I call Niles when I have a good amount of energy and feel sorry for myself. But he isn’t even fun enough to be distracting. When he comes on my stomach, he curses apologies and dabs at the pink scars, as if his little puddle hurts the spot where the tumor used to be. Who knows why he bothers pulling out, like it’s even possible for my body to support another person. At least for that one second he believes I’m a normal girl—one you can count on to be alive nine months later.
This time, he tells me to get on top and ride him bareback like I do my stupid donkey. At first I think he’s talking about my ex-boyfriend Lee, who I left soon after I was diagnosed. But he means Aesop, my blind pony. I bought Aesop at the Pony Penning auction three years ago, before I got sick. The paddle-crazy tourists just stared at the ground after seeing his cataracts, glossy blue-green, like aerial shots of polluted water. The bidding started at $175 and no one’s paddle went up. Aesop twitched and bucked, his eyes wider than any horse with vision. I pictured him being forced to swim across the Assateague Channel, unable to see the bank approaching. Struggling against the tide—unsure whether he should give up or just keep going.
When the auctioneer dropped his price to $100, my paddle went up. I paid the mocking ‘Saltwater Cowboys’ the $175 anyways. Three days later I brought Aesop to my quarter-acre backyard. Since he couldn’t see that he was cooped up on a patch of marshy scrub grass, I figured it wasn’t all that bad for him. But even that amount of space spooked the pony. The fenced yard shrunk to half its size when Lee, still my boyfriend at the time, built a two-stall barn out of island hemlock. It started to rot within the year.
It isn’t worth explaining to Niles that I can’t ride Aesop. I just get on top of him. If I don’t keep focused, I’ll feel the dull aches that live in the parts of my body I never acknowledge until they hurt. After a few minutes, Niles’ face contorts. He’s about to finish. He pushes me off, grabs my hand and puts it around his dick. He stops my wrist and I watch for the eruption. It’s disappointing, the way it just drips out. I want him to burst, like it’s essential that I extract the come from his body or else he won’t make it. I want the shortsighted pride of doctors, who save your life but then never have to see you waste it.
I wake up to gull chatter. The birds dart past my window, playing.
Niles is still asleep. I scan the contents of his pockets, splayed on the nightstand. His pay-as-you-go cell phone, pennies, two separate receipts for Burger King apple pie and the crumpled invitation to my surprise remission party.
It says, SHH! IT’S A SURPRISE! in the ink of a dying black permanent marker. I feel dizzy imagining the nub of the marker’s felt tip and how it’s now likely sitting beneath a brown banana peel and discarded mail at the bottom of Kit’s trashcan. She says I waste compassion on things that can’t feel. But those final moments of useful objects, when they become obsolete and die, just hurt.
Chincoteague Island’s lousy at keeping secrets so I guess that’s why Kit decided to throw the party tonight, just four days after the doctor gave me the good news. Kit’s the only person I know who’d throw a surprise party. This one will make her look especially good.
Niles flinches and jolts himself awake. His eyes are startled, like he’d been having a bad dream. He scans the room, slowly registering the space, remembering where he is.
I don’t realize I’m holding onto the invitation so tight until Niles grabs it. It splits down the middle. I’m left with the half that says ROCKY’S REMISS.
“God fucking damn it. Kit’s gonna murder me.” He pulls on his jeans and jams coins and receipts back in his pockets.
Niles works the early morning shift as a cook at the Purple Pony, the bed and breakfast by the causeway. It’s good for both of us. So far, I’ve never been caught with him when Kit shows up to the house. She hates him the way friends are supposed to hate the guys who don’t love and respect you. I don’t know why she invited him. I don’t want him there. And even if I did, Kit would chalk that up to self-destruction and cross his name off the list.
Kit thinks I ended it with Niles after I started seeing Turner, Aesop’s vet—the first of six who said I wouldn’t need to put the pony down. I could never get an exact medical reason for why the first few vets thought I should kill him. They assessed his pain, a pain I was more aware of than anyone. But it was a pain I felt I could, if not cure, at least dull.
