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It’s 1986, and what should have been the greatest summer of Nate Bradford’s life goes sour when his parents suddenly divorce. Now, instead of spending his senior year in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he’s living with his father in Warren, Wyoming, population 2,833 (and Nate thinks that might be a generous estimate). There’s no swimming pool, no tennis team, no mall—not even any MTV. The entire school’s smaller than his graduating class back home, and in a town where the top teen pastimes are sex and drugs, Nate just doesn’t fit in.
Then Nate meets Cody Lawrence. Cody’s dirt-poor, from a broken family, and definitely lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Nate’s dad says Cody’s bad news. The other kids say he’s trash. But Nate knows Cody’s a good kid who’s been dealt a lousy hand. In fact, he’s beginning to think his feelings for Cody go beyond friendship.
Admitting he might be gay is hard enough, but between small-town prejudices and the growing AIDS epidemic dominating the headlines, a town like Warren, Wyoming, is no place for two young men to fall in love.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Cody was at the gas station on the corner, waiting for the customers to clear out so he could buy a pack of smokes, when the new guy came in. Warren, Wyoming, was a small place. Everyone knew everybody else. This kid obviously wasn’t from the area, and Cody stopped browsing the Rolling Stone magazine in his hand to check him out.
He was seventeen or eighteen years old, just like Cody, but dressed like a preppy boy from one of those John Hughes films—deck shoes, pegged jeans, and a golf shirt with the collar turned up. He probably had hairspray in his hair, for fuck’s sake.
There were two possibilities: the first, and most likely, was that he was just another schmuck who’d tried to take a county road shortcut from I-80 to Yellowstone and had stopped for directions. The second was that he’d just moved into town.
Cody watched, intrigued, as the stranger walked right up to the counter, cocky as could be, and asked Vera for a pack of Marlboro Reds. She glanced around the station like Cody knew she would, noting the other shoppers—Tammy, with her bawling kid; old Jerry, who was apparently searching for the perfect packet of beef jerky; and Lucy, wearing her house slippers. Then she turned to the new guy. She smacked her gum once and said, “You got an ID, kid?”
“Of course.” But he didn’t reach for his wallet.
“You gonna show it to me?”
Cody couldn’t see the boy’s face, but he didn’t need to.
“No cigarettes unless you’re eighteen.”
“Oh,” he said, as if he hadn’t thought of that. “Okay. Thanks.”
The newcomer started studying the gum display next to the counter. Ms. Thomas, the music teacher from the high school, came in then, and Cody gave it up for a lost cause and left the store. Ms. Thomas and Vera didn’t like each other too much, but they made a good show of it any chance they got. They’d be yacking for ages.
Cody leaned against the side of the building and pulled out a cigarette. The wind was blowing like it always did, and he had to go behind the big ICE cooler to get it lit. When he looked up again, the preppy boy was standing there, watching him. The wind blew his blond hair into his eyes. He pushed it off his forehead and said, “Hey, man, can I bum one of those?”
Cody only had two left. Still, saying no felt like an asshole move. “Sure.”
He shook one loose from the pack and offered his lighter. When it was lit, the new kid leaned against the ice machine. He was a bit taller than Cody. Then again, just about everybody was. “What’s your name?”
“Cody,” he said, like he was tasting the name. He must have liked it, because he smiled. “My friends call me Nate.”
Did that mean Cody already qualified as a friend? The possibility surprised him.
“Can’t believe she carded me,” Nate went on. “Nobody at home ever cared.”
“Vera doesn’t care either, but she’s worried others do. One of the PTA moms finds out she sells us smokes, and she’s out of a job. You gotta wait till everybody else is gone, then she’ll sell to you, no questions asked. Beer too, once she knows you.”
“And she knows you?”
“Well enough.” His mom’d been sending him there to buy stuff since he was old enough to cross the street.
Nate turned his head, seemingly so his blowing hair would be behind him, but all it did was wrap around the other side and back into his face. “Does the damn wind ever stop blowing around here?”
“Only when it snows.”
“Man. I’ve only seen snow once in my life, and that was enough.”
The statement struck Cody as funny, and he laughed. He figured Nate was just being a smart-ass and doing a piss-poor job, but then he realized maybe not. “You serious?”
“Lived in Texas my whole life. It’d freeze a couple of times a year, but the only snow I ever saw was last year. The entire city had to shut down.”
“We sure as hell don’t shut down for snow around here, I can tell you that. Did you just move here?”
It was odd timing. With the oil and coal booms over, more people were moving out of Wyoming than were moving in. “Where do you live?”
Nate gestured to the northeast. “Up in Orange Grove.”
Orange Grove. That figured. Orange Grove was Warren’s rich neighborhood. Never mind that nobody in the history of the world had ever managed to grow any kind of citrus in Wyoming.
“Where is everybody, anyway? I mean, you know, where’s everybody hang out?” Nate had only smoked half the cigarette, but he tossed it into the gutter.
Cody resisted the urge to smack him. He’d smoked his down to the filter, and he dropped it on the pavement and ground it out with the toe of his shoe. He was trying not to resent Warren’s newest resident for wasting half of his second-to-last smoke. He was also trying not to resent him for being from the fucking Grove. He could get past the first. The second, though? That one pissed him off for no good reason. “Who exactly are you looking for?” he asked. “Rich kids like you?”
He could tell Nate didn’t know how to answer. “I suppose. Anyone our age, really.”
