Books and Film

(Forced to) Save My Own Skin

An excerpt from Chapter One of Mary Pagone’s latest novel, Stars Hide Your Fires.

Simon O’ Shaughnessy’s life revolves around eventing. But when a freak, tragic accident takes the life of his friend and mentor, he finds himself struggling to defend the sport he loves.

“Whoever told you to get that thing on your neck checked out saved your life, Mr. O’ Shaughnessy.”

I bite my knuckles. I’m lying face-down on the examination table. The doctor can’t see me glaring at him so I don’t hide my expression. I’m not in pain. I’m stopping up my mouth so I don’t say what I shouldn’t. Instead, I mutter, “It was my ex who nagged me and I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear that.” Yes, Max was right. Max was always goddamn right.

My skin has always been spattered with freckles, flat, faded little specks of different shades of brown. Especially on my back and neck. There’s a patch of flesh that my baggy t-shirts never cover and don’t get shaded by my riding helmet or baseball cap. I don’t know when, but one of those freckles began to turn black—gradually, then suddenly all at once—and started to rise. It became blue and bumpy around the edges, kind of like a blackberry or a diagram of an atom.

I’m never sick. It certainly never occurred to me to worry about something as inconsequential as my own skin. But my boyfriend, Max, noticed it when he was rubbing the knots out of my muscles after I’d spent a long day teaching multiple lessons and schooling multiple green horses. “You’d better have a doctor look at this thing,” he told me.

I put him off and put him off. After all, Max is a vet and a medical man so he trusts doctors. I don’t. Eventually he made the appointment for me himself. They told me they were going to book me immediately for surgery. “Look, I have to ride in a horse trial in two weeks,” I explained. “Can’t this wait?”

“You’ve already waited too long.” The doctor seemed surprised that I cared so much about what he referred to as a sports competition. He even said, “I had to put off running a marathon this year because my knee was acting up,” as if that was remotely comparable to a CIC (Concours International Combiné) in eventing.

What the fuck, is it going to turn into a strawberry rather than a blackberry if I don’t have it off in the next few days? I wondered. Is it going to explode?

The doctor told me all this stuff about how I could be awake the whole time and it was just an outpatient thing so I was all like, “Okay, so I can ride right after I have this?”

“Not really. There are some precancerous spots on your back you need to get rid of, too. Skin grafts may be necessary. You should be able to resume moderate activity within two weeks.”

Since I consider riding moderate activity, I told my boss, Freddie, about the surgery but he said, “No, Simon, really, I think it might be best if I rode Pearl as well. You were kind enough to ride Jazz when I had to be away. Surgery is surgery and if you don’t have medical clearance, it really wouldn’t be right for me to have you ride.”

Since Michael friggin’ Jung once won an event with a broken leg, I was convinced Freddie was being all hand-holdy and ridiculous. Lesson learned. When you’re hurt, say nothing and just keep going. Don’t look back, don’t look at your back. Give no fucks.

I mean, I’m the type of rider who once rode and won with what might may have been a teeny weenie concussion. Hospital or on, as George Morris says. Pain is weakness leaving the body, whoever said that.

But once Freddie knew about my operation, there was nothing I could do at that point. I ride for him, like I said. He’s the boss.


I mean, I rode for him. I can’t get used to saying that in the past tense.

Anyway, that’s how Freddie ended up riding Pearl. Even though she was my ride.


“Make sure to stay out of the sun,” the doctor said. “And to thank your ex-wife.”

Doctor still can’t remember I told him I ride for a living and telling me to stay out of the sun is like telling me not to breathe oxygen. He still can’t remember my ex was my boyfriend, not my wife. But he does remember to write me a prescription for some evil-smelling sunscreen you can’t get at a drugstore with an SPF of about one billion and five.

I decide to be honest with the guy. “I’m never going to remember to put this on. Maybe I can get more of those sunshirts or whatever that are supposed to keep the sun out. I do always wear a baseball cap.”

He peers at me. “Blonde, freckles, pale skin, and I assume with a name like O’Shaughnessy, at least part Irish?”

“Yeah. When I got burnt as a kid all the time they called it my ‘mick tan.’” My brother Sean had pretty pale skin too, in the winter, but he’d always get brown after riding in the sun all day. I never did. I just went from white to spontaneous human combustion mode, nothing in between.

“Well, with your coloring you’ve really won the melanoma lottery, my friend. Stay out of the sun. Or we’ll be seeing quite a lot of you in the future to scrape off more of those things.”

“Thanks. I always like to win when I play a game.”

“Stay safe,” says the doctor before he leaves, looking at my chart, not me. But I know that the sun isn’t going to be what kills me. That is very statistically unlikely if you’re an eventer.

The third book in the Fortune’s Fool series by Mary Pagones, Stars Hide Your Fires is available on

About the Author

Mary Pagones is a New Jersey-based writer and editor. An enthusiastic reader of all things pony-and horse-related throughout her life, she took up riding as an adult. Her previous works include The Horse is Never Wrong, Fortune’s Fool, and Quick Bright Things Come to Confusion. (All are currently available on Amazon).