By Jill Hucklesby
ALBERT WHITMAN & Company Copyright © 2011 Jill Hucklesby
All rights reserved.
Hooves thundering on sand, across the wide sweep of the sun-washed bay. Salt-spray splashing up, stinging our eyes, matting our hair. The taste of the ocean on our tongues and the cry of gulls in our ears. Faces forward, almost nestling in warm manes. Knees gripping leather, feet taut in stirrups, bodies carried by an energy surge, like surfers balancing on boards, rushing at breakneck speed to shore.
We're riding into the warm July wind and my cheeks are streaming with tears, whipped up by the whoosh of air against lashes. I'm breathing in blue sky mixed with the muskiness of horse sweat. My heart feels like it's dancing to the deep dada da dum rhythm beneath my feet. Laughter hiccups from my throat.
I'm looking at Dad, who is focusing straight ahead, brow furrowed in concentration. Now he's glancing at me and a massive smile is radiating from his mouth, causing creases to fan from the edges of his blue eyes.
"Yeeha!" he calls. "Last one to the rock is a bandit..." He's lengthening his reins and urging Kaloo, a retired racehorse who is the fastest mount at the stables, to gallop to victory.
"In your dreams," I yell back, asking Rambo, my favorite chestnut, to pick up the pace. He responds willingly, eager to please. I curl down farther on his neck, jockey style, trying to make us more aerodynamic. Kaloo takes off like a rocket, with Dad almost clinging to the curve of his arched neck. Dad usually rides like a cowboy, laid back in the saddle, but now, slumped forward, he looks more like a highwayman, fleeing for his life.
"Hey, tough guy, what are you waiting for?" I whisper toward Rambo's ears, which flick back and forth like furry antennae.
And as my calves brush his belly gently, we push forward in pursuit of Kaloo's impressive black tail, which is flying behind him regally. Lumps of wet sand splatter onto my nose and eyelids as our competitors veer a little to the left, directly ahead of us.
Rambo grunts and instinctively changes course, his feet following a deeper gully where the tide is oozing its way back in. His hooves smash down on the water like marbles clattering onto glass.
At fourteen hands, Rambo is struggling to gain ground against Kaloo, the mighty seventeen-hand colossus. But I can tell Kaloo is beginning to tire under the two-hundred pound weight around his neck and on his shoulders, and his pace is changing. His long, graceful legs are slowing to a comfortable canter, despite Dad's protestations and offers of extra carrots for supper.
I'm pulling my hat farther down to protect my eyes as a barrage of shingle-studded ocean mud is propelled from Kaloo's hooves in our direction.
We're narrowing the gap and Rambo is holding his head steady and proud, without interference from me on the bit. I'm willing him on with every fiber of my being and it feels as if we're moving in perfect synchronicity.
Dad and Kaloo are close now, surrounded by salt mist. I can hear Dad calling me, his voice full of exhilaration and mock panic.
"Jodie ... Jo-die ..."
And the water vapor is enveloping him, blurring rider and horse into a silhouette, a mirage as faint as a memory.
"Jodie!" I jump at the sound of my name, coming from behind me. When I turn, I see the face of Rachel Holmes in the space above the half-closed loose-box door. As my mind tries to make the leap from past to present, a shudder ripples down my spine.
"Are you OK?" Rachel asks.
"Yeah," I nod. "I'm good, thanks," and I thrust my fork into the pile of hay at my feet with surprising force.
Rachel, at sixteen, is the oldest of the volunteers who help out at Whitehawk Farm Stables in return for free riding and lessons. She tries to keep a team spirit going, encouraging us to eat our packed lunches on hay bales in the yard in summer or upstairs in the sand school in winter. Lunchtimes are legendary for the swapping of pony gossip and funny stories. I listen in sometimes, on the periphery of the circle. I don't want to talk, though. I come here to not talk.
I prefer to be around the horses, keeping busy, mucking out, cleaning tack, getting things done. It helps me forget and helps me remember.
