The convertible roared across the highway, with a canopy of grassy fields and clusters of trees blowing on by.
The two women had left Houston a few days ago to head on Boston and Harvard School of Law where they'd be setting up in an apartment and preparing to start their first year of classes. C.J. brushed the hair blowing against her face futilely as it turned out while her friend Julia did the driving for this stretch of road. They'd been traveling across the wide expanse inside their home state, driving most of the day and either camping outdoors or holing up in motels overnight. They both decided they needed the road trip after the frantic activities of their final semester at the University of Texas which bled into three months spent by C.J. working on her uncle's ranch and clerking at a local law firm. Julia had spent the summer in the Caribbean staying at her parents' cottage and working on her suntan.
Matt had already graduated from Rice University and eschewed a career in professional football to enlist in the military with his cousin Will. They had been in basic officers' training for the past several months in North Carolina. Hours spent cramming an education sandwiched between hours of physical training and testing designed to push forward the limits of their endurance and strength. At times, he had told her in emails that his will had been greatly tested but that he had no intention of breaking from the strain. Will had been even more determined than his cousin and had scored at the top of his group. After they both finished in a few days, they'd receive their assignments, most likely somewhere in the Middle East, where the wars were being waged.
Julia and she planned to meet up with the guys before they left to say goodbye and to make sure they returned from their tours of duty the way they left. After all, quite a few young men and women had already returned to American soil in coffins unloaded off of airplanes way from public eyes.
That wouldn't happen to Matt or Will, C.J. knew that. Whatever happened to them or whatever they faced, they would come home when they were finished.
"So are you going to call him?"
C.J. looked over at Julia who had been sensible to wear a scarf over her blond hair to keep it from flying.
Julia's mouth curved into a smile.
"Robert…you know he's going to be gone for a year in Guatemala filing that documentary."
C.J. shrugged and just looked at the scenery again.
"I told him I couldn't do it anymore," she said, "Couldn't bail him out of trouble. Houston just wanted to leave him in that Amarillo jail."
Julia looked over at her as they reached the turnpike which would lead them hopefully to some tasty barbecue and a comfy motel room for the night. The sun had began to set behind them, painting the sky in various hues of pink and yellow roses.
"But he did and Robert promised to reform," Julia said, "Maybe he will…maybe this trip will make him grow up."
C.J. remembered the last phone call they shared that had dissolved into an argument where she had just hung up on him.
"I don't think so…besides he's going to get himself in trouble in South America with no one to help him."
Julia looked over at her.
"You sure about that?"
"Damn straight…he's played me for a fool one too many times. I'm not going to help him. "
She didn't want to be reminded about that he might get himself into deep trouble again with no one to rescue him this time. She just wanted to focus on the here and now and on the long stretches of highway ahead of them, putting more miles between her and the city they had left behind. The final weeks of summer were dwindling down and soon would be measured by days. Days spent adjusting to her new life in Boston attending the most prestigious law school in the United States.
Julia just shook her head.
"That's what you say but what about next time?"
C.J. just shot her a look back.
"There won't be a next time," she said, "You know that guy Carl was right. Any attempts to help him will just make it worse."
"Smart guy…shame you couldn't be chasing after him instead."
C.J. felt irritation fill her at Julia's words. Chasing who? Robert had always been on whatever phone he could find calling collect to be bailed out of trouble once again.
"Carl's a great guy…he's just not…"
"I know he's too nice and you don't go for nice guys."
C.J. didn't like the sound of that because that didn't describe her at all. She liked Carl just fine, he had been the perfect study partner although after his graduation he had headed off to Stanford to get his MBA. Besides he'd had his eye on her friend and sorority sister, Maureen Flanders who'd also headed off to Stanford to get her law degree.
Julia's eyes sparkled as she pulled into the parking lot of the motel.
"What…of course you don't go for them…else you'd be all over Matt instead of just being his best friend."
C.J.'s mouth hung open at her friend's words as they parked the car.
