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If dreams were lightning, and thunder were desire,
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.

John Prine, Angel from Montgomery

 

 

It had been a mistake coming back to Texas. 

At least that was the running theme of the voice in Tom's head this past week, the one that sounded bitter and cutting as Lucy after nights of drinking and dry-fucking whatever thick-necked bastard she could get her hands on. Saying just what did he think he was doing back in the empty shithole he’d busted his ass to get out of, same as she’d said when he’d worked offshore in Galveston Bay the year Will was born and that had only been a twelve-month contract. Now he was stuck in the ballsack of nowhere with no signs of getting out. No car, no money. Just the shirt on his back and a few bags of clothes stashed in the worst motel ever known to man. 

Maybe Lucy had been right. Maybe everything he touched did turn to shit.

Losing the car had been his fault after all. He’d been drunk, hit some shiftless cowboy in the face, ended up brawling in the street and from there to a jail cell. Had to sell his car to pay the assault fine. Wondered if it would’ve been better if they’d slapped him with proper time, taken life out of his hands since he wasn’t doing anything with it.

If it weren't for that fucking car his kids might still be alive. Tom figured none of the bad luck that had come his way since leaving West Finger could pay off that particular sin. He deserved Texas. Deserved this backwater town and its single roadhouse, rundown motel, old flat-fronted cinema that seemingly refused to show any film made after 1960, sole grace being it was warmer than the motel and filled with fewer assholes aiming to kick his brains out than the roadhouse.

The screen flickered like light on running water through Tom’s closed eyes. Most nights he had trouble sleeping, yet he found the John Wayne picture was making him drift off better than any alcohol could. He shifted. Tried to ignore the ache in his back and the rumble of movie-chatter.

He kept hearing his own name from the characters onscreen — which was why it took him as long as it did to realise the man calling ‘Tom?’ in a low voice wasn’t just another part of the film.

Tom cracked open an eye, figured he must have slipped off into a dream because there was no way in hell that Detective Roland West was actually standing over him in the Bijou Cinema, some four hundred miles from northwest Arkansas.

‘Tom?’ Detective West said again, a dark yet recognisable figure against the projected images of cattle fording a river, cowboys on horseback. ‘Tom Purcell, that you?’

Tom halfway considered saying no. ’Detective West?’

‘Sit the fuck down,’ called a voice from the back row. ‘Asshole!’

West didn’t budge, just straightened up a bit more. ‘Well I’ll be damned, Tom Purcell. What the hell’re you doin’ in this neck of the woods?’

‘You sittin' down or headin' out?’ Tom asked, glancing at the scowling man so as to not meet West’s eye. 'Less fraught outside.'

West shrugged, hair coming loose in a careless sweep over his eyebrow. ‘Why not. Already seen this one,’ he said.

Tom followed the detective out of the theatre and onto the darkened street. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t thought of West in the four years since he’d watched the man recede in the rearview mirror along with his old life. That house. Those kids. There were plenty of reasons why he’d never called the number West had given him, but shame had been high on the list. As if Tom’s lowest — living out his car, stuck on dead-end jobs, drunk every day of the week and then some — could shock a man that had seen Tom’s son cold and dead with his head staved in. But Tom still had his pride, useless as it was. The only thing he had clung onto along with his shame and his anger and his wild unpredictable grief.

‘You were snorin’,’ West commented, right leg jerking his gait with every step. ‘I was goin’ to tell you to shut up, til I saw who it was. Thought I was half-way wrong but I’d recognise that voice anywhere. Distinctive, I mean.’

Tom looked down the broken line of the empty road, imagined walking until he couldn’t walk anymore. ‘Uh-huh.’

‘It’s been what, four years? Thought you dropped off the map. Let me get you a drink. ’

It had been a while since anyone offered to buy him anything, even longer since he talked to someone who knew where he came from. What he was running away from.

‘Wouldn't say no,’ Tom grunted, shivering in his coat. 'If that’s your choice of company.'

The cowpokes gathered around the pool table looked up when they came in, eyeing Tom’s bruised jaw as if they could already image the kind of fight he’d give them, but West barely spared them a glance. Easy walk, hand steady on his belt. They sat at the bar, West leaning in to order their drinks and Tom looking his companion over in the bar mirror. Corn-coloured hair shorter and darker, jaw speckled with stubble, lines set deeper under the eyes — but the same easy manner and heavy brows. Same sports coat if Tom wasn’t mistaken, though it didn’t seem so odd here among the ranch hands as it did back home. 

‘So,’ West said, sliding him a beer. ‘How’re you doin’, man? How they hell d’you end up here anyway?’

‘You want to hear all that?’ Tom asked dryly. Sipped the foam off the top, like he couldn’t see West frowning at the cuts on his hands and the bruises on his face.

‘If you’d prefer to sit in silence like a pair of assholes, yeah, I can do that. Just fuckin’ awkward is all.’

‘You here on business?’

‘Thing about state police, jurisdiction ends at the state-line,’ West said with a soft snort. ‘Nah, I’m here in a personal capacity. Had some overtime accrued, figured I couldn’t put it off any longer.’ He sloshed the whiskey around the rim of his glass, a dark look unfurling like a cloud across his face. ‘I grew up less’n ten miles from here.’

‘You’re fuckin’ with me.’

‘Nothing of the sort. Lived on the ranch till I was seventeen, got drafted and never looked back.’

It felt better to be talking about anything other than the kids. There wasn’t anything funny about West growing up here, not really, but it set a hitched bubble of laughter near spilling out of Tom’s chest regardless. He was surprised not to have lost the habit.

‘Guess that explains the boots,’ Tom muttered, thinking how West and his partner had looked showing up on Shoepick Lane that first night. ‘The black one and the shortstop,’ Lucy had called them, spitting her cigarette into the street. ‘That fuckin’ cowboy, you’d think he’s headin’ off to the rodeo. Like there ain’t enough to ride round here.’    

West raised his eyebrows. ‘Think that’s funny, huh?’

Tom shrugged. ‘Only thing I know anymore is how to get someone to swing first. Kinda default.’

‘You want me to swing at you? Won’t be a fair fight, I gotta say, I’ve been drivin’ for five hours straight. Could knock me down with a light breeze.’

‘Generally ain’t good form to pick a fight with the man buyin’ the drinks,’ Tom said, and instantly regretted it: it made him sound like he was in the habit of letting men pick him up at bars, like some backroom cocksucker. But West just sipped his whiskey, glanced again at the bruises on Tom’s knuckles.

‘You’re helpin’ me out, you know. Only went to that movie to kill time so I wouldn’t make it to supper. I told ‘em I’d be late, see.’ 

Tom considered this: the idea of Detective West not coming at something head on. The idea that he’d rather sit in a bar and shoot the shit with an old case rather than head home after coming all this way. Seemed there was more to the man than the calm hand on Tom’s shoulder at the funeral; more than a cornfed lawman and a pair of cowboy boots at any rate. Tom frowned. ‘Sure you got better things to be doin’ your first night home. People to see.’

‘Not really,’ said West lightly, just as a woman bounced up to the bar between them. Curled hair and an appliquéd shirt with pearl clasps, pretty and confident enough to know she could get what she wanted.

She gave Detective West a side-eyed once-over, flashed him a grin. ‘Wanna dance?’

