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sugar blue

Chapter Text

 

*

 

The sky loomed wide overhead, beating down the dust-clogged road like fire.

Tom fell asleep on the shuttle ride to the ranch, lulled by the rhythmic churn of the wheels underneath him. He watched the view outside flicker past him in a hazy smudge of color, as suddenly and without notice, the landscape shifted into rolling open countryside. Billboards which at first dwindled in number then disappeared, and in their place sat prosperous bottle-green hills flanking the road in a continuous wave.

Occasionally, a dazed-looking man straddled a cherry red tractor idling by the roadside, but more often than not the view was all trees and sky and even more trees. Houses lay scattered miles apart.

He’d planned this trip six months ago in the middle of a long snowy winter. It had seemed like a good idea at that time when all he wanted, he thought, was an open space, somewhere that was nowhere, a place, as the botanist William Bartram had once put it, far removed from the seats of strife.

Emma had called him crazy. “You’ll die out there, you know,” she had said, a week after he’d decided to tell her. “You’re not really serious, are you?”

Tom was.

He’d made all the necessary arrangements, calling friends and family to inform them of his little leave-taking. They came to the consensus that he was having a crisis of selfhood after his career had suffered a dry spell of two years. Every actor had them; very few recovered. Some went and partook in musicals.

His family, of course, were only partially right.

After his brief stint in a twelve-part Swedish crime drama, the quality of scripts that fell on his lap began to deteriorate, until inevitably, Tom started doing guest appearances on shows whose target audience were women in their late fifties. Finally, he began doing voice-over commercials because it paid well and were beautifully mindless. All he had to do after all was fake an accent and read a few lines of dialogue.

Because of the absence of steady jobs, Tom thought it best to divert his attention elsewhere, to other simpler nobler pursuits like writing a novel in an attempt to reclaim his zest for life. It never went anywhere, though from time to time he went to cafes in his neighborhood where, while polishing off buttered scone after scone, he wrote and rewrote his prologue.

He’d been clicking around his computer one day when a stray pop-up ad flashed on his screen. Rivervalley Ranch, it read. Start your adventure today.

The online brochure promised acres of rolling farmland sweeping away into a mottled blue horizon. Epic views of scrubland, clean sunny air. A surrounding dusty hamlet untouched by the hand of time. A link Tom followed led him to a full page teeming with pictures of happy smiling campers bedecked in cowboy boots and Stetsons in various states of relaxation. These people all had good teeth and seemed… eerily serene, like they truly enjoyed draping themselves backwards across rickety fences, stroking the rippling hides of fat ponies.

There were cattle and horses and a thriving miniature petting zoo, according to the website, but also for an additional fifty dollars, one had the option of an in-room Jacuzzi and a one-on-one nature walk with a ranch guide of his choice.

Every picture in the gallery featured at least one handsomely dressed man in riding chaps and flannel, hanging in the background, grinning bashfully up at the camera or chewing contemplatively on a piece of straw, one thumbed hooked into a belt loop. It was every pornographer’s wet dream.

Lured by the promise of a good time, bored and feeling foolishly impulsive, Tom booked himself a room.

And now here he was.

 

*

 

Tom jerked awake, banging his temple against the window as he surged up from his seat. The sky outside had softened to a rolling gray bruise. He disembarked at his stop, which, as it turned out, was nothing more than a strip of dirt hemmed by scraggly patches of wild grass where Tom had no doubt snakes would feel very much at home.

Tom watched with sinking dread as his shuttle trudged forever out of reach, its headlights scouring the road like blinking insect eyes.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to be alone for very long. A dark blue pickup truck emerged from the bend, easing to a stop just a few feet away from him. He could hear the discordant notes of a rock song playing softly on the stereo as a man with lanky blond hair rolled down the window and poked his head out the driver’s side. He scrutinized Tom from head to toe and then back again.

Tom didn’t like it.

“Uh,” the man said, squinting at something in his hand. “Are you Tom?”

“I’m here for the, ‘full ranch experience’,” Tom explained, quoting directly from the brochure. He waved it in the air to exemplify his point.

The man blinked at him and then laughed, rubbing a hand across his mouth. His stubble caught the light. “Right, okay,” he said, squeezing his hands together. He didn’t wear skin-hugging flannel or speak with the lazy Southern drawl Tom had hoped would be part of this cultural experience, but his hands looked sturdy, rough with calluses, worker’s hands, Tom thought. Which meant things could still be looking up.

“Do you need help with your stuff?” he asked, climbing down to open the passenger door.

Tom waved him away but the man unhooked Tom’s bag from his shoulders anyway, an invasion of personal space that made Tom feel, not only mildly violated, but strangely flustered because of it. He watched as, without ceremony, the man tossed his bag in the backseat. A second later the bag tipped forward and rolled onto the floor with a heavy thud.

“My laptop was in there,” Tom said.

The man heaved it back to the seat, muscles flexing. “Sorry.” He didn’t sound sorry at all.

He slammed the door with a grunt before clambering back into the truck. Tom clipped on his seatbelt and the man raised his eyebrows at him expectantly. “You all set?”

Tom wanted to go home immediately. “Of course,” he said. He smiled weakly, smoothing the wrinkles from his shirt and the thighs of his trousers. Tom’s cheek, when he fingered it, was creased where he’d slept on it. He glanced at himself in the rearview mirror: his hair was flat on one side, puffy on the other. Perfect, he thought. He looked unhinged.

They drove through crushing silence, interrupted from to time to time by the staticky hiss of the radio and the crunch of dirt under the tires.

