Authors: James Patterson
THERE WAS A PRETTY DECENT
cloud cover over the ring when we were walking it the next morning. I told Gus and Mom it could stay there all afternoon as far as I was concerned.
“I don’t need no sunlight reflecting off that pool today,” I said.
As soon as I said it, as soon as I heard the words, I turned to Gus.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he said. And grinned. “I don’t need no sun in anybody’s eyes today, either.”
Then he said, “What do you think of the course?”
“I’ll tell you in my bad French accent,” I said. “It
how we say, bru-
One rollback in the first part of the course and a combination. A double. Then another rollback in the second half, followed by a triple. Then the water. Then one more turn, and a spring to the last fence.
By the time Tyler was at the in-gate, Simon LaRouche had just made the crowd go wild by going clean. He was in the jump-off along with Matthew and Eric. Mom and I had come over from the schooling ring to watch Tyler. Both of us up on our horses.
“Good luck,” I said to him, and actually meant it. Still wasn’t giving him a pass on the things he’d done or tried to do. But he had been trying to get here as long as Mom had.
He gave me a quick, surprised, sideways glance and then said, “Thanks.”
His mistake, his false step, came at the water jump. It wasn’t the glare off the water. The afternoon had gotten a little darker, if anything.
It was rider error all the way.
I could see halfway to the fence that he’d given Galahad a bad distance, after what had been a flawless round until then. He was going to be short. For all of Tyler’s obsession with Coronado, Galahad was a pretty terrific horse himself, or they wouldn’t be here.
But when they got to the jump, Galahad was just too far away, and there wasn’t a damn thing Tyler Cullen could do about it. He tried to get his horse closer at the last second. Not even a second.
Just too late.
This time it was Tyler Cullen coming out of the saddle and off his horse, going over Galahad’s head.
The horse didn’t clear the fence.
And belly-flopped into the pool.
MAGGIE COULD BARELY WATCH
from the in-gate as Tyler made the long walk of shame out of the ring, soaking wet, after his trainer had collected Galahad.
It had been a long time since Maggie and Tyler had thought of themselves as friends, or anything close. She still remembered the night at the Trophy Room when he’d basically told her she was washed up. But they were teammates now. This was the Olympics. More than anything, he was a fellow rider. She felt terrible about what had happened to him and happened here. At least he’d landed on his stomach and not his back. Or arm. Or shoulder. At least he hadn’t come down on the fence.
It reminded her of what had happened with Coronado on the trail that day, at the worst possible time.
They’d given her a few extra minutes while Tyler and his horse had left the ring, to warm applause from the crowd. All in attendance were show-jumping fans who understood how much Tyler had lost, even with the team competition still to come.
But Maggie needed to forget that, and forget him, unsee what had just happened and do that
She had to get her mind right, and quickly, and stop thinking about what could go wrong, and just
ride, she told herself.
Barely heard her introduction. Just the buzzer. Then she and Coronado were moving, into the course, no problem with the first jumps, no problem with the first rollback. Quickly she was into the first combination, feeling a slight chip on the second fence, on the way up, nothing more.
She felt as if she were through the first half of the course in a blink, coming up on the water jump, telling herself Coronado had never had trouble with a water jump. And didn’t now. Landed clear out of the water, by what felt like a country mile.
They were coming up on the triple now.
Even at this pace, Maggie’s vision once more registered in slow motion. A good thing. The line. The distance. Don’t think. Just react.
We’ve got this.
Easy as one, two, three.
Two jumps to go. They made the turn, she squared him up.
One fence left.
Trying to keep her breathing and her emotion under control. Feeling her excitement rise, wondering if her horse could feel it, too. They were over the last fence and finishing clear then. Even then she couldn’t make herself slow Coronado down right away, made one more turn before she allowed herself to look at her time, 77.1, as she heard the ring announcer say,
Four riders in the jump-off for the gold medal now, Matthew and Eric and Simon. And Maggie.
Her kid trying to make it five.
By the time Maggie came out of the ring, Becky was already out there.
I WAS OUT THERE
as soon as Mom looked up at her time.
