Thursday, April 26, 2012
Roger Mitchell let a rush of morning air into his lungs as he walked down the side steps of their house, taking in that last bit of freedom before making his way to work. The gentle *click click* of heels told him his wife was right behind him, diligently walking him to his car before she made her way to her own--just like she did every morning. It was a comforting sound, though he generally forgot to notice it. It was far too easy to take the last few moments of her presence for granted.
Today, though, instead of her usual quick parting kiss, Bridget reached out a hand and pulled her husband towards her.
"You know, today's a half day at school today," she said slowly, fiddling with the front of his sweater. "The kids are going home early..."
"Yep... and a little bird told me you only had to work the morning shift, today," she added with a suggestive smile, drawing one of his arms--then the other--towards her waist as she backed him against the rear of the car.
"As long as no one decides to start the town on fire. Why," Roger questioned with a smirk. "You have plans?"
"Maaaybe," Bridget shrugged. "Natasha's going to be spending the evening over at Josh's, so we'll have the house alll to ourselves..." She shrugged again, leaving the rest up to his interpretation.
The look in his wife's eye made the corner of Roger's mouth twitch into a smile. "Oh? Well then--I guess I'll have to make extra sure Wyatt doesn't make me stay late today, won't I?" He pulled her against his lips so quickly she didn't have time to react to his suggestion.
Man--it was nice that Natasha was finally old enough to shove out the door once in a while.
Roger's spirits were high as he watched Bridget disappear into the garage--so much so that he didn't notice a swift blur of blonde swoop behind his SVU as he climbed into the driver's seat, nor the strange clunking noise right before he pushed his key into the ignition.
It wasn't until the roar of the engine was in full rhythm that he noticed anything was wrong.
Then, it hit him.
Roger frantically shut off his engine, but he'd been a fireman long enough to know that the odor wasn't coming from under the hood--so naturally, he turned around to look behind. What he saw was not what he expected.
"What in the bloody hell--" he slammed the door to the vehicle so hard he heard the glass rattle in the frame. "What is going on?!" Unfortunately, no one was around to answer him, so he stamped to the end of the car in disgust, trying to cover his nose from the fumes that were still pouring out of his tailpipe.
As the greenish smoke continued to rise, two giggles were quietly stifled around the corner of the house.
"That was amazing," the high-pitched squeak of Pippin's voice said cheerfully, giving Korva just the validation she needed. "Think he saw us?"
Korva shrugged, clearly not concerned. "Who cares?" After a moment, she smiled even wider--if that's even possible--and cupped her hands around her mouth. "GO GREEN OR SMELL GREEN, GAS GUZZLER!"
"What--WHY YOU LITTLE--"
Korva sprinted away at light speed, Pippin following along not far behind her trail of dust. "Keep going, keep going--he's gonna catch us! EEP!" she squeaked.
"Ya--huff huf--right--huff huff," Korva gasped, casually tossing glances behind towards the man still gagging on stink behind them. For good measure, as they passed the trash can, she kicked it over with a slam of her foot, sending garbage skittering out all over the sidewalk. "YOU SHOULD LEARN TO RECYCLE, TOO!"
"You--Get back here, kid!!"
"I'm just saying, you guys are missing out," Veronica said with a wry shrug as she swayed back and forth in her swing, the sound of crunching gravel following every drag of her feet. "While you guys are locked away in a computer lab squishing stories into a newspaper nobody's going to read, we're going to be off taking field trips, competing at other schools--"
"--showing everyone just how bad-ass your piece pushing skills are compared to theirs," Kenzie finished with a giggle, making Veronica's face scrunch up in disgust.
Kenzie gave her a light, 'just kidding' wink, before adding, "Sorry Vee, Margo and I just aren't that into chess. Right, Margo?"
After a few moments, a small "Mhm," was Kenzie's answer, barely audible atop the sound of cars rolling by on the nearby street.
"Aw c'mon, Margo's plenty into chess--at least, plenty into Josh Seymour... I hear he's disappointed you're not jooiinniingg," Veronica remarked in a sing-song voice.
"Yeah, but I bet Natasha's not. Didn't you see what her friend wrote on Margo's blog? I know Claire's a bit of a prat sometimes, but she's right--it's probably not a good idea to get on ol' Gnat-face's bad side..."
Miles away, Margo heard their voices echo in her mind. She understood what they were saying:Josh, Natasha, chess, her blog... the petals fell gently into the current of her thoughts, but were carried away, uncaptured, unread.
