The return down the mountain began in silence – Katy brooding in the back seat, Ben brooding in the front. When Ben had first returned to the Dodge after the altercation in the trees, Katy hadn’t been present. He’d figured that she was off sulking somewhere, licking her wounds and nursing her fragile ego, and he’d been thankful for her absence. Ben had found Travis seated in the open doorway of the driver’s side cab, smoking one of his Camels, quietly listening to Johnny Cash on the stereo. Although he’d undoubtedly sensed something amiss, he’d asked no questions of Ben – had simply lit up a second cigarette and handed it to him as a silent gesture of camaraderie.
Ben had appreciated the nicotine rush, which had soothed some of the tension still buzzing through his body like dissonant antimatter. Rather than initiating conversation about his argument with Katy, he’d chosen to go the route of silence with Travis. Although discussing it would have shed light on Katy’s intolerable behavior, it would have also shed light on his own violent eruption, which he imagined Travis would not have taken kindly to. The guilt of having choked the girl in a flash moment of rage had weighed heavy on him, but he was unsure how to make amends. Wasn’t even sure he wanted to make amends – or that she would have been deserving of it.
The end of the day had drawn near. The sun, beginning its descent, had pulled the temperature right down with it, and the soft April snowflakes had thickened into a flurry. Travis had suggested that they head back to town, and so they’d loaded the snowboarding gear into the truck bed and had climbed into the cab to get out of the elements. While waiting for the heater to kick on, they’d shared sips from a flask of whiskey which Travis had procured from beneath his seat. Leaning in close to one another, touching hands, they’d watched snowflakes twirl down from the sky and melt across the warming windshield while Johnny Cash had crooned about walking the line.
As Ben had rubbed his palm across the man’s hand, sliding his fingers together with his, Travis had turned and kissed him softly, caressing his jaw, which had already become rough with stubble. The warmth and the intimacy of the kiss shared between them had been consolatory. Shortly thereafter, Travis had honked the horn several times in order to grab his sister’s attention. “Where the hell is she?” he’d demanded. “It’s time to go.”
Eventually, Katy had appeared, descending from an adjacent tree line, trudging slowly as though her boots had been weighed down with heavy rocks. Once sliding into the backseat and shutting the door, the girl had spoken no words, simply rested her head against the window, trying to hide her face with her wool hat. Ben had been fairly confident that she wouldn’t mention their quarrel, because doing so would have forced her to reveal much more to her brother than she would have been comfortable with – including the fact that she’d had her delicate little hand down Ben’s pants.
Now, as they carefully traversed back down the mountain to the valley below, the sun dipped behind the pointed crags. Through drowsy eyes Ben witnessed the disc slowly disappear from view, softly tinting surrounding nimbus clouds with misty hues of red and orange and pink, almost imperceptible through the lightly-falling snow, yet somehow illuminating the swirling flakes with an ambient glow. Ben sighed. “I’m really gonna miss this place,” he whispered, feeling a great pull towards this point of the Continental Divide, this particular spot on earth. The remnants of Travis’ whiskey-tinged kiss still lingered on his lips.
Travis glanced over at him. “Don’t look so glum,” he said. “Colorado’s not going anywhere.”
“Yeah… but I am.” Ben spoke the words but wondered why it mattered. In less than 24 hours, everything would come to a close. This queer experiment would be over, and he’d return to L.A. and settle back into a life of normalcy. But what’s even normal for me anymore…? He could no longer be certain. Already, a strong sensation of nostalgia enveloped him, as though the events that had happened here – and those that had yet to happen – were involuntarily slipping from his grasp. Maybe I don’t want to forget, he panicked. Maybe I need to remember every single detail that’s happened in order to atone for my sins.
