The Transformation Story Archive Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...

An Unexpected Stop

by Charles Matthias

Pittsburgh was an ugly city, or so James thought as he drove along the highway back from a remarkably unpleasant convention. It had held such promise, as an arranged plan he'd worked out with another who needed a roommate, and one of the few times his car was actually working. He'd spent quite a fortune having it repaired, simply because of the promises this erstwhile friend had made about the good time they would share in Pittsburgh.

Grinding his teeth together, he wondered how this man who claimed to be a companion could have done this to him, left him in the middle of the convention, with no references, to pay for the entire hotel bill. All of his savings were squandered now, leaving the convention an expensive set of terrible memories. He'd been alone there in the meeting halls and the artists booths, a bland face that was unrecognized, and even when it was, those who knew him shunned his company.

James closed his eyes, wiping them with one hand, trying not to cry again. He'd wet several handkerchiefs at the hotel, and had an accumulating pile on the car seat next to him already as he navigated through the highways of Pennsylvania. James just wanted to get back to his home in New Jersey, back to his house where he could wrap his arms about the big teddy bear he'd left sitting upon his bed. It would be a comfort to bury his face into the stuffed fur, and let to the tears be dried by a velveteen paw.

Gazing lifelessly through windshield, he watched the farms pass him by, huge fields of corn, nearly ready to be harvested, golden acres that spanned for miles in either direction. In another few hours, he would be back to the bustle of his home state, a place that wrapped about his neck like a magnet, holding him fast, even as the seas of years began to rise upon him. With a bit of yearning, he watched as horses and cows lowered heads to grass to feast, or pranced about amongst each other in some complex ritual.

James turned his head back and focussed on the road instead. It was a long drive back to his home, and there was no sense dwelling on the impossible. He reached down to turn the radio knob, when he sighed and remembered that it was still broken. Returning his hands to the wheel, he just kept on down the road, checking his fuel every few moments. With a bit of surprise, he saw that the gauge read almost empty. When the next exit came, he veered onto the ramp and left the highway behind.

The nearest gas station was only about a mile's drive up the lonely road through the high stalks of corn on either side. The countryside rolled like some tousled blanket as it carried him away from the thoroughfare. There were no other cars on the road beside him, and aside from the queer little gas station with only a single pump and antiquated shack beside it, there was nothing to the road to suggest that anything but the corn lived here.

James stopped by the pump, and sat waiting in the car a moment before he realized he was not in New Jersey and would have to pump his own gas. But as he opened the door and stepped out, there was a short man dressed in overalls already at the pump, smiling to him. James raised his eyebrows a moment, for the man had a bit of wheat stuck between his yellowed teeth. It took his another moment to put together the strange sounds coming from his mouth, for they were indeed words spoken in a heavily accented English, "How much'll be stranger?"

James blinked, and then fumbled for his wallet, pulling out a ten dollar bill. "Ten dollars please." The man took the bill between two dirt-grimed fingers. "I did not see you as I drove up."

The man pointed towards an old rocking chair that was set back towards one side of the corn, the side towards the highway. "Jussa watchin' the corn grew."

"Of course, mighty fine stalks," James said, finding the old man strangely pleasant, though for no reason he could put his finger to.

The man twisted the bit of hay between his lips, and then unscrewed the gas cap. Nodding, he narrowed his eyes and surveyed the fields that seemed to cluster around his shop like an infestation. "Might fine indeed," was all he said as he started to pump the fuel into the tank.

James nodded, and then turned to climb back in his car, when he saw the price per gallon on the pump. He had trouble believing his eyes, as it had been years since he'd ever seen gas for less than a dollar per gallon, let alone for only seventy-five cents. "I'm surprised you don't have more customers with gas that cheap."

"Ay only git customers ever now and then," the man said, the piece of hay bouncing up and down as he spoke. "Ya commin' from the highway?"

"Yes sir, I'm on my way home."

The man nodded, looking his over with only gritty eye. James felt as if he were being studied as if to see not what sort of man he was, but what sort he could be. "There ain't no ramp back onta the highway from the way ya came. Ya gotta keep driving 'ntil ya git ta the next crossing." He then lifted the pump from the fuel pipe, and screwed the gas cap back on. The price read ten dollars, on the money. "Ay can tell that ah fellar such as yarself is goin' home."

James nodded and smiled, "Thank you for the help, I didn't even notice any signs warning me that there was no entrance ramp." In fact, James wasn't sure he'd ever heard of an interchange where one could get off the highway, but could not get back on it.

"Those damn youngins keep stealing them signs," the man spat, keeping the bit of hay tucked neatly between two teeth. "Ya drive safe now, and git home."

James smiled, one of the first he'd felt cross his face in several days, and started the engine. It gave a soft purr, and he was soon out on the small open road again, the only driver in sight. Soon, even the gas station disappeared amidst the fields of corn. With a sigh, he drove on, wondering how long it would take before he reached the highway again. Yet he could not shake funny feeling that crept over him as he considered the old gas attendant's behaviour, for the way he looked at him, and for the way he'd spoken had impressed James in a way that he lacked words to describe.

The fields of corn rather abruptly stopped at a wooden post fence which ran along either side of the road. It reminded James of the fences he'd seen in Civil War battlefields down South, with the log railings supported by a triangular wedge beneath. Behind the fences were small field of grass interspersed by other fences separating various crops. Homes and barns were situated a short distance from the road, up along dirt driveways. They appeared to be family farms, James mused thoughtfully as he continued on down the road.

While he was admiring the rather simple lives he could see on either side, he heard a terrible grinding sound from his engine. Glancing down at the speedometer, he could see several warning lights flash before him, notably the "Check Engine" light. Sighing, as if this was just one more example of the terrible nature of the convention, he brought the car to a disquieting stop alongside the road, and put the hazard lights on.

