As I noted yesterday, I’ll be publishing a chapter a day of my never-published, kinda-crappy novel On Hallowed Lanes, the sequel to Band of Fallen Princes that never was. Today’s chapter is an interesting one, because the dialogue is unedited and so ham-fisted, especially towards the end. Almost certainly that last conversation between Garrett and Tess would have been cut out entirely or at the very least diluted from its current sugary sweetness. Anyways, enjoy!
After a quick stop at a car wash and a gas station, Garrett and Brianna headed for a farmer’s market near the state’s capitol building. As they browsed the stalls, Brianna kept pulling ahead of Garrett. She hadn’t spoken more than twenty words to him since the hotel. He tried to be patient, to not let his irritation show through, but he finally had enough when she pointedly ignored his call that someone was selling a treat he thought her mother might love.
When she stopped to sniff at a soy wax candle, Garrett leaned in and muttered quietly, “What would you have done, Brianna? If he’d asked you, what would you have said?”
For a moment, he thought she meant to hit him, but instead, she wrapped her hands around his neck, pulled him to her, and kissed him. It was a long kiss, though chaste – she simply needed to feel the press of his lips against hers, to feel him against her. He breathed in her strawberry lotion, and he lost himself for a moment too.
“Ma’am, um… I’m really going to need that back if you’re not going to pay for it,” the vendor of the soy candle said.
Without looking, Brianna tossed it back on the table and finally opened her eyes. She pressed her head against Garrett’s chest, and he held her for a while.
“Is there anything we can do?” she asked softly, so quietly he couldn’t hear.
“We gave him what he wanted, hon.”
He felt her nod against him, slowly, and he ran his fingers through her hair, wishing to God this would be the last time he’d ever hurt her and knowing they had a lifetime of him failing her ahead of them.
After buying some of the rhubarb bars Garrett had found – he’d been right, rhubarb was one of Tess’s favorites – and a couple of pounds of Bing cherries, they drove to the copper-domed capitol building, which Garrett had never seen before. He shared Brianna’s fondness for visiting the out-of-the-way sites and tourist traps alike, and cracked her up when he shot at least a dozen pictures as they drove by with a nice little easy-to-use digital camera one of her cousins bought for them as a wedding present. Her own high-tech old college camera was nestled in its case behind the driver’s seat. She planned on getting back into photography both for pleasure and for their vigilante work, and the honeymoon trip to Canada was the perfect time to hone her skills.
The drive from Helena to Seeley was about an hour and a half. Garrett had originally balked at the idea of stopping at Tess’s before they headed to Canada, but as Brianna had reminded him, he loved Tess dearly and it afforded them a chance to make one of the prettiest drives in Montana – and for a state loaded with beautiful scenery, that was really saying something.
Brianna took the first shift driving, since she knew Helena better. On the highway west of the small capital city, Garrett reached into the glove compartment and produced an iPod. It was Brianna’s pre-wedding gift to him, loaded with songs she’d picked for him on his trip from Rankin Flats into Lennep. She caught his hand as he went to plug it in. “No,” she said, smiling just a little painfully. “That’s for you. If we listened to it together, it might lose some of it’s magic.”
“What? But there’s some good stuff on there.”
“I know. Don’t make fun of me?”
Her fingers tapped against the steering wheel. “It’s a piece of me I want you to have all to yourself for when we’re not together.” Brianna caught him opening his mouth and shook her head. “I mean when we’re apart, not… the other thing.” She couldn’t bring herself to say “dead,” not with Leon’s cancer still hanging in the air.
Garrett squeezed her thigh. “Okay. I like that. Whaddya want to listen to then?” He stuffed the iPod back into the glove compartment. “Did you want me to dig out yours?”
“I didn’t make a mixtape for this,” Brianna said, an odd note of tension in her voice. She didn’t meet his eyes and focused squarely on the road.
Taken aback, Garrett smiled. “You? Not making a mixtape?”
She laughed, but the tension was still there. “I know, right? I thought… I don’t know, I thought we’d wing it. What’s a road trip if there isn’t some spontaneity, right?”
