Dusty walked towards the sweat lodge, his emotions running the gamut between grief, anger, sadness, rage, despair and everything in between.
When he and Zak had arrived, they had learned that Gram had been less than honest about her condition. She had led Dusty to believe that her doctor would not permit her to fly simply because of her high blood pressure. The truth was she was very sick and her body was simply shutting down.
Her doctor told Dusty he was amazed that she had lasted this long. He felt that her need to say goodbye to Dusty was what was keeping her alive.
Dusty and Zak were taken to Gram's house, which was filled with relatives awaiting their arrival.
Dusty was taken into her room and was shocked to see how tired and weak she looked. His grandmother had always seemed ageless to him, so full of life and energy; to see her like this was like someone had slammed him in the gut.
He sat by the bed and took her hand.
Her eyes slowly opened and she smiled weakly.
"My sweet one, you're here," she whispered.
"I'm here, Gram," Dusty said, fighting back the tears. "Gram, why didn't you tell me you were so sick?"
"Dustin, I have lived a long and full life," she replied. "I was married to a wonderful man, raised a son to be a good man and watched my grandson mature and fall in love. I am tired and it is my time to go."
Dusty couldn't reply: the words were caught in his throat; he simply sat there and held her hand.
"My sweet one, I am so proud of you. You are a great man and you and Zachary will have a most blessed life."
She closed her eyes and Dusty watched as she took her final breath. "Dusty..."
Dusty turned and saw Zak standing in the doorway.
Dusty looked at Zak, his eyes filling with tears, and shook his head.
Zak rushed across the room and hugged Dusty tight. Dusty rested his head on Zak's shoulder and sobbed.
The next couple of days were a blur for Dusty. Per his grandmother's instructions, there was no formal funeral for her. There was a simple graveside prayer service and she was buried next to his grandfather.
After the service, the boys were taken to an office in the city to see Gram's lawyer.
Most of Gram's will was a formality; she left everything she had to Dusty including her house and the property it stood on.
When he had finished the formal reading of the will, Gram's lawyer handed Dusty a letter. He told Dusty that Gram's instructions were for him and Zak to read the letter in private.
Dusty waited until they returned to Gram's house and then he and Zak read the letter.
In the letter, Gram instructed the boys to visit a man named Abraham Killraven. Gram explained that he was a Shaman and that they were to follow his instructions.
"Do you have any idea what it's all about?" Zak asked.
"Given how spiritual Gram was, it's probably a vision quest."
"It's hard to explain, let's see if that's what it is. I'm sure this Mr. Killraven can explain it better than I can."
The next morning, one of Gram's neighbors showed up with a couple of mustang geldings all saddled up. He gave them a map to Mr. Killraven's homestead and they set out.
After several hours of riding, they both were starting to think they were lost, when they spotted a small dwelling on the horizon.
When they rode up to the simple house they were greeted by a man who appeared to be even older than Gram.
"Welcome, my friends," the old man said. "You are Dustin, Wilma's grandson," he said to Dusty. "And you are his partner, Zachary," he said to Zak. Both boys nodded. "I am Abraham Killraven, please call me Abe. I'm sure you have many questions and are tired from your journey. You can put the horses in the corral over there and then we'll go into the house and I will answer your questions."
Zak and Dusty took care of the horses and then met Abe in the small house. The man had laid out a small meal on the kitchen table and invited the boys to eat.
"What did your grandmother tell you?" Abe asked.
Dusty shrugged. "Nothing. She never mentioned you. She left us a letter that we got when they read her will."
Abe grinned. "Wilma's been planning this for a while. She started talking to me when she first found out you were two-spirits. Last summer, when you met Zachary, she started planning in earnest."
"Planning what?" Zak asked.
"Your vision quest."
"What exactly is a vision quest?"
"You're going to go to my sweat lodge and meet your spirit guides and they will show you what they think you need to know."
"Need to know about what?" Zak asked.
"Your lives, your futures...we never know what our spirit guides want to show us."
Zak and Dusty spent the next few days with Abe. He had them prepare for their quests and he let them ride around exploring the desert.
Now Dusty found himself approaching Abe's sweat lodge. He was dressed in a loin cloth and had pulled his hair back with a leather tie. He was not completely sold on this whole experience, but if Gran had wanted him to do it, then he would do it for her.
