The air was still cool, dew clinging to the blades of wild rye and reed grass and the yellow arrowleaf flowers in the ditches, but when JJ slid into the driver’s seat of her ’85 pickup, the weak morning sun had already warmed the creaking vinyl under her backside, creating a cozy little hot house oasis from the spring morning. The engine turned over with a growl, and JJ put the Ford into first to jounce down the dusty driveway to the turn onto Highway 313. A pronghorn bounded away through the fields on the other side of the road.
Pulling onto the highway, she pushed her foot down on the accelerator and a cassette into the tape deck. The gearshift was smooth and warm under her right palm, fingers tapping to the opening strains of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Rather than continuing along 313 to the county road, the most direct route to the high school, she turned onto Old Highway 87, taking her around the southeast side of town. On one side was the small town equivalent of sprawl – a gas station and two auto shops – and on the other, the rolling grey-green hills of Montana range land in spring, fenceposts flashing past. She passed the tackle shop, the liquor store, and the run down trailer park, and eased off the gas as she rolled approached Sunny Dell, which was also a trailer park, but the sort with more grandmas and less meth. Kitty was already waiting with her backpack at her feet.
From a distance, Kitty looked like a candy bar wrapper discarded on the side of the road. She wore a scarlet sweater and her hair gleamed like gold foil in the morning sun. When JJ rolled to a stop beside her, Kitty clambered into the passenger seat, legs always a little too short for the lifted ride, filling the cab with the scent of off-brand perfume.
“You would not believe the morning I’ve had,” Kitty said, righting her backpack on her lap and rummaging inside. “And it’s only 7:30, my God. Man was not made to endure trials before eight in the morning. Was Daniel thrown to the lions before business hours? Don’t think so.”
“I’m not sure the Bible specifies.” JJ felt the corners of her mouth pull up. “What happened?”
“Well, first I had one of those dreams where you dream your alarm went off and you’ve gotten up and gotten ready to go but then your alarm actually goes off and you realize you didn’t get up at all, and now you have to do it all over again?” Kitty pulled a zippered pouch from her backpack. “And then my mom was taking forever in the bathroom because she was shaving her legs – so I couldn’t do my makeup.” She waved the make-up bag demonstratively. “Mom’s going on another date with that loser from the feed store, even though he has no chin and probably thinks that the Iliad is a town in Nebraska. And then we were out of black tea so I had coffee instead, which is why” —she popped the cap off a tube of lipstick and gestured with it— “I’m like this. More so than usual.” Reaching out, she turned the rearview mirror toward herself with her free hand.
“Hello! I’m using that,” JJ protested.
Kitty glanced at the empty road behind them. “For what, to make sure the mountains haven’t gone anywhere?”
“If they do, I want to be the first to know.”
Kitty snorted. “You don’t need it anyway. I’ve seen you back a trailer full of hay into a barn with four inches of clearance using nothing but your side mirrors.” She puckered up at the mirror, smearing bright paint across her lips, and then smacked them together. “Like magic.”
A little campfire glow of warmth ignited in the pit of JJ’s stomach. “Oh. Well. You know. Lots of practice.”
Catching JJ’s gaze in the mirror, the red-painted corner of Kitty’s mouth turned up wickedly. “Practice makes perfect,” she purred, and JJ felt a little spasm of muscle between her legs, a sudden heat in her cheeks. Kitty popped the cap back on the lipstick and swapped it for a tube of mascara, continuing in her normal tone, “Anyway, like I was saying, I had to make coffee, but we didn’t have any cream, so I popped over to Mrs. Kowalski’s, and you know that little dog she has? Houdini, he ought to be called.”
They pulled into the parking lot of Hardin High five minutes before the first bell, as the school buses were still disgorging students in the front loop. The high school was a squat, cinderblock compound in neutral industrial colors, built in the ’50s by the same contractor who built the county penitentiary. JJ parked the truck and fished her backpack out of the rear of the cab. When she swung down from the truck Kitty was waiting for her at the front bumper, eyes shielded against the sun. “You’re wearing your lucky buckle. What’s the occasion?” Kitty asked.
JJ rubbed her fingers over the embossed image of a bucking pony. The belt buckle was from last year at the state rodeo, when JJ had placed first for her age in the barrel race. “Calc test.”
“Oh right. That reminds me, I need to get my math book out of my locker.” The front steps teemed with teenagers and Kitty and JJ jostled toward the front doors. “Come with me?”
“Sure. Hi Gemma,” JJ added, as all five foot ten inches of Gemma and four inches of Gemma’s hair parted the crowd like a giraffe emerging from the savannah. “How’d the volleyball tournament go?”
“We lost, but that means I don’t have to spend six hours on a bus going to regionals,” Gemma said philosophically. “You going to your lockers? I’ll come with, I have to swing by Mr. Olson’s before first period anyway. Have you seen Bryson?”
“Not this morning,” JJ said, “Why?”
“Oh, no reason. Was wondering how his wrestling match went, that’s all.” The three of them fell into step, heading down the east wing toward the science classrooms and the 400 block of lockers.
“He called me on Saturday,” Kitty said. “Said he pinned best two out of three.”
JJ wrinkled her nose. “Since when does Bryson call you on the weekends?”
“I dunno, a while now?” Kitty scratched the bridge of her nose. “That week you were in Casper visiting your aunt he and I spent basically the whole time at the arcade. Since then, I guess.” They stopped in front of Kitty’s locker, right next to JJ’s, Ivanova coming directly before Jackson. It was how they had met on the first day of kindergarten, lined up for lunch in order of last names. “Speaking of people with matches and things,” Kitty continued, “are you and David ready for the rodeo next week?” She spun the dial-lock one-handed.
JJ leaned against the cool metal of the lockers nearby. “Not as ready as I’d like. Peanut has developed a limp so I’m riding Sadie instead. She’s not my first pick of a horse for the barrel race.”
“Poor Peanut, I hope he – oh!” Kitty broke off with a gasp as she swung her locker open. JJ peered over Kitty’s shoulder, Gemma crowding behind her to look too. Nearly all the space in the locker that wasn’t stacked with books was crammed with a giant vase of grocery store roses, the pink and yellow ones, Kitty’s favorites. Tucked prominently among them was a card with the word PROM? written on it in blocky capitals. “Oh shit!”
Gemma made a noise of excitement and bounced on her toes in JJ’s peripheral vision. “Who’s it from?” JJ asked. Kitty flipped over the card, and she and JJ made mutual noises of surprise as JJ read over her shoulder. “Bryson?” JJ said. “Really?”
Gemma had her hands over her mouth, eyes crinkled in a grin. “What do you think?”
Kitty brandished the note at Gemma. “Did you know about this?”
“He asked for help deciding on the flowers,” Gemma admitted. “The locker was his idea though! He got the combination from the office. Are you surprised?”
“Yes!” Kitty said, carefully extracting the unwieldy vase without spilling any of the water or knocking her school books onto the ground.
They were attracting some attention from the other students passing by. “Oh my god, who are they from, Kitty?” Annika Jenson called, passing with Corinne White Clay and Cori’s boyfriend of the week, Tyler from the baseball team. “They’re so nice!”
“They’re from Bryson Dawes,” Gemma announced.
“Ooh,” Cori squealed, “a surprise! How sweet! You’re going to say yes, aren’t you?”
“That’s for him to hear and you to find out,” Kitty said, hefting her backpack awkwardly onto one shoulder, the jar of roses in the other arm. “Hey Gemma, will you grab my math book for me?”
“I’ve got it. Are you going to say yes?” JJ asked in an undertone as she stacked Kitty’s textbooks for the morning in the crook of Kitty’s elbow, tucked against the flowers.
“I guess so. I mean it’s just prom, it’s not like he proposed. I’ll talk to him in homeroom.” Since middle school, Kitty had been devouring one advanced class after another, so she and JJ didn’t have many classes together, this year just gym and science.
The bell rang. Kitty peeped over the riot of roses and books in her arms and said, “See you at lunch!”
“See you,” JJ echoed.
JJ had first period history with Mrs. Warner, who was beloved for interspersing slides of her dog with prints of historical battles, and for not believing in seating charts. “Morning,” David said as JJ slid into the seat beside him. “What’s up?”
“Bryson asked Kitty to prom,” JJ said. The lack of reaction on his face made her eyebrows rise. “You knew?”
“He asked me if I thought roses were too much.” David shrugged. “I figure, you can’t go wrong. Roses are traditional right?”
JJ tapped her fingers on the desk. “Everyone knew but me?”
The second bell rang, and Mrs. Warner tapped on her desk for their attention. David lowered his voice. “Just me and Gemma, I think.”
“That’s everyone!” JJ hissed as Mrs. Warner began to take attendance. “Present!” she added, when Mrs. Warner called, “Judith Jackson?”
“You and Kitty tell each other everything, and he wanted it to be a surprise,” David said out of the corner of his mouth, flipping his textbook open.
Kitty didn’t tell me Bryson has been calling her all the time, JJ thought, but Mrs. Warner was dimming the lights and turning on the overhead projector, and instead JJ just pulled out her notebook and gel pens.
At lunchtime, Kitty and Bryson arrived in the cafeteria together, Kitty still carrying the flowers. The rapid rumor mill had already digested their prom date and found it good. They were comfortably matched in the cutthroat calculations of adolescent hierarchy. Already friends, and so not breaching the bounds of any cliques, both reasonably popular but only enough to inspire appreciation, not spite. Bryson did wrestling rather than football, and was thus excluded from the upper echelons of sports society, but a varsity jacket was a varsity jacket, and Kitty was widely liked despite being insufferably smart and, as she had once described herself, bespoke trailer trash.
The two of them joined JJ, who was saved from having to say anything particular by the arrival of David and Gemma. They all unpacked their lunches with the vase of roses in the center of the folding table. The conversation, inevitably, was prom dates.
“Gemma, I can’t believe you haven’t asked Travis yet,” Kitty said, stealing a potato chip from JJ.
Gemma sighed, propping her chin on her hands. “I don’t want to come on too strong.” Travis Leroy had tutored Gemma in remedial French freshman year and been an object of adoration ever since.
JJ swatted Kitty’s arm and stole a grape. “What is this, the dark ages? It’s 1998. A girl can ask a guy to a dance.”
“Can isn’t the same as want to. Anyway, I don’t see you with a prom date, JJ.”
“Shut up, we’re not talking about me. What’s your excuse, Dave?”
David fiddled with the plastic straw from his Capri-Sun. “This stuff is hard, man! Going out on a limb, asking someone. Feeling like a jerk if she says no, wondering if she said yes out of pity. It’s like. A lot of pressure. There’s no one I really want to ask, anyway.”
Significant glances were exchanged. “’Cause Channi DeCrane already has a date?” Gemma said knowingly. David stabbed the straw into his drink pouch with more force than necessary.
At the bell, Kitty shoved her empty lunchbox into her backpack and scooped up the vase of flowers with one arm. “Good luck in calc, Jay. See you at three?”
JJ glanced over Kitty’s shoulder at Bryson. “If you don’t have other plans.”
“Are you kidding? And miss the finale? No way.”
When school let out, Kitty met JJ in the parking lot as JJ unlocked the truck. The interior panted kiln-hot air, and the vinyl seats nearly seared where JJ’s shorts rode up and her bare skin touched it as she slid into the driver’s seat. On the other side, Kitty, wearing shorter shorts, was swearing and squirming with a similar problem, juggling the roses and her backpack on her lap. JJ turned the engine over and slapped the AC on.
JJ feathered the clutch as they inched forward in the line of cars jammed to get out of the parking lot. Kitty fiddled with the radio till some faintly fuzzy Townes van Zandt came on, warbling mournfully. Her painted nails tapped against the door frame along with the banjo. The sound made the base of JJ’s neck itch. She squinted against the sun, fumbled in the cupholder for her sunglasses, let the world take on a calming blue tint. The steering wheel was hot under her palms. Kitty said nothing. They pulled onto the county road and JJ felt herself crack.
“We’re just friends!” Kitty exclaimed, almost on top of JJ’s words, as if she had been waiting for them.
A tightness eased in her chest, like grain running out of a punctured sack. “He got you two dozen roses,” JJ said, but feeling the comedy of it more than the sting. “I’m pretty sure that’s more than ‘friends’ territory.”
“Well, it’s nothing serious.”
“It doesn’t have to be serious to get laid after prom,” JJ said.
“Oh my god, I’m not going to fuck Bryson! Probably. I’ve known him since we were, like, six.”
“You’ve known me since we were six.”
“You’re prettier than Bryson.”
JJ tried to scowl through lips that traitorously tried to turn upward. “Don’t lead him on horribly, anyway. Bryson’s my friend too.”
“No, I know. I learned my lesson with David, it’s a miracle he still speaks to me. I think Bryson understands this isn’t going anywhere.” Kitty turned her head, soft curls blowing around her face. “It’s the end of senior year. I’m not starting anything serious.”
In an instant the warm flutter in JJ’s stomach collapsed into a stone. She swallowed, fingers flexing on the wheel. “Right. You’re moving away.”
