Gerard was eight years old the very first time he got hurt. He’d been injured before, scuffed knees, grazed palms, the usual bumps and knocks obtained by any small boy allowed to run around outside, play with sticks, and taught to ride a bike. But he’d never really been hurt before. He would whimper, maybe cry. His mother or father would kiss it better, apply plasters, chocolate, or ice cream, and send him back on his way.
That day, he’d been at school, sitting on the grass and wolfing down his lunch so he could go and play football with some of the older boys. They would probably let him stand in the goal, and if he was good, he might get to try for a few kicks too. He ate as fast as he could, and then the pain came.
It blossomed up his shin like he’d been kicked, far more painful than a simple trip and fall. Gerard dropped the remains of his sandwich and clutched his leg as the agony radiated up his shin. He cried and yelled out, an action which caused several of his friends and a teacher to come running over. As suddenly as the pain had come, it faded, lingering only as a faint pulse alongside his heartbeat. It was with trepidation that Gerard rolled up the leg of his trousers, the teacher frowning when he explained he hadn’t known what happened.
“Who hit you?”
“No one, miss.” Gerard wasn’t in the habit of lying to anyone, and simply stared down at his shin. “I was just sitting here.”
“Well… I think you’d best come along with me, and we’ll put some ice on it.”
Dutifully, Gerard gathered his things, looked forlornly at the football game which he wouldn’t get a chance to join, then trotted off after his teacher. His leg didn’t hurt, he didn’t limp, and the pain was gone completely, but it had left its mark. By the time Gerard was settled in a plastic chair in the medical room with an ice pack, half listening to the conversation through the wall, his leg was marred with an ugly purple-black bruise bigger than his hand.
“He says nothing, but it looks like someone hit him, really hard.”
“More like kicked…” the other teacher replied.
“Maybe… you’d have to been wearing steel toe caps to leave a mark like that though.” She sighed heavily, and Gerard could hear the worry in the two voices as they talked about him. “It couldn’t have happened out on the field.”
“Do you think we should get his parents in?”
“Let me go talk to him first.”
Gerard returned to holding the ice pack over his bruise, like he’d been instructed, but he didn’t understand why. The pain was gone, and his leg wasn’t swollen, just brightly coloured.
“So, do you want to tell me what happened?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t hurt.” Gerard dropped the ice pack onto the chair next to him. “I’m OK. Can’t I go play football instead?”
“No, sweetie. Sorry.” The teacher who took Gerard’s class sometimes for outdoor activities crouched down in front of him with a soft smile. Gerard had always liked her. “Are you sure your leg doesn’t hurt?”
She frowned, and Gerard knew she didn’t believe him.
“Did someone hurt you? Was it one of the bigger boys? Or maybe something happened at home?”
“No!” Gerard wrapped his arms tightly around his chest, and chewed his bottom lip. “I want to go outside. It’s playtime.”
“Well… alright. Just be careful, OK Gerard?”
Gerard had been too late to join in the football game, so had watched the girls playing hopscotch and eaten the rest of his lunch. His dad had packed him a granola bar and salt and vinegar crisps, and he shared with Desmond when his friend jogged over from the game.
Gerard watched his friend eat his crisps. He didn’t have any way to explain the dark bruise on his leg which should have hurt still, so he didn’t try. He wanted to rub his shin, even though it didn’t ache, the memory of the pain distracting him from whatever Desmond was saying about football.
All afternoon he found it hard to concentrate. During golden time Gerard elected to draw, rather than play Frisbee with Desmond. He concentrated hard on the picture of the big brown horse rather than the strange mark on his leg.
His teacher made him wait until last to be let out, and then waved his parents over to the classroom. Gerard sighed, because all his friends were running around outside, and he wanted to play chase too.
“Can I go play, please dad?”
“Sure thing, Ger.”
Gerard hugged his dad’s thigh for a moment then went to join his friends. He glanced back towards the classroom, and his mother was frowning as his teacher talked. Already he knew they were worried about him.
On the way home, he held his mother’s hand and chatted about his day, told his parents about Maths, and the Science project where they were exploring the solar system on an imaginary magical bus. He was very proud of his drawing of the horse. It was only a matter of time before they asked about his leg.
“So what happened at lunch time, sweetie?”
“Ger… answer your mother.”
“I got hurt.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t doing anything,” he added quickly, “just eating lunch. And my leg hurt.” He smiled at his parents in turn, and closed his eyes happily when his father ruffled his hair. He didn’t tell them about the sick lurching feeling in his stomach, or the sense of doom as the pain had faded. “It’s fine now.”
“But you have a bruise?”
“Just… you’ll tell us if it happens again, right?”
Gerard went home and watched his dad stick his horse drawing to the fridge with a couple of magnets. He meant to keep his promise, but it didn’t happen again, and so he forgot.
“You got a new bike!” Desmond stood on his front steps looking jealous, and holding a card in his hand. “Happy birthday, Ger.”
“Thanks.” Gerard grinned, and tucked the card into the back pocket of his jeans. Having his birthday on the very last day of the summer would mean he was the youngest kid in his year, and soon the youngest kid in the entire school. But he also had a brand new bright red bike, a helmet to match, and the whole day to spend with his best friend.
“C’mon then, let’s ride!”
For a pair of eleven year old boys with bikes, the world was limitless. They cycled as fast as they could down roads which saw maybe three cars during rush hour, panted and struggled up hills just so they could take to the fields and watch grass and dirt flick up under their tyres as they pedalled hard over the rough ground. Gerard wove in huge loops as they free-wheeled down again, weaving around his best friend, enjoying the last day of the summer holiday.
And then it happened. Gerard felt his stomach turn, a moment of weird weightlessness where he couldn’t breathe, and then pain crashed through his head, neck and shoulder. He screamed, swerved, and a moment later was trying to pull his arms up over his head as the bike came out from underneath him. He landed hard on the gritty surface of the road, his elbow stinging with the sudden shock even as the other pain faded.
“Ger? You OK?”
“Yeah….” Gerard panted hard, looking back the way they had come, trying to see something which had made him lose balance and crash, but there was nothing there. His vision swam momentarily.
“Dude… you’re bleeding. Did you hit your head?”
Gerard unbuckled his helmet, but the glossy red surface was unmarked. He touched his hair, and his fingers came away wet, warm, and dark.
“I… I have no idea.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Gerard wiped his hand over his head again, and though there was a smear of blood, it was less than before. “It already stopped.”
Desmond hadn’t said anything else about it, but the celebratory mood was ruined. At Gerard’s front gate, he waved his best friend off, knowing they would see each other the following day, wearing uniform and everything, ready to start big school. Gerard sat the birthday card from his best friend on the mantelpiece next to others from his parents and family, and shut himself in the bathroom before anyone saw him.
In the mirror, he looked pale. The blood stood out on his skin and made his blond hair dark and sticky. Carefully, he wiped the worst of it away with a damp flannel, and located he mark on his head. There was no wound, just a jagged red mark about as long as his thumb; the graze on his elbow from falling off the bike was worse. Pulling his shirt aside, Gerard frowned at his reflection in the big mirror. There were more red marks on his shoulder, as though he’d hit something with force, and a bruise on his upper arm. It was nowhere near as dark as the one which had marked his shin for weeks years previously. Gerard chewed his lip, combed his hair with his fingers, and decided not to tell his parents why he’d fallen off his brand new bike. The truth was, he didn’t even really know.
It was winter when the dreams started.
Cold, like he’d never felt before; a view made of hard frost and field fences which looked flimsy against the grey sky. Gerard felt something soft and warm pressing against his back, or his shoulder, or his neck. Every time he turned around, he felt he had just missed the person who had stood there. Every time he woke, he felt suddenly and inexplicably lonely. Whenever Gerard closed his eyes at night, he hoped the dreams would come again, because standing in the cold field with some unseen person breathing hot against his skin, he’d never felt happier.
School was good. Gerard took his red bike to Desmond’s house and waited for his friend to finish pulling on his coat, reminded him when the other boy forgot his English book, or his homework, or his helmet, and they cycled together to the big school on the edge of town which was starting to feel familiar and safe. Gerard was still the youngest kid in his year, but he wasn’t the shortest. they’d been there two terms, long enough to know their way around the complicated building.
It was a Friday when they left Tutor together and sat down in the back of an Ethics lesson to copy down the date and title.
What are Dreams?
“Miss?” A girl near the front of the class had her hand up, but hadn’t waited to be called upon before she spoke. “Aren’t dreams just hopes of what you want to achieve in life?”
“No, Molly, though that is one meaning of the word. We’re going to be talking about the dreams you have when you’re asleep.”
“Good dreams or bad dreams?” asked another boy.
“Bad dreams aren’t dreams – they’re nightmares,” Molly said smugly.
“Actually, both kinds. Many psychologists think bad dreams and good dreams are equally important. Now, to start us off, I want you to write about a dream you’ve had recently, good or bad. You don’t need to describe what happened in the dream, though you can if you want to share. Tell us how it made you feel. We won’t be sharing these with the class, so it doesn’t matter how weird you think your dreams are. I guarantee someone somewhere has had a stranger dream than yours.”
There was an assembled groan from the students, but pretty quickly, everyone got pens in hands, and knuckled down. Desmond glanced up from his page to find his best friend staring into space.
“I don’t know what to write.”
“Why? Don’t you dream?”
“Dezi….” Gerard shot his best friend with a withering look before rolling his eyes. “Of course I dream. It’s just… what do you think it means if you have the same dream over and over again?”
Desmond frowned, and chewed the end of his pen distractedly. He always did it when he was thinking. Gerard could already see that at some point, it was going to cost his best friend in an unhappy mouthful of ink.
“Is it a good dream, or a bad dream?”
“Hard to say.”
“Well,” Desmond offered as he shrugged, “must be important if you keep having it. Write it down, maybe it’ll help.”
All day, Gerard thought about his dream. It was different each time, but so similar they seemed to blend together until it felt like Gerard had spent hours and hours standing in the frosty field, waiting for something, with someone keeping him company in the cold. He’d never really wondered who the other person was. He didn’t worry if they were there to hurt him. He was happy to stand in the field, feeling someone else’s body warmth against his skin. All winter, the dream had gotten longer and clearer. Gerard had learnt if he didn’t turn around, he could stay in the field for more time. Only when he tried to look did he wake up, so these days he didn’t turn around, until the cold had invaded every inch of his body and he could no longer feel his feet, his legs, and his hands. Turning around, waking up, was always the last resort. He hadn’t written it down in his Ethics book, but every time he woke up alone in the dark, Gerard cried.
He was still distracted when he got on his bike after school, turning on his flashing back lamp and head light, even though it was only half past three. Desmond had managed to get himself kept behind in French, his pen having finally given up the fight against his teeth, spilling ink all over the desk and his work book. Gerard had wanted to wait, but he’d been sent away by their teacher. Desmond was going to have to rewrite all the work which had gotten ruined.
It wasn’t truly dark yet, but the street lamps were lit, and Gerard was careful at the big junction, waiting for the lights to change and cycling close to the edge of the pavement, just as he’d been taught. Cars gave him a wide berth, and he knew the route home as well as he knew the frosty field he stood in when he slept.
He was turning a left hand corner when the pain hit. One moment, he was pedalling fine, the next, pain spread through every single bone, each muscle fibre, ripped along all his nerves, worse than any sensation he’d ever had. Gerard screamed, lost his grip on the handlebars, and his hold on any self-control which remained.
There were lights, sharp shadows, a blur of speed, a sensation of spinning as he fell. Gerard remembered the glint of the red metalwork of his bike, the wheels still spinning around in the empty air, and then there was pain again. This pain was different, sharper, and more immediate. The screech of tyres, the squeal of brakes, the rumble of engines, and Gerard fell away from consciousness, and didn’t dream.
Being in the hospital was weird. The days were hard to tell apart, because the light never seemed to change. It was always dark whenever he caught glimpses out of the window. His parents looked pale and drawn, exhausted and frightened. They tried to smile whenever he was awake, tried to keep him distracted, but the pain was too much, and their eyes were always dark and sad.
He heard doctors talking, nurses speaking softly, the rustle of curtains and the permanent scent of tea and toast. He was awake when his parents explained, days later, exactly what had happened, but he didn’t listen much. People came in scrubs, gave him pillows, lifted him to change his sheets, replaced the catheter bag hanging from the bed frame. He hated the pain, wished it would go away like all the other times. When he woke in the dark, his parents asleep in chairs, and looked at his body under the thin hospital gown, he knew the bruises were all his.
He didn’t dream.
Desmond came on the fifth day. Their parents excused themselves, and left the two boys to talk alone.
“Hey Ger….” Desmond looked uncomfortable; as though he had no idea how to talk to a boy he’d known since he was four years old.
“I’m not dead, Dezi.”
“With all the crying at school, you might as well be.” Desmond clapped his hands over his mouth the moment the words made it out, looking horrified. “Oh god, Ger….”
“Don’t worry.” Gerard smiled, and it felt like a strange gesture on his face. Despite himself, he couldn’t help thinking of people he’d barely spoken to getting emotional over his accident, and he laughed. “Did anyone pick up my bike?”
“Sorry Ger, I don’t know.” Desmond bit his thumbnail. “Do you remember what happened?”
Gerard looked levelly at his best friend, feeling tired, even though he’d been asleep for what must have been most of the past week.
“You remember my birthday?”
“Yeah. But worse.” Gerard looked down at his body under the sheets, the uneven shapes around his left leg. “Apparently I still have both feet.”
“You don’t know?”
“I haven’t looked.” Gerard reached out, and found his best friend’s hand, clutching his own tightly. “Let’s look together.”
“Really? I mean, are you sure?” Desmond’s usually confident voice quaked. “Shouldn’t we wait for a doctor?”
“It’s my foot.”
Desmond had to do it, because sitting up and bending forwards hurt somewhere below Gerard’s ribs in a manner which made him want to throw up, but once the sheet was pulled back, neither of them could look away. Gerard’s right foot and right leg were just as they should have been, and he wiggled his toes experimentally. On the other side, nothing moved.
“Does it hurt?”
There were a dozen pieces of metal coming out of him at odd angles, all the skin was red, or black, or some sickly purple colour in-between. It looked like a prop from a horror film. After a long time, Desmond sighed.
“You know, I got to miss school to come visit you.”
Gerard turned to his friend, buried his face in the other boy’s shoulder, and cried. Neither of them ever talked about it.
