Morning crept in. Ben roused from sleep to the aroma of coffee and the sound of a dog barking a short distance away. From beneath flannel sheets, he stretched and yawned and reached an arm out across the mattress but found only an empty bed. Rolling up onto an elbow, he took a quick survey of the room through tired eyes. Noted that Travis was gone.
The smell of sweat and cigarettes permeated Travis’ pillow. Ben caught a whiff as he laid back down. Images from the previous night flung forward, bringing him fully awake. Foregoing his inhibitions, he’d intended to reciprocate what Travis had given to him on the hill, but the experience had been far less refined. Ben’s assumption that he could perform expert fellatio first time out was completely false. Whether due to Travis’ considerable size or his own uncooperative mouth, he’d been unsuccessful at mirroring the mind-blowing experience, which had pissed him off. How difficult is it to give a goddamn stellar blow job?
Initially, Travis had shown encouragement by gently stroking his hair, voicing his appreciation, offering advice like “wrap your lips around your teeth.” But just short of reaching his peak, he’d rolled Ben over onto all fours, pressing up against him, wanting more. With fingers groping Ben’s bare buttocks, seeking entrance, he’d grunted, “I wanna be inside you,” claiming that he had condoms and lube close by. Ben had refused. Had pushed him away and insisted that penetration wasn’t part of the plan. Travis had responded by standing up and coaxing Ben back around to the position he’d previously been in: on his knees. Foregoing pleasantries, Travis had pushed himself back into Ben’s mouth, holding tightly to his head, taking control of the pace, going deeper than he’d gone before. Despite doing his best to manage the rhythm and the size, Ben had choked a few times, which had further added to his ongoing frustration at being an amateur. Cunnilingus he could perform like a goddamn pro; sucking cock was a greater challenge.
Eventually showing restraint, Travis had pulled back, allowing Ben a chance sit on his haunches and catch his breath. But, not wanting to lose his momentum, he’d proceeded to stroke himself off, commanding Ben to open his mouth and receive the money shot, which had been a significant amount – some of it landing on his face, the majority of it landing on his outstretched tongue. “Swallow it,” Travis had grunted breathlessly, stark intensity in his eyes as he’d rubbed his still-hard cock across Ben’s cheek.
Somehow, Travis instinctively knew how to handle Ben in a way that reached his inner core, heightened his senses, pushed his arousal to maximum levels he never thought possible. The cowboy’s authoritative stance, coupled with the taste of his seed, had left Ben in a frenzied state of lust and urgency. Now, he wanted more.
He wanted every goddamned thing.
Wrapping a palm around himself beneath the flannel sheets, he fantasized how it might play out, the next time Travis took the lead and flipped Ben around on all fours. But the incessant barking of the dog outside heightened, breaking his trance. Reluctantly, he released his hold, slid from the bed, and pulled back the curtains to see what the commotion was about. Travis was near the stables, loading a bay-colored horse up into an equestrian trailer. Derry was hooked to a leash at the side of the building, barking continuously while a small boy, three or four years old, taunted her with a long stick.
Ben stepped over to the door and pulled it open, wanting to direct the boy’s attention elsewhere but realized that he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on. Just as quickly as he’d opened the door, he shut it. Looked around and found his jeans bunched up on the floor. He slid the pants on, grabbed a t-shirt of Travis’ that was nearby and swiftly pulled it over his head. When he stepped out onto the porch, the little boy was already being reprimanded and led away by his mother. Derry took a few minutes to settle down, pacing in circles until her leash caught up under her legs. Then she plopped down onto the ground and seemed to content herself with laying there. It was then that Ben noticed a fresh blanket of snow covering the ground – not too much but enough to surprise him. Perfect snowboarding conditions.
Perched beside the coffeemaker was a scribbled note from Travis with instructions to meet him in the stables. Once he’d poured a cup of the dark roast, Ben dug his toiletry case out from the bottom of his carry-on bag and headed to the bathroom. Today, he would shave his face clean. The room was small, with one window that didn’t fully open and a vintage claw foot bathtub with a shower head strung up on an old angled pipe. A film of fog still lightly covered the medicine cabinet mirror from Travis’ shower, and Ben grabbed a towel to wipe it down before lathering his face with shaving cream.
