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HORSE SENSE


BY THE SAME AUTHOR Poetry Tree of Words


HORSE SENSE

Lapo Melzi


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright Š 2013 Lapo Melzi

All rights reserved. Including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information: horsesense@gmail.com

This paperback edition April 2013

Designed by Lapo Melzi

ISBN: 88-907154-2- 1 ISBN-13: 978-88-907154-2-6

On the cover: Filippo Enzio, Notturno di Valmarina. Alessandro Dentis, Daniele Riccardi, Vincenzo Consiglio.


This book was made possible thanks to the generous support of:

Alessandra Maino, Alexandra Gordon, Alli Happasalo, Amanda Minervini, Amanda Elisha Laws, Anastasia Frank, Andrea Levorato, Anja Marquardt, Annalรฌ, Anna S., Anne Marie Marx, Ashley Henley, Ayda Erbal, Barbara Mazzocchi, Benjamin Rodriguez, Bliss Holloway, Bobby Webster, Bohdana Smyrnova, Brooke Swaney, Carmen and Eli Schonberger, Carlotta Bossetti, Catrin Hedstrรถm, Celestina, Chiara Cattaneo, Clarissa De Los Reyes, Cristiano, Diann Matheny, Donna, Doug Durant, Elena Cortellessa, Elena Rimoldi, Elizabeth Orne, Emily Carmichael, Emily Ray Reese, Eva M. Zelnick, Eve Margaret Mayer, Elizabeth Robins New, Fabia & Blues, Federico Latta, Felice Pastori, Francesca C., Francesco Loconte, Frederick Venturi, Gabriela Lima, Giacomo Fregni, Giorgia Quadrelli, Giuseppe Vagabondo, Gregory Mitnick, Gregory Polzak, Harry Mavromichalis, Heather Jack, Ian Harnarine, Jae Choe, Jae-Ho & Tabitha, Jason Stefaniak, Jason Sokolof, Jenny Kennedy Gellie, Jeremy Rishe, Jesse Roscoe, Karen Odyniec, Kate Tsang, Kyle Binaxas, Konstantina Tzerbi, Kristina Nikolova, Lara Gautier, Laura Brumana, Laura Belsey, Laura Carraresi, Laura Emel Yilmaz, Levi Abrino, Luisa Guiggi, Luke Matheny, Lydia Sudall, Marco Salvini, Mariangela, Matteo Brugnoni, Matthew Horton, Mauro, Meredith Kaulfers, Michael Wood, Mike, Miranda Baratelli Ostini, Mollye Asher, Miranda Baratelli Ostini, Monique Peterson, Nick Laclair, Nikki Brickman, Pam & Rick, Paola Arcella, Paola Senini, Peter, Quinn Degenres, Raffaella Bullano, Roberta Gentini, Roberta Griefer, Ryan Edgington, Ryan Silbert, Sabrina Damino, Sara Masseroni, Shiho, Stephen Dypiangco, Susy, Tara And Tali, Zac Nicholson, Zao Wang, Wing-Yee Wu.

Special Thanks to Ambra Melzi, Bobby Webster, Daniela Bossetti, Filippo Bossetti, Gabriella Ballin, Istituto Comprensivo Baluardo Partigiani, Kiara Jones, Laura Carraresi, Luke Matheny, Prof. P. Carnevale, Roberta Gentini, Sara Masseroni.


Contents Chapter One Acorn and Jamie 9

Chapter Two Not Welcome 22

Chapter Three The Game 32

Chapter Four School 46

Chapter Five Lunch with Dad 60

Chapter Six River 67

Chapter Seven Slapped 86

Chapter Eight Coping 99

Chapter Nine Time Better Spent 111


Chapter Ten Mom’s Report 123

Chapter Eleven Crazy 137

Chapter Twelve Wandering 148

Chapter Thirteen The Essay 164

Chapter Fourteen Shame 178

Chapter Fifteen Alone 187

Chapter Sixteen Sticks and Stones 199

Chapter Seventeen Simple Math 213

Chapter Eighteen Catching a Horse by the Tail 234

Epilogue

Five Months Later 247


Chapter One Acorn and Jamie

I

t was one of the first hot days of spring at the Blackshears’ farmstead. It had been a long and dreary winter this year and for a while it seemed like the sun would never shine again. When it finally came out, the woods around the property erupted with a green so lush it almost hurt the eyes. Now, the walls of the old farmstead gleamed ocher in the late afternoon light against the bright green of the trees that embraced it on either side. Winter had left its mark on the old building’s facade, wedging in some more cracks and peeling off the paint at the edges. The once-beautiful wrought iron balcony balustrade now hung bare in the stark light. The dark wood panels that adorned its many frames had rotted away a few years ago and had never been replaced. In their place, rust boils had blossomed all through the length of the opaque dark metal. In contrast, the bright corrugated aluminum sheets covering the stables gleamed in the sunlight, stained by the juices of rotting foliage. Each year, the woods shed their winter coat right onto the roof, strewing leaves that choked its gutters and gathered in brown heaps along its breadth. 9


