Mrs. Cooper pulled the line of gauze tight around her son’s knuckles, enough to keep the broken skin from being exposed, and finished the bandage off with a clip. When she’d completed her task, Travis set the ice pack he’d been holding to his cheek down onto the table and made to stand up, but she pushed the pack back up to his face and prompted him to hold it. “Keep it there,” she said. “It won’t help the swelling if you don’t ice it.”
Travis slumped back against the kitchen chair with a deep frown. He’d been frowning ever since they’d pulled out of the Eagle’s Nest parking lot. Emotions were stark on him: anger, disgust, pain, misery, everything broiling, right there on the surface. On the ride home, he’d cried – but only for a few minutes. Then, the seat belt had come off, the whiskey flask had come out, and he’d rolled down his window to stick his head out and let the wind dry the tears from his face.
Once at the ranch, Ben had debated whether to lead him to the bunkhouse or take him into the main house. Although neither of them desired an audience or a string of questions, Travis’ wounds needed attention, and Ben knew from personal experience that Mrs. Cooper was handy with a first-aid kit.
Arturo had been at the sink washing dishes. Mrs. Cooper had been scooping leftovers into plastic containers. When Ben had appeared in the kitchen with an arm wrapped around Travis’ waist, both parties had ceased their tasks to step forward – Arturo pulling out a chair for Travis to sit in, Mrs. Cooper producing her first aid kit, an ice pack, a damp cloth. She’d promptly plucked the burning cigarette from her son’s lips to drop it in a nearby glass of water before pulling a chair over to sit before him.
Initially, no questions had been asked. Ben had watched her administer ointments and bandages and had wondered how many times she’d been the one to wrap up Travis’ fist-fight injuries. From what he’d shared earlier, probably a lot. “Any other wounds I’m not seeing?” she asked now as she rolled excess gauze. She placed items back into the metal box, snapped the lid closed.
Travis was staring off into space. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly.
“What was it about?” she prompted.
Still, she couldn’t get him to talk. He stood up with a noticeable wince and wandered into the family room, ice pack pressed to his cheek. There, he landed on the couch and sprawled out, boots hanging over the upholstered arm, no more discussion. After his departure, Mrs. Cooper and Arturo both turned their attention to Ben with expectant expressions. Although they deserved some sort of explanation, he wasn’t sure how far he should take it, so he simply said, “He ran into someone in town, someone he knows, and they exchanged words.”
“Is this ‘someone’ in similar shape?” Travis’ mom asked.
Ben leaned against the kitchen peninsula. Pressed his palms against the Formica countertop and looked at the strawberry-blonde woman with her sea-green eyes. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “I just wanted to get him home.” Which was true; he didn’t know Eric’s condition or his whereabouts. Maybe Doug had taken him to the hospital. Maybe he’d dumped him off in the woods somewhere. I really don’t give a flying fuck right now.
“You’re a good friend for him, Ben.” This comment came from Arturo, who was seated at the opposite end of the table.
“Yes,” Mrs. Cooper confirmed. “You are. He doesn’t have very many, as you’ve probably guessed.”
“Yeah, I kind of noticed that…”
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re here.”
A lull in conversation followed. The only disturbance was the grandfather clock ticking in the hallway. Mrs. Cooper grabbed up the first-aid kit and brushed past Ben to return it to its cupboard. Arturo decided it was time to take his leave and so bid them both good night and slipped out the back door. As he did so, Derry rushed in past his legs and dashed first into the kitchen, then into the family room, her sole mission seeming to be to find Travis.
“How about I fix you up a plate?” Mrs. Cooper offered, popping open each of the food containers still occupying the counter.
“Thanks,” Ben said. “I’ll be right back.” He pushed off from the peninsula and headed into the family room, forced to step over Derry, who was already hunkered down on the floor near the couch, keeping guard, offering solace to her master. Ben sat down on the oak coffee table and studied Travis in the dim illumination from the kitchen light. The man’s eyes were closed, but there was no sense of peace about him, no evidence of relaxation. “You doing okay?” he asked quietly.
