Some of you wanted to know more about Kai’s environment. Here you go, then – the enclosed picture shows Kai’s loading dock on the back side of the old Produce Terminal on Smallman Street in Pittsburgh. So the book has hit the virtual bookshelves, and now I can breathe a sigh of relief and focus on other things. Now I can go hang out with my family more, celebrate the 4th, do more writing. Those of you who find the first chapter strangely familiar, I offer a peek into what happens next. Happy Independence Day!
Wild Horses – preview, 3
The buzzing of flies and occasional whicker of a horse were the only music in Kai’s ears as he forced the prongs of his basket pick under a dark mass, liberating yet another clump of horse manure from loose sawdust bedding. He was careful shaking it, letting the clean grit fall through the gratings without dislodging his precious load. The pick was half full before he upturned its contents into his ever-filling wheelbarrow. There was more to shoveling horse manure than met the eye; like any task, there was a way to go about it, and it had taken him three days before he learned to clean the stalls with quick efficiency. Horseshit was, according to Attila Keleman, mere stardust: it just happened to have been recycled through the rear end of a horse. If that opinion was good enough for his host and employer, it was good enough for Kai.
His thoughts drifted to the events of the last week as he grasped the wooden handles of the wheelbarrow and lifted from his legs, pushing the load of manure to its pile behind the stables. The grounds were extensive and there was no end to the stardust production, and Kai was grateful, because that signified a semblance of job security. The main barn was an older structure with several attached outbuildings and a poured concrete floor, and that’s where the horses lived. Kai was impressed with Attila’s apparent wealth. Several paddocks were delineated in sturdy, white fencing, and there was an outdoor arena behind the new, wood-and-steel building where most students took their lessons. Attila’s single-story ranch house was down the grassy hill from the stables, and the pool out back was surrounded by landscaping. There was a large pond about a quarter mile from the house, and Kai knew that there were woods with riding paths beyond the pond. That’s where the wild, red stallion took him on his first ride, bareback and unbridled.
Kai shook his head at the memory, got rid of the grin on his face, and assumed the expression of a penitent man who is atoning for his sins. He was prepared to work his hands bloody to retain his current position. It had been only one week since he had yielded to temptation and picked the pocket of a complete stranger. He didn’t know at the time that the cell phone he stole would connect him to the very man he worked for right now. It led him to a new way of thinking which had, ironically, started with the mobile phone’s owner’s text message.
You are above such petty acts of thievery.
That single sentence had been the last straw. Attila had flung it in Kai’s direction in his last-ditch attempt to retrieve his stolen iPhone and all the critical information it held, not realizing that he was texting a man who had been homeless for weeks, whose belongings were destroyed in a fire, and whose decision to pick a pocket was a humiliating act of a man at the end of his rope. The words stung what was left of Kai’s pride, sending him on a bicycle journey to return it.
The sweltering heat of that day was still fresh in Kai’s mind. Back then, there was no way he was going to just walk up to the man he had wronged and return the phone—he was too embarrassed—so he hid in the tree line above the paddock, waiting for a good time to put the device somewhere both safe and obvious. He had a plan, but he didn’t expect to feel so fascinated by the horses.
Kai dug the tines of his pick under another pile, suppressing a sigh at the memory of Vermillion and the easy way the red horse’s long legs ate up the ground under his gallop. The stallion was playful and curious as well as difficult to handle, and to everyone’s surprise, he bonded with Kai right away. Kai was now his special human, the one who was never kicked or bitten, the one who brought him apples and who spent time with him, helping him burn off excess energy. But Kai didn’t stick around for Vermillion alone. He would never forget the debt he owed a perfect stranger: a man who not only helped Kai in Kai’s moment of weakness, but from his life on the streets as well. It took two days to recover and rehydrate his body. Kai had been surprised to wake in a soft bed, with a big, red horse whickering through the mosquito screen of the patio door.
Thinking back on it, his stunt had been stupid. No man in his right mind would mount a strange horse, let alone bareback. Yet, Vermillion had wanted to play, and it seemed only reasonable to ride up to the barn and thank his host. Kai rode his bicycle with a preternatural sense of balance—surely a horse would be no different.
