Authors: Kim Ablon Whitney
Kim Ablon Whitney
Copyright © 2016, Kim Ablon Whitney
All Rights Reserved.
Cover Design by Littera Designs
Cover photos by
Sassy Strides Photography & Fotolia
Interior Design by
Also by Kim Ablon Whitney
Hannah & Chris: Before the Circuit
The Perfect Distance
Beyond the smell, there was the absolute indignity of the fact that she was here, in this small, backyard barn, mucking stalls. Okay, at first she had been thrilled to avoid any consequences larger than probation and community service.
It had been undeserved, like when someone gets you a gift that’s much too generous and you don’t know what to say or how to thank them. People she rode horses for as a junior used to do that. Since they couldn’t pay her, they gave her expensive gifts like a new riding coat, a beautiful cashmere sweater, or once a gorgeous Hermes belt with the H for the buckle.
Now, though, she hadn’t ridden a horse for anyone besides Linda Maro in weeks and she was stuck spending her mornings at Narrow Lane, a therapeutic riding center, cleaning stalls.
But the fact that she’d gotten off with community service as her only punishment was a true gift. After helping Étienne steal thousands of dollars in saddles—even though she hadn’t seen any of the money, it all went to him—she could have easily found herself starring in
Orange Is The New Black
When she had gotten her assignment to Narrow Lane, she had assumed she’d be leading mentally or physically disabled people around, but it turned out that she apparently wasn’t even good enough to shuffle around a ring dragging a half-dead horse. Instead, she had to muck out the stalls of a motley crew of horses that in no way even came close to resembling the athletic animals she usually spent time around.
She swore these horses’ piss smelled worse than that of horses on the circuit.
There was Daisy, a ridiculously feminine name for what was actually a squat so-ugly-it’s-cute, Fjord. Danny, a black Quarter Horse. And Pepper, a leopard Appaloosa, perhaps the ugliest kind of Appaloosa there was, which was kind of like discussing the grossest kind of throw-up. Appaloosas were all gross to Zoe; it was just a matter of degrees. Sure every now and then an Appy somehow managed to win on the A circuit. It always made the headlines of
because of its sheer improbability.
As Zoe lifted the plastic pitchfork, all that ran through her head was,
Zoe Tramell is cleaning a crappy Appy’s stall
. She didn’t usually talk or think about herself in the third person but somehow whenever she was at Narrow Lane, that kind of thinking took over her brain. There was a lot of time to think because she was left alone to muck all the stalls, sweep, and make up the grain.
The second day she’d put in her ear buds, content to lose herself in Country music, but Kirsten, the director, informed her that she couldn’t just “space out.” That this wasn’t a regular barn and they might need to get her attention. And for that matter Kirsten had to put in that wearing ear buds in any barn wasn’t a good idea because you wouldn’t hear things happening around you and you might miss a loose horse or another person calling for help. Like that stopped anyone on the show circuit from mucking with music pumping in their ears. Or riding with ear buds in for that matter.
Zoe filled the wheelbarrow and maneuvered it out to the manure pile. Before she dumped it and the flies that were hovering on the turds flew up into her face, she stopped and wiped the sweat from her forehead. At least doing the stalls would help keep her skinny since she wasn’t riding more than two or three horses a day and the meds she was now taking had definitely added five or ten pounds.
She’d needed to gain weight after how scary skinny she’d become on a diet of coffee and pills. But she didn’t want to get fat—fat was a death sentence to hunter riders. She’d rather lose an arm than blow up like Denise Moralle, whom everyone snickered about behind her back. She was coming to see, after just a few weeks, how the meds were helping her, even if they did have some side-effects. She sometimes laughed to herself about how she’d traded illegal drugs for legal ones.
It was the counselor she saw in Wellington for her court-ordered outpatient treatment that brought up the possibility that Zoe might be bipolar. Sure, Zoe had heard of the condition but it had never occurred to her that her problems could be due to anything besides her own sheer stupidity and shitty upbringing.
The counselor had taken her history and asked thorough questions about Zoe’s moods and emotions. She nodded along as Zoe recounted years of highs and lows, crazy nights out when she couldn’t sleep, followed by days when she slugged through life, feeling miserable.
“So am I bipolar?” Zoe had asked.
The counselor said yes, she thought so. Zoe expected to feel terrible about having such a weighty diagnosis thrust on her but if anything, she felt relief.
This explains so much
, she thought. The counselor’s description of the symptoms of bipolar was like someone exactly describing her life and feelings. Zoe thought,
How did you know what it feels like to be me?
It wasn’t just that she was fucked up anymore—she had a reason for being so fucked up. Not an excuse. But a reason. And best of all, the counselor thought with medication, Zoe’s life might get a lot easier. It wasn’t like the medication would solve everything. Zoe still had to make better choices but it would even out her intense, roller coaster moods.
Pepper was the last stall of the morning. She put in new shavings and pulled the banks down. They didn’t have three-foot banks here like they did at show barns. Tiny swirls of shaving dust danced in the sunlight slanting into the barn. All that was left was sweeping the aisle, thank the Lord. She grabbed a broom, wishing they used a leaf-blower like most normal people. But they probably believed that it wasn’t good because all the shavings and dust went up to the ceiling and into the horses’ lungs.
