Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson
ou sure you're gonna be okay, Bird?” Leeda asked.
Birdie nodded, wincing and holding her calf. Poopie and Walter were sitting beside her, Uncle Walter looking at his daughter with worry. Birdie's mom was on her way, and Murphy was finding a vending machine. Grey, miraculously unscathed, stood behind Leeda.
Birdie looked embarrassed. Poopie had explained exasperatedly, on the way over, that Walter wasn't selling to Horatio Balmeade, and that he had intended to turn him down in the meeting. Now, huddled on the hard emergency-room chair, Birdie looked apologetic and pained at the same time. Leeda felt for her.
“You go on, Leeda,” Uncle Walter said. “We'll take good care of her. It's probably just a sprain.” He reached out his hand to shake Grey's. “It was nice to meet you.”
Leeda and Grey walked out into the hallway and down to the parking lot where Grey's truck was waiting.
He had explained to her on the way to the hospital that
Sneezy had colic, and he needed her help. He'd tried her on her BlackBerry, but when Leeda had seen it was Grey calling, she'd ignored it. That's why he'd come to the orchard.
“So I don't understand,” Leeda said. “What's colic? And why can't we have a vet out?”
“It's a big deal for horses. It's basically constipation, but the thing is that to try to soothe the pain, they sometimes roll. And rolling, when they're all blocked up like that, can burst their intestines.”
Leeda winced. In her head, she cursed her grandmother for leaving her the ponies. She didn't want to deal with a pony that might die. Grey drove fast, and it worried her all the more.
When they arrived at the corral, several of the ponies were up at the fence looking jittery, their ears pointed forward and their fur spiky. Leeda's eyes swept the field as she crossed the lawn behind Grey. She gasped when she saw a lump over toward the trees. Grey was already hauling himself over the fence. She followed, her shirt snagging on one of the nails as she tried ineptly to climb over.
Sneezy was on her left side. Leeda breathed a sigh of relief to see her eyes open and her chest moving, although her breath was extremely labored. She yanked her shirt off the nail and crossed the lot, standing beside the pony, helpless.
“We gotta get her up. We can't let her roll.”
Leeda pictured intestines bursting and started to feel a little light-headed.
“Leeda, come on.” Grey was gesturing to the pony's back. “I'll pull the head; you push her off her side toward her feet.”
Leeda nodded, kneeling on the ground, feeling all thumbs
and totally graceless. When Grey gave the signal, she heaved. For something miniature, Sneezy was incredibly heavy, and she merely sank back against Leeda's hands.
“Againâone, two, three.”
He pulled and Leeda pushed, and this time Sneezy seemed to become suddenly alert. She tottered up, first onto her hind legs, then straightening her front legs out underneath herself.
Leeda shot a bright, relieved smile at Grey, but he looked only slightly mollified.
“Okay, we need to walk her until she goes.”
Grey looked at her like she had to be kidding, and she suddenly caught his drift. “We should take turns,” he said.
He grabbed Sneezy's halter and started walking her rapidly in a big circle, passing Leeda again and then continuing, pulling Sneezy along at a clipped pace. Suddenly the pony's back legs began to buckle, and he yanked on her bridle hard, smacking her on the shoulders.
“Why are you hitting her?”
“We've just got to keep her up.”
He pulled the pony along again. “When I pass the rope off to you, you need to keep her moving. If you start going slowly, she'll try to lie down on you.”
“Okay.” Leeda nodded.
“Okay, next go-around I'll hand you the rope. You ready?”
“Yeah.” Leeda swallowed. She knew she was the worst person possible for the job. But there was nobody else.
Grey handed her the rope, and she launched into a fast walk, like she was taking a torch in a relay. It hadn't been
obvious when she was watching, but there was a fair amount of resistance, and within one circle Leeda was already getting tired.
“You've got to pull hard,” Grey said.
“I'm pulling hard,” she replied, but she felt ungainly and awkward and like she was going too slowly.
The pony began to resist harder, but Leeda barely noticed until she was suddenly pulled backward a step, and she turned to see that Sneezy's back legs had tucked underneath her and her rear was almost on the ground. Leeda tried to pull, but it was too late and her arms were too weak. Sneezy went all the way down, hitting the ground with a thud and beginning to roll back onto her side.