Now Turner comes from the mainland every week with sedative-laced sugar cubes for Aesop. Sometimes he comes in. Sometimes he takes me out to dinner. Sometimes I feel I could love him. But his gentleness spoils it. He strokes my head while I sleep instead fucking me to the squawks of gulls searching the marshes for scraps. The only guys I can really count on can’t get it up when they see the stretch of scars. I can’t blame them. But I need to be worked into a heart-pounding frenzy. And the ones who can do that—the ones that make me feel alive—they never check to see if I still am.
But to be fair, most men my age are looking for either a meaningless fuck or a potential wife. A twenty-four year old with cancer isn’t a good candidate for either.
I’m a responsibility without the promise of a payoff.
After Niles leaves, I take a shower to wash him off. When I get out, Kit’s making my bed. Since I’ve gotten sick, she’s been coming to the house to do the easy chores. She works as a bookkeeper at Island Family Medicine, but cut ten hours a week so that she can tend to me in the mornings. She could be making another hundred sixty-four dollars a week. She won’t let me forget.
Leaning against the wall, there’s something thin and rectangular wrapped in wrinkly Easter paper. When I spot it, Kit beams.
“Shit, Rocky, you weren’t supposed to see that!”
I take my towel off and wrap it around my head while Kit rushes to the present.
“I guess it’s too late now, though.” She lugs it to the bed, puts it down and pats the quilt where she wants me to sit down.
I sit naked on the edge of my bed, feeling like a guest, and rip apart smiling bunnies and baskets of pastel eggs.
It’s my mirror.
After the first surgery and a month of radiation, I took the bathroom mirror down. The yellow artificial light oppressed the bathroom and highlighted all the puckers on my stomach, where my skin was rejoined. I was in the bathroom often. After being slung over the toilet, I’d lay on the cold tile until I could haul myself into the shower. Something about pulling the curtain closed made me feel better. The strawberry-scented shampoo stirred up a little hunger. The hot water was a kind of baptism. I’d decide that the rest of the day would be good. But when I got out and saw myself in the mirror, my body was alien again—the instincts I’d been trying to catch were washed away.
I look down at the mirror. It reflects parts of me I’ve never seen from this angle: the cliff of my cheekbone, where my neck and chin connect with a crease, the underside of my breast, which doesn’t look so bad. This, I hope, is how the men see me when their mouths trail down my belly in chaos, avoiding the scars.
“Turner can put it up.” Kit smiles.
I nod and glance at the clock. I have twenty minutes before he’ll be here for Aesop’s appointment. The last few times I’ve spoken to Turner, I’ve used the standard excuses—don’t feel well enough, need to rest, want to be alone. The stuff that’s usually true, that nobody challenges. But I think he gets the picture because last time we spoke, he just asked when he should come for the pony.
Kit makes me a ham sandwich and then leaves. We haven’t spoken about what the new arrangement will be. Since the news, she’s still been coming over everyday like nothing’s changed. I figure Turner has heard, too. He was probably Kit’s first invite. Last would be a tie between Lee and Niles: the one who stopped fucking me when I got sick and the one who doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Turner’s early. By the time I get outside, he’s already in the barn with Aesop.
“Almost done.” Turner’s on a ladder, peeling the pony’s eyes open. The blue of Turner’s latex gloves make Aesop’s cataracts look greener.
“I didn’t realize you were already here or I would have come out earlier.” I move out of his way into the spare stall.
When Aesop tries to break away, Turner jerks his dusty mane. The pony’s jaw bulges as the last eye-drops trickle in. Aesop’s exhales are loud and warm and wet. I rub his nose over the half-wall. He grunts. I’m used to rejection from him. I understand it. Every touch feels threatening. And he can’t anticipate the ones that aren’t.