Tom hadn’t noticed the canned country music playing from the jukebox. ‘What the hell,’ West said with good-natured reticence, folding his jacket on the bar and downing his drink in one.

Tom shook his head as the woman pulled at his sleeve, watched instead as she tugged West toward the couples two-stepping around the dance floor. His hand coming to rest on her hip and a slow grin easing onto his face as she leaned up to say something in his ear. Tom glanced around the bar. Figured of all the men she had made a beeline for the best-looking one in the room, plain fact; picked him out like she’d pick out a car at a dealership.

He gripped his beer, imagined the glass shattering and leaving his hands sore and bloody, tried to ignore the buried feeling knotting his stomach.

How could it be that after all this time, after all the man represented, that he still felt a lurch deep in his gut whenever he looked too hard at Detective West? All those dark memories: Will in his coffin and nothing of Julie but a burnt sweater, the detectives dismantling their house like they were doing them a favour, Lucy dead-eyed and quiet — yet still, a sympathetic hand on his arm. It was pathetic. He drained his stein and stared as the empty dregs of foam fizzled to death like static on a television screen.

‘Fuckin’ leg,’ came West’s voice, and the weight of his elbows on the bar. Tom looked up. There was a red flush to West’s face, a looseness to his shoulders, his sleeves rolled up. ‘Good excuse as any to plead release. Can’t take much more else I’ll drop.’

‘Think she was lookin’ for more than a dance,’ Tom said, like he knew what women wanted.

West laughed and rubbed a hand over his eyes. ‘I’m beat. Gotta look elsewhere if she’s out to get that sort of action. Some ass up in here though, case you’re lookin’.’

‘Yeah,’ Tom croaked. ‘Sure.’

They sat in silence a while, Tom pretending to contemplate the women on display while Detective West ordered more whiskey. ‘You want another?’ West asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I got to work tomorrow.’ It felt good to say, like refusing one drink could make him less of a fuck-up. ‘Been balin’ wire some ranch the past few days, settin’ fence posts. Gotta work up some gas money.’

Conveniently left out the part where he didn’t have a car anymore.

‘I can spot you gas if you need it,’ said West, earnest, on his way to getting liquored up. ‘To get you on the road.’

The meanness crept into Tom’s voice despite himself. ‘Ain’t your charity case, Detective,’ he said. ‘There ain’t nothin’ owed between us.’

West’s expression slipped momentarily. ‘Didn’t mean to offend.’ He paused, tugged at his ring. ‘And we’re just sittin’ here, right? Call me Roland. Fuck. I’m off duty, ain’t I?’ He gestured to his belt, the absence of gun and badge.

‘Alright. Roland,’ Tom conceded. It sounded odd in his mouth, round like a stone. ‘You ever gonna tell me what happens at the end of that movie?’

‘What, Red River?’ Roland asked, grin breaking onto his face. ‘Yeah, you actually askin’? Cause if you were asleep back there, you’re goin’ to be near comatose once I’m done.’

‘Then I’d be grateful,’ Tom said, folding his arms on the bar. ‘Let’s hear it.’

As expected he took in as much of Roland’s summary as he did the actual movie, but nevertheless he liked hearing the man talk. The even rumble of his voice, drink after drink, the serious way he explained John Wayne’s son taking charge of the cattle drive and how the two eventually reconciled.

‘Fuck, when I was a kid I was’t sure if I wanted to be Montgomery Clift, or —,’ he said, pausing as if losing his train of thought. ‘Always wished I could beat the shit out of my old man like he does at the end.’ He stopped and blinked slowly down at his hands. ‘Think I need to be cut off. Didn’t mean to say that.’

Tom watched him struggle with the cash in his wallet, and wondered once again what kind of man Roland West really was. He couldn’t place him. It was like Tom’s version of him existed in one dimension, built from a few awful, distracted weeks and irrevocably tied to his dead children — but here was the same man in Texas, drunk, explaining a Western to him at a roadside bar. His elbow brushing against Tom’s every few minutes.

‘Here. Reckon I better get on,’ said Tom, slapping a hand on the bar to break the silence between them. ‘How’re you gettin’ home?’

‘Think I’ll sit til I sober up.’ The bar was taking on a lurid quality, men getting louder and women dancing closer to their partners as the night went on. Roland stood up with Tom and watched him shrug into his battered Carhartt jacket. ‘You goin’ to be okay?’

Tom pulled his cap out of his pocket and jammed it down over his untamed hair. ‘Same as ever,’ he grunted, his enjoyment of the night beginning to ebb as he remembered that Roland was asking for a reason; that he knew Tom for what he was. A fucking mess. ‘Thanks for the drink.’

Roland’s brow creased in concern. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Look me up anytime, Tom. If you’re around.’

‘Right.’ Tom knew he could never allow himself to break the promise he’d made with himself when he took Roland’s card back in 1980: no matter how bad things got, he was on his own. He’d only drag a helping hand down with him.

Tom pushed out into the cold with his head down and his hands deep in his pockets, last view of Roland standing alone at the bar with a puzzled kind of look on his face as he watched Tom go. That only made Tom feel worse. He wished he was kinder but that instinct had been killed along with the kids. He didn’t think he could receive kindness in the way it was intended.

Down the street a drunk was singing.

 

***

 

Tom got up early the next morning, dressed, smoked his first cigarette while he waited for the foreman to pick him up. It was his second day on the job: him and the foreman and one other hired man reeling out wire across scrubby pastureland. Cows small as cornhusks flecked over the distant fields, clouds drawing slowly apart to reveal the rinsed sky above.

Tom liked the work. He’d always had a knack for using his hands. There were some times when he drank so heavily he feared he’d never get them steady again, but the shaking always calmed down by morning and each time he swore he’d quit but he never did. There was a trick to keeping the wire taught, and another to twisting the reef knots; figured by the end of the week he’d get the hang of it without cutting himself to pieces.

It was easy to keep his head down and his mouth shut. Only after half a day’s work did his mind started to wander back to the night before: to Roland leaning over the bar with his square hands laid flat on the wood like he was showing a set of cards. Tom wondered if he made it home safe, seeing how drunk he’d seemed. Got his answer not two minutes later.

A spray of dust billowed up on the trailhead two miles down the road. Tom kept a hold on his hammer as a rust-coloured truck pulled up parallel to the fence and the driver stepped out and headed across the field toward them. The foreman had mentioned trouble with a neighbour (how the fence got ripped up in the first place) and while Tom was glad for the work he didn’t feel in the mood to get shot over a few bales of wire —but then he recognised the limp and a different sort of tension coiled itself straight into his gut, fluid and neat as a cat.

‘Ma’s set out a spread up at the house,’ Roland said to the foreman, glare flat on his sunglasses, hands settled on his hips. ‘You boys want to take a break I’d appreciate it. By her account you’d think I was wastin’ away before her very eyes.’

Ring and belt buckle, white t-shirt tucked into jeans; it was the first time Tom had seen him wearing a shirt other than a button-down. He tried not to notice how well it suited him.

The foreman straightened up. ‘Son, that’s a fine offer. What d’you reckon boys?’

The moment Roland saw Tom was clear by the stiffening of his shoulders, the way he scratched his jaw to hide the faint surprised grin tugging at his mouth. God was surely testing him, Tom thought. Why else would he keep running into the one man with his past on file?

