Seamus stood plastered behind a tree, out of sight of his pursuers. His chest heaved but he kept his breathing quiet, almost silent, and tried to stop the panic from clawing its way into his mind. He needed to think.
At least he’d made it out of that field and into the small woods where he could hide. These were stupid guys playing a stupid game, and somehow he had stumbled into it. Okay, yes, wandering around the countryside at night, far from home—not that he had a home any longer—wasn’t the safest thing in the world to do. But he hadn’t thought to draw this kind of attention to himself.
When they’d begun toying with him, walking beside him on that long stretch of empty road, he’d bolted, even though it had meant leaving his bag behind. He’d taken the threat seriously, but they hadn’t had the energy or the interest to keep pace with him. Those two guys had probably found something else to entertain them.
Hopefully not someone else.
Assholes. He remembered their opening volley in conversation—Looking for a horse?
What the hell had that meant? Seamus tried to search for sexual innuendo in it, but it didn’t quite fit, as far as he could figure.
Just as he was beginning to breathe more easily, a twig snapped, not too far off, and his entire body seized up again.
The week had turned into a fucking nightmare. His fingers dug into the bark, and he couldn’t think of a single strategy except standing stock-still. If only he didn’t have to breathe—he sounded so loud in his own ears.
“Looking for me?”
The words jolted Seamus though he tried to stay in place while he swerved his eyeballs to the right. The voice had come from behind him, and at some distance. It was a tenor and not a voice he’d heard before.
“Well, hello,” someone answered, and that was one of the assholes. Another twig snapped, and the second speaker began moving away from Seamus. “Why are you human?”
Or that’s what Seamus thought was said. An oddly worded sentence, Seamus couldn’t help but think, though mostly he was trying not to let his knees buckle, trying not to vomit from the mix of relief—they hadn’t found him—and horror—they were after someone else.
Or maybe this was a third friend of theirs, and they’d all come back for him.
“Ready?” said that first, light voice. Amused even, which baffled Seamus given that nothing in the world was amusing at this moment. He was terrified.
“Always.” The one-word answer was a threat and serious.
What followed was the sound of men running, and running away from where he stood. Seamus couldn’t believe his luck, if that’s what it was. He strained to hear the men as the noises faded, swallowed by the night, and all that was left were the crickets and the soft breeze through the ruffling leaves.
How long he stood there, the tree holding him up, until the absence of human sound allowed him to believe he was alone, he didn’t know. It might have been minutes or hours later when he edged around the tree and looked out. The half-moon was up, and it shone down on the field, no one in sight.
He couldn’t stay here. They’d almost found him, they could return. However, it wasn’t clear to Seamus where he should go. Not the field or the road—too easily seen there, too vulnerable, with no place to hide. So he started picking his way through the woods. Small as it was, it offered trees to hide among. If he could find a farmhouse, he’d take his chances and throw himself at their mercy. But this was Manitoba prairie, and farmhouses were few and far between.
Seamus reached the far edge of the small woods to face yet another field, no building in sight. He’d become chilled to the bone. Yes, it was summer, but the nights were cool, and he was shivering. Though that might have had something to do with shock. He hunkered down for a moment, wrapping his arms around his legs and wishing he had more than the T-shirt on his back and a pair of jeans.
They’d ripped his bag off him as he’d begun to run. He rubbed his face, barely able to consider the consequences of having no money and no ID. Barely able to believe the events of the past few days. Going from high school to…this.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, unsure of his next move, when the strangest thing happened. Under the thin moonlight, a black horse came into sight. Seamus stared, making himself smaller, though he didn’t know why. It freaked him out that the men had asked about a horse. Did that mean they were here too? But there were no people with the creature. And horses, well, he liked horses, and this one was beautiful.
It blew hard through its nostrils, a kind of snort but not quite, a deep vibration. Seamus had the impression it had been running, though now it walked.
He tried not to lose it. It was a horse. He’d ridden before, if not extensively, so this animal shouldn’t frighten him. The horse continued to blow, and Seamus wasn’t sure if it was greeting him or catching its breath. Horse talk was something of a foreign language to him.
It was all black save splashes of white on its face, and it shone darkly under the moonlight. Slowing before it reached Seamus, its rounded eyes watched him.
