It was snowing. It hardly ever snows in our part of Tennessee, but it was snowing that day, the day we buried my father. At 14 years old and in the middle of my freshman year of high school, this was the last place I expected to be. As the guests made their way back to their cars to get out of the freezing cold, I remained standing over the grave, half expecting dad to climb out of it as if this were some kind of cruel joke. Despite being injured in the accident myself, I couldn’t believe this was really happening.
“Sean, it’s time to go,” said mom as she gingerly placed her hand on my right shoulder. My left collar bone was broken, and my arm would be in a sling for weeks to come.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” I sniffled.
“I know, sweetheart. I miss him too.”
“It’s all my fault,” I turned and sobbed on her shoulder.
“Sean, don’t you believe that for one second,” said mom as she pulled me close to her and guided me away from the grave. “There was nothing you could have done.”
That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true.
We had a good life in Nashville. Dad had been a prominent attorney before the governor appointed him as a judge of the Davidson County Superior Court. Mom was a veterinarian who treated everything from house pets to farm animals. My sister Sarah is a student at Vanderbilt University, and I’d attended the Ensworth School since kindergarten. Yes, Nashville is the home of country music, but there’s so much more to it than that. Dubbed the Athens of the south, it has a more genteel atmosphere. It’s the home to the upper crust of the southern aristocracy, and as such it’s developed the kind of cosmopolitan atmosphere you find in much larger cities.
While I was happy and content with my surroundings, my mom had yearned for something more. She’d become a vet because of her love of horses. She’d competed in equestrian events since she was a little girl, and with Sarah out of the house and living on campus, mom decided it was time to expand her business. She wanted to open an equestrian center featuring a state of the art hospital, boarding and training facilities. Nashville is in the heart of Tennessee horse country, and I thought mom’s new venture was a great idea until I realized what it would mean for me.
We boarded our own horses at Sidewinder Ranch out in Mammoth Falls along the Cumberland River in rural Davidson County. It was only a thirty minute drive from urban Nashville, and we usually made the trip a couple of times a week. What I didn’t know was the owners of the ranch were retiring and looking to sell. When the ranch with all of its facilities, including a 19th century farm house, went on the market, my parents made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
The ranch was perfect for my mother’s plans, but it threw a serious wrench into mine. I’d lived in the same house all my life and gone to school with the same kids. I was popular with my classmates, and the last thing I wanted to do was leave my friends behind to live at Green Acres with a bunch of stinking horses. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, especially my horse, Hades, but I was a city kid, and the idea of living on the ranch was so completely foreign to me it was frightening. The worst part was, not only would I be leaving my friends behind and starting a new school, I’d be doing so in the middle of the year.
It was early January, just after the Christmas holiday, and we were moving. Mom was already at the ranch directing the movers as to where they should be putting the furniture, while dad and I brought the last of the boxes from our Nashville home in his car. I sat in the front seat pouting with my arms crossed over my chest when dad tried to talk to me. He told me I should think of this new chapter in my life as some kind of adventure, and I told him the last thing I wanted was an adventure. I was comfortable with my life and I wanted things to stay the way they were. The more he tried to convince me of how great life on the ranch would be the more annoyed I became, and an argument broke out.
If I’d just kept quiet, if I hadn’t been such a brat, my dad would be here today. He was a kind and loving man, but when I got on his nerves as only I could we had some powerful disagreements. Dad always said I should follow him into law because I loved to argue, and that day I presented my case as if I were appearing before the Supreme Court. If dad hadn’t been arguing with me he would have seen the car stopped in the road ahead of us. He would have seen it and slowed down, but because I distracted him he didn’t see it until it was too late. He swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid a collision, only to be hit head on by an 18-wheeler.
When I woke up in the hospital I had a broken collar bone, some bruised ribs and a contusion on my forehead along my hairline from where the airbag hit me in the face. Dad’s airbag had malfunctioned and failed to deploy. He didn’t survive the accident. That was over a week ago, and I’ve relived the event in my dreams every night since. I haven’t mentioned it to my mom or sister. They’d just tell me it was my subconscious reacting to the tragedy, but I know the truth. I’m being punished for the part I played in dad’s death.
I shook that thought from my mind as we pulled up to the ranch. There was a reception being held in our home to honor dad, and I had to brace myself for the outpouring of affection from all the friends and family in attendance. As I mentioned, we don’t get much snow in our part of the world, and I was surprised at how many cars I counted when we pulled up to the house. I didn’t think that many people would venture so far from the city when the road conditions could present a hazard to them.
The company was a blessing and a curse. It was comforting to know dad had so many people who loved and respected him. At the same time I hated all the, “you poor baby,” looks I was getting from everyone and the little tidbits of conversation I’d pick up.
“Did you see Sean? He was in the car with his daddy when the truck hit them.”
“Has he said anything about what happened?”
Eventually I’d had all I could take and snuck away from the crowd to hide in my room. If there was a bright spot in all the tragedy and turmoil of the past week it was my room. I felt comfortable in it the moment I set foot inside. It was a large space with room for a queen size bed. There were windows along the north wall with an impressive view of the property and the river beyond. I had my own bathroom and plenty of space to store all of the things I’d collected over the years. I’m a serious swimmer, and half of my closet space was taken up with trophies I’d won at various meets and tournaments. That afternoon there was no comfort to be had.
When I was alone I had nothing but my guilty conscience to dwell on, so I changed out of my suit and into jeans and a sweatshirt. It was a pain in the butt, changing with only one usable hand, but I made do. Once I was dressed in comfortable clothes I put my arm back in the sling and snuck down the back stairs. I headed out the back door, and a minute later I was in the stable with my horse, Hades. We’d been studying mythology in school when my parents gave me the black Thoroughbred as a 12th birthday present. I thought naming him after the lord of the underworld was perfect for a horse blacker than midnight.
I found Hades in his stall and he whinnied and hung his head over the gate so I could scratch his muzzle. Horses are intuitive creatures and I’ve often found Hades to be better company than most people I know. I opened the gate and walked inside. As the tears began to tumble down my cheeks the big animal used his chin to pull me in closer. I put my good arm around his neck and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes until I regained my composure.
I don’t know why I started crying then. Maybe it was because of the affection I got from Hades. Treat an animal right and he’ll love you unconditionally. If they knew and understood who we really are they probably wouldn’t have anything to do with us. I was sure if Hades understood the role I’d played in dad’s death he wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Regardless, I appreciated his gentle touch and once I’d calmed down I set about grooming him. It was one more thing that was hard to do with one hand, but at least it took my mind off my troubles.
I started by picking out his hooves, which was particularly difficult with one hand. I had to kneel down and have Hades rest his foreleg on my knee while I cleaned out his hoof. Next I brushed out his coat, washed his face with a damp rag and combed out his mane and tail. When that was done I mucked out his stall and went to get fresh hay. This was the really hard part. There were hay bales stored at the end of the stable but I couldn’t carry one without both hands. I resorted to dragging one along the ground but that was just making a mess.
“Here, let me help you,” said a cheerful voice, which startled me none the less.
“Jesus!” I exclaimed and rounded on the source of the voice, which turned out to be a boy my age. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry about that,” he smiled. “I was just getting Indy squared away and I didn’t know anyone was out here. Then I saw you struggling with that bale. My name’s Josh.”
“Sean,” I nodded and shook his hand.
“Haven’t seen you around before,” said Josh as he walked around the other side of the bale and helped me carry it to Hade’s stall. “You just start boarding here?”
“We just bought the place,” I explained.
“Oh, wow. I’m sorry,” Josh stuttered.
“About what?” I examined him curiously.
“I heard about what happened to your dad,” said Josh.
“Oh,” I sighed.
“How are you doing?”
“Fine,” I insisted.
“Listen, it’s not my place to ask…”Josh started.
“So don’t,” I interrupted.
“No problem,” Josh smiled a disarming smile.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that…”
“It’s just that everyone has been telling you they know how you feel and you’re tired of hearing it, right?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“It’s cool,” said Josh. “But I really do understand. I lost my mom a couple of years ago.”
“Oh, I didn’t know…”
“No way you could’ve,” Josh smiled again. “Anyway, my dad’s going to pick me up any minute, so I better get out front. See you around, Sean.”
“Yeah, uh, bye,” I waved.
I spent a few more minutes with Hades, but when I felt a cold chill run down my spine I decided it was time to head back to the house. I was glad to find the guests were gone now and flopped down on the couch in the family room where someone had built a roaring fire.
“There you are. I was wondering where you’d disappeared to,” said mom.
“I went down to the stable to groom Hades,” I explained.
“Wasn’t that hard with one…”
“Yeah,” I interrupted. “It was hard, but I was able to handle almost everything myself. A boy helped me carry fresh hay when I was finished.”
“A boy?” said mom.
“Josh…I didn’t get his last name. His horse is Indy.”
“Oh, that’ll be Josh Hunter. His father boards Indy and Shadow here,” mom explained.
“Cool,” I replied for lack of anything better to say.
“Honey, are you doing ok?” asked mom after a long moment of silence.
“As ok as I can be,” I lied.
“Sarah’s going back to campus in the morning. It’s just you and me in the house now. I want you to know I’m here for you,” said mom.
“I know mom, but thanks for saying it again. It’s really hard and I miss dad so much, but I’m not ready to talk about it,” I admitted.
“I understand,” mom nodded. “Let’s get your sister and get in the car. I don’t feel like cooking tonight.”
Dinner that night was quiet and subdued. Sarah was reluctant to leave us and return to school the next day, I was dreading my first day at Mammoth Falls High, and mom had a lot to deal with in order to set up her new business. Pile dad’s death on top of all of that, and we were at best a family in crisis. It was late when we got home that night, and I went straight to bed. I relived the accident in my dreams and spent several hours staring out the window. On Sunday I groomed Hades again, not because he needed it but because it was a distraction. On Monday morning mom gave me a hug and a kiss then dropped me off at my new school.
I’d only ever attended Ensworth. I was nervous about my new school, knowing it was a small community and that most of the kids in my class had probably known each other all their lives. Moreover I’m a city kid, and this would be my first experience with what the snob in me was sure would be hillbillies. Nashville might have only been half an hour away, but the urban center seemed light-years away from this part of the world. I resolved to keep my head down and draw as little attention to myself as possible.
I checked in at the administration office, got my class schedule and made my way through the crowded halls to English. I handed my schedule to the teacher so she could check me in and then heard someone whisper my name when she told me to take an empty seat.
“Pssst, Sean, hey Sean.”
I turned to find Josh Hunter waving at me with a big smile on his face. I instantly smiled in relief. At least I wasn’t totally alone. I’d only met Josh once, but he was friendly, polite and with his auburn hair and green eyes he was pretty cute too. I hurriedly took the seat next to him and let him hold my backpack while I used my good hand to open the zipper and extract a notebook before class started.
“How’s it going so far?” asked Josh.
“Ok, I guess. No one’s beaten me up or anything.”
“Why would they?” Josh puzzled.
“I have no idea what goes on at public school,” I explained. Josh just chuckled.
“Trust me, I think you’ll be fine.” he grinned.
“I stopped by to visit with Indy yesterday,” I changed the subject.
“I was feeding apples to Hades and thought Indy might like one. I figured it was the least I could do to thank you for helping me with that hay bale the other night,” I explained.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s hard to do things one handed, and besides it’s nice to have another guy around the ranch,” Josh smiled.
“We’ve boarded our horses there for years, and the other owners seem to be mostly older people and girls.”
“We’ve boarded our horses there for years. Strange we never met before.”
“Oh well, we know each other now,” Josh grinned. “Let me see your schedule.”
I handed the card over and learned just how small my new school was. Josh was in over half of my classes, had the same lunch period as me and invited me to sit with him and his friends. That worked out great, because nothing sucks worse than trying to find your place in the hierarchy of a high school lunch room. Josh’s friends turned out to be a mixture of jocks, farm kids, drama geeks and popular girls. What struck me most was how friendly everyone was. The all gave me the obligatory, “Sorry about your dad,” confirming just how fast news travels in a small town, but then they went about their business and included me in everything. I was feeling a lot less lonely when I walked down our long gravel driveway after school.
The driveway leads directly to the stables, paddock and the new veterinary clinic. If you keep following it, the driveway climbs the hill to our house. Mom asked me to stop by the office when I got home to tell her about my first day at school, and I noticed a strange truck parked outside as I approached the building. It wasn’t really a big deal; the building was new and there were still contractors coming in and out to make minor adjustments, not to mention clients and boarders.
I was looking the wrong way and didn’t hear feet approaching until it was too late. I turned just in time for a big grey and white Border-Collie to tackle me to the ground. I shrieked in pain. My ribs and collar bone were still tender, and the impact on the ground sent a wave of agony through my body. It was quickly surpassed by giggles as I realized I wasn’t under attack. The dog licked my face as if we were long lost friends.
“Bess, you get your ass up off of him,” said a man’s voice with a heavy Tennessee drawl. Growing up in the city my own accent is fairly neutral.
The dog, Bess, whimpered then walked over to her master. He reached his hand out and pulled me to my feet. I saw mom running over from the stables to join us.
“You alright, sonny boy?” asked the old man.
“I’m…” I started.
“Sean, oh my God! Are you alright?” said my flustered mother as she caught up to us. She frantically checked me over for injuries, and I had to give her a gentle push to get her to stop.
“I’m fine, mom,” I insisted.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the old man. “Bess, she loves kids and just wanted to play with your boy. She didn’t mean him any harm.”
“It’s ok,” I replied. “No harm, no foul.”
“Sean, this is Mr. Moony. He’s taking the ranch hand job. He and his dog are going to be living in that little cottage down by the river,” Mom explained.
“Oh, cool. Nice to meet you, Mr. Moony,” I shook his hand. Bess whined. I love animals so I got down on my knee and let Bess lick my face while I petted her. “Nice to meet you too, Bess.”
“I told you, she loves kids,” Mr. Moony smiled.
“Alright then,” said mom. I think she finally started breathing again. “You have everything you need, Mr. Moony?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the old cowboy replied. “Bess and I were just going to head down to the cottage and get ourselves settled.”
“Perfect. If you need anything I’m usually here at the office or the big house. If I’m not home Sean can help you out.”
Mr. Moony nodded and whistled for Bess. She whimpered and reluctantly left my side. I followed mom into the stable where she had been grooming her horse, Dolly, and told her about my day. I think she breathed a sigh of relief when I told her about running into Josh and having him in most of my classes. I know she’s worried about me and how I’m adjusting to the changes in our life, and I‘m glad I was able to set her mind at ease. We had such a normal conversation I started to feel like I was normal again too, if only for a minute.
I went upstairs to start my homework, but the grief, sadness and guilt took over again. I spent the afternoon thinking about my dad, how much I missed him and how I’d never forgive myself for his untimely death. At dinner I pushed my food around my plate but hardly ate anything.
That’s how the next few days seemed to go. I was happy at school with Josh and the new people I was meeting, but once I was alone in my room everything came flooding back. At school I had my work and my new friends to keep me busy, but at home my mind was free to wander, and it kept wandering to the place I didn’t want it to go. I decided the only way I was going to be happy or even normal at home was to keep my mind as busy as it was at school. I threw myself into the whole farm-boy routine. I spent my afternoons helping out at the stable the best I could, which usually meant playing fetch with Bess so she was out of Mr. Moony’s way.
I couldn’t have a dog in Nashville, because dad was allergic to them. I always thought that was ironic seeing as he was married to a vet. I’ve always loved animals, and I was grateful to Bess for all she did to keep me distracted from my problems.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do Saturday without school to keep me busy, but that problem was solved when Josh said he was coming over to spend the day with Indy and asked if I’d go riding with them. I hadn’t ridden since the accident and wasn’t sure how I was going to mount Hades without both hands, but I couldn’t say no. Josh has become my best friend almost overnight, and I’d say I have more than a crush on him. He’s cute as can be, but what really gets me is how kind he is. I’ve noticed it at school too; he’s everyone’s friend.
It was cold Saturday morning. When I woke up I struggled into jeans, a t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt and my riding boots. I had to put my coat on over my sling and had no idea how I was going to get on a horse, but I enthusiastically went down to the stables and waited for Josh to arrive. I was playing with Bess when I saw his dad’s blue Explorer pull up. I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face when my new friend hopped out and came over with his dad.
I was a little surprised that Mr. Hunter was in a suit, but Josh explained his dad was the local bank president and had some conference he was heading up to in the city. Mr. Hunter seemed nice enough.Hhe ducked into the office to talk to mom about some shots for Shadow, and Josh and I headed to the stables. Josh ran to the tack room to get the saddles and equipment for the horses, then had me keep him company while he got them ready. Indy and Hades seemed to hit it off and didn’t give Josh any trouble.
“Ok, you ready to mount up?” said Josh.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure how I’m going to do it,” I gestured at my sling.
“Shoot, that’s easy,” Josh smiled. “Put your right hand on the saddle horn, left foot in the stirrup.”
I did as I was bid and found it to be an awkward position. Normally my left hand would be on the saddle horn and I’d hop up and throw my right leg over. I was wondering how I was going to hold on with the weight of my left side dragging me down when Josh stepped up. He put his hand gently against my left side and his other hand on my butt.
“Ok, hop up,” said Josh.
I put the weight on my left foot and when I hopped, Josh pushed up against my side and my butt until I was able to throw my leg over and come to rest in the saddle.
“See, that was easy,” Josh winked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I agreed as he climbed aboard Indy.
“I know some great trails I can show you,” said Josh as he led us out of the stables.
Josh talked a lot, but all I could think about was his hand on my butt. I know it’s crazy, but he didn’t have to put it there; he could have grabbed a belt loop or something. Instead his palm was pressed firmly against my backside, and I swear he squeezed it when he pushed. It was probably wishful thinking, but just as I was about to shake the thought off, Josh got quiet and then looked down at Indy.
“Look, I know what you’re probably thinking, but I was just trying to help you mount your horse,” said Josh.
“Huh?” I played dumb. I wondered if he was some kind of mind reader, because he seemed to know exactly what I’d been thinking.
“Oh come on, you’ve been at school a week now. I’m sure you’ve heard all the rumors about the town queer,” Josh sighed.
“What?” I exclaimed.
“I swear, I wasn’t trying to feel up your butt. I was just trying to…”
“Wait, hold up,” I interrupted. “You’re gay?”
“You mean you really haven’t heard?” said Josh, a confused look spreading over his face.
“Well, yeah. I’m gay,” Josh sighed.
“Look, I understand if you don’t want to be my friend anymore. It wouldn’t be the first time I …”
“Josh, I’m, well, I’m gay too!” I blurted out. It was the first time I’d ever said it out loud before.
“Yeah. Wow, I can’t believe this,” I nodded.
“That’s so cool! I don’t know any other gay people, and here you come to town and you’re gay and cute and…uh,” Josh blushed, realizing he might have said more than he meant to.
“Hold on, back up,” I smiled. “What was that you said?”
“Well, you’re cute,” he blushed adorably.
“Well, so are you,” I smiled.
“Really?” said Josh. He sounded surprised.
“Big time! I thought you were cute the first time I saw you,” I admitted.
“Thanks.” He grinned like a stud. “I thought you were too. I’m a sucker for blonds.”
“So should we dismount and suck each other’s dicks now, or do you want to go back to my house?”
“What?” Josh exclaimed.
“Gotcha,” I smirked.
“That is so not funny,” Josh laughed.
“Yeah, I’m really not like that. I’ve never done anything with a guy before,” I admitted.
“Ok, me either,” said Josh, sighing in relief.
“Not saying I wouldn’t. I mean, you really are cute and I’m so happy to have you as a friend. I’ve never had a boyfriend before, and I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here but if it did, well…”I rambled excitedly.
“I get you,” said Josh. “It’s cool, but, well, would you mind if I hugged you?”
“This is so crazy, finding another gay guy like this. I just really want to give you a hug,” Josh blushed.
“Tell you what. It would be a little awkward on the horses. Why don’t we enjoy our ride, and when we get back to the stable you can give me a big long hug,” I smiled.
“Ok, great,” Josh smiled.
If I thought Josh was chatty before, he really let loose after we’d inadvertently come out to each other. He talked about his life as the only gay guy in town, about losing his mother, and he even got me to open up a little about my dad. I didn’t tell him how guilty I’d been feeling, but he commented on it anyway, saying that I shouldn’t blame myself for what happened. I changed the subject then. I was having too good of a day to risk crying in front of him.
We spent hours riding, but when we returned to the stable there were still people milling around. I was having a good time with Josh so I asked him to stay for dinner. I told him we could groom the horses after dinner, and he could have his hug then. He smiled brightly and called his dad to get permission. I could tell the answer was yes from the way he smiled when he hung up. It was still a few hours before dinner. so we killed time by playing with Bess and then veg’ing out in front of the TV for a bit.
Mom was happy to meet Josh and thanked him for looking after me at school. It was embarrassing and I must have blushed 50 shades of red, but I knew Josh wouldn’t tease me about it. After dinner we offered to help with the dishes, but mom insisted she’d take care of it, so we went back to the stable to take care of the horses. It didn’t take long for us to groom the animals, and I sensed Josh growing nervous as we finished up.
“Um, you know, I was just kind of teasing about the hug earlier. I mean you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Josh blushed and looked down at his feet.
“No, you weren’t,” I retorted. “You want to hug me and that’s ok. I want to hug you too.”
“Really,” Josh’s face brightened.
“Duh, you’re hot,” I smiled. I have no idea where this new found confidence was coming from. I’d never done anything with a guy before, and I was just as scared as he was. I think maybe when you want something bad enough, well, maybe fear doesn’t matter?
“So um, how do we do this?”
“I know you’ve never hugged a boy before, but I assume it works the same way as hugging anyone else,” I giggled.
“Right.” Josh rolled his eyes and stepped up to me. “Here we go.”
“Just watch my shoulder,” I reminded him.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised.
And then his arms were around me. They encircled my waist and drew me close to him. I put my good arm around his neck and felt my cheek brush against his. He started to pull back but I held him in place.
“Don’t let go. Not yet,” I whispered.
“Ok,” Josh whispered back and gave me a squeeze.
I don’t know how long we held the hug, but I felt so comfortable, so safe with him that I didn’t want to let go. I loved the feel of his arms around me and the smell of him in my nostrils. I would have been content to hold that hug all night, but the lights flickered out, snapping me back to reality.
“Shit,” I groaned, as we disengaged from each other.
“Wow,” Josh whispered.
“Yeah,” I blushed in the dark.
“So what’s with the lights?”
“I don’t know. Mom’s had workmen down at her office all week. I know she’s having an electrical problem there. I wonder if it’s connected to this building,” I stated.
“Come on, let’s find the circuit breaker,” said Josh.
“Ok, I think it’s…” I began but stopped in my tracks when I heard growling.
The stable door was open and the light of the moon was flooding through. There stood Bess snarling with her fangs bared. I’d never seen the gentle cattle dog like this before.
“Bess, it’s ok, it’s just me,” I said soothingly and stepped forward.
Her growl intensified and she snapped out an angry bark. That’s when I realized she wasn’t even looking at me. I turned and followed her gaze to a pair of glowing yellow eyes in the far corner of the stable.
“What the fuck is that?” I exclaimed.
“Holy shit,” Josh’s eyes bugged out in fear.
“Let’s just get out of here,” I grabbed Josh and pulled him towards the exit, but Bess stood her ground. “Bess, come on girl.”
The dog was resolute. She refused to move until Josh and I were safely outside. We walked past the snarling dog, and as soon as we stepped out on the grass she barked and raced down the center hall.
“Bess, come back!” I shouted after her.
All I could hear was snarling and barking. Whatever was in there with Bess was putting up a hell of a fight. I felt my eyes tearing up. I didn’t want anything to happen to that dog. I loved her.
“Bess, come on,” I sniffled.
All of the sounds coming from the stable stopped. I was about to take a step inside but Josh held me back. I started to protest, but Josh pointed into the stable and there at the opposite end, illuminated by the light of the moon, stood a massive animal. It was shaped like a dog but it was bigger than any canine I’d ever seen. It walked slowly towards the back exit but when it sensed our eyes on its back it turned and snarled.
“Run!” Josh shouted.
We ran as fast as our legs could carry us toward the farmhouse. I don’t know if it chased us or not. I was too afraid to look back.
“What the fuck was that thing,” Josh exclaimed as we came crashing into the family room.
“My God,” said mom, jumping up from the couch. “You guys look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Mom,” I panted for breath. “There’s something out there. A wolf or something. It was in the stable and I think it hurt Bess!”
“A wolf, are you sure?” said mom.
“I saw it!”
“Sean, there are no wolves in Tennessee,” mom reasoned.
“Well, whatever it was I think it hurt Bess,” I exclaimed.
“Alright, I’ll go check it out,” said mom.
She went down the hall to what would have been dad’s study and came back a moment later with a shotgun and a flashlight.
We went down to the stable, using the flashlight to scan the trees and the grounds as we went. When we got to the stable mom flipped the light switch and it came on as if we’d simply turned them off ourselves. We went slowly down the center hall of the stable checking on each horse as we went. The animals seemed fine and when we reached the end of the stable there was no sign of the wolf or Bess. We searched for Bess for another twenty minutes but came up empty.
“She’s probably at the cottage with Mr. Moony,” mom insisted.
“Ok, let’s go ask him,” I replied.
“Sean, I’m not going to interrupt his evening. If there’s a problem with Bess I’m sure he’ll bring her up to the house.”
“But mom,” I whined just as Josh’s dad pulled into the driveway.
“Hey kiddo, have a good ride?” said Mr. Hunter when he hopped out of his SUV.
“Dad,” Josh exclaimed and threw his arms around his father.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” asked Mr. Hunter.
“These two had a bit of a scare in the stables,” said mom.
“What happened?” said Mr. Hunter.
“We saw a wolf,” said Josh.
“Boys, I’m telling you, there are no wolves in Tennessee,” said mom.
“Well, that’s not entirely true,” said Mr. Hunter. “They are trying to reintroduce red wolves into the Smokey Mountains.”
“But that’s over 200 miles from here,” mom reminded him.
“True,” Mr. Hunter agreed. “Maybe it was someone’s German Shepard.”
“But it was huge,” I exclaimed.
“Dogs get big, Sean,” said mom.
“Gee mom, you think?” I rolled my eyes.
“Well, we better get going,” said Mr. Hunter. “Thanks for having Josh for dinner.”
“He’s welcome anytime,” mom smiled.
“Bye, Sean. I’ll see you at school,” Josh smiled weakly.
“Yeah, see you,” I sighed.
“Come on, let’s go back up to the house,” said mom, putting her arm around my shoulder.
“Mom, I know what I saw,” I pouted.
“I know, honey. We’ll figure it out in the morning.”
When the sun rose the next morning it failed to bring any answers with it. I was up at first light and spent my time searching the stable area for paw prints. The only prints I found belonged to Bess, who trotted over happy as can be when she saw me. I was relieved to see her. After the things I heard coming from the stables the night before I was sure she’d been mortally wounded. Fortunately she seemed just fine. I searched the area around the stables for a few more minutes, but Bess kept grabbing my coat and tugging on it to get my attention. I followed her back to the front of the stable where she’d dropped her ball and rolled my eyes as she barked for me to pick it up and throw it for her.
Bess was ok, there was no sign of the animal we’d encountered, and I started to feel a little silly for having such a strong reaction to what was probably a stray dog. Your mind plays tricks on you sometimes, and a dark stable on a moonlit night would be the perfect place for it to conjure up something devious. I’d just thrown the ball for Bess when Mr. Moony put his hand on my shoulder and startled me out of my skin.
“Jesus Christ!” I jumped.
“Sorry about that,” Mr. Moony chuckled. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“It’s alright,” I panted. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“Been out here checking the fences for breaches all morning. I heard y’all had a spot of trouble last night.”
“Yeah, there was something in the stable, but Bess chased it off,” I explained.
“Figures,” Mr. Moony smiled. “That stubborn old bitch doesn’t like strays on her territory.”
“It’s stupid, but I thought it was a wolf at first,” I blushed. “Mom says it was probably a dog.”
“What made you think it was a wolf?” asked Mr. Moody.
“It looked like a wolf, but it was so big,” I exclaimed. “Mom says it was probably a freakishly large German Shepard. There aren’t any wolves in this part of Tennessee.”
“No, I suppose there ain’t,” Mr. Moony shook his head then stared out at the open field towards the river. “I did a spot of work on a Navajo reservation out in Utah once. You ever heard of a skinwalker?”
“No, what’s that?”
“The medicine man told me a story about skinwalkers. Said he knew a man once who raised all kinds a hell when he was drinkin, which was all the time. One night this guy gets real drunk and does something terrible to a couple of boys your age,” Mr. Moony began.
“What did he do to them?” I asked nervously.
“About the worst thing a man can do to a boy, I reckon,” Mr. Moony continued. “The tribe found the bodies of the boys out in the desert but there was no evidence so the guy that did it walked right out of the white man’s court.”
“He just got away with…whatever it was he did?”
“Not exactly. The Navajo believe when a man does something like that, something so foul and so immoral, the gods punish him by turning him into a skinwalker. Skinwalkers would take the shape of animals, most often a wolf, and while in animal form they’d lose all traces of their humanity, making them mean and unpredictable. They’d wake up the next morning and be forced to live with the guilt from the crimes they committed while they were out of control.”
“You think maybe that thing I saw in the stable…” I gulped.
“Nah,” Mr. Moony shook his head and chuckled. “Just an old man’s story. I didn’t mean to rile ya.”
“It’s ok,” I stuttered, realizing for the first time my teeth were chattering in the cold.
“Well, I best get back to them horses,” said Mr. Moony. “I wouldn’t worry about whatever it was you saw. Chances are it’s long gone from here by now.”
“Yeah, I better get inside,” I nodded and walked home.
Mr. Moony’s story was creepy, but that’s all it was, a story. The next day at school I talked to Josh about what happened, and we both agreed our parents were right; it was probably just a dog. Over the next few weeks life returned to normal at Sidewinder Ranch. My bones healed and I didn’t have to wear that stupid sling anymore, but most importantly my nightmares stopped. I wasn’t blaming myself for my dad’s death like I had been. I came to realize what everyone had been telling me was true; it was an accident. By a simple twist of fate we were in the wrong place at the right time for a tragedy. There was no way to know what would have happened if we hadn’t been arguing, and I took some comfort from knowing it wasn’t all my fault.
The other good news was my relationship with Josh grew stronger. He was my best friend, my riding buddy, and I was very quickly falling for him. Josh’s personality was so magnetic I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. I spent all my free time with Josh, and by early March I finally worked up the courage to ask him to spend the night. The nightmares had stopped, there was no danger of me waking up screaming in the middle of the night, so I took the risk and extended the invitation, which he happily accepted.
Josh’s dad dropped him off after lunch on Saturday and we raced off to the tack room to grab our saddles. After a few minutes the horses were ready, and I made a lame joke about Josh touching my butt while I mounted, though I no longer needed his help. Josh laughed at the kind of harmless flirtation that we’ve grown accustomed to, and we set out on our ride. I’d been coming to the ranch for years before we bought the place. I thought I knew all the ins and outs, but Josh always seemed to know a trail I’d never been on. We spent the afternoon exploring and rode up to the stable just as the last of the boarders was leaving for the day.
“Hi, boys,” said mom as she walked towards her car.
“Hey, mom, where are you going?”
“I called in an order for some pizza, but they don’t deliver this far out. I’m going to run by the store, and I should be back with dinner in about an hour,” she explained.
“Ok, cool.” I smiled, and then Josh and I led our horses into the stable.
The sun set as we groomed the horses, and it was dark when we finished. The hug Josh and I shared my first week at Mammoth Falls High had become something of an after-grooming tradition. We put our supplies away, looked around nervously to confirm we were alone and then held each other.
“You know, riding Indy used to be my favorite thing about coming out here,” said Josh.
“Oh yeah, what is it now?”
Josh answered by giving me a gentle squeeze.
“Oh, duh.” I blushed.
“You’re cute when you do that, you know?”
“If you say so.” I continued to turn red.
“There you go being cute again.” he smiled.
“Thanks.” I grinned back.
Our eyes met and held each other’s gaze for a moment, and then as if we were drawn together, our lips met in a gentle kiss. It was a quick peck, but when we pulled away Josh was smiling, I was smiling, and we dove in for a more passionate second round. This time when our lips touched they parted slightly and I felt the tip of Josh’s tongue as it probed my mouth. I wrapped my lips around it and sucked on the soft muscle until Josh let out a gentle moan.
“Wow,” we panted in unison when we pulled apart.
“That was amazing,” I exclaimed.
“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Josh smiled.
“What made you finally take the plunge?”
“I couldn’t stand it anymore. I’m gay, you’re gay. I like you, you like me. It felt right. Didn’t it feel right to you?” said Josh, looking a little nervous about what I might say.
“Yeah. Yeah, it did,” I admitted. “I know we said we’d take things slow and see what happens, and I think we’ve done that, but maybe it’s time to…”
“Not this again,” Josh groaned when the lights flickered off.
“I thought they had this fixed. Let’s go find the fuse box.” I rolled my eyes in the dark. Stupid lights! I was going to ask Josh to be my boyfriend, but the moment was ruined. I thought it would be best to wait until after mom went to bed and we were alone in my room where nothing could interrupt before trying again.
Josh followed me out of Indy’s stall, and we froze when we heard growling.
“Bess?” I called out. “Is that you girl?”
“Sean, look,” Josh’s voice quivered.
I turned my head to follow his gaze. There was no sign of Bess, just the glowing yellow eyes of the unknown beast we’d seen before. As we stood there shivering in the darkness the creature walked into the moonlight to reveal its snarling snout and vicious fangs. We took a couple of steps back, but the beast moved closer until it was in striking distance, and then it pounced.
We were flat on our backsides as the beast snarled and snapped at us. I could feel its hot breath on my face, and as it moved in to take a bite out of my throat I came to my senses and took a swing at it. My punch struck the beast in the side of the head just as it was about to take out my Adams Apple. I dodged the frightful teeth while the beast was distracted, but it grabbed a hold of my coat when I tried to punch it again. Josh wiggled out from under the weight of this monstrosity, and then I heard him cry out as the sound of metal on flesh reverberated through the stables.
The beast howled in pain as Josh hit it again and again with the pitchfork we’d used moments ago to muck out the stalls. Blood spurted everywhere and by the time the beast finally collapsed we were covered in its life’s fluid. When it was over, when there was no more fight left in the creature or in the boy. Josh buried the pitchfork in its side and panted for breath. I scrambled to my feet and kicked the beast for good measure, but it didn’t move. I threw my arms around Josh and hugged him tightly as tears streamed through the blood which stained our faces.
“Are you alright?” Josh sniffled.
“Yeah, are you?”
“I think so. What is that thing?”
We broke our hug to look down on the wreck of an animal at our feet, making sure to keep a safe distance from the huge claws and jagged teeth.
“I don’t care what my mom says, that’s a wolf.”
“Yeah, and it’s not a red wolf either. It didn’t come from the Smokey Mountains,” Josh added.
“Come on, let’s go up to the house and clean up,” I replied.
