Jamie woke up with a start and looked around, trying to get his bearings. He felt something bright brushing the side of his face. He turned and saw a shaft of yellow light cut across his body, then he recognized his bed, his room and the beam of the streetlamp that stood next to the house. He closed his eyes and let the glare seep through his eyelids. The sense of time flowed back into him. He opened his eyes. It was morning, Monday morning.
Again, he thought. It should have gotten used to it by now, but waking up with a start every other day always took him by surprise.
The alarm clock went off—it was 5:45 AM.
He stretched out his arm and switched it off. Once again he wondered what jolted him awake like that; why it happened. A vague sense of uneasiness and anxiety hung to him. He knew the only way to get rid of it was to move, so he tossed the blanket aside and stepped out of bed.
The cold air of his bedroom slapped him fully awake. He slipped into his working clothes and marched downstairs. He never liked the sensation of wearing something over dirty skin, but it was pointless to clean himself before doing his chores. He was going to take a shower and brush his teeth after he finished. As he was descending the stairs, he suddenly realized his muscles hurt. He felt cold and rigid. The fact that the heat in the house was off did not help the situation. As soon as he got into the kitchen, he grabbed his jacket from the wall hanger and put it on.
Maddie greeted him with a kiss. “Good morning, tiger.”
She smiled and brought a mug of steaming hot milk over to him. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah,” Jamie lied.
“Just a bit,” he said in a croaky voice.
“Hmm…” She frowned, but did not elaborate.
Jamie flicked on an evasive smile and sat down.
She went back to the kitchen counter to get his breakfast.
He knew what she wanted to say: he probably shouldn’t have gotten himself soaked at the beginning of May. True, but he didn’t regret an instant of it. He was happy to deal with a cold if it came down to it, in exchange for the great moment he had enjoyed. Maybe Mom could tell what he was thinking, because she didn’t say anything. Or perhaps she shared the same appreciation for adventure he had—she did like to hear the recounts of his deeds, after all. Whatever the reason, she didn’t argue and he was thankful. It always felt like she was on his side, that she understood him.
He shivered and hugged the jacket tighter. What he would also have really appreciated was if they had more money and could afford turning on the heat more often. He hated having breakfast in the cold. The worst was feeling the freezing air seep through his clothes when he lifted his arms to take a bite. Because of that, he always ended up eating too fast without realizing it. Every time, he would find himself with a tight, heavy knot in his stomach, colder than when he had started and completely unsatisfied. It totally spoiled the pleasure of the first meal of the day.
Maddie came back with a plate of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. “Enjoy. I’ll finish feeding the horses.”
“I’ll be there in a sec too.”
She kissed his forehead and threw on a jacket.
He watched her walking out of the door and thought that he really didn’t envy her. Every morning, Mom woke up early and started doing heavy work right from the start, while Dad slept in. A pang of anger hit Jamie. Sure his father drove around as a horse feed salesman and taught at the riding school, but he left all of the physical hard labor to Mom. That wasn’t fair. She was strong, but all that work was too much even for a man. She shouldn’t be treated that way—she was nice—she should have time to enjoy herself. Instead, all she did was work like a slave. If only they could be rich… Jamie snorted. Sure, as if wishing would change anything. He glanced at the wall clock—it was already 6:05 AM. He had better get going.
He drank the milk slowly, fighting the urge to gulp down the whole mug at once, and methodically chewed the first slice of bread and butter, then stood up. He zipped up his jacket, grabbed the other slice, then went out of the kitchen and into the cold air of the May morning. Chewing, he walked into the feed room, filled a measuring cup and walked out.
As he entered the stables, he was welcomed by the barky smell of wood shavings mixed with the grassy tang of hay. There was also a more subdued, warm scent in the air: that of horses’ skin. He liked that scent a lot, because it was more than a simple smell to him. It was a rippling in the air that carried the warmth of the horses’ bodies, that flexed with their huge muscles and beat together with their big, generous hearts. Through that, he could feel their presence even if he couldn’t see them. It was their ghost: a shadow that seeped into your clothes, your hair, your own skin—a reminder of them that you carried with you everywhere you went.
