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Falling Leaves

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Dust pounded beneath Juniper’s hooves as I put gentle pressure on her side, urging her to move faster. The arena flashed by in one busy blur, autumn leaves confused with white fencing and stables, and my vision homed in on the blue and white striped oxer jump in front of us. I counted one, two, three strides before rising into a two-point and feeling Juniper’s shoulder muscles bunch as she began the jump.
The horse took off in one fluid movement and I leaned back as Juniper’s front hooves made contact with the ground and she galloped on. Sitting back and lightly putting pressure on the reins, I managed to calm my eager horse. Juniper tossed her head like an angry bull as we stopped in front of Sandra, my jumping trainer.
Sandra chewed on her nail, contemplating. “That was good,” she said. “You arched your back a bit, though. Work on that. Go do it again.” She waved me away in a careless gesture.
I rolled my eyes, being careful not to let Sandra see. Nothing I did ever seemed to be enough for her.
I patted Juniper on the neck when I knew Sandra couldn’t see. “I think we got it June,” I whispered in her ear, and Juniper tossed her head as if agreeing.
“Maggie!”
I turned in my saddle to see my older sister, Hayden, leading her horse, Mahogany, down the path to the arena. I waved, sitting up straighter in my saddle as Hayden flashed me a thumbs up.
It was the fall of 2009. Hayden was 17, a senior now, and almost ready to go off to college. I was three years younger.
“Hayden! Hurry up! You need to practice jumping for the show next week,” Sandra called to my sister.
I kicked Juniper into a steady canter and turned the corner to face the five-foot oxer jump yet again. As we flew over the jump for the millionth time today, I made sure to keep my back as straight as a stick. I’d been working so hard for so long to be eligible for the Woodside Jumping Show and I wasn’t about to let Sandra tell me I wasn’t ready.
A smile spread across my face as I came out of the jump, and I knew I’d jumped it perfectly. I halted Juniper, her side heaving, by the fence next to Sandra, expecting praise.
But Sandra had her eyes fixed on Hayden as she picked up a canter.
“Did you see me just jump?” I asked, twisting the reins between my fingers.
Sandra looked at me, surprised. “No, I missed it. Sorry. Just go do it again.”
My heart was flooded with bitterness.

I was hosing Juniper off in the wash stall when Hayden came back up from the arena.
“How’d it go?” I asked her, an edge in my voice.
Hayden nodded, not noticing my animosity. “Good, good.” She tied Mahogany to the metal pole with a lead rope and began to remove his tack.
“Are you nervous for the show next Saturday?” I asked, hoping Hayden had the same sorts of butterflies in her stomach that I did.
My sister shrugged nonchalantly but I knew from the way her forehead wrinkled that she was just as nervous as I was.
“It means…everything to me.” Hayden ran a hand down her horse’s neck as if for reassurance. “If I don’t do well, I won’t have a career in jumping. I won’t get a riding scholarship to Stanford, I’ll have to pay my whole way, and God knows how I’ll do that.”
I nodded. Of course I wanted Hayden to succeed at the show and impress the Stanford equestrian team. Our parents had respectable jobs, Dad was in business and Mom was an elementary school teacher, but we weren’t well enough off to pay for Hayden to attend Stanford, while supporting two horses. Hayden wouldn’t be able to go there unless she got at least a partial scholarship.
But as I flicked dirt off Juniper’s side, I remembered my dream. I remembered all the long hours of practice time, with and without Sandra, trying to become a model jumper. I remembered dreaming about my triumph over Hayden, becoming the star of the show and Sandra and my parents’ darling. I remembered the way the trophy had felt in my hand before I woke up.
I had never beaten Hayden at anything. And there had never been anything that I wanted more.

Monday morning came as the brilliant light of the sun burst through my window and hit me in the face. My light blue comforter lay haphazardly across my body with my toes peeking out the end. I turned to hide my face in the pillow when my nearly conscious mind remembered the show. I was up in a flash thinking, only five days, and the butterflies in my stomach fluttered anxiously.
After school, Hayden drove us to the barn. We rounded the corner and rolled across the simple dirt path that led to a makeshift parking lot. The normal sounds of the barn--a horse pacing in its stall, a door clanging, Sandra calling to a student, an occasional whinny--greeted me as I opened the door and climbed out, helmet in one hand and half-chaps in the other.
I loved the smell of the barn. Horses have a smell that you can’t help but love if you spend enough time around them.
I tramped along the dirt to where Juniper’s nose was stuck in her empty feed bowl. I quickly strapped my half-chaps onto my calves and unlatched the halter from the metal bar of the door.
Hayden led Mahogany out of his stall across the way. His coat glinted a metallic brown and his massive muscles flexed as he walked. This horse really was a champion.
I took a look at Juniper’s chestnut coat. A spot of dirt matted her back and her hooves were unpolished and grimy. I vowed to clean her up so she’d look just as impressive as Hayden’s Mahogany.
“Mags, want to ride a trail?” I turned, halter in hand, as Hayden came up behind me and Mahogany breathed on my back. I rubbed his nose automatically.
“His teeth are nasty,” I commented, pulling back Mahogany’s lip and inspecting them.
Hayden ignored me. “Want to ride a trail or not?”
I shrugged. “Yeah sure.”
I unlocked the metal gate to Juniper’s stall and led her out onto the gravel path. The stones clicked annoyingly under her heavy step.
A man I had never seen before walked towards us and stopped a few feet away, observing Mahogany.
“That your horse?” he asked, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his mud-caked overalls.
“It’s hers,” I said, pointing to Hayden.
“He’s beautiful,” the man commented and reached out to pet Mahogany on the nose. I stood by, holding Juniper by the lead and wishing I had washed her earlier.
“Thanks,” Hayden said. “He gets a bit feisty, though.”
“He’s a piece of work,” I agreed. “Bucked her just last week. He bites too.” Not quite true, Mahogany hadn’t bitten anyone for years, but the man stepped back warily.
“No he-” Hayden protested, but the man was already walking away, murmuring a thanks. I turned my back to Hayden’s accusing glare.
We tacked up our horses and set out on our favorite trail towards the beach. Juniper whipped her head from side to side, like a reed in a storm, and it took all I had to keep her from galloping off.
“Time for that later, June,” I promised.
Hayden pulled up beside me as the trail widened. “I love this trail,” she said.
I looked around more critically. Trees sprouted up all around us, like sentinels guarding a secret. The soft crunch of autumn leaves under the agitated horses’ feet was like a gentle melody in rhythm with the splendor of the forest. The sun peeked through and spread itself on the trail in front of us, guiding us along.
“Me too,” I agreed.
The sunlight played on Hayden’s shiny brown hair, and I wanted to reach out and touch it.
“Five days, Maggie.”

“I know,” I replied, my annoyance seeping through in my voice. I didn’t want to be reminded of the show now, when I was for one moment at peace with my sister. When we were together like this, without competition or comparison, I loved my sister.
As we rounded the turn, a long shadow spread out along the trail. Juniper spooked instantly, whipping her head around and rearing up. I held on tightly and calmed her down.
“Geez!” Hayden said.
I glared at her, defensively. “She just doesn’t like shadows.”
Hayden paused as we came up to the peak of the cliff and looked out at the beach below. We both drew in our breaths as the magnificent ocean spread out before us, unendingly, framed by cliffs and decorated with sparkling sand. Hayden kicked her heels into Mahogany’s side with a cry and charged down the path to the beach. I immediately followed on Juniper, and the four of us, two riders and two horses, began a ferocious race down the beach.
I could feel every move in Juniper’s body as her muscles strained to catch up to my sister. Flecks of sand landed on my hair, in my face, on my boots, but I wiped them away and kicked Juniper again.
“Come on, girl!” I cried, the wind carrying my words away. “We can beat them!”
My ambition overshadowed all other thought as we pulled closer to Mahogany.
But we didn’t have a chance. With a barely visual command of her legs, Hayden urged Mahogany to greater speed. The pair lurched forward and Juniper, devoid of energy, slowed and eventually stopped, her sides heaving. Irritably, I looked after them, cursing everyone I could think of because Hayden had everything and I had nothing.
I saw them fall. It was swift and almost comical, the karma she deserved for always being the lucky one, and a laugh ripped out of my throat before I could clamp a hand tightly over my mouth.
It was Mahogany’s right foreleg that gave way and they tumbled in an awful somersault onto the beach where the ocean spray licked at them.
I jumped off my horse’s back, not bothering to look graceful, and ran to where Hayden lay sprawled on the sand. Mahogany thrashed on the ground, wailing terribly, and tried to get up. I took Hayden’s hand just as she opened her eyes and she met my concerned stare with a look of pure terror.

