Like hell. "Shoot me."
"I ain't going back out there. So you're gonna have to shoot me."
The person behind the shotgun turns out to be a woman. Wouldn't you know it? I can't see her very well, it's pretty dark in here, and the snow's running down in my eyes anyway, but the voice is a woman's, and she's holding the shotgun like a woman does. Well, not like Arbutus does. Arbutus can outshoot most men. Arbutus can do most things better than most men. Me and Arbutus get along pretty good.
The shotgun wavers. "You can't stay here."
"There's no way you're getting me to go back out there. Sorry."
"I'll shoot you."
After a minute, she makes a frustrated noise, points the shotgun up towards the ceiling, and suddenly the butt's coming down at my head. I grab it before it gets to me, yank her with it over me and down on the floor, and twist the gun away from her. See, that's one of the problems women have; the reason she didn't just shoot me isn't because she didn't want to kill me, it's because she didn't want to make a mess in her house. If she'da been a man, she woulda pulled the trigger and worried about cleaning up afterward.
She scuttles away from me toward the far corner, and I think at first she's going for another gun, so I turn over on my stomach and point the shotgun at her, but she just covers her head and sits there.
"Listen, I just don't wanna freeze to death, OK?" I say. "I'm not gonna shoot you. I'm not gonna do anything. I just need to get warm."
She lowers her arms and looks at me like I figure a deer looks at a wolf. I can see her a little better now. She's just an average looking woman, sorta plain, brown hair, not old, not young. Just average. And I'm wasting my breath talking to her. She doesn't believe a word I'm saying.
I empty the shells outta the shotgun and stick them in my pocket. My fingers aren't working too good and I drop them on the floor first but I get it done. Scoot over closer to the fire………warmth's already making me sleepy again……make sure the shotgun and the pistol are under my coat……hopefully if she goes for them, I'll wake up……yeah, right……..
I brought Arbutus with me when I went with Herbert to the target range out at Petersen's ranch. He went in for bigger guns than I would have, but they were quality, I have to say that. We worked up to the .58 caliber; it'd been a long time since I'd fired anything high-caliber, not since I got out of the service. Arbutus was kinda self-conscious at first, and Herbert kept looking at me funny, but pretty soon she loosened up (as much as she does) and I think she had a good time. Herbert even forgot she was a woman and told a dirty joke. She laughed. And she loved his big guns.
Lynn asked me if I was trying my hand at matchmaking, and it was a minute before I could stop laughing so I could answer her.
"Honey, I think it'd take a real special kinda man to take Arbutus to bed. I'm not sure Herbert's got what it takes."
"Well…." Lynn said. "Maybe she'll take him to bed."
I thought about that for a while. Couldn't picture it..
I don't know how long I slept. Not long enough, but the pain in my hands, and feet, and my leg won't let me sleep any more.
My hands and feet are in sad shape. I can hardly bend my fingers, and even if I'd had two good legs, I wouldn't be able to walk on my feet. Hands and feet both are puffy and red, and the skin's splitting in a few places. Maybe not as much as it would have if I didn't have all the cuts from sawing myself loose, and the raw grooves around my wrists and ankles from the twine; the swelling's pulling the edges of the cuts apart. Skin's white in a few places, and I know what that means.
When I really start taking stock, I have to admit I'm in pretty sad shape all over. Covered with blood from one thing and another. All my gifts from Arliss, and all the other assorted scrapes, scratches, and cuts are fiery red, and beginning to get sore. The spot on my shoulder where the cat pawed me feels the worst.
Thirsty. Real thirsty.
I look around. The woman is gone, or at least I can't see her. There's a big stone jar against one wall, and I guess it probably holds water. I grab a cup off the little wooden table without looking to see if it's clean or not, and reach over the edge and dip out some water. I drink more than I should, I think; I'm trying to keep it down when the woman blows back in the door with an armload of wood.
She dumps it next to the stack of dry wood and turns to me. "Your turn next time." I 'm glad she's resigned to me staying, but the look on her face'd curdle milk.
"Why not?" Through her teeth.
I point at my pant leg. "Broken leg."
She curses me then, she looks like she'd love to really hurt me. "I'm not taking care of you."
