Joyland

New York |

Horse Girl

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

edited by Amy Shearn

One Knock: I’m Here

Esme can’t be the only who hears that noise, not in an apartment building as old and poorly insulated as this one. Then again, there are lots of things her mother somehow fails to notice.

Esme sits in a tight ball on her bed, her journal flat on her thighs, night filling the window. At each new sound, her legs draw in tighter, until every letter she pens looks more like an awkward lightning bolt. Ignore it. She tries writing it from her cramped angle, IGNORE IT. Knocks and stomps and something high-pitched. It isn’t a ghost. It isn’t real. It isn’t. Isn’t.

Her mother Lucia says she has an overactive imagination. Sometimes Esme’s sure she can feel the AC’s hum form hands and cup her face. Sometimes Esme’s sure there’s something moving just out the corner of her eye. Because Esme knows, even if no one else will admit it: everything’s haunted in Baltimore.

At their first meeting, the property manager, Marilu, mentioned a mother and daughter who live on the other side of their wall. Moved in years ago, she said, before her time. Esme half-expected her to say no one’s heard from them since.

Marilu’s papery lips are always smeared in deep-dark colors and there’s something about this effect, the wobble of these blood-red lines, that makes Esme wish she could tear them off the woman’s face. Her color’s probably called scarlet something—Scarlet Midnight or Scarlet Affair. Smiling down at Esme with those lips, Scarlet Clutch, Marilu had told her, “You know, hon, I think the neighbor girl is just about your age. What are you? Seventeen?” Scarlet Tease.

“Thirteen.”

Thir-teen. Now that’s an age.” Those rubbery, vampire lips. “So many big changes.”

“Well, we’re hoping this is our last big change for a while,” Lucia said. Her forced smile always looks more like a grimace, her shoulders an iron bar. “But a new friend right next door,” lots of teeth showing now, “talk about great amenities.”

Yet in the entire month since they moved in, Esme hasn’t heard or seen anyone. Not even a neighbor’s back as they disappear down the hall. People shut their doors quick behind them in this building, as if afraid that at any moment their secret lives might liquify and flood into the hall.

Except there’s that noise again. Esme snaps down her pen. There’s no noise. Lucia said so. Lucia said so all four times Esme went asking about it. There’s nothing. Go back to sleep, Esme. There’s nothing.

All that nothing needs to quiet the fuck down. Esme knocks to tell it so.

The sounds stop at once. And then, softly, as if afraid: a skittish knock back.

Could it be the neighbor girl finally making an appearance? Esme can’t help but smile at the idea. Curious now, maybe a little charmed, Esme knocks again—and something breaks loose; the neighbor girl starts banging all over the place. Not so charming anymore.

Esme slams her journal flush against the wall.

The echo, she imagines, tunnels away and away, waking up distant bats and setting them into flight. The night stills. A long, dark hush. And Esme isn’t sure she likes it.

 

Rock-Skip Knock: Horse

The next morning, there she is at Esme’s door. Just standing there like a ficus, waiting. Startles Lucia so badly, she gasps and swings the door shut again.

Slowly, Esme opens the door back up. “Hello?”

“Are you the knocker?” The girl looks at Esme like she’s never seen another girl before. Or maybe it’s because she’s white and Esme’s brown. But when Esme nods, she seems relieved. “I wanted to catch you before you left for the day,” she explains. “I’m home-schooled.”

“Ah,” Esme says, not surprised at all. All home-schooled kids are weird. She’s pretty, though. In a different kind of way. Dark, razor eyes and collarbones you could hang clothes on. Scraggly blond hair. Glitter smeared on her cheeks, a hideous The Last Unicorn t-shirt, a plastic horse clutched against her chest— Oh my god. The noises. The knocks. Had she been…clip-clopping? Neighing? Horse Girl. Esme almost says it out loud. She’s a freaking horse girl.

“I’m Becca,” she says, but it’s too late for that. She’s already Horse Girl. Still, Esme trades her name-for-name:

“I’m Esme.”

Horse Girl looks around her through the door and her eyes stretch wide. “Your apartment’s full of boxes too?”

“We’re still unpacking,” Esme says, sighing when Lucia calls from somewhere inside, “And we’ll never finish at this rate!”

“My mom never unpacked our stuff. She says everyone moves here already hoping to leave.” Leaning in, eyeing the boxes, Horse Girl whispers, “Be careful when you move them.”

She smells weird-nice, like river rocks, and her lips are real lips, not scarlet anything. Esme could look at her and then keep on looking.

“Sure,” Esme says, super smooth. “Whatever.”