“We’ll see,” Kitty said, cranking down the window so the roar of the wind nearly whipped her voice away.
“Yeah. It totally sucks to still be waiting to hear from the ivy leagues.” They had both gotten their acceptances to U of M and MSU a month ago. “Who do they think they are? Fancy east-coasters, stringing you along.”
Kitty gave a jerky little nod, and said, “We’re still on for Bozeman this weekend, right?”
“Yeah, of course. Take your mind off it.” Kitty clearly didn’t want to talk about it – she never wanted to talk about things she couldn’t control – so JJ turned the music up as George Strait began to croon about Amarillo.
They pulled in the ranch yard and parked between the old barn and the farmhouse. It was a big, drafty box of a house, built at the turn of the century by JJ’s great-great grandfather and since then expanded, remodeled and repaired in the raising of four generations of Jacksons. There were more people living in it now than there had been since her grandfather’s six siblings flew the nest during the 1940s – three of the girls to husbands, and one to New York City, and the three boys to the war, one never to return. The two brothers who had returned from the Pacific nearly lost the farm in the inflation bust of the 70s, but JJ’s grandfather got a second job as a tractor salesman, driving as far as North Dakota some days and sleeping in his truck, and managed to keep the ranch in the family.
Since JJ was in middle school it had just been her, her parents, and the twins, but last spring Isaac had finished college at UC Davis, and moved home to help look after the ranch with his fiancée, Priscilla; and then over the winter grandma Doris – her mother’s mother – had gotten too unsteady on her feet to live alone, so she had moved into what used to be dad’s office on the ground floor where she could get around safely. When Isaac had left for college, JJ had moved into his room since it was the biggest and she was the next oldest, and neither Laura or Dani had complained because they’d been too excited about each finally getting a room to themselves. His return had caused a period of intense domestic disharmony with the twins, who were going on thirteen, which had ended with dad and Isaac spending much of the previous summer renovating the half-finished loft above the garage into a studio apartment for Isaac and Priscilla.
It was a crowded and boisterous house, although it was quiet when JJ and Kitty arrived. Dad and Isaac would be out with the animals, and the twins hadn’t yet been dropped off the middle school bus. There was only JJ’s mom in the kitchen. “Hello girls!” she called, as they came clattering through the screen door. “How was school?”
“Fine,” JJ and Kitty chorused together as they kicked their shoes off by the coat rack.
“Oh my goodness, look at those flowers!” Mom exclaimed, poking her head around the doorway. “Does somebody have a date?”
“Bryson asked me to prom,” Kitty said cheerfully, and JJ felt another little surge of the annoyance she’d mostly quelled in the truck.
“That’s wonderful, honey,” her mother said, and the feeling intensified. “Let me put some more water in these for you. Do either of you want a snack?”
JJ checked her watch. “Xena is on in twenty minutes.”
JJ checked the clock. “Come on! I need to find out if Xena finds a way to kill Hope.” They piled onto the couch, fortified with new snacks, as the opening credits began.
Halfway through the episode, as Xena hunted for the magic weapon that was her only hope of victory, the twins banged in through the back door. “What’s up with the roses?” Dani asked loudly in the kitchen. Mom said something in reply, and Dani said, “Are they dating?”
“Going to prom together means they’re dating,” Laura said with authority. “Are the cookies still warm?”
“So who’s JJ going to go to prom with?” Dani asked, and raised her shrill voice. “JJ, what happens if no one asks you to prom?”
“We’re trying to watch our show,” JJ shouted, reaching across Kitty’s lap for the remote and turning up the volume.
Laura padded out of the kitchen, trailing cookie crumbs. “What’s happening?” she asked, looking at the screen, and then immediately continued, “Why don’t you have a prom date yet, JJ?”
“Oh my god, stop being such a brat!” JJ thumbed the volume on the remote so hard the plastic casing around the rubber button creaked. Lucy Lawless’s voice boomed out loud enough to make the speakers crackle.
“JJ, turn that down,” their mother yelled. “I can’t hear myself think!”
“Laura’s bothering us!” JJ yelled back.
“Laura! Leave your sister alone. JJ, volume!”
“Well now it’s gone to commercial.” JJ hit the mute button. “I missed all of that last bit.” She glared at Laura, who rolled her eyes and slouched back to the kitchen. “Oh, my god,” JJ muttered to Kitty, “my family is the worst.”
Kitty slung an arm around her shoulder and patted her back. “They’re the worst and you love them.”
“I know. Does that make me clinically insane?”
“Well, it is sort of crazy that you want to stay.” She said it lightly, but JJ tensed anyway.
“I know,” she muttered. Kitty’s arm was warm against the back of her neck. “I know, if it were you, you’d be getting as far away as possible.”
“I didn’t say that.” Kitty drew back, opening up a small chasm between them on the floral print couch. The Mr. Clean commercial flickering silently on the TV cut back to Lucy’s face, and JJ unmuted the program before Kitty could say anything else.
Saturday, JJ pulled up to the trailer park in the misty dawn, just like on a school day, except instead of her backpack Kitty just had her knock-off Kelly bag and the jean jacket with a Sex Pistols patch that she couldn’t wear to school.
She scrambled into the truck and gave JJ a brief sideways hug. “Morning! What’s up?”
“The sky,” JJ said, catching a breath of Kitty’s familiar perfume. “What’s new?”
“My mom went on another date with the banker from Buffalo.”
“Wait, the guy from Tuesday? I thought that was a disaster.”
“No, this is the guy from a couple of weeks ago. The one who doesn’t kiss.”
“What? Wait, what? She went on a second date with him?” JJ pulled onto Old 87 headed for the interstate.
“I know.” Kitty drew the word out into a moan. “My mom is such a mess. I hope I’m never that pathetic in love.”
“She doesn’t think she loves these guys, does she?” JJ asked, alarmed.
“No, no, I just mean, generally. In the area of love. The battlefield.” She whistled a few bars of the song, clashing with the soft country on the radio.
“I still can’t believe that guy. He really said he doesn’t kiss? To someone he was on a date with?” JJ shook her head. “Talk to the hand, buddy.”
“I know!” Kitty squealed. “For real. She says finding any man to date in a hundred-mile radius who isn’t a drunk or a redneck is like finding the Ark of the Covenant, but you seriously could not pay me enough to settle like she does.”
“Good thing you’re getting out of here then, isn’t it?” JJ said, aiming for levity, eyes on the road.
“Oh, it’s Dolly.” Kitty turned up the volume as the opening chords of “Coat of Many Colors” cross faded from the end of “Riding the Range”. She began to sing along, slightly off-key, as JJ pulled onto I-90 westbound and accelerated.
It was a three-hour drive to Bozeman, and they made most of the drive with the radio turned up loud enough to make the speakers buzz with the bass. They wound the windows open for the fresh air and the smell of pine as the rolling, prairie plateaus gave way to the mountains; rocky hills and granite outcroppings, ponderosa pines leaning twisted against the prairie wind. Cattle wandered the hillsides, grazing on the sparse, tufted grasses, fresh with spring growth. As the local country station fuzzed into static JJ twiddled the dial until she caught a pop station out of Bozeman.
It was chilly, early morning, and they kept the dash vents blasting hot air to dispel the chill that nipped at their ears. Kitty’s voluminous, blow-dried waves whipped in her eyes, getting in her mouth as she mouthed along and danced in her seat to Savage Garden. They swayed together as JJ took a turn too fast, Kitty warm and heavy against her side. JJ glanced at the rearview mirror, scanned the road, and stole glimpses of Kitty, watching her giggle and swipe her hair out of her face, watched her lips – black cherry, today – as she sang.
It was not quite ten in the morning when they rolled into Bozeman, the college town still sleepy on a Saturday morning. For brunch they stopped in a cozy diner decorated with an eclectic mix of flowery 1950s knickknacks and 1920s logging memorabilia. JJ had eggs on toast, while Kitty devoured a pile of pancakes with strawberries, butter and syrup that made JJ slightly queasy just to look at.
“This is the weirdest combination of decorations,” Kitty said through a mouthful. “I feel like I’m in the coziest murder mystery.”
“I accuse the kittens on that painted plate, in the walk-in freezer, with the two-man saw,” JJ intoned, making Kitty snicker.
She pressed her fork against her mouth, tines leaving gleaming syrup on her plump lower lip. “No, no, I think it was the shepherdess, with that pick-axe, in the men’s room.”
After eating, by mutual accord their first stop was the record store. Kitty gravitated to the Brit pop, while JJ browsed the country section. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kitty put on a headset and do a little dance, and when caught JJ’s eye, she mouthed, Tell me what you want what you really really want. JJ grinned as she recognized it by the shape of the words and the dance moves, mouthing the rest of the phrase along with Kitty – I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want.
The shop clerk was a college guy with dyed black hair and the bridge of his nose pierced. He noticed JJ lingering over Shania Twain and held up a CD jewel case with three blonde women on the cover. “Have you heard this one? Released in January. You might have heard their new single.”
“Oh, I know them,” JJ exclaimed.
Kitty popped up at her shoulder. “Know what?”
JJ nudged her. “You know it too. It’s the one that goes, There’s your trouble, there’s your trouble. They had another hit on the radio last fall. I heard it all the time because I was driving back and forth to the butcher in Billings all the time. They’re good.”
Kitty squinted at the CD case. “The Dixie Chicks?”
“You should listen to the whole thing,” the clerk said, “it’s the bomb.”
“Sold,” JJ said. “But I’ll take a cassette so we can listen in the truck.”
From the record store, Kitty dragged them into the rock and gem shop to get a gift for her mom’s birthday. JJ lingered over the Montana opals under the display counter, admiring their captured fire, while Kitty talked about the purifying and clarifying energy of quartz with the burly, bearded man running the shop. Then, with a purifying gift acquired, they turned to the main attraction.
There were two secondhand stores in Bozeman, one that tended more toward lace doilies, floral print furniture, and grandmotherly clothing, and the other frequented by MSU students. In the hipper of the two, the hunt began. They flipped through racks of clothes, fingering fabrics, air filled with the distinctive laundry-soap smell of secondhand shops. There was a rack of bright shirts sorted by color rather than size, making Kitty grumble, and some distinctly ’70s sweaters on the clearance rack that provided five minutes’ entertainment.
They drifted in separate directions, JJ keeping one eye on Kitty’s progress around the racks as she shopped for herself. JJ found a pair of lightly used Levis that fit just right, and a Pendleton flannel, marked down because of a rip in the sleeve. Mom could mend that, and there was nothing like good wool for working outside in the winter.
Kitty had disappeared into the dressing room. There was a bench outside the curtained fitting rooms, and JJ sat gratefully, with her clothes on her knee. She could hike all day across rangeland and not feel as tired as after a few hours standing around in a store.
“JJ, is that you?” Kitty poked her head around the curtain, and looked at the clothes in JJ’s lap. “Is that all you’ve got? Oh my god, the whole reason we’re here is to look for prom dresses! Hang on.” Kitty ducked back into the fitting room, and emerged in her own clothes, with her hair rumpled. Grabbing JJ by the arm, Kitty towed her off the bench, toward the rack of formal dresses. “You look so good in jewel tones. A deep purple or blue, maybe. Or you could wear pink and we would match.” She hefted a bundle of shiny baby-pink polyester under her arm.
“You’ve already picked one?”
“Yes! While you were picking out jeans like the most boring person alive.”
“Excuse you. The most boring person alive is that plumber your mom dated our sophomore year.”
“Okay, touché. But we are not going home without a dress for you!”
The rack of formal dresses was underwhelming in its selection, but Kitty dived in gamely. “There will be more here that will fit you than me, so that’s nice. This blue is so pretty!”
“Frills are out,” JJ objected. “I would look like a cupcake.”
“I think it’s dramatic,” Kitty said, but hung the dress and its offending ruffled flounces back on the rack. “What about this one?”
“Green isn’t my color.”
“You don’t think?” Kitty tipped her head. “I think the emerald would look nice on you. Elegant.”
“I’ll try it on, but let’s keep looking.” JJ draped the green dress over her arm. “I like this fabric.” She fingered a shimmery purple chiffon and checked the tag. “Too big though.”
“Your mom could take it in. Keep it as an option. What about this one?”
“Ugh, no. Look at the sleeves.”
“You’re right. So ’80s.” Kitty shoved the hanger back int place. “Oh this one!” She pulled out a long slender dress in deep purple velvet. “I thought about this one but it’s way too small for me.”
JJ rubbed the fabric. “That’s nice,” she admitted.
“Good! I think that’s everything. The local girls must already have picked this over pretty well.”
They crammed into the dressing room together, same as they had done for years. JJ unbuttoned her jeans and tugged her shirt over her head while Kitty hung the dresses and slid the green one off the hanger.
“You can’t try on a halter top with a sports bra.”
