Young Adult Contemporary (General and Christian markets)
Publisher: CrossLink Publishing
Date Published: June 1st, 2021
First choices out. Second choices in.
It’s been that way since dialysis left fourteen-year-old Krissy disabled. Her limitations went from none to a ton, and now they stand in the way of her dream—to compete in dog agility with her new sheltie pup, Aslan.
She’s seen videos of agility handlers sprinting, spinning, and twisting as they race with their dogs through the intricate obstacle courses. It’s a beautiful sport. Like dance. Like art.
And surely impossible for someone like her.
Her suspicions are confirmed when an agility instructor says Krissy’s inability to run will keep her and Aslan from successfully competing against other lightning-fast agility teams and suggests Krissy choose a less physically demanding, second-choice dog sport.
Second choices—once again.
And on top of all that, Krissy is pretty sure she doesn’t even like her own dog.
May: Six Weeks Old
The butt end. The butt end was the last thing she would see of her beautiful, spirited Whickery. Why did that somehow feel like payback?
Krissy leaned against the dirty white post-and-rail fence, her thin arms resting on the top rail as Whickery’s thick chestnut tail cleared the back of the horse trailer. Two dust-covered stable hands dressed in the usual cowboy hats and boots closed the trailer’s door, locking away the mare and all the dreams she represented. One of the men slapped an open palm against the closed door—as if that somehow tested its integrity—and the two climbed into the cab of their battered baby-blue pickup. The engine sputtered to life, and the truck with its attached one-horse trailer crunched a dirge across the gravel drive as it pulled Whickery away from the stables.
Krissy’s eyes burned. She blinked hard, refusing tears. No way would she show weakness in front of Mom. Besides, tears would be a distortion of the truth. She wouldn’t be crying because Whickery had been sold. If tears came, they would come because deep inside—where even she didn’t like to snoop around much—she was glad. And that felt very, very wrong.
The trailer turned west onto the highway and disappeared. And with that, Whickery was gone. There would be no more trips to the decaying stables at the edge of the suburbs. No more acting as if she enjoyed riding round and round the sandy, boring, and way-too-small horse arena. No more hot days grooming an animal weighing a thousand pounds.
No more pretending she wasn’t afraid of her own horse.
Mom put her arm over Krissy’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey. I know this is hard.” Krissy pushed off the fence and stomped toward the car. Keys rattled as Mom hoisted her purse and followed.
After sliding into the passenger seat of the silver Avalon, Krissy slammed the door shut. Mom would figure her anger was prompted by grief over losing Whickery. That was okay. That made sense. But the truth? The truth festered in fear caused by her own abnormal and inescapable body.
Posture stiff, Mom lowered herself into the car and after starting it, drove away from the stables—for the last time. Krissy didn’t look back. She knew what the rows of stalls with their peeling white paint and beautiful equine occupants looked like. It had seemed like a princess’s castle when her parents took her there for the first time to meet her new horse. A year later, the stables had lost their royal luster. Now, she saw it for what it truly was—two rows of deteriorating horse stalls with a miniscule outdoor arena. She was glad to see the last of it.
After a couple minutes driving southeast on the Northwest Expressway, the suburbs of Oklahoma City began to crowd the scenery. Soon, they passed strip malls with familiar storefronts: Kohl’s, Walmart, PetSmart, Target. These big-box stores were packed cheek to jowl beside multiple car dealerships, their latest models sparkling in the early summer sun.
Mom broke the tense silence. “We didn’t want to do this. If I had my way, you’d still have her, but your dad and I agree with your doctor. If you fell off Whickery the wrong way, you could damage your new kidney. Then where would we be?”
Krissy stared out the passenger window, teeth clenched against suppressed anger—and guilt.
“I know owning a horse was your dream since you first rode Molly. How old were you?”
Krissy said nothing, wanting to forget the whole owning-a-horse thing had ever happened.
Mom answered for her. “Six, I think. I’m so very sorry this had to happen, but there’s no other option.”
