Plan Zed : A Horse Named Phil

by Driver

Chapter 10

I awoke the next morning confused about where I was, and it took a moment before I was awake enough to figure it out. Then it washed over me all at once, and I was both elated and excited with my return to Riverton. I looked at the mess of covers and pillows on my bed, and it made me smile that it was so comfortable like that. I had a pillow under my head, a pillow under my knees, another one on my chest, and one more lying beside me. I liked being surrounded by softness like that. It was too early to be up on a summer Sunday, so I closed my eyes and relaxed completely, though I didn't fall back asleep.

I just daydreamed, thinking about the things I would get to learn and do in the coming months. It occurred to me that I should get up and start putting things away, but I didn't want to, so I thought about Aaron instead. Thinking about him led me to thoughts of Justin, Billy, Dean and Huck; the core of my friends in Riverton. I already knew that either dumb luck or guardian angels were on my side when I first came to Riverton. I stumbled straight into a job and a place to stay, then learned that the tough guys I lived with had some intelligence. They cared about themselves far more than they showed on the surface, and they looked after their friends, which included me after awhile.

Then I met Billy and Huck, and my already good luck took a turn skyward! They were kids my age with very similar interests and abilities, and they lived within spitting distance of where I was living. They were waiting for me when I got home from work the next day, and our friendship just took off. Billy told me about Aaron Castle that day, and he brought me to Aaron's house for nefarious purposes. Fortunately for Aaron, he wasn't home at the time, but when I ran into him later on I knew who he was.

I knew what he was, too, which was gay. Didn't matter, as it turned out that was the night that my good luck soared off into the stratosphere, where it still remained. I was taken right away with Aaron's good looks and his mannerisms, and even more so by his good nature. Aaron raised the bar in my game of life just by joining in. On the second day that I knew Aaron, I told him I was gay, too, and the next day we kissed for the first time; the first romantic kiss ever for either of us. Oh, Aaron! A day later I told him that I loved him, and that was more true than ever a year later. I only thought it had to be love that first time, because I wasn't sure what it should be like. What I did know then was that Aaron turned on features in me that I didn't know I owned, and they were all the ones that felt really good. Whatever buttons he pushed, they were still stuck in the 'on' position.

When Aaron and I were together, everything seemed right. Even when we weren't together my feelings were tremendously strong, and we could connect almost palpably with a bite of chocolate.

I sighed when I decided to get moving. Aaron's talents were in the arts and mine were in business, so it was good that we could feel together with a Hershey's Kiss. I had no doubt that Aaron could make it big in some corner of the entertainment industry. If he did, he could bring home money in Brink's trucks, and I could get used to the idea of being a kept man. I wouldn't like it, though, not for long anyhow. I had it in me too, to make a mark in the world, but not as a star.

My way would require an address. I'd have to be in one place, whereas Aaron would have to travel. I suppose there was the possibility that I could earn the big bucks, but Aaron would still have his own wanderlust and would want to contribute, too. So it was good that we'd discovered the bonding capabilities of Hershey's Kisses so early on. They'd likely be a staple part of our diet in the long run.

That idea didn't depress me at all, not one little bit. I was excellent with Aaron, and he was excellent with me, but we did really fine apart too. I was in the shower with the strange feeling that we were being taught how it would be, or how it should be. We had to learn. I pictured myself with a big piece of property like Harlan's. Aaron, I thought, would be happy anywhere, but he'd be happier some places than others. I had to imagine him having apartments in New York, London, Paris and L.A. at least, and maybe a beach house in Malibu. What excited me was the house at Easterly Lake.

Aaron and I were sure to try our best in the world, and that would likely take us in different directions a lot of the time. The more we succeeded, the more pressures we'd have that could keep us apart. But there was that house, the old Victorian with the big stretch of lawn down to the lake. It had a room in the attic with a turret window, and that window had a sweeping view of the lake. That would be our anchor, Aaron's and mine. Aaron would be the responsible party there, but I would too. I understood plumbing and wiring where Aaron didn't, and he wouldn't ever. He could redo and decorate tirelessly without ever going overboard. It made me smile, because we were two different people and we had different skills. We were heading in different directions together, though, and if I was certain about anything at that point in my life, it was that we'd work it out.

If I ended up making pillows for people in Peoria while Aaron made movies in Madrid for mavens in Montana, we'd still connect, through real contact, electronics, or sharing a kiss at night. It couldn't work out any other way.

The pipes banged as I abruptly turned off the shower, and the sound brought me back. I knew I was right. Other people would cross our paths, but Aaron and I were in it for the long run. In the end, one of us would bury the other, but even that shouldn't happen prematurely. Our families had no history of cancer or heart disease, nor epilepsy or diabetes. Aaron's grandma on his father's side had died in a crash at a relatively young age, but that wasn't a hereditary thing, just an accident.

I dried off, then shaved, combed my hair, and brushed my teeth. Funny, but I was still just Evan in the mirror. I looked at parts, my hair when I was combing it, my cheeks and chin while shaving, and my mouth when I brushed my teeth, and when I showed them back to myself to prove they were nice and white. That's what mirrors are for, I suppose; to give you an idea what you're doing to yourself, and later to show you how it worked out.

The problem with mirrors is that you do it every day, from the first time you can. I don't know if it's good or bad, but mirrors show you right now, not yesterday or tomorrow. I'd seen myself grow up in mirrors, and I'd never paid the least attention to the real changes in me. What I looked at changed over time, but slowly. Well, things had been added. In addition to the good job I'd done brushing my teeth, I graduated to approving the combing of my hair. Then zits started, though I never had a big problem. Still, they were there sometimes, and always a worry. Added to that was shaving now, and I needed a lot of that.

Nothing in my life made me not normal though, except I'd been accused of being unnaturally cheerful. I didn't view that as an actual flaw because it usually worked in my favor, and only grumps ever said it.

I got dressed and walked out into the kitchen just as Joanne came in from the other way. "There you are!" she said in an accusatory tone. "Nan wants you for breakfast, and pretty damn quick, too!"

I laughed, and Arnie, who was sipping a coffee, said, "Careful, Evan. She might want to feed you, then again maybe she forgot to buy sausages."

I laughed even harder, and when I got my breath I told Joanne, "I'll be down in a minute. She wants to feed me, right?"

She smiled and nodded, stood there appraising me for a moment, then took off the way she came. I looked at Arnie, and he clearly thought it was as funny as I did. He had coffee dripping off his chin and a wide grin on his face.

I looked at the clock, and I had time, so I went down the back stairs and around to Nan's back door. The inside door was open and she saw me coming, and yelled out "Come on in, honey!"

I opened the screen door and went in grinning. Ron was at the table reading the paper, and Nan, in a giant, pink housecoat was by the pantry talking on the phone. She waved me to a chair, and I had a coffee in front of me almost before I sat down. Ron looked up and grinned, "How ya doin', Evan? Got that boyfriend under control?"

I grinned, "Me? No, I don't control Aaron. He runs on auto-pilot, and I just stay out of his way."

Ron snickered and asked, "What do you know about computers? I'm thinking I should get one."

"You should," I said. "I don't know what I'd do without a computer. I just use one, though. If you want advice about what to get, I know some people you could talk to."

We talked about computers while Nan talked on the phone. I knew more about computers than some people, but less than lots of others. I used my own machine a lot, but for pretty routine things. I e-mailed, used instant messaging, Googled a lot, downloaded music, and I used Word for making school papers. I surfed the net less than I used to, but now and again it was still fun to see what was out there. Ron was interested in hearing it anyhow, so we had a nice talk, and Nan started cooking while she was still on the telephone. Food hadn't been on my mind, but the smell of bacon frying got me going.

"What a windbag!" Nan said as she hung up the phone.

Ron looked at her and observed, "You talked as long as your sister did."

Nan said haughtily, "I was being polite. Did you know that Randy was taking the test to be a mailman?"

Ron looked at me and muttered, "I didn't know that. I didn't think he had such high aspirations."