Feeling her face warm slightly, JJ pulled her bra off and stood in front of the mirror naked except for her socks and panties. In the reflection, JJ saw Kitty’s eyes rake over her, felt her own gut tighten in response, breath catching. Her nipples hardened. She held out a hand for the dress and after a fractional delay Kitty’s gaze lifted and she put the green fabric in JJ’s hand. Their eyes caught in the mirror and slid away from one another. JJ yanked the dress over her head and adjusted the tie of the halter strap, fiddling with the fall of the skirt.
She eyed herself. “I’m still not sure about the color.”
“I like it. It makes your hair look almost red. Your mouth too. Really bright.”
JJ licked her lips involuntarily and cleared her throat. “It’s a maybe. Next one?”
The too-large purple looked okay with Kitty holding the extra fabric in pleats behind JJ’s back but the darts in the bodice were in the wrong place for JJ’s smaller breasts. “Not ideal.”
“Yeah it would take more altering than I thought.” Kitty let her hands fall away from JJ’s waist, fabric loosening. “I have a good feeling about this last one though.”
Kitty had her head turned away as JJ changed again, rehanging the discarded dress. It was hot and close in the fitting room, their elbows bumping. The inside of the velvet was smooth and cool on JJ’s heated skin, but trapped the warmth of her body immediately. JJ felt sweat beginning at her hairline as she tugged it into place. It was a slender, simple cut with a slit high up one thigh.
“Zip me up?” she asked, presenting her back to Kitty. Her skin tingled as Kitty’s fingers brushed against her, doing up the zipper.
“Let me see,” Kitty said, as she put a hand on JJ’s hip and rotated her gently. JJ chewed her lip, belly clenching, Kitty’s examination like a physical touch slipping over the velvet. “Oh, that’s it, that’s the one.”
“You think?” They both watched in the mirror as JJ turned from side to side, making the slitted skirt gape. In profile, her nipples were visible through the fabric.
“You look really good,” Kitty said softly.
JJ swallowed. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Reaching up, Kitty lifted JJ’s hair off the back of her neck, making her skin prickle, sweeping back strands from her face, and piling it up on top of her head, holding it there in one hand. JJ’s pulse jumped in her throat. They both looked in the mirror at JJ in the dress with her hair pulled up, Kitty’s hand warm against the back of her skull, tight in her hair. “It’s beautiful.” JJ felt a first-ride flutter in her stomach, a thump-thump under her ribs. And then Kitty’s hand was gone and her own hair was cascading down her back, tickling. “You should definitely get this one.”
“I don’t even have a date,” JJ said abruptly, and Kitty’s brow furrowed.
“You could if you wanted.”
JJ folded her arms in front of herself. “What, psychically manifest a guy asking me? Maybe I should go back to the crystal shop.”
“Why don’t you ask someone yourself? What century is this?” Kitty had shuffled away a little bit, the cramped space inside the dressing room suddenly seeming larger. “Anyway, you should get the dress! It’s our senior prom, you’re not going to skip it! You and David can come as friends if neither of you want to ask someone.”
“We could all have gone as friends,” JJ muttered, fumbling for the hook and eye at the top of the zipper.
“Well, we still are, sort of! Bryson and I are just friends, you know.”
“Yeah? Is he picking you up or am I?” The dress slid into a puddle of purple velvet around her feet, and JJ crossed her arms over her bare chest.
Kitty blinked. “We haven’t talked about it. Does it matter?”
“It probably should be him, because he’s the one you’re going to prom with.” JJ turned her bra right-side-out and slipped her arms through it. “If we were all just friends it would be me.”
“Oh my god, a truck isn’t some sort of territorial claim! It’s not like I’m wearing your belt buckle or anything.” Kitty’s eyes flickered to JJ’s in the mirror and away.
JJ felt her own face flush. “Right,” she mumbled, reaching for her shirt.
Outside the changing room curtain, JJ heard a woman’s voice say, “Leo, does this color make me look blotchy?” Elsewhere in the store, a toddler was wailing something about boots. Tinny ’70s folk rock played faintly from the boombox at the front counter.
Kitty scuffed her sneakers on the floor. “You should get the dress,” she said, subdued. “How much is it?”
“Only fifteen dollars,” JJ said, checking the tag, and added in a half-hearted Bob Barker impression, “The price is right!” It was weak, but Kitty snickered dutifully, and JJ felt suddenly as if she could breathe again. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand. I’m hungry.”
They had greasy burgers and fries for dinner from a drive-through and then walked down the main street to the Billings movie theater. It was playing the new Zorro movie – they had driven past the marquee when they arrived. Even though JJ was stuffed, they got popcorn, and sat in the back row as the commercials began in a ripple of silver light. It was comfortable, familiar to sit side by side with Kitty in the dark, shoulders brushing. Even when their fingers brushed in the greasy depths of the popcorn bag it felt silly and natural instead of sharp. JJ kicked her feet up against the empty seat in front of her and enjoyed the southwestern swashbuckling of the film. Some boys in the front whooped when Catherine Zeta Jones got her dress sliced off, and Kitty snickered, covering her mouth. JJ elbowed her and they rocked together, grinning at each other in the shifting light of the screen.
When they emerged from the theater, the sunset glow was still hanging in the sky, purple mountains stark against the banners of peachy pink, flags of the day’s surrender. JJ checked her watch. It was almost eight; days were long now. It would be only a little more than a month before the year turned, the deceptive heat of summer distracting from the shortening days, and on their heels, September.
Gravel crunched under their feet in the parking lot behind the theater. As they reached the truck, Kitty caught JJ’s hand, making her turn. The evening glow lit Kitty’s round face delicately, turning the frizziness of her curls into a halo. Her eyes were huge and deep in the half-light. “Today was really good,” Kitty said softly.
JJ nodded helplessly, eyes falling to the bow of Kitty’s lips, which parted slightly. For a dizzy moment she was rocked with the certainty that Kitty was about to lean in and kiss her right there behind the Bozeman cinema. The conviction clenched hard in her stomach, leapt in her throat. But Kitty just squeezed her hand and released her, circling around the cab to climb in on the passenger side. JJ let out an abrupt huff of breath and shook herself.
In the truck she unwrapped the new cassette and pushed it into the player, and then pulled onto the main road, heading for the interstate. The first track was last year’s hit single, and JJ tapped along on the steering wheel. “You know this one, right?” she said to Kitty, raising her voice, and Kitty nodded, mouthing the chorus with her.
Dusk was deepening rapidly as they left Bozeman behind them, speeding east, the sunset just a grenadine smear in the rear-view mirror. The tape whirred into a new song. Fenceposts and tree trunks leapt up out of the dark along the side of the road, into the flood of the high beams. The lead singer’s voice opened strong and twangy on the first line; Who doesn’t know what I’m talkin’ about? Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out?
There was not much between them and the lights of Billings, another couple of hours down the road. Kitty folded up her jacket between her head and the window, and closed her eyes. JJ set her hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, and settled in for the drive. She glanced at Kitty in the glare of oncoming headlights, gilding all her edges gold – the soft curve of her mouth, a single curl falling in her face– and then the highway was deserted again except for the red taillights fading behind them. A tiny world, lit by the lights of the dashboard. The stars overhead, enormous, infinite, and still, only the two of them among all that vast light.
The closing fiddle riff of a Bonnie Raitt cover faded and the blank end of the tape whirred and then clicked off. Kitty sighed a little, settling herself more comfortably against the door and didn’t open her eyes. JJ clutched the wheel, feeling a question so big in her throat she couldn’t swallow around it, like it might rip her gullet open if she didn’t let it out. The silence stretched wide as the mountains, long and unbroken as the road home.
Monday after school, JJ drove Kitty home like usual and parked her truck between Kitty’s mom’s trailer and Mrs. Kowalski’s, beside the display of potted flowers and small statues of smiling dogs by Mrs. Kowalski’s door. “Here, hold these, will you?” JJ took the stack of books as Kitty dug her key out of her pocket and let them in, dumping her jacket and Doc Martens by the door.
JJ heeled off her own boots and followed Kitty to the tiny kitchenette, putting the textbooks on the counter. “Where’s your mom?”
“Probably already left for Little Big Horn. She’s got an evening class Mondays and Wednesdays this quarter.” Kitty’s mom taught English at the community college on the rez and was often gone in the afternoons. “Fig Newtons or granola bar?” Kitty added, on her tiptoes to reach the cabinet. Her light-washed jeans weren’t meant to be tight, but Kitty’s ass made all pants tight.
“Fig Newtons,” JJ said, lifting her gaze as her friend turned. “Duh.”
Kitty brandished the box of Fig Newtons at her. “Come on, let’s go work in my room.” The blinds in Kitty’s room were drawn, and it was cool and dim in the afternoon, walls plastered with posters for Blur and Eternal. Kitty put her backpack on the desk chair on top of a pile of clothes and unzipped it. “What have you got to do?”
“I have a paper on Roosevelt for Mrs. Warner, and some calc. And we have the chemistry test tomorrow, I want to look at my notes again for that.” JJ put her own backpack down on the floor and sat on the unmade bed. “Also, I should practice my subjunctives for the Spanish test Friday.”
Kitty hummed in her throat and came to sit beside JJ on the edge of the mattress, slightly turned toward her so their thighs pressed together. She gave JJ a little smile that was pure devilry. “I can think of some other things you could practice.”
JJ’s breath hitched. “Really.”
“Really,” Kitty said, innocently, reaching out to twirl a strand of hair that had come out of JJ’s braid – silky straight and brown, hanging by her cheek so Kitty’s fingers brushed her face. JJ exhaled and leaned forward, bracing one hand on Kitty’s warm, wide thigh, and kissed her.
They’d had a lot of practice. They no longer knocked noses or bumped teeth when Kitty scooted back on the bed and lay down, pulling JJ down on top of her with their mouths still locked together. Their legs slotted together familiarly, and they knew how to arrange themselves so no one’s arm would fall asleep. They no longer got spit everywhere, like they had the first time when they were thirteen, and JJ had declared seriously that if kissing couldn’t get any better than that, she never wanted to do it again. But it had gotten better. And so had other things.
JJ had her hands under the hem of Kitty’s scarlet sweater, Kitty’s soft belly beneath her palms. Kitty had a hand cupping the back of JJ’s neck, the other fumbling with the buttons on her flannel, exposing the lavender lace bra that only Kitty and JJ’s mirror ever saw. Kitty wasn’t seeing it now, her eyes closed as they kissed, but her thumb was rubbing over JJ’s nipple through the fabric, the catch and scrape of the lace making JJ shudder.
They undressed one another slowly, kissing in between wriggling out of clothing, until Kitty was in just her jeans, and JJ knelt astride her lap naked except for her socks – her toes got cold all time except for the most sweltering depths of summer. Kitty joked once that if either of them had had a foot fetish they would only have sex during heat waves. And then she’d gone red and shut up, and neither of them had said anything else about it, because they didn’t talk about that – having sex. That wasn’t what this was supposed to be. It was just… practice.
Just practice as Kitty scooted down the bed, on her back, and pulled at JJ’s hips until JJ straddled her face; practice at easing down and shuddering at a tongue sliding between her folds. Practice at trying not to yell and failing when a mouth clamped mercilessly around her clit and sucked hard. JJ had her fingers in Kitty’s hair, fruitlessly pushing and clutching at once, rocking against her mouth, grinding her slit against Kitty’s chin as Kitty suckled on her clit.
Kitty had her hands wrapped around JJ’s thighs, fingers digging in sharply. Sometimes when JJ tightened her legs around her horse, she felt the bruises Kitty left on her inner thighs. Clutching the headboard, JJ gasped and shuddered while Kitty worked two fingers up inside her, moving in rhythm with her tongue and the rock of JJ’s hips. It was a coordination, like JJ’s coordination with Sadie and Peanut, that had, indeed, taken practice.
JJ had the rhythm of the ride, now, and Kitty knew exactly how to suck her while JJ rocked her hips, thrusting her cunt against Kitty’s open mouth, sending shocks of sensation through her core. A third finger pressed bluntly against JJ’s hole, making her tense up and then breath out hard, forcing herself to relax as Kitty pressed in. The stretch stung, twinged, felt incredible, and JJ panted hard. Kitty was lapping around where her fingers were buried inside JJ. Her knuckles and the pads of her fingers bumped and probed the soft walls inside JJ, putting pressure on intimate organs, making her clench and shudder, clit twitching on Kitty’s tongue. Gasping, JJ’s thighs tightened, trapping Kitty’s hands against her cheeks, and JJ felt Kitty chuckle as a vibration against her cunt before she was overcome with the clenching, the tension, the sudden helpless release that came with a wet gush over Kitty’s cheeks and chin.
After she came, JJ collapsed on the sheets beside Kitty and panted. Kitty’s cheeks and chin were glistening wet, and it made tingling aftershocks of pleasure through JJ’s stomach to look at it. Kitty wiped her face on a corner of her bedsheets and smiled, rubbing JJ’s arm gently. They kissed softly while the languid weight of climax seeped slowly from JJ’s limbs, until she was running her hands down Kitty’s hips with intention, propping herself on her elbows between Kitty’s legs.
