Copyright© 2021 by Mark Elias
The following day I wasn’t at school since I was technically suspended pending a hearing with the Brooks County School Board. That hearing was set to take place the following Tuesday morning. It was going to be interesting, to say the least. All my life I had grown up hearing about how horrible lawyers were, but on that Friday, while I was busy reading one of my textbooks so that I could stay caught up with what the class was doing, my dad’s lawyer showed up. He talked with us for several hours, even staying long enough for Allison to get out from school and meet with us. Eventually he stepped out to make a phone call. When he came back in is when I learned how awesome a good lawyer could be.
“Let me explain to you where we stand right now. First of all, your civil case against Mark Green, in my opinion, is nearly a slam dunk. We have physical evidence of his abuses and with the medical records from Alex’s emergency surgery; I doubt the civil case ever makes it to court. The criminal case is out of my hands. That is up to the DA. I am pushing for Mark to be tried as an adult considering the brutality of the crimes and that they have happened numerous times.” If a lawyer smiles you should fear him. I learned that firsthand that Friday, “I have a friend that sits on the Brooks County School Board. I have just got off the phone with him and have given him all of Alex’s information. I spoke to him about the incident yesterday. You can imagine how concerned he was when he heard that the school was blaming a recent victim, but I didn’t feel his concern was enough. That is until I pointed out how much bad publicity the school board would get when the media found out they were victim shaming Alex, instead of focusing on trying to protect him from the bullies that tried to kill him.”
“So they are dropping everything?” I didn’t think they could just drop it, but I had to ask.
“Not quite. The school board does have procedures they have to go through. You have officially been suspended and it is on your permanent record until we meet with them, but I have informed them of our intent to bring a civil suit against the principal and vice-principal as well as the Brooks County School Board for negligence. I can pretty much promise you that come Tuesday morning you will be back at school and everything regarding this incident will have been erased from your permanent record.”
“What about Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson,” My mom was asking now.
“As part of our being willing to drop the lawsuit we will demand the immediate resignation of both Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson. That, along with covering my attorney fees, should be enough to get everything taken care of.”
Tuesday morning at 10:00AM I found myself sitting in a large conference room. The entire five member board was seated with a recording device in front of them. Allison had been excused from school for the day to be with us both as a witness in case it was needed, but also for emotional support for me. Of course my parents were there, as was our lawyer. Dr. Clark was present though Mrs. Robertson had to stay behind to “keep an eye on the school.”
The most unexpected person in attendance was Jason Graves, one of my classmates. He was sitting along the wall, refusing to look at me.
The meeting began and went about like I would expect a hearing of this type to go. Dr. Clark was allowed to speak first and really went out of his way to make it seem like I was some sort of monster. He showed pictures of my locker, Bailey’s locker, and the “threat” that had been painted on the wall. He told of the fight I had gotten into with Mark when he bragged about having slept with Allison and used that to show me as having a “history of violence.” I was really shocked at how far he went to make me out to be an evil human being.
Then it was my lawyer’s turn. The board had been expecting me to talk for myself, or at the least my parents to talk for me. All but one of them were unprepared for the onslaught that my lawyer brought on them. He countered every argument that Dr. Clark made with one of his own. Each one he made showed a history of violence on behalf of The Trio, especially Mark.
“Dr. Clark,” One of the board members turned to him after my lawyer had laid them all to waste. “It’s my understanding you have a witness you’d like to bring forth?”
“Yes. This is Jason Graves, an eighth grade student at the school. He came forward to tell me how he personally had witnessed several of the events. He can attest to the truth of the matter.”
If Jason was going to say he saw something, I knew he had to be lying. The only thing he had witnessed was when I tried to stand up for Allison but got my ass handed to me.
“Jason,” The board member who had been leading the hearing began asking him questions. “It’s my understanding that you witnessed the alleged attack by Mr. Jackson on Mr. Green?” Jason only responded with a nod. “And it is also my understanding that you witnessed Alex Jackson allegedly painting a threat on the walls?”
Jason wasn’t looking at anyone, and instead was staring down at his feet.
“I’m going to need you to say something, Jason.”
Jason looked up to me and then to Allison, then finally over to the board members. “No, Sir.”
“Jason!” Dr. Clark seemed caught off guard but was silenced quickly by the board.
“Jason, please tell me exactly what you saw.”
“I did see the first, but it wasn’t like you think. That day Mark had been boasting about having sex with his girlfriend at the time. He said some really nasty things about her. Allison, his girlfriend, is Alex’s best friend. He was just trying to defend her honor.”
