Lucy poured coffee into a thick white mug, then brought it with her to sit across from him. “Well, Cooper, you’ve been with us two weeks now.”
“That’s about all the brooding time you’re going to get. You’re a good, bright boy. You do what you’re told and you don’t sass. At least not out loud.”
There was a look in her eyes—a smart look, not a mean one—that told him she knew he sassed in his head. A lot.
“Those are good qualities. You also tend to sulk and don’t say boo to a goat and drag around here like you’re in prison. Those aren’t such good qualities.”
He said nothing, but wished he’d eaten his breakfast faster and escaped. He hunched his shoulders, figuring they were going to have a discussion. Which meant, from his experience, she’d tell him all the things he did wrong, and how she expected more, and he was a disappointment.
“I know you’re mad, and you’ve got a right to be. That’s why you got these past two weeks.”
He blinked at his plate, and a line of confusion formed between his eyebrows.
“The fact is, Cooper, I’m mad for you. Your parents did a selfish thing, and didn’t take you into account when they did it.”
He brought his head up about an inch, but his eyes lifted and met hers. Maybe it was a trick, he thought, and she was saying that so he’d say something bad. So he could be grounded or punished. “They can do what they want.”
“Yes, they can.” She nodded briskly as she drank her coffee. “Doesn’t mean they should. I want you here, and so does your grandpa. I know he doesn’t say much, but I’m telling you the truth. But that’s a selfish thing, too, for us. We want you here, we want to get to know our only grandchild, have time with him we never got much of before. But you don’t want to be here, and I’m sorry for that.”
She was looking right at him, right at his face. And it didn’t feel like a trick. “I know you want to be home,” she continued, “with your friends. I know you wanted to go to baseball camp like they promised. Yeah, I know about that.”
She nodded again, and sipping coffee stared off hard out the window. It seemed she was mad, as she’d said. But not at him. She really was sort of mad for him.
And that was something he didn’t understand. That was something that had his chest getting all tight and achy.
“I know about that,” she repeated. “A boy your age doesn’t get a lot of say, a lot of choices. They’ll come, but at this stage you just don’t have them. You can make the best out of what you’ve got, or be miserable.”
“I just want to go home.” He hadn’t meant to say it, only to think it. But the words came right out, pushing out of that tight, achy chest.
She shifted her gaze back to his. “Honey, I know. I know you do. I wish I could do that for you. You may not believe me, you don’t know me very well so you may not, but I really want to give you what you want.”
It wasn’t a matter of belief, it was that she talked to him. Actually talked as if he mattered. So the words, and the misery with them, just bubbled out of him.
“They just sent me away, and I didn’t do anything wrong.” Tears rose into his voice. “They didn’t want me to go with them. They didn’t want me.”
“We do. I know that’s not much comfort to you right now. But you know that, you believe that. Maybe sometime later in your life, you’ll need a place. You know you’ll always have one here.”
He spoke the worst. The worst that hid inside him. “They’re going to get a divorce.”
“Yes, I expect you’re right about that.”
He blinked and stared, because he’d expected her to say that wasn’t true, he’d expected her to pretend everything would be fine. “Then what’ll happen to me?”
“You’ll get through it.”
“They don’t love me.”
“We do. We do,” she said, firmly, when he lowered his head again and shook it. “First because you’re blood. You’re kin. And second, just because.”
When two tears plopped on his plate, Lucy kept talking. “I can’t speak for what they feel, what they think. But I can say something about what they do. I’m so mad at them. I’m so mad at them for hurting you. People will say it’s just one summer, it’s not the end of the world. But people who say that don’t remember what it’s like to be eleven. I can’t make you happy to be here, Cooper, but I’m going to ask you for something. For just one thing, and maybe it’s a hard thing for you. I’m going to ask you to try.”
“Everything’s different here.”
He sniffled. “What if I try and I still don’t like anything?”
“Trying’s enough, if you mean it.”
“How long do I have to try before the new TV?”
She laughed, full and hard, and for some reason the sound of it made his lips curve and his chest loosen up. “That’s a boy. Good for you. Two weeks, we’ll say. Two weeks of brooding, now two weeks of trying. You make a real effort, and you’ll have that new TV set in the parlor, you betcha. Is that a deal?”