Fifteen minutes later the man introduced himself as Chris, reaching across his seat to shake Tom’s hand perfunctorily. He had a reliably film grip. Tom wondered what else he knew how to do with his hands.

“I’m one of the ranch guides,” Chris said. “My family owns the place and I help out every summer when there’s people over.”

“Tom,” Tom said.

Chris nodded, gaze appraising . “How was your flight?” He hunched over the steering wheel, smiling.

Tom sank against his seat and shrugged, suddenly tired in spite of the two hour nap he’d just had. “Hellish,” he said. He had sat next to a young couple whose baby wailed every ten minutes. He suspected he may have developed an inner ear problem. There was a constant ringing in his head he found particularly jarring.

“Sorry to hear that,” Chris laughed when Tom told him all about it. “But it gets better from here. You’ll love the place, I bet.”

“How are you so sure?”

Chris flashed Tom a soft smile that made Tom inexplicably nervous.

“Everyone does, sooner or later,” Chris said, turning his attention back to the road and tapping a hand across the steering wheel before gripping it tight. His hands, like his biceps, were enormous. Tom felt dwarfed by comparison.

 

*

 

The farther a place was from civilization, the harder it was to get out.

Tom knew he was going to regret this the second Chris turned off the engine and led him genially up a hill.

They’d driven on a gravel road that flared out into a long dirt lane, and then up an equally unimpressive driveway that led to a standard grayish farmhouse where a row of other pickup trucks, some in better condition than the others, were kept in separate bays. There was a tractor in the far corner, muddy and worn, green paint peeling off the sides. Overhead, a bird squawked – a sign of bad things to come.

The climb uphill was steep, which left Tom staggering a few paces behind. He was out of breath before they’d even reached the crest, berating himself silently for not having the good sense to pack better shoes. The brochure failed to mention improbable terrain, the way it casually left out a noticeable lack of professionalism. Chris was supposed to be a ranch guide, but he whistled and jangled a set of keys in one hand while Tom labored over the climb, scuffing his best shoes on the flinty path. He wasn’t even American. Tom detected an Australian lilt in his accent.

“Are we there yet?” he asked for the sixth time. They weren’t.

He lunged over a felled log before finally catching up to Chris who smiled again and continued on his way, swinging his keys around a finger. Not too far ahead, like something from a book, was a handsome wooden house with red gabled roofs and shuttered white windows. An ancient rocker sat creaking on the front porch. Next to the house to its left was a sugar maple where an old truck tire hanging from a rope stirred lazily in the breeze.

Tom felt out of breath.

“We’re expecting a few others tomorrow morning,” Chris told him, pushing the door open to let Tom inside. He gave Tom a quick tour of the place. The living room which functioned as a rec room was outfitted with several stuffed armchairs, a billiard table, a marble-topped counter, a five foot aquarium where multicolored fish swam lazily around. In the corner of the room, an enormous fifty inch flat screen TV played the evening news. There were twelve rooms in total if you counted the public bathrooms. A second living area opened out into the patio at the back.

Tom’s room, just like the rest of the place, had clashing pieces of furniture. The bed was neatly made and quilted, and the only window bordered by awful floral curtains fringed with lace trimmings courtesy of, Chris explained, his mother. Tom had a view of the front yard which meant nothing to him because he couldn’t see past the tree outside.

“Dinner’s at seven,” Chris told him as soon as Tom lowered his bag to the floor. “Usually there’d be a buffet set up but since it’s just you…” He shrugged and then pointed down the hall. “Fridge is well-stocked if you feel like making something. Junk food’s in the cupboard. So are the eggs. Knock yourself out. ”

Tom swished the curtains closed. “Terrific,” he said. “Anything else I need to know?”

Chris shrugged and explained a few more things: how to operate the shower, which Tom only half-paid attention to, why he shouldn’t go wandering out at night, (“things” lurking in the dark) where Chris could be reached (in the adjacent shack, knock three times) before finally leaving Tom to unpack.

“I’ll see you around,” said Chris when he’d finished. “Enjoy your stay.”

“Thanks,” Tom said. “I will.”

He threw himself on the mattress as soon as the door closed, drumming his fingers across his stomach as he stared up at the high ceiling. He was already ticking off the things he had forgotten to bring on this trip: a camera, a good book, crackers he could munch on in case he didn’t like the food. Music.

Tom shucked off his shoes, closing his eyes.

The room smelled like wood oil.

He turned his face into the sheets and breathed.

 

*

 

Tom waited for about an hour before wandering into the kitchen.

Chris wasn’t there, which was a good sign, so he made himself a sandwich and watched whatever was on TV for awhile. He was supposed to shower right after his meal but he couldn’t seem to turn the water on. He tugged on the knob, twisted the lever, held down the red button and tried various combinations of pulling and turning but nothing was happening. He went to bed instead, sweaty and feeling gritty, like he’d just doused himself in sand.

The next morning he woke feeling uncomfortably hot in the same clothes he’d arrived in. He couldn’t find Chris anywhere when he went to inquire about the shower but he did manage to run into Chris’ parents in the kitchen, Leonie and Craig, who were more hospitable in comparison and polite, and informed him breakfast would be served in an hour.

“I’ll send someone in to fix the shower for you,” Leonie promised.

When Tom emerged freshly changed an hour later, there were other visitors in the living room: a family of four from Kentucky, a group of university-age students -- all girls -- on a summer holiday, and a guy in a leather jacket and flannel pajamas who sat quietly in a corner and introduced himself as David. He was from Essex, researching a role and had his initials (D.D.) tattooed on his right wrist.

Tom thought he was pretty cool.

