Brian Thomas unlocked the door and walked into the apartment he shared with his mother.
The barrel of a pistol poked him in the back of his head. “Easy now,” the holder of the pistol said.
Another man pointed a pistol at his mother. She was in the living room, duct-taped to a chair and gagged, her eyes wide. She attempted to yell from beneath her gag.
Brian was shoved into another chair beside her with a pistol pointed at them.
The pistol fired.
Brian sat up in bed crying out while waving his hands in front of him to defend himself from the attackers. The alarm on his phone was going off.
It had been a couple of months since he had that reoccurring nightmare. A shake of his head did not fling the images into nothingness. They were still so vivid they could have happened yesterday, not twenty years earlier.
After silencing the alarm, he sat on the edge of the bed holding his head in his hands, wondering if that nightmare would always haunt him. As much as he wished to never dream it again, he didn’t deserve to forget.
He got ready to go to work as a farmhand on the thoroughbred farm, Whispering Oaks, outside of Louisville, Kentucky where he had been employed for two weeks. As jobs went it was no worse than the many other laborer positions he held over the last twenty years. The owner, Sam Braun, was a renowned trainer, and he and the managers under him treated Brian respectfully.
Just after lunch, it had become hot and he paused from unloading bales of hay from a trailer into the hay barn. Wiping sweat from his forehead and he glanced around. Since arriving at Whispering Oaks he hadn’t done anything to attract attention, but it never hurt to be aware of who might be paying attention to him.
A woman who he guessed was close to his age of thirty-seven, pulled a cart towards him from one of the twenty identical barns that housed some of the two hundred horses that lived on the farm. He had noticed her numerous times before. It was hard not to. She had a body that mannequins were molded from, brunette hair that was usually in a ponytail, and almost always had an expression of being content with her life. She was Sam’s daughter.
Brian went back to work. When she got the cart beside the trailer, she held out her hand. “Hi, we haven’t met. I’m Lisa Braun.”
He pulled off his leather glove and shook her hand. “Marcus.”
“I could use a couple of those. Actually, I could use about four of them but will have to come back to get the others.” She gestured to the small cart.
Brian set four bales on the edge of the trailer then jumped down and loaded two on her cart. She hadn’t taken her eyes off him. “I’ll save you a trip.” He grabbed a bale in each hand and walked beside her back to the barn she had come from.
Her T-shirt read, 2017 Derby Half-Marathon. “Did you run a half marathon?” As soon as he asked, he regretted it. It was always a challenge to strike a balance between being approachable to coworkers or standoffish and considered rude. To remain as aloof as possible he shouldn’t have said anything.
She glanced at her tee and smiled, which made him swallow. He forced himself to look away. “Yeah, but I did awful. I crawled across the finish line on my hands and knees.”
He smiled at her embellishment. “I doubt that happened.”
“Even though I trained for it, it was really hot and humid that day. About like today. It sucked the energy out of me.”
Numerous comments came to mind, but he dropped his smile and said nothing.
“Do you run?”
“Yeah, but I’ve never run a half-marathon.”
“I won’t anymore. I’m getting too old.”
“Excuses, excuses.” Mentally, he kicked himself.
“This from the guy who has never run a half-marathon.”
She laughed, something he suspected she did often and easily.
Lisa led the way into the barn where there were snickering horses. A few whinnied. Halfway down a thoroughbred was tied outside a stall. He reared up on his hind legs as far as his lead allowed, kicked his front legs and whinnied. “You can set those down there. Rapid Onset doesn’t like strangers.”
A white-faced golden retriever struggled to stand, then walked up to Brian wagging his tail. “This is Spencer.” Lisa gave him a pet. “He’s an old boy but he loves coming to the farm. Don’t you boy?”
Spencer stared up at Brian. He crouched beside the dog, took off his gloves, and pet him. Brian felt the familiar flow of his healing leave him. A feeling similar to sweat running down his skin. Lisa continued down the barn pulling her cart and wasn’t watching them. When she stepped into an open stall, Brian held both hands over Spencer’s hips and healed the arthritis. The energy leaving him was not so significant it would exhaust him and make him unable to finish work. He worried about taking this risk, but he loved animals.
Spencer stood still with his head lifted, his mouth open, and slowly panted.
When the healing flow began to diminish, Brian moved his hands to Spencer’s shoulders.
“You and Spencer bonding?” Lisa stepped out of the stall with a pitchfork that she stuck into one of the bales.
Brian’s faced warmed as he gave Spencer a pat, then stood. “Yeah. He’s a good boy.”
The horse—Rapid Onset, he thought Lisa called him—had calmed down and stood watching Brian. Animals were always a mystery and he liked to experiment with what his presence did to them. They always seemed to welcome him. In a slow even pace he started towards the horse.
Lisa came back out of the stall and noticed Brian was almost to Rapid Onset. Alarm filled her face. “I wouldn’t get any close—” She frowned when Brian reached out and pet the horse’s head. She dropped the pitchfork and stood beside Brian, petting the horse. “You’re the first stranger he let walk up to him without raising a ruckus.”
“Animals seem to like me.”
