By Nev Navarro, one of our Halloween short story contest winners!
In honor of Halloween, Horse Nation held a spooky short story contest through the month of October, calling for readers’ best horsey tales of horror (and humor!) We’re sharing our favorites over the next two days, and we’ll be reading these tales on Horses in the Morning on Halloween day.
Tish sat at the dining room table at the back of the old house looking out the window, sipping a hot cup of orange spice tea. It was 3 AM and once she awoke, she would just get up rather than fighting the sleeplessness.
She had just returned to the old house. This wasn’t how she had expected life to turn out: her marriage had failed and her career in corporate law felt meaningless.
She missed her old life here, Aunt Claire and her best friend, dear Silver. If Silver were here, Tish would have told him her problems. He always listened and loved her.
Tish had been a 12 year old foster child staying at a neighboring property. She didn’t really “live” anywhere. She stayed at places until, for some reason or other, she would be told to pack up because she was moving, never to see the current foster-family again.
Tish would take long walks out in the country and when she could sneak some out of the house, she would feed carrots to the horses in the neighboring field. Silver particularly seemed to look forward to seeing her. He was a beautiful dapple gray, just under 15 hands, with one black ear. His white mane and tail were streaked with black.
It turned out her clandestine visits had been observed and one day her foster parents told her she had been offered riding lessons in exchange for work at the barn. That was how she got to know “Aunt” Claire and Bob, the caretaker. It had been a happy few years for her. She spent every spare minute at the barn, even doing the mandatory homework (since good grades were part of the deal) on a hay bale or in the barn office, when it was available. Aunt Claire would take her to join the other boarders at horse shows in Tucson and Phoenix. On her birthday, Silver had been presented to her as a gift with a big pink bow around his neck.
The day inevitably came when she had to move, but it was still unexpected. Her foster father had gotten a better job out of state and the family was moving. A social worker just showed up one day and she was told to pack her things. They hadn’t warned her because she had gotten so attached to “the place.” She wasn’t even able to say good-bye to Silver or Aunt Claire.
It was good that it was sudden. Tish had been through this many times before and she knew the drill. You moved and “your” pets were gone, just like the foster family.
Out in the barn, Silver nosed around his stall happily. He loved it here and he could feel her close by: the one he loved was back. Mama Tish. He had lived with people before Mama Tish and they told him they loved him but then one day he would be loaded into a trailer and he would never see them again. Then he came here and met Mama Tish. They had practically grown up together. He was only been five and she had been 12. They had so much fun. They went on trail rides and shows. He sighed happily as he looked up at the house. Mama was back.
Tish stared vacantly out at the barn. It was misty but you could still see the barn as Claire had positioned it so it could be seen easily from the back of the old Victorian two-story.
Her brow creased as she heard music from the barn. Then she saw a glow of light approaching Silver’s old stall.
It was early but it was Saturday. Since Bob, with the approval of the court, had kept the boarding operation going after Aunt Claire died, it could have been a boarder getting ready for a show. She saw a blond woman lead a horse into the stall. She couldn’t see the woman’s face but her breath caught in her throat as she saw the one black ear on a dapple gray. She met the horse’s gaze and in a flash all the dreams she whispered to Silver over the years came flooding back to her. She had wanted to help people like Aunt Claire had — by practicing law and sharing horses.
The next thing Tish remembered was hearing a knock at the back door and hearing a man’s voice announcing “It’s Bob. Don’t be startled.”
She was startled anyway and felt like she had just been awakened, which might have been true. Her hand was still on the teacup but when she glanced at the clock, she realized it was 6 AM.
“Hi Bob” she greeted him and followed quickly with a hug, glad she had taken the time, even at 3 in the morning, to put on some jeans and a sweatshirt. “It’s so good to see you.” Bob was just like the property: he never seemed to change. He had been around all those years ago when she was a child and he was around now, living in the guest house after Aunt Claire passed away.
“Good to see you, too, girlie” he returned, using the name he had called her as a child. It made her smile, both from the familiarity of the greeting and from the knowledge that she was by no stretch a young girl anymore.
They spent a few minutes catching up when she tentatively tried to get information about her earlier experience.
“Um, who all is boarding here now?”
“Oh, several ladies that work in Tucson and ride on the weekends and a few local 4-H families. All but two of the stalls are rented. I made sure there was at least one for you when you came back,” he said with a smile.
“Is there a blond lady with a gray horse?” she asked.
“Not since you and Silver,” he smiled. “We have blondes and brunettes but no gray horses. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I just thought I saw something this morning. So, what kind of horses are here?” she went on, quickly changing the subject. Bob smiled to himself and proceeded to tell her about their boarders.
“I got something in the mail yesterday.” He handed her an envelope from the court.
She opened it with a sigh. It was more court paperwork. Aunt Claire’s “real” niece, her brother’s granddaughter, Margaret, had been challenging Tish’s right to the property. Tish remembered Margaret clearly from their childhood. Margaret had been what Tish thought of as a “dig me” — a person who was most interested in impressing other people. And not in a good way. Margaret had become an electrical engineer and had plenty of money to spend challenging Tish’s inheritance. Margaret was, in fact, a blood relative and Tish was just a foster child.
Silver pawed in his stall. He wanted Mama Tish to come see him. They had been together all the time and even more after Claire went and moved her here to live with Silver. Then he got to see her every day. When he couldn’t carry her anymore, she would take him for walks anyway. When he was too weak to get up, she held his head in her lap until he fell asleep.
