Authors: Jennifer H. Lyne
When I looked at the red horse, I saw something else, and I knew that somewhere in his family tree was a very strong, sound horse. The kind you could count on. And somewhere in a file cabinet in a tack room in an old barn, probably locked with a missing key, were this red horse's papers, dusty and stuck together. Maybe I could find them. Maybe I could make all the money back that Jimmy had lost on the gray mare. Sometimes things can turn around fast.
HEN I OPENED
my eyes in the morning, I knew immediately that summer was over. The thought pushed down on my chest like a ton of bricks. I got dressed and left the house before I had to speak to anyone. I started my car, turned on the country music station, and took off.
From the parking lot I walked up to the ugly concrete-box high school. The school seemed huge compared to junior high. Seeing other kids get out of their cars was weird. I saw the cluster of rich rednecks. And the jocks. And a few hillbillies. The kids looked tanner and older than they had last May, and they didn't make eye contact with me. I didn't see Ruthie or anyone else I knew, and I didn't care. The sooner I got out of this place, the better. I wasn't there to make friends.
My first class was English with Ms. Cash, who frowned at me like a bulldog. I'd had her in eighth grade, too, plus she was kin to my father. Boy, I hated English. I usually read the first couple of chapters and faked the rest.
After class, I was walking out the door when I heard Ms. Cash growl my name. “Sidney Criser, I would like to talk to you.”
I turned around.
“You plan on working this year?”
I didn't answer.
Ms. Cash waited for the other kids to leave. “A lot of these nimrods can barely read a newspaper.”
I was surprised she said that, and I laughed.
“But they still do the damn reading. Maureen will probably be pregnant a year from now and married to that idiot. But she'll still have read
As I Lay Dying.
” Ms. Cash tightened her mouth and sank into her snarly mountain voice. “Too hard, Sidney?”
“No ma'am, it's not too hard.”
“Then read it.”
I nodded and walked away. Shit. First class of the year.
At lunchtime, I went to the cafeteria and grabbed an empty table. The rich kids sat at one table, the trailer-park kids at another. The sons and daughters of the local judges, lawyers, and doctors sat at their own table. They wanted to go to private schools, but there weren't any around, and boarding school meant boarding school. They didn't look at anyone, much less talk to them.
I finally saw Ruthie. Her dark hair was pulled into a messy ponytail as usual, and her cheap blue sweater had little fuzz balls all over it.
When she saw my black eye, her mouth fell open. “You get in a fight?”
“Yeah. With a horse.”
The big Martin boy who lived in Low Moor whistled loudly, and I looked at him. He was staring right at me.
“Hey, come sit with me, girl!”
Ruthie glanced at him nervously, and then we ignored him. He was cute, but I would never tell anyone I thought that. I had seen him once at Walmart, and after he winked at me, I couldn't look him in the eye ever again. He was a lot less cute when he was driving around in his jacked-up Ford F-250, revving his engine. As long as these were the boys that me and Ruthie saw on a daily basis, we would never, ever lose our virginity.
Eileen Cleek, whose hair was cut short and boyish, stopped by our table. She had a deep farmer's tan from working on her dad's cattle farm all summer with her four brothers. Everyone thought she was a lesbian, including me, but Eileen didn't care. She was as tough as they come.
“Your uncle Wayne sold my daddy a Percheron mare that could pull the goddamn
” she said. “Strongest horse I ever saw.”
“Hope you got a good deal,” I said.
“From your uncle? Not quite.”
Eileen walked on. She would definitely work at her family farm once she got out of high school. Eileen was the only person I'd ever seen who was like me.
Ruthie was looking over her homework.
“My mom got laid off,” I said.
“Shit,” she said.
“What are you going to do?”
“I'm going to try to sell this horse with Uncle Wayne and make a couple thousand. Then we can get Donald out of the house, once and for all.”
“You think your mama wants him out?”
“I'm gonna get him out whether she does or not,” I said.
