Title: In September
Author: Alicia Cicoria
Genre: New Adult Romance
Hosted by: Lady Amber's PR
Alicia Cicoria is the author of Greekorian, Unbreak Me, and In September. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, their four kids, and enough animals for a small petting zoo.
She loves all things OU, coffee with Italian Sweet Cream, anything pumpkin spice, leg warmers, boots, animals, reading, writing, creating book covers and spending time with her family.
She wrote her first short story at the age of eleven which sparked an undeniable passion for words. Since then, she’s come up with several ideas for stories, though only three of them have made it to fruition.
A piercing, repetitive noise blares through the speakers on my nightstand. I lift a hand and slam it down on the alarm clock, silencing it and rub at the corners of my eyes where the presence of sleep claims its territory.
"Come on, boy, your Momma's making pancakes." My Dad's voice booms from the other side of my bedroom door.
I know, without looking, that it's five a.m. It's what time I wake up every morning to help with the morning chores. My morning ritual is always the same.
I lift myself from the bed when I hear the scuffle of my Dad's boots along the hardwood floors of the staircase. I get up, dress, and scurry downstairs in time for Momma to sit down a plate in front of my chair.
"Morning, Momma." I kiss her on the cheek, feeling her smile as my lips land on her weathered skin.
Looking at her, I can see the hurt on her face though she's doing her best to remain a stoic statue. She doesn't want to make me feel guilty, but I do. I have since the day I agreed to the decision six months ago.
"Let's not think about that yet, okay?" I tell her. She forces a smile.
I realize it's hard for her not to think about it. After all, I am her only child, and I'm going away for my second year of college. Last year, I scheduled all my classes in the afternoon so that I could help in the mornings at the ranch. I drove to campus before my first class, and back after my last one. This year, I'm staying in the dorms with my best friend, Zane.
It's my Dad's idea I live on campus this year, scheduling my classes the way a typical college student would. He says it will put me in a routine for a better outcome as far as my grades are concerned. My final grades last semester begged for improvement, though they weren't the lowest of anyone in my class.
Over the summer, we sat down as a family and discussed what my options were. My Dad felt I would have a better GPA if I didn't have to focus on so much at home.
I cram forkfuls of the protein pancakes into my mouth, sinking my teeth into the wheat toast after every bite.
Ever since my grandma passed away from a heart attack, Momma has been finding new ways for us to eat healthier. It's been a learning process for my taste buds, but somehow, she manages to make the meals taste as they always have.
"Slow down, Cole, you're gonna choke." My Momma drawls in her specific southern accent. She's been saying this to me since I first discovered solid foods. I know that because there are several embarrassing videos of me as a chubby child eating in the same manner.
"Listen to yer Momma, son." My Dad says.
He's called me son for as long as I can remember, not for lack of not knowing my name, but it's a sign of endearment coming from him. My Dad's not an affectionate guy but shows, in his way, he cares.
"Sorry, Dad," I reply around the food I'm chewing. I wash it down with a hefty gulp of goat's milk before standing up to rinse off my plate.
I give Momma a kiss before heading out with Dad through the backdoor. Droplets of dew cling to the pasture of grass, creating a transparent snow-like effect on each blade. When the sun rises, you'll see the reflection of its rays in each drop, but right now, the sun is still hiding out behind the mountains, waiting for the moment to peek over the horizon. The light of the moon glows, lighting up the fields just enough. It's this exact moment we appreciate that the morning sun will overtake the nighttime hours. I take in a deep breath and look across the pasture, eyeing the movements of the horses. They're grazing, swishing their tails back and forth, and cocking their legs like they don't have a care in the world. It'll be hard, not seeing them every day. There's a lot I'm going to miss, but I can't deny how carefree my life will be without this ranch on my shoulders every day of the week.
"Ready, son?" My Dad claps me on the shoulders as he stomps down the steps of the back porch.
I nod and tug down on the bill of my hat until it fits snugly on my head.
Feeding the horses is the first chore on our list. While they're eating, we'll clean out the barn, removing any hay that's soiled and replacing it with new. If we try to accomplish it when they're not eating, they will find ways to get in our way, begging us for attention.
We have twenty-five horses on the ranch. We have three mares with foals. More than likely, I'll have to come back and help train them when they're ready. Though they won't be old enough to ride until they're at least two years old, Dad and I always start on their training a few days after their birth. We desensitize them to things that could spook them on trails, lead them around the pasture so they become use to the lead rope, and put them in the round pen for a few techniques that'll teach them to respect their handlers. Dad says I have a knack for training the younger ones, and I ride the older ones as if I'm a natural at it. He says my calming demeanor transfers over to the horse I'm working with, and it's entrancing to watch. However, the most enjoyable part to me is when the kids come around. Seeing their faces light up makes everything we do on the ranch worth it.
