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The Fastest TBP Christmas Story in the West
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
 

by Feech

Clytey belongs to Channing. Thanks Channing, and Merry Christmas


Milt really shouldn't be here. That's what I keep thinking, anyway. I don't know why I like him so much, or why I put up with him. I don't know how the stock put up with him-- half the time he scares them out of their wits before they realize who it is, but then I guess a human (normal human that is) could do that too. And so far, no one's gotten hurt. No one's startled so badly they've kicked him or anything. They always notice ahead of time. Maybe it's just my contrary nature that makes me keep on a coyote 'morph as a hired hand.

He's crazy, too. Zany, loopy, loco. I'm not. I'm sane, serene, steady. Really I am. I've just gone a little crazy this Christmas. Only a little. Milton, for example, now there's a crazy guy, as I just said. He thinks he's a gay coyote 'morph man. Sometimes he minces, and talks with a weird lisp that I think is supposed to be stereotypical gay guy. But he used to be this Normal, straight-up business man. You know what I think-- I think the SCABS affected his brain,and not just his orientation-- but he swears he goes only after men now. Sometimes he goes line-dancing. He likes the old half-rock style Country music before it turned neo-Country-Classical again a few years back. Milt wears custom boots, even when he works. By custom I don't mean "made to fit" (and mine are off the shelf anyway and they work just fine-- I work just fine in them). I mean they have flower designs and strange appliques. Flowers, for godssakes.

That's why I like him, I guess. Milt's funny.

I'm named Clytemnestra. Shooting you a preemptive glare, here. I'm called "Clytey" for short, which I know doesn't help much, but I like my name. I'm not going to tell you my last name. You'd laugh.

Last year, about this time, we had two new mares show up who came down from the mountains and into our open corral where we keep hay for random range stock. We don't care who eats it as long as anyone who's hungry can keep on moving and get a meal when they need it. This year, much to my surprise, they're still here. They're no young horses-- last year they came in and stayed so early that we felt they probably planned ahead. Usually if we see any mustangs at all it's far into February or maybe late January. Usually some come around in March for a little while, hanging around the outside edges of the property. Sometimes the hay goes to waste, but we keep putting it out, and usually somebody eats it. My neighbor, Joe, who keeps Belgian draft horses, tells me I'm wasteful and I ought to put that hay to good use and make sure someone eats it every time. But we let some of the young cattle in and close up the corral sometimes, and they don't trample much, and use most of it. So it's all good, that's what I think. I like to see who comes down to eat and sometimes it's worth the wait and money and hay.

These mares came down last year and named themselves. We have a dog who named himself Tomahawk. He lies around in the shelter of the barns and sometimes gets up to bark. He has a hoarse, high-pitched bark and I think he might be part Indian dog but it's hard to tell, for me. He has ice-blue eyes. So these mares showed up, sort of tentative, and came in for the hay, but didn't leave. They circled around in the corral, but I know they could find the open gate, because they-- horses I mean-- they never go in without seeing the way out, if they have plenty of time like these two had. Nobody and nothing was driving them, they had made up their minds. One of them seemed like a "Lou" and the other one we call Sugar. Sugar is more the wild horse type. When I say that I mean that she edges away from people and I always leave the barn open and the back of the stall open for her. Yes, they sleep in the stalls, off and on, and wander around the paddock at night. They made up their own minds to that. Sometimes, once in awhile, Sugar disappears for a few days, or a weekend, but she always comes back. I don't think she goes far. She knows when it's Monday and the kids are coming by with sugar and candies and other horse treats.

Lou, I don't know why, but I felt more like claiming her. That didn't seem right, her being a mustang and all, and probably feral, but I started to tell myself that she's tame. She's not the same as other mustangs. She jumps at shadows and seems nervous about everything, but she doesn't seem as with-it as Sugar. I think she was really the reason the two came down so early last winter, and hung around. She doesn't want to be out on the range. She's older and fragile. She's stocky, a motely sort of chestnut, with not a very good front or neck. She's not put together so well and I'm sure it tells on her when she's trying to live wild.

I put bars across the stall door one night when she went in there and she didn't object. I think she feels safer here than on the range, but I may be reading into that. I try not to, because I'm really attached to her. But that's the way it is now and here she is again this Christmas, and I'm surprised she's here. I'm especially happy that Sugar keeps coming back, and acting tame around the children.

I try not to put it too far into my head what it is other people or animals want or think. I try not to think that they want what I want.

