Authors: Nikki Tate
Tags: #JUV000000, #book
I hang around and wait as the stands fill before the evening's races. I see a few people I know, but mostly the fans are just people who show up on race day and never get anywhere near the barns. The first three races seem to take forever. And then, the fourth-race horses are on the track. I've already visited the cash machine, so I head to one of the betting windows. I read my list of small bets to the cashier. “That's it?” she asks.
“One more,” I say. “Two hundred and twenty dollars on Mashed Potato to win in the fourth.”
“That will be two hundred and twenty dollars.” I feel queasy when I hand over the stack of twenty-dollar bills. I've never bet this much. But if it works out the way it should, I'll have more than enough money to make back my investment and give Sassy enough to either get a cheap old car for her mother or pay the repair bill on the one she already owns.
I gather up the tickets and move to a spot at the end of the grandstand nearest the finish line.
The race gets off to a good start. Eight horses pace strongly behind the gate, their noses tight up against the wings. “They're off!” the announcer calls, and the starting gates fold away as the car races off ahead of the horses. The starting car pulls well to the outside of the track and
follows the horses as they drop down to the rail and settle in for the first lap. Mashed Potato is right out in front, setting a blazing fast pace. Romeo is tucked into second place with two horses right behind him. The speed is too much for him though. By the time the field sweeps past the grandstand the first time, he is falling back and the number seven horse is making a move on the outside. The seven horse passes three others before dropping to the rail for the turn. My stomach clenches and my heart thuds so hard it feels like it is swelling with every beat.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
On the far side of the track, two drivers take their horses wide, challenging from the outside. Romeo has dropped way back, but I'm not watching our horse. I'm nodding and swaying forward, rocking as if I were in the sulky myself, driving the horse toward the finish line. “Yes,” I whisper, my mouth dry. “Goâ¦”
Mashed Potato's driver snaps the whip as the horses round the final turn and drive down the stretch. They are flying, manes and tails streaming. Whips crack and several of the drivers lie way back in their sulkies. Then, the worst happens. Mashed Potato breaks his stride, bursting into a gallop. Short of getting into an accident, breaking stride is one of the worst things that can happen in a race. Trotters must trot and pacers must paceâbut neither are ever allowed to gallop. That's the whole point of harness racingâto see how fast horses can trot or pace.
Mashed Potato's driver checks over his shoulder and finds a hole to move him to the outside, out of the way. The driver fights to pull the horse back to the pace. Inside, horse after horse flies past. Mashed Potato drops back into a pace again and surges forward, but the effort is much too late. There is no way to make up the lost time and ground. He finishes dead last. Even Romeo manages to beat him.
I try to swallow, but my mouth is so dry I can't. The betting tickets are crumpled in my fist. I force myself to look at them. None of the horses I picked came in the top three in any combination. I have just thrown away $220. Oh my god. That money was supposed to be going toward a new horse. Or emergency vet bills or feed bills or truck repairs. I don't even want to think about how hard it was to save that money or how little there is left in my account. For a moment, I consider taking out whatever I have left in the bank to try again. But I know there's no point in staying for the rest of the night. The fourth race was the sure thing. And look what happened to that.
On Saturday morning I have a strange problem. I am up at my usual time, but I have nowhere to go. Ryan made it pretty clear he doesn't want me around. The truck drives itself to Sassy's place. The light is on, so I take a chance and tap quietly on the front door.
At first there's no answer, so I knock again, a little louder. The door opens a crack.
“Who's that?” Sassy's mother says, peering through the narrow gap. “What do you want?”
“IâIâ” Has Sassy even mentioned me to her mom? “I'm Travis. I know Sassy from the track. I thought I'd see if she wants a ride.”
The crack widens. Mrs. Calloway wears a fluffy red bathrobe two sizes too big for her. Her hair is streaked blond and pulled up into a messy bun high on her head. Smoke curls from a cigarette she holds in the same hand as a Mickey Mouse coffee mug.
“She's in the shower. You can go wait in her room.”
