> 1 <
Ren was back in his dad’s house—well, his house now; he needed to start thinking that way. It wasn’t that hard. He realized that mentally he was already moving on, not forgetting Jackson and his life there but looking forward rather than back. And he realized he was feeling no regrets.
He’d had a big morning, meeting several kids including Andy, getting a tour of the ranch’s compound where everyone lived. Visiting the stable. Seeing Hec...
It bothered him some, the strong reaction he’d had to the boy. In the past he’d found that some cute boys caught his eye, and some didn’t do anything for him. He’d certainly noticed all of them. The ones who most caught his interest were generally large for their age, muscular, strong-looking and -acting, handsome more than cute, and exuded an air of confidence—like Hec. Even seen just passing, he had an air about him that Ren could feel. The way he sat his horse, the way the other boys rode slightly behind him, not directly next to him, the tilt of his head, the look in his eyes—they all showed Ren that Hec was a boy in command of himself and those around him. And to Ren, he was as sexy as any boy he’d ever seen. Just the sight of him caused Ren’s heart to beat a little faster and unbidden thoughts to enter his head.
Since being whipped and sent off to live in Texas, Ren hadn’t thought much about other boys in any sexual context. But seeing Hec had sure changed that.
Ren had waited awhile outside the stable, but the three boys hadn’t come out. Eventually, he realized how he would look if anyone saw him, just standing there staring into the stable, and, feeling embarrassed, he walked back to his house. JJ was still in the front yard, alone this time. He was still playing with his jackknife, practicing peculiar throws with it, sometimes having the blade stick in the ground, sometimes not. Ren stopped to watch.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked.
JJ looked up. His very black hair was cut short, and his smile was friendly. “Practicing. You know how to play mumblety-peg, don’t you?”
Ren frowned and shook his head. “I’ve never even heard of it.”
“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but why would that have anything to do with it?”
JJ stood up from where he’d been squatting in the grass. He walked over to where Ren was standing. “I guess there’s a lot more to do in the city. Here, unless a bunch of us are doing something together, we have to find something to do. My dad says there are a lot of things kids used to do before they had TV and video games and cell phones with texting and all that. He doesn’t like us spending all our time inside with that stuff. He taught me and Gus this game. It’s fun. I can show you how it’s played.”
Ren almost said no, then reconsidered. Making friends with these kids, even ones younger than he was, might be the smart thing to do. He guessed JJ was younger; he looked like he was 12, and a young 12 at that, while he himself was only a few months from turning 14. Playing with younger kids wasn’t looked upon with favor back in Jackson. There, looking cool in front of the other kids was what counted. Doing anything at all with a kid who was obviously younger than he was would have been a cause for derision. Here, looking cool might not be so important. Maybe being more sociable—being friendly, fitting in—would be more the way to go.
So Ren went into the Mendozas’ yard, sat down on the grass, and JJ showed him how to play. He also whipped Ren’s butt because Ren never had been much good at activities that took good hand-eye coordination. But Ren could see JJ loved the game and loved winning, and when Ren had walked home a half hour later, he’d made a good friend. JJ didn’t seem nearly as young when Ren left as he had when they’d first met. The kid was bright and funny and Ren had quickly forgotten the age difference. It wouldn’t be the last time Ren would learn that he shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…or age!
Ren wasn’t sure his dad would be back for lunch, so wasn’t sure what to do about that. Finally, he decided that making breakfast and dinner for them both was probably enough, and his dad most likely had an ever-changing schedule that meant he never really knew what would happen with lunch. Ren made himself two sandwiches, found a bag of potato chips, poured a glass of milk and was eating at the table when Cal walked in.
“Ah! Glad you made lunch for yourself. Don’t wait for me. Same goes for dinner, really. You can plan it for six o’clock each night, but I won’t always be here. That’s fine. I’ll warm it back up when I come. On a ranch, you never know where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing.”
Ren grinned. “I sort of figured that out.”
Cal looked at what Ren was eating, then pulled out the fixings to make the same for himself. As he was building his sandwich, he said, “And you won’t have to cook tomorrow night. Mrs. Hanson invited us for dinner. She wants to meet you.”
