By the end of March, Jane’s out of the hospital and back in Vegas. She can laugh without cringing in pain, that’s how much better her ribs and her neck feel. She has a scar, though. She starts buying shirts with collars for work, even though she thinks they look stupid when she has to hang her badge.
The trip home from Lander was not easy. One of the agents assigned to the tiny field office in Riverton, a older guy named Cole who used to be a federal probation officer, picks her up at the hospital in his own pickup and takes her to the airport. He helps her get her bag checked. He is very considerate, managing to offer a hand in a way that does not make her feel belittled or fragile, which surprises her given the circumstances. She suspects every male child who grew up in Wyoming received extensive role-modeling in how to help other people with travel and manual labor in the least awkward way possible. If any of the guys from her home office were there in his place, they surely would have gotten on her nerves.
There was something that had felt right about waking up in the hospital to see Cory standing there. She had the stuffed alligator crammed into her carryon bag, even though it would have made more sense to check it. After she stopped crying that afternoon, he’d sat with her for a while, made small talk as they pretended to watch TV, holding her hand or her arm. Then, a couple of hours later, he stood and observed that she probably should get some sleep. He wrote his cell phone number down on the back of a magazine and asked her to let him know when she made it home safely. She’d nodded, just staring at him at that point, a combination of exhaustion and meds and confusion because that part felt off-script.
“Take it easy, now,” he told her, squeezing her hand and then leaning down to kiss her on the top of the head and on her uninjured cheek. Before she thought of what to say or do about that, he’d already put on his hat and closed the door behind him. She added his number to her phone.
During the drive from the hospital to the airport, she is still in a haze of painkillers in order to take the edge off feeling every bump of the rough road on her ribs and her neck. Waiting alone at the gate for her flight, she feels a wave of panic and has to go into the women’s room and lock herself in a stall and cry, silently. She stays there for fifteen minutes, waiting for her body to calm down. Thankfully she sleeps through the flight after that. Standing in her living room for the first time since she left for the weapons course, she texts Cory, “Finally home. Thank you for everything,” and he simply replies, “Of course. Stay in touch.”
By the time all her paperwork & the post-shooting psych screening are done, no one at work really wants her to talk about what happened in Wyoming, and she is thankful. She notes in her report that Pete succumbed to exposure after fleeing the drill rig, although his remains were never recovered. Close enough.
From time to time she thinks about why Cory kissed her. Chivalry? She probably shouldn’t read anything into it. She especially thinks about the moment in the hospital when he’d told her, “You fought for your life, Jane. Now you get to walk away with it. You get to go home,” and looked out the window, the expression on his face saying how much his wished Emily or Natalie could have done the same.
Her whole life, Jane had always been acutely aware of how young she looked and the way people tended to react to it. She wondered if his protective instinct toward her was simply redirected guilt from his failure to protect Emily. For for what he saw as failure to be there for his daughter.
Since Jane had a crazy March, she gets surveillance duty and does a lot of admin work in the months following. She doesn’t complain about it. For once, her schedule is routine. She thinks about Cory from time to time. She thinks about the mountains. Laying in bed, she Googles photos of the Bridger Wilderness on her phone.
In the middle of June, she has a dream that she is in Lander, riding a snowmobile again, looking over Cory’s shoulder at the vast white basin and its frame of mountains. In her dream, the cold is tolerable even though the ground is piled thick with powder, and the wind is not making her eyes burn. This is how she knows she’s dreaming. She presses her face into the back of Cory’s neck, smells pine resin and Old Spice soap, holds tightly to his waist. In this dream they are tracking a huge, beautiful eagle. Cory doesn’t speak, but when he pulls the snowmobile to a stop and turns to face her, she understands just by looking at him that they are seeking something good, not something violent and terrible.
He points at the sky and the bird circles above them. When she finally wakes up, she is stretched diagonally across her bed crushing a pillow in her arms, and the scar on her neck is burning. She feels unbearably lonely.
Jane goes out for drinks with coworkers. She joins a running group to try to make a few more friends in the area. She goes to the gym, slowly getting back to striking and grappling workouts, taking it slow. She learns how to fight southpaw, just in case she can’t rely on her right side. She has to remind herself not to unduly favor her right side.
She has to re-learn how to move forward when she feels the primal urge to back up and run. Sometimes it feels like that’s all she’s ever doing in life.
Jane also goes on dates in Vegas, trying to meet someone worth spending time with in the sprawling desert city where the FBI field office lottery assigned her a year ago. She tries to keep an open mind, but the guys she meets are at worst actively unpleasant and at best dull.
They talk loud and fast. Some make awkward jokes about the fact that she carries a gun or marvel at the fact that the FBI would employ a woman who is barely 125 pounds and five foot seven. Most of them start to seem simultaneously arrogant and insecure the longer she spends in their company. At least one or two are very likely doing coke in the bar bathroom in the middle of getting drinks with her.
She doesn’t meet up with any of them twice.
One evening in July, Cory texts her a few photos of an unbelievably blue alpine lake nestled among a ring of towering, jagged granite mountains. Underneath them, he writes, “How are you? I took Casey to the Winds last week to backpack Cirque of the Towers. Bet it don’t look so nice in Vegas.”
“It really doesn’t,” she replies. “I’m doing okay. Feeling a lot better, been working a lot. In the office a lot. How are you?”
She waits a beat and then - “Can I call you?” She wants to hear his voice. Barely a few moments later, it is him who is calling her. She is on her couch under a cotton blanket to guard against her powerful air conditioning, letting the phone rest on her good shoulder, drinking wine.
“Jane,” he says, as soon as she answers the phone. For some reason she feels her chest get a little tight.
“Hey,” she says, in a tone of voice that betrays her smile. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he replies. A pause. “Casey’s mom lives in Jackson Hole now, so I don’t see him as often, except that we went on our trip last week. Work is steady. Busy.”
“Good. You know, if those photos are really what summer is like in Wyoming, maybe I should come back. Here it’s 102 by noon. Just flat and dry, as far as the eye can see. How is it in the mountains?”