Instead of music that first leg, they talked. Of good things, of the worst of things. Garrett told her how he’d found out about Leon’s cancer, but also how Murphy had peeped on Monica and Sloan’s first kiss – or first kisses. Garrett wasn’t certain because the ghost had been coy about it, but he was fairly certain things between Monica and Sloan had been a fair bit more hot and heavy than just kissing.
“From the way Monica sounded this morning, I’m with you,” Brianna said. “She definitely had that so-good sound to her.”
Brianna grinned. “Something Clarice used to say. It’s short for never been screwed so good. I’m guessing Sloan’s making up for a bit of lost time with a whole lot of enthusiasm.”
Garrett burst out laughing, and like that, whatever rift there had been between them vanished. The sparse landscape surrounding Helena broke into forests and a wild mix of gentle hills and sharper mountains in the distance. Traffic was light and the day’s projected rain clouds were nowhere to be seen.
While Brianna talked about her bachelorette party and her trip to Lennep the previous morning for the pre-wedding stuff, Garrett just soaked in the surreal nature of the day. Married. Him.
They’d met when Brianna was about to graduate from high school, but back in those days, Garrett hadn’t thought much about her. The daughter of the owner of the gym he liked in town, she’d seemed like a spirited, friendly sort, but he’d been in his mid-twenties and had largely been ignorant of her peeping on him when he’d work out in the Hammerdown Gym. When Brianna left for college on the East Coast, he put her out of his mind entirely, save for occasional grunts about her progress on the rare occasion when her dad Danny talked about his personal life.
Brianna’s intent had been to be a big executive somewhere out there, running her own company and kicking ass in the business world. But somewhere towards the tail end of her Master’s degree, she’d realized just how much she missed her dad and Rankin Flats, and decided something much smaller and familial was her future, not a Fortune 500 company. She’d been staying with Tess in North Carolina those days, and after receiving her Master’s and a teary goodbye, Brianna moved home and helped her father run the Hammerdown.
That was about when Garrett met her again, and had been utterly, totally lost from their first few minutes together. Brianna had been brave in a way that attracted him more than good lucks or a rocking body could have done, and although she had a great ass, she could hardly be called a beauty – though Garrett thought she was. It was clear from those first few minutes that there was chemistry that couldn’t be denied by either one of them.
Everything those first few weeks together was a blur of insanity. Garrett thought at first he could never be with Brianna because of the work he did as a vigilante, but Murphy convinced him to take a gamble on happiness and try to convince her about the nature of the weird things he could see. She’d made a leap with him, one he still couldn’t fathom to this day, and together, they’d begun a series of strange, often horrific adventures together. She endured a lot in that time – her father’s murder, kidnapping, and more brushes with death than either one of them could count. But surprising Garrett each and every time, Brianna managed the storms with him – hell, even better than him. He was an emotional and spiritual wreck. She was occasionally given to fits of crying and bursts of anger, and there had been a month or two when she’d been on the verge of a nervous breakdown trying to come to grips with everything, but Brianna’s shit was mostly together in a way that never ceased to amaze him.
Lost in memory and trying to convince himself this was all real, Garrett barely noticed when she finished a story about a mutual friend getting hammered at the bachelorette party. “You okay?” she asked.
Garrett turned and took her hand, bringing her fingers to his lips. “Never better,” he said, and meant it.
* * *
Among the ancient elegance of the pine forests and the sprawl of the Mission and Swan Mountains, a visitor new to the area could have been forgiven for thinking Seeley Lake was a solitary beauty, but all a person had to do to realize differently was walk about a hundred yards in any direction to find more lakes, more heart-swelling perfection. That stretch of Highway 83 had captured Tess Reeve’s imagination, and when she’d followed her daughter back to Montana earlier that year, it was there she found her dream house.
Her home in North Carolina had been a beauty too, two stories of an old farmhouse that had seen a lot of love and updates since its conception in the 1930s. But when Tess’s ex-husband was murdered and Brianna adamantly decided to stay in Rankin Flats, Tess realized she didn’t want to be so far apart from her daughter. Part of that decision had been a mild distrust of Garrett, who looked like a boxer’s punching bag on the best of days. But Tess had come to love her future son-in-law in her own way, thanks largely to a trip they’d all taken to Las Vegas.