Horse Girl thrusts a folded sheet of paper at her and rushes back home. No goodbyes or see-you-laters. Esme thumbs the soft paper; she can feel Horse Girl’s neat penmanship pushing outward like veins in a hand. Unfolding it, she finds a key. A key for their knocks.

 

Hard Slap: Do You Understand?

Every night as Esme does her homework—KNOCK: I’m Here. Then some barely discernible message. Barely discernible because Horse Girl didn’t correspond their knocks with letters but to entire (and sometimes multiple) phrases: a Rock-Skip Knock means Horse; a Quick Triple Knock Followed by One Regular Knock means Mom’s Asleep; a Drummy Fingernail Sound means Galloping/Riding/Happening; and on, and on.

An entire week, but Esme still hasn’t knocked anything back. Not that it matters either way. Horse Girl just keeps on knocking until it’s nothing but a long series of I’m Here. I’m Here. I’m Here. I’m Here. Esme’s own private ghost.

The bare wall vibrating against her back, Esme opens her journal just as her cell lights up. A text from Dad: Goodnight princess. I miss you.

Curled up in bed, Esme adds her own backslash to the key.

One Knock: I’m Here/So Where Are You?

 

Two Knocks: No/Never/Later

Esme pays closer attention now, she’s been listening for footsteps in the hall all week, but never sees Horse Girl’s parents coming or going. They must have a lot of money, she figures. Horse Girl being home-schooled and maybe having no dad. (She didn’t include any knocks about him in their key.) How do they pay rent? When does Horse Mom have time to work?

Lucia is a habitat designer for the aquarium. She’s been busy with the dolphins lately. For some reason, despite the award-winning habitats she’s crafted in the past, Esme knows this challenge has set her mother adrift. She can see it in the way Lucia clicks vacantly through things on her computer, as if she were marking each wasted second. She can see it in the way Lucia keeps HGTV playing at all hours without ever actually watching it; swimming through noise about shiplap and backsplashes like she’d drown without it. Maybe some of it will help her with the dolphins as well as their own plain white box of an apartment, but Esme doubts it.

Not for the first time, Esme wonders what Horse Girl’s apartment must look like.

She mentions her new theory to Lucia—“They must have a lot of money, huh?”—and Lucia shrugs. She shrugs more since she’s quit smoking and Esme started calling her Lucia, except her shrugs don’t look normal now. More like she’s tensing against something.

“Maybe her parents work from home,” Lucia says.

A noncommittal noise. Esme watches her stir chili on the stove. Whenever Dad’s weekend starts closing in, Lucia starts cooking more. Esme toes a heavy box on the floor labelled SILVERWARE. Except they’ve already unpacked all the silverware. (Right? Of course they have. So what the hell’s in that box?)

“Maybe you should ask her what her mom does,” Lucia says.

“What, talk to Horse Girl?”

Lucia clangs her wooden spoon against the inside of the pot, sighing, “Her name isn’t Horse Girl.” Then, noticing Esme’s expression, “Oh, c’mon. She’s not that ugly.”

“I never said she was ugly.” Esme leans back against the counter, arms folded.

“Why don’t you invite over that girl from school. What’s her name? Nora?”

Nora Rickert from home room. Nora from the New School. Beautiful Nora who’d given Esme one look and guessed right away.

“Maybe you could invite her for a sleepover?” Lucia says. “Could be fun with all the boxes. Building forts like when you were little.”

Esme’s back in her room. Lucia can have the kitchen. No one asked her to cook. Inviting Nora for a sleepover. The idea alone turns her stomach to ice. Is there anything Lucia actually understands?

I’m Here.

Esme kicks a box. What she wants to do is crush it flat. Tear it to shreds. Throw it across the room. Instead, she carefully adjusts it back into its furrow in the carpet. She imagines all the boxes suddenly gone. The carpet a patchwork of square footprints, fading like ghosts. Somewhere outside, an ambulance starts screaming.

I’m Here.

“You’re always here,” she says. She pinches the roll of tummy she can never suck in far enough. She hates her new school, their new apartment, Dad’s new house. She feels like crying but doesn’t. They don’t have a knock for that.

 

Three Knocks: Yes Please/Always/Now

Esme lasts two more days before finally admitting it. She’s not six anymore, she has a fucking cellphone, a computer, but no, sure, this knocking thing. She’ll give it a go. They’ll both be poltergeists tonight.

I’m Here.

Horse Girl’s knocks start jumping around the wall excitedly, as if thrilled to finally be in response to something. Esme pulls up the key alongside her journal to translate.

Something about a horse that apparently isn’t galloping or riding or happening. Or maybe it’ll just “happen” later. Whatever that means. Horse Mom’s asleep again. All she ever does is sleep.

Horse Girl slaps the wall: Do you understand?

Sort of? Why not? Three Knocks: Yes Please/Always/Now.

