The Farm Boy

by Cole Parker

I am hot and sweaty, and walking into the tack room and out of the sun feels so good. The air is cooler here because of the tall sycamores shading the stables. I whip off my shirt, reveling in the cooler air as it tickles across my sweaty skin.

I am still too hot, hotter than I need to be, so my boots and jeans follow my shirt, leaving me in just my briefs. My soggy, drooping briefs. Man, that feels fine.

“Feel free to strip off; nothin’ I ain’t seen before. ’Course, the others, they looked sexier; you’re skinny ’n small ’n it don’t look like you got much under them skivvies.”

I hadn’t seen her there, back in the corner. She speaks in her usual nasty voice, and she follows with a sarcastic cackle. Missy is cleaning dust and mud and sweat off reins and saddles ineptly, but mostly she is watching me. As usual, the laughter doesn’t reach all the way up to her eyes. They remain hard and cruel while they flick between my soggy briefs and my own eyes. Hard and cruel like always, wanting to sting me, unless her parents are around.

You wouldn’t think a 15-year-old girl would be much at cackling, that that ability would be reserved for old crones with long, scraggly hair and pointy noses and hats, but this girl has that croak down pat. It fits her personality, too, this sounding like a witch. Whether you spell it with a ‘w’ or a ‘b’.

“You wish,” I shoot back, responding to her stripping off dare rather than her comment about my development, and I turn my back on her. My drawers are soaked through, like the rest of my clothes—riding fence and repairing broken rails in the merciless, unrelenting sun all morning without a breeze or a shadow to cut into the misery has that effect—and I’m not sure how visible my tender parts are through the sodden cloth, but I certainly have no use for Missy peering at what she could see of them. She rags me about everything she can, and getting a gander at my dangly bits would give her months of scathing and belittling comments; not that she needs extra ammunition to throw at me.

Give her this and I’d be walking around most days red-faced, either with embarrassment or anger. Who needs that?

I am 14, and she is my cousin. I live on my uncle’s farm; I live here through his good graces and have done so for most of a year now. I’ve learned part of the deal is putting up with Missy’s sneering and jibing, even when it hurts, which it had at first, me feeling a bit low then and all. The fact they let her get away with it unremarked rankles, but she saves her more vicious barbs, the ones meant to wound, for when we are alone. My uncle probably isn’t aware of how nasty she really is, and my aunt certainly isn’t. But as Uncle Peter has taken the trouble to point out to me, life isn’t meant to be a piece of cake; it will be what you make of it. Good or bad, it's up to you.

My uncle is fond of throwing out shit like that, including wisdom such as, fair is only a term describing the weather and has nothing to do with life; or, how you deal with what you have to deal with is what separates the men from the boys.

I’ve learned, with time, to deal with Missy by not reacting much, which tends to piss her off and make her remarks even more savage. It’s a fair trade.

“You done checking the fence?” she asks.

“None of your business,” I say and move closer to the open window, hoping more of a breeze will kick up.

“Pa said to check it all before you came back. I heard him. You didn’t have no time to do it all. You’re slacking off. Charity cases don’t get no slack-off time. Charity cases got to work for their keep. Otherwise they get chucked out like yesterday’s newspaper.”

I answer the way I usually do, the way I’ve learned to do: I keep my mouth shut.

“And put your clothes back on, damn it!” Her voice is sharpening, getting harder. She’s getting pissed because I’m not reacting to her. “Who wants to see your skinny white body? I don’t want anyone to come in and think we are fooling around. Hey, yeah! I’m gonna tell Ma you came in and stripped down, thinking I’d be excited seeing that baby dick you have. Tell her that you started stroking and fondling it and told me to come play with it and I’d get a surprise! Tell her when I tried to leave, you grabbed me and rubbed it up against me, and I had to sock you to get away. Hmmmm. I guess to sell that, you’re going to need a bruise on your face or a black eye or something.”

She steps away from the tack she’s cleaning, takes a couple of steps toward me. I stand up a little straighter and turn to face her. She is almost a full year older than I am, but we are the same height. She probably outweighs me by twenty pounds or so, because, while I’m lean, she isn’t. She doesn’t work the farm like I do, and she eats more. But, while I’m skinny, the work I do has made me strong even if I don’t look like much, stripped down like I am. No, I don’t look like much, I know I don’t. But it is what it is. I am what I am.

Uncle Peter tends to say that a lot. Well, he says a man is what he is. I don’t think I qualify for that designation yet.

She’s staring at my briefs as she comes nearer. “Hah!” she says, pointing. “You ain’t no bigger ’n Wesley!”

Wesley is a kid she sometimes babysits for. He’s eight.

I am pissed. I don’t like her outfoxing me, and she’s done that by making me turn to face her. I just haven’t been thinking clearly. To tell the truth, I’ve come in from the fence work a little lightheaded. That sun is hot, and I’d needed to get out of it for a bit. Drink some water; my canteen ran dry not long into the morning. I still am just a little woozy, even after being inside for a few minutes. Maybe it’s dehydration. Whatever it is, it is probably why I’m doing what I’m doing, which is letting my anger boil up. It’s also why I say what I say, without thinking. I’d never have engaged her in this sort of conversation if my head were clear.

“I got plenty enough. It’s as big as it needs to be when it needs to be.”

She glows with satisfaction. “I’ve seen Wesley hard. That’s about the size you must be, too, because you ain’t no bigger ’n him soft. Or are you hard now?”

“How in the world would you know what he looks like hard?” I say, ignoring her last jibe and letting surprise at her remark overtake my caution.

“I was giving him a bath, and he was so small down there, I got to wondering how big it could get on a boy that age, so I sorta washed that part long enough to find out. That’s about how you look through those worn thin panties.”

I’d been facing her while we’d been talking. She is right in front of me now, right where she can see me clearly, highlighted by the light coming in through the window I’m standing near.

Her ploy has worked. She isn’t aiming to fight me. She just wants to get a better look at my front side parts. What she can see through my sodden drawers. She drops her eyes to below my waist and grins.

I take a step toward her and then another, and she lets her eyes come up to my face. She sees what’s in my eyes, the anger that’s there, and she ducks around me, running for the door. “I’m telling,” she yells, both fear and triumph in her voice. “You threatened me. You were going to hit me. I’m telling, and you’re going to get it!”

I just stand there, breathing. Letting my anger subside. Then I take a glance down. No, she is just being Missy. She couldn’t have seen much at all, wet skivvies or not. But she’s won that round. And it hurts because I hate for her to win any rounds. I’m smarter than she is. But she’s not only cruel, she’s cunning, too. And at times, that is enough for her to get the upper hand.

I know I have to bite my tongue, even when the urge to fly back at her is a strong one. Living here has taught me patience, however. I have the capacity for a hot temper and have to work not to allow it to erupt. I have, too, worked hard to be mellow. I have taught myself to chill, and I have seen how much better it is when I don’t react to anything with anger. I need that patience, that resilience, every bit of that restraint, when I am dealing with Missy.

Thing is, though, in this case, when I think about it, I have nothing to worry about if she tells her ma, my Aunt Bess, that I was coming onto her or whatever else she makes up. Even my aunt will see through this. Missy complains a lot, and most of it, like this time, is bogus.

I live here because I am gay and couldn’t remain at home with my parents when they found out. My dad cared more about the family’s reputation than about me and had his own problems, and my mom was past the point of even trying to say anything.

Me, coming on to Missy? No, that wouldn't happen, and my uncle won’t believe I’ve done that no matter how emotional Missy gets. My aunt will just try to smooth things over. But they will both know Missy is simply crying wolf one more time.

◄ ►

My earliest memory is of sitting in the kitchen, being quiet and listening to my daddy talk about his job. The way it worked was, he talked, Mom sort of puttered around not doing much, and I listened. Even then, I’d been aware that it was safest to stay quiet. My dad was always angry.

The hitting didn’t start till I was older, I think. I think I was still okay when I was three.

I’d sit still. Daddy would talk about what idiots all his clients were, the store clerks, the bagger at the grocery store, the guy at the minimart, the guy driving in the next lane—all of them. How they never listened to him; how they never paid attention to what he was saying, how they ignored him. He’d get angry over how they dismissed his advice, at the lack of respect they showed him. Mom would start moving farther away from him as his anger grew. She’d start cleaning or putting away or rearranging, and she’d end up as far away from him as she could be in the kitchen. Funny how I saw that, even then. She never made a comment when he was talking.

◄ ►

“You’ve ridden a horse before, haven’t you?”

“No, never. Well, when I was young—five or six, I think—this carnival come through town, and there were pony rides, and I got on one of those. But not since then.”

“Everyone on a horse farm has to know how to ride.” Uncle Peter is saddling up an older mare. He is showing me how to do it while he talks. “You’ll get the hang of it real fast. It’s easy when you’re young.”

He boosts me up on the horse’s back. I look down. Whoa! From the ground it looks like being up on a horse isn’t all that high. It’s different when you’re up on one. Your perspective changes. It looks like I’m sitting really, really high up.

He’s on the ground and has the reins and walks the horse up and down the corral. I sit in the saddle and feel how the horse is moving under me. He talks to me about how to do various things and says I’m doing good. I think he means on the farm, not just on the horse. I’ve only been here a month, and hearing that, I smile.

“You should ride every day. Get to know the horses. Pick one out as your own. You’ll learn they all have personalities. Some will like and trust you; some won’t. Ride a different one every day till you find one you’re both comfortable and in tune with.”

I do. I’m getting adjusted to life here. And life here includes horses. I’m surprised how easily I take to riding. I wasn’t that good at sports when I lived back in the city except for baseball, and that’s nothing like being on a horse. On the farm, we don’t have time for sports. There’s lots to do every day here, and each day it seems Uncle Peter gives me another chore. But he explains it each time. How to do it, why it is important. He stays with me while I learn each one. And if I screw something up, I don’t need to be afraid. He just shows me again why and how to do it right. It takes me longer than maybe it should to understand how patient he’ll always be with me.

He doesn’t get angry. He even tells me he can see how hard I’m trying.

Uncle Peter is nothing like my dad was.

◄ ►

Mom would hold me and talk to me when Daddy was at work. She seemed to like to be with me a lot back then, when I was young. When he was home, she left me alone, mostly.

I never quite understood that until once, when I was seven, he came home, mad about something, as usual, and when she said something to him, he snapped his body around and came toward her. I was there with her. We’d been playing a game, the cleaning-the-living-room game. We both had dust cloths in our hands. I was standing right next to her, and as he turned around, she pushed me away from her. She said, “Go!” and I turned and took a step, and then I heard a sound and looked back; his hands were in fists, and she had one hand up against her face and the other out in front of her like she was trying to push something away. I didn’t watch. I turned and kept going. Daddy scared me when he was like that.

I heard more sounds, but I didn’t look back.

I realized then why Mom didn’t stay close to me when Daddy was home.

I guess I knew, somehow, that he’d been hitting her for a long time. I’d never seen him actually do it before, though. It gave me a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, a deep and constant nervousness that never entirely left me after that.

◄ ►

Missy walks into my room without knocking. I’m rearranging stuff since I don’t have much room, and right now there are various things on the bed arranged in piles. Missy walks over, sweeps them all off onto the floor, and sits down.

She looks around, then smiles. “This is where we used to keep the clothes and boots we wore to clean the muck out of the stables. I can still smell them. We had to keep the door closed to keep the smell in. Perfect room for you. Small and smelly and where we keep nasty, shitty things that are different kinds of trash. Like you.”

I stare at her without speaking. My heart speeds up, as it does with her. I never know what’s coming next but do know it’ll be meant to hurt or scare or belittle.

She is getting annoyed. She likes getting a rise out of me. What really makes her gleeful is if she can make me cry. She’s been able to do that a few times already, and I’ve only been here a few weeks. But each day I get stronger. She is having more difficulty now getting her jollies by watching me fall apart. That pisses her off, and her comments become more scathing, more aimed to cut. They can become almost comical when I’m able to understand their purpose and ignore them, but I don’t laugh. I show no emotion at all.

I hope that doesn’t become a way of life for me. Even at 14, I know that is no way to live.

She stands up, angry at my staring at her without emotion. “Stay out of my way,” she barks. “They believe everything I tell them. They believe my word over yours. I never wanted you here. You’d better keep doing everything I say and watch yourself or you’ll be in an orphanage before you know it.”

She walks toward the door, then sees a poster I’ve taped to the wall. She rips it down and tears it into pieces, working hard doing so. Then she throws the pieces at me. She sweeps everything off my bedside table. She gets to the door and says, “Keep this closed. It smells worse now than when we had manure boots here.”

Then she leaves.

I really liked that poster.

I don’t allow myself to cry.

I don’t allow myself to get angry, either.

◄ ►

The first time I remember him hitting me, I was eight. I came into the house on a Saturday. I’d been playing with friends and was sweaty. I flopped down onto a soft chair in the living room to cool off. He walked into the room, saw me and came right to me, grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the chair and slugged me on the shoulder, knocking me down. I looked at him, not surprised, really, because by then I’d seen his rages, seen him hitting my mother. But my arm hurt where he’d grabbed me, and my shoulder really hurt. Unbidden, tears came to my eyes.

“You don’t sit in our living room all dirty and sweaty! And you don’t cry! I can’t abide sissies. You make me sick!” He grabbed me, again squeezing my arm so tight I cried out. He yanked me to my feet, hurting my shoulder because of how hard he yanked me. When I was up, he slapped my face, then pulled me upstairs, my feet mostly dragging on the steps because he was going so fast and I was at an awkward angle. He took me into the bathroom and sort of threw me into the tub. My hip hit the rim of the tub, hard, and as I flew back, my head and shoulder slammed into the rear tile wall. I collapsed into the tub in a pile, dazed. He turned on the shower, and water cascaded over me, drenching me and my clothes.

“You take a shower when you come in dirty!” he yelled. His face was bright red. He stood over me for a while, glaring at me with a face full of hatred, his large hands in fists, then turned and stormed out.

I was jammed in the tub, sore, hurting and fuzzy-headed, and it took me some time to work myself into a position where I could reach the knobs to turn off the water. I finally managed but then just lay there, stayed there, sprawled in the tub. My world was different now. I knew this wouldn’t be the only time something like this happened. Just the first.

◄ ►

Gary, the senior hand on the farm, sees me sitting against the side of the stable. I’m resting. He tells me the water buckets need filling. So I get up.

As I’m walking to collect the buckets, Aunt Bess sees me and calls out to me to collect the eggs that Missy was supposed to collect that morning but didn’t. I tell her I’ll get to it directly. She wrinkles her forehead, then moves her hands to her hips and stands there, watching me. I forget about the buckets and go to collect the egg basket Missy uses.

When I get to the back door of the house, planning to go inside to find the basket, Uncle Peter comes out, sees me, and asks me to saddle his horse; he’s going to check out a break in the fence Gary told him about. He tells me I can come, too, if I want.

He stands there, waiting for an answer.

I start to get flustered, then angry, and then, surprising myself, I laugh. All I need now is for Missy to come by and give me a different order. Uncle Peter frowns, wondering what’s so funny.

“I’ll tell you what,” I say to him, being incredibly forward, spurred on by my conflicting emotions. “I’ll get the eggs for Aunt Bess and the water buckets filled for Gary, and while I’m doing that, how’s about I try to saddle both horses? Maybe I can finish all three jobs about the same time. Then we can ride out. How does that sound?”

Uncle Peter’s frown becomes a look of confusion, but then he gets it, and he laughs, too. “Guess maybe we need to set up a chain of command here, like I had in the Army. We can talk about that while we ride out to check that fence. After I saddle our horses. Both of them.” He starts laughing again, and I go inside to fetch the egg basket, feeling pretty good.

◄ ►

As I grew older, Mom changed. She took to reading the Bible a lot, and she became more distant. She never talked about Dad or being hit or his hitting me. If I tried to mention it, she left the room. I learned not to talk about it, either.

His hitting me became more frequent as I grew older. By the time I was 11, I’d learned how to avoid him, because if I stayed around him very long, at some point he’d erupt. It didn’t take much at all to anger him, and when he was angry, he struck out at whoever was nearest.

He was angry most of the time.

We all had to eat dinner together. Dad had rules, and it was far and away best to follow them. The house had to be perfect, like a showplace. Mom spent most every day cleaning and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming and sorting and folding and organizing and all. She still got hit when he found anything he didn’t like. My room had to be perfect, too, which was my job. He’d inspect it when he was in the mood to find something wrong. I knew when he told me we were going to inspect my room that I was in trouble. But if he said to come with him, I had to do that. One beating was better than two.

He insisted I be with him, and he hit me and then dragged me there if I was too slow coming with him. He probably wanted me there with him so I’d be handy to be punched, which usually happened no matter how perfect the room was; he didn’t need much of an excuse. He really didn’t need any. I tried to be out of the house when he came home so I could avoid him, and I hoped he’d forget about me.

Eating dinner together as a family was a rule. He’d be the only one who talked unless we were answering one of his questions. I never ate much at dinner because I was too nervous. Maybe that’s why I was so skinny. After dinner he read the paper in the living room. I helped with the dishes and then went upstairs. I did my best never to be in the same room with him. I tried never to speak to him, either.

