The day Ms. Langerford’s fourth grade class went to on a field trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Cole saw the painting, little did he know that it would change his life.

“These are works by the Impressionists,” she told the class as they strolled through one of the huge exhibition rooms. “They look at the world, interpret it through their own eyes, and paint what they see.”

“Like make believe?” Sara Runkles asked.

Ms. Langerford smiled, “Well, I guess you could say that.” Then, seeing she had the fidgety classes’ attention, she pointed, “Look over there. There’s one by Claude Monet called Waterlilies. Let’s go and take a look.”

The class dutifully followed. All but Cole. He’d seen a painting on the far wall and was drawn to it. A quiet, shy boy, he wasn’t missed by the rest of the class as he stood in front of the small painting and read the index card next to it. It was painted in England in the mid 1800’s, and it depicted a scene of a man and a woman having a meal together in a large room. They were being served by a young woman wearing a black and white uniform. The man was setting a newspaper to one side in a manner that, to Cole, suggested he was done reading and about to start eating. Across the table the woman was holding a white kitten in her lap and petting it. A floral-patterned cup and saucer were in front of her. She was smiling.

Outside a large window next to the couple was a rolling countryside with green hills stretching to a misty distance. Near to the home were three horses grazing in a fenced area: a brown one, a black one, and one dappled grey.

The painting was called Breakfast and it stuck in his mind long after the class had been herded to the bus and driven back to school. So much so, in fact, he was eager to tell his mother about it when he got home later that afternoon. He never got the chance.

“Hurry up and get to your room,” she whispered, urgently pulling him aside when he walked in the front door. She pointed to the kitchen. His father’s swearing was easily heard through the closed doors from where they stood in the tiny living room. “He’s in a foul mood.”

No doubt about that, thought Cole.

They lived in a small one-story house in a poor section of east Minneapolis. His father drove a city bus and his mom worked as a cashier at nearby grocery store. Cole was the youngest of five children and his two brothers and two sisters had long since moved away, leaving him home alone with his parents. He was sometimes referred to as “the mistake,” especially if his father was drunk. Like now.

Cole didn’t want to do anything to provoke the man, which in the past was usually never much, so he didn’t hesitate as he hurried to his bedroom at the back of the house, the escalating volume of his father’s yelling and cursing following him like a bad dream.

Once safely in his room, Cole quietly shut the door, hoping it would bring a measure of peace. But not today. Today, he could hear his mother join in the battle, not only yelling, but physically fighting. He could hear punches being thrown and broken glass smashing and furniture flying, all of it filling his young ears with anxiety and dread. Would his father come after him next? He had in the past.

Shivering, not with cold but fear, Cole climbed onto his bed and pulled the covers over his head. The security of his little cave enveloped him like a warm, wool mitten, and a sense of quiet serenity filtered peacefully into his body. His eyelids became heavy and fluttered shut. In a magical moment, he drifted away, floating on a soft, cotton cloud as he left behind the cold, terrifying world of his home with his parents fighting and went to the first place he thought of, the safest place he could imagine: the painting he’d seen earlier that day on the field trip.

It was just like he remembered.

“Hi there,” he said to the couple at the table.

They each turned to him. The man spoke first. “Good morning, young man. How are you this fine day?”

Cole hadn’t realized until just now that it was not only a different world but a different time, and it was indeed a fine morning. He could hear the horses whinnying through the open window, its curtains billowing with a soft, fragrant breeze that filled the room with the sweet scent of lilacs and lilies of the valley.

“I’m fine, sir,” Cole responded, adding the ‘sir’ because it seemed like the right thing to do. “How are you?”

The man smiled and said, “I’m wonderful.” He took a bit of something that looked like toast. “By the way, breakfast is very good this morning.” He turned to the servant girl. “Katie, could you please set a spot for this fine young man and bring him some of your delicious sausage and eggs?”

“Yes, sir.” Katie curtsied and hurried through a swinging set of doors.

A demure cough to his right drew Cole’s attention. The lady was speaking to him. She had long, wavy auburn hair and a voice as smooth as golden honey. “My dear, would you like to come and pet Snowflake? She’s such a good little kitty.” She bent down and nuzzled the furry, white kitten with her nose. “Aren’t you sweetheart?”

