Copyright© 2021 by Mark Elias
The relationship between my mom and I had been souring ever since I overheard her conversation with Miss Debbie. My mom didn’t even like me. If my own mother didn’t like me, how could I expect someone else to? My own mother didn’t like me, why would I even like myself? My dad had come right out and said he was disappointed in me, and it wasn’t simply because I had refused to go to Allison’s party. I could see it in his eyes, begging out of Allison’s party was just the avenue he had for telling me how his son had disappointed him. True he had given me some form of approval when I heard of the gift I sent her, but that wasn’t because he was proud of me. It was because I had performed well on some task he set out for me. I forced myself to do something and when I did it to his satisfaction, he gave me some form of positive reinforcement like I were one of Peter Moon’s horses.
Things were becoming strained in the house. My parents thought it was because I had too much time on my hands, so they had arranged for me to take up a small ‘part-time job’ working around the stables. I would make $150 a week for working 4 days a week. He originally told me I wouldn’t have to work Saturday’s but when I told him I didn’t mind it, he said he’d give me an additional $30 for working on a Saturday. I had nowhere else to go and nothing else really to do, so working and getting some money would be a good thing. The way I figured, if I saved all the money I earned over that summer I could potentially have enough money to build me a top of the line computer by Christmas. I was getting more and more interested in computer building. Several months back I had tried to get my parents to warm up to the idea of building my own computer. They were willing to let me do it, but they weren’t sold on buying the parts for me. They said they would help me with it some, but they wouldn’t come right out and buy all the parts for me.
My job was exactly what you’d think a newly minted teenager would have. I did the hard labor that no one else wanted to do. Peter Moon’s dream farm was called Blue Moon Ranch. He had over four hundred acres of land which meant there was ALWAYS something to do. The first thing I learned to do was to muck out the stalls and the paddocks. Peter Moon believed in allowing horses to have the ability to run and roam where they wanted to, within reason. His thought process was that it made horses happier to not be caged up all day long. So even though his stables had twenty-five stalls in them, they weren’t all used. In fact, most of the stalls were for prize winning horses or client horses. Both of those he didn’t want me to mess with. That left only about four or five stalls I had to clean daily. The paddocks took a bit longer for me because they were so much bigger. There were three different paddocks that we used on a routine basis. Every other day horses were moved to a new paddock to allow the others to be cleaned. Let me tell you, shit stinks. They say you are supposed to get used to the smell, but you don’t.
Another wonderful thing I got to help with was hay. We dealt with square bales of hay. This made it easier for us to feed the horses and also to split them up for bedding. Years ago that would mean having to hand walk the fields to pick up all the bales of hay. Some farms still did that, but we didn’t. The bales were automatically thrown onto a trailer that was pulled behind a tractor. My job was to help unload those trailers and stack the bales in the hay barn. It’s enough to say that over the course of that summer I learned a lot about the daily goings on of a horse farm.
It also helped me start to get into shape. I was a tall kid for my age and being mostly a book worm I wasn’t the strongest kid you’d ever see. I was skinny and didn’t have a lot of muscle on me but working on the farm that summer started to change that. It wasn’t an overnight change, and it wasn’t one of those changes you read about where someone comes back from a summer of working and no one can recognize them, but by the end of summer I could certainly tell that moving wheelbarrows of horse shit and tossing bales of hay around had definitely started having an effect on me.
That also made me more paranoid. I didn’t want people to notice me any more than they already did. I was worried that if people started to notice that I was putting on muscle, that they’d expect me to play sports; or even worse, girls would start to notice me. Don’t get me wrong, I was very much interested in girls. I had spent many nights wondering what it would be like to have a girlfriend, but in my mind, it was too dangerous
Even girls like Jennifer piqued my interest. She was the type of girl that you couldn’t help but notice. She was a cheerleader and was also on a girl’s traveling softball team during the summer. She was very fit, and at just thirteen years old, was well on her way to being a woman. Yeah, I was very much interested in girls, even ones that I hated, but the fear of having to speak to someone and actually talk to someone was far more overpowering than the hormonal drive to get a girlfriend.