Cody knew his attitude was unwarranted. It wasn’t Nate’s fault his folks had money any more than it was Cody’s fault that his didn’t. He sighed. “The people you’re talking about will be at City Drug. It’s on Main Street.”
“A drug store?”
“It’s like a general store. It’s old. They still got one of those old-fashioned fountains, you know? Like from the fifties.” It was actually a pretty cool place, if you didn’t mind the preps. They made killer malts, had Ironport on tap, and sold limeades that were actually fresh squeezed. “That’s where your type will be.”
Nate grinned. His hair was blowing in his eyes again. “And what about the ones who aren’t ‘my type’?”
Cody frowned. He resisted the urge to take out his last cigarette and light it. “The cowboys’ll be at the old rock quarry, south of town. I don’t know what they do there, and I probably don’t want to. The burnouts and the trailer-park kids hang at the bowling alley. It’s only got three lanes, but there’s a Pac-Man, and Centipede, and pinball, and a foosball table.”
He could have told him that the pinball machine tilted if you breathed on it wrong, and the foosball table was missing four of its men, three from red and one from blue, but he figured Nate didn’t need to know quite that much. “Then there’s just the Mormons, I guess. They stick together. Mostly hang at each other’s houses, I think.”
“And what about you? Where do you hang?”
Cody laughed. “I guess right here, behind the ICE cooler.”
“There must be someplace else?”
Cody studied him, weighing his odds. “Maybe.”
Every school had its outcasts, and at Walter Warren High School, that role was filled by him. If he had to pick a crew, it’d be those losers at the bowling alley, but he didn’t trust them. He knew from experience they’d turn on him in a heartbeat if it suited them. So on one hand, it was kind of cool to think about having some company for a while. On the other hand, school started again in three weeks. And when that happened, it’d be over. It was a safe bet it’d only be a few days before Nate was in tight with the jocks and those preps from the Grove, looking right past Cody in the halls like they’d never met.
Still, that wouldn’t be until September, and this was August. Bright and sunny and blowing like a motherfucker. Right at that moment, he didn’t have a damn thing to lose.
“I’ll take you somewhere,” he said. “But first, let’s buy another pack of smokes.”
* * *
Nate assumed they’d leave right away, but Cody had him wait. Finally, when the last customer left the gas station, he took Nate’s money and went inside. He came back out with a pack in each hand, one of Marlboros, one of Camel Lights. He shoved the latter into his jacket pocket, and tossed the Reds Nate’s way.
He didn’t say anything. Just headed off down the sidewalk. “Where are you going?” Nate called.
Cody turned on his heel. “Thought you wanted to go somewhere?”
Ah. Cody expected him to follow. On foot. “Why don’t we drive?” He nodded toward his car, and Cody’s eyes followed the gesture to the brown Mustang parked at the end of the lot.
Cody looked at it for a minute, and Nate didn’t miss the resentment on his face. He thought about the way Cody had said, “Rich kids like you?”
“Yeah, okay,” Cody said.
Nate got in the car, and Cody came back and got in the passenger side without meeting his eyes. “Nice car.” But it was clear he only said it because he figured Nate expected it. He glanced around. “Convertible, even.”
“I had the top down the first day. It’s a lot less fun here than at home.” Having the wind in his face was one thing. Having it buffeting him from every direction was another. “My dad wants me to sell it and buy a truck.”
Cody shrugged. “Truck’ll do you a lot more good in the winter.”
True enough, probably, but the fact was, the car had somehow become the centerpiece of his battle with his dad. First, his parents had ruined his life by deciding to divorce. Then, his dad decided he needed a new start in a brand-new town. Nate had wanted to stay in Austin with his mom, but his folks decided that wasn’t how it should be, Nate’s feelings on the matter be damned. So here he was, in the middle of godforsaken Warren, Wyoming, population 2,833 (and he thought that might have been a generous estimate). He didn’t want to be here. Selling his car and buying a four-wheel-drive truck like the local yahoos drove would make him one of them.
And he had no desire to ever be one of them.
Cody pointed down the street, and Nate started to drive. A minute later, Cody leaned forward to touch the stereo, a shy grin on his face. “Eight-track. That’s crazy.”
“I don’t even know if it works. I used the radio at home, but the only station I could find here was playing country.”
“That’s out of Casper. The closest rock station’s in Salt Lake. Might be one in Laramie, too, but we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere, man. We’re like the black hole of modern civilization. Don’t even have a damn record store.”
“I saw some cassettes at the gas station.”
He laughed. “Sure, if you like Hank Williams.”
On the west end of town was a trailer park. Cody directed him all the way through it. On the far side, the road turned south and dipped under the train tracks. It came back up in what might have been a trailer park in its good days. Now it was like something out of a horror movie: four bedraggled trailers with nothing but dirt for yards, tattered sheets in the windows in lieu of curtains, and one mangy dog growling at them from under a rusty car on cinder blocks.
“Park here,” Cody said.
He did, and then followed Cody out of the car and up to a barbed wire fence. Cody ducked through.
Nate stopped, suddenly having second thoughts. He eyed Cody, wondering what he was up to. Nate was no fool. He could look at Cody and figure the score. Faded, off-brand jeans with a ratty T-shirt, a denim jacket that was falling apart at the seams, and that wary, accusing look that told him Cody was probably used to being on the wrong side of every line anybody had ever drawn.
Nate’s dad would take one look at him and say he was a bad egg. He’d tell Nate to stay away.
