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The Last True Cowboy by Laura Drake (1)

Carly

Addiction sucks. I should know. Papaw has his White Lightning. Nana has her Bingo-jones. My addiction has sad green eyes and my name tattooed across his left pec.

But my wedding-dress dreams always come in second to his rodeo. There’s even a term for it: Rodeo Widow. Except to earn that title, I’d have to be married.

Squinting through the windshield glare, I shift the knob on the steering column to third and press on the gas, but the speedometer doesn’t budge. Dang it, at this rate I’m going to be late for the breakfast shift. Papaw bought the truck new about the time I was born, and Nana named it “Nellybelle.” Said she stole the name from a car on some TV show—Roy Somebody. All I know is, I’m stuck driving the beater, so Nana can drive the Camry to Bingo.

I’m less than a mile from the paved road when clanking starts under the hood. It sounds like the hammers of hell in there. I take it out of gear and lurch to the side of the washboard road and watch the dust billow up in the rearview mirror. “Now that’s just craptastic.” I’m no mechanic, but I’ve been driving since before I could reach the pedals. I know what a thrown rod sounds like. Nana would say, “Nellybelle’s sleeping with Jesus.” My luck she’ll want to have a funeral.

I grab a rubber band from the glovebox and lasso my hair into a thick ponytail. My hair is more strawberry than strawberry blonde, meaning if it takes longer than ten minutes to catch a ride, I’ll look like Elmo. With freckles. Luckily, Papaw left a gimmie cap behind the seat. I slap it on, throw my purse strap over my shoulder, open the door, and slide into the hot morning.

Once I hit the blacktop, odds are somebody will stop. One good thing about living outside of Unforgiven, New Mexico, all your life is that sooner or later someone you know is bound to come by.

I hear it before I see it. Quad Reynolds’s truck materializes through the heat-haze off the blacktop. It’s almost as ancient at Nellybelle (may she rust in peace).

He pulls alongside me and yells out the window, “Where’s your car?”

Now the Reynoldses aren’t among Unforgiven’s best and brightest, and given a population of 1,500, that’s not a high bar. Quad was the first of his clan to get a high school diploma, mostly thanks to kind and long-suffering teachers passing him along year to year like a white elephant gift. People can’t help what they’re born with (or without), but Quad has had a thing for me since third grade. He’s also got body odor and dandruff so bad his eyebrows flake. I stuff my hands in my back pockets and walk up to the window. “I broke down. Can you give me a lift to town?”

“Heck yeah. Climb in.” He unhooks the bungee cord that holds the passenger door shut. “Wait.” He holds the door closed with a hand on the window frame. “You’re not gonna make me eat those foldy-overy things again, are you?”

Exasperation puffs from my lips. “They’re crepes, and no one made you eat them the first time. Besides, I took them off the menu.” Mostly because no one ate them. I keep trying changes to the menu to improve business, but so far, the only thing that’s gone over is Ratatouille. And only because I told them the name is French for “hash.”

“Oh good.” The door moans when he pushes it open.

I climb into the cab, right into his yearning look. “When’re you going to throw over that no-account cowboy and fall for me, Carly Sue?”

“Believe me, I’m considering giving him up.”

“Well, I’m available, but you better hurry ’afore some woman snatches me away.”

Not going there. I’m no mean girl. “I’ll take it under advisement, thanks.” I turn so the springs quit pushing on my butt bone and so the bungee doesn’t scrape my shins.

He drapes an arm over the steering wheel, and the breeze washes me in the smell of day-old sweat. “Where is Austin now, anyway?”

“Let’s see. What day is it?”

“Thursday. No. Wait. Friday.”

“He’s in Las Cruces. Three-day rodeo at the county fair this weekend.”

He shakes his head. “That boy can ride. I’ll give him that.”

Yeah. That’s the problem.