"Can you do Jiminy's box with me after this?" Rachel asks. I nod and smile. I know she's trying to be a friend and give me the chance to loosen up. But that's like asking Tutankhamun to open his own tomb. What would I say? That I miss my dad more than words can express? That my little brother, Ed, has kidney disease and Mom and I are worried sick?
Joyce, the bereavement counselor who used to visit, says that people are like animals. When we're wounded, we sometimes try to isolate ourselves from further harm. Animals look for a piece of high ground, a tall tree, or a deep burrow. Mom, Ed, and I feel like we've been shipwrecked on an island. Joyce says, in time, we'll build our own life raft. (Mom says she hopes we'll be rescued by Johnny Depp, but only if he's wearing his pirate costume.)
Horses, on the other hand, don't want explanations. Just care and respect. That's fine by me. When I look into their eyes, I can tell their life story. I can see whether there is trust or fear, playfulness or anger. Many have had several owners and homes. They all have different personalities. But they have one big thing in common—their destiny isn't their choice.
They know a thing or two about survival. They're very intuitive. And I'm sure they understand people very well. Unlike the girls here who think I'm just a geeky loner with "family problems," the horses make no judgement and accept me as I am.
I wonder if they read the story in my eyes? If they do, they'll see that I'm Jodie Palmer. I'm fourteen years old. And I have a rock where my heart should be.
"Hey, sticko," says Ed, a bit breathlessly, raising a hand from the bar of his exercise bike and waving at me. He calls me Stick because, although I'm nearly five feet seven inches tall, I don't have any curves, no matter which angle you see me from. Even my nose is straight, like a Roman soldier's. Mom prefers to describe me as "athletic" and says that my shape will develop "all in good time." Until then, Ed says, I'm in danger of being mistaken for a bookmark and squashed into one of Mom's Jane Austen novels for all eternity.
"Hey, Teddy," I respond, yawning. This is my family's pet name for Ed, who was, until his kidney troubles, quite squishy in the tummy department. "Mom says dinner's ready and you have to wash your hands before you come to the table."
"You're always on my case," he complains, waving his arms theatrically, looking as if he's just crossed the line in the Tour de France.
"Just relaying orders," I tell him. "How was vampire club?"
"They sucked and they sucked until my blood ran dry!" he gasps, pulling his face into a grimace, then stumbling off the bike and lurching toward me like a monster. I put my hand on his head so he can't move. He looks up at me sweetly through his long, blond bangs.
"It didn't taste so good though, so they decided to give it back." He grins, looking just like Dad, blue eyes exercise twinkling. A sensation approaching pain shoots across my chest. I put my arms round Ed and squeeze, not too hard. He hugs me back. He feels clammy after his, which he has to do every evening to help his body rid itself of the toxins that his struggling kidneys can't deal with.
Ed isn't quite eleven yet and he's really brave. He has to go to dialysis three times a week at the hospital, to have his blood cleaned up. It's taken out through a tube in his arm, filtered to remove waste products, and returned by another tube. The whole process lasts four hours, which means Ed misses a lot of school. He says this is one good thing about having sketchy kidneys. He doesn't fall behind, though, because he has a brilliant teacher named Miss Snow who coordinates his make-up work. To Ed, she is "the Evil Ice-Woman."
"One day, global warming will melt her and she'll stop putting math prep in my cubbyhole," he says darkly.
I'm looking at Ed's floor, which is covered with small bits of dark plastic, laid out in shape order. He follows my gaze.
"It's a stealth bomber," he says, almost reverently. I don't get his thing about making model airplanes, just as he doesn't get my thing about horses.
"Wow, a stealth bomber," I reply.
"It's not just a stealth bomber, actually," he states. "It's a B-2 Spirit and I've been waiting for it for two months."
"That's nice," I say, ruffling his shaggy mop. His bedroom already looks like an aircraft museum. My chest tightens again as I imagine how Dad, who was an air force pilot, would have loved it.
