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---   J E F F R E Y   G I A N E L L I  

Francine made another pot of coffee. The sun was just beginning to come up, and outside she could see the dogs roaming around, waiting to be fed.

"Well," she said to herself, "That's his job, and they'll just have to wait."

One time, Jed rode all the way to Dallas without saying a word. He'd stayed there for almost a week before finally calling her, but only because he ran out of money. Twenty years ago, now. Just one time, and that was all. He might sit in his room all day, writing useless music, or playing his guitar. He might camp out on the ranch all night, shooting coyotes, or repairing barbed wire fences. But he never left, though he might not even speak some days, not to her or to anyone else.

When the coffee was ready, she poured herself a cup, then stood at the counter for a moment, remembering nights when Jed's father was belligerent, slapping her around and calling her names, how Jed would hide off for hours at a time. She knew that's how it started, but she didn't quite understand why it continued. Her hands grasped the coffee cup tightly, she was tired and angry and a little scared. When Jed casually walked through the front door a few moments later, she looked down at her watch and found that it was six a.m. He was wearing a tan leather jacket, with blue jeans and a white tee-shirt, his hair ruffled from the wind.

"What in God's name did you do out there in the dark tonight?" she asked, the safest question she could think of. She knew well enough from the last time that Jed felt like he didn't owe her any explanations. He smiled at her coyly as he took off his jacket and hung it up on the coat rack.

"There's a ravine on the north side of the ranch, mama," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "Story goes that a man and his bride were riding on their way to Virginia City to get married, when they came across this ravine. It was dark and the man wasn't paying much attention. When you stand at the edge and look down you can barely make out the skull of the horse they were riding on," he said, hoping this would alleviate any more questions.

"Honestly, Jed," she muttered, shaking her head. "Honestly."

Jed sat down at the table and Francine opened the fridge door, then took out some eggs and some of her homemade pork sausage for their breakfast. Jed leaned over the kitchen table, rubbing his temple's in a futile effort to make his headache go away, thinking that later on he'd snatch a few Vicodins from his mother's medicine cabinet.

"Your aunt Rose asked about you yesterday," Francine said as she beat the eggs. She waited for a response, but Jed just sat there, picking at his mustache while he looked at the funny pages. When the eggs were done and the sausage was sizzling hot, Francine spooned Jed's breakfast onto a plate and brought it over to him. Jed started to get up for coffee, but she gently pushed him down and got it herself.

"This is the best sausage yet, mama," he said. The fact that he was starving may have contributed to this notion, still he meant it.

"I told her you was doing fine, working the ranch, keeping food on the table."


"Aunt Rose...."

"Oh, right," he nodded.

Francine was almost as distracted as he was, looking out the window as the sun rose further and the sky was illuminated in red and yellow pastels, a few clouds drifting past. She made a plate for herself and sat down at the table next to Jed. Francine disliked sitting down to eat. The old wooden chair made her back ache, and she was sure to get indigestion sitting hunched over her food like that. Years and years of rushing to prepare everyone else's meal so that she hardly had time for her own had gotten her used to eating in a standing position. But Jed would always chastise her, so she sat and tried not to notice the aching in her bones.

"And how's old Aunt Rose doing mama?"

"Well, she has arthritis, her back hurts. Every day she seems to deteriorate more and more. But that's life for you." Francine ate her eggs in small, bird like bites. After a few moments she casually mentioned, "Tells me her son went and hired her a maid to help out a bit."

"A maid?" Jed asked. "That don't sound like cousin Brett."

"People change." Jed chuckled, then looked at her, curiously.

"What?" she asked in between bites.

"And maybe someone else could use a little extra help too, that what you're trying to say mama?"

"Well, now," she said, indignantly. "I can get by. I don't need some fancy maid."

"All right, " he said, snorting. Francine took one last bite of sausage, then cleared their plates, leaving most of her meal untouched.

Jed watched her do the dishes as he sipped his coffee. Francine was always in motion. She couldn't sit down and relax if her life depended on it. Even if they were guests in someone else's home. She was always the one who cleared the table, who hand washed wine glasses and dried the silverware. He noticed how even now, though she was nearly seventy years old, her kitchen was immaculate. The old linoleum was as reflective as the surface of a lake. Her copper pots and cast iron pans hung in neat rows over the stove, and her counters were white and more sterile than a hospital room. Everything had its function. There were no frilly pot holders or cow shaped cookie jars.