"I stole some of your water. I'll steal your food. And I can't get outside to piss. It might be easier if you'd help me a little."
She looks me up and down. "You don't look very good. Maybe you'll just die."
"You should be so lucky."
"Maybe I'm a lucky person."
Yeah, you and me both, baby..
She means what she says. She dumps the bucket I relieve myself in, probably because of the smell, but otherwise, she does nothing for me. I'm actually kinda surprised she doesn't just kill me. I got a fever and did nothing but sleep for a couple days, and she coulda gotten rid of me then, but she didn't. She just ignores me. I'm just not here.
The snow is higher than my knees (if I could stand up) before it stops. I'm gonna be here for awhile.
I kinda feel bad about stealing stuff from her that she doesn't wanna share, but I didn't go through what I went through to chuck it in now. Maybe I got more of my old man in me than I like to think.
It's about a week, I think, or maybe a week and a half, before I can even think about doing anything with my leg. The swelling in my hands goes down some, the worst of the fever's over, and I'm not starving. By then it's started to mend.
It's not straight at all. Pretty crooked. I think about rebreaking it and setting it, while it'd still be fairly easy……..but can't figure out how I'd do that alone.
I really am alone. If I talk, she doesn't answer. If I get in her way she just goes around me. She doesn't even look at me. It's like I'm invisible. It's weird..
I was in solitary confinement once for a few days. Struck an officer. Beat the crap out of him. Permanently rearranged his face, if you wanna know the truth. Not the kinda thing I usually did, my record was pretty good up to then. Shoulda been DD'd, but I told 'em if they DD'd me, I wouldn't have any reason to keep my mouth shut about why I let him have it. So they transferred me instead.
This is a lot like solitary. People around, you know there are, but you don't see 'em, they don't talk to you. Eating, sleeping, using the toilet, that's all there is. And dreaming..
I lose track of the days, and then the weeks. It snows. It stops snowing. It snows again. I don't know how long I've been here. Too long..
My leg eventually gets stronger. I can hobble around some, enough so that I can take the shotgun out and get some birds. I limp pretty bad. I probably look like that hunchback guy when I walk. Egor.
I never was what you could call a pretty package---the gunshot scars on my face didn't help any---but now….all these new scars, and the way I have to walk…..
Even if Lynn doesn't have somebody else by the time I get back, somebody smarter, better looking, somebody easier, what's she gonna see when she looks at me? Will she wanna walk beside me down the street? Will she wanna put her arms around this?
I think about that..
Some scars are OK. I never minded the gunshot scars, 'cause they meant I was alive instead of dead, and I got 'em in the line of duty, so they were kinda like that medal Exley got and I didn't.
Some scars mean more than that.
When I was about 10, I fell over a pile of scrap tin in the alley behind our place, and sliced my leg open, a long cut, and deep. My mother turned white when I limped in the door trailing blood. She didn't faint, though---she washed it out while I bit my cheek and tried not to yell. She threaded a needle with white thread, put my leg up in her lap, and sewed the flesh back together with neat stitches. I was sniffling and whimpering before she was done; seemed like it took hours. Afterwards she pulled me on her lap, 'cause my old man wasn't around to give us hell about it, and let me sit with her. I was too big to do that, but I liked it anyway.
It's funny how you remember things. I've got a row of scars from the stitches, just above where my leg is broken. Every time I put on my socks I see it. It'll never go away, I'll never lose it, it'll always be there to remind me. It probably should remind me of pain and injury, but it doesn't. It reminds me of sitting on my mother's lap, in her arms…….
I'm in solitary. The woman never so much as looks at me. I know I could get her attention if I wanted to bad enough. I could make her look at me. If I needed it bad enough. If I could be sure I wouldn't lose it. Sometimes I feel like if I start something, I might not be able to stop.
I dream a lot when I'm asleep. That's what you expect when you're sick, when you have a fever, but the dreams don't stop even after the fever breaks and the wounds start to heal. Sometimes the dreams are just crazy, like fever dreams are, sometimes they're just bad. Even the good ones are bad when I have to wake up from them. The ones about Lynn are the worst. After the first couple weeks, I don't sleep unless I can't stay awake..
