I started writing this sequel to Show Barn Blues a little cold - I haven't reread the book yet. So it's possible there are some details wrong, some years/ages/descriptions. I couldn't remember Grace's dog details so I left the dog out for now. I'll be going back to read SBB and take some notes, and if you want to comment with any details you think are wrong, or that you'd like to see added, please do!
The goal of sharing chapters with you as I write them, is to literally share the writing process. Give you a look behind the scenes. My writing process usually involves some serious rewrites. In this case, I wrote the first half of this chapter last week, then this week I came back in, rewrote the first half almost completely, then added the second half to introduce the story's direction. At some point in this process I might have to do some rewrites that contradict earlier chapters, and then go back and fix those contradictions in the final edit. We'll see how it goes.
The story of Horses in Wonderland is that Grace, having agreed to sell Seabreeze Equestrian Center to developers, has gotten cold feet about moving. In the process of basically agreeing to shut down the barn but not giving her boarders or employees any idea of what will come next, she's inadvertently started losing clients and staff who have decided to get out while the getting's good.
Kennedy, her optimistic cheerleader, is trying to get her to commit to a new property and simply move on. But in the process of trying to be helpful, she connects Grace with a trainer friend who produces horses for entertainment - parades, theme parks and dinner shows. This introduces an entirely new element to the boarding/lesson barn, and things get pretty crazy just when they should be winding down, packing their tack trunks, and starting something new.
I hope you enjoy this first draft of Horses in Wonderland. It will be online until just before the book goes on sale, and then will be taken down to allow for Kindle Unlimited's exclusivity agreement. If you're a Patreon at this level when the book is taken down, you'll receive a digital edition of the final product before it goes on sale. Also, it should go without saying, but please do not reproduce this work, share it, print it, or anything else. This is just between us!
And away... we... go.
Horses in Wonderland
by Natalie Keller Reinert
All writing © Natalie Keller Reinert, 2018
Summer was in the air.
I could feel the humidity settle onto my skin as soon as I left my little bungalow. The wooden steps, gently rotting into slivers and chips after living through eighty seasons of dry winters and wet summers, squeaked a good morning beneath my boots. They had more give on humid mornings. More pliable, more squeaky. The longer you lived somewhere, the more you became aware of the barometers all around you. Nature forecast the weather every day, if you just knew what signs to watch and listen for. I paused at the foot of the steps and stretched. A dark April morning at the end of short spring. My last spring here, in the house my grandfather built.
The sky had just lightened from black to cobalt, and between myself and the blue-white light humming outside of my destination, the big barn a few hundred feet away, a swirl of fog wound its way through a small glade of live oaks. I pointed the toes of my worn brown paddock boots towards the barn, brushed a few unruly gray bangs from my eyes, and started off to work. My footsteps were softened by the wet leaves piled up on the sparse grass and sandy patches beneath the trees, but the horses would still hear me. I imagined them turning their heads all at once, ears pricked, gazing into the darkness, ready to turn on their whinnies and neighs at precisely the right moment.
My gaze shifted to the right, towards the construction site next door. There was a model villa going up, with just a thin belt of pine trees left to shield the future residents from the smelly, noisy reality of equestrian life. Just wait until the first morning someone left their windows opened and heard my barn’s wake-up song.
A tree frog peeped in the gutter above the open barn door as my feet hit the pavement, but he was quickly drowned out by forty-three roaring horses.
“How quickly you forget,” I announced, flipping on the lights. “Twelve hours ago you were a bunch of cows in clover.”
The overhead lamps were huge, the kind you saw in school gyms, and they’d take a good fifteen minutes to warm up. The aisle ahead of me was washed in a cool dim glow. The horses blinked at me and went back to whinnying. A few kicks were added here and there.
“Your percussion section is out of rhythm,” I observed.
No one listened.
“Good morning,” I said to my left and my right as I proceeded down the wide concrete aisle, horses on either side of me stamping and shouting for my immediate attention. “Good god. Yes, I get it. You’re hungry. Shut up, it’s too early for this.”
No one listened.
At the end of the aisle, just past the boarder’s tack room, I turned left and unlocked the feed room door. Usually there would be grooms here throwing down hay and getting everyone settled with some roughage before their grain, but this morning it was just me, and I didn’t feel like listening to the barn complaints for the next twenty minutes while I went out to the hay-barn and loaded up the Gator with Timothy. They could eat their grain first for once.
I rummaged through two trash cans full of pellets and sweet feed before I found the feed scoop half-buried under the alfalfa pellets. Kennedy had helped me feed dinner last night and she could be a little scatterbrained. I dug it out with a sigh, glad she wasn’t around right now. I wasn’t up to her enthusiasm at this time of morning.
Six o’clock was early for me, but I would be short on help today and figured I’d better get a head-start, because the afternoon tumult of riding lessons and trail rides was not going to take a vacation just because my groom head-count was down by three. Not so many months ago, there had been enough grooms for the endless work of keeping a massive show barn ticking over smoothly, but business was not booming and grooms were not known to stay aboard sinking ships. As they went on to greener pastures, one by one, I waved bon voyage and took on more of their responsibilities. There was no point in hiring new people who would figure out just how numbered our days were in about fifteen minutes on the job.
