The thing is, the doors were open that morning.
Val knows—she knows, she knows—that waking up to find both doors of their sagging cabin opened wide to the world is probably only because Dad wasn’t sleeping well, and that she should tie a bell to his foot before bed tonight. Just in case.
An open door is an invitation, she whispers to herself. And she keeps the doors to their cabin firmly closed all the time. She’ll have one of the ranch hands rig up some sort of lock system, up high, where Dad won’t be able to reach it.
That’ll fix it. She can stop worrying.
She doesn’t, though. She worries through the morning riding lessons, worries through lunch with the camp full of awkwardly pubescing little delights, worries through the early-afternoon group activities, more riding, cleanup. All her favorite things—especially the cleanup, knowing parents are paying a small fortune so their daughters can spend the week doing the chores Val hates most—are eaten up by the worry.
By late afternoon she’s mostly shaken it off, though. Sometimes an open door is just an open door. It doesn’t have to mean anything.
One of the girls, Lola, freckled and sunburned and wonderful, raises her hand. “Miss Val?”
“You know where the bathroom is,” Val answers. “You don’t have to ask when you need to go.” It’s almost time for pickup, which means she needs to get Poppy from the goat pen. The other five dusty and happy and tired campers are here with Val, finishing up in the stables.
“No!” Lola giggles shyly. “It’s not that. Do you have any kids?”
An image flashes in Val’s mind. A girl, even younger than these, her brown hair forever fighting to escape messy pigtails, with eyes so blue they break her heart. Val smiles. “Not yet, but I know there’s one in my future.”
“How?” another camper, Hannah, asks, wrinkling her nose beneath smudged glasses. Val resists the impulse to clean them for her. Independence is part of what her camps promise, even if it means dirty glasses. Val’s been running the summer programs for Gloria’s Ranch since she was twenty, and they’re the absolute highlight of her whole year.
Val shrugs. “I’ve always known.”
“But aren’t you getting too old?”
Val lifts an eyebrow. Lola scowls and elbows Hannah, but Val shakes her head. “No, it’s okay to ask questions. Questions are how we get to know the world. And the answer is, I’m not too old. Not yet.”
Her heart ticks like a clock, but she still has time. Val’s belief in her blue-eyed girl is as solid as her belief in gravity. The when and the how are questions she doesn’t let herself ask. It’s easy not to ask questions. Take the question, put it behind a door. Close the door. Leave nothing open. She is aware of the hypocrisy of always encouraging her students to ask questions when she denies herself the same freedom, but there’s a whole door in her head just for the cognitive dissonance of Do what I say, not what I do.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Lola blurts out, and suddenly this interrogation makes sense. Lola’s father finds excuses to linger at every drop-off and pickup.
“Only when I want to,” Val answers. “Sometimes I have a girlfriend.” Though boyfriend and girlfriend are generous terms for the relationships she allows herself to have.
Still, her answer has the desired effect of rapidly changing the subject as all the girls’ eyes go wide. Val can see the follow-up questions bubbling, but they don’t have time. She has to get to Poppy before—
“Damn it,” Val whispers under her breath. Poppy’s mother has already pulled up in a Mercedes SUV that has about as much functionality as the designer boots she sent Poppy in for the first day. And Poppy’s still in the goat pen instead of the stables.
Val claps her hands. “Okay! Last one out of their barn clothes has to muck out Stormy’s stall tomorrow!”
The girls shriek and dart away to remove the coveralls and boots Val gives them to protect the too-cute clothes their parents always have them wear. Val cuts across the dusty path to intercept Poppy’s mom before Poppy hears what’s about to happen.
“Hi,” Val says. She can’t recall the woman’s name. She never can with other adults. It’s hard to care.
The sunglasses come up, pushed onto carefully styled hair. “What’s Poppy doing in the goat pen?”
“She’s working with our baby goats, Luke and Leia, training them to—”
“I’m paying you for riding lessons!”
Parents always trot that out as leverage, but technically she isn’t paying Val at all. Val doesn’t get paid. She smiles politely. “You’re paying for a week of day camp at Gloria’s Ranch, which includes experiences with a variety of animals. And can include riding lessons, if the girls want that, which Poppy does not.”
“It’s not up to her! I want her to learn how to ride!”
Val resists the urge to smack the sunglasses off the woman’s head. “Poppy is spending a week outside building confidence with friends and animals. Do you want me to force her into a saddle and watch her have a panic attack? Because that’s not safe for Poppy or the horse.”
“But I’m paying—”
“No.” Val cuts her off. “Look at your daughter. Right now.”
Poppy’s perched on top of a bale of hay, expression intense with concentration as she balances next to a tiny baby goat. She gives a command, then jumps off and turns around expectantly. The goat follows. Poppy whoops in delighted triumph.
“But—” the mom says, her anger deflated in the face of Poppy’s elation.
“She’s afraid of horses. It’s a perfectly rational fear. Horses are terrifying creatures. Barrel chests and pin legs and have you seen their teeth?”
The woman raises a perfect eyebrow. “It sounds like you’re scared of them.”
“Oh, absolutely I am. I ignore it because I have to. But there’s no reason for Poppy to overcome this particular fear. No one needs to ride horses. She’s a remarkable little girl, and when she grows into a remarkable adult, she’ll remember how her mother listened to her and helped her find other things she was good at.”
The woman sighs out the last of her anger. “She does look happy.”
“And filthy.” Val wrinkles her nose. She’s not even pleased that she convinced this woman she was right. It was always going to go this way. When Val sets her mind to something, it happens.
The woman laughs, fully won over. “And filthy.”
“Poppy! Into the barn!” Val points and Poppy hops across the pen like a little goat herself.
“I really wanted to buy her cute riding clothes,” her mother says, wistful.
Sometimes Val forgets that adults are just children with both more and less autonomy. She smiles slyly and nudges the woman with her shoulder. “You know, we have riding classes for adults, too, and you’d look fabulous in a new riding outfit.”
Val’s rewarded with another laugh and a thoughtful glance toward the stables. The woman’s already picking out which horse is prettiest, probably imagining owning one herself. Good for business if she stables it here.
What would we do without you, Val? Gloria asks in her mind, and Val thinks back what she always does: You’ll never have to find out.
It tastes bitter today.
Copyright © 2023 by Kiersten White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.