I scoop feed into the buckets. My Dad picks up as many as he can carry while I trail after him with a few others. When our hands are empty again, we go back for more buckets until each horse has their own. While they're waiting for us to hang their buckets on the fence, the horses lay claim on which bucket is theirs. The process takes at least thirty minutes, no less. We've thought about finding less time-consuming ways to get them fed faster, but my Dad argued the way we did it now kept us in shape. He said there's little time for developing an exercise routine and sticking to it. I tried so many times to add in training minutes outside of the walls of high school, only to find it never worked. He's right, as he always is.
"Things aren't going to be the same without you here, son," Dad says as he heaves the last bucket over the fence. "Won't be easy doing this all alone."
I chuckle and head back to the barn with him in tow. "Thought that's why you hired Kevin?"
Dad swings one of the barn doors open wider, hooking it to the metal ring on the outside of the barn, so it stays in place. "Even so," he walks away to bring the wheelbarrow inside the barn, "having a conversation with my son compared to having one with some guy that has no ties to this place, besides his employment application, aren't the same."
My Dad's a fibber. Always has been, always will be. We don't talk when we are doing chores, at least not much. We finish our work, appreciating the silence of words and the noises of hard work. When we complete our tasks, we finish up with a cup of coffee on the back porch. On infrequent occasions, we talk about the future of the ranch or what new surprise he's cooking up for Momma. The latter is my favorite conversation. Hearing about the love he has for her is unlike anything you'll find in a movie, even the sappy lifetime movies she watches every day. It's something I've always wanted to experience because he makes it look so easy, you could say it brings him to life and makes his misunderstood personality easier for others to relate. His interactions with her make him seem more personable. I guess that's why I haven't been able to find the right one. I'm always searching for the girl I can talk to the way my Dad talks to Momma. I refuse to waste time dating a girl if she won't be in my life long-term. I haven't made it my mission to find 'the one' yet. I figure if it happens, it's because it was meant to happen.
I pull two pitchforks off the home-made storage shelves and toss one to Dad. We start from the back stalls, working our way to the front. The barn is massive because it's the only shelter we have for the horses when it storms.
"Come on, your conversations might even be better quality because you'll have an old man like yourself around." I'm joking, but Dad throws an unimpressed glower my way. I stifle my laugh.
"You think you're hilarious, don't you?"
I continue with our task and shrug. "A little."
The silence invades our space, the grunting of our efforts become the music to the rise of the sun. I already feel the accumulation of sweat as it travels down my back; beads trickle down to the waistband of my jeans. A few minutes pass before I hear a huff from Dad. He stops, placing the palm of his hand on top of the pitchfork's handle. I lift my hat and using the bottom of my t-shirt, I wipe at the stream of sweat on my forehead.
"He's working on a pretty nice car. He used to race until he blew the motor." Dad looks out the barn, no telling what he's looking at if anything.
"That's awesome," I comment. "See, you'll have plenty to talk about."
The guilt that my Dad's dream still hasn't become a reality sits like a boulder on my back. I could lie all day and say I'm going to college to better my life, but I'm doing it to have my own money; money I can use to get my Dad a race car. It wouldn't be as fun if the paycheck I used to buy him a race car came from him. I know there's a reason he hasn't handed cash to the first available person who had a running race car. I'm not naïve to believe he even has the time to put towards a project like that. It'll be a few years before he can even think about that. By that time, I will have graduated from college, paid off my student loans, landed a position at the local hospital, and earned enough to buy him one outright.
"You'll return your mother's phone calls at least once a week, won't you?" He changes the subject, something else he's perfected.
I scoff, kicking up some dust with the sole of my boot. "You think I'm going to leave this place behind?"
He shrugs and starts shoveling again. I follow his lead, not taking offense to his lack of comment. I know he doesn't think I'll forget all about the ranch, he's merely making small talk. His words or actions may be hard for some people to decipher but not me. His shrug doesn't mean he doesn't believe me. It means he's becoming emotional, and he's trying to hide it.
We take two hours to finish the barn. We only clean it out once a week because of the time it takes to complete. We hang the pitchforks up and haul the wheelbarrows by the back porch, where Momma will transfer the manure into buckets, making the perfect fertilizer for her garden.
"Listen," Dad starts, grabbing my arm so he can swing me to face him, "this isn't going to be easy on yer Momma, so be patient with her." I can see the appearance of tears, but he pulls his cap lower until all I see are the dark shadows over his face.
"I always have the patience for Momma." I push back my own emotions, learning the habit from him.
The sun starts to emerge, making its grand entrance right as the rooster climbs to his perching spot. The colors of orange, yellow, and tinges of red blanket the ground, slowly stretching further and further along the earth. The dew transforms from looking like snow to mirrors as the sun reveals the truth in everything it touches.
