A cold silence settled in as the rattling of the truck’s engine disappeared into the fog, and Noel was alone. She tried to tell herself that he would come back for her, that no sane man could abandon his daughter twelve miles out into the countryside, but it didn’t make her feel any better. Ivan was hardly a sane man.
She was shivering, her body numb beneath the thin shirt that clung to her back. The air was oppressive, cold. So very cold. She slumped to the ground beneath the pay phone, huddling there, her clothes already soaked with mist. The phone was no more than a rusted hulk of metal, but Ivan had told her it still worked. He was expecting her to call and apologize for what she’d done, but she wasn’t sorry. Not yet anyway.
She didn’t even know why she’d done it.
Noel shuddered, bit her lip. She couldn’t call the police; if Ivan found out, he would kill her. He had said so. And help had never come before—not when her mother had run away, not when Ivan had locked Noel in her room for three days during one of Kimi’s track tournaments. Nobody knew, nobody cared. Noel was just another girl at a pay phone in the fog.
She felt her chest tightening, the asthma setting in. The air was so cold; it hurt to breathe. She squeezed her eyes shut, buried her face in her sleeves, and tried to pretend she was back on Tyson’s ranch, riding the horses. She loved horses and she was good at pretending. But none of it was real.
She was so cold.
Shaking, she got to her feet and began to follow the road, opposite the direction Ivan had taken. Even the walking was hard on her lungs. Kimi would have had no trouble at all—she was an athlete, a star, and Ivan was proud of her, the older of his two daughters. He had always liked Kimi more. Noel had never been good enough.
Maybe that was why she’d done it—to show Ivan that she was more than what he tried to make her be, more than a shy girl who was sick all the time.
She trudged on, further up the darkening road. Something loomed in the stagnant mist ahead of her—an old barn, like the one where Tyson kept his horses. The rotted doors gave way to a dripping hollowness within, where fog hung in the fading light that slanted between the rafters. Nothing moved as she stepped inside. All around her, years of decay held their breath.
And her own refused to come. She tried to inhale; a sharp pain cut through her chest—her lungs constricted, she couldn’t breathe—
She found herself sprawled on the floor, not sure how she got there. Her chest ached. She lifted her head to breathe, and her gaze fell on something that protruded from one of the empty cattle stalls.
A dead horse.
Noel didn’t move, just laid there and stared at the thing. Its fleshless face grinned back at her, not far from her own in the molding straw and weeds. Right there, at the end of the barn. A dead horse. It had decomposed to the point of being inseparable from the ground beneath it. There was grass growing on its back; its teeth jutted from the soil like gravestones. Noel crept forward on her stomach, wanting a closer look. It was a large horse, possibly a Clydesdale, though she couldn’t be sure. Long dead either way. The thing was a cemetery unto itself, and Noel wondered why it had been left to die.
Perhaps it had gotten injured somehow, and had been unable to keep up with the others. Perhaps it had been born sick. No doubt there had been a better animal available, a healthier, faster one.
But Noel doubted that the horse had tried to kill its sister.
She stood, left the barn, made her way back to the pay phone. Slipping her only quarter into the slot, she dialed Ivan’s number. The other line rang eight times before he answered.
“Ivan,” Noel said, softly, “I want to come home.”
“You think I’m going to let you come back after what you did?” He laughed. She could hear the truck’s engine rumbling in the background. He was still driving. “You’re stuck out there, kid.”
She said, “I’m sorry,” but the phone clicked dead in reply.
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