Authors: James Patterson
MAGGIE DIDN’T PANIC,
even as she was holding on for dear life, managing to stay on her horse the way she hadn’t been able to hold on that day on the trail when it had been a fox spooking her horse.
The good news was that she wasn’t on the clock yet. She knew she had time to get Coronado under control, if she could, before the buzzer finally did sound. She still couldn’t believe this was happening, when it was happening. Gus had told her there shouldn’t be any surprises over the first part of the course.
What about before her course even began?
Only one thing to do. Lean forward and hope like hell he stopped. If you leaned the other way all you were doing is pulling the horse back, maybe on top of you.
But Coronado stopped rearing as suddenly as he’d started. Maggie circled him back toward the in-gate. She had no idea what had spooked him. But it didn’t matter what. Something had.
She made a wide turn around, moving him back into position. As much as her mind was racing, she did manage this one fleeting thought:
Better now than when we’re out there.
Then he started to shake his head.
It was as if whatever had bothered him a few moments before was bothering him all over again. She knew she was out of time. The buzzer was about to sound. If she couldn’t get him under control, she would be eliminated before she ever got to the first jump.
Maggie kicked him then.
She’d never needed to really kick this horse. She did now. The buzzer sounded as she did. If she wasn’t in total control of Coronado, they were at least on course. They were in the game.
Get one fence underneath us.
After all the plans she and Gus had made for this course and this round, that was the only plan now.
Coronado got over the first jump. Then the next. Then came a combination. Then a rollback.
So far so good. Still such a long way to go. Maggie wasn’t getting ahead of herself. But then they were through the first half of the course clear. Another rollback coming up, much tighter than before, a bitch of a turn. The big horse got his head turned around, though, in a good way this time, and then they were coming up on the water jump now, the pool behind the fence looking wide enough today as if it needed one of those Paris bridges over it.
Coronado got over the rail, over the water.
She had her horse under control. Finally had her breathing under control. She went clean over an oxer on the right side, was heading along the fence at the opposite end of the ring from where the in-gate was, toward some photographers, when one of them wearing a bright red vest got up and ran to another position.
He was right there in Maggie’s sight line.
The photographer should have known enough to wait, with a horse coming straight for him. He didn’t. And that was all it took to spook her horse. Again. His head was all over the place.
Maggie kicked him harder this time. Telling herself she’d apologize to him later. It worked. Again. But he wasn’t entirely squared up yet, was drifting to the right just enough. Maggie was glad the oxer coming up on them was wide. If it was a skinny, half as wide, just one rail, she might have missed the fence entirely. But in that moment the oxer looked wide as a four-lane highway. Coronado cleared it. Made it through the combination. Up, down, up again.
One more rollback. Two more fences after that. The last
a skinny. For a horse as big as hers, Maggie sometimes imagined trying to fit him through a doorway. But she gave him a perfect distance. His head was screwed on straight now.
With all that, she still felt him catch the rail with one of his hind legs.
Felt herself holding her breath as she waited for the crowd to tell her if the rail had come down. One of those moments in riding, less than a second, that always felt like an eternity, especially this close to the end.
The cheer she heard told her she’d gone clear.
She didn’t need to go clean today. But she wanted to. She wanted to post a time this early in the round, set a tone, for everything that would come after this. And give herself confidence in the process. Mission accomplished. Nightmare beginning today. Pretty much a dream finish.
As she rode past Gus, he grinned at her.
“Interesting ride,” he said.
“Yeah,” Maggie said, “if you like roller coasters.”
MAYBE IT WAS WATCHING
Mom’s near calamity with Coronado. Or maybe all the waiting for this round had finally gotten to me, on a night when I actually wished I had been able to go early the way Mom had, post what was still the best time, then be sitting around watching everybody chase me.
But suddenly all the doubts I’d had about myself in the run-up to the selection show—all the self-doubt that was still in my DNA despite the year I’d had, despite being
—was hitting me like this huge wave, one I didn’t see coming, like I was standing on the beach and had turned my back on the ocean.
How many times had Gus drilled it into my head that I needed to act like I belonged?
But what if I didn’t?
There was a screen in the schooling ring that listed the next riders in the order. I wasn’t on it yet. The round seemed to be taking forever. Sky still hadn’t left her stall. I went and grabbed a folding chair from the viewing area some of the trainers used back here and carried it out of the ring and behind the scoreboard and sat alone and tried to convince myself that I wasn’t having a panic attack.
