A ‘Riding Lessons’ Interlude
by Andrew Todd
Jesse Osterman’s earliest memories were of horses. His mother, Elizabeth, was a trainer in Wellington, Florida.
Jesse was almost born in a barn, but Elizabeth made it to the hospital just in time.
Much gossip was floated around the inner circles of Wellington society when an unmarried, seemingly unattached Elizabeth Osterman became pregnant. There were those who thought that maybe Elizabeth didn’t know who the father of her child was or that she had sought the services of a sperm bank or that Jesse was the result of a drunken one-night stand.
The truth was Elizabeth knew exactly who Jesse’s father was–a married Grand Prix rider that she had had a long-term relationship with. The man in question refused to divorce his wife, whose wealth funded his lifestyle, so when she realized she was expecting, Elizabeth ended the relationship and had the man sign legal documents terminating all parental rights. Elizabeth was nearly forty at the time and as she had never found the ‘right’ man for marriage, she knew this might be her last chance at motherhood.
While the gossips had a grand old time with Elizabeth’s situation, once Jesse arrived he became a regular sight at the many farms that Elizabeth trained at. She preferred to move around and offered her services to riders and other trainers who had too many horses in their stables to properly supervise.
Jesse literally was riding before he could walk. Before he could crawl, the young girls at the various barns would take him for rides on their horses, showering the baby boy with affection.
By the time he was five, those same young ladies were entering him in lead-line shows and teaching him how to ride.
As he grew older, Jesse started to help his mother as a rider when she was working with various horses.
He would often substitute for the kids who showed, when they were ill or who were unable to attend. Jesse never lost an event. Since he had no horse of his own, he was used to riding whatever horse was available; this helped him to hone his riding skills.
By the time he was 10, Jesse was the go-to guy for his mom if she was having a particularly hard time with a horse. If the rider she was training would insist the horse was difficult or unresponsive, she would put Jesse on the horse. Jesse seemed to have a way with even the most difficult horses. He was a calm and intuitive rider who always seemed to be able to anticipate the horse’s needs and feelings and respond accordingly.
Until he started school Jesse’s life was idyllic. He loved hanging around the barns and the horses. The older kids who rode–both the boys and the girls–saw him as a mascot and sometimes a good-luck charm and doted on him endlessly.
When Jesse started school at the age of six things started to change. Wellington was a rather influential area and Jesse’s mom was not rich by any stretch of the imagination. Though she was relatively successful, her nomadic style and refusal to work for just one barn or start her own prevented her from making as much as other trainers.
Most of Jesse’s classmates were from families that were fairly affluent. Since he had spent his younger years in the company of older kids who accepted him, Jesse was not prepared for the cruelty that his peers would exhibit.
Jesse was snubbed for his clothes, his less-than-affluent background, and his lack of a father.
Jesse had never given much thought to his missing father. Once, when he was about five, he had asked his mom about his father. She explained that she had wanted him so much that she had decided to be mommy and daddy to him. He loved his mother and never again questioned the whereabouts of his father.
When he first started school, the bullying was limited to the clothing he wore and the fact that he was obviously not from wealth. He was smaller than most of the kids in his class so he made an easy target. He had very delicate features. He had strawberry-blond hair that would bleach out almost white in the bright Florida summers. His eyes were a vibrant green. He spent so much time in the sun that his skin was always tanned. He was stronger than he looked physically, having spent so much time riding horses and working in the barns. Had he realized his physical abilities, he might have been able to fend off his bullies in school, but outside of his element–the barns, he was shy and quiet and could not bring himself to fight back.
The abuse he took in school intensified when the other kids realized that Jesse was the boy that they had heard their mother’s gossiping about for years. He was the boy with no daddy, the boy whose mommy didn’t know who his daddy was, and the boy who was a ‘bastard’. At their age most kids didn’t understand what any of that meant; only that Jesse was different, and different in school is never a good thing.
In his elementary school years, Jesse did manage to make a few friends–mainly the other children of the men and women who worked in the barns and farms around Wellington. Most of them were minorities and were treated even worse than Jesse. They would eventually realize that the way to ‘popularity’ was to join in the tormenting of the easiest target–Jesse.
Then, midway through fourth grade, Jesse met the boy who would become his best friend. Jesse sat in the back corner of Mrs. Gulliver’s class trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The door to the classroom opened and in walked a tall Hispanic boy. He was more than a head taller than Jesse. He had dark skin, short jet-black hair and chocolate-brown eyes.
The boy walked over to Mrs. Gulliver and spoke to her quietly and handed her some papers.
Mrs. Gulliver turned to the class. “Class, we have a new student; this is Sebastian Olivera.” She put her hand on Sebastian’s shoulder as she introduced him to the class. She scanned the room and spotted the only empty desk. “Sebastian, why don’t you take the desk next to Jesse?” she said as she pointed to the empty desk.
Jesse tried not to make eye contact with Sebastian. He bowed his head over his paper and went back to finishing his math problems.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and froze.
“Hey,” he heard a soft voice say. “Hey, my name’s Seb. You’re Jesse, right?”
Jesse looked in the direction of the voice and nodded. He was not used to anyone speaking to him unless it was to heap abuse on him.
Seb smiled at him and Jesse found his voice. “Yes,” he croaked out. “I’m Jesse, Jesse Osterman.”
“Do you live around here?” Sebastian asked.
Something about Sebastian’s quiet voice and his smile melted Jesse’s hard built defenses. “I live over on Wilcox with my mom.”
“Is that anywhere near Maitland?”
Jesse nodded and grinned shyly. “About two blocks. Maitland’s not that long a street, so it’s not too far from me.”
“Cool,” Seb nodded. “Do you walk?”