“Not being in pain is better.” Gerard glared across the hospital bed at the doctor who regarded him with a careful expression, like a man talking to a pissed-off tiger.
“And are you in pain?”
“What do you think?” Gerard snapped. His father’s hand landed softly on his shoulder, and he forced himself to take a deep breath, exhaling slowly until he was almost dizzy. Gerard knew his temper was much shorter lately than it had ever been before. He was grateful his dad was there to stop him shouting at the doctor. After all, the mess at the end of Gerard’s left leg wasn’t his fault.
“We can give you more tablets to help cope with the pain while you recuperate.”
“No. Thank you.” Gerard glanced up from his position in the rented wheelchair at his father, who smiled.
“Ger is worried about drug dependency. He doesn’t want to be taking prescription medications long-term.”
“What else can you do for the pain?”
“There are a couple of options to explore.” The doctor found a chair and settled down. Gerard was grateful, having spent the last six weeks looking up at people from various prone positions. His neck ached.
“The two operations on your ankle have had some success, though I can see from your physical therapist's notes that there’s still no improvement in your range of movement.” The doctor frowned, and Gerard chewed his own lower lip.
Physical therapy was hellish. Gerard pushed himself as far as his willpower allowed, and much further than his broken body wanted to go. He could stand on his crutches now pretty well, but it was exhausting to balance on one foot. Every time he tried to do anything with his left foot, the pain was intense. He looked down at the useless block of flesh attached to his leg and scowled.
“Our best hope, to save your foot, is to fuse it.” The doctor took a breath before continuing. “In essence, to abandoned your ankle entirely and fix the bones so they won’t move.”
“They don’t move anyway….”
“No… but this should help you use your foot again. It will bear your weight.”
“Without pain?” Gerard and his father asked simultaneously.
“With less pain. Hopefully.”
“And what about his toes?” his father queried.
Gerard scowled. A third operation after his initial trauma surgery had removed three of his toes, all of which had become gangrenous and started to die, despite still being attached to his foot. Even with the doctor’s best efforts to repair nerves and blood vessels, they had simply been too damaged. Now he was on antibiotics to stop the same thing happing to his remaining two toes, but they were white and lifeless at the end of his useless foot. Gerard shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about his toes.
“Is there another choice?”
“Yes…” the doctor intoned the word very carefully. “If I could Mr Ahern, I’d like to talk to you about it first?”
“Why?” Gerard gripped the armrests of his chair. He wanted to get up, stride around the bed and over to the doctor and take the thin pamphlet from his hands. He had to stop himself. Jumping to his feet just wasn’t an option any more. “Tell me.”
“It’s rather… drastic.”
“Tell me!” Gerard demanded.
“We could amputate. With three toes missing, no movement in the ankle at all, and no sensation in the remaining toes, a viable option would be to remove the foot, ankle, and part of the shin. You would still have full range of movement in the knee, as you do now.”
“But I’d be in a wheelchair forever?”
“No, there are a huge variety of prosthetics available these days. Some of them are extremely advanced. There shouldn’t be any reason you couldn’t walk, or run, again.”
“Gosh….” Gerard’s father sounded stunned.
“I’ll leave you some literature about the various options. You can talk it over with your family. It’s a big decision.”
Gerard took the leaflets without looking at them, and stared down at his mismatched legs. The metal struts which had held his bones in place had been removed. Bandages covered the healing wounds, and much of the bruising had faded and gone. His feet didn’t look the same, and the left one, with its missing toes and dressings, was ugly, lumpy, and useless. He tried to imagine what it would be like to lose it.
“Take it off.”
“You should take time to review all the options,” the doctor said gently. “We can talk next week.”
Gerard turned to his father.
“I don’t want to drag this thing around with me for the rest of my life, causing me pain. Take it off. I want the amputation.”
“Let’s do what the doctor said Ger. Let’s wait and think about it.”
Gerard nodded, but he already knew he wasn’t going to change his mind. The amputation surgery was scheduled for the middle of the week, and without the dead weight of his left foot tying him to the hospital, Gerard was already looking forward to going home.
It was cold. It was practically spring, but the air flowing in and out of Gerard’s lungs was bitterly chill. It was refreshing though, after so long breathing the stuffy, recycled air of the hospital, to fill himself with clean, fresh, clear oxygen. His heart thudded strongly in his chest, and another, deeper pulse, echoed the pattern. He felt it through his legs, the bare skin which pressed and gripped against the warm, pulsing body below him as the air streaked by. He was moving fast, faster than he could run. Gerard gave into temptation, and opened his eyes.
He was flying.
Fields and fences were stretched out below him, rolling squares of green and gold. They were dissected by dark hedgerows, and punctuated with farm buildings and houses. There was a road some way off, a ribbon of black winding its way across the country. Tiny cars dotted its surface, crawling into the distance. The air was cold, the sky was blue and cloudless, and it rushed past. Gerard thought his eyes should be watering, but they weren’t. He blinked as he looked down at himself. He was still wearing the pyjamas his mother had helped him put on before he’d fallen asleep in his very own bed. The worn cotton was familiar and soft, and pressed against his body with the motion of the air around him, the patterns of The Enterprise and the Star Trek logo pushed askew by the wind. Gerard clenched his fingers and stared at the hair in his hands.
Horse hair. Thick and coarse, a rusty reddish brown colour contrasting with his pink-pale skin. Below him, its heartbeat echoing through his thighs was the horse. Its chestnut body gleamed in the sunlight, the neck which rose before him was strong and proud. The horse’s mane flowed in the wind, and its ears were pricked forwards, listening to the world as it flew by below them. Gerard had never been on a horse before, but he knew without speaking he could trust the creature to which he clung so tightly. The view between the horse’s ears showed him a field, like so many others, surrounded by a thin fence, grassy and plain. Gerard recognised it. The frost was gone, but he’d stood in that field all winter with someone breathing on his neck and shoulder.
Now he breathed in time with the horse and Gerard was sure it had been this horse, this beautiful red-brown creature, which had stood beside him all winter and kept him company.
The horse slowed his pace through the sky, and they touched down into the field with barely a change of pace. The horse trotted over the gently sloping ground, and Gerard gripped tightly with his knees, feeling the horse’s breath in time with his own as they stopped. The horse turned and nuzzled his leg with a nose softer than velvet.
The horse snorted gently in reply.
“I should get down now, huh?”
The velveteen nose pressed at his shin again, and Gerard couldn’t help but smile. He leant over the horse’s neck, feeling the mane pressing into his chest and abdomen, and swung both his legs over to one side. He slid down the side of the animal which had carried him through the sky.
But Gerard remembered too late that he only had one foot, stumbled, shouted, and fell awake in his own bed in the dark of his room.
For a while he did nothing but pant desperately, trying to get as much oxygen into his body as he could. When he was sure he was no longer falling, Gerard covered his face with his hands and closed his eyes. It was much darker in his bedroom than it had been in the hospital. No wonder waking up had been a shock. He leant back into the pillows and sniffed.
The horse. His hands which had clutched the horse’s mane still smelt sweet and musty, a scent he’d never experienced before. Gerard knew without a doubt it was the smell of the red horse that had carried him.
Gerard chewed his lower lip, sniffed greedily at his hands, and wondered what it meant.
He hadn’t told anyone, apart from Desmond, why he had come off his bike. He hadn’t talked about the pain which had blossomed through his entire body and tried to turn him inside out. How could he, when he had no explanation for what he’d felt? And getting run over by the car had given him, his parents, and the doctors something to focus on. But now, finally out of hospital and with a bandaged stump where his foot and ankle used to be, Gerard wanted to know why he’d fallen off his bike.
What had happened to cause him such pain? Because clearly it hadn’t been something which had actually happened to him. Right from the first time, the big bruise on his shin which had bloomed quickly and faded slowly, it was like injuries which were happening to someone else. Gerard wondered if there was someone out there who knew they had cost him his foot, other than the driver of the car which had hit him, and the thought made him suddenly angry. Someone else was giving him their pain, and he’d never asked for it. He didn’t want it. In the dark, Gerard pulled away the blankets and stared down at his legs. One pink foot was protruding from his pyjama trousers, the stump was hidden by the folds of patterned cloth. He reached out to feel the new place where his leg ended, and gritted his teeth against the tears which threatened to spill from his eyes.
After a long time of feeling angry and useless, Gerard lay back in his bed and stared at the ceiling. A thought came to him, unbidden. He felt selfish for being so angry.
If this is someone else’s pain, then what happened to them to make them hurt that much?
“Gerard! Dezi’s here!”
Gerard finished pulling on his t-shirt, and then turned to his nightstand. His everyday prosthetic foot was waiting for him, still in his school shoe. He scowled. The lump of plastic shaped to look a bit like his other foot was hard to manipulate in and out of shoes. Gerard was not looking forwards to shopping for new footwear. There were trainers in his closet he’d never worn because getting them onto the prosthetic had turned out to be far more effort than it was worth. He gritted his teeth, picked up the offending replacement foot and tossed it half-heartedly across the room.
Desmond’s knock at the door was soft and respectful, but he didn’t wait for Gerard to answer before letting himself in.
“So….” Desmond sat on the end of his best friend’s bed and twiddled his thumbs. “Are we going to the cinema, or not?”
“’Cause if not, I’ll just tell mum to leave me here. We can sit around and play video games?”
“But I had thought you were dying to see the new Star Trek film.” Desmond shot him a wicked grin across the bedspread. “After all, I know you fancy Captain Kirk rotten.”
Gerard launched himself at his friend, and they wrestled good naturedly for a moment before he let Desmond sit up.
“I swear you get stronger every day, Ger.”
“Side effect of physical therapy.” Gerard shrugged. “If you’d spent six months pushing yourself around in that damn chair you’d have good arms too.”
Desmond punched his shoulder lightly.
“So, are we going?”
“I haven’t got any shoes.”
“Good job you only need one then, isn’t it?”
“Dezi! You know mum would be annoyed if she heard you say that.”
“Well, she didn’t hear.” They both turned to the doorway at the sound of Gerard’s father’s voice. “Desmond, I said your mother could go on home, since you boys are going to miss the start of the movie anyway.”
“Oh, sorry Mister Ahern.”
“I think we’ve know each other long enough now you could call me David, Desmond.”
Gerard watched his father cross the room to where his prosthetic foot lay on a pile of discarded clothes. There was no way he could get to it himself without crawling across the carpet.
“So, no shoes?”
“Dad….” Gerard rolled up his jeans to show the shiny stump which needed to be socked before he could strap it into the prosthetic he was coming to hate. “Why should I pretend I have two feet?”
“Well, I don’t have two feet, do I?” He looked between his father and his best friend. They wore matching expressions of confusion. “It’s been more than a year since I had two feet. Mostly everyone knows anyway, so it’s not like I’m fooling them. And people who don’t know just get impatient because I’m so slow.”
“Does it really bother you that much?”
“Ger….” Desmond touched his shoulder gently. “No one is asking you to pretend.”
“But everyone finds it much easier not to think about the fact I haven’t got a left foot,” Gerard spat bitterly.
The three of them sat in silence for a while. Gerard found himself wishing, even though he loved his father, that the man would go away. He always felt guilty for being sulky in front of his parents. They’d worked so hard to make sure he didn’t get treated any differently. They drove him to physical therapy, and to school, and had even got him a tutor to catch up with everything he’d missed in hospital and during his frequent clinic visits. It was unfair of him to complain, because after all, like his first doctor had promised, he could walk unaided and without a stick, though the stiff fake-foot was awkward and clumsy. Gerard hated feeling clumsy.
More than that, he hated feeling different from all his friends. Desmond was good to stick with him, but Gerard couldn’t play football, not even in goal. He couldn’t run, or walk at anything above a snail’s pace, especially on uneven surfaces. Climbing trees and clambering through the woodland on the hill was totally out. Gerard was twelve now, and he wanted the freedom his peers were getting to experience. He hadn’t even tried to cycle since the accident, and the replacement shiny red bike his parents had bought sat and gathered cobwebs in the garage.
“Well, why don’t we go shopping?” His father’s suggestion was met with a twin groan from the two boys.
“Well, I was thinking a different sort of shopping. Come on, put on your shoes, and I’ll meet you in the car.”
Gerard scowled, and put his school shoe on. It was easier than wrestling with the prosthetic again. He took the foot from his friend, settling the socket around his stump and tightening the straps. They didn’t need much adjustment, and Gerard knew he would need to get another one fitted soon, because he’d been warned by his physical therapist that if he wore a badly fitted prosthetic, he could damage himself even more.
You’ve only got two legs Gerard. You need to look after them.
Gerard had rolled his eyes at her, but he understood the sentiment. Most of his peers had no thought to the fact their bodies would have to last them forever, but Gerard already knew he needed to look after what was left of his.
“So, you had the dream again lately?” Desmond asked as they went slowly down the stairs.
“Yes, every night this week.”
“That’s more than usual, right? And it’s the same every time?”
Gerard smiled to himself as he pulled on his jacket. Though whenever the dream ended he woke with a start, he’d learnt to control the shout which had often made his parents coming running in from the other room. Assuring them he’d not been dreaming about the accident was always hard, and they didn’t like to leave him afterwards. No matter how painful waking up was, Gerard always hoped the dream would come. Whenever he found himself on the back of the big red horse, he felt whole again. His foot was still gone, but on the back of the horse flying through the cold air, it didn’t seem to matter.
Before they reached the front door, Desmond stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Has it hurt again, you know, since…?”
“Since I fell off my bike and got run over by a car? You can say it Dezi. Pretending it didn’t happen isn’t going to help anyone.” Gerard knuckled his friend’s mess of dark curls and grinned. “C’mon, dad’s waiting.”
The radio in his father’s car was temperamental. It only liked to play three stations, none of which had music they all agreed on. Gerard, Desmond, and his dad all ended up singing along to one of the many, many Hits of the ‘60s CDs which filled the glove box. They all knew the lyrics off by heart, and Gerard couldn’t remember a time before he’d known the music. Singing occupied his voice, and left plenty of space for his mind to wander.
He hadn’t answered Desmond’s question deliberately. He hated to lie to his best friend, but the pain which had made him fall off his bicycle had come again and again. Each time it was less of a shock, but a number of times he’d been walking with his parents, or just in his room when he’d been struck. Pain tried to turn him inside out and rip his body in two. It always passed, as quickly as it came, and Gerard blamed it on his missing foot and lack of balance. Even though the pain was intense, there was never a mark on him, and Gerard was grateful not to have to explain anything else away.
