Today’s chapter is a big one, if you were looking to find out the backstory about Brianna’s scars. This is a story that never actually made it into the series, leaving her scars a mystery that never really needed to be solved. She had them, she dealt with them, the end. But it’s a story I wrote as early as The Ghost at His Back. It always felt out of place, and it did here too. Almost certainly it would have been left on the cutting room floor.
The first crack of thunder sounded like God was tearing apart the skies. In the passenger’s seat, Brianna jumped and knocked the wedding thank you cards from the lap board onto the floor. Head buried in the work, she hadn’t noticed the angry gray clouds on the horizon.
Garrett glanced over. “Acts of nature don’t get you out of losing the bet, by the way.”
“Har har,” she muttered as she undid her seatbelt and scrunched over to pick up the errant cards.
“One fell between my legs,” he said, eyes locked on the road.
She leaned over to look. “I don’t see it.”
“It’s right between my hips. Try feeling around with your hand. It’s there somewhere. Possibly inside my zipper.”
With a snicker, she patted his thigh. “Nice try.”
“I thought you’d appreciate that.” Another harsh crack of thunder followed a brilliant fork of lightning, and this time, it was his turn to jump a little. “At least it’s not-”
“Don’t you say it,” she said, and immediately winced as rain starting thwapping against the windshield. “Oh damn it to hell.”
Putting aside the cards for the moment – had she really only managed just fifteen? It felt like fifty – she cinched back up her seatbelt. There was no light misting, no lead-up to the downpour. The sky just decided to open the floodgates.
Garrett flipped on the wipers, but as much water as they were sloughing off, the road was still barely visible. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Can you check to see how big this storm is? If you have reception?”
She pulled out her cell phone. “Pretty good bars,” she murmured. They were somewhere just north of St. Mary, heading for the Canadian border and Waterton just beyond. The weather report looked grim. “Um. Shit.”
“It looks like there’s a cold front that’s pretty well settled right on top of us. They say there could be bad weather for two days.”
“Shiiit,” he muttered, and gripped the steering wheel tighter. They were now going no more than thirty with their lights on. They’d been following a duo of RVs, families probably with the same idea they had about a visit to Canada, but the big vehicles were now no longer in sight.
“Maybe we should find a spot and pull over,” Brianna said. “I don’t mean to tell you how to drive, but…”
“Yeah, I’m remembering Thanksgiving too.” When the two of them and Murphy had gone to scope out the church they’d eventually be married in, a wicked snowstorm had nearly trapped them on the road. “Okay, yeah, call them out if you see them.”
Another streak of lightning, and thunder rocked the car. Brianna wasn’t normally ever afraid of thunder or lightning, but her hand sought out Garrett’s before she remembered he was white-knuckling it. She squinted through the rainstorm. “I kinda wish we had Murphy with us.”
“I’d rather he not be around for the things I want to do to you,” Garrett said, but the lightness in his voice couldn’t hide the worried glances he kept casting on the edges of the road.
“Okay, I see… yeah, house off in the distance, I think? Maybe there’s a turnoff.”
He missed that one, and the next one too. Out of the torrents, one of the RVs suddenly loomed and he tried not to jerk the car as he swerved around it. “Motherfucking cock… face.” He frowned. “I can’t even come up with a damn swear.”
“I’ve never seen rain like this,” Brianna murmured, leaned forward so she could see just a little better. “Us and bad weather, I swear.” Remembering the tornadoes that had wrecked Rankin Flats and which may or may not have been partially their responsibility, she winced. “Sorry. I… didn’t remember until I blurted it out.”
She expected Garrett to get mad, but instead he just nodded. “No, I got what you meant.” There. Another house. He slowed to twenty, putting on his emergency lights, then fifteen.
“There’s the turnoff, a hundred yards, maybe.”
“Good catch,” he said, and eased even slower. The same RV they’d just passed rocked around them, the driver hammering on the horn. As if that wasn’t enough, another peal of lightning hammered down, though this one was a little bit further than the last had been. “Just in time,” he said.