“OK,” Ren said before taking another bite. The bite allowed him to think, and what he thought about was going to that big house for dinner tomorrow. The Hansons’ house.
Ren spent the rest of the day wandering around the ranch compound by himself; Andy was nowhere to be found. Ren was surprised he didn’t see any other kids, either, but decided they probably had things they did and were either off doing them, or they were involved with inside activities.
He looked in the buildings but he’d already done that with Andy, and there wasn’t anything new to see. In the end, he went back home and looked at the books his dad had on his shelves and picked one that looked good: Burning Chrome by William Gibson. He found it so good that he didn’t notice the time and was startled when his dad walked in, sniffing about the room for dinner.
> 2 <
Andy brought Cal’s and Ren’s breakfast the next morning. Ren realized he and Cal hadn’t decided if Ren would cook breakfast or not. One thing he did know: the food that came from the Rivera house smelled better than anything he’d ever cooked.
The problem was, Andy brought it over while Ren was still in bed. Ren was up, as usual in the morning, but still not out of bed. At least he didn’t think there were two girls in the house this time; he didn’t hear anyone. He was just thinking of getting up when there was a knock on his door, and then it opened. Standing there in the doorway was Andy.
Ren immediately felt the same embarrassment he’d felt the day before. What was it with the Rivera kids seeing him with a hard-on? It almost seemed like fate. At least this time he had a sheet over him. His condition was still obvious, however, and Ren quickly raised one knee under the sheet to hide his state.
“Hey, Ren. Your dad told me to come wake you up. Breakfast’s here.”
Ren saw where Andy was looking and realized he hadn’t raised his knee nearly soon enough. He blushed.
Andy grinned. “That’s no big deal. Happens to me, too. Every morning. And I’ve got two sisters. Lavina’s too small, but Lu and my brother Luke give me a hard time if they see me, and we’ve only got one bathroom. Sometimes, I’ve just got to go, no matter who’s in there. Even though it’s happened a few times, even though they’ve both seen it, it’s still embarrassing every time.”
Ren didn’t know what to say, so remained quiet. And blushing.
“Are you going to get up?” Andy asked. “I thought I could show you around some more today, introduce you to some other kids.”
Ren wanted to ask him why he’d walked off like he had yesterday. Today, Andy seemed as friendly as he had when he’d first met him yesterday—well, after that stunt with pretending not to understand English. But what Ren wanted to do first was get up, and he wanted Andy to leave so he could. He didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Andy the same way Andy was in front of his siblings.
“OK, I’ll get up,” he finally said. “Uh, could you leave so I can have some privacy here?” He could feel he was still blushing and wished he could stop.
Andy laughed. “OK, but as I said, it’s no big deal. Around the ranch, we see
each other naked all the time, and sometime guys get, well, like you are. You’ll
see. But you’re not used to us yet, not used to how things are here, and maybe you’re the
modest type. Nothing wrong with that. I’ll be in the kitchen.” He gave Ren a
devilish grin, quite obviously moving his gaze back down to the middle of Ren’s body, then
laughed before turning and leaving, his dark eyes flashing. Ren could hear him laughing
all the way into the kitchen.
When he’d gone, Ren quickly got out of bed, and using his hand to cover himself just in case, made it to the bathroom unobserved. He took a very quick shower, then dressed and joined Andy and his dad at the kitchen table. Cal was almost done eating.
“Ah, there you are. I’m just about on my way out. Don’t forget dinner tonight with the Hansons. I’ll be home by six o’clock.” Cal put his dishes next to the sink, hesitated, then walked to where Ren was sitting and kissed him on the top of his head. Then, grabbing his cowboy hat and slapping it on his head, he was gone.
Ren sat still, stunned, and entirely unsure how to react. Before leaving Mississippi he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been kissed by an adult. The though of what had just happened echoed around in his head, and for a moment he felt lost.
Andy was watching and was puzzled at Ren’s reaction. “What?” he asked.
