There were some movies that played in her head over and over, until she couldn’t always remember there was a now. Somehow she got frozen back in time on the days when the bad things happened, and this life in the present wasn’t really real, but rather was only her attempt to find a fantasy to hang onto to pull herself out of the realities she couldn’t take. Like turning her eyes from the movie screen to think of something else. Or as though the few moments of joy she knew were like commercial breaks, bringing relief with the promise that if she did A, B, or C, her life would magically change. That she’d get unstuck from the ghosts of the bad days.
It was a challenging trail for any kid, even one like Charlene who’d practically been born in the saddle. Her scrawny raw thighs ached as the warm body of her paint pony swelled and contracted beneath her. She pulled two wet spongy leather reins into the sleeves of her jacket. She had nearly caught her father’s stride when the sorrel rump of his colt crushed against her leg. Her father didn’t bother to look back as he faded behind a curtain of rain. She tucked her chin inside her collar, and a stream of cold rainwater drizzled off the brim of her black felt hat and onto the oversized yellow slicker. It stuck to her skin like wet papier-mâché.
Ahead, riders bunched together in a clump. She craned from the saddle and shifting her weight, she stood over the right stirrup. An overpowering static roar filled her ears — rushing water! She was going to have to ford the Blindman River, high with spring runoff and swelling rapidly with rain. She swung her braids, heavy like two soggy ropes, as she searched for her father.
The riders began to uncoil and stretch out across the river. She could see her father now. The colt was spinning circles beneath him. It nervously wound its way up the far bank, until it crested out of her view.
She pressed her fingernails into the smooth leather of the pommel, and braced as the pony balked. A cowboy rode up beside her, his red curly hair poking out from under the sides of his white straw hat. “Give’er her head and it’ll be all right,” he told her.
“Just get my dad. I want my dad,” she pleaded.
“Looks like he’s having some trouble,” he said. Taking off his glove, he pinched a stream of snot from his nose and flung it through the air.
She puffed a few clipped bursts of steam and furrowed her brow. “I want my dad.”
The redheaded cowboy reached out for one of her reins, but she pulled it back from him. Relenting, he smiled and spit some tobacco juice in the mud.
As the paint eased down the bank, she felt the right shoulder drop out from under her, followed by the left. She kicked her numb feet from the stirrups and tucked them underneath her saddle-sore bum.
Splash Splash Sploop.
The River rushed against the pony’s white belly, mixing its earthworm smell with the leather/dung aroma of wet fur. She could feel the neck muscles strain as the pony lunged and bobbed its head against the current.
The redheaded cowboy’s horse scrambled up the bank ahead of her. She jerked in the saddle, while her own pony’s front hooves pawed for footing. Her body clenched as the paint tucked its hind legs beneath its rump. It pitched forward, slamming her sternum against the saddle horn. Her feet found the stirrups and she squeezed the pony’s sides, nodding to the redheaded cowboy as she galloped after her father.
She had to ride harder, if she was going to catch him.
The heavy clouds broke and the sun cracked through them. The warmth of it felt nice on her cheeks, the way hot chocolate felt when it ran down her insides. She could just make out her father between a gaggle of riders. The colt was no longer spinning circles and crow hopping, though it still pranced anxiously. White foam collected and billowed out from under the saddle, and between its hind legs.
A couple of the riders stopped to take off their slickers, leaving a gap in the trail. Charlie headed for it. Now was her chance to catch up.
The paint flung his head to the side and tensed his gate, as the rump of a black mare and the lady riding it both cut aggressively into the gap. Charlie reined her gelding back to the centre and followed after the woman. The brunette’s jeans were so tight they dug trenches across her hips and into her butt cheeks, as she trotted up to Charlie’s father, narrowly avoiding a sideways cow-kick from the high strung colt.
Charlie tilted her pelvis into the saddle and motioned her horse on faster. “Dad! Dad!” she called out. “Dad, guess what?”
Her father seemed not to hear her, as the lady let out an overly eager laugh, and the two of them trotted off down the trail together.
Charlie slouched in the saddle, allowing the clump of riders to brush past the paint’s flanks. A pellet hit against her face. It stung her freckled skin. And then another. And another. She was being assaulted from every direction. She looked up from under the brim of her hat to see the sky turning purple in ominous swirls spewing hail.
She tucked her chin to her chest, her spirit leaking from her body with each exhausted breath she exhaled. Stoically, she sat frozen under the barrage, unsure what to do. “If only I were a better rider,” she thought, “I’d be with him right now.”
A hand reached out and grabbed one of her reins. Charlie kept her head down, willingly allowing herself to be lead. She felt the tendrils of a million prickly fingers brush against her, caressing her body and shielding it from the storm of ice balls. Here pony drew to a stop. She opened her eyes, relieved that her father had come to her rescue.
It wasn’t her father, though, this man who had led her into the safety of the pine boughs. She stared at him with mistrust, as he smiled down at her.
“It’s OK.” He sniffed a mass of snot back into his nose. “We’ll just wait the hail out here.” He smiled warmly. “So, how old are you anyway?” he asked, as he brushed a sticky red lock from his brow.
No one showed up just to save you. There was always a price. And if you couldn’t figure it out right off, you’d learn it soon enough, and chances were it would cost you more than you could afford. She had hundreds of movies she was frozen in like that. There was always a price.
She couldn’t figure out what set this movie running this time. It didn’t really matter. It was just how it was. The ghosts played their pantomimes whenever they chose and that’s all there was to it. She couldn’t make out much of what the doctor was saying over their voices—the ghost of herself, and the redheaded cowboy who had first come to her as a saviour. Something about mild alcohol poisoning and a concussion, and staying overnight for observation.
“No. No. Absolutely not. I just want to go home,” she insisted, snapping suddenly out of the scene. “My roommate can take care of me. But I’m not staying here. I can’t handle hospitals.” Her chest was constricting, and her breaths were getting short and too shallow to get air in. She was aware she was drawing them faster and faster now.
Jacob took her hand and nodded in agreement, that yes, he could care for her. She squeezed his hand tightly back, unaware she was doing so. But the tighter she squeezed, the more her breathing pattern returned to normal.
“I’d rather you stayed,” the doctor said, “but I can’t keep you here against your will. The nurse will have you sign some papers first.”
She closed her eyes a moment and felt the hand in hers. What did this man want? Why couldn’t he just tell her, and then she’d be free to make a choice to pay it or not? To stay or not. She opened her eyes. The way things stood, he was scaring her.