Jed finished his coffee, then got up and set his mug by the sink. Francine wouldn't dream of allowing him to wash his own dish. Jed wondered sometimes how his father could have ever let a woman like her slip through his fingers. Divorcing Jed's father Red was the first bold thing Francine had ever done in her life. Though she ended up doing him a real favor in the long run. Jed was almost old enough when they split up to cause Red some real physical damage. At fifteen he was six foot one and weighed 190 pounds, all muscle. He used to imagine that one day he would wait for his father behind the barn, pitch fork in hand, and nab him as he was coming out. Or they'd be driving cattle and he'd cause a stampede when Red was down roping. Jed would bury the body way out past Dry Creek at the north of the ranch, where no one would ever think to go. Or the ravine. But shortly after Francine kicked Red out of the house, he was killed in a fight.

Jed dried the dishes as Francine washed. She would allow that much, and when they were all done, he told her he was turning in. She turned to him and he kissed her cheek

"Love you, son."

"Love you too, mama." Francine watched as he headed towards his bedroom, wondering to herself if she was the only woman Jed had ever said those three words to.

The girl's name was Aurora. The fact that she wasn't from Nevada was immediately apparent. She had thick auburn hair that looked like it was dyed, and she wore a nose ring. Jed didn't like the nose ring, but he had to admit she wasn't hard too look at. She'd moved from California a few months ago, for a change of scenery she said. She had deep blue eyes and lips that were oddly shaped, a little too plump for her face.

"Have you ever had to look after someone as old as mama?" Jed asked her. They were standing on the side of the road next to the driveway, where Francine wouldn't be able to see them. Jed had called up the agency his cousin Brett referred him to a few days ago, and Aurora was the second girl they'd sent down here.

"I took care of my mother for a few years. She died last August," Aurora said, her eyes turned towards a hawk as it settled up high on the oak tree near the drive.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "Well now, why don't we introduce you two and see what happens?" They walked over to the house.

Francine protested it for a few days. At first, she wouldn't let Aurora touch a thing, carrying on about how she didn't like a stranger managing her life. But Aurora would tell her straight out, "Now you sit down and eat and don't you even think about getting up to do these dishes," and she would listen. Francine would follow Aurora around, helping her dust her collection of crystal miniatures in the parlor, holding the pan while Aurora swept the front porch. In the evenings when Jed woke up, Aurora would still be there sometimes, sitting at the kitchen table chatting with Francine. Francine would tell Aurora stories about life on the ranch, and Aurora would talk about California. Mostly Jed would just sit and listen. But a few times, usually after Francine left the table, he and Aurora had some rather long conversations.

One evening in particular, Francine was out with a few of her girl friends playing bingo. It was a Friday night, and Aurora had stayed even after Francine left, waiting for Jed to wake up. She had coffee and fresh banana nut bread waiting for him when he stumbled into the kitchen. Aurora was wearing a silk tye-dye dress and had her hair pulled back in a braid, her face devoid of any make- up. Jed's eyes were fixed on her as they sat and ate the Banana nut bread, Aurora chatting away endlessly.

"She let me do the laundry today, finally," Aurora said, wiping some crumbs off the corner of her mouth.

"Woah," he relied. "She's been holding off on that one for weeks."

"Well, mind you, she gave me explicit instructions first. 'Take care not to mix the white's in with he colored's'," Aurora said, imitating Francine's voice.

"I don't know how we got along without you."

"Seems to me you got along just fine," said Aurora.

They finished their bread in silence, then Jed cleared their plates and walked them to the sink.

"I think I kind of know what it's like, Jed," Aurora told him when he sat back down. He gazed at her, quizzically.

"What what's like?" he asked.

"With your mom. My mother was the same way. I felt like a prisoner. I mean, she was sick. She needed me," Aurora paused.

"I wouldn't say I feel like a prisoner," said Jed. He got up rather abruptly then headed to the fridge, where he grabbed each of them a Budweiser.

"Let me ask you a question," said Aurora, pulling open the tab of her beer. She took a long chug and burped loudly afterward.

"I'll be goddamned!" Jed exclaimed..

