I look down at the ground, and Mr. Quinn clears his throat. Then he starts talking about the parade and horses some more, and the men laugh and talk as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on here at all. As if my father hasn't been gone for almost a year without even phoning his son.
“Mr. Quinn, Joe wants you,” Zoe calls.
I turn to her, grateful for another interruption. “Hey, what are you doing here? They let you out of Intensive Care already?”
She comes over and holds up her arm. She has one of those super-wide Band-Aids on her elbow. “I'm fine. My camp instructor says you have to fall off your horse seven times before you're a real rider.” She grins. “Only three more to go.”
“Really?” I huff and shake my head, thinking of my dream and my fear of falling. “Maybe you can teach me how to do it sometime,” I say under my breath so Dad won't hear.
Zoe just stands there making vague signals at me with her eyes. Oh, yeahâguess I better introduce her to my father.
“Zoe, this is my dad, Charlie Hutchinson,” I say. “Dad, this is Zoe Hopkins. She works with me at the Dr. Mac's Place clinic.” I wrote to Dad about working at Dr. Mac's Place, but he never answered. Maybe he never got the letter. If he did, does he remember? I can't tell from his reaction.
“Well, hello, Zoe, how are you?” He's all smiles, reaching out to take her hand, winking at me like she's my girlfriend or something. “Are you learning to ride, too?”
“Yes, sir,” she says. Not
like most kids around here would say. She smiles politely and shakes my dad's hand. She's very sophisticated that way. Her mom used to take her everywhere in Manhattan, so she's used to talking with important grown-ups, like casting directors and chefs of fancy restaurants.
I can tell she's a little suspicious, though. Everybody at Dr. Mac's Place knows about the situation with my dad, but Zoe probably relates to it more than anybody. Her dad split when she was really little, and she never hears from him at all. She says she doesn't really care. I'm not sure I believe that part.
“Well, I'd better get to work. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Hutchinson,” Zoe says. “See you later, David.”
Dad and I stand around awkwardly again. Trying to think of something to say, I blurt out, “Have you seen this horse, Dad?” I walk over to the stall where King's Shadow stands with his head out the door. His charcoal coat gleams as if he's just been groomed. “Isn't he awesome?”
Dad gives me a lopsided grin. “Glad you like him, son. He's mine.”
I whirl around. “Yours? But he's been here sinceâ” I don't finish the sentence. I don't say yesterday. I don't say,
What took you so long to come see me?
Because I just realized, he
come here to the stables to see me. He came here to see his horse.
Now I feel really crummy and confused.
Then Dad says, “I've decided to move back to Pennsylvania,” as casually as if he were ordering a cheeseburger.
Suddenly it's like I've had the wind knocked out of me. I should be shouting hooray or something, but instead I feel scared. Scared of what? I'm not sure. Scared of getting my hopes up, I guess.
“Does Mom know?” I ask.
Dad looks away, shrugs, starts to speakâ
Just then two minivans pull up, and a crowd of grown-ups and kids pile out. Mr. Quinn calls out my name.
The trail ride. I almost forgot why I'm here.
“Mr. Quinn needs me to help tack up,” I explain to Dad. “Are you sticking around the stable for a while, or going over to the house?”
Dad shoves his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. “Nah, I got a room at a hotel.” The surprise on my face must show, because he adds quickly, “I got in late. Didn't want to impose on your momâ¦you know.”
No, I don't know.
Why wouldn't he want to stay in his own house, with his own family?
I don't want to think about what that means.
“David!” Mr. Quinn hollers.
Dad shoos me off. “Go ahead. Don't worry, I'll be here awhile,” he assures me.
I head into the barn, and I have to admit I kind of welcome the distraction. It'll give me some time to get my head together about seeing Dad.
As I lead the last horse out of the barn for the trail ride, Mom and Ashley pull into the stable yard to pick me up. Boy, are they in for a surprise.
“Mom!” I call over the clopping hooves. “Guess what?”
I look around the yard for Dad. But I don't see him anywhere.
