The radio had already started crackling a few minutes back, but it had just about given out in earnest. They were unmistakably into the mountains by this point, the peaks roaring interference into that old Janis Ian song, the sad one that was popular back when Dora was in middle school and too young by half to understand it. She thought she did a damn sight better, now. After about a minute of the crooning cutting out intermittently Jenny’s shoulders had visibly started to creep up tense by her ears and eventually she snapped, reaching over to slam the search button with vitriol. The seconds of dead air tasted crisp and angry, until the next station kicked in.
“Oh, yeah,” offered Dora, pitching her voice up to be heard the over aggressive disco tones. “This is way better.”
Jenny snorted. She wound her window down a few inches, letting the evening air wash cool over them and out the car again. The atmosphere inside felt a bit cleaner.
“And you’re sure he’ll have us?” Dora asked again. She knew the answer was the gonna be the same, same as the last ten times she’d asked, but Jenny understood. Jenny always got it. Right now, it was nice to feel like they were in control, like some kinda proactive choice was being made.
Jenny huffed out a breath. She had her legs criss-cross-applesauce up on the seat, which under any other circumstances Dora absolutely would have said something about by now. “I hope he will. Think maybe he might. Don’t know anything. I don’t know the man. We saw him a lot when we were little. Guess he was nice, sorta quiet. But then he stopped coming round and mom never spoke about him again.”
Dora shifted down a gear, taking a slow bend around a steep cliffside ornamented by a yellow DEER CROSSING sign that illuminated in the dark where it crossed into the car’s beams. She hummed. This was, actually, new information. “You don’t know what happened to him?”
Her eyes are on the road, but she can damn near hear the shrug. “Guess we eventually stopped asking when she never told us anything. But he sent money every month, and mom would give us the cards he’d mail at Christmas. So he can’t be all bad.”
“Not all bad is a damn sight better than not all nothing”, Dora reasoned. “At least for tonight.”
“At least for tonight,” Jenny echoed, solemn.
All that Dora had to her name was in this car; her girl, $60 rolled up in her bra, and an address. Town by the name of Twin Lakes, Colorado; west of Denver, and a drive four hours and change from where they had been so gracelessly and summarily ejected.
By the time they rolled on through, evening had drawn in, buildings painting long shadows on the sunset tinted road. The town itself was little, tiny even; half the size of home. It seemed hewn straight out the hills, which stood tall and proud like a movie backdrop propped on up behind. There were little cookie cutter storefronts spaced out one after the other, two dozen in all, and while the daylight would probably show them as faded pastel greens and blues, the fading light tinted them fire-toned umbers and violets. The light seemed to still be on in the general store, but they watched with glee as the lantern outside the church flicked off damn near simultaneously as the neon on the bar turned on further up the road.
The hills had broken like gates to let them into civilisation with no sign of their goal, so they slipped silently out the back end of the town as smoothly as they’d entered, as the shops ceded to residential roads ceded to farms with sprawling land with crags dotted among outbuildings.
Dora let out a big breath and decided to choose her words carefully. “When we get there - I don’t want to hide. Not who we are, I mean. I’m tired of it. But I’m thinkin’ maybe we should be careful. Come all this way, shame to get kicked to the curb twice in one day.”
Jenny opened her mouth, puffing up with indignation. Dora jumped into cut her off. “I’m not saying lie,” she said, hasty. She gestured with the hand normally resting on the shift. She needed to get her point across. They each had different skin in this game. “I’m sick of lying too, honey. Just not be too forthcomin’, s’all I mean, less there’s a reason. ’Til we know he’s good folk.”
The only response Dora got was an arm thrust under her nose, as Jenny reached across the car to point. “There!”
There indeed. After easing off the brake, Dora turned the wheel left. The wooden fence and scrubby brush at the side of the road broke abruptly, with a turn-off marked by an arrangement of wild flowering plants, behind a row of boulders and in front of a sign painted with the silhouettes of two great horned sheep, curled horns interlocked like some stage magician’s trick. Underneath, crisp pointed text read Riding & Ranching Stays then, below that, Quality Livestock Bought & Sold.
The tar of the road gave way unceremoniously to gravel then to dust at they trundled up the track, and Dora’s curls bounced along with the rest of the vehicle into and out of every divot. This was frustratingly familiar. She’d actually been hoping to check out the suspension this weekend, barter some time in one of the bays out back of the Ford dealer down the road from the church. That would, she supposed, have to wait. For now, an assortment of buildings came in to view, curled around a turning circle at the center of a manicured grassy verge. Low stable buildings sat to the right, with an two-story lodge to its side that the road bended carefully around to touch.