"Let me tell you, buddy, you haven't seen nothing till you've seen Aurora Backster drink a Bud," she said, poking him in the chest with her finger. "But seriously, now. My question," she paused. "Why do you stay out all night? Can you honestly tell me its not because that's the only time you feel like your free?" Jed licked his lips, tapping his beer can for a moment, then leaned over and kissed her, softly, with his mouth closed and his eyes open. Aurora gasped, then pulled away.

"What are your plans tonight?" he asked. She was still stunned from the kiss, her eyes open wide and her lips parted.

"I was just going to go home and watch the tube."

"How does a night out on the town sound to you?" Aurora lifted her eyebrows.

"Sounds great."

"I'm just gonna go hop in the shower." Jed told her, getting up.

"Wait one minute there, mister," she said. Jed felt her eyes studying him, as if she were trying to peer inside for answers. "You gonna tell me or are you just gonna pretend like I never asked and stand there blushing all night?"

"We'll continue this later," Jed told her. Her turned away and headed towards the bathroom.

"Make it a cold one," she called out.

When Jed was all dressed and ready, they headed out on his Harley, Aurora with her arms clasped tightly around his chest. As they neared the end of the drive they noticed a car coming towards the house. Jed turned around and whispered in her ear,


"You sure?"

"Yeah." The car pulled up next to them. Francine rolled down the window of her Mustang convertible, the one Jed bought her for Christmas a few years back. It was a 1969 model, painted steel-blue with a gray pinstripe, just like the one she'd bought for herself shortly after Red died. Her friends, Gladys and Eleanor, were in the car also.

"Good evening, ladies," Jed said to them. "I thought you was playing bingo tonight."

"Father Marvin's got the flu," said Francine. "Game was canceled." The only kind of gambling Francine would do is the kind that took place at the church hall.

"Well then, the three of you have a good time," he said, revving the engine on his bike.

"Where in the dickens are you off too?" Francine asked.

"Just going out," said Jed.

"Out where?" her eyes narrowed.

"See you later, mamma."

"Bye Francine!" Aurora shouted, waving, as they took off, the engine roaring loudly so that Francine covered her ears. Jed rode on for what seemed like forever, perturbed by his mother's nosiness. Aurora was groping his pecs with her hands, giggling in his ear. The sound of the wind penetrated their ears, and they felt like they were flying through the desert. They ended up at a place called 'The Bucket of Blood Saloon,' in Virginia city. There, they played the tables, going steady for a few hours on poker, and then losing everything to Jed's friend Hawkeye, who just happened to be there at the worst time possible. Lucky for Jed, Hawkeye went home early, but not before he made a few bold and, Jed thought, rather annoying comments about how good Aurora looked in her dress. Jed and Aurora sat in the lounge for awhile after he left, drinking whiskey while Aurora chatted on.

"You never feel like your alone in California," she said. The lights were low, so that they had to sit real close just to be able to see each other. Jed had put away a few shots of whiskey and was starting to feel a little drunk. Aurora had gotten there a long time ago. "I never realized it until I moved here. Even when you're alone there, you can always find traces. A telephone pole, a beer can. Out here you can go for miles without seeing any signs of human life. I needed that, that sense of being alone, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I do actually. But come on, what really made you leave? You never told me."

"What else. A man," Aurora said.


"Nothing to tell. He's back there and I'm out here." Jed took her hand, nervously, and kissed the top of it. She let him hold it for awhile.

"And you?" she asked.

"What about me?"

"I'm surprised no one's grabbed you up yet," she said. Jed sighed.

"I'm forty three years old, Aurora. There's been a lot of women in my life. But it never lasts."

"And why is that?'" she asked. He looked in her eyes, the whiskey making him dizzy. "I've never met one that's worth it," he answered. She started to laugh but the look on his face made her stop.

Jed rode with his tan leather jacket tied around his waist. It was a warmer evening than usual. He loved the feel of the night air rushing against him. He was already starting to feel a little tired though. Jed had been sleeping most nights the past few weeks, getting up at the crack of dawn with Francine, going out after breakfast to do his work, then coming home around two or so, when Aurora would have lunch waiting for him.

