1

 

MAIA PEREZ pulled the plug of the hanging light out of the socket with a vicious yank. The now-empty tack room plunged into darkness. A comforting scent—a mix of grain and leather—engulfed her, and her throat tightened. With reluctant steps, she reached the door. Blinding sunlight rushed in through the open barn door. She blinked and wiped her eyes with her shirt collar as they watered as much from the bright light as from the tears that had hovered nearby for hours.

“That’s it, then?” Her mother stood in the doorway, her hands in the pockets of her jeans.

“Yeah,” Maia choked out. She looked over her shoulder into the dark, empty room.

Mija.” Her mother pulled Maia to her chest and hugged her tightly, ignoring the dangling light in Maia’s hand. “I know this is hard. If there were any other way, we’d do it. You know that we’ve tried everything.”

“I know.” Maia didn’t want to talk about it anymore. They’d been talking about it for the past two years and, with no other solution, the time had finally come. It was the hardest thing she’d done in her sixteen years. She pushed away from her mother and carried the fixture to the truck, then dropped it in the box in the bed. The barn was empty—except for Selena. She swallowed hard as she walked to the horse trailer attached to the back end of the truck and made sure it was ready. She knew it would be. She always cleaned it out after every ride.

Maia forced herself to walk back into the barn, and Selena nickered at her over the stall door. Maia’s heart fluttered and sank in her chest, and the tears she’d held back so successfully poured out. Opening the stall door, she stepped in and wrapped her arms around Selena’s sorrel neck. The scent of the horse that had been a large part of her life since she was ten filled her nostrils.

“I’m sorry,” she blubbered into Selena’s mane. When her parents had approached her about possibly needing to give Selena away, Maia’d promised herself she wasn’t going to cry and make a fuss—she was going to be an adult about the whole issue. With everything happening now, though, she couldn’t help herself. Sobs wracked her as she stroked the horse’s neck, her fingers combing through the horse’s mane in lieu of a comb. They’d been through so much over the years. Riding lessons. Barrel racing. Gymkhanas, where they’d even competed in Denver. They’d never won first place—third or fourth place a few times, that was it—but that wasn’t what had mattered. Being with Selena, riding her or even just watching her in the pasture, was always fun. Those times, they’d been inseparable. She lived every country girl’s dream, and now it was crashing down around her.

Behind her, her mother reached out and stroked Maia’s hair. “Mija, mija, if there was some other option, I promise you, we’d have taken it. But this really is what’s best for Selena right now. If she’s lucky, she can even find a new home.”

“But she doesn’t want a new home.” Maia tightened her grip on Selena’s mane. “She wants to stay right here. I want to stay right here. This isn’t right. It isn’t fair!” Her voice shook and her tears flowed harder. Her throat tightened and she hiccupped.

“Baby, life isn’t fair. If there were any way around this—anything at all—we’d have done something months ago. You know that. Right now, we just don’t have the money to keep her—not the money to keep her the way she should be kept. Hay is expensive, and we haven’t had any extra money for it this year. We have nothing stored for her for the winter. The new owners of the house will be here soon. At least they were kind enough to give us a few days to get the barn ready for them.”

“I know.” Maia grabbed the halter and lead rope on the hook outside the stall door. As Maia had trained her, Selena put her nose in the halter, and Maia slid the halter on smoothly. When they first began, this didn’t happen in one fluid motion. She and Selena had worked many hours simply on haltering, and Maia bit back her tears as she remembered. Her hands shook as she led the horse out of the stall and closed the sliding door behind her.

Selena pushed her nose into Maia’s hair and blew a warm puff of breath that sent tingles down Maia’s spine. She wanted to stop and hug the mare again, but she knew if she did, they’d never make it to the horse trailer. She wanted to be the grown-up, to be the adult here, but her stomach twisted around in her belly, and the lump in her throat wouldn’t go away. The tears continued anyway.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” her mother said from inside the barn, behind her. “Just going to check and make sure we got everything. No sense leaving anything behind. We need all the money we can get right now.” The resale shop would be their second stop after leaving Selena at the rescue center.

