Authors: Nicole McInnes
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For Jonah and Sarah
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at nightâ¦”
âAntoine de Saint-ExupÃ©ry
DAY 100: MARCH 17
I step onto the packed dirt just outside the front door and rub my hands together. I blow on them for good measure, which never helps. There's something comforting in the gesture, though, like maybe I have some minuscule bit of control over this one simple thing, warming my fingers.
Of course, that's a complete joke.
Where the hell are the leather work gloves, the ones I've only recently started to think of as my own? The gloves used to belong to my father, like most everything else in my life.
I head to the paddock, say, “Yeah, same to you,” as the gelding grumbles a low whinny. The sound is both friendly and demanding, like,
I love you, man. Now, throw my freaking breakfast over the fence.
For some reason, it makes me want to wrap my arms around the horse's neck in a hug. Diablo would never stand for it, though. Not until after he'd finished eating.
I grab a fat flake of alfalfa from the open bale on a pallet in the makeshift feed room. I take the purple bucket from its hook and scoop some sweet, expensive senior feed into it until the bucket's a third full. Try not to think about what me and Mom and Diablo are going to do now that my hours at the Feed & Seed have been cut to just weekends. Even though it's still cold, it's not the right season for loading up the truck with firewood and selling it on the side of the road. It's actually the opposite of the right season.
The horse is a ridiculous expense. If I wasn't able to turn him out into the big pasture from late spring until fall like I do, there's no way we'd be able to keep him.
For the past two-plus years, ever since horse chores fell to me (all chores, really), I've made a habit of checking Diablo's water trough for everything from slobbery clumps of half-chewed alfalfa to floating turds. Horses can be disgusting like that, and I like to clean stuff out of his tank before it gets too gross. When you live out in the middle of nowhere and have to haul your own water, you learn to conserve it pretty quickly.
This time, I don't find either of those things in the trough. Instead, I find two dead birds. Barn swallows, maybe, or wild finchesâI can never keep them straight. Their wings are splayed out on the slushy surface of the water. The tip of one bird's right wing and the other bird's left wing are touching, like only seconds before death they reached for each other.
I just stand there, can't believe it. The backs of their wings are totally dry. For a crazy split second I think maybe they could still be alive. But, no. The birds are still, and the water is still. Which means they've been there for a while, possibly since right after I left for school this morning. I feel so awful all of a suddenâand so foolish for feeling awful about two stupid dead birdsâthat I clench my fists and hold them to my forehead. I tense all the muscles in my body as tight as they'll go until I feel like I might scream or explode. After a minute, I let everything relax again and drop my hands to my sides.
I walk to the shed for the mucking fork to fish the birds out of the trough. It occurs to me to wonder if they have a nest somewhere. Spring is just a couple days away, after all. It's not unusual at this time of year to see small birds trying to guard their nests from huge, pillaging ravens. Somewhere close by, a cluster of naked, wide-beaked chicks might be, right this very second, cheeping for their parents to return with some tasty earthworms. I could try to locate any potential babies, but then what? Their chances of survival with two dead parents would be nil, and it's not like I have time to nurse a nest full of newly hatched mouths to feed.
It does no good to linger on that thought. It does the opposite of good, in fact. Lingering on thoughts like that is just one more thing that makes me weak, so I push the image from my mind. Remind myself that nature can be a heartless bitch. Swipe at my eyes with the cuff of my jacket, then look around in case anyone saw. Which is moronic. Who'd be crazy enough to be standing around way out here in the middle of nowhere this late in the day in this kind of weather?
Don't answer that,
I think, trying to cheer myself up. It's probably the first sign that I've finally gone completely mental.
Back at the trough, I lower the mucking fork into the water and bring it carefully up under the birds. A part of me is half-afraid they'll startle and flap at the sensation, but nothing happens. One bird falls from the mucking fork as I lift it. Plops back into the water, wings akimbo. In the process of being scooped up again, both birds get twisted and tangled. When I finally get them onto the plastic tines, they're like feathered pretzels, dripping wet. They'll be frozen solid before some other animal finds and eats them in the next day or so. Circle of life and whatever. I say a few words in my head before flinging them as far over the pasture fence as possible, something like,
Thank you for these birds, amen.
