Everything about this day has felt different from the beginning. It all started when her mother made bacon and eggs for breakfast. They usually only have bacon on Sundays. And because of the bacon, well sort of because of the bacon, Abigail is now on a different school bus with different kids going to her aunt’s house after school instead of home.
She balls up her jacket, and covers her mouth and nose with it—to block out the odor of Bubba Henderson. Bubba is in the same sixth-grade class as she is, but she knows he is not eleven. She overheard some of the girls in gym class whispering that he is thirteen. Maybe even fourteen. His bulk almost fills the whole seat. She is plastered up against the window and her ankle keeps rapping, rhythmically with the motion of the bus, on the cold metal near the floor. At least he is ignoring her. He and a bunch of other boys are having some kind of conversation but it sounds like a pack of dogs howling. Every so often, the bus driver—a terrifying woman almost twice as big as her father—shouts, “Pipe down,” and they all snigger.
She tries to read but can’t manage to turn the pages and keep her jacket to her nose at the same time, so she watches a stream of even uglier houses than her own square-box house (on a block of countless other identical square-box houses) whiz by out the window. She is thinking about the horse in the book and the chocolate milk she spilled on her new white turtleneck at lunch and the perfect but annoying girl in the book-with-the-horse when the bus lurches to a stop.
The driver snatches a piece of paper from the dash and hollers, “Abigail? Abigail Rushlow!” as the pack of boys barrels down the aisle. “This is you, missy. Off you go.”
After not even looking at her the entire ride, Bubba faces her and says, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Or maybe he says something like you know you want to scratch my itch. She can’t be sure. She barely has time to observe the massive swollen pimple on the end of his nose before he turns away and hurtles himself after the other boys. She is so overwhelmed by the train of images speeding through her brain—Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, bacon, horses, The Wizard of Oz, having to get off at a strange bus stop—that she stumbles at the steps and drops her book. The beautiful girl and the beautiful horse stare up at her from the dirty floor of the bus, and for a moment Abigail is paralyzed with grief. Her mother is right—in all likelihood, she will never have a horse of her own. Someone shoves her in the back and says, “Getta move on, stupid.”
“No pushing, Anthony. You think I can’t see you, mister? You want detention tomorrow?” The bus driver leans over and for a split second Abigail is certain that she is going to clobber someone, but, instead she picks up Abigail’s book, hands it to her, and, shockingly, winks.
The next thing she knows she has been vomited out onto a muddy road. The bus squeals its door shut and heaves away. The boy called Anthony catches up with Bubba and they both look back at her and shout something she can’t make out. They laugh like donkeys and run off. She is left standing with her arms wrapped around a clumsy bundle of her things. She wrestles with her jacket and gets her book in her school bag and feels like a million invisible eyes are scrutinizing her blundering.
She has never walked to Aunt Jeanne’s house before. Despite the simplicity of her mother’s directions—straight down the road, Aunt Jeanne’s will be on the left—she can’t seem to make her feet move. Massive black clouds race across the sky and the rapid blinking on and off of the sun—bright, shadow, light, dark—is magnifying the already scary feeling of turbulence that has been scudding around inside of her all day.
When she wrote the date on her math paper this morning, March suddenly looked like a foreign word that she had never seen before in her life, like the combination of letters made absolutely no sense. The year, 1977, may as well be floating untethered—unrelated to any other year in history. And the weather can’t decide what it’s doing—is it spring? Is it still winter? Her mother had an unexpected day off from work. Then the phone rang, and then she didn’t.
The boys have vanished, and it is deathly quiet on the road, a lonely forsaken quiet, as if everyone has given up on this place. She starts walking and thinks about The Wizard of Oz again and the scene at the beginning when Dorothy and Toto are running away—their slow shuffle, the ominous atmosphere. For as long as she can remember, Abigail has imagined her aunt’s house to be a gingerbread castle, with its white frosting and bits of colored candy at the windows and princess turret. But now, the fairy-tale shimmer is disappearing before her very eyes. This neighborhood is shabby and thrown together, without a plan. Not old in a good way—old-fashioned or magical with stories of long-ago farm girls and their horses—but just…old. A lot of houses like Aunt Jeanne’s, with white picket fences and gnarled elderly trees, mishmash together with what look like buildings where men work on machinery. The large open areas confuse her. They could be fields, maybe for animals, but they appear unused and full of garbage.
By the side of the road, a tiny tuft of crocuses is pushing its way out of a mountain of left-over filthy snow. Abigail is overcome with the urge to sit down next to them and weep.
They were having bacon and eggs and planning an afternoon of shopping. Even her father was eating with them because his shift was different. Because her mother had the day off. She and her little sister could make lion noises as loud as they wanted because their father was not sleeping for work. And then their mother was annoyed and arguing with someone on the phone, and then arguing with Aunt Jeanne on the phone. And then she dumped her half-eaten plate of breakfast in the garbage. And now Abigail has to remember a list of curt instructions about what kind of Easter dresses she and her sister need to get with their aunt.
The sun emerges and the light is amplified so suddenly and so intensely that she expects music to swell. The stormy clouds have calmed and drifted apart into delicate balls of cotton, and the sky has turned a deep blue, like heaven. A miracle mirage has appeared in the road. As far as she can see, hundreds of little pools glitter with reflected miniature universes of sky and cloud and sunlight. Something makes her stamp her foot in a puddle, and she feels a guilty thrill at dashing the universe into colored sprays of water. As she watches the mud settle, the sky reappears and this fills her with joy. She hops from one puddle to another and another. When her shoes are covered in mud, a twinge of worry plucks at her. But she has socks on. And her mother doesn’t know that the money she gave her is in her shoe.
She can see her aunt’s house now, in the distance, peeking out from behind some bushes. She trots like a pony. Then trots like she is riding a pony. She fills her lungs with what feels and smells like spring after all. It doesn’t matter that the girl in the book is idiotic; Abigail wants to be her—to have her lovely name and to be able to walk out of her own back door and see a gorgeous black horse, half wild but not that wild, appear from a beautiful little wilderness woods behind her sprawling horse-ranch-home, and approach her, as if they were destined, created, to be together. She wants to live in a place where wires do not divide the sky into neat geometric shapes, where cars do not spew pollution into the air, where soda bottles and candy wrappers do not litter the roads. She wants. And wants and wants. And runs hard now, like she is riding a racehorse in the biggest race of the year—of all time.