A small grunt was the only reply.
Ben stroked his mess of hair. It was still damp with sweat from the fight. “Are you hungry?” he inquired. “Your mom made some kind of stroganoff or something. I can bring you a plate.”
Travis removed the ice pack from his cheek and tossed it to the coffee table beside Ben. “Just leave me alone for a few, will ya?” he requested. “I’ll be all right. Just let me get my fucking head together.” He rolled over to face the cushions of the couch, and the movement caused him to wince again. Internal injuries. A fractured rib, maybe.
Ben stared at his back for a moment, at the dirt and grime scraped across his shirt. He wanted to pull the man into his arms, convince him all was well, but instead he stood up, leaned over, and simply kissed him on the temple before heading back into the kitchen.
“He’ll be all right,” Ben said to Travis’ mom as he returned.
She’d pulled his dinner plate out of the microwave and was now carrying it, along with silverware, over to the table. “He’s always all right,” she stated. “He’s too stubborn to say otherwise.”
“Yeah, I believe it.” Ben took a seat, picked up his fork, and gazed at the food, but he wasn’t sure he had an appetite for anything. Out of respect for the woman, though, he indulged in a bite. The meaty stroganoff ignited his mouth, full of mushrooms and thyme and creamy red wine sauce. “Delicious,” he commented between bites.
“Thank you.” She took a seat beside him and poured him a glass of Merlot from the opened bottle on the table. For herself, she topped off the wine she’d already been drinking.
After consuming a few bites of pasta and taking a sip of the wine, Ben wiped his mouth and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“How long was Eric here?”
“Eric…?” she echoed. “Hmm, I don’t know exactly. A year, maybe. After Travis came back from Boston, we never saw him again. I assumed he’d gone back home, to Wyoming. That’s where his family lives.”
Ben set his fork down and stared at the food on his plate. Was Travis such a remarkable actor that he’d successfully convinced everyone he was fine, that everything was good, once he’d returned home from Boston? He’d been a broken man. Emotionally and physically abused. He should have been the Hollywood star receiving awards for his performances, not Ben.
He couldn’t hold a goddamn candle to that guy’s talent.
“I suppose he and Eric had had some sort of falling-out,” Mrs. Cooper continued. “Travis never talked about it. He said everything was fine, like he always does, like his father always did. Equally stubborn men. Travis moped around here for months. Your presence these last few days has made a difference. I can tell.”
“Hmm, maybe…” Ben muttered. “It’s made a big difference for me, at any rate.”
She swirled the wine in her glass and watched the pattern it made. In a softer tone, she said, “He hasn’t been happy for a while. I worry he’ll be unhappy again, once you’re gone. Aside from Doug, you’re the only friend he’s brought to the ranch.”
Friend. The word hung in the air – heavy, lopsided. Ben turned his attention from the creamy egg noodles on his plate to the woman who was seated beside him. Opening his mouth to say, “We’re a little more than friends, you know,” a stirring from within the family room interrupted his train of thought. In wandered Travis from the shadows, a strained expression on his face, a more pronounced limp in his stride. “I’m gonna head to the bunkhouse,” he announced. His voice was hoarse, scratchy, as though gravel was wedged in the back of his throat. He didn’t look rested. He looked defeated. Ben frowned at him and felt a small fragment of his heart collapse.
“How about something to eat?” his mother offered. She stood up, headed into the kitchen.
“No,” Travis answered. He pulled the pack of Camels from his shirt pocket and attempted to shake out a cigarette, but the pack was partially smashed, making it difficult. Eventually, he managed to finagle one out. After planting the crooked cigarette between his lips, he glanced down at Ben and said, “Coming?”
Although posed as a question, it wasn’t a question. There was no mistaking the tone. Ben set his fork and napkin down. Stood up.