As he drew closer, other less pleasant smells emerged. The acrid stink of urine was the more pungent one and it only punctuated some of the boxes where the horses had obviously relieved themselves. Then there was the far less offensive odor of their droppings, which still held a distinctive scent of hay and grass. Jamie thought that compared to human poop it smelled like flowers. There was no doubt in his mind that if even their poop smelled good these must be really nice animals. That was another reason why it didn’t bother him at all to take care of them.
As he passed through the hallway, he glanced at the box nearby and spotted his mom with Dillinger, his dad’s favorite horse. She finished pouring some feed into his manger, then bent down and petted Milly, Dillinger’s companion Tibetan goat. Dillinger was pretty neurotic, so he needed the company of his little horned friend to relax.
Jamie pushed the big metal doors of the stables open and walked outside, toward Acorn’s box. He spotted the wheelbarrow and fork set next to the door. He smiled—Mom had already brought them there for him. “Thanks!” he shouted, turning back.
“You’re welcome, babe!”
He opened the box. Acorn blinked and let out a welcoming nicker. Jamie smiled. “Morning, buddy.” He poured the feed in the manger, checked that the nose paddle in the drinking bowl was clean of muck and worked freely, then turned around. A chuckle escaped his lips at the sight of Acorn’s sleepy expression: his lower lip hung limply from his mouth; his blurry eyes still stuck with sleep stared blankly at him; and his forelock stood askew over his forehead, plastered in wood shavings.
“Here.” He stepped up and started brushing his tuft with his fingers. Acorn turned away, too morning-grumpy to stand any grooming. “Come on, you’re a mess!” Jamie seized his head and kept him still. Acorn let out a groan, but didn’t fight back. “Done. Come here.” He slipped under his neck and hugged him, resting his cheek against his warm skin. He closed his eyes and so did Acorn. They both dozed off for a few seconds, then Jamie patted him and pulled away. “Back to work now!”
He dragged the wheelbarrow to the door, got hold of the fork and started cleaning the box in earnest. This wasn’t really a chore for him. He took pride in caring for Acorn—it was an act of respect and love toward his friend to make sure he lived and slept in a clean place.
After twenty minutes, he was all sweaty, but done. He patted Acorn goodbye and hurried to see to his other chores.
As Mom finished cleaning the sheep shelter and Brunga’s stall, he went back to the feed room. He took well measured slices from the hay bales and distributed them among the horses. Next, he helped her feed the sheep, checked that all the drinking bowls in the stables worked, and then he was done.
The sky started to clear, kindled by the sun rising behind the hills. Jamie checked his watch: it was 7:10 AM.
“It’s going to be a nice day,” Maddie said cheerily. “Get in the shower and I’ll drive you to school.”
“I’d rather bike.”
She raised her brow. “Isn’t it too cold?”
Jamie smiled. “No, it’s fine. I’ll bundle up.” He knew she was worried he might be nursing a cold. It was a bit chilly in fact, but he didn’t want to set foot in their old shaky car. Riding inside Thelma—that was what his mom called it—always felt like sitting on a really bad, old washing machine: everything shook so violently, you lost the sensation in your body. At a certain point, you felt like you were floating, as if you were entering another dimension. Biking to school, even in the cold, was a much better alternative.
“All right,” sighed Maddie. “But cover yourself or you’ll catch a cold.”
“OK.” Jamie nodded and took off.
After a quick shower, he jumped on his bike—a no frills four gears piece of metal inherited from his grandfather—and started his fifteen minutes ride to school.
He left the farmstead behind and passed by the Grangers’ cattle farm, then by the veterinarian’s clinic, puffing as he pedaled uphill. The road leveled and he headed through the long stretch of houses that became denser and denser as he approached the center of Greensboro.
All this effort, he thought as the perspiration started cooling his skin, just to get to school and sit down for six hours. What a waste! He wished he could just keep on going and bike to the lake. Oh well… At least he was going to learn something. He liked learning new things—it was exciting. He just hoped his teacher, Ms. Ambrose, wasn’t in one of her foul moods.
