The Winner’s Circle

The face on the wall

STORY SO FAR: On Ben’s first day with his foster family, he gets the first inkling that the Brennans are not as wealthy as they seem. But an upcoming excursion with Rachel drives everything else out of his head.

Fifty-seven minutes later, wearing clean clothes – and his sneakers – Ben stood in the front hall trying not to look too eager. He knew it was silly to hope he could make a good impression on Rachel, considering her friendly warning. After all, she was way out of his league, and she was going back to her Ivy League college soon, and anyway, this living arrangement might not work out. He hadn’t been there 24 hours, but he already knew he didn’t fit in with these people – he was just a bus driver’s kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, not a sophisticated and educated preppie.

But no matter how many sobering explanations he gave himself, it was useless. He couldn’t help it. Pacing, Ben rehearsed what he would say when she arrived. Then he stopped, flooded with worry that Mrs. Brennan hadn’t found her, or that she was busy with something else, or that she didn’t want to spend the morning with him and Mrs. Brennan. These were the kind of people with lots of important friends and interesting things to do and schedules and appointments, and Rachel probably would already have plans to –


He whirled around, tongue-tied, as Rachel sauntered in the front door. She still wore her riding clothes, and she still looked completely adorable. She smiled, waiting for him to return her greeting. “And you say …” she said, her voice teasing as she made a “come-along” motion with one hand.

“Hi.” Flustered, Ben turned to the wall of photographs. He didn’t dare hope she was flirting with him. “So. Do you know any of these people?”

“Everybody in the whole business,” she said, joining him in front of the photos.

Ben could see her face in the glass that covered each picture; it turned her into a transparent spirit, floating like an angel in each photo as she went down the rows, pointing. “That’s Maggie Stanwick, the biggest socialite on the scene, throws this huge party every season with a different theme like Adirondack Lodge or Babes in Toyland. Stuff like that. Owns a lot of horses, and she’s dripping with money. This is Leo when he was the top winning jock about 50 years ago. This is Uncle Teddy with, hmm, I think this horse must be Roundabout, his first champion. And there’s my mom and dad,” she said, grinning wide.

Ben was staring at her smile. He tore his gaze away, and noticed again the photo of Brennan as a teenager. “How about this one?” he asked.

Rachel leaned past him, peering. She frowned. “Well, that’s Uncle Teddy.”

“Yeah, I recognize him.”

“But the other guy, ugh,” Rachel shuddered with distaste. “He was always trouble, no matter what Grandpa tried to do for him. Bad, bad, bad.”

“What are you talking about?” Ben asked, squinting again at the photo.

Rachel pulled a golf club out of the umbrella stand and squared off against an imaginary ball. “I think some people must be born bad, you know? I’ve known one or two horses that way, too, and you think there must have been some kind of abuse early on or something, and usually there was, but sometimes you meet one that for no reason is just bad-tempered, violent and wants to hurt you.”

“Are we talking about people or horses?” Ben asked. He shivered unexpectedly, through his whole body.

Rachel took her swing. “Both. Like they’re born with some kind of destiny they have to fulfill. Is it because of their breeding? Who knows?”

“But this guy,” Ben said, his thoughts in a jumble. Had to be the father of the kid he saw in the mist. “He was a friend of Mr. Brennan’s?”

“Well, you could say that. I’m sure Uncle Teddy tried to be a friend to him. He was -” Rachel glanced at Ben again, slightly pink. “Well, he was a foster kid, I guess you could say, sort of like you. His folks worked at the track, but they got killed or something, and Grandpa took him in. But – “

“But what?” Ben felt every word like a knife in his gut. A foster kid like him. “But what?” he asked again.

She bent over her imaginary ball again. “Like I said, some people are just bad, no matter what you try to do for them,” she muttered.

“Okay, so he what, stole something? Or – or got into fights?” Ben waved his hands. The image of that kid’s face leering down at him from the horse was clearly in his mind. A rotten father, that was why the guy out in the fog was so rotten himself. “He can’t have been so terrible if – “

“How about setting the barn on fire, that terrible enough for you?” Rachel said, turning to face him.

Ben felt his face heat at the word fire.

“Killed all the horses. And himself while he was at it,” Rachel finished. “It took this farm almost 50 years to recover financially.”

Ben’s pulse was pounding in his ears like the steady drumming of hoofbeats. “Killed himself?” His voice rasped. “He didn’t, um, have any kids?”

Rachel took another long look at the photo. “Kids? No way. End of the line. Joe Pastore is dead. Horse killer,” she said vehemently and snapped her fingernail against Joe’s picture. “I’m glad he got caught in the fire. Serves him right.”

(To be continued.)


League: “After all, she was way out of his league…” (social place)

Sobering: “But no matter how many sobering explanations he gave himself, it was useless.” (serious, calming)

Destiny: “…they’re born with some kind of destiny they have to fulfill.” (future, fate)

Bad tempered: “…sometimes you meet one that for no reason is just bad-tempered…” (angry, hotheaded)

Vehemently: “Horse killer, she said vehemently…” (passionately, strongly)


1. What does Ben feel about Rachel? Is she “way out of his league” as Ben believes? Does Ben fit in with these people?

2. Have you ever been in awe of or attracted to someone older than you? What was attractive about him/her?

3. What do photos tell about a person/family? Think about the photos in your own home. What do they tell about your family?

4. Do you believe that people can be born bad?

5. Is Ben a foster kid just like Joe Pastore? Do people have preconceived ideas about foster kids that they have to overcome? Are these fair judgements?

6. What might have caused Joe Pastore to be an arsonist?

7. How do you explain the picture of Joe Pastore and the rider that Ben saw in the yard?

The newspaper connection

1.Create the newspaper article that surely appeared about Joe Pastore and the fire. Use details from the story to make it real. Include quotes from those at the scene and a photo with a caption.

Chapter 6 answers

1. Ben wants to make a good impression on Rachel, but feels he does not measure up to her standards. Answers will vary.

2. 3. 4. Answers will vary.

5. Ben hasn’t done anything wrong so comparisons to his father or Joe Pastore are not correct. Answers will vary.

6. 7. Answers will vary.

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