"Look, the trouble with Ashley," said Jason's aunt, Jemima. "He's... well, he's not like the other kids you know."
"What other kids?" Jason asked belligerently. He wasn't feeling very accommodating. He hadn't been since the car crash that had killed his parents. Not that he had grieved for long (they would not have wept for him had circumstances been reversed) but there had been certain conveniences: in the last eight weeks he had been shunted from unwilling relative to unwilling relative. Now, finally, he had wound up at this dead-end: Halcyon Farm where Aunt Jemima and Uncle Derek lived. And Ashley of course: an eight-year-old brat, spoilt beyond belief.
Jason of course, would never admit that he might have been equally spoilt himself until very recently, and the abrupt cessation of that state of affairs might just be why he was feeling so belligerent.
He had kind of figured he might end up here. It had been discussed many times, usually when they figured he wasn't listening. It made perfect sense, they would say. The Frederics had all that room, and they would love a child like Jason: a child so... normal... There was always a kind of pregnant pause after this suggestion, as if daring the listener to dispute it. And it was never precisely disputed, but the eventual response was inevitably, "Yes, but the trouble with Ashley..." at which point some alternative arrangement would be proposed.
But eventually there simply were no alternatives. Jason was uncooperative and sulky. He got into fights at school and his grades - well, he did little work to actually grade. Each successive foster-parent found some new reason to foist him on to the next relative down the family line.
Jason returned his attention to the present. Aunt Jemima wore a hurt look that he privately congratulated himself on. "We just want you to be happy here," she said. Oh, yeah! How many times had he heard that before?
"Look," he said. "Just save it, all right? I'm tired of being kicked around by all you guys. It isn't like any of you care a damn about me. You just want your hands on Dad's inheritance like everyone else."
"Jason, that just isn't true!" objected Jemima, sounding genuinely hurt. "We won't push you into anything you don't want. But I must tell you the trouble with Ashley..."
"He's special, I know."
"Yeah, everyone told me," Jason said flatly. They had told him, in more or less those words, though that strange hesitation always crept in before the word 'special'. He figured they were trying to creep him out. They had never said why Ashley was so special, but he was in no mood to hear about it now. If anyone really cared about him, they'd be calling him special. All he needed right now was a lecture on why he was going to be treated like second-best.
Aunt Jemima looked relieved. "Well, then, as long as you know, I guess you won't do anything stupid. He's quite a good boy you know. He just has such a terrible temper."
That was it? Ashley had a temper? That was the black family secret? He was less than impressed. "Yeah, whatever," he said.
He went out later and explored the farm. It was not a large place: a large modern barn and several out-buildings around the Frederics' house. Halcyon Farm occupied a broad valley, miles from their nearest neighbour. The Frederics kept sheep - a small herd managed alone by Uncle Derek and two border collies.
There was also one pig. Jason found it occupying a large pen to one side of the barn. The smell was appalling and the pen was a morass of mud and pig dung. The pig, a large and portly boar, was wallowing in the filth, grunting with apparent pleasure.
"That's John," said a voice from behind Jason. He turned and saw a small boy in shorts and a striped tee-shirt. It could only be Ashley. He was clutching a large, worn-looking, pink toy rabbit. He looked like a wimp.
"You called a pig John?" Jason asked.
"Nah. Mum and Dad called him that."
"How come there's just one?"
"He was the only one that deserved it," Ashley shrugged, leaning on the rail and watching the pig as it waddled to a large trough and buried its snout in the old potatoes that filled it.
"What?" asked Jason.
"Mum said her brother was an absolute pig when she was little," Ashley said seriously. "John made me mad and I remembered her saying that. Come on, let's go watch TV." So saying, he jumped down and
ran back to the house. Jason followed at a slower pace. Great. Ashley was a nutcase.
When he reached the lounge where the large TV was situated, Ashley was kneeling in front of it and pressing the controls. The pink rabbit was lying in the middle of the sofa. Jason went to move it, intending to sit there himself.
"That's Aunt Sara," Ashley said without turning round. "Don't move her."
"It's a toy rabbit," Jason said.
"She likes sitting there," Ashley said. "It's her chair."
"Whatever." Jason threw his hands up. "What're you watching?"
"Harry the Horse," Ashley replied.
"What's that?" asked Jason with a sinking feeling.
