“Right.” Chloe clears her throat and scratches the side of her neck with one finger. The nail is painted in chipped purple polish and the long point makes a trail of red irritated skin when she’s finished with her non-existent itch. Our awkward silence after Cinder’s dramatic exit is surprisingly uncomfortable and she fidgets under my expectant gaze. It feels like I’ve commandeered this job, and her actions are beginning to prove as much. At least Cinder was in on it, so I’m not entirely to blame.
She sweeps out an arm, deciding to get right to it. Thank goodness for that – I’m not in the mood for pleasantries and getting to know one another. I have to preserve my energy for forking hay. That’s what people do right? Fork the hay and fling it over their shoulder? I saw it on a commercial once. That sounds about right. “Welcome to the barn. You won’t see many horses in here at once so unleash that breath you’re holding. They tend to be adopted pretty fast, but we do keep a steady flow of them. Your work shouldn’t be overloaded.” She winks at me and then sighs. “People think horses aren’t a high-maintenance pet. Poor Dot there had it the worst when she came in. Completely emaciated, her hooves looked more like rocks than hooves, and she was so depressed.”
“And Pinky was found in the woods?” I turn to Pinky without waiting for an answer, and lift my hand to rub the nape of my neck where nervous sweat has gathered.
Something about this horse seems familiar and it makes my stomach swirl the contents of my breakfast. Even my inner wrist tingles. Pinky’s story runs through my head, my brain making up imagines of his capture. The images are so real, I can almost smell the fragrances of the forest they surely found him in. It had to be an interesting event if this horse doesn’t like people. I wonder how many rescuers they had to pull in for his capture.
I thin my lips, grim. I, too, share that aversion. If only I had giant teeth to snap and warn off all those who’ve made it their mission to dive into my business. “How long does it take for a horse to go wild when it isn’t around people?”
Chloe stands beside me. She smells like pine and rain, the natural earthy scents relaxing me. There’s something about the smell of trees . . . “I don’t know, but in the excellent condition he came to us in, he shouldn’t be this wild. No.” She puckers her lips and a gust of wind blows in, sweeping her hair from her shoulders. “I think this is a personality thing. Maybe even a trust thing. It’s rare, but some horses are like that. They may cling to only one person…”
Pinky locks eyes and pins me with his glare. The tingle intensifies, spreading through my veins as it works its way from my heart, to my shoulders, and settles heavy in my wrist. It feels like I have rubber bands encasing the skin, constricting blood flow to my fingers. The weight of his stare is not as predatory as it was when Pinky and Cinder had a go at it. This is … different. A recognition maybe? Blame? Is a horse intelligent enough to place blame?
The tingle intensifies. Rubbing my wrists, I keep my features soft and dip my chin, trying my best to seem the least intimidating. I’m basically skin and bone. Nothing about me screams predator.
His ears slowly lift from their flattened position, and his eyes brighten from their harsh, narrowed squint. Interesting.
I tilt my head to the right, and he follows. I tilt my head to the left, and again, he follows. When I nod, his head bobbles. It’s like he’s the puppet and I’m the master who pulls his strings. Very Interesting.
I take a step closer, hypnotized by Pinky’s large glass-blue eyes, yet curious nonetheless. The horse recognizes me and my body recognizes him, even if my brain doesn’t. What is it about this creature that draws me?
Chloe says something else, a warning to her tone, but I don’t pay attention to her words. The surrounding sounds drown just as her voice, my focus on the creature before me and his slow breathing, his complete fixation. I blow out a breath around O-shaped lips and it fans Pinky in the face. His eyelids flutter, whiskers twitching, and the muscles in his chest quiver. A sense of calm relaxes the muscles along Pinky’s neck, and I reach at the same time he stretches his head forward. Our thoughts seem to be on the same wavelength. His leg hits the gate to his stall, and his hoof kicks thinly shaved wood shavings under the gate and over my cheap shoes. His nose almost touches my palm, a nudge in the air between us, and hot breath fans the skin along the heel of my wrist. Surprisingly, it cools and soothes the aching tingle.
