Tino Takes the Cake: Epilogue, American Road Trip by Sarah Black

March 16, 2018

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Chapter One Thursday

I bolted upright, a scream caught in my throat. The room was still dark, and Easy stirred next to me, reached up and whacked me between the shoulder blades. I coughed, then took a deep breath, sank back down on the pillow. I couldn’t stop shaking. Easy reached for me, pulled me over until I could bury my face in the warm skin of his neck. “Was it the dream again? The wedding?”

“A new one,” I said. “Tino. That little shit was walking up the aisle, wearing a white veil. At every row of chairs, he stopped, lifted his leg, and peed on the feet of the…”

Easy sat up, cutting me off. “I swear to God, I’m giving you a pill.”

“There is no pill,” I said, trying to stuff the pillow over my face. “No pill, no power on earth. I mean, do we even know how old he is? I think he’s something like twenty-three. That isn’t normal.”

“Twenty-three is just a baby.” Easy rolled out of bed. “I’m putting the coffee on.”

“Twenty-three is not a baby in dog years,” I said, but I was already talking to his back. I was seriously considering the possibility that Tino was one of the undead.

Maybe the wedding was causing me to take leave of my senses, as Easy has suggested more than once in the last two weeks. But it wasn’t just the wedding. It had been a busy time. We’d moved to Flagstaff, with Tino and Austin, Easy’s cousin. We’d moved into a new apartment near the university, and Easy was already working as a barber. Mr. Dawes, from the Grizzly Motel, was letting Austin help with landscaping around the motel. The motel was mostly paved parking lot, with eight single-story rooms in the old motor-court style, so I wasn’t sure what needed to be landscaped. The motel was famous for the life-sized stuffed grizzly by the front door. When I went by to check on things, Austin was usually sweeping the parking lot, Tino dancing around his feet. Occasionally I spotted Mr. Dawes with Tino on his lap, both asleep in the big green recliner he had in the back of the reception area.

The Grizzly Motel was near Fat Man’s Loop, a popular Flagstaff hiking trail. I secretly dreamed of Tino trying to hike Fat Man’s Loop, and then a bear, or maybe a mountain lion, would slink between the sandstone and gypsum rocks, paws silent on the red dirt path. Tino would be trotting along the path, his overgrown battered black ears revolving like satellite dishes. The mountain lion would…

“James Lee. You’re fading out again.” Easy was standing in front of me, holding a cup of coffee. “You got to get it together, Captain. We’re still two days away and you’ve got too much to do to fall apart. You need to freak out, wait for the honeymoon.”

I grabbed the coffee, buried my nose in the cup. “Fine. I’m fine. I’ve got it all organized. Don’t worry. I’m on top of it. What time is it? We need to leave for the airport by seven.”

“We got time for showers and shaves. I sent Evelyn an email to remind her we’re coming by after we pick up mom.”

The complicated wedding logistics were organized like a military campaign. Nothing would go wrong, as long as the two wildcards in our hand behaved. Tino and Austin just had to do what they were ordered to do, exactly as ordered, and everything would go off as planned and on schedule. Easy I didn’t worry about. He knew how to follow a plan. We had a division of labor that was a natural for us, one that had been honed by years of working together in the same infantry unit. We were good. The problem was there were all these other people involved, and then there was Tino.

The dreams had started a while back, when I first started planning the wedding. The perfect plans, the perfect day, the perfect wedding in my dreams, and then Tino would be chewing on the cummerbunds, or biting the ankle of the minister. He would pop up in the back of the limo when we were leaving the church. He would howl like a coyote throughout the ceremony, drowning out the I Dos. He would climb into my mom’s suitcase, pee on her mother-of-the-groom dress. Every night, a new nightmare. I spent too much time trying to figure out what he was plotting.

What made it worse was Tino was behaving like an angel since we’d all moved into our new place. He slept in Austin’s room. We put his old pillow down at the foot of the bed, and he would curl up on the pillow to go to sleep, then by morning he would be snuggled into Austin’s side, his head pillowed in the V of a warm elbow. They were sympatico, and Tino seemed happier than I had ever known him. He was acting like a normal dog, not a demon from some Mexican dog-hell. But I knew him. I knew his black Chihuahua soul. He was biding his time, waiting for the wedding.

 

Chapter Two

“The bun’s more formal, but the braid seems more like you. It’s up to you, really. Just don’t leave it down. The women in the audience will spend the whole ceremony staring at your hair and wondering what product you use.”

“What?” I was fuzzing out again, thinking about Tino swallowing the rings, choking to death at the altar while the minister tried to do CPR. “What product?”

“That’s my point.” He looked at me for a long moment. “James Lee,” his voice was quieter, gentle now. “How would you like your hair for the wedding?”

“I don’t care. Whatever you think.” Easy was in charge of all hair-related wedding prep, as he was the barber. He was taking his responsibility seriously.

“A braid, then. Over your shoulder. The way you wear it when you’re relaxed, about to do your tai chi. It’s gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be fine.” His voice was soothing, and he was petting my leg.

“Where’re the rings? Have you seen them?”

“I put them in a safe place. I don’t want to give them to Austin until the last possible minute.”

“What safe place?”

“The freezer.”

The freezer? I thought about sticking my tongue on a piece of frozen metal, like that kid in the Christmas movie.

He looked over at me, started grinning. “Yeah, happy we went with the traditional rings! They won’t be cold by the time we put them on. Austin puts out a lot of heat.”

My father had come out to Flagstaff when we told my parents and Easy’s mom we were getting married. He wanted to tell both of us they were happy about our decision, and he gave me a check for five thousand dollars. He said it was left over from my college fund, since I’d got an ROTC scholarship, and he’d been saving it for whatever I needed.

I needed to put together a good wedding, something we could be proud of and look back on for the rest of our lives. I didn’t want anything slapdash and put together on the cheap. My dad knew that about me, or had guessed it. Easy said he came out to see us in person so I wouldn’t turn all proud and refuse the money. I immediately put half the money into an emergency fund.

I asked Easy what he wanted, and he took some time thinking about it. He liked the symbols, he said. But he wanted to feel like himself. Nothing fancy, to make him feel like a fool. If it was up to him, he said, we could just have a barbecue. Something the guys in the platoon could come to, and have fun, but our families could enjoy as well. A church wedding, with a real minister. Something real, he said, and something like us. I could work with those fragments of ideas. So we bought rings that would last a lifetime, and I figured out how to make a wedding with the money that was left.

