He had gone running again. I looked at his legs covered in watery scabs, some not yet clotted. He had mud splatters on his shoes, and mulch under his fingernails. He kicked the side of the steps; I stepped forward with a kitchen towel and a beer. He took both with a nod. I followed him around the small house, ducking under the budding dogwood tree, the blossoms would open in a few days. The grass needed to be mowed, the neighbors would begin to complain, but I loved the way it covered my shoes and tickled my ankles.
“You know most runners drink water after running so far,” I asked with a laugh. I waited for his usual response, they’re doing it wrong, but he walked past me without speaking.
He brushed a few fire ants from a large stump. He sat gingerly. I could see his muscles straining. A bead of sweat dripped from the ends of hair. A roan mare looked over the fence, ears forward, eyes on me. I dug around in my pockets looking for a carrot. I found a small one in my back pocket. It had softened in the heat. I held it out to the mare, longing to put my arms around her neck and rest. I had tried once before. It had taken her three days to come close enough for me to touch again. The bribes were piling up, but I didn’t know if we were making any progress.
I kept my hands down by my side, and let the mare sniff my face. Her warm breath smelled of fresh grass and bran. She sneezed. I jumped at the shock of mucus hitting my face. She shied away, as though I had insulted her.
“I always expect it to be different,” he said from behind me. I slowly reached out one hand and gently touched the mare’s damp, velvet nose. Her ears flicked.
I spoke softly, “She came by?”
The mare danced back, tail swishing in agitation. I kept my hand up and my eyes on the ground. I watched her hooves strike at an imaginary foe. I wondered what she thought of, a mountain lion jumping on her back to break her spine? Wolves running her down by snapping at her hooves until she stumbled and they tore out her throat? A copperhead striking her fetlock?
The beer bottle hit wood with an empty thunk.
“She stopped by,” his voice rose in a fake falsetto, “just to see how I was doing. She dropped off a pie she won at a cake auction.”
The mare dropped her head to graze, but one ear, and therefore one eye, was pointed in my direction, taking in every tick of the pulse in my neck.
I turned to face him, leaning my back on the splintered wooden fence.
Jeff peeled dried mud off his leg.
“She’s convinced she knows what’s best. We haven’t had a real conversation in six years, but she’s goddamn sure that she can make me into the perfect little gent she adopted seventeen years ago.”
I felt untrimmed whiskers brush the back of my neck. Jeff stood up.
“You want anything?”
I shook my head. He marched to the patio, slamming the sliding door. The mare fled across the pasture, tail raised, throwing her head.
Show off, I thought. I mentally traced the path Jeff would have travelled. Miles of woods, empty except for the occasional white tailed deer.
Jeff turned on the light in the kitchen. I could see his head bent, black hair shiny with sweat. He pounded another beer before grabbing two more to carry outside.
He came up to me, hands snaking around my back. I could feel the tip of the beer chilling my neck. I didn’t move as he held me. I could see his shoulders shaking, whether from exhaustion or emotion, I didn’t know. His sweat dripped dripped onto my shoulder. I touched his back, my hand connecting with a solidly wet shirt slowly cooling in the afternoon breeze.
“How far did you go?” I asked. I kept my voice low.
I thought about what he would have seen, how many logs he leapt over, how many dry creek beds marked by his footprint. I thought about his breath becoming ragged at mile thirteen, the stitch in his side two miles from home. Even the wildlife hides in the bushes until the air cools down and the shadows stretch. He has a fifteen minute encounter with his family, and he has to burn.
He opened another beer and slumped onto the ground, the curve of his back leaning against the fence post.
“She told me that Dad wants me to lead the company.”
I felt my pulse quicken. I faintly heard hooves behind me. The mare tentatively whinnied. Jeff didn’t look at me. I kept my silence, wondering if his next words would make me want to flee into the woods too.
He took a shaky breath, his hands trembling as they ran through his hair.
“She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I mean, I told her that I was happy. We’re doing good. But she told me to come the company on Monday. I could talk to dad, learn my responsibilities.”
I closed my eyes. Strong, long lips grasped the edge of my tank top.
Jeff’s words came out more quickly. “I haven’t seen my dad in a few years, Heather. I mean, if he’s really ready to give me a chance, if he thinks he could make me a leader, I have to try don’t I?”
He stood up. I saw his thighs tremble with the weight of his body. I hoped he hurt. His hands touched my face, one on either side, a prison. I couldn’t move, not that I wanted to. I wanted to take both his hands in my own and tell him what an idiot he was being, how he had tried this before and only found sanity in a bottle. But I kept my body still and my voice silent.
“I have to give it a chance, don’t I?” His voice was pleading. Asking me to give him an out. Asking for my permission. I wondered how long his stepmom had talked to him before he had pulled on his Nikes. I wondered if he had secretly prayed for this opportunity, if he had courted the possibility. I knew the belles he had dated in high school, taken to prom, laid down on the backseat of an old but beautifully preserved Corvette. I knew the heavy gold ring his father would put on his finger if he would just come home.
“Heather, I want to try. I mean, for god’s sake, they’re my family.”
I thought about the nights he had held me and swore that I was his family, that he would never be manipulated by his father’s expectations again. If I had given him a child, I wondered, and then quickly killed the thought.
“Are you okay?” He moved his hands up and down my arms, as though trying to ward off a chill.
I nodded. My voice caught, “You should do it.”
He sagged in relief. He nodded, “They’re my family. I have to try.”
A nose punched my shoulders, demanding attention.
He smiled at me. “You’re the best, you know that, you really are. No one else would understand.”
He gathered me into an embrace, and I wondered what number on the countdown this would be. He had already driven the wedge into the trunk, we both know which way the wind would eventually blow up.
“I should shower,” he said, talking fast. “What do you want for dinner? I’ll order pineapple rice, just for you, baby girl.” I closed my eyes and forced myself to smile at him. He bounded into the house, as though he hadn’t run at all.
The mare put her nose over my shoulder. Slowly I turned around and put my cheek against her neck. She stilled. I put one arm on the other side of her muscled neck. She let me hold onto her until I had composed myself. I swore I would bring her as many apples as I could hold tomorrow morning.