“That doesn’t excuse his actions.”
“No, Sir, but everyone knew that Mark had been bullying Alex since the third grade. We were just too afraid to say anything. We were afraid he would do something to us.”
“Tell me about this paint incident.”
“Son, you won’t get in trouble here. Just tell me what you saw.”
“That’s the thing. I didn’t see anything.”
“Then why was I told you had seen it? Dr. Clark said that you came forward as a witness.”
“Dr. Clark came to me. He said that since I had seen Alex’s fight that I needed to help protect the rest of the school and say that I saw Alex paint the threat. He said that if I didn’t do that he’d make sure I didn’t pass the eighth grade.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Dr. Clark! Sit down!” The board members looked at each other before continuing.
“Thank you, Jason. We appreciate you telling us the truth. We are going to take a fifteen minute break to talk about this and we will be back.”
When they returned, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The board looked to my lawyer and began, “Mr. Smith, for the record, since you are representing Alex Jackson in this matter, can you please explain to us why you are here?”
“Of course. As I said earlier today. There has been a systemic case of negligence on behalf of the faculty to protect Alex. Now, just three short weeks after he tried to take his own life because of the constant bullying. And after he had to have emergency lifesaving surgery to repair internal bleeding as a result of the extortion and beating he received while on school grounds, he has been victim shamed and falsely accused of something he didn’t do. We have a witness that was with Alex the entire day and has been with him as much as possible since his return to school, but the school refused to listen to her. In fact, Mrs. Robertson told her to go away when she tried to come forward. Now we learn that Dr. Clark, in an effort to hide his failure to protect Alex, tried to force another student to lie and cover it up.”
“And what exactly are you asking?”
“We are willing to drop the civil suit that has been filed against the board, Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson if Alex’s permanent record is completely cleared. We also require the immediate firing or resignation of both Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson, and for the board to cover all legal costs in the matter. These are non-negotiable terms.”
Dr. Clark had to be furious when it was a unanimous decision to accept the terms.
“Dr. Clark as a token of our respect we will allow you to resign. If we have not received your resignation by the end of day tomorrow, we will move forward. We will contact Mrs. Robertson and offer her the same option.”
“Alex! Wait up.” In the hallway Jason was standing by someone I assumed was his mom. I didn’t want to talk to him, but he came over to me. Allison put a hand on my shoulder and my dad put his hand on the other. “You have no reason to forgive me, but I wanted to tell you that I’m really sorry. Mark scared all of us, and instead of standing up for you and maybe stopping it. We let you take it all. Being afraid is no excuse for not doing the right thing. I had no idea that you had been pushed as far as you were. When I heard what happened ... I had nightmares. It was like I was...” He was having a hard time talking about it. And I could see he was being sincere. “Anyway, like I said you have no reason to forgive me, and I shouldn’t even be asking it of you, but I wanted you to know that I really am sorry. When Dr. Clark tried to make me lie about what I saw, I felt like I was doing it to you all over again. I couldn’t do it. No matter what he threatened me with.”
“It’s okay.” It was everything I could do just to get those two words out. I felt my dad squeeze my shoulder a bit.
“Jason,” my dad’s deep voice seemed to sooth not just me, but Jason, too. “It takes a big man to stand up for other people. And it takes an even bigger man to stand up and admit that he was wrong. Thank you for doing the right thing, today.”
Jason nodded to my dad before looking at me, “Anyway. I just wanted to tell you that. And to tell you that, well, if anyone gives you shit...” He looked apologetically at my parents, “ ... crap at school. I got your back. I’ll see you at school.” He didn’t wait for anyone to say anything else. Instead he turned and was heading out the door in front of his mom.
Wednesday morning I expected school to be awkward, but surprisingly it wasn’t. I wasn’t sure who to thank for that, or if it was just happenstance. Allison and I sat by ourselves outside for lunch, not taking a chance at being stared at. The two of us weren’t quite where we used to be in terms of our relationship, but we were lightyears away from where he had been just two months ago. There were still things that I was holding back from her. Not because I didn’t trust her. Allison had proven over the last few weeks that I could trust her with my life. I held back more because I wasn’t quite ready to give myself fully to a friendship, even to a best friend. And that’s truly what Allison and I were building. A friendship. This is the part of most stories where I am supposed to tell you that Allison and I started flirting with each other, or that Allison came to me professing some deep down love for me, but that just didn’t happen.
