Authors: Joseph Monninger
“He’s big,” she said. “I guess I didn’t realize.”
“You want us to walk him a little?” Delores asked.
“No, don’t bother. This is plenty. He’s done enough for people. It’s time he rested.”
She leaned over his neck and put her arms around him. She stayed like that. I liked that she didn’t care that we were there, or that Speed was just an old, tired horse. She didn’t rush, either. She clung to his neck and buried her face in his mane.
“All my horses,” she said after a few more minutes, sitting
up, her voice tight, “they’re right here in your old buddy Speed. I felt them for just a second.”
We didn’t say anything. She asked us to help her down. We lowered her carefully off Speed. She dusted her jeans and thanked us. Then we walked her back to her truck.
ULIE LEFT A LITTLE LATER
E STAYED OUTSIDE AWHILE
looking at the stars, but we had trouble staying awake. Around nine we zipped open the tent and climbed into our sleeping bags. It felt good to be inside, to be comfortable and calm, and I knew Delores felt the same way. We didn’t talk much. I dug a novel out of my bag—a crazy vampire story, with girls falling in love with bloodsuckers and then turning into flying bats themselves—but I couldn’t remember where I had left off. When Delores saw me reading, she asked me to tell her the plot, so I did, and that made us a little edgy because of the vampire theme. Delores wondered why people liked vampires so much, and I told her what someone had told me: that it was the Christ story just reversed, eternal life through blood, and salvation through membership with the host. Delores started laughing.
“So vampires are Jesus?” she asked. “Is that what you’re saying? You hatch the craziest ideas, Hattie.”
“I’m not saying a vampire
Jesus. I’m saying a vampire is appealing because he or she offers eternal life and superpowers. And being a vampire is like being in a club. That’s why people like them.”
“It’s a theory,” I said, feeling a little annoyed at the way Delores sometimes dismissed what interested me.
“We should write a story about vampire horses,” Delores said. “That would be wicked.”
I didn’t feel like talking, so I read. But Delores decided to be a brat and kept reaching over and pushing my book down. When I didn’t respond, she put her hand over the pages so I couldn’t read.
“Cut it out,” I said.
“Vampire horses could drink people’s blood, then pretend they hadn’t done a thing. No one would suspect them.”
I swatted her hand away.
“Come on,” she said. “I’m not sleepy.”
I grabbed her hand and bit it.
“Owwww,” she said, then spun in her sleeping bag and kicked me with her legs.
I kicked back. We fought like two worms. Delores laughed hard the whole time, but it took me a while to lighten up and
get into it. By the time we’d finished, the tent felt warm and close. I shoved her farther to her side. She tried to bite my hands.
“What if a vampire came and stood right outside the tent?” Delores asked. “What would you do then?”
“Okay, then what’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you? No faking.”
“You’ll get us all crazy and whacked-out with stories.”
She spun and kicked me again. I kicked her hard.
“Owwww,” she said. “You’re a mule.”
“I’m tired, Delores.”
“Are you fagged?” she asked, using a word we liked to goof with.
“Scariest thing,” she said. “Come on.”
“You know all my stories,” I said. “I have nothing new.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you mine.”
“I know all yours, too.”
“No, you don’t,” she said. “Did I ever tell you about the old drunk on the monkey bars?”
“No,” I said. “And I’m not sure I want to hear it.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “I’m missing a good night’s sleep.”
“So, there was this monkey-bar set on the school playground where I used to live.”
“And you turned into a monkey?”
“No,” she said. “One day when the kids got there in the morning, there was a drunk trapped on the monkey bars. He had climbed up or something, and he had fallen through, and he looked all tangled. His leg was up at a weird angle. It was cold, and we had gotten snow, and he wore a dark coat and dark pants. He looked like a crow or something.”
“You’re making this up.”
“So then,” she said, her voice going lower, “he started asking us to come over and help him. It was early, and the first teacher was probably on duty, but they used to hang around the door so they could duck in and warm up. And get coffee. All the teachers in that elementary school drank coffee like it was medicine or something.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing. Not for a while. We should have run to get a teacher, but none of us could move. And then Kenny Rider, this complete weirdo, asked if the man had fallen from the sky.”
