Cougar hasn't talked to any of his family in years.
He assumes they were informed when he 'died', and if they pay attention to the news, they might know the reports of his death were entirely falsified. He hasn't bothered to check.
Jensen leaves on a Tuesday, hitching a ride with Pooch – they're both off to their families, and though Jensen offers Cougar a room at his sister's, Cougar declines. Jensen's disappointment is more real than feigned, and for just a second, Cougar wavers. It's for the best, though, and he made that decision weeks ago, standing with the others over Max's dead body.
“Well, Losers,” Clay had said, “looks like it's time to go home,” and just for a moment, Cougar felt like he had come unmoored in time.
Jensen leaves on a Tuesday, and Cougar watches until he can't see them any more, standing by the window of his government-assigned bedroom.
For the first time in his adult life, Cougar has no idea what comes next.
Four in the morning on Thursday, the smartphone that Jensen had absolutely insisted Cougar purchase emits an irritatingly cheerful series of chirps.
Cougar is awake – has been for hours now, watching the lights of the cars going by outside, and not thinking about much. When he looks at the phone, he finds an email from Jensen; nothing more than a Youtube link and instructions to watch it or suffer Jensen's wrath.
The video is some local newscast from San Diego. It's a shock when the camera pans sideways from the announcer, and there are Cougar's parents, his younger brother Ramón – taller than their father, now, and wearing a police officer's uniform, when the last time Cougar saw him Ramón had been an awkward middle schooler – and his grandmother Alvarez, tiny and stooped. The reporter is asking something about how it feels to find out their son is still alive, and that he's a hero; Cougar doesn't listen. His parents reply in awkward platitudes, and Ramón just looks solemn, standing rock-steady as their grandmother leans on his arm.
When the reporter turns to Ramón, he says only, “I've always been proud of my brother,” and won't elaborate.
“And you, ma'am,” the reporter continues, holding the microphone out to grandma Alvarez, “do you have anything to add?”
The old woman straightens a little, looks directly at the camera, and says in the tone that means she expects to be obeyed, “Carlos. It's time you came home.”
And so Cougar does.
The day of his eighteenth birthday, Cougar – then Carlos – had driven down to the Army recruiting office and signed up. He had waited until the middle of family dinner to tell his parents. The resulting explosion had been the most dramatic argument ever witnessed at the Alvarez table, and there had been many. Looking back on it, Cougar knew it had been childish to so bait his parents, but Carlos had smiled in exultant satisfaction, slammed his chair back from the table (leaving the table before dinner was not done; another small crime heaped upon larger disappointments) and walked out the door, glad to have an excuse to leave.
Carlos Alvarez, first son after three daughters, was not supposed to join the Army. Carlos Alvarez was supposed to go to college, major in something useful like business or civil engineering, graduate with honors, marry a nice Catholic girl, and provide his parents with grandchildren while establishing himself in a respectable field of employment. Unfortunately for his parents, Carlos Alvarez was of the opinion that the suburban American ideal could go fuck itself.
The idea of four more years of school made him want to scream, working in an office seemed like a minor hell, and even at eighteen, he knew that 'nice' was one of the last things he wanted in a mate. The joke was on Cougar, though – four years after enlisting, he was back in school on the military's dime, having realized he wanted to advance further than he could on a high school diploma. He had worked with the single-minded determination of an adult stuck in the college bubble, graduating magna cum laude in three years with a double major in Military History and Chicano Literature, a feat that was made possible by his willingness to regularly overload with twenty-six units a quarter, as well as foregoing sleep and a social life in favor of getting out as fast as possible.
The last time Cougar had seen his family had been two years after his enlistment, at his second-oldest sister's wedding. They had avoided another screaming argument only because Cougar had decided before he arrived that he didn't want to be the black sheep brother who ruined his sister's big day – Marisol had never done anything to earn his enmity – and so had refused to rise to any of the many pointed comments thrown his way before and after the ceremony.
And now... Here he was, come to the bad end his father had predicted: mid-way through his thirties, no job skills to speak of, hoping for a general discharge, and neither married nor likely to be. The military psychologists had asked Cougar how he felt about returning to civilian life, and Cougar had shrugged, invented some answer about feeling optimistic. The truth was, he didn't feel much of anything. When they had killed Max, he had expected to feel relief or joy, but instead he had been overwhelmed by crushing numbness.
He gets a hotel room for his first night in San Diego, sleeps in restless two-hour increments. The next morning he rents a car – some mid-nineties Mitsubishi with the turning radius of a boat – and heads out to the house his family used to live in. It's only when he's halfway there that he realizes they might have moved, but when he pulls up to the curb, he's reassured to see “Alvarez” painted on the mailbox. The house looks empty – lived in, not vacant, but with that indefinable air of a house with no one at home, and there's no car in the driveway. Cougar rings the doorbell anyway, gets no response, and knocks just in case. He looks at the mailbox, briefly considers checking it to see if he can figure out who is still living at home, but discards that idea: there's a woman gardening in the next yard over, probably about Cougar's mother's age, and she keeps casting suspicious looks his way. Cougar tips his hat to her as he turns to leave, since it never hurts to be polite. He'll try again on the weekend, when there will be a better chance of catching someone at home.
“Are you the oldest Alvarez boy?” The woman asks before Carlos can quite turn away, stopping him where he's standing awkwardly on the steps of his old family home, the home he never lived in – they moved after he enlisted, just before his sister got married.
“Yes,” Cougar answers, because it's the truth, and then adds, “Carlos Alvarez,” because it seems polite.
“Emelia Sierra,” the woman replies. She makes a a considering noise, and looks at him. Cougar has a feeling he's being judged. He also has a feeling this woman knows all the gossip, and will be reporting this encounter back to his own mother in minute detail.
