A branch cracks in the woods, and Brianna’s horse, Melody, scoots forward at the noise. Brianna falls backwards. I shake my head as she sits up straight again and gathers her reins. My horse, Secret, doesn’t care; she’s come a long way since we got her off the track.
Sometimes I forget Brianna only started riding a few years ago, when she was in middle school. I was a lot younger when I started. I’d been begging for years, and Mom finally let me start taking lessons after Dad died. She said it was only timing, that I was finally old enough. But I think she knew riding could be what I needed to stay sane.
“Meggie, come on. I told you, I’m cool with it.”
“You didn’t seem cool with it.”
Secret stops and bites at her leg like she’s itchy, but I know it’s a bluff to get closer to the grass. Melody pulls ahead.
“I thought you would laugh.” Brianna looks back at me.
I kick Secret forward, ahead of Brianna. I can’t stay mad when I’m looking at her face, her brown eyes always soft no matter what’s coming out of her mouth.
“It wasn’t funny.” Secret’s back rises up like it does right before she bucks. I take a deep breath, keep my eyes straight ahead, and Secret relaxes. Riding is supposed to be peaceful, an escape. Brianna was part of that escape, before.
She trots to catch up to me.
“Why do you always make everything so hard?” She twists around to face me, not even holding her reins. Melody senses freedom and dives down for grass. Brianna lunges for her reins and grabs them just before they fall out of reach. She pushes her upper body off Melody’s neck, and adjusts her grip on the reins.
“Pay attention. It’s a long walk back to the barn.” Part of me wants to see Melody run off, reins flapping wildly. Melody would throw a giant buck, and Brianna would fly over her head. She’d land in a heap, crying, with a broken bone or two. Maybe Brianna wouldn’t think she’s so funny then.
“Melody would stay with me if I fell,” Brianna says.
“Uh huh, sure.” Melody would hightail it back to Hollow Tree Farm, to her food and her herd. Then, the rest of the ride, I’d have to deal with Secret spinning, wanting to gallop after Melody. Like the last time Brianna fell off.
I sigh, hoping Brianna gets the hint and shuts up so I can enjoy the ride for at least a few minutes. The leaves are gorgeous—gold, red, and orange. Secret’s chestnut coat fits right in. Melody is dark bay and doesn’t match so well, but Brianna spends hours brushing her, and her coat gleams in the afternoon sunlight.
We pass the yellow pipeline sign, which sticks out of the ground up to my feet. I always see the word DANGER and feel like I’m not supposed to be here, but it’s only telling people not to dig. Riding here is fine; the smooth ground makes the pipeline a popular trail. The other trails wind through the woods, and they’re too rocky to do more than walk.
Brianna sees the sign and turns to me; her eyes tell me she’s taken DANGER as a command.
I don’t need Brianna to feel alive; I have my own spark. I know the words that are about to come out of her mouth, and I beat her to it.
“Race you!” I kick Secret into a canter, and shoot out ahead of Melody, though it’s probably a bad idea—Brianna already came close enough to falling off at the walk. But if she can’t control Melody, that’s her problem.
“Not fair!” Brianna yells, but I can hear the smile in her voice, and Melody’s hooves pound the grass behind me.
I push Secret into a gallop. Her legs close and stretch, thrumming with energy beneath me. Once Secret gallops, she’s a beast to control the rest of the ride, but this feeling is worth it. Brianna’s still behind me, but gaining.
Secret and Melody both used to race, before we rescued them, so we’re flying, eating up the ground. The wind whips my face, the trees blur, and Secret’s ears are forward, happy.
Brianna catches up to me and whoops. The mares match strides, and we stay side by side. For a second, I'm glad I came with Brianna today. This is how it used to be, between us.
Then the ground in front of us drops off and we plummet downhill. We’ve galloped right past the turn off trail. I don’t know what the ground is like on this part of the pipeline. It could be rocky, muddy, dangerous. I lean back and pull as hard as I can, but Secret's never lost a race, and Melody’s not slowing.
At the bottom of the hill, a tree is down. It's a good ten feet across and three feet high, and neither horse shows any sign of stopping. Secret pulls a stride ahead of Melody, even though I’m yanking on my reins.
There’s still a sharp, wooded drop on either side of the pipeline. We can't turn.
“I'm gonna die,” I yell, and I really might. I don’t know if Secret can jump the tree, or if I should throw myself off before we get there. I pull Secret to the right and she gives, but doesn’t slow, and the path is too narrow to turn any farther.
Hell. I'm going for it. I get in my half seat and pray Secret will carry me to the other side of the tree. I don’t dare look at Brianna, behind me—I need to focus to get over this jump.
One stride, two stride, three strides and we're soaring, I’m weightless. I yell, no words, just sound, flying.
The hill climbs right after the jump and I use it to help slow Secret to a trot.
Secret spins around and I get a good look at the trail behind me. Melody is galloping full speed back to Hollow Tree on the other side of the tree, stirrups flying. I can’t see Brianna.
