Authors: James Patterson
“A MILD INFECTION,”
Doc Howser said, “caused by dirt getting inside the cut. You could probably get away with giving him just one day off.”
We decided on two. Back in the ring, not doing any real jumps, using ground poles for distances, Coronado was perfect.
Now it was Saturday afternoon, our first competition together, the $10,000 Jumper in the International Arena.
My class was scheduled to start at one o’clock. I had been awake since five in the morning, the hour I’d sometimes get in after a party night. Now I was wide awake. Tried to go back to sleep. Couldn’t. Daniel and I would head over to the show about eleven and since I was going thirtieth in the order, I wouldn’t be in the International Ring with Coronado until after two.
He was probably still sleeping.
My brain was running hot.
Trying to step lightly so as not to wake Mom or Grandmother, I got out of bed, walked to the window that looked down at the barn. The wall was hung on both sides with ribbons I’d won on Sky, a handful of times beating out Mom and some of the other top riders.
I’d trade every single ribbon on this wall,
to win just one today.
What had Mom always said?
One chance to make a good first impression.
I snuck downstairs now and made myself my first cup of coffee, brought it back upstairs. Waited for the sun to come up.
I knew when it finally did the day would move like that television commercial. Life would come at me fast.
Just not yet.
I looked at the clock on the nightstand.
Still just five fifteen.
Only my heart was going fast. Running as hot as my brain. How was I going to handle these feelings when they maxed out in the ring? When it was showtime?
Get a grip, bitch.
I put on jeans and a T-shirt, went downstairs, fixed myself another cup of coffee, silently let myself out the back door. I walked down the hill to the barn, only to be near the horses. Let them sleep, even if I couldn’t.
I stood at the fence near the in-gate, placed my cup on top of one of the posts, and thought back to when I was six years old, getting up on Frenchy for my first ride around the ring. Loved my first pony then the way I loved Sky now.
I’d only walked Frenchy before that day.
But that day I was going to ride her.
ride her. Mom hadn’t thought I was ready. Grandmother had insisted that I was. I’d screwed up my six-year-old courage and got around on jumps as low as Grandmother and Mom could make them.
I had been as scared then as I was now.
You’re not a little girl anymore.
I stayed long enough down at the barn to watch the sunrise. Then I walked back up to the house. Longest morning of my life still stretching out ahead of me.
DANIEL AND I
were walking the course with the rest of the riders and trainers, pacing off the distances between jumps.
Half hour until the round started. It felt by now as if I’d been awake for about a month.
“Well,” I said, “this shit is about to get real.”
“Were you always this much of a poet?” he said.
“Goddamn right,” I said.
“Relax,” he said.
“I am relaxed.”
“You are about as good a liar as you are a poet,” Daniel said.
We reached the middle of the course then, staring down the double combination before the last jump. What Daniel called the main event. Six strides leading into the first jump, then room enough for just one stride before the second one. In that moment flying and landing in a small space, then flying again. After that it was something right out of the movies. Fast and furious to the finish.
I knew I didn’t need to win today. But I couldn’t look like a total loser, either. I wanted to get around clean and pick up some points on what was known as the Average Ranking List, which was about results, but consistency, too. By the time summer rolled around, the top three American riders on that list would be chosen to represent the US in Paris.
Fifty horses entered, almost all of the top riders, men and women, riders as old as sixty and as young as sixteen. I really did love this distinctive quality that separated our sport from all others. Men against women. Teenagers against grandparents. All that mattered was being good enough, having enough horse underneath you.
I, along with all the other riders, was using this event as a warm-up for the Grand Prix happening in two weeks, in this same big-ass arena.
Matthew Killeen, number one in Ireland, just ahead of his best friend, Eric Glynn, was walking with his trainer about two jumps ahead of us. He wasn’t just a great rider. He was a good guy. At one point he’d turned around and yelled at me, “Slow down, McCabe, you’re already making me nervous.”
I’d grinned and given him the finger.
“Always the lady,” he said.
“My way of saying you’re number one, Killeen,” I yelled back.
Matthew was good-looking, too, if a little old for me at thirty-five. It hadn’t stopped me from having a major teenage crush on him when he’d started competing more regularly at WEF.
Behind us was Tyler Cullen, always near the top of the American rankings, but currently number two behind Tess McGill, whose father was lead singer for the rock group Snap. I’d waved at Tyler when I’d first gotten on the course. He ignored me, even though I knew he’d seen me. Daniel saw what I saw, and just shook his head.
“If Mr. Steve Gorton were a rider,” Daniel had said to me, “he’d be Tyler Cullen.”
“Oh, hell, no,” I said. “Even Gorton isn’t that much of a prick.”
When we finished the course, we stopped briefly at the in-gate, where we made out like high school kids. Amazing how sometimes everything could still feel like high school. Daniel hadn’t mentioned the kiss since that night. I hadn’t, either. Maybe next week I could pass him a note after chem class.
I told myself, but not,
I’d always felt nerves, what Mom liked to call the good nerves that came with competition.
Never like this.
I was happy to be going thirtieth in the order. I’d have a chance to watch how the preceding riders and horses handled the course—where in the second half to pick up speed, where others had taken chances and they’d played it safe.
Today’s event might have been titled “Power and Speed.” The course seemed to break at the eighth jump. That’s when the clock started. That’s when a rider who could manage to keep the last eight striped poles off the ground had the chance to post a score.
As nervous as I was, I was stupidly excited at the same time. This was the biggest jumping event of my whole stupid life.
Up in the tent, Mom and Grandmother were at their table. They’d decided to watch from there, even though Grandmother said she couldn’t curse freely without scaring the decent people. Daniel would shout any instructions from the in-gate, though he was convinced that if he’d done his job during the week, I’d be fine out there on my own.
“What do you want to do until Emilio brings up Coronado from the barn?” Daniel said.
He meant the small Atwood Farm barn at the show. The way it worked, Emilio would bring Coronado to the schooling ring about twenty minutes before my spot in the order, and we’d start jumping in there until my name was called.
Mr. Gorton would be here eventually. Knowing him, he’d demand a private viewing stand next to the central announcer’s gazebo.
“I just want to be alone for a few minutes,” I said. “You okay with that?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Relax,” he said again, smiling at me.
I found a place high up in the bleachers, on the opposite side of the ring from where Mom and Grandmother were. Matthew Killeen went out early and posted 30.19, a banging score that put him right into first place. Tyler Cullen, going twentieth, posted a score of 30.58. When he finished the round, he turned to look at the clock and I could see how pissed off he was. He’d come so close to Matthew’s time, and he hated to lose to anybody, Matthew most of all.
Ten out now.
I heard my phone beep with a message, pulled it out of the back pocket of my breeches and saw:
He meant Coronado.
I made my way down through the bleachers and over to the schooling ring, to where Daniel and Emilio stood with our big horse. Just without Mom in the saddle this time. Emilio helped me up. Daniel handed me my gloves, then walked over to the middle of the ring. I put Coronado in motion, a couple of slow laps around the ring, then over one of the jumps. Then another lap, and over the other jump.
More nervous than ever.
Still stupidly excited.
I heard the in-gate announcer say,
“Frankie next, then Adam, then Georgina.”
Georgina Bloomberg. Her father had been mayor of New York City once. Later on, he’d spent enough money to buy our whole sport running for president.
What the hell was I doing here?
the announcer said.
The next few minutes were a blur, until I heard the announcer say,
I slow-walked Coronado over to where Daniel was already waiting for us in the gate. He looked up at me, smiled, nodded, put out his fist so I could lean down and bump it. I looked around now, taking in the whole scene: the course, the tent to my right, stands that were mostly full, one of the biggest rings in the whole sport. I was about to take my place at the grown-up table.
My heart thumped like the palpable bass of a rap song playing from the next car at a stoplight.
I heard the announcer naming me as the rider of Coronado, owned by Steve Gorton of New York City and Caroline Atwood, Atwood Farm of Wellington, Florida.
The horse that had gone before me walked past us. I gave Coronado a little kick to get him going.
Then I heard, “Is this where I wish you good luck?” from the other side of the in-gate from where Daniel was standing.
No owners ever came down here. There he was, anyway.
Don’t look back,
I told myself as Coronado walked out into the International.
DON’T THINK ABOUT
Think about the sixteen jumps out here.
Eight before the speed round.
No need to push Coronado in the first half. Get through the first eight clean. After that, let the big guy run.
Just like that, we were over the first jump. Six strides in the line between the first and the second. Then we were over that one. No big turns in this part of the course. No surprises. It would be the second half that felt like Daytona.
Don’t get ahead of yourself.
The next two jumps were along the wall in front of the members’ tent. Cleared both, then went right into a slight turn, quickly squaring him up, counting strides inside my head as I did.
Cleared it with ease.
It was as if somebody had hit a mute button inside the ring. I couldn’t hear the crowd, couldn’t hear the sound of the PA announcer’s voice. All I could hear was my horse, his breath, the sound of his hooves.
The next line was a stride longer.
Another one clean.
We made a wide turn at the opposite end of the ring from the in-gate, approaching the big screen in the corner down there. There was a clock in the corner of the screen.
Don’t look at the time.
Three more jumps to clear before the speed round.
Damn, this horse felt good.
Then it was one more jump before the speed round, and we were over that, room to spare.
Ten seconds from the finish.
Cleared the first. Cleared the second. Handled a tight rollback with ease, not cutting it too close, not wanting to take a chance there.
Nailed the jump. What was the term in gymnastics? Stuck the landing.
Came around and was facing the big screen again. The horse flying now.
Don’t look at the clock.
Listen to Daniel’s words. All that ever mattered was the next jump.
Handled the next two with ease, perfect distances both times. I wasn’t one of those riders who’d tell you afterward they had a clock inside their head.
But we were getting after it.
Now I was yelling “Come on!” at Coronado.
Tough rollback coming up, tightest on the course. But Daniel had said that if I was going to steal some time, this was the place, if I was sure I could make an inside turn at one of the decorative flower beds. But only if I was sure I could get Coronado squared up in time.
I went inside.
Knew we had picked up time once I did.
Maybe that half second could make all the difference.
The stands were flying past us now, Coronado passing the announcer’s gazebo, then around close to the tent.
Look at us. We can fly.
The double combination was dead ahead of us now. Then one last jump. I could feel him pick up speed without me asking, as if he knew exactly where he was, what he needed to do, how much course we had left.
Ten seconds, tops.
Six strides to the first jump in the combination.
I was counting again.
Shit shit shit.
I was too far away. Our first bad distance. I tried to add an extra stride and hoped it wasn’t too late.
We were too close.
Coronado tried. Tried his ass off. But we
too close when we went into the jump. His front legs crashed into the top rail, propelling it into the air in front of him.
The horse landed one stride distant from the second jump and when he saw the rail drop in front of him, came to a dead stop.
He refused the jump like he was slamming on the brakes.
I felt the horse duck and spook, as I flew forward toward an airborne state. That left only one strategy.
That’s what riders called it.
I bailed, and let go of the reins, and slid down the side of Coronado and landed on my butt.