He entered the lodge. It was incredibly hot inside. Zak was seated. He was dressed as Dusty was.
Abe directed Dusty to sit next to the fire opposite Zak. He chanted in a language that neither boy recognized and dropped the contents of his hand onto the fire. As the herbs burned they released a strange scent that went to the boys' heads.
As Abe exited the lodge he turned. "I will return for you," he said.
"Boys..." a voice whispered.
Dusty and Zak both slowly opened their eyes. It was dim inside the lodge and still very hot and humid. They sat up and turned in the direction the voice came from.
"Gram?" Dusty tried to focus on the elderly woman sitting between him and Zak.
"Hello, sweet one." "We're dreaming, aren't we?"
"You are between worlds," Wilma explained. "I am sorry I could not prepare you more for this journey, but there wasn't time."
"What is this all about?"
"You and Zachary are to be taken on your quest."
"You're our guide?"
She shook her head. "No, I am only here to say good-bye to you my beloved grandson and his soul mate. I am pleased that I lived long enough to see you so happy. I have to go, but your guides are waiting for you on the other side." She pointed to the entryway of the lodge.
Dusty and Zak exited the lodge. The sun was high and bright in the sky. Dusty shielded his eyes and looked around; he could see two figures walking towards them, but he could not make out any features.
"How can it be day already?" Zak asked.
Dusty chuckled. "Zak, none of this is real, it's all a dream, we're probably tripping on some herbs that got dropped in the fire."
"They drugged us?!?"
Dusty laughed. "A lot of the herbs and stuff that they use would be considered ‘drugs' but they are to help you to have visions and dreams like this. We're probably not even having the same dream."
The two figures came closer until they could start to make out their faces.
Zak grabbed Dusty's hand tight. "Dusty!"
Both men were in their mid-twenties. One had raven-black hair, long and straight, pulled back in a ponytail; he was a tall man with richly tanned skin, black eyes and a muscular build. The other man was shorter with short blond hair and startling blue eyes. He wore wire-rim glasses.
"Daddy?" Zak said.
"Dad?" Dusty asked.
Both men nodded.
Zak ran forward and hugged his father tight.
"I don't...how...but you're..."
"Easy, Zak," Aaron said as he hugged his son.
"Dad," Dusty said as he approached his father.
"Dusty," Bobby replied with a grin.
Dusty smiled and embraced his father. "She sent you, didn't she?"
"Who? Gram?" Zak asked.
"Yes," Bobby answered. "My mother in her infinite wisdom thought that your father and I should be your guides for this journey. We have watched over you and been pleased to see the men that you have become."
"We are so proud of both of you," Aaron said. "And of the family that you have created."
"Us?" Dusty protested. "We didn't create anything. If anyone's responsible it's CJ and Danny."
Bobby shook his head. "No, my son. They may have had the resources, but you and Zak are the heart, you are the glue, you have had more influence than you can imagine and that's what we're going to show you."
"Are you ready?" Aaron asked.
Both boys nodded.
Dusty and Zak stood between their fathers and they all held hands. There was a flash of light and when they could focus the boys realized they were inside.
"Where are we?" Zak asked.
"First stop on your journey," Bobby answered.
The boys looked around: they were in an auditorium or theatre of some sort standing in front of the stage. The audience was filing in.
"Hey!!" Zak exclaimed as people began entering. "We're half-naked here," he said as he tried to cover himself with his hands.
Bobby shook his head and grinned. "They can't see us, Zak. We are here to observe, not to interact. You will learn much over the course of this journey, but you won't remember the specifics after tonight. Only the feelings."
"Why are we here?" Dusty asked. "To see a show?"
"Yes," Aaron answered. The lights dimmed.
Dusty and Zak turned towards the stage.
A driving drumbeat started and lights began to circle the stage. A single performer danced onto the stage. The boys watched mesmerized as the young man whirled and gyrated all over the stage. At several points in the show he was joined by a partner or a chorus, but it was obvious that he was the focal point of the whole show.
When the show was over and the dancer stepped forward to take his final bow, Zak gasped when he saw his face.
"Brandon!" he exclaimed. "Dusty, it's Brandon!"