Easy was shy around my dad, but Austin was even more gregarious that usual, took him hiking around Fat Man’s Loop. When they came back, my dad sent Austin out for Thai takeout, put a tired hand on my shoulder. “Son, that boy never stopped talking. Two and a half miles. I know more about Kaibab squirrels and surfboards than I ever wanted to know. I hope you two know what you’re doing.”

I gave him a quick hug. “If Easy and I know anything, it’s that Austin belongs here with us.” We were used to him chattering away nonstop. He’d done it for four years, wearing Army green. His TBI just made the topics of his conversations more interesting. “Did he bring Tino on the hike?”
My dad looked pained again. “He carried him in a baby sling. My God, I can’t believe that dog is still alive.”

**

We were picking up Easy’s mom at Sky Harbor International, and on the way back up to Flag we were going to pick up Evelyn, the Navajo woman who had hosted us at her hotel on our trip looking for Austin. Her husband had died a month ago, and she had closed up the hotel. Easy talked to her at the funeral, and she said she didn’t know yet what she was going to do. We asked her to come stay for the wedding.

Mr. Dawes, the proprietor of the Grizzly Motel, had reserved rooms for our guests leading up to the big day. We were getting married in the church downtown, and then we were coming back to the Grizzly for an outdoor reception, as close to a Tennessee barbecue as I could manage, with a ring of picnic tables under the big pines and Double XLs, the second best green chili cheeseburger in New Mexico, 1987, on the menu.
After the ceremony, Easy and I were going on a little honeymoon, a short trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Austin and Tino were going to stay with Mr. Dawes for a couple of days while we were gone. We were still debating the wisdom of leaving Austin and Tino alone and unsupervised, but Mr. Dawes said he had a project that would keep both of them busy for the weekend, so we could stop worrying.

The plane from Tennessee arrived on time and in one piece, though I could tell by the way Easy kept glancing at the board and looking around for emergency first responders he was sure disaster would strike. I told him if he mentioned birds, drones, or red laser pointers one more time, I was locking him in the van and picking her up myself.

“This is a big deal, her coming out here,” he explained, not for the first time. “She doesn’t like to get out of her safe zone. Sometimes I think she would make up a cot in the storage room at the library and stay there if she could.”

“Is it anxiety? A phobia or something?”

Easy shrugged. “I don’t think so. More like shyness.”

I didn’t say anything. Shyness and a cot in the storage room at the library were a bit of a disconnect for me, but we had enough to worry about. She came through the gate, and I knew her immediately. I felt my heart turn over in my chest with tenderness. She had Easy’s soft sandy hair and eyes of a stormy blue-gray in a face that was delicate, with high cheekbones. Her long fingers were white, wrapped around the handle of her purse like she was holding on for dear life. I nearly knocked a family of four aside to get to her. She looked startled for a moment when I put a protective arm around her, then she must have recognized me. Her face flooded with relief at seeing me, and she tilted her head onto my shoulder, murmured my name in that soft Southern accent. Then Easy was there, picked her bodily up and carried her out of the crowd.

“Easy, put me down.” He did, but kept his arms around her. “I’m so happy to see you two boys.” She blinked hard, then settled her purse again, put her hand gently against Easy’s cheek. He was staring into her face like he was checking a piece of crystal for cracks. “Son, I’m fine. It was a good flight. No problems.”

She looked like a character out of a Tennessee Williams play, in a pale blue shirtwaist and cardigan. She had probably been sheltered and wrapped up against the storms for her whole life. She turned to me and smiled. “James Lee. I am so pleased to meet you. You’re even more handsome than the pictures Easy sent me!”

“I’m pleased to meet you, too. And thank you for making the long trip out here for our wedding.” She slipped her arm through mine, and I gave Easy a look, pointed my chin toward her bag. “Have you ever been to Arizona?”

“No, I haven’t. I tried to get a look out of the plane windows but it mostly looked like city.”

“What would you like to see while you’re here? The Grand Canyon?” I was ready to invite her along on the honeymoon.

“Oh, no, you boys don’t bother with me. I know you must be busy. I came to see you, nothing else. You both look so happy.”

Easy was looking cranky I’d hijacked his mother and I looked as psychotic as most people look, two days before their wedding. I smiled weakly. “We are. Very happy. Especially now you’re here.”

Easy cleared his throat behind me. “Mamma, you hungry? We could get a burger before we get back on the road.”

Her eyes grew wide. “Oh, honey. I don’t think so. My stomach, it’s still a little nervous from the plane. But you boys go ahead if you want something. I can just have a cup of tea.”

I had seen Easy put an emergency Slim Jim in the glove box of the van when we left Flag. He would be fine. “Tea and bananas,” I said heartily. “That’s what I always like when my stomach feels nervous.” I could feel Easy’s eyes boring into the back of my head all the way down the concourse.

 

Chapter Three

Evelyn looked tired, her little roadside motel forlorn and a bit sad without the hopeful circle of lawn chairs in the courtyard. Her bag was packed and sitting next to the door, like she had been ready to leave for some time. She’d cut her hair off before her husband’s funeral, and I knew Easy was itching to straighten the ragged edges and give it some shape.

She climbed into the van, and I heard her and Easy’s mom murmuring greetings to each other. Easy carried her bag to the back, then climbed back behind the wheel.

“How is the little dog?” Evelyn went straight for the jugular.

“He’s good,” I lied. “He’s fine.” I heard her explaining about the javalina attack that had cost Tino one eye.

“I’ve never seen a javalina,” I heard Easy’s mom say, “though I have seen pictures of them. “They look like pigs, is that right?” I was having a bit of trouble calling her by her name, Janelle, and Mrs. Jacobs sounded too formal. Mom wouldn’t work, and I couldn’t call her mamma, like Easy. I had always thought of her as Easy’s Mom, but suddenly here she was, an entire person in her own right. Suddenly the name issue seemed like a critical piece of the puzzle I had somehow neglected. What was I supposed to call my new mother-in-law?

“What should I call her?” I asked Easy, out of the corner of my mouth. I heard Evelyn in the back seat explaining that javalinas were, in fact, cannibals.

Easy ignored me. “Hand me that Slim Jim, James Lee. I’m hungry.”

I should have thought of tea for nervous stomachs. There would probably be nervous stomachs all around. I could get a special blend from Adagio teas. That fancy cook shop downtown carried them. Maybe a small teapot, a cup, and tea bags and demerara sugar for each of the ladies. Mr. Dawes would let them brew tea in their rooms, right? I had seen this tea, hibiscus flowers and blood orange. It was a beautiful rich pink-purple, and it had a fruity, citrus flavor. Maybe that would be good for the wedding tea. Why had I not thought of wedding tea before now?
I turned to the back seat. “Is there anything you can’t eat? Food allergies? No problem with hibiscus? Rose hips?”

