I looked at Colt in disappointment. Okay so this wasn’t my typical scene but I had been enjoying myself thus far.
“Why do we have to…” My words were drowned out by a horrible cracking noise from the center of the ring. All six of the Bishops, the three boys and the three girls were jumping on either side of the fallen tree while the center remained raised above another monstrous log. With a horrendous creak the green Aspen began to splinter and sparks and burning cinders were tossed into the air where the supporting log was also cracking. Someone near the blaze caught an ember and his coat immediately began to smolder. While his buddies whooped and laughed themselves into stitches the burning boy was forced to douse his coat with the remainder of his beer before joining in their mirth.
“That’s why,” said Colt so close beside my ear that I jumped. “The cumulative intelligence is only going to drop from here and I’d bet money the fire marshall gets called tonight.” He brushed a lock of hair behind my ear and goosebumps ran all the way down my spine. “It wouldn’t do for you to get into trouble on your first night.”
I could see he was right and this time when I look back I noticed that the dancing had become more erratic, more provocative, and that as much beer was being sloshed on clothing as it was poured down throats. I glanced at my watch, startled to realize hours had passed while I had been enjoying myself. The hour hand had slipped by midnight without my noticing.
“Alright,” I said. “I’m ready.”
Colt walked us around the perimeter of the circle until we arrived back at his truck. He offered to take my coat and then, after unlocking the driver’s side, tossed both of our outer layers across the cab into the passenger seat. Then he looked at me expectantly.
“Go on, load-up,” He said.
Without another option I climbed passed him into the cab. Emboldened by the alcohol, the music, or a combination of both, I took the middle seat and positioned my legs on either side of the stick shift. Colt said nothing but climbed in beside me and jammed the key into the ignition. Country music again poured from the radio as we backed out of the circle and then swung a wide arc to the dirt path around the house.
We made the right turn back onto the paved road toward Powder Ridge and Colt turned the music up again as the truck picked up speed. When he shifted into fourth the movement caused his forearm to brush my thigh. He let the contact linger a moment longer than was necessary.
A mile from the house he thumbed the stereo dial and the music died.
“When is your first day of work?” He asked. The quiet timber of his voice struck me as intimate after the dying music carried away the last rowdiness of the party.
“Monday.” I answered. “I’m supposed to go in around eleven so someone can show me around after the breakfast rush. What’s today anyway, Friday?”
“Yes it is. What will you do tomorrow?”
“Probably something like I did today,” I said, “Just keep poking around a bit and exploring.”
Colt nodded and I thought he wouldn’t say anymore but after a pause he added, “make sure you get to the stables in Powder Ridge. My folks said you ride well.”
I was pleased he had heard this. So far I had spend my first day feeling next to useless and novice to boot up here, but I did know horses. Most of my experience involved show mounts and training for Western competitions, but I got on well with most of the horses sent my way. It was something I was familiar with, and I had been looking forward to it when staying in Coal Creek first came up.
“Where will you be?” I asked, “I don’t have a ride.”
“We’ll deal with it tomorrow,” was all he said in reply.
The truck came to rest in the driveway and I heard the settling crunch of gravel beneath the tires. Colt jumped from the truck and then offered me his hand to climb out. I took it gratefully, suddenly blind in the absence of the headlights. The absolute dark was something I would need to get used to but in the mean time I still found it unnerving. If you’ve never lived in a rural area, it’s difficult to explain what it’s like to look across the landscape at night and see only swathes of inky blackness. There were no street lights to illuminate the road. No motion sensors on the adjacent cabins, or lamps on the corners of each lot. Only the moon and a couple interior house lights in the distance shone through the darkness.
Gradually my eyes adjusted and I could again make out Colt’s silhouette and the outline of the front door. He dropped my hand and somehow managed to located the correct house key. He handed me the key ring and returned to the truck to retrieve our coats. I felt clumsy forcing the key into the lock, but it turned easily once the teeth had set. The door swung inward, creaking gently and I returned Colt’s keys before kicking my boots off inside the frame.
He slipped passed me and headed into the living room, toeing off his own boots as he went. I dodged each of his enormous shoes in the hall and trailed up the three steps behind him.
“So what did you think,” he said.
“It was a lot of fun,” I answered truthfully.
“It will be better still when you know more people,” he said. “And once we teach you how to dance.”
He smirked and I flushed. I had half-hoped and half-dreaded that he was serious about the earlier comment.
“Anyway,” he continued, “It’s almost one in the morning. You should get some sleep.”
I looked at him hard for the first time since getting out of the truck. For the second night in a row I felt somewhat like a petulant child being sent to bed. Perhaps he meant nothing by it but it irked me nonetheless.
“Thanks but I think I’ll read a little first,” I said.
“Suit yourself. Good night,” he answered before turning into his room and closing the door. Several seconds later I heard running water and the sound of a toothbrush. Then silence again.
I retreated to my own room, brushed my teeth, undressed, and settled into the heavy pillows with one of my mother’s old books. The old pages were discolored at the corner where dozens of readers had turned countless pages over and over again. The paper was cream-colored instead of the bright white I remembered from childhood. Overall the day had been different and fun, but I still felt the slightest ache of homesickness as the memory of my mother’s voice reading aloud rose. I must have been more tired that I realized because I barely got through a chapter before my eyes refused to stay open any longer. It may have been a dream, but I think I heard the quiet pad of footsteps just before drifting off.