Obstacles lay scattered in the same way down in the large gray sand school that spread in front of the house. The repetitive hits of horses’ hooves had scarred many of the rails, shaving the paint down to the raw wood. Like tree rings, the bared layers of paint now mercilessly showed the age of each pole. Everything lay silent under the afternoon sun. Even the shelters of the farm animals looked deserted. The only thing moving nearby was a horse, who appeared to be searching for something. The horse’s name was Acorn. He was a handsome five-yearold appaloosa, curious and intelligent. His coat was a deep and shaded bay with a bright-white dotted blanket over his hips and buttocks. His wet, dark eyes were searching the place, eagerly but cautiously looking for something or someone. His hooves clip-clopped on the concrete pavement in front of the stables. As he passed by, the other horses stared at him with a mix of envy and curiosity. Apparently, Acorn was the only one who had been granted the luxury of walking around on his own. By the looks of them, many of the older horses were not too pleased by such blatant favoritism toward the youngster. Others, maybe more lenient or less unhappy about spending most of their time in a box, looked like they had made peace with such state of affairs and were just asking themselves what was going on. Sandwiched between the stables and two wooden sheds, Acorn advanced warily. The rickety shelters on Acorn’s right bore the signs of a hasty construction and stood crooked on the bare earth. The thin skeleton of iron that held them up was red and flaked with rust. Wood planks of uneven lengths were wedged into the structures. More scraps of wood than proper lumber, they came together to form very approximate walls. 10


Through the many slits between the planks of the first shed, Acorn could make out only dark, vague shapes. His ears twitched as he listened intently. All he heard were the whispers of straw shifting and the sighs of sheep dozing off. A few feet farther, Acorn stretched his ears again. From the second shed, a wet, spooky snort resounded through the wood. Acorn shied away as he recognized the presence of Brunga, the Blackshears’ dangerously unpredictable bull. In his preoccupation to put as much distance as he could between himself and Brunga, Acorn didn’t realize he had stepped within bite’s length of the other horses. Melinda, an old, white mare, bared her teeth and snapped at him, reaching to nip his shoulder. Acorn wheeled around and wriggled away just in time. He glowered at her, pulling his ears back, then slid away. Meanwhile, the object of Acorn’s search, a boy, was running stealthily toward a drinking trough in the paddock. The boy’s name was Jamie and he was the only son of the Blackshears—a skinny, bright eleven-year-old with restless green eyes. The patch on Jamie’s faded jeans flapped as he ran, and his shapeless T-shirt rippled like a sail. His clothes looked well past their prime and not exactly his size. They were in fact hand-me-downs from his better-off cousins, but Jamie didn’t care, because his true joys were the outdoors and animals. One animal in particular was dear to him above all others: his horse Acorn—the very bay horse who was now intently looking for him, unaware of what he was scheming. Jamie had just had a marvelous idea for a prank against Acorn that required skill and daring and he was beside himself to make it happen as soon as possible. Ten minutes ago, when the idea had struck, his brain had positively exploded with delight. He was behind the house climbing a tree while Acorn 11


