Room #210, located up a flight of stairs, was at the end of a narrow breezeway that overlooked the mountainside adjacent to the motel. Had there been daylight, Ben might have paused to admire the view. But as the sun was down, and the night air freezing, he quickly entered the room behind Travis and shut the door. They kicked off their unlaced boots, dumped their crumpled clothing into a pile on the floor, and slid out of their snowboarding coats, which had been momentarily donned as they’d left the dressing room. Although they were still clad in their damp swim trunks, the small heater in the room was pumping at full capacity, scorching the enclosed space, and additional clothing would have been overkill.
While Travis flicked switches to adjust the temperature, Ben took a brief survey of the room. It was small and predictable in its appearance: kitschy, rustic décor similar to the main lobby below, wood furniture meant to look hand-hewn, prints of mountainous scenery adorning salmon-colored walls, meant to look authentically Colorado. A lamp with a chintzy salmon-colored shade illuminated a queen-size bed, a television set, and a round table that mysteriously held an unopened bottle of Maker’s Mark on it, topped with two plastic Dixie cups like a glaring “welcome-to-the-fuck-chamber” package from Martin.
Ben came to the immediate conclusion that this wasn’t the first time the two friends had coordinated such arrangements. He envisioned Martin already lurking in the room next door, peeking through a peephole in the wall with a camcorder at the ready, either meant for personal use or for blackmail. Or for both. Maybe later, he and Travis would roll Ben for the three hundred dollars he had stashed in his Italian-leather wallet. Or murder him and toss him face-down into the swelter, making it appear like an accident to the Chaffee Country sheriff’s department.
Similar to a dislodged pinball, Ben’s overactive imagination darted from one outrageous thought to the next, each equally erratic and unnerving, like the unpredictable plot of a David Lynch movie. Deciphering between events that were vulgar and those that were enticing, those that were real and those that were impossible, had become challenging for him as he stood there in the middle of the room, digging his toes into the cheap beige carpet. He was too wound up with apprehension and excitement to think logically, and so he paced the floor, taking a five-second tour of the room. There wasn’t much to see; the bathroom was the size of a goddamn washing machine.
As if on cue, Travis poured two generous portions of the Maker’s Mark and handed him a cup. “Bottoms up,” he instructed, tapping plastic to plastic. The harsh liquor scraped down Ben’s throat, and he held out his empty cup for another round. “Does Martin always provide the liquor?” he challenged, holding the refilled cup up as reference.
Travis provided no response but nudged him over to the bed, sitting him down on the edge. He proceeded to yank Ben’s swim trunks down over his hips. The damp fabric scraped across Ben’s thighs like duct tape, pulling at his leg hairs along the way. To expedite the removal, Ben raised his hips but managed to spill the cup of Kentucky bourbon across his abdomen and crotch as he did so. “Shit,” he complained, attempting to capture some of the liquid on his fingers as though it was a precious commodity, as though there wasn’t still a bottle three-quarters-full waiting to be consumed.
“Leave it,” Travis bellowed, pushing Ben’s hand away. He gave one last tug on Ben’s trunks and finally freed his ankles from the clinging fabric. With a swift arm, he tossed the garment across the room, and it landed on the tile by the front door with a slap. Ten seconds later, Travis’ own trunks landed beside them.
The bourbon was licked from Ben’s abdomen and crotch with great precision. For an indeterminate amount of time, Travis brought him repeatedly close to the edge, using his expert hands and mouth to achieve his goal of controlling the intimacy, never allowing Ben to fully reach his peak but rather choosing to retain him on a short tether of unexpected sensations – stroking his perineum, sliding a moist finger deep inside his ass, rubbing that magical spot that Ben had attempted to find a few times on his own but had never succeeded at.
Deep down in his core, Ben acknowledged that Travis was in the lead, while he himself was merely the marionette, strung-up and waiting to be moved. As if to demonstrate this point, Travis prompted him to slide up farther onto the bed and roll over onto his stomach. Then, slithering up on top of him, his weight and hardness pressed down against Ben’s backside, Travis whispered through bourbon-tinged breath, “What do you want, Ben?” His mouth clamped down onto Ben’s exposed neck, sucking skin.
In his head, Ben answered, This. You. All of it.