Climbing out, he walked around to the front and put his hand just over the top of the hood. James could feel the heat searing off the metal - he dared not touch it quite yet; best to let it cool down first. Scanning down either side of the road, he at first considered waiting for another driver to pass by, but in the twenty or thirty minutes he'd been driving down this narrow two-lane road, he'd not seen any other cars. However, he did see one of the farmhouses just a few minutes down the road, in the direction he had been going.

Retrieving his keys, he shut the car door, and began to walk along the shoulder, his hands in his pockets, and his head held low. This had been a terrible weekend, one disaster after another. Now he was going to have to spend even more money to get his car repaired, money he didn't have. And he had to rely on strangers to help him, strangers who probably wouldn't even be nice to him. They'd probably usher him out of their home as soon as he'd made his phone call, if they allowed him to do even that.

The mailbox was made to look like a barn with a red roof, and the name on the side read, "Albertson". As James passed by it up the gravel driveway, he noticed that there was a horse over in the nearby field watching him with vibrant brown eyes, his ears perked, and his tail slowly swinging back and forth. James had to admire the animal, for it was well-fed and quite well-proportioned too. However, his attention returned once more to the house, and the few lights that were on. Clearly somebody was home, though there were no cars in the driveway.

The porch was a bit long, with a rocking bench to one side. The house itself was made from wood, and it had an antiquity to it that James could not put his finger on. He lifted the horsehead knocker and gave it three good raps, and then waited. It was not long before the sound of footsteps approached, and the door was opened wide, revealing a young woman wearing a stained apron over a plain dress. "Yes, can I help you?" she asked, her voice clear, betraying a slight kinship with the accent of the old gas attendant, but one that was hardly noticeable.

"Yes, my car broke down just a short ways off and I was wondering if I could use your phone," James hooked his thumb over his back and tried to smile to her.

She nodded and stepped back, holding the door open. "Do come in, but I'm afraid we don't have a phone." Even as James digested that statement, she turned back through a doorway and called in a loud voice, "Mother! There's a gentleman here whose car broke down."

"Just a moment dear!" a rather sweet voice called back from the distant room. James peered through a darkened sitting room to the far light, and could see a counter top and a few drawers, but little else. There was a rather pleasant fruity smell coming to him now as he stood there.

James smiled to the young woman again. She could not be younger than twenty-four, as her face was thick, and her dark brown hair falling to the middle of her back in gentle curls. "My name is James," he offered her his hand.

She looked up into his eyes and smiled in return, taking that hand. "I'm Gwyneth, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

James wished to add that the pleasure was his, but he soon found another pair of eyes on him, that of an older woman with graying hair also dressed in an apron, still with an oven mitt on one hand. She was staring down at their clasped hands, and for some reason, James felt like a school boy all over again. "So your car broke down?" she said, her face losing that coolness it had possessed when she first came up.

"Yes, I just needed to use your phone," James said, but then let his eyes wander back to Gwyn. "But your daughter told me that you don't have one. Is there anybody else around here who does?" As he thought about, he recalled that the only thing he'd seen alongside the road had been the fields of corn, no phone line in sight.

"Nobody round here's got one. I'm afraid you'll have to talk to my husband Jonathan when he gets back from the fields this evening. He'll take a look at your car, and if he can't get it fixed, he'll take it down to the Roberts, they should be able to repair it." She extended her own hand then, taking the mitt off first. "I'm Liz by the way, Liz Albertson."

"James, James Farlane," he said, shaking her hand and smiling back, though the prognosis he'd heard for his case left a pit in his stomach.

"Well, you are more than welcome to stay with us, Mr. Farlane. I'm afraid we don't have any spare beds in the house, but the hayloft is quite cozy, I assure you."

"Why thank you, but how much do you want in recompense?"

Liz gave him a suddenly queer look, one that was born mostly from amusement he was sure. "You're from the city aren't you?"

"New Jersey actually."

"That's close enough," Liz nodded. "The only thing we ask of our guests is that they help out around the farm wit the simple things. You ever lived on a farm before, Mr. Farlane?"

James shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not, ma'am. And you can call me James. I like that better."

"And you can call me, Liz, James. You ain't one of my boys, you are a guest, and guests get the first pickin's." She turned to her daughter and smiled. "Gwyn, dear, would you help this young gentleman retrieve his stuff from his car? Do show him where he can stay for now until we get him back on the road."

"Yes, mother," Gwyn said, favouring James with a dimpled smile as she led him back outside. James offered a word of thanks to Liz, and then followed the young woman up the gravel driveway, noting that she'd taken off her apron and tossed it onto the rocking bench. Her dress was a rather plain beige, with small flowers imprinted in the design.

"Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

Gwyn turned her head as she walked at his side. "No, go on."

"Well, why doesn't anybody have a phone here?"

She just shrugged as she turned at the mailbox. "We've never had a need for one. We're a community, don't really need to rely on anybody else."

"Do you get people like me coming through here often? People who need help, that is?"

"Occasionally," she nodded, and then smiled to him again, before her eyes flicked back to the road. "We always try to be as friendly as possible. Too much animosity in the world as it is, at the very least we can offer respite from it. But don't worry, if Dad can't fix your car, then old Max Roberts surely will."

James nodded as he walked, offering her little glances every now and then. He felt a bit of resolution filling his heart, though he knew it was foolish. But here he was, his car was broken down, he was going to be stuck here in farm country for a few days, he had little to lose at this point. "So, you live with your parents still?"

"Yes, they are rather protective of me as you may have noticed."

James felt his face flush. "I didn't mean to embarrass you back there."

She laughed then and placed a hand on his shoulder. It felt so nice being there, that James made no move to dislodge it. "Oh, I should apologize to you! She's still trying to play matchmaker with me I'm afraid."

"So you don't have anyone in your life?" James asked, feeling a secret thrill to hear that.

She shook her head, kicking a loose stone along the roadway. It skittered into the median, bounced, and then fell to the other shoulder. "Just my family."

James felt slightly emboldened and nodded, as he could see his car ahead, a thin trickle of smoke rising from underneath the hood. For some reason, he secretly hoped that Gwyn's father could not repair his car anytime soon. "Well, for a woman as pretty as you, I'm sure you've kept your mother quite busy deflecting suitors."

