MARTINGALE by William Auten
FIRST THING SHE STARTS IN ABOUT after the two of them break away from the others—her calling out his name, telling him good morning and how happy she is to see him again and then rubbing the soft slopes of his neck and leaning over his right ear, whispering, her voice’s volume rising when she’s close, falling when she pulls away and has to acknowledge the others circling in front of them, hanging out by the fence, and looking over at the two of them—is how much she has to tell him before she leaves, and Peter hears how it’s another Wednesday, gray getting grayer and the cold getting colder, the nights at their longest now, Christmas less than three days away, and Caroline will miss him but also can’t wait to get out of here for the holiday break and be with her mom and dad, even if it’s just a few hours with each of them, but she’s not sure if she’ll reach out to Conner then, or if she should at all.
And today, because it’s Wednesday, she’s nervous, indecisive about calling Conner again, getting his voicemail again, him not returning any of her calls, and she has been wondering if he is indeed returning her calls but if maybe the receptionist and the staff aren’t passing them on to her by accident or, given her recent change in mood, by choice. She tells Peter that she still doesn’t like feeling this way, that there are many times throughout the day she actually believes this is happening, they are restricting Conner’s access to her, restricting her access to Conner, she’s not that crazy, and that she knows this habit of calling Conner every Wednesday as one of the two weekly ten-minute calls she’s allowed to make and clicking into his voicemail and not hearing back from him keep her from continuing to reshape her story, that Conner remains too prominent and fastened to the plot of her new life.
Peter hears Caroline fluctuate between the future, where she bounces off a ceiling of uncertainty, and the old days, where, after hitting resistance, she dives back down onto an unstable but familiar support of how she used to act and think and feel. But the past can be jumped into or jumped over, as she has seen since being with Peter. Habits and behaviors and patterns she’s repeated. And he has heard a lot about them, her desire to uncover and explore more of them, she has said to him, reforming them through her writings and talks and responsibilities during her stay at the ranch, especially walking outside and doing the exercises with the pretty golden boy himself, Peter.
And then Peter hears a sharp pause in her voice, accentuated by her head quickly turning over her shoulder, her flat and thin, black hair twisting around, its cherry-red tips following. He hears Glenn tell Caroline that he needs to go help with a delivery. He nods to Peter and the teenager.
“Hey,” he vivifies, a brightness glowing in his baritone voice, “finish and clean up? Please and thank you.” Caroline scrapes mud onto the ground.
“Yep,” Peter hears her respond after she drops his leg. Her breathing shifts from short, controlled pulses of chit-chatting to long, sustained breaths that start pulling her elsewhere, silent focus lurking underneath.
After Glenn leaves, Peter watches Caroline look around, peek around the corner of the stable, no one paying any attention to them, and she stands facing the back of the stable with its wood and metal shelves holding tack supplies and tools and a toolbox. The faint glint of the lock on the latch of the toolbox catches Peter’s eyes. The smells of straw and dust and cold leather and metal circling around animals fill the air.
Wiped clean with a towel, the farrier knife shines like a silver question mark in her hand. Caroline hasn’t returned it just yet. She looks at Peter, who remains silent watching her. She raises her head. Peter hears her inhale deeply before she walks to the toolbox, opens it, places the knife inside, clangs the lid shut, locks it, and snaps the elastic keychain around her arm, pinching her hoodie’s black sleeve.
And then she jogs back to Peter, quickly glances at him, and picks up where she left off, plugging back into her loop again, the accelerator of her breathing pushing down again, words to her stories coming back on, and Peter hears how she’s still struggling with Conner in her life, maybe because two months hasn’t been enough, maybe three months won’t be enough, maybe because it’s the holidays, struggling with him more than usual, like a ghost that won’t go away but that also won’t respond no matter how many times she’s reached out to it and asked it to talk to her.
Peter hears her voice drop sharply into his ear because they are not alone again. Stepping inside the stable, Glenn sets a box down on the table, smiles at them, surveys the work area, ignores Peter, asks if they’re all ready, and nods when Caroline tells him, “Good to go.”
