“WHAT’S THIS?”

Brent stopped in midreach. His father’s voice made a glass of orange juice unimportant. He slowly shut the refrigerator, turned, and leaned against the cool stainless steel door. He focused on its quiet hum and tried to still the panicked beating of his heart.

He’d been found out.

At least the breakfast counter separated him from his father. It jutted out, its polished granite dividing the kitchen and the dining room. That’s where the landline phone sat under the calendar on the wall, right next to the fridge. A ceramic jar held a collection of stray pens. That’s also where the mail got dumped every day, and where his parents sorted the bills from the junk mail.

Presently, Tibor Kenson was giving Brent his courtroom glare. Brent sighed. He should’ve started going through the mail as soon as he’d filled out those online forms, but he hadn’t expected the college catalogs to start coming this early in the year. September was barely over, and the maple tree outside Brent’s window was still as green as it had been at midsummer.

“I hate to repeat myself. What’s this?”

“A college catalog, Dad. Here, I’ll take it.” Brent reached across the granite counter, approaching his father the way he’d approach a fractious horse: confidently. According to rule number one of horsemanship, if you want the horses to do as you say, never show any fear.

“Just wait a second. Where’s this from? An aggie school? In fucking Iowa?”

Brent shrugged. “Just checking them out.”

“An aggie school won’t have a pre-law program.” Tibor slammed the fat catalog onto the counter. “And I think I already explained to you that I’m not paying for college unless you give law a fair try. It’s a family business.”

“So’s horses.” Brent stood his ground. Two feet away from his dad seemed too close right now. Two miles would’ve been a lot more comfortable.

The garage door hummed open several rooms away. They both froze, both for the same reason. Brent’s mother hated yelling and discord in the house. That always surprised Brent, since she was a lawyer just like his dad, and she won her share of cases just as he did.

His father shuffled through the pile, extracting important envelopes and setting ad flyers and unwanted catalogs to the side. His hand paused over another thick college packet. “Where’s this from?” He picked it up.

“It’s addressed to me, Dad. I’ll take care of it.” Brent didn’t feel so forward as to rip the coveted envelope out of his father’s hands. Horse-training tactics took him only so far in this arena.

“My house, my rules.” And those words were fighting words, because nothing good followed them. Not ever.

“What’s going on?” Rita Kenson’s heels clicked on the marble floor as she crossed the foyer into the kitchen with Brent’s sister in tow. His mom set her briefcase on the floor, shrugged out of her suit jacket, and draped it over the back of a barstool. “What did I miss?”

Brent watched his parents lean over the kitchen aisle and kiss hello. This might mellow his dad out some.

Naomi just rolled her eyes. “I’m going upstairs. You two’ll just fight again, and I have homework to do.”

Only Naomi’s irritated huffing and stomping up the curved staircase interrupted the silence that fell. She slammed her door extra hard. Its echo was like a report of a starting gun.

“That mail is addressed to me, Dad.” Brent faced him straight on. Eye contact, good posture, no fear. His father wouldn’t respect anything less.

“Wait, wait, time out.” Rita cut in, irritated already. “Bring me up-to-date. What did I miss?”

Tibor bellowed, getting his gripe out first. “He’s applying to fucking aggie schools!”

“I don’t want to be a lawyer,” Brent said. He tried not to spit his words. It wasn’t that he hated law—they had had discussions of career choices—but his father’s disregard for personal correspondence rankled. “Dad, you’re a lawyer. You know not to open other people’s mail!”

When Tibor’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched, Brent knew he’d overshot.

“I haven’t opened your fucking mail, you indolent, ungrateful pup!”

Brent flinched at the explosion. Knowing it was coming made no difference.

“It’s right here.” Tibor raged on. “In my own fuckin’ house! I don’t need to open any fucking mail to see you totally disregard every single fucking conversation we’ve had. Every single one.”

Brent waited. This wasn’t over yet. He knew the pattern all too well.

“Honey, are you done?” His mom’s exasperated voice came right on cue, and Brent wondered if she counted to ten before she spoke. “I know I am. I’m done playing referee between the two of you.”

This was new. Brent gave her a beseeching look.

“No, Brent. You and your dad have to sort this out on your own. I’ve my own stresses. Naomi’s having trouble in school, we all have work, there’s Hal’s college tuition to pay. There’s the house, with the rest of you waiting for Mercedes to show up every Thursday and clean up after you, with just me doing the chores before I go to bed.” Her tired, exasperated look was meant for both of them. “I’m done. First, you talk. Then I’ll chime in, if I think it’s necessary.”