Money, money, money. It was always all about money. Maia had heard it every day for over two years, ever since both her mother and father were laid off. Their combined unemployment checks were close enough to pay the bills, and as long as they cut back on extras like cell phone and Internet service, their basic necessities were covered. Their savings had already been wiped out due to the high medical bills Maia’s older brother, Ramon, continued to rack up due to his individual therapies and doctors’ appointments. A few years ago, he had been injured playing football during the big game in Pueblo, resulting in his being confined to a wheelchair. Her mother started getting food at the local food bank, and Maia watched as her beautiful Selena grew thinner and thinner.

Finally, her parents had decided to move from their farm east of Falcon, Colorado, to live with her grandmother south in Fountain, and they’d sold anything of value to try and hold everything together. They had put Selena up for sale on Craigslist and any horse buyer’s site they could find. Her father had told her that horses were “a dime a dozen,” and no one seemed to be interested, except for “kill buyers,” people who would buy unwanted horses for cheap or free and then sell them to slaughterhouses, and that was not an option that any of them were willing to take.

Much of the actual move fell on Maia and her mother. Now her father worked two part-time jobs, one in Colorado Springs and one in Denver, to try and make ends meet. Some nights, he arrived home almost too tired to eat.

Selena’s unshod hooves thudded on the floor of the horse trailer. Maia’s chest tightened. It had been a year since they’d had the extra funds to have the farrier visit. Maia did her best to keep Selena’s hooves trimmed, but she’d limited her riding anyway. Selena’s feet were too tender to keep barefoot like other horses in the area. A new owner would probably be better for Selena. Abuela Sylvia’s small yard didn’t have room for a horse, even if they put up a lean-to for shelter.

Tying Selena’s lead to the ring at the first section of the two-horse trailer, Maia rubbed the horse’s forehead and kissed her nose. “I’m sorry this is happening. At least there will be other horses for you to run with. I’ve been told that anyway.” She hugged Selena’s neck again and buried her face in her mane, letting the horsey scent wash over her.

“Maia, you all set in there?” her mother called from the back of the trailer.

“Yeah.” She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “It’s not a long ride.” She patted Selena’s neck and kept her hand on Selena as she walked out of the trailer, more for her comfort than to make sure Selena didn’t accidentally step on her. She knew, without a doubt, Selena wouldn’t hurt her. The couple of times that Maia’d nearly fallen off, Selena had stopped immediately and waited until Maia was safe. It was a sure sign of a good horse—someone had really started her training off well before Maia had her—and Selena was nothing if not a good horse.

Once the trailer was closed and locked, Maia’s mother ruffled her hair and kissed her cheek. “Mija, I know this is hard. But things will get better. I promise.”

“I hope so.” Maia clung to her mother. “I don’t see how things can get much worse.” She did her best not to start crying again.

 

 


 

2

 

EMMA BAILEY leaned against the fence, watching her horse, Carl, play with the other horses in the pasture. She spent as much time as she could just watching them, trying to learn more about their body language and behavior. Carl was a rescue from a few years before, emaciated when he arrived at the center. Heart of Colorado Horse Rescue was Cassie’s—Emma’s mother—pride and joy, and the hours Emma had spent working taught her more about things she was interested in than a public school ever could. She felt extremely lucky that she was homeschooled.

A new horse was being brought in, but instead of being abused like a lot of the other horses they dealt with on a regular basis, this one was being given up by the owners. The owners couldn’t afford her anymore. From what her mom said, they’d tried to sell the horse without any luck, and finally, at the end of their finances, they talked to her to see if she could take the mare and find her a new home.

After cleaning out the stall for the new horse, Emma had walked to the pasture to watch the horses. Oops, a sorrel quarter horse with four white feet, pinned her ears at Doc, a black-and-white paint gelding, as he passed her and moved out of striking distance. Carl, her sorrel grade gelding, just continued to eat, swishing his tail. As a truck drove near, he raised his head, ears alert.

Emma turned her head and saw an old Ford pickup truck backing a trailer into the driveway. This must be the new horse. Her mom came outside, said something to the driver, and headed to the back of the trailer to give directions. Emma joined her in case they needed help.