Some reed-thin twenty-something, checkered shirt tucked into leather belt, crossed the green in loping strides that cut through the beam of the headlamps. Dora jerked the window handle through several rough, many-cornered circles so furiously that she felt the joint in her elbow crunch.
“Scuze?” She raised her voice to shout, but the sound of the engine had the boy already trotting over. A few yards away, he dipped the brim of his hat.
“Ye’llo, Miss.” He crouched and nodded across the car. “Miss.”
Jenny leaned over the center console, squishing Dora’s hand against the stick. “We’re looking for Ennis Del Mar?”
They were, blessedly, in the right place. The young man didn’t even blink. “He lives up at the old house. You gon’ take a left at the bend, follow it on up behind the trees. Lights’ll be on.”
“Thanking you kindly.”
He seemed to pause, considering. “It’s not business stuff right? Else you should be coming back tomorrow.”
The track got steeper, cut deep with the twin valleys of well-worn tyre treads, as it climbed up behind the row of pines that hid it from view of the lodge. As it came into view, the so-called old house appeared to be just that. She saw a stone chimney first. Then, a solid and uncomplicated green tin roof and wood frame that let it melt into the sloping grass of the hillside on which it sat. The only fringing it wore seemed to be a shallow porch, with the customary accompaniments; a pair of chairs, some well-tended planters, and a handful of moths circling a light.
After she threw the car resolutely into park, Dora expected they were going to sit stationary for a hot minute and have a well deserved crisis. By contrast, Jenny nearly threw the door off its hinges in her haste to get out. Dora watched her through the windscreen. She got right up in front of the door before she paused, feet rooted in place. She seemed to be having a moment, and even by the time Dora followed her up there she was inclined to let it just happen. Instead she cast her eyes around. A wiry looking barn cat stared at them with moon-like eyes. Dora waved at it, rather dumbly, and it jetted off under the porch.
Turning back, a muscle worked back and forth in Jenny’s jaw as she stared dead ahead. Like she could gain entry simply by burning the wood down with her gaze. Dora reached out and caught her by the elbow, and ran a thumb softly over the knob of bone.
Jenny looked at her, and her eyes shone warm and defiant.
“Well,” she offered, “here goes nothing,” and raised her fist to the door.
Dinner was Jack’s purview tonight. They’d stolen a quiet half an hour after close of play - Jack catching some shut eye on the sofa, head in Ennis’ lap while the man read a paperback and absentmindedly twirled a finger around the lock of hair behind Jack’s ear - before Ennis had clapped him on the hip and pushed off to check the generator in the top barn one last time. Damn thing kept giving out overnight. He’d be back any minute, though, and hopefully he’d be happy enough with the spread. Nice rump joint tonight, one of their’s, seasoned with some rub recommended by the lady at the market who was sweet on Ennis. It’d do for sandwiches the next couple of days. Corn on the side, cabbage, pickled cauliflower from back in spring courtesy of the neighbour over the east fence who was sweet on him.
He’d twisted the top off a beer, and took a pull. There was a record on the turntable, some kind of popular nonsense that they both claimed to dislike. Jack clucked his tongue in time with the rhythm, formed mumbled half sentences along with the chorus, and almost didn’t hear the knock.
In the crossing from the kitchen to the door, he thwaped the damp dish towel over his shoulder like a housewife. It always gave Shawna a laugh; he assumed that was who’d be calling at this hour, passing on something that got delivered to the main office with the late post.
Instead, he opened the door with one leg cocked jaunty over the other to the sight of two strangers.
There was a girl; late teens, with mousey brown hair cut straight and uncomplicated. A charitable ray of sunlight might have cast it in blonde, but the buzzing halogen lamp tinted her in burnished yellow. And next to her, another, this one with stonewash jeans against a black sweater and black Jheri curls.
“We’re looking for Ennis Del Mar; I’m told he lives here?” spoke the girl up front, in a tone that brokered no argument.