There’s a high-pitched, delighted sound, and hearing this does something funny to Esme’s insides. A curling feeling, tight and warm and kind of tickling.

I’m Here, Horse Girl knocks again, followed by some gibberish. —Unless this is what she meant by “Woodpecker Knock”; the knock that means Come Over.

Esme lifts her hand, hesitates, chewing her lips, her heart in her chest. Sirens wail outside, red and blue lights splaying across her ceiling, and for some reason she starts thinking of the puckered lip-prints she’d seen left in steam on the locker room mirror that morning at school. Ghosts everywhere.

Two Knocks: No/Never/Later. Esme doesn’t know which one she means. She’s supposed to be packed already to leave for Dad’s place tomorrow. Five Knocks: Goodnight.

Looking down at her knocking hand as if it were a traitor, she imagines Horse Girl somewhere on the other side of the wall. Is she sitting in bed, too? Does she knock during the day while Esme’s away?

The wait. The wait. Esme pictures her wall as a massive cellphone, three glowing orbs waving over it as Horse Girl formulates her reply. Buffering, buffering—

Five Knocks. Goodnight.

 

Four Knocks: Can’t Sleep

Esme startles awake at her dad’s place. A sudden powerful ache has lodged just above her heart, pulsing as if someone had stomped down on her breastbone.

Esme doesn’t dream in scenes. She dreams in noises so loud it feels like her skin’s about to split. Sometimes a man hammers on an anvil just beside her head, sometimes a dog barks point-blank at her ear, sometimes the wall shakes under Horse Girl’s knocks like she’s taking a battering ram to the spot just opposite Esme’s pillow. Except this time Esme was under the floor instead of behind a wall, and the knocking wasn’t a knocking, it was Horse Girl riding her stallion all over the hardwood above. Esme gazed up through the gaps between the floorboards at Horse Girl, the way her long legs hugged the animal’s body, the way her long hair whipped around, the way elation flew from her chest like doves. Then the hoof came crashing through.

Esme touches the wall, but there’s nothing on the other side. Her dad lives in a house out in the County now. “It’s only a few miles from Mom’s place in the city.” He’d told her this again and again. Only a few miles away.

Might as well be a different planet. Outer-fucking-space.

Tired but awake, Esme looks up on her cell “horses in space.” There are different myths and constellations, but an actual horse has never been sent to space before. She bets Horse Girl already knows that. NASA did send up a recording of a horse and cart, though, along with frogs belching, hyenas laughing, and a whole slew of other sounds on The Golden Record. Trying to gift up something of the Earthly experience. Battering at the dark with noise.

 

Clip-Cloppy Knock: Me/You

Horse Girl left a note under their front door while Esme was away: Red Rover, Red Rover, Esme. Woodpecker Knock. Signed with a red-ink hoofprint. Freaked out Lucia pretty good, who says it looks like something a serial killer would write.

That’s part of why Esme agrees to go. That, and the bloody hoofprint—too perfect to ignore. The exclamation point on her dream.

Horse Girl answers the door with a finger already at her lips. We have to be quiet. Mom’s asleep, though it’s only just gone dark outside. Horse Girl’s butter-yellow t-shirt hangs down nearly to her knees, the cover of Black Beauty printed large over her front in a cheap, crumbling ink. Esme can’t believe she bothered changing her own outfit. (Agonized over it, really.) It’s only Horse Girl. Who apparently couldn’t care less about how she looks. But pretty people can get away with not caring, Esme knows. So now she’s the moron wearing hip-hugger jeans and a tight purple tank-top that makes sucking in a necessity instead of an option. At least, the way the top fits, it almost looks like she has breasts.

Horse Girl’s apartment is plum-dark, stretching back behind her like a long, dry throat. Esme meant to say something normal—Hello or What’s up or I got your note—but instead she says, “One Knock.” Ta-da. I’m here. And now she’s smiling like I saved the day, she’s holding my hand, we’re inside, we’re walking down the hall.

Except Esme has trouble focusing on anything in particular because everywhere: piles. Everywhere: stacks. Everywhere: heaps, boxes, shelves overflowing. Not an inch of wall-space is left unlined with stuff—magazines, books, clothes, records, CDs, amps, children’s toys, a deer head, a Margaritaville margarita-maker, VHS tapes, DVDs, soda fountain signs, quilts, sleeping bags, a still-in-its-box camping tent, board games, instruments, a papier-mâché volcano, plastic crates of holiday decorations, bins full of keyboards and wires, and a massive chest of drawers that’s been tied shut with bungee cords, as if Horse Mom’s afraid it might start spilling secrets given half the chance.

“Don’t worry about that,” Horse Girl says, waving off the dresser. “It won’t hurt you.”