“All right. Why don’t you go out now, find your grandpa. He’s got some project going out there, and he might need a hand.”
“Okay.” He got to his feet. Later, he wouldn’t know why it spewed out. “They yell a lot, and they don’t even know I’m there when they do. He’s having sex with somebody else. I think he does that a lot.”
Lucy blew out a long breath. “Are you listening at keyholes, boy?”
“Sometimes. But sometimes they’re yelling about it, and I don’t have to try to hear. They never listen to me when I talk. They pretend to sometimes, and sometimes they don’t even pretend. They don’t care if I like anything, as long as I’m quiet and out of their way.”
“That’s different here, too.”
“I guess. Maybe.”
He didn’t know what to think as he walked outside. No adult had ever talked to him that way, or listened to him that way. He’d never heard anybody criticize his parents—well, except each other.
She’d said they wanted him. No one had ever said that to him before. She said it even when she knew he didn’t want them, and it didn’t feel like she’d said it to make him feel bad. It felt like she’d said it because it was true.
He stopped, looked around. He could try, sure, but what could he find to like around here? A bunch of horses and pigs and chickens. A bunch of fields and hills and nothing.
He liked her flapjacks, but he didn’t think that’s what she meant.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and headed around to the far side of the house where he heard banging. Now he was going to have to hang around with his strange, mostly silent grandfather. How was he supposed to like that?
He cut around, and saw Sam over by the big barn with the white silo. And what Sam was hammering into the ground with some kind of metal stakes had Coop speechless.
A batting cage.
He wanted to run, just fly across the dirt yard. But made himself walk. Maybe it just looked like a batting cage. It could be something for the animals.
Sam glanced up, took another whack at the stake. “Late on your chores.”
“Fed the stock, but you’re going to need to get the eggs right soon.”
“Grandma said you needed help with a project.”
“Nope. ’Bout done.” With the little sledgehammer in hand, Sam straightened up, stepped back. He studied the fence cage in silence.
“Eggs aren’t going to jump in the pail on their own,” he said at length.
“Might be,” he drawled as Coop turned to go, “I could pitch
you a few after chores are done.” Sam walked over, picked up a bat he’d leaned against the side of the barn. “You can use this. Just finished it last night.”
Baffled, Cooper took the bat, ran his hands along the smooth wood. “You made it?”
“Don’t see no reason for store-bought.”
“It . . . it has my name on it.” Reverently, Coop traced his fingers over the name etched in the wood.
“That’s how you know it’s yours. You plan on getting those eggs sometime today?”
“Yes, sir.” He handed the bat back to Sam. “Thank you.”
“You ever get tired of being so damn polite, boy?”
Sam’s lips twitched. “Go on.”
Coop started to run toward the chicken house, stopped, turned back. “Grandpa? Will you teach me how to ride a horse?”
“Get your chores done. We’ll see.”
THERE WERE some things he liked, at least a little. He liked hitting the ball after supper, and the way his grandpa would surprise him every few pitches with crazy, exaggerated windups. He liked riding Dottie, the little mare, around the corral—at least once he’d gotten over being worried about being kicked or bitten.
Horses didn’t really smell after you got to like them a little, or ride them without being scared shitless.
He liked watching the lightning storm that came one night like an ambush and slashed and burned the sky. He even liked, sometimes, a little, sitting at his bedroom window and looking out. He still missed New York, and his friends, his life, but it was interesting to see so many stars, and to hear the house hum in the quiet.
He didn’t like the chickens, the way they smelled or sounded, or the evil glint in their eyes when he went in to gather eggs. But he liked the eggs just fine, whether they were cooked up for breakfast or stirred into batter and dough for cakes and cookies.
There were always cookies in his grandmother’s big glass jar.
He didn’t like when people came to visit, or he rode into town with his grandparents, the way they’d size him up and say things like, So, this is Missy’s boy! (his mother, christened Michelle, went by Chelle in New York). And they’d say how he was the spitting image of his grandfather. Who was old.
He liked seeing the Chance truck ramble toward the farmhouse, even if Lil was a girl.
She played ball, and didn’t spend all her time giggling like a lot of the girls he knew. She didn’t listen to New Kids on the Block all the time and make girly eyes over them. That was a plus.
