by Carrie Naughton
“Why the hell not?”
“She’s only six years old.”
“Exactly. So are the rest of ’em. Let her have some fun, James. It’s perfectly safe.”
“You can’t be serious. They make these children wear hockey helmets and padded vests. It’s like gearing them up for Desert Storm! Tori Helfert’s little girl dislocated her shoulder last week.”
“Well, maybe that’s because prissy little Eden Helfert just isn’t cut out for mutton bustin’.”
James finally stopped talking, and Ronda sighed with relief. She had him. About time. She was sick of arguing.
But he said, from between clenched teeth, “I can’t believe you. You’re like one of those psycho beauty pageant moms, except you’re trying to turn our daughter into some kind of rodeo warrior.”
Ronda snorted, and went back to emptying the dishwasher. “Really, James. You sound ridiculous. They ride sheep, for God’s sake. For six seconds. It’s stupid fun.”
“Our daughter cannot ride sheep. It’s patently absurd. You know why.”
“No. Actually I don’t.” Yes, she did know why. But when James glowered at her and used uppity pedantic phrases like patently absurd as if he considered himself Booker T. Washington reincarnated, Ronda always played the offensive. “And Lulu is so excited. She hasn’t stopped talking about it.”
“You told her she could go?”
Ronda didn’t need to glance up at James to know that he was enraged. She could hear it crackling the air.
“No, I did not. But it’s all I can do to keep her pacified without actually consenting to this. That’s why I’m bringing it up now. The rodeo is Friday, and Lulu wants to go. Let me tell her we’ll take her. I need to sign her up before tomorrow afternoon.”
“Ronda.” James’ voice changed to a low growl. “Look at me.”
She complied, a pair of forks in one hand and a spatula in the other, on her way to the drawer where they kept their utensils. James’ eyes had gone amber, pupils dilated to deep black pools. His dark skin, gleaming with a sheen of sweat, rippled along his jawline as he clenched his teeth.
“What?” she barked, feeling her own hackles rise.
“You can’t sign her up. It’s tough enough trying to assimilate in this damn town. The last thing we need is -”
“It’ll be fine. She’s only six. You’ve seen her with the Nelsons’ chickens. And Jenny’s cat next door. Lulu’s just a pup. I want her to have some fun.”
“And riding these poor sheep in a muddy arena is supposed to be fun? It doesn’t sound like our kind of fun.”
“Well, not that PETA or your comrades at the University would approve, but yes. Fun.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Every kid in this town except for the Gaffners’ diabetic boy is signed up for this. Lulu wants to do it -”
“She isn’t like the other kids in this town -”
“- she wants you to be there to cheer her on. Hell, James, we both know she’s tough. She might even take home a ribbon.”
“Oh, if she rides, she’ll take home first place,” James puffed up, never one who’d diminish his daughter’s prowess at anything, whether it was piano lessons or shoe-tying.
Ronda could sense him bending to her will. She smiled, tossed the forks and the spatula in the drawer, and crossed the kitchen to her husband, holding out her arms. He pulled her to him, and he smelled of autumn leaves and woodsmoke and last night’s moon.
“You’ll see,” Ronda said, kissing his mouth before he could open it and say anything else. “Our daughter will be a champion.”
James laughed, conceding the fight. “Don’t make me regret this,” he murmured, and licked her neck.
“You’re gonna be late for class,” she pushed him away, but he held on to her for a moment and bit her earlobe. She almost jumped him right there. Fighting with James always did that to her.
After he drove off in their one vehicle, a beatup Honda Odyssey van, Ronda went to the bedroom and exchanged her robe and pajamas for jeans, a flannel buttondown, and Redwing workboots. She collected her hardhat and a plastic grocery bag of lunch food, locked the house and set out for the one mile walk to the construction site. After James had landed the assistant professor position with Boise State’s Biology Department and they’d moved to this town, Ronda couldn’t find work. It had been three months now, and even with her Masters in Business Administration and years of experience in public relations, no one was hiring. Or maybe no one wanted to hire her. Finally last month she’d fallen back on the work that had put her through college, before she’d met and married her husband. Construction. Her father had been a foreman for a leading contractor in Atlanta, and Ronda had worked on his crews since the age of fifteen.
The morning was cool and redolent with October aromas. And for Ronda, more than burning leaves and coming snow. She could smell the rot of a roadkilled squirrel two streets away: a red burble of guts and offal and asphalt. Three houses up, Greta Jameson had left her kitchen window open as she rummaged in her fridge, and Ronda could taste raw meat – hamburgers for dinner, kids – and the musty funk of Greta’s night sweat. Greta was a stay at home mom and even though she was sweet and matronly, Ronda couldn’t seem to warm to her. She could tell that Greta harbored a kneejerk disdain for Ronda – working class, black, and outspoken – that she tried mightily to both conceal and overcome. Maybe some day they might be friends, but Ronda doubted it. Greta’s kids were unruly little brats anyway.
Ronda turned her thoughts back to her own business. She would never admit it to James, but lately she’d been thinking seriously about staying in construction. There was something about swinging a hammer and driving a forklift that satisfied her in a way no desk job or press release ever could.
She laughed, strolling down the treelined suburban sidewalk. Unfortunately, Darryl and his buddy Chris were coming toward her down Shoshone Street, and they heard her. She caught their scents too late and cursed herself; how had she not noticed that cloud of cheap cologne and last night’s Jim Beam? Dammit to hell. She might have slipped past them and kept going down Teton, if she hadn’t laughed.
“Heeyyy, Ronda!” Darryl called out. “Heyyy, there lady,” he strutted a little, swinging his own lunch bag and quickening his pace to reach her. He had long legs and a rangy, looselimbed way of moving that was more akin to stalking than walking. Chris puffed along trying to keep up, looking slightly worried, as he should. Darryl pointed his narrow face at her and lifted his chin slightly in greeting.
“Morning, Darryl,” Ronda said, and kept going, head down, arms and knees pumping, walking as fast as she could without appearing to hurry.
“Where you goin’ so fast? Whyn’t you walk with us? We goin’ the same place, right?”
Ronda ignored him. It was the only thing to do. Half a mile to go. He never bothered her at the site. He was annoying, but not stupid. It was 1996, not 1966, and even though she still had to listen to bad Anita Hill jokes, their foreman made it a point to remind all the new employees of sexual harassment laws. She tried not to think about how different her world might be if that weren’t the case.
“Rondaaaa,” Darryl sang out behind her. She thought he might be closing in, but dared not look back. He would give up after a few minutes, if past incidences were anything to rely on. Unlike some of the other guys, Darryl was all bluster and no muster, as her father might say. And Chris was weak. Still, knowing all this didn’t stop her from wanting to turn around and run Chris down like a deer and rip his throat out. What prevented her from this, she couldn’t say.
She breathed hard through her nose, licked her lips, and kept walking. The construction site was up ahead: chalk dust, iron, and the early morning fresh perspiration of men. Ronda focused on that and let her limbs carry her forward, faster than Darryl or Chris could keep pace.
She didn’t see the two teenagers on bikes rolling at her down the sidewalk as she started across the road. They were going the wrong way, and so she didn’t clock them until they were both right on top of her. Two greasy-haired boys in jeans and hoodies with snarls on their pimply faces. She finally smelled acne lotion and dirty boxer shorts in time to spring backward, pissed at herself for being off her guard this morning.
