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Phantom Stallion: Wild Horse Island #1: The Horse Charmer
In the dream, horses trot alongside her through a jungle. Burnished bay, black, roan, and glimmering gray, they canter under vines that trail over them, leaving their tails strewn with scarlet flowers. Their nostrils flare to smell the honey-sweet air. Their hooves thump a wild rhythm while rain patters on overhead leaves that wave like green elephant ears.
Darby follows a red dirt path, though she doesn't know where it leads. Even when the trail slopes down, ever steeper, and the rain's hiss crowds into her ears, she isn't afraid. The horses press close all around her.
She is one of them, until the rain stops.
The horses halt.
With undersea slowness, Darby turns to ask them why. Heads tossing, manes slapping their necks, the horses' uneasy milling tells her they can't go on.
She pivots in a shaft of sunlight. Brightness slanting through the treetops spotlights a clearing. It wasn't there a minute ago. Neither was the dollhouse-small shack.
Rain drips from its metal roof. Rust streaks its walls. A white curtain billows out a window and strange music coaxes Darby to walk closer.
The horses watch as Darby's bare feet take her right up to the wooden door.
Slowly, inch by inch, it is creaking open. . . .
"Honey, you really didn't have time for a nap."
Darby Carter's eyes snapped open.
Car keys jingled. Her mom stood next to the couch, smiling down at her. "Your last day at school tired you out."
"I guess," Darby managed, but then her confusion lifted.
Her last day of school—at least for a few weeks—hadcome early; it was still only March.
She shook her head, stared at the suitcases and backpack waiting next to the front door, and realized she wasn't in a jungle.
She was in her apartment, but struggling out of the dream was like pushing aside those tropical vines she'd imagined. At last she sat up and her eyes wandered to the television. The five o'clock news was coming on.
Panic zinged her nerves. "We're supposed to leave at five!"
"Yep, let's go," her mom said.
Suitcases stowed, doors slammed, and seat belts cinched, they sped down the block, dared a yellow light to take their freeway entrance, and headed toward the Los Angeles International Airport.
"You can still change your mind," her mom said. Hands gripping the car's steering wheel, Ellen Carter glanced sideways at her daughter. "I can turn around," she added, and when Darby didn't respond, her voice turned serious. "Right this minute."
"It's okay, Mom. I want to go," Darby said.
After all, why should she feel homesick? It wasn't like she'd miss the smog, noise, and sirens. Or school.
She and her mom didn't live in the best neighborhood. Darby's middle school was known for rough hallway encounters and a vice principal who thought a rigid dress code could cure just about any problems the students had.
Darby had a different strategy. She'd learned that scuttling down the halls with her eyes lowered made her look like a loser and attracted the wrong kind of attention. So she always walked as tall as a five-foot eighth grader could, and pretended to search the tide of faces for her best friend Heather, even when she knew Heather had class on the other side of campus.
That worked pretty well unless an asthma attack forced Darby into a bathroom to use her inhaler. There, she faced waves of cigarette smoke—which only made it harder to breathe—or the accusing stares of girls writing lipstick graffiti on the mirrors.
She got the same looks from the kids in class, when teachers required her to answer questions.
She wouldn't, couldn't, fake being dumb. Neither could Heather, and that's how they'd ended up friends. Most days they'd split a sandwich between class and the library, then spend their lunchtimes reading. After school they'd e-mail back and forth and talk on the phone about horses.
"Do you have all your medicine? What about your ticket?"
"No, Mom, I threw them out the window," Darby joked, but her mother didn't seem to notice. When her mother leaned forward to squint through the windshield, Darby felt a jab of guilt and checked her backpack pocket for her plane ticket.
Her mother couldn't afford to get the new contact lenses she needed, but she'd found the money for the flight that would take Darby across the ocean.
Mom, Darby thought, I'm really going to miss you. But she didn't say it, and then she couldn't, because brake lights glared in front of them like a thousand red eyes.
Her mother sucked in a breath and made a worried sound before she muttered, "We'll make it."
"You can drop me off in front," Darby said.
She'd just turned thirteen. She could make her way through the terminal and figure out where she was going, right?
Still, Darby crossed her fingers, hoping her mom wouldn't take her up on the offer.
"Of course I can't," her mother said, but she didn't sound firm about it. Suddenly she yelled at a driver weaving in front of them, "Hey! Would it kill you to hang up and drive?"
As soon as she'd finished yelling, they laughed. She and Darby both knew that if her mom's cell phone rang and the number displayed was her agent's, nothing, including L.A.'s next big earthquake, would keep her from answering.
Darby's mother, Ellen Carter, was an actress, and she'd been awaiting her big break for as long as Darby could remember. Darby didn't try to fool herself. She knew part of the reason her mom was letting her ugly duckling daughter go off without her for six months was so she could concentrate on her career.
Ellen Carter claimed that when she'd been married to Darby's father, she'd been happy staying with Darby in an apartment above a pizza parlor, but Darby couldn't picture it. And she knew her parents had broken up over her mom's love of acting.Phantom Stallion: Wild Horse Island #1: The Horse Charmer. Copyright � by Terri Farley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.