One of the rednecks yelled at me, “How'd you get that black eye, girl?”
“Beating up assholes like you,” I said.
His friends laughed. Ruthie ignored them. “You could go work in the mill with Daddy,” she said.
“I think I'm a little young for mesothelioma. Then again, maybe you're never too young.”
I knew what she was thinking. The kids here thought they'd be lucky to get a job at the mill when they graduated.
“What are you going to do after high school?” Ruthie asked.
“I'm going to be a catch rider.”
“Catch riders go to horse shows and people pay them to ride their horses. They can ride anything.”
Ruthie looked at me like I was crazy. “See you in class,” she said. She got up and dumped her trash into the garbage can.
As Ruthie left the lunchroom, two girls laughed at her, and she walked away from them as fast as she could. I got up and went over to the girls. One of them was tall with dyed blond hair and bad posture. The other one was a stumpy little cheerleader with tight jeans and pink lip-gloss. They got worried when they saw me coming with my black eye and fat lip.
“You're just friends with her because you feel sorry for her,” said the tall one.
“You gonna be the one people feel sorry for,” I said.
“Oh, please. Who beat you up, your daddy or your mama?”
I balled up my fist and pushed it against the tall one's chest. “You laugh at Ruthie again, you'll look worse than I do.”
The tall girl froze, and her friend scurried away.
I couldn't stand anyone being nasty to Ruthie. She wouldn't hurt a fly. One day in middle school she had seen me eating by myself, and she'd sat down. I guess I glared at her, and she looked so scared that I felt awful. We ate without talking for a few minutes.
“You make me laugh in math,” she said. “You're all sarcastic to those popular girls, and I have to pinch myself so I don't crack up.”
“Well, they're dumb as dog shit. If I don't make fun of âem, I'll strangle 'em,” I said.
Ruthie snorted and grabbed her nose in embarrassment. I laughed. After that, we ate lunch together every day.
When I went to school after Jimmy died, no one knew what to say, so no one said anything. I had thought people would be nice to me, but having a dead parent just made you weirder. Ruthie understood this, even though her mother had been dead a long time. That was why Ruthie had found the guts to talk to me in the first place. It was our club, the only club we could join, the only place we felt welcome.
I went back to the table to finish my lunch alone. I looked at the vast room full of kids laughing, talking, and taunting each other, the blinking fluorescent lights, the missing ceiling tiles. These kids were never going anywhere. They'd either be drunk and unemployed or drunk and collecting a paycheck from the paper mill.
I had to get out of there, and the first step was selling that red horse.
to Wayne's. I pulled into his dirt driveway, parked, and got out. I had a spring in my step just thinking about how we were going to start working the red horse. Maybe we'd just trot him clockwise, or we could do figure eights to loosen up his shoulders, but I didn't want to make him ring-sour. I finally decided I was going to ride him in the lower field where it was flat. We'd take walks on the trails and around the hay fields. That way, he wouldn't get bored.
I saw Wayne next to the shed, picking the horse's feet. I was glad he already had him out of the field.
“Melinda got laid off,” I said.
Wayne examined the bottom of the horse's hoof, then put it down. He stood up straight and looked at me.
“He stepped on a wood staple,” he said.
I picked up the horse's foot and looked underneath. I saw the tiny hole, then I saw the long wood staple in Wayne's hand, and I knew it had gone in deep.
“Must have happened last night in the field,” said Wayne. “He's lame. We gotta dig that hoof out, pack it, bandage it, and lay off for at least six weeks. Got to soak it every day in Epsom salts, pack it with iodine.”
The horse wouldn't put much weight on that foot. His head hung low, and his ears drooped sadly to the sides.
I felt sick. Rage boiled inside me and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I looked at the barbed wire, the rusty barrels, and the broken tractor with weeds growing around it. I picked up a blacksmith's hammer and hurled it into the side of the shed, leaving a deep dent.
“Hey!” Wayne yelled.
