Fluorescent light faded to the corner of Eryss' vision as she looked into the welcoming faces of her grandparents, wary of any tricks that might have been playing out in their features similar to what had happened in the bedroom mirror. She grinned when all revealed itself to be normal, whispering 'hi.' Even to her own ears, her voice was croaky and quiet. She scanned the room for her mother, face falling steadily as each corner turned up empty. "Where's mom?"
"Your mother is... out." Clark said, unable to hide the harsh tone in his voice as he spoke, gently stroking Eryss' hair. Helen put a firm hand on his shoulder.
"I think you ought to call Josie, honey. I'll stay here with Eryss."
On its own, the Waters' residence wasn't spectacular. It was a single-story farm house that had seen better days in all meanings of the statement. Paint was worn and chipped on most of the exterior, exposing old wood that was weathered beyond belief. The roof was in poor condition. Clapboard shutters hung lopsided or missing from their perches, the front porch rotted and abandoned in some places.
But what the house lacked in spectacle was largely made up for in the property on which it sat. Joe and his wife had been meticulous in setting up their dream ranch, down to the last acre. They had originally purchased over a hundred acres, but when they needed money they sold off the acreage that they weren't using, leaving them with a tidy 81 acres split evenly in half by the hard packed dirt road Josie had just driven up. The place was amazing, a riding student and boarder's dream ranch. Joe had fenced off twenty acres worth of pasture wherever he had open hills or empty fields, leaving the other 20 acres to be turned into a series of three barns, two indoor arenas and an empty uncovered arena. He called the parcel the "Left Side" of his operation, leaving the "Right Side" virtually untouched, perfect for trail riding. At the very back of his property, Joe had manifested a moderately sized man-made pond and arranged a challenging cross country course for all of his students, despite their riding level, to ride through around his pond.
Of course, the years of Joe's success had diminished with age as his gem of a riding school was left behind or forgotten when students, parents and boarders alike looked for something closer to the city. Age had caught up to him, and though he'd offered several paid positions, some to Josie while she was mid-divorce, to try and find someone to keep the operation alive, his efforts hadn't been successful. Joe was left with two empty barns, and even the barn that was still in use was over half empty. Clark had sent Aspen and another horse over, Joe still had two mares he bred. The barn was barren aside from those four.
Shifting her car into park in front of one of the boarder barns, Josie leaned her head back and sighed, reaching between the seats for the now cold hospital coffee. She wrinkled her nose as she swallowed, wondering if nurses and doctors choked down the same java they fed their patients' families. In the cup holder, her cell phone buzzed to life with a call. As she picked it up, she scowled at the name on screen, pressing the "ignore" option and shutting her phone down. She saw who she was looking for emerge from the only live barn on the property.
Clark heaved a sigh as the monotonous voice gave him directions for leaving his daughter a voice message. It toned, finally. "Josie this is dad, I've tried calling three times so I'm just going to give you a message. Eryss is awake, the sedatives have worn off. She's talking in complete sentences and she's asking for you. It is exactly noon, she woke up one hour after you left and has been up for thirty minutes. Call me." He flipped the phone shut and turned to go back into the hospital room with his other girls.
"--You broke your leg, cracked three ribs and the back of your skull, and you got a lot of bruises. The first day looked much worse than it was though, your face was swollen and almost purple." Helen said, with a small tense chuckle. Eryss looked mortified.
"I'm... I'm sorry grandma. You too grandpa. I should have listened. I shouldn't have rode Aspen.." Tears leaked from their ducts as Eryss pushed her hands over her eyes and cried. Reassuring hands found her back and she was shushed.
"Eryss, honey, it's ok. It's ok." Helen said, Clark joining her. "We're not as mad as your mom. But we do need to know.. why, Eryss?"
"I just... I wanted to prove to mom that I wasn't some beginner. She always knows what's best for me but she never lets ME make decisions! It's always her way, her rules, her, her, her. So I thought... if I could just get Aspen over the jump, she'd stop dictating my life. And she'd see that I'm a capable rider just like her." Eryss said between sniffs and sobs. "But like always mom was right... and I was stupid... and now I'm broken and Aspen's dead and..."
"Woah!" Helen nearly shouted, reaching down and trapping Eryss in a bear hug. "That horse of yours isn't dead. He's too stubborn to go down over a botched jump."
Laughter ensued, a merry sound compared to the dreary hospital setting. "He's.. not?" Eryss asked, a grin forming on her face, "He's not?!" She excitedly threw her arms up, wincing as her ribs protested the movement, regardless, she cheered. Maybe this was reality and the rattlesnake room as a dream after all. She hugged her grandmother back giddily, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in forever.
Simultaneously stretching her back and dumping out the horrible coffee, Josie put on her best face and approached the man. "I'm here to see Aspen Joe!" She called, watching the old man jump. He turned around and met Josie with a grin. "Well all be, you're a sight for sore eyes, girl!" They hugged.
(This is where I originally cut off. But there's more. \/)
Walking down the barn aisle together, Joe informed Josie of Aspen's injuries. His worst two had been a splinter in the knee and something he and the vet called an "indentation." Apparently when Aspen had gone down, Eryss had gotten the short end of the stick. His bodyweight had been the factor that broke her leg, but he had rolled off of her and over the metal cup. It's sides had been up, pushing his skin in until a weird sort of "u" was formed. Joe called it the weirdest puncture wound he'd ever seen, even weirder that the standard cup had had to be surgically removed from his barrel. Other than that, his knees had had bad bruises and Aspen had been put on mandatory stall rest. He was fine.