I didn’t have anything to worry about when school started back. Eighth grade would prove to be nothing more than a repeat of the previous two years, but this time it would be ramped up exponentially. Things had been relatively peaceful between me and The Trio ever since the Broken Nose Incident. It seemed like for whatever reason we had another truce. I stayed away from Allison and they didn’t beat the shit out of me every day. I was still doing odd jobs at the ranch, though it wasn’t paying what it used to simply because I had school, but I still managed to work a couple of days a week and even Saturdays all the way through October. By the end of October we had taken in the last of the hay and the barn was as stocked as it was going to be until next Summer when the process started all over again.
Mark had continued to work on his conditioning over the summer. Rumors were swirling that his parents had sent him to fat camp to drop the weight. He denied the rumors and squashed them quickly when he beat up someone who asked him about it. After that everyone was too afraid to say anything. Mark was still a large kid, taller than me even, and still had about seventy-five pounds of weight he needed to lose, but he had clearly been working on it. He still looked like someone had beat him with the Ugly Stick and broken it over his head. No amount of working out was going to change the fact that Mark was a slob. He and Allison were still boyfriend and girlfriend, and Mark occasionally gave me a go to hell look to make sure that I knew she was his property.
The first sign that things were changing once again for the worse came the first week of November. Most of the kids in our class had gone trick or treating, many of them for the last time. By the next year we would be considered too old to go. I hadn’t gone house to house for as long as I could remember. I’m sure my parents took me as a child, but I stopped quickly because I was too shy to do anything. Eventually they just stopped making me go and would just end up buying me a couple bags of candy to eat for the next few weeks. It was the first day of November, which came on a Friday that year. Once again, I was stuck in P.E. with Mark Green, though David was in a different period than we were. That day Mark came in grinning from ear to ear. I wasn’t going to ask him what his good mood was about, but that didn’t mean Jason Graves wouldn’t. Jason was overall a good guy. I had a few classes with him throughout the years and he was always cordial to me. In another lifetime he might have ended up becoming a friend, but that would have required me to open myself up and that just wasn’t going to happen. Too much of a chance to get hurt. Allison had proven why it was a bad idea to have friends.
“Dude, you’re acting like you just won the Powerball. What gives?” Jason said after P.E. when we were getting ready to leave
“I don’t know if I should tell you losers.” Mark laughed, but he clearly wanted to say something.
“You know you want to tell us. So spill it. Allie finally let you kiss her?”
Mark had a shit-eating grin on his face but said nothing.
“Oh my god! She did!”
“Oh it was more than that! She let me go all the way.”
“You f•©ker!” Jason shoved him playfully. “There’s no way.”
“Oh yeah? Then how did I know about the little birthmark she has?”
We all stopped and looked at him. Allison had always worn a one-piece bathing suit for as long as I could remember. I had never seen her in a shirt that didn’t come down to her waist. Most of her shirts were long bohemian style shirts that covered her entire upper torso and even some of her butt. There would be no way he could have seen a birthmark unless she had let him see it.
I don’t know why that made me so mad. I had never expected any sort of relationship with Allison. We hadn’t really talked in almost two years. She wasn’t a friend much less a romantic interest. Yet there was part of me that wanted to lash out at Mark for tarnishing her image, but then the other part of me knew the truth that lay behind the innocent façade she put up. I didn’t need to get involved in whatever was going on, but yet ... I did. To this day I have no idea what possessed me to do what I did. It wasn’t until I was jumping off one of the benches tackling Mark to the ground that I even realized I had reacted. I managed to catch everyone by surprise, not just Mark, when I landed on him and drove the back of his head into the locker.