“Watch where you’re fuckin’ goin’!” The bigger boy yelled at her as he cruised past without braking, leaving a waft of adolescent boy-stank in his wake. The back of his hoodie advertised Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell tour, and Ronda thought: that’s right, welcome to my life in Idaho. Cowboys from hell.
The second boy followed, glaring at her with a scrunched-up face like an angry mutt and jabbing his middle finger in her direction. Neither one of them slowed down, and they surely would have plowed right through her had she not moved faster than a human. For the second time in ten minutes, she laughed aloud. Something about the boy’s face and his simmering pubescent rage struck her as hilarious.
Pantera braked suddenly in the middle of the road, skidded out in a 180 and zeroed his beady eyes on where she still stood in a semi-crouch on the sidewalk. Uh oh, she thought, meeting his soulless gaze. Target Acquired.
“Yeah!” Muttface chimed in, circling back on his dirtbike, standing on the pedals and staring her down as he coasted past, so close that Ronda took a step back and almost tripped over the curb. She thought of Lulu, and the possibility that her only child would some day attend school with cretins like Pantera and Muttface. Unacceptable. But what could she do right now?
Before she could respond, she caught Darryl’s boozy scent as he approached with Chris, upwind.
Back off, Ronda thought, and it took every ounce of will she had to batten down her wrath and replace it with meekness.
“I almost tripped over my own feet,” Ronda told the two teenagers, who were now cycling around her like a pack of hyenas, so near she could count their zits.
“Yeah you did,” Pantera muttered, and spat on the sidewalk.
“Yeah!” Muttface barked.
Ronda did not laugh again. Man, she wanted to. But being silent calmed her. Her heart began to beat at a subdued pace.
She took a step forward, intending to keep going. Down the street at the job site, Adam’s table saw whined and sparks snapped in the chilly air. So close.
But Pantera and Muttface followed, zigzagging around her on their bikes, swooping across her path and trying to cut her off. They laughed too now, especially when Pantera reached out and thwacked Ronda’s baseball cap off her head. It flipped backward and landed in the gutter on top of a matted drift of dead maple leaves, and Ronda felt a cool breeze tickle her forehead. She ignored the boys and squatted to pick up the hat – no way would she bend over in front of the little bastards. She’d pick up her hat and keep moving and they’d get bored soon.
She would have done that. Really, she would’ve. But after she put her cap back on, before she could stand, Pantera swerved on his next round, and his knee bumped her shoulder. Might’ve been an accident. Ronda lost her balance for a second, but she also lost her control. She was up on her feet before Pantera coasted past her, and she was in front of his bike before he knew it. She reached out and put her hand on the dirtbike’s handlebars and kicked at the front tire of the bike with her left workboot. The bike tires screeched with a sudden smoke of burning rubber, the bike flew backward like a discarded toy, and Pantera was launched forward into her arms. Ronda caught him easily in midair, and held him aloft with both her fists gripping his grimy hoodie. Dimly she heard the squawk of Muttface’s brakes and the rasp of his bike tires on the pavement as he came to a stop and goggled at them.
Pantera froze, dangling in midair like a dogtoy and gazing down at her with a priceless expression on his face – equal parts puzzled surprise and instinctive fear. She savored it, and then she saw Darryl and Chris rounding the corner.
“Don’t you ever mess with me again,” Ronda told Pantera in a low rumble. “Or I will feed that bike to you, piece by piece. You got that?”
She dropped him, and he fell in a heap on the street. He never answered her, and was up and on his bike in seconds, pedaling away with Muttface – who kept glancing frightfully over his shoulder all the way down Teton Street.
Darryl saw it all.
“Hey, Ronda,” he greeted her casually. “You always start off the morning beatin’ up the neighborhood kids?”
Ronda glared at him, but he wasn’t mocking her now. She sniffed, then wiped her nose. “You know those boys?”
Darryl nodded. “Wish I didn’t,” he replied, eyeing her with his usual unwarranted appreciation.
Chris hung back in apprehension. Ronda thought he would’ve dropped to the ground and showed her his tender white belly if she’d demanded it.
“I didn’t like their manners,” Ronda said.
“I don’t like their faces,” said Darryl, and when he laughed, she found to her surprise that she was laughing with him. “You must bench 130,” Darryl added, probing her body with his eyes in an altogether new way. “Maybe 140? Don’t be askin’ me to lift nothin’ for ya when we’re workin’.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Ronda promised him. The three of them continued walking down the street. This was not a workday story she would be sharing with James that night. But she wished she could. She didn’t trust Darryl any more now than she did twenty minutes ago, but maybe he wasn’t as bad as her instincts had told her. He wasn’t wary of her, though, and that could prove either useful or dangerous, in the same way that Chris’ anxiety could work for or against her some day.
By now they had reached the site, a two story, three bedroom home that was coming together a week ahead of schedule. Ronda relished the hours of manual labor ahead of her. She needed to burn off her aggression. Darryl and Chris couldn’t possibly have noticed, but she was shaking with unspent adrenalin. Anyone like her in a two mile radius could’ve caught a whiff of it.
“Ronda!” Eric Walters, the foreman, called her over as soon as he saw her. “I need you to swing by the office and pick up a few things.”
“Yeah. Take the truck.” He handed her the keys. “I walked off this morning and left the damn plans sitting on the worktable.”
Ronda almost blurted out well why don’t you take the truck and go get ’em yourself, but gritted her teeth and choked back the words. Eric’s wife was three months’ into chemotherapy, and he had potentially more shit to deal with than Ronda could claim. Ronda always scented a pall of death and sickness on Eric and couldn’t ever stand closer than arms length. Still, he’d chosen her to run errands for him. Of course he had. The only woman on the crew, the only non-white, and who knew which of these made her the least necessary. No matter that half the boys spent the days when Eric wasn’t on site smoking weed and sitting around while she, Darryl, and a few of the other jerks actually got some work done. More points for Darryl, she realized.
Ronda took the keys from Eric.
“Becky’s got everything ready for you, and she knows you’re comin’. Thanks, Ronda.” He started to walk away, then turned back. “Bring me a coffee, too?”
Ronda opened her mouth, not even sure of what she might say, and Eric laughed. “I’m kidding,” he told her.
Ha ha, she thought, but forced herself to give him a big smile. She saw a twinge of unease in his eyes before she pivoted away and headed for the big blue Ford F350 Super Duty that gleamed in the dirt driveway. She’d driven it before – oh yeah, not the first time Eric had sent her out as his errand girl – and captaining the big beast down the streets of Boise was perhaps the only reward for being a lackey.
She climbed up onto the plush bench, tossed her hardhat and her lunch sack on the passenger seat and slammed the door, leaning forward over the wheel without realizing it. To keep away from the gun rack behind her head. Eric’s hunting rifle was the only thing Ronda didn’t like about his truck. She didn’t like guns. Too many close calls. Gun oil smelled like terror to her. It made her think of home, the home they’d had to flee after James’ family had been –
Nevermind. No point in thinking about that. They were here now, and she’d decide how safe here was soon enough.
The rumble of the Ford’s engine shook the frame of the half-built house like an avalanche, and Ronda smiled with genuine pleasure. She didn’t like the diesel stink, but it was better than unwashed teenager or chemo reek. She threw the truck into Reverse and backed out onto the street. Adam straightened up from sawing a sheet of plywood and saluted her. She returned the gesture as she drove off.