“Well,” Sierra says after a long pause, pulling off her gardening gloves and dropping them into her basket, “home at last.”
“My grandmother asked,” Cougar replies, even though Sierra had made a statement, not asked a question. There's a shade of bitterness in his voice that surprises him, and he wonders if she heard it too.
“Oh, Señora Alvarez?” Sierra asks, in the tones of someone filing that bit of information away for later use. “She doesn't live here anymore, didn't you know?” At Cougar's blank stare, she clucks and shakes her head. “They moved her into a home,” Sierra continues confidingly, leaning over the fence that divides the two yards and motioning for Cougar to come closer. “You don't do that, not to family, that's what I said, but nothing else would do. Now, you go visit her – I have the address inside, just you wait.”
Cougar does wait, and thanks the woman when she returns with a glossy pamphlet advertising a senior living facility.
The first thing she says is, “Carlos! You've grown!”
Perhaps it's a matter of perspective, Cougar thinks as she drops her crocheting and pulls herself up to give him a hug. It's strange, to hold her stooped shoulders and realize that she fits under his chin with inches to spare.
“Now let me look at you,” she says a moment later, pulling a tissue from her sleeve and dabbing at eyes gone bright and damp. “Off with that hat,” she continues, and Cougar complies, smiling because her spirit is unchanged, still fierce and imperious. This is the woman who, after her husband died, raised six children on her own. “Look at you, grown up all handsome just like your grandfather. You break all the girl's hearts, yes?” Cougar shrugs, grinning, and his grandmother chuckles. “Don't you try your charm on me, boy! You Alvarez men are all the same – handsome, and don't you know it, flirting your way through life until that one comes along and hits you right in your heart.” She jabs Cougar in the sternum to punctuate her statement, and he grunts. Her fingers are bony, and her words hit a little too close to home.
“If you say so, Grandmother,” he says, and lets himself be seated on ottoman across from her chair. It feels like his childhood again, seated by her feet as she holds court, her throne an old wing-back armchair.
After they're both seated she looks at him for a long, searching, moment. Cougar tries to smile convincingly, but she sighs.
“Oh, mi'jo, you used to be so small,” she says, and shakes her head. “The years have not been kind to you, have they?”
Cougar shrugs. He doesn't want to talk about his life with anyone. He wants to leave it behind, all the mistakes and tragedies, the nightmares and missed chances. Especially the missed chances - they taunt him in the long, sleepless hours when his mind seizes on one of his many failures, and he can do nothing but analyze every way he could have done better.
His grandmother must see his reluctance, because she switches the topic to his family, and everything that has happened in his absence. Cougar is just coming to terms with the fact that he has a niece the same age as Jensen's niece – Marisol's daughter, the oldest of two children, currently obsessed with horses – when there's a knock at the door.
“Oh, that will be Ramón and Ji Young,” Señora Alvarez says happily, and Cougar is caught flat-footed and unaware, uncomfortably reminded that his grandmother is absolutely not adverse to scheming to get her way.
Cougar is on his feet when Ramón opens the door and stops in the doorway, staring, his expression something between confusion and hope.
“Carlos?” Ramón asks. There's hope in his voice, too.
Cougar nods, his throat too tight to do anything else, especially when Ramón smiles, walks across the room, and hugs Cougar. Cougar hugs him back, until they're both clinging to each other as though the alternative is to drown. It's only when Cougar puts his hands on his brother's shoulders and steps back that he realizes he has to look up to look Ramón in the eye.
“You're taller,” Cougar says, too shocked to monitor the words coming out of his mouth.
Ramón snorts, then starts to chuckle. This time when they hug, they're laughing and crying both.
“This is my fiancee, Ji Young,” Ramón says when they're done and the tears have been surreptitiously wiped away. Ji Young steps forward, a slight Asian woman who holds herself with an appealing sort of quiet strength. She reminds Cougar of some of the military wives he has met, and he approves.
They shake hands and exchange pleasantries, Cougar still trying to work his head around his baby brother not only being taller than him, but engaged. A few minutes later, Ramón catches Cougar's eye and tips his chin toward the door. Cougar nods, and they leave Señora Alvarez and Ji Young discussing wedding plans.
“It's good having you back,” Ramón says when the door has been firmly shut and they're standing on the tiny balcony outside the apartment. Cougar looks away, and Ramón hastens to add, “even if it's not for long.”
They stand in silence, seconds passing into minutes. Cougar wonders if he should say something, but what is there to say? He's not sorry for leaving, he won't lie about that, and he still isn't sure coming back was the right decision either.
It's Ramón who breaks the silence. “Grandmother has cancer. She won't tell you, of course. She only told us after she decided to refuse treatment. It's inoperable,” he adds after a moment's pause.
“How long?” Cougar asks, when he can speak. It's not what he wants to say, but since what he wants is to scream and shoot something, it will do.
“Six months, maybe a year. The doctors say she is healthy for her age, but...” Ramón lets the words she is old go unspoken. “Grandmother wants to go back home to die,” he continues, and Cougar knows that to his grandmother 'home' means Mexico, “but Dad... Well, you know how he is. I would go with her, but-” Ramón leans forward, rests his hands on the railing and lets his head drop. But Ramón is planning his wedding (or at least standing by while it is being planned) and has a job, Cougar supplies.
They are interrupted by Ji Young tapping on the glass door.
“Grandmother is insisting we all have dinner together,” she says with a wry little smile. “She's arguing with your parents now, and Marisol already agreed to come.”
Ramón groans. “Jesús, she never does anything slow. Thanks for the warning. Do we need to do anything? What are we doing for food?”
“She said something about the housekeeper and tamales, but then she got your father on the phone. We should check the kitchen.”
