I was born in 1922 to the quaint outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, though I don't hardly remember anything of it or the years before I turned eight. There wasn't much exceptional about that year in my child's mind, and come to think of it, I don't remember there being much special about anything that came after it either. 'Course now I know different and maybe that why that's where my memory begins, I can't really say. But I can remember it and I can remember it right down to the day too. I can remember just how the hay smelled up in the loft that morning, how the horses hawed when I tended them, and how things were just like they were every day. That was just the life of a stable hand. And no matter where you went of how fancy the places got, I don't reckon stable life changed by much.
And I was happy with that. I never wanted to leave that place. Pap always said that it was just our little spot in the world – right there in the big ole barns of the Davidson Farm. We fit into it just like Lil' Miss Goldilocks. Just right. After all, my grand-daddy had worked there once, as did my great grand-daddy, and my great great grand-daddy before him. We McKenzies went all the way back to when the place was first put on the land. It was in my blood to tend to such beautiful animals and I did it as best as any boy could. It was honest work and I was proud of it.
'Course Davidson Farm wasn't really a farm. It was a big ole place, nearly eighty-something acres, with the Davidson's big mansion up on the north end, the worker's quarters on the south end, and nine of the biggest, prettiest stables you've ever seen smack dab in between with all them pastures and tracks. And they raised some of the prettiest race horses you've probably ever seen too. Mister Davidson wouldn't have it any other way. He was a big man, with a hard hand and a stern face, but I'll tell you, when it came to those horses, he was the gentlest a fella could be. Between him and us, well those beasts had it made. And after years of watching them coming in and going out of those stalls, sometimes I'd even get word that one of them had really gone and made something real big of itself. And I'll tell you, there wasn't a much better feeling than that.
He had a son about my age too, Mister Davidson did. A year younger than me really, if we're trying to be exact. Lil' Will Davidson, shorter than most boys his age outta be and with a curly little mop of red hair on his head that made you able to pinpoint him anywhere in a crowd, despite his height. 'Course his real name was William, though he never did like it very much. But we had to call him Master William just the same, whether he liked it or not.
And when I was real little and still didn't understand much, Pap used to tell me to leave him well enough alone. 'Course I'd always ask why I'd gotta and he'd always say, "He's the son o' the master, ya hear? You ain't got no right to be messin' with him."
And for a long time I listened to Pap and did as I was told. I already had Lil' Miss Laney – the daughter of the woman that tended the chickens in helped in the kitchens – for company, whether I wanted it or not. Stuck on me like glue, she was. I never really minded her much though. She kept up with me well enough and she was always pretty as a peach with those brown curls and big blue eyes. Couldn't hardly say no to a girl like that.
To this day, part of me still thinks – well that part that ain't hurting and bleeding of course – that it was 'cause of her that Will started coming through the stables. Neither of us could have been much older that twelve then, but everyday all the same at about two 'o clock he'd come strolling on in with that swagger all the rich boys got. He'd wander around for a while usually before leaving; 'course that was only if Laney was nowhere to be found. Both of us were hardly young men yet, but I suppose some just have the time to start looking earlier than others. 'Course I didn't really understand that yet either then.
"Why're you always coming 'round here?" I'd asked him once. If Pap had been there he'd have boxed my ears for talking to Will like that. But after some time curiosity just wouldn't let me be.
'Course he just looked at me a while, standing there all neat and clean in his white shirt and pressed grey pants – a real gentleman and quiet out of place. Though I suppose if he'd been dressed much different, I'd have probably mistook him for one of the jockeys.
"Haven't I got the right to come and see my father's horses?" he said, standing up all straight with his hands on his hips. His voice was still high and had none of the harshness like Mister Davidson's, but I could tell he was trying real hard to sound tough. I'd decided right then and there that I liked him. He reminded me of one of them small dogs all those fancy women carry around; just puffin' himself up to seem bigger. It was kinda funny. Though I couldn't blame him any for it, he had a big shadow to live in.
"I 'spose so," was all I said before returning to my business.
It's one of the things you learn when you've been a stable hand for long enough – people can be a lot like horses. And like horses, you can learn a lot about a fella just by watching him and talking to him. And in the time that followed, I'll tell you, you can sure learn a hell of a lot by watching Will. He kept coming back to the stables just like ever, 'cept everyday he would linger just a little bit longer, looking a bit more at the horses and walking around all anxious like he wanted to say something but he was just too jittery to ask. His eyes would get all shifty and every once in a while he would pause and look around, biting his lip, before moving on.
"Hey you! You've uh…been working here for a while, haven't you?" he finally asked me one Sunday as I was mucking out one of the stalls. He kept shifting from foot to foot just outside of the dirt's reach and watching me with nervous eyes.
"Sure 'ave," I said, keeping my answers short, still minding what Pap always told me. 'Course, I don't really think Will got that.
"How long?" he asked when I didn't say any more.
I stopped my work and looked at him, leaning on my pitch fork.
"Been born here, I reckon. Ain't hardly ever been anywhere else. 'Cept when Pap takes me into town." He just cocked his little red head to the side and furrowed his neat little eyebrows.
