No matter how hard we try, there are just some things in life that we can’t control. McCall Hoyle’s new novel Meet the Sky is a testament to that fact.
We can plan and we can strive and we can work hard, but the universe is going to just keep doling out what it likes.
It may not come out until next month, but we’ve got a sneak preview at the whole first chapter of Meet the Sky. Check it out below!
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Once upon a time, I believed in fairy tales. Not anymore. If Prince Charmings and happily-ever-afters were real, I’d have a godmother and a fancy dress. Instead, I’ve got a pitchfork and a pile of horse manure.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for what I have. I’m thankful for the rumble of the incoming tide in the distance. I’m thankful to live on the barrier islands of North Carolina, which might be as close to heaven as anyone on earth will ever get. But I’m also realistic. I overslept this morning and have a tight schedule and five more stalls to clean before school. The smallest complication can knock my entire day out of whack, and when that happens, it affects the horses and what’s left of my family. That’s why I’m sprinting behind the bouncy wheelbarrow like I’m competing in some kind of American Ninja manure challenge.
“You okay, Mere?” I call over my shoulder as I dump the wheelbarrow full of dirty wood shavings on the manure pile.
“Yes,” she answers from inside the barn. Her voice sounds the same as it always has. It’s about the only thing in our lives that’s still the same, though. This time last year, Meredith was applying to Ivy League colleges, helping me with the barn, and dancing her heart out. Since the accident, she’s content binge watching Full House episodes and sitting alone in her room. Whether or not she believes it, she needs me. Mom needs me too.
And I will not complain. Ever.
Pushing my shoulders back, I drop the pitchfork into the empty wheelbarrow and march back up the little hill to the barn. Jack, the old sorrel gelding in the first stall, whinnies when I reach the concrete pad in front of the double doors. I need to keep moving. Any minute now Mere will have had enough. She’ll be too hot or too tired and need to head back to the house. But I can’t resist the old guy. He’s been part of this family longer than I have.
Leaving the wheelbarrow in the middle of the aisle, I head to his stall. His ears perk up as I pull two carrots from the back pocket of my faded jeans. For just a second, his whiskered muzzle tickles my palm, and I forget the chores I need to finish before school. But not for long. When I glance out the opening at the back of his stall, the morning sun reflects off the dunes. It’s going to be brutally hot in another hour. With a sigh, I give Jack a quick scratch under his forelock and return to the wheelbarrow.
I peek in at Mere each time I pass the tack room. She sits in a straight-back chair in front of a row of saddles and bridles. Her hands lie motionless in her lap as she stares at the blank wall in front of her. When I finish the fifth stall, I stand the wheelbarrow beside the pile of wood shavings at the back of the barn, then hang the pitchfork on the wall. Brushing my hands on my jeans, I head to Mere in the tack room and run through my mental checklist of assignments due today at school—an illustrated timeline for US History, annotations for English, and a translated paragraph for Spanish.
When my boots hit the hardwood floor, Mere blinks but doesn’t move. “You okay?” I ask.
I reach for her blonde braid to give it a gentle tug, but she slouches lower in her chair. I let my hand fall back to my side. Her thick hair reminds me of Dad’s. She got his movie star good looks, complete with square white teeth and defined cheekbones. I, on the other hand, inherited more of Mom’s girl-next-door vibe—pretty on a good day, but not startlingly so like Mere.
“Who colored that?” She points to a page torn from a coloring book that’s pinned to the corkboard on the wall above the saddles.
“You did, with one of the tourist kids last year. Remember?” I shouldn’t have said the remember part. She’s sensitive about being forgetful.
Shaking my head, I try not to stare at the colorful picture. A little over a year ago, Mere colored every speck of the princess’s skin neon green and her long hair violet. Pinned up beside the princess is a coloring page of a castle. I colored that one with the same little girl.
It had been raining that day, and Mere and I were supposed to entertain the kids of the family waiting to ride horses on the beach. The girl had painted the sky above the castle rosy pink. I’d colored the individual stones a bland gray and had never once gone outside the lines.
“I don’t remember,” Mere says, closing her eyes and resting her head against the back of the chair.
It’s best just to let it go, so I don’t say anything. I reach for her Pop-Tarts wrapper. “Let’s pick up, okay?”
Mere nods and brushes a few crumbs from the table at her side to the floor. I double-check the latch on the feed cabinet before we head out. We can’t afford a repeat of the mutant-mouse infiltration we experienced a few months ago—not with Mere’s physical and occupational therapy bills stacking up on the kitchen counter. As I turn back to Mere, a cat brushes my leg and meows.
“Oh, Jim—” He stares up at me with pitiful eyes, balancing on his three good legs. His fourth leg hangs awkwardly above the floor. I doubt we’ll ever figure out what took his paw. He waves the knobby leg at me when I don’t move, clearly hoping I’ll acknowledge his cuteness and whip out the cat treats.
Meow. “Come on, sweet boy.” I lift the lightweight cat into the crook of one arm and scratch him under his orange chin. Mere finally gets up and walks over to nuzzle her cheek against Jim’s. When he purrs, his whole body vibrates. He reaches toward Mere with his nub of an arm, and she and I both giggle.
I set him on the counter, then grab an empty bowl and the plastic tub of cat food from the overhead cabinet. When the first bit clinks the bottom of the metal bowl, he digs in.
“Okay, Mere, let’s get you back to the house.” I squeeze her hand and lead her toward the sandy hill that separates our house from the barn.
