The Firebirds

Chapter Four

Mort touched the hood of the Chrysler, admiring the relic before him. He imagined it as it had looked the day it rolled off the assembly line. Its candy apple red finish gleaming, its tires pristine. It was a shame to see it in the condition it in was now. Poor gal. All she needed was some TLC, and she'd be back out on the streets in no time.

His daughter stood next to him, her expression hard to read. He knew Josie never liked when he brought a junker to the shop, but where else was he to put it? Barbie would have a fit if he brought home a beat-up car. She could hardly accept he spent their money on things like this. He understood, truly, but he couldn't pass up an opportunity. Maybe Josie was more like her mother than he realized. Despite their nay-say on the issue, he was proud of his cars. Besides, the collection wasn't that big. There only five cars he planned on working on. Two Mustangs, one a '69 and the other a '65, the Chrysler, a '59 Ford truck and '66 Chevy truck.

Soon, he'd have all five of them up in running.

"You and the boys gonna help me with the Chrysler this weekend?" Mort asked.

"Oh, uh, actually… I have plans this weekend. What about next weekend?"

Disappointed, but not surprised, he chose not to express his feelings. She was a grown woman with a life of her own. The thought cut deeper than he realized.

"No skin off my back. So, what are your plans, then?"

"A concert."

"I see. You gonna play it safe?"

She folded her arms and smirked. "Duh, I'm always safe. I'll be with Courtney and Lindsey. You know we've always looked out for each other."

That made him feel a little better, but not by much.


"Actually, I was thinking of bringing Chukfi along, too," she added.

"Chukfi? You think he'd be up for that?"

"Sure. He seems lonely and I doubt he really knows anyone here, aside from us. I thought he might like to go with us."

Mort tried to imagine humble Chukfi at a concert with three young, outgoing women. It was a funny thought, and he let a laugh slip.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"I know what you're into. That boy would be out of place."

"Maybe not."

Mort chuckled. "I wish I could see that."

"Just don't tell him, okay?"

Mort nodded. "I'll probably forget."

She walked over to the Chrysler. Looking it over with disapproving eyes, she circled around to the other side. "This thing is a junker, Dad. Why do you even bother?"

"I try to see beauty in everything and this car was your grandfather's."

Astonished, she said, "This is Grandpa Hue's car?"

"Not the exact car, but he had one just like this. Working on cars was the only time he and I got along."

"I see," she said, softly. "I guess this is sentimental to you."

"In a way, yes. Someday, you might understand how I feel."

She nodded and said nothing more on the subject. Knowing what he meant, she couldn't bring herself to look at him. The topic of losing a loved one always made her uncomfortable, so he tried not to bring it up often. She was like his own father, in a way. Both would rather hide their emotions than let their genuine feelings show. The only difference was, Josie didn't explode like his old man did. No, she released her frustrations with life out in other ways he wasn't comfortable with. He'd rather not think about that.

"If it means something to you, then I guess I won't complain as much," Josie said.

Judging by her tone, he assumed she didn't mean it.

With their break ending, they took their time walking back to the garage. The guys huddled by the water cooler in the back, while laughing at a dirty joke Abelardo told them. Josie pursed her lips, trying to hide the smile threatening to surface. Mort didn't know why she tried to hide her sense of humor around him. He knew she told dirty jokes, hell, he learned a few good ones from overhearing her conversations with Abelardo and Holoce.

They passed under the garage door and passed a sedan propped on a jack. Seeing their boss, the guys died down their laughter and moved out of the way for Mort to grab a drink.

"Hey, Dad?" Josie asked while he filled his cup. "If Holoce has a tribal name… do I have one?"

She had one, but he forgot what it was. It was a question he hadn't expected her to ask, especially now. The answer suddenly came to him, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He almost laughed, but stopped himself. Crossing his large arms, he looked down at his daughter. Her brown eyes were wide with wonder. He almost thought against what he was about to say. Almost.

"You sure do," Mort said, proudly.

The others looked on with curiosity; Chukfi showing the most interest.

"Really, what is it?"

Poor kid.

"Yeah, your granduncle Chabon gave it to you when you were little."

"Tell me!"