He passed St. Mary’s Children’s Home and negotiated the last steep uphill climb of the trip. He caught his breath at the top, then stood on the pedals and let the bike speed down toward school. The cold air whipped his wild hair and chilled the sweat on his chest and arms. He shivered and enjoyed the thrill of the descent. The pale yellow façade of Greensboro Elementary came into view, then the big garden in front of the main entrance. He pulled on the brakes and veered toward the black gate, sped through, then slowed down in the narrow alley that lead to the rear of the school, where the bike racks were.
As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of a group of fifth-graders who surrounded a third-grader, taunting him. He noticed the red notebook held in the hand of one of the older kids. The third-grader lunged to snatch it, but the fifth-grader shoved him off and tossed notebook to one of his friends.
A surge of anger erupted in the pit of Jamie’s stomach—he hated bullies. Without thinking, he got off the bike, dropped his backpack and made his way toward the gang. Three against one, he thought—cowards!
The three bullies had their backs to him, so they did not see him coming. Jamie sneaked behind them and stole the notebook. The boys rounded on him. Jamie slipped away and handed the notebook to the third-grader. The boy snatched the pad roughly from his hands and blushed. Jamie frowned, taken aback.
“Hey!” called one of the gang.
“Whaddaya think you’re doing!?” the skinniest boy of the three challenged, throwing out his arms for a shove.
Jamie caught him and pushed him away. “I’m giving him back his notebook!” he said, nodding toward the third grader.
The skinny boy flashed him a nasty look. He had a ratty feeling about him: he was gaunt and twitchy, with pale chestnut hair and beady eyes.
Jamie studied the other two. One was a bull-like kid with glassy eyes and thick hands with fingers like sausages. The other was lanky, with bleary, shifty eyes.
“Is he your friend?” Ratty asked with a nasty glint in his eyes.
“No, I don’t know him.”
“Then mind your own business!”
“This is my business.”
“Oh yeah!?” said Bull, cracking his knuckles.
“Yeah!” Jamie whipped back, turning to him. “It doesn’t make any difference if I know him or not. Leave him alone!”
Bull stalked forward. “Who do you think you are, Superman!?”
Jamie instinctively stepped forward too. “I am Jamie! Who are you!?”
The boy balked, wrong-footed. He frowned, suddenly wary. “You’re weird!”
Jamie grinned to make it even weirder. At that moment, he caught sight of Shifty turning around and spotting his backpack on the ground, next to his bike. Before the boy could make a run for it, Jamie lunged and shoved him off. Shifty tripped and fell. Jamie sprinted forward and grabbed his backpack. As he straightened up, he saw Holly, a few feet away, holding her bike and staring at him. He didn’t have time to say hi. He wheeled around, flinging the backpack on his shoulders, ready to pick up his bike if he needed to. To his relief, the three bullies seemed too taken aback to retaliate. Bull was helping Shifty one to his feet. Behind them, the third-grader took his chance and slinked away inside the school.
Good, he thought. At least now he was out of their reach.
The three bullies turned around, ready to take out their frustration on the smaller kid, but discovered he was gone. Fuming, they muttered some imprecations and withdrew.
Jamie sighed with relief. He turned to retrieve his bike and noticed Holly was still there. “Hi!” he called out too cheerfully, the adrenaline still rushing through his body.
Holly tossed a dismissive wave at him and started pushing her bike toward the racks.
Jamie picked up his bike and stepped next to her. “Did you see that?” he asked chattily. He felt wired, overexcited, overcharged, but couldn’t help himself.
“Yeah,” Holly answered flatly. “You were fighting again.”
He frowned. “I wasn’t fighting. I was just helping that boy. They were bullying him, didn’t you see?”
Holly pursed her lips. “Hmm, hmm.”
Jamie stiffened. “And he didn’t even say thank you. That was rude.”
“Well, you were rude first!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You always go around sticking your nose into other people’s business, Jamie. You should wait for people to ask you for help. It’s rude!”
“What!? I should wait until somebody gets beaten up before helping!? Are you crazy!?”
Holly shot him a nasty look. “I was just giving you some advice!” She turned around and strode away.
Jamie stopped in his tracks, boiling with anger and confusion. “Great,” he muttered under his breath. “A really great start, this morning.”
|Chapter One …|