Of course, that was the exact reason he’d decided to talk to Cody in the first place. Still, it was one thing to piss off his dad. It was another thing to get arrested for trespassing.
“Will we get in trouble?” he asked.
“Nah. This is Jim’s land. He don’t care, so long as we don’t mess with his cows.”
Nate followed him through the fence. They jumped an irrigation ditch that stunk of cow piss, and walked on through the field. Ahead of them, to the west, he spotted the highway that would eventually lead to the interstate. From here, they were close enough to see the cars, but too far away to tell makes and models. To the south, a herd of cows grazed. A couple raised their heads to regard them, but mostly they just chewed their cud and ignored the human interlopers.
A few more steps, and the land dropped several feet, forming a small bluff. Below was a graveyard of sorts. It was obviously the place where Jim and his family had dumped unneeded vehicles for the past hundred years. There was a rusted cab of an old pickup truck, a few tractors looking like decrepit skeletons, and a couple of things Nate couldn’t even begin to identify—maybe farming equipment of some kind.
On the face of the bluff, wedged halfway into the dirt, was an old wagon. The wheels were gone. Its axles must have been buried in the embankment underneath it. There were still arching metal bands that had once held a canvas cover. It sat in the ground at nearly a ninety-degree angle. Cody stepped over the topside and slid down to sit on the downhill edge. The bed of the wagon made a sort of reclining seat that looked out over the prairie.
He pulled his cigarettes out. He took the last one from the first pack, wadded the empty package up and stuck it in his coat pocket, then lit the smoke with practiced ease. “Watch your butts out here. Gets pretty dry. I imagine Jim’d skin me alive if we burned down his field.”
Nate slid down the wooden bed of the wagon and sat next to him. Being inside of it at least took the edge off the wind.
“What do you do out here?” he asked.
Cody leaned back and closed his eyes. “Nothing.”
Cody smiled but didn’t open his eyes. “I smoke. I read. I nap. I jack off.” Nate wasn’t sure if he meant that literally, or if he meant it as a synonym for goofing around. His stomach fluttered a bit as he pondered it.
“So this is it?” Nate asked. “This is all anyone does?”
“This, or get high.”
“You get high?”
“No. But lots of them do. Especially those of you in the Grove with money to spare.”
Nate had always been a good kid at home. Sure, he’d snuck a few beers through the years, but he wasn’t into drugs. He took his own pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and looked at it. The truth was, he’d only started smoking two weeks before, and he’d only done it to piss of his dad.
“Class of ’87,” Cody said. “You’ll be a senior this year?”
Nate wondered how he knew, then realized Cody was looking at his class ring. “Yeah.”
Nate straightened the ring on his finger, remembering how excited he’d been as he chose the designs back in tenth grade. Of course, he hadn’t known then that they’d be moving before graduation. Now he’d have to serve out his senior year in Warren, Wyoming. Only one year in this joke of a town, and he’d be able to leave. That’s what he held on to. “You play any sports?”
Cody laughed. “Yeah, man. I’m the captain of the football team. Whatta you think?”
It had been a stupid question. If he’d thought about it for half a second, he would have known that.
“What about you?” Cody asked.
“Tennis. And I was on the swim team.”
“Only swimming pool here is the outdoor one. It’s open about three months outta the year.”
“Yeah, I saw it.” It was nothing more than a square, cement hole in the ground, full of squealing kids. It wasn’t even close to Olympic size, even if there had been lanes. Next to it was the tennis court—singular, not plural—the cement cracked and overgrown with weeds and grass. Nate had counted five empty beer bottles but not one tennis ball.
He swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat. He fought to turn his frustration into anger. It’d serve him better that way.
“I guess I don’t do anything anymore.” But he didn’t sound nearly as casual as he’d hoped. He knew his bitterness came through.
For the first time, there was no resentment or disdain in Cody’s eyes. It looked more like pity.
“You’re in hell, Nate,” he said without a hint of humor. “This place will eat your soul.”
Nate offered to drive Cody home, but Cody said dropping him back at the gas station where they’d met would be close enough.
“Want to hang out tomorrow?” Nate asked. “I can meet you at the wagon after lunch.”
It took Cody a second, like he hadn’t quite understood the question, or couldn’t believe he’d actually heard it, but then he smiled. Not the cynical smile Nate had seen earlier, or the one that told him Cody thought he was a preppy fool. This was different. It made him look younger than he really was. It was sweet, like a secret smile Nate suspected few had ever seen.
“Cool,” Cody said. Nothing more. But Nate had a feeling he was looking forward to it.
He drove up the hill to Orange Grove with a familiar feeling of dread in his gut. His dad was the newest officer with the Warren PD. The oil boom had brought lots of people to the state in the seventies and the first part of the eighties, but now, the boom was over, and people were fleeing Wyoming in droves. Towns were shrinking, and unemployment was higher than it had ever been. Fully a third of the houses in Orange Grove were empty, dented For Sale signs standing in the front lawns, bowing before the wind. Unfortunately, higher unemployment and a hard-hitting recession meant an elevation in crime. Nate’s dad had managed to get a job with the police department because he had years of experience on his résumé, but Nate had never understood why they had to leave Austin at all, and moving to a town that had already peaked and was now declining into ruin was the last thing he’d wanted to do.
He found his dad at the dining room table with open folders full of paper spread out all around him. “Where’ve you been?” he asked. Not accusing. Not worried. Just genuinely curious about Nate’s day.
Nate saw the pain in his dad’s eyes at his elusiveness. He and his dad had always been pals. But that had been before.