watched him perplexed or possibly envious. On a hunch, he had plunged his hand in his pocket and got hold of his Menthos. Since Acorn loved Menthos, Jamie had immediately scattered a handful onto the ground as a diversion. As soon as Acorn had lunged for them, Jamie had jumped down the tree and sneaked away, heading like a thunderbolt toward the paddock. Now it was time to do justice to his brilliant idea. Jamie reached the edge of the paddock near the woods and stopped in front of the trough. The wooden basin, filled with water and dead leaves, stood in the shade of tall black locust trees. Jamie cast a quick glance back and his wild, ash-brown hair swung back with him. Seeing Acorn hadn’t spotted him, he sat down on the brim of the trough. He hesitated a second, then he propped himself up and sank his feet into the water. A chilling stream gushed through the holes in his shoes’ soles and soaked his socks almost instantly. Goose bumps ran from his legs all the way up to his arms. Jamie shivered, breathing quickly; it was just March after all, and the trough stood all day in the shade. The water was still winter cold. There was no time to waste on second thoughts. Jamie willed himself to withstand the cold and slowly lowered his body into the trough. He winced as the chilly water licked the whole length of his back, shooting prickling shivers up to his ears, but he didn’t make any sudden movement. He didn’t want to spill any water and give away his whereabouts so easily. His heart was beating fast. It was awesome! Jamie took two big breaths, pinched his nose shut between his fingers, then sank his head underwater. It almost felt like entombing himself in ice. He pressed his feet and hands against the inner walls of the trough to keep himself from floating up. Inside this shell of wood and water, the calm was eerie. Despite the cold and the effort of holding his breath, Jamie felt his 12


mind instinctively relax. It was cozy in there. Perhaps that’s how Acorn felt when he was in his mom’s belly, he pondered. Apart from the cold, of course. Above him, through the settling water, the tree branches swayed dreamily in the breeze. Cast against the bright sky, they looked like giant feelers carefully searching the air. Jamie stretched his ears, listening for any signs of Acorn approaching. Holding his breath underwater in the trough, still as a statue, he looked like a weird submarine stick-bug ready to pounce. His ash-brown hair fanned out around his face like wild thoughts, while his grass-green eyes stared attentively through the water, gleaming with anticipation. His hiding spot was perfect! Acorn would never think of that. Jamie really wanted to burst into an evil chuckle, but he wasn’t going to blow his cover. A sliver of froth drifted lazily on the surface of the water. Jamie wondered whether it was Acorn’s saliva or the sheep’s. He was probably lying in a tub of spit. He grinned, thinking himself daring, even though he knew that most kids at school would likely consider him disgusting. Well, who cared what they thought. They didn’t know anything about adventure. Spit you just wash away, but adventure stays for the rest of your life! Jamie felt a constricting sensation, like a belt around his chest, tightening steadily. His head became lighter and his lungs started screaming for air, but he was resolved to stay put. He fidgeted at the bottom of the trough, worried that maybe Acorn wouldn’t show up. Where the heck was that knucklehead? What if he didn’t turn up and ruined his awesome ambush? A wave of fretting panic seized Jamie. Maybe he should have left a string of Menthos leading to the trough. Man! That’s exactly what he should have done! Why hadn’t he thought 13


about that before? Why would Acorn come straight to the trough? He could easily walk into the school instead. He hadn’t thought this through properly—that was going to be his downfall! Dark thoughts of failure clouded Jamie’s brain as the air in his lungs quickly expired. He reckoned he had no more than a dozen seconds left in him, then he’d have to take a breath or die in his watery tomb. Another five seconds elapsed. It was over… Presently, a shadow draped across the trough. The temperature suddenly dropped a couple of degrees. Jamie wondered how on Earth he could feel colder than he already was, but apparently he could. The shadow moved in a little closer. Jamie saw the darkness break up at the fringes, drawing the rough outline of a mane. Acorn! Excitement fired through Jamie’s skin. He let go of his supports and kicked hard toward the surface. He exploded out of the water in a huge splash, flailing his arms like a madman. “Raaaaugh!!” he roared in Acorn’s face. Acorn bolted back, flaring his nostrils in shock. “Got you! I got you!” Jamie taunted. “Spoooky!” Acorn bared his teeth and snapped at him, outraged. Jamie plunged his hand into the frigid water and splashed him treacherously. Acorn let out a grunt and bucked away, kicking and neighing wildly. He shook his head around to show his disapproval for the scandalous treatment. Jamie watched him with satisfaction, overjoyed by the result of his ambush. Best! Prank! Ever! He jumped out of the trough and joined Acorn in romping around the paddock. With his tail high, Acorn was trotting about jerkily, 14