Mort cleared his throat and declared, "It was… Two-Deer-Fucking!"

Josie's mouth flew open and her face went beet red. The poor girl was clearly mortified as her co-workers howled with laughter. Chukfi turned his back to them, his shoulders trembling.

Josie turned on all of them, her eyes narrowed into slits.

"Oh, you laugh it up!" she snapped.

Chukfi turned back to face her with gleaming eyes. "Oh, I will, Two-Deer-Fuckin'!"

The men laughed harder. Josie turned up her nose at her family and co-workers. She stalked out of the garage, disappearing around the corner and behind the larger vehicles, with Animal on her heels. Mort almost felt sorry for her, but the joke was too good to pass up.

He noticed Chukfi was staring off in the direction Josie went, his mind some place else. The boy was strange, but he was a good worker, at least. He approached Chukfi and gave him a gentle nudge. He blinked and turned to Mort.

"Wake up, kid, there's work to do."

"Yeah, sorry," Chukfi said. A heartbeat later, he added, "Actually, I'm gonna check on her."

"Fine, just hurry up."

Chukfi nodded and hurried after her.

Josie had disappeared by the time Chukfi went after her. Looking around the junkyard, he tried to see if he spotted the top of her bun moving between the rust buckets. There were men scattered about the place, both young and old, pulling parts and inspecting vehicles.

Standing by a Nissan truck was a middle-aged man about to pop the hood. Chukfi approached him in hopes of him knowing where Josie went.

"Excuse me, sir," Chukfi said.

The man glanced over his shoulder before turning his attention back to the truck.

"I'm looking for a woman, tall, tan-skinned, with black hair. You seen her around here?"

Without looking in his direction or saying a word, he pointed to the southwest. Chukfi thanked him and went in that direction. He searched each row, each car, but he turned up nothing. He was starting to give up after ten minutes until he saw movement by a weeping willow. In a few strides, he had a better view of what he was seeing. There, hunched over by herself, was Josie. Relief flooded him. He jogged towards Josie, just stopping right behind her. He remembered she didn't like being snuck up on and didn't want to startle her.

Taking a few steps back, he cleared his throat to get her attention. Like the man by the Nissan, she only glanced at him before turning back to whatever it was she was doing.

"Animal killed a snake," Josie said.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he came up beside her and squatted down to her level. Sure enough, there was a copperhead, decapitated and stretched out. Beside its body was a small mound of dirt.

"I see you buried the head."

"Well, duh, everyone knows that," she replied. There wasn't any trace of anger when she spoke. Actually, she sounded slightly amused.

"Not everyone. When I was in sixth grade, a kid in my homeroom class got bitten by a dead rattler and well, he joined that snake in the afterlife."

"That's terrible!" she said, standing.

He followed suit, feeling the relief in his back as he did so. "Yeah, it was. We had a memorial for him and everything." When she didn't reply, he added, "Where did Animal go?"

She pointed past the fence where a pasture stretched out beyond that. He spied no livestock, but he worried all the same. Being a rancher in his youth, many dogs had wandered onto his family's property and many met his father's gun. He had the misfortune of witnessing too many dogs dying because of his father. It didn't matter if they were hostile or friendly. To his dad, any dog on their property was a potential threat and had to be dealt with swiftly. Even his own mother had killed a dog or two, and they were her favorite animal. Shane and Chukfi were expected to do the same, but neither of them could bring themselves to do so. So one brother would keep their parents distracted while the other made sure the dog was off the property safely. As they got older, Shane was more inclined to follow in their father's footsteps, making him the favorite between the two.

He pushed the memory aside and said to Josie, "Are you sure he's okay out there? I know how… antsy farmers get when it comes to their land and no disrespect but Animal doesn't look friendly at first glance."

"He's fine, trust me. The property that connects to the junkyard is owned by a cattle farmer who's fine with Animal. In fact, he gives him a cow knee once in a while."

"Are you sure it's not an issue?"

"Trust me, I'm sure. My friend, Courtney, well her family owns the farm connected to this. So, as I said, it's cool. He knows me, he knows my dog."

"If you say so." Kicking at the Copperhead corpse with his boot, he said, "What do you want me to do with this?"

"Nothing. Animal will eat it."

