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Authors: Laurie Halse Anderson

Fear of falling

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Table of ContentsTitle PageAcknowledgementsCopyright PageDedication Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter Eleven High HurdlesHello! Are you a scaredy cat? I sure am. Whenever I have to face something challenging, my first thought is to run away as fast as I can.But that never works, does it?Horses are one of the many things that make me nervous. Why? They're so ... big. And they have huge teeth. And sharp hooves. And when I sit on a horse, the ground looks very, very far away.But horses are also gentle and beautiful and fast. The truth is that I really (down deep in my heart) want to learn how to ride, even though it scares me.A wise person once said that courage is not the absence of fear; courage is managing your fear. That's what David needs to learn. The only way he can overcome his fears is to grab them by the reins and take control.It's something that I'm working on, too!   Laurie Halse AndersonTHE VET VOLUNTEER BOOKSFight for LifeHomelessTricksterManatee BluesSay Good-byeStorm RescueTeacher's PetTrappedFear of FallingTime to FlyACKNOWLEDGMENTSSpecial thanks to Cathy East Dubowski; thanks also to KimberlyMichels, D.V.M.; Kiddy McCarthy; Susan Dickert and Barzalt; MadisonEquine Clinic; and Dan and Judy Lynch.PUFFIN BOOKSPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), 767 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 06325, New Zealand(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South AfricaRegistered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandFirst published in the United States of America by Pleasant Company Publications, 2001Published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2009  Copyright © Laurie Halse Anderson 2001, 2009All rights reservedLIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATAAnderson, Laurie Halse.Fear of falling / Laurie Halse Anderson.p. cm.Summary: Twelve-year-old David has conflicting feelings when his father,who taught him to ride the horses he loves so much, returns to spendThanksgiving Day with the family after being gone for a year.eISBN : 978-1-101-13549-5 [1. Family problems—Fiction. 2. Fathers and sons—Fiction. 3. Horsemanship—Fiction.4. Horses--Fiction. 5. Thanksgiving Day—Fiction.] I. Title.PZ7.A54385Fd 2009 [Fic]--dc222009003501  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume anyresponsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

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To Dr. Mac's Place fans, who love reading almostas much as they love animals.Chapter OneIt's happening again.I'm riding a horse, a big one. He's fast, powerful, and a little headstrong. A horse that's easy to admire but hard to ride.I check my seat, make sure I'm balanced. People are calling my name, but I can't understand what they're trying to tell me.The horse and I head straight for the first jump. Come on, come on, come on. I lean forward, and we're up, we're flying…Then that jolt of connecting with the ground again. We made it—but my heart is pounding faster than the horse's hooves.The second jump is higher.Maybe we ought to skip it.But the horse picks up speed and heads straight for the jump. He's already decided we're taking it.Approach, leap,fly…I'm amazed when we actually clear it.My horse canters steadily. I start to relax. Then I see what's next—and get chills from head to toe. This third jump is impossibly high. No horse could ever clear a jump like that. Desperately I pull back on the reins.The horse won't listen to me. I can feel his excitement, the tension in his muscles that tells me he's going for it.What, are you crazy?I pull with all my weight on one rein to turn him away from the jump, but the horse totally ignores me. Instead, he takes off at full gallop, and I panic. If I jump off now, I'll break my neck for sure. But if he tries that jump, we're both goners.And then it's too late to do anything but hang on as his front feet leave the ground. We're defying gravity, we'rereallyflying, and for a moment I believe that this incredible horse and I are going to make it. His forelegs clear the jump—Suddenly I hear a loudthunkas his back hooves hit the crossbar, and there's a sickening lurch. I close my eyes tight. Then we're falling, falling …Someone screams my name:“Da-vi-i-i-d …”It's going to hurt so bad when I hit the ground—“Da-vid…David!”The next thing I know, I'm lying flat on my back at a twisted angle. But the ground doesn't feel hard. Maybe I'm so badly injured I can't feel anything.“Earth to David!”I fight to open my eyes.“David, you idiot, wakeup!” My big brother, Brian, shoves me so hard he nearly knocks me out of bed.I sit up, panting, coated in a cold sweat.“Mom says you've got two minutes before you have to leave for the stables,” Brian says.Leave for the stables…But the horse…For a minute I'm swimming between two worlds.Brian shoves his face in front of mine. “The parade's today, dork. Get up, will ya? Mom says I can't leave till I get you out of bed!”I collapse back on the scrunched-up covers. OK, it was just a dream—but not just any dream. It's a dream I've had before. A dream I hate.So why do I keep having it?Suddenly Brian's words sink in, and I bolt up again. “The parade!”My brother stands in the doorway and looks at me like I'm a lost cause. “OK, you're up now. I'm outta here.”I fling off my covers. It's Saturday—the Thanksgiving parade through Ambler is today! I'm riding in it for the first time, with Mr. Quinn, Zoe Hopkins, and some of the other kids from Quinn Stables. I've been waiting for this day for weeks, and now it's finally here.I can get ready fast when I need to. I jump out of bed, throw on the clothes I laid out last night (Mr. Quinn wants us to look sharp), chew on my toothbrush for about three seconds, then comb both hands through my hair as I pound down the stairs.When I hit the floor, I glance out the window by the front door. Did they leave yet? Nope, Dr. Mac's van is still parked in the driveway at Dr. Mac's Place, the animal clinic across the street from my house. I volunteer at the clinic with some other kids when I have free time. Dr. Mac—her real name is Dr. J.J. MacKenzie—is the veterinarian who runs the clinic.I yank open the door and peer out. Nobody's in the van yet. Good, I have time to grab a bite.Heading into the kitchen, I hear Mom and my kid sister, Ashley, arguing again. What is it this time—clothes? Mutilated Barbie hair? Whether she's allowed to go out in public wearing those fake tattoos all her friends are wearing?At the table, Mom has set out vitamins, orange juice, skim milk, and some kind of nutritional fiber cereal. I sigh. We never have anything fun for breakfast, like Pop-Tarts. Sometimes I think it's Mom's way of trying to make us safe before she sends us off into the scary world. As if Flintstones vitamins will protect us from the Big Bad Wolf.But I shouldn't be too hard on her. I think she's still getting used to being a single mom and feels bad about leaving us to go off to work each day.I pour myself a bowl of little brown buds that look an awful lot like mouse droppings. I'm supposed to eat these? I give Mom a suffering look.That's when I notice Ashley is wearing her favorite purple sundress.Mom's holding a pair of jeans, a turtleneck, and a thick sweater. “Ashley, be reasonable,” she says. “It's the end of November and you live in Pennsylvania, not Florida.”Ashley stubbornly shakes her head. “I have to wear my dress.”“You'll freeze!” Mom says.“No, I won't. I like cold.”Mom shakes her head, but I can tell she's trying not to laugh. “I doubt that, young lady. Now, come on. People will think I'm a bad mother.”Ashley shrugs. She's only five. She doesn't care what other grown-ups think about her mother.While they go round and round, I bolt down my cereal and button my shirt. Brian's totally oblivious, standing up at the counter guzzling milk straight out of the carton.“Brian!” Mom exclaims. “How many times have I asked you to use a glass for your milk?”“Sorry, Mom.” Brian takes a final swig, then wipes his mouth on his sleeve and puts the carton back in the fridge.I glance at Mom. I can't believe she lets him get away with stuff like that. She's not that easy on me. Maybe she's given up on him, since he's sixteen and is gone half the time anyway.Besides, she's got her hands full this morning with Ashley and her sundress. Ashley loves that dress more than anything. Dad sent it to her for her birthday.“Ashley, I'm going to count to five—”“But Mom,” Ashley says, looking up at our mother with those big blue eyes that are so much like Dad's. “I have to keep it on all the time. For when Daddy comes.”“Daddy who?” Brian cracks.Ashley folds her arms and frowns at Brian as if he's the little kid and she's the one who's six feet tall. “You know Daddy who!OurDaddy. Daddy Charlie Hutchinson!”Brian just rolls his eyes and shrugs into his jacket.Mom's face closes up like a shade pulled down. I know she's thinking what I'm thinking. Dad called last week out of the blue and said he was coming for Thanksgiving, and now Ashley's so excited. Because she still believes in things. Things like the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy—and Dad's promises.But I've heard his promises before. Ever since Dad took the transfer to Texas last year, we haven't seen him at all. Not once. At first I believed Dad when he said we were only going to be apart for a little while, till he got settled in the job. Then we'd figure things out, he said.I never really understood what we had to figure out, exactly. It seemed simple—either come back home or take us out to Texas with him. Yet somehow neither of those things happened.