Kitty sighed happily as JJ peeled Kitty’s soaked panties away from her pussy, snail-thread strings of slick stretching between her body and the fabric. The smell of her was heavy, animal, like it often was the week before her period. It made JJ’s mouth flood with saliva and she swallowed, leaning forward to nose into Kitty’s damp curls, tongue out.
She got one lick, the tangy, strong taste bursting on her tongue, before fingers closed around JJ’s braid at the base of her skull, tugging firmly. “Nuh-uh,” Kitty grunted reprovingly. JJ whined, pulling against Kitty’s grip and feeling her hold tighten, scalp tingling just on the edge of pain. JJ felt her heartbeat leap in the arteries in her throat and groin.
“What do you want?” she whispered, face hot. “The toy?”
Kitty moaned, and JJ could actually see the folds of her cunt twitch with a little contraction of muscle. “Yeah. Please.”
Leaning over, Kitty fished the dildo out of the bedside table drawer. JJ had mail-ordered it from an ad in the back of a skin mag stolen from the ranch office, paid for with her rodeo winnings, while trying not to think about who else had read the magazine. She’d given it to Kitty to stop her whining that she felt stupid using a carrot up her hoo-ha, but every time they used it, JJ felt it was really a present to herself.
She teased the pink silicone head against Kitty’s folds, smearing wetness along the length of the shaft, until Kitty was wriggling and tugging her hair impatiently, and then she pressed the tip inside, marveling as always at how easy it was now, when the first few times they’d struggled and nearly given up getting anything inside Kitty at all.
Kitty arched as the toy slid in, making little huffing noises, and then her breath caught and her toes curled abruptly as JJ found the right angle. JJ pressed kisses against the insides of Kitty’s thick thighs, biting the soft, jiggling flesh and listening to Kitty moan, feeling her own pussy tingle as she rubbed idly with two fingers.
She fucked Kitty until her wrist was sore, until Kitty’s thighs tensed around her shoulders and her fingers tightened in JJ’s hair. JJ ground her crotch against the mattress as she watched Kitty shake and shout through her orgasm.
“I needed that,” Kitty sighed as JJ crawled up beside her and flopped down on the bed. Kitty was flushed all the way down her chest to her belly button, breasts and stomach jiggling a little as she heaved deep breaths. “Oh my god.”
JJ felt a familiar feeling, like the inside of her chest was an enormous underground lake full of warm water. She tucked herself against Kitty’s side, chin against her cheek. “You smell like pussy.”
“Yeah because someone squirted all over my face.” Kitty patted her back and shifted. “I’m going to hop in the shower. Do you want one?”
“I’m good.” JJ rolled away and sprawled on her back as Kitty got up. “I’ll have to take one tonight anyway after I do the animal chores.”
“I’ll just be a couple of minutes,” Kitty said, which past experience suggested was untrue. “If you want to get started on homework, my chemistry notes are on the desk. We can go over them together” JJ hummed an acknowledgement absently, watching Kitty’s backside as she left the room, and then lay for a while, still catching her breath, staring up at Melanie Chisholm’s face over the bed. Down the hall, the shower turned on with a honking of old pipes.
Heaving a sigh, JJ sat up and fished her clothing piece by piece out of the sheets and off the floor. When she was dressed, she went to Kitty’s desk and clicked on the lamp, sorting through the jumble of papers for anything that looked like chemistry notes. English essay marked with a red A+, history notes, calculus notes, a playbill for the production of Our Town that Little Big Horn community college put on last month, a page torn out of a notebook with a sketch of Xena kissing Gabrielle. Beneath those papers was a thick manilla envelope, addressed to Christina Ivanova. JJ’s eye was caught by the logo beside the return address. Brown University.
Something icy curled its fingers around JJ’s ribs. She tipped the envelope and a glossy class catalogue slid out, along with a letter. Dear Ms Ivanova, it began, we are delighted to inform you that your application to Brown University has been successful. You have the opportunity to join one of America’s oldest educational institutions, where… JJ scanned down the letter, pulse pounding in her throat. …in light of your excellent grades and test scores we are pleased to offer you a scholarship in the amount of…looking forward to your contributions to our community of learners … please reply to reserve your spot by May 30th, 1998.
JJ’s hands were shaking. On the other side of the wall, the water shut off with a thunk. She stuffed the letter back in the envelope, smacked it down on the desk, and shuffled the whole lot of papers on top of it again. Then, struck by a thought, she pushed them to one side again to look at the post mark on the envelope. April 15th. Almost a month ago.
The bedroom door swung open, and Kitty came in, rosy and dewy from the shower, with a towel wrapped under her armpits and her hair curls piled in a messy bun on top of her head. “Ready to get started?”
JJ turned, taking a deep breath. “Actually, I just remembered, the vet is coming by to look at Peanut’s leg this afternoon, and I wanted to be there.”
“Oh!” Kitty blinked, face falling a little. “You don’t think you’re already too late?”
JJ checked her watch. It was past four. They’d spent more than an hour practicing. “I have to go just in case.” She scooped up her backpack from beside the bed.
“Yeah. Right. Of course, you should go.” Kitty tucked her towel tighter around her chest, arms folded across herself. “See you tomorrow?”
“Yes,” JJ said over her shoulder as she fled. “See you.”
She drove home with both hands on the wheel, except to shift gears, and when she pulled up the long driveway and parked by the barn, she couldn’t remember a single minute of the drive. She stared at the side of the barn for a while, at the peeling paint. That would all have to be sanded and repainted – it should get done this summer. It should have been done last summer, or the summer before, but there was always more to be done than hands to do it. Always something more urgent than painting the barns. And the longer it got put off, the bigger a job it was, and the harder to start.
JJ hauled herself out of the driver’s seat, dragging her backpack after her. As she crossed the yard toward the stable and passed the workshop she could hear the thudding screech of the air compressor, as her father used the pneumatic wrench on some piece of machinery. The sun beat down hot on her head, but the spring chill lingered in all the shadows.
In the cool, hay-smelling dimness of the stable, the horses whickered in greeting. JJ dropped her backpack in the tack room, changed into her riding boots, and got the brushes and combs. She didn’t have to think at all to groom and saddle Sadie; the movements were in her body, like getting dressed or shifting gears, or kissing Kitty. JJ yanked the belly strap tight vigorously enough that Sadie snorted at her, and JJ stroked her nose in apology.
In the arena, JJ hauled herself up onto Sadie’s back and walked them both through some warmups, working on easy transitions at a trot, making circuits at the edge of the fence. There were two barrels set up already, since JJ had been practicing religiously for the barrel race event. Nudging Sadie with one leg, JJ steered them into a slow figure eight between them, just measuring the familiar ground at a canter, feeling Sadie’s eagerness for speed.
JJ hardly had to urge her from a canter into a gallop. Sawdust kicked up under Sadie’s hooves, eating up the ground between the two barrels, and dust glittered in the light coming in under the eaves as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Shifting her center of gravity in the saddle as the near barrel approached, JJ pressed her thigh hard against Sadie’s flank mid-stride for the flying change. Sadie responded with a snort, gait faltering as she adjusted stride to take the turn on the inside foreleg. It took her a beat to recover her footing as they slid into the turn, seconds of lost time.
Speed and agility were both important in a barrel race, and Sadie could accelerate like a canonball in a straight-away, but the scant seconds that a faster horse could buy were worth nothing if you knocked over a barrel or lost your footing in a turn. Worse, losing control around a turn could mean a fall, injuring rider or horse. Peanut was JJ’s usual barrel horse but his ankle needed rest, so JJ was drilling figure eights with Sadie instead.
At the rodeo they would be riding a three barrel cloverleaf, and JJ ought to take Sadie out to the fairgrounds to practice at least once more before next weekend – but the two barrels allowed them to practice their flying change on both sides and the deceleration into each turn – the hardest parts of the race.
On the next approach, JJ slowed them a little more and Sadie executed the gait change smoothly, executing the turn with greater control. JJ cooed praise and patted Sadie’s neck, and they made a few more laps at a moderate speed before picking up the pace again.
Sweat stuck JJ’s shirt to her back. Strands of hair had come loose from her braid and whipped in her face on each turn. She was panting, with no sense of time, when she and Sadie slalomed around the east barrel once more and JJ saw at the other end of the arena, the door standing open and the shape of her older brother leaning in it.
JJ eased Sadie into a canter and then into a trot as they approached him, drawing the horse to a halt near the door. Isaac looked up from under the brim of his ball cap, nose freckled and sunburnt. “Didn’t you hear the dinner bell?”
“I wanted to get in just a couple more circuits.” JJ swung down from Sadie’s back, legs rubbery from exertion, and leaned on the saddle. Sadie’s wide, warm sides heaved against hers. She’d heard the clang of the bell and ignored it – she wasn’t looking forward to sitting around the crowded dinner table while Mom said how was your day, honey?
“How’s practice coming?” Isaac asked.
“Okay.” She patted Sadie’s damp neck. “Sadie’s not as agile on the turns as Peanut, but she’s faster than him on the straightaways.”
“The flying turn looks good,” Isaac said. “You feel ready for next week?”
At full speed, Sadie had it three times out of five – not good enough to take home the prize buckle at state, but they would ride their best. That’s all a cowgirl ever did. JJ shrugged.
Isaac shrugged back. “Priscilla’s making dinner, it’ll be done soon. Special family recipe, her mom mailed it to her last week.”
“Are you telling me wash up and come in?” JJ asked.
“Of course not, I like my head where it is. I’m just saying there’s chili on the stove.”
Smiling reluctantly, JJ said, “I’ll be in in half an hour.”
She slid into the house when everyone else was seated, grace already said, and took her place between Grandma Doris and Dani. “You’re late,” Laura said, leaning across Dani.
“You’re short,” JJ said, taking the rolls that Priscilla passed her. Coming in late from the animals was always excusable in the Jackson household. Her father was fond of saying that God was a shepherd, and knew cattle had to be fed, horses groomed, hay and water checked.
With Grandma Doris and Priscilla and Isaac home, the whole family barely fit around the big walnut dining table, even with both leaves inserted, and whenever Kitty stayed for dinner they had to pull a folding chair up and squish her in beside JJ so their elbows knocked and their thighs pressed together while they ate. JJ was grateful tonight only to be bumping elbows with her sister.
At least the crowded table meant JJ didn’t have to talk much. She soaked bites of bread in chili for Grandma Doris, and listened to the twins talk about the middle school play. “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” Isaac said, and Dani flicked a pea at him. When the casual lens of family attention fell on JJ, she mentioned practicing with Sadie, and got the whole group talking about the rodeo for the rest of the meal.
JJ helped wash up, did her math assignment, showered and brushed her teeth and her hair. She changed into her pajamas and lay down feeling almost normal, calm, even. Then she clicked off the bedside lamp, and in the darkness felt the sudden convulsion of tears wrack her chest. Twisting her fists into the comforter, she buried her face in the pillow and cried until her eyes felt gritty, and until she was limp and exhausted, and finally, she slept.
In the morning she picked up Kitty like nothing had happened, and listened to the update about Kitty’s mom’s date, which took them all the way to school. Even though they had first period chemistry together, the test was a welcome distraction, and JJ even felt pretty good about her grade as she turned it in to Mr. Newsom’s desk. Most kids thought titration would never do them any good, but JJ thought about mixing liquid medicines and electrolyte supplements in the water supply for cattle, and figured chemistry had its uses.
In the car on the way home, Kitty filled the air with chatter for a while, and then let Tom Petty croon undisturbed. “You’re quiet,” she said after another mile or so.
JJ kept her eyes on the road. “Just thinking.”
JJ shrugged, said nothing.
“Are you nervous about the rodeo?”
“A little.” When she thought about it, her belly fluttered with familiar nerves. It just wasn’t what she was thinking most about. She turned left on Custer Ave and pulled up into the gravel driveway of Sunny Dell, rolling to a halt beside Kitty’s trailer.
Sliding out of the truck, Kitty paused when JJ didn’t move or kill the engine. “You coming in?”
“Can’t. I’ve got to put Sadie through her paces to be ready for this weekend. Got a lot of work to do.”
“Oh.” Kitty’s face fell a little. “Yeah, totally. I’ll see you tomorrow?” She had naturally large eyes, emphasized by mascara, and a generous mouth given to pouting.
JJ rubbed her thumb against the steering wheel. “Of course.”
On Friday before the rodeo, the girls in fifth period gym were changing after a pick-up basketball game, and JJ was trying to avoid looking at Kitty – or anyone, really – as they stripped down, sweaty and flushed, to hop into the showers. The tiles were chilly underfoot, the splash of the water frigid when JJ turned the knob. She felt her nipples tightening, goosebumps rising along her arms as she waited for the water to warm up.
It had just gotten tepid enough to duck under the spray and sluice herself down when Lucy McKinnon yelped, “Oh my god, Desiree, who gave you those!”
Heads turned. Desiree Snyder turned toward the rest of the girls, looking both embarrassed and proud, and crossed her arms over her chest in a way that totally failed to conceal the hickeys decorating her breasts. “Brett Chilton.”