Nan asked, "How do you like your toast, Evan? Mr. High Aspirations here likes his uncooked."

"Not too dark for me," I said.

Ron smirked, "Nan likes hers incinerated. Can anyone tell me why we're having this conversation?"

I sure couldn't, but Nan knew exactly why, and the back-and-forth between them kept me laughing until I had food in front of me and a little girl at my side. Then Joanne took over my breakfast entertainment with question after question for me. I was truly amused by her, too. Environment is everything, and the lifeblood of that household was talk. At ten, Joanne was as pithy as Ron and Nan; a young Barbara Walters in the making. When I finally left, well fed and comfortable, I'd answered fifty questions and avoided almost as many.

Somewhere between when I left Riverton and when I came back, Joanne learned that I was gay, and then had the idea explained to her. I think that whoever did the explaining did a good job, but her young mind made mincemeat of some words, and therefore some facts. That kept it amusing, and I surprised myself with how comfortable I felt clearing up things for her in front of Ron and Nan. There was no sexual detail to embarrass me or anyone else, and when I left I could tell that Joanne still loved me. I'm not sure why I liked that, but I did. Huck's little sister was the same way, and I was flattered by her too. My burgeoning fan club.

* * * * * * * *

We pulled into the horse ranch in a lot of vehicles. Billy had done a good job of rounding up people to go, and there were several that I didn't know. I got to meet one of John Balls little sisters, though, and I thought that their father must have a wild sense of humor. She had to spell it for me, but her name was Jese, pronounced Jezzy, so she was Jezzy Balls.

The place looked beautiful. There was a long, gravel driveway leading in through the woods, and it widened while a lawn widened even faster on either side. Then there was a parking area off to the left, a big house to the right, and a barn straight on, with corrals in front of it and on both sides. I might not have noticed, but a glint of light caught my eye, and it was from the sun reflecting off the river, which was visible only in tiny slices between trees.

There were trails on either side of the drive, and we saw people riding horses. It wasn't what I expected because they were elegant looking people on elegant looking horses. I came trying to look the part by wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and I suddenly felt out of place, even though everyone I was with was dressed more like me than the people on the horses.

"Shit," I said, and Aaron asked what was wrong.

"Did you see those people?" I asked. "They came in their church clothes. I look like a bum."

Aaron, who was driving, snickered, "You don't look like a bum, Ev. I saw them, and it looks like they're here for some show or something. You look fine."

Aaron parked and we stood by the back of his car while the others were parking, and we congregated in groups. I was a little edgy, and I think most of us were, because we didn't know where we should go or what we should do. Billy cleared that up when he strode by, beckoned with his hand, and said, "Come on. Follow me!" He headed straight for the barn, and I could see guys saddling horses in the corral on the right.

We didn't go into the barn itself, but into a one-story extension that turned out to be the welcome center, gift shop, and a tack shop. It was also something of a trophy room. Along a wall there were shelves loaded with trophies and plaques, and the wall behind them was almost completely covered with blue, red and white ribbons. The ranch might be a recent development, but it was clear that these folks had been around horses for a long, long time. We weren't the only people there. There were families, couples and individuals, but we were by far the largest group.

I was looking at the array of awards when Aaron nudged me, and I turned to see Billy with Romi beside him.  I’d only met her once in the fall, but she was a looker. She had shiny black hair, caramel skin, and eyes that seemed to be a sparkly black across the distance. She was wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, and boy did she fill them out, but only to the degree where she looked perfect. They were soon joined by what turned out to be the Vizcarrondo-Rosa family. The father was a tall, wiry man, and he looked as tough as nails. Well, nails with a winning smile. His wife was short, a bit plump, and pleasant looking. Paolo looked to be in his early twenties, and he was a sharp looking guy; as tall as his father but more filled out, and he had a full moustache on a mischievous looking face. The younger brother, Diego, had a different manner about him. He was wiry like his father, but he had a lot of growing to do. I figured him for thirteen.

Diego was in black jeans and a black cowboy shirt, separated by a belt with a big, oval silver buckle. His shirt had a little silver piping on the placket that continued on around the bottom of his collar, and long fringes hung from both arms. His features were sharp, dark, and extremely handsome, but he had a scowl on his face that told me he didn't want to be where he was. His hair was shiny and black too, and looked to be cut short at first. It wasn't until he turned around that I saw that he had it pulled back into a long braid in back. Diego also filled out his pants just about as well as a boy could, and I backhanded Aaron's wrist on general principle when I deduced that he was having the same lurid thoughts as I was.

Billy introduced Romi's family to us, but not us to them because that would have taken too long. Then Romi spoke, and I think just her voice would be able to melt ice. She was loud enough to make herself clear, but that didn't take much because her voice was almost musically sweet, and her words brought an immediate hush to the room.

We had to fill out forms when they were passed out. There was a four-question quiz about riding ability, and the rest was a disclaimer of liability that we had to sign. After that we were asked to watch a short video that covered some basic safety measures, and then we went out to the corral in front. Paolo demonstrated the correct way to mount, and he did it several times, which also showed us how to dismount. Then someone brought out more horses, and we took turns mounting them based on our own height. They had four horses there, each with the stirrups set at different heights so there was one 'close enough' for each one of us.

"Okay," Romi said after we'd each mounted and dismounted three times, "It's time to match you up with your own horses. Follow Paul and Doug into the next corral and stand just inside the fence. We'll bring your horse to you and adjust everything to fit, then you can wait until everyone's ready, which won't take long. Any questions?"

Somebody whined, "Do I have to," which raised a snicker, but was otherwise ignored.

We all walked into the next corral, and there were two rows of horsed lined up, all saddled and looking ready to go. I was wondering idly why Romi had called her brothers by their Americanized names. It didn't matter a bit. I was just mildly surprised when she called them Paul and Doug. Aaron asked how my arm was, and I admitted that I twisted it a little when I got on the horse the first time, and it hurt more than I expected. I was careful after that, so there was no harm done.

Then Diego led a horse up to Aaron, and what a beautiful animal it was! It was a chocolate-brown color with a thin, white mark down her nose. She had a black mane and a black tail, and gorgeous eyes. Aaron stepped back to look at it, then reached out and touched her face, saying "Hi, Horsey."

Diego said, "This one's called Mischief, but she grew out of that." He looked at Aaron, then the stirrups, and he made adjustments on both sides. "Climb on, let's see how you fit."

Aaron got up in the saddle while I was fiddling with my shoelace, and when I looked up at him smiling at me it almost took my breath away. Like me, this was Aaron's first time on a horse, but he may as well have been born in that saddle. The expression on his face told me he was thinking the same thing. Aaron had a wonderful face, and he was very expressive even when he was dead tired. Sitting on that horse, he looked like he just conquered the world and inherited all its wealth. He looked majestic and a bit triumphant, and he was looking around like he loved the vantage point.

"How is it up there?" I asked.

Aaron looked around quickly, then grinned at me. "I love it! I love it! Ohh ... I don't even know what to say! This is perfect, Ev. Buy me a horse? Please?"

I didn't get to respond because Romi's mother was there with my horse. I got on and she asked if I was comfortable, and I was. No adjustments for me, but I'm Evan! My horse was brown and white, and she said his name was Phil.

"Did you hear that?" I asked. "Do I get Black Beauty? No! Do I get National Velvet? No. I get ... Phil! What kind of name is that for a horse? I mean, I rent videos from people named Phil, and I don't go riding on them!" The horse took a step back, which startled me, and Aaron laughed.

I looked beside me at him, and he seemed comfortable in that saddle already, and I was decidedly not comfortable. That horse had only moved an inch, and I was already wondering why cowboys weren't all sopranos. I must have made a sound because Aaron asked, "Something wrong?"

"I can't do this," I squeaked. "I'll be sterile in five minutes, dead in ten."

Oh no! Paolo heard me, and he came close, grinning, and whispered in my ear, "Push up from the stirrups a little, then slide back. Don't sit on your nuts, or you will turn them into grapes."

I blushed and mumbled, "Thanks," then tried his advice. It seemed to work, and I relaxed.