“Tell me what you want,” Travis insisted, scraping Ben’s ear with his goatee, pressing his body down harder until Ben found it challenging to breathe. Ben shut his eyes. Saw swirls and colors and dark water rolling over him. Of course Travis wanted him to voice his desire out loud; it was all a part of the humiliation that Ben required. Travis understood. He was the director, carefully manipulating the scenes of the play.
“I want everything,” Ben replied. “You. In me.” Freedom was found in expressing it.
Travis rolled off of him and stepped across the room. Rummaged through his clothes on the floor and returned a moment later, tearing open two small packets with his teeth: a condom and lube. Despite Ben’s previous fantasies of how it should all unfold, nothing had properly prepared him for the reality of the actual experience; during the initial shock and discomfort, all he could do was bite down on the bedspread and pray that his brain didn’t pop out of the top of his skull. Un-fucking-believable.
Despite Travis’ preparations beforehand to get him ready, every nerve and muscle in Ben’s body protested the invasion. Every fiber of his being clenched tightly unto itself, refusing flexibility. “Breathe, Ben,” Travis instructed, brushing his lips against his upturned cheek. “You gotta relax.”
Ben exhaled. Could feel blood pumping across his temples. Recognized that the barrier was mostly psychological, but he couldn’t relax. The man had barely even entered him yet. “There’s no fucking way…” he seethed into the bedspread, convinced that it was impossible, that he’d never be able to manage it.
Once more, Travis rolled off of him and rummaged through his clothes. When he returned, he re-positioned himself where he’d been and unscrewed the lid of a small bottle he had clasped in his hand. Pushing the bottle beneath Ben’s nostrils, he commanded, “Take a whiff.”
It was like inhaling dirty socks and cleaning fluid. Ben’s head immediately expanded. A rush of energy coursed through him, clearing his senses, tingling through his fingers and toes, searing through his muscles like electricity, practically lifting him up off the mattress. He could feel it in his goddamn hair follicles. “What the holy hell,” he hissed, arching up, rubbing against Travis. He’d heard about poppers, but he’d had no idea of their true impact. Suddenly, he needed to be penetrated. Right. Fucking. Then. No more treading warily. “Get in me,” he growled.
Travis obliged. Pulled Ben’s hips up and went in slow and strong and deep. Unfamiliar animal sounds escaped from Ben’s mouth – guttural, instinctual – and Travis pressed the palm of his hand down against Ben’s neck, compressing his cheek into the mattress – a gesture to keep him from talking or protesting or moving any longer. A gesture of control. How does he know? Ben hollered in his own head. How does he know this is how it has to be for me? Debasement. Humiliation. Submission. The countless elements of Ben’s depravity and self-loathing finally being pulled from his core and brought up to the surface, vulnerable and exposed, ready to be released.
The rush of poppers began to fade, but it no longer mattered; Ben had crawled over the crest of pain to drift down into a funnel of impossible ecstasy – the pounding in his head, the steady rhythm of Travis’ thrusting, the creaking of the mattress beneath their sweating, smacking bodies reconnecting the detached circuitry of his fractured mind.
And with that, the most revolutionary orgasm he’d ever experienced.
* * * *
After sunrise, Ben awoke to the dissonance of magpies screeching to one another from nearby cottonwood trees. Rolling over beneath flannel sheets, he squinted at dust particles floating across rays of sunlight coming through the watery-glass window and gained his bearings. Once more, Travis was gone from the bunkhouse. How the guy managed to get up at the crack of dawn every day and immediately jump into work, especially after only four hours of fitful sleep the night before, eluded Ben.
Their night had been fragmented: half the evening spent in the motel room, the other half back at the bunkhouse. For the latter half, Ben had slept only intermittently – had tossed and turned for most of the time, his restlessness also affecting Travis, who’d tossed and turned right along with him as they’d attempted to spoon one another. Now, opening his eyes to the unwelcome beacon of dawn brought a stark reminder to Ben that he’d soon be returning to Aspen.
Soon… but not before we go for a ride.
