glaring at his sister. “Haven’t you had enough confrontation for one day?” he demanded.
She stopped swinging long enough to protest, “I’m not looking for a fight!”
“Then go back to the house. Go to bed.”
She sniffled but made no move to leave. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, frail. “I just came to apologize.”
“To Ben?” he said.
She glanced from her brother to Ben as if alarmed by the mere suggestion. Even Ben was caught off-guard. “He deserves an apology, too,” Travis insisted.
Ben threw up a hand. “Hey, look, don’t worry about –”
But Travis cut him off mid-sentence. “Apologize to Ben,” he commanded her. “Then maybe we can talk.”
She looked miserable, like a kicked cat. Softly, she said, “I’m sorry, Ben.”
“Hey, it’s no problem,” Ben assured her. He meant it. Quietly, he excused himself, wanting to give them some privacy to continue their conversation. He headed over to the next bunkhouse, and from the shadows Derry appeared, sniffing and yipping at his heels. Ben ushered her inside the building, happy for the company.
The room was like an ice box. He searched for matches to start a fire in the cast-iron stove but realized that there was no kindling anyway and so decided to just leave his coat on. The small bathroom had no soap to be found. Ben relieved himself in the toilet and had to content himself with running his hands under freezing cold water, followed by wiping the dampness on his jeans, because there was also no towel to be found.
From inside his carry-on bag, his mobile phone chirped with messages. Funny how, when caught up in so many other things, he hadn’t missed the appendage in his pocket. He wondered if Melissa had had enough willpower to refrain from calling him again. Decided it probably wasn’t appropriate to continue ignoring her, and so he plucked the Blackberry from inside his clothes. There were several missed calls, including one from his mother, but Melissa was not among them. He had to admit that her restraint was commendable. He pressed the button for her number, and it rang a few times before she answered. “Hi, sunshine, thought maybe you’d forgotten about me.”
“Ah Mel, I could never forget about you.”
“Are you having fun?” she asked.
“Going to tell me where you are?”
“Do you have a printer there, at least?”
“Just email it to me. I’ll look it all over when I get back to Aspen.”
“Which will be when?”
“The day after tomorrow.”
She sighed. He heard her scribble something onto a piece of paper and toss a pen down. “Well,” she said, “I appreciate you calling me back, my dear.”
“You’re welcome, my dear.”
After hanging up, he hesitated with the phone still in his hand, debating on whether or not to return his mom’s call or to even listen to her message. If he was lucky, she hadn’t spoken to Audra yet. But why else would she be calling me on vacation…? She wouldn’t, unless there was an emergency – or Audra had been incapable of keeping her fucking mouth shut. Although like her two children Gretta Mansfield was an open-minded individual who embraced diversity and elements outside the normal acceptance of society, Ben couldn’t imagine she’d ever accept this. Not from her own son.
Deciding to avoid conversation with her and unwilling to even hear her voice, he dropped the phone back into his bag and plunked down onto the mattress. Scratched Derry behind the ears and stared up into nothing, a yawn escaping his lips, his eyelids growing heavy. The ceiling was covered in wood planks, just like the floor, but painted eggshell white, and he started counting the cobwebs that crisscrossed the boards. Images of Christine and disappointing life choices floated in and out of his head in small hypnagogic dreams until he drifted off into a light sleep.
* * * *
When Ben awoke, the room hadn’t changed, but Derry was asleep at his feet, and he was colder than he’d been before. In an attempt to warm himself, he stood up and began to circle the room, rubbing his hands together. An outdated Hustler magazine peeked out from under one of the beds, as though purposely planted there – a cowboy cliché for him to find. Flipping through the pages, Ben noted with some pleasure the curvaceous women in various provocative poses. One in particular caught his attention – had porcelain skin, face full of freckles, D-cup breasts, voluptuous hips, and flaming red hair, both above and below. This pin-up girl held an air of innocent seduction about her, as though she was a virgin, yet willing to play.
Ben studied the page with some veneration until the front door scraped open and Travis stepped inside. Derry immediately rushed over to him, and Ben felt like a child who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Quickly, he dropped the magazine onto the nearest bed.
“Hey,” Travis said.
“Hey,” Ben replied. “Everything all right between you two now?”
He was still in his stockinged feet, no coat on. “Yeah. For now. It’s fucking freezing in here.” He rubbed his arms.
“I know,” Ben said. “I couldn’t find any matches.”
“I thought you’d gone up to the house.”
That option hadn’t even entered Ben’s mind. “Oh well,” Ben shrugged, “I figured I’d go ahead and get settled in here.” But he hadn’t unpacked a single thing yet, and Travis noticed this.
“You weren’t really expecting to sleep in here, were you?” he asked. Ben just looked at him. “Aw, come on!” he laughed, striding over to him. “I never intended for you to actually stay in this flea-infested place!” He swiped Ben’s bag from the bed and gestured for him to grab his snowboard. They returned to his bunkhouse, Derry close in tow.
During Ben’s absence, Travis had dimmed the lights and started a fire in the wood-burning stove, which was fully ablaze now, permeating an almost suffocating heat across the room. Travis stooped to shut the flue, and as he did so, the height of the flames dropped considerably. Ben shrugged out of his parka and hung it on a wall hook occupied by two other jackets.
The bottle of Jim Beam they’d been sharing earlier sat on the table. Travis filled a shot glass and offered it to him, but Ben held up a hand to decline, his stomach twisting at the thought. “I think I’ve had enough for 24 hours.”
Travis eyed him quizzically, as if deciding whether or not he was joking, and then he shrugged and swallowed the liquor himself. “A little night cap,” he explained, pouring himself another. It had become evident over the course of the day that the man drank his whiskey like water.