Following Horse Girl, holding her cool hand, is like being led through a dream. Everything and nothing is normal. Your feet keep moving though you may or may not be breathing, there may or may not be a floor. The world tilts and time bends like water.

Later, Esme will remember struggling not to sneeze, her lungs lifting their skirts and standing on chairs to escape the dust. She’ll remember Horse Girl leading her through the choked living room, past where Horse Mom sleeps on the couch, breathing open-mouthed, smelling like a metal sink. She’ll remember trying not to think about how The Stuff seems to be watching her, wanting her, looming all around her like the dirt walls of a grave. But clearest of all, she’ll remember Horse Girl closing the bedroom door behind them.

I’m in her room. But even here Horse Mom’s Stuff has followed them, blocking most of the walls and towering to the ceiling. Stuffed, porcelain, glass, plastic, and every other kind of horse figurine lines the edges of stacked boxes as if patrolling some mountainous countryside. The boxes are colored with Horse Girl-original murals, a rainbowed landscape full of hooves, wings, and diamond-painted noses. Yet somehow the drawings only make everything worse. The boxes are more obvious. More pathetic. Because Horse Girl’s room isn’t even her room, Esme realizes. It’s Horse Mom’s.

Horse Girl doesn’t seem bothered by it, though. She doesn’t blush or apologize. Instead, she turns on a pink flower lamp that makes the little cave glow like a white hand pressed overtop a flashlight, and there, standing in the middle of the floor, a precious breath of naked carpet, she brings Esme’s palm up to feel her throat.

Those dark, razor eyes. Esme feels like she’s bleeding all over the place. She can’t move. She can’t move. Horse Girl’s heartbeat flutters against her fingertips.

“That’s not my heartbeat,” she says. “That’s the horse inside me. Its wings.”

Esme imagines them both atop the horse from her dream, except it’s Pegasus now, and it’s flying them away through the window out into clean, empty sky. The animal’s thick muscles work beneath them, gallop-gliding through space, as Horse Girl’s arms tighten around her— Her face heats up. She’s too old to be gooey about ponies and myths—she knows too much—but somehow she feels safe thinking these things around Horse Girl. It’s all right to be silly here. Romantic here. Their own version of romance, of everything. But all she says is, “The horse inside you?”

“It’s quieter now. It’s calm with you.” She smiles shyly. “You wanna see it?”

They come to Esme unbidden, the images: slitting Horse Girl’s lovely throat just enough to see a great horse’s eye peering wetly out from between her bones and spurting veins, just enough to embolden the creature, for it to press one of its massive hooves against the cut and push outward, outward, stretching her skin until her head cranes backward off her neck, as if the horse were merely tipping its hat to her, to Esme, the one who’d freed it from its girlish prison.

That heartbeat under Horse Girl’s jaw, it works like two flinty stones trying to start a fire. Esme’s hand is too warm. She rubs it against her jeans. “You know,” she starts to say, but all that pink light keeps wrapping around them, making it harder to breathe, as if they’ve stepped into the center of a flower that’s rapidly un-blooming, sealing them up together. She tries again, something, anything, blurting out, “So, your mom’s a hoarder, huh?”

“No,” Horse Girl says, pulling away from her, but there’s hardly room left to pace in. Esme almost laughs at the thought, She must have to gallop in place. “Mom just has trouble letting things go, is all.” Horse Girl meanders between piles. And then, picking at the limp flap of a box, she admits, “She calls our place The Wormhole.”

“You don’t get claustrophobic?”

A shrug. “The average horse stays in a ten-by-ten stall.” She pulls her long hair over one shoulder and then the other. Sheepish, “I tried knocking at you yesterday, but you never knocked back.”

“Yeah, genius, I wasn’t home.”

This is how Horse Girl finds out about the house in the County. This is when Esme tells her about the horse-and-cart sounds clip-clopping through space. Horse Girl’s chest bows, she whispers, “With the stars for cobblestones.

Already Esme’s having trouble remembering things, basic things, like what her own face looks like or whether this is a date. Horse Girl is dreamy in a way that shakes her up, as if they’d stepped into Snow Globe Land.

“So,” Horse Girl says, sitting on her bed—the bed, at least, is clear of stuff; staring at Esme; licking its cushiony lips—“is ‘house in the County’ code for ‘my dad’s dead’?”

Esme can’t keep up. “What?”

Another shrug. “When my dad died, Mom lied about it for weeks.”

Esme coughs a little, all that dust, her insides shrinking in on themselves. She knows she should say things like That’s awful. Or, I’m sorry. Or, Are you okay? Instead she goes with, “What lies did your mom tell?”