Scooting lower in his seat, Ben propped a boot up onto the dashboard, concentrating his attention on a small dollop of snow that melted and dripped from the rubber sole down to the floor mat. He tugged at the long shoelace, looping the thick cord around his finger, pulling on it with all of his strength until it started to cut off blood circulation, numbing the tip of his finger. “I’m not really looking forward to going home,” he said after a time. “I’ve got interviews and talk shows when I get back, two readings for screenplays – one which I haven’t even looked at yet – and a bunch of other commitments on the near horizon. I shouldn’t complain, I’m doing what I love, but still…”
“You’re a busy guy,” Travis stated.
Ben nodded, still entranced by the bootlace wrapped around his finger. “What I’d really like to do when I get back,” he said, “is an off-Broadway production. My cousin, Miranda, wrote a play that’s painfully brilliant, but so far, no one’s willing to take it on. I would take it on. It’d be a small but important project.”
Reaching a stop sign, Travis put his foot on the brake and paused to look at him. “So what’s stopping you from doing that?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “Career suicide, maybe. Going off in my own direction with a small play could potentially fuck up my current momentum. If I don’t vie for the big films now, producers might stop courting me. Once I drop it, I risk not getting it back.”
“That seems unlikely,” Travis commented. “From what I’ve been hearing, you’re at the top of your game.”
Ben shrugged. “Maybe. But I just want something a little different. Stretch my abilities, step out of my comfort zone, you know? Theater production would challenge me to do that.”
“Sounds like that’s what you should do, then.” Travis returned his attention back to the road and continued on. “You’re already out of your comfort zone here, so you might as well keep on going, right?”
Ben forced only a partial grin in response. Unrolling the boot lace from around his finger, he dropped his boot back down to the floor and wiped the wet footprint from the glove box with his hand. After a moment, he spoke again. “Have you ever been to California, Cooper?”
“Only gone as far as Las Vegas,” Travis replied. “A few years back, to see a national rodeo championship.”
“So you’ve never been to the ocean?”
“The East Coast, once. Boston.”
Ben sat up a little in his seat. Tried to envision Travis in Massachusetts. It was difficult to perceive. “Not a rodeo thing, I take it?” he asked.
Travis shook his head and appeared to retreat into himself. “No, not a rodeo thing,” he replied. His voice had turned solemn, distant, as though he regretted bringing up the subject.
Katy shifted in the backseat and retorted scornfully, “Might as well have been a rodeo thing.”
Ben ignored her. Chose instead to watch Travis’ expression falter as an almost painful physical reaction to his questioning overtook him. Although a voice inside his head commanded him to shut the hell up, Ben allowed his curiosity to get the better of him, once again. “So what took you there?” he asked.
Travis shook his head, still staring at the road. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about something else.”
His short reply was vexing. For some reason, Ben needed this mystery trip to the Northeast explained, resolved, revealed. Perhaps part of Katy’s diatribe about Travis using people had slipped back into his thoughts, causing him to doubt the man’s integrity. Damn her accusations, anyway. “Who did you go there with?” he asked. Noticed white knuckles as Travis gripped the steering wheel harder.
When Travis finally looked over at Ben, his green eyes were sparking with irritation. “I was with a friend,” he replied curtly. “Now drop it.”
Friction that wasn’t present between them five minutes prior had wedged itself into place. Ben regretted being such a persistent ass and opened his mouth to apologize, but Katy cut him off by saying, “Oh sure, a friend, just like I was telling you about, Ben. Why don’t you ask him what became of that so-called friend?”
Her words abraded Ben like sandpaper. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, refusing to be entangled in her web of verbal baiting again. She was provoking another fight. Like a light across a dark room, Ben began to see her masochistic tendencies: her pain, her anger, her unfettered desire for emotional attention and physical contact, all wrapped up in a package of teenage angst and dysfunction. She was a goddamn mess. He wasn’t going to fuel her affliction by responding.
Travis, however, did respond, with a commanding boom that echoed through the cab. “Don’t fucking bring him up, Kat.”
“Why not?” she demanded, sitting forward to drape an arm over the front seat. Her face was close to Travis’ profile, her breath pricking his ear. “It’s not like we’re ever going to see him again,” she continued. “Thanks to you.”