They drove for what seemed like hours, and when Gerard concentrated on the street signs, he was surprised to find they were somewhere he recognised.
“This is where you came to have your first prosthetic fitted, remember?”
“Yeah. Dad, why are we here?”
His father parked the car and grinned back at the two boys from the front seat.
“Well, you’re the one saying you’re sick of pretending to have two feet….”
Gerard fell out of his dream and into his bed with a startled yelp, and shoved his fist in his mouth to keep from screaming. Pain tore at his shoulder, near the back of his neck, and Gerard knew it was nothing he’d done. Once the sensation had faded, he found his phone, and frowned at the time on the screen. Whoever the pain belonged to, Gerard had no idea what had happened at five in the morning. He hauled himself out of bed, grabbed for his house-crutch, and staggered to the bathroom.
For a moment under the bright white light, he looked older than he was. Every shadow made his features sharper. Gerard jerked his chin upward, wondered when he’d have to start shaving, and hoped his cheek bones might make his face look the way it did in the harsh shadows one day soon. He hopped around on his right foot to look over his shoulder. Sure enough, the evidence of the pain was right there on his pale skin. The quickly darkening bruise was a strange shape, two sets of curved lines and a rough patch of short red streaks in the centre of the oval. The whole thing was roughly the size of his palm, and Gerard reached over the back of his head to touch the mark. Already it didn’t hurt, and he wondered what could have made it, and how it had happened so early in the morning.
He brushed his teeth, purely for something to justify getting out of bed, pulled down his pyjamas one handed to take a leak, and flushed before limping back to bed.
Back under the duvet it was warm, and Gerard shivered as his body realised how cold he’d been standing on the tile floor. He kicked and jerked his foot a bit to warm up, then rubbed his sole against his stump to soothe a phantom itch. Gerard never felt cold flying through the sky with the red horse. He thought about the mark on his shoulder. There hadn’t been a mark in years. He stared at the ceiling without really seeing it, and wondered if he would manage to sleep at all before his alarm clock woke him up.
Gerard rubbed a hand over his chest. He’d taken to sleeping without a t-shirt on anymore. His mother had smiled, kissed his cheek, and told him he was turning into a handsome young man. Gerard supposed it was true, though he wasn’t sure what qualified him as handsome. He’d finished having braces the previous year, and he would be sixteen in the summer. Physical therapy was keeping him fit, and there were a bunch of sports he still enjoyed at school: people seemed to think table tennis was all easy and standing still, but Gerard was always sweaty with his hair falling in his eyes, whenever he finished playing. In the dark he touched the soft furrows where the muscles of his abdomen were starting to develop, and wondered if he’d ever be able to pull off the delineated and rather sexy look favoured by the sixth form boys who played football in the park during the summer with their shirts off. He hoped so.
For a moment he stopped with his fingers resting on the elastic waist of his pyjamas, then decided against it. He pulled the duvet close around his neck, and curled onto his side. He hoped if he fell asleep again quickly, there might be time for another dream, but Gerard closed his eyes, and found his brain rather too full for sleep.
If I hurt when this other person hurts, Gerard’s inner voice murmured, then there’s someone out there who suffered with me too.
Gerard used his foot to feel the stump of his other leg. The smooth flesh and the scar were long since healed where the flesh had been closed over his shorn off bones. Every now and then, even though it had been over four years since the accident, Gerard’s body sometimes tricked him into thinking his foot was still there. He’d bend to scratch an itch which simply didn’t exist, or stub toes he didn’t have and wince. If there was a person who felt that… Gerard rolled onto his back again and sighed.
Must be a damn weird feeling.
If it’s weird for me, what must it be like for a person who feels like they’ve lost a limb, but actually hasn’t?
He chewed his lower lip for a moment. His mother kept telling him not to do it, but Gerard figured it was way better than Desmond’s habit of biting his nails.
I wonder if I’ll ever get to meet them.
“So, not a good morning then?” Desmond plopped into the seat beside him, dumping his bag at his feet without an ounce of care for the state of his possessions. “You not sleeping again?”
“Woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep.” Gerard glanced at his friend, and arched an eyebrow. “Oh wow, your hair!”
“Took you long enough!” Desmond crowed. “I can’t let you be the only one showing off a new look.”
Gerard rolled his eyes. He hardly thought his new prosthetic foot was showing off in the same way as his best friend’s new jet-black dyed hair, but he didn’t say so. He flexed his knee under the desk, and felt the carbon fibre keel of his left foot flex to distribute his weight better. It was the most excellent and expensive piece of kit Gerard had ever desired, and he loved it.
“How are you getting on with it, anyways?”
“Really well. Mum’s finally gotten used to it. I’m faster now.”
“You were damn quick before. Next thing we know you’ll be fitting one of those athletic running blades for PE and leaving the rest of us standing in the dust.”
“Dezi! You know I can’t have one.” Gerard sighed ruefully.
The idea of a running blade had excited him ever since the Algerian Para-Olympian Baka had beat the able-bodied gold medal winning time in the fifteen-hundred metres, and he’d been disappointed to discover his amputation hadn’t taken enough of his leg away to be able to wear one. His new sprung, double-toed, Thrive foot was the very best which could be done with his particular parameters. Gerard tried not to lament over something he couldn’t have. At least he could run now.
“You look like a cyborg with that one.” Desmond grinned as their teacher began to call the class to attention.
“Oh my god! You can’t say that!”
Gerard and Desmond rolled their eyes at each other in a familiar gesture as they turned their attention to the two girls who shared their table. They were both nice enough, but like a lot of people, felt the need to impress on people that they were socially conscious. This extended in several areas, to being offended on behalf of other people who weren’t even there, and Gerard found the pious attitude irritating.
“That’s really derogatory.”
“Why?” Gerard saw surprise snap across his classmate’s features. “I think it’s cool.”
“But he shouldn’t be comparing disabled people to cyborgs. Cyborgs are robots.”
Gerard blinked, twice, and then made a dismissive gesture with one hand.
“Forgetting, for now at least, your complete lack of basic science fiction knowledge, you’ve missed an important point.”
“I’m not disabled.” Gerard felt proud when Desmond’s hand touched his shoulder briefly. “I’m augmented.”
There was silence for a moment, and then one of the girls glared at him across the table.
Gerard bumped Desmond’s fist, and then they had to control themselves before they got shouted at for giggling in class.
They both had their heads down, scribbling frantically before their teacher wiped the notes about earthquake patterns and tectonic plates from the board, when the door opened. Gerard couldn’t have said exactly what made him look up, but once his eyes had left his page, he couldn’t pull them back. There was a brief exchange with the student receptionist, and then the teacher spoke in a low voice to the newcomer, shut the door and showed the boy to his seat. Gerard had barely even realised he hadn’t blinked or looked away until the boy with the chestnut-red hair glared at him.
Gerard startled and flinched, because he’d forgotten the new boy could actually see him. He blinked hard at his page, trying to bring his notes into focus.
“I’m fine,” Gerard snapped too quickly. For the rest of the lesson, he didn’t dare look up from his page, and made notes by ear, and by copying off Desmond. They both had equally appalling handwriting anyway.
None of which stopped him from being unable to forget the sight of the new boy. He wore the uniform like he had a grudge against it, and though each item was undoubtedly new, there was a brown clay smudge on his white shirt cuff already. Seared into Gerard’s vision even more was the shape of his eyes, wide with long lashes, the colour of them like butter toffee. The hard line of his jaw and the shape his lips had made when he’d spat a single word, too. His faded, messy undercut had made Gerard want to reach out and touch him. His heart hammered in his chest like he’d been running, and Gerard hated that no amount of sex-education classes or brief internet forays had prepared him for the fact he felt like he’d been hit around the head the moment the boy had entered the classroom.
Once the bell had gone, Desmond had been first out of his seat. He had approached the new boy with his trademark easy smile.
“Hi.” He held out his hand, but the new boy simply looked at it blankly until Desmond shoved it back in his pocket. “I’m Dezi, this is Gerard.”
“Cool. Did you guys just move here, or…?” But Desmond didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. Faris had gathered his things and strode from the classroom. “Riiiight… so he’s a dick. Never mind then, eh?”
“Ger, did you hear anything I just said?”
“Hmmm?” Gerard turned to look at his friend’s bemused expression. “Sorry?”
“Nevermind. I’ve got Music. See you at lunch?”
Gerard took the long route around the outer edge of the building, rather than worm his way through the younger students who always seemed to block the Maths corridor between lessons. It was a crisp, clear day, not cold, but the breeze made Gerard pleased to be wearing his school blazer. He was nearly at the far end of the main building where the Food Technology room was housed, when he caught a flash of messy red hair out of the corner of his eye.
He stopped so suddenly his prosthetic foot scraped against the tarmac with a sharp noise. Faris glared up at him from his position tucked into the corner of the building, and Gerard felt the bottom fall out of his stomach. The new boy stood in a smooth motion, dragging a hand across his mouth. Gerard didn’t miss the tell-tale redness around his eyes, or the slight shiver in his fingers, and he knew the other boy wasn’t as OK as he’d first appeared.
Faris grunted without words.
“Are you OK?” Gerard glanced away from Faris’s face to his other hand, which was gripping his printed timetable, the paper creased into a mess. “Lost? It took me ages to learn my way around the school when I first started.”
He paused, and then stepped closer. Faris tried to step away from him, but the brick wall behind him got in the way. The other boy was staring at his prosthetic foot, and Gerard was used to the expression of mixed concern, pain, curiosity, and distaste on his face. Gerard transferred his weight to his other foot, knowing it would make the carbon fibre flex noiselessly.
“Do you want me to show you where you’re going?”
Gerard took the crumpled timetable from the other boy, and watched as Faris pulled his hand away quickly. He was skittish, like a deer caught in headlamps on the side of the road, shivering with fear and desperate to get away. To Gerard’s joy, Faris’s timetable matched his own for the upcoming lesson.
“This way, follow me.”
Faris kept a pace behind him and a step to his right the entire time. Gerard tried not to mind that the boy seemed to have no interest in talking to him. Politeness wanted him to fill the space between them with facts about the school, or the lesson they were heading for, but Gerard gave into his instinct to walk in silence. Faris walked in time with him, their feet landing at the exact same moment, so had it not been for the radiating warmth of the other boy, and the rustle of his clothes, Gerard could have been alone.
“Welcome to Food Technology.” Gerard beckoned as he opened the classroom door. To his lack of surprise, Faris didn’t look at him as he walked past, and Gerard was sort of pleased when the new boy was placed in an empty seat on the other side of the classroom. He didn’t speak to anyone other than their teacher for the whole class.
Obviously Faris wasn’t ready to be friends with anyone.
Gerard woke panting, his heart beating in his chest faster than it had gone in years. He ached all over, unable to move. The muscles of his inner thighs quivered under the blankets, his knees apparently the consistency of jelly. He blinked several times in the dark, remembering the moment in his dream where the horse had touched down onto the green grass of the field. Gerard had felt so complete, so safe, as though with his fingers wound into the mane of the big red horse, he could have done anything in the world. He didn’t remember trying to get off, swinging his leg over the creature’s broad back before gravity took hold of him, making him fall. He must have done, because he never woke up any other way.
He placed a hand over his chest, and tried to will his heart to calm down. It still hammered like he had run for miles, even though he hadn’t done more than jog in years. He wasn’t hurt, there was no new sensation of another’s pain on his skin, and Gerard found himself wondering if there was someone else out there lying on their back in the dark, heart beating too fast, and wondering who he was. Gerard felt around on his night-stand and located a pen, turning the object over and over in his fingers as he thought.
He had no reason to suppose it might work, but perhaps it would make him feel better. After all, how was he supposed to find a person he was joined to only through the pain they felt. He opened his hand in the dark and wrote on his palm, wishing the mark might transfer to whoever it was he was connected to.
‘I am here.’
“Yes dear? Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Gerard swallowed his large mouthful of toast and wiped crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand. He was still brushing the remaining crumbs into a little pile when his mother turned back to him with a jug of orange juice and a stack of glasses.
“Mum… you know how it’s my birthday soon?” Gerard gave his mother a hopeful smile. He wasn’t going to be sixteen for almost another three months.
“Uh-oh.” Gerard’s father took his place at the table, and arched an eyebrow at his son. “That sounds ominous.”
“Forget I said anything.” His father held up his hands in supplication, then began to spread a generous layer of lemon curd over another piece of toast.
“I want to go riding.” Gerard waited for his mother’s expression to become totally overwhelmed with confusion before he continued. “Horse riding. I want lessons. Please?”
“Is it safe?”
“Of course!” Gerard replied quickly, “I mean, everyone wears helmets and stuff. It’s not dangerous like snowboarding or something.”
“Oh well, then I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Gerard kicked his father under the table, and they shared a cheeky grin.
“I meant, is it safe for you, Gerard?”
“Lots of amputees ride, Mum. They even compete in international competitions.”
“Whoa there kiddo. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves shall we? You can conquer the world after you’ve met a horse for the first time.” Gerard watched his mother look him up and down. “You’re going to need new boots, I should think.”
An hour later with breakfast cleared away, and Gerard’s mother talking on the phone with her son’s specialist physiotherapist about his ideas, Gerard sat with his father in the car, tapping his foot to the music without really listening, as they drove through the countryside. His father hadn’t said where they were going. Gerard knew, somehow, his father had understood his desire. By the time the car turned into the wide driveway before the stable yard, Gerard was fidgeting almost uncontrollably in his seat. He was going to get to meet a horse.
He didn’t listen too much as his father discussed the practicalities of his amputation with the barn manager. He was distracted by the soft sounds of the horses in their stalls, the scent of hay and horse feed, the voices of other riders, and the clatter of boots and tack. There were rosettes on the wall in half a dozen colours, pictures of girls and guys with their mounts, smiling and laughing, waving and proud. Gerard was aware of the gnawing sensation in his belly, the desire to be one of them, and the fear that when he got to meet a horse, it wouldn’t be anything like it was when he dreamed.
“Well, I think maybe you should come and meet some of our team.”
Gerard followed the barn manager, a slim, strong looking woman with thick auburn hair, out of the office, and along the row of stalls. Some were occupied. Others stood empty, their doors open, the interiors swept and clean, stacked with wood shavings. Gerard could see, inexperienced as he was that the stables were run with a tight hand.
“Your father says you’ve never ridden before?”
“You can call me Janet, same as everybody else. And how long has it been since your accident?”