Tibor rounded and backed away from the counter. “If you’re the only one doing anything worthwhile, you pick through the mail.” He looked at Brent. It wasn’t a warm, proud look like the ones he used to have for Brent a year or two ago. “You take what’s yours. This discussion isn’t over.”

 

 

THE HARDWOOD stair was starting to dig into Brent’s back, but he didn’t dare move. He was hugging the unopened envelopes from University of Iowa and Penn State against his chest like a shield.

Eavesdropping was supposed to be bad. He knew that. He couldn’t help himself, though. If they’d only talk to him like something other than a clone of his brother, Hal. If they’d take his dreams and aspirations seriously—but they didn’t, and Brent resorted to a covert method of finding out why his parents were acting the way they did.

Brent had an uncle who had a riding stable, and Brent earned his pocket money teaching lessons and private classes. Uncle ’Tila made no secret of his hope that Brent would follow in his footsteps and take over Blue Heron Acres someday. Brent knew he was at the right place at the right time. How many people got to learn from a seasoned pro, at a good facility, and not have to pay through the nose? Riding and horse training was a tough business and the work never ended, but that could be said for law as well. It made Brent happy—and seventeen-year-olds were tough customers when it came to happiness.

Sounds of drawers opening and closing, pans being moved on the stove, knives chopping.

“So what happened?” His mom.

A smell of raw onion and garlic joined the kitchen noises. Brent’s stomach growled.

“Same old, same old. He won’t be a lawyer, even though he could go to Swarthmore as a legacy.” A sound of ice falling into glass skittered up the tall walls of the foyer. His parents were getting their evening drink early. “It’s not like we haven’t paid into it. And it’s in the state, so he gets in-state tuition anyway, just like Hal. It’s practically a free-ride situation, a great school….”

Brent held his mail even tighter. He’d been to Swarthmore. It was so close to Philadelphia, he had heard the planes on their approach to the airport. Its old campus was still a lot more urban than Brent was willing to endure. Crowded. And… they didn’t have his major.

“All he needs is a solid liberal arts studies program.” Tibor went on along well-worn tracks. “He’s just stubborn. If he’d just give it a try, y’know?”

“He seems to have a pretty good idea of what he wants.” Brent thought his mother sounded conciliatory rather than convinced.

“For now! But I don’t want him to end up like Attila, hon. I just… that would kill me, you know?”

The kitchen noises quieted. The scent of onion and garlic mingled with spices now, and with meat. Brent tuned it out. Tibor disapproved of Uncle ’Tila? That was news to his ears. He’d thought they were best friends.

“My brother’s doing fine.” Ah, mom.

“For now. The guy’s like a ticking bomb, Rita. I love him and all, but come on. He has issues.”

“He has Kai.”

“And Kai helps—for now. Kai doesn’t know what it’s like to be tied to the horses day after day and year after year. They are the ones responsible for all those animals and riders. They’ll never take a cruise, never travel to Asia or Europe. No vacations except for a long weekend while some hired hand does the basic barn chores.” Tibor ran out of steam, at least for now. None of these arguments were new to Brent.

Few moments passed. “I just don’t want him to end up like your brother. Neurotic, lonely, and taking up with the first guy that comes along.”

Brent’s mind reeled. He’d never seen Uncle ’Tila in such a harsh light.

He revered him.

Uncle ’Tila was nice. He was calm and gentle, yet always somehow in charge. It was that quality of quiet command that made him such an excellent horse trainer, and Brent did all he could to copy that. Uncle ’Tila never had a harsh thing to say to Brent either. They had a deal, one Brent kept with religious zeal. As long as he kept his grades up to qualify for merit scholarships and not irritate his parents, Uncle ’Tila would teach him all he knew and give him every support on his path toward becoming a horse trainer.

Thus, Iowa. The aggie program was highly selective, but was free. No tuition—as long as you could get in. Except it was far away, and Brent would be on his own. He might be able to bring Lenox along. Maybe.

Penn State had a good Stables Management and Equestrian Science program, and it wasn’t far away. Kai had been taking their online classes, one by one, and it was working for him just fine. They had scholarships too, and Brent had been saving money to span the rest. He knew he’d have to work his way through school, but being a three-hour drive away from Blue Heron Acres would make it worthwhile.

It was a good plan. He knew his dad would come around. If Brent did everything else right—kept up his grades, applied for scholarships, and managed to ask a girl to be his prom date—everything would work out fine.

Except now, his father disapproved of Attila as a role model. That spelled disaster down the line. Brent didn’t know how yet, but he had a sinking feeling no good would come of it.