He let the leg fall, but cocked a hip against the door jam. “Sure do. Who’re you ladies?” Jack asked, looking over them both, but no sooner were the words out of his mouth than he knew. He met eyes with the gal who’d spoken, and realised that he’d know those eyes even if he’d gone and forgot his own name. It was the work of a moment to line up the young woman in front of him with the child in the faded photograph that hung next to Bobby’s. His tongue felt heavy and his stomach felt like the bottom had gone and dropped out of it. His next words fell unbidden. “You’re Jenny.”
She nodded. Then she seemed to draw herself up, squaring her shoulders. She gained two inches and, God in heaven, she even had his silhouette. All of a sudden the air out on the porch felt breathlessly humid.
Jack’s good sense felt liquid, but the back of his skull felt fizzy. He straightened up. “Why ever ar - oh jeez, what am I sayin’ - come in, come in, get on,” he stepped back, swinging the door open fully. He felt himself make little scooting motions, like he would for a skittish yearling.
Jenny stepped in, her guest behind. She paused to wipe her shoes, and the incongruity of the action with the situation tipped him over into motion. Jack pushed at the door, willing to let it slam home on its own, and span on his heel.
“I’ll run and get your dad, just you hold on -“ Even as Jack formed the words, though, the backdoor was already creaking.
“Ey, darlin’, who’s parked out front?”
As Ennis stepped into the room he was looking at his hands, rubbing them clean of some old oil or grease with a rag. This led to a frankly unenviable moment wherein Jack knew exactly what was about to happen, but had no power to intervene. He felt as though he were watching a freight car slowly and inevitably derail.
When Jack seemingly didn’t respond to his question, Ennis looked up. Their eyes found each other immediately. Then his gaze slid over to the left, and Jack watched the same engine turn over in his head. A whole host of grand emotions washed over Ennis’ face, before it settled down to gentle, confused awe. The rag slid from his fingers.
He moved forward, one-two step. “Jenny?”
“Momma decided she didn’t want me under her roof.” She stood fierce and her eyes shone. “Thought we might try yours.”
Despite all that was unspoken in and around her words, there was not much they left up to the imagination. Jenny seemed to know it, and stood like she was half damn guarding the girl behind her. For her own money, it looked as if their guest were trying to remain calmly and precisely aware of her own proximity to the door and the window. Though he understood, Jack hated the thought that either of them was standing there fixing to be scared of them, and wanted out of the moment soon as.
Right then they were arranged like four spiked corners on a square. He wanted to smooth them out into a circle. Jack pasted on a beatific smile and tried not to make it look too unhinged. “Ain’t you gonna introduce us?”
“This here is -“
“Dora,” spoke the girl herself, stepping forward. “Eudora Phillips, sir.”
She proffered a hand. Girl had spunk, Jack had to give her that.
Ennis shook it, and her grip looked firm in his. “As in, Pastor Phillips? From, uh, god - Hill Gospel?”
Eudora nodded. “That’s me.”
He hummed. “Nice church,” he said, then looked her face on. “Think you’re best rid of ‘em.”
Dora blinked, and her wary face folded into something happy. She looked for a moment like the child she surely still was, but both she and Jenny still seemed unsure, prickly like defensive cats. They were uncertain of their welcome now that the truth was out.
Jack looked away from Dora to find Ennis’ eyes already on him, and the man titled his head; a familiar, wordless request for permission. Jack nodded, fit to bursting.
“Jack. My -“ A pause where Ennis swallowed, steadying himself. “My other half.”
All these years later and Jack still wouldn’t have blamed him for partner. For its truth bubble wrapped in soft deniability. His heart floated up somewhere in the neighbourhood of his throat. He coughed around the lump.
Dora seemed to take this in her stride, and stepped to offer Jack some pleasantries that he dazedly accepted. In truth, he was looking over her shoulder. This statement appeared to have shifted Jenny’s view of the world a few steps to the left, and she was staring at Ennis like he’d grown a second head.
“Got much of anything in the car?” the man asked. Broadcasting his movement widely, and he reached over to gently and hesitantly clap a hand to her shoulder.
This seemed to jolt her back to reality. “Couple a bags. Momma gave me a few minutes grace.”
Jack chimed in, looking to Dora beside him. “You, hon?”
He ran a hand over his chin, scratched at the day’s bristles. “Come wi’ me, then, we’ll find some something for the night. Go into town after breakfast.”
Perhaps summoned by the mention of food, Ennis’ stomach chose that moment to let out an abrupt and plaintive grumble. In echoed, in the quiet of the house. Someone needed to flip the record.