Dusty recognized the face as well; the young man was in his early twenties, about six feet tall and very athletic but the face was most definitely Brandon's.
Dusty turned to his father. "That is Brandon."
His father nodded. "Yes, because of the confidence you boys helped him to develop Brandon was able to find a life and a career that he has thrived at. When he graduated from high school he wanted to travel and someone suggested he try dancing. A friend scoffed at the notion and told him that boys could not do that. Like when his father told him he couldn't ride, he decided to prove that person wrong. He moved to Florida and got a job at the theme parks dancing in parades. From there he traveled the world in various shows, danced on cruise ships and is now on Broadway. His life is chaotic and nomadic, but he loves it and he's very happy and thanks to the influence of you boys whenever things get too overwhelming he always finds an animal shelter or rescue near wherever he is to volunteer at."
Suddenly the boys looked around and the theatre was empty and the lights were very dim. They saw Brandon come onto the stage; he was dressed in his street clothes carrying a large duffel bag.
"Hurry up!" he yelled back in the direction he had come from. "We're going to be late!"
A young man about the same age came out. He was about Brandon's height and very handsome; he had a dark complexion and jet black hair. The man wrapped his arms around Brandon and spun him around. When they stopped the two were locked in a passionate embrace.
"Wait a second," Zak said. "That's not Erik."
Aaron placed his hand on Zak's shoulder. "Zak, Brandon is fourteen and Erik is fifteen, very few high school romances last a lifetime; most of you guys are against the norm in that you will make it, but Erik and Brandon are really a passing thing, they want such different things out of life. They'll always be friends but not partners."
"So, who's that?"
"That's Brandon's partner, Austin; they met when Brandon was touring in London over a year ago and they'll be married when this show is over in about six months." "So the little whirlwind is famous," Dusty said.
"Very," Bobby answered. "And very happy."
The four watched as Brandon and Austin walked off the stage hand in hand.
"Ready to go?" Aaron asked.
"Sure," Both boys answered.
In another flash, the boys found themselves in a large office. Against one wall was a large desk surrounded by people all talking at once and jockeying for position. Neither Dusty nor Zak could make out the conversations since there were so many voices involved.
"OK!! OK!! ENOUGH!!" a loud voice finally boomed through the din. The noise stopped and the crowd stilled. "I've heard enough, everyone back to work so I can make a decision on this."
The crowd of people dispersed and exited through several doors. Left in the room was an Asian man in his mid-twenties seated at the desk. On the desk was a name plate that read: REPRESENTATIVE ERIK A. CHEN.
"Erik's a Congressman?!?" Zak asked.
Aaron nodded. "He started college at sixteen, but he was no longer that awkward boy that first approached you in the cafeteria that day. He was confident and self-assured. He became involved in student government and was respected by many for his ability to find common ground on many issues. He graduated college at nineteen and immediately went to law school. He graduated top of his class and was editor of the Law Review. He passed the bar on the first try and was hired to work for his district's retiring Congressman. They immediately began grooming him as their candidate of the future."
Bobby continued, "He was elected shortly after he turned twenty-five and is now a first term Congressman. He's incredibly popular with his constituents and fellow lawmakers. He's known as a consensus builder, not an ideologue. Normally, that type of stance would draw some enemies, but Erik has a way of making everyone happy in the end."
They heard a knock on the door.
"Come in," Erik said, not even looking up from the mound of paperwork on his desk.
A young man about the same age as Erik entered the office. He was wearing a dress shirt and tie. He was about 5' 10" with blond hair and hazel eyes and he was very slim. He walked behind Erik and started massaging his shoulders.
"Ahhh," Erik sighed as he leaned back into his chair.
"God, you're tense," the other man said.
"This bill is taking so much out of me." "We'll figure it out."
The blond man bent down and kissed Erik gently on the lips.
"Who's that?" Dusty asked.
"That's Alex. He and Erik met in college and they have been together ever since. They are the perfect ‘power couple'. Alex loves to stay in the background and support Erik; they work well together and are respected by many," Aaron explained.
As the two men continued to kiss, Zak began to get a bit uncomfortable. "Where to next?" he asked.
"On to the next stop then," Bobby said as once again the scenery changed.
They were in a large open room with paintings and pictures hanging on the wall.
