Advertisement

Horsewoman

“It was like this behind the Iron Curtain.” The woman in the grocery line was wearing a cowboy hat and had the leathery skin of someone who’d spent their entire life in the sun. Smoker skin, Payne’s mother had called it. She always loved finding ways to blame people for their misfortunes.

Payne thought about ignoring the woman, pretending not to hear. Instead, she tapped her headset, shutting off her podcast. “Pardon?”

“In school, studying communism. Hours of lineups to buy bread and butter. Hear the teachers tell it, you’d get to the front of the line just as they ran out. Wasn’t supposed to happen in the so-called free world.”

“In the free world, your shelves are fully stocked and having to wait for a cashier is a violation of human rights.” Payne’s lips were numb. Hadn’t Butch said this, last night?

Smoker Skin tipped her hat. “You know during Stalin, every house over there was haunted?” 

Yeah. This was why she didn’t talk to the living anymore.

Fortunately, the grocery store guy finally came by to screen them. Put up a hand if you’ve experienced hallucinations recently, ladies. Ladies. Put up a hand if anyone close to you has passed away. Put up a hand if you’ve had cause to be out after dark in the past three weeks?

Payne kept her hand down. She didn’t owe this Mono minion the truth.

Instead, she made herself chat with Smoker Skin. Buzz, the happiness guru from the queer podcast network, swore that a key to keeping your mood up was to have frequent, shallow chats with your neighbours. Your butcher, baker, barista…and the cowgirl in the grocery line.

Anything to keep the mood up.

Inside, there was plenty of bread and milk, all watched by dull-eyed attendants in Mono Foods vests, droning: “Limit of one per customer, limit of one, ma’am.” Even the generic breakfast cereal. Even the sanitary napkins for Hester: limit of one, ladies.

The produce section was unlimited, or so they claimed. Payne’s conscience flayed her over longing for avocados from Mexico and cherries from Chile. The late-harvest Ontario apples and sacks of rose hips packaged in burlap, the latter with home-printed labels explaining how to make a tea rich in vitamin C, were just depressing.

Ghosts. Behind the Iron Curtain.

She’d have sworn she’d heard that phrase last night, when she’d surfaced from sleep into the edge of wakefulness.

But that should be impossible. Payne slept to the same six episodes of the same six podcasts every night. Nothing on her A-list was about communist history as it was taught, correctly or otherwise, to Canadian Gen Xers in the ‘80s.

The encounter left her feeling disconnected and jangly. No hint of that mood lift Buzz promised. She tapped her headset all the same, relaxing fractionally at the podcaster’s enthusiastic greeting: “It’s so great to have you all here today on Happiness in Hard Times! I am Buzz Cutt.”

“Hey, Buzz,” Payne said, “Hit me with something upbeat.”

“Okay! Let’s talk about meditation techniques for people who find meditation stressful,” he enthused. “I’ll also have an update on my turtle, Inka. Remember, a pet can really make a difference on a bad day!”

Buzz had always been good company, and the episode—already downloaded, and thus immune to the vicissitudes of the increasingly fallible cellular networks—was one she’d only heard once. It brightened the walk back to River Drive, even if she did have to stop three times to clear leaves off the sidewalk for the sake of her grocery cart’s wheels before giving up and walking in the road. 

She was almost feeling normal by the time she crested the peak of her neighborhood hill and spotted two cops lounging against her gate.

Payne stopped short, barking her cart on the hilltop pothole in the process, snapping off one of its front rear wheels.

“Remember, talk to the people in your neighbourhood!” chirped Buzz.

Payne tipped the cart so it would still roll. In addition to her own groceries she had scored cereal, powdered milk and a box of pads for Hester. These cops would see her if she dropped it in the usual place.

Maybe these guys just want me to mow Angie’s lawn.

Payne tapped her headset before Buzz could say anything else, instead focusing on seeming law-abiding, privileged and unconcerned as she strolled up to her front door: “Morning, guys.”

“Morning.” Their uniforms bore the brand of the company that was buying up houses in the neighbourhood, supplying spotty internet and cable service to the people they hadn’t yet managed to drive out, and screwing Payne over about a rebate for Angie’s fancy wheelchair.

Now apparently, they’d taken over for the city police.

She fought a surge of fury. 

Get a grip! Mono Health didn’t kill Angie.

The taller and whiter of the pair of rent-a-cops, clearly the designated hard ass, held out his hand. Payne thought about playing dumb and shaking it. But why antagonize? She passed over her ID.

“This is your house?” HardAss asked.

“I rent it.” Angie’s parents had asked her to stay on, allegedly lest developers bulldoze the place without permits or paying. They knew she couldn’t go home.

“We’re here about your front window,” HardAss said.

“It’s over two meters off the ground.”

“Minimum height requirement is now three and a half.” He flashed her a QR code. 

Payne obediently scanned it, bringing up a public health notice. “You want me to put bars on the outside?”

“Full obstruction.” HardAss sounded annoyed. “Boarded up. As it says.”

“My plants’ll die.”

“You can get a retracting metal barricade,” said the other guy. The softer touch.

“Government’s going to pay for that, I suppose.” Payne regretted the sarcasm the minute the words escaped her lips. “Sorry. It’s just…”

She gestured at the river view.

“Homeowner can apply to Monolith for reimbursement, but you have to contract the job from one of our designated suppliers,” said HardAss. “Why don’t you invite us in? We can pull up the specs on one of your screens.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Payne said, trying not to make it sound like a refusal.

His eye fell on the box of pads. “What do you do for a living, Mr. Payne?”

Asshole. The voice in her head came from another of the podcasters who kept her company, Jamal from Scavenger Fridge. It was so heartfelt it sounded like the perpetually angry chef was alive and well and standing right there behind her shoulder, radiating outrage over the not-so-micro aggression.