“Scratch that,” Jack offered. “I’m thinkin’, maybe supper first.”
Out the corner of his eye, for the first time, Jack saw little Jenny smile.
The spare room was off a wood-panelled hallway lined with framed picture postcards. It contained a double bed that managed to be larger than most of the floor space in her room back home, a squat wicker chest from which her father extracted a set of linens, and an office desk strewn with papers arranged into half-hearted piles that betrayed the room’s primary function.
She was half delirious, full of food and exhausted like she’d been in a fist fight. Hell, there’d nearly been one when her father had expressed his expectation that if she were to be staying any length of time that she’d be taking classes at the county’s high school, get her GED squared away. It was odd to see his face move into firm, strict shapes. His nature did still seem to be that of the quiet man she could half recall, but he’d expanded from it, like a gas filling new space upon freedom.
Of all everything, she didn’t expect grey in his hair. It felt like he should have been just how she remembered him, frozen in time with things just so, like coming back to a house after a long spell spent away. Instead there was more proof if proof were needed - proof beyond the cattle ranch and the copper stovetop and the spare bedroom in a two room house - that he had grown beyond his old shape in the time that she had, too.
They smoothed out the bedsheet together wordlessly, and she finished her half of the pillowcases first. Stepping to the desk, she popped the lid back on a pen that’d been left uncapped. While some of the writing and calculations were on fax paper, others were scribbled by hand on sheets headed with the symbol she’d seen by the entrance, and a name, printed in burgundy like some ritzy hotel. Two Rams.
Jenny ran her finger over the paper, felt the little bumps where the ink raised up the letters. When she looked up, her father met her eyes, and shrugged in response to the unasked question. “Name suits the town enough not to raise eyebrows. But for those in the know - well, s’abit funny.”
Something heavy got pushed through the tubes in her heart. “I don’t think it’s a joke.”
He worked his jaw for a moment. “No,” he said slow, after a pause. “Maybe it ain’t.”
She dropped the pad back down. “Got a nice place here.”
“We certainly do,” he said. He spoke plainly, without an once of smugness to it, like he knew he was stating a true fact. “I’m not sad I left. Think staying would’a hurt more people, in the end. But I’m sad that leaving cost me you and your sister. Think ‘bout you every damn day.”
Jenny could not quite say the same. Then again, even if she were able to, a thousand days of daydreaming could have never lead to her imagining this. Seeming uncomfortable in the silence that followed her lack of immediate reply, but not sure how to fill it, he offered, “I thought you could be in here, put Dora on the couch.”
She looked at him wide eyed, aghast.
Misinterpreting, he quickly reassured. “It’s a pull out. Real nice.”
Jenny shook her head. “I’m not gonna let her sleep on the couch! There’s plenty’a room right here,” she said, gesturing broadly to the double bed in its spacious entirety.
He wrinkled his nose, and his voice was firm. “You ain’t sleepin’ in the same bed, -”
Jenny’s heart sank, fell like a sprung trap door made thin by worrying - that maybe he still don’t see what they are for what they are, or he do and he don’t like it, not on others, not on her and Dora, or that he holds some of those old-fashioned views about what women are capable of feeling, ‘bout how far their emotions go down, or-
“- I won’t be endorsing no funny business.” Jenny blinked, dumbfounded. Of all the reasons for someone object to her sleeping in the same bed as her dark-skinned girlfriend, she hadn’t been anticipating the fact that he just didn’t want his daughter having sex as the reason.
The prospect actually felt - nice. She felt all of a sudden aggressively normal in a way that she had long been deprived of, the same as any other teenage girl trying to bring her significant other to stay for the night. If she’d turned up at the door with some boy in tow, he too would have gotten a nice welcome, a handshake, and be made to sleep on the couch. No special allowances. It warmed her heart, albeit not her feet. That was Dora’s job.
“Daddy, please - just tonight?”
The endearment slipped out. To accompany it, Jenny conjured up some puppy dog eyes, ones she imagined might have worked once upon a time in a different sort of life. They never got to her mother, but she was stone cold by the end. By contrast, her father seemed like a soft touch. He melted with a sigh.
“No funny business?”
She shook her head. “No funny business. Just want her close, is all.”
A little smile crept onto his face all tentative, like the ease of the motion was still surprising. “Can’t deny you that,” he said, softly. “You sleep well now, Jenny.”
She vowed to try. He flexed his fingers, before he patted them against his own thighs one-two, in the way of someone who had made a decision.
