Authors: Lizzy Charles
I stand up, wincing as I pat the dust off my jeans. Howdy walks to my side. My saint. Colt offers his knee. I take it, sliding up and onto the soft leather saddle. Fire shoots down my inner thighs. F-this. Damn steer. What the hell was Dad thinking sending me in there? It could've trampled me, my legs broken in two, or butted me up in the air like they do at the rodeo, landing on my neck and then
I’m dead. And he thinks Mom's a neglectful parent? Maybe after she hears about this, she’ll let me leave early and meet her in Paris. We’ll have our favorite sidewalk cafés, chocolate’ patisseries, and I’ll spend my summer in The Louvre.
There’s no risk of being trampled alive there. It sounds like heaven.
I pull out my ponytail to relieve some stress. I love the pain of letting it loose after being tied up too tight. As my hair hits my shoulders, I realize how foolish I am. Now the stench of cow shit increases. As Howdy clomps behind Colt’s palomino, I examine the huge chunks of brown muck caked in my hair.
“All right, easy.” Colt guides me off Howdy when we reach the barn. I’m acutely aware of his hand resting high on the back of my thigh, but I need his help. It burns while I drag my leg across Howdy’s back. “Let go of the horn,” he instructs. I do. As I slide into his arms, I can’t help but groan at the shooting pain down my inner thighs. “There you go.”
I expect him to put me down but he doesn’t. He carries me into the barn house and brings me into a stall packed fresh with hay. He lays me on the ground. Howdy tromps along behind us, trying to enter the stall too.
“No, boy,” Colt says. “This isn’t yours. You know where you go.” Colt points down the hall towards the rail car in back. Howdy snorts before trudging away. Colt follows him to lock the stall’s latch. A loud crack of hooves against wood follows. Howdy is as loyal as they come.
My whole body aches, but something is messed up in my inner thigh. Colt joins me in the hay. I kick off my shoes and he helps me with my socks. Those ice blue eyes meet mine as he lightly touches my ankle. The warmth of his palm feels nice. He closes his eyes, his hands squeeze up my calf with light pressure, evaluating each muscle and then the knee… and then, holy mother, my thigh. My heart gallops as he gets a little too close. Right before I move to stop his hand’s ascent, he pauses.
“These muscles are fine.” He nods, not registering the physicality of the situation. My right leg’s next. When he examines my calf, it doesn’t’ hurt, but when the warmth of his hand reaches my knee, there’s a spike of pain. I bite my lip. His hand hovers there for a moment before continuing. He presses harder midway up. Pain sears up and down the entire leg. He rubs it, pain flares and I try to jerk my leg away, but he holds me still, applying a deep, warm pressure on the spot. The pain melts away. And then his hand climbs higher and I’m a mess of shooting pain once more while my heart flies out of control.
This hurts too much. He’s too close… and way too high.
I press my palm against his hand. “Stop.” I don’t care if he’s a healing shaman, if his hand slides up a few more inches, my gravestone will read Death by Hormones. His eyes open and lock with mine. I glance down at his hand.
Way, way too high.
“Oh,” he says, blushing.
“Watch it, buddy.”
His smile sneaks through then. I toss a handful of hay in his blond hair. Screw my ideals. Hormones rule. I lean in towards him. This is perfect, alone in quiet space. I could go for something good after the way Dad treated me. But Colt shakes his head, flustering to rise to his feet.
“Your abductor is pulled," he says with a chilled voice.
“Oh?” I bite my lip, attempting to embrace Gina’s stand-by sultry expression she uses in the clubs for fun.
“Nothing’s torn.” He brushes off hay from his chaps.
“And how do you know this?”
“Physiology major.” A new pair of horse hoofs hit the cement patio out front. “Pre-Med School” he explains before backing out of the stall.
“How old are you anyway?”
“Eighteen. I started post secondary a few years ago.” He gives me a classic cowboy nod, leaving without a goodbye. It’s like he became a glacier.
I grasp at the stall’s wall to heave myself off the ground. Could this get any worse? As an answer to my question, Dad saunters through the door.
“Autumn, what happened out there?” Dad blocks the stall’s exit. “What were you thinking?”
“Are you kidding?” I laugh. “I… I was doing the job.”
“By nearly killing yourself?” He loops his thumbs through his belt.
“I guess so.” I try to scoot past him without wincing but he holds his ground.
“Autumn, I'm dead serious. Why would you throw yourself in front of that massive steer?” The vein on his neck still throbs. “Were you trying to get hurt?”