“Four years.” Gerard shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“Well that’s certainly a fancy foot you’ve got there.” Janet sounded genuinely impressed, and Gerard was proud. “Your father is right, you’re definitely going to need something else which will fit in a boot if you want lessons, but I don’t see any harm in you having a sit on someone today, just to feel. What do you think?”
“Really? That would be amazing.”
“This is the tacking up area. I’ll get one of the boys to bring Murphy in for you. He’s the gentlest horse you’ll ever meet, and he loves attention. Just wait here.”
Gerard looked around the place he’d been left. It was all smooth worn yellow wood, brooms and rakes stacked in one corner, with two shelves of grooming kits along one wall next to the lesson chart. There was a set of instructions screwed to the wall, and Gerard took a kit off the shelf, fingering the different brushes and combs as he read what each was for and what order to use them in.
Gerard turned at the familiar voice, his cheeks flushed as he stuffed the grooming kit back guiltily. He felt like he’d been caught touching paintings at the museum, and by Faris of all people. The red-haired boy was holding the braided lead rope of a large, heavy set black and white horse with muddy legs and broad hooves. He stared at Gerard, his brows drawn low, as though offended to find the other boy in his presence.
“What are you doing here?” It was the longest sentence Gerard had ever heard him say. Every syllable showed how unwelcome Faris thought him.
“I want to learn to ride.”
“You’ll need two feet for that,” Faris replied with a scowl.
Gerard gritted his teeth, but said nothing as the big black and white horse was backed gently between two wooden rails. Faris clipped either side of his halter to a short rope, and the horse simply snorted softly, and nuzzled at the skinny boy’s pockets. Faris petted him gently.
“This is Murphy. He’s a gelding. His pattern is what’s called piebald, but I call him a paint, like they do in America. Come say hello.”
Gerard didn’t quite know what to make of Faris’s sudden shift in tone and temperament. He did as he was bid, and when the red-haired boy stepped to one side, Gerard approached the horse softly. He reached out only when Faris had removed his hands, and hadn’t missed the fact the other boy had made it so he stood on Gerard’s right, well away from his carbon-fibre prosthetic. The horse’s nose was soft against his palm, his breath hot and wet. Gerard moved to stroke the hard plate of his forehead between his eyes, and marvelled at the way his fur did not blend colours. The black looked very exactly like it was painted on the white, just as Faris said.
“Why do you want to ride?”
Gerard looked across the horse’s head at the boy who had walked into his life weeks previously and made much of his time at school tense and uncomfortable. Faris had never said a kind word to him, he barely spoke to anyone, but Gerard didn’t want to lie to him. Even if Faris teased him, he doubted the boy would spread it around at school.
“I dream about it.”
“Often?” Faris asked without hesitation.
“OK.” The boy went to the wall and took the grooming kit Gerard had shoved back, then handed him a rubber object Gerard had read was a curry comb. “You do that side, and we’ll brush him.”
Janet had been correct to state Murphy loved attention. The horse was smooth and soft under their hands, and Gerard saw the relaxation in his long neck, the way his ears turned back, listening to them. Gerard didn’t say anything, but Faris talked almost the entire time they brushed the horse. For a boy who had gone almost a whole term without entering into a single conversation, he certainly wasn’t shy around the horse. Sometimes he interrupted himself to give Gerard instructions, or scold him for brushing incorrectly. Mostly, he just talked to Murphy.
“Weather has been good, eh boy? Lots of that nice thick spring grass coming through the ground. Little rain, the trails are good. I’ll take you out soon bud, I promise. A nice break from going round and round that damn sand-school. Be cutting hay in another month, maybe. We’ll see how the grass grows in the long field. You’ll be getting fat, eh? A nice layer on before the winter comes. Might be spring, but it’ll be here soon enough. Young colt wants to ride, I figure you won’t mind. You don’t mind, do you Murph? You’re a good horse.”
Gerard had grown so used to the soft, unhurried way Faris spoke, his voice soothing and calm, it was almost a shock when he took the body-brush from Gerard’s hand and said, “Let’s get the saddle.”
Gerard followed him into a small room which smelt of leather and brass polish, all four walls hung with saddles and bridles of various colours and sizes. Most had name tags, and Faris took the big black saddle from its peg, turned, and without warning tossed it at Gerard. He stumbled to grab it, but managed, and steadied himself with a wordless grunt. Faris looked faintly impressed.
Gerard only watched while Faris tacked up the horse. The other boy told him he would learn eventually, but for now he might as well do it, or they’d be there all day. After that, Faris took the reins in one hand and Gerard hurried to follow him out of the barn, and into the sunlight.
“Right, let’s see if you like being on a horse then. I’ll show you how to mount. You always do it from the left, like this.”
Gerard watched as Faris took the reins in his left hand, balanced either hand on the front and back of the saddle, then put his foot up into the stirrup and swung himself over the horse’s back as easily as Gerard might sit on his bed. He moved gently, settled himself, then clicked to the horse, twitched the reins, and walked Murphy around in the circle before coming back to the mounting block. He dismounted just as swiftly.
Gerard began to walk around the horse’s other side, then Faris stopped him.
“No. Always on the left.”
Gerard stared at him over the top of Murphy’s saddle, then tapped his prosthetic foot on the ground until Faris’s honey-coloured eyes drifted down to look at it. The other boy snapped his gaze back quickly.
“Oh, I see. OK.”
Faris led the horse around so he was facing the other direction, and the mounting block was on his right hand side.
“It’s the same thing. I’ll hold him for you.”
Faris seemed genuinely surprised at the comment, but Gerard was concentrating on where he was putting his hands as Murphy shifted his weight from one foot to the other underneath him. He had never ridden a horse. Even in his dreams, he’d never gotten on one. He was always simply there, astride the big red’s back, not a saddle in sight. Gerard put his right foot into the stirrup, and lifted his leg across the horse’s back as he held his weight on his hands. He twisted, and sat down in the saddle hard enough to make himself cough.
“Could be better. You’ll learn. Get your other foot in the stirrup.”
Gerard fumbled with his prosthetic, trying to get it perfectly aligned with the hoop of steel, and failed.
“That’s already a boring excuse.”
“Well, I can’t OK? This foot wasn’t designed for riding.”
Faris’s eyes snapped up to where Gerard sat on Murphy’s back above him, and Gerard felt suddenly angry with the other boy.
“I only have one foot. The other got amputated after it was crushed by a car.” He took a deep breath, trying to remember that not everyone was as well-adjusted as he was about his so-called disability. “Sometimes I just need a little bit of help with stuff.”
Faris said nothing, but he didn’t look at Gerard as he took the carbon-fibre keel of his left foot and placed it into the stirrup. Gerard couldn’t feel his hands, not exactly, but he felt the pressure through the cuff around his leg. Nerves which no longer existed sent him phantom sensations of being tickled.
He wove his fingers into the horse’s mane, feeling the animal shift underneath him, the steady rise and fall of his breath, the warmth through the leather of the saddle. There was no way Gerard could have forgotten his mount was a living animal; it wasn’t anything like being in a car or on a bike at all.
“W-what do I do?” Gerard had never heard his voice quake like that before, not even after the accident. Everything about sitting astride the horse was so familiar and yet so strange. This was not the creature from his dreams, and though he felt good, he did not feel safe and connected the way he did when asleep.
Of course I don’t. It’s not the same. Gerard thought to himself. Will I ever feel like that when I’m awake?
“You just sit there, back straight, and keep your balance, he’ll do everything else. C’mon Murphy.” Faris clicked his tongue to the gentle gelding, and stepped forwards.
The horse went with him automatically, and Gerard felt his heart lurch as his fingers tightened in the black and white mane. Murphy had a natural rocking motion to his gait, and Gerard simply held tight with his knees, just like he did in his dreams, and kept his gaze fixed between the long ears. It wasn’t until Faris had brought the horse to a halt again that Gerard tore his gaze away to look at the other boy. To his surprise, Faris was smiling faintly, his caramel coloured eyes soft and kind. Whatever Gerard had felt, somehow, the other boy understood.
“You’ll make a rider yet.”
“C’mon then, down you get.”
Gerard remembered what to do from his dream, from watching Faris slip from the saddle not five minutes earlier, but he didn’t remember what would happen when his feet touched the ground. The rubber sole of his prosthetic slipped, his knee buckled and refused to hold his weight, and Gerard cried out in panic as he fell. Pain shot up his right leg briefly, he caught himself on his hands in the sand by the horse’s hooves, and winced as his teeth clacked together hard enough to make an echo round his skull. Gerard blinked, shook his head, and looked up expecting to see Faris laughing at him for falling on his arse.
To his surprise, the other boy was half kneeling on the other side of the horse, glaring at him under Murphy’s broad belly, looking shocked and angry. The gelding swished his tail, and realising no one needed him, wandered away gently, nosing at the sand as though looking for treats.
“I slipped,” Gerard said, feeling pathetic.
“Uh-huh.” Faris got up, brushing sand from his knees and hands. For a moment, Gerard thought the other boy might offer him a hand and help him up, but he simply shook his head, his messy fringe falling in his eyes, and went after the horse.
Gerard got up slowly, but he wasn’t hurt. It had just been a slip like a dozen others. When his father came out of the barn along with Janet and found him with his arms folded on the side of the sand-school, watching Faris ride the black and white horse in ever increasing circles, Gerard had almost forgotten he’d fallen at all.
Except that Faris fell too.
He was checking on me.
Then why did he look surprised? And angry? His inner voice asked.
I don’t know. Gerard watched the horse change pace and began to lope around the circle with a smooth motion like a wave. Maybe he felt guilty for letting the crippled kid fall over.
Or maybe, Gerard had never known his own voice sound so smug in his skull, he fell for the same reason I did. Because I did.
Gerard had told Desmond he had to go and meet someone before school, so his friend had waved him off at the school gate and headed for the North playground to play kick-about football with their friends. Gerard felt slightly guilty about lying to his best friend, but what he’d said was partly true, and there was someone he needed to see. He just wasn’t sure Faris would be at all pleased to see him.
The boy from the stables arrived borderline late every day, and always came in through the back car park where he was dropped off. Gerard waited by the wall of the main building, out of sight of the main doors, somewhere he wasn’t technically allowed to be.
Faris jumped out of the beat-up looking open-backed Jeep, brushing bits of straw out of his hair. There was a shout, the door swung open, and Faris caught his school bag as it flew through the air towards him. He shouted at the driver, who yelled something back which Gerard didn’t catch, and the Jeep pulled away with a squeal and a crunching of gears. Faris glared after it, and then turned towards the school with a slump to his shoulders. He looked like he hadn’t slept much. As soon as he saw Gerard, his chin jerked up, his shoulders became firm, and his lips turned into a thin hard line. Gerard ground his teeth as the boy approached, and wondered what it was about him which made Faris so mad.
Faris snorted wordlessly.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Doubt I can stop you.” Faris fixed him with a hard glare, and then turned to walk away along the outer edge of the building.
Before he’d even thought about the action, Gerard reached out and grabbed the other boy’s arm.
Faris turned to glare at him, and his voice sent a chill running down Gerard’s spine which made him shiver.
“You’ll be wanting to let go of me now, boy.”
“We’re the same age Faris,” Gerard snapped. He frowned at the red-haired boy with the messy undercut. “You don’t remember my name, do you?”
“Sure I do.” Faris snatched his arm away and scowled. “What do you want?”
“I just… I just wanted to say thank you, for the other day, with Murphy.”
“Oh….” Faris seemed surprised.
“My parent’s said I could have lessons.”
In the silence after Gerard’s words, he was aware of Faris’s eyes travelling over his body. He shivered when the other boy glanced down at his prosthetic foot, freshly cleaned after its trip to the stables, before his eyes snapped back to Gerard’s own.
“You’re not going to be able to ride with that.”
“I know.” Gerard chewed his lower lip. “I was wondering if you could help me choose good boots? I didn’t know you worked at the stables.”
“Janet is my aunt. We’re all horse people in our family.” Faris shifted his weight from foot to foot uneasily. “And yeah, we moved here from the other side of Shoreham, my brother and me anyway. Our parents own some land over there.”
“Why did you come to live with your aunt?”
Faris looked like he was about to answer, but then his expression shut down. He scuffed one foot and turned away.
“I’ll help you choose some boots.” The school bell rang loudly from inside the building. “I have work right after school. Meet me at the Windmill Saddlery by five.”
Gerard spent the rest of the day restless. He paced and twitched all through the rest of his lessons, and doodled purposelessly in the margins of his workbooks. Desmond noticed his friend’s distraction, and when Gerard told him why, he insisted on accompanying him to the tack and feed shop. Gerard ate the snacks his father gave them after school, only because he was reminded to, and was deeply grateful he had a parent who was willing to change plans and drive him places on a whim.
From the outside Windmill Saddlery didn’t look like the sort of place to buy equestrian boots. It looked like half a rundown barn tacked onto the side of a mechanics workshop, but inside it was warm and well stocked. Desmond and Gerard’s father instantly began to explore the various equestrian tools on display. Gerard simply stood near the door, chewing his bottom lip nervously. His heart raced, and the entire way there, a dread feeling in the pit of his stomach had built as he began to doubt Faris was even going to show up.
The door swung open, shut, and then there was warm breath on the back of Gerard’s neck and shoulder. It was like being back in the field he’d dreamt of as a child, standing in the frosty cold, someone with him whom he could not see. Gerard smiled to himself as the feeling to panic departed. When he turned, he got the feeling he had missed Faris smiling at him by just a fraction of a second.
“Hey.” The other boy frowned. “What the heck is that?”
“Oh….” Gerard rustled around in the carrier bag, then produced his other prosthetic foot, the solid one which his physiotherapist had said would be best for riding with in a boot, at least to begin with. “This is my other foot.”
“You kept it?” Faris looked like he was about to be sick.
“It’s fake!” He slapped the socked heel into his hand. “You seriously thought I would keep a rotting foot around? Ergh… that’s why I made them take it off.”
“You… you chose to have only one foot?”
“Trust me, it was far better than the alternative.”
Faris didn’t say anything, and he didn’t take the prosthetic foot from Gerard, but lead the way towards the racks of boots.
“Any good boot with a solid low heel will do. Long boots are more expensive, but if you want to compete, they’re the way to go. If you go for short boots, you’ll need gaiters too.” Faris pulled two pairs of boots from the shelf. “Here, try these.”