I had to go to the hospital, but only once. I think he learned caution from that because of the questions the doctor asked him. The doctor told him he wanted to talk to me alone, and Dad said no, he had a right to be there as I was a minor. The doctor knew what was going on with me but couldn’t verify it.

“How did this happen?” the doctor asked me.

My dad took a step closer to me.

“I fell down,” I said in a small voice. “Just like my dad said.”

I had to say that. The doc seemed nice and that he cared, but I wasn’t going to go home and live with him. I was going to go home with my dad.

I was afraid he’d hit me again on the drive home, but he didn’t. He just stared out the front window of the car and didn’t say a word. I sat next to him, not speaking, either, waiting for the pain meds to kick in.

After that, I got even better at avoiding him. I still got hit but never again had to go to the hospital. Maybe he’d learned something. Maybe he was more in control of himself than I thought. Somehow, that made it worse. It meant he knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew it was wrong.

And so, as I said, I got better at avoiding him. You learn how to survive.

◄ ►

Uncle Peter explains that everyone on the farm has to help, not just the hands he has. He says the farm doesn’t make much money and that the family has to do as much work as it can to keep the payroll low.

While he tells me which chores will be mine, he talks to me about them. My dad never showed me how to do anything. My dad never had any patience with me, either, even when I was really young. Uncle Peter never gets flustered or angry. Even if he has to show me something four or five times. I’m scared when I don’t do something right the first time on the farm but learn I don’t have to be. He has a lot of patience, something I’ve had no experience with before.

I don’t mind doing the chores. He has explained how much help I can be to him, how chores are part of every farm life, so I do them, and he thanks me.

He actually thanks me. Unimaginable.

◄ ►

Going to church was the high moment of the week for Mom. Not for me, who had to pass Dad’s inspection. But for Mom, it was her time out of the house and a time when she felt fairly safe. He liked going to church, probably to show off his perfect family, feeling it reflected well on him.

There was a lot about church I didn’t like. Sitting on those hard pews for an hour was made worse by having to listen to stuff that frequently didn’t make much sense. Often, it was delivered in a raging shout by an angry old man up in front. He could have been my dad’s twin, I thought. Those were two men who knew how to be angry about stuff that seemed not to matter at all to me. They didn’t mind people seeing their anger. Well, in my dad’s case, that did matter; he never let people outside our family see it. For the preacher, letting loose was obviously no concern at all.

We sat near the front every week. Mom always had her best clothes on. I’d learned not to fidget, not to look around, but to stare straight in front of me. If I didn’t, I felt it after we got home, often all the way into the middle of the next week. Getting hit in the ribs was the worst because there was just about no padding at all there, and the pain lasted for days afterwards whenever I’d move and even when I took a deep breath. So I sat on those pews and didn’t move. But sitting still didn’t mean I paid much attention to the sermons.

◄ ►

Missy rubs mud on her dress and face, flashes me the finger, then goes and tells Aunt Bess I pushed her down into the mud that was always there by the old outdoor hand pump that drips even though it isn’t used much. She shows her mom how muddy the dress is. Aunt Bess calls me in, and when I pass Missy on her way out, she tries to trip me. I have both hands filled with fresh-picked garden produce and somehow manage to stay upright.

Aunt Bess asks me why I grabbed Missy and pushed her down in the mud. I tell her Missy is lying, that not only didn’t I push her down, but at the time she said I did it, I was out in the garden, like I’d been asked, picking the stuff I am still holding. By now I’ve started feeling a little better about myself and my place on the farm and less intimidated by either Missy or Aunt Bess, I say to Aunt Bess, “I was gathering garden greens, not grabbing girls.” I grin, thinking that was clever, but then say flat out that Missy is just trying to get me in trouble again.

Aunt Bess scowls. “We’ll talk to your uncle about this. Missy doesn’t lie. But one of you two must be telling a fib, and if it isn’t her . . .” She lets her words trail off, but her eyes are focused on mine, and her look sure isn’t trailing off. It’s steady and hard brings back the pain in my stomach that used to be there all the time when I lived with my father.

Uncle Peter walks into the kitchen, takes a look at both of us, and steps over to me. He gives me a brief hug, and the pain recedes a little. Then he turns to Aunt Bess. “Did you just say Derrick was lying?” he asks.

“No. I said someone was.” She shifts her gaze to me, and it’s still threatening.

“When did Missy say Derrick pushed her down?” he asks, mildly. Uncle Peter almost always talks calmly. He is a large man, a really large man, but very much in control of himself.

“She just told me now,” Aunt Bess says, a little defiantly.

Uncle Peter smiles. “You know that’s not what I meant, Bess. And you’re getting defensive. I think you know as well as I do that Derrick wouldn’t do what she’s accusing him of. He’d have no reason to. You’re defending Missy again. Would you like me to call her in here so we can learn the truth?”

Aunt Bess and Uncle Peter look at each other for a moment, and then Aunt Bess turns to me. Her eyes aren’t hard any longer. “I’m sorry, Derrick. Peter’s right, I am defending her. I can’t help it; it’s second nature with me. I’ve been defending her since she was little. I don’t know what to do with her. But I shouldn’t be blaming you. I know you didn’t push her. I know you, and you wouldn’t. That girl just gets me so upset. But . . . I’m sorry.”

I walk over to her after putting down the greens I'm holding and hug her. “Thanks,” I say so quietly that I’m not sure she hears me.

◄ ►

Church every week at least allowed me a little time without fear, even if I did hate going. I had to get dressed up, and my clothes had to be perfect. So that was what happened; I got perfect. Boy scrubbed clean, hair washed and brushed and combed, teeth brushed, clothes perfect. Sometimes, Dad came in while I was showering and watched. He stared and stared, and his eyes looked funny. That was creepy. Tie straight, shoes shined, trousers with creases like knife edges. It’s hard to look that way very long when you’re eight or nine or ten. I was better at it by the time I was eleven. Still hated it. Sitting absolutely still on a pew was hard for a young boy, but something I learned how to do. I learned how to do a lot of things I hated.

He never hit me before going to church. I guessed it was so there were no noticeable marks on me.

We came home from church one Sunday, and Dad was already in a mood, and my mom began vacuuming. Dad was in his den and started cursing. He was doing it loudly, so loudly we could hear it in the next room with the vacuum running and his door closed. She looked at me, her face white. “Run,” she said. “Not upstairs. Over to your friend’s house. Then call here and ask if you can stay for dinner. Go! Now!”

I couldn’t stay for dinner. My dad told me to come home right then. I did. When I got home, he was cooking something, and Mom wasn’t there.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“She’s not feeling well. She’s upstairs. Don’t disturb her. You understand?”

Yes, I understood.

◄ ►

This isn’t as easy or as much fun as it looks. Of course, Uncle Peter is much bigger than I am, and he has a way about him of making everything he does look easy. I watch, wondering how he does that, and decide it is because, with him, there are no wasted movements. He is very efficient as he goes about doing whatever it is he is doing. There is an abiding calmness to him as well. It takes me some time to get used to that. I was very scared of him at first. I'm not now.

But when he tells me it is time I learn to drive the tractor, I am excited and ready to go, but it turns out that what is easy for him isn’t easy at all for me. He is strong. I’m getting stronger but holding that steering wheel steady while the tires run over ruts in the fields is almost more than I am capable of.

But I am learning. And he is like he always is: patient and encouraging. He seems to know just when I need some encouragement, and then he says something or touches me, but mostly he is just there. Right now he is standing behind me as I sit in the seat, and I’m running the tractor all by myself. My legs are just long enough. My hands, wrists and arms are getting a workout. I will be sore tomorrow. But I’ll be more useful then, too. I’ll be able to drive the tractor!

How many 14-year-old boys who grew up in the city can drive a tractor across a farm field? Back there where I came from, none. That’s how many. Who could imagine I’d ever be doing it? And being told I was doing it well? Easy answer: no one.

◄ ►

I was 11. Another Sunday wearing the ties I hated, having to stand very still while Dad tied them. I always wondered if he was going to pull the knot too tight. He never did, but he always got them plenty tight. He said a loose tie was a sign of weakness.

Then came the sitting and the hard pews that were as bad as the ties. We sat for an hour or more, listening to stuff I didn’t understand much of delivered in a raging shout by an angry old man up in front whose face turned red with his ranting.

Mom always wore clothes with long sleeves and a long skirt and the top snug all the way up around her neck. I’d become good at never fidgeting, never looking around, at staring straight in front of me. Didn’t mean I liked it or paid much attention to the lecture going on in front of me, but Dad had no control over my daydreams.

I rarely listened to what the old angry guy delivering the sermon was saying. Didn’t have anything to do with me. I had to be careful not to fall asleep. If I did, Mom pinched me—hard. Sometimes the place she pinched me would develop a purple bruise that would last over a week. I didn’t mind, though. That pain never lasted long.

Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess were in town visiting. They went to church with us when they were there on Sunday. Aunt Bess dressed up and perfumed herself, too, and seemed sort of excited. Not Mom’s degree of giddiness but more than I’d ever seen my aunt exhibit. Uncle Peter didn’t seem excited at all. He saw me watching him and winked.

His calmness always impressed me. I wished my dad could be like him, and that I could live without the need to be scared.

Dad had his church suit on. He looked stern, just like always.

I don’t know why, but that day I listened to the old angry man rant and rave instead of daydreaming like I usually did. The man was talking about something that somehow caught my attention. It was about homosexuals. At school, kids used the word gay, but I knew it meant the same thing. At school, it was only used to point out who kids were. ‘He’s gay,’ they said, sort of like when they were saying, ‘Mitch has three sisters.’ What they said was used to describe and identify kids. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong or negative with it. Two boys in our class were supposed to be gay, and no one made anything out of it. We all got along fine: the rest of us, Mitch with the three sisters and the two gay boys.

The old angry guy seemed to think the homosexuals were the worst thing going. I don’t know why. He spoke some about what awful things they did and how disgusting they were but didn’t really explain exactly what was so bad about being homosexual. Not so I could understand, at least. I guess he expected us to just take his word for it. He kept using the word ‘abomination’. I figured I’d look that up when I got home.

Maybe I was hearing him better that Sunday because recently I’d found myself looking at one of those two gay kids in my class, the cuter one. I’d even found myself talking to him. I guess I was sort of interested in him. I thought about him in a way I hadn’t thought about anyone before.

I wondered if he was an abomination.

I wondered if I was.


◄ ►

“No! Use a hackamore!”

I look at him. He had told me to put a bridle on the colt. I’d done that. Now he’s telling me I did something wrong. I turn to face him.

He stares at me a moment or two. From his eyes, I never can tell what he’s thinking or feeling. They’re unreadable to me. He’s not only large in size, but in confidence, too. It shows in how he stands, how he moves. His voice can be sharp, as it just had been, but it’s never angry. I’ve never seen him angry, either. My dad didn’t have that confidence. I hadn’t known that then, but when I compare the body language I see in Uncle Peter with what I remember of my dad, it’s obvious.

I don’t know what I did wrong, or how to handle his criticism, so I simply wait. He walks over to me. “Son, we’re breaking this colt. He’s never had his will challenged before. He’s going to balk. Just like you do when your aunt tells you it’s time for bed and you don’t want to go—even if you’re sleepy. It’s the idea of someone imposing their will on you that you don’t like. This colt won’t like it, either. So he’ll put up a fuss, just like you do.”

“I don’t!” I say, suddenly upset. I’ve been cautious about letting my anger loose even though I’ve found I won’t get hit if I can’t hold it, but this rankles because it isn’t true. I never tell my aunt no. And I’d bridled the horse just as he’d asked me to. Still, it frightens me, protesting like this to him. All my life I’ve been shown what happens when I talk back.

He considers that, watching me, and nods. “Okay, you’re right. I should have said, ‘just like you want to do.’ This colt doesn’t have your manners or disposition. He’ll balk. And we don’t want him to hurt himself when he does. We want to show him that doing what we want him to do is something not to fight, and he’ll be all right doing it. That allowing us to control him will work out just fine. We want him to trust us, trust our judgment as it affects him. So we use a bridle that won’t cause him any injury when he rebels at the training. A hackamore is a loose-fitting piece of tack that allows us to control him without hurting him.”

“I didn’t know,” I say, a little grumpily. I like to do things right. I try very hard, but how am I supposed to do that if I haven’t been told? “I didn’t know,” I repeat softly, staring at the ground now.

“Now you do,” he says. I look up into his eyes, seeing if there’s anything I can make of him. I want to know what he feels. He’s looking back at me, his eyes steady. Unreadable.

I start to turn away. He reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder—gently, briefly. Then he says, “Let’s go into the tack room; I’ll show you what and where it is.”

◄ ►

Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess were in town visiting us again. I loved it when they came because I didn’t get hit then, not while they were with us. Mom didn’t, either. Uncle Peter was about six foot four, probably 250 pounds. He was strangely quiet, rarely saying much, but his eyes were always moving around, seeing things. When he looked at me, his eyes remained the same, not hard or soft, just looking. I had no idea most of the time what went on in his head.

But Dad seemed to know, because he was different when Uncle Peter was there. No hitting at all. Not even any anger.

I wished they’d visit more often.

◄ ►

There’s never a lack of things to do on the farm. Seems like chores or jobs never get done completely, and even if they did, there’d be more of the same again tomorrow.

Today I’m haying. It’s an awful job. We’ve got quite a lot of pasture, and some of it is for growing alfalfa and some for grass hay. Uncle Peter told me there are several kinds of hay, and what we grow is grass hay. When it’s time, we get a guy down the road to bring his combine over, and he goes through the fields cutting down the hay. I guess they call it a combine because it not only cuts the hay, it bales it as well, combining two jobs.

So it sounds like most of the work is done for us. Hah! No way. I’m one of the guys walking behind the harvester. There’s a lot of hay that gets dropped and strewn around rather than being baled, and we either leave it there to rot, or we gather it so it isn’t wasted. That’s what I’m doing, raking the loose hay into piles so when the wagon and team come along, I can use the pitchfork to toss it up onto the wagon.

It could be worse. I could be asked to throw finished bales up onto another wagon. But older and stronger hands than me are doing that. I’m not strong enough yet. Maybe next year. Probably next year.

But even what I’m doing is hard, hot, itchy, hard-to-breathe work. There’re tons of hay dust in the air, the sun is high and hard, and I have to keep moving. Acres and acres have to be raked up.

I have a water bottle, and it’s soon empty. Someone riding in the wagon tosses me another. I glance up and see it’s a girl from the next farm over. She’s consolidating the hay in the wagon so we can get as much on as it’ll hold. She’s about my age, and she’s very pretty, even dressed in filthy work clothes. She’s sweating as hard as I am, and she isn’t able to take her shirt off like I can. But I don’t do that, either. Somehow, I’m shy about her seeing how skinny I am.

I look at her and think of Missy. She’s nowhere to be seen. The girl in the wagon smiles at me. No, that sure isn’t Missy.

◄ ►

I was getting older. I hadn’t done all that well in school that past year. I couldn’t seem to concentrate. I was still growing, though. I had been since I was twelve and a half. Still skinny as a rail. But developing. Dad didn’t like that. I could see it when he looked at me. He could envision me being as big as he was. He also didn’t like the defiance I allowed to show in my eyes now and then.

I was pretty fit. I’d played Little League baseball that year. I joined up mostly to have a reason to be out of the house but found I’d liked it. It was summer, and I’d just had my thirteenth birthday. I’d been one of the better players in the league. I was fast, had a good throwing arm, and was in the top three in the league in both batting average and home runs.

I knew all the kids on the team. They were all friendly. Particularly one; I had a hard time keeping my eyes off Johnny Bowers. He was that cute. I’d seen him looking at me, too.

I started hanging with him off the baseball field. One thing we did together was get passes to the town’s swimming pool. Before I went with Johnny, I’d gone to the pool with my bathing suit already on. I could just take my clothes off and put them in the locker they’d assigned me and not have to change into my suit. But when I went with Johnny the first time, he had to change into his bathing suit. He hadn’t worn his.

I watched him change. He watched me watching him. He made sure to take his time folding his clothes after taking them off, all the way down to his briefs. Then he wrapped a towel around himself and wriggled around getting his briefs off. I watched him do that. He knew I was watching. Then he stood up with just the towel on, turned so he was facing me, and pulled off the towel. He stood there in front of me, letting me look.

I looked. I could see all of him. I finally looked up and saw his eyes watching me. He had a grin on his face.

He took his time getting his bathing suit on. He wiggled around, pulling it up, letting everything jiggle around. All the while standing facing me.

After that, I never wore my suit to the pool. I always had to change there, just like he did. Took me awhile to finally get my suit on, too. Every time.

◄ ►

I walk behind the combine again, rake in hand. Two days in a row, enough to kill me, I think. Somehow it seems worse the second day. Maybe because I know what it’s going to be like all day. I hadn’t known that yesterday.

