Horses in the City
(C) 2010 All rights reserved
Author's Note: Hi. Thanks to everyone who read my last stuff. Sorry I disappeared for a while -- kid was sick, I was sick, etc. So here's a Christmas story I wrote last year. It's my usual romantic build up.
"Emma, what are you talking about?" Lila Hutchins stared at her sister, unable to comprehend what she'd just heard. They were at a Christmas party but Lila barely registered the lights, the decorations, or the songs. Emma's words had blocked everything else out.
"Just what I said, Lila. I don't think it will work with the two of us. It's just not . . . ." Emma put her hands together, back to back. "Just not meshing." Her brown eyes were bright and she was fidgeting.
"Not meshing?" Anger bubbled up in Lila as she saw the signs of a high in Emma's behavior. "Since when?"
"Oh . . . I don't know." Emma made an impatient gesture with her hand. "But come on. We've been here how many months, and nothing's happened. We're working crap jobs as waitresses. That's not what we wanted, is it?"
Lila narrowed her eyes as Emma shifted her weight from foot to foot, almost bouncing in place. "We knew it would take time, Emma. We haven't been at it all that long. There are worse jobs than waitressing."
"Look, Lila. I didn't want to say anything, but Sam's got a line on something. Except it's just with me. He thought it would be easier with just one of us. Didn't you, baby?" She turned adoring eyes up to Sam Hollings and gave him a bright smile while Lila tried not to gag.
"I did." Sam nodded, handed Emma a cup full of eggnog, then turned to Lila. "It's nothing personal, Lila. Just, you know . . . you have to start somewhere."
Lila hadn't trusted Sam Hollings from the moment they'd met him, but Emma had been entranced. He'd stepped into their lives after a performance at a small club. He had dark hair, green eyes, and a smile that had overwhelmed Emma. With some reluctance, Lila had let Emma take the lead, hoping that she could step in if things went wrong with Sam. It looked like they had and like it was way too late for Lila to stop anything.
"Anyway." Emma took a big gulp of her drink as Sam slipped an arm around her waist. Lila wondered what Sam had put in it and was on the verge of grabbing the glass when Emma tossed back the rest. "It's not like I'm going to forget about you, Li. Once I've got something in place, in, um, in writing, then I'll put in a good word for you." She nodded vigorously.
"A good word?" Lila glared at the two of them, fury rising with every passing minute. "Gee, thanks, sis."
"Don't be a bitch, Lila." Emma's temper started to flare. "At least I'm trying to get something done."
"If being honest with you means being a bitch, then I'm fine with it,'" Lila snapped. "And you." She tried to dislodge Sam's arm from Emma. "Leave her alone. Emma, we have to go."
"What? Hey, stop that!" Emma tightened her grip on Sam. "I want to stay with Sam."
"Emma, will you listen to yourself?" Lila was half-pleading, half-angry. "You want to go on your own? When we always planned to do it together?"
"Things are different. Things don't always go the way you plan."
"It's different because of him!" Lila jabbed a finger at Sam. "It's all changed because of him! What do you really know, Emma? What about this lead, huh? Have you seen anyone? Talked to anyone?"
"Shut up, Lila," Sam snarled at her.
"Back off, you son of a bitch!" Lila met his glare, her green eyes flashing. "You think I don't see through you? You don't have anybody lined up. You're a con man, you're slime, and I won't let you drag my sister down with you."
"Leave him alone!" Emma stepped between them. "He's right. I've been writing the music and the words and you don't do anything. You just wait for me to tell you what to do. Well, I'm tired of doing all the work and then both of us getting credit. If it weren't for me carrying you, maybe I'd already have a deal!"
"That's right." Sam broke in, his face red with anger. "You're no good and you know it. Emma's been carrying the both of you. She writes the words, and the music, isn't that right, sweetheart?" Emma nodded and he pushed on. "If it weren't for you, Emma would already be recording an album."
Lila felt tears sting at her eyes but fought them back. "That's not true. You're feeding her lies!"
"He is not!" Emma shouted. "You're trying to hold me back. You just can't stand the idea that I've got the talent and you don't. All you can do is hold on to my coattails. But not anymore, Lila. I want to go places and Sam's going to help me."
Lila grabbed her sister by the shoulders and shook her. "Emma, listen to me! He's just using you. He doesn't know anything about music, he's just stringing you along. We're a team, we always have been."
"Emma's the team here, Lila." Sam gave her an oily smile. "She's the star, and you know it."
"He's right." Emma turned a warm smile on Sam and snuggled against him, then gave her sister a cold look. "Really, Lila, you should be happy for me. Like I said, I won't forget you. I can hire you on later, I'm sure I'll need an assistant or something." Emma gave a short, hard laugh. "It's my music, Lila, and I don't want to share it anymore. I don't need to. Now, go away. Sam and I have plans to make."