She smiled and laughed at that, her eyes sparkling up at him in that moment, before she turned back to face that car. "Not as busy as you might think, but yes, she has scared a few off."

James nodded but did not venture any further, as they were only a few more feet from the car. "My stuff is in the trunk; just a moment and I'll pop it." He fumbled a moment with his keys before lifting the trunk and pulling out his suitcase. Gwyn took the smaller shoulder bag and hefted it on one arm.

"Short trip?"

"I was just going to Pittsburgh for a few days," James said. "I was on my way back when I made the mistake of turning off onto this road so I could fill up my tank."

"And now here you are, in the middle of a place time almost forgot," Gwyn finished for him. "We aren't like the Amish; we use technology quite a bit. We just don't have any pressing need for phones or cars and so forth. It just clutters one's life too much in our opinion."

"And they are pretty useless when you never call anybody, and don't receive calls from anybody," James muttered softly as he shut the trunk and began to carry his suitcase back towards the farmhouse. "Or the only people who call you are trying to sell you something you don't want."

"So why do you have a phone?" Gwyn asked, giving him a coy stare.

"I'm not really sure. Never thought about getting rid of it I guess." He then stopped and grimaced, a sigh escaping from his lips. "Oh, damn, I forgot. I'll need to call my employer and tell them what happened. I'll get fired if I don't get in touch with them."

Gwyn grabbed his arm and tugged him forward. "Don't worry about that for now. You can talk to my Father when he returns from the fields this evening, and he'll take care of it. We may not have phones, but we have ways of getting word out to the rest of the world."

James made no move to dislodge her hand from his arm, but did follow along after her, shifting the weight of the suitcase about his hand. He didn't say anything further then, not sure exactly what he could say, but just walked by her side in the early afternoon sun, watching the corn sway with the wind, and the weeds along the side of the road bend under its weight. She did not leave her hand on his arm for the entire trip, a fact that disappointed him slightly, but she did not leave his side, and occasionally, she would offer him a small smile. In those moments, James felt better than he had for several months.

The barn, when they finally reached it, was set off from the house by a distance of twenty feet, and was the typical design he'd always seen in movies: tall arch shaped roof, with the wide wooden doors at the front and back. Inside though was an array of stalls on both sides, some filled with cows, others had horses in them, and a couple donkeys too at the far end. James stared at them for a moment, never having been so close to such creatures.

Gwyn tugged on his arm again. "Come here, I'll show you the loft."

James nodded and followed after her. She set the shoulder bag down and climbed up a narrow but sturdy ladder that vibrated as he stepped from rung to rung. James watched her go up, noting that there was a large stack of hay bales at the edge of the loft. Once up, she turned around and got down on her knees, lowering her arms. "Okay, pass me up your luggage."

He handed her the shoulder bag, and she nimbly tosses it aside. The suitcase she had a bit more difficulty with, but she managed to stand back up and gestured for him to climb up. The ladder felt quite solid as he climbed, but it did shake a bit, making him a bit nervous. This was not the sort of thing he'd ever done before, and he did not wish to make a fool of himself in front of her.

The hayloft, when he reached it, was just a solid wood floor, strewn with hay bales overlooking the stalls where the livestock stayed. There were a few windows on the side so that he could look out at the house. He could dimly see Liz working in the kitchens, but not what she was doing. Gwyn led him back behind the railing, and deposited his suitcase at the side of a huge disorganized pile of hay. "I'm sorry we don't have anything better to offer you, but it is quite comfortable, and you can always adjust the padding. You'll just be picking hay out of your clothes all day tomorrow."

James chuckled and retrieved his shoulder bag and set it beside his suitcase. "I've slept on worse. Will the animals make much noise at night?"

"Not too much, but they probably will keep you up for a bit. There isn't much that I can do about that either, I'm afraid."

James glanced over the railing and saw the cows just milling about their stalls, faces absent. "Are those milking cows?"

Gwyn nodded. "We don't slaughter any of our animals. They are milked early in the morning, so you might get woken by accident. Sorry about that as well."

"No, it is all right. I work during the night anyway, so I'll get my sleep when I can."

"Oh, that must be pretty hard--working at night, I mean. Living here on this farm, we've always had a fairly diurnal schedule."

"It can be tough," James confessed. "But I've gotten used to it." He then glanced at the railing once more and offered her a smile. "I've never been so close to horses and donkeys, could you introduce me?"

She grinned amiably then and nearly danced to the ladder. "Of course! They need to be curried anyway, so you can help."

James nodded, a sheepish grin clutching his face, and a bit of a blush filling his cheeks as he followed her to the ladder and climbed back down. The scent of horses and other animals was very strong, stronger than he had imagined it could be. Yet he did his best not to flinch as he approached the stalls. Gwyn was already rubbing the nose of one chestnut roan, while its tail swished from side to side, eyes focused on her in sweet delight.

James came and stood at the door, feeling a bit intimidated by the huge creature standing before him. One bite from those teeth and he could lose a finger, or one stomp from those hooves and his toes would become rather flat. Yet as Gwen beckoned him closer, he approached, reaching out a hand to touch the head of the massive stallion. The horse snuffled at him curiously, but no more, allowing him to rub the long face, feeling the smooth fur beneath his palm.

"Very nice," James said as he stood there, his heart still beating faster than he would have liked.

"His name is Malcolm," Gwyn said smiling, patting his flanks with her hand. "Would you like to help me clean him up a bit?" James nodded, though it took him a moment to realize that she was holding a short-tined brush out to him as big as his hand. "This is a curry; it's what we use to brush them down. Just rub it over his sides in smooth circles like this." She demonstrated with the flat of her palm, while Malcolm turned to look at her curiously, as if he knew that James had no idea what he was doing and was asking her why she'd let somebody so inexperienced near him.