“Have I ever seen you in anything?” Tom asked him after breakfast.

“I mostly do theater,” said David, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Have I seen you in anything?”

Tom laughed. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”

David smiled knowingly. It was a code of conduct between struggling actors: getting a callback was hard enough; you didn’t push for details.

The first item on the itinerary was a short walk around the property. Chris’ brother, Luke – bald, stocky, big arms, the kind of guy who reminded Tom of a friendly marine – issued all of them a “survival pack”, a complementary bag filled with ranch essentials, he said, containing miniature bottles of mosquito repellent, chamomile lotion, sunscreen, and shower gel.

They were also given a plastic whistle in case they wandered off from the hiking trail and got lost. That happened often, Luke told them, fixing a pointed look at the children in the group, a boy and girl of about four and six pulling at each other and giggling every time Luke said, “all right” at the end of each sentence.” (“This is the petting zoo, all right?” “Do not feed the animals chocolate, all right?”)

It was best, Luke said, to use the buddy system. That way if they ever got lost at least they had somebody with whom they could share their misery.

Luke led them around the ranch, taking them into the outskirts of surrounding woods, while his younger brother, Liam – the third and youngest Hemsworth brother who looked curiously like Chris but with a narrower hawkish face –, brought up the rear and flirted with some of the girls. The rest of the morning was spent under the growing swelter, sweating off the grease of breakfast as Luke regaled them with stories of life on the ranch and his experiences as a professional horse trainer.

Tom lagged behind because he often stopped to take pictures with his phone. He wondered where Chris was. When he’d asked David if he’d seen him around, David just shrugged and said, “Chris who?”

They broke for lunch at half past eleven, making small talk among themselves. Tom shared a table with David.

When he wandered back to his room afterwards, the door was open even though he remembered he’d left it shut. There were noises coming from the bathroom. Wet squeaking, the sound of something like a monkey wrench falling flat on the tile. Tom poked his head in cautiously. Crouched on the floor in raggedy jeans was Chris whose hair hung in a loose ponytail behind his head. His shirt had hiked up over his back where sweat had pasted the flimsy material to his skin. He was tinkering with the shower handle, shoes leaving soot on the marble floor. He looked up as soon as he heard Tom clear his throat.

“Hey,” Chris said, looking faintly embarrassed. “I didn’t think you’d be back so soon.” He wiped his hand across the front of his shirt, leaving a large wet print on the chest.

“Lunch had just finished.” Tom shrugged, dragging his eyes up from that point of interest to Chris’ face. “How’s the shower?”

Chris gave the handle one last vicious tug before stepping back. It turned on, gushing sprays of cool water. “Great,” he said, holding his hand under the spray and laughing. “You can use it now.” He pointed at Tom’s arm.

“What happened to your arm?”

Tom raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t even noticed until Chris brought it to his attention. His elbow had a patch of red bumps the shape of western Europe – exactly the kind of thing Luke had warned them about when he told them not to touch anything weird on the walking tour.

Chris’ eyebrows drew together in concern. “You have your ranch kit?”

Tom raised the bag to eye-level.

Chris exhaled in relief. He ambled over and shook out the bottle of chamomile lotion, pushing it towards Tom like he thought Tom was a kid or mentally deficient.

“Right,” said Tom, feeling vaguely annoyed. “Thanks.”

Chris gathered his stuff from the floor, pulling the shower curtains closed before lingering in the doorway. He lingered for what felt like a long time, watching Tom wait for him to make any sudden movements. Tom felt hyperaware of his presence, and shifted casually from one foot to another. His spine tingled and his skin itched. His entire body felt like a tea kettle rapidly filling with heat.

“I’ll see you around,” Chris said, finally, breaking the silence and springing back. He waved cordially.

Tom watched him walk down the hall, the slope of his great wide shoulders straining against the loving embrace of his cotton shirt. He looked like he belonged in an A&F ad. Tom tried hard not to blink but couldn’t. “I guess I will,” he murmured to himself. He scratched his arm.

Later, after he’d rubbed chamomile lotion on his elbow, he was surprised to find that the itch had gone completely.

 

*

 

He should’ve gotten the indoor Jacuzzi; that, at least, would’ve occupied his time.

There was little to do after dinner and even less after people started drifting back to their rooms, too stuffed with pork chops and cornbread to play strip Scrabble in the living room.

Tom found David in the patio an hour after everyone had left, smoking quietly in one of the plastic lawn chairs, his legs crossed at the ankles. He looked strangely at peace even though half an hour ago he’d been chatting up Leonie and manically gesticulating every five seconds. He was singing to himself, a tune Tom recognized but couldn’t name.

“I didn’t know you smoke,” Tom told him, sitting next to him and reclining in his seat. The stars were out tonight, dotting the sky and shimmering. They were nothing like the stars in the city, choked by smog and street light, invisible among the thick roll of clouds and discontent.

David laughed. “These aren’t cigarettes.” His voice sounded raspy all of a sudden.

“Oh, I know,” Tom said.

“Come sit down with me,” said David, gesturing him over.

“I already am,” said Tom.

David shrugged. From the inside of his jacket, he produced a small bag of hand-rolled joints. Gingerly, he freed one from the pack. He handed it to Tom who declined politely, raising his hands palm-up. He didn’t want to do anything that could get him kicked out of the ranch or worse, arrested and deported back to the homeland. Or maybe the laws were flexible in America, Tom thought. Still, he didn’t want to take any chances. He was here on vacation. Any life-ruining decision would haunt him forever.

“Sorry,” Tom said. “I don’t smoke.”