Closer to her thoughts, yet further away, a bigger fish had hooked her line. The sounds were distant and murky, but she recognized the cursing voice, and the grunts of two boys talking with their fists--and though she couldn't see them from this side of the building, her eyes were drawn in their direction. Lines of worry and curiosity drew tight around her eyes.
"It's no use, Kenzie--she can't hear you."
"MARGO." BANG BANG BANG; the resonance of Kenzie's hands hammering the metal by her feet almost sent Margo falling backwards, petrified, off the top of the slide.
"What!" Margo squeaked, clinging to the bars with her dear life. "What?!"
"Aho, she lives!" Kenzie laughed, standing at the foot of the slide next to Veronica, her hands on her hips. "C'mon, we're going to walk you to the Ranch. You ready to go?"
"Oh... Yeah, right." Margo hid her blush against her shoulder as she let her body slip down to level ground.
"Anyways, as I was saying," continued Kenzie from their previously unprocessed conversation. "I think Margo and I are going to have a great time at the newspaper. I've already got this idea about doing little investigation articles on little unsolved mysteries around the school--Margo said she'd help me out with them. It'll be fun!"
"Ha, maybe I need to hire you guys to figure out who stuck the gum to the bottom of my shoe during gym class," Veronica grumbled as she shuffled along beside them towards the sidewalk. "Couldn't scrub it off in time, so my shoe kept popping off during laps."
"See? What do you say to that, Margo? It's going to be great. You have nothing to worry about! Daisy's probably going to be so busy writing articles about how horrible life is being rich, she won't have time to bother us."
"Yeah... I guess." Margo was not convinced.
As they approached the front of the school, Margo's steps became slower and slower, until her pace had diminished so far that Kenzie and Veronica both stood behind her, watching her melodramatic gait with their eyebrows raised.
"What's wrong, Margo?" Ronnie asked, biting her lip.
Margo gave no verbal response; instead, her head tilted in the direction of a boy's scream of defiance--then the *thud* of a body slipping to the pavement, and several pairs of footsteps fleeing the crime scene. Both Kenzie and Veronica sent wide-eyed looks at each other, then at Margo.
Before anyone else could say anything, Kenzie shook her head fiercely. "NO, Margo. You can't. He's just going to make you upset, and you know it."
Margo sent a pleading look at Veronica, but unfortunately, she didn't get any support there, either. "Sorry, I gotta agree with Kenz... You really shouldn't."
She could feel the knot in her stomach growing the longer they gave her reproachful looks. Kenzie and Veronica didn't understand--they never had. It was something Margo simply couldn't explain in a way that made them okay with her obsession, and it had haunted her all the years they'd been friends. They supported her in everything... everything, but this.
In truth, Margo knew there was nothing she could do, nothing she could fix about him. She'd given up hope a long time ago, but part of her--oh, that part of her that believed she flew over mountains and seas while she slept--had an urgent need to see that hope renewed.
"... need to go to him," Kenzie finished for her, so predictable Margo had become. "Yeah, we know." She laughed and tried to rub the frustration out of her face. "You're hopeless, you know that?"
"Yeah... I know..." Margo sighed, dropping her arms to her side in defeat.
As they began to leave Margo to her quest, Veronica turned and sent a worried look back, offering a small, "Be careful," in leiu of the ability to convince Margo to leave it be. It was their only parting words before they each gave a weak wave and wandered in the opposite direction.
The stars, the moon, they have all been blown outYou left me in the darkNo dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilightIn the shadow of your heartI took the stars from my eyes, and then I made a mapAnd knew that somehow I could find my way backThen I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness tooSo I stayed in the darkness with you- Cosmic Love, Florence & the Machine (Listen Here ♫) -
Margo could feel herself trembling before she took her first steps in his direction. Without her friends, Margo felt naked. They were her shield from the world, without which she was was bare and defenseless in a way that left her sick to her stomach--even worse, around him.
Ian. He sat, crumpled, against the corner of school building, moving very little as she tentatively approached. One step, two step, three step, four; at the last, when she was barely within arms-reach, he finally registered her existence. The tossled mop of hair shrouding his eyes lifted, slighty--only enough so that she could feel his hot gaze burning towards her feet.
"You again?" he groaned as his head slumped back against the wall behind him. "Just can't leave anything be, can you."
Margo's gaze turned away, ashamed, as her hands began to shake--she intertwined them behind her back to hide her cowardice. "What h-happened, this time?" she finally managed to stutter.
"Why the hell does it matter? Just go away."
