The Summer We Lost Her
– CHAPTER 1 –
Greenville, North Carolina
Even with the flight’s fifteen-minute delay and the half-hour drive from Newark to Montclair, she’d still make it to the school on time, Elise told herself as she tightened her seat belt and forced herself to slow down and breathe. She checked her watch—1:15 p.m. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room.
A striking woman with flippy black hair and a breezy linen shirt over white jeans paused in the aisle, her destination clearly the window seat. “Sorry. That’s me over there.”
Elise shifted to allow her seatmate to pass in a moneyed jingle of bracelets and the faintest whiff of perfume. Once the scent dissipated, Elise realized that, in the confined space of the airplane, in her breeches and sweatshirt, she smelled vaguely organic. Bestial, even, covered as she was in sweat, sunscreen, and show-ring silt.
After three weeks in North Carolina and—ten weeks prior to that—three months in Florida, Elise Sorenson was finally on her way home. She’d been at the Tryon horse show in Mill Spring that
morning with a very late test time—9:45—for a woman who needed to be in another state by afternoon. After her ride, without taking the time to change, she had raced back to the house she’d shared with six other international-level riders, most of whom she didn’t know; one of whom (the one who did jump squats after midnight and, she was nearly certain, helped himself to her protein powder) she wished she’d never met; and all of whom were fighting for the same thing: better scores than they’d earned in Florida so they could be long-listed for the U.S. equestrian team in Rio next year.
She’d thrown her bags into the back of her coach’s rented Land Rover, left Ronnie to accompany the horses back to Newark, cleared security in record time considering it was the first real weekend of the summer, and made it, breathless and glowing with anticipation, to seat 21C.
She checked her watch again. 1:25. I’ll be there, she’d promised her daughter last night on the phone.
Thumps came from beneath the floor as luggage was heaved into the belly of the plane. Then the breathless pong of the flight attendant call button. She reached up to blast the overhead vent in case her seatmate noticed the eau de cheval, then glanced around. Some of them must be horse people. Anyway, she was probably being paranoid.
With a mother who worked here and there as a doctor’s receptionist and a father whose John Deere salesman-of-the-year dreams had never materialized, Elise Bleeker had grown up in a depressed neighborhood. It lay along the western border of Lower Vailsburg in Newark, New Jersey, and was not-so-lovingly dubbed “the Coop” because it wasn’t uncommon for people to keep a backyard chicken or two. The Kirks, who lived directly behind the Bleekers, kept hens in a converted shed along the property line. On a hot day, the caustic smell of excrement would drift through Elise’s window, permeating every soft surface. You couldn’t get it out of your nose. She was certain it attached itself to the clothes her mother hung out to dry,
maybe even to her hair. Her suspicions were confirmed on the bus one day when a young boy made a face and told his father something stunk. Elise slipped off at the next stop. That shame never fully leaves a person.
Now, movement beside her caught Elise’s attention. With every click of an overhead bin being pushed shut and every thump of a passenger rushing past, Elise’s seatmate braced for impact. The woman pulled the safety card from the pouch at her knees and stared at it, hands shaking.
Elise leaned close. “If it helps at all, I’m on my way to a very important event back in Montclair, something I—one hundred percent—must attend. And if I arrive safely, you arrive safely.”
The woman’s fingers went to her necklace; she was clearly embarrassed. “Ridiculous to be such a baby. I’m nearly forty-five years old.”
“Nothing ridiculous about being afraid of something and going ahead and doing it.” Elise realized her paddock boots were smeared with barn dirt and tucked them beneath her seat. “Maybe more ridiculous to board a plane covered in mud.”
“You’re Elise Sorenson. You can be forgiven.”
Elise searched her memory. Was this someone she was supposed to know?
“I’m not a stalker.” The woman held out a manicured hand for Elise to shake. “Laurel Sabados. Getting my girls to and from barns and horse shows and tack shops has been my full-time job since they were old enough to talk. My eldest, Jessa, had a photo of you pinned to her corkboard. From Dressage Today magazine, I think?” When Elise didn’t correct her, Laurel continued. “You were her idol.”
Admittedly, Elise had taken a risk that morning. Dressage is all white gloves and tails, top hat and hair contained in a netted bun. The one event set to music, the Grand Prix Kur, is typically done to Bach, Gershwin, “A New Argentina” from Evita, perhaps. But Tamara Berlo-Chang had just scored 73.39. Elise needed to make
a statement and switched her music to something decidedly more edgy at the last minute: Lil’ Kim covering an expletive-spackled song called “Lighters Up.” The judges were in such a fluster, they’d held off scoring. “Sounds like you saw my test.”
