All Melanie can hear is her own staggered breath on an early Christmas morning. Silent snowflakes begin to float down from the clouded sky. They touch upon the pavement and glisten under the exposure of the floodlights coming from above the garage. Melanie waits on the brick steps at the edge of the driveway on the side of her house. She hugs her arms together, rubbing her wool gloves on the puffy fabric of her winter jacket, and bounces on the heels of her boots to keep warm while her breath creates a miniature blizzard before her lips. She stares into the dark- ness beyond her driveway and the small road she lives on. Finally, she hears a low rumble. It gets louder and rattles in the air and brings with it two high beams of lights coming out of the darkness and up the road. Melanie smiles, and then looks up at the little window above the driveway where her living room is but she sees only darkness through the glass. Driving up the road and turning into the driveway is a small, black pick-up truck with paint chipping around the wheels and it pulls a rusty metal trailer behind it. Melanie squints as the truck’s lights shine onto her face but she waves, knowing that the driver, Phil, can see her standing there. Melanie hopes the truck’s loud muffler won’t wake her daughter but she’s certain the boisterous activities at her in-laws’ Christmas Eve dinner the night before tired her out until at least seven a.m.
“Hello Phil,” Melanie whispers as she jogs up to the driver’s side of the truck and waits in the flurry for the skinny old man to lift himself out of the leather driver’s seat.
He smiles sleepily at her. “Merry Christmas, Melanie.” His smile shows a row of crooked, bark-like teeth with a glisten of gold hiding in the depths of his mouth.
“Oh, Merry Christmas!” Melanie blushes. She was so excited about his arrival that she forgot to wish him a merry Christmas. “Thank you again for this . . . And on Christmas! You have no idea how much this will mean to me—and, I mean, to her. To Stefani.”
Phil smiles once more before he motions to the trailer. “Shall we get her out?”
Melanie’s body is shaking with excitement. Every press of a snowflake that melts onto the skin of her collarbone sends an extra electric shock through her body. She nods her head furiously, with no desire to hide it anymore. Phil waddles his stick legs toward the back of the trailer, Melanie right on the edge of his boots, and she waits while he pulls up the squealing hinges on the left side of the back door. She can smell that familiar smell and an old feeling warms her body with comfort. When the hinges flap onto the side of the metal trailer, Phil grabs the heavy door with both hands and pulls it toward him until it opens up and swings over to the right side of the trailer. Inside is the Shetland pony munching on a bale of hay, tied to a ring on the trailer wall by a rope attached to her brown, crusty halter. She’s a ball of fluff and white as a polar bear with a big, round tummy and stunted little legs.
“She got a little dirty,” Phil says, pointing to a patch of brown on her rump that Melanie didn’t notice a moment ago.
“That’s okay! She’s still beautiful . . .” Melanie steps into the trailer and kneels down beside the pony. She pulls the glove off her right hand and hovers her hand below the pony’s pink muzzle. The pony sees the hand and blows hot air onto it for a moment before smacking her rubbery lips over Melanie’s knuckles as if it’s food. Melanie lets her hand get covered
in sticky, hay-covered slime before moving her fingers up onto the pony’s cheek and running her palm down under her forelock. The pony closes her eyes and leans into Melanie’s palm, which makes Melanie lose her breath.
“So, you’ve got everything squared away? Got all the supplies I wrote down ‘n such?” Phil’s voice breaks the moment that Melanie has drifted off into. She tenses, standing back up so quickly that the pony snorts and shifts her weight onto her front legs. The pony’s back barely reaches Melanie’s hip.
“Yeah—yep. I do. I’m all set . . .” Melanie swallows. “Thank you, again. Thank you so much.”
Phil steps into the trailer and begins untying the rope. “I’m just glad we were able to find Merrylegs a home.” He pauses, frozen for a moment, then lets out a relieved sigh. “And close by, too!” Phil gives Melanie the rope and the pony is hers.
“Come visit anytime, Phil,” Melanie says, sifting her fingers through the pony’s mane. She tugs at the rope to lift the pony’s muzzle sideways and up from the cluster of hay. The pony pulls back and continues to eat, causing Melanie to tug harder until the pony’s entire head is bent sideways and she begins to wobble her legs forward. Both Melanie and the pony hop down from the trailer beside Phil and walk back to the front of the truck. The snow falls heavy now, in little clumps that pat atop Phil’s bald head. Melanie brushes off any clusters that collect to the pony’s white mane.
“Merry Christmas, again. Tell your wife I said the same.” Melanie lifts her gloved hand up to wave before Phil climbs into his truck.
