Dust floats in puffs around Jake’s cowboy boots as he strides from one end of the hotel to the other. His steps echo with a hollow sound, each “thud” a reminder of the building’s unrealized potential.
I stand rooted to my spot in the lobby, enjoy the feel of the sun as it soaks into my back despite the sweat now running down the middle of my chest. We’ve propped the lobby doors open for what little airflow we might snag. I can’t remember the last time I or anyone had been inside. I sneeze as the dust tickles my nose. “You go ahead,” I tell Jake. “I’ll be here, by the fresh air.”
Watching Jake snap photos and dictate notes into his phone, I’m struck by how economical his movements are, how purposeful, how steady. He doesn’t ask permission before yanking a loose board off the wall behind the concierge desk, the now independent piece clattering already forgotten to the floor. He snaps another picture of the wall, exposing red brick-- a slash of color in celebration of freedom. How had he known? I watch with continued fascination as Jake knocks on surfaces, opens doors, runs up three flights of stairs as though he has no concern over the structural integrity of the place even though a couple of steps are missing, the bannister missing some teeth.
I grin as I hear exclamations of excitement from above, the low rumbling notes of his voice. Maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult to convince Jake to keep some of the original structure intact.
As Jake continues to stomp around upstairs, I take out my phone and reply to Therese’s message.
We’ll see you in a few hours for dinner and tell you all about it.
Good news comes to those who wait, right?
Her response is a cry-face. Emojis were cute, but in the service of a grandparent who didn’t even “do emails”, they were irresistible.
“Guess you’ve managed to keep yourself entertained,” Jake says, running lightly down the final set of steps and walking toward me with his camera slung over his shoulder.
I look up at him and grin. “I thought we could wait to tell Therese about our intentions over dinner tonight. Keep her in suspense.”
“Why not?” Jake says, making one final sweep of the ceilings before turning back to me. “So, where are you taking me next?”
I tilt my head to the side. “You love this, don't you?”
“What’s not to love? I can almost smell the gun smoke in here, can’t you?” He directs my attention to the far corner of the lobby. “Can you hear tinkling piano keys coming from this corner? Two cowboys walk past over here, tip their hats to the ladies while the ladies sip their cocktails, wait for their horses to arrive out front, from the stables.”
I hide my surprise. The only thing I thought Jake truly imagined were the piles of money to be made off of every inspiration. “That’s a perfect lead into our next spot,” I say, locking the front door, and gesturing to the exit directly opposite.
Behind the hotel, the fields open before us in an unbroken line of sun-drenched ocean, ending where they meet the foot of the bluffs.
“Wow...” Jake says, “if time stood still.”
“It’s my favorite view,” I say, the dried grass snapping beneath my feet, my eyes futilely consuming the depth and breadth of the landscape. “You coming?” I turn back toward Jake as I hear the click of a camera, freeze when I realize I’m the one caught in the frame.
He lowers it and hitches it back over his shoulder. “For further research.” But the way he says it as he holds my gaze makes me warm in a way that has nothing to do with the late afternoon sun. I tuck a piece of loose hair behind my ear and self-consciously hoist my backpack higher. “Let me take that,” he says quietly, his hand brushing my bare shoulder as he lifts my bag away.
“Thanks,” I mumble, turning toward the bluffs. For a moment, I forget why I’ve drug Jake out here and then; I see the figure of a man on a horse in the distance.
“Inspiration, everywhere,” Jake says, and his camera is back against his eye. “One of my favorite movies is El Dorado, with John Wayne. This landscape reminds me of how that movie feels. Do you know it?”
We walk side-by-side toward the rider who notices us and slows his horse to a walk. “You’re talking to a girl who was raised on old westerns.” I pause, squinting my eyes up at him. “You’re not Bart Jason, in this scenario, I hope?” Jason, was the greedy tycoon who’d sent his henchmen to El Dorado to force the MacDonald family off their land.
Jake simultaneously pushes me, then pulls me back toward him as I yelp, losing my balance. “I guess that would make you John Wayne’s character, come to protect the family and the land.”
I laugh and move out of reach. “You know, no money or deeds have exchanged hands yet.”
“Damn, woman,” he says, stepping away from me this time as though I might cause him physical injury. “You need to stop being so cavalier about this deal!”
“So, you are Bart Jason?”
“I’d like to think I’m Bart Jason and John Wayne’s character rolled-into-one.”
