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by Judy Myers
He asked me to go with him to get the buckskin mare. She was south of the Guilford. That mare is small and bright, like him—like Jeremy, with his harelip and curly, black hair. He asked because we had to go together in the car, just the two of us, and he was older, twenty-two, so some of the other girls couldn’t or wouldn’t go, too afraid of getting caught. I had to drive the car back to the farm so he could ride Connie (that’s what he called her, Connie, after his baby sister, he told me) back to the summer barn. I didn’t really have my license yet, but everybody knew I could drive because I was forever spinning donuts near the quarry with Matt’s Firebird. Matt would leave me to it and watch from his seat on a giant piece of limestone, whooping when the car came too close to the edge of the quarry.
Connie was across Alpine Road in the pasture too near the city limits, the one that Dianne and Kenny hung on to, hoping to sell it to a real estate developer. The subdivisions were starting to creep out toward Spring Creek. The pasture was behind the creek in the only patch of woods left there, rife with willows near the banks and misty among the beech and locust trees. I’d been figuring out that Jeremy loved me, and at first I thought you couldn’t love anybody that nice. How do you get excited if everything is laid right out there, easy and plain? It seemed kind of boring, like there would be nothing to guess about.
When we got there, in his falling-apart Dodge Dart with the tickety-tickety engine sound, the horse was nowhere in sight, and the road was hell on the car, so we drove a ways and then got out and took off through the barbed wire. The fences were in shambles in some places, just wrapped-up bundles of rusty wire thorns. “The horses know to keep clear of this end of the pasture,” I said.
“It does go on,” he said, “all along the creek to the subdivision.” Dianne and I had brought a couple of yearlings here last October and dropped them at the other gate, so I’d seen the half-built houses curving up the hill and the way the big triangle of the pasture narrowed to a winding tail of woods and creek over to Alpine Road. Jeremy and I couldn’t see the creek, but I could hear it, just barely, and said so. Jeremy nodded. I’d noticed on the way over that he didn’t say much. I already knew that about him, but somehow knowing he loved me made every detail about him new.
We found the creek and could catch some glimpses down its length, but there were no telltale muzzles within view, so we had to careen back and forth on a doubtful path between trees and overgrown pawpaw and hawthorn. The mist made everything shimmer and change. Jeremy started calling to her. “Connie, dear. Connie, Connie, Connie,” and then he forced a good cluck from inside his cheek like you do when you want a horse to put her head up and pay attention. My socks were full of thistles.
“They must be way the hell on the other end. There’s some kid from the new houses feeds them carrots sometimes. You wanna go back and get the car?”
“How far is it, do you think?”
“A mile maybe,” he said. “I think the path comes clearer up there. It’s been a while since I had to chase her around. In the winter she’ll come looking for me, looking for oats, treats.”
“That’s not that far,” I said. We kept at our zigging and zagging along the creek. We’d been walking a while, skirting chipmunk holes and wobbly rocks and logs, and a few times when both of us were huffing and puffing big time, we exchanged secret looks—when one person looks and the other pretends not to notice—twice for him, once for me. Then a wood pigeon, the biggest one I’ve ever seen, came spinning out in front of us, his wings a clapping explosion, and right behind him three ducks, flapping as fast as they could, aiming to get out of view. We started laughing. “Shit, I nearly screamed,” I said.
Jeremy’s eyes were big and his split lip was stretched out across the top of his mouth. He couldn’t stop laughing and he sat down right there on a spindly little log. I sat down next to him, and we laughed for another few minutes until he put his hand under my chin and kissed me good. His lip felt funny but other than that, it was a good kiss. How did I know that at fifteen? It was the squiggly kind of kiss where you know you’re headed for danger. We came up for air and kissed again. It was really quiet. All the kerfuffle of the flushed birds was settled, every creature back to its own plan. It was a surprise, then, to hear a noise. I saw a boot and the barrel of a rifle hanging down. Jeremy was standing up before I even registered what was going on. “What’d you go and flush my birds for?” the man asked. He was looking at Jeremy, and at first it didn’t seem weird at all. He was a little irritated, and the rifle was like a prop in a play, something that made us know he was a hunter.
“No offense meant,” Jeremy said politely. “We’re looking for my horse. She’s down at the other end of the pasture, near Belvedere Road, I think.”