“Be nice,” I whisper, an order. His ears twitch in acknowledgment and his nostrils flare. It’s easy to see his thoughts crossing his features. Each subtle movement holds so much meaning behind it – a look into his mind. His whiskers briefly touch my skin and tickle my hand. It’s as though he understands what I’m asking of him, and he’s all to willing to obey. What am I to him?
I lean, intent on feeling the pink skin around his nostrils. It looks so smooth, velvet soft. If I could just touch it…
A shuffle of shoes behind me breaks our undivided attention. I double blink, my eyes dry, and snap out of my trance. Pinky snorts and sprays my arm with snot. He turns his head to my right, almost smacking me in the face with his chin. Pinning his ears flat against his scalp, he snaps his teeth at the space over my shoulder.
Jumping out of my skin, I follow his gaze for the meaning of such raging hostility – Chloe – and scowl at the distance I unknowingly traveled. I didn’t realize I had walked the entire way to his stall. I resist the urge to groan – I’m completely losing my mind now. First blackouts, and now a fascination with a prickly equine.
Chloe’s eyes are wide and her skin is pale. Head swiveling to me and the horse, her lips twitch as she digs deep for the right words. “No one has ever been able to touch Pinky.”
“I didn’t touch him,” I respond flatly.
She continues as though I didn’t say a word. “No one has ever been allowed to get that close.” She pauses and I watch her throat constrict. Her nostrils flare and she inhales, cocking her head to the side. My expression furrows deeper and when she opens her eyes, her personality switches from concerned about the whole ordeal, to nothing had transpired at all. Cinder’s mood changes must rub off on people. I just hope it never rubs off on me. It would give my brain whiplash.
“The grain bins are over this way.” She flicks her thumb over her shoulder. “I’ll show you how to feed them first.”
She turns on her heel without a backward glance and marches over to the bins. I twist my lips to the side, abandon Pinky, who’s burning a hole in my back, and dutifully follow to what could only be my demise.
Death by labor. I should have never left the apartment.
The rest of the day flew by surprisingly fast, and as an added bonus, I’m still alive. I stayed longer than expected while she showed me how to care for the horses, and the future horses to come. Much to my dismay, she walked me through cleaning the stalls and where to dump the manure, and gave me a quick lesson on a horse’s anatomy. By the time we were done, the sun had heated the lands and we were dripping with sweat.
The breeze, continuously flowing through the outdoor paddock doors, hasn’t been enough to quench our skin’s thirst, but it does feel nice when it caresses my wet shirt. It swirls pieces of hay in the air, and the hay eventually sticks to our skin like our sweat is glue. There’s no relief to that kind of itch. Not matter how much I swipe at the tiny pieces of pestering hay, it refuses to leave my skin. A few times I debated about turning the hose on myself, but the thought of wet socks was the only thing holding me back.
I snort at the thought and Chloe quirks her brow in my direction. I’d look like an insane fool if I used the hose to shower me down. Normal people don’t do that. Normal people endure the itch.
Chloe has yet to ask a single personal question. I can practically see it on the tip of her tongue, but so far, she’s refrained. Most of the time we worked in silence. The chirping of happy birds pecking at spilled oats and gathering pieces of hay are the only sounds to fill the void. Even the horses have been quiet, content to watch us work.
My earlier disheartened attitude about this new job had dissipated somewhere along the way. It could be Chloe’s overly cheerful attitude toward animals, or maybe it’s because I’m feeling like I’m making a difference for once in my short-memoried life. If I were asked a few days ago if this would be where I’d see myself by the end of the week, I’d laugh in that questioning person’s face and slink away to my nearest hiding hole. For once, my choice to fight back and take my life into my own hands feels like a good one. I can do this. I will do this.
Chloe straightens slivers of a square hay bale she had opened earlier, and while she was distracted – more by her own thoughts than the bale itself – I lift my arm, take a whiff of myself, and recoil. I smell terrible.
I turn to the horses and my shoes slosh in a puddle I had accidentally made while giving them water moments ago. Dot and Buck munch away while Pinky noisily guzzles water. The way Chloe had stuck the hose in his stall to fill his bucket was hilarious and I chuckle as the image replays in my head. The horses don’t seem so bad, and I could get used to the mindless tasks . . . and the smell. It’s oddly satisfying to put in a hard day’s work. Not to mention it worked off a lot of my anxiety.