James smiled, however, and patted the horse's neck a few times, slipping the curry under his fingers, and rubbing the tines across the smooth flesh. Malcolm appeared less distraught once James started his work, returning his head to the contemplation of his feeding bucket again, while James drew the curry down over his back, through the fur of his sides, and in every other direction. "Do you like that, Malcolm?" James asked softly as Gwyn lifted one of his hooves and started to clean some gunk from between the shoe.

Much to James's surprise, he heard the horse whicker, almost as if to say he did enjoy it! Though he faltered for a moment, James continued to work the curry through the fur, taking great care around his hips and flanks, not wanting to be kicked. Looking down, he saw Gwyn holding the hem of her dress in one hand while she stalked beneath his tail and reached for his hoof with his other.

"He's a fairly smart horse, isn't he?" James asked as he dodged the flicking tail. It however seemed determined to swat him.

Gwyn nodded and smiled up to the horse, who was looking back at her again. "Oh, Malcolm, yes, he's quite a bright stallion. Farm animals are not as stupid as you may think they are."

"I don't think they're stupid," James replied. "I think they're beautiful." At that, Malcolm snorted and tossed his head.

Gwyn chuckled and dropped his other hoof after cleaning it out. "I think he likes you."

"Good, because I like him," James added, patting his side affectionately. He still did not feel completely comfortable around such a huge creature, but his heart had slowed to within reasonable levels. Working the curry over the broad back, he watched the flesh ripple as an errant fly landed upon it. It was quite amazing, really, and it made him grin all the more. Truly, it was a beautiful creature.

Gwyn continued to smile to him, and James was struck for a moment by its simple curve. Her dimples were small, but noticeable, adding a measure of kindness to her face, while her soft lips were neither too thick nor too thin. When she bore that smile, James felt as if he could remain here forever watching and gazing at it.

When she noticed him staring at her, she smiled even wider, and winked to him a moment, before working on Malcolm's forehoof. James blushed terribly, and lowered his head behind the horse's rear flanks and continued to curry the luxuriant red coat through. He hoped his antics did not garner Liz's attention, for he suspected that broad woman wielded a wicked rolling pin.

Even as he turned his thoughts to her, a sudden clanging sounded from the house. Many of the animals, including Malcolm, turned their heads towards it for a moment, before returning to their own food. "What was that?" James asked as he held the curry between his hands, plucking at the tines idly.

"That was the dinner chime," Gwyn said, putting the cleaning pick to one side, and patting Malcolm on the cheek. "I'll finish you up after dinner." The horse rubbed into the hand as if he were nodding his assent. James found the motion uncanny, but did not inquire. Instead, he set the curry to one side, smiled and patted Malcolm's cheek as well, and then followed Gwyn out of the barn and back towards the house.

The scent of dinner, after having spent about an hour in the barn, was simply scrumptious. He could feel his mouth watering in expectation of the feast. Gwyn took him into a bathroom and told him that he needed to wash his hands. Of course, he hardly had to be reminded, he's just been touching a horse. Who knew what sorts of germs he'd have on his fingers by now?

After getting his hands rinsed and cleansed, Gwyn led him to the dining room in the back. The long oak table had been draped over with a plain white tablecloth, and place settings had been laid out for eight. She pointed to the chair to the left of one head, and he sat down to her right.

"It looks nice," James said as he surveyed the settings. "Big family you have?"

"Yes, Father and my younger brothers should be coming in shortly. I have a younger sister as well who was with them. I wonder if they will remember to wash their hands before sitting down this time."

"They had better," Liz declared from the kitchen in the next room. "I'll not have any of them putting their filthy paws on my fresh table cloth."

James could not help but chuckle slightly at her vehement declaration as he waited for the meal to begin. He turned and looked over to Gwyn who was smiling back at him. Just this morning he'd been fighting back tears, ready to return to his normal routine, but now, just as the sun began to dive into the far fields, he was having dinner on a farm and sitting next to a lovely young woman, one not too much younger than he was himself, at least. It felt all so magical that he wished that it didn't have to end.

A sudden thunderous racket announced the arrival of Gwyn's younger brothers, and when he saw them, he found that they were indeed young. The oldest looked to be seventeen, while the youngest couldn't be more than ten. They rushed to the table, and then as one, stepped back, and marched solemnly off to the bathroom. James glanced over his shoulder and saw Liz glaring out from the kitchen doorway at the boys.

Turning back to the door, he saw a young girl of perhaps fifteen walk in, her pants stained, but otherwise, she was clearly Gwyn's sister. Following after her was an older man, clearly the father of the whole troupe, who closed the back door behind him. He took one look at James and narrowed his eyes. "Who might you be?"

"James Farlane, " he said, rising and extending his hand. "My car broke down and your wife graciously invited me to stay for the night."

The man nodded, and held back his hands, which were covered in grime. "I'm Jonathan Albertson. I'll shake your hand once I have mine washed. It's a pleasure to have you with us, James, I can call you that right?"

"Yes, I prefer to be called just James."

"And I prefer to be called just Jonathan, and don't forget the just mind you," he pointed his finger, but there was a mischievous turn to his lips and both Gwyn and James were set to chuckling.

"Of course, just Jonathan," James smiled, still standing by his chair, feeling completely at ease among these people.

Jonathan nodded and grinned wider. "Good to see that you got it, James. Excuse me, I must fight my boys for the bar of soap now." He then turned and strode off towards the hall bathroom, where there were a few argumentative voices echoing already.

Gwyn just shook her head, laughing quietly. "You can sit down now. And don't worry about my brothers, they prefer to talk amongst themselves, even when we have guests over."

James nodded as he returned to his seat, letting his legs rest for once in the day. It felt very pleasant to just sit there at the table with her, the sweet aromas of dinner soon to be wafting through the kitchen doorway. "You've got a nice family."

She smiled back to him, almost girlish in the way those dimples flashed, he thought. He could not help but smile back to her and try and reach out for her hand with his own, for it felt so very right to do. If felt as if the pieces in his life fit perfectly together at this table, sitting next to this young lady, all in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. Thoughts of returning to New Jersey felt more like punishment to him now.