wheeling his head in quick bursts, flaring his nostrils loudly at anything he laid his eyes on, as if purposefully looking for something else to get scared by. It looked like he was actually enjoying the rush of adrenaline still running wild in his veins. Jamie ran beside him, roaring and laughing, his sneakers squeaking and sloshing loudly. At the ruckus, a few sheep poked their heads out of their shed, while the horses in the stables pricked their ears, wondering what it was all about. Acorn and Jamie romped around wildly for a few more minutes, then another mischievous idea lit up Jamie’s brain like a firecracker. He stopped dead in his tracks and raised his hand up to command attention, splashing and dripping water everywhere. Acorn pricked his ears, an expectant expression widening his crazed eyes. “To the pen!” Jamie shouted triumphantly. Acorn knew that command very well. He bucked his approval and rushed forward out of the paddock. Jamie followed suit. Since he was a yearling, Acorn had displayed a strong shepherding instinct, the same that cutting horses and shepherd dogs have. From then on, one of Jamie’s favorite pastimes had been to break into the sheep pen and see how long Acorn could hold one sheep away from the rest. Acorn loved it and Jamie loved watching him. Jamie could have sworn that even the sheep had warmed to it, because they got better at every round. He could picture them in the barn at night keeping score and bragging about their last moves. It was not clear whether the sheep agreed with Jamie. In fact, they all quickly cowered inside as the pair of rogues skidded to a halt in front of their shelter. In the stall nearby, Brunga snorted and turned around. 15


Underneath his broken horn, his bloodshot eye gleamed with malice toward the intruders. Acorn and Jamie flinched and quickly shuffled forward. Jamie got hold of the swiveling fences attached to the sheep’s pen and pulled them to the shed. He fastened them to their latches, creating a corridor between the shed and the pen. Then he jumped inside the shed, opened the gate and drove the sheep out. They scattered, bleating in confusion. Acorn watched the wooly animals filing in front of him, his eyes flashing from one to the other as if counting. The sheep shot inside the pen and gathered in a heap at the farthest corner. Jamie unlatched one of the fences and let Acorn in. Acorn stormed into the pen. The sheep broke ranks and hurtled in every direction. Acorn pulled back his ears, bared his teeth and with a couple of well-placed lunges, quickly gathered them back together. Jamie pulled the gate shut behind Acorn and climbed onto the fence to get a better view. Acorn surveyed the herd coolly, his wet, dark eyes searching through the mass of wooly creatures. He apparently found what he was looking for and aimed ahead. Jamie followed Acorn’s gaze: his eyes landed on Pillow, a fluffy ram that was studying Acorn with apprehension. Despite the name and the appearance, Pillow was one of the most athletic sheep in the herd, and one of the shrewdest ones. More than once, he had proved a worthy challenge for Acorn. “Good choice, buddy!” Jamie called out. Acorn twitched his ears in Jamie’s direction, but did not look away from the sheep. He studied the herd for one more second, then bolted forward, cutting through them decisively. The sheep broke ranks again. This time, Acorn let them trickle 16


away and zeroed in on Pillow. He spread his forelegs wide, dropped his head low until his nose skimmed the dust on the ground and crouched down in an almost feline chasing pose. He looked like a hunting animal ready to pounce or a runner ready to sprint from the blocks. Cornered, Pillow broke out in a frenzy. Acorn, gathered up underneath himself and perfectly balanced, responded lightning fast to Pillow’s erratic jolts. His huge body seemed to glide in the air despite its impressive mass. Like a defensive basketball player, he marked Pillow closely, anticipating his every move and sealing any escape route. With his head low and his eyes locked on the sheep, Acorn pressed closer, pushing Pillow’s and his own reflexes to the limit. Jamie watched mesmerized. Acorn’s muscles gleamed in the late afternoon light; Pillow’s coat billowed and swayed with his every move; their hooves thundered, scraped and slid on the ground. It was a superb match, all shrouded in a mystic cloud of dust that glittered against the light. The speed and reflexes of both animals were almost blinding. Suddenly, Acorn pulled back to take a breath. Pillow retreated, relieved. The two animals went to their corners, studying each other. With his back against the fence, Pillow darted his eyes around, taking in the whole pen, looking for a chink in Acorn’s defenses. It seemed he couldn’t find one. His eyes stared at the other sheep huddled behind Acorn. Jamie could tell that the herd instinct was building inside Pillow. Away from his mates, he felt weak, alone, vulnerable. In a matter of seconds, he was going to break. Acorn watched Pillow coolly, puffing lightly. Jamie counted under his breath. “Three… Two… One…” Acorn nudged forward. 17


