I’ve been on the kid’s trail now for three days, as a favor for my friend Logan. He asked me to keep tabs on the guy, to make sure the kid remained safe while he travels to Canada. After giving Logan a hard time, and grumbling over the prospect of leaving my quiet mountain, I pack my duffle and jump into my battered truck. It’s early hours yet, when I leave my little piece of grass and make the twelve-hour drive to Sin City.
Tired and hot, I get to Las Vegas, then spend two days watching the kid move his stuff out of his high-rise apartment and onto a rental truck, before putting it into storage. Once he finishes he stops at a club off The Strip—Queens of the Night. I’m not familiar with the place, so I Google it while I wait outside in the blistering heat. My eyebrows shoot upwards, and my mouth drops open upon reading that the club’s known for its drag entertainment. Now what would the kid be doing inside?
He comes back out, carrying a beat-up guitar case. I follow him while he returns the rental truck. Next, he gets into a taxi and boards a Greyhound headed to LA. Rather than following the bus in southern California traffic, I park my truck in an overpriced parking structure, buy a ticket and board ten minutes after the kid. I quake inside at the prospect of spending my day crammed into a motorized tin can. The bus or any public transportation—not my thing. There’s too much humanity for my comfort, although Logan swears by it. He says it keeps him real. Me, I’ve had enough reality. Patrolling the Afghani desert will do that for you.
While I wait for the bus to pull out of the station, I rub my temples and recall the conversation I had with Logan a few days earlier.
“Come on, Cassidy, it’s only for a few days, long enough to be sure the kid makes it to Canada with no problems. The change of scenery will be good for you.”
“I like my scenery just fine, thank you,” I grumble. The cagey old coot doesn’t say a word, although I can hear him breathing. I take a deep breath, resigning myself to carrying out Logan’s appeal. “What’s he need watching for, Logan? He’s an adult, isn’t he?”
“He’s old enough, but Robin has a lot of emotions to deal with right now. I’m concerned he’s not thinking straight, and may do something he’ll regret. That’s where you come in. Maintain a distance, but if you see he needs help, well, you can step in, and save him from himself.”
“Great, twenty years in the Army, and now I’m demoted to a glorified babysitter.”
“It won’t be like that. You’re a…a safety net. Just in case. It’s a little favor, Cassidy.”
“All right, I’ll do it—for you.” I owed Logan a lot. The man had saved my life at a time when I hadn’t been too interested in living.
* * * *
Five hours later in LA, when we get off the bus, humanity bustles and hustles, and I fear losing the kid in this hell-hole of glitz and plasticized faces. I’m fortunate the kid likes keeping a low profile, though that’s a challenge with his wild mop of red hair that rivals an Afghani sunset. The vibrant color makes finding him in a crowd of Los Angelenos a whole lot easier, though. So does the worn guitar case hanging off his arm like an extra appendage. With a leather duffle bag slung on one shoulder and his guitar in the other hand, the kid slogs through the city, not in any hurry, and with no clear destination in mind. There are enough people on the streets, making it easy for me to blend in, so Red has no clue I’m following him. The cacophony of city sounds ensures I concentrate on my quarry, so I don’t lose him in Los Angeles’ urban chaos.
We don’t do much in LA during the few hours we’re here. Red speaks to a couple of club managers while I lurk within the shadows. I grab a bite to eat from a food vendor before we catch the next bus, heading north to San Francisco. Red has that melancholy, someone-just-stole-my-puppy demeanor about him. I can’t get a handle on why I’m twitching to comfort him. Yet, I manage to I avoid the unnatural inclination to make nice. Logan said to give Red space, so space I give him.
He stays to himself, sitting at the back of the bus and fingering his guitar’s strings. The instrument boasts a well-used patina, but I can tell by how Red caresses the wood, he treasures the music-making device. I wouldn’t mind having those long slender fingers caressing my wood. Now where did that thought come from? Red’s too fragile, too pretty, and much too young for me. He appears all of twenty, and I’m near twice that in years, and even more in life-experience.
Every now and then, a voice or cough distracts me from my thoughts, which is all right by me. The less time I spend fantasizing about long, slender, guitar-playing fingers, strumming my wood, the better. I don’t need any twink-like, red-haired moppet with full, kissable lips complicating my life. I’ll follow him to Canada, like Logan asked, and that’s all. I’ll make sure he’s safe first, then return to Los Alamos, and my little piece of grass in the New Mexico mountains.
With Red occupied by his guitar and in no need of saving, I lean my head against the cool window glass. The view’s a nice distraction, with the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean, white beaches and jagged cliffs occupying my mind. Still, I get lost in the past and can’t help thinking how much Mike would’ve liked California. Despite the sand which inevitably found its way into places meant to remain sandless, he always enjoyed the beach. We both did. Mike used to say the warm sand made me lazy, like an old coon-hound. I guess maybe it did, but there’d be no more sandy beaches for us. As the bus rolls north along the I-101, I close my eyes and try keeping the bad memories at bay, with no luck.