Not wanting to cower in front of this creature, he forced himself to stand. “Hey, horse,” he said awkwardly, and raised a hand, wondering if it would shy away. But it wasn’t skittish, so he placed his palm on the horse’s damp neck. It proceeded to nuzzle his face and hair, and the warmth was reassuring.
“It’s nice”—Seamus was aware his voice shook—“to meet a friendly face.”
The horse lightly butted Seamus’s palm with its nose, almost a confirmation of his words.
“Um, are you lost?” Did horses get lost or could they always find their way back home?
At that, a thought struck Seamus while this strange, large horse breathed and smelled him. The noises it made were friendly, Seamus was pretty sure of that.
The horse was in good shape, healthy, it had a home. If Seamus pulled himself onto its back, it could carry him away from this hellish woods and this hellish night. Someone who took good care of horses might not be a bad person, might help Seamus out.
The most likely scenario was the horse would balk at the idea of being ridden. But Seamus was desperate, so he leaned forward and draped an arm around the animal. Its bony withers pressed against his arm, but the horse didn’t move. It went perfectly still. As if waiting for Seamus to mount him.
Wishful thinking no doubt, but Seamus moved down to where he could pull himself up, leaned on the horse again…and it didn’t move. He breathed in for courage, imagined the horse whickered encouragement, and with all that was in him, jumped.
It was a god-awful jump. He was way out of practice, and it wasn’t as if he’d ridden bareback all that often. He was half on and half off the horse, legs flailing as he pushed himself up farther. Before he fell right over the other side, he managed to drag one leg across the horse’s rump and wrap his arms around the patient animal’s neck.
Amazingly, it continued to stand in place. Seamus blinked, unable to believe this had worked, that he was astride the horse and potentially on his way out of here. Would it move forward if he squeezed with his legs in encouragement?
Before he could decide, there came a warning snort and a stamp from the animal, as if danger was about to descend. Body memory asserted itself. Seamus settled on the horse, his legs adjusting so he could ride, correct posture shaping his back. His hands reached for the mane, given there was no bridle or halter to use.
“Fucking Christ.” The words were uttered by that awful voice from this awful night, shocking Seamus afresh. Those goddamned men continued to find him. It was as if they had a tracking device on him, and he couldn’t understand it. All he could do was press his legs against the creature’s sides and give a hoarse, urgent plea. “Go!”
On cue, the horse flew, changing from standstill to gallop in a split second, and thank God Seamus knew how to stay on a horse.
To say that the rest of the night passed in a blur was an understatement. Not only was Seamus’s mind clouded by fear, the horse never stopped moving and the countryside seemed to smear by him as they traveled.
It was surreal. At times he wondered if he was dreaming or hallucinating, although the horse felt fucking real, as did the wind created by riding on a cool night. He stayed low on the horse to gather body warmth, and he wondered if the night would ever end and the horse would ever stop.
He couldn’t bring himself to attempt to rein it in though. There were no reins and he didn’t think the mane would be terribly effective, plus he wanted as many miles as possible between him and that horror of the woods.
At one point, the horse decided of all things to walk through water. On and on through a river they went, and whenever Seamus ventured to speak, which mostly consisted of “horse?” he received a rather impatient whicker.
Though perhaps that impatience, like so much else, was imagined. The whole night might have been of his own mind’s making—except for the fact he was riding this horse.
As the horizon to the east turned gray, the first hint that this long, horrendous, cold night might end and bring warmth with it, the horse left the water and ran yet again.
Exhaustion set in, and Seamus began to fear he might fall off. His eyes were drifting closed, and he fought to keep them open. Maybe the horse would simply never cease moving.
However, as abruptly as the horse had started this trek, it stopped, and Seamus sat up straight, looking blearily around to realize that day was breaking and they were at a farm of sorts, something he would have welcomed last night.
He didn’t know what to think of where he was this morning. He didn’t know what to think of anything. He wished his mother’s last words hadn’t started up in his head, ringing out.
Leave my sight. Get out of here.
He wished he was strong enough not to flinch at that memory. He leaned forward and rested his cheek against the horse’s neck for comfort.
He’d dozed off, clinging to this horse’s back like he didn’t know how to do anything other than ride and ride this horse. Seamus lifted his head and came face-to-face with an elderly man with faded brown eyes, gunmetal gray hair and a broad forehead. He wasn’t speaking to Seamus though, he was speaking to the horse, and there was the biggest smile on his face.
