This story is one of the November Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
The morning air was crisp as she stood on the weathered porch, allowing the fresh air to wake her. Descending the porch’s steps silently and quickly, she headed out to the barn. For now, her thoughts were mechanical, planning each step as a task, mentally checking them off. She knew all too well she would unravel eventually, but she preferred to keep herself calm as long as possible. Last year she had made it to the hickory tree.
This year I will make it to the lake first, she thought, I will make it.
She approached the barn’s doors, pried them open, and prayed her parents were still asleep.
Flicking the lights open, she called in a whisper-shout, “Prince! Wake up!”
She jogged to the back room, found Prince’s bridle, and came out. As she approached his stall, he stuck his white muzzle out, waiting for her.
“Good morning, Prince,” she whispered, allowing herself a small smile while rubbing his nose.
Swiftly, she put on his bridle and led him out of the barn, all the while feeding him carrots. Making sure to close the lights and the barn’s doors, she climbed onto Prince’s back. She hadn’t bothered with a saddle; she didn’t need it anymore. She gave him a nudge, and they were off with a trot. If she could, she would have him galloping at full speed, but she knew that would only tire him sooner than later.
Your horse comes first, she repeated to herself.
She remembered her father saying it to her on her eleventh birthday as he flung the barn’s door open four years ago to reveal a white colt shaking his mane restlessly. She had cried then. She had cried out of joy, for having the horse she always dreamt of. She had cried out of grief, for her younger sister wasn’t there with her. Her father had hugged her silently, holding her tight. The colt had pranced over and nudged his nose between them, demanding their attention. Laughing at the colt’s behavior, thinking how charming and demanding he was, she had reminisced of the ridiculous princes in her sister’s favorite fairytale stories.
“I think I will name him Prince,” she had said aloud tentatively.
“Well,” her father pausing, “I reckon not any other name would fit better,” he had agreed.
The hickory tree was now in sight, upon a small hill.
Almost there, she thought.
The giant tree had always been there for as long as she could remember. Her sister used to always create stories about it, how fairies lived in the highest branches, how they would only come out to fly on clear nights to bathe in the moon’s silver light…Even though she would call the stories silly, she had always listened to her sister’s stories enraptured. Everyone did.
A sudden heartache wrecked her body like an earthquake, crumbling her clarity. She knew it was only a matter of time for the tsunami of tears to devastate her, so she kicked Prince into a gallop, allowing the wind to blow away the dusty remnants of her memories. The wind numbed her and her mind, enabling her to focus on only her senses: the smell of dewy grass, the inky dirt kicked up by Prince’s hooves, the sun leisurely rising to a new day.
Prince raced past the hickory tree, the lake was now ahead of them: serene, concealing its past. The foliage around had flourished over the previous five years without the interfering hand of man. Her parents had let the lake and its surroundings grow wild; it was the one place they would never return to.
She slightly pulled on Prince’s reins, signaling him to slow down. They reduced to a trot, and then to a walk. As Prince approached the long grass, she brought him to a stop and slid off. Making sure the reins wouldn’t tangle him, she patted him and gave him an apple. She was distracting herself. Now that she was here, she couldn’t face her memories of the accident. The tsunami was now threatening, her eyes welling up with waves of tears. Letting go of Prince, she gradually began to make her way through the grass to the shore.
By the time she reached the familiar spot she had chosen four years ago, her body was heaving with silent sobs, her tears streaking her face like rain streaming down a window. Hands shaking, she gingerly took the chain hidden under her shirt, lifted it out, and clutched onto the golden-colored locket hanging from it. Taking deep breaths, she wiped away her tears, unclasped the locket, and looked down at her sister’s face smiling back up at her as she did every year.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to her sister. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”