Sugar is a tough little thing and is light- colored, almost white in patches, and you can pick her out a mile away. The kids just love that. We have small children and some middle- sized kids come out here every week because one of the bus drivers over in Corhes makes a side trip Monday after school time so the kids can come out and enjoy our place and he can pick up a few things in our town which is a little larger. The school bus company doesn't mind, I don't think. I don't know. It's pretty casual. He has his own insurance too and sometimes he drives a van when the buses are being serviced or something. Anyway the kids have a good time. There aren't all that many kids going to school over there. He's a fun guy. He makes sure to drive some local kids out when our "orphans" visit. They aren't really all "orphans" but they go to a school where even if they have parents they don't usually see them all that often. Last year, some of those kids were SCABS who didn't get out much and were sort of fragile. It was great to see them out in the cold and wind and playing with the animals, running around, or wheelchairing around. Sugar and Lou seemed to like them, though Lou seemed more confused. Tomahawk wanted to chase kids around and eventually we shut him in Milt's lean-to.

Milt's lean-to is where he lives. He doesn't live in the house. There's the old ranch house across the rise from my low built ranch house which is new. We insulated the lean-to on the old house and put in some wiring and except for a refrigerator-- he uses mine-- Milt has everything he needs over there. We're talking about fixing up the old house but we can never seem to decide for sure if it'd be worth it or not. The painting can't be done until carpentry is finished, and we never finished it because the wood got too expensive last year when we finally got around to starting it. So it's weathered and peeling. Its color looks like the mountains, and if it weren't square at the edges you wouldn't be able to tell where it ends and the wild spaces beyond it begin.

Last year I spent most of Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day watching my new horses. I thought of them as mine, for fun. And here they still are this Christmas. Last year, Milt had packed about sixteen people into and around his lean-to and they had a bonfire and kept some meat outside in the snow so he could pack my refrigerator full of beer. I joined them for marshmallows and holiday spiked something or other, some kind of special drink they had mixed up in a wash bucket. It made me drunk and gave me a headache the next day. Milt told me I should come in to play cards, but I don't play cards and he knows that.

I stood outside cooling off my headache that morning and watched my horses, always prettiest in the morning because sunlight makes outlines of their long winter coats. Steam comes up from their noses in winter and they look relaxed.

I'm not pretty, I think Milt is prettier than I could ever be. I don't know how. I wish I could just naturally be pretty without thinking about it, like horses and dogs and some cattle and even some people. Birds, too. Only I think maybe birds do think about it, like vain people do. Milt keeps telling me I should come into town with him, but I don't want to go linedancing or try to pick anybody up and that's what he does there, besides eating hamburgers. I would go in for hamburgers. It hardly seems worth it, though. Why pay for something I can get at home?

Lou looks me in the eye sometimes when I'm talking to her and I think she's trying to listen, almost like she's trying to place me. Like we're old friends. Sugar wouldn't do something like that. Even my colt, Blue, who lives on the other side of the property because he doesn't get along with mares well, and needs to learn his manners, looks at me like he's waiting to find out what I want. Lou doesn't think I have any ulterior motives. But she's right, I don't want to ride her, and anyway Blue must always wonder what kind of trouble he's going to get into next. Lou knows she could leave any time, and she's decided to stay here. I can't say if it's because of the place or because of me, but I like to think it's because of me. I don't think that about just any animal that comes through here.

I work with Blue, and he's attentive, but we have our troubles. But he's strong and a good worker and I think he'll really turn out all right.

I had a good long easy but thought-provoking ride with Blue this morning, and tonight Milt is going to pack six or sixteen or however many friends into his little lean-to again. I'm invited. I think I'm going in for a little while. I'm really going just a little bit crazy. Maybe that Milt is rubbing off on me.

I don't know how I'm going to fit in with the rest of them. Physically or mentally. I just don't know. I don't know why I'm bothering. They don't really like me anyway, and I figure they're all gay guys. He's always talking about this or that new boyfriend. One day, I wanted to give Lou something special and went to find the old apples, but we were all out. So I went in the refrigerator and found a nice new one and gave her that, and Milt pouted. "I was saving that for my new boyfriend!"

"Who's your new boyfriend?" I asked him.

"Oh, you know... some..." he sort of waved his yellow paw around. "some hot guy down at the bars in town. You know. I'm bringing him home soon enough. I'm sure he would have been impressed with that apple."

I rolled my eyes at him.

