My arms burned, pierced by hundreds to tiny knives. I opened my eyes a crack and noticed sharp chunks of gravel embedded in jagged scratches. Apparently, flinging my arms forward as I landed on my stomach wasn’t the brightest decision. I blinked rapidly to dislodge the dirt from my lashes and lifted my head slightly. Hephaestus stood about ten feet away, his ears twitching curiously. He whickered when he noticed my gaze, and shifted slightly on his hooves as though asking, "What are you doing on the ground?"
“Go back to the barn, okay?” I told him, momentarily forgetting that horses don’t speak English. Yet although this one didn’t speak it, he apparently understood it, because he shook out his mane and promptly galloped off back where we’d come from.
With a few tentative twitches, I realized that I could move my arms if I wanted to, but as I didn’t really give a shit today if a cougar found me, I just continued to lie face down. It’s not exactly easy to stand up right away after falling seven feet at over sixty miles an hour. My fault.
As I watched three ants carrying a leaf into a bundle of brambles, my boob started vibrating and blaring out Andy Sandburg singing, "This ain’t my dad, this is a CELL PHONE." Startled, I dislodged my miraculously unbroken phone from my bra and delicately maneuvered it to my ear, careful not to lodge the gravel deeper into my cuts as I moved my arm.
“Why is Hephaestus standing outside the house without you on him?”
“Right, about that. He was a huge dick.”
“That huge dick happens to be a $100,000 pure-bred thoroughbred racehorse that I gave you very reluctant permission to take—”
“Well your expensive furry toddler just threw me into the dirt!”
“He’s not a trail horse, Ruby, I told you, he’s used to the track.”
I didn’t respond because I’d already known that. I kept the phone pressed to my ear, and maneuvered myself into a sitting position. Nothing felt broken, just seriously bruised—it appeared that my forearms had taken most of the damage.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Yeah. I get it. Sorry.”
“Well get back here and rub him down.”
“’Kay, I’m coming.” I pressed end-call before he could lecture me anymore, stood carefully, and tested the capability of my legs with a few tentative steps. They felt intact, but very shaky. My arms still stung, and the pain intensified as I began the slow journey back. I forced myself to resist looking at the gashes. I never minded blood, but gravel embedded in the skin made my guts turn liquid. There’s something very different about pathogens exiting the body than entering it.
I found Hephaestus grazing contentedly on the freshly mowed grass below my bedroom window when I arrived back home an hour or so later. The pain in my skin had increased from about a four to a nine on that vague doctor’s office chart, and by the time I finished dragging him back to the barn, unsaddling, grooming, and returning the little shit to the paddock, blood dribbled down my chin from the intensity with which I’d been biting my lip to keep from moaning. I hadn’t cried from a horse related injury in 17 years, and I had no desire to do so again.
When I entered the family room, trailing mud, I watched, satisfied, as Dad’s face transformed from hard lines and angles to wide eyes and severely raised eyebrows. I didn’t bother saying hi, just jogged upstairs to my bathroom and began the process of picking out the shreds of gravel with tweezers. This incident was quite minor compared to others I’ve had—being dragged across an arena filled with wood-chips with my foot caught in a stirrup, falling backwards onto concrete after being reared off, and losing my balance at a gallop and sliding off the side—but this was the first time I found myself standing over a sink, slowly filling it with bits of rock.
Thirty-some minutes passed as I picked stone after stone from my skin, all the while observing my clownfish Klaus swim in and out of his anemone in his bowl against the mirror. Finally, I smothered my arms in antibiotic cream, downed two, four, six Advil pills, then stumbled into the kitchen and filled a glass with straight vodka. I nursed the liquor as I padded out across the back lawn to the hot-tub. Too lazy to put on a bathing suit, I stripped down to my bra and panties and clambered in, hissing in pleasure at the violent heat. Dad found me about ten minutes later, off my ass from the vodka and pain drugs, smiling wistfully at the clouds.
