Memorial Park is one of the largest urban parks in the nation. It’s also Houston’s largest hotspot for golfers, runners, cyclists, and people with dogs. A wide, dusty loop of crushed brown gravel meanders around one section of the park for almost three miles. On the other side of the gravel path is a thick band of skinny pine trees, an illusion of privacy for men, dressed in pastel shirts, pale trousers, and baseball caps who painstakingly make their way around the 18-hole golf course. On the other side of the path is a narrow paved road, used by the people taking the scenic route to work or visiting the tennis courts and playgrounds at the edge of the park, near condominiums that are cheap, despite being so close to such a popular destination; this is because Memorial Park is very much a locals’ thing. Sure, it’s listed among Houston’s other tourist traps, like Minute Maid Park and the rodeo, but who goes to a city for its public park?
Jack Hastings is not a golfer. His wardrobe consists of the same three kinds of shirt in various shades of gray and black, and he likes it that way; it makes doing laundry easy. Besides, why would he want to play golf? It’s a slow game, and always reminds him of wealthy young people, like doctors or someone who works with computers, who retire when they’re barely old enough to legally drink. Young rich people are the people Jack hates, because he’s worked hard at the same job for five years and the people who play golf probably made his entire year’s salary in a month and that’s just unfair.
Jack isn’t a runner, or a jogger, either. He’s inherited his father’s feet, oddly shaped toes that don’t bend normally, collapsing arches, and all, so without special – meaning expensive – shoes, running hurts like a bitch. He’d tried out for track as a High School freshman, and had quit early into his first day; during the warm up mile around the school’s field, it had felt like his ankles were purposefully trying to break. When Jack had hobbled over to the coach, the fat bastard had called him a pussy. So, yeah, fuck running. Or jogging.
And he is definitely not a cyclist. Jack hasn’t gone near a bicycle since the day before his seventh birthday, when he’d stolen his grandfather’s screwdriver and removed his bike’s training wheels, determined to show that he was not a baby, like his older stepbrother Trent had said, and could ride his bike without the extra help; he’d narrowly escaped a trip to the emergency room when he’d swerved away from the relative safety of sidewalk and in front of a car. He still wakes up some mornings, his ears ringing with the echoes of squealing tires, his throat tight and dry with old terror. Needless to say, Jack is not a fan of bicycles. Or cars, really, which is hilarious because his official title at work is ‘senior automotive repair technician,’ meaning he spends six days a week smelling strongly of gasoline and metal, and has to deal with people who’ve just been told they need to cough up a lot of money to get their cars fixed.
So, not a golfer, not a runner, and not a cyclist. That only leaves the last category: people with dogs. Or, more specifically, one man with one dog.
“C’mon, Marsh,” Jack grumbles. He gives Marshall’s leash a half-hearted tug, and, predictably, the German Shepherd-Labrador mix ignores him. Damned dog barely lifts his head out of the grass, his nose twitching madly with scents Jack can only imagine.
Not that he wants to imagine them. The idea of being able to smell that much kind of freaks him out. Who the hell would want to sniff the air and know that the lady in the pink sports bra ten feet away has an aggressive type of cancer and has maybe three months to live, tops? An ability like that would be really useful and help a bunch of people, not to mention whoever had it would be a medical miracle and make him – or her, if Jack’s being politically correct – an instant celebrity, but the thought of it makes Jack cringe. Still, that’s why evolution gifted humans with huge brains and dogs with sensitive noses, right? If dogs had the same brainpower as humans, they’d probably be just as freaked out by their super-senses as Jack is.
“Why the hell does it always take you so long to find a place to piss?” Jack mutters, tugging again at Marshall’s leash.
It’s only nine in the morning – two hours later than Jack normally goes to the park; he goes early so he doesn’t have to deal with children who squeal like horses being gelded when they run over to pet Marshall with hands that are greasy from too much sunscreen – but it’s already hot outside.