Cole loved cats, kittens in particular, and didn’t have to think. “Sure.” He walked over to the lady and began petting Snowflake like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. “She sure is soft,” he remarked. The lady smiled at him. Her eyes were bright and blue, the corneas white, not yellow and red like his father’s.

A ruffling of newsprint caused Cole to look toward the man, who now was gazing at his newspaper with a relaxed smile on his lips, drinking his tea. He must have felt Cole’s eyes on him because he looked up and said, “How about if you and I go riding after breakfast? Take the horses for some exercise. Would you like that?”

Next to him, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, that’s a marvelous idea. Perhaps I could also come along?”

The man smiled. “That’d be lovely. We’ll make it a family outing.”

Cole listened to the exchange as he absentmindedly petted the kitten. Wow, he was thinking. Is this for real? Horseback riding? Me? This is awesome.


“Cole!!” A screaming voice cut into his thoughts. “Cole!! Where the hell are you?”

It was his father. Cole huddled down under his blankets trying to hide, but it did no good. “Ah, there you are, you little shit.” The covers were ripped off and his father stood next to the bed, swaying back and forth with bloodshot eyes, two days growth of beard, and stinking of old sweat and vomit. He grabbed Cole by the arm. “I’ll teach you to hide from me, you little jerk.”

He dragged Cole from the room and down the hallway. As they entered the kitchen, his mother ran at them with a bottle. She swung it with all her might at her husband’s head and connected. Glass shattered and booze flew as the he fell to the ground. Dazed, he let go of Cole, who scrambled to his feet, ran back to his bedroom, and slammed the door. Panting with fear, he sat on the floor with his back against the door to prevent his father from trying to get back in, knowing it wouldn’t do any good. When his father was as drunk as he was, he had almost superhuman strength and was a force to be reconned with.

Out in the kitchen, the yelling and screaming was escalating rapidly. Cole had heard it all before and knew it could come to no good end. He used all of his strength to pull and shove his dresser in front of the door and made sure it was securely jammed up against it. Then he added his small desk and a chair to the blockade for good measure. Knowing he’d done all he could to keep his drunken father away from him, Cole got back into bed and pulled the blankets over his head. He needed to get away. He closed his eyes. Please…

In a few moments, the room appeared. The couple was at the table just like before. So was Katie. And the kitten.

The man smiled when he saw Cole. “Hi, there,” he said. “We wondered where you’d gone.”

The lady smiled and said, “So did kitty.”

Katie said, “Look; I brought your breakfast.”

Cole looked. There, at a place setting just for him, was a steaming plate of food: sausages, eggs, and toast. When was the last time he’d had a hot meal? He couldn’t remember.

The man spoke. “After you eat, we can go horseback riding like we talked about. Would you like that?”

Cole nodded as he took a mouthful of his breakfast and chewed. It was scrumptious. “Yes, I would,” he said, and groaned with pleasure. He didn’t know when he’d ever tasted anything better. He swallowed, looked at the lady and asked, “Are you coming, too?”

She smiled at him and said, “Whatever you’d like, dear. Would you like me to come along?”

He used a linen napkin to wipe his lips. “I’d like that a lot,” he grinned at her.

Then, suddenly, in the background, the peaceful scene was shattered by frantic pounding and a drunken voice yelling, “Open up, you little shit. You’re in for it now.”

Frightened, Cole turned to the man, “Can you help me?”

The man glanced behind Cole as he put down the newspaper, his brow furrowed with concern. A determined look darkened his face, though his kindly eyes twinkled, when he said, “Of course I can help. But first, it appears, young man, that the time is neigh for us to get going.” He looked to the lady, “What do you think, dear?”

She stood up and set the kitten down. “The sooner the better,” she said, and went quickly to Cole, took him firmly by the hand, and pulled him along. “Let’s get going, my boy.” Then she pointed behind Cole and said to the man, “Take care of the racket, too, will you, dear? Cole and I will meet you at the stables.”

The man nodded and stood up, ready for action. “It will be my pleasure.”

Cole noticed how fit and strong and capable the man looked. His father wouldn’t stand a chance.

He smiled as he hurried out of the room with the lady leading and down a long, wide hallway with the walls covered in artwork. As they burst through the front door and ran toward the stable, she asked, “Which color horse would you prefer to ride? The brown or the black or the dappled grey?”

Cole smiled at her and said, “It really doesn’t matter.”

And he was being honest. It really didn’t. Somehow, he knew without a doubt, that this was all going to work out just fine.