My upcoming release, “Little Girls and Their Ponies,” is a literary fiction novella. It comes out on 12/8 and will be FREE for the first few days. Here is the Goodreads link! I hope you enjoy the preview.
What is life exactly?
To Alice Montgomery, the answer to that question was pretty simple: Life was an F-350 truck and horse trailer zipping across West Virginia to rodeo after rodeo. Life was her father’s lame jokes as he drove, his awful taste in old country music. Life was her and Rosie running the barrels, fast as anything Alice had ever felt.
And then it just … wasn’t.
It’s funny; Alice didn’t remember the pain that well. The burning—the crushing and breaking—was all just a filmy haze that she might reach out and touch, as if it had happened to someone else.
Maybe it had.
The accident happened to the Alice Montgomery of old. The beautiful one. The one who always laughed, who smiled and danced and partied with all the hottest guys. The one who rode horses bareback at a gallop with no hands. The one who was fearless, who was caught up in the blush of youth and promise.
That’s who the accident had really destroyed. That terrible wreck had left her in this new Alice’s body, scarred and hunched, bitter and hateful.
A whole life transformed in a tiny moment—a moment she barely remembered, save for a few insignificant memories. Like the flash of white and the surprise she’d felt, as if accidents were tragedies that happened only in other people’s lives. Recalling the quick gasp of air that fluttered up her throat was easy; it was an instinctual reaction, like seeing a spider on the floor, only much, much worse. She’d flinched away as though it would make a difference.
The white tractor-trailer careened into her vision from the corner of her eye. It was going too fast to process, to think through. One second it was where it was supposed to be; the next, it was crawling into her lap, breathing its diesel fumes up her nose.
Their truck and horse trailer had flipped clear off the road, which she was told later was lucky. It was lucky. If there had been a wall or another car next to them, they would’ve been crushed, reduced to thin, jagged pieces of metal and bone. Instead, they skidded sideways and clear off the road, down the steep ravine, flipping side over side.
Those were details of the accident that grew fuzzier with time. But one thing never dulled: the screaming—not her own or her father’s, who was driving. The haunting sound came from behind them, from the horse trailer attached to their truck’s fifth wheel. Inside that metal box, the most precious thing in Alice’s life was screaming her pain, her death, her end.
And there was nothing she could do to save her horse, because Alice could only burn. And burn she did.
Rosie’s scent was thick in Alice’s nose. It was familiar and comforting, all that was right in the world. With her fingers loose on the reins, Rosie’s mane fluttered up and tickled Alice’s knuckles as they rode across the dirt arena. Just a girl and her horse, kicking up dust behind them. Like second nature, easier, even, than walking, Alice’s hips rocked to her horse’s smooth lope. She tilted her head back and smiled up into the wind they created, the easy breeze that pulled the strands of her ponytail.
Alice jerked herself from the dream, tripping into consciousness with a spasm. Her breathing came in stuttering half-gasps, Rosie’s smell still hovering in her mind. She thought she felt the grit of dust against her teeth, the press of her well-worn leather saddle beneath her.
It was all right there and then… gone. Dead and gone. Only a dream to tear her heart anew and leave her confused and shaken because she had to remember all over again that Rosie—sweet, beautiful Rosie—was gone.
Eight months after the accident, Alice turned her face into her pillow and cried. This was the pain she remembered, the pain she’d never forget. It was bottomless, the deepest ache Alice had ever felt. Far worse than any skin graft or debridement during her burn treatment; she would take recovering from third-degree burns over thirty percent of her body any day of the week if it meant Rosie was alive again.
Alice had betrayed Rosie. She’d abandoned her. All her pain during and after the accident was nothing compared to the agony and fear in Rosie’s screams as she was tossed around in the back of the trailer, alone and broken in her last moments of life. To punish herself, Alice imagined Rosie lying back there, her legs twitching, her nostrils slowly flaring around her final breaths. The image was razor sharp against the edges of Alice’s heart, flaying the tissue into flaming, flapping shards.
