The sharp rap on the door, followed by an urgent, "Zak, are you up!?" made Zak bolt upright in bed.
"'M up, Mom, I'm up," he mumbled.
"We have to leave in a half hour; you need to be downstairs in 15 minutes if you want to have breakfast before I drop you off at work."
"Ok, I'll be right down."
He heard her walk away from the door and head back downstairs. He laid back down on his bed, pulled his pillow over his face and screamed as loud as he could. Being awakened at 6:30 on a Saturday morning was not his idea of a great start to a weekend. When his mom had suggested he get a summer job, he had at first been excited. He would be turning 16 in August and his mom had promised him he would inherit her old Toyota, but he would have to be able to pay for the insurance and gas.
He had gone right to the library and Mrs. Clinton the librarian was thrilled to offer him a job as an assistant librarian; he would mainly work in the kid's section helping younger kids with their summer reading and helping out in general in the library. He thought he was set for a nice, easy, air-conditioned summer. But, his mother had other plans. She had secured him a job at a local ranch. She insisted that he be outdoors during the summer, and that he be more active. His only physical activity during the school year was swimming at the YMCA two or three days a week. He was a great swimmer, but he was not interested in joining the team. Her insistence that he take this job had resulted in Zak basically giving his mom the silent treatment for the past week.
And what was worse, in order to get him 'ready' for his new job, he had to spend every Saturday and Sunday there for the last month of the school year. After school ended he would work there five or six days a week. He wasn't exactly sure what would be expected of him. He figured he'd be shoveling shit most of the summer. However, he figured if he screwed up enough this weekend, maybe they would fire him and he could get his library job back.
Looking at the clock he realized time was getting away from him. He jumped out of bed and ran to his bathroom. He turned on the shower and, after dropping his briefs on the floor jumped in. He quickly showered and then stepped out and started to towel himself off. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His blond hair was started to get shaggy, but he had decided to let it grow out this summer. He didn't think he was the worst looking person in the world. In fact, he considered himself plain, but had heard some girls at school whispering about him; apparently they thought more of his looks than he did. He had a slight swimmer's build, lean and taut. He was slender and short for his age, barely measuring 5' 4". He was hoping for a growth spurt this summer, but since his mom topped out at 5' 3" and his dad had been only about 5" 7' (at least according to his mom), he figured that ship had pretty much sailed.
He did not remember his dad, who had died in a car accident when he was only a toddler. His blond hair and blue eyes he got from his mom; according to her, he got his love of books and imagination from his dad. He would often look at the pictures of his dad and wonder what the last 13 years would have been like if it hadn't been just him and his mom.
After his dad passed, his mom had taken the BA in Accounting that she earned just prior to marrying his dad and parlayed it into a Vice Presidency at a local bank. She was a bit of a workaholic, but had been able to provide a nice home for Zak and her job offered them financial security and stability.
He stepped out of the bathroom and went to his dresser. He had no idea what he should wear, since he had little to no idea what his job would entail. He didn't want to wear anything that might be irrevocably ruined since he had the feeling there would be a lot of muck and dirt in his future. He figured he would go with some ratty old jeans and an old t-shirt. He also decided to wear his old sneakers since he wasn't about to run around a ranch in his new Chuck's. It was only about 60 degrees out so he grabbed his old black hoodie and ran downstairs.
His mom was leaning against the counter drinking what was probably her third or fourth cup of coffee.
"Well, it's about time. I was about to go knock down your door."
"I'm ready." He looked out the kitchen window. "Mom, it's barely even light out. Are you sure I'm supposed to be there this early?"
"Yes; Jim said Mr. Jones was expecting you there at 7:30 this morning and that he would expect you to be there until 6 tonight and 4 tomorrow. He's not keeping you as long on Sundays right now because of school." Jim was a co-worker of his mom's; Mr. Jones, the owner of the ranch, was a friend of his and when Jim heard he was looking for summer help he told Zak's mom and the rest was settled before Zak knew what hit him.
"Did Jim know exactly what I would be doing?"
"Well, it's a horse ranch so I would imagine there will be a shovel in your future."
He shot his mom a dirty look as she grinned at him. "Ha, Ha," he rolled his eyes. "What makes you think this is the job for me? I've never even been to a ranch and the last time I was near a horse was the pony ride at the fair when I was five."
"Zak, Jim told Mr. Jones all about you, the work you do with younger kids at the library and the Y and about how good you are with computers; he also told him that you needed to get outdoors more."
"Let me finish. I know you had your heart set on the library job, but you know as well as I do that this job will pay you a lot more than working at the town library. You'll be able to earn more, you'll be out in the fresh air, and maybe you'll make some new friends."