"I.. I.. I just.. Oh my g--"
Ian had finally managed to fumble up from the ground, favoring one leg and flinching when his ribs hit a groove in the wall--and once at eye level, the damage hit Margo like a grand piano, ripping the air clean out of her lungs. She couldn't recall a time when she'd ever seen Ian's face pristine, but she had never seen him like this, right after the marks had been made.
Margo must have turned a shade of green, because the next words that left Ian's mouth were, "What, never seen a black eye before?"
"W-w-well yeah, but... Ian...why did they--"
Ian fiercely broke her off. "My face was too pretty, obviously... Can't you just leave me alone?"
He turned his face away from her. For a moment, Margo thought she caught a glimmer of shame, but it evaporated the moment his lips snarled back again and his gaze flickered towards a passing car, which he seemed to find much more interesting than her.
Margo bit her lip, but the words were out before she could stop them. "I wish you would stop fighting."
She immediately regretted speaking when Ian's eyes snapped back onto her with fire in their depths. "Sorry, I forgot it was my job to grant your wishes, Princess," he growled with the thickest sarcasm. "I must have left your list in my other pants."
If possible, Margo's face deepened to a darker shade of red. "It's not that," she whimpered, her head tilted away. "I just... don't want you to get in trouble."
Ian shook his head, trying not to let the fury still welling inside him escape. "Why," he groaned between gritted teeth.
"I... I don't know. I just... don't."
Her answer clearly annoyed him so deeply that he didn't dignify it with a response; instead, he let his head drift to the side again, yet again pretending she wasn't there, as if in hopes she'd eventually spook away.
She didn't. For a moment she did consider it, but the thought of leaving him in such a condition wrought her with agony. Gently and quickly, she licked the base of her thumb, and pressed it under his eye. "Just hold still, let me wipe this off you--"
"Stop," he whispered, gently trying to push her away. "Don't. Don't touch me. Please."
"--if they see you like this... just tell them... tell them I just... ran into you with my bike or somethi--"
"I SAID DON'T TOUCH ME!"
In one swift movement, she was against the wall, with Ian's hands pressing down and caging her in--his face was so close to hers, she could smell the blood drying against his cheek. For a moment, nothing happened; they were both caught in a heartbeat, breathless and frozen.
Finally, he exhaled, releasing what felt like a wave of fire against Margo's face. "You need. To stop this."
"S-stop what?" She spoke so timidly she didn't recognize the sound from her own mouth.
"Stop... trying to get involved."
Margo let herself blink, so the fear welling in the corner of her eyes wouldn't escape, just yet. She wanted, desperately, to be brave enough to push him away, to tell him he was wrong--but her hands betrayed her, quivering violently at her sides, useless. She was captive to his eyes, even though they were closed from her.
"Why," she finally asked, her voice a hoarse whisper. "I just want to help."
Ian's gaze avoided hers, instead staring blankly at a brick to the side of her. As he did, she searched his face for some sign of an emotion that wasn't anger, for a shred of the boy she'd had a glimpse of so long ago... but there was nothing. Nothing but the red of anger, the red of the blood that stained him. It inflicted more pain than the words that came through his gritted teeth.
"Well, you're not--so just stay away from me, you hear?! ... Just... stay away."
As his words fell to silence, his hands dropped and turned away, leaving her trembling against the building, alone.
When he managed to get a few steps away, Margo wrangled a burst of courage, pressing her weight back onto her feet to pursue him.
"J-just remember... if anyone asks... it was my bike--"
A nearly inhuman noise came from his throat. "Don't you have somewhere to be?!"
As a matter of fact--
"OH MY GOSH! THE RANCH!"
Margo fought the weight of her pedals harder than she ever had. Each push let out an unnatural squeeeaaaakk, but with bleary eyes she ignored the strange looks of passerbys and kept going.
Reee ree ree ree ree went the bike--it was annoying, but the rhythm kept her focused, and on the right thing, too. Ian and his words tried to cycle back into her mind, but as the wind whipped through her hair much slower than it needed to, she managed to panic about her tardiness enough to keep her momentum steady--a tough feat for a girl who pretended to be sick half of her gym classes.
Several minutes later, with her lungs on fire and legs turned to puddy, the rustic walls of the Simlous Lake Horse Ranch came into view. Margo barely made it through the front gate before her bike was sent skidding into the surrounding brick wall, and her feet clumsily toppling over it to aim her towards the picnic bench she saw Christina and Rachel lounging on.
"Sorry heh I'm heh late!" she wheezed as she bolted towards them, still managing to stay vertical by some miracle.
