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Some vegetables just don’t grow in containers. I fingered the withered radish in the planter on our tiny balcony. It never stood a chance. Why did I even plant it? Radishes taste like dust, but Dad always said, “They dress up a salad real nice.”
“Mommmmmy? Where are you?”
I hurried inside to fix Emma’s lunch.
Rob sat in his usual spot at the counter staring intently at his laptop. When the landline rang, he answered. “It’s for you.”
“Who is it?”
“How should I know?”
“Could you ask? Please?”
That bought me enough time to slip a sandwich and some yogurt into a paper bag. It would have to do. I’d have had time to make a real lunch if my super-achiever husband didn’t insist that our four-year-old attend an all-day preschool.
“It’s your ex.”
He shrugged and turned back to the screen.
“Hello?” I stared out the kitchen window at the blank wall of the high-rise next door.
“Sorry, Hon. Sounds like I got you at a bad time.”
“Sam. It’s you. I didn’t…” I didn’t expect to hear from the high school sweetheart who refused to go with me when I left Laramie to attend NYU.
“Look, I hate to be the one to tell you.” While Sam searched for words, Rob snatched Emma’s lunch and pulled her towards the door.
“Wait a sec.” I rushed to give Emma a quick hug. “You okay? Ready for school?”
She gave a confident nod.
“Okay. You still there Sam?”
“Maybe it’s better you sit down.”
“Spit it out, man. I don’t have all day.”
“It’s your dad.”
While his words poured over me, I shut my eyes and murmured nononononono.
The ranch house huddles dark at the end of the long, gravel drive. The kitchen light should be on. Dad should be waiting at the table with a newspaper, coffee, and his chew. Sam should never have called me in New York.
My phone vibrates with yet another text from Rob. I groan and turn it off.
Some idiot left the gate open. I slip out to wrestle it shut and arch my aching back. Emma’s sleeping in the car seat with her mouth wide open. It’s so quiet. Just a few faint clicks from the cooling engine. And there’s the Milky Way splashed across the sky – right where I left it. I breathe in a wave of contentment.
The front door creaks when I pull it open and Dad’s tobacco-sweat smell greets me. I almost yell, “We’re home!”
But the rooms yawn empty.
I follow a rank smell to a meal interrupted on the tray beside his bed; steak turned iridescent green and potatoes rotted into stinky mush. Last week’s newspaper sprawls open on the chair; brown stains on the carpet.
“Natural causes,” Sam had said. He didn’t mention blood but what else could it be? Dad’s skin was paper-thin. Maybe he got cut when they–
I hold my breath and close the door.
Emma calls from the car, “Mommy?”
Setting aside a flash of guilt, I hurry out to open the car door. I lean over and get a nice whiff of her breath. Red licorice. I nuzzle her cheek. “Mmmm. You smell yummy.”
She reaches up with sticky fingers to clasp my neck.
“There’s my big girl.” I hoist her from the car seat and haul her inside.
“We’ll sleep in Mommy’s room tonight, kiddo.”
My battered barn boots peek out from under the bed. I’m tempted to pull them on and go for a long, heedless gallop.
Snug between flannel sheets, Emma opens her constellation book and scoots over to make room for me. She gives the page a languid tap. “That’s Pegasus. He lives in the sky.”
“He does.” I kiss the top of her head, marveling at her brilliance. “And he has wings to fly.”
“Mmm hmm.” She gives a sleepy nod.
“Do you remember what happened when he pawed the earth?”
“Mmmm. You tell me.” Her eyes flutter closed.
“When Pegasus scratched the ground with his hoof a fresh spring of water came out from the earth and flowed down the hill.” I draw out the word “flowed” and trace a slow, curving line down her arm with my finger.
“Was Grandpa alone?” Her eyes slit open.
“What honey?” A sob lodges in my throat.
“Was he alone when he died?” Her voice quavers.
“No…” I sigh. “He wasn’t alone. Pegasus was with him.”
Rob would hate me filling her head with make-believe. But Rob isn’t here and I find that bothers me not at all.
In the morning, I pile Dad’s mail on the kitchen table – a postcard from an army buddy and so many bills. I start a to-do list on the back of an envelope.
Emma thunders by, echoing Dad: “Gotta check the horses.”
I take one last gulp of coffee and rush to catch up.
Her big girl boots raise dust on the trail. Around a curve, Mud Lake glistens in the sun. Crickets sing underneath the scattered sage bushes and blue dragonflies skim the surface of the water. A hawk shrieks high above the lodgepole pines.
Emma tosses a stone into the lake and we watch the ripples spread.
She points at the horses grazing near the meadow’s edge; their tails swishing flies. Dad collected dozens of them over the years – wild colts he broke, old nags he adopted, each a story he loved to tell, each better off for his presence in the world.
Their heads lift, one by one. Nostrils flare. They inhale in great whooshing gusts – pause – then gallop towards us – the whole herd – hooves pounding. Emma shivers and reaches for my hand.
We stand our ground.
The horses slide to a halt just out of reach, stomp, blow. They smell of meadow grass and sweat. A big palomino nickers and draws near. Emma lets go of my hand to pat his chest. His hoof lands inches from her boot. He arches his neck and slips his nose into her pocket.
She whispers in his ear, “Hello, Pegasus.”
My mouth stretches in a slow grin. We’ll be fine. I guess some people just don’t grow in containers.