Barney holds a black pair of breeches, black riding boots, and a bold yellow silk. He turns the silk around and I nearly lose control of myself when I see my last name, SULLIVAN , across the top.
“From all of us,” Barney explains. “They’re used, and Magnolia had to iron on the lettering, but it’ll work for today.”
“There’s this too.” Magnolia reaches into her right pocket again. This time she produces a black-and-yellow headpiece I can’t quite figure out. She walks around behind me and pulls my dark hair into a ponytail. “The bumblebee covers your hair band, with its wings at the top, and then this gold tail wraps around your actual pony, down to the very tip.” I feel her secure the bumblebee around the base, and then use the flexible gold wire to wrap my pony. “It’s like my pin, only a hundred times better.”
I touch a hand to my hair, amazed by friend’s talent. “I can’t believe you made this for me.”
“Uh, you’re a jockey in the sponsor race. This is publicity for my work at its finest.” She bites her lip. “Besides, my best friend training to race has been the most exciting thing to happen to me. Not to mention the best distraction, ever.”
I want to ask Magnolia what she needs distracting from, but Barney is motioning me to get dressed, and shoving a heavily scuffed helmet into my hands. The two of them start to leave, but Magnolia stops before rushing off. “You could have won this race when you were thirteen years old,” she says evenly. “Those other jokers don’t know what it means to hunger.”
Her words ring through the stall, snaking around my rib cage in a firm embrace. Then it’s only Padlock, who’s been saddled, and me, whose knees are shaking. All around is the sound of unfamiliar voices. Some call for equipment, others whisper strategies with their managers. The smells of fuel and wax and sweat mingle in the air, and though it’s not a pleasant scent, I breathe it in, exhilarated to be inside this stable for the first time.
When I notice that Padlock is hovering near the back of the stall, I’m struck by guilt. All this time I’ve thought of only my fears, my doubts. But Padlock was programmed to have these emotions through his EvoBox, wasn’t he? And whether they’re real or not, they must feel real enough to him. Ensuring no one is watching, I slip on my riding gear and approach Padlock. I hold my hand out, and he sniffs the pink of my palm.
Stepping closer, I bring my lips to his steel ear. “Did you hear what Magnolia said? We should just have fun.”
Padlock snorts, and I smile.
“I know what you mean,” I say. “I want to win too. It’s our only chance of continuing. No one will want to sponsor a poor girl from Warren County and a late edition Titan. Even though … even though I think you look pretty legit.”
Padlock pushes his muzzle into my hair tentatively, like he’s afraid of how I may react. Taken aback, I suck in air from between my teeth, and then slide my hand through his steel-threaded hair. The horse releases a funny neigh as I give him a good scratch.
My Titan is really getting into my affection when Rags jogs up to the stall, red-faced and out of breath. “Hey, listen.” He glances over his shoulder as if someone might be watching. “They’re going to have the horses line up soon for parts check. If they try and stop you from proceeding, steer Padlock by them, okay? Don’t stop. Just get to the starting gate.”
“What are you talking about? Why would they stop me?” Understanding dawns on me. “They don’t want a Titan 1.0 running. Did the registration papers not get approved? They listed my name last night.”
Rags clutches a roll of papers in his hand. He smiles and slaps them against the side of the stall door. “Just get to that starting gate.” He turns to leave, but then glances back, admiring the used silks he, Barney, and Magnolia surprised me with. “You look good, kid. Like a real