“How are you doing?”
Turner shrugs, prying Aesop’s mouth open and rubbing a finger across his gums. “I was glad to hear about your good news,” the glove squeaks on the pony’s yellow teeth, “from Kit.”
“I wanted to tell you in person.”
Aesop bucks. His hooves crash against the metal stable door.
Turner lets go of his mane and hops off the ladder. Aesop’s breath is quick and labored. His eyes dart all over the barn, seeing nothing.
Turner takes off his gloves and rifles through his medical bag. I’m terrified he’ll come up with a bill.
I haven’t paid him in three months. Even though some of my medical bills are covered, what’s still owed is much more than I have. I’m lucky I don’t have rent to pay, though. My Aunt Sydney died when I was twelve and she left everything—her summerhouse and a box of disco records—to me. The house is one of these tiny beach shacks with mud and sand silt stuck in the wood grain. Aunt Syd’s house is on Piney Island, the east side of Chincoteague, closed off from the water by pines. The wet air still reaches the house. The wood panels are buckling and the floor’s at a slant—the whole house seems to tilt when you’re in it. And the dampness breeds black spores that bloom in circles on the leaning walls.
I left Shenandoah County after high school to come here. I’d had this green-eyed boyfriend who worked as a courier for a used bookstore. He’d go to estate sales and old libraries and dump the old books in the back of van. Before taking them back to the bookstore, he’d pick me up, park us somewhere and we’d spend the afternoon touching each other over our clothes in the back of the van. Then we’d look through old encyclopedias and outdated history books, learning what was once true. But then he left, out of nowhere. Moved out to New Mexico. Built a yurt. Dried out. When he didn’t ask me to fly out west and live with him, like I stupidly expected, I was mad. So I went the other direction.
My parents are probably right where I left them. Staring past the TV in their matching La-Z-Boys, half-hearing newscasters read tragedies off the cue cards.
I used up all the money I had within a month and a half of getting here. Then got a job as a maid at the Purple Pony, but when I started treatment two years ago, I started calling in sick and when I was there I couldn’t turndown as quickly. So they let me go.
I like to think I’m sort of scrappy, though. A month or so after I quit my maid job, a nurse at the treatment center handed me the newspaper to keep me occupied while the drugs trickled in. I came across an article about a painting elephant. I laughed out loud at the photos. The duck cloth slapped, lazily, with few ribbons of color. I decided that the tourists out here would eat up paintings by a real Chincoteague pony. So, I bought some canvases and smeared them with paint. In my head, the layers of blue and gray and black became the night swallowing the island. But the streaks still look like something a horse could do. I’ve always tried to paint something I think Aesop would want to see, if he could see. Abstracts of the dunes he was born on, the bay channel he somehow made it across, the waves of the Atlantic, where his possible ancestors were spit out on the Assateague shore.
I took the first set of five paintings to Island Gallery and Gifts and sold them with a photo of Aesop in a beret next to an easel. Each painting was listed at four hundred bucks and they all sold within the month. The shop takes a twenty-five percent commission, but it evens out during the summer months—the high tide of tourism. I sold twenty-nine paintings last July. It may be scummy but it’s the closest I’ve come to self-preservation.
Turner rummages though his bag, probably so he won’t have to look at me. “So is there anything else?”
“Actually, yes. Sometimes when Aesop’s grazing, he’s gets these erections. I think it freaks him out. He, like, stomps his back legs. Like he’s trying to get rid of it.”
Turner drops his head. “I meant did you want to say anything else to me. Not about Aesop.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
But I do know. I’ve never been brave enough to completely cut any of these guys off. And they don’t have the nerve to do it, either. Even the worst of them don’t want to be the one to dump the girl with cancer, so I try to give them the easy out by being unfair, by being totally unavailable. I just slowly drift away. A wave slowly sucked back to sea. That way they won’t miss me. I’m only the shell of a person.
