Copyright© 2021 by Mark Elias
The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s how the old saying goes, at least, and that’s exactly how it was for me. Time went by and my classmates all seemed to change and grow into bigger versions of themselves. They all tried new things and made new friends. New people came into the small town of Judson, Georgia, where I lived. Yet despite all the change, I didn’t seem to change much. Physically I changed just as any child would. I grew, but stayed the tall lanky kid that I always was. But despite all the physical changes that happened over the years, mentally and socially things never changed. Standing next to another kid I looked just fine. I wasn’t too fat, I wasn’t too tall, I wasn’t too short. Physically I was fine, but if you asked me to try and meet a new friend, I just couldn’t do it.
The summer after I met Allison my mom decided that I needed to be enrolled in a day camp. She claimed it was to help me socialize with other kids my age, but in truth it was because she had no other place for me to go. Both of my parents worked full time and the summers were always rough for them with trying to work and manage the home. My mom worked as an accountant at Wild Adventures, a theme park in Valdosta. My dad, McKenzie, or Mack for short, was a veterinarian. That summer the local YMCA began offering a summer long day camp program for all ages of children. It offered cheap childcare for parents and gave us kids something to do during the summer instead of sitting around home all day long. One of the activities they offered was swimming, and for those who couldn’t swim, free lessons. I actually started enjoying swimming once I got the hang of it and by the end of July, I was fairly decent at it. It was one of the few things I could look forward to during the day. That is until Jake Pollard decided that I was having too much fun.
While everyone was swimming Jake slipped into the boys changing room and managed to steal all my clothes from my cubby hole. That day I was the last one out of the pool and went to go change before joining the others for the rest of the afternoon’s activities. I kept looking for my clothes but couldn’t find them. One by one all the kids left the changing room until I was the only person left. I was a smart kid and rather meticulous about my things, so I knew where I had placed them, but they were nowhere to be found. I knew Jake had done something, but I didn’t have the courage or the willpower to actually try and confront him. It was several hours later that one of the workers found me huddled in a corner, my head buried in my hands crying.
“Alex?” I heard the voice of the counselor at the YMCA.
“Yeah.” My voice was barely above a whisper, but it echoed in the cavernous brick building.
“You want to get changed and come back inside?”
“Why not?” She was coming towards me, but was being cautious with her steps.
“I don’t have anything to change into.”
“What happened to your clothes, buddy?” She asked as she knelt down in front of me.
I wasn’t naked. After all, I had been swimming. But my shoes, socks, and clean clothes were all gone. The only thing I had was the swimsuit I was wearing.
“I don’t know.” I sort of lied. I had a feeling I knew what happened, but I couldn’t say for certain.
“You just stayed in here all afternoon?”
I nodded wordlessly.
“Okay, well, why don’t you come with me, and we’ll get you a shirt you can wear. You can wear your swimming shorts until your mom gets here. Are you hungry? You missed snack time.”
Again I nodded, but wasn’t making a move to get up. She stood up and held out her hand. She was trying. Even though everything in my mind said to stay where I was, since I’d be safe there, she was in charge, and my mother had always taught me to obey the people in charge. So I took her hand and went inside. She found a YMCA shirt that was far too big for me, but it was the smallest size they had. The shirt came all the way down to my knees. After she found me a snack, she sent me back to the main room with the other kids. I heard a few snickers at how I was dressed. Jake was the final straw. When he walked by me, he muttered so that only I could hear him.
As he walked away, I went to one of the far walls and just sat there until my mom came to collect me an hour later.
Things like that were always happening to me. Every time I turned around, I was the brunt of some sort of prank or the wrong end of a bully’s fist. In third grade one of the new kids decided he needed to make a name for himself. Mark Green found me on the first day of school and cornered me at the far end of the playground and proceeded to kick the shit out of me. By the time he finished with me, with everyone either watching him or keeping an eye out for the teachers, I was bleeding from my nose and lip and my shirt was only hanging on by a thread. Once again I did the only thing I knew to do to protect myself ... I hid. I stuffed myself behind a half wall that blocked off the air conditioner. I waited there until I heard what seemed like the entire teaching staff searching for me.
