Matt & zoe, p.12
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       Matt & Zoe, p.12

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  I shudder.

  “Anyway,” she says. “Aside from that, I loved it.”

  Nicole says, “Unlike Zoe here, I didn’t re-enlist after Iraq. I’d had enough of that … I always wanted to be a cop, and now I get to do that.”

  Jasmine leans against one of the counters and says, “I didn’t know that.”

  “Didn’t know what?” Zoe asks.

  “That you re-en-listed.” She pronounces the word carefully. “What does that mean exactly?”

  “It means I asked to stay in the Army after my first tour was up. I liked being in the Army.”

  “Do you wish you were still there?” Jasmine’s face is guarded as she asks the question.

  Zoe says, “I’m where I want to be, Jasmine. With you.”

  Jasmine flushes. Then she says, “What if Mom and Dad were still alive?”

  Zoe shrugs. “That’s … not what it is. I don’t know the answer to that. The moment I learned you were all alone, I came, Jasmine. And I’d do it all over again, every time. Okay? You’re my sister. I’ll take care of you no matter what.”

  Jasmine looks at her and whispers, “Thanks.”

  I swallow and look away, caught for a moment in the grip of uncomfortable emotions. Zoe’s declaration was powerful.

  My eyes catch Nicole’s, and she gives me a strange look. Suspicious, really.

  “Well, let’s go sit on the porch while we’re waiting. We won’t have many more nights this warm.” Zoe doesn’t wait for an answer—she takes her glass of wine and walks to the side door and lets herself out. Jasmine’s right behind her, leaving me behind with Nicole.

  I start for the door, but come to a stop when Nicole says, “Matt?”

  “Yeah?”

  “I gotta ask you a question… I saw the way you were looking at Zoe. What are your plans?”

  I shake my head. “I don’t have any plans.”

  She walks a little closer—close enough I can see a very faint scar on her forehead covered with makeup. She says, “They’ve been through a lot, Matt. Zoe’s been through a lot.”

  I nod. “I’m aware. For what it’s worth, I lost my father suddenly too. I know how hard that is.”

  “Not just that, though I’m—I’m not glad to hear it, but I’m glad you understand. She’s been through a lot even before that. She doesn’t talk about it, but Iraq was no cakewalk.”

  “I can’t imagine it was,” I say.

  “Just be careful.”

  I stare at her and say firmly, “I don’t have any plans. If you must know, yes, I’m attracted to Zoe. A lot. And I care about both of them. The end. All right?”

  She nods. Fine, that’s done. I turn away from her and walk out the side door.

  Zoe and Jasmine sit together on the porch swing. I take a seat on a wicker chair nearby. As I do, Zoe says, “So, Matt. You said you were from central Florida?”

  “Not far from Tampa and Sarasota.”

  She shakes her head. “This must be a big climate change.”

  “Culture change too,” Nicole said. “I thought Florida was full of rednecks.”

  I chuckle. “That and snowbirds.”

  “Snowbirds?” Nicole asks.

  “A snowbird is a relocated Yankee.”

  Zoe bursts into laughter. I honestly don’t want to talk about where I grew up, or how I grew up, or where I spent most of my time as a child. Not the trailer parks, or the sand spurs scratching at my heels, not the crowds or the constant moving around. I don’t want to talk about any of it. I say, “What about you, Nicole? Are you from around here?”

  Just as I say the words, Zoe says, “Matt hasn’t told me any details, but he grew up riding. Really riding.”

  Nicole asks, “Did you do horse shows?”

  I shake my head. “No, I don’t know anything about the horse show circuit. What about you?”

  Nicole laughs. “My dad’s a cop in Springfield. But Zoe’s mom did the show circuit sometimes. But not the high-end stuff.”

  I raise an eyebrow. “High-end stuff?”

  Zoe says, “It’s kind of a class thing. Some of the shows, they’ve got the thirty or fifty thousand dollar horses. They’re not even allowed to be horses… they don’t get to roll in the mud or race because they might get hurt or mess up their appearance. It’s like the more prized they are as a commodity, the less they’re prized as … as animals… as companions. Mom wasn’t about all that. She didn’t show horses, she had a relationship with them.”