“Get out of here,” I said to Delores. “You’re crazy.”
“He did, too! And I didn’t blame him. The guy looked like a warlock who’d been out riding around and suddenly he’d crashed into a jungle gym.”
“I thought you said it was monkey bars?”
“Same dif,” she said.
“Monkey bars are different from a jungle gym.”
“Excuse me, O playground goddess.”
“I’m just saying,” I said.
“So pretty soon we had about a dozen kids all circled around the
,” she said, emphasizing the phrase. “Then the guy looked right at me and said I looked like a sensible sort. He said I should come closer and he would tell me a secret.”
“How was this guy caught again?”
“Hattie, quit being such a picky wheezer.”
“Well, how can a grown man be held against his will by a jungle gym?”
“He fell from the air, remember, so we figured his arm or leg might be broken. Anyway, he stared at me and asked me to come closer. So I did. I stepped closer and closer. When I was about ten feet away, then nine, then eight, then seven, he nodded and said the thing he had for me was in his hip pocket.”
“Get out. What thing?”
“Now, you have to understand this all happened in only three or four minutes. It was weird, I promise. We had the idea that the teachers should be aware of the situation, but that made it more delicious, if you know what I mean. We had something new and different and maybe dangerous right
on our playground. I’m telling you, we were all kivvying with excitement.”
“And he just happened to single you out?”
“That’s right, Hattie brat-face.”
“You don’t care. It’s just a stupid story.”
I squirmed around and kicked her. She kicked me back. We traded kicks until that got boring.
“Speed is a horse vampire,” I said.
“So the guy says,” Delores said, starting in again, “ ‘Come here, check in my pocket, I got something for you.’ And he had this devilish sound to his voice that scared you, but also made you trust him. I don’t know. So I went closer to the guy. I can still remember the sound my boots made on that snow. Everything in the world got quiet for a second, and it was just me and that man and my boots squeegeeing. I saw him finally—clearly, I mean. I saw he was just an old drunk. I smelled him, too, like a sewer line, but he looked away as I got near. I guess he knew if he kept looking at me I would run off, but by looking away he made me curious. So I went closer still. I turned around and I made a boy I liked there named Sammy come with me. I motioned him forward and he nodded and took two steps with me. Then he stopped, but I didn’t know it.”
“And the man turned into a vampire?”
“You need to not be so cynical, that’s what, Ms. Hattie brat-head.”
“For the love of Pete, what happened?”
“When the guy thought I was close enough, he suddenly turned back to face me. He had taken out one of his eyes somehow, and he’d put his tongue in his cheek, so it looked like he had swallowed his own eye. That’s what. He stared at me and our eyes locked, and I thought, Holy crow, he’s climbing down the beam of our eyes. You know what I mean. Like we had a laser beam going back and forth, and this nutty man somehow figured out how to shinny along it, and he went right into my head and flew inside there like a bat, and I fell over and started wailing. Then that kid Sammy ran for a teacher, and when they came back, I was still on the ground but the man was gone. The school called the police and made a big ruckus, and the cops tried to talk to me, but it didn’t matter what I said. They figured it was some pervy guy preying on kids, and maybe he was, but he was also something more satanic than that. A warlock. That’s what it felt like, and he had put a curse on me for a second.”
“Are you telling me this really happened, Delores?”
“It did,” she said, and I couldn’t tell if she was telling tales or meant it.
“What did his voice sound like?” I asked, trying to figure things.
“You mean, all high and everything?”