“I’m a palliative care nurse.”

A hyena gleam came into the cop’s gaze. “You work with dead people?”

“Dying people, yes.”

“Do you have a night pass? We’ve had reports of people breaking curfew around here.”

She swallowed—her throat felt sandy. “I’m not currently using my pass.” 

“What was the last one?”

“Last one what?”

HardAss bristled.

“The last death you attended,” put in the partner. SoftTouch, she decided, though his nametag read Ballaro.

“Oh. Six months ago.” 

“Where is that patient now?”

Law abiding, privileged, unconcerned. Law abiding, privileged, unconcerned…

Payne’s lie, when it came, sounded casual. “Angie’s parents took her ashes back to Nova Scotia. I’m sure they turned them in.” Some other mega corporation would be devouring—excuse me, saving—the Maritimes, and it would take them months to fact-check her. If they bothered. People so rarely did.

SoftTouch shifted, responding to an alert from his phone. He nudged HardAss. “All hands call. Some guy on horseback is throwing spears in the town square.”

HardAss held Payne’s gaze. “We’ll be back in three days to check that window. Sir.”

Living the cliche, said Jamal’s imagined voice. What exactly do they all get out of being bullying dicks?

“No problem,” Payne said brightly. “Bye, officers!”

She made a show of scrutinizing the window as they hustled away. After their car crested the hill—bouncing with a pleasing crunch in the pothole—she scurried across the street and dropped the bag of breakfast cereal, powdered milk, menstrual supplies, and some random cans of fish in its usual spot, just past the fence of one of the boarded-up houses.

As if summoned by the thought of him, Jamal came up in her podcast rotation. “Welcome to my show, fellow queers and other humans! Today we’re going to learn how to make rose hip jelly.”

“Rose hips my smooth pink—” Payne dragged the broken grocery cart up Angie’s steps and into the house with its prohibited front window and the screamingly expensive wheelchair she was still trying to return. 

Not to mention the three highly contraband boxes of human ash, tucked into the guest room closet.

Human remains weren’t the problem. Nobody was sure what the problem was, exactly, but Payne wasn’t about to consign Mom or Angie or even her awful roommate JoJo to corporate custody just because someone on the tatters of the Internet thought the bodies of the dead were causing hallucinations. Half the world still thought the last pandemic had been caused by people eating pigeons. Or proximity to dandelions. 

Was someone actively investigating her? Payne had been kicking up a fuss over the wheelchair, the fucking Mono Health chair that cost more than a car. The chair they’d made Angie wait eight months for, only to have it break down the first time she ran it down the ramp in the garage and tried to drive over a shallow slick of rain-moistened sand on the river path.

Payne walked out of the kitchen and found one of Angie’s boy bands on the big screen TV, facing said chair. Seven impossibly handsome men worked their way through intricate synchronized choreography, smiling as they lip-synced one of their hits in Korean. Bad sound quality—the vid was a rehearsal.

“Soft porn vibes today, huh?” Payne asked. The video was mirrored on the chair’s control tablet, a small screen affixed to one of the handsets.

Angie’d always preferred visual media. Payne left her streaming media feed on, playing softly on the TV, most of the time. Letting the algorithm sift up the content Angie had consumed relentlessly as her body failed made the house feel more lived in.

It was also as good a way as any to tell if the ever-dodgy Internet was up and running. Payne downloaded her podcasts so they didn’t hang as she listened; she could go hours without noticing she’d lost service.

As she watched, the dancers gave way to a vlog post by one of Angie’s real world friends, a knobby-boned Sikh from Waterloo university who used to bring fresh flowers to the house every Thursday.

“Hey, Doctor Khan,” Payne said, fingering the rose hips. Why did she keep buying them?

“Good morning—I hope you’re safe, well and busy.”

“Apparently I’m boarding up windows. That’ll fill a day.” Payne bit her lip. Losing the view meant she wouldn’t see if the cops made a move on the shoreline path. 

Does it matter, if I can’t do anything to help Hester and the others?

If she cleaned the hoarder’s paradise of art supplies out of Angie’s garage, it might sleep five or six people.

“This week I interviewed six paranormal investigators and a pair of folklorists,” Doctor Khan said. “I’m also chasing down sightings of a mounted rider in armour, calling himself The Fifth, in downtown Scarborough just before a deadly nine-car pile-up.”

“Fifth on horseback,” Payne said. The casualties in Scarborough last week had included a limo full of pharmaceutical magnates, men who’d been all but proved guilty of price gouging during the third pandemic.

“One of the folklorists told me that when you’re alive, you have something they called life energy. When you die, it transforms to fuel for the journey to…” Khan waved their hands, indicating an afterlife they’d probably always declined to believe in. “When ghosts manifest…I’m sorry, but that’s the word they both used, manifest. And who am I to dispute anything at this point?”

“Oh,” Payne said. “You’re getting depressed, aren’t you?”

“Sorry.” Kahn looked straight into the camera, meeting her eyes, and seemed to force themself to go on. “They allege that ghosts are powered by death energy that hasn’t quite dissipated. Where it gets interesting is when you have lots of deaths and energy builds up. Usually minor spirit manifestations can become disruptive. Maybe even self-sustaining.”

It was as neat an explanation as any for the recent contagion of murder sprees and fatal accidents: runaway apartment fires, construction cranes collapsing onto sidewalks, highway carnage. Hallucination epidemics, sightings of headless cavalrymen, and waves of suicides. Crimson letters, sprayed in a thousand alleys across the continent, in old fashioned cursive: We the dead know.

“It’s like any real-world catastrophe—a flood or a wildfire, say, or so they argue,” said Khan. “But if there is currently a surge of thanatic energy, it might be easier than usual to find evidence of it.”

“Find it, measure it, suddenly prove the supernatural exists?” Payne said. “People have been trying forever.”