"I don't diss you for wanting to shovel up poo all day long, Whinny," he points out. Whinny is his other nickname for me, when he wants to hit below the belt. "Yeah you do," I say. His expression changes from a petulant frown to a big grin. I feel mine doing the same, even though I'm trying to keep a straight face. Ed's smiles are impossible to resist. Even the fiercest doctors at the hospital are won over by his charms and end up chuckling.
"What's for dinner?" he asks warily. Mom is an erratic cook. If there isn't a plan, she'll invent a dish out of whatever's in the fridge, so you can end up with pea and baked-bean pasta or spaghetti risotto. Ed has to have a special diet, avoiding food with lots of potassium, like bananas, tomato sauces, and melons. We try to sit down together on a Sunday and make a list of meals for the following week but the trouble is, none of us likes being organized. Dad was the planner in the family. Everything used to run like clockwork. Even when Ed got sick three years ago and started his regular hospital trips, daily life ticked along and everyone smiled.
That seems like a long time ago.
"Veggie lasagna," I reply. Ed makes a face. "It's OK, it's the one I helped her make last week and we froze it, remember?"
"No cauliflower?" he shudders.
"No," I confirm. "Only the leftover beetroot."
Ed squirms and hugs his body protectively. "Yeeeuch!" he splutters.
"You're too easy to wind up, Teddy," I tell him, grinning, taking his hand and pulling him onto the landing.
"You are both in league with the Evil Ice-Woman. You just want to make my life a misery. Good-bye," he announces, swinging his leg over the wooden banister rail and sliding down to the bottom.
"I'm your big sis, it's my job," I call after him. My eyes rest on the framed family photos filling the long wall on my right. Shots of Mom and Dad when they were young (one of Dad on a bike is the spitting image of Ed); a close-up of them on their wedding day, outside city hall, with a caption that reads "Ali and Mike got married!" (It's the card they sent to all the surprised relatives after the event). Then there's Mom with her sister, Auntie Connie, who runs a pet rescue sanctuary; me as a baby in an embarrassing hat and no top; Dad and his parents, the day he got his "wings." The biggest one is of the four of us in our fancy clothes and neat hair against a blue background in a cheesy studio setup.
Underneath this is my favorite; Dad and me riding in North Wales on vacation when I was eight, the first time we'd gone on a ride together. He'd sung a Welsh song about "yonder green valleys" in a very loud voice even though I pleaded with him to shut up. Even the sheep who heard it ran away, bleating angrily.
The sound of running water from the downstairs bathroom brings me back to earth. My eyes open to see Ed, at the bottom of the stairs, showing me his freshly washed hands.
"Very nice," I say, walking downstairs toward him. "Now go and turn the water off."
Ed obliges then asks, "Are we going in, squadron leader?" before we open the kitchen door.
"Affirmative," I answer. We shake hands. Ed turns the round handle and pushes.
We're met by two unusual sights—a room full of bubbles and lit candles, and Mom, beaming, serving up a fantastic smelling dish, with our favorite garlic doughballs. The transparent, soapy globes drift and pop on work surfaces, the fridge, the floor, and even our noses. Ed runs around, clapping his hands on as many as he can get to.
"Change of plan," Mom announces. "There was squash in the fridge, so I've made a bubbling soup!"
Mom, whose hair is usually pinned up in a messy bun, is pushing loose, wavy blonde wisps behind her ear, the way she does when she's about to announce something important. She is also frowning at Ed, whose tongue is poised above his plate, ready to lick up what's left of his dinner.
"Uh-uh," warns Mom.
"D'oh," says Ed, flashing her a smile so radiant it seems to light up the room and envelop us all. That's how it used to be with Dad, too—women seemed to crumble in the presence of that grin. Ed even bought him a mug for what turned out to be our last family Christmas, with "Babe Magnet" on it. Mom pretended to be outraged. Dad was quite pleased.