“Yep. Well, sometimes my mom comes and picks me up, but usually she’s working so I just walk home or I walk to whatever barn she’s working at if it’s close enough.”
“What does your mom do?”
“She’s a trainer at some of the barns around here.”
“What about your dad?”
Jesse’s heart sank; he hated this question and trying to explain about his lack of a father. “I don’t have a dad,” he said quietly.
“Ya, he scared him away,” cackled Jeremy Anderson, a fat boy who sat in front of Seb; he was one of Jesse’s lead tormentors.
Tears started to form in Jesse’s eyes as Seb looked from him to the boy who had spoken. Seb leaned forward and whispered in Jeremy’s ear. “You need to shut up or I’ll shut you up. Understand?” The venom in his tone was obvious and Jeremy for all his false bravado thought he would wet his pants.
Jeremy nodded and turned his attention to the front of the classroom.
Seb turned back to Jesse and smiled at him. “Lunch?” he mouthed.
Jesse smiled back and nodded.
Jesse and Seb spent the rest of the morning whispering back and forth. Jesse was happy to finally have a friend, but his previous experiences made him guarded.
At lunch time, Jesse and Seb found a quiet table away from most of the kids and spent more time quizzing each other.
“So, your mom’s a trainer?” Seb asked.
Jesse nodded since his mouth was full of peanut butter and jelly. He swallowed. “Yes, she works at a bunch of different barns. What do your parents do?”
“My dad just started as General Manager at the Regency Hotel and my mom is a nurse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most of the kids around here, their parents have something to do with horses.”
Seb grinned. “Not me. I’ve never been near one.”
“Yup. Never even been on a pony ride. You have, though.”
Jesse nodded and smiled. “I’ve been riding forever.”
“Do you have your own horse?”
“No, we really can’t afford it,” Jesse replied sadly. “Since I was always at the barns with my mom, a lot of the bigger kids would let me ride their horses. Now, I compete some if someone can’t make it or is sick.”
“Like a substitute?”
Jesse laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m always at the shows with my mom and somehow I always managed to get grabbed to ride.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It’s the best. I love just going as fast as I can and jumping…It’s like flying.”
“I’ll have to come watch you sometime.”
“That would be cool. There are a couple of barns where the owners let me exercise some of the horses if my mom is there–maybe we can meet her at one and I can take you on a ride.”
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Those suckers are big,” Seb answered, his eyes wide.
Jesse chuckled, “I’m the smallest kid in our class and I do it; you’re a lot bigger than me and you already told Jeremy where to shove it. You’re not gonna let a little ol’ horse make you nervous, are you?”
“If it was little, it wouldn’t make me nervous.”
“You’ll be fine. Most of the show horses do run a little hot. But, I’ll see if Mom’s going to Sunrise–there’s a couple there you’ll like.”
“Most of the show horses are warm-blooded and they can be a little wild sometimes, but for the most part they’re cool. But the Arabians and thoroughbreds are hot-blooded and they tend to be more difficult. But Mr. Timms at Sunrise has a couple of Selle Francais that I’ve been riding for about six months and they are so mellow, you’ll love ‘em.”
Seb grinned at his new friend. “You know I didn’t get half of what you said.”
“Don’t worry; if you hang around with me you’ll learn.”
Seb grinned and nodded. “Ok, I’ll trust you, then.”
“Great. I’ll check with Mom, but she usually goes to Sunrise on Thursdays. I’ll make sure. It’s not a far walk from here.”
Jesse was beside himself; he had never had anyone his age to ride with. When he rode at the different farms he either rode by himself or with the high school and college kids. He competed against kids his age, but most of them he only knew from the shows and he never socialized with them.
After school, the boys started walking home. Since they lived so close to one another, Seb asked Jesse if he’d like to come and see his house. Jesse agreed since his mother would not be home until after six.
As the two were talking they were not paying any attention to the path in front of them. Jesse looked up and started to sweat as he saw Jeremy and two of his cronies, Angus and Bruce, blocking the sidewalk.
Seb looked up when Jesse suddenly stopped talking. He saw the three boys and he looked over to Jesse.
“Hey, Jess, don’t let them get to you,” Seb whispered. “They’re just bullies. If you ignore them then they don’t have any power over you.”
“Their power is the fact that they can and do kick my ass,” Jesse replied.
Seb’s eyes narrowed. “They can try,” he said.
The two boys kept walking until the three other boys were blocking their way.
Jesse was frozen to the spot. Seb looked at the three. “Something you want, guys?”
Jeremy sneered at Seb, “You think you’re a tough guy?”
Seb grinned. “No. I just don’t like when people pick on my friends.”
“The shrimp doesn’t have any friends.”
“His name is Jesse. And yes, he does have a friend. He has me. Now get out of our way,” Seb ordered as he started walking forward.
Jesse stayed glued to the spot. He was trying to will Seb to stop, but his new friend kept going.
Angus and Bruce stepped forward and tried to block Seb’s way. Seb just pushed his way past them. Bruce grabbed hold of Seb’s arm.
Seb swung around and grabbed Bruce’s wrist. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” he said quietly, the menace in his voice apparent.
Bruce, being a flunky, did not listen well and tried to grab Seb with his free hand. Seb twisted around and sent Bruce flying onto a nearby lawn. Angus seeing his friend go down, charged at Seb. Seb sidestepped Angus and planted his foot on the boy’s butt as he passed adding to his speed and sending him crashing into Bruce who had been trying to get back to his feet. The two boys fell to the ground tangled together.
Seb turned to Jesse and saw that Jeremy had grabbed Jesse and was twisting his arm behind his back. Jesse grimaced in pain.
Seb saw black. “Let him go,” he ordered in an icy voice.
Jeremy was panicked, but still had to show his bravado. “No, back off.”