Before the affair. Before the divorce.
“Did you meet some kids?”
“One. We hung out.”
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re making friends. Boy or girl?”
“A boy. He’ll be a senior, like me.”
“That’s great. What’s his name?”
“What’s his last name?”
Nate knew he was only asking because he wanted to know if it was a name he’d find on the lists of habitual offenders. Nate was happy to be able to honestly say, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, his dad fiddling with his pen, Nate staring at his toes. He wanted to say more. He wanted to say, Cody took me to a field where we smoked half a pack of cigarettes because there’s nothing else to do in this goddamn town. He wanted to say, He told me everybody from this part of town gets high. He wanted to say, You’ve brought me to the shittiest place on earth. Cody says it will eat my soul, and I think he’s right.
What he actually said was, “What’s for dinner?”
“I was thinking Chinese?” It sounded more like a question than a statement. “I noticed a place on Main Street.”
“They don’t have a Pizza Hut or a McDonald’s, but they have a Chinese restaurant?”
“There’s actually a pretty rich Asian history in this area. A lot of Chinese helped build the railroads. I was in the library today, and they had a book on—”
Nate cut him off before he rambled on for ages. “Chinese is fine.”
The diner was like a trip back in time, with little individual jukeboxes at each table. A dial on top flipped the pages, like some kind of storybook, showing them the available tunes. They pumped in a few dimes, just for fun. There wasn’t much pop, but Nate picked “It’s Raining Again” and “One Thing Leads to Another.” His dad hunted for Bob Seger, but the only one they had was “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” and it seemed that one hit a bit too close to home, so he played “Down Under” and “Jack & Diane,” and for a few minutes, it was almost fun.
The food turned out to be better than Nate anticipated, too. They had sweet and sour pork, and ham-fried rice, which they both agreed was way better than regular old “pork-fried” rice. Nate’d grown used to awkward meals with his dad. This one wasn’t as bad as some, but it still felt wrong. His dad attempted to make small talk, as if nothing had changed. As if Nate’s mom wasn’t missing from the picture. As if they weren’t sitting in a ridiculously tiny Chinese diner in the middle of Wyoming, with the wind blowing outside like it couldn’t wait to get the hell into some greener state.
And who could blame it if it did?
“I saw a truck for sale today,” his dad said. “A Ford. A little rusty, but those things’ll run forever. I think it would be a good investment.”
“I’m keeping my Mustang.”
“Once winter comes—”
They lapsed into another uncomfortable silence. They seemed to have those more often than not lately.
“I know you don’t want to be here,” his dad said quietly. “But there weren’t that many jobs to choose from.”
“I don’t see why we had to leave Austin at all. You had a job there.”
“Your mom wanted the house, and I didn’t want to fight her for it.”
“You didn’t fight for anything.”
“I wanted you,” his dad said, his voice quiet. “I fought for you.”
Nate slumped, having no good way to tell his father he shouldn’t have bothered. Besides, he’d heard it all before. “Whatever.”
“I couldn’t stay in Austin after the divorce. I just couldn’t. I needed some distance—”
“Well, you got that, didn’t you?”
His dad rubbed his forehead. “I know you think I should have tried harder to make things work with your mom, but—”
“You didn’t try at all.”
“That’s not true,” his dad said with seemingly infinite patience. “You have no idea how wrong you are about that.”
“If you’d really tried, we wouldn’t be here. We’d be at home in Austin. With Mom.”
His dad sighed. He sat there in silence for a moment, and then he dug in his pocket, and pushed a dime across the Formica. “How about another song?”
* * *
Cody walked home from the gas station feeling uncharacteristically cheery. Yes, he’d only have a few weeks before school started and the normal social politics of high school took Nate away, but until then, it seemed he had friend. He hadn’t really had one of those in a while.
The three trailers near his seemed more oppressive than usual. One housed Ted, an unemployed alcoholic in his forties who lived alone. Vera from the gas station lived in another, with her invalid mother. And the third belonged to Kathy Johansen and Pete Jessup, who might have made a living selling drugs if they hadn’t used more than they sold. They were arguing like they always did, their shouts easily overheard through the thin walls. Cody heard a crash inside their trailer as he walked past. The only thing louder than Kathy and Pete’s frequent arguments were the trains that came through every other day, shaking Cody’s entire trailer as they passed.
Nate had offered to drop Cody off at his house. He had no idea they’d been right there, practically at Cody’s front door, but there was no way Cody wanted a rich kid from Orange Grove to see where he lived. Nate’d find out more than Cody wanted him to know soon enough.
He was surprised to see his mom’s car parked out front. She was sitting on the couch when he walked in, a cigarette smoldering between her fingers and two empty beer cans on the coffee table in front of her. She should have been at work.
“They were slow today,” she said, answering his unasked question. “Ralph sent me home.”
His mom worked as a waitress at a truck stop on I-80. It was a forty-minute drive each way, and the pay was shit. She spent more than half of what she earned on the gas it took to get there and back each week, but there weren’t any jobs to be had in Warren. Besides, they’d gone through plenty of stretches with no income at all. This was better, albeit not by very damn much.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked. Occasionally she’d bring home a leftover hot beef sandwich for him, but there was no takeout container on the countertop today.
She shrugged and ashed her cigarette into the dead plant on the end table. “Whatever you can find.”
He opened the cabinet and stared at the contents as if he hadn’t seen them before. Ramen noodles, the generic equivalent of SpaghettiOs, and a mostly empty jar of peanut butter.
