Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2019 finalist, Natalie Sharp! Natalie finished 7th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Sunny”. We asked Natalie what she likes best about her story and she said, “I think writing in an animal’s point of view is more interesting than human.”
By Natalie Sharp
Pepper thrashed her chestnut tail as she looked outside. It was the time of day, a time after the sun had set, when the sky wasn’t completely pitch black but more of a dark indigo. Each star shone bright like white speckles on a pony’s dark blue coat. It was the perfect time for adventure, when everything was still and asleep and the world was holding its breath.
Unfortunately for her, Pepper was locked inside a horse stall and the only light that her black eyes reflected came from a dusty glass window. There was nothing but a layer of hay on the ground and a dark gray blanket on her back that was worth noting. It kept her warm, but she would rather be running around free in the cold night. Even though she got time to run around during the day, it was never enough. Each night Pepper dreamed of sleeping under the stars. She dreamed of galloping in one direction, never stopping, never looking back. She dreamed of freedom.
Pepper was a young pony, but early on she had learned that the chances of those dreams coming true were about as slim as one of the hairs on her head. All she could do was lay in her dreary, brown stall, feeling a familiar feeling of helplessness. After all, there was no way her owner would just forget to lock the stall door at night . . . or was there? A sudden burst of energy engulfed Pepper and she turned around to face the door, metal horseshoes turning up dust in the hay. Maybe today she could get the door open – maybe today she would be free! The small pony pushed with all her might on the stall door, making a loud thump and clang noise. It wouldn’t budge.
Maybe it’s just stuck, Pepper thought desperately. She shoved her shoulder at the door, straining and pushing with her hooves, but with about as much success as her first try. Finally, with one last determined throw of Pepper’s body to the door, another pony woke up in the stall next to hers.
“What are you doing?!” hissed the pony. Her words were less of a question and more of an exclamation; a command that Pepper should stop. She’d know that bossy voice anywhere: it was her sister, a stout chestnut pony who was only a little taller than her. She backed up so she could see her sister through a window-like hole in the wall.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m trying to get the door open,” whispered Pepper.
“Are you out of your mind!? You’re planning to escape?”
“Well, not exactly escape. I just want to… run around for a bit.” There was actually more that Pepper wanted to do. The tension of being cooped up in a stall every night could not be relieved with simply galloping around a sand arena for a few minutes.
“Run around?! You have plenty of time during the day to stretch your legs.”
“Come on, Sunny! You know it’s not as simple as that.” There were a few moments as the sisters peered through the dimness into each other’s dark eyes, both struggling to find something in them. And although Sunny was protective and strict with her little sister, she was easy to persuade and finally her rock hard stare softened into a sweet-as-a-sugar-cube one.
“Okay, fine. But . . . can you promise to come back? Truthfully? ” Sunny said slowly, emphasising every word. She motioned for Pepper to lean in even though everybody was asleep. Sunny lowered her voice. “I can’t stand some of the horses here. You always make it easier to deal with them.” A couple names ran through Pepper’s mind and she cringed at the thought of Sunny having to deal with them alone.
“It’s not that I’m going away forever, you know,” Pepper told her and turned around to start slamming into the door again.
“Wait!” Sunny exclaimed. “That’s never going to work and besides, you’re going to wake everybody up.”
“If you keep yelling, so will you,” said Pepper, glaring at her sister. Sunny rolled her eyes as she craned her neck around the wall separating them. With one swift motion, she grabbed the thick bolt on Pepper’s door which was, as it happens, locked. She got a hold of the handle with her front teeth, pulling back her lips. Then there was an unpleasant squeak of rusty metal on metal and Pepper’s door was open.
“It’s actually quite easy to get the door open yourself. You should take advantage of it before the locks get replaced,” Sunny said smugly. “But it is hard work on your neck.”
It all happened so fast that Pepper didn’t know what to think. Her only question was why couldn’t this have happened sooner? Sunny’s head had already moved back so Pepper could see it through the window.
“Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me.” Pepper never got mushy about her feelings, so her sister was surprised at first, but the look of shock was replaced with a smile as she watched her sister trot away.
Cold whipped through Pepper’s hair. It reminded her of when people brushed her with a comb, though the howling wind did a much better job of not pulling on her hair than the humans. The blanket that was once a burden had now become a necessity, shielding her from the unusually cruel chill. Trotting against it, Pepper felt even more of the impact. But it didn’t matter. She was finally free.
There were a few small arenas outside the stable. Pepper absolutely resented those patches of sand. Nowhere to explore. So plain.
Behind the arenas a steep slope of earth marked the edge of an untouched forest. There were no paths for either horses or people cutting through it. This was a good place to start.
Pepper picked her way through underbrush and stepped over fallen trees. Even in the gloom, she could see the harsh texture of bark and furry moss climbing up the tree. High above, black branches reached for the navy blue sky like hundreds of bony fingers.
The eeriness gave Pepper a chill, but the chill gave her curiosity. Perhaps the curiosity was a bad thing— it usually was with Pepper. Her childlike mind had gotten her into both trouble and danger more than once.
After a while of sniffing around, Pepper looked behind her and realized she was surrounded by trees on all sides. Not a hint of familiarity. Suddenly everything seemed spooky instead of interesting. The bony branches brushing the sky now seemed like they could grab for a certain tiny vulnerable pony at any minute. As Pepper kept walking along, her steps got shakier and her ears swiveled around at any sound. She quickened her gait to an anxious trot, but a thin twig snapping under her horseshoe caused her to rear up. Before you could say ‘forests are only for trail rides,’ Pepper started to gallop through the trees in a panic (being young and not very wise).
The shadows around her melted into a blur. She found herself scrabbling over the earth, her ankles and knees stinging from rocks hitting them— mane, slightly wavy from numerous braiding sessions, flying in the wind— glassy puddles disrupted by desperate hooves— a thick tree root— misplaced steps— and Pepper’s heart lurched as she toppled over. Now she was even more scared, dirty, and aching than before and panicky running had done no good. In fact, she was probably even farther from the stables than before.
Lying on her side, a sense of hopelessness washed over Pepper and she neighed in despair. “I’ll never see my sister again!” she wailed into the night. “This could mean the end of me! I’ll starve and die just because I wanted to get some fresh air!” An owl cooing sounded rather close, but the mysterious noise gave no comfort. “It’s no problem for you, owl, because you belong in a forest. It’s easy for you to find food and shelter but I belong in a stable! I can’t fend for myself,” complained Pepper to the noise. She narrowed her eyes to find the source and immediately jumped to her feet in surprise when she saw it.
A faint glow was emitting from an owl sitting on a low branch. It ruffled up its unusually gold-colored feathers, then said, “You are a pathetic thing, lying on the ground like that. I assume you come from the horse stables at the edge of the forest, correct? You look way too pampered to be wild.”
“Why are you golden? And why do you look so tired?” Pepper asked, completely ignoring the question. The owl was panting heavily, and the light emitting from her was flickering, almost like a flame.
“Isn’t nighttime the most least-energizing time of them all? Daytime is when I really shine.”
The owl huffed. “Nothing you would ever understand, with that small horse brain of yours. Anyway, what are you doing in this forest?”
“I just wanted a little freedom for once.”
“But then you tripped and are now lying on the ground.”
“I got lost,” Pepper admitted and stood up.
“Well, I can always help you find your way back.” It should have been a kind comment but was somehow executed in the opposite way. Pepper nodded gratefully and the owl took off without warning. “Come on, I haven’t got all night!” she hooted over her shoulder.
“Wait! What’s your name?” Pepper yelled at her after setting off at a canter. She had hoped to walk so she had a chance to get an explanation about the magical glow coming from the strange owl, but her guide seemed to be in so much of a hurry there was barely time for a few exchanged words.
“Silvi,” was the crisp reply.
For a few minutes there was no sound except for the thump of hooves, the flap of wings, and the rush of wind in their ears. Silvi could barely fly straight; she was wobbling in the air. Her light grew dimmer.
