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On the Victory Trail
By Marsha Hubler
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Sooze, what do you think you're doing?" Skye Nicholson's voice rang out high and shrill. She leaned out Sooze's bedroom window, reaching toward her best friend who had staked herself out on the scorching-hot porch roof. "Your mother called us. She said you were -"
"Get lost!" Sooze yelled. "I hate this dump! I hate the old lady! I hate everything! Just get out of here - and leave me alone. I mean it!"
Skye's attention darted to Eileen Chambers, Skye's foster mother, standing in the front yard, staring up at them. "Sooze, please come down. Your mother is going to call the police if you don't," she said, her voice fi lled with concern.
Skye pulled herself back into the bedroom and hurried her sweating hands through her long, silky dark hair. Her brown eyes glanced around Sooze's ransacked room. What will get her in from that roof? Skye focused on a picture hanging lopsided on the wall, and then she took a deep breath. Maybe, just maybe!
Skye leaned out toward Sooze. "Hey, come in, would you? What do you think you're going to accomplish anyway - besides getting in even more trouble?"
"You think I care? What have I got to lose?"
"Maybe more than you think, Sooze. I was just going to talk to you about this great idea I had. You like horses, right?"
For a brief moment, the tiniest spark of hope flashed across Sooze's face. Wiping sweat from her brow, she hunkered down against the side of the house.
Skye leaned out the window a little farther to see if Sooze was listening. As usual, Sooze's chopped off, straight, mousy brown hair stuck out all over, especially where a cowlick crowned her head. Her dark, hollow eyes and tight lips did nothing to enhance her skinny shoulders and big hips. A yard sale T-shirt hanging on her scrawny frame gave the impression of a wet blanket on a coat rack. The rest of her, packed into tattered jean shorts and sneakers full of holes, added to the unmade-bed look that had become her trademark.
Although Skye and Sooze had never had classes together at Madison Middle School, the two had been friends for several years. Skye's memory haunted her: They had gotten into lots of trouble before. Thinking about the past made Skye realize how much she'd changed.
Again, Skye yelled out to Sooze, "Don't go anywhere! I have to check on something, but I'll be right back to tell you about my idea."
"Yeah, right," Sooze said.
Skye raced out of the bedroom and down a hallway. Two and three at a time, Skye clattered down a flight of rickety stairs and came to an abrupt halt in the doorway of the kitchen. Sooze's mother, Mrs. Bodmer, sat at her kitchen table, feeding her nervous lips a cigarette and wringing her hands. Her fingers, flaming with bright red polish, paraded as many rings as they could hold.
"I haven't ever been able to control that kid since she was little," Mrs. Bodmer mumbled to herself.
Skye bit her lower lip as Sooze's mother continued to ramble, now directing her comments toward Skye. "She just wouldn't listen, and now - now - she wishes I were gone! I don't know what I ever did to make her hate me! She hates me, you know, and -"
Skye turned to see Mrs. Chambers coming in the front door. Before she was halfway across the living room, Skye was at her side. "Hey," Skye said breathlessly. "I just remembered that Sooze loves horses. I only said the word horse once, and she shifted her gears from angry to neutral. Could I tell her she can come out to Keystone Stables and ride? I'm sure she doesn't really want to cause trouble."
"Anything's worth a try at this point, Skye," Mrs. Chambers answered. "How's her mother holding up?"
They both glanced into the kitchen where Sooze's mom was lighting a cigarette. Her bottle-blonde, frizzed-out hair was blowing in all directions from a fan perched on the counter next to a pile of dirty dishes.
"I'll talk to Mrs. Bodmer, and you go back upstairs," Mrs. Chambers suggested.
Skye rushed up the stairs and stuck her head through the window opening onto the roof. "Okay Sooze, you've got to come in now. I've got the best news ever. Mrs. C. says you can go riding with me out at Keystone Stables. But you have to come in if you want to hear the rest."