Kai’s broad mouth stretched into a wistful smile as he upturned the wheelbarrow of horse manure onto the pile. Once it’s surface dried, it smelled almost sweet. Clean. Wholesome. It held potential for growth, unlike the reek of old cigars at Frankie’s or the reek of decaying produce by the loading dock he called home for over six weeks.
He looked up the hill toward the paddock where the red stallion spent time with an older, more experienced gelding. Sensational Snowfall didn’t tolerate any nonsense from Vermillion—none whatsoever—and the bite marks on the red horse’s neck and bleeding hoof prints on his chest attested to Sen’s stern discipline. Sen would not be bitten, mounted, kicked, or bullied by the rowdy, seven-year-old newcomer. Sen knew what was required of him: his even temper and excellent training, together with his imposing Lipizzaner stature, were well-suited to the process of civilizing the newcomer.
It occurred to Kai that he, with his long, rust-colored hair and uncouth street slang, wasn’t all that different from the red horse. He learned to keep his mouth shut for the most part, but that didn’t change the fact that Kai, too, was also in need of civilizing. The influence of his boss was gentler than the bites and the kicks of Sen, and for that he was grateful. Kai looked up to Attila and tried to emulate his well-bred bearing and well-read language. He was still hard-pressed to meet Attila’s eyes. The sable-haired man’s mercurial gaze was too penetrating, threatening to strip him of his well-built defenses and leave him bare, naked to inspection. Leaving him vulnerable to rejection once the horse trainer came to his senses and realized he had adopted a street urchin to handle his prized horses, shovel manure in his clean barn, and take up residence in the guest room of his tidy house. Kai swallowed at the thought of being discovered for the unworthy lowlife he really was. He’d be kicked out again, left to make ends meet on the street. It had happened before. He thought of Nelby, and the unwelcome memory of Nelby was hard to banish from his mind.
“Yer two months back on the rent, asshole, and if you can’t find a regular job, then you can run messages for me.”
Kai had recently become aware of the nature of Nelby’s messages: little baggies of white powder went out, brown paper lunch bags of cash came in. “I can’t do that.” He refused to sink that low. He wasn’t running drugs. Not now, not ever.
“Then I’ll hold on to your things until you come up with the cash, Kai.” A wide, unpleasant grin split Nelby’s face, accentuating his high cheekbones and his stringy, sandy hair. “Either you take this back to the corner of Butler and Forty-second Street, or you get outta here right this second.”
“Okay.” Kai straightened his shoulders. At six feet tall, he was almost a foot shorter than Nelby. His well-muscled body would have helped, had Nelby not been armed. Kai never lost awareness of the Glock Nelby wore in a holster in the small of his back. “Lemme get my stuff, then, and I’ll be outta your hair.” Kai took a step toward the sofa where he used to sleep. His guitar, backpack, and a small rolling suitcase of books and clothing were in sight.
“No you don’t. You leave your shit right here.”
“Nelby. I need my wallet and stuff. They’ll want an ID when I apply for a job.”
Nelby’s wide grin turned into a sneer. “You’ll manage, pretty boy. And if you don’t, remember I have a nice job lined up for you right here.” Nelby shifted; Kai saw his hand rise to his gun and stroked its butt in a habitual gesture. “Which will it be, pretty boy?”
Kai squared his shoulders. He refused to be intimidated, and he would not run drugs. “As you said, I’ll manage. Don’t worry, I’ll get you the rent money. I don’t have to work for you to do it, though.”
Kai shook himself under the onslaught of intruding thoughts. Once again he felt the sweltering sun on his head and shoulders. The manure that had smelled sweet in the shade of the horse stall took on a pungent reek as it decayed in the sun, and Kai wondered whether it really smelled different or whether his mindset has changed to something bitter and negative. He did not like to ponder over his past. Far from being innocent, he had tried almost everything there was to try, yet there still were some things he would never do. He paused at that thought, his eyes searching out Vermillion’s graceful form up by the shady tree line. There were other things he’d never thought he would do, either. Picking pockets was one of them. If a few weeks of sleeping on a loading dock off Smallman Street were enough to reduce him to eating out of the Dumpsters behind restaurants and petty theft, how sure was he, really, that he would not compromise his other principles?