She nudged him with her shoulder and started walking ahead. He caught up to her and matched his pace with hers.

"Come on, that thing is giving me the creeps," she said, pointing back at the snake.

Looping an arm into his, she made him walk at her pace. His muscles tensed at her touch, but he forced himself to relax. He could have and maybe should have pulled away, but he didn't. The warmth of her skin could be felt through his covered bicep. Instinct told him to flex, to show that even though he hadn't ridden broncos or bulls in years, he hadn't gone soft. Internally, he punched himself for being so ridiculous.

She gestured to the pasture where a white spot weaved in and out of the tall grass. "See, I told you he's fine. I found him or at least, I think he found me." When he said nothing, Josie continued. "About three years ago, I was driving down a back road when this dirty white dog jumps in front of the car. I barely had enough time to slam on the brakes. Luckily, I didn't hit him, but it looked like someone else had. His front leg was bloody, and he limped around. I know this next part sounds stupid, but I couldn't just leave him there, so I put him in my car and took him to the vet."

"It's not stupid. Reckless, maybe, but not stupid. I would've done the same, to be honest," Chukfi said.

"I'm glad I'm not the only crazy person out there. But yeah, that's how I met Animal. He didn't have a tag. No one was missing him, so I took him in. I often think it was fate that brought us together. He was in need of care, and so was I."

Animal's ear pricked at the movement ahead of him. Hunkering his body, he crept forward in the grass, determined to catch whatever it was.

"He's been by my side ever since. He's real smart, too. I know some people see a bulldog and think they're mean and stupid, but Animal is the farthest from either. Oh, sure, he's leary of strangers, but he wouldn't maul someone unless they messed with me. He also knows when I'm having a bad day and when I need comfort. Whoever he belonged to before missed out on a great dog."

Suddenly, she stopped talking and looked away. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, then said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to blab about my dog. You must think I'm lame for it."

She removed her arm from his. He wished she hadn't.

"No, it's fine. I could talk about horses for hours if you'd let me."

"Tell me about horses. I've always wanted one but living in town isn't exactly horse friendly. What was the name of that horse you had? Wild Wind?"

"Whirlwind," he corrected. "My old barrel racing horse. He and I were like one being when we were in the ring."

He noticed her hesitation before she asked, "What made you quit? If it's okay for me to ask."

"It's fine," he said. "My old man made me stop and switch over to bronco riding. Said that barrel racing was a 'sissy' sport and that bronco and bull riding was where the boys became men." He scoffed at that.

"Wow, I'm sorry," she said.

"Don't be. It was a long time ago, and I did enjoy bronco riding. It was a thrill I can't explain."

"So, was Whirlwind turned into a bucking bronco?"

"Nah, Whirlwind wasn't a bucking horse. Wasn't bred for it. He still competed, but it was my cousin who worked with him after that. He was still my horse, she just borrowed him."

It was irrational, but whenever he thought back on it, he couldn't help but feel jealous of his cousin. She got to take his horse to competitions, forming her own bond with Whirlwind. A bond that should have been reserved for him. There were times when, it seemed, Whirlwind was closer to her than Chukfi. It was like having to ride in the backseat of your own car. What an insult!

He wished he could've had both barrel racing and bronco riding, but when his father told him to do something, he did it. Not without complaining, though.

"Is this from the rodeo?"

Before he could ask her what she was talking about, Josie grabbed his forearm and pointed at an old four inch scar. With a slender finger, she traced the white flesh that stood out against his dark skin. The sensation gave him goosebumps. He hoped she didn't notice. Her hand moved from his arm and down to his large, rough knuckles. With her thumb she traced the scars there, feeling their rough, uneven terrain.

He was too mesmerized by her surprisingly soft touch to answer.

"I bet the bull's horns caught you a time or two," she said.

He moved his arm away from her and answered, "It wasn't a bull. I was thrown from a horse and I guess I hit something sharp on the railing."

"Sounds like you miss it."

He shook his head. "That part of my life is over. I got burned out and moved on."

Okay, so it wasn't true. He really hadn't moved on. Actually, he was still angry about what happened all those years ago. It stayed in the back of his mind as he went on with his day-to-day life, eating away at him when he thought too much about it.