The horse blew softly in greeting, and Seamus almost felt invisible except the man said, “Who have you brought to me?”
With that, the man’s gaze rose to meet Seamus’s, and his eyebrows lifted. “You better get off my boy before you fall off.”
Though Seamus managed to nod in agreement, instead of dismounting, he listed sideways just before the ground rose up to meet him and blackness hit.
Seamus’s dreams might have been nightmares if he’d had the energy to be frightened. They consisted of shaky impressions of being carried and set on cushions, as well as light smacks on his cheeks so he was alert enough to drink water, while otherwise the hands on him were strong and gentle and he shivered under them.
Then he was out, gone far, far below.
A face had belonged in there somewhere, darkened by a frown, black eyes maybe. Seamus would never know. He slept through nearly twenty-four hours and woke as the day did, sun rising while an old man puttered around in the kitchen set across from the couch he lay on.
He raised himself on one elbow, taking an inventory of himself. Suddenly the one thing he knew was he desperately needed a bathroom.
As if reading his mind, the old man looked up and pointed to a doorway. Seamus dashed in.
He rather more slowly made his way out, not sure what surprises lay in store, unable to process a bizarre series of events, though he recognized the old man who’d come to greet the horse that had carried him here.
Had that really happened?
“It’s about time you woke up.”
Seamus could think of nothing to say so he nodded.
“Have some Red River Cereal then.”
“Uh, sure.” As it happened Seamus would have eaten anything. When a bowl was placed before him, it wasn’t in him to do anything but devour it, and the refill.
“Too skinny,” his host scolded him when Seamus’s mouth was full. “I don’t know what you’re doing wandering around in the middle of the night by yourself like that. No common sense these days.”
Seamus supposed he was referring to young people or something. Normally he would have wanted to argue, hotly. But this man had given him sanctuary and was feeding him, and to be honest, common sense hadn’t been Seamus’s strong suit this past week. It had been more about pride.
“Where are your parents?” the old man demanded.
God, the last question he wanted to hear. Seamus shrugged, staring at his empty bowl.
Given that was the biggest city in the province, it wasn’t a bad guess. It was also the correct one.
“You look like a city boy, and you look like someone who’s been cared for until very recently.” His host made him sound like a lost pet as he wagged his finger. “You call your parents. I’ll wager they’re worried sick about you.”
“No,” said Seamus flatly.
His host cocked his head, eyes widening. “No, you won’t call them or, no, they aren’t worried sick.”
Seamus hadn’t known that name existed anymore. It seemed like something out of a classic novel written a century ago, and so did the man and this rundown house.
“Seamus,” he said, rising. He held out a hand to shake, wondering a bit at how small and frail Zachariah seemed to be and how the hell Seamus had ended up lying on this old man’s couch. It was hard to think his memories of being carried inside made sense.
“Seamus, you sit down and drink this orange juice.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Then you’ll call your folks.”
Seamus cut his gaze to Zachariah, who was studying him. He must look a mess.
“How old are you? Sixteen?”
“I’m nineteen,” Seamus replied, affronted. Geez, he didn’t look sixteen. His stubble was rough, the beginnings of a beard. He was no longer the stick he’d been three years ago.
“You all look young to me.” Zachariah rubbed his chin. “Thing is, your anger is fresh, not old. Your falling-out with your parents is a new thing.”
The back of Seamus’s neck prickled. He didn’t like being read this easily. It unnerved him. He shook his head.
The old man sighed. “I’ll make you a deal, and I’d appreciate it if you cooperated. Call your parents, and if they don’t want to hear from you, I’ll help you out. Don’t call your parents, and I’ll show you the door.”
Seamus met the stranger’s steady gaze. He wanted to take his pride and walk out, use it as a burden and a shield. Well, a part of him wanted to walk out. But he’d reached the end of his resources and didn’t know where he’d go. His ID and money were lost. And those men… He shivered at the idea of running into them again, given how they’d kept popping up from nowhere last night.
No, that was the night before. He’d slept for a day and a night, and he was getting his days mixed up.
What the hell. Who cared if his mother didn’t want to lay eyes on him? He could make that phone call, and hopefully Zachariah would allow him to rest here a little longer before he had to move on.
“All right,” he said ungraciously and held out his hand.