He past the barbed wire fence that marked the boundaries of his property, heading down Highway 80. The land was spotted with bushes and rocky hills that had a hint of green to them, now that winter was over and the grasses were starting to come up. He remembered what Aurora said about there being no signs of human life. She was right. The telephone lines were underground, and a little further on the land was useless for farming or ranching as the hills gave way to a flat and endless desert-like region, so there were no fences either. Every so often a bar or a gas station would pop up, maybe a house or two. Jed felt nice and relaxed, watching the sky take on a brilliant shade of gold as the sun went down. He pulled the throttle and kicked it up to 65, not wanting to be late.

"I've never quite understood it," said Francine.

"Men are strange creatures, hon," said Aurora. It was late afternoon, and the two of them were sitting in the parlor, sipping tea and watching The Golden Girls. Francine's living room was sparse, with an antique red velvet couch, a bookcase, a cocktail table, and a large cherry wood cabinet with doors that hid the TV when Francine had visitors over. The tea was nice and hot, and Francine had poured milk and sugar into both of theirs, telling Aurora that it was the way they took it in England.

"I'll tell you," said Francine, holding out an old coca-cola tray full of cookies. Aurora grabbed a hand full, giggling. The tray had a scene of an old woman and a young man opening gifts underneath a Christmas tree. "He's been like this ever since he was a boy," Francine continued.

"And not one woman that was serious? Least that's what he says."

"None that lasted," said Francine. "That's a good thing, I suppose."

"Why's that?"

"Let me tell you something about Jed." She poured herself some more tea, wondering how she could put it without having to come right out and say. "He's a loner, Aurora. He keeps to himself. No woman can stand a man like that too long. They get lonely, and then they move on." They sat in silence for a few moments, Aurora nervously tapping her fingers on the arm of the love seat, then she asked,

"Do you have any other kids?"

"I had a little girl who'd be about your age now. She died when she was two."

"I'm sorry."

"Life's life," Francine said, abruptly.

"You said we needed to talk earlier. What's going on?" Aurora asked. Francine lowered her tea cup.

"The two of you are getting awful friendly," she said. Aurora gave her a confused sort of look that Francine thought was more for show than anything.

"I like him a lot."

"I suspect he likes you, too," said Francine, her lips tightening in spite of herself. She forced a smile, knowing that she needed to be more careful "You see," she continued. "Jed just don't know how to take care of a woman."

"How so?" asked Aurora.

"Well," she paused. "He's like a leech," she said, gesturing with her hands. "He'll latch on to you real tight, drain some blood, and fall off when he's had his fill. He'll go back to sleeping all day and riding around on his bike all night to God knows where. Take tonight for example."

"I'm not too sure if I'm the kind of woman who would mind that," said Aurora. Francine shot her an angry look.

"Stay away from him," she blurted out, biting her tongue afterwards. "He'll hurt you," she said, hoping that all was not lost. "Sure as he's hurt the rest of them." Her hands started to tremble. She placed her tea cup on the cocktail table, then sat back and folded her hands onto her lap so Aurora wouldn't see them shake.

The sun was just starting to disappear under the ridge, so that it hurt Jed's eyes to ride on. He turned onto Old County Road and headed towards Hawkeye's place on the Indian reservation. Hawkeye had invited Jed to a Peyote ceremony. Jed had taken plenty of LSD when he was younger, but he'd never had peyote before. He supposed he was a little too old for such things, but Hawkeye had told him it was actually an ancient Indian ritual that was something very spiritual, not just a way to get cheap thrills. Jed met Hawkeye one night at a bar in Virginia City, where the two of them had played a hand of blackjack that lasted for over two hours. Hawkeye was the one who ended up winning, but he treated Jed to a bottle of Wild Turkey afterwards. Jed didn't have any friends, and few acquaintances, but he hit it off with Hawkeye almost immediately. He supposed it was because they were so much alike. They hung out at the casino's every so often, content with that and not much more. This would be the first time Jed had ever been to Hawkeye's place.

The reservation consisted of not much more that a few houses, some mobile home trailers, a grocery store, a bar, and a trading post. Hawkeye lived on the outskirts a few miles down from the center. He was out on the porch when Jed pulled up, drinking beer along with a few of his friends. Jed parked his bike next to Hawkeye's pickup truck. The sun had gone all the way down now. It was a clear night, stars everywhere. There was hardly any lighting out on the reservation, and the constellations shone brightly and fully, adding to the places mystic quality.

The men wore nothing but tan leather loin cloth's tied around their waists; their faces and arms covered with warrior paint, and their long hair pulled into tight braids that hung down their backs.

