My mom didn’t have money or land for horses. Chloe’s family did though; she owned six. I know what you’re picturing: a fussed-over spoiled girl with a stable full of the handsome animals, their glistening chestnut coats, their combed manes, their oiled saddles, because that’s what I imagined before going over to her house, too. But it wasn’t like that at Chloe’s. Turns out her horses were skinny, grimy things. They were caked with mud, sway-backed, so starved their ribs and shoulder blades jutted out from under their dull fur at odd angles. When you tried to catch them, they nipped and kicked and pinned their ears back. But none of this mattered to me. I loved them simply for being horses.
Nobody in our Grade 7/8 class liked Chloe much. At thirteen, she had the snobby habit of tossing her fine blond ponytail over her shoulder so regularly it may have been a tic. Her mother wasn’t much better either. She never got out of her minivan or talked to the other parents at pickup. She parked on the road, as far as possible from the school, hiding behind her tinted windows, a pinched expression frozen on her face.
No one ever went over to Chloe’s, not even for a birthday party, so initially I couldn’t understand why I’d been asked. I was a full year younger than her, and we definitely weren’t friends. The invite came during our first week back at school after summer holidays, when she caught me flipping through a book on horses in the library, and out of the blue she asked if I wanted to go riding with her one day.
Obviously, I said yes.
Our island was small, only a thousand or so people living on it, and we all thought we knew everything about Chloe’s family. They owned hundreds of acres, and this land had been in their hands for generations. Chloe’s paternal great-great-grandparents had been some of the first whites to settle on and then log the green, lumber-rich island. My mom, who worked at the gas station and lived in a small rented trailer, gave me pointers on our way over.
“Chloe is different than us. Her family has money money. So say please and thank you and remember to be helpful,” she said, before letting me out at the end of Chloe’s driveway where the girl was waiting for me, sitting on a log, her hair tied back with a fuzzy pink scrunchy.
That first day, walking down the long cool driveway that was shaded by towering fir and smelled like end-of-summer dust, I was preoccupied with how I should behave. I worried that if I got it wrong, she’d regret the invitation and never have me back. I was overcome with the intense desire to impress the older girl, even though she was mean and intimidating and I didn’t like her at all.
We had it right that Chloe’s property was huge. It encompassed fields, forests, a scrapyard of broken-down vehicles from decades past, boarded-up cabins, and a whole south-facing bay of grey pebbles that, at low tide, exposed a rippling sandy bottom pocked with spitting clams. The only thing mildly civilized about the place was Chloe’s mother’s impeccably kept navy-blue minivan parked outside the house.
I realize now that the vehicle was the family’s face. Their armour. Their honour. Driving such a car around the island made the right impression, the rich impression, fitting the story they so desperately wanted to perpetuate. As soon as I took in the landscape, I understood why I’d been invited. I was here because I was safe. Because I was young. Because I was poorer than they were. They knew I wouldn’t tattle or gossip about what I saw. And they were right. I didn’t. I never even told my mom how dirty or strange it was at Chloe’s. I never told her about the rusting trucks, the starving vicious dogs, or how the house was in near ruins, the roof thatched over with layers of wind-shredded tarp. I kept everything about Chloe’s family to myself. But I didn’t do this to save face for them. I kept quiet for me. I kept quiet for the horses.
I started going over after school most days, weekends too. I grew accustomed to the shock of it. How outside, by the front door, and tumbling down the steps, there were heaps of garbage bags, always with a raven or two perched on top, working an apple core, a hunk of bloody Styrofoam, or a twist of meat-juice-soaked Saran wrap free from the sack—any treasure that glittered and stunk. Inside the house, the curtains were permanently drawn. There were holes in the hallway where the floorboards had rotted through to the joists, and the air hung with the smell of hard-boiled eggs, wet dog, and bone broth. The toilet only trickled with water when you flushed, the piss-smelling bowl coated in a thick, hard mineral-like substance the colour of gold. “Urine into gold,” I thought each time I sat on the throne and added my micronutrients to the mix.
Chloe claimed they had a “fend for yourself kitchen,” even though the cupboards were pretty much bare. When parched, we selected glasses from the filthy dish-covered counter, scrubbed out as much mossy black mould from the bottoms as we could manage, and then squeezed our eyes closed against the taste of the foul well water. I never found out what dinner was like there—Chloe’s family was always careful to send me away by five. Back at home with my mom, I pictured the three of them sitting around their sticky table as they munched down bulk saltines and canned sardines.
