Shadow Horses

Shadow Horses
by Laura Armstrong
I squeezed my eyes shut tightly, welcoming the darkness, tucking my legs tighter into my chest. My breath was loud, amplified by my shoulders. I listened. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
A gentle hand patted my head, tracing my long brown hair lightly. “Come on, Laura. It’s not as bad as all that. You’ve got to give it a chance.” My mom’s hand lifted momentarily and I heard pans clattering into the sink. When I didn’t reply, she returned to pat my head more insistently. “Laura.” Her voice took on a stern undertone, although her hand was still gentle.
Obediently I released the tight hold on my legs, lowering them slowly off the chair. I wanted to cross my arms, but I could see her foot tapping on the beige tiles. I kept my hands at my sides, gripping my wooden chair with white knuckles. I glared at the kitchen floor until she turned away.
“The first day of school is hard for everyone,” my mom chattered cheerfully as she washed the breakfast dishes.
Very slowly my knees drew up to my chest again, my feet tucked in tightly on my chair. I balanced my elbows on my knees, dangling my fingers loosely, as if conceding.
I could hear the smile in her voice, “Seems like you’re growing up so fast, you know?”
At that, I did look up. She was nodding like she had made a sensible observation. I looked back at the floor, concern fluttered in my stomach making me wish I had not eaten any breakfast at all. She continued with a sigh of contentment, “I love the view out this window.”
She was worried. She didn’t want to admit it to me, but she was worried. I had been pulled out of fourth grade in the States and I was about to enter third year in England. No one comments on growing up when their kid is demoted a year. I sighed.
If she was using denial as a solution, I could, too. I would pretend I was not entering a new school in a new country mid-term. I would pretend I understood the Queen’s good English.
My resolve lasted all the way down the tree-lined drive. I noticed the crisp fall air, the beautiful trees fading into the fog. This isn’t so bad, I thought, just as the tall house that marked the end of the lane ghosted into view. It seemed to look down its nose at me and I glared back at it even as I crept towards the bus stop. I didn’t see the girl waiting until I was nearly upon her.
“You must be the American.”
I stared at her, nodding mutely. I had forgotten I was meeting a “new friend,” Ruth, this morning. I tried to reply but it caught in my throat. Clearing it, I tried again, “Hi.”
A slow, predatory smile spread over Ruth’s face and she looked down her nose at me, just like the house behind her. I seemed to shrink to her height under that gaze. Her hair was pulled back into a tight, brown ponytail that managed to look perky despite the fog.
I realized with a sinking heart that her ponytail was not her only perky attribute. Her coat clung fashionably tight ending just below her hips to show off the cute blue skirt and white knee-high socks. Her shiny black shoes with even shinier buckles also seemed to look down their nose at me. I glared at them.
“I’m Laura,” I introduced myself, glancing up to see Ruth turn away, rolling her eyes.
“I know.”
The fog pressed in around us as we watched the road. With Ruth’s head turned away, I quickly pulled up my sagging socks and fluffed my wilting hair. As the bus stopped on the hill to descend toward us, I felt the tickle of my socks sinking to their former state. I fought the urge to scrunch them down around my ankles once and for all with clenched hands. It helped a little to stomp up the steps onto the bus.
“You may sit near me,” Ruth announced her generosity in front of the students gathered toward the back of the bus. When I tried to sit next to her, however, she snorted, prettily rolling her eyes. “I said near me.” She waved her hand toward the empty seat across from her. The watching girls snickered.
I slumped down into the indicated seat and turned away from my new “friend” to watch the green hills roll smoothly by. I rubbed the back of my shoe on my shin absently. So much for denial, I told my reflection. I turned away the wide empty blue eyes staring back at me. The first day of school blurred into a muddle.
The teacher welcomed me warmly, but she had to call repeatedly to get my attention. I didn’t notice until everyone was laughing behind their hands. She showed me to my assigned seat, next to Ruth.
“Have you used pen and real ink to write? No? Ruth can show you.”