"Wow," Jed exclaimed.

"You ready for yours?" Hawkeye asked.


"I've got everything you need inside, my friend." Jed followed Hawkeye into the house, which was the perfect set up for a man who lived by himself. Hawkeye had a large screen TV, and a small refrigerator next to the couch that could hold no more than a twelve pack of beer and some cold cuts. His little tourist trap in Carson City had done pretty well for him. Hawkeye led Jed into a small bedroom, while the others stayed behind and watched a football game on the television. Jed changed into the loin cloth that Hawkeye gave him, then sat patiently as he applied warrior paint to Jed's face and his chest. The paint felt tight and sticky as it started to dry. Jed went to scratch his nose as they were walking out of the room, but Hawkeye grabbed his arm to stop him.

"No," he said. "You can't smear it."

"Watch out for rattlesnakes," Hawkeye's friend, Jimbo, called out as the men stepped away from the house and into the open land. As they walked, Hawkeye and his friends were talking in some language that Jed didn't understand. After awhile, Jimbo turned to Jed and told him,

"We should prepare you for the ceremony."

"Aren't I already prepared?" Jed asked.

"Physically yes, spiritually, no," said Jimbo, pausing. He looked up at the sky, spreading his arms out. "First, you must open your mind and take things as they come. Show no resistance," he shouted, his voice echoing off the cliffs in the distance. Jed started to feel a little worried that he would ruin the ceremony with his ignorance.

"No, we will guide you," Jimbo said. Jed pulled his head back, eyes wide, a chill running up his spine.

They walked on for more than an hour, up and down plateaus, watching the ground for rattlers. Periodically, they could hear coyote's howling in the distance. Finally, they neared a round-house that was set out in the middle of nowhere. Jed walked up to it, cautiously, as if it would break if he came near it. It was constructed out of logs, with tan hides stretched around for walls.

"How old is this?" Jed asked.

"It's very old," Hawkeye said. "Probably built around the 1700's. Were lucky it's still standing."

After they went inside, the men all sat in a circle on the dirt floor. Jimbo started a fire, and they watched until the flames were roaring. Then, they took out the peyote and passed it around. When it got to Jed, he stopped to examine it for a moment. It didn't look very appetizing; all gray and wrinkled. When he bit into it, it tasted so bitter he almost had to spit it out. Hawkeye laughed at the expression on his face.

"Your probably going to get sick," he said. "Just make sure you get out of here in time if you have to puke!" The men all laughed. Then, they instructed Jed on what he should do. They told him it creeps up slowly. When he felt it start to come on, he should sit silently and not fight it. They would remain silent until everyone had a chance to let the medicine run through his blood, then they would share their collective experience.

I wish I could just fire the girl, thought Francine. But Jed would never allow that.

She sat on her easy chair, wringing her hands as she stared at the television. An old western was on that starred Clint Eastwood. She'd barely been paying attention as the war scene played out, but when it was over Eastwood and some actress she didn't know were sitting in a saloon, and that song by Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You," came on. It reminded her of the time she and Jed had gone to the Nugget in Reno to see Dolly perform, shortly after Red was killed. Jed was about seventeen or eighteen, she couldn't remember exactly, and had bought the tickets for her birthday. Afterwards, they had a lobster dinner in one of the casino's. That was the night he'd told her he would stay.

"Money's not an issue," she'd said, grasping his hand tightly. That sat at a table near the back, away from the tourists. Francine gazed at Jed through the candlelight. He looked no more than twelve years old, despite his full frame and his mustache. "You could go wherever you wanted, California, New York, Nashville. Your daddy's life insurance gave me enough for your college, with plenty left over to live on awhile."

"I'll can't leave you alone, mama.," he said.

"Stop that, now," she replied, sharply, gripping his hand even tighter. "You can and you will. This isn't what I planned for you. You're a smart boy, Jed. You can make something of yourself."

"No, mama. I don't want to 'make something of myself,' " he said, sneering. "What's wrong with who I am now?"

"You don't know who you are," she said. "Your too young."

"What I do know is that I love the ranch more than anything else," he said. "And I'm not leaving here, not ever."

"Please," she whispered, shaking her head. "Please, don't say that if you don't mean it, Jed. I don't think I could bear it if...," she broke off and threw her head back, then pounded her fist on the table. "God forgive me." She leaned over and dug some Kleenex out of her purse, dabbing her eyes as Jed sat solemnly. "Why am I telling you this?" she asked. "I want you to live your life, but at the same time..."