I didn’t want to say anything to her, not right now. Didn’t even want to make eye contact. She’d ridden her horse. I needed to ride mine. I was happy for her, no doubt. When she had been asked to deliver, she had produced, at least for now, the ride of her life. I knew how much she wanted this.
But more than ever, I knew how much I did.
I had shocked everybody, including myself, by making it this far. It didn’t matter if I didn’t make it to the jump-off, if Matthew and Eric and Mom were the ones competing for the gold medal and not me.
Now I was the one being asked to deliver. Me and my horse. You never knew until you were out there. You always had to wait to find out. And what I found out, quickly, was that Sky had saved her best for today.
These weren’t 1.6 m jumps; today felt half that high, as if we were covering speed bumps. By the time we got to the water jump, she was in the zone and so was I.
We cleared the water, breezed through the triple. I didn’t have to ask for anything. She just nailed it like a champ.
Two fences left. The hardest jumps behind us, the hardest turns. Made the last soft turn. Cleared the oxer.
One to go. To go clean and keep going to the real main event.
I heard myself yelling.
Yelling at myself by then.
But three strides before the fence I felt her stumble slightly.
It was almost as if she’d stepped in a hole. Her first wrong step all day. As she made it, she started to turn her head to the right. The rest of her started to follow.
I gave her a kick and it got her head squared up. She still took off late, managing to get her forelegs up and over the bright green rail.
But one of her hind legs hit it hard.
Not just hit it, but rattled the living shit out of it.
I felt all the air come out of me at once. Knew it had to be going down. I’d heard it and felt it. Waited to hear it from the crowd, one way or another. Up or down.
And then the crowd cheered.
Only then was I able to exhale, get Sky and me turned around, and allow myself a look at the scoreboard. Knowing I didn’t need to be first. But still wanting to be first, wanting to beat them all, all day long.
I’d gone faster than Mom, faster than the Irish guys, faster than everybody, at least for now. It wouldn’t help me in the jump-off. But Mom and I would be the last two riders out there in the jump-off.
Maybe this is the way the story is supposed to end
THEY DIDN’T WASTE
any time starting the jump-off. The cloud cover had broken into rain and the day was getting very dark, very fast. I’d been too busy to notice that they’d put the lights on at the top of Etoile Royale.
Matthew Killeen went clean. Eric Glynn didn’t. Then Simon LaRouche beat Matthew’s time and he was in first place and the home crowd pretty much lost its shit.
In the steady downpour, I hadn’t noticed Simon having any problem with the footing, didn’t see the rain affecting his horse.
Mom and I were in the gate.
Gus said to Mom, “You’ll be fine. You’re gonna beat the rain. But even if you don’t, the drainage for this ring is fantastic.”
“You know this how?” Mom said.
“Because it’s the Olympics, that’s why,” he said.
Mom was off the moment the buzzer sounded, trying to beat not only Simon’s time, but the rain. Sometimes she liked to take one more look around. Not today.
I knew Simon’s time was beatable, one hundred percent. Matthew had come in with 40.1. Simon was at 39.8. When we’d walked the jump-off course, I thought the winning time might be two seconds better than that. Simon had a really nice horse. He was a very good rider, especially in Europe. But he wasn’t the rider Mom was. And didn’t have the horse she had.
She had good pace from the start. In the early part of the course, nothing was slowing Mom and her horse. I hadn’t paid any attention to Simon’s splits, but my gut told me that neither he nor Matthew had attacked the course the way Mom was attacking it.
By now Coronado soared over the top rail, then cleared the water.
I closed my eyes as she came up on the second rollback. To me, this was her last real challenge, even more than the triple. If Coronado had a weakness, it was the way his size impacted sharp turns.
This time he lost just enough traction as he made his left turn, and she had no choice but to go outside instead of inside. Maybe cost her half a second. It wasn’t because she was afraid. She just couldn’t take a chance. And she knew that Simon
had a beatable time.
The triple now. I thought she had him too close to the second jump. But Coronado got over it. And the next one. And the next. If the rollback hadn’t been the last trouble for her on this course, the triple should have been. Wasn’t.
