The Kindness of Strangers
© 2007, Andi Marquette
[the following story contains adult language and adult situations]
Shit. Aidan sighed and shook her head as the tow truck driver winched her pick-up onto his flatbed. She turned and hunched her back toward the late summer wind, her gaze sweeping south across Interstate 90, as she tried to absorb the Montana landscape and the impossibly blue sky overhead. She felt a harbinger of fall in the breeze, in the cool notes that grazed her T-shirt. She studied the distance, somewhat comforted by the enormity, and the anonymity. Whole lotta space out here. Good place to forget things. Like bad break-ups and ex-girlfriends.
She brushed a lock of hair out of her face. Maybe she’d get a haircut, too. New life, new look. Valerie had liked Aidan’s hair longish, so Aidan kept it trimmed to her shoulders. But Valerie didn’t matter anymore, so maybe Aidan would just cut her hair short again. And spike it. Like a rock star. Like everything Valerie hated. Like everything Aidan had been and then forgot in the two years she spent with her.
The tow truck driver handed her the clipboard along with her AAA card. The patch above his left breast pocket said “Mike” in gas station script. They’re always Mike or Jack or John. Why not Terrence or something like that? Or Geoffrey? She pocketed the card and signed where he indicated then handed the clipboard back to him. Barely twenty miles out of Butte. Damn. “Thanks,” she said.
He grunted something in response and gestured toward the cab of his truck as he headed around toward the driver’s side. Not very talkative. Good. She wasn’t in the mood. Aidan walked the few paces to the cab and pulled the door open. It squeaked in protest. She climbed into the cab and settled herself on the bench seat. The smell of grime and stale cigarette smoke crept into her nostrils. A couple of Dairy Queen bags littered the floor and various papers lay strewn haphazardly across the dash. Cigarette butts stuffed the open ashtray. Mike finished filling something out on the clipboard, which he set on the seat next to him before he picked up the radio handset.
“Yeah, got it. I’m comin’ in. Twenty minutes.” He sounded like he had a mouthful of hard candy.
Aidan judged his age around fifty. He carried the just past middle age paunch that a lot of white guys did in their fifties and his whole demeanor was that of a man who had been around a while but was ready for another round. He wore his sandy brown hair in a buzzcut, which overemphasized his ears, slightly reddened from wind and sun. The radio squawked a reply though Aidan couldn’t decipher what the voice said. Satisfied, Mike put the handset back on its hook.
“You got a preference for mechanics?” he mumbled at her. It came out as “…pref’rence fer mech’nics?”
“I’m not from around here. Who’s your guy?”
He turned the key and gunned the engine. The truck muttered and groaned then caught and shuddered. The radio came on. Classic country. Mike glanced at her, expression inscrutable. “I’ll take you on over to Jay’s. Good guy. Works on a lot of trucks.” He turned his head to look out his side window before he steered onto the freeway.
“Reckon it’s your alternator,” he continued, though he didn’t look at her. He sat back, one hand on the wheel. “Jay might be able to rebuild you one. Might have one around. Otherwise, he’ll have to go to Missoula.”
Aidan shrugged noncommittally and they lapsed into silence. Mike found a toothpick in his shirt pocket and he positioned it in his mouth like he would a cigarette. They came to a dirt track that linked east- and west-bound I-90, one of those emergency access points though the state patrol probably used it most to catch speeders. Mike turned left onto it and waited for a semi and three cars to pass before he pulled out into the eastbound lanes, headed back toward Butte. Aidan continued to stare out the window, watching the rolling hills climb into the Pioneer Mountains in the distance.
She thought again about Valerie, about the phone message she’d left that morning. “Sorry to bother you, but I found some more of your things at the house. A few books and a couple of shirts. Let me know what you would like me to do with it.” Aidan called her back, at a time when she knew Valerie would be at work, and she left a message telling Valerie to send the stuff to Aidan’s mom in Chicago and she could go ahead and do that in the future if she found anything else, thanks.
Hearing Valerie’s voice — even on voicemail — still left a sour taste in her throat and a little splinter of pain in her gut. “Sorry to bother you.” No, she wasn’t. She wanted Aidan’s stuff out of the house to make room for the new girl. Valerie had probably already boxed it up and hidden it in the basement, under the stairs. Under all the excuses she had about why she was working late. Under all the reasons Aidan used to fool herself the two years they were together.
Fucking downer. Aidan tried to think about something else but the expanse out her window encouraged her to dwell a bit longer, making her mood darken more. She crossed her arms and stretched her legs out as best she could in the cab. Grease streaked her jeans over her left knee. Fucking Valerie. No, it was the other way around. Valerie fucking someone else. Aidan glared out the window. She should have left sooner. It took catching Valerie with another woman to dislodge Aidan from the relationship. She should’ve been long gone before that. She exhaled softly. Well, she was long gone now. And though it still hurt, maybe finally she could heal, though forgiving herself, she knew, would take longer.
They reached the first Butte exit and Mike took it, the truck groaning up the ramp. He turned left at the top and took a right onto Desmet. From there he turned left onto Montana, a main drag through the city. Aidan had cruised up and down this street not three hours earlier, exploring before she continued on her way to Missoula. She liked the way Butte felt, liked the historic vibe and the echoes of a rowdy past. She even liked the way the denuded hillsides proclaimed their mining heritage, huge scrapes in the earth, sort of like scars.
Aidan tapped her fingers idly on the truck door’s armrest then sat up, relieved to see that Jay’s shop stood pretty close to the interstate. Mike steered the big truck into the dirt parking lot that adjoined the cinderblock structure. He stopped and stomped on the emergency brake and got out, leaving the engine running.
Aidan took that as her cue to get out, too, and she crossed the parking lot toward the front entrance. She pulled the glass door open, triggering an electronic doorbell sound. She approached the counter, an old, scuffed affair. A computer monitor stood on it, which made her feel a bit better about this place. The glass door into the garage area was located to her right and three beat-up dark green chairs lined the front window while an equally exhausted coffee table held a scattered plethora of faded magazines. Aidan glanced around the paneled walls, noting the posters for various car parts and a calendar from a local doctor’s office that showed landscape scenes. She sniffed and smelled oil, tires, and dust. It reminded her of her grandfather’s garage and she smiled.