In 5th grade I was invited to my first sleepover. I remember begging my mom not to make me go, but she wasn’t going to listen to me. She and my dad had a dinner that they needed to attend for my dad’s job. It was an adult party for my dad’s boss. He was retiring and had decided that he wanted to go all out to thank all his employees throughout the years. My dad had been with him the longest and was being honored. They had to go so when the invitation came for me to be a part of a sleepover it was a blessing in disguise for them. David Taylor was the son of Jack Taylor, the manager for a local bank. Jack had made David invite all the boys in his class for a sleepover hoping that it would encourage their parents to invest their money at his branch. David used the opportunity to strike at me.
All the boys had gathered in David’s basement while his dad was upstairs watching something on television. David, being the host and star of the show, had decided that we were going to play a game, but like everything else, when I’m involved it can’t be just something normal. David’s basement had a big screen television on one wall, and his dad had gotten both an XBox 360 S and a Playstation 3. David had a huge collection of games as well. It was clear that whatever David wanted his dad would get.
David had decided that we were going to play one of his favorite games, UFC 2009. It didn’t surprise me that he liked the game. David had been doing martial arts for as long as I can remember. David didn’t just want to rotate in and out though. His idea was that we would do a tournament and if you lost your match, not only were you out of the tournament but you would be “punished” in some way. I was automatically nervous just from being there, but when he said what the plans were, I was panicking. The first few people went and the punishments weren’t too bad. The worst thing that I think someone had to do was drink a shot glass full of hot sauce.
“Alex! It’s your turn!” David said as he looked to me with an almost evil grin. “It’s you and me!”
“That’s okay. I’m not good at video games,” was the only response I could muster.
“If you refuse to play, your punishment is worse.”
Shit! Reluctantly I took my place behind one of the controllers, and it was no surprise that David steamrolled me. It wasn’t a fair fight at all, and he knew that. That’s why he chose me.
“Alright, Alex, for your punishment, you have to run to the end of the road in just your underwear.”
“What?!” I was shocked, “No! Besides, it’s raining.”
David’s demeanor changed suddenly. It was enough to make me a little scared.
“Either you do it, or I make you do it.”
I stood up and started towards the stairs to get away, but before I could do anything David and Mark grabbed me and held me down. They stripped me of all my clothes then tossed me outside. David’s house had a walkout basement, and I now found myself standing outside of it in the pouring down rain. I could hear all the laughter from the other boys and could see some of them staring out of the window at me, wondering what I was going to do. I did what I always did ... I ran and hid.
David lived at the back end of the only real subdivision we had in Judson. Thankfully, it backed up to a large forest. I ran deep into the trees and didn’t stop until I could no longer see the lights of the houses. Being naked, I didn’t want to just sit on the ground and standing around didn’t seem like a good option either, so wiping away the tears from my eyes long enough for me to see straight, I found a nearby tree and climbed it so that I could at least be away from anything that may come for me. The cold rain pelted on me and made me mostly go numb. Numb enough at least that I never felt the ant bites that covered me the next day. I had fallen asleep in the tree for several hours before I heard my dad’s voice carrying through the tree. I heard him before I saw the light of his flashlight.
“ALEX?!” Thankfully his voice was deep enough to carry across the silence of the forest that night. Usually, my dad’s voice was rather soothing and peaceful, but there was an urgency about it, and I hollered back at him.
When my dad found me and wrapped me in a blanket there was an intense fury in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Dad! I didn’t know what to do! I was so scared!”
“It’s okay, Alex. I’m here.” I’m sure it looked awkward for my dad to be carrying me, but I had no strength to stand or walk on my own. As we got closer to David’s house, I could hear my mom long before I saw her.