They ended up taking lunch at the ranch house. Tom was grateful to ride in the flatbed of Roland’s pickup with the other hired hand, avoid Roland’s eye as he led them to a table set out on the porch laden down with enough cold cuts for a small army. The house was a wooden two-storey, built this side of the century by Tom’s estimate and in need of a good lick of paint. Horses in a corral by the road. The dried husk of a hornets nest nestled high into a dark corner of the eaves. 

Tom leaned on the railing as far from the other men as possible, lit a cigarette. It was a while before Roland joined him. ‘New in town?’ he quipped, playing it straight. Then: ‘Didn’t even know there was fence work gettin’ done till this morning.’

Tom silently offered him his carton of Luckies.

‘My ex kept tryin’ to get me to quit,’ Roland mumbled, plucking a cigarette from the pack. Held it firm in his teeth for Tom to light. ‘What the hell, huh? No one gonna nurture my bad habits ‘cept me.’

‘Nice place,’ Tom attempted, but Roland made a sour noise in his throat.

‘Another thing I thought I’d quit.’ He made a gesture to encompass the dusty lot, barn, the distant rolling grassland as if it was highly offensive. ‘You’d think a grown man would have more sense than to think things’d be different after so long. Same old shit.’

‘Only kind there is.’

‘Yeah.’ The smoke eased in a single stream from Roland’s nostrils as he sighed. ‘What am I doin’, tellin’ you that, like I got anything to complain about? Bitch of a hangover’s cleaned the sense right out of me.’

Tom shrugged, tilted his head up to look at the oblique house face. ‘You really grow up here?’

‘Yessir,’ Roland said, the word forced around his cigarette. ‘Makes Fayetteville look like New York City, huh? Might as well be the moon, far as my folks are concerned.’ The mention of Arkansas gummed up Tom’s memory, nearly set him thinking of the kids: that night. He steadied himself, grateful as Roland continued on. ‘Fuckin’ old man had a stroke few months back, so here the fuck I am. Accrued some nice vacation time to play prodigal son.’

There was a darkness behind his eyes; the good-time Roland of the night before vanished along with the patient Detective West of four years ago. Just a man Tom didn’t recognise outside a house he didn’t know. You don’t want to know him the way he knows you, Tom reminded himself. There would always be that imbalance between them: the kids, Lucy, the splitting facade of Shoepick Lane; all those petty details observed by the detectives with their leather-bound notebooks. Some snippets of a stranger’s childhood wasn’t going to tip that scale.

‘Steppin’ up. That’s what you’re good at, ain’t it?’ Tom said, wishing his voice sounded less bitter. Less like an accusation.

Roland eyed Tom like he was a dog with bared teeth. ‘Look, Tom. You can tell me to fuck off and I’ll let you be,’ he said lightly, unfolding his arms. ‘Just thought it wouldn’t be right to carry on like you’re just some hired hand, less that’s what you want. No badge meanin’ you got to talk to me, remember?’

He made to go but Tom caught his arm, fingers tight.

‘Don’t. I ain’t used to it is all,’ Tom explained, words choking each other while he struggled to make Roland understand. He could feel a flush rising to his face like hot blood to a wound. ‘Seein’ a familiar face after so long. Makes me…mean. But it ain’t all bad.’

The shift of Roland’s shoulders relaxed. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, hard edge turning soft. Tom dropped his grip. ‘Come on, man, don’t look like at me that. I get it.’

‘Sure.’

‘Still don’t mean you got to listen to word I say,’ said Roland, a hint of levity in his tone. The foreman waved at Tom from the truck, impatient to get back to work. ‘Look, come up and see me when you’re done sometime. Got something to show you.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Think I’ll be the one needin’ a familiar face by the time this week’s done. Be doin’ me a favour.’

Tom didn’t make any promises. Back then, Detective Hays had promised and look how that had ended.

 

***

 

It was two more days before Tom felt enough time had passed for him to take up Roland’s offer. They’d covered miles of pasture already, getting nearer the house everyday; it was a short walk through knotted grass and slippery banks of mud to get to the yard. There was no one about. He followed the sound of a screaming saw and there was Roland, intent on feeding a length of wood through a miter saw set out in the open air, sawdust scattered around him in the faint breeze like falling snow.

He looked up as Tom approached and the saw clattered silent. ‘Hey,’ Roland said, pushing the goggles off his face. ‘How’s the fencework goin’?’

‘Fine,’ said Tom, not taking his hands from his pockets. ‘Some rotten posts needed replacin’, but that’s just about done now. What’re you workin’ on?’

Roland clapped the dust from his hands and threw the wood to join the rest of the trimmed timber. ‘Stoop ain't so accessible for an old man in a wheelchair. Tryin’ to cobble some sort of ramp together, see if that does the trick. Nearly lost track of time.’

‘Hope you don’t mind me stoppin’ by.’

‘Course not.’ Roland turned and limped across the yard, Tom following half a pace behind. ‘Wanted you to see this.’

There was an enclosure up ahead. Roland drew the gate open and stepped inside; Tom hovered at the fence and watched, half drawn between curiosity and amusement as the occupant, a big dark-coated horse with a saddle empty on its back, went skittering to the opposite side of the corral.

‘This fella got ruined by some bastard before pops got his hands on him,’ Roland explained, picking a coiled rope off the post. ‘Barely saddle-broke, got nothing but bad habits. Not that it’s his fault. Ill-tempered, like some others I could mention.’

Tom snorted. ‘Am I meant to be rootin’ for you or the horse?’ He didn’t like animals all that much, raised among trailers and tarmac as he was, a better hand for machinery than livestock, but there was something about the confident way that Roland backed the horse up and hitched the rope to its halter that made him rethink his prejudices.

‘Atta boy, that’s it.’ Roland kept up a stream of reassurance the whole while, putting a hand flat on its neck just as carefully as he’d touched Tom’s arm at the funeral. The horse whickered, went prancing back with its ears flat against its skull. ‘You ain’t bad, just need someone to treat you right. Ain’t that so? There we go.’ 

By the time Roland was up on the horse’s back the sun had made a silhouette of the house behind them. Tom barely noticed. It was a good show: the horse bucking and sunfishing, Roland with his heels dug into the stirrups and a grin cut sharp across his face, puffs of dust caught int the dying light, horse going from calm to wild and back down to calm like a sea wind as it tried to unseat him.

‘Fuck yeah,’ Roland whooped, raising his arm up rodeo-style. The horse did a few spins, seemed to tire and went trotting back down the fence. ‘Reckon that’s enough,’ he said, bringing it to a halt. ‘Don’t want to tire you out, do we bud?’

Tom leaned back, trying not to look impressed. He could feel a prickle of heat on the back of his neck that had nothing to do with the sun.

‘Where d’you learn that?’ he asked as Roland dismounted and ran his hands down the horse’s flanks, uncinched the saddle. ‘Police academy got a mounted division?’

‘Hah. Rode my fair share of broncs ‘fore I got drafted.’ Sweat stood out on Roland’s brow. His eyes were bright. ‘Been a long minute since I been on a horse though, I can tell you.’

‘Wouldn’t’ know the difference.’

‘That’s what sets your apart from this fella here,’ Roland commented. The limp seemed to pain him after the ride but he was in high spirits. ‘Like interrogatin’ a perp: a horse can always tell if you don’t know shit.’

