This was a story I was commissioned to write - it features some themes that I don’t often explore, and is primarily a slow-burn mental regression story. It’s seven chapters long, I’ll be posting the complete story over the next couple weeks.
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The old bus rumbled down the gravel road, tires crunching on little rocks as they pulled through the gate. They were kicking up a line of dust as they went, but it had rained a few days before, so it wasn’t the billowing cloud you could get when the countryside was really dry and barren.
Jeremy loved the country. When the chance presented itself to spend his summer on a ranch, working and learning with free room and board, he’d jumped at the opportunity. If he did well enough, there was even the possibility that they’d take him on as a ranch hand full time, a job he’d be more than happy to do.
The bus rolled to a stop and he stood, grabbing his duffel bag from the upper compartment. Tossing it over his shoulder, he walked to the door, thanked the driver, and stepped out.
Neonato Ranch. His home, for the next three months, and possibly longer if he was lucky.
The main house was a big, wide building, two stories spread out to cover a large space. There was no formal front desk or reception area, just a hallway that split off to a living room on one side and a stairway on the other. He poked his head into the living room first, trying to spot someone who could tell him where to go.
“Eh… Hello?” he called, into the empty space. “Is anyone home?”
Nobody was in the living room, but he heard someone with a friendly southern drawl call out behind him. “You must be Jeremy!”
Jeremy turned, to see a man about six inches taller and maybe five years older than himself, coming out of the nearest bedroom. “Yeah, how’d you know?”
He grinned, in a friendly way. “You’re the last one here. Almost late for your first riding lesson. Billy, by the way.” Sticking out his hand, Billy waited for him to shake.
Trading grips, Jeremy shifted his duffel. “Where should I put this?”
“I was just getting the rooms ready, the last couple on the left aren’t claimed yet so take your pick,” Billy replied. “Then get around back to the barn. If you’re late you won’t hear the end of it.”
“Thanks.” Following the directions, Billy tossed his bag in the second to last room, walked back out the front door, and navigated his way around the building and towards the barn.
It was scaled similar to the house, big enough to comfortably keep a hundred horses or more, separated into rows and stalls. A large fence surrounded the whole thing, and a group of a dozen people were leaning on it, chatting and joking in the warm afternoon sun.
He waved, half-jogged to cover the last fifty feet, and stood on the opposite side of the fence. “Hi, I’m, eh, Jeremy. Is this where the summer hands are meeting?”
A couple people nodded, and a woman who looked a little older and a little more experienced addressed him. “You’re just about late.”
“The bus driver’s fault, not mine,” Jeremy said, glancing around for a gate so he could get to the other side of the fence.
The woman looked him up and down, frowning skeptically. “Did the bus driver dress you, too?”
A couple of the other hands laughed, and Jeremy found himself blushing without really knowing why. “Uh, no?”
“So you were planning on riding in those clothes, then?”
He looked down at his outfit. Loose jeans, a plain T shirt, tennis shoes. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
More snickers from the other farm hands, but the woman just said, “What room are you in?”
“Uh, I’m not sure.” He tried to think back, if there’d been a number or the label on the door. “Second to last one on the left?”
“Hmm.” She shook her head. “Go back to your room, Jeremy, and check the closet. You’ll find some clothes that are actually appropriate for riding, that won’t get tangled up or caught on your saddle. Hurry along, we’re all waiting on you.”
Blushing, Jeremy turned, jogging back towards the ranch house.
He knew there had to be a back door he could go in through, but he wasn’t sure where it was or if it was even unlocked, so he had to go all the way around to the front entrance to get in, puffing for breath as he got back to his room.
Checking the closet, he found a pair of breeches and a polo shirt hanging up in various sizes, along with a couple pairs of boots and a helmet. Stripping hastily down to his boxers and socks, Jeremy started to get dressed, mindful that every second he was away made him look more incompetent in the eyes of the trainer.
It took him a little trial and error to find a combination that fit, adding to the time it took to get dressed. The first shirt he donned was too large, and the first pair of breeches were too small, and it took him half a minute of struggling to pull the boots on properly. Clipping the helmet in place, he ignored the discarded clothes that hadn’t fit, leaving them scattered on the floor as he ran back to get to the barn.
Huffing and puffing, he realized he still didn’t know where the gate was. He ended up standing on the wrong side of the fence, catching his breath, while all the other farm hands stared and smirked.
“Just… a second,” he panted. After he’d gotten in a bit of air, he asked, “Okay, where’s the gate?”
“Just climb over,” the instructor replied, shaking her head.
He looked at it. The fence was only as tall as he was, and it didn’t look like it would be particularly hard to climb, but he wasn’t much of a climber. Swallowing, not wanting to look any weaker in front of the others than he already did, he grabbed the top and pulled himself up, kicking his legs for support. He got over the top, threw over a leg to climb down, missed, and fell, kicking up a cloud of dust where he landed.
Trying not to blush as the other rookies giggled, he sat up, brushed himself off, and pretended like nothing had happened.