The door opens, and I hesitate. “Hurry up. You're letting the cold in.”
“Who's there?” a man's voice calls from the living room.
“Go back to sleep, Ian,” Mrs. Calloway calls back. She leads me down a narrow hallway and pushes open the door into Sassy's room. “Wait in there,” she says.
The door closes behind me, and I find myself trapped in Sassy Calloway's bedroom.
The room is small but doesn't seem crowded. Even though it's early, Sassy has made her bed. A stuffed giraffe sits on a faded patchwork quilt. I sit on the edge of the bed and wait.
The sound of running water stops, and I try not to think too hard about Sassy naked and dripping wet in the next room.
Watching the screensaver on her computer helps distract me. Photographs of horses, friends pulling faces and some blurry photos of her cat float across the screen. Not all the photos are turned the right way. I lean sideways to see if I recognize anyone in a photo taken at the track. The door opens and Sassy yelps like she touched something hot.
She pulls the door closed and whispers, “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”
“Your mom let me in.”
“My mom? You talked to my mother?”
“Well, I hardly talked to her. She just said to wait here for you. Your hair looks cute like that.”
Sassy reaches up to touch the mountain of bright red and yellow towel piled on her head.
“What are you doing here?” she says again. She glances at her alarm clock. “Shouldn't you be at the track?”
“I thought you might want a rideâ”
There's a crash out in the living room. Sassy's eyes widen and her hand covers her mouth. There's another thump and Sassy's mother yells, “Shut up!”
“No daughter of mine is going toâ” The man's voice is loud, angry.
There's another crash as something falls over.
“Is that your dad?”
Sassy chews her bottom lip and glares at the closed door. “He's such a jerk.”
Out in the living room, the argument is getting even louder. “You've got no control over that girl!”
“She's none of your business! You walked out on us! You have no right to interfere.”
“Walked out! Whose fault was that?”
“Should I go andâ,” I ask, not sure what I'm offering to do.
“No,” Sassy says. “We should leave.” She pulls the towel off her head and sweeps her wet hair back into a ponytail. She reaches into her closet to grab a sweater. Another loud crash comes from the living room.
“Damn,” she says. “My purse is in the kitchen. Wait here.”
Out in the living room, her mother and father keep yelling. They aren't even listening to each other anymore.
“I never asked you to come back! We were just fine without you!”
“Like hell! Look at this dump!”
“Don't touch me, you jerk! Get out!”
Then I hear Sassy. “Can you two just stop!”
“Don't you talk to me like that!” Sassy's dad roars.
I stand, ready to rush out and help Sassy.
“What are you going to do? Hit me?” Sassy yells. She follows up with a string of curses.
All three of them start screaming at each other. I have no idea what to do. I take a step forward, my heart pounding. If I go out there, I might make things worse. It doesn't sound like anyone's getting hurt, so I decide to stay put.
I look around the room for a potential weapon in case things get ugly. That's when I see the cardboard box in the bottom of the closet. At first I think an animal, maybe a cat, is curled up asleep inside. When I lean forward to take a closer look, I can see what's in the box: horse tails neatly bundled and fastened with yarn.
I jump back when the bedroom door swings open. “Let's go,” Sassy says. “Now.” She's already back out in the hall, but I'm still rooted to the spot, stunned.
“Travis!” she says. “Let's get out of here!”
The edge in her voice gets my feet moving.
Outside, Sassy grabs my arm and hurries me down the steps. The sky in the east is just starting to lighten. Her parents are still yelling.
“Shouldn't we call someone?” I ask, still reeling over what Sassy has in her closet.
“Get in the truck,” Sassy answers.
I open the door and she jumps in. I put the key in the ignition but don't turn the engine over. “We can't just leave your mom in there.” I reach for my cell phone.
“Don't,” she says. “It's okay.”
“It's not okay,” I say.
The mobile home's front door opens, and Sassy's dad stands silhouetted against the yellow kitchen light.