The man got quiet for a minute. It seemed like he would just turn and go away when he said, “Randy little bitch, I guess,” looking right at Jeremy. It took me a few seconds to figure out who he was talking about. Suddenly I felt like I might choke, and the heat hit my face.
Jeremy smiled. “That little buckskin mare gets in all kinds of trouble—she does run off when she’s in heat.”
The man grinned and waved his arm toward the creek. “I was looking forward to eating that pigeon, roasted in the fire,” he said.
“Are you hungry, mister? We’ve got some sandwiches in the car back over by Alpine,” I said.
For the first time he looked at me. His eyes were blue, the kind of eyes that are darker in the middle and then get lighter toward the edge of the pupil; they were almost light blue on the edges, summer-sky blue. “I’m not hungry for sandwiches,” he said, and his voice was different, hollow. Then he turned and walked off toward the creek with a half-salute to Jeremy. We heard him slosh through it to the other side.
We turned back to our path and kept walking. We didn’t say anything for a while. Finally I said, “He scared me.”
“Me too.” We walked a ways further. It was later in the day, so the mist had begun to clear. After a while Jeremy put his arm around me.
“Do you think she’s near to us?”
“Connie, dear,” he called without much enthusiasm. “Connie girl!”
For a few seconds everything turned upside down in my head. I couldn’t remember why I liked Jeremy, why I’d come with him. For a crazy second I thought he knew the hunter. I thought they had been talking about me. I thought the hunter was up ahead. Not Connie, but the hunter. I thought maybe Connie had never been up ahead, ever. “Where is she?” I said.
“I’m sure she’s up at the fence line,” he said.
“Connie,” I yelled and then whistled.
“It’s just a little farther, Lanie.”
I started to run, calling and whistling as I ran. I could hear him behind me. I lost track of the creek, or maybe I was running so fast, I couldn’t hear it anymore. I was dodging trees and tons of thorn bushes and sassafras everywhere. Jeremy was calling after me now, “Lanie, stop. Wait.”
“Connie,” I yelled. “Connie!” I was starting to cry; little sobs were escaping from my throat.
Suddenly the trees thinned and I could see a bit of real pasture, an open space before the fence. The horses were there, strung out in a line along the fence, looking toward us, necks upright, nostrils dilated, anticipating their human visitors. I was watching the horses and I tripped; my hand reached out to steady myself and grasped barbed wire full on. I gasped and the sobs came loudly then. One barb punched the skin right in the center of my palm; the other one jammed itself into the fleshy center of my ring finger. Jeremy was next to me then. He said things, sweet things: “Oh, my girl. You’re hurt.” My palm hurt like hell but hardly bled, a blood blister in the making. The ring finger bled like crazy, droplets pattering down on my boots and Jeremy’s jacket. Jeremy pulled out a handkerchief. “Here, sweetie. Try wrapping it in this.” He held my wrist gently as I tried to wrap one-handed; then he took it from me and wrapped and knotted it snugly. I was still crying, sniffling like a baby and embarrassed by it.
The horses had come closer to see what the commotion was about. They were about twenty feet away when they all stopped and eyed us again. “Connie, girl,” he said. “Come on over.” She nickered and then a few of the others started their head-shaking routine, up and down, the universal horse symbol for “spooky.” We both laughed then. “What are you scared of?” Jeremy called over to them. She nickered again, took a step toward us, and shook her own head. “It’s me, Jeremy, you silly girl, Connie,” he said. She looked over at him, and one of the other horses stomped the ground and turned back toward the fence, trotting like a runaway child. Connie stood her ground, watching us. We watched her too. I was glad that Jeremy was watching someone else. After a minute or so, Connie lowered her head to graze.
“You need a tetanus shot now. Have you had one?” Jeremy was examining my palm, holding my hand.
“It hurts,” I said.
“I know,” he said and he laid it gently on my lap. “You wild girl. Why did you run?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He looked at me. He was down on his knees in the leafy, moldering dirt, close to me to administer.
“I was just nervous about finding Connie,” I said.
He looked at me again. No secret look now. He stood up and when he did, Connie trotted right over. He pulled a carrot out of his pocket, and she mouthed it from his palm. While she crunched, he slipped the halter over her head and scratched her between the ears.