“Howdy. Help you?”
Aidan turned toward the voice, an easy rural drawl, as a short, wiry man with neatly trimmed red hair regarded her from the doorway into the work area. He had the door propped open with his foot and he wore dark blue trousers and matching long-sleeved shirt. “Mechanic’s scrubs,” Aidan’s grandfather called the uniform.
“Yeah. My truck broke down. I called Triple A and Mike, the tow-truck driver, brought me here.”
The man approached the counter, wiping his hands on an orange rag that he shoved into his back pocket. “Mike out there unloading?”
Aidan nodded. She must have looked despondent because he offered a sympathetic smile. “I’m Jay. This here’s my shop.”
“Cool. Mike said you do a lot of work on trucks. He thinks it’s the alternator.”
“What happened?” Jay went around to the computer.
Aidan made a frustrated noise in her throat. “It’s been acting up for a while. Conking out. Taking a while to start. Kind of that whole loss of power thing. I had the battery checked in Billings and the guys there recharged it. I thought it might be the alternator, but I was hoping to make it to Missoula. Guess that’s not gonna happen,” she finished.
He looked at her, blue eyes twinkling with humor. “Not today, anyway. You got a place to stay?”
Aidan shook her head and jammed her hands into her front pockets. One more fucking thing to think about.
“You okay on money?” Jay asked. “Friend of mine runs the Copper King B n’ B up on Granite. Nice place. Give you a sense of history, if you like that sort of thing.”
For the first time in a few days, Aidan’s mood lifted a bit. “Yeah. Fine on money. Do you have the number?”
He smiled and wrote something on a yellow post-it. “Use my name and tell ’em I’ve got your truck down here.” He pulled the post-it off the pad and handed it to her. She didn’t care about the grease that streaked it. “Need a phone?” he asked.
“I have a cell.”
He inclined his head. “Local call if you use that one on the wall. Dial direct.” He pointed with his pen toward the phone.
“Thanks,” Aidan said gratefully.
He nodded in acknowledgement. “All right. Let’s get some info on you and your truck first.” He poised his fingers over the keyboard. “Name?”
Aidan gratefully set her duffle bag down on the washed out Victorian-patterned rug in her room. Nice. She looked around at the furnishings, all probably original antiques left over from Butte’s glory days in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Copper King mansion had been built by William Clark, Aidan learned from Mary, the proprietor here. Clark was one of the richest men in the nineteenth century and he made sure his big brick elegant house reflected that. Worth about fifty million bucks back in the day. Butte had been a thriving mining metropolis then, a tight mixture of high society and blue-collar. Different ethnic groups coalesced into different neighborhoods, lending each a slightly different feel. Butte reminded Aidan of San Francisco because of that and because of the way it had been built on the hills. Its brick civic buildings and businesses on the main drag evoked an earlier, more prosperous time and Victorian architecture filled Butte’s residential neighborhoods around the city center, some restored to their painted lady glory.
Aidan had splurged when she checked in, opting for a queen-sized bed and a private bath. Why not? About time she took care of herself a little. She turned on the ornate lamp that stood on one of the bedside tables before she dug in her duffle bag for her favorite sweatshirt, a big plain gray hoodie. She put it on and exited her room, making sure she had the key in her pocket, and headed down the graceful staircase to the first floor, where she examined the historic photographs of Butte that lined the wall, all set in elaborate wooden frames. A large portrait of William Clark, probably when he was in his thirties, graced the parlor, which now served as a lobby for the business. He wore a big mustache and beard, like many men did during the late nineteenth century. Aidan studied it for a moment, thinking he looked sort of like her great-grandfather, whom she knew only through photographs.
She heard voices toward the back of the house and what she surmised might be the kitchen. She followed the sound through an ornate sitting room, paneled with polished oak and furnished with elegant but rather ostentatious sofas on wooden clawed legs. Bookshelves hugged one wall, supplying all kinds of reading material for guests.
“Hello?” Aidan poked her head through an open doorway into a modern-looking kitchen.
“Yes?” Mary answered. “Everything okay with your room?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s really beautiful. Thanks.” Aidan entered, enjoying the amount of light in the high ceilinged-room. Sleek blond-wood cabinets lined the walls and stainless steel pots and pans hung over the island in the center. Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the tall Victorian windows across the floor and granite countertops. Mary sat on a stool near one of the counters, holding a cup of tea. She had been talking to another woman who stood with her hands hooked on the front pockets of her Levi’s, the bottoms of which fell over a pair of brown scuffed work boots. This woman wore a blue t-shirt that she had tucked neatly into her jeans and her worn brown leather belt held a buck knife sheath on the right side. Aidan guessed this other woman’s age at around forty-five though she retained a compact, athletic build. A woman used to physical work and using her body. Her dark brown hair fell just past her earlobes and a few strands of gray hair stood out in the tousled mass. In one place over her forehead, a whole slew of gray strands hung near her right eyebrow, lending her a playful but rakish air. Kind of sexy.
“I was just wondering…” Aidan started. “Um — is there a place where I could get something to eat and maybe a beer?” She felt sort of guilty, admitting she’d like a beer to Mary, who had a grandmotherly air about her. She wore her gray hair in a bun and she was a little heavyset and comfortable-looking, which helped perpetuate that image. The other woman’s brown eyes seemed to sparkle in understanding and Aidan caught herself, realizing she was staring. She shifted her gaze to Mary.
“Sure thing, honey. I suppose Mike didn’t have many suggestions when he drove you up here.” Mary smiled broadly and Aidan relaxed.
“I didn’t ask. He seems to have a lot on his mind.”
The other woman snorted a laugh. “Or not much,” she said, not unkindly. She had a nice voice, Aidan decided. The kind of voice that meant what it said, whose owner felt comfortable in her own skin. Aidan smiled back.
“I’m Anne,” the other woman said, stepping forward and extending her right hand. Aidan took it. Warm and strong. She felt calluses across Anne’s palm in the brief touch.
“But everybody calls her Gunner,” Mary said blandly.
Anne sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Gunner?” Aidan looked first at Mary then at Anne.
“Yep. On account of a little target practice she had a few years back.”
Aidan furrowed her brow, waiting for the rest of the story but nobody volunteered it though Mary snickered. “I’m Aidan,” she said to change the subject.