“Trust me, Thomas, you need it.” David waved the joint in his face. “See, you just seem a little stiff to me. I can only hope you prove me wrong. Don’t be nervous.”

“Why would I be nervous?”

David shrugged again. Tom sighed and let the joint bob from his lips. He was easy. Too easy sometimes. Which had always been a problem. David reached over and lit the joint, smiling kindly before pulling away.

“Relax,” he said. “Live a little.” He squeezed Tom’s knee before uncrossing his legs.

Tom couldn’t remember the first time he’d smoked pot, though often he remembered why he did it the first time: he had wanted to get it over with, check off another box inside his head that led him a step closer towards being a real man. First non-masturbatory orgasm, first rave. First drunken phone call.

The last time he’d dabbled had been seven years ago when someone had brought a stash of it at a party where he’d felt, at first, like the most uncool person in the room, hanging back in the sidelines, watching people have fun and flirt with each other. A voyeur, the way he’d often felt in life. He’d been twenty or twenty one then, feeling sorry for himself and thinking about his future which his dad always told him was going nowhere fast. His dad could always be counted on to give the best pep-talk.

The next morning, Tom woke up pasted to someone’s floor, his shoes missing, his clothes smelling distinctly of puke. He went home in a cloud of stink that day, his shirt crusty with beer stains; he took the tube in his socks and got some pretty interesting looks. Still, he regretted nothing.

They sat smoking for a time until David excused himself to bed and left Tom alone in the patio, waving away mosquitoes and other prickly nocturnal insects. Getting high was just like other forms of mental unrest, like getting drunk or drinking an entire bottle of cough syrup. Tom felt the edges of his mind soften, his grasp on reality loosen. He got up and went to the front yard.

He knew what he wanted to do as soon as he saw the truck tire swing in the breeze. Tom kicked off his shoes, toes sinking in the soft grass as he positioned himself stomach-down through the center. His arms dangled in front of him. His ass was raised slightly in the air. Tom used his bare feet to push himself until the rope was wound in a tight spiral. Then he let go, picking up his feet from the ground and letting the rope spin until he thought he was going to ricochet across the hill.

“Tom?”

Tom blinked one eye open. He hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep. He felt suddenly hungry. He opened his other eye and saw that it was Chris standing there over him, his massive shoulders to the light so that he looked gilded like a messenger of the Lord. His hair hung loose for a change, soft cascading waves around his face. “What are you doing out here?”

“I think the question is what are you doing out here?”

Chris shone a beam of light at Tom’s face, lowering the torch in his hand after Tom protested and flailed. “Are you drunk?”

“Are you?”

Chris looked amused. “I’m looking for Greg.”

“Who’s Greg?”

“One of the kids. He’s wandered off. Been missing for about an hour, maybe two? Luke and Liam are searching the house, I think, and a few other guys are scattered around in case he decided to go exploring or something. I hope he hasn’t gone very far.” He made a face, staring at something across the distance, frowning.

“What are you doing down there?” Chris raised an eyebrow.

Tom sniffed. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

Chris tilted his head to the side. “Frankly, I’m not sure,” he said, looking like he wanted to laugh.

Tom wasn’t sure either, and he still felt hungry as he eased himself from the center of the tire, staggering back against the sugar maple. He wondered if they still had any leftover pastrami sandwiches in the kitchen; he wondered where he’d left his phone.

Chris, stepping back, stared down at Tom’s feet and Tom found himself doing the same shortly after. His toes seemed unnaturally white against the dark grass, fish-belly pale and dainty.

“Where are your shoes?” said Chris, already scoping the area for them, flashing spots of light across the grass with his trusty torch. After a minute, he gave a triumphant noise and said, “Ha! Found them! Here they are,” and tossed them at Tom who jumped as they hit his ankles.

“Thanks,” Tom muttered, sitting down heavily on a patch of dry grass as he stuffed his feet back into them. They seemed tighter for some reason and Chris started snickering.

“What’s so funny?”

Chris shook his head, tugging him up to his feet as soon as he’d finished tying on his laces. Tom wiped his hands across the seat of his pants, noticing with dawning realization that it felt damp when they should not have been. His palms came away with flecks of mud and he glared up at Chris who only smiled widely and clapped a hand on his shoulder.

Death, Tom thought. A slow and painful death.

“I have an extra torch,” Chris said, handing one to him and clicking it on and off, like Tom needed to be taught how to operate it. Tom snatched it from him before he gave the both of them epileptic seizures.

“You could help out, if you want. Look for Greg.” Chris shrugged. “We need an extra pair of hands.” He waggled his eyebrows at the ‘hands’ part and Tom thought he looked ridiculous. He wasn’t even a cowboy, he also thought. Nobody but Craig wore flannel.

“You in?”

“Whatever,” Tom said. It sounded noncommittal; cool. He didn’t want to commit before he knew what any of this entailed. He followed Chris downhill, straddling several steps just to catch up. When he did, reaching Chris’ elbow, Chris slowed down to wait and asked him if he was all right.

“I’m great.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I’m just,” Tom said. He grappled for the perfect word. “Great,” he finished.

 

*

 

They set out for the woods.

They walked for about an hour, past dark wind-bent trees and hissing grass, calling out for Greg simultaneously until their throats were hoarse and Tom threw up his hands and finally asked what had been bothering him ever since.

“Where are the horses? The men in cowboy boots and jolly hats, gathered around a campfire?”

“Jolly hats?” said Chris. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Tom rolled his eyes. “I thought this’d be a fun and stress-free environment. I thought there’d be cowboys! Like the brochure had promised.”

