Is there life after death? I can't help but wonder. I sat there for hours by the side of the person I loved more than I had ever loved anyone knowing that his chest wasn't going to rise and fall again, knowing that I could have prevented it. Knowing that he was dead... yet unable to face it. I was tearless and fearless for those long hours, trying to force my own breath just by will alone into the rise and fall of his chest. I expected him to reach out and stroke my hair, tell me I was beautiful, whisper that I was the only one for him. I would have been content just to hear that he had forgiven me.
But no words of comfort ever came. The doctors came and told me I would have to go and so I went, blindly. I walked home, forgetting my car, and entered my apartment. I went to the fridge, got out a can of diet soda, kicked off my shoes, pulled the clip out of my hair, and stared at a blank TV that I never noticed wasn't on. Then something snapped inside of me. I threw the full can of soda at the TV, pulled at my hair and cried and cursed, and screamed, and beat the arms of the chair in unbelieving grief.
"It can't be!" I whispered those words, I wailed them, I screamed them. I knocked my head so hard against the wall that I fell to my knees, half-stunned. I choked on my tears, me who never cried. I dug my fingernails into my palms so far that they bled, and still I could not stop.
"Come back to me," I whispered, seeing his face before me as one haunted. "Come back to me. Hold me again."
If only I hadn't been so angry about something so stupid. If only I could have seen things his way. Then he would be alive, not an empty shell lying in the morgue. I shivered. I couldn't bear the image. Not Jonathan. Not him!
"I've got to go," I whispered. "I've got to go. I can't stay here." I twisted off my sapphire ring and stuck it into my pocket, going into a mad frenzy of stuffing all of my worldly possessions into a few bags. I left a message on his mother's machine. I couldn't be here. I'd find work somewhere. I just had to leave. I couldn't stay for the funeral. I had to get moving, going, any way I could.
I remembered the magical two weeks we had spent in Kentucky, watching horse races and acting like two lovebirds. We were just learning how to love then, now it was all gone, smashed in an instant.
"Got to go, got to go, got to go," I chanted, dragging a suitcase after me. "Damn." The car was at the hospital. I stared at his, parked in front of me. The bloody pickup. How I had hated it, the money he had wasted on it. I unlocked the door with a shaking hand and wrested it open, throwing my things into the back like a mad woman.
I stuck in the key, turned it mechanically, and was fifty miles up the freeway heading east before I realized what I was doing. There was nothing left of me, I was as dead and dry and missing as the soul of my Jonathan. My heart. My love. Oh, please, I prayed, I can't bear this.
At the same time part of my brain said, it's a long drive to Kentucky. You've got to keep in control. Don't kill yourself.
Why not? No answer for that.
So I stopped at a hotel, ate, but I wasn't hungry, lay down, but I couldn't sleep, and was on the road again in less than two hours. My head pointed me north and east and I had to go. I had no choice.
Bluegrass country. Bluegrass which never somehow looked blue until the hour I pulled into a stable yard and sat staring at a 'riders wanted' sign on the office door, the engine turned on. I mechanically turned it off, just as mechanically pulled a brush through my hair, and headed straight towards that sign.
I knocked on the door and heard a sharp. "Come in." I opened it and came face to face with a lean man with a weathered face, who looked me up and down and folded his arms like he didn't know what to think. "Kin I help you?" I hadn't heard a drawl quite like it. I wondered if it was real. I wondered if I was real. Maybe I was still dreaming.
I brought myself into clarity enough to say, "I can ride. You have a sign up for help."
He looked me up and down again, this time with more interest. "You can, can you? What kind of riding have you done?"
Jonathan's hand swept under my hair as he kissed the base of my neck, his fingers pressing urgently into me. He smiled, those brilliant blue eyes catching mine and laughing at my astonishment. He wheeled his horse, a big chestnut, away and galloped up the crest of the hill, leaving me to stare after him with the taste of him still in my mouth.
"My name is Jessica Stafford. I grew up riding and showing the family horses. Eventing is what I do best." I was amazed to hear the pride in my tone. Jonathan had laughed at me often about it.
"Silly little girl," He said, cooling my retort with a kiss. "You're still as blue-blooded as those horses you ride."
The man offered me his hand. "I'm Dave Everhardt. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. I've actually seen you ride, though you were much younger then. You haven't shown in a while, have you?"
I shook my head. "No, it's been quite a while."
"Come away with me," Jonathan whispered. "You don't need this pressure, this competition in your life. Come with me. Start a new life. Try living off of an equine back for a few hours, will you?"
I shook off the voice in my head. "Do you want me to fill out an application or something?"
Dave shook his head. "No, I have a better idea. Why don't you ride for me? I'll see if you're what I need and we'll go from there." He paused. "If you don't already have a place to stay there's a room here with the grooms. It's nothing fancy, but..."