“Well,” I say, tossing my head, “I guess we'll see.”
“Yes, well, that is, if you don’t change your mind... again!”
Now I feel like pushing him, so I do, unable to stop the giggles burbling out of me from a place I haven’t accessed in a long time.
You’re giggling like a teenager!
“Woah,” says a voice that punctures my laughter with one hundred tiny needles all at once.
The sun is behind the rider and his horse, but I’d know his horse anywhere. She used to be mine before my grandfather passed, before the town had turned down my big renovation proposal, and before I’d stopped spending summers in Tomahawk Hill.
“Miss Elizabeth,” I breathe, running my hand down the front of her velvety nose, resting the side of my face against hers, a lump rising in my throat when she nuzzles me back, her soft little sounds familiar and sweet. The memories I had with her. And now she was Frank’s.
I blink the tears away and step back, feel oddly under Jake’s protection as Frank swings his leg over Miss Elizabeth’s back and jumps down. We face each other, and I can hear the sound of planes departing and leaving, see the injured look on Frank’s face as I tell him I’m never coming back, that I’ve given up on Tomahawk Hill.
“I heard you were in town,” he says, his dark eyes hidden in shadow under his hat.
“I won’t be staying long. Just here to take care of some business.”
“Frank Hansen,” he says, stretching his hand toward Jake.
Frank takes his hat off, and I can finally see his eyes.
Audrey had loved to say, “Frank is a watered-down version of Rich. Of course, you’d be with Rich now. In a way, you’ve known Rich most of your life.” It wasn’t just their personalities. They both had dark hair, dark eyes, prominent cheekbones and a moodiness to their demeanor that I’d always found romantic.
Frank was a head shorter than Jake and looked slightly up at him as he spoke.
“So, you’re the mystery man everyone is talking about.”
Jake chuckles and Frank’s natural reserve seems to crumble. “I don’t know how much of a mystery I am, but news does seem to travel fast in this town.”
“Stay here a few more days, and you won’t have any secrets by the time you leave.”
When Frank turns toward me again, I realize I’ve been holding my breath. The last conversation we had was three years ago, and I’d been convinced he would hate me forever. But the small smile he gives me isn’t laced with sarcasm or bitterness. “If you have time before you leave town, I’d really like to talk to you. A malt at the diner maybe?”
“You don’t hate me?” I blurt, not wanting to hope I was in the clear if he were only polite. There hadn’t been a day that first year in LA that I hadn’t thought about Frank without regret; without wishing I could call.
When he laughs, the distance between us becomes a figment of my imagination, and we are kids at Sam’s summer camp again, racing our horses, lying in the grass behind the cabins with our constellation maps.
“No, I don’t hate you... anymore.”
I think I see a flicker of that past hurt behind his eyes, but then it’s gone again, and I’m only too grateful to accept the words he offers me now.
“Okay,” I say, offering him my hand.
“You kidding me?” he says, and pulls me in for a big hug, and he smells like cigarettes and leather, and straw.
When I step back, Miss Elizabeth makes a throaty little sound and blows air out of her nostrils right into my face. “Miss E!” I say in protest, but I move toward her, wind my arms around her neck for a squeeze. “I’ve missed you too.”
“Well, it was good to meet you, Jake,” Frank says, placing his foot into a stirrup.
“Good to meet you.”
“You can visit Miss E anytime.”
“Okay,” I think I’m still in shock that Frank is speaking to me and here he is, offering me visits with my horse.
I jump slightly when Jake’s hand touches my arm, but when he removes it, I can still feel it there, warm and reassuring. “He helped me with the renovation project my grandfather, and I pitched to the city my senior year of college, and when they rejected it, I told him I was never coming back.” My words keep coming in a rush, and it’s a relief to spill them. “He said a bunch of hurtful things to me—like I was a quitter and selfish, unforgiving, and self-important and... he was right.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
I shake my head—the clarity I’d been seeking this morning settling so completely over me that it feels like inspiration. “Everything that’s happened the last couple of days proves that Frank was right. But I want to forgive. I don’t want to be bitter. I want this to work.”
When Jake touches my face with the back of his hand, trails it over my wet cheeks, I know I should feel horrified about crying in front of someone I wouldn’t have referred to as a friend more than four hours ago. But at this moment, under Jake’s fixed gaze, I wonder if maybe we did know everything about each other that mattered.