Stop thinking about it. Stop getting worked up over something you can't control. Focus on the good around you. You're in your home state, you have a decent job; you have a chance to start anew and to stop running.

Soft fingers caressed his scars again.

"Earth to Chukfi, come in!" she said.

He swallowed and looked down at her. The sunlight hit her eyes, turning their usual dark brown to almost an auburn color. He'd never seen eyes like that on anyone before except one other person, but they were long gone.

"Chukfi, there's something I wanted to-" Before she could finish her sentence, a rustling in the tall grass behind her tore their attention away from each other.

Animal burst through the grass, carrying a rabbit by the legs. Horrified, Josie ran to the canine and caught him by the collar. Chukfi gave a small sigh. The moment ruined now. All thanks to her mutt.

"Animal, you should be ashamed!" Josie scolded while holding up the rabbit by the scruff. "You know they're my favorite animal… well, second favorite."

Chukfi rolled his eyes. "If it's already dead, then let him have it."

"Good thing it's not dead."

He held onto Animal while Josie took the rabbit somewhere safe. Animal tugged and thrashed while yelping. It took Chukfi pinning the dog down like a calf for him to finally settle down. Minutes later, she returned, wiping her hand on her pants.

"You can let him go now. He's never gonna find that rabbit."

Chukfi did as she said. Animal sprang to his feet and shook off the red dirt stuck to his pelt. In the next moment, he shot off like a rocket, looped around a few cars before running back to Josie. She giggled, watching him do this three more times before coming to a full stop. Chukfi wasn't focused on the dog. He was too caught up in the way she looked when she laughed, or how cute she looked with her toothy grin.

Animal calmed down and flopped on Josie's foot. She reached down and patted his head.

"We should probably start heading back. Dad doesn't like when we slack off," Josie said.

Chukfi nodded. "He didn't seem pleased when I took off after you. By the way, I'm sorry for laughing at you earlier."

"I'm not offended. I would have laughed if the shoe was on the other foot." She flashed him a smile.

Without another word, they walked back to the garage, Animal racing ahead.


Days later, after the humiliation died down, Josie stood in her kitchen eating a bowl of ramen while staring at her phone. At her feet, Animal sat, looking at up her, as though he were saying: "Well, what are you waiting for?"

"Just give me a minute," she said. "I'm out of practice, okay?"

You know that's a lie. You've got more notches in your headboard than Blanche Devereaux… okay, maybe not that many, but you're certainly not shy around men.

That was the issue, though. She could find a man easily; Relationships weren't scarce. It was keeping them that was the problem. There was always something wrong, either with her or the guy. The last time she was in a serious relationship was fifteen months ago and it turned out it wasn't as serious as she had thought. He was charming, smart, and driven, but he was also spineless, and didn't value women much. After helping him with a flat tire, he'd asked her out on a date, which she agreed to. When that date went well, he called to ask her out again, and over the course of six months, they'd grown close. They loved spending time together, mostly in bed. When she hinted at wanting more in the future, he'd clam up and go silent or he'd change the subject all together. She couldn't help but wonder if he liked her at all. Well, she'd gotten her answer one morning.

Josie caught him red-handed in bed with a Russian exchange student. Anger flared within her just thinking about it. She remembered flying at them both, dragging the girl out of the bed, and landing a few good punches to her face before Derrick pulled them apart. She kicked at his shins and screamed that he was a bastard as he dragged her out of the bedroom. He tossed her out of the house, which added fuel to the fire. She went wild and tried breaking down the door.

Courtney had been with her that day, waiting outside in the car while she went into the house. If it wasn't for her friend, Josie would have spent the rest of the day in jail. She had grabbed Josie by the shoulders and talked sense into her. Courtney had that way about her. Maybe in another life, she'd been a hostage negotiator. When Josie's anger turned to sobs, Courtney held her as she cried.

The memory made her all more sorry her childhood friend was leaving.

Now, she hardly thought about Derrick, and when he crossed her mind, she either felt nothing or incredibly horny. The latter didn't make her miss him, though. A man from a bar or her hand could easily take care of that. She placed up barriers and didn't bother to put forth the effort into a relationship anymore. All she cared about was getting off, and she knew the men she brought home felt the same way.