Last year, for Christmas, Milt "gave me" Lou. The reason was that I kept saying that if she stayed, and wanted us to, we should take care of her, and maybe he could help me handle her so we could do her feet. He told me I was going overboard for some feral horse with a bad conformation and questionable temperament. But I liked her, and he knew that. So on Christmas Day he had on his Santa hat he had gotten the year before, at the bar-- he won it from somebody in cards and now he's making a tradition out of wearing it. It looks odd with his shirts, which look like some barrel-racing girl's frilly shirts-- at least I think so. He swears they're manly. I'm out of the loop. In his Santa hat, my coyote 'morph hired hand sang "Give Us a Song for Christmas" and made a presentation out of Lou. He said he was sorry for saying she wasn't worth it, and said, "ta-da!" and swung his arms in the direction of her stall. Sugar was nowhere to be seen. I'm sure she ran off during the time he spent dressing up Lou-- Lou was wearing an evergreen wreath with tinsel in it around her neck, and fake holly over each ear. She looked sort of put-upon.

"How did you ever get her to stand still for all that?"

"Magic. The Magic of Christmas."

"Did you have help?"

"No."

But I think she maybe had gotten fed up with him, and she let him know it, because for a few days after that Milt stayed out of her way. I think they had a little falling-out over the Christmas present routine. But it was nice of him.

I'm crazy to think of spending Christmas Eve socially, as they say, being social, but I don't know what's got into me this past year. I feel like changing.

Sometimes I'm worried Lou will leave me. I don't think she would on purpose, but what if there's something or someone she left in the mountains? What about before that, what if she was someone's pet? She hardly seems like the type to run off and join a wild band, but she did, if she was someone's pet. So it's a mystery to me. That makes it sort of frightening to be attached to her. What if she belongs to someone and I'm keeping her with me when I have no right to?

Last year, she did seem to like the kids, though she almost seemed like she had trouble with figuring out how to keep track of all of them. Sugar defended herself by accepting treats with her front end and keeping her back end in a protected posture. Lou doesn't seem to know how to do that gracefully. She didn't know how to put herself in a good position. She would worry about the kids behind her or way across the yard. Sugar could tell the difference between kids and the dog and something off in the distance, but Lou seems to combine it all. Without Sugar as her companion, I sort of doubt she'd have survived in the wild, and that makes me sad.

I think about what will happen if Sugar leaves for good, which I hope she won't do. I worry that if she left and didn't come back, Lou would miss her so much she'd follow to find her and then die.

"Do you think she ever would do that?" I asked Milt, once.

"Nuh-uh." He shook his head. "If she wanted to do that, if she wanted to stay with that Sugar alone, why did they come down here? I wouldn't worry about it, Clytey. If she leaves, it's because she's sick and old and wants to be done. But I think she'll stay."

And so far she's stayed.

I remember a conversation I had alone with Lou when I was explaining what would happen when a whole lot of visitors were coming in wheelchairs and other scary new things. I mentioned some names, and she seemed to perk up and listen. I couldn't tell if she had any favorites among the visitors when they came but she sure did seem to pay attention. But I couldn't tell if she felt any different after they left, either. I told her that some of them are coming back this year, but it's hard to tell what she thought of that. She looked sort of distant, with her large almost-black brown eye seeming to look at someone else beyond me. I can't tell.

Today Milt comes in blowing on his paws as if they're cold, while I'm forking straw.

"Yo, Clytey. Come to my little place tonight. We'll get you drunk again, it'll be fun."

"I don't know if there will be room."

"You said you're coming."

"Well, I just don't know if there will be room and --"

"Yeah, come over."

I sigh and shrug. Sort of a yes.

"Milton?"

"Yo, that's me."

"I don't want to get drunk again, Milt. I get drunk enough not on the holidays. I'm done with that this year."

"Mm-hmm." He takes up a shovel.

I tell him where to make the pile with what I've already done, while I'm separating out clean straw. The wheelbarrow broke and I'm using a tarp in the meantime.

"Milt, sometimes I think something really strange and I think about you and I wonder how it is with you."

"What's that?"

"Sometimes I wish I had SCABS so I could change. It must be easier to change when people expect you to be something different."

He looks at me wide-eyed. "You WANT SCABS?"

I shrug.

"Look, Clytey, there are easier ways of doing what you want to do than getting some awful disease."

"Hey... Milt."

"Mm."

"I wish I were as pretty as you are. You're a guy and you're prettier than I am."