“It does seem a little pointless—” The video cut off, in favour of another dance practice. Angie’s content filters were set to skip ahead to the next vid if things got downbeat.

Anything to keep the mood up, right?

That night Payne lounged in Angie’s fancy wheelchair in the darkened living room, enjoying the gel cushion as it conformed to the curves of her butt, and listening to History Butch—one of the few queer network podcasters still making new content—as she defiantly enjoyed one last night of having a river view.

The neighbourhood had become prone to what her mother called dust devils, baby tornadoes with just enough power to spin leaves around on the ground. Payne had always thought you needed sunshine to make a dust devil—warm ground and updrafts—but lately the trees by the river spent their nights undulating in circles, like dancers.

“People love quoting stats about the plague killing half of Europe,” said the Butch. “But today’s guest is a bioarcheologist who’s going to talk about who died, and how marginalization played into your survival chances. Not that this has any modern relevance, you understand…”

“Oh, Butch. I love your little sardonic giggle so much.”

The trees whirled. She finished her second glass of wine and fought the temptation to make it three. 

As she was coming back from the kitchen after rinsing the glass, Payne saw something moving in the trees down by the river path. Big shadow, whipping through the undulating foliage… She would’ve sworn it was a horse at full gallop. 

She could almost hear the hooves.

“I miss your laugh too,” History Butch said, presumably to her guest archaeologist, but even so, Payne gave a little bow. 

“I promise to laugh if anything’s ever funny again,” she said.

Angie’s video stream promptly switched to one of her favourite comedians. 

This was happening more and more lately—her mind was sliding in ways that made the passive ingestion of the podcasts seem like interaction. The effect of solitude, making her read patterns into coincidence.

Payne settled back into the chair, using the armrest tablet to surf hardware stores, checking if anyone besides Monolith would deliver window boards to the house. 

Mono didn’t kill Angie.

“…half of everyone who’s left dies off, that’s 3 billion packets of thanatic energy. Lotta spiritual horsepower, if you get my drift…” 

Payne jerked awake, looking for the source of the voice. Her glitchy podcast app had shut itself off, and Angie’s ever-scrolling video feed had switched to ocean waves on a tropical beach. 

“Hey, Housebot, skip current video,” she said, testing the network. 

The view hopped to old footage of Angie painting a portrait on a big chunk of particle board, picture of two Canadian anti-masking activists from the first pandemic, done up as conjoined scythe-wielding death goddesses. She had charmed local dentists into donating extracted wisdom teeth to the project; these were embedded in the board, so the curling roots of the teeth poked outward from the painted mouths.

Payne shut off the TV for the first time in weeks, heading to sleep in her actual bed. For company, she turned on a former yoga instructor, Catman Bendy, who always posted slow, murmuring, suspense-free stories about exciting topics like goldfish or kneading bread dough.

“…thinking about putting the babies down, just so I can stop worrying for ten minutes about what they’ll go through if anything happens to me…”

She surfaced muzzily into morning, checking her phone. Had she even heard that? Bleak wasn’t Catman’s thing and she definitely wouldn’t have kept something like that in her archive of downloaded content. But Bendy had shut himself off after knocking her out.

A dream, then.

“Note to my subconscious,” Payne groaned. “Please fucking fuck the fuck off.”

A little rough, as morning prayers went, but it was all she had.

She headed into the kitchen. Glowered at the rose hips. The video feed on the chair had rebooted and was playing a crowdfunding pitch from one of Angie’s favourite charities, an elephant retirement home. The sun was sparkling on the river, and she had eggs.

“Hey, Housebot, find me a video about building shutters for a big window.”

Angie’d made all kinds of art. Giant snow globes and miniature carousels. Quilts and cross stitches and model airplanes, Dutch master style paintings of fast food industry workers. Subtly graded color palettes that unfurled like red carpets, stretching thirty meters. Fanciful birdbaths and intricate sculptures. Her overstuffed garage had plenty of tools and materials. There would be a way to batch together something that looked like a barrier, one Payne could maybe remove from the window during the daytime.

Getting to the tools and ladder was something of an excavation. She ended up carting a two-part polyresin statue—the front and back ends of bus drivers wearing a two-person horse costume—to the lawn, all in service of emptying out another of Angie’s many carts. This she pushed down the wheelchair ramp in the garage to the street, then up the hill, past the pothole, and over to the nearest hardware store, eventually coming back with a bunch of laminated floorboards—hey, they looked like solid wood. 

History Butch came on to keep her company as she tried to figure out how to assemble a flap, to put a hinge on the top of the window, so that instead of creating an actual barrier, she’d have something she could raise and lower.

She was failing and frustrated when the softer of the two corporate cops came by.

“That’s not gonna pass muster,” he said. “It’s not meant to be a blackout curtain. It’s a physical barrier.”

“Barrier against what?”

“I don’t make the rules, ma’am.”

He probably thought coming on his own was a sort of favour. Just swinging by with a warning: Be good or when daddy HardAss comes back, you’re gonna be so very spanked.

Payne wasn’t in the mood for ethically compromised kindnesses. She’d been up a ladder for three hours now, trying to install hinges. “You act like you think there are zombies out here.”

“I’m not a doctor. Not here to argue about masking or vaccinations or curfew or burning incense or drinking filtered water or reporting hallucinations or wearing magnets or trespassing in cemeteries—”

“We can’t go in cemeteries now?”

“—or the public health case for sequestering human remains.” 

“We don’t have public health in this community anymore. Just corporate subsidiaries.”

He gave her a look that made her want to punch him in the face. “When was the last time you talked to a real person?”

“Don’t you pass for one?”

“A friend, I mean.”

“All my friends are parasocial.” 

“You should get a pet.”

Anything to keep the mood up.

Out on the river path, she heard what sounded like hooves, ringing on paving stones.