“How about taking a plate with you?” Mrs. Cooper insisted. She was already scooping noodles out of the Tupperware. She was concerned for her son, and it showed.
“No, Mom.” Travis fished out his lighter. Headed for the back door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Mrs. Cooper looked at her son with disappointment. Turned her attention to Ben and communicated through eye contact a silent message of, “Take care of him.”
Ben nodded. “Thank you for the meal…and the talk.” He turned to follow Travis outside. Derry, also following, barely slipped through the narrow passageway of the closing door before it shut.
* * * *
A continuous vibration resonated from the phone in Ben’s hand, disrupted only by the intervals of time it took for the caller to hang up and hit redial. This scenario repeated itself several times. By the fifth call, Ben knew he needed to make a decision: answer it or power the phone off. Glancing at the partially-closed bathroom door, he listened to the steady fall of the shower beyond and determined that Travis would be occupied for a few more minutes. Enough time to take the call. Ben knew that Christine would remain persistent until she was acknowledged, so getting it over with was the best choice.
“Hi,” he spoke as he pulled the front door open and stepped out into the dark shadows of the front porch.
“Hi,” she echoed with a snarl. Already, her voice exuded attitude. “You finally answered.”
“Yeah, well… you seemed insistent. What’s up?”
“What’s up?” A long, excruciating pause separated the line. Then, in acrid tone she announced, “I just saw Global Star.”
Ben steadied himself with a hand on the back of one of the old wicker armchairs. “Uh-huh…” he mumbled, unable to produce other words. A lump rose in his throat that he had difficulty swallowing away.
“Why do I have to read about you fucking some cowboy in the tabloids?” she demanded.
Like a swift smack to the face, her words were a physical lashing. “Look, it’s not like that…” he began, but she cut him off.
“It’s not like what?” she said. “Not like gay? Give me a fucking break, Ben. I always knew there was something funny about you, and now it’s all coming together – your failure to commit, your reluctance to be with me. Why didn’t you just have the guts to tell me in the beginning? All of this time, wasted. You never wanted me.”
“That’s not true, Chris,” Ben interjected. Anxiety rose up like ants crawling on his skin.
“God, what an idiot I was,” she continued. “I see it so clearly now. I was a cover for you. A shield. A fucking closet door for you to hide behind.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded, now swept up in the cyclone of her fury. “I wasn’t pretending shit! We both tried, and we both failed at the relationship. It wasn’t pretty. I know that. But we’re equally guilty. You can’t place all the blame on…”
“How many others have there been?” she challenged, cutting him off again. “How many other cowboys or whatever have you fucked before this guy?”
“Jesus! None!” he replied in exasperation. “This isn’t even… anything. I’m on vacation, for Christ’s sake. He’s the owner of the ranch, that’s all. The fucking tabloid twisted everything around, because that’s what they do. You know how that shit works. Don’t believe everything you read!”
In a quieter, yet no less venomous voice, she hissed, “I made the right decision getting rid of your baby…”
The proclamation sliced through Ben’s gut. Left him doubled-over so that he had to grip the back of the wicker chair even harder to keep from collapsing to the cement floor. “Why the fuck would even say that to me…?” he uttered.
“When you’re back in L.A., don’t come near me,” she insisted. “Stay away.” Then, silence as the call abruptly ended.
Ben stared hard at the mobile phone in his hand. His mind sizzled from the cruelty of the conversation. “Bitch!” he yelled into the shadows. The Blackberry went sailing across the enclosed porch in a mighty heave and hit a window screen before clattering to the floor. Swinging on his heels to return inside, Ben came face-to-face with Travis, who stood in the open doorway – towel wrapped around his waist, arms crossed, a look of disdain on his battered face.
Ben took a step closer and opened his mouth to explain, but Travis raised a hand to silence him and simply said, “Don’t,” before turning into the room.