Men didn't intimidate her, especially those she was interested in. So then, what was it about Chukfi that made her nervous? It wasn't hard to pick up a phone and ask him to hang out. It wasn't like she intended to date him. As handsome as he was, she rarely dated co-workers. It was best to keep those worlds separate; it kept things simple that way. That and Josie wasn't sure she was his type. He always seemed so jumpy around her. Perhaps it was time she got him out of his comfort zone.

Setting her bowl aside, she reached out for the receiver, only to retract her hand. He was probably resting. The last thing he needed was someone disturbing him. But she'd put it off long enough, and Lindsey was growing impatient. Perhaps her father was right about Chukfi. Maybe he wouldn't enjoy going out with her and her friends. She had to try, at least. Going out and having fun would be good for him. He just didn't know it yet.

I have to at least try.

Animal pawed at her leg and whined.

"I told you to give me a minute," she said to her furry companion.

His ears pricked, and his head cocked, with his bottom teeth jutting out. She placed her noodles on the floor for Animal to finish.

"I need privacy," she said.

She left him to slurp up his meal and went into her room. Flopping onto the bed, she rolled to her side and grabbed the phone. After taking a breath to calm herself, she dialed her parents' number. On the third ring, someone picked up the phone. She'd expected her mom to answer, but to her surprise, it was Chukfi.


"Hey, Chukfi, it's me."

"Me, who?"

In the background, she heard water sloshing and dishes clattering.

"Josie, you dip."

"You need me to get your parents?"

"No, actually, I wanted to talk to you." Is a man actually doing chores at my house? I never thought I'd see the day!

There was a brief pause before he said, "Is this about the Honda? Because I already warned you I don't have a lot of experience with foreign cars."

"You like metal?" she asked, ignoring his question.

"Like the music? I guess so."

"Strange, I took you for a hillbilly music kind of fan."

He chuckled. "I'm capable of liking all kinds of music. Where I'm from doesn't matter."

"I'm sure."

"What are you getting at, anyway?"

Josie took a breath to calm herself and asked, "My friends and I are going to a Vixen concert in the city. We have an extra ticket and thought maybe you'd like to come along. So, you wanna join us?"

In the background, she heard her mother asking Chukfi a question; he gave her a brief answer before turning his attention back to Josie.

"I mean… concerts aren't really my thing."

"It'll be fun." Don't be too pushy…

"Well… as long it doesn't last too long, I guess I'll go, and I don't have to pay for this ticket, right?"

"Already paid for."

"Okay, I'll do it, but just so you know, I don't like crowds or people."

"Don't worry, I'll protect you."

"My hero," Chukfi replied.

Twisting the cord in her finger, she bit her bottom lip and rolled onto her back. She suppressed the giddiness welling in her chest before replying.

"Hey, it'll be fun, I promise."

"I'll hold you to it."

"If you end up hating it, I'll take over the next car with a computer in it."

"Deal," he said, laughing.

The conversation ended shortly after, leaving Josie buzzing all over. She rolled off the bed and went to her closest. After going through her entire wardrobe, she settled on a short skirt, a crop top, and a jacket. Giving the articles of clothing a once over, she felt satisfied over her choice. She neatly folded them and placed them on her dresser.

Animal came trotting into her room and hopped on the bed where he curled up at the end.

"I'm not going to bed yet," Josie said. "Not when I'm too excited. Besides, I have a commission to finish."

Animal laid down his head and gave a heavy sigh. Josie patted his side before leaving the room.

In the kitchen, she grabbed a beer from the fridge and leaned against the counter. She smiled as another wave of giddiness came over her.

Friday couldn't come soon enough.


With most of the hot water gone, Chukfi's shower wasn't as enjoyable as he hoped. He stepped out, most of the steam long gone, and hurriedly dried himself. He couldn't wait to find a place of his own. Living with six people was hell. He didn't know how Josie survived this or any of the Blairs, for that matter. At least there were two bathrooms, so he wasn't worried about taking too long.

Standing in front of the mirror, he ran a hand over his jawline. He checked for any flaws or blemishes that he could see, but so far, his skin was clear.