Gerard sat on what appeared to be an extra sturdy plastic toolbox, and began to force the socked prosthetic foot into the shorter of the two boots. The stiffness of the foot and the fixed ankle made it much harder than simply pulling on a shoe. Gerard was reminded why he hadn’t owned or used a left shoe in years.
“Nope, this is useless.”
“Giving up already, Ger?” Desmond’s hand landed on the back of his neck. “Can’t you just put a boot on the Thrive?”
“Sure Dezi….” Gerard rolled his eyes at his best friend. He pulled his left leg up onto the other knee. He gestured to the twin keeled carbon-fibre prosthetic with a smile. “Yeah, they totally make equestrian boots to fit ultra-modern fake feet.” He sighed, “I’ll try these.”
When Gerard looked up from wrestling unsuccessfully with the next boot, he was surprised to find Faris standing with his father, holding another tall pair of brown equestrian boots in his hands, talking as though chatting with Gerard’s father was the most natural thing in the world to be doing on a Monday evening. When he handed the brown boots to Gerard, Faris didn’t even bother to look at him, but their fingers touched, and Gerard felt every inch of his skin light up as though electrocuted. If Faris noticed, he didn’t comment, and Gerard tried not to over think the way his fingers tingled as he tried to fit the false foot into the boot. As the heel slid into place, Gerard grinned.
“It fits?” Desmond grinned, and slapped his shoulder. “See, I told you it wouldn’t take that long.”
“Well, it fits the prosthetic. Ger, you need to try them both on.”
Gerard pulled off his trainer and pulled on the other boot. He left the long side zips undone as he began to fiddle with the release buckle at the top of the Thrive.
“Here, hold this.” Gerard held up his prized carbon fibre prosthetic without looking at who took it, then began to bolt the other foot onto the metal spur which protruded from the leg cup and the end of the trouser cuff. He smoothed his jeans down to his ankle, and then tugged on the zip. “They don’t do up.”
“Well they won’t.” Faris stared down at him, holding Gerard’s other prosthetic in his hands like it was made of glass. “You can’t ride in jeans. You’ll need britches.”
“Just roll them up for now son.” Gerard’s father smiled reassuringly. “As long as it fits over the socket, we can work out clothing later.”
Gerard pushed his jeans up to his knees, and zipped up the right boot easily. It felt snug, but not tight, over his skin. He flexed his toes and ankle, testing the stretch of the leather and the thick elastic panel up the back of the boot. It was easy to see why Faris had chosen them; the full leather boots had been impossibly stiff to manipulate over his fake foot. As Gerard began on the other zip, he felt warmth spread along his side. Faris had hunkered down next to him, close enough to touch, but without any part of their bodies coming into contact.
“Is that…?” He left the question unfinished, but Gerard was used to the look of uncertainty the boy wore.
“What remains of my leg? Yeah. They took the bone off about three inches above the ankle. They had to stitch all the layers of muscle in place over the end before they could finish with the skin. I have to get new sockets made all the time though, because I’m still growing.”
“How old were you?” Faris’s voice sounded hollow.
“Eleven. It was January.”
“It was really dark….”
“Faris?” Gerard frowned at the boy he was starting to think of as being his friend. Faris was still holding the Thrive foot, and staring off into the distance. His caramel gaze was unfocused, as though looking at something inside his own head. “Are you OK?”
Gerard reached out and touched his shoulder lightly. Faris recoiled as though he’d been stung. They stared at each other for a long time. The moment broke as Desmond interrupted them, bouncing back into view holding a pair of tight stretchy leggings with diamantes down the side.
“You’ll look swell in these Ger!”
“Dezi!” Gerard zipped the long boots up over his socket and stood. “Those are for girls!”
“Nah, they’ll suit you just fine.”
“You’re useless!” Gerard thumped his friend without force and smiled. “Why do I even let you hang out with me?”
“No one else understands you like I do Ger. C’mon, let’s go show you off for your dad.”
His father was really pleased with the boots, and Gerard was too. Eventually he convinced Desmond to put the jodhpurs back on the hanger, and turned to the tack-box where he’d sat to try on the boots. Faris wasn’t there, but the Thrive foot rested on a pair of neatly folded cream riding britches, in his size. Gerard wondered how Faris had known, and why the boy had run off.
Gerard tightened his fingers in the familiar texture of the big red horse’s mane before he’d even opened his eyes. He knew the sweet, musky scent of the horse, the warmth between his thighs as he rode. He smiled as he stroked the proud neck of the horse, and opened his eyes.
They were not riding through the sky as Gerard usually found them, but the horse cantered around the perimeter of the field Gerard had spent all winter standing in when he was eleven years old. It was a soft, easy lope, and Gerard knew to grip with his knees, sit back into the rising motion of the horse’s hind quarters, rocking as the horse moved across the green landscape. The quadruple thudding of the horses hooves echoed his heartbeat, and Gerard found himself keeping time with the horse as they rode together.
Every sensation was sharper, heightened, and Gerard saw the crisp edges of the oak leaves against the sky as though looking at the tree through a telescope. The crunch of grass stems breaking under the horse’s hooves were magnified a thousand-fold, the twin snorts of their breathing colouring the air with heat and moisture. Gerard focused on the view between the horse’s ears, the thin fence at the far edge of the field, and he felt the red horse’s thoughts echo his own. Together they sped up, two hearts and four feet beating in time, and Gerard wrapped both his hands into the base of the horse’s mane as the horse gathered himself underneath Gerard, his muscles bunching, and Gerard held on as they jumped.
Flying, flying like they always had, but only for a few timeless moments as boy and horse sailed over the fence. Gerard shifted his weight backwards as they landed, trying not to lean too far over the horse’s neck, and he was flooded by relief as heavy as gravity once all four hooves were back on the ground. He reached forward to pat the horse’s neck, lost his balance, and fell.
Gerard woke in a tangle of sheets, sweaty, confused, and unsure of where he was. It took a long time, sitting in the centre of his mattress, shaking his head softly and feeling his heart race in his chest, to remember that the dream of riding really was only a dream.
It’s never been that vivid before.
Gerard closed his eyes and deliberately slowed his breathing, inhaling strongly, exhaling for a long time, consciously taking control of his body, focusing on nothing else. It was hard not to see the curving neck of the horse and his long ears in his inner vision.
We jumped together. We’ve never done that before. Gerard felt himself smiling. I wonder what it means.
As he leant back in his bed, Gerard thought about the horse in his dream. There was no reason, no real reason he would be able to explain to anyone, except maybe Desmond, why his dream should mean anything. But Gerard knew it did. The same horse, not just a horse of the same colour, but the same horse had been keeping him company, night after night, since he was eleven years old. And tonight they had worked together, thought together, and shared the same idea. Gerard had not simply been a passenger on the back of the great red steed, and that was different.
Different could only be good.
Gerard took the Sharpie which now rested permanently on his night stand, uncapped it in the dark and wrote on his palm in the hope the message might reach the person he was connected to.
‘I love you.’
Gerard stood stirring the pan of vanilla infused milk slowly, watching the stiff black body of the split vanilla pod appearing and vanishing under his spoon like a confused fish trapped in a gentle whirlpool. He’d already mixed his egg yolks, sugar, and flour together into a thick sweet paste, ready to incorporate the milk furiously with a whisk. He let his mind wander, and glanced up to watch the slender shape of Faris, moving at his own oven. He was frowning gently at his crème patisserie mixture.
It had been a week since Faris had vanished without a word from the tack store, and Gerard had spent much of his time sitting in his room, not doing his homework, and looking at the shiny brown leather boots and the folded cream breeches Faris had picked out. Standing in front of his long mirror, he’d tried them on, and stared at the shape of his body, the set of the waistband on his hips, the way the boots made his legs look longer. He wondered if Faris had known how the clothes would make him look.
Gerard had written on his hand every night since the dream when he and the big red horse had jumped the field fence. Every night he had woken from his dream, thinking about Faris. Faris had fallen when he’d fallen, had looked at him underneath the black and white gelding’s legs, angry and maybe confused. Gerard had washed the words off his palm each morning, and he had no way of knowing if they’d reached the person he was joined with. There hadn’t been any more pain lately, and Gerard missed the connection.
His vanilla and milk mixture boiled, so he poured one third of it into the eggs and sugar, whisked hard, then put the lot back on the stove top and continued whisking until the custard thickened. When it was done, he moved the pan onto the surface and stood staring at the flames of the hob. He took a metal spoon from the drawer next to the sink, and held it over the blue-touched fire, watching it grow hot.
He knew it was going to hurt. Gerard had burnt himself before when cooking, but never badly. He knew the sting, the pain which would follow and roll on for hours, and the mark which would blister and turn red then brown against his pale-pink skin. But he did it anyway; he had to know.
The spoon was hot, Gerard already had his sleeves rolled up, they had to when they were working, and he fixed his eyes across the classroom on Faris’s messy undercut, his fringe falling in his face, as he pressed the hot metal spoon against the smooth skin of his forearm.
Pain shot up his nerves, but he held it there, pressing as hard as he could, and just before his sense of self-preservation made him drop the spoon, saw Faris clap his hand over the exact same spot on his arm and cry out in pain.
“Oh my god! Gerard are you alright?” Gerard’s cooking partner turned in shock as the spoon clattered on the floor, but Gerard was still watching Faris. The other boy whipped round to stare at him, his expression unreadable.
“What’s going on?” their teacher snapped.
“Gerard burnt himself, miss.” Gerard’s partner piped up quickly. “That looks bad. Run it under the tap.”
“You!” Faris’s fist was in his collar, pulling his shirt and jumper askew. “What the fuck did you do?”
Faris didn’t pay their teacher any attention, but dragged Gerard out of the classroom by his shirt, and practically threw him into the corridor. Gerard’s shoulder hit the opposite wall with a dull thud, and Faris flinched in reflected pain.
“It’s you.” Gerard was stunned. He hadn’t actually expected his rather foolish actions to have any measurable effect. “Faris, I-”
“Shut up!” Faris snarled.
Everything about his stance was angry and tense. He looked like a cornered animal. The moment Gerard reached out to touch him, he knew it was a mistake. Faris hit him in the jaw, hard. There was no warning, no wind-up, just a precise impact of the other boy’s knuckles against his face. Gerard grunted and staggered, but Faris did too. By the time their teacher was shouting at them in the corridor, they both wore matching red marks.
For the first time in his life, Gerard found himself sat outside the Deputy Head’s office in isolation, staring blankly at the English textbook he’d been left with along with the strict instruction not to move and to make no noise. He had no idea what his punishment would be, but with Faris sporting what was now a harsh purple bruise on his jaw too, it would be hard to defend his position of innocence.
And I hurt Faris. Gerard glanced down at his arm. He’d been given a gel cool-pack for the burn, and already the skin had blistered and broken; it had been a very hot spoon. Deliberately. I hurt him. He’s never done that to me.
Gerard rubbed his fingers over his palm, and wondered if the words he wrote ever showed up on Faris’s skin. Only pain had ever come his way through the connection they shared. He had a biro though, and surely it couldn’t hurt to try.
Gerard wondered if he should apologise, but then he remembered Faris had hit him, hard. He decided not to.
He spent the rest of the day in solitude, only nodded in disappointment when he was told his parents had been contacted. He thanked his form tutor who informed him he had not been expelled or excluded, but simply placed in detention for the remainder of the week. Gerard packed up his things, and found Desmond waiting for him by the main school gates, even though school had ended forty minutes previously.
“Ger! Well don’t you look like you’ve been through the wars. What the hell happened? Playground was all a-chatter. I practically got mugged in the corridor by a bunch of year eleven’s wanting to know if it was true.”
“If what was true?”
“That you fought with the new boy? You hit Faris?”
Gerard looked straight at his best friend, and he knew Desmond would be taking in the bruise on his jaw, the words inked on his palm. Desmond was the only one Gerard had ever told, and he couldn’t lie to his friend.
“No. He hit me.”
“Then why are you in detention?” Desmond frowned.
They were interrupted by a rectangle of bright light flowing out across the ground. It vanished again, and footsteps started towards them. Faris walked with his hands in his pockets, looking dishevelled and fed up. He looked at the other boys as he grew nearer, and the matching bruise on his jaw was obvious.
“I thought you said you didn’t hit him?”
Gerard shuffled his weight from one foot to the other, feeling his prosthetic shift underneath him as Faris drew close.
“No. I didn’t.”
“But….” Desmond didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, because Faris stopped in front of them.
“Come out to the yard at the weekend. We need to talk.”
Faris glared at Desmond.
“Don’t bring him with you.”
He stalked away, and Gerard couldn’t help but watch him go. For a long time, neither of them said anything at all, then Desmond touched his shoulder gently. Gerard saw the worry in his best friend’s eyes.
“It’s OK Dezi.”
“I do,” Desmond replied eventually, “but I’m not sure I trust him.”
Gerard wanted to wear his new boots and breeches to the horse stables, but he was going to talk to Faris, not to ride. It seemed presumptuous to dress as though he might be going for lessons. Instead he put on his good jeans and a checked shirt he’d been given for Christmas which did still fit, but was already getting snug over his shoulders, and secured the Thrive in place before heading downstairs. His father had agreed to drive him to the yard to meet his friend, but Gerard hadn’t told him Faris was the person he had fought with.
His parents had been angry and disappointed he had got into a fight at school, had hurt someone else, received detention, and been put in isolation, but they hadn’t grounded him. Gerard had been surprised, but it turned out nearly sixteen years of good behaviour had bought him a lot of as yet unused forgiveness. His mother’s severe frown and his father’s glare had been hard to take, but they had both come upstairs to kiss him goodnight, something which hadn’t happened since he was a kid.
“So you want me to wait around for you?”
Gerard finished climbing out of the car, and turned to look at his father. He was nervous, but he couldn’t exactly explain why. He had no idea if Faris wanting to talk was even a good thing.
“No. Thanks dad. Can I call you later?”
“You have your phone?”
“OK.” His father squeezed his hand through the open door and smiled. “Just don’t get on a horse without a helmet on. Your mother would kill us both.”
“I promise. I’ll be careful.”
Gerard watched his father drive away, and then made his way towards the barn. He didn’t know where Faris would be meeting him, but he headed towards Janet’s office. She met him in the doorway to the tacking up area where she stood chewing the end of a whiteboard marker, and looking at the lesson chart.
“Oh hey there. I figured you’d be back.” Janet smiled at him, and then frowned gently when he asked about Faris. “He went out with his brother first thing. They should be back by now. Check the long field.”