Turner nods and zips up his bag. He pulls Aesop into the yard by the reigns. He never grazes, just squeezes into his usual nook between the barn and fence. I stay in the stall. The wood of the barn wall bends as Aesop crams himself in the small gap. When Aesop first did it, Turner explained that because he can’t see, it calms him to push himself into somewhere enclosed. Controlled.
I hear Turner unlatch the gate and get in his car. I don’t leave the barn until the rattle of his exhaust fades completely.
I sit in the dirt and let Aesop shudder against the fence until my stomach gets sour, then I pull him back into his stable. The doctors say I will still feel sick for a while. That remission isn’t cured. If I get to the other side, I have to hope someone’s paddle will go up. That not everyone will just stare at their feet.
Since I left, I’ve tried to call my mom a few times, but I’d always hang up before she’d answer. I should’ve gotten in touch when I first got my diagnosis. But I waited too long.
The closest I ever got was on Christmas Eve the winter after I left. I was working the Purple Pony’s Christmas dinner for the overtime when that Judy Garland song came on. My mother used to play that song on repeat as we decorated the tree. My dad and I would cover our ears and beg her to turn it off. We hated it—the way Judy’s voice quivered, the way she promised that next year all our troubles would be miles away. Because, we laughed, maybe next year would be way worse. It became a little joke between me and father. We even liked when she’d submit, turn the song off and leave us to hang ornaments alone.
When I heard the song at the Purple Pony, I went upstairs and called her from a vacant suite.
My mother said hello three times before saying, “Roxanne?”
But I just sat listening to the fuzzy background noise, trying to make out if she’d been listening to it, too. When I couldn’t decipher the static, I hung up.
After I get Aesop back into the barn, I go upstairs and take one of the only pills that works for my somersaulting stomach. The minty tab melts under my tongue, settles the nausea and saddles my eyes. Before I fall asleep, the world dissolves around me.
The next day when Kit shows up, I’m in bed watching reruns of Wheel of Fortune. The contestant buys an E. There are five. Vanna taps the bright boxes and sparkles in blue sequins. She looks like water. Kit turns off the TV.
“Rox, it’s five o’clock, get up.” She pulls the blankets off of me and opens my closet door. Most of the clothes are Aunt Syd’s. “Get dressed, I got you a haircut appointment with Peggy in like 30 minutes and it was a bitch to convince them to squeeze you in.”
Peggy owns one of the only salons on the island—Pegasus—it’s a little wood-paneled hut with purple linoleum floor and outdated wigs that line the entrance. But they’ve remodeled, Kit tells me while she’s waiting for me to get out of bed.
“I scheduled a pedicure, too, after your haircut. They’ve got those massage chairs now.” She looks at her watch, eager to get me out of the house so she can set up for the party.
I don’t get up. “The smells.” I say. Last time I went to get my haircut, almost two years ago, I was waiting for Peggy while Kit got her acrylics torn off. The nail polish fumes, hair sprays, incense and scented oils got me sick. I threw up in the thrash can beside Kit as the surgical-masked manicurist sanded the plastic off her fingers.
Kit’s face says now that I’m in remission, there’s no reason that should happen. Like I shouldn’t be limited anymore. She looks tired.
“Look, Rocky,” she pauses, her jaw pulses a few times, “the nurses at work told me during the treatment, your hair gets totally destroyed, like beyond repair. I think you should cut it the fuck off. Make some kind of fresh start.”
Kit grabs my hair, crisp as straw and almost waist long, and says, “And you need to get out of the house. You look like death.” She laughs and then her smile drops when she realizes her joke.
I tug on a pair of jeans. “You’re right.”
My feet drag as I push myself through the yard. The pills make me feel like either I’m floating or there’s a pressure hammering me into the earth. The marshy yard doesn’t help. The mud sips me in, as if preparing me to be underground.