She climbed down to the overgrown lawn, dusting her hands. “I’m fine, Officer. Stressed out, but who isn’t? I’ll get the window sorted—”

“We’ll be stepping up patrols on River Road,” he interrupted. “There’s a concern it isn’t safe to live near this much water.”

“More wisdom from the boardroom. Are you going to step up patrols near the big houses on the other side of Cauldron Lake?”

“There haven’t been any problems on the north side,” he said. “Ma’am, Mono Health runs a home care service. If you’re really looking for a nursing gig—”

Payne interrupted: “Did you not pick up on the hostility to Mother Corporation in my tone just now?”

He stared at the back end of Angie’s statue, the brightly coloured palomino ass, with a uniformed city bus driver protruding, centaur-like, from its waist. Their arms were extended, reaching for the front half of the costume, over by the garage. “Times like this, you gotta be part of an ecosystem that works.”

“You and I have vastly different definitions of works.”

He nodded, seeming to acknowledge this. “Don’t suppose I could come in and use your bathroom?”

“Piss yourself,” she said, whirling to mount the ladder again, climbing to the top and unhooking her fake barrier with its fake boards, dropping them between Angie’s statue with noisy slaps of wood, and ignoring SoftTouch until he finally took the hint and drove off in his Monomobile.

“Get a pet. Talk to a friend. Fucker, fucker, fucker!” 

Mono didn’t kill Angie, she reminded herself. 

She stomped inside and grabbed that glass of wine she hadn’t drunk yesterday. Paced, fumed, tried to calm down. 

When was the last time you talked to a friend? 

Fucker!

With a sigh, she checked to see if her phone had service.

She hadn’t expected Doctor Khan to be free, or interested in chatting, but the professor had listened to the story of Payne’s wheelchair refund wars and the bylaw-mandated window blockage with, at least, a good pretense of interest and concern.

“It’s possible they want a poke around Angie’s house,” they finally said. “If there’s anything out of compliance, you could be relocated for your own safety.”

“So it’s just a soft push to empty out River Road and the south shore of Cauldron Lake?”

“They can’t do much if you’re in compliance. And it’s better that they’re corporate cops, in a way. No real government authority—and no guns.”

“I don’t know why they’ve latched onto me all of a sudden.”

“They’re overcompensating, I think. There’s been controversy over the mounted city police detachment—I think we’re building up to some kind of moral panic over horses, of all things. Someone’s claiming to have seen a rider yesterday just before an elevator unstrung itself downtown and took out a handful of hockey club owners and TV executives.”

“There’s a loss to humanity. But what does it have to do with me?”

“Payne, let ‘em snoop around the house and find it clean. Which they will. Because it is.”

From the emphasis, Angie wondered if Khan thought someone was listening in on their call. Wasn’t that paranoid?

“Yes it is,” she agreed brightly. “Absolutely clean.”

After getting off the phone, she put on an archived episode of her favourite advice podcast, Frankly Speaking, and regrouped. It wasn’t that Angie didn’t have wood in the garage. All her paintings, pretty much, were on particleboard. 

She gave up on the window flap. Like cherries from Chile, she just didn’t get to have a view anymore.

She hauled out a quartet of Angie’s abandoned paintings in progress, including the conjoined scythe women, and mounted them on the outer sills of the front window. Nailing, clamping and even gluing—Angie’s parents, in faraway Halifax, wouldn’t care if she did a little property damage. Anything to keep the compliance up.

“If you can get everything on a given list done within four hours, then you’re not behind,” Frankly said, responding to a listener question about work-life balance.

“I’d give my left kidney to worry about something as petty as work-life balance,” Payne growled as she yanked on the extension cord powering the drill.

“It’s common to feel overwhelmed,” Frankly continued. “And unhealthy to routinely force yourself to carry out tasks you’re averse to. But sometimes clearing the decks can give you a sense of renewed control—”

“Everything’s under awesome control.” Payne leaned against the horse statue’s ass end, taking in her handiwork. The front of the house was now, by default, an Angie art show.

She went inside, found the government regs on boarding up windows, and printed the page. She checked all the boxes on the handy government checklist, ran the resulting poster through Angie’s laminator, and stuck the whole plasticated page on a clear spot at eye level. 

“Here. I did your thing, I followed the rules, stop hinting that you want to search the goddamned house.”

“Hey,” Frankly said. “Don’t kill the messenger.”

I gotta stop half-listening to these shows.

Clear the decks. She got the cart she’d used for the hardware store haul, and started loading. JoJo’s ashes, her mother’s ashes, Angie’s ashes, bagged in totes with handles and then wrapped again in a blanket. Then, atop that, a picnic—sandwiches assembled from a Fridge Scavenger. Plus, for Hester and the river folk, all the weird unperishable foods people had given Angie in gift baskets after her diagnosis. Crackers and pate and pickles. 

Sorry you’re dying; try this compote from the Mono Foods deli!

“Stop, stop, Mono didn’t kill Angie.” She mumbled it as she made a thermos full of hot tea, packed two bottles of wine, gathered up some magazines that Angie should be even now be tearing up for one of her creepy ass collages. She searched up one of those long lighters for igniting barbecues and grabbed a three-pronged garden rake for good measure.

“That’s it. Go on a tear,” Frankly said. “Throw yourself at that to-do list until something breaks.”

“And if that doesn’t work, get a pet.” She booted up the screamingly expensive Mono Health wheelchair, ran it down the ramp in the garage and parked it in the tiny space she’d reclaimed from Angie’s art supplies, and plugged in the charger. Then she rearranged the living room, putting Angie’s lone armchair in front of the big screen TV.

Her last task was finding the donated teeth among the bins and bins and endless bins of art supplies, so it could go on the now-burgeoning pile within the cart.

“Let’s move on to another question from our listeners,” said Frankly.

