Chapter 1 - The Neighbor
Grazing peacefully, they drift like sailboats in the pasture – all grace and beauty as their tails swish and legs stomp. They are thankfully of this world but timeless and constant. We have little to give them, they want for nothing, but such joy, as I have never experienced, I find in giving them all I can…
Rhythmically pounding hoof beats made staccato imprints on the perfectly turned surface. Mesmerized by their sound, security, solidity, I fell into the cadence of circling, circling, circling, loosening Viva’s muscles while sending my mind on its own path.
Mountains of homework and chores pressed on my consciousness. They had piled up for weeks while my trainer schooled Viva and me to perfection, or to what was perfection in her mind.
“Keep your focus, Elliott. Viva’s shouldering in more than I like to see on those turns,” Robin said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, gladly pushing back images of laundry and homework that awaited me at home.
Robin Simmons stood in the middle of the arena watching our every move. She was small, but packed power, authority, and energy into everything she did. She wore faded jeans and a t-shirt. A short blonde ponytail exploded from her baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan “Boss Mare.” Like anyone would ever doubt that when they encountered her.
Her paddock boots were well worn, and she had half-chaps strapped to her lower legs. She was ready to pounce at all times on errant ponies, horses, or students, for that matter – whatever the situation warranted. Right now her laser focus was on us, and I was having difficulty returning the favor. The circles were lulling my mind to other areas.
Our house was immaculate everywhere, except in my room and with regard to my household responsibilities. Mother loved to remind me that the housekeeper worked for her, not us. So, my sisters and I had spent plenty of time “learning responsibility” by having assigned household duties.
“You’ll thank me some day, girls,” she would say. “When you’re off at college, life won’t seem so daunting when you know how to keep your room in order.”
“Focus!” Robin said a little more aggressively this time, making sure she had my attention. This time, though, Viva corrected herself; I think her mind was wandering as well.
I was thankful for the endless hours of practice practice practice. I could still be slaving away at my piano. Not that I minded, but that never was my gift. Eventually, my grandmother relented and allowed me the choice of riding lessons or piano, and I had never looked back.
“Much better, Elliott,” Robin crooned. I felt Viva move into her lovely prance just to remind us both what a magnificent mare she is, when she wants to be. Her movements were so graceful, so unlike my own, that I relished riding her.
Like a feline predator, Viva floated around the indoor arena. I knew most people thought her talent was wasted on me, for I was more the run-and-jump rider than one who appreciated the finer points of balance and symmetry. More than one person had offered Daddy a lot of money for her as a dressage mount, but I was glad he refused. She was my life…and we were getting in trouble again.
“Elliott, if you would just think about what you’re doing, you’d constantly be in the ribbons,” Robin snapped as my daydreams conflicted with the gymnastics she had set up for us to jump. My lack of concentration had transmitted to Viva and we bumped a pole – or was it the other way around?
Horses and riders are a special combination, but all were certainly not equal. Viva was like no other horse to me. She and I could read each other’s thoughts. And lately I had been sensing that she, like I, was bored.
That is one word that had always been forbidden in my house. If the word ever left anyone’s lips, they were banished to such a mountain of chores that they would be lucky to see daylight for a week.
“Bored people are stupid people, and stupid you are not!” my grandmother, or Grand as we called her, loved to say. She had a way of making all of us feel like we were her favorites. Although she had been dead for years, her voice spoke to me all the time. She was the sound of my upbringing, my conscience, guidance, love, and security all balled up into one wonderful sound. At times, though, her remarks were not so wonderful. She had a way of cutting in at the most inopportune moments…
I felt Viva lift her left rear leg ever so slightly as she prepared for the canter, the next round of our jumping exercises. My legs gently closed on her sides, the equivalent of letting her know I was there – that is all – and we floated flawlessly over a series of tricky exercises.
“Perfect! Elliott, you and Viva sometimes amaze me,” Robin said as she bounced her approval of our performance. “Saturday will be your day if you keep this up!”
We turned to the gate, my mind already regretting the lesson’s close. I could feel the mismatched socks and unwritten essays coming back into my consciousness.
“Good ride today, Elliott,” Ashley Woods said.
“Thanks. I didn’t know you were here,” I added warily, wondering why she was being nice to me today.
“I feel better. Maybe what I had was just a cold. Anyway, you’ll be riding Saturday, then?” she asked.
“Yes. It looks like Viva’s ready,” I said noticing a little something spark in Ashley’s eyes.
My girlfriends at the barn were pricklier than those at school. They were always competitive with everything, not just their horses, but their boots, their breeches, even their trailers. The whole world of competition was just that to them – their whole world. They were friendly to me at first, but as soon as we started winning, I began to see something else.