“That sounds awful,” Cory responds. “I bet you’d have a great time here in summer. It’s cooler at altitude, surely, and thunderstorms every afternoon. Sun, wind, and wind. Lots of mosquitoes. But you just gotta dress for that. Otherwise, it’s great.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she says. “I would dress for it next time, you know. I might even go to REI first.”
He laughs. “Oh, I’d recommend Cabela’s, I think,” he says. There is a long pause. It doesn’t feel awkward to sit in silence on the phone with him.
She sets her wine on the floor and closes her eyes and thinks about the last time they saw each other, how hard she cried after he started reading aloud from Cosmopolitan magazine to her. He could tell a joke without changing his facial expression one bit, and that was all it took to give her the space to start processing what had happened. He’d picked up the magazine and started reading because he wanted to just stay there with her, but he didn’t know what to say, or do.
He never made her feel weak for crying. He’d never made her feel weak for anything, not once during that whole ordeal. She thought about how he let her bawl in the hospital and just sat still and held her hand and didn’t say anything, didn’t complicate it.
“How’s Casey?” She asks. “Everything ok with him?”
“Yeah. He likes Jackson. Really he likes the school there. I think it was a good move for him. I miss him, though. I miss being able to see him whenever I want on weeknights.”
“I bet,” she replies. “You know,” she begins, hesitantly, “I still have the alligator you gave me.”
“Oh yeah?” Now she can hear him smiling too.
“Yeah,” she says, and they both laugh a little. “And I think your plan is working because nothing bad has happened since I got back to Vegas, so he must be protecting me.”
“Well, good,” Cory says, chuckling.
Jane takes a deep breath. “I never had a chance to properly thank you for everything you did for me in March. I know it wasn’t easy - it’s not even your…I just, I wanted to make sure you know how much I appreciated everything,” she mumbles. “There’s no way I would have made it out alive, or figured out anything, without you.”
“You’re welcome. It was the least I could do. But you did the work. You came here with no idea of what you were getting yourself into and you did your best work for Natalie and her family. We don’t forget it,” Cory says earnestly. His voice is so calm and even; just the smallest hint of a drawl. She likes to listen to him.
“Cory,” she says, “anytime you want to…just assume I’d like to hear from you. If the thought crosses your mind.”
“Okay,” he replies. “Goes both ways.”
“Of course,” she says. They stay on the phone in companionable silence for a few moments. They talk about Jane’s injuries, about Casey, about the Wyoming summer tourism crowd, about Natalie’s brother coming home and trying to get clean, about the state of the tribal police force after their case ended.
Jane confesses that she has only been in Vegas for a little over a year and isn’t happy. Cory confesses that he is lonely, that he wishes Wilma and Casey hadn’t moved to Jackson. He explains that he feels he can’t give up a stable, well-paying federal job with Fish & Wildlife to work as an outfitter in Jackson, which is seasonal work without benefits, just in order to be closer to Casey.
“Where would you live, if you didn’t live in Vegas? If you could pick anywhere?” Cory asks.
“I don’t know,” Jane says. “Honestly I think I’ll just feel homesick forever, I’ll go from place to place every few years for work. They reassign us a lot, especially at the beginning. I wouldn’t want to go back to Florida. Where I’m from in Florida, kids mostly want to get out like they want off the res in Wyoming.”
“Sort of the same reasons, I think. Guns, violence, drugs, unemployment. Poverty. You feel hopeless, you turn to alcohol or drugs, you end up living with a guy who beats the hell out of you on weekends.”
“Yeah,” Cory says, and then, quietly: “You ever live with that guy?”
Jane takes a deep breath. “I did. But he was my stepdad, not my boyfriend.” She pauses, then says, quietly, “Maybe sometimes he thought he was my boyfriend if he got drunk enough.”
Cory didn’t say anything. He’d had a feeling. There was something hard under there, under the blonde hair and those beautiful green doe eyes. He’d noticed it the night she came to his house, he’d seen it in her at the drill site after the gunfight.
“I see,” Cory says. He is not going to pry.
“It was a long time ago,” Jane fills in, wanting to offer reassurance instead of context. “My family - I don’t - we’re not in contact. I take care of myself. I’ve lived alone for years. I’m glad I made it out. Wouldn’t want to be in Florida anyway.”
“Neither would I,” Cory says. “Not, uh, enough snow.” Another silence passes.
Before she knows it, the words are coming out of her mouth. “So when does the summer end, out there?”
“By about mid August in the mountains. September, down on the plains. Why?”
“Just wondering,” she said. “That’s a short summer.” She had wanted to ask if he would mind if she came back for a visit to see the place without the snow, without having to run a case, without getting shot at.
If she were warmer and more loose-tongued from the wine, she would say: Wyoming was so beautiful that I dream about it almost every week. But sometimes they are nightmares. She wants to say: you took such care of me that I want to see you again. But I wonder if I really want that because of you, or if I just want someone to take care of me, and you were one of the only people who did in a while. She wants to say: when I dream about where you live I dream about you too, and in those dreams I don’t worry about anything. I am safe.
“Yeah, short summer,” Cory confirms. She’d chickened out. A couple more minutes of small talk and they hung up.
But a few days later, he sends her more photos, this time a shot of Casey on horseback, barrel racing a gorgeous quarter horse in an outdoor ring in Jackson, courtesy of Wilma. Jane asks him who picked out Casey’s excellent cowboy hat (he did, naturally). She asks him for a photo of himself this time, and as encouragement she sends him one of herself, post-workout, hands still wrapped.
He writes back he wouldn’t want to get on her bad side. He adds a photo of himself in his truck, lit golden at sunrise, on the way to a trailhead for work. In it, his face is almost expressionless, and if you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t know where to look to figure out that he is smiling. Just a little bit. Jane can see it.
Jane doesn’t know what, exactly, she’s doing, all the way in Las Vegas, many hours from where he is, but she keeps sending messages and calling.