Aaron was grinning at me, and he leaned close and asked, "You sat on your own balls?" He snickered evilly, "I gave you more credit, Ev. I didn't think even you ... well, never mind!"

I glared at him. "Did you ever think that maybe I liked it?" which got Aaron laughing and shaking his head. I said indignantly, "Why would I need balls anyhow? Grapes are all I need, and raisins will do in a pinch. I'm not planning on making babies!"

Aaron was going to say something, but Romi and her whole family were suddenly in front of us on their own horses. "Okay, people," Romi said, and the lessons began.

We broke up into small groups, each led by a Vizcarrondo-Rosa, and we learned the absolute basics. Go, stop, turn right, and turn left. Those things took a touch that came from doing them, and we practiced for ten minutes. After that it was time for our included lunch, so we dismounted and went as a group toward the house.

There was a fair sized pavilion on the far side of the house, and the river was right down a slope from it. The view was pretty from there. Stretching along the bank from where we were, there was a long corral, and we soon learned that it was where our special show would take place. The show started right away, just when yummy aromas started wafting over us. They had interesting one-way picnic tables, all facing the corral, or perhaps it was an arena.

Before we were completely seated, Paolo came galloping toward us at full speed, and when he was almost to the fence his horse reared up on its hind legs and snorted firecely. Paolo grinned and pulled away, only to reveal Diego right behind him. Diego was still in black, and he was wearing a black cowboy hat with silver bands on it, and riding an amazing looking horse, which was dark brown with silvery markings. His horse reared up mightily, and stayed there for long seconds kicking its front legs out and snorting like it meant it. Then it turned and galloped away to the other end. Both of them came charging back toward us, and they had lassos in their hands.

The show went on, and the stunts became really astonishing, at least to a city boy like me. They lassoed little pylons, never missing, and they hung from the sides of galloping horses, attached by one hand and one toe, and grabbed rings that were hung along the corral fence. It wasn't a long show, probably ten minutes, but their skills amazed and excited me. At the end, the horses knelt and the riders held their hats high in the air, both flashing triumphant smiles as we cheered loudly.

The clanging of a bell made us all turn around, and the women who had been cooking were waving us over to the food. The lunch was delicious, too. We had chili rellenos that were tasty without being too hot, refried beans, fresh, chunky guacamole, rice with tomatoes and peppers, and fresh-made tortillas with either beef or vegetarian fillings. The tables had pitchers of ice water and ice tea for our thirst, and the meal was downed pretty quickly.

We talked while we ate; mostly about the show Diego and Paolo had put on, but also about our upcoming trail ride. I was looking forward to it more than I thought I would, and that may have had something to do with watching the show.

To be honest, I was a little jealous of guys like Paolo and Diego who could put on a show like they did using honest skills. It made the tumbles I did with Chris look like silly schoolboy stunts, which is exactly what they were. Beyond my inferior feelings, I wanted ... really wanted ... to learn horsemanship. There was no logic behind that desire, but I didn't care. I wanted to become a competent rider, and probably have my own horse one day. I looked helplessly at Aaron and admitted, "I want to learn to ride ... not like that, but really, really well."

Aaron patted my hand and said, "There, there. It'll pass."

I burst out laughing and smacked his leg, "You little bastard! What do you mean, it will pass? I'm serious."

Aaron looked toward the empty corral where the show had taken place and said, "It was nice, huh?" He looked at me with delight in his eyes, "Never mind, then. I'll learn how, then I'll teach you."

I eyed him. "Do you already know something about this?"

His eyes went wide, "No, honest." His hands started moving, "I just know I can do it, Ev. I feel it. I felt it the second I got up on that horse."

I laughed, "Heh, I felt it the second I got down from that horse! I think you felt it when you saw Diego, and don't say you weren't looking."

Aaron smiled seductively, "Oh, I was looking alright. Is that boy like a Zorro in waiting or what?"

"What?" I asked, snickering. "Zorro, the Gay Blade?"

It was Aaron's time to laugh, "I forgot about that one. I just meant Zorro, the guy with the sword."

I laughed again, "You don't pronounce the 'w' in sword!"

Aaron huffed, "I do too! You just heard me. If you don't want to pronounce it, then don't, but it must be there for a reason."

"What reason?" I asked, but we suddenly found ourselves being herded back to our horses. It was kind of funny. I recognized Aaron's horse because I'd seen him on it, but I wouldn't have been able to pick my own out in that crowd. Luckily, Aaron was the same way. We'd seen our own horses mainly from the saddle, which wasn't a lot of help from the ground. I pointed his out to him and he reintroduced me to Phil, who had wise looking eyes.

"Mount up!" Romi called. "If you need a hand, wait for one of us."

I got on the horse easily enough, and remembered to slide back a little. I picked up the reins and waited with everyone else. There were about forty of us in a lineup, and when we were all on our horses Paolo rode out and faced us. He gave us a quick reminder on using the reins to get the horses to do our bidding, then we split up into groups of ten. I was disappointed that Aaron and I were one of the dividing lines, and I'd have Romi's mother for a guide while Aaron went with Romi's group. The split was just for logistics though, and we were all going along the same route.

Then we were on the way, just plodding along on level ground for the first fifteen minutes or so. There were a lot of turns, though, and we got used to telling our animals to turn. I knew they would anyhow, and I was fairly certain I could sit back and relax if I wanted to, but it was fun. After just a few minutes I was comfortable enough to start taking in the scenery, and most of the others were, too.

There was a sign when we were leaving the ranch property, a little one that said we were now in Lincoln State Forest, but the landscape didn't change right away. It did eventually, though, and with slow drama. We'd been on level ground up a bank that ran parallel to the river, but now the ground rose up before us and we soon made a turn onto a steep, rocky trail that took us up into a deep forest. I found it fascinating that the horses, all of them, just kept going. If we were all on foot, I'm sure that some of us would have complained, others would have fallen back, and still others would have given up. Not horses, though. They didn't seem to care where they went, they just kept going.

My horse seemed very interested in some low plants with roundish leaves, but we'd been told not to let them eat. Every time that head reached out to take a bite I pulled back on his reins, somehow certain I was earning myself an enemy.

When we crested the hill we'd been going up, the terrain leveled out again, and we were high over the river. We were riding single-file, so conversation was impractical. Instead I just enjoyed the view. There were many boats on the river; big yachts, ski boats, mid-size cruisers, and I idly watched a tour boat lolling downstream, its decks loaded with people. I wondered if any of them noticed the long line of horses up on the palisade, but there was no way for me to know.

We soon turned away from the river and headed back downhill through the woods. We heard it before we saw it, and at first I didn't know what the sound was, but it turned out to be the waterfall Billy had mentioned, and we stopped there. If there was a prettier place in the state, I didn't know where it was. The falls weren't big at all; no more than thirty feet high and just a few feet wide. The water splashed down into an almost perfectly round pool, though, and it was deep.

Billy had said to bring a bathing suit, and I'd forgotten. I think I was the only one, because people were shedding their clothes and jumping in the water already when I got there. Aaron was pulling his shirt off when I caught up with him, and he seemed full of anticipation about taking a swim. He looked at me, "Aren't you going in?"

I shrugged, "I forgot about this part. I didn't bring a bathing suit."

Aaron looked at me, then sat on a rock to pull his shoes off. "I don't suppose you can go naked," he said. He grinned at me, "I'll swim for you."

"Thanks a lot," I said. "Maybe I'll eat for you later, maybe even watch television for you."

Aaron laughed, "You're trying to make me feel sorry. Well okay, sorry! It wasn't me, Ev. You forgot your bathing suit all by yourself. But!" he added suddenly, "You wear boxers, so who'd know?"

I wheezed out a laugh, "Oh, no! Not! Who'd know? Everyone, that's who." I waved him away, "You swim, Aar. I won't miss it."