We rode double on Connie back to the car, taking the crumbly road instead of the creek, which was so much easier. She was a bright mare. She snorted and sidestepped and her ears pricked back at us when we talked. I asked about how he got her. “I never could have gotten her,” he said. “Maybe an old gelding or somebody’s hand-me-down but not Connie. She was just a foal, and her dam foundered and died. They had too many horses to care for the baby—it was over in Galena. Somebody told somebody and somebody else thought of Dianne and Kenny’s farm, so I drove over with Kenny’s trailer and came back with her. That woman cried when I took her. And the man said, ‘She’s a good horse.’”
“She is a good horse,” I said.
“She’s taken a lot of bottles from my hand,” he said. “I slept in the barn for about three months. When I left in the morning to go to work, Dianne would stick her head out of the house and hoot at me, ‘Bye, Mommy.’”
But other than that, we didn’t really talk or kiss or anything really. When we got back to the car, Jeremy pulled his saddle out of the trunk and divided up the sandwiches. “It’ll take me about an hour, maybe more,” he said. “Wait for me. I’ll give you a ride home. No hitchhiking.”
All the kids who came out to Dianne and Kenny’s farm hitchhiked all the time because it was so hard to find a ride out there, and nobody but Matt and Jeremy had cars. Well, some of the other guys did but I didn’t know them, and they didn’t come to the barn for the horses. They came to smoke pot with Kenny and get drunk. But now everyone was paranoid about the hitchhiking because of the girl who took a ride and never came home. We didn’t know her, but Dianne did. Susannah Birgen. She lived over in Caledonia but worked as a hostess at the Creekside, that old fancy place everybody’s parents went to, right past Connie’s pasture and the subdivision. The newspaper said that sometimes she hitchhiked to work if her sister couldn’t give her a ride, and then everyone talked about it being broad daylight and how she never hitchhiked home in the dark, never. And how the restaurant manager would give her a ride home no matter how late it was, even though he lived on the south side of town and Caledonia was way out of his way. Kenny said, “I’ll bet he gave her a ride. Some ride, Mr. Manager.”
Dianne yelled at him, “Cut your crap, Kenny. She’s probably dead.” Kenny looked over at us sheepishly. He wasn’t stupid, just dense.
Everybody did think she was dead, but the cops made it seem like they might still find her or like maybe she ran away from home. I didn’t think she was dead.
I got back to the barn quick enough in the car, tickety-tickety, even though I drove kind of slow so no one would notice me. I thought about leaving before Jeremy got back because everything was a little different since we saw the hunter, and I felt funny waiting for him, like he was my boyfriend or something when he wasn’t really. I knocked at Dianne’s to bandage my finger properly, but she wasn’t there and the house was locked up. I pulled Shamrock and Britches in and gave them a high-gloss brushing, one-handed, and then sent them off again to the pasture. My hand hurt. No one else was around, so I sat down on the stone wall and waited.
Pretty soon I heard them coming up the back way past the quarry, first just the faintest clip-clopping and then Jeremy’s saddle creaking. I went and sat in the car like I was wanting to leave right away, which wasn’t really true. It took him a while to get her settled, and then he opened the driver’s side door and sat down. “It’s getting dark,” he said. I could tell he was looking at me but I couldn’t look up. He picked up my hurt hand and cradled it. “I’m glad you waited and didn’t hitchhike,” he said.
“She’s not dead,” I said.
“I hope not,” he said and started the car, laying my hand down on his leg gently. It was quiet again for most of the twenty minutes it took to get me home. And for some reason I got madder and madder at Jeremy as we got closer and closer to my house. There was just nothing to push against.
Right at the end I said, “Maybe that hunter is the guy who took Susannah.”
“I thought you said she wasn’t taken,” he said.
“Not dead,” I said, “but taken, maybe. He didn’t seem like a hunter, did he?” Jeremy was watching me now, looking back and forth from me to the road. “What was he doing hunting there? With all those houses nearby and Alpine Road?”
“He isn’t the guy,” Jeremy said. “What are you talking about?”
“There was something weird about him,” I said. “And really, can you hunt there? Is it allowed?”
“Lanie.” Jeremy looked at me. He looked confused. He pulled over and stopped the car. “He’s a guy in trouble,” he said. “No food or no money or both.”
“How do you know?” I was really mad now. I felt like punching Jeremy. “Do you know him?” I yelled.
“I don’t know him. What are you talking about?”