She has no idea when or if they will see each other again. She knows that she loves to hear from him: her brain dumps dopamine when his name flashes on the screen of her phone. She knows she always wants to know what he is up to. She’s been reading up about Wyoming and about the Arapahoe, about the history of the area, about what drives their economy and how their land was stolen and divided and privatized and leased out and drilled and laced with pipelines and fracking runoff. He’s been asking her what she’s up to - he wants to know too. And she is happy to have someone to tell.
She knows the best way to keep him talking is to ask him about things he knows well, so she plans an August backpacking trip in Bishop, in the Sierras in California & solicits his input on clothes, footwear, gear, route, weather. He talks her into buying a Garmin Etrex and introduces her to the wonders of merino wool and layering under a waterproof shell. He jokes that if he were out there with her there’s no way they would get lost.
So she asks him if he wants to join her on the trip. He is a mountain man through and through, but has never seen the Sierras. It feels like a safe thing to say because she doesn’t think he would want to come, or that he could even make it out there if he wanted to. He tells her thank you for thinking of him, but he wouldn’t be able to get time off until later in the year, and she feels a tinge of disappointment but mostly relief.
Then he invites her back to Lander.
She says yes.
So she goes on the backpacking trip; for days she has no cell service before they can work out the details. She thinks she is in shape at home, but it is something else entirely to walk in thin air, uphill, with a heavy bag on your back, for eight hours a day.
It is late August, and Jane is sitting next to Lake Genevieve in the Sierras at dusk, soaking her blistered feet, eating rehydrated mac and cheese. Maybe it is the golden hour, maybe it is the increasingly cold wind; who knows. Somewhere in her, a switch flips: she is suddenly and completely aware of the weight of everything that happened in March, feels it like a gut punch. She sobs into a filthy bandanna: for Natalie, for Emily, for Cory and his family, for herself, for her teenage self, for the fourteen year old girl who once drew blood fighting off her stepdad in the back bedroom of a trailer at 9pm while her mom was passed out on the couch just fifteen feet away.
The sun goes down and the Milky Way sighs into brilliant visibility above her. Her food gets cold. She sobs until she feels like there is no water left in her body for the weight of being born a woman and a target, the fate of being hunted no matter who is there (or not there) to protect you.
Then she climbs into her bag and sleeps like the dead. When she wakes up the next morning, the skies are bluebird clear and thunderstorms don’t roll in until four PM; she makes good time completing her planned loop and soon she is ready to go home. At her car, she dumps her pack on the ground and sits on the hood, guzzles water, looking at her scratched, muddy legs. She feels like a feral animal. Her hair is tangled and she needs a long, long shower and a beer or three.
California is beautiful. The Sierras are regal, but it is no Wyoming. The trails are full of people. There is no one on horseback. She closes her eyes and thinks about Cory’s cabin in Lander. The wood paneling, reminiscent of a church basement. His workbench, the cast iron stove for heat.
What will I do when I get there, she asks herself. Should I even go? What do I want from him? What draws me back to the middle of nowhere?
When she gets back to Vegas, the city is crowded and the valley is hot and oppressive, smog lingering in town. She finally arrives home, dumps out her pack on the dining room table, showers for forty minutes, and then finds herself sitting on her couch wrapped in a towel looking up airfare to Wyoming.
The easiest way is for Jane to fly into Casper, it turns out. Cory offers to pick her up at the airport. As soon as plans are laid he makes a joke about her not knowing how to drive in the snow, which seems like an appropriately oblique way to ask her to stay in his cabin, instead of getting a rental car and a hotel room. Not that there’s many good options in October, anyway.
One of Jane’s coworkers is shocked that she wants to go back at all. “Isn’t it just desolate and cold? What are you even going to do there?” she asks.
“A friend of mine says he is going to show me its good side,” Jane explains. “You know, since I didn’t get to see it while I was there earlier this year.”
“Sure didn’t,” her coworker says, barking an abrupt laugh. Jane doesn’t say much more about the trip or about Cory, because she can’t even explain it to herself, much less to the other agents she works with.
This time, she is dressed for the weather. Cory has a gift for her at the airport: a blue plaid shirt from Outdoor Research he bought on sale at one of the stores on Main Street the last time he was in Jackson. When he arrives to pick her up, he puts his arms around her first thing, acting natural. She is a little surprised, but she hugs him back, hard. He feels her hands gripping his shoulders through his Carhartt coat.
He touches the scar on her neck, gently. “Barely looks like anything,” he says, which seems better to say than ‘how was your flight?’ She laughs and says thank you.
They’re in the truck headed west to Lander, driving in snow. The trip is two and a half hours and it takes them through Riverton, where there is an FBI office and what amounts to a lot of services for Wyoming.
Cory puts quiet country music on the radio to break up the silence and waits for Jane to talk. She strips off her fleece pullover to put on her new plaid shirt over a tank top. He eyes her shoulders and the sweep of her throat from the driver’s seat. She looks even smaller than she did in March, but like she’d put on muscle too.
“So what do you want to do today? With the rest of today?” Jane asks. It is midday, in a place where she feels anything has to get started at dawn to be worth doing. She has no set plans for this trip, despite her idle internet research. She is curious to see what Cory will want to do.
“You hungry? Could take you for lunch, then maybe the Museum of the American West, then we can get some groceries and go home and relax. Tomorrow, if the storm lets up west of here, I have a day trip for us.”
“Wow,” Jane says. “You really are going to show me the good side of this place, huh.” She looks at him, smiles. “Yeah, I’m hungry. Sounds good.”
They eat steak and potatoes at Gannett Grill, then browse the museum and Safeway. In the museum he holds the door for her. He stands behind her looking at the exhibits and puts his hand on the small of her back. She lets herself be led through the place and back out to the truck, feeling like she is leading up to something.
Jane buys beer and a couple bottles of wine at Safeway with her food, but all Cory wants for drinks is coffee and milk. He tells her in the checkout line that he doesn’t drink.