He scoffs. "Don't I wish. My New Year's Resolution is going to be to get into bed with a guy I bring home one of these times. I tell you, no matter how I shake my fluffy tail and bat my eyes, alas, no one wants to bed poor Milt."

"That's not true, is it?"

He shovels and doesn't answer except to kind of tilt his head like he doesn't know.

"You're a virgin?"

"Are you?" he returns.

"I didn't ask to get too personal. I'm... I guess I am. Yeah. I just never thought of it that way. I guess I've never had sex with a person, so yeah. A virgin." Once I've said it, the thought makes me snicker and Milt smiles at me.

"Well," he says, "Me too. Sad, that makes us."

"Pure." I almost laugh.

He does laugh. It's a coyote's sharp yap. "Yeah! Right. Pure."

Milt grins at me and puts aside his shovel, links elbows with me and makes me do a dance step with him quick before he picks up work again. "We'll have fun. You'll see. It's fun at Christmas with friends and buddies, even if you're lonely. I won't make you get drunk, but you have to have at least one drink or we're going to get drunk and howl at the moon and carol outside your window or come in the barn and turn on all the lights, if you don't join us."

"I only had one drink last year. It gave me a splitting headache. This year, I'm not spending the night in the barn unless you do come to the house. And don't turn on the lights and bother the critters."

"That's the idea-- you have to come or we'll harrass your precious Lou."

He looks almost sorry as soon as he says it, and I know my face looks angry and protective-- defensive.

Milt sighs. "So anyway, come over. I'll spend some time with the horses too. We'll both spend time with them, and both play cards and party."

"I don't play cards and I don't party, at least I try not to party. I'm not sure what the verb means. But I will come."

"Good woman."

"Isn't a good woman supposed to have a man?"

"Nah, other way around or something like that. Besides, what about us lost and lonely good homosexuals?"

"Milt, are you sure it wasn't different than you say it was?"

"Whaddayamean?"

"Are you sure you weren't gay before, and just afraid to admit it?"

He cocks his head. "Mmmmaybe."

He's good to his word about spending time with the horses, and we talk with them and each other about the kids coming after New Year's. This isn't the first time we've brought up the idea of keeping one or two. But then we think maybe we're not responsible enough to do that. We go back and forth on that about once a year.

"Maybe if I were married," he says. "Straight. Or pretended to be straight."

"What has that got to do with it?"

"I don't know... I guess I just think a straight woman who was my wife would take care of the kids if I failed. I don't know why I think that. Sometimes I feel like I'm a failure. I'm having the time of my life out here with you and the creatures, really, Clytey, but if you looked at my life before, I was going places. This is the place I came after SCABS and here I stay. It's not like I'm progressing."

"Progress doesn't matter to kids."

"Maybe it doesn't." He nods. He tries to give Sugar a treat. She's playing games with him. She knows by now he's not a real monster, not a true coyote, but she snorts and runs and turns and makes a fuss, blowing smoke about it all. Then she always takes the treat. Milt pretends to be insulted by her behavior, and she's amused by that.

The friends Milt's made from around the ranches and the bars in town start coming in to party as soon as the sun is all the way down and the stars are coming out.

I don't go into the lean-to right away. I'm bundled up in my jacket with the tight cuffs and watch the people going in from a spot by a fence post where I won't be easily noticed. Lou is standing breathing on my neck and I feel good about being outside and with her.

Tomahawk likes to slink like a predator when people come at night. He can barely be seen, but eventually, he shows up quickly in the light, nips at a boot, and then bounces around making that strange hoarse noise. In the starlight and the yellow brightness from my motion light over my deck, the dog's merle ruff and people's coat strings and buttons and bands on their hats all shimmer.

People are laughing roughly. Some of them sound like women. I think they're girlfriends or sisters of somebody. I can never keep everybody straight. I mean, I can never keep everyone sorted out as to who is who.

Milt knows I'm going to show up sometime. He's laughing too, and he sounds like a real coyote. Sometimes when he's made noises like that, wild coyotes in the area have answered him.

They've started a fire. Smoke and sparking bits come off of it. I say good-bye to Lou and pet her on the underside of her neck.