Seb walked towards the boys at a slow and steady pace. “That’s not gonna happen, Jeremy.” He caught Jesse’s fear-filled eyes and looked down. Jesse’s eyes followed his and he lifted his foot a little higher than needed. Jeremy shook his head when he realized what Seb was asking. Seb looked Jesse in the eye and nodded slightly. Jesse nodded back, resigned to the fact that he was going to die.
Seb stopped about an arm’s length from Jeremy and Jesse. He looked at Jesse as he spoke to Jeremy. “Jeremy, I don’t wanna hurt you, but if you hurt Jesse, I’m gonna mess you up. So…just…let…him…GO!!” On the last word Seb nodded to Jesse and the smaller boy lifted his foot and brought it down on Jeremy’s as hard as he could.
“Aaargh,” Jeremy yelled in pain. He let go of Jesse for just a moment and Jesse ducked down and Seb’s fist shot forward and connected with Jeremy’s nose sending him reeling backwards. Between the pain in his foot and the blood spurting from his nose, Jeremy was enraged. He regained his balance and charged towards Seb. Seb jumped up and shot his leg out catching Jeremy right in the chest and sending him sprawling onto his two buddies.
The three bullies lay on the lawn in a daze. Seb walked over and leaned over Jeremy and whispered in his ear, “Listen up. Jesse is off limits. If anyone so much as breathes on him, you pay. I don’t care if it’s one of your friends or not, so spread the word. Hands off!!”
Seb walked back to Jesse and the two continued their walk to Seb’s house.
Jesse didn’t say anything for a few blocks. Finally, Seb looked over at him.
“Jesse, are you ok?” Seb asked gently.
Jesse stopped walking and turned to Seb. His emerald eyes were glistening with tears.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “No one’s ever stood up for me before.”
Seb wrapped his arm around Jesse’s shoulder. “Jesse, you’re a good guy and I hate bullies. So, from now on, no one better mess with you. If they do you better let me know.”
“But I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“Don’t worry about that. I only use martial arts for self-defense, but I can usually goad one of those suckers into making the first move,” Seb laughed.
Jesse laughed. A warm feeling of relief washed over him as if suddenly his life was going to be different.
“Here we are,” Seb said as he stopped in front of a large two-story house.
Jesse’s eyes bugged out. “You live here?” he asked. “This place is huge.”
“Not really. Our house in Miami was bigger, but my older brother and sister have gone to college and really aren’t here except for holidays, so my dad decided to get a smaller house when we moved.”
“You have a brother and a sister?”
“Yep; my sister is twenty-one and my brother is nineteen.”
“Wait, how old are you?”
“Well, I’m actually eleven. They kept me back a year between kindergarten and first grade cuz the teachers didn’t think I was ‘mature’ enough to advance.” Seb made air quotes when he said ‘mature’. “That’s why my dad sent me to martial-arts class. To, as he would say, teach me discipline. It had been my mom, dad and sister and brother for so long and then I was a surprise. Basically, they all treated me like I was glass for so long; by the time they sent me to school I couldn’t cope.”
“And now you can really cope,” Jesse laughed.
“Yep. Those classes gave me confidence and, like I said, I hate bullies. I don’t understand why some people can only be happy being mean to other people.”
Jesse nodded; since he was usually on the receiving end of the misery, he agreed with Seb.
The house and yard was surrounded by a big fence. Seb walked over to the gate and started to go through. He ushered Jesse through and made sure the gate was locked. They started up the walk to the house when Seb stopped in front of the door.
“Hey, can you wait out here for a second? I just wanna make sure everything is ok inside, since I wasn’t planning to bring anyone home.”
“Sure,” Jesse said. He went over to a wooden bench that was on the edge of the walk and sat to wait for Seb.
Seb went into the house.
Jesse sat admiring the garden that someone had taken a lot of time with along the walkway and around the house. He turned when he heard some rustling and saw a huge black-and-tan dog come running from around the side of the house.
The dog ran right up to Jesse and put its front feet up on the bench beside him. Jesse reached over and tentatively scratched the dog’s ears. The dog panted, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. The dog turned its head and started licking Jesse’s face. Jesse started laughing as the dog’s tongue bathed his face tickling him in the process.
He heard the door open.
“Kaya!!” he heard Seb yell from the doorway. “There you are.”
The dog jumped down and ran over to Seb. Seb bent down and started rubbing and petting the dog all over her back and stomach.
He looked over to Jesse. “She didn’t hurt you did she?” he asked anxiously.
“Hurt me?” Jesse laughed. “No, she might have drowned me with that tongue, but she’s a sweetheart.”
Seb looked at him like he was nuts. “Are you serious?” he asked. “She didn’t bark or growl or bare her teeth at you?”
“No, she came up and hopped up on the bench; I patted her and she started licking me.”
“Wow. That’s a first.”
“What do you mean?”
“She hates everyone.”
“Well, she doesn’t hate you.”
“Well, no, but she’s my dog, I’ve had her since she was a puppy, but I’m the only one she likes. She tolerates my parents cuz occasionally they feed her, but she hates my brother with a passion and I usually have to make sure she’s locked in the den or my parents’ room when friends come over.”
“Well, the last time I had friends over and she was loose she almost took a bite out of one of them.”
“She’s very protective of me and a friend of mine and I were wrestling, just playing really, and she thought he was hurting me and I almost wasn’t able to stop her. After that my dad said no friends over unless I make sure she’s locked up.”
“I can’t believe that we’re talking about the same dog. She’s a Rottweiler, right?”
“Well, she was sweet enough to me,” Jesse said as he stood up from the bench and got down on one knee. “Kaya…” he called. “C’mere, girl.”
Kaya looked at Jesse and trotted over to him and rested her head on his knee as he rubbed her head and ears.