“That’s a fucking good thing,” he hissed under his breath, his grip still rigid on the steering wheel as he stared straight ahead into the swirling snow. “Because, believe me, if I ever see him again, the whole fucking world will break open.”
* * * *
The sun had completely set, replaced in the night sky by a waxing gibbous moon intermittently cloaked behind thin lines of altostratus clouds. Snow flurries no longer fell, but the air remained cold and damp, fogging up the windshield as Travis and Ben drove over a dark, winding road flanked by pine trees illuminated in the headlights. Ben wasn’t sure where they were headed – Travis had insisted on not revealing it – but once dropping everything off at the ranch, including Katy, the drive to their new destination was brief.
The parking lot fronted a small, two-story rustic motel that stood at the base of a steep, craggy mountainside. The jagged, snow-covered backdrop was only slightly discernible in the moonlight. Travis pulled into a spot, shut off the engine, and announced, “We’re here.” Getting out of the truck, he opened the rear door, pulled up the backseat to reveal storage below, and tossed Ben a pair of swim trunks from within. A second pair of trunks he stuffed into his own coat pocket.
Confused by the clothing item in his hands, Ben asked, “What are we doing?”
Without a response, Travis shut the door and started walking away. Ben paused for only a moment before following him the short distance across the lot into an empty, cramped front lobby decorated in kitschy alpine furnishings. The air smelled of old carpet, damp dog and cedar incense. Dozens of colorful pamphlets showcasing activities to do while visiting Southern Colorado lined a metal stand inside the door, and Ben pulled out a brochure about whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River. He pretended to read it as Travis approached the reception desk.
A middle-aged woman with reading glasses and thin, elfish features was seated behind the desk, concentrating on a dog-eared paperback novel held in her hands. Noticing them, she immediately shut the book and stood up with a smile. “Why hello, Travis,” she crooned. Her mousy hair was pulled up into a pink band atop her head. Silver owl earrings dangled from her elongated earlobes.
“Hello, Maddy,” Travis said with that disarming smile that seemed to melt everyone’s resolve, both male and female alike. Ben had noticed it on more than one occasion in the past 48 hours. Considered himself a victim of the hypnotic gesture. “Busy tonight?” he asked, pressing his forearms against the counter to lean in a little closer.
Maddy shook her head and produced a couple of towels, pushing them towards his outstretched hands. “Not too crowded. Pool five is your best bet for swelter right now.”
“Very kind of you,” he said sweetly. “Martin around?”
“Somewhere,” she replied. “I’ll send him out if I see him.”
“You’re the best.”
Ben followed him out into the cold, and Travis led the way down the front sidewalk to a fenced-in area at the south side of the building. Opening a short chain-link gate, he ushered Ben inside the enclosure and clicked the gate shut behind them. Dim illumination from ground lights staked between chokecherry bushes and rope lights hung across surrounding fences revealed five natural-stone pools of various sizes. From the surface of each pool rose billows of steam, floating upwards to mingle with the frigid air until eventually dissipating into the night.
“Are these hot springs?” Ben asked. His entire body tingled at the prospect.
Inside a primitive, cedar-lined men’s dressing room separated from the outside world by only a heavy curtain strung up on a thick wooden rod, they quickly changed from their winter attire into swim trunks. In an instant, Ben was shivering. “This is nuts,” he protested as soon as his bare feet touched the concrete sidewalk outside. “It’s fucking freezing.”
Travis draped his towel around his neck and headed over to the first pool on the path. “You won’t protest this much once you’re in,” he promised.
Maddy had been correct with her report: there weren’t many patrons present. In the shadows, Ben counted only eight other bodies soaking in the pools. Considering the weather and the time of day, it was not surprising. Travis tossed his towel onto a metal chair and Ben followed suit, stepping down behind him into the pool. The water was scalding. As they entered in, every pore of Ben’s skin sizzled and popped. Within one minute, his legs were numb. “Jesus Christ, I think my skin’s about to melt off,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing,” Travis stated, dipping all the way down until only his head remained exposed. He waded over to a wall that offered a stone ledge to sit on while still in the water. Ben joined him there, and they sat together quietly, basking in the heat, deeply inhaling the steam, patiently waiting for the nerves in their limbs to reconnect to their bodies. Above their heads, a small stream of the mineral-enriched liquid trickled down across the slippery rocks and spilled into the pool.