“I loved it,” Laurel paused, then added, “I don’t care what anyone said.”
Wait. “What did they say?”
“Oh, you know how people are.” Laurel raised the window shade with the tip of a finger, peered at the ground traffic, then snapped it all the way down. “Doesn’t bear repeating.”
“Don’t tell me . . . Tamara Berlo-Chang is your daughter’s new idol?” Elise sighed nervously. “Deservedly, without a doubt.”
“No. You remained her heroine to the end. Jessa died last year.”
Elise’s stomach dropped. For all the guilt she lived with, things could have turned out far, far worse. “Oh . . . god. I’m so sorry.”
“Drunk driver—another teenager, actually. Home from Pepperdine for the summer. Out there on a baseball scholarship.” Laurel held a deep, bolstering breath. “He lived. Jessa didn’t.”
“God.” Elise sat with the weight of this woman’s tragedy. “That’s . . . I don’t know what to say. How on earth do you go forward?”
Laurel pulled a folded tissue from her sleeve cuff and refolded it. “Minute by minute.”
“And the driver?”
“He’s in prison. Two young lives destroyed.”
A passenger leaned over Elise to stuff his bag into the overhead bin with enough force that it rocked her seat. His tie swung into Elise’s space and she leaned away.
“I’ve wondered many times since whether I am supposed to forgive him,” Laurel said.
“And do you?”
The woman’s eyes searched the chair back in front of her for answers that weren’t there. “Jessa deserved more.” Then Laurel made
a deliberate shift in body language: pushed her fists into her lap, fixed her gaze on Elise, and smiled through eyes now tinged with pink. The moment had passed. “Enough about my life. What takes you to New Jersey on such an important mission that you’re going to keep the plane up in the air for it?”
It was like coming out of a darkened movie theater, surprised anything exists beyond the story that engrossed you. Elise blinked hard. “Oh, home. My eight-year-old daughter is in her first play tonight.”
“How lovely. What’s her name?”
“Gracie. I’ve only been home about ten weeks total this year. This will be my longest stretch back with her and my husband. So it’s a bit of a reunion.”
For a Grand Prix dressage rider with Olympic dreams who lived in the snow-covered tundra that was the northeastern United States, it simply was what it was. Elise shipped down to Florida in December with her Hanoverian gelding, which meant the family spent many Christmases under palm trees. She flew home for family time as her competition and training schedule allowed, and Matt and Gracie drove down for long weekends. This season, however, Elise’s scores had been all over the place—not ideal with Rio only one year away. The 2016 games were the reason they’d bought Indie all those years ago. And for Tokyo in 2020, Indie would be nineteen. There was no way to know if the horse would be up to it. Maybe with the sale of Matt’s family cabin there would be money to buy a youngster, but to have another horse ready? Possible, but only if everything went smoothly.
Once the shows in Palm Beach ended, after a couple of well-earned months at home, she and Ronnie trekked down to North Carolina. Trouble was, her scores there were up and down as well. It had gotten to the point where, Elise could tell, Matt was afraid to ask during their bedtime phone calls. He asked about the weather. Her workout schedule. How she slept.
All the money Elise had spent this past season, all the time away, may have been for nothing.
“Tough on a family, this lifestyle, I suppose,” said Laurel. “Lots of Skyping, FaceTiming.”
“Every day, if we can. And Matt is a rock. But, believe me, I face a whole lot of judgment from the moms in the schoolyard.”
“And if your husband were the gifted athlete; if Gracie’s father were vying for the Olympics . . . those very same people would stand around admiring him. Not a single person would judge him harshly.” Laurel tsked. “Society is still so archaic in some ways.
The choices women make as mothers are forever under the microscope. Everyone has an opinion.”
Perhaps myself most of all, Elise thought. After the accident, Elise hadn’t allowed herself to ride again for nearly three years. It took Matt and Ronnie sitting her down for a two-hour intervention at the Tiny Rhino Café in town to get her back on a horse. “Sometimes deservedly.”
“And sometimes not.”
Flight attendants and stray passengers busied themselves with last-minute securing of overhead compartments and seat belts. “It’s not the traditional way to parent, the mother on the road, but you have to believe your child will learn by example, right? How to really go for it.”
