Riding On

“Willow, look at me.”

I rolled down the window of the cherry-red Jeep and hung my hand over the door, letting the breeze tangle my dark, straight locks and tapping my fingers against the car in time to the music.

“Listen to me, young lady, if you continue to act like this, there will be some serious consequences. You’re not the only one who got hurt by this, you know.”

We drove through town and kept going. It struck me that there were very few people on the street today. No birds in the trees. I missed them. I could hear their absence in the dry, heavy air.

“WILLOW.” The tires screeched on the sleek, smooth road as the Jeep slammed to a halt.

“Mom. Mom, get out of the middle of the road.” I peered in the side mirrors, checking for cars behind us. I didn’t want another accident. If anything happened to Mom…I looked over at her and saw the worry lines in her face crease as she started the car again and we rolled slowly over to the side of the street. I breathed loudly in relief and leaned back against the passenger seat again, but my body remained tense and quivering.

“Willow.” Mom swirled the radio dial with her middle finger, turning the volume down so low I could just hear the beat of the music through my seat. It filled my body, wild and loud and free. Nothing held it back, not even the volume dial. Not even Mom.

I shifted my head slightly so I could see Mom out of the corners of my eyes. She wasn’t looking at me. Instead, she spoke to the wheel, clenching and unclenching her hands on it. I watched her knuckles turn white and then pink again, white and then pink.

“I’m—I’m just going to come right out and say it. We’re going to a therapeutic horsemanship center: you know, therapy, but with horses. You need to snap out of this. I don’t care if you ever ride a horse again after what happened, to be honest. I couldn’t care less.”

I looked away and stifled the hurt. How could she care less about my relationship with horses, when she knew how much they meant to me? When she knew they had been the sunshine in my life for nearly eleven years?

“…your attitude is horrible, and quite frankly, I’ve had enough of it. As if this accident was all my fault.”

I could see my hands shaking in my lap. I folded them and stuck them between my legs, but the shuddering just spread through my limbs.

The leaves in the trees weren’t moving. There was no wind or breeze. The air was stifling me. I sucked in breath and didn’t let it go.

“So we’re going to this place now to get you over it. Because Noah isn’t coming back, Willow.” I snuck a glance at Mom. She was stock-still. No tear glistened in the corner of her eye. I realized suddenly I’d never seen Mom cry.

“Noah’s not coming back.” Mom’s voice was hard.

“Stop, Mom,” I whispered, so quietly I could barely hear my own voice. “It’s not your fault. It’s…it’s not anyone’s fault, is it?” I lowered my eyes.

Mom turned her head and looked at me, her gaze boring straight through me and freezing my insides. I felt naked.

We stayed like that for a full minute.

She started the car and zoomed back onto the road without answering me.

“Willow? Is that short for anything? W-i-l-h-e-l-m-i-n-a?”

Eva said the letters slowly and in a high-pitched, loud tone of voice, as if I was deaf.

It wasn’t Wilhelmina. It was Willow. I didn’t bother to correct her. I didn’t care.

Eva smiled at me. It was a forced smile. It was so tight and huge, stretching all the way across her face, it looked as though her skin would crack. Like antique porcelain. She tucked a loose strand of hair-sprayed red frizz behind an ear and licked her lips.

“And how old are you, Wil-hel-mina?” She wasn’t discouraged by my lack of response. Her overly blue eyes darted back and forth over my face, scrutinizing my every movement. I shifted uncomfortably and kept my eyes on the ground, scuffing the toe of my riding boot against the gravel.

Mom stepped forward quickly when I didn’t answer. She draped her arm around my shoulder, so lightly I could barely feel it was there. She stood several inches away from me and didn’t look me in the eye. She looked at Eva.

“Willow: W-I-L-L-O-W, is fifteen years old. Isn’t that right, Willow?” she asked the air.

I ignored Mom and glanced up at Eva. “Do I have to ride a horse?” I asked reluctantly, forcing the words out of my mouth.

Eva smiled at me, sugary-sweet, her voice dripping with honey.

“Let’s take it one step at a time, okay? Why don’t you come and meet the horse you’ll be working with?”

A lump rose in my throat. I gulped, trying to push it back down, but my throat screamed with pain. I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands and nodded at Eva.

Mom started walking with Eva towards the stable, leaving me behind. I raised a hand to my mouth and tore at the nail beds with my teeth, a nervous habit I had developed since the accident. I lifted my helmet off of the grass. Not bothering to wipe the dust from the velvety cover, I turned and followed the adults.

Eva led us down the barn aisle. I focused my eyes on the doors at the end of the barn and pretended nothing else was there. I didn’t allow myself to see the pricked ears and haughtily arched necks or hear the whinnies and nickers.

“Okay, honey.” Eva beamed at me and undid the brassy bolt on the stall door at the end. “Meet Rascal.”

