The Doomed Summer
“Have a good trip,” I told Fergie and Francis as I pushed a bowl of pellets into their crate. “At least you’ll be going on an adventure this summer. Not like some of us.” Fergie squeaked, which might have been sympathy in guinea pig language. But judging by their blank expressions as they furiously nibbled their pellets, I wasn’t convinced they really understood how I was feeling.
There was a ding dong from the doorbell. “That’ll be your ride,” I informed the guinea pigs. I hoisted my duffel bag over one shoulder, then squatted to pick up the crate from its place below the hooks where all my riding ribbons hung. As I stood up, the ribbons brushed against my hair, as if to tease me. I gritted my teeth and turned away.
Waddling down the hallway, I stopped in front of Charlie’s room. His door was open, but he had his back to me, taking the posters from his wall and rolling them up for packing. The room looked as sad and bare as an undecorated Christmas tree. The sight of its blandness made me feel hollow and lonely, like things would never be the same again. Why did this summer ever have to come?
Normally, summers couldn’t come soon enough. I would count down the days on my horse wall calendar until we could pack up our bags and head off to England to visit my grandparents. Charlie and I call them Nan and Pop, and we’ve spent every summer with them since I was born. That was part of “the deal” when my English mum agreed to marry my dad and move to America.
Summers in England really are superb. Nan and Pop live in an old farm house in Kent with woods, blackberry brambles, an old barn and even a wishing well. Charlie and I always played orphans out there, pretending to live in the barn and throw wishes into the well that one day we would live in a palace with servants to bring us tea and extra buttery scones on silver trays whenever we liked. Then, when Nan called us into the house for tea time and brought us a tray of fresh baked scones, we’d imagine she was our servant and laugh at our secret joke. Nan said we were cheeky, but always with a smile.
Of course our games became more sophisticated later on, when I got old enough to start reading murder mysteries. Then Charlie became Sherlock Holmes and I was his right-hand man, Watson; we’d think up all kinds of crimes to solve around the farm and the village.
As I stood there remembering it all, the crate tipped, and one of the guinea pigs gave a loud, complaining reek. I moved away from Charlie’s open door before he could turn around. I didn’t feel like talking; and anyway, all he ever talked about these days was the new life awaiting him in Scotland and all the exciting things he planned to do at university. He didn’t have time for silly games with an eleven-year-old sister anymore. He had real adventures to look forward to now.
I hobbled downstairs. Dad had got to the door first and was chatting to Miss Thaxton. When she noticed me, her eyes widened and her mouth stretched into an unusually toothy smile.
“Hi there, Katie. Now don’t you worry about those guinea pigs. They are going to get loads of attention up at the barn while you’re away. The kids will adore them.”
“I know,” I said, then added a “Thank you.” We stared awkwardly at each other for a second before I finally got the nerve to ask the question burning in my throat. “How’s Gypsy?”
With that over-the-top smile plastered on her face, Miss Thaxton answered, “Oh, he’s great!”
“Is anyone, you know … riding him these days?” I asked with dread nibbling at my stomach.
Miss Thaxton still smiled but looked pityingly at the same time. “He has a new rider, yes. But Katie, Gypsy will never forget you. I’ve seen hundreds of riders and horses; you two have a truly special bond. And when you get back from your summer travels, you know you can always come and visit him, don’t you?”
I swallowed and nodded, then slipped quietly into the dining room while Dad carried the guinea pigs out to Miss Thaxton’s truck.
I let my duffel bag drop to the floor and sank into my chair at the table. Mum set a bowl of porridge down in front of me. I could feel her eyeing me, the way she does when she knows I’m upset but doesn’t want to set me off on one of my “contrary moods.”
“Raisins?” she asked brightly.
I shook my head.
I poked at the lumps of oats and shook my head again.
“Don’t be silly. You love raisins and maple syrup.”
Without looking at Mum, I reached down and pulled the mystery novel I was reading from my duffel bag. Propping it open on the table, I pretended not to notice as she sprinkled raisins and syrup into my porridge.
“How’s the book?” she asked.
I shrugged and grumbled, “Better than real life.”
“Oh? Real life’s not so bad, is it? After all, we’re flying to England tomorrow, and then who knows what sort of fun Nan and Pop have planned for you all?”
“You and Dad and Charlie will be having all the fun up in Scotland.” I should’ve stopped there, but there was still a lot of steam inside me that needed venting. “I still don’t see why I have to stay behind while you ‘settle him in’ and go hiking and see otters and puffins and … and …”
“You know why, Katie,” Mum chided in a gentle voice. “This is a special time for Charlie. And besides that, the doctor thinks you need to take it a bit easy until we’re sure you’re 100 per cent recovered. You’ll have a chance to visit the Highlands some time. In the meantime, why not at least try to enjoy your holiday with Nan and Pop? They’re so looking forward to spending time with you.”