The offices of Walters & Sons Construction occupied a doublewide trailer painted the color of mashed potatoes and set down cockeyed in a weedy lot near Overland and Vista. At least, Ronda decided, traffic was a concept that had yet to occur to Boise. She made the trip to the office quickly, parked the truck as cockeyed as the trailer, and hurried up the steps and through the unlocked door.
Becky, the office manager, was typing away at her giant putty-colored computer keyboard while Scott stood at the filing cabinet stuffing manila folders into an already crammed drawer. The crappy paint-splattered clock radio on top of the cabinet was blaring the opening chords of a Loverboy hit from ten years ago, and Scott was bobbing his head to the beat.
The inside of the trailer was stuffy and dusty and stank like a livestock pen. Even so, or maybe because of that, Ronda liked being here, a feeling she refused to scrutinize too intensely. She had no business at all enjoying the company of either Becky or Scott, but nonetheless, she did. Very much. She considered them, against all reason and instinct, her friends. And she knew they liked her, too. At first, it hadn’t seemed possible, because at first, both of them had been totally frightened of her.
Becky stopped typing without looking away from her squat, boxshaped computer monitor, and Ronda saw the young woman’s nostrils flare. There was a quick flash of nervousness that made her fleshy chin quiver, but it was gone soon enough and then Becky swiveled in her chair to acknowledge that Ronda was standing over her. Ronda had time to think: the woman is almost the same shape as her computer, and then Becky smiled at her, slapping her hefty thighs and bouncing heavily in her chair.
“Hi, you!” Becky blurted. “Eric radioed in that you were comin’ by. Didjoo getta drive The Beast?”
Ronda nodded, and sat down on the corner of Becky’s desk. Becky rolled backwards a little and crossed her arms over her chest. She was a squat, rosy, doughy woman with wide blue eyes and a highpitched voice. She looked like she should be churning butter and harvesting tulips on a Dutch farm. She handled all the company’s bookkeeping and human resources with the help of Scott, who was a senior at Boise State majoring in something Ronda couldn’t remember. Something that James would no doubt consider useless like Art History or Womens’ Studies. He rock climbed every weekend at places like the Black Cliffs and City of Rocks, and he was as muscled and tan as Becky was flabby and pale. The two of them got on like brother and sister.
Just then, Scott turned toward Ronda, started air guitaring to Loverboy, and singing along.
“I’m not a man…or machine…I’m just somethin’…IN BETWEEN….whoooaaaa whooaaaa ohhhh!”
Becky snorted with laughter, her neck quivering. Ronda remembered the first day she’d run into Becky outside of the office. It had been one blustery late September afternoon at Lulu’s school. Becky had been waiting to pick up her own child, Kara, and was standing with the other moms on the sidewalk outside the kindergarten wing. As usual, Ronda waited alone; none of the moms deigning to greet her, or even acknowledge her presence. They sidled farther away from her like a nervous herd. Except Becky. Only Becky had broken away from them and tentatively approached Ronda with wide eyes and fluttering hands and a hesitant, don’t-I-know-you smile. The porcine Becky had smelled at that moment like sacrifice and tears to Ronda, and she still wasn’t sure how she might have reacted had her Lulu not come running out of the door at that moment, grinning and giggling and holding hands with Becky’s daughter.
“Heyyyy Ronda,” Scott drawled. “What’s up?” He was still lazily air guitaring, his knobby long-fingered hands noodling around on an imaginary fretboard.
“Running errands,” Ronda replied wearily.
“Runnin’ for the boss man,” Scott nodded, riffing to the music.
“So did James say yes?” Becky asked in her girlish voice. “Kara won’t stop asking me if Lulu’s gonna do the mutton bustin’.”
Of course, Ronda had not mentioned anything about Kara being one of Lulu’s prime motivational factors for wanting to compete in the sheep riding tournament. As much as Ronda liked Becky, James absolutely did not. And he had even less regard for her offspring. They had weekly fights about Lulu going over to Kara’s house to play.
“He said yes,” Ronda nodded. “Took a little extra effort to wear him down, but Lulu’s in. I’ll sign her up today.”
“Oh yay!” Becky squealed, and bounced in her chair. “Kara’s gonna be soooo excited.”
“Lovin’ every minute of it!!” Scott belted out along with Loverboy. His brushy fu manchu style chinbeard – four inches long – flopped as he headbanged some more. Several times he’d innocently complimented Ronda on her ripped arm muscles and invited her to go rock climbing with his gang, but she’d declined. She came closer to accepting each time though, mostly to see if, working his way from crack to crevice on a wall, Scott did indeed resemble a mountain goat, as she suspected.
“Shoot me like a rocket…into spaaaaace!” Scott sang, and Ronda couldn’t hold back a laugh. Scott reacted less dramatically than Becky did when Ronda showed him her teeth, but still she turned away politely and started to ask Becky if she wanted to have lunch later that week. A voice in her head, one that sounded uncomfortably like James’ voice, said ask her if she wants to BE lunch later this week, here piggy piggy piggy.
The office phone rang, and Becky simultaneously held up a chubby finger to Ronda, meaning wait a sec, and pointed her other finger at Scott, meaning turn that music down.
“Walters and Sons Construction this is Becky speaking how may I help you?” Becky gulped out, the phone already in the crook of her cushiony shoulder so she could stuff envelopes while she talked.
Scott watched his boss, then smirked at Ronda. “I’m not into that whole multitasking thing like she is,” he shook his head. “I’m a one-task-at-a-time dude, you know? Singletasking! Lovin’ every minute of it!!”
“I hear that,” said Ronda. She began to pace around the furniture in the office’s cramped waiting room, which consisted of a battered naugahyde love seat and a cracked glass-and-brass coffee table that looked as if it still bore coffee rings from 1981. A few wrinkled copies of Time magazine lay strewn about, as well as the October issue of Rolling Stone. The magazine’s cover showed a picture of Tupac Shakur, who had died less than a month ago, on the very day Ronda accepted the job with Walters and Sons.
Scott was standing next to her. He had that way about him, unlike Becky, of moving in close and nudging her, then backing off, prancing around as if he wore climbing shoes instead of flipflops all the time. He glanced down at Tupac, looked into those somehow sad eyes as Ronda did the same.
“Too bad about that guy,” he said. “I liked that last album.”
“I liked them all,” said Ronda. Tupac had not been perfect, far from it, but he’d been real, and most times the only thing that had helped Ronda with her own reality had been his music. She had been so furious when he was killed, and shocked at her intense reaction when she saw it on the news. Lulu had been playing outside with Kara, and Ronda had locked herself in the bathroom, turned on the shower, and screamed into a towel so that James, who hardly appreciated any music that he didn’t hear on NPR’s classical hour, couldn’t hear her. She’d ripped the towel off the bar so hard she’d pulled the bar right out of the wall. James never used the guest bathroom anyway, so she’d fixed it before he ever had time to notice.
There was a book on the coffee table, too. Seeing it, she couldn’t believe her eyes hadn’t been drawn to it first. On the cover: the close up photograph of a silver-furred, yellow-eyed wolf. She locked eyes with the creature and a shiver of recognition ran through her. She read the cover. Barry Holston Lopez. Of Wolves and Men.
“What’s that book?” Ronda asked Scott, and he danced away at the sound of her voice, then darted back to pick up the book.
“S’mine,” he told her, now a bit uneasy, glancing from the image of the wolf to her face. “Readin’ it for my Lit of Natural History class. We’re gonna have a big debate.”