Matt unzipped his duffel inside the small bungalow to search for his worn football tee-shirt with Rice University on the front of it. He'd just gotten out of the shower rinsing off all the grime from a full day spend behind the wheel, another leg of the journey that he and his cousin Will were taking to the army base where they would be deployed to their military assignments. They had both survived officer basic training and were spending a few days blowing off steam before committing the next two years of their lives to Uncle Sam.
They'd hit a couple of bars and clubs on their road trip but Matt wanted nothing more than to savor his last few days of freedom. Will had talked about renting a couple of bungalows by a lake and spending their time fishing and eating what they caught while washing it down with plenty of beer.
His cousin's girlfriend would be dropping by during the last couple of days which would keep Will quite busy. But Matt didn't begrudge his cousin his happiness, not when neither of them knew what lay ahead knowing that a war awaited them when they got shipped out. He'd gotten serious with one of the varsity cheerleaders, Christina who had decided to skip graduation and accept a modeling contract that would take her to locales like Paris and Milan.
Matt looked up at his cousin who stood in the doorway. He hadn't even heard him come in his bungalow.
"You ready to go fishing?"
"I'm ready to catch a bunch of them too," he said, "When's she arriving?"
Will stretched his arms.
"Tomorrow sometime…with a friend," he said, "You'll like her. We just hooked up a few months ago."
Matt thought back and well, he'd been busy adding baseball to his resume of sports though he played that sport mostly for fun. It hadn't been serious business like varsity football where he'd been a starting quarterback who led his team to many victories including the Cotton Bowl earlier this year.
Months later, he'd graduated with a degree in business having eschewed a half a dozen offers to play professionally even on his beloved Houston Oilers.
"You sure it's over between you and Christina?"
Matt sighed, remembering back to the day they'd said goodbye before she'd packed her bags and headed off to the airport to take a flight to New York City. He'd cared deeply for her but they'd decided to go their separate ways.
"Been over for six months," he said, "For the best…long distance style relationships just don't work."
"So get a short term girlfriend instead," he said, "You still got a couple of days to live it up."
Matt just looked at him.
"Nah I don't want any misunderstandings," he said, "It's better that way if we're going to go and fight a war."
Will just shook his head.
"That's good for you but I'm going to have my fun and Julia's more than up for it."
Matt watched his cousin sit down on a chair near the door, dressed more casually than either of them would be in a few days when they reached the base where they would soon be deployed into action. The fact that he'd be spending the next two years in the military didn't bother him, he had made his choice to do it. Mostly because Will had been restless during his stint at Texas A&M University until he had gotten involved in the military program there. Then it had been all that he could or would talk about…why Matt's main topics of interest had been sports, his cousin had talked a lot through phone calls and emails about all the military actions overseas far, far away from Texas.
September 11, 2001 had changed everything and Matt had been in his last year at the university. He's been running scrimmage on the field at an early morning football practice before his classes when the coach told them what had happened. The shock that reverberated through him as he and the other players wandered off the field into the locker rooms made him feel ice cold but as he gathered with other students in a recreational room glued to the television for hours, the words that Uncle Roy had told him returned.
At the Fourth of July barbecue, his father's only brother had mentioned in conversation rising tensions among terrorist movements around the world. His uncle had warned him and Will to be careful, to pay attention what would happen in the months ahead and Matt knew it was no idle warning. His uncle had decades of experience as some type of covert operative working assignments for a shadowy agency that officially didn't exist. Matt didn't know much of what his uncle did for a living but he gleaned enough over the years to realize it had a lot to do with ensuring national security in an increasingly dangerous world.
But then amid these memories which flashed in front of him, the voice of a female newscaster broke through when she said that two of the airplanes had originated from Logan Airport.
And then Matt's blood had really run cold as he remembered that C.J. had flown out to Boston several days ago to have an interview with a panel of administrators at Harvard School of Law after she had sent in her application. He knew that it had been her dream since she'd been a young girl to get her degree there and she had taken every step necessary to accomplish that goal.