Mark was stronger than I was though and quickly overpowered me, shoving me onto my back before he brought down his thick meaty hands against the side of my head. I brought my hands up instinctively to try and protect myself for what I knew was going to be the beating of a lifetime. Thankfully Coach Thompson came in quickly and split us up. Mark had a busted lip from where I initially hit him and knocked him to the ground. I took the brunt of the abuse though. I had several red marks on the side of my face and neck, including what looked like another black eye.
“Jackson! What the hell got into you? He’s easily twice your weight!” Coach grabbed my arm. “Green! Get your shirt on and come with me. You didn’t start it but you know there is a no tolerance policy about fighting in school.”
The bell rang to send us to our next class, and I could feel all eyes on me as I was being forced through the hall towards the office. Allison even saw us and gave me a confused look. Mark was sure to let her know his version of what happened. “I’m sorry. We were laughing and suddenly he just tried to tackle me. I was just defending myself.” Her eyes went to me again, this time I couldn’t read them. I didn’t know what was going on in her mind.
“Green!” Coach called as Mark was lagging behind, “I said get over here.”
By the end of the day I was once again on my parent’s shit list. Or at least I had managed to make my way a little further to the top of it. I wasn’t sure that I ever made it off that list. My dad was the one who scared me the most. He was usually calm. I don’t think I had ever seen him as mad as he was at me.
“What were you thinking, Alex?!” It was strange to see my dad doing the yelling and my mom sitting quietly off to the side. “Starting a fight with someone?”
“He deserved it.”
“For what? Being Allie’s boyfriend? What did he possibly do to you?”
“As if you care.”
“I’m your father! Of course I care!”
I knew I had crossed the line at that point, but I didn’t care. I was tired of the line. I was tired of trying to be good just so I didn’t get in trouble. I was tired of trying to pretend like my parents actually cared for me in any way. Mom didn’t like me, and dad only wished he had a daughter like Allison than me. Dad’s face was as red as I had ever seen it. My mom just sat at the table with her head in her hands. She was pretending to cry, but it was more that she was ashamed of me. She had said herself that she didn’t like me. She spent more time talking about how great and wonderful Allison was than she did anything about me.
“Son, you’ve got about five seconds to get out of my sight or I’m gonna lose it. Go to your room and I don’t want to see you the rest of the day. You can come down for supper and that’s it. Leave your phone on the table.”
I did it without question and was quickly making my way up the stairs to my room. As I lay on my bed, I felt the Darkness starting to return. Every time it came back it grew harder and harder to fight. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The older you got the easier it was supposed to be. That’s what I always thought. As life went on, I’d eventually learn to make a friend, but that never happened. My parents would always be there for me to understand, but that wasn’t the case. What little friends I did have would always be there, and yet here I was isolated and alone, just as I had been for the last three years. It felt like the world was truly against me.
When my mom called me down for supper things were intense. They didn’t give me the option of staying in my room and skipping dinner. I was forced to be there. Mom had put a pot roast on that morning before school. This was one of my favorite meals, yet today I couldn’t seem to bring myself to eat.
“Eat your dinner,” my dad commanded me, his deep bass voice losing the calmness and taking on a more authoritative tone.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I didn’t ask you if you were hungry. I told you to eat your damn dinner.”
I forced most of my dinner down before I couldn’t take another bite. By that time my dad seemed willing to let me stop.
“You’ve been suspended from school for three days for starting a fight. So Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you will be up at 7AM and be prepared to work. You aren’t going to sit around the house all day like you’re on vacation. You want to be a man, then you’re going to act like one. I expect you to be at the stables no later than 8AM and if I hear you were late, you’ll be working one Saturday with no pay for every minute you were late. You will work until 5PM stopping only for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. Is that understood?”