Her home hadn’t sold easily, despite a booming market, but a young couple with twins on the way had finally met her bottom line asking price, and Tess packed up immediately for the fresh air and mountains of Montana. Garrett’s sister Stephanie, an accomplished carpenter, accompanied her on a house hunt through the Seeley area, and together they’d found a gorgeous, if slightly ostentatious, two-story log cabin home for just under three hundred thousand. It wasn’t lakefront like Tess had hoped for, but those homes were so far out of her budget as to practically make her choke. Still, she was only a ten-minute walk away from her favorite lake – Holland – and she had easy access to the highway in winter, something that would be a necessity in the harsh Montana weather. Stephanie declared the house’s bones to be surprisingly fit for the price, with some work needed in the attic and roof, as well as a great deal of chinking the walls with a poly foam and vinyl coating. Despite Tess’s best efforts, Stephanie begged off doing the work herself despite loving the home. She just didn’t have a lot of experience working with log cabins and showed Tess to a coworker on a project Stephanie helped with in the late fall when she first came to Rankin Flats to be closer to her brother.
That work was still ongoing – the weather had only settled down the last month. Two boarded windows glared at Brianna and Garrett as they pulled into the driveway next to Tess’s Kia. Tess had been at the wedding and reception the night before, and had driven home in the early hours despite Brianna’s protest that they could get her a hotel room. Like her daughter and her ex-husband, Tess was of a particularly gleeful stubborn mind and she’d steadfastly refused.
Garrett yawned as he slid out of the passenger’s side of the Durango, twisting this way and that. They had a month’s worth of traveling ahead of them and already he felt like he was road-sore and ready for a long nap. The fresh air did him some good, though. The sharp tang of the pines mixed with the rich, almost-coffee like wet earth. His cabin up in the Belt Mountains definitely had the pine scent, but it was drier, dustier. This felt fresh and new, life abounding all around him. In a funny way, it reminded him of the difference between a dusty old bookstore as opposed to a big book chain with a coffee shop somewhere inside. Both were extremely pleasant in their own way, but subtly different.
Above them, on the second-floor deck, a door slid open and Tess thumped out. Where Brianna had inherited her frame from her mother, she didn’t have Tess’s weight problems, largely thanks to the gym and her active lifestyle. But Tess had been working at shedding the pounds, dropping at least ten since moving back to Montana. The hiking trails around Seeley really helped.
“Mr. and Mrs. Moranis,” she squealed, and Brianna bounded up the stairs to envelope her in a hug. “Am I the first one to call you that today? Tell me I’m the first one.”
“You are!” Brianna said, and hugged her mom again. “Oh, thank you so much for everything, Momma.”
Brianna buried her head in her mom’s shoulder. “Don’t, okay? You did so much. You kept me from going crazy and you loaned me the ribbon and the bracelet and…” She continued, but her words were unintelligible among her choked sobs. Tess just held her daughter and rocked with her, cooing softly as Garrett joined them. Over Brianna’s shoulder, Tess nodded and smiled, and he mouthed, “I’ll get our things.”
Inside, the log house was somewhat dark, thanks largely to the height of the trees around the living room. Tess had livened it up with a number of eclectically varied lamps that gave the room a soft feel of dusk even at noon. Her furniture had been moved cross-country from North Carolina, and Garrett tried not to grin at the leather couch, remembering some very fun things he and Brianna had managed to do on it one night around Christmastime.
Brianna had yet to find the nerve to sell most of her father’s things, so Tess had plucked a few bits of furniture and mementos from the storage unit they’d used to hold it all, along with some framed photos. The old man’s style might have best been described as “dollar store chic,” but combined with Tess’s enthusiasm for weird little knick-knacks, his solar powered whirling toys and the small foreign flags of the places Danny had been to made a certain sort of sense within the house.
Once Brianna managed to get her tears under control and splashed some water on her face, she joined Garrett in unloading the Durango. Their friends Ed and Rose and Garrett’s sisters had volunteered to haul everything from the wedding back to Rankin Flats, but Garrett and Brianna still wound up with a vehicle full of stuff they didn’t need for the trip. Most of all were their wedding clothes.