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Brian acts like he doesn't care at all, like he's too busy to notice Dad's gone. He never even mentions Dad. But that's partly because Brian's hardly ever here anymore. After Dad left, Brian went out and got a job at the multiplex at the mall, and his job seems to take up most of his free time.And Mom? She doesn't say much about Dad anymore either, but that doesn't mean she isn't thinking about him. I want to ask her what she's thinking, but how does a twelve-year-old boy ask his mother for the lowdown on her marriage? I mean, I still have trouble talking to her about my math grades!So we all just go on pretending nothing's wrong and waiting for Dad to come home… with Ashley running downstairs to look out the window every morning, as if she thinks Santa is going to leave Dad on our doorstep or something.“Don't hold your breath, Ashley,” I mutter.“Why not?” she asks, then immediately starts holding her breath, making a big show of how fat her cheeks are. That's the kind of kid she is. Say “Don't step in a puddle,” and she jumps in with both feet to find out why.Mom looks annoyed. “Ashley, stop that. Do you want to turn blue? Ashley—” Mom gives up and starts to load the dishwasher. “I guess she'll breathe when she needs to.”A horn beeps outside, and Brian peers out the kitchen window. “It's the guys, Mom. Gotta go.”“Brian—wait!” Mom says. “You haven't eaten anything.”Brian digs into the cereal box for a handful of those bran buds, shoving them into his mouth as he heads out the door. “Yum!” he shouts over his shoulder. “You're a great cook, Mom! See you guys at the parade.” And he's gone.Mom shakes her head and turns back to the dishes.“I think it's wrong to let Ashley go on believing Dad's going to show up for Thanksgiving,” I mutter to Mom as I scrape back my chair and stand up.“David!” Mom whispers through clenched teeth, sending me a look that says,Watch what you say in front of Ashley.I shrug and carry my bowl to the sink. “Well, you know it's true,” I whisper back. “Dad's not too good about keeping promises anymore.”Mom sighs heavily. I guess she knows that even better than I do. “All right, David,” she says quietly. “I'm skeptical, too. But I'm going to keep an open mind, and I want you to do the same, at least around Ashley.”“OK, I guess.” I head into the hall to get my jacket. Inside the coat closet, Ashley's backpack is half open on the floor. There's a drawing poking out, done with colored markers. The drawing is of two goofy-eyed stick people. One is big with yellow hair. The smaller one is holding the big one's hand. Across the top it says, “I lov yu Dady.”Suddenly I fight back a choked feeling in my throat. I used to have the same hope about Dad that Ashley does. I mean, we're his kids, his family. How could he leave us and not come back?But the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months. First the phone calls stopped. He was never good at writing letters, but he did e-mail us sometimes. Then even the e-mails stopped coming. Mom hasn't said anything specific, but money is so tight now that I sometimes wonder if he's stopped sending her checks, too.Thinking about Dad gives me that falling feeling—the one I have in the dream.Don't go there, I tell myself. Just forget about it.A horn honks in the driveway, and I yank open the front door. Dr. Mac leans her head out of the van and waves. “Come on David, let's go!”Yes! It's time to ride.“See ya, Mom,” I shout, then slam the door and leave all that other stuff behind.When we arrive at Quinn's Stables, Brenna and Sunita are already there. Maggie, Zoe, and I pile out of Dr. Mac's van and run to meet them, laughing and sharing high fives. We're totally pumped up for the parade.Guys don't usually hang out with four girls, but this is different. They're all volunteers at Dr. Mac's Place, same as me. Dr. Mac is Maggie and Zoe's grandmother. She asked for our help once when the clinic was swamped with a bunch of sick, starving puppies from a puppy mill. We did a pretty good job saving the puppies and tracking down the sleazy dog breeder who was selling them, so Dr. Mac asked us to be regular volunteers at the clinic.We get to help out with real medical stuff, too—checkups, shots, even emergencies. Of course, we still have to do the chores, such as cleaning cages and stocking supply closets. But it's worth it to be helping the animals.I race the girls to the barn and go straight to check on my favorite horse. “Hey, Trickster!” I call out to him, and his head pops over the stall door.Mr. Quinn and I have been working with Trickster for months to get him ready for the parade today. I scratch behind his ears, and he nickers. He's the best.Zoe comes up behind me. “How's Trickster doing?” she asks. She's the only one of the girls who's into horses as much as I am. She used to live in Manhattan with her actress mother and went to some fancy summer riding camp. She really knows her stuff when it comes to riding.“Trickster's great,” I say. “Aren't you, boy?”Zoe strokes his nose, frowning. “Think he'll go into the trailer without a fuss?”“I hope so.” I first met Trickster when Mr. Quinn brought him into the stables back in the spring. Trickster's leg got injured when his horse trailer was hit on the highway. Dr. Mac treated his leg, and it was a while before he could carry a rider. But almost worse was how the accident hurt Trickster's spirit—how terrified he became of trailers.Lately Mr. Quinn and I have been reintroducing him to the trailer v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Hey, I can relate—I know what it's like to do something scary. Like riding a horse over a jump, for example.“Good morning,” Dr. Mac says cheerfully to the horses as she enters the barn. “How are all you beauties today?”“Raring to go!” Mr. Quinn says with a smile.Dr. Mac checks the parade horses over, and then we begin loading the horses into the trailers that will carry them to the starting point of the parade. It's not far into town, but with the traffic and crowds, Mr. Quinn feels the horses will be calmer and safer in the trailers. He really loves his horses. That's one reason he and my dad were always such good friends—they shared a love of horses.It was Dad who first taught me to ride. Now that Dad's gone, Mr. Quinn has been teaching me. When Mr. Quinn first started giving me jumping lessons, I was excited, but now I'm not so sure I'm ready.