Señora Alvarez has a little apartment at the senior living facility. The front door opens into a hallway that leads to the main living room. To the left is the bathroom and a half-screened bedroom area, and tucked off to the right is a tiny, closet-sized kitchen. Cougar waits in the doorway, listening with half an ear to his grandmother arguing with his father, and watching Ramón and Ji Young move around the kitchen, rattling through doors and staring into the refrigerator. There are tamales, enough to make part of a dinner, and a pot of beans, both brought by the housekeeper. Ji Young tells Ramón to make tortillas while she runs to the Korean grocery store, and by the time the rest of the family arrives, there's food – a little eclectic, with the tamales, beans, and tortillas supplemented by japchae, steamed dumplings, and a cucumber salad seasoned with chilies and sesame seeds, but plenty for everyone, and that, Grandmother Alvarez assures a slightly frazzled Ji Young, is what counts.
Marisol is the first to arrive, with her husband and their two children in tow. From the look of it, there's a third on the way. Cougar smiles, until Marisol pulls him into an awkward hug while berating him for not keeping in touch. Her husband Jesús, who Cougar has never particularly liked, does himself no favors when he tries to out-macho Cougar while shaking hands. Cougar keeps a pleasant smile on his face and squeezes until he can feel the bones in Jesús' hand grate together. It may be petty; Cougar doesn't care much either way. Cougar's niece and nephew are both polite but quiet, which he assumes is due to shyness.
When Cougar's parents arrive, he hangs back, standing next to his grandmother's chair and watching. It's not fear, just caution: he has no idea what to expect. His father ignores him for as long as possible, making a show out of putting his suit jacket in the hall closet and hanging his pristine white straw hat on the opposite end of the coat rack from where Cougar had left his rather battered hat. He continues to ignore Cougar as he comes over to exchange greetings with Sra. Alvarez.
Cougar watches it all with a sense of mild detachment. His father, who must be approaching sixty-five, still looks mostly the same – more grey in his short hair, and a more substantial paunch are the only real changes. He is impeccably dressed, as always, in spotless black slacks, cream-colored dress shirt, turquoise studded bolo tie (Cougar loathes bolo ties), and ostrich leather cowboy boots. It's the boots that catch Cougar's eye, and he stares at them for several long moments. Cougar is wearing worn-in jeans and a white t-shirt, and his own workboots are long overdue for a re-soling. There's as much blood as boot polish rubbed into the leather, and they have carried him across continents and through battlefields. Cougar's boots have earned their scuffs and scratches. His father's boots have very likely never faced anything wilder than an urban lawn, and that thought amuses Cougar so much he has to suppress a laugh, turning it into an unconvincing cough.
Cougar's father looks at him then, finally, the expression on his face a familiar one – disapproval and disappointment – and for once, Cougar doesn't care. There is not a scrap of contrition or guilt anywhere in him, and it feels good. He meets his father's gaze and smiles, while in the back of his mind, Jensen is doing a very bad Nancy Sinatra impression.
“Carlos,” his father says, holding out his hand.
“Diego,” Cougar replies, shaking the offered hand. Many heated words were exchanged over the dinner table, that night Carlos Alvarez left home; among those Cougar won't forget were his father shouting that Carlos was no son of his. From the look on his father's face, he too remembers.
“Mother,” Cougar continues, turning to the woman who has been hovering anxiously behind Diego. She wept over disowning him, but even with that, the title still feels strange on his tongue. He has been nobody's child for so long.
His mother – María – clutches Cougar's hands in hers, looking up at him and blinking back tears.
“You're home,” she says.
“I am back,” he replies, half reassurance and half repudiation, because this isn't Cougar's home. He doesn't have a home
Cougar is very glad when Ramón interrupts before their mother can say anything else, announcing that everyone should eat before the food gets cold. The dining table is barely big enough for four people, let alone eight adults and two children. Diego, María, Marisol, and Jesús take the table, while the kids make a game of sitting on cushions in front of the TV. Ramón and Ji Young sit on the couch, balancing plates on their knees and urging Cougar to join them. He ends up perching on the arm of the couch, while Sra. Alvarez surveys the room from her chair and graciously accepts the plate Ramón brings her.
During dinner, conversation switches to English, out of unspoken deference to Ji Young. She admits to Cougar that while she has been trying to learn Spanish, it has been slow going.
“An nyeong haseo,” Cougar says after a moment's thought, and when Ji Young quirks her head in confusion, he continues, “all the Korean I know. A friend-” and he has to pause, because he was on the verge of saying A friend of Pooch, but that raises more question than it answers, so he continues awkwardly, “-of a friend tried to teach us. Learn Korean, get soju.” That makes Ji Young laugh, so Cougar keeps going. “He drove tanks. Made his crew listen to – I forget their name. Very popular in Korea.”
“Super Junior?” Ji Young offers tentatively.
“Oh my God. Really?”
Cougar nods again, grinning as Ji Young hides her face in her hands.
“But they're so bad,” she wails, and Cougar has to agree.
During dinner everyone sticks to safe topics, like what the children are doing in school, Diego's continued dissatisfaction with one of his employees, or the bridal store nearly losing one of the bridesmaids' dresses. When the dishes have been cleared away and the men have beers, there's a lull in the conversation. Ji Young glances around, reading the mood of the room, and cheerfully offers to take the children down to the little playground at the corner of the senior center, a proposition which is met with great enthusiasm. Cougar decides, at that moment, that he likes Ji Young – she's sensible, and shows good initiative in removing the children from what is definitely going to be an Alvarez family argument. Cougar can feel it in the tension in the room, the glances people keep throwing his way, and even his grandmother's pointed calm, like a declaration of intent.