It took a significant amount of time for him to remove the thick facial hair covering his jaw and chin, but once the task was complete, his reflection in the mirror was startling; the small divot in his chin was visible, and he’d transformed into someone several years younger. “Damn, should have done that sooner,” he mumbled. Jutted out his lower jaw, turned to look at his reflection from different angles. Although a large portion of the population claimed that he embodied the epitome of handsomeness – that his thick black hair and square jaw and deep azure-blue eyes were enough to make girls weep, at least according to People magazine – Ben had never been very smitten with himself. He considered his looks to be ordinary, even ugly. As a pattern, it was difficult for him to sit through one of his own films, because it pained him to watch his larger-than-life self on the big screen. He was often more critical of his performances than the film critics were.
Once showering, he dressed for the snowboarding excursion: micro-fleece base layers, vented pants, wool beanie, insulated jacket. As he exited the bunkhouse, the air that hit him was considerably colder than it had been the day before. His breath escaped in puffs as he slid on his sunglasses and headed down the path. His excitement for the day expanded with each step he took.
Approaching the stables, he caught sight of Travis through the large open doorway. Dressed in a brown flannel shirt tucked into a pair of jeans muddied at the ankles, he stood talking to a sorrel-colored stallion, rubbing the animal’s nose softly while the horse leaned into him, licking something from the palm of his hand. It was an intimate moment, Travis and the horse in quiet conversation, and Ben watched from a distance, intrigued by this human/equine chemistry. Ben wasn’t a horse person – he understood human/canine relationships much better.
The heavy stench of manure and damp hay was pungent, and Ben sneezed. Travis looked up and smiled at him. “Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” Ben returned, setting his snowboard down and pushing the sunglasses to the top of his head.
Travis peered at him. His smile morphed into a curious grin.
“What?” Ben asked.
“You shaved,” he replied.
Ben rubbed at his smooth jaw, already having forgotten about it. “Yeah. I figured it’s a new day, I’ll make a fresh start.” The statement could have been interpreted on multiple levels. Ben had intended it on multiple levels.
“You look really good,” Travis stated.
Ben moved closer, and the horse whinnied, moving his head up and down as if in greeting. Travis patted the animal and said, “This is Red Cloud.”
Ben reached out a hand to rub the horse’s neck. The texture of coarse hair and sinuous muscle created a powerful impression beneath his palm. “Hey there, Red Cloud,” he said.
“Do you ride?” Travis asked.
Ben shook his head. “Not really. I haven’t had much of an opportunity since ‘Roustabout’, and I didn’t do much of it then except for what my character, Toby, was required to do. I’ve been making films back-to-back, running across the globe to promote everything. My plate’s overflowing with projects right now. To be honest,” he continued, “it’s been a goddamn whirlwind. This trip to Colorado has been the first real vacation I’ve had in a long time.”
Travis studied him intently, as though actually listening to what he had to say and not just waiting to placate him with a perfunctory nod. “Sounds like you’ll need another vacation after this,” he said. “If you want, we can go riding tomorrow before heading back to Aspen.”
Heading back to Aspen… the words produced a sharp pain in Ben’s gut. He wasn’t near ready to leave yet; there was more to do, more to accomplish, more to experience. This lascivious encounter needed to fully purge itself from his system before he could move on. Even then, he was skeptical that it would ever be enough.
Travis leaned into him. Cupped his jaw in his calloused hands and brought their mouths together. Anxiety immediately seeped from Ben’s pores like waves rolling out to sea. Just like that. Goddamn magical. But the kiss was brief. Curtis appeared in the doorway, clearing his throat, swiftly parting the two. “Told you not to do that around here,” the man barked. “I don’t want to have to fuckin’ see it.” He stood there in his tan Carhartt overalls and matching hooded coat with a line of coiled rope gripped in his hands. His face was taut, his green eyes narrow as he glared at Travis.
“It’s my ranch, too, brother,” Travis responded. A barely-perceptible trace of fear could be detected in his otherwise defiant voice.
“Hmph.” The man lingered in the doorway. There was a fierceness in his stature, as though he intended to kick them both to the floor. “Don’t forget you gotta deliver the stud to Glenwood tomorrow,” he bellowed.
“I won’t forget,” Travis returned gruffly. His stance had become defensive now, his legs slightly parted, his arms tense. Ben equally braced himself for whatever altercation might erupt – figured he and Travis could take Curtis on together if it came to that – but the man turned and headed down the length of the stables without further comment. Slapped the coiled rope against his leg like a whip.
“What the hell,” Ben breathed once they were alone again. His nerves were rattled, his hands shaking.
“He’s a dick,” Travis stated. “A generally unhappy person. Don’t take it personally.”
“What’s he so unhappy about?”