“Debate?” Ronda stared at him, and Scott backed away, mistaking her confusion for something else…malice? Hunger?
“You know, about the issue,” he said, frowning at her. He put the edge of the paperback against his bottom lip as if he wanted to chew on it, then jerked it away. “The wolf reintroduction, man. Like, sixty gray wolves from Canada that they just put back into the wild last year, here in Idaho – central Idaho – and down in Yellowstone? Cuz you know, the wolves have been extinct in the Lower 48 since, like, the 1930’s. And now the Feds are all hey let’s put ’em back, even though the first cow they killed, every redneck and rancher in a hundred mile radius is goin’, open season, dude, let’s shoot us some wolves!”
“No,” Ronda shook her head.
Behind them, Becky jabbered into the phone, “I’m sorry but Eric’s out at a job site right now. I’ll be happy to tell him everything we just discussed and -”
“No,” Ronda repeated. “What’s there to debate? It’s illegal to shoot wolves,” she told Scott. Thinking, that’s why we moved here, dammit. Because there’s safety in numbers. And protection.
Scott was watching her, round-eyed, and now he actually was nibbling on the corner of the book. He looked so ridiculous with his square teeth pressed into the wolf’s fur that Ronda didn’t know whether to rip the book away from him or bite him. The whole situation was ridiculous. It was patently absurd.
“Maybe…maybe you should come to the debate,” Scott suggested, tucking the book under his arm. He raised his eyebrows and seemed so harmless and docile in that moment that Ronda felt a surge of guilt. “Doesn’t your husband…isn’t he in the biology department? Maybe he’s goin’.” Scott fidgeted, shifting on the balls of his nimble goatfeet.
“He probably is,” Ronda said, trying to make her voice sound less like a growl. James had done a great job of portraying the wolf reintroduction as something that everyone in Idaho cheered for. How had she been so stupid to believe him? Or had he really believed moving here might be a good idea? She thought of Eric Walters’ gun rack, and a low whine almost slipped out of her throat.
“What’re you guys talkin’ about?” Becky asked. She was off the phone, and snacking from a package of powdered donuts. Ronda turned, and Becky had white sugar dusted all over her chin and the front of her navy blue blouse.
“Books and stuff,” Scott answered, before Ronda could say anything. “Hey, Becky, I almost forgot, can I put in for some time off around Thanksgiving?” Scott skirted around Ronda and went back to stuffing folders into the filing cabinet, taking Of Wolves and Men with him and not looking back at Ronda.
Ronda watched him slip by her and wanted to reach out, yank on his goatee, and chew his face. She wanted to pull him into her arms like a lost child. Instead she began to pace the room again, letting out a long exhale. She needed to leave and get back to the job site. She was feeling too….volatile.
“Sure thing, hon,” Becky told Scott. “You know we’ll be closed day of, and day after anyway. Ronda, you got family comin’ for the holidays? You goin’ anywhere?”
“No,” Ronda answered. Everyone in our family is dead. Our pack is dead. “It’s just us,” she said.
“Quiet day at home with James and Lulu? Big turkey?” Becky smiled warmly.
Ronda didn’t know what to do. She wanted to hug Becky. She wanted to claw her soft cheeks.
“Yeah,” Ronda choked out. “Hey – where’s that stuff for Eric?”
“Oh – I almost forgot, I’m so sorry. I got on the phone and then that man was so rude to me.” She sighed and heaved herself up out of her chair, waddled around the front of the desk to the kitchen table that Eric always used to unroll blueprints and planning maps. “Lemme see….it’s this thing…and this….and that…” she handed Ronda a cardboard blueprint cylinder, an Ace Hardware bag full of drywall nails, and Eric’s plastic forty ounce Conoco coffee mug.
“Did he want coffee?” Becky asked, and Ronda almost flung the mug at Becky’s head.
“He asked for it, but he was joking,” Ronda grumbled. “So no.”
“Ronda,” Becky said quietly, standing her ground but trembling a little. “You okay today?”
Ronda could sense Scott listening, even over the thrum of the radio. It was Bad Company now. ‘Runnin’ With The Pack.’ Ronda found that she wanted to hear Loverboy again. Rewind and start this whole morning’s tape over.
I’m not a man, or machine, I’m just something in between.
“You got powdered sugar all over you,” Ronda said, dusting her off.
“Oh,” Becky blushed and looked down at her blouse, starting swiping at herself. “What a pig,” she chastised herself.
Ronda was already at the door. “You’re not a pig,” she said, wanting so badly to believe her own words.
Becky smiled shyly and mouthed okay, but Ronda didn’t think Becky believed her either. Behind the desk, Scott waved one of his files in a goodbye gesture.
“Have fun with the boys today,” Becky told Ronda.
“Lovin’ every minute of it,” said Ronda, and closed the door on their laughter.
She drove a mile down the road and then pulled the Beast over into the parking lot of a 7Eleven.
Her lunch bag was still on the passenger seat, and she grabbed it and hauled it into her lap and pawed through the contents. Cold chicken in tinfoil – two drumsticks and a thigh. Three big pieces of beef jerky. Saranwrapped half of a grilled T-Bone from last night’s dinner, and a Ziploc full of shaved ham. A package of sliced deli roast beef, and a bag of baby carrots. Ronda tossed the carrots aside, unwrapped the chicken and opened her mouth wide. She ravaged the drumsticks, pulled the meat off the bones with her teeth until nothing was left but gristle, then she devoured the thigh. She ripped into the steak next, barely chewing it before swallowing. Then the roast beef, so rare she sucked bloody juice from the bottom of the package. She ate the jerky last, tearing the tough hunks of it apart with her greasy hands. She couldn’t eat the ham. She had to push it aside. The ham smelled too much like Becky.
When she’d finished, there were gnawed bones all over her lap and the floor of the cab and bits of chicken flesh stuck to her jeans. She hastily cleaned up the debris and put it in her plastic bag with the Becky – with the ham – and the carrots, wiping her hands and face on a used napkin she found in Eric’s cup holder.
Ronda belched. She felt calm again. She drove back to the job site.
Ronda had hoped, though she would never admit it, that James would find a way to avoid going to the rodeo with them. But he was not the kind of father who would miss a single event in which his daughter participated. Tonight, as he drove them north to the town of Emmett and the Gem County Fairgrounds – Lulu jittering and chattering excitedly in the backseat – he could barely conceal the mixture of unease and loathing twisting across his face. Ronda could see him trying ardently to temper his disdain with pride and enthusiasm for Lulu, even as he pulled their van into the massive unpaved lot and piloted it through the crowds, dust clouds, and horse trailers.
“Get outta the WAY,” James grumbled, his huge shoulders hunched over the wheel. A mother with a stroller and two young boys toodled past them, moving too slowly for James. “We’re gonna have to park out in the back of beyond,” he added.
“I can walk, Daddy,” Lulu announced. “I got my pink boots on tonight so I can walk.”
“You bet, sweets,” James responded. Ronda knew he’d be carrying Lulu within two minutes. But she had indeed worn her pink cowgirl boots, and her sparkly pink cowgirl hat.
“Cuz I’m a big girl and I’m’onna ride da sheep, right?”
“You certainly are,” James said, gritting his teeth. Ronda elbowed him and he tried to contort his face into a smile. A sheepish smile, she thought grimly. He failed. James, when he smiled, could only achieve a wolfish leer.