She unwraps the keychain from her arm and hands it to the counselor. Before sliding it into his pocket, Glenn looks at it and then at Caroline. Peter watches him push out a smile and hears him joke that it was pretty quiet in here, especially for the two of them, saying this as he hangs a brush on a hook by the toolbox. Glenn stares at her again, smiles, and says, “A’right, let’s hit those trails.” Lagging behind, Caroline sighs louder to Peter, saying she knew it, she knew this would happen, she saw it coming. Chaperones. So unfair.
“I shouldn’t let it ruin our time together,” Caroline mumbles in his ear, as she loosens the halter and holds the bit in place until Peter bites down.
Seven weeks into the three-month program at New Life Ranch, Caroline is the loquacious one, one of the few amongst her peers. But she saves the bulk of the talking for when it’s just Peter and her in the woods behind the stable, which the last few outings have changed, pulling Glenn along with them. She has covered all of her personal topics with Peter, from her crushes (“Twilight, which I know is so old”) to what she really thinks of the others, especially the two girls, in her group. On and on she has practiced with Peter her breaking down and rebuilding of that time in October, sneaking out of her bedroom to be with the one boy who had noticed her at school.
Peter has heard all of it from her, the good, the bad, the old, and the new in the time he and Caroline have spent together up and down the trails or working on their exercises in the arena together. “Metaphors and mirrors,” Peter has heard Dr. Bonnie and Glenn call them.
Caroline has told Peter the original version of what brought her to where he is, where they both are: she couldn’t sneak back into her bedroom through the window that night, so she took the emergency key from under the garden gnome, and opened the back door. “God, the screaming,” she has recalled many times, Peter chugging along next to her as she covered her face early on. “It was so loud…so, so loud. I nearly passed out from just that.” She always reminds the Palomino how she looks forward to as much time as she can get with him.
As Glenn, Caroline, and Peter start walking towards the trails snaking behind the arena, Peter whinnies, tightens his ribs and stride the closer he gets to the other teens in Caroline’s group working with another horse. Caroline brushes Peter’s neck and whispers in his ear, “Won’t be here long.”
Dr. Bonnie has lined up a group exercise for the three teens lounging about. Buttercup is supposed to be on her way over from the stable, thanks to the efforts of the other teens, but as part of the exercise, they are not allowed to touch the sleek bay mare or to simulate that they have a treat if Buttercup does or does not follow through with what they ask of her.
“Glad that’s not us today,” Caroline pats Peter whose whinny is louder when Mark and Alysha walk by. Caroline pats Peter again.
“Stupid horse won’t come over here,” Peter hears Mark moan to Buttercup and the others in the group. “Athhole.”
“Mark,” Glenn reprimands, cocking his head as his large body creaks the arena’s fence, thick forearms on the white wood beams, “Come on, buddy. Be better than that. Use what we’ve worked on.”
Alysha and Kaycee smirk and can’t help but laugh out loud, as they always do whenever Mark talks.
Clouds and the morning’s gray burning off, the sun starting to shine for what will be the shortest day of the year, Glenn pulls a tube of sunscreen from his jacket pocket. After smearing his face and hairy neck, he offers the tube to Caroline, who shakes it off as Peter feels her tug the reins, leading him and her away from the greasy counselor. Glenn slurps from his coffee mug and bites into the last chunk of apple before resealing the sandwich bag and dropping it with the sunscreen tube in the side pocket of his cargo pants.
“Oh, man, you should’ve tothed that to me,” Mark teases, standing halfway between the bay mare and the fence. “Buttercup, come here, Buttercup.” Buttercup stands solid in the middle of the arena and stretches her head into the clumps of remaining green grass, ignoring Mark as he flags her down with his red ball cap, ignoring Ashlyn and Kaycee hovering on either side of her, arms up, laughing and trying to move her.
“Ha, ha, you wish, buddy. You can do it. I’ve seen you do it before,” Glenn shakes his head and looks at Dr. Bonnie. “OK, we’re off. We’ll be back by lunch.”