“It’s only your first day,” Chris told him, laughing. “And my brothers and I are cowboys. Sort of. A little. There are horses, I promise. I can show you tomorrow.”

Tom wasn’t convinced. “You’re not wearing flannel. Or leather chaps.” He pointed at Chris’ pants, which were tight in the right places and had decorative rips at the knees, a poor excuse for pants, Tom knew, even though he was far from a connoisseur. “Not a cowboy, obviously.” He laughed, not knowing why he found that funny, exactly.

“I’m sorry I left them in my cowboy closet,” said Chris with a snort. “Why are you so upset?”

“I’m hungry, my feet hurt.” Tom started counting off his fingers. “And I want to ride horses. And there are none!”

“You want to ride horses? At midnight?”

“I hear it’s particularly freeing,” sniffed Tom.

“Well,” Chris said after a moment, scratching the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “You can’t ride horses in those shoes, mate. I mean, loafers?”

“Yes loafers,” said Tom. “They’re classy, aren’t they? Women love men in classic shoes.”

“Sure,” Chris said with a short laugh. He shook his head like he didn’t believe it before bumping their shoulders together in what Tom assumed was a gesture of camaraderie.

“I could teach you how to ride tomorrow,” Chris said quietly, pausing to tug at a low-hanging branch of a tree they’d ducked under. He let it go with a whoosh.

“I love to ride,” blurted Tom. “Well, I would love to ride. I haven’t really been on an actual horse, but in this TV movie I was part of a few years ago, I got to ride this fake horse, you see. I was strapped to a saddle attached to a motor.” Tom made a feeble attempt to describe it with his hands. “It shook up and down. It was nice.”

“You rode a Sybian?” Chris asked with some disbelief.

“What?”

Chris looked away, biting his lip. “Nothing,” he said, rubbing his temple like he was getting a migraine. They walked some more in the quiet, not talking, until Chris stopped abruptly in his tracks and grabbed Tom’s shoulder, frowning at something his gaze had fixated on.

Tom heard only the rush of wind through the leaves but Chris’ sudden silence made him nervous.

“Shhh,” Chris hissed, bringing his fingers up to his lips.

“I wasn’t even saying anything,” Tom complained. He kept himself well hidden though, behind Chris, thinking, well, if a hungry wolf came loping out of the darkness, at least Chris got to die first. He was thicker and therefore had more meat, and would keep a predator occupied for awhile, giving Tom ample time to either say his prayers or run for his life.

But it wasn’t a wolf that emerged from the shadows, or anything strange or terrifying that posed a real threat to their lives; it was just Luke, huffing out a breath as he waded through the moonlit inky murk. He had Greg with him who sniffed and looked scared and whose shirt was caked in mud. His eyes shone with unshed tears. He glanced up at Tom and Chris, scrubbing a fist across his cheek.

Tom remembered getting lost in the woods himself when he was eight, how he had cried and eaten wild berries and thought he’d never get to see his mum and dad again.

Chris rubbed a hand across his chest, laughing in relief. “Jesus. You scared the shit out of me, man.”

Luke turned his gaze to Tom after exchanging what looked like a complicated handshake with Chris. “This happens a lot,” he explained. “We tell people not to wander off but do they listen?”

“They don’t,” Chris continued, like it was a well-rehearsed spiel. He swung an arm around Tom’s shoulders companionably, hauling him from the tree he leaned against. Up close Chris smelled good, like newly turned earth. Like warm skin, mineral and sweet. Tom sagged against him in spite of himself.

“Come on,” Chris said. “You still hungry?”

“You have no idea,” Tom told him.

They set off again and Chris’ arm fell loose around Tom’s waist as they went. Then it lingered against Tom’s hip where it curled for a second before unlatching itself as Chris pocketed his hand and walked several paces ahead.

 

*

 

The next day began with promise.

Tom woke at noon, feeling faintly buzzed and loose-limbed. He showered to rid himself of the feeling and was surprised to find a note slid under his door. It was from Chris. Riding Lessons at 4 – C., it read. The note felt strangely illicit in nature which gave Tom a secret thrill. Private lessons, he thought, and didn’t know why he was suddenly excited.

Tom pocketed the note and went to get some coffee. Everyone had left for another nature walk which meant he had free reign over the kitchen. He started making himself a sandwich and seated himself at the counter, looking over a baking magazine someone had left in the living room. He was halfway through it when Chris appeared, clomping towards him, looking sweaty but cheerful.

“Hey,” said Chris, rapping his knuckles against the countertop. He wore his hair in a ponytail again, neat and tight, and when he leaned forward, the V of his shirt dipped low over his collarbone.

“Hi,” said Tom. He mopped up the crumbs from his face with a table napkin, swallowing his last bite with some difficulty.

Chris stared at him for a few seconds. Gradually, his smile faded. “You seem…” He trailed off and gestured with his hand. “Different.”

“Different how?”

“I don’t know.” Chris looked at him again, unflinching, swiping a thumb over his chin in thought. “Just different.”

“I got your note,” Tom told him, just so he could change the subject and pretend he didn’t feel self-conscious under Chris’ scrutiny. “I don’t have riding clothes though.”

“No problem,” Chris assured him. “I can lend you some.”

“Awesome,” said Tom. They stared at each for a second longer than Tom felt comfortable with.

“Sorry if I acted strangely last night,” he said. He had to say it. He remembered everything in vivid detail. Chris had walked him back to his room and told him, teasingly, not to wander off too. And Tom had wanted to lean up and touch his face, squeeze his cheeks until they bulged like a squirrel’s, but instead shoved Chris back from the door so that Chris staggered back, grinning. He’d wanted to do other things too, but thinking about them made Tom feel guilty and unable to look Chris in the eye.