HORSE FOR SALE, MUST GO TODAY!! She almost falls over the sign, which is perched on a makeshift tripod contraption. She struggles to catch her breath and stares at the sloppily scrawled words. A horse! It really says that! Her body feels like one giant heartbeat. She can hardly believe that she is going to see a real horse, in person. Her eyes rocket back and forth, searching. On the other side of a teetering, caving fence, old cans and hunks of wire poke out of scruffy grass. Could a horse even be safe in a place like this? Across this barren patch of yard, an old shack, that could possibly be a small barn, leans toward a rickety house, as if they are both too weary to go on. A warehouse and a parking lot sprawl behind it all. She sees no signs of life, not even a squirrel. She realizes, then, that the sign is probably old. Disappointment assails her, and for some reason she thinks of the crocuses, and has to make herself stop thinking of all of it, all over again. If she doesn’t get to her aunt’s soon, she will be in trouble. She turns away and feels like she is physically ripping herself from the fence.
She glances back at the sign and notices something written, in what looks like crayon, under MUST GO TODAY—REAL CHEeP. She wiggles her toes and feels the wad of money in her shoe. She turns back to the fence, searches for a gate, opens it, and walks toward the house. Her brain begins to ask her outraged questions, but she ignores it. She imagines it floating along next to her as her body marches up to the door and knocks.
“What do you want?” The words explode out of the house as the door opens with such force that it bounces on its hinges. Abigail’s brain leaps back into her body and freezes. A man looms in the semidarkness. She watches him, for what seems like an eternity, struggle to focus two fiercely red eyes. Impossibly large, gray whiskers protrude out of his cheeks, like a porcupine. A stench rolls off his unwashed clothing—much, much worse than Bubba Henderson.
“Well? Can’t you speak, you stupid little. . .” He mumbles and calls her a curse word, which jolts her. He yanks at the trembling door and his hand makes her think, claw. Before she can react, the door is closing in her face.
“Wait,” she manages to squeeze out. “Wait,” a little louder, and somehow she musters up the guts to push the door back toward him. He reappears so quickly she has to take a step back.
“Okay. Okay. What?” He squints his red, red eyes—blinks them spasmodically.
“Your sign says you have a horse for sale.”
He rolls his eyes and snorts and breathes the fiery smell of what she guesses is beer. Dragon.
“Your parents know you’re here?” He squirms, like any minute he is going to lose interest and retreat into his lair.
“I have the money in my shoe.” She whips it off, sock and all, and holds up the damp bunch of bills. The chill on her bare foot throws her off balance, but she mustn’t waver.
His eyes widen, exaggerating the jerky blinking. For a second, and a second only, it seems as if he is doing it on purpose—acting the role of scary monster. Until his hovering feels like it will swallow her up. Her stomach seizes and she has to will her lunch to stay down.
“Give it to me.”
“You want the piece of shit—I mean, the horse, don’t you?”
He snatches her money, paws through the first few bills, then folds it all back up and shoves it in his pants pocket. He grabs the door, and she is overwhelmed with the certitude that he is about to slam it in her face. Her own stupidity astonishes her. There is no horse and her mother is going to murder her for handing away her hard-earned money to a man who swears at children. But instead, he is muscling the door open wide enough to maneuver himself out of his cave. He towers over her and the sun in her eyes muffles her vision and she thinks Big, big dragon. Fear slices into her. The urge to run pulls at her, but her yearning roots her feet to the ground.
“Okay. Let’s go and get him outta here. Movin’ truck’ll be here any minute.” He stomps away, toward the shed. He turns back and bellows, “Jesus, hurry up already,” and what sounds like another string of curse words. “What’s the matter with you anyway? You want the horse or not?”
She fumbles with her sock and shoe, limping after him. Excitement jumbles up with the horror in her stomach. A horse! It is real! She runs through a list of names worthy of any of the horse heroes in her books—names for brave, beautiful steeds.
She experiences another thrust of fear when, instead of entering the shed, he disappears behind it. Where is he leading her? Nevertheless, she follows. When he abruptly stops, she nearly runs into him and slides in the mud. Instinctively, she clutches at something to keep from falling.
“Don’t touch me,” he growls. She realizes that she is clinging to a handful of his grimy shirt. She may as well have stuck her hand in a bucket of maggots. Frantic, she lets go and wishes she could wash herself.
“Do you have to be so bloody close? Get outta my way.” He swipes at her as if he is going to shove her aside, but she manages to dodge out of his way without sliding again.
The man unlatches the gate of a small pen, hidden from the road by the shed. He steps back and with a mock flourish and a snotty snicker, says, “There he is. Name is Pete.”
Her first thought, which she will later be sorry for, is that the name is so ordinary. After that, she loses control of all rational thinking.
The pen is awash in a sea of mud. On the far side, tied to a broken fence, stands a horse so skinny and so dirty she couldn’t have imagined him if she tried. His head droops to his knees and his mane, a mess of mud-caked hair that looks like strings, obscures his face. A horse. Her horse. Holy crap.
The enormity of what she has done has paralyzed her. The man is shouting at her, but phrases only occasionally make themselves clear amid the roar in her head.
“What’s the matter with you, you so-and-so?”
“Go get him!”
She is made of stone. And he is going to strike her. Or worse. But instead, he storms over to the animal. He flails at the rope until it comes untied, jerks the horse’s head viciously, and hauls him over to where she stands. Throwing the lead rope at her, he rejects the words like they are venom, “He’s yours. Get him out of here.”
A truck thunders up to the house—a sonic punctuation. The man spits, with a hideous squelching noise, into the grass. He glares at her and then huffs off. For a few moments, she can hear him ranting to himself. Then she is alone with Pete.
She clutches the rope until her knuckles are white, until its roughness scrapes the tender skin of her palm. Panic is filling up every inch of her, like the mud in the pen, leeching into her extremities. Her bunched-up sock chafes the sole of her foot. Pete sags next to her. His entire spirit could be draining away for all she knows. He had not reacted at all to the man’s violence—no rage, no rebellion. Nothing. He lifts his head a little and looks at her with what she thinks could be an expression of curiosity. His eyes are bottomless black holes. He blinks and she notices with surprise that he has eyelashes.
An elbow jabs into the flesh of her arm. As if the sound on a radio is suddenly switched back on, she can hear a great commotion coming from the yard. The man has returned. He jabs at her again. “I said, get him outtta here, or I’ll call the cops.”
This strikes her as being funny in a bizarre way. He doesn’t much seem like a monster any more, just a mean slobby old guy.
“Guess we’d better go, Pete.” They are sharing a joke—united—fellow conspirators.
