“You could hardly hear the announcer over all the cheers,” Pancho said breathlessly. “As I galloped into the stadium, everyone went wild. They were screaming, ‘Pan-CHO! Pan-CHO!’ and U-S-A! U-S-A!’ It was amazing.”
Al, who had been engaged in a post-breakfast cleaning, wasn’t really listening. “You don’t say,” he responded distractedly. He threw in a few, ‘Ohs,’ and ‘Mhmms,’ for good measure.
“The pressure was so heavy, I thought for a second I’d never get off the ground. It was down to me, after all. I was the team anchor, and I was the only one from our side who had a clear round, so I was jumping off for the gold! And you know, I’m pretty much golden-colored, myself, so, you know.”
Suddenly, Al looked up. Then he delicately put his paw down and turned his full attention on Pancho, who had been standing in his stall yammering on and on — at least, that’s what Al had been thinking. “What? No, I don’t know. What do you mean, you were jumping off for the gold?”
Pancho shook his head in frustration, his mane flopping from one side of his neck to the other. “Haven’t you been listening? I just told you! I was the anchor for the U.S. Olympic Team. We made it into the jump off. It was down to me, the Brits, and the Germans. It was a total nail-biter.”
“A jump-off.” Clearly Al did not believe a word Pancho was saying.
“Okay, I know you’re a cat, so you don’t know what that is. I’ll explain —”
“Lemme stop you there,” Al interrupted. “I know what a jump-off is. It’s part of a show jumping competition. If there are more than two horses with a clean round, then there’s a timed ‘jump-off’ over a shortened course. The one who goes fastest, with the least number of faults, wins.”
Pancho couldn’t believe it. How in the world did this cat know what show jumping was, let alone a jump-off? He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Okay, you know what it is. So, what’s the problem?”
Al shook his head. “Don’t give me the squinchy eye, Pancho. I told you already, I know stuff.”
“’Squinchy eye’? What’s a — “
Al interrupted him again. “I know all about how horses gallop around jumping over really tall obstacles. They’re not supposed to knock any down, because if they do, they get faults. Four faults per rail down.”
“Wow,” Pancho said. He had to admit, at least to himself, that Al really did know about stuff.
“But that’s not the point. What I don’t get is what the heck you’re talking about.”
“Whaddya mean?” Pancho responded indignantly. “I’m talking about being the anchor for the team gold, that’s what I’m talking about. Keep up!”
Al blinked a couple of times. Then he nodded slowly, and said, “Okay, okay. Calm down.”
Pancho snorted and stamped his left hind hoof, putting his weight on his right front and left hind. He didn’t want to experience that shooting pain in his left front. “I am calm! I’m telling you an important story, and you are acting like you don’t believe me.”
Al took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll try it this way. Who won?”
“Who won the gold?”
Pancho opened his mouth, but stopped before answering.
“Well?” Al asked. “Who won? You anchored the team in the jump-off. Lots of cheering. Couldn’t hear the announcer. Brits, Germans, you. And what happened?”
“I…I don’t know,” Pancho stammered, looking down into the bed of shavings, as if he’d find the answer there. “I mean, I don’t remember.” He looked up at Al, a doubtful expression crossing like a shadow over his face. Then he regrouped and declared defensively, “But just because I don’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t happen!”
Al stood up and stretched, rounding his back like he was a Halloween cat, then reaching his front legs far ahead to flex his toes. Pancho noticed how sharp Al’s claws were.
Al sat down again. “Okay, here’s the deal,” he said. “You’re right. It could happen. I mean, ponies have been show jumpers. Just consider Stroller, from the British team in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. So, I’m not saying ponies can’t jump.”
Pancho nodded his head in satisfaction. “Exactly.” Then he jerked his head back, like he’d just been bopped on the nose. “How do you know about Stroller? You’re just a — “
“But,” Al continued, ignoring Pancho. “That doesn’t mean that you were in the Olympics. Stroller was the only pony who’s ever competed in the Olympics. Look it up. And that’s not the only problem with your story.”
“Wait. Hold on a second,” Pancho said. He was having trouble keeping up. If only one pony has been an Olympic show jumper, and that pony wasn’t Pancho, then his story wasn’t true. But how could that be? He remembered it. That’s why he was telling Al. He wanted Al to know that he was important — he didn’t belong here, wherever “here” was.
Then again, he couldn’t remember who won the gold. Try as he might, he just couldn’t say. It’s as if he didn’t know, not that he just couldn’t remember. But was that the same thing? If you don’t remember, you don’t know? Pancho shook his head. That can’t be right.