We didn’t say anything after that. Later on I found her curled next to me, spooning, her face scrunched and troubled with something in her dreams. I thought about waking her up but decided against it. Then I thought about Speed, and the Fergusons, and what we were really doing out here in Wisconsin. The whole thing didn’t make much sense when you faced it down, but in my gut I felt like it meant something good and important. Maybe we both needed this trip to cut away from something behind us. I thought about Delores’s dad and his threat to call the cops, and I figured he probably had done that, had probably seized the moment to bully his ex-wife. Sometimes people needed to be right no matter who it hurt or how useless it was to take a stand. All that thinking made it hard to sleep, so I poked my head out and saw Speed eating grass near our tent. I listened to him yanking
up mouthfuls and slobbering it down, and when he passed by I saw his silhouette blacked out against the white of the meadow and he looked as pretty as a horse could look, and as proud.
ULIE GAVE US TWO AGRICULTURAL LICENSE PLATES OFF
some old farm equipment stored behind the barn. Delores had told her the situation, and Julie hadn’t batted an eye.
“I have no idea if these will do you any good,” she said, supervising us as we took off the plates with an old, rusty screwdriver. “In fact, they may land you in more trouble if they’re out of date, but you’re welcome to them. You stick to the back roads and you may do okay. You look like farm girls running errands. Once you get out of Wisconsin, the cops won’t know as much about the plates.”
“Women going west,” Delores said, chipping rust off the screws that held the plates to the old baler.
“It’s a grand adventure,” Julie said, “and you aren’t hurting anyone. But mark this address down, though, and if you get in any trouble and need to dump old Speed, we can keep him here for a while.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I stood drinking coffee. Julie had brought us coffee
and muffins from town. I had a blueberry nut muffin and a warm cup of coffee. The temperature had dropped, and the meadow looked white and furled. Speed kept his nose buried in the grass. Julie had already been out to him with carrots. That’s when Delores explained our pickle.
Delores popped the first license plate and handed it to me. She went to work on the second.
“Do me one favor, though, will you, girls?” Julie asked. “You call home now and then so people don’t worry too much. You’d be surprised how much parents miss you and think about you when you’re gone.”
“Not my mom,” Delores said, concentrating on the plate.
“Even your mom,” Julie said, sipping her own coffee. “Even if she doesn’t seem like she would. I don’t know her, but I know moms. She’ll worry, trust me.”
We didn’t say anything for a while after that. It felt good to be outside early. We turned now and then to watch Speed drift by. Then Julie told us she always thought South Dakota was a good place for horses, and that it was closer than Wyoming or Montana. She talked about prairie grass, which had once spread all over the Midwest and behaved like a sea, actually. A sea of grass going on forever. She said the bison ate the grass, then spread it as manure, and they trampled the ground and aerated it for centuries. The topsoil in the grasslands once
held the thickness of a chocolate layer cake, dense and sweet, and she thought a horse could get by there nicely.
“I wish I had a friend in South Dakota,” she said as Delores got the second plate free. “Someone to send you to, you know. I’d feel better if you had a destination.”
“We’ve got a list of rangelands,” I said.
I put the plates on our vehicles while Delores and Julie struck the tent and collected our sleeping bags. At one point Jack came out and asked if she intended to open the store, and Julie shushed him away, saying if he wanted the store open he could do it himself. He didn’t seem to like that answer, and went off shaking his head. Julie stuck out her tongue at him. We all laughed.
She asked if she could bring Speed into the trailer, and we said of course.
You could tell by the way she handled him that she loved horses. Speed was just one more horse, true, but with her hands and her voice, she talked to every horse she had ever known. She stopped him a couple times to lean into him and put her cheek against his flesh. She hugged him before she sent him into the trailer. He went without a protest.
“That’s a nice horse,” she said, her eyes full. “He’s a gentle thing.”
“We want to thank you for everything you’ve done for us,” I said. “It really helped us out.”
“It helped me out, too. You do me a favor and call home. And if you get a chance, I’d love to get a card knowing how you two fared. It’s like a story, and I want to hear to the end, ’cause it’s going to drive me crazy wondering about it.”
“We’ll send a note,” Delores said. “I’ll make Hattie write it. She’s the bookish one.”
Julie hugged us both.
“You two stick together,” she said. “Don’t let a stupid boy get between you. You’re good friends. You stay that way.”