As if a spark had ignited under his hooves, Pillow jolted, thrusting himself at Acorn’s left. Acorn pulled back almost instantly. He coiled himself up, then lunged, baring his teeth. Pillow stopped cold in his tracks, then wheeled around blindly. He threw himself back in an attempt to outrun Acorn in the other direction, but misjudged and crashed against the pen. One of the rickety bars of the fence gave way under his weight. The rusty nail popped out of the rotten wood like a cork from the bottle. A gap suddenly opened in front of Pillow. The sheep seized his chance and squeezed himself through, running for his life. “Hey!” Jamie cried out. In response, Pillow bleated loudly and bolted forward into the open. It wasn’t clear whether he was bleating in terror or triumph, but he was certainly making a magnificent escape. Jamie meant to be angry, but he couldn’t keep an admiring smile from spreading on his face. Man, that sheep was good! Acorn was not as pleased. Snorting angrily, he galloped up to Jamie, demanding he open the gate. The sheep around him scattered, noticed the gap in the pen, then started filing out into the open. Jamie jumped off the fence and unlatched it. Acorn bolted past him in hot pursuit. “Wait up!” Jamie shouted. He sprinted after Acorn, his soaked shoes squeaking loudly as he ran. In a second, they flashed around the corner of the house and stormed into the yard. Jamie had a faint impression of the herd of sheep parting like the Red Sea before two human figures, and then he recognized his mom with Mrs. Roeg. Too late. “Jamie!” yelled Jamie’s mother through the stampede. Jamie and Acorn froze in the face of authority. Authority, as personified by Maddie Blackshear, looked rather diminutive, yet quite intimidating nonetheless. Even 18


though she was shorter than her son, Maddie managed to stare down at Jamie. Her black eyes gleamed with threat, crowned by a mane of wild, curly black hair that resembled her son’s, but looked even more untamable. As if charged with electricity, those locks curled in the air and gave her the uncanny resemblance to the fabled monster Medusa. “I didn’t do it,” Jamie blurted. “Acorn did it; I swear!” Maddie raised her black brows in utter disbelief as she glanced at the walking skeins of wool straggling through her garden. Acorn’s gaze drifted to Pillow, now grazing happily around a blue-and-violet hydrangea. “Don’t you even think of that!” Maddie yelled at him, raising the sleeves of her jacket to reinforce her message. Acorn startled and looked away. Maddie raised her finger, pointing at her son and his accomplice. “You two stay away from the sheep before I throw you both in Brunga’s stall!” That was Mom’s standard threat. Never put into effect, yet still pretty effective. Brunga wasn’t known for his good manners—he had broken a couple of Dad’s ribs once and Mom’s wrist another, so a trip to his stall would probably entail some kind of physical damage. Mrs. Roeg giggled, amused. Jamie turned to her, exploiting the chance to take immediate evasive action. Mrs. Roeg was one of Mom’s few friends and Jamie liked her. She was a willowy, auburn-haired woman with ladylike manners. Whenever he looked at her, Jamie couldn’t help thinking of honey. He couldn’t explain why—maybe it was the gold tone of her skin or her warm smile. Jamie didn’t know, but he found her very pleasant and pretty. 19


He smiled politely at her. “Hello, Mrs. Roeg.” “Hello, dear,” she replied, beaming at him, then she turned to Maddie and winked. “Looks like Captain Chaos and Helper are on a new mission.” Maddie glared at her son’s drenched clothes and shook her head. Jamie made to open his mouth and explain. Maddie waved her hand impatiently. “I don’t even want to know.” Jamie grinned. He was going to tell her later anyway. He was sure Mom would shake her head, but find his adventure very amusing. She liked it when he came up with wild plans. At least, he hoped he could get a laugh out of her. He liked it when Mom laughed. Jamie turned expectantly to Mrs. Roeg. If she was here, then maybe… “Is Holly here?” he asked in one breath. Mrs. Roeg’s eyes shifted; something like a shadow passed over her smile. “No, she had to stay home. She said she was behind in math.” Jamie’s grin died away. Of course, he thought. Mrs. Roeg threw Jamie a strange glance. It looked maybe like pity, sympathy, and possibly something else too. “Sorry, dear.” Jamie shrugged. These days, Holly didn’t come to visit him anymore. It sucked. He didn’t understand why she always had to be so busy. Jamie was mulling over these thoughts when he felt his mom’s hand running through his hair. The warmth of her skin made him feel a little better. “Dry out your clothes,” Maddie said gently, “or you’ll catch a cold.” Jamie nodded. 20


Maddie bent down and gave him a peck on the cheek. Jamie felt the warmth from her kiss spread to his chest. Oh well, maybe Holly was really busy after all. He’d ask her to come play with him and Acorn next time. “Good-bye, Mrs. Roeg!” he said, turning to her. She beamed, apparently relieved he was in good mood again. “Good-bye, Captain!” Jamie’s smile flashed back on his lips. He saluted militarily and ran off with Acorn. “Jamie,” Maddie yelled after him, “get those sheep back into the shed!” Flustered, Jamie stopped in his tracks. “Oh, right, right!”

