“That stupid horse,” I hear my mother say. “You had to go and get her that stupid horse, as if that might somehow assuage your guilt, and now here we are. Watching our daughter lay unconscious in the hospital.”
Assuage. I don’t know what that word means, but it doesn’t matter. I can tell my mom is angry at my dad, like she always seems to be these days, and now she’s blaming him for buying me Thunder. And even worse, blaming Thunder for me being here, just because I fell off of him and hurt my head.
I’m not sure what my dad’s supposed to feel guilty about, either. Maybe moving out and leaving my mom and me alone? I miss the way things were when we used to be a family, the three of us. We were happy, and I thought we were the perfect family. I even asked my parents for a baby brother or sister for Christmas last year. I didn’t get my wish. Instead, my mom got mad at my dad and my dad moved to an apartment in the city, where I only seem once a week. And I got Thunder.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted a horse and I love Thunder. I think he’s the best horse ever, and the prettiest, even after what happened today. But I’d trade him in a minute to have things back to the way they used to be.
I don’t even care about a baby brother or sister anymore. I only have one wish for Christmas. I want my dad to come home. I want my family to be together again.
“Sheesh, Ashley, can you let it rest for even a minute?” my dad wants to know. “Does everything always have to be a fight with you?”
It never used to be like that. She used to smile. She used to be happy. Then she started crying a lot, and my dad left, and she cried even more. Now she doesn’t cry as much, but she always seems angry, especially with my dad.
“I don’t know, Brennan, you tell me,” she snaps. “After all, you’re the reason we’re here.”
“Yes, I know. It’s always my fault.” He gives that sigh that I’m so used to hearing, like he’s just tired and frustrated. “Everything’s my fault, and I’m sick of it. That counseling you’re getting sure doesn’t seem to be helping much. You’re still hostile all the time.”
“And gee, why might that be?”
“Just stop it, okay?” he says. “You hate me, I get that. I messed up, and I’m sorry. But that shouldn’t matter right now. What matters is Hayley, and her getting better.”
I’m glad he says that, that he seems to be thinking about me. Sometimes, since he left, I’ve wondered if he’s mad at me, or if he just doesn’t care about me as much. I worry he’ll find a new family and forget about me. That happened to a friend of mine from school. Her parents got divorced, and now her father has a new family that he sees every day, and she only sees him every two weeks.
I don’t want that to happen to me, and I don’t want them to fight anymore. I’m so sick of them fighting. They used to love each other. Why are they so angry now?
“Stop it, both of you!” I say as I snap my eyes open. “Why do you always have to yell at each other? Why can’t you ever be nice anymore?”
“Hayley, honey, you’re awake,” my mother says as she turns around and rushes to the bed. “Oh my God, Brennan. She’s awake!”
For a moment, Ashley McLaughlin forgot her anger at her husband and hurried to their daughter’s bedside. Relief washed over her as she looked into Hayley’s eyes—eyes so much like Brennan’s—and tried to gauge any lasting effects from the fall. As if she’d know what to look for? She ran a collectibles boutique and tea room. Head injuries were far from her sphere of knowledge.
“I’ll go get her doctor,” Brennan said, before rushing out into the hallway.
Ashley squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Are you okay, honey?”
“My head hurts,” Hayley said.
“I’m sure. You took a hard fall.” And scared all of us to death in the process. Ashley doubted she’d ever forget the fear she’d felt when she went outside to look for Hayley just in time to see her thrown from her horse. As scary as it was, though, she was thankful she had been there and able to respond right away. Maybe there was such a thing as a mother’s intuition that led her outside at that precise moment. “Didn’t I tell you to always wear a helmet when you ride?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Mommy.” Hayley’s voice came out in a whisper and cut through Ashley’s heart. She hadn’t meant to scold.
“It’s okay, honey. I’m not mad at you. I’ve just been worried about you. We all have.”
The door opened, and Brennan returned with the young ER doctor. “I hear our patient’s awake,” he said, moving toward the bed. “Hayley, I’m Dr. Radcliffe. Let’s see how you’re doing, okay?”
Ashley watched as the doctor conducted an examination of Hayley’s vision, hearing and reflexes. He nodded a few times, and she wondered if that might be an encouraging sign. “I’m going to ask you a few questions now. Can you tell me how old you are, Hayley?”
“Nine,” she answered.
“And what grade are you in?”
The questions went on, and Hayley seemed to answer them just fine. Dr. Radcliffe had a great bedside manner and seemed to be a natural with kids. Ashley wondered if he had any children of his own. She noticed he was wearing a wedding ring.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Dr. Radcliffe ashed Hayley.
“She fell off her horse,” Ashley supplied. Hadn’t they already been over all of that?
The doctor turned in Ashley’s direction and nodded. “Yes, but I want to hear it from Hayley. I want to see how much she remembers. It can give us an idea how her brain is functioning, especially her memory.”
It made sense, and even if the doctor’s words weren’t harsh, Ashley chastised herself for interfering. Just because she was stressed and angry right now, that was no reason to take it out on Hayley’s doctor. “Of course, I’m sorry,” she said, backing away.
“It was a nice day, and I know it’s going to get really cold soon, so I wanted to ride Thunder when I got home from school,” Hayley began. “Thunder’s my horse.”
Dr. Radcliffe smiled. “And what color is Thunder?”
“Dark gray, with some lighter gray marks.” Hayley answered. “Like the sky looks when it’s stormy outside. That’s how he got his name.”
“That’s clever. How long have you had Thunder?”
“A couple months. I got him for my birthday. Daddy gave him to me before he moved out.”