As we climb the steps to our cottage on stilts, I’m careful to position myself behind her in case she misses a step. She holds on to the stair rail, carefully planting one foot and then the other on each step. It’s hard to believe this is the same girl who literally pirouetted and plié-ed her way through life, that all that muscle coordination and grace could be ripped away in an instant.
I sigh as the sun rises off to the east over the Atlantic. Swirls of pink and orange mingle with the occasional wispy cloud, kissing the gray-blue water where they meet on the horizon. The brushstrokes of color take my breath away. They’re almost beautiful enough to make me believe in fairy tales again.
I wipe a bead of sweat from my forehead as I reach for the doorknob. Despite the colors whirling in the sky and the grumble of the distant surf, the air has been oddly still the last couple of days. There is no rustling of sea oats today, not even a hint of a breeze. And it’s hot. And humid—unnaturally so, more like July than October.
“That was quick,” Mom says as we enter the kitchen. She turns down the volume on the weather radio she’s been listening to 24/7 since a tropical depression formed out in the Atlantic three days ago. As the screen door bangs shut behind us, I realize a wave of bacon-y goodness fills the kitchen.
“I used my super manure powers.” I swoosh my arms back and forth, ninja style.
A faint smile lights her face as she stands perfectly still, her metal tongs hovering above the frying pan. Her small frame and light-brown ponytail are identical to mine. In fact, people used to confuse us for sisters. But now her skin has lost its healthy and youthful glow. My chest tightens at the sight of the furrows in her forehead, deep enough to grip a pencil.
“You’re working too hard, Sophie. I wish we could afford to hire someone.”
If Dad hadn’t left, she wouldn’t have to worry about me. Before the accident, Mom ran the business side of things—answered the phone, paid the pills, advertised on social media, even dealt with finicky customers looking to purchase once-in-a-lifetime memories for themselves and their children. With Dad gone, the place was going downhill—fast. I might be a manure master, even a veterinary technician in a pinch, but I wasn’t that great with hammers or handiwork. Last year, we had tourists lined up months in advance. Now, people could show up unannounced and pretty much be guaranteed a ride.
When the grease in the pan pops, Mom and I both jump.
“I told you it’s not a big deal. I’ve got it.” Mere and I wash our hands at the sink, then I hand Mere a pillow from the nearby couch as I guide her toward the breakfast table. She grips it against her chest. Somehow squeezing an object against her core improves Mere’s balance—something to do with centering or activating one side of her frontal lobe. Plus I think the velvety texture soothes her somehow.
Mom has good intentions with the whole let’s-find-someone-to-help-around-the-barn project, but she’s living in a dream world if she thinks anyone would shovel horse poop and haul hay bales for what we could afford to pay anytime in the near future.
“Someone moved into the cottage near the dunes,” she says as she flips a piece of bacon.
“Mmm hmmm.” I grab three plastic cups and a carton of OJ from the fridge and head back to the table.
Mere smiles when I approach. I unfold the cardboard spout and fill her cup.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the same family that used to live there. What was their name?”
My hand jerks. Juice splashes Mere’s arm, and she gasps. Mom turns around to see what happened.
“You okay?” she asks.
I scurry toward the sink for a towel. I’m being silly. First, it’s probably not the same family. Second, even if it is, it’s not a big deal. So what if I had the crush-to-end-all-crushes on Finn Sanders. So what if he said he’d meet me at homecoming and didn’t show. It was freshman year. It was a crush. It wasn’t like we were together or anything. It wasn’t even a real date. But it was still humiliating. Yesenia and a couple of other girls came over to my house ahead of time. Mere did our hair and makeup. They were as excited as I was. Then he didn’t show, and I spent the night acting like I didn’t care.
Even if it is Finn, he and I have no reason to interact or cross paths now. We became friends in middle school when we were dumped into the morning chess club together; the school had to do something with us since our moms dropped us off so early. Finn and I became obsessed with beating each other and with putting our heads together to beat Mr. Jackson and his Dutch Defense. It was surprisingly fun. But that was years ago. I can’t even remember the last time I played chess or thought about Finn.
“I just drew a blank. What was the boy’s name? Jeff?” Mom lays the last slice of bacon on a paper plate to drain.
“Finn. His name’s Finn.” I dab Mere’s placemat and arm with the towel while she hums a piece of music she danced to a couple of years ago.
“That’s right—Finn. Maybe he’d like to earn a few dollars helping around the barn.” She brings the bacon and a plate of blackened toast to the table, and I do my best not to sigh.
“I’ve got it, Mom. I promise.” I try not to sound concerned as I slide into my seat and reach for a piece of toast. I really don’t want her asking me why I’m not eating, but suddenly a flock of seagulls is swarming in my belly.
“Something will work out. It has to. You can’t keep going like this.” She pushes the plate of bacon toward me.
She’s the one who can’t keep going like this. But instead of arguing with her, I bite into my dry toast and try to swallow my feelings.
“I bet you’ll see Finn today. You could ask him about it.”
My throat tightens around the single bite of toast as I twist my lips into a smile and check the time on my phone. I have precisely twelve minutes if I’m going to leave on time.
I may not be able to leave home a year early for college like we’d planned. I may not be able to follow my dreams of veterinary medicine. But I can control one thing. I can control whether I talk to Finn Sanders.
And let me assure you, there won’t be conversation or anything else going on between us.