21


Chapter Two Not Welcome

J

amie woke up with a start. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. Something bright brushed the side of his face. He turned. A shaft of yellow light cut across his body. Jamie recognized his bed, his room, then the beam of the streetlamp that stood next to the house. He closed his eyes and let the glare seep through his eyelids. The sense of time flowed back into him. He opened his eyes. It was morning, Monday morning. Again, he thought. It should have gotten used to it by now, but waking up with a start every other morning always took him by surprise. His alarm clock went off—it was 5:45 AM. Jamie stretched out his arm and switched it off. Once again he wondered what could jolt him awake like that, why it happened. A vague sense of uneasiness and anxiety hung to him. He knew the only way to get rid of it was to move, so he tossed the blanket aside and stepped out of bed. The cold air of his bedroom slapped him fully awake. He quickly slipped into his working clothes and marched downstairs. He never liked the sensation of wearing something over dirty skin, but it was pointless to clean himself before doing 22


his chores. He was going to take a shower and brush his teeth after all his work was done. As he was descending the stairs, he suddenly realized his muscles hurt. He felt cold and rigid. The fact that the heat in the house was off did not help the situation. As soon as he got into the kitchen, he grabbed his jacket from the clothes-stand and put it on. Maddie greeted him with a kiss. “Good morning, tiger.” “Morning, Mom!” She smiled and brought a mug of steaming hot milk over to Jamie. “Did you sleep well?” “Yeah,” Jamie lied. “You’re cold?” “Just a bit,” Jamie said in a croaky voice. “Hmm…” She frowned, but did not elaborate. Jamie flicked on an evasive smile and sat down. Maddie went back to the kitchen counter to get his breakfast. Jamie knew what she wanted to say: he probably shouldn’t have got himself soaked at the end of March. True, but he didn’t regret an instant of it. He was happy to deal with a cold if it came down to it, in exchange for the great moment he had enjoyed. Maybe Mom knew what he was thinking, because she didn’t say anything. Or maybe she shared the same appreciation for adventure he had—she did like to hear the recounts of his deeds, after all. Whatever the reason, she didn’t argue with him and Jamie was thankful. It always felt like Mom was on his side, that she understood him. Jamie shivered and hugged the jacket tighter. What he would also have really appreciated was if they had more money and could afford turning on the heat more often. He hated having breakfast in the cold. The worst was feeling the freezing 23


air seep through his clothes every time he lifted his arms to take a bite. Because of that, he always ended up eating too fast without realizing it. Every time, he would find himself with a tight, heavy knot in his stomach, colder than when he started and completely unsatisfied. It totally spoiled the pleasure of eating the first meal of the day. Maddie came back with a plate of bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. “Enjoy. I’ll finish feeding the horses.” “I’ll be there in a sec,” Jamie said. She kissed his forehead and threw on a jacket. Jamie watched her walking out of the door and thought that he really didn’t envy her. Every morning, Mom woke up early and started doing heavy work right from the start, while Dad slept in. A pang of anger hit Jamie. Sure his dad drove around as a horse feed salesman and taught at the riding school, but he left all of the physical hard labor to Mom. That wasn’t fair. Mom was strong, but all that work was too much even for a man. She shouldn’t be treated that way. Mom was nice—she should have time to enjoy herself. Instead, all she did was work like a slave. If only they could be rich… Jamie snorted. Right, as if just wishing would change anything. He glanced at the wall clock—it was already 6:05 AM. He had better get going. He drank the milk slowly, fighting the urge to gulp down the whole mug at once. He methodically chewed the first slice of bread and butter, then stood up. He zipped up his jacket, grabbed the other slice, then walked out of the kitchen and into the cold air of the March morning. Chewing, he walked into the feed room. He filled a measuring cup and walked out. As he entered the stables, Jamie was welcomed by the barky smell of wood shavings mixed with the grassy tang of hay. 24