Payne’s stomach growled. “Dear Frankly. Can you get hangry if you’re already perpetually enraged?”

“Here’s a good one!”

She hit the garage door opener and dragged the laden cart down the driveway, across the street. Heading downhill, for once. She slid onto a dirt-strewn path bordered by a neighbour’s fence on one side and a slick of peaty moisture and cattails on the other. The only pause was when she left the sack of pate and crackers, along with one bottle of wine, in the usual spot for Hester inside the fence before dragging her load onto the river trail.

Reaching Cauldron Lake took longer than expected. The cart was heavy, the trail covered in wet leaves—good thing she brought the rake—and the occasional smush of a silt deposit. At some point, the precariously balanced basket of teeth slid off the pile and dropped into the bush. Didn’t matter necessarily, she supposed. The teeth weren’t technically human remains. She’d only brought them because she didn’t trust HardAss to know that.

She arrived perhaps an hour before sunset. 

People talked a good game about the history of Cauldron Lake. Ancient legacy this, potent Indigenous spiritual power that. All garbage, according to Angie: a previous plague of developers dammed up the local stream to create the fancy part of town, back in the eighties. 

Cauldron was, in other words, wholly artificial. Its gracious trees had been selected by city arborists, the trout and bass within stocked by Parks and Wildlife. All to bolster property value for the houses rising up to the north, proper mansions on a proper hill, looking down on greensward, a view bounded by a screen of poplars to hide the more modest homes on the other side of the water.

Constructed or natural, Angie had wanted to be scattered there, near the trees she’d climbed as a kid, near the manmade waterfall where she’d had her first kiss.

Payne’s mother, meanwhile, had just specified dumping her remains in water. Anything but a government vault. 

As for Jojo…well, her irascible roommate had lost any say after he hanged himself with a power cable, effectively rendering her homeless.

Security was circling the park as Payne arrived, making sure they could tell their bosses they’d checked it before sundown. She ducked out of sight, settling under Angie’s favourite climbing tree, and tucked into the picnic.

The patrol passed within a couple meters. Payne gave them the finger from under her blankets, cheered on by a podcaster who went by the name of Minor Ducats Dude as he gave her tips for consuming ethically while living within her means.

“The trick might be to eat first and then see how you feel.”

Frankly’s words jerked Payne out of a doze. The advice podcast from this afternoon must’ve restarted. The moon was high above Cauldron Lake, three quarters waning and the yellow of an old bruise, smeared to a blur by a scrim of cloud. The trees were shadows, turning slowly in a corkscrew, as if caught by dust devils.

Payne muttered a low curse before getting to her feet and trying to shake out a thousand sore spots. She was alone with the swirling wind and the lapping waves.

She left the cart where it was, lugging two of the boxes of ash in a tote that wasn’t really sized for them, while tucking Angie under her arm. 

The walk to the dock cleared her head. She stepped onto the planks, almost slipped—the wood was almost always a little damp—and spent a second accustoming herself to the shift and bounce of waves lapping beneath her.

Then she strode to the end of the dock, where she and Angie had sat as undergraduates, new friends warmed by the heat of a massive mutual intellectual crush. Alive and present and in person. Legs dangling over the water as they talked art and science and Canadian politics and occasionally boys.

Payne sat in the memories until she was well marinaded and morose before turning to the task.

Mom’s box of ashes was the oldest. Its surface was textured, stamped with a honeycomb pattern that was meant to make the cardboard feel… what? Upscale? Pricey? 

As she opened it, Payne imagined she felt someone stepping onto the dock, heavy vibrations coming up through the cold damp boards under her butt.

She refused to look: if someone caught her dumping ashes now, there was nowhere to run and nothing to deny.

Water dripped off the pier, sounding like horses—clip clop, clip clop.

Lifting out the plastic bag containing Mom, she picked the knot. Tipped her, streaming ash between her knees.

A surge of grief caught her hard as a punch.

Should’ve expected this, should’ve expected it should’ve expected this… Her mind looped and scrolled uselessly, distress rising as she tried to catch her breath, failing. She smacked her headset:

Poor Catman Bendy’s soothing baritone rolled over her. “Just breathe, just breathe, relax, you’ve done enough…”

She whooped, sucking air. Pushed out, finally, a feeble, “Bye, Mom.”

Water slapping the dock floats was her only reply. Payne’s vision blurred. “I suddenly wish I’d memorized that poem you like. But…you know. Insert poem here. And thanks, you know. For everything. Sorry this took so long.”

She slid the emptied box back into the tote.

A sense of mass, behind her.

Not looking, not looking… She groped for the next one, ghosting a finger over it until fingernail met box tape, and picking the edges of it to get to Jojo. Cheerlessly, she bit her lips and tried to think. Finally, she just quoted History Butch, since he’d been the one to introduce them—to introduce her to that podcast, she meant: “Every era sucks in its own unique way.”

As she tipped up the bag, the weight within shifted. The ash glopped down all at once, plunging underwater as if it was one piece, a lump of mud or clay. 

She felt a burst of resentment as backsplash—cold water, so cold!—hit her ankles. At least Mom had lived and aged and died in a world where the electricity was steady and your car could always get gas and if something was on the grocery shelf last week, it would be there next week too. In a world where the television steadily got better and even a bad government could be trusted to call an election every four or five years.

But Jojo—well, her old roomie was the flip side of that coin. He couldn’t deal with being on the downward slide, seeing their hard-fought civil rights going away and the seasons transforming from spring-summer-winter-fall to flood-famine-quarantine-typhoon.

“You were good to live with for awhile,” she finally said.

Forcing a shaky laugh, she fumbled the third box, still in its silk bag. Cold and dry-eyed, she pulled out the box, slid it open, and felt for the knot at the end of the plastic sack. It was too tight to untie.

A bump of something warm against her shoulder made her whirl.

Nobody there, of course. 