As for her own drive, she certainly hadn’t learned from example. While her father, Warren, with his twinkling green eyes and his politician’s smile, had always taught her she could accomplish whatever she set her mind to, his own methods were sorely lacking. “All you have to do is believe, princess,” he used to say. “Because if you don’t believe, they don’t believe.” And there her large-framed mother, Rosamunde, would sit beside him—always fully made up with hair coiffed—ever hopeful that the big-talking man who’d swept into her life in his used Cadillac to woo her away from finishing her college degree had been the right choice.
Elise had had many a long, lonely flight to think about what drove her to fight this hard. It hadn’t come from Warren’s encouragement at all. Her fire came much later, from the shock of his betrayal—an act that cost her mother her life. But Elise couldn’t think of that now. Sorrow was an indulgence she didn’t have time for.
Laurel was staring at her. “You’re one of the most talented riders in the country, Elise. Being traditional is never really going to be an option. Nor should it be.”
Elise looked down at the Summerhill Prep program in her lap. The Blossom King was the end-of-school-year play, and Gracie had been selected to draw the cover illustration: a frowning cherry tree next to a vain monarch. He had in his possession three things: the desire for a robe made of petals, a newly sharpened ax, and a henchman willing to use it. What he didn’t see was the morality lesson charging at him like an invisible freight train.
The curtain would go up at five. Hopefully, Matt would score two front-row center seats so their daughter could feel her parents’ adoration from the stage, where she was to play a baby koala waiting for a breakfast of ripe cherries. That the freckle-faced joey had been born in Branch Brook Park, New Jersey, didn’t seem to have struck the drama teacher as remotely improbable. Nor had it worried her that said marsupial insisted upon wearing a tiara. It was, after all, as Gracie explained to her mother the evening prior on the phone, in the froggy voice that had earned her the nickname “Little Green,” her stage debut.
Awkward for Elise’s reunion with her husband to happen in front of every parent and teacher in the school, but after a self-conscious embrace, Matt would pull her hand onto his lap, fold her fingers into a ball, and cover it with his own. It was the hot little stone of their love. From this pip sprung their life together.
Two hours and five minutes, then this plane would land. Another fifty minutes or so, if traffic was kind to her, and she’d be with her family. It was always a bit of a strained dance when the three of them
reunited. With Gracie because she’d have forgotten that Elise had any authority, and with Matt . . . well, with Matt because he’d been running the show for an extended period and his wife’s return always tilted the parenting balance.
First thing in the morning they’d bundle into the car and drive to Matt’s old family cabin in Lake Placid. The thought of it—four and a half hours together in the car—was nothing short of heaven. Elise had popped into Target the night before to stock up on coloring books and markers, juice boxes, and a mini Rubik’s Cube for the road, and crammed it all into her carry-on bag. Matt and Elise would have chocolate croissants and steaming dark roast coffee from Amour-Propre, the little French bakery in Montclair.
Her phone lit up. Matt calling. The sound of paper shuffling, then the deep growl of his voice. “I smell jet fuel and oversalted cashews.”
She tucked her chin into the phone. “I smell the frustration of clients who don’t pay on time and mounting desperation to have your wife in your arms.”
“Got me on both.”
“We’re late to take off.” The pong of another call button. “Should happen any minute, though.”
“Meet me inside the school, then. I’ll be the devastatingly sexy man, front-row center, who’s had way too many cold showers lately.”
“Tell Lil’ G I can’t wait to squish her to bits.”
“Aaand we’ll give the cheeseburgers and shakes a pass.”
“You’re so not funny. Like, you shouldn’t even try.”
“Love you madly, E.”
In their early months of dating, he’d sent her roses on her birthday, ordering them over the phone. The florist had transcribed “I love you madly” as “I love you badly.” It had become a running joke. “Love you badly,” she said now before hanging up.
Beside her, Laurel pulled out a library book, Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, and settled in to read.
“Excuse me, Ms. Sorenson?” A tap on her shoulder. The flight attendant who’d welcomed them while boarding, a young Indian woman with a silky ponytail, tidy tortoiseshell glasses, and plum-glossed lips. “We’ve just had a call in the cockpit. You’re wanted over on Equine Air. The pilots have had to delay takeoff for a horse that’s become upset.”
No. No, no, no. Elise leaned forward. “My horse?”
“He won’t load, according to the transport team.”
“He has a companion animal, a donkey. He’ll follow Poppins.”
“Apparently, the donkey’s been led on and off several times, but the horse won’t budge.”