Peter feels Caroline pull herself into the saddle when Dr. Bonnie smiles and waves goodbye to them. Feet in the stirrups, Caroline taps his sides with her heels and clicks her tongue. Buttercup whinnies in the middle of the arena, having wandered farther away from Mark, Kaycee, and Alysha. Peter whinnies back, tail pluming. Off he and Caroline go towards the trails, speeding up as they glide away from the arena and the stable and the open fields by the main facility, heading into the woods, quickly leaving Glenn behind, forcing him to run to catch up.
* * *
Peter was the first horse Caroline knew by name and wanted to know. The others in her group fell away. He kept making his way to her when they were at the arena or stable. Glenn said to the group that nothing is really earned until they’ve learned the horse’s name and until the horse responds when called by that name. “At the very least, walk away from here with that.”
During introductions in November, Alysha reached out to Peter. “Horse,” he heard her voice rasp. “Oh, this is so perfect for me.” Peter watched her roll her eyes above the layers of shadows pooling under them, little purple-black wings over her pierced nose. She turned to her fellow teens and Dr. Bonnie and Glenn. “I’m the heroin addict, unless anyone else wants to claim it, too.” She raised a small, doll-like hand sliding out from the sleeve of a red-and-black flannel shirt. “My drug of choice,” the nineteen-year-old continued, turning to Peter, and thrust her neck at him, to which he retreated his head and ears and whinnied backwards away from her.
“Straight up four-twenty for me,” said Kaycee, who, Peter heard as he shimmied his head towards her, smelling her, added seconds later, “OK, and some pharm parties. My uncle’s Vike and OC.” She cleared her throat. “And this is my second—third?—time back. Hey, Dr. Bonnie,” she waved. “Hey, Glenn.”
“I huffed,” Mark said. “Spray paint, thinner, nail polish, you know. I can’t say certain words because of it. Rotted my brain and tongue and mouth.” Peter watched Mark trace a skeletal finger over his jawline and up to his earlobe, immediately returning it to his jacket pocket.
“Like what?” asked Alysha.
“Did you say meth?” snickered Kaycee. “Double meth?”
“Seriously, are you from the four-one-seven?” asked Alysha.
“Nah, Warrenton.” Peter watched the sixteen-year-old look down at the ground and adjust his Cardinals ball cap. “Double eth.”
Walking over to Caroline, Peter jutted his head between her and the others. He felt Caroline rub his nostrils as she stepped forward to talk, placing her chin on the hard bridge of Peter’s nose. She shrugged and blushed. “Um, you know. Some Triple C, boys, bad decisions. Which went a little too far one night.”
“Boys and bad decisions. Those two always go together and always go too far,” Alysha chortled. She wrinkled her nose when Peter cozied up next to Caroline, his haunches glancing her chin.
Dr. Bonnie placed her hands in prayer position in front of her legs. “Let’s move on to a team-building exercise.” She led them to one of the arena’s hurdles dropped on its lowest pegs, inches off the ground. Twisting behind it, several long plastic tubes formed an alley, inside of which Glenn had placed red buckets filled with alfalfa cubes, slices of apples and carrots, and peppermints, Peter’s favorite. Dr. Bonnie asked them to make two stacks, one with words that described their past—the decisions and behaviors that had brought them here—and one with words that they wanted to work on. Glenn smiled and handed out index cards and Sharpies.
“OK,” Peter heard the teens answer one by one after several minutes of silence and scribbling. Caroline was the last to say she was done, several pieces of paper crumpled by her feet. And one by one, they took the roll of tape from Glenn and attached the past to the buckets and the future to the hurdle.
For ninety minutes Peter wondered out of the alley, stopped after walking a few yards, backed up, whinnied to Buttercup, farted, stomped one hoof, extended one leg at an angle, and threw his head up and down. Once they got him moving forward, towards the hurdle, he reached the first bucket and knocked it over with a hoof, spilling and filching some of the apple slices inside. He wandered to the next one and knocked it over with his snout. Peppermints.
Glenn helped the four teens spin Peter around. “Get him to the hurdle.”
“Dude won’t go,” Mark complained, pushing his ball cap back on his curly head.
