KLA-CHINK! Rattles the deafening sound of a slamming steel gate holding in a two-ton angry beast. Jason reaches into his back pocket to grab a wad of chew. Then, he shoves it into his lip. With a deep breath, he closes his eyes and is taken back to the first time he jumped on the back of a steer calf as a child. CLANK! The sound of a caged beast attempting to thrust himself free is the familiar memory of his six year old self, chasing a calf into the cattle shoot. As he opens his eyes, the hot sun and blue skies fade into a dark, florescent-lit barn. The sweet, rain-kissed smell of aged manure fades to the sharp smell of cedar pine shavings. When his eyes come into focus, the dreams of a small boy fade into the reality of a bull rider.
“Jason!” bellows the ringmaster. “You’re up!”
Jason climbs the steel fence and mounts the one-ton bull, the same way he had practiced on the neighbor’s steer calf at the age of eight. Clasping his leather-wrapped fingers around the bull rope, he prepares to hold on for the ride of his life. As he looks out across the arena while they move the previous bull and rider out of the ring, a drop of sweat rolls on to his brow.
“And next in the ring, we have Jason LaMarx riding 205 Demon's Run,” echoes the crackling sound of the announcer’s voice across the stadium.
“You ready Jason?” the gatekeeper asks.
With a nod from Jason, the gate to the arena flies open.
One-Mississippi: The beast flies forward, kicking its back legs slightly to the left. Jason is thrust forward. It takes all of his grip to stay on. Cheers from the crowd fade together into a loud buzz.
Two-Mississippi: Demon's Run kicks his back legs hard to the right, then quickly to the left. A thrilling shock of adrenaline surges through Jason’s body reminding him what it feels like to be alive.
Three-Mississippi: The one-ton bull throws a hard left away from Jason’s hand causing his grip to loosen. The jolt makes his black, Stetson hat fly off of his head. He can feel his body begin to slide off as he desperately grips the bull with his slick leather boots. If the hat falls, soon will the cowboy! echoes through his mind.
Four-Mississippi: The relentless efforts of the beast cause the cowboy’s leather bound hands to slip out from underneath the bull rope, tossing him through the air before plummeting to the pine shaving covered earth.
Five-Mississippi: The weight of Jason’s body falls on the back of his head. His ears ring as he struggles to process which way is up. The rodeo clowns run to the scene to distract the bull away from Jason’s limp body.
Six-Mississippi: Demon's Run throws back his rear legs in a final buck. Jason’s eyes shut. Forcefully, the one-ton beast crushes down on his chest, crashing through the protective vest. Jason throws his hand back desperately trying to grab something to pull him away from the bull. Sharp pain, like shards of glass being thrust through his lungs, surges through his body as he gasps for air and fades into unconsciousness.
Clunk! Jason is jarred awake. His arm had just sent the alarm clock crashing to the cement floor beside his bed. He struggles to breath as he grasps his chest. No bull riding injuries, he thinks as he struggles to realize he is just having another asthma attack from the musty basement air. He looks around the dark, dusty grey concrete room. There’s nothing more then an old school desk and shelves with a few folded clothes. His eyes are drawn to the light on at the top of the stairs. Another day in prison, he thinks in spite to himself. The fading dream of Jason’s younger days spent on ranches and at rodeos, plays in his not-yet fully conscious mind. It’s been nearly ten years since he’s even seen livestock. He’s now sixteen and that life feels long gone. Even his dreams now seem to end in tragedy.
As he sits up, the springs of his cot squeak beneath his shifting weight. Jason’s feet hit the painfully cold concrete floor before he quickly walks over to put his house shoes on. He walks up the shag rug stairs to the main living quarters where his adoptive family lives. SQUAWWK! screams the Blue Makkah in Jason’s ear as he passes by, causing twelve other parrots to break out in a chaotic screeching protest. Jason rolls his eyes. At one time, he was a morning person. He can only vaguely remember mornings that once started by the choir of cattle calling to their young and roosters crowing.
“Jason!” calls the overweight woman wearing a muumuu. “Your breakfast is in the red container in the fridge.” Jason walks across the room to the refrigerator. He grabs the worn out tupperware of food that his adopted mom, Carrol, has prepared for him. As he opens it, he can smell the pungent rotting odor as it escapes the container. He looks inside to see moist, brown chunks. Really? Dog food again? To save money, Carrol often tries to pass off dog food as soggy dinner leftovers. When it comes to her collection of adopted kids, she believes that if they are hungry enough, they’ll eat anything. Jason squishes the food around in the tupperware before deciding to just skip breakfast. Jason remembers the Sunday breakfasts that he would cook with his dad, before the car accident that killed both of his parents. The crackling sound of eggs cooking in the hot bacon grease, combined with the sweet smell of thick-sliced bacon in the dutch oven fry pan. Now, the only bacon he could hope for was bacon flavored dog chow.