A girl slid out of the passenger side of the truck, slammed the door, and circled around to the back. With long black hair and reddish-brown skin, both she and her mother looked Hispanic. Red splotches around the girl’s eyes made it look like she’d been crying.

It must be her horse. Emma’s heart went out to the girl. I can’t imagine ever having to give my horse up. Carl’s first few months at the rescue had been touch-and-go, even with Emma at his side most of the day. It had taken seven or eight months before Carl reached a more normal weight for him, and she had waited even longer than that to find out whether he was rideable. But it had been those first few months when Emma had determined that this mangy, bone-skinny gelding was all hers.

“Well, welcome to Heart of Colorado Horse Rescue, Ms. Perez,” Emma’s mother said. “I’m Cassie Bailey, and this is my daughter, Emma. We’ll take care of Selena until we can find her a new home.”

Ms. Perez put a hand on the girl’s shoulder at this, then said, “You can call me Rosie. And this is my daughter, Maia. Selena is her horse, but unfortunately….” She glanced at Maia sadly.

Maia winced at her mother’s words and bit her lip, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

Seeing Maia’s discomfort, Emma asked, “Mom, do you mind if I show Maia around while you and Ms. Perez go through the paperwork?” Maybe showing her around will help ease the pain she’s feeling.

Emma’s mom smiled brightly at Emma and nodded. “Honey, that’s a great idea. Take Selena with you and put her in the observation stall as well.”

“Maia?” Emma asked hesitantly. Just because Emma’s mom had said it was okay didn’t mean she should have assumed Maia wanted to go with her. “Do you want to see where we’ll be keeping Selena before we put her in with our herd?”

“Sure,” Maia said, her eyes still downcast. She sighed and lifted her head to look at Emma. Emma almost gasped, and a butterfly appeared in her stomach. Maia’s features took Emma’s breath away. She was the most beautiful girl Emma had ever seen.

Maia unhooked the lock on the trailer door and swung it open. The sorrel mare inside snorted and adjusted her footing. Maia entered the trailer to back the horse out and leaned close to her, resting her forehead on Selena’s neck. She took a deep breath and gave the command for Selena to start moving backward. The trailer didn’t have a ramp, but the mare apparently trusted Maia enough that she didn’t stumble once as she stepped off the trailer. They must have worked together a lot.

“This way.” Emma gestured for Maia, Selena on the lead rope, to follow her. She made herself look away—she didn’t want Maia to think she was staring—as they walked toward the quarantine barn. Maia was quiet while they walked, and Emma tried not to think about how she’d feel if she had to give up Carl. Behind her, the girl looked exactly how she would imagine herself in the same situation.

 

 

WHEN THEY reached the barn, Emma was glad she had cleaned the stall earlier. It was halfway down the barn and might seem a little small, but it would suffice to hold the new horse—Maia’s horse, Selena, she reminded herself—for a short while. New sawdust and fresh water awaited the horse when she entered, and a nice clean run would allow her to go outside and get fresh air.

Maia and the mare went through the open stall door. She removed the halter carefully and rubbed the horse’s neck, fingering her mane. Her fingers were trembling. “It’s nice,” Maia said quietly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. So…,” Emma said, not sure of what to say, “she’s your horse?”

“Yeah. Selena—I named her after Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the singer. Mom’s got some old CDs of her music, and she used to be my favorite. We got her when I was ten—my birthday surprise. She’s the only—” Maia’s voice hitched, and her hand faltered as she worked out a knot in the horse’s mane. “—horse I’ve ever had.”

“Well, I don’t know how much you know about keeping herds of horses since she’s your only one. What’ll happen is that we’ll keep her here for the next two weeks or so before introducing her to our herd.”

“What do you mean?” Maia’s voice wavered.

“Don’t worry. It’s normal. We quarantine all the new arrivals, just to be on the safe side. To make sure they don’t have any illnesses or a disease that may not be immediately apparent. The vet and farrier will come out and check her over too,” Emma said, trying not to look at the horse’s hooves. They hadn’t been professionally trimmed for quite some time. She must have tried to do it all by herself.

“Won’t she be lonely?”