“Everything. He’d rather be living on a small farm in Salida with his wife. Raising children. Some alpaca, too. You know, doing his own thing.”
“Why the hell doesn’t he do it, then?”
“Because he likes wielding the power that he thinks he has. We inherited this land fifty-fifty when our dad died, and it’s become an obligation, a burden that he doesn’t want to carry anymore. Like I told you, he wants to sell the ranch, but I’m not willing to. This was a very different place when our dad was alive. Things felt solid, possible. Now, everything feels unsure…”
“He hates it here but refuses to let it go?” Ben repeated. “That makes no sense. He should just give you his half.”
“Ha!” Travis exclaimed. “He’d never do that. He’s a stubborn motherfucker.”
“Why don’t you buy it from him, then?”
Travis’ expression changed. He eyed Ben with a cool stare. “Just like that, huh? Pull out my wallet and take out my magic money?”
The question hung in the air like a dead weight. There were aspects of Ben’s life that he took for granted, and this one slammed straight forward. Throughout his 24 years, he’d never had to endure a single day, a single moment, without the comfort of wealth surrounding him; the Mansfield lineage followed generations of successful bankers and businessmen, and Ben’s father was no different. Although he’d chosen the path of movie producer and screenwriter, Harold Mansfield was still considered to be in the top echelon of wealthy Americans. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking,” Ben mumbled, wanting to kick himself.
“It’s okay,” Travis said. He led Red Cloud around the corner into an empty stall and returned a moment later. Shoved a pair of calfskin gloves into his back pocket. “I imagine from your viewpoint, this ranch seems petty. But it’s all I’ve got.”
Ben’s eyes widened at the statement. “Shit, man, I don’t think that at all! I mean, I totally respect your commitment here. You’ve got something tangible to show for all your hard work, and that’s envious. I’d hold onto to it, too, if it were mine.”
“Well, someday I’m hoping it will be mine,” Travis muttered. “I’ve been working towards paying Curtis off. It’s just a goddamn slow process.” With a hand, he nudged Ben toward the open doorway and out into the cold. “Let’s get up to the house,” he commented. “Mom’ll be pissed if we miss breakfast.”
* * * *
Stepping through the back door into the kitchen, they were greeted by Arturo, Bryan and Mrs. Cooper, who were seated around the Formica table, feasting on Belgian waffles and other breakfast goods. At the sight of the food and its scintillating aroma, Ben’s mouth watered. Bryan, peering at Ben with a slight grin, sneered, “Good morning, babyface.”
Ben slid a hand to his cheek. Funny that one facial shave could produce such interest. He tried to think of a quick retort to throw back at Bryan, but Mrs. Cooper beckoned them to sit. Platters of food were passed around, and Ben’s stomach rumbled in hungry anticipation. It didn’t take long to fill up his plate, and soon he was indulging in a generous bite of waffle, thick maple syrup slithering down his chin. Foregoing table manners, he asked through a large mouthful, “Where’s Audra?”
“She’s not feeling well,” Bryan replied. A trace of grief vibrated in his voice.
Mrs. Cooper set a glass of orange juice next to Ben’s plate and announced, “I took her some herbal tea and saltines.” This woman, with her strawberry-blonde hair and intense sea-green eyes, undoubtedly possessed the same intuition as her son to know that Audra was pregnant. “That’s very nice of you,” Ben said.
She smiled and slid cantaloupe slices onto her plate with a fork. “It’s no problem. She’s a sweet girl. Are you looking forward to your snowboarding trip today?”
“Definitely,” Ben replied.
“Well, beware,” she warned. “Travis isn’t always prudent when picking a slope to go down.” She glanced at her son, as if warning him to take care, and Travis shifted his gaze over to Bryan. “It’d be cool if you could join us,” he said.
Bryan set his glass of orange juice down and wiped a napkin across his mouth. “Yes, it would be. But, alas, injury prevails.” With those words, he glared at Ben in accusation, lips pursed.
“You suck at snowboarding anyway,” Ben jeered, intending to arouse his aggravation, which he succeeded in doing.
“How would you know?” Bryan demanded. “Ever been snowboarding with me?”
“No,” Ben replied. “But you suck at skiing, so what’s the difference?”
They’d unknowingly created a tension around the table.Each person shifted with unease. Perhaps the after-effects of the previous night’s tryst between Travis and Katy still lingered in the air, heightening the family’s sensitivity. How were they to know that Bryan and Ben bantered back and forth like this frequently and that it meant nothing, that it was just a part of their friendship?