“Do we have any bread?”
She didn’t answer. That meant no.
From the kitchen, he could only see the back of her head as she watched Wheel of Fortune. It came in a bit staticky because the tinfoil-wrapped rabbit ears on top of the set were crap, but he could still see it was the end of the round, when the winner looked through the showcase and used their prize money to buy things.
“I’ll take the ceramic dog for $317,” today’s winner said. “And the color TV for $625.”
Cody wondered as he always did what it would be like to spend money like that. Those people had no idea how lucky they were. Yes, Pat, I’ll take the spaghetti sauce for $3. Not the generic kind with the black-and-white label, but the Prego, if you please. And a loaf of Wonder Bread for $2.50.
Nate probably had bread at his house. Cody wondered if Nate’s mother sat on the couch, drinking her dinner while chain-smoking her way through her second pack of the day.
“The check didn’t come,” his mom said.
Cody stared at the back of her head as her words sank in. Whatever giddiness he’d felt after his time with Nate died a quick and painful death. “He’s months behind. He promised he’d send it.”
“You think I don’t know that, Cody?”
“School starts in less than a month.”
She sighed. She still didn’t look away from the TV.
“Yes, Pat,” the woman on the TV said, smiling her perfect smile. “I’ll take the gold money clip for $120.”
“Mom,” Cody said, doing his best to keep his voice level and rational rather than letting himself whine. “None of last year’s clothes fit anymore.”
“You can go to the Basement. I have a bit of tip money you can use.”
One of the churches in Warren ran a small used-clothing shop out of their basement. Secondhand shoes and secondhand styles. The worst part was, it was all donated by people who lived in town. “I hate shopping there.”
“It’s not that bad.”
She didn’t know what it was like, but he still remembered very clearly the humiliation he’d felt in junior high when some jock laughingly pointed out that Cody was wearing the shirt he’d tossed out the year before.
“I don’t want to buy my school clothes there.” Now he was whining. He knew it, but he couldn’t seem to help it.
“What the fuck do you think I can do about it, Cody?” She finally turned to look at him. The lines in her face seemed more pronounced than usual. She looked far older than she was. “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Christ, like he needed her to tell him that. If it did, he figured they’d have a damn loaf of bread. Then again, there weren’t all that many trees in southern Wyoming. Even if money did grow on them, it’d probably all be the same place it was now—up in goddamned Orange Grove.
Cody bit back his frustration. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d quit growing. His toes were jammed uncomfortably into the end of last year’s sneakers. He was wearing the one pair of jeans he owned that didn’t show most of his ankles. He’d mowed a few lawns over the summer, but the money he had left wouldn’t be nearly enough.
His mom turned back to her show. Back to the people who could spend $175 on a magazine bin that was imported from Italy and still ugly as sin.
“You’ll live,” she said.
Pat, I’d like a new fucking life for ten thousand dollars. Just take the money off the tree. The one up by Nate’s house.
He thought about the Sears catalog in his room. He’d spent weeks poring over it, circling things, making lists, adding and subtracting, figuring out how he could get the most useful assortment of clothes for the money his dad had promised to send. Winters in Wyoming sucked, and in the end, he’d decided to forgo fashion in lieu of warmth. Jeans, shoes, and a few shirts of course, but he’d planned to use a large chunk of the money for a new winter coat. Now, he’d have none of it.
He closed the cabinet door, his hunger suddenly gone. At least he still had most of a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.
“I’m going out.”
She didn’t answer.
He went back outside. The dull sounds of Kathy and Pete’s latest argument echoed around the lot, sounding desperate and pitiful. Cody sighed and plopped down on the steps. He had no idea where he was going. Back to the wagon in Jim’s cow field, or back to the gas station? He could go to the bowling alley and hang with the burnouts. Or out to the rock quarry, just so the cowboys could kick his ass. They hadn’t done that in a couple of years. Maybe this time they’d do it right and put him out of his misery.
It almost seemed like a good idea.
Jesus, Cody. Melodramatic much?
Yeah, he was laying it on thick, but it was either that or cry. The former seemed better than the latter.
He lit a cigarette and looked west, toward the highway. He imagined the distant interstate, full of people who were going somewhere. How many of them had money? How many had families in their car? How many never had to worry about whether or not their deadbeat dad sent the court-mandated payment or not?
At that moment, he would have traded places with any damn one of them in a heartbeat. No questions asked.
Nate had told Cody he’d meet him after lunch, but he ended up going to the field right after he got out of bed. It was a bit after eleven when he arrived, and Cody was already there, a half-empty pack of cigarettes in his hand.
“Wind’s still blowing,” Nate said as he sat down.
“Welcome to Wyoming.”
He didn’t even glance Nate’s way. A brand-new day, and somehow Nate knew he was starting fresh with Cody. Whatever camaraderie they’d shared the day before had been wiped away in the night.
“I hear it’s really nice up in the northern part of the state,” he said, in an attempt to make conversation.
Cody sighed and tapped a cigarette into his hand. “I hear that too. I wouldn’t know.” He tucked the rest of the pack into the upper pocket of his jean jacket and pulled out a lighter. Nate waited while he turned away, cupping his hand against the wind to get it lit.
“How long have you lived here?”
Cody blew smoke, his other hand clenching around his lighter. “My whole fucking life.”
“Well, you graduate this year, right? Then you can leave. Maybe go to college—”
“Ha!” Cody shook his head, leaning forward to put his elbows on his knees. “Yeah, right. College.”
