Horse Sense

Jamie and Acorn's friendship is one for the books: their attachment is unbreakable, their mutual understanding uncanny and their adventures legendary. But one day everything changes. Jamie steps in to defend one of his classmates from his teacher and suddenly everybody turns on him. Worse, they use his friendship with a horse to bully him. Attacked on all sides, Jamie has to decide whether to desert Acorn or fight for what he truly believes in, both for himself and his best friend.

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6. Chapter III cont. The Score

Jamie couldn't stand it. He had taught Acorn; he was the master; he was the one with hands and opposable thumbs. It was ludicrous; he couldn't lose!

He pushed forward, desperate to break the siege. He groaned and moaned and sweat, but Acorn didn't relinquish any ground. He was there wherever he went, like his shadow, his eyes glistening as if stopping him was the most important thing in the universe.

Exasperated, Jamie grimaced. Nothing he tried would work. That slack ball had proven a total liability. In one last mighty effort, he pulled together all his strength and went for broke. He spun around twice to the left, feinted a shot, then threw himself to the right to catch Acorn off guard, but he lost balance and overreached.

As soon as Acorn saw the ball clean in front of him, he pulled back his ears and lunged to bite. Jamie saw his jaws spring open like the gate of hell. He let go in a hurry. Acorn's huge mouth snapped shut around the ball. His thumb-size teeth clamped the rubber and squeezed it with enormous strength, making it creak.

Jamie jumped back. Instinctively, he rubbed his fingers on his T-shirt, checking that they were still attached, and then he caught himself. Fool! Acorn had banked on his fear and he had fallen for it. Played like a sheep!

"You!" he called out indignantly, pointing a finger. "This is basketball, you mule, not _murder_ball!"

In response, Acorn neighed at the top of his lungs, raising the prize in his mouth. He jerked his head and tail high and trotted around like the king of horses.

"Yeah, yeah, strut your stuff," grunted Jamie, but he couldn't suppress a smile. "Enjoy your small victory while you can!"

Acorn paraded around shamelessly.

"Fine, fine, you scored. _Big deal!_ Are you going to give me back that ball, or do you want to sleep with it?" He grinned, looking at the poor basketball squeezed between Acorn's jaws. Their game wasn't for wimps. No, sir, their game was a full contact sport—Ooh, yeah!—It was their tradition, their little secret society. Mom had been briefed, of course, and sometimes she came to watch a match, but she was the only one admitted. By now he knew too well how other people would look at him: just like his father had done—as if he and Acorn were a freak show routine. He had also told a couple of his friends at school once, and they hadn't stopped laughing. People were so dumb about these things. He couldn't really wrap his head around it. Sure, he was playing basketball with a horse, but he wasn't really playing basketball. A horse can't play basketball like a human. Plus, what he was doing was pretty logical. Acorn had that shepherding instinct, so he had thought he would mark him too if he made the whole thing into a game. And so Acorn did. What was so weird about that?

Jamie shrugged and shook out of his reverie. "Come on, man, give it back. We've got to finish this game!"

Acorn pricked up his ears and studied him eagerly.

Jamie stepped forward, stretching his hand.

Acorn bolted away, bucking.

"All right, whatever! We'll make it a draw this time, OK?" He walked to the scoreboard and scratched a white stick under his and Acorn's name, then he turned around. "Happy?"

Acorn stared at him, the manic glint still flickering in his eyes.

Jamie looked at the sky. He felt much better. What he needed now was to celebrate. "Let's go!"

He ran home. Since mom was out, he didn't even try to hide his impetus for going into the house. He wrenched open the door, letting it crash against the wall. He stormed into the kitchen, ransacked Mom's private stash of sweets, grabbed a handful of multicolored candies, and rushed out slamming the door so hard that a fleck of paint came away from the wall. Mom would have killed him for that, had she been there. Jamie grinned at another mischief successfully carried out.

Acorn had finally dropped the basketball and tailed him as they ran back toward the paddock, curious to discover what they would do next.

Jamie aimed straight for his favorite spot, a patch of soft grass next to a huge, old chestnut tree. He sat down and his eyes fell on his discolored, frayed jeans. It would have been nice for once to own his own instead of having to take hand-me-downs from his cousins, he thought. Acorn's muzzle brushed his head. He looked up. Acorn's wet eyes were pointed at him with a questioning look. Jamie smiled. Clothes were just _stuff_ after all, he thought. Who cared really. They didn't mean anything when you could have a friend like Acorn around. He leaned back, letting the sun envelop him in its golden warmth.

Acorn, still waiting for the next call to action, puzzled over Jamie's apparent lack of motivation. He didn't seem satisfied with just hanging around. He started searching for something to do, then noticed Jamie's unkempt hair and decided that would do. He stepped closer and started picking methodically at each strand with his big, fleshy lips, so as not to hurt Jamie, then, like an expert hairdresser, he twisted them as he pulled, making them stand on end.

Jamie sat still, always amused and mesmerized by this quirk. He had no idea why Acorn liked to mess with his hair so much. He didn't know if it meant affection or if it was more like a game of skill for him or, maybe, a stress reliever, much like playing with those squishy balls they sold at the supermarket. Who knew really, but it felt strangely pleasant and ticklish, so he let him do it.

Now that he was sitting in the sun, the idea of lazing about for a little while didn't seem at all bad. His mind drifted lazily. Unexpectedly, the thought of Holly crawled back to the surface. A cold, soggy knot tightened his stomach. All of a sudden, he felt lonely, even though Acorn was next to him. He felt a sudden rush of yearning for Holly's company. She used to be his best friend, but lately she kept on coming up with excuses. Homework... Yeah, right! She wasn't slow—it couldn't take her so long. Was she avoiding him? But why?