“If you’re not gonna eat the food I give you, then go give it to the cats!” Carrol scolds Jason. Knowing that complaining will do no good, he picks up the tupperware and heads to the garage. When he opens up the door, cats from all corners of the closed off garage, run in a hungry frenzy to the door. Jason breaths through his mouth to try to avoid the stench of the many litter boxes that haven't been cleaned for quite some time. Carrol was a cat lady, but like her adopted children, makes little effort to care for them. There are about twelve cats that are kept, locked away in the garage. She collects them like she collects birds and children. The long-haired cats are matted and the spines of the short-haired cats are clearly visible. Jason struggles to set the tupperware of food in the middle of the hungry, screaming pack of cats, fighting for a morsel of food. He thinks little of it before walking back into the house.
“Jenny! Jason! Lyn! Katie!” Carrol bellows to the children. “Your Dad brought you books from the library for you to read today.”
Much like the cats locked in the garage and the parrots with clipped wings, Carrol doesn't allow the kids to venture out or attend public school. When Jason’s parents died, he had just finished kindergarten and has little memory of what it was like. He spent two years in the foster care system before being adopted by Carrol and her husband, which only offered him short spurts of attendance in various schools around the state.
Jason’s only friend is his sister Jenny who is a year older and was adopted when she was three. Life with Carrol’s animal menagerie has always seemed normal to Jenny. Jason and Jenny’s friendship is fueled by the desire to one day escape this place. Jenny is fascinated with the stories Jason often tells of the ranch and going to rodeos to watch his dad ride the bulls. She longs for the day when she, too, can join Jason in the wide open spaces, fresh air and new adventures.
Lyn, on the other hand, is the only biological child of Carrol and her husband. She’s ten and is treated like a princess, at least by comparison. Her parents spoil her so much that they adopted Katie, who is a year younger than Lyn, just so that Lyn would have a playmate. Lyn and Katie share a room at the top of the stairway to the basement. It is filled with stuffed animals and princess themed toys. The room used to belong to Jenny before Carrol found out that she was pregnant with Lyn. Jenny was then moved to a room smaller then Jason’s.
Jason and Jenny each have chores to do for the ‘family’. Jason’s job is to clean the house, which is a constant project because of all of the birds and kids. He also helps Carrol with anything that’s physically demanding. Jenny’s job is to cook and teach the younger girls. Jason’s days are always filled with the same routine: Wake up, eat breakfast, body build, read books, do chores, body build, read some more, eat and then return to his cold room where he reads until falling asleep. Lyn and Katie’s days, on the other hand, are filled with dance classes, gymnastics and the outside world. They are high-achieving homeschoolers, who have lots of friends. While Carrol and the two, younger children are well known and liked by the community, hardly anyone knows about the two older teens.
Except for the solace he finds in the books he reads, Jason hates his life. His favorite books are anything that take him back to his days on the ranch. He reads everything from Lonesome Dove to the upcoming PBR schedule. He sits for hours, living through the stories of bull riders and ranch hands. After hearing that the new books have arrived, Jason walks over to the stack on the dining room table.
“Jason…” Jenny speaks softly as she walks over to the table. “Is there anything other than the girls’ textbooks for me to read today?” she asks, doubtful of the answer.
“Sorry Jenny… looks like they forgot again…” Jason replies empathetically. Carrol rarely brings books other then textbooks for Jenny to read. Carrol and her husband feel Jenny’s time is best spent caring for the younger girls’ every need. Jason wants more for Jenny. He has always seen a glimmer of her true adventurous spirit in her now fading, blue eyes. He knows that books will give her a vision of a life beyond the dirty house of Carrol’s collection of pets.
Continuing to think about the dream he had that morning, Jason realizes he has nearly forgotten the hopes that once filled him. He walks down the stairs, unrolls his ratty workout rug and begins his morning routine of planking and pushups. One more set of thirty. He keeps pushing himself to do just one more set. He continues his workout routine and smiles to himself, remembering how his dad always wanted him to grow into a strong man.
“Food!” Carrol belts across the house. Jason walks up the stairs only to find that his plate has nothing on it but some bland, boiled navy beans and rice. “Jenny!” Carrol scolds. She is in a particularly bad mood. “Git ov’r here, girl! Look at the nasty job you did wash’n them dishes!” she yells pointing to a fingerprint that Carrol left on the spoon but blames Jenny for. Carrol enjoys yelling at Jenny until she cries. It is a ritual that occurs several times a week.