Just about everybody saw Mom’s time before she got Coronado turned around, still being careful with him as she slowed him to a walk.
39 flat. Nearly a second faster than Simon LaRouche. Going outside hadn’t cost her. As she was coming out of the ring, I was going in. I could see how happy she was. She smiled at me. I smiled back, and nodded, and then was past her.
The skies opened then.
IT HAPPENED THAT FAST.
Within a half minute the rain was blowing sideways, and I could barely see the fences. An end-of-the-world storm in Etoile Royale.
Maybe if this were a Grand Prix in Wellington, in the middle of April, they would have stopped things right here and waited it out, waited for the storm to pass, even this late in the round. But it was the Olympics. The judges were one rider away—me—from awarding gold.
I needed to get around this course. It didn’t matter that the other riders, including Mom, had gone in better conditions. A storm like this would blow in and it didn’t matter that some of the riders had already gotten around a dry course and others were now going to ride in mud. It was part of the deal in our sport.
The idea of the first rollback, that first sharp turn, was scaring me to death. Not Sky. She got over the jump, breezing.
By now the water was pouring into my eyes off my helmet. The course was getting muddier with every jump. Puddles were already forming. The rain was coming that hard.
I kept tight reins on Sky through the double. Then we were clearing the pool. No splash there, before we started splashing our way toward the next fence. I knew I couldn’t get reckless or go full throttle. But if I slowed down too much, I had no chance to win. And hadn’t come this far to lose.
I put my head down.
Rode my ride.
We got over the jump on the last rollback. She slid a little, but I got her squared up. She got over. No time to celebrate. I slowed her down, just slightly, coming into the triple.
But she went clean there.
We made our last turn and didn’t slide and got over the second-to-last jump and now it was just a sprint to the end of the course.
Or so I thought.
Sky’s hind legs slipped and came out from under her then.
She didn’t stop. But it was the same as her rearing up, even while still going forward between jumps. Just like that, the back of her was lower than her front and she started to go down.
I HAD SEEN IT HAPPEN
to riders before, their horse going backward and going down when their legs came out from under them that way, sometimes with the rider still in the saddle, sometimes with disastrous results.
It was happening to Sky now.
At least she was still going forward. If she could keep doing that, if she could stay up, we still had a chance. But whatever I was going to do to help her, I had to do right now.
And there wasn’t much I could do to stabilize her. I lifted my hands up, squeezed her harder with my legs. But it was all up to Sky now, and the instinct she shared with all horses: not to go down.
One of those Olympic miracles.
Somehow she got her hind legs underneath her, and kept moving. Somehow I managed to keep her in line. Got her a good distance into the last jump. The skinny. They were known as verticals, too. Made them look higher than they actually were. Right now this one looked as tall as the Eiffel Tower.
Sky didn’t care. She’d come this far, too. One more time she flew, and we’d gone clear. She skidded when she landed. It didn’t matter now.
Then I heard the loudest cheers I’d ever heard, at least cheers for me. I turned and with my left glove did my best to rub water out of my eyes and squinted through the rain one last time.
I still couldn’t see much in the ring, but I could see our number:
I’d won the gold medal.
Mom had gotten silver. I yelled my head off then, knowing only Sky could hear me, the sound of the crowd combined with the sound of the storm. I walked Sky over to where Mom and Gus were.
“You were great!” Mom shouted up at me.
“So were you!”
“You’re better!” she said.
“How did you keep that horse from going down?” Mom said.
I leaned down and shouted back at her.
“Way I was brought up.”
I wasn’t sure where to go then, what to do. Neither Gus nor Mom nor I had allowed ourselves to discuss what would happen if one of us won. So I didn’t know when the medal ceremony would start, or even where. All I knew was that I needed a moment alone with my horse.
So I walked her back to the schooling ring, the footing in there nearly underwater by now. Emilio helped me down, then hugged me. I felt like a stupidly wet swamp thing and didn’t care. I was stupidly happy. I walked over and leaned against the fence, put my head back as far as it would go and let the rain hit me in the face, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
Then I walked back over to Sky and got close to her ear and told her, Bad Becky style, that holy shit, we just beat them all.