He pulled onto the gravel road and tried to find a spot to turn the car around, but wound up needing to go all the way to the house to do it. It was a ranch-style single story place, with an addition that might have had a second floor, or a split-level basement with a raised first floor. He turned around, parked, and shut off the Durango. Brianna unbuckled and leaned over to kiss him. “You are a most excellent driver,” she said, trying not to shiver when the next boom of thunder rattled the car.
No lights from the house came on, so they just stayed there, watching the rain go from terrible to even worse. It just didn’t let up. “I used to be terrified of thunder and lightning as a kid,” Garrett said absently, his hand finding hers and squeezing.
“You? Afraid of anything?”
“Oh yeah. I was scared of a ton of stuff. Mom used to tell this story about me thinking…” He started snickering, and Brianna grinned without even knowing the joke. “…I used to think the toilet would grab my wee-wee… that’s what she called it. I thought it would…” He started to laugh so hard he had to pull his hand free and steady himself against the steering wheel. “I thought the toilet would… it would grab my penis and flush it down too. So I’d sit down backwards so I could look at the water when it flushed, just in case.”
Brianna laughed now too, trying to imagine Garrett as a little kid just learning the basics of potty training. “I wish I could’ve seen that,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, that’d take all the wind out of my masculinity,” he said, his laughter now falling into fits and snorts. “I haven’t thought about that in… oh hell, twenty years?”
Reaching under the seat, she slid the back of her chair down and twisted on her side, more of less curling up. “What else are you afraid of?”
His laughter fell away, and in the backseat, Ransom Galbraith popped through the door and made himself comfortable. “Heya, friend!” he boomed. Garrett closed his eyes and reached over to Brianna, feeling out the realness of her.
“Losing you,” he said quietly, then before he could ruin the mood entirely, he added, “But when I was a kid? Ladybugs. Fire trucks because of the noise. Oh! An older cousin of mine told me crust on bread was poisoned and I wouldn’t it until I was… oh, maybe ten? Dad finally had enough, sat me down, and practically shoved a peanut butter and jelly into my mouth.”
Brianna giggled. “Ladybugs?”
He shrugged. “They don’t do anything. They just sort of… crawl all over you, don’t they?” Garrett leaned his seat back too and glanced over at her. She was watching him, amused, her almond eyes twinkling. “What about you?”
“Mm,” she said, calculating. “This and that.”
“Oh, come on, I told you about reverse cowboy Garrett, now you tell me.”
“You were gonna find out eventually,” she said, her face going serious. “It’s about my scars.”
“Oh, shit,” he said and grimaced. “If you don’t want to tell me the story yet…”
“No, it’s fine. I kinda knew this was where it was heading anyways, and I promised you a story for a story, didn’t I? You’ll tell me about the cross, and I’ll tell you about…” She blew out a breath through her nose and cleared her throat. “So. I used to like this boy. Drew Clayton. Huge outdoorsy kid, hunter, big on rodeos, nature, that sort of thing.”
“How old were you?”
“Fifteen, he was sixteen. God, I was such a dork. Everything he liked, I had to try and like too, and everything he didn’t, I was just too good for all of a sudden.”
“Like all of us when we’re that young.”
Except you were in Vegas trying to start your own life at that age, she said mentally, her heart rising in her throat. “I guess so. Back then, my parents had just finished the divorce, and I was angry at dad because I thought it was his fault. So when Drew told me boxing and fighting was all just a big betting scam, I started spewing that bullshit too. I was such a little bitch to Dad.” With a sad little smile, Garrett reached out to caress the scarred side of her face with his thumb. She liked that he didn’t try to soothe her. Sometimes owning guilt was a healthy thing. Burdens were meant to be carried so backs grew stronger. “All I could think about was Drew, Drew, Drew, and Mom Mom Mom. But I was still staying with Dad because Mom hadn’t quite got her life in order yet on the East Coast, and I wanted to be close to my friends and Captain Ding Dong.”
Garrett laughed. “Was Drew a bad guy?”
