NEW PORT RICHEY — Once the pain medication wore off and she could step without stumbling, Hannah Grant walked to the red barn out back.
The scar on her 15-year-old cheek was fresh. Her left eye was half shut. Her throat was still sore.
She sat on a stoop and turned to One-Eyed Jack, the horse who gave her a second spoiled winter break and turned her eye socket to dust.
"I'm happy to see you."
• • •
Her family had warned her about taking him. Why would anyone want a half-blind horse?
An aunt took him for a ride and said no. Hannah hopped on anyway.
"It was just perfect," she said.
Hannah was 10, and Jack was a great beginner horse, an 8-year-old paint saddlebred. He was a little bumpy, sure, but when she asked him to turn right, he did. The Grants' other horse, Sassy, isn't like that. Neither was their previous horse, who bucked off her mother.
Jack is tall and strong — 16 hands and 3 inches, 1,200 pounds — easy-going and a little quirky. So is Hannah, a 5-foot-9 post player for River Ridge's junior varsity basketball team who tapes inspirational messages from magazines to the wall of her orange-lit bedroom.
"They just meshed together immediately," said her mother, Chris. "They were just perfect for each other."
Jack's previous owners weren't sure what to do with him after a rope accidentally sliced his right eye. He stayed in the barn after that.
The Grants took him home, and he ran circles in the dirt out back. They changed his name from Captain Jack to One-Eyed Jack and removed his damaged eye, leaving an empty black socket. Hannah painted his stall door red and yellow and blue and wrote "Jackie Boy" and "ILY!" (I love you) on it.
"He was really sweet …" Hannah said. "He's just a big love muffin."
"Only to you, though," her mom said.
• • •
Around the time the Grants brought Jack home, Hannah started feeling stomach pains. The day after Christmas 2007, the aches got worse. A trip to the emergency room showed a tumor that was eating her insides. Stomach acid was pouring into her abdomen.
"It felt like someone was almost stabbing me in the stomach," Hannah said.
Doctors initially thought it was a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. Her father, Jeff, Googled it and learned that his 11-year-old wouldn't see her 15th birthday.
After more tests, they changed the prognosis — it was much less serious. They removed a lump, the size of a large grapefruit, whose core was cancerous but outside wasn't. Doctors had never seen anything like it.
Hannah was out of the hospital in two weeks, but couldn't play sports for a while. She was allowed to ride Jack, brush his auburn mane and take him to monthly shows.
"The two of them were inseparable," Chris said.
She earned enough red and blue ribbons and trophies from the Pasco Horsemen's Association to cover a bedroom wall. She was washing Jack three weeks ago, ready to help him earn another at that weekend's show, when he snapped.
• • •
Jack is always energetic after a bath. This time he started digging in the grass, so Hannah walked behind him to stop him.
She doesn't remember his back hoof smashing her skull, but she felt no pain as the blood streamed down her face. Her sister, Katie, screamed and called for an ambulance. Hannah saw her sister crying and told her she only needed an ice pack.
"Six-and-a-half hours worth of surgery later," said her father, "I don't think that was an ice pack."
Jack's hoof slashed her left cheek and ripped her nostril. The blow shattered her eye socket and shot cheekbone fragments behind her ear. Doctors said it was like trying to solve a 1,000-piece puzzle with only 500 pieces. The drugs and concussion made Hannah start kicking at nurses. They airlifted her to Tampa General Hospital.
The first surgery closed her open wound. Three days later, the second removed bone particles and reconstructed her eye socket with metal plates. Her mother comforted herself by reading the inspirational phrases in her youngest daughter's room.
After six days in intensive care and another in the pediatric ward, Hannah was ready to come home.
"I missed my Jack," she said.
• • •
The injury ended Hannah's basketball season, and she can't ride for another six weeks. But she stays active and attends River Ridge basketball games. The varsity team dedicated last week's win over Mitchell to Hannah, and opponents stopped by Beef 'O' Brady's afterward to help raise money for medical bills.
"She's a very tough girl," Royal Knights coach Joeyn Dearsman said.
Hannah's headaches have mostly stopped, her double vision has almost disappeared and she was able to return to school Monday.
As she stands in the still twilight with Jack and a sneaky barn cat, Jack nudges her with his nose. She pats Jackie Boy on the head.
Hannah isn't mad at Jack. He didn't mean to hurt her. She spooked him, and he reacted. She scoffs when friends ask if she's getting rid of him.
Hannah pulls his faded blue halter out of the barn and slips it on him. She walks to the left, to his good side, and picks the stray hairs off his chestnut coat. Hannah just brushed him two days ago, but One-Eyed Jack is shedding again.
Their next show is a month and a half away.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.