Ashley swallowed hard. Hearing the sadness in her daughter’s voice always cut her to the core. She stole a sideways glance at her estranged husband. Brennan leaned against the wall, hands jammed in his pockets, his expression stoic. What was he feeling now?
“I’ve been sad about Christmas coming and my family not being together,” Hayley said. “Riding Thunder makes me feel better, so I went out for a ride. Not far, just around our pasture at home. I think something must have spooked Thunder, and he threw me off.”
“We’re getting rid of the horse,” Ashley declared.
Brennan shot a look in her direction. “Whoa, don’t be so hasty, Ash. That hasn’t been decided yet. Didn’t you just hear her say she’s happier when she rides him?”
Probably because it makes her feel closer to her absentee father. Ashley kept the remark to herself. Her anger at her husband notwithstanding, she knew Hayley adored Brennan and missed him terribly since he’d moved out of their home. Her therapist cautioned her that it was important to preserve that relationship and not bring Hayley into their adult problems. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done sometimes.
Dr. Radcliffe talked with Hayley for a few more minutes before gesturing for Ashley and Brennan to join him out in the hall.
“How is she? Is she going to be okay?” Brennan wanted to know.
“She’s got a mild concussion, but there’s no reason to think she won’t recover fine with plenty of rest. She’s very lucky, really. It could have been a whole lot worse,” the doctor said. “We’d like to keep her overnight for observation, but if there aren’t any further problems, she should be able to go home tomorrow.” He talked with them for a few more minutes about how they could care for her when she came home, and Ashley tried to absorb it all. She was exhausted, though, and she wondered if she’d remember everything he said.
“Thank you, doctor,” Brennan said, shaking his hand. As usual, he was the calm one under pressure. Ashley remembered the time when he used to be her rock, when she could always count on him. Did he now fill that role for Bethany? The thought made Ashley sick to her stomach.
Brennan placed a hand on her shoulder. “How are you holding up?”
How did he think? “I’m exhausted and scared.”
“You heard the doctor. She’ll be fine. It’s just going to take a little time.”
Ashley nodded. “I know that. I do. But it’s still hard. It’s less than three weeks until Christmas, Brennan. You know how much Hayley loves Christmas.”
Brennan gave her a reassuring smile. “Yes, and the important thing is, she’ll be home to enjoy it, and probably feeling much better by then. We’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s her best Christmas ever.”
“We?” Ashey raised an eyebrow. Since when were they a ‘we’ anymore?
“Yes. We,” Brennan repeated, emphasizing the word. “I’m moving back home, at least until our daughter is better.”
“Brennan,” Ashley started to protest, and he held a hand up.
“No. No argument, Ash. You heard Hayley. She’s tired of the fighting. So am I. I’ll sleep in the guest room if you want, but I’m coming home.”
Ashley knew it was pointless to protest further, and she was too tired to fight right now, so she nodded her assent. It would be good for Hayley to have Brennan around more. Ashley would have to get used to it. She just hoped it didn’t add to her stress.
Brennan braced himself for a fight, because everything with Ash was a fight these days. He expected her to toss Bethany in his face, because she never seemed to miss an opportunity to do that. As if he didn’t have enough regret, as if he didn’t already hate himself for hurting her? Ashley wanted to blame him for Hayley’s fall, and that was fine. Even if it was a freak accident and not his fault, he’d shoulder the blame. After all, he was the reason their family was fractured.
“Fine,” Ashley said after a minute. “Whatever.” Her tone was tired, resigned. Definitely not enthusiastic. And ‘whatever’ was a word he’d come to despise. “You are sleeping in the guest room, though.”
Brennan expected as much. No way was Ashley ready to welcome him back into the room they’d once shared, into their bed. He still considered it their room and their bed, though. Until Ashley told him things were truly over, until she took that final step and filed for divorce, he’d continue to hope that she could someday forgive him and they could be a family again. Brennan knew that was Hayley’s wish, and it was his, too.
“I understand that. I told you I would,” he said. “I know you’re not ready.”
“I may never be ready,” she answered, as if he needed a reminder.
“I know that, too.” Brennan let out a sigh as he raked a hand through his short brown hair. He’d thought it was an encouraging sign when Ashley decided to see a counselor. It gave him hope. If she’d completely given up, why would she seek out counseling? That was several months ago, though, and things didn’t seem to be getting any better. “I’ll take what I can get.”
He pushed the door open and went back into Hayley’s room. “Hey, Pumpkin. How are you doing?”
“I want to go home,” his daughter answered, and Brennan smiled. If she was already asking to go home, then she must be feeling better.
He pulled a chair over by the bed and sat down. “I’m sure you do. The doctor wants you to stay here overnight, though, just to make sure you’re okay.”
She shook her head in protest. “I don’t want to.”
Brennan suppressed a smile. She was so much like her mother. “Of course you don’t, but it’s only for one night, then you get to go home. And guess what?”
“I’m coming home, too,” he said. “I’ll be moving back into the house with you and your mom.”
“Really?” Hayley’s face broke out in a grin. “So you’ll be there for Christmas?”
It was two and a half weeks away. Brennan didn’t like to make promises he couldn’t keep. He’d already failed his family. But this seemed like a safe promise. Hayley would still be recovering when Christmas came around, and he didn’t think Ashley would kick him out right before a holiday. “Yes, I will. I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Thank you, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you too, Pumpkin.” A lump formed in his throat, and he swallowed. “I love you and your mom so much and I always will.” He cast a glance backward and saw Ashley standing in the doorway. As his eyes met hers, she reverted her gaze to the floor.