I can’t speak for Allison because I don’t know what she was thinking. I can only tell you that, at the time, I didn’t look at Allison in any romantic way. We laughed with each other, joked with each other, and probably shared more than one inappropriate joke, but there wasn’t a heavy flirtation. I just wasn’t in a position, mentally, to be romantic with anyone, much less someone I had grown up with all my life. That’s not to say Allison wasn’t strikingly beautiful. She was then, and would always be to me, the most beautiful person I think I had ever seen. She could have easily been a model if she had wanted to, but to mar her face with all the makeup and face paint that they lather onto models, would have been to cover up a work of art. She was the type of beautiful that, as we say in the south, you ‘bring home to momma.’ She didn’t have to wear thick makeup, but you would notice the bright green diamond eyes. When she spoke you couldn’t help but notice her thin upper lip and that her bottom lip was a little plump. When she smiled you couldn’t help but see the naturally rosy cheeks and round face. She didn’t have to speak but you would hear her. You heard her smile and felt her laugh. That’s just the way she was. You didn’t have to be in love with her to love her. She made you love her just because she was a force of nature that you couldn’t control. Like the wind, she was quiet and gentle, but uncontrollable.
Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson did indeed put in their resignation that would be effective by the end of the week. I had expected one of them to give me a stare or be mean, but both seemed to avoid me. I think, in large part, due to the advice of the school board not to cause any more issues. They were allowed to stay until the end of the week in order to facilitate the transition to the interim principal and vice principal. The district superintendent would be staying at school every day for the remainder of the year to help as well. As soon as word began to spread of the impending resignations, rumors began to fly. Of course the biggest rumor was that the two had been having some sort of secret love affair and had been caught by a student having sex in an office. The mere THOUGHT of that was enough to send shivers up my spine and make me want to throw up everything I had ever eaten.
Eventually someone got the bright idea to ask me what happened. Allison and I were sitting inside the lunchroom this particular day, because it was just too hot outside to eat comfortably. Oh the joys of growing up in the deep south. Jason was the first to come to the table and looked at us hesitantly.
“Hey, guys.” He shuffled his feet from side to side, trying to find the words to say. Eventually Allison rescued him and a gentle laugh.
“Sit down, Jason. It’s fine.” Allison’s presence calmed me otherwise I may have been freaking out. Not only was I about to eat lunch with someone new, but it was someone who had, in some small way, played a part in all my troubles.
“Listen. I won’t stay if you don’t want me to, but I needed to ask you something.” He looked from Allison to me. “What are you telling people about Dr. Clark and Mrs. Robertson? I’ve had a ton of people coming up to me asking me what happened at the board meeting. People I didn’t even know KNEW about me being there. I didn’t tell a lot of people I was going because I was scared. Now I don’t know what to say.”
Allison was the first to speak up, giving me a reprieve from having to show any sign of social strength. “Well, Alex’s attorney explained to both of us that it would be best if we didn’t say anything. Legally, Alex can’t really say anything about it because of the agreement he has with the school board to drop his lawsuit. You and me are not bound by that; but, as he put it, it would be in our best interest not to say anything. It’s a sign of ‘good faith’ to the school board that we aren’t looking to cause problems. He suggested to be honest and say that we aren’t allowed to talk about it. It’s gonna be difficult to get some people to back off, but eventually they will stop because something new will come along and distract them.”
He nodded as he pushed the spaghetti around on his lunch tray. “That makes sense. I can avoid the topic most of the time. It’s at lunch when everyone starts asking.” He paused a moment, clearly wanting to ask something but not sure how to go about it. “Hey ... if you guys don’t mind, I mean at least until this whole thing blows over, could I maybe sit here with you guys? Most of my friends have the second lunch period anyway, so the people I sit with, I’m not really close with.”
“That’s really gotta be up to Alex.”
Well there it was. The pressure to actually make a decision. I know that at some point, I’m going to have to start to make new friends. I couldn’t be a loner my entire life. Was this the day that I wanted to start doing that? On the one hand Jason had watched me get abused and extorted, but never spoke a word about it. He was silent, and in some part of my mind, just as guilty as Mark. However, on the other hand, Jason had come out in support of me at the school board meeting, and based on some of the looks I had been given by some of the people I knew he played baseball with, I had a feeling that Jason had been putting the word out that I wasn’t to be messed with. I couldn’t be sure, but it made sense in my head.
“Yeah. That’s fine.” The words came before I fully thought about them. A quiet, yet rather strong indication, that perhaps it was time I became something more.