“Diego,” Sra. Alvarez says into the quiet that follows Ji Young's departure, “I will be going back home after the wedding. We should start calling your sister and making arrangements.” She has slipped back into Spanish, and everyone else follows suit.
“Mother, we have talked about this. You know it isn't safe to go alone, and the hospitals here are better,” Diego replies, trying for conciliatory and coming across as patronizing, which is a common problem of his.
“We have also talked about how I will not be needing fancy hospitals,” Sra. Alvarez says tartly. “I am going home to die.”
“But it's not safe for you to go alone. Flying is so stressful, and driving would be so much time, so many days off the job. No, it wouldn't work.”
“I wouldn't want to trouble any of you,” she says with false humility, “but if there was someone who could take me...”
Cougar swallows back a smile, keeping his face perfectly blank, because his father doesn't stand a chance, and it is beautiful to see a master manipulator at work.
“Of course, then it would be different,” Diego says, magnanimous with the flush of his imagined triumph, as he steps right into the trap.
Cougar raises one hand. “I will.”
The rest of his family has been silent, watching the byplay between Diego and Sra. Alvarez, and now they turn to Cougar. Ramón is doing a bad job of hiding his grin, and the rest look surprised or suspicious, or in the case of his father, angry. Cougar keeps his expression blank, and shrugs.
“I could drive grandmother to México,” he says, and then adds as an apparent afterthought, “I would need a car.”
“One of the guys at the station has a truck he's trying to sell,” Ramón pipes up. He doesn't bother to look chastened when Diego glares at him.
“I know mother doesn't want to go to the hospital,” Diego says, trying a different tack, “But she will still need medicine. She should stay here, where they are trained for that sort of thing. Have you ever given an injection?” The last is directed to Cougar, and this time he doesn't bother trying to hid his smile.
“In the middle of a firefight,” he replies, and knows he has won.
“This is real cute,” Jesús says suddenly, and Cougar hadn't been counting on interference from that sector, which might have been a mistake, “but am I the only one that remembers he's a murderer? Sending grandma off with a child killer, what a great plan.”
There is dead silence.
Cougar closes his eyes, and he can almost hear Jensen, almost hear the way he would say Oh, that is so very not good. Jensen would hold Cougar back from the fight while talking about hacking Jesús' credit card account to buy really embarrassing porn. But Jensen isn't there, so Cougar has to hold himself back. It's hard. It's very hard, but Cougar manages to resist the urge to break his brother-in-law's face. This is why he should never have come back.
“You bastard,” Marisol hisses, breaking the silence. “Limp dick son of a whore, why did I ever marry you?”
Jesús looks taken aback, and then angry, but before he can say anything, Ramón steps up and puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Think very carefully about what you say next,” Ramón says.
“Whatever,” Jesús says with an attempt at bravado. “Just keep him away from my kids.”
María gasps, and Marisol throws her car keys in her husband's face.
“Get out,” she says, livid. “Get out, and don't come home tonight. Get your friends to pick up your stuff.”
“But he's-” Jesús starts, and it's fascinating, the same way an accident is fascinating, to see him digging his own grave.
“It doesn't matter, you don't talk about family that way,” Marisol shouts, and Jesús finally leaves, slamming the door on his way.
“Carlos,” Sra. Alvarez says after a moment of prickly silence, “did you kill those children?”
“No,” Cougar says, and forces himself to meet her eyes, even when his voice breaks. “I did not.”
Sra. Alvarez nods contentedly. “I didn't think so.”
His grandmother insists Cougar sit in the family pew, so he does – paging through the wedding program (in Spanish, English, and Korean) to avoid being engaged in awkward small-talk with family members he hasn't seen in years. All of his sisters are in attendance; Ana, the oldest (who sits apart during the ceremony, and leaves directly after congratulating the newlyweds, though no one will tell Cougar why), Marisol, and Laura, who is only a year older than Cougar and caused a minor family scandal by quitting her job as a nurse to work for Planned Parenthood. Jesús is conspicuously absent.
Even before the wedding, Sra. Alvarez had been planning for her final trip to Mexico, and almost every family member leaves the reception with something she thought they should have. By the time Cougar comes to pick her up, driving his newly-acquired Ford F-150, his grandmother has pared her belongings down to as much will fit in a handbag and three cardboard boxes. She's positively cheerful about this change.
They leave on a Tuesday, and Cougar thinks it must have become a day for leave-taking.
“How about a story?” She says coyly. “You must have got up to something interesting, all those years in the army.”
Cougar blinks, and thinks about it for a while. Sra. Alvarez waits patiently, which Cougar appreciates.
Most of his stories are classified, or terribly inappropriate for telling to one's grandmother. And then Cougar remembers the boots.
So Cougar tells the story of Jensen and the Boots, as it will later be known. Once, when the team had been enjoying a week of well-deserved downtime, Jensen had lost a bet and had to polish everyone's boots. He had complained vociferously for half an hour, and then gone suspiciously silent.
In retrospect, that really should have been their first warning. That night, after everyone else was asleep, Jensen had used fishing line and leftover chopsticks from Chinese takeout to turn the team's collected boots into marionettes.
And that was how the rest of the team had woken up to Jensen's noisy, off-key rendition of “These Boots Were made for Walking,” complete with walking boot puppets.
When Cougar finishes, his grandmother gives him a long, stern look.
“You are not joking?”
Cougar shakes his head.
“But why?” She asks, laughing helplessly.
“It's Jensen,” Cougar says, because why does Jensen do anything?
