> 1 <
Ren was surprised how the school worked. There was really no principal, but it seemed if there was any one person in charge of the school, it was Lucille Rivera. She had a degree in elementary education, and the other adults who taught and helped in the school, all of whom were mothers, deferred to her. Kids separated themselves into groups defined by their grade levels. That wasn’t necessarily by age as some younger kids were a grade ahead of their age and some older kids were a level below.
The major part of the instruction day was done on laptops. That was where most of the adults’ time was spent, working with the kids and helping with the online-learning programs they were using. However, the kids in each group helped each other, too. Ren learned right away that the higher the grade level, the less time the adults spent with the kids. Growing up required more personal responsibility.
At lunchtime, the kids all ate together rather than going home. Ren asked Andy about this.
“We all live just across the lawn. Why have lunch at school?”
Andy was eating the ground-beef casserole that was the main lunch dish of the day. He finished his mouthful before answering. “They want the kids to be together, both working on their lessons and relaxing between and after. Mom says we’re not only learning from the computers, but we’re also learning social skills and building a sense of community that’s really important for us.”
“Well, I like it,” said Ren, reaching for the apple that was part of the meal.
“Yeah, it means I don’t have to make myself lunch every day!” Ren grinned. Andy grinned back. He was so attracted to Ren’s grin. Well, he was attracted to more than the grin, but the grin was amazing, he thought. He also liked the way Ren’s hair curled around his ears.
They were eating at one of the several picnic tables that were brought out each lunchtime and set on the lawn in front of the school building when the weather was good. Anna Vargas came and sat down next to Andy, across from Ren. She appeared to have finished her lunch, but she’d brought her milk with her.
“Hey, Ren. Uh, and Andy.” She didn’t even bother looking at Andy. Her eyes were fixed on Ren.
“Hi, Anna.” Ren didn’t know her well. He didn’t know any of the girls well except for Izzy, and he didn’t think of her as a girl. Well, he did, but only as a definition, not as someone different from the other boys he associated with on the ranch. And he certainly had no romantic interest in her. From the way Anna had said his name and was looking at him, he was pretty sure romantic thoughts were what were on her mind.
He took a quick look at Andy. Andy was looking disgusted. He saw Ren look at him, then stood up. “I’ll give you two some space,” he said, then ignored Ren’s look of panic and walked away, carrying his unfinished lunch with him.
Anna was quite pretty. She had long, deeply black hair with a waviness to it that stopped just short of being curls. It moved as she moved, seeming to have a life of its own. Her skin was very light brown and seemed to glow. Ren wondered if that was due to makeup or just good health. She wore a dress, something he rarely saw on the ranch. Most of the girls wore jeans and tee shirts like the boys. Today, a few were wearing dresses, probably just first-day-of-school outfits. Maybe they’d had the same sort of feelings he’d had.
Anna seemed to have the beginnings of a figure, too. More than ‘seemed’, he saw, when she found reason to pull her elbows back behind her, stretching and then saying, “I’m not used to sitting so long. Nice to be back outside. Don’t you think so?” Ren thought there must be something wrong with her eyes because of the way she kept blinking.
“It’s nice out here,” Ren answered, trying to be as noncommittal as he could. It was a tightrope to walk, staying somewhere between polite and discouraging.
“Mrs. Rivera told us that if we needed help in anything, especially English and math, we could talk to you. I need lots of help in math. Maybe we can get together at my house, spend some time?”
Ren didn’t reply. He picked up his glass of milk and took a deep swallow. He thought a moment, then asked, “How’d you do in math last year?”
Anna blushed. She looked down at the table, then back at Ren. “I got an A. But I didn’t understand today’s assignment.”
“I think you’re one grade behind me in math. But what was in my lesson today was just talking about what we’d learn this year, and then there was a review of last year. So if you had the same sort of lesson I did, and you got a decent grade last year, I don’t know what you wouldn't understand.”
“See, that’s why we need to get together and talk about it. I don’t understand that, either!” Anna said with enthusiasm. She smiled again, too, a very pretty, very seductive smile.
Ren had to think. There was no way he wanted to go over to the Vargas house and be alone with Anna. Gordo would never let him hear the end of it. And then there was Andy and the way he’d reacted moments before.