Austin and I fell in love in first grade. I looked across the craft table and recognized a piece of me, staring back. Something about him just clicked with me. It was the same for him, and like two jigsaw pieces, we snapped together. We never have come undone. Until now.

This time, I mean it.

Quad’s truck rolls into the sleepy-with-morning town. The street curves around Soldier Park, with its peeling bandstand and obligatory Civil War cannon. The Civic Theater is finally playing last month’s blockbuster for anyone who hasn’t made the fifty-mile trek to Albuquerque. Austin took me to The Civic on our first real date, in junior high. I don’t remember what movie, because we ended up making out in the balcony the whole time.

A few pickups are parked in front of the Lunch Box Café, owned by our main competitor and archnemesis, Dusty Banks. He puts the grease in “greasy spoon,” but I guess some people enjoy that. We cruise past too many windows blotted out by paint or covered in butcher paper.

Unforgiven has faltered for years, tripping and stumbling to the edge of default. Doubly unlucky, we’re not only at the end of a defunct railway spur, but we’re on Route 66—the abandoned part.

Quad pulls up in the last angled parking space outside Chestnut Creek Café. It’s the end of the road, literally. The converted railway station has been my second home for every one of my twenty-nine years. Papaw bought it back in the ’50s, when the spur shut down, and named it after the place where he asked Nana to marry him (he hides his romantic streak well). He cooked, and Nana worked the cash register. Nowadays, Papaw works more at his side business (the still) and Nana keeps the local Bingo parlor in business. But hey, they earned a rest. They’d planned to turn it over to my mom and dad, but a drunk driver on Interstate 40 crashed that dream when I was just a baby.

“Thanks for the ride, Quad.” I reach for the bungee cord but he’s quicker, leaning over my lap, giving me a close-up of his “ambiance” and his bald spot. I hold my breath until he’s on his own side again.

“You bet. Now, get out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans.” He chuckles and slaps his thigh, raising a cloud of red New Mexico dust.

I don’t bother to remind him that I’m not the cook. I just slide out and hold the door shut so he can re-hook the bungee.

The gingham curtains and the old-fashioned gold lettering on the glass door raise a faint haze of pride in my chest. The bells on the door jingle as I step inside and the café wraps itself around my heart, welcoming me with breakfast babble and the smell of bacon. I inhale a deep breath of home.

“Hey, Carly.” Moss Jones raises his coffee cup in a salute, his grizzly-brown beard full of crumbs.

“Mornin’, Moss.”

Lorelei, my friend and our longtime waitress, swishes by, balancing four plates and three orders of toast. “You’re late, Carly Beauchamp.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” I push through the swinging door to the kitchen and head for my office. “Hey, Fish.”

The name on our cook’s driver’s license is Joseph King, but he’d rather be called by his Navajo name—Fishing Eagle. He’s got a dozen eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a boatload of hash browns crowded on the grill and a spatula in each hand. “Carly, can you grab me more bacon?”

“Sure.” I pull open the door to the walk-in refrigerator.

“And some more eggs?” His voice is muffled by the heavy door.

I’ve just finished that when Lorelei sticks her head through the serving window. “Fish, you got those grits for table five?” She sorts tickets on the order wheel. “Hey, Carly, would you mind setting me up for coffee?”

“Sure.” I push back through the swinging door to the dining area. I’m the manager and heir-apparent, but most days that washes out to being the gofer. After grabbing a cup for myself, I pull coffee and filters from under the counter and start scooping and stacking enough set-ups to last through lunch.

Conversation flows past me like a river.

“We even went down to the courthouse in Albuquerque, but they didn’t know, either. I’m gonna—”

“So, I tell him, if you think you’re going to the bar tonight, you’ve got—”

“Last week’s rain washed out the road. I can’t even get to my field, much less—”

My phone blats the opening notes to Blake Shelton’s “Austin” and my hand jerks, slinging coffee across the counter. “Crap on a cracker.” I’d let it go to voice mail but I’ve been dodging his calls for two days and if I don’t answer soon, he’ll sic Nana on me.