He pulled out his phone to call her.
"Houston…is that you?"
Just hearing her voice on the other end of the line settled him down and the relief that filled him nearly weakened his knees.
A pause followed.
"Yeah…I can't believe what's happened…I was just about to call and confirm my flight back for tomorrow and then I got the news."
He felt the emotions in her voice hundreds of miles away that mirrored his own. Disbelief, shock dominated but anger and fear as well but learning that she was safe…he began to relax as he continued watching the news as most of the nation would be the rest of the day trying to wrap its head around an act of terrorism on native soil.
Now nearly a year later, he was in the final days before he would be sent off to serve his country and C.J…he knew she had been finishing a job clerking for a law firm back in Houston. He had last seen her at his going away barbecue that his father had thrown him and Will at the ranch. Most of the neighbors had shown up to eat the generous spread of food and to participate in an impromptu rodeo near the barn area.
C.J. had made quick work of the barrel racing event on her sorrel mare Cheyenne brushing the barrels as she shifted her weight, her hair flying behind her. But then she'd always been a skillful rider.
Afterward she hit the barbecue a bit and then went out and won the team roping competition with Matt much to the chagrin of most of the male contestants. But not Matt, he'd never partner with anyone else for any event on horseback.
"So you are going to head to meet some of these local women? Have a little fun?"
Matt rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"I'm looking forward to the fishing," he said, "just relaxing, not taking orders for a change."
"You'll be giving them soon enough," he said, "I know the brass is going to have you lead a post."
Matt didn't know where he'd get assigned but he'd put in for military intelligence. He'd taken some training in that area during his basic and developed an interest in it, his instructors encouraged him to pursue it. Will had opted for a field assignment as close to the front lines as he could get, where the action would be.
"I don't know about that," he said, "I just hope I don't end up in an office somewhere."
"Not likely…not in this war. I think everyone's going to see plenty of action…but until then I'm going to have fun cousin."
Matt had no doubt that Will would do just that, make his last days of freedom memorable.
"So when's Julia coming down?"
"Later in the day…she's on some road trip," he said, "going to stop here for a little while."
"I look forward to catching up with her."
Will's mouth curved into a smile.
"Of course…to find out what C.J.'s been up to," he said, "All I heard was that she wasn't too upset to hear Robert was heading off down south."
"I told her to be careful with him."
"You know how much she loves being told what to do," Will pointed out, "And my money's on her doing the right thing. Always had a good head on her shoulders…"
"Yeah I know but she's got a soft spot for Robert."
"She's got a soft spot for a few people," Will said, "present company included."
Matt knew that he and she had always been the closest of friends but they'd never been more than that. He hadn't really thought about it that much…no that wasn't quite true…there had been times when he'd wanted more but why mess up a great friendship? Will told him he was being silly about it but Matt had always treasured his relationship with C.J. ever since they met after she showed up at his elementary school one morning. Rumors had swirled around the schoolyard that she'd been orphaned and sent to live with a guardian by the state.
She didn't really look like an orphan wearing a print dress and her hair up off of her face with green clips. Though he noticed by day two, she had started wearing jeans and chambray shirts like most of the boys did which told him she lived on one of the nearby ranches. As it turned out, the one owned by Chuck Myers two spreads down and helped him raise quarter horses.
"The two of you looked like you were having a lot of fun at the party."
Matt furrowed his brows.
"Yeah…we sure did but we always have fun. Not going to be the same not seeing her."
Actually the thought depressed Matt that he'd be away from his closest friend for the next two years. Save a few days of leave now and then when maybe they could meet up somewhere in the middle. But she'd be going to law school in Boston and would probably be busier studying than she'd ever been and when they were both finished…well they'd talked about going into business together in some venture or another.
"Well you never know what'll happen in the next couple of days," he said, "Anything's possible and like I said, I plan to make the most of my freedom."