It will be getting dark soon. After hanging the fork back on its hook inside the feed room, I head toward the forest with a flashlight to look for a piece of wood to keep in the trough. Years ago, I overheard one of my dad's horseshoeing clients talking about how it was smart to keep a fat stick inside big water tanks so animals that got in could get out. Otherwise, they'd drown in there, creating a botulism threat. And when that happens, you have no choice but to empty the whole trough and bleach it, wasting potentially hundreds of gallons of water that you've spent precious time, money, and wear-and-tear on the truck hauling from town to your cistern.
Which is exactly, I realize, what I'm going to have to do now.
DAY 99: MARCH 18
Another day. Spring isn't even here yet, and I'm already sick of it. Sick of the relentless beatdown from icy rain, screaming wind, and half-frozen puddles of mud that soak through the worn soles of my Doc Martens the second I set foot outside the building. Judging by how sullen the lunch line is today, I'm not the only one who feels this way.
Even normally peppy Agnes is zombied out. She's not chattering the way she usually does as we wait for whatever slop is being passed off as lunch. Instead, she's focused on nothing in particular, totally lost in space. I look down at the top of Agnes's wig. She's wearing the blond bob. High gloss. It looks like Barbie hair, or the hair of one of the insipid pop stars she's always trying to emulate. Give me 1920s silent film star hair any day. Louise Brooks (by way of Siouxsie Sioux) is the particular goddess my own hair's modeled after now.
If we can just get our trays and leave, things will turn around. I'm pretty sure the headache that's been inching its way up the back of my skull will go away once we make it to the home ec room and start working on the dresses that will be worth about half our grade in the class. The assignment is to design and sew an outfit for a special occasion. It has to fit, and it has to be something we'd actually wear. Agnes isn't sure yet how she wants her dress to look. Mine is inspired by two of Alfred Hitchcock's leading ladies: Eva Marie Saint in
North by Northwest
and Grace Kelly in
. I'm using gray silk with tons of slubs throughout the fabric, which gives it that wonderful, imperfect texture, almost like the silk is scarred.
The home ec room is, hands down, the best place to be during lunch. That's the only time the room is quiet and there aren't a bunch of other people hogging the sewing machines and spreading their fabric all over the workstations. I don't know what we'd do if the teacher didn't let us eat in there almost every day. Agnes and I both adore Mrs. Deene. She looks like she time-traveled straight from the 1950s. I imagine her crafting molded Jell-O salads and greeting her new husband with a martini every night when he gets home.
Sudden mayhem erupts in the lunch line behind us. An argument, probably, or a practical joke. Who knows? It's always a madhouse in here, which is why I prefer to bring my own food whenever I'm not too rushed, like I was this morning.
I sigh and adjust my posture, instinctively transforming myself into a human shield to protect Agnes from whatever's going on back there. It's too late. An unstoppable domino effect is happening in line, and there's no time to get out of its way. Someone shoves me hard from behind, almost knocking me off my feet.
I think. My hands fly up and brace against whatever's in front of me.
It's some guy I don't recognize right away. He's a mountain of a humanoid. Not fat exactly, not like me, but solid and tall, like the side of a barn. My hands are planted between his shoulder blades, my arms ramrod-straight and forming a bridge over Agnes's head. Agnes looks up at the bridge and smiles, has no idea how close she just came to being a pancake. Crushed by her protector. God, the irony. I regain my balance and clear my throat. Think about how to apologize to the person I just shoved, but apologies have never come naturally to me.
The guy turns around and glares at us through long, frayed bangs. Looks first at me, then down at Agnes, and back at me. When he does, a little shooting star of recognition fizzles across my brain. I ignore it. An unreadable expression passes over his face, and he turns away again. Like we're not worth his time.
I shoot Agnes my “What a dick” look, but she's busy fishing for the lanyard looped around her neck. So she recognizes him, too. She finds the strap and follows it down to the little digital camera hanging from the end. “Hey, you,” she says to the dick's back.
When he turns around again, she points, clicks, and shoots in one fluid motion.
“Not now, Agnes,” I say (too late) from above. I blink away the unexpected flash and listen to the sound of my molars grinding together. Remind myself to breathe. Remind myself that it's Friday and that there are only a few hours to go before I'm free of this hellhole.