Ride Every Stride
~ * ~
His battered sneakers, soles worn smooth, slid on the snow-covered ice. The suffocating wind chased his breath back down his throat. He hunched his shoulders, tucked his chin, and squinted against the stinging hail as he scanned the dark horizon. Come on. Rock cut, cluster of trees, something. Somewhere he could hide.
There. Was that a building? Hope fluttered and he picked up the pace, only to lose his footing and crash to the frozen asphalt. Of course. As if his body wasn’t aching enough already. He gritted his teeth against the new pain in his side, shrugged his backpack in place and set off more carefully.
The structure, an abandoned farmhouse, was similar to others he’d seen haunting the side of the highway. He inched up the decaying stairs and across the pockmarked porch. Dry rot made the boarded-up door easy to kick in, and he dragged himself as far as the first room before fatigue melted his knees.
Using his backpack as a lumpy pillow, he curled into the fetal position in a desperate attempt to trap some heat under his layered shirts. His hands shook as he removed his cheap gloves to blow on his stiff fingers. It was no use. If only he could start a fire. His body craved heat with the intensity of an addict in withdrawal. And it was too dark. A fire would frighten the shadows away.
The shouting of the wind was a welcome distraction from the racket in his head. Despite his exhaustion, he had to force his eyes to close. It was a battle to keep them shut long enough to fall asleep.
~ * ~
The sun’s weak rays leaked between the boards on the windows. Tiny rainbows refracted through shards of broken glass and crept toward his sleeping form. He blinked a few times before bolting upright, his heart pounding. Where was he? The walls and ceilings were cracked and stained, like cobwebs on a coffee-stained memo. Scraps of curtains dangled from crooked rods or rested on the layer of grime carpeting the floor.
There was no one here to hurt him.
Shivering, he lumbered to his feet then stretched his stiff side, a reminder of last night’s fall. While he brushed dirt off his clothes, he stared at the broken chair wilting in the corner. Who used to sit there? Behind the chair, the arm of a moth-eaten doll reached out to him. He dusted the toy off with a caressing motion. Where were the children now? What had their parents been like? What had become of them all? But really, what did it matter? No matter what it held in the past, the house was now like him: empty and alone.
Longing thickened his throat and he tossed the doll back in the corner. “Jesus, Jed. Get a grip. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get your ass in gear.”
Like he’d done for too many days already, he needed to keep moving, stay warm, put more distance between himself and the perils of home. There’d be no sitting or standing with his thumb out.
He heard his stomach growl, felt the familiar gnawing hunger, and tried again to ignore it. Even though he’d only allowed himself one meal a day—not even every day, and the cheapest food he could find—all of his money was gone. Unless some generous driver picked him up, he likely wouldn’t eat until he made it to a shelter in Toronto. Considering he hadn’t eaten yesterday either, the remaining four hundred kilometres stretched into infinity.
The damp cold penetrated him while he sloshed through the melting snow. To distance himself, he escaped into the familiar refuge of an imaginary world where he was successful, respected and loved. No one judged him based on his appearance or his past. As a rider on the Canadian Equestrian Team, he owned more horses and a nicer farm than he ever dared to dream.
These thoughts propelled him forward, one painful step at a time, one passing vehicle after another, until a car finally pulled over. His shoulders rounded even as his heart lifted in anticipation of the comfort within. A couple, in their early fifties he guessed. Well dressed. Safe. When they smiled at him, he opened the back door and climbed in.
“Thanks. I was freezing.” The seat was so soft, he nearly groaned.
The woman pressed some buttons on the dashboard. “Terrible weather for October, isn’t it?”
His only reply was a sigh when a blast of heat hit him. He couldn’t tell if she was making a statement or asking a question anyhow.
“Where are you headed?”
“Hopefully as close to Toronto as you’re willing to take me, sir.” Maybe if he impressed them with manners, they’d buy him a meal.
The woman swatted her husband’s arm and winked. “See, didn’t I tell you his aura was kind?” Then, to Jed, “As a matter of fact, that’s where Howard and I are heading. To visit our daughter. She just had a baby boy last night. Little Rhys is our first grandbaby.”
Jed forced a smile and mumbled, “Congratulations,” as he stifled the yawn creeping up his throat. God he was tired, and his side screamed a protest every time he moved.