“Jay’s grandma’s name.” Anne nodded thoughtfully.
“So he said.” Aidan shifted her weight and put her hands in her front pockets.
“It’s Irish.” Anne raised an eyebrow, questioning.
Aidan offered the barest hint of a smile. She liked Anne’s open demeanor. “My last name’s O’Brien.”
Anne chuckled. “Yeah, I’d say you’ve got a bit of Irish in you. Spelled with an ‘a’ or an ‘e’?”
“ ‘E.’” Aidan’s smile widened.
“And don’t let anyone goose you with that ‘black Irish’ mumbo jumbo,” Mary interjected. “I’ve seen black hair and blue eyes like yours all over Ireland.”
Anne raised an eyebrow at Mary then turned back to Aidan. “Your folks immigrate?”
“Grandparents,” she answered, enjoying the humor in Anne’s eyes.
“And I’ll bet Aidan’s a family name.” Anne had a way of smiling that lifted the left side of her mouth, making her seem a lot younger.
“Yeah.” Aidan nodded, watching the laugh lines at the corners of Anne’s eyes. She decided that was sexy, too. Not that it mattered. Anne was a good fifteen years older and most likely had a husband waiting for her on one of the sprawling ranches that helped define this part of Montana. Still, Aidan’s gay-dar definitely perked when she first saw her. But on the other hand, in Aidan’s experience, straight ranching women often nudged her gay-dar, because of that whole self-sufficient woman-in-a-man’s-job thing.
“Tell you what,” Anne announced. “There’s a great Irish pub a few blocks from here. I’ll drive you.”
“That’s really nice,” Aidan said, surprised. “But just tell me where it is and I’ll walk. I don’t want to put you out.”
Mary made a “pshaw” sound and Anne’s smile broke into a full-scale grin. “I see you’ve got some Irish manners in you. But I’ve got some Irish hospitality in me, so I’ll gladly give you a ride.”
Damn. Butte people are cool. “Okay, if you don’t mind.”
“Not a bit.” Anne walked to what Aidan figured was a back door and pulled a blue flannel shirt off one of the hooks on the wall. She slipped into it and ran a hand through her hair, the gray lock in front bouncing right back to its place over her eyebrow. Aidan looked quickly away, a little freaked because she, too, wanted to reach out and run her own fingers through Anne’s hair.
“We lock up at ten,” Mary said. “Got your key?”
“Yes. Thanks again. See you in a few.”
“Oh, honey, I doubt that. I go to bed at ten.” And Mary winked at her as Aidan followed Anne out the back door. She led her down a set of wooden steps onto a brick patio then onto a narrow flagstone path that curved around the side of the house to the driveway. Anne directed Aidan to a large blue Ford pick-up truck parked behind a silver Jeep Cherokee.
“Door’s open,” Anne said as she got into the driver’s seat.
Aidan climbed in and settled back against the upholstery of the bench seat. Unlike Mike’s cab, Anne’s smelled of leather and pine air freshener. Sort of comforting. “Thanks again,” she said as she buckled her seat belt.
“No problem.” Anne backed the truck out of the driveway and onto the street. “Did you know Butte’s referred to as Ireland’s fifth province?”
Aidan looked over at her. “My grandpa mentioned that when he heard I was moving to Montana. He told me to stop in Butte and let him know how it felt. He hasn’t been back to Ireland in thirty years.”
Anne smiled again. “Well, Butte’s closer. Where do they live?”
“Then Butte’s definitely closer, if he needs a heritage fix.” Anne flashed her a quick smile then turned her eyes back to the road. “Irish miners came over here in the eighteen-hundreds and found a hell of a lot of mineral wealth. And damned if they didn’t build themselves a city. There was lots of money here. Ridiculous amounts. Butte was a major party town and business center.” She glanced in her rearview mirror. “Only a third of us left now, but back in the boom days, a hundred thousand people lived here. Kind of funny, too, how it became an Ireland outside Ireland. Did you get a chance to drive around before your car trouble?”
“Yeah. I did. It looks like a mini-San Francisco.”
“Hadn’t thought of it that way. But you’re right.” Anne turned onto Galena Street. She slowed down and eased against the curb. Few cars lined the road, so she had no problem parking close to the pub. Aidan looked out her side window at a multi-storied brick building that could have been a nineteenth-century mercantile.
“It’s an old newspaper building,” Anne said. “The owner named the pub part after the Irish Times, the famous paper over there.”
Aidan studied the structure, imagining how it looked a hundred years ago, frequented by men dressed in natty slim trousers and vests, maybe standing outside for a photograph, smoothing their big mustaches and straightening their bowler hats. She opened the door of the truck, surprised as Anne opened hers.
“Thanks again for the ride,” Aidan said a little tentatively. Anne made her a little nervous, but in a nice way.
“Thank me after I drop you off at Mary’s. C’mon. I’ll buy a fellow Irishwoman a beer.” She motioned with her head toward the door and Aidan automatically followed, letting her gaze slide down Anne’s flannel shirt to the hemline, which fell just past her belt. Her gaze dropped lower. Anne looked good in Levi’s. Embarrassed, Aidan jerked her attention to the back of Anne’s head. She hadn’t felt any kind of stirring like that for months and it surprised her.
Anne held the door for her and Aidan entered, immediately relaxing in the welcoming ambiance. Dark wood covered the walls and a well-worn wooden floor creaked underfoot. Long tables and church pews hunkered along the interior walls and taller pub tables, some with stools, some without, stood near the front windows. The place was half-full and a few people looked up as Anne led Aidan to the end of one of the long tables, away from the bar. A couple of guys at the bar waved in greeting and Anne waved back before she addressed Aidan again.
“Great.” Aidan sat down in the pew.
“Imported from Dublin,” Anne motioned at the pew and the tables. “Maybe you’ll pick up some Irish vibes from a predecessor’s butt in the mother country.”
Aidan grinned, liking the giddy feeling in her chest that Anne instilled.
“I’ll get a menu.” Anne started toward the bar against the back wall.
“Harp,” Aidan called after her.