Nana loves Austin. And she’s not alone. Every girl in Cibola County adores him. Every mom wants to adopt him. And no dad wants him anywhere near his daughter.

Acid scalds my stomach lining. I pull my phone from the pocket of my jeans, mash the button, and prop it between my cheek and shoulder. “Hey.”

“Hey, Tigger.”

In two words, I’m opening to him like a morning glory to the sun. I’ve read that twins have a special language that only they understand. Austin and I are like that. We’re hard-wired into each other’s feelings like a Vulcan mind-meld, without the weird face-touching thing.

In those same two words, I know he’s hungover. I can see him partying with his buds at some trashy bar the night before. I should—I’ve been there for enough of them. But that was in the glory days, when Austin was winning buckles and I was Cibola County Rodeo Queen. We lived for the road, sex, fair food, sex, and the dream we could make a living on barrels and rough stock.

That bubble burst when I had to come home and help Nana and Papaw with the diner. Yeah, I miss it, but you’ve got to grow up sometime. But Austin still hasn’t. To be fair, he is making a living at it, if you consider having just enough money for rodeo dogs, gas, and his next entry fee “living.”

Which reminds me. “Don’t you ‘Tigger’ me. We need to talk, Austin Davis.”

“Aw, come on, darlin’. Don’t be mad. You know I can’t stand it when you’re upset.”

His drawl flows over me with the sweetness of Sunday morning sex. He knows I love his voice. It eases through my cracks, loosening my muscles and my resolve.

“I’ll be home for Sadie Hawkins on Friday. We’ll talk then.”

The litany he’s recited too many times burns the sweetness to ash. “I’m serious. I can’t go on like this.” I drop the coffee scoop to hold the phone in both hands, as if he could feel the painful squeeze. “The girl gets to ask for Sadie Hawkins. I’m not asking you.” I click the end button, wishing for the old days, when you could end a call with a satisfying slam.

In high school, the Student Council thought it’d be fun to include the whole town for Sadie Hawkins Day. Every year since, it’s a blowout party in the town’s square. Austin and I have been to every one of the past fourteen of them.

Streaks are overrated.

My ears prickle as I realize the diner is filled with an unnatural silence. I turn. Every eye in the place is lasered on me like I’m some rare zoo animal. My face blazes, which only makes me madder. I hate to blush. Redheads don’t do it well.

“Aw, come on, Carly,” Moss says, too loud in the quiet room. “You say that ever’ time.”

I slap a hand on my hip. “Really?” God, the nerve.

“Really,” June Stevens says from booth number three.

Several heads nod.

Dropping the phone in my shirt pocket, I stomp for the kitchen. “This place has the privacy of a glass outhouse.” My palms hit the door with a hollow boom and I stride for my office. At least that door has a satisfying slam.

*  *  *

An hour and a half later, morning work done, I’m sitting, drinking coffee and cataloging my troubles…the biggest of which has a bad-boy grin and one really fine butt. If I sit here any longer, I’m going to tip into sulkiness. And I’m not a sulker. It’s time to tackle the trouble I can do something about. Wheels.

The café is hopping with the early lunch crowd, and Lorelei has a reinforcement. Sassy Medina, a new-to-town girl with a pretty smile and good references.

Lorelei spies me and hustles over. “Would you hold the fort for a few, Carly? I’ve got to run down to O’Grady’s for tomatoes and we’re almost out of Spam.”

“Sure. Just be sure Jerry gives us the discount.”

She rolls her eyes. “Thanks. I’ve only worked here seven years, so I’m likely to forget that.”

“Yeah, yeah, just go.” Grabbing a half apron from under the counter, I tie it on and drop a book of order tickets in the pocket. Coffee pot in one hand, sweet tea pitcher in the other, I go on refill patrol.