As much as I loved the barn, I felt alien to these girls. I longed for a riding “friend”, but was content for now with Viva. Daddy would have nothing but the best for his girls, so Viva and I were in the best barn, trained by the best trainers, and had the best location to ride in the South. With those pleasantries, however, came a lot of baggage.
“Oh, Elliott,” I heard Ashley call.
“Let me know if you want to trailer with us this weekend,” she said. Now I was really curious. What in the world could have brought on Ashley’s sudden interest in me?
I dismounted Viva, pushed her stirrups up onto the saddle, and led her down the cobblestone aisle to her stall. Fresh soft shavings were piled high, and it had recently been cleaned. Holding her reins beneath her chin with my right hand, I gathered the remainder in my left. From her left side, I led her into the stall, turned slightly to the right, then circled counter-clockwise – our little dance ritual to end the day.
She leaned her head down for me to remove the bridle. I slipped the leather over her ears and paused as she released the snaffle bit from her mouth. I guided the leather halter over her ears and snapped her to the stall tie so she’d remain in place while I worked on her saddle.
Once I hung the bridle on the polished wooden knob outside her stall, I raised the saddle rack so it would be ready to accept my saddle. I removed the leather girth on my side, then on the opposite side separating it from the saddle’s padding. I laid it across the top of the saddle and slipped the whole ensemble over Viva’s withers and onto the rack.
Carefully removing the pad from the saddle, I placed it, dirty side up, onto the saddle and laid the girth back on top. Viva’s brushes were in the wooden tack trunk outside her stall, so I picked a soft one and brushed her. She wasn’t hot, so there was no need to hose her down this afternoon. I unsnapped her halter, removed it, and hung it with her bridle.
For a minute, I sat at her feet listening to her crunch her hay and drank in its marvelous odor. Putting a piece in my own mouth, I stood to leave.
“Bye girl,” I said stroking her soft neck and rubbing my hands gently over her ears.
She kept eating and breathed a huge sigh of contentment. Something about that sound was immensely satisfying. I removed my half-chaps and placed them with my grooming equipment in the trunk. I then gathered my saddle, bridle, and halter and took them to the tack room dropping my saddle pads in the washroom on the way. Wish I had laundry service at my house.
With Viva untacked and settled into her stall, I headed home – back to the piles of responsibility that pulled on me in the lesson. As I rounded the curve, I noticed the driveway was blocked with moving vans. It looked like we had neighbors at last.
“Is that you, Elliott?” Mother asked.
I laughed in spite of myself.
“Yes ma’am,” I said. With my sisters in college and Daddy working long hours to pay for it, I wondered who she could possibly be expecting to barge in our never locked home and sling things all over the kitchen. Habits for her, I suppose, are hard to break.
“Be sure to finish the clothes today, Elliott. We have neighbors now, and you never know when they’ll appear. I would hate for their first impression to be that pile of laundry!”
Mother, our rock, was always home and somehow coordinated all the chaos. Although with my sisters gone, schedules were much less hectic, and all I really did was travel to and from the barn.
“Who moved in?” I asked.
“The Allens,” she said. “A girl in seventh grade and a senior boy. Mr. Allen will be working at Briggs and Pooley, and I’m not sure if his wife works or not. I think they’ll be at Highland Hills.”
A boy, hmmm. Wonder what he looks like. I bet he’s cute and that’s why Ashley’s being nice – to get introduced. Makes sense now. She’ll want the scoop on him since she’s stuck at St. Martha’s, the all-girls’ school.
Mom always had the details. Her family having lived here for generations and an active Sunday school class contributed heavily to this, but her intelligence was even more accurate now with Facebook – the Southern stay-at-home socialite’s dream come true. She is the quintessential Southern mother – and the benefits of the Internet age were certainly not lost on her. She kept me up to speed with what didn’t hit me between classes or at the barn.
“Would you like to take them a pound cake?” Mother asked. She always had a ready supply of homemade cakes in the freezer for such occasions.
Tempting, certainly, but the image of a cute new guy appearing here and catching me at the laundry shift kept me focused on the task on hand.
“Maybe later, but that’s a good idea. Why don’t you come with me so it won’t look so obvious,” I suggested.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket – Ashley. Solution confirmed.
“Hi, Ashley. Yes, I did see the van next door. No, I haven’t met them, but I plan to later this afternoon,” I said. “You’ll be the first to know,” I promised her.
Amazing what a new person does to a community. And our town really isn’t that small – but oh so small is the circle. Everyone in this neighborhood works at certain places, shops at certain places, sends their kids to certain schools, and even goes to certain churches. Simple, yet complicated rules governed all this and to be subjected to these made me hope that the neighbors were not from too far away – for their sake. Money made little difference in the mix. In this part of the South, heritage and manners trumped money every time – I’m becoming my mother.