“Jack, I can’t believe you would let this happen! What kind of parent lets a bunch of eleven-year-old kids have an entire house to themselves?! Just how much beer were you drinking anyway?! Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t call DHS right now and have them come down here!”
“Teresa! Calm down!”
“DON’T YOU TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, DAMMIT! MY SON is outside in the pouring down ran with NO F•©kING CLOTHES ON! All because your little hellion decided it would be a funny joke!”
Jack Taylor was saved as my mom spotted my dad carrying me and immediately ran toward me.
“ALEX!” She pressed herself to me, bringing me and my dad into a tight hug.
“I’m sorry, Momma! I didn’t know what to do!”
“It’s okay, Alex. It wasn’t your fault. I swear I’m going to grab that David by the...”
“Teresa!” My dad cut her off quickly before she went any further.
Every year, at least once, there was an incident. Somehow, I would be on the wrong end of a prank or a bully’s fist. Each time it happened my reaction was always the same. Take whatever was being done to me and then run and hide. I would hide away for hours. Each time something happened I could feel myself getting closer and closer to a precipice. I didn’t know what it would take for me to reach the edge of that cliff, or what it would take to push me over, but there was something inside of me that knew a day of reckoning was coming.
With all of the bad things that were going on, it would be easy to assume that my life was always a nightmare. At the time I thought it was, but even nightmares have their occasional bright spots. There were times when I actually managed to forget all of the bad things that were happening in my life. One of those times came just before I started fifth grade. My dad and Peter had decided that they needed a guys weekend, and they wanted to go fishing. The plan was for them to head out to some place Peter had found up in Tennessee. The fishing was supposed to be the best. To top things off, they both decided they wanted to rough it. I think this is because Mom and Debbie had been giving them a hard time about how manly they were. Dad and Peter had decided they were man enough to go camping for an entire weekend. Mom and Debbie decided it would be a great weekend for them to have a getaway as well. Allison would easily be able to stay with one of her friends which left just me to deal with. My dad didn’t hesitate in saying that I should go with him.
What I didn’t know at the time was that neither my dad, nor Peter, knew a thing about camping. I just assumed that they knew what they were doing. Even when we were stopping at Walmart on the way up to Tennessee to buy tents, sleeping bags, camping stoves, and a ton of other things. I just assumed the adults knew what they were doing. I didn’t realize that we could be in trouble until we actually got to Tennessee.
The problems started right away. My dad graduated at the top of his class. He’s extremely smart and is wonderful with animals, but give him directions to set up a tent and he’s clueless. Somehow the flexible rods that are supposed to keep the tent up snapped clean in two. We ended up having to go to the local dollar store and buy some string. We tied the tent to a tree branch and had it rigged as best we could. That is until about eleven that night when the string broke and the tent came crashing down on us.
Peter wasn’t much better. I’ll give him credit - he at least managed to put up his tent, and thankfully he bought one big enough for all of us, because we ended up having to use his tent the rest of the weekend. What started the whole idea of the camping trip was Peter talking about fishing. To hear the man talk, you’d think he was some world renowned angler. Come to find out he’d never baited a hook in his life. Peter was an excellent businessman. He’d come from very humble roots and managed to buy a working horse ranch, but give him a hook and he suddenly became the world’s biggest klutz. It wasn’t until after Peter had managed to get about three or four hooks stuck in various parts of his body that he managed to successfully bait his hook and cast his reel. You’d think that things couldn’t get any worse, but hilariously they did.
We got to Tennessee on Friday afternoon and got set up. Dad and Peter managed to get a little fishing in, though I use the word fishing very loosely. Saturday things took a turn for the worse. Neither my dad, nor Peter, had given any thought to what we were going to eat.
“What are we going to do for breakfast?” I asked as we all started to move around in the morning.
Both of the adults looked at each other and I could tell they were having an unspoken conversation. I just held in my laugh. Peter was the one who spoke up.
