“Dad," I whined, stomping the sole of my new black riding boots into the hard pavement of the driveway, feeling my heel grinding into the small pebbles. "Can we go to the stable yet?"
I tugged on the handle of my dad's old pickup truck, yearning to open the door, hop in, and drive off.
"Ashlyn, honey, I'm just trying to snap the buckle on Amber's riding helmet. You're going to have to be patient."
I looked over at my dad who was wrestling with my ten-year-old sister, Amber, trying to wiggle the glossy blue helmet over her tight blond curls. Amber laughed and squirmed as my dad tried to buckle the little childproof snap on the helmet. Finally, Amber pulled away from both the helmet and my dad's grasp. She ran away screaming and giggling around the back of the house, her curls flying, her blue eyes sparkling, trying to find a place to hide. My dad stood there with the helmet and sighed. He looked over at me, shrugged helplessly as if to say, What can I do? and then ran after her, yelling, "I'm coming to get you!"
I sighed, leaning back against the cool window of the truck. I checked my watch. I had put on my own helmet exactly an hour ago. And now, I was going to be late for my riding class, all because of Amber. And wait a second—didn't this same thing happen last week? And the week before that? Oh, and yesterday Amber scooped up the last spoon of mocha almond fudge ice cream that I had already called dibs on and Dad and Meredith didn't get mad at her. And this morning, it wasn't an accident that she used up all the maple syrup on her pancakes, leaving none for me. I turned around and looked at my reflection in the glass window of the car. My straight chestnut-colored brown hair, my hazel brown eyes, and tanned skin seemed so blah next to Amber's little blond curls, glittering blue eyes, and pale complexion. Amber and I were on different ends of the spectrum. While I'm serious, Amber was exciting and funny. I'm smart, but Amber acts like a ditzy, cute ten-year-old. When Amber's in the room, all the adults kiss her and pinch her cheeks and coo over her. When I'm in the room, the adults ignore me, or they start including me in their horribly boring adult conversations about global warming or what muffins are on sale at the market. When Amber grows up, she's probably going to be an old, happy woman, her big house filled with friends and family who adore her and look up to her. I'm probably going to be the little maid who sits in the corner of the room, whom nobody is paying attention to. I'm always overshadowed by Amber.
I turned my back to the car and to my relief, I saw my dad streaking out around the side of the house, carrying a laughing Amber in his arms. He buckled her up in the back seat of the pickup and said, "Come on, Ashlyn. Hop in."
Finally. I pulled open the passenger door and sat in the leather seat. I leaned back and relaxed. I was on my way to my favorite place. The stable. When my mom died five years ago, I wanted to do something or have something that would make me feel connected to her. Out of his grief, my dad had hidden all of my mom's possessions so he wouldn't have to look at them. I didn't dare ask my dad about Mom. So, I asked my grandmother, who told me that Mom was a champion horsewoman. So, I asked my dad for horse-riding lessons and a pass to the local stable. My dad had been a bit hesitant at first. He didn't want to go back to the stable, or see horses. They brought back memories of him and Mom that he didn't want to see anymore. But Meredith, my stepmom, had coaxed him into letting me start lessons. Meredith is so sweet and nice. I can't see how that little devil sitting behind me is related to her. Then, I realized that the little devil was talking to me.
"Hey, Ashlyn? Ashlyn? Hello? Anyone home? Ashlyn?"
I reluctantly turned around to face her.
"Oh there you are," she giggled her innocent little laugh. "Were you daydreaming? I don't know how to daydream. Billy Morrison at school daydreams. It's so funny. The teacher calls on him and he's always daydreaming so he's not paying attention so he's always like 'what?' Do you think Billy Morrison is cute, Ashlyn? I do, he's so funny. And he likes strawberries. Daddy? Daddy? Can we get strawberries on the way home? The juicy red kind? Billy Morrison likes strawberries and I wanna be just like him and I wanna learn how to daydream like Billy and Ashlyn. Oooh —we're going to horseback riding! Yay! I hope Victoria lets me ride Dreamer today. I love Dreamer. Her mane is all smooth and shiny and Victoria lets me brush it. Do you think I'll be able to ride the advanced trail today? Do you? Do you? I hope so 'cause Victoria said I will be able to soon. What's soon? Is soon in five years? Or in ten? Or is it in one month? Or one week? Is soon right now? Daddy, I..."
