Stardust: A Story, and Visit to Woodbine
'Stardust' is a story I submitted to the Toronto Star short story competition some time ago. I didn't win but it was fun to write it.
I guess it wasn't edgy enough or unique enough, but I hope you enjoy reading it. (It's longer than my usual stories).
I have a short update on our visit to Woodbine Racetrack today and a picture of I'm Dashing having his 'bath', at the end of the story.
By the way, Uxbridge is coming to terms with the tornado's aftermath. We were so lucky not to have any significant damage at our farm.
The spire of Trinity United Church (a feature in Uxbridge) was destroyed and debris landed on the piano, organ, altar and pews - the pews where me and the Monday Morning Singers could have been if we'd had a practice at that time. We are now meeting at St. Paul's. Concert poster below (But location changed to St. Paul's Anglican Church). Let me know if you'd like to come!.
The man peers through broken binoculars, searching for his racehorse in the early morning mist which hovers above the cold dirt of the training track. He catches sight of the large white star on her forehead, luminous in the half-light. With each long stride her nostrils flare, emitting puffs of steam which cloud around her chest.
It’s as if she has wings helping her to float over the ground.
He lets the binoculars drop. So many times he gets his hopes up, and then the inevitable disappointment follows.
“I like that filly of yours, Jake.” He hadn’t noticed Lara beside him.
“She’s nice.” Superstition tells him that he’ll jinx things if he says any more.
“Has she done a work yet?”
“No, I haven’t clocked her.” Jake won’t rush her. She’s only two, and the season has barely started. She needs time to become a strong, balanced, finely-tuned athlete.
He bought the horse as a yearling in the September auction. She was a bargain – no-one wanted her on account of her small stature. He named her Stardust because of the kind twinkle in her eye and her playful, effervescent spirit. He stroked the large white star on her forehead and made a wish that she would sprinkle some magic into his life.
“She feels like a Cadillac, she’s that smooth,” Bernie says, as they walk back to the barn.
“That’s good,” Jake says, quelling a twinge of excitement with the thought that the more optimistic he gets, the further there is to fall. Stardust looks at him with one of her beautiful, sparkling eyes, and Jake contemplates the number of days he has to keep her in one piece until her first race - probably about sixty before she’ll be physically and mentally ready.
Thirty days later, Jake watches the starting gate, which is used to educate newbies on how to enter, wait and eventually gallop out. The filly hasn’t been near the gate before. Jake knows that something is agitating her, and a million butterflies emerge in his stomach, all trying to get out. She rears up and almost flips over. Bernie lies motionless on the ground, but the horse gallops towards her stall - eyes wide, reins flapping, clumps of dirt flying up behind her.
Jake runs towards the barn, taking shortcuts in between fence rails, over ditches, dodging cars. In her panic, the filly’s shoes skid on the wet asphalt as she takes the turn just before the barn. She falls, but scrambles to her feet almost before hitting the ground. Jake finds her in her stall, sweaty, dirty and scraped, her sides heaving.
Lara, who has stalls adjacent to his, stands in the doorway.
“Oh, Jake. I’m so sorry. Can I help?”
“Can you take that clean bucket to the wash pad?”
“I’ll bring my fixer-up kit too.”
Jake strokes Stardust’s steaming neck as the musty smell of hot horse fills his nostrils. But her breaths are shallower and her eyes have lost their wild, frightened look. Jake leads her out to the wash pad where Lara is armed with an impressive arsenal, including antiseptic wash, antibiotic cream, bandages and ice-boots.
“I’ll hold her and talk to her while you check her over and clean her up.”
“Thanks.” He knows that horses respond well to Lara’s soothing, mellow voice.
“I hope she hasn’t been traumatized. Do you know what happened?”
“No. I don’t even know if Bernie is okay.”
“I’ll get Jen to find out.” She pulls out her mobile.
Jake finds comfort in Lara’s help. Usually he would spurn offers of assistance, but Lara is a good horsewoman and he trusts her.
The filly has a long, raw scrape on her right hip, which needs tender loving care, and a cut on her leg which requires stitches, meaning unwelcome but necessary vet bills. But the most worrying is the damage to the inside hoof wall as a result of a lost front shoe. And Lara’s right, he must consider the psychological effect of what happened.
“I’m okay,” says Bernie, walking towards Stardust holding a carrot. “I’m covered in dirt, that’s all. I couldn’t get up right away ‘cause the wind got knocked out of me.”
“A crazy horse. I could see the white of his eyes and knew it spelled trouble. Sure enough, the horse reared and there was crashing, clanging and yelling. I don’t blame your filly, she’s a good girl.”
“But she probably thinks the gate’s a monster about to eat her up,” Lara says.
“Yeah, well, she’ll get over it,” Bernie says.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Jake says.
“I’m fine. But I’m going home. Back tomorrow.”
“What are your next steps?” asks Lara.
“Stitches for that cut and the farrier for her foot.”
“It depends what the vet and farrier say, but I won’t be taking her back to the gate for a while.”
Lara shows up at the stall door the next day, first thing. She knows Jake will be nursing his filly and doing everything he can for her. The man has had a lot of poor quality horses and never had a lucky break. You need money to buy a well-bred thoroughbred, or you need owners who are willing to trust their fancy horses to you. Jake hasn’t either. But he has Stardust. Lara likes her, and she’s going to do what she can to help.
“How’s the patient?”
“The farrier patched the hoof and we think the shoe will hold. And only two stitches for the cut.”
“I’m going to hand-walk her.”
“Can I help?”
“No, we’re okay.”
Lara watches Jake leading the filly round the shedrow. Stardust is full of energy and frustrated with the restricted exercise, and Jake’s flagging.
“Jake, do you have an extra bale of straw?” asks Lara. He stops, glad for a break, drops of sweat glistening on his brow.
“Can we exchange favours? Jen has a few minutes and she can be trusted to walk your filly.”
Jake hesitates. Lara smiles and touches his arm.
“I just don’t want to be in your debt.”
Jen walks faster than Jake, despite her shorter legs. After four more laps, Jake takes Stardust out to nibble on the grass and feels a smidgen of the optimism return.
The next day Lara is absent. Jakes misses her soft voice talking to her horses, her smile and her calm, easy-going assurance. An emptiness and uneasiness hangs around him.
He sees Jen filling up a water bucket.
“Her son’s sick.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.” Jake stops himself.
“It’s tough for her sometimes.”
“Need any help?”
“Aren’t you trainers in competition with one another?” Jen winks at him.
“Only when we’re in the same race.”
“Thanks, but we’re fine.”
Stardust’s schedule is set back by two weeks. Lara says she’ll talk to the gate staff and arrange for the filly to be with her four-year-old, who is cool, calm and collected about the starting gate.
All goes well.
Jake can’t find a good jockey to ride Stardust for her timed works. Lara makes a couple of calls and gets the third-highest-ranking rider.
“Why all this help?” asks Jake. He’s feeling more and more indebted to her.
“’Cause I think you’re a good trainer, a good horseman and you have a beautiful filly who deserves a fair chance.”
“I owe you a lot.”
“Okay, if you mean that, you can do something for me.”
“You can babysit.”
“Oh, wow. I don’t know anything about kids.”
“It’ll be no issue. Lenny is three. Stories, milk, teeth, bed, that’s it. I’ll only be out from 6pm to 9pm.”
Lenny selects ten books. They’re about horses, dogs, cats and farm animals and Jake finds he has a penchant for making animal noises, which Lenny mimics. The boy laughs and claps his hands, and asks for the same stories to be read again and again.
Jake is drawn to this happy, kind child. But there is something eating at him. He assumes that Lara is on a date, and she’s coming home at nine o’clock because she has to get up at 4.30am to go to the track.
“I hope it was a nice date,” Jake says, trying to sound light.
“Oh, it wasn’t a date. I helped my granny move into a retirement home. I told her I could give her three hours, thanks to you.”
It’s only twenty days until the race which Jake has chosen for Stardust, and she has a puffy ankle. There’s no heat, no cut. It’s another one of those puzzlers that horses throw at you all the time.
People throw them too. He catches himself before his voice, carrying Lara’s name, floats down the shedrow. Lara’s hiding her face from him. She’s moving stiffly and she’s not talking to the horses. Something’s wrong and he doesn’t know what to do.
He straightens up, takes a deep breath and walks towards her, outfitted in new blue jeans and a red golf-shirt. She’s bending over a feed bucket wearing yesterday’s clothes, her hair un-brushed. He takes one step back, then two forwards.
“Lara, are you okay?”
“Can I help?”
She lifts her head and looks at him. Her red eyes are brimming with tears, her face ashen.
“He’s taken Lenny.”
“Who’s taken him?”
“Let’s sit in my truck and you can tell me.”