“Let’s go fella.” She tries to summon some kind of fairy-tale courage. She tugs at the rope, tentative. Pete stands still, watching her. She wonders how hard she is supposed to be pulling. She tries again. He still doesn’t move. His eyelids drift down. The yelling and slamming in the far yard is deafening.
“How can you sleep through this?” A knot of hysteria is rising up her throat. Oddly, this makes her angry and she swallows hard. She pulls at the lead, with purpose. Pete’s eyes flicker open. His ear twitches when a sparrow dips low and flies by his head. He takes a step.
“That wasn’t so bad.” She guides him around the shed. His hooves, plunking down next to her feet, unnerve her. She has no idea if he is large or not as far as horses go, but he seems mammoth to her. Can he see her out of the one eye or does he need to turn his head?
Out in the yard, several more menacing-looking men are throwing what looks like mostly junk from the house into the truck. She maneuvers around them and steers Pete toward the gate. She feels disoriented, like she is wading through a dream. She grows increasingly certain that they are all staring at her. Someone is bound to demand what she is doing. When she can no longer bear it, she glances back over her shoulder. No one is paying any attention to her. The man is raging at the driver of the truck.
As Pete walks along obediently, she feels the faintest beginning of something blooming inside of her. They are both dirty, have plain everyday names, and are walking through the ugliest yard she has ever seen. But she is strangely comfortable with him. And she thinks he might be comfortable with her. After all, he doesn’t seem to notice or care about her inexperience. She makes a vow to take care of her new friend. She knows in her twisted, anxious gut that it is a vow that she will have to fight for.
When she gets to the gate, she has to stop Pete from treading on her school bag lying in the weeds. She has no recollection of leaving it there. Her jacket is gone, dropped and forgotten somewhere in this awful place. It is cold now. And the miracle sun has vanished behind a steel blanket of cloud. Winter again. She figures the best thing to do is get to Aunt Jeanne’s. Her aunt will know what to do next. Abigail tries to juggle the lead rope and her school bag in one hand in order to grab the HORSE FOR SALE sign. Something makes her want to keep it. She regards the road ahead of them. The mud puddles look ready to freeze solid.
“Let’s go home, Pete.”
The rock hits the metal part of the outer door that has the screen on top. It makes a hollow, tinny, vaguely echoing sort of bang. The finality of the sound reassures Abigail and she throws the next one with much less timidity. She lobs the following few with a force that begins to release some of her pent-up tension. From the bottom of the porch steps, the door looks like the apex of an impossible-to-scale mountain. Maybe she should attempt to tie Pete to the porch railing. She studies the thickness of the lead rope. Could she knot it tight enough? She peers at Pete. He looks back at her, calmly. She guesses that he wouldn’t even go anywhere if she just puts the rope down. She will try one more rock. She bends down, picks up a large one and draws her arm back—at the same time that the inner door flies open. She twists her arm behind her and drops the rock as if it is a flaming hunk of coal.
“For God’s sake, what is going on out here?” Aunt Jeanne appears in the doorway, wearing a facial expression that would put the fear of God into an army of rock throwers.
Abigail has expected her aunt to be annoyed about the rocks, but she knows from experience that her aunt’s occasional bad tempers are not to be feared. Her aunt is a great hugger and Abigail yearns for an embrace. Guidance can come later. The anger on her aunt’s face, however, is transforming into something a lot scarier. Abigail watches her move like she is in a slow motion scene in a movie—like when the kids at school, usually Bubba and his pals, slow down the film projector as soon as the teacher leaves the room. Her aunt opens the screen door—about as slowly as it is possible to do—and inches out onto the porch. She doesn’t flinch when the door snaps shut behind her. Her pretty golden-brown hair with the shaggy bangs, that Abigail envies, flies loose from its ponytail in a gust of wind and she doesn’t even notice.
“Whose horse is that?” It looks like the words are strangling her aunt. They hover, menacing, while Abigail tries to make her voice work.
“Mine.” Obviously the biggest understatement of all time. She can’t even begin to think how she will ever explain what has happened to her.
After what seems like hours of watching a storm play over her aunt’s face, the dam bursts and words gush. What do you mean mine—what did you do—how did you do this—oh my god—much, much more of the same.
Finally, she says, “Your mother is going to kill me,” and stops talking.
Abigail hadn’t considered the possibility of her aunt’s murder. Her own, yes, absolutely. The thought of facing her parents petrifies her. She drops her eyes and stares down at her ruined shoes. She is in so much trouble.
“Okay. Out with it. There must be some explanation you can give. And, trust me, it better be good because you’ll be giving it again to your parents.”
Aunt Jeanne pulls her sweater closed, yanks the sash into a knot, and stands with her arms folded around her body, bouncing a little from foot to foot. She shakes the loose hair out of her face with an angry toss of her head.
So, no hug. Abigail wishes her aunt would come down off the porch. She feels as if she and Pete are shrinking, diminishing. Then it’s as if they are growing huge and awkward with no place to hide. She manages to get the whole story out while trying not to look into her aunt’s eyes. It mostly sounds idiotic, even to her. She tries to focus on Pete, who is clearly oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. She tightens her hold on the rope, and risks a glance at Aunt Jeanne.
“All right then, back he goes. I’ll go with you.” This last bit does not sound reassuring, but more like a threat to whomever dares mess with her. “Let me get Annie.” As her aunt turns toward the door, Abigail hears her mumble—God, that guy is such a fuck-up, takes a serious drunk to sell a horse to an eleven-year-old kid.
The F-word feels like a slap. Oddly enough, it has not occurred to her that she would have to return Pete. The grief she thought she felt on the school bus was nothing compared to what she feels now. It is harder to squeeze out, “Wait!” than it had been to waltz up to a strange door and buy a horse.
Aunt Jeanne turns back. Abigail knows that all her aunt can see is a girl with frizzy hair, and mud and chocolate all over her school clothes, and an ugly, skinny horse who can’t even hold his head up. What is wrong with him anyway? Doesn’t he understand what is happening? Abigail wishes that they could look like the girl and the horse on her book cover. Her hair would be flowing in some imaginary breeze and Pete’s coat would be sleek and shiny. She tugs upward on the lead rope to pull his head up. He only lifts it a little, but he does turn toward her with that curious look that has already become so endearing. She feels warmth spread through her and realizes the sun has reappeared, as if just for them. It makes Pete’s eyes shine, and they remind her of how the mud puddles had reflected the world. She and Pete both look back up at Aunt Jeanne, at exactly the same time.