Sitting together on Horse Girl’s bed, they trade stories:

“I’m the lovechild of a dead musician,” Horse Girl says.

Esme sucks her lips in, silently congratulating herself for not snorting at the word lovechild.

“I never knew him,” Horse Girl explains. “Mom misses him, but she says she’s glad to still have some special piece of him.” She gestures vaguely to the apartment, The Wormhole, as if this something might or might not include her.

“The house in the County isn’t my dad’s,” Esme says. “He’s sharing it with some lesbians.” She watches carefully for Horse Girl’s reaction to this word but can’t detect anything definitive. “He rented two of their rooms and he gets to share their kitchen and their guest bathroom. I get to use the bed when I stay over. He sleeps in an armchair in the other room.”

Just thinking about the new women her dad lives with makes Esme’s insides tangle up. The easy way they weave around the house, drinking tea instead of coffee, tattoos and insulin shots and work-out routines. Esme wants to ask them things—how to know when something is worth it or right or safe; how do you know and when and with whom—but she doesn’t. She doesn’t know what to ask, how to make it sound normal, how to not seem naïve. She doesn’t want them to know how much she doesn’t know.

“The cops never caught the guy who shot my dad,” Horse Girl says. “I think Mom loved him as much as she hated him.” She worries a tear in her pillowcase. “Every time I hear Dad’s voice on the radio now—it’s like he’s sending me secret messages.”

“My dad won’t quit texting me, even though he never talked to me much before the split. I hardly carry my phone anymore.”

“Mom homeschools me because of Dad’s death. She’s scared of school shootings. Is your mom scared for you?”

Esme shrugs, her shoulders moving as if adjusting to some new weight. “Dad says I shouldn’t be living in the city anymore. The lesbians have a pit bull named Tomato—they brush his teeth with toothpaste and a brush and everything. He says I’m safer there.”

“You wanna hear some of my dad’s music? I used to not like it, but now it’s my favorite. Maybe you’ll understand what he’s trying to say to me.”

“Won’t it bother your mom to hear it?”

Horse Girl waves this away. “Mom’s probably the one who shot him.”

 

Jingle Bells Knock: Don’t Worry

Esme ended up giving Horse Girl her number, it felt like the natural thing to do, but their knocking hasn’t stopped. It can’t. Esme feels it like a second heartbeat now. The wall beside her bed and the idea of Horse Girl lying there just beyond it. One Knock: I’m Here.

A text: School was shitty today. / You won’t believe what Nora said at lunch.

Another set of knocks, something Esme feels thrum against her shoulder, against her entire body if she presses herself to the wall just right. No one’s around to see her do it. Her door’s locked. She knocks back.

A text from Horse Girl: Why do you keep talking to her anyway?

More knocks instead of a text—Never Mind—because Esme doesn’t know how to explain it. She talks to Nora because somehow Nora had just known about Esme. She talks to Nora because Nora’s never told a soul. She talks to Nora because Nora talks to her. But that doesn’t mean Nora understands.

A text: Do you like her?

Esme sets her phone down on her stomach. She picks it up. She sets it back on her pillow and starts knocking at random; there’s no message to discern. It’s a jumble, meant to confuse and comfort at the same time, to say, She doesn’t have this. She doesn’t have what we have. She waits while Horse Girl tries to make sense of the vibrations. She waits and she waits and she counts the sirens outside. She watches the buffering orbs wave along the wall. Finally, her cell glows:

Did you know that the wild horses on Assateague Island are split by a fence down the MD/VA state line? / They’re just like us. Clip-Cloppy Knock.

Esme smiles. She kisses the wall and wonders if Horse Girl can feel it.

Knock, Slap, Knock: Was That You?

Esme’s heading over to see Horse Girl when Marilu steps out from an apartment down the hall. Scarlet Shadow. A sharp, purple wound in place of a mouth. There’s an old man’s face in the crack of the door. His skin is white as crabmeat. He gapes at Esme a moment before snapping his door shut, cutting Marilu adrift into the hall.

Esme fidgets, crosses her arms. “What’s the matter with him?”

“Never mind Mr. Quinn,” Marilu says. She skims a manicured pinkie nail down the corner of her red mouth, ready to pass Esme by, when something stops her. “It’s Esmerelda, right?”

She chews her own teeth. “It’s Esme.”

Esme, yes.” The dark smile widens. “How are you settling in? Everything all right? Not hearing any strange noises?”

“Noises?” She glances at Horse Girl’s door.

Marilu follows her look. “Any trouble with your neighbors? Loud music? Other…sounds?”

“No, she’s great.”

The red lips cut her face in half. “Never mind. Mr. Quinn’s hearing things.” She taps a finger to her temple, shaking her head. “Poor man’s got ghosts.”