"Where have you been girl, we were so worried!" Christina said, shaking her head. "And what is that on your hands!"
"Oh, it's... paint... from... remedial art class." Remedial art class--Margo was going to be kicking herself all night for that one.
Rachel, however, gave Christina a sour look and nudged her in the elbow. "Will you stop fussing--look at her, she's out of breath!" In the flash of a moment, Rachel's eyes went glossy. "And oh my goodness--will you look at how much she's grown?! Eee, our little Margo has gotten so big!!"
It had been quite some time, but it wasn't until Margo saw the look in both oogling faces that she realized just how true that was: she had grown. It seemed fresh in her mind, but she'd barely been learning to tie her shoes the last time she'd seen the pair of them. Those were the days of rubber boots and pigtails, of hopscotch and vivid daydreams...
... though maybe that last one still hadn't disappeared, quite yet. "Oh gosh, how long has it been?" Rachel asked, giddily doing calculations on her finger.
"Ack, well don't say it out loud," Christina sniggered. "I'm not ready to feel old, yet! Now c'mere you!" Before Margo could object, she was being embraced by not just one, but two pair of arms.
"So, I guess you're pretty curious why we both came all the way out here to see you, huh?" Rachel asked as they finally withdrew, leaving Margo feeling even more like play-doh than before.
"Ya, I guess," she replied with a soft, excited smile.
"As you probably know, we've been talking to your parents quite a lot lately, and--if you're open to it--we came to a little bit of an arrangement, regarding your enrollment in the Riding Academy."
Margo's heart suddenly dropped through her stomach. "W-what kind of arrangement?"
"Well, Christina and I know the owners of the Ranch, here," Rachel indicated with a bit of a sweep of her arm. "And it sounds like lately they've been a little bit understaffed--which isn't too good for us, because a couple of the horses here are some from the LEC we brought over to try and find new homes. So, we were wondering--"
"And it's totally up to you--" Christina added.
"--if you'd be willing to come work here for a few hours after school every day, instead of paying a tuition of your Academy fees. It won't be a proper payment, but it'd help you out with the experience you're lacking, and--well, we'll be owing you a huge favor, in the future."
"So, you're telling me... You want me to come work here in exchange for classes?" Margo's heart skipped a beat. "That's..."
"Not what you were expecting?" Christina laughed. "I know it sounds great--and it is, trust me--but it's a lot of hard work. We don't want you to say yes unless you really, really think you can handle it."
Margo chewed on her lower lip for a moment in thought. "I--I think so... I just... I mean I have to ask my parents--"
"--We already did, they think you're ready to hold down a job. It's all on you, hon."
"BUT." Christina cut Margo off as she opened her mouth. "Before you make your final decision... why don't you come meet a few of the horses?"
Christina didn't need to say another word; Margo's face immediately lit up like a house on Christmas Eve. "I--of course!!" she stuttered, although her excitement was tempered by a growing nervous pit in her belly.
Clearly not noticing Margo's sudden bewilderment, the two women headed in the direction of the stalls without her. "Alright then--follow me!"
Margo let her lungs fill and empty several times before struggling to catch up to them with her wet-noodle legs. "Ooooh!" she gasped when she finally did.
"This, m'dear, is Rock the the Bass--or 'Rocky', for short. He's one of retirees... A little too old for showing, but still young enough to give a family an experienced horse for a few years, if we can find him a good home."
"He's gorgeous," Margo wheezed as she reached out her hand to rub the flat of his nose.
"Friendly, too," Christina added cheerfully. "But he can be a little... forgetful. Rachel and I joke he's got a bit of dementia--can't seem to remember where he's going half the time, which is part of the reason we aren't using him to teach new riders anymore. If neither of them can remember how to get home--"
"--it can cause a few issues," Rachel finished with a bright chuckle and a wink. "But other than that, he's a cuppa tea to deal with--just stuff his face with apples and he'll follow you around like a lost puppy."
As they began moving to the next stall, Margo could already tell what was up next was not going to a "cuppa tea". A loud bang against the side of the stall was quickly followed by a high-pitched shriek, a whinny so loud the countryside seemed to whinny right back with echoes. The saliva on her tongue instantly dried with fear.
"W-who's that?" Margo raised a shaking finger to point to the dark face poking its way out of the bars--one looking at her with an intelligence in its eyes that left her shaking in her boots.
"That would be the diva Rachel somehow managed to breed," Christina said with light, amused annoyance. "Who is so aptly named, 'Sound and the Fury'. Because she never shuts up."