At the first table, my second-grade teacher, Ms. Simons, says, “You stand your ground, Carly. Austin will wise up and marry you. You just wait and see if he doesn’t.”

The high-schoolers in the booth at the window titter and ask if Austin is officially available for the dance. As far as I’m concerned, he is.

At the counter, the town drunk, Manny Stipple, explains with beery sincerity why Austin deserves another chance.

At twenty-nine, my biological clock has stopped ticking—it’s tap dancing on my ovaries. Every girl from my high school class is married and having babies, except me. Well, me and Rose Hart, but she wears men’s clothes and is taking hormones to grow a beard. She goes by Roy now.

I’m just about to lose it when my posse spills through the door, trailing strollers, diaper bags, and toddlers. Julie, Jess, and I ruled the homecoming court, and we’ve managed to stay close through marriages (theirs), kids (theirs), and break-ups (mine). We were all great friends, but Jess and I—we had a special bond. Back in junior high, she decided it wasn’t fair that I didn’t have a sister, so she stepped up for the job. We’ve been tight ever since. I love me that Jess.

They take booth number one and settle, passing out crayons and goldfish. I drop menus on the table and we chat while they decide. Jess rubs her stomach as she studies the daily specials on the board above the order window.

“Jess, are you preggers again?”

“Can you believe it?” She smiles at me with a glow reserved for pubescence and motherhood.

My biological clock bongs a funeral dirge.

She eases her toddler over, scoots down, and pats the bench next her.

Lorelei walks in the front door, her arms full of bags.

“I want to hear all the nasty details, I promise. But right now, I’ve got to fix a problem. Can I borrow someone’s car?”

Jess’s perfectly plucked brows draw together. Even in motherhood, she keeps herself up—if you ignore the spit-up stain on her silk shirt. “Take mine.” She reaches in her diaper bag, pulls out her keys, and tosses them to me.

“Thanks, hon. I’ll be back before you’re done with lunch.”

Her son wails, and she waves me off.

I unlock the door of the SUV, shift a stuffed Minion to the passenger seat, and climb in. The hot air is infused with eau de Kid. Discarded juice boxes and crumbs litter the floor. My mood falls like a rock tossed into a dry well. It’s not that I need a vanful of kids to feel complete. I have a full life. But dang, my dreams aren’t all high-and-mighty. All I want is to raise a big family in a small town, with the love of my life. Cutting Austin loose will mean cutting loose of all my dreams. But I’m sick of hoping and praying and attempting long-distance mind manipulation.

Maybe I can convince him to come home, take over his dad’s ranch, and start our business.

Yeah, that’s the maybe I hoped for last year.

And the year before that. And…I blow out a breath. I’m not getting anywhere sitting here, sweating and counting spilled goldfish. I fire the engine, put the car in gear, and head out of town.

Floyd’s Super Clean Used Cars sits all by itself, two miles out of town on the road to Albuquerque. Cars are cheaper in the big city but I don’t have that kind of time. Turning into the almost-deserted lot, I park and head for the ’50s-style glass-fronted building. Metallic air conditioning greets me, along with a gum-snapping salesman. Ignoring his howdy, I stride for the back office to rustle us up a new truck. Who am I kidding? Rustling is about the only way we could afford a new one. If I don’t find a way to compete with the Lunch Box…One problem at a time.

The owner hasn’t changed a bit from our high school days. Well, except for the paunch. “Jeez, Floyd. Really?”

He drops a nasty girlie magazine in a drawer and his cowboy boots from the desk. “Hey, Carly.” His eyes scan the parking lot. “You looking to trade in the mommy-mobile, huh?” He drops a wink. “Austin know about this?”

I cross my arms. More crap I do not need. “You know very well that’s Jess’s car.”

One corner of his mouth lifts. “Ah, so it is. What can I do you for, Carly?”

“I need to buy a used truck.”

“What happened to Nellybelle?”

“She took a dump on the way to work this morning.”