'Ah-ha', he thought, 'the other shoe has dropped.' His mom was always dancing around the fact that he was essentially a loner. He had a few friends at school, but they were just that: school friends. He spent most of his time alone or at the library or the Y where he mainly worked with kids that were younger than him. He was often uncomfortable and tongue-tied around people his own age. Most people at school saw him as a small, smart, shy nerd and he didn't disagree with their opinion of him.
He had known he was 'different' since he was much younger; it wasn't until puberty hit that he was able to put his finger on what made him different than the other boys at school. While they were chasing the girls, all Zak could think about was chasing them. He had never seen what his male classmates saw in their female counterparts. But just being in the boys' locker room made his heart race. He knew that if anyone of his classmates knew his secret, his life would be unlivable. They might spend a lot of time in the media telling you 'It Gets Better', but you had to survive 'It' first.
From the moment the realization of his sexuality hit him, he had found himself more comfortable with younger kids. They were honest and he had fun teaching little kids to swim and read and helping them with schoolwork. When he was working with the little kids, he didn't have to worry about being turned on or aroused. He could relax, and in those moments he could be himself, not the guarded automaton he was in school.
His mom's voice woke him from his daydream. "Well, we need to get going."
"Ok, I'm ready." He grabbed a banana off the counter and ran to the fridge to grab a bottle of juice.
They didn't talk much on the way to ranch. Zak's mom knew he was nervous about this job and she felt a little guilty about forcing him to take it, but she was concerned about him. He spent too much time indoors and with kids much younger than he was. She knew he had a brilliant future as a teacher or in some other career working with kids, but she felt he needed to get outside and make some friends his own age. She didn't know if the friends part would be accomplished with this job, but she was glad he wouldn't be spending the summer all cooped up inside. Making the deal to give him her old car was worth it to make him accept this job.
The ranch was about 15 miles outside of town. Zak was again daydreaming as they drove. He was nervous, but he knew his mom was right about the money thing. His library job would have been one step above a volunteer role. They might have been able to pay him a few dollars a day and some of the parents would pay him to tutor, but the ranch job was paying him $10 an hour. The kids working at the local fast food joints weren't going to make that much. He'd promised his mom that he would try his best and he would, knowing that if he screwed up he could still get the library job back. Mrs. Clinton had made it clear that she was creating the job for him and she would not be filling just for the sake of filling it.
He looked up to see that his mom was turning down a dirt road. Ahead of them was a large locked gate. Over the gate was a sign reading 'Triple J Ranch'. The car came to a stop.
"OK, Sweetie, I'm going to drop you here, so I can get to work. Mr. Jones said to just go through the gate and go straight up the road and he would meet you at the barn. Do you have your phone, so you can call if you need anything?"
"I've got it, but I should be ok."
She leaned over to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I know you will. Just do your best and try to have fun, maybe you'll end up liking it."
He looked at her as if she had just taken complete leave of her senses. "I'll try, Mom."
"I'll be back to pick you up at 6."
He started to get out of the car.
"I love you, Zak."
"Love you, too, Mom."
He watched as his mom turned the car around and went back down the dirt road.
He walked over and unlatched the fence. He walked through the gate and locked it behind him. He might not know anything about a ranch, but he didn't want to get blamed for any animals getting out of the gate.
He looked up and saw nothing but woods and a long dirt road. He started walking down the road. He had walked for about 10 minutes when he finally saw a large building he assumed was the barn. He walked towards the building. When he was about 500 feet from the entrance of the building, he saw a huge dog come running out of the building and straight towards him. The dog was barking loudly and coming right at him. Zak stopped in his tracks thinking that he was going to be this dog's breakfast before he even started his job.
The dog came at him full speed and jumped up on him hitting him square in the chest with its front paws. The dog caught him off guard and Zak fell backwards and landed on his butt. He closed his eyes and waited for the jaws of this beast to go for his throat. When nothing happened he slowly opened one eye; the dog was standing over him and Zak could swear it was grinning at him. It took a step forward and licked him straight up his face from chin to forehead. Zak couldn't help himself, he sat there and started laughing while the dog continued to bathe his face.
"Ember!!" He looked up and saw a man marching out of the barn towards them. "Get off that poor boy!!"
The man stopped in front of them and the dog stopped licking Zak's face and walked over to the man. He reached down to offer Zak a hand up. "You must be Zachary."
Zak jumped to his feet and brushed himself off. 'Yes, sir, Zachary Myers, but most people just call me Zak."
"Nice to meet you, Zak, I'm Martin Jones and you've met Ember. Sorry about her greeting you that way. She's too damn friendly to be much of a watchdog. She's more likely to lick a trespasser to death."
"Oh, that's ok. She just startled me; I haven't been around animals too much. What kind of dog is she?"
"She's a Golden Retriever. They're known for being a big friendly ball of fluff and this one is that in spades. As much as I wish she was a little more of a protector, given the number of people we have come and go at the ranch, I guess I'm lucky she's as friendly as she is."