“Here we go, David. It's D-day—let's see how Trickster loads,” says Mr. Quinn.I lead Trickster to the trailer, talking in a calm, low voice to reassure him.Trickster hesitates, but only for a moment, and then he walks up the ramp into the trailer without a second glance. Yes!I turn to Mr. Quinn. “He did it!”He winks at me and nods. “Looks like all your hard work paid off, huh?”I grin. Mr. Quinn doesn't hand out praise easily, especially to me. I had a little trouble convincing him I was a responsible kid a while back. But he's been patient with me.While the other horses are being loaded, I notice a new horse, very tall, charcoal gray with a silver mane. He's awesome!I walk over to one of the stable hands. “Hey, Joe. Who's the new horse?”“Oh, him.” Joe puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head in admiration. “His name is King's Shadow—he's a jumper. A real beaut, huh? He's a new boarder, just brought in yesterday.”“He's amazing,” I say. I stretch out my hand, palm down, to let King's Shadow smell me.Over near the trailers, I catch Mr. Quinn watching me—or is it King's Shadow he's watching? When our eyes meet, he quickly glances away with an odd look on his face.What's that about?Dr. Mac calls us. “Let's go, kids. We don't want to be late.”I forget about Mr. Quinn's strange look. I'm going to ride Trickster in a parade!Chapter TwoDr. Mac says the Ambler Thanksgiving parade is “old-fashioned America.” Everyone from miles around comes to town for the event. Excitement is in the air, and everybody's in a holiday spirit. Families line the streets, fathers holding their kids high up on their shoulders.Families.The thought is like a punch in the gut. Holidays are supposed to bring families together. I think of Dad and try not to search the crowd for him. If he shows up, he shows up. If he doesn't…I shrug. I'm too old to think like Ashley—to think that I can blow out birthday candles and my wish will come true just because I want it to.In the parking lot behind the grocery store, we unload the horses from the trailers, backing them out one by one. Trickster does just fine. I'm so proud of him! I give him a quick final brushing. His chestnut coat is a rich reddish brown, and it shines in the sunlight. As usual, his long forelock flops over his eyes. I smile—he likes his bangs in his eyes, just like me. Carefully I comb his forelock into the center of his forehead, and he shakes it right back into his eyes. He's playful—that's how he got the name Trickster.The horses are used to being around people for riding lessons and horse shows. Still, we're careful to talk softly and keep them calm as we saddle up. The excitement grows as we take our places in the parade.“Sunita and I are going to head over to the booth now,” Dr. Mac says. They've set up a Dr. Mac's Place table, where they'll hand out information about pet care and vaccinations. She waves to us. “We'll be watching!”Up ahead I spot Maggie with a bunch of her friends from school. They've all got their dogs, and they plan to entertain the crowd with obedience tricks. Maggie has her big old basset hound, Sherlock Holmes, on a leash. He's not exactly the fastest dog in the west, but Maggie's got him so well trained, I know he'll put on a good show.Brenna is darting around taking pictures of everything. She's really into photography, and she's hoping that one of her photographs will get printed in the newspaper.I put my left foot in the stirrup and swing up into Trickster's saddle. Wow, what a view! Trickster is fifteen hands high. Since a hand equals four inches, that means Trickster is five feet tall at his withers, where his neck and back meet. So I'm way above the crowd! I can see everything…Girl Scouts wearing reindeer antlers, a city fire truck all polished up and decorated with bunting, the high-school marching band playing holiday tunes.“Brenna!” I call down to her. “You should be up here. You can see almost the whole parade!”She snaps a picture of me, then looks up from behind the lens. “Yeah, right. And which hand would I hold the reins in while I'm focusing the camera?”She has me there.Suddenly, off in the crowd, the sunlight hits a shock of blond hair—a man craning his neck—and my heart leaps.Dad!But when the man turns, I realize it's not him, and I feel like an idiot.This is no sappy holiday movie,I remind myself. I can't help wondering how Ashley's going to feel when Dad doesn't show up for Thanksgiving dinner.How will I feel?Trickster snorts and steps sideways. I guess I was squeezing his sides too tightly. “Sorry, boy,” I whisper, patting his neck. He can probably tell I'm feeling tense. Dad says horses always know what we're thinking and feeling, even when we don't know ourselves.“David!”“Huh?”“Quit daydreaming,” Zoe says with a grin. “The parade's starting.”“Hey, I'm ready!” I tell myself to forget about Dad. Because right now I'm doing my favorite thing in the world—riding Trickster.As the parade gets under way, I start to relax and have a good time. Being in a parade is so cool! I scan the sea of faces lining the sidewalk and spot Brian with some of his buddies from the multiplex.“Hey, David, nice wheels!” Brian calls out, shooting me the thumbs-up sign.I can't help breaking into a grin, thankful that he didn't shout out some snotty insult to impress his friends. You just never know what a big brother is going to do when he's out in public.Rachel, the cute girl who sits in front of me in science class, waves at me like I'm some kind of celebrity. “I love your horse!” she shouts. She and her friends fall all over themselves, giggling.“David! You're blushing!” Zoe teases from her horse, a tall bay named Claiborne.I duck my head and turn toward the other side of the street, pretending that I have to wave an equal amount on both sides. Is there any way to make your face un-blush? But I have to admit I love getting all this attention. I feel like a movie star.