The horses weren’t fed much besides the heap of decaying hay behind the tack shed that they nosed through, snorting and sneezing. But this was the way it was. All the animals scrounged. The six horses, the five dogs, the twenty-some-odd cats, and the ever-fluctuating number of chickens all had to fight for the scraps. Seagrass, thistle, lichen, mice, bugs, stunted vegetation, and garbage. Being flightless birds, the chickens felt the brunt of the neglect. They had bare patches where their feathers had been yanked, and because they didn’t have a proper coop, they roosted quivering high in the tool shed, shitting all over the rusted wheelbarrows and chainsaws and plows, their eggs smashing to the cement floor to be scarfed by the barn cats. During daylight hours they were plucked from the ground by eagles, and at night they were stolen by raccoons, but this didn’t seem to bother anyone. When their numbers dipped too low, Chloe’s mother took the ferry to the mainland, bought a cardboard box of fertilized eggs, and set them on the kitchen table under a lamp. That was the only time I ever saw her smile, when those chicks emerged from their shells and she saw their soft sunshine-yellow puffs of life.
Chloe’s father was a terrifying specimen. Always in his housecoat on the brown recliner, with his shiny bald head, a glass of Coke fizzing and falling flat in his hand as he stared at the wall. I never heard his voice once that year, not even the day he got out of the minivan with the gun. But as my mom always said, some men could throw a lot of power with their silence. All Chloe told me about him was that he named the horses himself. Leopold, Pizarro, Cortés, Robinson, Columbus, and Napoleon. I didn’t understand the impact of those names back then. But please forgive me for everything I was taught at home and at school. Please forgive me for not knowing anything yet. And if you can’t do that, that’s O.K., but maybe forgive them if you can. It wasn’t their fault they were given those horrid names. They were only horses.
There were no fences around their land, and the only reason the herd didn’t stray too far was that Pizarro, the stud, was kept hobbled at his fetlocks. Cruel. Still, catching Columbus and Napoleon, the two tame-ish enough to ride, proved difficult. They hid from us in the underbrush, or in the thick woods, or down by the beach, and the hunt could take hours. The horses didn’t wear halters, and when we finally managed to sneak close enough to throw a rope over their withers they’d snort, flick their hooves at us, and prance off.
“It’s a game,” Chloe explained the first time. “My dad says they’re as vain as girls. You’ve got to trick ’em and grab ’em and get ’em good.”
During September our outings on horseback were mostly innocuous. On our first, we rode to where the retired teacher lived, got out of our saddles, peered in his windows, snickered at the socks he’d left strewn on the floor. The next time we rode to the R.C.M.P. officer’s house. Stampeded our horses across his lawn, back and forth, back and forth, hooves flinging clumps of moss into the sky like barn swallows, until Chloe felt we’d done enough damage and we jumped the overgrown flowerbed back to the main road. On our third outing, I held the horses’ leads outside the store while Chloe stole Mars bars and cigarettes. I watched through the window as she deceitfully chatted with the grocer while sneaking the loot into the waistband of her pants. Then she sauntered out, took Columbus’ reins from my sweating hands, and off we cantered up the road.
Though we weren’t allowed to swim in the frigid waters and fast currents, a few weeks after we started hanging out, we took the horses into Chloe’s bay. Napoleon, the horse I always rode, nimbly approached the waves, snorting at the skuzzy foam and dead kelp at the shore, but he picked through it. After our few rides, he’d started to trust me. His ears flicked back, straining to hear my voice over Chloe’s. She was beside us, shouting, beating a terrified Columbus into the waves.
As Napoleon waded in, my boots filled with the salty ocean and became two suicide stones pulling at my feet. When the water crested his withers and he took his first strokes, I understood that a swimming horse is even less graceful than a dog-paddling dog. Napoleon’s gait was jerky and struggling, his nose barely above water.
About fifty feet from the beach, Napoleon started sinking. I wasn’t a strong swimmer either, and I was sure that if I stayed on his back, on this course out toward the pass, we would be swept away. In a panic, I slipped off and made my way up to his head. While his front hooves knocked my shins underwater, I tugged at his bridle and spoke to him as calmly as I could. Once I had him facing his beach again, he relaxed and his strokes grew confident.
“Go on, gorgeous,” I said.