A moment later, and the boys started to take their seats opposite them. James turned his attention resolutely back to the table, lest Liz see his flirtatious behaviour and kick him from the house, as he half-imagined she would. The younger girl sat next to Gwyn, while Jonathan sat at the head of the table, right next to James. Liz did not immediately sit, but carried in trays of food for the rest of them, first potatoes and rice, and then a peach cobbler, followed by an already sliced turkey on a huge silver platter.

They each bowed their heads as Liz took her place at the opposite end of the table, and James did likewise, and gave thanks, his own quite genuine. Then the chatter recommenced as the boys passed the trays between them, taking hearty portions of each dish. James waited patiently, though he did manage to snatch the peach cobbler and give himself a liberal portion.

He passed it down to Gwyn, who looked at his serving with approval. "Why, thank you."

"You're welcome! Could you grab me a slice of the turkey?" She obliged him and deposited a thick juicy slab right next to his cobbler. James did not wait for the potatoes or rice to come around before he started to slice it up and feed his hungry stomach. It felt like ages since last he'd eaten.

"So, James, where are you from?" Jonathan asked between bites of a buttery potato that he'd managed to snatch before his boys had whisked it to the other side of the table.

"New Jersey, lived there my whole life," James said, turning to face Gwyn's father, trying to give him the best impression he could. Why did he feel as if he were a teenager again?

"Never been there myself. Is it a nice place?"

"It's all right, but pretty crowded though. A lot of families live on homes with less than a quarter of an acre of yard. You couldn't even fit your house and your barn on the same plot out there. But some parts of the state are quite pretty."

Jonathan shook his head. "That's no place for a farmer like me, pretty or no. I need my space to work and live in. I'd find it a might bit disconcerting to look out my window and see people all about my home."

"I don't really notice it much myself. I guess you get used to it."

"Well, like I said, it's not for me." He shoved another potato chunk into his mouth and swallowed it down fairly quickly. James finally saw that the rice dish was at his side, and he scooped some onto his plate. "So, what are you doing out here in Pennsylvania?"

James for a moment thought to tell them about the convention, but decided against it. As sheltered as these people must be, he'd probably be explaining things for the rest of the night, and they still wouldn't understand, or probably approve. Instead, he just shrugged. "I was on a trip to Pittsburgh to meet with some friends. It did not go as well as I had hoped, so I decided to leave early. I turned off the highway to get some gas, and then my car broke down just outside your place while I was heading back to the highway. Not much more to my story than that."

"Can't say I was ever in Pittsburgh either."

"It's a rather ugly city, you aren't missing much."

He laughed then, and took a long swig of the milk set before him. "I have yet to hear of a city that folks think is beautiful in these parts!"

James was not truly interested in arguing with him about that. But before he could offer his own agreement, the old farmer had changed gears. "After dinner we'll tow your car into the barn. I'll take a look at it in the morning, and see if there is anything I can do with it. I've repaired my own tractor from time to time, so I might be able to help. If I can't do anything, we'll have to tow it to the Roberts. He's a good mechanic; he'll get it fixed up in a few days."

"A few days? But I'm supposed to be back to my job in a couple."

"I'll get a message sent to your boss, don't you worry about that. Just let me know where you work, and the number, and I'll take care of everything. You just relax now, you are our guest for the day."

James blinked a bit and asked, "For the day?"

"Of course, today you will rest and just enjoy our hospitality. Starting tomorrow morning though, you are going to work for your meals and your bed. It will not be hard labour, I promise, not until I think you can handle the hard labour, that is." From the tone of his voice, James had to wonder just how long Jonathan expected him to stay here, but a gentle brush from Gwyn's leg assuaged his fears. No matter how long he was here, and no matter how hard he worked, he knew that he would enjoy every moment of it. "You don't have a problem with manual labour do you, James?"

Despite the fact that the boys were chuckling under their breaths, presumably at him, James shook his head and smiled. "No, of course not. I move boxes around now, so I'm used to a little manual labour."

"Good, makes things easier then. It will be nice having another strong body to help out around the farm."

"I'm sure it will, at least until my car is repaired," James ventured, his curiosity needing to be sated.

Jonathan nodded and chewed on a bit of turkey, his eyes favouring him with a smile. "Of course! I'm sure we can satisfy any curiosity you may have about life on a farm."

"I'm sure you can!"

-=-

After they had finished eating, Jonathan led James out to the barn again. Gwyn was following with them, insisting that she be allowed to help. James had caught a menacing stare from Liz as he'd walked to the barn, but did his best to pretend he hadn't noticed. Jonathan led the two donkeys from their stalls - both jennies, he noticed - and worked a yoke around each of their necks.

He then walked them down the road, James leading, of course, until they reached his car. Jonathan turned the donkeys around while James watched them curiously. He'd always harboured a love for donkeys, and to stand in the presence of two of them was rather exciting. He gazed as their long ropey tails swished back and forth, noting the thin grey pelts each bore and the characteristic colourations on their muzzles. He could not help but smirk as their long ears waggled, or their stiff manes stood upright despite the wind.

Jonathan took the ropes and secured them to the front bumper of his car as well as to the ends of each yoke. He then turned to James. "You'll have to undo the parking brake, or we won't be going anywhere."

Nodding, James got into his car, and put it into neutral. Before he could climb back out, Jonathan had knickered, and the jennies began to strain against the car, slowly getting the wheels to turn, and then smoothly gliding it off down the road. Unable to do anything else but grin, James just sat in his car, and let the Jennies guide him back towards the farm. Gwyn ran alongside the car and climbed into the passenger seat next to him.

She flashed him a dimpled smile as her father chuckled. "This is the only way to travel!"

"In a beat up old car which doesn't run, but is being towed by two donkeys?" James asked a bit incredulously, though he could not deny he was enjoying the slightly tilted ride.

"Exactly!" Gwyn exclaimed in delight. "I wish we could keep a broken down car just so I could ride about like this all the time."