I’d had them occasionally as a teenager, when I first started competing. The last one had been at Tryon, in Carolina, the first time I competed outside of Florida. I didn’t tell anybody about it. I hadn’t told anybody about the previous ones. Just got my shit together and told myself I was being an idiot and got on my horse and finished third. And told myself I was never going to feel that way again. And hadn’t.
It wasn’t a case of nerves I was feeling now. This was beyond that, as irrational as it all felt. This was fear. Like that universal dream about getting ready to take a final exam without having been to class all semester.
Only the whole world was going to watch me start to take this final exam, and soon.
My dad told me one time about a famous basketball player, I forget which one, some great old-time player, who used to get sick before every single game.
I felt that way now.
Bad Becky, my ass. All of a sudden, I was back to feeling like a frightened little girl. It made no sense. There it was, anyway.
I saw Gus come around the corner.
“Been looking for you,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “you found me.”
I put my hands to my face and rubbed hard. When I pulled them away, I said, “I’m scared shitless, if you want to know the truth.”
He made a snorting noise.
“Is that all?” he said.
“Is that all?”
It was still just the two of us back here. It was as if we’d found the only quiet place at the Olympics.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Everybody with a
is scared here. And not just riders, in case you were wondering. When your mother’s horse lost his shit out there, you know what I did? I covered my goddamn eyes, that’s how scared
“But what if this is the day when Sky refuses again?” I said. “What if she spooks the way she did on me that day when it was just us in the ring?” The words just spilled out of me now, my voice sounding way too loud. “You heard Bitsy on that show. She said I’m the one who wasn’t supposed to be here. Well, what if I’m really not?”
He moved the chair closer to me and took my hands. I couldn’t ever remember him doing that. Behind him I could see that Emilio and Sky were here.
“We are going to get back inside this ring now, and you are going to ride your horse like a goddamn champion,” he said.
I started to say something. He still had my hands and gave them a squeeze.
“Shut up and listen,” he said.
“In your life you have never heard me talk about what happened to me when I got thrown, or what I lost that day,” he said. “So I’m gonna tell you this just one time: I want you to think about what I would give to get the kind of chance you have today.”
“Okay,” I said finally, just because I couldn’t think of what else to say.
“We’re never having this conversation again,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
He let go of my hands.
“Now go ride your ride,” he said.
SKY AND I WERE
in the ring twenty minutes later and they were introducing me as her rider and her owner. Rebecca Atwood McCabe. Wellington, Florida. United States of America.
Gus hadn’t said another word to me, not while I was warming Sky up, not as we made our way into Etoile Royale. Mom had totally kept her distance. Forty-seven riders had been in this ring by now. Mom
had the best time, at 75.5.
I knew I didn’t have to beat her time. Didn’t need to even go clean to make it to Friday. You could make it to Friday, give yourself a chance at the gold medal jump-off, with a rail down today. Or even two, depending what happened after I finished my round.
I didn’t intend to find out if I might be one of them.
I still wasn’t convinced I’d rewired my brain, even after the talking-to that Gus had given me. There were still a lot of crazy thoughts spinning around inside my head. But I had made up
my mind about this, now that I was out here:
I wasn’t going to ride scared.
Screw that, too.
I didn’t look around, didn’t try to take in the moment. I just focused all of my concentration on the first jump. Tried to swallow. Felt as if my mouth was full of the footing underneath me.
The buzzer sounded.
I put Sky in motion.
And from that moment on, it was as if we were being chased by the other horses. Or daring them to chase us. My horse was fearless enough for both of us. If she was scared of anything, it was going slow. Nothing else. Not the size of the ring. Not the sound of the place. She went full tilt into every fence and turn, the first half of the course flying past us, making me feel as if I was looking out the window of a speeding car.
We were past the first rollback, then the first combination, then easing into the turn along the fence where Coronado had spooked again. I just let Sky run. It was one of those times when the real truth of what was happening came by doing as little thinking as possible about the process. Just letting it happen.
Finally, we were coming up on the water jump.
And the light off the water was blinding me.
Not sunlight reflecting off the pool, the way it had in our ring at Atwood Farm that day. Not at nine o’clock at night. It was all the lights that ringed the top of Etoile Royale, making night in here as bright as day. Like all the lights of the Olympics were smacking me in the face at once, high beams hitting Sky and me when she was four strides from the fence.