Ben plucked a record from one of the crates, removed it from its sheath, and placed it on the turntable. The sultry voice of Billie Holiday soon poured softly from the speakers. Travis took a seat on the sofa and said, “Good choice.” He lounged back with one stockinged foot propped up on the other, his head slightly tilted sideways, his green eyes locked with Ben’s. Once more, Ben felt winded by the immense, raw energy the man exuded. It made him want to tackle him, kiss him, be in his mouth again. If someone had asked him what the root cause of his hunger was, Ben couldn’t have provided an answer. It seemed impossible to define. The red-headed pin-up girl had already slipped from his mind.
“You still up for snowboarding tomorrow?” Travis asked.
Taking a seat on the recliner to unlace and remove his boots, Ben said, “Absolutely.”
“Great. We’ll plan to leave after breakfast. Mom will expect us at the house.”
“Okay.” A moment passed. Ben watched Derry circle her large plaid dog bed in the corner and sniff at it before eventually committing to curling up on the soft fabric.
Travis patted the empty sofa cushion beside him and said, “You’re too far away.”
Ben obliged. Slid from the chair and moved over to sit beside him but leaned away, crossing one leg over the other, resting his elbow on a large woven throw pillow, his body language indicating a coyness that contradicted what he was really feeling. He couldn’t justify it, other than he was still resistant to accept this shadow side of himself that had been pulled into the light.
Travis acted as though nothing were amiss, simply slid right into conversation again. “Your sister and Bryan sure seem like great people.”
“They are,” Ben agreed
“Did you know?” Still in her first trimester, Audra was hardly showing. Since they hadn’t discussed the topic yet with Travis, Ben wasn’t sure when or how he’d obtained this information, unless he’d overhead Audra’s entrance into his room that morning, commenting on how one should never keep a pregnant lady waiting. Like Ben, Travis had been half-awake and hungover, but perhaps he’d been more alert than Ben had given him credit for.
“Call it instinct,” Travis explained. “When you’ve been around livestock your whole life, you just kind of know these things.”
An odd statement, to which Ben laughed. “Are you actually comparing my sister to cattle?”
Travis laughed, too. “No. But, hey, we’re all creatures meant to procreate, so in essence, yes, I guess I am comparing your sister to cattle. But…” he added with a shake of his finger. “She’s far prettier than some of the cows I’ve seen.”
“Shit, man, do you really believe that we’re all meant to procreate?” Ben asked. An image of Christine crying in his arms as they’d sat in his BMW in front of the abortion clinic slammed forward like a punch. Try as he might, he would never be able to wipe that memory from his mind. Seven months ago, he’d almost been a father.
“Yes, I do,” Travis replied.
Travis studied him for a moment, perhaps deciding what direction he was coming from. Then he leaned in a little closer and said, “Just because my purpose is to procreate doesn’t mean I have to fulfill that obligation.”
“Wow.” Ben shook his head, baffled. “That’s heavy. It’s like you’re reducing humans to animals.”
“Isn’t that what we are?” A crooked grin traveled across his face as he continued. “I may have a slightly different view of the world than most, Ben. Maybe I’ve been around livestock too much. Humans are far more intelligent than other species, but you can’t deny that we spend much of our time thinking about, searching for, and committing acts of sex, just like all other creatures. Everything we do revolves around it, even though we may deny it, even though we’re capable of walking upright, forming languages, thinking in abstract terms. We’re creatures satiated by power and sex, often at the same time. Don’t you think so?”
“No,” was Ben’s succinct reply.
“Are you sure about that?”
Briefly, Ben mulled over this philosophy, attempting to view it from Travis’ perspective. To reduce humans to mere inhabitants of the earth hungry for power and a good lay seemed unfair, and yet… Ben had to admit that his own thoughts and actions revolved around sex a hell of a lot. Too much, sometimes, to the point of distraction and physical discomfort, just like the majority of his day today had been spent.
Travis altered his position on the sofa to face Ben directly. Tucked a leg up under himself and propped an arm on the cushion behind Ben’s head. His sea-green eyes explored Ben’s face, studying him intently. “Be honest. Had you ever considered being with a guy before you met me?” he asked.
A curve ball question to catch Ben off-guard. Ben didn’t hesitate with an answer. “No.”
“No..?” he echoed inquisitively.
Of course Ben knew that Travis knew he was lying. He’d felt a physical pull towards guys often – Seth, Austin, his personal trainer, Guy. Even Derek, his best friend in seventh grade who’d jerked off beside him several times while watching porn in his parents’ basement – but he would never have admitted any of that out loud. Not even to Travis, who was perhaps the one person on earth he could have finally been honest with.
“Well, I’m flattered that you’re here with me, then,” Travis said, lightly pinching Ben’s earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. The leather bracelet around his wrist tickled the hairs on Ben’s neck. Travis’ eyes were alight, his mouth turned up in a slight grin. He was probably hoping for some gut-wrenching self-proclamation from Ben, but Ben decided to throw him his own curve ball instead. “How’d you get that scar?” he asked, tapping Travis’ left temple with a fingertip.
Light dissipated from Travis’ eyes and his expression faltered a fraction as the mood changed within him. “Horse shoe accident,” was his reply, voice thin, lips tight.
He was telling his own lie. It was gratifying to Ben to know that they each had their personal secrets, as yet unrevealed. Made him feel better about continuing on with his pathetic charade of denial.
“But let’s not talk about that,” Travis insisted, bringing Ben’s face in closer, cupping his scruffy jaw in his hands, touching his mouth to his warm lips. “Better yet, let’s not talk at all…”
Ben had no reason to argue.