I call her name.
I trot back as close to the tree as I can without making Secret think I want her to jump it again.
My stomach rises up in my throat.
On the other side of the tree, Brianna is splayed on the ground.
Secret is lathered in white, foamy sweat and won't stand still. I jump off and pull my reins over her head.
“Bri? Come on, Bri.”
She still doesn't answer.
I can’t get close to her without climbing, so I tie Secret to a tree. My coach, Katie, isn’t here to yell at me about tying my horse up with her reins.
Secret dances in place—I hope my knot holds. I might need to ride her back for help. I left my god damn cell phone in the car.
I scramble over the tree to Brianna. I hit my knee on a branch and start to cry, but keep moving. I knew better than to race on the pipeline, where there was no place to turn off.
I kneel down next to Brianna. I’m afraid to touch her. Her neck is farther back than natural, but her chest rises and falls. She's breathing. Her arms and legs are twisted, but I don't think I should move her. If she has a neck injury, I could make it worse.
“Brianna, wake up.”
The image of my father, lying in the backyard, chest still, clouds my eyes. I close them and wipe my face. If I’m going to help Brianna, I have to be here and now, not then. I search my memory for the first aid classes I took in camp, after Dad died. Don't just do something, stand there. Think before you act. There was nothing I could do, with Dad’s heart attack. He was already dead. But maybe I can help Brianna. I have to help her.
I touch her cheek. She moans, but doesn't wake. Her skin's soft and warm, like I always imagine it. I scan her body—other than her head and neck, she looks like she could spring to her feet any second. She’s in this sleek sweater and she doesn't have any pockets, no place for a cell phone. Taking a phone is Katie’s cardinal rule of trail riding, and today is the one day I forget mine. I've got to get to a phone to call for help.
I hurry back over the tree to Secret and untie her. Somehow, even though she’s spinning around, I get my foot back into the stirrup and swing onto her back. I can’t go back the way we came—even if I thought Secret could jump the downed tree again, we’d land on Brianna. I think I know another way, if I follow the pipeline. Secret jigs sideways; I let her gallop and her stride swallows the trail.
I look up at Brianna from my sleeping bag on the hard floor. When we have sleepovers, we hang in the basement, because there's not enough space in Brianna's room. Brianna always gets the couch. We’re too old to have sleepovers, but it’s what we’ve always done.
“I have to tell you something.” Baby steps. How hard could it possibly be?
“Oh, don't worry,” she says. “I already know I'm the hottest bitch alive.”
I blush—she has no idea.
“No, for real,” I say. “You have to promise not to tell anyone.”
“I love secrets.” Brianna uncurls herself from her corner of the couch and sits up.
“To be clear, when I say ‘don’t tell anyone,’ I do not mean ‘tell everyone.’”
“Come on. That time with Sarah Strauss was funny.”
“She still hates you for that,” I say.
“God, people need to lighten up.”
I glare at her.
She makes a show of putting on her serious face. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Promise.” A smile sneaks onto her serious face, but Brianna’s always smiling. It doesn’t mean she’s lying.
I’m sweating. The only person I’ve told about this was my brother, and he was cool with it, but he doesn’t get worked up about much. Brianna, on the other hand, thinks I’m a revolutionary if I so much as wear new shoes without sending her a picture of them first. I think about easing in, using some dumb analogy, like how some people ride both English and Western, but what the hell.
I dive in.
“I think I'm bi.”
“Wait, what?” Brianna scoots to the edge of the couch; her eyes are wide.
Great. She’s going to shout it around the whole school. I was delusional to think otherwise. But I opened my mouth. I’m committed now. It’s out.
“I like guys, and I like girls.” Mostly, one girl.
“You kissed a girl and you liked it?”
“No!” I sit up in my sleeping bag, feeling like a giant, indignant slug. I don't know why I react so strongly. I know Brianna never takes anything seriously. But I guess I just hoped—I just hoped she would have a secret to tell me, too.
“The taste of her cherry chapstick,” Brianna sings.
“Is that all you're going to say?” I pull my sleeping bag tight across my chest, like it will hide me from her. Like she would look at my flat chest that way in the first place.
“So you like girls. Why is that some big secret?”
“Look, I’m not ready for everyone to know.”
“Meggie likes girls!” Brianna shouts.
“Bri! Your parents!” Last week, I might have climbed up on the couch, put my hand over her mouth, giggled about it. But if I do that now, I don’t know what she’ll think. Probably that I’m trying to touch her. And she would be right.
“Come on,” she says. “They're asleep. And they won't care. Besides, you should own it.”
“Did you listen to anything I said?” I get up and ball up my sleeping bag. I thought we'd have all night to talk about it. I thought this was how I was going to tell her without ruining our friendship.
“Chill out, it's all good,” Brianna says.
“You're not the one who gets to say that.”
I grab my stuff, and storm up the stairs. I can’t believe she’s acting this way. Then again, I can. I’m an idiot for liking this girl in the first place.