“We’ll come back for all this when we get a free weekend after the honeymoon,” Brianna promised Tess as she carefully hung her dress on a silk hanger. “And just let me know how much it is to have cleaned. I really appreciate it.”
Tess shook her head. “You’re not paying for it.”
“Mom, you’ve gotta go all the way to Helena to drop it off and pick it up. That’s a lot of time.”
“Sweetie, I love you, but you know how this argument ends.”
Brianna frowned. “With me. Paying you.”
Garrett listened to their light squabbling as he hauled in an unmarked box and tried on a smile. He’d never had this sort of relationship with his own mother and the chatter left him a little lonely. Trying not to let it show, he set the box on the couch. “I think we’ve got more wedding presents that got mixed in with our stuff,” he called to the pair when it seemed like he wouldn’t be interrupting. He dug out his keys, picked one he rarely used, and sawed through the tape.
Brianna came out of the bedroom just as he was pulling back the flaps. “Oh baby, no, that’s not-” she gasped, but it was too late.
Tess joined her daughter’s side. “What is it?”
Garrett was already standing up with a certain long-handled battery powered toy. He frowned at it. “Is this a massager?” he asked, the obviousness of it not quite hitting him yet.
“Oh. My God,” Brianna whispered, her hand over her eyes. “Oh my God, Clarice. You little bitch.” Her friends had bought her a box’s worth of sex toys and accessories as gag gifts for her bachelorette party. Clarice, her closest friend from college, had been the ringleader. Brianna intended on only taking a few things with her across the border, like the edible massage oils, silky blindfolds, and a couple’s vibrator with a remote control the guy could operate. It seems someone had repackaged the box to include absolutely everything, even the absurdly huge vibrator Garrett was now holding.
Helpless, Brianna started snickering, followed by her mom. It finally dawned on Garrett what he was holding, and he dropped it like a snake twisting in his arms to bite at him. “Boy,” he said, his face flushed. “This is. Ah. Well, this is one way to start an afternoon at the in-law’s.”
* * *
A spare bedroom had been converted to Tess’s office. Cool air from a cranky old air conditioner blasted them as they sat on either side of Tess, watching her pull up the wedding videos on her computer.
Tess was, by trade, a video producer, specializing in editing packages for small sports teams and even a wrestling promotion just getting its feet under it. Garrett had seen examples of her work before, but he’d never seen her work so early in the process, and she guided him slowly through what she’d like to do with their wedding videos.
“I’ll cut some of the extra stuff for a video you can post online. It’ll just have the dramatic moments, put into a few minutes’ worth.”
“But we’ll still have the whole thing for our personal videos, right?” Garrett asked, uncertain if that was a dumb question or not.
Tess smiled. “That’s why I wanted to rush home. I’ll put together a longer, better-produced video with the whole ceremony and the highlights from the reception, but for your honeymoon, I came home and started compressing and transferring the originals so you could have them on your trip.” Seeing Garrett try to figure that out, she added, “You’ll have a lower quality set of videos that don’t have any sort of edits, but you’ll be able to watch all your wedding and the videos the cameras took at the reception.”
“That’s amazing, Momma,” Brianna said, and pulled her mom to her so she could give her cheek a big smack. “Thank you.”
Garrett echoed her statement, a little out of his element but no less pleased. The ceremony was still fresh in his mind – Brianna said she could hardly remember anything except him, whereas his senses had gone hyperactive. The wedding had seemed more in focus than any other moment of his life save possibly for meeting Murphy as a teenager, but he knew how easy it could be for the brain to think it remembered everything when it had actually filled in the gaps.
Despite their desire to hit the road, Tess managed to convince them to stay for lunch, despite them having just eaten breakfast. Brianna pulled Garrett away and whispered in his ear, “It’s just an hour.”
“It’s fine,” he said, and meant it. “I can arrange the Durango and get everything good to go. Relax. Enjoy the time with your mom.”
She pinched his butt and left him to go help chop vegetables for a salad. He headed down to the Durango, trying valiantly to wave off the hundreds of mosquitos threatening to eat him alive.
