I know. The other day I posted Chapter 2, Part 1 🙂 But it turns out this should have come first. Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc. Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.
“Can I come with you to the stable?”
Jasmine looks unsure of herself when she asks the question—as if she’s afraid I’ll say no—or maybe she’s just unsure of me. Either way, I tell her to come. She tags along beside me, a solemn expression in her face.
My sister doesn’t really know me, and I don’t know her. As we walk down the back steps toward the stable, I rack my brain trying to remember her favorite color. What kind of ice cream she likes. Whether or not she likes ponies or unicorns or what.
I don’t have a clue. I know some things. Mom and Dad sent me pictures frequently, and I always saw their updates on Facebook. I’ve seen a hundred pictures of Jasmine riding horses, including Mom’s giant Shire horse Mono. At 18 hands high, Mono looks fearsome, but he’s a gentle giant. The name was Mom’s little joke. He’s called Mono because for the first year after Mom bought him from a divorcing couple over in Hadley, he was sickly. Mom said I was because he wasn’t getting decent nutrition. I remember when I was home on leave the summer after she bought him, her eyes were glassy with tears when she talked about the condition he’d been in. The first two months she’d had him, he had thrush in two of his hooves—most likely caused by being kept in a dirty or wet stall.
Mom’s Facebook page is crowded with hundreds of photos of Jasmine with the horses, and especially riding Mono. She’d ridden him during the Memorial Day parade this year, a tiny girl on top of a giant outsized horse.
As we approach the stable, I hear the horses nickering through the open stable door. I approach slowly. A deep voice croons something to the horses. Who is it?
“Stay back.” Jasmine ignores my order—instead, she runs for the door and into the stable. I’m right behind her, but I come to an instant stop as I make it in the door.
It’s Paul Armstrong. I haven’t seen him since my senior year in high school, but he doesn’t look a day older. As always, he has red skin and cheeks from working outdoors. Right now he’s chatting with Mono as he brushes him. Mono looks restless, and when he sees Jasmine he lets out a loud whinny.
Jasmine runs straight to him and without hesitation slips in between the slats of the stall. My chest tightens with immediate tension—Mono was Mom’s favorite, and I know Jasmine rides him all the time, but still—he’s huge. His black fur shone from the light streaming in the door of the stable, and his hooves stamped at the ground. Jasmine didn’t hesitate, climbing up the slats to sit on the top rail. Mono nuzzled his face against her and she wraps her arms around his head.
Paul grins. “He really loves her. Welcome home, Zoe.”
I nod. I’m not cold exactly, just unsure why he is here. Paul and my mom were often competitors. “Thanks. I hadn’t really expected to be here.”
“I’m sorry about your Mom and Dad. I didn’t know the Professor well, but your Mom, she was a good friend. I’ve been coming over here to keep an eye on the horses when I could—I was hoping you’d be back soon. Are you home on leave? How long you staying?”
That was a lot of words all at once. I open my mouth, unsure of myself.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he says. He moves straight to me and wraps his arms around me. I stiffen at first—who the hell does he think he is? But then I almost collapse inside. The tension in my muscles slips away as if it had never been there.
“I think I’m here for good,” I whisper. “I’m out of the Army.”
“Ahhhh,” he whispers. “So you’ll be taking care of Jasmine.”
“That’s good,” he says. “That’s good. I didn’t know if she was with relatives or a foster home or what. I just knew no one was feeding the horses.”
“Do you have time to be over here feeding Mom’s horses? What about your teams?” Paul’s horses regularly win national prizes in shows around the country.
He releases me and waves a hand casually. “Husband’s covering for me.”
My eyes widen. “You’re married now? When did that happen?”
He says, “Four years ago, honey. Blake quit his job two years ago to work with me.”
I smile. Four years ago I was in Iskandiriyah. I missed a lot of what was going on back home then. “I’m so happy, I just didn’t realize.”
“It’s all right.” I will say this: he looks happy, and that’s a change. The summer before my senior year in high school—when Mom and I were arguing all the time—I remember seeing him at competitions on the circuit. Paul was never relaxed. In fact, he looked like the most stressed out human being I’ve ever seen. He was stocky, with a thick muscled neck and sometimes awkward movements. He always looked like he was thirty seconds from a heart attack. Now, he still looks red in the face, a little parboiled, but the stressed out look in his eyes has melted.
“Being married seems to agree with you.”
He only smiles in response, so I continue talking. “How long have you been watching them?”
“Ever since the accident, I’ve been coming over twice a day. Although Mono here needs more attention. I’ve been riding him in the morning, but I think he missed Jasmine here.”
Jasmine hugged Mono again. “Can I ride him now?”
Paul looks at me, and it takes me a fraction of a second longer than it should for it to sink in that he’s looking to me for permission. Because I’m in charge, both of the horses, and of Jasmine. Involuntarily I shiver. I’m not ready for this.
“Go get your boots.” The words come out automatically. Jasmine plants a huge kiss on Mono, then jumps down from the rail and runs for the house.
“I’ve never ridden Mono.” I’m eying the horse as I say the words. He’s huge. I know Jasmine rides him all the time, but it still makes me a little nervous.
“Jasmine handles him like a pro,” Paul says. “She’ll be fine. Nettles is out back with Eeyore. Wasn’t she yours?”
I nod. Mom always wanted me to be into horses, just like Dad wanted me to be into literature. Neither got what they wanted. “They’re doing okay?”
“Yeah. They’ve all been really moody. They miss your mom.”
I swallow, unable to reply to his words. I do too.