Phil shouts, “Take care of her!” out the window and winks at her. She walks past the truck until the rope between her and the pony are taut. She clucks her tongue to make a noise she hasn’t heard in years, but it sounds so natural between her teeth, and the pony trots forward, clapping the ground with her sturdy hooves.
Once Melanie and the pony reach the half-acre, fenced-in backyard, Phil’s truck turns on and begins backing out of the driveway. Melanie notices that the noise of the exhaust doesn’t faze the pony. She’s small, but she’s not skittish like horses can be—just like Stefani.
There is a tin-roofed shed in the backyard that the last owners used for lawn supplies. Melanie and her husband Joe’s landscaper kept his supplies in his truck, so the shed had stayed empty. It’s perfect for a stable—Melanie thought this at the Open House while Joe was calling their broker. The inside is a small space cut off by a hinged half-door that opens into a twelve by six space. Melanie had spread sawdust and hay across the space and hired men to build shelves and hooks above it where she could put brushes and tack supplies. Beside the shed, on the side opposite the house, the tin roof extends out like an awning where Melanie hid the extra bales of hay and feedbags and a pick for the manure. Everything is pink— it’s Stefani’s favorite color. The water trough and plastic feed bucket in the stall are both hot pink with the barcodes freshly ripped off.
Melanie leads the pony up to the shed. She pulls up the latch and opens the door wide to guide the pony inside. The pony goes straight for the hay and continues to eat. Melanie flips on the light switch. She takes off her gloves and turns on the tiny space heater that’s attached to the wall and rubs her fingers together in front of it. The pony snorts, shaking her crusty, brown halter so the metal rings clap against her cheeks. Melanie smiles, she’s so giddy, and reaches for the brand new, baby pink halter on its hook and kneels down beside the pony. She unclasps the pieces of the old halter and, gently, she lifts the leather straps over the pony’s fuzzy ears and forehead. She then brings the new halter over her baby soft muzzle and flaps the nylon behind her ears to fasten it together beside her cheek. The pink nylon against the white coat almost blinds Melanie with its contrast but she blinks her eyes and forces them to accept the colors.
Next Melanie grabs a pink-dyed rubber currycomb and rubs it around the pony’s sloped back and rump. She presses it into the spot of dirt and furiously moves it back and forth to loosen the dirt until specks of brown begin to fly out in all directions. She then grabs a pink-painted wooden body brush and runs the stiff bristles across the pony’s body and down her legs, over her chestnut sized knees and ankles. As Melanie brushes, she’s hyper-aware of every crunch, crack, and clop from outside the shed. She made Joe promise to stay inside in case Stefani awoke, but she hopes he breaks his promise to sneak a peek. With every noise, she whips her head to the door and holds her breath—no one is there.
The hoof pick comes next and it’s crazy to Melanie that lifting up a pony’s leg could be so easy. She thought back to riding lessons when she would stand beside the horse’s leg, running her left hand down from shoulder to hoof while pushing her weight into its body in order to get the horse to lift its hoof. The soles of the hooves aren’t deep and Melanie only has to brush off clumps of ice and slush with the back of the pick. After all four hooves, she takes out a bottle of pink glittered hoof paint and brushes it over the pony’s hooves until they shine with a subtle pink hue. The pony turns and faces her while she’s admiring the hooves, giving her a dull look through her drooping eyes. Melanie remembers that she’s an old pony, almost in her twenties, and hopes that this means she will take care of Stefani. Yet she can’t stop thinking of the overworked ponies that used to give her that same dull expression. She will be loved here, Melanie tells herself.
“You will be loved here,” she says aloud. The pony’s eyes open a bit wider and then she reverts her nose back to the hay.
Birds start chirping to one another—“It’s Christmas morning!” Melanie pretends they squeak. She opens the shed door wide enough to stay still and sees the first glimpse of sunlight through the thick grey clouds. She takes a pink comb and a peppermint candy from the shelf before heading back to the pony. She squeaks her lips together, mimicking the birds, while holding the red and white swirled candy in her palm. The bird call and the candy smell cause the pony’s ears to prick up. She slaps her squishy lips over Melanie’s palm to collect the candy and nods her head up and down as she chews as if she’s telling Melanie, Yummy! Her breath suddenly smells fresh.
Melanie combs out the pony’s mane. She takes a bunch of the white hairs and separates them into three strands to work around each other in a braid. There’s a box full of pink ties—Melanie grabs a few and ties one around the bottom of the braid then continues braiding all the way to the pony’s withers. She steps back to admire her work once she’s done. The pony has her head stretched out and her lips are feeling their way over the tough plastic of the empty feed bucket by the corner of the stall. She drags her front right hoof along the sawdust, shifting her weight to get close enough to plunge her entire head into the bucket. Her braids shake across her mane like sleigh bells.