Mom anxiously tugged at the diamond stud in her right ear and took a step away from me. Clearly, I had to face this on my own.

Everything was dark inside the stall. A black silhouette loomed menacingly from amongst the shadows. Haunting memories began to flicker at the edge of my consciousness as the silhouette took a step forward.

Without warning, a muffled cry rent the air. I was vaguely aware of realizing the sound was issuing from my lungs as I stumbled desperately backwards. The manure-dusted ground seemed to be rising towards me. That wasn’t possible, was it? I felt my face make contact with the floor and moaned.

I was floating. Hovering above reality. Everything was white. Nothing existed. Kind of like the way I’d felt since the accident.

And then I heard a laugh. A laugh I hadn’t heard in sixth months. A joyous, rumbling, masculine laugh. I realized I was in a meadow. The green and gold grass chuckled as it waved with the cool breeze. An endless sea of yellow wheat stopped only by the hazy blue horizon. I was comfortably situated on the back of a horse, my brother in the same position beside me. The world was drowning in lazy sunshine and the air was thick with late afternoon gnats. My horse smelled like sweet grain and melted molasses. I could smell Noah, too. He smelled of tobacco and the worn leather seats of his decrepit pickup truck. Just like he always did.

I felt myself struggling, but I couldn’t even move. I was trapped inside my own body. I knew what happened next. I didn’t want it to. Maybe I could change things. Maybe I could rewind the past six months of the silent trauma, the abandonment, everything bottled up in my mind. The blankness.

“Noah!” I tried to scream. The words stuck in my throat. I choked on them.

“Noah!” I tried again. But he just kept laughing.

It didn’t take long. It was a stupid, pointless accident. And it was all my fault.

I’d dropped the reins, giving my horse his head, forgetting how violent he was with other horses; my head was lost in the cloudy bliss that a wild afternoon in horse country can trigger. It happened a flash. His dished face, the color of brown sugar melting in coffee, whipped around, eyes blazing fire as he sank his teeth into Noah’s horse’s ear. I watched helplessly, for the second time, as Noah’s horse rose into the air as though she had wings, her hooves lashing frantically, eyes rolling in the fear of desperation. Noah tumbled from her back like a rag doll and landed underneath her thrashing feet. His body contracted once and then went limp. I didn’t make a move to help him, to save him, anything. I just turned my face away and started to cry.

“Ready, Willow?” Anne grinned at me. I liked Anne a lot more than I liked Eva. She had a small face and a cloud of mousy brown curls, and big, kind eyes that were encouraging instead of judging. She worked at the therapeutic horsemanship center too.

I focused on the lead rope Anne was holding out to me. It was neon yellow. Blinding. I blinked and looked away, at the horse in front of me.

The night of my first day at the center with Eva was a horrible one. I’d tossed and turned all night, whimpering in my sleep as the accident played over and over again, like a broken record, beneath my weary eyelids. I knew Mom heard me. I knew she was awake. I didn’t see her until the morning though, and she acted like everything was perfectly fine when she knew it wasn’t. Mom had changed after the accident. So had I, I guess. Everything had.

Because I’d stubbornly refused to work with either Eva or Rascal, Anne had stepped in and found me another horse. Licorice. She looked old. Her teeth were tea-stain yellow and her strawberry roan coat was flecked with gray. But when she turned her sleepy, soft hazel eyes towards me and cocked her head, I swear it looked like she was smiling.

But you don’t like horses anymore, I reminded myself. That phase of your life is over. Horses are dangerous. They can kill.

Anne patted my shoulder—not as though she was trying to dislocate it, the way Mom did when she pretended to comfort me, but gently, soothingly. The way cool water feels on an open wound.

“Licorice was one of the top show jumpers of her day several years back,” she explained. “She was winning everything. Until the accident.”

My head snapped up like someone had tugged the string attached to a puppet too hard.

“The…the accident?” I hated the quiver in my voice.

Anne furrowed her eyebrows, genuine compassion in her soft-eyed expression. She reminded me of a doe.

“Licorice had an accident of her own. It was horrible-she fractured two different parts of her right foreleg over a solid fence at one of the biggest horse shows in the nation. She had a close brush with death, but thank god, her owner was willing to pay the astronomical medical bills for her. Almost any other horse in her situation would have been put down—like that.” Anne snapped her fingers, the harsh click resonating in my ears.

I cautiously extended my hand for the lead rope. Anne turned her head, pressing her lips together in a sort of half-smile, then handed the sunshine-colored lead to me. I fought the fear rising in my chest, forcing myself to brush my fingers through the mare’s tangled mass of gray-red mane. She turned to look at me, and I saw something else in her eyes this time.

The will to live.

Frances Lindemann
Age 14, Grade 9
The Dalton School
Gold Key

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