"I know where we are," Zak said. "Gotta be Devon. It's some kind of gallery."
As if on cue they saw an older version of Devon enter the room. His long jet-black hair was streaked with white and pulled back in a ponytail. He was dressed in all black.
He walked from picture to picture examining the placement and making notes. A young woman came into the room and Devon spoke sharply to her giving her instructions about several of the pictures.
When she left, Devon went over to a bar and poured himself a drink. He walked over to a painting that the boys couldn't see and stared at it.
Dusty and Zak walked around so they could see the painting. It was of TJ. They could see tears rolling down Devon's face as he looked at the painting and finished his drink.
Dusty turned to his father. "Where's TJ? Did that jerk finally show his true colors?"
Bobby looked at Dusty solemnly. "Yes, son, he did. TJ's not here, he's dead."
"Devon and TJ were together all the way through college. They were deeply committed. Once he was completely free of his parents' influence TJ became his own man. He became involved in a number of equality causes and he and Devon were very open in their relationship. They were both very popular on campus. TJ devoted himself to his photography and Devon to his art. They were the stars of the student art shows every year."
"So what happened?" Zak asked.
"About a month before graduation, TJ was walking home from the gym and he came upon a couple of local boys roughing up a younger student," Aaron explained. "He immediately jumped in to help the boy and didn't see one of the assailants had a knife until it was too late. The boy stabbed him right through the heart; he was dead before he hit the ground."
"He died saving someone from a bully?" Dusty asked.
Bobby nodded. "Yes. In the end, he did show his ‘true colors' as you said. He had found himself and he had found happiness. He stepped in without any thought to his own safety and acted selflessly. The only way he could have done that is because of the forgiveness and friendship you boys offered him."
"What about Devon?"
"Devon threw himself into his work and his art," Aaron said. "It's been a few years and he still feels as if he is in mourning and that keeps him from moving forward. This show is something he has been working towards for a while; it's a chance for him to finally let go and say good-bye to TJ and move on, or so he hopes."
"Will he be able to move on?" Zak asked.
"Eventually, we hope so," Aaron replied. "The future isn't black and white, Zak. It's fluid, it's very grey, one decision can have many ripples. If you and Dusty had not met then that would have affected the futures off all of the people we are visiting tonight. None of these couples would be together, none of these boys would be reaching their potential and living their dreams. You and Dusty caused a ripple that affected so many lives."
"Can we see something happier, please?" Zak pleaded.
"Sure," Bobby answered, as the room changed again.
They were outside.
"Wait...we're on Mattie's grandfather's rancho," Zak said. "Mattie and Spin!"
Aaron shook his head. "No." He pointed towards the barn. "Look."
They watched as two young men came out of the barn leading two beautiful grey Andalusians. The two men held hands as they led the horses to an arena.
"Diego and Luka?" Zak asked.
"Why are they here instead of Mattie and Spin?" Dusty asked.
"When Mattie came into his inheritance, he planned to move to Spain and take over the rancho, but he realized that America was his home and Spin and he belonged there," Bobby replied. "He offered Diego a partnership in the rancho with the opportunity to be the hands-on manager. Diego, as much as he enjoyed living in America, missed Spain terribly and jumped at the chance to move back. By then he and Luka were committed to each other and Luka opted to move with Diego and work at the rancho by his side. So together they work the rancho breeding and raising the best Andalusians in Spain."
They watched as Luka mounted the obviously green horse and rode out a string of bucks until the horse calmed under his touch.
"I never thought I'd see Luka as a cowboy," Diego said.
"Love can do funny things," Aaron said.
"But love isn't all about romance," Bobby said as their surrounding changed again. They were still outside, but in much different surroundings.
They were next to an arena. There were a number of boys sitting along the top of the fence. Inside the arena was a young boy of about ten sitting on a horse. Beside the horse was a tall muscular blond man. The man spoke softly to the boy giving him advice and encouragement.
"Ace!" Zak exclaimed.
"Ace," Aaron confirmed.
"What is this place?" Dusty asked.
"It's a boys' ranch for orphaned and abused boys," Bobby replied. "Ace always had an affinity with younger kids, so when he went to college he studied Psychology and education. He considered being a teacher, but sitting in a classroom was not his style. Working here allowed him to combine his love of horses with his passion for working with kids. He's been able to help a lot of lost boys come out of their shells and heal."
