Author’s Note: So today I sat down to edit the scene where Larina came home from overseas. Originally, I wrote a scene that skipped over most of her journey home, and I felt that it could be done better. I added in more of Larina’s backstory to it, but it was clear even a couple paragraphs into the rewrite that I needed to finish the edit I had started on the opening scene, too, to make the travel scene make sense.
Oceans apart, day after day, and I slowly go insane, the line from an older song came to Larina’s mind as she blew her bangs out of her eyes for the third time that morning, shaking her head as she did. She wasn’t insane—she was free. She knew that was wrong. She should miss her home, should miss her family. They’d always been so close, even when loss tried to destroy them, and she was turning her back on that.
She wasn’t homesick or lonely. She should be, but she wasn’t. She kept thinking that this was her last summer, her last bit of freedom, and when she was done here, she’d have to go back to the real world. The vacation was almost over, and it would soon be time to go home and start repaying everything, including her student loans.
She only had a few weeks left to pretend that she was still on top of the world, and she’d come here with the intention of doing exactly that—while doing what she loved, doing what got her in this mess in the first place.
She reached up behind her and stroked the horse’s nose, shaking her head. She shouldn’t say it like that—this was what she wanted. She’d chosen school, chosen her degree, and she was using it. She shouldn’t be ashamed of that. She’d made the right choice. She didn’t need to be at home, with all those eyes on her telling her that she’d made the wrong one.
“You don’t think I made the wrong choice, do you?” Larina asked, turning back to face Knight. He blew out a breath onto her neck, and she smiled at him, knowing how far he had come in the last few days, making the kind of progress she wouldn’t have expected and someone less cynical would call a miracle.
She was a vet, and because she could combine that knowledge with her aunt’s natural therapies, after she diagnosed the horse’s physical problem and begun to help him with that, she’d also worked beyond it, going deeper, to the emotional side of it. That was what he’d needed most, since the trauma had created the larger part of this beautiful gelding’s issues.
Now he was as free as she was. Freer, even, she couldn’t help thinking.
“Larina, that was amazing. I never thought you’d be able to reach him, not after all he’s been through,” her new friend—client, really the other woman was a client—said, nodding in approval. Larina tried not to grimace. Though Ericka owned the most beautiful land and some of the finest horses Larina had ever had the pleasure to know, to touch, and to ride, she was yet another owner that did not get close to the horses, who saw them more as a part of her business than a part of her family.
Knight deserved more, though. To Larina, he was truly special. She rubbed his nose again, leaning her cheek against his, savoring the moment. Knight had given her his trust, and that feeling was unlike any other in the world. To know that this horse, this traumatized and wounded creature, managed to stay loving, to be generous, and that he had shared that horse had given her this gift—it was unbelievable, and she knew that she didn’t deserve it. “He has come a very long way, haven’t you, boy?”
“He has,” Ericka agreed. “I came out to tell you the telephone is for you.”
“I’m sorry, buddy. We’ll have plenty of time for more later,” she told Knight, keeping her thoughts about Ericka walking out to tell her in person to herself, even though normally she would have confided in the horse. “I’m still here for at least another week. Maybe more. I’ve got the whole summer ahead of me.”
She passed the reins over to Ericka, who blinked like she might not know what to do with him. “You might want to hurry. That could be another horse that needs your help.”
“Yeah, it probably is,” Larina agreed, uncertain if she saw that as a relief or not. She jogged up to the house, still a bit worried about leaving Knight with Ericka, but she’d work with him later, make sure nothing went wrong. That was all she could do. He was not her horse. They never were.
She shook her head as picked up the phone, pressing the button for the extension. “This is Larina.”
“Larina, thank goodness,” Thyda’s voice sounded wrong. Larina frowned. That wasn’t just the overseas connection. Calls were clearer these days, and Ericka wouldn’t allow herself not to have a good phone line for her business. Her sister would have been busy—her hands full with her accounting business and the kid—but she was usually also happy, even in the middle of that chaos. “It has been a nightmare trying to get a hold of you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m always out in the field by myself, and I never did find a good plan for international calls before I left. Not that I’ll need it soon because I’ll be back and besides that there are phones—”
“It would have helped if you’d left the number where we could reach you in the first place,” Thyda said, clearly irritated. “First, I had to find three of your friends, and one of them only just returned my calls today. Today I get to learn that you are in a completely different country! I’m sure it’s convenient for you to run from one country to another without thinking about it, but there are times when people need to get in touch with you. You know better. You know this is unacceptable.”
“And I’m not a child, Thyda,” Larina almost snapped. She didn’t understand. They had almost settled this the last time they argued, and while Thyda had not liked it, her sister had agreed that Larina got this one last summer of freedom before settling in as Briarwood’s permanent vet. “What is the matter this time? Do I have to apologize a dozen times now? I am sorry I went to Vienna without speaking to you about it, but it was an emergency at the time. I dealt with the emergency, but things were still complicated, and letting everyone know where I was—it just slipped my mind.”
Thyda took a deep breath. “I don’t even have time to go into how irresponsible you were, Larina. You need to come home—come back, I mean. You have to…. It’s Dad. I mean—it’s Burditt.”