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Suddenly the fire truck up ahead blares its siren, startling me—and my horse. Trickster spooks and skitters sideways, catching me off balance. I clutch the saddle as my legs fly out of the stirrups. It feels like I'm going to fall, but I regain my balance just in time and quickly bring Trickster under control.Behind us, Claiborne snorts. Turning to check on Zoe, I see Claiborne rear, his forelegs pawing the air. Zoe's face is white. I've never seen her look scared on a horse before.“Hang on, Zoe!” I shout.Zoe grabs a handful of mane and leans forward into Claiborne's neck, her legs tight against the horse's flanks. Just as suddenly, Claiborne drops back down, his hooves clattering on the asphalt, and Zoe loses her grip and tumbles to the street.“Zoe!” I cry, reining Trickster to a stop, terrified that she'll be trampled by Claiborne's hooves. She needs help, but I'm not sure what to do; I've got my own horse to control. Just as I'm about to dismount, Mr. Quinn rushes up and grabs Claiborne's reins.“Are you all right?” I call down to Zoe.She stands up slowly, brushing off her arms. “I think so!” she says breathlessly. She looks at her elbow. It's badly scraped.“Mr. Quinn,” I call out. “Zoe's bleeding!”Mr. Quinn glances at her arm and pulls out a bandanna for her to wrap around the scrape. “You need to go to the first-aid station, Zoe,” he tells her. “I'll take care of Claiborne.” He points out a booth with a red cross on it. “Can you make it there on your own?”Zoe nods, but I can tell she's disappointed about not finishing the parade.“I'm sorry, Zoe,” I tell her.She shrugs. “No biggie. Don't worry about me. You go ahead. Have fun!”I wave good-bye to Zoe and continue on with the other riders. We're past the shops now, and both sides of the street are lined with tables. The firefighters have a safety exhibit, and the 4-H club is signing up new members. When we pass the Dr. Mac's Place booth, Sunita and Dr. Mac are so busy handing out pamphlets about vaccinations and spaying and neutering that they don't even see us ride by. Dr. Mac must be really pleased. She likes it when people want to learn about being responsible pet owners.I can smell hot dogs and sausages grilling. That means we're near the end. My stomach rumbles.Man, am I hungry!Maybe I can sneak in a little snack without Mom seeing. Her health-food kick is starving me to death!We round a corner, and up ahead I spot a little girl in a purple sundress waving wildly in my direction. Don't tell me Mom actually let Ashley wear that dress! As I draw closer, I see she's got jeans and a sweater on under the dress. Looks like she and Mom worked out a deal. I have to hand it to Mom—how many mothers would let their daughter go out in public dressed like that?“You're one block from the end,” Mom calls as I ride up. “Come join us for lunch after you're done.”“Mom packed a picnic!” Ashley shouts. “With pickles!” The people around her chuckle. That's my sister for you—never a dull moment.“OK, Ash, I'll be there as soon as I can,” I call down.At the end of the parade, we circle back to the trailers and load the horses. Then I meet Mom and Ashley at the park for lunch.“One of the booths had the cutest goat,” Ashley says, sucking on a pickle. “It had long curly hair. Can we go pet it?”Long curly hair on a goat? This I have to see. “All right if we go, Mom?”Mom nods. “Just walk Ashley home when you're done.”“Can I feed my sandwich crusts to the goat?” Ashley asks as we pack up the food.“Well, we can ask the owner if it's OK.” I take Ashley's hand so I don't lose her in the crowd, and we start back up Main Street. Now that the parade is over, the booths are mobbed.Suddenly Ashley looks worried. “But what if the goat bites me?”“Don't worry. Goats don't have any teeth on their upper jaw, so they can't hurt you,” I tell her. “Besides, I'm sure it's a nice goat, or they wouldn't have brought it here.”“Look, David, there it is!” Ashley points, and through the crowd I spot a small white goat in a wire pen. It has long curly hair, just as Ashley said. In fact, it looks almost like a sheep, except for the narrow horns curving back from its head. Suddenly it bleats. I wonder if it's scared of all the people.The table in front of the goat pen displays handmade posters about spinning and knitting with mohair wool. A woman in a long skirt demonstrates a spinning wheel, while a girl who looks about ten years old hands out wool samples.I approach the girl. “Hi—is it all right if we pet your goat?”The girl nods. “Sure. She's real soft because she's an Angora. She's a little noisy, but don't worry, she's very friendly. Her name is Sabrina. If you call her, she'll come right up to you.”“Will she eat my crusts?” Ashley holds up her chewed sandwich remains.The girl smiles. “She probably would, but she needs a special diet, so they wouldn't be good for her.”“A diet? Is she too fat?” Ashley asks.The girl shakes her head and laughs. “No, but to make all that nice long hair, she has to eat special high-protein pellets. If she fills up on your sandwich, she might not eat her dinner.”Ashley nods knowingly. “That's just what my mom tellsme!”As Ashley and I walk over to the pen, the goat bleats again. She's got her head poking through the fence, watching us.“Here, Sabrina,” Ashley calls, but the goat doesn't move. No wonder: as we come up to her, I can see that the wire fence is caught behind her horns, and she can't pull her head back through.“Let's get you unstuck,” I say to the goat. Holding a horn, I gently twist her head, then slowly back it through the square of fence. Suddenly Sabrina squirms and bleats again. “Hold still, I'm trying to help!” I mutter. “There!”The second her horns are free of the fence, Sabrina jerks her head back and bolts across the pen.Ashley trots around the pen after Sabrina, who stops and lets Ashley pet her. “Ooh, look at all her fancy curls everywhere. And her white eyelashes!” my sister marvels. “Hey, David, look—the poor goat is crying. Do you think she's sad that she doesn't get to eat my crusts?”“Animals don't cry, Ashley.”“Then how come there are tears coming out of her eye?”What on earth is Ashley babbling about this time? I go over to the goat. Sure enough, tears are running out of Sabrina's left eye and down her furry cheek. The eyelids look squinty, too.“See?” Ashley's lower lip trembles. She's about to cry herself. “We have to comfort her!” She reaches her arms through the fence, trying to give Sabrina a hug.“We have to find out what's wrong with her eye,” I reply, peering more closely. Suddenly Sabrina shakes her head, and I catch a flash of red on her neck.What was that?I pull apart the long woolly ringlets. On the skin of her neck, I find a red cut about two inches long, with blood oozing out. It was practically hidden in all her hair.I go back and examine the place in the pen where Sabrina was stuck. Where the fence is nailed to the post, there's a sharp piece of wire sticking out with a tangle of long white hairs stuck on it. Sabrina must have scratched herself when she yanked her head back through the fence.I tell Ashley to stay put, and then I run back to the girl at the table to borrow some paper towels and a cell phone. I hope Dr. Mac has her pager switched on.A few minutes later, while we're waiting for Dr. Mac to arrive, the girl and her mother look at Sabrina's injuries. The neck cut looks terrible now, with blood dripping all down the goat's white hair. I press a wad of paper towels firmly onto the cut, like a pressure bandage, to stop the bleeding. But it's the scratched eye that worries me the most.Ashley is trying to be brave, but as we wait for Dr. Mac, she begins to sob. The girl, whose name is Julie, cries a little, too, and her mom looks anxious. Only Sabrina seems calm and unconcerned.When Dr. Mac arrives, she puts a drop of anesthetic into Sabrina's eye to numb it, and then a drop of yellow-green stain. Then she examines the eye with her ophthalmoscope, which looks just like the kind people doctors use to check their patients' eyes. Peering through the scope, she rolls back the goat's eyelid and shines a little beam of light all around. Goats have funny eyes, yellow with a flat pupil shaped like a bar.