“Who says you’re a meanie?” Jesse giggled as the dog rolled over and he scratched her belly.
Seb just stood in shock. “Do you have a dog?” he asked.
“Nope, we live in an apartment, so if we did it would have to be one of those little yapping things. If I had one I want a big one like this.”
“You must have some strong mojo if she likes you.”
“Maybe she just knows she has nothing to fear from me.”
“Could be, but she could take out just about anyone. Maybe she just knows that you are my friend and I’m going to do what I can to protect you–maybe she senses that.” Seb just shook his head. “I don’t know, but let’s get inside; it’s too hot out here.”
They spent the afternoon playing video games and doing homework. The next two days they did the same thing and then on Thursday afternoon, Jesse brought Seb to the Sunrise Farms, his favorite of the farms that his mom trained at.
First, Jesse led Seb to a changing room at one of the barns so he could change into his riding clothes. Seb sat on a bench while Jesse went to his locker and pulled out his stuff. He quickly changed into his breeches, tall boots, t-shirt and gloves and he carried his helmet. He handed a second helmet to Seb.
Seb looked at the helmet. “I have to wear this?”
Jesse grinned. “Yes, you do,” he said, nodding. “Florida state law. Anyone under the age of eighteen has to wear a helmet.”
Seb took a good look at Jesse. “I don’t have to wear any of that stuff do I?” He was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers.
Jesse laughed and shook his head. “Nope. You’re good. If you ride more often, you might wanna get some boots and half chaps.”
“What are half chaps?”
“They’re like shin guards,” Jesse tried to explain, but Seb looked more confused. “Ok, see my boots?’ Seb nodded. “They’re tall boots since they come all the way up to right below my knees. This protects my calves when I’m riding, cuz they can get rubbed raw. Some people wear yard boots; they are more like shoes, so they use half chaps which wrap around your calves and protect them.”
“Ok.” Seb was still not sure, but he was ready to get going.
Jesse led him into the barn. He walked up to an older man who was holding two horses.
“Hi, Jesse,” the man said.
“Hey, Mr. Timms, how are you today?”
“Pretty good, son.”
“Mr. Timms, this is my friend, Sebastian, but you can call him Seb.” Jesse gestured between the two. Seb, this is Mr. Timms, he’s the barn manager here.”
“Nice to meet you, Seb,” Mr. Timms said, offering his hand.
“You, too, sir,” Seb answered shaking Mr. Timm’s hand.
“So they’re all set for you, Jesse,” Mr. Timms said, handing Jesse the reins for the two horses that stood with him. “Anything else you need, I’ll be in the office or around somewhere.”
“Ok, thanks, Mr. Timms.”
“Anytime, son,” Mr. Timms said winking at Jesse. “You know these two behave their best for you,” he added as he walked away.
Jesse turned to Seb and gestured to the two horses. “Sebastian, meet Peter and Wendy,” he said waving at the two horses. They were identical in size and coloring. Both were a rich auburn with dark manes and tails.
“Wendy and Peter?” Seb asked as he slowly approached the horse closest to him. He reached out and tentatively stroked the horse’s neck.
“Yep,” Jesse giggled. “Peter Pan and Wendy Darling…like the movie.”
Seb rolled his eyes. “Who names their horse that?”
“Well, these are show horses, so they tend to have fancy or memorable names.”
“What kind of horses did you say they were?”
“You know that means nothing to me, right?”
Jesse laughed. “They are French Warmbloods. Selle Francais is the French term for that. They are great show horses and jumpers. These two are awesome. A lot of them are really flighty and skittish, but Peter and, especially Wendy, are so mellow and fun to ride.”
“What did Mr. Timms mean that they behave for you?” Seb asked as the horse he was stroking started nuzzling his hand.
“Well, you know how everyone thinks Kaya is mean or that she hates everyone?”
“Well, when these two came in they gave their trainer a hard time. Rearing, throwing a couple riders, bolting.” As Jesse listed the pair’s ‘crimes’ Seb’s eyes got wider and wider and he moved away from the horse he was petting. Jesse noticed and laughed. “But then they called my mom–well actually they called my mom for me.”
“Yep. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had this connection with some of the horses. They put me on the ones who cause the most trouble and somehow, they always seem to behave for me.”
“So, if you’re not the one riding these two how are they?” Seb asked nervously.
Jesse grinned. He thought it was funny that his self-appointed protector was so nervous.
“They’re great. Since I started working with them they haven’t been a problem at all. They just need to know that someone loves them and understands them.”
“Maybe that’s what Kaya sees in you, too.”
Jesse shrugged his shoulders. “Could be.”
Seb went back to stroking the horse he had been petting before. He looked closely at the horse. “Hey, where’s the handle?”
“The handle on the saddle.”
Jesse started laughing so hard he doubled over. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. It’s not a ‘handle’, it’s called a saddle horn and they are only on western saddles. These are show jumpers–they wear English saddles.”
Seb looked at the saddle again and nervously asked. “So, then what do I hold on to?”
“You don’t. The saddle horn on a western saddle is not there to hold onto, it’s actually there cuz that’s where the cowboys wrapped their ropes when they were roping cattle. When you ride English it’s all about balance. Don’t worry; I’m not going to have you go any faster than a walk until you are ready.”
Seb still looked nervous as he nodded. “Ok.”
“C’mon,” Jesse laughed as he led both horses out of the barn.
Seb walked alongside Jesse. They walked over to a large fenced in ring. Jesse asked Seb to open the gate and Jesse led the two horses in.
There were some ropes with clips on the end tied to the fence. Jesse led one of the horses over to the fence and clipped the rope to its bridle, the other horse he led back to the gate where Seb was waiting.
“Ok,” Jesse started. “I’m gonna warm Peter up, and show you some of what he can do. Then you can try Wendy.”