“No. It happened because I’ve never done it before.” I cock my head. What is he implying?
“Oh, come on. You’ve seen the timing a million times. You know how it goes.”
“How could I know that, Dad? You never let me help with that when I was little.”
“But you watched.”
“Yeah, like seven years ago,” I say. Dad’s face holds stern. “Seven years, Dad.”
We stand, dust dancing in the sunlit air between us. My eyes never leave his face. Mom taught me not to back down. He does though. He steps aside, allowing me to pass. Wimp. I hobble out of the stall and out the front door. “Screw this.” Why am I spending my sweet sixteen summer here when I could be in Paris?
“Autumn, it doesn’t have to be this way. I assumed you’d remember the pace. In a few weeks, it’ll all come back,” he calls after me.
I whip around. “No Dad.” He just doesn’t get it. It’s not about the task. “You didn’t even care it was dangerous. You made me do it. I don’t need this. I’m going home.”
“Home? To where—New York City?”
“Paris isn’t your home, Autumn. This,” he motions towards the dusty gravel road and endless horizon, “is your home.”
“No. This place hasn’t been my home for seven years. Anywhere but here is home. I’m Skyping Mom the moment I get back to the house.” I keep walking and Dad clomps behind me. His pace quickens and his hand rests on my shoulder, turning me around.
“Autumn, you can’t go. This is my summer.”
“Your summer?” I search his wrinkles for a tell. What is he talking about?
Dad’s face is blank, and then, there it is. He rubs his nose, kicking at the dirt. He looks back up, jutting out his jaw before he speaks. “It’s written in our divorce papers and custody agreement. Your sixteenth summer, spent with me. You are under my legal authority and I’m not allowing you to leave.”
The prairie winds still.
“There’s a custody agreement?” It’s like Shadow kicked me in the gut. No one told me about this. Ever. They made it seem like they’d worked it the details of the divorce on their own.
“Yes, there’re official papers. No divorce is easy when a child’s involved.”
Dad’s reaches out to me, and I push his hand away. “I’m calling Mom.”
“Fine, but, it’s useless. She can’t bring you to Paris until September second. For the next three months, you’re mine.”
“I’m yours? Like, as in your daughter? The daughter you visit once a year? The guy who calls once, maybe twice a month to speak with about the weather. No. I’m sorry. You have no claim here.” I stomp up the steps and through the front door before turning around. He stands stupid on the front porch. I glare at him. “I’m my own.”
really my thing. I push my fork against the mush and it bounces back. It’s a little rubbery. Yuck. This is so far from my usual Saturday spread of white linens, an espresso, a goblet of fresh squeezed orange juice, and a tomato egg benedict. I tilt the goop from my spoon. It falls into the bowl with a
. He tagged a note to the television remote:
It’s a universal controller. It’ll do it all.
It’s the size and weight of a brick, filled with a gazillion buttons and none of them colored green for power. With the television mounted so high, it’s impossible to reach that button too. The chime from the Grandma’s clock in the front room sends a shiver down my spine. I can’t stand be in here any longer, everything old and new suffocating me. I escape out the back patio door. The already scorching Oklahoma sun greets me. I swear I can hear some of the grass shriveling away.
The ranch needs water, desperately.
The wind-blown curtain of dust dries out my throat. Coughing, I step back inside and pour myself a glass of satiating water. I’m about to empty out the last sip but I glimpse the wilting garden outside that could use this more than the pipes. The sweltering sun has already withered whatever vegetables Dad’s planned for his garden, but Mom’s old garden plot is thriving with sprouts. I tip the remaining drops out at the base of a plant. The soil is dry but unlike Dad’s garden, it is free of weeds and rock.
He’s been tending here.
A familiar creaking jostles me. I spring out of the soil and find Dad barefoot behind me. “Nice of you to share with the sunflowers. I think I’ll have some of that too, please,” he says, nodding to my glass. Mom always loved sunflowers. Does he grow them to torture himself? I return inside and open a cabinet to get him a new glass. I’m not happy with how yesterday ended. Yes, it was justified, but it wasn’t pretty.
“You don’t have to get me a new cup, Autumn. I’ll use yours if you’re through. It’s one less to wash.”
“Mom’s sunflowers are still here?” I fill the glass and hand it over.
“Yeah, they come back every year.” He looks out the glass to her garden.