“There's a scratch on the cornea,” Dr. Mac announces. “The stain makes it show up. That's why this eye is tearing so badly.”“Will she be all right?” Julie whispers.“I think so. I'll give you some antibiotic ointment to use so the eye doesn't become infected, and I'll recheck her in a few days. The eye should heal up nicely on its own.”Next Dr. Mac rinses the neck wound with saline from a squeeze bottle. She examines the wound closely, frowning. “This cut's rather deep. It'll have to be stitched up.”Dr. Mac gives Sabrina a shot to sedate her. Next, as I hand Dr. Mac the tools one by one, she shaves the wound, cleans it with antibacterial soap, paints it with iodine, then sutures it up using a long needle and surgical thread.I didn't think Ashley would be able to handle seeing Dr. Mac push the needle into Sabrina's skin, but Ashley is fascinated. “Hey, it's just like sewing,” she exclaims. “We did that in preschool!”Dr. Mac smiles. “That's right, it's exactly the same thing. And the skin will grow right back together where the stitches are.” She gives Sabrina an injection of antibiotics and a tetanus shot, too, just to be on the safe side. Finally Dr. Mac stands up. “OK, keep her quiet for a few hours, and she should be good as new in no time.”Julie and her mother thank Dr. Mac. Then, to my surprise, they turn to me and start telling me how grateful they are. Julie's mother gives me a hug. I blush.Sheesh!“Um, actually, the real hero is my little sister here,” I stammer. “She's the one who noticed that Sabrina was crying.”Everyone turns to praise Ashley. “Someday, you'll make a top-notch vet volunteer,” Dr. Mac tells her. “Just like your big brother.”Ashley beams. Watching her tear-streaked face go from worry to joy, I know just how she feels. There's nothing like helping an animal to make you feel really good about yourself.After we get home, Mom gives me a ride back out to the stables. Mr. Quinn has asked me to help him saddle a bunch of horses for a big trail ride.As I walk over to the barn, Mr. Quinn calls out my name. I turn around, and he hands me a pitchfork. “You're going to need this first,” he says with a grin.I know, I know. I've gotta do my share of cleaning up after the horses. Not my favorite chore, but you can't exactly leave the stuff lying around in the horses' bedding! Mr. Quinn always says anybody can take riding lessons, but the true horsemen are the ones who care for the horses as well, all the way down to the last dirty detail.So I shoulder my pitchfork with pride and head for the stalls.That's when I see him.He looks straight at me. “Hello, son.”Chapter ThreeDad!”Without thinking, I drop the pitchfork and rush to give him a huge hug. It feels great, it feels weird, it feels—I don't know what it feels like. Here I've just talked myself out of expecting to see him, and he appears in front of me. I'm not prepared for this.The hug ends and we stand there, neither of us knowing what to say. I look at him, trying to see if he's changed at all.He studies me the same way. “Overdue for a haircut,” he says with a crooked smile.I push my blond bangs out of my face and shrug. “Mom doesn't mind.”Dad opens his mouth to answer, then doesn't. He clears his throat.Which makes me totally tongue-tied. It's strange to feel awkward around your own dad.I'm relieved when Mr. Quinn strides over and breaks the silence. “Hey, Charlie, did you get to see the parade?”“Caught a little of it,” Dad says, but he doesn't say which part he saw.Did he see me riding Trickster?“You should have seen David,” Mr. Quinn says, as if he's read my thoughts. He ruffles my hair, the way grown-ups do but shouldn't after you're about five. “Kid's pretty good with horses.”“He oughta be,” Dad says—meaning, I guess, that I ought to be like him. I don't know whether to take it as a compliment or a criticism.
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I look down at the ground, and Mr. Quinn clears his throat. Then he starts talking about the parade and horses some more, and the men laugh and talk as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on here at all. As if my father hasn't been gone for almost a year without even phoning his son.“Mr. Quinn, Joe wants you,” Zoe calls.I turn to her, grateful for another interruption. “Hey, what are you doing here? They let you out of Intensive Care already?”She comes over and holds up her arm. She has one of those super-wide Band-Aids on her elbow. “I'm fine. My camp instructor says you have to fall off your horse seven times before you're a real rider.” She grins. “Only three more to go.”“Really?” I huff and shake my head, thinking of my dream and my fear of falling. “Maybe you can teach me how to do it sometime,” I say under my breath so Dad won't hear.Zoe just stands there making vague signals at me with her eyes. Oh, yeah—guess I better introduce her to my father.“Zoe, this is my dad, Charlie Hutchinson,” I say. “Dad, this is Zoe Hopkins. She works with me at the Dr. Mac's Place clinic.” I wrote to Dad about working at Dr. Mac's Place, but he never answered. Maybe he never got the letter. If he did, does he remember? I can't tell from his reaction.“Well, hello, Zoe, how are you?” He's all smiles, reaching out to take her hand, winking at me like she's my girlfriend or something. “Are you learning to ride, too?”“Yes, sir,” she says. Notyeahoruh-huhlike most kids around here would say. She smiles politely and shakes my dad's hand. She's very sophisticated that way. Her mom used to take her everywhere in Manhattan, so she's used to talking with important grown-ups, like casting directors and chefs of fancy restaurants.I can tell she's a little suspicious, though. Everybody at Dr. Mac's Place knows about the situation with my dad, but Zoe probably relates to it more than anybody. Her dad split when she was really little, and she never hears from him at all. She says she doesn't really care. I'm not sure I believe that part.“Well, I'd better get to work. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Hutchinson,” Zoe says. “See you later, David.”Dad and I stand around awkwardly again. Trying to think of something to say, I blurt out, “Have you seen this horse, Dad?” I walk over to the stall where King's Shadow stands with his head out the door. His charcoal coat gleams as if he's just been groomed. “Isn't he awesome?”Dad gives me a lopsided grin. “Glad you like him, son. He's mine.”I whirl around. “Yours? But he's been here since—” I don't finish the sentence. I don't say yesterday. I don't say,What took you so long to come see me?Because I just realized, hedidn'tcome here to the stables to see me. He came here to see his horse.Now I feel really crummy and confused.Then Dad says, “I've decided to move back to Pennsylvania,” as casually as if he were ordering a cheeseburger.Suddenly it's like I've had the wind knocked out of me. I should be shouting hooray or something, but instead I feel scared. Scared of what? I'm not sure. Scared of getting my hopes up, I guess.