NO SECRET SO CLOSE: A True Story of a Father’s Murder, a Mother’s Betrayal, a Family Torn Apart, and the Horses That Turned It All Around, by Claire Dorotik M.A.

NO SECRET SO CLOSE is the story of a the most unthinkable betrayal humanly possible — at only 24 years old, Claire Dorotik’s father has been murdered, her mother arrested, and now, in a sinister twist of fate, Claire’s mother points the finger at Claire, accusing her of killing her own father. Battling the feelings of loss, abandonment, terror, and dissociation, and also learning about them, Claire struggles to stay in her master’s program for psychotherapy. However, when Claire’s brothers also betray her and side with her mother, Claire is left all alone to care for the 18 horses she and her mother owned. As the story unfolds, what is revealed is the horses’ amazing capacity for empathy in the face of human trauma, and the almost psychic ability to provide the author with what had been taken from her. Arising from these horrifying circumstances, the most unthinkable heroes — the horses — show Claire that life is still worth living.

Excerpt from NO SECRET SO CLOSE:

We approached the house in a tense silence. Inadvertently, I glanced at the stalls underneath. I had long since made a habit of averting my eyes from them, focusing instead on the stairs. They were just too eerie. The old wooden stairs creaked as we stepped up them simultaneously, as if, at any moment, they might give way, sending us plummeting down.

Reaching the deck overlooking the riding arena, I gazed out, wishing I could be out there.

“Come on, Claire,” Alex snapped, pulling the sliding glass door open.

I followed him into the living room. Our white leather couches seemed horribly out of place, their willfully modern elegance out of step with the stained, tattered outdoor carpeting and pale grey walls. My mother, two aunts, and uncle all sat on the largest couch; my younger brother and older brother’s two friends, who had come for support the day after he arrived, were gathered on the smaller couch. Everyone was on the edge of their seat, faces nervous and expectant. Alex walked directly to my father’s favorite chair facing the TV. Clearly, he wanted to get this over with. I perched myself on the ottoman, closest to the door.

Rick Epsom, the lead homicide detective, spoke slowly and mechanically, explaining that they had completed their investigation. But his tone was different now, as if winning us over were no longer the objective. He was in his early fifties, but his face had a boyish quality that had disguised any ill intent. He was indifferent now as if explaining basic principles of physiology rather than the pertinent details of my father’s murder. He moved his eyes slowly and deliberately to each of us as he spoke: They had found blood in the house, he said. A spray of it had been cleaned from the master bedroom walls. My father had been killed in the house, he told us plainly, watching for a reaction– bludgeoned and strangled, and then dumped in the woods. He paused, taking in our evident shock. The news might have been easier to take had he appeared at all upset by it. As it was, he expressed no sympathy, no consolation. If anything, he almost seemed to be smirking. I wondered whether anyone else had noticed.

Finally, he looked straight at my mother. “Jane Dorotik,” he said. “You’re under arrest for the murder of your husband.”

The ottoman sunk underneath me. I could hardly breathe. I was sure of it now: In Epsom’s face I saw clear contempt. It was as if he had, in that moment, categorized us as inhuman; “you stupid, stupid people,” he seemed to be thinking, unable to hide his delight in the revelation. This was a personal conquest to him, clearly, and we were the conquered. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he stepped forward now to mete over the punishment himself. How could he treat us cordially, one minute, and then the next, look at us as if we were vermin?

I was enraged; only two days earlier this same detective had asked me about how to rehab his knee, and I had given the advice freely, tried to help him in the best way I could; after all, he was there to help me right? We had been standing in the u-shaped kitchen, leaning against the pale green counters facing each other. I had offered to make him coffee, imagining he must be tired after working thirty-six hours straight. He watched me grind the beans and take a coffee filter out of the cupboard.

“How much do you run?” he asked.

“Much as I can,” I said, suddenly having to struggle to hold back the tears; the mere thought of running summoned up my father, and he used to say the same thing when anyone asked him how much he ran.

“I used to run a lot, too,” Epsom said. “But then my knee started giving me trouble. Wish I could get back into it.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked, grateful for anything that might keep my mind off my dad.