As if on cue, Katy waltzed into the room, dressed in full snowboarding gear, her hair pulled back in a thick black braid, her lips colored fuchsia to match her bright pink finger nails. “Good morning, everyone!” she crooned, taking a seat, grabbing a waffle. She pulled the crusty, buttery squares apart and popped them into her mouth one at a time, eyeing Ben with her forever doe eyes.
Travis must have noticed Ben’s surprise at her arrival, because he leaned in and whispered, “Did I forget to mention that she’s coming with us?”
Disappointment and frustration pummeled down. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Travis frowned at him with regret and apology in his eyes, as if to indicate that he hadn’t wanted it, either, but perhaps felt the need to be the mature one, the one to extend an olive branch in hopes of dispelling the sibling friction that still blanketed the air. Ben couldn’t be angry with him for that. And yet, he was. The brazenness and disrespect of Katy was sure to wedge between them again. But there was little he could do or say that wouldn’t make him sound like an unappreciative asshole, so he bit his lip and kept quiet.
After breakfast, Travis disappeared to the bunkhouse to change, and Ben assisted Mrs. Cooper with the dishes. He washed, she dried, and they conversed about the weather and the mountains and how she’d become a ceramicist much later in life, after her husband’s passing, when she’d needed the therapy of creativity to help guide her through the grieving process. “Now, I want to be at the wheel all the time,” she said. “It’s more than therapy for me. It’s a daily passion.” She smiled at Ben, tilting her head a fraction. “Isn’t it funny how life can take such unexpected turns?”
Ben nodded. Dipped his hands into the soapy water and pulled out another plate to scrub. “You have no idea how true that it is, Mrs. Cooper…”
“Oh, I do know,” she insisted. “And, please, call me Elaine. By the way,” she touched his forearm, caught his eye, “It’s nice of you two to invite Katy along today. She needs the recreation. She stays cooped up in this house too often, and I worry about her.”
It was as though a doorway had been cracked open, allowing the slightest hint of light to peek through. With it came a multitude of questions Ben wanted to ask, a multitude of concerns that he wanted to clear up regarding the monster-girl, but he acknowledged that standing in the kitchen washing the dishes with Mrs. Cooper was neither the time nor the place to discuss such things, so he kept the questions and concerns to himself and shut the door. For now.
Once finished in the kitchen, Ben wandered upstairs to check on Audra. He felt as though he hadn’t seen her in days. She lay in an old cherry-framed bed, hugging a pillow between her arms while curled up in a fetal position. Her pallid complexion expressed her misery. The cup of tea and package of saltines remained untouched on the nightstand. Upon Ben’s entrance, she forced a small smile and said, “Hey, you.”
“Hey, you,” he returned.
Bryan sat in a cushioned rocking chair near the window flipping through a magazine with his injured leg propped up on an ottoman. They nodded at one another, and Ben took a seat on the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb the mattress too much. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Lousy,” Audra replied. Her voice was thin, scratchy. “Can’t stop the queasiness.”
Her fingers graced his jaw. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen your chin, little brother. What inspired that?”
“I thought today might be a good day for it.”
“Hmm…” Her voice trailed off. Her thoughts seemed to flicker elsewhere for a second, but then she returned her attention to him. “Are you guys still going snowboarding?” she asked.
“Well, I hope the backcountry isn’t too backcountry.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Ben assured her.
“Everything else going okay?” she inquired softly.
He studied her. Knew what it was she was asking without actually speaking the verboten words. “Everything’s fine,” he replied.
“Well, that’s good… I guess…”
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, sis,” Ben said. “I really am. What can I do for you?”
“Carry this baby to term for me,” she replied with a sigh.
“I’ve already offered,” Bryan piped in. “She won’t let me. Says it’s a woman’s job, and a man wouldn’t know what to do with himself through nine months of gestation.”
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Ben jeered.
Bryan furrowed his brow and threw the magazine in his direction, sending small advertisement postcards fluttering to the floor from within its pages. “Do you always have to be an asshole?” he demanded. Despite his irritation, a slight smirk lighted his face.
Katy poked her head into the doorway and announced, “We’re ready to go when you are.”
Leaning forward, Ben kissed his sister on her clammy forehead. She seemed frail and fragile in that moment, in contrast to her usual strong and willful presence. He longed to take her discomfort away. “Feel better,” he instructed her. “And call me if you need anything. I’ll come right back.”
“Okay,” she whispered. Gave his arm a squeeze, her blue eyes searching his for explanations still yet unattainable. Clearly, she was equally concerned for him. “You take care, too, Benjamin…”