Seb nodded, afraid if he spoke his voice would reveal the fear he was feeling.
Jesse led the horse over to what looked like a plastic stepstool. He stopped Peter so he stood next to the stool and pulled down the stirrups on both sides of the saddle. He strapped on his helmet and stepped up on the block, put his left foot in the stirrup and threw his leg over.
Seb watched fascinated as his little friend rode around the arena. It was amazing to him that someone so small and so timid could be absolutely fearless around these enormous animals. He knew horses were supposed to be gentle, and these two were beautiful, but their size intimidated him.
Jesse rode Peter around the arena for about twenty minutes as Seb watched. He would often stop to explain to Seb what he was doing or how the horse moved. Seb was following along and getting more and more anxious to try it himself. Then Jesse decided to show him some jumps and when Seb saw that he knew it was something he had to try.
Jesse rode over to where Seb was waiting and hopped down. He led Peter over to the fence where Wendy waited and clipped him to the fence. He unclipped Wendy and took her over to Seb.
Jesse whispered to the mare as he led her over to Seb, “Look, no funny business, ok? I want you to take good care of Seb; he’s the first real friend I’ve had in a long time.”
Jesse stopped in front of Seb. He had Seb take Wendy’s reins and lead her over to the mounting block. He showed Seb how to make sure the girth was tight enough and get his stirrups ready and he showed him how to mount.
Seb was nervous when he first got on the big horse, but after she started moving and he got used to it, he knew he would be back. And he was.
After that day, Seb would come to Sunrise Farms with Jesse at least two afternoons a week and often on Saturday and Sunday if there were no-shows. While Seb never became anywhere near as good a rider as Jesse, he did get to the point where he could jump and probably could have shown had he wanted to. He liked riding for the fun of it and only went to shows to cheer Jesse on.
Over the next few years, Jesse and Seb’s friendship grew. Word quickly got around school that Seb was Jesse’s protector and what he was capable of if riled.
Between the day they met in the fourth grade and the last day of ninth grade, Seb grew several more inches until he was just shy of six feet tall. He continued to study martial arts and exercised religiously so he was very muscular. He pushed Jesse to exercise, but since Jesse was starting with a smaller frame, bulging muscles were not in the cards. Jesse did however grow a few more inches. By the time he was fifteen he was 5’8”. He was slender but not skinny–his muscles more elongated than Seb’s.
As they walked home after the last day of school, Seb was commiserating with Jesse. They were spending the summer apart for the first time since they met.
Seb was heading for summer camp where he would be working as a counselor. He was looking forward to the experience, but didn’t like the idea of leaving Jesse on his own, since some of the kids they went to school with seemed to grow meaner…and dumber with time.
Jesse was staying in Wellington. He was offered an apprenticeship by Mr. Timms to work with the trainers. His mother was happy for him to get the experience. She was also happy that she’d have time to spend with her fiancé, Roger, another local trainer. She had been dating Roger for about six months and they were getting married on Saturday.
Jesse did not like Roger; he felt he was a phony. From the first time he came to take his mom out, Roger always acted like he wanted to be around Jesse and take him places, but the vibe that Jesse got from him made him very uncomfortable.
Seb tried to get Jesse to lighten up; he wasn’t a huge fan of Roger either, but he knew that Roger made Jesse’s mom happy, so he thought they should at least give him a chance. Seb was hanging around long enough to attend the wedding and then he was leaving for camp on Sunday and would not be back until mid-August.
The wedding was a small affair. Just Elizabeth and Roger, Jesse and Seb and a few of Elizabeth’s friends. They were married in front of a Justice of the Peace and had a small reception at a local restaurant. They were only taking a short trip to Miami for their honeymoon.
Jesse spent the night at Seb’s so he could spend as much time with him as possible before he left in the morning.
That night the two lay on Seb’s queen-sized bed with Kaya stretched out between them as they had done a hundred times before.
“So, Blondie, you gonna miss me?” Seb asked jokingly.
“Nope, Cisco, not a bit,” Jesse teased. “I figure I’m gonna go find me some real friends.”
“Oh, yeah…” Seb responded as he reached around Kaya and grabbed Jesse. He pulled Jesse over to his side of the bed and began to tickle him. Jesse squirmed and laughed trying to break Seb’s hold. Kaya jumped off the bed and barked at the two boys. If it had been anyone other than Jesse wrestling with Seb she would have been at their throat, but for whatever reason she was as protective of Jesse as she was of Seb.
The two boys wrestled on the bed. When they finally tired, Jesse was laying on top of Seb and looking into his friend’s deep brown eyes. Jesse suddenly felt a warmth in his stomach that he had never felt. Seb lay there panting; he closed his eyes and Jesse looked at his face. Jesse felt a stirring in him. He looked at Seb’s lips and he couldn’t help himself. He dipped his head and kissed his friend on the lips.
Seb’s eyes popped open. For a minute he didn’t know what was happening. Jesse had his eyes closed and was still kissing him. Seb got caught up in the moment and wrapped his arms around Jesse and returned the kiss.
Both boys closed their eyes and melted into each other. Seb opened his mouth and licked around Jesse’s lips. Jesse parted his lips and gave Seb entrance. The two explored each other’s mouth with their tongues.
They lay there kissing for what seemed like forever, but was actually only a few minutes. When they broke apart, it suddenly dawned on Jesse what he had done.
He jumped off the bed and ran into Seb’s bathroom. Seb ran after him and caught the door just before Jesse could shut it.
Jesse cowered in the corner of the bathroom. He started to cry. “I’m sorry, Seb,” he cried. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Seb walked over to Jesse, reached down and pulled Jesse to his feet. He laid his hand on Jesse’s cheek and with his thumb wiped some stray tears from his face. He bent and kissed Jesse gently on the forehead. He wrapped his arms around Jesse and pulled him into a hug.
