Chapter Sixty: Partners
We went to Mass on New Year's Day at the Los Angeles Airport chapel while we waited for our shuttle flight to Sacramento. I fell asleep twice that I know of; I had no remorse after I noted Aunt Sully elbowing John in the ribs to make him stop snoring during the sermon.
Once back in our wonderfully cool, dimly lit, familiar home, I emailed Rachel to tell her we were back, and that I would ride to her house on Friday to visit her.
I missed her.
There's a strange thing. As close as I've been to my brother and sisters, I find something about Rachel that invites me to share my thoughts and my impulses with her.
I want to ride up to her house on my horse, swing her up behind my saddle, and take off to see the ridgeline cow pastures with her holding onto my waist. I wish it were summer, so that she and I could dig around in the stream that cut through the bottom of our property, wade and get sloppy and cool, and perhaps slither downstream to the wide pond cut by my ancestors under the shady trees.
I wanted to be twenty-four, and ask her to marry me.
Being realistic, probably in a decade Rachel and I would be far apart. I pretty much was comfortable with going to Port Laughton University -- I could begin taking courses there in my junior year in high school, so that by the time I graduated, I'd already have enough credits to be declared a sophomore at the University. I'd live at home while going to college, as was only sensible, seeing as I was to be the Man of the House. And Rachel ... well, Port Laughton University, in spite of being somewhat small, and having truly shitty sports teams, was expensive. Rachel would probably be heading off to one of the CSU schools with a scholarship.
Aunt Sully rode with me in the heavy fog the next day, and although initially I felt a twinge of resentment/embarrassment at her automatically planning on riding with me, once I saw the thickness of the fog -- which literally made white walls ten feet ahead and all around -- I was glad for a companion with whom I could get lost in the fog and not merely blame myself. We tried and retraced our path down four muddy trails before we found the top of the road that was Rachel's street.
The world was silent under the fog, with only our horses' footsteps to break the silence. "There, that's her house," I told Aunt Sully. We rode into the front yard. Aunt Sully dismounted in a spry leap, which surprised me until I realized that she was showing off, because usually she dismounted in a groaning slide. Nevertheless, with only a bit of a limp, she pulled a rope from her saddle bag and strung a line between the two lowest branches of a shade tree. From the same bag, she took Zigzag's halter and put it on him. I was about to check my horse's bags for Mackerel's halter when her voice cut me short.
"Go knock on the door, Owen. Say 'Hello, I'm here to visit with Rachel.' Don't dither."
I was sure that I wasn't dithering, but declined to argue. As I strode onto the front porch, the door opened to reveal Rachel in a dark burgundy sweater, which, along with her dark hair, accentuated her beautiful blue eyes. "Mom, they're here!" she called back inside the house, and came outside.
As she petted the faces of our horses, her mother came out as well, wrapped in a crocheted shawl. My aunt extended her hand. "Sully Ambris, Owen's guardian-in-residence."
"Megan Owen, pleased to meet you. These horses are beautiful!" She petted Zigzag, rubbing between his eyes, which made him nod in pleasure. "When I was a girl, we had horses -- I still miss riding bareback through the snow in winters."
"Really?" Aunt Sully's voice rose in timbre. "You should come up and ride with me on your days off! Oh, well, I'm sorry. You need your days off for rest, don't you?"
"Yeah. Mostly. But I wish I could..."
"Maybe just a short ride, like a half hour to get you back into the muscles for it, then an hour or so after you get used to it again -- Rachel, you could cover for your mom while she's devastated from riding, couldn't you?"
"Yes, I'd do that -- Mom, why don't you?"
"I don't want to intrude on your riding time," Megan murmured.
"Are you kidding?" my aunt crowed. "The whole household is nagging me about riding by myself, but my alternative is to ride with one of the grooms and -- well, they're wonderful, but it just isn't like riding along with another woman."
Rachel and I left their conversation and went to talk on the porch, sitting in icy cold chairs, huddled in on ourselves, but close in mind. I told her about my sisters' transformations, and she filled me in on some of their personal conversations via email about what they had been up to.