I distributed the laundry in a flash, grabbed the cake, and with my oh-so-proper Mother in tow, walked next door.
“Elliott, you could’ve at least brushed your hair and put on some sandals,” Mother sighed.
Of course I still had hat-hair and had forgotten to replace my paddock boots with something “cute” on my feet. At least I had on reasonably clean jeans and not riding pants. Too late now.
Chaos emanated from the neighbors’ yard. Movers and boxes cluttered the lawn and driveway. The Allen’s and their belongings were a welcome, crazy, semi-organized assault on the property formerly owned by a retired couple. A blond girl flew around the driveway on her skateboard and three large, hairy dogs attempted keep up the chase. At least we’d have some action next door for a change.
“Hello – Carolyn? It’s Lisa…Lisa Marks, from next door,” my mother announced as we knocked on the doorframe and stepped over the threshold. The dogs barely gave us a second look. They were much more interested in chasing their girl.
“Hi! Come on in – don’t mind the mess!” Mrs. Allen welcomed us into her fold. “Ben, just set that down on the countertop – but don’t scratch the soapstone – careful!”
From behind the boxes I saw why Ashley was being nice. She must have found his picture on Facebook. Well, I’m sure it did little justice to his charismatic and a little bit shy grin. That could get under a girl’s skin.
“Carolyn, I hope we’re not disturbing you, but I wanted to at least say ‘Hi’ and make ourselves available for anything you might need,” Mother said. “This is my daughter, Elliott.”
“Nice to meet you, Elliott. This is my son, Ben,” Carolyn said. “And please Elliott, call me Mrs. Carolyn. We will be neighbors after all.”
I extended my hand for Ben’s greeting and his solid, but gentle handshake was overshadowed by that gaze. He was going to start some fights among the girls I could tell already.
“Elliott, I’m glad you came over. It’ll help to see a familiar face tomorrow,” he said. “This is my first time to be at a new school, well, since first grade. I’m afraid I’m out of practice.”
“No problem, Ben. I will be happy to show you around,” I said. And show you off. Ashley may not be so happy about this, though.
“We won’t keep you, but please let us know if you need anything. Right now, I’m sure you need some space,” Mother said, moving to the door. “And here’s a pound cake for a snack. Please come over when you get settled. James and I would be glad to make dinner for all of you.”
“Thank you for coming,” Carolyn said.
“See you tomorrow,” Ben said as they led us out the door.
We walked back to our driveway dodging the skateboard and ebullient dogs. Just before we were out of earshot my mother was already turning on the questions.
“Well?” she asked with a lilt in her voice. I knew that tone so well. Since my sisters had abandoned her for higher education, she focused all the well-intended, but soap opera questioning and drama on every possible relationship that could surface around me. She liked information in real time. My sisters’ was at least hours old by the time they chatted online every evening. I knew she meant well, but I was tired and still had piles of homework.
“At least he speaks in complete sentences,” I said with a blank expression on my face, just to get a rise out of Mother.
“Come on, Elliott, he must have been cute to you. I’m old but certainly not blind,” she said, punching me playfully in the ribs.
“Yes, he’s very cute, Mother, but cute only goes so far,” I said trying very hard not to sound patronizing.
“Keep me posted,” Mother said sensing she’d crossed the boundaries of my chattiness today.
Upstairs in my loft, I closed the door to my room, nestled into homework position, and, despite Ben’s charm, thought about…Viva.
We did have a great ride today. I wish I could ride her all the time. She feels my moods, I sense hers, and our rides are effortless and uncomplicated – relaxing. I hope Daddy finds a way to send her to college with me. I’ll make sure to get some scholarships to help pay for school. We wouldn’t have to have a fancy place like now, just a pasture, and a lake…
Saturday – our first real show. Everyone at the barn’s so nervous, but I’m not. And I don’t know why. It just feels so natural riding her and that makes no sense to Robin. She says it should’ve taken me years to find my seat. I think it’s Viva. Everything comes so naturally when I ride her. The other girls aren’t so sure and aren’t so happy about it either. Why is that?
I will trailer with Ashley. Why not? At least we’ll have something to talk about besides horses. I’m sure she’ll be all ears about Ben. And all I want to know about is horses. I wonder why that bothers her. She’s been around them her whole life, but this is all so new and fascinating to me.
I glanced at the clock, wrapped up my homework, and settled down to sleep. Ben really had a nice smile…I hope Viva and I jump clean Saturday…and I drifted off to sleep.