The scenery was flat. Well, mostly. Cornstalks interrupted the vast, barren terrain. If I were an artist, perhaps I'd be inclined to paint it. I mean, the meadows that cropped up between the barbed-wire pastures and the red barns. But I was no artist. Not in the least.
I sighed quietly, hoping not to draw my mother's attention. The beaming smile on her face discouraged the complaints toying on my lips. It'd been a long, long time since I'd seen such a smile brighten her up so.
"Don't fret, Dylan," my mother said. Maybe if I'd have kept track, I'd be able to say, accurately, how many times I'd heard her say that since she'd told me of her plans. But I usually ignored her order to not fret and fretted anyway. Who wouldn't? Who would be…happy…to leave the hustle and bustle of Chicago for the dull, flat farmland of Indiana? Did she honestly expect me to embrace corn as though it were a long, lost lover?
"I'm not fretting, Mom," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. It wasn't very cheerful to my ears but I hoped she wasn't listening too closely. "I'm tired. It's been a long day, you know."
"Yes, honey, I know," she said in that voice that is sort of patronizing and sympathetic.
I ignored it and continued to stare sullenly out the window. The cool air from the car vents played with my hair, which annoyed me, but it was better than the humid heat on the other side of the glass. I glared at the cows grazing nonchalantly in the huge pasture that seemed to last forever.
"Grandma and Grandpa are so excited! They haven't seen you in a year or so," she said, again, for the hundredth time. In all reality, Grandma and Grandpa had come to the city early this spring for my birthday. It'd only been four months. But I wasn't one to burst Mom's bubble. "They can't wait for you to grow up on the horse farm."
I roughly translated 'grow up' to mean 'work my butt off shoveling horse crap' since I was already seventeen and Grandpa Miller thought everyone, no matter age or gender, would benefit from manual labor. And sweat.
"I can't wait to get there," I said. I cringed at my own words but I wouldn't dare tell Mom how horrified I was about the move. She had enough on her plate as it was.
She glanced in her rear view mirror causing me to look over my shoulder at my sleeping baby brother. His head was slumped to the side, resting on his car seat. I smiled in spite of myself at his cuteness. Even though so much hope had ridden on his tiny shoulders, his mere existence had only prolonged the agony.
"Well, Joey isn't too excited, but he will be," Mom laughed. "I can't wait to see him run around the farm."
"Me too," I said, fake smile plastered to my face. I did adore my baby brother but sometimes I almost wished he hadn't been born. I whipped my head around to look through my window as a cringe of shame smacked my face. I hated when I had those thoughts. I loved Joey. My life would be a lot duller without him. And my heart much emptier.
"So, your grandmother said there are a couple girls who board their horses on the farm. A few of them are your age."
I nodded, watching another red barn in the distance. I'd heard this information a time or two this past week so it was nothing new. I guess she thought a couple farm girls would fill the void caused by losing my best friends from the city. How could I explain to her that I had nothing in common with Indiana girls? Did she think I'd suddenly find 4-H projects more interesting than sipping a coffee at a little café on Michigan Avenue?
Mom turned the already low volume on the radio down further and bit her lip. "Um, your father wants you to call him tonight, once you get settled in."
"You talked to him?" I asked.
She rolled her eyes and flashed a half-hearted smile. "Just because we're divorcing doesn't mean we can't talk to each other, you know." She kept her eyes firmly on the road. "We have to communicate still. He would like to know how you kids are doing."
In other words, she needed to bend over backwards to keep things amicable so he didn't rescind his agreement to allow my mother to take us out of state. I'd overheard her pleading with him over the phone one night, telling him it would be best for me and Joey to grow up in the fresh air and that the schools were excellent and she'd already secured a job, etc.
I bit back the tears that were forming behind my sunglasses as I realized that Dad was more than likely relieved that we were out of the city. He'd be free to pursue his girlfriend without fear of me seeing him. Of course, he didn't know that I knew.
