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Authors: Jane Yolen

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BOOK: Centaur Rising
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“Thanks,” Mom said, knowing full well I would pump Martha for answers, and Martha would give them to me.

*   *   *

In the car, Martha told me everything I wanted to know and some things I didn't. How there were only five riders left, with horse vans coming to transport the last of the boarding horses to nearby stables that very afternoon. How our various suppliers of oats and straw were demanding immediate full payment. How Mr. Suss from next door had made a low offer for our farm, so low it was laughable. How the Angottis were threatening to sue us.

“I think we should sue them for…” Martha thought a minute. “Well, just for being the Angottis!”

“How come I wasn't told any of this before?”

“Because your mom is treating you like a kid,” she said, her eyes on the road, which was just as well. Martha is a terrible driver.

“I
am
a kid.”

“Don't be a sassy-pants. You've never been a kid. You were born a grown-up.” She turned to glare at me, and the car took a slight bobble to the right.

I shrank back in my seat.

“Since Kai's been born, she's afraid all the time for you. And for Robbie. She's protecting you.”

“I don't need protecting,” I said. “But Robbie does.”

At least she was looking at the road again.

“She's your mom. She's supposed to protect
both
of you.”

After that there was silence.

When we arrived at the dentist's building, I got out and refused to turn to say good-bye. I was angry. Angry with the boarders and riders for being unkind; angry with Mr. Suss, who was a thief; angry with Martha and Mom for keeping things secret; angry with Dr. Herks, who seemed to have stopped being there for us; angry with Robbie for needing help when we were already stretched too thin; angry with myself for being too young to be a real help—even angry with Agora, who got herself pregnant and …

Well, at least I wasn't angry with Kai.

 

9

Freak of Nature

O
N THE DRIVE HOME,
my lips still tingling from the Novocain, my tongue exploring the two new fillings, I refused to speak to Martha. But if I didn't talk to her, who
could
I talk to? Patti and Maddi were already gone, and besides, I never really said very much to either of them. Even if I wanted to, how could I have explained what was happening at the farm? How could I have trusted them with our secret?

My tongue found the fillings again, and at that I began to wonder what Kai would be eating after he was weaned off his mother's milk—once he lost all his baby teeth, and all the adult teeth came in. Given how fast he was growing, that might be any day now.

Horses eat grass and oats mixed with peas and beans and lentils. For treats they get carrots, apples—our horses love McIntosh the most—and the occasional sugar lump. But that's not a growing
boy
's diet.

Mom always drilled that into me—every day something protein, something green, a grain, a piece of fruit, and milk. My lunches at school had been boring. No one in elementary school ever wanted to share. I mean who would take celery sticks over a candy bar? Or trade a chocolate chip cookie for a box of raisins?

Dr. Herks hadn't said a word about Kai's diet, which was odd. Made me wonder about our pony boy's stomach. We knew he had two hearts. But what if he had two different stomachs as well?

I supposed Kai could be fed vegan. Both my aunts, Dad's sisters, were in the Vegan Society. No eggs or fish or butter or any kind of meat at all. Come to think of it, Aunt May ate a lot like a horse: oversalted vegetables and dandelions she picked in her yard. Dad used to tease her about it and offer her bites of his hamburger whenever she came to visit. Aunt May would sniff angrily, but his other sister, Aunt Ella, would burst into tears. We hadn't seen either of them in years. Not since Dad left.

*   *   *

By the time Martha and I got home, I expected to see trailers in the driveway and owners collecting their horses. I was surprised that there were only two cars: the Angottis' blue van and Dr. Herks' truck.

Martha parked her car by the little cottage, but instead of putting away her groceries, she headed straight for the farmhouse, probably to report to Mom.

Not me. I ran into the barn, wondering if they'd all changed their minds about coming to collect the horses. Or else maybe they'd already been and gone while I was at the dentist.

But once in the barn, I discovered all the horses were still where they belonged.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I went to the other side of the barn to check on Kai.

No one was standing by Agora's stall, which was locked. But with the Angottis around, why wasn't somebody guarding the door?