James laughed and reached out a hand to touch hers. She did not flinch from his touch, but her hand warmed to his, and her smile filled her face once more. "You know, you are the nicest lady I've met in a long time."

She blushed a moment, her cheeks filling with red, but also with her dimples. "Thank you, James. You are a very nice man. I don't meet too many nice men like you. I wish you could stay..." she dwindled off, as if afraid to finish her sentence.

"So do I," James added, leaning a bit closer to her, before he sat back, noting the careful eye of Jonathan Albertson upon him.

Gwyn giggled a bit and leaned back in the chair, drawing back her hand. "Of, if Mother had just seen that, I imagine she would have kicked you out right then and there."

"Will your Father tell her?" James asked, a bit worried. He didn't want to leave, he knew that truly in his heart. He felt more at home here on this farm than he had ever been anywhere else, and he'd not even been here for a full day yet!

"Father? Oh no, I think he finds it amusing to let her worry and fuss. Besides, he likes you too, I think. And don't worry about the sort of work he'll have you do. He will never ask you to do too much--only what you can manage."

James glanced at the man for a moment, and then pursed his lips thoughtfully. "What sort of work will he have me do?"

"Oh, mostly hauling things around I'd say. That's what he had the last fellow whose car broke down out near the house do." Her eyes went distant for a moment, and then she smiled back to him. "Did you really mean what you said?"

"Mean what?"

"Did you really mean it when you said you wished you could stay?" It was when she asked that question that James knew she'd grown fond of him in a way he'd never seen another do. It caused his heart to melt, and allow the feelings he'd kept hidden up inside of him to wash forth.

He smiled, and gently placed his hand back on hers, rubbing it softly with his fingers. "Yes, I did mean that. I meant it with all my heart. There is nothing in New Jersey that I care about more than what I have here."

She blushed, and averted her eyes for a moment, as if afraid to face that which she knew had happened. And then, she turned back to look at him and leaned her own head against his. "Oh, James. I hope mother understands. I don't want you to leave. I want you to stay just as you are."

James chuckled and then pulled back. "Somehow I doubt your mother would approve of you seeing a lowly grocery clerk like me! But you can tell her for me that her cooking is the best I've ever tasted. Maybe that'll soften things up a bit."

Gwyn laughed, and then leaned back against the window, turning her eyes towards the jennies dragging them toward the barn. "You aren't the first to say that, she knows every ploy I think there is to know."

James chuckled, and turned his gaze back to the jennies as well. He then sighed and watched the way their muscles moved as they tugged and dragged the car behind them. There was a nobility to their grace, one that he knew most did not see. Simple animals though they might be, James found them to be something higher than that, something far more sublime.

"Do you think we could give those two jennies some treat afterwards, you know, for towing my car and all that?"

Gwyn smiled and nodded. "I'll get some apples from the kitchen larder. They'll love that. Of course, the other animals will be quite upset that they aren't getting a treat too."

James chuckled. "Well, we wouldn't want to leave them out either, I suppose!"

"You are going to use quite a lot of apples you know. My mother will be most irate for me for letting you get away with that."

James chuckled. "I doubt she'd be nearly as irate as if she had seen what we were doing a moment ago!"

At that, Gwyn could only laugh heartily, even as the large frame of the barn loomed before them. "You are most certainly right about that!" Another moment later, and the two of them were in the darkness of the enclosed barn, the fragrant scents of the various animals assailing their nostrils once more.

James put the car back into park, and then climbed out, even as Jonathan unhooked the ropes and took the yokes from the jennies. "If you will help Gwyn get those two back into their stalls, I'll get the rest of this put away and see about getting that message off to your boss."

"Thank you, Jonathan," James said, even as he approached the jenny on the left, reaching out to the halter that had been left on her head. The jenny eyed him warily, unsure of somebody so uncertain around livestock, but she allowed James to take her lead.

Watching Gwyn, he led the jenny into the stall, and turned her about. Then, unfastening the clasps on either side of her head, he removed the halter and closed the stall door. He rubbed her head then, watching the dark eyes and long ears turn to face him fully. "Thank you," he said, smiling.

"I think she likes you," Gwyn said, even as she hung the halter's up along a small hook outside the stalls.

James let out a short chuckle as he continued to rub her nose with one hand. The jenny was pressing back into that hand, her dark eyes questing, as if prescient. "Well, I certainly like her."

Gwyn watched him for a moment, her dimpled smile returning to her face uncontrollably. "Hold on, I'll be right back with you know what." She then left the barn, leaving James alone with the magnificent beasts.

His gaze swam over to the other jenny, and he was quick to rub her head too, standing between them, adoring their lovely attention as they pressed close. Their fur was not particularly soft, but it did feel nice underneath his hand, and their noses were warm and he could feel their breath hot upon his flesh at every exhalation. When he ran his hands down to the end of their noses, their thick lips felt around inside his palm, as if looking for the goody that they expected would be deposited there. It felt so strange, to have those lips fondling his flesh that he allowed them to continue for a moment, as he burned the memory of that sensation firmly in his head. It was one that he would like to recall at any moment.

Before he knew it, those heads were turning back to barn door. His own followed them, and he saw Gwyn returning, a pair of apples in a bag, and a knife in the other. She laughed as she passed by Malcolm, who appeared injured in that he was being denied the treat. She patted him on the side of the head and smiled, "I'll bring you something later." That appeared to satisfy him, though he did still seem to be put out a bit.

James waited for her to come to his side by the two jennies, who were pressing firmly against the front of their stalls, very eager to taste the sweet fruit. Gwyn began to slice it up neatly with the knife, and she handed James the slices from the first apple. He held them and looked at the Jenny, whose lips were parting in sweet delight.

"Just place them one at a time under their mouths. They'll do the rest," Gwyn assured him as she sliced the second apple up, being careful never to cut herself with the knife.

James nodded, and then held out his hand for the first of the two donkeys. He placed only a single slice into it, the juicy pulp of the apple sweet-smelling in the evening air. The jenny lowered her head and wrapped her lips about the apple slice, drawing it into her mouth in one neat motion. He could hear her chew for only a moment before her lips began questing for another.