“What!” Lucy exclaimed, amidst a chorus of other astonishment. “I thought Brett was dating that girl from the community college.”
“He gave her his belt buckle and everything,” Cori White Clay added. JJ forgot momentarily that she was avoiding Kitty, and met her glance, rolling her eyes. Brett’s prize buckle was from the county rodeo – he’d never won at a bigger event.
“Well, it’s over between them,” Desiree said sharply, and grabbed the sliver of soap from the tray. She soaped her breasts with both hands as if daring the others to look. Water cascaded over her shoulders, sluicing suds down her belly to the floor from the purple and scarlet mottled curves of her chest and her small brown nipples. JJ turned away to face the wall, scrubbing herself briskly.
“So are you two dating?” Lucy asked, with merciless innocence, behind her.
“Yes. He’s going to take me with him when he transfers to BYU in the fall.”
JJ shut off the water at her shower head and made a yikes face at Kitty as she slipped out to grab her towel. Kitty, hair up in a scrunchie with wet tendrils clinging to her neck, covered her mouth, tits jiggling as she giggled silently. JJ escaped for the relative safety of her locker and her clothes.
Ten minutes later, they were both shouldering out of the locker room together, damp and clean, as the lunch bell rang. “I can’t believe Desiree thinks Brett is going to take her to Utah with him,” Kitty said. “Do you see her wearing his buckle? You know she’d be showing it off to everyone if he’d given it to her. Either whatserface wouldn’t give it back, or he’s running around on her.”
JJ squeezed water from the ends of her hair. “Yeah and I didn’t hear anything about prom. If they were really dating he’d have asked her by now.”
“So is Desiree in denial or what? I didn’t think she was that stupid,” Kitty said, scrunching her damp hair between her fingers to encourage the curls as they walked toward the cafeteria. “Hope they’re using condoms.”
“Maybe she just wants an excuse to get out of Hardin,” JJ said.
Kitty made a face. “Would you let Brett Chilton suckerfish on your tits if it was your ticket out of here?”
“No, but I’m not the one who said I’d do anything to get out of this town.” JJ cast a hard glance at Kitty and added pointedly, “Would you?”
“No, but maybe I just don’t have Desiree’s vision,” Kitty said philosophically.
“What about Desiree?” Gemma asked, coming up behind them.
“She’s fucking Brett Chilton,” Kitty said, “and trying to move to Utah with him.”
“I heard he didn’t get in. Waitlisted,” Gemma said significantly.
“What, really?” said JJ, “All he’s been talking about for months is how he’s going to be a big hit there.”
Gemma shrugged. “Maybe he’s in denial. Waitlisting is stressful. The whole thing is stressful! It seems like all we’ve done this year is worry about it.”
They reached their usual table. David was already there, unpacking his lunch bag. JJ took the seat beside him, Kitty and Gemma on the other side. “Worry about what?” David asked.
“College,” JJ said shortly.
“I’m so glad to be done thinking about it,” David said. “Go Cougars.”
“But what about you, Kitty?” Gemma asked, unwrapping a Snickers bar.
“I don’t know yet,” Kitty said, head bent as she opened her paper lunch bag.
“Of course you do,” Gemma said, in a duh voice. “You’re going to the best school you get into.” Kitty just shrugged, picking at the ziplock bag around her sandwich.
“Have you heard back from Harvard or Brown?” David asked through a mouthful of his PB&J.
JJ’s stomach felt clenched in her throat, her own roast beef sandwich untouched on the table in front of her. She stared intently at Kitty, saw Kitty’s eyes flicker around the group, not meeting their gaze, before dropping to her knees. “No,” she mumbled.
“Oh, Kitty. I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything,” Gemma said, putting a comforting hand on Kitty’s arm. “It’s probably a good sign! They’re thinking really hard about your application.”
Kitty gave her a transparently false smile and said, “Well, can’t do anything but try not to think about it,” while JJ sat silently and seethed.
Climbing into the truck after school in the parking lot, JJ slammed the driver’s side door and glared at Kitty.
“What? What did I do?” Kitty asked, slinging her backpack into the footwell.
“You haven’t gotten your acceptances yet?” JJ said sharply. It was like poking an infected zit – painful and compulsive. She jammed the keys into the ignition and turned the engine over.
Kitty’s fingers were knotted together in her lap, fidgeting. “No,” she said, not looking at JJ.
“But when you get all the acceptances, you’ll go to Harvard or Brown,” JJ pressed.
“I don’t…I don’t know yet.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” JJ snapped. “You’ve been talking about Ivy Leagues since we were in sixth grade.”
“I mean I don’t know!” Kitty burst out, almost shouting. “I don’t even know if I got in, can we stop talking about this?”
“If that’s how you want to be,” JJ said, setting her jaw. They made the rest of the ride in silence.
There was a tall wedding-cake confection of cumulonimbus clouds massing in the sky to the east as JJ drove home from dropping Kitty off at the trailer park. She parked by the barn, left her backpack in the car and went into the stables. The horses greeted her and JJ led Sadie from her stall into the tack room, saddling her up.
Mounting up, JJ guided Sadie out of the farmyard and up onto the rangeland. A stiff breeze blew across the plains, down out of the mountains. The thunderheads to the east were thickening, bright and billowy as eiderdown on top and bruised purple underneath, the sunlight still shining down with an almost glassy quality. Sadie trotted with her head and tail high, eager to canter, and JJ lengthened the reins, letting her run. The scrub grass and stones flew beneath their feet, pounding out JJ’s frustration and fury. As Sadie’s stride lengthened into the triple beat of a canter, JJ let the rhythm rock her in the saddle and felt her dark mood gradually ebb with the whip of the wind.
By the time it had been drummed out of her and she turned Sadie, sweating and snorting, for home, the clouds had slid over the sun, casting a gloomy shadow on the scrubland. With a sudden trepidation, JJ glanced up at the clouds. To the east was an iron wall in the sky, grim and stormy. Sadie sensed her change of mood and snorted nervously.
Cursing her own stupidity, JJ turned Sadie’s nose south, toward the nearest property line, where the road ran and at least there would be a ditch to hunker in if it came to that. Out on the high prairie in a thunderstorm a rider on horseback was as good as a lightning rod. She kept her ears pricked for thunder, but the afternoon was eerily quiet, the wind fallen still and the birds silent. The only sound was the thud of Sadie’s hooves and the rush of both their breathing.
The barbed wire fence and the highway beyond were in sight when JJ saw the first lance of lighting crawling in the clouds. Holding her breath, she counted the seconds and reached fourteen before the percussive rumble of thunder rolled across the sky. They had time, but the fence was between them and safety. “Come on, let’s get us home now. Hup!” Sadie snorted, and heaved herself into a reluctant trot as JJ tightened her heels, turning them south along the road. She’d checked this section of fence six months ago with her dad and there was a gate a mile or so along. “That’s it. I know you’re tired. Just a little further.”
There was the gate, over the rise. JJ swung down from Sadie’s back, keeping the reins in one hand as she opened the gate, wary of the way thunder made Sadie shy. The heavy welded steel groaned as JJ shouldered it open and Sadie snorted at the noise. “Don’t be silly, princess,” JJ told her, urging her through and latching the gate again behind them.
A few drops of rain spattered onto the blacktop as JJ mounted up, and lighting flashed again. Only seven miles away now. JJ felt her heart drumming faster than Sadie’s hooves. Headlights came around the curve of the road ahead of them and JJ straightened in the saddle with a gasp. It was the farm truck, with the livestock trailer behind it, and when it pulled to a halt on the side of the road, she saw it was her brother driving.
Isaac didn’t say “What were you thinking” or “Didn’t you see the storm” – he just helped her load Sadie, who climbed gratefully into the trailer, and then held the passenger door for JJ. Putting the truck in gear he drove a little further down the highway, with the vents panting damp, cool air, until there was a pull-out large enough to turn around in.
“Thanks,” JJ said, running her fingers through her damp, wind-tangled hair.
“No problem,” Isaac said, and they were silent some more. It was a longer drive back to the farmhouse than it had been a ride, since the highway wound around where JJ had ridden as the crow flies. The radio was on low, playing George Strait softly, and thunder growled again over the rumble of the engine. Raindrops began to spatter on the windshield, and Isaac turned on the wipers. “Nervous about tomorrow?” he asked.
JJ propped her elbow against the door and watched the rain make ribbons down the window. “I know I shouldn’t have taken Sadie riding before the rodeo.” Out of the corner of her eye she could see Isaac shrug as if to say “your horse, your race.” Fenceposts blurred by outside. “Has someone you love ever lied to you?”
“I have three little sisters,” Isaac said, and JJ punched him in the shoulder.
“Shut up, you know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I guess it depends on what kind of lie you mean. We all tell lies like the store was out of sugar when really, I forgot to look for it.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“You remember Twyla, the girl I was dating in high school?”
“Of course.” JJ had been in elementary school, but Twyla Yellowtail had been a fixture at the ranch in the afternoons.
“We promised each other we would stay together forever. Was that a lie because it didn’t come true?”
JJ tucked her knees up, resting her muddy boots on the dash. “Maybe. But you meant it when you said it, right? At the time? That’s not the same. How do you deal with it when someone tells just a whopper of a lie right to your face, and you know it’s not true and they know, but they don’t know you know?”
Isaac tapped his palms on the steering wheel thoughtfully. “You know, Scilla and I had a conversation, when we moved back here from California, about whether she would be happy starting a family so far away from her parents.” Priscilla and Isaac had met in the animal sciences program at UC Davis – she was originally from Tennessee, where the rest of her family was still settled. “She said yes, because she knew how much the ranch means to me, and because it didn’t make sense to try to start our own cattle operation when I could take over from Dad, here, down the road. She said yes because she wanted the answer to be yes. But I think that was a lie, and I think we both knew it.”
“That’s not what I mean either! I mean…just a stupid, normal lie. But a big deal.”
“I don’t know. I mean, I can think of lots of stupid normal lies. But not about really important stuff.”
JJ sighed and leaned her head against the cool glass of the window. “What do you mean Priscilla was lying about being happy here?” she said eventually. “I mean, what does that mean for the two of you? Is she just going to be miserable? Are you…splitting up?”
Isaac chuckled and shook his head. “I’d like to think those aren’t the only two options. It’s not like we’re getting married and popping out babies next month, we have time to talk about it. Maybe my life won’t look like what I imagined when I was eighteen.” There was a soft, absent smile on Isaac’s lips. “Maybe some things are worth giving up for people you love.”
JJ’s stomach gave a panicky swoop. She twisted on the bench seat to look at Isaac. “Are you leaving?” She felt an absurd, little-girl urge to grab her brother’s arm and wail don’t go! “Are you moving to Tennessee?”
“Don’t worry, Jay, you won’t get rid of me that easily.” He reached out to ruffle her hair. “I don’t know yet, and even if I did, it might not be forever. And I would always come back to visit.”
JJ swallowed around a lump in her throat and looked out the window again. “You’d better. Have you told Mom and Dad?”
“Hey. JJ. I’m not gone yet, there’s nothing to tell. Don’t go breaking Mom’s heart before anything is even decided. Dad and I have talked a bit about the ranch, that’s all. I meant to talk to you about it as well.”
“Yeah.” Isaac kept his eyes on the road. “You’ve always said you wanted to stay on the ranch, help out with the operation. Wondered whether you might want to take on more of it, if I was gone.” JJ gulped back a cry of protest, pressing her lips together hard. “Just think about it,” Isaac added. “Like I said, nothing is happening now. Maybe not for a couple of years.”
JJ curled her fingers over the edge of the seat where the vinyl was cracked, digging her nails into the broken plastic and the fraying fibers within, and tried to regulate her breathing. Her throat was tight, her lungs aching as if her ribcage was squeezing them.
“I didn’t mean to freak you out,” Isaac said, as the silence stretched.
“I’m not freaked out,” she said, operating on automatic sibling defensiveness. He cast a sidelong glance at her. Isaac looked like their mom, more than any of the girls, but somehow his expression was exactly like their dad’s when he was worried. “I’m not,” she repeated forcefully, and stared out at the smeared daguerreotype of a landscape in the rain.
“JJ!” her dad called up the stairs. “Let’s go! It’s a long drive.”
“Just a sec!” In the mirror, JJ tucked in her show-day shirt, a pink Western button-down with daisies embroidered on the collar, and threaded her lucky buckle from last year’s win onto her belt, cinching it closed. It was 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday, but JJ was wide awake.
“Coming!” She thumped down the stairs in her sock feet, swung through the kitchen to grab her water bottle, and headed for the mud room, shoving her feet into her boots and snatching her hat off the coat rack.