* * * *
Through a curtain of restless sleep, a sound punctured, interrupting Ben’s dream-state and pulling him back to the surface of consciousness once more. With a start, he opened his eyes, something similar to fear twisting his gut. But the room was dark and quiet and still. He lay for a moment, breathing, listening, letting his eyes adjust to unfamiliar shadows. Then, he remembered where he was: on the sofa.
Sitting up, he blinked a few times. Took a survey of the small quarters and determined that he was alone – no Travis, no Derry. From underneath the thin blanket he’d been asleep under, he got up and went to the door. Peered out into the shadows. Only the chirp of crickets and a silent Derry greeted him. Then, the glow of a cigarette moving in the air caught his attention. Once his eyes further adjusted to the darkness, he noticed that Travis was seated in the wicker armchair having a smoke.
Stepping across the cement floor in his bare feet, he approached the man. “Hey,” he said quietly.
Travis blew out smoke and responded just as quietly, “Hey.”
Derry returned to Travis’ feet and made to sit near him, but Ben nudged her away with his ankle. If anyone was going to sit near Travis, it was going to be him, not the dog. Without putting too much thought into it, Ben lowered himself down to his knees in front of Travis and tucked his feet up under him. The cement floor was cold and hard against his kneecaps and shins, but Ben welcomed the discomfort.
Silence consumed them for a minute. Ben could smell whiskey, intermingling with the nicotine in the air. The bottle of Jim Beam sat on the small circular table beside the chair with only an inch of liquid left in it. Travis flicked ashes into a small tin ashtray perched on his thigh. Despite the night chill, he was unclothed. Ben, at least, had on underwear, though it didn’t make much difference.
“I hope you’ll accept my apology,” Ben spoke. “I really am sorry.” He slid the palms of his hands up Travis’ calves and rested them on the tops of his knees, careful not to tip the ashtray. Despite the darkness of the night, he could clearly see that Travis was staring at him with intensity.
The man had barely spoken a word since the phone call with Christine. Although Ben had attempted to explain and make amends, Travis had refused to be a part of the debate. Eventually, he’d tossed Ben a pillow and pointed to the sofa, indicating where he was meant to sleep for the night. Then, he’d removed his towel and slid under the sheets of the bed, turning his back to Ben in a clear message of “leave me alone.” Lights off. End of discussion.
Now that they were both awake and facing one another, Ben intended to stay on his knees in profuse atonement until Travis forgave him. “Please,” Ben said. “Talk to me. Yell at me. Whatever. Those things I said to Christine… I didn’t mean them. She got me riled up, she’s very good at doing that. I didn’t mean to throw you under the bus.”
“You didn’t throw me under the bus,” Travis boomed in a voice that resonated through Ben’s body like electricity. “You denied knowing me. That’s ten times worse.”
At his statement, Ben hung his head in shame. “You’re right,” he said. “I swore I wouldn’t deny this, what’s between us, and I fucking denied it anyway. You have every right to be angry…”
Travis smashed his cigarette out into the ashtray, set it aside, and pushed Ben’s hands from his knees. When he stood up, Ben panicked that he would walk away, leaving him alone and in silence once more, and he couldn’t bear the thought. “Don’t go,” he implored, wrapping his arms around Travis’ legs to keep him still, pressing his cheek against the man’s thigh. His scent was strong, musky, and Ben breathed it in, wanting, needing, to imprint it in his mind.
He turned his head slightly, brushing skin with his lips, moving closer to the prize between Travis’ thighs, but fingers pulled on his hair with a gentle, yet firm, yank, forcing his head back so that he had to turn his gaze upwards. From above, Travis peered down with a fierce look. Whatever message was being transmitted through his eyes was undecipherable. Ben could only infer that it was something salient, noteworthy, that he should pay attention to. He waited for words, for instruction, for the reprimanding he so blatantly deserved, but Travis gave him nothing. Simply plucked Ben’s arms from around his legs, stepped away, and muttered, “Let’s go back inside.”