She turns to me and lifts a hand to remove the piece of hair stuck to her damp forehead. “So, I suppose we should get you set up in our payroll system.” She looks at Pinky. We had skipped cleaning his stall today, leaving it for tonight’s crew to endure his antics. I get the feeling she’s avoiding Pinky due to me instead of his chomping jaws. The unexplainable fascination I have with him gives her the creeps, no matter how hard she tries to hide it. I don’t blame her. The more time I have to think about it, the more it creeps me out as well.
Pinky lifts his head, water dribbling from his mouth. Chloe’s nose wrinkles. “Since he seems to like you so much, would you want to attempt to clean his stall tomorrow?”
Eyes watering, I rub my nose on the sleeve of my shoulder and attempt to delay a violent sneeze. “Sure.” Little pieces of dust work their way from my sleeve to my nostrils, and the sneeze happens despite my best effort, echoing against the walls. Dot jumps in her stall and snorts at me for scaring the skin off her bones. “Set up in the system?”
“Yeah.” Chloe nods and ushers me from the barn and back into blessed air condition. She sighs in relief and props her hands on her wide hips. “Do you have any identification with you, or should we set that up tomorrow?”
“I -” I stutter and look at the walls for answers. Sadly, they have none. I can’t come up with one excuse. I’m literally drawing a blank here, which causes my thoughts to frantically flick through one excuse after another, until I blurt the truth out of frustration. “I don’t have any.”
“Any what?” She yanks on the bottom of her scrub shirt and adjusts her bra through the cloth.
“Identification,” I mumble and look at my shoes. I hold back a disgruntled groan. They’re covered in dust and smelly brown stuff. There’s not a chance in hell I’m going to get the stains out. Horses should come with warning labels and hazard tape.
“Oh.” Chloe blinks. She leans closer and lowers her voice to a whisper. “Are you illegal?”
Raising my hand, I massage the sore muscles roping my upper arm. “I don’t know.”
“You – You don’t know?” Her penetrating stare continues, and I wish more than anything to be able to read her thoughts. If I could, I’d be able to wiggle my way around this. It’s probably for the best that I can’t. I’ll bet my last dollar they’re not very pleasant. Perhaps if I shrivel into a tiny puddle, it’d better suit me.
She glances down the hall, and once she’s satisfied that no one is around, she whispers, “Here, come with me.”
Dutifully, though reluctantly, I follow her down the hall of barking dogs and meowing cats, bending each curve and fretting the entire way. I twist and pull at my blistered fingers. What am I going to tell her? I didn’t think about needing legal documents to get a job. How am I going to explain that I have none? I have no parents to call, no way of knowing if I was born here or somewhere else. The logistics of this country’s legal system is lost to me. The only thing I know is how to run, how to hide, and how to stay hidden. I’m damn good at it. Yet here I am, trying desperately not to do any of those things. I know this is my new plan – to fight back and have some sort of life – but I never thought I’d have any normal kind of trouble. Technically and legally speaking, I’m not sure if I’m a real person, and that’s definitely how she’s going to see it. Add in my illness, and I’m a sure bet to turn away.
We reach the lobby and a woman sitting in the chairs, proper with a straight back, swings her head in our direction. Her tapping foot freezing mid-tap and her dark eyes fall on me first. A brief moment of shock crosses her features, until she wipes it from her face and replaces it with a hooded stare. Under her scrutiny, the hair pricks on my upper arms and I shiver.
Instead of standing from her chair, she sits as still as a statue. She’s older, maybe mid-forties, and a touch of grey hair in the midst of black is carefully piled on top of her head. Her features are Asian, small and delicate. A spotted dog with short and fine white fur, waits at her heels. His tail beats against the chair’s metal leg. As the dog catches our eye, his ears perk, completely oblivious to his human’s prickly nature.
“Mrs. Seimans,” Chloe begins. I scrunch my face as she approaches the woman in question, stopping short and propping her hands on her hips. Seimans? As in a relative to Norbert? The woman is too old to be his wife, and their features definitely aren’t the same. Adoption? Grandma in law? I didn’t see a ring on Norbert’s finger. Nope, not a wife. Besides, the godly diamond nestled on Mrs. Seimans’ ring finger tells me all I need to know. There’s no way Norbert would be able to afford such a rock. Whoever gave it to her has a lot of money. But still, it doesn’t sate my curiosity.