I stop to rest inside the barn before biking downtown. I lie down on the straw in the empty stable. Between a fallen plank, the cotton candy sky slowly moves. Aesop snorts, afraid of the energy in the barn that he can’t see.
When Lee built the barn, I was planning to buy Aesop a companion horse, one that was trained to guide or herd. I thought maybe the sound and feeling of another horse would be good for him. Soothing, or something. But I got sick a few months after. And later Turner told me that even though it seemed like a good idea in theory, it was too late. Too much time had passed. Another horse in the space Aesop had finally learned to comfortably inhabit would just scare him.
When I open my eyes, the sky’s faded from plain to purple to nearly night. I missed the appointment. Aesop’s breath has calmed. I’ve been going in and out of sleep and I can tell he’s happier, thinking he’s alone. I start to cry, but I work to silence it, suppressing the heaves, so Aesop won’t hear the rustle of hay.
From inside the barn, I hear Kit open her car door and crunch up the gravel drive. She takes a few trips back and forth to the front of the house, bottles clinking as she walks. She laughs with a voice I don’t recognize. She’s a good friend, I decide. Maybe she didn’t throw the party to celebrate her heroism—her imagined part in keeping me alive. But even if the party is for me, I just don’t want to celebrate buying time.
After Kit’s inside, I crawl across the barn to the wooden shelf stacked with Aesop’s brushes, bits, halters, leads, my paints and a toolbox somehow immune to rust. Even though there’s not much light, I find a pair of scissors and a brush I bought for Aesop before I realized he wouldn’t tolerate being within a couple feet of me. As I scoot back into the second stall, Aesop stomps and lets out a mad whinny. A low hum of music comes from the house. I kneel, situating myself under the little light cast from the roof’s fallen panel. Gravel pops and headlights illuminate the barn as a couple cars pull in the driveway.
Light pours over Aesop. His eyes look planetary. He jerks against the sound of cars and gravel and happy voices. I duck down until the screen door snaps behind the cluster of guests. Before anyone else shows up, I pull the horse brush through my hair. The bristles still smell plastic-new. I part my hair down the center as Aesop snorts. I shush him in my mind, saying everything’s fine. It’s all okay. As another car slowly pops across the gravel, I bring both halves of my hair to the front, pull the clump tight under my chin and cut. I expected the old scissors to be dull, to resist, but they weren’t. They didn’t.
The chunk of dead hair looks like Aesop’s tail, only a little darker, and rougher.
I sit hidden against the barn wall while another couple sets of guests arrive. Voices trail past the barn. I could almost swear I smell Turner’s cleanness waft pass me, like fresh laundry. I would know his voice, but I wouldn’t hear it. He’d come silently. And alone.
I brush off the hair and hay the best I can and open Aesop’s stall door. I usually harness Aesop and pull him into the yard. But this time I just leave his stall door open so he can decide. As I slosh through the mud to the back door, I listen for his hooves against the soggy ground, hoping he’ll move into the open space. All I hear is his tail flick against the stall.
When I open the front door and move into the house, no one notices. Kit’s rounded up quite a group. My old bosses, Pam and Mitchell, who own the Purple Pony, hover over a bowl of pretzels in the kitchen. A couple of the maids and cooks stand against the wall, sipping drinks and staring at the buckling floor. Niles fidgets in a camo t-shirt alongside them. Some of Kit’s nurse friends from work are dancing around the loveseat, amusing Lee and some others, who glance between the girls and the buds they’re breaking up. This guy I recognize as a friend of Niles’ is perched on the arm of the loveseat eyeing the weed, obviously hoping he’ll be offered some hits. Turner is here, stoic even in a t-shirt, holding a longneck and examining the mold spores that he’s told me over and over to get treated.
Kit’s changed into a belly shirt and put on a necklace layered with colored beads. She holds a beer above her head and grinding against some guy’s dirty jeans. Her eyes are closed. She’s smiling, unbound, transported. At least for the moment. I watch jealously, because I can’t get there lately. It’s been ages since I even wished for happiness. Only distraction.