“Hey street rat, move along!” Hal’s jeering voice brought Kai to the present. “Attila doesn’t let you eat his food just so you can stand around in deep contemplation, asshole.”
Kai drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly before turning toward Hal. He was only a bit younger than Kai’s twenty-four years. Kai knew he was home from college and had intended to spend the summer working at his uncle’s stables and training with his horse in preparation for horse shows. But an unfortunate fall, resulting in three cracked vertebrae, landed him in a back brace and out of riding or working for the rest of the summer. Kai appeared on the scene almost immediately after Hal was injured, and Hal thought Attila was all too happy to offer the stranger room, board, and pocket money in exchange for picking up Hal’s chores.
“I said move along, you worthless piece of shit. The stables won’t get mucked by themselves.”
Kai slid a look in Hal’s direction. It was meant to be a challenging look, but Kai didn’t quite have it in him to stand up to the younger, better educated, more privileged man.
“And remember that you owe Attila everything! Your work, your fucking loyalty, every thread on your body. Even the filthy shoes on your feet.” Hal spat in Kai’s direction, then turned on his heel and headed for the barn, apparently eager to inspect Kai’s work.
“Yeah.” Kai sighed as he backed his wheelbarrow away from the manure pile and moved into the shade of the stables. It was true: the roof over his head, the food on his plate, all of it came from the man he had robbed only a week ago. Few days ago, Attila took him to a nearby store and bought him the basics he needed: clothing, including two packages of underwear, jeans, shorts, tees, a flannel shirt, socks, sneakers, and flip-flops. Kai now had his own hairbrush, a shaving kit, and other toiletries that lived a little basket in the corner of Attila’s bathroom, since it had been discovered that the guest bathtub kept backing up.
Yeah, Kai knew down to his bones that all he had was gained through the courtesy and charity of a man he had wronged. The knowledge twisted in his gut, doubling him over like a wicked stomachache. He couldn’t hold his head high knowing he was beholden quite so much, and Hal’s jeers only renewed his determination to work it all off. He had until Hal healed up, because after that his help would no longer be necessary. Kai pushed his wheelbarrow into the barn. With Chicago’s stall, he was halfway done.
“I still can’t believe you let a perfect stranger stay,” Tibor spat, ignoring the cold beer in front of him. “Look, Hal has enough friends who’d be happy to pitch in around here. I drafted Brent to help as well, in return for paying for his riding lessons. Brent is suffering enough from being Hal’s younger brother. Honestly, I’d prefer if he would get an ordinary teenage job. Even at an ice cream stand.”
“Brent doesn’t drive yet,” Attila commented, eyeing the slender sixteen-year-old from afar. His black hair was a bit too long, just like Attila’s, and he was once again struck by his younger nephew’s hero worship and the youngster’s effort to do everything just like his famous, prize-winning, competent uncle.
“Don’t remind me,” Tibor groaned. “I’m teaching him. My blood pressure skyrockets every time the kid gets behind the wheel.”
“Is he reckless?”
Tibor pulled on his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “No, not exactly. Just… confused. I don’t like him being confused when he’s behind the wheel.”
“He’s never confused on horseback,” Attila said. “He’s a natural.”
“Yeah. A natural dentist, or a natural lawyer, or a natural accountant. You know we don’t have the sort of money to have one of the boys take over for you. Your horse-training colleagues are either independently wealthy, or have rich employers, or work their ass of doing a day job on the side.”
Attila nodded at the well-worn argument. “I know I am fortunate, but consider that I am trying to pass all of this to someone who will appreciate it. Brent could be the one, and we won’t know until he has the freedom to find out for himself.” Attila flicked his eyes to his brother-in-law, and sighed. “I better go up the hill and check on the horses, and on the boys. See if Kai’s making any progress.”