Anne stopped and looked at her, one of her funny little smiles pulling at her lips. She nodded once and headed to the bar and Aidan studiously kept herself from watching. Please, she thought sarcastically. Like she’d be into someone like me. She glanced around the interior, noting the overall Victorian feel of the place. Even the TVs mounted in the corners over the bar didn’t detract from that. She sniffed, smelling beer, cigarette smoke, and history, a musty smell like damp bricks. A group of people sat talking at a nearby table. Aidan heard one man mention the Denver Broncos. Anne reappeared, holding two pint glasses full of beer. She set one in front of Aidan and with her empty hand she removed the menu from under her arm and handed it to her. She put her own beer down and sat in the chair across from Aidan.
“Thanks,” Aidan said, smiling again. It felt good to smile. It made her think of the woman she had been. Maybe her old self was finally coming back. She glanced at the menu. “Think I’ll just go for a burger,” she decided after a few moments.
“Good choice. They’re tasty here.”
A young man wearing a Montana Tech T-shirt arrived at the table. “What can I get you?” he asked pleasantly.
Aidan looked up at him. “Regular burger, no onions. Medium-well, fries.”
“Cheeseburger,” Anne added. “Hold the onions. Medium, coleslaw.”
“Gotcha. Be up in a few.” He turned to go.
“Thanks,” Aidan said to his back. He looked over his shoulder at her and grinned. She reached for her beer and took a sip.
“Mmm,” Aidan murmured appreciatively.
Anne chuckled and took a drink from her glass. “So what’s the verdict on your truck?”
“Jay said he’d let me know tomorrow. He told me I probably wouldn’t be able to leave until day after tomorrow, depending on the parts. If he has to send to Missoula, it might be longer.”
“Could be worse,” Anne said, shrugging. “Billings comes to mind.”
Aidan grinned. “Yeah, you’re right. And where the hell would I find an Irish pub there?”
“Indeed.” Anne lifted her glass. “May the road rise to meet you,” she toasted.
Aidan raised her own glass. “And may the wind always be at your back.” She took a drink, enjoying the little warm tingle she got as Anne regarded her over the rim of her glass.
“So, Aidan O’Brien. What brings you to Montana?” Anne asked as she set her glass down on the table.
“Grad school in Missoula, mostly.”
Anne raised her eyebrows. “In what?”
“Forestry and wildlife conservation.”
“That’s the place for it. Why that?”
“I love it. I worked for the forest service in Wyoming for a while after I finished my bachelor’s in wildlife biology.” She caught Anne’s gaze. “A while ago. I graduated from Northern Arizona seven years ago. Then I went to Wyoming and three years ago I ended up in Denver.”
Anne kept quiet, her eyes encouraging Aidan to continue.
“Division of Wildlife.”
“So why grad school, then? Isn’t Division of Wildlife a good job?”
Aidan hesitated before answering. “I’ve wanted to go to grad school for a while. It’ll open some doors for more opportunities. And I needed to do something else.” She shifted her gaze to her glass. Like get away from my ex.
“Well, I won’t worry about you and the Montana winters, since you’ve done time in Wyoming.” Anne reached for her glass.
Aidan felt a little rush. It was kind of cute for her to say something like that.
“So presumably you’ve already got a place lined up in Missoula?” Anne pressed.
Aidan nodded. “A friend of mine is working on her Ph.D. there and she’s got a spare room until I get more settled.” She had packed only the bare necessities when she left Valerie. The rest she gave away or sold, as soon as she possibly could. Fortunately, Aidan hadn’t accumulated much during her years as an undergrad or working for the Forest Service and then the Division of Wildlife. Both jobs required a certain ability to be able to pick up, move around, and make do in rustic conditions.
“That’s good.” Anne took a swallow from her glass. “Saves you the trouble of having to find a place in the fall semester rush.” She smiled again just as their food arrived. The conversation shifted back to Butte. Anne provided more history of the city and the surrounding area, telling stories about some of the more colorful personalities. Aidan liked how Anne’s nose was slightly crooked, how her jaw could look stubborn but approachable all at once. She liked how Anne wore her years like wisdom in the lines at the corners of her eyes and in the shape of her cheekbones, how the gray lock of hair above her eyebrow moved when she laughed. And Aidan liked how it felt, to be sitting here with her, liked that there were no expectations, no judgments, no assessments. Just two people sharing tales over a couple of beers.
They finished eating and the young man returned to take their plates. Anne ordered two more beers and Aidan let her, deciding she needed to have some fun. Besides, being around Anne made her feel relaxed, made her feel more like herself, like the woman she hadn’t been for too many months. The server interrupted Aidan’s thoughts when he returned with their pints and took their empty glasses.
Anne raised her new glass in another toast. “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been,” she said solemnly. “And the foresight to know where you’re going…” she paused for effect. “And the insight to know when you’re going too far.” She winked and took a sip.
Aidan laughed and took a long swallow. “So…” she started. “You’re from here originally?”
“Yes and no. My grandfather came with the miners who arrived just after the turn of the twentieth century. One of the many Sullivans you’ll find in the phone book here. My father was born here but he moved to Helena for a while. That’s where I was born, but Dad couldn’t shake Butte. So we moved back and he got into ranching. I went to school in Idaho. Agricultural and animal sciences. Came back and handled the family ranch for a while.”
“Do you still have the ranch?”
“A lot of it. I’ve sold off a few parcels. My oldest brother still lives on part of it.”
“Do you still live there, too?” Aidan ran her fingers along her glass, watching Anne’s lips and then her eyes. She imagined Anne’s mouth on hers and she caught herself. Why was she going there? Anne was just being nice, taking pity on her.
“No. I moved into town a few years ago. I own properties and rentals and spend a lot of time fixing things and restoring some of the Victorians around here. You might have noticed those.” Humor danced in her eyes.
“Wow. That’s — is it hard to work with these old houses?”
Anne shrugged. “Sometimes. Other times, not so much. Some are so well built that it just amazes me. True craftsmanship. I have a few people who work with me and we coordinate with local historical societies to make sure we’re restoring within proper parameters. It can be a headache, but I love seeing a house come to life again.”
“How’d you learn to do that?”
“Here and there. Back in my younger college days, I put in a lot of summers doing that kind of work. When I ended up in Butte again, I helped run the ranch but also did restoration on the side. By that time, it had become a hobby that I really enjoyed. And then it became a livelihood.”