When it had happened back home, the light had stopped Sky dead in her tracks, and then I was the one flying through the air before landing on a fence.
I had no idea if that might happen here. Or what was about to happen here. No idea whether Sky would come to a dead stop again. Or keep going. Just put my head down and squeezed my eyes shut and held on and trusted my horse.
No time to even pray that Sky could see better than I could right now. I didn’t open my eyes until I felt her go into her jump. I still couldn’t see very well. But I could hear just fine.
And what I didn’t hear was a splash.
Finally, it was green light time with the last skinny fence dead ahead. Then she was over that one. When I looked at the replay later, looked at some of the photographs of that one jump, Sky looked as if she were higher in the air than she’d ever been in her life.
As soon as I could I got her turned around, like we had one last turn to make, I looked for our time, eyes very much back to being wide open.
Up there in lights.
Just in a good way.
BITSY MORRISSEY CAME OVER
to the practice ring on Thursday morning with a TV crew to interview Mom and Tyler and me. Tyler had also gone clear on Wednesday, just with a time a full second behind Mom. He’d still be going right before her in the first round on Friday afternoon. The US team had the three best times. The three of us were last in the order. Simon LaRouche, born in Paris and the hometown favorite, would go before Tyler. Matthew Killeen and Eric Glynn before him.
“What’s it like being on the same team with this mother–daughter act?” Bitsy asked Tyler. “I’m told there might have been some tension between you and them in the past.”
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’ve grown since then.”
“Well,” Mom said, “not
He managed a laugh, whether he meant it or not, before Bitsy asked me what Tyler was like as a teammate.
“Your basic annoying older brother,” I said.
Tyler laughed at that, too. We were at least getting along. It didn’t mean I’d forgotten all the crap things he’d tried to do, and the things he’d said to Mom and Grandmother. But he’d been tolerable since we’d all gotten to Paris, if not likable. And whatever happened tomorrow, the three of us would be trying to win a team gold medal together next week.
Mom had brought a change of clothes with her from the Village. When we’d finished hacking our horses, she and Gus were off to meet Grandmother in the city. It was a good thing, for them, and for me. Even living together, I wanted to put some distance between Mom and me until we were the last two riders into the ring tomorrow, not just for the first round because we’d had the best times yesterday, but maybe even for the jump-off that would decide who would win the gold medal.
I still had to wait a whole day to find all that out.
I took a long walk around the Village, listening to music. Then made another lap. When I was finally back in the apartment, around dinnertime, I put on the television and tried to watch gymnastics. It did absolutely nothing to calm my nerves. Actually, made things worse. I made it through fifteen minutes, feeling as if I were making every move with them, knowing that any slip on the balance beam, or on the dismount, could cost them a chance at a medal. All it took was one bad moment, one false step, to cost them everything they’d trained for, and dreamed about themselves.
Like the kind you could make in the ring, on your way up to the next fence.
After I’d made myself a salad and managed to eat some of it, I got back on the bus and went over to the equestrian park and went down to the stall to be with Sky. She seemed as happy to see me as I was to see her, and not just because I’d brought my girl extra carrots, and even thrown in a couple of mints.
I stayed with her for about an hour, went back to the apartment, and watched yesterday’s round a few times, feeling myself get nervous all over again as we approached the water jump, even knowing that we made it. Blinded by the light? Who sang that?
Every time I watched, I saw how perfect Sky had been, how cool she’d been running when I was the one blinded by the light. But it was only the preliminary, Gus had reminded me that morning. Tomorrow, he said, tomorrow was the main event.
I tried to watch a movie in English, couldn’t remember a thing that had happened or a thing anybody had said before I turned off the set and went to bed and somehow managed to fall asleep. Then didn’t stir until I heard Mom coming in. Checked my phone and saw that it was still just ten thirty.
I saw my door open slightly and Mom put her head in.
“You awake?” she said.
“Kind of,” I said.
I sat up. She walked over and sat at the end of my bed the way she used to when I was little.
“How was your night?” I asked.
“Snootiest restaurant yet,” she said.
“Low bar,” I said.
“Go back to sleep,” she said. “I heard somewhere we’ve both got a big day tomorrow.”
When she got to the door I said, “Mom?”
She stopped and turned around.
“Wish there was a way we could both win tomorrow,” I said.
“Get over it,” she said.