Aaron stood, and he was wearing trunks I hadn't seen, probably because they looked brand new. Oh, he looked good! Aaron always wore baggy bathing suits, way baggy ones, and now he had on red Catalinas that hugged onto him. Red! Red and snug. Oh my God! Aaron stood and I stood. He started walking toward the water and I followed, unbuttoning my shirt as I went. I was Pavlov's dog and I didn't care. He wasn't getting out of my sight! Not dressed like that!

He turned when he noticed me following him, and he smiled broadly as only he could. "What?" he asked. "Change your mind?"

I looked at him, and I probably had a ferocious look on my face. "Where did you get that bathing suit? Somehow you failed to mention it!"

Aaron snickered, "This old thing? Evan, I've had this since ... let me think, now ... since yesterday!" He grinned, "You really like it?"

I nodded, tongue hanging out. Aaron lowered his voice. "I hoped you'd like it. It's kind of a hint that you could get one of your own. It feels nice to wear, too." He raised his eyebrows and waited for me to respond, cocking his head to one side a little like a dog might. I couldn't stop smiling. When Aaron did things like that, he was like a pet: so eager to please.

I said, "Are they open today? Do they come in different colors?"

Aaron really smirked, "I could be a wise guy, you know, and ask how many colors you come in, but I think I already know the answer."

I laughed, "Go swimming, Aaron," and sat down on a flat rock.

I wasn't the only person not swimming. Paolo sat beside me and asked, "Are you having a good time? Is this your first time riding?"

I smiled and said, "It's my first time, and I really love it." I looked him, "I loved the show you did, too, and I want to learn to ride right."

He smiled and said, "You learn like that as a baby. We have lessons, though, and we can make you competent."

I chuckled, "Competent would be good. You've ridden horses all your life?"

He looked down, "Yeah, like I said, a baby. We're descended from the conquistadores on my mother's side. She says it's in our blood to understand horses."

I said, "I think your mother is right. You and Diego are awesome!"

Paolo shook his head slightly, "No, Diego is awesome! I can ride; even enough to show off, but Diego will be a champion one day." He looked at me and winked, "That's why he's such a grouch. You saw him ride, and he can do far more with a horse than that little performance." He sighed and said, "But for what? A job with the circus?"

I didn't know what to say, so I shrugged helplessly. Paolo went on, "It used to be that someone with a heart like my brother's would command troops, lead them to battle, and they'd win the battles. Because of the leadership. Now it's a lost art. There are machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and they all render the horseman impotent." He looked off in the distance and said, "It's nice here, really nice. I just wish there was a place for a young man like my brother."

We fell silent and listened to the yelps and squeals of the swimmers, who were for the most part leaving the water then. I asked Paolo, "Are you saying that Diego's having a hard time? That's really a shame. I don't know what to say, though. I thought he was awesome on his horse!"

Paolo started to stand, and he said, "He's awesome, alright. He was just born into the wrong country in the wrong century." He smiled at me grimly, "He'll have to get over it, I guess," then turned to look after other customers.

I was left there to think for a moment, and I thought about Diego. Where would he ever fit in? A kid skilled at out-of-date things that meant little in the modern world. I think Paolo had it right; Diego would have to get over it. Still, to be that good at something ... it had to matter somewhere.

Diego had gone in the water, too, and when he walked past me I smiled and waved my hand at him. He smiled back and said, "Hey," then went to where his clothes were. At that moment he seemed to be content, so I forgot about it.

He had to be fearless to do what he did on a horse, and the fearlessness was the trait that really mattered. He'd find a place for himself, and if he didn't find one he'd make one, and most likely one that was important.

Aaron, Billy, Justin, and a whole bunch of others stopped by me to dry off and put their clothes back on. They were in a uniformly good mood. Huck didn't have a towel, so he squeegeed himself dry as best as he could, then stood there to let the air finish the job. He said to nobody in particular, "Well, by the Jesus, you white guys always surprise me. If anybody ever told me that I'd have this much fun riding a horse out in the boonies ... well, you know." He grinned, "But fun it is! I love this!"

Dean eyed him and said, "Good, I'm glad someone does. I mean, there's probably worse ways to spend a day, and at least it's different. Still, I could think of better uses for my money."

People started agreeing and disagreeing, and quite a few agreed with Dean. Like anything else, riding horses had its fans. I don't think anyone was an actual foe; they just hadn't been turned on.

I was though, and Aaron was. It was good that we both liked riding because it was one more thing we could enjoy together, and we were both new to it so we could learn together as well.

When we mounted up again and continued the ride, I think everyone had decided their own position. I loved being on a horse myself, and Aaron did too. If others weren't so excited, so what? We finished the ride in another forty-five minutes, and by then I was happy to get off the horse. I stroked Phil's mane while he drank and we waited for someone to take over, and I decided his name was pretty cool. Then Aaron and I went looking to see where we could sign up for lessons.

Romi took care of us, and up close she was more than a cute girl. She was really pretty. If she used makeup at all it was very subtle, and everything about her looked perfect to me, especially her eyes. They literally danced with intelligence and merriment, and in equal doses. I suppose the whole family had to be pleased with the turnout that day, but there was more in Romi's eyes: a flash, I guess you'd call it, or a look of intrigue. I was charmed, and Aaron was as well.

Aaron and I could take semi-private lessons; just the two of us with one instructor, and that saved money. We booked a lesson for the next morning, and said we'd probably take the rest on Sundays. It was open-ended anyhow. The trail ride was a nice, pleasant diversion. I wanted to ride, though, and really ride. Until I started learning, nobody could say how long it would take. I wouldn't care how long it took as long as I made progress, and having Aaron with me would even make progress less important.

I smiled at Romi when we were all set and said, "This was really a nice day, so thanks. I hope you do very well here."

She smiled her thanks, and when I turned around there were at least eight people behind us waiting to sign up for things, and I edged out a little smile of embarrassment for taking so long, then got right out of the way.

"Did you know they were waiting on us?" I asked Aaron.

"No," he said. "I was looking at Romi," which made me do a double-take. "What?" he asked, then lowered his voice. "I'm gay, but I'm not made of stone. That Romi is one classy lady. Did you see the way she looks at Billy?" He smiled at me, "I think love is in the air. It's about time, too. If anybody ever deserved somebody to care for him, it's Billy." I looked at Aaron and he went on, "Don't look at me like that!" He smiled, "I think Billy is a classy person, too. It's good that someone as nice as Romi sees the kind of guy he really is."

"What else would she see?" I asked.

Aaron laughed out loud, "We are talking about Billy O'Shea here! He brings his whoopee cushion to school dances!" I laughed too, then Aaron turned sad, saying, "Billy has had a tough couple of years. Dean had the accident and Devon died, and Billy tried to keep Dean afloat. Then his mother got sick, and in a year she died, too. It was just too sad. But Billy is Billy, and he came back. Through all of that, if Bill saw someone picking on someone else, he was right in their face about it." Aaron snickered, "And you doesn't want to mess with Billy O'Shea!"

"I don't suppose I does," I said, giggling.

Aaron laughed too, and we caught up with the stragglers in the parking lot. There weren't many, just Dean, John Balls and his sister. I asked her, "Did you like it?"

John rolled his eyes, and I soon realized that asking a nine-year-old girl if she had fun being on a horse got the long response. I didn't mind, and John pulled her into his van while she was still talking, which was funny. And it was funny just waving goodbye to Jese Balls.

Aaron and I climbed into his yellow car and took off, kind of feeling each other out about the horseback riding, but we seemed equally enthused. When we were crossing the bridge back into Riverton Aaron asked, "Want to see if the store's open?" He glanced at me and saw that I didn't know what he was asking. "Flynn's! It's where I got my bathing suit."

"Oh!" I said. "Yeah, let's."

The bridge had three exits in that direction; one North, one South into town, and one more-or-less straight, but you first had to start down the left one. Aaron went left into town, and Flynn's Sporting Goods was not only open, it was having a holiday sale. Everyone was having holiday sales, and the downtown was pretty full. That made it hard to park, so Aaron drove up by the University. We left the car there and walked back.