Angered, Jason excuses himself from the table and goes down to his room, slamming the door. I gotta get outta here! he thinks as he throws his body up to the pull-up bar that he made for himself. Rodeo season starts in a couple of weeks in Florida, he remembers from the PBR schedule that he’s memorized. I can hitchhike down. Then pay for traveling through the rodeo will be great and I’ll finally be free from this ---- hole. He continues to furiously push himself to his physical limits while imagining and planning his escape. Jenny’s soft, secret-code-knock at the door interrupts his focus.
Jason opens the door to Jenny’s pale, tear-stained face, still puffy from crying. He walks over to sit on the rough, wood desk chair to give Jenny his full attention. “I can’t do this anymore…” she says with sorrow. “Nothing I do is ever gunna be good enough… I didn't get schooled and they’re never gunna let me go. If this is going to be my life then I don’t wanna live… I just want out!”
“God! I’m sick of the way they treat you! ----, I’m sick of the way they treat you, me, the cats, everything they touch. They don't care ’bout nothing but themselves,” Jason says, angered by the way they have hurt her yet again. “You want out? Then lets go. I’m gunna leave this hole and I think you should come with me.” Jason is surprised at himself as he has never before considered taking her with him. “I’ll take a trash bag from the kitchen and put our clothes and some food in it.” He began to outline his plan to Jenny. “If you come, we’ll take the bikes from the shed and their credit card.”
“No,” she interrupts with concern. “Credit cards can be tracked and I don't wanna be found. But… I’ve been taking cash from their pockets whenever I do laundry,” she offers.
“Really?” Jason asks, in shock by the rebellion he’s never witnessed before in Jenny.
“Yeah. After hearing stories and reading ‘bout the outside world, I knew that I wanted to one day have an escape plan. I’ve been taking money and hiding it since I was ten. Always in amounts small enough for them to not notice. I've accumulated nearly six thousand dollars.” Jenny is careful not to tell him where she's stashed the money. Although she trusts Jason, she fears that the only reason he has to not abandon her along the way is if he is dependent on her in some way. “All I know is that I don't know anything about the outside world and you do. I can’t leave unless it’s with you.”
In the following days, they continue to be careful not to show signs that anything is up. Jason and Jenny talk after Carrol goes to sleep. After two days of planning, they feel they are ready to leave. The night has a full moon so they can travel without using up the battery’s power in their flashlight. They are careful to walk very slow and quiet so as not to wake up the birds. As they open the door to the outside, they pray that the door will open silently. The door lets out a quiet squeak, waking a small bird nearby. Jason notices the bird moving and knows it will soon scream, waking the other birds and eventually Carrol. Thinking fast, he reaches out and grabs the bird gently but firmly by the throat. He is careful not to injure the bird but sure to keep any noise from escaping its voice box. Jason and Jenny’s hearts race as they look around to make sure that no one has seen them trying to leave. Then they carefully close the front door.
As they walk the bikes to the property line on the gravel driveway path, they feel the fresh, crisp air against their faces for the first time in weeks. Those first breaths were the first feelings of freedom they have felt for what seems like forever. Jason puts the bird in the backpack. “Let’s go,” he whispers to Jenny.
Jenny nods back, then begins to ride down the poorly maintained, paved back road, setting the pace. She hasn't ridden a bike since Lyn was old enough to pedal and Jason hasn't since he was adopted. The adrenaline from their new freedom makes them forge ahead, faster and faster. They ride ten miles before coming to the end of the road, then stop to recalibrate which direction will take them to Marianna, the nearest city.
Jason, realizing that they have gone a long way, opens his backpack to set the bird free. He is afraid that the bird will fly back to the house and alert Carrol, but knows it isn't right to keep the bird captured any longer. After all, he understands how it feels. To his surprise, when he releases the bird from his pack, it spreads its delicate wings and flies to a nearby tree. It’s the only bird that didn't have its wings clipped. The stars shining through the treetops remind Jason of the explorers who used them to guide their way to a new life. Jason watches as the bird takes off from the branch. To his surprise the bird flies in the opposite direction of the house, to freedom. “Turn left,” Jason says looking at his map. “Eighteen miles on this road will take us to the Florida state line.” The mania surges through their bodies as they take off at full speed.
Welcome to Florida, reads the green sign, covered with bullet holes. They made it to Florida just as the golden light from the rising sun breaks through the deep, purple clouds. “Jenny, Look!” Jason exclaims with enthusiasm, nearly bringing him to tears. “We made it!”
“Yes!” she exclaims, out of breath. “Only an hour and a half till we make it to Marianna. Then we can eat and take a bus.”
As they ride freely through the countryside, Jenny feels as though she is flying. Seeing the green pastures and grazing livestock, reassures Jason that leaving was the right decision. It has been ten years since he’s smelled fresh-cut hay. Jason sees a horse grazing near the barbed-wire fence and sets his bike down on the side of the road. “What are you doing?” asks Jenny. “We are tryin’ to get as far as we can, as quickly as possible. Let’s go!”