Ohhhhhh! He thought with frustration. I’m so confused!
Al interrupted his thoughts. “I’m waiting.”
Pancho raised his head. He’d gotten so lost in thought, he forgot Al was there. “Waiting? For what?” he asked.
Al rolled his eyes. “You said to wait. So I did. But I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“I did?” Pancho asked. Then he remembered. “Oh, right! I did.” Pancho took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring. “You mentioned Stroller, but I’m telling you, I was in the Olympics!”
Al’s whiskers twitched. His tail twitched. Then he stood up once again and elegantly threaded his way through the stall bars, pausing momentarily to lick his shoulder. Finally, he made his way to the lip of the open Dutch door of Pancho’s stall. After sitting down, he said, “First you said you were a show pony. That’s all you could talk about yesterday. ‘I don’t belong here. I’m a show pony.’ I mean, you just wouldn’t let that go. Now this morning, you stop me as I’m on my way to get some sun to tell me you’re an Olympic champion.”
“I didn’t say Olympic champion,” Pancho corrected him.
“And I am a show pony. Just ask my friend, Barney!” Pancho protested.
Al made a show of looking around. Then he said, “There’s nobody here but you and me, Pancho.”
“That’s not true.” He pointed his nose toward the stall doors opposite Al. These doors led out onto the stable’s center aisle. “Charlene is here.”
She was scampering along the top of the door, but stopped when she heard Pancho. “I prefer ‘Charlie,’ please,” she said.
“Oh. Sorry, Charlie.”
“No problem, Pancho,” she said as she made her way toward the grain room. “Have a nice day. See ya, Al!”
Al nodded. “See ya, Charlie.” Then he turned his attention back to Pancho. “Yeah, about this Barney character. You see the problem I’m having, right? Especially now that you’re talking about the Olympics?”
“My stable mate. My friend!” Pancho insisted.
Al primly pulled his tail around his feet. Then he asked Pancho a question. “Have you ever heard about dreams?”
Pancho frowned. “Dreams? No. What’s that?”
“It’s when you fall asleep — it happens when you fall asleep. Your mind tells you stories. Sometimes they’re really weird. They don’t make sense. Like, sometimes in my dreams, I think I’m a dog. Crazy stuff like that. But the point is, when you’re in a dream, you really believe it’s happening. Maybe all this stuff about the Olympics and being a show pony is…just a dream.”
Pancho thought about this for a minute. “So, you’re saying that dreams aren’t real?”
“I guess it depends on what you think reality is, but yeah. Dreams aren’t like being awake.”
“But how am I supposed to know? How do I tell the difference?” As Pancho spoke, he started to feel really uncomfortable, and this discomfort made him agitated. He didn’t like feeling agitated. “I mean, if I can’t tell the difference, then how do I know I wasn’t in the Olympics or Barney is my friend or that I’m even having a conversation with you right now? How, Al? Tell me. Tell me!”
If he could’ve done it without feeling pain in his left front, he would have started pacing. This doubt was taking hold of his thoughts, causing him great distress. “I don’t like this,” he complained. “I don’t like this at all!” He looked around his stall before focusing again on Al.
It’s all your fault! Pancho thought as he started at Al. You’re trying to trick me. Suddenly, everything aobut Al looked suspicious to Pancho. Maybe it was his “mask,” or the way the white tip on his tail looked like bait at the end of a fishing line, the way it flicked around and caught his attention. Even his ever-present grin no longer seemed innocent.
Besides Charlene — Charlie — Al was the only animal he’d met since arriving at this place. She seemed okay, but maybe, just maybe she and Al weren’t real. Maybe this was a dream, and when he woke up, he’d be back in his paddock with Barney. And if this was a dream, at least Al was right about him being in the Olympics. Maybe the Olympics was a dream within a dream!
Best of all, if this was a dream, then there was really nothing wrong with him. He wasn’t injured, and the pain he was feeling in his hoof wasn’t real. But that’s confusing, he thought, since I know I’m feeling pain. Thinking it’s not real doesn’t make me feel better about how much it hurts when I put weight on it. Then again, it won’t matter when I wake up, because then I’ll know it was just a story my mind was telling me, and it won’t be real and I can go back to being a show pony. I’m a show pony! It’s not a dream!
All this, as strange as it was, made Pancho feel a little better. All he had to do was wake up and he’d be back with Barney, be back on the show circuit, be back to winning blue ribbons. Yes, all he had to do was wake up.
Pancho shut his eyes tight and concentrated. “Wake up,” he whispered to himself. “Wake up, wake up, wake up!”