Brianna follows me to the front door.
“Shut up.” I slam the door behind me.
I slow Secret into an extended trot, turn off the pipeline, and head toward the stream; Brianna fell closer to Hollow Tree than I thought—maybe two miles. Secret slows down to walk through the stream, even though it’s low after the dry summer, only a foot or two deep. She wants to stop to drink but I don't let her. We tear up the last hill through the woods to get to the farm; branches and thorny vines slap my face and scrape my bare arms, but I don't care.
When we reach Hollow Tree’s outlying pastures, and there's only green grass ahead of us, I get in my half seat, loosen my reins, and let Secret do what she was born to. The wind makes my eyes water and I let myself sob.
Secret trots when we reach the gravel drive in front of the office barn. Katie’s holding a bloody, lathered Melody.
“Brianna’s hurt, in the pipeline, up by Green Road.”
Melody spins around jigging, still amped up from her run home. Her reins are broken, and the ends hang from Katie’s hands. I scan Melody for injuries, but she’s only scratched up. Thank god—Melody’s blood is on my hands, too, and if she were seriously hurt, Brianna would never forgive me.
“Do we need an ambulance?”
“Yes. Fast!” Katie will know what to do, and the relief makes me cry harder.
“Go back out there,” Katie says. “I'll call for help and come join you.”
I spin Secret back around, towards the woods.
“Meggie! What happened to your phone?”
“It's in my car.”
Katie drops Melody and runs for my phone without so much as an “I told you so” look. What will she say when she finds out it was my idea to race? What can I even say to myself? Melody trots off to her barn, frantic, reins trailing on the ground. Katie hands me my phone. I stick it in my jacket pocket and take off back to Brianna.
I take a shortcut to get to the pipeline—we have to go slowly and trail blaze through the woods. Thank god I've spent so much time in these woods. So much of it with Brianna.
It takes maybe fifteen minutes to get back to the pipeline; I push Secret to a trot. She senses that we're on a mission; she does what I ask without frenzy. Brianna's still on the ground.
I jump off Secret and tie her again.
“Meggie?” Her head shifts a little.
“Don't move!” I close my eyes and breathe for a second, then run over to her and kneel. She’s awake. She could be okay. I could be okay. Her cheeks are streaked with tears; I'm sure mine are too.
“What happened?” she says. “I woke up and you were gone.”
“Katie called an ambulance. She’s coming.”
“I can't feel my legs,” Brianna says.
“You're going to be okay. I'm here.” My own legs tingle. She could be just bruised.
“Bull fucking shit,” she says.
“Angry is good.” I reach down for her hand, and she squeezes it. She can at least feel her hands.
“If I’m not okay—”
“You’re going to be okay.” I will make it that way. I have to.
“Shut up,” Brianna says. “I have to say this. I never said I'm sorry. That's what I wanted to do, on our ride today. Everything I did that night—I take it back.”
“You don't have to take it back,” I say. “You were being you.”
Brianna was trying to be nice, in her messed up way, and I was so mad I wanted her to fall off. But I pretended I didn’t. I pretended we would race, have fun, and everything would be fine, like it always is eventually, except for when it’s not. After my dad, I should have known better—should have known Brianna, should have known myself, should have known life.
“I'm a real asshole,” Brianna says.
“You’re just…complicated.” I like that about her, but I held it against her.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” she says.
“I know.” I think I always knew she would keep a secret if I told her it was important to me.
Brianna takes a deep, shaky breath. “Melody, is she hurt?”
“She ran back to Hollow Tree. Katie has her.”
“That bitch. I knew she’d leave me.”
“Uh huh, sure.”
Brianna takes shaky breaths.
“I’m the one who should apologize. I started the race.” It hurts to think it, but if she’s paralyzed, if she dies, it’s on me. On my words, race you. On the cell phone I left in the car.
“I wanted to race,” Brianna says.
“I shouldn’t have let you.”
“Like I need your permission.” Brianna lies still, but her voice pushes hard. The effort exhausts her, and she strains for breath. I watch her chest. Up, down, up, down. I hear Katie’s voice, teaching us to post the trot. It becomes a prayer. Up down, up down.
“So, did you kiss a girl?” Brianna can barely get the words out, now.
“I thought you wanted to take that back.”
Brianna tries to smile, but it comes out as a grimace.
“No. I've never kissed a girl.”
“I'd kiss you.” Brianna’s brown eyes flutter. She’s not joking. Now I’m working to breathe.
“I'd kiss you, too,” I say quietly. Maybe she won’t hear, or she won’t remember it, once the ambulance comes.
Brianna doesn't answer; her eyes close, but her chest still rises and falls.
“Wake up!” I will her eyes to open, now, later, as many times as she wants them to. “Brianna, wake up!”
Her chest rises and falls, but her eyes stay closed.
I lie down next to her, waiting for the sirens to come from Green Road, my eyes on her eyelids, on her goddamn gorgeous head, on her neck that stretches back, impossibly back.