The rickety pickup truck rattled to a stop on Old Mill Road. Ted, frozen to the bone, stretched out his stiffened legs and hopped out. The jarring landing on the dirt of the roadside sent a surge of pain through his chest that made him suck in his breath.
“Thanks George,” he called to the old man in the cab along with his two German Shepherds. George Strickland leaned out the window, John Deere cap perched on a white head, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“You sure you’re all right, boy?” he yelled back, and Ted nodded wearily. He had crossed to the northbound shoulder in a blood-chilling dash and walked for half an hour before George Strickland of all people had stopped to see if he needed a ride. George had lived in Stockbridge all his life; his family had owned the Strickland Apple Orchard for generations. Like everybody else in Stockbridge, it seemed he owed Archie Gray an old favor and was happy to pay it back to his son.
“Ho-kay,” George shouted. “Sorry again about the bed – the boys won’t allow anyone up front.” He grabbed the muzzles of his dogs and shook them affectionately. Ted had been just as happy not to ride between Grant and Lee, though it had been a body-numbing experience. The old pickup slowly engaged into first gear and puttered off into the darkness. Ted turned and hurried down the long dirt driveway, turned to mud in the autumn rains and now frozen into uneven ruts. It was pitch black, and he tripped a couple of times negotiating his way, but managed to keep his feet. When he arrived at the house the front entryway was lit but all of the windows were dark, and there were no cars in the driveway. He rang the bell and knocked, but there was no answer from within.
Ted had been certain she’d be here. He knew Jill, and on a night like this there was no way she’d want to be alone. Apparently the whole family had gone somewhere together. But where? Mike and Lisa’s? he thought. That was probably the best bet, but it was all the way across town. He was exhausted, his bruised ribs were aching, and his entire body was ice cold. He’d never make it on foot. There were bicycles in the garage, but that was locked and Ted had no idea where the Wards kept their spare key. He slumped against the front door, wondering if he should just wait out here until they got home. But his heart was bursting to see her now, and it was so damn cold! The barn would be a warmer place to wait…
Ted jogged down the small hill to the barn, sliding open the main door. The smell of hay and manure filled his nostrils, and he could hear the low snuffling of the three horses inside. He’d never ridden before, having a modest fear of horses, but he had once or twice helped Jill to brush down the old mare, Furious Rhythm. She was a retired racehorse the Wards had adopted ten years before, and now was quietly living out her days content to make a circuit or two of the paddock a couple of times a week. He ducked into the tackroom and gathered together a saddle and stirrups, bit and bridle. Ted was glad Jill had shown him how rig up the gear on the horse then, and he wished she were here now as he tried to remember the process. Of course, if she were here now I’d never be trying to do this by myself. He wished then that he hadn’t been so adamant about refusing to ride when she had offered.
Ted laid down the equipment by the door to the stall where Furious Rhythm was standing. She’d been asleep when he entered the barn, but now was wide awake and watching him, her long graceful head moving slowly from side to side, as if to tell him to forget it.
“Sorry, old girl,” Ted murmured. He took an apple from a basket by the door and held it out as a peace offering as he approached her. The horse sniffed at the gift, and in one swift motion devoured it. Placing one hand on her side, Ted used the other to rub the mare’s nose. She stared at him with her great brown eyes, and Ted leaned in close and whispered, “One more race left in you?”
It was as if she’d heard his plea and decided to help. She let him place the saddle on her back and secure the bit in her mouth. After a few minutes of trial and error he seemed to have it all hooked up correctly. Now he just had to get on. He closed his eyes and thought of Jill, thought of the message she’d left just a few hours ago on his answering machine. You’re a special man…
A special man would get on the horse, Ted thought. Images from the John Wayne movies his father had loved and made him watch on Saturday afternoons leapt to mind. It had always seemed so easy to them, to the point where they could mount on the run or even from a second-story window. Taking a deep breath, he seized the reins and put his left foot in the stirrup, swinging himself up. His ribs protested, but to his utter surprise and delight he found himself sitting in the saddle, even facing in the right direction. Not wanting to hurt the mare, he gently nudged at her sides with his heels. She turned her head to look at him with a bored and unimpressed expression. The he remembered the clicking sound Jill made with her mouth when he’d seen her ride. He managed to duplicate it, and Furious Rhythm moved forward at a leisurely walk.
Fine, thought Ted. At this rate we’ll get there in time for Christmas. Holding on tight as they emerged from the barn, he made the noise again, and kicked with his heels as hard as he dared. Her ears flattened and the horse lurched forward, nearly unseating Ted in the process. She picked up speed, and Ted guided her as best he could up the driveway and onto Old Mill Road. He bounced on the saddle like popcorn in a popper, finally electing to virtually stand in the stirrups and absorb the turbulence with his legs. It was better, and he almost felt like he knew what he was doing. Then she shifted into another gear, and the wind whipped past Ted’s ears with a low roar, his legs starting to ache and ribs screaming in agony.
Jill, Ted thought. He gritted his teeth and held on.