Chloe pushes her hair back and observes the dog. “I’m beginning to think this Dalmatian is claiming you. How many times this week have you brought him here?”
Mrs. Seimans waves her free hand in the air and huffs. The gesture is half-hearted and stiff. “With my old age, I can never tell, Dr. Bane.” Old age? She isn’t that old, though her accent tells me she’s not from around here. Barely grey and she’s already playing the senior card. “But I do love our chats. Poe here needs a more attentive owner.” She leans closer. “I don’t suppose you can do anything about that, can you?”
“Now, Mrs. Seimans.” Chloe bends forward, speaking in a clear voice. “If you would get over this feud with the Clemin family down the street, you could return their dog yourself. There would be no need for a trip to my rescue shelter several times a week.” She hardens her voice, chastising the woman, while I shift my weight from foot to foot, nervous about our impending conversation. Chloe has an authoritative air about her. How the hell was I going to talk my way around that? Not to mention the flicks of the woman’s eyes in my direction is making me antsy. Every time we lock eyes, her jaw clenches.
Chloe scratches Poe’s ear, obvilious to the silent war Mrs. Seiman’s seems to have going on. To hate me, or not to hate me? That is the question. “If I were to be frank here, I would tell you the dog isn’t in need of rescuing. He clearly has an agenda of his own.”
“Is that so?” Mrs. Seimans, feigning innocence, pats Poe on the ribs. Poe hoods his eyes and softly pants, loving the attention. The dog is so calm and adoring. His sense of ease washes over me, providing some sort of freakish relief to my own anxiety. “What do you think his agenda is?”
Chloe bends her knees and squats in front of Poe. Poe stops panting, licks his lips, and swipes his tongue across Chloe’s sweaty cheek. “If you ask me, Poe’s attempting to reunite old friends. Your new husband and the Clemin’s go way back, Mrs. Seimans. It’d be a shame to continue bickering over something that happened five months ago. A minor something, might I add.”
“Their daughter broke off the engagement to Norbert,” Mrs. Seimans hisses. Her face darkens and her facade drops. There’s the real woman, tucked behind a senior facade. Press the right buttons, and the true personality pops open like a jack-in-the-box. “You don’t forgive something like that.”
Chloe stands and towers over the seated woman. Mrs. Seimans doesn’t flinch but her shoulders pull back, prepared for the challenge. “It happens every day. Perhaps you should consider taking after your step-son. Norbert isn’t upset about it, and neither should you.” She looks over her shoulder, probably checking to make sure I’m still here and didn’t make my escape. I must admit, it was tempting to bolt through the double glass doors and never return. “If you excuse me, Jinx and I have some business to attend to. Norbert should be around in a bit to take care of Poe. Okay?”
Step-son then. She married Norbert’s father, and if I had to guess, she married him for money. I get a closer look at this woman who has decided to despise me without actually knowing me, and note the expensive clothes and manicured nails. Yep. Money.
The woman huffs, turns her head away, and nods once, curt and forced. Out of the corner of her eye, she stares at me. I sigh. Mrs. Seiman’s may have a threatening air about her, but it’s not like I’ll ever have to deal with her on my own. Chloe seems to have her under control. Maybe even Norbert will have a word or two with her.
I’m not the crazy one here, lady, I think to myself. She’s the one who comes here several times a week to drop off a dog that lives down the street. She could simply wait for Norbert to get home and take the dog back. Or leave the dog to roam. Who, in their right mind, would take this kind of extreme step for a grudge? That kind of grudge sounds like a lot of work. I make a disgruntled noise and stiffen when she turns her head and sweeps me from head to toe.
I almost blurt ‘take a picture’ when Chloe twists her upper torso, waves a hand at me, and beckons me to follow into her office.
My feet shuffle against the white tile, and Mrs. Seimans and I hold our ground until I bump into Chloe’s back. Before I turn to face the music, her face darkens and her eyes squint. Whatever. Maybe she thinks I’m the next chick after her son’s hand in marriage. Not gonna happen.