They headed back to the house in companionable silence after Roland had packed the saddle away and stabled the horse. Tom was struck by the fact that it was the first time in years that he’d spent with someone outside work just for the hell of it: almost like having fun. Jesus.

‘Later than I thought,’ Roland said, checking his watch. ‘Here, why don’t you stay for dinner? Bein' on your feet all day's hard work.’

‘Be late gettin’ back to town,’ muttered Tom. ‘Don’t want to inconvenience you.’

‘Could just stay the night. Have to be here early in the morning anyway, makes sense don’t it? Save Bill the trip into town.’ Roland rubbed the back of his neck and squinted at the pale evening moon, the line of his arm stark and black. ‘Couch or the barn, your pick. If you want it.’

Tom gritted his teeth, imaging what Lucy would say about that offer; about what he wanted. Nothing kind at any rate. ‘I don’t got anything else to wear,’ he said, aware of the sour patches of dried sweat stiff around his armpits and collar and the dirt streaked into his jeans. ‘I fuckin’ stink.’

‘Hell, think I can spare an extra shirt. Come on, man.’

There was a pause as Tom considered it. ‘If it ain’t a bother,’ he conceded, and Roland grinned and clapped him on the back, headed up the porch steps two at a time.

Tom waited and smoked while Roland went inside. He wondered what sort of people raised a homicide detective, wondered not for the last time what Will or Julie would’ve wanted to do with their lives if they’d had the chance — if they would have gotten out of West Finger the first chance they got. He hoped so. They had deserved more than an unhappy home. More than him and Lucy at any rate.

The cigarette burned his fingers. Tom swore, dropped an arc of orange sparks and ash to the dirt at his feet right as Roland swung open the screen door.

‘Mind your fuckin’ language talkin’ to my mother,’ growled Roland, mouth twitching. He chucked Tom a plain blue shirt. Tom stripped off his dirty flannel and Henley, buttoned Roland’s shirt over his bare skin. It hung loose around his shoulders and arms but it was at least clean.

‘Feel like you’re leadin’ me to the electric chair,’ said Tom, doing his best to comb his fingers through the tangle of his hair as he followed Roland into the house. The last time he’d had a sit-down dinner had been before the kids died, not counting the wake.

It turned out that Roland owed a lot to his father in terms of looks: the broad set of his shoulder, boxer’s nose, heavy set to his jaw — Tom tried not to stare at the old man slumped in the wheelchair at the head of the table like a warning sign of things to come. The old man had a sharp gaze, weak blue like ice. Roland had his mother’s dark eyes, the same golden sheen to his hair. Tom decided he’d always liked those parts of him the best. 

It hadn’t been so bad being introduced; Mrs West gripping his hand as if he was a long-lost son, a grunt of greeting from the old man, Roland fussing around with drinks so he wouldn’t have to see the trapped look in Tom’s face.

‘Tom here’s been workin’ hard on the fence all day,’ he explained to his mother. ‘Figured he’d appreciate your cookin’ more than pa does.’

‘That’s not fair,’ Mrs West said, gesturing at the mush in front of the old man, the kind that Tom had fed the Julie before she could walk. She was shorter than her son, stocky with the forearms of a baker. ‘You know your father don’t like takin’ it that way.’ Mr West made a wet noise of agreement. Tom looked on helplessly as she ladled out another heap of stewed beef onto his plate.

Roland started up some talk about cattle prices that he didn’t understand, which was fine. It was the best meal Tom could remember eating in weeks: fresh out of the pot, not something out of a carton or heated up in a motel lobby microwave. Good, and he said so.

‘Roland tells me y’all know each other from Arkansas?’ said Mrs West. Tom stiffened. Roland stared intently at his cutlery as if he’d never see another knife and fork again.

‘Yes ma’am.’ Tom didn’t know what else to say.

‘Through work, ma,’ Roland interjected. ‘I met Tom through work.’

‘That’s nice. You married, Tom? Got a family? I’ve always said to Roland it’s about time he settled down.’

The meat was sticking in Tom’s throat. He coughed. ‘Uh, no ma’am,’ he said, which wasn’t exactly a lie but a wave of guilt washed over him anyway. He could feel his fingers trembling on his fork.

Roland leaned forward and said loudly, ‘Hey, speakin’ of marriage, I ever tell you why Lori left? Called me an incurable misanthrope, implied I “have commitment issues” or some shit. So I said, ‘Hell, woman, if that’s what you want,” got down on one knee, but I don’t think it impressed her none.’

Gratefulness rose up in Tom’s chest as the conversation moved out from under the shadow of the ranger tower.

‘No woman wants to get married to win an argument,’ scoffed Mrs West. ‘You’d think we raised you in the barn.’

‘Ah, she might have accused me of that too.’

Mr West snorted, thick with derision. ‘Weren’t wrong though, was she?’ he said with the voice of a blocked drain. ‘Can’t even make time to come home without wantin’ to run away. Some big shot. What about you?’ He fixed Tom with a baleful stare. ‘You some kinda cop too, huh?’

‘Wouldn’t be fixin’ your damn fence if I was,’ Tom answered flatly. ‘Don’t care much bein’ called one, neither.’

The whole set of Roland’s body had gone clenched as a fist, eyes flicking from Tom to his father as if expecting them to come to blows. But Mr West just laughed. ‘I see. How’d you think I feel, my son playin’ Sherlock Holmes to some backwater? Out there makin’ a difference. Like hell.’

Tom kept his reaction level, reminded himself he was a guest. ‘Don’t like cops much,’ he said, avoiding Roland’s eye. He could feel his voice quaver as the old anger burned up his throat. ‘But yeah. Guess you could say he made a difference, back when he got the guy that killed my kids.’

Silence descended around the table as swift and as surely as rockfall.

Tom could feel their eyes on him. He focused on neatly laying his cutlery onto his empty plate, wondering what the fuck possessed him to throw that shit out into the conversation. Before tonight he’d never mentioned the kids so casually in front of strangers. It scared him, the mean satisfaction of seeing Roland’s father gaping and lost for words like a landed trout. How easy it had been.

Roland cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said.

‘Dessert,’ said Mrs West, leaping to her feet. ‘How about some apple pie?’

Tom helped Roland bring the plates to the timber-roofed kitchen. ‘You got another cig?’ Roland asked gruffly and Tom handed him one without comment. Watched as the window turned his shape unfocused and smudgy through weeping condensation, blurred yellow in the kitchen-light.

‘Ain’t a lie when I say that’s the best dinner I’ve eaten in forever,’ said Tom, swallowing hard. He could feel the press of his hip flask in his back pocket but couldn’t bring himself to reach for it. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’

Mrs. West snorted. ‘Sure looks like it,’ she said dryly. ‘There’s less to you than a whipcord, son. Now come here and help me serve up.’ She glanced out the window and some of the hard humour slipped from her face. ‘He thinks he’s bein’ subtle, slippin’ out there. Subtle as a brick. You think it’s that leg of his, like he says, or his dear ma and pa that got him chewin’ those pills when he thinks no-one’s lookin’?’

A cinderblock dropped into Tom’s stomach. ‘Uh,’ he said. Was the limp hurting Roland that badly, four years on? Tom hadn’t asked: too selfish, too caught up in his own pain as if he’d been the only one left wounded that November. ‘I ain’t noticed if he is.’