“Being that it’s a new place, most likely.” Emma leaned against the stall door and hoped she looked as calm as possible to help both Maia and Selena feel more at ease. “But I’ll come out and visit her every day. I’ll feed her and take care of her water.”

“Oh,” Maia said and sighed deeply. “I wish I could come out.”

“If you want to, I don’t think Mom would care. And Selena would probably like that.” And so will I. It was lonely sometimes being the only teenager around. The thirty- and forty-year-old ranch hands joked with her and treated her well, but it wasn’t the same as having someone her own age to spend time with. And the fact that Maia was attractive… that was just icing on the cake. “You could even volunteer to help take care of the horses while you were here.”

Maia broke into a huge smile, the first one Emma had seen that reached her eyes. “That would be wonderful! I got my driver’s license last month—Mom probably won’t mind if I come out to visit.”

Maia’s smile sent a warm tingle down Emma’s body. “Good, then I’ll tell Mom that you’re going to come out and help me take care of Selena.” Emma already couldn’t wait to see Maia again. They could ride in the pasture together, and she would have that same smile on her face. Emma hoped so anyway. “We’re always looking for folks to come out and help around here. Lots of stalls to clean out, and most of the horses need to be ridden from time to time. That’s if your folks don’t mind, of course. Since you’re under eighteen, you have to have their permission.”

“I like that idea.” Maia ran her hand down Selena’s face to her nose. Selena checked her hand for food with her muzzle. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it, girl? We could still spend some time together.” She walked over to Selena’s side, one hand still playing with the mare’s muzzle, the other resting on Selena’s back. Tears slid down her face slowly, one from the left eye, then the right, Maia’s chin quivering as she held in her sobs.

Emma stood there a moment, unsure of what to do until she did it. With steady steps, she moved closer to Maia and put a hand on her shoulder. Maia fell into her embrace, arms around her waist, and put her forehead on Emma’s shoulder. “Selena’s going to be fine out here,” Emma murmured, stroking Maia’s back as she cried, her heart drumming quickly in her chest. “Mom’s always saying when she dies, she wants to come back as one of her horses. We give them the best care possible.”

Maia nodded and lifted her head to rest her chin on Emma’s shoulder. “I hope so.”

“I know so.” Emma pulled away reluctantly from Maia so she could look her in the eyes. “Sometimes, I think the horses get better care than I do.”

“What happens if you can’t find her a new home?” Maia’s voice was barely above a whisper, and she backed away from Emma slightly, now that the crying spell was over.

Emma wanted to squeeze Maia’s shoulder to help assure her, but she didn’t. Instead, she said, “She’ll live out her life here with our herd.” She pointed out the door at the horses in the pasture. “She’ll have plenty of space to run, lots of hay and grain, and you’ll keep coming out to visit her.”

“Then I hope she doesn’t find a new home.” Maia sounded steadier. Calmer. The cry seemed to have done some good. “I’ll definitely come out and visit her. Lots and lots. Maybe one day we can find a way to bring her home—well, when we have a home again.”

Emma swallowed the knot that had developed in her throat. Are they becoming homeless? Is that why she has to give up Selena?

“Girls, did you get the horse settled?” Emma’s mother called from the open barn door.

“We’re about done,” Emma called back. “Be out in a second.” She wanted to give Maia the chance to dry her tears if she wanted to. She leaned close to Maia’s head. The sweet smell of her shampoo swirled around Emma. “You going to be okay?” she whispered.

“Somewhat.” Maia sniffled and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Thanks for helping me feel better.”

In that moment, Emma wanted to do everything she could to help Maia feel better. “Hey, if you’re going to be coming out here, we’re going to be friends, and friends are supposed to help each other out, right?”

“Right.” Maia stepped away from Selena and gave Emma a quick hug. “Thanks. Take good care of Selena. I’ll see you both soon.”

Before Emma could say anything in return, Maia dashed out of the barn, and then the sound of a truck door slamming echoed across the property. Emma closed and locked Selena’s stall and walked toward her mother, standing in the barn doorway. She heard the truck start and watched it leave. Maia would be back out to the center—soon, Emma hoped—to visit Selena.