Sensing she was no longer in trouble, Ember walked over to Zak and moved her head under his hand. Zak smiled down at the dog and scratched her head.
"Well, I see she's made another friend," Mr. Jones laughed. "Why don't you come with me into the barn so we can talk some?"
Zak slowly followed Mr. Jones into the barn. Ember stayed right with him; given his small stature he was able to keep petting her while they walked.
Mr. Jones led him into a small office area. He sat in a chair behind the desk and motioned for Zak to have a seat across from him. Zak sat down and Ember sat at attention right next to him.
"Son, are you sure you don't have a dog at home?"
"No, sir, I asked my mom for one when I was little, but she thought it would be too much for me at the time and I never thought about it since, why?"
"Well, she's usually friendly and rambunctious, but I've never seen her take to someone as quickly as she's taken to you. The only other person she follows around like that is one of my other hands, but that guy has a way with animals that I've never seen in another person. Maybe we'll find out you have that same gift."
Before Zak could stop himself, he laughed out loud. Mr. Jones looked at him curiously.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jones, I don't mean to be rude, but I have never been around animals at all. My mom sprang this job on me as a surprise. I promised her that I would do my best and give it a try, but I've never been an outdoor person or an animal person. I like animals, but I've never had any experience with them."
"Zak, I appreciate your candor. I'll be just as honest with you. When my friend Jim asked me about taking you on, I was a little apprehensive, but he spoke of you glowingly. He told me you were a smart, courteous young man who spent a great deal of his time teaching and helping others. That's what I'm looking for this summer. Yes, there will be lots of hard work and manual labor, but we have a lot of fun here as well. We're not a huge operation. It's basically me and two hands and now you. We have about 20 horses, give or take; most are owned by me, but we do have a few boarders. We give lessons and offer trail rides. I know horses can be intimidating for some people, and you might feel a little nervous around them at first, especially given your smaller stature, but my first advice for you is to remember to let them know who is boss. I've seen a 17-hand horse follow a small child around the ring, cuz the kid let that horse know he was in charge."
"You have a horse with 17 hands?"
Mr. Jones let out a loud belly laugh. "Sorry, you're going to have a lot of horse lingo thrown at you over the next couple days. Hands are the way you measure a horse. One hand is roughly 4 inches and you measure them to the top of their withers--that's their shoulder."
"So that's a big horse?"
"Yes, very big. Most of ours are between 14 ½ and 16 hands. And most of them are extremely gentle and friendly. They have to be; if I can't trust them with inexperienced riders, I'd lose my business."
"So, what exactly will I be doing?"
"Well, for the next few weekends, I'm going to turn you over to one of my hands, Dusty. He'll go over what we expect from you and walk you through everything. The only thing I ask is that you listen carefully to everything he tells you and if anything doesn't make sense or you're not quite sure, always ask."
"Yes, sir, I will," Zak replied, thinking to himself, "Oh, great I'm gonna spend the weekend with some old cowboy with a cliché for a name."
As he rose from his chair, Mr. Jones said, "Dusty should be here any minute and then I'll turn you over to him. I think you'll like it here, Zak."
He offered his hand to Zak and Zak shook it.
"Thank you, Mr. Jones, I'll try my best."
"I believe you will, son. Now, I need to check on some things in the other barn. Why don't you wait here; like I said, Dusty should be here any minute. I'm sure your new girlfriend will be more than happy to keep you company."
Zak laughed as Mr. Jones left the office. He leaned over in his chair and rubbed the big dog's ears and petted her sides. He had been honest with Mr. Jones; after the one time he asked his mom for a dog, he had never thought about it again. His mom had given him a lot to try to make up for his dad not being there, but she never tried to spoil him. Even at five, he had known she was right; neither of them was in a place to take care of a dog and since he did not have many friends, he had no experience with animals at their houses either. Looking down at Ember, he suddenly thought that maybe if things went well he might ask his mom if he could get a dog now. She knew he was responsible and she always wanted him outside and a dog would get him out for walks. That was something to think about.
He sat in the office for about 10 minutes just petting and talking to the dog; he was starting to feel more relaxed and thinking that maybe this wouldn't be the train wreck he was anticipating.
He heard someone come into the barn and assumed it was Mr. Jones. Ember's ears pricked up and she took off like a shot out of the office.
"Hey, Emmy, how are you?" he heard a voice saying. It wasn't Mr. Jones.
As he was getting out of his chair to investigate, Ember came charging back into the office followed by the most beautiful boy he had ever seen. He was about 16, deeply tanned, with black eyes and long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was wearing faded jeans, scuffed-up leather boots, a wife beater and a denim jacket. He had to be almost 6 feet tall and was slim and muscular.
Zak just stared as the other boy offered his hand.
"Hey, you must be Zak," he said with a radiant smile. "I'm Dusty."
Zak stood up and took the offered hand and shook it.
"Oh, man," he thought. "It's going to be a long summer."