‘Oh, you don’t have to say nothin’ about it,’ Mrs West said. Her eyes roved across his face, shrewd and so dark he had to look away. ‘I can see though. Why he likes you.’

‘I don’t think he —’ sputtered Tom. His gripped his own wrist until it hurt. ‘He got landed with me. Did his job. Ain’t my fault he couldn’t fix everything nice and neat like he wanted.’

‘If he really felt sorry for you,’ Mrs West said, placing a kind veined hand on his shoulder, ‘he’d take you out back and shoot you in the head.’

Tom stared at her. The side door opened and Roland entered, stamping dirt from his shoes, and the moment wobbled tensile as a car aerial springing back and forth in a high wind. ‘What's doin'?’ he said as the silence stifled the room. ‘We eatin’ this pie or not?’

‘Just tellin’ Tom about the old T100 that needs fixin’,’ Mrs. West said smoothly, patting Tom’s arm. ‘Tryin’ to convince him to give it a look once the fence is done, ain't that right?’

Tom, too tongue-tied to object, just muttered a non-committal, 'Uh-huh,’ and that was that.

The rest of dinner passed without incident. The old man was still struggling to raise his spoon, liver-spotted hand slowly trembling with each mouthful. Roland watched his father, face hard and impassive. ‘Christ,’ he finally said and seized the spoon from Mr West’s grip. ‘Let me do that. Less you’re plannin’ on starvin’ to death.’

He glared into the old man’s watery eyes, and the old man glared back. Tom focused on his pie. It seemed too intimate to watch as Mr West relented, let his son feed him.

‘Well,’ Roland said later as he walked Tom down the porch steps. ‘That was fuckin’ awful, but there you go. Family, huh?’

‘You sure you want me out here?’ asked Tom as he let Roland lead him into the barn. He hadn’t wanted to stay in the house, not when Mr. West was confined to the lower floor. Not when he had that clear orange-lit memory of the last time Roland had offered him his couch, waking up to find him asleep in the chair opposite with a whiskey glass clutched to his chest — that had meant something to him then, though what he couldn’t say.

‘Course.’ There was a hay loft above the stalls and Roland led the way. The soles of his boots were worn at the heel. It smelled less than below but there was a stuffier air; the hay bristled and scratched through Tom’s jeans and made his eyes water.

Roland handed him a horse blanket, bent close to keep his head from hitting the eaves. ‘This okay?’ He paused and looked up at the moonlight filtering through the rafters. ‘Funny. First time I ever made third base was up here.’ 

Like Tom needed that in his head. ‘It’s fine,’ he said to hide his discomfort. He wanted to say something about the dinner: a thank you maybe, an apology, or both, but they were too close in the cramped space and his voice kept sticking in his throat. ‘G’night, Roland.’

Roland was half-way down the ladder when he stopped, face serious in the gloom, and said: ‘It wasn’t even me.’

‘What?’

‘It wasn’t me that got Woodard,’ Roland said, frowning as if it had been bugging him all night. ‘Wayne — Detective Hays — did. You didn’t have to say that.’

‘I know,’ murmured Tom. ‘But you were the one…you put up with me. Never got to thank you for that.’

He didn’t dare look at Roland, pretended instead to be busy unlacing his boots. He could feel his heat hammering in his chest.

‘In that case you’re welcome, Tom,’ Roland said, and his voice sounded tired and gravel-thick as he made to leave. ‘Goodnight.’

It was a long while after Roland had disappeared down the ladder and the barn door had clunked shut that Tom let himself exhale the breath he was holding. He felt foolish somehow. Like Roland ought to have laughed at his honesty, but Roland hadn’t laughed: he had accepted it, and maybe that was worse.

Tom got himself ready to bed down. The collar of Roland’s shirt was heavy with sharp cologne. He ran his hands over the material where it was still warm from his own body. A nail jutted from the wooden beam above and he hung the shirt from it, where it loomed above him pale and man-shaped through the dark as he lay down and listened to the restless shift of the livestock below. Almost as if Roland had never left.

 

***

 

They finished the fence through a cold and driving rain the next day. Tom’s hands kept slipping on the hooked fence staples, but the wet was only part of that: he was distracted as he hadn’t been all week because for some reason today of all days Roland had chosen to join them, just in time for some the worst weather of the year.

‘This rain’s a real sonofabitch,’ Roland called cheerfully, bent over as he lugged a rotten post through the grass. Tom got up and together they heaved it into the flatbed of the truck. ‘Not goin’ to move the cows out here tonight, at any rate.’

‘Yeah.’ Water dripped off the rim of Tom’s baseball cap as if from a gutter, soaking his face and the nape of his neck. He never thought he’d be jealous of a man wearing a cowboy hat but, then again, the stetson Roland had jammed down over his hair seemed to be doing a much better job at shielding him from the rain. Tom sneezed.

‘Found a dead calf on the property line this morning. Coyotes been at it,’ grunted Roland. ‘You sleep okay?’

‘Good as ever,’ Tom said, not counting the hour or two he had spent tossing and turning, thoughts straying down unlit avenues he normally tried to avoid.

‘They got another John Wayne flick playin’ at the Bijou.' Roland threw it out casually, toeing the mud from his boots. ‘How’d you like to head into town this evening? Seein’ as I dragged you away from the last one.’

Privately, Tom couldn’t care less about John Wayne or the slew of gunslinging films that Roland seemed so fond of, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to spend a few hours out of the rain — for Roland’s sake, if he was looking to get away from the ranch. He shrugged. ‘If we ain’t drowned by then.’

There was a smile in Roland’s voice if not his face. ‘Right on, brother,’ he said, clapped Tom on the back.

A rising tide of anxiety crept up on Tom as the rain let up and the sun dropped beyond the horizon, hit him proper as he stepped down from the foreman’s truck and let himself into his peeling motel room. Ended up looking the same getting out of the shower as he had looked getting in: rat-drowned and miserable. Ready for the firing squad. He combed his hair, shaved the grey shadow from his jaw. Couldn’t do anything about the despondent eyes set deep in hollow sockets or the permanent creases etched over his nose and around his eyes, darker in recent years. The blueish bruises tinging his cheekbone and chin.

‘What do you think’s gonna happen?’ he asked himself. ‘Quit actin’ pathetic.’ The hip-flask sloshed in his hands. He drained a third, considered sliding it into his jacket pocket but he stopped himself. Threw it onto the mouldering bedspread instead.

He met Roland outside the only shopfront with people milling around on the curb, pitched up in folded chairs and leaning against the brickwork with Jim Earl’s painted on in bold letters. Roland stood chatting to a blonde couple, grin on display. Tom scuffed his shoes against the pavement until Roland noticed him and excused himself with a handshake and a wave.

‘Used to go out with Rayanne in high school,’ he said. ‘This town’s too fuckin’ small, man. Like quicksand, tryin’ to get out. Don’t tell me you’ve already eaten?’

‘No,’ Tom said. He realised he was starving.

‘Well, come on then,’ grunted Roland. ‘Figured we could make a night of it, even if this place ain’t got a fuckin’ tavern license. Drinkin' on the sidewalk though, that's legal. Never understood it.’ He held the door open and Tom gave in.