“Fantastic,” Ben muttered, not wanting to talk too loudly, his voice sounding intrusive in the calm night air. Muscle tension began to ooze from his tired and aching body, exiting through his pores to mix with the medicinal water surrounding him. It was better than the hot tub at The Little Nell. Better than a massage. Better than anything at that moment.
Eventually, a young couple joined them in the water, exalting in the heat just as they had. The four exchanged pleasantries, but further conversation dropped off. In the hot springs, quiet reflection seemed to be the going etiquette. Travis leaned in close to Ben and whispered, “Are you ready for the swelter?” Not waiting for his response, he moved off from the ledge to ascend the steps. Ben watched him rise out of the pool, his strong torso pulling through the water, his swim trunks clinging to his hips, barely holding on. In the shadows of the dim lighting, Ben had no trepidation openly admiring him.
They waded into another pool which was even more scalding than the first, with water trickling from its underground source at well over 110 degrees. Due to the fact that they’d begun their journey in the first pool, the shock of the swelter wasn’t as intense as it potentially could have been. Travis knew what he was doing. They found a ledge to sit on, and Travis scooted closer to Ben and found his hand under the water. They sat this way for an indeterminable amount of time, resting their heads back on the smooth stones and gazing up at the stars that blinked in the clearing sky. Ben wondered if it was possible to be immersed in a dream state while still fully awake. Because that’s where he was, floating in and out of consciousness.
“Cooper,” a voice said, interrupting their state of meditation.
Ben’s eyelids felt leaden. Reluctantly, he forced them open and found a twenty-something, husky guy wearing a heavy wool coat, black sweatpants and flip-flop sandals leaning down on his haunches at the side of the pool. Travis released Ben’s hand and floated over to him. They slapped palms together in greeting and remained that way while exchanging whispered words. The man’s eyes met Ben’s several times until Ben shifted, pushing off from the ledge to glide over to an adjacent wall. He strained to decipher their conversation but couldn’t make out distinct words except Travis thanking him and the man responding with, “I’ll see you in a few.”
After the stranger walked off with flip-flops intrusively flapping against the sidewalk, Travis returned to Ben’s side. Bumped his hip with his hip and rested his hand at the base of Ben’s back. “Wanna hit the sauna?” he asked.
Ben pushed off from the wall and away from his hand. Rose out of the pool to grab his towel and asked, “Who was that?”
Travis followed him out and replied, “That’s Martin. Maddy’s son. We went to high school together. He’s kinda like the caretaker of this place.”
With towels snug around their waists, they tip-toed across the rubber mats covering the pavement to the back of the dressing room and entered into a small, dry sauna constructed of cedar planks. Again, they were alone. And again, they were surrounded by suffocating heat. But in contrast to the pools, this was a dry, evaporative heat, meant to purge the pores. Ben laid back on his half of the slat-wood bench and draped an arm across his eyes. The clicking and popping of the volcanic rocks expelling their heat filled the tiny room. After a while, Ben said, “Thanks for bringing me here. It’s therapeutic, on many levels.”
“It is,” Travis agreed. “I come here a lot.”
“Yeah, I gathered that. Everyone seems to know you.”
Travis paused. “Everyone knows everyone around here. It’s a blessing. And a curse, usually.”
“I imagine so. Have you ever lived anywhere else?”
He shook his head. “Outside of the dorms at CSU, no. And that was short-lived, as you know.”
“Did you intend to get your degree and come right back to Cooper Ranch?”
“What else is there?”
Ben lifted his arm from his eyes and looked at him with a smile. “The whole wide world, for starters. You should consider traveling more. See some new places, meet some new people. There’s more out there than the mountains and plains of Colorado.”
