It had been raining for hours when they knocked on our door.
“Laurey,” Aunt Eller jerked her head toward the door and I rushed over to open it. There was nothing that could have prepared me for what I saw on my porch. Curly McClain, limp as a rag, with one arm around Will Parker and the other around some young cowboy. I froze. He looked...dead. In that moment I think I stopped breathing. Panic rose in my chest and some other feeling I couldn’t put a name to. The same two words kept ringing in my head, Curly’s dead, Curly’s dead, Curly’s dead.
“Well don’t just stand there boy! Let them in!” Aunt Eller’s voice snapped me back to my senses. I motioned for them to come in as I stepped away from the threshold.
“What happened?” In a flash Aunt Eller was at their side, lifting Curly’s head to get a better look at him.
“Oh, old rocks-for-brains here,” Will gestured to Curly as he spoke, “decided to go cattle wrangling in the rain with a fever high enough to boil whatever sense he has left right out of him! Nearly fell off his horse after we wrangled three of them, I just managed to catch him ‘fore he hit the ground!” Curly groaned and shifted, as if he were trying to say something, and then fell silent once more.
“He’s got a nasty fever alright, nothin’ I can’t handle though. Lord above, this boy is gonna be the death of me. Alright, Laurey help them get Curly laid down in the spare room while I put some soup on.” I nodded and on slightly shaky legs, I led them to the tiny spare room down the hall.
“In here, I’ll try and find something for y’all to change him into,” I said hurriedly, already rushing out of the room. I managed to find one of my Pa’s old night shirts that looked to be about Curly’s size. I hurried back into the room, just in time to see Will and the other cowboy undressing Curly. My immediate instinct was to look away.
“Laurey if you don’t stop being silly and get over here and help us,” Will snapped. I wanted to protest that I wasn’t being silly Will Parker, I’m just trying to have some decency, but I realized that now probably wasn’t the time. I walked over to the bed as the two of them lifted Curly enough for me to slip the nightshirt over his head. I could feel the heat rising off of his skin as I pulled his arms through the sleeves.
“Lau....Laurey?” I heard a soft slurred voice call my name and I looked up just in time to see Curly’s eyes, bright and unfocused from fever, slip closed again.
“I’m gonna go and, and fetch a towel for his hair,” I muttered, eyes locked on Curly’s face. I rushed out of the room, still wondering why I was embarrassed to have seen Curly without a shirt. He was my oldest friend, surely I’d seen him without a shirt before. Come to think of it the last time I remembered seeing Curly like that was when we were both kids, barely 13. He had been skinnier than a fishing pole back then, but not anymore. He still wasn’t big, but he was covered all over in lean muscle from roping and riding all day for years. He was tanned all over too from the sun. He was....he was freezing to death in my guest room while I stood in the hallway daydreaming. Get it together Laurey, focus. I grabbed a towel from one of my drawers and came back to the room. Will and the cowboy had settled Curly beneath the covers by now.
“Well, we still got cattle to wrangle, but we’ll be back to check on him. Come on Slim, let’s grab some coffee before we head out.” Will clapped the other man on the shoulder and nodded to me before they walked past me out of the room. They closed the door behind him and then it was just me and Curly. I turned to the unconscious cowboy laying in my spare room.
I walked over to the side of the bed and slowly perched myself next to Curly on it. He looked like he hadn’t gotten any real rest in days. His soft black curls were wet with rain and sweat, and without thinking I reached up to sweep some of them off his forehead. He leaned into my hand a little and I almost jerked it back in surprise. After a moment I pulled the towel from my shoulder and started trying to get some of the rain out of his hair. I raised his head slightly and managed to slip the towel around him just enough to towel off most of the excess water. I took the towel and was folding it so I could lay it down when the same soft voice as before began to speak.
“Thought I was dreamin’ earlier,” I whipped my head around to see Curly, a little more present than before, looking at me through half open eyes.
“I remembered fallin’ off my horse and then all of a sudden Mr. Laurey Williams was fussin’ over me,” a half smile ghosted over Curly’s lips as he spoke.
“Won’t nobody fussin’ over you Curly, just wanted to make sure you didn’t drop dead in my front room, that’s all,” I huffed, trying to cover up my relief. I returned to my folding to avoid his persistent gaze.
“Aw, you mean to say you wasn’t worried about me at all?” The bed shifted slightly next to me and I could see him trying to sit up out of the corner of my eye.
“Curly McLain you better lay back down before-“
“Oh hush all that fuss Laurey, I’m just sitting up!” He managed to get himself halfway to a seated position on his own before a coughing fit over took him.
“For God’s sake Curly why can’t you just listen?!” The towel fell from my hands as I rushed to help him. After a few moments of manhandling we ended up sitting next to each other and I had an arm around his waist and a hand on his chest.
“Alright now, let it out, Curly. Just breathe,” I said, trying to keep him from working himself up into a panic. Desperate for something to do to feel useful I started rubbing circles on his chest.
“Don’t you think I’d breathe if I could?” he managed between coughs as they started to fade away. He dropped his head onto my shoulder and I could feel his breath right against my throat. The lord really is testing me, I thought, turning my eyes to the sky as I tried to keep my own breathing steady. I was in a position most of the gals and guys in town would only dream of and the one thing on my mind was how do I get out of it...and if I actually wanted to get out of it.
Curly was warm against my side and the weight of his head on my shoulder felt...nice. Like it belonged there.