“We’ll run into town and get some biscuits or something. Then we’ll come back and catch our lunch and dinner. I bet we catch enough to take back home and put in the freezer,” he said as he also realized that we were going to go into town after not having had a shower for over twenty-four hours. Thank God for Axe body spray.
By the time we got dressed, went into town, ate breakfast at McDonalds, and came back to the campsite it was just after eleven. We grabbed our newly bought fishing gear and headed down to the river to try and catch our lunch, which we’d be wanting to eat in the next hour or so. Three hours later we were all hungry and none of us had caught anything. Peter was getting frustrated and reared back to cast his line out as far as he could.
The problem was that he snagged it on something. He yanked several times to free the line. Just as it came free though, he was jerking again. The hook flew through the air and embedded itself into his shoulder. Admittedly it wasn’t as funny when it first happened, but after my dad pulled the hook out and put some antiseptic ointment on it, they both decided that we were just going to grab a hotel room tonight, maybe go see a movie and head back home Sunday afternoon.
Both men had sworn me to secrecy on the way home that Sunday afternoon. Peter dropped us off at the house and my mom came out to greet us. She had a big smile on her face. I could tell that whatever they’d done that weekend had refreshed her a lot.
“How was it? Did y’all catch anything?”
I started to say something, but my dad jumped in very quickly. Probably too quickly.
“It was great! Just what we needed. A little male bonding and some great fishing.”
My mom had a suspicious look on her face, “Y’all didn’t bring home any fish for us? We could have had a fish fry next weekend or something.”
My dad was already heading towards his room, but spoke quickly. It was clear that he and Peter had discussed what they were going to say because he’d obviously rehearsed things.
“We were going to. Peter had his cooler ready to go, but the game warden came by and told us for some reason they were only allowing you to catch what you could eat. They wouldn’t let you take anything home. It was weird.” He then disappeared into his room.
My mom looked at me with a raised eyebrow and I just shook my head in a negative manner and headed to my room. I could hear her laughing even as I shut the door to my room.
Allison and I were growing up and becoming better and better friends. She was still the only person I ever really talked to. I learned about her parents and what they did. I learned about her father and his horse ranch. She told me how her father had been the manager for a horse farm in Kentucky. He was in charge of the entire place, second only to the owner. When the owner died of a massive heart attack, his children didn’t want to deal with the farm and decided to sell the whole thing. Allison was initially upset because they were selling all of the horses and turning the farm into some sort of new subdivision. When Peter was let go, having been very well taken care of, he looked around and found he ranch in Georgia.
I also took the time to learn about her. Allison made it happen, really. She just started sharing herself with me. She told me things she liked and didn’t like, and occasionally I would respond in kind with something I liked. I learned about her love of Disney. She had been fascinated with anything concerning the House of Mouse ever since she was a baby. She collected all the movies, even the ones that were targeted for boys. Allison would give me as much information about herself as I could absorb, but not once did she press me for anything I wasn’t willing to talk about.
She would ask me about the many incidents that I’d had that pressed me closer and closer to a looming darkness, but never once did she join in the ridiculing. Several times she stepped in to stop something before it happened. Allison was one of those people that everyone seemed to like. She had this incredible warmth about her that drew everyone to her, so when she said something ... people listened. But even Allison, and all her kindness, couldn’t stop everything. No amount of goodness in a single person can overcome the hatred and coldhearted callousness of others. Still, those few days a week that I got to sit with Allison was a respite of warmth in the otherwise constant rain that was my life.
I even started going over to her house on occasions. That mostly started because her mom and my mom struck up a friendship after the incident at Allison’s birthday party. It seemed at least once a week our moms were hanging out at one house or another. Before too long that started to include me or Allison tagging along to keep each other company.