Ignoring it all, the woman said, “Alright, well, I’m Karen, and I’ll be teaching you how to ride. I don’t care how inexperienced you might be…” her gaze lingered on Jeremy when she said it, “As far as I’m concerned, all of you should be able to learn the skills you need to be an expert rider. There are a few basic things you need to know, before you get on a horse…”
She kept talking, and Jeremy sighed in relief. Karen wasn’t going to single him out any more than she already had, and now that they had something to focus on, the other hands weren’t really focusing on him either. He was able to settle in, listening to the instructions and watching as Karen brought out a gentle horse to start the demonstrations.
“Jeremy,” She said, getting his attention.
“Huh? I mean, yes?” he nodded, stepping up.
“Why don’t you go first. Show everyone what I just taught you.” She gave him a look, like she expected he’d decline.
Sticking out his chin, Jeremy stepped up to the horse. The stirrups were a little higher than he could lift his legs comfortably, so he wobbled a bit stepping into them.
Karen steadied him with a hand, and he climbed up, resting in the saddle. “Like this?”
“Like that,” Karen replied, nodding with satisfaction. “Now, walk her around for a few steps.”
Jeremy nodded, taking the reins and nudging the horse forward. It was used to carrying inexperienced riders, and began to lope forward, slow and gentle. He turned her to the right, and she obeyed, moving at a lackadaisical speed.
“I’m getting it!” he declared, perhaps a bit too excited for how simple the accomplishment was.
Karen looked up at him, her expression thoughtful. “I think I might just make something of you yet.”
The rest of the day went smoothly. They were given a tour of the property - Jeremy finally learned the location of the back door and the various gates around the barn. A schedule was drawn up for their choring, and finally it came time for supper.
Jeremy liked most of the other farm hands, despite the somewhat embarrassing introduction he’d had to them. Kimmy had been a farmgirl most of her life and knew her way around the place. Ned was quick with a joke, but didn’t participate in any group teasing. Jess somehow managed to make their mostly-identical work clothes look skimpy and revealing.
It was a good group, and he looked forward to getting to know them over the summer.
Billy, as it turned out, was the ranch’s next best thing to a chef. The stew he whipped up with dinner wasn’t anything like fine dining, but after a day outside, it was particularly satisfying, and the whole table ate it up with seconds.
One of the other ranch hands was in the middle of telling a long-winded yarn when Karen walked in, scooped up a bowl of stew, and sat down at the end of the table next to him. “So, Jerry, you’ve never ridden before?”
“I mean, a little as a kid,” Jeremy said, unsure if this was leading into a compliment or a criticism. “But not much in the past few years. Why?”
“I just think I see something in you,” Karen replied. “Your demeanor. I could see you being a real fixture around here.”
Given the rocky start to the day, Jeremy was more than happy to hear that. Raising his eyebrows, he beamed. “Well, as long as I’m pulling my weight.”
“Sure.” She paused, then added, “I did notice you left your room a mess.”
“A mess? I didn’t even…” Jeremy paused, remembering his hasty attempt to get dressed that afternoon, the clothes he’d strewn on the floor. “Oh, yeah. I was just in a hurry, I didn’t want to keep you waiting. I’ll clean it up after supper.”
“No need.” Karen shook her head. “I realized we still had the suite open, so I moved your bag in there and took care of your little mess. It’s a bigger room, and it’d go to waste if nobody was sleeping in there.”
Despite the fact that it was a privilege, Jeremy still felt hesitant. Being set apart felt like he was being punished. “Are you sure? I’d happily let someone else take it, but-”
“I insist,” Karen said.
Jeremy glanced down at the table, at his peers. Nobody really seemed to be paying attention. “Okay, sure. Where’s the ‘suite’?”
“Down the opposite hall, at the very end. You can’t miss it.” Karen turned her attention to Jeremy’s empty stew bowl, and added, “Don’t forget, you do your own washing up around here.”
Blinking at the sudden change in topic, Jeremy said, “R-right,” and found himself standing to go and wash out his supper bowl.
The suite was right where he’d been told, with his duffel sitting on the large bed. It was, as he’d been promised, superior to the other room - bigger, but also with a window overlooking the barn, and a large painting set against the left wall.
Jeremy took a moment to stop and admire the art. It was a sunset scene, showing a cowboy on a brown-and-white stallion, expression hard and masculine. He looked experienced, but still young, with brown hair and blue eyes, and he overlooked an idyllic version of Neonato Ranch.
Tilting his head, Jeremy stared at the cowboy’s face. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it bore a striking resemblance to himself, right down to the ears that stuck out just a little. It was aspirational. With a little training and some proper experience, Jeremy could be that cowboy, overlooking the ranch himself.
That thought made him smile as he unpacked his bag, took off the boots, and started getting ready to unwind.
Returning to the living room, he spent some time with the others, chatting, getting to know them, basking in the shared experience that they’d all worked hard that day and would work hard again tomorrow to do something they enjoyed. Beers were passed out, and after having two Jeremy started to feel drowsy, so he excused himself to get a good night’s sleep.
After the long day, he was going to sleep soundly. Navigating back up to his room, he undressed from his work clothes, set them aside to put with the laundry in the morning, and curled up under the covers.
Maybe it was the extra hard work, or the extra beer he’d had just before going to sleep. He couldn’t be sure. One way or another, though, that night was the first night since he was a child that he’d wet the bed.