“I noticed your filly has a puffy ankle. Jen could put some salve on it.”
They sit in the truck in silence for a minute, watching the pigeons fly in circles around the barn roof.
“I have custody. He’s an alcoholic and beat me up. It was a nasty divorce, not so much about money, but about custody of Lenny. And Lenny was only a baby. Mothers win out in these situations, but his father fought hard and dirty. He has supervised visitation rights only, because of his history of assault and drunkenness.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The police have issued an alert.”
“What about his family?”
“I’ve given all the names I can think of to the police.”
“Give them to me.” Jake can’t get Lenny’s bright green eyes, his round, innocent face and his milk-teeth smile out of his mind. He has so many questions. How did it happen? When? Where? “I’m going to do what I can. Can you look after my horses for a day or two?”
“Okay.” But Jake can tell Lara thinks this will go nowhere.
Lara turns and looks at Jake. He’s a good man. She gives him a light kiss on the cheek, without a smile, and jumps down from the truck.
Jake works fast. He lines up a groom to help Lara with his horses, he tells Bernie what he wants each horse to do, he plays cautious and gets the vet to see Stardust’s puffy ankle.
On his way home, he comes up with a plan. Although known for his integrity, Jake gets a kick out of fabricating a story about Lenny.
His first call is to the father’s parents, since his gut tells him they’re the best bet.
“Good afternoon. I’m Dr. Jake. The police gave me your contact information.”
“Yes. I’m helping the police in the search for your grandson, Lenny.”
“You must know that he has a rare disorder which requires medication. I want to assure you that we’re doing everything we can to find him. He should manage well without his medication for up to thirty-six hours, but then his condition will deteriorate rapidly. He could experience life-threatening seizures.”
“Hypoglycemic celiac magnolia paroxysm.” Where did that come from? Why did he include “magnolia”? He wishes he’d thought this out better.
“Is it catching?”
“While there’s no evidence that it’s contagious, more research is required.”
“If you happen to hear anything about Lenny’s whereabouts, please contact the police immediately.”
Jake sits back exhausted. And as he replays what he said, it sounds concocted and ridiculous.
Nevertheless, he carries out his plan to call each person on Lara’s list, and reaches all but one. He’s counting on none of them correctly guessing the spelling of the invented disorder, and checking it out.
After having taken thirty hours away from the track, he drives to the backstretch and finds Stardust with an ice-boot around the puffy ankle. But he feels much more gut-wrenching concern for Lenny and Lara than he does for the filly. And Lara’s gone home by now.
His mobile vibrates in his back pocket. Lara.
“Dr. Jake?” Her voice sounds muffled.
“I’m worried about Lenny. He has a deadly disease called something like hyper-anaemic magnetic spasm.”
“Is he there? Is he back?”
“Uncle Jake! Uncle Jake!”
“I’m here, Lenny.”
“Can you read the brown horse story?”
“Yes. Love to.” Jake swallows, choking back tears. “Ask Mommy when I can come.”
He’s invited over in the evening, and after reading the brown horse story six times, Jake has a beer with Lara. She tells him that her ex took Lenny to his parents, asked them to hide him somewhere, and then went to the bar down the street. His mother got Jake’s call, it freaked her out, but they daren’t show their faces at Lara’s. So, they took Lenny to the police station, making up some story about him running away, which didn’t hold up under questioning.
“What can I do for you in return?” asks Lara.
“You can help me get Stardust to the race in one piece. I’ve not given up on her yet. And thanks for everything you’ve done so far.”
“Is that all? I’d love to.”
Jake has Lenny on his shoulders so that the boy can see the racetrack better.
“They’re off!” the announcer calls.
Lenny asks, over and over again, which one is Stardust and is she winning. The jockey’s red silks are sitting in the middle of the pack coming into the turn. This is her first race, a new experience, a learning opportunity. And, for once, Jake is content with that, because, whatever the outcome of the race, his wish has come true. Stardust has sprinkled magic into his life.
Lenny and Lara mean even more to him than winning horse races.
Copyright 2022 by Vicky Earle
This is I'm Dashing having his 'bath' this morning (June 3). We're hoping he will race for the first time this season in about a week's time.
He did a nice timed work on turf today and didn't appear tired or sweaty at all!
Keep your fingers crossed that the race we are interested in has enough horses entered that it will be a go!
PS I'm on page 187 of the 5th book of the Meg Sheppard Mystery Series (first draft). I'm having trouble finding the time to write, but hope to improve progress!!