Gerard wandered in the direction he’d been directed, walking softly, and greeting horses who put their heads over stall doors to watch him as he went past. He held out a cautious hand and was gently snorted at by a very large, thick set black horse, who he found faintly terrifying. The main barn was separated from the big sand school where he’d ridden Murphy by a well swept dirt track. Not far away there were small square fields where horses stood cropping the spring grass, looking happy in the morning sun.
The long field was easy to find. At the end of the path Gerard rounded the end of a thick hedge much taller than he was, and found himself standing at the top end of a field which at first glance appeared to stretch all the way to the horizon. The grass was long, nearly reaching his knees, but along the edges of the field the ground was beaten with many impressions of hooves, and coming up the slope was Faris, walking with his shirt open over his tanned chest. Alongside him was a man who could only have been his brother. Even though the other man had brown hair rather than red, and wore his in a decidedly messy mullet, they looked so similar that Gerard could see how Faris might look in another five years when they were both finished with puberty. His brother was tall, rangy, and smiled like a sunset. He cuffed his younger brother around the head and ruffled his untidy fringe.
“You did awesome today. We galloped like half a mile… you’re getting fast.”
“Thanks Peresh.” Faris glanced up from the short grass under his feet, and pulled his open shirt over his chest when he saw Gerard waiting at the top end of the field. “I’ll see you later.”
“Is that him?”
Gerard found himself being regarded by Faris’s older brother with an arched eyebrow and thin lips.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“Good luck little colt.”
Gerard smiled at Faris’s older brother as he passed, but the young man simply narrowed his eyes, and jogged away out of sight. Faris finished buttoning his shirt as he drew near.
Faris’s sleeves were pushed up around his elbow, and the red, raw mark of the burn Gerard had given him stood out against his gentle tan. His jaw was marked too, but though whenever Gerard yawned he ached, he knew Faris wouldn’t be feeling any pain.
“I’m sorry about your jaw.”
“I’m sorry about your arm.” Gerard took a deep breath. Here it was, the moment he’d waited nearly nine years for since the first time he’d got hurt. “You feel what I feel, don’t you?”
Faris scuffed his left foot in the short grass, and ran his fingers through his hair before he looked up. His toffee-gold eyes echoed the years Gerard had spent not knowing. He looked like a man defeated.
“What happened to you the day I lost my foot?”
“Walk with me.” Faris jerked his head, and Gerard began to follow him back down the sloping field.
They sat together half in the shade cast by an enormous oak tree which jutted from the hedge. Faris stared openly as Gerard used his hands to adjust the cuff of his jeans and the angle of the carbon-fibre prosthetic as he sat.
“We were eleven, and it was really dark right?” Faris didn’t wait for a response. “Peresh had to come pick me up from school early. I felt awful. Like all day I was going to throw up…. You fell off your bike and got hit by a car? It was my fault. I think I even blacked out when you did.”
“But what happened? You were in pain before I fell off my bike.” Gerard looked sideways at the other boy. “Faris?”
“Hey, it’s OK.” Gerard reached out and touched Faris’s shoulder. To his surprise, the red-haired boy leant into him until they were touching from shoulder to knee, Faris’s head against his cheek.
“I felt it when you were in surgery, when they took your foot. It didn’t… hurt, not like getting hit by the car hurt, but I fell over all the time afterwards. Sometimes my foot falls asleep and forgets it’s there, or I trip and it’s like… I don’t know how to explain.”
“I know.” Gerard flexed his knee. “I forget sometimes too, even after all this time.”
Faris touched a finger to the burn on Gerard’s arm, and Gerard felt deeply guilty for hurting the boy he wanted to think of as his friend.
“Why is it only ever pain?”
“What?” Gerard tried to sit up and look at Faris, but the other boy simply opened his hand in Gerard’s lap. There was nothing written on his palm, but Gerard understood the message. “Those reach you…?” He wondered aloud. “I never thought they would.”
“But you hoped?”
Faris’s hand skimmed down his left leg towards his knee, then stopped. Gerard shivered involuntarily.
“Can you take it off?”
Gerard had never expected to be asked that, not by Faris certainly. Apart from his physiotherapists, doctors, parents, and Desmond, no one had seen Gerard without one or other of his prosthetics in place. He shrugged, and began to roll up his jeans to reveal the thin plastic socket to which the Thrive was attached. He unfastened the buckle of the elastic strap and eased his residual limb from socket and sock in one motion. The stump was smooth and shiny, well healed. For Gerard, it was sometimes hard to remember what his leg had looked like whole.
“Does it hurt?”
“No. You’d feel it if it did.” Gerard chewed his lower lip uncertainly. “Or maybe not. I mean, it’s not like I feel it every time you stub your toe.”
“Just when I get chucked off a horse?”
“When was that?”
“The first time?” Faris queried. “End of the summer before I didn’t manage to start secondary school on time.”
“That was my birthday.” Gerard smiled as he remembered coming off his bike for no reason at all. “Why didn’t you start school on time?”
“Peresh got… sick. He needed me around. He’s OK now.”
“You guys are close?”
“Yeah. We ride together a lot. And it’s sort of fun living with him while our parents are away.” Faris glanced up at him. “You have any siblings?”
“No. Not unless you count Dezi. We’ve known each other since we were four.”
Faris sat up with a frown, and instantly Gerard missed the contact of the other boy. He clearly wasn’t the only one, and Faris’s hand returned to hold his in the grass between them.
“Have you told him about… whatever this is?”
“Yeah. He knew after our fight. You’re not mad are you?”
“A little. Does that make me a jerk, Ger?”
“Oh, so you do remember my name,” Gerard joked.
“You scare me a little bit.”
“You’re so good at talking to people Gerard.” Faris tried to smile, but Gerard could see the uncertainty in his eyes.
“You can talk to horses,” he pointed out.
“That’s not nearly as difficult as you think.” Faris took Gerard’s hand with him as he lay back in the grass, and Gerard found himself using Faris’s bicep as a pillow. “So you think your parents are going to let you have riding lessons here?”
“Heels down! Keep your hands steady and hold his head.”
Gerard obeyed the instruction, gathering the rubberised reins together in his hands, making sure to grip them properly and keep his wrists floating just above the pommel of the saddle as he rode around the ring.
“Better!” his instructor had to shout from the centre. Gerard felt her attention turn to one of his peers. “Heels down, Bethany!”
Gerard had been somewhat surprised to find his parents had gifted him an early birthday present of a summer of riding lessons, and he had spent each Saturday morning until the end of term listening intently and following instructions. His class contained two others girls of about his age, but who attended different schools. Like him they were totally new to riding. Their instructor made them swap horses often, and Gerard had become much more adept at slipping out of the saddle without falling over, though he could not mount up from the ground.
“OK! Move to trot!”
Gerard pressed his heels to the bay horse’s flanks and clicked his tongue as he had seen and heard other riders do. The horse took two paces quickly, but then slowed. Gerard gritted his teeth, pressed harder with his heels, and rose slightly in the saddle as he squeezed the horse with his knees.
The horse began to trot around the outside of the sand school, his head flicking towards the centre. Gerard pulled gently on the left rein, trying to keep his ride to the edge, pacing in the hoof prints of the other horses. The brown horse napped towards the middle of the school, and Gerard lost the trot as he fought to control his steed.
He was grateful when the instructor called them all back over.
“He’s not happy with me,” Gerard sighed. “I’m doing something wrong, aren’t I?”
“Hmm….” She put her head on one side, and then walked around him and the horse. “Let’s try lengthening the stirrup on your left side. I was reading an article about amputee riders, and apparently a lot of them find they have better control with a longer leg. It should help you apply more pressure with that boot, and that should help keep him in line.”
Gerard pulled his knee up onto the saddle while she fiddled with the leather of the stirrups, and re-set his boot into the rung. He swung the stirrup, testing where his heel would impact the horse, and smiled as the beast turned his head to follow the motion.
“OK, try again.”
This time, Gerard found it easier to keep his horse in line, and when he asked for the trot he got it. They looped the sand-school three times, were directed over a set of three flat trotting poles lain out on the ground, and then told to canter down the far side. Gerard squeezed his horse, lifted himself in the saddle, and the horse cantered smoothly. Gerard couldn’t stop smiling.
After the lesson they walked their horses back to the tacking up area, hung the tack, brushed them down, and walked them back to their field. Gerard let the others draw ahead of him as they returned. He was looking at each of the horses he passed. Half a dozen stalls had back doors, opening out into long thin fields where the horses could have some freedom. In the last one, there was a horse.
A big red horse, glowing in the summer sunlight, stood proudly in the short grass watching him. Gerard stopped, frozen in place, staring at the animal. He knew that shade, the colour he saw every night in his dreams. The shape of the horse’s neck, the way he stood, the curve of his back, was all so familiar. Gerard had no idea how long he stood, staring at the horse, but the noise of boots and hooves distracted him, and when he turned to look back into the field, the red horse was gone.
By the time he got back to the car park, Faris was leaning against the sand school fence in the sunshine, thumbs in his pockets, smiling.
“How was your lesson?”
“It got better at the end,” Gerard admitted. “Hard work, though.”
“All riding is, Ger.” Faris rubbed his shoulder and smiled. “Come walk with me?”
“Sure, let me just change.”
Gerard liked the way he looked in his cream riding breeches and the tall brown leather boots, but the fixed foot was hard to walk in. Gerard stowed his prosthetic and his boots in his bag and left it hanging on the fence post as he followed Faris away from the sand school, and out into the long field.
The hay had been cut in the last week of term, right before the summer holidays. Faris had been late to school all that week, tired and droopy, running away the moment the bell sounded to spend his evenings hauling in the bales. On the Friday Gerard had come out to watch the last of the harvest being brought in. He relished the sight of Faris working in the late evening sun with his shirt off, sweaty and covered in bits of chaff as he threw the heavy bales to his brother up on the hay cart. Faris had smiled at him like the setting sun, and Gerard hadn’t been able to think of anything else for hours afterwards.
Now the field was covered in yellow stubble, new green grass creeping up between the old shoots, and Gerard took Faris’s hand in his own as they rounded the hedge. In his palm he’d written ‘tomorrow?’, and hadn’t bothered to scrub it off. Faris’s skin bore a faded mark of his handwriting.
“It’s not like I thought it would be,” Gerard sighed. “In my dreams it’s like I can… I don’t know…. I understand what the horse wants, and we do it together. In lessons it’s like the horses don’t trust me.”
“They don’t know you yet.” Faris squeezed his fingers. “You have to trust a horse when you ride.”
“Says the boy who gets thrown off?”
“Hey! Not all the time. Anyway, I blame Peresh. His horse spooked… though I should have known better than to gallop by the lake. Damn fishermen and their stupid umbrellas.” Faris stopped by the shade of the big oak tree and turned to him. “Tell me about your dream?”
“You know about my dreams.”
“Ger….” Faris reached out and combed Gerard’s hair back from his eyes. He was faintly sweaty and unkempt after riding, and the intimate touch made him blush and look away. Faris’s honey-gold eyes were warm and open when he glanced up again. “I love to hear you talk about it.”
“So we were riding in the big square field….”
All through the end of term and beginning of the summer, Gerard’s dreams had been so vivid that waking up was a physical shock like being hit in the chest. He rode the big red horse around the field, hooves firmly on the ground, and Gerard found he didn’t miss flying at all. He and the horse thought together, breathed together, moved together. When he dreamed of riding, there was nowhere he would rather be, not even with Faris. It was a detail he hadn’t shared with anyone at all. Every night he and the big red horse jumped the fence around the field, and rode for miles through countryside Gerard was sure he recognised but couldn’t place. They leapt a stream which glistened and sang in the summer sun, and the horse brayed as Gerard called out to the sky, rejoicing. Every time he got off though, it was still the same, and no matter how carefully he dismounted, he always fell into his bed with his heart racing.
“Does it wake you, when I write to you in the middle of the night?” Gerard asked. Most nights after he woke, he found himself writing on his skin. His messages had gotten too long to fit on his palm, and his morning showers often found him scrubbing text from his entire arm.
“Sometimes.” Faris shrugged. “Sometimes I’m awake anyway.” The other boy leant close to Gerard, and he couldn’t tell which of them shivered when he spoke against Gerard’s neck. “I love it when you write to me.”
All too soon, Gerard had to go and meet his father, talk about his lesson, and pretend his heart wasn’t still back in the long field with the red-haired boy who had stolen his very first kiss.
Gerard frowned at the lesson chart on the white board. In the space next to his name where there should have been a stable or field number and the name of his horse for the lesson, there wasn’t anything at all. He checked again, just to be sure, and then went to go and find Janet. The barn manager wasn’t in her office, but the tall figure of Peresh was reaching up to change a light bulb. He smiled when he saw Gerard.
They’d spoken a few times over the past weeks since Gerard had started coming to the farm, but nothing beyond polite niceties and queries as to the location of their shared point of contact. Faris was often with his brother when Gerard arrived or left, though he’d still never seen either of them on horses together. Not for the first time, Gerard wondered how much Faris had told his brother about him.
“I was looking for Janet. I don’t know what horse I’m supposed to use.”
“Oh! Don’t worry. I do.”
“I’ll show you.” Peresh clapped him on the shoulder with a broad grin. “You’ve not met him yet I think.”
OK….” Gerard chewed his lower lip, feeling unsure, but followed Faris’s older brother anyway.
“So, that’s the outfit my brother picked out for you?”
“You’re gonna wear those breeches out pretty quick using them so hard. If you’re going to start riding more often, you’ll need more than one pair.” Peresh looked him up and down, but smiled like he approved of the way Gerard looked.
“Oh… I mean, I don’t think I could afford lessons more often.”
“Riding with your boyfriend isn’t normally considered as ‘lessons’,” Peresh replied. The older man seemed to become aware Gerard had stopped, and turned to look at the boy gaping at him. “Was it supposed to be a secret? You’re all he talks about.”
“Umm….” Gerard felt his cheeks getting hotter and hotter, and stuck his hands in his pockets nervously.
“C’mon, come meet Red.”
The big red horse from his dreams stood in the stall as calm and quiet as Murphy had done the first day Gerard had come to the stables. There was tack hanging over the side of the stall. Gerard barely heard a word Peresh said as he stood there, watching the red horse watching him back. The next time he looked around, Peresh had gone, and Gerard was alone with the horse he’d dreamt about for as long as he could properly remember.