“I may have smoked something,” Tom confessed, putting great emphasis on the may. “One of the guests –” He didn’t want to tattle – “may have offered me something. Maybe.”

Chris waved a hand. “You were hilarious.”

“Hilarious good or…?”

“Good,” Chris laughed. “Hilarious good.”

“Good,” Tom said. Then he burst out laughing too. “Oh god,” he said. He was glad he hadn’t done anything too stupid.

Chris pushed himself off the counter half an hour later after a glass of orange juice and a plate of sugar cookies that Tom found in the cupboard and laid out for him. He claimed he still had some chores to finish, animatedly gesturing with his hands to convey their magnitude and importance. “But I’ll see you at four,” he promised, lifting his hand in a wave and walking backwards.

Tom watched him until he shut the door.

 

*

 

Emma, like most girls in Tom’s family, went through a horse-crazy phase. She collected books about horse-riding, cutting up pictures from magazines that she taped haphazardly on her bedroom wall and then took down as soon as she turned eight and realized her true calling: ballet. Horses were for little girls.

Tom called her on his way out of the house, a finger plugged in his left ear to muffle the piercing yip of one of the family dogs bounding towards him. “Guess what I’m about to do,” he said.

“Tom, I’m at work.”

“There will be horses involved,” Tom told her.

Emma laughed, a little girlish giggle that made Tom laugh too. “Take a picture for me,” she said before she hung up.

Tom was thrilled when Chris led him to the stables, showing off his family’s best horses all of whom were named, he said, after the best American writers. It had been his dad’s idea – he used to be a college professor in the eighties before Liam was born – though he allowed Chris and his brothers to name a few of their own. Chris’ horse was named Bixby after a pet of his that had been run over shortly after his family moved to America.

“Was Bixby a dog?” Tom asked. The fond way Chris had described him made him sound like one.

Chris laughed. “Actually,” he said, pressing his lips together like he was biding time. “He was a gecko. We lived in the outback and I found him wandering around outside and my parents said I could keep him. I was ten or something.”

“Some childhood you must’ve had then,” said Tom.

Chris shrugged. He ducked his head shyly, pocketing both his hands. “I was barefoot all the time and like, half-naked.”

“Must’ve been brilliant,” Tom said, feeling only vaguely guilty for picturing it, a younger gawky Chris with tanned shoulders and shorter hair. “I went to boarding school so I didn’t have much of a childhood. Well, no, actually I enjoyed my time there. It wasn’t without its moments. I played rugby a lot. And sang in choir, which wasn’t really… There was a boy,” Tom finished, not sure where he was going.

Chris smiled at him without pressing him for details.

The stables were well-ventilated and clean though stray tufts of hay often littered the floor where the horses were housed. Horses peered out lazily from their stalls. Some huffed, whinnied. Chris reached out across the chest-high door to stroke the side of Bixby’s neck.

Things took a different turn, however, when Chris introduced Tom to Whitman, the meanest, friskiest, most untrusting horse his family had the pleasure of owning. “You want to ride the best?” he teased, jerking his head in Whitman’s direction. “This, here, is the best. Better than your motorized fake-horse.”

Tom laughed without any real humor, swallowing nervously as Whitman fixated on him with dark luminous eyes capable of murder.

“I think I’ll ride Bixby,” Tom said.

Chris laughed but nodded. “You sure?” He patted Whitman who nickered sweetly, turning his head in Chris’ direction.

“Oh, definitely,” said Tom.

Later, when Tom had mounted and was dressed in riding gear, complete with helmet and a drying glob of suntan lotion on his face, Chris taught him all he knew about horses, what sort of sounds they made when they were tired or feeling threatened, the difference between riding English and Western, why loafers were a bad idea to wear on a ranch.

“Just relax,” said Chris who stood by Bixby’s side in case he bucked and threw Tom off, paralyzing him forever from the neck down.

“I am relaxed,” Tom lied. He gripped the reins so hard his knuckles began to hurt.

“Okay,” Chris said slowly, like Tom was a small child. “Well, keep your head and your shoulders up, your heels down, but try not to squeeze too hard. No, no, don’t jam your feet too far into the stirrup.”

“I’m trying,” Tom said, feeling majestically inexperienced. Chris patted his ankle to adjust his footing and then patted his hands to get them to relax their grip on the reins.

“You look great,” Chris said, taking a step back.

Tom wondered if the complement were meant for him or the horse.

Chris steered him around the track for about an hour, ambling a safe distance away on foot and kicking up balls of dust with his weather-beaten boots.

The sun was just setting, smearing the sky behind them a soft orange when Bixby sped up to a trot that jostled Tom out of his thoughts. Chris jogged to catch up to them, the muscles of his arms bulging as he re-tied his hair behind his head.

“You know,” Tom said, looking away as soon as Chris had finished. “I think I could get used to this.”

Chris glanced up at him, startled out of silence. “It’s not so bad,” he said carefully. “When you’ve been riding for awhile, like I have, it’s just…life.”

“Life,” Tom repeated. He smiled though he tried not to. “I think I could live here. It’d be nice. Fresh air, horses.” He breathed in deep. “Stars out at night.”

Chris made a face. “We don’t have motorized horses, and you can’t go around in loafers. You won’t last a month here.” He pointed at Tom. “And that’s me being generous.”

Tom laughed.

