On Tuesday, he saddled one of the horses and rode it into town, leaving the truck. There was a chinook wind, and the night was warm, for January, and the sky clear. The plains spread out dark and flat in every direction, except where the lights glowed from town. He watched the stars as he rode.
At the school, he tethered the horse to the bike rack, out of sight of the side door and the lot where the teachers would park. He took the fat plastic bag of oats from his jacket pocket and held it open. The horse sniffed at it, then worked the oats out of the bag with his lips.
Thats all I got, he said, shoving the empty plastic bag back in his pocket.
The horse lifted its head to sniff at the strange town smells.
Dont get yourself stolen, Chet said.
When half the teachers had arrived, he went in and took his seat. Everyone sat in the same seat as they had the week before. They talked about the chinook and whether it would melt the snow. Finally Beth Travis came in, with her puffy coat and her briefcase. He was even happier to see her than he had expected, and she was wearing jeans again, which was good. Hed been afraid she might wear the narrow wool skirt. She looked harassed and unhappy to be there. The teachers chattered on.
When the class was over and the teachers had cleared out, he asked, Can I give you a ride to the café?
Oh she said, and she looked away.
Not in the truck, he said quickly, and he wondered why a truck might seem more dangerous to a woman. He guessed because it was like a room. Come outside, he said.
She waited in the parking lot while he untied the horse and mounted up. He rode it around from the bike rack aware that he could seem like a fool, but elated with the feeling of sitting a horse as well as anyone didto where Beth Travis stood hugging her briefcase.
Oh, my God, she said.
Dont think about it, he said. Give me your briefcase. Now give me your hand. Left foot in the stirrup. Now swing the other leg over. She did it, awkwardly, and he pulled her up behind him. He held her briefcase against the pommel, and she held tightly to his jacket, her legs against his. He couldnt think of anything except how warm she was, pressed against the base of his spine. He rode the back way, through the dark streets, before cutting out toward the main drag and stopping short of it, behind the café. He helped her down, swung to the ground after her, gave her the briefcase, and tied the horse. She looked at him and laughed, and he realized he hadnt seen her laugh before. Her eyebrows went up and her eyes got wide, instead of crinkling up like most peoples did. She looked amazed.
In the café, the waitress slid a burger and fries in front of Beth Travis and said, The cook wants to know if thats your horse out back.
Chet said it was.
Can he give it some water?
He said hed appreciate it.
Truck break down? the waitress asked.
He said no, his truck was all right, and the waitress went away.
Beth Travis turned the long end of the oval plate in his direction, and took up the burger. Have some fries, she said. How come you never eat anything?
He wanted to say that he wasnt hungry when he was around her, but he feared the look on her face if he said it, the way she would shy away.
Why were you afraid of selling shoes? he asked.
Have you ever sold shoes? Its hell.
I mean, why were you afraid you couldnt get anything else?
She looked at the burger as if the answer was in there. Her eyes were almost the same color as her hair, and ringed with pale lashes. He wondered if she thought of him as an Indian boy, with his mothers dark hair. I dont know, she said. Yes, I do know. Because my mother works in a school cafeteria, and my sister works in a hospital laundry, and selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family is supposed to get.
Excerpted from Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy Copyright © 2009 by Maile Meloy. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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