Though everything they didn’t need was already unpacked, Garrett liked neatness and took a few minutes to rearrange their luggage and situate their emergency kits where they could get to them in a hurry. He checked the tires and the spare for the second time in as many days, and finally satisfied, he finished by making one last check of their passports, insurance information, and everything they’d need to make the border crossing easy.
Someone thumped out onto the deck and came down the stairs on the opposite side of the house. Thinking it was Brianna taking the long way around the home, Garrett shut the Durango and unhurriedly strolled around the building. Not Brianna – Tess, and she was talking on her phone, so quiet he could barely hear her at first.
“-I’m trying. I’ve got them staying for lunch, but I’m not sure how much longer than that I can keep them here. Oh, I like that, Clarice. What’s the latest anyone bet? Jeez, that’s late, but… yeah, maybe I can talk them into it. Uh huh.”
It all came together for Garrett in a crashing wave. Tess and Clarice and probably some of their other friends had put together a pool on how late Tess could keep them there. He thought about jumping out and giving Tess the scare of her life, but he had a better idea, and crept back the way he came and headed upstairs.
Inside, Brianna was putting the finishing touches on a trio of roast beef sandwiches. “Hey, baby, I was just going to call you-”
“We don’t have much time,” Garrett growled.
Brianna cocked her head, grinning just a little bit. “Here? Now?”
“No, not that. Well, maybe that, but just listen.” He filled her in on what he’d heard, and Brianna swore almost silently. “Who would Clarice have brought in on that?”
“Probably the girls from the party the other night,” Brianna said, musing on cash she’d seen being discreetly passed around. “Which means Rose, and Rose can’t keep anything from me.”
They heard Tess coming up the back stairs. “Call her,” Garrett whispered urgently. “Find out what time she or Ed had picked out. We’ll stay till then and split the money with them. Teach them all a lesson.”
Brianna laughed and darted for the bathroom. Garret took her spot, fixing up the sandwiches and adding a copious amount of horseradish sauce to Tess’s, knowing she hated the stuff. A little personal revenge, he thought, trying not to snicker.
Tess came through the living room to the kitchen. “Oooh, you cook too,” she said, giving him a megawatt smile that Brianna had definitely inherited from her.
“Only the best for my wife and my mother-in-law,” Garrett said, trying not to look smug. “Nothing says culinary masterwork like deli sliced roast beef on Wonder Bread, right?”
Tess smiled and fetched some pickle spears from the fridge. She arranged them on the plates next to the sandwiches, and Brianna came out of the bathroom, humming to herself. An hour, she mouthed to Garrett, who gave no indication he’d seen.
They sat down to eat around the living room’s coffee table. Tess took one bite of her sandwich, tried not to gag, and tried to pass it off politely, as Garrett tried his damnedest not to bust a gut laughing.
* * *
A deer crossed the dirt driveway, uncaring about the humans seated up above it on the deck as it headed for what was no doubt some delicious foraging action. It glanced up only once, seeming to give Brianna a little knowing look. Hello, it seemed to say, hello, you wild and beautiful thing. Are you as free as me?
“I am,” Brianna said, smiling, and the doe carried on with its lackadaisical deer business, disappearing into the woods without a trace.
“Sorry?” Garrett asked behind her as he balanced on a stepladder to hang a bird feeder.
“Nothing.” Brianna yawned and stretched luxuriously with her hands on the railing, her spine cracking pleasantly. “Saw a deer. Keep your camera ready. Today we’re seeing a moose. I can feel it.”
They wouldn’t, but on the drive north, they would see plenty more deer, some with spot-coated fauns both curious and terrified of this huge world around them. At Tess’s, though, Garrett only grunted and finished wiggling the cup screw into place. He connected a snap hook wire, adjusted the length so the bird feeder would hang low enough for Tess to reach it, and hopped off the ladder. “There we go.” He glanced up and frowned. “Bit uneven with the other two.”
Brianna turned and joined him, wrapping her arms around his waist as he cocked his head this way and that, examining the screws. “It’s perfect,” she said, and kissed the back of his shoulder. She leaned her head against his shoulder blade, feeling the rhythm of his breaths. Perfect. After a while, she murmured, “The story about the cross in your safe.”