Attila cut across the lawn and up the hill in order to approach the barn’s far-away side. As he climbed the hill and the structure of the new arena came into view, his thoughts turned to money. He knew exactly when it would be paid off at this rate, and the timeframe might as well have spanned eternity. Maybe he shouldn’t have added the kitchenette in the visitor’s viewing room—that about doubled the cost of the project. A new bathroom near the riding arena was a necessity, however, and he had found himself swept up in a rare wave of reckless optimism. The new construction made his upscale clientele more comfortable. Then again, maybe he shouldn’t have bought Vermillion, knowing the horse was bound to have problems. The stallion wasn’t too expensive—only two grand—but the upkeep of even a single horse could run upward of fifteen thousand a year.
The path up the hill was a bit shorter than the long, winding driveway, and it also gave him the opportunity to observe his stable hands in their native element. Much like his horses, his humans always behaved a bit differently when he was around. He climbed through the white fence and made his way to the gate on the other side of the stables. Voices carried on the hot summer air, and if he was any judge of character, the tempers involved mirrored the weather with uncanny accuracy.
“I don’t know why you have to be such an asshole,” he heard Brent retort with venomous frustration. “He’s doing fine, so lay off.”
“He’s just a common thief,” Hal snorted in a pompous voice of the young and infallible. Now that was interesting: Attila had never known Brent to stand up to his older and much taller brother.
“Yeah, but he returned it.”
“He shouldn’t have stolen it to begin with. He’s a snake waiting to strike. Guard your wallets, everyone. Uncle ’Tila’s stray is running loose!”
“If you weren’t in your back brace, I’d pop you one, Hal!”
Then there was a sound of scuffle and a pained exclamation, and just as Attila peeked around the corner and saw Brent fall sprawling into the dirt, Kai’s voice split the air.
“He’s right, Brent—I’m a no-good thief. Now quit fightin’. Here….” Attila saw Kai lean down to the sixteen-year-old boy, give him a hand up, and wipe dirt off his cheek. “You’ll wanna put some ice on that.”
“He shouldn’t call you that,” Brent spat.
“It’s his choice what he calls me.” Kai’s shoulders slumped in defeat and his voice was bitter. “I sure ain’t gonna fight over it, though, and neither should you.”
Brent turned to Hal. “Soon I’ll grow bigger than you and then you’ll find it mighty hard to push me around, Hal!”
“You shouldn’t have threatened, shrimp.” The two started to square off again as Kai disappeared into Dale’s stall.
Attila cleared his throat. The two brothers jerked around, their eyes wide at the sight of their uncle. Only the quiet sounds of Kai mucking the stall stirred the air. “I think I’ve heard enough from you two. Brent, go get some ice down at the house.”
Brent knew dismissal when he heard it and scurried out of the barn.
Attila fixed his older nephew with a stern gaze, his eyes narrowed and his jaw set. “You are how old, now, Hal?”
The young man met his eyes with defiance. “Turned twenty this winter. As you surely know.”
Attila nodded. “Ah. So, it is hardly honorable for a big, twenty-year-old college man to assault his much smaller teenage brother, as you surely know, especially when he does not dare hit you back because of your back injury.” Attila paused and waited until Hal began to look at least somewhat contrite. “I will overlook it this time,” Attila continued, “because I need your help with a very important matter.” Attila’s face relaxed just as Hal’s brow furrowed with suspicion. “This situation has really grown out of control, and since you know what to do and can’t do other things right now, it would be very helpful if you’d make some headway on the tack room.”
Hal stiffened. “The tack room?”
“I need you to clean the tack.” He paused, watching his words sink in. “All of the tack. You can set up a chair and a folding table right there, so you’re out of the way of people and horses. All the bits need to be scrubbed and sanitized, and all the leather needs to be cleaned and conditioned.”
“All?” The task would easily take the rest of the week.
“All. Now, when you do the saddles, make sure to polish the stirrups and the rings, and check the stirrup straps for wear. Don’t overlook the elastic in the girth straps. Some may need to be replaced.”