“You alright?” My voice came out steadier than I thought it would thank god. Curly would never let me live it down if he got even an inkling that I might possess any feelings other than irritations for him.
“Fit as a fiddle,” his normally smooth southern drawl came out soft and raspy. A sympathetic smile, unseen by Curly, crossed my face and I rested my cheek against the top of his head. We just sat there for a few moments, Curly’s breathing steadying and my hand rubbing lazy circles on his back. The hand that I’d had on his chest had dropped to my lap, and at some point Curly had started playing with my fingers. After a minute or so I felt him shift, and as he turned his head toward me I could feel his nose and lips brushed my collar bone through my shirt. My breath hitched almost imperceptibly and I prayed that Curly hadn’t noticed. However God didn’t seem to be up for granting me any favors.
“You’re tremblin’,” Curly murmured.
“Oh? I, I guess I am,” I tried to keep my voice even as I replied, unsure of where Curly was going with this.
“You cold darlin’?” his voice was surprisingly sincere.
“I um, I suppose,” I replied. “It’s chilly outside and I’m a little wet from helping with you so...” I had never been so uncomfortable in my life.
“Oh, sorry for the trouble.” Hadn’t expected that. Curly must have been exhausted because he was resting his full weight on me, and he’d barely made a wise crack since he’d woken up. Usually by this point in a conversation we were bickering over something, but he seemed content to just sit here and trace stars on the back of my hand. In conclusion Curly was really sick.
“Yessir?” his sleepy voice answered.
“How long have you been sick?”
“....Pardon?” That’s troubling sign number three. That boy had heard me perfectly fine, he was just stalling so he could think of a lie.
“How long have you been sick, Curly?” I repeated, a slight edge to my voice. His fingers had frozen where they were on my hand.
“Well um, well I couldn’t say exactly Laurey...”
“Curly I know you. You know exactly how many cattle you’re driving at any given moment. You know when the sun will set down to the minute. You know exactly where you got to be every day on the hour off the top of your head. Now. Do you really expect me to believe you don’t remember how long you’ve been sick?”
He stayed silent.
“That’s what I thought. So, how long have you been sick, Curly?” He shifted uncomfortably for a few seconds before answering.
“Few days I guess....pushing a week maybe?” he mumbled. For what felt like the hundredth time that evening I froze.
“You mean you tell me that you been sick almost a whole WEEK and you didn’t say nothin’?! If you weren’t so sick I’d pop you one, you idiot!” I pushed him off of me and back onto his pillows so I could look him in the eyes.
“Easy Laurey easy, my head’s spinnin’ enough as it is,” he said, holding one hand up in defeat and the other to his head.
“Will was right, that fever must have boiled all the sense out of you boy! Do you know how dangerous what you did was! Will brought you in here slumped over his shoulder like you was dead! I thought you’d been trampled by your horse, and you scared Aunt Eller half to death!” I was hotter than a grasshopper on a sun soaked rock, how could he be so stupid?!
“You sound just like your aunt right now, you know that!”
“Well that’s good, seein’ as she’s the only one that can knock some sense into that rock you call a skull!”
“Don’t be so dramatic Laurey, I wouldn’t have died I-“
“Well you came Damn near close! You could have broken your neck when you fell, and then what? You leave everybody behind to mourn you? Aunt Eller would be beside herself, I mean she practically raised you! And what, what about Will, huh? You gonna leave him without a best friend?! And Mr. Clements, and Ado Annie, and, and-“
“And you Laurey?”
I felt whatever sentence I was about to say die on my lips at that.
“...What about me?” Curly stared me down for a moment, all bright eyes and red cheeks and messy hair.
“And you’d be awful torn up too? Is that what you’re tryin’ to say?” he asked, looking me right in the eyes. And I just stood there silent staring right back at him. “Would you cry at my funeral and everything?”
“...is this funny to you?”
“What? No, Laurey! It’s just, you’re, you’re bein’ a little ridiculous don’t ya think honey? Besides! Nobody asked y’all to fuss over me like you did, I would have been perfectly fine if the boys had just given me a second to get my bearings and get back on my horse so just-“
“God you’re an ass,” I spat out, cutting him off.
“....Beg your pardon?”
A tense silence washed over us and I think at that moment we both knew that whatever happened next wasn’t going to be pretty, and yet I just had to say it.
“I watched Will Parker and some cowboy drag your sorry ass in my door tonight, and I thought they were about to tell me that you were dead. Then when I found out you weren’t dead, I also found out you might still be dyin’ from a fever you were to goddamn stupid or stubborn or whatever you want to call it, to get help for.”
“I ain’t finished yet. So, you almost gave me a heart attack twice in one night. Most people would get that all of that is a big deal, but you don’t even care Curly.” I could feel tears welling up in my eyes but I couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. “You don’t care that my heart stopped when I saw you, soakin’ wet, not movin’, barely breathin’. You don’t care about anythin’ but yourself, and honestly I’m even startin’ to doubt that. Look at you. You can barely hold yourself up and you’re talkin’ about gettin’ back on a horse. And you’re right. Nobody asked us to fuss over you, but that’s what people who actually give a damn about their friends do. They fuss. They help. They worry. And sometimes they do it even if the person ain’t worth it.”
I stood there for a moment in the dead silence of the room. Waiting. Waiting for him to say anything. To defend himself, to apologize. Anything.
But he didn’t.
He just stared at me, his expression unreadable.
“....Goodnight, Curly. Holler if you need somethin’.”
I walked out of the room.