Unnerved, she tapped her headset. One of Angie’s boy band tracks began to play softly. Up-tempo music for a secret funeral.

The clouds peeled away and the lake silvered. Something dark arrowed into the trees on the far shore—an owl perhaps? Her imagination supplied the startled shriek of its kill. 

What would I give to see all those fancy houses burn?

Something bubbled to the surface of the water—air trapped in Jojo’s ashes. Black sludge roiled below her dangling feet, bubbling like witch’s brew, before sinking.

Payne dug her nails into the plastic encasing Angie, pulling until it tore. Ash spilled onto her knees before she got the bag upright and flipped it, pouring from the irregular gap, whose torn edges created a messy stream.

Before she could end up covered, wind gusted from nowhere, slapping the plastic like a sail, sending Angie out across the lake in a long stream, like a black finger over the water, pointing at the rising hill and the mansions Payne had just been mentally immolating.

She scrambled to her feet. The bag rattled in her hand, snapping in the wind. She shook it to emptiness as air slammed her and the deck bucked underfoot.

She staggered, arms pinwheeling. “Cut it out!”

Boom. Wind gone. She slapped her headset button by accident as she flapped and then steadied herself on the slippery boards. 

Frankly Speaking kicked in, mid-sentence. “…tackled all those tasks you’ve been avoiding? Remember to celebrate!

“Hurrah.” She crumpled the bag, dusted the ash off her calves, and picked up the cardboard boxes. Lucky they hadn’t toppled into the water. The idea of having to wade into the ashy soup of the lake to chase them…

Oops. Gross. Crying now.

She made her way to one of the park department barbecue grills. Inside the tote were old magazines and the long barbecue lighter. She got the paper burning and then started breaking down the boxes, sobbing as she fed them in pieces, labels first, through the hamburger grill. 

“Wouldn’t do to have empty boxes of cremains lying around, not if I’m really going to let those rent-a-cops poke around your old house,” she sniffed. “And I can’t just leave them in an area trash bin for HardAss to find. That’s incompetent crimery, right? How could you ever respect me again? We’re burning the evidence, like proper murderers.”

The park remained deathly quiet as the boxes surrendered to the flames. 

She walked back to Angie’s tree to claim the cart, and found Hester sitting in it, wrapped in the blanket. 

“Still surviving?” Payne asked.

“Most days I pass for alive, yeah.”

Hester was maybe thirty years old, pale, with a blue-dyed buzz cut that had started to grow out. She dug a dollop of antipasto out of a glass jar with a water cracker, extending it in offering. “How’ve you been doing, neighbour?” 

She shrugged, took the cracker and choked it down.

Hester rummaged in a rucksack, coming up with a sealed mini-pack of tissue. Payne took them gratefully, blowing her nose and wiping her face.

“I—” she said. “Those Monocops seem like they might be bent on pushing everyone out of the neighbourhood soon. You guys could be in danger.”

“We’re past that now,” Hester said.

“Are we? Since when?”

“Three two one…” Hester got to her feet, grasped the wagon’s handle, and gave it a little twist, trying out the wheels. She waved at thin air, syncing the move with the circling trees, and Payne realized she could hear sirens wailing, all over town. A lot of sirens. 

“We should head back.” Hester handed her the garden rake.

They walked in silence, lake at their backs, the chorus of a dozen emergencies wailing ever less distantly as they neared home.

“I was thinking. If you—if you all needed a place to stay. For as long as I’m around, anyway. I’ve got a bit of—” Payne faltered. Was she really going to offer Angie’s garage, while living in the comfort of her two-bedroom house? “—space.”

“I’d take this cart and blanket,” Hester said. “And my girlfriend would probably love to use your shower now and then. But at this point, we’re better off outside.”

“Ah.” She felt a complicated, guilt-laced burst of relief.

“We’ll never be rich, so we might as well throw in with the dead, am I right? Anyway, this is my place,” Hester said, as if they were at any corner, or standing in front of the lobby of an apartment building, instead of a thin path on uncut grass.

The clouds shifted, and moonlight briefly revealed a small tent down by the water, next to a camp stove and stack of water bottles. A line of something pink and granular encircled the tiny clearing.

“Road salt,” Hester said, seeing her notice. “You should get some for your place, if you’re not already haunted.”

“I’m already—” This was why she didn’t talk to the living anymore. “I could bring you some more, sometime. Salt.”

“Yeah? And aspirin, too, if you can get it.”

“Okay.” Now what? Did she say goodbye? Return the rest of the tissue? Wave to the person moving, within the tent? “Well. You know where to find me. Don’t stay out here and freeze or anything.”

Hester wrapped her arms around her, just for a second, a tight and fierce embrace that smelled a little of red wine and a lot of unwashed human. Payne felt the shock of it—human contact, after so long—as powerfully as a blow. 

She fought not to cry again as Hester stepped back, over the border of her pink road salt circle, and scooped a few grains from the bag to draw the line afresh.

If you’re not already haunted.

She took the trail back up to the lake road, empty handed now but for her phone and the rake, slipping between the fences leading to the river path, following the sound of siren.

HardAss was up there, screaming at Angie’s front windows. 

Two of the four paintings blocking the glass were flickering, garish and weird in the flashing police car light. Maybe Angie had treated the teeth embedded in the anti-maskers’ portrait, with something phosphorescent? 

He was absolutely baying at the painting, bent with both hands on his knees, next to the back half of the horse statue. Letting out a howl with every exhalation, and almost keeping time with the wailing siren. 

Let’s see a circle of salt touch that!

Payne looked around for SoftTouch and found the Monomobile wrapped around a poplar tree. Something under its hood was smoking, and bits of tattered crash bag swirled in the wind. The car siren and flashers were screeching, going full tilt.

Do something!

Payne tapped her headset, praying to the gods of glitchy podcast apps.