The joint was packed enough, laced with smoke and steam from the back kitchen. They ordered. Roland flipped open a pack of Reds and lit up. ‘I meant to apologise for the other night. Not givin’ any warning what you were walkin’ into.’

‘You think I ain’t had my fair share of shitty family dinners?’ Tom asked, raising his eyebrows. The whiskey had gone straight to his head on an empty stomach, made him warm and light-headed. ‘And it weren’t all that bad. Least you ain’t got Dan O’Brien for a cousin-in-law.’

Roland sucked in the cigarette smoke. ‘Least you can beat a cousin-in-law if he runs his mouth.’

‘Only did that twice, and Lucy near had a fit each time.’ He wondered if Roland had chosen here because it didn’t serve alcohol rather than heading back to the bar down the road. If he had too many memories of picking Tom out of every gutter in Fayetteville, drunk and bloody with mean words rattling about his head and mouth. ‘You only got one more week of this shit though? How’re you doin’ otherwise, still, uh, —’

‘We don’t have to talk about that,’ offered Roland. ‘If you don’t want to.’

‘It’s fine,’ Tom said. He felt loose. Not drunk, but comfortably blunted so the thought of the kids felt like someone else’s bad memory. ‘Wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want to know.’

‘All right.’ Their food arrived. Roland stubbed out his cigarette, shot Tom a searching look as if there was a sign with Warning: Fragile stamped in ink across his forehead. ‘Still on homicide, yeah. New partner, does most of the legwork since my leg,’ he gestured, ‘don’t work. Could be on track for lieutenant, give or take a couple of years, accordin’ to the big boss.’

The short months of their relationship before Will came along, Tom couldn’t remember ever taking Lucy to an honest-to-God sit-down dinner. Take-out, greasy spoon joints, a high school barbecue neither of them had been invited to: all leading to fucking in the backseat of his car or on the overgrown riverbank with the rushing water at his back and the firm feel of her hands guiding him down to where she wanted him. He watched Roland cut into his steak, oblivious to where Tom’s thoughts were redirected.

‘That’s good, right?’ Then: ‘Don’t see what woman would want out of that.’

Roland laughed. ‘No accountin’ for taste.’

No, Tom thought, there wasn’t. It stayed in his mind the whole time Roland talked about one thing and another: his partner’s quirks, rising rent prices, new bosses and old cases. Tom watched the chiselled line of his mouth, the way he kept dragging his fingers up through his receding hairline, his easy air. Took him a whole minute to realise Roland had quit talking some time ago.

'Hey,' Tom said. 'Can I ask you something?'

'You can ask.' 

'Your dad,' Tom said, wishing he could say it better. 'He don't seem very, uh, good to you. But here you are lookin' after him.'

Roland's eyebrows lowered into one flat line. 'Question there bein', why?'

'Guess so. '

'Fuck. I mean, it's family ain't it? Kin. Miserable witholdin' bastards and all.' He shrugged. 'My ma sure took on a challenge, marryin' him - never could see as a kid, why she didn't see he was beyond help, that he didn't want what she was offerin'. Only now figurin' maybe we're more alike than I realised.' Roland forced out a bitter laugh. 'Here I am doin' the same damn thing.' 

A weird queasiness churned Tom's stomach. He remembered the grim look in Roland's eye as he had fed his father: the same as when he had pulled Tom to his feet all those years ago in the Sawhorse. Determined and duty-bound, stiff and just a little sad. Hated himself for forcing Roland into that role.

'Some folks ain't fit for fatherhood,' Tom said. Piss-poor fathers, him and Mr. West: dead weights dragging alongside Roland, wringing out his kindness. 'Should fuckin' know.'

Roland frowned. 'You think Lucy was better at it than you?' he asked stolidly. 'Ten minutes in that house and we could see you were the one pullin' your weight, gettin' 'em clothes and toys and the like. Fuck that.'

'Didn't put the work in where it counted, though,' Tom murmured. 'Why's it you can only see what you should've done better after the fact?'

'Fuck if I know,' said Roland, generously. 'Be too much good in the world otherwise.'

They lapsed into silence, the kind that reminded him of the kids. The comfortable way they had sat together in the same room, quietly absorbed in their own pursuits: the kids with their workbooks and pens, Tom with a beer and an old copy of Car Craft

Roland sipped his coffee and made a face. ‘Ain’t ever found a place that makes it how I take it,’ he groused. ‘Sugar enough to rot a dog’s teeth, that’s what I’m lookin’ for.’

‘Well. No accountin’ for taste,’ Tom said, and almost smiled.

It took them a while to settle the bill, push out onto the crowded street toward the Bijou. Tom was grateful for the darkness of the cinema: it was getting harder to look Roland in the face in case he let slip something of his own weakness, too conscious of his own body and the space between them. As the film started up he fixed his eyes ahead and tried not to let his mind wander from the sun-browned sheriffs and gunslingers walking ten foot tall on the screen.

After an hour Tom felt his eyes starting to drift shut. John Wayne was murmuring something as he rolled a cigarette with the drunk sharpshooter. The room was warm and quiet. He could hear the rhythm of Roland’s breathing beside him, slow and even. Moving just as slow and even as he reached out and placed his hand on Tom’s knee.

Tom froze. Wary and wide-awake as if Roland had hit him in the face — but it was only his hand, gentle and warm on Tom’s leg. Just resting there. No mistaking the weight of the other man’s palm, the deliberation of it.

The thought of Roland moving his hand any further was unbearable but so was the alternative. He sat there motionless with the air hitched in his chest and his fists clenched hard at his side, Roland’s breath warm and close on his neck. If he turned his head they would be face to face. If he turned his head he might burst into flames. Roland began to rub small circles around Tom’s inner thigh with his thumb, barely pressing down but it was motion enough to drag Tom from the slow-moving current of indecision fixing him in place.

They were in a movie theatre. There were people sitting ten feet away.

Tom leapt up and staggered his way past the people seated in their aisle to the empty lobby. There was a fire-door to his left and he shoved it open and stumbled into the street, feeling his heart pounding out of his chest as he braced himself on the crumbling brickwork. The spot where Roland had touched him burned like a brand.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t wanted it. Maybe that made it worse.

‘Fuck,’ groaned Tom. The whiskey from earlier made a sudden reappearance, had him bent over and churning out the contents of his stomach into the gutter. He wiped his mouth. Felt raw and shaky. Made his solitary way back to the motel before Roland could find him and force some kind of confrontation, one which he imagined lying on the single bed with the rest of the whiskey burning its way into his empty belly like a belated pang of lust. The drink dulled his mind. Sent him to sleep with nothing but the old misery for company, imaging a braver version of himself and a meaner version of Roland: one that took what he wanted with strong hands and a bruising mouth.

He dreamt of gunfire and men on horseback, the blank uninviting face of a hotel door and a faceless man that put a revolver in his face and made him kneel and shot him point-blank before he could ask why. The smell of blood and smoke. He was on top of the ranger tower and he knew there were men coming to kill him for some unknown crime. That maybe he deserved it. Will and Julie waved from below, hidden in the trees and very small and distant, and the guilt was like an iron grip around his lungs.

When Tom woke his face was wet with tears.

The phone rang early and he fumbled for it, head ablaze. ‘You weren’t on the road this mornin’,’ the foreman said. ‘Thought Mrs. West said you needed a lift in? Something about fixin' that old truck of theirs.’

