Toni’s car broke down about a quarter mile back. There was a sign that read “Gas Station Ten Miles” so she started walking. The sun was just starting to set. It was September still, so it wasn’t too cold yet. Toni was thankful for that.
A blue Chevrolet pickup drove by, the first vehicle she’d seen in while. Ahead, its brake lights lit up and the driver pulled over to the shoulder. “Hey there!” comes a man’s voice from the driver’s side. She sees his head leaning out the window. “You need a ride?” he asks. She’s still a way away and can’t make out his face. She sees he has a cap on, and a blue coat just like his truck.
Toni speeds up a little bit and comes up on the pickup. She can see the man now. He’s younger than she thought. The kind of guy you would see in line at the store and smile at if the line was moving slow. The bed of his truck is full of sandbags. “That your car a ways back?” the man asks. Toni said it was. “Dangerous to be out here alone at night,” he says. Toni agrees. He offers her a ride to the Mobil station. Toni gets in the passenger side. She has to push some magazines off the seat, but apart from that the cab is spotless. He has a coffee cup in the cupholder and the coffee is still fresh. The steam from it rises to the cab’s ceiling and then rolls along in all directions until it disappears.
“I’m Glenn”, the man says, holding out his hand.
He starts the truck and pulls off the shoulder. She can see the bags under his eyes now. He looks barely thirty, yet his hair is visibly thinning underneath the baseball cap.
“What brings you out here?” he asks.
Toni tells him she was out at one of the farms back a bit. She saw an ad for a babysitter wanted on weekends for a family with five kids. The parents needed someone around while they went into the city to sell at the farmers’ market. It was a drive, but work’s hard to find for someone Toni’s age, she tells him. And she has a new baby sister coming as well, so money’s tight.
The man nods. “That’d be the Johnson farm?” he asks. “They got five kids.”
Toni tells him yes, it is the Johnson’s.
“I deliver feed over there on Mondays,” he continues. Toni nods.
He falls silent for a minute.
“They tell you about the horse they had?”
“I saw some pigs running around. And a dog. They didn’t mention any horse.”
“Well, a couple years back they bought the Clappers’ spare draft horse,” he explained “I hauled the thing over there myself in a big trailer. Horse was taller an’ any I’d seen, and strong too. Good workhorse. Willful though. When I’d come round on Mondays, bringing the grain and hay and pellets for the animals, Mrs. Johnson would tell me all the trouble they’d been having with the big thing. He’d break tethers, or scare the pigs, and one time he got on the other side of this little creek they got out there on the property and wouldn’t come back over for anything. Like he realized he was scared of water.
When winter came, they would keep him in their barn. Only he would push open the bar holding the door closed and wander around outdoors. Would have died of cold many times over if Mister Johnson didn’t always notice and lead him back in. They started to keep a truck parked outside the barn door after that so he couldn’t open it. They kept the truck parked there and Mister Johnson would go in this small door in the back that was too small for the horse to fit through.” He paused and corrected himself, “Well, it wasn’t really a small door, but that horse was real big.
Well, one morning the family heard some strange noises coming from over at the barn. That horse had pulled down a rope from the loft and the rope had dragged a bale of hay down with it. Of course, he had spent the whole night chewing on that hay. This was some hay that I hauled over as part of a big load a few months ago. It was good hay, I check all my hay myself. Thing is, they left it up there and it must have got wet, because it was covered in mold and everything. That stupid horse ate near to the whole bale.”
Glenn looked over to Toni, his eyes searching her face for a reaction. She looked away. “Poor thing,” she said under her breath, loud enough she was sure Glenn heard.
“When Mister Johnson went over to investigate and he found that horse in a state of fright he had never seen before. It was like there was a ghost in that barn. The poor thing was swinging his head around nearly in a circle, his eyes bulging out of his head. As soon as Mister Johnson opened that little door the horse made a break for it, charging at that door full speed. He was too big of course, but it didn’t stop him. He had such a fear in him. He knocked Mr. Johnson right over and broke both of his front legs right there trying to force his way out. There was snow on the ground and there that poor animal was, thrashing around half in and half out of the barn, head in the snow, eyes still bulging out of his head, legs broken to pieces, blood starting to pool.
Poor Mister Johnson was in a state as well, I’ll tell you. Here was his only horse, sick to death on bad hay and injured as well. And he wasn’t in great shape himself either. He fell on his arm and twisted it pretty bad. Mrs. Johnson heard the commotion and was calling down from the house to see if everything was okay. When she headed down there and saw her husband nursing his arm and the draft horse flailing around in its own blood, she went into a panic. She was running back and forth between the house and the barn trying to help Mister Johnson put his arm right, asking him who she should call, asking to drive him to the hospital.”
Glenn chuckled and fell silent for a moment. “Picture that scene, won’t you. Imagine your father or your brother is screaming outside and you come out to see what that woman saw.”
“Was he alright?” Toni asked.
“They managed to pop his arm back in somehow, but he wasn’t able to use it very well for a few weeks after.
Lucky thing is, because it snowed, I was coming over the farm to plow and put down salt and sand on the driveway. I pulled up and saw the scene. Mrs. Johnson was in hysterics, Mister Johnson was crying in pain, and there was the horse bloody all over by now. I stood back a bit and looked in that animal’s eyes and I saw nothing but fear. I had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing there, no sadness, no want, nothing except fear. The thing would have been running on its own shattered legs if it hadn’t been wedged right in that door. It was trying even as it was. The creature would have run through a forest of barbed wire if it meant getting away from whatever it felt in that barn.
I went around back of the barn and found the shotgun in Mister Johnson’s truck and put the big creature out of its misery. Can’t fix broken legs on an old horse. Not if you want it to do work again anyway. We were all three quiet for a minute after that. Then I put the salt down and finished plowing a little bit, I moved Mister Johnson’s truck and opened the big barn door. I saw the hay lying strewn about, and the back end of the horse. I tied a chain to its back legs and put the other end on my trailer hitch, and we dragged him out the big door. The thing wasn’t even stuck, as far as I could tell. If he had tried to back up, he could of. He was only stuck as long as he was pushing forwards through that little door.”
Toni sat looking straight ahead as he talked, watching the lines on the road get eaten up by the pickup’s hood. There on the right was the Mobil station. Glenn slowed the truck and turned into the parking lot. There were no other cars there, but the light was on inside the station, and she thought she could see a man’s shape through a window.
“Well, thank you for the company miss”, Glenn says, “I hope you have a safe journey.” Toni turned to look at him one last time. Maybe he is older than she thought, after all, Toni thinks to herself. She sees a scar across his upper chest, in the opening of his plaid shirt. “And say hi to Mister Johnson for me if you see him again”
Without saying a word, she opens the door and steps out onto the concrete. The man reaches over and pulls her door closed. He turns away from her and starts the truck, slowly easing it back out onto the road.