The air was unbelievably hot and sticky. The sweat ran between my breasts, down the sports bra and mixed with dusty, manure filled air. It was July and I could hardly stand to breathe. The air was so thick and filled with particles I didnít even want to think about it. I watched the horses at the stables, lazily and mundanely flicking their tails. My blood curdled in my veins at the thought of having to convince twenty little girls, none older than twelve, to go inside and rest. Western music came out scratchily through two loud speakers discussing how the singers had lost women and needed beer. I had one more thing to do. I had to clean the front area of manure. This was not how I had pictured my summer.
I had pictured my summer doing something that I loved and making money at it. The difference between my ideal and the reality was dealing with a boss who didnít believe in my qualifications, screaming energy filled girls who didnít know what they were doing, and a co-counselor who reveled in this work and spent every Sunday doing community service at church. I had been to church twice in my life and neither had been my idea. There was also the fact that my co-counselor knew every parent of every child who walked through here and they all loved her, she who did not drink, smoke, or curse. All of which I had done at least twice. Also, it was Iowa, Iowa in the summer. Iowa is singularly the worst climatic disaster God has ever created. The winters will freeze you to the bone and the summers are so high in humidity that people had been known to die of drowning when they breathed too fast.
This was my life. It had been for two months and would be for two more. I truly hated it. I loved the work, loved the horses, and loved being able to see the sunset from atop a moving, living being that had seen fit to not try and dislodge me from its back. The only type of acceptance that a horse ever truly gives, but the rest of it drove me crazy.
"Sarah!" My blond, butch boss came out of the main house in a loud pink tank top
and skin tight jeans with a wide silver belt and boots that clinked when she walked.
"Yeah?" I yelled back.
"Where did you put Rosie and Pippa?"
"In the back pasture. They were having trouble getting grain with King and Princess around." I knew she wouldnít like that, I hadnít cleared it, but I had grown up taking care of horses since I was eight years old, I knew what I was doing.
"Ok." I waited. That couldnít be all there was to it. I hadnít received less than a reprimand all summer. A breeze from the river came by and I thought longingly of the public pool in my hometown. I had almost taken a job there as a lifeguard but I didnít have the money to take the certification training and test. CPR and First Aid were very valued in the life guarding business. Not to mention that my body was not what you would have called Bay Watch material and the compulsion to let the entire town see my imperfect body just hadnít gripped me. They didnít really let you wear dark, baggy clothes in the pool when some ones life was at stake. Go figure.
"Well, just make sure they get back in time for the afternoon ride."
"Sure, no problem." Actually, it was a big problem. To get to the back pasture I would have to skip lunch. Maybe I could get Mark to get them for me. But I hated to play the simpering female who needed a favor. Iíd have to think on it. I marched inside ready to wrest control from my counterpart on the ranch, Amanda. Even the name Amanda seemed to scream pure and virtuous to my hyper sensitive brain. She was everything I was not; tall, thin, graceful, and she had a sense of sincerity that even the Pope would have had problems finding sin in. I didnít hate her, but it was hard to always be compared to her and found to be the black sheep.
The Lodge was where everyone ate. The cook was named Bertha. Her mother had been German and her father Romanian. They had both been large people who loved food and they had passed this on to all of their seven children. Bertha had a dour face and a personality to go with it, but she made spaghetti and macaroni and cheese like no one else, and she loved kids. She had never had any of her own and doted on all of the children at camp. She always gave me a little extra bit of whatever dessert we were having though, so I liked her immensely. Plus, one day I had seen her sneak extra carrots to a child so he could feed his horse and ever since Iíve had a fondness for her.
"Alright," I raised my voice above the chatter, "the last four girls in the bunk today forgot to turn off the lights so they have to eat last, and they are Kirsi, Alison, Penny, and Michelle. Miranda, Vicky, Jackie, and Rachel get to go first though, because they have kitchen duty this evening." Typically, Kirsi came up to me for her daily argue with-the-counselor-and-whine time. "Sarah, I wasnít in the bunk-" I cut her off; Iíd heard some form of excuse from this elf every day for the past two weeks.
"Kirsi, it doesnít matter if you werenít there, it was your group, just like it was yesterday and the day before. Theses are the rules and you know it."
"But Iím so hungry Iím going to die if I donít eat first." Kirsis parents were millionaires and had given her acting lessons so she had a real flair for the dramatic. She fell to the floor with her eyes closed, writhing. As much as I disliked her whining I couldnít help but find her theatrics amusing. "Get up Kirsi." Pause. "Right now, Kirsi." She got up and pouted, then walked away. Being the eldest of six I had the tone of an authority figure down perfectly. I could add guilt, shame, and anger to my voice with just the right inflection. It was one of my few skills.