Mahogany had broken his foreleg, the doctor said, but he would recover. He would never be the same jumper, but he would walk again and, most likely, he’d be able to jump too. But his days as a champion were over.
I pressed my ear to Hayden’s bedroom door and heard her heart-wrenching sobs. I didn’t knock, but let myself in, sitting on the blue cotton comforter beside her and wrapping my arms tightly around her limp shoulders.
I stroked her hair, not knowing what to say, but wanting to share in her pain. No matter how much we fought, Hayden and I both would have been there for each other through anything. My empathy for her pain was enough to balance out my competitive and jealous nature. As we sat there, for once without rivalry, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I wasn’t the one whose dreams had been shattered.

On Wednesday, I went to the barn again. My mom offered to take me but Hayden said she wanted to go. I couldn’t tell if she was lying.
She helped me tack up Juniper and gave me a lift into the saddle. Then she stood and watched me as I trotted off along the side of the arena.
I’ve never been the most sensitive person, so I wasn’t really thinking when I started to practice jumps. The red and white brush box jump was just there as I came cantering down the arena, and my automatic reaction was to clear it. We did, in one fluid motion as if we were one being instead of two. I was proud of my achievement and cantered a circle to see Hayden’s reaction, but stopped when I saw the tears that had gathered in her eyes.
I pretended I hadn’t seen.

The house was in a state of silence and sadness for the next couple days. Hayden skipped school, spending all her time with Mahogany and the doctors.
I rode Juniper for hours every day, trying to improve in the short time I had left before the show. On Friday night, Hayden and my mom helped me to wash Juniper and curry her to perfection. We spent four hours braiding her mane and I plucked her tail. I rubbed polish on her hooves and cleaned her teeth. Hayden was quiet the whole time.

It was eight on Saturday morning and the sun had just begun to shine through the paneled windows of our kitchen. Hayden sat quietly in her chair, her eyes no longer red, but her spirit broken. My father flipped impassively through a newspaper, my mother washed dishes in the sink, and I swirled Cheerios around my bowl.
My father started the conversation.
“Mags,” he began. He paused for a long moment, took a sip of coffee from his cup, set it down again, and looked at me. “Maggie, you know how important this show was to Hayden.”
I put down my spoon, watching as a drop of milk spread out onto the table. I nodded, unsure where this was going or what I should say.
“This is her best shot to get into the Stanford team, and we can’t afford to send her without some kind of scholarship. Mahogany’s down, for now, but your mother and I have decided that Hayden needs to compete today.” He fiddled with his coffee cup, looking uncomfortable.
I didn’t know where this was leading, and I turned to Hayden to share a confused smile, but she was staring at her empty plate. Clearly, she was in on this.
My mother went on.
“Honey, what he means is that Hayden will need to ride Juniper today.”
I gasped, shooting an incredulous look at my mother, her hands stuck to her elbows in soapy water. “What?” I demanded, my tone sharp as knives.
“We know how tough that is on you,” my mother went on, “and you’ve been working so hard, but right now your sister needs your help. I’m really sorry, Maggie.”
I stared, first at Hayden, then my mother, and then back at Hayden. All empathy and compassion over Mahogany’s injury disappeared into thin air.
“No way!” I screamed at her. “I’m not letting you take Juniper! She’s my horse and this is supposed to be my show! Can’t I have a chance to win, too?” Tears streamed down my face and Hayden became a blur. “How could you even say that?” I yelled at my parents. “Why do you always favor Hayden? Don’t I matter? This show means everything to me and I’m not going to let Hayden ruin that.” I stormed out of the room.

They didn’t give me a choice. We showed up at the show at 10:15, Juniper’s trailer rolling behind us, and I was still wearing pajamas.
Hayden was dressed fancily in her show clothes: a nice jacket, pants, and velvet helmet. She looked like a champion. I curled into a ball in the back of the car and cried.
It was so unfair. They had taken everything from me and given it to Hayden. I hate her, I thought. I’ll never speak to her again.
I didn’t help unload Juniper from the trailer, even though I knew she calmed down only when I was nearby. She had always been skittish at shows.
Hayden’s first class was at one so she took Juniper out to practice behind the showing arena. I watched as she trotted off on my horse and tried to dry my cheeks. They always ended up wet again.
I walked around the show arena for hours. The large sandy center was surrounded by a high white fence and adorned with colorful jumps spread throughout in difficult patterns. The audience sat in metal bleachers on one side of the arena and the lights that would be switched on for the night show lined the opposite side.
I stayed on the outskirts of the show arena, too far to be seen, but not too far to see Hayden taking away all the prizes. I felt sick.
After what felt like years, the night show began. I sat down alone on the hill where the lights were and watched intently.
Anger and bitterness rose up in me as I saw Hayden ride in on Juniper. This was the show I’d been waiting for so long. This was my show, that was my horse, and Hayden had stolen both. I watched as she cantered a circle before beginning the long line of jumps. She hit them all perfectly, keeping her back straight, her eyes forward, two-pointing at exactly the right time. I knew she was a much better rider than me. By now, the college scholarship was basically in her pocket.
I was standing by the lamppost as Hayden turned to come down the last stretch. The last jump, the optional one, loomed in front of her. This was the jump that would decide the show.

I thought of all the times Hayden had bested me throughout the years. I remembered my dream of winning this show, the dream that had evaporated so fast, and my heart beat fast with anger.
I seemed to move in slow motion as I deliberately stepped in front of the light, casting a black shadow right in front of Juniper and Hayden.
I didn’t mean to hurt her. I really didn’t. I don’t know what I was thinking. But now it’s done and I can never take it back.
Juniper bucked, her eyes rolling wildly, and Hayden, my sister, flew out of the saddle and her head hit the jump with a horrifying crack.

She had tubes everywhere. The machine ticked mechanically like some horrible alarm clock, periodically bringing me back to reality. My father sat crumpled in an armchair in the corner, silent as a grave. My mother’s desperate sobs were the only sounds besides the ticking of the life-preserving machine.
Hayden looked dead. Her skin was greenish and pale, her eyes closed, but I could see her chest moving up and down as she breathed. My mother clasped her oldest daughter’s hand in hers and showered it with tears. She tried to put an arm around me, but I moved away.
Hayden! my mind yelled out to the unconscious form covered with white hospital sheets. Hayden, wake up! Please! I’m so sorry, Hayden!
But Hayden didn’t wake up, and now there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t tell her how much I loved her. I couldn’t promise to never be jealous of her again for the rest of my life. I couldn’t say that I was wrong and horrible and cruel and that she deserved a much better sister than me.
I didn’t even want to think of what I had done. I knew that Juniper spooked at shadows…I knew the light was there…I knew…
Why did I do it?
Why?