“Well, work with him,” Glenn responded. “Don’t control him. Ask him.”
“Tell him what you want.”
Alysha sighed and crossed her arms.
Peter butted into Caroline. Her eyes aligned with Peter’s, dark auburn pearls on dark auburn pearls. She twisted her mouth to one side and then the other. She looked away. Peter whinnied, curling his lips at her and raising his head into the blue sky. All the leaves around them had turned into flames waiting to fall. “I want you to follow me and don’t stop for anything in the buckets, K? We’re going right to there.” Peter lowered his head and blew out his nose, launching globs of snot onto her shirt. He started urinating in front of her.
“Nice,” Kaycee laughed.
“Watch out.” Mark covered his mouth with his arm. “I think he’s gonna pith on you.”
“Got a fave already,” Alysha said, laughing with the others. “Teacher’s pet.”
“Peter,” he heard Caroline coax and felt her hand on his reins. They moved down the lane, past the buckets. Just before the session ended, he followed her to the end of the alley, the hurdle between them. Glenn stepped in and took off the bridle. Peter shook his head free. “Next time we’re out here get him over that. We’ll do it lots of times. With the tack, and then without.”
* * *
Reaching the curve of the trail that runs against the edge of the facility’s property, Caroline sighs. The air is cool. Peter occasionally rebalances his stride when she adjusts herself in the saddle. She talks to him and to herself, his blonde tail swishing. “If I see him, it’ll be different this time.” Peter hears the old story winding and rewinding inside her, tightened around uncertainty. He hears how it’ll be odd for her to be let out in a few days for Christmas only to return and finish up the next few weeks, and then to be let out again at the end of January, for good she hopes.
“Once I’m done here I’m not coming back. I just want you to know that.” Peter feels Caroline sit up and then down. “GED. Get a job. I’m getting an apartment with my step-sister in St. Louis.” Silence, and then she clears her throat. “Kaycee says I’ll be back-back, like there’s nowhere else to go once you’ve been here. ‘Spin dry,’ she said.” Peter’s stride is steady along the dirt and rocks. “I mean, maybe they’ll let me visit you.”
Peter backs up, twitches a little, and spins his ears behind his mane when Glenn’s voice calls to them.
“Oh god,” she sighs more, “here he comes.”
Caroline lets Peter drift off the main trail. He lowers his head, sniffs the ground, and gnaws a fallen pit before spitting it out.
“You guys are off to the races today,” Glenn pants. The remaining hair on his head waterfalls itself down the base of his pinstriped collar in the December light.
“We can’t be alone?” she asks.
Peter rotates his left ear as Glenn counters with, “Come on, don’t be that way. I love walking with you two.” Caroline’s breathing pulses, and she grips the reins tighter. Peter whinnies and shakes his head.
The three of them trudge along the trail, leaves crunching under them, and the ones that the wind hasn’t pulled off tree limbs flicker like burnt flags in the bright sunlight.
Breaking a long silence, she says to Glenn, “I know why it’s just us out here.”
“So you can give me some one-on-one talk about being hung up with Conner.” She sighs. “You brought me out here to ‘talk’ about it by not talking about it.”
“No. No talk. We’re just walking. Like normal.”
They walk a few more yards in silence. Caroline wants to speed up, but Peter paces himself.
“Look,” Glenn confesses, walking alongside Peter’s eye, “I know you’ve changed. We all know you’ve changed since being here.” He looks up at her, pale zinc-oxide face. “I mean, you’ve changed—forward—and we want you to stick with that. It’s real easy to slide back. Believe me, I know. That’s all. We know that change has come from you.”
Peter feels Caroline inhale and exhale deeply.
They drift in several minutes of silence.
“Why did you look at me?” Caroline asks.
“Back at the stable, when I was done getting him ready.”
“When I walked back?”
“You two are always chatting it up. It was quiet for the two of you.”
“You gave me a look.”
“OK. You feel I gave you a look?”
“Yeah, you totally, like, stared at me. It was judgmental.”
“OK. I’m sorry if that came across that way.”