“You know, Anna, if it’s that confusing, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You talk to the other kids taking that math program and find out who else needs help, and then I’ll help all of you together. I won’t have to do the same thing several times if we do it that way. OK? And hey, there’s Mrs. Rivera. I need to talk to her.”
Before Anna could even think of a response, Ren was up and walking away.
Mrs. Rivera had been eating her own lunch with Mrs. Vargas and Mrs. Gonzales, but both those ladies had just left, leaving Mrs. Rivera by herself. Ren walked up and asked if he could speak with her.
“Of course, Ren.” She smiled cheerfully at him. “Sit down. What did you think of your first few hours with us?”
“Surprised, I guess. I didn’t know how it was going to work. I thought we’d have you guys teaching us like in a regular school, and we’d be all divided up into groups. But this is cool. I didn’t know you could go to school and not be in a school. Unless we need help, we’re basically just by ourselves with a computer.”
“You’d be surprised how many kids are getting their education this way these days. There are many reasons for that. There are advanced kids and slow learners, and neither does well in a traditional setting. Some kids get overwhelmed and bullied, some just don’t fit in. Some kids get too distracted in a classroom. And of course some kids are at home or in a hospital for convalescence or are in a family that moves around a lot.”
“So you can do this anywhere?”
“Pretty much,” Mrs. Rivera replied. “Different states have different rules, and any home-schooling program using computers has to meet their state’s standards, but so many kids, millions of them, are now demanding online schooling. States have had to find ways to accommodate them. In Texas, we had a whole lot of different programs we could have chosen for you guys. And the good thing is, most of them are free.”
“This is all new to me. Can I work ahead if I want? I mean, could I finish this grade level at my own pace and begin on next year’s work?”
“Sure!” She laughed. “You’re my kind of student, wanting to do more, not to wait. I was like that in school, always frustrated that the rest of the class was holding me back. That’s a wonderful aspect of online instruction. You can go at the pace that works for you and finish early if you want.”
“Cool!” Ren beamed, thinking how great this would be for him. He’d always liked school and most of his teachers, and he had also experienced what Mrs. Rivera had spoken about, being constrained by the others in the class. He could immediately see the advantage of online studies.
Andy met him as they were ready to go back inside. “So, do you have a date?” he asked.
Ren was going to quickly deny it, deny any attraction at all to Anna, but before he could, he realized this might be an opportunity. Andy was acting weird, almost like he was jealous. Well, Ren didn’t really want to make Andy jealous or mad, but thought this could be an opportunity to find out if maybe he was. And if he was, was it because Anna would be cutting in on their times together or because Andy was gay and didn’t want to find out Ren wasn’t by losing Ren to Anna or any other girl?
It was getting complicated. He wished he had the nerve just to tell Andy he himself was gay and liked Andy. But the consequences of doing that if Andy wasn’t gay were just too heavy to deal with. He’d never had a friend he was as close to as Andy. There was too much at stake.
But, he might get a better feeling for Andy by not being too quick to answer that question. He thought for a second, then responded.
“She’s very pretty, isn’t she? Are you pissed because she asked me to help her in math instead of asking you?” He let his eyes grow wide. “You have the hots for her? Hey, that’s OK. She is hot. But she seemed interested in me. Should I sort of steer her your way. Sort of like Cyrano?”
Andy looked at him blankly.
Ren thought better of pursuing this. He merely grinned, showing he was teasing, making sure Andy wouldn’t take any offense.
Andy looked at him, shook his head, then he turned and walked into the school building. So much for learning anything from him, Ren thought, watching him go.
If Andy was attracted to him, he should just admit it, Ren wished. Even as that thought crossed his mind, however, he realized that he himself was being just as cautious.
> 2 <
It was almost two weeks later that there was a meeting of everyone in the school to talk about the social-studies assignment the state was requiring for online learners. The projects would be divided by grade level, and presentations of the completed projects would be made by each group. Ren’s group would include, along with Ren, Anna and Gordo Vargas, Rocky Gonzales, Ernie Aguilar and Andy. Gordo was the oldest of the group at 14. The others were all 13. One of the mothers was assigned to counsel each group. Mrs. Rivera took Ren’s group outside.
She had them sit on the lawn, the sun behind them, and then sat down herself and spoke to them.