“Bad? No. And what I’m gonna tell you, promise me you won’t go beat him up or anything. This is all ancient history and I’ve moved way past it.”
She brushed his thumb with her own. “Good. Drew put together this thing, a weekend near Missoula, camping, hiking, and whitewater rafting.”
Brianna shivered. “It did, yeah. Dad told me not to go, of course. ‘You’re not gonna go up there and fuck him in the woods for two days, Brianna.’ I really should have listened, but I was young and… you know, hormones. So I didn’t. Of course I didn’t.” She sighed. “There were five of us. Drew, me, two kids from Drew’s grade, and his younger brother Marty. He was kind of a quiet kid, he could be really sweet or he could just come out of nowhere with big emotional outbursts.
“Drew was – still is, I’m guessing – really good with him. They were only a couple of years apart and Marty looked at him like he was his hero. They had all the usual brother squabbles, but Drew could take care of him, sometimes even better than their parents.” Brianna shifted uncomfortably. “I bonded pretty well with Marty on the way up to Missoula. He loved dad jokes and I knew a bunch. When we got to the campground, he didn’t try to touch me or anything, but he was really affectionate and sweet and it was kinda clear he was crushing on me a bit. Anyways, we busted out the kayaks, they were these little tandem things, and we had a good first run down the river. It wasn’t really dangerous, but there were some pretty big rocks and…” She trailed off and bit her lip. “Um. We made it through. Drew was with Marty, I was with one of Drew’s friends, and the fifth met us downriver with the car. Pretty fun stuff and Marty wanted to go again. With me.”
There was quiet for a while, and Garrett rested his hand on her shoulder. His eyes were closed as he imagined her at that age with her friends. He would have been… twenty-one? Twenty-two? Funny. The story she’d wanted him to tell her on their honeymoon would’ve been right around that time too.
“I thought I could do it, and for a while, Marty really had fun. I told him more jokes out on the water, and he was laughing and having a good time. But he saw something in the water just as we were clearing some rocks, I don’t know if it was a fish or a bit of wood or something, and for some reason, it upset him. Drew was in the other boat, just in case, and he tried to calm Marty down, but… we flipped.” Brianna’s voice grew softer. “I’m glad Drew got his brother first. If something had happened to him, I don’t think I would have turned out okay in the end. My feet, they got tangled up in the boat and my face… I was dragged under. At first, I didn’t feel anything. I thought I was going to drown. I was so freaked out I never even noticed the rocks cutting me up. I fought and fought to get free, to get my head out of the water. I was sideways and kicking and if I just didn’t panic, I might have… well, who knows what would have happened?”
Garrett’s hand returned to her scars, and cupped her chin lovingly. “That must have been terrifying.”
The breath she drew was shaky. “It still scares me to think about it. There was this moment when I started to kind of go dark, when I was still in the water and I thought this is the end, this is how I go, and all I could think about was Dad telling me not to do this… and it kind of pissed me off.” Brianna laughed, but it was quiet, introspective. “I finally quit flailing around and got my hands under myself. When I shoved up, I did most of this-” she waved a hand at her scars “-but I wasn’t drowning anymore. I knew I couldn’t stay like that for long, and Drew and the others were already on shore and couldn’t do much for me. So I looked down at my feet. The kayak, I’d managed to kick through the side of it and that’s what was snagging my foot. Wriggled out of my sneaker, which took forever, and managed to yank my foot free.”
“Holy shit,” Garrett murmured.
Brianna nodded. “When I was clear of the boat and I could get my feet under me, I managed to wade close enough to shore that our friends could reach me with a long stick. That was… well, it was hell. I was so tired. All I wanted to do was take a nap but I was still riding the high of getting loose. They managed to get me out of the water and about then I realize I couldn’t see anything but red in my one eye. They got me bandaged up and to the car and I was bleeding so bad I fainted. I damn near died of blood loss but they got me to the hospital in Missoula. I was in and out of surgery for a couple of days. The first thing I remember is… um…” She cleared her throat, tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. “Dad and Mom. It was the first time they’d been back together since the d-divorce. I didn’t know how bad things were, not yet, and I thought Dad would get m-mad at me. But he just hugged me and started c-crying.”