Nate wasn’t sure what that meant. Maybe his grades weren’t good enough, or—
“There’s no leaving this town. Didn’t I tell you it’s the black hole of modern civilization? I meant it, man. There’s no escape. You’re born here, you knock up some chick, then you die here. That’s how it goes.”
“Uh . . .” Nate had no idea how to tackle that happy thought. “You’re planning on knocking somebody up?”
Cody laughed without much humor and contemplated the smoldering cigarette between his fingers. “Pretty sure nobody actually plans that. Don’t change anything, though. Gotta have money to leave, and by the time you’ve got it, it’s too late.”
“I don’t care what you say. I’m leaving, as soon as I can. Packing up my car the night before graduation and leaving five minutes after they put that diploma in my hand.”
“And going where?”
“Home, I guess, for the summer at least. Then I’m moving to Chicago.”
Cody frowned at him, and Nate hurried to elaborate.
“My aunt lives there. She’s a real estate agent, and she owns a bunch of houses and apartments. She has one she said I could use while I go to school.” Although the idea of putting in college applications in a few months turned his stomach to knots.
Cody ground out the last of his cigarette against the side of the wagon and tossed the butt angrily into the wind. “Lucky you.”
Nate studied him for a moment, taking in the ripped knees of his jeans and the way they ended a bit short of his ankles. The arms of his denim jacket left his bony wrists exposed. His tennis shoes had holes in both toes.
A small knot of shame formed in Nate’s stomach as he finally realized it wasn’t grades standing between Cody and college. He thought about Warren—windblown streets lined with lifeless, dusty buildings. No flowers. No joy. No jobs. Even the houses seemed to droop in defeat. The people he’d seen didn’t look much better. Dead-eyed women not much older than him dragging their screaming kids through the grocery store. The line of rusty pickup trucks parked outside the shitty, seedy bar on the far side of town, no matter what time of day it was.
Maybe Cody was right. Maybe there was no escape.
Nate cleared his throat, trying to think of something that hinted at hope. “My mom always says, ‘Despair is anger with no place to go.’”
Cody chuckled and put his head down. He ran his hands through his straight black hair. “I guess that makes me Despair, then.”
“My mom also says, ‘When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars.’”
“Oh yeah? Well, my mom says, ‘If the world didn’t suck, we’d fall off.’”
Nate laughed. He wasn’t sure if Cody had intended it as a joke or not, but either way, Nate couldn’t help it. Cody looked over at him in surprise.
“Well,” Nate said, still laughing a bit, “at least I know where you get your cheery disposition.”
Cody blinked at him once as if trying to decide how to take that comment, but then he gave Nate a grudging smile. “And I guess I know where you get yours.”
“Yeah.” Now it was Nate’s turn to duck his head in hopes of hiding his expression. It was true his mother had always been happy and upbeat. Right up until May, when she’d walked into Nate’s bedroom and casually told him she was leaving his dad.
“Your mom sounds like some kind of brainiac or something.”
“She’s an English teacher.”
“Will she be teaching at the high school?”
“No.” Nate couldn’t look at him. He twisted the class ring on his finger, watching the way the sun glinted off the light-blue stone. “She didn’t move here with us. She’s still back in Austin.”
Cody didn’t respond right away, and when Nate finally glanced up, he found Cody looking at him with more compassion than he’d seen from him before. “That sucks.”
“You have no idea.” As soon as Nate said the words, he realized maybe he shouldn’t have. He didn’t know anything about Cody’s family situation. It was possible Cody knew exactly how Nate felt. He wondered if he should apologize, but Cody didn’t seem bothered.
“When I was a kid, it seemed like I was the only one whose parents were split.” Cody looked toward the distant motion of the highway again, as if it held some kind of answer. “People were always asking me why my last name was different from my mom’s. Used to piss me off. But the older I get, the more it seems like the norm, you know? I don’t know if there really are more divorces now, or if it’s just because I’m more aware of it.”
Nate had always known about divorce, but he’d always assumed it only happened to kids with fucked-up family lives. Somehow, he’d thought the “broken home” came first, and the divorce second. He hadn’t quite realized the divorce was often what made it “broken.”
“I guess I thought it couldn’t happen to me,” he said.
He hated it. Hated his life and his parents and the fact that he was now one of those kids. He hated coming home to a house where his mother’s music wasn’t playing. He hated having to do his own laundry and the fact that there was never a pot of soup on the stove or a batch of cookies in the oven, and the fact that he never, ever woke up to pancakes and bacon for breakfast. He hated knowing he’d taken those things for granted for so many years. And more than anything, he fucking hated Wyoming.
“Hey,” Cody said, and when Nate looked over at him, Cody smiled. “When it’s dark enough, you can see the stars.”
Nate tried to smile back, but failed. “I only see the dark.”
“Me too.” Cody nudged Nate’s knee with his own, and this time, Nate did manage to smile a little. “Guess it gives us a reason to keep looking up.”
* * *
They spent a stupid percentage of the next couple of weeks sitting in the middle of a goddamn field, smoking until their throats burned.
“Seriously,” Nate said sometime during their second week together. “What the hell do people do around here?”
Cody lit a cigarette from a book of matches, shaking the used match to extinguish the flame, as if the wind hadn’t done it already. “You got a gun?”
The question alarmed him. “No! Why would I?”
Cody shrugged. “Lots of people shoot squeakies in the summer.”