“He was right there, right by the Creekside Restaurant.”
“If he was the guy, would he hang around?” Jeremy kept looking at me like he’d seen a ghost.
“Why did you talk to him if you didn’t know him?”
“Lanie, something’s gotten all confused inside you. I don’t know him.”
“I’m not confused,” I said. “You talked to him about randy bitches. I heard you.”
He looked at me like he might die of shame. “It was Connie. We were talking about Connie.” But even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t right.
“Me,” I said. “Didn’t you know?”
“He was talking about you?” Jeremy lowered his head for a minute and looked past me.
“He was talking about me,” I said. It was quiet for a long time then. “I thought you knew,” I said.
He started the car again, and when we got to my block, he stopped six or seven houses down so my mom wouldn’t see his car. He cradled my hurt hand and looked like he might cry. I felt pretty bad but I wanted to go back to the way it was, so I reached across the seat and tried to find his lips. Suddenly I wanted to feel the hard, scraggly bumps of his harelip, but he wouldn’t reclaim me and used his arms to make it a brushy kind of hug.
It was pitch dark outside when I went in the house and really quiet. I thought at first Mom was gone, and for just a moment I imagined a free-and-clear homecoming, but then I heard something and before I even had time to be scared again, Mom came running from the living room, crying—I could see her wet face—and not steady on her feet at all, and she tackled me right there, so I was down on the hall rug, and she was yelling, “You brat!” And she was slapping at me down on the ground and kicking me with her slippers. “Where have you been?” she cried. “How dare you! You liar.” She kicked and slapped at me for a while until she got tired, but none of it hurt that bad. The shock of it was the worst part. My stomach always bolted when she hit me, and it could take hours to calm it down. Mom had walked away, disappeared again, so I stood up and made for my room, but she called out from the kitchen, “Young lady, you didn’t answer my question.”
“I was at the barn, Mom.”
“All this time. Hmmm. And how did you get home?”
I would have said that I hitched with Carol because the only thing worse than hitchhiking was riding alone in a car with a boy, but now I couldn’t say I hitched because of Susannah.
“Dianne had to come into town for her in-laws’ anniversary, so she gave me a ride.” I had no idea where that story came from, and I was worried that I’d used it before.
“You liar,” she said. She pointed at the window. “I saw that Jeremy’s car turn around. And I know how old he is.”
“Mom, we’re just friends.” I could see she was getting mad again, so when she stood up I said, “I was helping him.”
“Helping him what? I told you never to drive alone with boys, dammit. With men!” She hit me again but it was half-hearted. She was breathing hard and her head was down between her shoulders, so she spied my wrapped wound. “What happened to your finger?” She pulled at the handkerchief.
“Some barbed wire,” I said. “I helped him take his horse from a winter pasture to the summer barn.”
She sat down on the sofa and then laid her head down on the pillows. I wanted to ask if she’d rather I’d hitched home, but I knew it would start her up all over again. If I sat quietly, I was pretty sure she would fall asleep in a few minutes. She said something else, something mumbled about me being a liar and something about how a scar would be my keepsake. It took me a while to figure out she meant my palm and ring finger. Then she did fall asleep. I wanted to put the blanket over her, but it was always a toss-up. If I woke her up, then she might hit me again, but if I left the blanket off, I’d feel bad and imagine her shivering in the night. I pulled the blanket over her.
She was right. I was a liar. Almost everything I said was a lie. Or only partly true. I did think that if anyone took Susannah, it was the hunter with the weird blue eyes. I tried to tell that to Jeremy and he didn’t believe me. Maybe a lie was only a way to get along in the world.
I went to the bathroom to bandage my punctures. The ring finger was still seeping. I was pretty sure I needed stitches, and I was wondering about that tetanus shot. Could I get one at school? I thought of Susannah. Dianne said she was pretty, and she had some ideas of her own. I’d had a picture of her in my mind for a while, ever since the news came out. I imagined her riding in a car with a husband and wife. They were far away, heading west. It was like a cavalcade of postcards: Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, Monument Valley, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, you get the idea. They picnicked at scenic spots and talked about what Susannah might do when they arrived. I thought how well she’d planned it. Maybe she even knew about the hunter. Maybe she knew how many people would be suspected when she went missing. Maybe she knew the dangers others imagined. She knew what it took to disappear.