“Jess, you dope, I was right there with you. Did you happen to notice that?”
Jesse wrapped his arms around Seb and hugged him tight. “Yes,” he said into Seb’s chest. “But I thought you were just going along.”
Seb chuckled. “Jesse, it was a kiss. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little surprised, but I’d also be lying if I said I never thought about it.”
Jesse was shocked. “You have?”
“Well, yeah, you’re my best friend, but you’re more than that to me. I think I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you. But, I didn’t want to put any pressure on you and I wasn’t sure if you felt the same way.”
“How could I not?” Jesse asked. “You’ve always been there for me. I’ve been fighting these feelings for so long. But, if you knew I was…”
“Yes,” sighed Jesse. “I figured if you knew I was gay you wouldn’t want to hang with me anymore, and I couldn’t take losing you.”
Seb hugged Jesse even tighter and whispered in his ear, “You’ll never lose me, I’m yours forever.”
Jesse pulled back and looked into Seb’s eyes. “You mean…”
Seb nodded as he leaned in and kissed Jesse gently on the lips. Unlike the passionate kiss of a few minutes ago, this was a tender lover’s kiss that told Jesse that Seb was not playing with him, that they would be together forever.
Seb broke the kiss and took Jesse’s hand and led him back to the bedroom. He turned down the covers and lifted Jesse and placed him on the middle of the bed. He slipped in next to Jesse and pulled up the covers and snuggled into his newly christened boyfriend. For once, Kaya had to make do with sleeping on the side of the bed as nothing was going to come between Seb and Jesse again.
Seb held Jesse close while they slept. He knew that he loved Jesse more than anything and that when this summer was over he would never leave him again.
The next morning, Jesse and Seb shared a few passionate kisses before they had to get up and shower so that Seb could pack and his parents could take him to the airport.
Seb promised Jesse that he would e-mail him every day and they said a private goodbye in Seb’s room before going downstairs.
Jesse promised to come and visit Kaya a few days a week since the dog would miss Seb all summer and Jesse was the only other person she seemed to care about.
Jesse’s summer went slowly; his mother and Roger returned from their honeymoon and Roger moved into their apartment.
Almost immediately Jesse became concerned about Roger. He had always been a little ‘off’, but as soon as he moved in he started becoming mean as well. Never to Elizabeth only to Jesse.
It started slowly. Roger would yell at Jesse for leaving his boots or his gloves in the living room–something that Jesse had always done. He would get after Jesse for not taking a proper phone message. One day he was upset because Jesse had not done a load of laundry, even though Jesse had been working at his apprenticeship since six in the morning. It was always when it was just the two of them, never when Elizabeth was at home. But since she was working long hours this summer and Roger was not, he and Jesse were alone a lot.
Jesse tried to just deal with it. He knew that his mom had made a lot of sacrifices for him and he didn’t want to make waves when she had a chance at happiness.
He also decided not to tell Seb anything, so he would not get upset.
The first time Roger struck Jesse was about three weeks after the wedding. Jesse had just gotten home from a long day at Sunrise and he was bushed. Roger had apparently spent the day lounging around and drinking. He told Jesse to get him a beer. Jesse responded that he could get it himself. Before he knew what was happening, Roger jumped up and slapped Jesse across the face.
Jesse was stunned, never in his whole life had his mother ever raised a hand to him. He turned and walked to his room.
A few minutes later, Roger was at his bedroom door. He apologized to Jesse and told him he didn’t know what had happened. He started to tell him that he was feeling down since his job prospects had dried up, but that was no excuse for what he had done.
Jesse decided to treat it as an isolated incident and not say anything to his mother.
Jesse and Roger settled into an uneasy détente over the next week or so.
In early July, things took another turn. Jesse came home from a day at the farm. He was in a great mood. He was working with two new horses and both were coming along great. He was learning a lot about training and Mt. Timms was teaching him about barn management as well.
Jesse was surprised to see his mom and Roger waiting for him in the living room.
His mother’s eyes were red and it was obvious she had been crying. For a fleeting moment, Jesse hoped they were there to tell him about their divorce. He was not pleased with himself for thinking that, but Roger was a dick.
His mother told him to sit down and then told him that she had had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon to follow up on some tests. Her doctor had noticed some abnormalities in tests she had done right before the wedding and today she had new tests that confirmed the doctor’s initial findings.
Jesse’s whole world started to crumble as his mother told him she had pancreatic cancer. She would be checking into the hospital in the morning for surgery and then the doctors would decide on a course of treatment for her.
Jesse bit his lip so that he would not cry in front of his mother. He wanted to put up a brave front for her. He went and sat with her on the couch and hugged her.
That night he e-mailed Seb about what was happening and cried himself to sleep.
Over the next several weeks, things became even more tense. After her surgery, Elizabeth’s doctors determined that she had stage four cancer and that she had no more than six months to live. She kept this from Jesse, trying to keep his spirits up and give him hope. Since she was unaware of the way Roger treated Jesse, she thought her son would be in good hands after her passing.
With Elizabeth in and out of the hospital, things quickly went from bad to worse between Roger and Jesse. Roger laid into Jesse for the smallest infraction and hit him more and more often. Jesse felt he had no other choice then to suffer in silence. His mom was fighting for her life and he couldn’t add to that. All he had to do was make it until Seb got back in a few weeks. Seb’s parents loved him and he knew they would take him in.
Jesse found himself spending more and more time away from home. He would arrive at the farm before sunrise and work all day. He would try to stay as late as possible. On those days when Mr. Timms chased him off, he would go to Seb’s house and take Kaya for long walks. He had fantasies about taking Kaya home with him and turning her loose on Roger. He knew the dog would defend him the same way she would defend Seb.
