Sixteen years ago, a tragic accident cost Emma Metz her two best friends—one human and one equine. Now, following her father’s death, Emma has reluctantly returned to the Maryland hometown she’d left under a cloud of guilt.
Sorting through her father’s affairs, Emma uncovers a history of lies tying her broken family to the one place she thought she could never return—her girlhood sanctuary, Jumping Frog Farm.
Emma finds herself drawn back to the stable after all these years. It’s easy to win forgiveness from a horse, but less so from her former friend Jillian, their once strong bond destroyed by secrets and betrayals. But despite Jillian’s cold reception, for the first time in years, Emma feels at home.
To exorcise the past, Emma will have to release her guilt, embrace an uncertain future, and trust again in the healing power of horses.
The Distance Home will become available May 2nd. Please enjoy this excerpt.
JUMPING FROG FARM
The first time I saw that sign I was eight, and believed, with the certainty that allows reindeer to fly and little girls to heal, that this place would save me.
And for eight years it did.
For eight years, I spent most of my waking and many of my sleeping hours at the farm, thankful for the friendship from the horses and grateful for the escape from my home.
Until the accident. Until I was sent away.
Now here I am, thirty-two years old, staring at the same sign, praying that the eight-year-old who once believed isn’t completely lost. Praying that the horrific tangle of deceit and heartbreak that kept me away is mostly forgiven.
But reindeer don’t fly.
And time hasn’t healed me.
A horse whinnies, setting off a chorus from the barn. A tractor rumbles to life, sputtering and groaning at the call to duty. A dog barks, letting loose a stampede of dogs and cats.
The sounds of my past life are muffled by the heavy air. It’s mid-September and as hot today as any stifling Maryland summer day.
“Toad.” A gravely voice skids across the gravel parking lot. “Is that really you? No bloody way.”
I turn and I’m face-to-chest with the man I adopted to be my grandfather.
“Simon.” I look up into the brown eyes that had given a timid girl the confidence to conquer her fears.
And in that heartbeat of a moment, I’m lost. Will the Emma he knew hug him? Or will the Emma standing in front of him shake his hand?
“Put that damn hand down, girl.” Simon pulls me into a bear hug. With a final squeeze that knocks a gasp out of me, he pushes me to arm’s length. “Let me look at you. Well. Well. Emma Metz.”
My nerves crackle like a sputtering fire and my face flames. Each day of the past sixteen years settles between us. I’m no longer that shy girl who desperately wanted to fit in.
“You’re not dressed for riding.” He smirks at my maxi dress, the hem grazing the top of overpriced, custom-designed red-and-white-striped Converses.
“True.” The word sounds more apologetic then acknowledgment. I run the fingers of my left hand over the sign’s green lettering. “Actually, I didn’t even realize I was coming out here until I found myself staring at this.”
The corners of Simon’s eyes pinch and his head juts forward to peer closer at my face. “But you are here.”
I nod. “But I am here.”
Simon squeezes my shoulders. “I’m so sorry, Toad.”
Toad. The first time Simon saw me, eight years old and all arms and legs, he’d called me that. Tears swell my throat and all I can do is force a wobbly smile.
“Later. Right now, I’m just happy you’re here. Come, Rena will be tickled to see you. And there’s another old man in the barn you need to say hello to.” Simon grabs my hand and pulls me forward.
Jack. He’s still alive. My heart stutters.
Then clenches. “Jillian?”
“She’s not here today. Come.”
I take a step to follow but the bottom of my sneakers feel like they’ve melted into the hot gravel of the driveway, each step a slogging effort obvious even to Simon, because he gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
I close my eyes and breathe in the tingle of freshly mowed fields, the tickle of sawdust, and the sweet smell of horses. “I’ve missed this.”
“You didn’t have to stay away.”
“Yes, I did.”
Another squeeze. I allow him to lead me to the barn with a gentle tug. We’re greeted with nickers and whinnies as heads pop over the top of stall doors along the outside wall of the barn. Big brown eyes blink into the sun. Simon releases my hand and reaches into a pocket of his baggy jeans, pulling out a handful of treats. He walks to the large black head with the lightning-bolt blaze poking out of the stall closest to the barn door and offers the palm of his hand. The horse’s pink muzzle twitches along Simon’s palm and the treats that were there a blink ago are gone. The horse crunches his snack and pushes his head into an old friend’s chest.
Simon rubs behind the horse’s right ear and braces his legs as the horse pushes deeper into his chest. I feel the pressure against my body and rub at my breastbone.
Why did I come? What’s the point of looking back?
There’s a clang of wood on metal as someone adjusts a jump. “One more time, Laura. This time, dammit, wait for the distance. Don’t let him dictate the speed. You’re in charge. You. Not him.”
A smile cracks through my apprehension. “Has she changed at all?”
Simon chuckles. “Nope. Still scaring the shit out of little kids and big horses.”
He walks through the large double doors into the barn, tossing a “Go say hi to her” over his shoulder. He disappears into the dark of the barn, leaving me rooted in indecision.