“Now go to your room and get enough clothes for the next three days. You aren’t sleeping in your room. You’re gonna be staying in the guestroom. Tomorrow I’m going to the hardware store and I’m getting a new lock for your door, one with a key. It’ll be locked until such a time as I think you can be trusted with the privacy and freedom that we have given you. That means no phone, no computer, no TV, no games. No nothing. You will go to work or school and then come straight home and go to the guest room. You will be allowed to come out for dinner and the bathroom and that’s it. Do you understand me?” I nodded in response but that wasn’t good enough, “I asked you a question and I expect a verbal response. Do you understand?”
“Then go do as I said.”
When I collected enough clothes for the next several days, I went to the guest room. My parents had completely cleared the room of everything. There were no pictures on the walls, and no electronics. I had an old alarm clock to help me get up and that was it.
Monday morning I was gone from the house by 7:30. It wasn’t that long of a bike ride to the stables, but I wanted to take my time. Plus I didn’t want to see either of my parents. I just wanted to do what I had to do, so I could get it over with. When I reached the stables, I parked my bike where I always do and immediately went about mucking the stalls. It took me less than two hours to muck out all the stalls and immediately I turned my attention to the paddocks. I had just finished cleaning it when I heard someone calling me and turned to see Luciano motioning for me to come over.
Luciano was about six feet tall and was well built for being close to 60. He had taken good care of himself. I hadn’t spoken with him too much. He was always busy with farm work or working with some of the horses. No one called him Luciano, he was simply called Lou by everyone that knew him. It was strange to hear the name Lou only to turn around and see this dark-skinned Spanish guy staring at you. Lou was born in Spain but moved to America when he was ten, so, when he spoke, his English was good, but his accent was thick.
“Alex, I need your help, amigo.” He motioned for me to follow him. “Señor Peter has gone with the others to look at some horses in Tennessee. I need some help. I need to move the horses into the next paddock, but I need to separate one of them out. He isn’t supposed to be in with them.”
“Okay, what do you want me to do?”
“Grab one of the training whips from the barn. We’ll open the gate to the paddock. Then I need you to use the whip to make yourself as wide as you can. You just herd them into the gate. I’ll do the rest. I just can’t do both at the same time.”
I nodded and did as he asked. Going into the barn I grabbed the training whip. I hadn’t ever used it but I had seen it done. The whip was a five foot long pole, that had a four foot long leather strand on the end. It was flexible enough to encourage the horse to go and do what you wanted but wasn’t like one of those whips you saw in the Indiana Jones movies. I wouldn’t need to do much with it really, just use it to make my presence a bit wider and encourage the horses to go where I wanted.
“All right, Alex.” Lou began and I came back. “Open the gate and then walk around them. Give a few shouts to get their attention. Hold your arms out wide and use the whip to make yourself even wider. Don’t be scared of the horses. They are more scared of you than you are of them.”
I gave him a nod and opened the gate. Overall what he was asking me to do wasn’t hard. Horses are smart creatures and knew what we were doing. I was there mostly to keep the few strays from deciding they wanted to play some more. The real reason I was needed was so that Lou could keep his back to the rest of the horses and focus on keeping the one horse separate. The whole process took about twenty minutes and when the gate was shut on the paddock, I turned my attention back to Lou and the new horse.
I had never been a lover of horses. I respected the creatures and knew a bit about them since my dad was a veterinarian who specialized in them, but I had never had a passion for them. When I finally got a good look at the new horse, I couldn’t help but appreciate the magnificent creature that it was. He was tall, at least to me, and you could tell there was a fire inside of him that burned passionately. Each muscle in his leg flexed as he moved from side to side. But the striking thing about him was his color. His body was a rich creamy color, but his mane, tail, and the bottom of his legs were dark black.
“Wow, Lou, he’s awesome.”
“Si ... that he is.” Lou chuckled as he came to sit on the fence, allowing the horse to run around a bit. “He’s what is called a buckskin. His name is El Jefe.”
I laughed, “The Boss.”
“Ah you know my language?”
“A little bit. I like to read. I know a few words, but that’s it.”
