When the Horses are Dead by Nancy Parshall

A waft of Nag Champa incense met Cecilia at the door of AJ’s Market. Hindus. Butlerville had changed forever when the folks from India bought the store, bringing their culture and samosas and Chicken Tikka. Cecilia stomped the snow off her boots, slapped it from the shoulders of her Carhartts. The Midwest hadn’t seen a winter storm like this in sixty years.

“Hello. How are you doing, Mrs. Klein?” said Atul as he reached to lower the volume of a Bollywood soundtrack. His abrupt staccato pronunciation always startled Cecilia. “We are having big snow. Are you doing okay?” 

“It’ll all be better when the horses are dead.” Cecilia shook off the cold.

Bagger Bob stood stiff at the end of the checkout lane, enveloped in an incense fog. In the seven years since the accident, she’d only ever heard him ask, “Paper or plastic?”  But this day he spoke.

“You want them horses dead, Ce?”  It’d been so many years since she was called “Ce.” She remembered how one day in the school cafeteria he told his jock friends that the name “Cecilia” was too long, too many syllables, not economical. He called her “Ce.” Others followed.

Cecilia studied a bag of potato chips on an endcap. “If the horses were dead, I’d be free. I’d go on a cruise. Maybe winter in Texas.”

“Don’t mess with Texas,” Bob whispered in a fake Southern accent. Cecilia caught a whiff of his stale wool sweater as she walked by.

“Fifty pounds of manure a day.”  Cecilia’s snow pants swished as she roamed the canned vegetable aisle. The wood floor creaked. “Each horse. Gotta clean it up.” She reached for a can of baked beans. “I don’t know,” she said to no one. “I’m just tired.”   Cecilia stopped to read labels, finger produce, consider cookies. But she wasn’t there for supplies. She was there for the company. Six months had passed since her husband Jim had died of lung cancer, and her final promise to him was to care for his horses. It seemed easy enough with all the help she was promised, but where were they now?   She grabbed Oreos for herself, carrots for the horses. Atul wrote the total in his ledger. She’d pay at the end of the month like Jim always did.

“You really want them horses dead?”  Bob asked. He brushed a chunk of waxy hair from behind his glasses.

“I don’t know what I want anymore,” she paused. “But it would sure simplify things.”

Cecilia turned down Bob’s offer to carry her small bag. She recalled those times in high school — how he scrambled across the room to pick up her fallen books, how he followed her home from school, ducking behind trees, how all four of Jim’s truck’s tires mysteriously flattened on the day after the engagement announcement.

Bob dashed to hold the door as she exited.

Outside Cecilia heaved herself up on her tractor — the only vehicle that started that morning. She held in the clutch, turned the key part-way, and counted to ten. Jim always said diesel fuel needed to heat up. On the way home, snowflakes melted on the hood of the John Deere like broken promises.

Cecelia rose the next morning to blinding sunshine and chirping birds. As she poured her Maxwell House, she tried to remember that old saying, the one about the calm after the storm. It was how she felt after Jim finally passed, after his suffering ended. Cupping her coffee to her chest, she stood at the window and looked toward the pasture. She blinked and refocused on a long burst of crimson snow, the drops winding toward the trees. Coffee spurted from her cup as it shattered on the floor. Cecilia flew out the back door and followed the blood trail, heading south.

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Nancy Parshall splits her time between Northwestern Michigan College, where she teaches English, and the Lake Leelanau hobby farm she shares with her husband, David. Her writing has been featured in KYSO Flash, Dunes Review, NMC Magazine, Bear River Review, and others, and was nominated for the 2016 Best of the Net awards. Her fiction chapbook, titled Proud Flesh, has won the 2017 Michigan Writers’ chapbook competition.

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