He glanced up at Acorn. "Who needs her, right?"

He stared back blankly.

"We're the kings of fun! We don't need nobody!"

He unwrapped two of the candies he had stolen and handed one to Acorn. He flicked his ears to full attention at the sight of the sugary treat, then he slowly inched forward. He picked up the candy between his huge, fleshy lips with the utmost care, then tasted it with anticipation. His big, watery eyes became all round.

Jamie snickered: he loved how surprised Acorn got whenever he let him try a new flavor. Each time he thought he could see his brain pop and fizzle with delight.

He dropped the other candy into his own mouth. A sweet cherry tide flooded his palate with a pleasant fizz. He smiled and nodded at Acorn. "I know what you mean, pal. This is a _good_ one!"

Acorn glanced blankly at him, apparently too enthralled to manage any kind of response.

Jamie knew that he was lucky to have a friend like him. He just wished sometimes that Acorn could talk so they could share more things... But then, being friends with someone of another species was something magical and words were not that important, after all. To tell the truth, Acorn knew him better than most of his friends who could talk, and he knew him as well as he knew himself. He knew that Acorn had been afraid of storms, ever since that time he was out in the paddock and a bolt of lightning hit the woods nearby. He knew that he liked Menthos, but didn't like cotton candy. He knew that he had an ongoing feud with Dillinger, but loved Milly, his companion goat. He knew that he liked late afternoons, red-haired people and swimming in the river. And he knew that he loved him.

And yet...

All of a sudden, that strange yearning rushed back through Jamie. And it wasn't just for Holly this time. He felt a wrenching longing for more friends take hold of him. He was older now—he was supposed to have more friends. Why did they hardly ever come to visit him these days? When they were all smaller, many had been afraid of Acorn, but he had won them over and, for a while, they had all come over regularly. Holly especially liked Acorn and she would come hang out with the two of them a lot. Jamie still remembered the first time she and Acorn met. It happened during a trip to his own house in second grade.

Since his family had so many animals, his previous teacher, Ms. Haley, thought it would be educational to bring the whole class there.

At the time, Jamie had been very nervous. He was afraid of showing his classmates how poor he was, because he thought they would make fun of him. At the same time, he felt a kind of pride, because his teacher had looked very impressed when she had discovered he lived on a farm. So, he had felt alternately hot and cold, fretting and excited.

His fears were probably well placed, but what he hadn't taken into account was the fact that his classmates had never seen so many animals all at once. Soon, they had become so overwhelmed with touching, feeding and dealing with the animals, that none of them gave much notice to either the state of the house or the rusty sheep shed or the patched-up horses' boxes. There was no sniggering, no elbowing, no whispering. By the time they arrived at the paddock where Acorn was waiting for them, Jamie was in an excellent mood and ready to show off.

As they walked up to the fence, Acorn craned his neck, eager to study them more closely. Many of Jamie's classmates and Ms. Haley mistook Acorn's interest for aggressive behavior, so they fanned out around him, at a distance. Jamie walked up to Acorn, patted him and turned around. Suddenly, he found himself facing a hesitant crowd. He had pictured everybody just walking up with him and taking turns patting Acorn while he told them stories. When he saw them stalled, looking afraid, he blanked. That didn't make any sense—Acorn wasn't dangerous.

"Come on, he doesn't bite," he called out. But that made some of his classmates recoil as if they hadn't thought a horse could bite and now the prospect of getting near it was even less appealing.

Acorn twitched his ears and stiffened, disquieted by the hostile vibe.

Jamie felt him tense up under his fingers and his feet went cold with sweat. If they made him nervous, he was going to look like an idiot! It was going to be a disaster! He glanced around, desperate for anybody to come forward, when he noticed Holly in the front of the line. She didn't look scared like the others and, more importantly, her eyes were burning for Acorn. She looked like she had never seen anything more beautiful in her life. Jamie could tell that she yearned for nothing more than to touch him, but she was too shy to make the first step. On a hunch, he raised his hand and stroked the soft bit of nose right above Acorn's upper lip where every horse feels like silk.

Acorn shifted his attention away from the crowd. Jamie's touch made him feel at ease right away. He relaxed and sighed.

"It's soft. Come touch it!" he told Holly.

Her face lit up at the offer. She stepped forward, but immediately stopped in her tracks. "Can I? Really?" she said, looking at Acorn as if asking him permission.

Acorn pricked up his ears.

"Yeah," Jamie answered. "He loves it. Come on, rub here. Feel the tiny hair and the skin."

Holly stretched out her hand.

Acorn nudged her and probed her palm with his muzzle.

Holly giggled at the tickling. Emboldened by his friendliness, she placed her hand on his nose and rubbed gently. He sighed and relaxed.

Holly turned to Jamie, delighted. "It's so soft!"

"I know." He smiled, relieved that she was into it. Now he didn't have to worry anymore.

In fact, as soon as the others saw how much Holly was enjoying herself, they all stepped up to try too. Soon Jamie was taking people in turns to pat Acorn, who in turn seemed to relish all those attentions.

Jamie shook out of his reverie. Acorn finished pulling another strand of his hair. He reached up with his hand and felt a sort of mane fanning around his head. He probably looked like a crazy scientist, he thought. He patted Acorn distractedly and was stung by a pang of melancholy about that day. All of his classmates around him... The admiration he had felt from them instead of the mockery he had expected. Why couldn't it be like that again?

Lately, it had started feeling like everybody was running away from something—he just hoped it wasn't him. A sudden chill run ran up his spine. He looked up at the sky. The sun was moving behind some clouds. The air heaved a last warm sigh, then a cold breeze glided down from the distant mountains.

--next: 4. Breakfast

*******

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