“Does Mom know?” I ask.Dad looks away, shrugs, starts to speak—Just then two minivans pull up, and a crowd of grown-ups and kids pile out. Mr. Quinn calls out my name.The trail ride. I almost forgot why I'm here.“Mr. Quinn needs me to help tack up,” I explain to Dad. “Are you sticking around the stable for a while, or going over to the house?”Dad shoves his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. “Nah, I got a room at a hotel.” The surprise on my face must show, because he adds quickly, “I got in late. Didn't want to impose on your mom…you know.”No, I don't know.Why wouldn't he want to stay in his own house, with his own family?I don't want to think about what that means.“David!” Mr. Quinn hollers.Dad shoos me off. “Go ahead. Don't worry, I'll be here awhile,” he assures me.I head into the barn, and I have to admit I kind of welcome the distraction. It'll give me some time to get my head together about seeing Dad.As I lead the last horse out of the barn for the trail ride, Mom and Ashley pull into the stable yard to pick me up. Boy, are they in for a surprise.“Mom!” I call over the clopping hooves. “Guess what?”I look around the yard for Dad. But I don't see him anywhere.I search the barns and the practice ring.My father has disappeared again.Chapter FourHere's one thing I'm always thankful for at Thanksgiving: we only have school on Monday and Tuesday, and the teachers tend to go easy on the homework. It's a good thing, too, because between bad dreams and worrying about Dad being in town, I'm not getting a whole lot of sleep.Yesterday, all day long, I kept waiting for him to show up at the house or at least call us. But he never did. Mom said he probably had some business to take care of, but I could tell she was ticked that she hadn't heard from him. I mean, what kind of business would he be taking care of on a Sunday?Today, when I go over to Quinn's Stables after school, my chores seem to fly by, even though I try to stretch them out as long as possible.All too soon, it's time for my jumping lesson.For years I've wanted to learn how to jump. But somehow everything has felt so unsettled this past year. And ever since my nightmares started, I've been afraid of jumping. Afraid of falling.Sunita, who unlike me is a total brain at school, once explained to me where the wordnightmarecomes from:maremeans not only a female horse, but also an evil spirit that haunts your sleep. Kind of funny in my case, since my nightmares are actuallyabouthorses.Zoe, Maggie, and I saddle up for our jumping lesson with Mr. Quinn. Zoe takes Claiborne over the jump first, as Maggie and I watch from the center of the ring. Zoe's awesome—she doesn't just look like she knows what she's doing, she does it with style and makes it look so easy! She reminds me of the girl in this movie,National Velvet, that she once rented for us to watch.I study Zoe's every move, trying to figure out how she makes it all happen so smoothly, hoping some of it will sink into my brain. She's balanced in her seat, with a nice straight back (something I need lots of work on). She anticipates the jump perfectly and sails over the fence.“Nice work!” Mr. Quinn calls out to her.Zoe flashes a dazzling smile and canters to the far end of the ring to walk Claiborne.My turn.I keep the picture of Zoe's jumping in my head as my horse, Comet, sets off at a walk along the outside of the ring.I wish I were learning on Trickster. Maybe that would help, since Trickster and I are more than horse and rider, we're pals. But Mr. Quinn doesn't want him jumping yet, because Trickster still has some weakness in his leg from that trailer injury. Mr. Quinn is the kind of guy who doesn't take chances, especially with his horses, and he wants to make sure Trickster's injury is healed 100 percent.So I've been learning to jump on Comet. She's an older horse, a little set in her ways but very smart, and we've been getting along pretty well.“OK, David, let's see what Comet can do,” Mr. Quinn says encouragingly.I grip the reins and urge Comet forward while Maggie watches from the center of the ring.As we move into a trot, Mr. Quinn calls out, “Too far forward, David.” I scoot back in the saddle and almost slip. I shift forward again, feeling awkward.“Settle down, David. Find your seat,” Mr. Quinn says, as if I'm a beginner.We start cantering around the ring, warming up for the jump, and Comet tosses her head as if she too is getting impatient with me. Horses have a way of letting you know what they think of your riding.I try to relax so that I don't send Comet the wrong message. “Good girl,” I whisper at her long neck. “Everything's fine.”Comet listens to my body language, though, not my empty words. I try to encourage her to pick up the pace, but as we canter toward the jump, she's holding back. I can feel it. When we reach the jump, Comet balks, and I get ready for an awkward stop. Then she changes her mind at the last second and crow-hops over the jump. I hang on, but just barely.I feel myself flush. This is really bad form! Comet snorts, as if even she's embarrassed. I sneak a glance at Mr. Quinn. The look on his face makes my heart sink. Disappointment.“Let's try it again,” is all he says.I think I like it better when he chews me out.We come back around and head for the jump again, even though I feel like calling it quits.“You can do it!” Maggie calls out.If she really thinks I can, she's the only one here who does.I try hard to remember why I wanted to jump in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time.“If you feel Comet hesitate,” Mr. Quinn says, “just give her a little kick.”I urge Comet forward, but she decides she can ignore a bad rider.We're not going fast enough,I think to myself as we approach the jump. But Comet heaves herself over, landing awkwardly, and I hang on like a dope. Compared to Zoe's movie-star grace, I must look like I'm in one of those funniest home videos you see on TV.“Fine, David,” Mr. Quinn says, even though his voice tells me he doesn't mean it. “Take a rest. Maggie, you're up!”Feeling embarrassed and totally discouraged, I slow Comet to a walk and join Zoe at the far end of the ring.