“I… I can’t remember… That’s never happened…” His voice trailed off as he was focusing on the past. And then Ren came back to where he was and to whom he was talking. He looked up at Andy, and Andy, who almost always wore a grin—a nonstop, eye-twinkling grin—now had a slightly wrinkled forehead. But those eyes were what Ren mostly noticed right then. They showed what? Sympathy? Compassion? Ren wasn’t sure, but the look in them surprised him.
Ren dropped his own eyes. They felt like they might be moistening a bit—the emotions he’d felt when his dad had kissed him had hit him hard—and tearing up in front of Andy would be as embarrassing as what Andy had already seen in Ren’s bedroom.
The pause stretched out, and then Andy said in a much softer voice than he usually used,
“Can you tell me about it?”
Ren had a decision to make. He really didn’t know Andy. He didn’t know whether he’d be a real friend or just another kid here. He didn’t know whether, if he told him things, they’d be spread all over the ranch before lunchtime. Or whether they wouldn't.
But he did feel a real need for a friend, and he did like Andy’s cheerfulness. He did like the way the boy was acting now. Like maybe he was a boy who had more inside him than wanting to have fun. Someone with some depth of character; someone he could talk to, even.
“Do you really want to know?” Ren asked. “And can I trust you to just keep what I tell
you to yourself? It isn’t very nice, and… and…” He faltered, not sure where he
wanted to go.
Andy didn’t answer immediately. What he did do was think for a moment, then stand up and move from where he was sitting across the table from Ren to the chair right next to him. He sat there, then looked directly into Ren’s eyes. “I know how to keep things private,” he said softly.
Ren took a deep breath. “There are lots of bad things about me. My mother doesn’t like me. She wanted me to go live with my dad, who I didn’t even remember, rather than live with her any longer. What kind of person is so bad that even his mother can’t love him? I have to deal with knowing that. But just look at me. I’m small and can’t do much. I can’t fight. I can’t do much of anything, really. I can’t ride a horse like everyone here can.” He dropped his head, losing eye contact, and paused, trying to think of other things to say, other things that were wrong with him. One came to mind quickly, and he added it to the list. “I can’t speak Spanish, either, and I guess most of you kids speak it and English. I only speak one language.” He stopped then. The one thing he wasn’t going to mention was that he was gay. That was only for him and his dad to know.
Then he thought of something else. “I guess you saw how I reacted when Dad kissed the top of my head. That’s the second time he’s done that and I’ve only just met him. No one’s done that before in my whole life that I can remember. It was just a shock to me. It… it felt like he was saying he loved me, and no one loves me. I’m really not worth that.”
Andy was silent, waiting, and when Ren finally raised his eyes, Andy locked onto them and said, “You shouldn’t say that. It’s not true. Look, we’ll have you riding in no time, and you can easily learn the other things we do.” He paused, thinking, then asked, “How about school? How do you do there?”
Ren couldn’t help himself. Andy’s eyes were alive again, sparkling, and he sounded so sure of himself that Ren was forced to smile. “I guess I do all right there,” he admitted. “Didn’t make many friends, though. Couldn’t bring anyone to my house. And I had to go right home afterwards to do all my chores.”
Andy was looking steadily at him, and it gave Ren some courage. Even though he hadn’t been going to say what he said next, there was something about Andy that made him want to spill his anxieties.
Ren cleared his throat, which was feeling husky. “I was really scared coming here. I didn’t know my dad. I didn’t know if he wanted me. I didn’t know if he’d like me. I didn’t know how I’d fit in here. I’m not a ranch kid. I’ve never been out of the city before. I didn’t think I’d fit in at all, and if I didn’t, well, I’d be stuck here, and…”
Andy heard the uncertainty in Ren’s voice but seemed to dismiss it as if it didn’t matter. That had been Ren’s life before the ranch, and he was here now. Instead of Ren’s fears, Andy focused on what had been said before. “But see, you do have things going for you. A lot of the kids here struggle with school, and you do well. You’ll be able to help them. And you’ll have lots of friends. You will! And learning to ride? We all had to. You’ll do fine. Nobody will laugh at you because we all remember not knowing how and having to learn. Now, let’s get these dishes washed and taken back, and then we’ll go meet some kids. And Ren?”
Andy waited till Ren raised his eyes. “You don’t need to be scared here.”