She did better on a horse than he did, but she didn’t rag on him about it. Much. After a while, it wasn’t like hanging out with a girl. It was just hanging out with Lil.
And one week—not two—after the talk at the kitchen table, a brand-new TV showed up in the parlor.
“No point in waiting,” his grandmother said. “You held up your end just fine. I’m proud of you.”
In all of his life, he couldn’t remember anyone being proud of him, or saying so, just because he’d tried.
Once he’d been judged good enough, he and Lil were allowed to ride, as long as they stayed in the fields, within sight of the house.
“Well?” Lil asked as they walked the horses through the grass.
“Is it stupid?”
“Maybe it’s not. She’s pretty cool.” He patted Dottie’s neck. “She likes apples.”
“I wish they’d let us ride up into the hills, really see stuff. I can only go with one of my parents. Except . . .” She looked around, as if to check for cocked ears. “I snuck out one morning, before sunrise. I tried to track the cougar.”
He actually felt his eyes bug out. “Are you crazy?”
“I read all about them. I got books from the library.” She wore a cowboy hat today, a brown one, and flipped a long braid over her shoulder. “They don’t bother people, hardly at all. And they don’t much come around a farm like ours unless they’re like migrating or something.”
Excitement poured off her as she shifted to turn more fully toward the speechless Coop. “It was so cool! It was just so cool! I found scat and tracks and everything. But then I lost the trail. I didn’t mean to stay out so long, and they were up when I got back. I had to pretend I was just coming out of the house.”
She pressed her lips together, gave him her fierce look. “You can’t tell.”
“I’m not a tattletale.” What an insult. “But you can’t go off by yourself like that. Holy shit, Lil.”
“I know how to track. Not as good as Dad, but I’m pretty good at it. And I know the trails. We hike a lot, and we camp out and everything. I had my compass, and my kit.”
“What if the cougar had been out there?”
“I’d have seen it again. It looked right at me that day, right at me. Like it knew me, and it felt like . . . It sort of felt like it did.”
“Seriously. My mother’s grandfather was Sioux.”
“Like an Indian?”
“Yeah. Native American,” she corrected. “Lakota Sioux. His name was John Swiftwater, and his tribe—his, like, people—lived here for generations and stuff. They had animal spirits. Maybe the cougar was mine.”
“It wasn’t anybody’s spirit.”
She just continued to train her gaze on the hills. “I heard it that night. Late the night we saw it. I heard it scream.”
“That’s the sound they make because they can’t roar. Only the big cats—like lions—can roar. Something in their throat. I forget. I’ll have to look it up again. Anyway, I just wanted to try to find it.”
He couldn’t help but admire what she’d done, even if it was crazy. No girl he knew would sneak out to track down a mountain lion. Except Lil. “If it’d found you, maybe you’d be breakfast.”
“You can’t tell.”
“I said I wouldn’t, but you can’t sneak out and go looking for it again either.”
“I think it would’ve come back by now if it was going to. I wonder where it went.” She looked off again, into the hills. “We could go camping. Dad really likes to. We take like a nature hike and camp overnight. Your grandparents would let you.”
“Like in a tent? In the mountains?” The idea was both terrifying and compelling.
“Yeah. We’d catch fish for supper and see the falls, and buffalo and all kinds of wildlife. Maybe even the cougar. When you get all the way to the peak, you can see clear to Montana.” She shifted to look back as the dinner bell rang. “Time to eat. We’ll go camping. I’ll ask my dad. It’ll be fun.”
HE WENT CAMPING and learned how to bait a hook. He knew the rush-up-the-spine thrill of sitting by a campfire and listening to the echoing howl of a wolf, and the shock of watching a fish he’d caught more through luck than design flash silver in the sunlight at the end of his rod.
His body toughened; his hands hardened. He knew an elk from a mule deer and how to care for tack.
He could ride at a gallop, and that was the biggest thrill of his life.
He earned a guest spot on Lil’s baseball team, and brought in a run with a strong double.
Years later, he’d look back and realize his life had turned that summer, and would never be the same again. But all Coop knew at the age of eleven was he was happy.
His grandfather taught him to carve and whittle, and to Coop’s utter joy, presented him with a pocketknife—to keep. His grandmother showed him how to groom a horse, top to bottom, how to check for injury or illness.
But his grandfather taught him how to talk to them.