Winter nights are cold in Kansas. Even in the shelter of a barn, on a farm far from the city lights, it was cold enough for the boy's breath to come out in snowy puffs as he struggled beneath the weight of a bale of hay. He was strong and agile for his age, fourteen, but the bale was large and clumsy. Hoisting it over his shoulder he manuevered his way in the dim light of the barn to the stalls where the cows huffed and shuffled, and with a big white exhalation he dropped the bale on the ground. As the boy knelt down he pulled out a knife and cut the wire on the bale. The cows pushed against their stalls, drawn by the smell of hay. The boy took fistfuls of hay and held them out to his favorites and let them eat from his hand, feeling their big rubbery lips deftly take the hay.
His pocket phone rang shrilly, startling the cows into mooing. The boy dug into his pocket and switched off the phone. He knew who it was anyway---not which one, exactly, but one of the girls from school. Junior and senior girls who called and pretended to ask about the classes he had with them. At school they did not talk to him; they eyed him from beneath wavy blonde bangs and flaunted their new-sprouted femininity pushing up beneath their sweaters, but if he walked towards one of them they turned away.
One had called that evening already, while he had been studying for his physics and exobiology classes. He had been concentrating so hard he didn't even hear the phone ring, and his stepmother had gotten out of the shower to answer it. "One of your girlfriends, Jimmy" his stepmother said, with that tone in her voice, and she stayed standing in the doorway to his room, dripping water on the rug with only a towel wrapped around her, while he blushed and took the phone and got rid of the girl as quickly as he could. His stepmother just stared at him, her dark wet hair plastered to her neck and a rivulet of water dripping down her leg. "I guess she just wanted to talk to the football hero," she said, turning, and then added as she walked away, "Oh, I got another crick in my neck. I might need you to massage it later." Sometimes he preferred it when she was mean outright and called him names. But when she was nice--well, she had a way of being nice that twisted in his heart. Like the way she called him the football hero. He had made the varsity squad and should have been first-string quarterback, except that coach said it wasn't right, him being only a freshman, and that Mike, a senior, deserved a chance. Mike tried to pick fights with him all the time; Jim always talked his way out of the fight, and this only made Mike madder. Mike was bigger but Jim was quicker and much smarter and he knew he could have beaten Mike. In fact he was afraid he might really hurt Mike. He imagined beating up Mike, breaking his nose, bloodying him. Mike's girlfriend Anne was in his physics class and called him up all the time. At the state championship game Mike broke his leg in the first half, with the team trailing by fourteen point and Jim had been quarterback in the second half. They won in the snow swirling down with twenty seconds left to play. It was an away game and afterwards Jim had gotten disoriented in the unfamiliar hallways leading to the locker room, wandering around with his helmet in hand, and turning a corner he suddenly found himself facing Anne. She pulled him into a darkened lavatory and guided his hand underneath her sweater and her bra, and he stroked the crinkly aureole of her nipple with his fingertip. The next night there was a victory party and during the entire party Anne stayed right beside Mike, who was on crutches; she never once looked at Jim. He had stood for an hour in a corner, as music blared and beer flowed, and stared at Anne, and no one even talked to him. The football hero. He had gone out walking for three hours, and at four in the morning called his stepmother to get him---his father was out of town, as usual. When she picked him up she was furious and she reeked of perfume and she had on lipstick that was smeared. "I don't know what's the matter with you ," she yelled at him. He knew it wasn't easy for her--a cosmopolitan city woman charmed by a handsome man fifteen years older than herself and then suddenly finding herself stuck most of the time on a farm. Jim was angry at his father, too, for being away so much, and when his father had remarried Jim thought it was because his stepmother reminded his father of his young, pretty dead wife, and Jim hoped his father would be tempted to stay home more. But his father left them both behind, his son and his wife, the same way Jim's mother had abandoned her two men by dying on them.
The boy fetched another bale of hay and lugged it to the far side of the barn where the sheep were penned. Climbing over the fence of the pen he cut open the bale. The sheep milled around him, baaing and pressing their cold noses into the hay and against him. He knelt down and hugged one of the ewes, burying his face in her thick coat and feeling the slick lanolin on his skin. The warm, woolly smell and the movement of muscles beneath his arms made him feel safe and warm. He often felt more comfortable with animals than with people: there were no words, no hidden meanings to ferret out, and no betrayals. If you gave patience and kindness you were rewarded with open love.
A half hour later he carefully closed the barn door behind him and he stepped back out into the cold Kansas night. The land was flat, stretched taut from horizon to horizon; so immensely flat that the barns and farm houses, far from the lights of the city, looked like insignificant toys scattered across the blanket of snow. Trudging through the snow back to the house the boy looked up, his breath puffing out like his soul escaping. He stopped and stared at the black sky bedecked with the stars like jewels, a sky so immense he thought it could swallow him up. Everywhere else he felt claustrophobic: in school with the doubled-edged looks from the girls, in the house with his stepmother swinging from mood to mood, even out in the barn he felt closed in. But up there--he imagined himself floating free. "I'll go there someday," he whispered to himself, "go there and get far away from all this." He stood and hugged himself to keep warm on that cold Kansas night, dreaming of the stars; and the stars dreamed of him, a lonely farm boy named James Tiberius Kirk.
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