Of course Trent, who hasn’t lived in Houston since he moved to Oklahoma three years ago and has obviously forgotten exactly how unforgiving Houston can be towards newcomers, would go and pick one of the hottest days of the summer as the day he wants…whatever it is he wants. Trent had just called last Thursday – he doesn’t know how Trent got his number; Jack’s on the no-call list because he got tired of telling people he didn’t know calling him to try and sell him shit he didn’t want to fuck off – and said he was going to be in Houston for an oil conference from the seventeenth to the twenty-first and Jack had better not ignore him like last time.
It doesn’t make sense, because Jack thought he’d made it pretty clear how little he wanted to do with Trent when he’d tried to break Trent’s nose and wound up with two fractured ribs and a bleeding eyebrow because Trent was going through a weightlifting craze that meant he had at least twenty pounds of muscle that Jack didn’t have. But Jack doesn’t pretend to understand his stepbrother anymore. He gave that game up years ago, when he’d finally seen what Trent worked so hard to cover up with smiles that showed too many teeth and made his eyes crinkle at the edges, and he’d realized that if Trent hadn’t followed Garrett into the oil industry, he could have made millions as Hollywood’s next star actor.
Trent’s late. Or, rather, Jack’s early, partly because he’s a creature of habit – he gets up earlier than he really needs to just so has time to drink two cups of coffee and actually feel human by the time he goes to work at the garage at seven – but mostly because Marshall always pretends he has a fucking tiny bladder when he knows they’re supposed to go to the park and had started whining in his ‘if you don’t take me out to a tree right the hell now, I will piss on your couch’ kind of way at six thirty this morning.
Jack glances at his watch, and it’s too hot for him to be standing around outside, waiting, even though he’s standing under a tree so he doesn’t get heatstroke. His shirt is damp and heavy with sweat, clinging to his back like it’s been grafted into his skin, his scalp prickling as beads of sweat slide through his hair and down the back of his neck until they soak into his shirt, and all he wants to do is go back to his apartment and stretch out naked on the tiled floor of his kitchen.
Houston summers are always brutal, with a daily high temperature of at least a hundred, and this year is no exception. In fact, it’s worse.
It hasn’t rained in Texas in months. Lakes, rivers, and aquifers are all being drained to supply Hill Country communities with water. Helicopters frantically airlift water to try to stop the rampant wildfires eating through the heart of the Lone Star state.
Every morning, when Jack turns on the television to drown out the sound of his next-door neighbors yelling at each other about whose turn it is to take the kids to the YMCA, he watches supposed ‘wildfire experts’ predict how the wildfires will spread and which communities will need to evacuate. Reporters can barely contain their glee over finally getting a story they know everyone will watch, and they go on and on about the fires, what to do if you’re near one, basic fire safety – like not having barbeques in the middle of a field and not setting off fireworks, stuff everyone already knows – and they’re so damned happy that they get to stay in the limelight that Jack wants to punch every one of them in the face, even the women, something that goes against everything his dad – not his stepfather, whose name is Garrett. Jack still thinks it’s a stupid name – taught him.
With each passing week, the cost of damage and number of people killed by the fires gets larger. And while he feels sorry for all the people who’ve lost their homes and family members to the fires, Jack aches with the knowledge that Gruene, New Braunfels, and all the small towns he’d visited with his family as a kid and still loves with an intensity that sometimes surprises him, could be razed to the ground.
It’s almost impossible for Jack to imagine that those towns could one day not exist. They are monuments to his childhood, and on the rare occasion he takes a few days off work to drive out to the Hill Country, it’s like stepping back in time.
In Fredericksburg, Jack walks down the central street and remembers being ten years old, trudging after Garrett and his mom through the town’s countless antique stores, with no one to commiserate with because Trent had been fourteen and thought it was cool to ignore him.
In New Braunfels, Jack passes the ice cream shop where he’d almost had a temper tantrum because he was furious that he’d had to eat his ice cream from a cup with a spoon, but Trent was allowed to get it in a cone because he was older and ‘wouldn’t make a mess.’ And every time he’s there, in the towns that no one outside the Hill Country has ever heard of, Jack marvels over how nothing has changed; everything is either exactly as he remembers it being back when he was young.