“Part of the social-studies requirement this year is for a teamwork project about our state government. Other grade levels are also doing presentations on other topics. What we want is for you to research how the Texas government works, then decide the way you want to present what you’ve learned to the other kids in school. The presentation should be at least a half-hour long but can be an entire hour if you want.
“Part of the assignment is to figure out how you want to present your material. You can have one person speak or several. You can have props made and use them; you can do pretty much anything you want as long as you communicate what you’ve learned about our state government to the other students. But the presentation has to be your own work. For instance, you can have a short documentary film, but you have to write it and shoot it yourselves rather than buying a film someone else has made.
“The presentation is part of this assignment. Be creative. And have fun. I know I’m giving you very few instructions. That’s part of this, for you to work it all out among yourselves, being cooperative and gaining teamwork experience. Just keep in mind, when you’ve done your presentation, everyone in your group should understand in some depth how our state government works. Now, are there any questions?”
The kids looked at each other, and finally Gordo asked, “When are we supposed to have it done?”
“Good question. I should have told you that. Every group will have from now until Thanksgiving. That’s about ten weeks. That’s a lot of time, but we’re expecting a lot of work to be done and great presentations to be made.
“We’ll be beginning the presentations when school resumes after Thanksgiving. Anything else?”
No one asked anything more, and then Ren said, “When do we work on this? We all have our computer work to do, and if we’re to work as a group on this, we’ll need to have time off together.”
Mrs. Rivera smiled. “There are going to be many problems like that. This assignment is going to be as much about learning to coordinate while creating something, working together as a group, as it is doing the research and presentation. So, I’m not going to answer that. I’m going to let you guys work it out. OK? Anything else?”
She looked around the group, meeting eyes, then said, “OK. You’re on your own. Good luck.”
The kids all sat where they were, looking at each other. Finally, Anna asked, “How are we going to do this?”
“We need a leader. Someone to organize things,” said Ernie. “I nominate Gordo. He’s the oldest.”
“Hey! This sounds like it’ll be a whole lot of work. I don’t want to be in charge!” Gordo complained. Gordo wasn’t the most academically enthusiastic kid on the ranch.
“I think Ernie’s right, though,” Ren piped up. “Someone has to coordinate the thing and see that we’re all progressing. Like assigning different topics to different people, and overseeing that the work is being done. Getting problems solved as they occur.”
The group looked around at each other, and then Andy smiled. “I nominate Ren. He seems to know how to do this.”
“Second,” said Anna, smiling at Ren.
“Hey! I don’t know about that. I don’t think I’d be any good at it. I’m no good at bossing people around,” Ren said.
“You’re perfect, then,” said Gordo. “I hate being bossed!”
Everyone laughed at that. Ren was thinking, and then he smiled. “OK. But let’s put it like this. We’ll vote every week if people still want me in this job. That way, if people get tired of me nagging them, I can be replaced. OK? Show of hands?”
Everyone put up their hands.
Ren stood up. “OK. I think the first thing we have to do is decide when to work on this. What time does everyone finish their schoolwork every day? Approximately.”
The kids didn’t have fixed times at school every day, other than a starting time to be there. They had lessons preset on their computers and a suggested schedule of how many lessons should be completed each week. If they met those goals, they’d finish their two semesters of the school year at the end of May. What this meant practically was that different kids left school at different times each day, as some finished that day’s lessons earlier than others.
It turned out that everyone in the group was done at least by 3:15. Ren said that was good, then invited them all to his house for a 3:30 meeting where they could start setting up the structure they wanted for the presentation and assign different research subjects to different kids.
He got out at 2:30 that day by rushing through his work. He had found, in general, that he could get through the programs fairly easily and was actually ahead of his weekly assignments, working on his third-week lessons while only being in the second week of school. He went to his house and got a package of eggrolls out of the freezer and stuck them in the microwave, then got six glasses down from the cupboard and put several different kinds of soft drinks on the counter. He put the extension in the kitchen table and arranged six chairs around it.
When everyone arrived, he got two ice-cube trays out of the freezer and had everyone help themselves to whatever they wanted to drink. He put a plate of eggrolls on the table, gave them all napkins, and told them to dig in.
He’d taken a place in the middle of the table, not on an end. He wasn’t comfortable being in charge and felt better being among the group rather than at the head of the table.