“Don't worry about it,” Maggie whispers to me as she rides past. I know she's trying to be helpful, but it only makes me feel worse.Zoe's polite enough not to say anything. We ride side by side at a walk, cooling our horses. Suddenly Zoe points to the outdoor jumping arena near us. “Hey, look!”A magnificent charcoal gray horse with a silver mane and tail stands tall in the center of the arena. His rider swings into the saddle like some handsome lord of the manor.It's Dad. On King's Shadow.They walk and trot around the large arena, warming up. A handful of people gather to watch. My father sits in the saddle as if he's part of the horse, like one of those bronze statues where the horse and rider are melded into one piece of metal. There's no question who's in control.Dad grew up on a horse farm in Kentucky. He learned to ride before he could walk, he says. And it shows.Warmed up now, he and King's Shadow start jumping the course. The way they sail over the fences reminds me of the ice-skaters Mom likes to watch on TV, who leap effortlessly into the air, almost defying gravity, and land with such grace and flair. Each time Dad and King's Shadow nail a jump, I have to stop myself from bursting into applause.I glance at Zoe. She looks impressed, too.Dad finishes the course and calls out to Joe, who's been watching, and the stable hand runs out into the arena and raises the height of the fences. They were already high to begin with, but I can't believe the height Joe's setting them at now. Zoe lets out a low whistle.Give me a break. No way that horse is going to make those jumps! He'd need a helicopter to get over them.I wonder if everyone else is holding their breath like me.Dad and King's Shadow take the first three jumps like champions. I exchange a grin with Zoe. Dad's amazing. He never misses!Heading into the fourth jump, the biggest yet, King's rhythm seems off a little. But Dad's in control and presses forward with a look of determination.They approach the fence, they jump—Thunk!It's the sound all horse jumpers dread, the clunk of hooves hitting the crossbar.The bar clatters to the ground. King's Shadow stumbles as he lands, but Dad stays glued in the saddle. As soon as King has collected himself, Dad reins him to a stop and dismounts to check his horse's legs.Mr. Quinn runs into the jumping arena. “Is he all right, Charlie?” he calls.“I think so,” Dad answers.Zoe lets out a deep breath. Slowly I let mine out, too.King's Shadow shakes his head, as if he's trying to shake the memory. Dad pats him on the shoulder and talks soothingly.When Dad makes a move to remount, Mr. Quinn lays a hand on his arm. Dad whirls around, frowning. The two men talk, too quietly for us to hear their conversation. But we can hear the anger in their voices.Maggie walks her horse over and joins us. “What's going on?”“Dad wants to take the jump again.”“I don't think Mr. Quinn wants him to,” says Maggie.“Too bad. Because I know how this will end,” I tell her.Maggie looks surprised. “Yeah?”“Yeah. Dad does what Dad wants.”Zoe's not so sure. “You know Mr. Quinn—he can be stubborn,” she reminds me. “Especially when it comes to horses. Besides, it's his stable. Doesn't your dad have to do what he says?”We wait to see.Sure enough, a couple minutes later Mr. Quinn throws up his hands in disgust and walks away.“Wow! I can't believe it!” Zoe exclaims. “He's totally ignoring what Mr. Quinn said.”I shrug. “King's Shadow isn't Mr. Quinn's horse. I guess Dad doesn't care what he says.”Those jumps are killers. But my dad really is an awesome rider. I bet Mr. Quinn's jealous. He knows he couldn't have made those jumps. He probably would have been too afraid even to try.
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My dad's not afraid of anything.Unexpected pride flares in my chest.Then again…I've gotten to know Mr. Quinn pretty well lately. He's tough but fair. He expects a lot from his riders, even the kids, and he's helped me become much more responsible around horses.Maybe Dad should listen to Mr. Quinn.Dad replaces the bar on the jump—same killer height—and swings back up onto King's Shadow.Maggie glances at me. “Do you think he can make that jump?”“Sure,” I reply, but I'm worried. About what, I'm not quite sure…that Dad or his horse might get hurt? Or that they might embarrass themselves, and me, by not clearing the fence?Dad gives King's Shadow a good long warm-up, taking extra time to check his stride. They look great together, a real team. Dad smiles confidently and pats King's neck, murmuring to him. The horse flicks an ear back to listen.“I'm with Mr. Quinn,” Zoe states. “I don't think your dad should jump.”“He's a fantastic rider,” I tell her. “He won championships when he was not much older than we are. You should see all his trophies. He was even on the 1980 Olympic equestrian team, but he never got to compete.”“Really?” Maggie says. “You never told me that! What happened? Did he get sick?”I shake my head. Dad's disappointment was something I grew up hearing about a lot, especially whenever the Olympics were on TV. Dad would get this look on his face that was painful to see, because you knew how bad he was feeling inside.“The whole American Olympic team had to stay home that year,” I explain. “The United States boycotted the Olympics. There was some kind of stupid political argument with Russia or something.”“Wow.” Even sophisticated Zoe is impressed.“Yeah, well, that tells you how good my dad is.”We fall silent as Dad goes for the first jump. King's Shadow lifts his tail like a flag and picks up speed. Man, he's gorgeous when he runs.Dad takes him over the first jump like nothing has happened. King's Shadow seems totally at ease. Horses respond to a confident rider, Mr. Quinn always tells me. I can sure see that happening here.Then Dad skips the second and third jumps.Huh? Is he bagging it?No, he's going straight for the fourth jump—the biggie.Zoe turns away. “I can't watch.”I lean forward, my heart pounding. I can'tnotwatch.I cross my fingers.Do it, Dad.Show them!King's Shadow leaps—and soars over the jump.“They made it!” I shout, shaking my fists in the air.Way to go, Dad!I gaze after them in admiration as they canter by, King's silver tail streaming like a banner.Wait a minute—is King's canter a little off? No, it can't be, he's fine. And yet…I squint, watching his legs as he runs.“King's limping!” Zoe exclaims.Sure enough, the limp becomes more and more obvious. King is clearly favoring his right foreleg.Now Dad realizes it, too. He pulls King's Shadow to a stop, then slips off to check.The look on Dad's face tells me it's not good. I turn to Zoe and Maggie. “I think King's Shadow is hurt!”Chapter FiveMaggie, Zoe, and I watch as Dr. Mac examines King's Shadow. The horse stands cross-tied in the aisle of the barn, remarkably calm and unfazed by all the fuss. Dad slowly strokes King's shoulder. I glance quickly at my dad. I'd be totally ashamed if I'd just done what he's done, but his face is unreadable.Mr. Quinn's mouth is set in a hard line. Nothing makes him madder than people who foolishly endanger a horse.“We'll need X-rays of the leg,” Dr. Mac says, giving us kids a meaningful look. We go out to her van, unload the portable X-ray machine, and carry it back to the barn. It's about the size of a toaster oven.Dr. Mac and Mr. Quinn put on large lead-lined aprons and mittens. I've worn those before, and they're heavy. The lead blocks the radiation from the X-rays.Then Dr. Mac slides a thin metal case about the size of a large book into a wooden box. That's the X-ray film. She hands the box to Mr. Quinn, who positions it behind King's right foreleg.“Everyone else, get back,” Dr. Mac orders. She aims the lens of the X-ray machine at the injured leg and pushes a button. She takes a couple more X-rays from different angles, just to be sure.When she's done with the X-rays, she examines King's leg one more time, her hands moving gently as she glances up at the horse for any reaction. Then she has Dad walk him back and forth while she watches his limp, frowning.“I'll look at the X-rays back at the clinic,” she says at last, “but I'm pretty certain that there's no fracture.”