Abigail thinks that, just maybe, her aunt’s tone has changed. Aunt Jeanne stands very still and seems to be studying them. But the sun disappears and a chill sweeps away the warmth. Pete drops his head. Aunt Jeanne comes down the steps and, finally, puts her arms around her. Abigail starts sobbing, in big soundless gulps. Her aunt stays mercifully silent as she holds her. With her head buried in her aunt’s chest, she can tell that her aunt is smoking again and wonders if her mother knows. This rather random thought distracts her and makes her feel suddenly off guard. She breaks away as the lead rope slips out of her hand. She snatches it and clutches it to her chest, to her heart, with both hands.
Aunt Jeanne smiles and says, “He’s still there. You know, he’s a kinda sweet looking guy really. Bet he wouldn’t look bad cleaned up.”
Abigail is full of gratitude for her aunt’s words, but she also knows that they will still be marching back down the road to face porcupine-man. She attempts a smile because she knows it is expected. She wipes at her wet face. Her hands come away smeared with dirt. She notices muck all over the front of Aunt Jeanne’s sweater.
“Sorry about the dirt.”
“It’s not important.”
“Well, I am. Sorry.”
A few seconds pass. Then, Aunt Jeanne cradles Abigail’s cheeks in the palms of her hands and looks straight into her face. The gold flecks in her aunt’s eyes mesmerize her.
“Now I want you to listen to me very carefully, okay?”
“Uh huh,” she mumbles. She isn’t dumb. She knows what’s coming, but she also likes the tender feel of her aunt’s hands.
“He seems like a nice fella, he really does and I know how badly you must want this.”
No you don’t.
“But an animal like this is a huge responsibility. And no one in this family has the means to take care of him. This is not a storybook. You cannot do something like this on a whim. Actions have consequences.”
“I know you may find this hard to believe but your parents and I know about disappointment.”
What a shocker, like she doesn’t hear this from her mother at least ten times a day.
“We will sit down and talk about this later, before we call your mom if you want. But right now, he must go back. Do you understand me?”
She gives a tiny nod. She now wishes that her aunt would let go of her face.
A crash and the sound of shrieking come from inside the house: “Aun’ie Jeanne, me wanna nuther cookie.”
“Annie. Shit. Oh sorry, Ab.”
Why sorry now when the F-word had been so much worse? Abigail knows that she can get her aunt into some serious trouble with her mother over the swearing, and the smoking. But what does anything matter now, when she will have to give up Pete, who is placidly watching several rabbits bound across the lawn.
Aunt Jeanne slams back into the house, followed by the sound of something shattering. Abigail thinks that no way, when she was three, did she get away with what Annie does.
After a lot of screaming about cookies and cartoons and not wanting to go, along with a continuous hum of coaxing and pleading, Aunt Jeanne reappears with Annie balanced on her hip. Annie holds onto her blankie with a casual, queenly entitlement—her other thumb jammed in her mouth. Her eyes are red and swollen, but her expression is surly. Even wildly messy and damp, her blond ringlets still make a perfect halo around her face. This strikes Abigail as being so cosmically unfair that she is momentarily overcome with fury. But then she remembers the morning and being lions and the smell of bacon and how excited Annie had been about the Easter Bunny. Her sister still doesn’t know that there will be no shopping, no stuffed bunny, no hamburgers or fries or ice cream.
Aunt Jeanne struggles to juggle the door shut without dropping Annie or the handful of cookies. Annie is almost face to face with Pete before she even notices him. Her eyes widen and her thumb pops out of her mouth.
“Annie, it’s Pete. It’s a horse Annie, a real horse.” Abigail guides Pete’s head closer to her sister. A hectic glee ignites on Annie’s face. It looks, for a second, like she will explode into laughter—until Pete blows air out of his nostrils with a loud snuffle. Annie opens her mouth wide and screams at the top of her lungs. Pete lurches a couple of steps backward and throws his head up. Annie drops her blanket. Hysteria ensues.
It takes them several long minutes to get Annie to calm down and to maneuver Pete around and out of the driveway. Periodically, Annie arches her back and struggles to get down and Aunt Jeanne says things like—no way are we ruining more shoes in this family and think twice about running off young lady. Or she just gives her another cookie. The smell of the cookies that are in her sister’s hand, all over her face, even in her hair, sickens Abigail. She doesn’t think she will ever bring herself to eat a chocolate chip cookie again.
After a period of appearing to be distracted by her own thoughts, Aunt Jeanne asks, “So how much money did your mother give you today anyway?”
Abigail doesn’t think a response will matter much at this point.
Her aunt says, “Oh never mind.”
With her garden shovel, Jeanne scoops up a pile of horse manure and adds it to the growing heap in her garbage can. God only knows what she will do with it when it’s full. It amazes her how much a horse can shit in two days. Her nosy neighbor, Gertrude—of the brush rollers and floral housecoats—asked her again this morning what she is going to do with the horse and is she sure the township says it’s okay for her to keep it here temporarily; and Jeanne had lost her temper and told her to mind her own damn business—she is dealing with it. She is only partially sorry. Gertrude has been getting under her skin for years.
The head of Gertrude, in her curlers, in the middle of a rant—body-less like that of the Cheshire Cat—hovers in Jeanne’s thoughts. It morphs into the acne scarred, irate face of her editor—admonishing her about her deadline. She flings the shovel up against the can, with a forceful clang, hoping to banish them both. At the noise, Pete lifts his head out of the oversized plant pot that he is eating from. He chomps and switches his tail and appears to be pondering the state of her mind.
“Oh I didn’t mean to startle you, fella.” She scratches between his ears and he plunges his muzzle back into the plant pot. She will search again later for a real bucket. She runs her hands down his neck. He still seems a little damp from her earlier attempt at sponging off some of the caked mud. It is unseasonably warm for the beginning of April, but she still fears he will get a chill. She knows nothing at all about horses or how to care for them. Nevertheless, she finds Pete’s personality intriguing. In spite of all that he has been through, he exudes stoicism, and she can even swear at times—wisdom. He looks perfectly comfortable standing here in her backyard, while the fact of him continues to give her little shock waves of surprise. The trampled lawn had bothered her at first, but she has never been much of a serious gardener anyway. Grass, after all, is the least of her worries.