“Bring a jacket, we’ll be out late,” her dad said, and she rolled her eyes behind his back as he clomped down the steps, slinging her jacket over her shoulder. The livestock trailer was hitched to the Dodge, the horses loaded and Isaac in the passenger seat already. JJ slid the driver’s seat forward with a thunk, and clambered in behind it, wedging herself onto the jump seat with her feet on top of a jumble of tools, work gloves, and old receipts. Mom would bring Grandma, Priscilla and the twins later in the day, in the nice truck with the full size cab, which meant JJ would spend the whole drive to Bozeman crammed in the back of the older pickup, but that was because she was a real rodeo rider, like her brother.
They pulled out of the ranch, and it took several turns for JJ to realize they weren’t heading in the direction of the interstate. “Where are we going?”
Her dad raised his eyebrows at her in the rearview mirror. “To pick up Kitty. Did you forget?”
Scowling, JJ shrugged and sat back, arms crossed. She had forgotten that they’d planned weeks ago to pick Kitty up on the way to the rodeo. And Kitty was waiting at the side of the road when they pulled up, greeting JJ’s dad and brother cheerfully. “Hi Mr. Jackson, hi Zach.”
JJ looked away as Kitty clambered into the backseat with her, moving her legs grudgingly out of the way as Kitty, broader than JJ, squished herself into the other jump seat. Their knees knocked as the truck lurched into gear again, pulling out in the direction of I-90. JJ’s dad asked Kitty some parent-small-talk questions about school and her mom, and JJ stared out the window in silence.
When Dad and Isaac started talking about the lineup for the rodeo, Kitty poked JJ’s knee. JJ ignored her. Kitty pinched her thigh and JJ jumped. “Ow!”
“Are you still mad at me?” Kitty asked, leaning forward to speak quietly under the rumble of the road.
“Will you tell me what I did?”
JJ crossed her arms. “You know what you did. Or you ought to.”
“Is it because I’m taking Bryson to prom?”
Kitty’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! I don’t care who you take to prom,” JJ hissed. “It’s not as if we – I mean, you said yourself we’re all just going as friends, so why should I care?”
“Well, I don’t know what else has changed,” Kitty said, soft mouth pouting.
“Oh, you don’t? That’s convenient.”
“Alright back there, girls?” Dad asked, raising his voice.
“Yes,” they chorused together, glaring at each other.
It was a long drive to Bozeman.
At the fairgrounds, they waited in a slow line of trucks and trailers pulled around the back of the arena, where a sprawling complex of stalls and pens was erected for the animals. When it was their turn, JJ, her dad and Isaac unloaded the horses while Kitty opened gates for them. She was wearing her cowboy boots instead of her Doc Martens, and a flannel button-down, and she looked like she belonged in Montana as much as she ever did, a sunshiney piece of JJ’s homeland chatting with the rodeo hands and smiling at everyone. JJ hated her a little.
By the time they’d finished with the animals David, Bryson and Gemma had arrived with David’s dad and were unloading David’s horse, and JJ managed to keep at least one of their other friends between her and Kitty for the rest of the morning. There were plenty of distractions. The four of them wandered through the little carnival outside the rodeo arena, ate churros covered in chocolate sauce, and admired the 4-H animals being put through their paces.
The youth and teen program started early in the afternoon, with the adult events afterward, before music, dancing and drinking that would go late into the night. The whole group of them climbed up into the bleachers, and JJ found herself in between Gemma and Kitty by accident. Kitty cast her a hurt, uncertain look under her eyelashes that made JJ scowl and wince at once, but it was impossible to sulk through mutton-busting. The bouncing wooly flanks of the irate sheep and the limpet-like children were a reliable crowd pleaser, and JJ and Kitty ended up cheering side by side along with the rest of the audience. The winner was a tiny girl in a neon pink helmet who clung on to her sheep for 7.3 seconds, and got up a little tearful and sniffling, but trying to smile at the cheering crowd.
After the children’s prizes were handed out, JJ and David, who both had afternoon events, went to warm up their horses, while the others got barbecue for lunch. Kitty brought JJ some brisket in a cardboard basket, but JJ just picked at it, nerves shredding her appetite, and let Kitty finish most of it. Then it was time to go watch David ride pole bending, cheering for him even though he didn’t place, and whooping and jeering along with the rest of the crowd when one boy lost his hat, and another knocked over a pole.
JJ had to miss his second event to go saddle Sadie for the barrel race. Her heart was pounding in her chest as she walked back through the paddocks and pens, but it was a clean, familiar fear, almost pleasurable. She greeted Sadie and brushed her down a final time, stroking her nose and her braided mane, and then heaved the saddle onto her back, over the blanket. JJ cinched it down, double and triple checking all the buckles and straps.
The noise of the crowd rose and fell. The goat tying event finished, and the first rider for the barrel race took the arena. JJ knew almost everyone riding – the Montana youth rodeo circuit wasn’t that big. Since JJ had taken first last year she was slated to ride last. Petting Sadie’s neck, she tried not to listen to the tinny sound of the announcer over the loudspeaker reading out the times. No one else’s time mattered, only her own.
Then Mikaeyla Schumacher, last year’s runner-up, was cantering down the alley in a cloud of dust, and JJ was up next. She stuck her hat firmly on her head, gave her rodeo buckle a rub for luck, and mounted up. One of the rodeo hands opened the paddock gate and JJ guided Sadie out into the alley with her heels.
Sadie danced under her, seeing the arena ahead and wanting to break into a canter. JJ heard the announcer saying, “…last year’s teen grand prize winner for the barrel race, it’s Judith ‘JJ’ Jackson riding Sadie,” and there was no need for the riding crop as JJ gave Sadie her head to run.
They burst out of the alley into the dazzling arena lights, JJ squinting under the brim of her hat at the first barrel on their right, already tensing for the turn, feeling Sadie respond beneath her with a burst of speed. JJ urged her hard around the turn, hooves throwing up dirt and sawdust, all JJ’s insides lurching with the change in acceleration.
They cleared the barrel narrowly and Sadie sprang forward toward the second turn, the trickiest, with the flying change from left to right –also the turn Sadie had a habit of cutting close. As Sadie gathered her legs under her between one stride and the next, JJ shifted her seat to signal the leading leg change, and felt the rhythm of Sadie’s hooves alter.
JJ sat her center of gravity down into the turn, feeling Sadie pressing hard against her inside leg to take the turn. They skidded around the barrel, clearing it cleanly, but wider than they could have, losing precious fractions of a second as Sadie struggled to find her footing again on the pivot – the breathless, leaning moment where a horse and rider were in greatest danger of falling. Then, like a round chambering, JJ felt Sadie catch her stride again, recovering from the change in direction and bursting like a bullet toward the last turn.
They slalomed around the third barrel, and then there was only the straight shot home, Sadie’s muscles bunching and the rhythm of her footfalls as she hurtled from a controlled canter into a flat gallop. JJ bent low over her back, the roar of the crowd like an ocean in her ears. She hadn’t bothered with the riding crop, didn’t need it like some riders did on this final stretch; she and Sadie were united in the joy of the ride. The pounding of her own heart and the horse’s hooves made them one and they flew over the finish line weightless, exhilarated.
Cantering down the alley, neither of them wanted to stop. It was always like that, the ride over too soon, the thrill still singing in her blood. She pulled back on the reins and felt Sadie’s reluctance in her own bones as they slowed. They trotted a cool-down loop around the pens and when they returned to their assigned stall, David and Isaac were waiting. Her brother squeezed her in a bear hug when she slid down from Sadie, and David hugged her too, sweaty from his own ride.
After she unsaddled Sadie, they walked out together into the main part of the stands, where the rest of her family and friends were waiting. Kitty was nearly bouncing with excitement, animosity forgotten as she threw her arms around JJ, smelling like familiar cheap perfume and shampoo and fairground sweat. She kept ahold of JJ’s arm, and JJ allowed the contact, as the scores were announced – 16.8 seconds, putting her in second place this year. The muddle of disappointment and excitement at taking silver seemed to match the confused mess of emotions she felt at having Kitty clinging to her like a rodeo floozy.
The last few teen events finished, and there was a break before the opening ceremony for the rodeo proper began. JJ, who had hardly eaten lunch, was starving, and went with David to get roast corn and chili in a Styrofoam cup. Instead of joining the others in the stands again, they walked back to the pens and checked on the horses. Sadie was annoyed to have been ridden hard and then forced to stop, but JJ petted and cajoled her, brushing her down more carefully, and Sadie forgave her.
The national anthem began, and JJ hummed along, stroking Sadie’s nose. “You were perfect, Sadie-girl,” she whispered. “We can’t all turn as nice and sharp as Peanut.”
The first event in the adult program was pole riding, and JJ and David went to the fence to watch rather than circling around back to the stands, standing with the rodeo hands, volunteer staff, and other riders watching from the edge of the pens. When the women’s barrel race began, David nudged her and said, “That’s going to be you next year.” JJ said nothing, elbows on the rail, and watched the riders. Next year felt a long way away, almost impossible to imagine with all the changes to come, and yet, equally impossible to imagine herself anywhere else on the weekend of the state rodeo.
After all the events, the awards, the closing and the fireworks, there was drinking and dancing, with a band playing covers of country songs. Nighttime at the rodeo was awash in blinking colors from the carnival rides, buzzing Bud Light signs, headlights, and the stadium halogens blazing like a small, earthbound star. A dancefloor had been cleared where earlier folding chairs had been set up to watch the jam and pie competition.
JJ joined in for a line dance, clapping and stomping along, feeling connected to the crowd in almost the way riding made her feel connected to her horse, smiling at strangers and wiggling her hips. When the song was over, she danced a two-step with her Isaac. “You were amazing out there,” he said, as they circled a little awkwardly.
“Dancing?” she asked, confused.
“No, silly. Racing. Sadie’s footwork has come miles from where it was even two weeks ago. You’d never guess that she’s not a barrel horse, you had her in beautiful form, and the two of you were so in sync. It was really something to watch.”
“Well.” JJ followed his lead as they promenaded around the floor. “Dad always said I was born to it.”
“You sure were,” he said, twirling her out and back into his arms, giving her a little squeeze around the waist. “Born and bred a cowgirl.”
When the song ended, JJ shuffled off the dancefloor as Isaac reclaimed Priscilla from the old rancher she’d been dancing with, and was thinking of finding somewhere to rest her feet which were starting to ache, when she turned her head and saw Kitty off to one side, leaning against a railing and drinking soda from a straw.
Kitty had already seen JJ see her, so JJ instead of slipping past JJ joined her, propping her shoulders against the rail also. Kitty offered her the straw silently and JJ took a sip. Diet Coke, like always, ice clattering in the bottom. She could taste Kitty’s familiar lipstick on the straw. The band struck up a cover of “Strawberry Wine,” and they watched couples form – a few pairs of grandparents were waltzing slowly, like they must have done at county fairs when they were young. Most people were just holding one another and swaying dreamily.
“Are you going to dance with Bryson?” JJ asked.
“I don’t know where he went.” Kitty didn’t sound concerned. “Trying to poach one of David’s buckle bunnies, maybe.”
“David placed third in Teen Goat Tying. He doesn’t have buckle bunnies.”
“Sad for him,” Kitty said, and slurped at the wet ice in the bottom of her Diet Coke. “Look at Zach and Scilla, being disgusting.” Out on the dance floor, Isaac and Priscilla were in one another’s arms, gazing at each other with obscenely rapturous happiness.
“Gross,” JJ said, making a face and looking away. A little way away, another couple were dancing: a woman with a long braid wearing a bolo tie, and JJ was almost certain that her partner with the short hair and short, roundish stature was also a woman. It was Bozeman, after all, not Hardin. They both had boots and jeans and plaid shirts like half the men and women on the dance floor. No one appeared to be paying them much attention. JJ felt a strange clench under her ribcage, as if her stomach had twisted with hunger or nerves, but in her chest rather than her belly. She realized she was staring and looked away quickly. She wouldn’t want to be stared at if she were dancing with– Well, it was impolite to stare.
Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she said, “I should go load Sadie up in the trailer. Dad will want to get going before long.” Mom and Grandma had left with the twins an hour ago, more for Grandma’s bedtime than the girls’.
“Do you want help?” Kitty asked.
“No, it’s fine. I’ve got it.”
“Okay, don’t leave without me.” Kitty moved like she was nudging their shoulders together but JJ was standing too far away, so it was just a little sway toward her. It made JJ’s stomach feel funny.
Her boot heels clomped on the packed earth as she tromped from the carnival and the lit-up stage toward the pens behind the arena, where work lights were strung up illuminating the animals and trucks pulling up to load them. She fished the keys out of her pocket and went to get the truck.
It took half an hour to get Sadie and Isaac’s horse Boromir loaded up, and as she was finishing, throwing the bolts on the trailer, she recognized David’s dad’s battered old Ford pickup and rusty livestock trailer pulling into the loading zone behind her.
She waved to his dad in the driver seat, and when she turned, David was leading his palomino gelding, Elmo, and his dad’s chestnut mare from the paddock. Both hands holding reins, he lifted his chin in greeting, and JJ waved back.
His dad hopped down from the cab and opened the back doors of the trailer, coming around to take the mare’s lead from David. JJ and David stood by the front bumper waiting.
