The electric car was Brandon’s idea. Jake had objected; to the flashiness, not the electricity. A Tesla. Jake thought it would stick out. He avoided the baubles so many of their friends admired. That ended up not mattering because Daisy, as Brandon named her, fit right in with their neighbors in their little Venice enclave. Jake hated the city but tolerated Venice for the beach. Brandon loved the beach too but said he moved for the breeze. Neither admitted this to the other.
Montana was neither’s first choice for a vacation. Now they found themselves lost in Big Sky country, running out of electricity and options. “Last charger was back in Glendive,” Jake said. It was a solemn pronouncement. “And that wasn’t even a super.” Even if they doubled back, it would take over thirty hours to fully charge. They had been too invested in the road trip as an experience to consider the reality of Daisy’s limitations.
“Fuck,” Brandon said. The Lord’s prayer. It had been Brandon’s idea to avoid Great Falls—the last supercharger—because he’d read something in The New York Times about its outsized homophobia. It was apparently the least gay-friendly city in America. Jake, having grown up in Montana, thought that wasn’t true at all. “It’s in the northeast,” he said. “Great Falls is too western.”
Montana as an experience is largely dependent on one’s exact location in the state. People in California like Montana because they’ve only ever been to Bozeman or Missoula or spent a layover in Billings. They went to a brewery or a ski lodge and met some nice folks. Had some blueberry wine or butter syrup on their pancakes and thought they were in heaven. Montana charm. Same reason people like Minnesota. “That’s not Montana,” Jake always said after one of these interactions. Brandon got to the point of mouthing the words in anticipation.
This trip was Jake’s idea, but it was also Brandon’s—Jake was always talking about what wasn’t Montana so Brandon wanted to know what, exactly, was Montana. So far the answer was: flat. Big yawning skylines. The kind of openness that makes you nervous because you want it to end. A chasm interrupted by dots of farmhouses or billboards for dairy or meat or Jesus. Jake always resented that: the stereotypes. Brandon was sensitive, for the most part, but there’s only so much sensitivity someone can have for another world. He knew Jake as a polished diamond in a West Coast life. After the rough. And then there was the matter of their recent marriage, something neither had envisioned but both grew comfortable with. The ceremony was practical, legal, simple, and no one had been in attendance except for a few friends. No family. This trip was like an extension of the ceremony—meeting Jake’s mom for the first time, seeing where he was from. Brandon felt like he was being shown a sacred church service.
They were in Sheridan County, an hour outside Williston, North Dakota, where Jake’s mom lived. Close, but not close enough. The yawning jaw had snapped shut. Both were sick of staying in tacky lodges, nondescript hotels, or outright hostile bed and breakfast nooks. So far, every stay was a negative experience: in St. George, every room in the lodge was painted candy red, so bright Brandon stayed up all night staring at the ceiling; in Cheyenne, the front desk agent kept asking obtuse questions about the sleeping arrangements until Jake finally swept up Brandon in a bear hug and planted a kiss. That ended the confusion.
Jake dialed his mom’s number and waited as the line chirped. “She’s not answering.” It didn’t even need to be said. Jake’s mother was strictly anti-tech, almost to a point of compulsion, including an incident in which she threw her TV out the window after disliking a Diane Sawyer interview. When she went to bed, the phone went off. Unreachable.
“She doesn’t know how to work the damn thing.” Brandon’s parents, unlike most Boomers, possessed technological prowess. This was a rare gift. Brandon reached for Jake’s backpack, who grabbed his wrist. “You know I’ve got a surprise in there,” Jake said. Brandon wasn’t expecting a gift—there was no impending occasion—but Jake kept hinting at something he had brought along. They fell into silence. Inaction.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Jake said. They shared a sober look. Brandon always said Jake was a defeatist despite all evidence in his life urging him toward optimism. But here they were. It was 11pm, the air stale and hot with summer’s late haunting, and Brandon and Jake were nearing that unholy combination of stressors that would send any couple into a danger zone. Jake could feel an argument coming on, darts at the ready from Brandon, who felt the same way, sure that Jake would blame Brandon for being a city boy or not thinking ahead or buying Daisy the Tesla in the first place. Still, they weren’t entirely removed from civilization. They found themselves at the edges of Medicine Lake, near where Jake grew up. Despite never remembering anyone’s names, Jake couldn’t buy a gallon of milk in Medicine Lake without somebody recognizing him. Small towns had a way of making celebrities out of everybody.