Rolling out of bed, he quickly relieved himself in the bathroom, pulled on his clothes, and poured a cup of coffee into one of Mrs. Cooper’s handcrafted ceramic mugs. As he stepped from the confines of the bunkhouse, the crisp, cool air smacked his tired face and revived him a notch. He pulled the hood of his gray Lakers sweatshirt up to cover his mess of hair. The sunglasses perched on his face helped quiet the after-effects of bourbon and poppers, both of which still pulsated through his skull. His body was stiff and sore all over, every muscle tight and strained from snowboarding, his rectum raw and burning from the pounding he’d received from Travis only a few hours prior. Carefully, he shuffled along the flagstone path toward the stables with a self-conscious gait. Certain that, with a mere glance, the whole world would know exactly what had happened to him.
Approaching the west side of the building, Ben stopped in his tracks. Near the tall, worn, split-rail fence of the large practice pen stood Audra and Bryan – Audra bundled in a plum cable-knit sweater and scarf, Bryan nuzzled up with her. He was leaning on his crutches, clad in his black ski parka, his arm gently draped around her shoulders. Their presence startled Ben; he’d managed to momentarily forget they were even at the ranch. How much has happened since I last saw them? A lifetime of events, none of which I want to explain…
A young, blonde-haired girl in a helmet was inside the practice pen, saddled atop a spotted pony. Stepping closer, Ben could see that the animal had a long leather lead attached to its halter and that Curtis was standing in the middle of the pen, quietly directing the animal with the lead and a whip. It was apparent that the girl hadn’t been an equestrian for long, but she held an impressive look of confidence on her face, as though she’d been riding for much longer than her seven or eight years revealed. On the opposite side of the pen stood a tall man and a short woman, conversing together with a look of pride and joy on their faces as they witnessed the pony ride. They were obviously the girl’s parents – so focused on the riding lesson that they didn’t notice the others’ presence.
Audra approached Ben and gave him a tight hug. “How are you?” she asked. “We didn’t even see you return to the house last night.”
Ben returned her embrace, careful not to spill his coffee. “We went to a local hot springs,” he explained. “Great way to come down from the snowboarding high.”
She released him and stepped back to survey his appearance. Plucked the sunglasses from his face so that she could study his eyes. “You look like hell, brother,” she commented.
From a few yards away, Bryan mumbled agreement at her remark, and Ben shifted his gaze to his friend. Searched his mind for a snarky, humorous retort to make him laugh, but the man quickly averted his gaze to the ground, not wanting to make eye contact. Discomfort kicked up in the breeze, surrounding them each in silence, and Ben realized that they both knew what he wished they hadn’t known.
“Ben!” Curtis called out from the pen, motioning to him with a quick twirl of the whip. “Travis is in the office. Wanted me to send you in when you got up.”
Ben raised a hand in appreciation. “Thanks.”
No one seemed to be smiling that morning. Rather than prolong the strain of silence, Ben attempted to excuse himself, but Audra took him by the elbow and pulled him aside, away from Bryan and out of earshot of anyone. They leaned against the peeling paint of the old building, and her eyes quietly searched his, seeking answers. Ben expected her to communicate with him through her usual sibling telepathy, because she possessed such an uncanny ability to see right through him most of the time, but she surprised him by coming right out with the question: “What the hell are you doing, Ben?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, aiming for nonchalance. He took a sip of his now-lukewarm coffee and scrunched his face in disappointment; in his haste to get out of the bunkhouse, he’d dumped far too much sugar into it. With an arc of his arm, he tossed the liquid across the mud and melting snow.
His sister sighed and crossed her arms; pushed strands of dark hair from her crystal-blue eyes; studied him for another moment before saying, “Is this a one-night stand kind of thing? Or a permanent decision? Or what?”
Undoubtedly, the shock of her inquiry played out across his face as he stared down at her. “Excuse me?” he said.
She pursed her lips in a frown. “You know what I’m talking about, Benjamin. Don’t play games. This is serious.”
His stomach tightened. “Can we talk about this later?” he insisted. “Travis and I are supposed to go riding, and we’re already losing time.”
“I’m concerned about you,” she said imploringly.
“No need to be,” he assured her, sliding his sunglasses back on. “Everything’s fine, Audra. I’m fine.” But she didn’t appear convinced, and he wasn’t so sure of it himself.