He really wanted to have her come live with him at his new home. She would like it there. There was plenty of land to run and he could jump all the fences! Mama Tish and he would have so much fun!
Tish was awakened in the middle of the night, hearing a 40s big band tune from downstairs. It sounded like one of the stations Aunt Claire used to play on the old Jet radio. The house was freezing and she smelled Aunt Claire’s Skin So Soft. She felt a mild panic and tightness in her chest and laid there with her eyes closed.
Silver looked at Margaret and wondered what she was doing here again and why Mama Tish didn’t send her away. Mama Tish was stronger than Margaret. Silver was sure of it. Once, Mama Tish caught Margaret teasing Ben, the horse Margaret used to show, and she punched her. Margaret just stayed on the ground and didn’t do anything. Silver had been happy. Even kind Ben had been happy.
Tish looked at the house as she drove up, glad that Bob continued the tradition of ordering the pumpkins to display. There must have been 30 of them on the porch and going down the steps. A wrought iron fence protected them from the javelinas that would have eaten them otherwise. It was already dark and the wind was causing the “Welcome” sign on the front door to bang loudly.
She noticed an orange cat crouched amongst the pumpkins watching her intently. He rushed ahead of her as she opened the front door, going directly into the living room where a fire was burning. The cat made himself right at home, jumping up on one of the two Queen Anne chairs facing the fireplace. Tish closed her eyes briefly and sighed. This was so nice. Aunt Claire had always had an orange cat and what a coincidence that one should show up. She would have to ask Bob about it. Bob must have started the fire.
She sat down opposite the cat. “Hi Pumpkin Cat… are you hungry?” He blinked at her and she could hear him purring loudly. For a moment it took her mind off of her troubles and the strange happenings at the house. The radio music and smell had repeated themselves several times during the past week and she hadn’t worked up the nerve to go downstairs during the episodes to investigate. “Coward” she said to herself as she went to the kitchen to fix herself and the cat something to eat.
Silver’s ears were pricked forward as he watched the house. He knew it was time. The one that had brought him led him out of the barn and gave him a sharp slap to the rump. He trotted towards the house. He looked around and his nostrils flared as he smelled an odd smell. Silver did not like the smell. It was wrong. He saw Margaret. He headed towards her and picked up his pace to a gallop.
The moon was shining in the bedroom window when Tish awakened to the sensation of the cat licking her cheek. The radio was playing again, only this time much louder and there was the sickly smell of propane in the air. She sat bolt upright. She couldn’t ignore it this time. She had to see what was happening.
Through a landing window, Tish saw the ghostly apparition of a horse galloping up the slope from the barn. There were sparks flying off his hooves and fire coming from his nostrils as he headed for a shadowy figure emerging from the back porch. The apparition reared up over the figure and the figure collapsed. The horse’s hooves came down and he looked directly at Tish. Tears came into her eyes. It was impossible but somehow she felt, as much as saw, it was her own dear Silver.
It was 4: 30 a.m. and she sat at her usual spot at the dining room table, attempting unsuccessfully to get ahead on some paperwork. All was well. After that strange night, so many years ago, when Silver had saved her, she had a new appreciation for life and things turned around. Margaret had rigged the house in an amateurish attempt at creating a haunted house to run Tish off. While attempting a parlor trick with the stove, she had accidentally opened a propane line into the house. It could have killed her as well as Tish. She admitted everything to the police that night. The lawsuit was decided in Tish’s favor shortly thereafter.
And seeing Silver — that had healed her. He helped Tish remember herself and her dreams and she had acted on them. The following years had been full of the giving that Aunt Claire had started.
Tish could hear the wind blowing outside, an old cottonwood tree scratching against the house and a fall wreath banging against the front door. A cup of hot orange spice tea was beside her and a cinnamon candle burned. She smiled as she worked and glanced over at Pumpkin Cat 2 as he slept on the table where he wasn’t allowed.
A tingling went up her spine. She stopped to drink her tea and looked out the window towards the barn. There was a dim glow in the stall she always thought of as Silver’s. The glow became brighter and she realized that there was, in fact, a horse in it. She was afraid to blink. She had always hoped to see Silver again. Now he was there, after all these years. He nodded his head up and down at her as if saying “yes, it’s me.” She moved from the window and quickly pulled on her boots and ran to the barn. The glow was still there. Silver watched her approach. Tears filled her eyes. Her dear Silver. Her best friend was back.
He nickered and put his nose out to be petted and then nuzzled her pocket, looking for sugar. She reached into her pocket, surprised, because she hadn’t remembered putting a cube there. Silver delicately took the sugar and munched it happily. She noticed him looking over her shoulder and she turned around and saw her old saddle on a rack. Pumpkin Cat 2 was sitting next to it. She shook her own head. She hadn’t remembered it being there but it didn’t matter. This was probably just a dream, but it was a terrific one and she wasn’t about to question it. She saddled and bridled him. He was perfectly burnished and his hooves looked freshly oiled. He bumped her with his head as if to say, “Come on, let’s go.”
She didn’t even feel like going to the mounting block. She just hopped on, like she was 13 again. It was amazing. The thought flitted through her mind that this was a strange time to go for a ride and she realized the sun was, in fact, rising. She was so happy and Silver was moving briskly, picking up a trot. She turned around to look at the house. She hadn’t thought to lock it. She saw Bob, waving at her, and through the window a figure slumped in a chair at the dining room table. She realized she would never have to worry about locking doors or being separated from her dear friend again.