Smiling in delight as the donkey enjoyed her treat, James placed another slice in his palm, and let her take that from his hand. It felt so right to just do this, to just feed these donkeys, that he was unsure exactly why he had never gone out of his way to do it before. The excitement he felt was partly from the rather supple touch of those lips, and partly by the fact that he was standing in the presence of donkeys, an animal he'd always cherished. There was a pure defiance to their bray, to the way they stomped their hooves, and to their tenacious spirit that he could not help but admire.

Before he had even realized it, the apple was gone, eaten completely by the jenny in its delirious haste, so he returned to rubbing the jenny's head, nearly hugging it close to his chest as he did so. Gwyn fed the last of her apple to the other jenny and then smiled over to him, her dimples caverns in the dim illumination. The sun had surely set by now, and soon it would be night.

"You really like donkeys don't you?"

James nodded there as he gently ran his hand down the jenny's cheek. "Yes, I have always liked them. I don't really know why, this is the first time I've ever touched a donkey before. It feels nice."

Gwyn smiled, and then reached out to join her hand next to his on the compliant jenny's muzzle, but a shout from outside caught her attention. James recognised it as well; it was Liz, calling Gwyn's name. "Gwyn! Get in here and help me clean up this kitchen."

She sighed. "I have to go, I'm not sure when next I'll get to see you, but I hope that I can."

James favoured her with his own simple smile. "I look forward to it!"

Gwyn nodded, appeared as if she were going to say more, and then turned and ran out of the barn, leaving the knife behind in the hay. James was quite startled by that, and wondered what it could be about, but he did not say anything, simply stood there still rubbing the jenny's head. He probably ought to try and get some sleep anyhow. After all, Jonathan said he'd be doing some hard labour tomorrow while his car was being repaired.

Patting the jenny's head one last time, James picked up the knife and set it on a rail just out of the reach of the animals, and then climbed up into the loft to prepare his bed of hay for the night.

-=-

Sleeping on hay was not as easy as he would have liked. In fact, it was quite difficult. Every time he rolled over, a new strand was poking in his ear or tickling his belly. He had no idea what time it was when he saw the stream of light shine through the window pointing towards the house. Sitting up slightly, he peered out the window, and could see one of the lights on in the home.

As he stared, he saw Jonathan and Liz standing on one side of the room, and Gwyn on the other. Though he could not hear what they were saying, it was clear that they were having an argument. There was a fourth figure reclining in a chair in the back, though James could not make him out, as his face was obscured by the curtains. As he watched, he could see that Gwyn was crying about something. What could possibly be wrong to make her cry? James felt a stir of anger in him, and he wished to go out there and confront Gwyn's parents for hurting her, butt he knew it was not his business, and that he would be overstepping his bounds as a guest to do so. He resolved to talk with Gwyn in the morning and hopefully comfort her some.

Just as Gwyn turned and stormed off back to her room, the fourth figure stood and rose, coming into view. He was an older man, dressed in oil-stained overalls, chewing on a bit of wheat. Why, it was the man from the gas station! But what in the world was he doing here? James felt totally confused now, as what had just happened clearly did not make any sense.

Even as his thoughts swirled, James could see that Jonathan, Liz, and the gas station attendant had all left the house and were walking towards the barn through the dark of the night. Were they coming to ask him to leave? How could they do that if his car was not running? James wished he knew, but his thoughts were too jumbled to come to any coherent conclusions.

When he heard the barn door open, he felt his heart quicken a pace, and he lay back down on the hay, feigning sleep. Yet there was a strange queasy feeling to his stomach that did not wish to go away, but persisted and in fact began to grow in strength. There was a strange humming filling his ears, and he could smell some bizarre odour that nearly brought him to his feet right then and there.

Eventually, he did rise to his feet, even as his mind tried to collate what was happening. He knew that the three were still standing in the barn doorway, but he felt compelled to climb back down from the loft and meet them, to gaze at their faces eye to eye. The churning in his stomach only intensified as he walked and began to climb down that ladder, but it did not seem to affect his sudden resolve.

The gas attendant had his lips firmly pressed tightly together, while the stalk of wheat quivered between them. This was the source of the strange humming, but it was like no humming he'd ever heard before, for this resonated throughout his mind, filling his head with strange thoughts and notions. He turned and wandered on back towards the rear of the barn, opening the door to an empty stall, and he then stood inside of it.

James knew that he was not acting under his own volition; he knew it in some small part of his mind, but even that part of his mind did not rebel, for the dulcet resonance of the humming filled his with a pastoral calm that he could never recall feeling before. Even as he stood there, savouring its sweet timbre, he felt his hands unbuttoning his shirt, taking it off and depositing it on the door of the stall. One by one, he removed every bit of his clothes, until he stood there, as naked as the day he was born.

The gas attendant had moved to stand before the stall, studying him with compassionate eyes even as he continued to hum. Jonathan and Liz came to stand at his side, flanking him as they watched, their own voices drawn into the silent chant that had completely dominated their guest's will. They were not embarrassed by his nudity, nor was James, for most of God's creatures walked the Earth nude. Why would it be a shame for him to do so as well?

And then he felt compelled to lie upon the fresh hay, chest down into the soft golden strands, his arms tucked underneath of him, hands out before him though, while his legs were in much the same position. He tried to hold his head up, though his neck was not made for such things, but that queasy sensation in his stomach began to spread across his body, until every pore on his flesh tingled with an electric fire.

Then that conflagration intensified, until his entire body was numb with delirium. Spectral hands pressed at his flesh, gripped his insides and twisted them slowly. His eyes trailed down as he found his head sagging, and he peered down at his hands. Beneath him they lay, darkening and stretching with the continuous touch of those invisible ghosts. His fingers shrunk away into his palm, aside from his middle finger, which bloated, the nail hardening and thickening until all that remained of them was a solid black hoof.

