top of page

The Ranch

By Jack Dowd


‘Goodbye Butterfly. May you find joy.’

‘Fuck you.’

Jess slammed the rear door of the car and buckled her seatbelt as the suspension rocked. She spared the interior of the car a glance and knew that Dad would have called it an old banger. The steering wheel was on the left hand side and built into the dashboard was a cigarette lighter, something Jess hadn’t seen in a British car since she was a child. The car lacked a built-in touch screen, instead a handheld satnav that Jess suspected must be at least ten years old, was stuck to the windscreen in a plastic cradle. She leaned forwards, turning the air con on and directed the vents to create a channel of cool air.

‘Jessica, watch your language,’ Mum hissed as she clambered into the front passenger seat. Jess noticed that she was wearing the same floral dress from the last court hearing. She knew her Mum didn’t have the money for a new dress, that money had been spent on bails. The heat of the Utah Desert did not agree with her. Her skin was blotchy, coated in a layer of sweat and was the same shade of red as a lobster.

‘Mum, those people are-’

‘Why did they call you Butterfly? Is that a nickname of some sort?’

‘It’s her native American name,’ Dad said as he entered the car, the suspension rocking once more. Dad was wearing the shorts he normally reserved for barbecues and a faded T-shirt Jess knew he’d had for three years. ‘They give them all Native American names to help in a healing process and finding a new identity. Isn’t that right Jessica-er… Butterfly? The ranch counsellor, Ron, just told me.’

Jess caught a glimpse of Ron in the rear view mirror as her Dad started the car’s engine. To her, Ron looked like a stereotypical cowboy. He had a white handlebar moustache and wore a Stetson hat. He displayed a wide open smile and was flanked by both Moonhawk and Sparrow. Jess had never learned their real names. Both were former residents of The Ranch, blondes and in their mid to late twenties. They reminded Jess of cheerleaders and with their flawless makeup and physical physique wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Disney Channel.

‘Would you prefer to be called Butterfly?’ Mum asked. ‘Is that your new name now? I know your generation have all these ideas-’

‘My name is Jess.’

‘Good,’ Dad muttered as he put the car into gear. ‘Butterfly’s a stupid name.’

‘It’s very insensitive to Native American culture,’ Mum added as the car rolled through the Rach’s entrance gate. ‘I watched a documentary about it on the plane over. I didn’t know there were any Native Americans in Utah. I thought they were all up north somewhere. Like Maine.’

‘Where?’ Dad grunted. He stuck his finger in the air vent and redirected the flow.

‘Maine. It’s a state. Just above New York.’

‘Listen to me a sec-‘

‘Jessica, do you want to go to New York on the way home? We could fly there first if you wanted to?’

Dad muttered something under his breath.

‘Of course, we can afford it,’ Mum insisted. ‘She deserves a treat don’t you, Jessica? I mean, Butterfly.’

‘My name is Jess!’

‘Don’t shout,’ Mum snapped but then her voice softened. ‘Hey, when we get back to the UK why don’t you get a tattoo? To mark a new chapter of your life. It could be a butterfly if you wanted? While we’re there, you can check if they can remove some of your other squiggles.’

Jess realised she had unconsciously crossed her arms to cover up her tattoos. The tattoo on her left arm was of a black heart, the logo of a band that had long since broken up while the tattoo on her right was of a stick man playing hangman, the result of a drunken night.

‘I don’t want a new tattoo.’

‘Ah, you see,’ Dad laughed, ‘progress at last.’

Jess knew that they couldn’t afford to visit New York. She was surprised that her parents could afford the plane tickets to Utah. She allowed the conversation to end and wondered how much the car had cost to hire. Then she thought how much her parents had paid for her place at The Ranch.

‘They call this an intersection,’ Mum said as the car came to, what Jess would have called, a T junction. ‘They have different names for everything over here.’

‘Yeah, I know what an intersection is.’

Dad turned left and the car began to roll down a tarmacked road.

‘This is called a highway. Or is it a freeway?’ Mum asked as the car began to pick up speed. Jess didn’t answer and rested her head against the window. The desert was featureless and flat, with no landmarks save for the occasional cactus.



‘Don’t say what, say pardon. We asked you if you’d done any driving on The Ranch.’

Jess remembered her first time behind the wheel of a car. She had hotwired it from a pensioner’s driveway and had crashed into the central reservation on the M25. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘They didn’t have cars.’

‘What did they have?’ Dad asked. ‘Tractors or something like that?’