Alice screamed into her pillow, the agony wrenching through her. She nearly suffocated herself as she tried to muffle the sounds. She tasted her own salty tears and the slime of mucus from her nose. This was her morning coffee, her curse to a new daybreak.
She should’ve died with Rosie. That would’ve been lucky. Not this, not this life. This wasn’t lucky. This wasn’t surviving.
Nearly an hour later, Alice managed to move. Her bedroom remained dark and undisturbed, the thick curtains pulled tight to ward off any errant sunlight. The door was closed and locked, her mother long since deciding it wasn’t worth trying to wake Alice at an acceptable hour. Ever-present music played softly from her radio, filling the room with whatever happened to be on the station. Alice didn’t listen too closely; she just needed the sound to drown out the silence.
Moving stiffly, she eased her long, thin legs over the edge of the bed. Even through her pajama pants, the misshapen outline of her right leg was grotesquely prominent. Her right hand, or what was left of it, reached for the lamp. Dim, soft light barely illuminated the path to the bathroom.
Her cane leaned against the bedside table, waiting for her. Using it as leverage, Alice pulled herself from bed and hobbled toward the bathroom. Inside, she’d taken out a few bulbs from the light over the mirror so that when she hit the switch, the light barely penetrated the little room’s shadows.
With her toothbrush and toothpaste in hand, her eyes found the mirror. She’d once been beautiful, the prettiest girl in high school and then later, her freshman year at community college. Her face had been permanently tan, setting off the summer sky blue of her eyes. Strawberry blond hair had framed her heart-shaped face. She’d once looked good in her tight Wranglers, her tank tops showing off her muscular arms.
Now, her therapist told her it was a good idea to spend a few minutes looking in the mirror every day, to grow accustomed to what she’d become. It wasn’t working. Alice averted her eyes quickly, but not before she saw the white-edged angry scars on her cheek, jaw, and down her neck, where they slipped underneath the edge of her T-shirt to trail down her ribs and hip, like a cancerous river that devoured flesh and shit scars. Her ear had been repaired to the best of the surgeons’ abilities. The right side of her mouth was ringed in puckered pink flesh, so that even when she smiled, she looked hideous. Not that there’s anything to smile about anymore, she thought as she tied her thin, frail hair back into a small braid.
With her left hand, she brushed her teeth, weakly spitting into the sink. Toothpaste ran down the ruined side of her mouth, which she dabbed with a towel. An assortment of creams and salves lined the countertop. It was the longest part of her morning routine to strip down and moisturize the burns along the length of her body. Her hand dipped into the unnatural valleys along her thigh and buttocks, where the flesh had been too damaged to save. She didn’t let herself think too much about it, and she certainly didn’t look down.
Once that was done, Alice made a slow circuit through her room, leaning heavily on her cane. The first stop was to unlock her door, signaling to her mother that she was awake. Then she went to her desk, turning on another dim lamp and the television to replace the noise of the radio. She picked up the remote and toted it back to her chair, her mind thinking of the reality shows on today. There might be a Real Housewives of Orange County marathon on.
If she was lucky.
She did a half-hearted round of exercises for her physical therapy while watching television. Her doctor had told her numerous times that if she would put more effort into getting stronger, she wouldn’t need her cane. But Alice didn’t go anywhere anyway, so it didn’t matter. Besides, she thought the cane complimented her new look quite well. There was a knock on the door.
“Okay,” Alice said, not bothering to raise her voice. Her mother would come in anyway; the knock was only a formality, as was Alice’s acknowledgment of it.
“Good morning, sweetie,” Laura chirped as she came in carrying a tray of food, her hand instantly going to the light switch when confronted by the darkness of the room. But the bulb had long ago been removed, and her hand hovered a moment before dropping back down to her side. She blinked into the darkness, letting her eyes adjust. “How did your exercises feel this morning?”