It would have been rude of me to ask what Michel was saying to her in emails, considering his salvo at me that he intended to woo her away; nevertheless it was a tiny bit disturbing that she didn't mention his daily emails.
My glorious aunt wooed the heart of Rachel's mother that visit, and it was decided that Rachel would take lessons in riding on Michel's pony each Sunday afternoon, and Rachel's mother would join her until she was comfortable enough with riding again to go out on the trails with Aunt Sully.
I could not have asked for more (unless I asked to be twenty-four and have Rachel as my wife), my aunt and Rachel's mother were happy with the arrangement, and the weeks rolled on, through January and into February, and spring. Maybe when I am forty and middle-aged, I'll chuckle at my own journal entries of that time, but for now, I'd say I was living in the happiest winter of my life so far.
Riding in the arena hasn't been this much fun since I first got Mackerel and had to learn how to ride a full-sized horse. Each week Gary has a couple new exercises to do, to teach Rachel what to do and help Mrs. Owen regain her confidence, and they're simple things, like riding in snakelike patterns back and forth across the arena, or playing 'leapfrog.' For that one we ride in a single line, about a horse length apart. The first one stops, and the rest have to keep riding, circle the stopped horse once, and move on a couple lengths, then stop, so that the following rider has to circle that horse, too. The challenge is doing a nice tidy circle, and being able to stop and start the horse. With four riders, it looks cool, and the horses really get into the game. After playing 'leapfrog' a couple weeks in a row, we got a little competitive in urging the horses into faster walks -- Zigzag even snorted and tried to canter in his circle, which made my aunt laugh loudly.
Last Sunday was downright warm, and we rode in shirtsleeves. Gary got a microphone and we played 'Simon Says' -- he was 'Simon' and called out to walk, stop, trot, back up, turn around, etc. All four of us riders were laughing so hard we made all kinds of mistakes. But it was fun, and what I didn't realize until much later was that Gary was coaching us not only to think about the cues we were giving the horses, but also how to recover from a mistake without becoming fearful.
We had such a good time that John was actually jealous, and promised to join us next weekend. Five horses! I can imagine a time when all of us ride out on a jaunt -- we'll be like a cavalry charge!
My suite was nearly finished; the plastering had been done over the new wiring and plumbing. The old hardwood floors were being sanded and the baseboard heating had been installed. The fireplace chimney had been inspected and re-lined so that I could have heat if the power went off.
Marca and Oesha had chosen to share a big suite of rooms when the decision was made to re-open the third floor. Their rationale was that they not only liked being together, but also that neither one intended to make their permanent home at the estate, a state of mind I found incomprehensible. As early spring came on, Marca was completely obsessed with soccer -- she had no interest in the renovations, simply saying, "Move me up there when you have to, and don't throw out any of my stuff." She ate only vegetables and vast amounts of fish and meat, becoming even more lean and muscular than she had been before.
Her grades suffered for a while without Oesha doing her English homework, and Michel and Kelsa doing her math, but then improved greatly, which led me to understand that she had just been slacking out of laziness, and not out of lack of comprehension or talent. Before our siblings moved to Italy, I might have been moved to prod her into fury with accusations, but she really missed her twin and I could not bring myself to add to her misery.
She, for her part, stopped bullying me as much as she had, even sitting near Rachel and me on the bus, and threatening the paparazzi that sometimes showed up at the school gate, stalking toward their cameras with a fervent (but remarkably restrained) diatribe about selling out children's privacy for money and having no moral compasses whatsoever. Amazingly, seeing her walk into the cameras and make the photographers back up, quite a few of our fellow students joined the movement and mobbing the photogs became almost a daily morning exercise. Like a true leader, Marca took the first steps, and then egged on the student body team, roaring her triumph, until the first bell rang and we all bolted for the school building. Her newfound protectiveness seemed to lessen her desire to dominate at home, and we began to enjoy each other's company as never before.
In return, I went with Aunt Sully and John to see Marca's soccer games, and though I never did become a soccer aficionado, I definitely respected her efforts. The dynamic between my sister and me was changing. After all, we now had only each other, and where there had been the Five, we now only had the Two-and-a-Half, if we counted Rachel.
Which we both did, without reservations.