“Not since what happened,” he says, and the cashier looks up at him sharply, then quickly looks down. A small town. Everyone knows about Cory and his daughter.
Later, in the truck, he adds, “I had to stop. After Emily, I would drink until I could hardly move. I stopped talking to Wilma. Sometimes, I couldn’t work. I was killing myself. I had to stop.”
“Do you feel better now?” Jane asks, and regrets the words the minute they leave her mouth - an oversimplification, she knows. Should have said, are you able to handle things better now? She doesn’t know how to say it.
“No,” he replies, “in a way, no, I don’t, but I…I got better at feeling. I got better at just, just being with it. Don’t have to be drunk all the time, so I avoid it.”
“Do you dream about her? Or about Natalie?” Jane asks.
“Sometimes,” he says. “Mostly I dream about looking for things. I am always looking for something…or someone…all day at work, all night at home.”
“I know how you feel,” Jane murmurs, looking out the window at the vista.
And /that’s/ why you’re here, Cory thinks to himself.
They’re cleaning up after dinner, and Jane is drinking wine already. Cory has moved his blanket and pillow onto the couch. Jane is determined to figure out what will happen tonight. Why am I here, she thinks.
Finally, she just asks him, leaning her hip against the counter as he dries and puts away dishes, “why did you invite me here? why did you talk to me, all this time?”
“Because you’re my friend,” he says, evenly. “Because you were on my mind. I missed you.”
“Your friend,” she repeats, robotic, deadpan. She begins to wonder if she came hundreds of miles to sleep in his bed, alone, mired in the smell of him, slowly going insane from want and pretending to be okay for the next week.
“Because I care about you.” Now he is looking at her with a piercing gaze.
She thinks of the hospital: “he looks you in the eyes when he talks to you.”
“Because you get it,” Cody says. “You and I, we’re the only ones who came home from that drill rig. No one else can understand what happened. Not even people here who have known me for years can understand what happened.”
“And not many people can understand about Emily,” he adds, “and you - I know you’ve had some fights in your time - you can understand Natalie and Emily, in your own way.” He is starting to get choked up. He feels he is saying too much. He puts the plate in his hands down and drops the dishtowel onto the counter and walks into the living room, facing away from Jane, looking out the window.
She follows him, puts a hand on his shoulder, waits for him to turn and face her.
“I am here,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper, “because I want to be here.” She hopes he understands everything this sentence is supposed to mean. “Cory. Don’t sleep on the couch.”
“I don’t expect -“ he begins.
“Neither do I, but I - no, let’s, let’s just relax. Do you think I came so far today just to have you in another room, down the hall? No.” Jane feels her heart pounding in her throat.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Cory says, and doesn’t finish his sentence. Instead he finishes the dishes and puts his blanket and pillow back on the bed.
The cast iron stove is blasting the house with heat and the bedroom is warm, spot lit by yellowish lamps next to the bed. Outside, the snow has stopped but the Chinook winds are present and howling. They head to bed. Cory brings her a glass of water and insists she take the side of the bed with the night table. Jane sleeps in her tank top and merino tights, but her feet are still cold, so he tucks them under his legs as they lay in bed looking at trail maps on his phone.
He explains that tomorrow he wants to take them down Louis Lake Road several miles west of Lander and then on the sled and on foot to West Atlantic Peak, conditions willing. It looks like an adventure. They discuss a Forest Service map and speculate over the depth of the snowpack with Jane’s head on his chest. He explains how he navigates, and she presses her ear to his heart, enjoying the deep bodily sound of his voice.
She is getting warm just being there, unmoving, and it’s not the flannel sheets or the blankets. She cannot remember the last time she was in bed with someone like this. Last year, maybe? She looks at his hands as he points out checkpoints on the map. They are rough, but she can see he has recently scraped the calluses off.
He makes no moves, just lays there in t-shirt and boxers. They are both dressed, and the lights are on. Jane feels a little frozen, unsure of what to do.
Finally Cory puts his phone away and switches off the lamps. Outside, the moon is full. Stars, hundreds more than Jane would ever be able to see in Vegas, are throwing ancient light through the wooden blinds. She can hear the sound of the wind and below it the sound of the fire dying bit by bit in the living room. She rolls over onto her side in a half-curled up position, preparing to pretend to sleep.
Cory faces toward her. He rubs her back. “Thanks for coming to see me,” he says, his mouth not far from her ear.
“Of course,” she replies. His hand moves slowly, steadily up and down the length of her back.
“It’s been…a long time,” he says, haltingly. “Don’t, uh, want to rush into anything.” When she hears that, she instinctively thinks it is a rejection and expects him to roll over and go to sleep, but he keeps touching her. His hand moves to her hair, sweeps down her neck and further to the curve of her waist. Jane feels like her eyes might start rolling back, so she closes them.
“It’s been a while for me, too,” she says. She wonders if he would just drift off rubbing her back and do nothing if she pretended to fall asleep. With a deep breath, she rolls over, takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
At first he is surprised and doesn’t move, but soon he is on his elbows over her, kissing her like kissing is about to be made illegal, one hand already holding the back of her head. They pull apart and Jane struggles to breathe for a moment, his hips crushed against hers. He buries his face in her neck, sucks on it, works his way over the gunshot scar and down to the notch of her collarbone, slips a hands under her top. She sighs, smiles, resists the urge to shiver. He knows how to kiss. He takes his time.
“Don’t leave a bruise,” she whispers, talking about her neck, and for some reason feeling like she wants to laugh. His whole body feels angular, dense, even as he’s carefully holding his weight above her.
“I won’t,” he mumbles into her skin. “God, I want you.”
She starts getting out of her clothes, pausing to pull the collar of his t-shirt over his head. He manages to to get his shirt off and she manages to take her leggings off and then he’s back to kissing her again.
She feels his hand get into the hair at the nape of her neck and pull, gently, a handful at the root. She has the distant thought that for him this is an expression of passion, probably, and it doesn’t actually hurt - but panic starts to rise and she can’t stop it. She starts to feel dizzy. Her vision narrows. She gasps for air, pushes him back and feels her head pulled down because he hasn’t let go yet.