When everyone was seated with a couple of eggrolls and a drink, Ren started the meeting. “Does anyone have any ideas of how they think this should go?”
This was met with the sound of chewing and averted eyes.
“Would anyone object if I throw out an idea I’ve had for discussion?”
If more chewing and sipping and eye evasion meant yes, then he got an affirmative response. He grinned. This was one of the reasons he’d given them something to snack on.
“OK. This is just a suggestion, but there are six of us. I think if we divide our topic, state government, into six parts, and each of us takes one of those and researches it, then we can divide the presentation into each part. We still have to decide how best to present our project, but doing the research should come first. What that gives us will help us decide how the presentation should go, I hope . That sound OK?”
This evoked a couple of nods. Anna said, “That’s good, Ren.” She seemed to again have a problem keeping her eyelids from acting weirdly, Ren thought. Andy coughed unnecessarily.
“OK. Does anyone want to volunteer to take an overall look at our state government on the internet and then suggest how it can be cut into six parts?”
“OK. Here’s a suggestion. Why don’t I do that, and next time I’ll have some ideas of what six areas of government we might want to use? We can talk about them and do some brainstorming. OK?”
They’d all finished their eggrolls and drinks. They seemed to feel the meeting was coming to an end, and they hadn’t had to do anything and so were feeling good enough to all speak at the same time, saying the plan was a very good one.
They left soon after that.
> 3 <
September merged into October and by checking around, Ren found that his group was moving forward with their project much more rapidly than any of the others. He’d thought maybe some of the upper-grade-level groups might be more into their projects, but they weren’t.
Ren had discovered that he enjoyed leading his group. Each week they’d had a vote, and each week he was reconfirmed as their leader. They’d taken his suggestions of how to break up their subject into six parts. Each had chosen a part to research. Some were doing that more thoroughly than others.
He was working with Gordo, who hadn’t been at all enthusiastic about academic research at the beginning, but Ren had been able to work with him and show him some tricks on the computer rather than do the work for him, and when he began complimenting Gordo for what notes he was taking, Gordo had suddenly found himself proud of himself; as his enthusiasm grew, he began working well on his own. Gordo was now contributing and was no longer dragging his feet.
Ren had been able to work with Anna, too, and found ways to keep her mind on the work—most of the time. It was a struggle at first, but by ignoring the flirting and showing his pleasure in her when she did well with her research results and coolness when she didn’t, he’d got her focusing on the work, and she was actually achieving some good results. He still had to spend more time with her than he wanted because she didn’t apply herself otherwise, but she was contributing.
Surprisingly, Andy was his hardest nut to crack. The others responded to Ren’s efforts. Andy’s work was good when he worked, but he also procrastinated.
It finally came to a head. They were out riding on a Saturday, just goofing off, Andy messing around as he often did, not taking anything seriously, when Ren asked him about how his research was going.
Andy pulled his horse to a halt and exploded. “Damn it, Ren! Stop nagging.”
Ren was taken aback. He hated confrontation, and he hated criticism. This sounded like both, and coming from Andy made it much more hurtful. His instinct, well-practiced, was to retreat into himself. He’d first become defensive, then sulky. But he’d been gaining some self-confidence—working with the others in the group and having them respond positively had been part of that—but his life with his dad had been part of it, too. He didn’t think what Andy had said was fair and had no idea why he’d suddenly be this mad.
What Ren did was nothing. He ignored Andy’s comments and simply walked Midnight forward, leaving it up to Andy whether he’d follow or not. Ren knew the areas of the ranch close to home now, and there was little chance he wouldn’t be able to find his way back. The sameness of everything he’d seen when he was new had changed. He recognized landmarks now. But, too, he was with Andy, and no matter how mad Andy got, he’d never just leave Ren if there was any chance Ren could get lost.
Andy sat still on his horse, watching for a full minute before he nudged his horse forward into a trot, and was shortly riding next to Ren.
Ren still didn’t say anything for a spell, and when he did, it was in a very soft voice. “Nagging? Really? Come on, Andy. You know I haven’t been doing that. So, what’s really bothering you?”
Andy shook his head. “I just don’t like being bossed around.”
“I don’t either,” said Ren. “So why don’t you take over and run the group. We’ll tell the others when we get back. You’re in charge now.”