Melanie picks up the remains of the hay and tosses it outside where the little pony follows it. It’s sunnier now. It masks her lawn and house in a dim glow, and the fresh paintbrush of snow sparkles underneath it. She stuffs her gloves into her pocket and walks gingerly to the back sliding door of her house, turning every few moments to make sure the pony stays put. The pony is there, ignoring the birds, ignoring the sun, and the holiday, but happily chewing bits of yellow straw.
When Melanie gets to the back door and steps inside, her house is so quiet that it catches her breath. She pulls off her boots, takes off her coat and gloves, then tiptoes up the stairs and into her bedroom where Joe is softly snoring, bundled under the comforter. She presses her finger onto his nose for the squishy feeling and his brown eyes open wide.
“Hey.” He smiles sweetly at her and reaches his furry arm out to pull her close. She leans down and kisses him on the lips, feeling the warm and stale breath that contrasts her chilled chin.
“Merry Christmas,” she says. Melanie is taken aback by the silence that follows. She kneels onto the mattress beside Joe and waits.
“Is Stefani awake?” he asks. Melanie shakes her head and bites her lip. “Everything work out alright?” The question makes Melanie’s cheeks tighten into an automatic smile.
“Yes!” She clasps her hands together. “Perfect. Merrylegs is beautiful! I made her look pretty and pink!” Everything pours out at once. “Want to come see her? She’s just outside.” She points to the bedroom door.
Joe leans forward and pushes a strand of silver and honey colored hair away from her nose. “Let’s wait for her to wake up.” He scrunches his face and stretches his arms. “I’m sure it looks beautiful.”
“She,” Melanie corrects him.
Joe opens his mouth to apologize, maybe, but the high-pitched chant of their daughter fills the room. A less than four-foot, blonde ring- let-headed body in a pink Disney princess nightgown barricades the door and zooms into the room, leaping onto the bed beside Melanie and Joe.
“DID SANTA COME? DID SANTA COME?” she shouts, tugging at the sheets over Joe’s legs. Joe’s eyes disappear with his smile and he wraps his daughter in his big arms to give her a hug and a kiss.
Joe tucks his chin inward and asks, “Would you like to go see?”
Melanie reaches out and runs her fingers through the nest on her daughter’s head, getting caught in knots on the way down. “Your hair, sweetie!” Melanie clucks her tongue.
Stefani slaps her hand away. “Staaaawp!” she whines.
Joe gets out of bed to put on a robe and Melanie takes her daughter’s hand to help her off the bed. Stefani sprints past her parents, out the door, and slides on her butt down the carpeted stairs toward the kitchen. Melanie sprints after her, her socks slipping on the stairs so much that
she has to cling onto the banister. The door to the back yard is next to the kitchen, in between the stairs and the living room where the Christmas tree is. Stefani stops in the kitchen and begins bouncing up and down on her heels with her hands clapping, waiting for Joe to give her permission into the living room.
It is Melanie’s moment. She looks out the glass doors into the backyard where the pony is standing picturesquely in the snow with her braids facing this way and her hoofs glistening with the pink glitter. Melanie lets out a dramatic gasp and points to the window.
“Steffy! Look what Santa got you!”
Stefani whips her head around and runs up to the door, pressing her fingers onto the glass. It’s silent as her eyes scan the yard. Melanie reaches her hand out to Joe’s and gives it a squeeze.
“Whaaaa?” Stefani says. She turns around to face Melanie and Joe, cocking her head and scrunching up the side of her face with her lip up. “Santa got me a pony?” There’s a slight disgust in her confused tone. “It wasn’t even on the list!” Melanie loosens her grip around Joe’s hand and drops her arm to her side.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Melanie asks, hopeful. “Wanna say go out and say ‘hi’?” She goes for the children’s sized boots, gloves, and jacket that she prepared the night before for this moment.
Stefani presses her nose up to the glass again and shrugs her shoulders. “Maybe I’ll go after I open my presents.” She looks up at Joe, waiting. Joe nods his head and she gasps happily then runs into the living room. Melanie hears another muffled gasp of excitement over the ringing in her ears. She’s staring out, at the pony, as her eyes dry up. Joe rests his chin between the crevice of her neck and shoulder and kisses her skin.
“I’m sorry, baby.” He shrugs his shoulders. “I was afraid this would happen.”