> 3 <
Andy helped with the dishes, and he talked about the ranch while doing so, and by the time they were done, Ren was feeling a whole lot better. He’d even forgotten all about Andy’s abrupt disappearance the day before. They went outside into the hot Texas sun. Ren took a look at the cowboy hat Andy had taken off when he’d come in that morning but now donned as soon as they walked through the door.
Andy saw him looking. “Keeps the sun out of your eyes, but mostly I wear it ’cause it shows everyone how cool a dude I am.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Ren, then laughed.
“Cool dude, huh? You have to be as hot as I am. What is it here, 100 degrees?”
Andy shrugged. “Naw. Probably 90. You get used to it. At least we Mexican kids do.”
Ren was surprised by that. He knew Andy was Mexican; he spoke Spanish and had slightly darker skin than Ren did, so Ren felt he had to be of Mexican extraction. But Andy didn’t look like most of the Mexican kids he’d known in Jackson or even like JJ or José whom he’d met the day before.
“What?” Andy asked, having stopped to wait while Ren was staring at him.
“Uh…” Ren blushed. Would it offend Andy if he asked? Then he remembered what Andy had just told him: he didn’t need to be scared. And he wanted to be friends with Andy, which meant just saying what was on his mind; friends could talk about anything. So, he took a breath and asked.
“Are you Mexican? I thought you were born here? And if I can say this without hurting your feelings, you don’t look much like other Mexican boys I’ve known.”
Andy started walking again, and Ren stayed by his side. The lopsided grin that Andy perpetually wore got broader. “I’m American, but I have a Mexican father. My mom’s American, so I’m like that coffee creamer—half and half. But Mexicans look all sorts of ways. Some are very dark with lots of Indian blood in them; some are as white as you are. The reason I look more American than some of the boys here, though, is my mother, I guess, and because my father is rather light. I think I look OK. Looking a little different doesn’t bother me. Couldn’t change it even if it did.”
“No, I didn’t mean you looked bad. I like the… uh… you look fine.” Ren blushed, and Andy laughed.
“Can’t say I look cute, huh? Or that I’m handsome. That’s OK. I know I’m beautiful. I’m a real stud. If I were any cuter, the girls wouldn’t leave me alone, though, so I’m happy as I am.”
“You don’t like girls?”
Andy laughed again. “They’re OK as friends. But when the boys get old enough to be fooling around with the girls, that’s all they think about—girls—and the girls are always hanging around them, too. I’d rather just have fun like I do now. Some of the boys our age are starting to talk about the girls—you know, that way. I’m not into that stuff yet. Are you?”
That stopped Ren in his tracks, and then he had to take a quick step to stay with Andy, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “I haven’t really known that many girls,” he said, knowing it wasn’t true—he’d known lots of girls at school—and that he wasn’t answering the question, but hoped it was enough for Andy. He was pleased when Andy accepted the answer without further comment.
They stopped first at the Mendoza house. Ren had already met JJ but hadn’t met either of his parents. Nor had he met Gus, JJ’s older brother who was 15. He was in the living room, reading a book. His mother came into the room and welcomed Ren. She was short and plump, and her face was exactly the same shape as Gus’s and JJ’s. She had a friendly smile and welcomed him to the ranch. She also told him if he ever needed someone to talk to other than boys—a word she used with joking disdain and rolling her eyes—she’d be there for him.
Her genuine warmth affected Ren. It reminded him not of his mother but of Bobby’s mother before she’d thrown him out of her house naked for doing things Bobby had wanted to do as much as he had. He missed her more than he missed his own mother.
Gus got up and welcomed Ren, too. Ren decided it was going to be easy to like the Mendozas. He was impressed that a boy of 15 was sitting inside in the summer reading instead of being out with his friends. He’d done a lot of that himself and wondered about Gus; he realized all the kids he met would have their own ways, and he had a lot to learn.
When they left, Andy told him there were four other Mendoza kids he still hadn’t met: Abby, Gus’s twin; Ed, another Eduardo but nicknamed Ed instead of Gordo like the Vargas boy; and two younger girls, Nita and Katy.
“Aarrgh!” Ren moaned.