“Maybe if you cleaned up this place, he wouldn't have stepped on a wood staple! Looks like a hillbilly lives here!”
I tried not to cry but I just couldn't help it. Sub was standing there, his lower lip hanging loosely like an old man's. I looked at his calm, strong face and cursed at him.
“That was your daddy's horse, Sid.”
Wayne chewed on a toothpick, thinking. “One of the men quit at the barn. You want to come work there?”
I thought he was kidding me. “At Oak Hill? Cleaning stalls for those rich kids?”
“You think you're too fancy?”
“The last thing I need is a bunch of snotty girls bossing me around while I shovel their horses' shit.”
“Come right after school, and work on the weekends,” he said.
He was serious. He thought I would ride with him all the way over to Crozet to clean stalls. I knew he did it three times a week, and I figured that was his penance for being a drunk and not having a plan for his life. Damned if I was going to be his age and working as a stable hand. I wasn't going to do it at fourteen, either.
Wayne sliced open a bale of hay with his pocketknife. “You want to make some money or not?”
“I don't need to make money that way. I make money riding and selling.”
“Listen, Sidney. Your grandma got up at four thirty in the morning to shovel stalls before school, rode all day afterward.”
He was full of shit and I knew it. “I thought she was a catch rider.”
“She was.” His voice was loud and sharp, and he straightened up and looked me right in the eye. I could tell he was going to let me have it.
“She could ride any horse you gotâI don't care if it was a show hunter or a donkey or a Budweiser Clydesdale. She might have been poor, but she would iron her riding clothes until they were perfect, shine her boots, and go to a horse show, and them owners would be fighting each other to pay her to ride their horses. And when she rode, she won. You know how she learned all this? By working her ass off, night and day.”
“I work my ass off here with you.”
He looked at me, smiled, and let out a big guffaw. “You think so, do you? Be here tomorrow after school. Three o'clock.”
I started up my engine with a roar and kicked up dirt as I left.
Driving home, as the sky grew dark, I looked at the paper mill, the smokestack lights blinking, like a ship on the ocean. As the shift changed, workers filed in and out like robots. I pulled over and watched them, wondering what it would be like to have a paycheck put right into my bank account. It would be great to get Donald out, and my mother would be so happy, whether she knew it or not. I saw a girl a little older than me walk out and get into a new truck. She drove past me, laughing into her cell phone.
I stayed up that night and read a little, just to get Ms. Cash off my back. The book was weird. It told you what was in every character's mind. I wondered if you really should feel empathy for some of these lowlifes. If you saw things through everyone else's eyes, the world would be a house of mirrors. It was confusing, and I fell asleep.
HE NEXT DAY
at school, I sat through my classes thinking about whether I would go to Oak Hill with Wayne. I couldn't learn anything new from shoveling more manure. It was all the same, whether it came from a fancy show jumper or an old mule.
When I passed by the main office on my way out the door, I saw Eileen Cleek being lectured by the assistant principal. “Eileen, you miss more than two weeks of school this year, you ain't going to graduate.”
“Don't tempt me,” Eileen said.
I laughed, and Eileen winked at me, walked outside after me, and headed for her beat-up Chevy truck. A couple of boys yelled “Lesbo” at her. She swore at them, and for the first time, I felt a little sorry for her. She was always alone. No one really cared whether she liked boys or girlsâpeople just got angry because they couldn't figure it out.
Wayne had never told me much about Oak Hill, just that the horses were fancy and the people were rich. He said they went to big shows and won lots of trophies. That was about it; for some reason, he didn't like to talk about it. Maybe they were mean to him there. Maybe I'd have to set them straight.
When I pulled in to Wayne's place, I was late, but he was waiting in his truck. I turned off the car and we looked at each other.
“What do I bring?” I asked.
“I gotta get my saddle.”
“You need your saddle to clean stalls?”
I slid out of the car, walked around his truck, and got in.
“What're they paying?”
“That's more per hour than you're making now,” he said.