Nate blinked, trying to wrap his head around that sentence. Lots of people shooting was scary enough to begin with. “What the hell’s a squeakie?”
Cody squinted at him. “You know. Squeakies.”
Nate could only shake his head in bafflement, and Cody rolled his eyes before elaborating. “What, you don’t have squeakies in Texas?”
“I guess not. What are they?”
“They’re little rodents that burrow in the ground.”
“Like prairie dogs?”
“Like, a chipmunk?”
“No, man. Like a squeakie! People shoot ’em. Or they find a field full of ’em and spin donuts in their cars, seeing how many they can run over.”
“Are you serious?”
“And when they get bored of that, they chase the antelope, trying to run them down. And if that ain’t cool enough for you, I hear they got dogfights up by Farson.”
“Dogfights?” Nate gripped his head with both hands, horrified, wishing he’d never heard anything Cody had said. “Like, where the dogs get killed?”
Cody blew smoke and shrugged again. “That’s what they say. I ain’t never seen one. Can’t really see why that’d be fun. Never understood why shooting squeakies was fun either, but you asked what people do.” He held up both hands. “That’s about it.”
“Oh my God.” Nate hadn’t ever killed anything in his life, unless he counted the occasional insect or spider on the bathroom floor, but he’d seen a cat get run over once in Texas. He didn’t ever want to see anything like that again. “I think hanging out in this field is better.”
Cody smiled at him. “See? You’re getting used to Wyoming already.”
Once he was back home, Nate went to the bookshelf in the family room and scanned the spines of the set of encyclopedias his parents had bought two years before. S comprised two full volumes. He pulled out the second one and sat cross-legged on the floor as he flipped through the pages.
“Whatcha doing?” his dad asked, startling Nate from his contemplation of the book. “School hasn’t even started yet, and you’re doing research?”
“What’s a squeakie?”
“Squeakies.” His dad chuckled. “I wondered the same thing. Turns out they’re some kind of ground squirrel, although I’m not sure which kind. Jake said a Thompson’s ground squirrel, and Fred told me they’re actually Uinta ground squirrels, and Susan told me they’re Wyoming ground squirrels.” He scratched his head and shrugged. “Not sure who’s right or what the difference between them is anyway. Why? Somebody ask you to go shooting with them?”
“Not exactly, but I heard that’s what some people here do for fun.”
“Yeah, I’ve already been on a couple of calls because of it. People shooting guns in city limits, or on someone’s private property. For what it’s worth, I’d rather you didn’t participate in that particular local custom. It’s bound to get you in trouble sooner rather than later.”
Nate was perfectly happy to promise he wouldn’t go out shooting innocent ground squirrels anytime soon, but for the rest of the night, he brooded over his conversation with Cody. He imagined squeakies—they looked like prairie dogs in his mind, no matter what Cody said—running for cover, and antelope fleeing pickup trucks, and dogs, forced to fight to the death while a bunch of rednecks laughed and drank.
This was what passed for entertainment in Wyoming?
He took a deck of cards to the field with him the next morning. It was almost impossible to keep them from blowing away, but over the next few days, they managed a few games of Go Fish, Crazy Eights, and War. They were attempting a game of Five Card Draw when Cody suddenly asked, “So, why’d your folks split?”
Nate squirmed. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about it. Then again, he had a feeling Cody would understand, seeing as how his own parents weren’t together either.
“My dad had an affair.”
“Suppose that’d do it.”
“I guess.” Nate didn’t know the details. His parents hadn’t ever told him, but he’d overheard his aunt and uncle whispering about it.
He didn’t want to think about his parents. He scowled down at his cards. He didn’t even have a lousy pair. “I fold.”
Cody laughed as he gathered Nate’s discarded cards. “Bad move. I didn’t have shit.”
They weren’t playing for anything, so it didn’t matter. Nate’s hair was blowing in his face again, and he pushed it off his forehead. He kept thinking he’d buy a baseball cap, but he had yet to find one in Wyoming that didn’t have either a John Deere logo or some redneck slogan on it.
He glanced at Cody who was shuffling the cards, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “What about yours?”
Cody frowned as if he hadn’t considered that Nate might turn the tables on him. He cleared his throat, and took the cigarette out of his mouth. “My dad was sort of in and out all along, you know? But I guess he’s been mostly ‘out’ since I was ten or eleven. He lives in Worland.”
Nate didn’t know where Worland was, but figured it didn’t matter. “Do you ever see him?”
“Not for a long time.”
“Do you miss him?”
Cody scowled, his eyes turning dark. Nate wasn’t surprised when his answer was more attitude than anything. “Why the fuck would I? He’s a jerk who can’t even bother to send me a goddamn birthday card. Fuck him.” When he was done, he sucked long and hard on his smoke, not meeting Nate’s eyes.
“I miss my mom.” Nate figured he sounded like a whiny kid when he said it, but he didn’t care. “I thought maybe I could go visit for Christmas, but my dad keeps putting me off, saying ‘maybe.’” He watched as Cody started dealing, tossing cards by Nate’s knee onto their makeshift seat. “Like I don’t know that means no.”
“You got a car. Why can’t you just go?”
Nate blinked at him, stunned by the idea. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Fuck, man. If I had my own car, I’d have ditched this shithole ages ago.”
Nate thought about that. “What about high school?”
Cody shrugged, but Nate suspected his nonchalance was just for show. “What about it?”