He drains the cup in one gulp, handing it back for a refill. I don’t know what to say to him. We didn’t speak at all since yesterday’s argument. He spent the day sorting cattle while I isolated myself in my bedroom icing my thigh, reading my Paris travel guide, and pondering the mystery of Colt. Is he only here for the summer then? Pre-Med? Cowboys don’t become doctors. Where does he enroll?
His expression is blank as he sips from his second glass of water. I guess today will be more of the same, not that I wouldn’t mind spending another afternoon thinking about a hot cowboy. Or better, maybe even getting some answers. He must live close. I bet Gina could help me dig something up before my Skype date with mom tonight.
Dad clears his throat on his way into the kitchen. “Autumn.” Ah, my name as a stand alone sentence-- a classic, brilliant, and terrifying parenting move. “I’ve got something I want to show you,” he says, while clearing away a stack of papers from a junk desk. Underneath, he opens a laptop and clicks around. Odd. He doesn’t seem like the type who gives a gift after an argument. But then again, we’ve never argued like that before. I bite the inside of my lip. This is wrong. I don’t want him buying my love, no matter how much I want those Frye boots.
“Here you go.” He turns the laptop around so now it faces me. “Your mother didn’t want you to know about the custody agreement. I disagree. You were right.”
I was right?
“You should know everything. I’m here for questions when you’re done.” He stands up and offers me his chair. I sit down and grip the edge of the desk. The fridge pops open and Dad dives inside. I slide my finger across the touch pad, still not daring to look at the screen. It’d be nice to read this in private, but I dare not let the chance pass. With care, I study the page before me.
Custody Agreement for Autumn Batty Gallagar between Father, Chris Joseph Gallagar and Mother, Jessica Pringle Gallagar (Maiden name: Jessica Grace Pringle).
Both parties mutually agree to the following terms: 1) Jessica Pringle Gallagar will have full custody of Autumn Batty Ellison year round, unless Autumn expresses otherwise, but must allow an annual week-long visitation from father, Chris Joseph Gallagar. 2) Chris Joseph Gallagar will have full custody of Autumn Batty Gallagar starting June 1st of her sixteenth summer through her seventeenth birthday, on September 1st. 3) On September 1st, when Autumn Batty Gallagar turns seventeen years of age, she may reassess and arrange her own living arrangement between parental parties. Chris Joseph Gallagar and Jessica Pringle Gallagar have agreed to respect her wishes.
My jaw hits the floor. A full week? He had a full week only visited me a weekend each year.
Mutually agreed upon...
what loving father would agree to such stringency?
“What are you thinking?” Dad’s suddenly propped next to me, leaning against the counter. He reaches to touch me, but thinks better when I return to the screen. I stare at it, re-reading it over and over.
She may reassess and arrange her own living arrangement between parental parties.
I point to the sentence. “What does this mean? Reassess? I never got to assess the situation the first time.”
A few papers rustle as he moves in closer. “Would you have chosen different?”
Most definitely not. I would've picked Mom, over and over again. I dare not answer him though since they didn’t give me a choice to begin with. And now this summer is ruined. It’s not about me returning to the ranch. It’s about a freakin’ choice, which is tragic because there’s no option in this. I’ll return to Mom after my seventeenth birthday. She’s my mother! Living with her is easy, all the kinks worked out. And living apart from her? I've never considered it. No, this document doesn’t give me a choice—it’s an opportunity to make a shitty decision that will make Dad hate me forever.
The screen blurs because I’ve been staring at it too long. I close my eyes, and he shifts next to me. There’s got to be a way to freeze time so I can process this. Each sentence carves a new hole out of my soul, like being plunged back into the pain I fought with when they divorced. I want to scream, cry, but also sink into nothingness. I can’t let this out right here… with him so near.
“Honey? Are you okay?” His voice, like his touch to my arm, is soft, but I’m still frozen. How is any child supposed to react to this?
A warm pressure rests on my shoulder now. “I’m glad you're informed,” he says. “I’m sorry we weren’t honest about this sooner.”
His apology cuts—too lame and far too late. I slap the desk, my control gone. “Why?” I demand. “Why do you want me here for a full summer if...”
Breathe Autumn, breathe.
“Why am I here for a whole summer now when you never even cared to spend an entire week with me each year?” My fingernails scrape against the laptop’s keys as I start trembling. Dampness trails down my cheeks. I force myself to look at him, my eyes burning and his clear. “Why, Dad? This is something I absolutely need to know.” My fingertips can feel the pulsating beat of my heart.