I groaned, slipping back in my seat, slouching way down. I could still hear her voice from way down here, my ear to the leather seat, her voice rushing through the air all around us, sounding like an annoying little bird chirping.
"Dad, make her stop," I moaned. Oh yeah, that's one thing I forgot to mention. My stepsister is a chatterbox times one billion. Talking is one of her necessities like eating and breathing. If there were a sport in the Olympics for talking, my stepsister would take not just the gold, but the silver, and bronze too. And what's worse is that her voice is just so absolutely annoying. It's sweet and airy and it always makes the parents squeal and coo over her. To the parents, Amber's a jewel. To me, she's a nightmare. She's like a little tic that clings to you.
My dad turned toward me and said, "Ashlyn, honey, sit up please. That's dangerous. And please," he said, lowering his voice, "Amber's just a little kid learning about the world. Let her talk. She just wants everyone to like her."
Little? Did he just call Amber little? She's ten years old, not four. She's only two years younger than me. And everyone likes Amber. Before, I was my dad's little star. And now, I reckon Amber is. She always steals all the attention. Oh and yeah, sure, Amber so wants to be like me. As if.
* * *
After about the longest hour of my whole life, we finally arrive at Happy Horse Stable. Ignore the name. They're one of the top ten best stables in the country.
I jumped out of the car, relieved to be out of that little box I was trapped in with Amber. I ran over to Victoria, the owner of the stable.
"Victoria, I'm so sorry I'm late," I panted breathlessly. "I..."
"Yoo-hoo, Victoria," a way too familiar voice chirped. "It's me."
I turned around and had to jump out of the way to avoid knocking into Amber, who ran straight towards Victoria and into her arms for a big hug. Victoria laughed and lifted Amber into the air. She then put her back down.
"Well if it isn't princess Amber," Victoria bent down and cooed, sounding like a teacher talking to a preschooler. "What would you like to do today, darling?"
"I wanna ride Dreamer," Amber squealed, with a big angelic smile.
"Oh, all right," Victoria said kindly, "Come on, sweetie. Let's go get Dreamer." She lifted Amber onto her shoulder and they walked off around the corner of the stable, leaving me standing in the dried mud. I sighed and walked slowly into the stable. I walked over to Camila, my favorite horse. I had named her after my real mom. I stroked her long mane and she whinnied. I pulled a carrot out of my pocket, and held it out to her. I giggled as she crunched the carrot, licking my fingers, and tickling my hand with her soft velvety nose. I led her out of her room and out of the stable. I hopped on her and kicked her side. She trotted quickly through the spacious grassy pasture to where my class was being held. They were all huddled in a little circle, talking strategy.
"Ashlyn, over here!" my teacher, Marilyn, called, lifting her head up and beckoning me over to the circle of horses and kids. All the other kids lifted their heads and smiled at me.
"Hey Ashlyn!" everyone called. I smiled happily, feeling relaxed and happy. I felt like I belonged.
"Ashlyn, we're working on jumps today. And I was just telling everyone about that jump you showed me yesterday at private lessons. Since you are our star, can you demonstrate a jump for the class?"
"Sure," I said, glad to demonstrate my skills. I had been horseback riding for about four years and I was already the best rider at Happy Horse Stable. I had won five national horse-jumping competitions and my shelf at home was covered in medals, trophies, ribbons, and certificates. The stable was my second home. I turned Camila around and we trotted over to the jumping spot. I positioned Camila on the starting line. I leaned forward, seeing the jumping bar about twenty yards away. I anticipated the rush of air I felt as I jumped. As everyone watched, I dug into Camila's sides and she shot off. We shot off for about nineteen yards. Then, we took air, sailing high over the bar and into the air. I felt like a princess riding a unicorn over a high cliff and onto the other side. We slowly descended five yards away from the bar, hitting the ground delicately. I flushed with pride. There was complete silence. I began to panic. What had I done wrong? Suddenly, my class burst into applause, cheering and clapping, whooping and hollering. Marilyn's face was shining with pride. Finally, after about five minutes, the applause died off. I smiled with complete satisfaction. But then, my smile slowly slid off my face as I heard cheering in the direction of Amber's class. I looked over to see Amber on her horse, standing next to a miniature jump, which she had apparently just cleared. Her class was cheering and clapping. I could hear Victoria shouting, "You're going to be our next Happy Horse stablewoman!" My face turned grim. My throat tingled, like I was going to start crying. The pit in my stomach grew deeper. I had had it with Amber. There was going to be only one champion here. And that champion would be me.