As he pulled ahead, I ran my hands down his otter-slick body. When my numb fingers reached his tailbone, I clutched his wiry black tail tight and kicked my heavy boots. We didn’t even glance at Chloe, who we could hear screaming at us over the surf, calling us a bunch of scaredy-bitches. Our eyes were held firm on the shore.
It’s Napoleon that I miss most from this time. The realness of his hate, the softness of his forgiveness, the bright pink flash of his tongue. He had a coal-coloured coat and his life, though mildly better, wasn’t too distant from Black Beauty’s, that over-read book on my nightstand. He was frail, his muzzle greying, and he heaved laboriously when our rides took him too far. When I removed his saddle back at Chloe’s, his fur underneath would be white with sweat. I stroked the star on his forehead, scratched behind his ears, kissed his velvet lips, and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
To this day, I’m convinced that, even though I was part of the problem, he loved me too.
The shoulder on the island’s main road was just a skinny strip between the passing cars and forest, so most of the time we rode single file, Columbus in front, Napoleon tagging along behind. Over those months I got to know Chloe’s back quite well. How her hips stuck to the Western saddle like they were glued there with rubber cement, how her freckled arms got sunburnt even when it was overcast, how she always wore her blond hair up in that scrunchy. I can still hear the punch of her heels on Columbus’ barrel-shaped belly, recall how she pulled her feet back before she kicked, aiming at the most sensitive part of his flank. It was clear Chloe had a lot of rage inside and that this is how she let it out. She didn’t care about the horses. To her they were just a mode of transport and something to beat. The hollow sound of those kicks on empty belly made me want to vomit.
It was only when Chloe veered us onto the quiet gravel roads that we trotted side by side. There, we’d find a shady alcove, halt the horses, and light our smokes with the matches she kept in her dandruff-flecked bra. We let the hungry animals rip the lush grass from the ditch with their yellowed incisors, sea-green foam flinging from their jaws as they chewed around their bits, tails whipping at flies. Once our smokes burned down to the filter, Chloe said it was time and we tugged the horses up from their grazing and started crunching along in the gravel again. We were like cowboys in a movie, but female and with no real purpose. God, I loved that smell: fur, dust, mucky ditch, and smoke. And the rhythm: Clip-clip. Clip-clip. Hoofbeats.
On those side roads Chloe would talk incessantly. She asked about my mom, about our trailer, about my mom’s boyfriend, Bob, and then she asked what had happened to Frank—he was the guy before. When Chloe interrogated me like this, she wore a little sneer that made her look like her mother. While answering her questions with the sun baking my hair, or the rain soaking through my thin windbreaker, I understood that this was why my mom made me promise never to gossip. Because it felt horrible to be mined for information, and even worse to know that eventually everything you said would be used against you.
Once Chloe grew bored of my guarded answers, she talked about her family instead. She talked about money and travel and buying stuff. She talked about Mexico and Paris and Spain—even though I knew for a fact she’d never been on a plane. She described what her relatives wore to what fancy restaurants in what specific cities, going into detail about her mother and aunts’ lace-fringed dresses and sparkling jewels, as if I hadn’t been in her house a hundred times. That we hadn’t once snuck into her mother’s closet and sat on the pile of dirty, dog-shit-smelling pumps, looking up at the few drab items hanging above us on mismatched hangers. There was plastic duct-taped over the windows in that bedroom too, but I didn’t judge them for that. I only wondered why they were so committed to lying. Why this desperate story of wealth and fame? Why was her family holding firm to this idea that they were different from everyone else? Why did they insist on reminding everyone on this island that they were better? My mom didn’t do this. She’d taught me that us humans were more or less the same; that there was both something to despise and something to admire in everyone. Tick-tick-tick-tick. That was my mom’s heartbeat.
Chloe changed a lot during our year as friends. She grew bigger breasts, sprouts of orange hair under her arms, and she started talking more and more about boys: which ones smelled bad and which were worthy of her time. She would be starting high school next year, and she reminded me that once September came around there was no way our friendship could continue. I didn’t care about that. I wasn’t going to miss her. My grief was only over losing Napoleon. I vowed to sneak onto Chloe’s land to ride him in the dark. I vowed to smuggle him food. I vowed to steal him if I had to.