One night in mid-August when he brought Kaya back from a long walk, Seb’s mom told Jesse that Seb would be a week longer then they originally planned. He was going to stay with some cousins in Miami so that his parents could go on a second honeymoon.
Jesse’s heart sank–another week of Roger.
Jesse watched his mother deteriorate before his eyes. She was getting weaker and weaker. He kept telling himself it was her treatments and that she would get better. She wouldn’t leave him with Roger.
Several times he almost told her about Roger and his ‘moods’ but his conscience always got the better of him. He couldn’t do that to her in her state–it wasn’t fair. He had to protect her.
Jesse received an e-mail from Seb; he was at his cousins’ and would be home in just two days.
Jesse couldn’t contain himself any longer. He wrote Seb a long e-mail telling him everything that had happened that summer. He told him he was sorry for not saying anything sooner but he didn’t want Seb to worry when he couldn’t do anything about it.
Seb wrote back almost immediately:
I knew something was up, you didn’t seem like yourself. I’ll be home day after tomorrow and we will fix this. I am meeting my parents at the airport and I will tell them everything and you will come and stay with us. Always remember, I love you.
Jesse finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel; all he had to do was make it through one more day.
The day finally arrived and Jesse was on pins and needles waiting for the call from Seb. It never came.
When he got home from the farm, he called Seb’s home number and no one answered. He thought maybe Seb’s plane or his parents’ plane was delayed. Well, he could make it one more night. He’d hear from Seb in the morning.
When another day passed without seeing Seb, Jesse was becoming worried. After work he walked over to Seb’s house. His parents had put Kaya in a kennel while they were away, but Jesse figured she would be back by now. He was surprised that she had not come running around the house to greet him.
He rang the bell. At first he thought maybe no one was home and then the door opened.
On the other side of the door was Seb’s sister, Dani. She looked like she had been crying.
“Hey, Dani.” Jesse said. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Is Seb home? I was expecting him to call me.”
Dani looked at Jesse and started crying.
“Dani, who’s at the door?” Seb’s brother Isaac came to the door. “Hey, Jess,” he said quietly.
“Hey, Isaac. Where’s Seb?”
Dani started crying harder and ran back into the house.
Isaac walked outside and closed the door behind him. Jesse liked Isaac; he had always been very nice to him.
Isaac wrapped his arm around Jesse’s shoulder and led him to the bench by the walk.
Isaac sat on the bench and motioned for Jesse to join him. Jesse was not sure what was going on.
“Isaac, where’s Seb? He was supposed to call me the other day when he got back; he was helping me with some stuff.”
“Jesse, Seb’s not here,” Isaac said, his eyes filling with tears
“Ok, where is he? I really need to talk to him.”
Isaac wrapped his arm around Jesse’s shoulder and pulled the younger boy closer.
“Jess, Seb’s not coming back.”
“What do you mean? Isaac, where is he?”
“The night before he was supposed to come back, Seb went out to a movie with my cousins and some friends of theirs at the local mall. When they got there was a couple of boys who were being harassed by some older kids. It looks like they were picking on the boys cuz they were gay–we don’t know. Well, you know Seb…”
Jesse nodded. “He hates bullies.”
“Yes, so my cousins tried to stop him, but he stepped in between the boys and the bullies. He tried to talk to them, but the older kids rushed Seb. Well, you know what Seb is like in a fight. He pretty much handed those guys their heads. Seb had the younger boys come with him and my cousins and they went to see the movie and then get something to eat.” Isaac started to choke up. “When they came out of the mall, the older guys were waiting. One of them called over to Seb, he tried to ignore him but three of them jumped him. He fought back and my cousins tried to help him, but one of the guys had a gun. There was a struggle between him and Seb and the gun went off…” Isaac’s voice trailed to a whisper.
Jesse sat in silence. “So, which hospital is he in? I want to see him.”
Isaac was crying hard as he choked out. “He’s not in the hospital, Jesse, he didn’t make it.”
“What do you mean?” Jesse cried as he struggled with the reality of what Isaac had told him. “You mean he’s…”
Isaac grabbed Jesse in a hug, “Yes, Jesse, he’s gone.”
“NO!!!” Jesse screamed as he struggled to break free of Isaac’s embrace. “NO!!! He can’t be!!”
When he couldn’t break free of Isaac, Jesse slumped into his arms and cried.
The two sat on the bench clutching at one another while they grieved.
When both had composed themselves, Isaac sat back, still holding Jesse.
“I know, Jesse.”
“Know what?” Jesse sniffled.
“I know about you and Seb.” Isaac whispered.
“Seb called me from the airport the day he left for camp. He was so excited. He had told me before how he felt about you, but he had been scared of pushing you. He was so happy. Thank you.”
“For always being there for my baby brother, for loving him.”
“But he was the one who protected me.”
“Jesse, Seb was always the baby of the family, he always was over-protected by all of us; when he met you, you triggered something in him that first day. I can remember him calling me at school the day he met you; he was so excited to a have, as he put it, a real friend. I think when Kaya didn’t try to eat you that first day, was probably when he started to fall in love with you.”
“I think the first time I put him on Wendy is when I knew I loved him.”
Isaac laughed, “That’s one thing I’ll always regret–I never saw him ride. He loved it, you know. At first, he was doing it just for you, but in the end, he loved it.”
Jesse smiled and nodded as he began to cry again.
A thought hit Jesse. “Isaac, what about Kaya?”
“I don’t know, Jess. She’s till at the kennel right now; my parents are a wreck and we have Seb’s…funeral…tomorrow. I don’t know what they’ll do with her. You are really the only one she’ll listen to besides Seb. Do you want to take her?”
“I would, but my apartment won’t let us have big dogs.”