The significance of this did not immediately dawn upon James's fogged mind; instead he watched in rapt fascination as from the corners of those hooves sprinklings of a thick grey pelt began to spread and grow, flowing up his arms as the moulding continued upwards unabated. His shoulders twitched, and pointed forward, until he felt entirely comfortable resting on his arms. As he tried to watch, he could see that the grey pelt had managed to reach up to his changed shoulders, and was proceeding towards his face.

Those pleasing agents massaged his face, gently stroking down his forehead and across his nose, tugging a bit at his lips. He closed his eyes a moment as he felt his fašade darken, contorted from its normal shape into something entirely new. His ears swirled and stretched above him, far above him, even as he felt his hair pull back along his head and neck. In fact, his neck had lifted up from the ground a great deal, and he could feel a supple power residing within its new sinews. Lips parted and let out a sound that could not have possibly come from a human throat, and his tongue felt around at his strangely organised teeth, the pattern being one he'd often imagined, but had never expected to feel.

James found that the hum was now even more insistent in his mind, filling him with a warm haze and images that he had not expected to ever find there. He could see himself running through an open field, the wind sailing across his hide, with nary a care in the world except to surmount that yonder rise. Thick powerful scents filled his nostrils as they flared with yearnings for the wet grass beneath his hooves. Then he felt from dep within his chest a soft bray stir, and it brought him back from those images into what was happening, though he could not lift the fog.

Turning his head, his ears twisting to catch the humming more fully, James peered over his back as he saw it swelling and growing the thick pelt of grey fur. To his startled eyes, a long ropy protrusion began to emerge from his rear, coiling around at his feet, soft fur tickling them. With a strange new flick, he sent the tail swishing to one side, the end sailing into view for a moment. Upon it had grown a thick tuft of black hair. With a shudder, he watched the flesh expand, pressing firmly down on his legs, which were also finding the soothing touch of those grasping hands.

And then the humming subsided, the haze in his mind leaving him gently pleased, calm, despite what he knew had happened. He tried to stand on his new hooves, finding it a little difficult at first to gain his footing. Once standing, he felt quite confidant, and quite large, as he looked eye to eye at the three humans standing outside of his stall. The fact that they had turned him into a donkey was something he was dimly aware of, but the haze prevented him from being angry about it. He felt the gentle pat of the gas attendant's hand on his nose, and he could smell the grease and oil there more thickly than he'd ever been able to before.

Both Jonathan and Liz gave his head a few gentle strokes as well, before the trio turned, without a word, and walked back out of the barn. James stood for several minutes, his mind too dazed to truly appreciate the significance of his current position. All he could feel in himself was a peace the likes of which he had only imaged before, and the knowledge that he was surrounded by others who had met a similar fate. He turned his head to gaze at the jennies in the stalls next to him, and wondered if they too had once been women, but he could not yet discern.

He leaned over the railing between their stalls to nuzzle at the nearest one. She was sniffing over him in keen interest, obviously surprised to find a jack where once had been a man. It was as he was gently pressing his face against the side of her neck that he heard the barn door open, and a very familiar odour came to him. It was Gwyn. He felt his tail swing more freely, and his hooves clomp the hay in excitement. He peered out over top of his stall door, and let forth an announcing bray to her.

She looked at him with a dour expression as she patted his face. "I'm sorry, James. I tried to stop them, but they were insistent. I wanted to be with you, James, I really did. I know we have known each other for barely a day, but I knew in my heart that we were meant for each other."

James nuzzled her hand, drinking in her scent, though her words did fill his heart with longing. How could they be together if he had been made a donkey?

"I really wanted to start up our own farm with you, because I could see in you that you would have enjoyed being a farmer, and tending the animals, and working the fields. But I suppose that is gone now. I don't want to be without you, James. " She opened the stall door and stepped inside, closing it behind her. "I've been thinking about it for some time now, and I finally realized how to make it possible."

James peered at her questioningly as she ran her hands over his flanks, a very soothing feeling. And then she worked them underneath him, towards the emblem of his masculinity. "I've left a note for my parents, but I doubt they will find it before we're through."

James could not help but tense as the haze left his mind in a quick flash, perfectly aware of what she intended to do.

-=-

As he rubbed his neck along the neck of his sweet Gwyn, his jenny, he could hear the barn doors open forcefully. A livid and frightened Liz came barging in, followed closely by Jonathan and the gas attendant, although the latter appeared to be rather satisfied with himself. When they came to the end, Liz's face went slack as she saw the two donkeys together in the stall, one male and the other female.

"You!" Liz spluttered, glaring at James. "You stole my daughter! I'll skin your hide!"

James snorted and stood at the stall door defensively, interposing himself between her and Gwyn. Yet Gwyn nuzzled him aside and glared down at her mother, and then rubbed her head along the side of James's, adoring the sweet flesh. James felt his peace return, knowing that no matter what happened now, he was happy with his life. He'd found companionship, a thing that had eluded him for so long.

The gas attendant let out a barking laugh, "They're meant fir each oter, Liz. Leave im be."

Jonathan was staring at the donkey that had once been his daughter, still holding the lantern tightly in one hand, his knuckles white. His face then went slack and he shook his head. "You've been protecting her for too long, Liz. Of course Gwyn was going to pick a man and be with him no matter what!" He then set the lantern on a hook and approached the two donkeys. He patted James on the nose and gently scratched his fur a moment. "Welcome to the family, James."

Liz appeared to deflate then and there as she watched her husband accept the union of the two donkeys. She finally regained her composure and waggled a finger in James's face. "You better treat my daughter right! No fooling around with the other girls." At that, the attendant snorted, but said no more.

James just brayed loudly as he rubbed his flanks against Gwyn's. Why would he want the other jennies when he had her? He turned then to nuzzle her, but she brayed loudly in delight back to him, her sweet eyes meeting his own. Yes, James was right where he wanted to be. He barely even noticed as the trio filed out of the barn to leave the newlyweds to enjoy their first night together.

An Unexpected Stop copyright 2001 by Charles Matthias.

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