I raced into the house, taking the back steps two at a time and getting to the kitchen just as Mrs. Angotti marched in through the front door. I could hear her voice three rooms away. Big and booming, like she had a megaphone.

“Yeah, I'm sorry I didn't knock,” she was saying, “but the door was already open—well, at least not exactly locked—and besides, you need to explain something to me and to Joey here, because believe it or not, we got a really iffy situation, which may need some truly extra-careful unraveling, and I think you know what I mean! Because it's actually ruining your already sinking business and gave my little boy a huge scare! And I don't like anyone scaring my kids, nobody or nothing, so I think someone, maybe you or maybe the vet here, needs to give me a quick explanation—I'm not talking to Martha, because she's a sassy loudmouthed…! Or your poor little boy.”

Mrs. Angotti has a tendency to speak in run-on sentences, the kind my English teacher never lets us use in essays. It's rule number three on her first-day handout, right after
No exclamation marks
and
Watch that your adverbs don't propagate
.

Mrs. Angotti would flunk ninth-grade English. When she talks, it's an amazing thing to listen to, because she doesn't seem to breathe between sentences. (“Or even paragraphs,” Mom says.) Also, she seems be in love with exclamation points, and she never met an adverb she didn't like.

Just as I ran into the room, Mom was saying, “Since you're suing me, Maria, I shouldn't be talking to you without a lawyer present.”

Mom and Dr. Herks were sitting close on the sofa, with a bunch of papers spread out on the coffee table. Martha was standing by the door as if she'd just closed it, but not soon enough. The look on her face sat somewhere between a worry and a thunderstorm. Holding an open book on his lap, Robbie was looking up angrily. He hated being pitied above anything else.

Mrs. Angotti had a grip on Joey's arm, like she was furious with him, but as she spoke, all her fury seemed to go outward in an unfocused way. Her hair was unfocused, too. Wiry, shot through with strands of white, it stood up around her head like she'd put her finger in an electric socket. She was wearing her usual jodhpurs.

Not that she ever got up on a horse. Martha thinks she's scared. Mom thinks she's allergic. I think the jodhpurs are a fashion statement.

Mrs. Angotti must have taken a deep breath, because she'd already started talking again, saying, “I didn't mean a real suit, with lawyers, I was just mortally piqued, you know, not the
p-e-a-k
kind of high-on-a-mountain sort of thing, but the I'm-mad-at-you pique and trying to get your attention since your attention seems to be totally wandering these days, because it's sure not on your riders and our horses, but I shouldn't have done it because, as Mr. Angotti always says, ‘Don't threaten what you're not gonna do!'”

Martha rumbled, “Hold your horses, lady!”

That's when I noticed Joey's hair.

He has the same hair as his mother's, only without the white bits. This morning he had pieces of straw stuck on the left side, so he looked like he had the part of Scarecrow in a school play of
The
Wizard of Oz
.

Straw
, I thought, suddenly really worried.

Mrs. Angotti took another short breath. And then she was off again, speaking in that run-on way.

“So we up and came back here just to check on things, even though I'd already said we weren't coming back and Mr. Angotti said we should stay at home, but I knew Joey wanted to say good-bye to Bor, 'cause he dearly loves that horse so much, and Angela at first decided not to come, she has a boyfriend she needs to talk to twenty times a day, which ties up the phone line for hours! You should
see
the way she lies on the sofa and twists the cord up around her shoulder! But I told her that if we were gonna move her horse, that Marzipan, who sometimes acts like a snooty prom queen and needs our full attention, she had to be on board with it—Angela I mean, not Marzipan, who just needs a good pull and a slap on the behind, and she'll do as she's told, Marzipan I mean, not Angela, 'cause these days, even if I wanted to lift a hand to her, which I don't, I'd hardly get her to do anything if I got physical, which is what happened to my dad when he used his belt or the back of his hand on any of us, 'cause I can't actually move Marzipan alone, you know. And after Joey and I saw Bor—and by the way, that stall's not very clean, not your usual standard—I said we had to leave, and he said in a minute and took a carrot out of the bag and ran back, and I thought he was going to give it to Bor, on account of how much he loves that horse, but he's like his father and can't ever do what he's told or what he should, gets awfully distracted, you know—and suddenly he's back again with a face white as my mother-in-law's pasta—which is something
you
should try, put some real meat on those bones of yours, and on your girl, too—saying something about a freak!”