Floyd stands, sweeps off his cowboy hat, and lays it over his heart. “Please extend my condolences to your dear Nana.”

“Cut the crap, Floyd. I need wheels.” I do some quick math in my head to figure what I can afford. “And none of that south-of-the-border stuff you slap a cheap paint job on to make it look saleable.”

He puts on a hurt look. “Darlin’, you know that when I do have the occasional ‘international trade,’ I save it for the tourists.”

Except the only tourists in Unforgiven are ones who made a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque. And they sure aren’t looking to buy a car. “Just show me what you’ve got.”

He leads the way to the almost-empty lot. “We’re a little short on inventory. We had a big blowout sale here last week. You prob’ly heard my commercials on the radio.” He puffs out his chest and steps to a dusty compact with burnt paint.

I heard them. But again, not a mean girl. “That won’t work. You know it’s too small to carry Papaw’s…product.”

“And fine product it is, too. Been known to sample it a time or two myself.” He wanders to a battered Dodge Caravan that, from the look of it, could be the first specimen that came off the assembly line.

“It’ll hold six, with room left over for a golden retriever.” He gives me the sleazy salesman grin and waggles his bushy eyebrows.

The sticker on the window is in my price range, and I’m desperate. But I haven’t fallen that far yet. If Austin sees me in that, he’ll think…well, I don’t want to think what he’ll think. What the whole town will think. Poor Carly, wannabe mommy. My face blazes hotter than the 102-degree air. “Floyd, this will not do. I’m not looking for anything special, just a better-than-beater truck that’ll get me to work, and Papaw can borrow now and again for deliveries. How hard can that be?”

He takes off his hat and scratches his head. “Honest, Carly, that’s all I’ve got right now. Next shipment of used cars isn’t for two weeks.”

“I don’t have two weeks, Floyd.” I hate the whine in my voice, but I really am desperate.

He squints into the sun. “I do have something. But it’s not what you’re looking for.”

Neither is the Mommymobile. “Let’s see it.”

I follow Floyd’s waddle to the shop behind the showroom. “If you’re gonna try to sell me something you’re working on—”

“Nope. Just storing it to keep it out of the weather.” He strides to a sheet-covered mound in the center of the bay, lifts the edge, and pulls it off with a magician’s flourish.

“That’s not a car.”

“Damn, Carly, your powers of observation are downright acute.” He drops the cover in a corner and slaps the dust off his hands. “This here’s a 2005 Honda Shadow Spirit VT750.”

The motorcycle is low to the ground, but it’s not a cruiser; you’d sit almost upright on it. It’s got chrome pipes running down the side and a cushy seat that steps up to a tiny passenger seat with a short sissy bar. But it’s the paint job that makes me fall in insta-love. An eye-popping royal blue, with lighter blue flames rippling down the tank. Thoughts zip through my brain like summer heat lightning.

My grandparents would have a fit. I get it; my parents died on a bike.

He names a price lower than I’d have guessed.

It sure wouldn’t work as Papaw’s delivery van. But it’s cheap enough that maybe he could buy a truck, when Floyd gets more inventory.

“It’s got low mileage.” Floyd must see something on my face, because he’s got a greedy gleam in his eye. “Prettier’n a speckled pup, ain’t it?”

I nod. My brain flashes to the picture on the wall outside my bedroom. I’ve seen that photo every day since I’ve been old enough to toddle down the hall. A frozen moment, of parents I don’t remember. My dad, in greasy jeans and a white T-shirt, sitting on a Harley with ape-hanger handlebars, grinning at the camera. My mom, draped around him wearing shorts and a halter top. When I was little, I got the happy. As I got older, I got the sexy. My mom is smiling, but her nails make indentations in the T-shirt—like she wanted to rip it off and do him, right there.

They died on that motorcycle. But even that was romantic—they went together, her arms wrapped around him. Neither had to face a long life of being alone. The thought makes me shudder.