‘Think I’ve come down with something,’ Tom grunted. ‘Feel sick as a dog.’

‘Don’t want anything catchin’. You best rest up.’

‘Thanks,’ croaked Tom. The thought of heading up to the ranch today, seeing Roland, was too much to bear. ‘’ppreciate it.’

Maybe he had caught something out in the rain. He slept the day out, tangled in blankets and shaking with a chill sweat. There was a knock on the door at some point but he ignored it, buried his face in the hot crook of his elbow and willed the shadow at the window to go away.

He wished he was stuck anyplace other than this fucking town.

 

***

 

The next three days Tom saw neither hide nor hair of Roland and it suited him just fine. Working on the truck was something he could put his mind to without wanting to drink himself into a stupor; it levelled his thoughts, kept him busy. The thing was a wreck. Rust on the engine block and in every damn place, sludge, slipped gears, grass slowly claiming the chassis. He had a good view of the yard and house from his spot by the barn but Roland never appeared, even in passing.

‘You’d think that thing’d have taken root by now,’ Mrs. West said every day as she brought coffee out to the porch, and Tom made the same polite noise of agreement each time. She insisted on feeding him: sandwiches one day, okra cornbread the next. Fried chicken today. He lit a cigarette and glowered at the lowering sun, wondering why she bothered with him when she had a son to fuss over.

Tom broke open a piece of chicken and watched the steam coil into the air. ‘Have to show me how you do it,’ he said. ‘Good eatin’ on this.’

‘Oh, that?’ She was getting to her feet, taking his empty plate. ‘Have to ask Roland. He’s been cookin’ up a storm these last few days, in one of those odd moods of his. I ain’t goin’t to be the one to kick him out of the kitchen any rate.’

‘Yeah?’ Tom felt his mouth go dry. Didn’t know what it meant: if Roland was ignoring him or doing the exact opposite without acknowledgment. The question left him uneasy.

The next afternoon he didn’t go up to the porch. Cranked the truck up and set about replacing the shocks, kept himself under there until the light started to go. Lost time as he did when working same as he’d done the night the kids disappeared — except that wasn’t true was it? He’d remembered to get his coat back then, went inside to get a work-light. Had only noticed the missing bikes a good hour after that. Christ.

Tom threw the wrench down into the long grass and swiped at his eyes. There were moments that snuck up on him, dumb shit like this, that blindsided him like a freight train and left him reeling. He kicked the truck. It clanged dully, metal hard enough to bruise.

‘Motherfucker,’ hissed Tom, clutching his foot.

He limped to the barn and slipped inside. The unbroken horse was in the last stall down. He stood and watched it watch him with sad oil-black eyes, the way it wrinkled the pink of its nose as if hoping for hidden sugar cubes in his pockets.

‘I got nothin’ for you,’ he said. Put out his hand to show. The horse snuffled disconsolately at his palm, wet and delicate for such a big animal yet strangely soothing. ‘See?’

Nearly jumped out of his skin as a voice said: ‘He bites, case you like havin’ all your fingers.’

Tom turned and saw Roland sitting in the empty stall behind him, legs stretched out and one arm flung casually over his eyes. A bottle glinting from the hay. He might have been asleep if not for the gravelly sound of his voice.

‘Got that in common,’ said Tom. There was more to say but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

He turned to go.

‘Never told me you sold your car,’ Roland grunted. There was an anger brewing under the words near boiling point. ‘Pulled up to a set of traffic lights yesterday, saw some ugly dickhead lookin’ back at me from that stupid Chevy of yours. Explained to me he bought it perfectly legal off some Tom-Purcell-looking-motherfucker for half what it’s worth, seemed pretty pleased with himself ’til I knocked him a couple of front teeth short. ’

‘You memorise my fuckin’ plate?’

‘Ain’t a lot of ‘em coupes round here.’ Roland dropped his arm to reveal a black eye, a cut lip. ‘Gas money, huh? Hard to get anywhere on that alone.’

‘Assault and battery. That’s a Class A misdemeanour, nine-hundred dollar fine case you’re interested,’ Tom recited, a hard line of fury stiffening his spine. ‘Maybe once you have to sell your fuckin’ car to pay it off you can come askin’ me why I don’t got one anymore.’ If Roland wanted to be pissed at him that was fine by Tom: welcome, even. ‘So what, bein’ stuck without a car’s a crime now? Fuck off.’

The dark look crumbled from Roland’s face. ‘Why didn’t you ring me?’ he asked hollowly as if Tom had just spat in his face, heaved himself onto his elbows. ‘Could’ve wired you the money. Put in a word with local law enforcement. Something.’

‘You think I still have that card?’ scoffed Tom, as if it hadn’t spent the last four years carefully folded behind the picture of Will and Julie in his wallet. ‘What d’you think I am, huh?’

‘Look,' Roland said. He was on his feet now, but not coming any closer as if afraid Tom might bolt again. Just standing with his brows lowered and a beaten air like a workhorse. ‘I got that wrong, okay? I didn’t…it was stupid of me. Wasn’t thinkin’.’

Tom felt sick. It was all he’d thought about in the days — maybe years — before Roland reached out in that darkened cinema. And that had been a mistake.

‘I never asked for your help, Detective,’ he spat. ‘Only thing I asked you for was —’ Find my kids. ‘I didn’t ask for your fuckin pity. None of it.’

Dead silence. Roland stood as still as a stone with his jaw set in disgust. ‘I ain’t listenin’ to this,’ he said, stooping to pick up the bottle at his feet. ‘You honestly think I’d put a hand on you out of pity? Christ, man.’ He paused. Turned the empty glass over in his hands before saying, slowly, ‘What if it wasn’t?’

‘Wasn’t what?’

‘What if it wasn’t pity?’

Tom clenched his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels so he could look at anything but Roland’s face. ‘I—’ he croaked. ‘That’s not —’

‘What if I put a hand on you cause I fuckin’ wanted to?

His eyes were very dark. Tom didn’t remember closing the distance between them but there was Roland, only a few feet away, regarding him evenly.

‘You’ve been drinkin’,’ Tom pointed out. He swallowed.

‘Fact is I’m perilously close to bein’ sober.’ Roland stepped closer and looked up at Tom. ‘No excuses for it.’ He put his hand to Tom’s jaw and brushed away a smudge of motor oil, leant in so his breath ghosted over Tom’s neck but no further. His thumb tugged lightly at Tom’s lip. ‘Can I —?’

The blood was pounding loudly in his ears. Tom managed a stiff nod and Roland kissed him, slow, testing his mouth against his. Whiskey breath and stubble all unmistakably Roland.

Roland pulled back. ‘That okay?’ he asked, smoothing a stray curl behind Tom’s ear. ‘Tom? Hey.’

Something quivered and snapped in the bricked-up wall of restraint he had built all those years ago. Tom gripped Roland’s face and kissed him, felt the surprise in the way Roland half-stepped backwards — but then a firm hand came to rest at his back, which was good, because he needed one or else he was going to fall apart. He was shaking. It all felt too much: Roland’s swollen mouth, broad shoulder under his palm, teeth catching on his lip and against his neck.