“Does the building?” Esme asks. “Have ghosts?”

“A building this old?” Marilu says. “Why, it must be riddled.” Scarlet Wink. “Don’t worry, though, hon. Ghosts don’t hurt people. They just haunt them.”

 

Quick Triple Knock Followed by One Regular Knock: Mom’s Asleep

Every evening Esme watches her mother unpack more boxes, HGTV quacking all the while, Wake up and say hello to your fabulous side! Welcome to your best life! Welcome to your dream home! Except everyone’s dream looks the same. A shiny fantasy with hardwood flooring. It’s never occurred to Esme until now: fantasies and ghosts might be very similar things.

A fish in a bowl, Lucia circles and circles the apartment. Lugging, organizing, putting things away. The lonely sound of clinking forks and knives follows her like the rattle of chains.

 

Triple Slap, Knock: Never Mind

I think she’s depressed, Esme texts Horse Girl, standing beside the wide glass wall of the dolphins’ temporary exhibit. Amid all that blue, weightless glow, Esme wonders how anyone keeps breathing. Three dolphins click at each other as they swim by.

Her class took a field trip to the aquarium that day, the teacher satisfied with a waiver to let Esme stay behind and wait for her mother to take her home. It’s already dark outside.

The dolphins click some more, and Esme taps her foot the same number of times, trying to absorb their Morse code into herself. Click, click, click. Tap, tap, tap. Her cell vibrates.

I’ve been depressed before / The drugs gave me nightmares

You were depressed?

Esme stares hard into the dolphin blue, but she can’t imagine Horse Girl depressed. The creatures drift past again, silent this time, like phantoms. Horse Girl would call them the horses of the sea.

It’s hard to explain. The buffering orbs keep waving and pausing, waving and pausing. Almost like the motion of a dolphin’s tail. The horse / It’s lots of things / Never mind

The horse inside you? Esme texts back. Except it can’t be that. I thought you loved it, whatever it is. Click, click. Tap, tap. Vibration.

Nothing’s great all the time

“You ready to go, hon?” Lucia says, coming around the blue corner, dressed in blue, washed in blue, digging bluely through her blue purse.

Vibration. Click, click, click. The dolphins won’t shut up. Tap—

“You coming?” Lucia says, already leaving.

Interrupted, Esme has to start again, tap, tap, tap, but the dolphins keep clicking more and more, and she isn’t sure how many times they’ve done it now and suddenly she can’t move her feet at all. Panic flies through her for reasons she can’t explain. She can’t move. She checks her cell, her Horse Girl saying, Sometimes I think I even hate it.

 

Drummy Fingernail Sound: Galloping/Riding/Happening

A white man and woman, both okay-attractive, are making out on TV while Lucia unpacks. The boxes are still everywhere and only seem to be spreading, like the apartment’s got a rash, but Esme can see Lucia’s been shopping for new stuff anyway: a side-table, a trio of quartz obelisks (to decorate the new side-table), and a braided silver picture frame, already filled with a photo of her and Lucia cheering at the Pigtown Festival some years ago.

“Welcome home,” Lucia calls but doesn’t look up. The TV couple is still making out, music swelling, a ranch-style house looming behind them.

Esme keeps her backpack on; there’s no open floorspace left to dump it.

A man’s voice jumps through the television. “For newlyweds Zack and Erica, both once divorced, we’re going with the resilient yet elegant beauty of lily white for our design theme of their new California Dream Home.”

A noise like a laugh pops out of Esme. Old dream didn’t work out?—get a new one! “Lily white?” she says.

“Not just for funerals anymore!”

They both start to grin, some tenuous link forming, until Esme breaks the smile down over her knee. Because the newlywed divorcées are crossing the threshold. Every dream is coming true for them all over again. They’re beautiful. They’re so beautiful Esme wants to murder them.

“Hon,” Lucia says. Fresh silverware’s scattered around her on the carpet, a salt circle protecting a witch. “I found something in one of the boxes today.”

This could mean several things. Esme waits, already marshalling her defenses.

“A shoebox,” she says, looking a little guilty. “It was full of letters.” But not just letters.

Tokens. Secrets. Two black feathers, a green plastic jewel, a thumb-sized bottle of peppermint oil, a tarot card Esme had found on the metro (The Chariot), marbles with bugs crystallized inside them, and of course the letters. Love notes from two different white boys at school who continue to ask her out again and again. In their letters, they wax on about her chocolate/coffee/caramel-colored skin, her “midnight” hair, her smile, her accent (which is the same as theirs). They shove their notes through the slats of her locker, silent invasions. They make her feel like a phantom, a brown smudge in a sea of white, all of them itchily aware of her presence yet not one of them ever seeing her. She collects the notes like drops of acid on her skin, absorbing power through pain, building up an immunity to their idiot desire until she is undefeatable. Impenetrable.