It was a rare show of sympathy from Mom, but Krissy refused to respond. Sympathy from others had annoyed her more than anything else all through her dialysis treatments and subsequent kidney transplant. Why that enraged her so much, she couldn’t say, but call her brave or a trooper, and she’d be gone—if not physically, then at least emotionally.
She fiddled with her seat belt, trying to get it to lie without pressure over her lower abdomen and the pink scar from her transplant surgery hidden beneath her shorts. As the car turned onto Rockwell Avenue, the old Warr Acres Cemetery appeared out of nowhere. Messing with her seat belt, Krissy almost missed it. She gasped a shallow, hasty breath just before reaching the first corner of the graveyard.
Her eyes widened as the car in front of them slowed for no apparent reason. An irrational dread gripped her; she hadn’t inhaled enough air to make it to the cemetery entrance at this speed. Moments later her lungs began to burn. She fought against the desire to push on the Avalon’s dash in a useless attempt to make the traffic move faster so the car could reach the cemetery’s entrance. Only then could she release the small gulp of air and take a deep, refreshing breath.
Krissy’s face was hot and her cheeks puffed out as they finally crept by the gates. Gasping as if surfacing from a dive, she filled her lungs with the car’s chilled air. Judging the distance to the end of the cemetery, she did a quick accounting of the car’s speed and her oxygen inventory and determined that this time she could make it on one breath.
Years ago, her father had taught her this game. “Everyone, take a deep breath,” he’d say as they approached a graveyard in the family car. Krissy and her older brother, Peter, would gasp in air. The rules were firm: you held your breath until you passed the cemetery, with one exception—you could breathe at any entrance. This entrance rule meant it was usually a breeze to make it past most graveyards, unless you forgot and didn’t get a lungful of air before you reached its border. The consequences of the game were, however, harsh. If you breathed anywhere alongside a cemetery other than the entrances, you’d be the next person buried there.
It was a pretty gruesome game to play with little kids, and at fourteen she should be too old for such superstition. Yet, with her history, what if? If a person could cheat death, shouldn’t they try? Determined, she held her breath to the border of the cemetery where Mom, used to the game and ignoring Krissy’s gasps, changed lanes and passed the loitering car that had caused all the breathing drama in the first place. Exhaling, Krissy left the dead behind.
The uncomfortable silence with Mom, who’d surrendered to Krissy’s lack of communication, continued until the car rolled into the driveway of their home, a two-story red-brick colonial. The garage door opener began its grinding work, and the summer sun disappeared as the comparative dark of their clean multi-car garage swallowed the Avalon.
Krissy closed the car door and sulked into the house, making a beeline for the fridge. The kitchen’s cheery yellow-and-cranberry wallpaper clashed brutally with her vicious mood. Peter sat at the granite-topped kitchen table, wrapping overgrip tape around the handle of his tennis racket. He glanced up at Mom, who walked in behind Krissy, and their brief visual exchange must have tipped him off because he went straight back to work without saying a word. This nonverbal communication heightened Krissy’s temper as she yanked a Diet Coke from the fridge and turned her back on her family and the irksome kitchen. She marched through the dining room, wheeled toward the staircase, and climbed to the bedrooms above.
After reaching her room, she slammed her door, creating a loud, satisfying crack. The Diet Coke whispered its familiar hiss as she opened it, and, leaning against the door, she looked around.
Hers was the smallest room in the house. Decorated in a puerile purple she’d chosen as a seven-year-old, it felt dated and held many of the usual trappings of a kid—a dresser, a nightstand, a bed that was made up only because it was a requirement for her weekly allowance, and a desk crowned with an old computer. In the corner stood a painted bookshelf filled not with books, but with her Breyer model horse collection. The glossy plastic representations of equine perfection were frozen in various poses. She’d spent hours as a child playing with those miniature toy horses, dreaming of the intense and special bond she might someday develop with a real horse.
She’d been so naive—even stupid. Because of those delusions, Whickery had been sold. A living, breathing animal had been in her care, and she’d failed her.
Krissy pulled her eyes away from the Breyer collection and tried to avoid glancing at the multiple horse posters tacked over the purple-striped wallpaper. After placing the bottle of Diet Coke on the nightstand, she threw herself on her bed and rolled to give her back to the bedroom horses.
