Horse-Crazy. Timothy Hart read the title of the book staring back at him from the library shelf. Though it was a new term to his vocabulary, Timothy knew precisely what it meant as his eyes played over it. It was the perfect word to describe his next-door neighbor’s daughter, Michelle. Michelle was especially on his mind this day because tomorrow was her birthday.
When Tim and his family had moved into the brick-red cottage beside the Coley’s residence the preceding year, Michelle Coley had immediately caught his attention. Michelle was only twelve—yet she already knew precisely what she wanted in life… horses. She cared for nothing else.
Tim picked up the book and turned it over in his hand, smiling. Fondly, he remembered his first impression of this horse-crazy Michelle.
"Michelle! Come meet our new neighbors!” her mother had called from the porch. Soon after, Michelle came stumbling out the door clad in leather riding boots. Her T-shirt had a silky white Arabian dancing across its front. At that moment, her mussed hair even resembled a horse’s windblown mane.
"Why! What on earth have you been up to!” her mother exclaimed.
The star-eyed girl blushed in front of her visitors. "Sorry, Mom.” she mumbled, "I was just pretending to ride Thunderclap.”
Her mother sighed. "Well, come say hello.”
"Hello.” Michelle said, shyly at Tim, his wife, and his two daughters.
"Who’s Thunderclap?” the youngest daughter, Sarah asked.
"Um, he’s just my dream horse.” Michelle blushed again.
And that was Michelle Coley’s first impression upon the Hart family. Dream horse, Timothy remembered. In the weeks thereafter he’d learned what the term meant. In fact, he bet that within that next year his equine vocabulary had quadrupled… maybe more.
Michelle and Timothy’s eldest daughter Andi had become fast friends. Consequently, the former had made numerous visits to their house. Every sentence she says has to do with horses, Timothy thought.
It was always "pastern this”, "chestnut that”, not to mention "sorrel, cremello, and Lipizzaner.” Every Saturday Tim was sure to spot Michelle-- feet dangling off her tree-house, with her nose buried in a Phantom Stallion book or at least a book with a horse on the front.
Michelle was hopelessly horse-crazy, Tim decided. Even at Andi’s birthday party, Michelle had tried to be more wolfy (since that was Andi’s favorite animal), but she had hopelessly failed. Everyone at the party went home with a full understanding of a wild horses’ herd hierarchy. Luckily, Andi didn’t mind. That’s who Michelle was and it was the way she would always be.
One blazing summer day, while Tim was weeding his front yard, Michelle had stopped and talked to him about the correct form to trot, canter, and gallop on a horse. She’d explained it like an expert.
She must have been to every riding stable in the county by now, he’d thought, she’s probably been on the back of the horse since she stepped out of the cradle.
Considering the condition of the Coley’s house and the family’s rather spindly appearance, he had always assumed they didn’t have much extra money for riding lessons. But there was no doubt that somehow this horse-filled Michelle Coley had been around horses her entire life.
Timothy Hart checked the book out on his library card, thinking he’d let Michelle borrow it—if she hadn’t read it already. Andi had begged him to think of something really special to do for Michelle’s birthday, and he still hadn’t thought of anything besides the book. He admitted this to his daughter in the car as they drove back home.
"Oh, Daddy! We’ve just got to do something really special for her. She’s been such a great friend. She bought me the dress I’d wanted for my birthday—spent all her savings on it! And her parents don’t have that much money to give her, besides!” Andi exclaimed with a toss of her fair hair. Her blue eyes looked intensely into his face, making him a bit uncomfortable.
"Well, what do you think she’d like?”
"I don’t know,” Andi mused, wringing her hands. "Of course something to do with horses…”
Andi thought for a few minutes, her brow wrinkled in thought.
"That’s it!” she squeaked, suddenly.
Startled, Timothy nearly grazed a passing convertible. He swerved, passed safely, then sighed with relief.
"Sorry…” Andi said, embarrassed. "But I know exactly what we can do for her! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before!”
"So, what’s this plan you’re hatching?” Timothy teased his daughter.