There was also a more subdued, warm scent in the air: that of horses’ skin. Jamie liked that scent a lot, because it was more than a simple smell to him. It was a rippling in the air that carried the warmth of the horses’ bodies, that flexed with their huge muscles and beat together with their big, generous hearts. Through that, Jamie could feel the horses’ presence even if he couldn’t see them. It was their ghost: a shadow that seeped into your clothes, your hair, your own skin—a reminder of them that you carried with you everywhere you went. As Jamie drew closer, other less pleasant smells emerged. The acrid stink of horse urine was the more pungent one. It punctuated some of the boxes where the horses had obviously relieved themselves. Then there was the far less offensive odor of their droppings, which still held a distinctive scent of hay and grass. Jamie thought that compared to human it smelled like flowers. There was no doubt in his mind that if even their poop smelled good these must be really nice animals. That was another reason why it didn’t bother him at all to take care of them. As he passed through the hallway, he glanced at the box nearby and spotted his mom with Dillinger, his dad’s favorite horse. She finished pouring some feed into his manger, then bent down and petted Milly, Dillinger’s companion Tibetan goat. Dillinger was pretty neurotic, so he needed the company of his little horned friend to relax. Jamie pushed the big metal doors of the stables open and walked outside, toward Acorn’s box. He spotted the wheelbarrow and fork set next to the door. He smiled—Mom had already brought them there for him. “Thanks mom!” he shouted, turning back. “You’re welcome, babe!” 25


Jamie opened the box. Acorn blinked and let out a welcoming nicker. Jamie smiled. “Morning, buddy.” He poured the feed in Acorn’s manger, checked that the nose paddle in his drinking bowl was clean of muck and worked freely, then turned around. A chuckle escaped his lips at the sight of Acorn’s sleepy expression: his lower lip hung limply from his mouth; his blurry eyes still stuck with sleep stared blankly at him; and his forelock stood askew over his forehead, plastered in wood shavings. “Here.” Jamie stepped up to Acorn and started brushing his tuft with his fingers. Acorn turned away, too morning-grumpy to stand any grooming. “Come on, you’re a mess!” Jamie seized Acorn’s head and kept him still. Acorn let out a groan, but didn’t fight back. “Done. Come here.” Jamie slipped under Acorn’s head and hugged his huge neck. He rested his cheek against his warm skin. Acorn closed his eyes and dozed off for a few seconds. Jamie patted Acorn and pulled away. “Back to work now!” He dragged the wheelbarrow to the door, got hold of the fork and started cleaning the box in earnest. This wasn’t really a chore for him. He took pride in caring for Acorn—it was an act of respect and love toward his friend to make sure he lived and slept in a clean box. After twenty minutes, Jamie was all sweaty, but done. He patted Acorn goodbye and hurried to see to his other chores. As Maddie finished cleaning the sheep pen and Brunga’s stall, Jamie went back to the feed room. He took well measured slices from the hay bales and distributed them among

26


the horses. Next, he helped his mom feed the sheep, checked that all the drinking bowls in the stables worked, and then he was done. The sky started to clear, kindled by the sun rising behind the hills. Jamie checked his watch: it was 7:10 AM. “It’s going to be a nice day,” Maddie said cheerily. “Go get a shower and I’ll drive you to school.” Jamie turned around. “I’d rather bike.” She frowned. “Isn’t it too cold?” Jamie smiled. “No, it’s fine. I’ll bundle up.” He knew she was worried he might be nursing a cold. It was a bit chilly in fact, but Jamie didn’t want to set foot in their old shaky car. Riding inside Thelma—that was what his mom called it—always felt like sitting on a really bad, old washing machine. Everything shook so violently, you lost the sensation in your body. At a certain point, you felt like you were floating, as if you were entering another dimension. Biking to school, even in the cold, was a much better alternative. “All right,” sighed Maddie. “But cover yourself or you’ll catch a cold.” “OK.” Jamie nodded and took off. After a quick shower, he jumped on his bike, a no frills four gears piece of metal inherited from his grandfather, and started his fifteen minutes ride to school. He left the farmstead behind and passed by the Grangers’ cattle farm, then by the veterinarian’s clinic, puffing as he pedaled uphill. The road leveled and Jamie headed through the long stretch of houses that became denser and denser as he approached the center of Greensboro.