Some people brought packages, mostly alcohol, but somebody brought Milt a present for Christmas. A new hat. It's really well made and he's amazed. I can tell he's totally surprised. They're laughing at him because they're pleased that he didn't suspect it. He takes off his Santa hat to put on the new cowboy's hat. Some people are outside by the fire, and I try to squeeze into the tiny place with the others. Our shoulders and coats are all rough and pressed against each other. I feel claustrophobic. I can pick out a couple of familiar faces. It feels like there are more people than there are. I recall last year and the wash tub of whatever drink it was, and feel a little sick from remembering.

I didn't notice a black bear at first, but there is one there. A bright black SCAB with thick fur and glowing tiny black eyes. He seems to be sitting in one corner like a shadow, and I don't know when he got here or why Tomahawk didn't throw a fit. I'm kind of impressed with him. I think of him walking all around like an Indian spirit or something, with no clothes on. Milt could do that if he wanted to. He doesn't, though. But often, for no reason I can see, he wears a vest without a shirt.

Milt must be too warm in here with a shirt and vest on over his thick fur.

I realize I'm having personal thoughts people, in a crowded small room. It feels sort of strange, like it's rude to think about a bear being without clothes.

Roger squeezes in. I know him. I've met him before. I'm supposing he must be gay. He's one of Milton's line-dancing friends.

Roger has SCABS. He has only one change from it that I know about. He's showed me because he likes to show it off. Now he notices me, winks, and makes a half-grin and licks his lip. He has fangs, like a movie vampire. I don't know why or what made SCABS do that to him, but he acts like it's sexy. It is, sort of.

Roger's hair is all mussed up, but what's strange about him is that he always looks combed, as if he planned the wind to do that to his hair. He's wearing a long duster and heavy boots.

Milt goes over and hugs and kisses Roger, as if he hasn't seen him in years. "Look what Susanne and Joseph brought me!" He tips his hat proudly.

Roger looks. "Nice."

I want to get out of the place now. I feel like I've had my fill of party. I don't care for small talk.

I feel like I should be celebrating, and I don't know how. I've never really known how.

I start to try to wriggle out of the room but Roger notices me leaving and says, "Clytey! Stay. We've got music."

Somebody says, "We need to dance outside, there isn't room in here."

"Okay," Milt is saying, and people are opening beers and trying to find boots they took off when they came in with cold feet. People are agreeing about dancing, but I try to say to Roger, "I don't-- I don't really care about music all that much, I don't dance."

"Too bad." Roger has this way of looking at you as if he's the guy on one of those romance paperbacks at the market. I don't know what to do when he does that so I sort of roll my eyes as politely as I can, and he chuckles at me.

I'm not sure I like people being amused at me, other than Milt. I'm going back out to the barn.

"Stay, Clytey."

"I'll be back."

I get outside and take a deep breath, behind the house where the firelight doesn't reach, so no one tries to talk to me and the smoke doesn't get in my lungs. Almost right away I want to go back inside. Things are changing. I feel tipsy and I haven't had anything to drink.

I almost run to the barn. I walk, but it's almost a run. I almost pick up my feet. But when I'm nearly there, about to go in, I think about the animals all peaceful, and I don't want to disturb them. But I don't know what to make of the music they've started at the lean-to. It's loud and obnoxious. Also kind of foot-tapping.

It's a crisp night. It's a good Christmas. Christmas deserves special weather wherever you go. I remember in the days when my parents and brother were alive, we used to go down South and the weather was special and crisp there too, and lights on the adobe buildings were sparkling and I would be delighted and hug my own shoulders.

It's been a long time. I'm beginning to realize how old I am. I don't want to know how old I am on Christmas. I want to be a kid again.

I feel young. I feel vulnerable. I wonder if this is how Lou felt on the range. I'm sure Sugar felt safe on the range, but she came in because of Lou. I don't have any friends I would follow into strange territory.

Well, maybe Milt. His lean-to is very strange. He's strange.

Milt comes up behind me so softly that I'm startled. I could smell him just a moment before I saw him. Canine, smoke, meat, and alcohol and brand new felt hat.

I jump when he touches my shoulder. I feel the cool moisture of his breath where it condenses on my face and neck. "Clytey. I don't think you spent enough time with us yet. Roger and some other people are asking about you."

I don't know whether to care or not. I'm a little startled by everything.

"Roger's not gay."

That surprises me-- and then I feel myself blushing hot. I'm glad it's dark in this spot. My face must be terribly red, except for my freckles. I hope Milt doesn't make me come out where I can be seen like this. What an embarrassing thing for him to say.

"Come on. Just to humor me. I like all my friends in one place. Makes me feel in control and popular." He touches his hat and tilts it a bit over his eyes.