When it became too dark to continue riding, they headed back to the stables where a couple of other guys employed by Chris’ parents were grooming and feeding the horses. Tom said goodbye to Bixby who ignored him and turned away when Tom patted him on the base of his neck, down where the neck met the withers just like Chris had taught him earlier.

Then he and Chris began the long walk back to the house in easy silence, Chris humming something off-key, Tom pretending he didn’t want to hum along too.

 

*

 

What bothered Tom about the whole experience was that, even though nothing quite met expectation, things didn’t seem to disappoint, either.

The last twenty four hours, while punctuated with mediocre highs and lows in terms of enjoyment, were tiresomely monotonous, with scheduled hay rides that gave David allergies and other idyllic team activities meant to foster lasting friendship among visitors. They returned to the petting zoo where earlier that day Tom witnessed an elderly cow give birth. He couldn’t look away no matter how much he’d wanted to. It had been… life-changing to say the least.

Still, it wasn’t as terrible as it sounded on paper, which often surprised Tom. He enjoyed the tedium, listening to the shrill call of birds as he went for walks alone in the afternoon, looking for a place with the best phone signal.

Lapses in his attention occurred whenever Chris showed up in low-slung jeans or leaned against a fence to talk to him while Tom rode with the others. Chris always looked beautiful under the sun, white shirt rippling across his chest, belt buckle gleaming proudly. The hair on his arms shone gold. Sometimes he even wore boots. He was the selling point, Tom knew, of the whole experience.

Later to his delight, Tom found Chris in the kitchen in the dead of midnight, a plate of sandwich in one hand and a can of beer in the other. A bag of crisps was held between his teeth.

Chris lowered everything as soon as Tom neared, blushing as he grinned and dipped his head.

“Someone’s hungry,” Tom said.

“Yeah. A little.”

Chris smoothed back his hair, looking up. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“No,” Tom confessed. He’d tried a variety of positions, lying on his side, flat on his back, curled like a child in a C shape, but sleep simply eluded him that evening. He was wide awake. To make matters worse, nothing good was on TV. And someone had changed the WiFi password; Tom couldn’t even e-mail his sister. He’d been aiming for an evening stroll when he heard puttering in the kitchen.

“Well, I’m heading back,” Chris said, gathering up all the food to his chest. He hesitated at the door, glancing at Tom, like he wanted to say something.

“Look,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb. “Since you can’t sleep anyway, you wanna maybe—” He shrugged and Tom said okay before Chris could even finish the thought. He felt himself blush and tried to hide it by laughing it off and rubbing his jaw which was raspy with stubble he’d forgotten to shave this morning.

Chris smiled slowly.

That was how Tom got himself invited to Chris’ place, a shack with board-and-batten sidings and a terne-coated steel roof.

The walls were lined with seventies wood paneling. The living area was spacious, at least twice the size of Tom’s own bedroom back at home, pine-scented and neat with a high shelf full of books next to a single leather armchair that faced a low coffee table. There were magazines everywhere, rolled up on the seat, or face-down on the mahogany desk where a restored transistor radio sat, knob and all, next to a lamp with a bendable neck. Surfing magazines, Tom realized when he picked one up.

In the far end of the room was a TV set – one of those old models with the VCR that Tom’s grandparents still used. Behind it on the wall, Tom could see as soon as he got close enough, was a flock of surfing postcards: surfers standing or crouching on their boards, suspended in towering waves. Tom leaned over and touched one, the glossiest of the set still unmarred by dust. It was a photograph of Chris. He had shorter hair and wore electric blue board shorts, his back facing the sea. He looked happy.

Chris sat on the edge of his bed, a tumult of thick bedding pushed directly under the window. He started eating his sandwich, breaking off pieces that he stuffed in a wad in his mouth.

“This is so cozy,” Tom said, peering discreetly into Chris’ walk-in closet before seating himself across him on a lumpy beanbag. Chris laughed. “Do you live here?”

“Only when I’m in town, which is a few months a year,” Chris said. “I travel sometimes.”

Tom nodded. He grabbed a book lying on the very corner of the rug. He flipped through it.

“My heart is gold, what will you give me for it,” he read, touching the curling pages. A bookmark fell directly into his lap: another photograph of Chris, this time with his friends, beers in their free hand as they cradled their surfboards. Tom stared at it for a moment before slipping it back between the pages.

“So, riding, surfing, is there something that you don’t do?”

Chris snorted on his beer. “Fly,” he said, nodding seriously. “What do you do? You act right?”

Tom shrugged. “Among other things,” he said vaguely. He liked to keep an element of mystery.

Chris smiled as he rubbed his hands down his pants. He told Tom Liam wanted to be an action star when he was little, that they used to take turns pretending they were John Rambo in the yard. “Are you any good?” he asked after a moment, licking his thumbs clean.

“Oh, I’m great,” Tom said. “I’m the best.”

Chris laughed.

“I don’t want to be famous, you know,” Tom continued. He picked at a thread that had come loose on his shirt. “I just want to do what I love. Which is. Acting.”

Tom glanced up. Chris was staring at him. His eyes were intent. “Do you get a lot of visitors here?” Tom asked.

“A few hundred every year,” replied Chris. “Mostly during the summer.”

“No, I meant,” Tom spread his hands to indicate the living room. “Your little shack. Do you get visitors?”

Chris laughed again, a deep rumble that seemed to reverberate inside his chest. “Not many, unfortunately. You’re one of the very few.”

The way he said that, winking and grinning, made Tom feel like he’d just won something: the lottery, the sweepstakes, a bet he’d made with himself. He stayed.