“Hey, Gunner,” said a gray-haired man with cheerful blue eyes as he approached from the bar. He held a pint of what was probably Guinness, by the color. “Got your message about the wiring. I’ll stop by Ace tomorrow and drop the stuff off at the site.”
Anne cleared her throat. “Sounds good. Keith, this is Aidan. She’s staying at the Copper King. Passing through on her way to Missoula.”
He nodded at her in greeting. “Aidan. Good name. You’d fit right in here.”
“Keith helps me out on electrical jobs,” Anne explained. “Best man around here for that.”
He looked pleased. “It’s a pleasure working with Anne. And she’s got good stories.” He winked.
“She does,” Aidan agreed. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” He put two fingers to his forehead like he was tipping a hat and returned to the bar.
Anne waited until he was out of earshot. “We’re still kind of a small town.” A little smile tugged at her mouth.
Aidan smiled back. “So…Gunner?”
Anne sighed. “I figured you’d want to know. Damn Mary anyway for bringing that up,” she said wryly. “And Damn Keith while I’m at it.” She chuckled.
“Sorry,” Aidan hastily apologized. “I just wondered. You don’t have to tell me.” Shit.
“Not to worry. Most people around here know. Not much to it, actually.” She leaned back in her chair. “A while back, I got married.”
Damn. She is straight. Aidan hoped her disappointment wasn’t showing but then she caught herself again. What was she thinking would come of this? A passionate rebound fling in Butte? She watched a smile tease the corners of Anne’s mouth. Yeah, maybe she did go there for a bit. Oh, well. “What happened to him?”
“That’s why I’m called Gunner.” Anne lowered the front legs of her chair back to the floor. “He wasn’t the nicest man around.” She sighed. “Okay, he was actually a bastard of the highest order though he came by it naturally. His father was just as bad.” She ran her fingers through her hair and the gray forelock hovered momentarily over her forehead before dropping to its customary place above her eyebrow. “Anyway, one day, about two years after I’d married him, I’d had enough of the way he treated me.” She looked down at her beer. “And I threw him out and filed for divorce that day — still had Sullivan attitude after all, in spite of everything — but I knew he’d be back. He bothered the hell out of me for a month but in a way that was just barely legal. Finally, there was a showdown and…” she paused and looked down at the table. “I shot him.”
Aidan stared. “Seriously?” She could totally see Anne doing that.
Anne grimaced. “It was him or me. One day he showed up at the ranch and he shot up my other truck. I called the sheriff, but the ranch is twenty miles outside of town, so I knew it’d be a bit before he got there.” She shrugged, though her voice sounded strained. “Dan tried coming in but I’d barred the door. I told him to leave, that the sheriff was on his way and if he didn’t leave, I’d shoot him in the ass.”
Aidan tried not to laugh but it came out anyway. Anne grinned, sheepish. “I know. Funny. In the ass. Why I said that, I don’t know. Anyway, he started shooting at the house and blew out a couple of windows, which actually helped me in a weird way because I wasn’t scared anymore. It really pissed me off instead, because it was winter and getting windows fixed in the winters up here is a bitch.” She smiled wryly.
“What’d he do then?” Aidan imagined a younger Anne, wielding a gun, telling some guy she was going to shoot him. She leaned forward, listening.
“Tried climbing through the broken front window. I shot over his head, and that got his attention. But only for a second. He shot at me. Directly at me. Bastard missed, fortunately.”
“I wasn’t really thinking then,” Anne said. “I fired back. Caught him in the shoulder. It knocked him flat on his back outside and by that time, the sheriff got there. He came barreling out of his car and there’s Dan lying in the snow, whimpering and crying and the sheriff looks at me and says ‘well, Goddamn. If it isn’t Gunner Sullivan.’” She shook her head ruefully. “Most people around here know me and they knew Dan, so my penance for shooting him is putting up with the nickname. Better than jail.” She raised her eyebrows and took a long swallow from her glass. “Glad he didn’t die, actually,” she added thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t want to face the repercussions for that now. Or in the afterlife, if there is one.”
“Where is he now?” Aidan asked, sympathetic.
“Don’t know. Don’t care. He left and hasn’t been back. I expect the sheriff told him that if he ever did come back, he’d finish the job I started. Made the divorce a lot easier.”
Aidan nodded. She’d seen that kind of justice in Wyoming. And it seemed to work. “Were you okay?” Once again, she fought an urge to reach across the table and touch the gray lock at Anne’s forehead.
“Physically, yes. In other ways…” her voice trailed off and she didn’t respond for a moment. “I’m not proud of shooting a man. Especially someone I called ‘husband.’” Her voice dropped and the expression in her eyes matched the distance of a Montana mountain range. “And I’m not proud that I let someone treat me so badly in the first place. Not sure how that happened.” She sighed. “I hate that it came to guns. But I think he would’ve –” She made a clicking sound against her teeth with her tongue. “It’s over. But I don’t really carry a gun anymore. After what happened, I don’t like how it feels, to have that kind of power. It’s not something I take lightly.”
“I’m sorry,” Aidan offered, uncertain what else to say. “Are you okay now?”
Anne held Aidan’s gaze for a long moment before she responded. “I am. For the most part. It’s just something you get through.”
Aidan bit back her next question and instead reached for her glass.
“Bad choice on my part,” Anne continued quietly, answering Aidan’s unspoken query. “I bought into other people’s expectations for me, rather than listening to my inner voice and doing what I really wanted.”
Aidan took a sip of beer. “Do you have kids?” She changed the subject.
“No. Never got around to it. And Dan was my first and only husband. Can’t say I’ll be going that route again,” she finished enigmatically.
A little bit of hope leapfrogged through Aidan’s chest. She stifled it and took another swallow of beer. What the hell would she see in me, anyway? Besides, she probably wouldn’t want just a fling. “Bathrooms?” Aidan asked, standing.
Anne motioned toward the back. “Can’t miss ’em.”