Brianna couldn’t speak for a few minutes. Garrett rubbed her arm gently, up and down, and twice leaned over to kiss her wet cheeks. She held his face the second time, eyes closed, just needing the feel of him as much as he sometimes did with her.
“I had some family and friends show up. Never Drew and Marty, though. I had to have a few surgeries to try and repair the nerve damage and I was out the first couple of weeks of school. When I came back, Drew wouldn’t talk to me. He couldn’t even look at me. It wrecked me, all the way into college. I was a virgin until I was nineteen because I kept wondering if all boys were like that.”
“What about Marty?”
More tears and she wiped at her nose with the back of her hand, sniffling. “I tried to talk to him a few times, to tell him it wasn’t his fault. It always made him really upset and scared. He apologized but he… he couldn’t handle seeing me. I check in on him now and then on Facebook. He’s doing good these days. Working on a farm in Bozeman and he seems really happy. Even got married.”
Garrett’s voice went cold. “And Drew?”
“Remember, you promised.”
“I know. But I can still dream about kicking him in the balls for not coming to visit you.”
Brianna rubbed his chest, lost in memory. “We finally talked one time when I came home from college for a week during the summer. He cried. I cried. It was messy. We got over it, though. I haven’t talked to him in probably three years, but last I heard, he’s down in Livingston. He and Marty don’t live together, but I think Drew wants to be close to him. His brother’s keeper and all.” She smiled a bit at that. “And that’s my whole scar story. Well, most of it. The doctors wanted to do some reconstructive stuff, skin grafts, and my parents wanted it for me, but… I don’t know. When I was finally done with the neurologists, I thought… well, I thought I could endure this. I was never going to look normal again, but… I don’t know that I ever cared about normalcy anyways. People staring just makes me want to be even more, um, me. And I was, what, I was going to get a whole bunch of plastic surgery and stuff to maybe, just maybe, look a bit more like my old self? I didn’t want that. I wanted to look like… well, me.”
“You might think this is me propping you up or something, but I’m glad. What you look like, I like it. I like the character. I like you.” He shrugged. “I’d like you anyways, I think, but you’re right. The scars kind of reflect your soul. You’ve lived through some shit and you’re more of a badass mofo for it.”
Brianna giggled. “Mofo? Does anyone still say that in 2017?”
“I do.” He leaned over to kiss her again, longer this time, and then he brushed her eyes with his lips, and her forehead. The rain hammered down still when his hands wandered across her body and her lips met his again, staring into his eyes as her fingers played in his hair. When she finally let him come up for air, he whispered, “Want to take this inside?”
Eyes fluttering as his hand stroked her thigh, Brianna murmured, “What do you mean?”
“Rain’s not letting up. We’re not going anywhere until it does. No one’s around so I say we sneak in and camp out.”
“You don’t have your picks.”
“I’ll bet you, mm, first touristy pick tomorrow I can find the key in five minutes. Out here in the country, you lock yourself out, it’s a half an hour walk at least until the next house. In the winter, that’s death. They’ll have a key somewhere close by the door.”
“You’ll get soaked!”
“For my wife, I’ll suffer.” He gave her thigh one last, long rub, and whispered, “Back in a minute.”
He popped open the door, slid out on the running boards, and immediately fell flat on his face in the wet muck. “Garrett!” Brianna gasped, trying not to giggle.
His hand came up, wavered uncertainly, and found the floorboard. He pulled himself to his feet, spluttering and caked in mud. “Uh. Slick out here. So… you know, careful.”
She opened her own door too and was out in a moment. Careful to keep a hand on the SUV for balance – it really was slick – she came around the back. Garrett grinned sheepishly at her as she grabbed his hands and tugged him towards the house. “Hopeless, Moranis. Utterly hopeless without me.” “Truer words have never been spoken.”