“Yeah.” Melanie slopes her shoulder out from under Joe’s chin and stiffens her body. “Because she’s not a horse girl.” The words taste bitter. She feels dizzy but it’s Christmas and her husband is staring into her eyes with a startled expression because this behavior isn’t like Mel. She kisses him on the cheek and holds his hand again. “Let’s go,” she says, repressing the guilt.
They walk into the living room where Stefani is already playing with her new kitchen set in the corner. Joe walks over to her to express oohs and aahs of surprise by everything “Santa” brought her but Melanie detaches and slumps into the couch. She lifts her butt up to fix fabric wedged into the creases of her thighs and sits back again. She forces a smile as if Santa could be watching. The Christmas lights strung around the room begin to swirl and sway through Melanie’s fuzzy vision. She hears Joe yawn and immediately jumps up at the opportunity.
“Tired, Joe? I’ll make some tea.” She hurries toward the kitchen.
“No, I’m fine! Stay,” Joe protests. His hands are on his knees, kneeled down beside his daughter so they are at the same eye level.
“I want milk, Mama!” Stefani says, shaking a plastic bunch of grapes. Melanie nods her head, then continues into the kitchen.
She looks out the glass door to see the pony still eating. She fills a kettle with water and puts it on the stove, glancing up to check the pony, then prepares two cups with tea bags and a Sippy cup full of milk. While the water heats up, she walks over to the glass door and opens it an inch, letting the cold air inside. The pony is no longer by the hay, but a few steps away, inspecting a bush. Melanie squeaks like a bird until the pony cocks her head in her direction and nickers. Melanie kisses the air at her and the kettle starts to scream.
She dashes back to the stove, turns off the heat, and pours the water into the mugs. While she holds the hot mugs and balances the Sippy cup in the crease of her elbow, she grudgingly returns to the living room. Joe is sitting on the couch with their presents for each other on his lap. Melanie insists that he go first, to stall the inevitable performance of joy that comes with gift receiving. Joe opens a wooden box and his eyes sparkle at the sight of the black Victorinox wristwatch. He squeezes Melanie around her waist and presses a forceful kiss on her lips as a thank-you. She’s next, taking a small silver and pink wrapped box from Joe’s outstretched hand. The sound of her daughter rummaging through the rest of her presents—Leap Frog games, Barbie dolls, and Disney DVDs, the clean rip of wrapping paper beneath her fingers, and the tapping of Joe’s fingernails on his ceramic mug all become background noise in Melanie’s mind. It takes a few moments of unbearable gleaming into her eyes for her to realize that she’s now holding a diamond tennis bracelet.
“Oh!” She places her hand on her heart for effect.
“Do you like it?” Joe puts down his mug and grabs the ends of the bracelet. It’s identical to the one in an advertisement she ripped out of a magazine two months ago.
“I love it!” Melanie taps her toes while Joe fastens the bracelet around her wrist. There’s a groan from the tree. Melanie turns to see Stefani’s body collapsed into her knees and she’s pouting.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asks, seeming terribly concerned.
“Santa didn’t get me a Apple!” Redness forms around her eyes. ‘A Apple,’ she was referring to an iPad. She had scribbled that on the bottom of her Christmas Wish List after playing with her cousin’s during Thanksgiving dinner.
“You don’t need an Apple—” Melanie snaps.
“Well, maybe Nana has something special for you, Steffy,” Joe says in a suggestive tone. Melanie’s nails nip at his wrist.
“Excuse me?” she asks.
Joe’s smile begins to fade. “You know my mother…”
She’s five years old, Melanie thinks.
“She’s five,” she says aloud. Joe ignores her and places another gift onto her lap. Melanie tears open the identical silver and pink paper. Inside is a crisp blue-leathered Nook cover. She picks it up, flips it back to front, and puts it back down. “Thank you,” she whispers, giving Joe a peck.
Joe looks at the time on his new watch and his eyes widen. It’s somehow almost ten, Melanie can read by straining her neck. They need to get ready for Christmas brunch at her in-laws’ house because that’s what Italian families do, Melanie thinks to herself. Sometimes she wishes her parents would invite them down to Florida for the holidays, but they never wanted the company. At least the excuse of a pet will make Melanie feel as though it’s not just her parents’ disregard for tradition that’s keeping her from visiting.
Melanie picks up her mug and Joe’s, while Joe grabs a garbage bag to put the wrapping paper in, and starts to stand. Shutting her eyes with a hopeful feeling, she says, “Stef, want to see the pony before we go to Nana’s?”