Jack doesn’t know what Trent looks like now. They haven’t seen each other in two years, and unlike little hamlets in the middle of dusty hills, winding roads, and fields spotted with herds of Black Angus cows, a person can change a lot in that amount of time. The only thing Jack knows for certain will be different is the addition of a wedding ring; the invitation – which he can only assume was sent either by mistake or by the new Mrs. Trent Hastings in a misguided attempt to have a happy family reunion – had arrived three years ago, the day before Jack had gotten Marshall from the shelter.
But, unlike Trent, places like San Marcos and Boerne are unchanging; even after so long in the loneliness that comes with their isolation, to Jack, these towns are perfect. Sure, they’re old as hell and tiny compared to Houston – then again, lots of places are tiny when compared to Houston – and aren’t exactly convenient places to live because the nearest proper grocery store is usually a half-hour drive away and gas is fucking expensive these days.
And since most of the towns are near the Guadalupe River and rely on the tubing business to survive, in the summers, they’re full of drunk college kids who blare country music – Jack has nothing against country music; hell, he even enjoys it from time to time, but he can’t tolerate an entire day listening only to men with Nashville accents wail about their trucks, girlfriends, or how they accidentally shot their dog – and leave their empty beer cans and unattached coolers in the river.
But for all their flaws, the towns are still perfect. Browsing through Gruene’s General Store – which is an honest-to-God old fashioned general store, with lumpy hand-made candles and candy Jack has only ever heard of in old children’s books – never fails to make him feel…at home, safe in a way he can’t really describe without sounding like an idiot.
All he knows is that time seems to flow differently in the Hill Country, every second drawn out, slow and deep, like stretches of smooth water between rapids, and a day spent floating down the Guadalupe on an inner tube feels like an eternity, just you, the river, and a cloudless sky that’s so blue it hurts to look at.
Jack tugs Marshall’s leash again, the back of his neck itching from the sun. He’d forgotten to put on sunscreen that morning, and knows he’ll probably be bright red by the time he’s done walking Marshall. Why had he picked such a large dog? Why couldn’t he have chosen a little rat-dog, something that didn’t need so much exercise?
“Ah, good, you’re here,” someone says from behind him, and Jack would recognize that voice anywhere. Trent. Fuck.
There are streaks of silver threading through Trent’s dark hair, and more lines have gathered around the corners of Trent’s mouth. The wedding band is there, as expected, gold and gleaming. It’s unusually tight on Trent’s finger, which looks like a sausage, as though Trent had gained weight after he’d ordered the rings; probably from too many nights spent schmoozing with potential clients over expensive meals that came with appetizers of little mouthfuls of lobster foam or veal broth or other fancy crap like that.
“You’re late,” Jack says, staring at Marshall. His dog is still sniffing the grass, movements stiff and deliberate, and Jack is uncomfortably jealous of his dog’s life. Right now, Jack would love to be a dog, and would embrace all aspects of his newfound doggishness, even the nose.
Jack can hear people walking past, the gritty crunch of their steps, can make out a few words of their disjointed happy chatter and broken conversations, and he hates all of them. Especially the cyclists. None of them have to meet someone they’d rather never see again first thing in the morning.
Trent makes a show of looking at his watch, which is overly large, bulky in a way that’s designed to grab attention. It probably costs more than Jack’s car, though, that’s not saying much, since his car is a third-hand piece of crap with bloodstains on the back seat that Jack really doesn’t want to know more about.
“No, not really,” Trent says lightly, shrugging. “Parking was difficult. So, how’ve you been?” Trent asks, his tone conversational, casual, as though they hadn’t tried to kill each other the last time they’d met.
“Just tell me what you want, Trent,” Jack says thought grit teeth.
Looking at Trent, he can see traces of the boy he’d looked up to so much as a kid; he’d wanted to be just like his stepbrother, had followed him everywhere, mimicking his every move and repeating what he said like Trent was Christ himself. He must have been a real pain in the ass. No wonder Trent had ignored him, though they’d gotten closer once Trent went off to university, contacting each other via e-mail and the occasional Skype session; Jack had found it much easier to like Trent once there was a four hour drive separating them.
“Nothing, nothing,” Trent assures him, putting a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and Jack resists the urge to twist free of his grip. Trent’s hand is heavy and grounding, and worst of all, real, and Jack wishes he’d never answered the phone, or that he’d hung up as soon as he realized who was calling.