Andy looked at him, and Ren could still see emotions in Andy’s face he’d never seen before. Andy was almost always smiling, and seeing him anything but cheerful was upsetting. Now, he certainly wasn’t smiling. “I can’t do that,” Andy finally said.
Andy scowled. “You’re perfect for it, that’s why. If I was in charge, nothing would get done. I wouldn't push anyone. You do, but you do it so subtly we end up thinking it’s our idea, not yours. Your ideas are great, you think strategically in ways I can’t, and each one of us just follows your lead enthusiastically. You figure out the best way to handle any problems that come up and keep us all together. We’ll end up with the best project of all with you guiding us. It’d be crap if I tried to do what you’re doing. I like to have fun. You want to get results.”
Ren was going to speak defensively, but hesitated. He thought for a moment, then simply didn’t say anything. He realized Andy hadn’t explained yet why he’d blown up. If he waited, Andy probably would feel the need to say something.
And it worked. Andy finally blurted out, “I just don’t like the way it’s going. You’re doing fantastic, and everyone is happy. You’re spending all that time with Gordo because he’s never been any good at schoolwork, and suddenly he’s all enthusiastic but it’s mostly you. And then Anna. You’re over at her house a lot, and I have no idea what’s going on, but she’s smiling a lot. You’re not helping me at all!”
Ren stopped Midnight and stared at Andy, all kinds of thoughts running through his mind. At least now he knew what Andy’s problem was. He just didn’t know how to address it! The boy was jealous! It had to be that!
“You don’t need my help,” Ren finally said. “You’re the smartest one there. Your part of the project is coming along fine when you work. You don’t need me.” And then, in a flash of inspiration, he added, “I wish you did,” and said it rather forlornly.
Andy jerked upright in the saddle, causing his horse to dance a bit before settling. “You do?”
Ren grinned, a sexy grin if Andy had ever seen one. “Sure. All the time I’m spending with them, I wish it were with you. I like you, Andy. You’re my best friend.”
Andy’s face unfolded into his usual cocky, mischievous grin. He asked, “So you’d like me to be dumb and need your help?”
“No,” Ren retorted, “I’d hate it if you were dumb. You’re not; you’re at least as smart as I am. I like you just the way you are now. Except you’re a crap rider. I’m going to beat you back to the ranch.” He pushed forward in his saddle, and Midnight sprang forward and then began her gallop, going in the gentle curve to the left which would take them back home.
> 4 <
It was the following week when the news went through the ranch like wildfire: Paul was gone. The people at the ranch were a close-knit community, everyone knowing most everything about everyone else. They had the same interactions as any large group of people, of course. Lucille Rivera was well-liked by everyone and assumed a leadership role with the other mothers. Anaroso Mendoza, JJ’s mom and the mom of five other kids, was sort of a communal mom as well, and if a kid had a problem that needed TLC, they were as likely to go to her as to their own mom. Pedro Gonzales was a stern figure over his brood of five kids—not harsh, but not soft, either. He was a very proud man and had little time for kids; to him, that was a woman’s place. And so it went in their community. Everyone seemed to fill his own niche.
So, when the news spread, it spread to everyone, and everyone was shocked. Paul Aguilar, the oldest boy on the ranch and the one who had the fewest friends, had left.
Ever since Hec had been shipped out, Paul had been a loner. Even Ray, who along with Paul had been Hec’s disciple, had stopped hanging with Paul. Ren had thought this was more Mr. Gonzales’s doing than Ray’s. Ray was easily led, and if Paul had wanted, he probably could have still hung with Ray, but Ray was rarely seen for a month after Hec was called out and publicly scorned, and even after that, he had nothing to do with Paul.
Paul had left a note, saying he was tired of the ranch and tired of the people who lived there. That was it, nothing else, nothing about his plans, where he was going, if he’d be in touch—nothing.
His horse was still in the corral. It was speculated he’d walked to the highway with a duffle bag of possessions and hitched a ride in whatever direction the vehicle was going.
All the kids seemed to have their own opinions and feelings about his departure. For Ren, what he felt was relief. Paul had always glared at him when they’d crossed paths. Ren had never liked the look in Paul’s eyes and remembered vividly how the boy had acted at the lake with Hec. Now, he and his attitude were things Ren no longer had to be concerned with.