Nate picked up his cards and fanned them out, his mind a mile away. He knew Cody didn’t consider college of any kind an option, but giving up on high school seemed reckless, even for him. “There must be a community college in Laramie or something.” He glanced up at Cody, trying to gauge how close he was to pissing him off. Cody’s expression was still stony, but not quite angry. “Don’t you have any plans for after high school?”
“Always figured I’d end up in either the oil fields or the coal mines, like everybody else who grew up here.” He dropped a couple of cards and took some off the stack. “I’m taking two. How many do you need?”
“Is that what you want, though? To dig coal or be a roughneck?” Nate only knew the term because of his dad.
“Jesus, nobody wants to be a roughneck, but what the fuck else is there around here? You think I’m gonna take up ranching instead? Buy a couple of cows and spend my days worrying about whether there’s enough rain this year to make hay?”
“Just ’cause you got your life all planned out, don’t mean the rest of us do.”
Nate didn’t have his life all planned out. Not by a long shot. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to Chicago, or to college, but it was what he and his parents had planned back before the divorce. He figured he’d live in the apartment his aunt owned and scope out the schools. Maybe he’d take some accounting courses at the community college, or see about learning computers. His aunt seemed to think there’d be a lot of jobs in that field someday. “I didn’t mean—”
“It don’t matter.” Cody ran his fingers through his hair and forced a smile. It looked more like a grimace. “We playin’ poker or what?”
“Then either tell me how many goddamn cards you want, or fold.”
Nate folded, even though he’d been holding a pair of kings.
With the exception of Cody, Nate had yet to meet a single kid his age in Warren. Yes, he’d seen a couple in the neighborhood, or passed them in the grocery store, but he’d intentionally avoided the places Cody had named as the popular hangouts, not because he was shy, but because he wasn’t ready to deal with high school bullshit yet. Cody made Walter Warren High School sound like a cliquish hell. The longer Nate could avoid it, the better. When he saw other teenagers around town, they gave him curious looks, but none of them spoke to him, and he chose to return the favor.
A week before school started, his luck ran out.
“Hey, Nate,” his dad said one afternoon, just as Nate was about to leave the house. “How about we go uptown and get some lunch?”
“Why’s it ‘uptown’ here? In Austin, we went ‘downtown.’”
His dad cocked his head, his lips pursed. “I have no idea, now that you mention it. Maybe bigger cities have ‘downtown,’ but small towns go up?”
Nate shrugged. “Whatever.”
They were quiet for the few minutes it took to drive into what qualified as “uptown” in Warren. It wasn’t until his dad was parking the car that Nate realized where they were headed.
“The drug store?”
“Joe tells me it’s a great place to grab a bite.”
“Let’s go get some ham-fried rice instead.”
“We’ve had Chinese food twice in the last five days!” He was right, of course. Nate was getting tired of it too, but if he told his father the real reason he didn’t want to go inside, his dad would never understand. Nate sighed and followed his father in.
The near side of the store was much like any other drugstore, only smaller. Greeting cards, ChapStick, cheap toys. But the entire length of the back wall was taken up by the counter and stools of the old-fashioned soda fountain. At the far end were a couple of booths, and that’s where the teens were, some lounging at the tables, some occupying the stools across from them.
Nate and his dad chose stools at the counter on the near side, as far away from the teenagers as possible, and Nate did his best to ignore their curious stares. He and his dad ordered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and vanilla malts. The lady working the counter even asked if they wanted them thick or thin (the former for his dad, the latter for Nate). Afterward, his dad excused himself to use the restroom. Nate didn’t want his dad to leave him there alone, even for a minute, but he resisted the urge to follow him like a little kid.
“You’re the new guy,” one of the teenagers said to Nate as soon as his dad was gone. The teen in question was the perfect prep—letter jacket over a polo shirt with the collar flipped up. Nate could imagine Cody’s disdain, and it was safe to assume that attitude went both ways.
“Yeah,” Nate said, seeing no way around it. “Nate Bradford.”
“We’ve seen you around.”
What was he supposed to say to that? They sat there awkwardly for a second, until one of the girls stepped forward.
“We’re going out to the old mine tonight,” she said. “Why don’t you come along?”
“Yeah,” one of the other girls said. She had poofy, permed hair and bangs that stood straight up like a tidal wave. “You’re just two doors down from me, you know. You can ride with me.”
“I don’t know—” Nate started to say, but the first boy cut him off.
“We scored some beer.”
Nate wasn’t sure if that made it more tempting or less. Unfortunately, his dad came around the corner just then. The guy who’d mentioned the beer did his best to look casual. The girl with the tidal wave bangs smiled at Nate. “I’ll pick you up at eight?”
“I’m not sure I can go,” Nate started to say, but this time it was his dad who cut him off.
“Why not?” he asked. “You should get out of the house more.”
Nate got out of the house plenty. What his dad really meant was, Nate should meet more people his age, and it wasn’t like Nate could argue with his new “friends” listening in.
“Great,” he said, wondering if his severe lack of enthusiasm was evident. “See you at eight.”
[A] story about discovery, hope, and love. . . . I couldn’t put this story down.
I ended the novel with a smile on my face, and the feeling that this was one of those rare, perfect stories that I will cherish and revisit.
[G]rabbed me and kept me fascinated and invested in the characters until the very end.
[A] compelling and heartbreaking story of two boys finding each other and saving each other.
Once again Ms Sexton has delivered an emotional drama, full of teenage hopes and fears, times where I had a tear, times where my heart just burst for joy. . . . [A] wonderful story.