That photo whispers to me at night, telling me bedtime stories of speed and laughter and love. When I think of my parents, it’s that stop-action moment that I feel in my gut. Young, full of the future, and mad for each other. That’s what I want.

That’s my dream.

I found the guy, but that dream depends on Austin to make it come true. Here sits a dream I can make come true, all by myself.

But Nana and Papaw…No, you know what? I’ve worried about what people would think all my life: I’ve worked my butt off, being what everyone expected Carly to be: Austin’s girl, the dedicated granddaughter who quit rodeo to take over the diner. Well, everyone is going to have to stand back—I’m going to put what I want first for once.

Floyd is still standing there with his face and his stomach hanging out.

“You’d give me more off, if we bought a truck too, right? A volume discount?”

He rolls his eyes to the rafters. “Lord, I give to your church every Sunday, but I hadn’t planned my business to be nonprofit.”

I give him my best Rodeo Queen smile. “If money’s tight, maybe you should drop your magazine subscriptions.” Floyd’s a negotiator, but he’s got nothing on the grandkid of a Cajun bootlegger.

His fat mouth twists. “Oh, all right. Fifteen percent off the bike for a package deal.” He squints across the bike at me. “You got a license to ride, Carly?”

“Yep.” I got it back in high school, and never dropped the endorsement. I pull my wallet from my back pocket. “How much you want to hold it?”

Floyd holds up his hands. “I’ve known you since kindergarten. Your word is good enough for me.”

*  *  *

That evening, Lorelei is driving me home. We’ve passed Nellybelle’s corpse and are almost to our turnoff when my phone blares “Austin.” I check the time, then power off the phone. He must be getting desperate if he’s calling this close to his event. I look up to see a flash of pity crossing Lorelei’s face.

“Friday is Sadie Hawkins. You may ride over with Nana and Papaw, but you know darned well that when Austin shows up and bats his eyes, you’ll end up two-stepping the night away—first in the town square, then in his bed.” She turns into the long dirt drive that leads to my house.

I rest my arm on the open window and let the breeze blow out my thoughts. “Not this time.”

She doesn’t roll her eyes, but it’s a near thing. “So, what, you gonna dump Austin and go out with Quad?” She pulls in the dooryard.

“Nah. When Austin really understands how important it is to me, he’ll agree to make this his last season.”

“If you say so. I’ll be by in the morning to pick you up for work.”

“Thanks, Lorelei, I appreciate the ride.” I slide out, slam the door, and wave as she backs up.

The screen door shushes over the worn green linoleum that’s been here so long there’s a thin spot next to the sink. The smell of liver and onions smacks me in the face.

Nana is at the stove, poking the contents of a cast-iron skillet like she’s got a live rattlesnake in there. If it weren’t for the liver smell, I’d half believe she did. Nana’s always been quirky and outspoken, but the past few years, as she puts it, her “give-a-shit gave up the ghost.” She now says whatever she’s thinking, to whomever. We had her tested; it’s not Alzheimer’s. It’s more like Old Folks Tourette’s.

She removes the perpetual cigarette from the corner of her mouth, taps the ash on the coffee can ashtray on the counter, then returns it to her lip. “Well com’ere an’ give me a hug, sugar.”

She watches me cross the floor with the forever squint she’s gotten avoiding smoke from that cigarette. Her gray hair is pulled into a messy bun on the top of her head, stray bits standing straight out, defying gravity. Nana’s hair used to be red, like mine. They say she was a looker in her day.

“What’s the matter?”

Ducking the cigarette, I put my arms around her short frame. Her skin is like biscuit dough, white and pillow-soft, and she smells of smoke, onion, and sweat. The smell of love, and home. “You won’t want to hug me when I tell you that Nellybelle died.” I kiss her cheek.

