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Bell Ranch

The plan was simple: to get from here to there.

            But there were obstacles. The first was that he had two children, two daughters, six- and nine-year-olds, to get into the car—which he supposed wasn’t so much an obstacle as the plan he’d been planning for nine years and nine months. There were other obstacles like traffic, and specific needs for specific caffeine delivery systems, and a nine-tenths empty tank of gas he’d intended to fill. And yet none of those obstacles were the obstacle.

            The obstacle was that he was 44 years old and a little before midnight he’d eaten way too big a gummy, and now he couldn’t feel his toes or tongue and the world kept coming back to him visually as this grainy flash that looked like Super-8 footage only through his eyes and he knew his eyes weren’t a Super-8 camera. At least he didn’t think they were. A Super-8 camera. His eyes. Though fuck that would be funny, his eyes, a Super-8 camera. He found a guttural laugh rising in his throat. Another obstacle: thinking things. Thinking things could always be an obstacle when you were trying to do things, not think things. Or trying not to think things. Which is to say. He wasn’t sure he could quite get dressed and down the stairs, let alone to operate heavy machinery.

            The first obstacle first: had been handed to him on a youth soccer field. He hadn’t eaten weed since he was an undergrad. He had continued to take a hit or two off a vape pen when a friend had one, but he would always take just kind of a shallow little draw off of it and the thing about vape pens was that often they were just kind of the mostly-kicked dregs of a hit and even that hadn’t happened in a couple years now, the end of a period of an airborne virus that had grown to be an international pandemic and made sharing a vape pen seem about as smart as blowing out the candles on a birthday cake or licking the armrest on a coach airplane seat, both things all humans had agreed would never happen again and was at any rate epidemiologically stupid for the years it had been allowed to go on unchecked. The biggest thing he’d forgotten that night was how long it took for a gummy to kick in when you were eating it, and how time kind of went away so that it could feel like you were waiting for an hour for something to happen but nothing was happening and then you ate like almost all of the other half of the gummy that it turned out was not a 10mg gummy but a 50mg gummy and that was a big gummy. Also, it had only been fifteen minutes. And the remainder he ate at midnight. So he’d be getting rip-roaring stoned at like 3am while he was asleep in his six-year-old daughter’s bed and the thing he hadn’t yet experienced when he was an undergrad was that when you slept in a six-year-old’s bed it was a wrestling match—you’d think you were sleeping only to find that you were fending off the rapid rabbit-punch kicks in the back from a child you loved in general but now, with you both asleep, had become your enemy in physical combat. Who was also at a right angle to you, her little feet aligned perfectly with your kidneys. And she was asleep even though you weren’t. So when he got up at what was probably five in the morning he could not even see Super-8 style, and his feet seemed able to move only one or two inches at a time plus he could easily just fall over and then not really be able to get up.


            But he’d thought if he did it right he might be able to sleep it off just enough to be able to drive the two girls to school without killing them all and the others in the other cars which a collection of cars is called traffic so killing traffic, and when he woke up to the alarm it was a quarter of seven and he could kind of see again. In more colors than there generally were on a sober morning, but. He could. See. So he went downstairs to make coffee and he could kind of make coffee again, until he felt his head spin and ran into the bathroom and threw up three times and though there had been no chance of his not throwing up, and wasn’t it weird that cancer patients ate gummies because they were an anti-emetic and here he was emeticking into the toilet, he had thrown up and didn’t feel so bad and he heard his daughter upstairs. The younger one. He had his phone in his hand and he knew she was on her iPad on the toilet upstairs and now his phone buzzed.

            “Daddy, you OK were you coughing real loud?” He texted back to her that yes, he was fine, just coughing, and she texted, “Kk can you come wipe me then it’s a big one.” That his daughter was old enough to text but young enough to text asking to be wiped was a thing he had come to accept but it felt like a different kind of request when he was still kind of tripping from eating so much THC gummy the night before. He texted back saying, You’re six now, maybe you could try to wipe yourself?

            “Pleeeeeeeese come wipe me daddy please mommys out of town she would do it do it.” So he went upstairs and though it took him what felt like twenty minutes he made it up without falling down and wiped her tush and told her to get dressed it was time to go. He grabbed two Pop Tart packages and handed them to the two girls so there were a total of two girls and four toaster strudels in the car and they started out of the driveway. Working a car would be harder than wiping a tush and all he could think was, Don’t die but more than that don’t kill them, if you get everyone killed your wife will kill you. Negotiating his way out of the driveway was substantially easier than he had anticipated. They were on the road. They were going to get to school.


Halfway to school, they crossed the city line. Surprisingly, just outside of the major metropolitan area where they lived there was a huge farm, Bell Ranch, where in the long green fields alongside their curving road, horses brayed in a meadow, opposite sheep lowing in a valley beyond. Best he could discern the farm still existed because farm-to-table required a farm and here was the farm. Must have been fifty, a hundred acres of adjacent-to-urban-area farmland and always it provided a sense of respite: horn-blaring traffic, Honda-Civics-making-lefts-on-red traffic, kids on their blaring loud motorbikes traffic and then, all of a sudden, a bucolic place where you could walk forever, ride a horse, drink from a stream and depart this world with cup overflowing. His stoned mind took in the pleasure of the long loping green for just long enough that his older daughter from the back of the car yelled, “Daddy cars!” He slammed on the breaks as his bumper stopped just short of a Honda Civic. Just as he did, the check engine light came up on the massive iPad inlaid in the dash of his car. Sent him a message: The car isn’t working. In the days before massive iPads were inlaid into the dashes of cars, his father had taught him to lift the hood and change the oil and gap the spark plugs, those days back when he was a teenager. Now he got out of the car and lifted the hood and the engine and the spark plugs were nowhere to be found, covered by a plastic molding bolted to the car’s frame.

            When had all of life become a pair of cupped hands, water spilling over their sides and sneaking between clutched fingers? It wasn’t the day the babies were born. Those days were full of the peace of new baby, the quiet of rock-rock-rocking them to sleep. Now he looked up to see the girls had both gotten out of the car and had run up to the wooden slats of the fence enclosing three horses in the near distance.

            “Stay right there!” he said. His nine-year-old turned around and gave him the thumbs-up sign. The six-year-old lifted just her two index fingers, which she’d always thought was the thumbs-up sign, too. He got into the car and hit the SOS button on its ceiling and called into wherever that button called instead of AAA and he said that he was stuck on the side of the road, in front of Bell Ranch, at rush hour.

            “Whew,” the operator on the other side said. “Busy morning. Trafficky as fuck. AF. As hell. Could be an hour.”

            An hour. By then maybe he’d be sober.

            He got out of the car and when he surveyed the scene now he didn’t see either of the girls. They were not standing by the fence any longer. What exactly did it mean that rather than immediate concern for the girls or himself in that moment of uncertainty, his first thought was: Diana is going to kill me. It was part of being a parent—and not a small part of being a parent—that for all the love and care you could give your children, before the empathy you might feel for the danger they faced, the most immediate fear was of letting their mother down. Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. For a brief flash he could see the furrowed brow of disappointment when Diana heard about this shitshow. And that was without his mentioning that he’d eaten the gummy equivalent of a quarter ounce of weed the night before.


In the next second he spotted the girls. They were halfway across the field to where the largest and most beautiful of all the horses was grazing. How they had gotten through or over the fence he did not know, and unlike when you were drunk—being still quite stoned made it so that he did not snap to, did not suddenly sober up. Instead he marveled.

            The horse shone brown and full of luster in the hot flat morning light. Every blade of grass from where he himself stood to where the girls were now approaching this supernal Pegasus waved and gleamed green in the bright morning sun. Across the field he now saw two female farmhands in their twenties, cutoffs to mid-thighs, cowboy shirts that made them look more like a folk duo named, say, Emmy & Emmylou, than actual farmhands. They were waving and waving and for an instant he thought they were trying to get his attention as he laboriously climbed the fence—but as he flopped over and landed on his back in the dewy field he saw they were waving at his daughters, trying to get them away from the horse.

            “Sophia! Cynthia!” he said, far louder than he’d intended and instead of their looking back to him—they were too fixated on the bright shining Pegasus to look to him anyway—the horse stopped its grazing and scanned the field. Even from this far distance he could see the horse’s black nostrils huff. Its fetlocks tremble. Its all-seeing eye fixed on him. Now the farmhands weren’t looking at his daughters but at him. It had taken all his stoned focus to get him over the fence, to get him back upright, to take the two dozen steps into the field he’d taken. What would it take for him to turn around? The horse reared, its keeper backing away. He could see that the girl’s hand was no longer on the rein, the bit no longer taut in the horse’s mouth. A tiny sound came across to him, the smell of fresh loam in his nose, and the tiny wheedling sound carried and carried until he heard it was his younger daughter’s voice:

            “Run, Daddy! Get out!”

            So he turned and with every enervated step left in him took loping strides toward the fence. He would hear the gallop of horse hooves somewhere deep in his head, coming up to him through the fecund earth and into his feet and into his cranium. In front of him only fence, then the morning-slick feel of wood beneath his hands. Up one, up two, and he tumbled over the fence, could hear the cars doppler by him out on the road again. He was now a good twenty feet farther down the road from the field than where he’d started and his Volvo was no longer blocking him from traffic, just him in a culvert alongside the road and as he turned back toward his daughters he could see it: The horse taking flight, its shining underbelly now darkened in the morning dew, and he could swear he saw the wings of the very Pegasus himself spring feathered and horrible as it soared over his head and into oncoming traffic.


All the Hondas stopped alongside the road to take in the spectacle: This man in his mid-forties splayed out in a roadside ditch. And across the way in open unfenced field, all the glory first thing in the morning of that great gleaming horse all a gallop in the long low green. Beyond it nothing but trees, a forest that abuts the city. What liability was there for a man who had left his daughters alone alongside a horse farm to head toward the dangers of a barely tended horse? He had just long enough to think it when he saw the last of the horse’s white wings disappear into the woods.

            And so he followed. The screeching of car breaks as he crossed the road. The thin high cry of cicadas in the treetops all around him. Would a man hear that sound for every day of the rest of his life as he trekked the woods searching for a horse he’d loosed. His phone was not in his pocket, his car was now hundreds of yards behind him, his daughters were at least under the care of the prominent folk duo Emmy & Emmylou and any commotion that might still be rising up in the scene he’d just left was now gone. It was him, Aaron, alone in the woods. He stopped moving forward—it occurred to him that the only way he was going to track this horse were it still earthbound would be to hear the crunch and crush of its footsteps. Hoofsteps? Wingbeats.

            He walked for hours until he’d walked what felt like days, weeks even. The sun hung low enough in the far distance, just peeking through the crowns of all the surrounding succumbing trees, until he felt a thirst unlike any he’d felt before. He stopped again to listen for the Pegasus hooves or even the pounding of Pegasus wings, but instead of clop or flap he heard the low tinkle of what at first sounded like cocktail party conversation—but which he quickly saw was the movement of water in a stream just ahead. Sizeable stream. Creek. He knelt down and cupped his hands and much to his surprise his fingers were tight together without a gap, and not a single drop or dribble of water passed between them. He raised his cupped hands to his lips. In his mouth the water was so cold and capacious it might have quenched any and every thirst known to man. His cup runneth over and his cup was his own hands. He was ready again to walk. He walked as the sun set and then there was a terrible cold, a cold unlike anything he’d known until that point—in his toes a cold like daggers, in his temples a ringing like the sound of every screeching child who ever needed to be wiped far past toddlerhood, iPad on her lap. He clutched his head and laid in the tall grass for respite, but there was no respite.


When he woke in the morning there was still no sign of the horse. The stream from which he’d been quenched was no longer anywhere nearby. There was dirt on his face and dirt in his teeth but he was the soberest he’d been since he’d left the house. And in that newfound sobriety it all rushed in on him: that what he wanted, that all he’d ever wanted was to return to the scene he’d fled, and to be with his daughters. But now there was dirt in his teeth and he began to feel a faint throbbing at his feet. It was coming not from inside of him, but from outside, from the near distance, and as he stood it rose and throbbed its bassline into his legs and then arose at once in his ears.

            The winged brown horse stood tall and shining in the early morning light. It did not take the horse being there to remind him of his desire to get back to his life, but it did remind him that one day he was going to die. All at once the reality of his own passing was a sour flavor in his mouth, an acid stench in the wooded clearing. He knew that if he didn’t return, his daughters would be just fine—his wife would take care of them, in sadness and pain, but they would grow to be as strong and beautiful as she was. The thing that made the prospect of death so devastating was entirely different: it would mean he would not see them grow. See them grown. He’d heard this as a platitude in the past, “I won’t be around to see her become…” and yet for the first time in his life, sobering up in a clearing in the woods with the imposition of a winged horse upon him, he felt it to the center of his being. He tried to imagine Cynthia at thirty, Sophia at twenty-five, and while he could conjure images, it was not reality. There was only one way to live that future and it was to live that future.

            The horse stalked around him, to the other side of the clearing. Its majestic white wings flapped, displacing the air so that he could feel its reality on his cheek. The Pegasus reared up and whatever fear he may have had before in his life of failure or of success, of pain or of bodily harm, there was only a single thought now in his head, one that would last with him for the remainder of his days spent wandering these dark endless woods alone, stalked and obstructed by the night black hooves of that supernal beast.


Daniel Torday is the author of four novels, most recently The 12th Commandment (St. Martin's Press). A film adaptation of his book Boomer1 is currently in development.