With the aisle now clean, she said a quick goodbye to Kirsten and headed to her car. One good thing about coming early was she had yet to see an actual lesson. Usually when she was pulling out, the first modified-minivan of the day would be pulling in and a tired-looking parent would be getting out and letting down the motorized ramp. Today was no exception and Zoe sped out before she saw who would be coming down that ramp.
She braked at the end of the driveway as a horse and rider across the street caught her eye. She’d noticed there was a horse farm there before but assumed it was some backyard place like Narrow Lane. Or at least not a fancy show barn.
But the horse and rider looked legit. A bay warmblood with an impressive trot. A man who knew how to ride. It was amazing how in a split second a good rider could tell if another horse and rider were ‘A’ Circuit material, or not.
She couldn’t tell how old he was exactly but he looked to be in her general range for guys—somewhere between twenty and forty-five. But if he was anybody, she would have known he was here in Bedford, New York. She knew everyone who was anyone.
Which meant he was a nobody.
Of course, he could be a step down from the professionals she was used to but not a total nobody. Maybe he showed locally and didn’t go to WEF or win at Indoors. It was possible. Unlikely, but possible.
She felt a small dash of hope flutter somewhere inside her. Could something good come out of this terrible assignment at Narrow Lane? Her mind raced to preposterous fantasies. Not so much about falling in love with him, but about his having really nice horses and wanting her to ride and show them. She would pop up at Old Salem and everyone would be in total disbelief that she’d put her life back together, found a great job, and was back in the show ring. She’d win every class that mattered in the professional divisions.
Zoe nearly shivered thinking about herself winning again. She envisioned landing off the last jump after she’d nailed a course and all the ensuing clapping and whooping. She heard the announcer’s excited voice saying she’d scored a 94 and a 96 in the handy round of the hunter derby. All of a sudden, it would be like she was a top junior again.
Of course that was her fantasy. Her reality was that her shoulders hurt from cleaning all the stalls, she had shaving dust up her nose, and now it was time to hustle over to Linda’s to ride a few of Dakota’s horses.
For a few months when she was sixteen, Zoe had dated a grand prix rider who lived in a camper, and it wasn’t a nice camper either. Spending nights in a box where you could practically touch both walls had gotten old fast. Maybe that was why the relationship hadn’t lasted. Although there were other reasons too, including that she’d cheated on him. He was still around but had never made it big. Mostly competed in smaller grand prix classes and had a decent sales and training business.
Morada Bay was simply gorgeous. The barn was only a few years old, built by one of the premier equestrian architecture firms. An old barn on the property had been restored and turned into a quaint vehicle and equipment storage area. The new 12-stall barn was sunny and well lit, with beautiful exposed cherry beams. The aisles were lined with interlocking rubber pavers so no horse would ever slip or fall.
The grass surrounding the barn was Pixar-green from underground sprinklers and a flock of guinea hens scuttled around, pecking the ground. They were part decoration for their polka-dot feathers, part organic pest removal for their penchant for devouring large quantities of ticks, mosquitoes, and other unwanted bugs.
“Hey, there,” Linda said as Zoe came into the barn.
Just being at an ‘A’ class facility lifted her spirits immeasurably. A few horses hung their heads over the stall doors. Each one was muscled and handsome, with well-trimmed manes. Others were turned out in their fly sheets and masks in the well-kept pastures.
“Hi-ya.” Zoe headed toward the whiteboard to see whom she was riding today. It varied from day to day. She saw she was down for Logan, Midway, and Plato. Dakota would be coming out after school to ride a few of the others. Linda had hurt her back packing up the barn after WEF and was grounded for a while, which was why Zoe was riding for them. The job had come up at just the right time, with Hannah’s help, of course.
When news spread that Zoe had been involved with the rash of saddle thefts at WEF and was taking all kinds of pills, no one was exactly racing to hire her. Most people on the circuit had known about the drugs, but no one had known about her helping Étienne steal thousands of dollars in saddles by helping him get access to locked tack rooms.
Other people did pretty awful things in the show world and later resuscitated their careers. Zoe hoped she could do the same, but in the meantime she needed to keep clean and have a job that paid her enough to live. Riding for Dakota served that purpose.
“I have you down for three,” Linda said, coming to stand beside her.
“Great,” Zoe said. “How’s the back?”
Linda gritted her teeth. “Still sucks.”
Zoe liked Linda a lot. Every so often you met a normal, non-judgmental, down-to-earth horse person and Linda was one of those people. Linda had welcomed Zoe to Morada Bay at a time when most people were turning their backs on her. She never seemed suspicious or wary of her, like maybe she needed extra supervision. She gave her the codes to the tack trunks right away and had even asked her to go into the main house several times. Linda really trusted her, despite her past history.
Dakota’s parents had hired a famous interior designer to decorate the main house but they were never there. Both were renowned heart surgeons and most of the year were out of the country on humanitarian missions. On the rare occasion they were in the U.S., usually to accept some award at a charity gala, they stayed in their New York City brownstone.