Amanda came up and put her hand on my shoulder. "Sarah, we need Rosie and Pippa down now. I can handle this."
"Sure." I grabbed my hat at the door and went outside, just as Mark was bringing down Rosie and Pippa. I smiled broadly and couldnít help but think how sometimes life was so much better than you expected it to be. "Thank you, you have no idea how much this helps me out."
"Yeah, no problem." Mark was cute in that Marlboro man way, but I could never look at the Marlboro man and not see him with emphysema later on in life, it was the same with Mark. I always saw him twenty pounds heavier scratching himself in front of the TV drinking beer and disillusioned by life. So even though I knew he was interested I couldnít bring myself to date him. "Yeah, but Nancy says you need to put them in the barn and Molly and Dolly out." Molly and Dolly were the two ponies that Nancy had saved from a life of abuse. "Okay, thanks a lot Mark." I smiled at him and walked toward the barn, he watched me walk away. He always did that.
I walked over to the barn picking up two lead ropes on my way and carrying them over my shoulder. I hated this part. I was really good with horses in open areas, or with only a few horses in a small area, but when they were all together inside it made me nervous. I had been eleven when I saw my stepmother, the best horsewoman I know, get kicked in the stomach doing the same thing. She had been fine, but it made an impression.
I started talking in a low and calm voice well before I walked inside what resembled a pen, where all the horses ate. Just mumbling to let them know I was coming. I walked in and shoved several friendly heads out of my way. Molly and Dolly were in the corner. King was being his usual ornery, arrogant self and harassing everyone else. He looked at me and smelled the carrots I had foolishly brought with me. Damn.
Then I was in the middle of twenty horses and none of them liked their personal space being taken up by each other. They began to nip and prance like they will and my nervousness turned to fear. Suddenly Princess kicked out at King and the high neighing of horses in pain greeted me as life exploded inside the barn. All twenty horses began to push and shove and run around each other, creating a chaos that involved eighty legs and forty pairs of eyes rolling back in their sockets. I panicked. Instead of getting out of the way as fast as I could I tried for the door. I was rewarded with a swift kick from Chief, a black and white pinto horse, in the left side on my bottom three ribs for my stupidity. I gasped at the pain and saw my shirt had been torn. I caught myself and jumped up onto the side of the barn near the trough and climbed over the edge and safely onto the gravel.
Amanda and Mark ran up. "Are you alright?" they asked almost in unison.
"Yeah, Iím fine." This was my standard answer to that particular question, no matter the situation.
"Let me look," Mark said. I pulled up my shirt and looked myself. The skin hadnít been broken but I could feel the bruised muscle whenever I went to breath.
"You should take the rest of the day off and ice it."
"No, Iíll be fine."
"I donít think thatís a good idea Sarah, you could be really hurt." Amanda spoke.
" Iíll be fine, trust me." I said and limped off. I felt like spitting on both of them. I did not need or want their concern. I realized that I was simply reacting to the adrenaline but that didnít stop it from pumping through my bloodstream just as it didnít stop me from thinking mean thoughts about them.
I went to the bunk and changed my shirt, then went outside and simply sat under a tree for a while, feeling the pain sneak into my stomach and side whenever I took a breath without undue consideration. Damn and double damn, despite my assurance of "fine," I wasnít sure if I could still work. I needed the money though, and I couldnít quit like this on Nancy she wouldnít be able to get a filler. I sighed, what to do, what to do. Then Belinda one of the sweetest girls here, all blonde pigtails and light, came bounding down the hill toward me.
"Sarah, Sarah!!" She skidded to a stop right in front of me; just as I had thrust my hands in front of my, trying to ward off the attack I had felt certain would come when she flung herself bodily into my lap.
"Yeah?" I asked weakly.
"Are you okay? Amanda said you were hurt and couldnít ride with us anymore."
"Chief just stomped me a bit, thatís all."
"Well, are you going to come ride with us or are you too hurt?" I saw the silhouette of Nancy standing with Amanda and Mark on the hill, and Bertha peering through the window at me from the Lodge.
"Yeah, Iím coming." I said and pushed myself up from the tree. In for a penny in for a dollar, or something like that I decided, and went off to face my fate. Iíd come this far and pushed this hard. Iíd never let a horse stop me before, might as well not start now, not after eight falls, numerous bites, and more stomped toes than I could count. Especially with that bitch Amanda waiting for me. I took Belindaís hand in mine and walked up the hill slowly, but walking, and walking with purpose.