They stood together, silent, listening to the magpies in the trees and the horses in the stables, until Bryan hobbled over on his crutches to slide a reassuring arm around his fiancée’s waist. “Let’s go back up to the house,” he suggested to her. “Get some breakfast.” His eyes remained averted from Ben’s. It was clear that he’d already judged Ben, had lost respect for him with a quick snap of the fingers. Ben glared at him from behind the safety of his polarized lenses, silently cursing the guy. Fuck you, then, prick.
Audra squeezed Ben’s hand and reached up to kiss him on the cheek before allowing Bryan to escort her away. With a frown, Ben watched them head up the path. What the hell had he expected? For each of them to express immediate understanding and compassion and support for his sudden swing to the other side? Yes, goddammit, he seethed, containing the urge to smash Elaine’s mug against the flagstones. Out of anyone, they should be the ones to bolster me.
The stench of manure and damp hay hit his nostrils the moment he stepped inside the stables, and he sneezed, just as he had the previous morning, which now seemed far away in the past. It was a smell that would forever remind him of this trip and of this pivotal point in time. Walking the length of the stalls, he greeted curious horses with quiet pats as he passed them, disappointing each one with his lack of treats to offer.
Halfway down the line, Katy stepped out from one of the empty stalls with a bucket in her hands. She was wearing Levis and knee-high muck boots and calfskin gloves, her hair clipped in a loose bun atop her head, her eyes expressively tired. Upon catching sight of Ben, she stopped and looked at him, waiting for whatever might ensue. The handle of the bucket she carried was clenched tightly. He debated turning and leaving the building and waiting for Travis outside, but instead, set his jaw and continued on his current path. “Hi,” he said with a slight nod as he passed her.
“Hello,” was her return reply. Nothing more.
Ben took a few more steps and then stopped. Inhaled a deep breath to steel his nerves and turned back around. “Look, Katy,” he said, shoving his hands into the middle pocket of his pullover. “I’m sorry for what I did yesterday. For reacting that way. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She shifted her stance. Pulled the heavy bucket over to rest at her side. “It would take more than a chokehold to hurt me,” she announced defiantly. She turned and disappeared into the next stall. A moment later, Ben could hear her cleaning up. She was obviously no more interested in forgiving him than he was in forgiving her, but he couldn’t let it go. Stepping over to the stall, he watched her shovel horse shit into the bucket until, finally, she noticed his presence and paused.
“What?” she demanded.
“I really hope what you said to me yesterday was an empty threat,” he replied.
She leaned on the handle of the shovel. “And if it’s not?”
“Look, Katy, there’s no reason in hell for you to do that. Why would you?”
She raised her chin, exuding that sizzle of defiance that she was so exceptionally good at. “Maybe you should have thought of the consequences before you hooked up with him,” she said. “It’s your problem, not mine.”
“Jesus, you’re such a little bitch,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“What will you do to keep my mouth shut?” she asked.
He turned surprised eyes on her. “Excuse me?”
She gripped the handle of the shovel. Rubbed her gloved hand up and down the metal. “I said, what will you do to shut me up?”
A muscle twitched in Ben’s jaw. There were so many possibilities here, he wasn’t sure how to begin to sift through them all in order to choose just one. In the end, he dug his wallet out of his back pocket and fished out the three hundred dollar bills he kept tucked inside for emergencies. “Here,” he said, stepping forward, slapping the bills into her hand. “Will that do it?”
Her expression morphed into shock. She stared at the money she’d been given and then returned her gaze to him. “Are you fucking serious?”
“Take it,” he insisted. “Consider it a goodwill gesture. Buy some new clothes or a new saddle or something. All right? Are we good?”
He’d finally managed to shake the girl into silence. She swallowed, still staring at him, and then carefully slid the money into the front pocket of her jeans. Katy Cooper would never turn down cold, hard cash; Ben had counted on that, and his intuition had been correct. Without another word, he turned and left her.
The door to the stable office was partially open. Approaching, Ben could hear Travis conversing with someone on the phone. Travis beckoned him inside, and Ben pulled the sunglasses from his face, pushed the door open, and took a seat across from the desk in a vintage industrial metal office chair. Sitting quietly, he listened to Travis talk shop, intrigued by this cowboy businessman who was discussing roundup and castration and yields of equine vaccination – topics that Ben could never have participated in.