“Stop,” she whispers, “stop!” and twists her head away from him, pushing against his forearm. He drops his hands instantly when he realizes what is happening. She backs up, almost slipping off the bed, then catches herself.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “You okay?” He holds completely still, the same way he would in proximity to a wild animal while belly-down in the brush hoping to go undetected. “I didn’t mean to…” he doesn’t know how to finish the sentence. She’d just turned him on so fast and he’d pulled her hair instinctively, just from want. He hadn’t meant to hurt her.
“I know you didn’t,” Jane mutters, sits on the edge of the bed, facing the wall. They listen to the wind. “Just panicked for a second. I don’t know. Sorry.”
“No sorry,” he says. “You’re okay.” He doesn’t move.
“I’m okay,” she repeats back to him. The dizziness is receding. She lays down on her back and concentrates in breathing slowly in through her nose and out through her mouth. He looks at her in the dark, propped on an elbow. Thanks to the stars they can just barely make each other’s faces out.
“Maybe better if I take the couch,” he says.
She answers almost before he can finish his sentence: “No.”
She sighs. They’re both quiet. She’s embarrassed. He just has a double bed. It’s not very big. Obviously, he has not been sharing this bed with women very often. Much less with women who grab him and kiss him and then panic when he tries, understandably, to reciprocate. Earlier she had asked to join him tonight because she wanted to be close to him & now she felt like a fraud.
“Can we just sleep?” She whispers.
“Yeah,” he says, and reaches for her, squeezes her shoulder, trying to extend an olive branch so she feels less awkward about it. They lay on their sides, spooned. He pulls the blankets over both of them, gets close and carefully puts an arm around her waist.
“I’m okay,” she replies and covers his hand with her own so he knows that he should leave it right where it is. “You know, that wouldn’t have bothered me before this year. It would have felt good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you,” he says. “Just your body remembering something. Trying to protect you. Maybe something from a long time ago. Maybe something you thought you forgot.”
Due to work, Cory had watched numerous wild animals being tranquilized for research, tagged and checked over by the FWS vet staff, and later dropped off in habitat to wake up on their own. He’d seen them thaw out of the freeze response of their near-death experience. They didn’t know it was just a dart to put them to sleep; as far as they were concerned, that was it, they were being hunted to be killed.
When they finally awoke they usually shook violently for a while, sighed deeply, groaned or howled, then got up and walked away, looking fine. He knew people suppressed this thaw response when they faced trauma, and even after surviving, even after losing composure in the hospital on or on the way home. There were some things you couldn’t easily get out of your body or your mind. They seemed gone, and then at strange moments they reappeared, buried in you.
After Emily was found, he’d waited for his own thaw to happen for weeks. When he remained frozen, he started drinking more and more. Like if he stayed drunk long enough he would be able to get it all out. But it never worked. Those answers he wanted never came. And sometimes it snuck up on him again, like it did when he found Natalie.
He wondered what exactly had frozen inside Jane this year in Wind River, or somewhere else years ago. He wasn’t going to ask her. He listened to her breathing: slow, even, quiet. Maybe she was starting to sleep? It felt good to hold her, to be warm under the blankets and listen to the wind outside.
At some point in the night he wakes and finds they are completely entangled and she is almost entirely submerged under the covers, sprawled on top of him. He tries to ease her off of his stomach, and she moves at first, but then she reaches for him again without waking. He gives in and just holds her. It takes a while for him to fall back asleep. Being in bed with a woman is a little strange now, even if it does feel good. It’s been a couple of years.
He wakes again before sunrise and gets up, tucks the blanket in around her, showers and starts packing and making their breakfast. Around 5:45 he gently shakes her awake.
“Morning,” he says. “Time to get up and get on the trail. I made you breakfast.” He puts a plate with an egg and cheese sandwich down on the night table along with a cup of coffee and returns to the kitchen.
It’s going to be a good day.
It’s not a long drive until Louis Lake Road stops being useful, so they park Cory’s truck and get on the sled to head a few more miles due west, just after the switchbacks.
Then Cory bushwhacks them a snowshoe trail up the mountain. It is hard going. They stop often. Cory says nothing about Jane being winded. He mixes electrolytes and caffeine and powdered lemonade into her water bottle and tells her to finish it, slowly, that it will help with altitude. They push. At Atlantic Peak, little brother of their destination, they stop to eat trail mix and elk jerky and sit in the snow. Jane is entranced by the view. She can see the summit of West Atlantic Peak in the distance, and also, she feels, if she turns her head like an owl, most of Wyoming.
“Wish I could ski down this one with you,” he remarks. “More snow than I’d thought. We shouldn’t go on to West Atlantic, you don’t have the skills…no offense.”
“None taken. I, uh, I do not have the skills, yes. Where did you learn all this? From being an outfitter?” She gestures vaguely, referring not only to their hike but possibly his whole existence in this area.
“No, from being a kid in Wyoming,” Cory says, and smiles one of the biggest smiles she’s ever seen on his face. “My dad was born in Riverton, my mom was from Dubois. And my dad spent his early years in the military before he married my mom. But all he wanted was to come back here. They loved it here. Everything we did as kids - my sister and I - was something I used later when I grew up. We learned how to hike, camp, ride horses, hunt, fish, ride sleds, ski, track animals. We learned avalanche safety, wilderness first aid, how to drive off road, how to fix our trucks and guns, how to swim, how to fight, how to look after livestock, build fence, tend to a well, whatever, you name it. I learned mountaineering when I was a teenager and got into outfitting big groups going on hunting trips out of Pinedale after high school. And I did some work guiding the tourists trying to summit in Grand Teton for a couple of summers. Jackson is so expensive now, but it’s like they don’t know the Winds are even here at all. Just a half day’s drive south, and they don’t come down here.” He pauses. “Fine by me, though.”