* * *
The next week at lessons, to my utter disappointment, Victoria allowed Amber to go with my advanced class on the advanced trails at Sunnapeak Woods, a large woods located next to the five-acre land plot of Happy Horse Stable. All it took from Amber was a hug, some smiles, and lots of giggles, and Victoria said yes. I groaned under my breath when Amber galloped up next to me and started chattering away about some new thing or another that had happened at school. I quickly started ahead of the group, galloping Camila over fallen trees, through the rough advanced trail. Roots grew up from the ground dangerously. I shivered. Even though the sun was shining brightly, it was getting a bit chilly. I wrapped my sweater closer around me and hugged myself into Camila for warmth. After another hour of riding, I approached a running brook about four yards wide. This was going to be a jumping challenge. I anticipated the flying feeling. At the signal, Camila shot forward and we sailed high over the brook. As we landed I felt that same happy feeling, a feeling that I had done something right. Then, I heard a voice from very near call, "Ashlyn? Ashlyn?"
I turned around and looked across the brook to see Amber sitting on her horse right next to the water's edge. Amber smiled, delighted to see me. I moaned. She had followed me!
"What, Amber?" I cried, exasperated. "What do you want now? Did you have to follow me? It was bad enough that you were even put in the advanced class group! You aren't even good enough to be in my group. You just charmed Victoria into getting into the advanced group! You've ruined my life! You took all the attention away from me! Look at what you've done!"
I gasped, clapping my hand to my mouth. Had I really just said that aloud? Amber's face closed in. Her bottom lip trembled. Her nose scrunched up. Her eyes filled with small pools of tears.
"Amber, I..." I started. "I didn't mean to..."
"Well, I'll show you," Amber said in a quiet voice.
She turned around and trotted off. I thought she was going to turn around back to the farm, but then about twenty yards from the brook she stopped, turned around, and positioned her horse. She dug in and the horse galloped off towards the brook again. I knew what was happening before it happened.
"Amber, no!" I cried. "No, Amber, you don't know how to jump this far!"
Her eyes were now more determined than ever. She was four yards from the brook, three yards, two yards, and then it happened. Dreamer's foot caught on a root sticking out of the ground. Her back leg twisted and she fell down, whinnying. Amber bumped off the horse and flew into the air, screaming. "Help! Ashlyn! Help!" she cried.
I jumped off of Camila and ran towards where Amber didn't land into my arms on land. The air carried her down with a big splash into the brook. She didn't come up. "Amber!" I screamed hysterically. "Amber!"
Then, to my relief, Amber's head poked up out of the water. She was panting and bobbing up and down. The current was picking up speed. Amber sailed with the water, down the brook, bobbing up and down, screaming.
"Swim to the side, Amber! Over to me!" I cried, running down the edge of the brook, bending towards the water's edge, holding out my arms.
"I can't swim!" Amber yelled.
I knew what I had to do. I dove into the cold water, not caring if I was going to be soaking or not. I swam quickly with the current towards Amber, the distance between us growing smaller and smaller. I grabbed her hand and pulled her close to me. Then, I swam to the shore. I pushed her up onto the shore and then pulled myself out, dripping and panting. We both sat quietly on the shore for a while, shivering from the cold.
"Ashie?" Amber finally broke the silence. I looked around. Who was Ashie? Amber tugged on my arm. "Ashie?" I looked down at her big blue eyes. I was Ashie. At that moment, I felt something I couldn't describe. I don't know I guess maybe a mix of relief, joy, and compassion.
"Yes?" I said in a soft voice.
"Ashie, I... I love you," Amber said in a soft voice.
At that moment, I realized something. Amber and I weren't totally different. We both knew exactly what to say at the right time. I looked down at Amber, shivering, huddled in the cold. I put my arm around her and pulled her in tight. "I love you too," I whispered, so just she could hear. And there I sat, on the edge of a rushing brook, the grass moist with our drops, the sun shining through the trees, a slight breeze whistling through the forest, with my stepsister. No, actually, my sister, Amber.