They both stared at me, startled, and shook their heads. I turned back around, thinking. Easy was giving me the side eye. “Why didn’t you remind me to get some wedding tea?”

“Settle down.”

I saw Evelyn hand Easy a green corn tamale from the back seat, steaming and wrapped in a paper towel. She had a little insulated lunchbox unzipped on her lap. He reached for it like the hungry boy he always was when under stress.

I looked back at them, and she passed one to me. Her face was impassive, but I thought I detected a bit of humor in her eyes. Like maybe I needed something tranquilizing in my tamale.

We settled them into their rooms at the Grizzly motel. Easy was going to stay with them, walk his mom and Evelyn around Flag if they wanted to stretch out after the drive. I suspected he had his gray leather pack of barber’s tools somewhere about his person. Evelyn had cut her hair off at shoulder length with a pocket knife after her husband died. She said that was the traditional way, and that actually, she liked it short.

Mr. Dawes had known Evelyn’s husband, in the way of the remaining few independent owners of roadside motels in Arizona knew each other, and I heard him offering his sympathy. Everyone looked busy, so I grabbed Austin for an emergency tea run. “Leave shithead here,” I said. Tino was already dancing around, racing from Janelle to Evelyn and sniffing at the luggage.

“We got wedding business, Captain?”

“We do,” I said. “We need to get some special wedding tea so each lady can have some tea in her room.”

“10-4.”

We walked downtown, parallel to the railroad tracks. “So,” I said, “what’s the latest sighting?”

When we’d first come to Flagstaff, we went up to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to stay in one of their camping cabins. One of the rangers told Austin about the Kaibab squirrels, a breed that only lived on the North Rim. It had developed into a unique species in the geographic isolation. The reclusive and shy squirrels seemed to like Austin, or maybe they liked Tino. He had been smuggled into the cabin in a baby sling. Austin saw them everywhere, their distinctive pointed ears making identification easy. Easy and me, we got used to relaxing in the quiet of the north woods, only to have Austin jump up, pointing and shouting, “Kaibab!”

Since we got back to Flag, he continued tracking the elusive squirrel, sure he had spotted several outside of their natural isolation up on the North Rim. His theory was that some of the squirrels had hitched rides in pickups or RVs, and were busy establishing a population in the trees of Flagstaff. He had started wearing both the baby sling and a pair of tiny binoculars around his neck.

“I think I’ve identified a nesting pair in those lodgepole pines back of the Grizzly.”

“A nesting pair? So that means we’re gonna see baby Kaibabs soon? When do they have babies?”

“Should be spring,” Austin said, with the expertise of a man who had been researching the breeding habits of squirrels. “But they stay in the nest until it’s safe. The thing is, there are hawks in those trees, too. That’s what I’m worried about.”

There had been long discussions around our place about what we were going to use in place of rice when the grooms left the church. Austin lobbied hard for pinons, as this little pine nut would bring the reclusive Kaibabs out of hiding. I offered wild bird feed, which would cover both the birds and squirrels, as pure pinons would be ruinously expensive. Easy put his foot down, nixed anything being thrown. “What the fuck is wrong with you two?” he’s said, effectively ending the discussion. “We walk out of the church, get in my pickup and drive away. That’s it.” The Kaibabs were on their own.

In the cook shop, we studied the array of teas. Austin looked at cups and teapots. “Hey. There’s a set here with Bride and Groom on the cups! Think they’ll sell us two Grooms?”

“Look for flowers,” I instructed, ignoring this. “Little violets or lavender, something like that.” Austin wandered off, and I saw him looking at spatulas with smiles cut into the silicone. A lady about the age of my mother came over to save me.

I explained what I wanted, and she nodded. “A tea service for one, matching cups and teapots, three different ladies, wedding weekend, so something special without breaking the bank. Teabags or loose?”

“Teabags,” I decided. “I don’t know about two of the ladies, but my own mother uses teabags.”

“You want a black tea, a green, like Jasmine or another floral, and some fruit-rich herbal.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “I had this tea here once, it was the most gorgeous purple color. Rose buds and blood orange?”

“Blood orange, hibiscus, and rose hips. Excellent choice,” she said. “Very high in Vitamin C. Good for the stress.” She patted me gently on the arm. “An Earl Grey? Earl Grey Moonlight is creamy, really lovely, and then something special, maybe Jasmine Dragon Pearls?” Her eyebrows winged up at this last, and she patted herself over the chest. “That one is truly extraordinary. If you bought a box of each, you could mix and match the teabags among the ladies. That would be three teabags of each variety, plus a few extras for you.”

“Perfect.” I had a feeling the Jasmine Dragon Pearls were going to cost as much as the rest of the party combined, but I was feeling both reckless and committed, a feeling I was starting to associate with wedding planning.

“We need tiny glass teapots,” she said firmly. “Part of the joy of these teas is to watch them steep, watch the colors develop, to see the dragon pearls unfold.”

“Okay,” I said. This train was picking up speed.

“May I suggest something?” She was biting her lip.

“Of course,” I said.

“Will you allow me to choose for you, and I can have everything packaged up for you in a half-hour? If you need to see about other arrangements?”

“Wonderful. Perfect.”

“I have seen you with your young man, down at the bakers. It’s my sister in law who’s baking your cake! I have some teacups that I think will match those sugared violets she’s putting on your wedding cake!”

I hadn’t realized how carefully I had been avoiding mentioning the gender of my partner in marriage until she spoke. I relaxed suddenly, felt the awkwardness and anxiety flow off of my shoulders like water. “Thank you,” I said, clasping her hands. “I trust you implicitly. We’ll be back in a half-hour.”

“You must have a look at your wedding topper,” she said, with a sparkling smile. I pulled Austin out of the shop, left her choosing boxes of tea from the shelf.

“We’re going to be eating peanut butter crackers for a month,” I told Austin, when we were back on the sidewalk.

“Okay with me.”

I looked back at him for a moment. I forgot sometimes how fond of him I was, his easygoing nature and strange squirrel fascinations. “Am I forgetting anything?”

He pulled out the list. “Tea, check in with the bakery, rosemary bushes.”

“Okay, let’s hit the bakery next.”