They came upon the bed and breakfast, half a mile away according to Jake’s struggling iPhone, and stared wordlessly at the assemblage before them. A bed and breakfast connotes a house, usually—a grand Victorian structure of some kind or an unassuming single family quaintly reconfigured as a center of hospitality. The sight before them was more of a complex, really, a collection of appendages unwillingly meshed into a single building, a monster of a house that looked like a Winchester creation in an early incarnation. Bizarrely, a single gas pump centered the action of the property, the untethered nozzle swinging gently. At what they assumed was the front door, a sign jutted out: MEDICINE LAKE LODGE.
The front door—painted bright red several seasons ago but cracked and peeling now—was slightly ajar, the screen door torn off and sitting on the stoop. Inside the foyer, they were accosted by all kinds of written sayings fighting for their attention, platitudes like LIFE’S A BEACH, DON’T LIKE THE WEATHER? STICK AROUND FOR A WHILE. IT’LL CHANGE, and BEWARE OF CAT. In front of them a makeshift front desk stood in dusty waiting, clearly not used for a while, illuminated by a single dangling Edison bulb.
The man behind the counter—graying, weathered, worked to the bone—did not look up when they entered, dutifully writing something in a wide leather ledger. When he finally looked up, his eyes shifted back and forth, as if he couldn’t quite see them. “Y’all looking for a room?”
“We’re in a bit of a pickle,” Brandon explained. “Our car’s running out of battery and the closest charger was back in Glendive.”
“That is a pickle,” the man repeated.
“My mom’s out by Williston,” Jake continued, “but she’s not answering her phone. Has a tendency of turning it off at night. Matter of principle, I guess.”
“Good woman,” the man declared. “You want to see me, you come by.”
“That’s what I love about this place,” Brandon said. “It’s refreshing to be here.”
Jake gave him a look. This was contrary to the multiple hours of bitching he had endured as they drove through Wyoming and the southwestern part of Montana. Brandon variously described it as flyover land (innocuous, a common insult), pseudo-Appalachian (probably offensive to someone), and pointless (unforgivable). “Sell it all to Canada,” had been the last quip. “That’ll solve the debt bullshit.”
“’Fraid I can’t help you, though,” the old man continued, interrupting their reverie. “Only got rooms with single beds. Tight spot. Meant for couples.”
“Well, we don’t need two beds,” Jake said delicately, casting a glance at Brandon. “We don’t mind sharing.”
“It ain’t gonna be comfortable.”
“We’re used to it.”
The man cocked his head to the side. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Oh.”
Jake immediately took a conciliatory tone. “I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.” He didn’t dare look over at Brandon. “We’re just—just really in a predicament of sorts and I don’t know if we can make it to the next place.” He could feel Brandon’s eyes on him.
“Need to be careful around here,” the man said quietly. “But y’all can stay for the night. I’m Manny.” Manny explained that his real name was Manfred Nickol, the last name being an oddity from Ellis Island-style old-country shortening, that his family was Polish, escapees from either the Holocaust or Nazi occupation, and his first name was from a book his mother liked but the title of which had long been forgotten. Everybody up here was Polish, German, or some kind of Scandinavian, or they were connected to one of the multiple reservations between Billings and Williston.
He talked extensively about the four rooms: one of them was being renovated so the door would be locked, the others were empty and they could take a look if they wanted, and theirs was at the end of the hall. “Theo can help you with your bags.”
As if awakened at the incantation of his name, a man roughly their same age burst through the front door, trucker hat askew, jeans torn below the knees, bedraggled, sweaty, pissed off. “Been waiting!” he yelled; he didn’t seem to notice the two gay men in the corner. “Lucy got away!”
“Theo, zip it—now these men bought a room for the night, and—”
“My apologies,” he said quickly, snatching off the trucker hat, dirt flying in all directions. “Didn’t know we had company.”
“This is my nephew,” Manny explained. “Helps around here. Runs the kitchen too. Theo, come on, help them with their bags.”
“Who’s Lucy?” Brandon asked.
Theo regarded him for a moment. “Lucy was dinner.” He dashed out to the car and waited impatiently for Brandon to fumble with opening the trunk. He yanked out the suitcases—two small hard-shelled carry-ons, hallmarks of good travelers—and dragged them unceremoniously into the house. Jake and Brandon shared a look of knowing: Brandon confirming the stereotypes he suspected all along, Jake, for the first time in a while, being ashamed of coming from a place like this, but resolute in his determination to not acknowledge that. Brandon wanted to say something about their untimely demise but couldn’t find the words. The moment passed in silence.