I search the barns and the practice ring.
My father has disappeared again.
ere's one thing I'm always thankful for at Thanksgiving: we only have school on Monday and Tuesday, and the teachers tend to go easy on the homework. It's a good thing, too, because between bad dreams and worrying about Dad being in town, I'm not getting a whole lot of sleep.
Yesterday, all day long, I kept waiting for him to show up at the house or at least call us. But he never did. Mom said he probably had some business to take care of, but I could tell she was ticked that she hadn't heard from him. I mean, what kind of business would he be taking care of on a Sunday?
Today, when I go over to Quinn's Stables after school, my chores seem to fly by, even though I try to stretch them out as long as possible.
All too soon, it's time for my jumping lesson.
For years I've wanted to learn how to jump. But somehow everything has felt so unsettled this past year. And ever since my nightmares started, I've been afraid of jumping. Afraid of falling.
Sunita, who unlike me is a total brain at school, once explained to me where the word
means not only a female horse, but also an evil spirit that haunts your sleep. Kind of funny in my case, since my nightmares are actually
Zoe, Maggie, and I saddle up for our jumping lesson with Mr. Quinn. Zoe takes Claiborne over the jump first, as Maggie and I watch from the center of the ring. Zoe's awesomeâshe doesn't just look like she knows what she's doing, she does it with style and makes it look so easy! She reminds me of the girl in this movie,
, that she once rented for us to watch.
I study Zoe's every move, trying to figure out how she makes it all happen so smoothly, hoping some of it will sink into my brain. She's balanced in her seat, with a nice straight back (something I need lots of work on). She anticipates the jump perfectly and sails over the fence.
“Nice work!” Mr. Quinn calls out to her.
Zoe flashes a dazzling smile and canters to the far end of the ring to walk Claiborne.
I keep the picture of Zoe's jumping in my head as my horse, Comet, sets off at a walk along the outside of the ring.
I wish I were learning on Trickster. Maybe that would help, since Trickster and I are more than horse and rider, we're pals. But Mr. Quinn doesn't want him jumping yet, because Trickster still has some weakness in his leg from that trailer injury. Mr. Quinn is the kind of guy who doesn't take chances, especially with his horses, and he wants to make sure Trickster's injury is healed 100 percent.
So I've been learning to jump on Comet. She's an older horse, a little set in her ways but very smart, and we've been getting along pretty well.
“OK, David, let's see what Comet can do,” Mr. Quinn says encouragingly.
I grip the reins and urge Comet forward while Maggie watches from the center of the ring.
As we move into a trot, Mr. Quinn calls out, “Too far forward, David.” I scoot back in the saddle and almost slip. I shift forward again, feeling awkward.
“Settle down, David. Find your seat,” Mr. Quinn says, as if I'm a beginner.
We start cantering around the ring, warming up for the jump, and Comet tosses her head as if she too is getting impatient with me. Horses have a way of letting you know what they think of your riding.
I try to relax so that I don't send Comet the wrong message. “Good girl,” I whisper at her long neck. “Everything's fine.”
Comet listens to my body language, though, not my empty words. I try to encourage her to pick up the pace, but as we canter toward the jump, she's holding back. I can feel it. When we reach the jump, Comet balks, and I get ready for an awkward stop. Then she changes her mind at the last second and crow-hops over the jump. I hang on, but just barely.
I feel myself flush. This is really bad form! Comet snorts, as if even she's embarrassed. I sneak a glance at Mr. Quinn. The look on his face makes my heart sink. Disappointment.
“Let's try it again,” is all he says.
I think I like it better when he chews me out.
We come back around and head for the jump again, even though I feel like calling it quits.
“You can do it!” Maggie calls out.
If she really thinks I can, she's the only one here who does.
I try hard to remember why I wanted to jump in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“If you feel Comet hesitate,” Mr. Quinn says, “just give her a little kick.”
I urge Comet forward, but she decides she can ignore a bad rider.