“We were wondering where you’d gone,” she said, holding out a hand in greeting to Elmo, who whuffled at her palm. “Have you seen Bryson and Gemma?”
“They went to get corndogs, last I saw them,” David said. “You headed home?”
“Yeah. Long day.”
JJ nodded, stroking Elmo’s nose. Behind them, the livestock trailer creaked metallically as David’s dad loaded the mare. The band was playing Johnny Cash, mixing with the tinny music from the carnival rides, and the sound of laughter and conversation. “Dave?”
“Do you want to go to prom with me?” JJ asked, still looking at Elmo.
“Oh, um! Do you – do you want that?” Elmo stirred, ears pricking at David’s surprise and discomfort, and let out a soft snort.
JJ patted his neck. “As friends. If you’re not planning to ask anyone else?”
“No, um. No. I’m not. So, yes, I guess?”
She looked up for the first time – he was chewing his lip, crooked front teeth visible, and she felt a rush of affection for him. “Good. Well. Good.”
“Okay.” He smiled tentatively, and she smiled back. “I’ll pick you up?”
“No way.” David’s own car was a ’73 Buick that used to belong to his grandmother, and only worked in warm weather. “We’ll take my truck.”
They stared at one another, and then David’s dad called, “Bring Elmo ‘round, son, I’m ready for him.”
“See you Monday?” David asked as Elmo’s big head bobbed at the sound of his name, bit jingling.
“Yeah, okay.” JJ let out a breath of a laugh. “See you then.”
At school the following week JJ was congratulated frequently in the hall, clapped on the back and hugged for her second-place win at state, but the excitement of the rodeo was quickly eclipsed by prom. The whole school was buzzing with the approach of Friday. Decorations were already going up in the halls. Everyone was discussing who was going with whom, who was ditching for the stoner party at Miles Landon’s house, which underclassmen had older dates, and who was most likely to sneak booze. During PE on Wednesday, four girls from the student council were stringing streamers and pasting up sparkly stars and horseshoe cut-outs – the prom was Wild-West-themed, as if anyone in Hardin needed more cattle in their life – on the gym walls while third period did half-hearted calisthenics. Every time JJ laid back for a rep of her crunches she could see up Clara Martinez’s cheerleading skirt.
On Friday, the teachers had entirely given up on their senior classes. In Spanish Mr. Lopez rolled the TV cart in and they watched a Spanish dub of Jaws; in math Miss Halter had made a valiant effort to plan a fun lesson on physics with paper airplanes, which dissolved predictably into chaos within fifteen minutes; in English after lunch half the seats were simply empty. JJ would have skipped too except she had to give Kitty a ride home, and Kitty, Ivy-league bound, never cut class.
She and Kitty had been civil and distant all week. JJ still felt a simmering under her breastbone and an angry clench in her throat whenever she was around Kitty, but when Kitty wasn’t there JJ missed her, and sometimes even when she was. Sitting in the truck with the Dixie Chicks blasting from the speakers, JJ’s stomach ached.
“See you tonight?” Kitty offered as she slid out of the cab at the trailer park. She’d gotten the message about JJ’s excuses and stopped inviting her inside.
“Yeah. See you.” Pulling away from the curb, JJ watched Kitty become a bright, candy-wrapper blur in the rearview mirror and then slapped off the cassette player and turned the dial on the radio. Static crackled through a couple of country stations running ads, the Spanish channel, NPR, a hazy French-Canadian channel that they only got in certain weather. JJ stopped as she heard the familiar gravel of Springsteen’s voice. She tapped her fingers along with the beat for a few bars before he began the chorus and she recognized the song. They pass you by, glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days…
JJ slapped the radio off and drove the rest of the way home listening to the rush of the highway wind and the roar of the engine.
Gemma hadn’t gotten a date, and David had agreed that all three of them should go together, so Gemma’s mom dropped her off at JJ’s for dinner and afterward they went up to JJ’s room to get ready together. They stripped with their backs to one another, JJ shimmying into the slinky velvet dress, giggling when Gemma cursed at her own strappy secondhand dress which was silver and glittery. With her spaghetti straps looped over her arms to keep the dress up, JJ helped Gemma untangle and then had Gemma zip her up the back.
They decamped to the upstairs bathroom to do their hair and make-up, where people kept coming by along the hall, poking their heads in the open door to editorialize. Mom wanted to know if they needed any eyeliner, any blush, she had plenty, just yell, girls; Priscilla told them both they looked wonderful and offered to help with the curling iron; Laura liked Gemma’s cross-strapped sleek look; Dani thought it looked “very space age” and “cooler than JJ’s.” At least Grandma Doris couldn’t make it up the stairs.
The whole family was assembled in the living room by the time they were ready to go. There were the requisite photos of the two of them together and separate. “Make sure Cathy takes some of you and David when you pick him up,” Mom said. “It’s too bad Kitty had other plans, she ought to be here too. The three musketeer girls, all grown up.”
“We’ll get pictures,” JJ promised, and Gemma patted her little sequined purse where she had a disposable Kodak stashed along with tampons, lip gloss and breath mints, which she had declared to be the key ingredients of not embarrassing yourself at prom.
Pulling up in front of David’s parents’ bungalow, JJ was tempted to just lean on the horn like a caveman and avoid the parental routine, but instead she and Gemma went inside and did the whole song and dance again with Cathy and Rick and David’s younger siblings.
Going to the school at night was always strange, vaguely otherworldly. Light and pop music spilled out of the open doors of the gym when they parked and got out of the truck. A little spasm of nerves gripped JJ. The breeze raised goosebumps on her arms, and her lips felt sticky with her mom’s waxy ’70s lipstick. Then David held out an arm to each of them, and they all laughed and walked into the building together.
At least the two households’ worth of parental delays meant they weren’t among the unfashionably early. There were already plenty of people clustered around the buffet table and punch bowl, or grooving awkwardly on the dance floor. The harsh overhead lights were off and instead half a dozen construction floodlamps had been dragged inside and then modified with colored cellophane, making pools of multi-hued light and shadow. The wall décor glittered.
Familiar faces turned; people waved and greeted them. They mingled through the thin crowd, admiring people’s outfits, saying hi. JJ felt a sudden rush of affection for these peers she’d known her whole life; even the ones who were obnoxious or catty seemed benign in the soupy disco light of the converted gym and the impending end of high school. People who had made up the fabric of JJ’s life would be gone in just a few weeks; getting jobs, starting families, moving away to Missoula or Fargo or Salt Lake City, or New York. So what if Lisa Capaldi had called JJ fat in seventh grade? She was going to University of Florida, JJ would never see her again. She smiled at Lisa and Lisa leaned in to say, “Love that dress!” in her ear over the music.
There was no sign of Kitty and Bryson yet, and JJ started to relax. They circulated making small talk for a bit and then a familiar opening riff twanged over the speakers and Gemma grabbed JJ’s elbow. “Come on!” JJ groaned but Gemma was already dragging her and David both toward the dance floor. “You can’t not dance to ‘YMCA’!”
That was true, and all over the gym even the students who hadn’t been dancing were motioning along with the chorus. After Village People was Wham and JJ clapped and shimmied along with everyone else to “Wake Me Up.” She hardly ever wore skirts and the slitted skirt made her very aware of her crotch every time it gapped and let a breeze in, but at least she was steady on her strappy slingbacks. The heels were lower than her cowboy boots and the dancing didn’t require any thought compared to a line dance. Whoever had made the mixtape had eschewed the country rodeo theme for a pop playlist, but they were fun, upbeat songs and JJ danced until she was sticky with sweat inside the velvet, laughing with Gemma and David and other friendly acquaintances as they bounced by until JJ twirled around in the middle of a Whitney Houston song and saw Kitty in a bouncy pink chiffon dress waving and weaving through the dancers toward them.
“Kitty, you look gorgeous!” Gemma squealed, hugging her. Kitty’s natural curls had been tamed with a hot curler and brushed against her elegant bare shoulders and plump upper arms. The strapless bodice showed her deep cleavage, and the ruffled skirt emphasized her wide hips. “Look at you! Hi Bryson! Nice tie.”
“I love that dress,” Kitty said, air kissing Gemma’s cheek as Bryson, in a matching baby-pink tie, came up behind her. “Hi JJ, hi David. Jay, we were so right about that dress, it’s perfect! You both look amazing. How’s it going? Let’s dance!”
JJ said, “I’m going to get some punch. David, want to come with me?” She hooked an arm through his without waiting for a reply and plowed off through the crowd, towing him.
“You alright?” he asked, leaning in to her ear to speak over the music.
“Yes,” she said loudly. “Just thirsty.” The punch was bright pink, the color of Kitty’s dress, and sticky sweet in the back of her throat, the opposite of thirst-quenching. “Actually, I want some water.”
The nearest place to get a drink was the locker rooms, out the side door of the gym and in a concrete corridor alongside. Cool air struck like a summer hailstorm after the heat of the crowded gym as they stepped out into the hallway. The fluorescent lights seemed extra blue and ghastly after the warmly colored dimness of the decorated interior. The heavy door swung shut behind them, muffling the music and their footsteps were suddenly audible, echoing.
“Did you and Kitty have a fight?” David asked, soft in the sudden hush. “Only I couldn’t help noticing you’ve been avoiding each other.”
“I guess,” JJ said, looking down at the floor.
“Can I do anything?”
The water fountain had been out of order for the last two months, so JJ slipped into the girls’ room and went to the sinks, bending her head to drink from the tap, the taste of pennies filling her mouth like blood from the iron pipes. Wiping water from her chin she looked at herself in the mirror. Her mom’s lipstick had worn off unevenly, and scrabbling through her clutch, all she found was her pink lip gloss, a totally different shade. Sighing, she wet a sheet of paper towel and dabbed the rest of the lipstick off, replacing it with the gloss.
When she emerged, David was leaning against the wall. He looked at her, bemused, and said, “Your lips are a different color.”
“They’re strawberry lemonade now.”
“Can I taste it?” David asked. It took a moment for that to make sense at all, and then JJ’s stomach jolted like she had missed a step on the stairs.
She blinked at David, who looked back a little sheepishly. “Okay, I guess. You can try.”
“Okay.” He swallowed, visibly steeled himself, and leaned in. JJ turned her face toward him, unwilling to be passive, and they kissed under the buzzing fluorescents. Awareness flared in JJ’s mind, sudden and sharp that this was it, her first kiss, the first real kiss, not practice, the one that counted. His mouth was the wrong shape, wide and flat, and his lips moved awkwardly against his. It was too dry and then too wet, embarrassing, vaguely unpleasant. She pulled away.
They looked at one another, a knot of uncertainty in JJ’s throat. David was flushed. She had no idea what was showing on her own face but it must have been something because David wrinkled his nose and said, “Still friends?”
JJ laughed aloud with relief. “Yeah, still friends.”
Back in the sticky, swampy air of the gym, they lingered at the edge of the dance floor watching the nature channel drama of adolescence play out among their peers. Lucy McKinnon was close dancing with Corinne’s boyfriend Tyler. Meanwhile Cori and Annika Jensen seemed to have cornered one of the footballers who was looking equal parts alarmed and amazed at his good fortune. On the other side of the room, Lisa Capaldi was flirting with Mr. Olson who was on dance monitor duty and looking uncomfortable.
“Hang on, is that Travis?” David said.
“With Gemma.” David pointed and JJ identified at once Gemma’s silver dress and tall stature. The shorter person dancing with her was Travis Leroy, wearing a bolo tie with his glossy black hair braided down his back.
“Oh my God,” JJ said. Travis was a full head shorter than Gemma, which put his face squarely in her breasts as Gemma ground against him. He didn’t seem to mind, having two glittery silver handfuls of Gemma’s ass. “Good for her!”
“After all that moaning about not making the first move,” David laughed. “It looks like she’s going to eat him alive.”
“Maybe he asked to be eaten.” JJ nudged David with her elbow. “Hey, there’s Channi without her date.” David looked where she was pointing in turn, at Channi DeCrane who was lingering alone by the punch table. “You should ask her to dance.”
“Joey probably just went to the bathroom or something.”
“Nu-uh. Look over there, he’s dancing with Clara Martinez.” JJ jerked her head.
“That asshole,” David growled. “Who comes to a dance with a girl and then abandons her like that? If I were here with Channi…”
“Well go on then! Now’s your shot.”
David squared his shoulders. “Okay. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck, cowboy.” JJ gave him a shove in the shoulder and went to get some more punch. Someone had spiked it with cheap vodka since JJ had tasted it earlier. She sipped slowly and drifted around the edges of the dance floor. It was hot in the gym, hotter than it got during volleyball games or sprint laps. The punch was sticky and cloying in her throat. Channi and David were swaying in one another’s arms and JJ smiled to herself.
Dumping the paper cup in a trashcan, she slipped out the main door into the abrupt chill of the night air. Weed smoke wafted on the breeze from the direction of the bleachers, and she turned in the other direction, toward the parking lot, stretching her legs. She was about to turn around and head back to the gym when she saw two figures up against a familiar truck.
