Charging through the woods one starry evening, fleeing the shadows that pursue him. The images of a thousand phantoms laughed in his ears at every moment. Raindrops blackened his already dark hair, reminding him of the cold within himself.
He leapt through blackberry brambles, discovering himself to have been spat into a meadow. He thundered along the dewy morning grass, never glancing back until the ground was illuminated with light.
To his amazement, he raised his eyes to see a stone house. He peered into a buttermilk room, where a young woman paced to and fro with a kitten in her arms. Such a stark contrast from the tension in his own home. Too bad he knew he was the one who caused it.
His eyes glanced up the house once more until they landed on an open window. The room behind it was dark and ominous- the perfect place to retreat for the night. He planted his hands on the cold stones and heaved himself up.
Good. He reached for the next stone, realizing it was smoother than the others and wet with rain. Still, it was his only chance. He gripped it with white knuckles and heaved himself up. His weary muscles tingled, and as though it were a warning, gave out.
Funny how one can think a million thoughts in the second it takes to land on their backs. Sometimes they search for a place to land, or simply panic at the idea that they're falling. Perhaps other thoughts cross their finds, such as, "I really do hope there is nothing solid below me."
In this case, there was. A wheelbarrow.
"You muppet," he muttered to himself, kicking aside the overturned wheelbarrow. Pain staggered up his spine, leaching a gasp from his chest. His dark eyes bugged from his head with sheer surprise. He raked his nails along the grass and clutched it.
"Charlotte, call 911."
"No," the young man gasped breathlessly. It suddenly occurred to him that there was another man standing over him, staring over his shoulder at what must have been Charlotte.
"What should we do?" Charlotte asked. She moved into view, but the young man had closed his eyes.
"Rearden is ainm dom. Is as Éire dom."
"What is he saying?" Charlotte asked.
"He's speaking Gaelic," the other man answered.
"Me name is Rearden. I am from Ireland."
Silvery mist wavered along the rugged hills, settling down around the pines and brambles. The sinister sky diminished into a cornflower blue. Silhouettes of horses grazing lined the scarlet streaked horizon. Sarai's was among them, perched on the arena rails with a textbook on her lap.
Blackbirds swerved around the fence posts, rising into the air for a morning flight. She watched them stream smoothly overhead.
She dropped her eyes to find a young man with a mischievous grin. The spark in his dark chocolate eyes said he had recovered from his plummet the night before.
"Hey. You alive?"
He leaned against the rails and nodded. His spine continued to pulsate, but it was no longer an unbearable stabbing. That, at least, was a small consolation despite the fury he was sure to face at home.
"Don't think I've properly introduced meself," he reached for her hand with a smile. "Me name is Rearden."
"Sarai. So," she drawled. "You're from Ireland?"
"The most beautiful emerald land you ever saw," Rearden gave a firm nod. "Me family and I are staunch Irish people."
"So what brings you here?"
Rearden darkened his gaze. "Da accepted an opportunity to help a mate with his business here in the States after our flock of sheep was wiped out by disease."
"So you're here for good?" Sarai asked curiously.
"At least until we get the money to replace our sheep."
Sarai raised her eyes to the brightening sky. Sparrows called across the pastures and hills as though wishing one another a good morning. Grass whispered as someone traipsed toward them with a smile on his face.
"Good morning," Jarah greeted them.
"Thank you so much for letting me crash here last night… erm…"
"I know what you meant," the man laughed at Rearden's reddened cheeks. "But now we have the issue of returning you to your family."
"Oh, um," Rearden threw a desperate glance at Sarai, knowing she couldn't save him even if she wanted to. "Maybe we should wait a while longer."
The young man shifted his weight between each foot once and again, eyes bearing down at the ground. A nearby finch whistled liltingly during its flight to a Manzanita bush.
"Rearden…" Jarah's tone was almost a stern understanding.
"Me family's a little on edge right now after I drove me new teacher's car into a ditch."
Jarah raised his chin, slightly taken aback by Rearden's admission, despite the forlorn expression on his face.
"Why would you have done that?"
"I shouldn't be at that school," Rearden snapped. "Me previous school suited me just fine."
"So, what happened?"
"Well, of course I got kicked out of me new school. So Ma is going to home school me."
"Surely you must be responsible enough to study independently," Sarai said with a trace of a challenge in her voice.
"Yeah, so responsible that I took a joyride in my teacher's car," Rearden returned with a sarcastic bite.
"Relax, you two," Jarah commanded them. "Rearden, you need to go reconcile with your family."
Rearden swung a disbelieving scowl his way. "No, Mr. Morgan, I don't think you know them well enough."
"You can't stay here forever…"
"Me brothers will eat me alive! Ma not having a job means no money to spend toward going home."
" … and you need to get your back checked out."
"Another reason; we have no money to do so."
"Tell me, then, what your solution would be?"
Rearden parted his lips to speak, but no words came. Irritated, he grabbed a cell phone from his pocket and tossed it toward Jarah. "Me mother's name is Abigeál. Me father is Cairbre."
"That's more like it," Jarah smiled and dialed as Rearden recited their number.
"Do me a favor and ask them to not kill me."
As Jarah meandered around with the phone, Rearden pulled the hood of his burgundy sweatshirt over his head. His eyes moved back and forth as though he were hiding and trying to remain unseen.
"You know," he said, "this is the first prank I've ever been ashamed of."
"Then maybe you should make up for it," Sarai replied.
