Out of Underhill
Mama always said, don't go near the lake. Rin already knew the forest was filled with dark things, but aside from Mama no one had warned him about the lake. One day, Rin wanders off to the lake, where a beautiful blue horse asks him to go for a swim, and Rin learns too late it may not be a swim he survives.
Mama was a cowboy. Okay, technically she was a cowgirl, but that’s beside the point. She grew up in the South, with a capital S. Her childhood was full of Bible-thumping, cattle, and hay. There wasn’t much room for school, especially since she was a girl. Her job was to help around the farmhouse, milk the cows, get married, and have a brood of kids who would grow up to work the farm too.
But, like I said, Mama was a cowboy. She wore pants and rode horses. She skipped church to nurse a sick calf. She could milk the damned cows, cook, and clean, but she didn’t have to like it. Her parents tried to set her straight, but Mama would sneak out to play with the colts in the paddock instead of sewing with her girlfriends. She would go out to the movies or even drive to a club in the neighboring city with friends who had never heard that girls only ever wore full skirts.
There were girls like Mama who cropped up in farm families from time to time, and the general consensus was she’d grow out of it soon. It was childhood rebellion, and it would fade.
Then I appeared. No, not like magic—poof, suddenly there was a baby in Mama’s arms. At first her Sunday dresses were a bit too tight, then her jeans wouldn’t button. Babies were fine in the South, so long as there was a husband to go along with them. Mama didn’t even have a man offering to court her, let alone a boyfriend or a fiancé. She had met a drifter, someone who came with the cows from Texas and was gone a few days later. There were men who thought Mama was beautiful despite her prickly personality and the baby growing inside, and they offered for her hand, thinking she couldn’t say no. Her parents were relieved—they could cover up the baby mistake with a quick wedding—but Mama always said no.
Her parents turned her out. Mama said she thought they were planning to set up a wedding anyway, so when she crawled back to them in desperation they could tuck her firmly under their thumbs and end her rebellion forever. Instead, Mama hopped on the first train heading north and never looked back.
She worked as a waitress, saving every dime, until labor pains made her supervisor call an ambulance. Her tips were huge that day, enough that when she got out of the hospital, she could finally afford to buy an old farm left unoccupied for the last decade. The forest on part of the land was haunted, the locals told her, and people kept disappearing. No one would buy it; the bank practically gave it away to Mama for free.
I was a quiet baby, so her supervisor let her keep me behind the counter when she returned to work. Her money mostly went to diapers, but every once in a while she’d call in a contractor. The barn got fixed up first, then the fences around the massive home paddock. She put a new roof on the farmhouse and replaced some rotting wood around the foundation. Eventually she bought two retired racehorses.
The horses themselves weren’t anything special. They hadn’t won stakes races, and their Thoroughbred pedigree wasn’t anything to laud, but they were good-looking horses all the same. Mama knew horses, and when she got some foals out of them, she taught the babies how to run.
Mama’s horses won stakes races. She cut her hours at the restaurant to spend more time training her colts and fillies. She bought more pedigree horses and built a second paddock so the stud stallions wouldn’t fight over their mares. Then she built a third paddock just for training.
I was ten years old by then, and Mama had an amazing reputation as a trainer and breeder. Owners would bring their Thoroughbreds to her for training. She quit her job at the restaurant and built a second barn with an indoor training ring. The barn was so large, she could run the horses inside in bad weather. I was glad, because it meant I didn’t have to clear the snow from the paddocks in the winter.
I was almost fourteen when it all ended. We were driving back from the racetrack with two horses in the trailer behind our truck. Mama never saw the drunk driver that hit us. He came whipping around a curve in the road, well over the double yellow line. When I woke up, I was in the hospital. Mama was in the bed next to me.
The weight of the horses in the trailer had saved our lives. We hadn’t gone over the ridge and our car hadn’t flipped because the trailer had prevented it. Mama had broken ribs and a broken hip. I had severe compound fractures in my legs. The drunk driver was dead.
I turned fourteen in the hospital. Mama traveled between the farm and the hospital for weeks after she was released. It was almost a year before she could properly sit a horse, but she never had the strength in her legs to control a bucking yearling like she used to. Me, I was lucky I could even stand.
I had braces for my legs and crutches for my arms. I couldn’t carry hay or oats to a horse, let alone ride them. Mama had been teaching me everything she knew, but now it was all she could do to take care of her own horses and me.
The trainers and their Thoroughbreds went away, as did the money from Mama’s colts and fillies winning stakes races every racing season. Mama got her job back at the restaurant so we could keep the few horses she still owned. I was home with my schoolwork and nothing else to do with my time. I was way behind in school, so Mama was trying to homeschool me and catch me up with my grade. She hadn’t finished high school, but she insisted I would.
I was bored as anything and very depressed about my life. I was relearning to walk with the pins in my legs and with the crutches. My only escape during the day was struggling through a walk down one of the flat riding paths. Back when I could ride a horse down those paths, I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods or near the lake. Those were Mama’s rules, and I was supposed to follow them or she’d ground me. But the lake was so serene as I limped toward it, and I needed a break anyway.
That was when I met Blue, the crazy horse reading over my shoulder who doesn’t know how to respect a private diary. Of course, he tried to kill me then. I think now might be my turn to return the favor.