The horses neigh, the clatter of their hooves on the soil reverberates, creating the perfect background of instrumentals to the rooster's crow. They take off, like a timed-dancing routine, in a sprint. Their shadows line the ground as if they rehearsed this a thousand times. They hold their tails high as they run, the strands whipping against the wind they're creating around themselves.
Dad nods at my response and drags me closer for a hug. He hates emotions unless my mother is involved, so knowing he's trying to let them out is a big deal. It even makes me choke up a bit.
"Get yourself cleaned up; I'm sure you've got a lot of packing to do." He pauses as he releases me. "I'll finish the chores."
I try to protest, but he squeezes me again, shutting off every single word I want to say to him. Instead, I say, "I don't have much to pack, but maybe that's just me being modest."
"You're like your father." He admits, walking up the porch steps with me.
The chickens need feeding, and their eggs collected, the goats need milking, the cows need herding into a separate pasture, and the lawn needs mowing. But Dad makes up his mind. I'll clean myself up and pack, and he will finish up, left alone to his thoughts.
I head upstairs and gather my clothes from their drawers, shoving them in my arms before entering the bathroom that connects to my room. I toss my hat on the sink and start the water. It rushes out of the showerhead with force. I grab a towel from the cabinet above the toilet and start peeling off my clothes. They're stuck to me like a second skin, the actual adhesive being the sweat that is courtesy of mornings in Texas summers.
I welcome the lukewarm water when I enter the shower. A dozen thoughts hit me as I stand under the showerhead, letting it soak the strands of my hair.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to getting out for a bit. It'll be the first time I'll do things that have nothing to do with the ranch. It'll be my first time with little responsibility. I might find time to experience boredom. Though college is a huge responsibility, compared to what I've had to do my entire life, it falls at the bottom of the scale.
My parents already promised the entirety of the land, animals, and houses sitting on the stretch of property to me. It makes sense being as I have no siblings. It's not like I won't have the rest of my life to do what I've been doing for the last fourteen years.
I look forward to experiencing and becoming acquainted with boredom.
The ranch is a moneymaker. It created a carefree life for our family, but it doesn't come without consequences. I've heard the rumors about me before high school ended and even leading into the months after that. People think my parents gave me a comfortable life because of the amount of money people think they have. What they don't realize is, my parents didn't hand me everything. No, my Dad made sure I knew hard work looked and felt like. I've gotten paid as any other employee would. I even invited a few guys from school over to earn a few paychecks. They quit before the first day ended. They saw what I did every day and still joined in on the conversations about me.
Ten years ago, my parents came up with an idea for the ranch, back when it was becoming more of a burden than anything. Momma did some research on how animals could act as therapy for some people. When her boss let her go as a special-needs teacher's assistant, it prompted an insatiable desire to figure out what else she could do with her degree. She read that people used animals, specifically horses, as a part of a therapy program for many children. One article highlighted the benefits of horse therapy for kids with disabilities. She wanted to help kids who had autism and ADHD. Momma wanted to run a program where parents could bring their kids to the ranch to interact and ride the horses. Dad was reluctant to start it but agreed to try it out for six months. The six-month trial turned into them filing for a business name. Austin's Activities for Autistic and ADHD. Or, better known as the 4a's ranch.
Each applicant, once approved, moves into one of the cabin homes scattered on the property. It's a six-month program meant to rehabilitate the children that endure the misunderstandings of the outside world. It also works wonders for the relationships between kids and their parents. Over the years, my parents helped dozens of families. It brings in a nice chunk of change but brings more than that to the table. Besides, my parents don't do it for the money. Not anymore. My Dad now makes enough by piling investments into the stock market. Not sure how he does it, but he comes out ahead no matter what he does. He says luck. I know he's smarter than he thinks.
I finish my shower and hop out, knowing I spent way too long contemplating things. As I dress, my phone rings. It's Zane. Zane Barry, my best friend, and soon-to-be roommate in the dorms.
I don't bother answering with a hello anymore. Zane always greets me with the use of my first and last name as soon as I accept the call.
"What's up, man?!" He asks, laughing as he spits the words out.
"Trying to pack my stuff." I struggle while pulling on a pair of dark jeans over my legs.
"Hell, yes! I hope you slept in because we've got one hell of a night planned."
I button my jeans and sidestep to my closet, eyeing the collection of baseball hats on the shelf. I pick a newer one and put it on.
"Oh yeah?" I kneel and pull out a duffel bag from underneath my bed. It's big enough for what I need to pack into it.
"Um, yes. When you get here, we will meet up with Aiden to get your membership card."
"Membership card?" I ask.
I hear him shuffling something around in the background. "Dude, the underground fight club I told you about. You need a membership card to get in."