The office was messy but probably manageable for the ranch’s needs. Certificates, ribbons and photos showcasing horses, cattle, livestock auctions, and the Cooper Ranch legacy lined wood-paneled walls. Behind the desk, a massive cork board had miscellaneous papers pinned to it, not one item making sense to Ben as he attempted to read a few of the memos and charts from where he sat. One flier in particular caught his attention, announcing the Collegiate Peaks Stampede Rodeo scheduled for June. Passively, Ben made a mental note of it, as though he’d actually consider returning to Buena Vista to attend it.
“Okay,” Travis spoke into the receiver, wrapping up his phone call. “I’ll call you next week when I have a concrete date… Yeah, that sounds good, Rick… Okay, thanks.” He placed the cordless phone into its charger and looked at Ben with a grin. “Good morning,” he crooned, leaning back in his swivel chair.
“Morning,” Ben replied.
Although Travis’ face appeared as tired as his own, his demeanor was livelier. He stood up, came around to the front of the desk, and leaned against the edge, nudging the tips of his cowboy boots against the tips of Ben’s hiking boots, smiling sweetly. He looked goddamn good, dressed in fresh Wranglers and a dark gray Henley shirt. A faded green Winter Park Ski Resort baseball cap hugged his head, starkly different from his usual Resistol hat, but just as sexy.
“Sleep well?” Travis asked, clearly referring to Ben’s restless night.
“Slept just fine, thank you,” Ben replied with a tone hinting at sarcasm.
Travis crossed his arms and smiled wide, dimples showing. “You’re full of shit, Mansfield.”
“Do you know that you talk in your sleep?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I don’t.”
“You do,” Travis insisted. “I heard you, clear as a bell.”
“Yeah? What did I say?”
“That you want a repeat of last night.”
Travis lifted the empty coffee mug from Ben’s hands and placed it on the desk. Pulled him up to his feet and folded him into his arms. “You smell good,” he whispered. His baseball cap twisted sideways as he nuzzled his face against the crook of Ben’s neck, teeth finding skin. “You taste good, too…”
Ben nudged him away. “Cut it out,” he said. “I’ll end up with another goddamn hickey.”
Travis looked at him with innocence. “Me? I would never do such a thing.”
Pulling back the collar of his sweatshirt, Ben revealed a large, reddened mark on the right side of his neck, just below his earlobe. It was a residual reminder of their night which had surprised him in the medicine cabinet mirror that morning. A mark that made him feel like a bumbling teenager again.
“I don’t see anything,” Travis said with a teasing smile.
“It’s the size of fucking Texas,” Ben persisted.
Shrugging indifferently, Travis said, “What can I say? I like to mark my territory.”
With a surge of surprised strength, Ben clocked him on the bicep, hard enough to leave a knot. Travis responded by giving him a playful slap across the ear, and in an instant, they were wrestling together, pushing and pulling and sending papers and files spilling from the desk. Ben managed to grab Travis in a half nelson and twisted his left arm up and backwards in a steady hold. Travis struggled, cursing, but was unable to break free. “Say uncle,” Ben commanded.
“No way!” Travis shouted through strained laughter.
The playful struggle continued until Arturo appeared at the door, at which time Ben abruptly released Travis, sending him sprawling forward. Travis grabbed the arm of the office chair to keep from tumbling further. “Morning, Arty,” he said breathlessly, still laughing.
“Morning,” the old man replied, straight-faced, devoid of emotion or care. He stepped into the room and picked up several file folders from atop a metal cabinet. “Just came to get the vaccination charts,” he explained, then turned and left, exiting the office as quickly as he’d entered.
Travis and Ben looked at each other, regaining normal breathing patterns. Eventually, Travis asked, “You still up for riding this morning?”
Ben nodded. Felt compelled to pull the guy back into an embrace and pronounce his objection to the end of things. But instead, he shoved his shaking hands into the middle pocket of his hoodie and hung his head, concentrating on the pockmarked pattern of the concrete floor. There was little point in protesting the inevitable now. Time was ticking, and the movement of the world could not be manipulated, no matter how hard he may have wanted to try.
Straightening the skewed baseball cap atop his head, Travis suggested quietly, “Let’s saddle up, then, city boy.”