Jeanne goes into the house to wash her hands. She scrubs them fiercely, under water as hot as she can stand, until they hurt—in an attempt to toughen up her resolve. She imagines taking each idea, each part of her plan, and buffing it to perfection. When her sister arrives, Jeanne needs to be ready. The odds are stacked against her. Even if she succeeds with Kathleen, they will then have to persuade Dan. She knows her plan will sound barking mad. It will not be easy for any of them, her included. She has already endured two days of anxiety and phone calls and lack of sleep. The memory of Abigail and Pete beseeching her, in that brief moment of sunshine, haunts her. Yet, she had meant what she said to Abigail about responsibility and life not being a storybook. Her own mother had not been the kind who tried to teach lessons or impart wisdom. It had usually been Kathleen or the plain hard circumstances of her life that had been her teacher. Jeanne is also fully convinced that, at the time, it was right to try to return Pete. She was ready to throttle that jerk for what he had done and was enraged to find him gone, totally cleared out. But despite this, she still feels unnerved by Abigail’s hysteria during the chaotic evening that followed. Jeanne towels her chafed and raw hands dry as she considers the threat of bitterness that is possible with the acceptance of disappointment. In spite of, or maybe because of, her knowledge of how cruel life can be, she now wants the chance to give her niece a dream—and help teach her about responsibility.
She goes back outside, lights a cigarette and waits for Kathleen. If her sister catches her smoking, she will be in for it. She hears the car before she sees it, growling down the street from a hole in the muffler that Kathleen and Dan can’t afford to get fixed. As the car pulls into the driveway, Jeanne fights the usual urge to toss the cigarette away in shame, but tries to ooze confidence instead. She takes what she imagines to be a defiant drag, exhales with punch. She continues to inhale and exhale in this somewhat exaggerated fashion as she watches Kathleen carefully lock the car door, check to make sure her purse is on her shoulder, check the lock a second time. At the nape of her neck, her pale blond hair is beginning to escape the tight coil of her bun. Although visibly exhausted, her posture is picture perfect. Kathleen never slouches. Jeanne wishes that she had not come straight from work, not today. The sight of her sister in her waitress uniform never fails to twist the knife of guilt into her gut. She regrets the cigarette now, but feels she must stay committed, on principal. She can’t concede anything before she has even started talking.
Jeanne watches Kathleen’s facial expression change from greeting to disapproval as she approaches. Kathleen stops, pulls her posture up even stiffer, cocks her head to one side, and grinds her teeth together—and doesn’t say a word.
Jeanne turns her head away and blows smoke back over her shoulder. She always feels like a kid playing grown-up when she smokes in front of her sister. She compensates by saying, more angrily than she really feels, “Don’t even start with me, Kathleen.”
“Right. You give me the attitude.”
Jeanne notices more gray hair mixed in with Kathleen’s blond. She can see the stress of the last couple of days written all over her face. She can smell that restaurant fried-food smell mixed with her sister’s strawberry-scented shampoo. She says, “It’s just a cigarette, for God’s sake.” She tosses the butt over the fence into Gertrude’s yard, something she has never done before. She notices the slight rise of Kathleen’s eyebrows, the twitch at the corner of her mouth. Gertrude frequently makes snide comments to Kathleen for having to work, for relying on Jeanne to occasionally care for her girls.
It looks to Jeanne like Kathleen will let it go, but then she says, “We have been over this and over this. Smoking is an addiction. It can lead to other addictions.”
“I’m not Mom, Kathleen. Smoking a cigarette does not automatically lead to alcoholism.” Her brief flare of anger immediately dissipates when she sees the weary expression pass over Kathleen’s face. It is part of her blood and bones that Kathleen will protect her. She does not want to fight about this now.
Kathleen echoes Jeanne’s thoughts by saying, “Do we really want to go there now?”
“No we do not.”
They stand in silence for several minutes and watch Pete, who is regarding them—one ear twitching back and forth. Kathleen fidgets again with her purse on her shoulder and finally asks, “So how is he?”
“Well, okay I guess. But I wouldn’t know really, would I? I tried to clean him up a bit.”
“Hmmm. Is he cleaner?”
Jeanne wonders what Kathleen is thinking as she studies Pete. She looks stunned, as if she still can’t quite process his presence. Jeanne wonders if she will approach him. She does not. So Jeanne asks, “How is Abigail?”
“What do you think? The world is ending, of course. You know how it is to be eleven.”
Jeanne isn’t sure if she does indeed know how it is to be eleven. Her experience of being eleven had probably been quite a bit different than most kids. Her niece doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have the luxury to believe that life is unfair because she can’t own a farm full of horses.
Kathleen continues, “Dan called animal control again today. He can’t convince them to come and pick up the animal. They still insist that it’s our problem. Bought and paid for and all that. He tried the police again too, but they told him to leave them alone. They have more important things to do than try to track down someone who would sell a horse to an eleven-year-old kid. No crime in that, according to them.” Kathleen smiles wryly at Jeanne.
Jeanne can’t read her sister. Is she attempting a joke at something that is clearly not humorous? If forced to admit it, Jeanne is still angry with Dan for his behavior on Thursday. Her own attempt to return Pete, while trying to diffuse Abigail’s grief, and simultaneously struggling with Annie, had been no picnic. So why had Dan felt the need to repeat the trip when he arrived? Apparently her word wasn’t good enough. He had to see the empty house with his own eyes, dragging Abigail through the experience a second time. It was especially difficult for Jeanne to watch the look of terror on Abigail’s face when her father called the police right in front of her.
Kathleen continues, “Seems like it would be some kind of crime. Anyway, The Humane Society may be able to put us in contact with an animal rescue program that may be able to take him.”
“Kathleen, can we go inside? I called you over because I have something I want to discuss with you.”
“Jeanne. If you’ve cooked up some hair-brained scheme about how Abigail can keep this animal, the answer is no. No, no, no.”
Shit. “Can we just go inside? Please.” Shit, shit, shit.
“Fine. Jeanne. Let’s talk.” She marches to the house, flings open the door, and lets it bang shut behind her.
Jeanne always feels diminished, like a cowering five-year-old, when Kathleen does this. She glances at Gertrude’s window—the one she eavesdrops out of—to see if she is watching. No one. Pete whickers softly at her, which plucks up her courage. She follows Kathleen into the house and finds her pacing the kitchen. No way can she have a conversation in this atmosphere. She decides that sharing a cup of tea may bring a degree of civility or gentility to the table. Maybe if she can imagine them to be Jane Austen characters, she will be less nervous.
“Would you like some tea?”
Pummeling each word, Kathleen says, “Okay. Jeanne. Let’s. Have. Tea.” She pulls out a chair, thumps it down, sits, leans back, and folds her arms.
