It’s late Saturday morning and our parents are gone when Lauren comes barreling into my room.
“Lily!” she shouts. I look at her over the top of my book. “Some kid riding by on his bike just said a horse fell in the Crawford pit! I think it’s your horse, Lily! The white horse.”
The book slips to the floor when I jump off the bed. “When? Right now?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
I touch my desk, dresser, and bed with the pointer finger of each hand, then, scrambling into my tennis shoes, glance at Lauren. She hasn’t moved an inch. Just when she’s the jerkiest sister in the world, she turns all concerned and sweet. I kiss her cheek as I run out of my room.
“Mom’s entertaining the new neighbors tonight,” she calls after me. “You better not be late. I’m not doing your chores no matter what Mom says.”
Across the street the Bensons’ twin shelties, Elmer and Floyd, rush to their living room window and whine.
I feel brave and foolish as I ride through the block on my ten-speed, Mrs. Wiggins’s tooth bouncing against my chest.
“Emptiness pulls,” Allison told me. Did it finally pull Beauty over the edge? Is it drawing me there right now?
Lauren dreams about falling into the pit, only in her dreams she never touches bottom. I heard you die if you hit bottom, but I’ve dreamed of dying lots of times, and when I do I break into knobby little pieces that skitter around sideways like crabs.
And it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t anything.
I’m almost to the quarry’s No Trespassing sign before I remember how I got there: Tearing through the neighborhood, just avoiding the lady Mom calls “Big Hair” as she pulled out of her driveway. Shaking and excited, I fell off my bike twice. And flying down the trail through the woods, I nearly ran down Sister Mary Joyce on her daily walk.
Finally, only yards from the entrance, I hear Beauty and I know it’s true.
His cries echo the same high-pitched scream as a rabbit being killed, or a turtle ripped from its shell—sounds I’ve heard on TV nature shows.
I can’t see him yet, but Beauty’s tears already soak my hair and handlebars, and the ground under my bike like the overwatered terrarium at school where the Cracker Jack man lives. If “tears are protein,” like Mom says, the thick vine across the path at the entrance to the quarry must be really healthy. With more tears it could cover everything in Crawford Woods, and it wouldn’t matter what happened to Beauty or Lily Ashes-to-Ashes; they’d find us years later, like an ancient ruin you read about in National Geographic.
“Emptiness pulls,” Allison told me.
E-M-P-T-I-N-E-S-S, I spell over and over, breathless and afraid, as I walk my bike into the barren opening. I put it down and look around.
Ahead of me is the pit. Quiet sad-faced people stand around its rocky rim like game pieces. Some I recognize, most I don’t. Some cry, while others hug themselves, but no one looks away.
Quarry men walk around the edge in hard hats and denim jumpsuits, smoking cigarettes and speaking into walkie-talkies.
Where’s Allison? Did she hurt herself in the fall?
Mrs. Garcia, from the old neighborhood, catches my eye and waves. I haven’t seen her in months. I wave back, then stick my hands in my pockets and stare self-consciously at the little zits of earth between us. I wish I was back home and didn’t know that Emptiness won and pulled Beauty in after it.
Suddenly I hear his terrible cry again, gurgling up from the bottom of the pit.
Allison hears it too. I see her across the hole—she’s covered in dust, her dirty face striped with tears. “Beauty!” she cries.
The hair stands up on my arms and legs.
Tapping the ground with her riding crop Allison inches toward the edge, and I start running toward her.
Suddenly Mrs. Garcia is next to her, touching Allison’s forearm, gen- tly guiding her a safe distance from the rim. She slips her arm around Allison’s waist and whispers to her, like Allison whispered to Beauty the night I met them, and the frightened girl relaxes. Neither of them notice the dusty saddlebag at their feet, its flaps open, the spilled pages around it. Poems Allison wrote, poems she promised to bring to Crawford Quarry, poetry she wanted to share with me.
How many Wednesday nights did she ride to the pit and call my name?
We could have been friends. For two hours every Wednesday night we could have been friends.
I look at the ground at my feet. The earth is gray and cracked like an open sore on the surface of the moon, and so ugly even the trees stand back farther than they need to. Does Emptiness stop pulling when you’re already down there, or are there deeper, emptier places?
Maybe it’s not so bad down there. Maybe Beauty wanted to fall. Allison said he was old.
Finally I stand at the edge with everyone else and watch as, across the pit, Allison stretches out an arm and holds her hand steady, waiting to feel the air, the heat, Beauty’s movement below.
He’s talking to her with his breath. She’s reading it with her hand.
When Allison screams, “Oh no!” my heart sinks. She doesn’t need eyes to see Beauty.
I inhale the gritty metal of his blood when I finally look over. I can’t make him out at first, just the jagged jutting basalt walls blotched with his shiny blood. The muscular white horse and scraped-to-the-bone gray-white floor of the quarry camouflage each other. But then he’s there, like Frieda’s photoflash, a pulsing spot at the bottom of the sun-washed crater; his long face, almond-shaped eyes, and black steaming nostrils jump at me from the dust.
His legs and side, covered in a thin frothy lather, are cut and bloody. Bits of cloudy, gravelly grit rain on him from the rim, and with each wheezing, strangled breath, his chest heaves and his flesh quivers.
He’s broken and drowning inside.
“Don’t move, boy,” Allison says. “Help is coming!”
But hearing her, Beauty tries to get up, and he throws himself against the rocky interior with a heavy thump. Grunting, he presses a bloodied shoulder into the rock, tucks his trembling legs under him, and pulls him- self to a leaning-stand against the quarry wall. An English saddle hangs from a single strap under his belly.
Daylight. Saddle. Beauty walked too close to the edge, lost his footing, threw Allison, and pitched over. He never fell when they rode bare- back at night. Was he blinded by seeing too much?
“Look!” someone says. “He’s trying to stand!”
“Beauty?” Allison smiles.
But the horse can’t get his footing and his back leg slides out from under him again. He collapses with a deep meaty thud, first on his haunches, then on his side.
A rib, like a broken steak knife, has torn through his chest . . .