“I heard.” She rocks me a few seconds, then releases me. “Ah, fuck it. The old nag outlived her usefulness ten years ago.” She turns back to the stove. “Now go wash up. Dinner’s in fifteen. Emma Jean’s pickin’ me up, an’ I can’t be late to Bingo.”

Instead, I head for the office where an ancient desktop computer perches on the rolltop desk. It takes forever to fire up. Papaw refuses to replace it, or to get faster internet service, contending that it’s bad enough that they make him pay for TV when it used to be free. With Papaw, all change is seen as a conspiracy.

When I finally get to Google, I type, “Motorcycle riding tips.”

Luckily, I won’t have to start from scratch. My memory flashes film clips from high school, when Austin taught me how to ride the county dirt roads on his little off-road Yamaha. He’d yelled “Shift!” in my ear until I figured out the sound of the revs winding up. And when it got hot, we’d stop at Chestnut Creek to skinny-dip and wind up each other’s revs. We had no responsibilities. No expectations. Life rolled out in front of us, and we screamed along, flat-out, never thinking ahead.

God, I miss those days.

I jot several websites on a scratch pad from Haley Feed &Tack, fold the sheet, and put it in my pocket. I’ll do research at the diner tomorrow, where they don’t haul in pixels via mule team.

By the time I’ve set the table, Papaw is washing up at the kitchen sink. “I’m gonna have to use the Camry tomorrow to pick up a load of corn at the feed store.”

Nana sets the bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. “Last time you did that, we had that squirrel ’pocalypse in the trunk.”

“I’m gonna buy it in bags this time. Can’t fit as much in that way, but…” He crosses to the fridge, opens the door, and roots around for ketchup.

I pour three glasses of iced tea. “I stopped by Floyd’s, but he had a blowout sale last weekend, and didn’t have anything worthwhile. He says he’ll have some trucks in next week.”

Papaw plops the ketchup in front of his plate and lowers his long, thin frame into the chair with a grunt.

His knee must be bad today. Probably not a good time to bring this up, but he’ll know soon anyway. I set the gravy boat on the table and sit. “Looks good, Nana.” In keeping with our mealtime hierarchy, I pass the platter of fried liver to Papaw.

“Thank you, missy.”

Nana fills hers, then passes each plate to me.

Papaw says grace.

Might as well get it over with. “I bought a motorcycle at Floyd’s today.”

Forks still.

Papaw peers over his half-glasses at me. A stray sunbeam hits his gaunt cheek, silvering his whiskers, aging him. Or maybe it’s just highlighting what I haven’t wanted to notice. When did he get so old?

“What in tarnation you gonna do with that?”

“Time I had my own vehicle.” I try to cut my liver, but my knife screes across my plate. “It’s used, and cheap. Floyd cut me a volume discount, so we can still afford a used truck.”

“Ladies don’t ride motorcycles.” His voice cuts better than my knife.

My back goes up. “This one will.” No one has a say in this dream. Besides, he makes me sound like I’m a flighty teenager. I’ve come up with a practical solution to a problem. A great solution.

I bite the inside of my cheek to keep the words in. I can fight with Nana. But Papaw is so close-lipped and prickly, I can never be sure enough of his love to fight with him.

“What does Austin have to say about this?”

Pawpaw always takes Austin’s side. “He has no say in this.”

“Oh.”

If I hadn’t been watching close, I’d have missed his eye twitch.

“I mean it.” The words bounce off the walls, louder than I’d meant.

“I ain’t disagreein’ with you, missy.”

“You may not have noticed, but I’m all grown up now. And if I want to ride a motorcycle, I’m danged sure gonna do it, and no man is going to tell me different.”

Papaw wipes his mouth on his napkin. “Lord help us, you sound like your daddy.”

His quiet sadness cools my temper. I reach out and touch his hand, suddenly aware how frail his bones are. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan to become a statistic.”

“Neither did they.” A stringy muscle works in his jaw. “Don’t promise what you cain’t deliver, missy.”