Then suddenly Silvi circled back, causing Pepper to stumble.
“What’s wrong?” Pepper asked.
“Not so loud!” Silvi whispered. “There’s something moving over there . . . and it’s big!” She was able to contain a sense of composure even if her words spooked Pepper.
“What do we do?”
“Let’s try to sneak around it. Go slow and don’t make a sound.” Silvi decided to walk, laying each foot carefully on the ground.
She lead Pepper through the carpet of pine needles and dirt clots. As they reached a clearing, a big animal came into view. In the dark, Pepper could make out a dark green back with a texture like a snake (Occasionally one would find their way into the stables). It was about three times as tall as one of the tallest horses Pepper knew. A thick tail was curled around its front and as she got closer, Pepper saw weird scaly wings sprouting out of its back and covering its entire sleeping body.
“What is that?”
Silvi looked up at her. “It’s a dragon. Oh, of course you wouldn’t know. They’re giant lizards that can fly. Don’t wake it up . . . it can also shoot fire out of its mouth. Very dangerous.”
Pepper gasped. She had heard about dragons in rumors passed around by her friends. Maybe a little bit louder than intended, she said, “Our lives are at stake?”
“Not if you shut up!” Silvi hissed through an almost closed beak. But it was too late. After a series of nervous sounds from Pepper, the dragon started to stir. One slitted scarlet eye opened and then another, almost glowing in the darkness. Pepper’s breath caught as the beast stood up, filling the whole clearing. It was confused, of course, from being caught between sleep and consciousness, but quickly realized what was happening. The creature sniffed the air, giving the two plenty of time to run, but Pepper was paralyzed in wonder and fear. She watched as it bared its fangs at them, letting out a loud rumble of a growl that almost shook the ground. A stream of smoke started to emit out of its nostrils and between its teeth.
“If you turn around and keep running straight, you’ll eventually get to the stables,” Silvi said quietly. “Go!” Just in time, Pepper bolted off as the dragon leaned down to snap at her. Had he gotten Silvi instead?
Pepper was a good length away, so she dared to look back. Silvi was flying in circles around the dragon, screeching and . . . what was that? Silvi seemed to be absorbing every particle of light around her, rays of light drawing to her until the world was pitch black—not even the stars shone. Silvi was now glowing even more than usual and her amber eyes lightened to a bright white. The scrawny, tired bird that Pepper knew turned into a dangerous creature. Maybe even a monster. Then there was an explosion of heat and Pepper swiveled around before she could see what Silvi did, her heart pounding in her chest
Light had returned to where it was being faintly reflected off of anything that could see moonlight, which gave Pepper a guide through the woods. She could still hear roars, no doubt from the dragon. It sounded in pain. What was Silvi doing? It had looked like magic. Light and heat magic?
Finally, after running for quite some time, Pepper broke through the boundary of the forest. In the distance she could see the stables and slowed her pace to a canter until eventually she reached a stable door that had been left open. On the right, Sunny was asleep, lying on a mound of hay, as peaceful as an undisturbed puddle, oblivious to the wonders that Pepper had seen just moments ago. Pepper inched into the stable and closed it behind her, best as she could, with her chin.
Everything was still and asleep and the world was holding its breath once again.
Pepper was tired but she stood there for a while, trying to think about what she had just experienced and trying to catch her breath. There was something about the forest that drew Pepper towards it, and the mysterious Silvi made her want to go back, want to find out more. The explosion that Silvi had created reminded Pepper of the hottest days in summer.
Pepper looked over at Sunny. It was so weird that Sunny never seemed bothered by those days, and was spirited and energized as ever even when her friends were panting and sweaty.
Suddenly Pepper remembered something Sunny once told her: “I always feel so energized during the day. But at night, I feel drained. That’s why it’s the perfect time to sleep.”
Pepper had always assumed it was because Sunny was so active during the day, and maybe it was. But after her time in the forest, it looked like that maybe things are more connected than they seem.
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