I've written and rewritten the opener to Runaway Alex at least three times.
I've pawed impatiently through The Head and Not The Heart to make sure I didn't make any major mistakes in what little of Alex's past I'd already written. That was an experience. No one wants to re-read their first novel.
(It was really sad, guys. I had no idea it was that sad.)
But I think I have this opener ready. I think it's where I want it. So for this week's Monday post, to get you started, here it is.
When I jumped out of my window, my landing didn’t make any sound at all.
Granted, we lived in a single-story house, a low-slung and pink Florida candy box, iced with white barrel tiles and trimmed by a hedge of glossy green leaves. The hedge stopped on either side of each window, and the bare patch of ground beneath my window-sill was deep, white sand. That helped with quiet escapes.
My dad didn’t know why grass wouldn’t grow there, when the lush St. Augustine sod had no trouble sprouting everywhere else in the yard. My mom wouldn’t tell him. Not because she approved, but because she thought he’d be in a pain in the ass about it. That was the agreement: I kept my horse life quiet, and my mom ignored it. If I didn’t make trouble for her, she didn’t make trouble for me. My grades stayed in the B range, my room stayed clean, and my horse habit stayed secret: these were the unspoken rules of our arrangement.
But who are we kidding? My father knew. My father disapproved, in his own quiet way, just as my mother did, but they let it happen. They knew. There was no hiding the sawdust on my paddock boots, the dirty patches on the inner seams of my jeans. We all pretended it wasn’t happening. We all pretended I was going to be something else. A different, normal version of Alex, who excelled in school and was going places. Anywhere but the barn.
By age seventeen, I was already a disappointment to my parents. Already too far gone to be saved. Already irrevocably a horsewoman for life.
The barn wasn’t far from home, which was good because I still didn’t have a car and, the way things were going, never would. Sure, I could have gotten a paying job. I was seventeen years old and only had two classes to drag me to school each afternoon. But hey, who could put a price on saddle-time?
(You could, absolutely, but suffice to say: I could not have afforded it.)
But back to the present problem: it was a few minutes past seven a.m., I was running late for my unpaid shift at the salt mines, and if I woke up my parents in my escape, my dad would find out I wasn’t spending the better part of my day at school, doing pointless extracurricular work like Yearbook, and then all sorts of conversations about My Future and Paying For College would come up, and meanwhile the horses at Calusa Lakes would get hungrier, and meaner, with every passing minute. I mean, you’d have to really hate yourself to let Fancy, a seventeen-hand chestnut mare with a taste for human flesh, get served her breakfast late. She’d take it out on you later.
I crouched down outside my bedroom window, brushed the white sand dust from my paddock boots, and then took off into the orange morning glow, stopping to grab my bike from the garden shed on the way. With pedal power, I could get to Calusa Lakes in under half an hour. If I ever got a car, it would be less than ten minutes.
The Florida morning was humid and warm. May was like our unofficial start to summer; June was when the humidity would make good on all of its promises and the afternoon deluges would begin. In May, we just baked and melted under the endless sun. So I started early and gritted my teeth against the heat. At least when I dripped with sweat, I knew the breeze off the Gulf would blow in to cool my wet face.
I rode down a gently winding boulevard lined with palm trees and the stucco walls of subdivisions. Every year that we’d lived here in this undefined suburb of Fort Myers, the dividing line between the pastel-colored houses with their poison-green lawns and the brown-green pastures of the old Florida Cracker ranches was drawn a little farther away from my house, and a little closer to the wooden fences wrapped around fields of grazing horses and cattle, and the roving white clouds of long-legged cattle egrets. This had all been ranch land once. Now it was Yankeeland, as I’d heard an old-timer at the feed store call it once. A place for the ice-veined northerners driving south to stop, take a potty break, and decide to put down roots in a three-bedroom, two-bath Mediterranean Revival on a street called Via Formosa or Calle Grenada.
The new Florida was made of stucco and accented with wispy-leaved Queen Anne palms. The old Florida was more stark and spare, and far more appealing, to my mind. I passed a few fields of grazing cattle, their barrenness relieved only by old lean-tos of gray cypress clapboard, shining yellow in the rising sun, and then Calusa Lakes Farm came into view, a reasonable compromise between old and new.