Andy laughed. “You’ll have them all learned in no time. You’ll see. Some you’ll get to like. Some will just be kids whose names you know. Just like anywhere.”
The Gonzales house was next, and there they found José and Izzy cleaning the front room while a boy who looked to be about Ren’s age ‘supervised’; neither parent was there. Izzy, wearing an old pair of jeans and a stained tee shirt, took one look at Ren, blushed and stopped dusting. She quickly left the room. Andy introduced the boy Ren hadn’t met yet to him.
“Ren, this is Rocky. He’s 13, like us. He’s a good guy, but a terrible athlete.”
“Better’n you are,” Rocky scoffed, then bumped fists with Ren, smiling. He was a little taller and skinnier than Ren, with dark, shiny, black hair cut short, medium-brown skin that seemed to glow, and bright, laughing eyes. He looked like someone who made friends easily.
“Heard about you. In fact, haven’t heard my sister talk about anything else. You don’t look all that cute to me.” He grinned when he said it and said it loud enough to be heard throughout the house. From the other room Ren heard, “Shut up, Rocky. You’re so dead.”
Two other kids came into the room then, one from inside and the other through the front door. The one from the kitchen was introduced as Linda, the oldest girl in the family, the one from outside as Ray, the oldest boy. He just nodded as Andy told Ren his name and walked through the room into another part of the house without a second glance at Ren.
“He’s like that,” Andy said. “Ignore him.”
When Andy and Ren left, they heard Izzy still yelling at Rocky. To Ren, it had the sound of a quarrel that was pretty constant in that house.
They walked next door to the Vargas house. On the way, Andy told Ren there were seven kids there, three girls—Deloris, Ana and Dina—and four boys—Gordo, Del, Bobby and Tito. “Tito’s the youngest kid on the ranch. He’s only one and a half. Liddy Aguilar looks after him when his mother is busy. Liddy is best friends with Deloris Vargas. Both of them are 16.”
They knocked on the door, but no one answered. Ren wondered where people could go, as the ranch was so isolated, and Andy told him the adult women were all friends and visited each other, and the kids did, too, and also did things together. They could go swimming at one of the ponds near the ranch, or get up games of soccer or kickball. Other things, too. It wasn’t surprising that no one would be at home at several of the houses.
The Rivera house was next, and Ren had already been there, taking their dishes back. But Andy took him in anyway and formally introduced him to his siblings: Lu, Lavina and Luke. Ren figured Andy’s parents must have liked names beginning with L.
That left only one more house in the row. It was where the Aguilar family lived. Andy had some advice for Ren before going there. “There are two girls, Liddy and Lupe, and three boys, Paul, Ozzy and Ernie. Ernie’s our age, and he’s fine. But Paul, the oldest—his real name is Pablo like his father—is a piece of work. I should let you form your own opinion, but I try to steer clear of him. He’s friends with Ray Gonzales, who you just met.”
Ren didn’t have a chance to find out about Paul because he wasn’t home. The other kids
were, and after meeting them, he decided there was no way he’d remember everyone’s names.
There were just too many. He’d remember Ernie because the boy was his age. He was
somewhat plump and looked softer, less athletic than most of the boys he’d seen here. The
Aguilar kids were lighter-skinned than any of the other families, and Ernie was the lightest;
he seemed to have no tan at all. Perhaps, thought Ren, he was one of those who spent most
of his time with video games.
“There’s one more kid you haven’t seen yet,” Andy said, when they’d left the Aguilars.
“Really? There aren’t any more houses.”
Andy laughed as they walked together toward the stable. “Yeah, there is one. It’s just sort of hidden behind the stable, next to the barn. It’s where the vet lives. His name is Frank Masters. His grandson lives with him. His name is Ryan Masters Tipton. I’m going to introduce you to him, but I need to tell you something first. He’s slow. I guess it had to do with when he was being born; he didn’t get enough oxygen. He hangs around his house most of the time. He really doesn’t have any friends here other than me. I try to get him to come out more, but he won’t do it. He seems afraid to go past the stable. I go over and talk to him, play easy games with him. I told him you were coming to live here.”
