A novel by
To my mom, who suggested I give my old dream of writing a go. If I become a victim of artistic Darwinism, I blame her. Also to Shannon—best friend and sister with a black belt in tough love; to my patient editor, Anne Sowards; to the infallible Kat Sherbo; Brian McKay (ninja of the dark craft of copy writing and muse of a fictional disease we won’t discuss here . . . but did discuss at length in
He dreamed of sun, wind, and horses.
He always did.
Strange. He’d never touched a horse, much less ridden one, but that was the dream all the same. It was the same every night since he could remember. There was the sweet green smell of grass and the smooth motion of the mount between his legs. The wind was cool in his face as the buttery sun beat down like a warm hand on his head. There was a handful of mane tangled in his fingers. Black and coarse, it was rough silk against his skin. It was a feeling so familiar, so right. The sky stretched overhead, the endless blazing blue seemingly as close as the hand he raised toward it. He could almost snag it in his grip and trail it along behind him like a kite.
Pretty, but that wasn’t what made the dream so vivid. The unmistakably pungent smell of ripe horse manure, not to mention the equally pungent smell of his own sweat—they were the details that brought it home. He had other dreams, not as often, but on the rare occasion that he did, he never picked up scents. It made him wonder. And if there was one thing he hated, it was pointless wondering.
Why did he dream in such rich detail of things he’d never done, never known? He wasn’t saying that it wasn’t possible, a dream such as that. If he’d learned anything, it was that the strange was always possible; maybe not desirable, but possible.
But in the end, so what? Dreams were just dreams, no matter their origins. Maybe this dream was a substitute for a memory he’d never made . . . a life he hadn’t lived. He’d never ridden a horse across a swelling hill of waving grass. He’d never chased a summer day and taken it for the ride of its life. He’d never reached, wild and free, for a handful of the sky. He’d done none of those things.
And he never would.
He had been born a slave. Some said “prisoner” instead; others, in white coats, lied with the gloating label of “student.” But he knew. He was born a slave, and he would die a slave.
The dream faded along with sleep. He opened his eyes to a reality all too full of smells of its own. They were worse than the relatively honest ones of sweat and horses. He detected alcohol and disinfectant; industrial detergents that bleached cheap cotton sheets; the occasional sharpness of urine and vomit. That was just this room. Outside was a hall that led to other rooms, other smells. Outside was a whole number of things, none of them pleasant.
Grunting, he rolled over onto his stomach and ignored the eye-watering whiff of bleach and the blackly unbleachable thoughts; he’d had much practice. It was never completely dark in the room, just as it was never completely private. The dim lighting recessed at the base of the wall let him see that the bed beside his was empty. A boy younger than he, with hair the color of a carrot, had spent the past seven years in that bed. Peter. Not Pete or Petey. It was always Peter. Precise, rigid, he had been a walking study in anal retention, controlling every gesture, every word; controlling everything he possibly could in a place where the ultimate control would never be his.
Peter always made his bed too—obsessively. If he went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he made his bed before going. Could you believe it? It wasn’t made now. There was only a messy tangle of blankets and sheets that would’ve had the boy sweating with anxiety.
Peter wasn’t coming back.
The boy had been there when he’d fallen asleep and now he was gone. Expunged, the staff would say, and never mention him again. Peter had made that last great escape.
He could’ve said he’d miss the other boy, but it would have been a lie. In this place, people came and people went. Get attached and you’d go crazy. Detachment was a survival skill . . . the first true lesson here. And he was a good student.
As far as he was concerned, he was alone in that small world. It couldn’t be any other way; not here, not now. Not ever. He laid his head back on his pillow and waited for sleep. He’d read that some did multiplication tables in their heads, some sang silent lullabies, and some counted sheep. Not him. He counted horses. They galloped through fields, racing a golden sun. Counting on, he slipped into sleep. There he dreamed . . . of sun, wind, and horses.
He always did.
“A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Jesus, how often have you heard that old saying? Slathered across sickeningly sweet greeting cards, beaming from manipulative TV commercials, it was a time- honored classic. A picture’s worth a thousand words. . . . Yeah? Right now I could think of only one.
Behind glass, framed in velvety rosewood, the photograph was one I hadn’t seen before. Not that I didn’t recognize it; I did. I might not have remembered ever seeing the picture, but I recalled all too clearly the moment it captured—the last Christmas. Not as in the one last year—no, it was a helluva lot more momentous than that. Think