Sure enough, two weeks later all the attention that we were getting over the incident was gone, because Shannon Phillips, one of the cheerleaders, broke up with her boyfriend Michael George, because he was cheating on her. Seems she walked in on Michael making out with another girl at the school dance. Even after the attention died down, I found that Jason was still sitting with us at our table. I was becoming more comfortable with him.
The last day of school was fairly useless. Most of us were having parties in class and generally goofing off. Jason, who had been in my last period Georgia History class, was talking with me as we counted down the last few minutes until we were free for the summer. When Allison met me outside the school to wait for her mom to pick us both up, Jason was standing around waiting as well. I think I shocked everyone, myself included, when I finally spoke up.
He looked at me, “What’s up?”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Not sure. My mom mentioned going somewhere to get something to eat, but we haven’t made plans.”
“Allison and her family are coming over and we’re going to grill out. Why don’t you guys come over and eat with us?”
“Oh ... um ... you sure?”
Thankfully, Allison stepped up because it was about that point where I realized what I had done. I had put myself out there without even realizing it.
“Yeah! That’s a great idea! My dad is bringing the steaks, but we alw
ays have more than enough. It’s nothing huge. Just steaks and baked potatoes. Then our parents sit around talking until they’ve run through at least one bottle of wine.”
Summer started like any other summer. I was really excited about working at the ranch again this year. Even though I didn’t thoroughly enjoy cleaning horse shit up every day, there were some things I really did enjoy. I had never paid much attention to horses while I was growing up. Yes, my dad specialized in their veterinary care, but that didn’t mean he passed his love of them along to me. My dad never really talked a lot about his job until he started working for Peter Moon. Over the years the biggest exposure to horses I had ever really had was reading about them in some of the books I read. I knew about Shadowfax from reading The Lord of the Rings. I knew about Tug from reading The Ranger’s Apprentice, but I never really dealt with them personally. Last summer, and even this past year when I got to spend three days with Lou, I had been closer to these magnificent beasts than I ever had, and I was quickly becoming infatuated with them.
I was starting to read more books about the various horse breeds and what they were good for. On YouTube I found myself searching for videos of training horses. I didn’t think I would get the chance to actually do it, but it was just a topic I found fascinating. So when summer started, I quickly fell into a routine. I was at work by 7:30AM so that I could start cleaning out whatever stalls needed it that day. Every other day I would also need to clean out one of the paddocks. I was generally done with that sometime before lunch. After lunch I started doing whatever else was needed that day. I didn’t get to laze around and stare at horses, even if I wanted to. I was putting in a lot of hours of hard work.
The first week we were there I found myself going around the farm with Martin, a thirty-something young man who had been with Peter for several years. He didn’t work with the horses so much, though he did have experience with them. Instead Martin was more the designated farmhand. As soon as I was finished with lunch the first day Martin called for me to come with him. He tossed me the keys to the Polaris UTV and started giving me my first lessons on driving it. It wasn’t difficult to drive one, any eight year old can do it, but he wanted to make sure I was okay before he started letting me do it on my own. He gave me directions to head out to one of the farthest pastures we had.
“Alex, one thing that Mr. Moon wanted me to start working with you on, is helping with some of the hand work around the farm. We are looking at expanding within the next year or two and if we do that means I’m going to need some help around here. I won’t be able to keep up with everything by myself. So today we are going to work on checking the fences to make sure that they are all okay. I try to ride a different fence every day to make sure that they are all in good shape. All it takes is one day for a horse or some other animal to find the weakness in a fence and then they can all get out. We have to be proactive about it and not reactive. If you are reacting to something, you are already too late and could potentially have problems. That may not be how everyone thinks of it, but that’s always been my philosophy.”
The process of checking for damage to the fences wasn’t hard, nor was the actual process of fixing the fence. We typically had three types of fences. We did have some wooden fencing that was built out of sturdy weather treated boards, all of them stained a dark mahogany color. These fences were mostly along the perimeter of the farm and done primarily for looks, though we had several round pens and arenas that were made like this. We also had regular wire fences. These were made with posts dug every so often with 4 rows of wire stretched from each one. These were also the easiest to correct. We had these around most of the farm just because they were cheap and worked well to keep the horses and other livestock in the pens. We also had some barbed wire fencing that we used along the edges of the woods. This we used mostly to keep predators out of the fields.
The second week of summer I got a new co-worker. Mr. Moon hadn’t been joking when he said he was expanding and wanting to hire new people. Getting more horses meant we would have more stalls and paddocks to clean out. It also meant other work around the farm was going to pick up. My first new co-worker was Hector Rivera, the fifteen year old nephew of Lou. A week later a second new hire came along in the way of Samantha Fox. Samantha had just turned 16 in May and would be a sophomore at Judson High School this fall, the same high school I would be attending.