The bakery had a collage in the window that included wedding toppers of various gender-mixes, to be perfectly clear before a person walked into the door where they stood. Annie, the wedding cake specialist, wore a blue cowboy bandana around her head, a denim shirt and jeans dusted with flour. She came to the counter from the back, opened a little box with the cake topper. Two tiny men in black, one with a sandy blond flat top, one with a long black ponytail.

“Holy shit!” Austin was excited. “It looks just like them!”

Annie tucked it away again. “No touching.” She looked at me. “Delivery 0800 Saturday. Everything’s fine. We’re on track. Don’t call again, James Lee. I can’t spend all day on the phone.” Annie had been Navy. She understood me.

We swung by the nursery, made sure our small rosemary bushes in white ceramic pots were ready for delivery to the reception, then picked up the tea at the cook shop. The sales clerk had everything packaged up, just as she said, and I managed not to hyperventilate over the price. It would be worth it, I told myself, not for the first time. Our wedding was worth Jasmine Dragon Pearls.

 

Chapter Four

Easy had Evelyn sitting in his antique barber’s chair, the only piece of furniture he’d had shipped from Tennessee. His tools were laid out in their gray leather pouch, and Tino was curled up in her lap, asleep. His mom was in the kitchen, prepping a salad. Austin told me he was going to check on the Kaibabs. He wandered off, polishing the binoculars.

She gave me her sweet, shy smile when I went into the kitchen. I put the box down on the counter and turned to her. “I don’t know what to call you,” I confessed. “What do you think?”

“I was wondering if I should call you James Lee or Jamie,” she said. “For so long now Easy has called you James Lee when he talked about you. But do you prefer Jamie?”

“James Lee is fine with me. I’m just happy Easy’s talking to me at all.”

“I wonder if you would feel comfortable calling me Janelle? That seems best, don’t you think?”

“Janelle, then. Thanks for getting the salad together.”

“I needed something to do with my hands. Easy’s the same way. He needs to have something physical to do, because if he disappears in a book, you won’t see him for hours.”

“Did he read under the covers at night when he was a kid?”

She nodded, smiling. “I always wondered if other people slept with as many books in their beds as we did. If his books were overdue, I would check under the pillows and blankets first. Do you think everyone likes cucumbers?”

“As far as I know.”

“Oh, your mom called, said they had landed in Albuquerque, no problems, and were going to Moriarty to pick up John. They were heading this way early tomorrow.”

“Perfect.” I started running over logistics in my mind, wondering what I had forgotten. A couple of guys from the platoon were coming in tomorrow morning, just staying for the wedding and reception. Their room at the Grizzly was reserved. Easy had warned them we didn’t want any screwball antics, though I was planning to search their luggage myself for bells, cans of spray foam, glitter, old Army boots, and whatever else knuckleheads would be likely to attach to the back of a pickup truck. I didn’t even think about the reception. My parents were in charge of the reception, along with John, who was bringing his big catering grill. He would be serving Double XLs or some version of the same, as well as hot dogs, and was bringing a box of tee shirts in case anyone wanted to take the challenge. I just hoped that Easy and me would be far away before people started booting. Champagne and green chili cheeseburgers. My God, and wedding cake on top of that.

Janelle reached out, put a soft hand on top of mine. “It will all happen, one way or the other, James Lee. Some people and events are out of your control. It’s time for you to start enjoying your wedding, don’t you think?”

She said that now, but just wait until there was a seven inch Double XL sitting on her wedding china. “Would you like a cup of tea? We could try out the Blood orange and hibiscus. We’ve also got Earl Grey and something called Jasmine Dragon Pearls.”

Her eyes got wide at that. “I read something about those tea pearls, where was that? Maybe National Geographic, or Smithsonian? Anyway, each pearl is formed by two baby tea leaves, with an older leaf rolled around. They’re formed by hand, dried into the little ball. Then when they steep, the pearls unroll and the leaves infuse the hot water. The leaves are supposed to look like little dragons hatching from their eggs.”

“Jasmine Dragon Pearls it is.” I unpacked the box, noticed the lady at the cook shop had put in some tiny sugar spoons, tied lavender ribbon around the handles. I put everything out on the counter and filled the tea kettle. “I’ll let you do this part,” I said. Janelle was already reading the tea box. “Let me see if Evelyn and Easy want something.”

“Want some tea?” I asked, but Easy turned around, waved me off. I walked around the chair to see Evelyn. She had her eyes closed, the plastic cape snug around her neck. “Evelyn? Would you like some tea?”

“When we’re done,” she said. “If I move, he will give me a pixie.”

“I think you would look great in a pixie,” Easy said, “but also a pageboy.” I could tell I had walked into the middle of a complex discussion.
Tino hopped down from her lap, followed me back to the kitchen. Janelle held one tiny Jasmine Dragon Pearl in her fingers, then put it in her palm and held it out to Tino. He sniffed carefully, then picked up the tiny ball of tea in his teeth and carried it to his pillow. “I think he likes it! I’ve heard about the javalinas, and Austin told me it was a boomerang. Easy mentioned a knitting needle and a bar fight. So how did Tino lose his eye?”

“He used to ride with this motorcycle gang,” I said, watching her drop tea pearls into the glass tea pot. “He fell out of the sidecar and got run over.”

“Really. Interesting.”

The tea was good, very aromatic, and with a clear bright taste that I guessed had more significance than I realized. We watched the tiny pearls unfurl into their individual leaves, and I decided that the cook shop lady was on target about the clear glass teapots. Clearly tea theater was a bigger deal than I had previously understood.

Austin came back in with news of action in one of the Kaibab nests. “Either it’s a group home, or that nest is full of babies,” he said, looking toward the big barber chair. Easy had been trying to catch him for a buff-up for the last week. “Hey, have you heard about those guys who are climbing the big redwoods out in California? They have special gear, like spikes on their shoes, and they can even sleep up in the trees. Like, suspended in hammocks or something. I could climb up the next lodgepole over, get a look down into the nest. If I stayed there for a couple of days, they would get used to seeing me, right? And then they wouldn’t be afraid.”

The squirrels wouldn’t be afraid, I thought blackly, but I would have to tranquilize Easy until Austin rappelled down from the pines. “Let’s do our research first,” I suggested. “Maybe practice a bit. When we get back from the honeymoon, we can rig a practice harness like you used in basic. Remember, the buddy system.”

“Right,” Austin grinned and turned to Janelle. “Captain Hooker, he’s like a maniac about the buddy system.”