“Get the hell out of here! Scum!” Sassy's mother points down the road. “Get out of my sight!”
Sassy's dad's fists are balled at his sides. He backs down the steps and stalks off down the sidewalk. He doesn't exactly walk a straight line, but he moves pretty fast. We watch him until he gets to the end of the block and turns the corner.
When I look down at Sassy, her cheeks are shiny and wet. “I'm so sorry, Travis,” she says and sinks against me.
My stomach clenches. How did she get the tails? Why is her dad back at home? The answers will have to wait. She's so upset she's shaking.
“I'm sorry, Travis,” she manages to get out through sobs.
I put my arm around her shoulders. “Hey, come on.” I want to tell her there's nothing to be sorry about. But I'm thinking that's not true.
“I'm sorry you had to see thatâ seeâhim.”
The last word catches, and she starts to cry harder. Her fists jam against my chest when I try to hold her. The noises she makes are awfulâlike an animal or someone who has never learned to speak. They come from way down deep. All I can do is hold her and rock her gently until she begins to relax.
The sun is up when she finally stops. It seems cruel to start asking her questions when she's still sniffling and breathing in little hiccups.
“Can I buy you breakfast?” I ask.
“I'm such a mess,” she says, looking in the rearview mirror.
“Nobody will care,” I say. “I don't care. I need a coffeeâand bacon and eggs and fried tomatoes.”
“We're not going to The Bog, I guess.”
I shake my head. “I'll take you to Charlotte's.”
She musters up a little smile and nods. “Their home fries with onions are really good.”
Charlotte's CafÃ© is already busy. Truckers, construction workers, a few track people and some college students lean over steaming plates of food and oversized coffee mugs. We're lucky to get a little table in the back.
“I didn't think your dad lived here,” I say, hoping to get a bit more information before she realizes I know that she has the tails.
She looks at me over the top of her frothy hot chocolate. “He didn't. Oh, TravisâI've messed everything up.”
“It's not your fault he'sâhe'sâ”
“A jerk? No, that part isn't my fault. But I'm the one who found him and asked him to come home.”
“You asked him to come back?”
The waitress brings our plates. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Hot sauce, please,” Sassy says.
After the waitress drops off the bottle, Sassy continues. “You wouldn't understand. Your family is so nice. It was so hard with just me and Mom and Brandon. Trying to work and go to school. The last guy Mom was seeing was such a jerk.”
“Is he your brother's dad?” It's getting hard to keep everyone straight.
Sassy shakes her head. “That was another guy. We haven't seen him since Mom was about four months pregnant.”
I nod. What am I supposed to say to that?
“Anyway,” Sassy continues, “I just wantedâI don't knowâa normal family. So I found my dad on the Internet and asked him to come back.”
“And he did? Just like that?”
Sassy suddenly can't meet my eyes.
She turns back to me. “You're going to hate me.”
Even though Sassy's life is way more messed up than I thought, I don't think I can actually hate her. “I won't hate you,” I say.
“I kind of pretended to be my mom.”
I lean back in my chair. “Wow.”
“And he believed me. So then I had to pretend to my mom that Dad had contacted me and that he was really sorry and wanted to come backâ¦”
“Your mom believed you?”
“Wellâit's just, I know my mom. She doesn't like to live alone. And, yeahâshe told me my dad was an ass, but, wellâ she says that about all the guys she's been with, even when they're not that bad. She still has this photo of the three of us. It's in the living room. And once she told me that my dad was the love of her life. Of course, she'd been drinking when she said it, but I always wondered, you know, whether things would be different, if he could have changed.”
“Eat up,” I say, pointing at her food. She's barely touched her breakfast.
“I'm sorry. I'm really not that hungry.”
She heaves a huge shuddering sigh and pushes her plate back.
“But he hasn't changed at all. And he won't leave. So I figured if I could get some money together, I could get a place of my own. Even renting a room somewhere would be better than being at home. I'm tired of my mom's craziness. And my dadâ well, you saw himâ¦I need to get away.”