  The sudden passion in her voice captures my attention. Zoe says she isn’t a horse person like her mom was, but the way she’s talking makes me think otherwise. She keeps talking.

  “The thing is… when you’re upset… when you’re not in the right frame of mind… a horse knows. You can’t bullshit a horse. You can’t lie to them or put on a happy face. The horses know. They can see right through you, and reflect the truth right back.”

  Nicole leans back and stares at Zoe as if she’s hearing this kind of talk for the first time. And maybe she is. Because Zoe stops suddenly.

  “That’s intense,” I say. I decide to let the smallest part of my past out, even if it’s missing some details. “And true. My um … Uncle Nick used to say the same thing. He taught me to ride, over the objections of my parents.”

  “Why didn’t your parents want you to learn?” Zoe’s question is quick.

  Because they wanted me to follow them. I shrug and grin. “Why do parents do anything? I don’t expect them to make sense.” I don’t say that my parents looked down their noses at everyone who didn’t do what they did. I don’t say that Nick wasn’t actually an uncle, nor how my parents responded when they found out I was learning to ride. I don’t talk about Papa’s sudden death and how it changed everything.

  Self-contained (Zoe)

  Matt grins when he asks his question—why do parents do anything?—but the grin looks fake. Whatever happened with his parents, it’s clear he’s still very bitter about it. He clams up a little, and even though I’m intensely curious about his background, I think it’s time to change the subject. He’s not going to suddenly open up just because I keep probing.

  So I ask Nicole something about the UMASS Police Department, knowing that will generate a long story. I keep an eye on him. He’s quiet. Broody almost. Every once in a while his eyes shift to me, and once he catches my eyes, an electric shiver runs all the way to my toes.

  Luckily, once I asked the question Nicole is off. I missed the beginning of the story—which seems to concern a riot that broke out after the basketball team won last winter. Or lost. I’m not clear which it was. Apparently several hundred students went on a rampage, breaking windows and carousing drunk in downtown Amherst.

  “Would you believe more than two hundred arrests? It’s crazy. South Hadley has two dozen cops. We have sixty-one on the force at UMASS. All because of the drunks!”

  The sun is going down as she speaks. To the west, you can see the hills on the other side of the Connecticut River leading up to Mount Tom, all of it silhouetted by flaming orange and red light.

  Jasmine says, “Why do they do that?”

  “Oh trust me, when you get to that age your brain will melt too.”

  “Won’t,” Jasmine responds.

  “Will too,” Nicole says. “Trust me. You can’t help it. It happened to me too, and your sister.”

  I shake my head. “It might have happened to you, but not me.”

  Nicole shakes her head and waves a hand dismissively. “I’m not going to throw Zoe under the bus. Trust me. It happens to everyone.”

  Jasmine gets a gleeful look on her face. “Tell me! What did she do?”

  Nicole shakes her head. “It’s not fit for little ears. Ask me again when you’re ten.”

  “That’s forever!”

  Nicole shrugs. “That’s the breaks, kid.”

  Headlights turn into the driveway. Tyler is back. I bring the porch swing to a stop and stand. “You guys want to eat out here? It’s so
nice out.”

  “Yeah,” Matt says. “Let’s do it. I miss warm weather sometimes.”

  “Come help me then. We’ll set up at the picnic table over there. Need to grab plates and everything.”

  Matt stands and follows me back into the house. I rummage in the kitchen, pulling together plates and silverware and paper towels, and pass them to Matt. Once he has those in hand, I gather the wine bottle and a cold six-pack.

  “Hey!” Tyler shouts as we come out of the house. “I was beginning to wonder if you two were ever coming out! I thought maybe you’d decided to go ahead and—”

  His words are cut off by a sudden slap on the shoulder from Nicole. “You behave,” she demands.

  “Jesus,” he mutters, his voice mock offended. “Yes, officer.”

  Matt snorts at Tyler’s response. As Matt puts out the plates and I pass out more drinks, Nicole says, “Tell me the truth, Matt. You’re such a mild mannered guy. Where did you dredge up this Neanderthal?”