Jeanne tries to busy herself with the tea preparations. She notices Kathleen pick up the book she has been reading, The Shining, sneer at it, then chuck it back on the table. Jeanne winces—she has strong feelings for her books—but makes an attempt to ignore Kathleen’s hostility by saying, “It’s an excellent book so far, much better even than King’s last one. You know—the one about the vampires? Salem’s Lot?”
“Must be nice. I don’t have time to read.”
“So you’re pissed at me now for reading? I can understand the smoking, but I can’t even read a book? For God’s sake, Kathleen.” She puts the teacup in front of her sister, resisting the urge to deliberately spill it. Sadly, no Jane Austen dialogue will be had. Hopefully they can avoid a Stephen King bloodbath. Jeanne wishes she could have said it out loud. Under normal circumstances, Kathleen finds Jeanne’s dry humor funny.
Inexplicably, Kathleen’s face thaws a little. She blows on the tea, cradles the cup in her hands, as if warming them. She says, “Thank you,” as if the bit about the book had not happened.
Jeanne sits down carefully, cautiously, like dipping her toes in hot water. She moves her book so that nothing will be between her and her sister—clean, no distractions.
“Sorry about that,” Kathleen jerks her head at the book.
“Forget it. I get it.” Jeanne waits. She takes a sip of her tea—and several more.
Kathleen finally says, “So let’s get on with this already. I am exhausted from work and I still have to get home to fix dinner. And as you well know, the atmosphere there has not been what you would call pleasant.” She moves her teacup, as if she has decided against it after all.
Jeanne tries to recall how adept she was at convincing Kathleen of any number of things when they were growing up—a lifetime away now. The nice little speech that she had prepared about dreams and responsibility has flown from her brain. She wishes she could go to the bathroom. The tea is going right through her. But Kathleen knits her eyebrows together fiercely and shifts in her chair. Jeanne will have to jump right in.
“Okay. So—” Deep breath. “Yesterday morning after I called the township, I had no idea where to even begin to find feed for a horse. So I called my friend, Vera. She has some property very near here—a little farther out, you know. She has an organic produce garden and she raises chickens, but I didn’t know if she knew anything about horses. Luckily, she told me where to get the feed.”
“Yes. I know this already, don’t I? You told me someone helped you.” Kathleen folds her arms again, glances at her watch.
Jeanne tries to accelerate, but this only serves to speed up her nerves. It feels like she is eleven and giving a speech at school. “Well, when she got off work—she’s a social worker, by the way.”
“Is this relevant?”
“So, she stopped by to see how it was going and we got talking and she—”
“Uh-huh. So who is this Vera anyway? Am I supposed to know who she is?”
“Well. I thought you did. I met her in college? She was a guest speaker for something—I don’t remember now for what occasion or what class. I did a lot of marches and demonstrations with her during and after college. She helped me with some of my first articles when I was starting out, got me some contacts and things. We saw each other on and off over the years until I moved here. She was the one who called me about this place when it went up for sale. She does a lot of volunteer work—helps run that homeless center near here.”
“Okay, okay. I think I know who you are talking about, but please get to the point already.”
“So anyway, she did a stint in the Peace Corps a few years back and met her husband there. He was a doctor. It was a late-in-life marriage for both of them. She’s a bit older than me, twenty years maybe, but not old old, you know. You wouldn’t call fifty-two old, would you?”
“Look, Jeanne. I’m glad Vera and her man are happy, but I really—”
“He died six months ago.”
Kathleen places both of her hands palms down on the table—as if, by this action, she will regain control of the conversation. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. That is quite tragic.” Her tone of voice indicates that she thinks otherwise.
“It was very sudden. A heart attack out of the blue. Can you imagine it? He gets up to go for a jog and comes back and dies in her arms.”
“As you can well imagine, on top of the grief, Vera now has to deal with work, the soup kitchen and the garden and chickens. They only started that recently, you see.”
“The garden and the chickens.”
“Okay. I’m done. I don’t want to hear this plan—whatever it is that you and Vera want. What was I even thinking? The answer is no.” Kathleen leans forward to get up. Jeanne grabs her forearm. Kathleen yanks it back.
“Please, Kathleen. I haven’t even got to Vera’s proposal yet. I’m sorry for being flippant or whatever you think I’m being. I’m just nervous, I guess. You can say no and I will respect that if you do, but please just hear me out.”
“Fine.” She folds her arms even tighter.
Jeanne takes the elastic band off her wrist and scoops her hair back into a ponytail while Kathleen glares at her.
Jeanne takes another deep breath and continues. “So. This teenage boy has been working for Vera, but she thinks he’s a little shifty, thinks he’s doing drugs. She has been thinking that she will have to advertise to hire someone more dependable—until we thought of Abigail.”
“Abigail?” Kathleen’s voice has a threatening edge to it. “Abigail is eleven years old.”
“Let me explain.”
“Yes. Please enlighten me.”
“Vera has an outbuilding, or some such, on her property that could easily be made into a stall for a horse. Abigail could work for her after school and in the summer in exchange for Pete’s board and upkeep. In the winter, it would be just the chickens, but Vera said she could also use Abigail’s help at the soup kitchen.”
“What do you mean?”
“All that build-up for this ludicrous idea? Are you insane? Is Vera? You can’t possibly be serious. This is some kind of joke, right?”
Jeanne fears she will lose momentum in the face of Kathleen’s escalating umbrage. She stays still and tries to reassemble her thoughts. After several seconds of no response from Jeanne, Kathleen says, “Okay. I’ll play along, shall I? First of all, how does Abigail get there every day because I am under the impression that we all have jobs, including Vera I might add, who already seems quite overworked?”
“Well, she can take the school bus here and it’s not too long of a walk to Vera’s.”
“Bad weather? Weekends? Summer vacation?”
“We discussed that. That will actually be the hard part. But we can juggle between the four of us—you and Dan, Vera and I. You know I do a lot of writing at home. And your schedule is flexible, right?”
Kathleen’s face looks like thunder.
Jeanne says quietly, “It will be a sacrifice.”
“That’s an understatement.”
From where she’s sitting, Jeanne can see out the door into the yard. Pete is knocking around the now-empty plant pot with his nose, trying to get his muzzle into it sideways. What a shame it would be to let the Humane Society take him away to an uncertain fate. Still looking out the door, she says, half-heartedly now, “I’ve got some money saved. I had thought I could spring for a saddle and riding equipment.”
“And where is she going to ride, exactly, in this neighborhood? Up and down the side streets? And might I remind you, the occasional pony ride is the only riding experience Abigail has had.”
