When I was fourteen my father left us and we had to move into my grandmother’s horse barn in Maine. Grandmother was too fussy to host guests in her own house, but the barn wasn’t so bad. It was remodeled for storage with cedar wood floors, white porcelain lamps on long bronze chains, and a loft with a big skylight freckled with stars. It was insulated from cold but not from bugs. We wrapped our belongings in white plastic bags and slept on cots under mosquito nets. When my mom and little brother weren’t there I talked to the spiders. When they were there, I tried to make a game of it.
“I love living here,” I said. “Don’t you? It’s like a big fort.”
“It’s like a horse barn,” my mom said glumly and went outside to smoke. My brother cried.
There was only one horse inside the barn, a honey-colored Missouri Fox Trotter named Abigail. None of us knew how to ride her and Grandmother was too arthritic, but at sunrise she let Abigail out to graze and at sunset brought her back into her stall. The pen was the size of a soccer field, and Abigail spent the day walking back and forth in neat lines as if she were planting seeds. She was made of muscle and silk and never made a sound.
The biggest downsides of the barn were that I didn’t have any privacy and we didn’t have a kitchen. It didn’t seem to matter at first. Chicken parm subs made me dream, but take-out made me fat. Just me, not my brother or my mom, and I truly didn’t realize until my Spanish teacher asked Craig to ask me on a fake date and he said, “Yo, I would never even pretend to talk to that whale.” Yo.
The doctor said I’d gained forty pounds. She said this then started listing ways I could fix myself: writing down every calorie I ate, going for long walks, meeting with a nutritionist, loving myself more. Respecting myself more. I cried on the way home because up until then I thought I did love myself and I thought I did respect myself. Wasn’t I the only one who didn’t cry on the day we left our Massachusetts house behind? Wasn’t I the only one who blamed dad and only dad for his move to San Diego? My brother and my mom were eating the exact same things, so did they hate themselves too?
When I looked in the mirror that night I split right into two. All I could think was that whale, as if I was just the skeleton—the part that would hang in a museum—and the rest was carcass. It was winter but I did start taking walks with Abigail when I got home from school. I let her lead me back and forth, fence to fence, and for hours we burned trails into snow. My mother called me from the barn’s back door (“You’ll freeze!”) and so did my brother (“Why are you so weird?”) but if Abigail walked through blizzards so would I.
For weeks we were silent, talking only through the crunch of our feet and the eye contact at the fence turn. Then I started telling her things. I had known for years that my father was seeing another woman. I never told mom about it. I had seen a text on his phone from Ray about when to meet and where, and then for the next few years his phone bubbled with Ray, Ray, Ray, who turned out to be Rachel. I told Abigail that my mom cried herself to sleep. My brother told his friends we were homeless. My grandmother loved her more than she loved us, but I really didn’t mind. There was a dance coming up at school but I wasn’t going even though I had bought a dress on sale the summer before and it was wrapped in a trash bag in the barn. Fence to fence, year to year. I knew the pen’s dirt as if it was my home.
One morning in the summer I woke up to Grandmother screaming. Abigail was dead. Her neck was slumped and bent and her eyes were open, but she wasn’t moving. Later they would tell us she had a heart attack, but I didn’t know that then. My mom and brother didn’t want to be around the corpse so they went to sit in Grandmother’s house while she called the vet. I let myself into the stall and crouched down beside her. I stroked her mane and let my tears run down her nose. I draped myself across her and could feel that she had split in two. She was all carcass, but for the first time I felt like I wasn’t the only one carrying me. I stayed with her until they took her away, and then slept in the stall until my mom said it was creepy.
That night I climbed the ladder into the loft and watched the shadows shift as lights swung behind me. Fat edged over my jeans and a face stared down at me from the skylight. Before I realized it was me I thought, “Oh, she’s beautiful.” And that’s the thing, I was beautiful.
“Want to go for a walk with me?” I called down to my mom and brother.
“In the horse pen?” my brother asked.
“No.” I didn’t know where we’d go, but I knew I could go anywhere and they would follow me. We would go beyond the fence, beyond the fog until the barn was dust.
As we walked, I was planting seeds. I was telling them things. I was whole.
Jennifer Cox is currently pursuing a Master of Literature & Creative Writing at Harvard University Extension School. Her work can be found in “Microchondria III: More Short Short Stories Collected by Harvard Book Store”.