“Are you from Sudbury?” the woman asked.
“No, just passing through.” He discreetly slipped his shoes off, hoping for drier feet when he hit the streets in Toronto.
“Oh? From where?”
He hesitated. “Out west.”
She lit up again. “Then you must’ve gone through Sault Ste. Marie. That’s where we’re from.”
He gave one tight nod. “Didn’t see much of it, really.” The image formed of an alley with a large dumpster behind which he’d curled up for a night, pressing his hands against a building’s bricks for their meagre supply of warmth.
“Oh, that’s too bad. It’s a lovely little city. Friendly people, and so beautiful in the summer. We get a lot of tourists, and…”
He covered his mouth when he lost the battle with this yawn.
“Oh, you poor boy. Here you are, probably as exhausted as you look, and I’m rambling on and on.” She tilted her head.
Recognizing her curiosity, he steeled himself, his jaw clenched.
“How long have you been on the road? Must be quite some time, you’re so thin. Are you running away from something? Where in the West are you from? And what’s your name?” Her eyes flirted with the thin scar that defined his left cheekbone. Thankfully, this was one question she was too polite to ask.
Jed arched an eyebrow and rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s a lot of questions, ma’am.”
“Yes, Martha. Give the boy a break.” Howard’s words sounded like they’d been spoken many times before.
“No, it’s okay. You have a right to know.” Or at least to think you know. “I read about a job in Toronto,” he said, encouraged by their nods and smiles. “I thought I’d make it before the bad weather hit, so I didn’t pack much. Needless to say, things aren’t going as planned.” He shrugged. “But I’m almost there, it could’ve been worse, and I might be able to find a different job. And my name’s Brian. Brian Percival.”
Judging what people wanted to hear had become a well-honed skill. Each time he told—or, more accurately, manufactured—his story, he tailored it in an effort to generate respect, camaraderie, or any emotion that might inspire people to help him. Only his destination remained consistent. His name, where he was from and his reason for leaving all changed to suit whomever he was with. He also hoped this would make tracking him more difficult. Necessity or not, he despised the lies and himself for telling them.
“What about your parents? Couldn’t they help?”
While fighting to keep his eyes open, he heard himself say, “No, they’re dead.” When the couple’s expressions morphed into pity, he knew he had them, but the victory was hollow. It was the only truthful thing he’d said. Even if it could ultimately help him, he wished it was just one more thing he’d made up.
“You poor boy. How old are you?”
“Eighteen. I was fourteen when they died.” Careful now.
“What happened then? Did you go live with family?”
“Didn’t have any. I stayed in a home and worked odd jobs.”
“What sort of jobs?”
“With horses.” Time to stop talking. Thankfully, he yawned again. He could now plead exhaustion and end the interrogation before he really let something slip. “Sorry, I’m beat. D’you mind if I take a nap?”
Martha’s face softened. “Of course not, dear. Go right ahead. You can use one of our pillows.”
“We’ll wake you when we reach Toronto.”
He breathed a sigh of relief, positioned a pillow between his head and the window, and allowed sleep to drag him under.
~ * ~
The lurch of the car being parked finally awakened Jed. Howard turned to face him. “Sorry, we have to drop you off here.”
Jed rubbed his eyes. “Where are we?” He slipped his feet inside his marginally drier shoes.
“The hospital parking lot. Any minute now, we’ll be seeing our grandson for the first time.” Martha’s smile faltered and she shook her head. “We only wish we could do more to help you.”
“You’ve done plenty. Who knows how long it would’ve taken me to get here if you hadn’t stopped,” he found his mouth telling them. But was that truly how he felt? Sometimes he had a hard time differentiating between the truth and the lies he told for his own benefit. A wave of shame hit him. Was it worth fighting to survive when you hated everything about yourself?
“What she means is, we wish we could give you a place to stay until you find work. Since we can’t, we’ll give you what little we can.”
Oh yes, yes, yes, Jed thought when he noticed the wallet in Howard’s hands. His eyes widened at the two brown and four red bills Howard removed. “I can’t take that. That’s four hundred dollars.”
“It’s okay, dear. We can afford it. Besides, we’d rather spend it keeping a good boy like you from starving to death than waste it shopping at the Eaton Centre. Now take it.”
