beating a dead horse

Grace Shelton

The horse game doesn’t give me any instructions on how to keep my horse alive. I leave a room for one minute and it dies. I switch tabs to play some music and it dies. I go downstairs to make myself a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup, because I haven’t eaten anything since I spoke to the police. My horse dies. I do not know how to stop it from dying. I can’t stop anything from dying.

The horse lives on my desktop. Every time it dies, another identical horse spawns from its fallen body. There is a tally in the upper left-hand corner of its small stall, counting upwards with each tab switch, each grilled cheese. We’re almost at 240. The horse does not die when I close my computer, this I know, and when I pat its head, it will stay alive for fifteen seconds while I turn my head away. It survives longer if I clear its waste from the stall. I cannot delete the app from my desktop, but there are no consequences for each horse down the drain. 

Marcus’s mom calls the house around eight. 

“Thank you for the casserole, Ellen,” she says. Ellen is my mother’s name, but it isn’t worth upsetting her over. I have to get back to my horse.

“We’ll send you another tonight,” I reply.

“You don’t have to—”

“It’s the least we can do.”

She clicks off the phone. I know she’ll call back in a minute or two. There’s always some new thank you, some new little thing that she should have said the first time. She knows that I’m too afraid not to pick up. 

Marcus called me. That night. Eight times. He left one voicemail, this really long one where he told me how much he loved me. Marcus never waxed poetic about us—he wasn’t that kind of person. Should have been a red flag. “Call me back,” he said. “I want to hear from you.”  I might have, too, if he hadn’t used those words exactly. He wanted me to call him back. If he wanted me to call him back, he intended to be there to pick up the phone. 

He wasn’t. So there was that. 

I go to pat my horse’s head so I can earn that extra fifteen seconds. I don’t think there’s a way to win the horse game, or at least, I haven’t found a way to win yet. The horse stands still in the center of its stall. It poops, and I clean it up. The horse keeps living. My record is eighteen hours straight—I did not abandon my computer for an entire day.

It appeared on my desktop computer on the night Marcus called eight times, a little bit after midnight. I think it was a promotion for something bigger that ended up flopping. A Microsoft update, maybe. A week later, it’s just me and the horse. I pat it again. I clean its stall. I cleaned Marcus’s room sometimes when I visited, because he couldn’t get out of bed, and it felt a lot like this. A lot of things feel like things I used to do for Marcus. It’s been one week.

The phone rings. I leave my horse to pick it up.

“Ellen, I meant to tell you—thank your daughter for that note, would you?”

I never wrote any note. “Yes, I’ll thank her.”

“We’re making arrangements with the funeral home now, but I can give you the house code—” She pauses. I can hear the sobs building through the phone line. I wonder if she’ll ever stop crying. “—if you have to get in…”

I step over to the computer and pat my horse on the head to give us another fifteen seconds. There are no consequences for letting your horse die on the desktop. Or maybe there are, and I just haven’t discovered them. A new horse spawns in its place. It isn’t the same horse; I know from the tally. It looks identical—black spots on its flank, chestnut brown eyes, spotless hooves—but it isn’t the same, and I carry that failure with me for the rest of my life. I looked away for fifteen seconds. There are no instructions on how to play the horse game.

“I can leave the casserole on the front porch,” I say, picking up the phone again. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“Don’t worry about intrusion. You’ve seen the worst of it.” Marcus’s mom laughs, obviously not the happy kind. It’s strangled, like it’s an animal clawing its way from her throat, like it’s a scream that got lost somewhere inside her. “Not much has changed since—since—” 

Since everything changed.

The moment hasn’t stopped playing in my head since it occurred: hearing those words. Marcus, dead. Thinking about how I saw him yesterday at Trader Joe’s with a paper bag full of ice cream and a cucumber. How I made fun of him for it. I thought I was going to see him again. And then I had to say as much to the police, out on his front lawn, three in the morning, as his mother scream-cried the most horrific scream-cry I’d ever heard in all seventeen years of my life. No more Marcus. Marcus, upstairs, with half a skull sitting on his shoulders.

He called me eight times. I wasn’t doing anything important. I should have heard that first voicemail and made good on the promise right away, called him back, heard the sweet lilt of his voice over the line like angels were pulling at his vocal chords. 

In the horse game, my horse always stands in the center on the stall. I can pat its head and clear the stall around it, and in turn, it survives for me. Sixteen seconds away brings the tally mark up and there’s a new horse left behind. I’m counting in my head as I talk to Marcus’s mom on the phone. Ten seconds. I remember counting for Marcus, waiting outside the bathroom door in the middle of the night, begging him to open the door and let me in. I’ll give you fifteen seconds, then you come out and see me. He never waxed poetic about me. I don’t think he ever said he loved me before that voicemail.

“Sorry I couldn’t help him,” I say into the receiver. It’s a stupid thing to say. Marcus’s mom still thinks I’m my mother, who bears no personal responsibility for what happened to Marcus. She didn’t know he was upset. It wasn’t her phone that rang that night. She wasn’t trying to figure out how to save a horse on her desktop, watching it die again and again despite her best efforts. She was asleep in bed by then. I correct to something more professional. “We’ll make one with eggs tonight.”

“Thank you, Ellen.”

The other line clicks out again, even though Marcus’s mother is just going to call back in fifteen minutes or so. What else can you do, when your whole life was raising your son, and now he’s somewhere where you can’t help him? What else is left of you?

I run back to the computer. My horse is dead.