Ann rubbed Luke’s thick neck. He propped his chin on her lap as he snuggled closer.
Pete’s gone. She knew it would happen of course. Somehow she expected she would play some part – that she would be there and he would know she cared. But she wasn’t and he was alone. She knew that was crap too. Luke was there, just as he was here for Ann now and the comfort Luke offered was excellent.
And what of her? Would she heal? How long would it take? Jude would have to hire someone to take her place and what would that mean? Who would be able to gallop Invictus? Roxy of course. That meant Roxy would go to France if he runs in the Arc? So much for that dream. Ann[ people don’t want perfection – they want connection] would be home and hobbling around while the giant red demon showed the Frogs how fast American horses were. She would be eating TV dinners while Roxy explored the countryside around Chantilly. No Paris for Ann, just cable TV.
Ann lay her head back and pulled the afghan over her chest. Luke snuggled closer and she found herself drifting off to sleep. It was a heavy sleep with the pain meds running through her body and the exhaustion of the last few days crashing down. She dreamed of walking through the barn, petting noses. Enrique was hard at work and didn’t look up when she went by. She wondered if he was avoiding her or just too busy. Grooms she didn’t recognize were walking her beloved horses, some of whom looked thin. She passed by the stall of Vaya Con Dios – it was dark and empty. She peered inside to find him curled in a filthy corner, dying. In her absence, he had been forgotten and nobody had brought him food or water. His eyes looked at her as he struggled to draw breath. She fell into his stall sobbing and begging forgiveness.
She must have been crying out loud as she woke to Luke whining and licking her face. His clumsy feet were dangerously close to the injured parts of her body and she had to think quickly to get him gently off the couch before he stepped on her injured hip.
She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes and realizing how hungry she was. Charlie’s stew was in the kitchen and she needed to figure out how to get up and help herself to some. She grabbed the arm of the couch, exhaled hard and stood. Her crutches were just out of reach. One careful step on her good leg and she could pitch forward and reach the crutch. As she bent forward to take the step her stomach lurched. A flash of imagination crossed her brain; a misstep, a fall, a crunch of her hips hitting the corner of the coffee table and then the floor. Sweat broke out over her neck and shoulders and her breath came in short gasps. She told herself she would be fine, her fear was irrational. She was angry at herself for making a big deal about one lousy step. But the fear wouldn’t subside, the instinct to protect the sore and broken parts of her body took over. She simply couldn’t do it. She’d have to settle back down on the couch and wait for someone to help her like a goddamn cripple.
She eased herself back down on the couch, she winced as she arranged the pillows and blankets so that she was partially upright. Her jaws clenched and she waited. She had nothing to read, nothing to distract her from her anger, her helplessness. She looked around at the cards and the balloons, the teddy bears and the flowers. They were sent to make her feel better, friends that showed their care and affection but she couldn’t shake the notion that all of those people were out living their lives and she was stuck on a couch, waiting for someone to help her to the bathroom.
She had to stop. She knew this wasn’t helpful. She started thinking about all of the things she could do from home – getting all of the barn’s books absolutely straight. Tax forms would all get filed on time. She would send her mom to the library and she could catch up on all her reading. She would take an advanced French course on line. She would make Johnny and Mark teach her all about the art they loved that confused her. She would make the best of this.
Who was she kidding? Like the thoroughbreds she rode every day, she was a creature of movement. Her body’s strength gave her pleasure and satisfaction. Now it would turn to mush, pain and injury would rule her days and ruin her sleep.
She thought of the injured horses at the track with blown suspensory ligaments in their legs and the months of stall confinement and the wild look in their eyes. The way they looked outside their stalls at horses going by, nervous, worried and anxious. That’s all she could think of now – the world passing by as she watched it from this couch waiting for healing, waiting for the pain to stop waiting to see who still needed her when she was ready. In the meantime, she’d have to accept help, at least some help and that notion hurt. She never thought about the dignity of taking your own shower until this and now it seemed like a far off dream.
She wanted to call the barn. But the barn hadn’t called her. The last thing she wanted was to be one more useless person that the barn needed to report to. Like some pain in the ass owner who called for training updates from a cushy office. If they needed her, they would call. But it seemed they didn’t need her – because they weren’t calling.
Luke ran to the door baying at a car driving up the driveway. It didn’t sound like her mother’s truck.
“Shit.” She thought. Now she’d have to make nice conversation with someone while she waited for her mom to return and then figure out how to ask her mom with some shred of dignity left, to help her to the bathroom in front of some random guest.
Roxy pushed her way past Luke and into the front door. In her hands was a stack of Racing Forms, folders of bills and bank statements and a quart of chocolate and peanut butter ice cream.
“Brought you some stuff. I was thinking about bringing Jude’s head on a plate but I decided to let him live another day.” She laid the paperwork on the coffee table, patted Luke on the head and headed for the kitchen.
“That good huh?”