“Oh, well I get this pain right here.” He pointed to the front of his knee.

I bent down and applied pressure to the patellar tendon. “This hurt?”

He jumped back, surprised “Yeah–right there.”

I stood. “Most likely patellar tendonitis.”

He looked concerned. “Is that bad?’

“No, it’s a pretty easy fix,” I nodded, “mostly dependent on stretching and ice.”

Now, as he sat there gloating over his accusation of my mother, I wondered how I could have been so stupid. I’d treated him like a friend and trusted him to find my father’s killer. He was supposed to be our champion of justice. We’d thought he might restore a sense of safety to our lives. But the man I thought was a friend was clearly an adversary.

The back of my neck was cold again with this lurking, uninvited presence in the house. Everything looked wrong to me. I was supposed to be able to trust these detectives. Now I wondered what kind of information they had on any of us. We had given them whatever they wanted, after all, answered all of their questions, helped in every way we knew how to, all in the hopes it might help them find some piece of information that would tell us what had happened to our father. And all the while, they were looking at us, infiltrating our lives to use anything they might find against us.

My mother’s face was frozen, as if the detective’s accusation had yet to even sink in. She just sat there, eyes wide open, the color drained from her face, as if she’d stopped breathing.

“You’re gonna be coming with us,” Epsom said, his smirk tightening as he stepped toward my mother.

“Well, what – how – how can this be?” she stuttered, coming back to life.

The detective was unfazed by her questions. “Will you please step outside ma’am?”

Aunt Bonnie stood up. “Look, there’s no way. You don’t have the right.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have ask you to sit down,” Epsom said, obviously taken back by my aunt’s anger.

“No, this is wrong! I’m not going to sit down.”

“You will, or we will arrest you, too.” Now he was back in command.

My aunt sat back down, biting her lip. By now we had all realized that the only thing we could do was to sit there and remain quiet. These people were not on our side. The fear in the room was like a toxic gas. My heart was racing. I wanted more than anything to get out of this house.

Alex was looking at Nick, searching for his reaction. But Nick just looked stunned and afraid. His eyes darted around. I’d never seen him like this. Nick was the one who took on everything with a bravery that, frankly, scared the rest of us. He was the surfer, the snowboarder, the first man to do a double layout backflip in competition. We’d all watch him on ESPN, holding our breath in amazement, not so much at the fact that he could do it, as the fact that we were in any way related to this athletic phenomenon. He had this celestial sort of quality that acted almost like a magnet. Everywhere he went, people flocked to him.

Yet he was also the one no one seemed to be able to catch. He could never be found in the family, and we always joked that we didn’t fit into his “social calendar.” My only solution was to take him surfing. In fact, finding a way into Nick’s life was the only reason I ever started the sport, which had, frankly, always terrified me. I might not have seen him otherwise, aside from the occasional Sunday morning when he would sleep in after being out late the night before. I would bring him breakfast in bed then, iced coffee and pancakes. I always wanted to comfort him, but held back. Now Alex’s stare back at me told me that Nick was not to be disturbed. He was zeroing in on his younger brother, as if Nick were his possession.

Feeling utterly alone in a room full of family, I pushed the ottoman backwards and walked out to the deck. I looked out at the arena, furious at how powerless I was to change anything that was happening to us. I wanted to climb over the rail and jump off of the ledge. The drop was maybe twenty feet, but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to be here.

Just then, the detective escorted my mother past me, and the look of abject fear in her eyes went through me like a knife. I couldn’t help her now, just as I hadn’t been able to help her when I was eleven and, falling off her horse, she was knocked unconscious. I dragged her to the side of the road, tied her mare’s reins around her neck and sent the horse home in hopes that this would alert my father. I’d seen it all happening and there was nothing I could do.

Even now, as I watched her walk away beside Epsom, the limp in her gait was noticeable, a token of a previous tragic turn. In that moment, the thought of if she really did kill my father never crossed my mind. It wasn’t even a question. Sure, they had argued, even violently at times, but my mom wasn’t malicious. She was the kind of person that fought for victims, not created them. And she was no match for my Dad, a former college athlete, and strong runner. She’d always seemed vulnerable to me, even in the course of day-to-day life. Yet now, what she faced seemed insurmountable.