By noon I’m miserable. Way too hot, way too much dust to breathe. We’re going to stop for lunch soon. It won’t be soon enough.

My arms are sore from tossing pitchforks full of hay up onto the wagon. Each load I toss up doesn’t weigh all that much, but I’m not used to the motion of lifting the pitchfork as high as I must to toss the hay over the lip of the wagon bed. I have to twist to do it, and I feel it in my arms, shoulders and back. I badly need a break. I trudge on.

Today, the girl isn’t on the wagon. Instead, a boy who looks pretty much like her has taken her place. I get to wondering if she’s his sister, and if maybe they’re twins. As pretty as she is, so is he.

I can’t take the heat any longer and do what I wouldn’t do yesterday. I take off my shirt and tie it around my waist. The air, hot as it is, feels great on my wet skin. But soon, I start to think I made a mistake. My skin is soaking with sweat, and all the dust and chaff in the air—all of it is sticking to me. And it’s beginning to itch. Soon it’s itching like crazy.

I can’t stop, though. The combine and the wagon following it keep moving, and so must I.

We make a pass down the field that brings us closer to the house, and the combine shuts down. Damn! About time!

I drop my rake and hurry toward the house. Out back is a spigot and a hose. I plan to wash off. I get there and turn on the hose and hear a voice. I look up and the boy is standing there, a smile on his face.

“Let me help,” he said. “I was going to warn you about taking off your shirt, but you had it off before I could say anything. Let me have the hose. I can get your back better’n you can.”

I hand him the hose. He just stands there with it.

“You going to use that?” I ask.

“Yeah, I figure you’re going to strip off first. You don’t want your shorts all wet, or your shoes and socks.”

“Strip off? Here?”

He grins at me. “You ain’t a farm kid, are you? We all do this. Work hard, get sweaty, get some horse or pig on us; we strip off and get hosed down before going inside. I’ve heard city boys are kind of modest. We ain’t so much. Even if girls are around we strip off. Once we begin getting hair, we avoid the girls, but in front of other boys or our fathers or even our mothers, we ain’t shy. We’re country folk. Been doing it all our lives.”

He stops, then just looks at me. I think I can see a challenge in his eyes, but I’m not sure, because he’s grinning so hard his eyes are squinting.

I reach for my belt, then stop. “If you’re so used to this, why don’t you strip off, too? You have to be as hot as I am. Maybe not as itchy, but hot. The water’s cold.”

“I ain’t just funning you,” he says, still smiling, and grabs the bottom of his tee shirt. We strip off together. We look at each other. I turn so he can do my back and so he can’t see me getting hard from looking at him. I’m hoping the cold water on my back will take care of that before I turn so he can do my front.

◄ ►

I knew exactly how the subject came up. The preacher had talked almost exclusively about gays that Sunday, and in the paper that day there was a story about a gay teen who’d killed himself because his family hadn’t accepted him and had sent him to a camp to straighten himself out. The story talked about how the camp director and counselors had all been arrested for varying degrees of neglect and both physical and psychological child abuse. The boy had left a note telling what had happened to him at the camp and what it felt like when his parents had thrown him out of their house because he was still gay when he came home—after they’d paid all that money to the camp to fix him.

My father read the story. Then he lowered the paper and looked at me. I hadn’t been in the room. I’d simply been walking through to get to the stairs.

“There’s an article here about a faggot kid who offed himself,” my dad said, scowling at me. His anger, never far from the surface, was building. “His parents kicked him out. I wouldn’t do that. I’d kill you if I ever thought you were a fag. Tell me, you like boys? You ever think about sex with a boy? Huh?”

I looked him in the eye. It was easier to do that at thirteen than it had been at ten. “You think I’m gay?” I asked. My voice had begun breaking, and thankfully right then it stayed in its lower register.

“I asked you a question, God dammit!” He started to rise.

“No, I’m not gay. I’m your son. Gay's hereditary. So how could I be gay?” Then I turned and climbed the stairs. I guess he sat back down. I didn’t turn to look.

◄ ►

I am the one who has to bring down the bedding for the horses. It’s the kind of job you give to new hands because it takes no skill at all. It’s simply a chore, another one. You bring down the bundles and scatter the bedding in the cleaned stalls. Piece of cake.

Except I now know that nothing on the farm is easy. Every job has its own tricks and trials, and some of them aren’t much fun. Every single job is like that.

I climb into the barn loft where the bedding is kept. We have both bales of hay for feed, and there are bales of straw and bags of shavings for the stalls.

The barn cats live up here. It’s warm. They have a purpose, as everything on the farm does. They keep the mice at bay. Because of them, we don’t have a mouse problem. What we do have is a cat problem. There are too many of them, and they are feral. No one pets these cats.

I pull a bale of hay out, sliding it across the floor to the top of the chute that runs from the loft to the barn floor near one wall. Then I take two bags of shavings off the pile. And then all hell breaks loose.

The cats are using the space behind the bags as a bedroom/nursery. They don’t like their space being invaded. They let me know that in no uncertain terms.

Aunt Bess tends to my scratches and bite marks. The stuff she uses stings, and she tut-tut-tuts; I know she thinks I’m making way too much fuss. Farm kids don’t fuss much over scratches and bites. If they lose an arm in a cultivator, then they may groan a bit and cuss and spit a time or two before going back to work. Otherwise, ignoring a little pain is normal.

I think this is more than a tut-tut-tut job. Those cats did a number on me.

“Did you get the bedding down?” Uncle Peter asks, taking only a cursory glance at my bandages. I’m sitting on my bed reading my book and feeling a little sorry for myself.

“No, I’m on the shelf while my injuries heal,” I say, flopping the open book back against my chest.

“Hmmmmm,” he replies. Then he walks away. I look at my arms. They’re really not hurting all that much any longer. Then I start thinking about those damn cats and those horses expecting some fresh bedding.

I don’t get the bedding changed that night, but it nags at me. The next day, I’m ready. I head out to the barn and climb up into the loft. I’d thought of gauntlets but know if Missy ever saw them, I’d hear about it for a month. So I have another plan.

I walk to the back of the loft and set down three opened cans of tuna fish. Then I walk back to the pile of bags of shavings, sit down on a bale of straw and wait. In a few minutes, the smell has drawn every cat in that barn to the cans, where they commence to squabble and caterwaul.

I pull out two bags of shavings and drop them down the chute to the barn floor, then kick the bale of hay down as well.

The horses have fresh bedding and feed that night, and I try very hard to hold the smirk off my face. Farm boys don’t smirk.

I can’t help myself, though. I just have to tell Uncle Peter. I decide to do it at dinner. I have to do it just right. I’ve never heard Uncle Peter brag about anything.

I have a plan all set but don’t need it. Aunt Bess is talking. At dinner in this house, anyone can talk, anyone can say whatever they like. Nothing like my old house in the city. Aunt Bess frets and fusses. “I must be getting old and forgetful,” she says, “because I was sure I had enough tuna fish on hand to make a casserole for dinner, but I couldn’t find a single can. Don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m too young to be old!”

My cue!

So I am able to explain why there is no more tuna in the house without bragging about how clever I’d been. I apologize for taking the tuna and pretend I’m sorry when really I’m delighted to be able to explain how I’d outmaneuvered the cats without having to brag about it. Then I see I hadn’t needed to be so clever. For just about the first time ever, I can read Uncle Peter’s eyes when I happen to glance over at him after telling my tale. I see pride in his eyes. I have to look away fast, because mine start to mist up.

And then Missy says something about putting locks on the cupboards so charity cases won’t be stealing the family blind, and she ends up leaving the table with her plate still full of food. Uncle Peter is that upset with her, and for once Aunt Bess doesn’t say a word in her defense.

◄ ►

Johnny came over from time to time that summer. We sometimes went up to my room. Mom didn’t mind if I closed the door, even if Johnny was there. She spent most of her time cleaning the house and reading the Bible. I guess the Bible didn’t say anything about boys closing their bedroom doors with company inside the room with them. If it did, she’d have said something. She didn’t act like she did when I was smaller any longer. Even her speech patterns were adopting biblical phrasing and vocabulary. It was scary, seeing how she was changing. Seeing how different her eyes were now.

I didn’t have a lock on my door. I could push my bedside table up against it, though, and I did.

Johnny didn’t wear his bathing suit under his clothes when he came to my house. He didn’t wear anything at all. He said he wanted me to have as much access as I needed.

◄ ►

Missy and I are the only ones in the house. Uncle Peter is in the barn, tinkering with the tractor, and Aunt Bess is out in her garden. I stay in my room when it’s just Missy and me. It’s easier that way.

I hear a noise. The floors upstairs creak when walked on, so I always know when people are moving around up there. Then comes a different creak, this one from the stairs; Missy must be coming down. The sound is different because every step on the staircase isn’t complaining as it usually does, and what creaks I can hear aren’t as loud as usual.

I know the noises in this house. Where I used to live, noises were an early-warning system that I learned when very young. They saved me sometimes. Not always. But I learned to listen to what the house had to say to me and brought that habit with me when I came to live here.

Missy is moving and doesn’t want me to know. I am immediately on guard. But I think about it and realize if she is trying to be sneaky—her ma and pa are outside—then the sneakiness is aimed at covering up whatever she is doing—covering it up from me. Maybe it is something that will cause me trouble later on, or maybe it has nothing to do with me, but whatever it is, it is best if I know what it is.

I need to be investigating, not hiding in my room.

I silently open the door of my room behind the kitchen, ready to step out, then stop, turn around and grab my camera. I know from experience that whatever I say, Missy will deny. Whatever she’s doing, I need a record of it.

I look into the kitchen, find it empty, and tiptoe to where I can look down the hallway which leads to the dining room and the front of the house. I pull my head back quickly because she’s there in the hall. There’s a little niche where the old-fashioned dial phone sits on a small table. Other things get set on that table, like car keys and mail and such. It’s also where Aunt Bess drops her purse when she comes back home from going to town.

Missy is going through that purse. She takes Aunt Bess’s wallet out. She opens it up, checks what paper money is there, and pulls a few bills out.

I quickly snap a picture of her doing it. She doesn’t hear the tiny click of the camera.

I don’t know whether she’s taking the money for herself or if she’s planning to plant it in my room and blame me for stealing it. I’m not taking pictures to get her in trouble. I’m taking them to protect myself.

◄ ►

It was July, and Johnny invited me to a barbecue at his house. I told my mom I’d be going. She said to get permission from my dad, but I wasn’t about to do that. I’d told her I was going, and so to me, I’d taken care of business. I didn’t speak to Dad unless absolutely necessary.

Johnny’s family was great. He had a kid brother and an older sister, and they were all friendly. His parents were, too. He told me they knew he was gay. They were supportive. He asked me about my parents. I never told anyone about my dad. I just didn’t speak about my parents when I could get away with it, and if I couldn’t, I often just lied about what I said.

I did that with Johnny’s parents. I told them my parents knew I was gay, too. It was easier, doing it that way than talking about what really happened at my house.

When I got home, my dad was furious. I hadn’t got permission from him to miss dinner at home. I wasn’t able to get away from him fast enough. He got hold of me. I hurt pretty good most of the next week.

◄ ►

The bus drops us off about a mile from our house. We live on a dirt road that crosses the highway. The bus stays on the highway. It’s not so good when it’s raining. But I am a boy, and I can take it. I can take a lot. Maybe more than most.

But that’s bragging, and Uncle Peter doesn’t brag, so I don't, either.

Missy has to walk down that narrow dirt road, too, but I sit in the back of the bus with the boys, and she is up front with the girls, so she gets off before I do. That is fine with me. The last thing I ever want to do is walk home with her.

I am about halfway home when I notice I have company. I stop, and he stops, too. I look down at him. He looks sort of bedraggled. And skinny. Real skinny. But when I look down at him, he wags his tail.

Doesn’t take much to fall in love, I guess. Especially when that’s something there hasn’t been much of in my life. Maybe because instead of being the one rescued, I get to do the rescuing.

Uncle Peter looks him over and frowns and starts to shake his head, then looks at me. I can’t read his eyes, but he can read mine. He sees the look of hope on my face and, perhaps, even more than that: perhaps he can read the need, too. He looks back at the dog, then at me, and he nods.

I call him Max. Uncle Peter isn’t sure at all if he likes that, says he knew a kid at school by that name who was a bully, but he doesn’t say I can’t name the dog that. It’s really scary for me, deciding to do something I know my uncle isn’t happy with. I know what would have happened with my dad. But Uncle Peter’s gaze softens. It’s almost like he wants me to make this decision.

So I name the dog Max. Uncle Peter scowls, but I know him now, know what his body language means, and know he is testing me, trying to show me that I don’t have to be scared of him or make decisions just because I know he’ll like them. He doesn’t care that I’m naming the dog something he doesn’t like.

He doesn’t say anything at all about the name. He just accepts it. Uncle Peter is good about not saying much at all.

◄ ►

Johnny called me the next week to say he’d just overheard his mom on the phone talking to mine. His mom had called mine to invite her to a PFLAG meeting. She’d thought my mom knew about me.

My heart seemed to understand before my head did and began a beating frenzy. This was going to be bad. Worse than ugly. Maybe lethal. What could I do? I was almost in a daze thinking about it. I went to my room and just sat on the bed. Scared, but something else, too. I was very tired of being afraid. Tired of being beaten. I tried hard to think. It was difficult to do that, as frightened as I was about what was going to happen.

When Dad came home that evening, I was still up in my room. I heard him roar. This was it. She’d told him. That wasn’t a difficult guess. I’d known I’d be in deep shit if Mom told Dad what she’d heard on the phone, and she had. What she’d heard about me, what it meant about me, was against her biblical teachings, and now I knew she hadn’t kept it from Dad. She had no way of keeping anything from him. She was afraid of him, and he could always tell when she was hiding something. In this case, she may not even have cared if he knew because she didn’t like what I was any more than he did. The roar got louder, and then I heard him pounding up the stairs. He was cursing like tomorrow would never come, working himself up to an even madder state as he came, and his steps were like the pounding of the hammer of doom.

I’d decided. I’d known this was coming when Johnny had told me my mother knew, and I’d been sitting on my bed ever since. Just thinking. Thinking and trembling. But while doing that, I’d decided something. Enough was enough. I simply wasn’t going to accept any more beatings. The last time he’d hit me, two weeks ago, I’d tried to stand up to him. I couldn’t, and he’d beaten me down. But I had stood back up afterwards, the best I could, and I’d told him: never again. He’d hit me again when I said that, knocked me down again for saying it, but then he’d walked away. I think he saw something in me then, saw I meant it.

Hearing him coming, time slowed down, and my resolve hardened. I got my baseball bat—the bat I’d hit .472 with in my last Little League season—out of my closet and stood by my closed door. I bat right-handed and the door opened so it swung into the room away from me if I stood to the left of the door when facing it. I moved to that side of the doorframe, pulled the bat back, bent my knees as I did when a pitch was coming and waited. My heart was pounding much faster than the thumps on the stairs. It was beating so hard my vision was full of little speckles of light.

My door burst open and there he was, red-faced and raging. As he was flying into the room, I swung, swung hard and fast, just like for a low-and-away fastball. I hit my target squarely and very, very hard. A great swing, a great hit. Sure to be a double, maybe even a home run.

He went down, screaming. I got him right on the knee, probably broke it. I’d been trying for his knee, trying to break it. He held it in his hands, lying on the floor, and the noises that came from his mouth weren’t words—just emotion, pain and anger.

“You beat me for the last time,” I yelled over his screams, my uncontrolled emotions pouring out. “I told you that! I told you! No more! Ever! You try it again, I won’t just break something! I’ll kill you! I should do it now!” My screams were louder than his. My emotions were higher than his.

I raised the bat over my head. He looked up, and I saw something I’d never seen before. There was fear in his eyes. I started my downswing, the motion exactly like splitting logs with an axe. Like Charles Bronson splitting wood to earn his breakfast in The Magnificent Seven. My father’s hands left his knee and rose to protect his head. Way, way too late.

◄ ►

I am about to roll open the barn door when I hear a noise, a sort of gasp—something I’ve never heard before. But it makes me stop. It has more of a human feel to it than equine, and it certainly isn’t a noise a cat would make, and so I pause. I listen and hear more, just little sounds, but enough to think I ought to be wary going in there.

I walk around to the side of the barn where there’s a small door just used by hands, people like me, not for tractors or horses or such. I open it carefully so I won't make a sound and step in.

It’s cooler in the barn—and darker, too. The noises are coming from above. I move to the ladder leading up to the loft and climb it silently, stopping just before my head clears the floor. Then I inch upwards till just my eyes can see over the floorboards.

At first I don’t see anything, but then another sort of moan comes, and I turn toward where it seems to be coming from. In the back of the loft, I can just make out two people. I’m sure Missy is one of them. I’d know her silhouette anywhere. The other? I keep looking and finally recognize who it is, even in the shadows. It’s Tom, one of the neighbor’s hands. He’s older than she is, probably 21 or 22, and good-looking enough in a grubby, bad boy, countrified sort of way. I’ve heard Missy talking to her friends about him.