But the box’s power—that’s over now. Stupid. Clutter. Something Mom found, touched, tainted. Esme clenches her hands tight to keep from screaming.

“Honey,” Lucia says, so gentle it’s like a beating, “it’s okay if you have a boyfriend. You don’t need to keep secrets from me.”

The newlyweds are laughing. They’re so happy their countertops are granite. They’re so happy their tile floors are heated. Everything is so new, it couldn’t possibly be haunted.

“What I mean is, if you ever want to talk about anything, or want some advice—”

“Advice?” Esme says, but they both hear what she doesn’t say. Advice on romance? From you? She white-knuckles the straps of her backpack. “What’d you do with my shoebox?”

“I don’t know how it got mixed in with the other boxes,” Lucia says. “I didn’t mean to go through your things.” Lucia fiddles with a fork and, for a second, Esme sees her as The Little Mermaid in her watery cave of wonders, still hoping a prince might wash up into her lap. Lucia doesn’t sing, though, only murmurs, “I left it on your bed.”

 

Woodpecker Knock: Come Over

Esme checks her phone, a blue glow in the dark room. From this angle, the way the light hits her little wire-mesh trash can, it almost looks like it’s glowing, too. Her shoebox shoved down inside it, a luminous blue heart. No texts from Horse Girl, nothing all day. She racked up five new messages from Dad, though. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. Like he’s lost in his own echo. Too bad. She isn’t a wall for his conscience to bounce off. I miss you. He says it like it amazes him. Like somehow it’s her fault. I miss you. “No, you don’t.” She checks again. More nothing. She agonizes, her thumb hovers.

Hey <send>

The wait. Minutes. Minutes. Until, finally, the swimming orbs. The wait. The—

Sorry / Mom kept the cell all day

You don’t have your own?

She says the govt uses them to spy on us / Plus I never go anywhere

Your mom’s BATSHIT

Your mom’s so ugly she blinds people

Your mom’s so sad her dildo died of exhaustion

Your mom’s so stupid even the doorknobs pity her

Why don’t you ever just throw her shit away?

It’s not that easy

Why?

The orbs drift around the room and drift around the room until they settle down on the bed beside Esme and Horse Girl rolls out of them, her hands in Esme’s hair, their bodies so close, it’s alright, it’s good, it’s safe here.

Woodpecker Knock.

Esme jolts in bed, blinking hard. When had she fallen asleep?

Woodpecker Knock.

Esme fumbles for her phone. When?

Three Knocks.

Esme checks the time. 1:36am. She chews all the chapstick off her lips. She brushed her teeth before bed and shaved her pits that morning, her legs too, up to the knee like Lucia had taught her. Lucia who’s already fast asleep. Well?

Three Knocks.

 

Five Knocks: Goodnight

Has sneaking out always been this easy? Why hasn’t she done this before?

Esme’s already out and ready to knock at Horse Girl’s door when a hiss cuts up from behind her. Tss-tss-tss! It’s Mr. Quinn peeking out from the crack of his door down the hall. There’s probably something she ought to say, but all she does is stare back at him and his crabmeat face.

“I know it’s you and that other one,” he whispers. “You’re the ones who’ve been knocking. Knocking and knocking at my door and then you disappear. I know it’s you.”

“It isn’t us,” she says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Knock-knock,” he snaps. “Who’s there? Knock-knock! Knock-knock!

Horse Girl opens the door and hurries Esme inside. “I heard him from all the way in the kitchen,” she says. “What a weirdo.”

“Do you knock at him?” Esme asks, though what she means is, Do you knock with other people? Have you been knocking with them all along?

Already she fights the urge to sneeze. The two of them are cramped together in the packed-full entryway, Esme who’d gotten dressed again and Horse Girl in her flowy pajamas, blue silk bottoms and a matching top, sleeveless, dotted with unicorns. Her arms are so slender, all those little blond hairs, like fairy dust.

“Why would I knock at him?” she says. “He acts like we’re the only ones in the building.” An eye-roll, a sigh. Then, “C’mon,” and takes Esme’s hand to lead her back, through the leering stacks, the den—Esme plants her feet. Her eyes fix to the bungeed dresser and the green light that’s fanning out from the edges of its drawers.

Horse Girl shakes her head as if this is normal and urges her on past it, whispering, “Not that one. Mom thinks it’s the only one, but she’s wrong. It’s been spreading. I’ll show you.”

“The only one what?” Esme asks, but she can’t take her eyes off the dresser, all that green light, until Horse Girl shuts her bedroom door against it. The warm pink wraps around them and Esme squeezes her eyes open and shut, waking up. Before she can say anything, Horse Girl kneels and starts tugging at Esme’s pants pocket, guiding her down as well.