San Francisco, now that place holds memories—mostly good. I’d sown my oats and my jizz in the Castro, prior to Uncle Sam shipping me out to the desert. I was a mean, lean, fucking machine, an eighteen-year-old farm boy who’d never seen the ocean, city lights nor such a cornucopia of queers. I’m ashamed to say I behaved like the gay man who gives gay men a bad rep. But, after growing up on the grasslands in middle-of-fucking-nowhere, Wisconsin, I acted like a frisky stallion corralled in a pen of hot mares, or in my case—other frisky stallions. Wisely, I’d listened to my Ma and Pa and packed me a boatload of condoms before leaving home. Two legs and a hot willing ass—I fucked it.
Fortunately, I met Mike in the midst of my sowing, and I fell in love. Mike’s the one who gave me my nickname—Hound. He said I reminded him of a forlorn, hound dog with my droopy eyes. I’d told him lack of sleep was the reason I had bedroom eyes—so many asses, and too little time.
He’d laughed and said I was ‘nothing but a horny ole hound dog’.
After two days knowing me, he’d called me a ‘man whore’.
I said, “Hound fit me, like my favorite pair of jeans.”
Guess I couldn’t argue, being as he’d had the longest legs and the prettiest ass I’d seen that week. We’d spent the last two nights together, fucking and laughing, riding the street cars, and clubbing. I’d figured I had better stock up on fucking, since I’d soon be somewhere in the Mid-Eastern desert and locked back in the fucking closet. Mike had been agreeable and had stayed the night in my cheap hotel room. We’d fucked all night, illuminated by the flashing, purple neon light filtering through the thin, dingy curtains of the Cable Court Motel. I’d awoken in the morning to discover he had left.
I hadn’t had time to miss him, though. I’d overslept and had to run through the airport’s terminal like the devil was on my tail. We ran into each other again at the departure gate, each stunned to discover we were on the same flight to Hell.
Turned out Mike had been headed to the desert, just like me. Both of us were bound for Camp Patriot in Kuwait, and whatever came next, which, as it turned out, was twenty good years together. Granted, being career grunts ensured we spent most of it closeted and dodging bullets. That was fine with me. Army life suited me. I liked following orders. As the years marched on, I was the one who gave them, and I liked that just fine, too. Mike and I traveled the world together, stationed in exotic places like, four tours in Kabul, plus Vicenza, Okinawa, and most recently—Yuma, Arizona.
Yuma, God’s revenge for killing in Liberty’s name. Half the time I hadn’t known if I was in Kabul or Yuma. The fucking sand was everywhere, and the sun never found a decent cloud to hide behind.
While stationed at Yuma, we’d met Logan, a grizzly one-armed Vietnam veteran with a penchant for gay soldiers. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if Logan is gay, nor do I care. But, he understands that being gay while serving in the United States military sucks balls. Fuck, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ DADT only gets a person so far. Yeah, we got legal rights, but fucking rights don’t mean squat to bigots. Bigots don’t change their attitude just ‘cause the law changes. They’re full of hate and ignorance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my near forty years, it’s that hate and ignorance dies real slow. Let me tell you, there’s a passel of fucking bigots in the US Army.
Logan’s a shrink, and he helped many a queer soldier with living the military life. If nothing else, during an hour visit, a soldier could be himself—in safety. With Logan, a man could shed his confining skin of conformity. He could trill, lisp, wave a limp wrist or just plainly say he missed sucking dick. No judgment, no repercussions.
Mike had been pressuring me for years to come out of the closet. After DADT’s repeal, he’d wanted to live with me, in the open and unafraid, like a real couple. Mike had wanted us to get a place together, knowing that this station in Yuma was our last. We were coming up on our twenty years of service to Uncle Sam, and would soon retire from soldiering.
“Come on, Hound, we’ll rent an apartment, not too far from base. We can go to work together, come home together—share a bed for more than a few nights while on leave. No more sneaking around, no more searching for a private place to let loose. Isn’t that what you want too?”
“Sounds near perfect, but I can’t do it, Mikey. If someone finds out, I don’t know if I’d survive the humiliation.”
“Fuck that, Hound! What’s humiliating? Me?” Mikey’s hurt expression about undid me. What the hell, we’d been together half our lifetime. How could he think such a thing, let alone say it out loud?
“Not you, Mikey…never you. But, the men. What about them? How can we command our troops if we lose their respect? And they will, Mikey. They’ll lose it faster than a bootie loses his virginity on pass. That’s what’d be humiliating.” It was an old argument, and one that had hurt Mike more each time we had it.
Mike had stayed angry with me, ‘cause I wouldn’t agree to live with him while we were still active duty. Base quarters suited me fine, and so did the closet I occupied. I guess I hadn’t realized how much I’d hurt Mike, keeping him closeted, too. When Logan had had open hours at our Vet Center, Mike had stopped by to see him.
Following his visit with Logan, Mike had been less argumentative, but there had been an undercurrent of sadness about him that just hadn’t sat right with me. So, next time Logan had come around, I’d been there at his door knocking, and seeking approval that it was all right in this day and age to stay closeted. Logan had offered an ear, but if it was validation you wanted, well, he made you work for that. He believed another person couldn’t validate you. A man need to validate himself. Well, fuck that shit, I needed to make Mikey happy, right fucking then.