"It's our favourite program," Ashley said: Jason assumed the 'we' meant Ashley and the toy rabbit. "Harry and his friends live at a riding stables and give rides to children, then they talk about their day afterwards."
"Oh," said Jason. "Can't we watch Starship Troopers instead?"
His weak attempt to stir enthusiasm fell flat. "No. we always watch Harry the Horse."
Jason let it go for now, watching as a program clearly intended for a kindergarten audience began to unfold. It was sort of clever the way it was done: real horses with animated jaws and actors' voiceovers to make it look like they were talking. He'd seen such things before, and with similarly corny story-lines. In this particular episode, one character called Daisy was upset about something and the other horses - Harry, Bill, Merrylegs and Buttercup - were trying to cheer her up. It turned out they had forgotten it was her birthday. Jason endured this with poorly suppressed scorn.
This soon became obvious as a long-established ritual. Twice a day - at 10am and 4pm - the program aired in two half-hour episodes. Jason's attempts to persuade Ashley to watch something better (God, even Power Rangers In Space beat this) came to nought: Ashley always responded, "No, we always watch this."
To make matters worse, there weren't that many different episodes, and true to satellite standards, this was catered for by repeating what few episodes there were in an unending and unvarying cycle.
And it wasn't like there was much else to do but watch television. Watch sheep. Watch the pig. Wander the farm or watch wallpaper peel in his room. But boy, did he hate Harry the Horse. Especially when the theme tune got stuck in his head and he found himself subconsciously humming it.
He tried wandering around the farm. There wasn't much to hold his interest though. John the pig provided a limited amount of interest for a thirteen-year-old sense of humour and Jason found the pig's disconcertingly human eyes seemed to dwell on him with more than dull porcine curiosity would seem to explain. Actually the eyes reminded him most of that damned pink rabbit that Ashley dragged around everywhere. Jason thought calling it Aunt Sara was pretty sick: he used to have an Aunt Sara but he had been told she had died. There was something almost creepy about the expression in the rabbit's glassy gaze.
Attempts to force Ashley into watching something else did not meet with much success. Getting to the television first simple meant Ashley turned the channel over when he arrived. Attempts to pre-empt the remote control ended in Ashley using the TV controls then placidly sitting with one hand over the remote's sensor window so Jason couldn't override it. Jason wasn't a very physical person and so the notion of beating Ashley to a pulp if he pulled the trick again was not entertained very seriously, but more devious things were.
Jason thought success was finally his when he hit upon using the satellite set-up options to aid him. Using an inbuilt menu, it was possible to lock channels out of use and secure them with a combination. This he did for the channel airing Harry the Horse.
Ashley came in as normal, trailing Aunt Sara by one arm, and picked up the remote to set the channel. Four dashes appeared in the middle of a blank blue screen: a prompt for the combination. Ashley frowned and pushed the buttons again, to no avail. Jason watched and smirked, but said nothing.
Ashley grew more and more agitated, then called his mother, who frowned and cautiously said there must be a problem.
"Get it fixed!" ordered Ashley.
His mother looked drawn and unhappy. "Will you leave the repair man alone if I call him?"
"If he gets my program back," Ashley said.
"Ashley, we talked about this," said Jemima. "You promised not to do it anymore."
"Mum, I can't help it when I get mad," Ashley said, with a kind of earnest regret.
His mother sighed and went out. Jason thought he heard her muttering something about "Enough sheep on the farm as it is."
Ashley sat staring at the blue screen and tears began to well out at the corner of his eyes. Jason squashed a pang of guilt and said, "I might be able to bring Harry back, for a price."
His attempt at blackmail got nowhere. The small boy whirled on him. "You did this!" he accused, pointing a finger straight at him. Such was the violence of the gesture that Jason would not have been too surprised if the finger had spat lightning.
"Yeah, and so what?" he challenged. "You might not have noticed but I live here too now, and I want to watch something different once in a while!"
"This is our favourite show," Ashley stated flatly. Jason was a little surprised at the force of the simple statement: if stone tablets were given voice, they would have sounded thus. Hey, don't let this little creep weird you out, he told himself.
"Yeah, and Starship Troopers is mine. So I've locked your dumb show out. You've already seen the dumb episode five times anyway, and that's just while I've been here!" He was surprised to find himself on the defensive.