I folded my arms across my chest, stared him down until he stopped grinning and crossed his finger over his heart in a solemn X. He looked past me then, and his eyes got wide. He let out a hoarse shout and leapt forward. “Tino! What the hell!”

I whirled around. Tino was on his little kitchen cushion, on his back, all four legs in the air, like some cartoon version of a dead dog in the middle of the road. Austin snatched him up, gave him a vigorous shake, squeezed his tiny chest in both hands. Tino coughed, and the Jasmine Dragon Pearl Janelle had given him flew out of his mouth, bounced across the kitchen floor.

I stared down at the tiny sodden thing. So close, and yet so far. “That was rolled by hand, Tino,” I said, stupidly. I shook my head at the pair of them. Janelle was petting every part of him she could reach, exclaiming in horror over the narrow escape, and Austin was trying to bend an ear to Tino’s chest to listen to his black heart beating. Tino seemed to be enjoying himself, gave a happy little wriggle.

I stuck my head around the door. Easy and Evelyn were trying to unwrap the cape, to come in and check out the action. I waved them back down. “All quiet on the western front,” I said. “The little shit still lives.”

Easy gave me a slow shake of the head. If we’d been alone, he would have finished off that look by saying, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I turned back to the kitchen in time to see Tino snuggled against Janelle’s neck. His remaining eye was closed in ecstasy. She was stroking his back like she was burping a baby. Here was another one, turned to the dark side.

 

Chapter Five Very Early Friday Morning

Easy pulled me into his arms for a cuddle. The night light was on in the hall, and Tino and Austin were both bedded down in their room. The ladies had gone off to the Grizzly after supper, leaving me free to fret in relative solitude. Easy put a stop to that. “See, the thing with you is, if there ain’t nothing to worry about, you’re liable to just invent some disaster that needs fixing. Like tea. Keeps your mind busy.”

I wasn’t listening. I had my nose buried in the sweet salty skin where his neck and shoulder met. “The first time I met you, I was ready to go down on one knee and pledge the rest of my life to you. Did you know that?”

“Yep. I felt the same way. We just had to go through a bunch of cherry pie and bullshit to get back to the I Do part of the program, right? Isn’t that the way the world works?”

“I don’t know. I’m still confused at my own life, not to mention the life of the world around us. I don’t know what it all means. I know that I won’t ever take you for granted.”

“And I won’t ever take you for granted. Because I’ll remember what it was like to lose you, to miss you so much it felt like my bones were breaking under the weight of it all.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, leaning up on an elbow and looking down into his face. His eyes were very tender in his tough-guy face. “I know we said we weren’t going to say sorry any more, we were going to move on from here. This is my last one. I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to never hurt you again.”

“Okay,” Easy said. He stared up at me, then tucked a long piece of black hair behind my ear. “You want to get married? You want to fool around?”

“I do.”

“I do, too.”

I stared at the wall. “Hold that thought.”

“I already locked up.”

“I’ve got to check the freezer.”

I went down the hall to the kitchen, pulled open the freezer door. The tiny black box with the rings was still there, fuzzy with frost. I opened it up, looked down at the rings, simple white gold, with a plain matt finish. They were wide, Easy’s a little bigger than mine, because his hand was bigger. They looked strong and beautiful. Rings that would last. Okay. All was well. When I got back to our bedroom, Easy was staring up at the ceiling, shaking his head.

He fell asleep, and I used his big chest for a pillow. I listened to his strong heart beat against my cheek, his hand tangled in my hair, and I made many promises for our future together that were as heartfelt as they were useless.

When I woke, he was gone, but a note on the bedside table told me my parents and John had arrived from Albuquerque and were setting up over at the Grizzly. Setting up? I had seen John’s monster catering grill in action a few times. The knuckleheads from my platoon, they would be in line to eat a burger with two pounds of beef and enough roasted green chili to choke a pig. They would probably also drink many beers first. Easy would handle it. He wouldn’t let anyone boot all over Mr. Dawes’ immaculate parking lot.

I walked over to the Grizzly. It was already after ten, so John’s red Igloo cooler was open, packed with ice and studded with bottles of beer. The women were gone. My dad walked over to give me a hug. “You mother went off with Evelyn and Janelle. They said they were going to Tuba City to the trading post to look at rugs.”

I stared longingly north. I could have used a quiet trip to Tuba City. Driving through Navajo country was very peaceful. My dad was holding an insulated cup of coffee. “Mr. Dawes has coffee and donuts in the little lobby.” I was watching the insanity unfold. Easy was wearing his Double XL t-shirt, which would no doubt goad the others on to try and earn theirs. John already had the grill smoking, with piles of onions and green chilies sending out enticing scents.

Mitchell, one of the platoon, had a Corona in his hand, waved to me madly. “Hey, Captain Hooker! Looking good! I totally dig the hair!” I could tell he was prepared to make a fool of himself in the name of celebration. “Hey, you and Easy, right? Like, we knew, everybody knew, but we kept it on the downlow in case Easy decided to kick our asses.”

“Really?” My voice sounded weak. He wrapped me up in a sweaty, beer-infused hug, and I was suddenly hit with a wave of déjà vu. It was an Army smell, beer and sweat. They were assholes, but I loved them.

Johnson shouted across the parking lot, “Hey, here comes the bride!” Mostly they were assholes. Easy reached around, wrapped a big arm around Johnson’s neck and pulled him backward. I had the pleasure of watching his eyes bug out in alarm, then Easy pulled him close for a little inservice on wedding etiquette. Mitchell was laughing, the peculiar sound of a donkey in the throes of passion. Austin was sitting on a picnic table, staring into the lodgepole piles through his little binoculars, looking for Kaibabs. I walked over to the grill to tell John hello.

He was wearing a huge apron, bright red, with a Double XL gracing the front. He reached down with his big spatula and flipped a pile of grilling onions. “Hey, Jamie! Looking good. Everything’s under control.” He’d gotten a trim and combed his hair carefully, and was wearing black Rockport sneakers under his jeans, instead of his usual yellow Crocs. He must have spruced up because my mother was along. He’d told me once, under the influence of my first Double XL, he might have married my mother if my dad hadn’t come along and stole her away. The wounds of sixteen apparently never fade. “I’m gonna feed these boys some lunch, then I’ll get everything ready for tomorrow. Have you checked the weather?”

“Last report, sunny and cool.”

“Perfect day to get married.” He looked up, studied the horseplay. “I knew that boy would get you squared away.”