The room was what you would expect from a bed and breakfast with limited competition: creaking double bed covered in a patchwork quilt of confusing plaid and gingham; two Tiffany lamps on either side, neither working; curtains that hadn’t been dusted since the last presidential administration; accoutrements of random knickknacks acquired from various trips across America; and most mysteriously, a chest in the corner that neither could open.
“All right,” Brandon said, refusing to sit anywhere. “I’m officially freaked out.”
Jake tried to convince him that it was only for one night. They were so close to Williston. Brandon countered that they hadn’t owned the Tesla long enough to really know Daisy’s quirks; maybe she could make it to Williston. Jake tried his mom one more time, dialing the number by hand, like he was running his fingers over a familiar rosary.
No luck. Jake knew everyone in Medicine Lake but couldn’t name a soul. He hadn’t been here since high school. Most of his extended family cut him off when he came out and his mother was a misanthrope of the highest order. Jake looked at the matte black ring on his hand and wondered how he had gotten here—with his husband in a place like this.
“I am exhausted,” he said finally. “And hungry.” He dropped his phone on the pillow and a visible ring of dust billowed away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
They decided to try out the food. Brandon remained quiet. He wanted to make a quip about how he’d rather walk ten miles to the nearest gas station and subsist solely off turkey jerky and energy drinks rather than eat anything made in this house, but he didn’t. This wasn’t about him. No part of this trip was about him. He was a buddy along for the ride, not a husband, not a companion. Jake could put a stuffed bear in the passenger seat and it would have the same effect. His quietness was roiling, churning inside him, and he was afraid that at a moment of peak stress—which they were rapidly approaching—it would spill out, accidentally more hurtful than intended.
In the dining room, the house seemed its warmest. There was no dust to be found. Everything had been recently used. Brandon held his fork and felt an energy spike through it. This was a preternatural moment he frequently experienced, like he could sense the history of an object merely by touch. They waited patiently as Theo cooked steaks on wide cast iron. Minutes later, he brought them two of the largest pieces of meat they had ever seen.
“Y’all are from the city,” Theo said as he came and sat next to them. They accepted this as part of the bed and breakfast experience. He sipped a beer and watched their delicate cutting. Brandon tried to signal something to Jake, but he was turning and looking at Theo with an intensity usually reserved for good friends or family. “But not from Billings,” Theo continued, “or I could tell.”
“California,” Brandon answered. He didn’t dare take a bite. Jake was already tucking in.
“But you,” he said to Jake, “are from here.” A statement, not a question.
“Born in Billings. But I was raised in Poplar.”
“Poplar.” Theo said it with some reverence. “Middle of nowhere. Now that’s sayin’ something.” He turned to Brandon and watched his sly refusal to eat. “You don’t trust me.”
“What?” Brandon dropped his knife and it clattered like a gunshot. “I didn’t say—”
“Don’t have to say. It’s in the look. I can see it on your face. Are you scared? No reason to be scared.” He slammed his hand on the table, startling them. “Know who you should be scared of? Manny. Son of a bitch could hit a target a mile away.”
“You seem like a smart guy,” Jake offered, a kind of diplomacy. He was growing suspicious of the overwhelming fat on the steak and its preparer, whose face was turning redder by the second, anger ignited by an unknown source. “Is everything okay?” He smacked his lips. This was the saltiest steak he’d ever had.
Theo watched Jake eat, reverent, something like surprise crossing his face. Then, the sharpness of smoke. “The goddamn potatoes!” He disappeared into the kitchen and reemerged with a tray of charred potatoes, smoke billowing. He tossed them to the side and said, “By the way, I plugged in your car.” It would take over thirty hours to reach a full charge, but it would be enough in their brief night to get them to Williston. Brandon was elated. Hope in the distance.
Jake stopped chewing the steak after a while. Something didn’t taste quite right. Theo, disappointed in the potatoes but not willing to toss them, repeatedly offered some to Brandon, who tried as delicately as possible to turn them down. Theo never left their side. Jake found him engaging. Brandon wanted to go bed.
“You don’t know where you are, do you?” Theo asked Brandon, who shook his head. A vendetta brewed between them. “Right down the road, they make the best goddamn chokecherry syrup in Sheridan County.”
“Chokecherry,” Jake repeated, like it was the name of a deity. “Brandon, you ever had chokecherry syrup?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Sickly sweet,” Theo said. “Almost too sweet. Gotta take ‘em from these bushes. Most are on folks’ properties. Most don’t ask permission. Know what that’s like? That’s like the two of you here.”
Brandon cocked his head to the side. “What does that mean?”