In the sterile gleam of fluorescent lights, I pulled out the morning supplement packs, individually packaged for each horse, and stacked them in order on top of the grain cart. I dumped a fifty-pound bag of feed into the cart, and then filled a couple of old Strongid buckets with alfalfa pellets and sweet feed for the horses who needed variety in their diets. Then I threw the feed scoop on top of it all, dragged the heavy cart into the aisle, and stopped immediately at the first stall on my left.
A bay mare named Catarina eyeballed me. She whinnied explosively and kicked her door. “Stop it,” I snapped, and reached down for the first supplement pack. Moses, the name on the pack read.
At this moment, I realized I’d stacked the supplement packs backwards. I redid them. There were thirty-seven. The horses were not amused with this delay. Catarina nearly had a fit. “Here,” I sighed, throwing a scoop of grain through the little feed door and dumping the supplements on top of it. She dug in with her mouth wide open, like a lion going for the kill, before I had even pulled back my hand. I whacked her with the plastic supplement pack for being so rude, but she ignored me. Food was more important than a puny slap from a puny human.
By six forty-five every horse was finished with grain and nosing through fresh hay, and I was exhausted. Well, not exhausted at the work I’d done, precisely, but at the thought of so much more to come. And the same again tomorrow. I’d been the manager for so long, and I’d done precisely that: I’d managed. You, go handle feed. Carole, go handle hay. Mike, start filling water buckets. Liz, pull off blankets. Me, I’ll be in the office, going over the day’s schedule.
I looked up over the central rank of stalls to the windows overlooking the barn floor. My dark office window looked blankly down, useless without me.
My phone rang from somewhere down the aisle and I ran for it.
“Kennedy?” I answered, breathless from my sprint to the feed room where I’d abandoned my phone on a shelf next to a tub of bute. “Please tell me you’re coming today. We have six horses going out at two and—“
“Of course I’m coming,” Kennedy laughed. She was always so awake. Kennedy was twenty-six and had a naturally chipper attitude which had made her perfect for the role of princess at a long-running dinner show on the other side of the local theme parks. This also made her perfect for leading trail rides. She put on a very convincing Wild West-themed ride which was especially impressive when you considered we were in Florida and the trails were based out of an English show barn in a neighborhood rapidly transforming into suburbs and luxury resorts, about as far from the Wild West as one could go. “I just wanted to know if you needed help this morning. I’m up, so…”
I looked outside, across the empty parking lot towards the pine woods at the farm’s eastern border. The sky was just turning pink above the stark longleaf pines and the spike-edged palmettos, and a hint of morning light was creeping into the barn, brushing the stalls closest to the end, inching across the feed room floor towards my boots. At the far right, the hay barn stood dark and forbidding, stacked high with bales. I’d already done one trip for morning hay, but I’d have to throw down lunch hay before anyone was scheduled to come in for the evening’s chores. Behind it, to the farm’s south, a red-tiled villa rose, with fanciful arches and mosaic tile-work around the windows. The model home for the new resort village going in next door.
“I need help,” I said honestly, and I remembered that not long ago, I couldn’t have admitted that. Not to Kennedy, not to anyone. As more years went by, the more thankful I was for people like her. People who got up at six thirty for no apparent reason and thought, I should go into work early today.
“I’ll be right over,” Kennedy promised. “With breakfast. Hey, when is Anna coming back?”
If I hadn’t been in the feed room, I would have raised dramatic eyes to the dark window one down from my office window, where Anna’s apartment also sat dark and empty. I missed my barn manager. Before she’d become my assistant, she’d been my working student, and I’d gotten used to her being around. Three weeks ago, she’d gone home to see family. Someone was sick; I’d been too swamped with lessons to listen with both ears. I just told her to go and take as much time as she needed.
“I hope next week. But you know how it is when people go home. Sometimes they stay. She’s sweet enough to get nostalgic and decide she belongs in her hometown.”
“I don’t believe it.” Kennedy brushed aside my deepest, darkest worry—that my assistant’s trip home would somehow drum up enough guilt to keep her home for good. It had happened before. Of course, if she didn’t come back, I could always offer the deal to Kennedy… but Kennedy already ran my trail business and marketing, so how could she also take on running the barn and riding young horses while I was teaching, training or away at shows? “I’m bringing breakfast. Just relax.”
I slipped the phone into the back pocket of my jeans. Just relax. Just relax. Kennedy was out of her mind if she thought I had the luxury to relax for one damn minute. I hadn’t spent all these decades running barns for my health and mental wellbeing.
I hustled out of the feed room and up the barn aisle, ready to start turning horses out before the construction clamor started up next door. I had two horses in hand, one on each side, and was just leading them through the gate of their paddock when the first rock trucks started roaring by on the other side of the thin line of trees which separated our properties. The horse on my right spooked forward, the horse on my left spooked backward. I was splayed out like a scarecrow, hauling on both lead-ropes in an effort to reel them back in.
“That noise is hardly new,” I scolded, tapping a wide-eyed warmblood on the nose once I had him heading in the right direction again. “Why don’t you get a grip?” And I released them both into the paddock so they could bolt around like idiots, snorting and snapping their tails, as if they hadn’t been living next to a construction site for the past six months.
“Might as well get over it,” I advised, snapping the gate closed. “Because it’s not going to change any time soon.”
I walked across the driveway and back inside the barn for the next two horses, thinking again that it was time to just buy a new farm and get away from here forever.