"Almost there," Mom said brightly, excitement bubbling in her voice. She turned off the two lane highway and onto a gravel drive under a sign that read "Miller Farm- Sales and Boarding. Jack and Ruth Miller, proprietors." Long, white fences ran on either side of the drive and in the distance I spotted a group of brown horses grazing. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes," I answered, truthfully. It was beautiful. And serene. A nice place for a vacation.
The long drive curved and stopped in front of a neat, two-story farmhouse with a wraparound, covered porch. The small yard was neat and the flower beds weed free. Mom parked the car and jumped out happily, dashing up the steps. I could hear the hum of lawn mowers in the distance as I slowly unbuckled and crept around to her side of the car to release my brother. His sweaty head whipped upright, his blue eyes bright and alert.
"Mommy?" he cried.
I cuddled him to my chest and lifted him out of the car. "Mommy's in the house. Let's go in, shall we?"
His plump little fists rubbed the lingering sleep from his eyes as he nodded, not ready to speak quite yet. His head fell against my chest as I turned to take the steps leading to my new home.
A couple of massive, mixed-breed dogs came trotting around the corner to meet us, their fluffy black and brown tails wagging furiously. Joey leaned forward in interest. He pointed at them and a tiny smile touched his lips. The dogs inched closer and sniffed Joey's shoe. He giggled.
"Let's go inside real quick and then you can play with the dogs," I said. Before I could lift my foot to mount the steps, the door flew open and my grandmother, hands clutching her heart, emerged, huge smile covering most of her wrinkled face, and bounded toward us so quickly you'd never guess she was a grandmother in her sixties.
"Oh, my dears," she said as she threw her arms around me and hugged us so tight, Joey whimpered. "I'm so excited that you're here!"
"Me, too," I mumbled as she drew back to beam at us. She ruffled Joey's hair as he tucked his head under my chin. "Um, I was just going to take him inside. He was asking for my mom."
"Of course," she said wrapping an arm around my waist. She guided me into the house where we found my mother speaking rapidly to my grandfather. Grandma dropped my waist and stood beside her husband – an odd couple if ever there was one. He was tall, his skin weathered from his work outside with his horses. His large hands were tanned and calloused and his jeans dusty. He must have just come inside from the barns.
Grandma was short; the top of her head just reaching Grandpa's shoulder, and her dull brown hair was tightly curled. Her faded blue eyes were once as vibrant as my mother's and her pert nose had been passed down to her daughter and granddaughter.
"Look at how much they've grown, Jack," Grandma said, still smiling as though she'd just won the lottery.
Joey stretched out his arms and my mother took him, kissing the top of his head. Grandpa embraced me stiffly and an uncomfortable silence hung over us. "Should I start unloading the van?" I asked.
"Oh, why don't you sit a spell," Grandma said, herding us to the kitchen. "Maybe have some tea. You've been stuck in that car for hours." She spun around to face Grandpa. "Why don't you have Paul and Ben unload the van?"
"They have work to do," Grandpa muttered crossly. "There are things needing to be done before next week."
Grandma's face brightened as Mom tried to coax Joey into taking a bathroom break. Joey held tight to Mom's neck, eyeing my grandfather with disdain. "Come on, Big Joe," Mom said, a tad exasperated. "You've been in your seat for a long time. You need to go potty. You didn't wet your training pants, did you?"
"He's not toilet trained yet?" Grandpa asked, his voice dripping with disapproval.
"He's only three," Mom defended as we all settled around the table. "And things have been a little stressful at home." She kissed the top of Joey's head. "He's made wonderful progress."
Grandpa didn't respond, just accepted a large glass of tea from Grandma as she passed them out. She paused before Mom, glancing uncertainly at Joey. But Mom offered Joey a sip from her cup and Grandma took a chair at the table.
"You came at such a wonderful time," Grandma exclaimed. She glanced at Grandpa but he just drained his glass. "Our property is going to be used for a movie!"
"What?" Mom asked in disbelief. "A movie? Really?"
"Yes," Grandma continued. "Some producers approached us, said they want to use our land to shoot some scenes."
"That is exciting," Mom said. "Wow. What movie?"