“The saddles.” Hal swallowed as though he had to force his last meal back down. Attila compressed his lips, not allowing even the slightest hint of a smile. It seemed that Hal’s summer plans—if not his whole life—just flashed before his eyes. There were things to do and friends to see, and now he would sit isolated in a stuffy, dusty tack room, his mind going numb over the tedious task.
“Now, when you take the saddle pads down to the house to wash them, make sure you take no more than half of them so we still have enough to use up here. You can spread them along the fence to dry.”
Hal regained his voice. “That’s a lot of work for getting into a fight with my brother, Uncle ’Tila.”
Attila looked him up and down. “That wasn’t your most shining moment, that is true. However, Hal”—he gave him an arch look—“I happen to have overheard the way you talk to Kai. After seeing your lack of control with your own kin…” Attila took a deep breath and squared his shoulders like his Grandpa used to do right before one he delivered one of his infamous lectures. “Had it been you who’d been jobless forever and who had slept on a loading dock in the Strip District for several weeks, I wonder….” Attila trailed off, lowered his volume, and tried again. “You, Hal, are a privileged punk. You have talent, and all your needs are being met, and you can work when you put your mind to it. But you have never been tested. You have never been in a situation like Kai, or even like your mother’s cook or the guys who work for your parent’s landscaping service. You don’t know how you will act, until you have felt out of your depth.”
“You think I’d be a thief, too?” Hal blurted out.
“I am not saying you would, and I hesitate to make comparisons. I am, however, saying that everyone has a certain limit, and if they are pushed far enough, they will misbehave. A good horse may kick and a good dog may bite. I myself have not always acted in the most desirable way.” Attila opened his mouth to say more, but thought better of it and pressed his lips together again. He knew what it was like to feel out of his depth, inadequate, and almost helpless, but his nephew did not need to know that. A few heartbeats later, he found his voice. “Everyone comes with a history. You just never know unless you’ve been there.”
Hal’s gaze was drawn to the interesting textures and colors of the debris on the concrete floor. The silence in the barn was broken only by the occasional movement of a horse or the loud whuff of an equine exhalation. “You mean he actually slept outside? On the street?”
“That’s his story to tell. Perhaps you will ask him someday. Now, however, you have work to do.”
Kai stopped shoveling almost as soon as he heard Mr. Keleman’s voice. If he made any sound, Hal would be reminded of his presence during Attila’s dressing-down and would never forgive him. He stood still in the shadows, his back against the wooden wall and his pronged shovel motionless in his hand. He didn’t fault Hal for hitting Brent—the teen had said some things to his older brother that should not have been aired in front of a stranger. Brothers fought. It was the way things were. Likewise, he could hardly fault Hal for not trusting him—it just came with the territory. He felt his shoulders relax as Mr. Keleman’s soothing baritone assigned Hal his tasks. When he heard a description of his own circumstances, though, his throat tightened and his eyes began to sting.
You are above such petty acts of thievery.
The man who wrote those words over a week ago in an effort to reclaim his stolen iPhone now cast Kai’s actions in a different light altogether. Not defending them, no—but explaining how such a thing could be. How an otherwise good man—or a horse, or a dog—could suffer a fall from grace. He went to bat for Kai. Nobody had ever done that before, nobody in Kai’s memory. The dust and hay must have been irritating because his eyes began to itch. He pushed himself into the dark corner, silent as he slid down the wooden wall, careful not to snag his new T-shirt. Knees in his face, he tried to wipe the hated tears on his jeans. Kai wished a horse were in the stall with him to cover for any sounds that might escape him. He wished for a horse neck to lean against; warm, secure, and fragrant. He choked back a sob, waiting for the other men to leave.