He let himself into the stall and latched it behind him, though he got the distinct feeling the horse was as unlikely to bolt as any animal could be, then picked up the curry comb in one hand. It was sort of a pointless task, because the strong red horse glowed like polished copper. He stood calm and quiet under Gerard’s hands, and when Gerard reached up to rub his withers, the great head came around and nuzzled against his thigh.
“Oh, you like that, huh?”
The horse snorted softly in reply.
“There….” Gerard combed his fingers through the horse’s thick mane, the texture as familiar as his own skin under his hands. “I don’t know how I’m going to dress you. You’re huge!”
The tack was the same as the sort he’d used before, though the leather was butter soft and brown, the same shade as his riding boots. Gerard found a large red saddle pad, and after a couple of tries got the saddle sitting properly on the horse’s shoulders. He checked it with his fingers, then hung the girth and wrapped it underneath the horse’s body. He’d grown used to the way the lesson horses blew out their stomachs when the girth was done up, trying to keep it loose, but the big red horse simply breathed normally, watching him work, waiting. Gerard hung the stirrups to the height he thought he might need, making the left one longer as he’d grown used to, and then gathered up the bridle and reins.
The red horse towered over him, far taller than anything he’d ever tried to ride before, and Gerard gulped audibly.
What am I doing?
Haven’t you waited your whole life for this? His inner voice asked him. Isn’t he the horse you’ve always dreamed of?
But it’s a dream! Gerard pointed out silently. This is a real horse… a beautiful horse.
Well then, what are you waiting for?
As though Red could hear his thoughts, the horse ducked his head and nuzzled at his abdomen, snorting softly through his velvet nose before pressing the whole length of his face right up against Gerard’s chest. Automatically, Gerard wrapped his arms around the horse’s head and buried his face in his mane between his ears. The scent from his dreams flooded his nostrils, and Gerard knew he would rather limp out of the stables on his stump than go any longer without riding that horse.
The bit was different from other’s Gerard had used, jointed into three pieces, made of hard plastic, and the centre section held a series of little copper rings which spun freely. Red took it calmly, and Gerard peeled back the horse’s super soft lips to check it was in position before reaching up to place the headpiece over his ears.
“I’m too short!”
Without a second’s hesitation, Red ducked his head, and Gerard smoothed the leather over his ears and into position. He settled the check pieces, looped the throat lash on it’s loosest setting and did the noseband up where there was already a well-worn groove in the leather. Red flicked his ears forwards and huffed gently.
There was another piece of leather lying over the stable wall, and Gerard frowned.
“What is that?”
There was a large hoop of leather, with two very short straps attached to o-rings at the back, and another much larger piece coming down like a Y at the front. Gerard held it up and frowned.
“Do you know?”
Red shook his head and whinnied. Gerard got the impression he was being laughed at as the horse flicked his ears forward and shoved his nose through the opening in the leather. Gerard pushed it the rest of the way down his neck, found the clips to which each strap attached, and stood back looking at the big red horse, feeling pleased. He had no idea what the breast-plate was for or why he might need the wide strap of leather which rested in front of the saddle like a handle, but Red clearly felt ready, and Gerard found himself being nudged to the front of the stall.
They walked out together into the sunshine, and Gerard found one of his classmates staring at him.
“You’re riding the stallion?”
“Er… yes?” Gerard wasn’t sure why such a fact was important. “Peresh told me to.”
“He’s a big horse.”
“Yeah… let’s hope I don’t fall off.”
Their instructor simply arched an eyebrow when she saw Gerard with Red. He climbed up the mounting block on the wrong side, put his foot in the stirrup and transferred his weight into the saddle.
They were told to warm up, to trot, to try a controlled canter. They were put over trotting poles, a tiny cross pole only twelve inches off the ground, asked to make circles, figure of eights, and practice leg yielding for the first time.
Gerard never heard a single thing anyone said the whole time.
He moved when Red moved, he breathed with the horse, felt his pulse echoing the one he could feel through his thighs where they touched. He barely asked for anything; by the time he’d moved his hands to turn, the red horse was already moving in sync with his thoughts. He gripped with his knees, and by the time his heels had moved to make contact, Red had already changed his gait. Gerard had never felt so comfortable in his entire waking life. He felt whole.
By the time the lesson ended, Gerard simply smiled at his instructor as he slipped down from the saddle. Red turned and nuzzled his elbow as he scooped up the reins.
“Thank you.” Gerard patted his neck, stroking the soft red fur. “Thank you.”
They walked the horses off together in the sand-school, and Gerard tried not to let his left foot drag, even though he was suddenly tired. Two rounds later, he kept a hand on Red’s neck as they returned to the stable. The horse dipped his head to allow Gerard to remove his bridle, and as he hung it over the half-door, Janet rounded the corner.
“What are you doing?” Her voice snapped like a whip. “Who gave you permission to ride him?!”
Gerard was about to answer, but instead of his voice, all he could find was a blur of pain, a twist in his belly which made him want to throw up, and a momentary dizzying headache. Gerard blinked hard, one arm wrapped over his stomach, as he heard a voice behind him.
Faris stood in the otherwise empty stable behind him, the chest piece hanging around his neck, his nakedness covered only by the fact he was holding the brown leather saddle with one arm over his abdomen.
Gerard’s vision swam, Faris’s golden eyes met his with a smile, and Gerard fainted.
“Oh Ger, I’m sorry. Peresh told me I shouldn’t surprise you like that… but what would he know, eh?”
Gerard became aware as he woke of Faris’s fingers stroking his hair, the other boy’s voice close by, the warmth spreading up his back. He was also stiff, uncomfortable, and his mouth ached like he’d been chewing gum for an hour. He knew he wasn’t dreaming.
“You ride really well, especially for a green colt. I can’t wait to try some big jumps like we did in the dream.”
Gerard tried to sit up, and Faris’s arms tightened around his ribs.
“You’ll forgive me, right?”
“I didn’t ever want to lie to you, but I wasn’t sure… not until you started telling me about your dreams. Then I knew it was you. I’ve known for weeks, and I couldn’t think of a good way to tell you. This seemed… easier.”
Gerard cleared his throat.
“You’re a horse.”
“Your brother is too, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Aunt Janet’s not. Only boys get to shift.”
“Oh….” Gerard accepted this fact as though Faris had simply confirmed the state of the weather.
“I’ve been dreaming about you my whole life.” Faris’s voice shook with emotion. “I never got to see your face. We stood in the field and I watched you the whole time, but you never turned around. Then you rode me, but I never got to see you. I remember your hands in my mane… I’ve always wanted that feeling.”
“I’ve never not loved you.”
Gerard felt the words sink into his skin, listened to the beat of Faris’s heart against his shoulder blade, and knew that it was true.
“Faris is a what?”
Gerard winced as Desmond exploded in expletives and shouted questions. He had known he would have to tell his best friend, because it was far too large a secret to carry. Though Faris hadn’t liked the idea at all, he’d understood. Gerard knew he couldn’t lie to Desmond for the rest of his life, so he didn’t want to start out doing so.
“Dezi… calm down….”
“Calm down? CALM DOWN!” Desmond strode up and down Gerard’s bedroom, and Gerard gave silent thanks he’d chosen a time when his parents weren’t home. “My parents take me to the South of France for two bloody weeks, and I come back, and Faris is a fucking horse! How am I supposed to be calm?”
Gerard sighed, grabbed his house crutch, stuck it out, and tripped up his friend. Desmond landed with a thud on his backside.
“He’s a shapeshifter. It’s a family thing.”
“Of course, sounds completely reasonable,” Desmond mocked.
“He’s the big red horse.”
“Wait… what?” Desmond gaped, his jaw hanging slack. “The big red horse from your dreams? The one you’ve been having since we were kids? That’s Faris?”
“Yeah.” Gerard smiled, feeling warmth like sunlight spreading from his heart as he spoke. “He has the same dreams, every time I do.”
They were silent for a while, and Gerard got up from his bed and reached out a hand to help his best friend up.
“C’mon, let’s go raid the kitchen for snacks.”
Desmond loved having free access to Gerard’s kitchen cupboards, and whilst he may not have taken Food Technology as one of his school subject choices, he was king at putting together lunch out of nothing. Gerard sat at the breakfast bar and watched his best friend assemble a pair of sandwiches several inches tall, garnish a salad with crisps and walnuts, create a multi coloured drink from orange juice, lemonade, and blackcurrant cordial, and fan a variety of cheeses across a plate.
“You know, normal teenagers do not snack like we do,” Gerard said with a grin.
“I know.” Desmond sounded smug, and pushed Gerard’s glass across towards him. “Then again, normal teenagers do not have boyfriends who turn into horses.”
“He’s not my boyfriend….” Gerard chewed his lower lip. “We’ve never said it. It doesn’t seem….”
“Labels aren’t important when you’ve been dreaming about each other your whole life.” Desmond shrugged, like it didn’t matter. “So did you guys talk about the pain thing?”
It had been the conversation Gerard had dreaded, and about the only thing which made him start it was the knowledge that Faris felt just as awful as he did. But he couldn’t go on not knowing about the bruises which had appeared on his body. What he hadn’t really realised was there had been times when he’d been injured, and Faris had felt it. They’d sat side by side under the shade of the big oak tree, and talked through their injuries.
“He got hurt before I did.”
“You remember when we were in Reception class making Christmas cards? And I found the big scissors?”
Desmond nodded. They’d already been friends then, and he’d been jealous Gerard using big shiny grown-up scissors with points when he’d been stuck with plastic safety scissors. When Gerard had somehow managed to cut his hand, a big gash diagonally across one finger, both their white Christmas snow scenes had been flecked with blood.
“He felt that?”
“Yeah, bled and everything. His teacher freaked out, because all they were doing was reading a story.”
“We were only six.”
“I know.” Gerard ate his sandwich, mostly to stop himself chewing his lip and feeling guilty all over again. “That bruise on my shin was the first time he got kicked by a horse, some mare that was eating and didn’t notice him behind her.”
Gerard had hated hearing about the night he’d fallen off his bike and got hit by the car. They’d both been in so much pain, but Faris had cried because he’d been in pain first. It hadn’t been his fault.
Shifters were supposed to have their first change around puberty, and Peresh had his at the end of the summer, the day Faris had been thrown from his horse as he’d cantered along the lake near the fishermen. No one had been expecting Faris to come home from school feeling like his stomach was trying to crawl up out of his throat, spend the next three hours shaking and sweating feverishly, then have his entire body try to destroy itself as he’d changed shape with no warning. The pain of a first change was immense; bones breaking, growing, re-forming, muscles changing size and shape, vision skewing into colours which had previously been sounds, teeth grinding and stretching in a jaw which was busy trying to break itself, internal organs which didn’t know which way they wanted to go, and a heart which grew and hammered too many times a second to allow him to stay fully conscious.
The pain had forced Gerard off his bike, and then Faris’s agony had been compounded by being run over. Gerard imagined them both, the boy and the young colt, lying in the dark, Faris in his bedroom and Gerard in the road, half dead and broken, and not knowing why they were being made to suffer so much.
“But it doesn’t hurt every time he changes? It can’t, you’d be a mess the entire time.” Desmond wondered aloud.
“Those first few months after the crash and after the surgery, I think a lot of that pain wasn’t really mine. But then I was in pain a lot, and so was he. I don’t think it really matters who the pain belonged to – we both felt it after all.”
“Is it worth it?”
Gerard looked across the counter at his friend. Desmond licked mayonnaise from one finger and arched at eyebrow at him. They’d known each other their whole lives, technically longer than Faris and his own brother. Desmond had been there for every hurt and fear, every time one of them had bled, or got in trouble, or done something cool. Desmond was the only one who knew about his dreams, who had listened without making fun when Gerard had told him how right it felt to sit astride the big red horse. The boy who would sit with him through his physiotherapy appointments, do the stretches alongside him, and laugh like any normal person when he was clumsy. Now he sat there and asked if everything his connection with Faris had put him through was worth it. Gerard didn’t even need to picture the red-haired boy’s soft smile or his honey-coloured eyes to know the answer.
Gerard brushed imaginary dirt from his new riding breeches and tugged on the hem of his polo-shirt as he climbed out of the car. His father got out of the passenger seat and smiled at his son as he swapped over.
“How’s it feel with the new foot?”
“Really good. Thanks Dad.”
He was already wearing his riding boots. Along with a trip to the biggest equestrian outfitters in the area, his parents had taken him to the doctors to have a new prosthetic socket made, and treated him to a false foot which fit inside his riding boots but which had a jointed and sprung heel. It was a late seventeenth birthday present to go with the driving lessons they had promised.
Gerard tugged on his shirt again, and chewed his lower lip. Desmond had bought him the embroidered leather gaucho belt, and Gerard had chosen a shirt to match the new saddle pad, red with white trim, which he’d bought for Faris. He smoothed the fabric over his stomach again, wishing his abs were better defined and he could get the sort of results at the gym which Desmond seemed to produce so easily. For the first time in a long time, he was nervous of how he looked.
“You look great Ger.”
“He’s gonna think so too.”
“Y-yeah?” Gerard glanced down at his body and cursed himself for getting a shirt which fit so well. There was nowhere to hide now.
“That boy thinks the sun shines out of your side, son. You could turn up in jeans and an old hoodie with mud up the front and he’d still smile.”
“Dad….” Gerard shook his head at his father and wondered if he would ever stop being teased about what Faris had been wearing the first time he’d met Gerard’s parents properly. His boyfriend had made a much better impression when Peresh had dropped him off for dinner, but the sight of Faris covered in mud and chaff, having been rolling around in the fields before pulling on whatever clothes he could find in a hurry, was one that stuck.
“Go on. He’s dropping you home?”
“Yes.” Gerard chewed his lip. “We might go out later….”
“Will Mum be mad if I miss dinner?”
“No. Be home by ten, OK?”
Gerard smiled, and waved to his father as he drove away. He turned towards the stables, and headed for his stall. These days, he didn’t need to get changed before he came, and Gerard kept spare jeans, a couple of t-shirts and his tack hanging up in the cupboard attached to the back of his and Faris’s stable. The name plate on the door said ‘Red Frost’, and Janet had given them strict instructions to make sure the top half of the door was closed whenever either of them was getting changed. Gerard went to the cupboard to place his Thrive foot on the shelf to use later on, and stroked the ribbons of the rosettes from the summer season which hung on the back of the door. They were mostly red and blue, a few yellows, and the sight of them made Gerard proud of all he’d managed to accomplish.
“We’re still shite at dressage.” Faris’s voice was warm against the back of his neck, arms sneaking around his waist. “You got new clothes. You look great.”