“Was it the knife?”
Peter feels Glenn grab the bridle and stop them on the trail. He hears the counselor clear his throat. Glenn positions himself at an angle in front of Peter’s head and pats his cheek. “Yes, it was.”
“Really, Glenn? You think that? Peter’s been my responsibility for how long now?”
“I know. And he is. But Conner is still around.”
Peter hears Caroline sigh as she adjusts herself in the saddle. “What, you don’t trust me now?”
“That’s not it, Caroline.”
“It must be if you’re, like, watching me do my job. A job you and Dr. Bonnie gave me.”
Some birds fly over, a smoke-grey V stretched out in the blue sky. Peter whips his head about.
“It’s not only about trust,” Glenn says. “Trust is a small part. What it’s really about is keeping you moving forward, and you wanting to keep moving forward.”
“You, of all people here, don’t think I know that by now?”
“I know you know.”
“Well?” Caroline’s voice spikes, to which Peter whinnies.
“You’re right. I should have given you some more space.” Glenn clicks his tongue, starts moving, but Peter doesn’t. He stamps his legs and flicks his tail but remains in the same spot. Glenn clears his throat. “No one is stopping Conner from contacting you,” he says. Peter feels Glenn pull the reins closer to his fleshy shoulder. “And no one is stopping you from contacting him.”
Peter whinnies, and Caroline brushes his neck and clicks her tongue. The three start moving again.
Several minutes of silence pass.
“Not gonna lie,” she presses out in the cool air, “I could have taken it. Part of me wanted to. It was in my head, like those cartoons with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.”
“I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. And I’m glad you made a good decision.”
Caroline snickers. “It’s not that sharp anyway. It just gets out Pretty Boy’s mud.”
Glenn chuckles back. “I know.”
The air’s crispness intensifies in pockets along the trail. Degrees of browns, oranges, and greys quiver under a bright blue sky. Peter feels Caroline collapse her shoulders, rounding them under a heavy, invisible weight, causing him to stand still. “Why won’t he talk to me?” Peter hears her cry underneath the black cloud forming over the horizon of her voice.
“Is it OK if I do this?” Glenn asks, buoyancy in his voice. Peter feels Caroline nod as Glenn holds her hand on the saddle horn. The teen forces a chuckle through her tears, sniffling and blowing her nose into her hoodie’s sleeve. Glenn’s laughter fades. “Go in a little at a time. You can’t get it all back at once. It’s a real blessing to be able to do that.”
Peter feels Caroline shrug her shoulders and then grip the reins tighter.
* * *
A week and a half before the Thanksgiving break, Caroline made her first revision. She and Peter trotted on a swath of trails between the woods and the arena. The majority of the tree leaves had changed color and started falling heavily then.
“You can shape it like a story,” she told Peter about Dr. Bonnie’s description of a person’s life. She leaned in and started telling him about that night when she snuck back in through the mudroom in her mom’s house, and screamed. “I was tripping so hard,” Caroline grimaced as Peter bobbed his head under her voice that warbled with each crooked step they took. “I made so much noise, but I thought I was being quiet, that I wouldn’t get caught. Stupid.”
The physical location of Conner’s locker, she described to Peter, was like any of the other lockers along the black-and-yellow halls at the home of the Tigers and Lady Tigers. He had transferred in from another school. He wasn’t a jock. He wasn’t on the honor roll.
“‘It’d be fun to hang out with you. You’re really cute. Trouble-fun,’” she repeated Conner’s words the day he started talking to her and looking at her, pulling her out from floating in the middle layer of students who were in neither the top nor the bottom at Truman High. When September ended, he had told her how much he loved her, repeating it, their relationship resembling The Himalayan at the local amusement park: fast, slow, faster, slower, forwards, backwards, round and round, yelling in the air, chasing each other in an undulating, never-ending circle.
And then it was Halloween, and over cocktails of alcohol, acid, weed, and dex at a party in the basement of strangers, Caroline caught Conner kissing a girl from his old school. “I never really loved you,” Conner, dressed as a zombie, mumbled to Caroline, pushing her away, smearing the bumblebee paint on her face. “I want to tell him something in my new version. I just don’t know what,” she said to Peter before repeating that in front of him with Dr. Bonnie and Glenn and her group one November day in the arena.
