Kashlynn made a victory lap around the rodeo ring. The crowd cheered and whistled. The announcer extolled the virtues of her horsemanship.
Jodi sneered from the nosebleeds. Louise sat next to her fully glum, chin resting on her hands.
“I’d be twice the rodeo queen she is if I had all that money,” said Jodi. She kicked the bleacher with her muck boot. It was a windy day in a place where there was always wind.
“Too bad horses can’t eat love,” said Louise. She put her hands in the pocket her sweatshirt. It was dark green, close to the color of old Army fatigues. Louise was a small girl, 14 with big brown eyes like a crying mouse.
Jodi stood up. “You ain’t nothing Kashlynn!” she shouted. A man further down turned around and told them to shut up. Louise quaked. She hated being yelled at more than anything. Jodi decided they needed to split, so they walked down. The cheap bleacher metal groaned and wobbled with each step.
The man glared as they went by. When he recognized Louise he jumped to his feet. “Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you, Louise. I am so sorry about your father. It’s such a tragedy.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, looking at her Uggs. Her father had died in Iraq and wherever she went people were sorry about it. Sometimes she wouldn’t even feel sad, but then someone would remind her that she was.
In the parking lot, Jodi let out how she felt. “That old cocksucker shoulda minded his own business,” she said. Jodi was 16. She went to Adult-Ed instead of regular high school. She had friends younger than her, like Louise, and some way older, but none her own age. Her hair was bright red and scraggly. She had a face that turned red at the drop of a hat. “You might be the only girl in town who people like more than Kashlynn Goddamn Rickard,” she said.
Louise bit the inside of her cheek. Forced her shoulders into a carefree shrug. “It’s not like you think. People don’t like me like they like Kashlynn. They’re just pretend nice because my dad died. People get all sweet but weird when your dad’s a soldier and he dies.”
“I bet Kashlynn would kill her dad if she could be the state rodeo queen and not just the county queen. Did you hear that her parents are throwing her a cotillion? Like, what the fuck is a cotillion?” said Jodi. She hocked a loogie on a car as she walked by.
They made it back to Jodi’s Buick. It was beat up, rusted out, unstickered, and Jodi wasn’t supposed to be driving anyone under 21 anyway. Sitting in it, they pulled out their respective packs of gum and tossed the wrappers on the floor.
“One day I’m going to get rich enough to have a horse like Sagebrush. He’s too good for Kashlynn.”
“How are you going to do that?” said Louise.
Jodi opened her eyes wide in annoyance. “I’m just going to fucking do it!”
Louise slumped in the passenger seat. “He’s a beautiful horse.”
They were bored but used to it. With nothing else to do, they went to Jodi’s house. It was cold. Her parents kept the heat off during the day when no one was home. There was plastic sheeting duct taped to the inside of every window. Jodi turned on the heat and got Louise some mittens. “Those assholes said they’d be home by 4:00,” grumbled Jodi.
Louise nodded. “We should make hot cocoa.”
Jodi shrugged and went to the liquor cabinet. She yanked out a bottle of cheap moscato. Her face screwed up in concentration and she stared at the label. “You ever heard people say ‘Wine is fine but liquor is quicker?’”
“Yeah,” squeaked Louise. She was frightened of drinking but with Jodi she did it anyway.
“It’s true, you know.” Jodi put the moscato back and pulled out a plastic bottle of rum. She poured a few splashes into glasses then filled them to the brim with Dr. Pepper.
They took the drinks upstairs to Jodi’s room. It was filled with horses, just like Louise’s room. The walls were covered in horse pictures torn out from magazines. All the edges were ragged. Above the bed was a shelf lined with twenty-two replicas of different horse breeds ranging from a blonde and dappled Shetland to a sleek and regal black Friesian.
Still buzzing with rodeo fever, they watched the DVD of National Velvet again. The way it was scratched made the first twenty minutes impossible to watch. They rooted for Elizabeth Taylor, despite knowing that she would become an astonishing beauty. They laid close together in Jodi’s bed with the blankets piled above them, and it was just enough to keep them from shivering.
Jodi’s parents came home. They were drunk and screaming at each other. Her father put on ESPN at full volume to drown it out, but that only made more loud. All the girls could hear of National Velvet was a few music cues. Jodi rolled her eyes and turned the TV off. They flipped through Jodi’s same old four issues of Teen Vogue and waited for it to blow over. But it didn’t.
“Maybe we should go for a walk or something,” said Louise. “Maybe I should go home.”
“Don’t go home!” Jodi bent her head. “We’ll just get out of here for a couple hours. Then we’ll come back and we’ll finish the movie. Okay?”
Louise nodded. Jodi’s tone made it clear that tonight had to be a regular sleepover. Jodi needed it to be normal, even if it wasn’t. She poured the remainder of their drinks into an old Gatorade bottle. She wrapped it in a sweater and shoved it under the bed.
They snuck out the back way, bolting from the house into the safety of the Buick. Jodi gunned it off into the night while Louise looked back to make sure no one was following them, peering through the space between car seat and headrest.
When they’d gone far enough, Louise faced forward and thought about National Velvet. She whispered, “I wish I could win a horse race. Even if they didn’t give me money at the end. I just want to win one.”
“What?” said Jodi.
They drove back to the rodeo parking lot. It was empty. Jodi parked in the shadows and turned the car off. The two of them leaned their seats back and laid without talking. They were cold, but not teeth chattering yet. Frost crept up the windows inch by inch, growing in the shape of silvery fingers.
Louise was almost asleep when Jodi spoke. “Did you ever think of asking one of those charities for a horse?”
“The ones that have been coming around since your dad died.”
“Yeah, I thought about it. But who will pay to take care of a horse? You know horses can live a long time. I don’t think those charities will do that. I don’t think they’ll keep coming forever. By next year I don’t think they’ll come at all.”
“I guess,” said Jodi. She used her middle finger to draw a frowny face in the window frost. “How’s your mom?”
“I’m sorry she’s sad all the time. I bet it’ll get back to normal though. People can’t stay like that forever after someone dies or practically everyone would be like her all the time.” Jodi bolted up. “I’ve got it! Just the thing to cheer you up. Let’s play rodeo queen.”
“Like make believe?”
“No! With a real horse. Sagebrush is boarded here.”
Jodi jumped out of the Buick, not bothering to lock it, running full tilt toward the stable. Louise followed, trying to run quietly on the asphalt, though Jodi made no attempt to do so.
Jodi walked the horse around while Louise rode him. They went slower than an amble. The ground had frozen in the night. The hoof prints from earlier were set firm.
As she rode, Louise trembled from the cold. But her arms were held high, victorious. She could almost feel the rough embrace of a rhinestone tiara against the crown of her head. She couldn’t help but whoop and shout because she felt just as good as a real rodeo queen.