Aaron and I were cleaning out the stalls when we heard a thud and loud whinnying. He dropped the shovel and I did the same, running through the stall and out into the back where a pure white horse was on the ground. Aaron swore loudly - something he never did - and ran to it. I hesitated, too worried the horse would kick me to go over to it.
"Come here," Aaron called, his voice shaking. "She-She won't hurt you."
I rushed over and looked down. The horse was panting and sweaty. Aaron was holding the front right leg. It was sticking out in a weird direction.
"I need you to go get Willow," he whispered, his voice still trembling.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Just go get Willow, please."
I frowned and jogged up to the house. Willow was listening to music and vacuuming the living room. She smirked when she saw me.
"Come to throw up some more?" she taunted, turning the vacuum cleaner off.
"A white horse got hurt," I panted and her face went pale quickly. "Your father is-"
Before I could finish, she went running out in her flip flops. I chased after her, impressed as she climbed the six foot fence instead of going through the gate. I hung back, confused, when she fell to her knees. I heard her sob and Aaron put his arm around her shoulders. I had no idea what was going on and felt utterly useless. Aaron was on the phone with someone.
To my surprise - and slight disgust - Willow laid down in the mud and manure and put her head beside the horse's. She stroked its mane and was talking to it. Aaron walked over, shaking.
"What happened?" I asked and he squeezed his eyes shut.
"Broken leg," he said.
"We have to put her down," he whispered and I frowned.
"Why? It's just a broken leg. Just heal it."
"We can't, Nathan," he sighed, turning and watching Willow as she cuddled closer to the horse. "Spirit won't recover from a break that sever. We... let's give Willow some time. The vet will be here soon."
"Wait," I said, grabbing his arm. "I'm confused. Why is she-?"
"That's her horse, Nathan," he whispered. "She helped deliver Spirit, taught her to run when the mama died, and broke her in. Spirit and Willow have been companions for nearly 14 years."
"So she's losing her best friend," I said slowly.
"Yeah," he muttered. "Let's-Let's go finish that stall."
We didn't talk while we worked. A large truck pulled up and Aaron put the shovel down, pale, and walked over to it. An old woman stepped out, her face grim.
"Thank you for coming, Dr. Mack," Aaron said. "She's-She's in the back with Willow."
"Is Willow okay?" Dr. Mack asked, getting out a bag.
"No. I'll take her inside."
Dr. Mack shook her head, looking out at Willow still stroking Spirit's neck and mane.
"Let her stay."
I watched from the barn as Dr. Mack knelt down next to Willow and Spirit. She put her hand on Willow's back and Willow sobbed more, shaking her head. Dr. Mack took something out of her bag but I couldn't see what it was. Two minutes later, Willow was sobbing so hard it came out as screams. Aaron ran out and pulled her into his arms, rocking her.
Dr. Mack was sobbing, too, as she got into the truck. I watched her drive away and sat down in a chair in the barn. I shut my eyes, trying to block out the sound of Willow's grief. It tore into me. I didn't understand having such a close relationship with a horse. To lose your best friend.... What could that feel like?
"Let's get you up to the house," Aaron said, helping her stand.
"No," she rasped. "I want to stay with her."
"You can't, sweetheart," Aaron whispered. "They're on their way to-"
"No!" she screamed and started thrashing in his arms while he tried to get her up to the house. "No! Daddy, no! You can't let them do it! You can't let them take her away!"
"I'm not, baby. She'll be buried here, I promise."
I let Aaron take her up to the house, staring at the horse's dead body. I approached it slowly and got on my knee beside it. Its eyes were closed but its face was covered in Willow's tears. I straightened the mane and, despite it all, felt a twinge of sadness. I looked at its leg where it still stuck in that weird angle. The face was long but soft and the nose felt strange. The mouth was open slightly, revealing strong looking teeth. It was intimidating but, at the same time, I could suddenly understand why it was so easy to fall in love with this kind of creature.
Another truck pulled up and I looked over my shoulder. Five men were getting shovels and I stood, looking at the house. I didn't know where Aaron or Willow were.
"Where are we burying her?" one of them asked, his eyes sad.
"I don't know," I muttered. "I just work here. Um...." I looked around and, for some reason, felt a pull to a tree. "What are the rules about burying near trees?"
"We just have to bury far enough away from the roots so it won't harm the tree."
I pointed and another man handed me a large yellow ribbon.
"What is this for?" I asked, following them as they began to dig.
"It's to mark the tree," he explained. "Think of it as a tombstone or memorial for a human."
"Oh," I whispered. I tired it around the trunk. "Uh... do you need me out here?"
"No, we've got it. Send our condolences to Aaron and Willow." I nodded and made to leave. "Young man, tell them not to worry about payin' us." He looked sadly at Spirit's corpse. "We know how much Spirit meant to Willow. We'll be a few hours.
"Okay," I muttered and went to the house.
Aaron was at the dining room table, a few cans of beer in front of him.
"The men are digging the grave," I said, sitting beside him.
"Where'd they decide?" he asked.
"I- There was a tree that looked... I don't know so I suggested there."
He looked out the window and let out a small sob.
"Did I do something wrong?" I asked quickly.
"No," he said, wiping his tears away. "That was their tree. How'd you know?"
"I didn't," I said. "It's just a beautiful tree and felt like that's where she belonged." I looked up the stairs. "How is she?"
"Not good, Nathan," he answered. "Not good at all."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"No," he whispered. "Thanks for findin' a place for Spirit."
"They said not to worry about paying them," I said. "He told me they know how important she was." Aaron just nodded. "Um... I guess I'll go shower...."
He didn't respond so I climbed the stairs slowly. I passed by Willow's room and hesitated. I could hear her weeping into her pillow and sighed, opening the door to the room they were letting me stay in.