* * *
A week later at the Chambers' home, Skye sat at the dining table with Mr. and Mrs. Chambers, Sooze, and Mrs. Bodmer. Morgan, another foster child, worked diligently in the adjoining kitchen, wheeling around in her wheelchair.
"Now, Mrs. Bodmer -" began Mr. Chambers.
"When do I get to ride?" Sooze directed her question to Skye.
"Susan, let the man talk!" Mrs. Bodmer snapped. "Be polite for once in your life."
"It's Sooze - S-o-o-z-e - if you don't mind!" she snapped back.
"And what's wrong with your God-given name? You were named after your dear Aunt Susan." Mrs. Bodmer angrily twisted the rings on her fingers. "You just don't like Susan because I do. Plain and simple!"
"I'd rather be named after a circus elephant," Sooze said. She slumped abruptly and stared at the table. "Susan. How boring!"
"How did you get the name Sooze?" Mr. Chambers asked in an effort to bring things under control.
"This is sooo funny!" Skye giggled and glanced at Sooze. "Go on. Tell him."
Sooze hesitated for a moment, glared at her mother, but finally began to speak. "Chuck, you know my older brother who lives in Kentucky now? He used to let me play in the ashes from our coal furnace when I was real little. He'd laugh his head off and sing, 'Snoozy Sooze, needs a Jacooze.' He'd make me laugh even though I was covered in soot from the top of my head to my little toes. Pretty soon everyone started calling me 'Sooze.' So here I am - Sooze, not Susan."
Skye studied Mrs. Bodmer, whose looks soured the room. And the judge says Sooze is the one who needs help! Skye thought.
"That's a great story." Mr. Chambers laughed, brushing his straight brown hair back off his forehead. He drew his fingers down both sides of his tidy mustache while he looked first at his wife then at Mrs. Bodmer. "Now, we have some important issues to discuss.
"I've asked Eileen, Skye, and Morgan to meet with us because we have no secrets here." He turned toward the kitchen where the wheelchair-bound girl with long, kinky red hair worked at the sink. "Morgan, would you please join us for a family conference?"
"Coming, Mr. C.," Morgan answered. She closed the dishwasher door before motoring to the gap between Mr. Chambers and Sooze's mother.
"Mrs. Bodmer, this is Morgan Hendricks. She's been with us almost four years now."
"Hi," Morgan said, her freckles dancing with her smile.
"Are you a foster kid too?" Mrs. Bodmer asked.
"Yep," Morgan replied. "And I love it here. This place was made for kids like me. There are ramps and special equipment all over the place. It's so cool."
"Okay - Sooze, we want you to understand exactly why you are here," Mr. Chambers said, folding his hands and looking directly at Sooze. "As you know, your mother feels she is no longer able to control your behavior. She has asked the court to place you in our care. The court ordered that you are to live here as our foster child while you attend the Maranatha Treatment Center program."
"When do I get to ride?" Sooze asked again.
"Susan, will you -" Mrs. Bodmer started sharply.
"Tom," Mrs. Chambers interjected as she stood, "I'll make a pot of coffee. Mrs. Bodmer, would you like some?"
"Yeah," Sooze's mother said, her tone much lighter.
"Girls, how about some iced tea?" Mrs. Chambers asked.
"Sure," Skye and Morgan answered at the same time.
Sooze simply nodded.
Mr. Chambers opened a file and shuffled papers, spreading them out before him. "Mrs. Bodmer, according to this court order, Sooze will be with us for at least a year in both the foster home and at Maranatha. We noticed her list of offenses ... were you aware of her extracurricular activities?"
"What do you expect me to do about it!" Mrs. Bodmer said. "It's not like she listens to anything I say."
Everyone expected Sooze to respond to her mother's comment; instead, she leaned forward and placed her hands on each side of her head.
"What's wrong?" Skye whispered. "Another head ache?"
Mr. Chambers hesitated for a moment as his wife, Eileen, served iced tea to the girls. "Coffee will be ready in a minute," she said.