Lee looks up, half-smiling at the tipsy nurses while he rolls a joint. He catches a glimpse of me then he licks the paper before yelling, “Roxy!” over the music.
Everyone looks around at each other, startled. It’s like they weren’t expecting me, like I should be the one saying surprise.
“Oh, fuck!” Kit pushes the guy she’s dancing on out of the way and moves toward me. She trips over the leg of the coffee table, drops her beer, and falls into the shards of the broken bottle.
Turner runs to his car to get his medical bag. Kit’s got a clean cut across her stomach. She doesn’t need stitches, Turner says, but she’s sure she does. She looks to her nurse friends, but they’re hanging all over Lee. I don’t know why she invited them. Maybe to fill up the room—to make it seem like there are at least a handful of people who want to celebrate me.
Turner tells Kit to rest and her face lights up, like his commands are the most concerned, compassionate thing she’s ever heard.
Kit’s sprawls across the couch and Turner tapes her belly up. I sweep the glass to the corner of the room so I don’t have to watch him touch her. After he’s done and Kit’s nurse friends start dancing again, Kit lets Lee get her high. It’s possible that she’s already drunk enough to have forgotten that she’s supposed to hate Lee. That he rolls his eyes whenever she speaks. That he could hardly look at me after the diagnosis. I sit on the edge of the coffee table in the line of smoke.
After a few songs play and the worry about Kit passes, people start to line up and hand me presents. Local soaps, scented candles and two of the same miniature versions of the Assateague Lighthouse. No one even notices my hair.
Pam rubs my back but stands as far away as she can, avoiding the smoke spinning ghosts around me. She asks me how it feels to have a new lease on life. I smile and pat her hand, dazed from the medicine and the smoke, not saying what I want to say: that it’s still just a lease.
About an hour into the party, my old coworker from the Purple Pony, Macy, takes over the music and turns on “Roxanne” by The Police. Everyone laughs, except Kit, who’s glazed over on the couch stroking her gauze, and Turner, watching from the kitchen. Macy dances her way towards me and pulls me up by my arms.
I shake my head and try to sit back down, but she yanks me up again. I force a smile while everyone around me sings.
Turner’s back is to me, his eyes still on the mold as everyone screams, “put on the red light” over and over.
I don’t notice right away that Niles and his friend are gone. Their vacancy’s filled by the red balloons Kit just remembered to bring out of the laundry room. Some of the nurses inhale the helium and talk like cartoon characters. They say perverted things in children-pitch, then laugh wicked witches.
The house hums with noise. I watch Turner watching the mold, like it’s blooming in front of his eyes.
“Turner.” He doesn’t hear me over the music.
I’m about to try again when Aesop shrieks.
The pony has screeched and whinnied before. I’ve heard him make a number of noises that make me sick. But I’d figure this sound for a human scream if I didn’t know his voice.
I push the girls sucking balloons out of the way and run out the door toward the pen. He’s crammed into his usual slot and is bucking so wildly that’s he’s kicked a hole in the rotting hemlock. Outside the fence, Niles and the other guy are passing a glass pipe and blowing smoke in the pony’s face.
Whatever they’re smoking isn’t the skunky shit I expected. It’s more chemical. Blood in your mouth metal. Bleach. Smoky come.
“What the fuck—what did you do?” I hop the fence, getting as close to Aesop as I can without getting a hoof to the face. I can feel his heat.
On the other side of the fence, this guy I don’t know is biting his lip and doing jumping jacks. Niles just looks past me.
“Niles!” I scream so hard it feels like my throat tears. He stares out at the pines, dazed. I want to pull his hair out. I want to tear his face apart. I want to remind how he always wipes the come off my scars, as if that will make him realize how, for some brief moments, he cares.
Turner pushes me out of the way and sticks Aesop with a syringe. The pony’s breathing slows and his short, knobby knees give out. He collapses backwards, taking out nearly the whole side of the barn. I drop to the ground with him. I’ve never seen Aesop unconscious before. He’s a mass of meat and light brown fur.
“Look what you did!” I melt into the mud, “What did you do?” I scream, holding Aesop’s muddy hock. I grip him tight, taking advantage of a time I can.
The guy I don’t know says that Niles said he felt sorry for the blind pony. Now he’ll finally see some shit. Niles is still gazing at the pines between us and the bay, unaware of the chaos around him. I wonder what he sees.
Turner pulls me up from the mud. I try and hold on to Aesop, but Turner shakes me off of him.
“Come on.” In a moment so loud, I can’t believe I can hear him whisper.
Turner drags me across the yard and through the dying party. The strings of floating balloons brush my face. Kit is still on the couch, too focused on her bandages to notice.
When we get upstairs, Turner lays a towel on my bed and hands me a wet cloth to wash the mud off my arms and legs. He digs through my drawer of prescriptions until he finds a bottle of Xanax that I usually don’t touch.
“Take these and lie down.”
He puts two pills in my palm, but I don’t swallow them. “Do you think it’s even worth it?”
My throat closes up, but I refuse the tears. I can’t tell what survival means. I don’t have proof that ever feels good. Maybe I’m trying to treat an irreducible pain.
The first year I had Aesop, I wished I’d get some break that never came. I hoped he’d warm up to me, or he’d eat normally, some days I hoped he’d just die in his sleep from something he was born with—something I couldn’t have fixed. I avoided the barn so fiercely that sometimes, I’d stay locked up in my room all day. I turned the TV up so loud that I couldn’t hear his snorts or hooves clack against the stall.
It changed sometime after I got sick myself, but not because of some camaraderie of the wounded. Not because that linked us. I found that being in the barn made me feel better after treatments. Something about the pony shit, the hay, the damp hemlock and the hovering smell of the salt marshes made me less nauseous. Maybe after hours in the hospital, where the sterile smells of antiseptic try to cover our human stink, I needed the spoiled smell of the world.
The days after treatment, the worst days, I’d go out back and lay in the second stall. My heart would settle down and my muscles would untangle. I was used to Aesop’s grunting when I invaded his space. I was used to reminding him that he was okay, that it was just me.
One time when I lied down in the spare stall, it only took him a few minutes for his breath to settle. Even though the barn was warm, my teeth chattered a little. I tried to control the noise so that it wouldn’t panic him. He leaned over the half-wall and snorted suspiciously at me every few minutes. But even his warm grunts heated me up. We stayed like that until I fell asleep. When I woke up, he was still hanging over into my side of the stall, blinking slowly. I stared in his eyes and I swear, for a second, I felt like he could see me.
Turner doesn’t say Aesop’s going to be okay. He sits down beside me on the edge of the bed and says to press on my eyes. I bury my face in my hands. He asks what I see.
“Nothing.” I say.
Streaks of green come in. Stars of yellow and red. Blue veins become purple webs. When I stop pushing, the colors twinkle and fade to black.
Turner says, “Even when your eyes are closed, you can still see.”
Turner holds me, stroking my head. I give in to the heaves, hoping there really is something Aesop can see behind his blindness. I let myself hope for the first time in a long time, even though I know hope is the most treacherous kind of trust.
Kit stumbles in and says she’s been looking all over for me. She says to look outside, that Lee’s kicking the shit out of Niles. When I make it to the window, my eye lingers on the fight for only a second before I look to the pen where my pony is crumpled up, but calm.
I wake up alone, with my mud-caked clothes in a pile by the cracked bedroom door. I don’t remember falling asleep. The bathroom mirror is still on the bed. I sit up and look at myself. My reflection and I are alone.