Inwardly I melted, but outwardly, I followed Ruth around the classroom gathering supplies. Ruth had beautiful handwriting. My attempts looked like bad contemporary art, not words on a page. Ruth watched me struggle and nodded contentedly. A little fire of determination sparked in my gut. I would learn to write. Again.
After lunch I stared at the jumble of notes on the sheet music while the entire school played their recorders. Back home I would not learn music for two more years, I thought glumly, irritated at the dancing notes. Were they looking down their nose at me, too? I pretended to play, wiggling my fingers and carefully breathing through my nose so as to not make a sound.
I was still breathing carefully by dinnertime. Mom was still obstinately cheerful. Dad waffled between hopefulness and concern as his gaze hopped between us. After congratulating mom on the best dinner he had ever eaten, he began quizzing me on school.
Did I make new friends? Yeah. Is Ruth nice? Sure. Did I learn something new? How to write. They jumped at the confession and I had to describe how we refilled our pens with ink, and how everyone had a blotter to catch the big drips. Talking eased some tension. I waved my hands in explanation. It felt good to laugh at my mistakes. Pretty soon we were all laughing. There was a hysterical edge to it, but it felt good.
By the end of the week, I was ready to slip away from Ruth as often as she was from me. While watching a game that involved bouncing balls off the grey school walls, I heard a quiet voice behind me. “Hello, there.”
I turned into the glow of warm brown eyes. They twinkled as a girl smiled, extending her hand. “I’m Moira. And you’re Laura.” I nodded, unable to look away from the face of friendship. Her thick, brown hair fell in curls past her shoulders. Her uniform looked like an argument between order and chaos. I smiled back.
“Come play with us. Do you want to?” She tucked her arm in mine, tugging me away from the grey walls.
I paused. Ruth was watching me. Her friends had stopped their chatter mouths open, watching, too. I turned away from them and stepped beside Moira whispering, “Yes.”
She led me out to the rolling fields that surrounded the school, out to where the fence marked the end of the property. A cluster of Moira’s friends waited for us there, quietly watching. As we drew near, Moira released my arm, pausing in front of a girl with short blond hair and a fine scar on one cheek.
“Laura’s joining us,” she announced and then shook out her hair, snorting like a horse and stamping her foot in the green sod. Startled, I glanced over at her. Her laughing eyes challenged me.
“You think she can do it?” The blonde asked. Her tone clearly said I could not. I remembered her name from class. Carla.
“Of course she can.” Moira turned to face me directly. “We’re horses,” she explained. “Can you neigh like a horse?”
From her advantage on the hill, Carla sneered, “You have to choose a color, first. I’m the palomino.”
“I’m a blood bay!” Moira announced, shaking out her mane again, prancing a few steps.
For a moment, my breath caught in my throat.
“You could be a chestnut brown. None of us are chestnut.” Suddenly, I noticed the hesitant welcome in the gathering of girls. The one who had spoken had a “hoof” raised mid-step.
“What about golden chestnut?” I asked, “And I have a white star?”
My heart was beating so loudly, I thought they would hear it. I shook out my mane like Moira. It flopped, limp.
Carla smiled crookedly, nodding. “Yeah, OK.” She nodded to the other girls. “Let’s run!” She leaped into a gallop, and then I saw a shimmer of creamy rump, a cascade of glistening white tail. I stared.
Moira neighed into the wind and shouted, “Come on!” before taking off after the others. Again I saw something shadowing Moira – a brilliant gleam of muscle, a smooth arch of neck under the rise and fall of an almost black mane. I blinked and the shadows were gone.
Leaping after them, I caught them as they rounded a hill. With a spark of hope, I neighed, feeling the sound, like a rumble, well up from deep inside. There was a flash of golden brown shadowing my leg, a strong hoof pounding the ground at my step. The girls answered with neighs just ahead of me, flashing back welcoming smiles.
After school, I followed Ruth to catch our bus home. There, across the school fence, was a single hoof print. I paused, staring at it until Ruth sneered over her shoulder. “Are you coming, or what?” Her words echoed the same disdain as always, but they held less poison.
I smiled, feeling the vibrating rumble of reply, and skipped a step to catch up.