“I’m a ride a sheep and I’m a get firssss place!!”
Lulu laughed with delight. “Hug the sheep!” she cackled, banging her little hockey helmet on her knees and kicking the back of Ronda’s seat with her pink boots.
“Lulu, don’t kick the seat, baby.”
They pulled in between a Buick wagon and a Cadillac Eldorado, the Honda van jouncing over muddy ruts as James nudged it into the narrow space. Lulu had already unbuckled herself from her carseat, but Ronda hesitated before opening her door, and noticed that James did too. They both knew it would be near unbearable. The noise, the odors, the people, the animals.
“Lesss goooo!!” Lulu stood up and poked her head over the console and into the front seat, her large dark eyes accusing first her father, then her mother. “Hurry UP!”
“Okay buckaroo,” James said, and Ronda snorted. Lulu giggled, that highpitched girly chortle that sounded half delightful and half false cheer every time.
Ronda opened her door and didn’t take a breath until she’d yanked open the rear slider to let Lulu out. When she did inhale, it felt like a punch in the face. The rodeo grounds, even all the way out here in the back forty, swirled into a dusty tornado of smells. Fried food, perfume, diesel exhaust, horse shit, sweet hay, livestock, piss-stained port-o-lets, stale beer. Somewhere, fresh blood. Ronda gagged, and then her stomach rumbled and she began to salivate. James came around the back of the van and as she saw his face she knew she wore the same expression. Hungry, pained, alert. He had been so worried about Lulu, who was now bouncing in her cowgirl boots and waving her padded gear and helmet for Ronda to carry. Ronda took it from her and looked again at James.
Our daughter’s just fine, she thought. How are WE going to get through the next few hours?
They locked the van and started to make their way down the nearest weedy aisle, falling in line with the rest of the throng straggling toward the arena. Ronda had Lulu’s gear slung over her left arm, Lulu’s hand in her right, and James had the other side. Lulu swung between them, kicking up brown dust puffs with her tiny bootheels. The crowd parted easily. People glanced around nervously and gave the three of them a wide berth. Lulu moved forward and cut a path through the herd, tugging her parents along behind her. The bright stadium lighting turned the night into day, and Ronda could hear live music, a bass thump and peal of electric guitar. The press of bodies moving close and then backing away made Ronda’s pulse pound in her ears.
“So how does this actually work?” James asked Ronda under his breath. Until now, he’d refrained from discussing any detail about the Mutton Bustin’ competition with her. Ronda was glad. It was too late now for him to deem any part of this unacceptable and pull Lulu out of the competition. The child would raise a screaming fuss, loudly and publicly, and James would never endure that. Partly, Ronda knew, because of his image in the academic community – though she doubted that any of those vegan liberals (Darryl’s words, not hers) from the college would stoop to attend a rodeo. But also because James loved Lulu and could not be so cruel. Ronda didn’t care to consider which part outweighed the other.
“All I know is…we check her in – there should be a table near the entrance. And then I’m sure they’ll send us to the chutes. They use the same chutes that the rodeo riders do – the sheep are waiting in the chutes as each rider comes up. When it’s her turn, her sheep’s in the chute, we’ve gotta lift her over the fence, and there’s a man who’ll put her on the back of the sheep just before they open the gate. And then she just – she hangs on for dear life, bareback, there’s no saddle. Really I think the sheep just runs really fast and takes sharp turns and tries to shake her off, and she’s gotta hold on. For three seconds. Or six. I can’t remember. Or until she gets bucked off or falls off. The clowns keep the sheep from chasing after her or trampling her -”
James made a scoffing sound at this. At all of it, really.
” – and the clowns herd the sheep back into the pen. And that’s it.”
“I’m not gonna fall off!” Lulu protested. Another child walking nearby with his mother flinched at the sound of her voice and shied away. He had black and white paint on his face – whiskers, cat eyes. Ronda remembered that there was a KISS tribute band playing tonight. She began to see more kids – and even some adults…good God, she would never understand that – with their faces painted to look like KISS members. Fake animals.
Ronda turned away. James was staring at her. Don’t say it, she willed. But then she raised her eyebrows at him, as if daring him to say out loud what they were both thinking. This is the most ridiculous, dangerous thing we’ve ever let Lulu do.
“She gets a souvenir trophy and a commemorative water bottle, just for competing. And a belt buckle if she wins,” Ronda informed James, who shook his head.
“I’m gonna WIN!” Lulu trumpeted. The crowd parted before them in a widening circle.
“I’m sure riding a terrified sheep is its own reward,” James offered, and was duly ignored by both his wife and daughter.
The crowd began to coalesce into a few loosely organized lines as they approached the gates. Ronda watched people’s faces as their bodies jostled closer and closer. All those faces, their pale skin bluish in the glare of the big lights. All those sheep.
“Daddy, pick me up,” Lulu warbled. James complied, and Ronda sidled closer to them, feeling protective. Their own faces, dark and alert, had no bluish cast, but instead a fierce glow. Lulu’s eyes blazed beneath her cowgirl hat.
Bottlenecking through the gates became a nightmare crush of limbs and breath and hair. People all around seemed to be hurrying to get through and get away. Ronda’s heart thumped in her chest so hard she could barely swallow. She could taste the cloying reek of garbage from underneath the stands, and the buzz from the KISS cover band’s amps grew louder and louder until it felt like a chainsaw in her brain.
LICK IT UP! LICK IT UP! WHOOOAAA OHHHHH OHHHH! DO IT RIGHT NOW!
James leaned down and put his lips to her ear. “The poetry of this song is simply sublime,” he mumbled, and Ronda relaxed, laughed. He had that skill. He could rein her in. He nuzzled her jawline, and Ronda smiled, then caught the eye of a young woman standing by the snack bar. She was frowning at them. Ronda looked away.
“There’s the booth.” Ronda pointed across the way to a long table with a banner that read WELCOME WOOL RIDERS!
They had to purchase tickets first, which seemed to go quickly. That was a relief, considering how antsy Lulu was starting to get. Ronda picked up on it and couldn’t stop watching their backs, every so often locking stares with someone who narrowed eyes at them. She wanted to find Becky and Kara. She dreaded to see Darryl. Or even Pantera and his mutty friend. Everyone around them radiated a simmering hostility tinged with unease. Ronda inhaled slowly through her nostrils, trying to pick up Becky’s scent as she followed James. Lulu gazed back at her from over her dad’s shoulder as he pushed through the turnstiles and into the open space near the bleachers.
Suddenly Ronda could smell nothing but the low musk of dumb beast. They were passing the sheep pens.
James stopped first, and Ronda pulled up next to him. They stared down at the animals. These were Ram Bouillet sheep: massive, girthy creatures with wide backs of matted wool. Their eyes lolled and their long white snouts lifted to scent the air. Ronda had a moment to think, we’re gonna let our baby ride one of these things all by herself?
“Hello sheepies,” Lulu called out cheerfully, waving a hand over them. One by one the sheep pricked up their ears and began to shift in the pen, stirring up clods of dirtpacked straw and a big, oily stink. They began to move away, at first slowly, and then with real panic, bleating and grunting and pushing against each other. People began to congregate against the steel gates, peering at the scene.
“What’s got ’em so spooked?” A man behind Ronda spoke.
Several of the closest sheep staggered backward, raised their tails and let fly with a barrage of brown pellets.
