- Unable to be broken.
She paced side to side, once, twice, three times before glancing down at her watch. She was early, but her mind grew more restless than her body waiting in that creaking, overbearing house. The roof smothered her.
It was a perfect morning, with the sun just easing into its full power. She cupped a hand out over her forehead to look up at it, and a slight wisp of the breeze tickled her face. Why had she forgotten her sunglasses inside? Inside, where she wasn't ready to go back to yet. Ah well, more chance for her to experience the world at full vibrancy, not dull it down with the dark grayish-blue tint of her shades. The shades she got as a birthday present last year.
Restless still, this time she paced straight outward from the large wooden door, hand still shading her face, face still turned to the sun, willing it to encompass her.
Casey turned, brought back to the present, and smiled at her sister. “Addy, I for sure thought you'd be five minutes late, not five minutes early just like me.”
Addy grinned as she came up to her sister. Addy remembered her own sunglasses. Addy also remembered sunscreen. She handed the bottle out to her sister.
Casey took it, feeling a pang that Addy still had to remind her of simple things. Like SPF, and basic self care. But Addy would never hear it when Casey made self deprecating comments. “That's what sisters are for,” Addy would say assuredly.
Casey wished she had that same confidence and thoughtfulness to take care of her own sister. Of herself.
“So you ready for a good ride today?” Casey had squeezed a glob of 50 SPF into one palm and handed her sister back the bottle. She began to pat her face down with the lotion, only massaging it halfway in on her cheeks and forehead before moving on to her neck. “It's not supposed to get too hot until sometime past noon, which means we can go a bit farther than usual. Maybe even try a new trail.”
“Definitely,” Addy nodded, still grinning. She reached to Casey and swiped at her nose. “You look like someone who stopped midway through a pie eating contest. Whipped cream kind.”
Casey felt the breeze on her face again, through the sunscreen she had very much not rubbed in all the way. “I think you're mistaking me for yourself, that summer we went to the county fair.”
“Oh yeah, could be that,” Addy laughed. “If Dad hadn't taken a picture at that exact moment, I would have found a way to erase this memory completely. Alas.”
Casey chuckled right back. Alas, only Addy. She smoothed out the rest of the sunscreen as she and Addy meandered back to the barn, door slightly ajar and swaying, like an old friend waving hello.
Casey crossed the threshold, as Addy hovered in the doorway. “C'mon, what are you doing?”
Addy seemed nervous. “You know last time I spilled all those oats, and spooked the big one. He seemed real mad. In a horse-y kind of way. I think it's best for me to wait here. Gives you more time to coddle your own girl anyway before tacking up. I know you sneak her extra carrots, even out of the other troughs. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me.” Addy laughed when Casey looked wide eyed, as if spies could be listening in from any shadowed corner of the barn. Addy made an oath-like gesture. “I'll take it to the grave.”
Casey turned, catching her breath, walking on quiet feet toward her favorite horse's stall. She didn't want to catch the attention of any of the others, she'd spurned them enough the past week, taking her girl out more than all the others. People thought animals didn't have minds, didn't have souls, but Casey knew that was not true. Knew it deep into her bones. The horses knew her, and she knew them. Body language and attention said more about a person's emotions to a horse than words ever could.
“Hey girl,” she called softly. A soundless, wordless exhale of air replied in turn. Casey reached gingerly out, pausing midway. The press of a snout pushed up softly to meet her hand, smooth and rough at the same time. The greeting returned.
“Addy, you ready to go?”
They'd found a quaint little spot off a trail that had led out from the back of the wide expanse of empty acres property Casey had to call home. It wasn't a new trail, but a new fork in the road, a left when she'd always chosen the right path before. A bit of unknown from which she could still find her way back. And lo and behold, riding just a ten minutes walk down the left fork, the most perfect clearing, with just enough trees to feel secluded and undisturbed.
Casey relaxed, leaning against the largest tree of the bunch, while Addy finished securing the tether before joining her to sit cross-legged in the grass.
Addy looked at her expectantly.
Casey deliberately looked away, back up at the sky, seeking out the sun in specks through the leaves. What a green summer.
Her sister's gaze beat into her harder than the sun's rays on a hot day. With a sigh, Casey averted her eyes no longer. “What,” she said flatly.
“You seem sad.”
There she went, always stating things like she knew everything. “Well, you're not right all the time,” Casey replied indignantly.
“That means I'm right about this.” Addy didn't miss a beat.