“Fine.” Alice set aside the embarrassingly slight weights and eased into her chair. Her mother set the tray on the ottoman in front of her.
“That’s good. You’re getting stronger every day. It’s so pretty outside, maybe later—”
“Sure thing, sweetie,” her mom said so quickly that Alice barely even finished saying the word. Many things annoyed Alice these days, but the biggest nuisance was how hard Laura Montgomery worked to not annoy her daughter. “What if I pick up some pizza for tonight? We could watch a movie together. That new one with Ryan Gosling is in the Redbox. What do you say?”
“I’m tired, Mom. Not today.”
Laura bobbed her head, her smile plastic. “Let me know if you need anything. I’m going to the grocery store and the salon today, but I should be back before dinner. Is that okay?”
“Okay.” Alice lifted a piece of toast to her mouth and took a small bite.
“Remember to chew on the right side too, sweetie.”
“Okay,” she mumbled, toast crumbs dribbling off her lips.
Alice turned her attention to the television and zoned out to the sound of screeching, shallow women, who probably also cried themselves to sleep at night. Four episodes later, she surfaced, stirring in her chair and looking around. Someone was knocking on the front door, which was odd since her mom normally swung the door open before a potential visitor even had a chance to knock. Slogging through the memory of their conversation this morning, Alice remembered Laura saying she would be gone most of the day today.
“Alice?” Someone tapped on the glass of her covered window. Her new, easily accessible bedroom, which had once been the den, faced the front porch. The shadow of a tall man showed through the drapes. Panic rose up through her, freezing her in place until the man spoke again.
“Hey, it’s Matthew. Um, the veterinarian? I hoped I could talk to you.”
Fear turning to annoyance, Alice’s shoulders relaxed. It took her longer than most to get to the front door, even though she was only a few steps away. When she opened the door, she rolled her eyes at the lanky man with a honey-brown gaze and a too-wide mouth who stood on the other side of the screen door.
“I’m not the one with brain damage, Matt. I remember who you are,” she said, keeping to the shadows inside the entry. She’d known Matthew Weller since she was a little girl. He’d been the awkward, goofy kid in school, and time hadn’t changed him much. There’d been no reason to see him since the accident; she didn’t have a horse that needed his care. But she knew that he’d taken over his family’s large animal practice.
Matt shrugged. “Just making sure.” His lips twitched in an almost-smile, as if he thought he was funny. He gestured to the porch outside. “Can we talk for a second?”
“Mom will be home soon?” She spoke the words like a question because she didn’t know why he would need to ask her anything.
“Oh, well, that’s good.” The porch’s floorboards groaned beneath his shifting weight. “But I came here to talk to you specifically.”
“If it’s an unpaid vet bill or something…” Alice cleared her throat. “I don’t handle that stuff anymore. Mom does.”
“Gosh, no.” Matthew shook his head, waving his hands in the air, like unpaid vet bills were ridiculous. “It’s nothing like that.”
“So what is it?”
Her brisk tone made Matthew fumble his words as he said, “I wanted to ask you a question.”
“Let me clarify,” Alice said slowly. “I don’t understand why you need to ask me anything. Why can’t you talk to my mom?”
“Because it seemed more appropriate to talk to you about it.”
Alice frowned, her brows pulling together. The right side of her mouth puckered, so she quickly smoothed out her features. “Why?”
“Well,” Matthew paused, as if he hadn’t expected her to be contrary, “it affects you the most, I guess.”
He sighed, raking his hand through his mop of thick brown hair. “Shit, Alice. Cut me a break, okay? I want to talk to you about something because it wouldn’t be fair to you if I asked your mom.”
Matthew hadn’t been in her group of friends during school, and he’d gone to an out-of-state university for college. But Alice knew a few things about him, like he’d dated only one girl throughout high school and that he’d roped steers at rodeos on the weekends, where they’d crossed paths when she was there to barrel race with Rosie. He’d watched her a lot, like many boys had watched her, but unlike them, he’d always blushed when she caught him. He was a fixture of small towns: the local good guy, who’d marry a local girl and have a herd of adorable local babies.