I started to think that shopping with Aaron, even walking to a store with him when we had to pass other stores, might possibly be less than an ideal way to get what I wanted. After awhile I asked, "Okay, Aar. Is there anything that doesn't interest you? Maybe we could go past the stores that sell that stuff!"

He looked contrite, "Sorry, you're right," and marched forward towards Flynn's, only stopping to glance in four more windows, and he really was just glancing. It was just five more minutes before we were in Flynn's. It was in an old building, and their space was narrow and long. I'd been in there before and I liked the store. Their merchandise was good quality, and they had the usual brands. Those companies made low-price things for places like Wal-mart, and they made better products for stores like Flynn's.

We went straight back to the swim section, and my neck was craning all the way, looking at all the neat equipment on display. It took me no time at all to pick out a bathing suit. There was a mannequin on a little platform wearing one by adidas, and I wanted it on sight. It was snug looking like Aaron's, but white with fat, medium-blue stripes down each side and a darker blue flap-pocket. I liked it, and I asked the man working there where I could find one.

He looked at me and said, "Men's medium. Follow me." We did, and he led us to a shelf of similar bathing suits and pulled one out for me that was identical to the one on the mannequin.

"Can I try it on?" I asked.

He looked again, "You can try it if you have underwear on."

"I do," I said, and he pointed me to a dressing room. I hate dressing rooms, but I went in and sat down to take my shoes off. That's when I noticed the price tag, and I went right back out and found the guy again. "Is this right? Forty dollars for a bathing suit?"

He looked and smiled, "Ridiculous, huh? They're on sale at forty percent off, and today only you can take another twenty percent ..." he pulled out a calculator and started tapping on it, then smiled right at me. "Is nineteen dollars closer to your neighborhood?"

I laughed, "Way closer!" and went back into the dressing room. Just handling the suit made me believe it was worth the forty; it was great material and beautifully made. It fit just right, too, and I opened the door so Aaron could see. I'm sure I looked ridiculous with a bathing suit, socks and a plaid shirt on, but I wanted his confirmation anyhow. He looked and he smiled, and his eyes went wide. That was all I needed. I put my own clothes back on, then went back to the shelf the suit came from to see if there was another color I liked better, but white was the best one for me.

Purchase in hand, we walked out. I was more in the mood then, so I window shopped with Aaron. It was safe because I'd spent my money on a swimsuit, and I planned to hold on to what I had left. I only had so much money and I needed to eat all week, so that was it.

Window shopping with Aaron was a trip anyhow. He didn't have anything to spend either, and I don't think the things we saw interested him all that much, but he still seemed to feel an obligation to comment on everything in every window. Well, it seemed like that, but we did walk past whole stores if they were selling auto parts or bathroom fixtures.

The day was nice, so we decided on going to Patterson Park. There was usually something going on there, and it was a nice place even if there wasn't. We pulled out and headed South, and it was clear before long that something was going on. We saw flashing lights ahead, and traffic was being directed down a street on the right, away from the river.

"What's going on?" I asked as Aaron slowed.

He was looking intently ahead, and I was thinking there must be an accident, then Aaron slapped his head, "I forgot! It's the regatta this weekend. Forget about Batterson, we'll never get in." Then he thought and said, "We could watch if you want. There's a hospital down the river with a great view."

"Regatta of what?" I asked. "Not sailboats," I added, thinking they wouldn't race sailboats on a river.

"Rowing," Aaron said. "Want to watch? It's pretty neat."

Then I understood, "Ah! You mean sculls. Yeah, I'll watch. I've never seen that except on television."

Aaron took a different turn and said, "They had some kind of practice yesterday. I think today is the small boats ... the long boats will be tomorrow."

"What is this?" I asked. "College? Private teams?"

Aaron shrugged, "They're clubs, I think. I guess that makes them private. This is a local race, but sometime in August they'll have a huge race, with people from all over the world here. It's been here before, but a long time ago. It's fun to watch, at least for a little while."

As soon as Aaron turned into the hospital grounds, I knew it was where Shane had spent some time recovering from his ankle injury. I remembered that the grounds there were beautiful, and we'd have a good overlook of the race. Aaron parked and we walked to where we could look down on the river, which was about thirty feet below us. At that distance, we couldn't tell who was who, but we could see right down into the boats. The competition running when we got there was for individuals, and I was immediately surprised by the speeds involved. Those guys were moving out, and from our vantage point they were doing it effortlessly. Up close, of course, they were probably sweating and breathing hard, but to me they just looked graceful. The long, slender boats, propelled by men wielding oars that seemed to be disproportionately large for the task. The boats were barely wider than the guys operating them.

The people in the boats were intent on the race, and seemed comfortable in the boats, but I thought idly that it might be fun to watch at the starting line, just to see how they managed to get aboard. There's a part two to that, of course, and that's that they were all wearing wetsuits with their team colors. Wetsuits weren't really becoming an obsession with me, but they did flatter anyone who put one on.

Otherwise, from our vantage point, the race wasn't interesting. Sitting there with Aaron got me interested in other things anyhow, things Aaron-related, and we were soon cruising across town to his house with the intent of laying out in the sun in our bathing suits. Aaron's parents were there when we came in, and they wanted to hear about our ride, so we sat and talked with them for a few minutes, and our enthusiasm was evident. His parents had heard about the ranch, and talking to us seemed to convince them that they should try it.

Aaron had his trunks on under his clothes, so he went to get a blanket for us to sit on, and I went to put on my new bathing suit. I liked it by looks, and I really liked it when I had it on. I'd never been into really expensive clothes, but if that suit was any indication. I could get used to them in a hurry.

I walked out back and Aaron was spreading the blanket in the best sun, and he was already down to his bathing suit. I stopped to admire him. Aaron had ways about him that were maybe less than manly, but his body? All man! Well, I'm prejudiced, but Aaron was the sun and the moon to me, and everything in between. He was getting to be tall, and he was slender without being skinny, and he had ... never mind. He had funky hair. He had a lot of other funks too, but I can't describe them because they're probably only funks to me. Good funks. Excellent funks, but mine alone!

When I sat down beside him I asked, "Is the pool ready yet?"

Aaron nodded kind of distantly, "Yeah, if you like ice water." He turned his head and smiled cheerfully at me, "You jump in if you want. I'll just lay here in the nice, warm sunshine."

I asked, "That waterfall wasn't cold? What was everyone squealing about?"

Aaron pushed over against me, and his skin felt soft and warm on mine. Well, that was all it took. I nudged Aaron and pointed at myself rising. I snickered and Aaron wheezed out a laugh. If I was wearing pants nobody would have known, but in a white bathing suit there was no hiding my condition. I thought it was funny, and when Aaron asked if I wanted to, I actually told him no. "Let's wait. The sun won't be good for much longer." I goosed him gently, "I can wait if you can." I turned on my side so I could press into him, and he sighed, then rolled onto his side.

Aaron was quiet for a minute, then he giggled. "Maybe you can wait, but I can tell that you're a needy boy."

I giggled, "How can you tell?" We had our backs to the house, so I reached around and stroked him briefly, eliciting a jerk and a little squeal. "Who's needy?"

Aaron sighed and asked, "Why wait, Evan? I like anticipation too, but you start work on Tuesday. We'll be anticipating on a full-time basis."

I giggled at his words. "Who's needy now, Aar? Me or thee?"

He laughed, "We both are! Stop screwing around, Ev. Let's go inside."

"But it's so much fun being out here!" I teased. Aaron elbowed me and I conceded, "Okay, then. We um ... we'll have to sneak in past your parents."

"Don't you think they know what we do?" Aaron asked, sounding playful. "I know for sure that they know what you do to me! Do you honestly think they believe it's a one-way street? I think not!" He stood and held his hand out to help me up. I didn't need the help, but I loved that hand.

I laughed, "You're a pisser sometimes, but I love you anyhow."