Lila left but Emma didn't notice; her attention was focused on Sam, and the promises he'd made.
Two years later
How did I let this happen?
Emma pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders, wishing the warm fleece would chase away the cold inside. She huddled into the corner of the couch, staring out the window.
She wished it was snowing, but there was only frozen rain. It pelted the window of her third-floor apartment with a flat, staccato dit dit dit. She stared out the window, trying to keep her mind blank. If she didn't, she'd think about what she'd done, who she'd hurt, and how she'd never make up for it in a million years.
A clip-clop sound rose over the cold drizzle and she got up and went over to the window. Despite the weather, she slid the window up, breathed in the frigid air and listened to the horse's hooves slap against the street. She loved to watch them go by; it was about the only thing she did love about the city anymore. I've lost everything else, she thought.
She watched the horse go by, pulling its carriage behind. A couple sat on the bench seat, under their own blanket. Cuddling, she mused, not huddling like she was. No doubt they were warm; they probably chased each other's chills away with kisses and tender words. Her imagination filled in more details.
"They're in love," she said aloud, even though she was alone. "Engaged, maybe newlyweds. No. They'll be engaged by the end of the ride, that's why he suggested it. It's winter and cold, so they'll have to be close to stay warm, and the blanket makes it more romantic.
"While they were going around the park, he pulled the box out of his pocket and proposed. She was surprised." Emma paused. "She wasn't stunned, though. They'd talked about it; the only issue was the timing. She figured he'd wait until Christmas, and he knew it. So he decided to do it early. It was the only way he could think to surprise her. "
She watched some more. "Even the driver's a romantic at heart. They should have gotten off a few blocks ago but he's letting them ride all the way back. He'll probably even call them a cab."
Emma sighed and turned from the window, feeling hollow despite her romantic flight of fancy. Two years ago, she could have written a song about that. She would have jumped at it, unable to stop herself. Now she couldn't if she tried, and she had tried.
It was no good anymore. The words came out wrong. Even if they were half-right, her voice was no good for it. She couldn't even sing along with the radio. It hurt too much. Everything she had loved about writing and singing was gone. Not just gone, she reminded herself. You threw it away.
Her eyes fell on the old piano in the living room. The former tenant had left it behind, and it was a constant reminder to Emma of just what she'd lost.
Tears gathered and Emma fought them back. She tried to make herself concentrate on the positive things, as she did when she was on the verge of self-pity. You have a job. You have a place to live. You have a whole city to walk around in, to lose yourself in.
That was the problem, Emma thought. She'd been living in the city for something like three years and still didn't feel she fit in. Perhaps that was why she liked the horses. They didn't seem to fit either. With their big leather harnesses, their blinders to keep them from being frightened as the cars whizzed by, and the carriages they hauled behind them, the horses looked like they'd been transported from another time.
I wish I could transport to another time. Anytime, anywhere would be better than this.
With a sigh, Emma grabbed her coat for the walk to work and put in on over her sweater. She preferred the late shift; her apartment was less lonely during the day. Nights were harder to get through alone.
Luke Thornton waved as the cab containing the newly-engaged couple drove away. He enjoyed doing things like that. Plus, he'd won the bet on who would get the first wedding proposal among the carriage drivers.
He turned to see Sol Kantner waving to him as he began to unhitch the horses. "Hey, Sol."
"Lousy weather, eh, kid?" Sol shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. "Whaddaya say to a coffee at Millie's?"
"Sounds great." Luke nodded. "Just let me get the ladies all set here."
Sol snorted. "'Ladies.' They're horses, kid. Mares."
"I know, Sol." Luke rolled his eyes. "I grew up on a farm."
"You don't look the type, but if you say so." Sol shook his head, pulled his wool cap down tighter over his grizzled gray head.
"And you owe me. I won the bet."
"The hell you say." Sol stared at him. "It's only December second!"
Luke grinned. "I know, but I had a proposal; those two I got the cab for. So I win."
"What were the names?" Sol demanded.
"The woman was Tabitha and the guy was . . . Jamie. Yeah, Jamie. They argued a little before he proposed, but he did and she accepted. Hence I win the pool."
"Christ, you're a lucky bastard."
"Language, Sol." Luke led the first horse to a stall. "What would Santa say?"
Sol scoffed. "I should care? I'm Jewish."
Luke laughed as he came back for the other horse. He patted her neck as he took the lead to take her back to join her friend. "Santa's non-denominational." He was rewarded with a snort each from Sol and the horse.