"Milt, why do you stay here?"

"Nowhere else to go; no one else would take me on, and anyway I was sick of my old life. Even if I were Normal like you, I'd be here."

"I forget I'm Normal. Hehe."

He grins. "Yeah. Maybe too strong a word for you?"

"I need to say goodnight to Lou."

"Did that already. I saw you."

"Well, she probably is sleeping and I'll see her in the morning."

"Clytey, she's not going anywhere. She has bars on her stall."

"I said I'd see her in the morning, aren't you listening to me?"

"I see you worrying."

"Nobody that I like that much has ever come to me out of the wild like that."

"Well, as you say, maybe she's not wild."

"She is. She's just not very good at it."

Milt puts his palm across the nape of my neck and steers me towards his partying friends. The pad of his hand-paw is very warm.

"I don't know what this next year is going to be like."

"I do. It's going to be strange and I'm going to do my best to get laid, and fail. And we'll work hard all year and be happy to do it."

"I like work. But your problem, Milt-- maybe you're trying your best isn't the best way to 'get laid' as you so delicately put it."

He chortles. "Maybe not." But then he looks sort of sad. It occurs to me that I've never asked him about his family, or any personal things from before he came to my place.

"Milt--" I begin, but he cuts in.

"Clytey, you ever think about SCABS?"

"Yeah... but what about it..?"

"Clytey, do you realize no one would recognize me from before if they saw me? I'd have to be able to identify myself to them somehow. And think-- what if-- what if they had SCABS in such a way as to render them also unrecognizable? We could pass each other on the street-- or, not-- we could get even closer, we could be face to face and nose to nose, we could dance, or hell we could even be in bed. And we'd possibly never even know what the other one once was to us. That's the sad thing about how secretive people are with who they were before SCABS."

"Are you that secretive?"

"Yes." He nods shortly and then his voice has another tone. "Another time, in the next year upcoming, I'll tell you or someone else about it. I've heard of people having pride in who they used to be. I might look into something like that, a place where it's safe and people to talk to about it. But not right now. I'm trying to have a Christmas party. This is something I never used to do. I figured no use in having a party if I didn't have feelings about the religious meaning of Christmas."

"You don't?"

"Later, another time, I'll tell you everything. I won't make you dance, but come with me. Roger wants to talk to you, I'm sure of it."

"I feel like I'm in middle school or something. I was shy then too."

"Well, don't be shy. This is your place, you're at home. Everyone else is just passing through-- come on, you can give them something of yourself while they're here."

"They're your friends. It's not really fair to expect--"

"I spend time with your friends all the time. I try to get along with Lou and Sugar, I think I do a pretty good job. I move your cattle around and handle medical care. In addition to pay, I'd like the bonus of a little return on that. Meet my friends, okay? Are you and I friends?"

"Of course."

"Then it stands to reason that some of these folks might turn out to be mutual friends."

"You're forgetting to lisp. Or whatever that is you do with your voice."

"Darn it." The "gay" voice is back again. "You make it sound so crude. There's more to it than just lithping."

"You're embarrassing."

"You see you can't possibly embarrass yourself by being you if you're going to be around me. Think about it. You shine with sophistication compared to me."

I wrinkle my nose.

"No, seriously, come to my party." By now, though, he's pushing me into the crowd, so I don't have much choice unless I want to duck and run. I almost do.

Milt claps his paw firmly over my neck when he feels like I'm going to cut out.

I look up at his big ears shining orange from the firelight and it feels like Christmas again. I don't know why.

Roger is there and I know he's going to try to get me to dance. I'm terrified of it.

"Clytey," Roger half-bows to me while some lady I never did catch the name of is trying to talk to me about the layout of my place and to make some comment about how we decided on the location of the new house. I'm trying to answer her, and Roger in turn bows to her, excuses both of us, and takes me where the music is pounding so much I can't think. The air is colder, and it sounds like the music is cold. But the voices in it are hot and stinging. I like the guitar, that much Milt and I can agree on. But Roger likes the thumping beat, which makes me uncomfortable.

"I promise you will like this music," he tells me, taking a cold hand in his, "If you learn to dance to it."

"I don't see how that follows," I try to say over the music.

His coat is cold. I'm close up against it. People are dancing and I almost get kicked.

Tomahawk slinks out of Milt's open lean-to door with something in his mouth. I'm assuming he's stolen a piece of meat. I hope it's not someone's glove or anything else inappropriate.