My dad had my arm now, was moving me toward the office. Mr. Dawes was watching the action from behind his reception desk, looking both pleased and a bit alarmed at the Army antics and smoking grill that had taken over his parking lot. “Sir, I hope this isn’t all more than you bargained for. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“You have told me, James Lee, more than once. I’m happy to see some life around the place. If John kept that monster grill going, we’d have more drive-by traffic than we could handle!”

“Don’t try a Double XL,” I begged. “One of those things would carry you off.”

He handed me a cream filled donut, dusted with sugar and wrapped in a napkin. “I’m going thirds on one with your mom and dad,” he assured me gently. “Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be fine. I’ll watch out over the boy and little Tino while you’re gone. Everything’s gonna be great, don’t you worry.” He had the soothing rhythm in his voice of a man who was rocking a cranky toddler to sleep. I stuffed donut into my mouth.
“Son, let’s you and me walk back over to your place, make sure everything’s in order.”

“Good, perfect,” I said, swallowing hard. “I want to just double-check a few things.”

“You look tired,” he said, when we waved at the guys but kept walking. “Easy said you weren’t sleeping very well.”

“I want everything to go perfectly. We’ve had too many screw ups. I need to make sure we can start right.”

“Starting right depends more on love and respect and patience, son. This is all just window dressing. Remember, not everything is under your control. Some things you have to let go. Oh, by the way. Your mom loves her tea.”

I wondered if we were about to have one of those father-son talks. When I was fifteen, he’d sat me down, explained about love and respect being more important than sex when you wanted to have a relationship with someone. The talk had gone on for a good long while before I realized it was the sex talk fathers were required to have with teenage sons. Hoping to avoid the birth control section, I blurted out that I thought I might be gay. He looked at me, said he knew already, and was I listening to him? I hadn’t been. I’d been thinking about how to say it, the words I should use to ease him into it gently. So he’d started again, telling me about respect, and thoughtfulness, and love.

“I like Easy,” he told me now, “very much. He seems like such a regular guy on the surface, but he’s a little more complex, isn’t he? Smart and tough. He’ll take care of you. And you’ll take care of him. It’s good. Have you two decided if you want to have kids?”

“We’ve got Tino,” I said, without thinking. “I don’t know if I can take anymore.”

“I remember when your mom was sixteen, I’d go over to her house to pick her up, and that little shit would leap out of the bushes by the front door. It’s a wonder I didn’t keel over with a heart attack. I swear he was trying to take a bite out of my balls.”

“When mom was sixteen? Is that the same Tino? That would make him like, 200 years old in dog years. Not surprised, really. I’m starting to think he can’t be killed.”

“Your grandmother always seemed to have Chihuahuas, and they always looked alike. Same personality. Same little teeth. Maybe they’re the sons and grandsons and great grandsons of the original Tino.”

“You know how he lost his eye?”

My dad shook his head. “I heard it was an arrow. A scrap down on the Mexican border. Pancho Villa or Apaches or something.”

“Huh.”

Back at the apartment, I pulled our suits out of the closet, took the plastic off and shook out the shirts. We were wearing suits, deep charcoal gray, with blue gray shirts the color of Easy’s eyes. Austin’s was a lighter gray, the color of pewter, and he’d picked matching yellow silk ties the color of lemon ice. The color, he explained to us, of his surfboard. I was happy with surfboard yellow. They could have been Kaibab brown. The suits would give us double duty for job interviews, funerals, and whatever other formal occasions occurred in the next few years.

I looked in the freezer again, noted the frost on the black jeweler’s box was getting thicker. I pulled our go bag down from the closet, packed for our weekend honeymoon. All we would need would be jeans and boots, a couple of pairs of skivvies, sweatshirts and caps. It was always cold in the morning, at that high elevation.

“Okay, what else?” I turned around in a circle, looking for something that needed doing. Nothing. The apartment was clean, everything was done, the guests were here and the rings were in the freezer. “My God! I don’t think I can take hours more of this.”

“Son, settle down. You mother gave me a single emergency valium. I’m going to give it to you.”

I shook my head. “Save it. We may need it later. God knows what Tino has up his sleeve.”

My father leaned into my closet, dug around until he found the Vibram FiveFingers I wore for tai chi. He tossed them to me. “Go do your thing. I’m going back to the Grizzly.”

 

Chapter Six

I was lying on our bed, staring at the ceiling when Easy came in. He sat down on the side of the bed to kick off his boots, then he stretched out beside me with a sigh. He smelled like beer and grilled onions, sweat and a sharp resin, like pine tar. Pine tar? I reached for one of his hands, studied the sticky debris and scrapes across the palm. “I told him to wait until we got back from the honeymoon before he tried to climb the trees.”

“It wasn’t Austin, at least, not at first.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. Everybody’s down, asses have been chewed, Kaibabs are intact. I left your father in charge. He looks enough like you, only tougher, I think he can probably reign in the high spirits.”

I rolled over, buried my nose in the soft skin of his neck. He reached a tired arm around to hold me close. “Your mom and dad are so very good-looking,” he mused. “You’re gonna stay good-looking your whole life. My people start to look like potatoes when we get old.”

“Your mom doesn’t look like a potato. Besides, I love potatoes.” I nuzzled a bit, felt the pulse at his throat quicken.

“The moms are back from Tuba City, and they both bought Navajo rugs. They’ve gone downtown.”

“How’s Evelyn?”

“She looks happier. She had a good time being back up on the rez, seeing her people. Her new pageboy was much admired.” He gave me a little shake. “Have you talked to Annie? Everything okay with the cake?”

“I saw her yesterday. Instructions to stop calling. The cake topper is here and looks just like us. What else?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. The picnic tables were delivered, and I put the guys to work moving them around the parking lot and under the pine trees. The little rosemary bushes came. Tino peed on a couple until Austin caught him. We sure about the weather?”

“At last check. Sunny and cool enough we can warm up with some vigorous dancing.”

Easy leaned up on an elbow, stared down at me. “Do you really expect me to dance with you in public? At our wedding reception with everybody looking at us?”

“You remember our first dance? We went out to the alley, danced in front of a dumpster and feral cat.”

“I still only dance in front of dumpsters.”

“Up to you.”

“It’s private, James Lee.” He reached for my hand.

“How about I dance with your mom, and you dance with my mom. Then we can switch.”

“I wouldn’t mind dancing with your dad.”

I started laughing them, and he pulled me over until I was sprawled on top of him, his hands buried in my hair. “Are you getting pine tar in my hair?”

“I’ll get it out,” he promised. “I’ve got a yellow silk ribbon for your braid. It matches the tie.”