  “Neanderthal?” Tyler says. “I’m a perfect specimen of modern day manhood.”

  Nicole chuckles. “All brawn and no brain?”

  Jasmine giggles.

  “Well,” Matt says. “Male elementary school teachers are few and far between, at least in the early grades. We band together for self-protection.”

  Tyler comments, “Plus, it’s a fact that you can’t go out without a wingman.”

  “You mean,” Nicole says, “someone to console you after you get shot down?”

  He grins, but doesn’t answer.

  The banter continues, but I don’t pay as close attention as I normally might. I’m uncomfortably aware of Matt, sitting directly across from me. After scooping his food onto his plate, he opens a package of chopsticks and begins to eat with them. I’ve never noticed before how dark his eyebrows are, or how thick his lips are. He smiles at a joke Nicole makes, his lips curling up to reveal closely spaced white teeth that stand out against his slightly olive skin and the slight shading of beard on his face.

  Tyler finishes an improbable story about his college roommate, which Nicole tries to top with another story.

  “Okay, so you know the two of us enlisted together, right? After we finished training both of us were assigned to the 23rd MP Company at Fort Drum, which is too hundred and twelve miles from the middle of nowhere. As new privates, our job was basically to stand around most of the time on guard duty. We’d occasionally go out on patrol, but always subordinate to some sergeant or corporal, right? Anyway, there was one gate on the post we’d pull guard duty every couple of weeks. The Commanding General would drive in and out that gate.”

  I groan. Of course she’d pick this one. She grins at my groan. “Anyway, when the General came through, we were supposed to get out of the guard post and stand at attention and salute. Almost always we’d get a call ahead of time that the General was on the move, so we had time. This one night we’re both there, and it’s cold and raining and threatening snow. And of course, no one calls us to tell us the General was out. So we see the car coming, and it’s dark, and we don’t know who it is, but I step outside and the car is maybe fifty feet away when I realize it’s the General. So I call back, and out comes Zoe. She’s in a hurry, and somehow gets a bootlace wrapped up around the chair she was sitting on. She moves, the chair moves, it gets caught in the doorway and she falls face first, right into the mud. And I’m standing there, saluting, and she’s laying prone on the ground covered in mud just as the General comes to a stop right in front of us. You should have heard the splat when she hit the mud.”

  Oh, God. Hearing it is almost as bad as experiencing it was. I can feel heat rising to my face.

  Tyler is grinning and Matt has his eyebrows raised. “So what happened?”

  I pout. “I finally get up and instead of finding him long gone, the General is there, and he has his window rolled down. He asks if I’m all right, and I tell him yes, just my pride was hurt. And he says, ‘Good, because that’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen in years.’ Then he drives off. The next day I got a special order from the General’s office giving me a two-day pass.”

  “At least that worked out well in the end,” Matt says.

  I snort. “I suppose. What sucked was I couldn’t go back to the barracks and change. So I was stuck out there for almost nine more hours. Muddy. Cold. Wet.”

  “You’ve seen worse,” Nicole says. I give her a cool look. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean I want to talk about it.

  Tyler said, “So what’s your story? You got a boyfriend back in Tokyo?”

  I shake my head. “I dated a guy there for a while. It wasn’t a good fit.”

  It wasn’t a good fit is code for the asshole cheated on me. Some things Matt and Tyler don’t need to know. Nicole catches it and just takes a drink of her wine. She was on her way out of the Army by the time I went to Tokyo, so she never met Chase. She heard about him, because even after she got out, we still talked all the time. FaceTime carried me through a lot of ugly and sad times. In those days, mostly sad. Chase screwed me up pretty good. He cancelled on me at the last minute one night when we had a date. And that would have been the end of it, except that I decided I still needed to get out of the barracks, and went on my own to the theater in Roppongi Hills, which showed first run American films.

  And of course that’s where I ran into Chase, his arm wrapped around a tiny little Japanese girl with big tits and an attitude of self-importance.

  He saw me and I saw him and I left in a big hurry. Not long after, my phone started ringing, over and over again. I didn’t answer.

  Chase was a mistake in the first place. He wasn’t a soldier—a college dropout who had wandered on his own into Asia, eventually settling in Japan, where he found a job teaching English at a private school in Tokyo. It was a nice job if you could get it, I suppose. He didn’t get paid too much, but he was able to live in Tokyo rent free. He was good looking, with an easy going attitude. He was a prick.

  “What do you think, Zoe?”

  Crap. I snap back to the present when Matt’s voice cuts through. Nicole is looking at me with an eyebrow arched. I don’t know if the guys noticed my exit from reality, but she sure did.

  I don’t even bother to try to cover it. “I’m sorry. I was away for a moment. What were we talking about?”

  Tyler bursts out laughing. Of course he would. I smile a practiced, fake smile. A smile they won’t see through. Because I’m off balance now. I join in the banter for a few minutes. Nicole goes off on another story about being a cop at UMASS. She has no end of interesting stories, and some of them might even be true.

  More than once as we eat, I find myself looking at Matt. Something about him seems different. I’m not sure what it is about him. He’s more—I’m not sure what word I’m looking for—he’s more self-contained than most men I’ve known. It’s not that he’s emotionally distant—many guys are, but he doesn’t come across that way at all. He does come across as a very private person. Self-contained. He described Tyler as his best friend. The two of them don’t seem all that close. Guys who have been friends a long time share a lot of in-jokes. They insult each other and laugh and have a certain easy air about them which is unmistakable. If I had to guess, I’d say Tyler doesn’t know Matt at all.

  I decide then and there, I’m going to find out a lot more about Matt Paladino.

  Chapter Ten

  Who are you again? (Zoe)

  When the alarm goes off the next morning, I groan a little. My head hurts from one too many glasses of wine.

  Nothing to be done for it. The horses don’t care if I’m hung over. I have to get moving.

  I’m out of bed and having a cup of coffee by 6:45, and Jasmine joins me a few minutes later. Then we walk together, wordlessly, to the barn.

  It’s not cold enough yet that the horses can’t pasture on the grass, but it will be soon. And hay costs money that I don’t have. So out into the pasture they go. I check the stalls. All three
need to be mucked out this morning.

  “You’re okay leading them out?” I ask.

  Jasmine doesn’t sneer, but gets pretty close. I fit the halters on each of the horses, then I pass Mono’s lead to Jasmine. I follow behind her with Nettles and Eeyore.

  Mono looks eager to go, prancing a little bit. I was twelve at least before I was handling horses the way she is. She’s a natural, and she loves it. When Mono stops to eat the lawn instead of going on to the pasture, she pulls him up like a pro.

  Once we get to the gate, Mono raises his head and tail high and blows a loud snort, then paws at the ground. He’s ready to go. I steer the other two horses into the enclosure, but I keep a close eye on Jasmine as I release Nettles and Eeyore. Mine are much more docile than Mono.

  She reaches up and unhooks the lead and steps back. He wheels around, knickers at the other horses, and takes off at a gallop. Eeyore and Nettles follow, whinnying behind him.

  It’s crazy—I never wanted to be like Mom, living my life around and for horses. In fact, sometimes I resented the hell out of her horses, because it seemed that they got far more of her love than I did. But—something about them—I’ve missed them. I’ve missed this. And I never would have guessed that was even possible.

  We head back together and wordlessly begin work in the stable. She cleans the water buckets while I muck out the stalls. I’m so intently wrapped up that I don’t hear a car outside. I nearly jump when someone coughs behind me. I spin around in shock, my heart thumping.

  Oh. It’s a woman—forty-five maybe, wearing an expensive coat and pants and shoes which don’t look suitable for the inside of a stable. Beside her is a pensive looking ten year old girl.

  “Oh—hello….”

  She begins speaking in a quick, businesslike tone. “Hi. Is Lucinda around? What time should I come pick up Mary? No one was here last week when I got here—”

  “I’m Zoe Welch. Who are you again?”

  The woman stops talking but looks impatient. “I have to be going. Can you just let me know where Lucinda is—”

  I cut my eyes to the girl—Mary?—and say, “She’s not—”

  Jasmine cuts me off. In a factual voice, she says, “She’s dead.”

 
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