Zane informed me over the summer that I missed out on something monumental last year because I didn't live on campus. The underground fight club was the place to be on the weekends and sometimes during the week. It intrigued me when he first mentioned it.
I throw a few items in the bag, not bothering to keep their folded execution. "Oh, that."
He sighs. "It may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, you won't be able to watch just one fight. You'll want to go every night they schedule a fight."
"Maybe." I play it off like it's not a big deal, only because he's making it a big deal.
He laughs. "Chloe Craven, she's a fighter. Remember that name. I'll see you when you get here."
He hangs up, not giving me a chance to say anything else. I stare at the screen of my phone and frown.
Curiosity settles over me. I glance at the laptop that's done nothing but collect dust over the summer. My mom bought it for me at the end of last year to use this year. She said I needed it. While that was true, I wanted to buy it for myself. My Dad told me to stop being stubborn and accept it as a parting gift. I gave in.
Before I can talk myself out of it, I search for her name, something I've never had to urge to do before. For now, it's an itch I need to scratch.
Chloe Craven is a ghost. She's not on any social media platform. Zane gave me nothing else to go off except her name. If that even is her name.
I give up after five minutes of searching. I continue packing and finish right before noon. I haul the bag over my shoulder and stumble down the stairs. Regret rains down on me as I hit the bottom step, not prepared to say goodbye. The ranch means as much to me as it does to Momma and Dad. Even though I'm leaving it to see what it's like to focus solely on my schoolwork, it's harder than I thought.
My mom waits for me on the front step when I open the front door. She hands me a box of mason jars, filled to the brim with a white substance, goat's milk. She knows my stomach can't handle anything else.
"I hope there's a small fridge in the dorm room." She says, wiping away at the stray hairs that come loose from her ponytail.
"Zane has that covered, I'm sure."
She walks me to the driveway, where my Dad stands by my truck. It's old but dependable. Rusted, but nothing a quick paint job won't fix. At this rate, I fit into the role of a broke college student. I wouldn't have it any other way.
"I also made you these." She extends her arm, her hand clutching a bag of brownies. She doesn't know what she's supposed to say or do before I leave.
I take the bag from her shaking hands and sit the box on the tailgate of my truck. I tug her to me until I can wrap my arms around her.
"Thank you, Momma." I don't think this woman knows how much she means to me. Call me a momma's boy all you want. It'll never stop me from treating her with respect she deserves.
She pulls back from me, wiping at her eyes. Trying to make the tears evaporate, she shakes her head as though it'll help. "I knew the day would come where you would leave us, but I was hoping your last few years of high school would linger a little longer."
My looks favor Momma's. Her strawberry-blond hair reaches just above her shoulders. Her blue eyes highlight her features, sparkling when she talks. A speckle of freckles dance across the bridge and sides of her nose and fade away over her cheeks. Even though she's thin, she's not frail. She doesn't sit around all day, and her muscles prove it. Her sun-weathered skin shows she spends a lot of time outdoors.
"I'm not going far, and I'll come back to visit," I tell her, holding back tears of my own. I'm not big on crying, but even I have my moments.
She forces a laugh, and I hear a distinct sadness executed amongst the musical notes of her voice. "I know you will."
"You worked hard last year, and I know you're going to do no less this year." My Dad steps forward and digs his hand in his front pocket. When he pulls it out, he reveals a pair of keys that dangle from a guitar keychain. "I got you a little something." He lets the keys rest in the palm of his hand and thrusts them in my direction.
I'm shocked, words evading they even exist. "Your truck?" They're the keys to his truck, but they're attached to a different keychain.
His truck is a model from last year. It's a GMC Sierra in black with not a scratch on it. He doesn't use the truck to do things around the ranch, instead of using it for trips into town.
"I can't." I shake my head as I'm saying the words.
He pushes my hand away, the hand that I'm using to offer the keys back to him. "You've earned it. I may have been a little hard on you through the years, and I know this doesn't make up for that, but it's yours. From the moment I signed the paperwork, I knew I would hand it down to you. Besides, all it does is collect dirt sitting here all the time."
My Dad paid the truck off, and I remember the day he brought it home like yesterday. It'd been a long time since he'd gotten himself anything. Any vehicle purchase over the years went to my mother. He's never been the type to spend money on himself.
"Traffic is going to get heavy soon." He says, lifting the box of mason jars from my old truck to deliver them to his GMC. "You need to get a head start and get settled in."
Classes start Monday and I'm a little late getting my things into the dorm room. I toss my bag into the backseat, hesitant though because it doesn't feel right accepting the truck from him.
I give them both a hug before sliding in behind the wheel. I adjust the sunglasses, resting on my hat, over my eyes and shut the door. Emptiness envelopes me as I head down the long, winding driveway. If this isn't the hardest thing I've had to do in my life, I don't know what is.