When Mr. Moon had come to me and asked me about working for him again this summer, he made mention of hiring new people, and made it seem like he would need me to teach them something. It was implied that I would be “in charge” somehow, or maybe that was how my terrified mind interpreted it. I was relieved that the notion of my being “in charge” of anything was absurd. Being Lou’s nephew Hector had worked around farms and ranches his whole life. He wasn’t really interested in the horses, but he did enjoy the physical work.
Samantha had been riding competitively since she was ten years old and was more than familiar with the care of the horses. The only thing I really had to show them was where things were. Still, to Mr. Moon’s credit, he did treat me as if I were “in charge” and often came to me before he came to the others. Hector and I had been working together for almost three days before I actually spoke anything to him. It wasn’t the greatest way of making new friends either, at least on Hector’s part.
“So do you talk at all or are you some sort of mute? Or maybe you’re just dumb?” Hector was clearly trying to get a rise out of me and immediately my eyes narrowed at him.
“Oh so you do talk!”
“Yeah, I’m not stupid. I just don’t like to talk to assholes.”
Hector started to laugh, “Hey, chill out, dude. I’m just messing with you. My uncle Lou told me about you. Said you were quiet or something. I didn’t know he meant almost silent.”
“Yeah well, I don’t like having conversations with smartasses who think it’s okay to insult someone as a joke.”
“Relax, yo. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come at you like that. That’s just how I am. I say things just to get a rise out of people. I ain’t meanin’ nothing by it.”
I was quiet again, going back to packing the black slow feed bags with hay. The bags were black mesh netting that had large enough holes in them for the hay to fall through. It allowed the horses we kept in stalls to eat when they wanted to without having to eat the same hay they were shitting in. We could hang them over the stall door and refill them when necessary.
“Alex!” Lou called to me just as I placed the last of the feed bags over the straw. “Come here, I need your help with something. Bring a training whip.”
I didn’t even give Hector a second glance as I walked over to one of the round pens. When I arrived at the pen I saw Lou bringing in one of the newest arrivals to the farm. His owner called him Blayze. He was a three year old paint. Lou could tell I wasn’t in the greatest mood.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.”
He chuckled, “Let me guess, Hector?”
I didn’t respond and instead looked to the horse in the pen. He was mostly black with an interesting white pattern that went up his sides. I could immediately see why his owner called him Blayze. “So what are you doing with this guy?”
“I’ve been gentling him. I’ve got him wearing a pad and he’s getting okay with a saddle. What I want to do is put some weight on his back, but I don’t want to fully ride him just yet. I’m going to get him saddled and then I’m going to lay across his back over the saddle. Once I’m laying across his back I want you to take his lead rope and use the training stick to get him to go around the pen.” Lou spoke as he was cinching up the saddle. “I usually do this myself, but I spoke with Mr. Moon and he wants to see how well you do with handling the horses.”
I had been getting riding lessons since last year. Part of the deal of working at the ranch was being able to ride. All last summer I was spending at least an hour of my day getting a lesson on riding. It started with being able to saddle the horse and moved to running and even jumping. Perhaps it was due to my sudden intense interest in horses, but I did rather well.
“Mr. Moon and I were both pleased with how well you took to riding last summer. It seems you’ve really got an interest in the horses. I’ve seen how you interact with them when they are in the stalls, and I’ve seen how they are around you. You’re gentle with them and they respect that.” He finished with the saddle and took the horse to the edge of the round pen, placing it so that the horse had a fence on one side and Lou on the other. “We both want to see if you have an interest in learning to train the horses.”
He laughed, a bit surprised at how quickly I was showing interest and how enthusiastic I seemed to be.
“Well it won’t be something that happens overnight. I know you’ve been reading a lot and watching videos, but watching a video and doing it yourself are two completely different things. It’s going to take time so don’t expect to pick it up overnight.”
“Okay. Now take the lead rope and go into the center of the pen. Keep him at a slow pace for now. Don’t worry about me being on his back. This exercise is more for you than it is for him. Blayze is a really gentle horse and he picks up on things, quickly.”
For the next hour we worked with Blayze on a variety of things, all the while Lou was explaining to me everything he was doing and why. I was just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as I could. When we were finished I was brushing down Blayze and was going to release him back in with the others when Hector came back to me.