With a last stilted nod, he stepped out, pausing in the hall to turn and call, “Goodnight, Eudora.”
“‘Night, Mr. Del Mar.”
Dora had peeled off as they cleared the dinner table, implored to root around to her heart’s content for something to sleep in. Now, she closed the door behind her, clutching her sweater and what looked to be two pairs of folded boxer briefs. She wore a faded navy t-shirt that came down to the middle of her thighs. Fiery lettering across the chest read Incorporated Townships Chilli Festival ‘77. Objectively, she looked like the prettiest thing Jenny had ever seen.
With flair, Dora threw her arms wide and twirled on the spot like a ballerina. On her back, the lettering continued, proudly stating I Went Down In Flames.
“My choice,” she declared to the wall she was now facing, “was obvious.”
Dora claimed the side of the bed closest to the door by virtue of depositing her spoils onto the relevant night stand. She was working at her belt, fixing to slip out of her jeans, when Jenny hooked her chin over her shoulder, and settled arms loose around her waist. The fabric of the t-shirt where Jenny’s wrists criss-crossed on Dora’s belly was soft and bobbled, like it had been washed one too many times. She worked her nose in to the space behind her ear, and rested her forehead where her curls faded baby-soft into the nape of her neck.
“So,” offered Dora quietly. “Not kicked to the curb then.”
“Not quite. Sorry I didn’t listen.” Jenny was aware that she turned on a dime from cold to hot, that things could throw her hackles up and push her into a fight at a moment’s notice. Knowing that didn’t stop it happening. She’d been getting in to scrapes for too long to suggest otherwise. Dora had quietened her, somewhat, but not entirely.
“I’m not.” She couldn’t see, but Jenny thought it sounded as though she were smiling.
In the hall outside, a light clicked off. There passed a beat of calm, thoroughly well-deserved silence. She held the girl she loved in her arms. And then -
“I just can’t believe my dad is queer,” Jenny exclaimed in a hiss.
“What didya think all the leather and boots were about, then,” Dora offered back, whip-quick.
Jenny used the grip around her girlfriend’s middle to tackle her into the quilt, howling carefree laughter as they fell.
Ennis first stirred with the dawn light, but he pushed off wakefulness until it called him more insistently a few hours later. He was dragged yawning into the world, and blinked bleary-eyed into Jack’s shoulder, one arm numb where it looped under the man’s neck and the other cold where it crossed over his chest to meet its pair.
He rolled onto his back to reach for the wristwatch on his nightstand. A squint at the little hands suggested not long after 6:00am; time for up and at’em soon, but not quite yet.
No matter how long he stared at it, the space between the bed and the ceiling held no answers. Absentmindedly he ran his finger along the groove in the headboard above him. The blood rush into the suspended hand made it feel warm and heavy. With a nail, he traced the line from a crevice by his pillow up to where it met the peaked top above his head. It was one of three, forming sloping hills in a mountain range across the bed’s width, shaped and sanded out of cherry wood, and detailed with faint criss-crosses for trails and little divots to suggest miniature sheep.
It’d been maybe the third time he’d tried his hand at carving, and the first thing near enough that scale. It wasn’t his best work. The lines were uneven, their bevels crooked and depth poorly controlled. Looking at it embarrassed him a little, now. He’d suggested replacing it a few years back, to which Jack had replied, “don’t you fuckin’ dare you sonofabitch,” and heard no more of it.
After a final few minutes of rest, Ennis rolled out of bed. He pulled his boots on one-two, tucked the quilt in under the space he’d vacated, and had made his way down the hill and across the green out the front while the last of the dew was still sparkling in the grass. He tended the animals; checked the young ones, fed them all, turned out the mares not riding that day into the lower meadow. Followed up a message he had left the veterinarian in the next county; the man overcharged but unless they wanted to hitch the trailer and drive all their stock halfway to Denver twice a season, they had to keep him sweet. He caught Shawna on the way back, and asked her to source some spares from the girl in town who came up mid-morning to clean the cabins while the patrons are out for their first ride of the day. Speaking of, he then had to track down Stanley, and ask him to lead that. Boy looked sick up to his curly-cue locks but didn’t argue when Ennis simply stated he’s got ‘personal matters’ to attend to today. Jack’d been saying he was ready for that kinda responsibility for a couple of weeks now, but Ennis had been holding off as yet. For his money he thought the kid was still a little too green; eager but nervous with it in his thin frame, and with animals they pick up the kind of energy you put out. Strife ain’t something you want pouring off you around a stallion.