"How's Eryss?" Joe asked as they leaned over Aspen's stall door.
"Well they gave her mild sedatives and the good pain killers that keep her mostly knocked out while her skull heals. They feared that she would be one of those patients who didn't let her head heal before trying to go back out in the world. She wakes up every couple of hours, when the drugs wear off, and she always asks about this **** horse. Her leg hair-line fractured, she broke some ribs, sprained her wrist and sustained plenty bruises.. but it could have been so much worse."
"Well, at least she got the good stuff. In my day they'd just slap a bandaid on her head and tell her to walk with a limp 'til it felt better." Joe said, chuckling. Josie couldn't help but laugh. "And what about you? How're you doing?"
She opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again, offering a shrug to Joe. He looked at her for a long, silent moment. "You know, it's been a long time since I went up to the pond to check on it. Betty and Jane need a good leg stretch, and you look like you need some sunshine. Wanna come?"
"Sounds great, actually.. thanks Joe."
Joe had taken the lead on their trip out to the pond, and Josie saw him deliberately select the longest trail that would eventually get them to the pond. She couldn't help but smile, Joe always did know when Josie needed time to think, uninterrupted. So they rode, side by side, in silence, on the trail that encircled the outer edge of Joe's 80 acres...
"Yo! Mom! I'm home!" Eryss called halfheartedly into the cracked door, stepping through and dropping her bag in the middle of the hallway. Josie looked up from her note, the one she had been writing to inform Eryss that she'd be out late and where dinner was in the fridge.
"Nice of you to show up." Josie called, matching Eryss' tone. "I got a call from the school today, Eryss."
"Yeah? What of it?"
"Mrs. Kensey said you didn't show up and asked if you were sick. I told her no, that you ditched."
"Well at least you told someone the truth."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
Eryss simply smirked at her mother, strutting toward the couch and plopping on it, reaching for the clicker and turning it on. Josie glared after her daughter.
"Eryss answer my question."
"It means at least. You told. Someone. The truth!" Eryss said over the show, some lame program called "Jersey Shore." Josie flinched, walking up to the television and shutting it off, turning to glare at her daughter.
"Do you understand that this behavior reflects on more than just yourself? Do you understand that I have angry teachers calling me left and right and more than just your poor behavior to deal with?"
"I can't say that I care mom." Eryss said, pressing the power button on the remote. "Could you move, you're kind of blocking the screen."
Josie sighed, reaching behind the television and unplugging it. "You're grounded, Eryss. And I have to go to work. There's some hotdogs and canned beans in the kitchen."
"You can't ground me!" Eryss called after her mom, looking shocked and angry. Josie simply shrugged, grabbing her items for work and kicking Eryss' backpack out of her way. "I can, and I did. We'll discuss this later young lady." Josie called over her shoulder, closing the door behind herself and hearing the frustrated scream beyond the threshold. She sighed...
"Josie?" Joe asked, cutting into Josie's thought process. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah... I'm just, thinking."
"Anything you want to talk about?" Joe asked, pulling his horse to a stop. Josie followed suit. "I've been considering moving Eryss and myself back to Chicago after she's out of the hospital. Better job opportunities for me there, and if I can get a good apartment, better social opportunities for Eryss.."
"You can't do that!" Joe said, reaching across and gripping Josie's hand. "You're like a daughter to me.. and I've known you since you were in diapers. There's nothing, for you, in Chicago. And there's nothing for Eryss. And if you really need a job, girl, my offer still stands. I miss the hustle and bustle of giving lessons."
Josie absentmindedly patted Joe's hand with her free one, sighing. "I know... I just, I don't know what to do about Eryss. She doesn't listen to me, she doesn't trust me, she doesn't respect me.. hell I wonder if she even loves me half the time. I thought bringing her here would fix our relationship but I lost so much time.. I just.. I need to punish her and connect with her at the same time."
Joe nodded, and after a few more minutes, he spurred his horse forward. They reached the pond together, and after a half-hour by its side, they started the ride home down the 20 minute trail, cantering. By the ride's end Josie felt much better. She checked her phone, seeing the new voice mail that had been left several hours ago. "Josie this is dad, I've tried calling three times so I'm just going to give you a message. Eryss is awake, the sedatives have worn off. She's talking in complete sentences and she's asking for you. It is exactly noon, she woke up one hour after you left and has been up for thirty minutes. Call me."
Hugging Joe, thanking him for everything and excusing herself, Josie rushed to her car and back to the hospital, eagerly dialing Clark's number. "Dad?" She asked as he answered the phone. "Is she still up?"
"She's down again, Josie." Clark said plainly. "But the doctor came by, they're not going to give her the sedative and they're moving her to a slightly weaker pain killer. Her skull is almost completely healed."
"I'm on my way now.. think she'll be up in about forty minutes?"
"Yeah, maybe... Josie I owe you an apology."
"No dad, I owe you and mom and apology. But we'll talk about that when I get there."
Feeling hopeful for the future, Josie ended the call with her father and drove toward the hospital, having an idea of what she would do with herself.
(And that's where I ended it. Not as good as my last post but.. I had fun!)
The path is different for you and me, but the journey begins in the heart.