Mr. Chambers picked up another paper. "Sooze will have counseling at Maranatha three times a week, along with group therapy. Eileen will see that she gets there in the summer. When school starts, Sooze will ride a van with the other clients to the treatment center at three o'clock every afternoon. Then she'll come home with my wife and Skye. Although she won't be living with you for a year, Mrs. Bodmer, we want you to know you are welcome here anytime. Just call before you plan to visit to be sure we're home. Any questions so far?" He put the paper down and folded his hands.
"How much is this going to cost me?" Mrs. Bodmer grumbled.
"Nothing," Mrs. Chambers answered as she placed three cups of coffee on the table. "When a child is court ordered into our program, the expenses are covered by state grants and private donations."
"Good!" Mrs. Bodmer wiped her forehead. "I can't afford anything like this place. I barely make ends meet now, you know, with the house and car payments and all."
"Yeah, and manicures and cigarettes," Sooze threw in.
"Cool it!" Skye jabbed Sooze in the ribs.
As if not hearing Sooze's remark, Mr. Chambers said to her, "Now concerning your responsibilities here. You'll be helping with barn chores, housecleaning, cooking, lawn work - all the skills you will need to manage your own home someday. You'll have your own bedroom. Skye will show it to you in a few minutes. Later, Eileen and I will give you a tour of the barn and introduce you to the horses. From what I've heard, we won't have to hogtie you to get you on a horse. If you're like Skye, I'm sure you'd rather sleep in the barn than in a bed. Anyhow, I would say in about two weeks, you should be adjusted to the daily regimen."
"But it's not all hard work," Morgan added. "We have lots of fun here. It didn't take me long to find out that after the work, there's always time for other things. And we do get five megabucks a week for our chores. Then there's the basement loaded with a pool table, Ping-Pong, and all those video games. And don't forget about the horses!"
"Megabucks - great! And when do I get to ride?" Sooze's words slid out quickly.
Mrs. Bodmer scowled at her daughter. "Susan, you sound like your brain's stuck on horse, horse, horse. Can't you get that horse business out of your head? These people are sick of hearing that. Mind your manners, and hush up!"
Skye studied Mrs. Bodmer. She is so lame.
"Sooze," Mrs. Chambers said softly, "you'll find out about megabucks soon enough, and you'll get to ride after you've settled in here. We've been discussing which horse would be best for you since you're a beginner, and Skye had a great idea. Tell her, Honey."
"We have six horses, and I figured Stormy, the Tennessee Walker, is one of the gentlest," Skye began.
"Stormy?" Sooze's confusion was apparent. "You have a gentle horse named Stormy?"
"His name matches his color - not the way he acts," Skye said. "His color reminds everyone of a storm cloud. I think he's the one for you."
A smile spread across Sooze's face. "It's no big deal if he's wild or tame. I can ride any kind of horse. Just get me on one, and I'll show you."
Skye rolled her eyes and thought, Yeah, right!
"All in good time," Mrs. Chambers said.
"Sooze, you don't just hop on a horse and take off," Morgan added. "Can you believe that I ride even though I can't walk? This cerebral palsy didn't keep me from learning to ride. But it doesn't happen by waving a magic wand. It takes tons of practice."
"You ride horses?" Mrs. Bodmer asked, scratching her head. "How do you get on?"
Mr. Chambers chuckled. "We lift her on, but after that, she's a riding maniac! You should see all her blue ribbons."
"Skye and Champ already have a blue ribbon too!" Morgan said.
"But I practiced a zillion hours before even thinking about a horse show," Skye added.
"Well, sign me up for a blue ribbon," Sooze said. "I can ride too! Just wait and see."
"Susan!" Mrs. Bodmer bellowed. "What am I going to do with her? She never did listen, and it doesn't sound like she's going to start now."
Excerpted from On the Victory Trail by Marsha Hubler Copyright © 2009 by Marsha Hubler. Excerpted by permission.
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