"Ride" is one of the July Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
Autumn was in the barn, but no one knew. The sunlight trickled through her hair, setting her golden locks on fire in the evening sun. Dust motes played in the air, giving the illusion of sparkles — as if tiny fairies danced in the air. Of course, it had been years since she believed in things like that. Life had suddenly and abruptly ended the time of fairytales when her brother Jase went to war and never came back two years ago. Life didn’t always have a happy ending.
Even now, she could hear his laugh, deep and rolling, see the lopsided smile and the blonde stubble clouding his chin. She could feel his strong arms holding her up when she hopped on his back for a piggy-back ride. Most of all, she could see him in this barn, hand on the warm flank of his chestnut mare. Autumn could see him brushing the red coat, picking dirt out of her hooves, saddling her up with a grin and asking, “Want to come with me?”
Autumn was terrified of riding. A horse threw her when she was twelve, breaking her wrist and ending her riding career before it ever started. She would shake her head and watch Jase ride out across the cow pasture alone, the horse’s hooves thudding into the distance until they were a single speck disappearing into the woods. Every time, the other mare would whinny after them, craning her neck over the fence as far as possible to see them.
Now Autumn wished she had gone with him, wished she had overcome the fear of riding. Sighing, she closed her eyes and focused on the way the straw poked at her bare legs, tickling them. It was important to live in the present as much as possible, the counselors said. Remember, yes. Talk about him and express her feelings, sure. But don’t live in the past. That was how people got stuck and never recovered.
The sun was setting and the fairies were retreating for the night. The absence of sun on her skin left her feeling cool. She sat up and looked out the door. Her mom was cooking supper; her dad would be getting home soon. Autumn’s chores had long since been finished and her parents would wonder where she went.
She hauled herself out of the hay, over the half-wall that contained it, and brushed off. Tiny bits clung to her denim shorts and some was stuck deep down in her boots, sticking the tender skin on her feet. She cleaned up as much as possible, but the musty smell of hay hung around her like perfume. She started for the door when Jase’s horse whinnied from the stall behind her.
Autumn turned. The chestnut mare was watching, her round eyes focused so intently it sent a shiver down Autumn’s spine. They watched each other, both still as statues. The horse let out a breath; Autumn did too.
It was like her brother was there again, smoothing down the red coat with a brush after a ride. He grinned at her over his shoulder, urged her closer, laid her hand on the smooth flank. His hand was callused against her smooth skin.
Autumn blinked at her hand resting on the horse’s side. It was warm, rising and falling with each breath. Jase was the only one who could coax her near a horse again. But now he was gone. Why was she here?
She looked at the horse’s face when it turned to her. Its chocolate eye was focused on her. Warmth spread through the pit of her stomach, radiating out to her arms and legs, pulling the corners of her mouth into a smile.
Before she could stop herself, Autumn went into the stall and hopped up on the mare’s back. The coat was warm on her legs, the back smooth and even. Her fingers slid through the horse’s mane as though it had just been brushed. She frowned. Her dad had taken over care of the horses after Jase went to fight in the war, but he could never achieve grooming perfection. This horse was perfectly groomed. She looked down. The hooves and legs were spotless.
The mare shifted and Autumn looked up. A soft, watery eye was looking back at her. There was something in that look that Autumn couldn’t place. An intelligence she had never noticed. An uncanny compassion.
The horse blinked and looked away, head out of the stall. Autumn looked too. Her breath caught. Her chest tightened. In the dim light, she saw Jase standing across from her, grinning his lopsided smile. He was just as he was before he left. Shaggy blonde hair hung low over his eyes. His t-shirt and jeans were dirty as if he had just finished a hard day’s work on the farm.
“Jase?” Autumn said, the word catching her throat and barely making it out.
The horse snorted, shook her head. Jase faded away. Autumn stared at the place where he was until her eyes ached and she had to blink. He was there. She had seen him just like she saw the horse beneath her and the barn around her.
The mare looked at her again. Autumn smiled and closed her eyes.