Stefani looks up from her plastic grapes with her jaw dropped. “Oh yeah…” she responds, as if she forgot. “Ummmm…” She looks like a stranger underneath the Christmas tree.
“Mel, we don’t have time for that right now!” Joe protests.
Melanie pokes her head into the kitchen toward the door to see the pony sniffing around the lawn. Her heart tightens. She sits back down on the couch with the mugs on her lap and her gaze nowhere in particular. Minutes go by where Joe does not notice her immobile on the couch. Stefani appears from behind her.
“Mama, hello!” She shakes Melanie’s shoulder.
“Stop.” Melanie puts out her palm. “Stop that,” she mumbles. Her face is starting to burn.
Joe turns around with the garbage bag in his hand. “Mel, what’s wrong?” he asks.
The concern in his voice makes Melanie wonder. “I—I don’t know . . .” she begins.
“Well, are you okay?”
Melanie hugs her body and sinks into the cushion more. “I feel really cold,” she says. Her fingers start feeling around for a quilt.
Joe hisses. “You were outside all morning!” He places the back of his hand on Melanie’s forehead, and she holds her breath. When he pulls away, his brow is furrowed but he says nothing. Stefani leans over and puts her hand on Melanie’s forehead to mimic. Her open mouth is centimeters away from Melanie’s cheek. Her breath smells foul.
“What should we do?” Joe asks her. Melanie didn’t know Christmas had options.
“Maybe I can lay down for a while? . . . Maybe I can meet you at your parents’ later on? I’ll take your car, you can take the Chevy?” It sounds rehearsed, though it isn’t.
Joe nods his head. “Yeah, that’s fine. You rest.” He fingers the handles of the mugs and carries them into the kitchen.
“But what about my hair?” Stefani wonders aloud, still perched beside Melanie.
“One of your aunts can do it,” Melanie says, causing Stefani to dramatically roll her eyes like the teenage characters on Disney Channel.
Joe comes back to take Stefani upstairs to change. Melanie trusts he can put on her Christmas outfit that she laid out on the dresser last night. A tear begins to form at the corner of Melanie’s eye. She cannot wait for them to leave. She runs the morning through her head, then she runs it through her head again, and then again, side by side with the morning she had imagined, until she’s sick. The two beside each other could not have looked more opposite. She thinks about calling her mom. She thinks about calling her mom and asking her to describe her first riding lesson to put the pieces back together in her memory. She thinks about what it would be like to have a pony and she is disgusted with her daughter.
Joe, dressed in pressed pants, shirt, and tie, comes back in with Stefani, who is wearing a cheap-looking red satin dress with white faux-fur around the trim, and her hair looks like a thorn bush. Stefani scurries over and hops onto the couch to check Melanie’s forehead again. Joe walks over and kisses her lightly on the lips, squeezing her shoulder.
“We’ll talk about what to do with the pony tomorrow,” he tries to reassure her. Melanie opens her mouth in question but closes it again. She just wants them to leave.
“Tell everyone I said ‘Merry Christmas’, okay?” she says. Joe nods his head. She kisses Stefani goodbye and the two walk out of the living room.
“Goodbye, Mama!” Stefani calls from the door to the garage.
Melanie waits until she hears the car start before throwing off the quilt and running to the window to watch their Chevy drive down the road. Once it’s out of sight, she jogs into the kitchen, puts on boots, gloves, and a jacket and runs out into the yard. The snow is starting to melt but tiny hoof prints, the size of Melanie’s fist, make a trail around piles of poop scattered about the yard. The little pony nickers at Melanie and she laughs.
She squeaks her lips. “Come here!” She leans forward on her thighs, takes off a glove, and rubs her fingers out toward the pony. The pony canters the short three paces and warms her fingers with her hot breath.
The braids look unnatural on the pony’s neck. One by one, Melanie rips the pink ties out from the bottom of each clump until the mane is spread out in waves. The glitter on her hooves looks ugly—Melanie suddenly hates the color pink. No, she always hated the color pink. She was always a blue girl. Maybe blue girls like ponies but pink girls do not. Pink girls like iPads. Melanie curls her fists into balls and closes her eyes and squeezes until the static fills her head. When she opens her eyes again, the pony’s brown eyes are there and they are opened wide. The pony’s lip crease moves upward, Melanie swears it, into an almost smile.
“What are you thinking, little girl?” Melanie whispers. She runs her palm over the pony’s cheek. The rhythmic movement soothes the pony and causes her eyelids to droop. She lets Melanie’s palm take some of her weight and she sways back and forth with the strokes. Melanie sits there a long time with her pony, stroking her cheek, ignoring the cold.