"Some kind of vampire rubbish," Grandpa said. "They said our south pasture is perfect for some of the main scenes of the movie so I agreed. I'll have to keep the horses out of there and keep them in the north pasture for about a month."
I wondered what sort of vampire movie they'd film in a horse pasture in Indiana, but I didn't ask. I wasn't in the mood for polite conversation, anyway. I just wanted to get settled in and call my dad, maybe even call a couple of my friends.
I finished my tea and rose from my chair. "I'll start bringing things in, Mom, if you'll tell me where to put them."
Grandma volunteered to entertain Joey while Mom, Grandpa and I carried box after box into the house. Most of our furniture had been sold with the house or else Dad took it. Some of it, the pieces that were precious to Mom, had been placed in storage. Mom had wired money to Grandma ahead of time to buy a toddler bed for Joey and a bedroom set for me. Grandma already had a fully furnished guest bedroom for Mom to use.
"Just take your mother's things and your brother's things upstairs," Grandma ordered. It became apparent that although Grandpa ran the barns and the business, Grandma ran the house. "We only have three bedrooms but I thought you'd like a little privacy, since you're a young lady, and I cleared out my sewing room in the basement. I know it's not like your beautiful room back home, but you can paint it and decorate it how you like."
Ugh, the basement. Still, I couldn't help but appreciate the effort she was making so I kissed her cheek and thanked her. She smiled pleasurably and patted my cheek. She gestured at the door leading to the basement and I followed her. She flipped a switch and the stairs were bathed in light. We walked through the laundry room and she opened another door. She turned on the light and I stepped inside my new bedroom.
It wasn't very big but I was relieved to see it was drywalled and carpeted. The walls were pale yellow and the carpet a pale blue. Matching curtains covered the only window high up the wall against which the twin bed rested. A dresser and a small vanity table sat on the opposite wall and a student desk rested next to another door.
"There's a closet," she said as she opened the door to show me. "There's also a half bath next to the laundry room."
"I'm sorry you lost your sewing room," I said, lost for words. I did feel a twinge of guilt as I knew how my grandmother loved to sew. The yellow bedspread and pillowcases were proof of that as I was sure she'd made them herself.
"Oh, I just moved everything to the rec room, dear. We hardly use it anymore. Your grandfather prefers to watch television in the living room." She took my hand and walked me through the laundry room again to another door that opened into a carpeted recreation room. A pool table sat in the middle, the cover collecting dust. A bookshelf pushed against the wall contained over a dozen board games – ones I wasn't familiar with at all. And in the corner I spotted my grandmother's sewing machine. "You and your new friends are welcome to come in here any time," she said with a smile. I returned her smile uneasily as I didn't have the heart to tell her I doubted I'd make very many friends right away.
"I appreciate all the trouble you've gone through," I said, anxious to return upstairs. "I think I should help my mom get Joey's room situated. It might make him a little more comfortable if he sees all his things."
"Okay," Grandma said. She shut the rec room door and we turned to find Grandpa hauling a couple of our boxes to the storage area. I hurried up the stairs and found my mom in the little bedroom that was to be Joey's. He was sitting on his new bed, watching as she put his favorite books on the shelf. He held his stuffed elephant in his arms, eyes bright and wary.
"Do you like your new room, Joey?" I asked. He nodded but kept his gaze on Mom. I hurried to her side and helped her organize the rest of his books and toys. By the time we finished, Grandma was calling us down for supper.
I ambled to the kitchen while Mom took Joey to the bathroom to coax him to use the toilet and to wash his hands. The scent of fried chicken wafted to my nose and my stomach rumbled. Mom always said Grandma was a wonderful cook and I was anxious to see for myself.
"Can I help?" I asked.
"Nothing to do, honey," Grandma said. She pointed to a chair and I sat. Grandpa appeared in the basement door and walked to the sink to wash his hands. He sank to a chair at the head of the table.
"I took your boxes downstairs," he said. "I suppose you'll want to unpack after supper."