After that, it becomes a thing. The radio stays off, and Cougar tells stories – carefully edited, of course, with names, places, and other sensitive information removed. He tells his grandmother about Jensen's ridiculous shirts, about Jensen and the Honduran General, about Jensen going ballistic at the referee during his niece’s soccer game – which requires a detour into the phenomenon that is Jensen And His Niece, with following scores online, and the time Jensen rescued a kitten in Afghanistan and, through a long, convoluted series of favors, had it delivered to his sister's doorstep by a very embarrassed Marine. Jensen's sister Rebecca had filmed the man's expression when six-year-old Sarah had launched herself at him, hugged him around the knees, and declared him the best kitten deliverer EVER. Even Clay had gotten a bit sniffly watching the footage, and had to go glare at a wall until he regained his composure.
Cougar doesn't just tell stories about Jensen – there's also sneaking Pooch in to see Jolene in the maternity ward, and the time Pooch showed up at a rendezvous point in a bright red Ferrari. Clay's many ill-advised romantic entanglements provide an afternoon of amusement.
He doesn't talk about Roque.
Still, it's Jensen Cougar talks about the most, which he doesn't really think about until his grandmother starts asking him to tell another Jensen story. By that time, well – it's probably too late to hide that he cares about Jensen the most, but Cougar still tones it down, and hopes his grandmother will write it off as friendship.
Cougar really doesn't want to have that conversation.
Cougar should also really know better than to hope his grandmother will miss anything.
Luz fills up the space around her quiet husband with bustle and chatter. Cougar finds himself retreating into silence in response. Her noise is kind, but overwhelming, and compounded by her constant attempts to mother Cougar – has he had enough to eat? Have another serving, young men should eat up. (Cougar wonders just how young she thinks he is.) The mothering culminates with Luz inviting over several of her friends, all of whom conveniently have young, single daughters.
Cougar jams his hat on his head and goes for a very long walk.
“Luz never had any sons,” Sra. Alvarez says the next day, after they have made their goodbyes and are leaving the city behind. She isn't looking at Cougar, apparently intent on finding her crochet hook in the fluffy mass of half-finished afghan blanket.
Cougar makes a noise of acknowledgment and keeps his eyes on the road. His grandmother is after something, and he doesn't feel like making it any easier for her.
“They were nice girls,” she says blandly.
“I am not a nice man,” Cougar replies.
His grandmother tuts in response, and holds her crochet up, inspecting it critically. The blanket is violently colorful, a veritable assault on the eyes – the squares neon pink and lime green starbursts. Cougar thinks it is hideous, but he keeps his opinions to himself.
“How about another Jensen story?” His grandmother suggests slyly.
Cougar thinks about it, and starts in on the time Jensen and Pooch got drunk and bored, in that order, and ended up reprogramming every road construction sign in the Fort Hood area to warn for zombies.
Cougar half expects the place to be full of ghosts, literal or figurative. Generations of his grandmother's family have lived and died here, and now Sra. Alvarez – her father's only child, a daughter, and the last of her line – has come home to do the same. Houses that have seen history and now lie vacant, silent but for the voices of memory, inhabited only by mice and bugs – such houses possess a singular sorrow, something nearly tangible to those who step inside.
Instead, the hacienda is peaceful. Four human inhabitants do little to dispel the emptiness, but there are swallows under the eaves, and half-feral cats have made the old stables their kingdom. Raoul's ancient mutt spends most of his days lying in a sunny patch of dirt by the kitchen door, where he can keep an ear cocked for the sounds of cooking and beg patiently for scraps. Not to be forgotten, there are the chickens. The chickens scratch in the yard, ignoring the dog and fleeing the cats, wandering into the house and getting underfoot. Cougar leaves the window in his room open the first night, and wakes up with three plump hens sleeping around his feet.
The first few days are a bustle of activity; opening up rooms, rearranging furniture, airing out bedding, and settling in. After that – nothing. The days pass slowly, at a pace which seems calculated to drive Cougar mad with boredom. Cougar can sit silent and still for hours, even days, if he has an objective, but this aimless inactivity is not to his liking. Sra. Alvarez seems content to sit in the great oaken chair Cougar dragged out to the porch for her, crocheting or reading or just watching the yard.
Cougar learn to occupy himself – mostly fixing things around the place, tasks that escaped the caretakers. He knows he isn't very good at it, really, but it is unexpectedly satisfying to step back after hours spent re-hanging a gate or fixing a fence and realize that he has made something. So Cougar persists in his repair efforts, and day by day he improves. He still can't drive a nail like Raoul, in two strikes of the hammer – one to set the nail, the second to drive it home – but Cougar finds himself bending fewer nails, and hitting his own fingers much less frequently. And he does slow down, let go, learn to breathe freely – when it takes half an afternoon to find a saw, and when finally unearthed, the saw is missing half its teeth, Cougar only shrugs and goes to ask Raoul about how one goes about sharpening a saw.
In the evenings, Sra. Alvarez settles into her chair on the porch and Cougar lounges on the steps. They sit in silence as often as not, Sra Alvarez crocheting until the day's last light is lost, while Cougar amuses himself with whatever task he's concocted to keep his hands busy. He starts by resolving to sharpen every cutting edge in the house, which turns out to be a good move, politically – the two days it takes for Cougar to hone María's kitchen knives to razor sharpness earn him a permanent place in her good graces.
One such evening, Sra. Alvarez sets down her crochet (having finished the squares, she is now putting them together with electric blue borders in between) and waits while Cougar finishes up with the firewood hatchet. He runs his thumb across the blade, grunts in satisfaction, and leaves the hatchet buried in the edge of the chopping block. His grandmother is watching Cougar with a thoughtful expression when he sits back down and stretches out, one leg on the step, his back to the railing. He cocks an eyebrow at her.
“Your Jake,” she says carefully, “you love him?”
Every shred of hard-won serenity deserts Cougar in an instant, but the lie rolls well-practiced off his tongue.