Alice sucked in her cheeks, thinking, and her curiosity eventually won out. “Fine.”
Matthew opened the screen door for her, looking her straight in the eyes as she came out of the house, her cane thwacking against the wooden slats. Now she was the one who flushed and turned her face away. There were no shadows in which to hide on the porch, so she sat on the swing while Matthew settled on the edge of a rocking chair. It wasn’t safe to look off the porch; the barn and Rosie’s fields were across from the house, so Alice kept her eyes on the wall above Matthew’s shoulder.
“How have you been doing?” he asked. He glanced down her body, taking in her lumpy sweats and old shirt. It was impossible to hide the state of her face—the face that he’d once watched so closely.
He nodded, clearly struggling for conversation, even though he’d come here with a purpose. Alice wished he’d get to it. “I thought about coming out a few times, but I figured your friends probably stayed over a lot. I didn’t want to intrude or anything.”
Her throat constricted. “Nobody’s come.”
His chin jerked as if he was surprised. “What? Brooke and Haley haven’t been by?” He laughed at his own question because, surely, her best friends had come to visit her since her accident. Anything else would be ridiculous.
It was ridiculous, Alice thought. No one came, and she never called or texted anyone. In truth, she was embarrassed by her life now. Somehow, she’d been the one struck by tragedy and left behind. Brooke was engaged, and Haley was at rodeos every weekend; Alice followed their bright lives with focused intention on Facebook. She poured over their pictures and read all their posts.
Once upon a time, she’d ruled over them, but now she was the overlooked one. They’d moved on with their glittering lives, and Alice barely managed to leave the house.
“They sent flowers,” Alice offered, trying to be nice, but even she heard the icy edge to her words.
The bouquet was a pathetic goodbye that decayed in the hospital room until her mom had thrown out the stinking, rotting flowers.
The corners of Matthew’s lips turned down, his eyes narrowing. “That’s bullshit.”
Apparently, he’d grown some balls too, Alice thought. She lifted a shoulder. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Oh, right. Well, you know that I took over the practice?”
Alice nodded. The smell of grass was starting to unsettle her as the surge of memories began to surface. Tucker, her border collie, trotted up from the barn, but she didn’t look at him until he was bounding up the porch and dancing in front of Matthew.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, scratching behind the dog’s ears as he talked. “So there was a case of animal abuse out in Forde County. I was the vet they called since their local one was on vacation. Anyway, some asshole had about ten horses and never bothered to feed or water them. The humane society took them, and they’ve been staying at the practice’s barn.” Matthew paused, lifting the brim of his hat to rub his forehead before he tugged it back down. “A few didn’t make it. It was bad, Alice.”
Alice had gone hollow. She nodded tightly again.
“This is why I wanted to talk to you. See, we don’t have the room at the practice. And we need the stalls for actual critical cases. These horses need somewhere to mend, a place where they can recover with some peace and quiet.”
His eyes drifted to the large ten-stall barn and fields next to them, but Alice kept her eyes glued to his face. She didn’t look, couldn’t look. Tucker settled at her feet, propping his chin on her bare toes. He used to chase her and Rosie across those same fields that Matthew was examining now.
“I need your help, I guess. You’re the only farm that doesn’t have other horses. These sick ones need to be under quarantine.” Matthew searched her face for a long moment, finally noticing the surge of pain he was causing her. He took in her tense shoulders and tight mouth with a shake of his head. “I don’t know… you were just the first one I thought of. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” But her voice cracked. He stood up to comfort her, but she shifted away. “I can’t help you. I don’t—I mean, we don’t have horses anymore.” She gestured to the empty barn and wasted, overgrown fields. “We don’t do that anymore. I mean—”
“Alice,” he said, “you don’t have to explain. I understand.”
“Okay.” Her throat was thick, her voice barely more than a squeak.