“Autumn,” He squats next to my chair, his eyes never leaving me own. “I have no valid excuse.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not good enough for me. You owe me an explanation.”
His voice is deep as he speaks. “Autumn, I have no valid excuse, but I do have a big one.” He pats my hand and swivels the chair back around to the computer. He clicks through a few folders to open another file. “You deserve the truth.”
Application for Divorce
Applicant: Jessica Pringle Gallagar
Spouse: Chris Joseph Gallagar
Reason for Divorce filing: Spouse infidelity.
I can’t read another word.
They told me they fell out of love—a lie. From finger tips to my shoulders, my muscles clench, becoming a rock. I stare at the word again until my eyes burn. He cheated on Mom. When the tears are too overwhelming, I close my eyes and even then I can still read the word on the back of my eyelids. It’ll be there forever.
. Bile teases the back of the throat. He cheated on Mom. I heave, and the sour grits exit into the waste basket Dad’s holding next to me.
“I’m so sorry, Autumn.” His hands gather my hair.
I yank away from his touch. “How could you? Didn’t you love her?”
He reaches out once more, but I move away. I just can’t stand the thought of it.
“You destroyed our family.”
“Autumn, I know. It's the black mark of my life.” For three seconds he looks at me, pleading. It was two seconds too long. “I… I believed your mother was cheating on me."
“Mom would never do that. Not to you, and not to me.”
“You’re right. But she had an interest, her business lawyer.” He rubs his temples. “I’m sorry—that’s not important. I was just so mad.” A tear travels down his cheek. “I went to a bar and ran into an old friend and…” He covers his mouth, placing his hand on my knee. He trembles, and one deep sob escapes. The sound shatters me. “I messed up, Autumn. It was the worst mistake of my li”--
I cut him off. “You didn’t love Mom?”
“Autumn, I loved her with all of my heart. But I was losing her, we barely spoke anymore. She started spending more time away on business, and was impossible to get in contact with. When I approached her, the fight was terrible. I couldn't handle it. I confided in a friend when I was weak, made poor decisions, and then I woke up in her bed.”
“This… Dad. Stop. I don't want to know.”
“You do. Yes, you do. Honey, I went straight to your mother and confessed, begged, pleaded. But I’d already lost her years before to her marketing firm. When I broke our vow, it was the catalyst for her escape.” He clears his throat, finding a more steady voice before looking up at me. “I visited one weekend a year because your mother refused to have me around.”
“But I could have come to you-”
“I tried that initially, but back then your mother had the money and the lawyers. I couldn’t and didn’t deserve to fight it. All the pain was on my head.”
I throw my arms open, sweeping them toward the cherry cabinets and the remodeled kitchen and new great room. “But what about the kitchen? That truck out back? Clearly, you’ve had money the last few years.”
“We’ve had good profits, yes.”
“I’ll say. This place looks like a set off the Food Network.” I nod to the window where the white truck still stands. “I can’t even drive. Why the hell did you buy me that? You bought
rather than fight for me?”
Dad shakes his head, taking out a manila envelope from the desk. He pulls out a thick stack of papers and receipts, handing them over. I page through the papers. There’re minutes after minutes of documented court appearances over the last years, him appealing the original custody agreement. I get to the stack of bills—one lawyer invoice is for over twelve thousand dollars.
“Unfortunately, your Mom had better lawyers.” He points to some words from the final hearing and reads them aloud. “It’d be more damaging to her psyche to take her out of her environment and bring her back to the ranch.”
“How come I wasn’t invited into court?” Is that where Mom went instead of all her business trips?
“Jessica wanted to keep you out of it. After what I did, I respected her wishes.”
I thumb through the documents again, landing on an excel document cataloging the receipts. Sixty eight thousand dollars and twenty-four cents is circled in red ink. “This is so much.”
“It wasn’t enough though. Not with the team of lawyers your mother had. She was always so savvy with connections. It makes her fantastic at what she does.”
He taps the kitchen counter, “After the final court ruling, I put the rest of my savings here because you were coming this summer and I figured if you liked it, you’d have a reason to stay. I know how much you love fine dining. Your mother, man-- she spoiled you. I wanted to offer you that here.”
“And my sixteenth summer? Why not the first summer when I was in the most pain?” He doesn't understand how many times I begged Mom to take me home; crying myself to sleep every night to the city noises instead of the chirping crickets and the wind whistling through the prairie grasses. How I ached for stories on the porch with Dad and learning to love stories wrapped in Mom’s arms on the couch.