Travis lifted an eyebrow in mock surprise. “Really?”
Ben laughed. “Yes, really.” Then, additional words trickled off of his tongue, unfiltered. “If you come to California, I’ll take you surfing. You said you’ve never been to the West Coast. I bet you’d do well on the waves. You have remarkable balance and form.”
Their eyes connected. Had he really just invited the man to visit him in L.A.? Jesus Christ, Mansfield.
“I doubt I’d make a very good surfer,” Travis said. “I don’t even swim that well.”
“Knowing how to doggie paddle will do.”
He smiled. “Is that so?”
“No. Most likely, that would get you killed.”
Travis chuckled. “I see. Well, best I not try, then.”
“I had fun today,” Ben stated, turning the course of conversation. “It kicked my ass, but I learned a few things. Thanks for taking the time to show me some pointers and being patient.”
“I’m a very patient person,” he said. “Most of the time.”
“Except when it comes to Katy.”
Travis sighed. “Yes, except when it comes to her…”
Ben sat up and leaned his bare back against the heat of the cedar wall. Wiped sweat from around his eyes with the back of his hand. “So I need to know what’s up between you two,” he stated. His patience for Travis to reveal his sister’s instability of his own accord had worn thin. Ben was far too invested now – now that Katy had accosted him in the trees, now that she’d threatened to out him and he’d had his hands clamped around her neck. “Does it have to do with this guy, this intern from Wyoming you mentioned? What happened?”
Travis pulled the towel from around his waist and ran it over his face. The tips of his curls were matted to his forehead, dripping with moisture down into his eyebrows. “You sure are persistent with questions sometimes,” he said.
“Well, I’m asking because I’m concerned. Seems she’s doing everything she can think of to piss you off, including trying to seduce me in the woods this afternoon.”
Travis snorted. “Did she, now? I wondered about that when you two were gone at the same time. How not surprising…”
“But why isn’t it surprising?” Ben demanded, sitting forward, arcing his arm through the air for emphasis. “She’s too young to be dropping to her knees, pawing at my pants, Cooper. What the hell is going on?”
“As I told you, she’s desperate to throw me over,” Travis replied. “Having you fuck her would put a point on her scoreboard. A giant one, in fact, because you’re you.”
“So you guys are keeping score?” Ben asked. “That’s fucking twisted.”
“No, it’s not like that.” Travis shook his head. “At least, not on my part. Trust me, I’m not keeping score with my sister,” he insisted. “And I’m certainly not competing with her to get guys. That’s all in her head. She thinks because Eric took me to Boston that her first-love crush was ruined. That I’m responsible for stealing him away from her, which is absurd. The guy was twenty-two and not particularly interested in girls. And he had a lot of fucking issues that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, especially not Kat…”
“What sort of issues?” Ben prodded, dissatisfied with the answer. He required more in-depth information to appease his curiosity.
Travis’ demeanor changed. Similar to his reaction in the truck when Ben had peppered him with questions, demanding to know about his mysterious trip to Boston, Travis retreated into himself again. His broad shoulders slumped a fraction, his mouth drooped to a frown, and he stared at the wood floor without a blink, as though sorting through a carousel of memories behind his eyes that only he was privy to see. A minute passed, and he whispered, “Some stories are left untold.”
“Might be good to talk about it,” Ben pushed. “I have a feeling you never have. I’m a pretty good listener.”
Travis shook his head, still staring at the floor. “Not this one.”
Ben sighed and sat back against the wall with arms crossed. “Well, you should know that Katy threatened to out me today,” he decided to share. “Said she’d tell the whole world about us.”
Travis ran his hands down his face and exhaled loudly, as though the mere implication of having to deal with it exhausted him. “She won’t do that,” he eventually said. “I’ll talk to her when we get back and make sure she understands the importance of keeping her mouth shut.”
“But what if she doesn’t?” Ben insisted.
Unexpectedly, Travis turned stark green eyes on him, pupils pulsating with a sudden disdain. “Then maybe you’ll just have to deal with it,” he said. “Like the rest of us.”