The foaling season starts in May and runs through September at the latest. Foals can be born at other times, but it’s not the standard. A few weeks before we were supposed to start sixth grade Dad got a call from Peter Moon to see if he could come check out all of the new foals just to give them a clean bill of health. This wasn’t anything new since Dad was probably the best horse veterinarian in the county. He worked on other animals but horses were his specialty. He asked me if I wanted to tag along and I didn’t mind. I had already started developing an eye for horses. It started by reading.
You see, I am a nerd and I make no bones about it. Allison wasn’t just my best friend, she was my only friend. We hung out all the time, but unlike me, Allison had lots of other friends. She’d have sleepovers all the time, or go to other people’s houses. Anytime she had company she would try to get me to get involved but I always had some excuse. I was always good in school and got my homework done fairly quickly. Of course, I played video games but I could only do that for so long before I wanted to do something else. So I read – a lot! The first book I remember falling in love with was The Black Stallion. From there I moved on to other horses in books and mythology. I read about Tug from The Ranger’s Apprentice, and of course, Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings. All that meant that I really did enjoy spending time around the horses. It wasn’t something I loved right away. My first time riding on a horse, I quite clearly remember being terrified; but that changed, pretty quickly. I learned to ride and I learned to love it.
I brought along several apples with me with the intent to maybe feed some of the new foals or some of the mares. Dad sequestered himself in the barn where I knew he would be most of the day since he had quite a few foals to look over. I started out by watching the foals as they played in the small paddock, I even found myself running around with them. At the time Peter dealt mostly in American quarter horses or paint horses. They were two of the most popular and most useful breeds of horses in the world so he made quite a bit of money off of them. I never formed a real bond with any of them, but I did enjoy playing with them. I was sitting down in the paddock with a chestnut foal practically laying in my lap when I saw him.
Standing alone in the next paddock over was a beautiful bay stallion that I had seen around the farm several times. He wasn’t just brown, he was a rich chocolate color that, if you looked at it just right, you’d think he was black. I had one more apple that I was going to feed to the foals, but something pulled me towards that horse. Whiskey was his name, at least that’s the name I had heard Peter calling him when he spoke with Dad. They’d been working on saddle training him though I wasn’t sure how far along they had come. I swear it was like the horse was looking into my very soul. I didn’t run to the fence where he was, instead I walked casually as I made my way over to him. When I was getting closer I held out the last remaining apple.
“You hungry, Whiskey?”
He stomped and snorted so I stopped for a few moments and when I thought he was relaxed a bit I got closer – all the while I was talking to him as calmly as I could. Finally I was leaning on the wooden fence trying to give an apple to this magnificent creature. With one hand holding the apple so he could take a giant bite I started running my hand along his neck. Then I just went with my gut.
I don’t know what made me do it, but I decided then and there that I needed to ride Whiskey. However, I didn’t want to risk Peter or my dad telling me no. I didn’t want to waste the time trying to go get him saddled. Something called to me. It was as if the horse itself was begging me to go riding. So I climbed up on the fence, grabbed a fist full of mane and slowly eased my way onto his back. I was only on him for a split second. It was just enough time for me to reach up and take another fist full of mane with my right hand. Before I had time to mentally check to make sure I was ready, Whiskey was ready to go. Suddenly we were off like lightning.
Now you have to understand something about the American Quarter Horse. It’s one of the most popular breeds of horses in the world and it got its name from being able to outrun most any other breed for short distances. If you are running a quarter mile or less, the American Quarter Horse can probably beat you. It’s been clocked at up to fifty-five miles per hour. Whiskey was probably the fastest horse that we had, a fact that I found our very quickly.
I had to squint my eyes because the wind was making my eyes water so much I could hardly see. I was using my knees to try and keep myself balanced on the horse. Whiskey was just having fun. We ran along the fence for a bit before he turned and ran towards some of the other horses that were also in the paddock. He ran right through them and they split so that we could come through. It reminded me of God parting the water so that Moses and the Israelites could get away from Pharaoh’s army.