Aidan smiled her thanks and headed in the direction Anne pointed. A few minutes later she stood, washing her hands in the sink. She glanced at the mirror but looked quickly away. Valerie had a way of making Aidan feel insignificant and even though it’d been four months since the relationship ended, Aidan still couldn’t really look at herself in a mirror. She hated the timid, frightened woman who stared back at her, who allowed her to put up with all of Valerie’s bullshit. And she hated more that she let that other woman within her stay with Valerie as long as she did. Aidan frowned and glanced into the mirror, thinking that doing so might make it easier to look at herself. It did help a little. At least she didn’t appear so scared. Maybe things were shifting. She dropped her eyes again and dried her hands under the automatic blower. When she returned to the table and took her seat, she felt Anne’s eyes on her.
“I ordered some coffee. It’s actually pretty good here,” Anne said.
“Thanks. That’s –” she stopped. “I — it’s been a rough day and I really appreciate this.” She leaned back in the pew, feeling out of sorts but okay about it. Like she’d been in a trance or something for a couple of years and she was finally coming out of it, though slowly.
The server arrived carrying a tray. He set two cups of coffee down, a small pitcher that contained either milk or cream, a small bowl of sugar packets, and two glasses of water. Two spoons rested in the bowl with the sugar packets. Anne thanked him and he moved away. Aidan poured a splash of liquid from the creamer into her cup. Anne did the same when Aidan had finished.
“So what else brings you to Montana?” Anne reached for a sugar packet.
Aidan exhaled softly before she responded, not entirely surprised at the question. Anne didn’t seem the type to miss much. “What you said before. Bad choices.” She stirred the creamer in her coffee with one of the spoons.
“Rough break-up too, huh?” Anne suddenly asked. Her tone held only sympathy.
Aidan felt the muscles across her back and abdomen tense and she looked away, toward the big front windows and the darkness outside.
“Oh, hell.” Anne reached across the table and put her hand on Aidan’s forearm. “I’m sorry. That was out of line. I made an assumption I had no business making.”
Aidan forced herself to relax. She looked down at Anne’s hand on her arm, thinking it felt nice to have it there but Anne quickly withdrew it.
“I’m sorry,” Anne said quietly. She ran a hand through her hair and stared into her cup. The silence expanded between them. Anne shifted her weight, as if she was going to stand up.
“It wasn’t the break-up as much as the whole relationship,” Aidan blurted.
Anne relaxed and settled into her chair again.
“The whole damn thing was a big, fucking mistake. Mine,” she said with a flat, resolute tone, trying to avoid delving into it too deeply.
Anne didn’t respond but the expression on her face encouraged Aidan to elaborate.
“And she had somebody on the side the last two months we were together. Probably had more than that the whole time.” Aidan swallowed past the growing lump in her throat. “I can’t believe how long I bought her lies. But the worst thing is, I can’t believe I let her squeeze the life out of me.” She dropped her gaze to the tabletop. And I can’t believe I’m telling this to a stranger.
“Did you break it off?” Anne asked, tone gentle.
“Yeah. I packed up and left the day after I told her I was done.”
“Then she didn’t get all of you.”
Aidan looked up at Anne, searching her face for signs of ridicule. She saw only empathy and it occurred to her that Anne hadn’t freaked out that Aidan’s ex was a woman. Aidan relaxed and her shoulders slumped. “It sure feels like it sometimes,” she muttered.
“I know.” Anne reached over and gently squeezed Aidan’s arm again.
“I’m kinda tired.” Aidan stood, trying to get away from Anne’s touch and her own confusion about it. “Do you mind taking me back now?”
“No, of course not.” Anne stood as well.
“Oh, the check –” Aidan glanced toward the bar.
“I took care of it.”
“How much do I owe you?”
Anne shook her head, smiling. “Nothing. I enjoyed your company.”
Aidan felt her chest constrict. “Look, I can take care of my part of the check.”
“I know.” Anne looked at her, puzzled.
“Shit,” Aidan said with a sigh. “Sorry again. I’m just tired and sometimes old stuff…” she shrugged. “Thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
“How about this? If you’re here tomorrow evening, you buy.” Anne grinned. “And if you’re not, well, Missoula’s not that far. I’ll collect at some point.”
Aidan managed a smile. “Deal.” She started toward the front door, Anne following. This time Aidan held the door, the night air clearing her head a bit. She was just being nice. Geez. And Anne was definitely not Valerie. They didn’t even look alike. She watched as Anne went around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.
Aidan got into the truck and buckled up. “Do you mind if –” she started.
Anne started the truck and looked over at her, a question in her eyes.
“I drove up Montana Street to the top of the hill earlier today. Before all the car trouble. Do you mind taking me up there again? I’d like to see the view at night.”
“Sure. It is a great view.” Anne pulled away from the curb and drove a couple of blocks west to Montana. She turned right. “And it’s not far.”
A few blocks later, Anne turned right again onto a street that fronted one of the leftover black mining rigs that jutted like an oil derrick from the surrounding barren hillsides. It loomed above them, a darker shape in the moonless night. Up here, wooden shotgun shacks with sharply peaked roofs recalled the type of neighborhood this had been, precariously shoved against the eroding terrain at the mines’ doorsteps. Thousands of miners lived and died in this company housing a hundred years ago, adding their blood and sweat to the copper, gold, and silver that fueled both robber barons and working men. A few houses farther up, the street still held occupants, and weak yellow lights cast dim pools of illumination across their porches. Anne pulled onto a dirt shoulder that dropped off sharply a few feet from the side of the truck. Aidan opened the door and got out.
“Be careful,” Anne cautioned. “The edge is soft.”
“I will.” She closed the door and stood leaning against the side of Anne’s truck, staring out over the lights of Butte and beyond that, the dark expanse that Aidan knew held slices of grassland that buckled into hills and then morphed into mountains. She heard the driver’s side door open and the crunch of Anne’s boots in the gravel. A dog barked in the distance. Aidan listened as Anne’s footsteps carried her a bit beyond the front of the truck, leaving Aidan to her thoughts. Giving her some breathing room and not taking it personally. How long had it been since anyone had said they enjoyed Aidan’s company? How long had it been since a woman had bought her a beer and a burger just because she felt like it? Without any strings attached?
Aidan stared toward the distant interstate, trying to remember. Too long. The lights of Butte blurred in her vision as her eyes filled with tears. She bit her lip, trying to hold them in but something about the cool Montana air, the whispers of Butte, and the kind gestures of a stranger pulled the wall down between her past and present. Like a logjam in a river breaking free, the frozen parts of her soul she thought she’d boxed up ran like snowmelt down her cheeks. Too long. God, too fucking long.