I walk the perimeter of the barn toward the outdoor arena. A few curious faces stick their noses toward me, hoping for a walk-by snack. I stay just out of their reach. At the edge of the barn, I stop and suck in a deep gulp of dusty air.
Am I about to make a horrible mistake?
Or was the mistake my slinking away in shame all those years ago? Shame for something I didn’t do.
But what choice did I have? We were best friends, “horse-and-heart sisters,” we called ourselves. Without Jillian, I was no one.
Turns out I was no one even with Jillian.
I make the turn and stop when the outdoor arena comes into view. I inch closer to the aluminum siding and lean into the corner. One step back and I’ll be hidden from view. One step forward and I’m committed.
“One. Two. Three. Better. Leg. LEG,” Rena bellows. “Don’t let him slow down. You know he hates going away from the in-gate. Kick him.” The horse scoots forward as his rider gives him a solid kick.
My head bobs as horse and rider canter around the ring and pop over another jump.
The butterflies in my stomach freeze. She’s staring at me.
It’s impossible to read her expression under the shadow of her straw hat, suspiciously similar to the hat she wore all those years ago. She crosses her arms over her chest and shifts her weight to the right. I remember that stance. I’m expected to move and say something or turn and run. I don’t do either.
My gut flops and I fight the bubbling urge to throw up. I shouldn’t be here.
And yet, here you are.
My right arm starts a slow ascent, pulled upward by a force stronger than my weakening resolve. Rena’s head tilts in a semi-acknowledgment of my pathetic hello.
Behind me I hear the clomp of horseshoes on gravel. A tall man with a disheveled shock of black hair leads a huge gray to the arena. He smiles and nods as they walk by. His arrival releases me from the grip of Rena’s attention. She asks the man, towering over her by at least a foot, a question and they both squat to look at the horse’s left front leg.
The flopping in my stomach wins and I slink back, away from the reunion I’m obviously not ready for.
There’s only one head hanging over the outside stall doors this time. I stop a few feet from the big black horse, just out of his reach. If I were able to unlock my arm from my side, open my palm, and lift my hand, I’d feel his warm breath and soft muzzle. The same soft muzzle that eased my fears so many times over the years. I clench my fist, digging fingernails into my palm. I don’t deserve his comfort.
The horse tosses his head and snorts a hello. The afternoon sun casts a spastic shadow dance with each movement.
“Remember the day he was born?” Simon wraps his arm around my shoulder, barricading my escape route.
My head bobs. Jillian and I had persuaded Simon and Rena to let us sleep in the stable and keep an eye on Cassie, who, we were convinced, would go into labor that night. At three twenty-three in the morning, Jack Flash was born. It was the day before my tenth birthday, one day after Jilli’s eleventh birthday. The best birthday present any horse-crazy girl could ask for. He was going to be ours. Together we’d train him, show him. Together we’d make the Olympic team.
Together, we almost killed him.
The truth of that memory lodges in my throat like a jagged chicken bone.
“I shouldn’t be here.” I stiffen, and Simon tightens his hold on me.
“But you are. And it’s not just because you missed my charming sense of humor or Rena’s bubbly personality.”
My lips curl to a sad smile. “I did miss you guys. Every day.”
Hands accustomed to maneuvering large animals and farm equipment grab my shoulders and turn me around. “It’s been long enough, Emma.”
The words carry a punch to my gut. My body caves in and I wrench free of Simon’s hold.
Only to find my way blocked by Rena. Solid and daunting, all five feet two inches of her.
Her gray eyes spear through what self-assurance I’ve gained in the years since college. You’re an adult, a professional. That pep talk works with the board of directors, with presidents of international companies. It doesn’t work against Rena Winn.
“You finally decided to show up again. Why now?” Her tone is soft, not welcoming, not accusing, not any of the greetings I’d run through my head over the years.
“I was feeling restless at the inn. The meeting with my father’s lawyer isn’t until tomorrow. Next thing I know, I’m here.” I’m rambling. I shrug and my shoulders get stuck by my ears.
Rena scans my spotless shoes, my out-of-place dress, my fancy salon highlights. So drastically different from the girl she used to know. “I’m sorry for your loss. It appears you’ve done well for yourself. Your father must have been proud.”
Before I can respond, she turns and marches to the lounge, the screen door slapping shut behind her.
“I’m sorry,” Simon says, the words falling flat in the aftershock.
Jack nickers and tosses his head, his long black forelock flopping in a come-on-you-can-do-it encouragement. I look into his soft eyes and will myself back sixteen years. Would I have done it differently?
Where would I be now if I had?
“What will you do now?”
“Keep going.” Two simple words, words I’ve been saying to myself for as long as I can remember.
Simon releases a sigh and Jack snorts a horse’s equivalent.
“Sometimes, Toad, you have to change direction.”
The rumbling of the tractor unsettles a few birds from the trees along the front of the stable. The gears grind as the driver makes his way to the fields where the manure is spread every morning and afternoon. How many summers did I spend cleaning stalls and riding that godforsaken old tractor as it bounced and jolted along the fields? Or cleaning tack for the riding school and borders who were too busy to take care of their own equipment? Or leading horses for the therapeutic riding program?