After the horses were brushed and fed and settled in for the night, Luke and Sol headed up to Millie's.
"Oh, that feels good." Luke rubbed his hands together to warm them up as they slid into a booth. The temperature was above freezing, but the sleet made it feel much colder. "Wish I had a space heater on the carriage."
"You kids." Sol made a face and Luke bit back a laugh. "Lucky you have blankets. And what, thermal underwear isn't good enough?"
"It's fine," Luke assured him. "Still, a night like this is wet and cold; it gets into your bones." He rubbed his hands together again, then used them to try to put his blond hair in some semblance of order.
Sol grinned. "I bet those kids were plenty warm. You can do lots of things under those blankets."
Before Luke could reply, the waitress came over. "Hi, Emma." Luke smiled at her.
"Hi, Luke. Hi, Sol." She nodded, making brief, obligatory eye contact before looking down and pulling out her notepad. "What can I get you?"
"Start with a couple of coffees," said Sol. "And keep 'em coming."
Luke watched her until Sol nudged his arm. "Hmm? What?"
"Don't stare. It's not polite. What, were you raised in a barn?"
Luke feigned offense but the corners of his mouth twitched. "It was a big barn."
Luke laughed, and Sol was about to say something more when Emma came back with the coffees.
"Anything to eat?" she asked as she put the cups on the table. She put an extra saucer of creamers on, knowing Luke took some coffee with his cream.
"I want one of Millie's big breakfasts," Sol said. "Tell her it's for Sol, and not to skimp."
"What would your wife say, Sol?" Luke winked at Emma as he said it, but she gave no reaction. She's never smiled back, he thought. How could she not smile in all this time? Sol's voice bulled into his head.
"Doesn't matter. My wife ain't here. Now, rememberno skimping."
"Right, no skimping." Emma turned to Luke. "Anything for you?"
"A bowl of soup, whatever's up today. And a grilled cheese sandwich, please." He watched as she nodded, wrote it down and left again, never looking at him.
"Grilled cheese?" Sol mocked him but grinned. "What are you, twelve?"
Luke ignored him. "I wonder what her story is."
"You and your stories. Not everyone has a big story behind them, kid." Sol shook his head.
"Maybe." Luke tapped a finger on the table as he thought. Emma was polite, but not quite friendly. There had to be a story there, and Luke liked stories.
Stories were why he'd come to the city in the first place. He wanted to be a writer, and couldn't do it on his parents' farm. He neededcravedthe continuous hum of life he'd found in the city. His father had been furious, wanting Luke to keep the farm going, but as much as he loved the farm, it just wasn't in him to stay there. Never mind that his younger brother, Keith, was more than happy to run the place. As the oldest son, his father had considered it Luke's obligation to run the farm and they hadn't spoken since Luke had left.
No, Luke needed his stories. He heard plenty of them while driving the carriageand his taxicaband he found himself often putting stories to people that he saw on the street. He'd tried to do that with Emma, but hadn't found the right one. No scenario he dreamed up seemed to fit her, and he wondered why she was so hard to pin down.
"Stop staring." Sol thwacked Luke's arm. "What's with you?"
"Nothing. Just thinking." Luke shifted in his seat.
"Why don't you just ask her?"
"Ask who what?"
Sol mumbled something under his breath. "The girl. Emma. Ask her what her story is. You keep staring at her like that, she'll call the cops or something. And I want my food. You want to know something, then ask."
"It's an idea." Luke gave a slow nod. "I'm just not sure she's the type to tell her story too easily."
"You make things so complicated," Sol complained. "I come here for food, I get philosophy." He looked up as Emma came over with their plates, one in each hand. "If I wanted philosophy, I'd have ordered it, wouldn't I?"
"Don't think it's on the menu." Emma gave a quick, tight smile and made brief eye contact as she slid the plates in front of them.
Luke raised an eyebrow; he didn't think he'd ever heard her crack a joke before.
"Anything else?" Emma's eyes darted between them. "I'll get the carafe for the coffee in a minute. Had to make a new pot."
"Sounds good." Sol turned to his food and reached for the salt. Luke snatched it away; Sol glared at him.
"You don't need any more salt," Luke informed him. "You know you're supposed to be watching your blood pressure, and Millie puts in more than she needs to anyway."
Once more, Sol appealed to Emma. "How is a man supposed to enjoy his hash browns without a little dash of salt? I ask you!"
Another smile tugged at Emma's lips, and Luke chuckled himself. When Sol put on his pitiful face, it was hard not to laugh. He wished Emma would let the smile happen. He didn't think he'd ever seen her smile.
"Millie put in extra for you, Sol," Emma told him.
"Well, then." Sol brightened. "I always did like Millie."
To be continued . . .