The following is an excerpt from Boardwalk Ice, coming in Summer 2021.
Belladonna had a gift. It was a secret gift that she knew, instinctively, was something to be held tight inside. It wasn’t a treasure to show to the world, like a diamond ring on your finger, like something her mother would flash around. This was a gift to keep in a box, buried in a hiding place so remote that you only went to it, you only opened that door to where it was, maybe once a year.
She chose her birthday as the day to go there. People made way for you on your birthday. They offered you a little more slack on that day. Plus, in a practical way, as a kid, it was an easy day to remember.
On her eleventh birthday, her father, who was just recently home from years in prison, was waiting for her at the kitchen table.
“Happy birthday,” he said. “You’re not going to school today, I’m taking you to the track with me.”
The cigarette smoke from both her mother and father’s spaces was joining above the table, in the grimy kitchen light. Her mother said nothing. Belladonna stood still, watching the smoke, wondering what plan these two little minds had come up with together. She already felt so much older than them.
“Go ahead and eat. Races don’t start till one.”
It was a big plan, for their little minds, she could sense that. He was nervous. He flitted around the kitchen, as she ate the toast she’d made. He made phone calls in the bedroom and would return to the kitchen after each one, his puffs getting faster, his body rocking with nicotine and nerves.
It made her feel nervous too, but she knew how to hide the feelings.
She quietly followed him from the car and was surprised when he led her far from the grandstand, where they had parked, to enter an area marked Stables - Staff Only.
“I’m gonna take you to meet a horse,” he said, still walking quickly. “You like horses, right? Every little girl likes horses, right?”
“I don’t know any horses.”
“I’m gonna take you to meet one. One special one. You’ll get to pet him.”
“Can I ride him?”
He laughed. “No way. Not this horse. I just want you to pet him.”
Her eyes darted to his face. Did he know, her special gift? How would he know?
“Aw, here you are.” Her father walked up to a short man in a shiny jacket. “How ya doin’ today?
Feelin’ lucky today, or what?”
They shook hands. The man in the shiny jacket looked at her slyly.
“This is my daughter, Belladonna. Bella, shake hands with this man, his name is Mr. Shorty.”
She kept her hands in her pockets and stared at the man who reached out to her. He laughed nervously like he wasn’t use to kids. He withdrew his arm.
“Hey kid,” he said.
“Bella, shake hands with him.” Her father was frowning.
“It’s my birthday,” she said to the man.
She heard her father exhale but chose to not look at his face.
“Yeah? Your birthday? How old are you now?”
“Eleven? Seven Eleven. Lucky numbers. Eleven is a lucky number.”
“What do you know about luck?”
Both of the men laughed.
“Shake his hand. Maybe you’ll find out what he knows about luck.”
There was a mad edge to his tone that caused her to reach out her hand. Mr. Shorty took it, exaggerating the shaking. Slowly their two arms pumped in the air as he stared into her eyes.
He didn’t know anything about luck.
“Now, come here. Pet this horse here, this is Catch The Wind. Isn’t he a beauty? Pet him, here.”
She moved to the horse. She’d never been up close to a horse before. Before she touched him, she asked him, inside, if it was okay. His big eyes said yes, it’s okay. She touched him like she’d seen how people do on TV. Immediately, she felt his drive, his hunger, his energy. It was barely containable.
Her father put his arm around her and leaned down to whisper in her ear.
“I think the horse will win if this idiot doesn’t hold him back.”
Her father laughed nervously.
He turned to the jockey. “Just let him go, full out. Can you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve got to do that. Right? You got the word. Don’t worry about the others. Just let him go. That’s the order.”
“I’m suppose to believe the Boss got an eleven-year-old girl calling the shots, now?”
“No, no. The word was given before we came. It’s her birthday. I just let her come, that’s all. The order is don’t hold back. Let the others hold back.”
The man nodded. Belladonna held her father’s hand as they walked away. She turned and saw the man staring at her.
Her father was walking quickly and breathing heavy, looking straight ahead. She had to run to keep up. She could feel his nervousness. It was so strong. Fear. This was real fear. But she could feel something else, too, something much stronger.
She tugged on his arm, looking up. “Stop! Stop!”
“Come on. I’ve got to get the bets in.”
She tugged again. “Stop!”
He stopped. “What?”
“Don’t worry so much! Don’t be afraid! It’s ..”
He bent down, looking into her face.
“It’s your lucky day, Daddy.”
The relief he felt hit them both, hard. He smiled like she’d never seen him smile before.
The warmth of his hug surprised her. She felt loved? Deep down, she knew it was his luck she felt, not his love. They were both four letter words. She could choose to confuse them if she wanted. It was her right. It was her life. It was her gift to herself on her birthday.
Copyright 2018 Ada Austen. All rights reserved.