Grey was there that second, hitting the ground behind her and pushing against her back. Leeda let herself be pulled down with the halter.
“Pull her up by the chin,” he grunted, and Leeda tucked her hands under the pony's chin, reaching for the bottom strap of her halter and feeling the soft sweaty fur of her throat, the veins straining as she panted. Sneezy's chest was moving up and down in short little bursts, like someone hyperventilating, her warm breath on Leeda's arms. Her eyes were unfocused.
Leeda began to pull, but though Sneezy's chin came up, everything from her shoulders down stayed put. Grey had turned and was pushing his back against her, digging his heels into the dirt.
“I don't know if you have enough arm strength. We should switch,” Grey said. He nodded for Leeda to come to where he was, and she tripped over beside him. He put his hands on both
her shoulders for expediency, shifting her so that her hands were on Sneezy's back, and then he moved in a flash to where Leeda had been and grabbed the halter.
Leeda could feel sweat as the muscles of the pony's back moved under her hands. Grey looked at her. “Ready? Push!”
Digging her knees into the dirt, she pushed with all her strength. They both did, and nothing happened. Leeda looked at Grey. He looked panicked. They tried twice more.
Finally, exhausted, Leeda let out a breath and collapsed gently against Sneezy's back. When she looked up, Grey was rubbing the pony's ears. His face was open, upset.
They rested for a couple of minutes, and then Grey nodded to her and they positioned themselves and heaved again. Nothing. Only Sneezy's breath sounded slower and more relaxed. Her eyes began to flutter. She got still.
“No,” Grey said. Leeda moved her arm across the soft fur, resting her hand where she could feel Sneezy's heartbeat, in awe. Was she dying? Was Leeda holding something that was about to die?
She felt both awed and panicked. Her mind raced. She had read in books, as a kid, about horses and girls having deep connections, like they could almost read each other's minds. What would ponies want to live for? Starry nights. Hay. Breezes. She tried to think those things for Sneezy.
Grey wrapped his hands around the halter again and began to pull. “C'mon, Sneezy. C'mon, girl.” Leeda began to push too, but hopelessly.
And then, a shuddering movement ran through the pony. The way she moved was unlike any other four-legged creatureâher
legs unfolded like spider legs, and she shifted backward and forward until suddenly, she was standing.
Leeda jumped back. Grey wasted no time. He yanked the pony forward into a walk and looked at Leeda like they'd just dodged a bullet.
They took turns again, walking her around the corral in circle after circle. Grey stayed with Leeda when she was pulling the halter, hovering close to Sneezy's rear in case she tried to go down again. But a few moments later Leeda heard a few soft thuds and turned to see a big pile of manure.
Grey put a hand to his face and let out a breath. “Thank God.”
Leeda laughed under her breath, her shoulders relaxing, her whole body going soft and warm and a giddiness moving up her throat. “I never thought I'd be so happy to see a pile of poo,” she said. “Ha.”
They walked her for another ten minutes. Finally Grey slowed Sneezy down, rubbing his hands along her muzzle, and looked at Leeda. “She's most likely out of danger now. We can get her in the stable and keep an eye on her there.”
Leeda trailed behind him and the pony, stepping on manure but only vaguely noticing, she was so happy and exhausted. Once Grey had led Sneezy into her stall, he showed Leeda how to fill up her water bucket, and he spread some fresh straw on the ground. Then he leaned against the thin wooden wall opposite the stall and sank down, rubbing at his face to wake himself up, smearing more dirt across his cheeks than was already there.
“Somebody should probably stay with her awhile,” he said. “You can go inside and go to sleep if you want.”
“No, I'll hang out a bit,” she said. She leaned against the wall too and melted down like taffy.
They were quiet, comfortably. Leeda was so exhausted it felt heavenly to just breathe.
After sitting for a while, Grey looked at her sideways, rubbed his whiskers with his fingers, and smirked, but in a harmless, companionable way.
“So why'd your grandmom leave you ponies?”
Leeda considered the question. “No idea.”
“Because you said you weren't into animals.”