"What about Steph?" Zak asked.
"Ace and Steph dated briefly in high school, but it was never a serious thing," Aaron stated. "Ace was focused on his studies through college and when he started working here he came to realize that he could either have a small family or he could help lots of kids, so he has made a decision to remain single and work with the kids here and dedicate himself to that."
"But that's so sad," Zak said.
"No, Zak it's not," Aaron replied. "Remember, not all love is romantic. Ace's heart is filled with so much love. Look at the way he was with Jesse and Dylan, always looking out for them; he's that way with all these boys and he'll be that for so many more. He'll be the big brother, the father, the support they never had. For many of these kids, he'll be the only way they ever learn about real honest love."
"I guess so," Zak answered. "I just feel like he's gonna miss out on something."
"Not everyone needs a partner in their lives," Bobby explained. "We all express love in different ways. There are people who think it's wrong that you boys love each other and they are wrong. In the end, the only thing that is important is that you are all happy. And Ace is very happy." They watched a while longer as Ace coached the young boy riding the horse. The boy's smile as he cantered around the arena was infectious and way he looked at Ace told Zak that his friend had indeed found happiness and love.
The scenery around them changed yet again and this time it was very familiar. They were standing in the middle of the compound with a bustle of activity going on around them.
They watched as Danny came running out of the house. He looked around and then ran towards the trails.
"Guys!! Come on, you guys!! We're running behind!!" he yelled.
They heard the thundering of hooves and watched as six boys came riding up on cantering horses. They all came to a stop in front of Danny and slid off their horses.
"You guys need to get the horses taken care of and put away and get ready!" Danny said.
The boys laughed and joked as they led the horses to the barn.
"Who are those boys?" Zak asked.
"You know some of them," Bobby answered.
Zak walked closer to the boys. The second oldest one was about thirteen or fourteen; he had light blond hair and deep blue eyes. He was quick to smile and had bright cheeks.
"Maxie!!" Zak exclaimed. "So that must be Idgie," he declared pointing to a smaller boy of about eleven who was darker skinned with black hair and hazel eyes. "And Tyler," he nodded towards a boy who looked a little older than Idgie with medium-length brown hair and big brown eyes. "But who are the other three?"
"The oldest one is Cole, Jesse's brother," Bobby answered, looking at the tall athletic blond. "After his bone marrow transplant his leukemia went into remission and he has been healthy and happy ever since. He became fast friends with Idgie and Max and spends as much time up here as possible.
"And that one is Benny," Aaron said pointing to the bigger of the two youngest boys who appeared to be about nine or ten. He was blond with brown eyes. "He's Max and Tyler's little brother."
"The baby!!" Zak exclaimed. "He's not due for a few more weeks."
Aaron nodded. "And the youngest one is Charlie." The last boy had light blond, almost white hair, with pale blue eyes and the fairest skin. He was about six.
"He looks like Danny," Zak said.
"He should," answered Aaron.
Both Zak and Dusty looked at their fathers wide-eyed. Bobby laughed. "When Idgie was a few years old, Danny and CJ decided they wanted another baby, so they hired a surrogate and this time they used Danny's sperm to fertilize the egg."
"And they named him Charlie after CJ and Mattie's dad," Zak said.
They all watched as the boys hurriedly groomed the horses and put them away and then ran to the house.
"What are they getting ready for?" Dusty asked.
"You'll see," Bobby answered.
When they walked out of the barn it was twilight. They walked towards the backyard of the house where a large tent had been erected. Under the tent were chairs filled with many of their friends and family. Brandon and Austin, Erik and Alex, Diego and Luka, Devon, Ace, Sarge and their moms, CJ and Mattie's parents, Dylan's parents and Trevor and Julia as well as many of their other friends.
"Are CJ and Danny finally getting married?" Zak asked excitedly.
Aaron shook his head. "No, they were married years ago."
Zak looked at Dusty, then both boys looked down the aisle. They watched as the six young boys all walked down the aisle single file. Each was dressed in an elegant black tuxedo. First came Charlie, then Benny, Tyler, Idgie, Max and Cole.
The boys all lined up in front of the gathering. A man stepped up in front of the boys and faced the crowd.