He and she are standing up against the rear wall, and they are up against each other. His arms are around her, and her arms are between them, but hanging down. I can’t see what she’s doing with them, but he was the one making the noises. Sometimes a moan, sometimes a sort of gargling, guttural sound.

As I watch, I see Tom’s trousers suddenly come loose at his waist, and she pushes them down; they drop to the floor. Now I know what Missy’s hands had been doing. Well, one of the things they were doing. Loosening one’s belt doesn’t cause the noises I’ve been hearing.

I move my head down below the floor slowly, then quickly but silently climb down the ladder and make my way back to the door I’d entered through. I have the impression they are just getting started, just getting into what they’re about to do, and so I think I have time if I hurry.

I get my little digital camera from my room. Aunt Bess is in town today, I am thinking, and that’s maybe why Missy is being brave enough to do what she’s doing. I run back out of the house, back to the barn.

I look at the camera on the way, making sure the flash won’t go on automatically because of low light. If the flash goes off, I might get killed. Tom’s a lot bigger than I am. I climb the ladder and peek over the edge.

They’ve moved forward with their activities, both in time and place. They’ve spread a blanket across some hay bales that are closer to the ladder, about half way from the wall where they were to where I now am, but still at least 20 feet from where I stand perched on the ladder. I’m lucky. Where they are, light from one of the windows catches them. Both are now naked, but Tom is still standing. Missy is in front of him on her knees on the blanket, her head at the same height as his waist, doing what you’d think she’d be doing in that position. I’ve never seen a girl doing that before. From the look on Missy’s face, glancing up at Tom, she is enjoying making him moan, which he’s doing a lot right now.

I begin taking pictures. There are tiny clicks when I do, but they are fully engaged in what they’re doing and don’t hear a thing. Maybe the small, continual noises the hay makes as Missy moves on it covers the camera’s clicks, and Tom’s moans certainly do. But by the looks of them, I think I could set off firecrackers and they wouldn’t notice. Tom lets out a growl like he’s been hit with an axe handle, throws back his head, and lurches forward with his midsection. I know what’s happening. Missy does, too, but never takes her mouth off him. When he is done, he withdraws. I get a good shot of that, too. I wish this camera had a video mode, but I hadn’t had enough money to get one like that. I also hope to God the light pouring through the window on them is sufficient for the camera.

Missy seems angry that Tom’s not ready for more. He tells her he will be in a few minutes. She tries to hasten the process by taking hold of him and working it. I get several more pictures.

Back in the house, I quickly download the pics onto the laptop I have for schoolwork, the one I’d convinced Uncle Peter I needed for school if I’m going to get any kind of grades at all. I find I can concentrate better now than I did last year. Then I erase everything from the camera’s memory.

I hide what I’ve downloaded in a password-protected file titled Study Questions for Pre-Calculus.

◄ ►

I’d hit him hard again, as hard as I could, that swing after I’d broken his knee. I’d let all my anger loose, but I’d hit him on the shoulder instead of the head. Chopped down with all my might, but not on the head.

There’d been a crack, the sound bones make when they break.

He’d screamed, and I’d raised the bat again, and he’d continued to scream, his right arm, the arm he always used to hit me with, hanging uselessly at his side. I held the bat high above my head, and all my anger seemed to fall away, perhaps floating away on those screams. He’d suddenly become much smaller, diminished by his screaming, his fear.

Time passed. I don’t know how much. I was already in a muddled place, my thoughts not entirely coherent.

My mother peeked into the room. She saw him lying on the floor, his screaming changed to moaning. I was standing above him, looking down, still holding my bat, though it was dangling at my side now. My mother took a hesitant step into the room, never taking her eyes off him.

“Call the police,” I said. My voice sounded very strange. Not my own. “Call them and tell them to come get him right away. Before I decide to kill him.”

My mother took a vague sort of glance at me, like she didn’t quite recognize me or didn’t know what was happening, then back at him, and then she sort of backed out of the room. As she left, I called to her. “Are you going to call them?” I needed to know.

“I’ll call.” Her voice was vague, too. “I think I need to call an ambulance, too. Maybe they’ll let me ride with him. He’ll need me.”

My God!

◄ ►

At dinner the first night I am at the farm, I bow my head and close my eyes, ready for grace, when I hear laughter. I look up at Missy across the table from me, pointing at me and giggling. “Look at him! He looks like a little kid, saying his prayers at night. Do you still do that, kneel by your bed and pray in your little jammies?”

“That’s enough, Missy.” Uncle Peter’s voice is stern. I’ve never heard him sound like that before.

“But he looks so stupid!” She laughs again, but it sounds a little forced this time. After making sure I am watching her laugh at me, she glares at Uncle Peter. Then she says, “I told you I didn’t want him here!”

When Uncle Peter answers, his voice is calm again. “And I don’t want you at our table if you aren’t going to be civilized. Making fun of guests is not what members of this family do. You are excused. Go to your room and remain there. We’ll talk again when we’re done with dinner.”

Even though his voice is calm and measured, Missy doesn’t say a word more or even let her eyes speak. She stands up and walks away in the direction of the staircase.

◄ ►

Uncle Peter came into my room. I was sitting on the bed, completely out of it. My emotions had gotten the best of me. All that anger! I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t killed him. I’d felt like it. Part of me had wanted to, wanted to really strongly. But at the last minute I’d pulled back.

Uncle Peter sat down next to me. “You all right?” he asked. His voice was soft and steady.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The police didn’t arrest me.”

“Your mother told them about the hitting. She said you hit him in self-defense. Your father is in the hospital with a badly shattered collarbone and broken knee. He’s also been arrested for spousal and child abuse.”

I didn’t say anything. I knew I could have killed him. I was still processing that. I knew I had a temper, but I’d always kept it under control. His temper was part of him, and I hated him, and I hated that part of me. I didn’t want to be like him, and if I allowed my temper to come out, that was being like him. I had been like him when he’d come into my room. But maybe, just maybe, being like him right then had saved my life.

I wasn’t sure what to think.

Uncle Peter was silent, too, but that wasn’t unusual for him. It felt very natural.

My mother stepped into the room, looked at us, then left.

“When you’re ready, pack a suitcase. You’re coming to live with us. At the farm.”

I looked up at him. “Whether I want to or not?”

“No. But I thought maybe you’d want to. I don’t think your mother can care for you right now. When I spoke to her, she was hardly lucid.”

I tried to think about that. Did I want to go with him? I was too confused to be able to digest what he was saying. I tried to think, but my mind was still muddled.

“If I come with you, can I change my mind later?”

“Anytime you want to come back here, you only have to tell me. I don’t want to kidnap you, only give you a place to live where you’re not in fear, where things are normal. I’m not sure where your mother is right now mentally. She told me you were gay and she didn’t approve. She kept quoting Bible verses to me. I think it would benefit her to be by herself right now, to figure things out without having to take care of you. And I think it would be better for you to put some distance between where you’ve been and where you’ll be. You need to distance yourself from your memories of what’s been going on here, too.”

That was a long speech for Uncle Peter. I thought maybe he was giving me time to consider his invitation.

“Okay,” I said.

He helped me pack.

◄ ►

My birthday comes right on time in the spring. I’ve been on the farm since the middle of last summer. I don’t tell anyone it’s coming, and I don’t tell anyone that today I’m fourteen. I don’t want to be a fuss. They are already buying me clothes because I keep growing, and they are feeding me and giving me a place to sleep. I work, of course, but doing chores is not nearly enough to pay for what I am costing them, and I don’t mind the chores. It feels good to know I’m part of what goes on here. It is best if they don’t know about my birthday. I don’t need any presents.

We sit down to eat, and Aunt Bess brings in a huge platter of fried chicken. There are mashed potatoes and her chicken gravy, and we have fresh vegetables from the garden. Aunt Bess is the best cook ever, and this is my favorite meal.

I look at all the food and thank her. She says, “A birthday boy deserves his favorite meal! Happy birthday, Derrick.” She hugs me. And to my surprise, Uncle Peter gets up and hugs me, too. Missy glowers at me and doesn’t say a word.

“How did you know?” I ask Aunt Bess.

“We had to get your school records transferred, and there were forms to fill out. I saw your birth date on some of the forms. Why didn’t you tell us?”

I drop my head. “I didn’t want to be a bother,” I say to my lap.

“You are, you know!” That’s Missy’s contribution and why she didn’t get to enjoy the meal with the rest of us. Uncle Peter is tired of her attitude, but this time I’m surprised that it’s Aunt Bess who snaps at her and sends her to her room. I think Aunt Bess will take her a plate later on; that’s what usually happens. But this is the first time it’s ever been Aunt Bess doing the disciplining, not Uncle Peter.

I get presents, too: a book I’d wanted, a new pair of the sneakers that everyone at school is either wearing or wanting, two new shirts, and a new laptop computer. I wish I wouldn’t, but I tear up. It’s all way too much. I don’t deserve anything like this.

I get something else, too, that I treasure. It’s a Western hat, just like the one Uncle Peter wears.

I don’t get the present I used to get. My dad would always find a way to hit me on my birthday. I think he resented the fact I was the center of attention for a short time. I couldn’t think of any other reason for it.

◄ ►

It was only a two-hour drive to where his farm sat in the middle of farm country from our house. I was still getting my head around what had happened. Uncle Peter rarely spoke unless spoken to and seemed quite content to simply drive.

I finally did have some questions. I managed to pull myself out of my head to formulate and ask them.

“Do you have room for me? I remember your house as being small. Only two bedrooms upstairs, and there’s you and Aunt Bess and Missy. Where will I sleep?”

“It’ll be crowded, but at least we don’t have a dog.” Uncle Peter said it with a straight face. I never knew when he was joking. I had heard him joking and laughing a couple of times, so he did have a sense of humor. Maybe this was a joke. Maybe he was trying to tell me that life moved forward. I’d been quiet up to now, so maybe he was making a point that I should lighten up. Maybe. Or maybe he was just telling me that he didn’t like dogs.

That would have seemed odd at the moment, however. I thought he was trying to be funny. I didn’t feel anything like laughing, though.

“So where will I sleep?” I asked again.

“We’ve got a room off the kitchen that we’ll fix up for you. This all happened kind of quick. We’ll put you in there, but you’ll have to sleep on a couch in the living room till we’ve got the room cleared out and bought a bed and things for you.”

I thought about that, about how different it would be. I was a city boy. I had friends and a school where I knew people. Now I was moving to where I knew no one and would be on a farm. Sort of a ranch and farm combined. Uncle Peter raised horses for sale. He had a lot of land and used much of it for growing feed for horses and cattle. I learned he made as much money selling the feed as he did the horses. He also had a couple of milk cows and some chickens that provided milk and eggs for the family. I didn’t know anything about either ranching or farming. I’d grown up as city boys do, going to school, coming home and doing homework, using my computer, playing video games—staying out of my dad’s sight—that sort of life. How did country boys live? How in the world would I ever fit in?

“The room isn’t very big, I’m afraid. You’ll have to make do. I guess that’ll be sort of like your life till you settle in—making do.”

He could have said a lot of things that would have made me feel better. That wasn’t one of them.

◄ ►

The summer passes quickly, probably because I’m so busy. I am learning all the things you do on a farm. I mean everything. This is a horse farm as well as a crop-producing farm. That means there is equipment to operate and maintain. There are animals to care for, to feed and look after. There are farm facilities and property to inspect and repair. There are seasonal activities like planting and harvesting, but daily ones, too, like milking and cleaning stalls. I learn about all of these. I am one of the people here who do them all.

Missy seems involved with talking on her phone, visiting the neighbors, watching soap operas, fixing her hair, and bothering me.

Uncle Peter spends a lot of time with me, showing me everything that gets done on the farm. At first I think it is because he is looking at me as an unpaid hand and wants me to be able to do everything that needs being done. But as time passes, I see things differently. He is very patient. He does not chat to fill silences; instead he says what needs to be said. But that doesn’t make him cold.

I had thought he was cold and severe at first. But he isn’t. He is warm and caring, and I’m beginning to really like him. You don’t have to talk a lot to be a good person.

I learn a lot spending time with him. I have chores to do, but I see why they need to be done, and doing them makes me feel part of the farm in a way I wouldn’t if I didn’t have any. I get the feeling I'm a cog in a machine here; the machine runs smoother with me being that cog. I like that feeling.

I find that Missy’s remarks about me being a charity case and sponging off my uncle and aunt don’t sting as much when I know how wrong she is. I am pulling my weight here. Much more than she is.

◄ ►

We drove in silence for a bit more, and then he said, “I don’t like to predict problems, and I’d prefer you learn things on your own. But I think there may be a problem at home, and it’s only fair that you’re prepared for it going in. It’s Missy. I’m afraid she wasn’t happy about your coming to us. She can be a handful. She’s Bess’s daughter, my stepdaughter. But Bess dotes on Missy, and that spoils a child. Missy might give you some problems. If so, there’re two things you can do. You can come to us and let us try to solve them, or you can try to handle them all on your own.”

I thought about that and felt some nerves acting up. Great. I was moving to a place where I wasn’t wanted. I hardly knew Missy. I hardly knew any of them, really. Dad didn’t like people visiting, so we’d never had many of them. Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess had come to town and visited us maybe once a year. They only brought Missy with them once, a couple of years ago. Missy had acted very superior to me. I hadn’t liked her at all. Now I was moving in with her, and she’d already told her parents she didn’t want me there.

Yeah, really great!

I thought about this, then asked a question. “You didn’t really say. Should I come to you if she’s causing problems or would you rather I didn’t?”

He didn’t reply right away, and when he did, I had to interpret his answer. He said, “If you’re going to be living with us, with me, I guess it’s only fair to tell you how I look at things. You’re growing up, Derrick. You’ll have problems all your life. It’s best if you can handle them on your own. It’ll make you proud of yourself, knowing you can rely on your own capabilities to get through life. Life isn’t fair. It’s not unfair, either. But if you go through it expecting someone to give you something or bail you out when you have a problem, you’ll be disappointed time after time. The best plan is to work for whatever it is you want and not expect gifts from people. I know you’re strong. What you did to your dad to solve the problem you had with him showed that. He was a terrible man, and you dealt with him. I hope you feel good about yourself because of that.”

As I said, I had to interpret that answer to my question. It was pretty easy to do. He didn’t want me coming to him for every little thing.

What that meant to me, however—sitting in that car, driving to a new home that I knew little about—was that I was going to be on my own.

◄ ►

School is starting next week. I’m sort of scared. It’ll be all new to me, and I don’t see how I can fit in. I know something about farming now, even though I didn’t grow up in the country. I’m still basically a city kid, and it’ll show.

I ask Aunt Bess about the school, and she says a bus would pick Missy and me up at the end of our road each morning and bring us back each afternoon. She says the school is in the small town nearby, and it is a central school for all the kids on the surrounding farms and in the town. It is small, and so will be the classes. There is a cafeteria, but most of the kids, being farm kids, will bring their lunches; farm kids around here, at least, aren’t very well off and don’t spend money on things when they don’t have to.

So I’m worrying about it. Just another thing to worry about. I wonder if all boys who got hit when they were young worry about things as much as I do.

I’ve been happy with all the chores and work I do on the farm. It keeps my head quiet. When I’m alone and not working, my head fills with a jumble of thoughts about my dad and mom, about what life was like then, and about now, too. I try to hold the thoughts together, but sometimes I really can’t. I try not to think about a lot of things from back then, too.

I wonder if this is what being crazy is all about.

There’s one thing I can do when I’m alone that settles me down, and I do it when I’m sure I won’t be caught. There’s a place behind the chicken coop where I can go and not be seen. I’ve been using that place recently. I can sit down and just bide my time.

I am doing that when Missy sticks her head around the corner.

“Aha! Caught you. I thought that’s what you’ve been doing out here!” There is a nasty pitch to her triumph. “I’ve seen you coming out back here, and this time I snuck out after you. Hah! Wait till I tell everyone.”

“You didn’t see anything!” I shout. I know she hadn’t. I had my hand down my pants is all, just getting in the mood, getting started, and from where she was and where I was, she couldn’t even have seen that. I pull my hand out of my pants and stand up. “See?” I say, and then start moving toward her, trying to look threatening. She yelps and runs off, but shouts back at me, “Doesn’t matter what I saw. I know what you were doing, and I’m going to tell people I caught you at it.”

◄ ►

It was awkward when I arrived at the farm that night. Aunt Bess was warm and even smothering to a kid who hadn’t had any physical affection for a long time and had just been through a highly emotional situation. Missy, on the other hand, was chilly and barely polite. She almost sneered at me, said hello, then said she had something more important to do than to stand there with the rest of us—that she was going to sort through her magazines—and left. Uncle Peter rolled his eyes, and Aunt Bess smiled fondly in her wake.

They showed me what would be my room, which was more a cubbyhole than a bedroom. It was filled with what I guess was the debris of farm life. Uncle Peter said they’d have it ready for me hopefully by tomorrow and apologized for not being able to do better.