After leaving Hal to pursue his tasks and reflect upon his actions, Attila peeked into Dale’s stall. He would have sworn Kai was still there, mucking it out. The enclosed space was dim, except for a slender ray of sunshine that pierced the dirty glass of a small window. Motes of dust danced in the warm beam of light. Somebody had been there to disturb the bedding. His eyes adjusted enough to see the wheelbarrow against the wall, the half-cleaned floor. Kai sat folded in the corner, one arm flung across his knees, the other clutching the long handle of the pick, his knuckles white. Attila took several slow and silent steps toward him. He arched his eyebrows as he took in the tension in Kai’s shoulders and the occasional shudder.
He closed the distance, knelt down on one knee and settled his hand on Kai’s blazing hair with the softest touch. “Kai….”
The shoulders froze. Slowly, Kai’s head lifted just enough for his blood-shot eyes to peek at Attila’s face.
“Shhh….” There was no need for words. Just like he wouldn’t launch into a discourse with a distressed horse, he saw no reason to elaborate upon what had already been said. “Shhh….” He let his hand stroke the wild, luminous tresses that snaked into a thick braid down Kai’s neck, and was satisfied to see the other man relax marginally and drop his forehead onto his knees again. He was still stiff and distressed, though, so Attila leaned his back against the wall right next to Kai and draped his arm across Kai’s shoulder. He felt a sudden urge to pull Kai closer, and stilled his hand in surprise. Attila was never coddled his stable hands, yet Kai awoke a new, protective impulse within him. An impulse he had to resist—Attila knew he had been down this road before and no good came of it As he felt the wavy, glorious hair, Attila suppressed the impulse to plunge his fingers into its unruly mass. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, and his chest felt like it would explode if he didn’t pull the other man in a little closer. And once he was in, he would, naturally, kiss the wavy hair and the wet eyes, and… no. The attraction was there, no doubt about it, but he could never take advantage of someone in that state of mind.
Attila felt Kai loosen his shoulders and shrug a little and took that as his sign to let go. He withdrew his arms as he pushed against the wall behind him and forced himself to stand up. He fished inside his pocket and produced a packet of paper tissues. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Kai replied in a stuffy voice as he wiped his eyes, blew his nose, and stood up. “Sorry… I… I just….” He gesticulated with his hands in an effort to grasp for words.
“There is no need to explain,” Attila said, his voice cool and remote. He accepted the unused tissues, noting how Kai stuffed the wet ones in his pocket in an effort to hide his embarrassment. Perhaps focusing on the here and now would distract him. “So how is everything, Kai?”
Kai exhaled, as though exerting an effort to control himself. This did not prevent the flush of heat from creeping into his face under Attila’s scrutiny. Attila took in the picture Kai presented, in his old hand-me-down boots caked with horseshit and his jeans and T-shirt that were covered in hay, cobwebs, and dust. Not even the layer of dirt could conceal Kai’s keen embarrassment. Attila gave him an encouraging nod, prompting him to speak.
“The stalls are all clean except for one, all the water buckets are filled, I gave all the horses hay, and… I thought I’d wait till five to give them grain. Is that right?”
“Yes.” Attila looked around, satisfied. “What will you do next?”
“I thought I’d sweep the floor, and… I meant to ask you, Mr. Keleman….” His freckled face was now positively burning.
“Yes, Kai?” Attila’s eyes wandered down the other man’s profile, mesmerized by the strong trapezius and the defined deltoids of shoulders that barely peeked through his sweaty T-shirt.
“Do you have a book I could read on how to take care of ’em? ’Cause I hate asking all the time, and I don’t really know anything.”
Translation: I hate to bother you, I hate asking Hal because he hates my guts, and Brent isn’t around enough, and neither is Sally or May.
Attila nodded. “I’ll get you a book after dinner. Now, once you’ve swept up, I want you to clean yourself up and change into your riding pants and put on those old riding boots that fit reasonably well.”
“Eh?” Kai straightened, and Attila suppressed a grin that threatened to bloom on his otherwise stoic face.
“You need to learn to ride, Kai.”
“Really?” There was no mistaking the excitement that broke through the despondent gloom of the younger man’s face. “You’d let me?”
“If you’ll keep making friends with Vermillion, then absolutely. You didn’t think I would just have you do menial tasks, did you?”