“Well he’s certainly a boss. We got him last week from a friend in Texas. I used to do rodeo’s with him back in the day. This boy here is his new toy, but he’s a little rough around the edges. They want me to see if I can’t break him in a bit.”
“He’s not wild?”
Lou just laughed, “El Jefe? No, amigo. That’s just part of his bloodline. You see these horses originated in Spain. They’ve always been fiery. Besides, he’s just a kid really. He’s not quite two years old.”
“I should get back to work. I don’t want my dad getting mad.”
Lou looked at me for a second and nodded, “With everyone else gone I guess that means I’m the boss today right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, I don’t want to be working with this horse by myself. I’d feel more comfortable with someone watching in case something happens. So why don’t you grab a spot on the fence while I see what this boy has?”
That became the routine for the remaining time I was suspended. I got to the stables early enough to get all the cleaning done, so that by lunch time I could sit on the fence and keep an eye on Lou. Of course Lou didn’t need me to watch him, but it felt good to feel like I was wanted. I hadn’t felt that way in a long time. Even on Tuesday, once the entire crew was back from Tennessee, I still sat on the fence watching Lou do his job. Lou even took a few moments to stop and explain to me what he was doing and why he was doing it. On Wednesday he shocked me by calling me into the pen and putting the whip in my hand.
“Alright, mijo,” Lou stood behind me, “I want you to run him. Just keep him going in circles. Use the reach of the whip to tap on his haunches if he stops.”
“Why are we making him run?”
“He’s young and has way too much energy. He may be a big boy, but he’s still a kid, and like all kids, he won’t learn anything when he has too much energy. Didn’t you go out and play at recess when you were little?”
I shook my head as I touched the whip to the buckskin’s rear, “Not really. I mean we had recess, but I never played with anyone. I always kept to myself.”
“That’s not the way Allie told it.”
I scoffed, “Well you can’t believe everything she tells you.”
I wanted to say that you couldn’t believe ANYTHING she told you, but I had to remember this was her dad’s ranch and the people around here likely looked at her like their own daughter or little sister.
Lou was quiet for a bit as he seemed to consider something but didn’t continue with whatever he wanted to say. “Once we’ve run some of this energy out, I can start to work with him. You keep him running while I go get some tack for him.”
I nodded as Lou went back into the barn and returned with a saddle blanket and a few large sandbags. It was fascinating for me to watch Lou work. The process of breaking a horse was new to me. It was like I was reading a textbook; except I was watching it happen right before my eyes. I was so engrossed in what was happening I never heard Mr. Moon come up behind me.
“How’s it going, Lou?”
“Señor!” Lou stopped the buckskin from running and used the lead rope to pull him over to the fence, “He’s got a lot of spirit and more energy than I’ve seen in a long time. It takes me a little bit to get him run out before I can work with him, but once I do, he’s easy to work with. Should have him with a saddle by tomorrow and, with any luck, we can try him with a rider early next week. With him being so full of energy, I want to give him a few days of running with the saddle before we try an actual rider. No use in anyone getting hurt.”
“Good thinking. I’ll let Juan know how things are going. He’ll be expecting a call from me tonight anyway.” Peter then turned to look at me, “Thank you for helping out this week, Alex.” It was hard to read the man. He was so serious when he spoke to me that I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely thankful or if he was just paying lip service. “It’s almost 5:30. Your parents are probably wondering where you are. I’ll text them and let them know you’re on your way.”
I nodded and after thanking Lou, I headed home.
Thursday when I returned to school Allison marched right up to me before first period and began her rant,
“Are you stupid, Alex?”
“Leave me alone, Allison.”
“Why would you start a fight? With MARK of ALL PEOPLE?”
“What does it matter to you? He kicked my ass obviously.”
“It matters because he’s my boyfriend ... and you’re my...”
“Nothing. I’m your nothing. When are you going to just leave me alone?”
“Ugh! I’m so tired of you! You know what ... screw you!”