Located smack-dab in the middle of a broad, dramatically flat and incredibly open south Florida floodplain, Calusa Lakes boasted a once-grand center-aisle barn and two expansive white-sand arenas squatting in the center of thirty acres of grass dotted with reedy lakes, and cross-fenced into sprawling pastures. The flat expanses of fields and arena basked under the relentless sun, dotted with maybe a dozen live oaks and the spindly posts of cabbage palms, spread out across all that vastness like lonely lightning rods on a midwestern prairie.
It wasn’t the traditional equestrian landscape I saw in magazines, places green and northern like Virginia, but I loved it anyway. All that desolation was magnificent to me. This empty landscape was part of being a horsewoman in southwest Florida, a place of distances and watery fields and long-legged birds and alligators dozing beneath the shade of tangled mangroves. I had been up north before, I had seen places with hills and mountains and thick-treed forests, but they weren’t for me.
It was probably because that I was that rarest of birds myself: a native Floridian. My heart was in all that white sand and spare grass and saw-toothed palmetto scrub. And that blue, blue, blue dome of sky.
The driveway to Calusa Lakes was the worst part of my bike ride, long and unpaved, ripples of white sand rattling my bicycle tires and making my teeth snap together. By the end of dry May I’d be walking through the deep parts, my tires unable to make it through the drifts. But right now, early in the month and with the passing showers of April still a recent memory, there were enough hard patches in the middle of the lane to get me up to the wide patch in front of the barn where clients parked. I leaned my bike against the wall and listened as the racket began.
The horses waited for me, there was no doubt about that. I enjoyed complete silence as I biked up the driveway, but the moment they knew I was in the parking lot, the doors began rattling and stall bars began ringing with the impact of teeth and hooves. Everyone wanted my attention. Everyone wanted to eat first.
“Good morning!” I shouted over the din. “You freaking animals!”
They were all loud, but there was a particularly raucous bunch at the end of the barn, where the transient herd of lay-ups were housed. Six stalls at Calusa Lakes were on permanent lease to a racehorse trainer up at Tampa Bay Downs, who sent her horses here when they weren’t in training—either they needed a break, were healing from an injury, weren’t started yet, or simply weren’t worth her time at the track at the moment.
I paused by the feed room door, down in the middle of the barn, my hand reaching for the knob… then I gave in to my desires and kept walking down the concrete aisle, the horses raising hell all around me. I didn’t stop until I reached the end of the barn, and then I turned to the last stall on the left, peering through the bars.
A little mare picked up her head and looked at me, a round white star shining from beneath a thicket of black forelock. She was the plainest of bays, a honey bay, my trainer had called her. It was a lovely term for a middling-brown horse with black points, her coat sunburned across her back and flanks to a rough-edged pale yellow.
“Come here, Swan, say hello to me,” I told her, and the mare obligingly stepped over to the door and pressed her black muzzle against the bars. I put my hands up and let her hot breath blow against my skin. Her whiskers were long, like all the rest of her hair, unkempt and ungroomed, and they tickled my palms. “You’re a good girl, Miss Swan.”
Swan would never rattle her stall door because I was late with her breakfast; Swan would never bang her water buckets together because they were empty and she was last in line to have them filled. Swan would never ask for anything, let alone demand it, because that was in her nature. She was sweet, and docile, and because of that, she was destined to be forgotten.
I’d seen horses like Swan come through the barn before. I’d been working here for four years, since I was thirteen. Picking stalls, scrubbing water buckets, dumping feed, learning to do every chore a barn full of horses required — all in exchange for riding lessons and, later, the opportunity to ride horses who needed extra work between training sessions. Diana, the owner and trainer, had essentially adopted me when she’d found out I would do anything for a half hour in the saddle. In the years I’d been here, she’d let go two grooms and a barn manager; as my school load became lighter, I’d taken on their work for free.
Even at seventeen years old, I knew I was being taken advantage of and over-worked. I figured it didn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to ride at one of the area’s expensive barns. Diana was a respected instructor even if Calusa Lakes wasn’t a fashionable boarding stable anymore. I could learn a lot from her — more than I’d learn if I was working at Burger King and using the money for a weekly riding lesson at a posh show barn. Diana put me on tough horses and taught me how to ride them… that would be worth something someday.
And there were horses like Swan here, these Thoroughbreds who came from another world, one I wanted so much to know about.
Well. What do you think?