Leeda smiled slightly. “I know.”
He thought. “I can't figure it out. What
Leeda looked at her knees, ran her palms over them. “I don't know,” she said. After a few moments of silence, she went on, too tired and at the same time too full of life to be reserved. “I don't know what music I like. I just buy whatever clothes the magazines tell me to. I don't know what I want to be.” She smiled sadly. “I don't know if I like muffins or cupcakes better.”
Grey didn't answer. He just gazed at her thoughtfully. Leeda felt like she'd said something extremely revealing, even though she hadn't said much at all. She moved her thumbs back and forth against each other self-consciously.
Sneezy snorted. Grey looked at Leeda reluctantly, and then got up to stand beside her. Leeda followed. He ran his hands over the pony's ears. “She's still stressed,” he said, his dark brows furrowing above his eyes.
Now that they weren't in a life-or-death situation, Leeda wanted to touch the pony but didn't quite know how. She wondered if
Sneezy had read any of her thoughts. Maybe she'd sensed that Leeda wasn't all bad.
Grey studied her for a moment. “Why don't you pet her? She likes to be petted here.” Leeda placed her hands, where he indicated, on Sneezy's forehead. “You can feel where she likes you to touch her and where she doesn't. She'll let you know.”
Leeda ran her fingers along the ridges, feeling where the pony's skull changed under her fur, feeling the sweat and the grains of dust stuck to her coat, the muscles of her shoulder blades, the strength of her neck. Sneezy swiveled her ears back and forth like satellites, listening to Leeda, to Grey, to Leeda, to Grey.
“I ran over Birdie's dog,” Leeda blurted out. “Last year. I killed her.”
Grey, surprisingly, smiled at her. It was the first time he had ever smiled at her. It was a kind, open smile.
Leeda ran her hands around the side of Sneezy's neck, down to her chest. Sneezy raised her nose to Leeda's cheek and breathed onto it gently. Leeda leaned forward and touched her cheek against the pony's snout.
“See, you're friends now,” Grey said. Leeda smiled. It felt good. Warm and a little scary and good.
They were quiet for a while, until finally Leeda turned her face to him. “Where are you going in August?” she asked suddenly.
“Alaska. I'm gonna work on a fishing boat.”
“That sounds hard.”
He shrugged. “It's something new. I think odd jobs are my niche. I don't do all that well staying in one place.” He smiled a little sheepishly. “I always think there's a place that's going to feel
right. Like, maybe the next place. Like, home sweet home or something, and everyone's going to be perfect and good and not out for each other and petty and all that.”
Leeda picked up her hands and dusted them off.
“I guess if you're really wise, though, you can make the kind of life you want wherever you are.” He was quiet, and then seemed to shake it off. “So maybe being permanently dissatisfied is my niche. Which, now that we're on the subject, I'm really sorry about. I mean, I'm sorry for giving you such a hard time before. I do that, and it's like I can't stop myself.” He lifted a foot and pressed it against the opposite wall. “I underestimate people's souls sometimes. I think you're right. It's easy to judge. But I don't know. I'm much better when you get to know me. I mean, I have friends and everything, scattered around.” He smirked. “I'm not a total tosser.”
Leeda nodded to let him know she accepted the apology. “Well, at least you have a niche. Murphy says not having a niche is my niche.” She grinned.
Grey dug his heel into the ground like he was thinking it over. Birdie was right. Generally, he did look a little sad.
“Well, see you in a few hours,” Leeda said awkwardly, pulling away from the pony and brushing herself off.
She tottered into the house and made her way up to her grandmom's room. She tumbled out of her dirty clothes and crawled under the covers in her skivvies. But she was too wound up to sleep, and she read from one of her grandmother's civil war novels instead.
It was just approaching dawn when she put the book down. The barely gray light outside calmed her.
She was dead tired. But she still couldn't sleep. Maybe it was the end of her eighteen-year animal death streak. Or that she kept thinking about that pony's heartbeat pulsing under her hands. She thought about Grey's face, how different it looked when he actually smiled.
Finally, on a sudden, strong impulse, she got out of bed and pulled her dirty clothes back on, walked downstairs, picked up her keys, and got into her car.