Jeanne turns back to face Kathleen. “If you remember, the farther you go east, out Vera’s way, it thins out quite a bit. And a state park, even farther out, has riding trails. We already called to see if Abigail could ride there and use their trails.” At the look on Kathleen’s face, she opts to skip a more detailed explanation. “Vera even knows someone who may be able to sell us a used horse trailer.” That last bit had sounded so exciting when she and Vera had been talking. Not so much now, when she is saying it to Kathleen.
“A horse trailer! Wow, I have to hand it to you. You two have thought of everything. You have me speechless now, you really do.”
Jeanne finds herself the subject of a stare-down. She is usually pretty good at staying calm in the face of impending fury. Kathleen breaks first, as Jeanne knew she would. Jeanne also knows that they haven’t even touched on the real issues yet.
Kathleen continues, “All right then, let’s assume we agree to see the beauty of this plan—the horse trailer and the riding and the beauty of nature, even the communal spirit of pitching in with the driving business. How can odd jobs done by an eleven-year-old possibly be enough to pay for the upkeep of a horse? The initial vet bill to insure the basic health of the animal will be a small fortune, I’m sure.”
Jeanne will have to be very careful how to phrase what she needs to say next. “Vera’s husband left her a good deal of money, so it will be unnecessary to do an exact barter system—this job for that amount of feed. Abigail will work. Pete will be taken care of. It’s exactly what someone like Vera would want to invest her money in. When she was in the Peace Corps—”
Kathleen cuts into this with a voice that could slice diamonds. “So my daughter is to be a social cause for this woman.”
“Why do you have to take it that way?” Although this reaction is exactly what Jeanne has feared all along. “It’s a way for Abigail to have what she wants and learn the value of working for something. Vera used to lecture at the university—”
“So what do either of you childless women know about children?”
Kathleen’s words hover in the frigid silence like weapons. The fury that Jeanne has been bracing for has arrived, with daggers of ice. Her first instinct is to mentally crawl into her inner retreat—created at a young age to cope with her mother’s whiskey-fueled rages. She often wonders if this is a common trait of children of alcoholics. If Kathleen has an inner retreat, Jeanne imagines it to be surrounded by glacial walls of stone.
Jeanne experiences Kathleen’s barbed words as a betrayal of her own deepest truth—a truth only Kathleen has been trusted with. Underneath layers of career and circumstance and social reasons—so many of her fellow college students have made similar decisions—lives terror. Terror that she will inherit her mother’s demons. Terror that she will not be as strong as her sister has been to be a different kind of mother. As this last thought is crystallizing, Jeanne recognizes the fierceness on Kathleen’s face as familiar—from childhood—Kathleen being a mother, even then. As hurt as she herself feels, as angry as Kathleen now is, this is ultimately about just that—Kathleen being a mother. So, Jeanne can wait it out. She hopes the storm passes quickly.
“So you have nothing left to say?” Kathleen picks up The Shining and slams it back on the table. Jeanne flinches, but stays silent. Nothing else can be said—about any of it. Her plan had always been a long shot. Oddly, she will miss Pete’s presence in her yard, manure and all. Poor Abigail. Ah well, such is life.
Kathleen stands up, exerting what looks like extreme control over every muscle in her body. She leans on the table, her hand still on the book. For a second, Jeanne thinks she will throw it. Instead, she begins to stalk around the kitchen with her arms wrapped like a straight-jacket around her body. She cranes her neck to the window. Looks out at Pete. Rolls her eyes and mumbles something. Jeanne stands up, but tries to stay out of her way. Kathleen storms back through the kitchen, glances through the archway into the living room, marches down the short hall, juts her head into the study. Jeanne wonders if she is searching for evidence of some kind of conspiracy.
Kathleen turns back from the door to the study and says, venomously, “So what kind of feminist article are you writing now? This whole Vera-thing is pretty typical of your topics. This plan will fit right into your writing. Well, my daughter is not an article that you can typewrite into a neat resolution with a pat social message.”
“So you’ve said.”
“You have no right to be sarcastic, Jeanne. This is my daughter we are talking about here.”
“Look. You’ve made your feelings abundantly clear. There is no reason to be nasty about it. Excuse me for a second.”
“Oh right, Jeanne. Just walk away—the old standby—like I’ve ever had that option.”
“I have to go to the bathroom, Kathleen.” Over her shoulder she says “I cannot believe you would think that I could hurt Abigail.”
When Jeanne comes back from the bathroom, Kathleen is in the living room rifling through Jeanne’s record albums. She pulls some off the shelves, glances at them, tosses them to the floor. It occurs to Jeanne that Kathleen apparently thinks the way to conclude their unfinished business is to take out her fury on Jeanne’s music collection. Although Jeanne sees this as a sign that the argument will wind down, the mess her sister is making irritates her and she is not ready to help along a resolution. She watches in silence and can tell that Kathleen knows she is in the room.
Kathleen has jumped to the middle of the alphabet, reciting band names in a clipped tone, “Jefferson Airplane, Jethro Tull, King Crimson.” She grimaces at the King Crimson cover and says, “Yeah, I remember when you liked all this.” Kathleen sounds sarcastic. Jeanne doesn’t respond.
Kathleen turns to a pile of newer records on a table. She examines Boston, sets it aside, picks up the new Fleetwood Mac Rumors. She asks without looking up, “This one good?”
“Quite.” Jeanne is having a hard time feeling chatty. Kathleen’s voice still has a hard edge to it.
“These don’t seem like you: Blondie, The Ramones. I didn’t think you were into this new punk stuff.”
Jeanne lets this pass as well. Kathleen sits down on the floor with her back to the couch and considers some of the album covers, turns a few over. What has gotten into her? What about the long day and the dinner to be made at home and the horse in the yard? Jeanne imagines Kathleen’s energy leeching into her private space. She feels invaded—by her sister’s anger, her sister’s family drama, their own history that always manages to rear its ugly head. More than anything else in this moment, she wants to be alone—in this her own room, her haven. But, she feels a little guilty because, it’s true—Kathleen doesn’t have the option to walk away, to be alone.
Jeanne loves this room the most, not because of the eclectic decor that has caused Kathleen to nickname it the hippie room, but because it retains more of its nineteenth-century charm than any of the others. Most of the rest of the house has been extensively remodeled over the years, but here all the original woodwork is intact—moldings, the carved staircase bannisters, the window trim. Little bits of multicolored stained glass adorn the tops of the window sections in the bay window. Lace curtains hang low enough so that they stay visible—so that in the evening, when the sun is lowering, the light filters in and bathes the room in gorgeous colors. It is doing it now, surrounding Kathleen’s hair with an orange-y corona. The effect softens her face as she reads the back of an album. By a pure accident of light, Kathleen glows. Jeanne realizes, with sadness, how very rare it is to see her sister at peace.