Indie had had a bad flight on a FedEx cargo plane when Ronnie brought him over from Germany as a four-year-old in the spring of 2005. Bad weather tossed the aircraft like a leaf for hours, and the gelding sharing Indie’s jet stall tried to make an unexpected break for it halfway across the Atlantic. The vet on board successfully sedated him, but not before Indie learned that travel is a menacing, six-headed beast to be avoided at any cost. It was nearly six months before he would willingly board a trailer in New Jersey, and he only did so with the help of a donkey Elise bought for $250 on their honeymoon in Greece that September after watching the overburdened jenny being forced to carry bulging tourists with bulging luggage up a six-hundred-foot cliff in the searing heat of Santorini.
The lop-eared donkey had the look of a beloved teddy bear that had been through the wash too many times. The horse may have been twice her size, but the donkey immediately assumed the role of nanny, earning herself the name Poppins. She mollycoddled the gelding, protected him from rambunctious horses in the paddocks, and always allowed him the last mouthful of hay. Like a good governess, she taught Indie how to load by trotting up the ramp of the trailer and back. See how simple? You can do it!
Clearly, a plane was a different experience.
“They asked for your permission to take the horse to the cargo bay until alternative arrangements are made.”
“The cargo bay . . . with the donkey?”
“I don’t think so. The donkey would continue to Newark.”
The amount of money Matt and Elise had spent to purchase such a talented horse was astronomical and, to them, the investment of a lifetime: $250,000. They’d used Matt’s inheritance from his parents, and then some, and later took on a sizable mortgage to buy the house in Montclair before Gracie came along. Indie was a coddled, sensitive horse trained to CDI—Concours de Dressage International—the level required for Olympic consideration. He had that magic combination of exquisite cadence and big, bouncy movements, without a flighty temperament. To leave him with airport ground crew in a clanging, banging, overheated cargo bay would be irresponsible and cruel. And dangerous. If he injured himself trying to escape, or, god forbid, colicked, the results could be fatal. Horses are herd animals. You don’t leave one alone in a strange place.
Not to mention, a stall on Equine Air ran $5,000. Matt and Elise didn’t have anywhere near that kind of cash to pay for another flight, whenever that would be. This wasn’t exactly American Airlines. The only reason Indie was traveling with thirteen other dressage horses, hunter jumpers, and polo ponies—and one hee-hawing au pair—was that Ronnie had sold Wunderkind, the now retired Dutch Warmblood he’d won a bronze medal with at the 2012 games in London, to a wealthy beginner looking for a schoolmaster, leaving an empty stall on the plane.
“Is it possible I could run over there and get back in time?” Elise asked the flight attendant.
“Do you have checked luggage?”
She’d hauled her luggage onto the horse trailer earlier. Had she checked her bags onto the flight, it might have bought her some time—at least long enough for the baggage to be removed by ground crew if Elise didn’t make it back. In a post-9/11 world, airlines were
rightly squeamish about bags left behind by passengers who deplane. “No.”
“Then the pilot can’t wait. I recommend you remain in your seat. The horse will be stowed securely. It’s very safe—”
Stowed. Like a set of golf clubs.
“I realize it’s not ideal.” The flight attendant frowned in understanding and looked up toward the galley, where one of her colleagues was gesturing for her to hurry. She stepped back. “But the staff in the cargo area are terrific with animals. Arrangements for another flight will be made for the horse. And you can be in direct contact with the staff when we land.”
The thought of her daughter stepping out onto that stage, looking out to see an empty seat beside her father, turquoise crutches hidden behind the curtain until she had no choice but to pull them out. . . . Elise couldn’t breathe from the agony. It was what had kept her going these last three weeks—playing that moment of Gracie coming onstage through her mind on a never-ending loop. She’d planned (to hell with what the other parents thought) to stand up and cheer. Blow two-handed kisses to Gracie from the audience and embarrass her funny, freckled, ribbit-voiced girl with the enormity of her love.
And Matt. Sweet, patient, kind, long-suffering-in-so-much-silence Matt.
But she couldn’t take such a chance with Indie. She couldn’t risk the animal’s life by leaving him behind like a vintage Studebaker awaiting shipment to a faraway collector.
There was no other choice. Elise unbuckled, forced her body out of the seat. After wishing Laurel a beautiful, smooth trip, Elise gathered her bags from the overhead bin, followed the flight attendant up the aisle, and stepped off the plane that would have taken her to the only place in the world she wanted to be.