27


All this effort, he thought as the perspiration started cooling his skin, just to get to school and sit down for six hours. What a waste! He wished he could just keep on going and bike to the lake. Oh well… At least he was going to learn something. He liked learning new things—it was exciting. He just hoped his teacher, Ms. Ambrose, wasn’t in one of her foul moods. Jamie passed St. Mary’s Children’s Home and negotiated the last steep uphill climb of the trip. He caught his breath at the top, then stood on the pedals of his bike and let it speed down toward school. The cold air whipped his wild hair and chilled the sweat on his chest and arms. Jamie shivered and enjoyed the thrill of the descent. The pale yellow façade of Greensboro Elementary came into view, then the big garden in front of the main entrance. Jamie pulled on the brakes and veered toward the black gate that lead to the back of the school. He sped through the open passage and slowed down in the narrow alley that lead to the rear entrance of the school, where the bike racks were. As he rounded the corner, Jamie caught sight of a group of kids. Three fifth-graders were surrounding a third-grader and taunting him. Jamie noticed the red notebook held in the hand of one of the older kids. The third-grader lunged to snatch the notebook, but the fifth-grader tossed it to one of his friends and shoved the kid off. A surge of anger erupted in the pit of Jamie’s stomach. He hated bullies. Without thinking, he got off the bike, dropped his backpack and made his way toward the gang. Three against one, he thought—cowards! The little gang had their backs to Jamie, so they did not see him coming. Jamie sneaked behind them and stole the notebook. 28


The boys rounded on him. Jamie slipped around and handed the notebook to the third-grader. The boy snatched the pad roughly from Jamie’s hands and blushed. Jamie frowned, taken aback. “Hey!” called one of the gang. Jamie turned. “What do you think you’re doing!?” the skinniest boy of the three challenged, throwing out his arms to shove Jamie. Jamie caught him and pushed him back. “I’m giving him back his notebook!” he said, nodding toward the third grader. The skinny boy of the gang flashed Jamie a nasty look. He had a ratty feeling about him: he was gaunt and twitchy, with pale chestnut hair and beady eyes. Jamie studied the other two. One was a bull-like kid with glassy eyes and thick hands with fingers like sausages. The other was lanky, with bleary, shifty eyes. “Is he your friend?” the ratty one asked with a nasty glint in his eyes. “No, I don’t know him.” “Then mind your own business!” “This is my business.” “Oh yeah!?” said the bull-like one, cracking his knuckles. “Yeah!” Jamie whipped back, turning to him. “It doesn’t make any difference if I know him or not. Leave him alone!” The boy stalked forward. “Who do you think you are, Superman!?” Jamie instinctively stepped forward too. “I am Jamie! Who are you!?” The boy balked, wrong-footed. He frowned, suddenly wary. “You’re weird!”

29


Jamie grinned to make it even weirder. At that moment, he caught sight of the bleary-eyed boy turning around and spotting his backpack on the ground. Before the boy could make a run for it, Jamie lunged and shoved him off. The boy tripped and fell. Jamie sprinted forward and grabbed his backpack. As he straightened up, he saw Holly, a few feet away, holding her bike and staring at him. Jamie didn’t have time to say hi. He wheeled around, flinging the backpack on his shoulders, ready to make a run for his bike if he needed to. To his relief, the three boys seemed too taken aback to retaliate. The big one was helping the bleary-eyed one to his feet. Behind them, the third-grader took his chance and slinked away inside the school. Good, Jamie thought. At least now he was out of their reach. The three bullies turned around, ready to take out their frustration on the third-grader, but suddenly discovered that he was gone. Fuming, they muttered some imprecations and withdrew. Jamie sighed with relief. He turned to retrieve his bike and noticed Holly was still there. “Hi!” he called out too cheerfully, the adrenaline still rushing through his body. Holly tossed a dismissive wave at Jamie and started pushing her bike toward the racks. Jamie picked up his bike and stepped next to her. “Did you see that?” he asked chattily. He felt wired, overexcited, overcharged, but couldn’t help himself. “Yeah,” Holly answered flatly. “You were fighting again with some kids.” Jamie frowned. “I wasn’t fighting. I was just helping that boy. They were bullying him.” Holly pursed her lips. “Hmm, hmm.” 30


Jamie stiffened. “And he didn’t even say thank you. That was rude.” “Well, you were rude first!” Jamie wheeled around. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You always go around sticking your nose into other people’s business, Jamie. You should wait for people to ask you for help. It’s rude!” “What!? I should wait for people to get beaten up before I help them!? Are you crazy!?” “I was just trying to help you!” Holly shot him a nasty look and strode away. Jamie stopped in his tracks, boiling with anger and confusion. “Great,” he muttered under his breath. “A really great start, this morning.”

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Horse Sense