"Thank you," I said. I was getting rather sick of all the strained, polite conversation and my over-eager attitude. My mother appeared with Joey and caught my eye. She gave a slight nod and I cleared my throat. "Um, Grandpa? If there is anything I can do to help, I'd be glad to do it."
He nodded as he helped himself to the plate of chicken Grandma set on the table. "Maybe you should help your mother get settled in, first."
"Okay," I said. I waited for my mom to make Joey's plate before I filled my own.
The conversation flowed a little better as we ate. Grandma filled Mom in on all the gossip. It had been years since we'd visited. Grandma and Grandpa usually came to visit us on the holidays or birthdays, leaving the farm in the capable hands of their hired help. Both my parents worked and when they had vacation time, it was usually spent working around our townhouse. Well, except for the past couple years when things really started to turn bad. Then we were treated to family vacations at theme parks or campgrounds.
Mom was telling Grandma about the job she'd secured in town at the only law office. In Chicago, Mom had been a legal secretary in a huge law firm. I imagined things would be quite different at her new job.
Grandpa usually kept quiet unless he felt he had something important to say and I wondered how my mother grew up with him. He surprised me when he cleared his plate and looked dead at me.
"Would you like to see the barn? I'm sure it's changed since you were here last."
I looked at Mom and she nodded. "I'll help Grandma with the dishes. You go see the horses."
"Okay," I said. I cleared my own plate and followed him out the back door. Two huge, red barns were visible from the back porch, their great doors wide open.
"The smaller barn on your left there is where we house the boarders. A couple girls from the high school keep their horses here. They come out a couple times a week to ride, especially before the fair. Since the fair's done passed, I don't think they'll be here every day."
I waited for him to mention 4-H and I was sure I'd vomit all my dinner if he did. But he continued his narration and I listened raptly.
"The large barn is where our horses are," he said. "Don't breed like we used to, but we manage to produce a couple dozen or so foals each year."
A slim, bent man was leading a chestnut horse from the pasture to the barn. My eyes ran over the horse's body and my palm itched to stroke it.
"That's a beautiful horse," I said.
"She's a good mare," he nodded. "I'm guessing you don't ride?" I shook my head. "Ah, well, I remember the last time you were here you were scared of the horses."
The last time I'd been there was when I was about eight or nine. But I didn't tell him that. "I didn't have much of a chance to ride in Chicago."
"Maybe we'll set you up with a horse to learn on," he said simply. I nodded again, afraid to inform him that I wasn't much into horses, or animals for that matter. But since I was stuck here, I'd make do best I could. I wanted Mom to be happy and I really wanted to see the stress and the lines leave her face.
"Thank you," I said, again.
He showed me around the barns and I even patted a few noses as I listened to him. He was extremely knowledgeable about horses, which was probably why his business was so successful. He introduced me to his two farmhands, Ben and Paul – both of whom were tall and lanky and smelled like a horse blanket.
We headed back to the house and he paused, taking my arm to prevent me from going inside. "I know you're not exactly happy to be here but I can see how hard you're trying to make this easy on your mother. You're a good kid and I don't expect any trouble from you." He dropped my arm and straightened. "If you're serious about helping around the barns, maybe we can figure something out. I can afford to pay you – not as much as my hands, mind you – but a decent wage."
My jaw dropped. I wasn't sure what to say. I mean, Mom instructed me to offer my help but would she disapprove of me taking a job? "Thank you. I'll probably have to check with Mom, first."
He slowly bobbed his head and began walking. "Just let me know."
That night, I sat on my new bed and rifled through a box of books. My hands fell on one of my favorites – Vampires at Dawn- and a thought hit me. I wondered if that 'vampire nonsense' movie to be filmed on the farm was actually based off the book in my hands. I'd heard they were to make it a movie. A little flutter tickled my stomach. It would be way too cool if that was the case. I had a whole month before school started and I was afraid I'd be stuck mucking stalls or babysitting Joey until school started.
Maybe, just maybe, things would turn around.
For the first time since I woke up that morning, a genuine, though tiny, smile touched my face.