Sra. Alvarez looks unconvinced, but Cougar meets her eyes and refuses to look away. To do so is to admit guilt. No matter that his stomach is tying itself in knots; Cougar keeps his face a perfect mask of skepticism seasoned with false anger.
“You speak fondly of him,” she says, finally. “I have heard men speak of their wives with less fondness.” She snorts, an unladylike noise of disgust. “Many men, with far less fondness.”
“He was my teammate,” Cougar says, working to achieve just the right note of injured machismo, “nothing more.”
Sra. Alvarez looks away first. Silence falls, but Cougar can't relax. If it had been just about anyone else, Cougar would have punched them by now - not because was insulted by the implication that he was in love with a man, but because Cougar knew most people would expect him to be, and far too often fulfilling those expectations was the price that must be paid for protecting not only himself but Jensen, too.
On the other side of the yard, María's perpetually confused rooster hopped up on a stump and began to crow to the setting sun.
“Would you deny him three times?” Sra. Alvarez says over the noise, and when Cougar looks up, she is staring at him, eyes stern.
The rooster ceases crowing, and in the silence that follows, Cougar realizes he can't lie, can't make that mistake.
He looks away, and the little rooster once again stretches out to the sunset sky and begins to crow.
“You do love him,” she says in tones of surprise. Cougar wonders idly how long it will take before that surprise turns to disgust and anger.
“Yes,” Cougar replies, after a long pause. He is helpless to fight the breathless dread rising in his chest, because he knows how this conversation goes, and he's already planning escape routes in his head. The laundry on the line will have to be abandoned – too much trouble to get those, when he can just grab what's in his room, take his wallet and the truck and head for the border. He can call Luz from a payphone, have her pick up Sra. Alvarez, so the old woman isn't alone-
“I am glad,” his grandmother says, the words so unexpected they derail Cougar's thoughts completely.
“Twenty years ago,” she says thoughtfully, “I would have thrown you out of the house. Prayed for my soul, maybe. Ten years ago, I would have cried, I think. Prayed for you.” She sighs and shakes her head. “Oh Carlos, mi'jo, there are so many terrible things in this world. I have seen some of them, and I can't think – I look at everything, and I cannot see how love can be a sin. It is love?” She adds suddenly. “You respect him?”
Cougar nods, too dumbfounded to do anything else.
“Good. And he respects you?”
Cougar blinks. “He-” he starts, then shakes his head. “We were teammates,” he repeats. “Nothing more.” He feels as though he is caught in some strange, surreal version of the world, where nothing happens as he expects, and his grandmother makes all the wrong assumptions.
“He doesn't return your feelings? Oh, my poor Carlos-”
Cougar shakes his head frantically. This may not be the conversation he was originally dreading, but it still rates a close second.
“Did you never tell him?” She asks in disbelief, and when Cougar shakes his head again, she throws her hands up in exasperation. “But Carlos, you must tell him!”
“No,” Cougar says firmly. He will not inflict that embarrassment on Jensen (or himself, says a nasty little voice in the back of his head.)
“He is not gay?” Sra. Alvarez asks, and then continues before Cougar can answer, “maybe he is flexible about these things – isn't that the fashion with young people these days?”
Cougar starts to laugh, though it very quickly turns into something breathless and choking. Hysteria, a rational of his mind observes with clinical detachment, even as he curls in on himself, hands in his hair and head between his knees.
There are certain things Cougar has, for a very long time, accepted as truths: that he would never go home. That he would die young and unmourned on some foreign soil. That he would never, ever tell anyone about the way he looked at men as well as woman, and as a corollary truth, that Jake Jensen was his teammate, and would never be anything more than Cougar's friend.
That Cougar would tell his grandmother, of all people, about being in love with a man is so patently absurd that the possibility never even crossed his mind. Cougar is still waiting for her to have a change of heart and tell him he is going to Hell; or for a superior officer to appear out of nowhere and call him a disgrace. With the evening he has been having, the latter would hardly even come as a surprise.
All that happens is his grandmother resting one bony hand on his shoulder as she slowly sits down next to him on the stairs. Cougar gets a hold on his emotions after a few moments, and breathes steadily until it no longer feels like anything might topple him back over the edge into hysteria.
“You will hurt yourself, sitting like that,” he says, finally.
His grandmother raises one eyebrow. “You will hurt yourself, going on the way you have been,” she says, quite serious. “You must tell him, mi'jo.”
Cougar shakes his head. “This is better-” he starts, and jumps when his grandmother swats him over the head.
“That is not your decision to make,” she says tartly. “You will tell him, because,” she holds up a finger in warning when Cougar opens his mouth to object, “it is your grandmother's dying wish that you do so.” She sits back triumphantly, and Cougar knows he should resent her emotional manipulation, but at that moment he can't muster up enough energy to care.
He nods, instead.
“You must promise to tell him.”
Cougar sighs, closes his eyes. “I promise.”
His grandmother pokes him in the ribs, and make a little go on motion when he looks at her.
“I promise to tell Jensen,” Cougar says, and rolls his eyes.
She nods, satisfied. “Good.”
They sit in silence as the sky fades from orange to pale blue, and the first stars begin to appear.
“You were right,” Sra. Alvarez says after a while. “My old bones don't like these steps.”
Cougar helps her up, and walks with her to her bedroom, where she stops him with a hand on his arm.
“You will be here in the morning?” She asks, a little anxiously, as she looks searchingly up at him. You will not leave? hangs unspoken in the air between them.
“Yes, grandmother,” Cougar says, and hugs her. “I will be here.”
On Sunday, Cougar drives María and his grandmother to the local church for Mass. Cougar has been no stranger to churches – they are places of peace and absolution, where Cougar can lay his nightmares to rest in the myrrh-scented silence – but it is uncomfortable and strange to sit through the full liturgy. He sits in the furthest-back pew, away from the old women, and doesn't go up to receive the Eucharist. He bears too much sin for that.
Monday is his grandmother's bi-weekly doctor's appointment, so Cougar drives her into the city and gathers curious looks as he sits in the waiting room and reads a magazine. Afterward, they go to eat dinner with Luz. In between relaying to Sra. Alvarez gossip about family members Cougar has never met, she serves squash flower soup so delicious even Cougar feels moved to remark upon it. After dinner, Sra. Alvarez follows Luz into her kitchen, returning with a triumphant smile that verges on a smirk (Cougar is realizing that he inherited many of his expressions from his grandmother) and a piece of paper, which she tucks carefully into her handbag. They leave soon after – the drive back to the hacienda is not overly long, but the hour is growing late.
“How did you eat when you were in the Army?” Sra. Alvarez says suddenly, as they pull up to a stoplight.
“With a fork,” he replies, curious but wary.
His grandmother raps his knuckles, where his hand rests on the gearshift. Cougar jerks back in surprise, then scowls at her. She looks back and very deliberately raises one eyebrow.
Cougar sighs. “MREs,” he says, “or restaurants. Sometimes the base mess hall.”
His grandmother clucks in disapproval, then says, “You must learn to cook.”
Cougar's silence is eloquent.
“You must win your Jensen over, yes? Every girl knows the way to catch her man is to feed him.”
“I am not a girl,” Cougar says, sidestepping the issue of her unrelenting and unwelcome matchmaking.
“Of course not,” Sra. Alvarez replies tartly, “but you are in love with a man, so the principle is the same.”
“No,” she cuts him off, “I will teach you. María will help, but we will not tell her you are learning for a man.”
“It is good for you to learn this, Carlos. When you cook for someone you love, it is very good. Food is important. It shouldn't be from packets and cans and restaurants. Making something with your own hands, that is love.”
“Yes, grandmother,” Cougar replies dutifully. He thinks she might be a little crazy, but he recognizes that once she has an idea firmly in her head, humoring her is the best path and besides – learning to cook will make her happy. His grandmother has little enough time left, Cougar knows, and he doesn't want to spend it fighting with her.
“Ah, Carlos, there you are,” Sra. Alvarez says brightly. “I was just telling María about your girl-”
“Sarah,” Cougar says, playing along automatically.
“Such a sweet boy,” she says as an aside to María, “thinking I would be upset that he's in love with an atheist.” She shakes her head, and Cougar blinks. It's not an explanation he would have thought of, but it appears to have worked.
“She must be pretty, if she can't cook and she doesn't go to church,” María says sceptically, and then smiles slyly. “What made you fall for this Sarah, eh? Entertain us old women, go on.”
Cougar knows that always had my back, and kept the silence at bay is not an answer that will work in this situation, but his mind balks at describing any part of Jensen as 'pretty' – other positive adjectives, yes, but not 'pretty'.
“She talks all the time,” Cougar starts, and that earns him a chuckle, because one of the first things María had noticed about Cougar was his silence, “and she's always cheerful.” He shrugs. It's a strange feeling to talk about Jensen, even in this roundabout fashion, and stranger still to be pretending he is a girl. “Tall. Smart. She has a nice smile,” he says finally, because it's true – Jensen's smile always cheered Cougar up – and realizes, as the little old ladies begin to laugh, that he is blushing.
A strange feeling, indeed.
Cougar raises one very skeptical eyebrow when he hears the plan – surely chopping vegetables isn't something one has to learn, simple as it seems – but says nothing.
“First lesson,” his grandmother says briskly, handing him a small yellow onion and a sharp knife, “nice neat slices, the width of a grain of rice.”
Perhaps, Cougar reflects later, blinking back tears while attempting to cut an onion into something resembling even slices, this is one of those things that only looks easy because the people doing it have years of practice. The onions keeps wobbling and trying to roll away, the knife slides on the skin, and trying to get the slices even in width is trickier than it looks. His grandmother laughs when Cougar sets down the knife halfway through, no longer able to see the onion through the stinging tears, and pats his shoulder.
“You'll get used to it,” she says. “Now pay attention, this is how you do it.”
Cougar wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, and watches as she picks up a second onion, deftly chops off the stem and roots, stands it on one flat end, and slices it in half lengthwise. Instead of fussing with the papery brown skin, she peels the whole outermost layer off – explaining as she does that, “It's tough, anyway,” – then sets each half cut-side down and slices it with alarming speed and accuracy. She finishes the job all without any sign of tears beyond perhaps an extra blink or two.
Even the most commonplace things, like tortillas, are a subject of discussion, which Cougar can't, at first understand. They're tortillas, they're practically as omnipresent as air, and you can buy them in huge bags at the supermarket.
Cougar begins to realize his error as he awkwardly figures out the minor artform of patting out tortillas by hand. The old women watch his fumbling, offering advice and interference in equal measure. It is not, however, until María hauls out a sack of dried corn and a smaller one of powdered lime that Cougar realizes the full magnitude of his foolishness.
María – who has adopted Cougar as a sort of wayward nephew – thinks he should know how to make masa from scratch, from slaking the lime and using it to cook the dried corn into nixtamal, through to grinding the prepared nixtamal with the black stone mano y metate. Sra. Alvarez, though she concedes that it is important for Cougar to understand the process, favors a more practical approach and thinks it best to teach Cougar to cook with what he'll be able to find in New Hampshire. In the end, they agree Cougar should make tortillas the long way at least once, and thereafter he can do it whichever way for which he can find the ingredients and patience.
It takes all day – though this is due in part to Cougar's lack of skill – but Cougar is happy to admit the results are the best damn tortillas he has ever eaten.
Life goes on, but even before the week is out Cougar knows this is the beginning of the end.
After the fall comes the pain. The doctor prescribes Sra. Alvarez stronger painkillers, which she looks askance at and refuses to take. Cougar weathers her bad moods and increased snappishness, until one afternoon when it hurts just to look at her, sitting straight and proud and obviously in agony.
“You are worse than Clay!” Cougar hisses, flinging his hands up in irritation.
His grandmother looks at him, startled.
Cougar holds out a glass of water and two white pills. “Take them and I'll tell the story.” He feels a little like he is arguing with a six-year-old, and the feeling must be mutual, judging the by his grandmother's look of quiet chagrin. She takes the pills, and by the time Cougar has finished regaling her with stories of Clay failing to take care of himself and generally being a horrible patient, the deep lines pain had engraved into her face have smoothed out.
Sra. Alvarez seems happiest when in the kitchen, telling Cougar what to do, so together they spend hours there. When they aren't cooking, Sra. Alvarez is combing through ancient cookbooks, flipping through collections of recipes – some clipped from newspapers or saved from the backs of boxes, some handwritten on bits of paper – and dictating her favorites to Cougar, who enters them all into his phone. His grandmother tuts at that, and tries to push paper and pen on him, but one side effect of hanging around Jensen for so long is that Cougar has been forcibly converted to the way of technology. He types faster with his thumbs than on a conventional keyboard, and besides – unlike a notebook, the 4GB micro-SD card can easily be popped out of his phone and hidden inside his hatband. Old habits die hard.
Watching his grandmother slowly fade away is exhausting, draining Cougar's mental resources like few things have ever done. María and Cougar switch off sitting by Sra. Alvarez's bedside, for which Cougar is deeply grateful. When he isn't keeping his grandmother company, Cougar retreats to the kitchen, closes the door to the rest of the house, and turns up the radio until all he can hear is the static-scratchy musica norteña and the clucking of the chickens in the yard outside. In this self-imposed isolation, he cooks.
There is always a pot of broth on the back of the stove these days, fortified with garlic and mild chiles – though it alternates between chicken and beef, depending on Cougar's mood and what's on hand – because broth is one of the few foods Sra. Alvarez can be depended on to finish without coaxing. Cougar has taken to bringing her cups of it at odd intervals between meals. María cooks food enough for the rest of them, leaving Cougar to experiment with whatever catches his eye as he pages through his phone, and through his great-grandmother's own handwritten recipe book, looking for things he thinks might tempt his grandmother's appetite.
Cougar – who has learned from the best – feels no guilt at stooping to a little emotional blackmail of his own. He waits until his grandmother is about to set down her spoon, bowl of posole still half-uneaten, to give her his most winning smile and say, “But grandmother, I made that especially for you.” It invariably works – whatever he brings her, when he points out that he cooked it for her, she will eat another few bites. They are small triumphs; the warmth they inspire in Cougar's chest all out of scale to their magnitude.
But no matter what Cougar cooks, no matter how much he convinces her to eat, Sra. Alvarez continues to fade away. It's a physical change, at first, as she goes from looking merely elderly to looking old. The mental changes are harder to deal with – the increasing vagueness about her surroundings, about when and where she is. More than once, Cougar has the feeling that the Carlos his grandmother is speaking to is his grandfather, not him.
Not long before her mind begins to slip, Sra. Alvarez has Cougar call the parish priest to the house. The priest comes that same evening. Cougar sits with them for a few minutes, then nods to the priest and leaves. He knows why the priest is here – to hear his grandmother's last confession, because on her good days Sra. Alvarez knows she is beginning to lose her grasp on the present – and he thinks about how easy it would be to ask the priest to do the same for him.
The words come unbidden to his mind: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been... And there Cougar stumbles, because it has been years since he last went to confession. In those years he has broken every commandment except the first two – he is reasonably sure he has never taken another god or worshiped false idols – and committed a thousand little sins besides. He could, he thinks, tell the priest that he has killed, deliberately and occasionally with great satisfaction. It would not be hard to find contrition for most of those kills, or for the children whose deaths still haunt him.
It is recanting his feelings for Jensen that Cougar balks at. He knows the Church deems them a sin, but Cougar does not want to feel guilt for one of the few things that makes him happy. It may be selfish; Cougar doesn't care. He has carried his sins this far, he can carry them a few more years.
One day, the doctor draws Cougar out of the room after finishing the check-up.
“She is doing as well as can be expected,” the doctor says. Cougar thinks this is a polite lie, but keeps his silence. There is no point in arguing. “The pain will get worse, probably very soon. There is nothing we can do now except to make her comfortable.” To that end, he writes a prescription for morphine, and makes a point of showing Cougar the correct dosage. When the doctor departs, he leaves the morphine bottle behind. The doctor was not wrong: Sra Alvarez's pain levels do get worse, sliding rapidly from bad to nearly unbearable.
One morning – a Tuesday, Cougar thinks grimly; he's beginning to hate Tuesdays – when the pain has become so bad that even the pressure of a sheet over her body is almost too much, Cougar realizes that he hasn't actually exchanged a coherent word with his grandmother for over two days. When she is in pain, she cannot hear him, let alone speak, and when she isn't in pain, she is drugged to sleep. She hasn't eaten in almost eighteen hours. Cougar looks down at his grandmother, so small and pale among the sheets, lapsing gradually into sleep as the latest dose of morphine takes effect, and then down at the morphine bottle still in his hands.
It is not a hard decision to make – after all, such a mercy could only be a very small sin compared to all the others he carries. He sits with her until the end, reciting their favorite Psalm, and when Cougar says for thou art with me, it is not God to whom he refers.
He expects to feel grief, but there is nothing but emptiness.