And guilty or not, I couldn’t bear the thought of her suffering. I had always loved my mother. Was I now supposed to look at her the way the detectives did? I just couldn’t make myself do that. She was just too fragile, or maybe I was. We had shared so much, she and I.

My hand reached out to open the latch of the first stall. My favorite mare Sylvie startled slightly as I entered, her eyes widening.

She raised her head up, inquisitively.

I threw my arms around her neck, and she stood steady, holding my weight.

“Who’s the orphan now?” I murmured into her coat.

She turned her head back toward me, curving her neck around me.

“Remember those early days?” I said. “Every fours hours, we had to bottle feed you 11:00 o’clock, 3:00 o’clock, 7:00 o’clock.” I buried my face in the sweet smell of her mane. “And then built the stall out of plywood just for you, so you wouldn’t get your legs stuck in the fence.”

She nuzzled my back softly.

“And we had to put a foal blanket on you at night because you would get so cold.”

She pushed her nose against my back.

“You looked so lonely in there all by yourself.”

She pushed a little more.

“Do you remember, your mom tried to kick you when you went to nurse? Remember that? She missed out, huh?”

Sylvie just held her head firmly against my back, nuzzling softly.

“Kind of looks like my mom’s gonna miss out too,” I said, using her mane to sop up the tears.

Mom and I had shared moments of intense competition with our nerves stretched out to very the limit. There were times I think we both questioned whether the horses were really ready to face the demands placed on them. I was always the one pushing the horses to give just a little more, and Mom was always the solid base. She instilled confidence before a ride, and provided solace when things didn’t go well. She had these little things she would do, whispering in the horse’s ear just before we entered the ring, or encouraging them under her breath as she videotaped the ride.

Watching the tapes of Sylvie and me later, I’d hear sharp whispers of encouragement over the footage: “Come on little one, jump.”

See, Sylvie wasn’t much bigger than a pony. Standing at only 14.3 hands–in other words, 4’11” at the shoulder. Still we were competing in the Mini Prix class, where the jumps themselves were 4’3”. The other horses were always twice her size, and I know we were pushing the limits of what this little mare could jump. But she was all heart. Actually my mom always said that the two of us together were all heart. Sylvie and I knew each other almost better than we knew ourselves. There were jumps when I didn’t get her to the right place to take off from, and she would somehow get over cleanly, stretching as far as she possibly could to miss the rail. Then there were times she would hesitate just a little as we faced a big jump, and I would sit up and press my legs into her sides, and whisper, just like my mom, “Come on, little one, jump.”

When I finally outgrew Sylvie, we retired her to breeding. Retirement wasn’t for her though; she took to motherhood with a mission.

We used to keep the mares and foals out in pasture during the day and bring them in at night. Their pasture adjoined two others that held the yearlings and two-year-olds. Often, I’d come home from school to find Sylvie in the pasture with the yearlings, having just jumped the 4’6” fence and now proceeding to coerce her foal to join her. Her foal would be frantic, unsure of what to do, while Sylvie would be running and playing with the yearlings as if to say, Come on, look how much fun we’re having. Then she would run back over to the fence, reassure her foal, and take off again leaping and running. We had three pastures in a row, and sometimes, she would jump the next fence, too, into the farthest pasture from her foal, getting all of those horses all riled up, before jumping back over to join her foal again.

Schooling the young prospects in the jump chute, we always let Sylvie go through, too, just to make her feel special. She had won so much for us; we wanted to honor a proven champion. And what pure joy it was to watch her navigate the jump chute. No matter what we set up – tall airy verticals, big wide oxers (jumps with both height and width), tight combinations – Sylvie never rubbed a rail.

Of course, as soon as the fences got up to four feet or so, she would jump out of the arena, as if to say, Okay, I’m good. That’s all I needed. Following which she would stand there, resting a hind leg, pleasantly munching grass. She just wanted to be included.