Lynn's family. There's a bad dream. You know, at first I thought the Brackens were the All-American family---apple pie, Grandma, baseball. Felt lucky to be one of 'em. But then I got to know 'em better.
God knows I put up with all of them as long as I could. Went to a couple more family get-togethers and kept my mouth shut, but it was damn difficult. It took me a while to get it all straight in my head. I spent my time watching everybody, and noticing what went on, how everybody acted, and thinking it out. Uncle Fred wasn't the only dick.
The fact that they couldn't get my name right had nothing to do with it.
We were at a graduation party for one of the girls, one of Lynn's nieces, Alison. First thing Fred did when he saw us was walk up and clamp his ham hand on Lynn's butt. He even looked over at me and kinda grinned. Like it was a joke between us or something. That was it for me.
I walked up and gave him a shove. "OK, Fred, you grab my wife's ass one more time, and your butt's gonna be hitting the floor again."
He was astonished. So was everybody else. "Hey, Buddy, I thought we had this all clear. There ain't no harm done. Don't mean anything by it. It's all just in the family."
"If it doesn't mean anything, then you won't mind not doing it. And that goes for all the rest of you sonsabitches. Anybody else touching my wife where they shouldn't be is gonna be eating his teeth."
Lynn was embarrassed. "Bud, honey, it's OK, it's just Uncle Fred…..we talked about this."
"It ain't just Uncle Fred. They all fucking do it. If they're not grabbing your ass, they got their hands somewhere else. And it ain't right. I been thinking about it, and it just…..it's wrong."
"This is a helluva note….we welcomed you into this family, Buddy….just like you were one of us." That was Eddie, a cousin, I think. Not sure. Don't care. "Where do you get off----"
"You can treat your women however you want, I guess. But Lynn's mine now, and you're gonna treat her with respect. Whether you want to or not."
"Bud, please, this is my family," Lynn was talking quiet and trying to edge me toward the door.
"I love you, baby, but your family's fucked. Don't you get it? It starts here."
I could see she didn't have any idea what I was talking about. "Look at Patty, and that prick she calls a boyfriend. Didn't you ever wonder why she lets him treat her the way he does? It started here."
Lynn eyes got wet. I had to hurry, she wouldn't hear what I was saying if she was crying. "You know what I'm talking about. Think about Alison here-she's going off to the city. What happens if she has trouble finding a job? What happens if some guy offers her five bucks to feel her up? Why shouldn't she take it? She's been giving it to Uncle Fred for free. You know what I'm saying."
And she did. I could see in her face, for once, that she knew just what I was saying, what I couldn't say out loud. She put her arms around my chest under my jacket and laid her head on my shoulder. Sniffled.
"It starts here, baby. They all do it and you let 'em. It's not just the hands, it's other stuff too, but the touching is what I can do something about. I guess they tell you it ain't important. But it is. Respect is important." I pushed her hair back from her face and kissed her on the forehead. "And if you can't tell 'em to go fuck themselves, I can."
"I think I've heard just about enough of this." Eddie again. "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you're ruining Alison's----"
"I know who I ain't. I ain't some lowlife that sticks his hand under little girls' skirts as they walk by."
Eddie's face turned bright red.
"And the rest a' you fellas don't need to look at him like you all don't do it, too."
I wasn't real popular before that. I was extra unpopular afterward. Except, when it was time to eat, I took my plate over to the sofa so I could watch everybody, and Helen, who also married into this fucking gang, came over and sat down.
"I think I'll sit right here next to you, if you don't mind." She smiled. "It'll be nice not to have to worry about being groped while I'm eating."
And then, another woman, whose name I never did catch, came and sat with us too. She gave me a kiss when we left. I don't know who she was. Probably another relative-by-marriage.
Only one sonuvabitch decided to call me on it. I guess he wasn't around when I decked Fred the first time, and so maybe he didn't believe me. Or maybe he was in the bathroom when I told everybody "hands off".
Or maybe he was just drunk. In any case, he ambled over to Lynn and not only did he put his hands all kindsa places he shouldn'tve, he gave her a big kiss on the neck. I pulled him off her, he told me he wasn't scared of me, and then I broke his nose. I went and got Lynn's jacket while he was screaming and bleeding, and we went home.