“Mommy, those sheeps poopied!” Lulu observed. One of the bigger animals opened its mouth and brayed loudly. It sounded like a scream. Suddenly the rest of the sheep were screaming, too.
“Let’s go,” Ronda told James, and prayed that Lulu wouldn’t make a fuss as they carried her away. The screams of the sheep sounded red, and their fear hit the air around Ronda like a slap.
“We’re gonna go get you signed in so you can ride your sheep,” James said to Lulu, in a preemptive attempt to distract her. “Are you ready?”
“Ready!” Lulu cheered. Ronda poked her in the tummy and she snickered, showing her teeth. “Mommy where’s Kara?”
“I don’t know, honey. They might already be here. I think Kara and her mama are meeting us near the chutes.”
They stood in a short line behind a little boy wearing leather chaps and a petite girl with a fake mohawk dressed in what looked like full body armor. Ronda took the opportunity to help Lulu into her padded vest and shin guards, still carrying the helmet. She knew Lulu would demand to wear her cowgirl hat as long as possible.
“Well, hello little lady,” the man behind the table greeted Lulu. “Are you ready for the ride of your life?”
Lulu became shy, and somehow smaller. She said nothing while enduring the process of checking in. She was weighed, measured, and deemed appropriate, though the woman behind the table did not smile as genuinely as the man.
“Okay, sweetheart, you’re all set now. Are you excited? There’s no reason to be scared of those sheep, you know.”
Now Lulu tilted her head up to look at the man. “I’m not scared of the sheepies,” she told him. “The sheepies is scared of me.”
“Ohh,” said James, “oh ho,” he chuckled, placing his hands on Lulu’s shoulders and steering her away from the table. Ronda didn’t look back.
They had given Lulu a nametag and her prize water bottle – which, once claimed, she refused to relinquish. James and Ronda were instructed to take their little wool rider around the walkway to the chutes. Ronda and James got nametags, too, theirs on lanyards.
Over here, the air smelled like nacho cheese and Marlboros, with a topnote of manure. The manure stench intensified as they skirted around the bull pens. One of the bulls, a giant of a creature with a shitcaked ass, swung its massive head around to watch the three of them as they moved by. James stared it down and the bull emitted a long, low moan and kicked at the back of its stall. Lulu was grinning at it with all her teeth showing as they passed, and when James noticed this he shifted her to his opposite hip.
The KISS cover band – they were called Strutter, according to the fiery letters sparking above the stage at the opposite end of the arena – had launched into a song Ronda had never heard before, but was probably called ‘Crazy Crazy Nights,’ since that seemed to be the only verse in the chorus. The volume level was intense and overpowering, rolling out across the empty arena like a shockwave. With almost every power chord, the stage erupted in a fury of pyrotechnics, and Ronda coughed as the burning fumes reached her. James hurried them around the gates’ curving arc and toward the base of the opposite stands. They found the chutes coordinator, were hustled down to their assigned chute, and waited. Lulu was second in line, behind the boy with the chaps, who had the requisite KISS facepaint and the ersatz baditude to go with it. Ronda thought she recognized him from Lulu’s kindergarten class, but had no idea what his name might be.
When ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ ended in a burst of applause and sparks, the boy turned to Lulu and gave her a very adult nod of greeting, thumbs tucked in his waistband.
“We got one more song and then I’m next,” he said. Now he looked slightly agitated.
“Okay,” said Lulu, unconcerned.
“Them sheep are really big,” the boy said. He was a sad puppy in his facepaint.
Lulu said nothing.
“This my first time,” he added.
“Me too,” Lulu allowed.
He gave a tight nod again, then darted over to a man standing nearby, who was talking to the chute handler. The man stooped and talked to the boy, and Ronda listened. She knew James was listening, too.
“You said you wanted to ride ‘im,” the man jerked a shoulder at the sheep waiting in the chute “So you’re gonna ride ‘im, mister.”
“But Dad, I don’t like it. He looks mean!” The boy shrank back, and gave Lulu an ashamed glance. Ronda could almost taste the kid’s fright.
“You’re not backin’ out now, d’you hear me?” Dad hissed.
James leaned over to Ronda and whispered, in mockery of the father, “You ride that sheep or you’re a disgrace to your family, boy! Dishonor!”
Ronda burst out laughing, and earned an evil look from the boy’s dad.
“Who’s that boy, Lulu?” Ronda asked.
“Justin,” said Lulu. “He’s scared of everything. Mommyyy, where’s Kay-rahhh?”
Ronda searched for Becky and Kara, and spotted them waving, three chutes back near the holding pens. They must have walked right by. Ronda couldn’t believe she’d missed picking up Becky’s scent. Kara must be further down the rider roster. Ronda hoisted Lulu up onto her hip and they both waved back. Kara, too, wore her sparkly pink cowgirl hat. She had a round face and a snubnose, like her mother. She seemed distracted by the vast crowd filling the stands behind and above them.
Standing with Becky’s husband was Darryl, and he was eyeing Ronda with an intense scrutiny that made her scalp prickle. She felt her nostrils flare and her lip begin to curl, but she hid this by quickly wiping at her nose. Darryl cocked his head, long hair hanging in his face. He favored her with a wily smile, and then turned away.
As soon as the next song began, the audience began to stomp the boards and clap in time with the frenzied beat. There was something primal about it, like a ritual enacted before a slaughter.
Ronda could sense the sheep shuddering in the chutes.
I….WANNA ROCK AND ROLL ALL NIIIIIGHT….
James made a point to fuss with Lulu’s gear and help her put her helmet on, but Ronda knew he was mostly trying to distract himself from the appalling music. Herself, she couldn’t help but enjoy it, and wondered if Scott was somewhere in the stands, air guitaring with his friends.
As soon as the song ended, and the applause died down, the rodeo announcer’s voice broke through over the PA.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, cowboys and cowgirls, buckaroos and buckarettes, welcome to the Gem and Boise Counties Rodeo! Put your hands together for Strutter!! That’s right! What! A! Showwww!!”
James put Lulu’s pink cowgirl hat on Ronda’s head, where it did not fit at all, and applauded with far too much enthusiasm for the rock band. Lulu jumped up and down between them, clapping ferociously. Ronda waved the pink hat in the air and then handed it back to James.
“Are you ready for some MUTTON BUSTIN’?!!!” The announcer bellowed, and the crowd erupted. The announcer kept yammering. “We’ve got twelve brave boys and girls ready tonight for their chance at glory! These little wool riders have got the guts and the skill and the helmets and they aren’t afraid of a little rough-and-tumble! They’re rarin’ to go! Let’s hear it for our first rider, in chute number one, Cody Thomas!! CODYYYYY!!!”
Ronda and James both craned their necks. Lulu practically crawled up James’ leg, and he picked her up and swept her atop his shoulders, padded gear and all.
Down at chute number one, Cody Thomas’ dad was peptalking his son, who had much greater enthusiasm than Justin. Ronda couldn’t see over the gate, but through the bars she could make out Cody after he was hoisted in the air and lowered onto a big grey sheep’s back. Cody leaned forward as if to give the sheep a bear hug, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck. And then the bell rang, the chute gate opened, and the sheep plunged into the arena, running for its life.
Cody hung on for a good three seconds, flopping around like a doll stapled to the sheep’s back. Ronda thought the kid might make it for the full mark, but the sheep swerved so hard to the right that the little boy lost his grip and went rolling off to land face first in the dust.