"You follow me," Roger starts to explain.

Milt should have more parties like this. I imagine spending a peaceful Christmas with the horses and cattle and buildings, and having parties like this in summer when it might not be so cold. Maybe then I could get more into it. I like to be by my own fireplace on winter nights, even holiday winter nights. Then I realize what a crazy thought I'm having, that I would join into parties in the summer. I don't join into parties. I remember when my parents had some late New Year's and Fourth of July parties, and I would skirt the edges-- I like being outside. I don't like being in the middle of things.

Milt is dancing around making an utter fool of himself. He does have a glossy, fluffy tail though.

"Look, it's easy. Pay attention here, darlin'," Roger says gruffly.

"Um--" I suddenly ask, "Did you look the same, you know, when you were 'Normal', I mean, before the fangs, did you--"

"I looked the same." Roger nods and grins. "Looked just the same-- startled the heck out of me when I looked in the mirror after getting over my bad fever and all that rot. I tell you, I expected halfway to turn into something else the rest of the way-- you know, to just keep on changing. I didn't think it would stop like this. Thank goodness it did."

"So you like the way you look?"

He smiles a bit. "Why certainly. Don't you?"

I blush.

He seems to be really amused by that.

I think of something from movies. "So you still cast a reflection in a mirror."

He laughs outright at that. It almost makes me feel clever.

"I um... I never really cared for the way I look."

"Nonsense." Roger is still trying to get me to dance, and I'm trying to figure out what the others are doing. Sometimes I stop altogether and look around, and he gets a little bit frustrated, but then starts again.

"You look fine, you look real good," he tells me. His hand is warming my hand. "Don't all the guys in town tell you that all the time?"

"That's flattering, Roger, but I don't really spend time with guys."

"Well. Lucky for me. I take it no one else will be cutting in at the moment."

"I don't get this dancing. Why is it line dancing? I don't understand what the others are doing, and I don't think we're matching them."

"That's alright. I'm trying to teach you something else. I think they're already drunk. Some of them came here drunk, is what I think."

"Does everyone do this at parties? Just do their own thing in a crowd?"

"Pretty much. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing. I just don't like crowds."

"Crowds are just individuals in close proximity to each other."

"Yeah, Roger, we have the word 'crowds'. It doesn't change how I feel about it to change the words."

"Sorry. Are you not enjoying yourself?"

This may be the craziest thing I've done in my life, what I'm about to do, but for some reason I've been so nervous for so long this season that it almost feels normal to be this shaky. I also feel like it's okay to do some strange things on Christmas, because people are partying or whatever it is they do, so I go ahead and say, "Really, I'd rather be over at my house."

"Okay, let's go there."

"Okay."

I don't think I've ever had anyone except appliance repair men and Milton in my houses.

I don't even think for very long about what he'll think about the decor or the mess or anything. Or about how he'll see that sometimes I drink alone because I left a few things out. He'll know all that anyway soon enough. I think I'll just start talking. I feel so strange. I feel like checking in with Lou, to see if I'm doing the right thing. I don't think it's odd to trust her judgment. I think she's always shown good judgment so far.

"Do you mind if just check on my horse first?"

"You mean Blue, or Lou?"

I shrug. "Maybe I don't need to."

"No, no that's fine. Let's go into the barn if you want to."

"But you're not wearing your barn boots. You're wearing your going-out boots."

"Pah. Doesn't matter."

I'm embarrassed to admit that I place more value on talking to Lou than I do on the party or on the colt I'm going to be using for actual work. I don't think Roger knows enough about horses to know for sure Lou will never be used, but I can't say she's "just a pet" either.

"I'm getting cold. Let's go in someplace. And I take it you don't want to get back into Milt's little place."

"Hey, you two, where you going?" That's Milt. I realize I can tell him we're going to the barns to look at the stock, and then it'll be awhile before he realizes we went from there into the house, so maybe we'll have some time to talk alone.

"Barn."

"Okay, well, come back soon, you two can't just cut out and hide in the barn. Roger needs to take up where we left off in cards."

"We'll all be here all night. No one's playing cards yet. I'll join in when Clytey and I are done talking."

So I guess he does want to talk to me.

How the heck can anyone tell what anyone else wants, except just by guessing at first? I'd hate to ask too much and be entirely wrong. I don't know how to give gifts. It's the same problem. I give Milt a tack shop gift certificate each year.