“You seem to be less injured now.” His expression was akin to broken glass that’s been glued back together to resemble a shadow of the sculpture it once was.
“I’d say just a bit cleaner.” I held up both my arms over my head, showing him the sanitized cuts. I hadn’t bothered to put on bandages.
“Those are some serious scratches there.” He almost winced.
“They’re not so bad,” I replied automatically. Lying about horse-related injuries was a habit I’d formed as a child. If the horse is supposedly dangerous, I don’t get to ride it.
“Do you know what spooked him?”
“He’s probably just not used to the woods. He’s only really been on tracks, like you said,” I chuckled dryly. “Dammit, I’m so stupid.” My fault.
Dad smiled tightly. “Not stupid. Just too ambitious.”
There were a few moments of silence, where we both stared off at the mountains, probably following a similar train of thought. “Why didn’t you chase after him and get back on?” Dad asked. “That’s what you usually do.”
I rested my arms on either side of the hot tub, and trailed fingers from both hands into the foam. “I’m not sure,” I muttered. “Guess I was just tired.”
We left the conversation there and I turned back to my vodka. It burned my throat sweetly. My mind leapt back to last week, when Ian asked me out for a drink. I’m sick, I told him, but Ian had laughed and replied, Alcohol kills germs, genius. I’d giggled at his stupidity and agreed to meet him at a dingy little tavern on a gravel back-road just outside of town. Aware that his statement had been utter bullshit, I nonetheless concentrated vividly on the liquor flowing through my blood stream, finding the gravel bacteria, engulfing it, and whisking it away down my urinary track.
One of the horses back in the paddock whinnied in the distance as I took another heavy gulp.
Dad took pity on me and let me have the rest of the day off. In my bedroom, I lit a stick of incense in all three of my burners, changed into a tank top and pajama bottoms with cat icons sewn into the pockets, and curled up into the fetal position under a pink blanket. The phone abandoned on my desk vibrated three or four times—probably Ian. I briefly considered telling him to fuck off, figured that’d probably just make things worse, and buried my face in a pillow.
Dad rapped on my door around 7:30. “Dinner’s ready. You coming?”
No. “Yeah, just give me a sec.”
No way in Satan’s armpit was I changing back out of PJs, but I threw a bra back on, drew my hair back into a pony-tail, and shuffled back down to the kitchen.
Dad, Mom, and Jesse were already stuffing their faces with lasagna. I settled for a cup of spinach salad and a slice of garlic bread before pulling out a seat beside my brother.
Mom stared at my plate and scrunched her nose up as she lifted a large forkful of fat, meaty noodles to her mouth. “That’s a small dinner Ruby.”
“I’m not that hungry.”
“Then why’d you bother eating with us?” Jesse snapped.
I could not fucking wait until my dipshit little brother stopped being a teenager. “Because I happen to love you guys.” My mouth closed abruptly as soon as the words came out. I coughed loudly into my elbow and proceeded to move my salad haphazardly around on the plate.
“How sweet of you,” Mom said, at the exact same moment Dad blurted “Are you smoking again?”
My knuckles clenched on my knife and fork. “I’m just a little woozy. I took a lot of Advil.”
“Does Advil make you woozy?” Mom raised her eyebrows.
“I don’t know, I didn’t read the box.” I began to gulp down my salad much faster and sunk my teeth into the garlic bread before she could ask precisely how much Advil I took. “I’m going to go check on Persephone,” I told the table the moment my plate was cleared.
“She’s fine, Ruby,” Dad insisted.
“She’s pregnant as shit!” I suddenly realized that I cared about this fact much more than I had a week ago.
“Language young lady!” Mom frowned across the table as though she didn’t use far more colorful words just as frequently as I did—and usually in response to my actions.
“Mom, I’m 23.”
“Yet you still live under our roof!”
“Laura.” Dad placed a hand on her arm and raised his eyes to meet mine. I took the hint and scurried to put my plate in the dishwasher and disappear upstairs.
