This story is by E. Clark and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She came into the bar with the flurry of a dust storm. A great big huff with a cloud of red dust.
“That’s it, Nancy. I’ve had it. I’m done looking. I turned 66 today and look at that — nothing. I still have nothing to show for nothing. I’m empty handed. The sparkle is gone from my eyes. I’m done.” Barbra slid onto a barstool.
“Glass of Jack?” Nancy asked, already pouring.
“You know it.” She wiped her forehead with her bandana, then tossed it on the bar top.
“I’ve heard you say these things before Barbra.” Nancy placed the lowball of whiskey on ice in front of Barbra. Next to it, she set up a shot of Jack. “And happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks, hon.” She took the shot and then laid her left hand flat on the bar top. “Look at my hand and tell me what you see.”
Nancy stared and after a second, shook her head, shrugging.
“Exactly. Nothing. I should have a fat rock right there.” Barbra jabbed at her ring finger. “Hell, I should have at least 3 rings, but I let all those men walk away for that damn horse.”
“I’m pretty sure Paul’s single.” Nancy pointed to the tall, thin man dancing alone by the jukebox, his long ponytail swinging with each step. Another regular.
“Psh, yeah, Paul and I are gonna die alone, together.”
At the far end of the bar was another woman, around the same age as Barbra. Her long, curly, gray hair spilling down the back of her bohemian sundress. Her tan was as if the sun had gently kissed her, not like Barbra’s, whose was tinted red as if she was becoming part of the Sedona mountains around her. The other woman picked up her own drink, a gin and tonic, and her fringed leather bag off the back of her chair. She came right down the bar and took a seat directly next to Barbra.
“I overheard it’s your birthday. I’d like to get you another shot,” she said.
“Why thank you, ma’am. I’ll take another shot.”
“It sounds like you’ve been searching for a horse? Is that what I heard you say?”
Barbra held her new shot up in a silent toast, then drank. “Well, you’ve got some nosey ears, don’t ya?”
“Hard not to overhear when it’s just us three and Paul in here. I’m curious about your story.”
“Hah, it’s not much of a story, to be honest.”
“Tell her, Barb.” Nancy said.
“I imagine it has something to do with that?” The woman asked, pointing to a tattoo on Barbra’s upper arm.
“Oh, what the hell? One last time, outta good faith.” She started her story like she did every time. “I was 16 the first time I saw it. Don’t remember the day or the exact time, but I do know it was sunset, and I was facing west cause the damn sun just about blinded me, and I was sweating like a hog at the butcher shop. At first, I thought it was just a wild horse. I came around a bend on the trail and it was just standing there, right in the way. Gold coat, white mane and tail. Absolutely gorgeous. But then it turned towards me, and I saw. It had two beautiful buffalo horns coming out if its head. It took my breath away. I’d never seen anything like it.” She took a sip of her whiskey, shaking her head. “My foot slipped and I looked down to catch my fall… When I looked back up, it was gone.”
“And you’ve never seen it again?” The woman asked.
“I’ve spent every day of my damn life looking for it. I used to tell everyone I met about it. In the land of spiritual vortexes and healing crystals, people will believe in some crazy things, but nobody else has ever seen it. I know it’s out there. Here I am 65, no 66 years old now, and nothing to show for it. Damn palomino stole my life from me, I’ve realized. And I don’t think I’ll ever find it. Just a waste of time.”
The woman pulled her leather bag from the back of her chair, the fringe splaying out across her lap as she digs in it. “I’ve seen it.” She said and pulled a single, golden buffalo horn from the bag. “I was about 20 when I saw it. I was out javelina hunting when I came across it. It feels like a dream. In fact, I would’ve thought it was if I didn’t have this horn.”
“You’re shittin’ me.” Barbra’s heart was thumping in her ears. Could it really be? After all this time and now that she was ready to give up, the golden horse had returned. Or at least part of it.
“I don’t really remember cutting the horn off. After I did though… my life… it’s all been like a dream. I married the man of my dreams, I had three beautiful babies who all slept through the night. It feels anything I’ve ever hoped for has come true.”
This woman had captured part of the palomino and had the perfect life. How was that for salt on an open wound? “Sounds like you’re as blessed as Mary herself.”
“The thing is,” the woman laid the horn on the bar top, “I see the headlines: disease outbreaks, wars, refugees stuck at the border, just awful things, I know they are awful but… I feel nothing. I don’t feel sad or distraught, I’m not overwhelmed. I don’t remember the last time I shed a tear. I couldn’t describe heartache to you. I know this is a weird thing to complain about, but I feel not human, stuck in this perpetual happiness.”
“Well, Joy, love has walked out of my life so many times it stopped coming back. I’ve been waiting on this horse for so long the clocks on the wall stopped ticking. I’ve devoted so many days to hiking and searching that it’s become my entire story. I’ll be shakin’ hands with the Grim Reaper in another 20 years and he’s gonna feel ripped off. It’s great to hear you got your happily ever after, though. Sorry it’s not all cracked up to what it ought to be.”
“Don’t you see, though? You’ve finally found it. We are not in this bar together by mistake. Fate works in mysterious ways. And it is not too late for either of us. We can both finally feel alive again.” She picked the horn back up and offered it to Barbra.
Before turning to face her, Barb finished her whiskey. She never expected that coming full circle with the palomino would happen under a neon Budweiser sign. “You’re really just giving this to me, like a bummed cigarette?”
“I didn’t come out tonight with the intent of giving away this magical piece of happiness, no. But like I said, fate has its own way of doing things and I believe in fate. Sit there and tell me the universe did not lend a hand in this meeting between us. The woman that has spent basically her whole life chasing a magical horse and the woman who literally possesses a part of it being in the same empty bar at the same time? That’s not just chance.”
A long pause hung between them.
“What happens once I take this from you?” Barbra asked.
The woman shrugged. “Well, for one thing, you can stop searching.” She extended her arm closer.
With shaky hands, Barbra reached for the horn. She wrapped her fingers around it and it seemed to curve perfectly into her hand. The warmth started in her palms as she cradled it and quickly spread up her arms, into her shoulders and burst into her chest. A wave of ecstasy flooded her mind, making her dizzy and euphoric. She imagined that entering heaven must feel something like this.
Her search was over. It hadn’t all been for nothing. This beautiful, eavesdropping, middle-aged angel appeared with the answer. And had given it up. Gratitude filled Barbra’s chest to the brim, a sense of indebtedness she never felt for anyone else before.
When she looked back up at the other woman, Barbra saw the tears pooling in the bottom of her eyes, a soft smile on her lips. The woman leaned forward, kissed Barbra’s forehead, and began to weep.