"Helen's in love with you, " Lynn said after we got in the front door. "And so am I."
I guess I can do something right once in a while..
In my dream, I'm back in the chair at Tony's house. Arliss is kissing me, running her tongue along my jaw.
I open my mouth for her this time, wanting it now, wanting her to do whatever she wants even though I know I'm gonna die. She kisses me deep and I kiss her back and I want more. And I wanna kill her, too.
And I'm still in my clothes, still tied to the chair, but at the same time, my clothes are gone and when she straddles me and takes me inside her, my arms go around her and hold her. She reaches down and takes Blonde Hair's pocketknife outta my pocket, opens it up, and cuts my throat, easy, like butter. I watch my blood pouring down between us while I'm fighting my way back to consciousness.
And then I'm awake. Dear God. Sitting up on my flat little bed next to the north wall of the cabin, the cold side, gasping for breath, sweating, gagging……I don't think the wet on my cheeks is from sweat…….Dear God. I know it was a dream, I knew it while I was dreaming it, but at the same time it was real, somehow; it was true.
I don't know how much longer I can stand this, how much longer before I throw my clothes off, limp outside and lay down and let the snow cover me.
Even while I'm thinking that, I know I'm being stupid, I'll stand it as long as I need to, and eventually the snow'll melt and I'll leave here, walk out, all the way to Bisbee if I have to. And find out if Lynn wants me back the way I am.
I'm not gonna be going back to sleep for a while. I'm still shaking. Still something else, too, even though thinking about it makes me sick.
A shadow comes up behind me……scares the shit outta me, and I jump.
It's the woman. She's holding a cup, thrusts it toward me.
"You have dreams."
All this time, all these weeks, I didn't exist. Now all of a sudden I do.
"I've been waiting for you to start whining,' she says. "To beg me for help."
So is this ridiculous cup of water supposed to be a peace offering? She sits back on her heels, waiting. For me to say something? I gave up talking to her a long time ago.
"You haven't asked me for anything……" She touches the round wound from Dudley's bullet in my shoulder. "I can hear you when you wake up from a dream……." She looks down my body. "I've been waiting for you to come to me."
In the light from the fire, I watch her hands at the buttons of her shirt. I don't realize at first what she's doing. I don't think of her that way.
She's a plain woman. Her face is forgettable. Her breasts are not. They're strong….firm. Beautiful.
She takes my hand and puts it over her breast. I let it stay there.
I don't have an excuse. I can't say I'm half-asleep-I'm not, I'm awake. I'm not drunk. I can't say I don't know where I am or who I'm with. I'm not pretending the woman's someone else. I even think about Lynn; and I know it's wrong while it's happening.
But I don't stop the woman, I let her do whatever she wants. And when our skin touches I close my eyes.
It isn't making love. There isn't any love involved in it. There isn't any lust to it, either. Yeah, my body's ready, but outside of that, there's nothing especially exciting. When she tilts her hips against me, so that I can slide in, it doesn't even feel like sex, it's more like……I don't know…..comfort, I guess…warmth….I feel like I'm not so alone. Maybe the woman is sick of being alone, too.
We're laying on our sides together, I let my arms settle around her, my mouth on the place where her shoulder meets her neck, to taste her…..
"Stop it." She pushes against me. "Don't kiss me."
I start to pull away, she wraps a leg around my waist to hold me there.
"Not that," she says, and she pants. "Just don't kiss me. Don't pretend it's something it's not."
Maybe I don't know what it is. So I watch for a while. And I see it. She just wants. Her face is set and hard, she watches what we're doing, but she never looks at me at all. She just wants. Maybe I'm still invisible.
Whatever comfort I thought there might be in this for me is gone.
I go ahead and bring her off, it doesn't take too long. I'm not sure why, maybe just because I can, and there's no reason not to. But after that I don't have a reason to go on, either. There's nothing in it for me. I slow and stop, and then leave her body.
"I wasn't kissing you," I say. "Why would I want to kiss you?"
She reaches, I don't know what she means to do, but I don't care. I turn over, cover up with the blanket I stole from her.
"Hey…..do you want me to do something?"
"Leave me alone.".
I took vows. I made promises. My promises shattered in the first cold breeze that came along.
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