I didn’t bother checking my phone—just shoved on some boots over my PJ bottoms and headed outside through the backdoor. Crickets chirped loudly and out of sync, frogs croaked intermittently, dogs barked from adjacent barns, and horses whinnied, neighed, stomped, snorted, and galloped. There was actually a valid reason why I’d spent so long living under my parents’ roof.
I found Persephone in her stall. She wasn’t lying on her side yet like I’d partly expected, but mouthing at the salt-lick on the wall. She raised her head and shook out her mane when I approached. Her belly sagged, round and massive—the vet suspected she carried twins. I unbolted the stall and stepped inside slowly. I half-reached out my arms to wrap around her neck when I abruptly noticed the scratches again.
I hadn’t explicitly thought about the scratches for hours, but now that I stood in front of this enormous animal, they seemed to stand out even more drastically than when the injury first occurred. I stepped backward a few feet, resting my back against the stall door, holding my arms in front of my face—half studying them, half shielding myself from the creature before me. Now that the scratches had taken a few hours to heal, they appeared as though they’d been self inflicted, which, in fact, was partly true. My fault.
My stomach gurgled and dinner churned inside me, and in the next instant I was doubled over, vomiting up the bread, salad, vodka, and Advil onto the wood shavings on carpeting the stall floor. I fell to my knees and wretched for a few seconds, my eyes streaming. Persephone clopped over and stuck her nose in my hair, and nuzzled the back of my neck. I’d been in positions like this countless times before—kneeling on the ground with a horse over me, laying on my back in the grass among three or four of them, even sleeping along-side one as it curled up on the ground like a puppy on rare occasions—but for whatever reason, this time I had no idea how to stand up.
Jesse found me fifteen minutes later, sitting cross-legged beside a puddle of vomit, while Persephone munched on hay in the corner.
“Ruby, what the fuck.”
“Hello, to you too.”
“Seriously, what the fuck.”
My pony-tail flopped hard against my face as I whipped my head around. “Are you just gonna give me shit or are you gonna help me out here?”
Jesse reached out a hand and pulled me up roughly. I swayed on my feet slightly and clutched his arm tighter.
“Jesus, are you strung out on something again?”
Damn, I wish. “I think I’m getting sick.” It’d sounded like a lie in my head, but out loud it seemed to be the closest to the truth I could think of. I stroked Persephone’s neck briefly before turning on my heel and leaving the stall without explaining anything else. I didn’t bother waiting for Jesse to catch up—just jogged back to the house and slunk upstairs again.
All the incense had burned out, leaving behind a heavy smell of lavender and dogwood. I reached for one of Ian’s hoodies to replace my tank-top, but then thought better of it, and settled for one of Jesse’s old ones instead. I yanked the sleeves down over my arms and winced. Rather than retreating under the pink blanket, I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, flitted through some papers, and pulled out the pregnancy test I’d kept hidden for the past five days. I wasn’t sure how long I had to wait since the incident for the results to be accurate (I couldn’t quite bring myself to Google it), but I figured maybe a little over a week would work. I flipped the box over in my hands a few times before shoving it back in the drawer.
When I finally checked my phone around 10:00, I realized that the texts I’d heard earlier had indeed been from Ian, spewing a series of useless apologies. Babe, I didn’t mean to hurt you… I was just really drunk… please talk to me baby… never again, I promise… it was a stupid mistake… blah etc., blah excuse, blah.
I thought of a few possible responses. You’re an asshole. Or talk to me again and my daddy will come after you with a rifle the size of your body. Maybe even I thought you of all people would have a solid grasp of what the word no meant.
I just muted my phone instead, turned on my white-noise machine to drown out the horses outside, and curled up under the pink blanket. I drifted into sleep quickly, and dreamt of sharp bee-stings, a fork full of lasagna tapping against my cheek, a faceless man sneaking droplets of blue liquid into my vodka, and rocky waterfalls of blood. My fault.