By the time he made his way back to the house, the sun was tracking solidly through the open sky. His were the early jobs, and shift change was marked by breakfast time. It was normally a soft moment. Ennis would throw some food on the stove and Jack’d read the paper, their legs tangled artlessly under the table, before the man would head off to greet the guests and start the day’s proceedings proper. When the clock rang at 9:00am he’d stand and fold his paper, dip to kiss Ennis sure and square on the mouth, and collect his hat at the door, turning to offer a wordless smile before he stepped out. It was a steady ritual, a back-and-forward correspondence.
It was absent today.
The girls had shuffled out from the spare bedroom in his absence; Jenny in a full change of dress, and her Eudora in yesterday’s jeans with the t-shirt she’s fished out of their dresser the night before tucked into the belt. They were sat at the table all proper, now, asking questions about their operation seeing as how they could spy it out the window in the fresh light of day. Jenny was in his seat. He stared into the frying pan. He’s gone and split the yolk in one of the eggs, and chose to concentrate on poking the running yellow back into the white. More often than not he was happy to let Jack speak for the both of them, and now was certainly no exception.
“Didn’t plan on running a dude ranch but it turned into good business. We had a handful of sheep and cattle to start. On the side, couple’a the local kids wanted to try riding so Ennis took em out. Man’s bad with people but good with children and animals, so they kept coming back. And then their parents would bring their friends, out of towners, to give them a little taste of the country. Just went from there.”
The conversation washed over him. Oil spat and jumped around the pan.
“So people stay over? That what the big building is?” Jenny sipped her orange juice. She worked her tongue awkwardly around her front teeth afterwards, distasteful of the pulp gathered there. Eudora stifled a giggle, and Jenny shot her a look as if to instruct her to behave herself.
“Yup.” Jack continued unawares, and pointed vaguely over his left shoulder with his thumb. “Aspen out that way is shaping to get real fancy, and we got some travel agents sending folks our way for day trips or overnight, even. Threw up a couple of bunkhouses and the lodge, or let people pitch up. We don’t do no catering but we sell some of the local produce that they can fix up themselves, and there’s a cookout every Saturday, seeing as it’s our busiest night.”
Ennis pulled out their mismatched china, and served breakfast simply. He carried over two plates for the girls, returned for Jack’s and the salt for the table. Last he put down is his own; fried tomatoes on bread, and the egg with the broken yolk.
Jack received his with a smile, wrinkling round his eyes just so, and turned to continue on. “We’re looking into expandin’ some more. Splitting hands off from work with the stock into just taking the guests out around. Put on more of a show.“
“For what?” asked Eudora as she swallowed. “This is real good Mr. Del Mar, thank you.”
He nodded. Jack shrugged. “Whatever they want. Hell, whatever they’ll pay for! There’s some white water down the hill out towards the road. Could try and make it safe. Guided walks? And a bigger rodeo show, twice a week.”
“Get to bring out the old tricks now an’ again.” He was wearing his showman’s grin, and looked like an overgrown boy. Ennis kicked him under the table. He took it, and looped his calf over Ennis’ shin, keeping it there. “It’s a nice living.”
“Certainly is,” Ennis felt compelled to add, tethered and quiet.
The clock chimed. There was no paper to fold, but Jack stood nonetheless. He hovered his plate over Eudora’s - also cleared - and waited wordlessly until she lifted her silverware to deposit it on top, before he carried them both over to the sink. “Ennis, you still good to accompany the girls in to town?”
He nodded his assent, then turned to address them directly. “Thought we’d get you some clothes,” he offered. “And a pair of boots a bit sturdier, for a start.”
Jenny puffed up. Despite what had been whispered last night, in that moment he thought she was the spitting image of her mother. Looking at her made him feel overgrown. His heart was a briar patch that’d gone wild.
“I don’t want charity,” she said, stubborn.
“You’re my daughter and you’re sixteen, you’ll take as much charity as I choose to give you.”
Jack chose that moment to lean over and deposit his customary kiss on the corner of Ennis’ mouth. It had the remarkable effect of quieting Jenny immediately, a fact which he stored away for future use.
That was the end of that, or so he had thought, until Eudora ambushed him later that afternoon.