Sylvie had always wanted to be a part of what was going on. Back in her competing days, when we loaded the horses up to go to a show, she would literally run up into the trailer. She could always tell when we were leaving the show, too, and would hesitate before loading, as if disappointed it was all over. Showing was absolutely what Sylvie had been meant to do. And she could always tell when she’d done well, because she would hop and shake her head as she finished the round, throwing her front legs out. She was just a stellar competitor, giving nothing less than 100% every single time. Often, she won enough prize money to pay for her own entries, along with those of all the other young horses we’d brought to the show as well.

She had been my first big success, due more to her talent than mine. When I first started showing her, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t had any formal training, so for me, learning to jump was purely a matter of trial and error. Every time I made an error though, Sylvie would simply try harder, doing everything she could to jump clean. Indeed, it was probably on account of my errors that she learned how to jump so well, so reliably. I guess she could have chosen to just stop at the jumps, but there was no way she ever would. Giving up just wasn’t in her nature. That’s what made me love her so much.

She was a crowd favorite at several of the horse shows we took her to, and it was hard for both of us when it was time to retire her.

“Claire and Sylvie have a reputation for doing very well in this event,” I whispered to her, quoting an announcer that had been a fan of hers, as I stroked her neck, “and we’ll be watching them closely.”

She stretched her neck forward, eager for some more stroking.

“And we couldn’t let that Oscar horse beat us,” I said, scratching her neck.

She tilted her head to the side, focusing one dark eye on me.

“Didn’t matter that he was almost six inches taller than you. You were too quick off the ground for him.” I scratched underneath Sylvie’s neck as she stretched her head up appreciatively.

“We could leave from the base, or a stride off the base and you still wouldn’t touch the rail.” I looked up to get a glimpse of her eye. “And you remember what the other rider’s trainer told her? ‘You can’t beat her. She’s too quick.’”

Sylvie lowered her head and looked at me.

I rubbed her forehead “Her own trainer told her she couldn’t beat you. I don’t think anyone could.” I put my head against hers.

She nuzzled my chest softly.

“Then we had to tell Mom to stop boasting. Do you remember?”

It was so hard to think of those days ending. To see my mom, the same woman who had shared all of these experiences with me, being taken to jail…it was more than I could handle. It felt as if a part of me were being taken to jail, too. If she was as bad as the detectives thought, were all of the years we’d spent together a lie?

I loved riding and showing these horses more than anything. Often, it was often the only thing that felt good. Now I questioned whether I’d been wrong to feel that way. Yet it was because so little else felt good that I rode. Now I felt bad for feeling bad, and bad for trying to fix it.

I just stood there, my eyes focused on Sylvie’s, and time seemed to stand still. Such a strange experience. I wanted to leave what was painful about that moment, yet at the same time, I wanted it to go on forever. Time was now the enemy. Any movement, any tick of the clock, and look what could happen. What I was already shouldering was bad enough, sure, but what could so easily happen in the next moment, or the moment after, might be worse yet. And so I had gone from wanting time to pass quickly, hoping it might offer resolution, to wanting to know nothing more. I’d heard enough. All I wanted now was to stand there, watching Sylvie’s sides rise and fall with each sweet breath.

Just then, a little kick under Sylvie’s ribs caught my attention. She turned to look as well. Her sides were stretched about as far as possible. She was due any day now, her underbelly swollen with the weight of the foal. Already, it had dropped down, a sure sign that it was coming soon. Her udder, too, was already full, and the look on her face told me she was ready to be done with this.

She heaved a great equine sigh.

“Got a lively one in there, eh?” I said, slowly braiding together the strands of her forelock.

She took a deep breath, as if this one was taking a little more energy than the other three foals she’d already foaled.

“Don’t tell me this is too much for you, girl. Come on. Fore you know it, you’ll have her jumping out of the pasture, too.” I let the braid fall and cupped her eyes with my hands, her lashes tickling my palms.

“I can just see it now,” I said softly, “you’ll be leaping and playing, showing her just how it’s done.”

She looked at me curiously, as if we both knew it wasn’t she who needed the reassuring.

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