“Jenny, stop for a second,” says Jason. “Put your kick stand down and come over here for a second.” He knows that Jenny has never seen a horse and wants her to experience one. Jason walks to the fence, calmly, making sure to let the horse know of his presence but careful not to spook it.
“Whoa, you’re gunna touch it?!” Jenny asks in disbelief.
“Come here boy…” Jason says calmly to the horse. The bright, white blaze glows in contrast to the dark, brown horse in the sunlight. The horse reaches his head over the barbed-wire fence hoping that Jason and Jenny have treats. Jason strokes the horse’s soft coat. The last time Jason was with a horse, he wasn't tall enough to pet the horses mane without his dad lifting him up. He is flooded with warm memories as he runs his fingers through the horse’s tangled mane. “Don’t be afraid Jenny… It’s all right,” he says with reassurance. Jenny reluctantly reaches out her hand to touch the horse’s warm face. The horse moves its lips on top of Jenny’s hand, searching for treats. Jenny nearly pulls her hand back, then realizes it isn't going to bite her. “Well, we’d better get going,” Jenny says, reminding Jason of the passing time. Jason pats the horses face one last time, before riding away on his bike.
About thirty minutes later, they arrive in Marianna. They stop at the gas station to use the restroom and buy some water. While Jenny went to use a public restroom for the first time, Jason walks over to the vending machine to get a water. He has never used one before but is determined not to make a fool of himself. He is distracted from the task when he notices the local morning news playing on the TV above the cashier’s counter. “Two teens are missing from a a southern Georgia town,” chirps the perky, blond reporter on the screen. Jason's eyes widen. We just made it to town and now there’s search parties looking for us. He panics silently. Oh… come on Jenny! Hurry up! We need to go ‘fore the gas station workers figure out that we’re the run-a-ways. He continues to watch the news story as they show two pictures of the missing teens. In relief, Jason realizes it isn't them. Reporting us missing would be too much effort for Carrol. When Jenny returns, they pay for a water and burger to share, before catching the bus to Jacksonville.
When Jason steps up into the bus he looks around and notices an old man in the back who looks somehow familiar. His attention quickly switches to scanning the bus for empty seats. After finding two that are together, Jenny and Jason make it a point to talk to people about what they know about the upcoming rodeo. Most people on the bus don't even know Jacksonville is going to have a rodeo. Finally, Jason and Jenny work their way to the back of the bus where the old man sits alone. He is about sixty years old with sparse, silver hair that is combed over a small, bald spot in the back of his head. His face is leathery. Jenny notices that his sad eyes contradict the deep laugh lines etched on the outer corners of his mouth.
The old man introduces himself to Jenny as Allen LaMarks. When Jenny asks the old man if he knows anything about the upcoming rodeo he begins to get very upset and tells her to leave. Jason, who isn't far behind her, sees Jenny’s apprehension, like she often would when their stepmom yelled at her. He quickly goes to her side to see what is going on. The old man apologizes to Jenny. He fights tears as he softly shares the tragic story of his son Tim, who was a bull rider. Tim and his young wife were in a car accident on their way to a rodeo, many years ago. The old man hasn't wanted anything to do with the rodeo ever since. Jason, knowing loss all too well, puts his hand on the old man’s shoulder trying to comfort him. The old man pauses. “I’m sorry son, I haven't introduced myself to you,” he says extending his hand. “I’m Allen LaMarx. And you are…”
“Jason… Jason LaMarx,” he says slowly, as he tries to wrap his mind around this strange coincidence. The old man leans in close to Jason’s face, staring through his eyes and into his wounded soul. The old man hadn’t seen Jason since he was four years old.
As the bus comes to a screeching halt, the driver announces over the intercom, “First stop, Picketville Road…” Hearing that he had arrived at his stop, the old man grabs his pack. “There’s a diner just up the way that serves the best bacon and eggs. Why don't you two join me? My treat.”
Jenny and Jason grabbed their belongings and stepped out of the bus, alongside the old man. The morning sun was now quite warm. They wait together on the curb for the light to change before crossing the intersection. As the light turns green, the old man and Jason step off of the curb with Jenny close behind. About midway through the intersection, Jason hears a car horn blasting behind him. He whips his head around to see a car heading straight for them. Jason desperately reaches back for Jenny’s hand screaming for her to watch out! It’s too late. The small car knocks Jenny violently to the side and sends Jason rolling over the top of the car, violently crashing into the pavement on the other side… Jason is shocked into reality as the cold cement floor of his room breaks his fall from the bed. He rolls onto his back and looks around the cold, dusty basement room. Determined, he gets up off of the floor and begins to walk towards the light at the top of the stairs. Today, I am finally breaking free…