“What a badass you are,” Jane jokes. Cory is unusually intent to tell his story. She thinks this may be the most he has ever talked to her. Maybe to anyone.
“My father loved this land with all his heart. Almost like a native. And when I was 18 he told me that I could stay here, if I could learn to live off the land and my own sweat. If I could be an outfitter or a guide, or work on roads, or work the drill rigs or pipelines, then I could stay here. Else I’d have to leave. Because we didn’t have much and I wasn’t suited for college. I didn’t want to wear a suit and sit in an office on the phone all day. I didn’t have money to buy a ranch. It would have been either find work in Wyoming, or join the military. And when you join the military, you have to go wherever they send you. Guess I, uh, just didn’t want to be homesick.”
“That makes sense.”
“When I first met Wilma, she told me I loved these mountains more than her family did. But it was just all I had. Every good memory of my mom and my sister is us together somewhere out here, doing something covered in mud or snow, or both. What else could I love? Where else would I live? When I get to a city I get claustrophobic, I guess. Had to go down to Denver a couple of times for work. Hated it.”
Jane laughs. “Country boy through and through,” she says. “Where’s your mom and sister now?”
“They passed,” Cory says, and turns away from her, facing the plains. “Car accident, about five years ago. Semi rolled onto their truck on a county road. They were coming back from a rodeo and the wind just…picked up.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jane immediately says.
“It’s ok. My dad had a heart attack a while ago before that. I’ve been alone some time now.”
Jane figures she underestimated all this. The land, Cory’s history, her own history, the significance of the land to Cory, her ability to hike. She envies him for how deeply rooted she is. She thinks of her mostly empty apartment at home and how she’s lived in seven states and didn’t love any of them.
They look at the view. The sun is tipping down into early afternoon. It is time to start a descent, if they are not going to push to West Atlantic today.
“You think anyone will hear me, if I just start screaming up here?” Jane asks, suddenly. They haven’t seen another human being all day.
“Probably not,” Cory confirms. For a second he thinks she is trying to make a strange joke. “Probably no one around for miles. Why, you want to?” He looks at her.
She meets his gaze. “And you don’t after this year? After Emily? It all doesn’t just make you want to scream until you just can’t fucking breathe?”
“Well,” he says, and looks at his feet. He can’t really argue with that.
At the beginning it’s the kind of scream you hear when someone is, say, on a roller coaster, or maybe dropping down a really clean line on a snowboard. But in a few moments it gets deeper and more feral. It starts to sound like pain. Cory watches her, her eyes shut tight. Her face starts to turn red and she starts to cry but she keeps going. So he starts screaming, too. And they just sit there on the mountain, howling, open-mouthed, open-throated, full of anger and grief, until they’re both out of breath and then all they can hear is the sound of two people gasping for air at twelve thousand feet in twenty degrees.
Jane is still crying. Cory concentrates his gaze on his boots. He thinks about Emily. He imagines the sound they just made rising to heaven and reaching her, so she knows he hasn’t forgotten, and never will, and then he cries, too. In a few minutes, he finds a bandanna in his jacket and taps Jane’s shoulder. When she turns to him, he wipes off her face, very gently, trying not to make it any more red than it already is, and leans toward her and puts his arms around her. She lets her forehead fall into his shoulder and they stay that way for a little while, the wind starting to whip around them. She doesn’t say anything, just holds onto him.
Eventually, he sits up and says, “well, time to go back now. You follow me.”
On the way down the mountain, back to the sled, he asks her what was her family like in Florida. He is curious, but he isn’t sure how to ask without it sounding like he wants a confessional of the juicy details of her tough childhood. He is used to maintaining so much emotional privacy. He makes some jokes about inland Florida stereotypes. Snakes and crocodiles in swimming pools, guys driving around with loaded guns on the passenger seat of their trucks, the sudden advent of a new drug called bath salts.
Jane deflects the jokes. She can tell what he is trying to do, and she trusts him enough to tell the story.
Her parents had her very young: her mom was only 19. They didn’t get married. Eventually her dad left and moved up to Tallahassee and vanished. Her mom found a new boyfriend who didn’t mind that she had a daughter and treated them both the same: unkindly, like they were a dog or a car or a case of beer, something to own or show off or consume.
They lived in her stepdad’s trailer. Her stepdad especially liked that at 14 she looked about 11. He liked how little she was. One night in middle school he attacked her, trying to get into bed with her, and she fought him off and drew blood with her long nails. After that, she mostly stayed with her best friend’s family, or with a high school boyfriend, whose family knew her stepdad and felt sorry for her. When her teenage boyfriend got jealous and threatened to beat her up, she slept in her car at Walmart some nights. She worked after school every weekday, making sandwiches. Anything to stay out of the house.
But throughout all of it, she got good grades, because those grades were the ticket out of Florida: to community college for two years in North Carolina, where she bartended and ran up credit card debt and thought about becoming a cop. So she worked as a deputy sheriff for a while in Maryland and finished her degree. The FBI recruited her and started moving her around. First to Virginia, then Georgia, then southern California, and finally Vegas. She learned how to fight and wear a suit and command respect from people who would have been happy to lock her up had she stayed in the trailer park instead.
“After I moved away from Florida,” she explains to Cory, “I was told all my life that I was an exception, a success story. That I should be proud. But no one prepares you for how lonely it is. I don’t have but one or two close friends and neither of them even live in the same state. I don’t have a family now, we haven’t talked in a long time. I guess there’s no point in listing a woman with a Virginia address as your emergency contact at work in Vegas, but I do anyway.”
Jane pauses, thoughtful, and accepts Cory reaching up for her waist to help her negotiate a particularly tricky moment on their descent.
“Did they call her, after the case?” Cory asks.
“They did,” Jane confirms, “and then she called me, and eventually I was able to get back to her. I told her some of what happened. I told her about you and she said I should find out if there’s any Fish and Wildlife guys in Vegas. But there’s not. Or I can’t find them.”