There are certain things the doctors go out of their way to say only once. But I hear them over and over. You’re legally required to tell the people you’re close to that you’re radioactive. As if sick people don’t know they’re contagious, one way or another. Mostly what we spread is the reminder of death. And no one wants to catch that.
The doctors also say that in order to kill the bad cells, they have to kill the good ones, too. The say it quickly so you don’t linger too long on the idea that even if you make it, the good parts of you will be gone.
The phone rings, but I ignore it. The machine picks up and the recording I made as a kid plays. My voice is squeaky with excitement. “This is Roxanne,” I say, “tell me who it is and I promise to call you back!” In the background all the Aunt Syd and my parents are laughing. I guess because it wasn’t really my promise to make.
I changed the number when I got here in case my parents thought to get in touch, but I couldn’t get rid of the machine, the last bit of my original self.
After the beep, I hear Niles, sounding rough.
“Rocky, hey. I just wanted to call and sorry. Sorry for crashing your party and possibly killing your horse. Fuck. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
I wish something terminal on him. Six months to live. I want him to be able to see what he’s leaving behind. I want him to see the pink sky with clouds like sinew, the way a balloon looks when someone sucks the air from it, the way even bad sex looks—because it still looks pretty good. I want him to be able to see the way the wild horses look every year when the town forces them across the channel. I want him to know the magic and have to leave it.
Then I remember that one day, he will.
Niles says that if I need some help cleaning up, he’ll be happy to come over. That he hopes that me and the horse are okay. I think the message from is over until I hear a fuzzy sigh, then a click.
Maybe later I’ll call him back.
I go outside to the yard. Over the fence, I see Turner’s car parked on the gravel. He’s asleep under his coat in the backseat.
Aesop’s awake in the barn. Turner must have stayed up and led him back in the stable when he came to. The pony must still be a little sedated because he doesn’t grunt or pant when I come in and touch his wet nose.
I don’t understand why I’m still on this island, where I can survive on government checks and counterfeit horse paintings. It seemed okay when I thought I’d die here. I liked the idea of getting swallowed by the bay, chewed up by fish, being swum over by eager-legged ponies once a year as they work to keep their snouts above the surface and get to the other side.
I read all of Aesop’s fables when I was kid. There’s this one about the pony and the horse. The pony is mad. She thinks all the horses are having better lives. They have the advantage of height. From so far down, how can she see how good the world is? The horse says to quit complaining. That there are other ways.
I slowly stretch my hand from Aesop’s nose to his forelock. His ears twitch a little, but he’s calm. He blinks slowly when I take his muzzle in my hands. He lets me rub the soft fur of his face. I cup his jaw muscles in my hand, feeling them bulge. Reaching as far as my arms will go, from neck to shoulders to withers, I hug him, gripping his coarse mane. He tries to jerk away.
“Not yet.” I say.
I have a follow-up appointment in an hour. They say we need to talk about where to go from here. Next steps.
I go back into the house to wash up. The balloons are deflating. They look like red blood cells under a scope. Beer cans and chips are crushed all over the floor. A few rainbow beads from Kit’s necklace have worked themselves into the cracks between the wood panels.
I want to paint the scene: the aftermath of chaos, the way the world looks after one thing ends and another begins. I want to paint it the way Aesop would. In thick streaks of red, silver, brown, blue, yellow, and green—in splashes of every color that even closed eyes can see if you press them hard enough.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 36.2, Winter 2014.
Elise Burke received her MFA from Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing and her BA from the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College in Baltimore. She was awarded two Kratz Center for Creative Writing Fellowships in 2011 and 2012 and was the recipient of the Kratz Center’s 2012 Reese Award, naming her Goucher’s writer of the year. Elise received a 2014 James Purdy Short Fiction Award. She has been nominated for a pushcart prize, the Best of the Net anthology and one of her stories was named a 2014 storySouth Million Writers Award notable story. Her fiction has been accepted by or published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Joyland, Heavy Feather Review, Swarm Quarterly, and others.