“BRR. IT’S COLD TODAY!”
Nina Peralt laughed and glanced at her friend Jordan, who was hand-grazing her horse a short distance from Nina and her pony. “Are you kidding?” Nina said, pushing a stray strand of curly black hair off her sweaty forehead. “It’s got to be almost eighty degrees out here.”
She scanned the broad, grassy expanse of the levee at the edge of Audubon Park. It was crowded with people as usual, while a few yards away, the lazy waters of the Mississippi sparkled in the late-afternoon sunshine.
“Actually, my friend Haley would say it never gets cold here in New Orleans,” Nina added. “She lives in
Wisconsin, where it’s positively frigid for, like, half the year.”
“Haley? Oh, is that one of your imaginary friends?” Jordan giggled and gave a tug on the lead rope as her horse took a step forward to sniff at a patch of weeds.
Nina just laughed again. She was used to being teased about her far-flung online friends. A little over a year and a half earlier, Nina’s parents had surprised her with a very special birthday gift: her pony, a stout bay pinto named Bay Breeze. Nina had already known Breezy, since he’d belonged to a family friend, and had even ridden him a few times. But it was only after he became hers that she started researching his special heritage as a Chincoteague pony.
That was when she came across three other girls her age in a horse-related chat room, all of them just as crazy about the rare pony breed as she was. Brooke Rhodes lived in Maryland, only a few miles north of Chincoteague, Virginia, and the neighboring island of Assateague, where Chincoteague ponies roamed wild and where all four girls’ ponies had started their lives. Brooke had bought her pony, Foxy, at the yearly pony auction in Chincoteague,
which Nina happened to think was the coolest thing ever.
Then there was Haley Duncan. She lived on a farm in Wisconsin and leased her pony, Wings, from a neighbor. Haley and Wings trained and competed in the challenging sport of eventing, and Haley’s stories had inspired Nina to get more serious about her own riding. Even though she wasn’t particularly competitive and didn’t care much about winning prizes, Nina liked to challenge herself—and her pony—to be the best they could be.
Maddie Martinez lived in northern California and rode a pony named Cloudy at her local lesson stable. The pretty palomino pinto mare didn’t technically belong to her, but that didn’t make Maddie love Cloudy any less. In fact, it had been mostly Maddie’s idea to start a private website to make it easier for the four Chincoteague-loving girls to chat and exchange photos. Nina had known immediately that it was a perfect plan. With the help of her mother, a professional artist, Nina had designed the site’s layout and logo, while the other members had contributed computer expertise, written the text, and helped get the whole thing up and running.
The four girls had never met in person. But countless online discussions and occasional phone calls had made them the best of friends, and Nina couldn’t imagine life without them—even if her local friends pretended not to believe they actually existed!
“Don’t be a hater, girl,” she told Jordan lightly, waving a hand to shoo away a passing buck moth. “I know you wish Freckles was a Chincoteague pony so you could join the Pony Post too.”
Jordan glanced at her horse. Well, he wasn’t technically her horse, though Nina thought of him that way. Freckles was a stout little Appaloosa gelding who belonged to Cypress Trail Stables, where both girls rode. Jordan had been leasing him for about six months, which meant she got to ride him as often as she liked.
“Whatever,” Jordan said, giving Freckles a pat. “So are you and Breezy ready for the show? I’m not sure I am, you know? I think Miss Adaline wants me and Freckles to do a jumping class, and I just don’t think we’re ready for that. I mean, this will be our first real show!”
She sounded nervous. Jordan could be like that—she
often switched from happy and carefree to anxious or panicky or worried in the blink of an eye. But Nina didn’t mind. Jordan’s unpredictable changes of mood made her interesting, and Nina appreciated interesting people. Besides, she was good at jollying Jordan through her fears most of the time.
“I know. My first horse show too. But forget that for a sec,” she told Jordan. “More importantly, what are you and Freckles going to wear for the costume class?”
Jordan’s pale hazel eyes brightened. “I don’t know yet. I mean, it was such a surprise I haven’t even had a chance to think about it yet, you know?”
“Yeah, I hear you.” But despite her words of agreement, Nina’s mind was already filled with ideas for the costume class, which their riding instructor had announced after their lesson that day. The girls had already known about the horse show, of course—it had been on the Cypress Trail Stables schedule for ages. And their riding instructor, Miss Adaline, had mentioned that there might be a costume class when she’d first told them about the show over the summer. Somehow, though, in the flurry of going
back to school and everything else, the girls had forgotten all about that part. So the official announcement of the special class had been a surprise.