‘They had horses,’ Jess said, ‘but we weren’t allowed to ride them.’

’You used to love horses when you were a child,’ Mum said.

‘How long till we reach the airport?’

‘Seven hours. It’s a long drive, as long as it would take to drive from London to Glasgow but that’s a normal distance over here.’

‘Can I… tell you something?’ Jess asked after a pause.

‘Of course, sweetie. What is it?’ Jess caught her Mum watching her in the rear view mirror. She knew her Mum was waiting for an apology or an epiphany that would never come.

‘When I was at The Ranch, they woke us up. With bells. At six in the morning to go hiking.’

‘Yes,’ Dad said at last, ‘that’s the point.’

‘No. You’re not listening. They wouldn’t give us any food or water until we’d done our chores.’

‘What chores did you have to do?’ Mum asked.

‘We had to make breakfast for everyone on The Ranch.’

‘How many people were-?’ Mum asked but Dad interrupted her.

‘Did they do a full English? Bacon and eggs? Do they do that over here?’

Mum shushed him.

‘About fifty, I guess. Ten staff and forty students.’

‘That’s not too many,’ Mum said. ‘My first job when I was your age, when I left school, was in a pub down the road.’

‘Yeah, do they have pubs in America?’ Dad asked. ‘Do they have Wetherspoons?’

‘No. They have Applebee's,’ Mum said. ‘Applebee’s and Hooters. Whatever that is.’

Jess thought about Kirsty, or Embers as she had been known at The Ranch, a girl with red hair from Minnesota who used to work at Hooters.

‘We had to do chores as well.’

‘Good,’ Dad grunted. ‘You can do more chores at home.’

‘We had to clear out the stables.’

‘Oh, how lovely, you used to love horses when you were a child,’ Mum said again.

‘And make campfires at night.’

‘Camping sounds like fun,’ Dad said. ‘You could have a great barbecue in the desert. If it were a little cooler.’

‘No. You’re not listening to me, you’re not. It isn’t a correctional school or whatever you call it. It’s a slave camp.’

‘Well, it’s not meant to be a holiday, is it?’ Dad laughed.

‘If we wanted a holiday then we would go to New York,’ Mum added glaring at Dad.

‘Just listen to me a sec. Does this sound right? We had to earn the right to eat. We had to earn the right to sleep. We had to earn the right to take five minute breaks from the jobs they forced us to do.’

‘Jessica-’ Dad warned but Jess continued.

‘If we kicked off or argued back then they’d put us in this isolation room. It was like a…’ she failed to find the right words, ‘like a padded cell. Y’know? Like they have in those special hospitals.’

‘If you want to punish a clown, take them away from their audience,’ Dad chuckled.

‘Why didn’t you answer any of our letters?’ Mum asked when Dad had stopped laughing.

‘I did,’ Jess remembered receiving a letter from home at the end of her first week. She remembered spending an hour handwriting a reply only for Ron to read it, laugh and toss it into the flames of the campfire. ‘Ron wouldn’t let me write anything bad about the Ranch.’

‘That’s a horrible thing to say,’ Mum spat after a pause.

‘It’s true. They-’

‘What’s that on your arm?’ Dad asked.

Jess rolled up her T-shirt sleeve to show a bruise the colour of a blueberry on her left tricep just below the black heart tattoo.

‘Oh my god, have you been fighting again?’ Mum asked.

‘No. They-’ Jess blinked away tears. They had said it was a ritual for all new girls. Ron and the other counsellors had referred to it as breaking in the new girl. Moonhawk and Sparrow had pinned her to her bed and taken turns while the rest of the cabin had watched on, too scared to intervene. Embers later explained that everyone was, broken in, on their first night.

‘They raped me,’ Jess said in little more than a whisper.

Mum and Dad said nothing. Then through the rear view mirror, Jess watched them exchange glances. Mum rolled her eyes.

‘Jessica, really?’

‘It’s stupid stories like that that led you to The Ranch in the first place,’ Dad shouted.

‘No, it's true. Listen to me. The two blond girls. They-’

‘Jessica, I will turn this car around if I have to,’ Dad growled. ‘If you don’t stop telling lies, we’ll ask The Ranch if they can take you back for another month. Do you want that?’

Jess said nothing. She was silent for the rest of the drive to the airport. The same questions kept repeating themselves in her mind. How was a place like The Ranch allowed to exist? Did people know? Did people care?

How many other girls had there been?

bottom of page