“Really? You’re going to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree of my braid?”

He thought a moment, his nose buried in my hair. “Okay, well. We’ll see.”

We were still wrapped around each other, enjoying the quiet, when there was a tiny tap on the door. Then another. My mom pushed the door open, and I could see Janelle, Evelyn, and my mom looking in at us, worry on their faces. My mom took charge. “Okay, boys? Don’t panic.”

We both sat up double time, and Easy swung his feet off the bed and grabbed for his boots. “What’s happened?”

“We were downtown having tea at the hotel, and we saw a fire truck go by. It went to the bakery. You know, your bakery. Where the cake is.”
**
We were half a block from the bakery when the police line stopped us. I couldn’t see any smoke in the air, but there were enough emergency vehicles that the bakery’s supply of donuts and cookies were going to be wiped out, if the building was still standing. I sent Annie a text. We’re outside. What can we do to help?

She came out a moment later, looking frazzled and bringing with her the unmistakable smell of burnt sugar. Her blue bandana was askew, hair standing straight up on her forehead. I reached out to give her a hug, but she pushed me away. “James Lee, I’m covered in soot.”

“It’s okay. Easy already put pine tar in my hair.”

“That’s not coming out anytime soon.”

“Is everybody okay? What can we do to help?”

She gave me a side glance. “Aren’t you going to ask about your cake?”

“Before we ask about the people in the bakery? I don’t think so.”

“Everybody’s okay. I think some sugar spilled and caught fire in the bottom of one of the ovens. Blueberry pies. It was contained, but a customer out front panicked and pulled the alarm and called 911. Mostly noise and excitement.”

A girl who had been through the Navy’s firefighting courses could handle an oven fire in her sleep.

“Your beautiful cake is done and it’s fine. I’m putting the sugared flowers on it in the morning so they don’t wilt.”

“Don’t eat before the reception,” I cautioned her. “Remember I told you about the Double XLs?”

“I remember,” she said, patting my shoulder. She looked back at one of the firemen, moving the barrier. “Okay, back to work. Thanks, guys.”
We walked back home, the mild evening perfect for a stroll. I was still revved up from the words ‘fire’ and ‘bakery’ in the same sentence. “All of these near misses,” I said. “It reminds me of combat. Crisis, wait, crisis, wait. First I forget the wedding tea, then the bakery tries to burn down. Is this fate just toying with us, or is everything really going to go off without a hitch? At least if the cake had burned up, we could have said, okay, well, that’s the disaster, and we could reasonably expect everything else to go smoothly. Right?”

“The only thing I’m really worried about is Tino,” Easy confessed. “And it’s your fault. You’ve got me paranoid.”

“He wasn’t down at the bakery, was he?” I had a sudden image of Tino, his tail in flames, running through downtown.

“He’s old, James Lee. He’s probably more frail that we think. What if he gets trampled underfoot or run over or something? It would be monster bad luck. He deserves a better end, a little dog that lost an eye to Pancho Villa.”

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Austin does know that Tino can’t come to the church, right? He has to stay at home, on his little pillow. No baby slings.”

“He knows. He is going to bring him to the reception, though, so John can give him a tiny Dog-Double XL. Maybe we can give him a piece of wedding cake, and that will break this curse you’ve put on him.”

“A wedding cake that has now made it through a fire? I don’t think so. The cake is sacred. I just hope the Dog-Double XL doesn’t kill him.” I thought about Mary for a moment, the old woman who ran the motel in Moriarty, telling John, you’re gonna kill somebody one day with that thing. The thought cheered me.

 

Chapter Seven

Easy’s mom took us all out to dinner that night at the Thai place downtown, and when we got home, Evelyn pulled us aside. “I brought you something for the wedding,” she said. She pulled it out of her pocket, wrapped in a white handkerchief. “I wore this for my wedding. You have it now.” It was very old, a heavy sandcast silver comb with turquoise and carnelian.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, reaching out to her for a hug.

She fussed with my hair, twisted it and secured the comb. “This old thing, it loves to be part of a wedding. You keep it, give it to your children.” She was running her fingers through my hair. “What is this? It’s sticky.”

Easy gave her a guilty look. “My fault. I got pine tar in his hair this afternoon, and then we let it dry. Now it won’t comb out.”

“I know how to get it out,” she said. “Pinon salve will help it dissolve. I’ve got some in my purse.”

“I’m going to smell like a pine forest,” I told Easy. “I hope the Kaibabs don’t mob us.”

Evelyn opened a tiny round metal container, dabbed the pinon salve on the pine tar and worked it through with her fingers.

“Did you have a good time up in Tuba City?”

“Yes,” Evelyn said. “I was thinking about something. For the future, you know. Teaching weaving, or maybe selling rugs.”

“If you taught weaving classes, people who came could stay in the hotel. Or would you rather move closer to your family?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said, working a comb through the tangles. “I long for home, but then too much time with my family makes me tired. I think I want solitude, but really I just wish I still had my husband’s company.” She looked up suddenly. “Don’t worry about me the night before your wedding.” She stood to go, and Easy draped a casual arm over her shoulders. She patted him gently.

When she had gone, Easy pulled the comb out and studied it. “This is gorgeous. See how heavy it is? I may have to rethink the hair for the wedding.”

“Since we have less than twelve hours to go, you better think fast.” I went into the bathroom, stood for a long time under the hot water. Less than twelve hours to go. What could still go wrong? Anything. Everything.

Tino was curled asleep on my pillow, and I put him off the bed and climbed in. “Go check the freezer,” I called.

Easy stuck his head in the door, gave me a thumbs up. “Still there. The frost is getting thick.” He was rubbing his flat top dry with a towel, nearly stepped on Tino, who was dancing about underfoot. “Oh, hell, no. Not that again.” He picked up the little dog, put him outside the bedroom door. “I am not cutting up a Wheaties box in the middle of the night to make him a splint.”

We heard a forlorn little scratch on the door, then another, and then Tino howled, a mournful coyote sound I remembered from the day my grandmother died. “Let him in here,” I told Easy. “He’s upset. I don’t know why.”

Tino hopped up on the bed, scooted between us, then started wiggling belly down until he was next to my face on the pillow. He reached over, licked my chin. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” I told him. He seemed to be listening to me, burrowed down until his little dog face was buried in my hair. “Some days, I actually think he’s a normal dog,” I told Easy. “This probably isn’t a good time to let down my guard.”