Roxy fished roughly through the kitchen drawers and brought back two giant spoons. She handed one to Ann and offered her the first dip into the ice cream. The two women ate greedily while Roxy updated Ann on all of the goings on at the barn. Ann hung on every word.
Roxy busied herself with scraping the rest of the ice cream from the sides of the carton. “He worked yesterday and so he’ll walk for a couple of days. He sure is a bastard.”
“How did he work?”
Roxy continued focus on the ice cream in the paper carton.
“He loves the grass you know. He went the half in 49 and two.”
“Perfect Rox, good job!” Ann was impressed and excited.
“Yeah.” Roxy took the empty carton and the spoons to the kitchen. She threw away the garbage and washed the spoons.
“While you’re in there, can you get us some of that stew on the stovetop? And Hey, what about Vaya Con Dios?”
“Which one is he? I don’t remember seeing his name on the chart?”
“He’s done racing. He’s waiting to go to a retirement home.”
“Couldn’t tell you then. You should ask Enrique. I’ve got my hands full with just getting the gallopers out. I have to tell you Ann, I feel like a criminal riding these horses. Everyone from the gate crew to the railbirds asks me where you are and how you are doing. How are you doing by the way? You look like you need some sun.” Roxy returned from the kitchen with two bowls of soup. Ann couldn’t believe she was still hungry after the ice cream, but the smell of the carrots and potatoes and onions was divine.
“The real question is how are YOU doing? Are you totally splitsville with Tony?”
“I’d better be. Jude catches me even thinking about talking to Tony and he’d blow a gasket. I caught him looking at my phone this morning to see if I’d called him. Fucking crazy bastard.”
“He’s possessive, that’s for sure. I guess you can’t blame him.”Ann said between delicious bites.
“Maybe you can’t blame him, but I sure can. I guess it’s all for the best. I need Tony out of my life and getting horses out for you and keeping the vultures away from your barn keeps me busy while I get Tony out of my system.”
Ann put her bowl down on the coffee table and looked Roxy in the eye. “I don’t know how to thank you Rox. You don’t know what it’s like to sit around and just wonder what’s happening to your job, your horses and all you can do is sit.”
“Oh I don’t do I? Listen Ann, we both know this could have been me laying here and I’d like to think you would do the same for me. We have to stick together us gals. We aren’t the young ones any more and we don’t know how to do anything else.”
“You said a mouthful Roxy.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Both women finished their bowls of stew in silence, both wrapped in thoughts and feelings that didn’t need discussing.
“Was it awful, finding Pete?” Ann finally said.
“Not too awful. It was like he was asleep you know? He’d been really lonely back there and it was kind of okay I guess. It’s hard for those old riders once they leave the track. They fade away. My dad never was the same after he quit riding. He got so sad and then he got mean. I never thought it was the cancer that got him, I think it was the sadness.”
“Man Roxy, I forgot all about that. That was just a few years ago right?”
“Don’t cry for me on that one. He was a motherfucker all his life and I don’t miss him at all. My mom has a whole new lease on life now and a new boyfriend – a guy that’s treating her really good for the first time in her life.”
Ann didn’t know what to say.
“I always thought it was cool, you being friends with Pete. Made me want to go out and so something good.”
“Pete was great, he always made me smile, he was a good friend.”
“Oh Ann, you are the sunshine girl – you’re the one who makes everyone smile, you’re the one who can gallop anything, you’re the one that can tame that bastard Jude Keenan and run a barn better than anyone and still look killer in a short skirt.”
Ann blushed but added “And now I’m just a grumpy cripple that needs help to get to the toilet. What the hell is going to happen to me this time Roxy? What if my leg never heals? What if I would have broken my head too? What if I lay up and get fat and lazy and never want to get on a racehorse again? What if Jude hires someone else that is better than me?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Roxy shrugged hard, looked Ann in the eye and laughed.
“It’s a bitch realizing that you don’t have nearly the control you thought you had – right?”
“What are you getting at Rox?”
“You think there isn’t a price to pay for being a girl who does what she wants? Life’s a bitch but we’re the girls who made a run at it, rode the horses, took the chances. You’ve got to pay in some way.”
“I’ve paid my dues thank you!”
“Of course you have, but they aren’t voluntary payments. Shit’s going to happen no matter what. But just because you earn respect, work harder and are nice to people doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Ann narrowed her eyes at her lanky friend. A shot of pain ran across her hip and landed in her stomach.
“We’re BACK!” Gayle and Charlie pushed through the door with Luke swirling at their knees – he sniffed the grocery bags they carried.
“Mom, this is my friend Roxy. Roxy this is Gayle.”
“How do dear, do you mind grabbing the last bag out of the truck?”
“Actually, I’m late for afternoon chores. I’d better run. Send this lazy ass jockey out for the last bag, looks like he needs to earn his keep somehow.” Roxy winked at Ann patted the stack of mail and bills she’d left on the coffee table and strode out the door.