When I mentioned I needed the bathroom, they told me where it was—on the upper floor—and when I climbed the stairs, Missy was standing there at the top. “What are you doing up here? You belong downstairs.”

I told her I was going to use the bathroom. Her eyes lit up. “After me,” she said, and scurried to the bathroom and shut the door. When she hadn’t come out five minutes later, I went back downstairs. Uncle Peter was in the living room, Aunt Bess in the kitchen. I told her I was going to go look around outside and walked out the back door. It was easy enough out there in the dark to find a place to relieve myself. But I already knew that living with Missy was going to be a trial.

That turned out to be true. She was cold toward me when her parents were around and sarcastic, scathing and hateful when they weren’t. She didn’t want me there. I guess she craved all the attention for herself. She’d been a princess in that house and wasn’t going to give that up easily. She probably thought if she made my life miserable, I’d leave.

She had no idea what a miserable life was. Plus, there was nowhere I could go. I’d then become a ward of the state because I was sure my mother didn’t want me.

But she had been treated like a princess all her life, and I was sure neither my uncle nor aunt wanted me to come in and start raising a ruckus about their daughter. So I had to put up with her abuse. It was much easier than putting up with my dad’s.

◄ ►

I’m out working in the corral, lunging horses. That means having them run around in circles with me in the middle of the circle holding a rope attached to their halters. I guess we could call it exercising, but Uncle Peter always says lunging so I do too.

I work several horses for a couple of hours and then am beat. Drenched with sweat and too much sun, I’m ready to collapse. I don’t, though. I rinse each horse off with the hose after each is done, and then, finally, I strip off my tee shirt and run the hose on myself, too, just to cool off. I never do put the shirt back on. If people want to look and see how skinny I am, let them. I am too tired to care. Besides, I’m not nearly that skinny now.

Finally done, I retreat to my favorite resting place behind the barn. I sit back in the shade against the weathered boards and sigh. I have my Western cowboy hat with me, the one that Uncle Peter gave me for my birthday, and I always have that on when I am outside. I love that hat. I pull it down to shade my face better and close my eyes. I can hear various far-off farm noises, and by now I know where each is coming from. That thought makes me smile.

I even hear a humming I know the source of. Some wasps are in the process of building a nest up near the barn roof. I look up at them. I am on the ground on one side of the peak of the roof and they are up under the eaves on the other, so I am not worried about them. They are doing their thing, and I am doing mine.

And then that changes. As I sit there, Missy comes around the corner of the barn, glances at me, smiles—if you can call it that—and then raises what she’s holding, an old small-bore shotgun Uncle Peter keeps for pests. She points it at the wasp nest and fires two rapid shots at it. Then she quickly ducks back around the corner.

A surge of angry wasps spreads from the wreckage of nest like sewage from an overflowing cesspool. They look around for something to attack, and I am the only target in the vicinity. They head for me, and I bolt away, running for my life. I know I can’t get to the house in time, and struggling to get the barn door open would get me stung multiple times. I can only think of one thing that might save me.

I head back for that hose, which isn’t far off. I turn it on and put my thumb over the end and create as fine a spray as I can, point it straight up, then step under it. I get drenched, but the water feels good, and a whole lot better than those stings would, and the wasps don’t want any part of it.

I am seething inside, though. If I hadn’t thought of the hose, if the wasps had got me, I would have had many, many stings. People who are allergic to stings sometimes die from them. Did Missy know that? Did she even care?

◄ ►

I woke up on the couch in the living room my first morning on the farm to wonderful smells. It was seven-thirty, a little early for me to be awake in the summer, but I couldn’t stay in bed with the smell of breakfast only a few feet away. I’d been too upset to be hungry last night and had eaten nothing since lunch the previous day.

Mom had stopped cooking breakfast a long time ago. I’d always got myself a bowl of cereal. Toast, if I were very energetic, which I usually wasn’t in the morning.

I dressed and walked into the kitchen. Aunt Bess was at the stove, and Uncle Peter was just walking in the back door. “Morning, Derrick,” he said, and then Aunt Bess repeated it.

I needed the bathroom. Not seeing Missy, I went up the stairs quietly and peeked down the hall. Empty. So I raced for the bathroom and made it. Was this going to be how it was every morning?

Back downstairs, I saw the table was loaded with biscuits fresh from the oven, a thick slab of ham, and jars of homemade jelly and jam. Uncle Peter sat down and pointed to a chair, so I sat, too. Aunt Bess brought a big platter of scrambled eggs and another of fried potatoes with bits of sausage mixed in. They each had cups of coffee. Aunt Bess asked me if I wanted milk or juice or both. I said both.

The food was wonderful. I ate ravenously. Aunt Bess watched and smiled.

Uncle Peter finally pushed back in his chair, sighed, and told me, “I let you sleep in this morning. I’ll show you around today, show you some chores that can be yours. Tomorrow, you can get up at a reasonable hour. I get up at five and put in some time on the farm till breakfast at seven-thirty. A young boy needs his sleep, but it’s summer and you might as well enjoy the warm days. So I’ll have Aunt Bess wrestle you out of bed at, say, six. That’ll give you an hour and a half before breakfast and you can get most of your chores done by then.

Six? Was he kidding?

He saw the look on my face and grinned. “Hell,” he said, “if you stayed in bed longer than that in the summer, I’d have to start calling you Missy the Second.” Aunt Bess frowned. But he couldn’t have found a better reason for me to be happy being up that early.

◄ ►

I stand with a tray full of food by a table where some boys that have been in the same classes I’ve had that first morning are sitting. There are three empty chairs. “May I sit here?” I ask no one in particular.

They all look up and then at each other and back at me. One of them smiles, and another says, “Help yourself.” So I sit down. I chat and eat, and just that easily I’m not alone any more. I might even stretch it to say I have friends—what passes as friends when you’re the same age and live in farm and ranch country and go to a rural school. As we eat and talk, I learn that the guys at this table all live on farms, all have chores and work to do helping out at home, and they don’t have a lot of time to spend with other kids. It’s comfortable chatting with these guys, answering questions about city life, feeling part of something my age for once, and I feel some of the hollowness in my stomach relax.

Missy comes over to our table. “You know he’s gay, don’t’cha?” she says to everyone at the table. “He’s living with us ’cause his parents don’t want ’im and someone had to take ’im in. We got a stray cat to home, too, so that makes two of ’em, two charity cases. That’s what we call ’im at home. If you let ’im sit with you, everyone will think you’re gay, too.” She looks at all of them, then nods. “Maybe you are.” Then she raises her nose up as she strides away. I can hear her say, under her breath but loud enough, “Faggots!” No one at our table says a word. I look around and no one meets my eye. There’s no more happy chatter.

I stand up, take my half-eaten lunch and tray, dump everything in the barrel, put my tray on the shelf and walk out into the deserted hallway. I lean against the wall, then slide down so I’m sitting on the floor. I rest my elbows on my knees and drop my face into my hands.

◄ ►

My life was now much different. I was learning new things. It was summer, and my days were spent mostly outside. Farming was much more complex than I’d imagined, and when working in the fields was considered, a whole lot of hard labor. I hadn’t done physical work before, at least nothing like this. I was sore the first few days, but I was young, and I grew into what I was doing. I had a lot of chores, but that just made me like everyone else, one of the working farm people. Uncle Peter had several full-time hands. I did my chores and then pitched in where I could see I could help.

I was surprised how much I got to like the work! Getting to know how, not needing anyone to tell me how, that was big for me.

“This is a horse farm,” Uncle Peter told me early on. We were outside, leaning on a wood-railed fence, watching some horses grazing in one of the pastures. “We buy and sell horses, breed horses, train horses, stable horses; if it has to do with horses, it’s probably something we do or ought to be doing. You’ll get involved in all of that. In the farm, too. What I’m hoping is you take to the work and get to like it. If you have an open mind and don’t start off hating it just because it’s new to you, if you give it a chance, you might find it’s not a bad place for a young teenager to grow up. You’ll certainly not lack for things to do. Kids on a farm never complain to their mom that they’re bored!”

“What about other kids?” I asked. “Will I meet any? Will I have any sort of social life?”

“You will shortly. Summer’s coming to an end. Then you’ll have school. You’ll meet kids there. Many of them will be farm kids. I’m sure you’ll make friends and arrange times to get together with the ones you make.”

I hesitated but had decided I wasn’t going to try to hide who I was from Uncle Peter. He knew I was gay. He’d found out when he’d come to pick me up after I’d bashed my dad. So, I went ahead and asked what I wanted to. “Do you think there are any gay kids around—at that school or in town?”

“I’m sure there are. How you go about finding them, I don’t know. I never had that problem. But gay boys do find partners. They’ll be looking for you as you’ll be looking for them.”

“And you don’t care that I’m gay?”

“Not at all. I think when you work on a farm with animals, you learn a different set of values from other folk. You see sex as the way of the world. It isn’t as big a deal as it is other places. You’ll get involved with breeding and see a lot of what’s what with horses and sex. Sex’ll lose some of its mystique. Animals have sex. We’re animals. No problem.”

I smiled at him. He was so calm about everything.

◄ ►

At lunch, I very slowly walk back to the table I was sitting at the day before. The same boys are there. Brian, Dylan, Wade and Bill. I hesitate. I don’t really have the nerve to do this, but I force myself. I think these boys will probably tell me they don’t want me there.

One of the boys, Bill, looks up and sees me. He smiles. Wow, that smile is amazing. It lifts my spirits unimaginably high.

Bill nudges the boy next to him, Brian, who looks up, and he smiles at me, too. He pats the empty space next to him.

I speed up my walk and go to the table. I set my tray down, but don’t sit. Instead, I address everyone. “Is it okay if I sit here? Still?”

“Please,” Brian says. “And we all want to apologize about yesterday. When she said those things, we were all sort of in shock that anyone would do that, would be that mean. We didn’t know what to say. You saw the looks on our faces and got up and left. But we weren’t upset with you. It was with her. Man, what a bitch!”

The boy across from him, Dylan, who has hair down to his shoulders and mischievous eyes, speaks next, saying “We don’t care if you’re gay. So what?” Then he laughs and says, “As long as you don’t hit on us—except for Wade, here.”

He nods at a boy across the table from me. “Wade’s gay, too, and he says you can hit on him all you want.”

Wade laughs. He too has long dark hair, and he dresses a little better than the rest of the guys at the table. He has a sense of humor, too. I can see it in his eyes. He looks like a very cheerful kid. And he isn’t a bit bashful. He says, “I have to tell you, though, I don’t kiss on the first date. You want to try other things, though, I’m up for that!”

He laughs again and gets a whole tableful of jeers and rude comments from the other guys. I can see he is well-liked.

I look around. Brian is there, smiling at me. He seems like the group’s leader. There’s a passive quality to him that I like. I think we may get to be good friends.

But, when I look around, I suddenly realize, these are all friends now, ones who I’ll probably become closer with as I spend more time with them. And I won’t be ashamed to bring any of them back to the ranch with me. I was never able to have friends over to my house in the city unless I knew my dad wouldn’t be there. I wonder if any of these guys ride horses.

Maybe I can teach them.

◄ ►

I had no contact with my mother after I began living on the farm. In the few months previous to leaving that home, I hadn’t had much with her, either. She’d changed. She had become distant to me, and we’d rarely spoken. Still, I thought it odd that she’d never called. I’d thought that maybe, with Dad in jail, she’d start coming around, back to how she’d been when I was younger.

I’d given a deposition and hadn’t had to attend Dad’s trial. I was happy about that. A couple of lawyers came to the house with a court reporter, and Uncle Peter sat in the room with me. I had to swear an oath, and then they asked a lot of questions, and I told the truth. It was all written down by that lady with the shorthand machine. I felt nervous before we did it and nervous doing it, too, but knew it was much easier than sitting in a court in front of a roomful of strangers with my dad glaring at me. I didn’t have to do that. My dad didn’t catch a break with the female judge he got. She had no mercy for him, and I heard when he was convicted, she gave him the maximum time she could. I was happy when I learned I’d be well into adulthood before he’d be out. If he got out in one piece. I’d heard child molesters and abusers did the hardest of hard time.

I asked Uncle Peter about why my mom hadn’t called or written me since I’d been with them. We were out inspecting one of the irrigation pumps located on the far end of one of the alfalfa fields. He said that she wasn’t really right, that the years of abuse had affected her mentally.

“What do you mean, not right?” I asked.

“She’s been placed in a home where they take care of people who can’t cope with life.”

I waited for more, but he started talking about O-rings instead and how they had to be checked when a pump was leaking. I wasn’t having that.

“But what about the house and, and . . .” I didn’t know how to finish that thought. I think I meant something bigger than the house. I think I meant my former life. But that was gone. My family, dysfunctional or not, had been the three of us. That was now dissolved. Other than that, all that remained of my life were the physical things I’d had—we’d had, as a family—and the house.

“She signed a power of attorney. I am responsible for her affairs. The house is being sold to pay off the mortgage. Your mother will get some of the equity from it. You’ll get some, too.”

“What about all my stuff. And all the stuff we had?”

“It’s been put in storage. When the time is right, I’ll take you in, and you can go through what’s there and decide what to do with it all. But there’s no rush. I’ve been thinking. You okay with living with us permanently? I mean, till you’re grown up? You’ve been here almost two months now and seem happy. A little distracted at times. But mostly content.”

“I’m doing fine,” I said. There was nowhere else I could go that I knew of. Besides, I was happy on the farm.

He looked at me with his unreadable eyes, but they didn’t seem to be critical at all. But it made me realize, I could have said more than that. “Thanks for taking me in,” I said then and looked down. I hadn’t sounded at all grateful before, I realized, and it made me a little ashamed.

He chuckled. “You’re learning a lot from me. I hope you don’t learn how to be laconic.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He put his hand on my shoulder and waited, so I had to raise my eyes to his. “If you like it here, I was thinking about adding a room to the house. You need more space and a real boy’s bedroom, not a cubbyhole off the kitchen. We could use a second bathroom, too.”

I smiled, a huge smile, and he squeezed my shoulder and, without saying anything else, showed me how to take apart the pump. I got to put it back together.

◄ ►

I invite three of the boys I’d eaten lunch with at school before it closed for the summer out to the farm one day—the ones who told me they knew how to ride horses, Brian, Dylan and Bill. Wade said he didn’t ride. I have Aunt Bess fix a picnic lunch for us: I fit it all into saddlebags, and we take off. I take us through the woods on one of my favorite trails, and then we head for my favorite spot next to the creek.

We’d had a cold winter with lots of snow, and the creek is still full, even though the days are now warm. I spread out the blanket I’ve brought with me and set out the food. Aunt Bess is a fantastic cook, and we have cold fried chicken and potato salad and chunks of a cut-up watermelon. More than enough for six people, but we’re young teens—we eat all of it.

We’re all stuffed. After eating, we lie back on the blanket and just talk. It’s really nice.

Then one of the boys, Dylan, asks if I ever swim in the creek. I tell them I have, but not often because it usually isn’t deep enough, though it certainly is now.

Dylan starts taking his clothes off. The others see him and start doing the same. I’m caught. I haven’t had sex with anyone but Johnny, but I remember how that was, and I know and like these boys, and just seeing them undress is making me hard.

I don’t take off my clothes. It would be too embarrassing.

Dylan jumps in the water, and Bill follows right behind. They both shriek. The water is frigid. They don’t get out, however.

I’m standing up, blushing I guess, because I’m embarrassed to take off my clothes and can’t tell them why I’m not joining them.

Brian is naked, but not uncomfortable standing in front of me or not immediately jumping in the water. I’m more uncomfortable than he is. Rather than head directly for the water, he’s looking at me, and I see his eyes drop and then refocus on my face. “That’s no problem,” he says. “We’re farm boys. We know about boners. And I’ll bet, as much fuss as those two are making about the cold water, you won’t stay that way—” he points at my crotch “—for long once you’re in.” Then he turns around and runs for the water.

I hesitate and then shuck off my clothes and join them.

Brian was right. It doesn’t take long. My blush lasts longer than my hard-on.

◄ ►

I found I loved horses. I learned to ride easily. Uncle Peter suggested I try riding several of the broken ones, telling me horses had personalities just like people do, and it was best if I could find one who seemed to like me as much as I liked it.

I did that, rode several of them. I was learning to ride, and trying out several horses just helped with that. They moved all the same but slightly differently, too, and my uncle was right about their personalities.

He told me about an intuitive meeting of the minds of riders and horses, but I never felt that with any of the horses I rode. I liked them all, and they didn’t seem to object to my riding them, but the bonding Uncle Peter suggested hadn’t happened.

Finally, one afternoon when the sky was changing color from brilliant blue to a deep salmon and it was getting on toward time for dinner, when Uncle Peter had been watching me in the corral practicing how to control a horse just using my seat, knees and hips, he had a suggestion.

“Derrick, I’d like to try something. We have a young mare that hasn’t been ridden yet, but she’s old enough. I’d like to see you on her.”

I thought about that, thought about the movies I’d seen where an unbroken horse keeps throwing the riders off, and what that would feel like. “I don’t know . . .” I said, tapering off. I didn’t want to sound like a sissy to him.