Ashley advanced on him slowly. "You shouldn't have done that," he said.
There was something odd about his voice. Jason suddenly knew what a dog must feel like when its owner told it, "Bad dog!" This felt the same way. He backed away. "Look, I'll put it back on..."
Without any manipulation of the controls however, the screen flickered and flashed and the program came on, singing its infernal tune:
"Walk, trot, canter, run!
Let's join Harry having fun!
Snort, rear, whinny, neigh!
Let's play with Harry for the day!"
"You shouldn't have done that," said Ashley. Jason felt the wall against his back. God, this kid was weird. How the hell had the program come back on?
"You shouldn't make me mad."
Jason was sweating now. He would have willingly sat through the Harry the Horse Marathon and joined in with the song if it would stop this kid staring at him like that.
"Walk, trot, canter run! Let's join Harry having fun!"
"John made me mad. So did Aunt Sara," Ashley said. Jason whimpered and tried not to believe it was getting darker in the room: tried not to believe everything was getting darker except for Ashley's eyes. "They learnt their lesson. You will too."
"Snort, rear, whinny, neigh! Let's play with Harry for the day!"
The words became a spiral surrounding that implacable, baleful stare. It bound Jason to the spot. Then it whipped out in a burning lash that left purple spots dancing in his eyes.
He bent in the middle - there was no other way to put it: he felt like a puppet being manipulated by some unseen force. His arms stiffly reached out and he was standing on all fours. He knew a moment of terror and confusion: what the Hell was happening here. He heard himself babbling that Ashley could watch whatever he liked, anytime.
"Walk, trot, canter run! Let's join Harry having fun!"
The picture distorted as if a powerful magnet were pulling at it then the screen flashed brilliantly and went dark. A wisp of smoke rose from the back of the set. The bulb in the ceiling light exploded.
Jason felt his legs inflate. It was the only way to describe the sensation. They grew, longer and thicker, bursting his trouser legs open with an explosive tearing sound. The fabric shrivelled into ash, as did his shoes and socks. Looking down in shock he saw, not bare feet, but hooves: horse's hooves. They were broad and lightly feathered. The fur on his legs was white to the knees, then black. He had seen legs like that before. Harry the Horse had legs like that.
He gasped then as his abdomen expanded five-fold in one convulsive burst. His lower clothing shredded and disintegrated, leaving him a bizarre creature: horse from the waist down: human form the waist up: his back side looked like a balloon of glossy black fur attached to his scrawny human torso. He was bent sharply at the hips, for his hands were still upon the floor, almost as if he were someone touching their toes.
Ashley moved to stand before him, eyes glowing with a grey-white luminance. Jason cringed away from him and for a moment thought his hands had left the ground as he straightened up. But it was only the horrible transmogrification continuing: his torso and arms were now Harry's, too. His human head protruded absurdly from huge equine shoulders.
"Now you won't be bad anymore," Ashley told him in a voice that might have persuaded the sun not to shine. "You'll be good all the time, like John. Like Aunt Sara. They were bad to me once. They made me lose my temper too."
Jason blacked out for an instant: his ears popped and his sinuses fired in brief agony, then he was looking down at Ashley along a broad, black-furred muzzle, with oddly distorted vision. He tried to cry out and was shocked to feel his ears twitch as he uttered a ringing neigh. His senses reeled as he tried to accept what had happened to him.
"Ashley!" cried Aunt Jemima from the doorway. Her tone implied a wealth of despair and disappointment. "You promised!"
The world seemed to click back to normality again. Ashley looked like a normal eight year old again - one looking a little ashamed of himself. Jason waited for this nightmare to end, but he was still a horse. He felt a bit thick-witted. What was Ashley saying?
"Sorry, Mum. He made me mad."
"You can't go on doing this to people, Ashley!" his mother almost sobbed, staring at the stocky black horse in her living room.
"He'll be okay," Ashley said defensively. "I made him a stable and everything. I can ride him, just like Harry."
Jemima heaved a deep sigh, and said helplessly to Jason, "I'm so sorry! We'll try and make it up to you. Somehow... We try to stop this happening, but he just has such a temper..." Jason was finding it increasingly difficult to understand her. He felt stupid. He felt... hungry. He sniffed experimentally at the green baize sofa.
"That's the trouble with Ashley..."