“It’s still not fair,” I grumbled under my breath and leaned over my book with my head in my hands.
With one stealthy movement, Mum slipped the book out from under me and turned it over to look at the back cover. “A mystery, eh? This does look good. Have you ever noticed that in books ... the good ones, at least ... the main character has to go through difficulties, sometimes enormous, challenging changes out of their control?”
I didn’t answer, but Mum carried on. “Isn’t that what sets the adventure going? All the change and challenge? Isn’t that what makes it a story worth reading?” She handed me back the book. “Just something to think about.”
Then she turned right on her heels and started scrubbing the porridge pot before I had the chance to exercise my contrary mood. So frustrating that we are so much alike, I thought. From our lanky limbs and strawberry-coloured hair to our love of riding horses. Mum always knows what I’ll argue back before I do and always has me blocked.
I knew what I wanted to say. Maybe that’s how it worked in books — maybe characters have to go through all sorts of rubbish to get their adventures. But it didn’t make me feel any better, and it certainly didn’t persuade me that having my life turned upside down was any kind of adventure worth having.
I forced down my porridge and carried the bowl to the sink. Mum wiped her hands on the tea towel and walked over to my duffel bag at the same time. “Are you sure you’ve packed everything, Kate? I don’t want Nan having to go to the shops a dozen times for things you’ve forgotten.” She leant down to pick up the bag and let it drop into the chair with a grunt. “My heavens! What have you got in here? Your entire library?”
“It’s just clothes and a few books,” I spat out, rushing over. But before I could step in, she’d unzipped the bag and found them: the riding helmet and boots I’d stuffed right down at the bottom, hoping they’d stay hidden there until Mum and Dad and Charlie went off to Scotland and left me alone with Nan and Pop. Mum would never agree to let me go to riding camp; she would want me to follow the doctor’s orders and take it easy. But if I asked my grandparents nicely enough, they were sure to give in. At least they would have done. Now I was busted.
“Katie, what is this?” She held out the riding helmet, her eyebrows raised and waiting for an explanation.
“I just thought I could try again over the summer. I won’t have anything else to do.”
“Mum, I know I can do it if I just—”
“KATIE!” Mum took a deep breath, then spoke in a low, calm voice. “We’ve been through this. I know how badly you want to ride again. And I admire your determination, I really do. But, love, maybe you’re just not ready yet.”
I looked away from her, a puff of hot air fuming from my nostrils.
She took a step nearer and stroked my hair, the very patch of hair that hid the large, uneven scar across my scalp. “Your accident with Gypsy was a terrible, traumatic thing to go through. Most girls would never dream of riding ever again after that. Be patient with yourself. The time will come. There’s no need to rush it.”
I jerked back from her hand. “But I am ready! I’ve got to ride, Mum. You don’t know what it’s like not being able to do the thing you love most in the world!”
Mum looked uncertainly at me for half a moment. Maybe she was coming around after all!
Then she shook her head, and my heart sank. “I’m sorry, Katie. I don’t want you going near a horse while your dad and I are away. Nan and Pop wouldn’t know what to do if something happened, and … I just … I don’t want you getting hurt again.”
My eyes started stinging, and I could feel my chin quivering. Everything seemed to be caving in on me all at once, and I lost it. “It’s not fair!” I shouted as my eyes went blurry. “Gypsy was my best friend, and I’ve lost him. Now Charlie’s going away forever, and you’re leaving me alone all summer and won’t even let me try to ride again!”
Charlie chose just that moment to saunter into the kitchen with his hiking pack strapped to his back and ask, “How do I look? Ready to take on the Highlands?”
Mum gave him a look that meant not now, for Pete’s sake. I wish she hadn’t. It only made him take note of my red face and puffy eyes. I spun away from Mum, still standing there holding my riding helmet, pushed past a speechless Charlie and his hiking pack, and ran out of the front door, narrowly missing Dad as he walked up the driveway. I didn’t stop until I got to the old tree swing in the backyard.
I couldn’t stand it. I knew when the others felt sorry for me — the poor little girl who fell off her horse and went into shock every time she tried to get back on. I used to be good! Gypsy and I used to ride like champions, to jump, to fly! Now I was just a pathetic eleven-year-old with a scar on her head and a sheltered, adventure-less life.
Everything had changed for me. Everything felt so uncertain … except for one thing. Unless a miracle happened, this summer would be the worst of my life.