Theo was trembling. He picked up a charred piece of potato as a distraction, turning it over in his hand. “Know Noah’s ark? You know that story? You read the Bible? Two of each kind, all on a boat. How did they get on there? That’s this kind of place. Two of each kind. Only so much room.”
The air was slowly seeping out of the room. Jake’s stomach churned. It was getting late.
“Maybe,” Jake offered, “we should go to bed.”
“Thanks for the dinner,” Brandon said. They both got up as quietly as possible. Theo said nothing. Didn’t look at them. Barely breathed. They shuffled back to the foyer, casting glances back at the little kitchen. “What,” Brandon whispered, “was that?”
“That was Montana.” Jake rubbed his belly. “I feel weird.”
“I can’t believe you ate that shit.”
They wanted to bed down, settle in, get some rest, but the state of the room was still an issue. Jake decided to collect all the bedding, bundling it in his arms, and disappeared down the hall. “Are you asking for clean stuff?” Brandon said, because he wasn’t sure where Manny or Theo were supposed to get anything nicer. Surely this was the nicest stuff they had. Jake didn’t come back for a while. After ten minutes, Brandon wandered after him, down the hallway, with its creaks and snaps and moans, the house protesting its inhabitants like a host and a parasite. It was too dark to see clearly. Brandon used his phone as a flashlight. He could hear the sounds of something churning, like somebody was running a faucet and mixing something up with it, like a kid in a bathtub. Voices. “There’s the softener,” said someone. “Y’all got softener?” answered the other.
Brandon opened the nearest door, what he thought was a closet, but found a laundry room, where Jake was quickly stuffing the bedding into an industrial washer under Theo’s watchful eye. Brandon didn’t know what to say.
“Are you doing laundry?”
“Theo needed some help,” Jake said. “Figured it wouldn’t hurt to help.” He locked the lid and left Theo in the room, who was folding towels and looking off into the distance. Jake took Brandon’s face and gave him a kiss. “Everything okay?”
“That’s kind of weird,” Brandon admitted. “Doing your own laundry like that.”
“Well, you weren’t going to sleep in that, were you?”
“No . . .”
“I did you a favor.” Brandon stared, seeing if Jake would crack, if he was joking. He wasn’t.
Once everything was washed and dried and fluffed and pulled onto the bed, they settled down together, their own little world, their reality separate and distinct but together at the same time, a bubble floating freely. They heard nothing outside. Saw no lights. The calm that only a place like this could bring.
When Brandon awoke, Jake was gone. He heard commotion downstairs, like an argument, and quickly dressed and got his things together and found his glasses, and roamed out to the kitchen, the source of the argument, where Jake was busy frying a dozen eggs. Brandon stared in wonderment. “You’re making breakfast?”
“Morning, babe.” Jake flashed a smile. Theo stood in the corner, eating a banana. The comfort with which Jake regarded Brandon, the recognition of their coupling, was something rare in California, let alone here. Brandon felt dizzy. He put a gentle hand on Jake’s back and asked if he was okay. “Why do you keep asking me that?”
“This is the first time I’ve asked you that.”
“I’m doing great. I love being here. This is what it’s all about. It’s so good to be out of the goddamn city. Pardon my language,” he said to his right, where Manny had just popped up.
“How did y’all sleep?” Manny asked. Brandon prepared to answer cordially before Jake cut him off.
“Best sleep of my life!” That couldn’t possibly be true. “I’ve never felt better!” Exaggeration, to be sure, making the host feel better, but Brandon still felt a pang of something unpleasant, remembering their many trips together and the big honeymoon they had planned. Again, though, he was making it about himself, so Brandon did a self-check, loosening his shoulders, taking a deep breath. Everything was fine. Different but fine.
Breakfast passed in relative silence, punctuated by the sound of silverware clanking and mouths grinding. Brandon felt anxious again. It was late morning. They should get going. “Hey,” he said, once the last egg had been eaten. “You want to try your mom again?”
Jake snapped his fingers. “Dammit. I forgot to charge my phone.”
“Well, I have—”
Theo belched loudly, interrupting. “Jay-cob.” He drew out the syllables. “You gotta help me with something upstairs.”
“Jake,” Brandon interrupted, putting a hand on his arm. “Why don’t you use my phone?”
Jake shrugged the hand away. “I’m being polite, Brandon. Let me help Theo first.” He pushed the dishes to the side and disappeared with Theo upstairs, leaving Brandon and Manny to stare blankly at each other.
“Part of the package,” Manny said, “is helping out around the house. Mind washin’ these with me?”