Tino moved over to Easy, snuggled under his chin. “Dogs have a sense,” Easy said. “They know when things are happening. He just wants to spend tonight with us, you know, to wish us well. Our last night as bachelors.”

Tino was nosing around again, burying his head in my hair. “I bet he likes that pine smell,” I said. “I could still smell it after the shower. We’ll have to ask Evelyn where she got that pinon salve. Up on the reservation, I bet.” I lay there, warm, with Easy lying quiet next to me, our fingers intertwined, Tino burrowing in my hair. I thought about something, the way he loved to trip around in the pine trees out back of the Grizzly Motel. It was his favorite bathroom spot, those pine trees. Easy bounded up suddenly, reached over and snatched up the little dog just as he hiked a leg to pee on my hair. We stared at each other, Tino wiggling in his hands. I could feel my eyes wheeling around in my head. I pointed to the door. “Out.”

When Easy got back to our room, I was sitting up against the headboard. “Austin’s got him,” he said. “Did he get you? Do we need to change the sheets?”

I shook my head. “My dad left a single Valium here with me. For an emergency. I suggest we split it.”

 

Chapter Eight Saturday Morning

“Hey, um, Captain? Maybe you better get up. It’s nearly eight.” Austin was peeking around the door at us.

After staring at the ceiling for half the night, we were close to sleeping through the wedding. “Is the coffee on?” I shook Easy by the shoulder.
He bolted upright, shouted, “Tino, no!” He looked around the room in confusion, then glared at me and fell back on the pillow. He pointed a finger at me. “You. You did this.”

I climbed out of bed, went into the kitchen and poured coffee that was thick and dark as Army sludge. I wondered if we would have time for Eight Brocades. We needed to make time. Balance was critical. I brought Easy a cup, wrapped my hand around the back of his head and brought him in for a kiss. “Come on. Let’s hold up the heavens.”

He grumbled, but followed me into the living room, mirrored my moves until we were both limber, relaxed, and back to our usual happy selves. Tino laid on his little pillow, watching us, his head cushioned on his paws. If I didn’t know what a demon he was, I would have thought he was feeling guilty.

Easy went for a quick shower, and I picked up the phone when it rang. My dad was checking in that we were up and ready. “We’ll be ready to walk out the door in thirty minutes,” I said. That might have been optimistic, but I had the feeling we needed to get it in gear and get to the church. No need to hang around, waiting to get peed on.

Everyone looked good in their suits, the bright lemon yellow of the ties like sunshine. “Austin, you picked out a good color for the ties. I like it.”
I looked around, saw Easy had him in a bear hug, giving him a little rock. Easy looked over at me. “Come on. Let’s do the hair.”

He gave my hair a short braid, just enough to hold the beautiful silver comb, and then let the rest of it flow down my back. The pinon salve seemed to have given it an extra shine. My mother brought over tiny flower corsages, and after we pinned them on we followed her out the door. Easy remembered the rings before we got in the car. The little box had frozen into the frost in the freezer, so he left it, brought the rings in his pocket. I saw Tino looking out the front window, between the curtains, as we drove to the church.

I had a hard time concentrating on what the minister was saying. My mind kept circling around and around. I wondered if he would forget and tell Easy he could now kiss the bride. How many weddings of grooms had he done? Would he remember? Easy was glaring around, waiting for someone to object. Austin cried, and dropped one of the rings. But then everything smoothed out. Easy took my hand, and I took his, and we gave each other a ring and a promise. We might have been standing alone. The church was utterly quiet. We held hands, and looked at each other, saw what forever would look like, and it was done.

After that, things seemed to move at double speed. Before I knew what was happening, we were dancing with our moms, twirling them in their beautiful dresses. The cake had a place of honor, three layers of dazzling white, covered with sugared violets and nasturtiums, with a couple of grooms on top that looked remarkably like me and Easy. The picnic tables were draped in white cloths, each held down with a tiny rosemary bush in a white ceramic pot. My dad popped the corks off the champagne, filled glasses, and we were offered long life and love by our friends and family. I cut the cake, and Easy passed out slices, his mom putting little forks and napkins on the plates. The cake was lemon, a frosty yellow that matched our wedding ties.

After the cake, we all went back home to change into comfortable clothes, and John fired up the grill. By the time Easy and I got back to the Grizzly, wearing boots and jeans and sweatshirts, the smell of grilling green chilies, onions and burgers, was drifting across the parking lot. Everyone looked more relaxed now they were back in their barbecue clothes. I kept rubbing my wedding ring with my thumb. It felt good, weighty. I couldn’t seem to ignore it, but kept glancing down seeing my hand looking like a stranger’s hand. Easy was turning his ring around and around on his finger. He saw me doing the same, grinned at me, then wandered back over to the cake for another piece.

I heard Easy shout, then something crashed to the ground. “Tino, you little shit! Come back here!”

I turned around in time to see Tino shoot out from under the table that held our wedding cake, Easy in pursuit. Either he was foaming at the mouth or he had been into the frosting, and he held the wedding topper between his teeth, two little grooms. Tino darted between the lodgepole pines behind the Grizzly, his tiny feet kicking up dust. Austin took off after him, his binoculars bouncing on his chest. Mitchell and Johnson stood up from where they had been squatting behind Easy’s pickup. They looked around, then joined the chase. “Don’t worry! We’ll catch him, Captain!”

“It’s okay,” I said, faintly. Tino was headed to Fat Man’s Loop, a line of former Army infantry in pursuit. “Just let him go. He’ll find his way back home eventually.” Or not.

Easy was coming back down the hill. He made straight for the wedding cake. “I am not chasing that dog all over Fat Man’s Loop.”
“Good. Have another piece.” I cut him a new piece of cake, one without any dog teeth marks. He took the plate, broke the piece of cake in half, and popped a bite into my mouth. It might have been the best cake I had ever eaten.

 

Check out American Road Trip today!

 

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Blurb:

A single moment—or a single mistake—can change everything.

When Captain James Lee Hooker and his lover, Sergeant Easy Jacobs, were in the Army, they made a mistake that got a young soldier hurt. Three years later, they’re civilians again, living far apart, haunted by what they lost. Now that young soldier needs their help.

With his grandmother’s one-eyed Chihuahua riding shotgun, James Lee climbs into Easy’s pickup for a trip across the American Southwest. They set out to rescue a friend, but their journey transforms them with the power of forgiveness.

 

Author Bio:

Sarah Black is a writer, artist, veteran, and mother. She’s a Lambda finalist and has been nominated for a Pushcart.
Contact her at sarahblack5@yahoo.com.

 

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