“Thank God!” Mr. Quinn says under his breath.Dad doesn't say anything. He just looks relieved.“However,” Dr. Mac adds as she begins to wrap King's foreleg in a bandage, “there could be a serious stress injury. If he's been doing a lot of jumping, you should take him to the equine clinic so they can do a force-plate analysis.”“What's that?” I ask.“It's a test performed on a special treadmill that measures the force each leg is putting down when the horse walks,” Dr. Mac explains. “The force-plate analysis reveals the degree of weakness in the injured leg, and it helps us plan his physical therapy more accurately.”Mr. Quinn stands up with his hands on his hips and slowly shakes his head at my dad. “Operating on people-time, Charlie?”Dad presses his lips together and glances away.“What's people-time?” I ask.Dad doesn't answer. Doesn't even look at me. I'm not sure he even knows I've spoken.“People-time is the hurried pace we humans live by,” Mr. Quinn tells me. “We worked by horse-time when we got Trickster used to the trailer again. Remember how long that took?”Do I! “Forever,” I answer. Every day we led Trickster a little closer to the trailer, sometimes only a step or two closer and only for a few minutes. It was tedious, and I got pretty impatient. I thought Mr. Quinn was being ridiculous. But he was determined to do it that way, taking baby steps. This went on for weeks.And then, bit by bit, Trickster began to lose his fear of the trailer. Finally we had him happily eating his breakfast right in the trailer! Mr. Quinn sure knew what he was doing, and I really admired his patience when I saw how well it worked.“You know, Charlie,” Mr. Quinn says to my dad, “you can't force a horse onto people-time. He was not ready for that jump. Now he can't jump at all.”“How bad do you think it is?” Dad asks quietly.Dr. Mac turns and studies my father's face like she's trying to read an X-ray. “Only time will tell,” she says. “Horse-time.”Dad can't hold Dr. Mac's intense gaze. His eyes lower, and that look of confidence he always has evaporates. In fact, he looks miserable. He knows it was all his fault.Boy, do I know how that feels.“Hungry?”I've just finished my chores around the barn, and suddenly Dad is standing there, leaning up against the barn door as if he just happened to be there and I just happened to walk by.“Always,” I say.He chuckles. “That's the way I was at your age. Never could get enough to eat.” His smile fades a little but doesn't disappear. “It's all that growing you're doing,” he adds softly.Have I grown? Do I look different to him? I don't feel any different since he left, at least not on the outside.“Why don't you call your mother and tell her you'll be home after dinner,” Dad says. “We can go get a bite to eat.”“Have you seen her yet?” I blurt out.Dad looks at the nails on one hand. “I stopped by her office today, but she was out with a client.” He pauses. “She seems to be doing well there. Nice office.” He sounds almost surprised. Surprised that she's doing well withouthim?I almost say,It's a good thing, because we need the money.But I don't want to spoil the moment.Dad hands me his cell phone, and I call Mom. “Hi, Mom, it's David. Um, Dad's here. He wants to take me out for something to eat.”Mom doesn't say anything for a second. Then, “Your father's there? At the barn?”“Yeah,” I say lightly, trying to make it sound normal that he's been to the stable but not to his own house. “He says he came by your office today, but you were out.” I hold out the phone to him. “You want to talk to her?”He steps back, not expecting that. Then he looks at his watch and waves a hand. “We'd better scoot.”I stare at him. Is my dad afraid to talk to my mom?“David? Are you there?” Mom asks.“Oh, yeah, Mom. So can I go?”“Sure, I guess so,” she says. NotWhere is he staying? Is he coming for Thanksgiving dinner? Let me talk to him.Nothing. We let it go at that.We climb into Dad's car—actually a small truck that's seen better days.“What happened to your SUV?” I ask him.Dad snorts as he pulls out onto the road. “Guy ran into me. Totally wrecked it. I got it fixed, but it was so messed up”—he shrugs—“I just sold it. A friend let me have this to drive, just till I figure out what I really want to get.” He pats the dashboard. “Gets pretty decent mileage, for a truck. And it hauls anything.”We drive along, not talking much. At last we pull into the parking lot of Taco Bell. It used to be our favorite place to go. It's been a long time since we've been here together.We go in and order, loading up two trays with all our favorites. Then we slide into a booth and dig in. There's a lot of “This looks great!” and “Yeah, here, want some of this?” We stay busy unwrapping straws and rustling papers and chowing down so we don't have to talk.The silence is heavy with all the things we aren't saying. I slurp down some soda and shift in my seat.Dad leans back and wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. He takes a little sip from his drink, then shakes the cup, rattling the ice.Finally he says, “I'm really looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner.” Just like any dad who hasn't been gone for a year.Some kids might say something mean at this point. But when I look Dad in the eye, I can't. He actually seems kind of sad to me. Maybe this has all been hard on him, too. Maybe he wants to explain.Maybe he wants to come home.“Yeah,” I say. “Turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie—Mom's going all out.”Dad nods. “Your mom's a good cook.”“Except for when she gets on a health-food kick!” We laugh. Suddenly it feels great to be with Dad after so long. “So what have you been up to?” I hope it's OK to ask.“Oh, you know…” He stirs a chip in a puddle of nacho cheese sauce. He talks about what he's been doing, but he's kind of vague. It sounds like he's traveled some and has been “really, really busy.” I don't get any specifics. Soon he steers the conversation toward something we both like: horses.“Quinn told me about you and Trickster,” Dad says. “Sounds like a fine horse.”“He's awesome!” I tell him. “My riding's really improved, too. But jumping—man, that's a lot harder than it looks.”Dad leans forward. “What you need is a teacher who understands you. Quinn is good, don't get me wrong. But he's a little…” He searches for the right word. “Easygoing. You know? Slow-paced. You'll never get anywhere if he doesn't push you a little. You have to challenge yourself in order to grow, David. That is, if you really want to be a champion rider.”“I do!” I insist.Dad smiles at me with a strange look on his face, one I can't quite read. “I remember that first time I put you on the back of a horse.” He laughs. “Your mom just about had a fit! I was afraid she was going to call the authorities.”“How old was I?”“About ten months old.”“You're kidding!”“You grabbed right on, though,” Dad says. “I was so proud of you! I told your mom you were a natural.”Proud of me? A natural?My heart leaps over a hurdle.“I have high hopes for you, David. You've got the talent; you just need a little more fire. But I expect you'll be riding a real jumper—like King's Shadow—in no time.” He wads up some food wrappers and stuffs the ball into his empty cup. “Say, how would you like me to give you some jumping lessons?”
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