Hi all and happy July!
Hope you’re managing to stay at least a little cool during this wicked hot weather we’re having right now (if you live around the midwest, that is). It’s supposed to be 110 here in Oklahoma next week and I AM NOT LOOKING FORWARD TO THAT. I mean I love summer, I really do, but 110 degrees combined with our always awful humidity? No thanks.
Anyhoo, I’m staying inside a lot, swimming a little, and watching Stranger Things with my daughter (currently finishing up season 3). I recently finished a big revision on my thriller novel and sent it out to a few more beta readers. In the mean time, I’ve just started another short story, as I tend to do on breaks between revisions or books. I think this will be my fifth one. So that gave me an idea–instead of my usual blog post this month, I thought I would change things up a bit and share an excerpt from my very first short story, titled “All the King’s Flowers” (which happens to take part in the hottest portion of summer as well). I’ve been trying to find a publishing home for this story to no avail, so maybe you all will be the only ones to ever see it, who knows! (Aren’t you getting excited now, ha ha?)
If there’s interest, I may post the rest of it on here as well, but if I do end up finding a publisher for it, I will likely have to remove it from my website, so just an FYI.
And now, without further ado, I give you the first part of “All the King’s Flowers”, the story of a woman starting over after divorce and finding friendship in some unlikely places . . .
See I can write adult stories too!
She didn’t expect it to be so dusty. Sweltering, yes. (It was August, after all.) But the way the dirt particles hung in the air, clinging to every pore and seeping into her lungs—it was almost enough to send Laura running for the pot-holed parking lot, where she’d climb into the faded blue Ford hitched to a borrowed two-horse trailer and hightail it back home.
But if she was uncomfortable merely sitting in the stands, what about the horses? Thanks to a flat trailer tire on the drive here, Laura had only minutes to inspect them in the pens out back. Matted manes. Thin. Battle scarred. Others in good enough shape, but all with yellow sale numbers painted across their hips, awaiting untold fates. However tempting that dustless cab and semi-cool air conditioner were, she couldn’t leave. Not when she had five hundred dollars tucked inside her wallet and a mission she’d decided upon six months ago. On the very day she moved back to Oklahoma, as a matter of fact. So she continued to contend with the dust and swipe at the droplets of sweat gathering along her hairline.
Others came to join her in the sauna-like sale barn. Old cowboys. Young cowboys. A family or two with eager-eyed children. They’d be bidding on the early ones, no doubt. The ponies whose only fault was staying small when their riders had grown big. Or maybe a stocky Quarter Horse, bursting with 4-H potential.
Laura was the only woman sitting alone, not that it bothered her. She’d learned to accept her aloneness. At times, even wore it like a hard-earned badge. Sure, she still talked to a few of her Tennessee friends on occasion, but they all had husbands and children and planners filled with endless appointments and activities. Though she had acquaintances at the insurance firm where she now worked, her best companions remained her two cats and one-eyed dog.
And soon there’d be a horse.
A matchstick thin man and bushy-haired woman settled inside the booth directly across from the stands, the man testing the mic and the woman shuffling through a stack of papers. Laura’s thoughts drifted back to the one and only horse she’d ever owned. She’d talked her parents into buying Sunflower (a yellow mare with a disposition every bit as bright as her name) from the barn where she took lessons as a kid, and it had been love at first ride. She and Sunny shared ten beautiful years together, but the mare was seventeen when they purchased her, and twenty-seven was old in horse years. At the time, losing Sunny had been the biggest tragedy of Laura’s life. But she, herself, was twenty by then. College and friends and parties offered a welcome distraction. And then she met him. It wasn’t long until she fell under the illusion that horses were for dreamy-eyed school girls. Not happily engaged women.
A bang reverberated from somewhere outside the barn, setting Laura immediately on edge. The auctioneer gave a raspy greeting followed by three consecutive coughs, which could have been due to the dust or smoke-hardened lungs, Laura wasn’t sure which. Her attention shifted to the dirt pen below, where a thickset teenage boy in Wranglers and a wife beater strode in, a wide-eyed, shiny sorrel at the end of his lead rope. The horse gave a piercing whinny, and the bidding began.
Laura’s heart quickened each time a new horse was brought in, but other bidders kept her hand stilled. It wasn’t until the latter half of the sale that the less desirables appeared. Laura sat up straighter, wiped her damp hands on her jeans.
The auctioneer introduced a pregnant mare with a scrawny yearling at her side, making Laura wish she had room and money enough for three. Then came a wiry little gelding with a mustang brand along the crest of his neck. According to the auctioneer, he was “tame as they come” though not broke to ride. To Laura’s surprise, one of the families put in a bid, winning the mustang at a mere two hundred and fifty dollars. Laura wondered if they had any idea what they were getting themselves into. Then again, did she? Over twenty years had passed since she’d last had anything to do with a horse.
A pony trotted in, eyes hidden behind an overwhelming forelock. Next: a gray gelding, far too high strung. Laura’s heart struck against her ribcage, a dull thunk, thunk, thunk, crowding against her thoughts. Finally, a small bay mare. Nice enough looking, but with half her mane rubbed out and a bite-sized bald patch on her rump. Was she the one? Laura’s hand twitched at her side. Across the way, a round-faced man with a cigarette firmly implanted in one side of his mouth held up a finger. It was only after he’d secured the bid that Laura realized the man was likely a killer buyer, one who’d haul his horses to Mexico and resell them for slaughter.
The man’s next bid on an obviously lame gelding left little room for doubt. As Laura sat, immobile, for the next several minutes, the thudding inside her chest intensified, making it difficult to think clearly. She realized she wasn’t just scared, but terrified. And all because she had to choose. How could she pick just one when all of these horses deserved someone who would love them?
When a scraggly buckskin gelding appeared, something inside her stirred. The horse was paraded back and forth, back and forth, never showing any concern for his whereabouts. Laura thought of sweet Sunny, with her round haunches and summertime, grass-filled belly. Though this horse was but a shadow of her mare, she saw possibility, what he could be with time and care. Her fingers curled tight, nails digging into her palm. Then her hand shot into the air.
Jibberish consisting of the occasional audible number echoed throughout the barn. Laura was in a bidding war with the killer buyer. But he couldn’t win. Not this one. Two-fifty. Three hundred. Three-fifty. Surely he wouldn’t go higher. Three seventy-five. Four hundred.
When it all stopped, she couldn’t tell who’d outbid the other. She simply stared at the man whose face, other than its round shape, was as nondescript as they come. The burning cigarette easily held more character.
“The buckskin gelding sold to bidder two oh two.”
Laura peered down at her number card to confirm that was, indeed, her. Sweat now ran freely down the side of her face, but she didn’t bother to wipe it away. Instead, she stood to follow the horse outside. Had she really seen him clearly? Or had she simply been too wrapped up in the memory of her beloved mare? Laura’s fear hadn’t abated. If anything, the edges around it grew sharper, slowing her step, making it difficult to breathe.
Laura found the gelding tied outside, his flanks wet and head held low. Was he ill? She wasn’t prepared for veterinary costs, other than vaccinations and deworming. She approached, reaching out to touch his neck, sticky from dirt and sweat. He didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge her in any way. Her stomach squirmed, but she continued to run her fingertips along his coat, speaking soft, easy words to him. She combed through his tangled mane and finally thought to look at his hooves. Cracked, dry, well overdue for a trim, but not completely terrible. She moved around the gelding, examining every part of him, all while he remained in a trancelike state. Other than a few old scars on one hip and needing some groceries, she saw no immediate cause for concern. Putty, she told herself. Something she could work with.
Back inside a tiny office affixed to one side of the barn, she paid for the horse, accepted a manila envelope from the bushy-haired woman, and returned to the stifling heat. Her horse had registration papers and only after she’d gotten him loaded into the trailer, did she think to look at them.
Nine years old (which she’d known). Race bloodlines. Registered name: King’s Last Crossing. There was only one name to cull from that really. King. But she wasn’t sure it fit. Laura started the ignition, basked in the stale air pushing forth from the vents, and shifted the truck into drive.
Unloading the horse at home was a different story. Dripping in sweat and trembling with fear or possibly something else, he refused to back out of the trailer. No amount of tugging on his halter, clucking, or rattling grain in a bucket encouraged him to budge. Panic set in, and Laura worried he’d die right there in the trailer. Simply collapse from heat exhaustion. She’d have to spend another four hundred dollars to have him extricated from the trailer. After an hour, tears of frustration mingled with her sweat. Laura thought she might very well die of heat exhaustion, too. Out of ideas and sick to her stomach, she escaped inside her house for water. Pippin barked his welcome, and she gave his blue-gray head a hasty pat.
“I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” she mumbled to the dog. “This horse doesn’t want to join our little family, apparently.”
Laura drank a full glass of water from the tap as she scrolled through her cell phone contacts. She’d lost touch with her childhood riding friends and was fairly sure no one from her office had experience with horses. Even the elderly couple (friends of her parents) she’d borrowed the trailer from had long since sold their grandson’s pony, not that she’d ask them to venture into the heat to help with this mess, anyway. She hadn’t met any of her new neighbors yet, so it looked like she was on her own.
“Come on, Pippin. Let’s go see if the horse is still alive.” The knot in Laura’s stomach tightened.
Pippin barked again and followed her to the front door.
The horse was very much still alive. In fact, during the five minutes she’d been inside, he’d unloaded himself and found a shady part of her yard to graze.
Laura shook her head, a swell of relief washing over her. She smiled, maybe for the first time that day. “Thank God.”