She pulled back just a little, her hands still tucked around his stomach. “Is it sad?”
He laughed. “No. Well… parts are, I guess. But it’s a good one. Long.”
“That’s what she said.”
“And that’s why I married you.” He turned and kissed her nose. “And I think it breaks up into nice chunks. I’ll tell it to you over our trip. When you’re feeling sad or you want a piece of it-”
“That’swhatshesaid!” Brianna blurted again.
“-I’ll tell you part of it. And without Murphy around to correct me all the damn time, I’ll tell you the way it really happened. Starting with me being a Mr. Universe winner and the thousand-woman harem I was running.”
Brianna started to say something, but the deck door slid open and Tess thumped out. Judging from the scowl on her face, they both guessed what was coming next. “So Rose told you?”
The couple glanced at each other and grinned. “Yup,” Brianna said. “I think we’ll use the money on water balloons and squirt guns.”
“It’s a nearly five-hundred-dollar pool,” Tess said sourly. “And I was gonna get half of it no matter who won.”
Garrett raised an eyebrow at his wife. “With that kind of cash, we could probably afford some really, really big squirt guns.”
“It would make for the best summer ever,” Brianna agreed.
Tess sighed. “Well, she called up everyone a minute ago. We all agreed you two won.” She dug in her purse and produced an envelope stuffed with cash. “Here.”
Brianna snatched it and glanced through the sheaf of bills. She gave a low whistle and jammed it into her pocket. “So many water balloons.”
The Durango loaded up with all the snacks and drinks Tess could foist upon them, along with an extra travel pillow and two books on CD (“I don’t care if you like Janet Evanovich, just take it in case you need something to listen to”), a pair of mismatched travel mugs, and an old lap desk for Brianna and the wedding thank you cards. She also dug through her wallet for all the stamps she had. By the end of it, Garrett thought for sure they’d be stripping the house bare of Tess’s things.
“Mom,” Brianna interjected when Tess was trying to haul out some folding lawn chairs, “I love this, but we’re not going to have room for anything else and-”
Tess dropped the folding chairs, and sobbed. It was just once, a great, heaving sound that she quickly hid, but her daughter rushed to her and folded her up in a hug. Her voice muffled, Tess said, “I know. I just… you two have everything so under control. Your dad and I, when we were your age, we were scraping everything together and we had to ask for so much help and you two, you don’t need me and it’s…”
Garrett came to them both and draped his arms around them. “I need you,” he said quietly.
“Me too, Mom,” Brianna said, crying for what felt like the thousandth time that day.
They pulled apart and headed for the SUV. Tess clutched Garrett in one last hug. “Thank you for being so good to my Brianna,” she said, her voice shaky but resolute. “And I want you to do me one thing.”
“What’s that?” Garrett asked, thinking she meant postcards, or pictures, or a souvenir.
Tess pulled away from him and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “You don’t have the best memory of the word, but from now on out, I want you to try to call me mom.”
Garrett fell quiet, unable to say anything. Memories flooded his mind, of his own mother and the day he’d come home to her sitting on the floor cutting out pictures of him from the family albums. Of her and her church friends trying to exorcise the demons out of him at home, throwing him down forcibly on a coffee table. Of being a teenager, scared and alone save for Murphy on a bus to Las Vegas. He didn’t speak to his mother for a decade and a half, and when he was finally called home, it had been to her terrified, mumbled screams moments before she’d passed away. Ostensibly it was from complications from a stroke, but Garrett knew the truth. His mother was so scared of seeing him again it had killed her.
But Tess was not that woman. Once she’d gotten over her apprehension about him and his strange lifestyle, Tess had been nothing but kind and caring. She had a tough streak to her, sure, but she was as fundamentally good as her daughter. He tried to work out what to say, what to think. “Tess, I…” Somewhere behind him, one of the hallucinations that haunted him roared in laughter.
Brianna linked arms with him. “Mom, maybe give him time, huh?”
A few beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, Garrett said quietly, “It’s okay. Better than okay. I just… wasn’t expecting it. Thank you. Um. Mom.”
He hugged Tess again, and this time it wasn’t Brianna crying into her shoulder, but her husband.