“I don’t understand,” Larina began, confused. She had talked to Burditt last week, before she came to Vienna. He was fine, wasn’t he? “What… What’s wrong?”
“Dad’s—Burditt’s—He’s… He had a heart attack. He’s gone.”
Larina felt the blood rush to her head, making her dizzy. She couldn’t hardly think, and she swore that her ears were ringing. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—believe this. Not Burditt. Yes, they had lost their parents, had lost Sorina in a sudden accident that still didn’t seem real, but through all of it, their uncle had been there. He had been their rock and stability and got them all through it. He had been the one that made them into a family, that kept them as a family. His support and care and understanding had made her life bearable, had drawn everyone to him and turned Briarwood into a refuge for everyone, not just his nieces. They had all needed his help so many times over the years, had relied on him. No, he couldn’t be gone.
“I’m sorry.” Her sister’s voice had gentled. “I know this is hard to accept. It wasn’t easy for me, either.”
“Wh—” Larina cleared her throat. “When? What happened?”
“It was four days ago. He collapsed in the back barn, and he was gone before anyone knew what happened,” Thyda explained. “It was quick. He didn’t suffer.”
“That’s—that’s… a relief,” Larina managed to say, her throat thick. She couldn’t quite breathe. She wouldn’t have wanted him to linger on, suffering through an illness, but still, this could not be real. “I’ll get a plane back as soon as I can. Please—you didn’t have the—”
“The memorial service is scheduled for the day after tomorrow,” Thyda said. “I tried to give you enough time—I expected you back long before then. I—We’ll talk later. For now, just… get back. Soon.”
Larina nodded, feeling sick and numb all at once. “I will.”
Larina’s trip back to the states became a blur. She couldn’t remember packing or booking the flight, things she must have done because she was on the plane, but she couldn’t picture any of it, not when she looked back.
She didn’t remember saying goodbye to anyone in Vienna. She didn’t know if she’d managed to tell anyone she was going home, didn’t remember leaving a note. Eventually, she’d have to call and explain everything, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that even before they asked everyone to turn off their cellphones. She would have to hope that her “friends” understood, if they even talked to her later.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry. She hadn’t fallen apart when Sorina died, and she refused to do it now. She wouldn’t sleep, no, not on this flight, but she would not cry, either.
The in-flight movie came on, and she found herself watching an old beat-up pickup truck driving down a dirt road, kicking up dust as it went. Her stomach twisted, recognizing not only the state on the license plate but the familiarity of the truck itself.
“I know you were expecting someone younger and prettier, and I promise you, your aunt still is. She didn’t change into an old man while grabbing your bags,” the old man said, managing a smile for both of the girls, and Larina ducked behind Thyda, wishing she felt safer with her sister holding her hand. She didn’t understand, hadn’t since that woman came to them and said their parents were dead. Everything after that was a scary blur, and while their aunt was pretty and looked like their mom and promised them she was going to take care of them, Larina didn’t know that she believed that.
“So’s your uncle, for that matter. Prettier and younger,” the man went on. He shook his head. “Wish these airports would have let me bring old Hank in. He’d have made this okay somehow.”
“Hank?” Thyda asked. “Who is Hank? Our uncle’s name is Burditt.”
“Hank’s my coonhound,” the man answered. “Comes with me everywhere—except airports. I’m sorry, girls. Thing about farms is that there’s always some kind of animal emergency somewhere, and your uncle got caught deep in the middle of one right now, so he asked me to come by and get you and your aunt.”
“Why should we believe that?” Thyda demanded, sounding a lot braver than eight years old.
“It’s okay, girls,” Sorina said, putting her hand on Thyda’s shoulder. “Morely here is an old family friend, and he and Hank aren’t anything to be afraid of. Can’t say the same about that old truck of his, though.”
No, that old truck had been one hell of a wreck waiting to happen, but her aunt and uncle ended up borrowing it more often than they could drive their own, even after Morely died and that damned thing went to Dillon.
Larina grimaced. She did not want to think about Dillon, not right now. That was a bunch of water under a washed out bridge, and while they had somehow managed to stay friends, that was all they were, that water was muddy and deep and not worth disturbing.
“Well, what do you think? This is home now,” Sorina told them, holding open the door and letting them climb out of the rickety truck. Larina looked up at the house, the peeling paint, the gutter falling off, and she turned to Thyda, wanting to ask if they really had to stay here. “I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I think you’ll like it all the same.”
“At least when the cows aren’t out,” a man said, coming up to wrap his arm around Sorina’s waist. He smiled down at them. “I think both of you would like the horses a lot more, though. You want to meet them?”
“Oh, Burditt. You’d think you wanted the horse farm more than I do,” Sorina teased, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with warmth as he kissed her cheek. Larina peeked around Thyda’s side, and he held out a hand to her.
When she took it, she started to think maybe this could be home.
Larina wouldn’t have thought she’d manage to sleep on the plane, but she must have slept because her time lost in memories could not account for all of the transatlantic flight. She couldn’t remember ever being bumped, and she knew she’d missed the in-flight movie. Somehow the whole flight was over before she knew it, and the plane was touching down at the airport.
The bump as the plane landed was minor, but it still shook her. Her stomach twisted. She was back, and that made it all real, painfully real.
Her uncle was gone. Things had changed.