“Sad is such a meaningless word, don't you think? Too broad for such a complicated, big emotion. Horses have the right approach, roar and stomp and get it all out.”
Addy wasn't phased. “You didn't wear your sunglasses.”
“Did you know that sunglasses can actually hurt your eyes?”
“That's not true.”
“It is,” Casey went on with gusto. “Sunglasses without enough UV protection in the lenses. It happens. And then people go about their days thinking their eyes are protected when they're just not.”
“Casey,” Addy said softly.
Addy let her sister take a breath. Two, three. “The sunglasses Dad got you for your birthday have UV protection.”
“Yea well Dad didn't know everything either, so maybe he got it wrong there too.”
“It's been a year now, hasn't it.” Just a statement. They both knew the answer.
“It's been a year, and we just keep going on. Mom, preparing for the future. She's been talking about selling, did you know that.”
Addy stayed silent.
“Even she loved the horses, but she's talking about selling. Says they reminds her too much of him. I don't know how she can say that. That it's better to get rid of them than think of him.” Each word took her voice higher and louder, more agitated with each staccato syllable.
Casey heard a whinny, felt her horse trying to connect with her, remind her they were together. She took a couple more deep breaths, calming down for her horse's sake.
She knew Addy didn't deserve this. This wasn't pointed at her. Not anymore, anyway.
“Don't be,” Addy said. Her body language was poised for a hug, about to spring into a calming embrace. But instead, she relaxed back into herself, firmly planted cross-legged on the grass. “You shouldn't have to take this all on your shoulders. Or hold this in.”
“I do,” Casey negated emphatically. “Because I'm all that's left. I could just run away tomorrow, gallop off into the distance with a backpack of supplies and the money I've stashed away from odd jobs this past year. Find another place to live, maybe make money from offering pony rides to kids in big cities.”
At that, Addy burst into laughter, a dam breaking to a stream of giggles. Casey, defensively, pulled back further from her sister, from the moment. “You don't know anything. You've never had to figure this out. Figure anything out!”
That shut Addy up, Casey thought smugly before a wave of guilt hit her.
Addy was solemn. “You're right.”
“No, Addy, I—”
“No, you're right. I've never had to face the things your facing now. Face a world bigger than where we grew up. But I didn't choose to get sick. Didn't choose a funeral for a 10th birthday. And Dad didn't choose to get sick either.”
Her sister, only a moment before in her late teens like Casey, was a child again before her eyes. Hair in a loose, messy side-braid. At least a foot and a half shorter. Only her eyes shown the same, determined as ever whether five or ten or fifteen years old. Casey hoped she could ever be as determined as Addy would have been grown up.
“He could have taken better care of himself.”
“Like you?” Addy smirked, and Casey matched her right back.
“Well he didn't have a sister there for him.”
“That voice in your head reminding you that you forgot to take vitamins or put on sunscreen — that's coming straight from me.”
Casey laughed. Laughed! Like she hadn't in a year. It sounded foreign. It sounded like Addy. Another piece of her, with Casey, always.
“God, mom really should have taken the nagging caretaker role upon herself more instead of boring it down into us.”
“I know right? What kind of eight year old tells kids at school not to run in the hallway?” Addy's and Casey's peels of laughter twisted and twirled with joyful nickers until three swirled into two in the wind.
Casey lifted herself up and made her way to her horse.
“Addy,” she said to the mare. “You about ready to go?” An exhale of air, an almost imperceptible nod of a snout. Casey rubbed and patted Addy, embracing the warmth from this majestic creature. Hers.
After Casey had given Addy some feed and lots of water, and brushed her a bit to clean her up from the trail, she put her back in the stall and promised to be back out later that day to continue taking care of her and the rest of the horses. They were starting to get a bit agitated, Casey felt, by the way the huffed at her back as she left the barn.
But Casey had something she needed to do first. She rushed back to the house, kicked her boots off by the door, and practically flew up the stairs to her bedroom. She swiped the sunglasses from the top of her dresser. Dropped off the bottle of sunscreen. Turned to go. Froze.
Before overthinking it, she grabbed the bottle back up and left her room, crossing the hall to her parents' room. Her mom's room.
“Hey, mom,” Casey called out, the idea half-formed but quickly growing bolder, brighter, more important in her mind as she waited for her mom's response.
“Yes, hon?” Deep and tired. But Casey wouldn't be swayed. Because Addy wouldn't be.
“You're going to come riding with me. And I'm not taking no for an answer.”