“What do you want to do about him?” Josh gestured at the body.
“Leave it. I don’t want to touch it. We’ll wait until mom gets back. She’ll know what to do.”
“Yeah, ok,” Josh agreed.
We walked into the house still shaken from our encounter. Both of us were certain if it hadn’t been for Josh’s quick action with that pitchfork we’d probably be dead. It was a lot to take in, how fragile a human life is, but we put those thoughts aside while we cleaned up. Josh went into the bathroom and I went into the kitchen. My shirt was soaked in blood, so I took it off and threw it on the floor while I washed my face and upper body. Josh’s shirt was soaked too, and when I met him in the family room he was naked from the waist up.
“Gimme your shirt. I’ll throw it in the wash with mine,” I explained.
“That can wait,” said Josh as he pulled me into a warm hug and kissed me. “I was so scared. Thank God you’re ok.”
“I was scared too, but we’re fine now…” I started but felt the air rush from my lungs as I looked in horror out the front window.
“Look out!” I screamed, but it was too late.
The wolf was running straight at the window and didn’t stop. It leapt into the air and crashed through the plate glass, shattering the window and taking me and Josh to the ground. This time it concentrated its attack on Josh, and I heard him scream as it clawed at his naked skin while he desperately struggled to keep the mouthful of razor-sharp teeth away from his body.
This time we weren’t alone. Bess must have been chasing after the beast, because she leapt through the broken window a second later and grabbed a chunk of its leg. It was a mad struggle between dog, wolf and boy as one fought to kill and two fought to survive.
I frantically searched for the heaviest thing I could find and seized a candlestick from the mantle. I was enraged by the scene unfolding before me. I’d lost my dad; I wasn’t about to lose Josh and Bess too. I attacked the beast, beating it over and over with the candlestick until its bones had to be mush. The body stopped squirming and collapsed on top of Josh. Bess let the beast’s flesh fall from her mouth and backed away, but I continued beating the creature. It fooled us once by playing dead; this time it was going back to hell where it belonged.
“Sean, it’s ok. Stop,” said Josh as he pulled himself out from under the body.
I dropped the candlestick from my hand and grabbed Josh as I sobbed on his shoulder. Bess nuzzled her way between us and licked the tears from our faces. I was grateful beyond belief for that dog. If she hadn’t come when she did, if she hadn’t helped to distract the wolf, it might have killed Josh, and then it would have come after me. I wrapped my arms tight around the boy I wanted to be mine and the dog I claimed as my own when Josh spoke out.
I was reluctant to turn my head after what happened the last time those words escaped Josh’s mouth.
“Look, Sean look,” Josh repeated.
I looked to his face first and found his jaw hanging open not in fear but in utter disbelief. I found the reason why when I looked over my shoulder. There, sprawled out where the wolf’s body should have been, lay Mr. Moony, naked and covered in bruises.
“Holy shit,” I whispered.
“He was the…” Josh began.
“It’s not possible,” I shook my head.
“HE was the wolf,” said Josh.
“It’s just like his story about the skinwalker.”
I neglected to share the story of the skinwalker with Josh before. I was afraid I’d freak him out and that he wouldn’t want to come back to the ranch. Eventually I just forgot about it.
“After that first time we saw it, he told me a story about how Navajos believe if you’ve done something horrible enough the gods will punish you by turning you into a skinwalker,” I explained.
“Huh, I wonder what he did.”
“Sean? Josh?” said mom as she came in the back door with an arm load of groceries.
“Over here mom,” I called out.
“What happened to the window…AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,” She screamed as she rounded the corner of the couch and discovered the naked body of our ranch hand.
When mom recovered we told her what happened, that is, a version of what happened. She’d never believe we’d been attacked by a werewolf; I scarcely believed it and it happened to me! We told her Mr. Moony came at me in the stable, and when Josh saw him he stabbed him with the pitchfork. We thought he was dead so we came back to the house to call the police, but he came crashing through the window and resumed his attack, so I clubbed him with the antique silver candlestick my mom inherited from my grandma.
Half an hour later Josh and I sat on the couch huddled under a blanket. Bess stood guard while mom shared the story with the police. A paramedic checked us each for injuries and put some disinfectant on our scratches, but then we were alone.
“You were going to say something,” said Josh.
“In the stable, before…before it happened.”
“Oh, uh, well, I was going to ask you to be my, uh, boyfriend,” I blushed.
“Yes,” said Josh.
I wanted to kiss him and he wanted to kiss me, but in a room full of police officers and a corpse, it seemed to be bad manners. Instead he squeezed my hand and I tried to suppress the smile that was trying to spread across my face. We enjoyed our happiness for a moment, and then mom sat down beside me.
“I’m so sorry, Sean, Josh. I can’t believe this happened,” mom sniffled.
“It’s ok, mom. We’re ok,” I tried to comfort her.
“It’s all my fault. I should have done a proper background check on him,” said mom.
“What do you mean?”
“The police say a few years ago, Mr. Moony, he raped and murdered a pair of teenage boys out in Utah, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. God knows what he would have done to you two,” mom broke into fresh sobs.
“Oh my God, it’s just like the story,” I whispered as Bess licked mom’s tears.