“Good evening, everyone. This is the History Butch.”

Relief flooded her. “Hi, Sue.”

“I want to start by saying how all y’all mean to me. Have meant, ever since things started going sideways—”

“Whenever that was.” Fortified by the illusion of company, Payne forced herself to stride toward the cop car. SoftTouch was slumped in the driver’s seat, face wrapped in airbag plastic.

“I know how much everyone values my weekly check-ins,” Butch went on, “My little tours of the olden days, when life was simple and easy—”

“Yeah, easy. Right.”

“Just kidding.” Butch let out one of her endearing, sardonic giggles. “I did start work on a rollicking laugh riot of a series on the US war in Vietnam but…I don’t know. I found a thing there about ghosts roaming free in 1968, in this one village, after it had been all but obliterated. I did my Master’s thesis on Vietnam, and I never heard this story. And now…folks, it’s everywhere. Even in books I bought in, like, old library sales. It’s like a ghost history baked out of the pages. And it’s not just one. There’s story after story of mass deaths and hallucination plagues and bowmen riding giant snakes through the jungle.”

“Which is just my way of saying…not to be overly real with you guys, but there’ve been some mental health setbacks here in Butchtown lately.”

SoftTouch—Ballaro, Payne insisted, mentally—didn’t seem to be breathing. She made herself grope for the rent-a-cop’s neck. His skin was clammy. Was that a pulse or just wishful thinking?

She fumbled the phone, dialing 911.

Deadened voice: “State the nature of your emergency.”

“I need an ambulance.”

Silence.

“For an injured police officer,” she added.

“Just one police officer?”

Limit of one, ladies. Limit of—

Payne’s mouth dropped open. “Uhhhh. Two?”

“Well, we’re way off script now, aren’t we?” said the Butch. She sounded like she was crying. Payne frowned. Usually the podcast app shut off when she used her phone.

“What if it’s one officer injured, and one…very upset?” Payne didn’t mention they weren’t real cops, or that she thought Ballaro might be dead.

“Could you transport them to a hospital yourself? City View Emergency’s probably best.”

“What did you say? Me? Drive them?”

“I’m sorry,” Butch broke in. “I don’t mean to make a big play for sympathy. It’s just that when all this started, the first time, the government told us what to do and they said it would be okay. We did the things, we stayed home, we wore the gear they said to wear. We tried to help each other, right? Anything to—”

“You want me to drive the police to Emerge?” Payne demanded.

“See? The asks get weirder and weirder. We each basically have to invent our own way to keep safe. Public health guidelines are practically superstition and my history books really have changed, y’all, here I am looking at this 1968 story about a whole village near Duong Lam getting overrun by things riding mongol horses, after a mass funeral… I’m worried, friends, I’m legit freaking concerned…”

“I understand your concerns.” The 911 operator’s voice was frosty. “But it’s either get the injured to a clinic yourself—”

“—the better to arrest me for breaking curfew?” 

“—or secure shelter for the night and call in the morning. There might be ambulances by…ten or eleven?”

“I don’t think this officer’s in a state where he can wait.”

“Morning,” repeated the operator. “Unless you know someone at Monolith. They might have a private service.”

The line went dead.  

“I’m just not sure there’s anything to be done anymore,” Butch said. “I dunno if I’m doing any good.”

Payne added the local 911 office to her growing list of things to burn down.

“I’m sorry you’ve been having a rough time,” she said, instead.

“I know, I know. This is self-indulgent,” said Butch. “Everyone’s so ruined right now.” 

Ballaro made a little belching noise.

“Fuck,” Payne said, trying for his pulse again.

“I know my thing’s always been to say hey, things were shit in the past too, and we’ve made it through. Right now, our queer little podcast network’s getting bought out by a big media company and I’m—I’m having a crisis of faith, friends.”

With that, Butch cut out. The network couldn’t currently handle downloading new content. That, or the pessimism algorithm finally caught her.

Morose company was better than no company. Payne hit the button on her headset to play something from her archive as she said: “Hey, Housebot—open the garage door, will you?”

The house let out a clunk as the door unlatched.

HardAss shrieked. He straightened, threw himself across the front half of the horse statue, and began firing at the garage. 

Payne dropped to the ground, heart pounding. “Why does he have a gun?”

Ballaro, naturally, didn’t answer.

Boom bang boom boom boom bang boom!

Silence. 

Terrified, she peeked between her fingers in time to see HardAss drop the pistol into the grass.

Payne swallowed. Gathered her last shattered nerve. “Hey, Housebot, can you ask Angie’s chair to home in on my location?”

A beep of affirmation. Tiny headlights flashed on and illuminated the driveway. There was a whirr and the chair came down the drive, past HardAss, and across the road. The power cable connected to the charger caught for a moment, then snapped free. The chair eased up to her and Ballaro, stopping just the right distance from the open car door.

“Here’s hoping you don’t have a spinal injury, friend,” Payne said, easing Ballaro out of the car. Half lift, and then a twist to drop his bottom onto the seat; muscles she hadn’t used in months, but years of nursing got her through it, got him seated more or less right on Angie’s butt-conforming gel pad. 

Had he helped a little, supporting his own weight when his feet were on the ground? She couldn’t tell. She’d thought he was dead, but every time she felt sure, there’d be some flicker within, some hint of energy or life…

She clicked the safety belt into place, pulled up the headrest so his head was at least a bit immobilized. Checked HardAss, who was still draped in a crying mess over Angie’s statue.

She grabbed up the rake again, just in case, before approaching him.

“Hey!” She called. “Hey, you should probably come with us.”

He moaned and didn’t move.

Fine. “Hey, Housebot, can you ask the chair to follow me?”

She headed uphill, straight up the yellow line where there were no leaves or puddles. Was her headset on? She thumbed the button.

Silence.

Time for a prayer.