Ren nodded. They walked through the stable and out the back. There was a large barn behind the stable, and beside it, a small one-story house. Andy walked up to the front and knocked, and a small fair-haired boy opened the door and smiled at Andy. He was good-looking, but Ren saw there was something in his face that showed something was off. It was barely noticeable, but it was there.
Andy introduced them, and Ren could see Ryan was eager to have them come in, although when they did, he saw Ryan stay close to Andy and seem to keep Andy between the two of them.
The house was small but comfortable. Ryan asked Andy if they could play Candyland, and so, for an hour, the three of them played that and two other games. Ryan was childlike, eager to please, and after a while, appeared quite happy to have Ren there.
When they’d left and were walking back through the stable, Ren asked Andy how old Ryan was.
“How old do you think he is?” Andy answered.
“He looks about our age, but acts more like he’s 7 or 8.”
Andy nodded. “He’s actually a year older than we are. I feel so bad for him.”
> 4 <
Andy said he had to go back home for lunch. Ren walked back to the stable, not having anything else to do, and visited with Midnight, giving her a few of the carrots that were always available from the bag leaning up against one of the stalls. After that, he figured he’d better go make lunch for his dad.
At home, he made sandwiches and laid them out with carrot and celery sticks and some apple slices. Cal was nowhere to be seen, and after waiting a while, Ren ate his share. Then, he had nothing to do. He picked up his book and was reading it when there was a knock on the door. Answering it, he was surprised to see a young man wearing a brown uniform.
“Delivery for you.”
Ren’s eyes opened wide. Cal had done it! He saw boxes and boxes which he found contained his books, his computer, clothes, everything that had been his from his home in Jackson, all being carried out of the truck. He helped the delivery man move them into his room, where they stacked them up. Ren signed for them, then happily began sorting everything out. He’d need more bookcases, and he’d need the ranch’s wifi code, but having all his things gave him a rapidly expanding sense of self, of being whole again.
He spent the afternoon unpacking and hanging up his clothes. He looked at all the boxes of books and had an idea. He walked over to the Rivera house and collected Andy, who was busy washing the living-room windows, grousing about it to everyone except his mother, and happy to be pulled away. Together, they managed to haul a couple of the bookcases from the storage building to Ren’s room, and then Andy helped unpack the books from the boxes and sort them into the book cases. Andy knew the wifi code, and so, before he left, the room was organized, the computer up and running, and Ren’s room looked like a boy’s bedroom instead of a den/office area. Ren’s smile was all the reward Andy needed for helping.
> 5 <
“What should I wear?” Ren shouted.
“Just regular clothes. We don’t get dressed up for dinner here,” Cal called back from his room where he was changing.
Ren wanted to look good. If he was just meeting Mrs. Hanson, he wouldn’t have been nervous at all. But he was formally meeting Hec. Having dinner with him. Ren wanted to make a good impression. He was nervous and excited and suddenly didn’t think any of the clothes he now had to choose from looked right.
Cal came in through Ren’s open doorway and looked at all the clothes piled on the bed. Ren was wearing his boxers and looking frustrated. Cal watched him for a moment, then, stifling a laugh, said, “Let me look at your back.”
Ren turned around, and Cal came closer, touching some of the welts that were now slowly disappearing. “Looks good. Nothing got infected, luckily.”
Ren had stopped thinking about his back when the heavy pain had stopped. Now it was just a bother, and there was no need to talk about it. Besides, Ren had a problem and refused to be distracted. “I don’t have anything to wear!”
Cal shook his head. “Why are you fussing about this? It’s not formal or anything like that. Just dinner with the Hansons. She wants to meet you. I eat there occasionally to talk about ranch matters. It’s just dinner.”
Ren started to say something, then didn’t, and Cal could see him begin to blush.
“Oh. Well, Ren, don’t get too hung up on Hec. I know, he’s very handsome and very confident, and he probably looks sexy as all get-out to you. But get to know him before you fall all over him, OK?”
“Sure,” said Ren, but he was thinking his newest pair of jeans, if he’d press them, and a bright, light-blue polo shirt might go well together. “Do you have an iron?”Cal just shook his head and walked on, calling back, “I’ll set it up for you in the kitchen.”