Zachariah pointed to a landline, and not only a landline but a corded phone. Seamus could feel his face heat up at the thought of Zachariah overhearing the conversation. So fucking what? He was going to get kicked out if he didn’t call. At this point he had nothing to lose.
“It’s long distance,” he stated, a last-ditch effort to avoid dialing home.
“I can afford it.” Zachariah tilted his head at the phone.
Grimly, Seamus picked up the receiver and punched in the numbers. His face was burning; his parents were going to think he was begging to come back.
Maybe he was.
“Hello?” His mom, of course. His dad didn’t answer the phone often.
Odd, how easily he could reply, as if they hadn’t had a blow-out fight, as if he was still their son. Nineteen years of conditioning, of being part of a family, didn’t just fall away in less than a week.
“Hi, Mom.” He sounded weary, his voice thicker than he liked.
He blinked at the way she yelled his name, not sure what it meant.
“Where are you? What…” She began sobbing, and if she was speaking, he couldn’t figure out what she was saying. A kind of lightheadedness assailed him, and he made himself focus, straining to hear her words.
Her crying faded away.
“Seamus?” Dad was on the line, and Seamus breathed more easily. His dad hadn’t stood up for him when Mom had screamed at him, first saying he couldn’t be gay, then saying he wasn’t their son, then saying she didn’t want him in her sight.
But his dad hadn’t spoken those awful words.
Seamus attempted with everything inside him to keep his voice steady. “It’s me.”
“You come on home now.” His father sounded gruff with concern. “Your mother has been worried sick.”
Seamus’s throat thickened at the unexpected words. Zachariah’s exact words.
“Seamus?” His father’s volume rose. “Are you all right? Where are you?”
“Dad?” he managed, embarrassed at sounding close to tears. Had they not kicked him out?
“You surprised us, but you belong here. You got accepted into university, your studies are about to begin, you need to come home. I’m driving over to get you as soon as you give me an address.”
The anger inside Seamus drained to confusion. He wrapped an arm around his middle, unsure of what was going on. “But…you said…I mean, Mom said…”
“Never mind that. She’s very sorry and so am I. Didn’t mean it.” His dad’s words were clipped.
“I’m not changing. This doesn’t change, Dad,” Seamus said, wishing it didn’t sound more like a plea than a warning. He wanted to be at home, recovering, not clenching this phone in a stranger’s house, his body tight with tension.
“You’re my son, we love you, and I’m coming to get you. All right?” His dad clearing his voice almost undid Seamus. “Now, where are you, Seamus?”
“I don’t know.” He looked to Zachariah, who smiled as if this reaction of his parents was the outcome to be expected. Then he held out his hand to take the phone and give Seamus’s dad directions to the farm.
Seamus settled down on the couch, shocked. His parents went to church, disliked gays and were not open-minded.
But they wanted him to come home. He scrubbed his face. He’d waited nineteen years to tell them about his real self, waited until he’d graduated high school, and it had blown up in his face.
But it wasn’t over. He was still his father’s son.
Zachariah didn’t say anything when he hung up, simply went about tidying the kitchen. Seamus vaguely thought he should offer to help, but by the time he managed to rise, the old man was done.
He remembered the horse then, wanted to see it before he left. That horse had saved his life. He wandered out to a back porch. There were fences and fields, but no animals in sight.
Zachariah came to stand beside him. “Your father will be here in less than two hours. You just rest till then.”
Seamus took a moment to make sure he sounded casual. “I would like to see the horse.”
Zachariah turned to face him. “That time has passed. I have no horses. Too old, too much work.”
“A horse brought me here, remember? Black coat. Big. You called it grandson.”
Those brown eyes held his, not accepting what Seamus was saying. “What I remember is that you fell to the ground in my backyard. It was a lot of work to encourage you over to the couch.”
“Someone carried me,” Seamus protested, but he was beginning to feel silly. None of this made sense. Zachariah couldn’t carry him. The whole riding-the-horse-through-the-night experience sounded bizarre, felt surreal.
“You had a rough night, my boy.”
Seamus stared, wondering why Zachariah was lying. No, wondering if he was lying. Seamus suspected the old man had been bluffing about kicking him out if he didn’t call his parents. However, this was different. Why bluff about a horse?
Maybe no one had carried him into the house, maybe there had been no horse. Could extreme stress cause hallucinations?
Zachariah added, gently chiding, “Why would I call a horse grandson?”