“Butch,” she said fiercely. “Listen. I’ve never reached out to you before, to any of you. This is a big deal for me, and I’ve got plenty on my plate, so you better listen.”

Dammit, now she was crying again. 

“This better not buh-be a suicide broadcast. I don’t care how morbid you get about Vietnam, and it’s okay if your research isn’t exhaustive. I don’t know what to say about your history books rewriting themselves, that’s really weird and scary, but…”

It must be colder than she thought; her tears were hissing when they hit the ground.

“I guess, please…just, can you not quit right now?”

The siren on the Monomobile, behind her, suddenly cut off. The flashers, which had been lighting her way, went dark.

They were almost at the crest of the hill.

A trembling breath came through her headset.

Please, please, please.

History Butch said: “Okay. I’m all right, I’m all right now. Y’all talked me down. Thanks.”

Payne covered her mouth with a shaking hand. 

The chair balked.

She turned, scanning the road, looking for a fall of leaves or an obstruction. 

The dead know who killed us.  

Big letters, scraped into the road. Reddish and seeping, like scratches in flesh. The chair had stopped just shy of falling into the hilltop pothole, which formed the O in who so perfectly it might have always been that way.  

She licked her lips. Reached for the chair’s joystick. 

The screen on the smart chair lit up. Seven impossibly beautiful dancing boys in hoodies and sweatpants beamed up at her from within its frame.

“Sorry,” she said to Ballaro. “It does this.”

“Harry grabbed the wheel.”

His mouth hadn’t moved. Had the words come from the touchscreen? Her headset?

Payne felt for Ballaro’s pulse again. Nothing. He felt stiff. Long gone. 

We know who killed us.  

Monolith hadn’t killed Angie. ALS killed Angie. She’d been dead even before she picked up a mysterious limp that everyone thought was a knee injury. She’d been dead when she was getting tests and demanding answers from specialists. She’d been a big ticking countdown clock brimming with death from the moment they finally got the diagnosis. 

But.

But Monolith picked the day, by sending a slack-ass incompetent dickhead to fix the customized wheelchair.

Payne had left Angie in front of her streaming videos and run out to the grocery while the tech was there. She could leave her alone, but she didn’t like to. So, she ran out, braved the line, and bought rose hips and mango juice and powdered milk and pads for Hester, getting back just as the tech was leaving.

Everything’s fine, he’d told her. Chair just needed a tune up and a reboot. He’d left instructions so she could do it herself next time.

Payne had been grateful—absurdly, stupidly grateful. Tiny things could still restore her faith in real people, six months ago.

Except. Dude didn’t bother mentioning that he’d knocked over and busted Angie’s CPAP breathing machine, leaving it in pieces on the bedroom floor.

So, no, Mono Health didn’t kill Angie. They just broke a crucial piece of medical equipment and then refused to send anyone out to fix it.

Her thoughts felt hot and oily, a deep fryer crisping the last of her self-restraint. She imagined returning the chair personally, now she had it mostly up the fucking hill anyway. Just driving across to the north shore of Cauldron, and up to the Mono CEO’s mansion. Crashing it through the foyer, maybe, with a note demanding Angie’s rebate. She could pin it to poor Ballaro’s cold dead chest.

She hit Forward on the chair’s manual drive, slewing around the pothole. The chair surged over the word killed, picking up tar or blood with its tires, leaving tracks running down from the text.

Then, as she finally crested the hill, the chair broke into ash. Just collapsed under her, blew itself into a dustdevil and…

Is it a crisis of faith if you never really believed before now?

…and turned into a horse.

The mare’s spots were the colour of the bruised yellow moon, on a coat that was all the other colours of contusion: green, red brown, and purple. Palomino painted in the colours of a badly beaten woman. Its saddle was butt-conforming comfort gel, aglow with sprinkles of colour-changing LED lights. The steaming asphalt under its hooves smelled of tar, and its eyes and teeth glowed like phone screens. The gaily carved beads woven into its mane looked like discarded wisdom teeth. A bottle of Angie’s favourite sherry protruded from one of its saddlebags. 

Ballaro, shrouded in a blanket, was strapped behind the saddle.

Seven boys danced out of Payne’s phone, spinning up from the dust in the road, body rolling with sinuous delight. 

The horse stamped. Emoji—question marks—lit up both its eyes. 

What was it her neighbour, Hester, had said? Something about choosing between the rich and the dead?

Payne tapped her headset. 

“Welcome to Happiness in Hard Times! I am your host, Buzz Cutt.”

“Is this going to make me happier, Buzz?”

“I think that’s a question for Frankly, Payne.” He rumbled affectionately. “Besides, you already know what we’re going to say.”

“Whatever it takes to get the mood up?”

History Butch let out a coo. “See? You do still have a sense of humour.”

It was time to visit the north side of the lake. 

Payne tucked her phone away and picked up the three-pronged rake lying at her feet. She hopped, skipped, and then sprang into the midst of the dancing boys, giving them her very best attempt at an exuberant twirl.

Breath steaming, doubts gone, she made straight for her mount as the voices in her headset broke into shouts of joy.

Advertisement

A.M. Dellamonica

A.M. Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Their fourth, A Daughter of No Nation, won the 2016 Prix Aurora for Best Novel. They have published over forty short stories in Tor.com, Asimovs SF, The Magazine of Fantasy and SF, and elsewhere, along with poetry, pop culture essays, and even the 2021 play Dressed as People, which they co-wrote with Kelly Robson and Amal El-Mohtar. Their newest novels, Gamechanger and Dealbreaker, were released under the name L.X. Beckett and are solarpunk adventures that imagine humanity surviving climate change and creating a post-carbon economy.

One Response to “Horsewoman”

  1. Lizviathan

    Engrossing and visceral. A. M. Dellamonica is in top form here. Worth a re-read.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.