“Thanks. And you’re great at dressage. I can just never remember what to do.”
“Ha! Everyone knows all the excitement is in the jumping anyway.” Faris hugged him tight, and Gerard felt better than he had at any moment since he’d woken up that morning. “So did you get me presents?”
Gerard turned to watch his boyfriend examine the red and white saddle pad and the brown tendon and fetlock boots he’d bought for jumping with. Faris’s eyes lit up whenever Gerard gave him anything, and though Gerard thought it unfair he mostly bought presents for his boyfriend as a horse, Faris said he liked that someone was proud of him. Gerard found his boyfriend’s fingers at his belt buckle, and blushed as Faris drew them together.
“Faris….” Gerard glanced at the stable door, and Faris chuckled.
“I think it’s cute,” he purred in Gerard’s ear. “I love that I can make you blush.”
“You boys getting a move on for the lesson, or what?” Peresh’s voice made Gerard jump backwards, knocking into the cupboard shelves with a wince. “Stop ogling that boy and get a move on. You’ve still got a horse to tack up, Ger.”
Peresh shut the upper door on them as he passed by, and Faris looked faintly guilty.
“C’mon then, let’s go show these other riders how it’s done.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a cocky bastard Faris?”
“You do!” Faris stripped off his shirt, and shucked out of boots, socks, and trousers in one motion. “I love you, Ger.”
“Love you too.” Gerard had the words inked on his arm with a Sharpie, and just before Faris shifted, he saw the faded image mirrored on his boyfriend’s skin.
Faris shook out his thick mane, snorted, and Gerard opened the stable door as he began to tack up. He gave Faris’s shoulders a quick rub with the curry comb before placing the saddle pad over his neck, and strapped his boyfriend up with confident efficiency.
He still rode other horses in lessons sometimes, and though his control was excellent, and Faris had been right when he’d first said they could turn him into a good rider, Gerard never found it as fulfilling as riding with his boyfriend. He swung up from the ground as they exited through the main stable. Gerard spared a look for the kids in the tacking up area, because even the confident ones who’d been doing it for years stared after him and Faris as they rode out. Red was always the most impeccably turned out horse, and though Gerard liked to rub him down after a ride, Faris often preferred to change back and stand under the hose in his skin. More than once in the hot summer months when he’d spent his days bringing in the hay, he’d been able to coax Gerard into joining him.
The lesson was populated by riders from out of town, in for the summer with their horses, come to train at a higher level than they did at home. When Gerard had first told them he’d only been riding two years, he’d been laughed at, but four fences and a ditch later, that hadn’t mattered. Today they were working on combination fences, and Gerard kept his eyes on the big blue oxer. There were only two strides between the single jump and the final four-foot fence. It wasn’t the biggest they’d jumped, but big enough for Faris to sit up, flick his ears, and take notice.
Desmond had been completely confused about how their relationship worked in the ring. Peresh too, but Gerard had never stopped to wonder how it would work, or where the lines of intimacy would be drawn when he rode Faris. They were meant to be together, and nothing had ever felt forced when they rode.
Now Faris turned without Gerard’s control of the reins, just a touch of his heel and a turn of the head, and they lined up, rounded the corner at a canter, and pushed for the jump. Gerard had learnt to ask for a jump, to give a squeeze of knees and heels, because otherwise people watching got angry and suspicious at his and Red’s great performances. But it was all for show. He lifted himself in the stirrups and rocked with Faris, holding the reins loose, his fingers gripped into the base of his mane and the strap of the breastplate, and counted the jumps as they flew over.
Afterwards, sweaty and tired, they all stripped the horses off at the side of the sand school and hosed them down. The other riders chatted and laughed, but their horses shuffled uneasily around Faris’s proud shape, ducked their heads and showed their subservience to a creature so much more powerful than they. Gerard looped a woven rope into a simple lariat halter, and lead Faris away with a wave.
“Let’s go play in the long field.”
Faris snickered in agreement.
It was late August, and the hay had been cut in mid-July. It was Gerard’s favourite time of the summer to be in the great big field, because as he let Faris slip his head from the rope, he knew they could run anywhere without damaging the crop. The day he and his boyfriend had spent lying in the long grass had earned them both extra mucking out when Janet had found the great big flat patch of bruised grass.
Faris trotted away from him, his red coat gleaming in the sunshine, then circled back and cantered right at him. Gerard ducked out of the way and began to half skip across the field, calling to his horse as Faris snorted and brayed happily. The new hinged foot moved well, and Gerard was able to jog into the dappled shade of their favourite oak tree before he felt Faris change shape behind him, and catch him around the waist.
“You got quick.”
“Nah, you’re just tired.”
“Ha!” Faris held tight, got a bare foot hooked under Gerard’s ankle, and sent them both sprawling on the ground. He balanced himself over his boyfriend, messy damp fringe hanging in his eyes, and grinned broadly. “I’m not tired.”
Gerard glanced south, and blushed. Faris arched an eyebrow, his expression becoming smug.
“I’m not tired,” he repeated.
“Do you have no shame?”
“Nope.” Faris leant down and their lips brushed ever so gently. Gerard tried to keep the contact with his fingers in Faris’s hair, but the other young man pulled back. “I’d never be ashamed with you.”
Gerard bit his lip, and wished he was as confident in his skin as the boy he loved so clearly was.
“I can see you thinking in there Gerard.” Whenever Faris used his full name, he was always being serious. “You’re beautiful.”
Gerard blushed, and mumbled without feeling.
“I’m going to tell you every day until you believe me.” Faris rested all his weight into his forearms against the ground, bringing their bodies together with a smile. “You’re beautiful, and I love you.”
“I love you too.” Gerard wove his fingers into Faris’s hair once more, and shut his boyfriend up with his tongue.
Gerard woke with a sigh. It was dark, much too dark to be morning, and a glance at the clock told him it as much too early to be awake. They been in the square field, playing together like they so often did these days, but it had been winter, the ground hard and sparkling with frost. Gerard couldn’t help but wonder what it meant.
He’d never seen the square field awake, though the oak tree near the fence they often jumped was the same one they loved to sit under in the long field. Faris said it was a field back home, where his parents were. Gerard lay awake, staring at his ceiling and wondering when he would get a chance to meet them. His thoughts had drifted when he felt the sensation of ink crawling up his leg.
Faris was never the one to write to him, and Gerard wondered what it was going on as he pushed the quilt down to examine his left thigh. It was just like Faris to choose the most awkward of places to write. His boyfriend’s handwriting had never been good, but in steady block capitals Gerard watched the words forming on his thigh.
‘You are beautiful.’
The words ended at the leg of his boxers, and Gerard couldn’t help but blush. It wasn’t that he didn’t think of Faris in bed. He did often, but it was strangely exhilarating to know his boyfriend was across town, sitting up in his own bed and thinking of him right at that moment. Gerard took his own pen, and wrote on his arm.
‘You’re such a flirt. Go back to sleep.’
‘Can’t. I love you.’
Gerard knew exactly the direction his boyfriend’s thoughts were taking, and he shivered pleasurably.
‘I love you.’
There was nothing for a long time, and then Faris’s text moved to his left arm, his handwriting becoming messier as he sped up.
‘I hate waiting.’
Gerard could imagine Faris’s eyebrows drawn low, the determined set of his jaw, the desire in his honey coloured eyes. His boyfriend was very good at getting what he wanted, but Gerard had asked him to wait, and Faris had just kissed him, and accepted that Gerard needed the time. Gerard took his pen, knowing he’d have to scrub hard in the shower to get rid of so much text.
‘It’s my birthday soon. I’ll be eighteen.’
Faris didn’t write anything back, but as Gerard curled up on his side to go back to sleep, he watched a series of tiny love hearts and stick horses appearing on his inner arm.
The last day of August had dawned bright, hot, perfect. The sky was so blue, unmarked by even the faintest hint of cloud, and Gerard had hardly been able to stay inside long enough to get dressed. His parents had wanted to treat him for his birthday, take him out and spoil him, but Gerard had only kissed them both and smiled. Horses needed feeding and riding whatever the weather, whatever the day was, and Gerard hadn’t wanted to spend any more time than necessary away from the big red horse.
They’d ridden for hours, up over the trails and around the edges of fields to hunt-jumps they knew, sailed through the air dozens of times. Gerard had dropped the reins and gripped with his knees as Faris galloped along the ridge of a newly tilled field, riding them into what appeared to be a never ending sky. All night they’d both dreamt of flying once more over the frozen fields, and Gerard spent the whole time with his fingers wrapped in the red horse’s thick mane.
Normally, Gerard helped Faris with barn chores. He’d become expert at making up feed, mucking out stalls, and hauling bales of hay around. But Janet had left strict instructions that he was not allowed to work on his birthday. Gerard sat in the back of the yard pick-up swinging his foot, and watching his boyfriend working with his shirt off.
“Happy birthday Ger.” Peresh settled down next to him as Faris began to wash out the feed buckets with the hose and stiff scrubbing brush. “So my brother is spoiling you on your big day, I see.”
“Bro!” Faris glanced up with a frown, but his smile shone when he saw Gerard watching him.
“We went for an amazing ride,” Gerard sighed happily.
“You ride every day.” Peresh rubbed his shoulder. “No big plans?”
“Haha! I knew it!” Faris’s older brother boomed, his face splitting in a wide grin. “I knew you’d make him wait, Ger. Good for you.”
“Peresh!” Gerard and Faris both exclaimed at once.
“Don’t mind me boys….” Peresh hopped up from the pick-up with a smirk and stuck his thumbs in his pockets. “I’ll see you guys later on.”
Instructions to relax on his special day or not, Gerard rode out to the paddocks with his boyfriend and helped feed the livery and lesson horses, watching Faris roam the length of the electric fence for damage and check the levels of water troughs. Faris wore scruffy jeans and work boots, bits of chaff and grass stuck to his bare torso. Gerard looked across the curved back of a grey gelding at the boy he loved, and wished he felt as confident without a shirt on too. Gerard had seen his boyfriend naked more times than he could count, and he wanted to tell himself he hadn’t looked hard, but Gerard had always been a bad liar, even in his own head.
He’s the most beautiful creature that ever lived.
And he thinks I’m the pretty one. Gerard patted the grey gelding with a smile. I hope he’s not disappointed.
He’s not going to be, Gerard’s inner voice told him firmly.
Really? I’m not tan and muscled and perfect like that.
“I can see you thinking away in there, y’know.” Faris had somehow crept up on him, and his strong arms wrapped tightly around Gerard’s ribcage. “I love you, and you’re beautiful.”
“C’mon, let’s finish up. I gotta surprise for you.”
Gerard ducked under the electric fence and climbed onto the quad, arching an eyebrow at the red-haired boy.
“Give me some credit, Ger. I know how to treat my guy right and proper on his birthday.”
At some point, Faris had built a tent and stone fire pit at the far end of the long field. He, Peresh, and Desmond had organised a few drinks, sausages cooked over the flames, a stereo mounted on the back of the quad-bike, and a cake complete with eighteen candles for Gerard’s big day. The good weather lasted long into the evening, and by the time the fire had burnt down to embers, Gerard was snuggled up against his boyfriend’s chest, unable to do little more than wave to Desmond as Peresh had offered to drive him home. Faris coaxed him into the tent and out of his clothes, and Gerard had never felt so complete in all his life.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.” Gerard whispered the words against Faris’s skin, and felt the soft ghost of his touch on his own collarbone. “I’ve always loved you.”
They kissed in the dark, wrapped each other up in skin and blankets, and Gerard had finally given in to the desires his body and his boyfriend had had for years. The shock of feeling pleasure doubled over, lain upon itself and fed twice through all their nerve endings had been a surprise to them both. Nothing they’d done before had prepared the two young men for the fact it was not only pain they were capable of sharing. When they stopped to drink down warm oxygen inside the tiny canvas covered boudoir Faris had created, the red-haired young man had laughed in surprise and joy at their discovery.
They dozed happily, dreamt together, woke often to explore further and deeper pleasures, and slept again. When Gerard woke to find light and birdsong outside, he was surprised to glance up and find Faris’s honey eyes already open.
“Let’s go to America!”
“Huh?” Gerard frowned up at his boyfriend, adjusting his position against Faris’s chest. “What?”
“Let’s go to America,” Faris repeated with a broad smile. “Colorado, Montana, Wyoming… ride across the plains. Horse country, Ger. The West!”
“You’d really want to go?”
“Long days of sunshine and thick grass? Deep snow in the winter, all crunchy and white? You and me, and no one around to tell us what to do or how to ride.”
Faris ran a calloused palm down his spine, and Gerard moved into the touch eagerly. He’d waited a long time to enjoy every part of the boy he loved, and now nothing much was going to stop him.
“We’re eighteen now, we graduated… and I’m betting we can defer entry at Hadlow College for a year, maybe even forever.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Sure I do.” Faris kissed his forehead gently. “What do we need more schooling for, anyway? All I need is right here.” He wrapped his arms around Gerard’s torso and hugged him hard. “I’ll be wherever you are Ger, but I want us to go on an adventure.”
“As sure as I am about everything we did last night.”
“Faris!” Ger gaped at his boyfriend, and then buried his face into the young man’s strong chest.
“Ha ha! I love that I can still make you blush, especially after-”
“Babe!” Gerard cut him off, his fingers pressed over Faris’s lips. “You’re so crass.”
“Mean,” Faris replied without feeling.
Gerard frowned up at the red haired boy he adored, and laid his head against Faris’s chest. Loud and familiar in his ear was the other young man’s heartbeat, the strong double-thud which meant life. Gerard smiled to remember that for the first time, he had slept all night with that sound and texture against his skin. He had known, right from the start, that his heart was not his own, that he belonged to someone else. He belonged to Faris. Already he knew if the boy he loved, the big red horse he worshipped, wanted to ride across the American plains, they would both go. Now they’d spent the night together, having waited so long, Gerard couldn’t imagine ever sleeping alone again.
“So, what do you think?”
“America?” Gerard queried.
“Yeah….” Faris’s tone was wistful, his butter-toffee eyes unfocused, and Gerard could see the pictures which flowed across his boyfriend’s mind. Visions of a big red horse and his rider, running across an endless undulating plain of green, bright against the infinite cerulean sky. It was a good image.
Gerard kissed his boyfriend, touched the happy curve of his lips with the tips of his fingers, and frowned gently.
“Do you think I could maybe get around to meeting your parents first?”