I didn’t respond to Ian the following day, or the next, or the one after that. I continued with my horse chores—feeding, brushing, grooming, mucking stalls, barn cleaning, and riding. I avoided the woods all week, instead choosing to work various horses on a lunge-line in the round pen to look for kinks or injury, and then galloping along the track while Dad or Jesse counted time for each horse. I’d end my days in the hot tub after showering off enough mud and sweat to turn the water brown, limbs sighing and softening in the sharp heat. After dinner, I’d lie on my stomach, read in the fields, and watch the ponies graze some ways away. The entire time, I kept my arms covered—either in long sleeves or hidden under thick foamy bubbles. They healed quickly though; within the week the deep scratches were reduced to thin crisscrossing crimson lines.
I awoke early Saturday morning, and unable to fall back asleep, I knew what I had to do; horse first, pee-stick later.
I found Hephaestus grazing alone in one of the pastures, sunlight artfully draping him. I approached him slowly, unsure yet whether I wanted him to notice me, but he turned his head and whickered at me before I’d even gotten halfway across the field. His large eyes studied for a few seconds as I walked closer, but he soon remembered he’d stopped eating, and dropped his head back down to remedy that. I then realized that I was carrying a bridle in my left hand, and told myself I must have picked it up out of habit. When I reached about ten feet of Hephaestus though I noted that, no, habit would have been bringing a rope-halter.
Hephaestus didn’t try to run off when I approached him with the bridle (as is common behavior for most horses), but rather raised his head from the grass again and rested his nose on my shoulder. I moved my fingers up between his ears and pinched gently, the cue for him to lower his head so I could slip the bit between his teeth.
“I’m sorry if I scared you a few days ago,” I told him as I drew the bridle up his face and carefully moved his ears under the top strap. Hephaestus mouthed at his bit in response while I adjusted all the buckles. “What do you say; do you want to try again?” He blew through his nose and shifted his hooves. I decided that to be an affirmative response, and moved the reins under his chin so I could lead him to the fence. After a few steps, I began to jog, which encouraged him to break into a trot.
When I reached the fence, I used one hand to help hoist myself to the top while holding the reins in the other, and maneuvered them so Hephaestus stood parallel to me, allowed me to swing myself smoothly onto his back. The moment I got settled, I dug my heels into his flanks and clicked my tongue loudly. We tore across the grass, my legs tight around his middle to compensate for the lack of stirrups, my front bent low between his ears as we ripped up chunks of dirt and sent multiple flocks of birds soaring upward. My heartbeat took on the rhythm of the gallop—both of us breathed hard and fast, flying across the earth. I whooped and shouted, then transferred the reins to my right hand so I could fist-pump the air with my left as we circled the field and looped back around again.
Back at the gate a few hundred feet away, a figure stood, arms crossed atop the fence, watching. I slowed Hephaestus to a canter and rode towards Dad. I eventually stopped just a few feet shy of the fence.
“Nah.” I leaned down to stroke across Hephaestus’ neck. “He can handle it. He’s a good boy.”
“So you two made up?” Dad reached his hand through the fence and Hephaestus approached to rub his nose against his palm.
“I guess so.”
We were quiet for a few moments, listening to the tweeting of the birds returning and the hum of a frog or two in the distance.
“You ride good, Ruby.”
Dad wasn’t smiling, but it would have been weird if he had. I nodded and ducked my head. “Thanks.”
“I mean it. And I don’t tell you that often enough.”
“Can you take Hephaestus back? There’s something I gotta do.”
Dad indicated for me to move Hephaestus away from the fence so he could open it. He walked up on my left side put one hand on Hephaestus’ neck and one on my leg, just like when I was little and he was about to tell me how to navigate the track by myself. “Sure. I got it.”
I slipped off Hephaestus’ back as Dad took the reins from me and drew them over the horse’s head so he could lead him back to the barn.
Back in my room, I flitted through my desk and grabbed the pregnancy test. I inhaled sharply, rolled my sleeves up over my scarred arms and headed into the bathroom. I shut the door.