Mom's sternness has vanished and she is beaming back at Ed. "I have some good news," she begins.
"Stick's moving in at the stables so I can have her room?" Ed suggests, clapping his hands.
"You are never, ever going to have my room, Teddy. Get used to it," I tell him. He makes a devastated face and drops his head onto his arms on the table with a thud.
Mom looks at me, her eyes daring me to guess the mystery. I suddenly have a horrible thought and I can feel my eyebrows knitting together, the way they do when I'm confronted with a huge obstacle, like an English essay.
"You've got a boyfriend," I state, my voice flat and dull.
"No!" Mom laughs.
"You do talk to that Rubber Gloves quite a lot," says Ed, resting his chin on his hand.
"He's my editor," responds Mom gently. "We discuss gardening things." It may be a trick of the light, but I think she's blushing a little. Mom's colleague got his nickname after Ed took a phone message one day and scribbled down his version of Rupert Glover.
"It's something nice that concerns all of us," says Mom.
"We've inherited money from a wrinkly old aunt we never knew we had?" suggests Ed.
"You're getting warm," teases Mom.
"We are the love children of an aging rock star who has finally claimed us and wants to give us a million dollars?" I ask.
"Not quite," answers Mom cryptically. Ed and I are both mulling this over when she finally relents.
"I've been offered a column in Gardening Guru. It's the first time I've had my very own space to fill every week. I'll be answering readers' questions and giving advice. And the money's really good," she adds in a whisper.
"That's so amazing," say Ed and I, in unison. We rush round the table and give her a big squeeze, which makes her giggle. Since Dad died, Mom has struggled to find enough freelance gardening writing. I know she worries a lot about the lack of money coming in. The huge smile on her face looks like a mixture of excitement and relief.
"I'll need to go to London two days a week," she explains, gauging our reaction.
"That's cool," says Ed. "We can take care of things here." Mom and I exchange glances. Ed sounds so grown up these days.
"The job's just the first part of the surprise, though," says Mom, as Ed and I sit down again. He narrows his eyes like a detective discovering a new, important clue.
"I'd like to treat you both to something special to celebrate," Mom adds more quietly. Her eyes look shiny in the candlelight. "Something from Dad and me."
I look at Ed. His mouth has formed into a silent "O" and now he's quietly chanting "Remote-controlled plane." My heart has started to beat quite loudly in my chest. I swallow hard, trying to suppress the rising hope that is surging up my body. Something I had believed impossible, something I have dreamed of since I was small, is coming into focus; a wish that is so big, even Santa couldn't come up with the goods.
A horse of my own!
I'm looking at Mom and she is nodding, reading my mind, and before I know it, I'm rushing back around the table to hug her, forcing back a deluge of hot, happy tears.
"Thank you," I manage to say, even though my throat is tight.
Mom holds me and reaches out a hand to Ed.
"I'm really happy for you, Stick," he says, his face serious. "It's the miracle we've been waiting for. A face transplant will change your life."
I pick up Mom's uneaten roll and throw it at him. Where annoying brothers are concerned, whole wheat is much better than white, carrying more weight and wounding capacity. Ed takes the blow on the head and flops back in his chair.
"Shut up, idiot," I say, laughter unexpectedly bubbling up through my voice.
"Brown bread," he croaks, and plays dead.
I can't sleep. Through the night, strong March winds have been whirling around the house, moaning and rattling the windows. I'm snug under my duvet, almost mummified, lying straight and still, eyes wide open, thinking about Mom's promise. Ripples of excitement have been moving up and down my spine for the past five hours, mini waves with white horses on the top.
I've always loved white horses the best, ever since Dad won me a cute model one on the pier by shooting ducks in a row. I named him Al because he was an albino with pink eyes—a bit odd, when you come to think of it. He lives on my bookcase now, next to my framed photo of Dad and me on our Welsh riding trip. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Samphire Song by Jill Hucklesby. Copyright © 2011 Jill Hucklesby. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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