"Please rise," the man said.
The gathered friends stood as music began to filter into the tent.
Danny and CJ came into the tent and walked down the aisle and stood off to the side where their seats were.
Zak held his breath knowing in his heart what he was witnessing. He grabbed Dusty's hand.
Then they watched as Dylan and Jesse came into view. They were dressed in fine black tuxedos with white ties. The two held hands and slowly walked down the aisle. When they reached the end of the aisle they walked to the left and stood with Cole and Benny, their best men.
Next, Spin and Mattie came down the aisle holding hands. They also wore formal wear, with blood red bowties. Spin grinned impishly at the gathered crowd. When they reached the end of the aisle, they walked to the right to stand with Charlie and Idgie.
Finally, Zak and Dusty watched as their adults selves walked down the aisle. Zak squeezed Dusty's hand as tears fell from his eyes. He laughed at the sky-blue bowties that they wore and he finally noticed that each couples' ties matched their set of best mens'. His heart soared when he watched them take their places next to Max and Tyler. It made complete sense to him that if the boys were to act as their best men, that Max would be his, even though Charlie and Idgie were his nephews; he had always had a special closeness with Maxie and he was pleased to see that it would continue.
Zak turned to his father. "Can we leave now, please?"
"You don't want to watch?"
Zak shook his head. "No. It's enough to know that it's going to happen one day. Thank you for that, but I don't want to watch it, especially if we're not going to remember it in the morning."
Bobby looked at Dusty. "Dusty?"
Dusty nodded. "I'm with Zak."
Seconds later they were back in front of the sweat lodge.
"Wait a second," Zak protested. "What about where we are? What about my future and Dusty's and Spin and Mattie's and Dylan and Jesse's?"
"What about them?" Aaron asked.
"What happens? Why didn't you show them to us?"
"We showed you the most important part," Bobby answered. "You and Dustin will always be together, as will Mateo and Anthony and Dylan and Jesse. It wouldn't matter if you were princes or paupers, nothing would change your love or your friendships. The bonds that you have built at the ranch are strong and they are forever. Some of the boys will move on to lives of their own but the ranch will always live in their hearts.
"But am I a teacher, a rider, a professor, a banker?"
"Zak, it doesn't matter," said Dusty. "All that matters is that you and me are together. I'll love you no matter what you do and you'll love me the same way."
"Exactly," Aaron grinned. "Like we said earlier, you won't remember any of this in the morning, except the feelings, the emotions. The love you feel right now for each other and your family you will carry with you."
"So we won't see you again?" Zak asked sadly.
"We may come to you in your dreams if you need to be reminded about what's important," Bobby said.
"It's almost dawn, so we need to get going," Aaron said.
"No," Zak protested. "I have so many questions for you."
"Zak, tonight was about the journey you and Dusty started a year ago and where you are heading. Your father and I are so proud of you and Dusty," Bobby said. "We wanted to show you the influence you had on the people around you and the happiness that you would have in your life. Now, you just need to go out and continue in the direction you have been going, you don't need to change anything or do anything differently, just be yourselves and you will be so happy."
Zak hugged his father tight.
Dusty did the same. "Thank you, Dad," he said.
"I love you, my son."
Dusty heard the wind outside the flap of the sweat lodge. He could see the sun streaming in through the seams in the walls.
"Zak! Zak! Wake up!"
Zak was lying on the other side of the now-dead fire.
"What?" Zak said as he opened his eyes.
"I don't know."
"I remember the herbs and the fire and falling asleep."
"How do you feel?"
Dusty closed his eye and breathed deep. "Peaceful," he said as he exhaled. "Like I just had the best night's sleep."
Zak sat up. "Me, too."
"You know what I want?"
"I want to go home," Dusty declared. "I have this overwhelming desire to go home. Gram's gone and there's no reason to stay here any longer. I miss everyone and I miss being there."
"Then let's go home," Zak said with a smile.
And so ends the ‘Riding Lessons' Saga. When I started this as a ‘short' story over a year ago, I never expected it to go on as long as it has, it took on a life of its own. Thank you to all the wonderful people who have taken the time to write and let me know how much they have enjoyed the story. I'm working on a few new ones (including one which will feature a couple of characters from ‘Riding Lessons'). Thank you for your support.