She took a big breath this time.

“He
didn't
!” I gasped. No one calls my brother names. And that was when everyone noticed me.

Mom was up on her feet, a hand to her mouth. Dr. Herks had gotten up, too, holding on to Mom's arm. Martha had started forward toward Mrs. Angotti. And Robbie dropped his book on the floor, his face scrunched up as if he was trying hard not to cry.

But nothing was going to stop Mrs. A now. She was like a horse with the bit between its teeth.

“I should've,” she said, “slapped him for fibbing, except the one thing Joey doesn't do is tell lies! He's not above really stretching the truth now and then for effect, only we call it storytelling, and as Mr. Angotti likes to say, ‘Just because it isn't so doesn't mean it isn't true,' which makes sense the longer you think about it! So I let Joey lead me over to the other stall, the one that's quarantined—which is a strange word, but so are most
q
words, like
quince
and
quota
, which will get you a lot of points in Scrabble—and I looked where he was pointing in the stall when he twitched the blinds aside.”

While I was puzzling over all these new revelations about Mrs. Angotti, as well as her sentence structure, Mom interjected, “You
didn't
!”

That was unfortunate, because it gave Mrs. Angotti the chance to take another really deep breath, and then she was off again, hands waving about as she talked.

“I did, and a good thing I did, too, since you've been saying all along it's some sort of disease, and lots of folks have already taken their horses away, though what they'll do now that it's a
FREAK OF NATURE
and not a disease, I don't really know, but that's certainly better than something that might be communicable—another great Scrabble word—but I don't know if everyone will feel the same way.”

For a minute, I thought she meant she was wondering if anyone felt the same way about using the Scrabble word. And then
I got it
! She'd said “freak of nature” like it was all capital letters. She wasn't talking about
Robbie
. Joey had known Robbie for the past four years, and even Mrs. Angotti would never have let him call Robbie such a name.

She was talking about Kai.

Dr. Herks leaned toward her, two hundred pounds of angry vet, speaking in a cold, controlled voice that even I could tell was just on the ragged edge of losing it. “Have you
said
anything to anyone?”

Since Mrs. Angotti, according to Martha, has no off button and only an on button, that was the
only
question to ask.

Martha didn't lean in like Dr. Herks, but if anything, she was angrier. “Who … else … knows?” Each word was like a bullet to the heart. A strange image for a Quaker girl to use, I know, but that was just what it sounded like.

Okay
, I thought,
there's no one actually around to tell right now. But if Mrs. Angotti knows, everyone will know soon enough.

If we let her out of the house, Kai was doomed.

That was when I considered kidnapping as an option. And then I looked at everyone else's face and guessed that was what they were all thinking, too.

 

10

A Loud Noise

W
HILE WE'D BEEN WORRYING ABOUT
M
RS.
A
NGOTTI
, we hadn't been paying attention to Joey, who'd sneaked past us into the den and through the dining room, kitchen, and out the back door.

Robbie said, in a hushed voice that somehow got everyone's attention, “Where's Joey?”

“He was right here,” Dr. Herks said, looking around.

Mrs. Angotti roared, “JOEY!!!”

And Martha raced toward the back door.

I was right behind her, and the others behind me, except for Robbie, of course.

By the time we got outside, there were four horse trailers lined up in neat rows, their loading doors open. They must have pulled in while we were with Mrs. Angotti, so stunned by her avalanche of words, we hadn't heard them arrive. But no one was anywhere in sight. The trucks' doors were wide open, and we could see clearly that no horses had been loaded. Yet.

BOOK: Centaur Rising
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ads

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