Brandon did mind—he minded very much. He wanted to get out of there. The sleep hadn’t been that bad. The room ended up being tolerable. But he was still itching to get the hell out of there. The dishes would be a quick, simple chore, then he would go upstairs, find his own phone, and dial Jake’s mom himself. Jake was getting too comfortable.
Once the dishes were washed and dried and carefully put away, Brandon practically ran upstairs—but the bedroom was empty. “Jake!” It sounded like a strangled scream.
The voice came from one of the other rooms, the one at the end of the hall. The room Manny was renovating. He said the door would be locked, but today it was wide open, tarps spread across the floor, masking tape along the crown molding, switch-plates in a neat pile. Theo and Jake painted the walls in broad strokes of alternating colors—all the colors of the rainbow.
Brandon felt lightheaded. “Jake,” he said, a little firmer. “Can I please talk to you for a second?”
“We really gotta get this first coat on so it’ll dry in time for a second before lunch.” Jake looked over at Brandon but evidently did not see his expression. Or did not care. He kept painting.
Brandon slowly stepped out of the room and walked solemnly back to their little bedroom, where their things were scattered around the room, blending in with the resident knickknacks. He found his phone—he had remembered to charge his—and looked for Jake’s mom’s number. For some reason, he couldn’t remember her name for a split-second, and he panicked until he could see in his mind the front of her Christmas card: Shirley. Nothing was listed under Shirley.
He found Jake’s charger and slammed it into Jake’s phone, which, to his surprise, was already on. Fully charged. Ready to go. Confused, he looked for Shirley’s number and found it and dialed and waited. A robotic voice informed him that the mailbox was full. There was no other number listed. Maybe her address was somewhere inside? But he would still have to pull Jake away from his work, away from pretending to play house.
He rummaged around in Jake’s bag. Maybe he had printed the directions as a backup, something Brandon always encouraged after their mishap getting to a little coastal town for a weekend getaway, when Jake fundamentally misunderstood the difference between two highways and took them three hours out of the way. Sure enough, paper directions sat nestled between two folders. He breathed a sigh of relief. Now he just needed to convince Jake.
One of the folders was slightly open and he saw the edges of Shirley’s face. Her picture from the Christmas card. Jake brought the Christmas card with them? He opened the folder and scanned the page, but he had to read it over and over again to understand what he was looking at.
It was Shirley’s obituary.
Shirley Anne Picard, born October 19, 1962, entered into rest . . .
Over a month ago. She died over a month ago. Her Christmas card photo swirled in front of him, spinning, dizzying. He checked the other folder. No obituaries here, thankfully, but instead a collection of letters, to and fro correspondence, all of it written in the messy handwriting of men. He recognized half of them as belonging to Jake, with his distinctive Js singing each page, but didn’t know who the other person was.
Love letters. Details of graphic sex. Declarations of passion. The things people wrote each other in the world wars. Stuff Brandon had only seen in movies. It seemed frozen from another time. He collected the letters from the unknown writer and scanned them quickly, getting the gist of it, coming to the bottom, where each was signed: Theodore.
The folder fell out of his hands. He reached for Jake’s phone again and checked the call history. He hadn’t called anyone for three days.
The next few things he did were automatic, robotic, like someone had taken over his body. Brandon had been waiting for this moment for a long time. He knew it had been coming, knew it every moment Jake annoyed him or remained mysterious or showed the harder parts of him, the edges that hadn’t been buffed out. Brandon should’ve known.
Slowly, quietly, with trembling hands, Brandon collected his belongings in the svelte suitcase, keeping an eye on the slightly-ajar door at all times. He couldn’t zip it close for the longest time and nearly cursed in frustration. He slipped down the hallway and moved as quietly as he ever had past the fourth room. He peeked inside.
Jake and Theo were painting and laughing and whispering something to each other. Outside the window, the sun was a bright glowing orb. As Brandon watched them work, he didn’t feel any anger or jealousy, none of those raw sparks he expected, but rather a recognition, internal and quiet and satisfying, that he had gotten the gift Jake had promised.
He moved away and down the hall. Did he remember the keys? He patted his pocket. He slipped out the front door and walked the twenty painful feet to Daisy. She had charged enough to get him fifty miles. That was enough to get to Williston. Where he would get some answers.
“I found Lucy.”
Manny scared the living shit out of him, crouched on the other side of the car, a bloody knife in hand. Brandon couldn’t make a sound.
“I found Lucy,” Manny repeated, holding up the knife. But rather than moving forward or doing anything outwardly aggressive, he smiled, shuffled to the side, and started walking back toward the house.
As Brandon pulled away, he saw Manny in the rearview mirror, waving from the front door.