He folded the bills and tucked them away with care. “I can’t thank you enough. Honestly. I’ll never forget you for this.”
He winced a bit as he climbed out, but his side hurt less than before. The heated seat must’ve helped. For once, there was no need to fake a smile when he repeated, “I’ll never forget you for this. Say ‘hi’ to Rhys for me.”
“We will,” Martha said, practically vibrating with excitement.
“Goodbye, Brian. And good luck.”
The third time her alarm grated her ears, Linnea Sinclaire groaned. About to hit the snooze bar just once more, she consciously registered the time. 7:27. She cursed and leapt out of bed.
It wasn’t her fault she’d slept in again. It was Saturday. That’s what weekends were for. At least, they used to be. Her weekends now meant work, not play. Exhausting, backbreaking work at her family’s farm. Things were even worse since another worker quit. Now she also had to help the remaining full-timers after school. She’d never dreamed that asking for her own farm would mean blisters on her formerly French manicured hands and stiff, aching muscles.
Clean barn clothes waited in her bathroom thanks to Mrs. Lowe, the live-in housekeeper and cook. She changed in a hurry, tied her unruly hair back and raced down the hall until she neared her parents’ door, where she began to tiptoe. Heaven forbid she wake her mother from her precious beauty sleep. Once past, she sped down the curving oak staircase.
“Good morning. How are you this fine day?” Mrs. Lowe said.
“Tired. And it’s too early to be fine.”
Unfazed, Mrs. Lowe’s smile didn’t falter. “Your waffles and fruit are in the dining room. Enjoy, dear.”
Linnea wolfed down the meal, manners be damned. Without a word of thanks, leaving her dirty dishes behind, she rushed out the back door, her breath a twin trail of cloudy puffs in the cool air. She barely registered the brushstrokes of the pink and orange sunrise or the twinkling coat of frost on the trees; the empty parking lot meant Daryl, the weekend worker, was late. “Lazy son of a bitch.” She threw the barn door open.
The welcoming nickers managed to tease a reluctant smile to her face, and she called out a greeting on her way to the feed room. Hay was normally fed first, but that was Daryl’s job, not hers, so she bypassed the stacked bales. While consulting the chart on the wall, she filled small pails with each horse’s individualized ration of grain and supplements and stacked them on a cart. As she pushed it into the hall, the nickering grew louder and was joined in chorus by pawing, kicking and the banging of feeders. “Take it easy, guys. You’re not exactly starving.” The foul mood hadn’t left her for long.
Daryl rushed inside as she returned the cart. “Sorry I’m late. The baby cried all night. Didn’t get any sleep.”
She glared at him, ignoring the dark circles under his brown eyes. “Fine. Whatever. Just do the hay, okay?”
He scowled and opened his mouth as if to say something, but when she raised her eyebrows, he clearly thought better of it. Instead, jaw set, he heaved hay bales into the extra large wheelbarrow, jerked his pocketknife through the twine and marched down the hall, flinging the flakes into the stalls.
Meanwhile, Linnea began the preparations for morning turn-out. Protective bell boots were pulled on the horses’ front hooves. Outdoor rugs replaced indoor blankets. Leather halters adorned their heads. In continued silence, she and Daryl led the horses out to their frosty freedom.
Turn-out was a joy compared to the heavy, dirty task of mucking stalls and spreading fresh bedding. Equally disagreeable were the annoying kids arriving for their lessons along with their irritating parents. Thankfully, this wouldn’t last much longer. Ingrid, the weekend instructor, had given her notice last week.
Was it too much to ask to have the barn to herself and others like her? People who owned their own horses. People, including her friends, who got to have fun riding while she turned out the second shift of horses and mucked out after the noon feed. It just wasn’t fair.
By the time she fed the evening grain, even the slightest irritation set her off. Tucker earned a boot to his stained-pine door for running his teeth along the black bars. She shouted at her mare, Kit, for squealing and kicking the wall between her stall and Risk’s. After Risk lunged at Linnea, teeth bared, she hurled her gelding’s empty grain pail on the cart and stormed to the feed room.
Her curses cut off in a yelp when somebody slammed the door behind her and strong hands grabbed her shoulders to jerk her backwards, but the body now pressed against hers was as familiar as her own. Muscular arms engulfed her as their owner bent to nuzzle her neck. “Dammit, Aaron. Don’t scare me like that.”