“They must sense you aren’t going to hurt them.”
Brian shrugged. He had no idea if animals sensed his ability and found it enchanting, or if it was something else. He gave the horse one final pet. “I better get back to work.”
“Thank you for your help.”
Just before he left the barn, he glanced back at Lisa. She continued to stand next to Rapid Onset petting him, but she was watching Brian.
Later, Brian returned to the hay barn with another load. A BMW was parked at the entrance to the barn Lisa had been in.
While Brian unloaded the trailer he heard raised voices coming from the barn, but he could barely make out what was being said. He was pretty sure one them was Lisa. He listened a moment and determined no one was in distress, then continued with his work. But the arguing continued. He considered making sure Lisa was okay. Or was that an excuse to see her again? Whatever was going on was none of his business.
“She’s old enough… own decisions,” Lisa said. “If she doesn’t… with you, you can’t expect… make her. If we do, you… make the trip miserable. Maybe you should consider that she…”
“Or… maybe because she won’t…” Lisa said.
“I wanted the time alone with her. She’ll be going off to… get this time with her again. Out of respect for… do as I wish.”
“What about Chris’ wishes? I’ll admit… difficult and headstrong, but… she goes on vacation? Shouldn’t it be someplace… enjoy going?”
Who was she arguing with? Her husband?
“That’s beside the point. I made… ago. Expecting me to change… is absurd. She’s acting like a spoiled brat. Something I warned you… get her way.”
“Me? You gave in to her whim… greatest phone. Then, when she treats… willing to… replacement.” Lisa said.
“I knew you’d throw that in my face.”
Spencer began barking.
“Spencer, shut the fuck up,” the man yelled.
“Before you go… take a look… manipulate you.” Lisa had to yell over Spencer’s barking.
Horses shuffled in their stalls, whinnying, and flapping their lips. One kicked its stall.
“Quit changing… going with me.”
“What’s she going to do there? You’ll play… and she’s to do… what?”
Spencer continued to bark.
“Spencer, goddamn you.”
“Don’t you kick him!” Then a moment later, “Take your hands off me!”
Brian jumped off the trailer and ran in to the barn. A guy his age, dressed in dress slacks and a button up shirt, had Lisa by the arms. Spencer pranced around barking. The horses were whinnying.
“Everything okay here?” Brian stopped beside them.
The guy turned narrowed brown eyes to Brian.
From his expression, Brian guessed Dress Slacks was used to getting his way. “Go back to work. My wife and I are having a private conversation.”
“It seems like Ms. Braun feels the conversation is over,” Brian said.
“It’s not, and it’s a private conversation.”
Brian returned Dress Slack’s glower. “Can you have it without shaking her?”
Dress Slacks’ expression softened as he took in his hold of Lisa. He released her slowly, lifting his hands after he ran them down her arms. “There. You happy?” he asked Brian.
The horses around them sensed the de-escalation and became calmer. Spencer stopped barking.
“As I said, we were having a private discussion. In case you’re too thick-headed to understand, that means you’re to go back to work and leave us alone.” Dress Slacks pointed to the barn entrance.
“If I heard it in the next barn, it wasn’t very private. I think I’ll stick around so that Ms. Braun doesn’t feel threatened again.”
Dress Slacks took a step toward him. He was tall as Brian and years ago might have been imposing, but he was going soft. Had this pretty boy ever been in a fight?
Brian didn’t move and locked his eyes on Dress Slacks.
“You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
“From how you’re dressed and the way you’re trying not to get any manure on your shiny shoes, I’m guessing someone who doesn’t work for a living.” The survivalist in Brian regretted being so bold and calling attention to himself, but he hated bullies.
Dress Slacks’ face turned crimson. “I could get you fired. Now leave us alone.”
Brian shrugged. “I’m not leaving.”
“Derek, it’s time for you to leave,” Lisa said.
For several seconds Dress Slacks glared at Brian before turning to Lisa. “I’ll call you later.” He turned his narrowed eyes at Brian before storming off.
After the BMW sped off, Brian asked, “You all right?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Brian stepped over to Rapid Onset’s stall and the horse approached the gate to the stall and bobbed his head before letting Brian rest his hand on his head. “It’s okay, he’s gone now,” he said to the horse, then he bent and petted Spencer.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that. Thank you for stepping in. That’s the first…” She took another cleansing breath. “He wants our daughter to go on vacation with him and doesn’t understand how bored Chris will be. I was trying to explain that. But… as always I let him push my buttons.”
“That’s gotta be hard.” He couldn’t understand how someone as personable as she was married such an asshole.
She sighed. “I’m truly sorry you had to see that.”
“He seems like a nice guy.” He tried not to smile.
She snorted out a laugh.
He basked in the smile she gave him. “Do you need me to stick around in case he comes back?” He had no authority to do that. Would the boss’s daughter stick up for him if he got in trouble for not finishing what he was supposed to be doing?
She patted his arm, then yanked her hand back as if embarrassed she had gotten so intimate. “No, thank you. He won’t come back.”
“Well, then… I’d better get back to work.” Again, just before leaving the barn, he glanced back and found her watching him.