Chloe was actually very bright. One of those intelligent, cruel girls apt at utilizing a friend’s vulnerability to get what she wanted. Though I cringe saying this now, because isn’t this what I’m confessing here? That I did the same? I let Chloe believe I liked her just so I could ride her horses when she probably wanted so badly to be liked. I suppose I was horrible too. Anyway, it didn’t take long for Chloe to pinpoint my weakness. And that year, as things got more complicated, when, say, I shyly suggested we didn’t steal the cash, or siphon the gas, or break the windows, she’d casually reply, “Sure, don’t come. I don’t give a fuck. But I’ll never let you see Napoleon again.”
She used to tease me when he peed too, telling me to look at his dick. And it’s true, I blushed when, after a month or two, Napoleon stopped running from me. He started trotting right up whenever he spotted me crossing the fields. He’d blow his whiskers in my face and I’d tell him about my day at school, while Chloe chased Columbus around the thickets of Scotch broom, lassoing her rope and yelling her head off.
I wasn’t in love with Napoleon—I hate when people say this about girls and horses. My relationship with him only proved something: that even in hard times, even starving or mistreated, kindness can open doors into hearts that have been locked for years. That it’s always possible to soften again. That’s why I blushed, because what Napoleon and I had was real.
At first everyone thought the boys in our class were the ones stealing, but really it was Chloe and me. It was an island: nobody locked doors. We knew who worked where. What time they got home. If they had a dog or a gun. It wasn’t hard. At first, in the fall, it was harmless stuff. Chloe slipped in and took the coins she found in the key bowl by the front door, or what was dumped on peoples’ kitchen counters. This was before debit cards were a thing, when folks mostly used cash, and change was left all over. But by early spring, Chloe grew bolder. She wanted to up our game and start carrying backpacks along to lug all our bounty home. She still stole quarters if she found them, but took to searching for hidden stashes of cash as well: wads kept in an envelope, or in a junk drawer, or behind a picture frame. She took jewelry too. Watches, small electronics, sealed bottles of booze. All pawnable stuff or stuff her family wanted/needed. I don’t know if Chloe was given a list, if she planned these robberies ahead of time, or how explicitly she and her parents discussed the stealing, but Chloe’s mother started watching for our return from the seized porch swing that sat on the porch and didn’t swing. While we unsaddled the horses she marched down the front stairs, past the garbage bags and their raven royalty, and, without acknowledging us, she’d lug our backpacks of stolen loot into the house.
Rides on Wednesdays were the worst, because that was when the mechanic was off-island getting parts. On those days, Chloe ordered me to put the jerry can and hoses into my pack. Then we’d ride over, sneak through his screeching metal gate, and siphon gas from the vehicles on his lot. Because of those Wednesdays, I’m still terrified of fuels. I remember gas on our hands, on our jeans, in our mouths, up our noses. Dogs barking from their straining chains. Every car that passed us creating a spark of fear in my chest so hot I was sure it would ignite the gas strapped to my back and blow us to smithereens.
I sobbed discreetly behind Chloe and Columbus the whole ride home, gasoline sloshing in my ears with each step. I was going to explode—I deserved to explode. Each time I swore that if I lived, I’d never go riding on a Wednesday again. But of course, once we were safely back on Chloe’s property, after we’d dismounted and she was funneling the precious flammable liquid into the minivan’s tank, I would stare into Napoleon’s chocolate eyes, and know that I’d do it again, and again, and again. I’d do anything for that horse if Chloe asked me to.
I say Chloe was the ringleader because she was. The horses could be caught and could be ridden, but they were not well-trained. Both feared being tethered to anything solid and would rear back in panic if they found their reins around a tree. They were only calm in a human’s hand—in my hand. So mainly my crime was holding onto the horses while Chloe worked. She was the brain and the brawn, I handled the getaway vehicles.
The R.C.M.P. officer figured us out eventually. That was the following August, the same day our friendship ended. He claimed he put it all together because of the hoof prints—what a detective! Each place we robbed had a trail leading up to the house and then back down the driveway. Once he clued in, his mind turned to the two girls on horseback riding aimlessly around the island every afternoon. He probably remembered coming home and seeing his own lawn and the holes in the grass. The officer was proud of himself, but really, it took nearly a year for him to add it up. He wasn’t all that clever.
Chloe got off scot-free. Because her family was “wealthy” while mine was not, it was easy to believe her when she said I pressured her into everything. After I was issued my community service, I spent every Saturday for a year walking the same roads where I once rode Napoleon, thinking about him, missing him, bending occasionally to pick up chip packets and beer cans with my bare hands. No one waved as they drove past. Though I’d once been well-liked, the recent gossip was a more powerful substance. Chloe had made me into a girl with a bad reputation.