She hugged herself tightly, trying to muffle the sounds of her sobs but when Anne emerged from the darkness and pulled Aidan against her, Aidan released her hold on herself and instead clung to Anne, crying grief and relief onto her shoulder. And Anne rocked her back and forth, saying nothing as Aidan pulled the thorns of her past from her heart and let go of the ties that held her to the last two years until finally the sobs dissipated, leaving in their wake a heavy, warm peace.
“It gets better,” Anne said softly in the quiet between Aidan’s sniffles.
“It already has,” Aidan whispered against Anne’s shoulder. She started to say she was sorry about her emotional display but Anne interrupted her.
“Don’t apologize.” Her breath was warm on Aidan’s ear and from somewhere underneath the exhaustion brought on by her emotions, Aidan felt something else entirely.
“Don’t ever apologize for getting rid of baggage,” Anne said as she adjusted her hold on Aidan. “It takes guts to let it go and try a different road.”
Aidan pulled her closer, not really sure why, not really sure what she wanted or needed. She closed her eyes as Anne stroked her hair, still rocking her back and forth. Maybe I’m going crazy. But nothing about the night felt insane. Different, yes, but not insane. Safe, somehow. Safe, standing there in the circle of Anne’s strong arms. Safe, pressed against Anne’s solid warmth, her head on Anne’s shoulder, her own arms wrapped tightly around Anne’s waist. Aidan inhaled, thinking that Anne smelled like soap and mountain breezes, like the way Wyoming smelled when spring dug around the edges of winter.
She pulled away and Anne stopped stroking her hair. Aidan studied Anne’s face in the weak glow from a lone streetlight, trying to make sense of moments that briefly collided and intertwined. Her hands rested at Anne’s waist, just above her belt. She’s straight. Aidan tried to read what Anne might be thinking in her eyes but what light reached them wasn’t strong enough to reveal much. She might have a boyfriend. Aidan touched Anne’s face, let her fingertips graze Anne’s jaw. She might think I’m too young. So why wasn’t Anne stopping her, instead turning into Aidan’s palm as Aidan cupped her cheek? And why wasn’t Aidan stopping herself, when she’d locked her own inspiration away for so many months?
Aidan leaned closer then retreated slightly, self-doubt a dull warning in her gut. Anne dropped her own hands to Aidan’s waist, where they seemed to be waiting for Aidan’s decision. Maybe she’s not straight tonight. And Aidan felt the woman she had been two years ago push her gently toward Anne, push her toward a chance, past the uncertainty and timidity that had so defined her for too long. Aidan pressed her lips carefully and hesitantly against Anne’s, allowing her the option to back out. But Anne didn’t and Aidan kissed her a little harder, marveling at how soft her lips were and how they moved gently against hers, at how easy it was to kiss her, and how exciting.
Both of Aidan’s hands held Anne’s face now and their kisses moved quickly from tentative to confident to hungry, like neither had eaten in days or months. Maybe years. Aidan felt Anne’s breath against her mouth, felt Anne pull her closer and spread her hands against the small of Aidan’s back, beneath her sweatshirt. Aidan’s own breathing sped up, raced like her blood through her veins, matched the way her heart pounded her ribs, and she sought Anne’s tongue with her own and nearly collapsed when Anne responded. But Anne held on to her, moving her hands across Aidan’s back then hugging her close, then running the fingertips of one hand across Aidan’s cheek down her neck.
Moments, colliding and intertwining. Aidan lost track of them beneath Anne’s lips and strong, gentle hands and ultimately, the moments didn’t matter because Aidan needed to fill the hole in her heart with something other than that unwelcome self, the one that kept her anchored to bad places and broken dreams, the one that told her she had nothing to offer, nothing to share.
So she filled the space with Anne, with the way Anne smiled and laughed, with the way she offered her time and company, and a welcome rest on a hard journey. And Aidan filled it with the woman she had been, before a wrong turn knocked her off-kilter and left her hiding from her own shadow, scared of the future but even more terrified of the past. I want to come back, that woman said somewhere in the haze of relief and recognition that hung in the unspoken spaces between Aidan and Anne. The woman she had been pulled away from Anne and touched the gray shock of hair that hung over Anne’s eyebrow, brushing it away, smiling as it fell back to its original position. The woman she had been ran her lips along Anne’s jaw, then down her neck. And as Anne’s fingers tightened their grip on Aidan’s back, the woman Aidan had been groaned softly and smiled fiercely in the dark, surrendering to this moment, to a chance meeting of mind and body.
Anne pulled away, breathing heavily, and her eyes seemed to search Aidan’s and Aidan nodded, needing this night with her, knowing it might not come again. Anne smiled then and carefully extricated herself from Aidan’s grip and she backed away, slowly walking around the front of her truck, gaze on Aidan the whole time. She waited until Aidan opened the door and settled onto the seat before she got in and shut the door. She started the engine and shifted into drive, flipping a U-turn. She steered left back onto Montana Street and Aidan slid closer to her, even as Anne’s right arm encircled her waist.
Within minutes, Anne pulled into the driveway of the Copper King, shutting her lights off before they rolled to a stop behind the Jeep. She put the truck in park and once again, she regarded Aidan with something like hope and wishes in her eyes and once again Aidan nodded. They got out of the truck and shut the doors as quietly as they could and Anne followed Aidan up the front steps to the door. Aidan pulled the key from her pocket and pushed the door open, and as she did so, she reached with her free hand and laced her fingers with Anne’s and she led her inside, up the staircase, and down the hall to her room.
Aidan opened her eyes then shut them just as quickly. Bright morning light spilled through the tall windows, piercing her sleep. She put her pillow over her head, coming to full awareness, awash in memories of last night and the sensations they engendered. She remembered how Anne’s skin felt against hers, how their bodies joined in sweat and something like redemption, and she remembered how Anne’s touches coaxed flame from ash, blew fire through ice, and left her panting and aching, tangled in sheets and flashes of Anne’s smiles.