Matt just hoped his cousin wouldn't get too carried away. He had always been worried about him, riding one adrenalin rush after another, taking this stint in the military as if it were another thrill seeking experience. Soon enough, his cousin would find out otherwise and Matt hoped he'd adapt quickly enough to it. Roy had the same concerns and had asked Matt to look after his son as much as he could and Matt had promised him that much.
But going out on the road with him reminded him how much he had his work cut out for him, Will had wanted to stop off at some small town in south eastern Texas to go bungee jumping off of a bridge and dared Matt to join him. Of course, Matt once he saw the devilish look in his cousin's eyes couldn't pass it up.
Then a couple days later it had been paragliding, though Matt enjoyed soaring across a scenic riding the thermals much better. Still he knew if he wasn't careful, Will would wear him out before they reached the base.
When he looked at him right now, Matt just knew he had something up his sleeve.
C.J. threw herself on the bed, adjacent to the one that Julia had already staked out once they stepped inside the motel room. They'd stopped to eat and then bought some tequila at a liquor store to take back with them. C.J. had never been much of a drinker but Julia liked to belt it on down on occasion, mostly as part of an ongoing rebellion against her strict upbringing. She hadn't gotten drunk yet on this road trip but C.J. knew she had pushed the envelope a few times and she'd done her best to keep Julia out of trouble.
Julia had the bottle in her hand and tried to hand it off to C.J. who shook her head.
"You sure you don't want to try it," Julia said, "Man you are a prude sometimes."
"I am not…I just don't like to drink to get drunk."
Julia took another big swallow and just looked at her.
"You can at least drink enough to take the edge off for a change," she said, "You're way too serious. You'll have enough time for that once school starts."
C.J. knew that it wouldn't take long for the intensity to start, for the pressure of the competition inside the nation's toughest law school to hit her but she'd prepared for that. Or so she thought, she hoped because she knew from day one it'd be sink or swim and she had no intentions of drowning. Julia didn't seem nearly as concerned about it as she did and had chided her saying that they only had a few days left before they had to buckle down to study so they might as well make the most of it.
"We should go dancing tonight," Julia said, "Pick up a couple of guys and have some fun."
C.J. rolled over and looked at her.
"Julia, what's Will going to say about that?"
Her friend rolled her eyes and scoffed.
"What do you think he's doing right now," she said, "or thinking about doing?"
"Will's not like that…he's a bit wilder than…"
"than Matt," Julia finished, "Well yeah…of course but Matt's never been that type to party hard."
C.J. liked that about her best friend among other things.
"So he's not…he's too smart to get into that scene," she said, "His father raised him well."
"He's nice…but not my type…now Will on the other hand…"
C.J. had heard an awful lot about Matt's cousin since the road trip started and she knew that Julia looked forward to seeing him before he left on his military assignment. She'd always liked Will herself growing up with him and Matt, he'd been one to tease her but always with affection laced in his voice.
she'd always gotten along with him while growing up with him and Matt.
"Yeah I heard all about it already," C.J. said, "but you'll be seeing him tomorrow before he heads on out and I'll kick back with a good book."
Her words earned her an immediate frown of clear disapproval from Julia.
"Oh no you won't," she said, "We'll think of some way for the three of us to have some fun."
C.J. arched a brow and Julia laughed at her.
"I don't mean that…I mean there's a lake there and we can go fish or swim…here, you better drink some of this tequila."
"Okay maybe a small glass."
Julia found a plastic glass and filled it up nearly to the top before handing it to C.J. who sipped it slowly. Her experiences with tequila leaving her a bit cautious….but the liquor warmed her throat and her muscles started to relax.
C.J. lay back on the bed looking at the ceiling.
"You worried about Will going overseas to fight in that war?"
Julia paused and C.J. could tell from her silence that she had been thinking about it a lot. Her friend had her serious moments amid all the gaiety. C.J. heard the mattress springs creak in the next bed as Julia got up most likely to drink more tequila.
"Yeah….I guess so but he and Matt went and got all that training," she said, "and they won't be alone out there so they should be safe…as safe as they can be I guess."