In this position, she faced the small corner devoted to her other passion. Well, her only passion, now that horses weren’t her thing. She propped her head on her elbow and examined the magazine and computer-printed photos of collies and shelties. The collies stood tall and regal with their long flowing coats, but the shelties ran, flying over white jumps and weaving through white poles.
Horses and dogs. It had always been horses and dogs.
Unable to look anywhere in her room where one or the other wasn’t staring accusations at her, she lay back on her pillow and shut her eyes. Whickery appeared in her mind, the trailer’s door locking her away. Krissy opened her eyes, banishing the image. She closed her eyes once more, fighting to recall a happier memory. For a moment, she relaxed as she daydreamed about the pond near Grandma’s house on a warm summer’s day.
Suddenly, the pond was gone, and Whickery’s left front hoof weighed heavily in her right hand, while her left held a metal hoof pick. In agonizing slow motion, the sharp pick carved through the accumulated debris pressed into the hoof. It crunched as it ground its way, and she smelled the sour manure, mud, and keratin released from the hoof’s crevice. Her mind screamed in horror as the pick hung up on a small piece of gravel and slipped. It plowed into her right wrist, half an inch below the artery just beneath her skin that had been surgically lifted for dialysis.
Krissy’s eyes snapped open, her stomach lurching. Although safe in her bed, she clutched her right wrist with her left hand. With her left palm, she could feel the buzzing rhythm of the right wrist’s artery racing. She hadn’t realized she’d been breathing hard until that comforting beat, which proved all was well with the vein, calmed her, and her panting breaths slowed.
That day in the barn seven months ago had been petrifying. The surgically raised artery in her wrist was called a fistula. Before her transplant, nurses had inserted needles into the large veins created by the fistula to pull her blood into a dialysis machine, which filtered toxins from her blood, taking the place of her failed kidneys. Injure the fistula badly enough, and she could have ruptured the artery and bled to death. Even a lesser injury could have prevented her from being hooked to the dialysis machine, meaning more procedures, more needles, and more pain. A lot more pain.
After the pick had slipped, she’d dropped Whickery’s hoof and pressed her right wrist against her ear to listen for the healthy whooshing sound of the blood in the fistula. Except for the cold wind whipping through the barn’s corridor, silence reigned.
Leaving Whickery tied, she’d frantically run to the tack room, closed the door to block the wind’s obscuring howl, and raised her wrist to her ear to try to hear again. Unaccustomed tears sprang to her eyes, and panic raised bile to her throat. For several seconds, there was no sound. Shifting her wrist back and forth by her ear, she tried to find the vital whoosh. Then, a faint, rhythmic rushing sound vibrated in the hush. At that point, adrenaline had sent her heartbeat racing, making the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh gallop. She’d inhaled deep breaths, trying to control both her heartrate and her tears.
For ten minutes, she’d sat alone in the dark tack room, left hand on her wrist, making sure the steady vibration remained and examining the fistula’s scar for any signs of bruising or injury.
She’d survived, but the whole thing had rocked her. And the truth she’d been denying began to scream. She was afraid. Afraid of Whickery’s size, of her hooves, of being crushed, of hurting herself, of losing her fistula, of more pain. More hospitals. More dialysis.
Now, as she lay in the bed holding her wrist in memory, a shiver ran along her spine.
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her tacky mouth. She reached for the pop and took a few gulps. Rolling to her right side, Krissy placed her wrist under the pillow and listened to the soothing whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Eyes closed to the room filled with horses and dogs, her heartbeat relaxed, and the Diet Coke leaned precariously in the loosened grip of her left hand. Minutes later, she slept.
She dreamed of maddened horses being herded by snarling shelties.
About the Author
Kristin Kaldahl is an agility instructor, national-level agility competitor, and dog agility blogger with twenty years in the sport. Her dogs have earned eight agility championships and have qualified for the AKC Agility National Championship twelve times. In addition, Kaldahl is a semi-finalist in the 2018 Genesis Awards in the YA category, an award-winning former journalist, and a long-term kidney transplant survivor. #ownvoices