I feel really good all of a sudden. Roger's handsome. He's tall and almost frightening and I like him.

Then I remember that I'm not very attractive. But he acts like I'm attractive. I wouldn't know-- maybe he does that with everyone. I think he probably does. But I don't know. I don't hang out with him and Milt and other guys in town. Maybe I will, to find out.

"I don't have a Christmas tree or anything," I tell him. "Milt's party is where all the fun is."

"Fun is overrated. I mean, I have plenty of fun the year around, on weekeneds, in town. Christmas is sort of overrated too. By that I mean that we might as well have partied any other night, and it would have been the same."

"But it's an excuse to party."

He shrugs.

"Aren't you religious?"

"I am, but I'm not Christian."

"Well, why are you celebrating Christmas?"

"I'm not, really. I'm helping others celebrate it. I'm at a friend's party."

"I don't really need an excuse to party," I admit. "I like Christmas for itself, and for the memories. Memories I mean of being with people I celebrated it with a long time ago."

He nods as if he had someone in the past.

"I don't like parties."

"You don't? Then why did you come tonight? You could have stayed in your own house, or in the barn with your animals."

We come into the barn and Lou and Sugar breathe out and turn towards us.

I ask boldly, "Would you have come up to call on me if I were in my house, while the party was going on?"

"Naw. I'd have been too shy."

"I don't believe you're shy, Roger."

"Well."

We pet the horses on their muzzles and Lou seems to think I'm doing the right thing, socializing with humans. We go on up to my house. It's dark except for the motion light that comes on almost blinding when we step across the path towards the deck.

"Come in, Roger, it's a mess, but I didn't expect company."

"'Salright." He wipes his feet and then takes his boots off anyway.

"Merry Christmas." I turn on the kitchen light over the island. It seems festive in the house without any decorations. That's the good of Christmas. It's a party by itself, by virtue of the day. It's festive without anything. I think maybe Milt doesn't have to be so darned loud about it.

None of this means I'm -- I don't know. I'm not turning into something I'm not. Sometimes I think I have to try things like this to find out what I really don't like. But it's hard to be myself when other people keep coming around who seem to be better at it.

Roger does seem shy. All of a sudden, sitting at a kitchen island, he's not comfortable like he was at the party. I feel a little sorry for him.

"Nice horse, that Lou. I remember she was around here last year. You going to ride her?"

"No. Want some coffee?"

"Yeah, please. Thanks."

"Lou's a sweet thing, and I really love her, but she's not a riding horse."

Roger nods, "Well, they can't all be."

"I just made an excuse for her, didn't I. I mean, I apologized for her. I said 'but'. I don't mean to do that, it's wrong. I mean to say, I'm not going to be riding her, and I love her the way she is, very much."

"Yeah, there's no 'but' there, you don't have to apologize or have reasons for keeping a horse you're not riding."

"Some people might think I have to."

"Well, I don't know. I guess I don't know enough to criticize you on this point."

"Do you like crowds?" I still feel like I can talk, and ask anything I want to.

"I do. Yeah, I do. I guess I like people to be around me where it keeps things at arm's length. I don't mean I don't like people close. I like close in crowds. But the conversation can't be private. That makes it more fun sometimes."

"Safer. Well, I feel safer without the crowds."

"Yeah, I can tell, and you don't come around people often in town, but I was hoping you would join us."

"Well, I did, and now we're talking, and maybe later I'll come over and look at you playing cards."

"Okay, I won't push it, but Milt will."

"I know, but I like him. He's a good balance to me."

Roger shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe he's more like you than you think. Everyone's shy. Some people are just more obvious about it."

"I'm not drunk. I haven't had a single thing to drink," I inform my guest.

He looks a little surprised. "No, I didn't think you were, didn't think you had."

"Good. I'm feeling a little weird."

Roger looks at me with that paperback look again. He knows what I'm thinking, and I think he was hoping for it. I'm only going to give him a kiss though and that's it. I want to see if he actually wants it or not.

He does.

"I don't think I've ever kissed anyone except horses, dogs and cows before," I admit, and then I know how awful that sounds. Like I'm comparing him to ranch stock or something. But he knows better. He just smiles.

I feel stupid and giddy. I wish it weren't Christmas anymore. I wish it were all over, and that I could say it was just me being silly on the holiday. But it's not true, because everything is changing.

Roger sees how uncomfortable and strange I'm feeling because he takes me back outside to the party.

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