“She said our ponies should be part of the costume,” Jordan said. “That makes it trickier to think of ideas.”
“But more fun, too,” Nina added with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess.” Jordan looked thoughtful. “You’ll help me come up with something good, right? And then help with the actual costume, too?”
“Absolutely.” Nina ducked to retrieve a stray bottle cap from the grass in front of Breezy’s nose. He probably wouldn’t eat something like that, but better safe than sorry. Nina’s friends at the stable liked to joke that Breezy would try to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down.
“Good. Because you know I’m not as artsy as you are.” Jordan giggled. “I mean, if it was up to me, I’d probably end up cutting two holes in a sheet and going as a ghost rider or something lame like that.”
A shout rang out from nearby, and Nina glanced over to watch as a group of college-age kids started chasing one of their friends, a skinny guy who was grinning and
holding a bag of cookies up over his head. Both ponies ignored the ruckus—while a lot of horses might have spooked at the sudden commotion, it was nothing Breezy and Freckles hadn’t seen and heard before. They were city ponies, stabled in busy Audubon Park, and accustomed to all sorts of things most equines never encountered. That meant passing the strange sounds and smells of the zoo, sharing the trails with pedestrians, dogs, bicycles, golf carts, and various other vehicles, and grazing on the levee, where they could encounter anything from a noisy pack of picnickers to a gaggle of cyclists to a huge barge passing by on the river, spitting out clouds of black smoke.
Nina’s gaze returned to her pony, who was still nibbling steadily at the grass. Sometimes she wondered what Breezy would think if he were suddenly transported to Haley’s rural family farm, where he could have a whole huge, quiet pasture to graze in all day long instead of a few bites of grass here and there and hay in his stall or a tiny dirt paddock the rest of the time. Even Brooke’s smaller backyard field would probably seem like paradise!
Then again, Breezy would probably eat so much grass he’d
explode by the end of day one, Nina thought with a smile. Besides, he loves this city as much as I do—he’d miss the action for sure!
“Well?” Jordan’s voice, slightly impatient, broke into her thoughts. “Any ideas? The show’s a week from tomorrow, you know.”
“I know. And don’t worry—I work well under pressure.”
“What were the costume categories again?” Jordan said. “I know Miss Adaline said there’d be prizes in a bunch of different ones, like prettiest costume and most creative, right? I think she said something about best local-inspired costume too.”
“And scariest,” Nina put in. “Can’t forget that one, especially this close to Halloween.”
Jordan shrugged. “Not that it’s that close—I mean, Halloween is weeks away.”
“Yeah.” Nina grinned. “But that’s okay. People here in New Orleans don’t need Halloween or any other excuse to dress up and have fun, right?”
Jordan grinned back and lifted her hand for a high five. “For sure.”
As the girls smacked hands, a jogger approached with a dog trotting beside him on a leash. The dog spotted the horses and started barking wildly at them. Freckles lifted his head to stare at the dog, but Breezy barely twitched an ear in its direction.
Jordan tugged on the lead to move her horse away a few steps, though Freckles had already lost interest and lowered his head to the grass again. “Maybe I could dress Freckles up as a dog,” she said uncertainly, raising her voice over the barking. “And I could be, um . . . the person walking the dog?”
“Or the monkey riding the dog? Or the cat riding the dog?” Nina suggested with a laugh, watching as the dog’s owner broke into a faster run, leading the barking beast away. “Could be cute. We’ll put it on the list.” She turned to stare at Jordan and her mount, sizing up the possibilities. “It would be fun to take advantage of Freckie’s spots somehow.”
“So the dog would be a dalmatian?” Jordan sighed and shook her head. “Actually, maybe I don’t like the dog idea after all. I’d rather dress up as something pretty. Maybe a princess?”
“Okay. That’s definitely an option—princesses and horses go together like red beans and rice.” Nina rested an arm on Breezy’s broad back, idly watching a skateboarder doing tricks on the path nearby. “But I bet a bunch of the girls will do the princess thing. Maybe we can come up with something a little more creative. A mermaid?”
Jordan looked interested. “How would that work?”