"Thank you," I managed. "Of course, you may not want me once you've seen me ride."
He just smiled. “Well, then. We’ll have to get you onto a horse.”
I blinked in the sunlight as he led the way to the barns. The grounds were neat and perfect in every way, professional, well kept. I was surprised that I even noticed, after all, the love of my life had died, what was it? Four days ago. Four whole days. How could that be?
It had been so long since I had been on a horse or even been near one. Everything was so familiar—the curious heads hanging over the stall doors, the soft sounds of horses going about their simple lives, the sharp odors of leather, horse sweat, and manure. Once it had been my perfume.
“You always smell like a horse,” Jonathan laughed, tugging at my hair. “If you stay here much longer you’ll start looking like one too. What are horses to people? Come on, you can’t hide yourself away with these beasts all your life.” He laughed softly, his eyes gleaming. “You’re too beautiful to waste your life. There’s so much to see.”
I blinked, Dave’s friendly face snapping back into focus. He was standing in front of a stall where a proud, dark, head was leaning out to lip a carrot from his hand. I blinked again, forcing myself to take in the details of the horse’s proud and delicate head.
“Jessica,” Dave said. “I’d like you to meet Oberon. He’s a promising colt of ours, and a good ride. Do you feel up to trying him out?”
I looked into the horse’s deep, unfathomable eye and nodded slowly. I knew I could ride this horse, just as I had always known that I could ride any horse. Well, almost any. My stomach twisted and lurched, but I ignored it, reaching out my fingers to brush the velvet muzzle of this dark colt. He was so different from Shimmer.
“I would love to ride Oberon,” I said, realizing belatedly that Dave was waiting for my answer.
He nodded, satisfied. “Dallin,” he called down the row of stalls. “Care to show this young lady the ropes? I need her out in the arena in fifteen minutes.”
A tousled dirty-blond head stuck out of one of the stalls. I saw a friendly flash of teeth in my direction as the groom, he must have been a groom, exited the stall he’d been working in. He rubbed a grubby hand against his even more grubby jeans and stuck it out. I took it almost without thinking. “Nice to meet you. I’m Dallin. You’ll be riding Oberon today?”
I nodded dumbly, aware that I should say something, but unable to open my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice. He just went into the colt’s stall and flipped a halter over his head, as if he had done it a million times, just as I had done it most of my life. He paused only to rub the colt’s neck fondly. “You’re lucky that Dave is letting you ride this horse. He’s a dream and a half, shows a lot of promise.”
“Do you ride?” It was the first thing I could think to say. My mind was still numb, I wasn’t quite sure if any of this was real.
A grin I didn’t understand crossed his face. His grin was crooked in a sun-tanned face. His eyes crinkled in the corners. He had brown eyes, so different from Jonathan’s brilliant blue. “A little,” He answered to the question I had almost already forgotten. He led Oberon out of his stall and proceeded to snap him into the cross ties. “There’s a grooming kit here, if you’d like to help.”
“I’d love to.” I was flooded with a strange sort of relief at turning to the so familiar task. The hiss of a brush against Oberon’s dark coat was somehow soothing to me. I felt my body relax, as if it had been holding too much tension for too long and that I had come to the snapping point, only to find relief in this simple activity.
Oberon was surprisingly quiet for a young horse. He turned his head, watching either me or Dallin, nibbling a little on Dallin’s shirt, obviously very familiar with him. The colt had the fearless air of a well-treated well-bred horse. I had learned very young that not all hot bloods had to be hot, that spirit didn’t have to be expressed in bad behavior if a horse was confident and treated well.
Dallin saddled him while I watched. I noticed that the tack was nothing more than a light saddle on a light saddle pad, no extra gimmicks or side-reins. His bridle was just as simple, a generic, ordinary bridle with a generic, ordinary, snaffle bit. Oberon accepted the bit calmly, chomping on it a few times, then staring at me, almost placidly. His nostrils distended to catch my scent.
“There you are. All set.” Dallin tossed me the reins, then stood there, studying me for a second. “You look awfully familiar. Do I know you?”
Surprised, I looked up into his face. “I don’t think so. I used to ride a little. I haven’t in years.”
His face cleared and he laughed low in his throat. “Of course. You were that crazy girl with the gray horse a couple years back, weren’t you? Didn’t you run off with some young rich guy?”
I felt my throat close. “He wasn’t rich,” I croaked.
Shimmer reared up. I saw a flash of alarm cross Jonathan’s face. I laughed as I pulled Shimmer down and let her prance the last couple steps to his side. Jonathan shook his head. “Jessica, you’re going to be the death of me.”
A worried expression crossed Dallin’s face. He casually turned back to Oberon, straightening the colt’s black forelock over his even star. “Dave will be waiting. We’d best get you warming up.”