Rather than walking home by herself through a neighborhood she barely knew, she changed it so she calls a cab, and once back at her mom’s house, knowing full well that she still has disrespected her mom and her rules, she still sneaks back in through the mudroom, still knocks over a chair, still cries as she pleads with herself and the ghosts in front of her, is still confronted by her mom, but the yelling between them subsides, and Caroline, wiping her eyes, throat dry, chemicals trickling through her bloodstream and assembling and reassembling her hopes, fears, and guilt, walking through her own private maze of the living and the dead, doesn’t rush out of her bedroom and head for the garage. She doesn’t find the box opener. She doesn’t walk back inside, drifting past her mom again, who’s on the phone and blaming her father for causing all this, for leaving them. She doesn’t turn the bathtub’s hot water on full, steam sticking to the mirror and the chrome in the small bathroom. She doesn’t lock the door behind her. Her mother doesn’t force open the door. Neither of them screams. The paramedic does not bandage her wrists.
* * *
Deeper into the woods they go near the last straight shot of trail before it curls up and then down, ending where it started. “Bathroom,” Peter hears her say to Glenn, and she stops them all, slings her leg off the saddle, and adjusts her black hoodie before making her way to the edge of the woods. Peter turns his head and looks at Glenn neither giving permission nor stopping her. “Caroline,” he moans, watching her shuffle into the leaves and further away from his flat-lined response echoing in the air.
“I gotta go, Glenn,” she snaps back.
Peter snorts and shakes his head, looks over to where Caroline walked into the woods. Rustling, rustling, rustling. Quiet. More quiet. Faint rustling. Peter’s ears rotate. Arms crossed between his small chest and robust belly, sighing, Glenn paces back and forth alongside Peter and the small curtain of tans and oranges behind which Caroline has disappeared. Peter backs away with a whinny from Glenn, whose hands drop to his side. Another whinny from Peter, and Glenn starts in for the spot in the woods. He stops. “Took you long enough,” Peter hears.
“I knew you were watching,” she smirks as she trudges back. “Can’t do it with an audience.”
Peter turns his head towards them.
Glenn sighs as he looks at Caroline.
“What?” she asks.
“You know I have to check,” he smiles without showing his teeth.
Peter watches her scowl.
“Oh, so it’s like jail now?” Caroline yanks the reins from Glenn once she returns to the saddle, twitching.
The arguing heats up between the two of them, more talking from Glenn, more snap-defense from the teen, and Peter feels Caroline’s hands whip down. She wants to head back faster. Glenn reminds Caroline of the past few months.
“Not friends,” she snaps. “Counselor and weirdo.” Glenn tries calming her, reminding her that’s not true, that’s not how anyone here has ever seen her, that that kind of response is old and not her today, that she’s come so far since being here, wanting her to remember that decisions are day to day and that even with the struggle she’s been having with Conner she can, and should, get back to opening up again in Group. Peter hears Caroline’s breathing change.
The arena and stable ahead, they stagger back, Caroline in the saddle trying to speed them up, swaying as Peter sways, Glenn walking next to them, tugging the reins to slow them down, an earthly version of the Holy Family coming in from afar and stopping at a common stable. Peter jerks his head and rips off a few farts as they pass Kaycee, whose rambling fades in and out like a radio station. Alysha is on the hunt for discarded cigarette butts to smoke. Peter can hear Mark’s voice intensify as he rides Buttercup for the first time on the dirt track along the edge of the arena.
“This is so badath,” he jostles about, ball cap on backwards.
Pretty Boy heads straight for the bag of alfalfa cubes and peppermints waiting for him near the empty stalls under the metal roof littered with acorns and twigs and leaves and near the bare trees backlit by the sun.
WILLIAM AUTEN is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost, a 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award finalist for contemporary fiction. Recent work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, District Lit, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Superstition Review, and Thoughtful Dog. www.williamauten.com