"I know it, mama. Let's just forget all this now, okay? Its your birthday."

Her thoughts were broken by the sound of gun shots, as two men on the television fought a duel outside the saloon. Moments later, a strange, tingling sensation crept up her spine. Francine's hands started to tremble again like they had when Aurora was there earlier. And then she felt like she was choking, like she couldn't breathe. She clutched at her throat, crying out in a muffled sound. A darkness overcame her vision, so that she couldn't see, and then she couldn't move. The voices on the television drone on and she couldn't understand what they were saying. She tried to scream, but nothing came out was a little cry.

"Suffocating!" Jed said. "Like a shadow. We're here and we're walking in the desert and it's night and were wearing nothing, nothing. I lean over to kiss her. Her mouth is hot. I clutch her hair, and she groans. I feel like I'm meshing with her, as if my blood is mingling with her blood. It's hot. We're flying. I can't breathe. There's a shadow. It flies over our heads. Its cold, so cold. I can't breathe." Jed gazed into the fire where the vision spread before him. He couldn't see the others. But he could hear as Jimbo began to chant again. Then, there were hands on him. There were voices. Someone poured water down his chest. He looked around. He was back in the roundhouse now. The fire had died down a little. The men sat in the circle with their eyes closed. Jed heaved himself up off the ground, then stepped outside the roundhouse and vomited in the dirt.

It was morning when Jed wearily climbed back onto his motorcycle. He'd slept a few hours in the roundhouse after the peyote wore off, but he felt now like he had a bad hangover. He wasn't looking forward to the long drive home. Jed said goodbye to Hawkeye and the others, then rode away.

"She I should call an ambulance?" Aurora muttered. "God, are there any relatives?" She'd found Francine lying on the floor in the living room. Aurora had rushed inside and knelt over her, checking her pulse and her breathing. Then, she'd grabbed Francine by the shoulders, gently shaking her until she woke up.

"My God, what happened to you?" Aurora asked. Francine felt like she could scarcely move.

"I don't know," she croaked. Aurora waited for a few moments while Francine struggled to get up, then gently lifted her and led her down the hallway into her bedroom. Just as they were nearing the bed, Francine wavered, almost falling, but Aurora caught her in time, then put her into bed and draped a blanket over her.

"Do you need anything?" Aurora asked.

"Just go away," said Francine.

Now, in the living room, Aurora was just about to pick up the phone when Jed walked through the door. He looked haggard, with dark circles under his eyes and his hair and clothes all dusty and wrinkled. He put his helmet on the coffee table, then went up to Aurora and kissed her. She pulled away, unwittingly.

"Jed," He pulled her towards him, grasping her tightly, then, noticing the worry in her eyes, he asked what was wrong.

"It's Francine," said Aurora. "She collapsed last night. I found her on the floor this morning in the living room.

"Is she in the hospital?"

"It's okay. I guess. She's in her room." She followed as Jed ran towards his mother's bedroom. Francine was sleeping peacefully. Jed knelt down at the side of the bed, then shook Francine gently until she opened her eyes, dazed looking.

"Mama," he said, clutching her hand. "You okay?" Francine put his hands to her lips.

"I'll be fine, dear. I don't know what came over me last night. I'm okay."

"No, mama, you're not, I'm calling an ambulance," he said, starting to get up.

"Jed, really." She lifting herself and stood up beside the bed. "I'm fine." Jed grabbed her by the shoulders, but she seemed stable, so he let her go.

"See," she said, pulling away. "Everything's okay. I just fell down, and getting up was too much effort, so I decided to camp out for the night there on the floor."

"We need to get you to a hospital and have you all checked out."

"Nonsense," she said. "I won't budge."


"I'll go tomorrow. It's Sunday. Only place that's open is Memorial, and I'd be in the waiting room till tomorrow anyhow." Jed reluctantly let go of her and helped her to lie back down. "Just let me rest and I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Of course," she said. Jed kissed her cheek, then got up and went over to Aurora, who Francine was glaring at with a tight lipped smile. Not a nice one, to be sure, and she hoped there was no mistaking. The two of them turned to leave.

"Jed," Francine called out. "Can I have a moment alone with you?"