They played cards to pass the evening, a bowl of salted peanuts between them that went untouched. Before Tom knew it, it was late enough it was morning again, and the sky outside had lightened considerably. Birds chirped. Nearly sunrise.

Tom tossed his cards on the table and made to get up, but his thighs had fallen asleep and he staggered a little. “I enjoyed this,” he said. At this point, he was drunk on Chris’ supply of Red Bitters. He felt lightheaded and serene; he felt good.

His chest lurched when Chris smiled at him. Tom felt even better.

“At this point it’s probably easier to stay up, you know,” said Chris. He stared up at Tom through a curtain of blond hair.

Unable to argue with that logic, Tom sat down again.

“I’ll get us fresh peanuts,” Chris told him, patting him on the back as he passed. As soon as he’d gone, Tom made himself comfortable on the bed. He told himself he was just resting his eyes, that he wasn’t tired, not really, but the second his eyes closed, he fell quietly asleep, face pushed up against Chris’ pillows.

He woke four hours later, fully dressed on top of the sheets, though his shoes had mysteriously gone missing. Sun filtered in through the window. Tom felt hot and sticky. His shirt had rucked up his stomach. He still had his pants. Good.

“Morning,” said Chris, slurping his coffee and staring down at him.

“Mm,” Tom replied, a sound meant to approximate a greeting.

Chris left, returning a full minute later with a protein bar in his other hand. Tom watched him move around the room, putting things back in a semblance of order. His hair was untied, hanging limply on either side of his face. He looked freshly-showered.

Tom sat up, reaching under the bed for his shoes. They weren’t there. Typical, he thought.

Chris, catching sight of him later on with his ass in the air and his head under the bed, said, “Shoes,” and pointed Tom to a corner.

“Right,” said Tom. “What time is it?”

“Almost seven. You’re going to miss your cattle drive if you don’t hurry,” Chris told him, parking himself on a stool that seemed too small for him.

“Do I even want to know what that is?”

“It’s exactly what you think it is,” Chris assured him.

They walked back to the house after Chris had finished his breakfast. People were milled outside on the porch, newcomers Tom didn’t recognize, who looked confused like stranded orphans. They had rucksacks on their backs and carried rolls of sleeping bags. Chris said they were going camping in the woods.

In the living room, Luke was giving everyone a lecture on what to expect during a cattle drive. He wore a Stetson. Tom didn’t want to admit it, but Luke looked pretty cool, talking authoritatively with one hand on his hip.

“You coming Tom?” Luke asked, flicking his eyes up at Chris and then back to Tom again. Something must’ve passed between them because a second later, Chris rubbed Tom’s shoulder and said he had something to do.

Tom said, “I think I’ll sleep in,” because he was tired and Chris had told him all he needed to know about a cattle drive on their walk back. That had been enough. He didn’t feel like partaking in the ritual.

“All right,” Luke said agreeably. “There’ll be riding lessons at two this afternoon. You in?”

Tom held up a thumb. “Definitely.”

 

*

 

The heat began to settle when Tom set out for the stables.

He wore the boots Chris had lent him the other day, scuffed and run down at the heels, with his last pair of clean socks. He went in his best jeans too, his good luck jeans, which were not as tight as they once were, but comfortable enough that any friction between his thighs wouldn’t agitate the horse.

There were already people there when Tom arrived. David, with his artfully coifed hair, stood texting on one side, wearing his famous leather jacket. Luke was helping Greg mount Alcott, a mare Tom had ridden the other day.

He couldn’t see Chris anywhere.

Liam, who’d been saddling a bay Tom recognized as Hemmy, grinned up at him and waved. “Hey,” he said, brushing back Hemmy’s neck with his knuckles.

Tom nodded. “Hey. Where’s Chris?” He tried not to seem too eager.

Liam cinched the saddle around Hemmy, tightening the girth before lightly scratching his mane. “Oh, he’s around,” he said, smiling. “You riding?” he asked, finally looking up.

Tom shrugged. He had always liked Hemingway best – his forceful declaratives, the lean conciseness of his prose – but he didn’t feel like riding a horse named after him just yet. He’d seen how fast Hemmy often went; the bay was built for speed, not leisurely walks down the track.

“I think I’ll ride Bixby,” Tom said.

Liam nodded in understanding, but sighed, pretending to be put-out. “Suit yourself, then.” He gestured behind him to the stables where some of the trainers were clearing out the roster, and then led Hemmy away, cooing at him as he nickered and tugging lightly on his reins. “Come on, Hemmy, let’s see if someone wants to ride you today,” he said.

Tom didn’t get to ride Bixby though, because Chris had apparently taken him for a stroll. Instead, he had ended up with Fitz who was friendly enough and peaceful and never lunged when he didn’t have to. The only problem was that Fitz was easily distracted and, like his namesake, content to keep at his own pace. Fitz chewed on stray blades of grass whenever he felt like it. It was like attempting to start a temperamental car.

Tom stayed behind even after he’d finished riding, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of Chris before dinner. Liam, who was the last to leave the stables, walked with him back to the house. He smiled before he left Tom in the kitchen. “Night,” he said.

Deciding to take matters into his own hands though he felt a little silly seeking Chris out, Tom paid the shack a visit as soon as everyone had gone to bed. The light inside was on but Chris didn’t seem to be home. Tom knocked a few times. Not even the curtains stirred.

He was about to head back, feeling annoyed with himself that he’d come so far without getting much out of the evening, when he heard the crunch of footsteps. He pushed himself off the wall. Chris.

Chris blinked at him, grinning. He looked tired but otherwise happy. “Oh, hey,” he said.

Tom was about to say hey too until he noticed Chris wasn’t alone.