After a dizzying and petrifying ride through town, Ted and Furious Rhythm made the turn onto Langdon Street. Eat your heart out, Paul Revere, thought Ted as they jogged down the road together, slowing to a stop in front of the Heathers’ house. Ted swung his leg over his steed to dismount, and was rewarded with a cramp in his quadriceps. His foot caught in the stirrup and he fell awkwardly to the ground with an unceremonious thud. There was a last whimper of pain from his chest, which had all but given up on being allowed to rest.
He climbed to his feet, and shook off the unnerving sense that the horse was laughing at him. He patted her on the side while he tied her to the Heathers’ mailbox.
“Good girl,” he murmured. “Thanks.”
Legs tender, Ted limped to the front door and knocked. He heard a young voice yell, “I’ll get it!” The door opened and there stood Nan Heather, twelve years old, blond hair like her sister and mother, but curly and short, and with dark features like her father. When she saw Ted her eyes bulged. He put a finger to his lips and winked, and her face split into a broad smile, gleaming with silver braces. Ted nudged past her and up the stairs into the living room.
Mike and Lisa were there on the couch, silent and stunned as Ted hobbled into the room, Abby asleep between them. Meg Heather and Jake Hurlford were cuddled on the hearth of the fireplace, where a low fire was sputtering. Rip Heather was there, mouth open as he had clearly been regaling Jake with some tale of his own athletic exploits, stopping as Ted entered.
“I thought you were leaving?” inquired Mike.
“I thought I was, too,” answered Ted, shuffling into the room. He wanted to sleep for the rest of his life, he was so tired, but he’d never felt so alive. “Where’s Jill?” His eyes raked the room like artillery fire, searching for that missing face. No eyes would meet his, as if there was some great secret he wasn’t in on.
“Mike, man, I’m not kidding. Abby’s here with you guys, and no one is home at her parents, so where the fuck is she?”
“Coach Gray!” gasped Meg in mock horror at the curse, but her mother shot her a dark look and she fell silent.
“That’s Mr. Gray,” he corrected, the slightest hitch in his voice. And he returned his gaze to Mike Heather, who never took his eyes of the label of his beer bottle, as though he’d never found the Budweiser logo so compelling. The continued silence rained on him like physical blows.
“Somebody tell me where she is!” he bellowed.
“She’s at Papa Bear’s.” It was Meg, her young face a mixture of reluctance to tell him and mild shame that no one else would. “Coach…Mr. Gray, she’s with someone.” The floor opened beneath Ted and threatened to swallow him whole, and the cold and fatigue and labors of the journey back to Stockbridge caught up to him all at once. He felt a million years old in that moment, felt as he had standing over the graves of his parents. Completely lost and alone. The easiest thing in the world would be to sink to one knee, as he was about to do, then to the floor, and never get up again.
Ted wasn’t sure if that was his father’s voice or his own. It hardly mattered. His mouth became a hard, thin line.
“Thanks, Meg.” He turned to Mike. “Give me your keys, Mike.” His friend shook his head.
“I can’t, man,” he whispered. “Ted, it’s Kendall. It’s Abby’s father.” The edges of Ted’s vision darkened, as though he would pass out, but he pushed it back.
“If there’s a chance for them,” Lisa murmured, gently, “don’t you have to give them a chance?”
“Mike, give me your damn keys.” It was as though he hadn’t heard them. He stood in the middle of the room, swaying slightly as he fought back the waves of exhaustion that crashed over him. There was silence again, as painful and achingly lonely as before.
“Fine,” he finally said, his voice empty and flat. He thought of another horse ride, this one even longer, out to the commercial strip where Papa Bear’s family restaurant was. He couldn’t face that. “Thanks anyway. I’ll walk.” He headed down the stairs and out the front door.
Ted was heading up the street when he heard the front door of the Heathers’ house open and then swing closed loudly. He grinned. I knew Mike wouldn’t let me down. But when he turned, it wasn’t his friend, but his friend’s daughter, boyfriend in tow. Meg ran toward him and grabbed his arm. She had hurriedly pulled on a sweatshirt and was pulling her long yellow hair free as she smiled at him, tugging him back toward the driveway.
“Jake’ll drive,” she volunteered breathlessly, and he nodded, a sheepish grin on his face. Jake was a tall boy, athletic and handsome, polite and hardworking. He was the proverbial old man’s idea of what a young man should be.
“I got your back, Coach Gray,” he said as they piled into his Jeep. Ted got into the front seat as Meg squirmed into the cluttered rear, amongst football pads, golf clubs, and schoolbooks.
“Thanks, Jake.” He was about to correct him about the form of address, but let it go. “You were great tonight, by the way. Hell of a game, kid.” Jake laughed.
“We’d have got them if Bobby wasn’t such an idiot.” He started up the engine.
“Meg,” Ted craned his neck at the young girl folded into the back. “Go inside, OK?” Her face lit up as she laughed prettily.
“And miss this? Are you kidding?” She reached forward and squeezed Jake’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”