"Aw c'mon, she does! Just... not that often," Rachel giggled. "She can be a little bit of a handful..."
"Little bit? HA."
Margo trembled, trying to avoid making eye contact with the horse staring her down with curiousity. "So like... is she... mean?" she stuttered, looking at Christina with worried eyes.
"Nooo, no no, she's not mean, just a bit wild. She's only been old enough to ride for a little while, but no one's had the patience to break her because every time we try, she acts like she's in the rodeo." Christina made a hand-gesture to imitate a rider falling on their butt. "She's actually quite playful, just... a little bit of a free spirit."
"So... just don't try to rider her," Margo made a note to herself. "Check."
After they began to move away from Fury's stall--who gave them a pitiful parting nicker--Christina and Rachel gave each other a small, knowing smile; Christina nodded, and Rachel moved away from the other two.
"Where's she going?" Margo asked, peeking over Christina's shoulder curiously.
"Well... there's one more horse we want to show you, but we thought you might like to see her a little more... up close and personal," Christina winked.
"What--why do you say--" Margo began, but it was a question Christina would never have to answer.
"OH MY--OH MY GOSH!"
"Is it--is it really--"
"The one and only," Rachel smiled as she carefully guided the horse beside her. "You know a horse is special, when it always finds a way back to you, you know."
Margo continued to blink, but her eyes had to be deceiving her. This couldn't be--not Dusty Dame, the tiny thing that she used to play with all those years ago, that defended her from Daisy, that rolled in the mud with her on summer nights and curled in her stall with in winter days--until someone came along and took her home... and Margo stopped coming to the LEC. It just wasn't the same, after she'd left.
"But she's so big..."
"So are you, compared to how you were back then."
"But she went back to her home, in Riverview! I saw her leave, myself!"
"Well, the lady that owned her was a tad elderly, you see--unfortunately she got very sick and passed away a couple of weeks ago. The family's not sure what they want to do with Dusty, so in the meantime, they asked us to keep an eye on her for them since we've looked her, before."
All of Margo's troubles ballooned away. Ian, Daisy, Natasha--thoughts less than vapor in her mind, now. Dusty could not have seemed more an angel to her than if she sprouted wings and flew--that face, that could cure even the deepest pains, was finally close enough to touch again. Margo swore it was only her boots holding her down from the moon.
"Hey girl... remember me?" Margo asked lightly, raising her fingers to gently rub the mud-caked face. "I'm Margo."
But she didn't have to say a word. In moments, they were nose-against-nose, breathing in the fond smells they had missed for all these years: for Margo, the dandelions Dusty was so fond of; for Dusty, the mustard stain on Margo's shirt. Margo laughed--and she swore, she could have seen Dusty smile.
Memories are made to be remembered, but Margo wondered, briefly, if it was so they could be relived.
An hour later, the doors to the Kane's house burst open wildly. Margo even forgot to check the door for one of Korva's traps, but today, she was lucky--there was nothing between her and her goal.
"Mommy, mommy! MOM, where are you?"
"I'm upstairs, sweetheart," she heard call back in a muffled voice.
Muddy footprints followed each of Margo's steps up the staircase, until she finally reached the landing with her arms still waving excitedly over her head.
"Oh MOM! You aren't going to BELIEVE this--I gotta tell... I gotta..."
Margo felt her heart catch in her chest. Something was wrong.
"Mom..." her voice cracked in her throat. "Where's Dad?"
At first, there was no answer. No sobs, or tears... Just silence. Silence that spoke louder than words.
Finally, when Margo had crossed the room on those legs ready to give out at any moment, she heard her mother's reply. "He.. uh." She cleared her throat. "He collapsed again, so Moe told me to bring him to the hospital."
Margo hesitated, but she had to know. "Is it serious?"
"His.. his uh... blood cell count. It's way below where they thought it was." Alesha struggled to finish the sentence with a tempered voice. "He's stable, but..."
Alesha didn't have to finish that one. Margo already knew the rest: He's stable, but he can't come home.
The sounds of the empty house--or the lack thereof--suddenly became overwhelming. Lilobot was gone. Her father was gone. Korva--she might as well be gone, too. Within a few weeks, their home had fallen from bustling life into emptiness. Though Margo was still here, she could see it in her mom's eye: the pain of being alone.
As with Ian, Margo was filled with the hopelessness of her inability to change what had happened--but it would not stop her from pretending, for a moment, she could.
With fingers still trembling, she reached out her hand.