We're not going fast enough,
I think to myself as we approach the jump. But Comet heaves herself over, landing awkwardly, and I hang on like a dope. Compared to Zoe's movie-star grace, I must look like I'm in one of those funniest home videos you see on TV.
“Fine, David,” Mr. Quinn says, even though his voice tells me he doesn't mean it. “Take a rest. Maggie, you're up!”
Feeling embarrassed and totally discouraged, I slow Comet to a walk and join Zoe at the far end of the ring.
“Don't worry about it,” Maggie whispers to me as she rides past. I know she's trying to be helpful, but it only makes me feel worse.
Zoe's polite enough not to say anything. We ride side by side at a walk, cooling our horses. Suddenly Zoe points to the outdoor jumping arena near us. “Hey, look!”
A magnificent charcoal gray horse with a silver mane and tail stands tall in the center of the arena. His rider swings into the saddle like some handsome lord of the manor.
It's Dad. On King's Shadow.
They walk and trot around the large arena, warming up. A handful of people gather to watch. My father sits in the saddle as if he's part of the horse, like one of those bronze statues where the horse and rider are melded into one piece of metal. There's no question who's in control.
Dad grew up on a horse farm in Kentucky. He learned to ride before he could walk, he says. And it shows.
Warmed up now, he and King's Shadow start jumping the course. The way they sail over the fences reminds me of the ice-skaters Mom likes to watch on TV, who leap effortlessly into the air, almost defying gravity, and land with such grace and flair. Each time Dad and King's Shadow nail a jump, I have to stop myself from bursting into applause.
I glance at Zoe. She looks impressed, too.
Dad finishes the course and calls out to Joe, who's been watching, and the stable hand runs out into the arena and raises the height of the fences. They were already high to begin with, but I can't believe the height Joe's setting them at now. Zoe lets out a low whistle.
Give me a break. No way that horse is going to make those jumps! He'd need a helicopter to get over them.
I wonder if everyone else is holding their breath like me.
Dad and King's Shadow take the first three jumps like champions. I exchange a grin with Zoe. Dad's amazing. He never misses!
Heading into the fourth jump, the biggest yet, King's rhythm seems off a little. But Dad's in control and presses forward with a look of determination.
They approach the fence, they jumpâ
It's the sound all horse jumpers dread, the clunk of hooves hitting the crossbar.
The bar clatters to the ground. King's Shadow stumbles as he lands, but Dad stays glued in the saddle. As soon as King has collected himself, Dad reins him to a stop and dismounts to check his horse's legs.
Mr. Quinn runs into the jumping arena. “Is he all right, Charlie?” he calls.
“I think so,” Dad answers.
Zoe lets out a deep breath. Slowly I let mine out, too.
King's Shadow shakes his head, as if he's trying to shake the memory. Dad pats him on the shoulder and talks soothingly.
When Dad makes a move to remount, Mr. Quinn lays a hand on his arm. Dad whirls around, frowning. The two men talk, too quietly for us to hear their conversation. But we can hear the anger in their voices.
Maggie walks her horse over and joins us. “What's going on?”
“Dad wants to take the jump again.”
“I don't think Mr. Quinn wants him to,” says Maggie.
“Too bad. Because I know how this will end,” I tell her.
Maggie looks surprised. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Dad does what Dad wants.”
Zoe's not so sure. “You know Mr. Quinnâhe can be stubborn,” she reminds me. “Especially when it comes to horses. Besides, it's his stable. Doesn't your dad have to do what he says?”
We wait to see.
Sure enough, a couple minutes later Mr. Quinn throws up his hands in disgust and walks away.
“Wow! I can't believe it!” Zoe exclaims. “He's totally ignoring what Mr. Quinn said.”
I shrug. “King's Shadow isn't Mr. Quinn's horse. I guess Dad doesn't care what he says.”
Those jumps are killers. But my dad really is an awesome rider. I bet Mr. Quinn's jealous. He knows he couldn't have made those jumps. He probably would have been too afraid even to try.