Chloe and I had already been fighting the afternoon we were discovered. People had been talking, and because of this we’d started to find more and more front doors locked. At first I was relieved our luck was bad. I didn’t want to keep stealing, I wanted to stop, but Chloe was pissed. Because this stealing wasn’t just stealing for her. It was personal. It was survival even. I never asked why they didn’t just sell the minivan if they were so broke. Or sell some land. Or sell a horse—Pizarro was still young and could have brought a few hundred dollars. I didn’t ask because there was no way Chloe would have talked about it. That’s often the case with friends, with the ones you love and the ones you hate: you take care of them by avoiding subjects they can’t handle.
When we set out that last day of our friendship, that last day of our year with her beautiful horses, Chloe informed me that we were hitting up the summer houses this time. The empty ones would be locked, yes, but she brought a rag to protect her fist if she had to punch through a window. This is what started our fighting. I said no, she said yes. Of course she won.
There was a spot on the island with a high bluff and some vacation homes overlooking the water. It wasn’t far, just a kilometer or so up a steep, twisting gravel road. On our way up, Napoleon often slowed to catch his breath. When I dismounted to lighten the load, I noticed his knees shaking.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’re almost there. We’ll take our time.”
The first house had impossible-to-break double-paned windows, along with evidence of recent guests: a bicycle laying on the grass and an empty wine bottle on the porch, but Chloe deemed the second house to be perfect. It was a little older, and the windows were big, so she could get a good look inside. I did my part and held the horses while they grazed on the lawn. I looked at the view off the cliff, saw a ferry passing below, saw an eagle circling overhead, saw the sun shimmer off the rolling waves. The water was like an unrolled spool of aluminum foil. I lay my face against Napoleon’s shoulder, closed my eyes, and felt his steady chewing though my cheek.
The alarm shrieked, both horses spooked, and the leather leads slipped through my small hands. The horses skidded to a stop near the drop-off, pivoted on their hindquarters, and shot past me down the road at full gallop, reins dragging along behind them, stirrups loose and kicking their sides.
Half walking, half running, we scrambled down the hill toward Chloe’s property. Fighting again, but worse. About whose fault it was. If we were going to get caught. How much she hated me. How much I hated her. Who hated who more. Reaching her property we slowed, then we slowed even further when we noticed the steaming heap of animal ahead of us in the middle of her driveway.
Columbus wasn’t anywhere to be found. It was just Napoleon, lying on his side, his left foreleg looped in one of the reins, his cannon bone jutting out of his skin.
“Well, great. Now we need my dad,” Chloe spit, before marching off toward her house.
Napoleon was breathing heavily. His coat creamy and foaming with sweat. He lifted his head, nickered at me, but knew better than to try and stand. I sat cross-legged on the ground and shuffled under him so he could lay his giant face on my lap. I kissed his forehead. His eyes. His soft nose. I told him how if it hadn’t been for me, none of this would have happened. How they were going to kill him and it was all my fault. I explained that I hoped I’d shed as much light in his life as he had mine. It seems almost selfish how much I went on and on, but it’s not like he could say anything in return, even if he wanted to. He didn’t have words. He was a horse. And I saw that my voice calmed him.
I had ten minutes with Napoleon under that canopy of trees, with the smell of his sweat and the fir needles. Ten minutes before Chloe came back in the minivan with her dad. Ten minutes before he climbed from the driver’s seat, in his housecoat, shotgun clutched in his weak-looking hands. Ten minutes before the R.C.M.P. car pulled up in the driveway and Chloe pointed at me and said, “It was her.” I had ten minutes alone with my best friend.
Now, I should add that there were times when Chloe would smile and show a little humility. Sometimes she would stop lying, or putting me down, or saying she was better than all of us for a minute. There was one particular day out riding bareback, forest thick on either side of the road, dust browning the emerald salal and swaying sword fern, when we sang the 4 Non Blondes song that was huge that year. We knew every word, and together our voices wove in and out perfectly. I swear we sounded as good as the original. Once we hit the last note, we started right up from the beginning again. That was a good day.
I suppose I’m trying to say that Chloe wasn’t all bad, and that in some ways we were actually similar. We were both young, and we didn’t know much about anything yet. Nothing about why our families worked the way they worked, or why our country was the way it was. We didn’t understand money, its power, or how it managed to hurt everyone we cared about. What we knew were those rides around our small nothing island, on innocent animals, named after the worst of all men.