“Well, Freckles could be a fish. We could make him fins out of poster board or papier-mâché or something, and maybe paint his spots to look like scales. And you’d wear a mermaid tail and ride sidesaddle . . .” Nina let her voice trail off at Jordan’s look of alarm.
“Sidesaddle?” she exclaimed. “I’m going to have trouble getting in enough jumping practice not to totally embarrass myself in the regular show classes! I’m not sure I can figure out sidesaddle at the same time!”
Nina laughed. “Okay, okay, don’t panic,” she said, tugging on Breezy’s lead to keep him from wandering onto the footpath. “No mermaids. What about if you and Freckie both dress up as clowns? I think Miss A said there’s a ‘funniest’ category.”
“Eh, I don’t know.” Jordan shrugged. “I’m kind of scared of clowns.”
“Even better.” Nina grinned. “You could win funniest and scariest!”
“Ha-ha.” Jordan stuck out her tongue at Nina, then shuddered. “No clowns.”
“Okay, no clowns.” Nina was staring at Freckles again. “Maybe you could be a Native American girl. I mean, Appaloosas were originally Native American war horses or something, right? And you’d look great with braids and a cute buckskin dress.”
Jordan looked interested. “That could work, I guess. We could paint, like, symbols on Freckles or whatever.”
“Of course, Native Americans didn’t have saddles,” Nina said. “You’d have to ride bareback. But that’s okay, right? Lots easier than sidesaddle.”
“I don’t know.” Jordan suddenly looked anxious again. “I mean, I’ve ridden him bareback before. But at a show? What if I get nervous and slide right off?”
“Well, maybe you could put a blanket over your saddle so it doesn’t show,” Nina said.
But Jordan was already shaking her head. “Maybe we should think of a different costume,” she said. “What about a Mardi Gras theme? That would work for the local category.”
“I like it!” Nina’s mind quickly shifted gears, filled with images from the huge yearly celebration that had helped make New Orleans famous throughout the world. “One of my aunts collects Mardi Gras masks—I’m sure she’d let you borrow one. We could drape beads around Freckie’s neck, and paint him to match your outfit . . .”
“Love it!” Jordan clapped her hands and grinned. “And you’re such an expert vintage shopper, I bet we could find the rest of the stuff we need. . . .”
With that, they were off and running. Fifteen minutes later, Jordan looked happy and excited about her costume plans. “This will totally work,” she declared, rubbing Freckles on the withers. “Thanks, Nina. But wait, what about you? Want to brainstorm some ideas for your costume?”
“That’s okay.” Nina shot her a coy smile. “I think I already know what I want to do. Don’t want to talk about it yet, though—I need to let the idea simmer.”
Jordan smiled back. “I bet it’s something fabulous and creative that will win all the prizes, right? Okay, I won’t ask, even though I’m dying of curiosity. I’ll just say that if you’re thinking of doing something for the scary category, you could ask Brett for ideas. He loves horror movies—he’s probably seen every one ever made.”
Nina turned her face into the breeze that was blowing in off the river, not answering for a moment. Jordan’s comment had made all thoughts of costumes fly out of her head. Until recently, Brett had just been Jordan’s one-year-older, slightly annoying brother. Nina had known him forever—they’d all grown up in the same neighborhood—though she hadn’t really spent much time with him, since she went to a small private school over near the French Quarter while Jordan and Brett attended the local public school.
Lately, though, a couple of Nina’s older friends kept mentioning how cute Brett was getting. And the thing was, Nina couldn’t totally disagree. He sort of looked like one of the members of that new boy band everyone was talking about, and once she’d noticed that, she couldn’t un-notice it. Did that mean she was turning boy crazy,
like everyone said her cousin Charlotte had been at her age? Nina wasn’t sure, and the thought made her feel off balance in a way she couldn’t quite figure out.
“What time is it?” Jordan asked, breaking into Nina’s confused thoughts. “I need to get home soon and start my history paper if I don’t want to flunk out of school.”
“It’s . . .” Nina glanced at her watch, a funky vintage one she’d picked up at her favorite Magazine Street thrift shop. When she saw the time, she gasped. “Oh, wow,” she exclaimed. “I told my mom I’d be home twenty minutes ago! I’m supposed to be helping her pack up for her art show, and—oh, never mind, I’ll tell you later.” Clucking to a startled Breezy, she took off at a jog in the direction of the stables. “Anyway, I’ve got to go!”