Kitty was sitting on Bryson’s tailgate with her legs bracketing his hips, her pink skirt frothing around her waist, as he stood in front of her. Their heads were tilted together, fully in shadow, and she couldn’t hear anything except the tinny strains of the music, but she could imagine. The little whimpers and appreciative moans Kitty made when JJ kissed her just right, the way she gasped when she was getting fucked. JJ’s stomach clenched.
She whirled around, striding back to the gym rather than watch Kitty’s hands clutching at Bryson’s broad shoulders. She wanted to go home, but she was David and Gemma’s ride. Instead of going straight inside she walked two vigorous laps around the track, feeling the eyes of the kids smoking under the bleachers following her. So what if she was acting weird at prom? Everyone was leaving anyway, or she’d only see them once a month during their shift at the grocery store or as a bank teller. Did anything you said or did in high school really matter? Did anyone?
When she circled back by the parking lot the second time, Kitty and Bryson were gone, but his truck was still there. Inside, she spotted Bryson right away, talking to some other guys on the wrestling team. “Where’s Kitty?” she asked. He looked surprised at her terse tone.
“Girls’ room,” he said. “You okay, JJ?”
“Fine,” she grunted, already sweeping toward the girls’ locker room.
The lights were bright and painfully blue-white after the dim disco feel of the main gym. Kitty was standing at the sinks reapplying her lipstick, her pink dress looking washed out in the greenish fluorescents. JJ strode up beside her and Kitty beamed. “Oh, hey JJ!”
“So, what did you and Bryson do?” JJ asked, voice tight.
Kitty didn’t seem to notice JJ’s tone. She chuckled. “Nothing.”
“Would you stop lying to me?” JJ snapped, clutching the edge of the sink.
Kitty’s lipstick cap clattered onto the tile floor. Kitty swung around, mouth half-painted and open in shock. “What the fuck, JJ! What are you talking about?”
“You weren’t doing nothing! I saw you in the parking lot grinding on him.”
“I meant nothing like we were just making out, we didn’t fuck or anything!” Kitty bent to retrieve the lipstick and capped it distractedly. “Why are you flipping out? Are you jealous?”
“No!” JJ yelled. “I don’t care about Bryson! I don’t care if you fucked him! You could fuck every dick in the county for all I care, I just want you to stop lying to me!”
“You sound psycho right now. Where the fuck did this come from?”
“Seriously? You’re still trying that?” JJ’s knuckles ached on the cold porcelain edge of the sink. She was trembling. “You’ve been lying to me for weeks! Weeks! Why didn’t you tell me about Brown?
Kitty froze. “What do you mean?” she said weakly.
“I mean I saw the fucking acceptance letter! You told me to my face that you hadn’t heard back from any of the good schools. You said you still didn’t know where you were going!”
“I don’t!” Kitty cried, her own fists balled at her sides.
“I’m not, JJ I’m not, I don’t know if I’m going to go, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if I, if I’m… fuck, I’m so…I wasn’t ready to choose and I didn’t want to talk about it!”
“So you lied about it?” JJ shouted. “And what do you mean you might not go?”
“I mean I don’t know, dammit!” Kitty yelled back.
The bathroom door banged open. “Girls?” Mrs. Warner called. “Everything okay in here?”
“Yes,” they chorused, but Mrs. Warner lingered in the doorway. “Let’s go,” JJ muttered, and they filed out, heads ducked.
“I’m sorry,” Kitty said in the empty hall.
JJ jerked her head in the direction of the parking lot. “Come on.”
They climbed into JJ’s truck, like they had so many times, nearly every day since JJ got her license, and sat shoulder to shoulder in the darkness. The gibbous moon illuminated the chrome accents on the hood, and lit Kitty’s bright hair silver. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “About lying. It was stupid. I just…” she shook her head. “Sorry.”
“Yeah.” Kitty sighed.
“What about the others?”
“Yes from Smith too. No from Harvard and Princeton.”
“Sorry about Harvard,” JJ said, looking at her knees. “I know that was your top choice.”
JJ picked at the hem of her dress. “I don’t get it. You’ve been talking for literally years about getting out of this town, going to some fancy East Coast school. Brown gave you a scholarship and everything.”
“You read the whole letter huh?” Kitty said sourly.
JJ swallowed hard, and then knocked their shoulders together. “You do not get to judge me for snooping while I’m judging you for lying.” Kitty snorted, mouth quirking reluctantly. JJ sighed, shoulder slumping. “What gives? It should be a no-brainer.”
“Well.” Fabric rustled as Kitty shifted. “It’s not.”
“Why not? What on earth would you stay in Montana for?” JJ asked, gesturing with both hands. “I mean I know why I’m staying, but why would you? You hate it here!”
There was a silence so long that JJ turned to look at Kitty and felt a shock in her gut to see tears glistening in Kitty’s moonlit eyes, fixed on the dashboard. She bit her lip. “Can you really not think of any reason for me to stay?”
JJ gulped. “You don’t mean…do you mean…you…me?”
Kitty set her jaw mulishly. “You’ve always said you wanted to stay here. You’re going to get a veterinary degree and have a local practice and help your dad and brother on the ranch and win rodeo medals until you’re a badass old lady. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be. You never even thought about going to school somewhere else. About coming with me.”
“You never asked me to!” JJ exclaimed, fingers digging into the cracked vinyl of the bench seat. There was a vertiginous feeling in her stomach, like she was unmoored from the way the world was supposed to be.
“How could I?” Kitty shrugged. “You love your family and the ranch and this little shithole town with your whole heart. I couldn’t ask you to leave.”
JJ chewed on that. “You should have told me!”
“I’m sorry I lied about the schools. I didn’t want to tell anyone when I didn’t know what I was doing. Still don’t know.”
“Did you think I would try to convince you to stay? I would never do that.”
Kitty’s lips twisted wryly. “I know.”
“I don’t mean…not that I wouldn’t want – would ever not want – for you to be here. With me.” JJ swallowed. “I just…want you to be happy.” Her hand brushed Kitty’s on the seat, and she turned her palm over. “I want that so bad.”
“I know.” Kitty’s fingers threaded through JJ’s and clung.
“If you had asked…I…I don’t know. And, oh god, I didn’t tell you, Zach and Scilla might be moving to Tennessee.”
“What? When? When since when? Why didn’t you say?”
“Last week. I was mad at you. I don’t know, it’s not for sure or anything, but it’s just I might be the only one to stay and take care of the ranch and Mom and Dad, because god knows what Laura and Dani are going to do, they’re just kids and they don’t like the farm stuff, and without Isaac I just…I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Kitty pressed her free hand over her eyes. “I hate that,” she muttered. “I hate that you’re stuck here. And it’s not even stuck because you want to be here and I hate that even more.” Her fingernails were digging into JJ’s palm. “And I hate that I want to be with you so bad it makes me think about staying.”
“But you’re not happy here,” JJ whispered.
Kitty’s voice cracked. “I’m happy sometimes.”
“Oh god.” JJ curled forward over her lap, turning into Kitty’s chest. “Oh god, Kitty.” Kitty’s arm come around JJ’s shoulders, face against JJ’s neck, and she was crying, damp and quiet into JJ’s skin. JJ clung to her. “What do we do? What are we doing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know, Jay,” she gasped.
JJ was crying too, hiccupping. “I don’t ever want to let you go, never ever, but I lo-love you too much to ask you to stay.” She choked on the word, and Kitty sobbed harder, saying her name over and over.
They rocked together, clinging to one another as the windows fogged up. Eventually, JJ’s throat and eyes were raw, her throat clogged with mucous, and she felt wrung dry. She was just shivering with her arms around Kitty while Kitty panted softly and got snot on JJ’s velvet dress.
Pulling back slightly, Kitty wiped her eyes with one hand and sniffled. “Now what?”
They stared at each other. Kitty’s eyeliner was smeared in messy tracks down her cheeks, her hair was a rats’ nest, her lipstick only half-applied and now worn off from sobbing and swallowing, and there was a stain on her bodice from JJ’s own running makeup. JJ spread her hands helplessly. “Well. First I have to drive Gemma and David home.”
There was a beat and then they both cracked into hysterical laughter.
“No way,” Kitty said. “Bryson can drive them home. If he can separate them from Travis and Channi, respectively.”
“You’re right. Should we tell him he’s designated driver?”
They looked at one another’s disarray. “No,” they agreed together, and Kitty added, “He’ll figure it out.”
By silent agreement they drove back to Kitty’s, sneaking inside so as not to wake Kitty’s mom. JJ pulled the corded phone as far as she could away from the bedrooms and called her own house to leave a quiet voicemail letting them know where she was. Then they stripped off their prom dresses, crawled into Kitty’s twin bed, and held each other. They kissed some, but mostly just clung until sleep claimed them both.
September blew in from the mountains on chill morning breezes and hot, dusty afternoons. The summer rodeo circuit was wrapping up, one last event in Boise next weekend and then JJ would be driving to Missoula to start her first semester at U of M. That seemed distant, however, standing in the cool morning shadows in front of the Greyhound station in Billings, while Kitty and her mom said goodbye.
“You’ve got all your paperwork? ID? Checkbook? Phone card?”
“Right here.” Kitty patted the pocket of her new suede jacket, a graduation gift from their friend group, with Gemma acting as fashion director. Under the jacket she wore a brass belt buckle emblazoned with a bucking pony.
“And you’ll call as soon as you get into Providence.”
“Figure out if you can use the computer lab to send personal emails. I can check my email at the community college.”
“I know, Mom. I will.”
“Oh hon, I’m so proud of you.” Kitty’s mom hugged her close and then released her, turning her back politely and keeping it turned, standing guard as Kitty held out a hand to JJ, drawing her close.
Kitty’s mom was the only person who officially knew about them, although her lack of surprise had made JJ wonder who else might have suspicions. Their friends, beyond some pro-forma annoyance, certainly hadn’t seemed surprised to be unceremoniously ditched at prom.
The morning after, when they’d both staggered out of Kitty’s room, still makeup-stained and bleary from not enough sleep and too much crying, and sex-rumpled from waking up to rub off frantically in the middle of the night and then again that morning, Kitty’s mom had taken one look at them both and said, “Goodness, girls. That good, huh?” She had been calmly unconcerned all summer, as JJ and her daughter had tentatively tried all the things “practice” had never been able to encompass, like holding hands and writing love notes and generally, in Kitty’s mom’s words, “mooning at each other.”
They were holding hands now, clutching at each other, fingers linked. JJ bent her head, foreheads bumping together. Kitty let out a shaky breath, warm against JJ’s mouth, and kissed her hard. “Good luck,” JJ whispered when their lips parted.
“I’m scared,” Kitty whispered back.
“I know. Me too.” JJ wrapped her arms around Kitty’s waist and squeezed. “But you can do it. It’s going to be amazing. You’re going to see all sorts of new things and meet so many new people and have a great time.” She swallowed hard. “Just don’t forget me, okay?”
“I couldn’t. Jay, I could never.”
“Well. Good. Wear the lucky buckle whenever you need a pick-me-up.”
“I’ll wear it every day. So everyone will know I’m a western girl.”
JJ felt tears burn in her sinuses. She couldn’t remember Kitty ever calling herself that, despite growing up on the Montana grasslands just like JJ. “If they know anything about rodeos they’ll know it means you’re taken.”
“Yeah.” Kitty cupped JJ’s cheek and grinned. “I plan to start rumors about the mysterious sweetheart I left out west.” Her face fell. “I don’t want to go, Jay.”
JJ’s throat clogged with all the things she wanted to say, the things they’d spent all summer talking about, crying about. There’s years yet before my dad retires from the ranch. Zach and Scilla might not move to Carolina. If they do, maybe it would be good for Isaac to have family in the east too. We’ll work it out, nothing’s forever. You can come home. I can look for other veterinary programs. There’s cows all over this damn country. Instead, she stroked Kitty’s hair back from her face and said, “If Xena can lose Gabrielle to Hades and survive, we can spend ten months on opposite sides of America.”
Kitty sniffed. “And I’ll see you in just three months, for Christmas.”
JJ nodded. “The new season won’t even be finished airing yet. We can watch part of it together.”
“Call me the minute you finish watching the first ep,” Kitty said.
“I will. I can’t believe you’re going to get it two hours ahead of me, asshole.”
“I won’t spoil anything.”
“You’d better not. Call me.”
The growl of an engine made JJ’s heart contract painfully. Kitty’s fingers dug into her hips. “I’ll call all the time,” she whispered as the bus rolled in. “I’ll write every week.”
“Girls?” Kitty’s mom said, turning.
JJ wanted to kiss Kitty again, but her skin prickled with the unknown number of eyes behind the windows of the Greyhound. Instead she hugged Kitty so tight that her own lucky belt buckle dug into her stomach.
“See you at Christmas,” she said, inadequately.
“See you.” As the pneumatic bus door hissed open, Kitty hugged her mother, slung her bag over her shoulder, and, glancing back, tapped JJ’s buckle like a kiss.