Simon studies my face. “We visited you at the hospital, you know. Your dad wouldn’t allow anyone to see you. Maybe he thought we’d press charges. Ridiculous.”
I swallow hard, not sure if I’m making room for the words to come out or trying to push them back down. “Did Jilli come?”
Simon releases a growling sigh. “No.”
Had I expected her to come? Yes. We were H&H sisters. We looked out for each other.
No, you looked out for her. She left you twisting in the blame.
“Does she ever mention me?” My voice is no more than a shiver of a breeze, almost overpowered by the chatter of an agitated squirrel and the fading rumble of the tractor.
Simon’s brown eyes darken and he slaps his thigh, dislodging a puff of sawdust. “No.”
The squirrel shakes his bushy tail at us.
“Rena didn’t seem very happy to see me.”
He chews the inside of his lip, his eyes looking for an answer in the shimmering reflection from the lounge windows.
“You know Rena, she’s a tough one. Doesn’t let go of things easily. She’ll come around.”
“I don’t think I’ll be here long enough for that.”
Our eyes meet in the reflection of the window. “Give her a chance.”
“I need to go.” I take a hesitant step backward, then, when Simon doesn’t react, another.
“Emma?” My name feels familiar in his deep voice, the slightest hint of his childhood in England giving it a soft elegance, and foreign in the scratched pitch that comes with age, a painful reminder of the years stretched between us. “I don’t know exactly what happened. Only that it was awful. It tore our hearts to pieces seeing the two of you broken.”
My left hand fidgets with the car keys. The jingle triggers a glare from Simon and I squeeze my hand into a fist, hiding my nails. Instinct. He used to fuss at me for chewing the skin at the edge of my nail to the point where I’d draw blood. I haven’t done that in years, but under his knowing eyes, I feel the sting of ripping skin.
At what point does a past mistake become so ingrained in who you’ve become that there’s no going back? For sixteen years I’ve lived in the shadow of this mistake. I’ve let it take my dreams and stain my self-worth. I’ve replayed the day in my mind, wondering if I could have done something different. Replayed the following days in the hospital, tumbling the words I should have said until they were smooth in my mind. Yet each replay only sharpened the pain. I learned to shut my brain against those thoughts. With each success—school, job, promotions—I shuttered that pain deeper into the past.
“Did you ever question Jillian about what happened? What really happened?” I meet Simon’s eyes and blink at the sadness reflected in them.
“Her story never changed. And you never challenged what she said.”
“Would it have mattered?”
Our gazes do a clumsy two-step around each other. It wouldn’t have mattered, even though we both would like to believe otherwise. My side of the story would have raised questions neither family wanted out in the public. So I buried my truth and my father made sure the grave remained unmarked.
A white pickup lumbers up the driveway and pulls into a parking slot next to my rental. A slight woman with a tight ponytail slips out of the cab, followed by a panting golden retriever. Simon and the woman exchange hellos while the dog pokes a twitching snout at each pocket of Simon’s jeans.
The woman strides to the barn, her black riding boots stamping a familiar beat. My insides clench and I turn away before I have to label the feeling.
“It was good seeing you, Simon.” I feel his eyes on me as I walk to the car. I watch the toes of my Converses emerge and disappear with each step. Without turning around, I open the car door, then melt into the oppressive air inside the car.
* * *
The road away from the stable dips and turns, with only a few farmhouses dotting the green pastures. A sign cautions a ninety-degree turn and a blind driveway entrance.
A long-suppressed ghost takes control of the car. My foot slams on the brakes. My hands tighten on the wheel, knuckles threatening to pop out of my skin. Sparks shatter in my vision and my breath racks in my ears as pain splinters my ribs. The shrill grating of steel on pavement. The screaming of humans and horses. The slow-motion roller coaster of the truck flipping. Jilli’s head slamming into the steering wheel. The flashing lights and yelling voices. The utter silence of lives shattering.
Through the distance of sixteen years I hear a honk, then two quick, then a very long one. I blink my surroundings back into the present. A head pokes from the window of the truck behind me and a man’s voice yells for me to move.
Flipping on the hazards, I release the brake enough for the car to coast to the edge of the road. The driver of the truck revs the engine and lunges past, waving his left hand out the window in what most likely wasn’t a good-bye.
I close my eyes, waiting for my heart to settle back into my chest. A sedan comes from behind and the driver gives me a curious look as he slides past. I wave him on. Nothing to see here.
I force my foot to lift, allowing the car to creep through the sharp turn, my hands in a stranglehold on the wheel. The sedan must have turned into the driveway on the right because I see dust swirling.
The field on the left side of the road looks like every field I’ve passed so far, browning after a hot, dry summer. No skid marks. No mangled steel. No broken lives.
“Oh my god.” The dark irony slams into my chest. An accident sent me away sixteen years ago. And an accident is responsible for bringing me back.
The sun envelops the mountain in a soft hug and the fields glow. A magical, peaceful setting for my worst nightmare.
Copyright © 2017 by Orly Konig-Lopez
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