Chloe holds the door open for me and I step inside. Her desk is metal and small, yet neatly organized, and a laptop lays in the middle of its surface. The wall behind her desk has two large pictures of a wooded area, filled with bright green leaves, and yellow and pink wild flowers. A clock is hung between the pictures, and below that, her certificate which states the college she completed her doctorate. A small observation table is to the right of her desk, while a larger one is to the left.
The door closes behind me, effectively shoving Mrs. Seimans from my thoughts. “Please, take a seat.” Chloe gestures and shimmies past the larger observation table, wiggling herself in the rolling desk chair. She moves her laptop to the side, rests her elbows on the desk, and props her chin on top of her knuckles. I stiffen under her watchful gaze. “So, you have no documents? No identification?” I shake my head and she quietly huffs, dropping her arms and leaning back in her seat. The springs in her chair squeak, though she’s a tiny little thing. “Well, if Cinder allowed you to stay in his bar’s apartment, I’ll pay you under the table. I don’t like it, but I also don’t know your situation. I assume there is a good reason you don’t have proof of being a legal citizen.”
I gulp. This is easier than I thought it was going to be, and yet, pesky guilt rides my back. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble here.”
She waves a hand in the air and tilts her head to the side, staring at the ceiling light’s reflection on the observation table‘s surface. “It’s no big deal. No one checks here anyway. This isn’t a place anyone would think to look for illegal immigrants.”
I lift my hand and massage the back of my sweaty nape, a headache forming between my eyebrows. For once, I’d love to know what it’d be like to have a family, a heritage – to not be a damn outcast everywhere I turn. Hell, I’d settle for a real name instead of the one I gave myself. Any information passed down from generation to generation, no matter how small, would at least give me a trace to follow.
She snaps her attention from the reflection and pins me with narrowed eyes. I flinch for what’s to come with her sudden change in temperament. That woman who barged in to barn with sarcasm dripping from every word hasn’t been seen since my spotlight with Pinky. “How did you get Pinky to let you get so close? No one has been able to touch him.” Boom. I love it when I’m right. Sometimes.
“I didn’t exactly touch him.” I shrug. “I never got the chance.” My eyebrows furrow and I drop my gaze. The ease that overcame me while approaching him was, indeed, weird, yet on some level, thrilling. I can see why she keeps asking me about it.
Above all those before me, Pinky had trusted me, had saw something that held no doubt to my intentions and was all to willing to obey. That’s a first for me. He saw… me. My frown deepens. Is this part of my illness? Is the horse having sympathy for me because he can smell my impending death? With the one channel on my TV, I’ve seen the occasional televised animal document. I’ve seen dogs sniff cancer.
“Where did you just go there?” Chloe asks, breaking my thoughts with her hushed whisper.
I ignore her second question and answer her first. She doesn’t need to know I’m sick, or she’ll never hire me. I pull my shoulders back and straighten my posture. “The horse likes me I guess. Maybe I’m one of those people.”
She snorts. “Right. You have zero people skills. You’re almost robotic. I wish I knew how you kept your emotions so guarded.” I bite my top lip. She hesitates and studies my reaction in the absence of words. Leaning back, she opens a drawer in her desk and pulls out a wad of cash. With a careless flick of her wrist, she tosses it in my lap and a small smile curves her lips. “’Under the table will come in the form of cash. That should be enough there. You can go home now, if you want.”
I stand, pocket the money in the back of my jeans, and straighten my stiff shirt, eager to leave before she asks more questions. “Thank you, Chloe,” I say stiffly. “I appreciate the job and what you’re doing for me.”
Nodding once, I turn, weave around the chair, and take the few steps to the door. As soon as I grasp the handle, her darker tone halts me. “There’s something off about you, Jinx.” I angle my head so my ear catches every mumbling word. “I don’t believe you’re a bad person, but I will find out what you’re determined to keep hidden.”
I gulp and twist the knob to exit.
She can sure try. Hell, maybe if she does she can enlighten me. Maybe then I’ll know who I am, where I came from, and what’s wrong with me. At least I’ll have some answers.
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