"Mrs. Adams, my history teacher, just told me today that her cousin is offering rides on her farm horses. She lives on a stretch of country just outside of town. She started giving kids rides to make up for the money her farm lost in the drought this summer.” Andi explained.
Timothy Hart didn’t see why a simple horseback ride would be so extraordinary for Michelle. She’d probably done it a million times already.
"And the fee?” Tim asked, keeping his thoughts to himself.
"Thirty-five dollars for a full-hour lesson, but I have enough to pay for it. After all, if she spent all her money on me, I should do the same for her.”
Oh, well… Tim thought. If Andi thought it would be good enough…
The next afternoon, Timothy was driving to Ida Dench’s barn with a grinning Andi, and bouncing Michelle in the back seat. The latter’s hazel-green eyes bulged out of her head. She couldn’t stop wiggling for joy.
"I can’t believe you did this!” she kept exclaiming over and over again. "I can’t believe it!”
Though Tim was a bit annoyed with her bouncing and repetitive exclamations, he didn’t let it on. It was her thirteenth birthday after all.
The night before, when they had stopped by to invite Michelle, it had been even worse. Timothy thought for a second that the girl’s heart had stopped altogether. Speechless, she’d stared blankly at them. When her mother, beaming, told them it was alright for Michelle to go—she broke out screaming and running across the room only to come back and tackle him in a huge hug.
"Thank you!” she exclaimed, then squeezing Andi in her other arm, she said it again. The last thing he’d seen of her that night was a shadow against her bedroom blinds, yanking on her auburn pigtails in anticipation. She probably hadn’t slept a wink.
Andi had seemed delighted, so Timothy didn’t even mention the fact that it was a bit odd for Michelle to act so excited over something she’d done before.
Timothy was glad when they finally pulled up in the farmhouse driveway and Michelle and Andi poured out of the side door. Ida approached them, smiling.
"So you’re the Michelle Coley who’s going to see my horses today?” she said, warmly.
Michelle nodded, making her ponytail bounce up and down wildly. Ida shook Timothy’s hand. After the fee was paid, she began leading them toward the barn, Timothy last in line.
Michelle looks like she’s about to wriggle out of her skin, he observed, watching the ecstatic girl in front of him. He could tell it was taking her all of her power to walk behind Ida instead of running on ahead. But as they neared the broad, chipped door of the barn he noticed that Michelle had become placid.
"Calm down, calm down,” he heard her whispering to herself under her breath, "you’ll spook the horses if you don’t. (Deep breath), there…”
When the barn doors opened, Michelle had succeeded in making herself completely sedate, yet her eyes still danced as much as ever. Like a girl walking into a magical world, she stepped inside, followed closely by a grinning Andi.
"Meet Hero.” Ida’s voice boomed proudly as a handsome chestnut gelding thrust his perfectly chiseled head over his stall’s door. His sparkling eyes blinked, curiously, at his new visitors. His tear-shaped nostrils inhaled, taking in Michelle’s scent.
She stopped dead in her tracks, wide-eyed. She ceased breathing. Andi gently took her by the hand and led her up to Hero’s stall. Timothy saw her clamp her eyes shut, as if she were afraid it was all a dream. Hero’s warm breath blew across her face, and her eyes opened. Michelle smiled. "Hero,” she said, in almost a whisper.
Hero nickered. Michelle began to extend a trembling hand. Eager to be pet, Hero met it halfway. Something like enchantment seized the features on the young girl’s face. Tears brimmed up in her eyes. As if she couldn’t contain herself anymore, she buried her face in Hero’s silken mane and sobbed happy tears.
Ida and Andi just stood by and smiled. "Happy birthday, Michelle.” Andi said. Only Timothy was confused.
That one hour of riding seemed to go on for eternity for Tim and the two girls. Michelle seemed to think she was in heaven. Timothy could tell how hard it was for Michelle to tear herself away when it was time to go. She was completely silent on the way home—satiated with happiness. After Michelle had said her goodbye and hopped into her house, he and his daughter began the walk to their front door.
"I wonder if she does that every time she goes to a stable.” Timothy muttered.
"Why, Dad!” Andi exclaimed, clearly shocked. "That was the first time Michelle has ever touched a horse!”
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