Something about the quality of the silence seems less fraught. Jeanne begins to file away some of the record albums, pleased with the metaphor—with the idea of filing away the argument, with reorganizing, regrouping. Her Beatles collection stops her. She glances back at Kathleen who is still intent on what she is reading. She pulls out Meet the Beatles, hesitates for a second, then goes to sit next to her sister.
“Oh! My! God!” Kathleen snatches the album out of Jeanne’s hand. “Remember how often we used to play this?” She flips the album over to look at the back. “We always argued about which is the better side.”
“Side two is less commercial.”
“But side one has all the classics: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, It Won’t Be Long, All My Loving.”
Jeanne feels a tingle down the side of her arm where it brushes against Kathleen’s. She asks quietly, with care, “Do you remember how you felt then?”
“How could I not?”
“February. Ed Sullivan.”
“That awful blizzard—that beat-up car you borrowed from God knows who, to drive back from college—that crummy little apartment Dan and I had, with the heat that never worked right. Can you imagine, now, being that wildly excited about anything?”
“Funny, I still remember that drive, vividly. The snow was relentless, really truly terrifying, yet at the same time, sublimely beautiful. It’s hard to explain, but I felt a little like that inside too. A constant panic gripped me that the car would break down, but at the same time, I felt so alive, like this incredible joy would burst out of me. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt, since then, that same degree of intensity.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I honestly believe that was the only time in my life that I experienced such a sense of possibility. Anything could happen. Everything was new—washed clean.”
“She had only been gone for a month or so.”
“And I should have been sorry. I should have grieved more. She was our mother, after all. But all I felt was relief—like I had finally been unyoked. Is that terrible?”
“You always had the brunt of it.”
“Even when Dan and I eloped that fall and you went away to college—and thank God for that scholarship, by the way, Jeanne. Thank God. You know I am so proud of you. What I said before—”
“Forget it.” Jeanne pulls an afghan over their knees. The sun has dropped a little and the room has a chill.
“Even when we eloped,” Kathleen continues, “I wasn’t free of her until—” Kathleen pauses and looks down at her hands resting on the multicolored afghan. Jeanne suddenly thinks of white doves and blood. Kathleen says, in a smaller voice, “—she died. I am a devil. To find so much joy in the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”
“Kathleen. Hey.” Jeanne nudges her gently. “We have to find what joy we can in this life, right?”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I am.” Jeanne smiles.
Kathleen rolls her eyes, and smiles back. “Yeah. And, you know, during that time, despite the crummy apartment and no money, I didn’t even mind about not going to Florence, not being a painter and an art historian. I often wish I could recapture that feeling.”
“Life happens. I wished that for you for so long. I still hate seeing you in that uniform.”
“It’s a job, right?”
“Do you mind an awful lot?”
“Well, I do my fair share of complaining, don’t I? The truth is I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. I may not be living the original dream, but I have a worthy life,” Kathleen pauses, glances at Jeanne. “I would be lying, though, if I said I never wondered how it would have been if I had been handed different circumstances—if I could have gotten on a plane to Italy and left all the ugliness behind.”
Jeanne takes her hand. Kathleen continues, “But there was always you.”
“Sounds like Beatles lyrics.”
“And I mean that in the best of ways, Jeanne.”
They sit in silence for several minutes. The light slowly seeps out of the room.
Kathleen says, “Dan will never go for this plan of yours.”
“Abigail needs to understand that life is not a fairy tale. It’s hard work.”
“So let her work. Hard. For this.”
“It will ruin her dreams.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. After all, we’ve just established that our life is not perfect but it’s worth having.”
“All you need is love, right?” Kathleen gives Jeanne’s hand a squeeze.
In her sister’s voice, Jeanne hears sadness and doubt, bitterness and wistfulness, maybe a little hope. Jeanne looks at her next to her in the darkening room and chooses her words carefully: “Well, in everything that is important, yes. Look. She can always have the perfect unrealized dream in her head—the Arabian stallion, the golden girl, the happily ever after—along with all the bitterness of loss. Or she can have this now—difficult, imperfect, and probably temporary. And very possibly, life-altering.”
And mostly, it is all of these things.
And then, in her senior year of high school, Abigail has to say good-bye to Pete. Her father had died suddenly earlier in the year, and as much as her mother is grateful for all that Vera has done for them, she needs Abigail to get a real job—one that pays real money. Abigail is also busy with college and scholarship applications—the only way out of this hellhole, according to her mother. Besides, the neighborhood is changing and Vera is considering selling her property and moving to Africa to do her volunteer work.
As Abigail watches the van roll away, a memory overwhelms her—of a visit to the library with her father, only days before that spring day when she was eleven, when she found Pete. She recalls the feeling of uncertainty that had been growing in her then, the itchy restlessness. Every book she read seemed to end with a happily ever after. That particular day, her father left her blissfully alone, like he always did. He knew that the library was better than church to her and that her mother usually rushed her. After choosing her own books, she found him in the history section with a pile of books in his arms. She had a few moments to observe him before he knew she was there. It was the first time she truly realized that her father was an individual. It was always easy to ignore her mother’s complaining about life. But there was her father looking so sad, somehow, and out of place in the aisle of books. Because she spent so much time wishing she could be like a heroine in her own stories, it hadn’t occurred to her that maybe her father also wished he could be in a different life. Maybe he longed to be a colonial farmer and not a modern factory worker. When he saw her, his face lit up as it always did and he became her father once more. Trying to ease the itchy feeling, she asked him if life is fair. He surprised her by replying with a simple, “No.” But oh how comforting his strong hand felt in hers.
No, it had not been like the books. But Pete had been a good friend nonetheless, stalwart through a difficult adolescence. She will always miss him. She can still smell his horsey scent, can feel the warmth from his head on her chest. They always said goodbye to each other the same way—when she was ready to go, he would always know. He would step closer and put his head down and rest it there against her chest. She would lay her head down in his forelock and sometimes one of his ears would brush against her cheek. Except this time it was not only for a day. Today, instead of saying, “See you tomorrow, old friend,” she said, “I think this is the part of the story where the girl and the horse ride off into a beautiful sunset,” and he looked at her just as he did that very first day.