Aidan clutched the pillow to her face and chills danced in her abdomen as she thought about the way Anne welcomed her hands and lips to new longings and old wounds, how she moaned against Aidan’s hair when she came, and gasped Aidan’s name between her teeth. Oh, my God. Aidan exhaled into the pillow and moved it so she could draw a breath, thinking about how Anne’s fingers felt inside her, and how she whispered things that made Aidan burn in places she thought unreachable.
She’s not straight. Definitely not. Aidan sighed and smiled, feeling a little strange, like her skin was too tight to contain her, like she was testing the limits of new scar tissue. But she also felt a hell of a lot more like herself. She lay under the covers, thinking she hadn’t slept so well in a long, long time. Her cell phone rang, startling her. She reached for the bedside table where she’d left it, feeling blindly with her fingers because she kept the pillow over her face. She found it and pulled it to her ear.
“H’lo?” she mumbled. She moved the pillow a bit and cleared her throat. “Hello?”
“Hi…Miss O’Brien? It’s Jay, down at the auto shop.”
Aidan’s brain shifted gears. “Oh, yeah. Hi. How are you?” Okay, that sounded stupid. “I mean, what’s going on with my truck?” She corrected herself.
“Good news and bad news. The good news is, it is your alternator, which in the scheme of things, isn’t that big a deal to fix. The bad news is, I had to send to Missoula for a re-built one. Wanted to save you some money. They’ll make the delivery late this afternoon and I’ll install it tomorrow. You should be ready to go tomorrow afternoon. Does that sound good?”
“Um…” Aidan pushed the pillow completely off her head. She knew she was alone in bed and she wasn’t sure yet what to make of that. “Yeah, that’s great. I’ll just hang out another day.” Classes didn’t start until next week, anyway.
“Good. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“Cool. Thanks. I really appreciate it. Bye.”
He signed off and hung up. Aidan closed her phone and stared up at the canopy over the bed. Maybe she dreamed last night. She sat up and the sheet slipped off her naked torso. Her clothes still littered the floor. Some dream. She sighed and turned to look at the other side of the bed. Her breath caught in her throat. A single red rose lay on the pillow, a folded sheet of plain white paper underneath it. A lump filled her throat, then her chest. She reached for the paper slowly, like it might disappear. She sniffed it. It smelled like the rose but she imagined it might also smell like soap and mountain air. She unfolded it and read the note, written in a strong, relaxed script.
“Aidan — I’m sorry I couldn’t wake up with you, but there’s always something to fix in these old buildings. I didn’t want to disturb you, so please don’t think I skipped out without wanting to offer a proper breakfast or morning conversation. I know you’re anxious to get back on the road and if Jay can get your truck fixed today, you’ll probably continue on to Missoula. I understand, and I don’t expect you to feel obligated to contact me. I don’t have the words to express how I feel about what happened between us — I’ve never received such a gift and I’ll treasure it always. You’re quite a woman and I hope you never forget that. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Make that promise to yourself. Sometimes paths cross — I’ll be glad to my dying day that yours crossed mine. Thank you.
p.s. if you’re ever in Butte again for an Irish fix, you can always call me. 406-320-5523
Good luck to you and ‘may your days be filled with blessings like the sun that lights the sky, and may you always have the courage to spread your wings and fly.’”
Aidan smiled. Anne had spelled her name correctly. She read the note several times and each time she did, her smile widened. She opened her phone and dialed, something her old self would do. Anne answered on the third ring.
“Hello?” She sounded unsure.
“Good morning,” Aidan said a little shyly, lying back on her pillow, Anne’s note on her chest.
Anne chuckled softly. “Well, this is a nice surprise.”
“My truck won’t be ready until tomorrow. Think I can pay up on that dinner I owe you tonight?” She held her breath, waiting for Anne’s reply.
“Hmm. I rather like having it hanging over your head, actually, because then I might be able to use it as leverage in the future, for when I have to go to Missoula,” Anne teased.
“I see your point.” Aidan relaxed into the conversation, liking how it felt to openly flirt, with no obligations on either of them. “But what about when I have to come to Butte for an Irish fix?”
“True. How about something like a standing invitation, then? I’ll buy in Butte, you buy in Missoula.”
Aidan grinned. “But that puts you two ahead, if you agree to dinner tonight.”
“Exactly. Never make deals with an Irishwoman.”
Aidan heard Anne’s smile through the phone. “I might say the same to you,” she teased back.
“Really. So…dinner tonight?” And maybe we’ll see where that goes.
“Let me check with my secretary,” Anne said in a fake professional voice. “Well, you’re in luck. My evening’s free.”
Aidan exhaled. “Mine, too. Does that mean you’ll be having dinner with me?”
“Then you’re driving,” Aidan said, giggling.
“Damn. I knew there was a catch.”
“Yes, I am quite a catch. When can I expect you?” Aidan asked imperiously, surprising herself with her boldness, but liking the flash of old fire.
Anne laughed. “You’re right. I should never make deals with an Irishwoman. Tell you what. Since you seem to have some free time on your hands, I’d be happy to show you around a bit before dinner. That is, if you’re up for more stories and more of my company.”
“Is this part of your debt scheme?” Aidan picked up the note and glanced idly at it, enjoying the banter.
“Of course. But I might be a little intrigued by this unconventional state of affairs between us and I don’t know when I’ll get to see you again, so I might like to store up some memories. Long winters and all.”
Store up some memories. The thought touched Aidan. “I’d like that. What time?”
“Three sound okay?”
Aidan glanced at the clock on the bedside table. Nearly ten. Time enough to eat breakfast, pay for another night, and do some exploring on foot. Maybe she’d find a bookstore. “Yep.”
“I’ll see you then. Looking forward to it.”
They signed off and Aidan sat up. She reached for the rose and sniffed it before she padded into the shower. When she finished, she dressed in comfortable jeans and a loose denim shirt. She put her hikers on then headed out the door and down the stairs. She turned left, toward the rear of the house but she stopped suddenly, catching a glimpse of herself in a gilt-framed mirror that hung on the wall a few feet from the portrait of William Clark. Aidan approached the mirror and stood for a long time, searching the other woman’s eyes for signs of fear, signs of the familiar pained expression that had haunted her reflection for too long. Instead, the woman in the mirror grinned at her. “Store up some memories,” she and Aidan whispered together. And Aidan nodded at her before she continued down the hall to the dining room.