"I'll put on some coffee," Aurora said, walking away.

"Yes, mama?" he asked, going over to her bedside once more.

"You made me a promise once," she said.

"What promise was that?"

"You told me that you'd never leave here, no matter what. And you stuck to it, all these years. Its gotten to where I don't think I could survive without you. And that's not right, is it?"

"There's nothing wrong with family taking care of one another," he said, gently.

"I just can't bear the thought of anything coming between us, Jed."

"You don't have too, mama. It'll never happen."

She nodded, smiling. "I always knew I could count on you."

Jed gave her a puzzled look, then turned around and headed towards the door.

"You rest now," he said.

"I will."

He left, closing the door behind him, then almost ran into Aurora, who'd been standing just outside the door.

"I was coming to see if Francine wanted some tea or something," she said.

"She's fine," Jed told her. The two of them went into the kitchen, where Jed began to describe the experience he'd had the night before.

"It was like we were the only people in the universe," he said. "But there was something over us, something dark. I don't know what it was."

He took hold of her and kissed her, his tongue prying her mouth open as she tilted her head back. Aurora broke away gazing into his eyes for a long time, searching for something again.

"What's the matter?" he asked. She paused for a moment, started to say something, then stopped.

"Nothing," she said with reserve, lifting her head up. "Nothing at all."

He grabbed her hand, then pulled her up and lead her into his bedroom. Aurora slipped out of her dress as he locked the door behind him, then she began to unhook her bra. Jed kicked his boots off, then unbuttons his pants. When they were all undressed, they lay down on the bed together. Jed took her head in his hands and whispered, "I love you."

"I love you too," she said. He began to kiss her shoulders, then her breasts and she grabbed his cock in her hand and squeezed. He bit her nipple and she squeezed harder, then he moved down and kissed her belly and her thighs, and soon his tongue was inside of her, and she cried out. When she was done, she put him in her mouth until he was so hard it felt like he was made out of stone, and then he was inside of her, lifting her up, the two of them moaning and moaning as he let's go prematurely, like a little boy making love for the first time.

A few hours later, Jed woke up. Aurora was still asleep. He kissed her on the forehead, then got up and grabbed his jeans and his shirt. Soon he realized that the reason he woke up was because he heard sirens. Sirens were a pretty rare occasion on the ranch. He wondered if maybe a grass fire had started. There had been a lot of those that summer. Jed started to head towards the bathroom, but then heard knocking at the front door. He went over and opened it, only to find a paramedic standing out on the porch.

"We got a call about twenty minutes ago. Caller didn't say their name. Just said come

quickly." "But we never called the ambulance..." Jed started to say. Then he realized. "Mama!" he shouted. He ran to Francine's bedroom, the paramedic following him. When he got there he flung open the door. A few moments later Aurora came up behind him.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Jed moved away while the paramedic checked Francine's pulse.

"I don't know." he whispered. The paramedic turned around and faced Jed.

"I'm sorry."

"Oh no," said Aurora.

Jed broke away from her and went over to Francine, the paramedic moving aside. "Mama," he said, running his fingers through her hair. Francine still had that strange smile on her face. The phone lay next to her off the hook, still blaring out a busy signal. "Why didn't I call sooner?" He began to sob, his head buried in her chest. "This is my fault," he muttered. "You were here dying and all I could think about was making love. This is my fault." After a few minutes, the paramedic came over and patted him on the shoulder.

"Come away now, son." Jed turned around, alarmed by the man's touch, then he noticed that Aurora was gone.

"Aurora." he called out. "Aurora!"

Jed got up and ran out of the house. When he reached the front porch, he looked around, blinded by the daylight for a moment, then spotted Aurora's car just as she reached the end of the driveway. He jumped off the porch and ran towards her. Aurora turned around and glanced at him for a quick second, then sped away. Jed stood in the middle of the road and watched her car grow smaller and smaller in the distance, as the sound filled his ears. He drifted towards it like a spirit enveloped by the wind.

From far away; where the road ended, where the fences dwindled into nothing, where hawks circled the sky, where cactus gleamed, where time wasn't something lateral or namable or transformable, somewhere set on ancient dust. Inside the roundhouse, a pack of coyotes formed a circle on the ground, muzzles pointed skyward, their ancient, forlorn melody rising across the desert.

© crossconnect 1995-2000 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |