and set yourself free.
Now he can hardly run. Our vet diagnosed him with some kind of cancer in his stomach. And every day I sit out in the barn and play my guitar. He likes my guitar. The soft sounds of the strumming on my strings sooth him. I like to think they're healing his wound.
I was out there today, sitting across from his stall strumming on my strings, humming a new song I wrote. He was getting worse, and I hated to see the look in his eyes when I gave him food. It begged me to let him go. But I wouldn’t. After everything I’d been through, Shadow was the one thing I hoped I could hang on to. I was making a note on a piece of paper about the next chord in my lyrics when I heard the front door to the house slam shut.
I heard Max call my name as he came running out of the house. I stayed where I was, with my guitar propped up on my knees, doodling in the last of the chord. I watched Max’s tiny legs scurry across the yard, his arms flailing everywhere like what he had to tell me was the most important thing in the world. When he reached me, he was panting like a dog who had just rounded up our herd of cattle.
“What’s the matter, boy? Timmy fall down a well?" I asked with a smirk on my face.
“Rose is here,” he said, grabbing my shoulder so I'd stand up. I shrugged him off.
“So? What’s that got to do with me?" I gave him a questionable look. He was about to say something then for some reason forgot what it was. I shook my head and started plucking the strings to my guitar again.
Max was eight. He was a short kid for his age, and still had his baby fat in his cheeks and freckles around his nose. Ma wanted to name him Opie after Ron Howard’s character in the Andy Griffith show, but Pa talked her out of it. He was an excited little kid, was amused by the tiniest things and never could sit still in class so teachers told Ma he had ADD. Ma didn't believe in ADD.
“Aren't you gonna go say hi?” Max asked, cocking his head to one side.
“She's really here, Max? You ain’t lyin’ to me, are ya?”
“Nah uh!” he said, shaking his head. “She's in the kitchen with Ma right now. They're talking about girl stuff or somethin.’”
“If you're lyin’, boy, you're milkin’ Firework,” I said.
He scrunched up his nose. Firework was one of our dairy cows that farted when we milked her. Max thought it was hilarious, so he named her. Now, every time she farts we say “Happy Fourth of July!”
“I ain’t lyin,’ I swear.” Max replied to me, shoving me sideways.
I looked up at him from underneath my hat and grinned. “If Rose wants to talk to me, tell her she can come out here. I ain’t movin’.”
He gave me an exasperated look and I tried to hold in a fit of laughter. “Fine!” I watched as he stomped off back to the house, then continued plucking my guitar strings. I had heard from her Ma a few days earlier that Rose had gotten out of rehab in San Antonio. She was better, her Ma told me, but she still didn't feel like she was ready. The fact that she was here in forbidden territory worried me.
I heard Max come out of the house, talking up a storm to Rose. Butterflies suddenly entered my stomach and I figured staying down would be better than standing.
“...And then Jimmy Jones said that I should race him and I did and I won!” Max was saying as they came closer to the barn. I acted like I didn’t know they were, just strummed my guitar strings, like I was working on something. But I wasn't. I couldn’t figure out the next chord to my song.
“See!” Max said, pushing me over. “I told you she was here.”
“Why don’t you go help your Ma in the kitchen?" Rose said. From the corner of my eye i could see her kneel down to his height. I drew in a breath. “Then you can show me how fast you run.”
“Okay!” Max took off running. When I was sure he was in the house, I looked up. She was beautiful, tall and slender, with fair skin and strawberry blonde hair. Her bright blue eyes shimmered in the sunlight and her smile lit up the world. At least, it lit up my world. She wore a petite white sundress and light blue sandals. But underneath that beauty, I knew she was broken. Broken like the lamp she threw at me when we last saw each other. Like the mirror that shattered when she chucked a bottle of vodka at it. Looking at her now, it was hard to believe that she would even do such a thing.
“Out of all the barnyards in the world she walked straight into mine," I said, strumming along. “Where’ve you been, Rose Cohen?”
“They let me out a couple o days ago,” she said with a shrug.
“Nah, I know that. I mean, Where've you been?”
“Wanderin’, I guess,” she answered. She glanced down at her feet to avoid my eyes. “Don’t really know where I've been Jesse. The last few years have been a bit hazy, but they told me that I was doin' better.”
I stopped strumming and leaned my guitar against Shadow's stall. Standing up and taking off my hat, I raked my fingers through my hair then sighed. “Are you?”
She shrugged and came up to the entrance and leaned against the doorframe, crossing her legs at her ankles. “I suppose so.”
“It's never a straight answer with you, is it?” I asked, lookin' up at her. “You ain’t supposed to be here, Rose.”
“You mean you don't wanna see me," she protested. “I thought you'd be gone by now, Jesse.”
I put my hat back on. Shadow whinnied in my ear, nudging me to pet him. I nuzzled my nose into his neck, burying my face in his fur in return. I wanted to ride. I wanted to escape with him like I used to when things got bad. But I couldn’t.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere, you know that.” I answered after a few moments. “I can't just up and leave.” I turned to her then, frowning. “Why? You goin’ somewhere?”
“Thinkin’ ‘bout it," she replied. “Thinkin’ ‘bout maybe I go back to school and get a degree. That'd be the best thing for me. Might be good for you too, ya know?”
I shook my head. I wished that were true. Pa had wanted me to go to college, but we couldn’t afford it. I'd rather stay in Austin and play music and be with Max. With Shadow being sick and all, Max was all I had.
“I ain't got the smarts like you do, Rose,” I grimaced. “I’ve got Max to look out for. You do too, you know.”
I watched her expression at his name. She avoided me against, staring down at the dirt on the barn loor instead like it was more interesting. I gave Shadow a kiss on the nose. “He doesn't know, Rose,” I said softly. “He can't go on not knowin’.”
“He ain’t my child,” Rose replied through clenched teeth.
I marched over to her and grabbed her arm, swinging her around so her back hit the stall across from Shadow's. All the memories came back, just being close to her.
Nine years ago, we had graduated high school. I told her I loved her and asked her to run away with me. But she got pregnant instead, and I stayed with her through all of it. When it came out a stillborn, she was heartbroken. I still remembered her face when that baby came out dead. It was like everything in the world had crashed down on her. It was like living meant nothing. But I was there with her; as much as I wanted to leave, I was there.
A year later she was pregnant again and Max was born. Everything went wrong. Alcohol became part of her every day meal. Cigarettes filled our apartment, money was always a problem. But when Max turned three, things got worse. Rose started to beleive that Max wasn't hers. She started to believe that she had murdered her child and Max wasn't real. I had hoped it was a phase and that it would pass.
When Max was six, she abandoned him at a park at Christmas, thinking God would want his son back since he wasn't hers. When she told me this, I said she was crazy. I still remember that arguement after I brought him home. He was freezing and covered in snow. He could have died. I told her I was leaving and taking Max with me.
“Max doesn't exist, Jesse. That ain’t my child!” she cried. She picked up a lamp and threw it straight at me. It broke our mirror in the living room and the bulb shattered on the floor. Some of the glass fell on top of Max’s head.He started crying. Then he started bleeding.
“Max is right here, Rose. Right here! You are delusional! You need to come back to me, Rose!”
“I don’t even know who the fuck you are anymore." She growled at me. And it was with those last words she walked out the door. The next day I checked her into rehab.
Now that she was out, I was certain she'd be fine and learn to accept Max as her kid, as our son. I wanted to believe that there was still that spark that made her want to connect with him. Because the thing was, I still loved her. And if I could have her back, I’d take that opportunity in a single second.
“He is your child," I said slowly, looking her straight in her eyes. “He is your child and he loves you. He's your son. He's our son.”
Her bright blue eyes captivated me and I found myself staring into them, hoping that somehow I'd be able to pull her back. When she reached up to touch my face, my heart started pounding out of my chest, and I could hear it through the wall of silence that had been built between us. Her eyes filled with t ears and they began to stream down her cheeks, trickling like tiny rivers on her skin. I raised my arms above her, touched my forehead with hers. Her skin electrified me, and I wanted to feel the warmth of her lips on mine, to feel her hands on my body and my arms around her waist.
“I know that, Jesse. And I been tryin,” she whimpered.
“Try harder,” I hissed. Her eyes grew wide, and suddenly I realized she was scared. Scared of confronting the past. Scared of what was the future. “Max is a good kid,” I said slowly. “He ain't judgin’ anybody, certainly not you. You know, Rose. You know that somewhere, deep down inside you know he's yours and you love him.”
“I know.” she said softly. “In rehab they'd show me pictures of him. Your Ma sent pictures every week. There were times when I'd see me in him, when I saw you in him. I just-I just need time with him, Jesse. Then I'll tell him.”
I kissed her. From the moment I leaned I closer to her, I knew I wouldn't be able to help it. Her lips meshed with mine, pressing hard up against me with a passion that I had longed for. My left hand moved down behind her hair while my other pulled her waist closer to me, locking her into my hold as though I wasn't planning on letting her escape. Her soft, moist lips were like sugar, dangerously addicting and all that I wanted. There was still that flame in her, that flame that I had fallen in love with nine years ago.
With my thumbs I wiped away her tears, and when her lips curved upwards into a smile, my heart leapt. 'There's the Rose I remember,” I said. I stepped back and tipped my hat like a real cowboy. She laughed and it was the most amazing sound in the world. “Look, I gotta let the horses loose for a bit. You wanna watch?”
“Is Shadow goin' out, too?” she asked, petting him on the neck. Shadow gave her sidelong glance, and then looked at me as though he was beggin' me to let him out. Rose loved Shadow when we were younger. She knew how much he meant to me.
“He's too weak to run with the others, but you and I can take him out if you want,” I said.
“I'd like that,” she answered.
“All right. You might want to move out of the way. They run fast.”
She stepped outside the barn and peeked around the corner. Starting at the front, I unlatched each stall and untied the horses. They bolted out of the barn like wind in a hurricane and they knew exactly where to go, down the hill to the wide open pastures. Rose whooped and hollered as each one of them raced down the hill, and when she came back into the barn, her face was glowing with pride.
“Remember campin' out down there under the stars? Dreamin' up stuff and you singin' your songs. You were a good singer. Do you still play at those honky tonks in Dallas?”
I tried to hide my smile as I concentrated on untying the knot in Shadow's rope. “Yeah,” I replied. I brought Shadow out slowly, closing the stall door behind him. “It's all I ever do.”
Rose grinned. “You'll be famous one day,” she said. “You'll get out of Austin and go to Nashville, record a bunch of albums and forget all about me.” She looked at me as though she was trying to tell me that she wanted me to forget her, forget our past, and forget everything we had. It was like she was willing to give up trying. I wasn't.
“I could never forget you,” I said, leaning onto Shadow. He sniffed in my ear. “Come on.” I reached out for her hand. Hesitantly, she took it and laced her fingers through mine, gripping them tight. We led Shadow out of the barn together.
It'd grown hotter outside. The sun hung high above us and beat down on our necks. There's a saying that everything's bigger in Texas, even the sky. I always believed it was true. We owned acres and acres of opened land and the luscious, rolling pastures made the sky and the world seem bigger. But that was a good thing, I guessed, because then there was a bigger horizon, a larger world where I could imagine that one day everything would be right again.
I held on tight to Shadow’s reins.he leaned against me, and wrapped her arm around my free one. Shadow stood with us, admiring his fellow horses, and I could tell that he wished he could be with them.
And I suddenly wished I could be one of those horses, riding free without a care in the world once someone turned me loose. And Rose, well, she'd be there by my side and we'd conquer the world, taking off into the sunset and never looking back.
Not even to see where we've been.