“What is it you would like to happen, Hound?” Although I had introduced myself as Master Sergeant Cassidy O’Connor, Logan had latched onto the nickname that’d been with me half my life. Obviously, he knew who I was, and I’d wondered what all Mikey had shared with him.
“I’m ready to get out of the fucking Army, maybe get a piece of land filled with grass and trees. God knows I’ve had my fill of fucking sand.”
“What would you do on this piece of God’s green acre, Hound?” Logan had leaned back in his chair, drummed his fingers on his desk and waited for me to answer. I’d taken my time thinking about how civilian life and I might get along.
“Well, I reckon I would just be. No reveille to wake me up at the ass crack of dawn, no uniforms and no fucking sand.”
“What about Mike? How does he figure into your plans?” Therein lay the crux—Mikey—who’d been at my six, both of us closeted and serving our country since we were eighteen. He was the last of the oats I’d sown, only now he wanted something I wasn’t capable of giving him. Other than one fast and furious week I’d spent in San Francisco, I’d lived closeted all my life.
With an uncertain sigh, I’d scrubbed my hands over my face and had answered, “I suppose, we’d be on the same green patch of land. Provided we were far away from the ‘maddening crowd,’ I’d come out of the closet—for him.” I’d used finger quotes to make my point. After four tours in Afghanistan, I didn’t like loud noises and tolerated people even less. Thoughts of living an uncloseted life had scared me more than desert reconnaissance.
Now that Mikey’s gone, I regret I couldn’t do that for him. But, like Logan had said, “If you’re coming out of the closet, you must do it for yourself, Hound.” In the late, lonesome hours of the night, I still hear Logan’s smooth voice echoing his wise counsel.
Which brings me back to Logan’s favor. He’d asked me to tail Red, but didn’t say exactly where we were going. “Somewhere in the Canadian Rockies,” Logan had said. “Robbie’s nursing a broken heart.” Yeah, well, welcome to the club, kid. Don’t expect the torment to end anytime soon. Thing is, with broken hearts, the fucking things never mend—they just keep on beating.
The bus driver announces that we’re pulling into San Jose. I’m glad for the break from my thoughts, and for the opportunity to stretch my legs. My stomach’s angry growl reminds me I haven’t eaten since early this morning. I get off the bus, take a quick piss and grab a sandwich and a soda. We still have another two hours until reaching San Francisco. Damn, bus travel is worse than riding a jeep on patrol. The bus is a luxury ride compared to the jeep, but fuck the duration of the trip. My legs are too fucking long to abide sitting for eleven hours, no matter how nice the scenery.
I step back onto the bus and first scout for the kid where he had sat, but instead of a delicate man with haunted green eyes, there’s a frazzled woman and two gap-toothed kids. I glance around me, scanning for the shock of red hair. His locks are the beacon I’m conditioned to home in on. With a hydraulic whoosh, the bus door closes. I’m about to shout that Red is missing, when I spot him outside the window, sprinting to the bus. Before the driver can rev the engine, Red pounds on the doors and demands entrance. With a heavy sigh, the driver decides to let Red back on the bus. He clambers on board with his ever-present guitar in hand. With his previous seat over-run with rug-rats, Red takes the last spot available—next to me. Oh, boy, it’s never a good idea to get too close to the enemy, or rather your mark. Uhm, I mean the person you’re supposed follow at a discreet distance. Too many years in the Army, and too many of them spent doing reconnaissance, has me relegating Red to adversary status.
“Sorry about that,” he says, upon bumping my too-long legs with his guitar case. My double seat doesn’t have the room that the back seat has, so we snug it up until the guitar case is tucked in at Red’s feet. It’s a tight fit, but Red’s small in stature and smells like sandalwood and sweat. His scent piques my interest while, up close, his freckles are splashed across his features like little grains of sand. I breathe in deeply, glad to have my senses filled with something besides diesel fumes.
“No problem. Name’s Cassidy, by the way.” Now why did I do that? So much for keeping under the radar. “Cassidy O’Connor.” Damn, I even offered him my last name.
“Robin McMaster.” He shakes my hand, and I notice the calluses on his fingers. He’s played his guitar for a long time, and often, to have developed those harsh fingertips. I wonder what they’d feel like scratching my back while he rides me like a Humvee, hard and loud. Get a grip, and your mind out of the gutter, Hound.
“Nice to meet you, Robin.” I’m proud of myself, making nice with the kid while my heart does the funky chicken. He gives me a half-smile and gazes across me, and out the window. The bus pulls out of the station and continues northward.
Thankfully, the kid doesn’t want conversation. Instead, he goes into the overhead bin and finds a yellow pad and scribbles on the pages. Every few minutes he stops writing, stares straight ahead and twitches his fingers. With his fiery, red hair flowing past his shoulders and his lips mouthing words only he knows, he’s an air-guitar-playing Valkyrie.
This kid stirs things in me better left unstirred. Waxing poetic and comparing him to Norse mythological beings isn’t like me. Mike was the intellectual in our partnership. Me, I’m a simple ground-pounder, an army grunt through and through. I guess, after two decades together I had to learn something.