"Of course you do," Aaron said. "I'm your dearie, remember?" He kind of ducked down like I might take a swing at him, and came back up grinning, "Your honey child? That's me! And I wuv my Evan!" He pressed up to me, front to front, a funny smirk on his face, and my boing capitalized into a BOING! and Aaron's did too. He said his parents understood, and we tested that theory. If they saw us coming, then they had run and hid somewhere.

* * * * * * * *

Aaron walked me home that night, and the walk was a perfect cap on a wonderful day. His mother made a ham and noodle casserole for dinner that was really wonderful, and Billy came over with Romi when we were watching television afterwards. Billy was funny; strutting and showing off his really fine girlfriend, and there was no doubt that Romi was happy with Bill.

She had been working when we were at the ranch, and she was good at what she did, but busy. She was much more relaxed at Aaron's house, and one of those people who seemed to feel comfortable in any situation. Not that anything at the Castle's house would make anyone uncomfortable.

Romi's eyes shone when she talked, and positively sparkled when Billy was talking, and it was neat to see the feelings they were developing for each other. They'd become close in a short time, and if ever anyone deserved some good luck it was Billy. Romi looked even prettier in the soft indoor light, and she spoke intelligently and with an easy sense of humor. I liked her a lot.

After Billy and Romi left, I left with Aaron. Talk about deja-vu! We'd taken that same walk many times the year before, and never really talked until we reached the first corner. I swear that I wasn't consciously trying to repeat that, but it happened anyhow, like there was a quiet zone that led from Aaron's door to that corner. It was late and the air had given up its heat, so our pace was brisk, our bodies close. We were holding hands, but walking so close to each other that, in the dark, that would be hard for anyone else to discern.

When we reached that corner, though, I said, "I really like Romi. She's a real sweetheart."

"She's beautiful," Aaron said. "Did you see my mother when she saw her?" His grip on my hand tightened, "She wouldn't say anything, but I think she wishes I'd bring home a Romi."

I looked at him and asked, "Are you serious?" but I already knew the answer. My parents liked Aaron just as his parents liked me. There were no conditions, no disclaimers, but we both knew that underneath it all they'd have preferred that we bring home Romi. Or Joanie or Jill. As gay kids, we were a disappointment to our parents no matter what. Gay kids, regardless of how accepted and loved we were, would never really compute with our straight parents. That Aaron's parents could delight in him the way they did, and that mine could at least happily leave me to my own destiny was tribute to their love for us.

Aaron's parents got my folks to join PFLAG with them, and they learned a lot there. My father was actually helping other people come to terms with having gay kids. And that's exactly what they did with it; came to terms. I think everyone realized that we were born gay, or at least born to become gay, and that we hadn't been coerced into it. Aaron and I were both healthy and had all our parts in the right places. We were also generally well adjusted, and quick to both learn and adapt.

Our families learned that we were pretty lucky at PFLAG. Many gay kids develop mental problems, especially clinical depression, because they're gay. I suppose I'd actually tasted that depression when I took off from home the year before, but it never deepened into anything more than profound sadness.

Still, gay was different, and our folks had nothing to ascribe it to beyond some failure on their part. I guess the good thing was that they managed to back-burner it, just like people whose kids have physical or mental limitations. The 'problem' exists, yes, but in the meantime they have children who they're responsible for bringing to adulthood as active, productive members of society. In that context, gayness fits in with blindness, deafness, mental retardation, or any number of other problems. I'm gay, and that makes me different than the vast majority of people. It doesn't make me deaf or blind or anything else, but to my folks there's still a hurdle that I face and my brothers don't.

Like kids with real problems, I'd do best when I was treated just like everyone else. My parents had it easy, really. I didn't have any special needs to care for, and thus I didn't cost any more than my brothers to bring up. I don't even know why I'm going on and on, except to make a point. I had a good deal going. Better than a lot of gay kids, anyhow. My folks hadn't disowned me, not sent me to counseling. Instead they kind of circled the wagons to protect me while they went off to learn the score, and they really dug in to do that. PFLAG was their primary resource, but they spent countless hours on the Internet, and more hours reading books on understanding and rearing gay children. The only problem with that was that I don't require special attention or special anything. I'm just Evan! While wimpiness is contrary to my nature, I love feeling loved. That didn't start with Aaron Castle, it started in my parents' laps. I can't remember not enjoying a cuddle, and at sixteen each one was even more precious.

I was theoretically in a position where I could take care of my own needs. I had work, money, a place to live, and I could just go on with that. What I'd learned the hard way was that I wasn't there yet emotionally. I loved the heck out of Aaron and his family, but I needed my own family ... at least for a while longer. I needed hugs from my mother, and I needed her ham. It took being away to realize it, but I needed my Dad at least as much. We had become so close since I came home, and I had come to realize just what kind of man I came from.

Dad was short on patience and loud when angered, but he was never ... not once ... boorish. I'd winced many times under his words, and that wincing made me miss what he was yelling about, which would be whatever problem was at hand. Now that I listened, it turned out that he was pretty good, even eloquent sometimes. It made me wish I had some of those earlier lectures on tape to listen to again. I felt a warmth from my father that I got nowhere else, and it wasn't really a new feeling, just a newly realized one. I loved that man in a special way, which was probably the exact inverse of how he loved me.

We were already to the street before I thought about Aaron again, and I said, "You make me think sometimes. I think you're right, too. Our folks can love us, protect us, accept that we're different, but I don't think they can really understand. It's wired into them to wait for us to bring a girl home. That probably can't be changed, but otherwise we're doing pretty good."

"Well. We're doing pretty well."

I socked his shoulder, "I knew that, but if you can say sword with the 'w', then I can say good if I feel like it." We were on the walk to the house and I asked, "Are you coming up?"

Aaron shook his head, "No, I'm tired." He took my hand and led me to the back entrance, which was private and in the dark. We kissed there, and then I walked back around the side of the house to watch him walk away. When he reached the walk across the street, I made a wolf-whistle, to which Aaron turned around and curtsied. I didn't go inside until he was out of sight, and then went straight into my room.

I decided that I was thirsty and went to the kitchen for some water.  There was a note there for me saying I owed thirty-three bucks for my share of groceries. That prompted me to see what they bought, and I looked in the refrigerator. It wasn't bad. There was a head of lettuce, some onions, peppers, celery and tomatoes in the vegetable compartment. There were eggs, milk and chocolate milk (somebody remembered), as well as lots of cold cuts and cheese.

I was pleased, and I poked through the cabinets while I sipped my water. There was plenty of junk food, believe me, but there was more good stuff than bad, and my fears of an early death owing to clogged everythings soon faded.

When I got back to my room I thought to check the cell phone, which I'd purposely not brought along that day. I had two voice mails, and it took me a few minutes to remember how to recover them. One was from Barrett and he said he'd try again, or I could call him back. The other was from Lee, and he asked me to call. I would the next day, because it was late ... far too late to be calling people on the phone. I was beat anyhow, and I loved the feel of all those pillows as I climbed into bed. I was asleep in no time flat.

* * * * * * * *

I was thinking before I opened my eyes the next morning. I was blissfully comfortable and felt like I could stay where I was for a few days, but it was Memorial Day. There was a parade that I'd miss, and lots of people had invited me to cookouts. I'd accepted them all, thinking I'd just stop by, and when I got somewhere that the food was actually coming off the grill, then that's where I'd eat.

The big part of the day was my riding lesson with Aaron, and that's the one that prompted me out of bed. I had a few hours, but I wanted to be alert and awake when I got there. So on a holiday Monday I climbed out of bed just after seven in the morning. My body wanted to gravitate back to that bed, but I forced myself, and in the process I got goofy.

I went through the bathroom routine, and when I was pouring corn flakes into a bowl I wondered why they didn't make cereal for the rest of the meals. Kellogg's Turkey Corn Pops might be good, at least if they came with gravy. Turkey Pops are tops! For sure everyone would love Cap'n Paunch, the Big Mac flavored puffs that you put special sauce on. Ham flavored Mueslix with cheese would make a nice lunch.. Aaron, at least, would be mad for Chix, the dark and light puffs with stuffing. Even Quick Quaker Goats might be a hit with the Middle Eastern community

I watched my corn flakes go soft in the milk while I thought of more possibilities, and I'd about exhausted my ideas when I realized that I didn't like my cereal soggy. I ate it anyhow, thinking about dominaTRIX served with sweat in a leather bowl. Yuck. It would probably still taste better than sodden corn flakes.

I almost finished the corn flakes, but in the end I couldn't. It seemed a shame to waste food, but I dumped out the bowl and put an English muffin in the toaster. I wasn't firing on all cylinders, because when the toast was cooking I realized that I hadn't even started any coffee. I did that, filling the machine to its full potential. I wouldn't drink it all, but my roommates weren't fussy. Even if they slept until noon they'd reheat the stale coffee in the microwave.

The muffin popped up and I put some jam on top and started nibbling at it, but the coffee would be too long, so I just ate it down. I felt just a little foolish watching coffee drip, and it was just eight o'clock, so I got my phone and called Lee. His mother answered.

"Oh hi, this is Evan. Is Lee there?"

His mother said softly and happily, "Evan Smiley. No, Lee's gone back to Mt. Harman for one last truckload. I hope it's the last one."

"Will you tell him I called?" I asked.

"Of course. Do you have a moment, Evan? I just poured a coffee, and I'd like to talk to you."

I didn't know what that was about, but I said, "Let me get a cup, then. Give me ten seconds."

I put the phone down and chased up a cup of coffee, thinking that black was fine, though I usually put some milk in. "I'm back," I said.

Her voice was still quiet, but she sounded amused, "That was a fast cup of coffee. I hope you take more time enjoying it. Evan ... I don't know how to put this, so let me just say it. I really appreciate the way you've been with Lee, and I know that Lee appreciates it too. There seemed to be a lot of things lined up to go wrong, and you deflected some that might have hurt my son. I am ever so grateful to you."

I didn't say anything right away while I thought it over. Then I said, "Listen, Lee has the right moves. He knows where he's going, or at least where he wants to go. I never did anything except get to know him, and that was pretty easy."

It was awkward, because she didn't respond for so long that I wondered if she was still there. "Lee's like that," she said. "He gets that from his father, like as if doubts are for other people." She croaked out a chuckle, "His father." She sighed, "Lee is so like that man in his good qualities. He's so much stronger, though. Leonard was a wonderful man ... so warm and caring, so willing to help another. Lee has that. When I'm ready to break down, he'll make a joke at the perfect time, and I end up laughing instead of crying."

I thought she was going to start crying, so I said, "Lee gets things from you, too." I tried to think, "He won't eat a cold breakfast. It has to be cooked."

She choked out a giggle, "He gets that from me for sure."

I chuckled softly, "I like Lee. We all do, but you know that already."

She sighed, "Lee gets that from his father, too. He's so easy going, and that smile is like a machine for making friends."

I grinned, "It sure worked on me. Will you tell Lee I called him back?"

She said, "Oh, I will, but he was calling to ask you over here for our first cookout later on. I hope you can come."

I grinned at the wall, "I can stop by, but please don't buy food for me. I'm already going to a lot of picnics."

She laughed, "I promise, but please come. Do you know how to get here?"

"The place, yes. I don't know what unit you're in."

"It's building 'C' and we're in unit seven. The letter is right at eye level on the end of the building when you're coming in. Lee will be so happy if you can make it, Evan. Oh, I should tell you that your brother will be here, too. He's been helping us move, and he is truly tireless."

"Bruce?" I was a bit surprised, but I shouldn't have been. "I'm glad he got off his butt and did something."

She snickered, "Be kind, Evan. And please try to make it over."

"I will," I smiled. "I promise I'll be there, even if it's kind of late."

After we hung up I got another coffee, and I thought of some of the things Mrs. Erasmus said. I wondered if my parents ever said things like 'he gets that from me' or 'he gets that from you'. I'd never really heard it, but it was kind of charming to me that Lee's mother could ascribe certain traits to herself or her husband.

I thought about the randomness of ancestry, and wondered about its effect. People talk about family trees, and I suppose that's a good way to trace your ancestry. I wondered if it wasn't more like each individual being a little wave on their own beach, with the force of the combinations of people over the millennia being the ocean behind them, pushing them ahead like it's their turn to spend a lifetime ashore.

I knew my family history on my mother's side going back to the 1600's because they had decent records. Even so, my mother's parents didn't know more than their immediate relations. They knew where to look for more, and they knew where they, themselves came from, but not more than that. Who could keep track anyhow? My mother also had a mother, and she was from a different camp, so there was also a lesser-known part of her history. If Genesis is an absolute truth, then we're all related anyhow, as direct descendants of Adam and Eve.

On the other hand, the known Smiley history only went back to the early 1800's when Adam Smiley showed up in San Francisco, claiming he'd been imprisoned unjustly in an Australian labor camp. That's all we knew, though, and that was from an ancient newspaper clipping that the man himself must have preserved. He obviously had a family after that, and more is known about his wife. It goes on and on, but I wish I knew more.

I am, in my own way, the current sum of all those who came before me. The genes and blood of thousands, all combined to make me Evan! I gulped my coffee and grinned, thinking they'd done a hell of a job.

I looked at the clock, and I had time to call Barrett, so I did. I half expected him to be asleep, but he answered saying "Joe Mama! Where you been, Evan?"

I laughed, "Hey. What's up?"

"Are you coming to Harlan's today?"

"I wouldn't miss it!" I said.

"Did I tell you I'm working for him this summer?"

I snickered, "Um, let me think ..."

"Idiot! I'm looking at my truck right now, and it's the twin to yours," he said.



"Come on, you knew he got you a truck. He told me that he told you."

I was stunned. "He said something last year, but ..."

"I saw it, Evan! I have one just like it. Almost just like it."

I was practically bouncing, "What is it? What kind of truck?"

Barrett paused, "Uh, I'm not supposed to tell you. I don't even know if I should tell you that you had one. Yours is a company truck though, and mine is a nephew truck. Come on over now!"

I gulped, "I can't, man. I have a riding lesson, then I made a lot of promises for today. I'll be there, though!"

"Riding lesson," Barrett said. "You told me about the horses. How'd it go?"

I smiled, "Excellent! Well, my horse was named Phil, but it was a great time anyhow."

Barrett choked, "Phil? Ha! What a name for a horse! That's funny!"

I said, "Yeah, I guess, but he was a nice horse. Well ... from what I know about horses he was nice. He didn't try to eat me or anything."

Barrett laughed, "Go riding then. I'll see you later, right?"

"I'll be there," I said. "What color is it?"

"Is what? Bye, Evan." He hung up.

"Prick," I said. Well, he said mine was a company truck, so that would be white with green words on it. Just when I decided to get moving, Eli stumbled into the kitchen.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi, Eli. I'm not trying to be rude, but I was just leaving, okay?"

He yawned and nodded, then asked, "Are you coming to the picnic?"

I stood and smiled, "I'll be here. I'm not sure when, but I'll be here."

He headed for the bathroom. I rinsed out my cup and left it by the sink, then went to get dressed.

* * * * * * * *

I was up for our riding lesson when we got there, as was Aaron. We had the same horses as the day before, and Phil actually seemed happy to see me. I liked his eyes, so I was happy, too. Paolo was our instructor, and Diego sat on the fence watching. We stayed in the corral for the first half-hour learning commands and the subtleties of letting our horses know what we wanted. We got them to gallop in short bursts so we'd know what to expect, and I thought a fast-moving horse was more comfortable than a lumbering one.

When I mentioned that, Diego called from the fence, "It's easier on your cookies, isn't it? Haha! That Phil loves to run. Wait 'til you get him on the trail!"

I guessed it was common knowledge that I'd sat on my own balls the day before, but I was too engrossed to worry about it. I was actually working up a sweat by riding a horse, and both Paolo and Aaron were encouraging me. After half an hour we moved to the long corral where Diego and Paolo had put on their show the day before. We weren't there to do that, but people had begun to show up for trail rides, and they needed the area we'd been in.