“What kind of greeting’s that?”
She turned to clasp her hands behind his neck. “This better?” On tiptoes, she leaned in to kiss him and ran her fingers through the waves of his black hair.
“Mm. Much.” Another kiss, then he stepped back. “What are you doing tonight?”
She grimaced. “Spending it locked in my room doing the homework I could’ve done this afternoon if I didn’t have to slave away in here.” The pails crashed when she tossed them in the corner.
His eyes narrowed and his jaw muscles bunched, yet his voice remained calm. “That sucks. Dad’s movie wrapped and he’s throwing a party for the cast and crew. I wanted to show you off, then do a little partying of our own.” He cupped her bottom and pulled her against him. “Now he’ll get his rocks off telling everyone my girlfriend’s ashamed to be seen with me.”
When she rested her face on his chest, she felt chilled. He was so tense. “Sorry. I know how nasty he can be to you.” She’d seen his father in action. The guests would think he was teasing Aaron, but he’d mean every word and enjoy embarrassing his son.
“Then again, just ’cause I show up alone doesn’t mean I have to leave alone. Some hot little actress on my arm might shut him up.”
Her chest constricted. She tried to read his expression, but his hazel eyes were focused on some point over her shoulder. He was joking, wasn’t he? It was so hard to tell. Was his jaw clenched in anger, or was he trying not to laugh? Was his face hard because he meant what he said, or because he was dreading tonight?
A stiff smile cracked his face when he finally looked at her. “I’m just bugging you. Don’t look so worried. None of the chicks’ll be as hot as you anyways.”
She forced levity into her voice. “Very funny, mister. Well, maybe somebody’ll answer one of our ads soon and I can be a normal teenager again. A normal girlfriend again. And Christmas holidays are less than three months away. We can make up for lost time then.”
“Sure as hell hope so. You done in here?”
“Just have to sweep.” Was he mad at her?
“Let the help earn his money. I’ll walk you to the house.”
Maybe he wasn’t. The knot in her stomach eased.
Hand in hand, they stepped into the aisle and found Daryl already sweeping. “Since you were late again, you can tidy the feed room. Try to be on time tomorrow or I’ll have to talk to my father.”
They walked away without waiting for a response. Aaron opened the barn door, then followed her into the waning sunshine.
~ * ~
Aaron handed his keys to one of the valets and snarled, “Whatever,” when the guy wished him a good time at the party. Not bloody likely. He turned toward his childhood home and forced himself to take the first step. He despised every stone in the walkway, every brick and shingle and nail of the house.
The music, the tinkling glasses, the lilting voices and phony laughter all recalled a time when these parties had been a source of excitement. Something to brag about. His father, the famous actor, and all the celebrities who’d graced these horrid halls.
At the last minute, he decided to use the rear entrance. Maybe he could slip inside without his father noticing and delay the inevitable scene. After easing the door shut, he paused to take a deep breath. If only Linnea was beside him. Even his father couldn’t find a thing to criticize when it came to her. Except for her choice of boyfriend.
“There you are. Thought I saw you pull up. What’re you doing back here?” As always, his sister looked like she was enjoying herself to the fullest extent of the law. She threw her arms around him, her sleek black hair already escaping its confines.
“Trying to avoid our father.”
“Good luck with that. He’s already been asking where you are. Where’s Lin?”
He merely grimaced and shook his head.
Ashley’s beaming grin dimmed a few watts. “Oh, lovely. Dad’s gonna get a kick outta that.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I’ve got your back.” She took his hand and led him to the great room, where his hopes of invisibility immediately evaporated.
“If it isn’t my wayward son,” his father announced. “And what’s this? The best date he could find was his own little sister? Why am I not surprised? Come on over here and meet my esteemed colleagues.”
Sensing the attention of the guests, Aaron tugged his hand out of Ashley’s. His mother flashed a sympathetic smile, then rearranged her features into their usual placid veneer before his father noticed.
After introducing Aaron to a dozen people, his father continued his assault. “The gorgeous Miss Sinclaire finally came to her senses, did she? I knew it was only a matter of time.” He laughed, but his eyes shone with malice.
“Oh, Dad. Don’t be silly. Linnea’s just so busy since they built the farm,” Ashley said, trying to help.