“Daaaamn,” James exhaled, sounding both impressed and disgusted. “It’s just 1-2-3, eat dirt.”
Cody Thomas rolled over and came up smiling, raised his hands in the air like a miniature rodeo rough stock champion. Two garishly painted clowns chased the frantic sheep around the arena while a third clown in baggy pants and rainbow suspenders hustled Cody back to the chute. The clowns finally got the sheep back in the pen, and Cody climbed up the rail at the far side to high-five his dad. The bleachers exploded with applause and whistles.
“Yessir, that was Cooooody THOMAS! And we are off to a very impressive start, ladies and gents!”
And so it went, with unsettling speed – an assembly line of kindergarten competitors – until it came to be Lulu’s turn. Justin had survived despite his terror, but not without tears. Ronda wanted to give the kid a high five herself, since it seemed that his own dad wasn’t going to, after the kid, his face a heartbreaking collage of paint, snot and tears, hobbled back to the chute, escorted by a capering clown.
“Justin did OK,” Lulu had commented, in a strangely mature tone that indicated she would most certainly do better.
The chute handler called them over. James let Lulu tumble down expertly from his shoulders.
“Let’s goooo,” Lulu pushed at Ronda’s leg. Her sharp teeth glinted, behind the rather sinister grill of her hockey mask, and she stared up at Ronda with a hunger that made Ronda feel unsettled and triumphant all at once.
James was eyeing Ronda. “This was a phenomenally bad idea,” he whispered, alternately squeezing the prize water bottle and kneading the little pink cowboy hat in his big hands.
Of course, he had to say it.
“Well, it’s too late now,” Ronda spat back. She didn’t even hear the announcer call out Lulu’s name, as she lifted her daughter up and over the gate and the big man in the plaid shirt and suede vest grabbed Lulu under the armpits and dangled her above the sheep’s broad back.
“You ready, Lulu?” the man in the vest asked.
“I’m ready, boys!” Lulu sang out, and all the men on the fence chuckled.
The sheep waited placidly, ready to accept its fate. Perhaps it was an old veteran of Mutton Bustin’, long accustomed to wool riders. There was a split second in between the moment Lulu settled onto the sheep’s back and wrapped her arms around its neck, and the moment when the starting bell clanged. In that pause, the sheep let out a mournful, horrible, bleating shriek. The chute handler looked startled, and leaned forward, to do exactly what, Ronda had no idea. But it was too late. The gate whammed open and the sheep bolted forward, taking Lulu with it, her pink boots digging into its woolly haunches.
“GO LULUUUU!!” A little girl whooped, and it was Kara, standing up with her legs astride the pipe-rail gate just down the way, waving her chubby arms and clapping awkwardly while her mom gripped the waistband of her jeans to keep the kid from toppling into the ring. Kara’s fluffy blond curls spun out around her round face in a luminous cotton-candy cloud that sparkled in the rodeo lights as she tracked Lulu and the sheep’s chaotic route with wide eyes.
Even James was hollering now, cheering on his daughter with a ferocity and volume that a few clapping onlookers heeded by shuffling quickly away. Ronda, finally realizing that she’d been hanging back out of – what? embarrassment? trepidation? – stepped to the gate and climbed up so she could see.
Her baby girl was out there, flying along on the sheep’s back, circling the edge of the arena as the clock ticked the seconds and the audience began to count along with it.
“FOUR!! FIVE!! SIX!!”
The buzzer went off, and still Lulu hung on. The crowd went nuclear, in a riot of booted thunder, stamping the bleacher boards and hollering like bloodthirsty Romans at a gladiatorial throwdown.
“Laayyydeez and Gentlemen! We have a new frontrunnerrrrrr! Oh, look at Miss Lulu there, she’s STILL hangin on! Can you believe it folks? INCREDIBLE!!”
Ronda’s nails screeked against the metal of the fence rail, and she was leaning so far out she almost flipped over.
The announcer laughed nervously into the microphone. “I think we need the clowns in there. This little rodeo queen ain’t gonna quit!”
“LULUUUU,” Ronda cried out desperately. “Time to let the sheep go, honey!!”
The sound of the crowd a rampage now, Ronda’s eardrums on fire, throbbing, her heart racing.
She couldn’t hear her own voice. She couldn’t hold back. She howled. She wanted to jump the fence. She want to throw her head back and laugh. She wanted to tear the sheep to shreds and feed Lulu the bloody pieces from her mouth. She howled again, and when she inhaled, she tasted blood and dust and realized she already had one leg over the railing, ready to leap into the pit. But Lulu had heard her. Of course she had. Lulu had good ears. She listened to her mama.
Lulu dismounted the sheep, where every other child had been violently thrown. Dismounted like she’d just finished practicing dressage and the sheep was her favorite stallion. Of course the sheep veered off instantaneously with a flutter-lipped bray of freedom, but Lulu kept on walking casually back toward Ronda and James. Just strolling along, waving like a princess, completely unfazed, while the rodeo clowns darted past her in frantic attempts to dog Lulu’s panicked sheep back to the pen.
The sheep almost knocked Lulu down in its wild run down the center of the arena, and the crowd let out a collective gasp, then rowdy applause when Lulu smacked its dirty butt on the flyby. The sight of Lulu’s tiny dark hand walloping the sheep’s hairy white rump made Ronda bark out a weird chuckle and clap her own hands together. That’s my child, Ronda thought.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ronda saw Kara giggling and teetering as the fence wobbled beneath her, she was so ecstatic with glee for Lulu, and Ronda thought okay, it was gonna be okay and her girl had just broken some kind of world championship mutton bustin’ record, damn right.
Then Kara fell off the gate.
At first Ronda thought Becky had pulled her down, because for sure that gate wasn’t too stable at all. One moment Kara was there, like a sunlit cherub in Ariats and an Elmo tshirt. The next, she was gone.
Someone screamed, a squeal of horror that split apart the raucous din like a razor splitting flesh. It was Becky.
“Kara! Kara sweetie get up! Oh my gawd John, John she’s hurt! She’s hurt and she doesn’t have her helmet on! John! Darryl! Somebody – please – get her outta there!”
Ronda thought, what’s the big deal? The girl, even as chunky as she was, could squeeze back through the space between rails easy. Hooking her arm through the top rail, Ronda dangled herself out to get a better look
Kara was on her knees in the dirt, squalling like a newborn and holding her fleshy left arm up at an unnerving degree. Broken, thought Ronda. Kara’s lip was was bleeding, too, and Ronda fought back a vicious urge to jump the railing, seize the child, and shake her. Kara looked like so much easy prey.
“Ohh shit,” Ronda gasped, and felt James’ hand on her back.
“You better look away,” he said softly. “Don’t want trouble.”
“I know,” Ronda grunted. “Where’s Lulu?”
“She’s comin’ back.”
Lulu had now noticed Kara in the ring, and halted, perplexed, cocked her head in almost the same way that Darryl had earlier. Sniffed the air.
“Come on Lulu!” Ronda yelled, and it came out in a roar. Nobody heard. Everyone near them was fixated on the plight of poor Kara, who was still sobbing while one of the rodeo clowns jogged across the arena toward her and Becky jiggled a fat arm through the gate trying to grab her.
The sheep, still loose and galloping in wide figure eights, dodged the rainbow-suspendered clown, kicked up a massive dirtclod with its hooves, and veered off again. Headed straight for Kara.