Cory has to laugh - what do they hunt there, snakes? “So I guess your friend likes me,” he says, almost under his breath, and Jane laughs. Her legs feel like jello. It is harder to go down than it was to go up.
“She does, yeah,” Jane confirms. “And she underestimates how stubborn I am because she said well, Jane, it’s too bad you probably won’t be back in Wyoming again anytime soon! Yet here I am in Wyoming, today. On this mountain. Feeling like my legs are about to give way beneath me.”
“We’re almost there,” Cory says, and Jane wants to laugh because it is the same tone of voice he used when he dragged her out from under the trailer at the drill rig and carried her inside. Just that same matter of fact tone, for everything, emergency or blessing.
When they get to the sled, finally, she almost falls asleep for a moment holding onto him on their way back to the car. She is wiped out enough that exhaustion is superseding fear for once. Or, he finally decided to slow down.
On the drive back home he asks her if she wants the day to herself tomorrow, explains she can get a rental from Rent-a-Wreck down at the Sleeping Bear RV Park (he’s serious!) and he’ll stay out of her hair so she can explore and do what she wants. He fears that she will get sick of him, and regret the visit if he spends a whole day with her three or four days in a row. He forgets that most people don’t go for days barely talking to anyone else, like he does.
She immediately shuts that down by explaining that she came here to spend time with him, and unless he has to go to work, that’s what she wants to do. If he can’t think of something, she will. “Something I can do sitting down,” she says, “because I’m pretty sure I wrecked my legs.”
“You should take a bath when we get back,” Cory suggests. His house is a mishmash of old and new: a hundred year old heavy cast iron stove heating up the living room, bad wooden paneling from the 70s, an old kitchen with worn cabinets…but also a fancy brand new tankless hot water heater powered by a huge propane tank down at the end of the yard. Iffy heat, endless hot water.
Cory reflects on what Jane told him about her family. At first, when they met in March, he thought he saw Emily in her a little. Thought his protective instinct toward her was paternal, nostalgic, an expression of his regret about what he couldn’t do. But Jane is not like his daughter. She has a whole ineffable past: a teenage life in a trailer park in Florida that looked and sounded and felt nothing like Emily’s childhood in Lander. The more he got to know her, the more he realized that he thought about Jane because he just wanted to think about Jane, not because thinking about Jane was an oblique way to allow himself to think about Emily.
When they get home, Cory showers and then Jane soaks in the bath for almost an hour, using her shampoo for bubbles while he unpacks their gear and makes chicken parmesan and salad for dinner. She can’t remember the last time a man cooked for her with so little fanfare. Soon they are both sleepy and full, sprawled out on the sofa. Hiking was tiring. Screaming at the top of the mountain was tiring.
The TV is on and no one is watching. She is laying stretched out using one of Cory’s thighs as a pillow. He rubs her scalp and runs his fingers through her hair over and over again, his head lolled back on the sofa, eyes closed. If not for his movements they could have both been asleep.
“You awake?” She asks, once she hears an infomercial come on TV, alerting her that it has gotten pretty late.
“Yeah,” he mumbles, eyes still closed.
“Take me to bed,” she says, and she’s kind of joking, not expecting anything, about to get up herself so she can go to sleep for real.
To her surprise he’s quickly off the couch and then he lifts her up and over his shoulder and despite her yelps of surprise he fireman-carries her into the bedroom and deposits her carefully on the bed, a mess of bedding and his t-shirt and her tights from last night. She reaches up laughing and pulls him down and kisses him and they struggle a little for control until she is on top of him, straddling his hips and kissing him without interruption. He is stone hard. He pulls off her shirt, pushes up her hips with the flat of his palm so he can get her pants off.
Fine, she thinks, if you want to be that way - she’s already wet - hell, she was getting wet laying on the couch letting him rub her head. Naked, she grinds her hips into him and he can feel her soaking into his boxers and he has to close his eyes and grit his teeth. She wants him to be overcome.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters, struggling to get his boxers off, then pulling her back on top of him. “God, come here, come here,” he says. His hands are welded to the curve of her waist now. “You’re the boss,” he tells her, and she sinks down onto him, suddenly, which makes them both sigh and shake for a moment.
He’s not small and it’s been a while for her. She moves over him and lets her hips bear down, the ache of it be damned. It feels amazing. He holds her waist and looks up at her, his eyes dark and unreadable in the bedroom’s limited light. She leans forward so her clit is grinding against him and starts to move desperately, feels herself start to come. He can tell. Turns out longing is good foreplay. She is gripping him like a vise now. He holds her waist so she won’t lose contact and he tells her, “c’mon,” barely audible. She does, with a shout, as if she is surprising herself, as if she is waking up from a sex dream & coming while returning to consciousness. He lets her shudder against him, and when she finally grows still he rolls them both onto their side and gently moves his hips, kissing her.
“I’ve been wanting to do that for months,” she says, puffs out a big exhale, her cheek pressed against his. She groans and smiles as he keeps thrusting, slowly.
“I know the feeling,” Cory replies. His face is in her neck and one of his hands is gripping her ass, holding her steady so he can work his hips, moving more and more. “Oh, fuck, oh!” He is quiet, his voice just a rough growl into her collarbone. He feels her tighten and arch her back, as she lifts her untrapped leg up to anchor her thigh on his hip, offering a better angle. Suddenly she is so, so tight and he is coming, too, seeing stars when he closes his eyes.
A few moments later, they fall apart and he comes to senses, sort of. “We didn’t use anything,” he says, hesitantly.
“Don’t need to,” she replies. “Though I’m assuming your health is fine.”
“So’s mine. I have an IUD. Nothing to worry about.”
When she gets up, he doesn’t let her out of bed without stopping her to give her a kiss first. She goes to the bathroom to pee and stares at herself in the mirror, drinks water out of the faucet with one hand. In just a couple of days, the trip is starting to feel like a long tunneling dream. She already doesn’t want to go home to Vegas. In the mirror she looks tired, but the good kind. When she comes back to bed he folds a pillow so he can lay somewhat upright, immediately reaches for her and pulls her to his chest. The wind isn’t as bad tonight, so it’s quieter.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to walk tomorrow,” she mumbles. He smells good. She takes deep nasal inhale of a breath with her cheek pressed to his sternum, and hopes he doesn’t notice.
“Tomorrow, we could, uh, stay in bed,” he suggests.
“Yeah,” she laughs.
Cory used to be at church most Sundays, but since Emily’s death three years ago, he hasn’t gone.
Now, on this day of the Lord, he wakes Jane up around 9am reaching between her legs, and teases her with his fingers and his mouth for twenty minutes while the midmorning sun finally greets the plains. She is driven wild by how he speeds up and slows down, the moments that he starts and stops, somehow knowing just the right timing and pressure. He has a light touch, but it is insistent. She gets close to coming three times and almost curses at him when he lets up and backs her down gently from it all three times. So when he finally fucks her she comes so hard she starts crying and laughing at the same time underneath him, her ankles locked around his low back.
For a second he is alarmed, but when he realizes she’s okay and not in pain, he soon joins her, making an animal groan of a sound and hiding his expression in her shoulder, then very, very gently moving out of her. Cory approaches sex not unlike he approaches hunting: with a great deal of patience and laser-like focus. He kisses his way down her ribs and uses his t-shirt from the other day to clean her up a little.
Jane rises to bring them water and then coffee, stumbling a little as she is trying to get out of bed at first. Her legs are incredibly sore.
“Well, that’s a good morning,” she says, sitting next to him sipping coffee, the sheet pulled up to cover her. Her face is flushed. He kisses her shoulder.
“Sure is,” he replies.
Jane tries to doze off again, as he is doing even after his coffee, and suddenly she hates herself because she can feel the anxious gears in her mind starting to turn: when will she see him again after this? Was this a 1400 mile roundtrip weekend booty call? Is she just a lonely sucker?
“Cory,” she says. He turns to her, opens his eyes halfway.
“When am I going to see you again?”
“I don’t know,” he replies. His eyes slowly close again. “You’re single, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she says, hesitantly. Where is he going with this?
“So am I. I don’t want to be single anymore. Do you?” He seems completely relaxed.
“No,” she admits.
“So then let’s not be,” he replies, eyes still closed. He says this as if this is the most natural thing in the world. For a second she thinks he is going to say he is kidding, but he is evidently not. “Why do you think I always kept talking to you? Whatever was between us…I knew it was something, even if I didn’t know what it was, yet,” he explains. “Something good. These few days have been really good.”
“Yeah,” she says, a little lost for words.
“I’ll see you in a few months,” he says, like this is obvious. “Either you come back here, or I go down there, or we can meet halfway. Like, uh, maybe in Salt Lake. How does that sound?”
“It sounds good. It’s that simple?” Jane isn’t sure what to say.
“If we want it to be,” he replies. “I liked you since I met you, even under the circumstances,” he admits. He turns toward her and kisses her, holds her face in his hands. “And now I can’t keep my hands off, too.”
“Cory,” she says, “I don’t know. I live hundreds of miles away, my job moves me around, I don’t want to have kids…I…I don’t know,” and even as she is saying it she feels her stomach twist, because it is such a fucking relief to feel him hold her, it is such a relief to be with him again, and she is shooting herself in the foot here. She wishes she never opened her mouth, just shut up and enjoyed the next two days in silence and saved the letdown for time alone in her apartment in Nevada.
“Well, I don’t want to have any more kids, Jane,” Cory says. He keeps kissing her in between sentences, trying to calm her down. “Ask your work to move you here. There’s the FBI office in Riverton, and the US Attorney is in Cheyenne. In the meantime we can visit each other.” She just stares at him. He thought this through, didn’t he. “Jane,” he says, sighing, “I didn’t invite you here just to sleep with you a few times then forget about you. Doesn’t have to be like that. ”
“Okay,” she says.
“You glad you came back?” He asks.
“I am,” she confirms, and wraps her arms around him.
“Good. I missed you.”
They hold each other for several minutes in silence.
“You know,” he says, suddenly, “you and I, we may feel like nothing is going to work out. We may always expect the worst, because that’s what makes the most sense after the kind of lives we’ve had. But we can’t forget: good things can and do happen.”
“Where’d you learn that one?” She mumbles, feeling a little embarrassed.
“I read it somewhere after Emily,” he says, “and at first I resented it for being true, but now I’m glad it is.”
They don’t really make it out of bed until about four in the afternoon. They fall back asleep, wake up again, fuck again (he comes once, she comes twice), eat cereal, drink more coffee, get in the shower and fuck. He comes, then he washes Jane’s hair for her, having discovered that she really likes having her head touched, just not having her hair pulled on.
Cory has the bright idea to take her to a bar tonight because his friend’s playing covers of country songs and he wants to get out of the house anyway. When he gets there, his mother in law is sitting with a couple of her friends from the res, nursing a beer and gossiping. They are speculating about what is going to happen with Natalie’s brother, who has been clean for several months but unable to find work, like many folks in the area.
Cory greets them and Jane lurks behind them, then waves, shy.
“She came down to visit me,” Cory says, making direct eye contact with his ex mother in law as she looks, confused, at him and then at Jane and back at him. Cory puts his arm around Jane’s waist and pulls her close.
“Not enough snow for you in Vegas?” She asks Jane.
“I came to see Cory,” Jane replies, evenly, hoping she gets it, and feels him squeeze her hip in response. “Wyoming weather is just fine when I can dress for it.” This at least provokes a laugh.
They wish everyone a good night and find a booth on the other side of the bar. Jane feels conspicuous here, overdressed somehow, even though she is just wearing jeans and boots and a sweater. They order drinks and a basket of fries and Cory’s friend plays a pretty decent cover of Four Winds, crooning into the mic. Jane closes her eyes and listens to the music and imagines being home alone on her couch instead, concludes that this is closer to home than her apartment, closer to home than she’s been in a while.