“How sweet. His sister even speaks for him.”
“Go, Ash. You’re just making it worse,” Aaron said under his breath, and she slipped away.
The producer’s wife must have taken pity on him because she tried to change the subject. “I’m surprised you’re not following in your father’s footsteps. My, you’re a handsome young man. Even more handsome than he was at your age, I dare say.”
Aaron’s stomach sank. Those were so the wrong things to say. The throbbing vein in his father’s neck was proof of that. He knew what was coming. The same story his father told at every party, to every crowd, in an effort to belittle him. Well not tonight. Tonight, he’d steal the bastard’s favourite lines.
“Oh, I’m not cut out for acting. I gave it a shot once, when I was about seven. Dad got me an audition. He was so excited to see his son in the business, teach me the ropes. I had two lines. Two lines. And I screwed them up. They gave me chance after chance, but I just couldn’t get it right. Poor Dad, he was so disappointed.” And I haven’t been able to do a damn thing right since then, he wanted to add.
His father showed the skills that had won him many awards when he belly laughed and shook his head, as if with fond amusement. “Oh, yes. What a day that was. Now Aaron rides horses—”
“Which is a good thing, ’cause the only word I need to remember is whoa,” Aaron finished for him. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a drink.”
At the bar, he gulped down the contents of one glass and had just started on another when a bleach blonde starlet in a skimpy, skintight dress joined him. “I heard you and your dad. If I were your girlfriend, I’d never let you outta my sight.” She looked him up and down. “Especially looking like that.”
“Oh yeah? And what else would you do?”
“Take me somewhere private and I’ll show you.”
The girl was already pawing him by the time they reached the top of the stairs, where he looked down to find his father staring up at them. He smirked and led her down the hall. Damn, it felt good to see the sneer wiped off the old man’s face.
~ * ~
Forty minutes after she’d finished work, Linnea ran from her room again, this time dressed in what she liked to call her business professional look. Her job was being the perfect daughter, and she was a pro. She descended the stairs in the most ladylike fashion she could manage and joined her parents in the dining room.
“It’s about time, young lady.” Her father loosened his tie and winked.
Her mother’s glare turned from him to Linnea. “How many times do I have to tell you to work on your punctuality? What if we had guests?” As usual, Victoria looked like she’d stepped out of a salon on her way to the fanciest of restaurants rather than a quiet dinner at home and, as usual, her first concern was the opinion of others.
Linnea took her seat, automatically responding, “Sorry. I’ll try to do better.” Jeez, she was acting like it was an hour, not five minutes, she thought.
Philip rubbed his large hands together. “Bring on the chow. I’m famished.” He earned another glare.
As if she’d been waiting outside the door, Mrs. Lowe appeared with roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls. The sight of so much food when she wasn’t hungry drew a sigh from Linnea, but she dutifully filled her plate.
“How were things today?” Philip tucked his napkin in his collar.
“Fine, I guess. Oh, Ingrid says she’ll have her things cleared out next Sunday.”
“What a shame. She knows her stuff and the clients love her.” He shook his head. “I just can’t understand why we keep losing staff. They’re well-paid, they have a brand new facility to work in, but the only ones sticking around are Ron, Zoe, Pat and Daryl.”
Before Linnea could complain about Daryl being late, Victoria cleared her throat. “I’m sure this is all very interesting, but we have more pressing matters to discuss. For instance, Linnea, I invited the mayor and his wife over. I expect you to spend the evening down here with us. The mayor—”
“I can’t. I’ve got an Algebra test to study for and an English essay to work on.”
“Don’t raise your voice at me and don’t interrupt me. I promised the mayor you’d entertain his daughter. You can do your homework after they leave. Do you understand?”
Linnea threw her father a pleading glance, but she knew he chose his battles wisely. She sagged in defeat. “Yes.”
“Good. They’ll be here by eight.”
She managed a few more bites before asking to be excused. Only after swapping her slacks for a skirt and putting on makeup did she start her homework.
At the sound of the doorbell, she headed down to greet the guests. Fatigue threatened her perfect posture while she feigned interest in the mayor’s daughter’s blathering about music videos and boy bands.
When they finally left at midnight, Linnea dragged herself upstairs and studied until two o’clock when she fell, exhausted, into bed, and set her alarm for another day’s work.