"Why haven't you ever said anything to me then?" he said after a bit, crossing his arms all tough. But I just shrugged and went back to mucking.
"I ain't 'sposed to," I said.
Now at that, Will pursed his lips and puffed himself all up again just like them little dogs and looked square at me. If I could still laugh now, I probably would. He'd always looked so funny when he did that.
"Who says you're not supposed to? Because I say you are! If you want to talk to me, you talk! Now looky here, tell me your name." He really was a funny boy.
"Liam, sir. Liam McKenzie."
"Well then Liam," he paused and put his hands back on his hips, "I don't want to be a sir to you, and you aren't going to be a stable hand to me! I've seen you around and I've decided that we ought to be as good as friends can be. You got that?"
"Yeah" I said after a while, trying hard not to laugh at his red face and trying to not hardly let him know how happy it made me to think I might finally have a friend my own age.
"Yeah, I got it."
And life was like that for a real long while. Laney wasn't so far behind either – her pretty little self always catching Will right off his feet. Even when the rest of the country couldn't hardly find something to smile about, I knew we really had something there, just like our own little world. Even now I think those have to have been the best days I ever had; growing up in those stable with them, fighting and teasing till we got too old for nonsense, and then watching Laney and Will dancing in the stable isle to the crackle of the radio while Laney laughed as they stumbled, and me, standing back against the hay thinking life would be like this forever.
'Cousre there ain't nothing like a perfect forever. We as people can try and try, but it just ain't something we're meant to have. That was something I learned real quick when my name got called in '42. I don't think I'd ever seen a sadder sight than the day I stood outside the gates of Davidson Farm for the last time, saying goodbye to ole Pap and Will and telling Laney not to cry. I always did hate it when she cried. 'Course she must have gotten over it well enough because I got a letter from Will a few months into boot camp telling me that they were getting married. And in my mind I wished them well, writing back that I couldn't be happier for them. But in my heart nearly resented them both for getting to carry on so happy while I was being trained to kill. It just didn't seem fair.
'Course now I realize that being fair is kind of like getting a perfect forever. The thought didn't help me much then though and I stayed angry like that for a long while. Everything around me went on like a blur – training in camp and being moved on to France, the blood and the loss and the death, the numbness I started to feel for it all after a while. And we tried to do our best, the men and me. We laughed when we could and smoked when we couldn't. 'Course you can't ignore the pain or forget the things you see, but dwelling on it or not is your own choice.
Now though I wish I'd tried harder – tried harder to not to dwell and to take instead any reason that I could to just stop and breath for the sake of breathing and to find something inside myself to smile for. Life, after all, is too short not to.
The war itself had turned out to be everything I'd expected and everything I'd never seen coming. Just like I'd never seen those damned Nazis out and about. I'd been stupider than I'd ever been, giving in to the goading and taking Mitchel Rutland's dare. I shouldn't have been out there. We were just boys joking, but I should have known better. 'Course, out there or not, I should have been watching better too, just like how I'd watched Will when we were kids. If I'd been watching properly I'd have seen them, would've had the time to slink away. But I was foolish, too cocky for a soldier. And where was I now? Twenty-three years old in a hole, broken and bleeding for all I was worth, which right then didn't seem like much.
'Course thinking on it all now, I can't help but feel like I've been living two lives all along. There was this one here and now, this one I knew wasn't going to last much longer, and there was the one I tried so hard to keep living in my head – the one with Pap and Will and Laney. Oh I bet she'd looked so pretty in her wedding dress with her hair all done up. Her mama must have been so proud. I would have been too, had I seen her. And Will, little red-headed William Davidson. He'd have looked so funny to me up there in a proper suit. He'd given up on them being young with us. Suits didn't do well in a barn after all. It was a damn shame I hadn't been there to see it, and a damn shame I wasn't likely to be seeing much again. It was a damn shame too that those bastards hadn't had better aim. Then I wouldn't have had a moment to think about any of it.
"McKenzie? Where are you?" I could hear my men's voices out there somewhere. Rutland's voice rang higher than the other's, though too far off for it to do me any good.
"McKenzie? Liam! Liam!"
If I turned my head just right and tried my best to ignore the ache in my head from the fall, I could swear that it wasn't Rutland's voice at all. If I tried, I could make myself believe it was Will's. If I tried really hard, I could make myself believe it was Laney's.
In some back corner of my mind, music played and crackled. Horses hemmed and hawed, and a pretty little voice laughed. I closed my eyes and listened real hard. And when I opened them again, I watched as a good looking, well dressed boy twirled a young blue-eyed girl around a stable to the sound of an old static radio. She laughed again and I laughed with her as the boy just smiled. Watching from my place back against the hay bales, I stood forward and tapped the boy on the shoulder. He smiled up at me and stepped away. Lil' Miss Blue Eyes took my hands and danced. I looked down at Lil' Miss Blue Eyes and she smiled back. The boy clapped with the static and I couldn't help but shake my head as my feet moved shamelessly across the cement floor with such a lovely lady in my arms.