He stepped back, his eyes falling under the shadow of his hat’s brim. “Sorry for bothering you. Do you need anything? Help inside or something?”
He nodded briskly. “Well, I’ll see you later then. Thanks for your time.” With that, he hurried down the steps, his long strides carrying him quickly across the yard to his worn truck.
Alice watched him go, her eyes darting between him and the barn. Horses were the forbidden subject. The notion was too painful to even discuss because the only horse that mattered was dead. Alice didn’t have a pillow this time as the tears pricked in the back of her eyes. She remembered Rosie’s screams in the last few minutes of her life.
After the helicopter had taken her and her father away, someone had pried Rosie from the crumpled steel. They’d taken her body from the scene, and Alice’s mother had given the orders to dispose of it. Later, Laura told Alice that she hadn’t been thinking clearly; she hadn’t realized Alice would want —need—the body back. Her mother hadn’t understood why Alice had screamed and cried and tore apart her stitches.
She couldn’t help Rosie. She’d betrayed her in that. Her best friend had died alone, and now Rosie was gone, without a place to rest where Alice could visit her.
“Matt, wait!” she called, lurching up from the swing. Tucker sat up and barked. “Wait!”
Matthew spun around. “Are you okay?” he asked, hurrying back, like she might need him. But she’d finally looked over at the barn, and now she found that she couldn’t look away.
“I’ll do it,” she said, her voice breaking, a tear slipping down her cheek.
“What’s wrong?” He was on the porch and in front of her in two strides. He pulled her to him, like they were old friends, tucking her damaged face against his chest. “Why are you crying? I’m so sorry, Alice. I wasn’t thinking.”
Apparently, he wasn’t listening either. Alice huffed against his shirt, roughly swiping at the tear. The annoyance helped to clear the sadness away enough for her to speak. “Nothing is wrong. I’m saying I’ll help you.”
He stepped back, frowning. “No, Alice. I shouldn’t have asked you. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Good grief. I’m gonna help you. Why are you backing out now?” She scratched Tucker’s belly with her toes so she would have something to do besides look at Matthew. She didn’t want him to see the redness in her eyes and know that she was barely keeping it together.
“Well, I … I mean, will you be okay with that?”
“I’m not going to do the work,” Alice said quickly. “I have physical therapy and … stuff. I can’t.”
“Right.” Matthew nodded eagerly. “I’ll be able to handle everything between farm calls and appointments during the day. You won’t have to do anything.”
“No point in not using a perfectly good barn,” Alice mumbled, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
“It’s a real nice barn.” Matthew bit his lip. When she didn’t respond, he went on. “Can I bring them out tomorrow?”
“I’ll bring shavings and hay with me too. Can I walk down there now and check things out?”
“Do you want to come with me?”
“I have to do my exercises,” she lied.
“Oh, right.” Matthew shifted his weight again. “I really appreciate this,” he offered, not knowing what else to say.
“It’s no problem.” Another lie.
They stood together for an uncomfortable beat of silence. Finally, like it was the brightest idea he’d had all week, Matthew fumbled for his phone in his pocket. “Can I have your number? I’ll text you tomorrow to let you know what time I’m coming.”
She rattled off the numbers quickly, ready to be back inside and away from the warm summer breeze carrying all-too-familiar smells. If she let herself, she recalled the exact pitch of Rosie’s whinny from inside the barn when she heard Alice coming down the drive. It was all there, all those memories, sneaking up on Alice.
She was so distracted that Matthew’s hug caught her off guard, and she actually hugged him back. Recovering, she pulled away. “Thank you so much for doing this,” he said, grinning down at her and sounding more genuine this time. He seemed less nervous when he treated her like someone normal and not like a broken toy.
“I’ll text you tomorrow. Bye, Tucker.” He bent to pet the dog before he walked back down the porch steps, waving over his shoulder. She didn’t return the gesture because she was already hurrying back inside, screen door slamming as tears started falling again.