Together they sit before a box tucked deep behind the door. In ball-point pen, the words “KEN’S MUSIC” are scribbled thick and furry across the cardboard. The flaps are open; Esme can see the tops of records lined up like pages in a book, stacked jewel cases, even some cassettes.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “What does this have to do with clearing out your mom’s stuff?”

“It’s Dad’s music,” Horse Girl says. “We can’t move it, not for long, just like you can’t open the drawers to that dresser anymore. They’re like the cork in a bottle.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’ll move it just a little to show you. But you can’t look directly into it.” Horse Girl twists her hair into a nervous rope. “Just look into my eyes and try to see things in your peripheral vision.”

She’s already looking into her eyes. “Why?”

“Because it does something to you if you look straight down. It’s like—it’s like you become haunted,” she says. “Except not. It’s more like you realize you’ve been haunted all along. But not by ghosts, not exactly.” She stops, tries again. “It’s the reason I have a horse inside me.”

Esme can’t tell what her face is doing but she hopes it’s a lie. “You’ve looked?”

“Into the dresser in the hall. It’s my first memory; I’m holding onto Mom, I must’ve been real little, and she opened one of the drawers and we both looked in at the same time. I don’t know what changed about the dresser to make it that way or why it’s spreading. Maybe we’ve been here too long. Maybe everything you want just kind of festers under everything you already have.” The phrase lights up something inside her. “That’s what it’s like. Not haunted by ghosts, but by things you want. Things you want but can’t have.” She touches Esme’s hand, brings it up to feel her galloping pulse. “Don’t look down, okay?”

Esme doesn’t remember agreeing, but there they are looking into each other’s eyes, there they are moving the box. The sound of something oozing and tearing, like a gigantic scab being picked. Esme feels something warm and wet touch her folded knees, leaking through the carpet, but Horse Girl squeezes her hand, keeps her eyes focused ahead.

A man’s voice spears through, a voice Esme recognizes. “This stunning, contemporary dream home is situated right on the water in a setting that can only be described as spectacular. Out back, there’s a built-in fire pit with seating for all your friends and family. You do have a family, don’t you? Of course you do! Everyone has a family. Follow the two-toned slate paver stones up to the covered deck where the party continues with a built-in grill—” Out the corner of her eye, through a trapdoor in the floor, Esme glimpses a shifting aerial view of trees, a lake, a house, a boat. It’s so beautiful it’s horrifying. It’s wrong. Everything’s wrong. “And off the master—that’s where moms and dads are supposed to sleep—there’s a showstopper of a bathroom with a full soaking tub, a giant walk-in shower, and double vanity with a chic, ultra-modern finish. Not that your ‘family’ needs a double vanity anymore, Esme. Not now that your father’s living with—”

“Cover it up.” Is that really her voice, trembling like that? “Stop it.”

Horse Girl pulls the box back into place and the room darkens, as if a television has been turned off.

“I need water.” Esme’s tongue is crumbling apart inside her mouth. “I need water.”

“What? What did you see?”

Esme grips her knees like the caps might come flying off. She stares at the carpet, a red wetness seeping out from the bottom edges of the box. “You didn’t see it, too?” she whispers.

“It’s different for everyone. I saw my horse. Mom saw my dad. I don’t know what Dad saw.”

Esme shakes her head, crushing her lips together to keep from crying. “I thought—if you’re supposed to see what you want but can’t have—” She blinks and blinks, whispering, “I thought I’d see you.”

Horse Girl scoots in closer, draping an arm around Esme. “Why would you see me? I’m already here.” A startled, wet sound twists out of Esme and Horse Girl holds her tighter. “You aren’t the same after seeing it,” Horse Girl murmurs, apologizing. “You can’t go back to the way things were.”

Esme holds her, burying her face in Horse Girl’s hair, the smell of rivers everywhere, flowing away. They kiss to protect each other, because it’s vital. Because they can already hear the hooves, the hooves, the hooves, this massive creature running between them, through them, gaining speed. All ten pounds of its beastly heart beating against their lips. They kiss again and again to keep it at bay.

“Nothing lasts,” Esme says. She can already feel Horse Girl fading in her arms. It’s only a matter of who leaves first. She presses the words in a misery against Horse Girl’s lips, “Nothing lasts.”

Horse Girl grips her tight. “It’s okay. It doesn’t have to.”

Esme can’t breathe. She can’t breathe and she can’t breathe, and she doesn’t care. The endless night of outer-space is there in the window and Horse Girl is kissing her with that beautiful-bright mouth. Horse Girl who tastes only and perfectly like a girl.

~