He was out the side door of the house, where the decking of the porch fell away to meet the grass but the railing remained, jauntily anchored into the turf. Runner beans grew up the rods in summer, invaders from the vegetable patch twenty paces away. It was a sheltered spot; where the windows were meant you couldn’t see it from inside the house, and you had a long vantage point over the drive. Lean the right way and you could just about see to and from the lodge, but any view you could get was largely obscured by the tree line. Together, these features amounted to exactly why Ennis had chosen it years ago as the place he came to smoke.
He’d just righted the upturned plant pot from under which he had retrieved his stash of Newports when the door opened.
He pulled the unlit cigarette from his mouth. “Uh,” he stuttered. “Don’t tell Jack?”
Without pause, Eudora reached into her back pocket. “Only if you don’t tell Jenny,” she said, thumbing open a squashed pack of Camels. He huffed out a laugh, and withdrew his lighter for the both of them. Eudora plucked it from his fingers, and leaned over to slip it in back into his breast pocket when she was done.
She joined him at the railing, but he gained a sense she didn’t come out here to share in their vice. He took in the view, watched the last of the haze burn away in the heat of midday, and gave her space to work up to it. Eventually, she did.
“Mr. Del Mar, you and your fella been awfully kind to me, and I’m more thankful for that than I can say. But I’m not your kid, and I’m hoping you can appreciate that my position ain’t the same as Jenny’s. So it would probably be in my best interest to ensure I can provide for myself should I come to need to.” She took a fast breath, then a slow drag, and kept going. She’d clearly worked on this one. “Now, I don’t know much about animals but I sure as hell know my away around an engine block. So I was thinking if there’s a garage in town I could get some work there.”
It wasn’t polite to cut others off, but she’d only been halfway through her pitch before Ennis felt himself reaching to shush her. At the end of her spiel, she deflated a mite, and looked across as if prepared to receive divine judgment. “Eudora, you care ‘bout that young lady?”
Apart from the bit wherein she was his girl’s chosen partner, and thus he was tasked with being sceptical of her on principle, Ennis already felt rather fond of Eudora. She’d met his gaze firm and unafraid from the off. “Yes sir. Very much.”
“Planning to stick around?”
“Long as she’ll have me.” Ennis knew that one well.
“Well until then and after, you’re family,” he assured, firm. It was important to say. “No conditions.”
Dora put forward a game attempt to look like this didn’t have an affect on her. Ennis didn’t want to embarrass, so he kept going. “If you want to earn your own money I ain’t going to stop you. But don’t waste your time with the garage.” The old witch who ran it began loudly praying for his soul every time he went in for a new fan belt. The theatrics were beginning to wear thin. Ennis clucked his tongue. “Tell you what. You take a look at the generator in the barn, keep the trucks turning over - hell, see if you can get our old tractor going. Thing came with the land, it’s probably older than me. Think that’s enough for what, a 20 hour week?
“I’ll take more if you’re offering,” said Eudora eagerly. Whether she realised it or not, she was making to roll up the sleeves of Jack’s old t-shirt.
The corner of his mouth pulled into an unwitting smile. He didn’t want her putting the plough before the non-operational tractor. “Slow down. 20 hours a week, $4 an hour. You eat and you stay with us, ‘less you don’t want to.”
After that, they stood side-by-side in silence. There was heat in the air, but the season was on the turn, where the cold snaps started to hit harder and stay for longer. For one, there was a stiff breeze; a few weeks ago it would have been welcome, but now it was late enough in the summer for him to envy its absence. Between the trees, in the far distance, Ennis could see their flock moving across the steep side of the west pasture, like the white foam of a great wave.
At the filter, Ennis stubbed his cigarette out on the railing. With the back of a hand he brushed the ash off its surface, and tucked the butt into his front jean pocket. Silently, Eudora observed him. Then she did the same.
“You going in?”
He shook his head. “Hang on,” he said. Back under the plant pot, he extracted two plastic-wrapped menthol mint candies from a waxed paper bag. He popped one into his mouth, and said, voice rough as the sugar click-clacked around his teeth, “Covers the taste.”
Eudora took the other, offered sweet from his hand. Only after unwrapping it and placing it on her tongue did she point with her index finger at her own jaw. “This work?”
Her voice came out much the same as his had, weird and spittley around the candy.
“Hell no,” Ennis said, wry. “Man’s been kissing me for two decades. He fuckin’ knows everything.”