“Seriously, what do you want?” Jack snarls, wanting more than ever to punch Trent. But he knows he wouldn’t win a fistfight against Trent; he still has a scar slicing through his left eyebrow from his last attempt to beat Trent into a bloody pulp, the night he’d arrived at Jack’s college dorm and told him he no longer had a college fund thanks to a business deal’s sudden collapse.
“I did a bit of research, and there’s a restaurant called Beck’s Prime somewhere around here, right? I hear their hamburgers are excellent,” says Trent, unfazed.
“No thanks.” Jack forces himself to sound calm.
“I’ll pay, if you want,” Trent wheedles, still pretending that everything was find between then, like he wasn’t the reason Jack was a car repair mechanic working six days a week instead of working at some high-end office job earning a big salary. Though, really, Jack couldn’t see himself lasting in an office – nothing interesting going on, no danger of accidentally blinding himself welding, or adding yet another scar to his already-scarred arms and hands – but he would have endured the boredom if it’d meant being able to afford living in a better part of town, where he could get a dog for companionship and not because he’d felt like he’d needed the protection since his next-door neighbors were robbed a few days after he moved into his apartment.
Marshall finally finds the perfect place to pee, and relieves himself. Bladder empty, the dog bounces back to Jack in a self-satisfied way, his tongue lolling out and his lips pulled back into a grin. Jack turns to leave.
“You’re not fooling anyone, Trent,” Jack finally says, catching the tip of one of Marshall’s ears between his fingertips, gently tweaking it; Marshall leans against his legs, a solid, familiar weight.
“I just wanted to see you,” Trent insists. “It’s been too long. What is it now, five? No, six years? Yeah, too long,” he repeats. He doesn’t mention that the last time they’d had contact – a phone call three years ago – Jack had threatened to set Marshall on him. Not that Marshall would do anything besides bark loudly as he tried to hide behind Jack’s legs, the big coward. But Trent never been a big fan of dogs, or animals in general, and Jack hadn’t told him that Marshall was a puppy at the time, so the threat had worked.
“Well, now you’ve seen me. So fu-.” A couple with two young kids walks past. “Go away.”
“No.” Trent sounds serious, and for a moment Jack wonders if Garrett is dying, because, shit, Trent is never this serious. He has the kind of aura about him – Boy Scout-eque practicality and all-American charm mixed with a loan shark’s persuasiveness – that made it seem like he could work through any problem given enough time and money. If how well his business is doing is any indication, this apparently makes his appear trustworthy. It just makes Jack want to stab someone, preferably Trent himself. Not kill, just seriously injure. Because Trent lives in Oklahoma and earns a shitload of money pretty much every day, and Jack is stuck in an cheap apartment in a bad area with a dog that would probably cower under the bed if anyone tried to break in. Because Trent has enough money to get a great lawyer who would make sure that Jack spent the rest of his life in jail for attempted murder.
“Jack, look, I want to talk. Clear the air,” Trent says, the words coming out in a rush, and Jack wants to believe that Trent’s been saving them up, or holding them back and they’ve suddenly burst out of him without his permission. For a moment, Jack believes him – or maybe just wants to believe him – and thinks that Trent might be ashamed about ruining Jack’s future, that he might feel responsible for Jack living off the reliable grad student diet of ‘beans, rice, and ramen’ while working his way through courses at Houston’s local Universal Technical Institute, learning how to fix cars he’d probably never be able to afford.
But that’s just wishful thinking. Trent is only ever out for one person: himself. He’d charmed his way into an esteemed internship with a top oil company as a Junior in university, thanks to enough ass-kissing to warrant a hepatitis A vaccine and a few of Garrett’s connections in the industry.
Trent looks like Marshall does when he’s not about to give up his tug-of-war rope without a fight – determined to the point that giving in is the only sane option – and Jack knows he’s going to go to Beck’s Prime, even though he wants to go home and pretend Trent isn’t in town. He kind of hopes that Garrett is dying – it’d be easier to handle than Trent actually apologizing. Yeah, like that’ll happen.