I know why. Because I couldn’t stand to see Hayden succeed again and leave me in her dust.
I didn’t know what would happen. Everyone falls on occasion. There’s an old saying that you don’t become an experienced rider before you’ve fallen three times. I just didn’t take the jump into account. It’s not like I had planned it.
That doesn’t make it better though.
I sat for what felt like days, going over the thoughts in my head, wishing I could take it all back. I prayed to every God I could think of, hoping that one of them would answer and give me back my sister.
Nurses came in and out, refilling IV’s, checking the machines, and offering cliché condolences that only made things worse.
A nurse came to turn Hayden over and I had to get off the bed. I sat down next to it and wrapped my arms around my legs, muffling the tears into my knees. How could I do this to the person I loved the most in the world?

Everything was black. I felt like I was shut tightly in a box, not able to move, my senses all turned off. I tried to scream but it caught in my throat and stayed there, suffocating me.
Hayden! a voice called my name frantically. Maggie. Hayden, wake up! Please! I’m so sorry, Hayden!
I wanted to reach out to her and stop her pleas but I couldn’t move my arms. Why are you sorry?
I tried to think of the last thing I could remember. I remembered riding Juniper into the arena, the feel of her so different from that of Mahogany. She was a good jumper though, I remember that, and we had jumped so well. I remembered thinking of Maggie’s tear-stained face and I had felt bad. Not bad enough to give up that victory though. It meant too much to me. She must have understood.
An image flashed through my mind and I remembered seeing Maggie by the lamppost, a dark figure with her hands crossed tightly over her chest. Then I faced forward again, giving my attention to the jump, preparing to clear it, and then…falling. Falling like autumn leaves in a crumpled heap.
I didn’t know why.

“Maggie,” my mom whispered, her voice cracking with pain. “Some water, please. I can’t leave Hayden.”
I nodded, untangling myself from my cramped position. The hallway bustled with activity and I walked through it silently, feeling invisible. There was a water dispenser at the end of the hall and I slid a paper cup out of the holder on the side. I filled it, my hand shaking all the while.
When we were little, Hayden and I had made hats for our dolls out of paper cups. We’d decorated them with Magic Markers. I’d drawn polka dots on mine. Hayden had drawn horses.
Oh God.
I pressed my back up against the wall and slowly slid till I was sitting on the floor. The water spilled, making a wet stain all over the pajamas I was still wearing.
My fault, I thought. All my fault.
And no one but me knew it.
My mind raced as I thought of my parents, inconsolable in their pain, not knowing that their youngest daughter was the cause of it all. Wouldn’t it just hurt them more if they knew? They didn’t deserve that.
But the truth was eating me up inside, like a fire scorching my heart. I had to let it out or I would never stop burning. I wanted to be punished. Punished so harshly that it would make up for what I had done to Hayden.
So there was that choice again. Do I hurt people I love so that I can get what I want?
This time the answer was simple.

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Hayden held the reins loosely in her white-gloved hands, looking utterly comfortable in the saddle. Her top hat and white breeches made her almost unrecognizable.
Riding in the dressage style was nothing new to Hayden now, but it still took me some getting used to. She hadn’t jumped competitively for three years now, since the accident when she was 17, but she had found a new calling in the dressage style.
My mind jumped back to the day three years ago when Hayden finally came out of her coma. It had only been a day and a half, but it had felt like an eternity. I remembered running to her side as she blinked her eyes for the first time, with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I made a promise that day. I promised myself that no one would ever know what I had done to Hayden, and I had kept that promise, no matter how difficult it became. I would never hurt Hayden again, not with my words or my actions.
Our relationship changed from that day forward. She never knew why I stopped jumping competitively, and she never would. Juniper and I still rode together and jumped on occasion, but shows had become my taboo.
I looked back at Hayden, the tailcoat of her dressage costume reading Stanford Dressage Team. She’d gone to college a year late because of her injury, but now she was living her dream.
I can’t say I was living mine. I never, to this day, have beaten Hayden at anything, but I stopped trying a long time ago. Instead, I’m living a new kind of life. A life of repentance.



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