Paolo was a decent instructor; patient and calm, and I gained confidence when he had us run the horses back and forth inside the corral we were in. We had to almost stop to turn around, and I figured it would be a long time before they showed us anything like the fancy turns they'd done in the show. We got the horses to run, though, and even in a corral it was mad fun. Then Paolo finally led us out and along the river, going the opposite direction from where we'd gone the day before, and when we got to a meadow he called out, "Follow me!" and took off at a gallop.

I grinned and went right after him, thinking I was going like the wind, but Aaron pulled right beside me and then ahead.

I urged Phil forward, and he found some more steam somewhere, and both Aaron and I chased Paolo around that meadow for five solid minutes at high speed. When we slowed, the horses were snorting and breathing heavily, but they held their heads up like they'd just had a great time.

I sure did, as did Aaron. We were both sweaty and dusty and displaying toothy grins like it was the law. "You liked it?" asked a smiling Paolo.

"That is so much fun!" Aaron cried. "I love it!"

"Me, too," I said. "Can we run again?"

"Not today," Paolo shook his head. "These short bursts are tough on the animals. Next time, though. We'll do a little cross-country where you can run most of it."

"Good deal!" I was still grinning while we followed Paolo back to the ranch. He had to do a show with Diego for the trail riders, so he left us with one of the hands while he went to get changed. That guy let us take our horses to the watering trough, where we watched them drink horsely amounts. We both stroked the animals and talked to them, and we enjoyed it even if the horses seemed indifferent. Then Aaron cried, "Oops!" He giggled, "Phil's making horsey poop."

I looked, and he sure was. Aaron said absently, "Looks like little cakes."

I looked at Aaron and asked, "Defe-cakes?"

Well, we laughed at that. Not because it was that funny, but because it just came out of my mouth unexpectedly.

We were dirty, so after we left the ranch I left Aaron at his house, then went home to shower again and change. I was quick about it, but Aaron was even faster. He was coming up the back stairs when I was just going back to my porch. He made me laugh, because he'd obviously run to my place and he was sweating again. As soon as we got into my room he opened his pants to show me that he had his bathing suit on, and I taunted him. "You could have told me that, Aaron. I don't really have to see the evidence."

He grinned, "Yeah maybe, but you like seeing it anyhow. What are you wearing?"

I snickered, "Nothing, yet. Care to join me?"

Aaron sighed dramatically, "Tease! How many picnics do we have to go to? Six?" He looked up, then back at me. "Boy, six almost rhymes with sex, doesn't it? We could have a sex picnic and skip the others."

I laughed, "Kiss me, Aar, because that's all you're getting. It's a holiday."

Aaron pouted, "A holiday from sex?"

I snickered, "Check any calendar, Aaron. I think you'll see that it's clearly stated that Memorial Day is a sex-free holiday."

Aaron said, "Fine, be like that. Maybe I'll just call Diego and see what his calendar says."

I said, "Go ahead. I think you'll find that he's booked straight through, anyhow."

Aaron broke out laughing and hugged me. "You're good! That was really quick and funny. Wrong, but quick and funny just the same."


"Ev, think for a second. You're wearing a towel, and you're right here. Do you honestly think I believe in sex-free holidays? Ones that aren't on the religious calendar?" He kissed me and reached for the loose knot in my towel, "I think you're full of it, mister, and I'm going to prove it."

"How?" I squeaked when his hand found me just as I opened my mouth. That was all she wrote, too, so we were a little bit late when we set off for our round of picnics.

The first one was at Nan's, right out my back door, and it looked like it would be more-or-less a repeat of the Labor Day party, and that had certainly turned out to be eventful for me. Ron was already tying a beer ball up to a tree limb. Nan and Joanne were putting tablecloths on picnic tables, and various other people were just arriving, with lawn chairs and coolers in hand.

Ron was a good guy to goof around with, so we walked over to where he'd just sat down in a folding chair, a cup of beer in his hand. He smiled up at us and said, "Find chairs. Get beer. Take a load off your feet." He took a sip of beer and looked at me, "It's good to have you back, Evan."

I grinned, unfolding a chair that Aaron handed me. "It's good to be back, too."

We skipped the beer, and sat talking with Ron for awhile until Nan's daughter showed up. She had busted me to the cops the last time we met, and she was avoiding me now, so I guessed she felt bad about it, even though she picked up a nice reward in the process. I finally walked over to her and got her attention, then I said, "You act like you think I'm mad at you, and I'm not. I was cheating myself by not going home, and you got me there, and it turned out just fine."

She eyed me warily, then smiled a little. "Really? Oh, if that's true I'll feel so much better. I thought I acted like your judge and executioner for the longest time. Ma kept saying you were doing fine, but when I saw you at your house you looked so ... lost. And I feel guilty about taking all that money for just making a phone call."

I nodded, because I could understand that. I said, "I can see why, but my family offered that money for a reason, and they got what they wanted for it. You called when nobody else had, and they would have offered more eventually. Anyhow," I grinned, "I'm a teenager. I'm not supposed to come cheap."

She stared at me for a moment, then giggled cheerfully. "Tell me about it. My son is thirteen now, and I can't keep up with him. He eats like a pregnant woman, outgrows something every day of the week, and he tests my authority with each waking breath. Now he has a girlfriend and I can never use my own telephone!"

I smiled and looked around, "Where are your kids?"

She rolled her eyes, "With their father for the weekend. He'll get even, though. He'll bring them back tonight."

We talked a little more, then I circulated a little, saying hi to the people I knew and introducing Aaron. Arnie showed up with his two kids, and they must have taken after their mother. He had a girl of about seven and a boy of four or five, and they both had real carrot tops. For the time being, the little boy looked like Arnie only by virtue of a missing front tooth. Shane pulled in and he had his daughter, Molly, with him, and when Kevin came down for Joanne I learned that they were all going to the parade in town.

Aaron and I made our way out right behind them, because we had more places to go. Next up was Huck's house, which was just down the street. We went in my car because I had gas and Aaron didn't. It was downhill all the way anyhow, so it wouldn't matter.

Our timing was good, because I was getting hungry. Huck's mother is not the person you want to tell you're not hungry, and she's a marvelous cook too. Billy's father and Dean were there, and the rest of the people were Huck's extended family, plus an older couple who lived next door. Billy would show up with Romi when they could, which might be sooner or later. Huck's family were gregarious people, and a lot of them had Jamaican accents that made them fun to listen to. We ate delicious snacks, drank fresh fruit punch that you could eat too, given the chunks of pineapple and melon in it. We laughed, played bocce next door, and promised to try to come back later when we had to leave.

We found Aaron's family at a place called Crystal Lake Park. It was in Riverton, but about as far from where I lived as you could get. It was sure a pretty spot; heavily shaded with giant old trees, and the terrain was all low, rolling hills.

There were wide footpaths covered in bark that wound around between the trees, and a biking/jogging path around the perimeter of the place. The lake was just a pond of maybe two acres, but it was pretty just the same, and there was a beach just beyond the shade.

Justin's girlfriend, Cindy, had her immediate family there, and I'd never met them before, though I'd seen the parents at Aaron's play the year before. She had an older brother who acted like a dick to Aaron and me, so we ignored him. Rakeed and Lilac were there, of course, and Rakeed's sister had come with them. I thought it was neat that families in the process of blending seemed to sincerely like each other as much as Aaron's and Rakeed's did.

We had a nice time with them, but didn't stay long. Aaron didn't want to get into eating there, and the grills were already going when we arrived. We hung around just long enough to be polite, then walked around the park to look around before we left. Aaron had promised to stop at two places where I didn't know anyone but him, and we didn't stay long at either, then we were off to the main event at Harlan Blaine's house.

It was the main event because that's where we'd planned all along to eat, and for the selfish reason that Harlan would have the best food of anyone, not to mention the most. Aaron even wisely noted that, since Edie was a very expectant mother, the variety might be more spectacular than usual.

I envisioned pickle flavored ice cream, but kept that thought to myself.

... continued