Ben sat forward once more, his bare feet sliding across the heated floorboards. “Listen,” he said with equal disdain. “You don’t have the pressure for perfection that I have to face every day, Travis. People aren’t judging your choice. Reporters aren’t slandering you. I know that Curtis doesn’t like your lifestyle, but he at least seems to have accepted it. I wouldn’t be so lucky. I’d have the whole world judging me, ready to burn me at the stake. Including my family.”
Travis furrowed his brow, narrowed his eyes, shifted on the bench so that his knee pushed against Ben’s thigh. “Don’t be so goddamn dramatic,” he commanded. “The world isn’t going to crumble just because it discovers you’re human, Ben. And don’t think for one minute that Curtis accepts my lifestyle choice.” With these words, he thumped his left temple and ran a finger down the crooked line of gnarled skin that marked his scar. The scar that had sparked perpetual curiosity in Ben’s mind for the past two days. The scar that was supposedly from a horse shoe accident but clearly wasn’t, just as Ben had suspected.
A knock tapped on the door, and a face appeared in the small diamond-shaped window: Mr. Flip-flop guy. Travis seemed relieved for the interruption and excused himself, re-wrapping his towel around his waist before stepping outside. A waft of cold air entered the room as he did so, and Ben sat up and wiped the sweat dripping down his face and neck with his towel, waiting impassively, trying to contain his interest in their now second conversation. But curiosity was a bitch, as always. He stepped over to the window and could just make out Travis and the man standing close together, Travis with his palm lifted, the guy setting something into it. Brief, close words were exchanged.
Against better judgment, Ben pushed the door open and stepped out. The man had already turned away and was walking down a path that led off around the building, his sandals slapping against his feet with each step until he was gone from view. “Who the hell wears flip-flops in winter?” Ben demanded, wrapping the towel back around his waist.
Travis didn’t provide an answer. Instead, he revealed what had been dropped into his hand: a key attached to a large, orange, diamond-shaped keychain. “To a room,” he explained, dangling the item in Ben’s face like a trophy or a talisman he proudly carried.
Stark images of debaucherous acts flooded Ben’s mind – dirty little events in a cheap motel room that were dangerous, exciting, damning. Travis had succeeded in completely rattling him with the suggestion. “I didn’t know we were staying here,” he managed to say.
“Not all night. Just for a while.”
“People will see…”
“Your friend in the sandals already has!” Ben yelled. “I mean, shit, you’re not being the least bit discreet here. I thought you understood. Especially now, after our conversation…”
“Don’t worry about Martin,” Travis said. “He owes me favors and he’s harmless. He’ll keep quiet. Besides, our names aren’t even on the books. No one other than Maddy knows we’re here, and she thinks we’re in the pools.”
“This is nuts.”
Travis’ expression hardened. He squeezed the room key tightly into the palm of his hand and took a step closer. “You seem to think everything’s nuts,” he said. “It’s like you walk around confused all the time, wondering how the hell you got where you are. How did you get where you are?” He pushed Ben up against the wall. Their towels rubbed together. “You think I haven’t seen enough of this world,” he whispered, dangerously close. “But I bet you I’ve seen a hell of a lot more than you have, Benjy. I understand you perfectly well. And I accept a hell of a lot more than you do. It’s just a goddamn motel room.”
His lips grazed Ben’s mouth. His fingers squeezed his crotch. “Ultimately, if I command you to,” he continued gruffly, his breath hot against Ben’s cheek, “you’ll follow me up there. We both know that. But I don’t have to command it, do I? Because you want this just as much as I do. Admit it.”
Blood pumped behind Ben’s eyes like the incessant pounding of a hammer. This guy had him so tightly wound, he was ready to spin off the edge with only the slightest provocation. “Yes, I do,” he whispered, his reply almost inaudible, his voice pulled from a great distance within the depths of his unconscious, barely making it to the surface. I’ll do any fucking thing you want, Cooper, he added silently.
* * * *