He laughed. “It isn’t like what you’re thinking. This horse is very tame. We humanize them, handle them a lot right from birth on. She likes people. You’re light, and she won’t be bucking you off. She might try other things, but you’re good enough now to stay on her back. One thing: she hasn’t been trained to respond to any controls other than the reins. She’ll respond to those, and eventually, if she’s the right horse for you, even to your emotions, but what I’m thinking is, I’ll show you how and then you can train her. Anyway, let’s try.”

He brought this pretty mare out into the corral and watched as I saddled her. She was a deep chestnut color except for a small blaze of bright white on her chest. She was a little smaller than the older mares I’d been riding, but that was okay. I was quite a bit smaller than the men at the farm.

She didn’t seem to mind the saddle, the first one that had been put on her. She looked back as I put the blanket on, then the saddle, but it seemed like inquisitiveness rather than anger.

I slowly settled into the saddle. She just stood there. No bucking at all. I urged her forward both by thrusting my hips and butt forward and clicking at her with my tongue, but she didn’t move. I did it all again, more urgently, and kicked her gently in the ribs with my heels. That did the trick. She moved forward. I patted her neck and told her what a good girl she was.

We walked around the corral, she responding to my reins, going in the direction I indicated. I was having fun, and she seemed okay with it all. Then, when I was smiling at Uncle Peter and not paying that much attention, suddenly I found myself up against the fence, and she was rubbing me right out of the saddle.

I came off, falling into the dirt. She looked down at me, bobbed her head up and down and nickered.

That was the beginning of a love affair. She was intelligent, had her own individual personality, was full of fun, and we bonded in a way I thought was magic. Maybe she’d been jealous of the other horses who got ridden while she didn’t because she acted really proud when I was on her, sort of strutting around for the other horses to see. At least it seemed that way to me.

I decided to call her Joy, because that’s what I felt when I was on her and how she seemed to feel, too, when we’d go out together.

I rode her as often as I could. We explored the farm together, Max tagging along with me as he always did. There were pastures and an extensive wooded section of land with a creek running through it, too. On hot summer days, we’d wander through the less dense parts of the woods, and I’d let Joy drink from the creek. There was a place by the creek where the trees hadn’t taken over and grasses grew down to the bank. I started bringing an extra horse blanket with us and would sit on it and watch the creek flow by while Joy would drink and munch on the grass and occasionally come over and nibble at my shoulder, wanting one of the sugar cubes I always carried. Max would lie next to me, and I’d let my mind wander.

After a day of chores, or getting over another howdy-do with Missy, it was wonderful to come there and simply let the peace of the setting and my closeness to Joy and Max bring me calm.

◄ ►

I am in my room, reading, my door cracked open, when I hear Aunt Bess and Uncle Peter talking in the kitchen. Aunt Bess is talking softly, which of course means I listen more intently. She says, “We got a bill for the tractor repair. I’ll have to move some money from savings to the checking account. I don’t have enough to cover it otherwise.”

Uncle Peter speaks even more softly, and I can’t hear his answer. But I put the book down. I don’t know what their finances are, but do know they’re spending money on my upkeep and do know Uncle Peter tries to fix everything, no matter how old it is rather than buying anything new. Maybe they don’t have much money.

I remember him saying something to Gary about the economy being bad and them not getting the business they used to get, that horse sales were down across the country. That they’re lucky hay prices are up; that that’s what’s keeping things going.

I want to help! I want to do something, do something that will provide some extra cash, more than I’m costing them.

I spend the next hour wracking my brain and in the end come up with an idea. Since the summer days are long now, I have lots of time to look around and see what’s what. I think my idea is pretty good. Might work and might bring in some money.

◄ ►

School started in mid-September. I thought that was late for a semester to begin, but Uncle Peter told me farm kids were needed on the farms at harvest time, so school started later here.

I was nervous, but the kids I met on the bus were friendly. I sat in the back with the boys; Missy sat up front.

There’s not much to say about school. I did better at this school than my last one because I was in a much better state of mind and not worrying about being hit, or recovering from having been.

I made some friends, too. Not really close ones, but that takes time. I guess Missy didn’t want to see me getting on with the other boys and decided to screw that up for me. She outed me during lunch when I was just getting started. That was about the last straw for me, and I was ready to just give it all up, but I found out the other boys didn’t care if I was gay or not. Uncle Peter seemed to have been right: sex was something they’d all grown up around, and they knew all about it. They even told me who the gay boys in school were.

So Missy had to look for something else to hurt me with. Outing hadn’t worked.

◄ ►

Missy tells all her friends that she’d caught me jacking off. They are all looking at me when she tells them at lunch. A couple of them are wide-eyed and want details; I can tell by the way they lean forward. Then the one girl at the table who Missy is trying to impress frowns and says something to Missy that makes her sit back suddenly. The girl stands up, takes her tray, and moves to the popular girls’ table. Missy frowns, then starts talking to the wide-eyed girls, but I see they’re uncomfortable now; they glance at the girl who left. When they finish eating, they stand up together and walk off, leaving Missy alone at the table, most of her lunch uneaten in front of her. I look at the popular girls’ table, thinking they may be looking at me, but they’re not. They’re looking at Missy sitting alone.

◄ ►

Things were going pretty well for me. In general, I was happy. I did have a problem, however, and as much as I tried to ignore it, it didn’t go away, and in fact was beginning to bother me. So I talked to Uncle Peter about it, even if doing so was sort of scary. But I’d learned to trust him. He was calm and always there for me. My feelings toward him had become what I guess most boys had for their fathers.

“Uncle Peter, I need to tell you something.”

We were digging out the horse stalls, preparing fresh bedding. That was one of my jobs, but now and then Uncle Peter would join me, not saying a word, just picking up a pitchfork and helping. It always gave me an incredibly warm feeling when we worked together like that.

“What’s on your mind, Derrick?” He paused with the pitchfork and turned to listen.

“It’s embarrassing.”


That wasn’t much help, but this was my show. I had to say what I needed to say. “I think there’s something wrong with me.” I dropped my head.

There was a pause, him looking at me with his intelligent eyes, and then he said, “We should probably go behind the barn,” and started walking. I followed him. He led me out of the stable and over to the barn. He walked behind it and sat down, leaning against the boards, sitting where I often came to sit. I hadn’t known he sometimes did the same thing in the same place.

I sat down next to him. He didn’t say a word, just waited for me.

“The thing is, I keep having these thoughts. They’re sort of like daydreams, but more . . .” I hesitated, trying to put a label on them, then finished by saying, “more powerful, I guess. But the funny thing to me is they only cover the time since I’ve been here. They’re all about what I’ve done and felt and seen since being out here. What I’d think I’d daydream about would be my parents and life back then. About what happened to me. But I don’t.” I stopped. This was hard to talk about.

“And that confuses you? Upsets you? Thinking about your life here?”

“No! I love it here. But it’s as though I want to think about those earlier times, and my brain won’t go there. And the daydreams seem to be getting stronger—except they don’t really feel like daydreams. I can’t really explain them, and I can’t stop them.”

I stopped. I knew what I was saying sounded kind of crazy. And I knew my mother had, in effect, gone crazy. Maybe my dad had been crazy all along. I didn’t know what Uncle Peter must think, hearing this.

After some silence, Uncle Peter said, “When I was granted custody of you, one of the things I was told was often kids who’ve been abused suppress their memories because they’re too painful to think about. You might have been doing that, not allowing yourself to think of those times, but those memories are there, and you probably need to deal with them. What they told me was frequently kids could be helped by talking to a therapist; he’ll know how to help with those demons. The court said there was state money to pay for this. That sounds like something we should look into.”

I looked at him, and for some ungodly, who-knows-why reason, I teared up. He saw that and reached out, and suddenly I was in his lap. He was holding me, 14-year-old me, and I began sobbing.

When I was through, I’m not sure how many minutes later, I asked him, “How come you always know exactly the right answer for every problem and never get mad?”

He nodded soberly. “Guess I’m just smarter than the average bear.”

I looked blankly at him, and he laughed, saying, “Must be before your time. That was supposed to be a joke, supposed to make you laugh, supposed to ease the tension you’re feeling. Anyway, that manure isn’t getting any fresher. What say we finish up in there? And, hey, Derrick, you know, you’re a really great kid.”

◄ ►

Dr. Shapiro asked me about my troubling thoughts. I told him they mostly occurred when I was resting. I had chores to do every day, and they kept my mind occupied, but I also had time to simply be by myself. I’d sit in back of the barn and lean against the old boards and daydream. That’s when my thoughts would fly all over the place.

But these memories were sharper than just normal memories, and they never touched my past before coming to the farm. I’d remember things that had happened since then, and the memories would be intense. It was as though I was living through whatever that daydream was about all over again. I could see everything clearly, and it was like it was real and happening right then. It was sort of scary.

None of my past daydreams when I’d lived in the city with my family had been like that. Then, I’d always had a sense I was daydreaming. With these, it was much more vivid than that. Instead of being behind the barn daydreaming, partly engaged in the scenes I was seeing and partly aware they were daydreams, I was wholly into and part of what was going on in my head. These images were that real, and when I came back to myself, I was full of the emotions that I’d had when those things had been happening.

Dr. Shapiro thought about that and then asked about what I’d said about having no daydreams about my life before the farm. I sort of hemmed and hawed without really answering. The fact was, I tried not to think about those times. I didn’t want to remember them whether I was awake, asleep, or daydreaming. He watched me, then leaned back in his chair.

“There are many reported cases where, when someone has had a bad experience or experiences, they shut out all memories of the past and try to replace them with current memories. They do this to protect themselves. Do you think you might be doing that?”

I found it hard to answer. Perhaps I had been doing that, suppressing my memories of a painful time in my life.

He told me that trying to forget my past would probably be counterproductive and that by allowing those thoughts to come when they wanted to come, I’d be dealing with them, letting my brain resolve what bothered me. He suggested something that might help me. He said if I would write down on paper what my life was like before the farm, it would force me to confront my fears and discomforts. By writing it all down, I’d think about it and I’d be able to compartmentalize it and give it the value it should have and mentally adjust myself to how it had been then and how my life was now.

He could see the idea upset me. He could tell I was afraid of thinking of my past. He could see we had more work to do together.

Dr. Shapiro and I had several more sessions. And I did begin writing down my memories of my life before the farm. It did allow me to quiet some of my demons.

◄ ►

I found I liked writing everything down. Spelling out on paper my history with my dad was hard, but liberating as well because I knew I’d lived through it, and while surviving it was in the past, it made me see how strong I’d been and gave me confidence I could succeed in life.

I didn’t go into great detail when writing about my dad’s abuses, but writing down what I did showed a progression of events from my youth to my adolescence and allowed me to put it all in order.

At Dr. Shapiro’s suggestion, when I began reconstructing my past on paper, I also started writing down the daydreams that were so real to me, the ones which were all about my time after coming to the farm to live. They were completely out of order, time-wise, but I simply wrote them down as they came to me. They were powerful to me, and it felt good having them recorded so I would have a record of my life on the farm and my dealings with Missy.

◄ ►

We have mid-semester exams at school. All classes, all grades have them. I’m studying for mine even though I don’t much like studying. I’d rather be out with the horses.

I go upstairs, needing to use the john. Missy’s door is open. I expect she’ll be studying, too, but she’s putting polish on her toenails. I don’t see any textbooks or notebooks anywhere around, not even her backpack. Then I remember she got on the bus after school empty-handed.

She didn’t bring anything home for studying.

I overhear her. I’m in the bathroom, brushing my teeth and combing my hair, and she’s on her cell phone.

“You’ve got those answers for me, right?”

A pause, then, “I told you I’d do that. You give me the answer sheets, I’ll do that and more, just like we agreed.” She giggles flirtingly.

A pause, and then, “Okay, meet me at my locker first thing.”

A pause, and then, “No, not there in the hall where people can see.” She laughs, then says, “After school, behind the maintenance shed. Bring some lube.”

I hurry up and finish. I don’t want her to know I overheard. Not that I’m going to tell anyone. Who would I tell? But I know what she’s doing, and I’m pretty sure I know who else is involved. The only one with access to all the school tests is the one who runs copies on the Xerox machine. He’s an aide who works in the office. He’s a young guy, in his early twenties, and not bad looking. Maybe a little nerdy. He wears a bow tie every day.

◄ ►

I’d figured out how to help Uncle Peter make more money. I didn’t know if it’d work but thought it might. I asked him to come riding with me one day after school and we mounted up. I took him to my place in the woods, where I liked to sit and think.

While we talked, Joy and Uncle Peter’s horse drank from the creek and then quietly looked after themselves.

“I have an idea,” I said. “We . . . uh, you, have all these woods and this creek and all these horses. I was thinking, what if we started advertising trail rides? I’ve explored these woods, and there are lots of interesting places to go. It would take a little work to get it going. Some of the trails would have to be widened, but not too many and only in a few places. We’d have to get more tack if the business takes off, and that would cost some money, but we have enough tack now to get started and wouldn't have to buy more till we had enough business to make it necessary; then it would pay for itself. If we had more demand than we could handle right off, we’d have to start taking reservations. We could start by offering the rides on the weekends. Maybe keep it to groups of four or five. And we wouldn't have to hire guides. I could lead the groups. So we could keep startup costs to a minimum.”

We were sitting on my blanket in my favorite spot on the farm, the creek slowly burbling past us. It was a place to be happy and content. Uncle Peter must have felt the charm of the setting, because he didn’t say no right off as he could have. Instead he watched the creek flow gently past us. Finally, he said, “Who’s going to do all this, widening the trails, taking reservations, saddling all the horses, cleaning the tack and hosing down the horses after the rides, putting up flyers to advertise it? All that.”

“I will,” I said, hoping.

“Well, what would you charge?”

“It should depend on how long the ride is. I’ve looked into what other places charge and so know what’s reasonable. We could include some of Aunt Bess’s world famous fried chicken and have cold lunches be part of the deal for an extra charge.”

“World famous?” He laughed.

“Well, it should be!” I said stoutly. I loved her fried chicken.

That’s how my weekends became really busy. The business, which is what it was, started off slowly, but caught on, and soon most weekends were filled with trail rides. I gave all the money to Uncle Peter. He said it was my idea and my work and so my money. I told him it was his land, his horses, his tack, his food, and anyway, I was doing this not for me but for the farm. I was adamant, and he finally took the money.

It wasn’t till years later that I’d learn he took every bit of that money and put it in the bank in an account labeled ‘Derrick’s College Fund’.

◄ ►

I make myself a giant bowl of popcorn, then take it into my room. I leave the door cracked open. That’s strategic. It allows the odor of hot popcorn to fill the house and looks like I just didn’t manage to get the door all the way closed—like I wanted my privacy. I undress down to my underpants, make sure everything’s ready, and lie down on my bed with my popcorn.

I figure if anything can get Missy into my room, that unlocked door and that aroma combined have to be it.

My plan works.

Missy crashes the door open and steps into my room, angry. “Who told you you could make popcorn? That’s our food, not yours. Give it to me! You didn’t get permission, because Uncle Peter is out in the breeding shed, and Aunt Bess is in town at her reading circle. You’re stealing!”

“Like you should say something about that. I’ve seen you stealing money out of Aunt Bess’s purse. And I’ve seen other things, too. You’re no angel.”

“You didn’t. You’re making that up. And no one would believe you.”

“What, like when you make things up? Like telling people you caught me jacking off when you didn’t? Like telling me you made Wesley hard—and more than once? Sure you did. Of course you did!”

“I did.” She stamps her foot. “I did, and I saw you jacking off, too, or were about to. You probably were going to do that again right now; that’s why you’re almost naked; that’s why the door was closed. So I caught you again.”

“Just go away, Missy. If I have to get up, I’m going to hit you, and when you tell, I’ll say you were running to get to your phone because it was ringing and you ran into the door jamb. That you’re just trying to get me in trouble again, like always. They’ll believe me before they’ll believe you. You know how that story about the boy that cried ‘wolf’ ended, don’t you?”

She is really fuming now, but I sit up on the bed, and she looks around quickly, about to run but looking for what of my stuff she can ruin as she goes.

“You touch anything, I’ll come after you,” I say, ready now to jump up on my feet.

About to run from the room, instead, she takes a quick step toward the bed, reaches out and knocks the bowl of popcorn out of my hands. It goes tumbling, popcorn flying all over. Then she runs, yelling back at me, “I’ll trash your room when you’re gone.”

She will, too. But I’ve already bought a lock for the door. I am going to get Uncle Peter to help me install it after dinner.

When she’s gone, I put the hook I screwed into my door into the eye screw I fastened to the jamb and thus have my door locked the best I can from the inside. I go to my computer and check that the camera and sound recorder captured everything.

It has.

◄ ►

My problems with Missy weren’t getting fewer even though she knew now that she couldn’t get me to run away. So her purpose now was just to hurt me and take her satisfaction from that. I wanted to talk to Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess about her, but I couldn’t. I loved them. I couldn’t put them through the hurt that would result from them learning about the awful things their daughter had done or was still doing. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that if this was my cost for living with them, I’d bear it.

Sometimes, though, that was hard to do. Some of the things she did that were out of pure meanness did hurt. So I had a dilemma, because as much as I wanted to spare my guardians, I thought she should be stopped. Her behavior toward me was caustic, but too, she was having unprotected sex with at least one older man, she was stealing, she was cheating at school, she might have killed me with those wasps; she knew no boundaries when it came to her dealings with me.

I knew I could threaten her that I was going to tell Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess, but she’d probably see through that, because if I was going to do that I’d already have done so. Going to the school administrators and exposing her misdeeds to them was out for the same reason: Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess would find out, and they’d be hurt.

So what could I do? How could I get her to stop and the two people I loved not be hurt?

I had no idea.

But I stewed over it. I felt something had to be done. Mostly for the sake of my aunt and uncle, but for my sake, too.

◄ ►

One day I am running late and leave the house forgetting to lock the door of my room. Missy enters it while I am outside and searches it. She is probably looking for the notebook I write in every day. I hide it where she won’t find it: in Joy’s stall. I am out there every day, grooming and talking to my lady, so there is nothing for Missy to be suspicious about, seeing me going there. I am glad I’ve taken this precaution, because she makes no effort to hide the fact she searched the room.

◄ ►

I did much better at school that first year there. I made friends and got in the swing of things rather easily. The guys I ate lunch with that first day were the basis of my social life. I never did hook up with Wade, the other gay boy at our table at lunch. A lot of people seem to think that if two gay boys know each other, they’re having or will have sex. It doesn’t work that way—at least, not for me. I found I wanted to know, like and be attracted to the person I’d be interested in having sex with, and Wade’s personality just didn’t match mine. I was quieter and more private than he was. He’d say anything to anyone at any time, and keeping secrets wasn’t in his nature. He was a friend like all the boys at that table, but that was as far as it went with us.

I watched Missy in the cafeteria. She was always sucking up to the popular girls, trying to be in their group. She was sort of just on the outside, never really in the center but involved with them occasionally. She tried too hard. I don’t think she knew who she was. She had identity issues. Dr. Shapiro has spoken about identity with me a lot. Not about Missy, though. I hadn’t mentioned her. I figured she was my cross to bear.

I did all right at school, but I wasn’t a star there. My life was becoming more and more centered on the farm. I was happy there; Uncle Peter was teaching me so much, and I could see living my life there. Aunt Bess might not be happy with that. She was already talking about colleges. I think she was trying to plant the idea in my head. But I didn’t have any money for that, I didn’t want to burden them with that cost, and anyway, I was only getting C grades and didn’t want to put in the work it would take to do better.

I would have liked to find a boyfriend, but that hadn’t happened, and I wasn’t sure it ever would. I knew all the boys at school who were out, and mostly they’d paired up, and I wasn’t interested in the ones who hadn’t. As I spent most of my time on the farm, my chances of meeting someone seemed rather dim.

◄ ►

“I want you to see something you’ve not been part of on the farm so far.”

“What’s that?” I asked. I knew how the farm operated pretty well by now.

“Part of our profit comes from selling semen to other breeding facilities. I think it’s time you saw how we collect it.”

I may have blushed, because Uncle Peter glanced at me and then laughed. We’d been walking toward one of the smaller farm buildings, and he’d looked at me when I was silent. Damn, I didn’t like him laughing at me. I liked him thinking I was older than 14. I tried to act that way all the time.

It was early summer. School had just let out. I was looking forward to my first full summer on the farm, learning and doing and spending time with Joy.

“I know, talking about semen, talking about collecting it, is embarrassing to a boy your age. I understand. But it’s all natural. We collect it just as you’d imagine we might. We masturbate the horse. And I’m going to show you how. It’s perfectly okay if you get embarrassed and blush and fidget. After awhile, it won’t be a big thing. It’s part of nature: males create semen and want to spend it.”

I was trying to stop blushing. He was speaking so matter-of-factly that I felt I needed to act more adult, even if I wasn’t one yet.

He went on. “I know you know about masturbation. Missy keeps coming to us and telling us all the awful things you do. She came and told us she caught you doing that. I told her to grow up and leave you alone or she’d find out she wasn’t too old to be spanked, and that as I’d been building up the urge to do that for some time, I might do it harder than the politically correct crowd would approve of.”

I was trying not to cringe. “She told you that?”

“She tells me all sorts of things, and I’m sure almost all of them are made up. I believe what I see, and I see her telling lies and misbehaving, and I see you trying your best to fit in here and help out without having to be asked. I never gave a thought to whether what she said about you masturbating was true or not. You’d be the first boy in this state to not be masturbating by the time you were 14. It’s what males do. But that’s one of the reasons I’m showing you this, today, so you can rid yourself of any embarrassing thoughts about it—or fear that I’ll find out. You’ll see for yourself that this is just a regular thing and nothing to be embarrassed about.”

We entered the breeding building. I hadn’t spent much time there because it was just a fairly small, one-room building with a fenced partition on one side and nothing else. There were shavings on much of the floor and a few rubber mats stored against one wall.

Today, there were three hands in the room along with Toreador, one of our stallions, and Brenda. Brenda was a middle-aged mare.

We stood next to the partition, which was simply a rail fence like we had out in some of the pastures. Brenda was on the other side of the fence from us and the hands—and Toreador.

“You’re already aware that our horses are American Quarter Horses. Toreador is a registered American Quarter Horse. He’s a pedigreed stallion from a high-quality bloodline. As such, we get very good money for his semen. They’re about to collect it. I’ll talk you through what they’re doing.”

I found my heart was beating more rapidly than usual. This seemed pretty exciting to me and more than just a bit naughty.

Gary, the lead hand, had a halter on Toreador and led him over to Brenda, standing watching him behind her partition. Toreador’s huge erection came out of his sheath almost immediately. I’d seen horses erect in the pastures and was always amazed by their length.

“Brenda’s estrus period is on her. Some people call it ‘in heat’ or ‘in season’. She gets this way once a month from spring to fall. It means she’s ready to breed, and Toreador can tell this by her scent. If she’s ready, he’s ready. That’s what you’re seeing. Gary’s getting him ready to perform for us.”

Toreador allowed Gary to lead him to the other end of the room, his enormous erection bouncing around as he walked; he was apparently oblivious to it. I thought about that. I’d be humiliated, walking around in that state with people looking on, but it bothered him not at all, and the other men in the room with me just took it for granted. No big deal. I started to see what Uncle Peter had been explaining to me, how natural things involving sex were.

Fred, another hand, had a bucket of water and a sponge. He rubbed some soap on the sponge, then reached under Toreador and began washing and then rinsing his erection. I think I blushed again. Uncle Peter said, “We want to be sure there’s no contamination with the semen sample, so we wash the horses beforehand.”

“They don’t ever . . . well . . . ?”

Uncle Peter chuckled. “No, they never do. But one standard method of collection is to do the stimulation by hand. What you’ll see today is done with an AV. Some farms prefer doing it that way.”

Gary led Toreador back to where some of the rubber mats had been laid on the floor.

“We want him to feel very stable,” Uncle Peter said, “very secure so he won’t slip if he needs to move. That’s more important if we’re using a phantom mount, which is simply something solid for him to mount. Then, having a non-slip floor is very important. We don’t use that method here but still want him to have a good foundation.

“We use a ground collection method. It’s a little safer for both the horse and the handlers.”

I watched as Fred carried a contraption over to where Toreador was standing. I was surprised at how calm he seemed.

“Fred has what we call an AV. The letters are an abbreviation for artificial vagina. It’s a tube about 16 inches long and 6 inches in diameter with a soft lining. It tapers down, and we fit an insulated collection bottle to the end.”

Fred was carrying the AV by a handle on its side. He came up to Toreador, patted him on the side, then reached under him and slipped the AV over his erection. Toreador began thrusting into the AV, Fred held it steady, and in very little time, it was all over.

“Toreador is accustomed to this and doesn’t get overly excited. Some stallions can’t perform this way, but most learn how.”

That was it. Uncle Peter thanked the men, and we walked back outside. “What do you think?” he asked me.

“It was nothing like I was expecting. No drama, no excitement. Just very calm and, well, ordinary.”

“It isn’t always that easy, but usually is. You saw the men were wearing safety helmets. When you’re working around horses, even just riding them, it’s always best to do that. Even the tamest of horses can injure you. They’re so much bigger than we are.”

“I know. You keep telling me to be sure to wear my helmet. I always do.”

◄ ►

I’d been trying to figure out a way to get Missy to leave me alone. Her own efforts had backfired on her lately, but I knew she’d keep trying. For some reason I didn’t understand I was like a burr under her saddle blanket. But how could I make her stop without also hurting Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess? If I knew, I’d have done it in an instant.

The one good thing was, since I’ve been talking to Dr. Shapiro and writing in my notebook, I was having way fewer flashbacks. That’s what he called them instead of daydreams. Whatever you called them, they were irritating, and I was glad I wasn’t having them so often. The writing everything down seemed to work, even if I didn’t understand why.

◄ ►

Spending time with Dr. Shapiro was making me feel better. I wasn’t so much afraid of turning into my father any longer. Dr. Shapiro had me give him examples of cases where I’d controlled my temper. Some of these—well, a lot of these—involved Missy. I’d broken my rule about not telling him about her. I’d had to, as many of the flashbacks I’d had involved her. Eventually, he asked me specific questions about her.

So I answered them. Everything we talked about was confidential, and I was sure it wouldn't get back to my uncle and aunt.

He was surprised to hear some of the things I said. He was very good at keeping his reactions to a minimum about much of anything I told him, but I could see when I talked about Missy how his interest was piqued. He asked if I really thought she got pleasure from the anguish she caused me. I could see that bothered him.

He asked me why I never said anything to my guardians, and I explained why. He told me, for my own feeling of self-esteem, I needed to find a way to stand up for myself with her. He told me my waiting for the next thing she’d do to me was much like waiting for my father to hit me again. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it made sense.

I told him I was trying to find a way to get her to stop.

But talking to him about my situation with her had helped with the germ of an idea I’d already had. I just had to figure it out a little more, had to turn it into a workable plan.

◄ ►

I was feeling edgy all day. My daydreams—or flashbacks, I guess—were much fewer now, but the ones that still occurred were sharper, and today I’d had a really vivid one. I had no idea why, but my past was in my thoughts more than usual. It might have had to do with the writing I’d been doing, forcing me to remember it all. I hadn’t written what had happened in the past with my dad in much detail. I guess I was still repressing a lot, just what Dr. Shapiro didn’t want me to do. The whole point was to let my brain get rid of all the angst it was carrying. I’d only allowed it to do that with what felt safe.

I was in the kitchen. I’d just put Max’s dinner in his bowl and was standing by the sink when Missy came into the room, heading for the refrigerator. She somehow missed seeing Max standing at his bowl, missed hearing him crunching his kibble, and ran into him, almost tripping over him. She caught her balance, stood up, furiously angry, and kicked him, then reached out and grabbed his fur at the nape yells at her, tells her to stand still, but she keeps backing away, motioning for me to run. I can’t. I am frozen in place and can only stand still. I see him as he advances on her, fury in his eyes. He grabs her by the hair, pulling her head back, and then tears her dress off, yanking it down the back so it rips and drops to her feet. She is naked under it. I guess he insists on that.

He bends her over a chair and undoes his belt. She is trembling and saying things, ‘no’ being the predominant word, but he holds her by the neck and ignores everything. He gets his pants down and I see him erect. He looks at me, his face an awful, terrifying mask, and he pushes her forward over the chair and shoves

I came to lying in my bed. Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess were in my room, she sitting on my bed holding my hand, looking worried, he standing looking down at me.

“What happened?” I asked, trying to sit up.

“You passed out,” Aunt Bess said softly, pressing me back down onto my pillow. “You started yelling, screaming really, unintelligible stuff, and then you suddenly just collapsed, passed out.”

My head felt fuzzy. Memories seemed muddled, I remembered feeding Max, remembered Missy coming into the kitchen . . .

“Missy kicked Max!” I said, and then did sit up straight.

“We know,” Uncle Peter said. “We heard him yelp, I came in and saw you raving and Missy cowering in the corner. Then you simply slumped down on the floor. I carried you in here. You’ve only been out for a few minutes.”

“She kicked him,” I repeated and felt anger start to rise.

“Has she done that before?” Aunt Bess asked.

“No. She does lots of things, but that’s the first I’ve seen her do something to Max. I can handle what she does to me, but I guess, seeing her do that to Max . . . the way she did it . . .”

Saying that, the memory of what I’d remembered, when I saw her grab Max by the hair at the back of his neck came back. I looked up at Uncle Peter, and tears came into my eyes. “I saw my dad rape my mom,” I said, so softly I wasn’t even sure I’d said it out loud.

Aunt Bess gasped, and Uncle Peter nudged her aside, sat down on the bed and took me in his arms.

I felt the emotions I’d felt at the time come rushing back. I’d been terrified, and watching my mother being used like that, listening to her cries, looking at my father’s face, looking like the devil incarnate, and then his eyes turning to look at me, and his rage turning to triumph. I shuddered in Uncle Peter’s arms, and he tightened them around me.

Now I knew what I’d been fearing, what my mind had been protecting me from, what I’d been blocking out. But I could face it now. With Uncle Peter holding me, I felt I could face anything.

◄ ►

“What did you mean last night when you said Missy does lots of things to you?”

We were riding fence. Uncle Peter knew I was in my element out riding on Joy, out on the farm, working. He’d asked me to come along, and I’d gladly joined him.

I had to think how to answer that. I was sorry I’d mentioned it. I hadn’t meant to, but my thinking had been messed up, all loosey-goosey at the time.

Uncle Peter knew me well. He simply waited for me to answer.

“I don’t want to talk about that. It’s between her and me. I’ll handle it.”

“Has this been going on long?”

“Since the day I arrived.”

“And you never said anything?”

“Didn’t want you or Aunt Bess . . . You didn’t need to be involved. But I’ll handle it. I’ve figured out how, but haven’t done anything yet. Now, after what I saw her do, I’m going to. Today.”

He didn’t speak for a while. Then, finally, he said, “You were protecting us, weren’t you?”

“Hey,” I said, “I think I see a couple of fence rails down over there. We’d better go check them out.” I urged Joy forward, and she cantered off, leaving Uncle Peter sitting on his horse, just watching.

◄ ►

I walked into Missy’s bedroom. I’d never been in it before. She was sitting on her bed working on her laptop.

“What are you doing here?” she said when she saw me. She scooted back on the bed, farther away from me. “Get out!”

I closed the door. A look of fear appeared on her face. “I’ll scream,” she said.

“Scream all you want. No one’s here but us.”

Her eyes shifted, looking around the room. Maybe looking for something to fight me off with.

“I’ve figured out what to do about you,” I said.

“What do you mean, do about me? You’re not doing anything with me.”

“Yes, I am. I’m paying you back for your meanness, your cruelty, your cunning and your viciousness. You’re evil, Missy. Now it’s payback time.”

She pushed all the way back on the bed so she was back against the wall, now as far from me as she could get. “Get out of here. Leave me alone. I’ll tell. I’ll tell everything.”

“Sure you will, just like you already have. Uncle Peter says he doesn’t believe a word you say anymore. So I can do anything I want and he won’t believe you.”

She opened her mouth, but no words came out. There was fear in her eyes.

I found I didn’t enjoy the fear, the confrontation, at all. She was a pathetic creature, but still a menace who’d tried her best to make my life agony.

I watched her for a few moments, then walked over to her desk and took the chair and moved it closer to the bed and sat down. I was between her and the door. “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to come with me for my next session with Dr. Shapiro. You’re going to talk to him. I’m going to tell him all the things you’ve done since I’ve been here, and you’re going to sit there and listen, and then explain to him why you did them. He’ll hear you out and then decide what to do—whether to call the police because you abused Wesley, a child, and whether what you did with Tom was statutory rape. Tom will go to jail. Or maybe Dr. Shapiro will decide to call the school because you cheated on your exams; if so, the admin guy will be fired and he’ll go to jail, too. Or perhaps all you’ll have to do is simply go in for some therapy sessions; maybe Dr. Shapiro will just decide you need some help. You do need help, Missy. You’re not right in the head.

“It’ll be up to him after he hears you explain yourself. Maybe you can convince him that you need help, rather than being made to look like a pariah and ostracized by the entire school, the entire town, probably. Maybe if you beg him, he’ll go that route.”

She sat up straighter. “No, I’m not. I’m not doing that.”

“You are, and I’ll tell you why. You want to be with the popular crowd at school. Jan Harper. That group. Well, if you don’t do what I’m saying, I’ll make sure you won’t get in with them, and that every kid in school will be laughing at you and making fun of you. Because I’ve got a video of you sucking Tom and stroking him to try to get him to go again, of you stealing money from your mom’s purse, and of you telling me that you abused Wesley.”

I paused to let her think about that, to let it sink in, and when she was about to speak, I cut in ahead of her. “And there’s another one of you talking to that guy at school and offering him sex for the test answers, telling him to bring some lube. I’ll make copies of all that and hand them out at school. Don’t for a minute think I won’t. I’ll enjoy it. Every single one I hand out, I’ll remember you kicking Max.”

“You’re making it up. If you had anything like that, you’d have used it already!”

“No, I’m not you. You’d do that. But—” I reached in my pocket and took out one of the pictures I’d taken with her and Tom and a memory stick of my conversation with her in my room with the popcorn. I didn’t really have all the videos I’d told her I had, but I did have pictures and the one video and was pretty sure that would convince her I had the others, too. I flipped the photo through the air so it landed on the bed. She turned it over and looked at it. It showed her stroking him, and very clearly showed the gleam in her eyes and lustful look in her face while doing it.

That same face, seeing the picture, lost all its color.

She didn’t know what to say. She just sat there looking at the picture and then at me, and I said, “I haven’t told your parents about what you’ve done. I never wanted to do that to them. And I won’t tell them about you either way, but if you don’t do what I’m telling you to do, everyone at school will know all about you after seeing those videos. Especially when the school learns you cheated on the tests, and how you got the answer sheets. Your parents will find out, but it won’t be from my telling them. I never wanted them hurt by knowing who you really are. It’s up to you whether they find out.”

She dropped her eyes from mine, and her shoulders slumped. She didn’t speak, and her eyes were no longer meeting mine. She looked smaller to me, somehow. I stood up. “My next appointment is Wednesday. You’ll come with me, then do what Dr. Shapiro recommends or your life from now on will be the shit like you’ve tried to make mine.” Then I walked out.

◄ ►

My trail-ride enterprise had taken off. Most weekends in the summer we were busy, and occasionally there was a ride during the week as well. I’d take out groups of four or five for our regular ride of about two hours. I’d set it up so we spent much of the ride in the woods but would come out alongside the creek several times during the tour. It was a pretty ride, and people seemed to love it.

The lunchtime ride was a bit longer because of the stop by the creek to eat, but it was so popular that it was always fully booked in advance, probably because of Aunt Bess’s cold fried chicken. I charged more for that session and never heard a complaint.

We’d gotten busy enough that I had an assistant now. I didn’t have time for anything else on the weekend if I took all the groups myself, and Uncle Peter didn’t want me spending all my time working every weekend. As he kept telling me, I was a kid and needed fun time, too. He also said something else I got a kick out of.

“You know, Derrick, what one of the reasons your rides are so successful is, don’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that about three-quarters of your customers are young girls?”


“So why do you think that is?”

“Uh, because young girls are fascinated by horses?”

“Sure, horses. But good-looking, friendly boys, too. They get both with you. I’m sure you’ve noticed; when the ride is over, you sometimes take off your shirt while you’re hosing down the horses. You’ve probably seen some of the girls hanging around, watching.”

That was why, when I decided I needed an assistant, I hired a kid I knew from school who was really cute, really outgoing, and really straight. Didn’t hurt the business at all. Funny how often he managed to take his shirt off, too.

I was delighted the ride business had taken off so well. Charlie, my assistant trail-master, had taken the last group of the day out one hot summer day. I watched them enter the woods, lifted my hat off and brushed my hand through my sweaty hair. Then, what the hell, I took off my shirt and walked over to the hose we used to cool down and wash off the horses—the hose I’d used that time to ward off those angry wasps. I turned the water on and ran it over my head, delighting in the feel of it as it ran down all over my bare chest and back. Man, did it ever feel good.

I was standing there, with my eyes closed and soaking wet when I heard a voice. “Uh, are you Derrick?”

I turned around, the hose in my hand spraying outward, and he jumped back.

“Oops!” I said and turned the hose off.

“Derrick?” he questioned again.

“Yep, that’s me.”

“Uh, I’m a little late for the ride I booked. I got caught up in . . . well, I’m late. Can I still ride? I guess not, huh. You look like you’re done for the day. Maybe I’ll come back another time . . . ” While he was speaking, his eyes were running all over me. I guess I was something of a spectacle. A wet spectacle.

His voice trailed off, but the regret I heard in it, the sadness, spoke to me. That, and the fact he was really good-looking and perhaps a little shy, because his eyes almost never met mine.

I was soaking wet and suddenly realized what he was seeing with those glances were my wet hair and face and torso, and even my jeans. I took a quick glance downward at him and couldn’t believe it. He was hard. Or maybe there was an unripe banana in his pocket.

I raised my eyes to his, and I saw a slow blush start to color his face, and then he turned around.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Matthew,” he said, still turned away.

“Do you go by Matthew, or Matt?”

“I prefer Matthew. There are too many Matts.”

“Okay, Matthew. Do you ride? Or are you a beginner?”

He didn’t answer right away. Then, very slowly, he turned back to face me again. I very, very carefully kept my eyes on his. I didn’t look down. He said, “I ride. We just moved here, and I don’t have a horse now. I miss her, and I miss riding. I saw your flyer and wanted to . . . you know, get back into riding again, so . . . ”

He stopped. Maybe he made a habit of that, not finishing sentences. I thought it was cute. But then, I found him very attractive. Attractive, hell: I thought he was beautiful. He ha medium-long black hair peeking out from under a Western hat, a slim body, narrow legs—well, that’s what I’d seen at first but couldn’t confirm by looking that low on him now—and a boy’s face that was in the process of changing into a man’s, just like mine was doing. His was long rather than round, with high, pronounced cheekbones and dark, beguiling eyes. His skin was clear and right then still profuse with blood from his blush. I was surprised that while he was still blushing he was meeting my eyes. Maybe he wasn’t shy.

“If you want to go out, I can take you.”

“You’re all wet,” he said with no inflection at all before he suddenly burst out laughing. His whole face lit up with his laughter, and I felt a distinct stirring down below.

That was how I met Matthew. We rode together after I’d changed. We were out a long time. When we came back in, I had a new friend and a hope for more. Neither of us said anything about being gay, but he’d gotten hard seeing me shirtless and drenched, and I’d gotten hard seeing him laugh. Maybe we hadn’t needed to talk about being gay. Maybe we both knew.

◄ ►

Matthew came to dinner often. Missy didn’t say a word. She was seeing Dr. Shapiro, and her attitude had been changing. I had decided I’d pay for her sessions with some of my trail money, but when Uncle Peter learned she was in therapy, he put his foot down: his daughter, his responsibility. She was much quieter now. I’d warned her, too. I’d told her that Matthew was my friend, he would be at the farm a lot, and if she said anything to drive him away, to make him uncomfortable, the world would cave in on her like a ton of bricks falling from above. I had the upper hand with her now, and she was aware of that.

Aunt Bess really liked Matthew. He was quiet and polite and always complimented her cooking. His father was a doctor and had come to town to replace the one who’d practiced there forever but had retired. Matthew was smart, really smart, and was going to go to college. Aunt Bess loved hearing that, and when he wasn’t around, she kept at me about going to college, saying that I needed to improve my grades so I could go, too. She’d then talk about how maybe Matthew and I could attend the same one, and she would smile that smile that told me she wanted me to be happy and that she knew how happy I was with Matthew.

So I started working harder at school. Because I did want to be with Matthew, and if that meant going to college with him, that was all the incentive I needed. I was smart enough; I just hadn’t had any reason to work at it. Now I did, and my grades came up.

Matthew liked me as much as I did him. And eventually, at my place by the creek, on an old, soft horse blanket, being watched by two unimpressed mares, we showed each other how we felt. The world was never the same for me after that. For Matthew, either.

◄ ►

We didn’t have a swimming team at our school; maybe it was because there wasn’t a pool. We didn’t have a football team, either. It was just too small a school, and over half of the boys there had to go home after school to help on their farms.

There had been a debate team last year, but it was down to two members this year, two girls. Matthew thought we, the two of us, should join it. There had to be at least four members for the team to be viable. He’d debated at his last school and told me it was fun. It sounded awful to me, arguing, and doing it in public. I hated arguments. But, he’d somehow convinced me to do it. Told me the arguments weren't personal, just fact-based. I ended up caving in. He could sweet-talk me into doing almost anything.

I was really more than a little scared of joining, because one thing I didn’t do well was handle confrontations, and that’s what debate was all about. This angst of mine came from my childhood. I’d learned never to argue. I still avoided confrontations with every fiber in my body. And now, suddenly, I was joining an activity that was based on confrontation. Damn Matthew anyway!

I told Matthew this. He knew about what I’d lived through when younger. He told me this was my chance to further kill some of those demons. He reminded me that I’d told him I was trying hard to learn to stand up for myself, and what better opportunity would I ever have than here in a protected environment with him at my side?

Our first debate was something else again, something I’ll never forget. It was a debate against our own team, a practice debate.

The topic was gay marriage. Matthew had chosen the pro side. I was his partner. Because it was a practice, we didn’t have to argue the anti side.

I’d told him, while growling at him, we’d better take the pro side, and he’d giggled. He and I giggled a lot together. We shared a kid’s sense of humor. Almost anything could get us going.

His argument in the debate focused on the religious aspect. He argued that without bringing religion into the issue, almost all the points against it simply dissolved, and as marriage was a legal issue whose religious side was merely supported by custom, religion should not be the basis of deciding whether it should be legal or not.

Most of the community, which included members of the school board, were religious. In a small farming community, that was normal. The debate coach was also a member of the Baptist church in town. He’d expected the con side to win the debate easily; the girls arguing that position were veteran debaters and had won consistently last year. He had no idea how good Matthew was as a debate competitor as this was his first competition at this school. The coach considered me a non-factor.

Matthew presented our case and went first. I had to handle the rebuttals. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, and the thought of standing up before a group of people watching and judging me, most or all of whom would be pulling for the other side, terrified me. But Matthew kept up his support—continued talking me into doing it again and again, really—and when it was time, I did what I had to do, nerves and self-doubts and all.

The girl doing the con side was smug and overly sure she was right. She spoke with utter confidence that anyone with an ounce of sense could see that marriage was for a man and woman only, and she didn’t make much of a case for the why of that.

In the break before I had to speak, Matthew told me what points to make, how to counter the opposition’s points, and got me ready. With his coaching, I went out and stood at the podium.

It was my turn. The rebuttal I had to make would determine the debate winner. I looked at Matthew and could see the support he was bringing me and the hope he had. I looked at the girl who’d been so sure she was right, that her arguments were all that mattered, that anyone could see the wisdom of them. She’d argued from a position of superiority.

And suddenly it all became clear to me. She was just like my dad had been, making statements that couldn’t be refuted, holding the high ground. He did it physically; she was doing it intellectually, but she mimicked his attitude—everyone could see that she was right, and that there was nothing anyone could do to overcome either her or her arguments.

It was that attitude of superiority I was to challenge; all my life I’d been retreating from such challenges.

I looked at Matthew once again and then kept my focus there. He smiled at me and nodded. I started talking, saying the things he’d given me to say, and as I did, I found my nervousness evaporating. I made my points much more strongly than I’d thought I could. I realized as I spoke that not only did the arguments I advanced matter, but that I mattered, that because I was saying them, the words I was saying mattered. I realized I didn’t have to quail before anyone if I believed in myself. For the first time, I recognized I was someone who mattered, who didn’t need to step aside for anyone if I had right and knowledge and competence on my side.

I found myself standing taller as I spoke, my voice steadied, and then I was speaking with conviction, a conviction that hadn’t been there earlier. As I spoke, I began to feel really good about myself, and was actually proud when I was finished. I felt like I’d sold my positions to the judges, and more importantly, I’d found something in myself I hadn’t known was there before, that perhaps hadn’t been there before.

When I walked back to my seat, the look in Matthew’s eyes was so proud that he seemed to be glowing. He whispered to me, “What happened up there? You were incredible!”

I blushed and didn’t say a word. This wasn’t the place for explanations. That would come later, in our spot by the creek.

The three teachers judging the debate took some time to declare a winner, and when they came back into the room, from the expressions on their faces, they’d had some strong words, because none of them looked happy.

They declared us the winners. What happened next got Matthew and me three days of in-school detention. What he did was: he stood up, raised his arms above his head and shouted, “Yes!” Then he yanked me up onto my feet and kissed me. On the lips. Right there. With everyone there looking on.

I didn’t see why I should get detention for an inappropriate display of affection. He kissed me! It was all him.

Well, maybe I did kiss him back. A little.

Anyway, after that, we were out as a couple. No one but a few stick-in-the mud older teachers seemed to mind.

Oh, and Matthew quit the debate team at the end of the season; he only stayed with it so the team could remain in existence; he and the team’s coach didn’t see eye to eye on much of anything. Matthew wasn’t about to stand for being belittled, ignored, or condescended to. His quitting of course meant I quit it, too. But the experience taught me something valuable. I was happy I’d gone through it.

It also made me better see and appreciate Matthew for who he was. He was up front about everything, and I no longer stepped back from confrontations like I always had before.

By then, I knew I wanted Matthew in my life always.

◄ ►

We became double-date partners with my friend Brian and Jan Harper, whom he’d begun dating. We were still all young, and everyone’s parents preferred our dates to be group affairs. We liked it, too. It made movies and pizzas and school dances and such things much more fun and there was less focus on or expectations of sex; those were more on friendship and getting to know each other. I liked that. A lot.

◄ ►

It’s been a while now since I’ve written anything in this journal. I guess with the flashbacks having ended—Dr. Shapiro was sure they’d been my brain’s way of protecting me from remembering the rape I’d witnessed—and with my life moving forward, I didn’t feel the need or have the time. I have a lot of catching up to do here now that I’m a senior in high school, but I’m not going to write much. Some of it is too personal. And Matthew might not like it, my writing down in detail what we do together. Besides, that part of it is nothing other gay boys don’t do, at least the ones who might’ve spent the last few years falling deeply in love with each other. But I do have a couple of things to finish with here, and writing this will provide some closure to this journal just like a chapter is closing in my life.

For the last couple of years I’d done everything at the farm, working alongside Uncle Peter and on my own. It hadn’t been all that long before I’d known how to do everything he did, and I joined in doing it happily. I was a full-fledged, working and capable farm boy now. Derrick, the farm boy.

I’d spoken to Uncle Peter about going to college not too long after Matthew and I had become a committed couple, but told him the life I wanted was on the farm, this farm, college or not. I asked him if that was okay. His smile and warm hug told me that it was indeed more than okay.

I told him I was trying for a scholarship. He told me that was fine, but with or without one, I could go to college with Matthew. He’d find a way to pay for it, and I wasn’t to worry about it. He asked me if I trusted him, and I said I did more than anyone else in the world. He said to trust him about this, then, that there would be money for me to go to college.

I knew the farm finances were better now that the economy had picked back up. I even had the new bedroom he’d promised me. I loved living on that farm, in that house, with those people. Well, the adult people.

I’d studied harder, and I’d got the grades I’d needed, and I was accepted at the university that Matthew would be attending. We’d be going together, which is what we both wanted.

I wanted to get a business degree focusing on agriculture. I wanted to come back and help Uncle Peter run his farm, maybe expand the operation, but to live and work there. I couldn’t conceive of a better life. I wasn’t sure how Matthew would fit into that, but we were talking about it. He said he might become a lawyer; our little town didn’t have a law office, and people had to drive miles to find a practicing attorney. Or he’d become a financial advisor. Or start a business. Or do all three. He said he’d find a way that we’d always be together, and I was sure he would and we would. He could do anything he set his mind to. Right then the only thing it was set on was being with me, just like that was what I wanted with him, too. We wanted to grow old together, even have kids. I wanted to raise a son on the farm. There would be no abuse, either. Only love. Of that I was sure.

Leaving for college was hard. I was going to miss the farm, miss Joy. I wouldn’t miss Missy, who was still living at home after having finished high school, but I was pretty sure by the end of the next four years, she’d be married and gone—or just gone. She was no longer a thorn in my side in either case. I’d survived her abuse just like I’d survived my dad’s. Both had left their marks, but I was still me.

I hugged Uncle Peter and Aunt Bess long and hard and misted up the day we left. Our car—well, Matthew’s car—was loaded to the brim with our stuff. He’d already hugged both of them. I spent much more time at it. Aunt Bess was tearful, too, matching me. Uncle Peter kept his emotions in check, just like he always did, like he always would. He was my rock, and I expected nothing less.

Driving off, I felt pangs I’d never felt before. I was leaving a life I loved. But I’d be back, for visits and vacations, holidays and summers, and for good at school’s end with my degree in my hand and a head full of ideas. I’d be back. And Matthew would be with me.

The End

My never-ending thanks to each of the editors who worked on this story. Your value in the creative process is intrinsic.

Thanks to Mike for posting this and all my stories. His great site can always use your financial support. Please give generously so it can continue to operate. This is the perfect time of year to express your thanks to him with more than words.

And I want to express my heartfelt wish for an end to the suffering of any child who has to deal with abusive parents. Abuse always alters their lives, and in many cases irredeemably. These are our children. They need to grow up in safe surroundings with an abundance of love and support to reach their full potential.