Jarah returned to them as soon as he had hung up the cell phone. "Your mother was more concerned about your fall from my wall. She said to send you home right after you'd eaten something."
"Thank God she's the one who answered," Rearden mumbled.
"My friend Missy made extra French toast and juice today. Go to that bunkhouse there and tell her I sent you."
Rearden frowned. "French toast?"
"Just go," Jarah smiled and pointed him the direction. As he strode away, Sarai sent Jarah a bewildered look.
"How did he find this place all the way out here?"
"Said Leland told him to come."
Sarai frowned thoughtfully. "Where has Leland been?"
"Not sure," Jarah replied hesitantly. "I might drive by and check on him."
Missy flipped about four slices of French toast onto a paper plate and moved toward the tiny fridge beside the counter. She scowled with concentration as she shifted through its contents, trying to make room for the extra breakfast she had made.
"Are you Missy?"
She straightened and turned, the plate still in her hand. He paused to stare at her long azure tea gown, curious as to why she would wear such an old-fashioned dress.
"Can I help you?"
"Jarah Morgan sent me over to eat breakfast, apparently."
"Oh, um…" Missy set the plate on her counter and bustled to retrieve the syrup and blackberry juice from her refrigerator. She kept her eyes ahead, rosiness blushing her cheeks. "Rachel, were there many seeds in the juice?"
"No, I don't think so," Rachel stepped into the doorway, caught sight of Rearden with wide eyes, and turned immediately to leave.
What was that about? Rearden wondered. Maybe he shouldn't have accepted the offer of something to eat. And why were these woman dressed so formally?
"Jarah must have explained that we had leftover French toast," Missy said as she settled the plate on her little oak table.
"Yeah, he did," Rearden nodded as he pulled aside a chair and dropped down into it. "So this is French toast."
"Where are you from?" Missy asked.
"County Laois, Ireland."
He gave another nod as he shoved the fork into his mouth. She seemed to study his expression with intrigued brown eyes. All at once, the door flew open and two young men stepped inside. One was younger, with curly black hair and glasses while the other seemed stern and chiseled.
"Who are you?" Solomon demanded, his eyes narrowing to become even more stern and chiseled as he swung a chair around and straddled it.
"Me name is Rearden," he swallowed his mouthful.
"Jarah sent him over for a meal," Missy added as Solomon swung an incredulous stare her way. Then his facial muscles relaxed slightly as he turned his eyes toward Rearden.
Rearden stared a moment to understand what he meant. "I sort of stayed the night because I landed on a wheelbarrow while trying to climb up Mr. Morgan's wall."
Solomon stared as well, only with another surprised scowl. "The heck you think you're doin,' climbin' up someone's wall like that?"
Taken aback, Rearden answered, "Leland suggested I hang out here when I messed up at home, so I decided to give it a try."
"By scaling their house?" Jordan was skeptical.
"I was a mite too shy to knock on the door and ask if I could run away for a while."
"Snap at me, that does good," Jordan bit his words short. "Where did you drop from, anyway? You sound Irish, but that would make no sense here."
"I am Irish."
"Know anyone who speaks any Gaelic? It's a shame to hear such a beautiful language wither away like some dead grass."
Missy and Solomon shifted their eyes toward one another. Jordan rarely spoke this much to anyone, much less strangers. He seemed intrigued by this young man who had stopped by to visit.
"Me family and I speak Gaelic," Rearden answered a little shortly. "Me parents are stout Irish citizens who would rather eat dung than see their language go extinct."
Jordan listened intently, then paused pensively before returning through the door. Rearden watched him leave, curiosity lighting a spark in his eyes.
"He's moody," Missy said simply as she reached for the juice pitcher and placed it on the table beside him.
"Your juice is good," he regained his manners.
She smiled politely. "So, how do you know Leland?"
"We went to school together for a couple weeks," he refrained from explaining how he had been kicked out after Solomon's reaction toward his scaling the Morgan's wall.
"You haven't lived here for long, have you?"
"About three weeks."
Solomon watched him intently, sensing shivers up his spine and down his arms. He lowered his eyes to the table, but the man's gaze still burned through him.
"So maybe we should introduce you t'the rest of our siblings," Missy peered out the window as her family approached. She drew the door aside and called, "We have a guest, so come in and introduce yourselves."
Another young man suit stepped inside with two young women behind him. His brown eyes landed on Rearden and he broke into a smile. "Hey, I'm Cayman."
"And I'm Carla," said the young woman beside him. "This is Meegan."
The younger girl grinned. "Hello. What's your name?"
"Me name is Rearden McCallister. I'm from Ireland"
Cayman's eyes snapped open and his jaw dropped. "Have you seen the ocean? I think Ireland is surrounded by water, right?"
"Well, yes, most of Ireland is surrounded by water. Me family and I would drive to the shores every weekend to have a long picnic."
"Beautiful," Cayman smiled. "I love the ocean."
"Obviously," Carla snickered.
A knock sounded at the door and Charlotte poked her head in. "Hey, Rearden, it's time to go."
Missy returned her soft smile. "He's just finished his breakfast. We'll send him on his way."
Rearden silently marveled at the warmth that surrounded these families- the coolness of Solomon aside- that was such a strong attachment.
"Well," he rose and rubbed his stomach gratefully. "Thank you for breakfast. It was nice meeting you all."
"Likewise," Cayman answered. Rearden raised his hand in another grateful wave as he stepped out of the warm little bunkhouse, prepared to face his family.