Reluctantly, Ben untangled himself from the floor and stood up. His legs and knees protested the change of position from the harsh cement, and he waited a couple of seconds to regain his balance before heading into the bunkhouse. Inside, nothing had changed; the room was still dark, the night was still quiet, and Travis was back in the bed, the cotton sheet thrown across the lower half of his body.
With a sigh, Ben shut the door, went to relieve himself in the bathroom, and returned to the sofa. The leather was cold against his skin as he laid down upon the cushions. In resignation, he turned over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, noticing a slight movement of shadows from the leaves of the cottonwood trees outside. Like counting sheep, he studied the moonlit shadows for a time until his eyes drew heavy. Then, sleep consumed him once more.
By the time he was awake and coherent enough to realize that Travis had joined him on the sofa, his boxers were pulled down and a lubed finger was inside of him. The blanket had been replaced by Travis, who lay heavy and warm on top of him, pressing him down into the cushions. Without a single uttering, Travis substituted his finger with his cock. No kissing, no caressing, just a deep thrust inside Ben and a hand clutched in his hair to give him traction.
Despite the courtesy of the lube, the pain of the sudden fuck was intense; Ben chomped down on the inside of his mouth, concentrating on showing no signs of protest or making a single sound. If Travis wanted silence and cooperation, he would get it. Ben needed the close contact, the connection, more than anything in the world.
It wasn’t long before Ben’s discomfort dissolved into slow pleasure, traveling to every nerve, expanding his own erection until it became noticeably pinched against the leather upholstery below. Being taken this way was brutal yet incredibly gratifying. Ben compared it to an emotional cleansing; having the misery fucked straight out of him, the expunging of demons. Countless times, he’d attempted similar self-purging with female partners, including Christine – fucking them into oblivion in the hopes of gaining positive emotional outcomes. But, in the end, he’d only faced further dissatisfaction and self-loathing.
Travis, in his keen way, seemed to know exactly what Ben needed with an innate sensibility, as though he’d crawled around inside Ben’s psyche, taking notes and making unspeakable discoveries. Ben could only hope that the physical thrusting that Travis currently was administering to him was purging his own misery away. Ben wanted that for him, more than anything. In fact, Ben realized that he would have gladly laid there for hours being properly pounded into the sofa, if it meant that Travis would ultimately be happy.
To Ben’s disappointment, the coupling didn’t last long. Travis winced a few times from the exertion on his ribs but didn’t allow the distraction to slow him down. He reached his peak and rammed Ben’s backside one final time, going remarkably deep. As he released his load, he pushed against Ben with such force that it felt as though his entire body might follow suit and meld them together into one person.
Directly after, Travis pulled out and raised himself up off of Ben, leaving him empty and desperate. Wanting more, Ben stuffed his hand between his body and the leather cushion, hoping to stroke his own burgeoning cock to completion, but Travis gave him a light smack on the shoulder blade and said, “Don’t touch yourself.”
No further explanation was given. No further explanation was required. Ben understood it pefectly. He was undeserving of release… Finally, he was receiving the reprimanding he’d been waiting for.
Rolling over onto his side, he watched as Travis disappeared into the bathroom to dispose of the condom and relieve his bladder. When he returned to the room, he gave no mind to Ben and climbed into the bed as though he’d never left it. Ben lay still in the aftermath, breathing, willing his erection to go down, disbelieving how fucking aroused he was, feeling grateful for the experience. Eventually, he reached down to locate the discarded blanket and pull it up over his body, but Travis muttered, “Come here,” and in an instant, he was off of the sofa and sliding onto the bed, the blanket forgotten.
Travis extended a hand, beckoning Ben closer, and Ben scooted into the offered embrace with relief and resignation. There, within the strong hold of Travis’ arms and the soft touch of his whiskey-tinged lips, Ben could see clearly what a goddamn fool he’d been. An unspoken truce passed between them, a shared bonding to be appreciated in silence.
And as the first muted rays of sunlight began to filter into the room indicating the approach of dawn and the start of a new day, both men found solace in a brief pocket of sleep, unencumbered by their respective ghosts.