“Heeeyy!” The announcer piped up with a whine of audio feedback that made Ronda clench her hands tighter around the gate rail and gnash her teeth. “Get those clowns over there, awright?”
Kara was trying to stand up, but the booming voice over the loudspeakers startled her and she half-turned, overbalanced, and fell forward on her broken arm, just out of her mother’s reach.
The high-pitched shriek of pain that spiraled out of Kara almost knocked Ronda flat. The crowd sucked in a massive gasp of dismay, and Becky wailed and tried unsuccessfully to climb the fence. Kara rolled herself into a ball and shook with sobs, her pink face contorted in misery and smeared with dirt.
The sheep, disoriented by the child’s cries, careened toward the pens, almost mowed down a rodeo clown, and then doubled back at highspeed, ten yards from where Kara lay.
Sacrifice, thought Ronda, and loathed herself as she felt her stomach growl. She swung a leg over the rail.
“What the hell’re you doin’?” James yanked at the back of her shirt.
“KAAYYRAAHHH!!!” A shrill voice pealed out, and Ronda whipped her head around. Lulu was closer now, but she’d ripped off her hockey mask and dropped it to the ground. On her young face was a look of fury and despair that Ronda had never seen before. Her eyes blazed. “MOMMY!!!! Mommy Kayruh’s HURTED!!”
Becky’s husband John, just as girthy as Becky, couldn’t heave his bulk over the fence, and the cowboys in the chute had waited too long to try and open the gates. Ronda saw that she had maybe five seconds to get to Kara before the sheep did, if it kept coming. Surely it’d turn away and not trample the child, but tonight Ronda had already seen worse things happen to several of the kids who’d been bucked off, and those kids had been wearing hockey pads and masks.
What Lulu might do, though, Ronda feared much more. We can’t leave this town, too, she thought, with grim determination, and sprang into the arena. Behind her, James grunted her name and she ignored him.
Ronda landed on all fours and lifted her head. The reek of lanolin and blood and grassy feces roiled in her sinuses. Dimly, she heard the pound and surge of the audience, every heart beating in a dissonant rhythm. She saw Lulu running hell bent toward her – no, toward Kara, a savage intensity pulling her tiny mouth into a snarl.
Oh no, baby don’t, thought Ronda, and she leapt forward.
Movement to her right caught her eye as she ran. Darryl. He vaulted the fence, touched down and kicked off into a graceful sprint, and Ronda had a quick moment to think to herself, in stunned amazement: what are you, then, that I never sniffed you out?
He seemed to be heading straight for her, and Ronda saw that all four of them – herself, Lulu, Darryl, and the stupid mutton, might collide in a bone-cracking explosion of wool and muscle, but she kept on. If she could scoop up Lulu on the fly and keep going, she’d leave Darryl to whatever he intended. Surely he meant to help Kara?
Ronda gulped in air, saw Lulu covering ground in a low, speedy crawl, and knew she wasn’t going to make it in time.
The sheep never slowed, barreling toward Kara – until the moment when Lulu tackled it. It made a sound halfway between a yip and a mewl and then Ronda could see nothing but a blur punctuated by hoofkicks and Lulu’s high-spirited howl of triumph. The sheep, Ronda thought dazedly. The sheep, not the piglet. Lulu hadn’t hurt her friend. She’d helped her.
The horde of people in the bleachers thundered like a summer storm, and Ronda couldn’t even hear her own keening wail, a noise that threatened to become a crazy bark of laughter, or a yelp, she didn’t know which. A blind madness overtook her.
Before she could reach Kara, Darryl got there first, swung past the child’s prone form and snatched her up by the collar of her tshirt. She kicked and hollered as he swept her up, her pale belly heaving and then she was over the rail and in Becky’s blubbering embrace. Then Darryl wheeled and came at Ronda.
“Get your pup off that sheep right now!” he barked, and slammed into her broadside with his haunch. He was smaller than Ronda, but wiry and agile, and she stumbled and almost rolled.
She would have turned on him, would have pushed him down and tore into him, but over his shoulder, she saw James. He was standing atop the rail and yelling at her, waving his arms, but she couldn’t hear him. His mouth moved soundlessly, his eyes juddering whitely in their sockets.
Ronda glanced up. A thousand pairs of human eyes nailed her in place like a lifeless hide tacked to a trophy wall. All eyez on me, she thought, with giddy rage. And Lulu. Dammit.
Mutton bustin’. Ronda scowled. Indeed. She whirled, and in two strides had her claws tangled in the sheep’s greasy wool, yanked hard and pulled the struggling animal free from Lulu’s grasp. In one swift motion, Ronda whipped the animal aside, and it tumbled onto its back, flipped, and shook itself to standing. No blood, Ronda observed with relief. Lulu still had her baby teeth.
The mutton gave a quick, irritated baaaa, and then spun and ran headlong into one of the stupefied rodeo clowns.
Darryl was at her side. “You better cry,” he snapped at her. “And make it look good. Your kid just got attacked by a sheep, awright?”
Lulu was up on her feet and ready to launch herself after the mutton, but Ronda grabbed her and pulled her close, lifting the child into an embrace. “Ssshhh,” she whispered to her quivering daughter, who kicked at her and tried to bite her neck. “Stoppit,” Ronda yapped softly. “Lulu. Sweetie. It’s me. It’s Mama. Ssshhh.”
“Mommyyyy,” Lulu snuffled. “Where Kaahhaa heeyy ruhhh,” she began to sob. “Where Kara? Didda sheepie huh huh hurt Kayyy ruh??”
“She’s okay, baby. You’re okay.” And the damn sheep is too, Ronda sighed. Damn sheepies are always okay.
In the stands, applause began as a slow ripple, like a faraway rain, then grew to a downpour, surrounding the three of them in a cacophony of chants and whistles.
“AMAAAAZING!!” The announcer declared. “I don’t know about you folks, but that was definitely the show-stopper tonight! Let’s give this little girl and her mom a big ol’ rodeo cheer!!”
Ronda eyed her coworker, her chin resting on Lulu’s shoulder as the girl clung to her neck. James was walking across the arena toward them, a mix of possessive fury and perplexity – and relief – on his face.
“No, you owe me,” Ronda countered, beholden to no man, white or black, pack or not, human or otherwise. “You owe me some answers about what you are.” She paused, considering. “My husband grills a mean steak,” she told Darryl. “I think you need to come over for dinner some time.”
Darryl surprised her with a toothy grin, and a short, yipping laugh.
“Steak sounds good,” he replied. “I like mine rare.”
“I thought you might,” said Ronda. In her arms, Lulu woofed sleepily.
Lick It Up
Words and Music by Paul Stanley and Vincent Cusano
Copyright (c) 1983 HORI PRODUCTIONS AMERICA, INC. and STREET BEAT MUSIC
All Rights for HORI PRODUCTIONS AMERICA, INC. Controlled and Administered by UNIVERSAL –
POLYGRAM INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHING, INC.
All Rights for STREET BEAT MUSIC Controlled and Administered by UNIVERSAL – SONGS OF POLYGRAM
All Rights Reserved Used by Permission
Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation
Lovin’ Every Minute Of It
Words and Music by R.J. Lange
Copyright (c) 1985 OUT OF POCKET PRODUCTIONS LTD.
All Rights in the U.S. and Canada Controlled and Administered by UNIVERSAL – POLYGRAM INTERNATIONAL
All Rights Reserved Used by Permission
Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation