Why hadn’t he asked her? Stinking, soupy mud soaked into Adam’s clothes as he crawled forward through the tall, whispering grass. Gretchen would have married him if he had just asked. Probably. Maybe. The pungent smell of crushed vegetation caught in his nose, making him want to sneeze. He rubbed his face hard. The mud-scented fabric of his gloves only made the problem worse. She had said she didn’t want to be a soldier’s wife. He kept hoping she loved him enough that it wouldn’t matter.
Adam paused to check his gun again. They had talked about marriage a few times, jokingly after a few drinks or when his mom made not-so-veiled hints about grandchildren. He’d thought about buying a ring, but it had never seemed like the right time. Now he was far away, wishing he’d had the sense to tie her down.
Somewhere behind him in the low-lying mist, his unit hunkered down, waiting for him to bring back intel on the enemy’s position. The only thing he was sure of was that they weren’t where they were supposed to be. The cold breeze picked up, tossing the mist into swirling ivory towers against the clear night sky.
A sharp pop sounded somewhere to his left, followed by several others. His shoulder jerked as fiery pain exploded under the joint of his body armor. He heard garbled orders being shouted through his earpiece. The mist parted briefly, swirling away to reveal several armed men ahead of him. He sighted along his rifle and fired. A man went down.
Time slowed to the weight of the trigger on his finger, the hurried rush to reload. His earpiece crackled with orders to fall back. Adam ran, ducking and weaving through the clutching grass and the smell of gunfire.
The sound of weapons firing faded until all he could hear was his own heartbeat. Adam slowed down. He was alone in the mist. His shoulder burned. He shoved his fingers under his Kevlar vest, finding the neat hole in his clothes and the flesh underneath. He pulled off one of his gloves, flipped it inside out and stuffed it between the shoulder strap and the wound, hoping to slow the bleeding. His fingers came away dark and wet in the moonlight. He worked to calm his breathing, scanning the terrain for any sign of the rest of his unit. There was nothing but the drifting mist. He moved forward.
Adam stumbled at the foot of a small rise. Up on the ridge, the mist shifted strangely. Heart in his throat, he dropped into a crouch, raising his gun. A pale horse, glowing alabaster in the moonlight stepped out of the darkness.
The ornate black coach harnessed to it should have come from a movie set. One by one, a long line of people climbed through the dark doorway. He didn’t understand how he could have missed seeing them. They wore uniforms, but he couldn’t tell which ones. He crept closer.
Adam recognized Sergeant Reed as the man hauled himself up the small stairs into the darkness beyond the door. Wilson was next. They had shared a tent during this mission. The man was terrible about cleaning his boots. Other familiar faces lined up behind them. Stunned, Adam stood up and ran towards them.
“Wilson, Reed! What’s happening? What’s going on here?” They ignored him. Adam slipped in the damp grass, catching his chin on a rock. He tasted blood as he scrambled back to his feet. The door of the coach was closing. There was no driver. Adam ran for the horse.
He reached for the animal, noticing as he did so that there was no bridle either. His fingers brushed its mane and it sprang away, dumping him backwards into the mud.
Adam got up. The need for silence long since forgotten, he charged after the rapidly moving coach. The mist closed in behind it, forcing him to follow by sound alone. He struggled through tall grass and mud that didn’t seem to slow the coach or the horse drawing it. The mist swirled overhead, cutting out the stars.
He pushed forward, fighting towards every glimpse of a white flank or sound of a bell-like whinny. His muscles ached and his shoulder had gone numb. His pack was no longer on his back. The rifle clutched in his cold hands was clotted with mud. Blood ran down from his wound. His feet slowed of their own accord. In the dark, someone called his name. He struggled forward again. It sounded like Gretchen.
Ahead of him, the mist began to thin. He checked the ground for hoof prints. It was bare of any sign of the coach’s passing. Adam stumbled to a stop, dizzy and exhausted. A soft whinny startled him. The white horse stood a few yards in front of him. The coach was nowhere in sight. He took a step towards the animal.
Light from the rising sun caught the mist, turning it golden and too bright. Adam put up a hand to shield his eyes. By the time his vision cleared, the horse was gone. The chain-link and razor wire fence surrounding the military base his unit had deployed from rose up in front of him. A strident voice demanded he put down his weapon and identify himself.
Dazed, Adam dropped the gun. They brought him inside and, when his identity had been verified, sent him straight to the medics. They waited until he was clean and bandaged to tell him the news. Two others from his unit had been recovered alive. The rest, including Reed and Wilson, were dead or missing. The bodies had been found three days ago.
In his dreams, he chased the silvery flick of a long tail through a tangled wood. He reached out to grab hold, but the coarse strands slipped through his fingers. He tried again and again.
Adam woke in a cold sweat. He hadn’t dreamed of the white horse in years. In the military hospital over a decade ago, the story he told had been chalked up to his injury and trauma. He had been happy to believe them. The only part he couldn’t make sense of was where those three extra days had gone. Try as he might, he only remembered chasing the horse for one night.
He got out of bed quietly. Gretchen hadn’t been feeling well for over a week now. The doctor was still looking for a cause. His wife sighed softly in her sleep and he froze, half out of bed. He waited until her breathing steadied before moving again. She needed her rest.
The word “cancer” ate a hole in his gut. It didn’t matter how often they said it was probably treatable. All he could see were the hollows under Gretchen’s eyes and the tight lines around her usually smiling mouth. He promised them both that they would get through this together. It was just a bump in the road. In the back of his mind, a deep, unbearable darkness loomed.
He put Gretchen to bed and sat their boys down for a talk. They were young, but they were smart kids. Adam could see that they didn’t believe him any more than he believed himself when he told them Mom would be okay.
The white horse came back when he slept—tall, imposing, and terrifying. He grabbed handfuls of stones and flung them at it as hard as he could. The horse looked at him accusingly, pawing the ground with its great hooves. It was gone when he woke, but every time he closed his eyes, it returned.
The vinyl chair next to the hospital bed squeaked whenever he moved. The lights were never off all the way. The nurses came and went at all hours, waking Gretchen in the middle of the night to check her blood pressure and give her a pill to put her back to sleep.
Even Adam knew they were coming to the end of their battle. She was a shadow of herself, in spite of everything the doctors had tried, in spite of all of her strength of will. Talk of recovery had stopped months ago.
Adam sat in the half-dark and listened to Gretchen’s labored breathing. He tried to breathe with her, only drawing air in when her chest rose and letting it out when the mask over her face fogged. In. Out. In, out. His head spun and he sucked in air out of rhythm.
Unshed tears stung the corners of his eyes. He was so tired. He had lost track of how many nights he had spent dozing in the chair, listening to the beep and whir of machinery. She was too young for this, but that didn’t seem to matter. Adam closed his eyes, wrapping both of his hands around one of Gretchen’s.
The white horse stood in the shabby hospital room with them, glowing silver in the darkness. There was an empty saddle on its broad back. It looked at Adam with deep, knowing eyes. He shot to his feet, throwing himself between the animal and his wife. “No! You can’t have her.”
The horse tossed its head, moving around him to nuzzle one of Gretchen’s tiny, wasted hands. To Adam’s shock, her gray eyes opened and she smiled. She put both arms around the horse’s neck and it lifted her out of the hospital bed. The equipment keeping her alive fell away and she stood on her own.
Their eyes locked. Her smile grew sad. She nodded to him, stroking the horse’s ivory nose. His anger fled, leaving him hollow. He couldn’t ask her to stay and suffer more. “Where are you taking her?”
Neither of them answered. The white horse bowed low, going down on one powerful knee. Adam put his hands around Gretchen’s delicate waist and lifted her up to the saddle. She felt like sunlight under his fingers. Her translucent hand ruffled his hair and she smiled down at him. All traces of her long illness were gone from her face. She looked as radiant as she had the day they had gotten married. He hated that he had forgotten just how beautiful she could be.
“Go gently, will you?” Adam put his hand on the horse’s muscled flank. Its living heat surprised him. “Just go gently.” His voice broke. He clutched at Gretchen’s nebulous hand. “I love you.”
The horse surged to its feet, forcing Adam to let go and step back. Gretchen looked like a queen on the stallion’s back, already so far away. The horse whinnied softly, nudging Adam with its velvet-soft nose. His chest was too tight to let any tears through.
The horse reared, pawing the air with steel-bright hooves. The hospital window stretched and widened, the glass turning crystalline and drifting to the floor in a glittering rainbow. On the other side of the window frame, Adam saw golden mist rising. The scent of sun-warmed flowers wrapped around him for a moment before the white horse charged forward. Its hooves rang against the linoleum and it threw its pale body into the air, clearing the window frame easily. Light flared, forcing Adam’s eyes closed. He heard Gretchen laugh joyously.
He opened his eyes again. He was sitting on the squeaky chair in the little room that smelled of antiseptic and death. Alarms were blaring beside his head. Gretchen’s cold, still hand was clutched within both of his. Adam stared blankly as a flurry of nurses and doctors whirled around the room. He got up and stood by the window as they took her away, nodding in response to whatever they said.
His Gretchen might be in a better place, but she wasn’t with him, never would be again. Nothing was going to make that stop hurting. It felt wrong that he couldn’t cry.
Almost since his arrival at the nursing home, Adam had thought of the chair in the garden as his chair. He sat out there most afternoons when the weather and nurses allowed. For years, dealing with his sons and the world at large treating him as if he had grown stupid and incapable as his hairline receded and his muscles slackened had infuriated him. He had lived a good life, made the tough decisions, held himself and his family together in spite of everything.
All of that seemed to count for nothing now and he had to admit that time was catching up with him. He dreamed of the white horse all the time, but its saddle was always occupied. He wasn’t surprised. People came here to die, slowly or quickly. He’d had a good laugh at the funeral home across the street and the graveyard two blocks away. There were four churches within easy walking distance. Quite a business they were running.
He was tired of being angry with people. Being treated gently, shepherded to meals and social events, reminded of bedtime and medicines gave him more time to think about his dreams. Each time he heard the clatter of hooves or smelled the musky-sweet aroma of horse as he dozed, he wondered if this time it was coming for him. That didn’t seem as frightening anymore. Gretchen was waiting and he was tired.
Adam settled into his chair, smiling as the loose arm groaned the way it always did. There were butterflies in the garden. Gretchen would have liked that. She would have hated the rest of it—she wasn’t one to ever be told what to do. Adam’s eyes closed as the warm sun sank into his old skin. He supposed he would miss this part when his time came.
The soft tickle of whiskers in his ear woke him. A hay-scented puff of horse breath blew in his face like a laugh. His breath caught in his throat. The pale horse looked back at him from between the daisies and the daffodils. Its saddle was empty.
“My turn, then?” He got to his feet more easily than he had done in years. The horse stepped forward, not leaving so much as a dented leaf in the garden. The butterflies swirled around its gracefully curved ears. It started to kneel.
Adam tangled a hand in the glossy mane. “I’ll walk, if it’s all the same. I saw how you went charging off with the others. I’d rather go under my own power.”
The horse nodded its great head, straightening up to its full height. Adam’s back straightened with it. “Lead on, old friend. Just take me where you took them.”
The horse stepped forward gravely, though its dark eyes were dancing. Adam matched its stride, feeling the years fall away with each step. The light grew brighter around them. This time it didn’t hurt his eyes.
© 2015 by Kate O’Connor
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