Dreams are for normal people—that’s what her father said.
Sara, on the other hand, had better listen to her doctors and accept the limitations of her illness. The voices in her head were a symptom of a disturbed mind; therefore she had to be monitored, managed, and watched over like a child. If she insisted on chasing after fantasies, she might break again.
Again. As if it happened all the time.
Besides, she was an adult now, twenty-three, married, just like a normal person. She deserved to have a dream. Just one; the others were long dead and had never been possible anyway, not for someone like her. But no matter how hard she tried to hold on, her one remaining dream seemed intent on slipping away, like water through clenched fingers.
She closed her eyes and pretended everything would be okay. Harlee would be fine, and her dream was safe.
The voices. Of course they’d taunt her now, lash out when she was too exhausted to fight back.
All your fault, all your fault, all your fault…
She cradled Harlee’s head while Dr. Harris sedated the mare and stained the bloated eye. Tears the color of grass ran down the horse’s black face, dripped to her knees, and spattered the pine shavings at her feet. The veterinarian shined a light between the lids, his face grim. Sara told herself everything would be okay, but she knew better. The injury was serious.
Give up, give up, give up…
Finally, Dr. Harris put the light away and tousled the mare’s forelock. He seemed more irritated than concerned, his voice tightly controlled, as if he might have preferred to shout. “It’s a good thing you called when you did. Another day and she might have lost the eye.”
She’d called at the first sign of injury, of course. The eye had swollen to twice its normal size in the time it had taken Dr. Harris to arrive. Why did he sound angry?
Harlee stood motionless while the vet squeezed antibiotics between her lids, her head slung in Sara’s arms, lips stretched toward the sweet timothy beneath her feed tub. The doctor gave Harlee a final pat and cleared his throat. Once. Twice. A lengthy pause. Then, “Did you do this?”
“What?” How could he even ask?
You know why.
“A whip, Sara. This was caused by a whip.”
“No! I would never—”
Sara’s heart beat harder. Her husband had a temper, but he wouldn’t do that. Not to Harlee.
He hits you.
“Could she have banged it on something?”
Worthless stupid freak.
Freak, freak, freak, freak…
Sara smoothed her features and built a wall around the voices. They’d break through, of course, and quickly. But she’d have a moment in which to think.
“Someone whipped her over the head. The end of the lash punctured her eye.” Dr. Harris looked straight at Sara, anger rolling off him in waves.
“No one here would do that.” He had to believe her.
He turned away, began packing his things. She could hear the blame in his muttered, “I suppose she could have banged it.”
After he hit her.
It might have been an accident.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…
Dr. Harris gave Harlee a shot of medication for pain and swelling while Sara stroked the mare’s neck and spoke to her in soothing tones.
“Keep her out of the sun until that pupil returns to normal.” He handed Sara the bill. “Call me immediately if it worsens.”
“I will, and thank you.” She winced at the amount; Mark wouldn’t be happy. Pulling her hood up against the chill, she sprinted across the gravel driveway and up the porch steps. She paused, her hand an inch from the doorknob.
He wouldn’t hit Harlee, would he?
Of course he would.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…
Mark didn’t look up when she slipped through the door, hung her coat on the hook by the wood stove, and placed her boots in the tray on the floor. He was busy ripping through the drawers and cabinets, flinging the neatly organized contents on the floor and kicking them with filthy boots.
She almost asked what he was looking for this time, but the scent of alcohol told her it was useless. As always, she’d wait for him to finish, and then she’d clean up the mess. Much like sex.
Sex, sex, sex, sex…
Shut up, shut up, shut up. She pressed her thumb into the space between her eyes and tried not to shout. “Harlee has a corneal ulcer. Dr. Harris thinks she’ll be okay, but another bill is the last thing we need.”
Too late. She was stupid to mention money. Scolding herself with a sharp pinch to the thigh, she headed for the door. A few minutes outside on the steps should be enough. Maybe he hadn’t heard.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…
In the space of a breath, he slammed her against the wall, yanked her from her feet, and wrapped his hands around her throat.
“It’s always money, you fucking frigid bitch! Nothing is ever good enough for you.”
Sara pushed hard against him, but he was twice her size and too drunk to notice. He choked her longer than usual, until her chest squeezed and lungs screamed for air. Black tendrils curled behind her eyes, and a faint humming took over her ears. Oh, please, God, no.
A voice came to her in a whisper. Play dead.
She let her body sag like a rag doll, tried to still the convulsing of her chest. Mark let go with one hand, and with a bellow that tore right through her, he punched a hole in the wall. Then he let her fall and kicked her aside like a pile of dirty laundry.
Air burned past her throat. She could barely hear over the white noise in her ears.
“If you don’t fucking like it, leave!”
A lesser voice answered for her. Okay. But she dared not say it aloud.
“See what you made me do? Bitch!”
She closed her eyes and peeked through her lashes, pretending to be more dazed than she was. The door was eight steps away. She’d never make it.
Crouching low, she crab-walked to the bathroom, locked the door behind her, and hunched in the corner beneath the window. Her gaze landed on a shriveled deer fly suspended in a spider web, wings bound to its desiccated body. Deep within, a sneering voice snickered and said, Do you see yourself?
The door shuddered beneath a bone-crushing CRACK. He shouted now, almost roared, “I’ll fucking kill you!” She hugged herself, flinched with each crash, closed her eyes, covered her ears…
He’ll calm down in a minute. I’ll be okay.
Run! Run! Run! Run!
The voices shot through her like electricity, driving her to the window. She pushed up the sash and crawled through the narrow opening, for once glad to be tiny, wiry as a child. Rain cooled her face while the scent of sodden earth calmed her. She hung from her fingertips, gathered her courage, and let go. The ground rose to meet her, and she tucked and rolled, heedless of the mud that soaked her clothes and plastered dark curls across her eyes. A coat and shoes would be welcome, but she couldn’t risk going back. Not now.
A dozen horses nickered when she crept past the shed row, and her heart turned her feet in their direction. She had to stop, just for a moment, beneath the overhang outside Harlee’s stall. The sound of contented munching and the intoxicating smell of horses washed over her. The black mare’s breath touched her cheek, and the unexpected warmth made her shiver. She closed her eyes and whispered, “I’ll get my dad. We’ll come right back for you.”
What if Mark hurts her again?
She’s worth more than you.
Sara took the spare keys from the hook beside the water spigot and crept up the driveway to the hill behind the barn. Her mind raced, and everything around her slowed. Fat drops of rain floated toward the ground like snowflakes, peaceful and unhurried. She glided forward, no longer connected to her feet, recognizing the subtle change in perception that preceded a blackout. As she slipped inside the rusted truck, the door creaked; the sound echoed in the hush.
Fifty yards to the house, another seventy-five to the road. I can do this.
You’ll pass out again.
No, I won’t.
You always do.
With shaking hands, she turned the key and released the brake, waited for the truck to roll, popped the clutch. The old heap choked and jerked. She held her breath, silently chanting, “Please, please, please, please,” until the engine sputtered to life.
The truck jerked forward. The front door crashed open. Mark thundered down the steps and ran for the driveway.
She hit the gas.