C.J. digested that information closing her eyes wishing she could accept it as easily as Julia appeared to do so but…she'd been thinking about all the thousand of things that could happen to Will and his cousin Matt during their military service. She didn't want to think about any one of them too hard.
"What about you, you worried about Matt?"
C.J. paused rolling over to rest her head on her hand while facing Julia.
"Sometimes…I know that no one can handle himself better in any situation than he can…but still…I don't know what I'd do if something happened…"
Julia nodded, still sipping her drink.
"Yeah I know…I've been having these dreams about Will…that he's in a desert somewhere and there's all this fire raging around him…and I'm standing there watching him and then all of a sudden…"
Julia closed her eyes before she'd continue.
"The ground starts to crumble like an earthquake only it's not and he sinks beneath it until he's gone…"
"It's just a nightmare…"
"I know but all I can remember when I wake up is how helpless I feel watching him disappear…my feet are frozen to the ground and I can't even move."
C.J. could relate to that having had similar dreams of helplessly watching something awful happen to Matt but she figured in situations like this, it was normal. She sat up on the bed and flipped her hair back.
"I've had dreams like that…that's all they are you know."
Julia nodded again and this time she didn't reach for the tequila. She got up and brushed herself off and smiled at C.J.
"Let's go out and do something tonight…go see a movie and forget about dreaming."
C.J. nodded in agreement.
"An early movie…we've got to get up bright and early tomorrow to make an early start to the lake."
"That'll be fun…to see Will again before we have to say goodbye for a long while."
A pang of sadness hit C.J. just then wishing she had the same opportunity to do that with Matt. Oh, they'd said their goodbyes in a matter of speaking at the barbecue but she felt his absence so keenly now. If only she could see his face, grab hold of him and his cologne wafting close to her one more time…she shook her head as she got up to go get her purse.
No, they had said their goodbyes before heading their separate direction and there'd be no looking back.
But still a part of her hoped…
Matt watched Will reel in a fish where they sat on a boat they had rented from the campsite owner. They had got just the right bait to hook up some of the legendary trout in the lake that were rumored to be giants among their species. Matt figured it was all just a bunch of fish storytelling but they'd find out soon enough.
The fish wiggling inside the boat, still hooked on the line looked quite big…but mortal size. Still, it would taste great after being fried on an open fire in front of their bungalow.
"See you match that one…"
Matt saw Will reach for a beer out of the cooler and open the tab. He still had his own line in the water and had gotten some nibbles but no serious bites yet.
"I think I will…"
Will just leaned back in the boat as it rocked on the water. The sun shone down in full force on the lake, its heat baking the air. Yet neither of them felt uncomfortably hot.
"Nothing better than this," Matt said, "Beautiful day, on a lake filled with fish that just happen to grab the wrong hook."
"They know a good thing when they see it."
Matt watched his cousin and noticed how he sipped his beer, clearly enjoying each moment. They'd spent hours fishing together while growing up, spending hours out in the quietness of the water in some wilderness area listening to each other talk. They'd shared so much together while growing up, which made them closer than brothers. Matt remembered the promise he'd made to his Uncle Roy and Aunt Flo to keep a close eye on Will. His parents loved their only child but they knew like Matt how often he tried to push the envelope on any experience. They loved him for it but it worried them all too.
"So cuz…are you going to meet yourself a pretty girl to hang with?"
Matt just flashed him another look which caused Will to roll his eyes as he sipped his beer.
"Might not have to if Julia brings her friend with her…"
That perked Matt's interest. Friend…did that mean that…
Will just laughed at him.
"Time for you to catch that next fish," he said, "unless you want to concede that I'm the better fisherman…"
Matt grabbed a beer from the chest and popped it open. Nothing like cold beer taken off ice on a hot day while out fishing, nothing except…
But he just sipped his beer and reached for his pole to send the line with a flick of his wrist out into the ripples riding the surface of the lake in answer.