“Let me talk to my parents; maybe they’ll keep her for a bit and you can come over and take care of her until they figure something out.”
“Sure. I can do that for them…and Seb.”
Isaac smiled warmly at his brother’s love. He would always think of Seb as the little boy who followed him around their house as a toddler, but he was happy that Seb had known true love at least once in his life.
“You said tomorrow was Seb’s…”
“His funeral. Yes, it’s a St. Francis’ at 10:00.”
“Is it ok if I go?”
“Of course, Jesse, you have to be there. It’s what Seb would have wanted and I know my parents and Dani and I want it as well. If you want to meet us here at 8:30 you can go with us.”
“Are you sure?”
Isaac nodded. “Jesse, I know Seb was only sixteen and you’re only fifteen, but he loved you more than anyone or anything. My parents know that, and they will want you there. Ok?”
Jesse nodded. “Ok.”
“Are you gonna be ok?” Isaac asked gently.
“I don’t know,” Jesse answered honestly. “Seb meant so much to me, thinking of him coming back is all that got me through this summer. Now, I don’t know what to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isaac, you all have always been great to me and I love your family, but right now is not the time to deal with my problems. I need to go. Is it ok if I go to the kennel and visit Kaya?”
“That’s fine. I’ll call them and tell them that you are good to take her out; I’m sure she misses you guys.”
Jesse stood up and hugged Isaac one last time and then walked back down the walkway and out the front gate.
He walked to the kennel. The lady who ran it had just talked to Isaac and let him take Kaya out for a walk. Jesse took her to Seb’s and his favorite spot in the park. He played with Kaya for a while and then sat under a large tree and watched the dog run around. After a few minutes, Kaya ran over to Jesse. Jesse reached out and hugged the big dog and buried his face in her neck and sobbed.
Seb’s funeral was the hardest thing Jesse ever went through. Seb’s family treated Jesse like he was a member and had him sit with them and stand with them in the reception line.
After the funeral, Isaac told him that he was going to get Kaya and bring her to his parents’ house and that he could come and see her anytime and when he was ready, she was his to take.
Jesse thanked him.
Isaac dropped Jesse off at home after the funeral. When he walked into the apartment, he was hit by the smell of stale beer and cigarettes.
Roger was sitting in the dark, several empty beer cans around him and an ashtray filled with cigarette butts.
Jesse tried to slip into his room, but Roger stopped him. Roger told him that his mother had slipped into a coma that morning and the doctors felt it was only a matter of hours.
Jesse couldn’t take anymore. Roger screamed at him that he was going to be Jesse’s only parent and Jesse needed to toe the line or there would be hell to pay.
Jesse ran to his room and slammed and locked the door. Roger pounded on the door, yelling and cursing at Jesse.
Jesse grabbed his backpack and started filling it with all the clothes he thought he could carry. He grabbed his wallet and debit card. He was glad that he had had his mom co-sign his bank account so he could get a debit card and that he had saved all the money he had earned that summer at the farm.
Jesse stripped off the dress clothes he had worn to the funeral and hurriedly pulled on some shorts and a t-shirt. He was just tying his sneakers when he heard a crash and saw Roger standing in the doorway, next to the broken bedroom door.
Roger lunged for him. Jesse rolled off the bed and bounded to his feet. Roger came after him. Jesse tried to run for the door, but Roger grabbed the back of jeans and pulled him down. Roger’s fist connected with Jesse’s face. Jesse was dazed for second and fell backward onto the bed. He rolled off the bed and hit the floor. Roger began punching and kicking him. He tried to roll away, but his ribs and side were killing him. He thought about crawling under the bed. He looked to see if he would make it and he saw a trophy that he had won at a show. It was lying just within reach. He reached under the bed and took hold of the trophy. He kicked out and hit Roger’s knee with all the strength he could muster. Roger screamed as he stopped kicking at Jesse and grabbed his knee. Jesse used the few seconds he had to jump to his feet. Roger stood up and started walking towards him. Jesse took a two handed grip on the trophy and swung it for all he was worth. He caught Roger on the side of the head and the big man went down.
Once Roger was down, Jesse didn’t really care if he was dead or alive, he just wanted to get the hell out of there.
He grabbed his backpack and ran from the bedroom and out of the apartment.
He ran to the hospital. When he got there he asked one of the nurses who knew him if he could see his mom. The nurse led him into his mother’s room. She was hooked up to so many machines and she was so pale and emaciated.
Jesse spoke to her for a few minutes, telling her he was sorry and he loved her.
No one noticed him slip out of the room and leave the hospital.
He walked to Seb’s house. At the door, he was greeted by Seb’s mom who grabbed him in a big hug. She asked about the bruise that was starting to show on his face. He told her had gotten caught by an errant football walking through the park.
He asked if he could take Kaya for a walk. Seb’s mother thought that would be good for Kaya as she seemed to be missing Seb terribly.
Jesse also handed Seb’s mom a note that he had written at the hospital and asked her to give it to Isaac.
Jesse took Kaya on her leash and walked out the front gate.
That was the last time anyone in Wellington saw Jesse or Kaya.
A few days later, Isaac received a letter that his mother forwarded to him from Jesse. She was concerned that Jesse had never come back with Kaya and no one had heard from him.
Isaac opened the letter:
By the time you get this, I will be gone. I don’t know where I am going, but I need to get as far away from here as possible. My mom is probably gone by now and without Seb, I can’t take it. I’ll either end up in a home or worse with Roger. Though I don’t know for sure, I think I might have killed him.
I’m taking Kaya with me. I know I should have asked and I’m sorry that I stole her, but she is all I have left of Seb and I need her.
Don’t worry about me, Kaya will protect me like Seb always did.
In your dreams, if you talk to Seb tell him to always remember, I love him.
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