He could feel Roland trying to take it slow. Moving against him with his tongue, working his mouth open, hands grounded at Tom’s side like he expected him to turn tail and run. But Tom was fixed to the spot. He crashed mouths together, nearly flattened his nose in the process as if he could sink into Roland here and now, but Roland drew back with a grunt and cupped his face with both hands.

‘Ain’t goin’ nowhere, Tom,’ he said. ‘Just let me take care of you. C’mon, tell me, Tom, I got you.’

‘I —,’ Tom said, flushing with shame and want under Roland’s steady gaze. He ducked his head. ‘Just - need you to touch me —’ A hard choked noise escaped him as Roland slid his hands under his shirt and fanned his fingers over his stomach and back. ‘Oh.’

‘I got you,’ Roland repeated. He pushed Tom gently down onto the hay and knelt between his legs, rucking Tom’s shirt up to his armpits to run his hands over exposed skin. ‘That’s it.’

Tom closed his eyes. He felt Roland’s wet mouth; the movement of his tongue down his chest almost unbearable as warmth tightened around his gut and throbbed through his dick.

‘Please,’ he heard himself saying, though for what he couldn’t tell. ‘Fuck.’ He shifted, abortively trying to find a weight to thrust against but there was no contact — and then Roland moved his thigh so it pressed directly between Tom’s legs, and his hands were on Tom’s wrists and his mouth was moving down his stomach with maddening ease.

It was almost too much. ‘Stop,’ groaned Tom, straining against Roland’s grip. ‘Please, I can’t, I can’t.’

‘Can’t what?’ He opened his eyes to see Roland, sitting back up, hair dishevelled and shirt hanging off his shoulders, a little punch-drunk with his blackened eye. ‘Yeah you can. Many times as you want, whatever man, just let me get you there. Tom. I want you to. Ain’t beggin’ but shit, you should see what I’m seein’.’

Tom took a breath. Tried to ride out the wave nearly dragging him over.

‘I’m clean,’ he choked. It was true, gone to some clinic back east hoping they’d tell him he was dying. Ridiculous he should get a pass, but he’d learned long ago there was nothing fair under the sun. ‘You can…if you want.’

Roland looked down at him a long while. ‘Don’t wanna hurt you. What you want, Tom, tell me that.’

Tom sucked down the urge to beg Roland to fuck him blind, hurt be damned.

‘Let me see you,’ he pleaded. He’d never liked being with Lucy fully naked, never managed to do anything but pull out his dick the few fumbling times he’d tried to touch other men in cramped bathroom stalls and in the back of cars, but here he wanted it all. He tugged at Roland’s buttons with shaking hands and Roland chuckled, pushed him gently aside and leaned back to shuck his shirt and jeans.

‘Do more than look if you like.’ Roland tilted back down and kissed him. Let Tom touch him without pushing him away, making soft noises of appreciation that made Tom feel just about as good as he’d ever done with a man’s cock in his hand. I did that, he thought a little wildly as Roland finally arched and thrusted against his fist with a grunt, easy with his pleasure and unafraid to show it.

‘Fuck,’ Roland moaned. He slackened for a moment, breathing hard against Tom’s neck, then took Tom’s hand and kissed it without any mind for the mess between them. ‘C’mere. You next.’

‘Don’t got to —’ he began, but Roland slipped a hand inside his jeans and the thought cut out before he could finish it. It was near painful how badly he needed it. Roland was gentle, insistent, steadily bringing him to the edge while all he wanted to do was throw himself off.

It was the feeling of being pinned down — not just by Roland’s body but the heaviness of his gaze — that brought the tension in the pit of his stomach to boiling point. Tom bit down on his lip, hard. Couldn’t hold off any longer.

‘Let me,’ Roland said, dragging kisses down Tom’s jaw and neck as Tom tried to twist away. ‘Let me hear, Tom, I want to hear you, c’mon.’

‘Roland,’ Tom gasped. ‘I'm goin' to —’ His legs locked and he whimpered as he came. Roland continued to stroke him as he jerked helplessly into his hand and clenched his eyes tight shut and shivered with the strength of it.

‘There you go,’ Roland said. ‘That’s good. That’s so good, Tom.’

It was. They lay panting side by side, slick and sweat-wrung but too limp to do anything about it. The horse huffed in the stall beside them. Roland plucked a piece of hay from Tom’s shirt, twisting it between his fingers; Tom reached out and brushed some strands from Roland’s unkempt hair until they were both laughing at the foolishness of it.

***

 

They went riding up to the edge of the property line later, following the pebble-shine of the moon. Roland parked his car and they walked up to the ridge where they could hear the cows huffing and swaying in the gloom below.

‘I’ve been thinkin’,’ said Roland, lighting a smoke that briefly illuminated the flat planes of his face with an orange glow. He breathed out and passed the cigarette to Tom. ‘Got to head back to work come the end of the week. Spare seat’s goin’, if you want it. Case you want to get outta the ass-end of nowhere.’

Tom took a drag and snorted smoke out both nostrils. ‘Back to West Finger? Shit.’

‘Less fuckin’ cows,’ Roland shrugged, tugged at his belt buckle. ‘Be glad for the company, is all. And you don’t got to go back there. Hell, I got a jail cell or I got a couch.’ The corner of his mouth quirked up even as his voice remained gravel-serious. ‘Your pick.’

Their fingers brushed together as Tom returned the cigarette. His lungs felt tight, not with the smoke, but with the possibility stretching out in front of them. Both answers trapped in his throat. He was grateful for the distraction from the decision as a coyote stepped out from a clump of switchgrass further up the ridge. Roland stiffened.

A cow let out an uneasy moan but the coyote paid it no heed, ears cocked and swivelling but with its head kept firmly glued to something more interesting at its feet.

‘Motherfucker,’ hissed Roland. He pulled the revolver from his belt and flicked off the safety, squinted into the dark. For a moment Tom thought he was going to take the shot but then Roland shook his head. Lowered his gun with a sigh. ‘Don’t want to startle the stock, have ‘em break through that fence ‘fore it’s been up a week. Lucky bastard.’

The coyote nosed at the ground, oblivious to the threat in Roland’s hand.

‘Ever feel it?’ asked Tom, the familiar shine of the metal drawing his eye like an old companion.  ‘Like there’s a gun on you, waitin’ to put you down?’

‘Hard to dodge what you can’t see,’ Roland said. He massaged his shin where the bullet had splintered bone. ‘Though I reckon that barrel’s been lifted for the moment, don’t you think?’

He tucked his gun into the back of his jeans and took Tom’s hand in his.

‘Like an old friend said once. The playin’ field got to be even.’ There was a gleam in his eye, a softness smoothing out the deep lines there as he turned to look at Tom. ‘Unseen hand waitin’ to shoot you down — seems just as right there’s something goin’ to pick you back up. If you believe that sort of thing, of course.’

They watched as the coyote slipped into the grass and its brush tail flicked out of sight.

Tom tilted his head up to the sky. It was very dark, and very cold. He gently squeezed Roland’s fingers, feeling the warm buffer of his body beside him against the night breeze, and decided perhaps things were weighted differently than he thought. He was tired. Maybe if he stopped struggling he could find a way out of the dark pit he had been falling into for four years — now, with someone there to be at his side.

A firm hand to pull him out. A touch in the dark.

‘Yeah,’ Tom said, with a sigh of relief. ‘Yeah. I guess there is.’