He was overthinking this; he knew that, but he hadn't felt like this toward a woman in years. During his rodeo and oil field days, having a girlfriend was impractical. Of course there were men who had significant others and families waiting on them back home, but for him, he couldn't see it working. He'd tried in the past, but the relationships always failed.

That was behind him now, and he didn't have to worry about leaving anyone behind. What he worried about was the fact that in a short amount of time since he'd lived here, he found himself drawn to Josie. He kept telling himself it was irrational, despite her being beautiful. He was too old for high school like crushes and infatuations. He knew better than to fall for a pretty face, and yet that's what was happening. Personality wise, she didn't seem like his type. Their worlds were too different for them to mesh well.

How cliché the country boy likes the city girl...

He finished dressing and made his way downstairs. Passing the living room, he caught a few seconds of Designing Women on TV. Barbie was curled up on the couch, her chubby legs tucked under her, and her head resting on her fist. Her youngest daughter was asleep on the other end of the couch, hidden under a throw blanket. He thought of his mother and brother, wondering what they were watching at that moment, and missed them.

With nothing else to do, he wandered into the garage to check on Mort. He found the patriarch at the workbench, painting a birdhouse. He stopped his task momentarily to take a sip of his beer, then picked up the brush again.

"What brings you in here?" Mort asked without looking up.

"Boredom," Chukfi admitted. "I didn't feel like watching TV and, there's not much to do in my room except sleep."

Mort laughed. "Yeah, things can be pretty boring around here once the kids fall asleep."

That sounds like a blessing…

"I heard you on the phone," Mort went on. "Barbie said you were talking to Josie. Everything okay with her?"

"Yeah, everything was fine. She, uh, invited me to a concert. Vixen, I think."

"Do you wanna go?" he asked, glancing Chukfi's way.

Chukfi shrugged. "I guess so."

"I'm sure it'll be fun. Beats hanging around here all the time," Mort said, chortling.

Worried that Mort thought he was being rude and ungrateful, Chukfi quickly explained, "Oh, no, it's not really all that boring here. I just meant-"

"Don't worry about it, kid. I understand. Why do you think I'm out here? I needed something to do in my free time. If it's not cars, I'm building bird and dollhouses."

"I get it."

"So what did you used to do in your free time?"

Memories of Chukfi's ranch came flooding back to him. He once again longed for his horse and an acre of land to ride across.

"What I'd like to do, I can't anymore. At least, not until I save up the money for some land and a few good horses."

Mort finished the last touches on the birdhouse before setting it aside. "I hope you get what you want someday."

He made his way to the fridge and looked inside. Selecting a beer, Mort tossed the can to Chukfi, who barely caught it. Seeing that it was Budweiser, Chukfi fought back a grimace. He hated the stuff and only drank it during high school because that's what they usually supplied to him and his friends. He thanked Mort anyway and took a few sips. The drink was bitter, but it was cold and refreshing in a hot garage.

"Will you do me a favor?" Mort asked.

Chukfi set his beer aside and said, "Sure, what is it?"

Mort pulled up two lawn chairs for the both of them. Taking a seat, he looked down at his own drink. He frowned, his brows furrowing. Chukfi wondered what could suddenly have made the older man look so troubled.

"I worry about Josie. Things have been difficult for her lately, but she puts on this brave face and acts like nothing bothers her. I know it does, but she'll never tell us."

"Is this about those people threatening her a few weeks ago?"

"Yes, and no. Blake, I was wondering if you could… keep an eye on her at the concert? I wouldn't normally ask you this sort of thing but..." he trailed, trying to find the right words.

"I understand. I won't let anything happen to her, but don't you think she can handle herself?"

"A father can't help but worry," Mort replied with a shrug.

He sympathized with the older man, though Chukfi thought he was overreacting.

"And just a fair warning, Josie and her friends can get a little... carried away," Mort added. He chuckled softly and took a drink of beer. "They're good kids, though. They got through to her when Barb and I couldn't."

"As I said, I'll keep an eye out."

This concert better be worth it. Even though he'd get to spend more time with Josie outside of work, his stomach twisted with worry as his mind raced with a thousand scenarios. Well, he'd find out soon enough.

Friday could take its sweet time.